The two cops, both ex-LAPD, cruised the California Sierra and talked about crime and race. Crime, in this case, consisted of public drunkenness outside a new bar, a floating poker game run by a professional gambler, and a small but disturbing spike in the number of burglary calls. Race consisted of black and white.
The early morning sky was a rain-scrubbed blue and the mountain scenery was some of the most magnificent in the United States, but they noticed it only in passing. They were looking for — but not expecting — breaches of the peace. Finding none, their conversation flowed without impediment.
“Skin color matters,” Deputy Chief Oliver Gosden said from the passenger seat.
“Yeah,” Chief Ron Ketchum agreed. “Mostly because people won’t let it alone.”
“Some people can’t let it alone.”
The chief wasn’t about to get into that. Instead, he asked, “You know the ultimate proof of racial equality? Rednecks come in all colors.”
“Maybe so. But you know one advantage of being a minority in this country? There are fewer assholes who look like me than look like you.”
“You saying I look like an asshole?” the chief replied.
Ron Ketchum had once saved Oliver Gosden’s life at the risk of his own.
Gosden had once saved Ketchum’s reputation at the cost of his job.
The chief was forty-eight years old, six-two, with a lean, hard frame. He had dark brown hair and hazel eyes. He was white. The deputy chief was thirty-seven years old, five-ten, and still had the densely muscular build of the heavyweight collegiate wrestler he’d been at the University of Iowa. He still carried himself like a jock, too. One who could pin the whole world to the mat, if need be. He was black.
“Nah, not an asshole,” Oliver said. “White devil slave-master, maybe.”
Ron gave him a look. “The shit I put up with.”
As the sun climbed over the mountaintops that Friday in the second week of August, the two top law enforcement officers of the town of Goldstrike were on their weekly patrol. Serving and protecting. Keeping their jurisdiction safe. Their aggregate blood pressure was sixty points lower than it ever had been in Los Angeles.
Goldstrike was perched in an alpine valley six thousand feet up in the mountains the colonial Spaniards had named the Snowy Range. The centerpiece of the affluent resort town was Lake Adeline whose pristine waters ranged in color from sapphire to emerald. The setting for this liquid jewel was a twelve mile long shoreline gilded with a chain of manicured estates, four-star hotels, and immaculately kept public parks and beaches. The outskirts of town climbed high up the sea of majestic evergreens that covered the slopes of the mountains. A half-dozen ski resorts stood as sentinels above the town, their slopes descending through the conifers like the spokes of a wheel.
Nature had been lavish in bestowing its wonders on Goldstrike, and the real estate prices had been set accordingly. For the most part, those who lived there had either gotten in early or had made their bundles in high-tech, show biz or some other megabucks profession, and then retreated to “Eden on High,” as the town’s founder, Adeline Walsh, had described the area in 1849.
Ron said, “As important as color is to some people, it’s going to take a back seat real soon to cultural questions.”
“What do you mean?” Oliver asked.
“I mean the way the PC types have subverted the idea of assimilation, there’s going to be a whole new set of worries to get people’s attention.”
“Such as, who do you think the average white guy would rather see move in next door? A black guy who goes to work in the morning, takes his wife and kids to church on Sunday, and watches the NBA Finals? Or a blue-eyed Caucasian Afghan who’s a former member of the Taliban and wants to shoot up the white guy’s stereo system, not because he’s playing it too loud, but because the new neighbor interprets the Koran as forbidding recorded music?”
The deputy chief snorted. “I think if either of those guys moves into a white neighborhood, ‘For Sale’ signs get posted on every lawn on the block.”
Ron sighed. “Okay, let’s try it this way. You’re the black guy who goes to work every morning, takes your wife and son to church on Sunday, and, for some reason, follows NCAA wrestling.” Which described Oliver to a T. “Now, another black family moves in next door. Only they practice Santerîa. Worships several gods. Believes in casting spells and conducting animal sacrifices. Right there in the yard next to yours.” Out of the corner of his eye, Ron saw Oliver frown. “And let’s say your boy, Danny, comes up to you one Sunday and says, ‘Pop, I don’t feel like singing in the church choir anymore. I want to go over to the neighbor’s place and cut up a goat.’ What do you think is going to matter to you, the new neighbor’s color or his culture?”
“They’re both important.”
“Okay. But wouldn’t you rather have another hard-working, church-going college wrestling fan next door even if he were — oh, my God — white?”
Oliver grimaced, conceding silently that Ron had a point.
He would have offered a rebuttal, but the chief had just guided their police department Ford Explorer onto the Tightrope, a narrow two lane isthmus of blacktop in a sea of blue sky. To their left was a spectacular view of Lake Adeline. To their right was a staggering vista of mountain wilderness. Neither view was obstructed by a guardrail. For the next quarter mile, only a steady hand kept them on the road. The fall-off on each side was steep enough to launch a hang glider. Which more than a few loons did. Illegally.
The speed limit on the Tightrope was ten miles per hour. The deputy chief thought it should be cut in half — if people had to use the damn thing at all.
Ron looked over at Oliver with a grin. “I thought you had something more on your mind.”
“Keep your eyes on the road!” the deputy chief ordered. Oliver was tough-minded, fearless in most cases, but he was a devout flatlander who’d lived the majority of his life on the mostly level plane of the L.A. Basin. He’d moved to the mountains only because he’d needed the job Ron Ketchum had offered him, and he saw it as the stepping-stone to his own chief’s spot someday.
Ron gave his deputy chief a mock salute, and did as he was told.
“I haven’t run off this road yet, Oliver,” he said. “Haven’t asked you to drive it, either. But someday, most likely, you will have to make the trip on your own. Maybe at night. In the rain or snow. Maybe with a big truck in the oncoming lane. What are you going to do then?”
Ron completed the crossing, and Oliver heaved a sigh of relief as the comforting bulk of a mountainside loomed to his right. Ron grinned again.
Oliver gave him a look that had put many a wrestling opponent at an immediate disadvantage.
The two men might have pulled each other’s ass out of the fire once upon a time, but there were definitely times when each felt stuck with the other.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” the deputy chief said. “I’ll aim straight down the middle of that sucker, turn on my lights and siren, and everybody else better pull the hell over.”
The chief laughed. “Toss ’em over the side, huh?”
“Bet your ass.”
“Maybe I’ll just keep driving then.” Ron gave it a beat and then picked up the main thread of the conversation. “It’s your in-laws, isn’t it? Didn’t they just leave town?”
“Yeah, it’s them,” Oliver said glumly. “And, thank God, they’re gone.”
“Did Warren and Loretta finally do something unfortunate? Tip you for bringing them a drink or something.”
“You’re a funny man,” the deputy chief said dryly. “You ever retire from police work, you could do stand-up comedy.”
Neither rank nor race kept either man from speaking freely when they were alone. Protocol was strictly for public situations. You laid your life or your livelihood on the line for the other guy, that was how it went.
“Come on, Oliver. I know you’re not a cracker. Can it really be that bad having a white mother-in-law and father-in-law? They must have done a pretty terrific job raising Lauren, back there in Iowa, the way you love her.”
Lauren Fells Gosden was the deputy chief’s beautiful and adored black wife. She’d been abandoned as an infant by her fourteen-year-old birth mother and given a home by Warren and Loretta Fells, shortly before such adoptions had been labeled “cultural genocide” by black social workers.
“They’re fine people,” the deputy chief said of the Fells, “I know that. And I know what’d happen to me if I ever said one bad word about Lauren’s parents in front of her.” A small shudder passed through Oliver at the thought, and he fell silent. But his jaw muscles kept working. Finally, he said, “They told Daniel last night that skin color doesn’t matter. Warren sat my boy right up on his lap, looked him in the eye, and said skin color just does not matter. What counts is who you are inside.”
Ron started to speak, but Oliver cut him off. “And don’t go telling me he was only paraphrasing Dr. King.”
The chief shook his head. “I was just wondering if Danny maybe had asked his grandpa why the two of them are different colors. A six year old might think of something like that.”
The sharp look Oliver shot Ron told him he’d scored a bull’s-eye. Content that he understood the situation, the chief didn’t push it. Just kept his eyes on the road as the Explorer entered a series of descending S-curves.
Undaunted by this road feature, the deputy chief continued to speak his mind. “That’s not the only thing,” he said.
“What else?” Ron asked.
“Lauren came out with a new button.”
The deputy chief’s wife, a surgical nurse, liked to express herself in epigrams that she put onto buttons. She’d pin a given button to her blouse or her blue scrubs until she decided the message had been seen and digested by a large enough audience. It was a low-key method of preaching, a part of Lauren’s charm.
“What’s this one say?” Ron asked.
“It’s one of her cheerleader series.”
“It says: 2-4-6-8, I don’t want to hyphenate.”
“She doesn’t want to be a writer-director?” asked the former L.A. cop.
The deputy chief ignored the gibe. “She doesn’t want to be called an African-American. The bottom of the button says: Just call me an American.”
Ron thought about it for a moment and nodded.
“Ask her if she’s got one for me, will you?”
Oliver turned to Ron and said, “This is serious shi—”
The deputy chief suddenly had to throw his hands against the dashboard as Ron braked sharply. A rush of icy fear filled Oliver as he felt sure they were about to skid over a precipice and plunge to their deaths. When he looked up he saw death, all right. Not the prospect of his own, but still horrifying.
“Jesus Christ,” Ron Ketchum whispered.
“Got that right,” Oliver agreed.
There, just ahead of them, adjacent to the last curve in the road, was the body of a nearly naked black man. He was stretched out against the charred trunk of a lightning-struck tree, a big incense cedar. He’d been nailed to it.