Book Launch: Shattered Palms, Toby Neal’s sixth Lei Crime Novel, set in Hawai’i and featuring Detective Leilani Texeira
Detective Leilani Texeira wished she’d come to this enchanted place for some reason other than death. She picked her way down the steps of the raised jungle boardwalk, turning her head to look upward at the canopy of interlaced branches of native koa and ohia trees. Droplets of moisture and golden light fell around her on an understory of massed ferns. She’d heard of the native forest sanctuary accessible from atop Haleakala volcano but had never taken the time to visit. Now she wished she could linger and take in the multitextured beauty of the place instead of hurrying on with their grim errand.
“So many shades of green,” Lei murmured, ducking under a lichen-covered branch crossing the walkway. Her curly brown hair caught on it anyway, and she gave it an impatient tug. The ranger who’d found the body, a wiry older Japanese man with the weathered skin of someone who’d lived his life outdoors, glanced back over his shoulder.
“This is what we call a cloud forest, not a rainforest, because it’s mostly watered by mist. All the plants you’ve seen since the helicopter landing area are native Hawaiian species. We’ve worked hard to keep the invasives out of this area.”
“Invasives?” A solitude pierced only by unfamiliar, sweet birdsong brought Lei’s heart rate down after the lurching helicopter ride to the remote area.
“Introduced plant species. There are thousands, and they are smothering the native plants and taking away feeding from the indigenous birds. The biggest enemies of this forest are pigs, axis deer, and goats, and the reason this area is so pristine is that we’ve fenced the entire top of Haleakala to keep them out.”
“Interesting.” Lei glanced back at her partner, Pono, following her, another ranger bringing up the rear.
“I do my part as a hunter.” Pono’s smile turned up his mouth behind a trademark bristly mustache. “Plenny game up here, and they’re all good eating.”
“Well, I don’t know what all this has to do with the body you found.” Lei wove her way around a giant curling fern frond bisecting the path, her athletic body moving easily even with the elevation.
“I didn’t touch the body, of course, but I think he looks like some kind of hunter,” Ranger Takama said. “He’s in camo gear. I’m no expert, but even I could see what killed him was an arrow, so it was probably a hunter up here that shot him by mistake. If it weren’t for the smell, we wouldn’t have found him at all.”
That smell had been steadily increasing, a sweetish reek that clung to the inside of Lei’s throat like mucus.
“We leave the boardwalk here.” Takama gestured and stepped down off the boardwalk. Lei jumped down beside him into thick underbrush made up of ferns and bushes. “Normally, no one but authorized personnel are allowed off the path.”
The smell of decomp almost made Lei’s eyes water. She dug a vial of Vicks out of her pocket and rubbed some under her nose, turning to hand it to Pono, who’d joined her beside the boardwalk. Takama also helped himself, and they followed him, feet sinking into the deep, soft leaf mulch on the forest floor.
Crime scene tape already marked the area around the body. A first responding officer jumped to his feet, holding the scene log on a clipboard.
“Good morning, sir.” The young man spoke in the nasal voice of someone whose nose is blocked. Lei spotted white cotton sprouting from his nostrils.
“Hey. Nice up here if it weren’t for the smell.” She took the clipboard, and each of them signed in.
Passing the tape, Lei spotted the hand first, extended toward them from beneath the ferns, palm up. The tissue was swollen and discolored, masked in a filmy gray gauze of mold that seemed to be drawing the body down into the forest floor. Lei could imagine that in just a few weeks, the body would have been all but gone in the biology of the cloud forest.
The victim lay on his stomach, his head turned away and facing into a fern clump, black hair already looking like just another lichen growing on the forest floor. The body was at the expansion phase, distending camouflage-patterned clothing as if inflated. A black fiberglass arrow fletched in plastic protruded from the man’s back.
Lei and Pono stayed well back from the body. Lei unpacked the police department’s camera from her backpack, and Pono took out his crime kit. The modest quarter-karat engagement ring on her finger caught a stray sunbeam and reminded her of her upcoming wedding, with all of its accompanying stress. She pushed the thought out of her mind with an effort—she had a job to do.
After living in “exile” for her education, Toby Neal returned to her native Hawai’i. In between her job as a mental health therapist, she writes and publishes the bestselling LeiCrime Series and other fine books.
The sixth in the series, Shattered Palms, is available on Amazon.
And follow her on Twitter @Tobywneal.