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By Donn Cortez
Pocket StarCopyright © 2005 Donn Cortez
All right reserved.
Lightning flashed in the sky like paparazzi chasing angels; the detonation that followed an instant later sounded more like dynamite going off than thunder. A September storm in Miami, Horatio Caine thought as he pulled his Hummer over to the curb and parked, was more like an aerial assault than a natural phenomenon. It could explode overhead with a boom so intense it sometimes jolted tourists into an involuntary shriek in response.
Horatio's only reaction to the explosion was a slight narrowing of his eyes. Years of living here had acclimatized him...but he still preferred the quiet of the Miami-Dade crime lab. His time on the bomb squad had given him a somewhat negative perspective on sudden, loud noises.
He gloved up, translucent white of the latex incongruous against the sleeves of his Hugo Boss suit jacket; in Miami, a sense of style was almost as important as a grasp of the subtle and ever-shifting politics that went with being head of the CSI unit. Horatio usually wore a good suit -- no vest, no tie, shirt open at the collar -- that was stylish but informal; it helped him blend into the background of casual chic that had evolved in South Florida, where even a T-shirt could be considered high fashion if it had the right label. Appearance was a useful tool, and Horatio was willing to use whatever tools were available to get the job done.
He grabbed his CSI kit and got out, the afternoon air like the moist breath of a large animal after the AC of the Hummer. Coral Gables, once a suburb of Miami and now a city proper, was an affluent and distinctive place, home to over twenty consulates as well as a thriving theater and shopping district. West of Little Havana, the Gables was a designed city, planned in the twenties by an eccentric citrus millionaire named Merrick. Wide avenues, towering banyan trees and more Spanish architecture than a bullfighters hometown gave it a memorable look: red-tiled roofs, marble fountains and terra-cotta arches in every shade of pastel available.
A few warm, fat drops of rain spattered on the sidewalk as he walked toward a Mediterranean-style storefront cordoned off with yellow tape, an art gallery on one side and a women's boutique on the other. The neon above the door read, THE EARTHLY GARDEN, with a smaller sign beneath it proclaiming Vegetarian Cuisine. The uniformed officer stationed at the door recognized him and nodded as Horatio ducked under the tape and went inside.
Horatio stopped and looked around, taking in everything. The restaurant wasn't large, seating no more than fifty; decor was simple, consisting of a few watercolor paintings on whitewashed walls. Oval-shaped tables of blond wood that sat four, with a cut-glass light fixture suspended over each. Only one of the tables was occupied, and from their clothes Horatio guessed all four were employees. A tall, olive-skinned woman with curly black hair spilling down the back of her tailored gray suit stood next to them, but broke off her conversation when Horatio walked up. Detective Yelina Salas motioned Horatio toward the door to the kitchen with a nod and fell in step beside him.
"What have we got?" Horatio said.
"Vic's name is Phillip Mulrooney," Salas said. "He's a waiter here -- or was. Body's in the staff bathroom, back here."
She led him through a swinging door and past the stainless steel glint of the cooking area. The ghosts of garlic, ginger and curry hung in the air, cut with something sharper. Burnt plastic, and a touch of ozone.
The door to the bathroom was open. It was a small room, with barely enough space for a sink and a toilet. The victim was on his knees, slumped across the toilet bowl. His shirt, pants and socks were in tatters, one shoe in the far corner, the other in the sink. Horatio could smell burnt flesh now as well. Little bits of plastic and metal were scattered across the floor.
Eric Delko picked that moment to arrive, CSI kit in one gloved hand, camera around his neck. He was dressed in shorts, sneakers and a Miami Heat T-shirt. Probably out running when he got the call, Horatio thought.
"What's up, H?" he said.
"Just got here myself," Horatio said. He reached over carefully and picked up a mangled piece of plastic from the floor. "Looks like our vic had a cell phone in his hand. Not much left of it now."
"Think that's what killed him?" Delko asked. "Cell phone batteries sometimes overheat and explode."
"Especially third-world knockoffs sold at a fraction of the price. Like playing Russian roulette every time you make a call...but I don't think that's the COD. It wouldn't shred his clothes like this."
Delko picked the shoe out of the sink, studied it. "Laces are still tied."
"And the floor is wet." Horatio pointed out a trail of moisture that wound from the bathroom to a metal drain set in the kitchen floor a few feet away. "If he had a seven-iron in his hand this would be easy."
"Sure -- lightning strike," Delko agreed. "Voltage vaporizes the moisture between the skin and fabric, winds up blowing people right out of their clothing."
Horatio squatted down, took a closer look at the commode. "Stainless steel toilet."
"Industrial grade," Delko said. "See those more in high-traffic public restrooms -- airports or malls."
"Maybe the contractor got a deal," Horatio said. "Looks to me like the rest of the plumbing is polyvinyl chloride -- cheaper to install, and since it's in a staff-only area the owner doesn't have to worry about appearance. But not all the pipes are visible, are they?"
"So the bolt came through the plumbing, passed through the vic and the water on the floor and grounded out in the drain?"
"And caused his cell phone to explode on the way," Horatio said. "But the position of the body is unusual...let's take a look at the roof. We know where the lightning went -- let's see if we can pinpoint where it entered."
"I'm going to finish talking to the staff," Salas said.
The access hatch to the roof was at the back, at the top of a white-painted steel ladder bolted to the wall. Horatio studied the rungs. "Looks awfully clean, don't you think?" he asked. "No smudges, no dust, no grease."
"The rest of the kitchen's pretty clean. Maybe they wipe it down every day," Delko said.
Horatio pulled a nearby chair over and climbed up on it. He peered at the uppermost rungs. "All the way to the ceiling? That's above and beyond, even for a restaurant...." He grabbed a rung and climbed up the last few feet. The trapdoor had a simple latch and no lock; he opened it and stuck his head outside.
The roof was a flat, tar-and-gravel deck, with an air-conditioning stack on the north end. A short pipe stuck up a few yards away, approximately over where the bathroom was -- probably for venting built-up gas in the sewer lines.
Horatio examined the area around the trapdoor carefully, hoping the intermittent rain wouldn't turn into a sudden downpour, before climbing out on the roof. He made his way slowly toward the venting pipe, checking the surface of the rooftop as he went.
"Anything interesting?" Delko asked, peering out of the hatch.
"Several things," Horatio said. "First off, the most obvious electrical path would be down that venting pipe -- but like the rest of the plumbing, it's made of PVC."
"Maybe it hit the air-conditioning unit? Jumped from a vent to a pipe somewhere in the wall?"
"Possibly -- but listen." Horatio paused.
Delko cocked his head, then nodded. "Still running. No way the AC would be working if it had channeled a lightning strike."
"Right. Which means it entered through some other means. Either a means we haven't found...or a means which has since been removed."
"Lightning sometimes enters through a window or an electrical appliance," Delko pointed out.
"True, but it always follows the easiest route to ground...and I'm having a hard time imagining a route involving plumbing that seems to be mainly plastic." Horatio walked over to the air-conditioning stack and looked it over. "No obvious strike marks...hold on. Eric, get up here and take a look at this."
Delko clambered up through the hatch and joined him. Horatio hunkered down and touched a gloved finger to the blackened pattern on the gravel beside the AC unit. "Looks like a burn mark," he mused. "But a very oddly shaped one." The pattern was a jagged mass of angled lines, radiating from a central point.
Delko frowned. "Why would the lightning hit there? It doesn't make any sense."
"No, it doesn't...." Horatio reached down and picked up a small, triangular shard of material. He held it up and examined it; it was white on two sides, charred black on another. "Looks ceramic," Horatio noted. "The pattern suggests something circular that fractured -- maybe a plate?" Delko handed him an evidence envelope and he slipped it inside.
"Take a picture of this, will you?" Horatio scraped a small amount of material from the burn into another envelope. He held the envelope up to his nose and sniffed, then passed it to Delko. "Smell that?"
"Yeah. Definitely an accelerant, but there's something else there, too. Almost like cotton candy."
Horatio nodded. He could see from the thoughtful look on Delko's face that both of them also smelled something else.
"All right, let's process the kitchen," Horatio said. "Eric, you take the storage space, I'll start in the food prep areas."
They worked slowly and methodically. While Delko searched drawers, cupboards and shelves, Horatio sifted through bags of flour and cornmeal and lentils. They checked beneath and behind anything that could be moved, and inside anything that couldn't.
"Maybe we're looking too hard," Horatio murmured. "Maybe what we're after is in plain sight...."
He moved around the room, trying to get a feel for what was out of place. Pots, pans, cooking utensils. Plastic buckets, buspans. A sandwich bar with a cutting board and a row of plastic condiment containers. Each of the containers had its own wooden-handled knife sticking out of it, presumably so the mustard wouldn't contaminate the margarine and vice versa.
Except for one of them.
The container was full of a thick, dark liquid. He leaned over and sniffed: sweet and almost smoky. Black molasses. Now why would the rest have their own knives and not this one?
There was a buspan full of dirty dishes next to the dishwasher. Horatio had already gone through it, but now his memory tugged at him and he went back. In among the other dirty cutlery were two wooden-handled butter knives with blades coated in a thick, black goo.
Delko came over and joined him. "What do you have, H?"
"I'm not sure," Horatio answered. He carefully wiped a tiny amount off the tip of one blade. The metal underneath was scorched black. The other matched it.
"Possible conductor?" Delko asked.
"Maybe," Horatio said. "But why two of them? Eric, I want you to keep looking. Pay extra attention to the electrical outlets and appliances. I'm going to have a chat with the staff...."
Horatio Caine had a secret.
It wasn't of the deep, dark kind -- those that knew him well would claim it wasn't a secret at all. But many of the people he encountered in his job either wouldn't appreciate it or would find it inappropriate, so Horatio had learned to keep it concealed most of the time.
What Horatio had was a sense of humor.
It tended toward the dry and ironic (at least the parts of it he said out loud) but -- as all CSIs eventually found out -- it was impossible to do the work without one. Not that he found suffering funny, or even that he didn't empathize with those experiencing it -- some days, Horatio felt their pain so strongly it was all he could do to keep going -- but one of the most basic coping mechanisms humans had was turning pain into laughter, and you couldn't work around death as much as Horatio did without developing a sense of the absurd.
He kept it pretty much to himself, though, partly to set an example for his CSIs but mainly as a matter of respect. He dealt with people in pain every day, and whether they were victims or suspects, they all needed to take him seriously. So he allowed himself the occasional wry smile or comment, and left the jokes to the other members of his team. They needed the release more than he did.
That's what he told himself. Most days, he believed it.
Horatio glanced down at the notes Salas had made and back up again. He and Salas sat side by side at the employees' table, talking to them one by one while the others waited outside. The man sitting across from them was small and neat, wavy white hair combed back along a narrow skull. His hands were clasped in front of him, his fingernails trimmed. His apron was white and stain-free over a blue chambray shirt with the sleeves precisely rolled to just above the elbow. Albert Humboldt looked more like a waiter than a dishwasher.
Maybe he has aspirations, Horatio thought, though he doubted coveting the lofty position of waiter at a vegetarian restaurant was motive for murder. In any case, Humboldt had just told Horatio more or less the same thing the two waiters had, and he was getting tired of hearing it.
"Albert," Horatio said reasonably. "Let me get this straight. You're telling me that Mulrooney was executed -- "
"Not executed. Struck down," Humboldt said. His voice was as exact and prim as the rest of him; he reminded Horatio of a white rat that spent too much time grooming itself.
"Struck down, then. By -- "
He glanced over at Salas. Her eyebrows had been arched for so long he wondered if she was getting a cramp.
"All right. Leaving theological matters aside for a moment, let's go through the sequence of events again. You say you saw Mister Mulrooney go into the bathroom?"
Humboldt nodded. "Yes."
"Was he talking on his cell phone at the time?"
Humboldt hesitated. "Not that I noticed."
"Did you hear a cell phone ring or hear Mister Mulrooney talking to anyone while he was in the bathroom?"
"No. But the dishwasher makes enough noise that I might not have heard anything anyway."
"But you heard the thunderclap."
"Oh, yes. I'd been hearing thunder all day, but this was loud enough to rattle the windows. And it was a sort of double explosion, almost like an echo."
"Did you note the time?"
"Yes. It was two forty-five. I had just finished my own break."
Horatio leaned forward. "And you were the one that discovered the body."
Humboldt met his eyes and licked his lips nervously. "Yes. I knocked on the door when I noticed the smell -- I'm very sensitive to..." He swallowed. "I'm a vegan."
"Doesn't eat meat or consume animal products like eggs or milk," Salas said.
"And Mulrooney?" Horatio asked.
"He was vegan too," Humboldt said. "All of us are. It's part of the Vitality Method."
"New fitness craze," Salas said. "Giving the South Beach Diet some serious competition. Uses vitamins to replace what you lose when you stop being a carnivore."
"It's more than that," Humboldt said. "It's a whole philosophy -- it changed my life."
"It change Phil Mulrooney's life?" Horatio asked.
"The Vitality Method changes everybody's life. Doctor Sinhurma believes that inner beauty is brought out by nurturing our physical and spiritual selves."
"That's very commendable," Horatio said. "The other employees had varying theories on why Mulrooney was the victim of divine retribution...care to share yours?"
"He no longer believed in the rightness of Doctor Sinhurma's teachings," Humboldt said. "He'd lost his faith."
"And then his life," Horatio said. "Seems like an awfully big price to pay for breaking a diet."
Humboldt turned his hands palms up in a what-are-you-gonna-do gesture. "I don't claim to know the mind of God. What I do know is that Doctor Sinhurma is a very wise, insightful man, and when Phillip turned away from that wisdom he was killed by a bolt from the heavens."
"In a toilet," Salas said. "If God threw that thunderbolt, he has a nasty sense of humor."
"Or maybe," Horatio said, gazing at Humboldt mildly, "someone else has."
The last interviewee was Darcy Cheveau, the cook. He was well-built and swarthy, with dark curly hair cut short and a five-o'clock shadow that looked closer to midnight. He had a small, crescent-shaped scar just above his lip. He was the kind of person that exuded menace like an expensive cologne; you couldn't quite recognize what it was, but it got your attention.
"Mister Cheveau," Horatio said. "Where were you when the incident occurred?"
"You mean when Phil was fried?" Darcy said, flashing a grin. "Same place I was all day -- in the kitchen, crankin' out grub."
"You don't seem terribly upset by it," Salas said.
"Me and Phil weren't that close. It's like the Doc says -- everybody's karma gets 'em sooner or later."
"By 'the Doc' you mean Doctor Sinhurma?" Salas asked.
"Yeah. You on the Method, too?"
"Hardly," Salas said.
"So you think Mulrooney deserved what happened to him?" Horatio asked.
"Hey, I don't know -- that's between him and the universe, right? But getting zapped like that -- somebody up there didn't like him much."
"I'm more interested in the people down here who didn't like him," Horatio said. "Did you and Mister Mulrooney have any friction between you?"
"Nah, we just weren't buds," Cheveau said, shrugging. "Didn't know him that well, honestly. And it looks like that ain't gonna change anytime soon...."
Calleigh Duquesne, dressed in dark slacks and a white blouse, blond hair in a ponytail, arrived while Horatio was still interviewing the staff; she had a wide smile on her face and a Makita power saw in her hand. "All right, who ordered the blue plate special?"
Delko grinned and held up a gloved finger. "That would be me. Medium rare, please."
Calleigh sniffed the air delicately. "I would think 'well-done' would be more appropriate, don't you?"
"It was worse before they took the DB away," Delko said. "Lightning doesn't turn people into sooty silhouettes like in the cartoons, but the internal temperature of a bolt can be four times hotter than the surface of the sun; that's definitely enough to barbecue flesh."
"Where can I plug this in?"
"Anywhere but here," Delko said, brushing fingerprint powder onto an outlet over a counter. "I've checked the breakers, and this is the only outlet that the lightning affected."
"Was there anything plugged into it?" Calleigh asked. She crouched down, set the bright orange tool case on the floor and snapped open the latches.
"Nope. No prints, either -- but look at this." Delko pointed to a spot near the top of the outlet. "Looks like a pattern melted into the plastic."
She came over and studied it, holding the saw. "Hmm. Doesn't look like the outline of a plug. Maybe something resting against the outlet?"
Delko put down his dusting brush and picked up his camera. "Yeah, and I think I know what." He told her about the knives Horatio found. "I'm betting one of them was jammed between the wall and the plug," he said, snapping a picture of the pattern.
Horatio walked into the kitchen. "Calleigh, glad you're here. I need you to look behind the wall in the bathroom, see if you can trace the path the lightning took. Eric, you find anything else in the kitchen?"
Delko showed him the outlet. "Interesting," Horatio murmured. "You test all the appliances?"
"Every one. They're all working."
Horatio looked around the room, hands on hips. "Okay, this is a vegetarian restaurant in Miami. I would imagine that fresh fruit and vegetable juices feature prominently in their menu...so what am I not seeing?"
Delko glanced around. "No blender."
"Right. Check the Dumpster, see if we get lucky."
"I'm on it."
Calleigh slipped on a pair of safety goggles. "Okay if I start, H?"
"Go ahead. I'm going to make a call."
Horatio stepped back out into the main area of the restaurant; the employees had been told they could go home. He pulled out his cell phone and hit the first number on the speed dial: the Miami-Dade crime lab.
"Mister Wolfe? Horatio." He had to speak up over the ratcheting clatter of the saw. "I need you to find out everything you can about a Doctor Sinhurma and any possible connection to a restaurant called The Earthly Garden. That's right, the diet doctor...also, I need the cell phone records for a Phillip Mulrooney for the last twenty-four hours. Okay, thanks."
He snapped his phone shut and slipped it into his pocket. The sound of Calleigh's saw biting into plaster sounded like an angry animal; outside, the rain began pelting down in earnest.
Horatio Caine knew Miami. He knew her the way a sailor knows the sea, the way a man knows a temperamental lover; he couldn't tell you what she was going to do, but he could tell you what she was capable of. She was a city of extremes -- on the surface all neon dazzle, golden-brown skin against white sand, parrot-bright fashionistas slamming back Mohitos, hot bodies in hot clubs on hot tropical nights. The cutting edge of the East Coast, sharp as a Versace suit, quick as a supermodel on Rollerblades.
But underneath the glitter, darkness.
Horatio knew how short a trip it was from the warm glow of nightclub neon to the hard, fluorescent glare over the autopsy table. He knew that despite all the money flowing through, Miami-Dade remained one of the poorest counties in the country. He knew that hot weather led to hot blood, and a certain segment of the population thought "tourist season" referred to carjacking.
Horatio thought of Miami as a borderland, a place between. Some people found it hard to see, that line between the dark places and the light, but it was where Horatio lived. Not in some nebulous gray area, either; he had a foot planted firmly in both realms, and to him the demarcation was as clear as the difference between life and death. It was a line that ran through everything, and it was always there. Where other people saw sunlight, Horatio saw shadows.
His job was to take care of those who crossed that line. And they always cross it going the wrong way, Horatio thought as he entered the observation gallery. Too many of them end up down there.
He looked down at Doctor Alexx Woods and keyed open the mike. The Miami-Dade coroner's facility was also a teaching lab, with a number of high-resolution screens in the glassed-in area overlooking the autopsy room itself. Horatio sometimes monitored autopsies from there, not because of any sense of squeamishness but because the cameras in the room below could magnify any detail he wanted a better look at.
"Well, Alexx?" Horatio said. "What can you tell me about our vic?"
Alexx smiled up at Horatio, then down at the body on the table before her. "Poor boy suffered facial trauma and burns from the exploding cell phone, but that wasn't what killed him. COD was cardiopulmonary arrest, probably caused by lightning."
Horatio frowned. "Probably, Alexx?"
"Well, there's some contradictory indications. A lightning strike can be anywhere up to two billion volts, but since skin has a relatively high resistance the charge usually travels along the surface."
"Flashover," Horatio said.
"Yes. It's the reason why most people survive lightning strikes -- the bolt travels over the body instead of through it. Along the way it vaporizes any moisture present, causing distinctive linear or punctuate burns. You can see them here, under the arms, more down the inside of the thighs, on his feet and his forehead."
"Which is what shredded his clothes and blew off his shoes."
"There's also this." Alexx pointed to a feathery pattern on his chest. "It's called a Lichtenberg figure, sometimes shows up in lightning strike victims. Extravasated blood in the subcutaneous fat causes fern-shaped lesions on the skin. Nobody understands the exact pathogenesis, but it disappears from the body within twenty-four hours."
"So what doesn't add up, Alexx?"
"Patichiae in the eyelids and the visceral pleura." She pointed out the telltale red dots of tiny burst blood vessels in the whites of the body's eyes.
"Asphyxia? That is unusual."
"You see it sometimes in cases of low-voltage electrocution. If the current is above what's called the 'let-go' level -- about sixteen milliamps -- the victim's flexor and extensor muscles in his forearm contract. If the flexor is the stronger of the two, the hand spasms closed, sometimes preventing the victim from breaking the circuit. The current induces tetanic paralysis of the respiratory muscles, so he can't breathe -- if it goes on long enough, the victim suffocates."
Horatio leaned forward and studied the image on the monitor. "Sixteen milliamps. You can get that with house current...so if his heart hadn't stopped he would have died of respiratory failure?"
"Not from lightning. A thunderbolt's an extremely short event -- the whole thing's over in two hundred milliseconds or less, and peak current duration is maybe point one percent of that. In most cases of tetanic paralysis the lungs start functioning again as soon as the current's interrupted; it would have taken two or three minutes of continuous contact for him to asphyxiate. These hemorrhages aren't pronounced enough for that -- I'd say he was without oxygen for a minute, maybe less. I also found these." Alexx pointed out a series of small red dots on the upper thigh. "Needle marks."
"Odd place for tracks. Junkies usually go for an easily accessible vein."
"Well, these are intramuscular and at least a week old -- looks like whatever he was taking, he stopped taking it. If so, the tox screen probably won't tell us what he was on."
"No," Horatio said, "but it will tell us what he wasn't on...and that might be just as useful. How about stomach contents?"
"Results just came back. Partially digested chili, looks like."
"No -- definitely animal protein."
"So our boy was backsliding," Horatio mused. "Giving in to the temptations of the flesh...thanks, Alexx."
Alexx looked down at the body with the same tenderness she always showed to those under her care. "We all give in to weakness now and then," she said softly. "Nobody stays strong forever."
Copyright © 2006 by CBS Broadcasting Inc. and Alliance Atlantis
Excerpted from Cult Following by Donn Cortez Copyright © 2005 by Donn Cortez. Excerpted by permission.
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