Authors: Barbara Wood
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
St. Martin’s Press
SACRED GROUND. Copyright © 2001 by Barbara Wood. 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. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Also by Barbara Wood
Virgins of Paradise
Green City in the Sun
The Magdalene Scrolls
Hounds and Jackals
(with Gareth Wootton)
Curse This House
This book is dedicated with love to my husband, George.
Research in museums and books is all well and good, but never so enlightening or enriching as dealing with actual human beings. These special people need to be thanked:
Elmer De La Riva of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians for a private tour of the haunted Taquitz Canyon and for sharing the legendary shaman’s terrifying story; Dr. Michelle Anderson, professor of Native American Studies, who generously shared her experiences in reservation field work; Dr. Raymond Wong, forensic pathologist, for explaining the legalities of dealing with bones; Mike Smith for allowing me access to his impressive collection of very old and rare Southern California Native American art; Richard Martinez for walking me through the legal quagmire of Indian land claims; Shana Dominguez, who took me to my first powwow and gave me lessons in the Buckskin Dance; and the members of the Pala, Pechanga, Morongo, and Santa Ynez (Chumash) bands of Mission Indians who freely shared their family histories and lore, and their hopes for the future of Native Americans.
Finally, eternal gratitude goes to Jennifer Enderlin, my wise and prescient editor, and to Harvey Klinger, the world’s greatest literary agent.
Peace to you all!
Erica gripped the steering wheel as the four-wheel-drive vehicle flew up the dirt road, caroming around boulders and slamming into potholes. Sitting next to her, white-faced and anxious, was her assistant Luke, a UCSB graduate student working on his doctoral dissertation. In his twenties, his long blond hair tied in a ponytail, Luke wore a T-shirt that said
Archaeologists Dig Older Women.
“I heard it’s a mess, Dr. Tyler,” he said, as Erica steered the car up the winding fire road. “Apparently the swimming pool disappeared into the ground just like
” He snapped his fingers. “It said on the news that the sinkhole stretches the whole length of the mesa, and it’s underneath movie stars’ homes, and that rock singer who’s been in the news, and the baseball player who hit all those runs last year, and some famous plastic surgeon. Under
homes. So you know what
Erica wasn’t sure what
meant. Her mind was focused on only one thing: the astonishing discovery that had been made.
At the time of the disaster she had been up north working on a project for the state. The earthquake, striking two days ago and measuring 7.4, had been felt as far north as San Luis Obispo, as far south as San Diego, and as far east as Phoenix, jolting Southern California’s millions of inhabitants awake. It was the biggest temblor in memory and was believed to have been what had triggered, a day later, the sudden and astonishing disappearance of a hundred-foot swimming pool, diving board, water slide and all.
A second astonishing event had followed almost immediately: when the pool sank, earth had avalanched into it, exposing human bones and the opening to a previously unknown cave.
“This could be the find of the century!” Luke declared, taking his eyes off the road for a moment to glance at his boss. It was still dark out and there were no lights along the mountain road, so Erica had turned on the vehicle’s interior light. It illuminated glossy chestnut hair brushing her shoulders with a hint of curl, and a tan complexion from years of toiling in the sun. Dr. Erica Tyler, whom Luke had worked with for the past six months, was in her thirties and, while he wouldn’t call her beautiful, Luke thought she was attractive in a way that registered in a man’s gut rather than in his eye. “Quite a feather in some lucky archaeologist’s cap,” he added.
She glanced at him. “Why do you think we just broke every traffic law on the books getting here?” she said with a smile, and then returned her attention to the road in time to avoid hitting a startled jackrabbit.
They reached the top of the mesa from where the lights of Malibu could be seen in the distance. The rest of the view— Los Angeles to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the south— was blocked by trees, higher peaks, and the mansions of millionaires. Erica maneuvered her car through the congestion of fire engines, police cars, county trucks, news vans, and the armada of automobiles parked along the yellow police tape cordoning off the site. Curiosity-seekers sat on hoods and car roofs to watch, drink beer, and ponder disasters and their meanings, or perhaps just to be entertained for a while, despite warnings shouted through bullhorns that this was a dangerous area.
“I heard that this whole mesa used to be some sort of retreat run by a nutty spiritualist back in the twenties,” Luke said as the car rolled to a halt. “People came up here to talk to ghosts.”
Erica recalled seeing silent newsreels of Sister Sarah, one of LA’s more colorful characters, who used to hold séances for Hollywood royalty such as Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. Sarah had held mass séances in theaters and auditoriums, and when her followers numbered in the hundreds of thousands, she had come to these mountains and built a retreat called The Church of the Spirits.
“Know what this place was originally called?” Luke went on as they unbuckled their safety belts. “I mean before the spiritualist owned it? Back
,” he said, the word ‘when’ conjuring up parchments with wax seals and men dueling at dawn. “Cañon de Fantasmas,” he intoned, tasting the dusty words on his tongue. “Haunted Canyon. Sounds spooky!” He shuddered.
Erica laughed. “Luke, if you want to be an archaeologist when you grow up, you’re just going to have to not let ghosts scare you.” She herself lived daily with phantasms and ghosts, spirits and sprites. They peopled her dreams and her archaeological digs, and while ghosts might elude, confound, tease, and frustrate her, they had never frightened her.
As Erica got out of the car and felt the night wind on her face, she gazed spellbound at the horrific scene. She had already seen news photos and had heard eyewitness accounts of the event— how the earthquake had somehow destabilized the ground beneath the gated community of Emerald Hills Estates, an exclusive enclave in the Santa Monica Mountains, causing one swimming pool to suddenly sink into the ground and threatening the rest of the homes with the same. But nothing had prepared her for what her eyes now beheld.
Although the eastern sky was starting to pale, night was still a dark, stubborn bowl over Los Angeles so that emergency lights had to be brought in, man-made suns placed at intervals around the perimeter of the site, illuminating one square block of a super-ritzy neighborhood where houses stood like marble temples in the milky moon. In the center of this surreal scene was a black crater— the devil’s mouth that had swallowed the swimming pool of movie producer Harmon Zimmerman. Helicopters buzzed overhead, sweeping blinding circles of light over surveyors setting up equipment, geologists moving in with drills and maps, men in hard hats warming their hands on cups of coffee as they waited for daybreak, and police trying to evacuate residents who were refusing to leave.
Flashing the ID that identified her as an anthropologist working for the State Archaeologist’s Office, Erica and her assistant were permitted to climb over the yellow police tape keeping the crowd out. They ran to the crater, where Los Angeles County firefighters were inspecting the rim of the cave-in. Erica quickly searched for the entrance to the cavern.
“Is that it?” Luke said, pointing with a lanky arm to the other side of the crater. Erica could just make out, about eighty feet below ground level, an opening in the side of the cliff. “Looks dangerous, Dr. Tyler. You plan on going in?”
“I’ve been in caves before.”
“What in blazes are
Erica spun around to see a large man with leonine gray hair come striding toward her, a scowl on his face. Sam Carter, senior state archaeologist from the California Office of Historical Preservation, a man who wore colorful suspenders and spoke in a stentorian voice. And who was clearly not happy to see her.
“You know why I’m here, Sam,” Erica said as she pushed her hair back from her face and looked around at the chaos. Residents of the threatened homes were arguing with the police and refusing to leave their property. “Tell me about the cave. Have you been inside?”
Sam noticed two things: that Erica’s eyes were bright with an inner fever, and that her sweater was buttoned wrong. Clearly she had dropped everything and driven down from Santa Barbara as if she were on fire. “I haven’t been inside yet,” he said. “There’s a geologist and a couple of cavers exploring it right now for structural soundness. As soon as they give the go-ahead, I’m going to take a look.” He rubbed his jaw. Getting rid of Erica, now that she was here, was not going to be easy. The woman stuck like glue once she put her mind to something. “What about the Gaviota Project? I assume you left it in capable hands?”
Erica didn’t hear him. She was watching the gaping hole in the hillside and thinking of heavy boots tramping over the cave’s delicate ecology. She prayed they hadn’t inadvertently destroyed precious historical evidence. The archaeology in these hills was paltry enough, despite the fact that people had lived here for ten thousand years. The few caves that had been found yielded very little because in the early part of the twentieth century bulldozers and dynamite had brutalized these wild mountains to make way for roads, bridges, and human progress. Burial sites had been plowed under, village mounds scraped away, all traces of previous human habitation obliterated.
“Erica?” Sam prompted.
“I have to go in,” she said.
He knew she meant the cave. “Erica, you shouldn’t even be here.”
“Assign me to the job, Sam. You’re going to be excavating. And bones were found, it said on the news.”
In frustration, Sam turned on his heel and headed back through the Zimmerman’s trampled garden to an area at the end of the street where a makeshift command center had been created. People holding clipboards and talking on cell phones milled around folding metal tables and chairs, where two-way radios had been set up, surveillance monitors, a bulletin board for messages. A catering truck parked nearby was being patronized by people wearing various official uniforms and badges: Southern California Gas, Department of Water and Power, LAPD, County Office of Emergency Management. There was even someone from the Humane Society trying to round up loose animals from the evacuated area.
Erica caught up with her boss. “So what happened, Sam? What caused a swimming pool to suddenly sink into the ground?”
“County engineers and state geologists have been working around the clock to determine the cause. Those boys over there” —he pointed down the street, where men were setting up drilling equipment beneath bright spotlights— “are going to run soils tests to find out exactly what this housing development is sitting on.” Sam swept a beefy hand over the topographical maps and geological surveys spread out on the tables, their corners anchored by rocks. “These were brought up from City Hall a few hours ago. This here is a geological survey from 1908. And here’s one from 1956, when this area was being proposed for a residential development that never got built.”
Erica’s eyes went back and forth over the two maps. “They aren’t the same.”
“Apparently the current builder didn’t run soils tests on every building pad— which he wasn’t required to do. The tests he did run showed stable ground and bedrock. But that’s at the north and south boundaries of the mesa, which it turns out are the two ridges embracing the canyon. Remember Sister Sarah back in the twenties? This was her religious retreat or something and it seems she had the canyon filled in and never got permission or informed City Hall. The work was apparently done without standard compaction procedures and a lot of the fill was organic— wood, vegetation, garbage— that eventually rotted away.” Sam’s sleep-deprived eyes scanned the street, where fountains and imported trees graced expensively tended lawns. “These folks have been sitting on a time bomb. I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole area was on the verge of collapsing.”
While Sam spoke, he watched Erica as she stood with her hands on her hips, shifting from foot to foot like a runner eager for the race to begin. He had seen her like this before, when she was “onto” something. Erica Tyler was one of the most passionate scientists he had ever met, but sometimes her enthusiasm could be her undoing. “I know why you’re here, Erica,” he said wearily, “and I can’t give you the job.”
She whirled on him, her cheeks two spots of red. “Sam, you’ve got me counting abalone shells, for God’s sake!”
He was the first to admit that putting Erica in charge of a mollusk midden was a waste of her brains and talent. But after the shipwreck debacle last year, he thought it best that she cool her heels in a low-profile job for a while. So she had spent the past six months excavating a newly discovered mound that turned out to be the refuse heap of Indians that had lived north of Santa Barbara four thousand years ago. Erica’s job was to sort, classify, and carbon-date the thousands of abalone shells found there.
“Sam,” she said, putting her hand on his arm, urgency in her voice. “I need this. I have to salvage my career. I need to make people forget Chadwick—”
“Erica, the Chadwick incident is precisely the reason
I can’t put you on this job. You’re just not disciplined. You’re impulsive, and you don’t possess the necessary scientific detachment and objectivity.”
“I’ve learned my lesson, Sam,” she said. She felt like screaming. The Wreck of the Erica Tyler, people in inner circles had called the Chadwick fiasco. Was she going to be made to pay for it the rest of her life? “I’ll be extra careful.”
He scowled. “Erica, you made my office a laughingstock.”
“And I’ve apologized a thousand times! Sam, be logical about this. You know that I’ve studied every example of rock art this side of the Rio Grande. There is no one better qualified. When I saw that cave painting on the news I
this job was for me.”
Sam drove his thick fingers through his mane of hair. It was so like Erica to just drop everything. Had she even bothered to turn the Gaviota Project over to someone else?
“Come on, Sam. Put me to work doing what I was born to do.”
He looked into her amber eyes and saw the desperation there. He didn’t know what it was like to be discredited in one’s own profession, to be laughed at by colleagues. He could only guess what these past twelve months had been like for Erica. “I tell you what,” he said. “A member of the Search and Rescue team volunteered to go back in and take pictures. We should have them any minute. You can have a look at them, see what you make of the pictographs.”
“Search and Rescue?”
“After the pool sank, it was learned that Zimmerman’s daughter was missing. So the County Sheriff launched a search for her in all that mess. That was how the cave painting was discovered.”
“And the girl?”
“She turned up later. Seems she was in Vegas with her boyfriend at the time of the earthquake. Listen, Erica, there’s no point in you hanging around here. I’m not putting you on the case. Go back to Gaviota.” Even as he said it, Sam knew she wouldn’t obey orders. Once Erica Tyler got something in her head, it was impossible to shake it loose. That was what had happened last year, when Irving Chadwick discovered the underwater shipwreck of what he claimed was an ancient Chinese boat on the California coast, proving his theory that people from Asia didn’t just come across the Bering Strait, but had arrived in ships as well. Erica had already been enamored of Chadwick’s hypothesis so that when he invited her to authenticate pottery found in the shipwreck, she had already made up her mind that this was indeed proof.