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John Lescroart is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty previous novels, including A Plague of Secrets, Betrayal, The Suspect and The Hunt Club. His books have been printed in sixteen languages and published in more than seventy-five countries.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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The day he found the body, Mickey Dade woke up under a tree on Mount Tamalpais.
Sleeping outside a few nights a week had been going on as a regular thing with him for about four months now. He always kept a sleeping bag in his used Camaro's trunk anyway, and starting around mid-May, when the weather got nice everywhere but in San Francisco proper, he'd finish work and leave town in whatever direction struck his fancy.
Even in the urbanized, over-crowded Bay Area, there were innumerable places a guy could simply pull over, park, and crash on the ground under cover of trees or bushes or in the hollow of a sand dune in one of the city or county or even national parks, at the beaches, off back roads, even in the quiet "neighborhood watch" suburbs.
Monday the past week, while it was still light out he'd driven down to Woodside, an exclusive semi-rural enclave nestled into the foothills behind Palo Alto, and slept out under an old stone bridge over a dry creek bed. Two days later, he'd driven a couple of hundred feet down an unnamed, little-used dirt track cut into the woods behind Burlingame around Crystal Springs Reservoir. Last night, he'd gone north into Marin County, got halfway up Mount Tamalpais and pulled under an old low-hanging scrub oak in a forgotten and unpaved parking lot.
He always woke up at first light, so this morning he was on the Golden Gate Bridge by the time the sun cleared the hills behind Oakland. He had his iPod coming through his speakers. It was mid-September and, as usual this time of year, the coastal fog was taking a break. The morning clarity under the cloudless sky was startling. Mickey could easily make out the tiny dots of the Farallons twenty some miles away over the deceptively still Pacific.
He exited the bridge and soon found himself on Marina, cruising through the streets. The closely-set, well-maintained, beautiful low-rise homes stirred some vestigial gene he must have picked up somewhere. Just driving through a neighborhood of real honest-to-God stand-alone homes always filled him with something like contentment, although it wasn't quite that; it was more like hope that contentment and physical security was one of life's possibilities.
This was something Mickey didn't have much personal experience with. He couldn't remember ever living in anything but an apartment house, although, his parents had apparently rented a small bungalow in the Sunset before their divorce. His sister Tamara said she vaguely remembered that house. But she was two years older than he was. Mickey had been only two when his mom had taken them from their father and moved out.
But Mickey didn't get time to enjoy the Marina architecture this morning. A crowd was clogging the street up by the Palace of Fine Arts...; At this location, he thought somebody was probably shooting a movie—the Palace had been a setting in both Vertigo and The Rock, among a host of other films. People loved the old domed structure that had been constructed for the Panama-Pacific Exhibition back in 1915. With its classical columns and its reflecting lagoon, the spot conjured both urban elegance and a hint of mystery. So he pulled into the Yacht Club parking lot, where he knew you could always get a spot at this time of the morning.
When Mickey got out of his car, he was surprised that the noises carrying from down by the Palace seemed distinctly ominous and angry. Someone was giving harsh orders on a bullhorn. He heard a full-throated chorus of discontent—maybe actors and extras emoting, but he didn't think so.
Mostly, it sounded like a fight.
From the outskirts of the crowd, Mickey could make out at least three distinct groups, not including the vans from two of the local television stations.
The police, at least twenty of them, six of them mounted on horseback, held a line near the shoreline of the lagoon. The non-equestrian cops were turned out in "hats and bats" -- full assault gear, helmets with tinted facemasks, batons out. A larger homogeneous and clearly hostile group of maybe fifty citizens milled around on the sloping banks of the lagoon as if waiting for instructions to charge the police line. In front of them, a tall bearded guy in camo gear was right up in the face of the lead cop with the bullhorn. Finally, down by the water's edge, a smaller group of perhaps twenty people in the uniforms of the city's Parks and Recreation department huddled fearfully by a small fleet of rowboats laden with what looked like netting of some kind.
The camo guy started a chant, "Hell, no, don't let them go!" and in seconds the crowd was in full throat behind him, pressing forward toward the police line. The cops brought up their batons as the bullhorn exhorted the crowd to "Back away! Back away!"
"Hell, no, don't let them go!"
A white-haired man in a bathrobe and tennis shoes with his arms crossed and wearing a bemused expression stood on a lawn across the street. Mickey sidled up next to him. "What's going on?" he asked.
The man shook his head. "Idiots."
"All of ‘em."
"But what's it about?"
The man looked over, askance. "You don't know about the ducks? Where you been?"
"What about the ducks?"
"They're moving 'em, or trying to." He shook his head again. "Lunatics. Stupid idea, bad planning, insane timing. But what else do you expect nowadays, huh? You really don't know about this? Moving the ducks down to Foster City?"
"Ahh." So that's what this was. Mickey had read all about it over the past few months, but hadn't realized that it was coming to a head so soon. Now the whole story came back to him.
The city had approved a $22 million restoration for the Palace and its grounds, and part of that project included buttressing the remainder of the shoreline of the lagoon, most of which was already bounded by a low rock-and-concrete wall. But the rest of the shoreline, closest in toward the Palace itself, had become degraded over time—in the past year alone, a couple of kids had fallen in when the banks had collapsed under them. It wasn't so much dangerous as it opened the city to possible litigation issues, and so the supervisors had given the plan the green light, and put up $7.5 million to get the project started. The rest would, somehow, be funded by private benefactors. And lo, it had come to pass.
But to do any of this work, first the lagoon had to be drained.
Enter the ducks. And the San Francisco Palace Duck Coalition. And a former Berkeley tree sitter who, for the present campaign, had adopted the nom de guerre of Eric Canard. Mickey only now came to recognize the man in his camo gear. Usually he did photo ops in a full duck suit.
The Palace ducks, of course, along with its swans, herons, seagulls and other birds, called the lagoon home. And if the lagoon were drained, Canard had argued to the Board of Supervisors, they would become homeless. Temporarily, but truly. And in a city that prided itself on being a haven to the homeless, this was simply unacceptable.
So the supervisors, caving in -- to widespread derision in the media and on the street -- had set about finding a solution to the problem. In spite of the fact that San Francisco had several nice and completely serviceable ponds, those ponds had their own populations of ducks whose environments, Canard argued, would be compromised by the wholesale relocation of the Palace ducks to their own home waters. So, eventually, the decision was made to relocate the ducks to Foster City, a residential community with Venice-like canals, and few permanent resident ducks, twenty miles south down the Peninsula.
This would have been a workable though of course still wildly foolish idea except for one thing: six months before, Foster City had encountered its own problem with its indigenous ground squirrel population. These animals were burrowing in the city's levees and destroying them, threatening homes with the very real possibility of imminent flooding. In response to this crisis, Foster City had decided to poison the levee-dwelling critters en masse. This slaughter passed largely unnoticed in Foster City itself, but did not escape the keen eye of Eric Canard. And when San Francisco announced its intention to remove its Palace ducks to Foster City, Canard had gone ballistic.
Surely, if the ducks were sent to Foster City, the heartless bureaucrats there would not treasure and protect them. These people had shown their true colors around the plight of defenseless animals and would obviously treat the ducks as they had treated their own squirrels if given half a chance. And Canard was not going to let that happen.
So he'd sued. And lost.
And had threatened to sue again. Which gave the city a window in which to make its move.
Across the street, the chant was wearing down, but Mickey could still hear a strong voice—undoubtedly Canard—yelling now at the lead cop.
"So how'd this start today?" he asked. "I thought it was still in the courts."
"No. The brains down at City Hall decided they'd just go ahead and round up the birds. The whole thing is nuts. And it's all moot anyway. They started draining the lake a couple of days ago before they were ready for the ducks—in secret, I might add, and that's never a good idea—so word got out to Canard and his people that something was happening down here, and the whack jobs started gathering before sunrise this morning. Uh oh."
Off in the...
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