Authors: Sam Ripley
THE GIFT OF DEATH
She stared at the sea and thought of death. The sound of the waves rising and falling against the shoreline reminded Kate Cramer of the last breaths of a dying woman.
She tried to force the image from her brain, but it was no use. The sibilant whisper of the sea transported her back to the hospital where she had sat by the bedside of a young woman and listened to her die.
The girl, Allie, only in her early twenties, had been attacked by a stranger and stabbed a total of sixty-six times. Josh – this was in the days when they were still together - had told her that when Allie had first been found her body had looked like something you’d see in a slaughterhouse. The medics had done their best to stitch up her wounds, but during the frenzied attack she had lost so much blood that it was unlikely she would ever regain consciousness. But there had been a small chance. That was why Kate had stayed by her bedside for two days in the hope that the girl might wake up and help her piece together a facial portrait of her attacker.
In the past she had been called to the beds of a handful of victims who had been diagnosed as too severely injured to recover and, in the case of an elderly woman, she had managed to secure enough information to draw a mock-up of the perpetrator before she died. It was only a makeshift sketch, but the release of the image to the media had resulted in the arrest, and subsequent prosecution, of a violent criminal and serial murderer.
Although she had not been able to help Allie – or the police, who still had not found her murderer - at least she had been there for her in those last hours. Unlike her parents, who had taken one look at their daughter and had left the hospital, too distressed to return. Apart from the team of medics who moved in and out of the room like ghosts, and the police stationed outside the door, Kate was the one who had stayed with Allie and who had watched her breathe her last. On her final exhalation the girl had opened her mouth as if to form a silent word. Then she had passed away.
That’s why the sea holds such a spell over us, she thought. Not because it takes us back to the womb, but because it takes us forward to the moment of death.
God, she was in a good mood this morning. She imagined what her father would have said to her if he could have heard her. ‘Gee, honey,’ he would have drawled, ‘I didn’t realise we had a fuggin’ philosopher for a daughter.’ Her smile was undercut by an unexpected surge of sadness. It had been two years since the cancer had eaten him away. And despite what people said it didn’t get any easier. Every day she missed him, every day she still woke up with the same ache inside her.
She picked up her camera bag from beside her and brushed off the sand from its canvas casing. The sun had just risen over the sea, sending shards of light over the Pacific. The contrast between the dark shadows deep inside the waves and the reflected rays on the surface would add depth to the photographs, which she would then print herself in black and white. She took out her camera, turning it around in her hands, the bulk of it giving her an irrational sense of satisfaction. If there was one thing that made her happy it was this. Sitting alone on an empty beach, a heavy camera lying in her palms, a sense of anticipation rising within her.
She eased off the lens cover and looked through the viewfinder trained out to sea. Nothing but a grey blur. Kate deftly turned the lens, letting in more light and focusing the camera. After only eighteen months she had gone from keen amateur, messing about with a tiny digital, to fully-fledged professional; her next exhibition, in a fashionable Santa Monica gallery, would be her second, and her dark, moody prints sold for upwards of a couple of thousand dollars a piece.
She knew it was a better way of making a living than imagining the faces of murderers, rapists and other assorted psychopaths. Slowly the images of the dead were beginning to disappear, to be replaced by the ever-changing surface of the sea.
But she was not entirely convinced. She pretended that what she felt was not guilt, but what other word was there? She had stepped away from her position as a forensic artist in order to have a quieter, steadier, more normal life. But all those victims out there - the mutilated, the raped, the abused, the butchered – did not have that luxury. They were defined by the crimes inflicted upon them, the scars etched into their bodies and their faces, marks that inscribed their bleak futures. The lucky ones were the ones who had died.
Perhaps that newspaper article was getting to her after all. At the end of the month it would be exactly ten years since the arrest of Bobby Gleason. To mark this ‘anniversary’ Cynthia Ross of the
had written a feature looking at what had happened to some of the people involved in the case. Ross had contacted her gallery, asking for an interview, promising her some great publicity. Of course neither she, nor Cassie Veringer, Gleason’s last victim, had participated. What was the point? But that hadn’t stopped the reporter from digging up some old quotes, which together with the photographs of the two women, looked as though they had been interviewed at length. Ross had managed to speak to Jordan Weislander, the state prosecutor who had worked on the case. What was it Weislander had called him? A coward and a pathetic excuse for a human being. True, thought Kate, but he had also been one hell of a sadistic son of a bitch.
What was she doing thinking of Gleason? He belonged to a past long gone. And she had work to do.
She moved closer to the shore and brought her camera up towards her face. She wanted to try and capture the moment when a wave was at its peak, the split second between its rise and its fall. So far she had taken five rolls of film, out of which she was happy with maybe eight images. For her exhibition – which had a working title of Waves in Motion – she would need something like thirty photographs.
Kate knelt down on the damp sand and peered into the depths of the ocean. A sudden gust from the sea swept her silver grey hair off her face, sending it dancing in the air. Every pore of her porcelain-white skin seemed to come alive. She tasted the salt in the breeze and felt the fine spray of the ocean on her face. She edged a little closer to the shore, careful not to risk her camera getting wet, finally feeling herself totally focused and in the moment.
She moved the camera, trying to find the perfect frame for a shot, pressing the shutter just before a wave was about to reach its peak. She wound on the film quickly and shot again, as the water rose into the air and then again just as it was breaking. She stepped further back from the shoreline and looked out to sea, remembering the childhood game she had played with her father. They would both sit here, just down from the beach house, and try and track the progress of a single wave, from its birth out at sea to its final crash onto the sand. Even though she always managed to lose her chosen wave – and, today, she realised it really was an impossible task – her father lavished her with praise when the surf of ‘her’ wave crashed on the beach.
She felt tears forming, but she bit her lip, determined not to cry, blinking to stop the tears from falling. The sea was a blur now, water seen through water. She wiped her eyes, trying to see clearly. There was something out at sea. She blinked again, quickly, but her vision was fogged. She picked up her camera and zoomed in on the object. What was it? A small seal? Part of a whale? Every few moments it would disappear under the surface of the water and then re-emerge.
Automatically, without thinking, she took a couple of shots. A large wave took hold of it and carried it towards shore. For a moment it was lost in the surf. She squinted as she tried to find the object in the midst of the spray. But then the water tossed it onto the surface once more. The viewfinder framed it perfectly. She took five or six shots before an awful realisation came to her.
She threw her camera down on to the sand and ran to the shore, tearing off her grey cashmere hooded top as she moved. She was slightly afraid of the sea, but she plunged straight in, the sudden cold taking her breath away. Her white jeans clung to her skin, her black long-sleeved shirt billowed out like a sinister balloon, but she launched herself into the water. She could hear her own breath – shallow, loud and terrifying – as she swam with all her strength. She could feel the quickening beat of her heart, but she could not let up. As she came nearer, her worst fears were realised.
The baby – a naked little girl – lolled in the water like a grotesque doll, its eyes large, glassy, and wide.
With one last stroke she took hold of the baby. Her flesh was ice cold, but she knew she had to try to bring her back to land, back to life. With the last of her strength, Kate dragged herself back to shore, trying hard to keep the little girl’s head above water. But a sudden wind whipped up the waves, sending them crashing over both of them. The force pushed Kate under, nearly wrenching the baby from her grasp. She held on, but took in what seemed like a lungful of salt water. She blinked through the water to see the shoreline quite close now. A couple more strokes and she would be on the sand.
The waves bore her in, beaching her like an injured sea creature, and for a couple of seconds she could only lie there, vomiting sea water and trying to catch her breath. As soon as she had recovered her strength she manoeuvred the baby away from the water’s edge and opened its little mouth. A stream of salt water, grit and sand dribbled out. She placed her fingers delicately over her tiny nose and tried to blow life back into its white body. The baby’s lips were blue, its mouth a perfect Cupid’s bow. On its head was a tuft of black hair. She willed it to live, but no matter how many times she forced her breath into her, the little girl did not stir. She had gone.
Kate fell backwards on to the sand. She fought against the nausea that rose inside her, shouting her rage and grief at the sky. Then the professional that she had for so long tried to bury suddenly came alive as she realised that she needed to get help. This was, she thought, a crime scene. What the hell had happened here? Various scenarios ran through her head - a woman suffering from post-natal depression perhaps driven to an awful act of desperation; an angry father, convinced his partner had been unfaithful, snatching the child and swimming out to sea, killing them both; a frightened teenager unable to face the future with a new, unwanted baby, taking her daughter down to the beach and abandoning her to the elements.
She stood up, unsteady on her feet, and tried to run towards the house. Her legs felt like they were melting beneath her, and the beach shifted under her feet as if it were quick sand. As she ran she looked around for help, scanning the stretch of shore for any sign of life. It was still too early in the morning for the joggers or the dog walkers.
Then, in the distance, towards the very end of the beach, she thought she could just make out a figure. A man dressed in black. She tried to shout, desperately waving her arms, but realised he couldn’t hear her. Slowly the silhouette seemed to turn and look at her, pausing as if to assess her, coldly. Although she could not see his face, she felt his eyes on her. She felt a sensation of terror deep inside and, for a moment, she could not move.
Then, without thinking, her right hand moved from her side and came to rest on her stomach. She stared down at her belly. She was frozen in fear.
When she looked up again the figure had gone.
The beach house had been invaded by what seemed to Kate like half of the LAPD: uniformed officers, plainclothes detectives, forensic teams, fingerprinters, photographers and the one man in the world she did not want to see – Josh Harper.
When she had made that call to 911 she knew that, as Josh was one of the Robbery-Homicide division’s (RHD) chief detectives, he would turn up at the scene. And here he was – the tall, dark, handsome man who had fucked up her life. As she repeated the details of what she had seen to one of the interviewing officers she observed Josh from the corner of her eye, careful not to let him know she was watching. If he looked over towards her she refocused on an object across the room, a painting on the wall, a pile of books on a shelf. To her, he was more or less invisible. Not worth the space he occupied. What was it her girlfriend, Lisa, had called him? The human slimeball with the slicked-back hair.