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A Walk Through the Fire
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Sharon McCone, weary of San Francisco's persistent rainy weather, jumps at the chance to investigate sabotage on the set of a documentary film being shot on the island of Kauai. Based on the writings of Hawaiian scholar Elson Wellbright, the film has incited major controversy among some of Wellbright's family members who aren't anxious to see the project reach completion. Vandalism quickly escalates into big-time violence, and McCone discovers a world of family secrets, drug dealing, political insurgency, and murder in this new crime novel by one of the world's most beloved mystery writers.
Table of Contents
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Many thanks to
Susan Nakata, Caroline Spencer, and all the great folks at the Hawaii State Public Library System, for their invaluable assistance.
Major Louis L. Souza and Bayard Doane, Honolulu Police Department, for their insights into law enforcement in the Islands.
Pamela Beere Briggs and Bill McDonald, for technical assistance on filmmaking and many enjoyable hours on location for Women of Mystery.
Peggy Bakker and Melissa Ward: this is getting to be a habit, but you help me more than you know!
Bill: first reader, fixer of convoluted phrases, and staunchest supporter.
The author apologizes to the people of Kauai for somewhat altering the landscape of their beautiful island. Any resemblance of the characters in this novel to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental—and most likely impossible.
Forged by fire and cradled by water, the Hawaiian Islands are a study in extreme contrasts. A place where opposites attract—and repel.
Impenetrable forest gives way to sun-washed beaches. Flat cane fields back up to rugged cliffs. Breezes play and hurricanes rage. White sand mingles with blood-red dirt. Honolulu, a high-rise metropolis, lies only a short distance from the rural past.
The ancient Hawaiians believed that their gods often walked in human guise, just as their humans often embodied godlike qualities. Standing by the sea on a moon-silvered night, you can share their belief. There's always a sensation that something not quite of this earth watches from a point just out of sight. From there, beneath the swaying branches of the ironwood tree. Or there, beyond the next row of wind-rippled cane. Or there, on the narrow ledge of the towering pali—one of the mountains formed by fire from the earth's core.
The ancients had a saying, "Ahi wela maka'u," meaning "Somewhere between fire love and fire terror," that ambiguous area of the emotions where you are drawn to either extreme. I understand this saying all too well, because that place has always existed within me. If anything, it has grown since I last visited Hawaii.
During my time there I walked through every degree of that fire.
"I feel like a goddamn fool."
"What?" I hadn't been paying proper attention to what Hy was saying over the phone because I was trying to decipher the hand signals my nephew and computer expert, Mick Savage, was flashing at me from my office door. I waved him off.
"A goddamn fool." Hy Ripinsky's tone was injured; my lover and best friend knew me better than anyone, and had radar for those rare occasions when I didn't listen to him.
"Because I should've known better than to trust Virgil. What kind of name for a contractor is that, anyway—Virgil? The jerk called me at my ranch and asked if I could come over here to the coast so he could dig a hole."
"Yeah, by the foundation of the old house." Hy was currently at the property we jointly owned in Mendocino County, where we were trying to get construction of a house under way and where the unseasonably rainy weather was doing its best to thwart our efforts.
Mick reappeared in the doorway, somewhat wild-eyed, his blond hair standing up in stiff points that defied gravity. Again I waved him away.
Hy said, "What d'you think? Virgil never showed. Plus it started storming like a bastard fifteen minutes ago, so now I'm stuck here and I can't find any matches to light a fire."
"Stuck there? Don't tell me you flew."
"Borrowed that Cessna we're thinking of buying."
"You're thinking of buying." The Cessna, in my opinion, was a piece of junk.
He ignored the comment. "So now I'm stuck here. No way I'm flying in this storm, and—What the hell did you do with the matches?"
"What did I do with them?" I realized I sounded sharp, but it had been an awful morning for me, too.
"McCone, you made the fire last time we were here. Think."
That was true, and I couldn't blame him for being irritated. The stone cottage on the cliff's edge above Boot-leggers Cove must be cold, damp, and miserable.
"Did you check the kindling basket?"
"First place I looked."
Mick reappeared, rolling his eyes in alarm.
"What about that blue bowl on the kitchen counter?"
"Well…" My nephew was hopping around now, as if he badly needed to pee. "Try the dirty-clothes hamper."
"Why the hell—"
"Because the jeans I was wearing that last time're in there. The matches're probably in their pocket."
"And women think men are strange creatures."
"Just look. I've got to go now." I cradled the receiver and said to Mick, "What, for God's sake?"
"Come on. Hurry!" He turned and rushed from the room. I heaved a sigh, got up, and followed him onto the iron catwalk that fronted McCone Investigations' suite of offices, high above the concrete floor of Pier 24½.
Three of my five staff members stood around the desk in Mick's office when he and I came in, staring at the brand-new computer—something he called a Wintel—that he'd coaxed me into spending a small fortune for. Ted, my slender, bespectacled office manager, fingered his goatee nervously and kept at a distance. Craig Morland, in sweats and running shoes looking nothing at all like a former buttoned-down FBI field agent, had his arms folded across his chest; his expression suggested that he feared the machine might attack him.
Charlotte Keim, on the other hand, was very much on the attack. She advanced aggressively toward the desk, her petite features set in stern lines. "You varmint!" she said to the computer, her Texas accent more pronounced than usual. "When I get through with you, you're gonna be roadkill!"
At that instant a sickening thump came from under the desk. "Hell and damnation!" Rae Kelleher's voice shouted. She backed out of the kneehole, rubbing the crown of her curly red-gold head, a smudge of dirt across her freckled nose.
"I told you it was plugged in," Mick said to her.
A cold sense of foreboding washed over me. "What's going on here?"
"Uh…" Mick looked down at his shoes.
"I… don't know. I mean, I must've done something wrong."
"Well, you asked me to print out the report on the McPhail case. And I tried to. But it's… like gone."
There were no hard copies of the report on a major industrial espionage investigation, due to be delivered to the client that afternoon.
"So's everything else," Mick added in a small voice, still hanging his head. It seemed to me that his shoulders were shaking slightly. Well, if he wasn't already crying, I would—in the well-remembered words of my father—give him something to cry about.
"Mick," I said, "you are supposed to be a computer genius. You got suspended from high school for breaking into the board of education's confidential files. You smashed the security code at Bank of America and very nearly got yourself arrested. Last week—against my explicit instructions—you obtained federal information that even Craig couldn't call in markers for. So how in hell could you lose all your files?"
"I don't believe this!"
"See for yourself." He motioned at the machine.
I went over to the desk, narrowing my eyes against the unholy light, which I—one of the top two or three technophobes in San Francisco—am convinced is evidence that computers are a creation of the devil.
A message was displayed there. White letters on the blue background: "April Fool! I've already ordered the pizzas!"
I blinked. Relief welled up, and I staggered back, laughing and letting Ted catch me. Belatedly I'd remembered my promise that if Mick could trick me this April Fools' Day, I'd treat the entire office to pizza.
"Shar," Ted said through the intercom, "Glenna Stanleigh's on line two."
"Calling from Hawaii?" Glenna Stanleigh was a documentary filmmaker who had offices on the ground floor of the pier. For the past two weeks she and her crew had been shooting a film on the island of Kauai.
I depressed the button. "Hey, Glenna. What's happening?"
"Nothing good." Her Australian-accented voice was strained. "Sharon, d'you think you could come over here? As soon as possible?"
"To Kauai? Why?"
"I want to hire you. My backer on this film agrees it would be a good move, so I can pay your usual rate and cover all expenses. And there's plenty of room in this lovely house I've got on loan. You could bring Hy along, make it a vacation of sorts."
I hesitated, thrown off stride by the unexpected request, as well as by Glenna's tone. Even at the worst of times she displayed a sunny disposition that could be off-putting to us curmudgeonly types, but now she sounded miserable.
I said, "You'd better tell me what's wrong."
"Can't. Not now. Somebody might overhear."
"When you get here. Please, Sharon."
An undercurrent of panic in her voice made me sit up straighter. "Glenna, I can't drop everything and fly over there without knowing why. Besides, I'm not licensed in Hawaii. I'm not sure I could arrange it so I could work there. I could refer you to an agency in Honolulu—"
"No! I need somebody I can trust. It could be… well, a life-and-death situation."
"Are you serious?"
"Never more so. I think somebody's trying to kill me—or kill someone else on my crew."
"What! Why d'you think that?"
"Something happened this morning. I really can't go into it now. And there've been other incidents. Please, Sharon, I don't know what I'll do if you won't help me."
I was silent, considering. On the other end of the line I heard Glenna breathing hard, as if she was about to hyperventilate. "Just a minute." I reached for my calendar, paged through it, noting appointments that could be rescheduled and work that could be shifted to staff members. My personal caseload was light this month, and recently Rae had shown that she could handle the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as I could, if not better. Besides, Hy and I had been talking about getting away to someplace warm and sunny.
"Give me a couple of hours," I told Glenna. "I'll see what I can do."
"Ripinsky, it's me. Did you find the matches?"
"Right where you said they'd be."
"Good. Listen, Glenna Stanleigh called. She wants me to fly over to Kauai as soon as possible."
"Big trouble, according to her. She claims somebody's trying to kill her or one of her crew members."
"Claims? You don't believe her?"
"I don't know what to believe. She sounds panicky, wouldn't go into details on the phone. Anyway, I think it's worth checking out. She's got a house on loan, and she suggested you come along, as sort of a vacation."
"Hmmm. Tempting, but you know what'll happen. I'll get sucked into this thing as well, and that'll be the end of the vacation."
"Would that be so bad? We've worked well together in the past."
"That we have. You're not licensed in Hawaii, though."
"Yes, but I've been thinking: Your company has a Honolulu office. I could probably work under RKI's umbrella."
"Most likely you could. I can set it up. And I might as well go along; I haven't met any of our people in the Islands yet. You want to make the travel arrangements, or should I?"
"I will. How soon can you get down here?"
"Storm's letting up some. I'll fly down later, meet you at your house this evening."
"What about the Cessna?"
"It's on long-term loan."
"Well, don't take any chances with this weather."
"Not to worry, McCone. I've flown reckless in my time, but that was before I had you to come home to."
"Hawaii?" Rae said. "When d'you leave?"
"There's a flight at eight-forty tomorrow morning. Hy and I will be on it if you'll agree to take over here."
We were seated in a booth at Miranda's, our favorite waterfront diner, enjoying a midafternoon break. Rain streaked the already salt-grimed windows and turned San Francisco Bay to a gray blur. Inside, the diner was warm and cozy, redolent of freshly brewed coffee and fried food.
Rae didn't reply. Instead she stared at the window, a frown creasing her forehead.
I added, "I'm sure this trip won't last long enough to interfere with your wedding plans." Rae and my former brother-in-law, country music star Ricky Savage, were to be married in May.
"Better not, since you're to be my best person." The frown deepened.
I began to feel uneasy. Ricky's marriage to my sister Charlene had hardly been one to instill confidence in his regard for the sanctity of that institution, and ever since he and Rae had announced their engagement I'd had my fingers crossed against him doing something to shatter her happiness.
She sensed what I was thinking and made a hand motion to dismiss the idea. "Don't mind me. I'm grumpy today. The thing is, we'll be lucky if we're married by September."
"This new album of his is taking a long time to pull together. He and the band're down in Arizona at the studio this week, and their sessions haven't been going well. By the time he gets back, there won't be time to plan a May wedding—even a small one like we want."
"So you'll be a June bride instead."
She scowled. "No way! I refuse to become a stereotype at this point in life. And July is out—that's when I married my first husband. And August is when Ricky married your sister."
I shook my head at the complexities contemporary society breeds. Rae and Ricky had any number of anniversaries they didn't want to be reminded of, plus the difficulties of dealing diplomatically with Charlene, the six children he'd had with her, and her new husband. Of course, complexities are more easily surmounted when one, like Ricky, is reputed to have earned upwards of forty million dollars the previous year…
"You know," I said, "I may be sabotaging my own request, but why are you still working? You could be in Arizona with Ricky."
"Not while he's recording. Those sessions are too intense. And when he's in L.A. on his record company's business his time is taken up in meetings. The fact that he's gone so much is why I need to work. I'm not the sort of person who can do nothing."
"What about this book you're writing that you won't tell any of us about?"
"I've kind of put that on hold. It was supposed to be glitzy and sexy, but what there is of it's turned into… I don't know what. Till I do know, I can't work on it." She laughed, shaking her head ruefully. "Funny, back when I didn't have any money I used to dream about what I'd do if I was rich—mainly shop till I dropped. Then, when I got together with Ricky, I discovered I don't like to shop. I'd much rather order what I need from a catalog, and anyway, those old thrifty habits die hard."
"You could take up a hobby."
"Well, tennis or golf or—"
The look she gave me was one of pure astonishment.
"No, I guess not."
"Definitely not. So I work. Investigation is the only thing I've ever been good at, and when you put me in charge last winter I found I've got a real talent for management. I've got no problem with taking over the agency while you're gone. In fact, you may come home to a streamlined operation."
"Swimsuit. T-shirts. Shorts. Couple of dress-up outfits. Wonder if I should take my Magnum? Hassle, filling out the declaration forms for the airline—"
"Jesus, McCone, when did you start talking to yourself?"
I turned, saw Hy standing in the bedroom doorway, and felt a rush of pleasure. With this tall, lean, hawk-nosed man I shared a life, the cottage on the coast, a love of flying, and—upon occasion—certain risky ventures. He was loving, generous, sentimental, and strong. He could at times be enigmatic, mercurial, bullheaded, and downright dangerous. Right now he was just plain wet and weary.
"So how was your flight?" I asked.
He crossed the room and flopped down on the bed next to the clothes I'd piled there, running long fingers through touseled dark blond hair and smoothing his luxuriant mustache. "Grim. You're right about the Cessna—it's a piece of crap. Altimeter went out on me, magnetic compass was whirling around like a mouse in a Mixmaster, and coming into Oakland the radio started up like a banshee wail. So when did you start talking to yourself?"
"I always have, when I'm home alone and neither of the cats is around to talk at. Anyway, I'm glad you finally agree with me about the Cessna." Hy's old Citabria had been totaled a month before in an incident for which I still felt partially responsible. We'd been trying to replace it, but hadn't found a used plane we both liked.
"You know," he said, "after tonight I'm leaning more toward that Warrior we test-flew last weekend. I'd forgotten how much I like a low wing."
"Low wing's fine with me, but that Warrior's got its drawbacks." I sent a lacy bra sailing toward the pile on the bed.
He caught it, looked it over speculatively. "Pretty sexy. I thought this was supposed to be a working trip. What's wrong with the Warrior?"
"I don't like the rudders. And the interior's kind of grungy. There's no reason we can't work in a little romance over there."
"A little—or a lot—suits me fine. I know what you mean about the interior. It'd take over ten grand to bring it up to snuff. But what's wrong with the rudders?"
"Too stiff for my liking. Catch!"
"You are thinking of romance. Yeah, you do have to kind of animal the controls around. And it really could do with a prop overhaul, maybe a fire-wall forward treatment, too."
"So what're we looking at beyond the purchase price?"
"Thirty, forty grand. You know what, maybe we should be considering a new plane. When you factor in the expense of making a used one right, there's not a hell of a lot of difference."
"There's a difference. And new planes depreciate very rapidly. Should I take my gun along?"
"Nope. I checked with our Honolulu office, and it's okay for you to work under our umbrella, but they tell me carry permits there are as rare as hens' molars. If I registered the plane to RKI, they could insure it under the company policy and take the depreciation in exchange. That would defray some of the expense."
"So talk to your partners. The expression's 'hens' teeth.'"
"I could've sworn it was 'molars.' I'll do that when we get back."
"Good. And it is teeth."
"Guess you're right."
"I'm always right."
"'Most always. C'mere, McCone. Why wait for Hawaii for the romance?"
"So what this adds up to is that somebody's willing to go to extreme measures to stop you from making the film."
I was perched on the edge of the backseat of the old red Datsun, my elbows propped on the bucket seats that Glenna Stanleigh and Hy occupied. The car, on loan to her along with the house, wasn't air-conditioned, and moisture coated my body beneath the too-heavy jeans and tee that had seemed flimsy in San Francisco that morning. I slid my right hand off Hy's seat back and pulled the cotton fabric away from my torso, then lifted the hair off my damp neck.
"It would seem so." Glenna took her big, expressive gray eyes off the one-lane bridge we were crossing and glanced at me in the rearview mirror, her distress plain. Then she returned her gaze to the line of vehicles waiting at the other end, raising a hand in thanks when we passed.
We'd been driving north from Kauai's Lihue Airport for nearly forty-five minutes. Although I'd made many trips to Hawaii, I'd never before visited the Garden Island, the state's oldest and fourth largest in size, some seventy miles northwest of Honolulu. At first we'd passed resort complexes and shopping centers, new housing developments and cane fields. At Princeville, once a sugar plantation, an expensive-looking planned community spread for miles on the north shore; then the road narrowed and wound through hill and valley, forest and farmland, taking us back a century or more.
A river lay to our right now, placid and brown, with trees whose branches trailed in the water lining the opposite bank. To our left a flat plain spread toward distant cloud-shrouded peaks; dirt roads cut across it among wetlands and what I recognized as taro patches. Glenna braked abruptly to let across a pair of weather-beaten fishermen who had parked their equally weather-beaten sedan on the shoulder, and I nearly slid forward between the seats.
"Sorry about that," she muttered.
I pushed back onto the seat, anchoring my feet more securely on the floorboard. All around them was a litter of soda pop cans and crumpled take-out wrappers, and the seat on either side of me was piled with clothing, a still camera, notebooks, and clipboards. It reminded me of Glenna's office at Pier 24½. She could function in chaos that would sink the average person and, if anything, seemed proud of it.
"Okay, let's go over what you've told me." I held up my hand and began ticking items off as I spoke. "We've got a sound guy who broke his ankle when he fell into a leaf- and branch-covered hole that he swears wasn't there the day before. A tape recorder that disappeared from a room at the bed-and-breakfast where some of your crew are staying. A vandalized rental car. A hit-and-run accident involving one of the vans. And a stolen camera."
"An Arri SR3 that the rental house in Honolulu is going to charge me a bloody fortune for. We had to come up with a huge cash deposit before they'd let us have another."
"That camera wasn't yours?"
She shook her head, the ponytail into which she'd tied her long light brown curls brushing my forearm. "It's much cheaper to rent than to own. A package like the one we're using here—meaning the camera and various lenses—would be way out of my price range. I really feel bad about the first camera being stolen, since the owner of the rental house is an old school chum of Peter's."
"That's Peter Wellbright, your partner in the venture?"
"And the man whose father, Elson Wellbright, wrote the manuscript the film is based on."
There was an odd, guarded tone in Glenna's voice. I glanced at Hy; he shrugged and looked out the side window at a pair of kayakers on the river. Although he hadn't involved himself in the conversation—after all, as he would say, this was my case—I knew he was making careful mental notes.
"All right," I said, "I can see how what happened to your sound man might be taken as an attempt on his life. The accident with the van, too. But what about this idea that somebody's trying to kill you? Where did that come from?"
She slowed for a town that was coming up. "I suppose I might've been making too much of it."
"Let me be the judge of that."
We were passing small businesses, a mission-style church, a couple of shopping centers, a school. Hanalei, population around 500. Glenna seemed preoccupied with the traffic and pedestrians, even though there was very little compared to what we'd encountered near the airport and in the resort area at Kapaa. She waited till the road narrowed and the trees closed in over it before replying.
"Here's what happened. It was yesterday morning, around five. I've taken to rising early, walking along the beach to where it's blocked by an ancient lava fall. The path that takes you there winds through thick vegetation—ironwood and papaya trees, mostly. It looks wild, but the Wellbrights employ a staff of gardeners who keep the property in good shape. Yesterday…" At the first of two one-lane wooden bridges that formed a dogleg over another river, she slowed to let a pickup cross from the other side.
"Yesterday," she repeated as we began rumbling across, "I was walking along the path when I heard rustling and cracking in the underbrush. Thought little of it. The Wellbrights've got at least five dogs that have the run of the place. But next there was a sighing sound and—wham! A small papaya tree came down nearly on top of me. Just missed, but I got badly scratched up by the branches." She held up her arm, which was webbed with bloody lines.
I looked to my right, saw a sand beach and turquoise sea through wind-whipped trees. "Was it blowing this hard yesterday morning?"
"Not at all. It was still."
"So for the tree to fall—"
"Someone had to've pushed it. When Peter went to investigate, he found signs of digging around the roots."
"But you didn't see anybody?"
"Hear anything, other than the sound the tree made?"
"No." She hesitated. "D'you think I overreacted?"
"Not given the other incidents you've described."
"Thank God. For a while after you called back and said you and Hy would be coming, I was afraid I'd created a tempest in a teapot. It's just that this film is really important to me. The subject is legends and myths told from the viewpoint of a missionary descendant who deeply cared for the Hawaiian people and their heritage. This state is troubled both racially and politically; the Hawaiians feel they've gotten the short end of the stick, and they have. Peter and I hope that my interpretation of Elson Wellbright's work will give other groups more understanding and empathy."
- On Sale
- Mar 1, 2016
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing