The plume of smoky steam rising like a sulfur cloud from a volcanic vent told Hilo Chief Detective Koa Kāne he’d been called to a nasty scene. He eased his Ford Explorer past the patrol car partially blocking the remote country road just outside tiny Volcano Village on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Ahead, an ambulance and a fire truck barred the way. The air was thick with sauna-like humidity. Ditches and giant hāpu‘u fern trees crowded the edges of the narrow lane, leaving no room to pull off, so Koa parked his police SUV behind the ambulance.
He skirted the fire truck, stepping over a thick hose snaking up the road. Oily smoke billowed from the flaming hulk of a brown Honda Civic about thirty yards ahead. The badly crunched and partly obscured car lay upside down in a ditch under the front end of a dump truck. The yellow color and Hawai‘i County seal on the door marked the truck as property of the county highway department.
The pump on Engine 19 from the Volcano fire station screamed at full power, feeding pressurized water to two firefighters battling the blaze, trying to slow the flames enough so other firefighters, kept back by the heat, could douse the flames with chemical foam and carbon dioxide. Through the acrid fog of water, steam, and smoke, Koa recognized Deputy Fire Chief Darryl Opatta commanding the effort. Darryl’s round face and coarse black hair made him look younger than his forty-some years. They’d worked other bad fire scenes together and taught safety and fire prevention to schoolkids. Opatta was a good man. Koa waved and the deputy fire chief acknowledged the gesture.
Koa reconstructed the accident in his mind. The Honda must have been traveling toward him on the one-lane asphalt road when it was blindsided by the dump truck coming from a crossing dirt lane. The truck must have been barreling along to have rolled and crushed the smaller vehicle, rupturing its gas tank and igniting the contents.
As chief detective, Koa rarely attended the scene of even the worst traffic accidents. The dispatcher had alerted him to this crash only because he lived close by and the first responding patrolmen hadn’t been able to locate the truck driver. The empty truck left Koa puzzled—county employees were never supposed to leave the scene of an accident. A hit-and-run by a county employee involving a fatal accident could saddle Hawai‘i County with damages in the millions.
The firefighters, shooting water onto the burning hulks, inched closer to the fire. The flames receded and the smoke lessened. As Opatta yelled instructions, the firemen gradually closed in on the crushed vehicle. Suddenly, a scream rent the air, prickling the hairs on the back of Koa’s neck. Someone—it sounded like a woman— had survived the accident only to be trapped in the flames.
Acting on instinct, Koa sprinted toward the vehicles. It was a stupid move. Opatta yelled at him, but he barreled ahead. He was twenty feet from the smoldering wrecks when they exploded in a fireball. The front end of the dump truck rocketed upward, absorbing most of the force of the explosion. Still, the shock wave spread like a tornado, slamming him to the ground. An explosive thunderclap deafened him, so he barely heard the whine of flying metal, but something hammered his left shoulder and pain spiked down his arm. For an instant, he was back with the Fifth Special Forces Group in Mogadishu, Somalia, caught in a toxic hailstorm of rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons fire. Odd how an explosion could transport you ten thousand miles in an instant.
The buzzing in Koa’s ears subsided. He rose to his knees, testing himself for injuries. His shoulder hurt like blazes, but he wasn’t bleeding. He’d been near vehicle explosions before, but not like this—not like a five-hundred-pound bomb exploding in his face. Vehicle explosions happened in war zones . . . or in terrorist attacks. What the hell was inside that Civic?
He faced a new terror. The two firefighters knocked down by the blast had lost control of the fire hose, which thrashed back and forth like a mad python, threatening to decapitate anything in its path. The hose swung away, smashed into the ground, and whipped back toward Koa with deadly force. Only his combat training saved him. He dove to the ground and heard a whistling noise as the nozzle slashed through the air just inches over his head.
The runaway hose collapsed. Opatta, closest to the pumper truck, had killed the power. As Koa climbed off the ground for the second time, he flexed his arm and checked his shoulder, testing his upper bicep where he’d been struck. He’d have the mother of all bruises, but he’d been lucky. One of the two firefighters previously manning the hose got up, but the other man was unconscious. EMTs ran forward to attend to him.
“Get on that hose, now!” Opatta roared. Firemen scrambled to retrieve the hose and were soon again fogging water on the burning wrecks. The explosion had sucked the energy out of the fire, and the flames died rapidly. The blast had torn apart the Civic, leaving little more than the engine block and twisted frame. The screaming woman inside was no more, vaporized in the explosion.
“Damn,” Koa swore, joining Opatta. “What the hell was that? More like a bomb than a gas tank explosion.”
“Christ almighty, you got that right.” Opatta’s eyes were wide, and he seemed disoriented.
“Christ almighty,” he repeated. Opatta appeared to be suffering a post-traumatic effect. Koa had commanded troops who’d been stunned after a nasty fight.
He put a hand on Opatta’s shoulder. “You okay, brah?”
Opatta let out a long sigh. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “I’m okay.” He shook his head and seemed to regain control. “I need to get my arson guys out here.”
“And an expert forensics guy. Get one of those explosive consultants from O‘ahu,” Koa suggested.
“Good idea. I’ll call ’em.”
“I’ve never seen a fire hose break away like that. It damn near took my head off.”
“Damned strange,” Opatta agreed. “Never had one of those safety nozzles stick open like that. Something must have jammed it, maybe from the explosion.”
“What do you make of all this?” Koa waved his arm, taking in the destroyed vehicles.
“Quirky. The whole scene is quirky as hell.” Opatta jabbed a meaty finger at the yellow truck. “That county truck . . . what the hell is it doing here? These roads are private. There ain’t no county maintenance in here. Where’s the truck driver? He’s done a god-damn runner. And speed. That truck was movin’ fast, fifty miles an hour, maybe more, on that shit-ant dirt road. Plus, no skid marks.” Opatta turned, pointing toward the intersection where the dirt lane dead-ended into the narrow macadam road. “Where’s the skid marks? Something’s fishy. Like the crash was deliberate.”
Koa was thinking the same thing. A staged accident killing whoever had been driving the brown Honda would add up to murder.
“Engine 19, this is Volcano station, do you copy?” the radio on Engine 19 blared.
The fire chief grabbed the handset. “This is Fire Two, I copy.” “Fire Two, is Chief Detective Kāne with you?”
“Roger that,” Opatta responded.
“Have him call Sergeant Basa. He’s got a possible 701.”
Koa’s head snapped around. 701—police-speak for first-degree murder. First, a vehicular homicide and now a murder? Koa felt a surge of adrenalin and a flicker of fear at what he might find.
About the Author
Robert McCaw grew up in a military family traveling the world. After graduating from Georgetown University, he served as a lieutenant in the US Army before earning his law degree from the University of Virginia. Thereafter he practiced as a partner in a major international law firm in Washington, DC, and New York City—and maintained a home on the Big Island of Hawai’i. McCaw brings a unique authenticity to his Koa Kāne Hawaiian mystery novels in both his law enforcement expertise and his ability to portray the richness of Hawai’i’s history, culture, and people. McCaw lives in New York City and La Jolla, California, with his wife, Calli.
Hawaii, murder mystery and cops, does this remind you of something? 😀 I am so looking forward to reading this book. Review will be up soon. 🙂