They’re homicide cops, just like Tejeda, and though he can’t remember their names they all know him. A head has washed ashore, with semen in its mouth and an armed-forces haircut. It was found just down the shore from Kate’s mansion, meaning that she and Tejeda are involved—whether his doctors like it or not.
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Half a Mind
By Wendy Hornsby
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Wendy Hornsby
All rights reserved.
The November heat wave was a tease, a molecule-thick layer of warmth laid over the chill of fall. It wouldn't last, Roger Tejeda thought. In another few days the joggers would have the beach to themselves again; no more tourists lying on the damp sand—which had to be thirty degrees colder than the air temperature. Tejeda could feel the cold seeping up through the soles of his well-worn Reeboks. And there would be no more picnickers tempting death by playing chicken with the riptides around the base of Byrd Rock where it jutted into the surf like a giant thumb.
Tejeda watched the crowd around Byrd Rock grow to a frenzied swarm, but he held his running pace steady, kept his breathing slow and regular. Could be a sand shark in a bucket, the usual sort of draw on this stretch of beach, or a tourist caught in the drink. Tejeda reminded himself that no matter what had happened to reel in the curious, it wasn't his concern anymore. He raised his face to the wind and took a deep breath. The air smelled sweet, like May, because the onshore flow had blown the smog inland. He could see it trapped along the base of the San Gabriel Mountains like a load of dirty yellow fleece spilled over Pasadena. Tomorrow morning it would come back.
Carpe diem, Kate always told him. Seize the day. Tejeda wiped the sweat from his face with the tail of his T-shirt. There was something else that she said when he thought things were too good to last, but he couldn't remember what. Something about picking flowers.
Two lifeguard Jeeps sped past him in the direction of Byrd Rock, forcing him into the frigid tail of an outgoing wave. He could hear the crowd now, the occasional high-pitched scream cutting through the general low murmur and defining whatever had happened as a gross tragedy. Then it flashed on him what else Kate said: "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying." From the speed of the Jeeps as they bounced over crusted ruts in the sand, he knew some poor sucker must have gathered his last rosebud, or come close to it.
Tejeda held his pace the way a recovering drunk holds his breath when he passes his favorite gin mill. Whatever had happened in the treacherous currents around Byrd Rock had nothing to do with him, couldn't suck him along with the crowd. Not since he went on disability. But he clenched his jaw, remembering the jolt of adrenaline that could be more addictive than booze.
The fluorescent-orange lifeguard rescue boat powered into view around the far end of the rock. Tejeda shielded his eyes from the low sun to count the divers who bailed out over the side. Only two, but one he recognized as the sheriff's senior diver. He couldn't remember her name.
Then he turned and saw the coroner's Forensic Science Services' white Dodge Ram van winding down the bluff road toward the public parking lot. Tejeda unleashed his stride, running in the hard sand along the surf line, ignoring the cold water splashing around his ankles. Maybe just one more shot, he thought, straight from the bottle.
A lifeguard Jeep bounced across the sand to the parking lot. As it took on passengers from the coroner's van, Tejeda followed its trail with his eye, extending the line from the crowd at the rock, across the white beach and the black ribbon of asphalt parking lot, then up to the top of the overhanging bluffs, where Kate's estate stood out as an open gap in the nearly solid wall of condos, like a tooth missing in a kid's smile.
Everything up there seemed normal, the three massive California-mission-style mansions spaced along the bluff, the crisp white gazebo at the edge glowing pink in the late-afternoon sun, the beach stairs freshly rebuilt since the fire. Then, as he followed the spine of beach stairs down the face of the bluff, Tejeda touched the soft spot at his temple where the gun butt had obliterated a chunk of the skull underneath. Yeah, he thought, everything looked peaceful. But looks could be deceiving.
Impulsively he started to sprint, urgently needing to see Kate or his daughter, Theresa, or some sign of them. Just to make sure.
Then he slowed, fell back into his regular pace, forcing himself to fight the panic. No one knew the dangers of these waters better than Kate. And Theresa had told him she would be gone all afternoon. Whatever had happened this time, it couldn't concern any of them.
He took a deep breath, felt the pulse at his neck, and checked his watch: he had made four miles in thirty-one minutes, twenty-six seconds. Not his old time, he thought, but getting closer.
Tejeda wiped his face again and, standing at a fifteen-yard remove, tried to match names to the faces as the body squad arrived from the parking lot. Mild transitory aphasia, the doctor had told him. Why, he wondered, could he always remember that phrase when so many other labels had been swallowed by the black holes in his mind?
Tejeda dug out forensic investigator Vic Spago's name first—not from his bald head glistening in the sun or the porcine snort at the end of his laugh. It was the stench of Spago's thin black cigar carried by the breeze as the Jeep drove him past that jarred-loose twenty years' worth of memory clips. Vic Spago lit his Armenian cheroots only when he was working. The smoke, Tejeda always suspected, was some sort of Old World talisman against the deaths that were Spago's bread and butter. Or maybe it simply deadened his sense of smell.
Tejeda looked again at the fifty yards of open sand he would have to cross to reach Kate's stairway. No way he could do it unseen.
"What do you think it is?" An afternoon regular, one of the small legion who traded their Brooks Brothers and wing tips for shorts and running shoes after office hours, fell into place beside Tejeda, breathing hard.
"Don't know," Tejeda said. "Probably some tourist. Got himself caught in the riptide."
"Yeah," the man panted. "People should read the warning signs." But he seemed seduced by what he imagined he might find ahead, and sprinted on with new energy.
Walking now, Tejeda passed a once-pasty-white woman splayed on her back on the sand, apparently oblivious of both the incoming tide lapping closer to her feet and the brouhaha at the rock. She glowed red now from too much sun along the tops of her thighs and her round cheeks. Tejeda thought about how sore she would be tonight and how any local would have known better.
And would have known to stay away from Byrd Rock when the tide was coming in, he thought, as he noticed the brightly colored plastic toys scattered on the sand around her. There was no child in sight. As he thought about waking her, she opened her eyes and sat up.
She looked around, squinting. "Eric?" she called, scrambling to her feet. And then, with panic as she saw the lifeguards and the crowd, "Eric!"
As she ran past him, he wanted to tell her there was no need to hurry once Spago's services had been called for.
Spago looked up when he heard the woman's cry, and gazing past her, spotted Tejeda. He grinned and waved.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Spago yelled at him.
Tejeda waved back and thought again about escape, but Spago was already slogging out of the surf and heading for him. No way he could be avoided. It was just that this forgetting was so embarrassing.
The woman had plunged into the crowd.
Seeming unaware of her, Spago pulled a fresh cheroot from his pocket and lit it, grinning still at Tejeda through the smoke.
"Come on," Spago encouraged. "They won't take away your disability if you sneak a quick peek."
Vowing to himself that he would get no more involved than saying hello to everyone, Tejeda took a few deep breaths, then walked into the path that had cleared through the crowd.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Spago said again as he thrust his rubber-gloved paw toward Tejeda. "Couldn't stay away, could you?"
"Hey, yourself, Vic." Tejeda shook the clammy rubber. "What is this, department beach party?"
"Yeah." Spago gave Tejeda a cynical wink. "It's your backyard, you bring the wienies?"
"He is the wienie." What's-his-name, the gofer from the coroner's office, waited for a turn at Tejeda's hand. "Nice to see you out again, Lieutenant. Come take a look at today's blue-plate special."
Tejeda hesitated for a moment. Had to be something major to bring out this particular assortment of investigators. He was more than curious, but the lapses in his head held him back, chagrined: out of the nine officials here, Spago's was still the only name Tejeda could drag to the surface. Kate kept telling him to take it easy, that the pieces of his mind were slowly falling back into place. In the meantime, all he had to do was ask these people their names. Everyone knew what had happened to him, but he was sick to death of that pitiful stare people gave him when one of his pieces came up missing.
"He doesn't want to look." His former partner had waded out of the water to greet him, his smile reserved. "Doesn't want to come down out of his castle on the bluff."
"Right." Tejeda extended his hand to his partner, hoping the physical contact would jar the right name loose. But nothing happened. "How's it going?"
"Not bad. You're looking a hell of a lot better."
"Yeah." Without thinking, he touched his temple again, then dropped his hand when he saw his partner's smile collapse. Tejeda wanted to say something reassuring—hell, they'd survived worse during their years together in homicide. And he would say something, as soon as he could remember his partner's name. But for now he offered a smile, then kicked off his Reeboks and waded into the surf to see what they'd found.
Tejeda peered over Spago's bald head through a pall of cigar smoke, fighting down the familiar surge that was equal parts revulsion and fascination—like a bullfrog hopping out of your birthday cake when you're six. He half-expected to see a small boy named Eric, though the woman had gone off down the beach, still calling. But there was only a hat-size box in the water.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Unidentified cabeza." Spago tapped his bald head. "Gift-wrapped and delivered right to your backyard, Lieutenant."
Tejeda knelt closer to the Christmas gift box decomposing in the wimpy high-tide swash. "Who found it?"
"Couple of joggers." Spago aimed his thumb toward two men sitting up on the dry sand. Tejeda recognized them as regulars, though he'd never spoken to them.
"Gotta move Junior before the water gets higher." Spago slid a square of plywood under the box. Without thinking about whose job this might be, Tejeda took an end of the plank and helped Spago elbow through the crowd toward a dry spot beyond the surf line. The movement, and the weight of water and sand inside, made the sodden cardboard collapse.
"Jesus ..." Tejeda's partner led a collective groan as the decapitated head inside the box, now exposed, rolled from side to side like a chipped marble.
As the crowd of onlookers fell away, a beach ball hit Tejeda in the back of the leg. He turned and saw a little boy, about four, standing with his mouth frozen open, staring at the latex-pale face on the plank.
"Where's your mother?" Tejeda asked, but the child didn't respond.
"Get the kid out of here," Spago snapped, making the head roll crazily as he stepped out of sync with Tejeda. Then he glared at the crowd. "The rest of you too. Scram."
Tejeda's partner shook off his own queasiness, lifted the boy up, and carried him up the beach to the sunburned tourist who was still walking along the surf line calling for "Eric."
"Damn people," Spago muttered as he and Tejeda waited for space to clear so they could set down the plank. "What do they want to see this for?"
Tejeda shrugged—there always seemed to be crowds, at least at the beginning—and knelt for a closer look at the head. While the situation was grim, the face itself wasn't much to see, a set of unremarkable features puffed up by salt water. Only the hair told him anything. He sat back on his heels, taking in a secondhand lungful of cheroot and thinking how good it felt to have his mind engage on a problem. Like muscle memory taking over.
"Sidewalls," he said, indicating how the hair was short over the ears but fairly long on top. "Could be Navy. But my guess is ..." He appealed to his partner, "The Halls of Montezuma."
"Right," Tejeda said. "Marines. Could be a Marine."
"Possibility." With forceps, Spago rolled the head until it sat on its crown, then probed the bloodless line just above the Adam's apple where the head had been severed. "Clean slice. Probably no knowledge past Biology I, but neat. Very neat."
The coroner's gofer wrote furiously in a spiral notebook. "How long's it been in the drink?"
"Overnight. No more than twenty-four hours." Spago looked up at Tejeda. "What do you say, Lieutenant?"
Tejeda shrugged. "You're the expert."
Spago turned to Tejeda's still-nameless partner. "Eddie?"
Eddie? Tejeda ran the name through his mind a few times, but it wouldn't register. He clenched his fists and fought off the frustration: at first, it had seemed as if the blow from the gun butt had rattled his head so hard that it had shaken loose all the labels and now they floated around inside like dust motes, visible in the right light but impossible to catch. And lately, names had been coming easier. All he usually needed was one prod and, as often as not, the name or label would stick. He called Kate "Kate" at least eighty percent of the time, Theresa "Theresa" nearly as often, consistently enough that Kate had quit worrying so much. But it was still frustrating as hell.
"Eddie." Tejeda tried the name out loud. It sounded wrong and Eddie looked at him strangely.
"What is it?" Eddie asked.
"Nothing." Tejeda turned back to Spago. "How long was he dead before he hit the water?"
"Can't say yet. But it wasn't long, unless he'd been in cold storage."
"Pinpoint his age?" Eddie asked.
Spago scraped the green-tinged cheek with the end of the forceps. "Dark-colored hair, light beard. I'd say between eighteen and twenty-something."
"Mark," Spago said, looking up at the coroner's gofer. "I think you better bag him before he dries out any more."
Mark. Tejeda had another name, this one suddenly very familiar. While Mark and Spago got the head and the remains of its box sealed in heavy plastic bags, Tejeda looked around the group, feeling the connections fall into place. There was Angelo from the harbor patrol, but in civvies; maybe his day off. And Rebecca Farmer, the sheriff's chief diver, peeling off her wetsuit as she came out of the water, her face tanned nearly black, even this late in the year, a startling contrast to her sun-bleached hair. He recognized two rookie homicide detectives trying to look useful. And Craig Hardy, from the local newspaper, quietly absorbing everything, as usual. And, thank God, someone whose name he knew for sure he had never known.
Eddie had busied himself with the business of protecting evidence. He signed the seals on the plastic bags, directed a search of the sand around the area where the box had been found, and kept the surging crowd from churning their feet through everything. But all this time, Tejeda noticed that Eddie was keeping an eye on him. The scrutiny made him uneasy, as if maybe Eddie was expecting something from him. And he seemed so depressed.
Spago and Mark loaded their gear and the remains onto a Jeep. Then Spago turned and looked past Eddie to speak to Tejeda. "We'll burn the midnight oil on this one, Lieutenant. When flesh has been in the water awhile it tends to deteriorate in a hurry. Anything special you want us to look for?"
"You're asking the wrong man." Tejeda put a hand on Eddie's shoulder. "This dance is on my partner's card."
Eddie looked down at his own hands and rubbed a puffed burn scar along the edge of his thumb; a mark just the length and shape of a french fry. Tejeda remembered the smell that night, when Eddie got burned while busting a preschool teacher who had buried one of his charges in the desert. The suspect had been cornered at home while he fried potatoes for his dinner. He had tried to escape by dumping a pan of half-cooked french fries on Eddie. Though covered with still-sizzling potatoes, Eddie had managed to collar the suspect. There had been a lot of press coverage, all of it with more about the french fries than the crime.
With great relief, Tejeda realized why "Eddie" sounded all wrong. He grinned and tightened his grip on his partner's shoulder. "Okay, Fries, give the man your orders."
Excerpted from Half a Mind by Wendy Hornsby. Copyright © 1990 Wendy Hornsby. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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