When a band of homeless people cremate a beloved dog in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the authorities are willing to overlook a few broken regulations. But three weeks later, when the dog's owner gets the same fiery send-off, the San Francisco Police Department has a real headache on its hands. The autopsy suggests homicide, but Inspector Kate Martinelli and her partner, Al Hawkin, have little else to go on: a homeless victim with no positive ID, a group of witnesses with little love for the cops, and a possible suspect, known only as Brother Erasmus, who proves both articulate and impossible to understand.
Erasmus, has a genius for blending with his surroundings, yet he stands out wherever he goes. He is by no means crazybut he is a Fool. Kate begins the frustrating task of interrogating a man who communicates only through quotations. In Laurie R. King's To Play the Fool, trying to learn something of his history leads Kate along a twisting road to a disbanded cult, long-buried secrets, the thirst for spirituality, and the hunger for bloody vengeance.
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To Play the Fool
By Laurie R. King
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Laurie R. King
All rights reserved.
The fog lay close over San Francisco the morning the homeless gathered in the park to cremate Theophilus.
Brother Erasmus had chosen the site, the small baseball diamond in the western half of Golden Gate Park. Only one or two of the men and women who came together recognized the macabre irony in the site's location, which adjoined the barbecue pits, and wondered if Brother Erasmus had done it deliberately. It was his style, to be sure.
The first of the park's residents to wake that gray and dripping January morning was Harry. His awakening was abrupt as always, more a matter of being launched from sleep by the ghosts in his head than it was a true waking up. One moment he was snoring peacefully; the next he snorted, and then there was a brief struggle with the terrifying confines of the bedroll before he flung it off and scrambled heavily upright to crash in blind panic through the shrubs. After half a dozen steps his brain began to make its connections, and after three more he stopped, bent over double to cough for a while, and then turned back to his bed beneath the rhododendrons. He methodically loaded his duffel bag with the possessions too valuable to risk leaving behind — the photograph of his wife and their long-dead son taken in 1959, one small worn book, a rosary, the warm woolen blanket some kind person had left (he was certain) for him, folded on their front steps — and began to close the duffel bag, then stopped, pulled it open again, and worked a hand far, far down into it. Eventually his fingers closed on the texture they sought, and he pulled out a necktie, a wadded length of grubby silk with an eye-bruising pattern that had been popular in the sixties. He draped it around the back of his neck, adjusted the the ends in front, and began the tricky loop-and-through knot with hands composed of ten thumbs. The third time the slippery fabric escaped his grasp, he cursed, then looked around guiltily. Putting an expression of improbable piety onto his face, he returned to the long-unused motions. The fifth try did it. He pulled the tie snug against the outside collars of the two shirts he wore, then after a moment of thought bent again to the duffel bag. This time he did not have to dig any farther than his forearm before encountering the comb, as orange as the tie and almost as old. He ran the uneven teeth through his thin hair, smoothed the result down with spit-wet palms, straightened his wrinkled tie with the panache of an investment banker, and pulled the top of the duffel bag shut.
Harry took a final look around his cavelike shelter beneath the shrubbery, swung the bag over his right shoulder, and pushed his way back out into the clearing. He paused only to pick up the three dead branches he had leaned against the tree the night before; then, branches upraised in his left hand, he turned west, deeper into the park.
Scotty was awake now, too, thanks to Harry's convulsive coughing fit 150 feet away. Scotty was not an early riser. He lay for some time, listening through a stupor of sleep and booze to the preparations of his neighbor. Finally Harry left, and the silence of dripping fog and cars on Fulton Street lulled him back toward sleep.
But Theophilus was your friend, he told himself in disgust; the least you can do is say good-bye to him. His hand in its fingerless glove crept out from the layers of cardboard and cloth he was swaddled in, closed on the neck of the bottle that lay beside his head, and drew it back in. The mound that was Scotty writhed about for a moment; gurgles were followed by silence; finally came a great weary sigh. Scotty evolved from the mound, scratched his scalp and beard thoroughly, drank the last of the cheap wine against the chill of the morning, and then with a great heaving and crashing hauled his grocery cart out of the undergrowth.
Scotty did not bother with self-beautification, just set his weight against what had once been a Safeway trolley and headed west. However, he walked with his eyes on the ground, occasionally stopping and bending down stiffly to pick up pieces of wood, which he then arranged on top of his other possessions. He seemed to prefer small pieces, but he had a sizable armful by the time he reached the baseball diamond.
As he went under the Nineteenth Avenue overpass, which was already humming with the early bridge traffic, Scotty was joined by Hat. Hat did not greet him — not aloud, at any rate — but nodded in his amiable way and fell in at Scotty's side. Hat almost never spoke; in fact, he had received his name only because of the headgear he always wore. Brother Erasmus might know his real name — Harry had once said that he'd seen the two men in deep conversation — but no one else did. Hat migrated about the city. For the last few weeks, he had taken to sleeping near the Stow Lake boathouse. Today's hat was a jaunty tweed number complete with feather, rescued from a bin outside a health-food store; it was marred only by three small moth holes and a scorch mark along the back brim. He also wore a Vietnam-era army backpack slung over his shoulder. In his right hand he held a red nylon gym bag that he'd found one night in an alley. (He had discarded most of the burglary tools it contained as being too heavy, though the cash it held had been useful.) In his left hand he clutched the pale splintery slats of a broken-up fruit crate. His waistlength white beard had been neatly brushed and he wore a cheery yellow primrose, liberated from a park flowerbed the previous afternoon, in his lapel.
From across the park the homeless came, moved by a force most of them could neither have understood nor articulated. Had you asked, as the police later did, they could have said only that they came together because Brother Erasmus had asked them to. That good gentleman, though, despite appearing both lucid and palpably willing to help, proved as impossible to communicate with as if he had spoken a New Guinean dialect.
And so, despite their lack of understanding, they came: Sondra from the Haight, wearing her best velvet; Ellis from Potrero Street, muttering and shaking his head (an indication more of synapse damage than of disapproval); Wilhemena from her habitual residence near the Queen Wilhemena Tulip Garden; her neighbor Doc from the southern windmill; the newlyweds Tomás and Esmerelda from their home beneath the bridge near the tennis court. Through the cultivated wilderness of John McLaren's park they came, to the baseball diamond where Brother Erasmus, John, and the late, lamented Theophilus awaited them. Each one carried some twigs or branches or scraps of wood; all of them tried to assemble before the sky grudgingly lightened into morning; the entire congregation came, each adding his or her wood to the pile Brother Erasmus had made beneath the stiff corpse, and then standing back to await the match.
Of course, there were other people in the park that morning. Cars passed through on Nineteenth Avenue, on Transverse Drive, on JFK Drive, but if they even noticed the park residents drifting through the fog, they thought nothing about it.
Other early users, however, did notice. The spandex-and-Nike-clad runners from the neighboring Richmond and Sunset districts had begun to trickle into the park at first light. Committed runners these, men and women who knew the value of sweat, unlike the mere joggers who would appear later in the day. They thudded along roads and paths, keeping a wary, if automatic, eye out for unsavory types who might beg, or mug, or certainly embarrass. It was actually relatively rare to see one of the homeless up and around at this hour, though they were often to be glimpsed, huddled among their possessions in the undergrowth or, occasionally, upright but apparently comatose.
This morning, though, the natives were restless. Several runners glanced at their chronographs to check that it was indeed their usual time, two or three of them wondered irritably if they were going to have to change where they ran, and some saw the sticks the tatterdemalion figures carried and abruptly shied away to the other side of the road.
The morning's injury (aside from the blow that had downed poor Theophilus — but then, that was from the previous day) happened to a bright young Stanford MBA, a vice president's assistant from the Bank of America. He was halfway through his daily five-mile stint, running easily down Kennedy Drive past the lake, the morning financial news droning through the headphones into his ears and the thought of an ominous meeting in four hour's time looming large in his consciousness, completely unprepared for the apparition of a six-foot-four bearded lunatic crashing out of the bushes with a huge club raised above his head. The MBA stumbled in sheer terror, fell, rolled, struggled to rise, his arms folded to protect his skull — and watched his would-be attacker give him a puzzled glance and finish hauling the eucalyptus bough out from the bushes, then walk away with the butt end of it on his shoulder and the dead leaves swishing noisily and fragrantly behind him.
By the time the trembling jogger had hobbled painfully onto Park Presidio, hitched two rides home, iced his swollen ankle, and telephoned the police, the assembly in the glen was complete: some two dozen homeless men and women, arrayed in a circle around a waist-high heap of twigs and branches, into which was nestled a small stiff body. They were singing the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful," painfully out of tune but with enthusiasm, when Brother Erasmus set the match to the pyre.
The headline on the bottom of page one of that afternoon's Examiner read: HOMELESS GATHER TO CREMATE BELOVED DOC IN GOLDEN GATE PARK.
* * *
Three weeks later, his breath huffing in clouds and the news announcer still jabbering against his unhearing ears, the physically recovered but currently unemployed former Bank of America vice presidential assistant was slogging his disconsolate way alongside Kennedy Drive in the park when, to his instant and unreasoning fury, he was attacked for a second time by a branch-wielding bearded man from the shrubbery. Three weeks of ego deflation blew up like a rage-powered air bag: He instantly took four rapid steps forward and clobbered the unkempt head with the only thing he carried, which happened to be a Walkman stereo. Fortunately for both men, the case collapsed the moment it made contact with the wool cap, but the maddened former bank assistant stood over the terrified and hungover former real estate broker and pummeled away with his crumbling handful of plastic shards and electronic components.
A passing commuter saw them, snatched up her car telephone, and called 911.
Three minutes later, the eyes of the two responding police officers were greeted by the sight of a pair of men seated side by side on the frost-rimed grass: One was shocked, bleeding into his shaggy beard, and even at twenty feet stank of cheap wine and old sweat; the other was clean-shaven, clean-clothed, and wore a pair of two-hundred-dollar running shoes on his feet. Both men were weeping. The runner sat with his knees drawn up and his head buried in his arms; the wino had his arm across the other man's heaving shoulders and was patting awkwardly at the runner's arm in an obvious attempt at reassurance and comfort.
The two police officers never were absolutely certain about what had happened, but they filled out their forms and saw the two partners in adversity safely tucked into the ambulance. Just before the door closed, the female officer thought to ask why the homeless man had been dragging branches out of the woods in the first place.
By the time the two officers pounded up the pathway into the baseball clearing, the oily eucalyptus and redwood in this second funeral pyre had caught and flames were roaring up to the gray sky in great billows of sparks and burning leaves. It was a much larger pile of wood than had been under the small dog Theophilus three weeks earlier, but then, it had to be.
On the top of this pyre lay the body of a man.CHAPTER 2
The Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground.
"God Almighty," muttered Kate Martinelli, "what'll you bet Jon does a barbecue tonight."
She and Al Hawkin stood watching the medical examiner's men package the body for transport. The typical pugilist's pose of a burned body was giving the men problems, but they finally got the fists tucked in and loaded the body onto the van. The cold air became almost breathable.
"You know," remarked Al, squinting up at a tree, "that's the first joke I've heard you make in — what, six months?"
"It wasn't a joke."
"It'll pass for one."
"Life has not been funny, Al."
"No," he agreed. "No. How is Lee?"
"She's doing really well. She finally found a wheelchair that's comfortable, and the new physical therapist seems good. She wants to try Lee in a walker in a week or so. Don't mention it, though, if you talk to Lee. She'll want to do it then and there."
"Did I tell you she's started seeing clients again?"
"No! Now, that is good news."
"Only two of them, and on different days, but it gives her a feeling of real life. It's made a hell of a difference."
"I can imagine. Do you think she'd like a visitor?"
"She always loves to see you, Al."
"I got the impression it tired her out."
"Tires her for that day, cheers her up for the next two. A good trade. Just call before you go; she doesn't deal too well with surprises."
"I'll call. Tomorrow, if I can swing it. I'll take her some flowers."
"Don't do that. Lee hates cut flowers."
"I know. It'll give us something to argue about."
"So thoughtful, Al."
"Well," said Kate, pulling her notebook and pen from a jacket pocket, "back to work."
"Martinelli?" She stopped and turned to look at her partner. "It's good to have you back."
Kate ducked her head in acknowledgment and walked quickly away.
Al Hawkin watched her walk toward the motley congregation of homeless, her spine straight and her attitude as quietly self-contained as ever, and found himself wondering why the hell she had come back.
The last months must have seared themselves straight down into the bones of her mind, he reflected, but aside from the increased wariness in her already-wary eyes, she did not show it. Oh, yes — and the white-eyed terror with which she regarded the three newspaper reporters who slouched behind the police tapes.
Last spring the media had seized her with sheer delight, a genuine San Francisco lesbian, a policewoman, whose lover had been shot and left dramatically near death by a sociopath who was out to destroy the world-famous artist Eva Vaughn — the combination of high culture, pathos, and titillation were irresistible, even for serious news media. For a couple of weeks, Kate's squarish face and haunted dark eyes looked out from the pages of supermarket scandal sheets and glossy weekly news journals, and ABC did a half-hour program on homosexuality in the police force.
And while this jamboree was going on, while the hate mail was pouring in and the Hall of Justice switchboard was completely jammed, Kate lived at the hospital, where her lover teetered on the edge of death. It was six weeks before Kate knew Lee would live; another six weeks passed before the doctors voiced a faint hope that she might regain partial sensation and a degree of control below the waist.
At this juncture Hawkin had done something that still gave him cold sweats of guilt when he thought about it: Guided by an honest belief that work would be the best therapy for Kate, he had taken ruthless advantage of her newfound optimism and yanked her back onto the force, into their partnership, and straight into the unparalleled disaster of the Raven Morningstar murder case. And of course, when the case blew up in blood and scandal back in August, the media had been ecstatic to find Kate right in the middle. That she was one of the few out of the cast of dramatic personae not culpable for any fault greater than a lack of precognition mattered not. She was their prize, their Inspector Casey, and she bled publicly for the nation's entertainment.
Excerpted from To Play the Fool by Laurie R. King. Copyright © 1995 Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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