To: Maxwell Odom < withheld >
From: Alton Gansky < withheld >
Well, here it is, Max: your story just as you told it to me. Will anyone believe it? I don’t know, but I do know that I feel privileged to have been selected to help tell your tale. Your account moved me and gave me much to think about. I hope you like it. I changed none of the facts or events you experienced. I just tried to make it flow a little better.
Now it’s time to launch this into the world. Maybe it will make a difference.
I still have a few questions, but I’ll send them to you under separate cover.
Stay well, friend, and if you make any more strange trips like this one, please let me know. I want to hear every word of it.
Alton “Al” Gansky
HE WAS YOUNG, no more than twenty-two or twenty-three. Age had yet to weather his olive skin, or dim the luster in his eyes. He walked with a bounce in his step, and pearl white teeth beamed when he smiled. He also talked nonstop. I wanted to remind him that he lived in one of the most troubled areas of the world; that terrorists walked his streets and planted bombs on school buses. If that wasn’t enough to create a permanent dent in his enthusiasm, I considered informing him that he was shackled to a low-paying, dead-end job.
I kept my mouth shut. It was no fault of his that I was depressed. That was the problem with perky people—they annoyed those of us who prefer to be dismal.
“You will enjoy your stay here in the Jerusalem International Hotel, Mr. Odom.” His words were muddied with accent. “We have the best of everything. You must try our restaurant. Our cook is the best in the city. You will thank me for recommending him to you.”
I grunted, certain that he wanted a tip more than a thank-you.
He asked, “Where have you come from? Have you traveled far? Is this your first time in Jerusalem?”
We paused at the elevator doors and I thought it best to answer before he could spring another question.
“San Diego. Yes, it is far. Yes, this is my first time in Jerusalem.”
“This is a wonderful city. You must take in all the sights. There is so much to see.” He punched the white button on the wall next to the bronze elevator doors, then punched it again as if he could annoy the elevator into arriving sooner.
“I won’t be here that long.”
“No time to see Jerusalem?” He seemed crestfallen and looked at me as if I had begun to drool on myself.
I spoke before he could protest more. “The city has stood for centuries without my attention. I’m certain it will survive if I ignore the tourist traps.”
My eyes burned and felt dry as autumn leaves. Hours in a Boeing 747-400 had exacted their toll: San Diego to New York and then on to Tel Aviv. From there a car carried me to Jerusalem. My back ached from sitting, and I longed for a healthy dose of quiet and the kind of distance from others only a hermit could appreciate.
“So you have come for business?”
Nodding, I looked back at the lobby with its rose-hued marble floors and artistic wrought-iron furnishings fleshed out with thick cushions dressed in durable gold-colored fabric. Several of the walls were made of limestone block, stacked in the same fashion as ancient buildings. Windows with black anodized aluminum frames stood in contrast with the block walls, the blending of contemporary with pseudo-ancient architecture. I had been in scores of hotels and the Jerusalem International rivaled the best of them.
A chime announced the arrival of the elevator and the exuberant bellhop pushed the luggage cart into the empty car. My baggage was minimal: a large suitcase with wheels, a carry-on bag, a computer bag with my laptop, and a black nylon bag that held my hanging clothes—two suits.
“This San Diego, it is in California, no?”
“It is in California, yes. Southern California.”
He looked serious. “I shall go there someday. I wish to travel the world. I have seen pictures of your city. Very pretty.”
“Not the part I see.” He tilted his head to the side. I didn’t offer to explain. “I assume the rest of my luggage has arrived?”
Another blinding smile. “Yes, Mr. Odom. I delivered them to your room only an hour ago.”
“Good. That’s good.” I leaned against the back wall of the elevator and let it support my weight. The word nap was rapidly gaining importance in my life, and if the elevator didn’t arrive soon the young bellhop would have to carry me to my room.
I got a break. The elevator made it to the twenty-third floor without a single stop. The last thing I wanted was some tourist lady reeking of perfume to join us.
I stole a glance at the bellhop. He bounced on the balls of his feet and I wondered how prevalent the use of methamphetamine was in Jerusalem. He had the antsy actions of someone familiar with speed.
Even thousands of miles from home I can’t stop being a cop. It was time to focus on other things—if I could.
The doors parted and we made our way down a thickly carpeted corridor. Expensive-looking, bronze-trimmed sconces splashed yellow light on the beige walls.
“You will enjoy your room. It overlooks the Old City.”
“I’m certain I will.”
My room was at the end of the hall. A swipe of the electronic key card I had been given when I checked in disengaged the lock.
I poured into the room like water pours into a glass. Mr. Happy followed, propping open the door with a small rubber wedge he removed from his pocket.
With practiced skill, he off-loaded my luggage, setting the suitcase on a short wood table designed to hold such things. The garment bag he hung in the closet and my laptop case he set on a cherry table that served as a desk.
The room set me back on my heels. My hosts had spared no cost. Soft white plaster walls surrounded me. Pseudo-stone Ottoman archways graced the doorway between the living room and the bedroom. The suite was furnished with a sofa and a wide coffee table with a glass sheet over a woven Persian tapestry. Everything about the room glinted with the sheen of expense—everything but the small black television that rested in an arched niche. Apparently the American fascination with large-screen TVs hadn’t made it to this part of the world. On the exterior wall were arched windows framed in the same anodized aluminum I saw in the lobby. Beyond the window was the monochromatic Old City of Jerusalem.
The suite was far more than I expected. Originally, the meeting planner had arranged for me to stay in a different, less opulent hotel but something had gone wrong with the arrangements.
When I tried to check in, they said they had no record of my reservation and were booked solid. A call to the meeting planner set things in motion. Either he upgraded my room as an unspoken apology or this was the only room left in the city. Either way, I was the beneficiary.
Beneath one of the two windows was a pair of cardboard boxes, a UPS sticker affixed to each. My packages had arrived and I could see no dents or tears to indicate rough treatment. That was a relief.
“I will help you with those,” the bellhop said and shouldered past me.
“No, that’s all right.”
He hunkered down and lifted one of the boxes to the wide coffee table.
“It is no problem. It is my pleasure to help.” He removed a penknife from his pocket and cut the tape that held the box lid secure.
“I said I would take care of it.”
He ignored me. No doubt visions of a large tip danced in his brain. He pulled the box open.
I quick-stepped forward and seized his arm, spinning him. “I said leave it alone.” I gave the arm a sharp tug.
His skin paled and his eyes widened. Genuine fear draped his face. I let go and unclenched my teeth.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry, Mr. Odom,” he said and took a step back. He rubbed his arm and I felt two inches tall.
“No, I’m the one who is sorry. I’m not feeling well,” I lied. “I’m afraid all the traveling has stolen my manners.” I removed my wallet, opened it, and extracted a twenty. He would have no trouble converting the currency.
He didn’t move.
“Please.” I wiggled it, encouraging him to take my guilt offering. “You’ve been a big help. The hotel is lucky to have a man like you.”
The compliment made him smile. He took the cash with a small bow.
Relief. The last thing I needed was an assault-and-battery charge on a hotel employee while a guest in a foreign city. If he made issue of it, I could be out on my ear with no place to stay, or worse, a place to stay in the local jail. I could see the newspaper headlines: AMERICAN CRIMINOLOGIST ATTACKS LOCAL HOTEL EMPLOYEE. I apologized again.
He bounced from the room with the same energy he entered. The door closed behind him. I stood drained, wallet still in hand. My eyes moved from the door to a full-length mirror that hung on one of the walls. The shell of a man looked back. He held the same wallet and wore the same gray dress pants, white polo shirt, and stood about the same height—except the man in the mirror hunched slightly like someone who had just finished carrying a bag of concrete mix on each shoulder. His hair revealed the same color brown and receding hairline, but looked less combed than it should. He also appeared twenty pounds lighter and fifty years frailer. I found no pleasure looking at the reflection. Why were mirrors so doggedly truthful?
I walked to the desk and tossed my billfold onto its smooth, unmarred surface. The wallet fell open and an American Express card escaped and the flap over the photo section flopped back. It contained only one picture, the image of three happy people. I was one of them, looking like my reflection should look.
The sight of the photo opened a drain in my feet, and my soul poured out. I reached forward to close the billfold but had to pause over the old image. My fingers lowered to the surface and I touched the photo as if uncertain of its reality.
It was real. I closed the wallet. I was sick of reality.
I turned my back on the desk and wallet and moved through the arched opening to the sleeping area. A king-size bed dressed in a thick crimson spread reigned over the room. Several chairs were situated around the expansive space, and a small, round table stood like a sentry in the corner. Another small television rested on a delicate iron stand.
I stripped off my shirt, kicked off my shoes, and shed the rest of my clothing. A minute later, hot water stung my skin as I stood in the shower. I let the water flood down my back and cascade over my head, and I fought back tears that threatened to add to the flow.
Twenty minutes later, washed, dried, and under control, I crawled onto the plush bed and closed my eyes. Lying on my back, arms stretched to the side like a diver in a swan dive, I wished for sleep. I wouldn’t be needed for another two hours. I would need to be my best then and a nap would make me all the better. The problem with sleep is the more you wait for it, the more reluctant it is to arrive.
I tried to empty my mind but my thoughts, like bees in a bottle, were impossible to control. Still I refused to give in. I wasn’t moving from the bed. A mist of memory swirled in my brain . . .
“BECAUSE I TOLD you to. That ends the matter.”
Bruce Yates sat behind a metal desk that had tolerated at least fifteen years of work. At one time it was a handsome piece of furniture, but it had endured too many hours of service. Its surface was scarred and stained by a thousand coffee cups. Bruce Yates didn’t look any better. Two years from retirement, he wore the mantle of a man with thirty years of police experience—thirty hard years. He had been my supervisor for most of my career. As the director of the Forensics Science Section of the San Diego Police Department, he piloted a busy ship.
“I’m fine. I don’t need a leave of absence,” I said. I crossed my arms as if the motion would add the needed exclamation point. I was doing my best to be intimidating.
Yates doesn’t intimidate. Decades of trading blows with politicians, lawyers, criminals, and more had left him with a thick emotional callus.
“You’re not fine, Max. You’re a mess, and you’ve stretched my patience to the failure point. I’ve cut you some slack, maybe too much slack.”
“I’m one of the best investigators you have—check that—I am the best investigator you have, not to mention the most unique.” My position did not fit the norm of the forensics unit. Most employees in this section were forensic specialists—people who gathered evidence from a scene—or forensic scientists—the folks who did the higher science. None were cops. None except me. I had trained and worked in a city where homicide detectives often served as forensic specialists. When the department hired me on, they dropped me in homicide. Before long I had worked myself into a hybrid of two sections. I was a one-of-a-kind in this department.
“I won’t argue that, but it changes nothing. You’re skating on thin ice. That’s bad enough, but I’m on the ice with you. I don’t plan to get wet.”
My jaw tightened.
He raised a finger. “Be very careful what you say next. It only takes a pen stroke for me to make your leave permanent.”
“You’re being unfair.”
“And you sound like a child. Unfair? I’ve been more than fair. I’ve received six complaints about you interfering with the investigation.”
“They’re moving too slow.”
“The detectives and investigators are moving at the same speed you do when you work a case.”
“This is different,” I protested. Protesting was easier than facing the fact that he was right.
“It’s different for you. It should be different.” He paused and let his tone settle. “I can’t pretend to understand what you’re going through, but you can’t continue to poke your nose into the process. I’ve run interference for you, but I can guarantee that if you do not rein yourself in, the next call I receive will be from the Old Man himself. Then things will be out of my control.”
“No one is going to bring the chief into this.”
“Detective Hernandez has already threatened to do so. I did him a solid favor a couple o’ months ago so he owes me. I had to call in that chip to keep your fanny out of the fire.”
“All I’m trying to do is lend my experience to the case.”
“No you’re not. You’re seeking revenge.” He paused. “Not that I blame you.”
“It’s not about revenge, Bruce.” It was a hollow protest. That’s exactly what it was about.
The tension in the room congealed. I stood my ground, determined not to budge, but I knew it to be a lost cause. Bruce cut through it with soft words. “Max, we can argue all day but when all is said and done, you’re taking a leave of absence. I think you need it; more importantly, the department shrink thinks you need it.”
“And if I refuse to take leave?”
“Then you’ll be packing your stuff in cardboard boxes. It’s not like I have any choice in the matter, Max. Suck it up and take the leave.”
I could no longer hold my arms crossed. There were only two of us in the room, and I was the only one pretending things were about to change. The vacuum inside me expanded and I felt ready to implode.
“Bruce . . . I . . . never mind.”
“You what?” He leaned back in his chair, and it protested with a piercing screech.
“I don’t want to just sit around for two weeks. I . . . I don’t want to be alone in the house.” Hearing my words stunned me. My gut had been screaming that truth but my mouth had refused to give the feeling freedom. “I need something to do, something else to focus on. Give me a case and I’ll stay out of everyone’s way. And I won’t go near the investigation. I promise.”
Bruce studied me, pursed his lips, then looked at the ceiling. “No can do, Max, but I might be able to do something else for you. How do you feel about travel?”
“You know I travel. I do at least one conference a year on scientific investigations. I did the FBI Academy last year and taught a symposium to JAG investigators.”
“I’m talking about a few more miles than those trips. I have a request from the Israeli police for someone to speak to their forensic department on evidentiary protocol.”
“I thought they had a top-notch department,” I said.
“They do. After the tsunami of December 2004, they sent a team to locate and identify seven Israelis who died when the wave struck. They identified all seven—out of three hundred thousand dead. They know what they’re doing.”
“So why ask outsiders for help?”
“Not help, Max. Knowledge. They’re one of the best because they bring in the best to improve what they do. Truth is we might learn a few things from them. You want the gig?”
“When would I leave?”
“Why so quick? This thing must have been in the works for months.”
Bruce nodded. “It has been. Steve Lessing was going but he’s out with appendicitis. He’s not going anywhere for a while.”
“All the more reason to keep me around,” I said. “Steve does the work of two men. Without him, you’re going to be severely shorthanded.”
Bruce raised his hands to his face and rubbed as if scrubbing off dirt. He rose, leaned over the desk. “Okay, here it is. Max. You can go on leave or you can take this out-of-country trip. Truth is, I’m gonna catch it as it is just for offering the trip to you. Still, I’m willing to take a little executive slapping to help you get back on the road to normalcy.”
“I’m telling you, I am normal.”
Bruce slammed his hand down on the old desk and the sound of it shook the pictures on the wall.
“No, you are not! I say so, the shrink says so, and everyone in the department says so. No one can be normal so soon after the event. Go home or take the trip. Decide now, because you’re leaving my office in the next thirty seconds.”
I had pushed him too far. I’ve seen Bruce angry before, but this was several notches above anything I thought him capable of. I assumed he was acting for my benefit. It was a good act.
“I’ll take the trip.”