Jeff T. Jefferson Parker

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The Triggerman's Dance

In the most widely published of all photographs of the aftermath, Rebecca lies beside a raised brick planter, arms gracefully extended, her face to the camera, legs together but relaxed. Her shoes are visible beneath the pastel, rain-punished petals of the Iceland poppies that had bloomed two weeks earlier. Above her droops a eucalyptus tree with a thick white trunk and branches heavy with leaves that curve like scimitars. Rebecca seems to be leaning the small of her back against the bricks. There, her waist opens skyward and her torso makes a feminine turn that allows her shoulders to lie flat upon the asphalt while her face confronts the photographer and her arms rest above her head. Her left hand, cupped yet not quite closed, appears to be catching rain. She wears no ring. She is still wrapped in the raincoat she had worn into the gathering storm; a hat is still atop her head. In the photograph, her blond hair spills from beneath the hat and blends in wet waves with the pavement.

The picture was taken just moments after the incident, by a Journal staffer who had been in the darkroom pouring solution. A photo editor barged in and told him something had just "gone down" in the parking lot. As would any professional, the photographer grabbed his camera and ran from the eternal red twilight of the lab in search of a shot that might make his reputation.

This was his lucky day. Print 1B26 on the proof sheet turned out to be the best of his or anyone else's pictures. It appeared not only in the Orange County Journal, where Rebecca Harris was serving an internship, but also in papers across the globe—New York, London, Tokyo, Sidney, and many thousands of journals in between. It is one of those shots that just flat-out has it all: a worthy subject, perfect lighting and composition, and the loaded visual hush common to many great news photographs.

The Triggerman's Dance
Adding to its greatness are the background characters. These are the five unnamed employees of the Journal who were the first to arrive and comprehend what had happened. These onlookers form a not-quite focused chorus beside the planter, and are caught in postures that might well have been arranged by Titian. A woman sobs into one hand while with the other she tries to cover her head from the downpour. Another runs back toward the Journal lobby but is caught mid-stride, as if she wants nothing more in the world than to escape from this image. A uniformed security guard speaks into a belt radio, his jaw histrionically agape. The center of the five, a young man in a long leather coat and a fedora, steps through the rain toward Rebecca, his expression indecipherable but the squared shoulders and alert angle of his head suggest that something can and will be done to correct this . . . mistake. The young man seems to speak for the millions of people who later saw the photograph. He is hope itself, deluded as he was. Of course, in the minds of some foreign observers his action was just one more example of the sadly skewed American concept that, with good intentions, anything can be fixed.

* * *

Costa Mesa Police arrived first, followed by the Orange County Sheriffs. The young police officers went about their work with an air of confidence far beyond their experience, which is part of their training. They began by interviewing briefly the two witnesses closest to Rebecca Harris when the first shot rang out, then they tried to seal off the crime scene. Wearing clear slickers to repel the rain, they dragged yellow-and-black folding sawhorses from the trunks of their patrol cars and began stringing up the yellow "crime scene—do not enter" tape.

But this procedure went inexactly. Because the reporters and photogs had so long endured the rigid protocols of police investigations while on assignment they felt that this event—in their own parking lot—entitled them to do pretty much what they pleased. So they did. The television side of the Journal operation used Rebecca's body—draped with a blanket—as a backdrop for their live, on-scene coverage. Photographers meandered within the taped perimeters, setting up lights and reflectors, snapping away. A dispute broke out regarding the best angles. Reporters took notes or spoke into tape recorders. Editors loitered, and the copy desk people rubbed their eyes. The young police officers were ignored. It was full access.

Through this rainsoaked tableau marched the Journal's most celebrated columnist, a tallish and solid woman named Susan Baum. She limped slightly, which gave her a kind of embattled dignity. She was wrapped in a tan Burberry, with the collars turned up around a hot violet scarf. From beneath her hat bobbed sand-colored curls of hair that framed a square face, deep green eyes, furiously thick brows, and a mouth set in a perpetual frown. Behind her trailed the Journal publisher, who was apparently too flabbergasted by what had happened to even put on a coat. His white shirt, sleeves still rolled to his elbows, clung to his body like old skin. Next to him was head of plant security, and beside him, the executive editor. They approached Rebecca near the raised brick planter.

"M'am," said one of the officers. "Please remain behind the tape."

"Shut up, you fool," said Susan Baum, freezing him with a look of such hostility that the officer actually nodded and backed off.

Susan Baum barged past the TV crew, ruining the intro segment. The attractive on-air reporter, Ensley Moffett, shook her head, ducked under an assistant's umbrella and watched Susan with an air of respectful resignation.

Baum stood some ten feet away from Rebecca and looked down at the body. First she put her hands on her hips and leaned slightly forward, like someone measuring the depth of a hole. Then she stuffed her hands into the Burberry's side pockets and brought out a small notepad. She scribbled something. She gazed past the planter toward the massive Journal building, her eyes settling on the young man in the felt hat and leather coat soaked all the way past the knees. She hadn't even known he was there, just thirty feet away, stuck in the rain like a post. The "Sporting Life" writer, she thought—John? Jim? Mike?

She turned to her publisher and spoke in a quiet voice. "I asked Rebecca to bring my car so I wouldn't have to go out in the storm. This was clearly intended for me."

She nodded to the new Lincoln Town Car the Journal supplied for her as a sign of her high status. It sat just to the right of the planter, behind a little sign that said, simply, "Baum." There was a small round hole near the top of the driver's side window, surrounded by an opaque aura of shatters and a spray of what could only be Rebecca Harris's blood. A bulky key chain dangled from the door lock.

With this, two large tears ran down her unquivering cheeks, and Susan Baum took one last look at her part-time assistant lying beside the planter. Then the columnist walked toward the TV crew, accurately assuming that they would want to interview her, limping due to chronically bad circulation in her left foot which today was aggravated by the cold wet weather.

* * *

Within an hour, the local police had assembled some apparent facts, scant as they were. Rebecca Harris was shot at least twice—once in the back as she unlocked the door of Susan Baum's Town Car, and once in the chest. The latter could have happened either as she turned when the first bullet hit her, or perhaps after she had fallen by the planter. Firearms and Toolmarks would determine the caliber of the gun. One of the crime scene investigators had already dislodged from the interior of the car next to the Lincoln a slug which had apparently passed through the young woman, through the Town Car and into the Acura Legend beside it. It had stopped in the burnished wood of the sedan's right-side dash. To the police it looked like a big-bore rifle slug, but that was only a guess.

It was likely fired from one of the two .30/.06 cartridge casings that had been collected in the gutter of Fairway Boulevard, where the parking lot ended and the homes began. This corner was easily over three hundred yards from the Lincoln, suggesting a very good marksman using a very good firearm.

Something had been skillfully etched onto the shells: The script was flowing, as if handwritten. It looked like the engraving inside a wedding band, but larger.

One case read, "When in the course of human events—"

The other, "—it becomes necessary."

"Constitutional scholar," said a cop.

"That's the Declaration of Independence," said another.

One neighbor described seeing an older Chevrolet van, white, parked streetside before the shots were fired. There were two, three, four or five shots, she wasn't positive. Of course, they had sounded to her like firecrackers. Loud firecrackers. The van was there for "at least twenty minutes" before the shooting. It was gone, westbound on Fairway, just after the shots rang out. She hadn't gotten a look at the van's occupants because when the van was parked she didn't see anybody in it, and by the time she reached the window after hearing the shots, it was already blending into the traffic on Fairway, headed for the Interstate. It was quite possible that the shots had not even come from the van. No plate numbers, no distinguishing characteristics.

The entire crime scene took on a different personality when a newish Ford blazed into the parking lot at high speed and came to a fishtailing, tire-smoking stop just outside the yellow crime scene ribbon.

Two people jumped from the car, ducked the ribbon and walked directly toward the covered body. They took the long, assured strides of the indispensable. A Costa Mesa Police officer approached them and they badged him without missing a step or even slowing down. They both wore dark suits and the lightweight, nylon overcoats Southern Californians mistakenly believe will protect them from heavy weather. The woman was tall, early thirties, had very dark wavy hair, a clenched expression on her suntanned face, and the calves of a weightlifter. The man, roughly her height, was bespectacled, pale and thin, with black hair cropped short. He had a prominent Adam's apple, nose and ears, and he could have been twenty-five or thirty-five. He looked scholarly, except for the lean, pronounced muscles of his jaw and neck. He projected into the space around him the kind of calm with which a mountain lion might observe.

He approached the body, stopped and considered the photographers still milling about the scene.

"If you shoot any film of me, I'll confiscate that film and your cameras," he announced. For a thin pale man, his voice was quite clear and deep. His knot of a larynx rose and fell as if in emphasis. His partner put her hands on her hips and made a slow turning circle, locking eyes, briefly, with each person holding a camera. No one moved.

He went over to the blanketed form, knelt, looked up once at the ominous dusk, then lifted the material. He seemed to study Rebecca's face for a long time. He touched her lips, then her forehead, pressing a soaked blond curl back under the hat. He kissed his fingertips and touched them against her lips again.

After that he froze there, kneeling beside Rebecca for a long time. Then he slowly rose and stood over her, but to many of the observers—and they were trained, professional observers—the man who had kneeled beside Rebecca Harris was not the man who stood up a few minutes later. The new man had a different posture. He was stooped a little, whereas the original was erect. His face was no longer simply pale, but ivory colored and very hard, as if cast from a mold or sculpted. He was most definitely smaller. And certainly, the man who first approached the body did not have the very large black eyes that now challenged each of their faces—eyes so filled with fury and heartache that some of the journalists couldn't even meet them, let alone think of taking a picture.

Susan Baum, possessing the keenest instincts of all the Journal writers, felt in her pocket for the notepad and pen, and approached the bespectacled statue standing over Rebecca.

The young man in the leather coat and fedora had retreated from the throng outside the crime scene tape, and stood alone in the vague middle distance, studying this newly arrived official with the booming voice and the corded neck muscles. He thought: I wonder if that's him.

The pale man took a few steps away from the body, and considered the dozens of people—police, sheriff department, Journal staff, plant security—still meandering on either side of the crime scene ribbon. He held up his badge again, showing it around. His voice was resonant and did not seem to belong to his slender, almost ascetic body.

"My name is Joshua Weinstein, FBI, Orange County Office. This is my partner, Special Agent Sharon Dumars. Anyone . . . anyone not on the other side of that tape in the next ten seconds will be placed under arrest and face federal charges of tampering."

Astonishingly, he actually started counting.

There was a generalized grumble from the crowd, but everyone inside the tape migrated toward it, their movements accelerating noticeably when the count got to eight. Everyone except Susan Baum, who on the count of ten stood directly before Weinstein and gazed straight into his huge dark eyes.

"God, Joshua," she whispered. "She'd mentioned you to me."

"Get behind the tape, Ms. Baum."

"If I remember right, the wedding was planned for June."

"You remember right. Now get behind the tape."

"Can we talk later?"

"We have forever to talk."

"I want to tell you something right now. I won't die before I write the name of the man who did this in one of my columns. He'll be identified. I swear this, to every god that's ever slept a night in Heaven."

"Thank you. Now step back."

* * *

A tragedy creates waves, and waves can carry people away. For those involved, everything changed with those shots, at approximately 4:45 p.m. on Wednesday, March 22. Rebecca Harris, age 24, a bright, kind-hearted and lovely young woman in the prime of her young adulthood, died almost instantly. Her fiance, Joshua Weinstein of the Orange County, California, office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was swept by one wave into a journey of hatred so deep that, according to those who know him, he has yet to fully return. Rebecca's father was carried away by another wave, straight to heart failure three weeks later. The young man in the long leather coat and fedora, a talented if underproductive staff writer for the Journal named John Menden, rode yet another wave outward from Rebecca. He quit his job and floated around the South Pacific for three months until both his money and liver were close to giving out, then returned to move into a battered old trailer way out in the bleak Southern California desert. The security guard with the radio was fired. In fact, his entire company was released from its contract with the Journal—financial waves for financial concerns. The photographer who snapped the now famous picture of Rebecca won an award, then several more. The only living things proximate to the event that remained truly unrippled were the eucalyptus tree and the poppies in the planter near where Rebecca, heart-shot and staggering, then heart-shot again, fell and died in the pouring rain.

* * *

Six months came and went.

During this time, the lead agency responsible for the case was the FBI, taking its powers under recent Federal Hate Crimes provisions. They worked in concert with the police and sheriffs and, intermittently, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Josh Weinstein took all his vacation time, then an unpaid leave of absence for nearly half a year. He said he was going to Israel, and vanished with hardly a good-bye for anyone.

Five months later he was back, his pallor gone to a ruddy tan, but his eyes still lugubrious and not a little haunted. His Bureau-mate, the dark-haired and strong bodied Sharon Dumars, noted that Josh spent a lot of his extra time with the Rebecca Harris files before him—a case from which his official participation was forbidden by Bureau policy. But since Joshua spent twelve-hour days on the job, he could easily take an hour here, a few hours there, to venture out into this sacred and unsanctioned ground. Dumars saw that Joshua's own private file—which he carefully locked away each night before he left—was growing in thickness.

Driven by curiosity, she glanced once at his time card to find that Joshua had officially charged no hours at all to his private investigation. The idea crossed her mind that she might be the only one who even knew about it. She certainly wasn't the only one who knew about his long telephone calls, since all Bureau calls were recorded and saved for an unrevealed period of time.

All she knew for sure was that he talked almost inaudibly during certain calls (the longer ones), with his thin shoulder blades hunched up like a vulture's wings, his neck down and his back to her. He would then hang up and swivel his chair around to look at her with a kind of fierce nonchalance before going back to his work. For all Sharon Dumars knew, Josh could have been talking to his mother back in Brooklyn.

Then, on a blazing September morning six months after the death of his betrothed, Joshua Weinstein rang off from one of his near silent telephone conversations, stared blankly for a moment at Dumars, then stood, locked his files and put on his suit coat.

"Come with me," he said.

Following Joshua's lead, Dumars left the building with him, failing to sign out or say a word to anyone. Never in her three years with the Bureau had she done anything so bold and so flagrantly against procedure.

© T. Jefferson Parker