I saw the case first on the local news websites. “Prominent Bay Area Developer found dead!” the headline ran, above a picture of Albert Harlander from the files: bald, chubby, smiling, little pig eyes gleaming with corruption. My dad had worked in construction for years in San Francisco, and we all knew that if Harlander could save a buck by cheating his illegal immigrant labor, or using sub-grade materials and slapdash construction methods, he would. Among the permit and oversight departments at various city halls, he wasn’t known as “Baksheesh Bert” for nothing. The news article stank of murder with its vague hints about mysterious circumstances and unexplained details, but it lacked concrete information.
I remember that his cheese-paring way of working had killed a roofer not long before. If the guy’s relatives had returned the favor, I couldn’t blame them. My main reaction: thank god the case wasn’t mine to solve! When the police began digging into Harlander’s business dealings, a lot of influential people in San Francisco and San Jose were going to do their best to make their official lives miserable. Lullabies would have nothing on the “hush, hush” that the cops were going to hear.
My name is Nola O’Grady. I do work in law enforcement, but for a federal agency so secret that not even the CIA knows of its existence. Even if I could tell you its name, you wouldn’t believe me. Our mission: fight the forces of chaos that threaten our world and others throughout the multiverse. While Bert was as slimy as a stick of margarine on a summer day, a Chaotic he wasn’t. Not my pigeon, I thought.
The universe answered, “Oh yeah?” and led to me a café on upper Fillmore Street for lunch the same day I’d seen the news. I’d just ordered a salad and a cup of coffee when a tall, grim guy in a navy blue suit strolled over to my table – Lieutenant Sanchez of the San Francisco police. He sat himself down across from me before I could even say hello.
“O’Grady! Just the person I wanted to see. Where’s your partner?”
“Ari? At the Hague on Interpol business. They need him as a witness in a deposition. Human rights violation, but that’s all I can tell you because that’s all he told me.”
“That’s like him, yeah. How overworked are you these days? I’d like your opinion on a case that’s more than a little weird.”
“Weird, huh? What made you think of me?”
He grinned, very briefly. I’d been involved in a couple of cases with Sanchez before. He’d always done his best to disbelieve in my psychic talents, but the man wasn’t stupid.
“Heard anything about the Harlander case?” Sanchez continued.
“It was all over the web. Not that there was a lot of hard information in those stories. Like how he died.”
“He was strangled.” Sanchez paused for effect. “With some kind of vine.”
“Vine? Like ivy?”
“Stronger than that, but that’s the idea, yeah. We didn’t find the weapon, but in the deep abrasions on his throat our experts found traces of plant material.” He paused to take a smartphone out of his pocket and open a note app. “He was found lying a hundred yards or so from his car in Golden Gate Park. From evidence at the scene it looked like he’d tried to run away from his assailant and been overtaken. He was strangled with this plant material, whatever it was, and then – here’s the weird detail – crowned with a wreath made out of dandelions and crab grass.”
“It’s pretty clear what the killer thought of him, then.”
“Yep.” He closed the app and put the phone away. “Mr. Weed.”
“Do you think it was the roofer’s family that did it? The Chu murder case.”
“Huh? No. He’d settled plenty of cash on them, and he donated to the Buddhist temple they went to, too. His one good deed.” Sanchez rolled his eyes. “His last stunt is just so damn typical. Did you hear about the tree?”
Sanchez explained it to me. Harlander owned a big corner lot out in the Seacliff neighborhood, upper middle class ritzy, that is. The old house had burned down, but the firemen had saved the enormous heritage tree, a cypress, that graced the property. Bert wanted it cut down so he could build a McMansion. The neighbors objected. They had their own pull at City Hall. When Harlander couldn’t get a permit, he had the tree axed anyway, on the Sunday before the murder – Sunday, when the permit offices were closed and no one could stop him.
“That tree he had cut down,” I said. “Revenge on the part of the neighborhood? Treehuggers on the warpath?”
“They hugged him pretty hard if that’s the case. It sure looks like that, but for chrissakes, no one murders a man over a dead tree! Beat him up, maybe, but not kill him. I’m guessing that we’re supposed to waste time thinking about the tree, but the real motive’s something else.”
“Yeah, that’s reasonable.”
“There was a woman in the car with him, we think. Traces of lipstick, a few long blond hairs, a tissue on the floor that smelled like cheap perfume. The scent was still fresh, which makes us think she was there right before the kill.”
I wanted to say I’m sorry, I can’t help you. But one of my irritating intuitions, as mbiguous as always, nagged at me. If Sanchez the consummate realist could admit he wanted my help, the Agency needed to get involved.
“Can you take me to the scene?”
He grinned. “Sure can. Where’s your car?”
Thanks to budget cuts, the western end of Golden Gate Park has fallen on hard times, at least in the areas where the tourists don’t go. Although strips of lawn line the roads, just beyond them weeds, underbrush, and blown trash lie thick among unpruned Monterey pines and head-high clumps of juniper. A jogger had found Harlander’s body stretched out on one of the strips of lawn with his head pointing toward the thick cover.
“Just after dawn, and the grass had dew all over it,” Sanchez told me. “The kid had his cellphone with him, so he took pictures, bless his little heart, of the footsteps around the corpse before the dew burned off. Two pair – Harlander’s, and then someone wearing high heels came after him. Or I should say, she was wearing them for the first few steps. She kicked them off at one point. One of our women officers tells me you can’t run worth crap in heels.”
“She is so right. I take it your mystery woman left his car behind.”
“Assuming she was in it with him, yeah. My first thought was he’d picked up a hooker who didn’t like what he had in mind. But if she killed him, she didn’t rob him, and he had three hundred bucks in his wallet when we found him and a couple of credit cards.” Sanchez frowned at the grass. “Another weird point. Her footsteps left the corpse and turned toward those trees over there.” He waved at at a thicket of half-grown cypress trees, bent and twisted by the constant sea wind. “But they disappeared before they reached it. She still had about five feet of wet grass to go when her footsteps vanished.”
“Is that where she got the murder weapon? Looks like there’s ivy growing on at least one of those trees.”
“Maybe. But judging from her footprints, she swerved around his body to head toward the trees. He must have been lying on the ground already.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“I know. That’s why I wanted to bring you into this.”
Logical enough, I supposed. I took a couple of steps toward the trees and ran a EPIS, an Exploratory Psychic Input Scan, the official Agency name for the talent more usually known as ‘second sight’. I received a faint impression of Harlander’s mind, only a faded fragment since he’d been dead for some time. With it came the sensation of the touch of the putative vine on his throat, the rough surface, the sudden tug and choke. I felt the expected surge of terror, but I also received surprise, a sheer staggering disbelief in what was happening to him. I shut the scan down.
“Okay,” I said. “This is definitely weird. Y’know, it takes a lot of muscle power to strangle someone who knows you’re there and can fight back. Are you sure he didn’t pick up a male hooker? Someone in drag?”
“Not sure at all. It could be, yeah. Don’t you have an associate who – “
“I do. Let me consult him and get back to you.”
As we turned to go back to the car, the slanting afternoon sun caught the grass at just the right angle to reveal the faint, blurred imprint of the body. I noticed something crushed down among the stalks and stooped to pick it up.
“What’s that?” Sanchez said.
“Oh. Yeah, we found a couple others under the victim.” He shrugged. “The park is lousy with trees.”
True, but I slipped the leaf into my pocket, because thanks to its scent I thought it might have come from a European laurel tree, and you don’t find that species among the Monterey pines and local shrubbery in this section of the park. From the killer’s garden, maybe – a slender clue, probably valueless, but better than nothing.
When I got back to my flat, I phoned the associate Sanchez had mentioned, Jerry Jamieson, one of the three people I work with in the San Francisco office of the Agency. He’s technically a part-time stringer. For his other job he works the streets as a specialized kind of male prostitute, which means he sees and hears plenty of interesting things, some of which concern the Agency. When I asked him if he’d heard about the Harlander case, he had information to pass on.
“Lots of buzz on the street, darling,” Jerry said. “Wondering who she was.”
“You’re sure it’s a she?”
“Oh yeah. I know my competitors in the drag department. This dangerous little bitch is new on the street, very new, as in no one had ever seen her work before. One of the doormen at one of the fancy hotels saw her get into a car with Harlander.”
“Has he told the cops?’
“Oh please! Of course not. He’d never get a percentage again.”
“Can you describe her for me?”
Jerry could and did, because in his mind the Agency doesn’t count as “cops”. A blonde, all right, tall but not slender — she had a Marilyn Monroe type of figure, or so the doorman called it. She wore a short green dress under a silk coat. The doorman had particularly noticed her hands because she had long, delicate fingers but wore her nails cut straight across.
“Not a trace of polish, and he didn’t think she was wearing any make-up, either. No costume jewelry.”
“That’s very strange for a sex industry worker.”
“Which is why I’m making a point of telling you, darling. What’s more, the doorman was kind of freaked by her, even before the news hit the Net. He couldn’t say why, just that she had a creepy vibe. Not helpful, I know.”
“But Harlander went for her, creepy vibe or not?”
“He wasn’t the sensitive type.” Jerry paused for a laugh. “I never serviced him, but he was known on the street. He’d fuck anything.”
“Did the doorman think this woman was strong enough to strangle Harlander?”
“No, he didn’t. Which is another reason he didn’t tell the cops.”
I thanked him and ended the call. Possibilities: she was stronger than she looked or someone had hired her to lure Harlander to a good spot for murder. The pattern of footsteps ruled out an accomplice, unless he could hover in mid-air. In my line of business, you never know who or what you’re going to find, but a giant wasp or a demon seemed unlikely in this case. Harlander had committed his crimes against other human beings and their property in an all too earthly way.
When I contacted Sanchez to pass along Jerry’s information, the lieutenant gave me a quick summary of a few of Harlander’s shady practices, those that seemed like they might provide a motive for murder.
“I’m putting my money on blackmail,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got three instances of code violations that were never prosecuted. In one, the person who should have nailed him admitted to being paid off. The other two cases involve a different official, but no one could find any evidence of a pay-off, so he was allowed to quit without any kind of action against him. I wonder if Harlander had something on him.”
“Sounds logical, yeah.”
Too logical, actually, to fit in with the disappearing footprints and the lingering trace of shock from Harlander’s recently deceased mind. A properly illogical idea was beginning to form in my mind. Although I couldn’t give it words just yet, I felt it floating into my consciousness from the CDS, the Collective Data Stream of knowledge that permeates our culture.
I found a good site on the Internet for plant ID and found out that the leaf I’d found came from a European laurel tree, not the local bay laurel – another clue for my illogical idea. When I finished, I still had a couple of hours before sunset, just enough time for me to revisit the scene in daylight. Out at the site, the fog was just beginning to roll in from the ocean a few blocks away. Long tendrils of gray reached across the sky and cast a shroud of shadows over the strip of lawn. I parked, then walked over to the spot where the body had lain. All traces of Harlander’s mind had disappeared as thoroughly as if the chilly west wind had blown them away. I saw no one, but I felt a presence nearby. I ran a Search Mode: Location scan. Whatever it was stood among the trees beyond the lawn. A Search Mode: Personnel confirmed my guess: not human.
I began to gather Qi with a small circling motion of my right hand. In serious circumstances, such as self-defense, I have a license to ensorcell, that is, to blast whatever’s threatening me with so much life force or Qi that its normal functioning shuts down. Only temporarily, I hasten to add – I’d hate to use psychic talents to kill someone. The karmic burden would be enormous. In the midst of so many green and growing things, with the ocean itself so near, Qi was mine for the taking. I swept it from the air and wrapped it into a silver sphere around my hand.
Armed and ready, I waited. I felt the presence watching me. The wind blew steadily. Trees bowed and quivered with a sound like waves on a gravel beach. Overhead the fog grew thicker, darker, and colder. I hate being cold. I decided to try a long shot.
“Okay, Daphne,” I called out. “Want to talk about this?”
“I could make things hot for you in there. Ever hear of matches?”
I felt her fear, just tinged with respect. Among the trees a pale light flashed. A being in the form of a young woman with long blonde hair and a voluptuous figure strolled out of the underbrush. Instead of evening clothes she appeared to be wearing a long tunic made of green laurel leaves. She kept her gaze on the softball-sized globe of Qi.
“My name isn’t Daphne,” she said, “but that’ll do.”
“I didn’t expect you to tell me your real name, no.”
“You’re pretty smart, ape girl, fingering me like this.” She set her hands on her hips. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Oh come off it! You’re perfectly safe. There’s nothing the cops can do to a dryad these days.”
“You expect me to swallow that?”
“Yeah, because nobody on earth believes your people still exist. Well, except maybe for a few left-over hippie types.”
“What about you? Going to avenge that murderous little swine?”
“No. I agree with your opinion, is why.”
As a sign of good faith I allowed the Qi I carried to scatter. She sighed in profound relief and looked me in the eye at last.
“That tree he paid to have cut down,” I said. “I’m thinking that one of your people ensouled it.”
“You’re right. She was wonderful, one of the oldest of us, wise and noble.” Her voice shook with tears. “She was over four thousand years old, too old to move fast. By the time we heard her cry for help, it was too late. We couldn’t get her transferred to a new tree in time.”
“So it was murder in your eyes.”
“He didn’t have to axe her. He wanted wood? There‘s all kind of trees in that garden he owns that are – well – just trees. He could have taken any of them. Why her?”
“She was in his way. He was a greedy, impatient little soul. He wanted to build a house where she was standing, and he didn’t want to change his plans.”
Daphne flung her arms in the air and moaned, the sound of a high wind in a spreading tree. Her illusion wavered. For a brief moment I saw bark instead of skin and hair like a spray of green leaves. With another moan she returned to human form.
“I chased you down because I’m curious,” I said. “What did you use to kill him? An ivy vine?”
“No. These.” She held up one hand.
Her long fingers shimmered, grew longer, became the pale gray-brown of twigs or rootlets, long and tough and moving, searching through the air for something to cling to, to twine around, to strangle. I took a step back and began to gather Qi again. She laughed and shook the hand into human form.
“No wonder he was shocked,” I said.
“Oh yeah. I let him see what he was in for. She had to watch the axemen. She had to tremble in terror when they fired up their horrible screaming stinking saw.” Daphne took a deep breath to steady her voice, then smiled. “And so did he tremble. Like a leaf in the wind.”
With that she made a graceful bow in my direction and disappeared. I drove home.
You can doubtless guess that I told Sanchez nothing about this conversation. Still, I didn’t want to leave him dangling. “I’ve got a little bit of useless information,” I told him over the phone. “The woman in the car was Greek. She disappeared the next day. If she went home, you’ve got a problem. Trying to pry a witness out of the Greek government would be a bigger headache than it’s worth.”
“Assuming she’s run for home, that’s true. I’ll follow this up, though, check the airlines, all the usual routine.”
“Okay. She might not have run far, but I bet she wants to keep out of sight. She might be afraid that someone’s going to shut her up permanently.”
“She might be right about that. Nothing else?”
“My associate told me she was new on the street. Looks to me like she didn’t like it here.”
“She got herself into some real trouble is probably why. Well, thanks for looking into it. I’d better get back to work.”
Not long after, pressure from above derailed his investigation into the various well-heeled people who had possible reasons to want Harlander dead. The police case went colder than an August day in San Francisco. Just as well, really, since they didn’t have a hope in hell of arresting a dryad, much less convicting her!
But I filed a full report with the Agency. We have ways of dealing with the weird. If “Daphne” ever kills again, we’ll be on her trail.
* * * * *
If you’d like to read more about Nola O’Grady and her world, there are four novels available from DAW Books : License to Ensorcell, Water to Burn, Apocalypse to Go, and Love on the Run. Other works by Katharine Kerr are available in the BVC Bookstore.