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A Grave Talent
By Laurie R. King
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1993 Laurie R. King
All rights reserved.
San Francisco was still dark when the telephone erupted a foot from the ear of Katarina Cecilia Martinelli, Casey to her colleagues, Kate to her few friends. She had it off the hook before the first ring had ended.
"Inspector Hawkin wants you to pick him up at the front entrance in fifteen minutes. He says to tell you they found Samantha Donaldson."
"Tell the inspector it'll be closer to twenty, unless he wants me in my pajamas." She hung up without waiting for a response, flung back the tangle of blankets, and lay for a moment looking up into the dark room. She was not wearing pajamas.
A sleep-thick voice came from the next pillow.
"Is this going to be a common occurrence from now on?"
"You married into trouble when you married me," Kate snarled cheerfully.
"I didn't marry you."
"If it's good enough for Harriet Vane, it's good enough for you."
"Oh, God, Lord Peter in my bed at, what is it, five o'clock? I knew this promotion was a mistake."
"Go back to sleep."
"I'll make you some breakfast."
"Toast, then. You go shower."
Kate scooped clothes out of various drawers and closets, and then paused with them tucked under her left arm and looked out the window.
Of all views of the bridge that dominated this side of the city, it was this one she loved the best—still dark, but with the early commute beginning to thicken the occasional headlights that passed at what seemed like arm's reach. The Bay Bridge was a more workmanlike structure than the more famous Golden Gate Bridge, but the more beautiful for it. Alcatraz, which lay full ahead of the house, could be seen from this side by leaning a bit. Kate leaned, checked that the defunct island prison still looked as surreal as it always did in the dark, and then stayed leaning against the frame of the window, her nose almost touching the old, undulating glass. She was hit by a brief, fierce surge of passion for the house, for the wood against her right hand—wood which that hand had stripped and sanded and varnished eighteen months before—and for the oak boards beneath her bare feet that she herself had freed of the cloying flowered carpet and filled and sanded and varnished and waxed. She was not yet thirty years old and had lived in eighteen different houses and had never before understood how anyone could feel possessive of a mere set of walls. Now she could. Perhaps you had to put sweat into a house before it was home, she speculated, watching the cars curve past her. Or perhaps it was that she'd never lived in anything but stucco before. Hard to get passionate about a house made of plywood and chicken wire.
This house was about as old as things get in San Francisco, where even the Mission is a reconstructed pretense. Its walls had smelled the fire of 1906, which had destroyed most of what the earthquake had left. The house had known six births and two deaths, had suffered the indignities of paint and of being crowded by inappropriate high-rises filled with absurdly expensive apartments, which greedily devoured the incomparable view from Russian Hill. The house was a true San Franciscan, fussy and dignified, immensely civilized and politely oblivious of the eccentricities of neighbors. It had several balconies, a great deal of hand-worked wood, heavy beams, crooked floors, and a pocket-handkerchief lawn that was shaded by the upstarts and by a neighbor's tree. Kate hoped that the house was as content with her as she was with it.
"I ought to flick on the lights," said Lee from behind her. "Give the commuters a thrill." Kate dropped a shoe, realized with a spurt of panic that she'd been standing there mesmerized by the lights for a good two minutes, snatched up the shoe and sprinted for the bathroom.
Toast was waiting for her downstairs, and a large thermos of strong coffee and a bag of sandwiches, and Kate pulled up to the curb in twenty-one minutes. Hawkin was standing on the sidewalk in front of the Hall of Justice, a raincoat over his arm, and climbed into the seat beside her. He tossed his hat negligently over his shoulder into the back.
"You know where you're going?" he said by way of greeting.
"Yes. Wake me ten minutes before we get there," and so saying he wadded his coat against the door and was limp before they reached the freeway.
Kate drove fast and sure through the empty streets to the freeway entrance, negotiated the twists, merged into the southward lane without mishap. She was grateful for the reprieve from conversation, for although her round face was calm in the gray light and her short, strong fingers lay easily on the wheel, the fingers were icy and elsewhere she was sweating.
She left Highway 280 and pointed the car west over the coastal range, and in the gray light of early morning she made a deliberate effort to relax. She arched her hands in turn, settled herself back in the seat, and reached for the attitude she tried to have before a long run. Pace yourself, Kate, she thought. There's nothing you can't handle here, it's just another small step up the ladder; Hawkin's no ogre, you're going to learn a lot from him. Apprehension is one thing, it's only to be expected—news cameras, everyone's eye on you—but they're not going to see below the surface, nobody's interested in you.
True, it didn't help to know that she was there for a number of reasons that she wouldn't exactly have chosen and did not feel proud of. It amused her to think that she counted as a minority, advanced prematurely (but only by a degree) due to unexpected vacancies and one of those periodic departmental rumblings of concern over Image, Minorities, and the dread Women's Movement, but it was not amusing to think that she had been assigned to this specific case because she was relatively photogenic and a team player known for not making waves, that she was a political statement from the SFPD to critics from women's groups, and, worst of all, that her assignment reflected the incredibly outdated, absurd notion that women, even those without their own, were somehow "better with children." Humiliating reasons, but she was not about to cut her own throat by refusing the dubious honor. She just hoped the people she was going to work with didn't hold it against her. She wasn't sure about Al Hawkin. He had seemed pretty brusque yesterday, but....
Kate had presented herself in his office the evening before at precisely six o'clock with the same nervous symptoms that had stayed with her until this morning, the icy hands, sweating body, dry mouth. He looked up from his paper-strewn desk at her knock, a thickset, graying man in a light blue shirt, sleeves rolled up on hairy forearms, tieless, collar loosened, in need of a shave. He pulled off his glasses and looked at her with patient, detached blue-gray eyes, and she wondered if she had the right room. He hardly seemed to be the terror rumor had him.
"Not any more. Just 'Inspector.' And you're ...?"
"Inspector Martinelli, sir. Lieutenant Patterson told me to come here at six o'clock." She heard her voice drift up into a question mark, and kicked herself. You will not be a Miss Wishy-Washy, she ordered herself fiercely.
"Yes. Do you drive?"
"Drive?" she repeated, taken aback. "Yes, I can drive."
"Good. I hate driving. Take an unmarked, if you like, or you can use your own car and bill the department, if you have a radio. Doesn't matter in the least to me. All I ask is that you never let the tank get less than half full. Damned inconvenient to run out of gas twenty miles from nowhere."
"Yes sir. I'll use my own, then, thanks. I have a car phone. Sir."
"The name is Al."
"That stack of folders is for you to take home. I'll expect you to have read through them by tomorrow. See you in the morning."
With that he had put his glasses back on and taken up another file. Trying hard to keep her dignity in the face of the dismissal, she had gathered up the armload of papers and gone home to read into the early hours. First, however, she had filled the tank. And checked the oil.
A generous ten minutes before they arrived Kate spoke his name tentatively, and he immediately woke and looked around him. A few fat drops hit the windshield. She flicked on the wipers and glanced over at him.
"Looks like we'll be needing those raincoats," she offered. He gave no sign of having heard, and she flushed slightly. Damn, was he going to be one of those?
Actually, Alonzo Hawkin was not one of those. Alonzo Hawkin was simply the epitome of the one-track mind, and at that moment his mind was on a very different track from the weather. He missed little, reacted less, and thought incessantly about his work. His wife had found him dismal company, and had immersed herself in their two children—schools, dance lessons, soccer teams. Six months after the younger one left for the university, the presence of a continually distracted husband who worked strange hours and slept stranger ones had proven more than she could bear, and she too had gone. That was a year ago. He had stayed on at his job in Los Angeles, but when he heard of the opening in San Francisco and thought that it might be nice to be able to breathe in the summer, he applied for it and got it. With surprisingly few regrets he had left the city where he had lived all his adult life, packed up his books and his fish tanks, and come here.
Hawkin woke, as he always did outside of his own bed, without disorientation, his thoughts continuing where they had left off. In this case they ran a close parallel with those going through Kate's mind. Hawkin strongly suspected that he, the new boy, had been thrown this very sticky case in order to save the necks of the higher-ups. He was an outsider, easily sacrificed, in the event of failure, on the altar of public opinion. If he failed, well, they would say, he was so highly recommended by his former colleagues, but I guess we were asking too much of a guy who doesn't know the area. If he succeeded, it would, he was sure, be arranged to reflect well on the judgment of those who chose him. Perhaps it wasn't entirely fair to be so suspicious of their motives—after all, the department was short-handed at the moment, and he did have a couple of very successful kidnapping cases to his credit, so he was the logical one to take this one. He knew, however, that there was a certain amount of time-buying going on, and he'd been given the prominence, in the face of a near-hysterical public and the considerable force of Mrs. Donaldson, while the department above him decided what it wanted to do. Disturbing, but he'd probably have done the same. No, he corrected himself, he probably wouldn't. Al Hawkin liked to be in the middle of things. He'd just have to make damn sure he succeeded.
He wondered if this reserved, almost pretty, alarmingly young police inspector at his side might turn out to be as competent as her record and her driving seemed to suggest. He hoped to God she was, for both their sakes. Hawkin squinted up at the heavy sky and sighed, thinking of Los Angeles.
"Looks like you're right," he said aloud, and missed her surprised look as he stretched over the back of the seat for his hat. "Is that coffee?" he asked, spotting the thermos on the back floor.
"Yes, help yourself. There's a cup in the glove compartment."
"Oh well, can't be helped," he allowed, and slurped cautiously. "Good coffee. How'd you have time to make it?"
"I didn't. I have a friend."
"Must be a good friend, to make you coffee at five-thirty in the morning."
"Well, he makes decent coffee, but next time have him throw some packets of sugar in for mine."
Kate opened her mouth, and shut it again firmly. Time enough for that, another day. Other matters pressed.
"About the body—who found it?" she asked.
"One of the women on the Road, Terry something, Allen maybe. She's a nurse, works the odd day in town, always weird hours. She leaves her two dogs at Tyler's place, at the beginning of the Road, and walks home. At two in the morning, can you believe it? Anyway, a couple miles up the Road the dogs started getting jumpy at something down the hill, and at first she thought it was a skunk or a raccoon, but her flashlight caught it, and it was the girl. She woke a neighbor and sent him down to Tyler's to phone while she stayed with the body. That's all I know. We'll interview her at Tyler's later. I told Trujillo—the local man on the case?—to round up everyone on the Road and bring them down. We couldn't possibly do a door-todoor—it'd take us a week."
"The Road is bad? Is that why the woman has to walk home?"
"Wasn't that in the stuff I gave you yesterday? Maybe I never bothered putting it into the case notes. Anyway, the whole area is owned by one John Tyler. Nice fellow, but a bit eccentric even by California standards—he regards himself as some kind of modern-day country squire living on a landed estate, with overtones of an ecological garden of Eden. No electrical lines into the area, no telephones, and cars allowed up the Road only two days a week. More than seventy people up there, some of them nine miles from a telephone, along an old fire road that washes out every third year."
"Sounds fun," said Kate, wondering how her car was expected to tackle that.
"Doesn't it? All the inconveniences of modern life with none of the benefits. It does limit the field considerably, though. There are locked gates at both ends of the Road—locks changed a few months ago, residents have the only keys—and the body was found about two and a half miles up."
"Was yesterday one of the days cars were allowed?"
"Trujillo says yes, and that people who work in town tend to shop for groceries and such those days and drive up at night, so nobody pays much attention to cars on Monday nights."
"Great. Well, if it's a dirt road there should be tracks left, if they get to them soon."
"Depends on what time they were put there. They had rain here after midnight. Yeah," he said, seeing her expression, "it goes like that sometimes."
"Maybe we'll luck out. Do you know if this is the same Tyler who runs a big medieval weekend every year? It seems to me it's held at a place called Tyler's Barn, everyone in costume, archery contests, that kind of thing."
"Sure to be. The place is bristling with lances and broadswords and God knows what. Here we are. And somebody's tipped the press."CHAPTER 2
It was an impressive sight, despite the ominous and growing cluster of press vehicles lined up on the seaward side of the paved road, from beat-up sedans to two shiny vans whose letters proclaimed their channels and whose silver mobile transmitters jutted toward the lowering sky. Tyler's Barn sat on the edge of a twenty-acre clearing, which at this time of year was green enough to be called a meadow. Two huge, pale horses turned their rumps to the human fuss and grazed. Hills covered in redwoods rose dramatically beyond. There actually was a barn, though from here it was nearly hidden behind a big, old wooden house (lodge was the word that came to mind) and a vast, open-sided shed with a rusting, corrugated metal roof draped with leafless vines. The shed seemed to be filled with automobiles and farm machinery, but from the Road it was nearly obscured by the high wire fence, intertwined with more bare vines, that had lined the Road for the last few miles and that continued solidly around the next curve, broken only, Kate saw now, by three gates.
The first gate was a simple, sturdy metal affair wide enough for a truck, and from it the double ruts of a dirt track climbed through the meadow to disappear into the trees. The gate was mounted on a pair of what looked like telephone poles, from which was suspended a tired wooden sign, the width of the gate, which proclaimed this as TYLER'S ROAD. A heavy chain and padlock held the gate shut, and a man with a uniform and regulation rain slickers, sitting in a police car, ensured it stayed that way.
Excerpted from A Grave Talent by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 1993 Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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