"The thing is, they moved the body, Lieutenant."
"What?" Decker strained to hear Oliver's voice over the unmarked's radio static. "Who's they?"
"Whoever's acting as the head honcho of the Order, I guess. Marge did manage to seal off the bedroom. That's where Jupiter was found --- "
"Could you talk up, Scott?"
" --- point being that the crime scene is screwed up, and the body has been messed with because of the shrine."
"Yeah. When we got here, the members were in the process of dressing him and constructing this shrine --- "
"Where's the body now?"
"In a small anteroom off some kind of church --- "
Temple, Decker heard a male voice enunciate from the background. "Someone with you, Detective?"
"Hold on, lemme..."
Decker tapped the steering wheel until Scott came back on the line. It took a while.
Oliver held his voice low. "I told them to stop messing with the corpse until you got here. Not being a trusting soul, I've been guarding the body with some self-appointed guru who calls himself Brother Pluto. I sent an officer in there to keep him company so we could talk more privately."
The electronic noise cracked through Decker's ear. He said, "You need to talk louder."
Oliver spoke up. "This Pluto person doesn't want the police here. He keeps insisting that the death was natural, waving this bogus death certificate to prove it, disregarding the empty fifth of Stoli underneath the bed. Which he claims wasn't Jupiter's because Jupiter didn't drink."
"Death certificate?" Decker said. "Has the coroner been there?"
"Nope. It was signed by a gent named Brother Nova."
''Got me, sir.''
"Did you explain to them what we're doing is standard procedure in sudden deaths?"
"I've tried to explain it, but Pluto's not listening." A laugh. "I've been biting my tongue, refraining from asking him where Goofy was."
Decker smiled. Oliver was showing unusual discretion. "Did you tell him that we have to transport the body to the morgue for autopsy?"
"Been saving the good news for you. Because right now, Pluto and his toons are not happy campers, though I suspect they've never been a cheerful lot. Who called the death in?"
"Jupiter's daughter. Her name is Europa Ganz. She's on the faculty at Southwest University of Technology. Jupiter used to be a hotshot professor there years ago. His real name is Emil Euler Ganz. Apparently, the daughter's not associated with the Order."
"So how'd she find out about the death?"
A good question. "I don't know, Scott. The details are sketchy." He hesitated. "Find out about Ganz' s death certificate. This Nova must be a member of the Order, right?"
"I'd assume so. Probably some kind of in-house doctor. But that doesn't qualify him to sign off on Jupiter."
True enough. Decker's finely tuned psycho-BS-detector was on max. He said, "The static is really bad. I'm having trouble hearing you. Just keep status quo until I get there.''
"We're trying. But the parishioners are getting feisty. Is 'parishioners' the right word?"
It was fine with Decker although cult followers seemed more apropos. "Just try to keep everyone quiet."
"How far are you from the holy spot?"
"Four, five miles. Traffic's a little thick. I'll be there in about fifteen minutes."
"See you." Oliver clicked off.
The initial call had come through while Decker was still home, eating breakfast with his younger daughter, who was as skinny as the stick figures she drew. Hannah thought it was great fun to pick the raisins from her oatmeal, leaving behind the grainy mush. Decker was trying to spoon-feed her, attempting to get some nutrition down her gullet until Rina aptly pointed out that the child was five, and capable of feeding herself.
He lived about twenty minutes by freeway from the station house, about thirty-five minutes from the crime scene. That was on good days, and today wasn't one of them. Decker ran his left hand through strands of ginger hair now streaked with white, and settled into the seat of the unmarked Buick. He guzzled strong coffee from a thermos. Across the passenger's seat was the front page of the Los Angeles Times.
Eight-oh-five and nothing was moving.
Inching his way up to the next off-ramp, he decided to exit and take Devonshire. The boulevard was one of the main east-west arteries through the San Fernando Valley, six lanes lined with strip malls, wholesalers and industrial warehouses. Going farther west, the street's industry gave way to residences --- stucco ranch houses sitting on flat land that once held agricultural orchards-oranges, lemons, apricots. He and Rina had recently purchased a house in the area, intending to move in after a few minor renovations.
Which had turned (predictably) into a major overhaul.
He could have done the job himself if he hadn't been gainfully employed. So they bit the bullet, hiring subs while Rina acted as the contractor. One day, Decker had come to the property to find his wife precariously balanced on a ladder, pointing out to the roofer a defect near the chimney. Her skirt blew in the wind as she spoke animatedly, though Decker couldn't hear a word of the conversation. Apparently the roofer had run the hose over the top of the house for twenty minutes, proudly pronouncing the place water-tight. But Rina had been skeptical. She had run the hose for three hours, discovering a leak after two hours and twenty minutes.
(The first rain would have ruined the hardwood floors, Peter.)
Decker smiled, thinking about her image --- that of his Orthodox Jewish wife perched on the highest rung of a tall ladder, one hand pointing out flaws while the other held down that hat she wore to cover her hair.
The scene helped to buoy his spirits. The day was gray and dirty, typical overcast May weather in Los Angeles. At least the cars were moving. He proceeded west into open terrain, the foothills on the right greened by the recent rains. They had become rolling waves of wild grass and flowers, spewing their pollens, making it a miserable allergy season. What Decker wouldn't have given to have the Allegra concession this year.
He thought about Europa Ganz' s call to headquarters --- reported as a suspicious death. In this case meaning suicide as opposed to death by natural causes. How could she know anything if she wasn't there?
Someone tipped her. Who? And why?
Decker found suicides annoying because everything was left pending until the coroner made a definitive ruling. In the meantime, Homicide was saddled with the unpleasant job of keeping everything and everyone on hold, plus preserving the integrity of the "crime" scene --- just in case. If Ganz had been someone less noteworthy, Decker wouldn't have been called down. But since the corpse had once been a luminary prizewinner in astrophysics --- a visionary for his generation eons ago --- as well as the current leader of a two-hundred-plus-person enclave, Strapp thought it a good idea for someone with a title to make an appearance. The captain would have come in person, except he'd had a morning meeting downtown.
From what Scott Oliver had said over the radio, the members of the Order of the Rings of God were griping about the police. Of course, they'd gripe about anything establishment. Decker had been inside the compound once. It was not the stark and sterile place he had imagined. The interior had high ceilings with lots of skylights --- blueness and sunshine visible from all angles. A complete view of the heavens, as if Ganz hadn't quite given up cosmology.
Lots of skylights, several gable vents, but very few windows.
Decker had been called out to investigate a kidnapping charge, which turned out to be another case of a wayward kid exchanging the complexities of freedom for straightforward rules and regulations. He hadn't talked to Ganz. Instead, he had been given some underling with a celestial name. (Had it been Pluto?) The sect member had insisted that no one was ever held against his or her will.
He seemed to speak the truth. He had allowed Decker inside the entry hall to interview the kid. Clearly, the boy had wanted to be there. Although Decker's heart went out to the parents, he was hog-tied. Their son was over eighteen and legally --- if not emotionally --- an adult.
Looking into his rearview mirror, Decker saw the meat wagon about thirty feet behind him. He led the way to the compound. Together, they pulled up curbside, parked and got out.
The Order of the Rings of God had placed itself on five acres of flat land blending into mountainside. The structure was a series of square, gray stucco bunkers linked together chock-a-block. From this view, Decker could see the tops of the skylights peeking out from the roofs. And his memory had served him correctly. There were very few windows --- small, square panes more suitable for an attic. The domain was enclosed by a six-foot chain-link fence. A pack of Doberman pinschers had materialized, greeting them with vicious snarls.
The driver of the van wore blue scrubs. His name tag called him Postham. With him was the deputy coroner, Dr. Judy Little, a misnomer because she stood about five-ten and weighed around 175. She reminded Decker of Marge, both of them being large-boned, attractive and in their mid-thirties. But Marge' s eyes were softer, brown and doelike. They were one of her best features.
Postham squinted into the glare of the steely sky. Judy Little growled back at the dogs, which made them bark louder. "I don't envy the mailman. Where's the gate? Surely they don't expect us to drive around the entire perimeter."
Decker picked up his mobile phone and called Oliver. "How do we get in?"
"Where are you?"
"In front, being sized up by a trio of maniacal Dobies. Have someone come out here and direct us." Decker punched the end button, regarded the stucco cubes. From his perspective, he could see seven.
"A real architectural masterpiece." Little had to shout to be heard over the dogs. "What's the style? Neo-Cult military?"
''Squares are the way to get the most space for the least money.
"May be practical, but no aesthetics."
Little asked, "Got any background for me?"
Decker tried to stare down the dogs. No success. "Call came into headquarters as a suspicious death. Detective Oliver found an empty fifth of vodka under the victim's bed. I'm thinking like a Heaven's Gate suicide-a combination of drugs and liquor. The victim was Dr. Emil Euler Ganz. He was once a big wheel in academic physics. Then he suddenly disappeared for ten years. When he finally showed up, he had reinvented himself as Father Jupiter. He's been running the Order for fifteen years.
Little screamed at the dogs to shut up. They didn't listen. "Oh. Him. So you think he left this galaxy to ascend to a better universe? Well, good luck to him. I wonder if he took anyone with him?"
The thought made Decker shudder. "We've only found the one body." He waited a beat. "It's a good point."
"Ganz' s taking his disciples with him. Maybe he left some instructions for them to join him. Even if he didn't, there're bound to be a few unbalanced individuals in there who could play follow the leader."
"A few unbalanced individuals?"
Decker raised his eyebrows. "Look, if adults inside want to kill themselves, I'd try to stop them, but you can't save the world. In this case, though, there're kids involved. That concerns me."
Little made a face. "Now that's a very good point."
Decker rubbed his forehead, wondering how he could possibly ensure the kids' collective safety. As always, responsibility weighed him down, much more than his two-hundred-plus poundage.
A silver van was approaching from the other side of the fence. When it stopped, a girl of around twenty stuck her head out. No makeup or jewelry. She had a heart-shaped face and a smooth complexion. Her murky pond-colored eyes were swollen, her nose was red and drippy. Her hair was tied up in a bun and covered by a white, crocheted net. She wiped her nostrils with a tissue and said, "How many more of you are coming down?"
"Pardon?" Decker asked.
"Police," she sneered. "How much longer must we put up with this invasion of our cherished privacy? What we do is no one's business but our own.
Decker didn't speak for a moment, letting the silence hang in the air. Pausing always helped him to deflect anger and control his tongue. Finally, he said, "Ma' am, are you supposed to direct us to the compound's entrance?"
"I am not Ma'am! I am Terra!"
"Okay," Decker answered. "Terra! Are you supposed to direct us to the compound's entrance?"
She nodded. "Yes, I am."
Decker opened his car door. "So why don't you do just that?"
Excerpted from JUPITER'S BONES © Copyright 2001 by Faye Kellerman. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow & Co. All rights reserved.