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Books: Adults

Garden of Stones

Garden of Stones

CHAPTER ONE

Tuesday, June 6, 1978
San Francisco

Reg Forrest lowered himself painfully into his desk chair, which was as hard-used and creaky as he was. The dark brown leather was cracked and worn, the brass nails missing in places. When he found the chair in the alley, he thought it had a certain masculine appeal, like something a hotshot lawyer might own. But it hadn't taken long for the thing to seem as shoddy as the rest of his office.

Reg flipped the corners of the stack of papers on his desk and sighed. The coffee wouldn't be ready for a few minutes yet.

Dust motes swirled in the first rays of morning sunlight, causing Reg to blink and then to sneeze. He had positioned his desk under the only window in the room, a filthy pane of glass at ceiling level that looked out into a corrugated aluminum well half-filled with garbage and dead leaves. Above the window well was the same alley where he'd found the chair, a narrow stinking passage between the DeSoto Hotel and the building next door. Still, early in the morning, depending on the season, an errant sunbeam or two found its way down into the room, and for that small grace, Reg occasionally remembered to be grateful.

Beyond the office door, there was silence. The gym opened at seven, which was still a half hour away. He'd already unlocked the doors, but the half dozen men who'd gather by seven would wait for him to come prop them open. They knew each other's habits. Early morning drew the shift workers, the boys getting in a few rounds on the bag after clocking out. Night security, deliverymen, dockworkers—they were quieter, as a rule, than the ones who came later. Other than the occasional grunt or curse, they had little to say as they worked through their circuits.

It had been several years since Reg himself had taken to the practice ring. He'd broken the same hand three times, and his shoulder was never right any more. The ligaments in his back were for shit, and there was a scar like a zipper running over his left knee. He was 59 years old and he'd spent three of his six decades here, in the basement of the DeSoto Hotel, building Reg's Gym up from nothing. Reg had paid in rough coin, but he wasn't complaining; the sounds and smells of this place were all he knew any more, and if he spent more of his time locked up in this office with a calculator than on the floor these days, he supposed that was all right. A man slows down, in time.

A knock at the door. Raphael, his day manager, sometimes came in early and drank a cup of coffee with him. On days like this, when his aches and pains were more troublesome than usual, Reg could do without the conversation—at least until he'd had a chance to work the kinks out of his joints and was feeling more sociable. The only reason he came in to work this early was his insomnia: often stark awake by three or four, Reg had nowhere else to go.

"Yeah. Come in."

He didn't turn. The only sound was the gurgling of the coffee pot. Reg squinted at the sheet on top of the stack and wondered if he needed to go to the eye doctor again. What had it been, two years, three, and it seemed like they were printing everything smaller all the time.

"Hey Raphael, look at this invoice, will you, I can't make out the damn numbers—"

He jerked with surprise when warm hands covered his eyes. For a moment he was frozen, remembering the way his sister used to sneak up on him, half a century ago. She loved to put her small hands over his eyes and make him guess, little skinny Martha who died of scarlet fever before her seventh birthday; he hadn't thought of her in years. The hands pushed gently, tilting his head back, one of them cupping his chin to hold it in place. Reg squinted, trying to see who was standing above him, but he was blinded by the sun streaming in the window. Something cold and hard pressed against his forehead, and the last thing Reg saw was a face surrounded with a brilliant glowing corona, like Jesus in the picture his mother hung above Martha's bed.


CHAPTER TWO

Wednesday, June 7, 1978
San Francisco

Patty Takeda was having the nightmare again.

In it, she stood at the back of the church as the organist finished the last few measures of Franck's Fantaisie in C, watching her maid of honor approach the altar and execute a perfect turn in her pink high heels. There was a pause as the entire congregation waited breathlessly, and then the first triumphant notes of the wedding march rang out and everyone rose in their pews and turned toward the back, expectant smiles on their faces. Patty emerged from behind the latticed anteroom divider. Step-pause, step-pause, a smile fixed on her face.

But something was wrong. Audible gasps filled the chapel and Patty looked down and discovered that she had forgotten to put her dress on. Or her slip, for that matter, or her panties or strapless bra. She was completely naked other than her white satin pumps. She tried to cover herself with her hands, but everyone was watching, staring, pointing, and she turned to run back to the dressing room but the ushers were standing shoulder to shoulder, blocking her way, gaping.

Patty woke, shoulders heaving, sweat gluing her T-shirt to her neck, the sheets knotted around her body. She was breathing hard, but at least she was awake. Sometimes, when she had this dream, she ran around the church for what seemed like hours, never finding an exit.

The sound of the doorbell jarred her the rest of the way awake. Was that the sound that had broken through the dream? Patty groped for the clock on the bedside table, knocking the tissue box to the floor before she found it. Almost nine. Patty lay still and listened as her mother answered the door. She heard her mother's voice, and a man's, back and forth a few times—and then footsteps, through the house, down the hall past Patty's door, into the kitchen.

"...can offer you tea, if you like, Inspector," Patty heard her mother say clearly as they passed, and then the voices became indistinguishable again.

Inspector? Patty untangled the sheets from her legs and sat up in bed, rubbing her face. Why would a detective be visiting her mother's house? She pulled on the nylon running shorts she'd tossed on a chair the night before and was halfway to the door before she changed her mind and went back for her bra. It took a little searching—it had disappeared halfway under the bed—but Patty eventually found it and yanked it on, then exchanged the T-shirt she had been sleeping in for a fresh one from the suitcase on the floor. She sniffed under her armpits—not terrible. She really needed to unpack. She'd moved out of her apartment last week and she was staying here with her mother until the wedding, but it was only her third day off and she was still enjoying being lazy.

She peeked out the bedroom door, craning her neck to peer in the kitchen, and saw a man's polished brown shoe under the kitchen table. The rest of him was just out of sight. Patty grimaced and tiptoed across the hall to the bathroom. She washed her face and brushed her teeth in record time, pulling a comb through her hair and settling for a quick swipe of lip gloss.

When she entered the kitchen she was feeling presentable, if self-conscious about her bare legs. The man stood and greeted her with a nod.

"Patty," her mother said. "This is Inspector Torre."

"Pleased to meet you."

"You too," Patty said automatically, taking the hand he offered, finding his grip surprisingly tentative. He was at least six, six-one, with the sort of beard that looks untended by lunch-time and thick, black sideburns encroaching on his jaw. Handsome, some women would no doubt think.

"I'm here to talk to your mother about the death of an acquaintance of hers."

"Who?" Patty quickly cataloged everyone in her mother's circle, a very short list. Besides work, Lucy Takeda went almost nowhere.

"Reginald Forrest. He was the proprietor of a commercial gym in the basement of the DeSoto Hotel."

Patty knew the hotel—a once-grand stone edifice about a quarter mile away, on Pine or Bush or one of those streets. One of those pockets of the neighborhood that had seen the last of its glory days. But she had never heard the man's name.

Lucy tsked dismissively. "Someone I knew a long time ago, in Manzanar. I haven't seen him in thirty-five years."

"But—" Patty looked from the inspector to her mother, confused. Lucy never spoke about her time in the internment camp. "Why on earth would you want to talk to my mother?"

Torre cleared his throat, looking slightly uncomfortable. "Someone claims to have seen someone resembling your mother in the vicinity of the gym around the time he died. We've got a time of death between five and seven a.m. yesterday morning, and this person places your mother there between seven and seven-fifteen."

"But that's—" Patty struggled to clear the morning haze from her thoughts. "My mom doesn't ever go over there."

"This person said..." Inspector Torre seemed to be searching for the right words. "That is to say, he described certain characteristics.... We asked around the neighborhood and several people mentioned Mrs. Takeda."

Now Patty understood his discomfort. "Characteristics..." Yes, people didn't quickly forget her mother's face. The pocked and shiny pink scars took up most of the right side of her face, extending from her right eye down to her jaw line. They encroached upon her lower eyelid, pink and puffed and vertically clefted; the eye itself was milky and gave the impression of both blindness and acute vision, which was unsettling and put the observer in the uncomfortable position of having to find another place to focus his own eyes.

"The inspector talked to Dave Navarro," Lucy said indignantly. "And the Cooks!"

The faint beginning of a headache stirred between Patty's temples. Her mother had never had a great relationship with the neighbors—she could only imagine how those conversations went. "I'm sorry, but this is, well, I don't get it," Patty said. "I mean, you weren't at the hotel yesterday morning, were you, Mom?"

"Of course not. And besides, Inspector Torre said it could also be a suicide," Lucy said. "It probably was."

"Why would you say that?" Torre asked.

"You said that. You said the stun gun or whatever it was—"

"Captive bolt pistol," Inspector Torre said. "Often used with livestock, but it has other uses. What I meant was, was there something about Mr. Forrest that makes you think he might have been suicidal?"

"How would I know?" Mrs. Takeda asked. "Reginald Forrest is an old man now. I'm sure he had his reasons."

"Was," Torre interjected. "Was an old man."

Lucy shrugged. She was in an odd mood, both irritable and nervous, Patty thought. "Wait," she said. "Can you just back up a little for me, Inspector? I'm sorry...I haven't had my coffee. I'm not sure I'm following what you're saying."

Lucy frowned, an expression that distorted her scars, and folded her arms over her chest.

"Sure." Torre reached for a notebook in his breast pocket, licked his thumb and started turned pages. "Janitor was buffing the lobby floor at about 7:00, 7:15 yesterday morning," he said. "He described you pretty accurately. Said you appeared flustered, that you were walking faster than normal."

"He doesn't know me," Lucy said. "How does he know how fast I walk?"

"Mother. Please."

"Your mother's neighbors, Mr. David Navarro and Cindy and Tom Cook, did say that she takes frequent walks around the neighborhood."

"How would they know where I walk? They're not my friends," Lucy said. "They've never liked me. Dave Navarro had a tree whose roots were choking the sewage pipes under my house, and we argued over it until he finally cut it down. And the Cooks have a daughter who spreads her legs for every boy who comes around."

"Surely my mother isn't the only person you're interviewing," Patty said hastily, painfully aware of how caustic Lucy could sound to someone who didn't know her. She was a loner, but that certainly didn't mean she killed anyone, a point Patty feared might be lost on Torre.

He shrugged. "Sure, we've got a few people we're talking to. Forrest had a son from a first marriage—he's disturbed or retarded or something, lives in a group home. There's also a girlfriend. I don't suppose you can tell me anything about either of them."

"Of course not," Lucy snapped. Patty tried to telegraph be nice. "I told you I haven't talked to him in three decades."

"All right." Torre tucked the notebook back in his pocket. "Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to give you a chance to think about Forrest, see if you remember anything that might help us out."

"From thirty years ago?" Damn, now she was doing it too—Patty instantly regretted snapping.

Torre turned his gaze on her. "So you live here with your mother, Patty?"

Patty resisted the urge to glare. "Only for a couple of weeks. I'm getting married. The wedding's on the 17th."

"Oh. Well, in that case, congratulations."

He stood and adjusted his jacket, his eyes traveling up to the shelf that ran the length of the wall separating the kitchen from the dining room, and Patty cringed inwardly. This was the moment that marked every newcomer's first visit to the house, the moment Patty had learned to dread so much that eventually she stopped bringing friends home at all.

Patty let her gaze follow Torre's, and tried to see what he saw, from his perspective—the gruesome tableau was as familiar to her as her mother's Corelle dish pattern or the fake-brick design of the kitchen linoleum.

All those eyes: wide and shiny, staring into every corner of the room at once. It probably seemed like there were dozens of them, but in reality there were only six or eight animals—squirrels and chipmunks and a pale little desert mouse, all of them stuffed and mounted so that they seemed to perch at the edge of the shelf, tiny claws curled around the edges of the painted board, hunching and crouching and tensed to jump, mouths open and leering, like so many gargoyles about to come to life.


© Sophie Littlefield