Natural Predator

an excerpt



1 - Lagoon Drive


"I know I'm not supposed to feel this way, Kimo," Mike said. "But I can't help it if I do."

We were going around in circles, talking about having a child enter our lives. Neither of us knew what the right answer to the question was, but we both had our own ideas.

"I just don't understand why you feel the way you do," I said.

"Do the math. I'm an only child. I have a couple of cousins on my mom's side back in Korea. Because the only Korean I know is hello, how are you, and where's the bathroom, and they speak about that much English, I can barely talk to them."

Mike fits the cliché of tall, dark and handsome--he's six-four, with the best features of his Korean mother and his Italian-American father. His black hair is thick, with a stray curl that dangles over his forehead. He got up from the sofa and started pacing. That's never a good sign.

"All I've got on my dad's side is my cousin Daniela and her family back on Long Island. We're Facebook friends and she shares pictures of her kids. But that's not exactly a close connection."

He stopped pacing and looked at me. "After my parents go, all I'll have is you."

"And I don't understand why that's not enough."

I could see the pain in his eyes.

"Because of what we do. The risks we take. Suppose something happens to you. I'll be all alone."

Mike was a fire investigator, and I was a homicide detective. He walked into burning buildings, and I chased bad guys with knives and guns. The danger inherent in our jobs was a big reason why I was reluctant to commit to fatherhood.

I motioned him back to the sofa next to me. "Come over here. Sit."

He sat, and I put my arm around his shoulders and he leaned against me. "In the first place, if anything happens to me you have my family. My brothers, my nieces and nephews. They're your ohana now, too. They'll look after you."

The technical definition of ohana is family, but to Hawaiians it means much more--a sense of community, of mutual caring and responsibility. When my family brought Mike into our ohana it was more than just accepting our relationship; he became as good as a son to my parents, as good as a brother to mine.

"It's not the same as having a kid of our own."

We had been talking about the issue for a week by then, after our friend Sandra Guarino, a lesbian attorney in a long-term partnership, asked if we would consider helping her get pregnant.

"No, it's not. But even if one or both of us donated sperm, and Sandra delivered a baby, there's no knowing whether that kid would be there to love you and take care of you in your old age. And expecting that is a lousy reason to bring a kid into the world."

Which brought us right back where we started. Mike wanted a child and I didn't. That was the bottom line. So far neither of us had been able to change the other's mind.

I wasn't opposed to children. I love my nieces and nephews. But becoming a dad was a huge step, even if Sandra and her partner Cathy were willing to take on the full responsibility for raising the child.

Sandra had mentioned the possibility of one or both of us donating sperm nearly a year before, but she wasn't ready to get pregnant. Things had come to a head about six months before, when Sandra and Cathy invited us to dinner at their house.

They had moved out of their condo in Waikiki to a house a few blocks up Aiea Heights Drive from ours. It was nice having them close, even if we didn't make a baby together; my best friend, Harry Ho, and his wife and family lived in the neighborhood, too.

Sandra not only practiced law for one of the island's most prominent firms, she donated her time to a dozen LGBT causes, including the Hawai'i Gay Marriage Project, which was still struggling to legalize marriage for us. Cathy was a delicate half-Japanese woman who ran the gay teen center in Waikiki. She was the more maternal of the two, but some medical problem kept her from having children.

We moved out to the lanai after dinner. Cathy brought coffee and chocolate cake out for us, and Mike and I sat back in comfortable chairs looking at the dark, wooded slopes of Keaiwa Heiau State Park. "We're getting ready to move forward," Sandra said. "With having a baby."

"Oh," I said.

"We've decided to harvest Cathy's eggs and have them implanted in my womb," Sandra said. "I'll carry the baby, then Cathy's going to quit her job and stay home with him or her."

I looked over at Mike. He was paying close attention to everything Sandra said.

"We have a lot of options for sperm donation," Sandra continued, "but you guys are our first choice. Our doctor can take sperm from either one of you or both of you, if that's what you want."

Cathy leaned forward. "It's called using a directed donor. There are lots of hoops to jump through--the donors have to be tested for all kinds of disease, and the sperm has to be frozen for six months before it can be used. And there's no guarantee that it will even be usable after the freezing process."

"We'll pay all the expenses of the procedures," Sandra continued. "I'll draw up a document outlining the rights and responsibilities of all parties. Cathy will adopt the baby and we'll be his or her legal parents. But we'd like a father to be part of the situation, and we can work out all the details of visitation and so on."

"It's a lot to take in," I said.

"We think you're both smart and strong and handsome, and either of you would make a great sperm donor, assuming you pass all the tests," Cathy said. "And both of you would be great dads."

"How soon do you need an answer?" Mike asked.

"We recognize we're asking for a lifetime commitment," Cathy said. "And you shouldn't take that lightly. What we were thinking was..."

Sandra stepped in to get pragmatic. "Here's the deal. Let's say you take a couple of months to think about it, and then neither of you pass the health test. We've lost that time. Or say you pass the test, and you donate, but then six months later the sperm can't be used. Or by that time you change your minds. It's a cliché, I know, but I have a biological clock, and the sooner I have this baby the better its chances are for a healthy, safe birth."

"This isn't exactly news, Kimo," Mike said, turning to me. "We talked about this last year."

I nodded. "Give us a couple of days," I said. "Then we'll get back to you."

Mike and I talked about it in the car on the way home. The next morning we continued to talk before work, and that evening over dinner. "I want to start the ball rolling," Mike finally said. "Get tested and see if we pass. At least that much. It's not fair to Cathy and Sandra to keep them hanging if there's something that prevents us from being donors."

"What if one of us passes and the other doesn't?" I asked.

He shrugged. "We'll figure that out if and when it happens."

I wasn't thrilled, but it was clearly something Mike wanted to do, so I went along. He scheduled us for testing at the clinic, and then a week later we had the results. We were both good to go.

Before we called Sandra and Cathy to give them the news, we sat in our living room with Roby, our golden retriever, sprawled at our feet. "What do you want to do?" I asked.

"I want to donate. Let them put the sperm on ice for six months, and during that time we can decide if we want them to use it."

"What if the six months passes, and we decide the answer's no?" I asked. "Wouldn't that be worse than just stalling until we're sure?"

"You heard Sandra. Her clock is ticking."

"Yeah, but it's not all about her. It's about you and me, too. Do we want to be fathers?"

"I do," Mike said.

I looked at him. We had been through a lot together--falling in love, a tortured breakup, getting back together and learning to trust one another. Pile on coming out issues, alcohol problems, sex addiction, family drama and the stress of two demanding jobs. I knew that I loved Mike, and that he loved me, and that between us we could get through anything life threw at us--even dirty diapers and rebellious teenagers.

"Then I do, too," I said.

We called Sandra and Cathy and gave them the news. "But we're taking this one step at a time, right?" I asked. "No commitments until the final squirt of the turkey baster?"

Mike elbowed me. "We've been talking, too," Sandra said. "You're our only choice for directed donors. If you say no today, or in six months, we'll make a withdrawal from the sperm bank. So all we're doing is waiting out the quarantine period, and that gives us some time to think, too."

For the first few days after the donation, I was very aware of the days ticking away. But then life got in the way, and the deadline slipped to the back of my mind. I knew that we'd have to make a decision in March, but back then it seemed far away. By the time of the warehouse fire, I'd almost forgotten that the clock had almost run out.

I was awake first that morning, taking Roby out for his opportunity to sniff the messages left for him by other dogs and respond to them. As I got back to the house, I heard my cell phone ring, almost simultaneously with Mike's.

My best friend since childhood, Harry Ho, is a computer geek, and he taught both of us how to customize our ringtones. The one I'd chosen for the police dispatcher was a snippet of the theme song for Hawaii Five-O--the original series. Mike was the only fire department investigator for his district, so he was always on call, and the tone he had chosen for fire department dispatch was a piece of the class Doors song Light My Fire. When I heard both phones ringing in tandem, I knew we were in for trouble.

Mike and I both scrambled for our phones. Roby and his leash got tangled between us as we both spoke to our respective departments, reaching for pen and paper to write down what we needed to know. We finished at about the same time.

"Warehouse fire, right?" I asked him.

"Off of Lagoon Drive near the airport?"

I nodded. "I'll feed Roby while you take a shower. Ray and I can't do anything until your guys clear the scene anyway."

Ray Donne was my detective partner. While I poured dry food in a bowl for Roby and topped it with a dollop of canned pumpkin, to keep him regular, I dialed Ray's cell.

He answered groggily.

"Let me guess," I said. "Vinnie kept you up all night."

"You must be a detective," he said. His wife Julie had given birth to a son six months before, and little Vinnie still wasn't sleeping through the night. "You know anything more than I do about this body in the warehouse?"

"Nope. Mike and I both got called at the same time. You want to meet out there in about an hour? They should be finished with the overhaul by then."

"I love it when you throw those fire terms around. Since Julie and I only talk about formula, diapers and baby poop these days, remind me what that is."

"Once they think the fire's out, they send some guys in to search for any remaining cinders, anything that could catch again. Mike supervises that; if they don't do it right, they could remove evidence he needs."

Mike left the house a few minutes later. I ate my breakfast, brushed Roby's teeth and refilled his water bowl. After a quick shower I was on my way down to Lagoon Drive, a long curving street between the airport and Ke'ehi Lagoon.

It was a cool, breezy morning in early March, and I rolled up the flaps on my Jeep for the drive down to the airport. Despite its name, which implied an unspoiled tropical atoll, Lagoon Drive was littered with abandoned warehouses, used car operations and small import-export businesses. A dozen sharp-edged wind turbines roosted along the roof line of a building at the far end of the drive like hungry vultures.

A herd of fire department vehicles clustered ahead of me--three fire engines, a ladder truck, and a couple of SUVs driven by higher brass. The strobing lights were enough to give you an epileptic fit. There were two squad cars as well, the officers directing traffic and securing the area.

I parked my Jeep beside a barbed-wire fence as a plane took off from the reef runway, shaking the air. The ground was barren and sandy; even weeds seemed to have a hard time living in the desolate landscape. And yet, in the other direction I could see a vast expanse of shimmering water and the dark green sentinel of Diamond Head in the distance.

I saw Mike in his yellow fire suit and waved at him. He walked over, shrugging off the oilskin hood. "Two story wood-frame building," he said. "Went up like kindling, especially after the run of dry weather we've had lately."

"Arson?"

"Too early to tell. No obvious incendiary devices. I'll have to analyze the fire load and the spread pattern before I can make a determination. But you know that already."

"It's always nice to hear you explain it one more time. How about the body?"

"How about it?"

"You know what I mean."

"First responders saw a body of an older male on the floor of the building when they entered. He burned to a crisp before they could extinguish the flames, though. I don't know how much you'll get out of the ME."

"What a great start to the morning. Neither of us have much to work with."

"I've got to get back inside. I'll talk to you later."

He turned and walked back toward what remained of the building. The air was heavy with ash, smoke and the distinctive smell of charred human flesh. I pulled out my digital camera and started taking pictures while I waited for Ray to show up.

A couple of abandoned warehouses, wood-framed with sheet metal exteriors, sat in the area around the burned building. One brick warehouse still held the original owner's name and the date 1884 engraved over the lintel, though all its windows were boarded up.

A steady stream of cars passed, going to the few remaining open businesses. Ray pulled up as I was finishing a series of shots, and I related what Mike had told me.

Ray is thirty-four, two years younger than I am, and at five-ten, three inches shorter. His hair is a sandy brown while mine is black, and he's one hundred percent Italian, while my ethnic background is a mix of native Hawaiian, Japanese and haole, or white. But even with all those differences, sometimes I felt like he was my brother from another mother. We got each other, and we worked well as a team.

I had a tendency to bull forward when I had an idea or a goal, with a single-minded focus. I was willing to skirt around procedures if I thought the end justified the means.

Ray was patient, mindful of the rules, better able sometimes to see the bigger picture. We argued and sniped at each other, but we also joked around and supported each other through whatever came our way.

The ME's team arrived to take away what remained of the body, collecting bones and shreds of fabric. Ray and I stood nearby, our upper lips coated with VapoRub to dampen the smell. One of the techs held up a piece of metal that looked like some kind of futuristic ray gun--a round ball attached to a curved shaft pierced with holes.

"You may be in luck," he said. "You know what this is?" We both shook our heads. "Looks to me like an artificial hip. See this ball here? That's the joint. The serial number has been damaged in the fire, but I'll bet with some advanced imaging you could get enough out of it to initiate a trace."

Every device implanted into our bodies, like artificial joints, pacemakers and so on, has a serial number, which can be traced to the manufacturer, the doctor who implanted the device, the hospital where it was done, down to the person who received it. If we found a body without any identification and had no missing persons reports to match it to, we could use the appliance to identify the victim.

After the ME's team left, I called dispatch and discovered that the fire had been reported by a pilot on an early morning flight into Honolulu International Airport. So there wasn't some hapless 911 caller to interview.

The smell started to get to us, so Ray and I began canvassing the few businesses in the area. Everyone we spoke to said that they had arrived to work after seven a.m., when the fire department was already on the scene. We ended up back at the fire, as the last engine pulled away. The SUVs and the ladder company were gone, but Mike's truck was still there, as well as a single squad car. The site had been blocked off with crime scene tape.

I pulled up next to Ray. "I'll talk to Mike. Why don't you go back to headquarters and see what you can dig up about the building?"

"Will do." He drove away, and I walked over to where Mike was speaking with the uniformed officer.

"Learn anything more that could be useful?" I asked Mike, as the uniform walked back to his squad car. He'd be stationed there to watch the site for the rest of his shift, and we'd have to keep coverage at least until we were sure we had retrieved all the available evidence.

Mike looked at his notes. "Found a couple of cigarette butts near the where the victim was. He could have been smoking, and accidentally set the fire."

"What was the fuel?"

Living with Mike, and working cases with him, I'd learned a lot about fire. You need three elements to start a fire--oxygen, heat, and fuel. It was called the fire triangle. There would have been a lot of oxygen inside the big building, and the heat could have come from a cigarette, a match or a lighter.

"Looks like there were boxes of paper files stored inside. Once the fire caught them, the whole place went up fast." Mike's first and primary job was to determine the origin of the fire, which he'd do by tracing patterns made by the flames moving away from the site of ignition. "It looks like as soon as some of those boxes caught, the fire climbed upward to the roof, then spread down the walls."

He promised to call if he found anything interesting, and we kissed goodbye.

Even a year before, that kind of public display of affection would have freaked Mike out. He still felt that his sexual orientation was his own business, not something to parade about, but he'd gotten more comfortable in his own skin the longer he'd been out of the closet.

I took one last walk around the property, hoping for inspiration from the victim's restless spirit. I got nothing, though. The ground was damp and the air stunk of ash and burned flesh. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement.

I looked more closely in that direction, toward a row of warehouses, with the old brick one on the end. Nothing.

But I kept staring, and a moment later I saw movement again--a young man with dark hair in a ponytail, wearing a yellow T-shirt and blue nylon shorts. He looked familiar and I started toward him.

He was walking quickly, darting around the warehouses, and I sped up. I saw him again, in profile, and this time I was sure I knew him. "Dakota!" I called. "Hold on. I want to talk to you."

Dakota was a mainland transplant, a haole kid from somewhere in the flyover states who had moved to Hawai'i with his mother a year before, and started coming to the gay teen youth group I mentored at a church in Waikiki. I had no idea what he was doing in this deserted area so early in the morning, but I wanted to find out.

Dakota picked up his pace, and I ran after him. But he had nearly twenty years on me, a head start, and what appeared to be an intimate knowledge of the warehouse area. I lost sight of him after a few hundred yards. I pulled up, my heart racing, and called one last time. "I just want to talk, Dakota," I called.

A jet took off from Honolulu International and the noise was so loud I couldn't even hear my own footsteps as I walked back to my Jeep. What was he doing out there? Did he have some connection to the warehouse fire, and the death of the artificial hip's owner?

I went over the possibilities as I drove slowly around the warehouse neighborhood, hoping to spot Dakota again. Suppose the victim was a pedophile who had met Dakota for sex out there? The kids from my group were a mixed bag. The lucky few were still living at home, with parents who understood and supported them. Others hid their sexuality from families they knew would disapprove, or who would withdraw financial support.

Still others had run away from home, living on the street or crashing with friends when they could. A few turned tricks for cash. I tried to be whatever they needed--talking to them about safe sex and condom use, about self-defense and emotional empowerment. Our sessions were a free-form mix of basic martial arts, lecture, question and answer, and just talking.

I circled around three times without seeing Dakota. But I couldn't shake the fear that somehow he had been involved in the arson and the death, and that worried me even more than a case normally did.