A girl runs across the sand.
Above, the stars appear more luminous than usual, as if tweaked a notch above their regular brightness.
For a moment she imagines they’re shining only for her, guiding her some place beyond here; someplace better.
The thought unsettles her.
What if she wants to stay? Enjoy for a while longer the warm sand between her toes, the gentle breeze on her lips; the bounce of her hair across her bare shoulders.
Behind her, someone follows. His voice is distant, as if calling to her from below the lake water. Or maybe he’s directly behind her, whispering wicked things into her ear.
Her chest hurts from the running. But it’s more powerful than pain, more possessive. It’s the sensation of fingers reaching deep inside, squeezing until her head swims. For a moment, all around her is liquid and formless.
The girl buckles and falls, knee-bound, into the molten sand.
She glances up at the moonlight and takes a breath.
Someplace else, sometime later, a boy casts his eyes skyward.
He glimpses the girl’s face carved out in the shape of the stars, her hand reaching to him as she passes to a place he can’t follow, taking her secrets with her.
Lake Temescal, located off Highway 13 in the Oakland Hills, is six hundred feet long and sixteen feet at its widest point. Few people are aware the lake was formed by a long-forgotten earthquake as it buckled the earth under the Northern California coast. Much of the topography around the San Francisco Bay Area had been formed in this way; nature at its most violent and destructive.
On the morning of July 2nd, the parkland surrounding the lake was festooned in red, white, and blue in anticipation of the July 4th weekend. Tight grids of miniature American flags stood like toothpicks in the soft grass, while the picnic tables and barbeque grills were draped in star-spangled burlap ribbons that fluttered in the breeze. The lake water was mirror-still, cracked only by the splash of curious catfish breaking the surface. Above the lake a stubborn morning mist drifted, phantom-like, obscuring the tips of the oaks, willows, and thimbleberries.
Detective Roscoe Tanner set his jacket across his forearm as he picked his way through the parched undergrowth towards the CSI blackout tent on the narrow stretch of sand. Every few steps he lifted the sleeve to wipe another layer of glistening perspiration from his brow. The ghost of handsomeness past lingered around Tanner, as if he may have been considered a good catch at some point but had been blissfully unaware of that slim window of opportunity to take advantage of it. His eyes were deep hazel and prone to holding onto sorrow longer than they needed to. If there was one aspect of his appearance he’d never questioned, it was his hair; still as thick as it was when he was in his prime, with dark, wood-shaving curls, lightly peppered with grey where his widow’s peak met his brow. When he smiled, the gesture always seemed vague, as if he’d heard the joke but was still trying to figure out the punchline.
Tanner stopped at the CSI truck, chatted briefly with one of the technicians, slipped on his oversuit, and headed across the sand to speak with Madeline Ambrose, Crime Scene Leader. Under the canvas, Ambrose was kneeling at the body of a young girl, gently removing evidence from what remained of her clothing, and slipping it into clear plastic bags.
“Darned peachy start to the holiday weekend, Ambrose,” Tanner said. “What you got?”
“Female,” she said, wiping the back of a hand across her brow, which this time of year always erupted in a riot of freckles. “No surprises there. As I’d expect, negligible bodily decomposition due to tepid water temperature. No indication of bodily trauma, however, the victim sustained several bite marks on the upper thigh region, probably breakfast of champions for the local scavengers.”
Tanner stepped closer. After thirty-five years of police work, the cruel damage long periods submerged in water could inflict on the human body still made his gut roil. The body had bloated to twice its normal size, the limbs marbled into putrefied shades of blue and green. The girl’s skirt was drawn past her hips, underwear torn and caked in mud. Her top, no more than a belt-sized scrap of red Lycra had ridden over her chest to reveal the distended globe of her abdomen. From her belly button, the dark-grey tissue of her intestines seeped out in fleshy globules. More disturbing were the girl’s lips, cracked and dry like old bone and slacked open as if she were inhaling her final breath before it was snatched from her.
“Any theories?” Tanner asked, feeling the undeniable stiffness of his sixty-two-year-old knee joints as he squatted next to the body.
“Theories? Way too early, Tanner.”
“Facts, we got. Human bodies float on the ventral surface, that is, they float belly-side down. They also decompose at an accelerated rate in freshwater rather than on land or saltwater. We can provide a more detailed estimate after we’ve tested the ambient water temperature, but don’t hold your breath, establishing time of death with a body at this stage of decomposition is like throwing a dart at a moving target.”
She ran her index finger in the air above the girl’s belly. “If you look closely at the surface of the exposed intestines, you’ll notice a number of dead maggot pupae. The pupae are heat averse, so they typically perish before they have time to hatch, which leads me to believe we’re looking at a classic Goldilocks Phenomenon.”
“Goldilocks? Like a papa bear kind of thing?” Tanner asked, confused.
“No, Tanner, the porridge. The water temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, which slowed the soft tissue breakdown, but we’ll need more tests to determine the decomposition rate before we even get close to a time of death.”
“Right you are. What about any environmental forensics?”
Ambrose stood. “No tire tracks leading to the beach, and no CCTV footage in the parking lot. There’s been no attempt to hide the body, but I did notice one of the rowboats at the dock is facing the opposite way to the rest of them.”
“The recent heatwave exaggerated the cyanobacteria levels in the water––that’s blue-green algae to you, Tanner. The toxin numbers are way above state advisory thresholds, which means the East Bay Regional Park District closed the lake to any water activities; swimming, fishing––”
“Boating?” Tanner interrupted.
“Glad you’ve caught up. I’ll get some of the techs onto it. If that boat was taken out, I’m betting there’s DNA from our victim all over it.”
“Killed elsewhere, driven here, thrown in the lake?”
Ambrose snapped off a protective glove and rolled on a fresh one. “That’s a lot of assumption, Tanner, we haven’t established COD yet.”
“But you think it’s our girl?”
“Unless you’ve got another missing teenager with a similar birthmark on her neck, then I’d say it’s her,” Ambrose confirmed, tracing her fingers above the birthmark, which was shaped liked an apple; the one distinguishing mark the next-of-kin had provided.
Tanner stood, felt his knee joints pop, and tugged his pants over the soft, muffin-top of his belly. His doctor had cautioned him some months ago to cut back on the beer and junk food or face the consequences somewhere down the line. It was sound advice, but between working police shifts and living alone, Tanner figured a change of diet was a “nice to have” rather than a directive. “Mother Francis,” he said. “Two days before the Fourth of July. We’re going to have to shutter the whole dang place.”
“Fun times,” Ambrose said. “Now, if you don’t mind…”
Tanner took the hint and stepped out into the daylight.
The morning mist was slowly clearing. In the woodland, a chorus of birdcalls echoed through the trees as if it were just another day. Sugar on a stick, Tanner thought. There’ll be a near riot when they closed the park, not to mention securing overtime for a homicide investigation over the Fourth of July weekend. He was certain his chief, Martin Dugdale, would approve the additional officers. This would be Dugdale’s first homicide since taking his new office; he’d be eager to throw a bunch of resources at the case for a fast close and a solid conviction.
Oakland’s Mayor had appointed Dugdale to the position. two months ago after a long recruitment campaign to lure him from the San Jose Police Department. She’d been impressed with Dugdale’s track record in reversing a rising homicide rate with more community-style policing, and recruiting more Latino officers. Tanner remained unconvinced. Dugdale was the aggressive, ambitious type, and didn’t seem to care who knew. Tanner had already heard rumblings of layoffs, lateral career moves, and forced early retirement, though nobody provided any specifics to confirm the rumors. Dugdale, only forty-eight years old himself, favored younger, more dynamic officers whom he’d lured to Oakland PD Homicide Division with the promise of promotions, better pay, and guaranteed overtime. To date, five officers had taken Dugdale up on his offer. Tanner imagined this was the tip of a very deep iceberg which Tanner himself would have to navigate carefully around, or find his own career shipwrecked five years before his retirement.
As he watched the techs carefully haul the girl’s body into the mortuary ambulance, a familiar weariness, like the weight of a freight train, bore down on him. As the responding officer, he’d have to break the awful news to her parents, a gentle Hispanic couple who lived in an apartment above a supermercado on International Boulevard. He drew a hand across the back of his neck; it felt swampy, like he could wade through it.
“You should probably take a look at these,” Madeline Ambrose said, as she walked towards him, pulling off her protective cap and smoothing down her strawberry-blonde hair, which was pulled back in a style reminiscent of a ballet instructor.
“Shoes?” Tanner asked, glancing at the evidence bag.
“Expensive,” she said, reaching for her SPF 50 sunscreen. “Hardly your Discount Shoe Warehouse bargain.”
Tanner took the bag and peered at the brightly colored shoes. “Meaning?”
Ambrose slathered a palmful of the lotion across her face. “Meaning, Tanner, these are Jimmy Choos, this season’s, which makes me wonder how a teenage girl working a few hours a week can afford to buy twelve-hundred-dollar footwear.”
“Maybe they were a gift.”
Ambrose took back the evidence bag. “And if they were a gift, what the hell does a seventeen-year-old girl need to do to deserve a gift like that?”
Tanner sighed, looked out over the lake. The water was deceptively peaceful: a smooth shimmer of glass, that for now, was holding on tight to its secrets.
“The calm before the shitstorm?” Ambrose said.
“Something like that,” Tanner confirmed.
Three miles away, in the streets of East Oakland, the snap and sputter of firecrackers and bottle rockets exploding like machine-gun fire carried towards the lake on the morning air. Over the horizon, plumes of smoke spiraled skyward like vapor trails, then evaporated into the blue. Tanner stuffed his hands deep into his pants pockets and shook his head. “Dinkleberg,” he muttered. One of his more unreserved cuss words, which he only uttered on occasions like this.