The mountain lion had marked his territory, powerful claws shredding the bark of a sturdy oak tree just yards from where the chapparal gave way to terraced backyards.
Standing on a hiking trail in Griffith Park, I wondered where it 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, Los Angeles County Fish and Game expert Jeff Knightsbridge fingered the bill of his baseball hat 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 10 feet up the trunk. I imagined the big cat 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 resinous 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 a big cat grooming himself under the snowflakes and candy canes strung across Hillcrest Avenue where the asphalt met the urban wilderness of Griffith Park. In a city bedevilled 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, shrunk back. There must be a hive nearby.
Looking down, I saw the San Fernando Valley laid out before us, 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.
"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. The wildlife man came staggering back, his face white, a 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, face-down 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 treadmarks 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 dry-heaved.
It was the flies that put me over, not the body. That revolting black mass swarming over the head and nearby ground, dark where something had spilled out 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-sleeved 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 a dried black blood. Skin soft, the hairs barely sprouting on his chin. Maybe 17.
I wrote it down. Knightsbridge hitched his 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.
"Homicide," Knightsbridge said.
I looked at the body on the ground. "How can you rule out suicide?"
"You see a gun?"
I looked around. Unless the kid had fallen on it, Knightsbridge was right.
The Fish and Game man put a kerchief to his mouth and hiked closer. The flies lifted, hovered. He unzipped the boy's fanny pack and bent over it.
"Um, I don't think you're supposed to do that."
But I held my pencil ready just in case.
"Oh." A disappointed pause. "I guess you're right." He straightened, backed away. "I just thought I'd call in his ID if I found any."
I shrugged. "Won't do him much good now."
"Somewhere he's got family. Parents. They'll be in shock."
"Who do you think he is?" I said. "And why?"
Knightsbridge hiked to the edge of the hillside and looked down.
"We're about to find out," he said. "Here they come."
A woman and three men picked their way carefully along the trail. They hauled a stretcher, metal boxes, cameras and lights, enough to shoot a film. Two of them were armed. One wore a red Santa hat.
I walked over to Knightsbridge and we stood together at attention. The crew fanned around the perimeter, marking off quadrants, putting up yellow tape, squatting low to the ground.
"Bullet casing over there," I said, indicating the chapparal, but Santa's helper was already bagging it. With its jaunty pompon, the man's hat seemed disrespectful, but I guess when you work around death all day, it's important to keep your spirits up.
"Hope we didn't mess up the scene too much," Knightsbridge called out.
An LAPD honcho walked up, squinting against the winter glare. I got the feeling he was sizing us up.
"Touch anything?" he said.
"Not me," I said.
Knightbridge introduced us, told the cops how we had came across the body.
The tall cop turned to me, wrinkling his nose as though he had just smelled something worse than the body. "Media, huh? Go give your statement to Jones over there," he said, pointing to a uniformed officer. "Then you'll have to leave."
I told Knightsbridge we could continue the tour another day and he bobbed his shaggy head in agreement.
For the next 10 minutes, I answered Jones' questions about how we came across the body. The policeman said the forensics people would call if they needed an imprint of my hiking boot sole and that I was now free to go. He went off to get a statement from Knightsbridge and I stood and watched the crime techs, hoping to pick up a useful tidbit for my story. They wore rubber gloves as they inventoried, carrying things back to a stainless steel table they had set up to tag and bag evidence.
"What's the best way down," I asked a uniformed woman.
Without lifting her head from the red lanyard keychain she was examining, she hooked a thumb back down the trail.
I wondered how she'd look with it tied around her neck in a big Christmas bow. Real tight.
I threw up my hands. "Look, I just don't want to disturb any evidence on the hike back."
One of the cops brought over the fanny pack that Knightsbridge had wanted to open. With gloved hands, he placed it on the metal table. Another tech unzipped the pack and pulled out a purple and gray Velcro wallet with a lightning bolt across the front. Inside were four $20 bills and three ones.
"They weren't after money," I said, hoping to start a conversation.
But the woman was pulling out a California Driver's License. It showed a blond-haired boy with straight white teeth, freckles and blue eyes smiling into the camera.
The woman put the ID on the stainless steel table and filled out a form on her clipboard. I leaned in for a better look.
Dennis Lukin, it read, with an address in Studio City. I jotted it down and memorized it too, just in case. I looked some more. He did not have to wear corrective lenses. He did not have a class four permit that would permit him to drive a truck or eight-axle vehicle. He was 17.
"Hey," the top cop said, walking over. "I thought I told you to get out of here."
"I was just asking for directions back down the trail."
He looked from the driver's license to me, then back again. He extended his hand.
"Give it," he said.
"Whatever notes you just took."
I thought about saying no, then realized it didn't matter. Wordlessly, I tore the page out of my notebook and handed it over.
He glanced at my scribbles, snorted, then crumpled the paper and shoved it into his pants pocket.
I turned to go.
"If I see you at that house before we break the news, so help me God, I'll make sure you'll spent your rest of your career writing Calendar listings."
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll be parked across the street until you leave."
I stopped to say goodbye to Knightsbridge so I could take one more look at the body, now framed and set off by the yellow police tape.
I don't know what I was searching for - needle marks or tattoos, piercings, brown roots to the blond hair, a school ring, hickies. Anything that would give me an inkling of who Dennis Lukin was. What teen tribe he pledged allegience to. He wore a necklace made of tiny white shells. Puka. Add in the tan, the sun-bleached hair and the shirt advertising a famous surfboard shop in the Valley and there was little doubt: Dennis Lukin was a surfer. My eye was drawn to the oversized watch again. Probably one of those waterproof jobs for when he sat bobbing in the swells, waiting for that perfect wall of water. But what was that symbol on the face? I bent over the yellow plastic tape to get a better view and recognized the hammer and sickle. How odd. It was a Soviet army watch. I hadn't seen one in years, not since the USSR collapsed and flea markets around the world had been flooded with these clunky souvenirs of a dead empire. I frowned. Examined the boy again. Something didn't track. The surfer clothes. The deep tan and puka shells. This kid, who'd barely been born when the Soviet Union fell apart.
"Get away from that crime scene or so help me I'll have you arrested," the head cop yelled, breaking my reverie. I straightened up.
"Sorry," I said absently, filing this detail away for later. Maybe the kid had just come back from Russia on a student exchange. Maybe he collected timepieces. Maybe someone had traded it to him in exchange for weed.
I hiked down, glad I wouldn't have to break the news to Dennis Lukin's family myself. It was the part I hated most about newspapering. Let the cops be the bad news messenger. My job was jackal.
Wheeling the car out of Griffith Park and onto the 101 Freeway, I called the City Desk with the news.
"Feliz Navidad," sang Jose Feliciano's exuberant voice on the radio, wishing us a Merry Christmas from the bottom of his heart.
I turned it down.
"We found a body on the trail," I said when Assisant City Editor Jon Trabuco came on.
I heard the intake of breath, followed by the rapid click of keys.
"Holy shit, this is front page all the way. There hasn't been a mountain lion killing in L.A. County for years," my new editor said with mounting excitement. "Start dictating."
"It wasn't a cat."
"Then what the hell was it?"
"Unless mountain lions have learned how to use guns."
I filled him in.
"Jeez, Eve. You had me all excited there for a minute. I was already writing the damn headline. Now it's just another dead body."
"Isn't a dead body still a story in this town?"
"Yeah, but if the perp was a cat, I could have gotten you 45 inches and a sidebar. Wildlife killings are huge. It upsets the natural order."
"So do dead teenagers. I'm on my way to talk to the family now," I said. "Be right behind the cops."
Trabuco grunted in approval. "By the way, some guy called and left an urgent message for you. He had an accent."
"This is LA, Jon. They all have accents."
"He said he was related to you."
I winced, glad Trabuco couldn't see my face. I didn't have much family, and it was a sore point.
"He wishes," I said.
"Want the number?"
"Are you kidding?" I said. "I'm on deadline."
© Denise Hamilton