Pele’s Prerogative – Part Two

Now Coutinho wanted Jenny to witness the autopsy. If she aspired to a detective assignment someday, she would have to get used to the yucky stuff. He seemed to have hopes for her, and her determination to live up to his expectations helped steady her nerves.

Dr. Ramesh looked mostly Japanese instead of Indian, but the ethnic melting pot in these islands did things like that. Jenny was basically the Portuguese brunette that her name predicted, but she also saw traces of Japanese and Filipino in her bathroom mirror.

The doctor weighed and measured the body and recording his findings. He described the perimortem bruising on the front of the body.

“Interesting,” he said.

Coutinho nodded. Jenny hoped one of them would give her a hint about what they had seen.

“No wrist fractures,” said Coutinho. “That’s what I noticed before.”

“Oh,” she said.

Then the doctor and an orderly turned the body over.


“Hmm is right,” said Coutinho.

He turned to Jenny.

“What do you see?”

Panic flared for a moment, and her mind went blank. Coutinho waited. His patience was legendary in the department, but even he must have his limits.

“Cleanest fall I ever saw,” Jenny remembered the woman rescuer saying.

“Where did that wound on the back of his head come from?” she asked.

Coutinho grinned.

“Good call. One impact from the fall. Injuries should be in one plane. On his front, judging from his face and chest. But he didn’t put out his hands to catch himself. Wouldn’t have done any good, but still, it’s human nature.”

“And something or somebody hit him on the back of the head,” said Jenny.

“Unless a meteor fell out of the sky, I’m betting on somebody. Which would make it a homicide.”

“Come to think of it,” said Jenny, “we didn’t find the tool he was using to prune the bushes.”

Coutinho gave him one of his rare smiles, and the whole ordeal became worth it.

• • •

The next day Coutinho took Jenny and Office Sammy Waga, all three hundred plus pounds of him, to search Otsaka’s house. Jenny always enjoyed Sammy’s grumpiness and his indifference to her sex. Some of her other male colleagues could learn from him.

“What do we know?” Coutinho asked.

“The neighbor who called the welfare check in said he lived alone,”  said Jenny. “She also mentioned a young man coming by once in a while, starting pretty recently.”

“He doesn’t sound neighborly,” said Coutinho.

That was Jenny’s impression. Otsaka’s kind of isolation was a little unusual on this island. Family is huge in Hawaii, and most people his age would have had sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and vaguely defined hangers-on coming around at all hours.

“So we want an address book, photographs, anything that fills in the picture.”

Jenny was the one who found the photo album in Otsaka’s bedroom closet. Sammy kept rummaging in a dresser, as Coutinho took a seat at the kitchen table and started flipping through the book. When Jenny sidled up and studied the pictures over his shoulder, Coutinho didn’t send her back to her task.

Langston Otsaka was one of those people who paste photos into an album without labels or context. He hadn’t anticipated needing to help the cops solve his own murder, but it still frustrated them. Coutinho started at the back of the album and paged forward. The photos looked to be in rough chronological order, and the most recent ones might bear the most relevance to a violent death.

The first thing they saw was a a retirement party at a Hilo bar that Jenny recognized from the numerous fights she had broken up there. A date would have helped them check their files for a possible incident, but it couldn’t be that easy. Otsaka himself looked at least ten years younger than the body on the morgue table.

“The county road crew,” said Coutinho.

They knew Otsaka’s employment history from his file, but Jenny also recognized some of the other men. She saw them at work on the roads, and she had pulled some of them out of pile-ups in this same bar.

Coutinho turned more pages. Otsaka kept getting younger, until he started appearing with a woman, an island mix of Portuguese, Japanese and Filipino. She looked younger than Otsaka, and as Coutinho flipped pages, she aged in reverse until she held an infant in her arms.

“Look at that face,” said Coutinho. “I’m thinking motherhood wasn’t exactly her dream job.”

So what had happened to her? And where was the boy after his infancy? Could he be the young man the neighbors had seen?

“We need to find the wife,” said Coutinho. “And the boy. He’d be, what, thirty-ish?”


“I’ll ask at the high school.”

Jenny liked the way he bounced that off her like a detective. But she was also ready when he sent her back on patrol. On her way out to 130 she passed a bright red RAV heading into the subdivision. Jack Holloway was behind the wheel. He didn’t seem to notice her, although local residents knew what the blue cone on the roof of her Camry meant police.

He lived in North Hilo. Did he have a girlfriend out here in Pahoa? Jenny told herself that wasn’t the only explanation for his presence, and she had no right to her twinge of jealousy.

The next day Coutinho intercepted her after roll call for the middle shift. She was on the way to her car. She reminded herself that mileage reimbursement forms were due.

“You’re with me,” he told her. “I cleared it with your sergeant.”

“Where to?”

“We’re going to canvas Otsaka’s neighborhood again. We’ll take your car.”

Jenny’s friend Kenny Lujan joined them in the parking lot. Coutinho seemed to see detective potential in him too.

She drove toward Pahoa through scrub brush that wasn’t the first thing the Chamber of Commerce wanted visitors to see. Before they reached the town, Jenny turned left into the residential subdivisions. She parked in front of the Otsaka house, which had yellow crime scene tape across the front door.

“Ask the neighbors about the son,” said Coutinho. “No Otsaka at Hilo High School for five years either side of 2007, which I thought would be roughly his graduation year.”

“Check the other schools on the island?”

“We might have to, but I hope he turns up.”

Jenny started knocking on doors. She soon learned from the neighbors that Otsaka’s whitewashed box was the oldest on the street, and the other houses had sprung up around it.

“Nah,” said Hez Kekua. “Never saw no young guy.”

Hez for Hezekiah. Jenny had pulled him out of a bar fight or two, with some help, seeing as he was almost as big as Sammy Waga. Hez thought their history made them old friends. She could work with that.

“You find Langston’s money yet?” he asked her.


“In his safe.”

Jenny kept her poker face. The police had found no safe in Otsaka’s house, but even if they had, they would have held the detail back from the public.

“Where’d he get this money?” she asked instead.

“He ran with some bad guys from Honolulu way back. They tried to muscle in on Morrison.”

Anything to do with the biggest marijuana dealer on the island was above her pay grade, especially since a rookie police officer had met a presentable older man in a bar and spent the night with him.

He called himself Jim, as in Jim Morrison. Who else would a Sixties holdover and Vietnam veteran name himself after? Jenny suspected that Coutinho knew about her lapse, but they had never discussed it.

Now he might decide they had to deal with it. She found the detective in the back yard, looking into the lava tube as if he expected the goddess Pele to write the answer to everything on smoke and send it up to mortals on the surface.

“A safe,” he said. “Terrific. That kind of urban folklore can stir up all kinds of craziness. I’ll have to go ask Morrison about it.”

He thought.

“Pakalolo. That’s actually a relief, if it’s not meth we’re dealing with.”

Jenny understood. The veterans of the marijuana industry, Morrison among them, liked things low-key. The new men of meth didn’t have the same restraint.

“You can go back on patrol.”

She tried not to look too relieved. Normally she would have been eager to tag along for the detective stuff, but keeping her distance from Morrison came first.

She reported in to Dispatch and got on the road.

• • •

Burglary in progress, in the same subdivision near Pahoa that had become Jenny’s second home lately.

It meant responding without lights or siren. Every cop in the immediate vicinity would be running dark and feeling the same adrenaline rush. Burglars were usually local young men hustling pakalolo money. They seldom turned violent, but the difference between seldom and never could get somebody killed.

Jenny arrived ahead of anyone else. Coutinho had commented on her knack for being in the right place at the right time. She called it keeping her eyes and ears open.

It was only seven o’clock, but these semi-tropical islands made short work of twilight. One pass through the neighborhood reminded her of the layout, which told her what this call was about.

She parked several doors down from the address and got out. She had turned her Camry’s courtesy off her first day on the job, and she wasn’t sure it worked anymore.

Sammy appeared at her elbow. It always impressed her how quietly his three hundred pounds could move. More than one bad guy had mentioned it.

“Neighbor reported a moke or two sneaking around behind this house,” he said in a voice that carried only as far as her ear.

“Which backs onto the Otsaka place,” she said.

“Funny about that.”

Kenny Lujan came up on the other side of Jenny.

“Dispatch says we’re it,” he said.

Four hundred Hawaii County officers on an island the size of Connecticut had to make do.

“Gotta make sure it isn’t this house we want,” said Sammy.

Jenny went up to the front door and looked it over, but the ambient light didn’t do the job She covered most of the lens of her Maglight with her hand and played the reduced beam around the door. Nothing looked broken or disturbed.

She rejoined Kenny. After a few moments Sammy came around from the back.

“Looks okay. Let’s do it.”

They returned to their vehicles and drove around to the next street. They inspected the front door of Otsaka’s house, which appeared intact. The crime scene tape was unbroken.

They walked around the house to the back yard. Right away Jenny saw a film of light fanning out on the fence that had saved her life. For a moment the illumination gave her a supernatural shiver. Light wasn’t supposed to issue from the earth.

“Cover me,” she told Sammy and Kenny.

It was kind of cool to get to say that, but she could have lived without the next part. She approached the man-eating hole and then got down to crawl.

The top of a ladder protruded about a foot from the ground. She could have used the help her first time here. Jenny braced her left hand on the ladder and played her flashlight downward with her right. A young man looked up at her from the bottom of the tube.

“Nate, what are you doing down there?”

She should have identified herself as a police officer, but the sight of her younger brother’s childhood friend brought a less official response.

He froze for a moment and then looked around for inspiration. Nothing came.

“Howzit, Jenny?”

“No time for talk story, Nate.”

He shrugged.

“Lookin’ fo’ get paid.”

“Come on up out of there.”

Nate climbed the ladder and planted his feet on the ground, which of course remained solid. Apparently the goddess Pele only wanted Jenny. The choice was Pele’s prerogative, since she owned the islands.

Now three men looked at Jenny and waited for her next move.

“Okay, Nate, how are you gonna paid in a lava tube?”

“Everybody says the old man had lossa cash around. Wasn’t in the house, or the cops woulda found it. Maybe it’s down there.”

“You didn’t think we would look there too?”

“Well, if he hid it real good …”

This urban legend was mutating at top speed. Maybe the cops should call the Sociology Department of the university for a way to squelch it.

“You see anyplace to hide money?”

“Not yet, but it’s a big tube. Goes both ways.”

Jenny recalled how Nate Cano had always operated on wishful thinking. Once again she thanked the Hawaiian gods for making her brother Ben recognize the dead end that this friend represented.

“Okay, Nate. Gotta take you in.”

Cuffing him took seconds. Nate knew how it was done. Jenny kept a firm grip on Nate’s elbow as she guided him around the house to her vehicle.

Headlights hit her face as she stowed Nate in her back seat. Somehow she knew who was behind the lights, even before Callen turned them off and climbed out of his Impala.

“It’s handled,” said Jenny.

“Just checking,” said Callen.

“It’s handled,” said Sammy, looming out of the darkness.

Callen prudently said nothing as he returned to his car. Sammy had that effect on all the mokes, in uniform or out. Jenny sometimes envied his intimidation factor, although it could interfere with the rapport a detective needed to establish with suspects and witnesses.

An hour later she stood outside Interview Two with Coutinho and an assistant prosecutor named Rebecca Cordova. It didn’t surprise Jenny to see the detective on a Tuesday night. Coutinho haunted the station from Monday through Wednesday, while his wife Lucy stayed in Honolulu working three twelve-hour days in the crime lab.

“This is a little embarrassing,” said Cordova. “I’ll have to look up the law on this one—whether the lava tube belonged to Mr. Otsaka. We might end up dealing down to trespassing. A confession to what the suspect was up to would help.”

She addressed the last part to Coutinho, but he turned to Jenny.

“You’ll get more out of him than anybody else.”

Cordova didn’t look happy about that. Jenny gave Coutinho points for ignoring the lawyer. She put her feet in motion before Cordova could think up an objection.

The sight of Nate looking so comfortable in jail depressed her, but Jenny shook the feeling off and read him the Miranda warning. He listened as if humoring her and signed the waiver.

“Whose idea was this?” she asked.

“Mine. Who else?”

He seemed proud.

“Where’d you come up with it?”

“I’m the idea man.”

He still believed in himself, no matter how many times his notions led to nothing. Sometimes Jenny caught herself admiring his optimism.

“But this one, Caleb kinda got me thinking about it.”

“Who’s Caleb?”

“The old guy’s son.”

“He’s here?”

“He was a few days ago.”

“Where is he?”

“I ain’t his mother.”

“Okay, where was he a few days ago?”

 Jenny reminded herself to take it one small step at a time with Nate. He named the bar that she and Coutinho had just seen in Mr. Otsaka’s retirement photos.

“Did you already know him?”

“Nah. He bought a round, and we wen’ talk story.”

“What did he talk about?”

“How he got sick of Vegas.”

“What was he doing there?”

“Casinos. What else?”

There was a whole Hawaiian diaspora in Las Vegas. At some point an economic refugee from the islands had caught on in the casinos and hotels and brought his cousins and his cousins’ friends to the Nevada desert, until now there must be a track worn into the ocean.

“But he came back.”

“Yeah. Too hot there. Too much work.”

Nate’s tone said he empathized with a horror of work.

“What else did you talk about?”

“His father. How everybody thought he had money, but he didn’t believe it.”

“Did he tell you about the lava tube?”

“Yeah. Said the old man just showed it to him. It broke through a couple of years ago, while Caleb was in Vegas. His father never told anybody else about it.”

“So why did he tell you?”

Nate fell silent as he thought about the question. It was just like him not to have considered it until this moment.

“I dunno.”

“Think Caleb could have wanted you to get caught?”

“Why would he do that?”

Good question.

“Did he ever mention his mother?”

Now Nate looked totally confused.

“Never mind,” said Jenny.

Coutinho met her in the hall.

“Sure wish he knew a little more.”

“You get used to that with Nate,” said Jenny.

“But we have Caleb Otsaka on the island.”

He got busy with his phone.

Albert Tucher is the creator of sex worker Diana Andrews, who has appeared in more than one hundred stories in venues including SHOTGUN HONEY and the anthology THE BEST AMERICAN MYSTERY STORIES 2010. Her first longer case, the novella THE SAME MISTAKE TWICE, was published in 2013. In 2017 Albert Tucher launched a second series set on the Big Island of Hawaii, in which BLOOD LIKE RAIN is the most recent entry. He lives in New Jersey, and he loves NJ Turnpike jokes.