Read from Prisoner of Memory: An Eve Diamond Novel by Denise Hamilton, selected by Day to Day's Karen Grigsby Bates in her annual summer roundup of reading choices.
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The mountain lion had marked his territory, powerful claws shredding the bark of a sturdy oak tree just yards from where the chaparral gave way to terraced backyards.
Standing on a hiking trail in Griffith Park, I wondered where the big cat was now and felt a primal twitch of fear. In the sudden stillness, every sound seemed amplified: the high, clear voices of children echoing off the canyon. The agitated bark of a dog. The drunken buzzing of bees harvesting the last dregs of nectar before winter settled in for good in Southern California.
Beside me, California Fish and Game tracker Jeff Knightsbridge fingered the bill of his baseball cap and cleared his throat. Placing my sharpened pencil against my notepad, I inhaled the tang of wood shavings and waited.
"He's not after humans," Knightsbridge said. "He's after the deer. Let me emphasize that, because I don't want to open my paper tomorrow and see a sensational story about mountain lions stalking hikers in Griffith Park. Your average puma goes out of its way to avoid people."
Knightsbridge scuffed a booted toe on the trail, and a plume of dust rose into the milky light. It had been a long, scorching autumn in the City of Fallen Angels, but the heat had eased into a brittle cold as the holidays approached.
"Can you tell how old those marks are? Or how big he was?" I asked.
The furrows started ten feet up the trunk. I imagined the mountain lion rearing up, muscles rippling under tawny skin, the explosive crackle of dry wood as he put his weight into it. What such claws might do to human flesh.
From far away, children's cries resounded off the rock escarpments. Bees droned, an atavistic murmur from the hive-mind.
Knightsbridge ran his hand along the defiled trunk. The deep scratches exposed the pale fibrous innards of the tree, its amber tears.
He shrugged. "Three days, give or take."
Lifting his chin, he scanned the brush. "Can you smell that?"
"What?" Looking up at the sky, where charcoal clouds were swiftly overtaking the blue, I wondered if he meant rain. As a hopeless city slicker, I'd benefit from a wilderness survival course that taught me to sniff out a storm and navigate by the North Star. But in my line of work, a martial arts class in self-defense was way more practical.
I was a journalist for the Los Angeles Times and this was my first day as a downtown Metro reporter. But instead of a juicy investigation, I'd drawn mountain lion patrol after commuters spotted a big cat grooming himself under the snowflakes and candy cane decorations of Hillcrest Avenue, where the asphalt met the urban wilderness of Griffith Park. In a city bedeviled by crime and corruption, distraction was a drug and now everyone was breathlessly fixated on a 160- pound feline. And I wasn't about to leave Griffith Park without a killer story.
"Not rain." Knightsbridge wrinkled his nose. "Like meat that's gone bad. I caught it again just now on the wind. Over there."
I turned in the direction of his outstretched finger and took a deep breath. Through the dust we had kicked up, beyond the resinous scent of anise and sage, I thought I detected it, a faint, sweet charnel house smell.
"If it killed recently," Knightsbridge was saying, "the puma will hang around. And it will perceive anything that gets too close as threatening its meal." His hand went to the gun at his waist. "C'mon."
He set off through the scrub, and I scrambled to follow.
The buzzing grew louder. I paused, shrank back. There must have been a hive nearby.
Looking down, I saw the San Fernando Valley sprawl, arteries already starting to clog with afternoon traffic, commuters getting a jump-start on their holiday shopping. A thin layer of brown haze blanketed everything. Winter often brought the clearest light. But not today.
Knightsbridge had stopped too. He sniffed the air like a bloodhound. In the distance, a black cloud rose and swayed off the trail. The angry humming grew louder. I grabbed his arm.
"Are those . . . bees?"
"No," he said, his voice taking on an urgency I didn't like.
Knightsbridge set off for the cloud, with me tagging reluctantly behind.
He disappeared around a bend. Then came a disembodied shout. He came staggering back, face white, bandanna clasped to his mouth.
But he only fumbled for a radio at his belt.
"Cat didn't do this," he said, his face a rictus of disbelief.
I pushed past him. I didn't care about getting stung anymore. The smell of decomposing flesh grew stronger.
As I rounded the bend, what I saw made me avert my eyes and breathe through my mouth, but it was too late, the stench already seeping into my lungs. A body lay facedown at the edge of the dirt trail. A black cloud of flies hovered, swaying and rippling with each breeze. I couldn't look. I couldn't not look. Tearing my eyes away, I focused on the dirt trail and tried not to hyperventilate. Among the rocks and footprints and tread marks from mountain bikes, a bullet casing twinkled in the afternoon light.
* * *
A wave of nausea swept over me, and I bent to retch, but only dryheaved.
It was the flies that put me over. That revolting black mass swarming over the head and nearby ground, dark where something had spilled and dried.
But even in my sorry state, I recognized that Knightsbridge was right. Mountain lions don't leave bullet casings behind.
I could hear him panting into the radio, announcing his coordinates, then a mumbled, "Oh Jesus, hold on," and a roar as churning liquid splattered. Then as he recovered, the matter-of-fact recitation.
"Griffith Park. Off the horse trail, on the Valley side. A half mile up the trailhead. Yeah. Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."
Notepad still in hand, I steeled myself to look at the corpse. It's odd how the brain absorbs death in layers. At first I had seen an indistinct shape, my mind fastened in primal disgust on the flies. The second time I'd noted the darker stains on the ground, the bullet glinting like a malevolent jewel. Now I threw a rock, dislodging the flies, and took in the scene methodically.
Long, baggy beige cargo shorts, exposing tanned legs with golden hairs. Thin but muscular calves. A red, long-sleeve T-shirt with fancy lettering that said Val Surf. The body was scrunched where it had fallen. I saw a clunky metallic watch around one wrist. Short blond curls matted with dried black blood. Skin soft, hairs barely sprouting on his chin. Maybe seventeen.
I wrote it down. Knightsbridge hitched the radio back onto his belt and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. Despite the cool air, sweat beaded his temples.
"Whoo," Knightsbridge said, flapping his arms. "Seen plenty of dead animals in my day. Do the autopsy, then head off for lunch. Never blink an eye. But this . . ." His hand twitched near his throat and he hunched his shoulders. I thought he might be getting ready to heave again. He took two shallow breaths, straightened. "Never seen a dead person before. Not used to it."
"You don't get used to it," I said, unable to resist the impulse to look around and make sure there was nobody crouched behind a rock or bush, pointing a gun at us. Some bozo out hunting human prey. In the Los Angeles hills, you had more to fear from two-legged predators than those on four.
Excerpted from Prisoner of Memory by Denise Hamilton. Copyright © 2006, Denise Hamilton. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. All rights reserved.