Palimpsest is copyrighted 2002 by R. Earle Harris (r dot earle dot harris at gmx dot com)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
To Gagandeep Jaitly, the best friend I found in the California of high-tech start-ups.
To the Linux operating system and the LyX document-processor: free software, free men and women.
And to Inspector Bucket, the best cop in literature.
Quotations from Ovid's Metamorphoses are taken from Arthur Golding's translation of 1567.
Quotations from the Bhagavadgita are taken from Sir Edwin Arnold's translation of 1899.
The few quotations from The Confessions of St. Augustine come from the Edward Bouverie Pusey translation available on gutenberg.net.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. --Paul of Tarsus, KJV: I Cor. 13:12
America only has three problems: God and sex and death. I know what America's problems are because a friend of mine told me about them. He is a gay--by no means carefree--science-fiction writer from Austin, Texas, who is now hiding in the Deep South. He told me America has two big problems: sex and death. I added God, because He is a problem and you can't really lump him into one of the other two.
If you are like most people, you prefer to keep those first two separate. In the end, of course, you can't and they are bound up altogether in this story. Palimpsest is a murder mystery, the pursuit of a serial killer in the City. Murder is death and is sometimes classified as a sin, which brings in Problem Number One again. But Palimpsest is really about sex -- and some of the other things that bind us.
If you like police stories as much as I do, I believe you will like this one. But the voyeurs will be disappointed. As my friend would put it, there is very little boinking and no real closeups of anyone's honker. I expect this will be a problem for many readers. But I sympathize with them because, after all, their problem is America's (second) problem.
By overthrow of houses perisheth
Their sweet continuous household piety,
And--rites neglected, piety extinct--
Enters impiety upon that home;
Its women grow unwomaned, whence there spring
Mad passions, and the mingling-up of castes,
Sending a Hell-ward road that family,
And whoso wrought its doom by wicked wrath.
Nay, and the souls of honoured ancestors
Fall from their place of peace, being bereft
Of funeral-cakes and the wan death-water.
Coretha tried to focus her eyes on the clock as she turned her beeper off. The red LEDs finally told her it was three thirty-two.
A sleepy voice came up from under the pillow beside her: "What is it? What is the matter?"
Coretha placed her hand on her husband's rising back and pressed him back down into the land of sleep.
"It's work, baby," she answered him. "Just work. You go on back to sleep."
Her husband Louis's hand squeezed her hip.
"You be careful," he said.
She kissed his exposed shoulder.
"I'll be careful. You go back to sleep."
He was snoring again before she was all the way out of bed.
'New day,' thought Coretha. 'New boss. Same me.'
The police emergency pager wouldn't bring the bus any earlier so Coretha took the shower she needed. She spent the time under the hot water waking up and taking care not to think about anything at all. As she toweled off, her eyes found her own reflection in the tall mirror on the back of the bathroom door.
Coretha X Brakeman looked at her whole self in the bathroom mirror. There she all was: tall and naked and black and independent. She liked the independent part, the part that made her life both easier and harder to take. And she looked good for forty-two: smooth-skinned and trim.
Her face was too hard-set though. It had not been that long since her face had been softer. She was pretty sure of that. She remembered laughing more too, once upon a time.
But Coretha's was a hard row to hoe. It was now two hundred and eighty-some years since the Declaration of Independence and a hundred and ninety-some since Emancipation. Being a black woman cop in the City still wore you down a little every day--in that way only black people could know. It wore you down like a rock in the river. And the river stank.
'But it keeps me smooth,' thought Coretha, 'hard and smooth.'
She ignored all the mirrors while she put on her black patrolman's uniform with its orange reflective-stripes. She buckled on her empty holster; she would fill it as soon as she got to work.
It had been years since anybody but on-duty police had been allowed to carry a gun. This meant only criminals walked around with guns full-time. It made you feel better about shooting them and worse about the unarmed commute in uniform. Every so often, some lowlife with a grudge would shoot an unarmed police officer on the bus. It made you eager to get to work and sign out something to shoot back with.
Her watch told her it was Friday, February the eighteenth. The streets would be ice and slush and mud from the dirt they spread around for traction. At least in a squad car, she'd be up over the streets and not in them. She pulled on her insulated jacket.
Coretha slipped out the door of her tiny apartment without waking up Louis or the boys. Her little boy and Louis's little boy were asleep on the living room couch that made into a bed. She told both her angels, silently, that she loved them as she left.
Coretha's apartment was on the fourth floor of an old brick building in an even older part of town. Her hallway stank. The first two floors were abandoned--sewage backed up on the first floor and no one with a nose could stand the smell of sewage and lime that made it to the second. The fourth floor was okay. The plumbing worked. The heating worked. And you got used to the smell that was strong enough to climb up this far.
Coretha pressed her upper lip against her nostrils and walked a little faster through the first floor hallway and out the front doors. The sidewalk hadn't been salted yet. She slid and cursed and adjusted to the cold that cut into her hands and face.
She walked to the grey plastic bus stop. Everyone at the bus stop fell quiet when she got there. Some ignored her. Some did that smile thing to show her the police were their friends. She nodded back at the smilers and felt her face taking on that hard frown she had seen the beginnings of in the bathroom mirror. It would set in across the morning and be a good hard mask for the rest of the day. She tried one more smile but it didn't work.
The bus pulled up and Coretha took a front seat so she wouldn't have to look at the rest of the passengers.
Coretha clocked in, signed for her gun, and headed for the motor pool.
'Thank God it's Friday,' she thought. 'And thank God senior status finally means somethin'.'
It wasn't often anyone got promoted. Someone just about had to die for that to happen and old age was hardly ever the cause of death. Promotion and sorrow were partners; you went to the funeral of someone you knew and then you got his job.
Seniority, on the other hand, was like taxes. A little more came around every year. Coretha, like most patrolmen, would never see a promotion. But she had senior patrol status at her station and it had finally gotten her off the streets--as of today.
But death had its spoon in the stew. Her new boss was an Indian detective sergeant, Arjuna Deep. And Deep's last patrolman had died on duty two days ago. She hadn't heard how. But seniority had bought her the slot his death had emptied.
Coretha realized the pager this morning was death calling too. Deep was Homicide. A Homicide emergency was a dead body. Not what she would call an emergency. The emergency would have shown up just before death did. Now the emergency was over.
Coretha stopped walking quite so fast down the basement hallway. A dead body wasn't going anywhere.
Coretha walked up to the motor pool desk and frowned at the big man behind the scratched-up plexiglass window. It was Officer Lamont Duprees, someone she had already known too well.
"My, my, my," Lamont said through the window, "what's a good-lookin' black woman like you doin' down here at oh-four-thirty in the morning, Coretha? It's good--I mean good--to see you."
"An' what's a funny-lookin' nigger like you hittin' on a married woman for--an' you on the job? Do I need a bigger wedding ring or do you need a second helpin' of sense between your big ears?"
It was easy to fall back to Lamont's level.
"What do you mean big ears?" Lamont asked, trying to sound manly and hurt at the same time.
"I mean those big ears. If your nose was any smaller, you could fly them ears over a fence. Why don't you find yourself a blind woman?"
Lamont managed not to laugh. He crossed his big arms and frowned down over his wide nose at Coretha. "I don't mean nothin', Coretha. I don't hardly see you no more, anyway. But we're still friends. I know we're friends."
"I know we've been friends," said Coretha.
"An' I know you still like me," said Lamont, bringing his chin farther down and starting to smile.
"Sure I do. I like you, Lamont. I like you from a distance. Where's Detective Deep?"
"You with Deep?" Lamont went ahead and laughed. "Oh, man."
"I'm with Deep," she answered, wondering what there was to laugh about. "Why are you laughin'?"
"You hear how his last uniform got it?" asked Lamont. He was really smiling now.
"No, Lamont, I didn't hear. But you'll fix that." She almost smiled at him.
"I'll fix it. He got shot by his last murder victim."
"You're jokin' me, Lamont."
"I ain't jokin' nobody. He got shot by a dead guy. There was shots in some alley 'cross town. A girl calls it in. Deep and Nirian get there first--before the ambulance or the patrol cars. They was right around the corner."
"Nirian?" Coretha asked.
"That racist Syrian mother from uptown. The one always laughin' at us but never doin' his laughin' out loud."
"I know him. Go on."
"Nirian goes down the alley first. 'Cause of Deep."
"'Cause of Deep?"
"Jus' listen. Nirian walks up to the dead guy who's already got two big chunks blown out of him and he's lying there turning the alley red. But the dead guy ain't dead. He thinks Nirian's come to finish the job. So the dead guy gets off one las' shot and blows Nirian's face back down the alley--then he dies. But too late fo' Nirian."
"You're makin' this up, Lamont."
"If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'. You ask your new boss."
"I'll do that. I'll ask him when he gets here."
Lamont shook his big face at her. "Deep don't come down here. He don't drive."
"He can take the bus. He can walk."
"Deep don't take the bus. And he don't wear walkin' shoes."
"What's he do then? Fly?"
"He definitely don't fly. Here's your keys, Coretha."
Lamont passed a ring with two keys through the window. Coretha took them.
"Wait a second," Coretha said. "What are you doin', Lamont? These don't go to a squad car."
"I ain't doin' nothin', Coretha." Lamont smiled a great big smile for her. "I would never mess with you. But like I said, Deep don't fly; he don't go up in a squad car."
"And these?" Coretha shook the key ring. "What kind of thing do these go to?"
"They go to that old Ford." Lamont pointed. "Right over there. Can't you drive?"
She looked at the car. There was a big arc of rust above the rear tire and a hole in the red plastic of the roof-lights.
"I can drive," she said. "What about Deep?"
"You go get him. At his place. It's already in the GPS."
"Great," she said, but not like it was a good thing. "Least it's Friday."
"Amen to that," said Lamont.
Coretha headed for the Ford.
Lamont hollered after her. "And Coretha--"
"Yes, Lamont?" she said turning back around.
"You are a good-lookin' black woman."
"Yes, I am, Lamont. But I'm not yours. I'm goin' to give you some of that distance now. You keep it an' I'll like you better."
She walked away to the Ford.
Coretha hated traffic. She hated it all the way from the precinct to Deep's apartment building which was on the other side of downtown in a nicer neighborhood than she usually went into. She wondered what kind of thing Indians would have for blacks.
'Something new every day,' she thought.
As she followed the woman's voice coming from the GPS, Coretha also wondered how much a Detective Sergeant made and how nice an apartment he would have. Already the buildings looked too nice to have the sewage problems neighborhoods like hers did.
The City was getting old. There were still plenty of plumbers and mechanics; a lot of little things got fixed. But there was never the time or the money or the talent to fix all the big problems and keep them fixed. By the time one sewage or bridge-way or electric breakdown was fixed there was another somethin' gone bad. More than one most times--the City was playing catch-up and losing everyday. But it was losing so slowly that several million people lived here happily enough and just accepted the sorry state of things.
'And some of that sorry state is just nasty,' Coretha told herself.
She decided to think about something else.
Coretha had never in her life seen Detective Sergeant Arjuna Deep. But as she pulled up in front of his building, she knew she was looking at him. He was standing near the curb with his eyes closed, looking cold.
He had big bulging eyes beneath his closed lids and a slender nose. He had big lips, almost like her own. His skin was dark but lighter and browner than hers. Coretha's brown was almost black, not that blue-black you sometimes see, but dark, dark brown--African brown like her husband Louis's. But she wasn't African like he was. She was just a real dark brown.
Deep was shorter than she was by half a foot; Coretha was six feet tall. Bent away from the wind, Deep was even shorter now. He wore a shiny blue suit with dark brown shoes that did anything but match the suit. Lamont was right: they were not walking shoes. Walking in those shoes would hurt. Over his suit he wore a too-short, puffy, insulated coat. His shoes matched the suit better than his coat did. It was sky blue. And orange. On his head was one of those furry Russian hats with the ear flaps down. His face was soft and round under the furry hat.
He looked like a soft, little rabbit-man.
Coretha honked the horn and reached across to open the passenger door.
When she sat up and looked over at him, he was sliding into the car and buckling his seat belt. He looked at her and offered her his hand.
"I am Arjuna Deep. Detective."
His eyes were golden. They were the damndest eyes Coretha had ever seen. She took his hand and shook it like a man would.
"Officer Brakeman. Coretha X Brakeman."
Detective Deep seemed a little embarrassed. She stopped looking at his eyes.
"Everyone notices them," he said.
Coretha waited to see what he would say next.
"But their color has no meaning," Deep said. "They are just my eyes."
Coretha thought she understood. A color like that ought to mean something. Deep was banging his hands together now.
"It is very cold," he said.
Coretha turned up the car heater even though she was warm enough already.
"I am always cold," said Deep, "There are two bodies. At a restaurant. We should go."
"Jus' say where," said Coretha.
"I am no good with directions. I am always getting them wrong," said Deep. "Always I have them sent to the GPS."
Coretha hit the "next" button on the GPS and the woman in the software told her where to go.
The police car was soon hot enough for Coretha to think about pulling over to take off her coat. But Deep still looked cold. A squad car passed overhead in the emergency lane. Coretha was jealous. She hated the ground traffic. And she hated being hot.
"You have heard what happened to Officer Nirian?" asked Deep.
"Jus' rumors," said Coretha. "I didn't like Nirian. But I'm sorry he's dead."
"Officer Nirian did not like black people either," said Deep.
Coretha gave Deep a quick look.
Deep went on. "He was very outspoken. He did not like black people at all."
Coretha gave Deep another look, wondering what his game was. He seemed like a big, innocent rabbit, sitting there with his hands in his puffy coat pockets, talking about his racist dead officer. She decided to push back.
"So how did he feel about Indians?"
"I do not think he liked us either. But he was not so outspoken about it. Perhaps out of politeness to me."
"Are you serious?" Coretha asked.
"So how about you?" Coretha asked. Might as well kick the door down.
"About me?" Deep asked, blinking his golden eyes.
"Yes, sir. How do you feel about us black people?"
"I do not know yet," said Deep.
"I am sorry. But I do not know any black people yet. It has simply worked out that way."
The traffic came to a stop and Coretha turned to look at him. His soft face was framed by his puffy blue collar, fur hat, and furry ear-flaps. Coretha felt herself starting to smile and put her frown back on.
"You're jokin' me."
"Oh, no," he said. "You are the first."
Coretha didn't know what to say to that.
The GPS led them to a restaurant in the Lebanese part of town. Two squad cars and an ambulance were already there. It was just after five o'clock on a Friday morning and the sun wasn't even thinking about the new day yet. The policeman guarding the front doors looked bored and cold.
Coretha parked up on the curb and got out. She walked carefully over the frozen slush and then stood on the sidewalk while Deep got out of the car. He first pulled his furry hat farther down and his puffy collar farther up and then climbed out and shut the door.
He still seemed embarrassed.
"I do not like the cold," he said.
Deep walked to the doors of the restaurant and Coretha followed him over. The ambulance was idling a foot off the ground and one of the ambulance technicians climbed out when he saw the detective. The technician held out a clipboard.
"No wounded," he said. "We're just waiting for you to sign us off."
Deep took the clipboard and neatly wrote his name with the technician's pen.
"The two bodies?" Deep asked.
"Inside. We verified them dead and called the coroner."
Coretha watched Deep hand the man his clipboard and then walk to the glass doors of the restaurant. The uniformed officer guarding them moved out of Deep's way and Deep stopped with his hand on the door handle. He stood like that long enough for Coretha to watch the ambulance lift off and fly away.
"Are you okay?" she asked her new detective.
Without looking at her, he said, "I have a small problem."
Coretha could see that the three officers inside the restaurant had noticed Deep and were now laughing about something. They seemed to be laughing at him. She hoped she wouldn't be too pissed off when she found out what the joke was.
"You need some help?" Coretha asked.
"Oh, no. There is nothing you can do," Deep said. "I have a problem with dead bodies. They upset me very much."
The men inside were laughing at her now too.
'That's real funny,' she thought. 'I get to be the bunny rabbit's sidekick.'
"Don't you think we should go in?" she asked.
Deep did not move. Coretha put her hand next to his and pushed the glass door open. Without bumping into him, she crowded him inside. He seemed to do okay once he was in. Coretha stood by the door and watched him. She wondered what a detective's officer did at a homicide scene. Probably whatever she was told.
Inside, it looked like there'd been a serious disagreement over dinner last night.
Two men at either end of a six-person dining table were dead, dead, dead. The table was laid out with lots of fancy food. But nobody would want to eat it any more. Someone had gotten blood all over it, probably the dead guys on the floor. They were big men--big, fat men. Both were full of holes that had probably been made with the slug-throwing pistols that lay next to them. These men had been big enough to take a lot of damage and angry enough to serve each other a big plate of it. It looked to Coretha like they had served it up for the better part of a minute before mutually falling down and calling it a draw.
They had made a real mess.
Deep was standing beside her again. He seemed to be looking at everything except the blood and the bodies.
"They that spread a feast all for themselves, eat sin and drink of sin," he said, looking at the food on the table.
He pulled up his ear-flaps and snapped them into place. Coretha noticed how Deep's ears stuck out--worse than Lamont's.
"What kind of sin would that be?" she asked.
"That is the Bhagavadgita," said Deep. "It also says: I hate wealth and ease."
"I do. Especially this kind."
Coretha looked at the two dead men in their expensive, bloody suits. She looked at all the fancy food on the table. The wine bottle looked like a few days' pay, at least. Wealth and ease.
"So what should I do?" she asked.
Deep looked at her and pursed his lips. "Perhaps you could talk to the other officers. I think they are keeping witnesses in the kitchen."
Coretha hadn't noticed the voices in the kitchen until now. She nodded at Deep and walked over to the other officers. One of them she recognized: Eddie Pelletier, a French-Canadian from Maine. The other two officers walked away as Coretha approached.
"Hey, Coretha," Eddie said.
"Hey, Eddie," she replied, easing her frown a little.
Coretha watched the other two policemen, both white men, walk away from her across the room.
"They're not too friendly," said Eddie, shrugging.
"With who?" she asked.
Eddie didn't bother to answer.
"So you got Deep," he said. He gave her a big grin to go with it.
"And?" Coretha asked, hoping she already knew the worst.
"He's squirrelly around dead people. Quite a twitch for a homicide detective."
Coretha saw that Deep was finally looking at the bodies.
"How does he keep his job?" she asked.
"Franklin was just telling me. He closes more cases than anyone else."
"Who's in the kitchen?" Coretha asked Eddie.
Eddie handed her a voice recorder the size of a cell-phone. "We took statements. The owner, a chef, a waitress. They were all scared and went home when the shooting started. The two dead guys are Lebanese mafia. They had midnight reservations for dinner and discussion. It must have gotten personal. The help went home when it got ugly and waited for us to find the bodies. Franklin's partner saw them through the windows just after three. Why don't you print the statements for Deep and see if he wants the witnesses to stay for anything else?"
Deep was kneeling beside the first body. He had blood on the end of his forefinger and was holding his hand as if he didn't want to get the blood on his own poorly-matched clothing.
Coretha went out to the car. She stuck the recorder in the dash socket and went back to the trunk to wait on the printer. When it was done, she closed the trunk and carried the sheets back in to Deep.
Deep was in the kitchen. He had the owner staring at the floor.
"So you went home when the two men began to shoot each other?"
"Yes, Detective. I sent everyone home."
"And you did not call the police?"
"And why did you not call the police?"
"Because I knew these men, Detective. Mr. Assid and Mr. Haridi were very good customers. Very powerful men. I would never interfere with powerful men, Detective. I would be afraid."
"Yes," said Detective Deep. "I, too, am a fearful man."
Deep led Coretha back out of the kitchen and took the printed statements from her.
"You may release the poor witnesses," he said. "We will wait for Mr. Hyde-Williams and then I think we are finished here."
Coretha went back inside the kitchen and sent everyone home. The department would call the owner when the coroner had finished recording the scene.
In the dining room, Coretha saw that Deep was now sitting at a table by the window. Outside, light was leaking into the world. Franklin and his partner had fired up the coffee machine by the waiters' station and the three uniformed officers drifted past her, into the kitchen, with hot cups of coffee. Only Eddie smiled at her.
The officer out the front door looked cold. Coretha took him a cup of coffee but left her frown on so he wouldn't say anything.
He didn't say a thing.
Deep was still looking out the window when she came back in. She carried two cups of coffee and two little creamers over to his table. Coretha sat down across from Deep and put a little sugar in her own cup.
"There's cream," she said.
Deep took the coffee and picked up both the creams.
"Do you need one?" he asked.
Coretha shook her head, no.
"I do everything black," she said.
Deep was looking at her as if waiting for an explanation. Coretha stirred her coffee.
The coroner's van landed where the ambulance had been. Coretha looked at the two dead fat men and the holes in them and the blood on the floor and the expensive food on the table. Wealth and ease.
"You think we're done here?" she asked Deep.
"I think it is a simple murder, yes."
He opened the creamers with one hand and followed them with a lot of sugar.
"It is beginning to smell badly," he said, stirring the coffee and holding his nose.
Coretha hadn't noticed.
"You should live where I do," she said.
Novel truncated at 1000 lines