That Sunday evening Tim Hess lumbered down the sidewalk to the snack stand at 15th Street. The skaters parted but paid him no attention. It was cool for August and the red flag on the lifeguard house pointed stiff to the east. The air smelled of the Pacific and ketchup.
Hess got coffee and headed across the sand. He sat down on the picnic bench and squinted out at the waves. A big south swell was coming and the sea looked lazy and dangerous.
A minute later Chuck Brighton joined him at the table. His tie flapped in the breeze and his white hair flared up on one side then lay down again. He set a briefcase onto the bench and sat down beside it facing Hess. He tore open a pack of sugar.
"Hello, boss," said Hess.
"Tim, how are you feeling?"
"I feel damned good, considering. Just look at me."
Brighton looked at him and said nothing. Then he leaned forward on his elbows. He was a big man and when he shifted his weight on the wooden bench Hess could feel the table move because the benches and the table were connected with steel pipe. Hess looked at the angry waves again. He had lived his childhood here in Newport Beach, well over half a century ago.
Hess didn't acknowledge the compliment. Brighton had always been as generous with his praise as he was with his punishments. They'd worked together for over forty years and they were friends.
"We can put you back on payroll as a consultant. Full time, and you get all the medical. Forget the Medicare runaround."
"That's what I'm after."
Brighton smiled in a minor key. "I think you're after more than that, Tim. I think you need a way to stay busy, keep your hand in things."
"There is that."
"He's got to be some kind of psychopath. There really isn't much to go on yet. This kinda guy makes me sick."
Hess had suspected but now he knew. "The National Forest dumps."
"Dump isn't really the word. But you saw the news. They both went missing from shopping malls, at night. Cops waited the usual forty-eight to take the missing persons reports. The first was half a year ago, the Newport woman. We found her purse and the blood. That was a month after she bought nylons at Neiman-Marcus, walked out and disappeared forever."
Brighton squared his briefcase, fingered the latches, then sighed and folded his hands on it.
"Then yesterday late, the Laguna one. A week ago she went to the Laguna Hills Mall and vanished from sight. Hikers found her purse. The ground near it was soaked in blood again‹like the first. It'll hit the news tomorrow‹repeat this, serial that. More mayhem on the Ortega Highway. Both the victims‹apparent victims‹were good people, Tim. Young, attractive, bright women. People loved them. One married, one not."
Hess remembered the newspaper picture. One of those women who seems to have it all, then has nothing at all.
He looked up the crowded sidewalk toward his apartment and drank more coffee. It made his teeth ache but his teeth ached most of the time now anyway.
"So, it's two sites off the Ortega in Cleveland National Forest, about a hundred yards apart. They're eight miles this side of the county line. Two patches of blood-stained ground. Blood-drenched is how the crime scene investigator described it. Scraps of human viscera likely at the second one. Lab's working up the specimens. No bodies. No clothing. No bones. Nothing. Just the purses left behind, with the credit cards still in them, no cash, no driver's licenses. Some kind of fetish or signature, I guess. They're half a year apart, but it's got to be the same guy."
"Everyday women's purses?"
"If bloodstained and chewed by animals is everyday."
"What kind of animals?"
"Hell, Tim. I don't know."
Hess didn't expect an answer. It was not the kind of answer the sheriff-coroner of a county of 2.7 million needed to have. But he asked because scavengers have differing tastes and habits, and if you can establish what did the eating you can estimate how fresh it was. You could build a time line, confirm or dispute one. It was the kind of knowledge that you got from forty-two years as a deputy, thirty in homicide.
We are old men, Hess thought. The years have become hours and this is what we do with our lives.
He looked at the sheriff. Brighton wore the brown wool-mix off-the-rack sport coats that always make cops look like cops. Hess wore one too, though he was almost half a year off the force.
"Who's got it?" asked Hess.
"Well, Phil Kemp and Merci Rayborn got the call for the Newport Beach woman. Her name was Lael Jillson. That was back in February. So this should be theirs, too, but there's been some problems."
Hess knew something of the problems. "Kemp and Rayborn. I thought that was a bad combination."
"I know. We thought two opposites would make one whole, and we were wrong. I split them up a couple of months ago. Phil's fine with that. I wasn't sure who to put her with, to tell you the truth. Until now."
Hess knew something of Merci Rayborn. Her father was a longtime Sheriff Department investigatorburg/theft, fraud, then administration. Hess never knew him well. He had accepted a pink-labeled cigar when Merci was born, and he had followed her life through brief conversations with her father. To Hess she was more a topic than a person, in the way that children of co-workers often are.
At first she was a department favorite, but the novelty of a second-generation deputy wore off fast. There were a half dozen of them. Hess had found her to be aggressive, bright and a little arrogant. She'd told him she expected to run the homicide detail by age forty, the crimes against persons section by fifty, then be elected sheriff-coroner at fifty-eight. She was twenty-four at the time, working the jail as all Sheriff Department yearlings do. In the decade since then, she had not become widely liked. She seemed the opposite of her soft-spoken, modest father.
Hess thought it amusing how generations alternated traits so nimbly‹he had seen it in his own nieces and nephews.
"Tim, she filed that lawsuit Friday afternoon. Went after Kemp for sexual harassment going back almost ten years. Physical stuff, she says. Well, by close of the workday two more female deputies had told the papers they were going to join in, file suits too. The lawyer's talking class action. So we've got a lot of deputies taking sides, the usual battle lines. I was sorry Rayborn did it, because basically she's a good investigator for being that young. I don't know what to make of those complaints. No one's ever complained about Phil before, except for him being Phil. Maybe that's enough these days. I don't know."
Hess saw the disappointment. For a public figure Brighton was a private man, and he bore his department's troubles as if they sprung from his own heart. He had always avoided conflict and wanted to be liked.
"I'll try to fly under all that."
"What did the dogs find?" he asked.
"They worked a couple of trails between the sites and a fire road about a hundred yards south of the highway. The two trails were real close to each other‹a hundred yards or so. He parked and carried them through the brush. Did whatever he does. Carried them back out, apparently. Besides that, nothing."
"How much blood?"
"We'll run saturation tests on soil from the new scene. Janet Kane was her name. With the first, most of it's dried up and decomposed. The lab might get some useful DNA. They're trying."
"I thought you'd find them buried out there."
"So did I. Dogs, methane probe, chopper, zip. A pea-sized part of my brain says they still might be alive."
Hess paused a moment to register his opinion on the subject of this hope. Then, "We might want to draw a bigger circle."
"That's up to you and Merci. Merci and you, to be exact. Her show, you know."
Hess turned and stared out at the riptides lacing the pale green ocean. He could feel Brighton's eyes on him.
"You do look good," said the sheriff. The breeze brought his words back toward Hess.
"I feel good."
"You're tougher than a boiled owl, Tim."
Hess could hear the sympathy in Brighton's voice. He knew that Brighton loved him but the tone pricked his pride and his anger, too.
The two men stood and shook hands.
The sheriff opened his briefcase and handed Hess two green cardboard files secured by a thick rubber band. The top cover was stamped copy in red.
"There's some real ugly in this one, Tim."
"Stop by Personnel as soon as you can. Marge'll have the paperwork ready."
© T. Jefferson Parker