Richard Black gaveled the meeting to order. Gunter Jacobsen was on conference call from Munich, as was Bart Thomas from New York. Only Steve Palua and Black were actually in the conference room, along with the new CFO and the elephant he brought with him.
“Thank you for this opportunity to report to the board,” he said. A former vice-president at Andersen before the Enron scandal, he was familiar with corporate meltdowns and well aware of how fast jobs could evaporate and subpoenas issued in situations like this. So he played a trump card just to get himself in the clear.
“And for the record, I have made copies of this report and forwarded them to each of you by registered mail.
“Now, without being too alarmist, the executive summary of my report is as follows: Wavelife International is headed for either Chapter Eleven or Chapter Seven. The company is highly leveraged at the present time. Inquires have been received by my office from six of Wavelife’s seven lenders requesting meetings by end of business this week. Demands for factor loan payments have been received totaling thirty two million dollars. Cash on hand at close of business yesterday was eighteen million dollars. Attached please find detailed balance sheets and breakdowns across Wavelife’s entire range of products and markets.”
He continued to read in a monotone voice for another few minutes before Richard Black cut him off.
“Thank you very much for your report. If you will now excuse us, we need to consider our options.”
“Fine with me. I’ll be in my office if you need more information.”
“No, I think you’ve provided quite enough to us for one day,” said Black, who waited for him to leave before saying, “Who wants to go first?”
“That fooking bitch Corlund. She zet us up! She zaw zis whole zing coming, zent Larson out zere to get himzelf keelled, just zo she geet zee company cheap!” said a very upset Gunter Jacobsen, sounding like a European playboy just discovering his dominatrix wife had seduced his teenage girlfriend and now they were BOTH out to get his money.
“Gunter, keep it to yourself, ok?” said Black, “Even if you’re right, Wavelife is a publicly traded company, and we’re the board of directors, so we have to deal with it. What’s your plan, Steve?”
“Since we’re a publicly traded company,” he said, carefully repeating Black’s words, “we’ve got to protect the interests of the shareholders. We’ve got to come out fighting and make it look like we’re headed for the top again. We do that, we’re executing our fiduciary responsibilities in the face of the previous management’s malfeasance. You already sent out the press release, stating that we’re going back to our core values, so that’s what we do.”
“How vill vee do zat? She fires ze zurf team, cut back awl markeeting, and she zays she did it for “protecting zee interests of zee shareholders,” Jacobsen said, “Zen she comes at us wiz zee offer zu buy zee coompany, and ve all fall for dat. Now she’s out zee door, scot free, und she can get zee company for nozing!”
“Keep yer shirt on, bub,” said Bart Thomas, “Dis ain’t over yet. What else ya got, Palua?”
“So, we come on strong, right now. It’s just like surfing. We’ve been caught inside, but we’re going to battle back. We blanket the surfing media with Wavelife p.r. We get with all the banks, stabilize the stock, and give our investors some breathing room. Then we set up Chapter Eleven as our fall-back position.”
“The boys on Seventh Avenue don’t like Chapter Eleven, pal.”
“I know, Bart, but they’ll really be unhappy if we end up in that Chapter Seven bankruptcy court downtown,” said Black, “Keep going, Steve.”
“Like I said last week, if we can get the surf media back in our pocket, and get our heroes back in front of the kids, we’ll be cool, and then at least we can get to the fall shows.”
“And then what?” asked Black.
“Yeah, and zen what?” chimed in Jacobsen.
“Then we sell a lot of paper and sell off all the excess brands like that chick stuff and the golf clothes and the skater shoes. The analysts will love the cash flow, the stock will go up and that will placate the banks and the factors. That cuts the losses of our investors,” he looked at Bart Thomas, “We pay off certain debts right away, and we’re off the hook. We can then either go Eleven or Seven or who knows what. But we need time. If we don’t get it, we’re screwed. Each of us will be fighting lawsuits for a long time.”
“Ya know, I tink you have zumzing der,” said Jacobsen.
Palua’s plan rang a bell with Richard Black. As a consultant he could probably do quite well spinning off and selling parts of the company, so he stepped in.
“I have to agree with Mr. Palua. We simply have to defend the interests of the stockholders at this time. Do we need to take a vote, gentlemen?”
“Vote, schmote. I gotta make some calls to New York to keep the boys off our backs. Palua, you better know what you’re doing here.”
“I do. Gunter, get all the European surf press over to Huntington. Wavelife is coming back big. Get your sales people hopped up on “The Comeback Kid” angle. Sonny-boy Noaloa is gonna work with us. Richard, we’re gonna take over at Huntington and he’s gonna win the fucker.”
“Gotcha covered, Steve. I can see the whole thing clear as day.”
“And don’t worry, Bart, I’ve got this all lined up like a perfect wave at Sunset Beach.”
“What’s Sunset Beach? Nah, never mind. Ok, Palua, you’re the Duke now. Just don’t wipe out. I got no pull if we end up in bankruptcy court.”
“Not an option, Bart. We’re not going to end up in Chapter Seven. That’s just not an option.”
* * *
“What you talkin’ ‘bout? Fo’ real you askin’ me go surf inna Huntington? You kiddin’ o what?”
“No Sonny-boy, I’m not kidding you and I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. Your contract with Wavelife is binding.”
Noaloa thought for a second. He’d seen footage of Steve Palua surfing big Sunset back in the day and had a lot of respect for him as a surfer. He’d met him at parties and knew he was a director of the company, but beyond that, Noaloa drew a blank.
“Sez, who, brah? What da deal here?”
“Well, you could ask Mercante or Corlund, and they’d tell you. Or how about Big K? I’ve got him right here.”
“Why I want talk him? Brah, he gots nutin’ to do wit my career. He one friend my dad, but dey not partta my life anymo’!”
“Oh but he is, Sonny-boy, because I’m in charge of your career now and he’s working for me, as is Junior and some of the boys from the Tui. Here, talk to Big K.”
Noaloa’s heart jumped into his throat.
“Sonny-boy, brah, I tell you mo betta you lissen what Steve tell you. You no want problem. You no like problem. You do what Steve tell you, we no get problem. You no lissen, you get problem.”
Sonny boy knew better than to say another word. It was one thing to argue with Steve Palua. There was no arguing with a guy like Big K.
“Anytin you say, brah, Let me talk one time Steve,” he said evenly before taking a deep breath, “Yeah, Palua, what I gotta do?”
“That’s better, Sonny-boy. We are going to get Wavelife back on top, with you leading the charge. There’s a lot of people who have a real interest in your success so let’s get down to business.”
“So, you gonna make me one offer I no can refuse, yeah?”
“No, Sonny-boy, that’s just movie talk. Just don’t forget what Big K told you, ok? Now here’s the deal. The board of directors is running the company, and I’m the guy running the surf team. We’ve got two jobs ahead of us: and the first one is win at Huntington to keep Wavelife’s investors happy.”
“What investahs? Brah, I get nothing for do wit investahs. Dats all stock market stuffs. Got nuttin for do wit me.”
Sonny-boy’s mom came into the room and was about to get on his case about the pidgin, but he put a finger to his mouth. He motioned her to come over to him and he shared the cell phone with her.
“Oh yes it does, Sonny-boy. You see, some people put a lot of money in Wavelife on my recommendation. Now if they lose their investment, they will not be happy at all. They sometimes get really upset when they are not happy. That’s why Big K and the boys are working for me, to make sure the investors stay happy. Oh, and by the way, it wasn’t easy to find you, but be sure and give your mom our regards. Am I making myself clear?”
“Sure Steve, anytin’ you say brah,” said Noaloa. His mom’s eyes were like saucers.
“Good. You one smart boy. Now I’m booking you on United outta Orlando departing seven in the morning. We’ll be waiting for you, so get there early because you don’t want to miss your flight. You know Sonny-boy, you and I have a lot in common right now, so let’s try to work together. It will be good for both of us if we do our jobs, you know.”
“What, so we don’ end up in da cane fields?” said Noaloa, with a laugh.
“I’m not laughing, Sonny-boy. See you tomorrow.”
Palua put down the phone and turned off the speaker box.
“So far, so good,” he said as he looked around the room at Big K, Junior, and the two men standing near the door. One had been translating the call in a slang of Mandarin and Japanese for the other. They looked straight out of a Asian gangster movie. Only this wasn’t a movie.
* * *
Sonny-boy and his mom had flown back to Florida with Clem Charleton and the Pratte family after the meetings in New York. There was a lot of legwork to do to shore up MOF’s plans, but now a single phone call had changed everything. The first thing Noaloa did was call Bruddah and Heath on his cell while his mom called Cheryl Corlund on hers. Both phone calls resulted in exactly the same conclusion.
“You go LA, Sonny-boy,” said Bruddah, “An’ we get everytin’ ok later on, nobodys get hurt.”
“Do what they tell you to do,” said Heath Larson, “Dose guys play rough, as you well know.”
“I’ll call Clem,” said Cheryl Corlund on the other line, “He’ll come and get you. I know what’s going on and I know all about Steve Palua. He’s part of the reason Ben and I were going to buy all the stock. I’ll tell you more later. Let me talk to Wilson, no – ” she paused as a thought occurred to her, “No, I can’t talk to him about Wavelife. Just tell him I said to do exactly what Palua wants and to honor his contract. And tell him its really important.”
“I don’t think we have any choice in the matter right now,” said Sonny-boy’s mom, “You know Cheryl, I should have stepped in when I found out about my ex being on your payroll. But I figured my son needed his dad in his life, so I kept my mouth shut. But now that Big K and the Tui are part of things, we’ve got to do something. You know that those guys used drug money to start up their surf company, right?”
Corlund knew she was talking to one very savvy woman. “Well, this time the money was a lot smarter. They started buying real estate, and that’s how Palua got involved. Da Tui was pretty much going nowhere in the clothing business, but Palua made some introductions, and next thing you know, they were all one big happy family. ”
“So that’s how surfing got so big so fast over there!”
“Exactly. And when Palua’s investors saw how well we were doing at Wavelife, they thought they could do it all over again. And stupid, greedy me, I fell for Palua’s pitch about major investments in Wavelife in exchange for a seat on the board. He delivered as promised, and his people made a lot of money. Even when the stock sagged, Palua didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to attract too much attention. And truth be known, they would have done well if I could have used the leveraged buyout to cash in their shares. But now the LBO is off the table, the stock is down to single digits, and they stand to lose a lot of money.”
“And that’s the last thing Palua wants, that’s for sure.”
“So we just need some time. We’ll come up with something.”
“I’m sure we will, Cheryl. After what we did on the Aeolusean, I think we’re capable of doing things Palua and his crowd could never imagine.”
* * *
“So that’s the plan, Sonny-boy. You’re going to win. You are going to be the man, brah,” said Steve Palua as he inched the on to the 405 leaving LAX. Sonny boy was in the front seat. Big K and Junior were in the back.
“What if I lose? What if I no even make it outta da first heat? What if da waves no good? What if the judges - - -”
“C’mon, kid, no matter what the waves are like, you know nobody can beat you if you’re in top shape. And you will be. I guarantee it. We’ve got an Australian surf coach over here to get you ready. And don’t worry about the judges, either, ok? And then after you win, we’re going to that reef.”
“You got Heath workin’ fo’ you too?”
“No, we don’t need him. It’s the new Wavelife, and its an all Hawaiian operation. And look at it this way. A bunch of American businessmen stole Hawai’i from us with shotguns in 1893, right? Now we are getting what’s ours! It’s our Polynesian heritage, Sonny-boy!”
“But what da deal wid da investahs?”
“You better leave them outta this, Sonny-boy. Now here’s what we are going to do between now and Huntington, starting with having Big K and Junior as your twenty-four hour bodyguards.”
* * *
Richard Black knew the truth of the ad business adage, “Half of all promotional money spent is a complete waste – but you never know which half.” So he got going on their next step right away. Wavelife was going to go big at the Huntington contest, and nothing was going to get in their way. He made some calls and surprised the event organizers who, after Corlund had pulled all sponsorship dollars from the pro tour, now suddenly had to accommodate a heavy hitter demanding entrance to the party. They balked at first, but a call from the truckers and riggers union, thanks to Thomas and his East Coast friends, suddenly put Wavelife right where Black wanted to be. For the next three weeks, the four board members had their hands full. Thomas and Black prepared for the Wavelife blitz at the event. Jacobsen was rounding up press and buyers from around the world to be at the contest. And Steve Palua was in charge of the Comeback Kid.
Sonny-boy remembered the words of his mom and the message from Cheryl Corlund and did his best to cooperate during a steady stream of scripted interviews and staged photo ops. Palua had some P.R. experts giving him advice, and suspense began to build about Noaloa’s comeback. Soon the surfing media got behind Wavelife bigtime and the brand was cool once again. Cancelled orders were reinstated, and thanks to Bart Thomas working the phones nonstop since their last meeting, the creditors stopped calling.
With a little more than two weeks to go before the contest started, Palua cut back on all media outreach and secluded the champ at a resort in Baja for an intense tune-up of his surfing skills, a highly controlled diet, and plenty of rest before the main event. The media campaign had been a success. Now it was time for the champ to climb in the ring and take back his crown.
The Aussie surf coach set up daily practice sessions that replicated actual contest conditions. Former Wavelife team members who hadn’t jumped to other companies were re-hired and brought in to surf against Sonny-boy in heats in front of the hotel near Rosarito Beach. Having been fired by Cheryl Corlund while Noaloa stayed on, the former teammates were in no mood to go easy on him. Sonny-boy found himself on the losing end of several skirmishes for wave priority. Not that Noaloa had forgotten anything from his championship years, but there was no substitute for the dog-eat-dog heat conditions. The coach had the Wavelife surfers take it to the former world champ, and on several occasions he let Noaloa and his ‘competitors’ get into it on the beach with no holds barred for several minutes.
The idea was to stoke Noaloa’s competitive spirit, but the strategy backfired. It was one thing to go through the motions of the media campaign. But when it came to real surfing, his heart just wasn’t in it. He had spent too much time with Bruddah and Heath to suddenly shift gears and become a contest surfer bent on winning at all costs.
By the end of the first week of training, Steve Palua was worried. He decided his contender needed something to spark his performance. For the first time since picking him up at LAX, Palua gave Noaloa a cell phone and some privacy to call his mom and his friends to boost the champ’s spirits. Palua knew that Corlund, Larson, Bruddah, and his mom had told Sonny-boy to do his best because the jobs of hundreds of people were hanging in the balance. He’d explained that to Noaloa time and time again, but now Sonny-boy needed some more encouragement. He got it, and Palua’s investors were happy when they heard the tapes from the calls.
“No, Sonny-boy, you no let ‘em down no matta what! You show ‘em how it’s done, yeah? You geevum, brah!” said Bruddah.
“You’re the best surfer in the world in contest waves. Do your best. You’re the man now,” said Larson.
“Everything’s going to be ok. Remember how we used to surprise ‘em at the contests in Florida? Do it for your mom, and take your mind off things in the evening, dear. Play some computer games or something.”
“You can do it, I know you can. We all believe in you, and there are a lot of little kids who need a role model. And you can give them a lesson in courage,” said Aleja Gracellen.
“Just shred the shit out it. Kick their asses on every wave. Don’t give an inch,” said Roberto Mercante, “Remember that video game we used to play and you just stomped me? That’s the Sonny-boy you need to be.”
“You need to get into the finals no matter what,” said Cheryl Corlund, “Dolly sends her regards and says the Lord helps them that help themselves. So make the finals, and you’ll make a statement of which you can be proud. Here, let me put Ben on the line.”
“Sonny-boy! Good to hear from you! Best of luck at Huntington! And, say, my grandson Pierce sure liked playing video games with you on the web site we have on the Aeolusean. So log on as soon as you can. Ok, good to hear from you!”
Noaloa didn’t quite know what to think of all the conversations, especially the stuff about the video games. His mom used to hate it when he played them, and he never played a video game with Mercante in his life. And then Ben Jeffries talking about his grandson Pierce? Sure, he and the twelve-year old had played some games, and the boy beat him several times. And after that first visit to the megayacht in Florida, they had played a few games against each other logged on to the web site, and kept in touch on the web site’s message board.
A little light went on in Wilson Smith Noaloa’s head. He had an internet connection in his hotel room. He’d tell Palua he needed to play some video games at night to relax. And he’d log on to the Aeolusean web site. He had no trouble remembering his password. “Geevum.”
The next day, Noaloa was his old self, and his sparring partners felt the brunt of his new-found enthusiasm. Palua had a vanload of boards on hand, each with the Wavelife logo conspicuously positioned on the nose of the board, both top and bottom, so that no matter what the angle, any action photo of Noaloa on a wave was going to be a promotional shot for Wavelife. In contrast to the first week when Noaloa could have cared less what he was riding, he now went through them all, sometimes going around in a complete circle, trying to find the one that felt truly magical under his feet. It got so bad that at one point after a particularly disappointing ride, he rode to the beach, put the board between two rocks, and took a boulder and broke the brand-new custom surfboard clean in half.
By Friday, he had broken another four boards and discarded the rest before finally settling on a set of three. But Steve Palua didn’t mind one bit. Everything was fitting together perfectly, and the Hawaiian who’d been a great surfer at Sunset Beach decades ago was looking forward to Huntington Beach as if his own surfing career was coming back big time.
Noaloa was paddling like a speed boat, beating his rivals to the priority buoy time and again, and stuffing them into losing with every tactic and maneuver in the book. He practiced one dirty trick over and over again, first used by a former world champ to outfox a rival into an interference call by taking off behind him at the last second, standing up for an instant, and then falling off as if his rival had caused him to fall. It was below-the-belt, but fair under the rules, and the win cinched his world title. He even had Palua take him to a boxing ring in Tijuana and work out with a speed bag and a real sparring partner. Noaloa was ferocious in the ring, landing punch after punch against the hand pads of a boxing coach. Then he put on some head gear and went a few rounds with a young Mexican contender, who was told to lay off the amateur surfer. But that only made Noaloa angry, and he started coming on so strong that he had to take a few shots to the head to calm down.
But Noaloa had made his point. He was ready to win, and win at all costs. Playing the video games on the Aeolusean’s web site had given him just what he needed to motivate himself. He made it obvious to everyone he wanted to win with all his heart and soul. And he made sure no one was more convinced of that than Steve Palua.
* * *
The beaches of Huntington run unbroken for miles, bordered by the small blue collar town of Sunset to the north and the glitzy wealth of Newport to the south. It is as grand a stretch of strand as can be found in Southern California, a ribbon of white running along the blue Pacific, punctuated only by the famous concrete pier that extends out from Main Street, Huntington’s main drag. For fifty weeks a year, the pier stands like a sentinel out into the ocean, solitary and even a bit majestic. But for the last two weeks in July, the pier was consumed by a force that reduced it to little more than an exclamation mark for a marketing blitz that is beyond over-the-top.
The base of the pier disappeared under a city of scaffolding that accommodates media centers, sponsor hospitality lounges, skateboard and BMX ramps, judges towers, competitors ready areas, and bleachers for seventy thousand people. The setup takes almost a week, and bolting together all the scaffolding and walkways is only half the job. Once the skeleton was completed, the signage people take over, and all the scaffolding became a framework for an all out effort to cover every possible line of sight with a Wavelife logo, along with the signage sold to a pharmaceutical company, a European electronics conglomerate, and a hair care corporation. To top it off, huge advertising banners are hung like a corporate laundry line a hundred yards long from the beach to the end of the pier.
Wavelife’s marketing team, after being decimated by Corlund’s cutbacks, was reassembled into a sophisticated juggernaut unmatched in the surf industry. Thousands of goody bags were printed up with “The Comeback Kid” photo on one side and the Wavelife logo on the other. They were filled with a hefty dose of surf wax, pocket mirrors, cell phone shells, key-chains, cheap t-shirts, and a dozen more logo-stamped items from Wavelife. And thanks to Black’s contacts on the City Council, Main Street was closed for the first time in history for a huge street party to celebrate the surf industry – and its resurgent corporate leader.
The overall effect of the Wavelife comeback campaign was immediately apparent. Stories were circulating about the afternoon of boxing in Tijuana and the take-no-prisoners attitude that left fellow Wavelife team members in awe. Palua encouraged them to share their experiences with other competitors over the weekend preceding the beginning of the contest. With Noaloa’s picture plastered all over Huntington Beach, from the banners on the pier to the goody bags given out by the thousands, talk of the former world champ’s return to competition was on everybody’s lips.
* * *
The night before Noaloa’s first heat, a caravan came north out of Mexico and arrived around ten p.m. at the hotel across the street from the contest. There were event parties all over town, but Palua needed his man ready for the next day. Noaloa was not going to object. He’d learned his lessons the year before, and he knew exactly what he needed to do to get to the finals.
Monday dawned gray and cold. A south wind came up early and the first heats of Junior Mens were surfed in marginal waves that were barely rideable. By mid-morning the sun began to break through, and the wind died down. It would come up again strong from the northwest in an hour or so, but for a brief period, the waves were about as good as they were going to get that day. Noaloa was in the first of the men’s heats. When he paddled out, the general public had yet to arrive, but the stands were packed with seemingly everyone in the surf industry, ready to witness the comeback of the kid.
He did not disappoint. The horn sounded, and Noaloa immediately paddled into a wave that was barely breaking. Double carving s-turn, a quick air off a section, tail-slide three-sixty into a cover-up into a gouging cutback, all on a wave so slow and formless that ninety percent of the surfing public would have found it practically unrideable. Noaloa hopped the board across the flat section towards the shorebreak, setting up for a tube ride where there seemingly was no tube. He came out of the tiny pocket and busted a big air as the wave collapsed on the wet sand.
He was right back out into the lineup before any of the other three surfers had even caught their first wave. He glared at them as if they were interlopers in his private domain and then paddled away from the group towards the pier. No one on the beach understood his tactics until he came charging out from under the pier on a speeding knee-high shorebreak close-out. Once again, it was a wave in name only, but for Noaloa, it was enough to get a few seconds of blazing speed before launching an air with enough momentum to completely turn his board around at the apex of his flight and land perfectly balanced as the wave finally collapsed.
The crowd went wild. The other surfers seemed frozen in place. The kid was almost literally surfing circles around them – and they were highly paid professionals. Then he paddled right into the center of the group, smiling and quiet, but only for a second.
“Why you guys no paddle in? You no have a chance. I just got two waves an’ I bet dey gimme eights, maybe nines. What you got?” They had no answers – because Noaloa was right. “Say, I tell you one ting. My two waves enough fo’ me. You guys still no win you get tree. See you latah!”
Noaloa whipped his board around and proceeded to paddle directly to the beach. He took off his colored jersey and tossed it over his shoulder. He lifted his board high in the air and planted it in the wet sand. Then he turned around and faced the ocean, seemingly daring his competitors to beat him. Nobody in the stands quite knew what he was doing except for Steve Palua, who immediately sensed a P.R. bonanza in the making. He raced down the scaffolding stairs, ran to the water’s edge, and raised Noaloa’s right arm as if they were in a boxing ring after a knockout blow had stopped the fight.
A crowd of Wavelife flacks and models came out of the stands and crowded around Palua and Sonny-boy. Though there was still time on the clock, Palua had Junior and Big K lift Noaloa to their shoulders and carry him to the competitors waiting zone. The industry crowd didn’t know whether to boo or cheer, but it didn’t make any difference. Noaloa had made his point. The Comeback Kid was coming all the way back, and more. Wavelife International was alive and well, and the rest of the contest was going to be Noaloa’s for the taking.
The next five days were unique in the history of contests at Huntington Beach thanks to Wavelife and Sonny-boy Noaloa. Without any world tour points, he had to start in the qualifiers, but that only whetted his appetite. He blazed through all his heats, and despite the bad surf, the event “was exceeding all expectations”, according to event officials reading from scripts written by Wavelife’s P.R. professionals. On Thursday he surfed his first heat against the touring pros, but that made little difference.When their turn came to surf against the Comeback Kid, not one could lay a glove on him. It was a performance for the ages, and the Wavelife P.R. machine was running like a locomotive on all cylinders. Noaloa and Wavelife were the toast of the town. Even the stock price began to climb. For the four men running Wavelife International, and especially for Steve Palua, that was the best news of all.
* * *
“How’s the kid doing tonight?” asked Steve Palua, a flashy porn star on his arm and a cell phone in his hand. He was down in the bar of the Mandalay Beach Resort, the four star hotel across the street from the pier. The hotel bar was named the Golden Bear, after the bar where decades ago, when the area had been a hodgepodge of oil wells, surf shops, and tattoo parlors, Jimi Hendrix had played before he found the stardom that killed him. Palua was checking out one of his guitars on display, insured for two million dollars.
“Fine, brah, he playing video games wit Junior,” said Big K, “Hey, Sonny-boy, Palua on da phone. You like talk to him o wat?”
Noaloa didn’t even look up. He and Junior were locked into mortal combat on a big-screen TV.
“No, man, he’s fine. He go bed early, be ready tomorrow. Win dis fuckah, get a big paycheck, everybody happy, no problem, yeah?”
“That’s what I want to hear. I’ll see you guys in the morning.” Palua flipped off the phone and turned to his date. “Now, where did you say your friends were dancing?”
“Yeah!! Dat’s one da kine Benjamin you owe me, Junior!” Sonny-boy had just kicked ass again.
“Sure champ, I pay you tomorrow, yeah?”
“Nah, fuck da money. Eh, what time it is?”
“Almost ten, champ. Bettah get some sleeps. Big day tomorrah.”
“Yeah, Junior, you right. Eh brah, get me one magazine inna lobby? I like read. I need fo sleep.”
“Sure brah, what you want?”
“Get me one Forbes or sometin’ li-dat. I need fo learn bout money.”
“I be back right away, champ.”
Junior walked across the suite and opened the door where Big K was stationed outside. The two exchanged a few words, and the door closed as Junior headed for the elevator.
Noaloa waited a minute, and then opened the door.
“Big K, Junior go already?”
“Yeah, he down da elevatah.”
“Say Big K, I need some cookies from da stoah. Room service send up da milks, but dey all outta cookies.”
“Sorry champ, got my ordahs. Stay sit right here,” said Big K.
“Yeah, I know. Buncha da chicks might come up and find me or sometin’ right?”
“Sometin’ like dat, champ.”
The elevator door opened and two large security guards came out and walked briskly toward Big K. Their dark blue uniforms were stretched over muscles that said they had obviously played some big-time football in their day. Big K saw them and his heart started pounding, but not because he had a thing for uniforms.
“Hello, are you friends with a man named Junior?” said the guard with “Otis” on his name plate.
“Uh, no. Maybe. Wha da problem is?”
“He’s down in the lobby. He didn’t have enough money for his purchases, and asked us to come up and get you to bail him out.”
Big K breathed a sigh of relief.
“Dat guy one kine stupid. I no can leave heah. He gotta fix his own problems.”
“Sir, we need you to come with us, please. It will only take a minute, and we’re sure everything will be just fine.”
The two guards stood on either side of Big K, their legs spread wide, their hands on their hips, but smiles on their faces.
“Aw, hell, ok. Hey, Sonny-boy! Lock da door. Put on da latch. Don’t let nobody in. I be right back.”
“No problem. Hey, get me da cookies!”
Big K heard Noaloa lock the door. He tested the door handle. Then he walked with the two guards to the elevator door. Just as they got there it opened and out stepped a well-dressed man with an adorable woman in a coral silk dress on his arm. They’d obviously had a few too many, and they almost fell headlong into Big K.
“Oh sorry, sir, we’re sorry. Aloha. We really are. Sorry. Aloha, we love Hawai’i. We spent our honeymoon there. Sorry. Aloha.”
Big K glared at them as they stumbled past him and went weaving down the empty hall. He stepped into the elevator, the two guards right behind him. Otis pushed a button, and the elevator door closed. The woman straightened up and quickly knocked on Noaloa’s door. The man went to the next door down, inserted the keycard, went inside and unlocked the door connecting the suite to Noaloa’s. He came through it carrying his backpack. He turned off the lights in his room and closed the door behind him. They left the suite quickly, and put a “Do Not Disturb” hangsign on the handle of the adjoining suite. The trio ran down to the end of the hall toward an exit sign. Sonny-boy hit the crash bar of the door and held it open.
The man went to step through, but Noaloa held up his hand.
‘Excuse me Heath, but ladies first, if you please.”
Aleja Gracellen smiled, took off her high heels, and ran down the stairs.
“Let’s see if you guys can catch me this time!”
“Wait, I can’t hear you,” said Steve Palua into the cell phone in his left hand, “Turn that down, will ya?”
“Why, I thought you wanted to party?”
“Not right now, I gotta take this call,” said Palua, taking his hand off the steering wheel and punching the eject button while swerving across a lane on the 91 freeway and almost sideswiping an old sedan. The other driver leaned on his horn as he pulled up and gave them the finger. Palua’s date gave it back. Palua was oblivious to the exchange as he yelled back into the phone.
“Now, what the hell did you say?”
“We came back up and - - -”
“What do you mean we? You were supposed to guard the door, Big K.”
“Fuck you Palua, I no da babysittah. I stay leave him wit da door lock, and we came back he no answer da door. We pound it pretty good, too. Den we call da room and he no answer.”
“Well, maybe he’s asleep.”
“Yeah, mebbe. Da lights is off.”
“Ok, just sit tight. I’ll be back in a while.”
* * *
It was a few minutes past midnight before Steve Palua screeched to a halt in front of the hotel. He’d been chased by the angry guy in the old Buick for several miles down the 91, then off the freeway and around some surface streets in Garden Grove before finally losing him, only to realize he was lost himself. The bimbo was getting on his nerves big time so when they finally found the strip club, he just shoved her out the door, threw a c-note at her, and took surface streets all the way back to the coast. On the way he called the hotel manager, who informed him that in situations like this, the police would be called. Overdoses were not a common problem at the hotel, but the manager was taking no chances if the room turned out to be the scene of a crime or accidental suicide.
The manager was first out of the elevator, followed by hotel security in their coats and ties, the police and Steve Palua right behind them. Junior and Big K were looking like choir boys standing in front of the suite. The manager used a master keycard and opened the door, but the catch still engaged. Nobody responded to his demands for entry. He realized that the adjacent suite was connecting, but there was a DO NOT DISTURB hangsign on the door handle. Now he had a problem: kick down the door to Noaloa’s suite, or disturb his other guests. Well, they told him in training that nothing was more important than customer service, not even the price of replacing a door. He nodded to the cops.
They put their shoulders to it and burst into Noaloa’s suite. The lights were off. The video screen displayed the “Start Now” menu from a video game called “Fight to the Finish”. The cops scanned the room, and then headed to the bathroom, expecting the worst.
“Nobody here, mack,” said one, “What’s all the big deal about?”
The hotel manager turned to Steve Palua.
“Yes, sir, what seems to be the problem?”
* * *
When the contest sound system cranked up with “Welcome to the Jungle” at eight a.m. the next morning, the word was out something was wrong in the Wavelife camp. Rumors spread fast at a surfing contest. Sonny-boy Noaloa’s name came up just as quickly. It was not unheard of for a surf star to be missing in action the night before a big final. In fact, sometimes it was almost expected. Chicks, blow, whiskey, wine, and worse: the recipe may have varied from venue to venue around the world, but the combination of young surfers barely out of high school earning six-figure salaries while surrounded by mass media marketing hype created a potent brew for bad behavior.
More than one up-and-coming talent had fallen victim to it all, and with Noaloa’s reputation for partying till dawn, everybody figured he was up to his old habits.
But some of the veteran pros remembered the times Sonny-boy had shown up at the last minute and stumbled to the water with a hangover so wicked someone usually had to wax his board for him and help him put the jersey on. He would then paddle out and proceed to surf at a world class level and walk away with a big trophy and an oversized, cardboard check with a lot of zeros on it. No biggie, they laughed to each other. He’ll be here. The final isn’t until two, and there’s a lot of money on the table.
They were right, up to a point. Thirty-five thousand dollars is a lot of money for winning a surf contest. But Steve Palua knew how much money was really on the table. He also knew his head was on a chopping block, and by noon he was panicking. Nobody knew where Noaloa had gone. Had he gone out for a night on the town and was sleeping it off in some sleazy hotel? Was he going to surprise everyone and show up at the last minute? The surfers were all trading “me and Sonny in Biarritz / Rio / Bali / Tokyo / Sydney / Durban” stories from last year’s tour. The marketing people were cringing as thousands of people were walking around with “Comeback Kid” t-shirts on. The contest organizers were wondering just what they’d do if only one guy paddled out in “mano-a-mano” final. The worst-case scenarios kept getting worse, and they were looking for Steve Palua to tell them what to do. But his cell phone had long ago gone dead, so they couldn’t find him. Which was the only strategy he had going for him at the moment.
He was in a hotel room with Richard Black and two Huntington Beach detectives. Upstairs waited Bart Thomas and several east coast associates. In another wing of the hotel the representative of Palua’s investment group was cooling his heels with Junior and Big K. Jacobsen, the Europeans, and all the surf media were already across the street.
But Steve Palua was still in his all black Saturday night-on-the-town outfit, now sweat-stained and wrinkled, standing outside on the balcony looking at the contest on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway packed with Sunday traffic. Several camera trucks from local TV stations were parked down below. The P.R. flacks had called them with the offer of face time with the champ before the finals. But Sonny-boy Noaloa was ‘not available at this time’. Palua remembered what he’d said, that he had it all lined up like a perfect wave at Sunset Beach. He cringed when he remembered that Sunset starts out looking like a perfect wave, but when it hits the inside reef, sudden and erratic sections usually nail a surfer whose overconfidence led him to think he could make it through all the way.
He heard a horn sound from across the street. He checked his watch. It was the end of the Longboard finals. There were only two more final events to go, the Women, and the Junior Men, before the Men’s final. First call for Sonny-boy’s main event was in half an hour, and time was running out. He had to think fast, and he did.
He led Black and the detectives from the room and down the back stairs and directly into the parking lot. Getting in an unmarked car they drove across the street to the contest. The driver had to flash his badge twice to get anywhere near the three-story high contest headquarters, and even then they had to walk another fifty yards to get to the nerve center of the giant event.
The four men went through a tent, not even pausing when asked for their badges. They climbed up a flight of stairs and stood looking out at almost seventy thousand people. They huddled with the contest director, a man who had seen it all at Huntington, including the riots of 1986. He knew the crowd was waiting for the main event, and after sitting all day in the hot sun with their cars parked miles away and the surf almost flat, the people in the bleachers were growing as restless as Romans waiting for the gladiators. He scribbled a paragraph on a white board. Palua and Black erased some words, changed others, and soon they had a script that worked for everyone. The contest director handed it to the announcer.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the first call for the men’s final. First call for the competitors in the men’s final.”
No mention of names. No mention of the starting time.
When the Women’s Final hit the water, the announcer stuck to the script. “Look at these ladies, battling it out in almost impossible conditions. Folks you gotta hand it to them, they are really trying hard out there.” Throughout the heat he played up how bad the surf was, which was never done at a professional surf contest, and especially if the surf was getting better, which it was. The two detectives left the scaffolding, shaking their heads. One got on his cell and called downtown to put the force on alert in case the crowd got out of control. It had happened before, and it just might happen again.
The Junior Men’s final was about to commence and the announcer was getting into the spirit of things with some ad libs of his own.
“And due to the surf conditions, officials are considering a delay of the event until the surf will allow these magnificent athletes to perform and entertain you in the best surf Huntington can offer.”
The two contestants just looked at each other. There were some real sets starting to come in, easily the best waves of the entire week. They didn’t know what was going on. Nor did Mick Lennox.
He had made it all the way through his bracket, and was slated to surf against Sonny-boy in the main event. Now he was in the competitor’s ready zone, and when the Junior Men’s finalists went into the water, there was no Noaloa getting ready at the other end of the tent. And then about halfway through the final he heard an announcement that made his blood boil.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that due to deteriorating conditions, the finals of the Men’s competition may have to be cancelled. We are speaking with the surfers themselves, Mick Lennox of Gnarlaroo and Sonny-boy Noaloa from Wavelife, and we’ll advise you of their decision. But right now, the motocross guys are really turning it on and a great skateboard exhibition will start in a few minutes. And be sure to visit the concourse area where our sponsors will be giving away thousands of free prizes.”
Lennox couldn’t believe his ears. Nobody was talking to him, and Noaloa was nowhere to be seen. He knew something was screwy, but it was too late to figure it out now, and with five minutes before the final was to start, he grabbed his jersey from an official’s hands and ran out of the competitor’s area towards the pier. The two junior surfers were getting some outstanding rides as sets started to pour in out of the southwest. Lennox had one eye on the waves and one eye on his watch as he paddled out from the beach, staying underneath the pier and effectively out of sight.
The horn sounded, and the Junior Mens was over.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that concludes the Junior Mens event of the U.S. Pro Championships. We are still waiting for a decision as to whether the men’s finals will be held due to the deteriorating surf conditions. We want the best waves for the best surfers, but it doesn’t look like it will happen today. Please take care as you leave the event area, and drive safely.”
A perfect set of five large waves began to form up outside. The crowd began to cheer as the powerful swells adrenalized the SRO bleachers and the thousands crowding the railings on the pier.
Mick Lennox paddled out from under the pier. A great cheer rose up from the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Due to the poor surf conditions, we regret to inform you that the Mens final has been postponed. The best skateboarders in the world are ready to start launching some fantastic maneuvers, and don’t forget to visit the exhibitors mall and get your free prizes. Thank you for attending the Huntington Beach U.S. Pro - - - ”
But no one heard a word over the roar of the crowd. The first wave of the set was close to the end of the pier and Mick Lennox was in position, ready to surf, contest or no. Suddenly the entire crowd was on its feet, but not in anticipation of Mick’s ride.
A surfboard had been launched out into space from the middle of the pier. On the railing stood a man perfectly erect. The wave was getting closer. He stretched his arms out . . . and dove with perfect form into the sea. His entry was clean, and he came up right next to his board. The wave was now only a few yards away and looked like it was going to break right on top of him. He got on his board, took two strokes, and dropped down the face.
The crowd went nuts! The Comeback Kid was in the ring! But then the wild cheers of the crowd turned into one giant, “Huh?”
As the wave rolled down the length of the pier, banners unfurled, one after another, covering all the garish advertising draped on the pier. as Sonny-boy rode the wave in the classic Hawaiian style, erect, casual, in control.
When he was almost to the beach he kicked out and paddled back to where an astounded Mick Lennox was sitting on his board. But few of the seventy thousand people had their eyes on him. They were reading the text on the banners, as were all the competitors, judges, press and media people, Big K and Junior, the man from Palua’s investment group, Gunter Jacobsen and the Europeans, Bart Thomas and the east coast boys and, of course, Richard Black and Steve Palua.
An Open Letter of Good-bye
To everyone in Surf City
From Wilson Noaloa
This will be my last contest, ever.
I was forced to compete because profits
took precedence over simple human decency.
To the people who forced me
To comply with their plans,
why don’t you leave surfing alone.
To all my true friends at Wavelife,
and all the honest people at the company,
I hope you understand why I did this.
I hope to meet again with you all soon.
And we can start to work for a better future
for the surf industry and for modern surfing.
Contests can be a lot of fun,
most pro surfers are great guys,
as are many people in the surf industry.
But when the whole purpose of surfing
means less than SPIT to people making millions
And they don’t even surf or love the ocean
Then I think its time to do something drastic.
So that’s exactly what my friends and I have done.
After all, what do you expect from real surfers?
See you in the water.
The crowd on the beach started to clap. And the applause got louder and louder until everyone was standing and cheering even though Mick Lennox and Sonny-boy just sat there as wave after wave rolled through unridden.
“Fucken a’, mate, what the ‘ell is this all about?”
“Jus’ exactly what you see, brah.”
“Well, are we going surfing then, or what?”
“Well, you heard ‘em. Da heat cancelled! We no gotta do nuthin’!”
“Ya know, I never did like being a dancing bear in a gilded cage!”
The applause was sustained now, the crowd still on its feet.
“Ok, brah, we bot’ go on dis las’ one, we geevum one good show!”
“Yer on, mate!”
The two top professional surfers in the world took off simultaneously on the last wave of the set. The crowd leaped to its feet as they tore back and forth down the face, in perfect synch with each other, weaving figure-eight trails off the bottom, up into the lip, catching air almost simultaneously and spinning 360s as the wave rolled in towards the shore. A hollow section loomed ahead and they both disappeared into the tube. When they came out, they linked their forearms together and raised their free arms in victory. They disengaged and drove towards the shorebreak. Two powerful bottom turns, two massive launches up the face, and two surfers hung in mid air as the wave collapsed on the sand.
Sonny-boy turned and paddled back out to sea. From the other side of the pier a jet ski appeared and raced towards him. The driver did a hard turn as the safety man threw a tow rope to Noaloa. He grabbed it, and the ski began to gather speed. He looked back and saw Mick Lennox standing on the beach about to be mobbed. He waved to him, and Lennox jumped back into the ocean. Noaloa waved his arm in a circle at the waverunner spotter, the driver turned around and let off the throttle. Noaloa sank back into the water, Lennox paddled up next to him, they both grabbed the towbar, and the powerful Yamaha roared as it pulled the two surfers up and took off out to sea.
The crowd was astonished into silence until another roar was heard across the entire contest area. Heads turned, and coming down low over Main Street was a Catalina seaplane painted silver and blue. The PBY turned down into a perfect landing on the ocean just outside the pier. The jet ski and the two surfers powered up to it. The surfers got off their boards and were helped into the cargo bay. The ski roared off to the north at seventy miles an hour. The PBY’s engines throttled up to full power.
The Catalina plowed straight out to sea towards the next oncoming set. As the first wave came rolling under the bow, she lifted into the air, gained altitude, and then did a slow turn back over the contest site.
Richard Black and Steve Palua were speechless. Then their jaws dropped as a figure leaned out the cockpit’s starboard window and gave them the peace sign. The seaplane banked hard and headed west. As he left the pier behind, the pilot waggled the wings in salute.
“Say, Clem, can you show me how to do that some day?” asked Roberto Mercante from the co-pilot’s seat.
“Sure, Roberto, but not with MOF property. You’ll jes hafta get a PBY on yer own!”
Back in the ‘sunroom’, two dripping wet friends had joined three other surfers to watch Surf City recede in the distance.
“Hot damn,” said Aleja Gracellen, “Did that get it or what?”
“Such language from a lady!” laughed Heath Larson, “But they’ve sure got problems now! I think we got our message across.”
“Yeah, dey get da message,” said Bruddah, “but maybe only make dose guys get worse.”