Authors: Joseph Wambaugh
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
Of Harry Bright
Seventeen months ago the California desert revealed the remains of Jack Watson, The rich man's son was found incinerated in a 'Rolls-Royce, a bullet in his head. Now, a year and a half later, Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Sidney Blackpool is called into the desert to take on the case. But what begins for Blackpool as an investigation sandwiched between golf games in nearby Palm Springs quickly becomes an obsession.
For the savage beauty of the wasteland holds many secrets. Secrets that stir up Blackpool's long-suppressed nightmares of his own son's death. Secrets that threaten to destroy an entire police department. Secrets that, by rights, should remain forever buried by the wind in the ageless desert sands.
THE SINGLE-ENGINE CESSNA 172 WAS A TINY BLIP ON THE radar screen at San Diego's Lindbergh Field. Air-traffic controllers also watched another blip, PSA Flight 182 en route from Los Angeles. Suddenly the impossible: two blips merged.
Nothing was ever heard from the Cessna. It fell like a shotgunned dove. The last official communication from the PSA pilot said: "Tower, we're going down! This is PSA!"
There followed a seventeen-second silence, but the voice recorder carried the pilot's final words: "This is it, baby. Brace yourselves."
There was yet another message on the recorder found that Monday morning in 1978, after the country's worst domestic air disaster to date. The message was a version of the declaration most often uttered on deathbeds as well as on all the battlefields of life. A child cries out to a parent. The final words on the voice recorder: "Ma, I love you."
Many North Park residents thought it was a monster quake. They waited in terror for aftershocks. Then a firestorm and a mushroom of black fuel smoke turned terro
o panic. Some now thought the prediction had bee
ulfilled: San Diego was among the first of Russian targets!
The explosion launched 144 human beings and parts of human beings from the airplane like rockets. The first policeman on the scene had no idea how to begin contending with fires raging, and people screaming through the streets, and smoke obliterating everything. He later said that it was like the old Warner Bros. cartoon where the walls of houses bore gaping holes in the shapes of people. The young cop ran inside a one-story stucco home struck by a human projectile. He found a man shrieking at a naked headless woman lying in his wife's bed. When his hysteria subsided, the man suddenly cried, "Wait a minute! That's not my wife! My wife doesn't have tits that big!"
He was correct. An airline passenger had been blasted through the wall of the house and landed precisely on the bed recently vacated by the wife who was one of the many people fleeing in panic.
The only "crash survivor" to be taken to the hospital was a woman covered with gore found lying dazed by the disaster site. She was sped away by ambulance, and when they washed off the blood and mangled flesh, and treated her for shock, it was discovered that she had been a passing motorist whose car windshield was suddenly demolished by not one but three flying bodies. She had skidded to a stop and leaped from a car suddenly crammed with limbs and torsos, bursting skulls and exploding organs. The patient was found to be physically sound. She wasn't even bruised.
That first young cop on the scene saw quite a few things that would cause recurring nightmares and unwanted memories, but none more vivid than the kneeling man. He wore a pair of athletic shoes, baggy khakis and a San Diego Padres baseball shirt. At first the young cop thought the kneeling man was a corpse robber. Then the cop saw a police badge pinned to the shoulder of the Padres sweatshirt and believed that the kneeling man was an off-duty policeman trying to help out. The young cop was about to ask him to check the burning homes for
njured victims when he saw that the kneeling man was studying something on the ground. The man just stared through eyeglasses, nodding up and down to focus through bifocals.
When the young cop got close enough to look for himself, he yelped and turned away. Then he gathered himself and called to another smoke-blackened cop who was heading toward a burning home with a commandeered garden hose. Both policemen approached the kneeling man cautiously. The kneeling man moved a few inches as though to obstruct their view, as though he was guarding his find. Then the cops saw it clearly. First one cop, then the other started to giggle. Soon they were cackling and losing control. They were doubled up and roaring just as an outraged news photographer saw them and snapped a photo. The wire services scotched the picture when later at the command post the cops were able to explain the circumstances that provoked the seemingly ghoulish outburst.
Afterward, they were not able to locate the kneeling man. On reflection, they weren't even sure that the badge on his baseball shirt was a San Diego Police Department shield. Whatever the kneeling man might have learned would remain his secret in the years to come.
ACROSS THE GLOBE THERE ARE TWO NARROW BELTS 25 degrees north and south of the equator where the movement of winds and oceans prevents rain clouds from penetrating the earth. The sun, without cloud cover below, is free to suck the moisture from earth, plants, animals. The night sky in such places is very clear, and it turns suddenly cool when the ground heat bounces back to the heavens. The daytime baking and night cooling of the earth's floor creates formidable winds. Where mountains exist, the rising hot air is replaced by cool air from the mountains that funnels down the canyons and dries the land even more.
In former times such places were thought inhospitable to ordinary human beings, but then nobody ever said that ordinary human beings lived in Hollywood. It was probably the excesses of the good life during Hollywood's Golden Age that pushed them out there, just two hours drive from Los Angeles but a world away.
People who lived their lives like they were hot-wired to Caddy convertibles, people who claimed to wear cocaine on their genitals to stay hot-wired, found that for th
irst time in years they could actually uncoil. The desert possessed magic.
At first some of them didn't see it. The desert looked forbidding and hostile, but pretty soon the enveloping mountains stopped seeming like slag heaps. The mountains took on noble shapes, elegant lines. The movie stars talked of subtle desert pastels and ever-changing light shows. Cloud shadow from feathery cumulus banks spangled the mountains and hills with light and dappled shade. A movie star could sit by poolside or in a natural hot spring and watch the shadows magically swirling in color, and the coral, scarlet and purple cactus blossoms and wild flowers flooding the foreground. The foothills were so covered with verbena that they were called the Purple Mountains. And then there were the nights, cool nights when movie stars would gaze at real ones. The dipper burned like a strand of diamonds on a sable cloak.
So Palm Springs provided a refuge, a sanctuary between pictures. They all came: Gable, Lombard, Cagney, Tracy, Hepburn, the Marx Brothers, even Garbo. And no matter how fearful they might be about Time, those people who had to remain changeless, the desert had an answer even for that. The warm dry climate soothed arthritic pain, bursitis, lung disorders. Everyone started feeling more vigorous, playing tennis and golf, swimming, cavorting like Errol Flynn.
There were endless surprises. Mount San Jacinto's peak at dusk was backlit by the sun setting over the Pacific. It gave the thrilling impression that just west of the mountain was the city, the searchlights of Grauman's Chinese, The Pantages and The Egyptian theaters. The drooling mobs with their pencils and notebooks and flashbulbs seemed to be just on the other side. It was all so comforting it allowed them to relax and play like children. The mountain was backlit for them by The Great Gaffer in the sky. They were safe. They could rest because reassuringly close, ever waiting in the lights, was Hollywood.
Then of course after show biz found sand and cactus to its liking, land developers invaded the desert like Rommel's panzers. They started in Palm Springs and eventually spread south to Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, La Quinta. The Coachella Valley was blitzkrieged.
It appeared that absolutely nothing could halt the country club and resort developers. Those big cat tractors would challenge Godzilla, they said. But one of Godzilla's little cousins slowed them down a bit. Apparently, certain portions of the Coachella Valley provide the last chance for a tiny endangered creature called the fringe-toed lizard. He's an unremarkable little fellow with overlapping eyelids, fat belly and snowshoe scales for sand dwelling. Yet he has become the environmentalists' best hope for slowing the momentum that Hollywood started so long ago. But some of the richest and most famous people on earth own real estate in the fringe-toed lizard's bailiwick, so gamblers aren't betting much on the little reptile.
Today there are at least fifty golf courses in the Coachella Valley and over two hundred hotels, and the low humidity condition in the desert has been forever altered by colossal raids on the underground water table.
But there are parts of the valley that aren't amenable to raids by big cat tractors. One of them is the little town of Mineral Springs, about ten miles out of Palm Springs. The reason is simple: wind. Desert wind that could drive ten thousand wind turbines. The Mineral Springs Chamber of Commerce calls the winds "therapeutic breezes." The residents call them gale force.
There's little sand left, the residents say. It's been blown clear to the Salton Sea. That wind can make it rain pebbles and stones like a desert hailstorm. Cars left with windows open need to be pickaxed, they say.
But in 1978 the good people of Mineral Springs decided that wind or no wind they wanted some of the tourist bucks from their neighbors on the other side of the valley. After all, their mineral water spouting from the ground at 180 degrees Fahrenheit was pure, and didn't smell like rotten eggs as does most mineral water. In fact, it was so clean that they wanted a federal grant to study the phenomenon of odorless hot mineral water, until i
as pointed out that the smell is probably blown away before it can reach the nose.
The townsfolk decided that if their small city was going to be taken seriously it needed among other things its own police force, so they decided to take applications for a chief of police and eventually settled on a fourteen-year veteran of the county sheriffs office. Paco Pedroza had also been a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department for nine years prior to that, and had moved to a desert climate hoping to arrest his daughter's chronic bronchitis.
The town of Mineral Springs thought it could get by with a three-man police force until its new chief pointed out a few territorial problems. Mineral Springs, being remote, yet easily accessible to the rich desert resorts, was the home of more chemists than Cal Tech, but they were all amateurs. The lonely windblown desert canyons were full of Cobras, an outlaw motorcycle gang that made its living by brewing vats of methamphetamine. If there was an ideal place for speed labs this was it. The ether smell of "crank" or "crystal" was blown halfway to Indio the second it escaped the lab. There was no danger of cops literally nosing their way into a lab as in ordinary neighborhoods. So there were a lot of Harley hogs and chopper bikes in or about the town, and they did more business than the Rotary Club.
In addition to the crank labs, Mineral Springs, with its low-cost housing, was also an ideal spot for most of the meat eaters who flock to rich resort communities to feed on tourists. It had two halfway houses and a de-tox center for the ex-cons and "reformed" dopers and alcoholics of the Coachella Valley. The only mansion in town had been built by a pimp who ran thirteen girls into Palm Springs during the height of the season to work the hotels. An early reputation for a laissez-faire life-style also brought a nudist colony, and the nudist colony brought hordes of hang gliders, which often crashed in the treacherous winds. It was not an easy town for cops in that the ex-cons, bikers, crank dealers, Palm Springs burglars, nudists, robbers
and pimps, horny kite pilots, dopers and drunks didn't necessarily want a police force of any kind.
Paco Pedroza needed savvy cops, and they had to be the right kind to make it in these parts, being ten miles from the closest police jurisdiction where there might be help available.