Death of a Messenger by Robert McCaw
Hawai‘i County Chief Detective Koa Kāne strapped in, and the US Army UH-72A Lakota helicopter lifted off the Hilo tarmac. An anonymous 911 call to the Hawai‘i County Emergency Command Center had reported a corpse at Pōhakuloa, the Army’s remote live-fire training area, or PTA. Sergeant Basa had alerted Koa, and was now sitting next to him as the chopper headed for the Army reservation in the Humu‘ula Saddle between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, two of the five volcanoes that form the Big Island of Hawai‘i.
The chopper turned west and climbed toward the saddle. Koa barely noticed, though. The mad dash to catch the chopper had aggravated the pinched nerve in his neck, and he sat stiffly erect to avoid further jolts of pain.
As they passed over an ambulance heading up the Saddle Road, Sergeant Basa leaned over, shouting above the roar of the engines, “That’s the county physician and the crime scene techs down there. I told them to get their butts up to Pōhakuloa.”
Koa spotted flashing lights in the distance and felt a spark of excitement. A crime scene did that to him. He counted ten vehicles: military police jeeps, EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) vehicles, a tracked ambulance, and a fire truck. As the helicopter approached, Koa saw that the vehicles were spread out along a barely visible jeep trail that meandered east of a sizable cinder cone. Yellow tape marked a path cleared by EOD personnel. Several men stood near an oval pit at the end of the tape.
As the chopper settled between two MP vehicles, a military policeman dressed in camo with a silver first lieutenant’s bar broke away from the cluster near the pit and hurried toward the chopper. Jerry Zeigler’s ferret-like face and crooked nose identified him as the commander of the military police detachment at Pōhakuloa.
“Hello, Jerry.” Koa shook hands with the twenty-five-year-old military police officer. Though they came from different backgrounds, they shared a common bond. Both had grown up dirt poor. The Kāne family had been respected in ancient times, but Koa’s father and grandfather had been virtual slaves at the Hāmākua Sugar Mill. Zeigler had been a South Dakota farm boy. Both had known hardship growing up, and both had been rescued by the US Army—Koa with the Fifth Special Forces Group and Jerry by the military police. They’d worked together a half-dozen times when the Army had pitched in on disaster relief, and bonded while helping folks after a big earthquake hit the west side of the island, wrecking hundreds of homes and schools.
Koa remained smiling even as Jerry’s vigorous handshake sent a blazing streak of pain radiating down his right arm. Without being obvious, he placed both hands behind his neck and arched his back. The pinched nerve was getting worse, just as the doctor had said it would. He dreaded the thought of spinal surgery, but it might be better than the damn pain. He wasn’t supposed to feel this old at forty-three.
Mercifully, the helicopter pilot shut down his twin engines and Koa could make himself heard. “You got a body?” he asked Jerry.
Zeigler nodded. “Stay inside the yellow tape. There are unexploded shells all over the PTA and tons of them around this area.” Zeigler led the policemen between two yellow tapes. “Got Sergeant Basa’s call about eleven thirty this morning, and we put an observer up in a chopper. My man had no trouble spotting the probable site, but it took us awhile to get here. The bomb disposal boys blew a dud on the way in,” he said, wending his way across the uneven ground.
“The 911 caller nailed it. It’s in a lava tube, mutilated and decomposed—a human male, but it’s gonna take a medic to reconstruct much more. Nobody but me has been in there, and I didn’t venture far or touch anything.” Thousands of lava tubes— underground passages where lava once flowed but then drained away—permeated the Big Island, some extending only a few feet while others ran for miles and were wide enough to hide an eighteen-wheeler. Koa, like all Hawaiians, knew his ancestors buried their dead in lava tubes, often in mass graves, but he’d never been to a murder scene inside one of these natural tunnels.
Zeigler was a good cop, and Koa listened as the MP related what he’d seen. “There are some odd boot marks on the ground outside the mouth of the tube. The ground’s been chewed up, recently too. You’re lucky it rained . . . the boot heels left clear impressions. As for the body, it’s been there for days, that’s for sure. I figure someone stumbled on it, got frightened, and fled.”
Keeping his core tight and his shoulders back to minimize the stress on his neck, Koa climbed down into the pit with an electric torch. He examined the disturbed ground and boot marks. The heels had cut deep, leaving sharp impressions, rounded on the back and flat toward the toe with horseshoe-shaped taps on the heels. Cowboy boots for a man on horseback. The man—he guessed it to be a man from the depth of the marks—wore specialty boots, likely handmade and expensive. He wondered if the boot tracks could be traced to a boot maker.
He glanced around the desolate area. Who would be out here? A hunter? Only a fool would hunt in the restricted area with all the unexploded ordnance around. And why would a hunter be down in a pit? He peered at the dark opening. Why would a hunter have ventured into this particular lava tube? Koa saw nothing unusual about it. He searched the ground for anything that might give him answers. Not much. Just the heel marks and disturbed rock.
He directed his beam of light into the lava tube. He didn’t like caves—they held too many unpleasant surprises. Carefully, he picked his way into the darkness. A putrid smell assaulted him instantly. “Oh God,” he exclaimed, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and fastening it across his nose and mouth. Then he saw the body.
Koa stepped closer and stopped short. Even as a veteran of the Special Forces in Somalia and a witness to more than a few murder scenes, he struggled to suppress his nausea. Control. Stay in control. Block emotion. Concentrate. He clenched his teeth until they hurt. His nausea receded.
It was a horrendous crime scene, and Koa sensed that catching the killer would require all of his resources. He’d have to focus his military and police training, his intense powers of observation, and his own criminal experience—as a teenager he’d killed the man who’d tormented and ultimately killed his father and gotten away with it—to find the perverted killer who left this corpse.
In the dozen years since 2003, when he’d left the Army to join the police, Koa had heard about ritual killings, but had never actually seen one. Until now. The naked body lay with its legs toward him, feet slightly separated. The trunk was bloated from putrefaction. The skin had blackened. The genitals had shrunk into the body, but the deceased was unmistakably male. The sight, the smell, and the walls squeezed in upon Koa.
The victim’s arms had been drawn out to the sides. The upper arms were swollen, but below the elbows the flesh had shriveled. Bones protruded from shredded hands and smashed fingers. Slash marks cut wide ribbons across the distended chest. The incisions must have been deep, he judged, for the swelling to open up the flesh in those straight, wide tracks. A sharp knife or, perhaps, a straight razor. Something with a real edge. It wasn’t easy to slice human flesh. The killer had been strong. Koa looked around for a knife but saw none.
The face had blackened to pulp, much of it bludgeoned beyond recognition. The lower facial bones had been shattered. Nose broken. Jaw smashed. Most of the teeth knocked out. The killer must have directed numerous blows at the victim’s mouth. Dental identification would be difficult, maybe impossible.
An empty socket leered at Koa from the left side of the dead man’s face. A gaping blackened hole surrounded by withered flesh. The hole on the left side of the skull seemed to fix upon him. Koa’s own eye, his left eye, began to hurt. He shook his head to dislodge the false pain. Mutilated hands, battered faces—he’d seen those before, but desecration of an eye was something new. The killer must have gouged out the eyeball.
But why? Why pluck out the left eye? Some savage had derived great pleasure from acting out this rite. That was Koa’s job, to stop people from acting like ancient savages.
Koa swung the light back and forth, searching for any other evidence. Trying to absorb every aspect of the scene. To miss nothing. To avoid being misled by false clues. No clothes. No shoes. Where were the victim’s clothes? The killer must have taken them.
Farther back in the cave his light revealed piles of small rock fragments. A blackened spot. Remnants of charcoal. A fire ring. A long-doused fire. It looked as though it had been there for ages.
The light fell on a peculiarly shaped dark gray or black rock next to the victim’s left leg. It was rectangular at one end, angled in the middle, and tapered to an edge at the other end, like a cutting instrument. A man-made shape, not a natural rock form. Some kind of primitive stone tool. The ancient fire and now this strange rock. Maybe this place had some historical significance. Koa made a note to call the state archaeologist.
He stooped down, keeping his back straight, and directed his beam of light to examine the object more closely. Dried blood covered part of the dark gray stone.
Blood? He examined the floor around the corpse. Blood was only in one small place, where a puddle had congealed and dried. He looked more closely. Not much blood. Odd. There should be more blood—a lot more blood—given the carnage wreaked upon the body.
Koa walked out into the sunlight. Tearing the handkerchief from his face, he sucked in the clean, dry air. Questions ricocheted in his mind. It was always like that at the beginning of an investigation, and he’d learned to let the questions accumulate unanswered. Questions opened the mind to unlikely possibilities. That and his own secret criminal history were what made him such a good investigator.
Reprinted from Death of a Messenger with the permission of Oceanview Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Robert McCaw.