Monday, January 26, 2015

The Retching Bush

It would have made a great nightmare.

Standing in front of the dark gray-encrusted lava flow, Coutinho thought it looked like the head of a crocodile the size of an Airbus. But instead of just two baleful eyes, this beast had dozens of glowing orange windows into its pitiless soul.

A puddle of water hissed, as it turned to steam and vaulted into the air. Ferns and bushes sizzled as the monster fed on them. Heat and fumes spread like the vile breath of a carnivore.

In a dream Coutinho’s feet would have weighed a ton and kept him rooted in place for the lava to overwhelm him. He knew he was awake, because he could stroll back and forth while he watched the crime scene technicians at work. The flow had slowed overnight. It was moving only a few inches per hour, but that still left his team with a short deadline.

One of the Tyvek-suited figures looked up at him.

“I think we’ve got all we’re going to get. Should we pull?”

“Let’s do it,” Coutinho said, a little too fast. He was dreading the moment.

The topic under discussion was the naked body pillowed in the lush grass that covered much of the Puna region of the Big Island. The dead man lay face down, but the back of his head looked familiar.

Coutinho knew what was coming. When the techs grabbed the dead man and pulled, the top half of him would come loose. The longer they waited, the more of him they would lose to the natural crematorium.

Two technicians, both young men, grasped the corpse by the armpits. They pulled. Nothing happened. They dug their heels into the ground and yanked harder. A sucking sound warned Coutinho to clamp down on his gag reflex.

The upper half of the body came loose, releasing the odor of barbecued meat. The two techs staggered in unison but stayed on their feet. A uniformed officer, another young man, turned and ran for a nearby bush. He vomited as if he would never stop.

Coutinho caught himself thinking that the young cop was lucky. The lava would soon consume the evidence of his professional lapse, along with the bush that gave him some privacy.

The techs flipped the half corpse over.

“I thought so,” said Coutinho. “Zeke Balaguer. His wife is a nurse at Hilo Medical Center.”

“Oh, my God,” came a horrified voice from the designated retching bush. A fresh round of vomiting followed.

“Let’s go see what that’s about,” said Coutinho.

Two hours later he was knocking on the door to a whitewashed box of a house on 130 outside Pahoa. He had told two uniformed officers to wait in their car behind him.

Melanie Balaguer opened the door and stepped out onto the packed dirt in front of the house. Coutinho could forget about an invitation inside.

“Melanie, you know why we’re here.”

“What did Zeke do?”

“Don’t try it. How did you get Zeke to go out there with you?”

“Don’t know what you mean.”

“Or did you kill him here and lug him out there?”

Her silence was as good as a confession. She was big and strong in the way of native Hawaiians, and she was used to hefting patients a lot heavier than a bantamweight like Zeke.

“You remember telling me what you were going to do the next time he stepped out on you?”

She still gave nothing away.

“Getting rid of him out there was a good idea, but the lava slowed down last night. It left half of him for us.”

He turned and signaled. Officer Jenny Freitas, his go-to cop for thinking outside the box, got out of the car and approached. As Coutinho had instructed her, she held a small Styrofoam cooler up for Melanie to see.

“Actually, a little more than half. You threw his junk too far.”

Melanie shrugged.

“It’s not something you can practice,” she said.

“Amen to that.”