The Wild Card

A Novel

Mark Joseph

St. Martin's Press

The Wild Card
Four miles below Marysville and Yuba City, twin Sacramento Valley towns that face one another across the Feather River, the stream swings gracefully around Shanghai Bend, a broad, sweeping curve whose mineral deposits have attracted miners since the Gold Rush. At the mouth of the bend an unnatural cataract of strange, pitted rocks forms a cascade of shallow waterfalls that drops the river eight feet in a hundred yards. Created by powerful dredges and pumps during the heyday of hydraulic mining in the early twentieth century, the falls at Shanghai Bend prohibit the passage of any craft. The current is swift, the bottom slick and treacherous, and kayakers and canoeists portage their boats around the falls just as miners carried their boats around churning machinery in 1903.
Subject to floods like all rivers in the valley, the Feather has been plugged by dams, constricted by levees and drained for agriculture, yet none of these attempts to tinker with nature has prevented the river from overflowing its banks with alarming regularity. The river is particularly inclined to flood at Shanghai Bend, and every few years the Feather deposits tons of mud and squirming steelhead into the living rooms of a subdivision called Shanghai Bend Meadows.
In 1995 the valley was booming, jobs were being created overnight, and savvy developers promoted nonstop construction of new housing. Thus one morning in late May a backhoe operator began digging a trench between Shanghai Bend Meadows and the east levee. Every year the Feather altered its course, washing out old levees and creating new islands while reducing others to sandbars. The operator was digging in a spot that once had been an island but now was destined to become the backyard of a new house.
In May temperatures in the valley can soar into the nineties, andthe operator liked to work fast before the day became unbearably hot. By ten o'clock, the trench was twenty feet long, three feet wide, and four feet deep when she uncovered a human skeleton.
The outline of a rib cage was visible, and two ribs had been smashed by the action of the steel backhoe. Having worked along the river for many years, the operator knew the riverbed was a treasure-trove of archeology. Neither shocked nor horrified, her first thought was that she'd uncovered a Native American burial site, common in the region. That ticked her off because archeologists would be called in, construction delayed, and her paycheck would shrink while the site was excavated. She sat for ten minutes under her hardhat, smoking a cigarette, trying to talk herself into making the bones disappear. Two or three swipes with the backhoe and the lot of reddish-brown calcium would be over the levee and into the river. But the operator was an honest sort, and after thinking it through she decided to do the right thing. She called the foreman who called the developer who called the sheriff who came straight away, took one quick look and called the Yuba County medical examiner.
When the medical examiner arrived, the operator, sheriff, three deputies, and a half dozen construction workers were standing around, looking into the hole as though some great truth were to be discovered there. To the medical examiner, a skilled pathologist, truth was a matter of common sense and forensic science. He jumped into the hole with a small case of tools and a camera, snapped a photo, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and knelt over the protruding bones with a whisk broom. While carefully brushing dirt from the rib cage, he addressed his attentive audience.
"This could be an Indian site," he said laconically, pausing to take more pictures. "Or perhaps a miner who died during the Gold Rush. On the other hand, this might be a godforsaken Okie who came to California to escape the Dust Bowl in Nineteen and Thirty-six and died in the promised land."
Removing soil adjacent to the ribs, he uncovered a fractured cranium and mandible. He photographed the skull, moving in close to capture the small but obvious indentation just above the right temple.Then he exchanged the whisk broom for a smaller brush and delicately removed chunks of clay from the jawbone.
"But it isn't," he declared.
"What makes you say that?" the sheriff asked.
"Silver fillings. Relatively modern dental work."
"We have a long way to go, Sheriff, but the skull is cracked."
"Male? Female?"
"Don't know yet, but we will. I'm guessing female."
"How long has this body been in the ground?"
"Don't know that either, but more than fifteen years and less than fifty. That's an educated guess. An artifact would help--clothing, a button, a zipper."
By now it was midday and getting hotter. Sweating, the medical examiner made exploratory stabs with a small spade around the bones and after ten minutes uncovered the only piece of evidence that would ever be found at the site: a single, plastic-coated Bicycle brand playing card, the queen of hearts.
THE WILD CARD. Copyright © 2001 by Mark Joseph. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.