Joe Bashir stood in the glow of the streetlight shining through the triple-glazed windows of his girlfriend's Berkeley townhouse, pulling up his trousers and staring thoughtfully at the tableau unfolding in the street below.
Six years after a thicket of half-million dollar "green" homes had been built among the bungalows that stood on these streets for nearly a century, the long-term residents seemed unimpressed with their hipster neighbors. As Joe watched, a skinny woman in a stained parka tugged at something protruding from a drain next to a shopping cart loaded with cans and junk; a few paces away a boy who looked about fourteen palmed a baggie to a man in a knit hat pulled low on his brow. In this neighborhood, it was likely to be a doub, a twenty-dollar rock, but Berkeley was well outside Joe's jurisdiction. In Montair, folks tended to chase their highs with wine racks and hydrocodone prescriptions.
Amaris padded down the stairs, coming to rest on a step near the bottom. She'd put her bra and panties back on, but that was all. Today she'd managed to get most of Joe's clothes off before they made it to her bedroom. Joe still hadn't gotten used to the vertical nature of her place: a kitchen and living room perched above the garage, and a couple of bedrooms on top of that. He'd had to come downstairs just to find his pants.
Joe watched her watching him, buttoning and zipping by feel, unwilling to look away. This was part of it, for him.
"Mother found me a cardiologist to date," Amaris said. "He's taking me to the symphony."
Joe shook his head and sighed. "Amaris, you really don't understand how this works. If you're going to rebel by dating a non-Jew, you have to actually tell your parents you're doing it."
Amaris flicked out her tongue at him and smiled. "But you're Muslim. That's like, quadruple points."
"I'm hardly Muslim," Joe said. "I go to the mosque with my dad a few times a year to make him happy, and I feel guilty when I order lunch during Ramadan. That's about it."
"Yeah, but my parents don't need to know that. Besides, look at you."
Joe finished tying his tie, then sat down next to Amaris on the stairs. An odd and not terribly comfortable tenderness hit him.
"Amaris," he said, taking her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. "What do you see when you look at me? Because if it's all about provocation for you—not that you aren't very, very good at that . . ."
Amaris pulled his hand to her face and rubbed his knuckles against her forehead. "I see a beautiful dark righteous man," she mumbled, pressing his fingers over her eyes.
It was not lost on Joe that she wouldn't look at him. He sighed. "Amaris, I don't really care when I meet your parents. Or what they think. But what about you? Sometimes I can't tell if you're terrified of what they'll do, or if you want to throw a grenade right into the middle of your family. Sometimes . . ."
He was going to add that sometimes he felt like the heat when they made love was Amaris imagining that explosion, the immolation of everything that bound her to the life she'd always known.
There wasn't an easy way to put that into words. Instead he gently pulled his hand away. He was still trying to figure out what to say when his phone rang. He answered as he always did, his attention diverted by watching Amaris disappear behind the facade she maintained so carefully, the one that only fell away completely when they made love. She examined a flaw in her manicure and pretended not to listen.
"I have to go," he said after a brief conversation, slipping the phone back into his pocket.
"Why hurry? Whatever it is, the deed's already done," Amaris muttered, stretching luxuriously, looking both feline and predatory. "Right?"
"I guess you could say that," Joe said. "Guy's dead. Hurrying won't change that."
"The Foothills, if you can believe it."
"Oh, I believe it. Rich people are the unhappiest. And the angriest."
As Joe got to his feet, steadying himself with the handrail, he considered that it was easy to make statements like that when your father was still paying your bills a few months shy of your thirtieth birthday.
"I'll call you if it's not too late."
"Don't worry about it," Amaris said lightly. Only her refusal to look at him gave her away. "I've got a ton to do. I'll be up forever."
"Lock up after me."
"I mean it, Amaris. Don't forget."
Letting himself out the front door, he tried to put out of his mind the shining tears he'd seen trembling under her lashes.
Joe's mood darkened as he cruised through the tidy, manicured streets of Montair toward the Foothills, a massive gated community nestled into the base of Mount Diablo. He had to figure out what to do about Amaris. She was almost frighteningly intelligent; she was beautiful and she was a tornado in bed. But Joe wasn't sure how much longer he could tolerate her eternal dissatisfaction, especially when it seemed like what she loved most about him was an illusion. Joe suspected that Amaris found him exotic—how could he make her understand he was the opposite?
Joe's father emigrated from Pakistan in 1967, his mother six years later. Osman found work as an accountant; Mumtaz raised her boys, watching Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock with them to practice her English. They blended the life they'd brought from home with the culture that lapped at the edges, coming ever closer like a summer tide. Half the kids at Joe's elementary school were white, something he and Omar didn't even notice until they'd been there a few years. Their classmates' ancestors came from everywhere, or so it seemed when his fourth grade teacher had every child show on the world map where their grandparents had come from. Joe's best friend in middle school was a boy named Jojo, who lived with his Filipino grandparents; Joe could still recite every Tagalog insult Jojo taught him on long summer afternoons skateboarding in Central Park. Joe's first girlfriend was an older woman, a high school sophomore named Cindy Bell who played harp and wore her hair in a fluffy blond perm. Joe spent most of his freshman year making out with Cindy in the band building every chance he got; it was the first—but certainly not the last—time he would disappoint his parents.
Joe liked girls and sports and Xbox; he excelled at science and math when he tried, and did pretty well when he didn't. He moved effortlessly between his brother's desi friends and the other cliques at school, got himself elected to student government, and quit when he got bored with the meetings. He hated disappointing his parents, and lied to avoid doing so, which on one memorable occasion made his mother cry. There were a few boundary-testing incidents—minor vandalism, a little weed, a few missed curfews—that served to label Joe as trouble among his parents' friends, but all in all the Bashir family survived the boys' adolescence relatively unscathed.
Joe was the second son of a happy American family, a member of the MTV generation. He arrived at adulthood culturally as well as spiritually agnostic, and would have remained so if it hadn't been for the days following 9/11. These had marked him forever, but this was not a subject he discussed with Amaris or, for that matter, with anyone. He was a good cop, a loving son, a decent boyfriend—but as he arrived at the Foothills with Amaris's scent on his skin, he wondered if that was enough for her.
Joe slowed at the guardhouse long enough for the guy to wave him through. He recognized the man, a heavily mustachioed Croat who'd worked the gate on weekends for as long as Joe could remember, keeping the criminal element from sullying the pristine streets, golf course, and country club within the gates. Which was a joke, because if you counted narcotics and white-collar crime, there was probably more lawbreaking going on within the gates than outside them.
Murder, though—the last one to take place in the Foothills had been before Joe's time. And it had been an unusual situation—the disabled adult son of a wealthy widow in her sixties had bludgeoned his mother to death in her bathrobe; he'd been declared unfit long before the case ever went to trial. Word was the house sold cheap because of what happened, knocked a few hundred thousand off the price.
Of course, the economy had hit the Foothills as hard as anywhere else: as Joe drove slowly past the enormous estates, he noticed more than a few with dried-out lawns and untrimmed shrubs, which in this zip code hinted at bank ownership.
Eight fifteen Apache Drive wasn't one of these, however. The flower beds were in full and glorious bloom despite the fact that summer was past. In Northern California, time and money could make a garden thrive all year long. Joe braked a little too late and snugged the curb in front with a rubbery impact. He felt no remorse, though: the department-issued Dodge Charger was hardly a model of precision engineering.
He took a few seconds to check his reflection in the pull-down mirror. No lipstick on his collar, and his tie was reasonably straight. Satisfied with his appearance, Joe took a long, appraising look at the house. Set far back from the street behind faux-stone retaining walls and staked trees, it was lit up like Christmas. Sconces, well lights, path lights, spot lights—Joe did a quick inventory and figured the place for twenty grand in landscape lighting alone.
In a pool of brighter light, a BMW 735 and a Lexus sedan were parked front to back in the driveway. Past the cars, Joe could make out the profile of the cop who'd taken the call. Odell Collier's sloping gut was as distinctive as the painstaking comb-over that invited constant derision from his colleagues.
Joe got out of the car and made his way up the curved stone walk. These Foothills homes—every one tackier than the last, he thought—were huge echoing monuments to new and tainted money. Odell had set up a few tripod lights on the driveway, in front of the four-car garage. As Joe got closer, he could see a dark, lumpy form casting shadows on the etched concrete.
"Hey, Joe. You beat Marty here again," Odell said in his thick drawl. "He must be driving over on a damn golf cart or something."
"Now, now," Joe said soothingly. "Traffic on 680 was terrible. He probably got hung up."
"Well, you're here, aren't you?"
"Coming from Amaris's?" Odell pressed. "She lives in Berkeley, doesn't she?"
"Yes." Joe pressed gently past Odell so he could take a closer look at the body.
"Nice evening y'all were in the middle of having?"
Joe sighed. He'd never brought a woman around before Amaris, but he'd been dating her for nearly a year—a record—and there was a general hue and cry: everyone wanted to meet the woman who'd settled him down. When Joe finally brought Amaris to Nate's, the one bar in Montair down-market enough for the police department regulars to hang out in, most of the guys had been stunned into slack-jawed silence. Amaris tended to do that to men, with her panther-like build and overripe lips and cascades of ink-black hair.
"Nice enough, until this guy got himself offed. So what do you have so far?"
Odell nodded at the body. "Got a damn mess is what we got. He's lying in enough blood it's like somebody stuck half a dozen pigs. Crazy thing is, I can't see much damage on him."
Joe looked closer: the blood pool, black and rusty smelling, was indeed enormous, and its outlines irregular, as if it had splashed out of the body instead of seeping.
"Nobody bleeds out like that."
"Yeah. Well, I'll wait out here for evidence, you want. Bertrise is inside."
"I appreciate it," Joe said. "What do we know about him?"
Odell squinted at his dog-eared notebook. "Tom Bergman, age forty-nine. Guest of the folks who live here, Bryce and Gail Engler; they were having a dinner party. He came out for a smoke. Lives a couple doors down. Wife says he's a strategy consultant, whatever the hell that is. And I need to check when we get back to the office, but I'm pretty sure I've been out here before."
"Here? You mean, like this house?"
"Yup, this very one. Problem is they all look so dang much alike, but me and Army were out here a couple of months ago on a disturbance call."
"Naw, protestors, if you can believe it. They walked in right past that guard shack, nearly gave the guy a heart attack, carried their little signs and whatnot in here and stood around in the middle of the street chanting. I don't think anyone even saw them but a handful of gardeners and housewives. And they pretty much took off with their skirts in a bunch the minute we explained how these are private roads and we could ticket their asses."
"No kidding?" Joe shook his head. "Protesting's just not what it used to be. Back when I was at Berkeley—"
"Yeah, whatever." Odell cut him off. "Save your flower power stories. I think they were just hoping one of the news stations would come around, anyway."
"What were they protesting?"
"Some kind of environmental something. The house they were in front of, which I kind of think was this one, belongs to some sort of developer."
They both stared at the dead man lying on the ground.
"Any chance it was this guy?" Joe asked.
"Maybe, but that would be too easy, wouldn't it? Besides, he's a consultant, not a builder."
"Maybe he's a building consultant," Joe suggested. When Odell merely snorted, he added, "And you seriously can't see anything wrong with him?"
Odell pointed with the toe of his scuffed black brogue. "I'm pretty sure he took a knock on the head. Didn't want to roll him before evidence took photos, but see—it's all matted there—"
Joe accepted the flashlight Odell offered and crouched low, careful not to step in the black pool of blood. He saw what Odell was talking about—just out of sight under the curve of Bergman's skull, what might have been a broken place with a white outcropping of bone and a red-black crust of blood. It didn't look like much—not the work of a claw hammer, for instance, or a baseball bat.
Joe stood, considering. "It's a stone wall . . ."
"Yeah, I thought that, too. Fell, pushed, whatever."
"Pushed, you're thinking."
"No doubt." Odell knelt down and touched the surface of the decorative ledge.
"That's not really stone, Odell," Joe said. "That wall. Places like this—half the stuff you see isn't real."
"I hear that, I do."
"Might as well lay down a few rubber plants . . . plastic grass . . . hell. Cut down on the watering."
Odell glanced at the lawn, glistening in the gentle spray of the sprinkler system, then up at the sky, where a pale freckling of stars was visible.
"They might just do, they think of it. These crazy-assed Californians." Odell had followed a woman to California half a dozen years earlier, but the girlfriend got homesick and hightailed it back to the Lake of the Ozarks. Odell liked California enough to stick around, though he had never completely adapted to the culture.
Joe took a last look and shook his head. The guy's legs were tangled together awkwardly as though he'd gone down trying to dance, white guy style, bobbing from side to side and waving his hands in the air, maybe stumbling on his date's shoe.
© Sophie Littlefield