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Davenport, California

Cliffs, Davenport


"Passion is a sort of fever in the mind that leaves us
weaker than it found us"
--William Penn


At the crack of dawn, a black and white Crown Victoria hurtled down a slippery, narrow road and screeched to a halt at the edge of an unpaved path. Two cops jumped out and soon the beams from their flashlights sliced through the darkness. Standing at the edge of the cliff, they peered toward the beach below, but the still thick fog impaired their vision. They could hear the sounds of roaring surf and knew the ominous ocean waves were collapsing against the rocky shoreline. The barely visible rocks below them resembled giant black coals, but their sharp edges cast a warning of danger. They started down the cliff in opposite directions, clinging tightly to the rock edges as they made their descent, while exercising extreme caution. The scenery was spectacular, when it could be seen, but there had been too many drownings of careless spectators on this particular beach, when they misjudged the hazards of slippery rocks and powerful breakers.

Moments later, one officer shouted to his partner. “Sarge, over here!”

The sergeant worked his way along the craggy shore towards him. Within minutes, his call for a backup reached the town of Davenport, California, which lay halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, nine miles north of Santa Cruz, on an undeveloped stretch of coastline. It was a town with only a handful of residents. There were no bustling activities along ancient sidewalks, no shopping centers, no grocery stores, and no crime. What could be found in the surrounds were miles of hiking trails, scenic byways, coastal terraces, and spectacular cliffs facing the sea. Many tourists and neighboring town citizens sojourned to Davenport for weekend jaunts, enjoyment of the vistas, or simply to find peace.

But any modicum of serenity was shattered this particular morning with the finding of a corpse. “One-three, there's a Code Seven at Panther Beach across from the La Paloma Mexican Cantina. It's a possible 1-8-7,” one of the officer's said, barking the information into his hand carried walkie-talkie.

The body of a man lay sprawled on his back, lodged between rocks. The lashing white waves had thoroughly drenched his jogging suit. His cloudy blue eyes were wide open and the paleness of his face seemed to convey the tremendous pain he had suffered before death erased it. His graying hair and creased face made him appear to be in his fifties.

Within minutes, two squad cars from Santa Cruz arrived at the scene with blaring sirens and flashing red lights. Soon several cops swarmed over the area, combing it for any clues as to how the man had met his demise. Right behind them, reporters from local newspapers and television news stations recorded their activities. Cameras flashed, radios crackled, and curt reports reverberated over the sound of the unremitting surf. An air of exhilaration permeated their activity, as they huddled in a group, waiting for the identity of the dead man and a reason for his death. Was it due to an accident . . . or was it a homicide?

Last to arrive at the scene, in another black Crown Victoria, was a six-foot, heavily built, good-looking man in his forties. When he stepped out of the car, he exuded a demeanor of habitual authority, both in his stance and in the way he wore his standard navy suit. His alert coffee-brown eyes quickly scoped the scene. Hidden beneath the dignified suit jacket was a shoulder holster with a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson .38. The metallic badge clipped onto his left lapel glittered when a flashlight ray passed across it. A closer look at the badge revealed the etched words, Detective William Norbeck, Homicide .

Detective Norbeck had earned the nickname Buster from his colleagues. It was a literal translation of his feats. Although his impressive physique and deep voice conveyed that impression as well, in large measure the name was due to the serial killer he had manipulated into confession through interrogation, and to the numerous gang-related criminals he had busted and locked up during his ten-year career as a homicide detective in Santa Cruz County.

As he strode along the lined-up police cars, two officers approached him. The three shook hands firmly as they introduced themselves. One of the officers started an animated discourse, pointing in several directions. After a few seconds, the three hiked to the top of a cliff just above the craggy shore where the body had been found. A silver S500-series Mercedes Benz was parked off the pavement. Its brilliant silver paint shimmered, despite the morning overcast, and the AMG cast chrome plated wheels sparkled. It looked as though the vehicle had just come off the assembly line.

Detective Norbeck walked slowly towards the front of the car. He stood there for a moment, examining every inch of the area visible to his eyes. He reached out one hand and felt the hood. It was cold. Then he walked around the front of the car to the passenger side. He leaned forward and peered through the window to examine the interior, cupping his hand over his eyes to see through the glass in the still dim light of dawn. He saw burled walnut trim and a sleek black leather steering wheel, with a matching shift knob. Rich silver-gray leather seats. He tried the door handle and the vehicle wasn't locked. He opened the door and took a cursory look around the interior. The car was in immaculate condition. No sign of a struggle. No immediate sign of blood. The key was still in the ignition.

“We radioed in the plate number,” an officer said. “We're waiting for the report identifying the owner.”

Norbeck nodded and pulled out a small notebook pad. He checked his watch, leaned against the now closed car door, and began jotting down his findings. Although it was made to look like a suicide, it was another homicide. No doubt about it. And, considering the type and model of the luxury sedan, it wasn't going to be an ordinary one.

* * *

San Jose, California

By nine o'clock that morning, the sun had given up struggling to shine through the gloomy gray sky hovering over the coastal area. Vast, dark clouds threatened to burst at any time. Despite the dire forecast of a January rainstorm, however, a joyous mood permeated throughout the Silicon Valley. This day had been long anticipated. A medical breakthrough would be revealed in a televised worldwide conference by the researcher himself. Across the front of the McEnery Convention Center, a white canvas banner announced the message in giant red letters: International Conference on AIDS Research.

By nine-thirty, the crowd exceeded the 10,000 seat capacity of the auditorium. Top-notch medical doctors, research scientists and their assistants, nurses, pharmacists, and various other medical personnel from major hospitals, universities, and research centers throughout the world had descended upon San Jose, the capital city of Silicon Valley, wanting to be present for the long anticipated announcement. They came from as far away as Donauspital in Wien, Austria, and St. Josef Hospital in Brochum, Germany, to as near as Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, California.

Inside the auditorium, a phalanx of broadcast units assembled near the stage, poised to televise the big event via satellite to millions of households in dozens of countries. One reporter, standing near the stage, glanced at her notes and then peered straight into a camera. “This is the biggest gathering of elite medical personnel ever assembled in one place,” she reported. “Directly in front of me are physicians from Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kowloon, Hong Kong, eager to witness this event. This is, indeed, a momentous occasion. I have seen dignitaries from Brazil, South Africa, Spain, France, and even Puerto Rico. We're still waiting for the research doctor from Stanford University who will make known his remarkable discovery concerning a cure for the AIDS virus, which has long plagued the world community. Until now, his work has been highly confidential. Already the buzz is that his work represents the medical breakthrough of the century.”

Giant television screens had been dispersed throughout the massive convention center, to enable close-up viewing for those who were situated too far from the stage. Police officers patrolled the premises, directing traffic and guiding visitors to the few available seats. Many stood by, for security purposes. This event had been widely publicized and such events always attracted dissenters . . . and terrorists.

Everything was going according to plan. The hordes of visitors had socialized over donuts and coffee, happy to meet cohorts in their medical specialties and to share their own research. Finally, the majority had proceeded into the auditorium to find seats and to chat more quietly, while waiting for the program to begin. Time passed. Ten o'clock came and went. They checked their watches a few times and joked about doctors never being on time.

A woman in the front row sat quietly, her arms crossed in front of her against her chest, and then bowed her head as if to meditate. She had taken a red-eye flight from New York and  arrived early. The delay was making it difficult to stay awake. She finally gave in to her urge and dozed off. Another woman hid her yawns behind a cupped hand and stared at the empty podium.

By eleven o'clock, people were decidedly fidgety. Several stood and stretched, examining their watches and expressing impatience. Many more returned to the lobby of the convention center, in order to smoke. The sounds of hushed conversation and rattling paper spoke of a rising irritation. “What's the delay?” one doctor said, complaining loudly to his seatmate.

Once again, the female reporter stood in front of her camera crew. “It's already noon and two hours past the scheduled announcement. No one has made a statement regarding the cause of this lengthy delay. Many here have become restless. Some have other meetings and travel schedules affected by the holdup.” She gestured to her left. “In this section are representatives from Cornell University Hospital in New York. They arrived early this morning, and the long wait is taking its toll on them. A few are taking catnaps. No one knows when this conference will begin, but no one wants to leave for lunch. Chris and Kate, I'll let you know as soon as there are signs of progress. Now back to you.”

Finally, a dark-suited gentleman marched across the stage and tested the microphone.

The lights dimmed and a spotlight shone on the somber-looking man. The hubbub in the auditorium ceased as if on cue. Everyone sat up and craned their necks in order to find a direct view of the stage. Suddenly, the silence was broken by an erupting of joyful shouting and clapping, as the entire audience of dignitaries rose from their seats in a ringing ovation, as if the Messiah had arrived. Everyone assumed the man was the famous researcher.

The man stood quietly behind the microphone for several moments, scanning the sea of faces turned toward him. He turn his head in slow motion, first to the left, then to his right, and, finally, up toward the balcony. Like a stalk of bamboo, he was lean, tall, and rigid. He adjusted the microphone again. A deafening, high-pitched squeal echoed throughout the convention center, then died. The clapping and shouting slowly faded, until there was complete silence. Everyone resumed sitting. The man opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. He paused again, for several seconds. Again, he opened his mouth. No sound came forth. He cleared his throat. Everyone's eyes were fixed on the man. No one coughed. No one fidgeted. His slow movements intensified the silence. Finally, the man regained his composure. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and then stopped to pull a handkerchief from his hip pocket. He wiped beads of perspiration from his forehead. In disjointed phrases, he continued. “We have just received word that a . . . a body was found at six-fifteen this morning, at Panther Beach. It was the body of . . . of Dr. Brett Russell.”

Audible gasps and murmurs of disbelief followed this declaration. The entire auditorium of ten-thousand erupted into a state of turmoil. Reporters and cameramen went wild, eager to get the news and report to their news bureaus around the world. Lights flashed nonstop, as pictures were taken of the speaker and the audience of shocked spectators. The speaker raised his voice, to speak above the din. “An investigation is pending . . . regarding Dr. Russell's tragic death. There will be no presentation of his research today. You are . . . dismissed.”

A deafening cacophony ensued, particularly from the reporters, who bombarded the man with an endless barrage of questions. One dominating voice yelled,  “Have the police confirmed whether it's a homicide?”

The crowd quieted and reporters thrust their microphones and mini-recorders forward, eager to record the man's response. “They don't know yet,” he said. His face darkened and his shoulders slumped.

“Who found the body?” another persistent reporter bellowed.

The man turned his back against the commotion and slipped behind the heavy velvet curtain, leaving the crowd with nothing but a slew of unanswered questions.