from Baseline Road

by Orlando Davidson

I worked as a homicide investigator for the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, “SBSD” to us, based at the small, relatively sleepy Alta Loma substation. On paper I had a partner, but he was long gone, unofficially transferred to the higher crime Fontana area, near the speedway, where more bad guys hung out.

We were a relaxed crew. I mostly wore jeans except on court days and nobody cared if my hair came down over my collar. If things got tricky on my Cucamonga, Etiwanda, and Alta Loma beat, I called the patrol guys to back me up. Laurie, our dispatcher/secretary, one of those California blondes the Beach Boys wrote songs about, ran the office and also made good coffee, which I was drinking this Monday morning while reading the sports page of the San Bernardino Sun.

“Call on line two, Jimmy,” Laurie yelled out at me. Our intercom system was busted, had been for quite a while. Yelling worked. I picked up.

“Is this the intrepid homicide detective?” a familiar female voice asked.

“You bet. Got any dead bodies?”

“Only the mayor, but he doesn’t know it yet, like that zombie movie.”

It was my best buddy, Carol Loomis, who worked for the tiny Claremont Police Department as its only detective. I’d called her earlier. “Actually, I have a question for you. You know the famous Claremont bombings—”

She laughed. “Do I know the bombings, only the biggest deal that ever hit this sleepy little burg?”

“Yeah, I know, but I had a weird conversation, if you can call it that, with a stoner type over the weekend, about the bomber, saying he’d only confessed to the first one. Does that ring any bells?”

Carol hesitated a moment before answering. “Kind of. Buy me lunch at La Paloma, and I’ll tell you more.”

I was ten minutes late. Carol already was seated and made a show of pointing at her watch as I approached, giving me the good-natured grief that was customary in our relationship. She often remarked that nobody remembered what she looked like on account of her regular and unremarkable features. She wore her brown hair short, cut just above the base of her neck. Her mouth and nose were small and surrounded by light freckles. She had a figure that was best described as trim as opposed to sexy, and she dressed to avoid unwanted attention.

Carol thought of herself as a plain Jane, but her flashing brown eyes always told me a different story. They sparkled when she was happy, broke your heart when she was sad, and were downright scary when she was mad. I knew all three emotional circumstances well. She also was the smartest person I knew.

We ordered and dug in. It was way too much food, as always at La Paloma, but I didn’t let that stop me. Tortilla chips, two chicken enchiladas, rice and beans, and iced tea for both of us. Our usual order, except Carol always asked for more hot sauce. Some people said we made a perfect couple since our features and demeanors seemed to match. Not exactly.

One night about three years earlier, after too much tequila and fast, sweaty dancing at a rock club in Upland, I’d put the moves on her in the parking lot. Following an unusually fierce rejection, then boozy tears, Carol let me in on her secret. She was attracted to women, always had been. Since she wasn’t sure how her superiors would react, Carol kept it to herself and, as far as I knew, didn’t have much of a love life. I often served as her date at official functions, and that worked out fine for both of us.

Small talk and gossip filled our lunch. Time to get to work. “Okay, what do you remember about the bomber, Richard Manning?” I asked.

Carol drank some more iced tea. “You recall how crazy it was back then? All the college kids marching and protesting, even burning down that bank in Santa Barbara. So, when that first bomb went off, the one at the college library, everybody just freaked out. The college presidents met at midnight, demanding action. Their assistants screamed at the mayor who of course then screamed at me. The normal chain of command.”

“Yeah, I remember. It was all hands on deck for us too.”
“It was a serious freakin’ pipe bomb,” Carol said, poking her finger at me. “That young woman, the secretary, just about lost her hand, plus her eardrums were ruptured. The entire storeroom at the library was torched.”

“Did you take the initial call?”

“For about half an hour, then your buddies from LASO, LA County, came rolling in, the arson guys, bomb guys, you name it. My job quickly shifted to coordination and communication which really meant bringing them coffee, and that was fine with me. I didn’t know squat about bombs.”

“What about the FBI? Did they show up?”

Carol shook her head and pushed her plate away. “Not then. I heard they were getting briefed by LASO. In fact, once things settled down and it was clear that the victim was basically okay, and the college kids stopped occupying buildings, it was almost business as usual. Then it happened, late May, a couple of weeks later.” She shuddered. “I’ve got no illusions, Jimmy, I’m a small-town cop, nothing more, and that second bomb scared the living crap out of me.”

I signaled for the bill, needing to be in San Bernardino at 2:30 p.m. for a meeting with an assistant DA. Carol didn’t notice. Her eyes were fixed on something I couldn’t see; she was reliving the scene.

“It was almost 5:00 p.m., just a regular day. I was thinking about taking my dog to the park after work when the call came in from a man. He was hysterical, screaming, ‘A bomb, a bomb, Jesus! They blew her up.’ I got to the graduate school in about five minutes and, wow.” Carol’s eyes welled up.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to open up old stuff.”

She ignored me. “The room was still smoking. I had to tell the fire department to wait. We needed to preserve the crime scene. The woman, the professor, well, she was just blown to bits, body parts, blood on the walls. Who could do shit like that?”

The waitress came with the check. I took it. “My treat.”

Carol nodded. “Okay, but I haven’t earned my lunch yet. This time the FBI was all over the case, senior people from the LA office, real arrogant pricks. They pushed everybody else away, never even talked to me, probably thought I was clerical if they thought anything. All the Los Angeles TV stations showed up too. Helicopters landed at the Pomona College quad. It was chaos.”

“What about LASO?”

“They were there, but second string to the FBI. It turned out that Ed Charles of the LA Sheriff’s Office had been investigating Richard Manning, this campus radical guy, for the first bombing. In fact, he’d gotten an anonymous tip that Manning was good for it.”

I’d worked with Ed Charles. He was solid. “But he hadn’t acted on it yet?”

“Nope. He told me later that he didn’t have enough evidence to even brace the guy. He was still talking to other radical types, trying to figure Manning out, putting a search warrant together, when the second bomb blew. Then he felt terrible and told the FBI about Manning. The Feds snapped their fingers, a judge gave them a search warrant, and they showed up in force at 3:00 a.m. at Manning’s cottage in the Claremont barrio and arrested him. I heard he was just sitting there, reading something by Che Guevara, like he was waiting for them.”

“Jeez. Did you know about the raid?”

“Not until later, when I read about it in the LA Times, which was embarrassing. Maybe the mayor knew. The FBI found all sorts of threats, manifestos about pigs, Vietnam atrocities, et cetera, et cetera. And then the big deal. There was bomb stuff in the garage, bags of fertilizer, blasting caps, diesel fuel, and timers, plus bomb instructions. The Feds had Manning cold. In fact, there even was some kind of half-crazed letter, unsent of course, to the library victim, part apology, part political rant about the revolution.”

“Some of that showed up later in his statement,” I said, “civilian casualties and such.”

“Yeah, what a jerk. That’s pretty much it. You know the rest, except, apropos to your question, the evidence on the second bombing was thinner, more circumstantial. And the case never really got worked in any normal way. They’d arrested their man, decided he’d set both bombs, and J. Edgar Hoover was happy as hell. That was it.”

I frowned. “Same kind of bomb though?”

“Yeah, that’s what the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, really hammered on that point, saying the bomb experts told them the bombs were identical.” Carol shrugged. “We’ll know more if there’s ever a trial. They’re fighting over him, you know, the State and the Feds, each claiming jurisdiction. Hoover and Governor Reagan both want the credit for nabbing the radical bomber. Isn’t there some kind of law against just sticking a guy in a cell without a trial?”

“I guess not for him.”

I paid and we moved from the restaurant’s fake Mexican gunfighter décor into the bright white glare of Foothill Boulevard. It always was kind of a shock, the brightness of Southern California, especially as it reflected on all the concrete. I put on my shades, a necessity even in January, and we walked to Carol’s shiny cherry-red Chevy Bel Air, her pride and joy.

“When are you going to pop for new wheels?” I asked, trying to tease her away from the bombing and into a better mood.

She mock-shoved my arm. “Hell, this baby is on its way to being a classic.”

“Let’s go to the Fontana drag strip someday. My Charger can take this antique.”
“In your dreams, pal.” She grinned at me, got in the Chevy, gunned the engine, and then peeled rubber out of the parking lot, taking a wild left turn onto Foothill. Illegal as hell. Lucky she was the law.

I reached Ed Charles at home a week later, surprised as hell to find out that he’d retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He didn’t remember who I was at first and almost hung up the phone before his memory clicked in. “Oh yeah, you’re that kid sheriff fiddle player.”

It sounded sarcastic, but I let it pass. I needed information from him. He agreed to meet me on my turf at Bodene’s, a barebones beer bar on East Foothill between Claremont and Upland. SBSO operated in the no-man’s-land between the incorporated towns. On occasion, I’d had to bust rowdy bikers in this bar for various offenses against the public order, but things were quiet this afternoon.

Ed arrived first. By the time I arrived, there was an empty glass in front of him. Since I’d last seen him, muscle had turned to fat on his frame. His once eagle-sharp blue eyes were cloudy. Now he looked washed out and smelled like the bottom of an ashtray. He cheered up when I bought a pitcher of Miller High Life.

“How’s retirement, man?” I asked, pouring him another glass.

He pulled a sour half smile. “I got a trailer in Rialto, a color TV, cold vodka in the fridge, and a friendly lady next door. What more does a man need?”

It sounded rehearsed. “Don’t you miss the job?”

“Only when I’m sober, kid.”

Just then Mike, the owner, walked by our table. He clapped Ed on the shoulder. “How ya doing, man?”

“Bring me another pitcher, Mike, and I’ll tell you.”

I don’t usually drink on duty but make exceptions for circumstances of investigative necessity, like now. A vagrant thought hit me. Was I working? Reports needing attention were piling up on my desk. What did an old bombing in Claremont have to do with me? I must be bored. Mike came back with the pitcher and some salted peanuts, barely looking at me, since ordinarily my presence was bad for business. I threw a ten-dollar bill on the table to ease his pain.

Ed inhaled another beer, paused, burped, and headed toward the bathroom, leaving behind the two cigarettes he had going. I chugged one glass to keep up.

“Is he here often?” I asked Mike, who was fiddling with an ashtray. Our table was tucked toward the back of the bar. A Rolling Stones song pulsated through the speakers, the live version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
“No more than my other regulars. You still playing music?”

“Yeah, when we get the gigs. Things are a little slow.” Mike had never hired us. I’d heard there was some history with our lead guitar player and his wife.

Ed rejoined us. “Hey, Mike, bring me one of those pickled eggs?”

“The girl will bring it to you. Take care, guys.” Mike moved toward the bar where a group of off-duty county ambulance drivers were waiting for their beer.

Ed attacked the second pitcher. “You said you wanted to know about the bombings. Not much to say. The Feds got the asshole that set them off.”

Now came the awkward part. “I heard you were tracking the guy,” I said.

He glared at me. “I figured that was your angle. You ever been one hundred percent right and dead fucking wrong at the same time? Well, that was me. Playing it by the book, keeping our DA’s office in the loop, building my case against Manning on the attempted murder charge, and then BOOM.” He slammed his beer glass down, breaking it. “He kills her.”

It got quiet. The barmaid, no eye contact, brought over a broom and a dustpan, swept up the glass, and then gave Ed another one along with the pickled egg. Mike was shooting the shit with the guys at the bar, his dark eyes now watching us with that special look reserved for trouble. “It was bad luck, Ed,” I said. Pretty lame, but the best I could do.

Ed stopped to wipe blood from his cut finger on his jeans. “I know what you see when you look at me, kid. A failure.” I started to protest that statement but he ignored me. “And the funny thing, not so funny really, is that it’s true. Sometimes I dream it. Sometimes I’m awake. I’m at the graduate school. I’m looking at the body, what’s left of it. The smell of cooked flesh. I dropped the ball. She’s dead. So as soon as I qualified, I pulled my pension.”

“Did you, try to see somebody, get some help?” I asked.

He pounded down another beer. “You mean a shrink. I don’t do that shit.”

Orlando Davidson graduated from Claremont Men’s (now McKenna) College and UCLA School of Law in the 1970s. After a thirty-five-year professional career in Hawaii working as an attorney, planner, lobbyist, and public official, he relocated to Western North Carolina and began to learn the craft of fiction writing. Baseline Road is his first novel and was shaped by his experiences during the Kent State protest days. It will be published by Artemesia Publishing in January 2023. He now resides in Portland, Oregon.