“Yes, hi. This is Lieutenant Florence Sibley, University of California PD, badge twenty-eight.”
I said, “Hey, Lieutenant. Deputy Edison. What can I do for you?” “I’m over at People’s Park. We got what looks like some remains
I slid an intake sheet to the center of my desk. “Go ahead.”
In describing the scene, she had to compete with several other
voices talking nearby.
“Beg pardon,” I said. “You said an eyeball?” “No. Yeah, but—it’s bones that are the issue.” “How many bones are we talking about?”
“I don’t know. A tooth, too, I think.”
Off in the distance, I heard a piercing shriek. “Cripes,” Sibley muttered.
“If you could get over here.”
“Couple more questions, then sure. When were the remains found?”
“Noon. Give or take.”
A delay of one to two hours is normal. Three or four, if the scene is especially chaotic. More than five and you can bet somebody dropped the ball.
The top of my computer screen read six fifty-six p.m.
“Can you narrow the time frame down some?” I asked. “More give? Or more take?”
A male voice said Lieutenant.
“We’ve got everything under control,” Sibley said brightly. “There’s people there and you can’t discuss this right now.” “That’s correct.”
I said, “On my way.”
Kat Davenport and I loaded up the van with the bone kit and drove to Berkeley.
Traffic was subdued, sidewalks desolate. The December outrush of students had created a citywide vacuum, leaving the solitude of a winter night without much holiday cheer to compensate. At the corner of College and Derby, someone had added a sticker to the stop sign, creating a new message:
I could sense the disturbance in the air from blocks away. It came pulsing through the windshield, less sound than vibration, the warning rumble of a system gone wrong.
We made the turn onto Haste and the protesters exploded into view, a convulsive stew of rage, filling the intersection.
A handful of UCPD uniforms kept a wary vigil.
Chain-link twelve feet high and double-thick plastic fence weave surrounded the park, obscuring its interior. Banners for Siefkin Brothers, Builders, pouched in the breeze. I could see the tops of con- struction trailers and vehicles but not much else. A weird glow oozed up from within, like a cauldron bubbling with ghoulish potential.
Davenport pulled to the curb. I called Sibley’s cell. “We’re here.” She directed us to a pedestrian gate. I got out carrying the bone kit, and we skirted around the back of the crowd. Nobody paid at- tention to us. They were too busy channeling their anger toward the
other protesters at the far end of Bowditch.
Up ahead, a white woman in UCPD blues emerged through the fence and quickly shut the gate behind, as if to prevent something from escaping.
Florence Sibley was tall, with hair pulled tight into a pompom of red curls. Freckles softened whittled facial features; a high sheer forehead seemed to tug her eyebrows upward, giving her a look of permanent astonishment.
She held out an evidence bag containing an eyeball, made of
glass or plastic, roughly an inch in diameter. The iris was iridescent blue; on the reverse was a little attachment loop.
“I didn’t want it to get lost,” she said. “Otherwise we tried not to mess with anything. That’s why I couldn’t give you a good count on the bones.”
I expected her to stand aside, but she continued to block the entrance, tugging at the fence wire with two hooked fingers.
“Everyone’s here,” she said.
Kat Davenport frowned. “Who’s everyone?”
The zeal of youth. Sibley seemed at a loss for words.
I said, “Anything else you want to tell us while we have the chance?”
Sibley paused. “I’m sorry.”
I stepped through the gate and stopped short.
It wasn’t accurate to call People’s Park my old stomping grounds.
I’d spent my undergraduate years on the practice courts or in the athletes’ dining hall. But I had walked or driven past the park hundreds of times. Its grunginess was, if not inviting, at least familiar.
It was gone.
In its place: a bombscape. Banks of industrial work lights blew out the darkness, flooding the cratered lawns with an icy, nauseating glare. I could pick out individual blades of grass from twenty yards away—an eerie, unpleasant sensation, contrast and sharpness di- aled up to the max.
The trellises were gone. The flower beds and vegetable gardens were gone. Benches, lampposts, picnic tables: gone. They hadn’t yet gotten to the bathrooms, but the basketball hoops had been felled and the concrete court smashed to chunks. Everywhere heavy ma- chinery brooded over the carnage.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“I know, right?” Davenport said. “So much better.”
From beyond the fence, the disembodied voices of the protesters continued to ring out, like battlefield ghosts.
A group of people congregated by a ragged, asymmetrical pit
roughly thirty feet long by forty feet wide. Its depth varied between
six feet in some places and inches below surface level in others. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at the site of the Free Speech Stage.
“Everyone” consisted of two men in slacks and coats, a woman in a pantsuit, and a thickset guy in work clothes. All wore hard hats and reflective vests.
Nice of Sibley to apologize. No big deal, though. We were used to working with a live studio audience.
Then I noticed movement in the pit, and I came forward to dis- cover two more people crouched down in the dirt, murmuring over a lump of electric blue.
Before I could ask who they were and what they were doing in my scene, one of the guys in slacks intercepted me with his hand out.
“Thanks so much for coming,” he said.
He introduced himself as George Greenspan, UC Berkeley executive vice chancellor. Straight gray hair, combed back and sprayed, hardly moved as he pumped our arms. He was delighted to meet us.
Likewise UCPD chief Vogel and Dana Simon, VP of operations for Siefkin Brothers, Builders: delighted, just delighted.
The less-than-delighted guy in cargo pants was the foreman, Arriola. He nodded curtly and trudged off to the trailers to fetch us protective gear.
Dana Simon flashed an apologetic smile. “Liability.”
Meanwhile the pair in the pit had stood up: first, a handsome man in his late thirties; man-bun, trail shoes, gray Irish fisherman’s sweater, gray wide-wale corduroys. He came to the edge of the pit and rested on his elbows on the grass, like a swimmer taking a break from laps.
Greenspan said, “Professor Kai MacLeod, one of our rising stars.
He won’t tell you that, so I will. And his grad student—eh?” “Chloe Bellara,” MacLeod said. “One of my stars.”
The elfin young woman behind him gazed shyly at the ground, her hands retracted into the sleeves of an oversized flannel shirt.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Greenspan said. “I invited them be- cause, frankly, I know nothing about this. It’s Kai’s area of expertise. This way we all get to learn something.”
Sibley squirmed helplessly.
“Your area of expertise is People’s Park?” I said to MacLeod. “Classical Mesoamerica,” he said, scratching three days’ worth
of blond beard.
“Okay,” I said. “First, I need you to tell me if you touched any- thing.”
“Oh no, no, no.”
“Then we’ll take it from here.”
MacLeod said, “We’re happy to stay and pitch in.” “That won’t be necessary, Professor.”
“I’ve done my fair share of fieldwork. You can use my kit, if you’d like. The brushes are badger hair. Handmade in Italy.”
“Ours are nylon,” I said. “Machine-made in China.”
MacLeod gave a good-natured chuckle. He hoisted himself out of the pit, then turned to offer his grad student a hand up.
“Kai?” Greenspan asked. “Thoughts?”
MacLeod dusted off his pants. “You’re fine. Whatever’s in there is clearly modern.”
“Excellent. When do we think we’ll be able to start work again?” Chief Vogel said, “Typically no more than a day or two.” Davenport said, “With respect, sir, this is a Coroner’s case now.
Nobody’s doing anything until further notice.”
MacLeod said, “I’m reasonably certain the Ohlone didn’t use polyester.”
The foreman returned with our protective gear slung over his shoulder.
“I hear that you’re eager to get back on track,” I said, struggling to get my vest on. It was a normal-sized vest, for normal-sized people. “The sooner we start, the quicker it goes.”
Greenspan gestured grandly. “As you will.”
Davenport and I hopped into the pit. She began taking pictures, and I crouched to examine the blanket.
Under the work lights, it seemed a gaudy, unreal thing, fibers matted with mud and exuding a swamp mustiness, the decorative satin edging fever-sheened.
A splinter of bone, dull and yellow as old ivory, shot free of the cocoon.
Examination of skeletal remains begins with three questions. Are they human?
If so, how many individuals are represented? How long ago did death occur?
The tooth was small. I was impressed that Sibley had recognized it as such. Most people would take it for a pebble.
If human in origin, it hadn’t come from an adult.
The fuzzy blanket pointed in the same direction.
I reminded myself that we were at the epicenter of People’s Park, which is the epicenter of Berkeley, world capital of Impassioned Causes. This is a town that loves its rituals—the more solemn or shocking, the better. When I was a sophomore, an animal rights group staged a funeral procession for a piglet. Dressed in black, to the whomp of a New Orleans jazz band, they marched the corpse, snuggled inside a tiny, purpose-built coffin, through Sather Gate and across campus to Memorial Glade, where they interred it in the turf.
Maybe that’s what we had here. The remains of a dearly beloved pet.
Davenport joined me, and we began to undo the bundle. It had been elaborately tucked and knotted, and the damp pressure of the earth heaped upon it had caused the layers to laminate. Each un- folding required that we pause to brush away soil; take pictures; bag fragments that, like the tooth, had worked themselves loose and come to settle in crevices and pockets.
Kat Davenport had been with the Coroner’s less than a year. On
the ride over she’d confessed that this was her first skeletal remains
call. At her request, I tried to point out a thing or two. Sub-adult
remains are often mistaken for those of rodents, and vice versa. Long bones in isolation aren’t as helpful as species-specific features. That? Could be a chip. Could be a stone. Take it anyway. Take everything, take no chances. How old? Hard to say. Newer bones give off an oily funk. They’re dense. Ancient bones feel plasticky, artificial, their fragility and dryness palpable through gloves. You have to consider soil composition, acidity, weather, what’s growing
The wind had died. The work lights poured down without mercy. We proceeded methodically, the gruesome opposite of tearing into gift wrap. Feeling the eyes of the onlookers on us, I shifted my
body to obstruct their view.
The innermost layer came away. Species-specific features.
A bowl-shaped pelvis, adapted for single-leg balance when striding upright.
A disproportionately large cranium, evolved to allow room for speech, memory, complex calculation, impossible ideas, hopes, dreams, plans; love and hate; good and evil.
In absolute terms, the hip bones were four inches wide. The skull would fit comfortably in my palm.
Not quite walking. Not yet talking.
Davenport said, “Clay.” I looked at her.
“You good?” she asked.
She knew I had a newborn at home. She was imagining what she would’ve felt in my position.
You can’t predict how having children will change you. You don’t get to choose, any more than you get to choose the child. Par- enthood lays bare your instincts, from the noblest to the most shameful, and at the risk of sounding smug, I’ll venture that Kat
Davenport—twenty-five years old, steady girlfriend, no kids—could not have guess what I was really feeling.
It was the same feeling I had when, in some public place, I heard a stranger’s baby starting to cry.
“You guys doing okay down there?” Professor Kai MacLeod stood at the pit’s edge, sliding his hips easily. “Want me to come have a look?”
What I wanted was to punch him in the balls. I smiled. “We’re good.”
MacLeod gave a peace sign.
We gave him our backs and continued working.
To my eye the skeleton appeared remarkably complete. The tight wrapping—swaddling I thought—had helped to contain everything. Still, I didn’t want to risk leaving pieces behind.
Davenport began unpacking the sifters. I waited for MacLeod to move out of earshot, then called Sergeant Brad Moffett at the bureau to apprise him and request assistance. He said he’d do his best, though he cautioned me not to expect anything anytime soon; a shooting over by Acorn had everyone tied up.
I climbed out of the pit and asked Sibley and Chief Vogel to step aside with me.
Greenspan followed right along behind. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir,” I said.
“Yes, of course, sorry.” He retreated, poking at his phone. I asked Vogel, “Is your detective coming?”
“I haven’t called him yet.”
“You might want to. Although there’s no rush. We’re going to be here awhile.”
Vogel worked, not successfully, to suppress his alarm. “Really.
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Looked like you got what you needed.”
“There’s the rest of the pit we have to search,” I said. “The displacement pile.”
Vogel chewed his lip. “Is that truly necessary?”
“In my opinion, sir, it is. If you disagree, though, feel free to call my sergeant.”
Vogel blinked and thought and said to Sibley, “Get Tom over here.”
The tiniest hitch before she said, “Yes, sir,” and walked off. Chants carried across the ravaged lawns.
Vogel said, “You realize we’re facing a unique situation.” “I do, sir. Sooner we finish, sooner work can resume.” “What do you need from me?”
“Ask everyone to clear out, please.”
“Will do. Sibley can stay on as your point person.” And to babysit us. “Thank you, sir.”
I rejoined Davenport in the pit, and the chief went to speak to the civilians.
Not long after, Greenspan came over to announce that they’d leave things in our capable hands. He looked forward to hearing from us once we’d reached our conclusions.
“You know, we used to have a basketball player named Edison on our squad. Pretty good point guard, if I recall.”
I nodded and continued sifting.
With exaggerated surprise, he said, “No. That was you?” “That was me.”
“What are the odds. Small world.”
I said, “Anything else I can help you with?”
“By all means, carry on. Soon as you have news to share, I’d be grateful to hear it. One Cal man to another.”
Davenport rolled her eyes. “We’ll be in touch,” I said.
“Terrific. Well.” He saluted. “Go Bears.”
Before leaving, Kai MacLeod offered us his card. “You can put it right there,” I said.
He tucked it in the grass and left, Chloe Bellara trailing dreamily in his wake.
Davenport said, “Those two are fucking, right?” “That would violate the University Code of Conduct.” “Definitely fucking.”
I didn’t mind Sibley as a babysitter. I could tell she felt bad about the circus, and she let us alone, departing at nine fifty to oversee the dispersal of the protesters. I heard her through a bullhorn: This is a residential neighborhood. People are sleeping. Please go home.
Voices continued to reverberate in the brittle air.
At ten ten a slack-jawed guy in khakis and a black UCPD fleece shambled up.
“Tom Nieminen,” he said. “Investigations.”
I took off my gloves and went to confer. “Looking like it might be human. Juvenile.”
Nieminen said, “Wow. Kinda weird, huh.”
I waited for him to ask questions. He didn’t. “We’ll know more after the autopsy,” I said.
He didn’t ask when the autopsy would be, either. “Okey dokey,” Nieminen said and sauntered away. Behind his back, Davenport made a jerking-off motion.
At ten thirty the cops again asked the protesters to please disperse.
They repeated their request at eleven, eleven fifteen, eleven thirty. The noise persisted until one thirty in the morning.
At two a.m. Sibley returned.
“The detective came by,” I said. “Nieminen.”
“Okay.” She sat down cross-legged and began plucking grass. The next time I looked, she was flat on her back, snoring.
At two twenty, a pair of CSIs showed up. Even with the extra
hands, it took until three fifteen to finish searching the pit. We completed our search of the displacement pile at half-past six. We were
filthy and exhausted and clammy with perspiration. My eyes were dry and I had a hellacious tension headache. We’d uncovered a few more potential fragments, but nothing as impressive as the initial haul.
Dawn broke, sluicing the neighborhood with light the color of sour milk. Flo Sibley struggled up on her elbows. Gigantic black bags hung under her eyes. “D’you find the bear?”
“Bear?” Davenport asked.
“A teddy bear,” Sibley said. “The eye?”
“No bear,” I said.
Sibley looked like she might burst into tears. “There has to be.” The door to the office trailer opened, and foreman Arriola emerged, wearing slept-in clothes. Thermos in hand, he approached the pit. “We good to go?”
“I’ll let you know within forty-eight hours,” I said.
He snatched up the vests and hard hats, pivoted, and headed back toward the office.
A dozen or so protesters had spent the night camped out behind the sawhorses, spreading out on the sidewalk in sleeping bags—a human pilot light for the flames of resistance. Now their replace- ments began showing up, bringing breakfast and fresh throats. On my way to the van I paused to watch the changing of the guard. One young man raking words on a poster board noticed me staring. He smiled, capped his marker, and raised his middle fingers to the sky.