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A More Perfect Union
"Cassie, for God's sake! What the hell's the body doing out there already? I didn't call for the body. We're not set up yet."
Speaking through a megaphone from his perch on a raised boom, movie director Sam "The Movie Man" Goldfarb's voice echoed through the wooden maze of Lake Union Drydock like God himself speaking from the mount.
Cassie was Cassie Young, a punk-looking young woman who served as Goldfarb's right and left hands. She scurried toward the base of the director's boom as she raised a hand-held radio to her lips.
Because I'm a homicide cop, my ears pricked up when I heard the word "body." For the past two weeks I'd been trailing around Seattle, dutifully mother-henning a Hollywood film crew. Officially, I was on special assignment for Mayor Dawson's office, acting as technical advisor to His Honor's old Stanford roommate and buddy, Samuel Goldfarb. Unofficially, I was doing less than nothing and felt as useless as tits on a-boar.
My short venture into the moviemaking business had certainly stripped away the glamour. As far as I can tell, movies are made by crowds of people who mill around endlessly without actually doing anything. I mean nothing happens. They take hours to set up for a scene that takes less than a minute to shoot, or else spend hours shooting a scene that amounts to two seconds of film footage. The whole process was absolutely stultifying. I hated it.
My initial spurt of "body"-fueled adrenaline disappeared quickly. After all, movies are totally make-believe. On a film set, nothing is really what it seems. I naturally assumed that this was more of the same. Leaning back against a workbench in thepipe shop, I shifted my weight to one foot as I attempted to ease the throbbing complaints of the recently reactivated bone spur on my other heel.
I had been whiling away the time by chatting with a garrulous old duffer named Woody Carroll. Woody was a retired Lake Union Drydock employee on tap that day to keep a watchful eye on the cast and crew of Death in Drydock. His job was to make sure we didn't do any damage to company property in the course of our Saturday shoot.
Woody told me that he had worked as a carpenter for Lake Union Drydock both before and after World War II. He had been there steadily from the time he got home from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines until he retired in 1980. He was full of countless stories, and his tales had kept my mind off the bone spur for most of the day. Hiding out from a blazing sun, we had retreated into the gloomy shade of the pipe shop. Seattle was sweltering through an unusually hot, dry August. People who live in the Northwest aren't accustomed to heat.
"I don't know what to think of these young 'uns today," Woody Carroll drawled, picking up his train of thought and resuming our conversation as though nothing had happened. He had been complaining bitterly about the quality of some of the younger employees around the drydock. "They'd rather buy and sell stuff to put up their noses than do an honest day's work. It just beats all."
Outside I could see Cassie Young returning her radio to her pocket. Now, shading her eyes with one hand, she called up to Goldfarb where he remained enthroned on the boom.
"The shop says they're still working on the body. It isn't ready yet."
"Well, what the hell do you call that? It's right in the way of the next shot. Get it out of there, for God's sake! What do you think I pay you for? And where's Derrick's stuntman? I need him. Now!"
Goldfarb had pointed toward a spot in the water near where steep wooden steps led up the wingwall of the drydock. They had been using the boom to shoot a fight scene on the narrow steps with the navy minesweeper Pledge looming in the background. Two of the movie's name-brand stars, Derrick Parker and Hannah Boyer, still clung to two-by-four handrails some twenty feet above the solid planking of the pier.
As the entire crew jumped in response to Goldfarb's barked commands, Cassie Young carefully picked her way across a snarled tangle of electrical cords toward the place Goldfarb had indicated.
I didn't much like Cassie. She was a scrawny, red haired, postadolescent who went in big for the spiked, new-wave look. She wore a thick layer of white pancake makeup. Her eyelashes dripped with heavy, black mascara. She could easily have been mistaken for a refugee from a school for mimes. Looking at her made me grateful she wasn't my daughter, although she and Kelly were probably much the same age.
Cassie and I had crossed swords on numerous occasions during the course of my two-week stint of involuntary servitude on the set of Death in Drydock. I had a tough time taking her seriously. The feeling was mutual.
According to Captain Powell, my main assignment as technical advisor was to make sure Goldfarb didn't portray the Seattle Police Department as "a bunch of stupid jerks." I had quickly learned, however, that trying to tell Sam Goldfarb anything he didn't want to hear was like talking to a brick wall. Every time he had his pretend cops doing something unbelievably stupid, I squawked bloody murder. For all the good it did me. Cassie Young didn't mince any words in letting me know that I was to keep those opinions to myself. I was a technical advisor all right. In name only.
For the past week, I had called Captain Powell every morning at eight o'clock, begging him to let me off the hook and pull me from the assignment. No such luck. He kept telling me that the mayor wanted me on the set, and on the set I'd stay.
Still mildly interested in whatever had plucked Goldfarb's nerves, I watched as Cassie reached the edge of the dock and knelt down to peer over the side. Her knees had barely touched the wood when she sprang back as though she'd been burned. She covered her mouth with one hand, but still the muffled sound that escaped her lips was as blood curdling a scream as I'd heard in years. The wrenching sound echoed back and forth through the otherwise eerily silent wooden buildings.
For days I had lurked in the background of the process, staying out of the way of cameras and equipment. Now, the sound of Cassie's scream galvanized me to action. No matter what, I'm first and foremost a cop. In emergencies, we're trained to react. It's a conditioned response as natural as breathing. Without giving it a second thought, I started toward Cassie on a dead run, ignoring the quick stab of pain in my injured heel.
"Quiet on the set," someone boomed through a mega phone, but Cassie kept on screaming, pointing hysterically toward the water. I reached her and grabbed her by the shoulders just as the megaphone boomed again. "For God's sake, somebody catch Hannah! She's going to fall."
Cassie barfed then. I managed to swing her away from me just in time, then I held her by the waist while she heaved her guts out on the dock.
Between barfing and screaming, I prefer the latter.
At last Cassie straightened up and leaned heavily against me while her whole body quivered with terrible shudders. I held her, patting her gently on the back, soothing her as best I could, while I attempted to peer over her shoulder and see into the water, but we were too far from the edge of the dock. The angle was wrong.
"What is it?" I demanded finally, holding her at arm's length. "What's down there?" Shaking her head from side to side, she seemed totally incapable of speech, but as soon as I took a step toward the edge of the dock, she came to life and fought me tooth and nail. Her ability to speak returned as well.
"No, no!" she protested, twisting her wrists to escape my grip. "I can't look again. Please don't make me look again, please."
By then, one of the electricians was standing beside us. I handed Cassie off to him, then went to the edge of the pier to see for myself.
As soon as I did, I understood why Cassie Young had fought my attempt to drag her back. A corpse floated there in the wafer, or rather, what was left of a corpse. Although Lake Union has no natural currents to speak of, heavy boat traffic on the lake creates a lot of water movement. This movement, mimicking current, had left the body with its legs straddling a wooden piling.
I could tell the corpse was that of a man, but I could make out little else. The bloated body floated low in the water. What was visible could hardly be called a face. His features were distorted and out of focus where skin slip page and feeding fish had done their ugly work. His hair, slicked down against his scalp, was dark and shiny, matted with oil from the lake.
Horror movies manufacture phony death masks all the time. Cassie Young was in the movie business. I found it surprising that she took it so hard, that she was so shocked and shaken, but of course horror-movie masks are done in the name of good clean fun. This wasn't fun or make-believe.
This was real—all too real. A More Perfect Union. Copyright © by J. Jance. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.