Jeff T. Jefferson Parker

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Laguna Heat

A perfect morning in a city of perfect mornings, an artist would have worked, a god would have rested.

The convertible slowed as it approached the stables, then bounced from the road onto a gravel driveway. Its headlights swung left-to-right, acute angles filling with dust, while gravel popped under the tires like grease in a skillet.

The driver, by nature an early riser, had not been fully awake until moments before when a fawn wandered onto the road ahead of him. He had jerked the wheel and watched in panic as the animal froze, stiffened on bony legs, and turned its wide black eyes to the headlights. The hood of the car flashed by and blotted the fawn from sight, but no impact. In the rearview mirror the driver watched it flicker into the scrub oak near the road, legs, ears, a tail. A thirsty search in a parched summer, he thought. If adrenaline were coffee, he just got a potful. His name was Tom Shephard, his rank was detective, and he was the new and sole member of the Laguna Beach Police Homicide Division.

Shephard followed the wide driveway past a corral, turning off the headlights and engine when three figures coalesced before him in the grainy, salt-and-pepper light of morning. To the east an orange glow preceded the sun, to the west the black sky was already softening to gray. It would be a while before the sun mounted the highest hill and announced itself to the city, nestled and still sleeping against the Pacific.

He pulled the Mustang under a stand of eucalyptus. The scrubbed, high-pitched aroma of the trees engulfed him as he stepped out and shut the door, his legs still shaky from the near crash with the fawn. A comet-shaped leaf spiraled into his trunk as he searched for his flashlight, which he located in a box of rags and car wax. He tested it, pleased that the batteries were still strong. When he closed the trunk a mockingbird began its morning chatter, which followed him up the driveway to the three figures that stood, heads bowed, flashlights aimed in front of them.

On the ground was a hump, and over the hump was a blanket. Shephard recognized his fellow police by their outlines: to the right protruded the telltale belly of Sergeant Grimes; to the left slouched the almost shoulderless frame of Carl Pavlik, the crime scene investigator; between them, her stocky curves undaunted by patrol garb, stood Lydia Worth, farthest from the blanket and first to speak.

"I found him here in the driveway when I turned out to head back to town," she said. "The door of the house was open." She raised her flashlight beam, which crossed weakly to the house and shivered around the open door. "I don't know if it's Tim or not. But this is his house and stable."

Shephard knelt down and turned back the blanket. He had seen the mask of death in so many expressions, so many forms. A hundred faces, a hundred deaths, a hundred chances to ready one's self for the next. But even a thousand wouldn't have prepared him for this. His knees weakened as he dropped the blanket and stood up.

"What d'ya think of that, Wonderboy? Your first murder in Laguna. Style, drama, the creeps. We didn't want you coming down from L.A. and thinking this was just a quiet little town." Grimes flashed his light onto Shephard's face. Shephard took it, turned it off, and handed it back.

"Lydia, is this where you usually make your turnaround?" Shephard's voice sounded foreign and disembodied, even to himself.

"Not until last week. I saw Tim downtown and he asked me to make a pass once a night. Before that I was using the road half a mile back." Even with the burnishing tones of sunrise playing against one side of her face, Shephard could see that Lydia Worth looked pale, stricken.

"Why the pass?" he asked. The headlights would strafe the house and the car could spook the horses. Horses, he thought. He hadn't seen any. For a moment he gazed at the skeleton of the empty corral.

"He was worried about prowlers."

"Rope off the driveway where it meets the road, please. Both places. Grimes, help her." Shephard's voice took a decided pleasure in the order to Grimes, who didn't budge.

"Think your big-city smarts can cut this one, Shephard?"

"With people like you helping, we can't lose, Jerry."

Grimes disgorged a grunt, which was immediately drowned by a phlegmy smoker's cough. Shephard offered him a cigarette but Grimes aimed his stomach toward the road and spit.

"People like me don't shoot kids," he said.

Shephard absorbed the insult without comment. He looked down to the blanket and lit the cigarette, believing that smoke might keep away the germs of death, just as it keeps away plague or mosquitoes. At any rate it was a conscience-easer, and better than no breakfast at all. The smoke rushed to his head and mixed with the smell of eucalyptus, which made it almost pleasurable. Beside him, the crime scene investigator unwrapped a piece of purple aromatic gum and placed it in his mouth. Grape, a Pavlik staple. He pocketed the paper neatly.

"Carl, buddy. Happy August twenty-fifth," Shephard said.

"Morning, Tom. Yesterday my horoscope said question marks are on the horizon. Look at all of them." Pavlik pushed back his glasses with a thin finger. He was a slight man with straight black hair and the perpetual look of someone who has just got out of bed. Only his eyes were free of the general sense of dilapidation; they studied Shephard's face, then returned to the ground in front of them.

"Let's see what we can answer." Shephard pulled back the blanket and looked again at the black and blistered face, scorched hairless and still oozing fluid, cheeks and throat distended like a bullfrog in mid-croak. Protruding from the forehead was a blackened rock. Then he noticed the odor, localized but distinct. Burned flesh, he thought, sweet and repellent. He pulled away the blanket. The body was an obscene extension of the face: chest a swollen quilt of blisters, stomach and genitals overrun with blebs, legs and arms an edematous outbreak. The only evidence of clothing lay in the burnt fray of material around the body perimeter and the twisted leather belt still fastened at the waist. The buckle, large and ovaloid, had sunk into the flesh. Only the bottoms of his bare feet had been spared.

Shephard realized that he was scarcely breathing. He stood up, exhaled, took another drag on the cigarette. Slanting vertigo, a queasy slosh in the stomach. He watched Lydia Worth drag a pylon from the trunk of her patrol car while Grimes waited. "Shoot it, Carlos," he said.

Pavlik already had the camera out. He fastened the strobe, set the meters, and began. The strobe blinked efficiently, the body seeming to shift positions between each shot. Shephard turned away and looked up at the sun, now bisected by the hill in front of it. He noted that the mockingbird was still singing happily, immune to what was revealed below. Pavlik ran through the roll of thirty-six almost without stopping. Shephard waved the camera away and bent back down.

He worked carefully but quickly, tilting back the head, prying open the mouth and easing two fingers inside. Out came a wad of dry paper, green and white. Then another, and another. Six in all, with more beyond reach in the throat. Pavlik held out a plastic bag and Shephard dropped them in, saving the last. The wad was the size of a golf ball but much lighter. He stood up and unraveled it beneath the intent, bespectacled stare of Pavlik.

Bills. Two hundreds, two fifties, two twenties.

"Three hundred and forty dollars," said Pavlik, a detail man. Shephard worked his fingers across the bills, locating in his flashlight beam the red and blue hairs, then dropped them into the bag. The crime scene investigator snapped it closed, as if the money might attempt an escape. Shephard looked down again.

Mouth agape, rock protruding from the forehead like a rapacious tumor, the face defied long observation. Shephard looked instead at his watch. A mile to the west he heard waves breaking on Main Beach, or perhaps the swooshing of cars on Coast Highway. The early morning air tasted good. The man was sprawled, legs and arms out, as if he had been dropped from above. Shephard followed an imaginary line from the sky to the body, his eyes at first refreshed by the slate gray clouds, then accosted again by the ugliness on the earth in front of him. The left hand lay open and relaxed, the right was clenched tightly, even in death. Shephard coaxed open the fist as Pavlik slid a sheet of clean white paper underneath. From the still-white palm tumbled a meager handful of hair, which Pavlik immediately bagged.

"Nice," he said.

"Stupendous," Shephard agreed, unfolding the blanket to cover the body. Pavlik reached out and claimed a burnt match from the ground not far from the dead man's head.

For a brief moment, the two men lost themselves in the search for more matches, a welcome relief from the close-up study of the dead. Finding none, they rose without speaking and followed the footprints toward the house. The prints were deeper and more clearly marked in the soft clay near the porch. Bending down with his flashlight, Shephard saw that one set had been made by bare feet and began not far from the porch steps—the distance of a running jump, he guessed—and continued in a staggering, disordered pattern. They ended at the body. Another set bore the signs of cowboy boots, deep heel, wide ball, and scant toe. The right heel was cloven sharply by a V-shaped divot in the back. These followed the bare feet halfway to the body, then veered into the gravel and reappeared in the soil, facing—not pursuing—the dead man's. Shephard noted other tracks, older and trampled over by the boots and naked feet.

"Shoot the fresh prints, Carl. Then rope them off. Get a good close-up of the right boot."

"Why did he run all the way around to get Tim from the front?" Pavlik asked gloomily.

He was right, Shephard thought. Tim, if it was Tim, had apparently run into, rather than away from, the person who had killed him. Unless the poor wretch had run all the way from the porch with a rock dividing his head. "It must have been easy," he said, pointing to the chaotic pattern of the dead man's prints. "He wasn't breaking any speed records."

Shephard went through the open front door and into a well-ordered, cowboyish living room. The lights were on. A pair of Winchester lever-action rifles were crisscrossed over a brick fireplace, a Navajo rug lay centered on the wooden floor, the window curtains were plaid, the coffee table solid oak. One wood-paneled wall was generously graced with photographs and paintings of horses. The other was covered in shelves for books, plants, a small television set. A tall but neat stack of Racing Form newspapers rose not far from the fireplace. More lay scattered on the coffee table in front of the leather couch. Shephard checked the dates: July 21 and 28, August 4 and 11. Horse man, horse race fan, he thought. Why the empty corral?

Also on the table were two shot glasses and a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. Leaning forward, he noted that both glasses smelled of alcohol. Lights on and drinks poured. An early morning drink with a friend?

Open and face down on the floor near the coffee table lay a Bible. Shephard lifted it with his fingertips and set it down on the couch. The book was worn but serviceable, the gold letters of Holy Bible worn away from the leather cover, the binding battered but the pages intact. The first page offered a fancy filigreed frame and the words "Presented To," followed by three blank lines. The smeared black ink of a sloppily imprinted stamp read:

THI      BIB     PRO       OF
FO     TAT     I    N

The title page that came next had a colorplate called "Jesus and the Children." Printed in bright red ink under the words Holy Bible was a concise and neatly lettered message:

         Liars Burn and Little Liars
         Burn First

Shephard felt a faint, sideways flutter in his chest as he read the note again. Then the room darkened.

Pavlik stood in the doorway, his rumpled form outlined in fresh sunlight, the ever-present forensic case dangling from one hand. He set it down with a thud on the hardwood floor. "Robbins's people will be here in twenty minutes to get the body. Want to help me dust?"

"Do what you do best, Carl. I'm going to have a look at the house. Dust the book on the couch first. If there aren't any prints, I'll take it with me."

"Grimes get to you? He hates new-hires. It's a way of being colorful."

"You got it, Carl, buddy. A colorful individual."

"He'll loosen up. He doesn't have any idea what it's like in the City of Angels. I do, and I never want to go back." Pavlik blew a purple bubble and sucked it back in.

Neither will I, Shephard thought as he walked down a short hallway that led out of the living room. A full-length mirror at the far end threw back his reflection. He stopped a moment to look at himself, a habit that was less vanity than curiosity: Who am I? Every mirror seemed to offer a different story. Only the fundamentals remained the same, a tall and meatless body, straight shoulders, brown hair that a TV commercial would have dismissed as unmanageable, a face of harsh angles softened only by the drowsy mustache that was so well integrated with the rest of his face he might have been born with it. Beyond that, the mirrors disagreed. Some emphasized the bags under the eyes, an image of weariness. Others suggested a stark, almost monotonous intensity. Still others shaded, altered, colored, rearranged him as if by whim.

The first room off the hallway was a den. It was arranged with a passion for symmetry: the bed centered and flanked by identical nightstands with identical lamps, a poster of a galloping horse framed in the middle of one wall, smaller pictures facing each other from opposite ends of the bed, same horse, same picture. Nothing in the room, he noted, suggested a woman's presence. It was fanatically clean, fanatically unlived in. Shephard recognized the bachelor's dependence on order.

The large bedroom at the end of the hall was similar in spirit. On the nightstand stood two pictures, one of a man and a woman, one of the same man and woman with a small girl between them. The room was distinctly cool. The bed was made. An early morning drink with a friend he was expecting? Or was he used to rising long before sunrise and making the bed?

In the living room, Pavlik was on hands and knees, his face point-blank to a shot glass. One hand dusted the glass gently with a small brush, working white powder concentrically outward in short strokes. The other held a black sheet of construction paper behind the glass. Both were gloved in translucent white rubber, which Shephard noticed was approximately the pallor of Carl's face. Pavlik pulled back and exhaled, chewing the gum with vigor. "Fair," he said. "Nothing on the book. Leather's too old and porous. Interesting note on the title page, though."

Shephard slipped the book into his coat pocket and stepped outside. The morning was already growing warm, and the northbound work traffic on Laguna Canyon Road had thickened. He watched the coroner's van lumber to a stop behind Lydia Worth's patrol car, against which Grimes leaned, smoking a cigar. Grimes blew a blue haze as Shephard approached. Before it cleared, two more patrol cars crunched onto the driveway, followed by the white Chevy four-door of the department's publicity officer. The Chevy skidded to a stop and Pincus of Public Relations got out, late but officious. Shephard confronted Grimes's puffy, bulldoggish face.

"Grimes, take the houses to the west. Lydia, you take the ones east. Wake up the neighbors and find out if they saw or heard anything."

Grimes grunted and pushed off the car. Lydia accepted a cigarette from Shephard and lit it with a still-shaking hand. "I'm not used to this." She smiled weakly. "I talked to Tim Algernon five days ago, and now I can't be sure that's even him. If it is Tim, I can tell you he lived alone and has a daughter in town. Jane. He's owned the stables for a long time. He'd rent the horses for rides in the hills. Last week he told me he'd finally retired and sold off all the horses except one. A favorite mare."

At the far end of the driveway, the exit end for cars leaving the stables, Shepherd looked for fresh tire tracks. But the gravel was well-worn, and the faint signs of travel could have been a week old or an hour new.

Outside the barn, the nicked boot again. One set of prints going into the open barn door, the same set coming back out. Shephard stepped inside. A light bulb burned overhead, halfway down the double row of stalls. The musty smell of hay and dung lingered, ingrained by now, he thought, into the wood itself. The silence inside was broken only by the muted hiss of cars heading out Laguna Canyon Road. He noted that the nameplates on the stall doors had been recently removed. Fresher paint was underneath, and screw holes were torn in the wood. Severing his sentimental attachments, Shephard thought. Like when he had taken down the pictures of Louise after their divorce. Only the nameplate on the first stall remained: BECKY. A favorite mare, no doubt.

Shephard discovered that the tack wall was empty. A complete sale, he thought. But wouldn't he have saved a saddle, bit, and harness for Becky? He found no riding gear anywhere in the barn.

Back outside, the fresh morning sun made his eyes ache. Paralleling more bootprints toward the corral, Shephard stopped at a patch of moist clay under a pepper tree and found what he was looking for. The right bootprint bore the nicked heel.

He returned to the body and stood over it, sensing the almost tangible aura that separates the dead from the living. He felt clumsy and out of place, like a tourist in a country where his customs and language don't apply.

From where he stood, Shephard could see the bootprints from the barn leading toward the corral. They ended at the now-open gate, obliterated by the deeper prints of hooves. Becky, he thought, a retired cowboy's pension. The animal had taken a wide circle around the dead man—spooked by the flames, Shephard assumed—then angled off toward an embankment behind the house. Her hooves had cut deep into the bank, then down to a wide stream bottom where the dry weeks of summer had reduced the water to a brackish slick. With the sun working steadily on his neck and mosquitoes whining in his ears, Shephard followed the tracks until they climbed up the opposite bank, continued west, and disappeared into a stand of scrub oak.

Not twenty yards away stood the saddled horse, idly eyeing the detective.

Beyond the oak lay a dense grove of eucalyptus. And beyond the eucalyptus, a ten-minute ride across the dry hills, lay the city.

© T. Jefferson Parker