Her mother suggested that God must have meant for the girl’s body to be found. It had been extremely well hidden, concealed in an eighty-five-gallon steel drum, the barrel sealed shut, weighted with a concrete slab and buried on a remote hillside in Malibu, California.
“Our darling would have been there until Christ summoned her on the Final Day,” said Cathy Gunion, a woman of such severe evangelical beliefs that her daughter had fled the family home to escape.
For a long time, the barrel remained safe and secure in its subterranean home. The area was locked in a terrible drought, and even in normal times was celebrated for its relative lack of rain. Water, the enemy of all those at rest beneath the ground, never penetrated the four-foot-deep retreat.
The naked victim was drugged and unconscious when she was placed in the barrel. A terrible question naturally occurs. Did she wake? We can only imagine the horror if she did. Better to believe that the airless confines of the steel drum produced a gentle, sleepy asphyxiation.
Days, then weeks, passed. Spinal and brain fluid leaked from the dead girl’s orifices. She bloated, the bloat collapsed, the body began the long process of dry decay, more familiarly known as mummification. Months, then years. At some point her fingernails detached from her hands, to drop off and land soundlessly in the soft muck at the bottom of the barrel.
Only the girl’s hair survived unchanged, feathery, white-blond, her most distinctive feature while she was alive. Human hair is nearly indestructible. Fire will do it, of course, but most acids won’t, nor will immersion in water or exposure to ultraviolet rays. The simple march of time seems to have no effect. In the waste pools of Auschwitz there is still hair from Holocaust victims, intact seven decades after the fact.
Unstirred by the ocean breezes up top, the limp hair of the victim in the barrel remained, like a marker or a calling card.
Or a prayer.
I was me. I was here. Remember me.
Five years, two months, sixteen days. The prayer changed, became distilled, refining itself to its essence.
What could accomplish that hopeless task? How would it possibly happen? Who might turn up such an unsavory, unseen prize?
A contractor at work on a foundation for a million-dollar Malibu mansion? A crew of laborers digging a trench for a gas main? Some mad treasure hunter?
None of the above. Whether a divinity was responsible, as the born-again mother claimed, or perhaps some darker force, it would not be human agency that evicted “our darling” from her makeshift crypt.
I was me. I was here. Remember me.
“We’re not positive what it is,” Deputy Paz Tejeda told Detective Investigator Layla Remington when dispatch routed the call through. “But the dog alerted, so we’re pretty sure it’s human remains.”
“Where are you?”
“East. By Piedra Gorda, on Big Rock.”
Remington could hear the sirens and civil-defense horns above the radio static. “We’re totally overwhelmed up here. Can you get someone else?”
“I tasked homicide. The crime-scene unit said you were the only detective available near the scene.”
Human remains. Of course such a filthy job would fall to Remington. She had the least seniority on the murder squad. “It’ll be a while before I can get there.”
Dispatch marked the time of Tejeda’s call as 0842. The disaster had struck Malibu four and a half hours earlier, at 0417 that morning, a 6.1 earthquake. The Malibu Fracture Zone, a fault line running east–west just off the coast, had finally done what seismologists had long been predicting it was going to do, which was kick the holy hell out of some of the world’s most expensive real estate.
Ground velocity measured as extreme as anything since the Northridge quake in ’94. An expert interviewed that morning on KTLA came up with a homey image: “You shake a rug on your floor, you flip it up and down, and something like a wave will pass through it—that’s what happened in Malibu this morning.”
When Remington fielded Tejeda’s call on her shoulder-mounted two-way, she was on emergency duty, standing ankle-deep in a flood from a utility-main break. The tangle of roads above Malibu Lagoon ran in a steady torrent toward the Pacific Coast Highway. Leaking natural-gas pipes flared with orange and red flames, making it appear as if the flowing water were burning.
It took Remington half the morning to travel five miles from central Malibu down the coast to the community’s far eastern border. She passed through a battle zone, one more front in the ongoing war of Nature versus Los Angeles. The PCH was closed, with parts of the roadway heaved two feet from true. Units of the Guard were moving in.
Malibu being the haven of the stars that it was, rumors of celebrity deaths flew. The actress Halle Berry was supposed to have died when her beachfront mansion collapsed. The buzz had it that Bob Dylan had been swept out to sea. Both accounts later proved false. But Remington heard “tsunami” from the lips of stunned, vacant-eyed citizens, the term hanging in the air like a drone of insects. The feared giant wave never came.
“Up there, in that grove of cottonwoods, where the slide pushed against the check dam,” Deputy Tejeda told Remington when the detective finally made it to the scene.
Only it wasn’t a scene. It was chaos. Paz Tejeda was part of an h.r.d. team from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, searching the area around a parking garage that had collapsed downhill into an apartment building. A pair of structural engineers were already on-site.
The deputy pointed up the slope. Remington focused her field glasses. She could see nothing but a clutter of mid-sized boulders and an immense skid of dirt where a landslide had taken out a section of the hillside.
Tejeda had her cadaver dog with her. The beagle wore a black vinyl vest with the letters “H.R.D.” and the words “L.A. County Sheriff’s Department” emblazoned on it. H.R.D., meaning human remains detection.
“We’ve got multiple fatalities in the apartments.” Tejeda indicated the dog. “Cindy and I were working our way around back, and all at once she takes off upslope. I called her, but she wouldn’t break her run. Then she alerted.”
Why bring in the murder squad? Remington wondered. She was fairly new to the Homicide Bureau. When the earthquake hit, an “all available” request went out, summoning the whole sheriff’s department for emergency duty. But dispatch informed her that Deputy Tejeda had specifically requested that personnel be detailed from the homicide unit.
“It’s the way Cindy alerted,” Tejeda replied to Remington’s unspoken question. “She’s trained to respond in different ways for different situations. She didn’t sit, she lay down.”
“What does that mean?”
“She’s indicating that she detected decay or decomposition. The bodies from the quake wouldn’t have time to rot yet. She would sit for those. But this one she lay right down for.”
Tejeda took an ash-stained cloth from her back pocket. She knelt and put the handkerchief to Cindy’s nose.
“Blow,” the deputy ordered. Remington watched, disbelieving, as the pooch gave a dainty little sneeze into the cloth.
“Her nose gets stuffed up with all the dust and ash,” Tejeda explained.
“Right.” Remington shook her head in wonderment.
She stared down toward the highway. Helicopters throbbed like migraines overhead, including a big Huey up from Miramar. The emergency sirens were constant. Malibu had exploded. The authorities were estimating a half billion dollars’ worth of destruction.
In the midst of all the madness, was she going to take her cue from a trained canine? She glanced down at Cindy. The dog looked up at her handler, eager, stepping in place.
“Okay,” Remington said.
Tejeda unsnapped the beagle’s leash. Cindy bounded away, straight-arrowing up the slope.
A volunteer emergency worker tried to head off Remington from following the dog. “Ma’am, we can’t let you go up there.”
A bald guy wearing an EMT windbreaker. He approached and attempted to physically block her. “The ground is too unstable for you to—”
Remington flipped open her badge wallet to display her gold shield.
“It’s not ‘ma’am,’ sir,” she said. “It’s ‘Detective.’ ” She didn’t appreciate men who used their weight as an argument.
He called after her as she stepped around him. “Ma’am? Ma’am?”
The steel barrel, when Remington approached it after a steep, precarious climb, lay ruptured amid a jumble of landslide debris. The detective didn’t need a cadaver dog to identify the stench of death.
Even in the midst of catastrophe, the sun shone off the ocean as if Malibu would remain forever in a state of grace. Somehow, though, the rays didn’t penetrate the darkness of the eighty-five-gallon drum’s interior. Remington took a Maglite from the small duty belt she wore. She snapped it on and directed the light past the jagged edges of the ripped-open barrel, its black steel freckled with rust.
The body lay curled up within the tight space. If left exposed in a dry environment, a human corpse will slowly retract into a prayerful posture, head bowed, hands pulled in under the chin, knees bent. Remington tried to tell herself that there was nothing particularly meaningful about it, despite the religious symbolism. It was simply a case of muscles tightening because of tissue dehydration. But the effect made her shiver.
The beam of her flashlight played across the mummified remains. In the sudden illumination, the platinum swirl of hair lit up like a Clairol ad. Jean Harlow hair, so pale and exquisite that it seemed to give off glints of silver.
Even before Remington saw the necklace, a name occurred to her because of that distinctive, white-blond hair. A certain missing girl was known for it.
The aspiring actress’s disappearance, more than five years ago, had triggered a massive search effort, equally frantic press coverage and a derailed homicide prosecution dismissed by the judge for lack of a corpse. Born Beth (actually, Bethlehem) Gunion, she had starred in a sleeper indie film that had broken huge. Breathless “Mystery of Tarin Mistry” documentaries still cropped up occasionally on cable. It was one of those deaths that wouldn’t die.
A necklace rested against the brown, leathery skin of the corpse’s throat. The silver chain displayed a single ornament, a cheapo enameled charm.
The cursive letter “T,” embedded with an opal birthstone.
Every gold badge in California knew that charm. The missing-persons report on Tarin Mistry described the piece in detail. People had been searching for it for years.
Layla Remington had just caught the case of a lifetime.