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The Case of the Sliding Pool
A Masao Masuto Mystery
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 E. V. Cunningham
All rights reserved.
THE SLIDING POOL
Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto of the Beverly Hills Police Force was a Zen Buddhist, which meant that he was willing to accept his karma and his fate perhaps with as much resignation as any man might hope for. But on this day he rebelled. His fate, he felt, had become intolerable.
He was the victim of one of the many legends that abound in southern California. This particular bit of folklore held that it did not rain after the tenth of March, whereupon Masuto had scheduled a long awaited and long overdue week of vacation time to begin on the twelfth of March. The rains began in November, as they frequently do in southern California, and for the next several months it rained intermittently and at times constantly. On the twelfth day of March it rained, and for the next six days it rained. It rained with fury and anger, as it had all winter. Hillsides turned into mud and slid down upon houses and roads; houses left their foundations and were engulfed in mud, and the dry, concrete-lined flood channel, which was euphemistically called the Los Angeles River, became a roaring torrent of white water.
Masuto's beloved rose garden, which contained forty-three varieties of rare and exotic roses, and which was enclosed by a wall of hibiscus and night-blooming jasmine, and where he had planned to spend at least one full day nurturing and pruning, became a sodden bog, and his own small and treasured meditation room, which he had built with his own hands, developed four separate leaks, so spaced as to make proper meditation impossible.
These two blows of fate were dealt to Masuto. What of his wife, Kati, and his two children—his daughter, Ana, who was nine years old, and his son, Uraga, who was eleven? Instead of the picnic at Malibu, the bicycle day on the path at Venice Beach, and the day to be spent at Disneyland, they were all cooped up, day after day, in their cottage in Culver City. Even though Masuto and his wife, Kati, were Nisei, which means that they were born in the United States of Japanese parentage, they had raised their children in the Japanese manner—whereupon neither Ana nor Uraga complained, as American children might well have done. And this only served to increase Masuto's frustration and unhappiness.
On the final day of his aborted vacation, at his wits' end for varieties of indoor amusement, Masuto produced his game of go. For those unfamiliar with the ancient Japanese game of go, it can only be said that it defies the Western mind and makes chess appear absurdly simple. According to Japanese tradition, the game of go was devised by the Emperor Yao in the year 2350 B.C. The true go—not the Western simplifications which Masuto would not tolerate in his home—is played on a board that is divided into squares by 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines. This results in 361 intersections. Each player has 181 pieces with which to play, and the play proceeds in a manner which can conceivably be taught but hardly described.
Now, on this last day of Masao's vacation, Masuto was trying to entice Uraga into a game of go when the telephone rang. Perhaps providentially, for Uraga frequently won at go, and a defeat by his son would not at this moment have raised Masuto's spirits. Kati answered the phone and then came into the living room and informed Masuto that his boss, Captain Wainwright, chief of detectives on the Beverly Hills police force, would like to speak to him.
"Tell him I'm on vacation," Masuto said sourly.
"He knows you are on vacation. He is apologetic. But he would like to talk to you, Masao."
Masuto went to the telephone and listened as Wainwright sympathized. "I know what a pain in the ass this weather's been, Masao, and the last thing in the world I'd do would be to break in on your vacation time if it wasn't raining. But I told myself you're bored as hell, and this is your thing."
Which was Wainwright's delicate way of announcing a homicide. There was no homicide squad as such on the Beverly Hills police force. With almost two dozen plain-clothes detectives in a city of not much more than thirty thousand inhabitants, there was no need for a permanent homicide detail. There were simply not enough murders, but when homicide did occur, Masuto and his partner, Sy Beckman, took over.
"If you're interested?" Wainwright added.
Masuto glanced into the living room, where his son stared bleakly at the go board. "I'm interested," he said, "providing I get an extra day next time."
"Good. We're up at Forty-four hundred Laurel Way. Take an umbrella. It's raining like hell."
As if Masuto didn't know.
Kati did not try to dissuade Masuto—at this point it was a relief to have him out of the house; but she made him wear a raincoat and take an umbrella as well, and she kissed him and clucked sympathetically over the mess his vacation had been. "Take care of yourself, please, Masao." But that was always on her lips when he left.
Driving north from Culver City across Motor Avenue to Olympic Boulevard and then to Beverly Drive, Masuto reflected on the fact that he was delighted to be back at work. He had once read somewhere that vacations are for amateurs. Could it be that he had lost the ability to enjoy anything but his work? Did he love being a policeman to that extent, or was it the puzzle, the question, the deeply mysterious and always disturbing problem of crime? Crime encapsulated the general illness of mankind, and as a Buddhist he was involved with mankind. Well, let that be as it might; it was a question he had turned over in his mind a hundred times. Answers were simple, so long as one did not dwell on the question.
Laurel Way—not to be confused with Laurel Canyon Drive, which is in Hollywood—is a Beverly Hills street that winds up into the Santa Monica foothills, a left turn off Beverly Drive just north of Lexington. The street follows the lip of a curving, ascending ridge, and the expensive houses on either side of the roadway overlook two canyons, one on either side of the ridge. Now, in the pouring rain, the road had become a shallow stream, and Masuto drove carefully, pleased that his old Datsun dealt so well with the elements; this was a day for elements. Forty-four hundred was a sprawling, stucco-covered, single-story house. There was just room in the driveway to park his car between Wainwright's Buick and a city prowl car.
As Masuto climbed out of his car and opened his umbrella, Detective Sy Beckman appeared on a path that seemed to circle the outside of the house. Beckman, a huge man, six feet three inches and built like a wrestler, grinned sympathetically. "It never rains but it pours," he said. "Me, I take my vacation in the summertime."
"Thank you. Now what have we got here?"
"Come and see. This one's a doozy."
He followed Beckman along the path, around the side of the house, through an alley of rain-soaked acacia to the terrace behind the house. It was a lovely terrace, about sixty feet long, paved in red brick, decorated with a proper assortment of palms and jasmine, with a splendid view of hills and canyons descending to the city below, and with a space in the center for a swimming pool. But the swimming pool was gone, and with it a goodly part of the terrace, leaving a gaping hole, or rather a three-sided gap in the outer rim of the terrace. Moving gingerly, Beckman led Masuto to where the outer edge of the terrace still survived, an iron railing originally placed there as a safety precaution. Where the hole was, the railing had been torn away. Now, leaning over the railing, Masuto saw the swimming pool sitting halfway down the canyon side, a wide gash in the mesquite marking its journey from its original position.
"Nothing like a little rain in Los Angeles," Beckman said. "Full of surprises."
"Masao, is that you?" Wainwright shouted.
He was in the hole left by the ambulatory swimming pool, and with him, in rain hat and raincoat, was Dr. Sam Baxter, the part-time medical examiner of Beverly Hills. There were not sufficient homicides in Beverly Hills to warrant a staff medical examiner. Baxter, chief pathologist at All Saints Hospital, doubled as medical examiner when needed.
"Get down here, but do it carefully," Wainwright told him. "I wouldn't give you twenty cents for the rest of this terrace."
Masuto folded his umbrella and let himself down into the hole that had contained the swimming pool. Beckman followed. The rain was tapering off, and in the distance, over the Pacific, the clouds were breaking apart, revealing gashes of blue sky.
"Now that your Oriental wizard has arrived," Baxter said sourly, "I'd like to go. Never should have been here in the first place."
Masuto had resigned himself to being ankle deep in mud, but the bottom of the hole was quite firm, the water having drained down into the canyon. Actually, the excavation was in that peculiar soft rock which characterizes most of the Santa Monica hills and which is called, locally, decayed granite; and while the force of the constant winter rains had loosened the pool, overfilled it and weakened its supports to send it finally sliding down into the canyon, most of the ground it had once rested on was intact and firm, sloping from the shallow end to the deeper part. Wainwright and Baxter stood in the middle section. Masuto joined them. Wainwright pointed at the ground in front of them.
"There it is, Masao."
From the terrace a uniformed policeman called out, "The ambulance is here, captain."
"We'll be through in five minutes."
"Can I go now?" Baxter demanded.
Masuto stared silently and thoughtfully at what Wainwright had pointed to. A groove about six feet long, two feet wide and a foot deep had been gouged out of the dacayed granite upon which the pool had rested. The groove was half full of muddy water; the rest of the water apparently had been bailed out with a plastic pail that stood nearby. Lying in the water that remained, there was a human skeleton.
"Well, go ahead, ask me!" Baxter snorted. "Ask me what killed him and how long he's been dead!"
"I wouldn't dream of asking you that," Masuto said mildly. "You said 'he.' It's a man, I presume?"
"It was, and that's all I know. When we pick up the bones and get them back to the lab, I may know more and I may not. Have you seen enough, or are you going to stand there gawking at it all day?"
"I've seen enough," Masuto said.
"Then I'm going."
Wainwright thanked him.
"For what? For getting a case of pneumonia?" He stalked over to the shallow end of the pool and climbed out. "Get all the bones," he snapped at the two ambulance men, who were waiting with their basket. "And don't mess things up."
"Lovely man," Beckman said.
"Where are the owners of the house?" Masuto asked.
"Inside. Nice people. They're a bit shaken. Bad enough to lose a swimming pool—a skeleton under it doesn't add to the pleasure."
"No, I suppose not."
"You talk to them, Masao. See what you can pick up about this. The pool's been here about thirty years, so I suppose we'll come up with a dead-end John Doe. Give it a shot anyway. We can't just write the poor bastard off."
The ambulance men finished collecting the bones and departed, Wainwright following them. Masuto said to Beckman, "Let's get rid of the rest of the water in there, Sy."
"Did they bury him naked? I wouldn't think that shoes are biodegradable. Where are they? Buttons, belt buckle, even pieces of cloth. There was nothing on the bones."
"Maybe it washed out. That was a damned heavy rain. It washed most of the dirt out of the hole."
Beckman sighed, picked up the plastic pail, and began to bail. He got the water down to a level of about an inch, and then he and Masuto explored the grave carefully with their hands. There was nothing but bits of decayed granite and loose dirt.
Wet and dirty, the two men looked at each other and nodded.
"Buried naked," Beckman said.
"Which bespeaks a sense of thoroughness," Masuto decided. "It's a beginning."
"First facts concerning the killer. He's a careful man, a thorough man. Doesn't like loose ends. A sense of neatness."
"Providing he's still alive. This was thirty years ago."
"Providing he's still alive. We also know he could operate a backhoe."
"How do we know that—you don't mind my asking?"
"He dug the grave. Conceivably, it could have been done with a pickax, but that would take hours. Anyway, here at the edge"—Masuto bent and touched two marks at the end of the grave—"that looks like the teeth of a backhoe. Most likely they had finished the excavation and the backhoe was still available. Maybe they planned to pour the concrete the following day. He could have come by at night, used the backhoe, cut out the grave, put in the body, and then packed it over with dirt."
"That's a lot of maybes."
"Just the beginning."
They were up on the terrace now. The rain had ended, the sky in the west was laced with pink and purple clouds that formed a curtain across the setting sun. The two men stared at it in silence for a minute or so, and then Beckman said, "There's no way we're going to break this one, Masao."
"We'll see. Let's go in and talk to the people who own the place."
John and Mary Kelly were the fortunate "creative" proprietors of a soap opera; fortunate in the fact that it provided both of them with enough money to live in Beverly Hills, and creative in the sense that John Kelly, a writer, had originated the soap opera—which was called Shadow of the Night—and Mary, an actress, was its chief running character. John, tall, stoop-shouldered, and nearsighted, had banged out the script, day in and day out for five years, and Mary, blond, blue-eyed, and pretty, had played in it day in and day out for five years. Today, being Saturday, their single day of rest, they were at home, sitting in the living room, comforting themselves with white wine and trying to adjust to the loss of a swimming pool and the ownership of a long-deceased skeleton, both in the same day. They had already spoken to Wainwright and to their public relations man and to the network—so that the latter two might decide whether to make the most or the least out of these happenings—and they were now trying to make sense of their insurance policy when Masuto sounded their doorbell. John went to the door and stared with dismay at the two bedraggled men. Masuto showed his badge.
"We would like to talk to you and your wife, if we might. I'm Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto. This is Detective Sy Beckman, both of us with the Beverly Hills police force. We're wet and dirty, so perhaps we should talk in the garage."
"Absolutely not," said his wife, Mary, coming up behind him. "You poor dears. Just give me your coats and come on into the living room. We have a fire going. Anyway, nothing so exciting has ever happened to us before, and here are two in-the-flesh detectives, and John, if that isn't grist for your mill, I don't know what is."
"Right on," John agreed. "Forgive my rudeness, but you're a Nisei, aren't you? I mean, on the Beverly Hills force, that's something. I mean if we can demonstrate some sanity in Beverly Hills, it can happen anywhere, wouldn't you agree?"
"Absolutely," Masuto said.
A few minutes later, sitting in the living room and drinking hot coffee, and listening to Beckman discussing a soap opera with its creator, Masuto reflected, as he had so often before, on the wedding of the tragic and the ridiculous in his work. Beckman was explaining that while his wife never missed a segment of Shadow of the Night if she could help it, he only caught it on his days off. "When I tell her that we were here—well, never mind that. It's off the subject."
"Yes, of course," Kelly said. "But did you ever catch a segment with the narc—Henderson, the narcotics squad."
"No? That's a pity. I would have appreciated a professional opinion."
"I think," the wife said, "that Sergeant Masuto would like to talk about the swimming pool."
"Oh? Oh, absolutely. You know, when I think of all the laps I've done in that pool with some poor devil's corpse right under me—sorry, go ahead."
"Just a few questions. First of all, when did you buy the house?"
Excerpted from The Case of the Sliding Pool by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1981 E. V. Cunningham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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