The Art of Drowning – Episode 2.4

Must We Be Enemies – by Phil Huston

Silk and powdery perfume, who appeared to have sent herself to the dry cleaners along with her clothes, glanced up from behind her large, glossy, empty-but-for-a-phone desk. “I’m sorry, you can’t…Caswell? You again?”

“New shoes, Elise.” He put his left foot on the edge of her desk. “Just for you.”

“How thoughtful.” She grimaced, ran her hand down the side of his shoe. “Well done. They almost look like leather.” She waved her hand at the pink Boots bag in his hand. “For me as well?”

“Your charms are eternal, but not today. I picked you some flowers, but had to chuck them. Fair Shona’s allergic.”

“Everyone in this game is a pathetically transparent liar. Dunning is in.” She collected a small purse from her desk drawer, caught Caswell’s eyes. “You will give me time to excuse myself.”

Silk and powdery perfume stepped to a door that appeared from nowhere and vanished the same way into the paneled wall behind her desk. Shona gave Cas a sideways glance.

“It’s a job, Shona. Someone needs to keep the riff raff at bay or the Empire would topple. Leaving us to let ourselves in gives her deniability should today be toppling day.”

“Resulting from riff following raff through that door?”

“I didn’t live so long leading dangerous charges, Shona. Ladies first.” He opened the tall door without knocking and ushered them in.

The startled, starched and balding man behind a larger polished desk looked up, frowned, caught it and offered a practiced politicrat smile. “Detective Nevill. Always a pleasure. Caswell.” Dunning flipped through a leather clad desk calendar on the pretense of reading it. “As your last visit, you don’t appear to have an appointment.”

Caswell opened the pink Boots bag and dropped his scorched, glass bottomed work boots on Dunning’s desk.

“Goddammit, Caswell…” Dunning held his hands up and away from his desk, now covered in tiny pieces of sand turned glass. “What the hell?”

“Last visit we asked you for data from the Juliette Simone. Who were the handlers and who were the victims of the gas that melted brains like rage melted sand under my feet while fetching Dr. LeClare fifty-three bags of –”

That’s what we need to discuss, before whatever shit fit you feel obligated to put on over the demise of an old pair of boots.” Dunning had put Caswell’s boots back in the Boots bag and scraped a folded piece of paper across his desk, pushing the bits of glass to one side. “You need to let your Dr. LeClare know she is relieved of that monumental project. We will make the determinations and connect the bones to their living relatives. Can’t have you lot dropping in on the families, handing off bodies in bin bags and scaring them shitless with tales of vengeful sand.” He pushed a translucent blue flash drive across the cleared part of his desk. “This is what you wanted. I hope at least one of you remembers your encrypted access passwords.”

Caswell pocketed the drive without acknowledgement. “Kylie won’t like it. She takes a personal interest in her bones.”

“Dr. LeClare’s happiness is your problem. I will get the bodies sorted and their stories told.”

“With what stories and how well sorted?”

“That’s my problem. Bones are bones. We can’t run DNA on every finger joint you pulled out of there. The proper skull and a box of bones, here’s old Uncle Charley. That’s all I can promise.”

“Shona’s missing person’s data?”

“This is a budget wrecker, Caswell. I have a dozen anthropology students on educational intern grants tracing ancestry based on myths we’ve fed them. All in an effort to assuage your theory of some connectivity curse based on an unfortunate circus of errors committed a hundred years ago. Start with what you have. Detective Nevill will get more of what she needs as it comes. Daily if need be. You may then connect the dots as you will.”

Cas glanced at Shona who nodded. “Right, then. I’ll have the regional Doc’s clearance for whatever we need to do at Cliftonwood House with Evelyn Blanchard and we’re less the burden for today.”

There was a moment of extreme tension between Caswell and Dunning, broken when Dunning let his breath go. “Cliftonwood…That’s a bit steep.” He clocked Caswell’s expression. “But doable.” He pushed the Boots bag across the desk behind the drive. “As for you and yours, any Juliette Simone investigation begins with Detective Nevill’s recovered and returned missing person and goes forward. Use the data on the drive, daily updates and our combined underaged research talent to find out why, who might be next.” He paused, only for emphasis. “Leave the bones and their tales to me.”

He watched Caswell open the tall, mahogany door and hold it for Shona, brushed a pile of glass into an open envelope. “Leave yesterday well alone, Caswell. What have you done for us tomorrow, eh mate? Stay in touch.” He punched his phone as the door closed. “Elise? I need a vac…Elise? Elise?”

***

Silk and powdery perfume, topped with a large, fashionable anti-CCTV hat, stepped out of the doorway of a pastry shop and fell in step with Shona and Caswell. “They want the bones to test for trace evidence, and the hell with you and the truth. Without evidence, it can’t come back to them and you’re on your own with whatever is out there.”

“Ever thus,” Caswell said. “Has anyone been in? Defense, Navy? Other ministry shit shovelers?”

“No. The flag wrapped nurse made ripples for twenty minutes with the alarmists. Dunning had them let it go when the body failed to connect. The Bee woman was chalked up to a drug mugging. Too many bodies along the coast and in the shadow of Cliftonwood, Cas. If I see anything go missing on the way to your reports I’ll text. You know where to find it.”

“How long did my wife ask you to try and keep me alive after she was gone?”

“Until I couldn’t. Or you quit this devil’s game and proposed.” She stopped, caught his arm. “Ketamine and Xanax is reality for most at Cliftonwood. What the hell do you hope to accomplish out there on the cliffs?”

“We need to unravel a psychotic woman’s murderous dreams and follow the thread down whatever magic rabbit hole this is.”

“Stay out of the rabbit hole of the Juliette. All of you. They’re looking for an excuse to get rid of it. And Kirklin. Arm’s length rule on both till the curtain falls on this.”

Shona turned to ask a question and Elise was gone. “You know the most fascinating people, Caswell.”

“Chase ghosts long enough and you meet spooks. One day she’ll tell me what my wife really said.”

“One day you’ll tell me what you really do.”

***

Shona sat cross-legged on the floor, Caswell leaned against the wall of Kylie’s candle-lit exam theater and they listened while Kylie read Wordsworth’s Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey as she walked among the fifty-three black bags of bones. Her voice soft, full of poignancy, consolation and hope. She finished, clutched the book to her chest schoolgirl fashion and addressed the assembled bags.

“A few more tests and you will all be going home. Leave whatever tragedy brought you to the Juliette Simone behind. And embrace your families.” She sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” quietly as she walked the bags again, touching each of them. She left the candles burning and followed Caswell and Shona out into the hall when she was finished.

“You’re free to phone Dunning’s minions now.” Kylie looked over her shoulder at the exam theater door. “They were so sad. And confused. But now, I think…They just needed to know that someone…That we…” Her eyes welled up. Caswell squeezed the top of her shoulder, Shona put an arm around her and led her down the hall to the coffee machine.

Kirklin rose from his seat behind an open newspaper. “Tears. Emotion. Touchy feely, hugs and tea. That’s why it’s so bloody hard to work with women. They wrap a shit job in nurturing and domesticity.”

“We could all be a bit more humane, Kirklin. ‘The dead have their needs’.”

“They do indeed.” Kirklin lit a black cigarette under the No Smoking sign, pulled a knit cap from a pocket as he walked toward the exit. “And she put a right shine on Wordsworth for them.”

***

“Don’t roll your eyes and play at not being home!” Caswell shook both arms of Evelyn’s rocking chair. “You’re as daft as I am, you old bat. Talk. To. Me.”

“Daft as you, daft as you,” she parroted in a cackle. “Ask me a question, I’ll riddle you half and half’s enough to tell you all if half a wit you’ll be.” She laughed another insane cackle and spit on the floor between them.

Cas shoved himself off the rocker’s arms, motioned for the pair of orderlies. “Take her back.”

They lifted her out of the rocker by her shoulders where she hung, limp and uncooperative. Caswell glared when she shuffled past. “Nothing. Not a bloody thing but food. You’ll see what you see and then you will talk to me.”

Evelyn wheezed, her voice cracked and hoarse. “Why do you hate me so? Have I done you some harm?” He could see the blood in Evelyn’s eyes. “The food is shite. The drugs? Nothing.” She squirmed against her handlers. “All of them, their hands are cold and clean and the sheets smell of bleach and death. I haven’t hurt you. I want my room. I want my room and my bed and my window and I want you GONE OFF ME!”

The stainless-steel orderly’s cart in the corner of the room began to vibrate until it reached an audible pitch. Shona saw it coming, barked a warning.

“DOWN! NOW!”

The cart exploded. The only sound it made was pieces of it whizzing through the air.

***

The staff doctor handed off a bandaged but ambulatory orderly and a clipboard to the two paramedics. “I have him down for an x-ray and a scan. Keep him overnight.” He turned, stared at the floor where the blood had begun to coagulate under the body of what had been the other orderly, severed in two just above his hips by a piece of the stainless-steel cart. He glanced up at Caswell. “You have a criminal pathologist with proper credentials on the way?”

“Yeah.” He looked down at his own bloody corduroys, the left leg slit open and dangling from the triage that had removed another piece of the serving cart’s shrapnel from his thigh. Twelve stitches and a tetanus shot.

“The nature of our ‘guests’ prohibits a direct police inquiry.” The doctor paused, seemed to weigh Caswell. “I place a call, they send someone. Based on paperwork received just this morning, that someone would be you. Or someone like you. Correct?”

Someone like me.”

“Only younger. Unsympathetic and no doubt distastefully humorless. Pick up your antibiotic and pain medications at the desk when you’re finished. Follow up with your GP or return here in ten days.” He took the clipboard Caswell had been holding, scratched his signature across the form attached to it, handed it back. “You’ll live. Consider ending your relationship with salt, you’ll live longer.”

***

Evelyn Blanchard drummed her fingers on her window sill, the last golden shafts of sunset ricocheted off the crystal wine glass she’d kept wrapped in a seaman’s rough bandana and stored in a drawer for forty years.

“The blood of the lamb says the church.” She rolled the glass by its stem, watched the rainbows dance on her wall and guests. “Salvation? Lamb’s blood it is, as sacrificial they are. And many’s the soul as found desolate salvation in the grape and cup.” Her lips tightened into a stiff smile. “Must we be enemies, Caswell?”

“Shrewd, but not a shrew?” Caswell poured her a touch more wine. “We’re not enemies, Evelyn. All we want are answers. We can’t right a hundred year wrong without them.”

Evelyn sat back, swept her hand in a broad arc. “All will become as it should, if only I will speak? Well speak I did, and blood covered the floor. More of that you want? Me, speaking? Then more of that you’ll have until you learn to listen.” She went back to drumming her fingers. With the sunset gone and no more games of light and crystal to entertain her, she took her stare somewhere beyond the sea’s distortion of the moonlit horizon and sighed.

“What you want is not from me,” she whispered. “I know his rage. I feel his longing. I touch his soul as he touches mine. But I’m not him. He fears naught but to be forgotten, yet all forgotten is what most he desires.” She looked at all of them, her eyes resting on their faces. “When all that was, died? When vile intent was loosed on the unsuspecting, the innocent, the loved and the lovers…What did they in turn expect? Pastoral nightmares? Orderly chaos and a well-mannered English death?” She held out her glass to Shona, who filled it half-way. Evelyn set the glass on her window sill, resumed her stare.

“The one who cannot die searches for those who failed him his death. He persists only to leave more blood in his wake that cannot sate him. He is Fugitif.” Evelyn tapped the window with her index finger, smiled at the fireflies in the dusk. “And I am Vessul.”

She turned to them, her tired eyes glassy. “Solve the riddle. Of death. And love. Or death and madness will be in the air until the air itself is scourged with sand and our blood.  Listen to me, my angels three. Undying death.” She turned back, put her hand gently on the window, let the fireflies dance on her fingertips. “And undying love…”

***

Cas limped to the X5, opened the passenger door and fell in. “This has love story overtones gone more horribly wrong than Shakespeare ever imagined, Shown. We take a few days, regroup on Monday with everything we have, go back to the beginning with Evelyn and the Juliette Simone.”

“Dunning said –”

“Fuck Dunning.” He turned, grabbed her headrest one handed. “The male nurse in the flag? The dead nurse, Bee? That kid in there today? Your original missing? Look close enough through Dunning’s data and we’ll find their deaths have been on the books a hundred years. It took whoever he is a while to get to here, that’s all.” He fell back in his seat, fastened the harness. “I need a drink.”

“You need a shower. And some trousers with both legs.” She pulled out of the gravel lot, hit her high beams and stuck her foot in the X5. She checked Caswell, tapped the clock. “And we both need to eat.”

He sighed, rolled his window down, smelled the sea in the air, caught himself letting a field of fireflies carry his thoughts away. “I’m beginning to think Kirklin was right about working with women.”

“Say what?”

“I said it’s too cold to go swimming.”

“Brilliant. Fox and Goose it is. Hey, Cas?” She smiled, reached over and punched his shoulder. “Fuck Kirklin, too. Where would you be without us?”

“Dead.” He managed a wry smile her direction. “Or bored next door to it.”

The Art of Drowning – An Ethereal Mystery

3 writers, no destination – What could go wrong?

Ash N. Finn  The Perilous Reading Society  & Not Very Deep Thoughts

 

Russian Interference

Saturday, Noonish, Connie’s Frozen De-lites – Venice Beach, CA

“Hey, Stuart.” She smiled, wiped her hands on a red and white striped towel. “The usual?”

“Hey, Connie. Yeah. Extra walnuts?”

“Got it. We ever gonna see another album out of you guys?”

“Not as soon as we wanted. This one was spread out all over the place, keeping Dooce and Freemont out of each other’s way. Dooce played the same freakin’ guitar solo on like three tunes. We didn’t catch it till last night.”

She pulled a scoop out of a small bucket of water, bent over into the freezer. “The same? Really?”

“Close enough. Bobcat sent him to the woodshed with a thermos of expresso loaded Starbucks, a stack of old Benny Goodman jazz albums and a bag of some different weed. He’s been smoking the same shit since the Super Bowl party where he brought in his crop. We all think he just needed to change his channel.” He glanced up for a second. “Gulls are noisy as all hell this afternoon.”

“It’s the stale chips box-lunch tourists.” She looked over his head, pointed with her chin. He turned, sure enough. The smoked glass limo bus had unloaded for lunch on the beach and the air was full of seagulls and the ground covered in tossed stale potato chips.

“I liked it better when they went straight to Disneyland. If they’re going to stop, they could pull up closer to your ice cream coach.”

“No thanks. Tourists, no English, all the pointing, the gulls pooping on everything and all that? Foreigners don’t tip for shit, anyway. I’ll live.”

He nodded agreement, watched Connie the ice cream truck girl embed walnuts into his French Vanilla ice cream. Listened her talk about her dogs while she hammered nuts and ice cream into coexistence on a piece of marble tile. She really enjoyed her job and smiled a lot, always made it an enjoyable experience to buy ice cream from her. She’d told him once it was because a lot of things in her life got worked out on that piece of marble.

He thanked her, took the cone hand off, put a dollar in the tip jar and didn’t bother to look up when he stepped away and onto the sidewalk.

There was a scream. He heard it just before a violent collision sent him off across the grass rolled up in a ball of asses, knees and elbows with someone. They ricocheted off a fifty-five-gallon drum turned trash can ten yards from their point of impact and came to rest a few yards from the can. He and whoever, they seemed to be made out of nothing but lightly oiled caramel colored velvet that smelled like coconut oil and flowers, were twisted into a human Rubik’s cube. And his left shoulder? Gaw-awd dammit. A female voice with a mild Russian accent was talking to his nose. She hadn’t lost her Doublemint gum in the collision and was calm, in spite of whatever had happened. She had great teeth and her nose, all of her he could really see, looked like the rest of her felt. Slightly oily.

“Nice to meet you, ice cream no pay attention boy. Dangerous, your way you meet girls. Just to say ‘Hi, girl,’ is too much? For you? You wave. Maybe I stop. Only maybe.” She unhooked from him, one arm and one leg at a time, from under and around him. She rolled out and away and ended up sitting cross legged and straight armed, hands on her knees. He was on his back, one knee up, his left shoulder on fire. She looked at him like he was some curiosity that had fallen out of the sky. A block of frozen pee from an airliner maybe. Or maybe a piece of Sputnik. She held out her hand.

“Nice to meet you.”

“You said that.”

“You forgot the polite way of how to meet a girl, no pay attention, no apology ice cream boy. So I try again for you. Taisia. Nice to meet you?”

He raised his arm from the elbow, hand up. “Stuart.” She squeezed his hand like it had juice in it she needed for something. “Ow. Say that again. Twa-waw-ayzeeah?”

“Close. Taw-eezh-ee-uh. You should see in Cyrillic. It becomes more clear for you.”

“No, I shouldn’t.” He rolled onto his right side dragging his left arm and shoulder. “Fuckin’ ow! Jesus.” He stared for a split second. “Do you like wax your entire body?”

“No. Only where you should not be looking so close if you are hurt. For those places you should be one hundred percent of yourself. You? Maybe one hundred and ten. Or twenty.” She leaned forward, pushed him over on his back, sat on his chest and frowned while she worked her hands over his left shoulder. Her bikini was one of those three poker chips and a couple of shoelaces jobs, and she didn’t wax everywhere. He knew because he was so engrossed in the way the sun and her body fuzz were working together with the perfumed coconut oil that she had to tell him twice to rotate his arm and shoulder.

“With you I repeat everything? Why is that? Nothing broken, you will live. Something hit you?”

“You.”

“No. I am strong but I am a girl and not so hard to cause pain.”

He thought he might be getting that way and was glad when she stood and pulled him up by his right arm.

“Shirt.” She held out her hand, waited. He obeyed and she got right up on the non-bloody cross-shaped dark purple dent at the very top of his upper left arm. She walked off tip toe on her skates and re-set the trash barrel they’d knocked over, held his shirt sleeve up to where the welded angle iron support frame crossed in the front of the barrel, and nodded.

“Is here.” She pointed at her discovery and a rusty cross on his t-shirt sleeve, looked at him, pleased with her space case ice cream cone boy meets six-foot-four Amazon Russian skater girl train wreck forensics. “Is better you than me, no attention ice cream boy.”

“Any gentleman points for that?”

“Not today.” The backhanded t-shirt hit him in the face with some force. She bent over and started to pick up the trash scattered in their wreck. Jesus, she shouldn’t be…

He pulled the shirt on and squatted to help her with the trash, eyes wide. Sweet, sweet Jesus. He almost forgot about his shoulder before he suggested that she might follow his lead in the squat versus bend.

They dropped the last waxed coke cup and hot dog wrapper back in the can. She brushed her hands together, made a face, wiped and squeezed them on the back pockets of his Levis. Jeeeez-zus. She could charge for that.

“You have car? Mine is too far. I will drive. For X-rays. Come.”

“In skates?”

She stitched her eyebrows together, looked at him like he was the most pathetic dumbass on the planet. “Of course, I remove them before. I am smart Russian girl, not Polak joke person.”

“You have a license somewhere?” No more bikini than she had on he didn’t want to start guessing.

“Commercial. In my skate.” She let a small grin run across her face, looked at him like she knew what he’d been thinking.

“Cool.” He handed her his keys. “It’s a stick. Can you handle it?”

“Stick?” She spun his key ring into her palm. “All the men, they say to me, ‘Taisia, is like tree, can you handle it?’” She gave him a slightly crooked smile. “Today is good because at last I meet one honest American ice cream boy. I like you too much already.” The open-palm whack between his shoulder blades rattled his teeth. Jee-eez-us. He had towels in the trunk. He’d find a way to get her to sit on one and not get that oily business all over his seats.

***

Sunday, 10:47 AM – La Brea, CA

Burke noted the shocky teenage girl in a white apron sitting on the curb with a plainclothes female from Hollywood Division, thought it best to leave them alone. He flashed his badge at the uniform on yellow tape duty and swam upstream against a small army of exiting haz-mat suited forensics people and into the back of the La Brea Haagen-Dazs.

“Morning, Burke.” His task force partner, a young woman from the FBI named Laschelle, handed him a coffee.

“They open already?”

“Nope. I worked at a Farrells up in the Bay in high school. All the coffee machines are the same. I’m Federal. Who’s gonna complain?” She motioned him closer, lifted the lid on a three-gallon ice cream bucket.

“Holy…Goddammit…” Burke jerked his head up and back, collected himself before he looked back down at the severed head covered with walnuts in an otherwise empty French Vanilla ice cream bucket. “Anyone we know?”

“Musician. Stuart O’Connell? Uniforms found his car burned out in a West Hollywood alley. The bucket came from yesterday’s trash. He’s fresh.”

“This is what, five?”

“Six, if you count that one on the cactus at the Harbor Freeway onramp.”

“No note on that one, I’m still not sure. Walnuts are a nice touch. Any reason, you think?” He popped a stick of clove gum, offered.

“No thanks. Shit smells like funked up old shoes, Burke. Too early in the morning.”

“Sorry. The walnuts?”

“Who knows. Do you think there’s a reason for any of these?”

“I’m starting to think one of you is unhappy with my side of the gender line’s manners. Note?”

“Of course.” She handed him the index card, the note written in purple lipstick.

He should have apologized – He shouldn’t have stared