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Authors: Jeff Rovin

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Fatalis (8 page)

BOOK: Fatalis
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The cave was silent again and dark, save for the fast-fading glow of the flashlight. Soon the only movement was the river and the only light was two small, faint, iridescent globes on the far side of the cave, hovering just above the surface of the lake.
And then they too winked out.
Chapter Ten
Sheriff Gearhart went back to his patrol car. He arrived just as the team of deputies from LEO Investigations arrived. He sent deputies Scott and Bright down into the ravine then shut the door and radioed Chief Deputy Valentine. Gearhart told Valentine what Grand had found in the cave and asked him to have the town's director of social welfare check on the whereabouts of any homeless persons with a history of aggression. Gearhart also wanted the chief deputy to contact the police departments in Santa Paula, Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, and other communities in the mountains. He wanted to know if any kidnappings or violent crimes had been reported there. Perhaps some maniac was heading west through the hills. If so, this would be as far west as he got.
"I want this kept as quiet as possible," Gearhart instructed him. He looked at Hannah Hughes who was looking back at him. This could still be an accident-a bobcat or a coyote could have carried that radio into the mountain. He looked back at Valentine. "If not, I want some thoughts on who we might be looking for."
Valentine said he'd get right on it.
Gearhart got back out of the car. In the distance he saw the ruins of Knapp's Castle. Begun in 1916 and completed in 1920, the sandstone edifice was destroyed by the Paradise Canyon fire in 1940. The owner did not rebuild. Some say it was because of nightmares she'd had, black dreams that the ancient gods had sent the fire to keep humans from settling in the mountains.
Perhaps the gods were pissed off again
, Gearhart thought.
If they were, they'd have to fight for the hills this time. Malcolm Gearhart loved them. He loved all of his county- the air, the ocean, the sun, and the breeze. He loved the pace, the low white buildings in the center of Santa Barbara, the neat suburban streets and homes outside the incorporated town, and the overall quality of life. He loved the fact that people felt safe here and children could be raised with a sense of ethics and community pride. Sanity had to start somewhere and it might as well start here.
That was something he'd never had as a child.
Gearhart grew up in impoverished South Norwalk, Connecticut, where his father painted boats in the marina by day and got explosively pissed off at his wife and son at night. The boy's mother blamed it on the paint fumes, on having no money, on frustration. But that didn't make the screaming and the beatings any easier. The boy took so many belt whippings that today Gearhart felt self-conscious going to the beach in a bathing suit or shorts. His legs had been permanently marked in spots by the metal buckle.
The day after he graduated from Norwalk High School, Gearhart bicycled to the Selective Service office on East Avenue to find out how to get himself into the Marines. One of the neighbors had a son who was a Marine and Gearhart liked the way the man carried himself, with confidence and dignity.
A kind, soft-spoken woman named Mrs. Moriarty told Gearhart how to sign up. Four weeks later he was at Camp Pendleton, California.
Gearhart did two tours of Vietnam. He came home with a chestful of medals, the pride he'd been looking for, and the uncomfortable sense that he'd been beaten there too. They'd won skirmishes and destroyed villages and killed Vietcong. But now that he was back and heard the politicians and protesters and whining singers, he realized that what he and his brothers fought was a holding action, not a war. He had been beaten, this time not from without but from within.
With no idea what he wanted to do with his life, Gearhart bought a '63 Ford Galaxie-pink, because it cost him a couple hundred less than if it had been any other color-and drove cross-country to look at the nation he'd spent his early twenties defending. He saw Gettysburg, the Alamo, and the Little Big Horn. He felt close to those places and to the men who'd fought in them. He also saw armies of scraggly haired punks doing nothing, college kids avoiding the draft, shameless women, and-worst of all-many of his own people advocating violence. It was as if everyone had been sucking up paint fumes. By the time he made his way back to California, Gearhart knew what be wanted to do. He wanted to make sure that other good people didn't get beat. He wanted to protect the honest people who were working and trying to provide for themselves and their families.
Gearhart entered the Los Angeles Police Academy, where his Marine training helped him graduate at the top of his class. He was assigned to a foot beat, Wilshire Area, and, after countless commendations, had risen to Commanding Officer of the Organized Crime and Vice Division.
But he was beaten there too. Not by the ineffectiveness of his own units or by the enemy-the street gangs, the Mafiosi, or the ruthless new criminal families from Armenia, China, Colombia, and Russia. He was beaten by people outside the trenches, the judges and politicians who believed that the answer to crime wasn't hard time but compassion and rehabilitation.
Rather than sit back and wait for his pension to kick in, Gearhart packed up his résumé and campaigned for the position of sheriff in Santa Barbara. He wanted to be in a place where the war was still winnable, where the people and leaders had a community vision and would support him. Backed by well-to-do emigres from Los Angeles, who had come an hour north to escape the crowds and crime, Gearhart got his chance. Some people, like Hannah Hughes, still believed that he was overzealous. But Gearhart viewed his job as no different from that of the forest rangers who looked after the local environment. Allow a single spark to go unattended and soon there would be nothing but flame, smoke, and ruin.
Nearly two years after the election, Gearhart had earned the trust of most of the locals who viewed him as a carpetbagger. He had addressed the state legislature several times on matters of law enforcement. He'd justified the faith of the people who had supported him. But most important, he had the one thing he had always wanted.
He was winning.
As he started back toward the sinkhole, he vowed that nothing-no act of God, no madman, and no displaced predator-was going to change that.
Chapter Eleven
Grand had climbed down the first hundred feet of mountainside, after which the ground sloped sufficiently for him to walk. He weaved his way through the pines that broke the otherwise flat landscape. He was perspiring from the exertion and the cool drizzle felt good. He had parked his sports utility vehicle just past Snyder Trail. After placing his duffel bag in the back, Grand climbed behind the wheel, turned on the wipers and heat, and sat for a moment. It was ironic. Jim Grand spent most of his time in the distant past, trying to think like the ancient settlers of this region-figuring out where they would have lived, how they would have hunted or fished, what they would have done with their dead. He never had any trouble returning to the present-until now. Before he saw Gearhart he wanted to try and flush some of the bitterness and rage away.
It was difficult.
Rebecca Schuman-Grand had died in a boating accident off Sandy Point on nearby Santa Rosa Island. She had gone out to assist an elderly colleague who ran a tortoise farm. Grand was going to take the day off and go with her. But he got caught up studying DNA results that had come in early-thanks to one of his students being in charge of the equipment-of nineteen-thousand-year-old fossilized sloth dung that had been found in a cave in Las Vegas. Rebecca's last words to him were a teasing, "You're always giving me one shitty excuse or another."
That was it. Their good-bye. Just the one-liner, a kiss on the forehead, and she went smiling out the door.
On the way back, Rebecca's small jet boat was rammed by a motor yacht that just didn't see her. The Santa Barbara coroner later determined that Rebecca had died instantly.
The United States Coast Guard's Eleventh District Search and Rescue team-which was based on the Channel Islands Harbor in nearby Oxnard-and Sheriff Gearhart's own SAR team were both on-site in twenty minutes. However, after the Coast Guard's motor lifeboat carefully pried the jet boat from the prow of the much larger motor yacht, Gearhart insisted that they bring both vessels to Santa Barbara for impoundment. The ships remained at sea for nearly four hours until the SAR unit finally yielded control of the investigation. The sheriff used the accident to establish absolute jurisdiction over the coastline. Within two days he had also turned Rebecca into a poster child for fund-raising efforts to obtain a motor lifeboat for Santa Barbara County.
Gearhart called the scientist and asked him to assist in the effort. Grand declined. At the time, all the scientist could do was sit in front of the open door of the bedroom closet, staring at his wife's blouses and pants and stacks of shoeboxes and hats and scarves and remembering when they were full of her and alive. He didn't want to see or talk to anyone. Gearhart called him a disappointment, not just to the community but to the memory of Rebecca. Grand should have called the bastard out then and there, but didn't. He was too busy trying to hold onto his wife, the goodness that was in her. Until today, that phone call had been their only contact. Unfortunately, though the moment had passed, the anger never did. A big part of Grand still wanted to hurt him.
The sheriff eventually got his motor lifeboat. He also got an involuntary manslaughter conviction for the seventy-year-old skipper of the motor yacht, who had been kissing his young bride when he should have been watching the water. Grand had always wondered if the bastard expected his thanks.
The scientist set off along East Camino Cielo and followed the long, narrow U-shaped turn to Painted Cave Road. He turned south and was at the sinkhole five minutes later. Grand pulled around the flares. He had to park on the road itself since all the off-road space was taken by private cars and Caltrans emergency vehicles. As he approached, he saw two deputies walking along the creek some thirty feet below. Up ahead there were eight men digging in the sinkhole while his colleague Elma Thorpe, reporter Hannah Hughes, and a man-mountain of a photographer stood around the site. Gearhart was on the other side of the sinkhole, sitting in his patrol car and talking on the radio. As soon as the sheriff saw Grand he stopped what he was doing and came over.
Hannah Hughes followed but stayed several paces behind.
Gearhart exemplified the expression "Once a Marine, always a Marine." His posture was ramrod-straight and there was nothing lazy about his movements. The men met halfway between Stan Greene's van and the sinkhole. Neither man offered a hand or a word of greeting.
"Professor Grand," Gearhart said, "a couple of my Special Ops volunteers are going to enter the cave and retrieve the radio. I'll need precise instructions on how to get to the lower cave."
It wasn't a request but a command.
"Sheriff, I'm not good at giving directions, orders, that kind of thing," Grand said pointedly. "Why don't I just take them in myself?"
"I don't have a problem with that," Gearhart replied.
"They'll need harnesses to get down there," Grand told him. "They'll also need night vision capability until we get to the subterranean level."
"I discovered paintings in the outer cave," Grand said. "Bright lights may damage them."
"I'll let them know," Gearhart said.
The sheriff didn't make an issue of that. California state law required the "participation, guidance, and accommodation" of specialists whenever there was police activity in or around an historic site. In the absence of a clear and present danger, search-and-rescue operations or criminal investigations were obliged to follow the expert's advice to protect the integrity of the site.
"The men should be up here in about an hour," Gearhart went on. "Can you wait?"
Grand nodded. Gearhart nodded back, then strode over to the ravine.
Hannah wandered over. She watched Gearhart go. "You're welcome. Sheriff," she grumbled.
Grand looked at her.
"You know," she went on, "the movers and shakers are actually talking about running him for governor."
"Sounds like a good idea," Grand said.
"Oh, come on-"
"Hell, I'd vote for him," Grand went on. "Get him out of Santa Barbara."
Hannah smiled. "Professor, we could become great friends. I'm Hannah Hughes-"
"With the
Coastal Freeway
, I know." Grand took off his glove and offered the young woman his hand. "You wrote some very nice things about Rebecca. Thank you."
Hannah shook his hand. "She was a terrific lady, she did a lot of good work. But how did you know it was me?"
"From your photograph."
"Which photograph?"
"The one on the editorial page."
"That tiny one?"
Grand nodded.
"Wow, you
know how to interpret cave art."
Grand smiled. "It's not so bad."
"Not for high school circa nineteen seventy," Hannah said. "It was the Wall's idea of a glamour shot."
"The Wall?"
"My photographer." She pointed him out. "Walter. The big guy."
The Wall saw her and waved.
"I used the photo because I didn't want to hurt his feelings," Hannah said. "Anyway, speaking of what we do, I have a nasty-wicked deadline. I overheard your conversation with Gearhart and I was wondering if you could tell me more about what you found in that lower cave."
"The radio, I assume. Not the paintings."
"There isn't much more to tell," he said. "The only thing I found in the lower chamber was the radio. There's a lake, but I wasn't able to check it."
"Where exactly is the cave?"
BOOK: Fatalis
5.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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