Lieutenant Horatio Caine of the Miami-Dade Crime Lab is called in to investigate a mysterious death at an organic eatery. He finds the victim, waiter Phillip Mulrooney, bent over a stainless steel toilet, his clothing shredded. There are burn marks on his face and cell phone fragments scattered around, and his shoes are blown off his feet. Incredible as it seems, the initial evidence points to death by lightning strike.
The staff at The Earthly Garden believe Mulrooney's death is an act of God -- punishment for straying from the Vitality Method, their spiritual philosophy that inner beauty can be revealed by nurturing the physical and spiritual.
The only philosophy Lieutenant Horatio Caine believes in is justice for the victim -- and he'll move heaven and earth to get it.
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Donn Cortez is the pseudonym for Don DeBrandt, who has authored several novels. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights 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 o...
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