When a band of homeless people cremate a beloved dog in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the authorities are willing to overlook a few broken regulations. But three weeks later, when the dog's owner gets the same fiery send-off, the San Francisco Police Department has a real headache on its hands. The autopsy suggests homicide, but Inspector Kate Martinelli and her partner, Al Hawkin, have little else to go on: a homeless victim with no positive ID, a group of witnesses with little love for the cops, and a possible suspect, known only as Brother Erasmus, who proves both articulate and impossible to understand.
Erasmus, has a genius for blending with his surroundings, yet he stands out wherever he goes. He is by no means crazy—but he is a Fool. Kate begins the frustrating task of interrogating a man who communicates only through quotations. In Laurie R. King's To Play the Fool, trying to learn something of his history leads Kate along a twisting road to a disbanded cult, long-buried secrets, the thirst for spirituality, and the hunger for bloody vengeance.
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So it was settled: Jules would come and stay with Kate from the wedding until New Year's.
With one adjustment to the plan.
On the phone, the afternoon before the wedding, Kate talked to her partner at his house on the other side of town.
"Al, I was thinking. If it's all right with you and Jani, I thought Jules and I might go north for a few days over Christmas. Maybe as far as Washington."
"To see Lee?"
"Possibly. If we feel like it. I had a letter from her last week, asking me to come to her aunt's island for Christmas if I could get it off."
"Does she know you're on leave?"
"She doesn't know anything. I didn't tell her about the shooting, or that I got hurt. I didn't want to worry her, and once I got out of the hospital, it didn't really seem like something I could put in a letter, somehow. She did say she was sorry not to make it to your wedding, that she's writing you and sending you.....
"Are you two about to break up?" he asked bluntly.
"Jesus, Al, you do ask some good ones, don't you? I don't know. I just don't know anymore. I don't even know if I care. I haven't even talked to her in four months, just these damn stupid cards of hers. But there won't be any scenes, if that's what you're worried about. I wouldn't take Jules into that. If we do go--and I really haven't made up my mind one way or the other--then we'd just go for the day, maybe overnight, depending on the ferry schedule, but then we'd leave and go do something else. Does Jules ski?"
"Better than I do. Which isn't saying much, I admit."
"Maybe we could go to Rainier or Hood, then. If Janiapproves."
"I'll talk to her, but I doubt she'll have any problems with it. Do you want the car?"
"I'm going to take the Saab off its blocks. And if driving turns out to be a problem, we'll come home. I'm not going to risk passing out or anything while I'm driving Jules. You know that, Al. I'd never put Jules into danger. Never."
Kate came awake to a question. She lay inert for a few seconds until it was answered, by the familiar groan of the Alcatraz foghorn, seemingly a stone's throw from the foot of her bed. Home. Thank God.
Fingers of sweet sleep tugged at her, but for a moment she held herself back, mildly, dutifully curious. Funny, she thought muzzily, I wouldn't have thought that noise would wake me up. I hear it all summer, like living inside a pair of asthmatic lungs, but the only time I noticed it was when they tried replacing it with that irritating electronic whine. The telephone? Don't think it rang. If so, it's stopped now. Let them call back at a human hour. The neighbor's dog? Probably the dream, she decided, which had been stupefyingly tedious even to a sleeping mind, a cop's variation on the "moving luggage from one place to another--Oh God, I've lost one" theme, involving the transfer of prisoners, one at a time, from cell to hallway to van to hallway to cell, each step accompanied by forms and signatures and telephone calls. Better than the hell of the last few days, she thought, but thank God I woke up before I died of boredom. Poor old gray cells too tired to come up with a decent dream. Back to sleep.
She reached up and circled her right arm around the pillow, pulled it under her with a wriggle of voluptuary delight, reached back over her shoulders for the covers and pulled them over her head, and let go, deliciously, slippery as a fish into the deep, dark, still pond of sleep.
Only to be snagged on the viciously sharp point of the doorbell and jerked rudely up into the cruel air. Her eyes flew open. Seconds later, the message reached the rest of her body. Sheets and blankets erupted, feet hit the carpeting, hand reached for dressing gown and found only the smooth wood of the closet door, reached for suitcase and found it still locked tight, reached for keys and found--she waved the search away in a gesture of futility. From behind a pair of swollen, grit-encrusted lids, her eyes steered two distant feet through the obstacles of strewn suitcases, clothing, boots, jacket, toward the stairs, and all the while she was mumbling under her breath.
"It's Al, bound to be, I'll kill him, where's my gun? Hawkin, I'm going to blow you away, you bastard, I'm not on duty 'til tonight, and here you are with your jokes and your doughnuts at dawn"-- she picked up the bedside clock, put it down again--"near enough dawn. Christ, where'd I put those keys? Why'd I lock the goddamn suitcase anyway, it was only in the trunk of the car, here's my gun, I could shoot off the lock, cutesy little padlock, break it off with my teeth. Oh, the hell with it, most of me's covered, it's only Al. No, it can't be Al; he's off with Jani somewhere, that conference with the name. Not Al, must be the milkman, ha, funny girl, just as likely to be a dinosaur or a dodo or--Christ Almighty!" This last was delivered in a shout as the sleeve of a denim jacket, discarded a very few hours before in the process of unburdening herself to fall into bed, caught at her bare ankle and tried to throw her down the stairs. She deflected herself off the newel and landed on all the knobs of the chair of the electric lift, which, as her last act before leaving the house, Lee had sent back up to the top, out of the way--an action Kate had thought at the time was merely thoughtful, but which, at some point during the last few days, she had decided was symbolic. Disentangling herself from the contraption and rubbing her left thigh, Kate limped down the stairs, muttering and unkempt as a street person, a young, muscular, well-fed street person wearing nothing but a navy blue silk tank top, a pair of Campbell plaid flannel boxer shorts, and a thin gold band on the ring finger of her left hand.
She flipped on the door viewer and was surprised to see only the small porch and the street beyond. No, wait--there was a head, the top of a head of dark hair bisected by a perfect sharp part. A child. Kate reached out both hands to turn bolt and knob.
"Look, kid, if you're out here at this ungodly hour selling Girl Scout cookies, I'm going to report you to...Jules? Is that you?"
The child on her doorstep nodded, a subdued movement so unlike the daughter of Jani Cameron that Kate had to lean forward to examine her. She wore a white T-shirt with some kind of foreign writing on it, cutoff shorts, sandals, and a backpack hanging from one thin shoulder; her glossy black hair was in its usual long, tight braids, and she had a Band-Aid on her left knee and a tattoo on the right--no, not an actual tattoo, just a drawing done in blue ink, smudged and fading. Hcr skin was browner than when Kate had seen her last, in thc winter, but it had an odd tinge to it, Kate noted, and a strange, withered sort of texture.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked sharply.
"I just needed to see you, Casey. Kate. Do you think I could come in? It's kind of cold out here."
Kate realized simultaneously that she was huddled behind the door more from self-protection than from modesty, and that the reason the child looked so gray and pinched was that she was half frozen, shivering and damp in the dripping fog on this lovely late August morning in sunny California. Perceptive of you, Martinelli, Kate told herself as she stood back to let Jules in. Just call me Shirley Holmes.