Editor’s Note: Kawika Wong, the young Hawaiian detective who is the focus of Eric Redman’s newly published mystery “Bones of Hilo,” encounters players whose strange or extreme behavior at once creates suspicion and distractions. There’s no clear or straight path that will lead Wong to the murderer. Then, in the final part of this excerpt, Redman shatters the reader’s assumptions by revealing that one likely suspect, who DID plan the murder, wasn’t responsible. Someone else got there first. And you might wonder why the doctor acting as medical examiner is such a jokey, irreverent guy talking about the victim’s corpse. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. Here’s how to order the book, and here is Dick Lilly’s review of the book in Post Alley.
Dr. Terrence Smith strode toward Kawika in aloha scrubs: mint-colored hibiscus blossoms and philodendron leaves against a dark green background. He also wore a matching cap, a bushy red moustache, and a broad smile. Together, the scrubs and moustache gave him a jaunty Christmas color look. “A-lo-HA!” he said, extending his hand. He smelled faintly of chemicals. “You’re the great detective, right?”
Dr. Smith, a surgeon and general practitioner, also served as coroner on-demand—an oddly jocular one on this occasion, Kawika thought. The Kohala Coast didn’t possess a morgue and didn’t really need one. But some times the North Hawai‘i Community Hospital in Waimea was pressed into service.
“Got our friend in the other room,” Smith said. “No write-up yet, of course. But I can show you what ails him.”
Smith led Kawika to an operating room—the coldest room Kawika had ever entered in Hawai‘i. A sheet covered the corpse. The doctor stripped it back, revealing Ralph Fortunato to the waist. His torso was neatly slit to the neck, the halves pried apart. He didn’t resemble a dead person; he resembled a slaughtered hog. Kawika almost gagged.
“Normal forty-six-year-old male,” Smith said. “Dead, of course. But otherwise normal. Died around midnight.”
Smith lifted a stainless steel pan with a body part in it: Fortunato’s heart. “Here’s the problem,” Smith said. “The spear went right through it. Auricles, ventricles: everything’s destroyed.”
“A single blow?” Kawika asked, quickly looking back up at Smith. “Yup,” Smith said. “Just one blow. But a big blow. And I mean big. Smashed his ribs, went clear through his back, right into the turf. Even took a fair-sized divot. Yes sir, done with emphasis.”
Smith replaced the pan on a stainless-steel counter and re-covered the corpse. He pointed toward a larger pan. “Stomach,” he said. “The last supper. We’ll give you a report, tell you what he ate. There’s alcohol for sure—lots of it. Not a cautious type, apparently. He was risking a DUI. Lucky for him he never made it back to his car, eh?”
Smith walked across the room, picked up the fatal spear, brought it back to Kawika. Kawika slipped on a pair of gloves and took it. Very black, as he’d noticed at the crime scene. Heavy, carved from hard kauila wood. Six feet long. Three somewhat dull wooden barbs behind the tip. “Those three barbs made the extraction rather difficult,” Smith said. “We had to go slow, be careful. He was dead, but we didn’t want to hurt him.” The spear still showed powder where the Waimea police had dusted it for prints.
“As you probably know—do you?—this one’s called an ihe,” Smith explained. “A javelin. It’s pretty old. Those three barbs should help identify it. Find out who owns it, you‘ll probably find your killer. Could be a museum piece—probably missing from a collection somewhere. Kamehameha might have used it, training for the Olympics—if he’d lived at the right time, of course.”
“Anything else?” Kawika asked coldly; Smith’s jocularity, appealing at first, now seemed peculiar. Is he nervous? Kawika wondered. Why? He handed the spear back to Smith. Ignoring Kawika’s change of tone, Smith took a little run with it, did a cross-step, pretended to throw it. Then he put it down, returned to Kawika.
“Odds and ends,” the doctor replied. “For example, he was gagged.” Kawika frowned. “Not when we found him.”
“Dead men tell no lies,” Smith said. “But alive, men sometimes holler. There were fibers in his mouth, and bruises. Also telltale lacerations.” Smith walked to another counter, returning with a pan that contained a piece of twine. “Here’s something that’ll interest you,” he said. “Another bit of Hawaiiana. It’s an old cord. The killer used it to tie our friend’s hands. I’d say it’s made from olonā.”
“Olonā?” Kawika asked.
“A type of nettle,” Smith said. “Best fiber plant the old Hawaiians had. Never used today. So this strand is old too—another museum piece. Certainly missing from someone’s collection.”
Smith put down the twine, then walked to the corpse. Reaching under the sheet, he lifted Fortunato’s right arm.
“Look at this,” he said. “Recognize those marks?”
Kawika looked. “Cuffs,” he replied.
“Bingo,” said Smith, still holding the wrist toward Kawika. “Handcuffs. Distinctive ones too. The edge of one cuff was damaged. A chisel or something. Find the cuffs, you’ll find the killer.”
“But the killer tied his hands,” Kawika said. “He used the cord.” “Right again,” Smith said. “But notice, our boy’s got cuff marks only. No marks or fibers from the cord. No signs of ligature, as they say in the literature.”
Kawika scratched his head with his gloved hand and felt the odd sensation of latex in his hair.
“Trust me,” Smith said. “He died with cuffs on. The cord came later. And by the way”—Smith covered the right arm and uncovered the left, holding the wrist toward Kawika—“his left wrist was cuffed twice. Caught skin both times.”
“But where are the cuffs?” Kawika asked.
“With the gag, I’d guess,” Smith answered. “A thousand kisses deep.” Kawika shot him a sharp look.
“Sorry,” said Smith. “That’s from a new Leonard Cohen song. I simply meant the killer probably got rid of the cuffs too.” He lifted the bottom of the sheet.
“And the shoes?” Smith continued. “The shoes must be on a different foot. Or feet. Before he died, he was walking barefoot. Feet have loose dirt on ’em. Also sand, bits of cinders, fresh grass stains. Yes, sir, a lucky man: died with his boots off.”
“Not exactly in his own bed,” Kawika said, increasingly irritated with Smith’s joking.
“No,” Smith agreed. “Not exactly.” He paused and looked hard at Kawika, as if appraising him. “There’s one more thing,” he added. He handed Kawika
a plastic sandwich bag. Kawika lifted it to examine the contents: a sprig of green plant with white flowers. Looking at it told him nothing. “It’s an unusual plant,” Smith explained. “It was in his pocket. You recognize it? No. Well, it’s mountain naupaka. And it’s fresh.”
Kawika turned the bag this way and that, as if looking at the plant would reveal the doctor’s point.
“As its name implies,” Smith went on, “mountain naupaka grows in the mountains. At least in the wild. It wilts pretty fast, and you can’t keep it fresh in water. So this piece is less than a day old.”
“Which means,” Smith replied, “if this particular naupaka grew in the wild, then yesterday Mohammed went to the mountain—or the mountain came to Mohammed. Unless, as I’d suspect, there’s another source.”
Kawika frowned again. Smith frowned too. Kawika could see in that dis approving frown that he’d somehow disappointed the doctor. It puzzled him. “Look,” he said to Smith. “We’re just getting started.”
Tommy, the Waimea cop, was waiting at reception when Kawika emerged from the makeshift morgue. “Checked on Peter Pukui, our HHH guy,” Tommy said. “No one in Kawaihae has seen him for a few days. Not him, not his girlfriend either. Her full name’s Melanie Munu. Apparently she’s a real powerhouse.”
“What about Shimazu?”
“Checked out of the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel at six this morning. Caught the eight o’clock JAL flight to Tokyo. Hotel staff printed his boarding pass for him. Airline confirms he’s on the plane.”
“So he left before he knew Fortunato was dead?”
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “Unless he killed him.”
Kawika had never seen anyone as agitated as Michael Cushing. Cushing had good reason to be agitated: someone had just murdered his boss, and Cushing feared he’d be next. Kawika didn’t doubt that Cushing’s fear was real. “Those bastards will kill me!” Cushing shouted. Kawika and Tommy turned in place as Cushing, tall and very pale in a starched aloha shirt, circled his wood-paneled KKL Development office at a near run. Kawika couldn’t help smiling at this frantic indoor athletic display. He risked a glance at Tommy, who was trying to suppress a smirk.
“Mr. Cushing,” said Kawika, hoping to calm him, “no one’s going to kill you. We’ll have police officers guard your house, even your office and your car if you want. The killer will hide now—or run. If you’ll help us, Mr. Cushing, we’ll catch him. Or them. Right away.”
Cushing slowed to a walk. Finally he sat down and collected himself. On the wall behind him, the future KKL resort, displayed on an acetate overlay, covered a huge aerial photograph of a lava-and-scrub volcanic flank.
Cushing had a lot of information to impart, once he relaxed a bit. Like Corazon Fortunato, he insisted the “temple Hawaiians” must have committed the crime. But Cushing added details. And he knew what HHH stood for.
“Hui Heiau Hawai‘i,” he said. “The Hawaiian Temple Association, basically. Association, union, popular front—that’s the idea.”
“You speak Hawaiian?” asked Kawika.
“A little. Not much. Took Hawaiian studies at UH Mānoa. My family—” Cushing stopped abruptly.
“Your family what?” Kawika asked.
“Nothing,” replied Cushing. “I was just going to say, I grew up in Hawai‘i.” Kawika let it pass. “Tell me about Peter Pukui,” he said.
“Scary son of a bitch. Normal size, but mean. Looks more haole than Hawaiian.” Cushing’s gaze flickered for a moment. Kawika nodded. It’s okay. “He lives in Kawaihae,” Cushing went on. “Works in the boat harbor. His girlfriend is as political as he is. Melanie Munu. She’s not Hawaiian. Maori, I think. She’s the organizer for HHH and some other Native groups. The driving force. But Peter’s the spokesman—their ‘Orator,’ they call him.” “How did it start?” Kawika asked. “The dispute with HHH, I mean.” “We found an old structure of lava rock,” replied Cushing. “It was partly broken down, probably by cattle. Parker Ranch used to lease this land. It could’ve been a temple for human sacrifice, a so-called luakini heiau. Ralph hired a team from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo to check it out. I figured they’d say, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s authentic, but it’s no big deal, it’s not a major site or anything.’
He went on. “Unfortunately, it turns out Captain Vancouver’s men saw a heiau being built along this coast. They even saw the human sacrifices, wrote about it in their journals. Kamehameha built it to stop a lava flow. The lava’s ‘a‘ā here. You know, the rough kind, not pahoehoe, the smooth kind. Doesn’t move fast, just sort of rumbles along. But it was headed for Kamehameha’s fishponds—probably the ones at the Mauna Lani these days. So he built a heiau on the mountainside, sacrificed some guys.”
“This the same heiau?” Kawika asked.
Cushing shrugged. “Who knows? It’s a big mountain; no one recorded the spot. But HHH claimed it was the same one. And they could be right.” Cushing stood up, lifted the acetate overlay, traced a lava flow on the aerial photo. “See, a lava flow does split here, just uphill from the heiau. One part goes almost to the highway, then stops. The other part, over here, goes all the way to the ocean. But it misses the fishponds. So this might be Kame hameha’s heiau.”
And human sacrifice might have worked, Kawika thought. Not like ritual killings, the sort you find in murder mysteries.
“Tell me about the extortion attempt,” he said.
“Mrs. Fortunato said HHH tried to extort money from her husband, or from KKL.”
“Corazon told you that? Jesus.”
“It didn’t happen?”
“I’m not saying that. You have to understand: Ralph could be stupid sometimes. Plus hot-tempered. Sorry, but it’s true. He took offense easily. I would never call HHH extortionists—never. Certainly not to their faces. But Ralph did.”
“So what actually happened?”
What actually happened, Cushing explained, was that HHH eventually realized Fortunato wasn’t going to give them anything. He’d restore the heiau, make it an attraction at the resort, spend some money on a little interpretive center. But he wouldn’t offer HHH any cash. He wouldn’t pay them to go away.
“Did they demand money?” asked Kawika.
“They asked for money. They said they wanted to hire experts to find sacred sites on other property. Ralph called that extortion. But maybe they just wanted a success—declare victory, get some funding, move on. Most Hawaiian cultural groups have serious causes and are completely responsible; HHH probably started out that way too. But Ralph just outraged them—that’s the only way to put it. He did it on purpose.”
“Well, we can probably find out whether it really was extortion,” Kawika said. “Mrs. Fortunato said her husband taped the key meeting.” Cushing grimaced, then shook his head. “That must be what Ralph told her. What he told me was, ‘I should have taped that meeting.’” “Were you with him?”
“At that meeting? No, but I was with him at the next one—after he’d bulldozed the site. They were furious. Ralph loved it. He was taunting them. I thought they’d kill us both right on the spot.”
“Why’d he bulldoze it?” Kawika asked.
“Why?” Cushing shrugged. “Because he had incredibly bad judgment? Because HHH really pissed him off? I don’t know. None of it made sense. We should’ve given them money and stuck to our plan—rebuilt the heiau, made it a feature of the resort. A nice outcome for all concerned. But now they’ve killed Ralph and they’ll be coming after me.”
Kawika started to speak. “I know, I know”—Cushing held up his hand— “you’re going to protect me. Great. But how about the resort? Can you save it too, Detective?”
“Well,” said Kawika, smiling politely, “let’s work on saving you first.” More questions: Had Cushing seen Mr. Fortunato the day before? Yes, Cushing said: at work, all day. They’d eaten lunch together. “Right outside— the burrito place. In the afternoon Ralph went somewhere to meet with Makoto—that’s Mr. Shimazu. He heads the investor group from Tokyo. Ralph got back around four. We locked up around five fifteen, maybe five thirty.”
“Mr. Shimazu seems to have flown home this morning. Was that expected?”
“Yeah,” Cushing replied. “He was here for two days, as usual. Just likes to see things, talk to Ralph in person.”
“Does he do that a lot?” Kawika asked. “Fly over here for a day or two?” “Couple of times a year, I guess. We don’t see him often.”
Kawika switched topics. “Could Mr. Fortunato have gone anywhere else yesterday?” he asked. “To the mountains, say?”
“I don’t see how,” Cushing replied. “He didn’t have time to get up there with Makoto, and otherwise I was with him till we went home.” “Did he have enemies? Apart from HHH, I mean.”
“Nothing serious, far as I know. Ralph could be an asshole. But I don’t know who’d kill him, other than HHH. Last time I saw them, they were ready to murder him, me, and the horse we rode in on—like I told you.”
“Mr. Cushing,” Kawika asked, “do you know if Mr. Fortunato might have had a girlfriend? Maybe a boyfriend? Someone besides his wife?” Cushing didn’t respond at once. He regarded Kawika for a moment. Then he glanced at Tommy, who looked quite alert under his baseball cap. Cushing turned again to Kawika, raising his eyebrows slightly: a question. Kawika nodded, intent on the answer.
“Okay,” Cushing sighed. “Yes, he had a girlfriend. It’s messy; they’re both married. But his love life didn’t kill him. I don’t suppose that’s good enough for you?”
“Afraid not,” Kawika said, smiling politely again. “No, as you can guess, we’ll need to know who she is, talk to her. But we can be discreet.”
Cushing sighed, this time more deeply. “It’s our receptionist and office manager, Joanie. Joan Malo. She’s Hawaiian too. But I’m telling you, she has nothing to do with this. Neither does her husband. He doesn’t even know.”
“Receptionist?” Kawika asked, looking around the empty office. “She’s not here today?”
“No. She left when we got the news. Around ten maybe. Went home. She lives right here in the Village. Here’s her number.” Cushing wrote it on a Post it Note and handed it to Kawika. “But remember, her husband doesn’t know.”
“We’ll talk to her alone,” Kawika assured him. “Up in Waimea. Right now we’ll go find Peter Pukui and Melanie Munu. Meanwhile, you want police protection at the office?”
Cushing shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I’m only here during the day. It’s a public place, pretty crowded. A guard would draw attention, hurt the company. But I definitely want protection in Waimea, at the house.” With that, Kawika noticed, Cushing’s agitation began to increase again.
Cushing locked the KKL office door behind Kawika and Tommy. Now he was alone. He picked up the phone and dialed quickly, pounding his desk and muttering, “Shit shit shit,” as he waited for an answer. Finally it came.
“Rocco, where’ve you been?” Cushing demanded. “I’ve been calling all day.”
“Hapuna Beach, remember? But I heard the news. Heard the details too.”
“You didn’t do it, did you?”
“The fuck. How could I? It isn’t time yet. You haven’t given me the stuff.”
“Then get off the island,” Cushing said. “We’ll talk later.”
“Wait a minute. Who did it?”
“I don’t know who did it, Rocco! Just get off the island. Now.”
“You didn’t double-book this, did you? You’re not trying to stiff me?”
“No. I told you, I don’t know who fucking did it! Someone else killed him—not you, not me—someone else.”
“Really? Funny how they knew your exact plan.”