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Hawai'i County Chief Detective Koa Kane 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 PMhakuloa,, 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 PMhakuloa,."
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 PMhakuloa,.
"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 Kane family had been respected in ancient times, but Koa's father and grandfather had been virtual slaves at the Hamakua 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.