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Katherine V. Forrest, two-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Mystery, is the author of Curious Wine, one of the bestselling lesbian novels of all time; Liberty Square, also nominated for a Lambda Award; and a number of other acclaimed works of fiction. Her novel Murder at the Nightwood Bar is a forthcoming film by director Tim Hunter (River's Edge).
Approximately Forty Thousand Years Later
"It's the pits." Dropping the receiver into its cradle, Detective Joe Cameron grinned across the homicide table at Detective Kate Delafield. "The world-famous La Brea Tar Pits."
He tucked the follow-up report he was working on into a shelf of his four-tier file and climbed to his feet, stretching his lanky frame to slide his jacket from a hanger on the clothes tree. "DB behind a park bench. Being the stiff's less than ten thousand years old, Sergeant Hansen thinks we should take a look."
"He would," Kate said, slapping the Gonzales murder book closed and sliding the blue binder into a desk drawer. She reached for her shoulder bag, grateful that she and Cameron were number one on the rotation, even if it was odds on the dead body would turn out to be a result of natural causes. Anything was preferable to beating herself bloody over the Aloysius Gonzales fiasco.
The homicide table was devoid of other occupants, and the entire detectives squad room was relatively quiet; except for a group clustered in low-toned conversation beside the burglary table, the men and women at the various tables were immersed in paperwork, obeying LAPD's ever-present imperative of keep up or drown.
In the parking lot behind Wilshire Division, Cameron climbed into the passenger side of the Caprice. "Cremate your balls in here," he muttered, yanking his tie loose.
There was no insinuation in the remark; after three weeks with this junior partner, Kate hadlearned that Cameron seemed inclined toward neither sexism nor homophobia. He left his door wide open, waiting for her to start the engine and the air conditioning, choosing dust over heat. The dust was fierce, a fine silt billowing up from the construction project adjacent to the station where a new facility would add more West Bureau functions and create new parking problems.
Gingerly bouncing her hands on the steering wheel to locate a safe hold, Kate leaned back into the sun-baked seat as if to transmit all the concentrated warmth up her arms. Heat eased the stiffness that seemed to be a permanent souvenir from the bullet she had taken in her left shoulder during a botched arrest a year and a half ago.
As she pulled out of the parking lot onto Venice Boulevard, Cameron extracted a pair of aviator sunglasses from the breast pocket of his jacket and donned them, then studied the Reporting District Map for Wilshire Division. "Seven-two-two," he said, identifying the area for the La Brea Tar Pits.
"Right," she said shortly. A transfer from Devonshire, Cameron had just been promoted into Homicide and needed to familiarize himself with Wilshire, to gain a feel for a territory far more diverse than his previous assignment at LAPD's farthest outlying division in the San Fernando Valley. As part of his training, he would be the lead detective for the first time if this investigation turned out to be a murder; he would be put in nominal charge under her supervision and oversight. But she was in no mood to offer her usual mentoring and running commentary whenever she rode with him.
The usually talkative Cameron cinched up his tie as the car cooled, and he peered out his side window; she was left to scowl into the traffic, her mind still churning through the details of the Gonzales morass.
As she turned onto Wilshire Boulevard, she understood that Cameron was restraining himself because of her mood. It was unfair, she conceded, to take her anger out on him. The Gonzales case was none of his doing.
"Never thought I'd get to see the Tar Pits this way," she offered.
Hitching his sunglasses up on his nose as he turned to her, he said incredulously, "You've never been to the most famous place in the whole division?"
Rankled by his response to her effort to be considerate, she retorted, "As far as I'm concerned, the most famous place in my whole division is CBS. And maybe the Farmer's Market."
"Famous only in America," he returned. "You've lived in L.A. how long?"
"Forever." A white-lettered green sign on the median strip of Wilshire announced Museum Row on the Miracle Mile. The miracle was yet to occur along this undistinguished strip of Wilshire, but the L.A. County Museum of Art was indeed a jewel, she thought, and a real museum. She remembered when the new La Brea Tar Pits museum had opened in the mid-seventies, and that it hadn't been much of a big deal; there was no reason to think any differently now, even if some stupid movie had recently featured a volcano rumbling up from its depths to obliterate West L.A.
"There's a lot more to the place than you think. It's remarkable." Cameron shook his head. "I bet you've driven past it thousands of times."
"Tens of thousands," she said without remorse. "And every single time, I see the replicas of those prehistoric animals from the street. Tar pits and fossils just don't ring my chimes."
"My dad took me there before they even built the museum. He loved it. So did I."
Another reason not to go, she thought. Parents and squealing kids.
"Body's behind the main lake pit," he said, "so your best bet is Curson."
"Roger," she said, amused that he was now directing her around her own division.
She pulled up behind four black-and-whites parked on Curson, their revolving light bars hurling more brilliance into the radiant sunshine, their radios emitting endless staccato squawking.
Cameron's remarks had piqued her curiosity, and when she got out of the car, she paused to inspect the museum, a structure tucked into the contours of a smoothly mown green hill set well back from the street. Squat and square, it was nonetheless quietly impressive. The roof, separated from the main structure by a complex composition of pillars and crosshatched girders, was a massive, brown-toned stone frieze of carvings depicting prehistoric animal scenes. As she accompanied Cameron under a canopy of shade trees and onto the curving sidewalk that skirted the museum building, a hot, sluggish current of air carrying the pungent, cloying smell of petroleum filled her nostrils. A horde of tourists flowed along a wide, shrubbery-lined brick pathway that angled downward to the museum, toward glass doors over which bold lettering announced:
GEORGE C. PAGE MUSEUM
LA BREA DISCOVERIES
Across from the building was a solid-granite elevated observation platform crowded with young children. Ineffectually herded by a few harried adults, they punched and pulled at one another to gain better position on the platform, shrilling their excitement at what police action they were able to glimpse.
"What's the matter with grown-ups these days?" she groused to Cameron. "Television's one thing. A real homicide scene is no place for children."
"I don't know that it isn't," he said. "Maybe a dead stranger's a painless way for kids to know the reality of death."
She did not reply. This was hardly the time to argue. Beyond two rows of park benches lining the pathway she had spotted the first barrier of yellow police tape, several dozen onlookers clustered behind it. But Cameron was a fool if he thought anything could prepare you for the reality of permanent loss, and she ought to know.
Sergeant Fred Hansen waited at the perimeter of the tape; Officer Pete Johnson, standing beside him, logged in his posse box her arrival and Cameron's. She returned their nods and pulled her notebook and pen from her shoulder bag. Looking past Hansen to see that four other uniformed officers guarded the scene, she cast the briefest of glances at the figure sprawled facedown on the grassy earth.
"Something special here, Fred," she said. The heated, petroleum-laden air was oppressive.
Hansen shrugged. "Kate, I just think maybe."
She wrote down the time and date, 10:35 A.M., August 21, and the approximate temperature, ninety plus degrees. Then she asked, "What have you got so far?"
"Four New Zealanders found him right after the place opened at ten. Ran in to the museum gift shop. The woman on the information desk called it in. Paramedics arrived a minute after we did, pronounced him. White male, looks to be in his seventies."
"Nothing more, except the way he looks."
Kate ignored his gesture toward the body, unwilling to be detoured from her method. "ID?"
"Nothing on that yet."
"Who touched him?" Cameron asked, writing in his notebook. A left-hander, his wide wedding band glinted in the sun.
"Paramedics. The Kiwis only took a look—that's all anybody needs to do."
"Yeah, you can tell from here," Cameron said.
Hansen said, "They left, real upset. Staying at the Mondrian through Friday, I've got their names and room numbers if we need a statement. No witnesses so far. We're spread out trying to find somebody who saw something, but this place is a real bear—all tourists and kids. That's all I've got, folks."
Kate nodded. After many years of working with her, Hansen knew her approach, and he would now wait until after she surveyed the entire scene for further instructions.
There was not much to take in. On a clean page of her notebook she wrote the compass points from where she stood facing west, then made a quick, rough diagram of an oblong patch of grass perhaps fifty feet by thirty, formed by intersecting pathways, two of which ran off into a parklike distance. She drew rectangles for the four gray wooden benches embedded into the pathway, and forks for three trees with thin, pale bark defaced with initials. She inked in a pole indicating the light standard at the western perimeter, then let her gaze drift upward, taking in several bushy heads of palm trees above a distant cluster of trees, and the soft green facade of the art museum, thinking sacrilegiously that its rooftop sculptures looked like a collection of surfboards. North, across the path, a white pedestal displayed the bust of a man wearing a jacket and tie. Behind him and directly to her right, the orangish Park La Brea apartment complex provided a distant frame for the Page Museum. South of the death scene, to the left of the path on which she stood, a wire mesh fence fronted a pool of water, its dark, ruffled surface visible through reeds and brush. She lightly shaded in an expanse of grass behind the farthest bench, and for the final element in her sketch, inscribed an X for the position of the corpse on the grass. The area was not secluded nor was it off the regular tourist track behind the lake pool; anyone coming from any direction on the grounds could have found the body—or perhaps caused this death.
"His hands," Cameron said from beside her.
"Give me a minute," she said quietly, but she was exasperated at this break in her concentration. A new partner was a royal pain. It had taken a bone-lazy Ed Taylor the better part of five years to respect her methods, and Torrie, whose faults did not include Taylor's sloppiness, had required a year to adjust to Kate's style. Now there was someone else to break in. Not that she would wish to have either Ed Taylor or Torrie Holden back ...
She pulled her attention back to the scene, focusing on the dead man. Dressed in baggy dark pants and a maroon polo shirt, he lay prone on grass yellowed by the summer sun. In so placid a scene, the body seemed unusually grotesque, one arm bent sharply back at waist level, the other raised and stretched downward over the shoulders, the clawed fingers of both hands straining, for no discernible reason, toward the middle of the back.
"You were smart to call us in right away, Fred," she said, and Hansen's dour face lightened with a faint smile. He lifted the tape as Kate made her first move to enter the scene.
Taking care with every step, Cameron in her wake, she edged her way to the body. There was not much to disturb; the grass seemed devoid of objects other than a few stray leaves. She hunkered down a cautious distance from the corpse. The finality of this death seemed a melancholy contrast to the smell of sun-baked grass and earth, mingled with the odor of petroleum from the tar pits.
The man was gray-haired and gray-bearded, with thin hair combed straight back and only slightly disheveled, his beard an inch or so in length and well-trimmed. His face was burrowed into the turf from his death throes, but one glazed, staring, milky eye was partially visible. She touched the back of her hand to the dead man's cheek. The warmth of his skin could be from sun but more likely was his true body temperature. In some parts of Los Angeles a dead body could lie on the street for hours while people walked around it, but these were more wholesome surroundings filled with tourists unacquainted with the city's less-than-endearing cultural quirks. This man had died within the past hour.
Mindful that she was Cameron's mentor, she said, "What do you think, Joe?"
Hunkered down beside her, he was writing in his notebook. "The guy's trying to grab at what was killing him. So it's no heart attack unless his heart's in a real strange place."
She peered at the heavy-mesh maroon shirt. "If there's any blood, I don't see it."
"Could be some, though—the shirt's the same color as blood."
"Wet blood would be visible," she argued.
"Maybe his kidney exploded."
She answered Cameron's attempt at levity with a smile. "An interesting hypothesis." Cameron was relatively young, and whatever his prior history in police work might be, he was inexperienced in having to examine corpses and notify spouses and children whose lives would change forever from the calamity of death. From this dead man's age, there might be considerable family, even grandchildren ...
Cameron said, "Could be something crazy, like a bee sting—the guy goes into anaphylactic shock."
"Now that's a really interesting hypothesis," Kate said. "You could even be right."
She reached to the dead man and pinched a piece of shirt sleeve between her thumb and forefinger, using it to lift one of the clawed hands. It bore a wedding band thinned and finely scratched by age, and a wristwatch, a Seiko with a worn leather band. Seeing that the palm of the hand was crisscrossed by faint black smears, she examined the fingers one by one, noting black residue under several nails. She lowered the hand and rose to her feet. She moved over to the bench.
It was a common enough park bench, with chipped gray paint, except that it was patterned with dried-out strings of tar, as was the pavement around it. The tar looked old and dry, the bench reasonably safe to sit on, especially in the kind of casual clothes the dead man wore.
"The bench looks like a canvas Jackson Pollock just started," Cameron remarked.
Immersed in her own observations, she crossed the path to the chain-link fence and peered through it to the lake. The opaque surface was pocked with rings—from tar bubbling up, she presumed. She remembered reading somewhere that this particular tar pool was kept flooded with water to reduce its potential as a fire hazard. The surface was imprinted with refracted reflections of the brush around it, the heads of a few emperor palms on Wilshire Boulevard, and the geometric shape of a building. She could make out the long tusks of a huge prehistoric mammoth curving out over the water, one of the replicas for which this place was known; the sculptures were positioned in and around the lake.
"Bizarre," Cameron said from beside her. "This place, so ..." He searched for a word, "... elemental. All this prehistoric stuff and it's sitting right in the middle of a modern, cutting-edge city ..."
"You're right," she murmured, gazing at the building reflected in the tar pool beside the tusks of the mammoth. "It's an incredible juxtaposition."
"I always imagined Jimmy Hoffa could be dumped in here."
"Why not? Along with Judge Crater."
"Maybe Amelia Earhardt."
"That one's a bit of a stretch." Kate walked back to the park bench.
Examining the dark striations, she suggested, "A freaky high wind blew some of the tar from the lake onto the bench a long time ago."
"Makes sense." Cameron pointed to several faint scrapes in the tar splotches. "Maybe the victim was sitting here when whatever happened to him happened. So first he claws at the bench and then he staggers to his feet. It could explain what's on his hands and under his nails."
"Maybe," Kate said, pleased that Cameron had also seen the residue under the victim's nails. Hearing children's voices again rise from the viewing platform behind her, she thought that unlike an art museum, this place seemed the kind you didn't visit alone. Had someone accompanied this old man? Could a grandson be lost and wandering the premises?
The dead man could have perished from natural causes. But, like Hansen, she smelled something odd here, and it wasn't just the tar. She said to Cameron, "Let's do what we can while we're waiting for the coroner's investigator."
Posted January 13, 2001
The author failed to convince me of 2 important things in this book: #1) that the 'sleeping bones' would be at the center of high level politics of several countries, #2) that Kate and the anthropologist had a compelling attraction to each other. The sub-plots are distracting. The whole business with Kate's long-lost half brother is utterly pointless. The minor characters are thin as paper. Kate's lover Aimee is so thinly drawn as a character, she's barely a sketch. Additionally, Forrest failed from page one to create an atmosphere in which I could feel connected to the protagonist. In the first several pages, simply by referring many, many times to the partner, Cameron (describing what Cameron was doing, giving him a voice, etc), and by NOT describing Kate, I started to feel connected to Cameron instead of Kate. That's just plain old bad writing. I recommend that you skip this book and check out 'Bleeding Out: A Mystery' by Baxter Claire, a much more compelling lesbian detective novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.