Book 15 in the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus series, 2003
Because the murder hadbeen kept “secret” for so long, it had taken on mythological proportions. Yet here was the proof, the tangible evidence that it really had happened. In the dead of night, in the privacy of her own home, Rina gingerly slit open the manila envelope postmarked from Munich and, with shaking hands, pulled out the papers within, photocopies of documents dated from the late 1920s. Mama had always said she was ten when it happened, but now it appeared that she’d been even younger. The faded writing would be almost indecipherable even if it had been in English. It was going to take more than her knowledge of Yiddish to make out the text.
The envelope had arrived in the late-afternoon mail. This was her first opportunity to view the pages without the kids or Peter as distractions.
She hadn’t told him. It had happened so spontaneously, during one of Rina’s solo strolls through the Bavarian capital, getting some air while he had been sleeping off jet lag. She had taken the walk to shake off that niggling restlessness plaguing her since the plane had touched down on German soil.
To think that she had chosen Munich for leisure. Then again, she’d had only one week to plan something, so her options had been limited. Mainly, she had given in to laziness. She had been so tired after New York ’s ordeal that she was more than willing to leave it up to a third party. And it wasn’t as if she and Peter had any choice. Peter was on the verge of total shutdown. Theyneededto get away.
Things were better now-or so she told herself-but were still far from normal. Rina had been privy only to the superficial facts, to what Peter had told his superiors and the press about the murders and his being shot. But there was much more lurking in his gray matter. Incidents that he didn’t choose to share with her, though thankfully, he had done some talking to his cop brother, Randy.
God bless Randy. He had demanded that they go, and go alone, assuring them that he’d watch over Hannah so that Peter’s parents wouldn’t have to shoulder the entire burden alone. It had been desperation that led them to Europe, to a week in Munich with everything set up by Rina’s friend Ellen Nussburger.
I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing to this,Rina had told her.
You won’t be sorry,Ellie had responded.It won’t be anything like you think.
But it had been like she’d thought, her gut constricting as soon as she’d heard German as a living language. She had purposely declined going to Dachau. What Peter didn’t need was more destruction in his life, or in her life-come to think about it. But there remained a certain heaviness throughout the week, because it was impossible to walk the cobblestones of Kaufingerstrasse in the Marienplatz without thinking about all the Jewish blood that had been spilled on German soil. Every time they passed the Hofbrauhaus beer hall, it was as if ghosts were belting out the “Horst Wessel Song.”
The saving grace was Ellie’s work. Here was a woman who was trying to build up a religious Jewish community, not toss it into the furnace. The fact that Ellie and her husband, Larry, chose Germany was a testament to their nonconformity, but that was Ellie to a T. Rina remembered their years together in school, in kindergarten when both of them had been five years old and it had been Purim. All the other girls had dressed up as Queen Esther or some other unnamed princess. There were also a few ballerinas, several clowns, and a couple of butterflies. Ellie had come to school wearing a homemade costume that wasn’t much more than a sack. It was designed in sandwich-board style with two sides. The front was imprinted with a blue sky and white fluffy clouds with a big felt sun stuck in the center. The back fabric was black and glitter-studded with a crescent moon in the corner.
What are you?Amy Swartzberg had demanded to know of Ellie.
Ellie had retorted in her most adult voice:I amBereshit-the creation of the sun and the moon. It’s aconceptualcostume!
Rina had no idea what conceptual meant, but by the way Ellie had stated the word, conceptual had to be pretty darn important.
From the moment they had arrived overseas, Ellie greeted them with such warmth that soon Rina’s misgiving melted and it was old times again. Ellie’s enthusiasm was infectious.
This is Hitler’s worst nightmare, Rina, a resurgence of Jewish life where the Nazi party was born.
Not a particularlybigresurgence, Rina thought, but everything had to start somewhere. Munich had several synagogues, a small kosher shop owned by a Moroccan French Jew in the main Viktualienmarkt, a kosher bakery in Schwabing, and a kosher restaurant in the old Isarvorstadt area. The Bavarians were a particularly unique lot. When they thought she and Peter were Americans of possible German descent because of their surname Decker, they were outgoing and friendly, boastful and proud. But the minute she spoke to them in Yiddish, a clear indication that she was Jewish, most probably with relatives from “that other period,” they’d remain polite but the conversation turned stilted, their words carefully chosen.
Still, it had been a different adventure, more soul-searching if not rip-roaring fun. And there had been some breathtaking scenery, the two of them exploring the countryside and the foothills of the Alps, holding hands and sipping tea from a thermos while hiking through the wet foliage, with spring just around the corner. The rushing streams and the incredible vistas seemed to be a balm to Peter’s troubled mind.
And yet the more relaxed he became, the more she tensed internally. Germany was not only the land of her national destruction, but was also the soil of a personal catastrophe-an unexcised cancer on her mother’s soul. What mystical forces had led her into that police station some two months ago, asking the Munich desk sergeant where could she find information about a seventy-five-year-old crime? At the time, all Rina had wanted to do was provide her aged mother with some peace of mind. Now she wondered if she wasn’t stepping into a hornet’s nest.
There was no reason to pursue what had become a cruel distant memory in an old woman’s mind. But as she scanned the pages of the crime report, reading her grandmother’s name Regina-Rina’s English name-followed by the word “totschlag”-homicide-she knew with surety that she had to see this through.
Isaw him franticallywaving the white flag, a man admitting defeat. As I pulled the cruiser into one of the alley’s parking spaces, blocking a silver Mercedes S500, I realized that the banner was, in fact, a napkin. He wore a solid wall of white, the hem of a long, stained apron brushing his white jeans midshin. Though it was night, I could see a face covered with moisture. Not a surprise because the air was a chilly mist: typical May-gloom weather in L.A. I radioed my whereabouts to the dispatcher and got out, my right hand on my baton, the other swinging freely at my side. The alley stank of garbage, the odor emanating from the trash bins behind the restaurant. The flies, normally shy in the dark, were having a field day.
The rear area of The Tango was illuminated by a strong yellow spotlight above the back door. The man in white was short, five-seven at the most, with a rough, tawny complexion, a black mustache, and hands flapping randomly. He was agitated, talking bullet-speed Spanish. I picked up a few words, but didn’t ask him to stop and translate, because I heard the noise myself-the high-pitched wails of a baby.
“Where?” I yelled over his words.“Dónde?”
“Aquí, aquí!”He was pointing to an army-green Dumpster filled to the brim with blue plastic refuse bags.
“Call 911.” I ran to the site and pulled out several bags, tearing one open and exposing myself to a slop of wilted salad greens, mushy vegetables, and golf balls of gray meat and congealed fat. As I sifted through the trash, my clean, pressed uniform and I became performance art, the deep blue cloth soaking up the oils and stains of previously pricey edibles. “I need help!Necesito ayuda! Ahorita.”
“Sí, sí!”He dashed back inside.
The crying was getting louder and that was good, but there was still no sign of the wail’s origin. My heart was slamming against my chest as I sorted through the top layer of bags. The bin was deep. I needed to jump inside to remove all the bags, but I didn’t want to step on anything until I had checked it out. Three men came running out of the back door.
“Escalera!”-a ladder-I barked.“Yo necisito una escalera.”
One went back inside, the other two began pulling out bags.
“Careful, careful!” I screamed. “I don’t know where it is!” I used the word “it” because it could have been a thrown-away kitten. When agitated, felines sound like babies. But all of us knew it wasn’t a cat.
Finally, the ladder appeared and I scurried up the steps, gingerly removing enough bags until I could see the bottom, a disc of dirty metal under the beam of my flashlight. I went over legs first and, holding the rim with my hands, lowered myself to the bottom. I picked a bag at random, checked inside, then hoisted it over the top when I satisfied myself that it didn’t contain the source of the noise.
Slow, Cindy,I told myself.Don’t want to mess this up.
With each bag removed, I could hear myself getting closer to the sound’s origin. Someone had taken the time to bury it. Fury welled inside me, but I held it at bay to do a job. At the bottom layer, I hit pay dirt-a newborn girl with the cord still attached to her navel, her face and body filthy, her eyes scrunched up, her cries strong and tearless. I yelled out for something to wrap her in, and they handed me a fresh, starched tablecloth. I wiped down the body, cleaned out the mouth and nose as best as I could, and bundled her up-umbilicus and all. I held her up so someone could take her from me. Then I hoisted myself up and out.
The man who had flagged me down offered me a wet towel. I wiped down my hands and face. I asked him his name.
“Good job, Señor Delacruz!” I smiled at him.“Buen trabajo.”
The man’s eyes were wet.
Moments later, the bundle was passed back to me. I felt grubby holding her, but obviously since I was the onlywomanin the crowd, I was supposed to know aboutthesekinds of things.
Actually, I did know a thing or two about infants, having a half sister eighteen years my junior. Her mother, Rina-my stepmother-had become very ill after childbirth and guess who stepped up to the plate when my father was in a near state of collapse? (Who could have blamed him? Rina almost died.)
The positive side was the sisterly bonding, at least on my part. Hannah Rosie Decker was my only blood sibling, and they didn’t come any cuter or better than she. I adored her. Matter of fact, I liked my father’s family very much. Rina’s sons were great kids and I loved them and respected them as much as anyone could love and respect step-relatives. Rina took wonderful care of my father, a feat worth noting because Dad was not the easiest person to get along with. I knew this from firsthand experience.
“Did anyone call 911?”
“Yo hable.”Delacruz handed me another clean rag to wipe my dirty face.
“Thank you,señor.” I had put a clean napkin over my shoulder and was rocking the baby against my chest. “If you can, get some warm sugar water and dunk a clean napkin into it. Then bring it to me.”
The man was off in a flash. The baby’s cries had quieted to soft sobs. I suddenly noticed that my own cheeks were warm and wet, thrilled that this incident had resolved positively. Delacruz was back with the sugar water-soaked napkin. I took it and put the tip of a corner into her mouth. Immediately, she sucked greedily. In the distance I heard a wail of sirens.
“We’ve got to get you to the hospital, little one. You’re one heck of a strong pup, aren’t you?”
I smelled as overripe as rotten fruit. I placed the infant back into Delacruz’s arms. “Por favor,give her to the ambulance people. I need to wash my hands.”
He took the bundle and began to walk with her. It was one of those Kodak moments, this macho man cooing in Spanish to this tiny, displaced infant. The job had its heartbreak, but it also had its rewards.
After rotating my shoulders to release the tension, I went through the back door of The Tango and asked one of the dishwashers where I could clean up. I heard a gasp and turned around. A man wearing a toque was shooing me away with dismissive hands. “Zis is a food establishment! You cannot come in here like zat!”
“Someone dumped a baby in the trash outside.” My stare was fierce and piercing. “I just rescued her by opening up fifteen bags of garbage. I need towashmy hands!”
Toque was confused. “Here? Abébé?”
“Yes, sir! Here! Abébé!” I spotted a cloud of suds that had filled up a sink. Wordlessly, I walked over and plunged my hands inside very warm water. What the heck! All the china went into a dishwasher anyway, right? After ridding my hands of the grime, I ran the cold water full blast and washed my face. One of the kitchen workers was nice enough to offer me a clean towel. I dried myself off and looked up.
The ambulance had arrived, red strobe lights pulsing through the windows. I pointed to Mr. Toque and gave him my steely-eyed look. “Like heartburn, I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere.”
The EMTs had already cut the cord and were cleaning her up. I regarded the medics as they did their job. A sturdy black woman was holding the baby in her arms while a thin white kid with a consumptive complexion was carefully wiping down the infant’s face. Both were gloved.
“How’s she doing?” I asked.
They looked up. The thin kid smiled when he saw me. “Whew, you musta been hungry.”
The kid’s name tag said B. HANOVER. I gave him a hard stare and he recoiled. “Jeez. Just trying out a little levity, Officer. It breaks the tension.”
“How’s she doing?” I repeated.
The woman answered. Her name was Y. Crumack. “Fine, so far… a success story.”
“That’s always nice.”
The infant’s placenta had been bagged and was resting on the ground a couple of feet away. It would be taken to a pathology lab, the tissue examined for disease and genetic material that might identify her. For no good reason, I picked up the bag.
Crumack said, “We’ll need that. It has to be biopsied.”
“Yeah, I know. Where are you taking her?”
“Mid-City Pediatric Hospital.”
“The one on Vermont,” I said.
“Only one I know,” Hanover said. “Any ideas about the mom?”
“Not a clue.”
“You should find her,” Hanover informed me. “It would help everyone out.”
“Wow, I hadn’t thought about that,” I snapped. “Thanks for sharing.”
“No need to get testy,” Hanover sneered.
Crumack opened the back door, strapping the baby in an infant seat. The wailing had returned. I assumed that to be a positive sign. I gave her the bagged placenta and she placed it in the ambulance.
“She sounds hungry,” I said.
“Starved,” Crumack answered. “Her abdomen is empty.”
“Her head looks… I don’t know… elongated, maybe? What’s that all about?”
“Probably from being pushed out of the birth canal. Main thing is, it isn’t crushed. She was real lucky, considering all the things that could have gone wrong. She could’ve swallowed something and choked; she could’ve suffocated; she could’ve been crushed. This is an A-one outcome.” She patted my shoulder. “And you’re part of it.”
I felt my eyes water. “Hey, don’t look at me, thank Señor Delacruz,” I told her. “He’s got good ears.”
The man knew enough English to recognize a compliment. His smile was broad.
“Any idea how many hours she’s been alive?” I asked the techs.
Hanover said, “Her body temperature hasn’t dropped that much. Of course, she was insulated in all that garbage. I’d say a fairly recent dump.”
“So what are we talking about?” I asked. “Two hours? Four hours?”
“Maybe,” Crumack said. “Six hours, max.”
I checked my watch. It was ten-thirty. “So she was dumped around four or five in the afternoon?”
“Sounds about right.” Crumack turned to his partner. “Let’s go.”
I called out, “Mid-City Pediatric!”
Hanover reconfirmed it, slid behind the wheel, and shut the door, moving on out with sirens blaring and lights blazing. My arms felt incredibly empty. Although I rarely thought about my biological clock-I was only twenty-eight-I was suddenly pricked by maternal pangs. It felt good to give comfort. Long ago, that was my primary reason for becoming a cop.
The clincher was my father, of course.
He had discouraged me from entering the profession. Being the ridiculously stubborn daughter I was, his caveats had the opposite effect. There were taut moments between us, but most of that had been resolved. I truly loved being a cop and not because I had unresolved Freudian needs. Still, if I had been sired by a “psychologist dad” instead of a “lieutenant dad,” I probably would have become a therapist.
I unhooked my radio from my belt and called the dispatcher, requesting a detective to the scene.
When was the trashlast emptied?… Before Mr. Delacruz?”
I was addressing Andre Racine, the sous-chef at The Tango. He was taller than I by about three inches, making him around five-eleven, with broad shoulders and the beginnings of a beer belly hanging over the crossed strings of his apron. His toque was slightly askew, looking like a vanilla soufflé. We were talking right near the back door so I could keep an eye on what was going on outside.
“Ze trash is emptied at night. Sometimes eet is two days, not longer.”
“The back door was open at the time. You didn’t hear anyone crying or rummaging around back here?”
The man shook his head. “Eet is a racket in a keetchen with all zee equipment and appliances running. Eet is good if I can hear myself think!”
I had spoken to several other kitchen employees and they had said the same thing. I could confirm the noise myself. There were the usual rumbles and beeps of the appliances, plus one of the guys had turned on a boom box to a Spanish station specializing in salsa music. To add to the cacophony, the restaurant featured a live band-a jazz combo that included electric guitar, bass, piano, and drums. The din would have driven me crazy, but I supposed that these men felt lucky to have steady jobs in this climate.
Though the back door was open, the screen door was closed to prevent infestations of rodents or pesky, winged critters. It was hard to see through the mesh. Nothing seemed suspicious to my eyes, no one was giving off bad vibes. Quite the contrary: All these good people had come out to help. They were exhausted by the incident and so was I. Looking up from my notepad, I thanked the stunned chef, then walked outside to catch my breath and organize my notes. My watch was almost up and a gold shield was on the way to take over the investigation. I began to write the names of my interviewees in alphabetical order. After each name, I listed the person’s position and telephone number. I wanted to present the primary detective with something organized… something that would impress.
A few minutes later, a cruiser pulled up and parked in the alley, perpendicular to the spaces behind The Tango, blocking all the cars including mine. Greg Van Horn got out, his gait a bowlegged strut that buckled under the weight of his girth. He wasn’t fat, just a solid hunk of meat. Greg was in his early sixties, passing time until retirement. He’d been married twice, divorced twice. Rumor still had him as a pussy hound, and a bitter one at that. But he was nice enough to me. I think he had worked with my father way back when, and there had been some mutual admiration.
Greg was of medium height, with a thick top of coarse gray hair. His face was round with fleshy features including a drinker’s nose. His blue suit was boxy on him. Anything he wore would have been boxy. I gave him a thirty-second recap, then showed him my notepad. I pointed out Martino Delacruz. “He lives on Western. He’s worked at The Tango for six years.”
“Green card?” Van Horn asked.
“Yes, he has one. After things calmed down, he showed it to me without my asking.” I paused. “Not that it’s relevant. It’s not as if he’s going to trial as a witness or anything.”
“Never can tell, Decker.” He moved a sausage-size finger across the bridge of his nose. Not wiping it, more like scratching an itch inside his flaring nostrils.
“He went outside to take out the trash and heard the baby crying,” I continued. “He was going to call for help, but then he spotted my cruiser. You want me to bring him over to you, sir?”
Van Horn’s eyes swept over my face, then walked downward, stopping short of my chest. His eyes narrowed. “I think you need to change your uniform.”
“I know that. I’m going off duty in twenty minutes, unless you need me to stick around.”
“I might need another pair of hands. Sooner we find the mother, the better.”
I gave a quick glance over my shoulder. “Not much here in the way of a residential area.”
“Not on Hollywood, no. But if you go south, between Hollywood and Sunset, there are lots of houses and apartments.”
“Do you want me to go door-to-door now, sir?”
A glance at his watch. “It’ll take time. Is that a problem for you, Decker?”
“No, not at all, Detective. Where would you like me to start?”
Van Horn’s nose wrinkled. “You really need to put on something clean, Decker.”
“Want me to go change and then come back?” I spoke without rancor. Being polite meant being cautious. As far as I was concerned, the less my personality stood out, the happier I was.
“I take it you have no plans tonight, Decker?”
“Just a hot date with my shower.”
He smiled, then took another peek at his watch. “It’s late… probably too late to canvass thoroughly.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow and help you search if you want.”
“I doubt if your sergeant will want to pull you out of circulation just for that.”
“I’ll do it in the morning, on my own time.”
“And knowing my stock, that surprises you?”
A grin this time. “You’re gonna do just fine, Decker.”
High praise coming from Greg.
“While I talk to the people on your list, you cordon off the area and look around for anything that might give us a clue as to who the mother is. I suppose at this late hour, our best bet could be a request for public help on the eleven o’clock news.”
A news van pulled up just as the words left his mouth. “You’re prescient, Detective. Here’s your chance.”
“ABC, eh?” A flicker of hesitancy shot through his eyes. “Is that the one with the anchorwoman who has the white streak in her black hair, like a skunk?”
“I don’t know… There’s NBC. The others can’t be far behind.” I patted his shoulder. “It’s show time.”
“How’s your Q, Decker?”
“Me?” I pointed to my chest. “You’ve got the gold shield, Greg.”
“But you found the baby.”
“Yeah, but I stink and you’re in a suit.” I waved him off. “I’ll go yellow-tape the area and look around.”
“You sure?” But he was already straightening his tie and smoothing his hair. “Yeah, tape off the area. Don’t sweat it too much, Decker. I can pretty much take it from here. And hey, I’ll take you up on your offer… to canvass the area tomorrow.”
“That’ll work for me.”
“Good. We’ll coordinate in a moment. Just let me get these clowns off my back.”
“Show ’em what a real detective looks like, huh?”
“You tell ’em, Greg.”
Van Horn made tracks toward a grouping of handheld Minicams, lurching like a cowboy ready for the showdown.
In Hollywood, everybody’s a star.
A half block from the restaurant was a pool of something that didn’t smell like water and shone ruby red under the beam of the flashlight. There were also intermittent drips from the puddle to the Dumpster behind The Tango. Because of the location, I thought of a homeless woman or a runaway teen, someone scared and unstable. She would have to be on the skids, pushing out a baby in a back alley, all alone amid a host of bugs and rats.
The blood of childbirth-if we were lucky.
If the mother was someone local, it would narrow the search. Maybe knocking on doors wouldn’t be the answer. Maybe my best bet would be to hunt down the throwaways, to crawl through the underbelly of Hollywood, a city that offered so much but rarely made good on its promises.
I showed the spot to Greg Van Horn after he did his dog-and-pony show for the nightly news. He regarded the blood while scratching his abundant nose.
“Homicide?” I asked him.
“Can’t be ruled out.” His jaws were bulging as if chewing on something hard. “My instincts tell me no. The configuration doesn’t look like a murder.”
“The concentration of blood in one spot as well as the absence of spatter.”
Van Horn nodded. “Yeah, exactly.”
“I was thinking about someone homeless. Who else would squat in a back alley?”
“I’ll buy that.” Eyes still on the pond of blood, he took out his cellular phone. “Time to call in the techs.”
“Want me to walk around the area, sir? See if I can find some street people?”
“Did you finish roping the area?”
“Sure. Go pretend you’re a gold shield, Decker.”
Low blow, Greg.I said with a smile, “Just testing out my mettle.”
“I thought you already passed that test.”
This time the smile was genuine. “That was nice. Thank you.”
“Get out of here.”
I skipped over the yellow tape, walking about a hundred yards north through the alley and onto Hollywood Boulevard. The sidewalks weren’t paved with gold, but they were filled with lots of black-stoned stars set into red granite. Each star represented a different icon of the entertainment media-TV, film, radio, or the recording industry. The good news was that recent gentrification and climbing real estate prices had preserved some of the older architecture and had cleaned up lots of the seedier aspects of the area.
The western part of the boulevard was breaking through, probably like Times Square had done a dozen or so years ago. The city planners were smart enough to face-lift its known quantities, like the famous movie houses-Mann’s Chinese Theatre, Egyptian, and El Capitan-as well as the sideshow carnival attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Hollywood Wax Museum. In addition, the renovated sector now boasted several eye-catching shopping galleries and a spanking-new gold-and-black-granite live theater built by Kodak. These landmarks drew lots of tourists, those hoping to be touched by magic or, at the very least, bask in its afterglow.
It was the night that brought out the predators, individuals who thrived on marginal life. The eastern portion of Hollywood was the domain of tattoo parlors and bail bondsmen, of cheap retail shops, several no-tell motels and fast-food joints.
The Tango sat on the border between the bright lights of old glamour and the slums of decay. As economic revival crept eastward, some of the neon spilled over, but not nearly enough to illuminate the hidden cracks and crevices. I didn’t have to walk too far before I found someone. She sat on the sidewalk, her back against the painted glass window advertising 50 percent off bargain-basement clothing. Her knees were pressed against her chest, and a thin blanket was thrown over her body and tucked under her chin. Her age was indeterminate-anywhere from twenty to fifty. Her hair was matted and dirty, her complexion so pancaked with grime that it could have held membership to any race. Black pupils peered out through vacant red-rimmed orbs, her mouth a slash mark with skin stretched tightly over a bony framework. By her side were a coin cup, several paper bags, and a tattered backpack.
I dropped a dollar in the cup. She nodded but didn’t make eye contact. I sat beside her and she stiffened. She stank of sweat and misery, but right now I didn’t smell too wonderful myself.
“What happened to you?” she pronounced in a raspy voice.
I raised my eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Your clothes need a cleanin’, Officer.”
“Oh… that. I went rooting through the garbage tonight.”
“Then we’s got somethin’ in common.”
I smiled. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
She looked down at her covered knees. “You’re Officer Cindy.”
I let out a laugh. “Beg your pardon. The mistake is mine.”
“It was raining. You gave me a ride… Brang me to a shelter.”
I squinted, taking in her face.“Alice Anne?”
A hint of a smile appeared on her lips.
I made a face. “You promised me you’d stop hitting the sauce.”
“I kept my promise.”
“For how long? Twenty-four hours?”
“A little longer.”
“Tsk, tsk, girl.”
This time, she took in my face. “What happened to you?”
“Funny you should ask. I found a baby at the bottom of a Dumpster.”
“Ugh!” Alice Anne exclaimed. “That be terrible! Is it okay?”
“The baby is fine.”
“Hard enough bein’ an a-dult out here.” She spat. “Ain’t no place for a baby.”
“Any ideas, Alice Anne?”
“Me?” She sounded surprised. “It ain’t mine, sister.”
“I’m not pointing a finger. But do you have any clue who itmightbelong to?”
She was quiet.
“Come on, Alice Anne. We need to find her.”
“Don’t know nothin’.”
Maybe yes, maybe no. “Could be you’ve seen someone out here who was pregnant-”
“Maybe like a hunnerd out here is pregnant. That’s why they’s out here. ’Cause they’s pregnant and got nowhere else to go.”
“Where would I find these hundred girls?”
She threw me a disgusted look. “How long you work here?”
“It ain’t that hard, sister. You just be looking on the wrong street.”
Alice Anne nodded.
Sunset was the next major street south. It was where the female prostitutes did their business. The boy toys were out on Santa Monica Boulevard, the next major street over from Sunset. Most of the men bartered in West Hollywood Sheriff area, but sometimes they strayed into LAPD territory-my territory. All these discarded lives. It could make a girl blue sometimes. Of course, Alice Anne was right. What else could an underage, pregnant runaway do to keep her stomach filled?
I checked my watch. “I’ll drive by tonight. You wouldn’t have any names, would you?”
“Names,pshhh…” She bundled up. “Can’t be gettin’ close to people. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
I went inside my wallet and took out another buck. “Buy yourself some hot chocolate. And if you hear about anyone dumping a baby, you’ll give me a ring.”
This time, I offered her my card. To my surprise, she took it.
“Pass the word,” I told her. “If the girl goes to the police within three days, nothing will happen to her.”
“It’s true, Alice Anne. It’s the law.”
“Yeah, I know what the law’s worth.” Again she spat.
“Well, if you hear about anyth-”
I forced her to make eye contact with me. “You wouldn’t be holding back on me now, would you?”
Alice Anne appeared to be horrified. “Lookie here, Officer Cindy. I may be a crazy, ole bag lady. I may have fallen on some hard times. And I may take too many sips of rotgut ’cause I gots lots of pain in this ole body. But I ain’t no raging alcoholic, and I don’t like baby killers.”
Elegantly stated. I sighed, then said, “Do you want me to arrest you?”
Alice Anne stared at my face.
“Three squares and a hot shower,” I told her.
“No.” She drew herself tighter under her cover. “No, but thanks. You can give me mo’ money if you be feeling charitylike.”
I took out a five and showed it to her. “Don’t spend it all in one liquor store.”
She laughed, then closed her eyes.
Having nothing more to say, I got up and left her to what were hopefully more pleasant thoughts.
By twelve-thirty,I had showered and was in civilian clothes en route to home. The U-turn happened by remote control, because I didn’t even realize I had changed directions until I was headed the opposite way.
To the hospital, naturally. Haunted by the image of that frail bundle left behind for Monday-morning garbage pickup, I knew I had to see her in a different environment: safe and blanketed, warm and fed.
Mid-City Pediatric was about two miles east of where the infant had been discarded. It was a Medicaid hospital, meaning that most of the patients were poor. Despite its location, it had a world-renowned reputation. When my baby sister, Hannah, needed some minor surgery, Rina insisted that she be taken to Mid-City instead of one of the bigger, more moneyed behemoth hospitals on the affluent west side of town.
It was a five-story building, modern and functional. The interior made stabs at being bright and cheerful-a mural of painted balloons, a gigantic stuffed teddy bear holding an armful of candy canes-but it couldn’t rid itself of that antiseptic smell. One whiff and I knew where I was.
It was relatively quiet-the lateness of the hour and the luck of the draw. The uniformed guard at the door looked bored. There were about a dozen people milling around the lobby, mostly Hispanic mothers with small children. There was one Asian family-a mother and three little girls-sitting on orange plastic chairs, no one talking, hands folded in their laps.
I went up to a glass-partitioned counter. A middle-aged intake secretary smiled at me, her eyes enlarged behind magnifying corrective lenses. I pointed to the family. “Have they been helped?”
“Yes, they’ve been helped. They’re waiting for the father to bring over the Medicaid card. He works alone in an all-night liquor store, so he had to lock it up before coming over here.”
“Is one of the kids sick?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why are you asking so many questions?”
I got out my billfold and showed her my badge. “Just wanted to make sure they were taken care of. Sometimes people are reticent to ask for help when they need it.”
“That’s true. What can I do for you, Officer?”
She was suspicious and I didn’t blame her.
“Two EMTs-Crumack and Hanover-brought in a newborn a little over two hours ago. I was the police officer who found her. I’d like to see her, if possible. Just to see that she’s safe.”
“Can I see that ID again?”
Again I pulled out the badge. Even after I showed it to her, she was leery. She told me to wait.
Finally, a twenty-something pixie named Marnie Sears, R.N., M.N., took over. She asked me to follow her and smiled when she spoke to me. Perhaps she liked me because we both had flaming red hair. But that was where the similarity ended. She was small and slight and cute-everything that I wasn’t. What did I expect having been sired by a six-four, 220-pound-plus father. I had lost weight the past year-a lot of it, and not because I was dieting. The appetite suppressant came in the form of recurring nightmares of renegade cops chasing me off a cliff. My therapist kept telling me that it takes time for the psyche to knit the holes. I was still waiting, but I didn’t expect much.
If I were honest, I’d say things were looking up. Certainly, my appetite had returned. Not in full force, but I didn’t look gaunt anymore. Frankly, I didn’t mind the underfed model look-pronounced cheekbones, full lips, white teeth, and tight chin-but it bothered my parents something fierce. The couple extra pounds I now carried had softened my face. The main thing was I could digest a cheese sandwich without the sour stomach.
Marnie and I rode the elevator up to the neonatal unit. She told me that the baby was doing well, that her temperature was back up to normal.
“That’s very good.”
“You just want to see her, huh?”
I nodded. The elevator stopped and the doors opened. We walked the hushed halls of the hospital. The lighting was bright, bordering on harsh.
“She’s over here.”
Marnie had stopped in front of a picture window. As I stared through the glass, my heart stopped. Fifteen tiny creatures poked and prodded with tubes and needles. I had eaten steaks that weighed more than the smallest of them. The teeniest looked just over a pound. I could have held her in my palm.
“She’s third from the right.”
Sandwiched between two little blips of life hooked up to oxygen masks and IVs, my little girl looked enormous and hearty. No tubes, no oxygen mask, just a lump of pink blanket with a hood on her head. “My goodness, she looks so big.”
“She’s probably full term.”
I wanted to pick her up. To rock her and kiss that little forehead. I turned to Marnie. “Is it possible for me to hold her?”
Marnie sighed. “I shouldn’t let you… but human contact is very good for her right now. You’ll have to suit up.”
Marnie took me into an office and gave me disposable blue scrubs. By the time I had finished, I was covered head to toe-suit, mask, head cap, gloves, even paper casings over my shoes. Finally, she led me into the nursery and picked up Baby Girl Doe-weight six pounds seven ounces, length nineteen inches. She had me sit down and then placed the sleeping infant in my arms.
Her face looked like a ball of brown butter-tiny lips, onionskin eyelids, and a nose no bigger than a button. My eyes got moist, but I couldn’t wipe the tears because my hands were housed in latex. I just let them run down my cheek. Marnie stared at me. I shrugged.
“It’s camp, but it’s true. What a miracle.”
The redheaded pixie smiled. “Why, Officer, you’re an old softy.”
“Don’t tell anyone, all right?”
The symphony of cries was music at its most primal. My eyes swept over all the tiny preemies. All the little lives hanging in the balance… all those worried parents out there. I wondered how people like Marnie worked in a pediatric hospital and kept their sanity.
Over the high-pitched wails, a disembodied voice announced a name over the PA system. I turned to the nurse. “You’re wanted?”
“Yes, I am. I can’t leave you up here unsupervised. I’m sure you understand that.”
“Absolutely. A few more minutes?”
“Sorry. Duty calls.”
I sighed, about to place the baby back in the bassinet. Her lips pursed and suckled air, then went slack. I stroked her cheek with a rubber finger. “Good night, little one.”
“You can hold her if you like.”
The voice that spoke was deep. I looked up… then up some more.
He was tall, lean, and high-waisted, with smooth cinnamon skin that stretched over high cheekbones. His face appeared to be long, although it was hard to tell under the mask. The cover-up did serve to showcase magnificent eyes: big and round and pale whiskey in color, set under arched black eyebrows and topped with an awning oflong,dark lashes.
Why did guys have the best lashes?
He wore blue scrubs, his hair hidden under a paper cap. He was holding a tray of vials, tubes, needles, and slides. Some of the tubes were filled with blood, others empty. I had been so focused on the baby, I hadn’t heard him come in.
Marnie said, “I just got paged to Four West. She can’t be left unsupervised.”
“Why not? Is she a felon?”
“I’m not kidding, Koby. Youcannotleave her alone with the baby. When you leave, she leaves.”
“I will watch her like a marine.”
Marnie was already walking away. “Your charm’s going to fail you one day, Koby. Then what will you have?”
“I think I will have my job,” he retorted. “From you it is shown that charm is not necessary for the position.”
“Ha, ha, ha!” She scurried out of the room, and through the glass window, I saw her racing down the hallway.
He set the tray down on a metal table and directed his jeweled eyes down to my face. “So you are the one who found treasure in the snake pit?”
“I’m the one who pulled her out of the Dumpster. How did you know?”
“The paramedics told me the story.” He checked the clock, then signed a clipboard attached to my baby’s bassinet. “I need to take her blood.”
“She’s sleeping so soundly.”
“I have a light touch. Perhaps she will sleep through the entire procedure. If you continue to hold and rock her, it will make it easier.”
I made a face. “Where do you take the blood from?”
“From the heel.”
My eyes crawled upward to his badge. Though Marnie had called him Koby, his name tag revealed him to beYAAKOV KUTIEL-R.N., M.N., M.P.H. CRITICAL CARE NEONATOLOGY. Yaakov was my stepbrother’s legal name, although my dad usually called him Jake or Jacob. Yaakov was a name associated with Jews or Russians. The man didn’t appear to be of either stock. “How is she doing?”
“Very well, although she did have some drop in temperature from exposure.” He took several slides out from their protective wrappers, marking each one with a number on its label. “Not too much of a drop because, the EMT tells me, she was covered up with the garbage bags.”
“She was crying when you found her, no?”
He enunciated his words in the clipped cadence of those from Africa.
I told him yes, she was crying.
“So she had plenty of oxygen in her little lungs.” Out came a blue-capped needle. “She was fresh from the womb, you know.”
“I know. The cord was still attached.”
“The EMTs tell me that someone didn’t bother to wipe off the amniotic fluid, just pushed her out and dumped her.”
“Now that’s not entirely true,” I balked. “I wiped her face with a sterile napkin.”
“Perhaps they were referring to her body.” He unwrapped a small glass tube. “It is good you found her so soon. Always babies lose weight after birth.”
He let out a soft laugh. “Sometimes they happen to you.” He stood close to me, peeling back her little pink blanket and exposing a tiny foot. “Has someone found her mother?”
“Not yet, but we will… hopefully.”
The nurse furrowed his brow. “We?”
“Yes, we… I’m a police officer.”
A slight raise of his eyebrow, though he said nothing.
“I see they didn’t tell you the complete story.”
“No, that is true.”
“I was riding solo last night. A busboy flagged down my cruiser when he heard the crying,” I said. “I was thinking about doing a door-to-door search for her mother tomorrow morning before I go back on duty.”
“A dedicated cop.”
I said, “It’s the way I was made.”
“Dedication is good.” He examined the heel, swiped it down with some yellow cleansing liquid, then gave it a quick stick, squeezing it with gloved hands to extract droplets of blood. The infant wrinkled her nose and pouted, but after some gentle rocking, she decided that her best option was to stay asleep.
Silence as the man worked, gathering the blood into a pipette and smearing it onto the slides. When he was done, he placed a bandage on the infant’s heel, then gently tickled the sole of her tiny foot with a gloved hand. She retracted her leg in her sleep, then let it fall loose.
He chuckled. “Good reflexes.”
I smiled. “Well, she didn’t wake up.” I finally screwed up the nerve to make eye contact. “You must indeed have a light touch.”
“I should have been a surgeon.”
“Why didn’t you?”
I winced as soon as the words came out. His topaz eyes went from the infant to me. There was motion behind the mask. I could tell he was smiling.
He said, “I speak in metaphors.”
“Oh…” I felt my face go hot. “That was nosy as well as tactless. Sorry.” I should have kept my mouth shut. Should have known better by now.
He laughed as I got hotter and hotter. “Are you disappointed in me?”
“Disapp-I…”Stupid, stupid, stupid.I kept my voice even. “Just making random conversation.”
His eyes crinkled upward at the corners. “I must take these slides to the lab. You have to put her back now.”
I looked at the package in my arms and sighed, again stroking her cheek with my gloved hand. I could have held her forever. “Good night, pumpkin.” So soft. “Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”
Reluctantly, I stood up and placed her back in her bassinet. He picked up his tray and walked me to the nurses’ station next to the baby nursery so I could remove my protective shell. Off came the face mask, then the cap. I unpinned my hair, shaking it out with a little more drama than necessary. Then I began to peel off my paper suit. First the shoe coverings, then I rolled down the pants, pulling them off, leg by leg, feeling rather clumsy because I was standing instead of sitting. It also felt a little peculiar, this pseudo-disrobing in front of a stranger. As I attempted to lift the shirt over my head, I realized it was tied in back. I reached around to undo the strings but was having trouble with the knots.
I glanced at my chaperon and caught heat from his staring eyes. The intensity caught me off guard and I felt myself go warm. Immediately, he looked away, his complexion darkening a shade. He had undone the top ties of his mask, exposing the rest of his face-an aquiline nose, a generous mouth, and a strong jawline ending in a square chin.
His gaze fell over the top of my head. “Need help?”
“If you could.”
He fumbled under my long tresses, his fingertips brushing my back as he undid the knotted strings. I felt an electrical surge. I think I might have shuddered, but he didn’t comment if I did.
I slipped off the shirt, snapped off the gloves from my hands, and picked up the discarded suit. He pressed the pedal of a trash can and I threw the disposable clothes away.
“Much obliged,” I said.
His eyes engaged me for a moment. “I will walk you to the elevator.”
Again I knew I was blushing. “No need.”
He broke into a slow smile, exposing big white teeth. “But I must escort you. If I don’t, Marnie will disapprove.”
“Something tells me you can handle Marnie.”
“You think so?”
“I have a sixth sense about these things.”
“How does that work?”
“It’s an intangible.”
“Like a woman’s intuition?”
“More like a cop’s intuition.”
“Being as you are a woman and a cop, does the intuition level double?”
“On good days, it probably quadruples.” By golly, we were flirting. Silence… but we maintained eye contact for much longer than was socially acceptable. I finally broke it. “It’s late. I should be going.”
To get to the door, I had to reach around him. I waited a moment, but he made no effort to move.
“May I ask your name?”
“I am pleased to meet you, Cindy.” Again he smiled. This time, I noticed how his big, straight white teeth contrasted with his dark skin. “I am Yaakov.”
“I know. I read your badge.” Then I realized howthatsounded. I wanted to crawl into a hole. It had been eons since I had allowed myself to be alone with a man. I had forgotten what sparks felt like and how to handle them. “I noticed your name because it’s the same name as my stepbrother.”
His smile gained wattage. “So you are Jewish?”
“Yes, I am Jewish.”
He pointed to himself. “Already we have something in common.”
It was my turn to laugh. “You’reJewish?”
“I keep forgetting that Americans find this unusual. In Israel, it is nothing because there are many of us. I’m an Ethiopian Jew. As a matter of fact, I am not only Jewish, but also aqes. That is Kohen in English. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes. It’s a Jewish priest. My stepfamily is very religious.”
“My father’s family. I don’t want to keep you from your duties. We really should go.”
“Yes, we should. Do you have a boyfriend?”
“You’re very forward.”
“I say curious. Still, you don’t have to answer.”
I didn’t. He gave me a closed-mouth smile. “I am taking a break as soon as I drop off the tray. Would you like to join me in some hospital cafeteria coffee?”
It was an innocent enough request. Much easier than an actual date.
And then I realized how long it had been since I actually had a real date. Trust was a problem for me in general. Trusting men was the impossible dream, but who could blame me after such a horrendous experience. Ironically, because Yaakov was black, it made things easier. All the dudes that I loathed and feared had been white. I said, “Depends on how long a break you have.”
“Usually five to ten minutes.”
How much trouble could I get into in ten minutes? I shrugged. “Okay.”
The man’s grin was abundant. Since he was carrying a tray, I opened the door for him. But he used his shoulder to keep it open for me. Standing next to him, he appeared a half foot taller than I was, about six-one or -two.
“After you,” he insisted.
I walked out first. “Just being polite or don’t you trust me out of your sight?”
“I work on my manners.” He let the door close behind us. “Israelis have a reputation of being rude. It is not unfounded, but only because we are too honest.” He smiled. “More like blunt.” He spoke as we ambled down the hallway. “You can call me Koby, by the way… as in Kobe Bryant. Although I spell it with ayand not ane.”
“You know, you look a little like Kobe Bryant.” I frowned.Jeez, what is wrong with me?I felt as stupid as a schoolgirl. “You’ve probably heard that before.”
“Yes. But it is strange. People tell me, but only after I mention my name. Especially in L.A., they hear the name Koby, see a tall black man, and automatically make this weird connection. Really, I don’t look like him.”
His words gave me an opportunity to regard him in earnest. I said, “I think it’s the cheekbones… maybe the nose.”
“The famous Haile Selassie nose.”
“You’re both tall, thin, and black. But that’s it. It is bizarre how people make an association to what’s familiar.” I smiled. “Besides, you don’t have that little tuft of chin hair.”
He laughed. “It is funny you say that. Last year, I got it in my head to grow facial hair. I get about three weeks’ worth of beard, then change my mind and shave it off-too hot under the face mask. But I shave it off in stages and I wind up with a half beard… some chin hair. So one afternoon I get off shift and meet a friend who works in Hem-Onc-oncology is cancer. I usually don’t rotate through that wing, so the kids don’t know my face so good. Plus, I was in my regular clothes and wearing boots with big heels, so especially to the children, I must have appeared very tall. I think I have on sunglasses, too.”
“Big diamond earring?”
“No, no diamond earring.” His smile was soft. “They wear on one ear a down payment for apartment in Israel.”
“No justice in this world.”
“That is true. But at least they entertain.” He looked at me. “Where was I?”
“You’re tall and have sunglasses on.”
“Ah, yes.” He broke into a grin. “So I hear my name, Koby, and I turn around. It is this boy, maybe twelve-bald from chemotherapy. He has an eye patch, probably lost an eye from his disease, so maybe he doesn’t see so good. And this is when the Lakers were doing their three champions… third champion…” He made a face. “What is the noun?”
“Yes, third championship, so everyone is thinking basketball.” He led me to the bank of elevators. “You want the basement.”
I punched the down button.
“So I hear my name, look at the little boy, and smile.” He chuckled. “In thirty seconds, I have twenty children wanting my autograph. My one time with fame.”
“Were the kids disappointed when they found out you were the wrong Koby?”
He let out a soft laugh. “No one say a word! Everybody on staff-doctors, nurses, orderlies, techs-they all knowexactlywhat is going on. Plus, Oncology often get celebrities visiting the kids.” He raised his eyebrows. “This little boy… he just saw what he wanted, and the rest of the kids are also willing to believe. I sign a bad handwriting starting with aKand they were happy. Absolutely thrilled.”
The elevator dinged.
Abruptly, his expression turned pensive. “Such sick children, Cindy. So weak… knocked out. It’s all so unfair.”
The doors opened.
He shrugged himself out of it. “If I can bring a bit of joy to them, I say, why not?”
Koby carried the coffeeas we walked to an orange plastic table sided by four blue molded chairs. Because of the late hour, the kitchen was closed, but there were still some prepackaged cold sandwiches-slices of something pink covered by wilted green stuff-for the truly famished. Drinks were also available. We sat across from one another. He had taken off his head covering, exposing a close cut of tight black curls.
“When I came to America from Israel, I was lucky because I came with a skill.” Large, thin fingers wrapped around a paper cup. “Otherwise I end up taking parking tickets at the booths at LAX.”
He sipped black coffee, then said, “You see, many of the ticket takers at the airport are Ethiopian.”
“So I was making a joke.” A pause with a raise of an eyebrow. “Not so good one.”
I felt myself smiling and quashed it by drinking my coffee. It was very acrid. “So how long have you lived here… in the U.S.?”
“Eight years. First I moved from Ethiopia to Israel in 1983 before Operation Moses. I was eleven. Things were very bad for my people after Haile Selassie was deposed. Ethiopia became Marxist country and not friendly to Beta Yisrael. They outlaw our practices. Sometimes they torture our elders. Then came the drought. My mother died shortly after childbirth with my sister. Then we begin our trek through the Sudan. By then, we were all sick with starvation. I lost another younger sister, but four of us siblings survived-my two older brothers, Yaphet and Yoseph, my younger sister, Naomi, and me. In Ethiopia, my father was very respectedqes-a priest. He knewOrit,of course, which is our Torah, but that is in Geez or Amharic. But my father also knew HebrewChumash,and this is very, very unusual. He only knew because his grandfather was Yemenite Jew who came to Ethiopia in 1900 and brought with him Hebrew books includingChumash.So I have a littleMizrachiin my blood. My father tells me it is from my great-grandfather where I get my light eyes.”
“I noticed.” Under the fluorescent bulbs, they were sauterne. “They’re lovely.”
“Thanks.” His smile was shy. “I trade you my eyes for your gorgeous red hair.”
I smiled back. “Thank you. Just be careful what you ask for.”
“Indeed.” He took another sip from his cup. “Bitter tonight. Must be dregs. Anyway, my great-grandfather’s last name was Yekutieli. It became Kutiel.”
“So you have family in Yemen?”
“No. They all move to Israel in 1950s in Magic Carpet when Israel takes Yemenite Jews. My brothers and I actually know some Hebrew when we go to the Holy Land. Most Beta Yisrael have to learn. As sons of aqes,we were started onOritat two, because in our culture it is theqeswho readsOrit.I pick up languages very quick. By bar mitzvah-which was new custom to us, by the way-I had most ofOritandChumashmemorized, although I forget much of what I learned. My brothers too.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “What about your sister?”
“The girls learnnothing.They obey their husbands, keep house, and have babies. Maybe make a little pottery to sell in the marketplace. But, of course, they give the money to their husbands.”
“Now you’re baiting me,” I told him.
His smile was playful. “It all changed when we settle in Israel. My little sister embraced liberation very well. Still, she must thank my father. Now there are about seventy thousand of us in Israel.”
My eyes widened. “Seventythousand?I had no idea.”
“Have you ever been?”
“No.” I felt my face go warm. As if by failing to visit the Holy Land, I betrayed my ancestral heritage. “One day, I’ll go. My father went about ten years ago. My stepmother lived there for a while with her first husband.”
“Your stepbrother’s father.”
“How’d you… Oh, yeah. The one who’s also named Yaakov. We call him Jake or Yonkie.”
“And he is your only sibling?”
“No, I have a half sister named Hannah and another stepbrother, Sam. The boys are much younger than I am. They go to college back east. Hannah is ten-the baby.”
He nodded. “My entire family lives in Israel now. My brothers are officers inZahal-the Israeli army. My sister is also a nurse and lives in Tel Aviv with her family. My father remarried an Ashkenazi woman whose husband had been killed in Lebanon. Batya had four children with her first husband. So for a while we were ten in a very small apartment. Then she became pregnant by my father and they had twin girls. But by that time my brothers and my three stepbrothers had moved out, so there was more room. A year later, I move out at seventeen to doMeluimfor three years.”
“Army service. After that, I decided to be a nurse. From the army, I already knew the skill. I just needed the book learning. I did an accelerated course and was out in two and a half years with a B.S. in nursing, and a job.”
“So you kind of paved the way for your sister.”
He thought a moment. “Yes, I think so, although in Israel many Ethiopians learn nursing. She is the nurse with a nice, clean office job. My father was very mad at me for becoming a nurse. As a Kohen, I am not supposed to be near dead bodies. My stepmother said if I don’t respect theKahuna-the priesthood-at least be a doctor.”
“That sounds like a Jewish mother.”
“Yes, Batya is a very Jewish mother. In the end, I follow my heart and my parents make peace with me. I am the youngest son in the family… very spoiled. They don’t stay mad. It is good that I am aware of death. If a baby codes on my shift, I doeverythingto revive that infant. Of course, the best way not to get a code is to be very watchful. I am very, very watchful.”
“Dedication is good,” I said, throwing back his own words. He smiled at the recognition. “You have a master’s in public health.”
He regarded his badge. “That was four years ago. First the hospital sent me to get a master’s in nursing for one year. They get more federal money if their staff has degrees. I come back and do exactly the same things, except now I have more letters after my name. And I got a bump in salary, so that part was good. Then I think I want even more money, so I do the M.P.H. at state university for another year during the day and work at night. The M.P.H. is for hospital policy, so I get an administration job. And the work does pay better, but it is soboring.”
“Oh my goodness, Cindy, it is one meeting after another. I go out of my mind. I last six months; then I say forget it and go back to nursing.”
I inwardly smiled, flashing to my own parents. My mother had expected more from my father than just a cop’s salary. Dutiful man that he was, he went to law school, passed the bar, then set up shop with my maternal grandfather, doing wills and estate trusts. He also lasted about six months. “You had no trouble getting your old job back?”
“Yes, I have problem because now Marnie has been promoted to my old position. I let her be in charge as long as they don’t cut my money. They say okay because with nurses, there is always a shortage, especially if you have degrees and specialties. I am a critical-care nurse. I specialize in pediatrics because I like to help the children. In Ethiopia, they do nothing for the children and the babies. We were the last to be given food. We were the first to die.”
“That’s horrible,” I exclaimed.
“It is cruel, but it has to be that way.” His eyes darkened as they intensified. “If the parents starve, who will take care of the children? Who will work? If the mother goes hungry, how can she nurse? You need working adults to keep the family going.”
“I don’t know, Koby. It goes against everything I was taught. But I’ve never lived in a subsistence economy.”
“Baruch Hashem,”Koby stated.
I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.Baruch Hashemwas an expression that Rina used all the time. It meant “thank God” in Hebrew. To hear those words uttered by a black man was simply incongruous.
Koby smiled. “You know what that means?”
“Yes. I’m not a total Jewish ignoramus.” I sipped coffee, then made a face. I had forgotten it was so bad. “Do you like working here?”
“At Mid-City Peds, you mean?”
“Yes, it is a very, very good hospital. And the doctors care so much. Why else would they work in an inner-city hospital? As for me, I love the little babies because they represent life. I love life. It is easy to love life after seeing so much death.”
“I can certainly understand that. It must be nice being around something so pure, especially after seeing the worst in human beings.” I thought a moment. “But I’ve also seen lots of heroics, too. In my job, you see both extremes, and often side by side. Like tonight. Someone abandons an infant in a garbage dump, leaving her for dead. Then, by accident, a man hears a cry, and the next thing we know, she’s alive and well.”
“God had different plans for her. I hope you find her mother. Postnatal women need care.”
“I hope so. It’s such a shame because she had options. If she had dropped the infant off in front of a police station or at a hospital, she wouldn’t have committed any kind of crime. And even now, if she gives herself up within seventy-two hours, she’ll escape prosecution. We have laws that protect desperate women.”
“I’m sure she does not know the law. Or maybe she was too scared.” His pager buzzed. He looked down at the number, then back up at my face. “I must go back to work. I would like to see you again, Cindy. Would that be possible?”
I looked at him, making the quick mental calculations about his age based on what he had just told me. He looked younger than thirty-two, but then again, people say I look younger than twenty-eight. “What did you have in mind?”
“Dinner is always nice.”
“You tell me.”
I flipped through my mental calendar. “Friday night?”
He winced. “I am notshomer Shabbat.I do drive much to my father’s disapproval, but I don’t usually go out Friday, except maybe aShabbatdinner.”
“I understand. Look, I work evening watch. Nights are hard. How about lunch?”
“Lunch would be fine. How about Wednesday? I don’t start here until six in the evening.”
I didn’t start work until three. I told him that Wednesday would be fine. “Let’s meet at the restaurant. That way I can go straight to work afterward.”
And it avoided giving him my phone number or e-mail address.
He seemed tickled. “Perfect! Have you ever had Ethiopian food?”
“Never had the pleasure, but I’m adventurous.”
“Meet me on the corner of Fairfax and Olympic-southeast corner-at twelve, maybe?”
Little Addis Ababa. It was only a block or two in length, but it was in striking contrast to the Jewish area around it. “Twelve it is. Any vegetarian dishes in your cuisine?”
“Many. You are vegetarian?”
“Not strictly, but most of the time.”
“I am kosher and the restaurants are not. So I will eat vegetarian, too.”
His pager went off again. I stood and so did he. “It was really nice meeting you, Koby.”
He laughed. “You sound shocked.”
“Not shocked.” I shrugged. “It was just… unexpected.”
“That’s when it is the nicest,” he said, beaming. “It was lovely meeting you, Cindy. I look forward to Wednesday.”
He turned and walked hurriedly out of the cafeteria. He moved with grace and confidence, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin.
The streets held scant traffic and I made good time, catching all green lights down Sunset Boulevard. This was my district, and out of habit, I slowed at the hot spots-the pay phones used by the hookers at the pimp motels. Still some foot soldiers out at two in the morning, but nothing too heavy. Poor girls were shivering, wearing microminiskirts and tank tops with only thin shawls to warm their bare shoulders. They teetered as if drunk, but it could have been the ultrahigh platform shoes.
I thought about my upcoming date. There were three immediate things in Koby’s favor: He didn’t appear to be a psycho, he was employed, and he seemed genuinely nice-more interested inmethan in myprofession.
Civilian guys usually split into two camps-those intimidated by female cops, and those obsessed with the fact that I carried a gun. The only men who truly didn’t care were those involved with the Job-other cops, DAs, PDs, probation officers, private detectives, and bail bondsmen. Those dates usually dulled very quickly because after we talked shop, there was nothing else. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. The Job was consuming, and those of us immersed in it often forgot that there was a whole other world out there.
Scanning the streets, I recognized one of the working ladies and immediately slowed. She had on fishnet stockings whose tops came below the hemline of her sleeveless red minidress. Smooth brown arms swayed as she walked. Her lemon-colored hair, marred by dark roots, had been pulled into a ponytail.
I rolled down the window. “I hope you’re on your way home, Magenta.”
She squinted. She was nearsighted but never wore glasses while working. I found this out after she claimed to have witnessed an assault on a bag lady. The detectives had a specific perp in mind and put him in a lineup. After peering at the men, Magenta had picked out Detective Elgen Halkhower from GTA detail. Now she said, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Officer Decker.”
“Officer Decker? You still on duty?”
“An officer’s work is never done.”
“Except I don’t give my money to a pimp.”
“Just the U.S. government-biggest-ass pimp in the whole wide world.”
She had a point. “C’mon, honey. Tell Burton if I find your ass out here again, I’m gonna haul you in. The money you’ll make will just about square with bail.”
She sighed. “All right, all right. I’m goin’, I’m goin’.”
She’d turn back around as soon as I was gone.
“How’s your son?” I asked her.
Her smile was genuine. “Gettin’ bigger and bigger. Like his dad.”
Her pimp, Burton, had fathered her child along with six other children by four other women. In some regard, the extended family made it easier for the girls. While they peddled their asses, someone was home watching the kids. “Hon, you need to get off the street.”
“I said I’m goin’.”
I pulled away and hit the pedal until I was going around forty. At the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Sunset, I turned left, my car tobogganing down the steep hillside as I headed toward home.
Home was Culver City, a small throwback just south of L.A. The hamlet still contained free parking and one-of-a-kind shops. I could walk the streets and pick up just about anything-from discounted clothing at designer outlets to exotic spices from the Indian markets. The area held a salad of ethnicities and maybe that’s why I felt comfortable with Koby. There was safety in diversity, with no one race thinking that it owned the world. Maybe it was naive, but to me, that was what America was all about.
Darkness surrounded him,yet it was emptiness that he sensed, that caused his body to break into a cold sweat.
FourA.M.and he was alone. Where’d she go?
Clad only in pajama bottoms, Decker bolted from the bed, too panicked to bother with his robe and slippers. He found Rina at the kitchen table. “Are you all right?”
“When did you get up?”
“Actually, I never went to sleep.”
She hunched over dozens of Xeroxed papers and duplicates of black-and-white photographs. The initial burst of artificial light had caused him to squint. When he realized what his wife was looking at, he felt his eyes go wide.
“Good Lord, what in theworld!”
Rina stood up, pulling her terry-cloth robe tightly around her body. “You’re shivering. Go put a robe on.”
Ignoring her, Decker picked up a picture. It was a head shot. The eyes were closed, the mouth slightly agape, the hair pulled off the face. The woman appeared to be around forty. Even without benefit of color, he had seen enough postmortem photos to know what he was studying. “Rina, what’s going on!”
She took the picture from him and set it back down on the table. “My grandmother.” She slipped her arms around her husband, biting his mustache gently. “In case you didn’t hear me the first time, you’re shivering. Go put on a robe.” She kissed his nose. “Or better yet, go back to sleep.”
Sleep was definitelynoton the agenda. He regarded his wife, with her pale skin and her intense eyes that shone sapphire in the dim light. Her raven hair was mussed and flyaway, brushing against her shoulders. It was longer than he had remembered. He rarely saw her tresses loose. As a religious woman, Rina kept her hair pinned or in a braid with the top of her head covered by a tam or kerchief. He tried out a suggestive look. “I’ll go back to bed ifyougo back to bed.”
Her smile was tired. “That’ll work for me. Just let me clean up.”
His eyes went back to the table. Among the array of handwritten pages and photographs was a German-English dictionary. His brain started to fire. “Okay, I’m awake now. You snagged me. I am now curious. What is this all about?”
“You want the lowdown on this before or after?”
It wasn’t even close. “After. You got my hopes up, woman.”
“I have no intention of dashing them. Go on. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“I’m going to brush my teeth.”
“Hygiene is a turn-on.” She swatted his rear. “Go.”
“Should I shave?”
“It might wake up Hannah.”
Nix the shaving. He went back into the bedroom, with his expectations and the free-floating anxiety that was now his ever-present companion. He’d become accustomed to the knots in his stomach, gauging his agitation by the constriction of his gut. It was as if an invisible belt encircled his belly. Sometimes it was tight, sometimes it went slack, but it was always there.
Under the covers, his body turned warm, but his feet were still cold. He was careful not to rest them against Rina’s smooth legs when she joined him. To Decker, sex was a beautiful thing. For twenty-plus minutes, he traveled a different universe, a man free of a cerebral cortex. The lack of conscious thought during the act was so incredibly liberating, not to mention the ultimate act of release. Afterward came the intimacy. As Rina nestled in his arms, her head resting against his chest, he stroked her hair, his thoughts flashing on images he didn’t want to think about.
“Okay. Now you can tell me. What’s with the photographs?”
“It happened one day while you were sleeping off jet lag. I passed a police station. I got curious.”
“About your grandmother.”
“Yes, my grandmother.”
“Does your mother know?”
Rina raised her head. “Absolutely not. You can’t tell her, Peter. Not until I get more information.”
“I have no intention of telling her anything. The less I talk to your mother, the better.”
Rina hit him softly.
Decker said, “What brought this on? Being in Munich?”
“I suppose so. The city is haunted with all my ancestral souls. They spoke from the grave, Peter. Does that make sense?”
“Some of my unsolved cases… they still talk to me.”
“So you understand.”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
“It was a very weird trip,” Rina confided.
Who remembers?Decker thought. The fatigue had been overwhelming. Most of the time, he was sleeping. Even when he had been awake, trudging through the wet detritus that covered the mountainous region, his thoughts had been elsewhere. Admittedly, the bitter cold had been invigorating. He wished he were there now-anywhere but back home pretending that things were normal.
Rina snuggled closer. “As I passed a police station, I thought… well, if not now, when?”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“No. I’m not sure of anything,” Rina told him. “I lost lots of relatives in the war. There was no closure. No bodies to bury, no way of knowing exactly when it happened. Their deaths were the product of unimaginable evil. But with my grandmother… maybe there’s a story behind it. I can’t ask my mother about it. God forbid I do anything that would cause her pain. She’s had enough suffering in her life. But I’m a generation removed. My grandmother is my heritage, too. I feel I have a right to know.”
“And what have you found out?”
There was a pause. Then came the sigh. “Nothing. That’s the problem. I can read the words, and even understand a few sentences. But my German isn’t good enough to comprehend the full text, let alone the nuances. And even if I understood every word in the file, I’m still not a detective. I can’t interpret what it all might mean.” She ran her fingers across his chest. “I can get someone to translate the notes. But I need a well-seasoned homicide professional to give meaning to the results-”
“But only if you’re interested.”
No one spoke.
Then Decker said, “I know what you’re doing.”
“What am I doing?”
“You’re trying to engage me in your business to keep my mind off my failures.”
“You didn’t fail!”
“I most certainlydidfail!”
She felt his body tighten. It had been months since the New York ordeal. It was time to come clean, even though it was bound to cause discord. She chose her words carefully, speaking in a whisper. “Peter, I don’t know what happened in the warehouse-”
“I know that. And I’m not ready to talk about it.”
“I’m not asking you to talk about it, Peter. All I want to say is…” A sigh. “I know you weren’t alone.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I know who you were with.”
Abruptly, Decker sat up, knocking her head off his chest. He encircled his knees with his arms and stared straight ahead. “I was with Jonathan.”
“But we both know there was someone else-”
“Have you been talking to my brother?”
Anger in his voice. Rina said, “Do you honestly think Randy would betray a confidence?”
Decker continued to direct his gaze at nothing. He didn’t speak.
“I saw Donatti in New York, Peter. He was following me-”
“Can you lower your voice?”
“It wasn’t like it sounds.”
“That is it!” He sprang out of bed, threw on his robe, and began to pace. “I’m going tokillhim-which is what I should have done in the first place.”
“Are you going to rant or do you want to hear what I have to say?”
He suddenly turned against her. “Andnowyou’re telling me.” His voice was rife with hostility. “Any particular reason for keepingmein the dark?”
“Yes, I had my reasons. And I will tell them to you if you’d like to listen.”
Decker glared at her. He was glad that it was dark so she couldn’t see how furious he was. “What’d the bastard do? Come on to you?”
“Yes, he tried to intimidate me-”
“Thatmotherfucking son-of-a-bitch bastard!I will strangle him with my own-”
“Peter, he took a bullet for me.”
He barely heard her above his own tirade, but he did hear her. In the sudden stillness, he realized he was panting heavily. Sweat was pouring off his forehead. The image materialized in his brain-a shadow lifting up his shirt… the bandage around his ribs.
Now we’re twins.
“Whatdid you say?” His voice was softer now.
“I said, I think he took a bullet for me.”
He sat down beside her, his hands shaking. “Youthink?”
“It happened so fast. He’d been following me, although I hadn’t noticed it. The next thing I knew, I was pressed against the hood of a car and he was on top of me, bleeding from a gunshot wound. I know you hate him. And I’m sure you have every right to hate him. I hate him, too. But even reprehensible people can do noble acts.”
Decker was still breathing hard. “How do you know the bullet was for you? It could have been meant for him, you know.”
“Perfectly true. I’m sure he has scores of enemies. But at the time, you had enemies, too. He acted quickly, Peter. It was strictly by instinct. And now it’s over… all of it. So I guess we’ll never find out.”
Again the room fell silent.
Rina said, “Come back to bed. It’s only five. You can still catch a couple of hours of sleep.”
He let out an absurd laugh. Sleep was elusive under optimal conditions. Under these circumstances, it was damn nigh impossible. He longed to be next to his wife, to feel her body against his clammy skin. Still, he resisted, trembling like a leaf in the wind.
She held out the covers. “C’mon, soldier. Life is short. Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad.” He hesitated, then quickly slipped under the welcoming duvet, trying to calm his nerves as adrenaline shot through his body. “I’m just… shocked. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.” He turned to her. “Whydidn’tyou tell me?”
“Because a family was in distress. I thought it would have been a distraction. It was a judgment call. If I made the wrong decision, sue me.”
Decker slumped against the pillow. “Now here’s a sobering thought. I compromised your life by dragging you along. And that bastard saves you.” His laugh was bitter. “God almighty, I actually owe the son of a bitch!”
“I’m sure he evened the score in the warehouse. So consider the slate cleaned.”
Again he laughed-hard and angry. Suddenly tears welled up in Decker’s eyes. Before he could blink, they were running down his cheeks. “If anything had happened to you…”
“But nothing did happen to me.” She leaned into his body and threw her arm around his chest. “I love you, Peter.”
“I love you, too.” His body was quivering with what might have been, his nerves raw and tender. He was still angry, of course, but notquiteas angry. The bastard had been good for something other than plugging him with holes.
God had His reasons.
“I love you,” he whispered. “I love you, love you, love you.”
“Thank you. It’s nice to be appreciated.”
Decker burst into laughter, hugging her fiercely. He remained entwined with her, neither of them talking, allowing the contact of skin against skin to speak volumes. Holding her… feeling the rhythm of her heart until he heard her breathing slow and lengthen as she drifted into sleep. Gently, he disentangled himself and rose from the bed.
“Where’re you going?” she said sleepily.
“I’m getting dressed.”
“It’s not light yet.”
“I’m meeting Cindy for breakfast.” He stretched lethargy from his aching bones. “I might as well get an early jump. I’ll take Hannah to school.”
“Are you sure…” Her voice was already in dreamland.
“And later on, you’ll help me with Omah?”
Oh,that. “Yes, of course,” he said. “Anything you want.”
“I didn’t die. Stop being so nice.”
He felt himself chuckle. It was a legitimate expression of joy. Though still burdened by his abject failure-that wasn’t going to disappear overnight-he felt lighter than he had in months. In an instant, a searing holocaust of hatred was reduced to… well, maybe a bonfire, burning hot and bright, but controllable. Her confession had opened a pressure valve, and for the first time in weeks, he could see again with impartial eyes.
He took a bullet for me.
Potent words. They gave him a whole new perspective on things. Now, maybe,maybe,he could concentrate enough to do his friggin’ job.
Iwas running late,going over the canyon and into the Valley: poor form because Dad had made a special effort to meet me. By the time I got to the deli, it was past nine, and Dad was already sitting in a booth, sipping coffee, reading the Calendar section of theTimes.My father was a handsome guy with a full head of hair, although there was lots of white where once it had been orange. His mustache still had color. It was full and bushy and made him look like the macho guy he was. His cheeks were smooth and without shadow as in a recent shave. He had on a white shirt and a dark blue tie. His brown eyes went from his watch, then over the top of the newspaper. When he saw me, he put down the paper and smiled. But there was irritation in his expression.
I slid in on the opposite side, gasping for breath. “Sorry I’m late.”
Dad took off his glasses. “No problem. Bad traffic?”
“Not really. Just a late start.”
At least, I was honest. I picked up a menu and buried myself in the process of selection. “How’re you doing, Lieutenant?”
“Fine. I heard you had quite a night.”
“What do you mean?”
Dad looked at me with skeptical eyes. “The baby?”
“Who tells you these things?” I snapped. “Do you have spies planted in each station house?”
He checked his watch. “We’ve been together eighty-three seconds and already you’re sniping at me.”
I felt my face go hot and covered it with a laugh. He was right. “I’m sorry. Let’s start again.” I leaned over and pecked a kiss on his forehead. “Thanks for taking time to meet me. You’re very busy and I appreciate it. And I’m sorry I’m late. How are you?”
This time, Dad’s smile was genuine. “I’m fine, thank you very much. You look nice.”
“This old thing?” I was wearing a dark blue blouse over blue trousers and a camel jacket.
“Well, you put it together with panache.”
“Thank you, Daddy. I’m sorry I grumped at you.”
“S’right. I only found out about the baby because I went into work early today. The police grapevine was in full force because babies in Dumpsters are always big news. How’s she doing?”
“As of one last night, very well. Now all we have to do is find the mother.”
“We?” Lieutenant Decker’s eyes twinkled. “You don’t trust the gold shields?”
“Last night, I talked to the detective in charge-Greg Van Horn. You know him, right?”
“Greg’s a good guy.”
“A bit past his prime,” I said. “His words, not mine.”
“He must be close to retirement.”
“I think he dreams of golf clubs. Anyway, he said he didn’t mind if I did a little door-to-door searching on my off-hours.”
“I’m sure he doesn’t mind at all. But even if you find out something, he’ll take the credit. What are you getting out of it?”
“Goodwill from a seasoned detective who admires you, and satisfaction of a job well done. Also I care about the baby. I’m the reverse mallard duck. I’ve imprinted on the kid.”
Dad gave me the courtesy of a laugh.
“I really hope we find the mother soon. She’s probably not in a wonderful state herself.”
“You mean medically?”
“Medically, emotionally. Any ideas, Decker?”
I always called him Decker when we spoke the trade. Still, he smiled at the address.
“First tell me what you know.”
“We think it’s someone local without a car because we found a pool of blood where we think she gave birth.”
“How much blood?”
“I didn’t quantify it, but Greg didn’t think it was enough to be a homicide, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“I agree with him, Loo. I mean, why kill the mother but not the baby?”
“Sadistic killer? A botched abortion? A bleed-out like Rina had with Hannah? She almost died on the operating table. A girl in an alley wouldn’t stand a chance. It all depends on how much blood you found.”
“It didn’t look likethatmuch blood. Like a little puddle.”
“Splatter marks around the puddle?”
“No… just an amoebic blob.”
“Drip marks to the Dumpster?”
Eureka. I had an answer for that one. “Yes, I noticed them. I showed them to Detective Van Horn.”
I bit my lower lip, holding back a smile. “Still have a ways to go, but I’m trying to keep up with the experts.”
“Good Lord, I hope you don’t mean me,” Decker retorted. “Saving a baby’s life is quite an impressive feat. I’m just throwing out a few observations because you like when I do that.”
“You’re right. I do like it. Your questions hone my brain, when they’re not driving me crazy.”
“Too bad. I’m a complete package. You can’t pick and choose.”
I chuckled. A twenty-something waitress came to our table. Judging from the shadows under her washed-out eyes, she, like me, didn’t get much sleep. Neither Dad nor I was particularly hungry. The Loo ordered a half cantaloupe and asked for a refill of his coffee. I settled on coffee, a large orange juice, and rye toastwith butter and jam,if you please. I may like the underfed look, but dieting was for chumps.
Decker said, “I bet you could tell if the blood was from a birthing mother. Because the puddle might contain some of the baby’s blood as well. The hospital lab could help you out with that one. Now tell me your line of reasoning… why you think it was someone local.”
Anticipating this discussion, I had organized my thinking. “Why would someone choose to have a baby in thatparticularback alley? So this tells me a couple of things. One, she was scared and wanted to get rid of the kid ASAP without anyone seeing. Second, if she had any kind of resources-like a car-she wouldn’t have delivered in an alley. So maybe the girl is below driving age, or doesn’t have a car. So she walked to the spot. Meaning I’m looking for a postpartum girl who lives within walking distance to the alley.”
“Or…,” Decker prompted.
“Or possibly a homeless person.”
“There you go,” Decker answered. “What’s the skin tone of the baby?”
“Medium brown. From the looks of her, she could be just about any race except for maybe Nordic. My district is a real polyglot of races.”
The sullen waitress with the baggy eyes brought over our meager order. Her disposition would improve when the meal was over. Today was my treat and I was a big tipper.
After she left, Decker said, “The blood work might help you out with the baby’s race, too. If I were on the case, I’d call up the hospital lab.”
“Don’t I need some kind of court order to do that?”
“Probably. But sometimes, if you just go down and make an appearance, you can persuade the technicians to talk to you.”
Koby came to mind. I wondered if he was working today. “Right. Good idea.” I warmed my fingers on my coffee mug. “Things okay with you, Dad?”
“Things are coming along.”
I looked at my father in earnest. Over the past couple of months, he had traversed some rough roads, things he refused to talk about. He kept up a stoic appearance-big worries rarely registered on his face-but I knew better. There was always a telltale sign. The twitch of his mouth, the shift in his gaze. I switched the discussion to neutral ground. “How’s the family?”
“Great.” He sounded like he meant it.
“How’s my Hannah Banana?”
“Your sister’s scary.”
“At ten, her vocabulary is probably bigger than mine.”
“Well, it’s definitely bigger than mine.”
“Is Jacob adjusting to college all right?”
“Yes, very well, thanks.” Dad looked at me. “It’s nice of you to ask, Cindy.”
“And Sammy? Didn’t you say something about a girlfriend?” Surprise in Dad’s eyes. “See? I listen when you talk.”
“Sammy and Rachel are still an item as far as I know.” Decker took my hand. “How areyoudoing, Princess?”
“I’m all right, Dad. Waiting patiently for my turn in the Detectives squad room. In the meantime, I’m studying for the Sergeant’s exam. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school, but it’s going well.”
“Brains was never your problem.” He dropped my hand, then fiddled with his coffee cup. “Getting out at all?”
He was staring somewhere over my shoulder, trying to hide his concern. The truth was that both of us had experienced terrible ordeals, events that had almost cost us our lives. And neither of us was eager to talk about them.
“I’m still in the bowling league.” I scrunched up my eyes and made a moue. “Don’t worry. I’m fine. If you want to help me, give me some tips on finding this mother. Even if the mom never sees her child again, the kid deserves to know something about her genetics, don’t you think?”
“Any advice other than the lab?”
“Visit the local schools-Mid-City High or even the local junior highs because you’re looking for a girl without a car. Ask the teachers who has been missing, who was pregnant, who may look like they’re pregnant but is not saying anything.”
“That’s a good idea.” I felt suddenly dispirited. Why hadn’t I thought of those things? Of course, Decker picked up on it.
“Cynthia, Ishouldknow more than you at this stage.” His smile was tender and a bit sad. “Although sometimes I wonder. I’m certainly not immune to failure.”
I waited for him to say more. Of course, he didn’t. So I told him I thought he was terrific.
Decker smiled. “Likewise. I’m your biggest fan.”
“I know you are, Daddy.”
“No, not… well, how about this? Suppose… suppose, I find the mother. Let’s say she’s fifteen andhermother won’t let me talk to her or see her. What do I do?”
“You use psychology to convince the mother that it’s in her best interest for you to interview her daughter.”
“How do I do that?”
Decker smiled. “Charm.”
I busied myself with my toast, eating quickly and without talking. The meal was essentially over in ten minutes. When I saw Decker sneaking a look at his watch, I knew I should let him go. He had taken time off from work. It would be rude of me to keep him longer.
I left a ten on the table. When he balked, I insisted. Decker walked me to my car, opening the driver’s door like the true gentleman he was. I hesitated before getting inside.
“I don’t know if I can be charming, Decker.”
“It depends on how badly you want that gold shield,” he responded.
I didn’t answer.
Decker said, “Practice smiling in front of a mirror, Princess. It’ll help to wipe the sneer from your face.”
Located smack in the centerof Hollywood just east of the famous Sunset Strip, Mid-City High connoted glamour to the uninitiated, but in fact, it was a dispirited school in a depressed area. It compensated for its age by being big-blocks long with intermittent patches of green lawn. The flesh-colored pink stucco building was constructed with lots of curved walls and glass-block windows-fashionable architecture in the ’40s and ’50s. Some of the exterior was painted with patriotic or ethnic murals, other parts held smudges of unwanted graffiti. A couple of smog-tolerant palm trees and clumps of banana plants rounded out the picture of old Los Angeles. I jogged up the twenty-plus steps leading to the front entrance and pulled open the brick-colored doors.
I was no stranger there, having been sent before by the Department to deliver the “earnest” drug talks with the students. Last year, I also manned the LAPD booth with George Losario on Career Day. We were deluged with working-class teenage boys interested in excitement and power. The biggest problem for most of them was the high school diploma required by the Police Academy. The dropout rate at Mid-City was substantial. George and I used the opportunity to encourage them to stay in school.
Quite a few of my colleagues had more than the requisite high school education. Some had A.A. degrees from community college; others had B.A.’s. I had a master’s from Columbia. It made me an oddball with the other uniforms as well as an object of suspicion. I was working really hard to overcome prejudice and had met with some success. I wasn’t complaining, and it wouldn’t help if I did.
The hallways were crowded and sweaty with adolescent hormones and nonstop activity; school was now year-round in the L.A. unified district. Noisy, old, tired, Mid-City was only several miles away from the cultured Hollywood Bowl Amphitheater, but light-years away from the West L.A. area, where the privileged often eschewed the neglected public institutions in favor of posh private schools. I had to hand it to my stepmother. Though Hannah was an outstanding standardized-test taker, Rina wouldn’t ever dream of sending my half sister to a privatesecularschool. Instead, she elected to send her to a privatereligiousschool-a seat-of-the-pants Jewish day school. She prized religious studies above all, and in return for her faith in God, she was rewarded by not having to worry about entrance exams and interviews for my ten-year-old sister.
Jaylene Taylor held the title of Girls Vice-Principal. She was tall and big-boned with a broad forehead, long equine teeth, and dark eyes. She wore a beige blouse that sat over navy slacks and sensible flats. When I told her why I was there, the dark eyes narrowed and her mouth screwed up into a distasteful look.
“I can’t just hand out names of our students. Everyone has rights, even minors.”
Not technically true, but now was not the time to get legal.
“Besides,” Jaylene continued, “you don’t want pregnant students, you want girls who were formerly pregnant. You know the dropout rate we have with pregnant girls?”
“I bet it’s high.”
“Skyscraper high. We’ve got all these state-mandated testing-program requirements.Ourmain problem is getting the students to show up and put in the hours to graduate. Academics?” She stuck out her tongue. “What’s that?”
“I went to public school.”
She threw me a sour expression that screamed:Look where it got you!
“All I want to do is talk to them, Ms. Taylor.”
“They’re scattered, Officer Decker.” She was regarding me with contempt. Or maybe that was contempt at life in general. “We don’t run a school for wayward teen girls who can’t say no.” Under her breath: “Although sometimes it feels that way.”
“Don’t these girls have special classes?”
Her laugh was mirthless. “They have an entire major. It’s called Household Arts, although you don’t have to be pregnant to declare it as your area of study.” She rolled her eyes. “Diaper changing 101.” A sigh. “It’s not that bad. And I suppose it’s a lot more relevant to the girls than Shakespeare.”
“I would thinkRomeo and Julietwould be very relevant to a teenage girl. Relevant as well as romantic.”
“Your assumptions are predicated on their being able to read.”
I stopped being adversarial and resorted to pleading. “Ms. Taylor, the mother dropped her infant in a Dumpster like garbage. Maybe if we canimpressupon these girls that there’s no reason toeverhurt their babies, that there are ways to give up infants that are legal and anonymous, then maybe we can save a life in the future.”
“You don’t think wetellthem?”
“Of course you do. But there’s nothing like a real-life case to illustrate it. You know, kinda bring it home anecdotally.”
She twisted her mouth and glared at me. Then, abruptly, her face softened and I knew she relented. “We offer a fourth-period prenatal class for pregnant girls who are excused from regular gym. I suppose hearing it from an officer won’t hurt.” She eyed me with suspicion. “It would have helped if you had come in your uniform.”
“I’m doing this on my own time. If it’s a big success, I’ll go through official channels next time.”
“All right. Let’s go. Don’t get your hopes up. And don’t believe everything they tell you. These ladies are notoriously good bullshitters.”
There were twenty-three girls, none of them married, and in most cases, the boyfriends were peripheral. Most were from broken homes, and none had any money. What kind of future did these girls have? How were they going to support their children and themselves without becoming a statistic on the slippery slope downward?
I tried to speak to them without condescension, lecturing with passion and honesty. But after the first couple of minutes, I had lost 90 percent of the attention in the room. Their restless eyes went to the wall clock and skipped around space. They regarded their long, polished nails; a couple of them refreshed their mouths with generous lipstick applications; several girls pulled out copies ofTeenmagazine and thumbed through the pages as I spoke. So I concentrated on those who still deigned to make eye contact with me.
I started off with the laws concerning infant abandonment. If the child is dropped off in front of a police station or at a hospital, the mother will not be prosecuted if she has given birth within twenty-four hours. And even if the child is abandoned, the mother can still escape prosecution if she makes herself known within seventy-two hours. There was no reasoneverto discard an infant.
When I brought up last night’s case, I detected a whiff of interest from some of the girls. Just a whiff, though. Mostly, the girls continued to shuffle their feet, clear their throats, and watch the clock. Ten minutes before class was up, I asked if anyone knew of a desperate pregnant girl who might be the mother. I told them that the mother needed psychological help and medical attention. Surely they could understand her emotional position. I directed my pleas to a girl sitting in the second row, left-hand side. She wore a sleeveless russet tent dress, the hemline resting against smooth thighs. She had round brown eyes and long, straight blond hair that reached her shoulders. A pretty little thing, even with the butterfly encased in a heart tattooed on her left shoulder. Her right shoulder held the name CARISSE done in florid script.
Her eyes took me in, although as soon as the bell rang, she was out of her seat, her books pressed against her ample bosom and oversize belly. I called out the name etched in blue on her skin. She turned around.
“Can I talk to you for a moment?”
I said, “You seemed to be paying attention… focusing on what I was saying-”
“I’m gonna be late for class.”
“I’ll write you a note.”
A swish of the hair.
“C’mon,” I prodded. “Help me out. You know who I’m talking about?”
“No.” A shake of her head. “It’s not like I know every knocked-up girl in the city.”
“Okay, so you don’t know her personally. But maybe you’veseena girl who fits the picture?”
Carisse shifted the books in her arms. “Not too far from here… maybe… a couple of blocks east… maybe more.”
“At a bus stop at night. It’s not far from where I live. I seen this girl sittin’ on the bench. She never goes on the bus, and I never seen her comin’ off the bus, either. She just sits there. Like, I’m not saying she’s homeless. And I’m not saying she’s preggers. But she is fat and dressed weird. Just sittin’ on the bus bench, readin’ the same book. I haven’t seen her for a couple of weeks… maybe longer. I was wonderin’ if like… you know, something happened to her.”
“Hey, you’re a cop. This far east… it ain’t Beverly Hills, you know. Lots of hustlers and lots of poor slobs.”
“Hey, Carisse, I know who you mean.”
I turned to the sound of the voice. This one had short black hair, white foundation, and black lipstick and eyeliner. She wore a black dress that fell past her knees. Her boots disappeared under the ragged hemline. I thought the Goth look was long gone, but I guess I was wrong. She stuck out her hand. “Rhiannon… like the witch in a Fleetwood Mac song.”
Carisse rolled her eyes. “It’s really Roseanne-”
“It’s whatever I want it to be,be-ach.”
“Hold on!” I broke in. “Let’s keep it friendly.”
“Fine!” Rhiannon clutched her books to her chest and regarded me with wounded eyes. “I think I seen her, too. That homeless girl. She carries a purse made outta shells.”
Carisse nodded. “Yeah, that’s the one.”
“I didn’t know she was pregnant.”
“I’m not saying shewaspregnant, only that she was fat and was readin’ this book.”
I said, “Do you remember the title of the book?”
Carisse shook her head. “You know, she didn’t look like she was really readin’ it. Just like… looking at the pictures.”
“Why don’t you think she was reading the text?”
“ ’Cause she was moving her lips as she went through the book… like turnin’ the pageswaytoo fast. And mumblin’ as she turned the pages. Like talkin’ to herself.”
“Can you describe her?”
“She had a pink face and she was fat,” Carisse told me.
“She was Caucasian, then?”
“Yeah, she was real white… like pink.”
“Something’s wrong with her.” Rhiannon twirled an index finger next to her temple.
“And she talked to herself?” I repeated.
“I dunno,” Rhiannon said. “Never got that close.”
“Like I said, she mumbled,” Carisse told me. “She dressed weird, bundled up in layers of clothing. You could tell she was hot. She was sweating. Her face was covered in sweat… kinda piggish looking… real pink, you know.”
I nodded encouragement. “Eye color, hair color?”
“Blondish hair,” Rhiannon volunteered.
Blondish hair. For Rhiannon to have noticed blond hair at nighttime, it must have meant that the woman was very blond. Also, it meant something else to me: that the woman’s hair was relatively clean. Even blond hair gets dark when it’s dirty and greasy. Neither girl mentioned anything about her smell, usually the first thing people noticed when dealing with the homeless.
“And you haven’t seen her for a while?”
“I haven’t looked for her,” Carisse said. “You asked me for ideas, I gave you some.”
“Thank you. You’ve both been very helpful.” I gave each of them my business card. “If you see her again, you’ll give me a call.”
Rhiannon squinted at the card. “ ‘Cyn-thi-a Decker.’ ” She looked at me. “That’s you?”
“How long have you been a cop?”
“So you’re still, like, new at it?”
“I’ve been around,” I told her.
“You like it?”
“So, like, what does it take to be a cop?”
There was the long answer. Being a cop for me meant a passionate desire to help people and a fierce determination to seek justice. It meant courage, fortitude, physical stamina, and a tolerance for long, lonely nights. It meant having a clearly defined sense of self, a scrupulous honesty, and comfort with alienation. It meant wrestling with demons in nightmares that sometimes come true. It meant all those things to me, and a lot more.
But I gave her the short answer. It takes a high school diploma and a warm body. Oh, and if you have a clean record that always helps, although it’s not mandatory.
What’s a misdemeanor drug possession between friends?
Ididn’t get a chanceto check up on the blood work.” “Okay.” Dad didn’t say more. He was expecting my next request.
I shifted my cell from one ear to the other. “I don’t suppose you’d like to make a phone call to the hospital?”
“Cindy, it’s not my place. Also, maybe Van Horn placed a call. Did you check?”
I knew Greg was twelve hours away from vacation time… not a chance. “I don’t think so. I just thought it would sound more official coming from a lieutenant. But you’re right. I’ll make my own call. Get my own feet wet, right?”
“Why don’t you coordinate with Detective Van Horn?”
“I will in two weeks, when he comes back from vacation.” Silence over the phone. The Loo wasn’t rescuing me. “It was nice seeing you this morning, Daddy.”
A long sigh breathed over the line. “What did you do after breakfast?”
“I went to Mid-City High School per your suggestion. It was a good one.” I related the conversation I had with Carisse and Rhiannon. Decker picked up on the blond hair as well.
“If Rhiannon could tell she had blond hair, it means to me that the woman probably has access to a shower or bath. Any idea of the age?”
Decker said, “If there’s something off about her, maybe instead of homeless shelters, you should try looking into vocational schools for the developmentally disabled. Maybe the girl was well cared for, but retarded.”
“That would be so sad,” I said. “A retarded girl giving birth in the back alley of Hollywood. She must be so frightened. And what kind of chance does the kid have?”
“Some people are remarkable survivors.” A pause. “I’m talking to one of them.”
I felt myself smiling. “Funny, Decker. I was going to say the same thing.”
After such an extraordinary night, I was glad that my shift contained the usual suspects: drunks, hookers, hustlers, and other various and sundry miscreants. I rode with my sometimes partner-Graham Beaudry-who wavered between hours on the Day and Evening watch. He was one of the few men in the department whom I didn’t absolutely distrust.
Tonight was made up of banal traffic tickets and motorist warnings sandwiched in between other “hot” incidents. On the plate were a couple of alcohol-related domestics, a hysterical wife who had blown up her stove, a bad fender bender that sent a couple of people to Adventist (they would be okay), and a missing teen who turned out to be sniffing glue in her boyfriend’s garage apartment.
I finished my shift at eleven, and because the station house was so close to Mid-City Pediatric, I figured I’d take a chance and try to find out something about the baby’s blood work. I knew that Koby was my best bet for information, but I didn’t want to give the guy the impression that I was stalking him. But if I saw him, well, what could I do? And if I couldn’t get any information on the abandoned infant, perhaps I could just hold her in my arms again. Like Marnie the elfin nurse had said, babies thrive on human contact.
After checking in at the front desk, I was allowed to go up to the neonatal ward. Marnie wasn’t on shift, but Koby was. He was wearing a white coat over a denim shirt and jeans. He saw me through tired eyes and his face lit up.
“You are here. I hope it’s me and not hospital coffee.”
I smiled. “Have you gone home since last night?”
“Why? I look that tired?”
“You look fine.”
“I’m sure I don’t. Two people called in sick. I do a double shift, working with five hours of sleep.”
“I can manage. You look lovely.”
“Thank you. I like the white coat. Very eminent.”
He smiled. “Almost like a real doctor, no?”
I felt myself getting warm. “I didn’t mean it that way at all.”
“I am teasing you because you blush so easily. I find it charming.”
“To me, it’s just annoying.”
“You are forced to wear your emotions. I can hide behind my dark complexion. I wear the white coat because I just finished up a teaching seminar with a group of nursing students from one of the colleges. USC, I think.” He checked his watch. “I finish maybe fifteen minutes ago.”
“Night classes… it’s part of the curriculum. I take them on rounds… the hands-on approach. Of course, all it does is scare them.” He rolled his eyes. “The hospital likes us to wear white coats instead of scrubs when we lecture. It’s ridiculous-first the scrubs, then the coat, then back to the scrubs. I change so much, I should be on a catwalk.”
“Your smile is so nice. And what are your plans?”
“I just got off work. After my stop here, I’m going home.”
“A pity. I won’t be off until six in the morning. Two camels passing through the night.”
“Are you going to be up for tomorrow’s lunch?”
“Yes, most certainly.Pleasedon’t cancel on me.”
“No problem.” I lowered my voice. “I have a favor to ask you.”
He chuckled. “What can I help you with, Cindy?”
I patted his shoulder. “You’re very nice. They’ve done lab work on the infant I brought in, right?”
“You were there when I draw the blood. What’s on your mind?”
“Is there any marker in her blood that would suggest that she is of one race or another? I’m trying to search for the mother, and the only lead I have so far is a blond white woman. The baby doesn’t look Caucasian to me.”
“That is because she isn’t, and I don’t need a lab to tell you that. She is of mixed blood-black and white.”
“Why not Hispanic?”
“The skin tone is different, and the features don’t suggest it. Hispanic infants just don’t look like she does. The thicker lips, the flaring nostrils, the broad forehead-suggestive of African blood, but it’s not as pronounced. My own siblings are mixed race. It’s not so hard for me to spot.”
“So if the mother is white…”
“Yes, it means the father is black.”
“Thanks, Koby. You’ve been a big help.”
He smiled, but it was tinged with uneasiness. He appeared to be wrestling with something.
“What?” I said. “You’re not supposed to be talking to me? Don’t worry. I won’t say anything.”
He looked around, then beckoned me into an empty hospital room. He closed the door. We were alone, but no sexual electricity this time. He was all business. “The baby. She has pronounced spatulate thumbs. I notice it as soon as she came in.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means her thumbs are short and look like spoons. Also, her eyes. It’s hard to tell because she’s a newborn, but I thought I detect epicanthic folds. I pointed it out to the resident. She agrees with my observations.”
“Okay. And they are significant because…”
“They may not be significant. We’ll know when the chromosomes are looked at.”
“Possibly the baby has Down’s syndrome.”
My heart dropped. “Down’s syndrome?”
“Possibly.”He smiled sadly. “I’m not sure, Cindy. I could be wrong.”
“Why don’t I expect that to be the case?”
“You’re saddened, I understand. But I see it differently. The child is different, this is true, but basically she’s healthy.” He laid a large hand on my shoulder. “So much sickness here. Life has thrown all these families curveballs. She still needs love. Hopefully, we’ll find a home that will take care of her special needs. I’m only telling you this because you are looking for the parents. If I am right-and maybe I am not-you might want to keep this private information in mind when you do your search.”
Of course, that was why he was bending the rules. Not to sadden me, but to help in my quest. The parents might be normal looking, but maybe one of them was Down’s as well. I was more determined than ever to find my little baby’s parents.
“When will the results come in?”
“Maybe tomorrow. I’ll tell you when I know something definite.”
Mixed race and one of the parentsmightbe Down’s. I knew a lot more going out than I did coming in. And wasn’t that the purpose of this visit?
“Can I hold her, Koby?”
“It’s a very busy night, Cindy.”
I stood my ground. He exhaled. “I give you five minutes. And that includes the time it takes to suit up.”
“I’m a very fast dresser.”
“Come.” He led me into the office that adjoined the nursery. He watched me with intensity as I donned the paper suit, observing my every move, but this time his eyes were not at all hungry. They held an expression of wariness. I asked him what was wrong.
He said, “You are getting attached to her, Cindy. Watch yourself or you’ll be in for a broken heart.”
“The question is, how do younotget attached to them?”
His smile was a plaintive memory. “After many broken hearts, you learn.”
Breakfast wasa quick affair-coffee, juice, and a bowl of granola with skim milk. In working mode, I dressed for efficiency: gray slacks, black ribbed crewneck sweater-merino wool because it and cashmere were the only kinds of wool I could wear against my skin-and black flats. Because I was meeting Koby for lunch, I brought along a pair of pumps and a colorful scarf to offset the look of a funeral director. Scarves were wonderful. Throw them around your neck and people thought you took great pride in your appearance.
There was just one vocational school that looked promising. Fordham Communal Center for the Developmentally Disabled sat just east of Hollywood in the Silver Lake district-yes, there really was a reservoir lake. The neighborhood was predominantly Latino, but it held smatterings of other nationalities who had gone through the portals of INS. The school’s address was a half block from Sunset Boulevard, that handy crosstown thoroughfare that began at the Pacific Ocean and died east of Dodger stadium.
I found a parking space on the side street and got out of the car, armed with a badge and medical information. The building was a renovated two-story Arts and Crafts hunter green bungalow surrounded by a porch and topped by a peaked roof. Buttermilk-colored wood trim framed the front door and encased two multipaned side windows. Leading up to the door was a lovely stone walkway. After giving the knocker a few judicious raps, I was buzzed in.
I was surprised that the house appeared to have maintained its original floor plan. There was a tiny vestibule that led into a sun-drenched living room replete with desks and other office paraphernalia. Natural light was made possible by windows and French doors in the back wall through which I could see a panoply of color-an array of flower gardens fit for any Impressionist painting. I could make out figures tilling and tending the soil.
The woman who manned the desk closest to the entry was already on her feet. She was blond and thin and appeared perpetually nervous. “Can I help you?”
I showed my badge and ID. Lapis eyes widened as she read the pertinent information. “Officer Decker, is it?”
“Indeed it is. I’m trying to find out information on someone. Who would I talk to for that?”
“What kind of information?”
“It might be personal. Are you in charge?”
“No, that would be Mr. Klinghoffner.”
“Could I speak to him, please?”
“I think he’s upstairs.”
I didn’t say anything and neither did she. After a few seconds passed, I smiled and said, “When do you think he might come downstairs?”
“Oh, I can go get him if you want.”
“Yes, I would like that, thank you.”
“Okay.” She didn’t move, her eyes nervously scanning around the room. “You can sit down if you want.”
“Okay.” I decided she wanted me to sit before she fetched the boss. There was a cozy arrangement in the center of the room-a floral upholstered sofa and two matching overstuffed chairs. I elected to park myself on the couch and sank down into the cushions. She stared at me for a moment, then bounded up to the second story.
The house still had much of its old-world charm-arched entryways, hardwood floors, casement windows, a wood-beamed ceiling, and lots of built-in oak bookshelves and cabinets. The room was square and at each corner was a work area-a desk and chair, a file cabinet, and a computer station. With the nervous woman upstairs in search of Mr. Klinghoffner, the only other person on the floor was a beanpole man in the right corner. He appeared to be in his late twenties with a short haircut and a mottled complexion. Buried in his paperwork, he didn’t bother to look at me. But that didn’t stop me from staring at him. When he did look up, he colored red and went back to his piles of pulp.
It was time for me to interject some novelty into his life. “What are you working on?”
“Pardon?” His eyes jumped to my face, his cheeks still pink. “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes, sir, I am. You seem to be working on something very important.”
“Not important, just vast.” His eyes went back to his desktop. “All this paperwork: rules, regulations, statutes, ordinances. Whoever the government doesn’t tax to death, it drowns in paperwork. Either way, it’s going to kill us all. You, me, my dog, your cat-”
“I don’t own a cat.”
“I wasn’t talking literally!” he replied, bristling. “Forget it!”
“You seem stressed,” I remarked.
“Oh please! If I hear that word one more time, I really will upchuck! Anyone who works with bureaucracy is stressed! Obviously, you don’t.”
“I work for LAPD. They don’t come any more bureaucratic than that institution.”
“Or any more corrupt, if you don’t mind my impudence. What are you working on?”
“Talk about impudence.”
“Top secret?” he asked in a bored voice.
“Nothing important. I’m Cindy Decker, by the way.” Silence. “I suppose your mother christened you with a name?”
More silence. The guy was a first-class tool. His desk was set against a window, and abruptly a female face pressed itself against the glass. She had short dark hair, hooded eyes, and a gaping mouth with triangular-shaped teeth. She seemed short and was holding a hoe, almost a takeoff onAmerican Gothic.She bore a worrisome expression. With deliberation, she raised her fist and tapped on the windowpane. The beanpole looked up and gave her a half smile that almost humanized him.
“Back to work, young ’un!” he shouted through the glass. “Rest is for old folk.”
The lines on her forehead deepened. She started to complain about something. I could tell by her tone of voice, although I couldn’t understand her. Her speech wasn’t clear and she spoke through a glass barrier. “Skinny Man” rolled his eyes, then got up and opened the door. They talked for a moment and then she left. He sat down and resumed his paperwork.
“Is she okay?” I asked.
He stared at me. “Of course, she’sokay.Why wouldn’t she beokay?”
“She just seemed… I don’t know… a little lost.”
“I hope you’re a better cop than you are a psychologist.” A derisive sneer. “She wants to know how long until lunch. Then after lunch, they want to know how long before dinner. Their lives revolve around meals. Life would be simpler if we had bells, like in school. You’ll have to excuse me. Some of us have deadlines to meet.”
As in:Shut up.But it didn’t matter because “Nervous Girl” had reappeared with whom I assumed was Mr. Klinghoffner-a man who looked to be in his mid-fifties. He had a shock of thick gray hair, was fat across the middle, and had chubby cheeks to match. All he needed was the suit and the white beard and I was looking at Santa Claus. I got up and extended my hand. He took it politely with a limp-fish shake.
“Jamie tells me you’re from the police?”
Jamie must be the nervous girl. “That’s right, Mr. Klinghoffner. I was wondering if I could talk to you for a moment. Privacy would be preferred.”
“Don’t bother, I’m not listening, I couldn’t care less,” Skinny Man chimed out.
Klinghoffner laughed. “Don’t mind Buck.”
Buck?I had the good sense to keep my smile in check.
“It’s evaluation time for the Center for funds.” Klinghoffner kneaded doughy hands. “Lots of paperwork. He’s a bit tense. Let’s go into my office. This way.”
He led me through a kitchen that still had its original cabinets and fixtures. The counters were tiled in sunny yellow, and a diamond pattern of midnight blue and yellow made up the back-splash. Klinghoffner’s office was off to the right-a tiny room that was probably once a pantry. When he closed the door, it was pretty tight inside, but it did have a nice-size picture window and a skylight giving a blue clue to a world beyond.
“How can I help you, Officer?”
“If you read the papers on Tuesday morning, you’ll know that LAPD found an abandoned baby in Hollywood.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Terrible.”
“The baby is doing well. We have reason to believe that the mother is Caucasian and possibly developmentally disabled.”
Klinghoffner appeared to be thinking about it. “I’m not… aware of any of our women being pregnant.”
“Or was pregnant. But I don’t know everything.”
Covering his rather commodious butt. “Okay. Maybe we could talk in theoretical terms.”
“I’m not being cagey, Officer Decker, I just don’t know. We try to teach our students about the birds and the bees, but most of their guardians-the parents, the siblings, the aunts-they don’t like to leave things to chance. Many of our women are sterilized coming in. The last thing anyone needs is another special child to deal with.”
I thought about my poor little baby. Maybe she’d be okay. Maybe Koby was wrong. “You said many of your women are sterilized.”
“Yes. But it’snota back-alley thing. There is full consent-from the families, from the women themselves. They request it, Officer. They know that they are in no position to raise a child, should they have sex.”
“You allow them to have sex?”
“No, not here. But drives are drives. We are realistic. And the women who aren’t sterilized, we give them the pill every day along with their vitamins. We make sure they take it.”
“Are the women aware that by doing this, they can’t get pregnant?”
“We explain it to them. Some comprehend more than others.”
“But you don’t require them to take birth control, do you?”
He heaved a great sigh. “We don’t strap them down, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“I’m sorry. I know you have a difficult task. I’m not passing judgment.”
“That’s good,” the director said. “It’s hard enough teaching our students about hygiene, let alone sex. We just try to make sure that if sex happens, the women are not left coping with something they’re not equipped to cope with.”
“Do the women know what they’re doing when they have sex?”
Klinghoffner pursed his lips. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Is it consensual as opposed to forced on them?”
“Good Lord, I hope it’s consensual, although I suspect I know what you’re saying. The young women here… They’re not used to having control over their bodies. They’ve been told what to do all their lives. We have counselors here to help them integrate sex and health education.”
He looked away.
“We do not allow sex within these walls. But the few times I’ve actually caught a pair in the act, I’ve looked the other way in terms of punishment. I did take the parties involved aside and insist they get some couples counseling. For precisely the reason you stated. To make sure that nothing was forced.”
“The parties were all right with the sexual relationship. But their guardians were not. A few times, I’ve had students pulled out of the programs because of it.”
I tried being charming. “And might you know any woman pulled out of the program because of having sex, say… within the last nine months? Maybe one with Down’s?”
“Not Down’s, although we do have students here with Down’s.”
“So you’re thinking of someone specific.”
Klinghoffner stalled. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
“The girl needs medical attention.”
“Yes, of course.” Klinghoffner drummed his fingers on the table. “We have a girl here. She’s been sick on and off for the last year. I haven’t seen her in a month. She lives with her sister.”
“Heavyset and very blond?”
He thought for a moment. Then he nodded.
“But not Down’s,” I said.
“No, she’s not Down’s. She has cerebral palsy, although that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s a garbage-can term. Her gross motor coordination is very, very poor. Her fine motor coordination is not as bad as you’d think by looking at her. She’s mentally disabled, no doubt about that, but she has skills. She can take care of herself-bathe, dress, go to the bathroom, even cook a little. And she can work a computer. She does some data entry for us. Quite good at it.”
I was quiet.
“A very sweet girl. Maybe a bit more subdued the last couple of months. I probably should have said something, but there are so many kids here.” Now he was upset. “They’re like children. They upset easily. Sometimes I miss things.”
“We all do.”
“Let me walk you back to reception. I’ll get you the address.”
“Thank you, Mr. Klinghoffner. You’re doing the right thing.”
“I hope so.”
I sat back on the couch and waited. I hoped I didn’t have to tarry too long, because “Beanpole Buck” had taken a real dislike to me. He glared at me over his piles of paper. I guess if I looked like him and was named Buck, I wouldn’t be too happy, either.
At last Buck spoke. “Find what you’re looking for?”
“If you tell me what you need, maybe I could help you out.”
A legitimate offer for help? I couldn’t believe it. Nor did I trust him.
“Thanks, but I’m okay.”
He stiffened. “Only trying to help.”
“I know. I appreciate it.”
Klinghoffner returned, ending the awkward moment. “Let me walk you out.”
He handed me the paper once we were outside and away from prying eyes. I thanked him again, and he left me at the curb. The name was Sarah Sanders. Her guardian was Louise Sanders, her sister.
They lived in the foothills of Hollywood.
I turned the address over and over in my hand. I really,reallywanted to go to the house, but it wasn’t my place to be the primary interviewer. I was just too low on the food chain. At this point, all I could do was collect the data and give it to someone else to interpret.
Still, I didn’t call Greg Van Horn right away. I had a lunch date to keep. No sense in making decisions on an empty stomach.
Little Addis Ababasat on the corner of Fairfax and Olympic-an incongruent disk of Ethiopian culture encircled by predominantly Jewish areas and establishments. On my way home from work, I must have driven by there dozens of times, but I never paid much attention. Now I observed with virgin eyes. I found metered parking on the street a few yards away from the ubiquitous Star$s. Catercorner to where I was standing was a block-long Jewish school called Shalhevet-grades six through twelve.
Standing directly across from me, Koby was dressed in black jeans and a long-sleeved coffee-colored shirt two shades darker than his skin tone. Several gold chains rested around a bare neck. He waved and so did I. After I traversed the heavily trafficked street, he greeted me with a peck on the cheek and a wide smile. He was carrying a large blue paper bag from The Gap.
“You look lovely,” he said. “Nice outfit. I like the scarf. It adds flair.”
“You look rather fetching yourself. I like the jewelry.”
“Sort of retro disco, no?”
“All you need is a gold razor blade to complete the image.”
“Yeah, then I really give the cops an excuse to pull…” He looked away and clenched a fist. “I don’t believe I say that!”
I laughed. “That’s all right. I would have pulled you over. Feel better now?”
“I am very stupid!”
“You are very honest.” I quickly switched gears, pointing to the school across the way, specifically to a lit candle painted on the wall. “Does‘shalhevet’mean fire in Hebrew?”
“Fire is‘aish,’ ”he told me.“ ‘Shalhevet’is flame.”
“My stepmother would love you. You should come to the house forShabbatdinner sometime.”
“That would be great. I am free this Friday.”
My mouth opened and I shut it quickly. My foot was so far down my throat, it was in my stomach. “Uh, I’ll ask her. I don’t know her plans…”
His laugh was good-natured, but tinged with embarrassment. Even through the dark complexion, I detected a rosy glow. “Again I speak without thinking. I am too anxious. Sorry. Whenever is fine, Cindy. You barely know me.”
If I reneged now, I’d be a chump. “No, really, it’s fine. I’ll ask her.”
“If you ask and she says yes, I’ll come. So I give you an excuse. You can always say that she said no.”
“I don’t need excuses, Koby, I have an open invitation.” Now it was a matter of pride. “You’re invited. I’ll tell my dad to tell my stepmother, all right?”
“If you still feel that way after lunch, I’d be happy to come.” He handed me the sack. “This is for you. I didn’t have a chance to wrap anything.”
I knew how late he had worked, and was touched by his thoughtfulness. “Thank you. How do you know my size?”
“I don’t. Look inside.”
I did, pulling out a pound of coffee and a round, spongy brown disk packaged in plastic. He took the coffee from me and opened it. “Special blend. Smell.”
“Better than the hospital cafeteria’s brew, no?”
“Much better.” I held up the plastic package. “What’s with the Frisbee?”
“It’sinjera-Ethiopian spongy flat bread. It is made from teff-our special grain.” He placed the items back into the bag. “I give you food. For an Ethiopian, that’s a most precious gift.”
“I didn’t make a reservation. How about we walk around and see what looks good?”
I told him that sounded fine. We started down the busy street accompanied by vehicular noise pollution and the blare of rhythmic music coming from the Lion of Judah travel agency and CD emporium. The block was a mishmash of retail outlets-Jewish thrift shops, a junkyard, discount stores, a cake shop, and, of course, the Ethiopian contingent. Within seconds, I cleverly surmised that the state colors were green, yellow, and red because at least five storefronts were emblazoned with stripes in those hues. Even the distant Shell station fit right in.
There were three restaurants, all of them having marquees in English as well as squiggles I assumed to be Amharic. There was a store that specialized ininjeraand exotic spices. Even through the closed door, I could smell the tantalizing aromas. There was a dress shop boasting organic fabrics with a white cotton smock in the window festooned with red, green, and yellow ribbons around the neck. The shelves around the clothes offered a variety of silver rings and crosses, lots of shell jewelry, and a whole host of primitive-looking dolls. Koby saw me staring.
“Do you want to go in?”
“No, it’s all right. Maybe later.”
“Here is Gursha. Would you like to try it?”
He opened the door for me and we walked in.
The place was small and homey with a chockablock decor. The wallpaper was a pattern of various animal footprints and served as a backdrop for posters of Ethiopia, a map of the world, and dozens of photographs of smiling patrons. The tables and chairs were constructed of hay-colored cane painted with red geometric shapes, the ensemble topped by large, fringed cloth umbrellas. A couple of men ate in a pseudostraw hut next to the window, dininga mano: eating with their hands. The hostess was thin and delicate, with a long nose and round eyes typical of other Ethiopians I’d seen. She glanced at me, then spoke to Koby in her native language. They carried on a short conversation. Then she seated us at a table and distributed menus.
“I told her we were vegetarians,” Koby said. “She assured me that they have lots of vegetarian specialties.”
“Here we go,” I said. “There’s a vegetarian delight for two. It includesyater alitcha-”
“Peas with spices.”
“Mixed vegetables with spices.”
“Lentils with red-pepper sauce.”
I laughed. “Very funny. There’s baklava. Aha, something familiar. Let’s split that. Does that sound all right?”
“Do you eat with your fingers like you do in Moroccan restaurants?”
“Very similar. The meal is served oninjera.”
“The Frisbee bread.”
“Yes, exactly. You use theinjeraas your utensil and plate. You eat it as you go. Very little dishwashing.”
Again I laughed. The waitress came, looking askance at me and focusing on Koby. He ordered the food for both of us, but I ordered my own drink. After she left, I said, “I don’t think she likes me.”
“Could be because she’s shy and doesn’t speak English too good. Or it could be because you are with me and you are not one of us. In reality, I am not really one of them because I am Jewish.”
“A black Jew. Don’t make life too hard for yourself, Koby.”
“It is good to move in many worlds. Besides, I am what God made me. Just like the baby you found. Speaking of which…” He leaned over and spoke barely above a whisper. “I have good news.” His eyes were animated. “The baby… A preliminary genetic profile came back.”
I grew excited. “She isn’t Down’s-”
“Shhhh. I shouldn’t be talking to you about patients. Even babies.”
I nodded, then whispered, “So she’s normal?”
“Not exactly. She is what we call mosaic. That means she has some regular cells and some that are trisomy 21.”
“How does that happen?”
“Down’s is the result of the egg having an extra chromosome. Mosaic, the accident, happens in the second pass when the nucleus splits incorrectly.”
I nodded, but my face must have spelled confusion.
He said, “The union produces one zygote, yes. It splits into two normal cells. Then one of the normal cells splits incorrectly, making the body have half normal cells and half with trisomy 21-an extra twenty-first chromosome. What it means is the prognosis for her intellectual capacity is greater. She could be anywhere from retarded to normal.”
“That’s a long range.”
“True, but it’s still good news. This was unexpected, Cindy. Mosaic is very rare.”
My grin was real. “That’s wonderful.” My expression turned sober. “What does it say about her parents?”
“One of them could be Down’s, maybe not. We don’t know. The only thing I can tell you is that she has both white and black blood in her.” Our drinks came. “Enough of business. You know very much about me, but I know little about you. Tell me about your father and your religious stepmother and the rest of your family.”
I was momentarily taken aback. I had expected him to ask about me. Not to do so would have been rude. But I thought he’d start out with the usual: Why did I decide to become a cop? To ask about my family meant he was curious aboutme,not my profession. So I answered his question. I spoke about Rina and my father, about her influence in my father’s religious development. I segued to my mother and her current husband, Alan. Then I spoke about how I had grown up without any religious guidance, so it was a big shock when my father married my stepmother.
The service was slow. Normally, I’d be impatient, but I was yapping so much, I barely noticed. When the food finally came, I hadn’t even thought about the waiting time. The cuisine was piquant, not unlike Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, but unique because of a sour taste from theinjera.I couldn’t say it was love at first taste, but my tongue wasn’t complaining.
“What do you think?” Koby asked after a few moments.
“It’s good.” I tore off someinjeraand used it to eat the lentils. “Something really primal about eating with your fingers. Like when you were five and playing in the sandbox, getting your hands all dirty.”
“Thank you. You’ve hardly said a word,” I remarked. “You’re a very good listener.”
“You’re very interesting.”
“Now that is bald flattery.” I hid my face behind my water glass. “I think it’s because you’re a nurse. You’re used to listening to people.”
“Of course. And you too, no?”
“Yes, that’s true. Ninety percent of what I do is listening to people.”
“I as well.”
“Even with kids?”
He thought about that. “With the small children… The small ones don’t talk much. You make games to get them through the procedures. We have on staff several psychologists who do this. When they are too busy, the nurses do it. The little girls play with dolls, the boys… They like to hit and punch. Boys always like to hit and punch. When they are sick and angry, they really like to hit and punch. I spend a lot of time dodging punches from very angry boys.”
“It must be hard being around sick children all the time.”
He shrugged. “Sometimes. But it is rewarding. Like your job?”
“Yes.” I nodded. “Like my job.”
Koby said, “I change the subject now. The word‘gursha’means mouthful, but it’s also a tradition that we Ethiopians do.”
“We share our food. That is why everything is served on one plate. If we haveverygood time, we feed each other.”
He placed some spiced peas atop theinjeraand made a mini-sandwich. “Minhag Hamakom.That is Hebrew for the custom of the house. You must eat from my hands. Otherwise they think you don’t like me.”
“This is for real?”
I did. There was a twenty-something Ethiopian couple across from us. He wore a T-shirt and jeans and had Rastafarian curls; she had on a hot pink silk blouse and black stretch pants, and had her hair tied in a ponytail. She was indeed feeding her lunch companion with her hands.
“Okay,” I said warily. “As long as I get to feed you.”
“Of course. That is the point.”
As soon as his hands touched my mouth, I started laughing and instinctively backed away. But then I ate the proffered morsel, my tongue grazing his fingertips. I returned the gesture by feeding himinjerawrapped around collard greens. He had the grace to take the food without being sleazy about it. But it didn’t matter. Feeling his lips against my skin set off my juices. Apparently, he felt something, too.
We locked eyes. Then I looked down. I knew I was red-faced. “It’s an icebreaker, I’ll say that much.”
His eyes were still focused on me. “I have good reasons for suggesting Ethiopian.”
I wagged a finger at him.
He scooped up some cabbage. “Here. We do it again. Second time is easier.”
He could have been talking about other things.
I took the food without protest, enjoying his fingers on my mouth. Then I fed him a chunk of pumpkin. He chewed, the tip of his tongue giving a brief swipe at the corner of his mouth, his topaz eyes having dilated so they looked nearly black.
I gave him a half smile. “Is it extra to rent a room in back?”
He burst into laughter. “Eating should be stimulating.”
“Stimulating, yes, not X-rated.”
Again he laughed. We ate a few minutes in silence, letting the air around us cool off. Finally, I sat up in my chair and let out a whoosh of breath. “I think I’ve had it.”
“It was okay?”
“It was terrific. It was more than lunch, it was fun. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome. For me too. Coffee?”
“Sure.” I paused. “You drink your own coffee, right?”
He smiled. “Yes, you drink your own coffee… unless you make your own new tradition.”
“Thank you, I think I’ve had enough adventure for one day.”
Koby signaled the waitress and ordered for us in Amharic.
“You come here often?” I asked him.
“More in the beginning when I feel a little homesick. If I miss anything now, I think I missShabbat.”
I said, “So Friday night is still on, if you want.”
“No, no, no. I didn’t mean it to be a hint.”
“It’s fine, Koby.” A pause. “I insist you come.”
He regarded my face with intensity. “I can be pushy. You feel okay about it?”
“Of course.” I was aiming for low-key confidence. “Since I know the way, I’ll pick you up.”
The waitress brought over the coffee in a small clay pot and poured it into two demitasse cups. It was stronger than espresso, but not as strong as Turkish coffee. We exchanged smiles as we drank. Awkwardness stood between us because electricity had gotten in the way of simple platonic conversation. Absently, I glanced at my watch. My eyes widened. “Oh gosh! I’m late.” I slapped my forehead. “The meter!”
He stood first and helped me with my chair. “You check the meter. I’ll pay-”
“We’ll split it.”
“No, no, I asked you out.”
I didn’t insist. “So I’ll see you on Friday, then.” I pulled out my business card, thought about giving him my phone number, but gave him my e-mail instead. As attractive as he was, I still had my reservations. I hadn’t Googled him yet or run him through the network to see if he had a sheet. “This is the best way to reach me. I’ll need your address. You do have e-mail, right?”
“Absolutely.” He took my card without disappointment, then handed me his. “My home phone, my work phone, my cell phone, and, at last, my e-mail. You can contact me however you want with the details and I’ll explain how to get to my place. It’s in the hills. I enjoyed your company very much, Cindy. Go.”
I gave him a slight wave and took off, feeling featherlight, despite a heavy gun weighing down my purse.
Just before roll call,I caught up with Greg Van Horn as he was signing out for his two-week vacation, the field roster marked in green highlighter. His face was filled with good cheer, and he had a spring in his step. Already, he had loosened his tie. I cornered him while he was waving his last good-byes. He frowned when he saw me, but too bad. Out there was a girl who needed medical attention. I gave him the slip of paper and explained myself.
“You did this by yourself?”
“All by my little lonesome.”
“On your own time?”
“Yes, sir, on my own time.”
He was still staring at me.
“Golly, that woman does have a brain in her head-”
“Sorry, sir.” I stifled a smile.
He tapped his foot. “You’re putting me in conflict, Decker, and right before my vacation. I’m not thrilled about this.”
“Next time, I’ll try to be less effective.”
He glowered at me, but it lacked feeling. “The case belongs to Russ, but he don’t deserve the credit. You do.”
“It may not be anything, sir.”
He handed me back the slip of paper. “So why don’t you check it out first?”
“Then what if it is something?”
“Follow it up.”
“Should I contact Russ?”
“Play it by ear.”
Giving me leeway. He was being very gentlemanly. I thanked him and stowed the slip of paper in my pocket. He noticed the uncertainty that I felt.
“This is a little different from what I’m used to. Talking to a retarded girl about babies and sex.” That sounded fearful. “I can do it. No problem. Just… any suggestions? I don’t want to blow your case.”
“More likeyourcase.” He held out his hands helplessly. “I’m on vacation, Decker. You got contacts in the Department. Use ’em.”
Home had always been Decker’s refuge, but of late, it was his office as well. At the station, there were issues and problems and details. There were meetings with superiors, meetings with the detectives, meetings with county supervisors or reps from the city council or congressional districts. There was PR that amounted to a lot of BS. Smiling through all of it gave him one giant headache. Once he’d been able to handle it, fielding calls as smoothly as a Vegas dealer. Now he constantly felt distracted, and the sudden images of blood and death didn’t help.
He took off his glasses and set them on the desktop, rubbing his eyes without relief. Rina had set up a comfortable home office in the guest room/den. In the daytime, the back windows showed a view of the mature fruit trees. At the current hour, the vista was dark. But because the room was situated next to a pittosporum tree in full bloom, sweet jasmine scents wafted through the open louver slats. In the peace and quiet of his own sanctuary, he could go through some of the more puzzling case files, often breathing life into stagnating investigations.
He was able to keep his job and his equilibrium because he was working twice as hard as he should have been. He’d get through it-he had no choice, his family needed the money-but it would take a while. Rina’s confession had helped, but Decker knew she wasn’t being completely honest with him. By and by, it would all come out.
“How much longer?”
Decker jerked his head up. Rina was dressed in black sweats. With no makeup and her hair down, she could have passed for her twenties.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Did I say something about coming in at eleven?”
“S’right.” Rina stood behind him and began to massage his neck. “You look tense. Maybe this will help.”
“Oh man, that feels good. What’s the catch?”
“I’ve got another file for you to look at.”
“It’ll take you five minutes.”
“Nothing ever takes five minutes anymore.”
Rina gave his back a slap. “Thank goodness for that. Now I’m going to make some tea while you clear the desk.”
“Yes, ma’am. Do I get tea, too?”
He smiled, watching her sway as she went. By the time she returned from the kitchen, the desktop was visible. She was carrying a tray with a pot of tea, two mugs, and a Pendaflex folder. She set the tray down and pulled up a chair.
“How about you pour and I explain what I’ve done?”
“Are you evernotorganized, Rina?”
“It’s part of my job description. I don’t see you pouring.”
Decker took up the steaming teapot dressed in a quilted cozy, held the lid, and poured two cups of steaming, brewed tea. “One lump or two? Or three if you count me.”
She kissed his cheek. “You are far from a lump. And you know I take my tea plain.” She pulled out three neat stacks of typewritten pages. “Maybe you’d like to take notes?”
Decker laughed and held up a pen. “I’m ready, Professor.”
“Very funny. This sheet has the names of all the people in the file.”
“Who translated the file for you?”
“Laurie Manheim’s mother-in-law. But we didn’t get through all of it. Do you know Laurie? She’s Rabbi Manheim’s wife.”
“I know neither Laurie nor Rabbi Manheim.”
“He teaches at the high school. Yonkie had him for tenth-grade Gemara. I got to know him very well because Yonkie wasn’t doing well in his class.”
“Well, he’s doing well now. The child has hit his stride.”
“Yeshiva life agrees with him.”
“More like college, Rina. But we digress.”
“Indeed.” Rina smiled. “Anyway, as far as Laurie’s mother-in-law could tell, I think this guy at the top of the list-Rudolf Kalmer-was the lead investigator in the case. But this other guy-Heinreich Messersmit-was also involved.”
“I don’t know. It almost seems that both of them were working on it, but independently. Different handwriting.”
“Who’s this number three guy-Axel Berg?”
“He came in a little later. Berg had been working on two other unsolved homicides, and we think that Kalmer and Messersmit asked him for a consult on my grandmother’s death. Berg later took over.”
“What other homicides?”
“Here… wait.” Rina flipped through the pages of her translated text. “It’s hard to tell, Peter, because they, like you guys here, use abbreviations. Mrs. Manheim thought that this page”-Rina sifted through the faxed copies of the original documents-“here, this over here. They brought in Berg for a consult on the MAK of two women-Anna Gross and Marlena Durer.” Rina read to herself. “Okay… this word-‘tötungsdelikt’-that’s premeditated homicide. ‘Totschlag’ could be like regular homicide.”
Rina was exasperated as she groped for words. “You know… like defensible homicide.”
“Yeah, yeah. It could mean killing in self-defense.” She hit her head. “ ‘Tötungsdelikt’ implies lying in wait.”
“Okay. So these two women, Durer and Gross, were premeditated murder victims.”
“Yes, we think so.”
“What does ‘MAK’ mean?”
“We’re not sure. Mrs. Manheim thinks itmightbe an abbreviation for ‘mordakten,’ which would be a homicide file. ‘Mord’ is murder. ‘Akte’ is any file. See? They have it in front of my grandmother’s name-MAK Regina Gottlieb.”
Decker regarded his wife’s blue eyes. “Regina? So you’re named after her?”
“I think that Kalmer and Messersmit wanted to know if my grandmother’s murder was related to the murders of Durer and Gross.”
“What? Like a serial killing?”
Rina shrugged. “Beats me. That’s your domain.”
Decker scanned through Rina’s translated notes as he sipped tea. “You translated the autopsy report.”
“Yes, we did. It was gruesome.”
Again he regarded his wife. “Your grandfather allowed the body to be autopsied.”
“He didn’t have a choice because her death was unnatural.”
Reading over the specifics:a white Jewess, well developed, well nourished, 155 centimeters in height, with a weight of 45 kilograms.“They specified her religion?”
“There’s a shock.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m surprised they didn’t write her up as ‘Jewess dog.’ ”
“But 1928 was pre-Hitler.”
“In Germany, yes. He didn’t come into official power until 1933. But Munich was a different story. In the late ’20s, Hitler was a very strong force. Munich was where his family had originally settled from Austria. That’s where he led the famous Beer Hall Putsch in the early ’20s.”
“Sorry. I slept through world history. What’s a ‘putsch’?”
“A ‘putsch’ is like a… It’s like a coup… an insurrection. The Nazis tried to take over Munich. It was unsuccessful. They threw Hitler into jail. That’s where he wroteMein Kampf.Any of this sound familiar?”
“I knew Hitler was from Austria. I also know he was a failed artist. You might have to give me a crash course in prewar Germany.”
“No, Rina, it might be important. Maybe the murder was an act of anti-Semitism.” Decker skimmed through the sheets for several minutes.
Rina let him read, then said, “Anything in there to verify your theory?”
“Nothing so far. I have to study this in detail.” He backtracked several pages. “Yeah, definitely this guy Berg was working on several female homicide cases. And they considered your grandmother to be a possibility. Except in these two cases-Durer and Gross-they were strangled… and your grandmother was bludgeoned on the back of the head.” He closed the file and connected with Rina’s eyes. “Do you really want to find out about this?”
“I know it’s weird, but yes.”
“It’s not weird, Rina. But you’re getting into some very strong material.”
“It can’t be worse than the camps.”
“You have a point, but things that are less than horrendous can still affect you deeply.” Decker tapped the ends of the sheets to even them up. “I’m a little tired now. But I’ll read it over carefully tomorrow night and let you know what I come up with.”
Decker thought a moment. “Don’t underplay the historical context, Rina. I think the anti-Semitism is going to be very relevant somewhere down the line.”
“I’m sure you’re right.” Rina sighed. “And that’s really sad.”
It was after midnight by the time I crawled into bed, but Dad was a night owl. I phoned his business number and he picked up after two rings.
“It’s me. Did I wake you?”
“No, you caught me just in time. Why are you calling my work line?”
“I thought if I called the private line, I’d scare you.”
“You would have. Good thinking. Thank you. What’s up?”
“A couple of things. First off, can I come over Friday night for dinner?”
“Of course. You don’t even have to ask. The boys are home, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. What’s the occasion?”
“It’s only mid-May.”
“Both got their finals over with very early. Lucky me.”
I smiled. “Poor Dad. So beleaguered.”
“Nah, I’m just joking. It’ll be wonderful to see my entire family in one sitting. Any particular reason why you’re coming?”
“Not really.” An out-and-out lie. “But I was thinking about bringing a friend. But if it’s too much work for Rina, we can make it another time.”
A momentary pause. “Of course, you can bring a friend. Is it a he or a she?”
“It’s nobody serious, Daddy. I just met him a few days ago.”
“And already you’re bringing him to your parents’ house for Shabbat dinner?”
“My father’s house. Mom doesn’t know about him because it’s not relevant. I’monlybringing him because he’s traditional. His family lives in Israel and I thought it would be nice for him to have a real Shabbat.”
There was excitement in his voice. I could picture the smile on his face. I wondered how wide it would stay once he saw Koby’s complexion. I should have said more, if nothing else than to prepare him, but then I figured why should I? My parents had raised me without prejudice. Now was the time to test their theoretical tolerance.
“He’s lived here for eight years. This is stupid, Dad. He’s just a friend, all right?”
“I hear you, Princess. Sure. Bring him over.”
“I have another reason for calling.”
“Uh-oh, this sounds more serious.”
“It has to do with business. Imighthave tracked down a good candidate for the baby’s mother.” I told him everything I had found out. “What do you think?”
“I think you’re terrific.”
He was still thinking about my “friend.” I could hear it in his voice.
“I gave the information to Greg Van Horn, but he’s going on vacation. He told me to check the lead and see if it goes anywhere. If it does, he told me to play it by ear.”
“He’s giving you opportunity to flex your muscles. He’s being nice, Cin.”
“I know that. I thanked him. He’s giving me a chance and I don’t want to mess it up. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare morning, would you?”
His laughter was immediate. “Now, what good would it do if I tagged along?”
“You could poke me in the ribs if I get off track?”
“Go get a pencil.”
“Okay.” I pulled out a pencil and a pad of paper from my nightstand. I always kept them there in case I thought of something inspirational. “I’m armed and ready.”
“Listen up! You want to find out about this girl, but you have to go through the sister. What you don’t want to do is alienate the sister. First you introduce yourself. You ask if you can come in and say that you won’t take very long. That’s important. If they think you’re going to take a long time, it makes them even more nervous. You act casual. You tell them you’ve been doing a little searching that led to the Fordham home. The girl… What’s her name?”
“Sarah hasn’t been in school for a while. Is everything okay? The sister may not answer the question. She may ask, ‘What is this all about?’ You say, you’re coming to that. How is Sarah? Now the sister will probably say something about her health. ‘Yes, she’s fine,’ or ‘No, she hasn’t been fine. What’s going on?’ ”
“Wait, wait, wait.” I was writing so fast that my hand was cramping. “Okay. Continue.”
“When she asks about your business the second time, you get to the point. It should go something like this.
“You say: ‘A couple of days ago, LAPD found an abandoned baby in a Dumpster. Maybe you read about it in the paper?’
“She says: ‘Yes, that was terrible, but I still don’t understand why you’re here.’
“You say: ‘Mrs. So and so-’ ”
“I don’t think she’s married,” I interjected. “The name is Sanders, by the way.”
“Okay. So say something like… ‘Ms. Sanders, I think you might like to know that we’re actively looking for the mother of this child. It’s very important that we find her, not topunishher, but tohelpher.’ By now, if she has any brain in her head, she knows what you’re getting at.”
I wrote furiously, then put the pencil down for a break. “Well, then, let’s hope she has a brain.” I laced my fingers together, flipped them around, and stretched out my arms until my knuckles cracked.
Dad continued. “Cindy, it’s very important that you talk to Ms. Sanders and get her on your side before she brings in Sarah. She’s probably used to treating Sarah like a child, so her first reaction might be to yell at her or confront her… Don’t let her do this. Calm Ms. Sanders down first and then interview Sarah. It’s very important that no one feels threatened-the sister or the girl. When people are defensive, they don’t talk.
“There’s another possibility-that the sister will be completely protective and not let you get within ten feet of Sarah. If this happens, you calm the sister down and assure her that you have Sarah’s medical and psychological interest at heart.”
“I do. It’s the truth.”
“I know, honey. Look, Cindy, it’s late. I’ve got to get some sleep. But I’ll be reachable all morning. If you have a problem, don’t hesitate to call me on my cell. But honestly, I don’t think you’ll need to, because I know you’ll handle it perfectly. After what you’ve gone through, this should be easy.”
“Thanks for the confidence. I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too.” A pause. “So how’d you meet this guy?”
“We’re not having this conversation, Dad.”
“Just use me and discard me.”
“What else are parents for?”
It was a one-storySpanish house sitting in a block of Arts and Crafts bungalows, the stucco so white it sparkled like snowdrift. Nestled among large-leaf banana plants and cocoa palms, the home had the requisite red-tiled roof and the little gated courtyard. Full of curb appeal: That was real estate lingo for something that looked good on the outside. I had tried to dress soothingly-a sage blazer over cream-colored blouse and slacks-but I suspected that Ms. Sanders wouldn’t be focusing on my sartorial splendor.
It was just past eight in the morning, early enough to catch her before she went to work, and I chose not to phone beforehand because I didn’t want to scare anyone off. I rang the bell. The peephole door opened.
“Good morning. I’m Officer Cynthia Decker. I’m looking for Louise Sanders.”
“Who are you?”
“Officer Cynthia Decker of Los Angeles Police-Hollywood.”
She opened the door a fraction of an inch. The chain was still attached. “Can I see some ID, please?”
Billfold already in hand, I slipped it through the crack. She took it and, after a few moments, passed it back. The door opened all the way.
She was much older than I expected-in her late forties or early fifties. I was led to believe that Sarah was in her twenties. That meant there was quite an age gap between them. Louise had short, blunt-cut gray hair that framed an oval face and gray-green eyes. Her features were regular, and once, she had been pretty. Now, she was handsome in her black skirt suit and crisp white blouse.
“May I come in for a few minutes?”
“What’s this all about?”
“I’ll be happy to explain everything, but it’s better if we talk inside.”
Reluctantly, she allowed me to cross the threshold. The living room was small but restored beautifully-dark beamed ceilings, Saltillo tiled floor, textured beige stucco walls, and lots of molding and niches. There was a brown leather couch with matching chairs; the accent tables were made of heavy dark wood. An upright piano stood in the corner; a sheet of music rested on the stand. I asked her who played.
“My sister. What’s going on?”
“Thank you for your patience. Can I sit down?”
“Yes, of course.”
I settled into one of the leather chairs. She sat on the couch. “A case I’m working on led me to your sister’s school-the Fordham Communal Center…”
“Yes, yes. What about it?”
“I understand Sarah hasn’t been feeling well. How’s she doing?”
The woman was taken aback. “That’s why you’re here?”
“Is Sarah all right?”
“As a matter of fact, she’s not well. She has some health issues. I was thinking of taking her to the doctor’s this morning.”
“I think that might be a good idea.”
“Why?” She became startled. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I honestly don’t know if anything’s wrong with her. Let me tell you why I’m here and then you decide. Several days ago, LAPD found a newborn infant in a Dumpster behind a nearby restaurant. Perhaps you read about it in the paper?”
“I saw it on the news.”
“I pulled her out. It was pretty scary, but I’m happy to report that the baby’s doing well and is in very good health.”
“That’s nice.” A glance at the watch. “Can we get to the point?”
“I was just wondering if… well, maybe Sarah’s lost a little weight recently?”
The woman’s eyes widened as shock swept across her face. “What!” She stood up and screamed, “Sarah! Get here-”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I gently touched her arm. “Before we get her involved, how about if we talk about this calmly.”
She broke away and started pacing. “I don’t believe this! It’s one thing after another! All I want is a little peace and quiet, and then…” She plopped back down on the sofa and slapped her hands over her face. Her voice cracked as she spoke. “I’m just so…tired!”
“It may be nothing.”
“Itisn’tnothing. It’snevernothing! It’s always something! She’s been bleeding hard. I just thought it was a rough period. I didn’t eventhinkabout pregnancy.” Again she started to pace. “Is she in trouble with the law?”
“Obviously, there are circumstances here.”
“It’s going to be hell! I just know it! I’m going to need a lawyer. I’m going to have to make a court appearance! And I’m going to look like a total idiot! How could I have not known!”
“She’s a heavy girl. It’s completely understandable. The main thing is to get her medical attention. That’s the reason I’m here. To help her, not to hurt her.”
She stopped racing about, covered her mouth with her hand, then let it drop to her side. “Of course. You’re being very understanding.”
“Both of you will be okay.”
She looked at my face. “The baby’s okay?”
“She’s absolutely adorable.”
A smile spread over her distraught face. “Thank God!”
“Ms. Sanders… did you know that Sarah-”
“No idea! She never mentioned any boy… any special boy. She mentioned lots of boys. She wassupposedto be on the pill.”
“Birth control isn’t perfect.”
“Especially if she didn’t take it. It wouldn’t be the first time. She has a bad gag reflex. It’s hard for her to swallow little things like pills. And liquid medicine makes her gag because it tastes so awful. I should have sterilized-” She cut herself off and looked away.
“I know that lots of the girls in Fordham are sterilized. I am not judging you, ma’am. It is extremely arrogant for anyone to judge you.”
“Thank you.” She wiped tears from her face. “Please call me Louise.”
“All right. How about we both sit down, Louise?”
A nod and we reclaimed our respective places.
I said, “So you don’t know if Sarah was having sex or not.”
“Obviously, she was having sex!”
I tried to put this as delicately as I could. “Consensual sex, I mean.”
“Oh my God!” She leaped to her feet. “She wasraped?”
“Louise, let’s not assume anything. It was just a question. That’s why I need to talk to her. That’s why she needs medical attention.”
She sighed and tried to calm herself. “Do you want to talk to her now?”
“Yes, but not for too long.” As long as she was standing, I figured I should get to my feet. “Our first concern is getting her to a hospital. I’ll take you there, if you want.”
“You are being sonice,Officer Decker.” Again the tears started. “That’s all right. I have a car. What are they going to do to her?”
“I imagine that after checking her out, they’ll take a blood test and verify that she’s the baby’s mother. You know, first things first.” I hesitated. “Louise, the baby’s biracial.”
She blinked several times. “She’sblack?”
“Thank you for telling me.” She choked on her words. “I’ll go get her. Please be gentle. Despite how it may appear, I love her very much.”
“Louise, I don’t doubt it for a second.”
She clasped her hands together. “You know, it doesn’t matter to me what the baby is as long as she’s healthy.”
“That’s all that counts.” A moment’s hesitation. “I’ll go get Sarah.”
By the way the young girl carried herself, it appeared as if her chin were attached to her chest. Though her eyes were squeezed shut as tightly as humanly possible, tears managed to leak through. Limp strands of blond hair covered her cheeks. Her hands were white-knuckled, balled up into fists. Her brown smock pulled against her generous breasts. Louise placed a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s going to be all right, Sarah. You just have to talk to the nice police officer. And you have to be honest.”
No response from Sarah. I said, “Does your tummy hurt, honey?”
A slight nod of the head.
“We’re going to take you to a doctor to fix that, okay?”
“Do you know why your tummy hurts?” I pressed on.
She didn’t answer, but I noticed that she had turned her knees inward. Her pink cheeks had become damp with tears. I said, “The baby is fine, Sarah. It’s a beautiful, healthy girl. And maybe one day, your sister, Louise, will take you to see her.”
She raised her head and glanced at me. Then she dropped her chin to her chest.
Louise broke in. “Sarah, whodidthis to you?”
I squeezed Louise’s arm. She exhaled with awhoosh,shook me off, and stomped off to the other side of the room. Though I really wanted to ask Sarah about her sexual experience, I knew my limitations. This little girl required a specialist. As a police officer, I was concerned with only one thing: if the sex was forced or not. But right now, there were more pressing issues at stake-her health, confirmation that she was the mother, legal ramifications of her act of child endangerment. I decided to forgo the questioning until I had notified the proper channels.
And until I talked to Dad.
“I think we should take her to the hospital now. I’ll call up my sergeant and have someone meet us down there. We should probably get in touch with someone from Mental Health. Does she have a psychologist?”
“She has every single specialist in the world. She’s been well taken care of.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Will I need a lawyer?” Louise bit hard on a thumbnail.
“If you have one, it would be a good idea to call him up.”
Another heavy sigh.
I said, “She’ll be okay.”
“I know, I know. She’s always okay. She’s always okay!”
“You’ll be okay, too, Louise.”
“Me?” Louise’s laugh was hard and bitter. “Sister, my welfare is another story altogether!”
There were patson the back from my colleagues and smiles from the brass. There was a time when my accomplishments would have been viewed with suspicion. But last year, I had played the game, drinking with the guys and girls after hours and attending more backyard barbecues than I’d care to recount. I kept my mouth shut, bowled in the Hollywood Women’s League, and did my job. The “incident”-as I refer to it to my therapist-had kicked a lot of life out of me. Bad for the creative spirit, but great for blending in with the masses.
Sarah was out of my hands now, kicked upstairs to the gold shields and the professionals who made their living by helping people talk. I was left with the satisfaction of a job well done, and a curiosity about who had fathered this baby girl. I knew more than Russ MacGregor-the detective who had taken over for Greg-because I had inside information from Koby. If Russ was decent enough, I’d share the facts.
I was off all Friday and had the day to relax. I Googled Yaakov Kutiel, and thankfully he came out honest. Koby’s public claim to fame was being part of the hospital’s outreach program for unwed mothers and fatherless children who lived in Central L.A. For this evening’sShabbatdinner, I kept my look simple: a Kelly green sweater over a black midiskirt and knee-high black boots. Around my neck was a gold chain; my earlobes sported a set of round pearls. I topped off the outfit with a gray pashmina draped over my shoulders.
Koby lived in the hills of Silver Lake, his street on an incline of around thirty degrees. The address corresponded with a tiny, square stucco box that peeked out from the boughs of eucalyptus gone wild. I parked in the driveway behind a ten-year-old Toyota compact, making sure the emergency brake was on. I made the climb up to the front door and knocked, noticing the large ceramic mezuzah attached to the door frame. I’m not sure what I expected when I came in, but I didn’t expect what I saw.
There was pride inside-a mélange of Art Deco and African decor. Highly polished, rich rosewood tables were mixed with a zebra-print plush sofa and leopard-print club chair, both pieces embellished with primary-colored throw pillows. Multicolored textiles with geometric shapes and primitive designs hung on the walls; a bright, bold carpet covered the hardwood floor. Actually, there were several carpets, because as I looked more carefully, I noticed that they were overlapping. The room was teeny-I could almost span the walls with outstretched arms-so it was amazing how much stuff he had crammed in there. More amazing was how well it was put together.
“Wow!” I told him.
He was all smiles. “You like it?”
“Yeah… yeah, I do.”
“Had to think about it?”
“Not at all. It was just…” I shook my head. “Most single guys don’t bother.”
“I like color.”
“I’ll say. But it works. Do you rent?”
He pointed to his chest. “All mine. I have the mortgage to prove it.”
“I’m impressed!” I really was. Home ownership was out of my reach. Despite my supposed austerity, I just couldn’t seem to save very much. That’s what happens when one has parents as backups.
“It didn’t look like this when I bought it,” he explained. “But the price reflected the condition.”
“You fixed it up yourself?”
“Of course. After the purchase, I was completely broke. I had no choice.”
“You did a wonderful job.”
“As long as you don’t look under all the covering. Why do you think I hang so much cloth all over?” He checked his watch. “Shabbatis in an hour. We should go, no?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a ways to travel.”
He picked up a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of wine. “These are for your stepmother.” He gave me a paper bag. “This is for you for extended… extending the invitation.”
It was a hand-painted doll from the Ethiopian gift shop. I smiled and thanked him. He told me I looked nice and I returned the compliment. He was dressed conservatively-dark green suit, white shirt, red-and-green paisley tie-but his yarmulke was more like a rimless cap that burst with colors.
The first half of the ride was taken up by my success story with Sarah. The next topic was the baby and how well she was doing. After we had exhausted work, things got real quiet. I turned on the radio to provide audio filler.
Koby got the ball rolling. “Did your father ask about me?”
“Yes, of course. He’s a father.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him that I had just met you a couple of days ago, so I didn’t know much about you.”
“That was a good answer.”
“I thought so. Of course, it didn’t stop him from prodding me about you.”
He waited for me to continue.
“I did tell him that you were somewhat observant and your family lives in Israel. That you’d appreciate a traditionalShabbat.”
“That’s true.” He looked out the window. “Did you tell him anything else?”
“Not really. I figured you could talk about yourself better than I could.”
He was quiet.
“What?” I said. “That’s not true?”
“Yes, that is very true. But I think you left something out.”
“What difference does it make?”
“None to me. But to your father, I cannot say.”
“If he’s that way, then he’s not the man I think he is.”
“It’s just better to prepare him, I think.”
“Prepare forwhat,Koby? Being black is not a defect. Why should I have to prep my father?”
“To make him feel more comfortable when he meets me.”
“If I say you’re my friend, he should automatically feel comfortable.”
“To makemefeel more comfortable, maybe?” He fingered the flowers. “I’m not fond of surprises.”
I glanced at him. He shrugged. I felt my stomach drop. “Okay. So maybe that wasn’t so smart. Sorry.”
“It’s all right, Cindy. No problem.”
“You’ve had bad experiences before?”
“Not really,” he said. “I never meet parents… never any reason. Last time was maybe fifteen years ago when I take Aliza Goldberg to the movies. Her father was a colonel inZahal.” He laughed. “Old feelings. So maybe I overreact.”
We rode for several minutes, one-way chatter coming from the radio.
“He’s a great guy, Koby. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you’re right.”
But neither of us was sure of anything.
Dad had a very powerful poker face; it was a necessary component of being a great detective. But knowing him well, I detected the minuscule rise of an eyebrow. Still, he masked it with aplomb, his smile never wavering. He shook Koby’s hand while inviting us inside. My father was slightly taller than my date, but must have outweighed him by a good fifty pounds. Daddy looked handsome in a dark blue suit.
I spoke quickly, doing the introductions. Everyone was nice and polite. It was a stiff moment, but not unbearable. Koby had good social skills-way better than mine.
“Shabbat Shalom.Thank you for having me.” He presented Dad with the wine bottle and held the flowers aloft. “This is for your wife.”
“I’ll go get her. That way you can give them to her. Would either of you like something to drink?”
“I’m fine,” I answered. “Koby?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Great.” An odd pause. “I’ll get Rina.”
Dad was about to escape behind the kitchen door, but Rina came out before he could go in. She was wiping her hands on her apron, her hair tucked into a beret. Again I made introductions. Her smile was wide and welcoming.
“Ah, Koby. Yaakov.Yesh lee Yaakov gam ken. Ma nishma?”
“That good, huh? You’re doing better than I am, but I’m always frazzled beforeShabbat.”
“That is the same for women worldwide.” Koby extended the flowers to her. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You’re welcome.” She took the bouquet. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“I’m from Ethiopia. I’m always hungry.”
Rina smiled. “When did you emigrate to Israel?”
“It was 1983.”
“Where did they settle you? Near Kiryat Arba?”
“I knew that because I used to live in Kiryat Arba. I remember when you all came over. The government recruited us for help. I ran anulpanfor the Ethiopians that summer.”
“No, I’m not. For all I know, you could have been one of my students.”
“I don’t think so. I would remember.”
“You would have definitely remembered. I was out to here.” Rina made a pregnant stomach by extending her hands forward. “They gave me the four- to eight-year-olds.”
“I was twelve. Do you remember names?”
“I’ve got to think.” She furrowed her brow. “I remember a little boy named Elias Tespay.”
“I know the Tespays.”
“And someone named Welda.”
“No, it wasn’t Yoseph… Eliahu maybe.”
“Probably one of his younger brothers or a cousin. There were lots of Weldas. I think about sixty of them came.”
“Yeah, you guys were crammed into the housing like sardines. Where did you finally settle?”
“Petach Tikvah. My father remarried, so the housing didn’t improve much. There were ten of us in a three-room apartment. But at least it was our own apartment.”
“That’s not exclusive to Ethiopians, you know. Everybody’s cramped in Israel. You learn to be a good team player.”
“Or you leave,” Koby stated.
“Gotcha.” Rina held up the flowers. “I should put these in water and check on dinner. I’m actually planning to go to shul.” She looked at Koby. “Did you want to go to shul? It’s Ashkenazdavening.”
“No problem. Thebeit knessetI go to-when I go-is Ashkenaz.”
“Which one is that?”
“It is in Los Feliz, near my house. It is Conservative service, but the rabbi has Orthodox background, I think. He’s Hungarian.”
“I’m Hungarian,” Rina said. “What’s his name?”
Rina shrugged ignorance. “Lots of Hungarians in this city.” Another shrug. “I should check on dinner.”
“Anything I can help you with, Rina?” I piped in.
“Yes, you can help your sister get dressed. The child is a turtle.” Rina looked at my father. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am. Need help in the kitchen?”
“If you’re offering, I won’t say no.” She smiled at Koby, then at me. “See you in a minute.” She took Dad’s hand. It might have been my imagination, but it looked as though she was trying to calm him down.
“Don’t say a word,” Rina whispered.
“I’m not saying anything!” Decker whispered back. “And you don’t have to tell me how to behave. I am not a racist!”
“I know that.”
“Well, I don’t think youdoknow that. Otherwise you wouldn’t look so damned worried.”
“I’m not worried.”
“Yeah, you are.” He clutched the wine as he spoke. “I’m going to have a wonderful meal with my family, all right? So stop giving me those looks! And don’t tell me you wouldn’t have had some feelings if it had been Sammy or Jacob bringing home an Ethiopian girl.”
“As long as she was Jewish, I wouldn’t care.”
“Well, aren’t you the liberal one!”
“Peter, why don’t you make yourself useful?” She handed him the bouquet of flowers. “Put these in a vase and set them on theShabbattable. Then open the wine before you break the bottle.” She stirred a pot of lentil soup. “We’ll let it breathe while we’re in shul.”
Decker regarded his wife, then looked at the objects in his hands. He set them on the kitchen counter, realizing that his jaw was clenched. He took a deep breath in, then let it out. Reaching his long arms to the top cabinet, he opened the door and took down a cut-crystal vase. He placed it under the sink and began to fill it with water.
“Flowers… wine… the man has manners.” He growled out, “More than…”
He left it at that. Rina filled in the blank. “More than Cindy?”
“He’s probably too good for her.”
“She’s a good girl, Peter. She’s gone through hell-”
“I know that, Rina. Stop giving me perspective, okay? I’m not angry. I just don’t know why she didn’t… Forget it!”
Rina checked the meat thermometer in the lamb roast, then turned down the temperature. She opened the refrigerator and took out green beans. “I’ll put these on the hot tray. That way they won’t overcook. Nothing worse than limp green beans.”
“It smells good,” Decker said quietly.
“Everything.” He turned off the water and planted a kiss on his wife’s forehead. “Thank you for making this delicious meal. I’m snapping at you. I apologize.”
“I know you’re not a racist, Peter. And I’m not trying to one-up you, okay? It would have been nice if she had leveled with you. Just to prepare you.”
“Exactly!”Decker plunked the flowers into the vase. “That’sexactlywhat I meant!” Rummaging through the drawers, he found a corkscrew. “She tells me he’s a traditional Jew from Israel; I get a certain picture in my mind, that’s all.” He plunged the bit into the cork. “I’m too involved, that’s the problem. It’s her life.”
“He seems lovely,” Rina said.
“How can you tell that in thirty seconds?”
“He’s got beautiful eyes. They’re windows to the soul. I can just tell.”
“Nonsense, you’re being irrationally optimistic.”
“Peter, he’s Jewish, around her age, and gainfully employed.”
Decker stopped a moment, then shrugged. “True.” He went to work on the cork. “Well, if I say I’m not prejudiced, I guess I shouldn’t prejudge.”
A moment later, Cindy came in. Decker took in her face, then popped open the cork. He smelled the wine. “Not bad. It’ll be better after it breathes a little.”
“You like Cabernet,” Cindy said.
“Yes, I do.” Decker smiled but didn’t continue the conversation. Rina tried out a nervous smile. She was so tired of playing referee, but that seemed to be her lot in life. “Everything okay?” she asked her stepdaughter.
“Just fine. Hannah’s dressed and ready to go.”
“No problem.” Cindy was trying to make eye contact with her father, but he had busied himself with flower arranging. “Koby needs candles.”
“Of course,” Rina said. “Do you want to light, Cindy?”
Rina went into the pantry and brought out four tea lights. Decker was looking at his daughter with deadpan eyes.
Cindy said, “I found the baby’s mother, you know.”
“Congratulations,” Decker said. “I should have told you that right away.”
No one spoke for a few moments.
“I’d like to talk to you about it,” Cindy said. “I have some concerns.”
Curiosity flickered in Decker’s eyes, but he kept his equilibrium. “Sure. Go ahead.”
“I don’t think this is the right time. It may take more than a few minutes.”
“Okay. Why don’t you give me a call tomorrow night?”
Cindy knew her father was giving her the brush-off. But she proceeded as if she didn’t know better. “Actually, if you have time, I’d like to meet with you on Sunday. Could you come out to my place?” She tried a sheepish smile. “I’ll even cook you breakfast.”
Decker remained expressionless. “I told Hannah I’d take her to the movies.”
Rina said, “There’s a two o’clock show. You could probably make it back in time.”
Decker raised a disapproving eyebrow at his wife. But she was right. If he didn’t back off, he’d deserve what he’d get. “It’s important to you, Cynthia?”
“Kind of, yeah. I’d really appreciate your help.”
He gave a forced smile. “Sure, honey. Around nine, then?”
“That would be perfect.”
“Here you go.” Rina handed her the tea lights. Cindy thanked her and they all left it at that.
When I came backinto the living room, Hannah was seated next to Koby, the two of them turning the pages of an oversize art book entitledSolomon’s People.The tome was almost as big as she was. She looked splendid in a lime green dress and matching jacket that magnificently offset her red hair. She was learning the tricks of being a carrottop at a very early age. “What’s that?”
Koby said, “A book of Ethiopian Jews. I know several of the people.”
“Who?” Hannah asked.
“This lady here,” Koby said. “She was a very good friend of my older brother Yaphet. She married a rabbi and lives somewhere in the Negev.”
“Oh yes, very, very beautiful. I had a terrible crush on her. Alas, my affections were not returned.”
“Then she’s stupid,” Hannah said.
“No, but I thank you for the support. It was more like she was seventeen and I was thirteen, though I was as tall as she. For an Ethiopian, I am very tall.”
Hannah stared at him. “I thought all Africans were tall.”
“Hannah!” I scolded.
“It’s fine.” Koby smiled. “No, not all Africans are tall, especially North Africans. Most Ethiopians are Coptic Christians… more like Egyptians than anything else. I just happen to be tall because my parents are tall.” He looked up at me. “Would you like a hand with the candles?”
I had forgotten I was holding them. “I’ll just set them next to Rina’s candles. That’s where I usually light.”
Koby stood up. “I think you’d better put on your shoes, Hannah.”
“Should I wear my boots or my high heels?” she asked me.
“What’s more comfortable to walk in?” I said.
“The same.” She shrugged and turned to Koby. “What do you think?”
“With that dress and jacket, heels, definitely.”
“I’ll be right back!” She rushed off to her room.
“She likes you,” I told him. “You have a way with kids.”
“I work with kids.”
I hit my forehead. “Uh, yeah… duh!”
Koby caught my eye. “How’d it go in there?”
I shrugged, trying to act indifferent. “He’s still talking to me.”
“A good sign. I like your stepmother. She seems… genuine.”
“She is genuine.” Just then my two stepbrothers appeared. Sammy had reached the benchmark age of twenty. Jacob had attained the majority of eighteen. They were tall, good-looking guys, both of them in suits with their hair still wet from recent showering. They came out chattering about something, and when they saw me, they stopped talking. First they looked at me, then at each other; then their eyes went to the floor and back up again.
Sammy was trying to stifle a grin. He extended his hand to Koby.“Shabbat Shalom.”
Koby took it, then shook hands with Jacob.“Shabbat Shalom.”
Sammy said, “My father said you were Israeli.”
“Yes, but before I was Israeli, I was Ethiopian.”
“I see that,” Sammy answered. “Jewish Ethiopian.”
“Yes, Jewish Ethiopian.” A pause. Koby said, “If you have doubts, you can check mymillah.”
The boys burst into laughter and so did Koby. I didn’t get the joke, but I smiled anyway.
Sammy said, “I think I speak for my brother when I say, we’ll pass. Since Cindy’s not bothering to introduce us, I’m Sammy. He’s Jacob.”
“You didn’t give me a chance,” I told him. “This is Koby.”
“Also a Yaakov,” Jake said. “Where did you live in Israel?”
“My family still lives in Petach Tikvah.”
“That’s near Kfar Saba, right?”
“Yes, it’s the next town over.”
“I have a ton of friends from yeshiva who live there and in Ranana.”
“Yes, both those places are very American.”
Sammy said, “You want something to drink before we go to shul?”
“No, I’m fine.” He checked his watch. “It’s time to light thenerot.I need a match, please.”
“In the breakfront,” I said.
Koby and I lit our respective candles, both of us saying the blessing, although he understood the words that I mouthed. When we were done, we wished each otherShabbat Shalom.Rina lit candles for her household. Within a few minutes, we were on our way to synagogue.
One good thing about my stepbrother Sammy. No one could talk as much as he could. When we reached the tiny storefront that acted as the neighborhood Orthodox temple, I knew we wouldn’t be sitting together. Right before we parted ways-men on one side of the wall, women on the other-I asked him what the word“millah”meant. Straight-faced, he told me it meant circumcision.
I waited until I was on my side of the fence, then I broke out into laughter.
Orthodox Judaism was a religion of routine, and at the dinner table, the first order of business was always welcoming the metaphorical Sabbath Bride in a song called“Shalom Aleichem.”This ode was followed by a tribute to the real woman of the house-a poem from Proverbs called“Eshet Chayil,”or “Woman of Valor.” I’ve read the English a couple of times, and the gist of it centered around a woman slaving away without complaint to support her husband and family, words that seemed quaint and a bit shallow in the postmodern feminist world. I’ve had many a Sabbath dinner with my father’s family and when it came to this part, Dad, who hadn’t been blessed with a natural singing voice, always mumbled his way through the stanzas.
Tonight was a different story, however. My father sang, of course. But this time, the Loo was joined by my stepbrothers, who were fluent with the Hebrew text and sang with grace and meaning, their voices ringing clear as they smiled at Rina. But it was Koby who gave me pause, his voice deep and crystal, singing along note perfect with my stepbrothers in crisp, beautiful Hebrew. Here was a black man from Africa sitting with my white family from Los Angeles, people he had known less than two hours, and he was more integrated than I was. It brought it all home, that a traditional Sabbath cut through cultural lines. When the chorus came and the men broke into spontaneous harmony, an involuntary lump formed in my throat.
Within a short period of time, everyone at the Friday-night table appeared relaxed, eating great food and swapping stories of the week. My father’s family was a noisy bunch and with my stepbrothers’ swiftness of speech and Hannah’s relentless interruptions, it was sometimes hard to keep up with the conversation. If anything, I was the least comfortable person there. Though I was family, there were times when I was the odd person out with all the Hebrew, Israeli, and religious references flying around. Koby, however, appeared totally at ease. He was a good storyteller because his life had given him lots of raw material to work with.
“I was twelve when I had my first actual outing in civilization,” he said. “We had been in Israel, oh, maybe six months. We had gone throughulpan,and we spoke Hebrew in school, of course. But the refugee camp was exclusively Ethiopian and we spoke Amharic to the elders, who were not as fast as the kids in learning Hebrew.”
“I can relate to that.” Dad had just polished off his second glass of wine. Nothing like alcohol to take the edge off. Koby refilled his glass, then his own.
“It’s pretty good, no?”
“Very good,” my father agreed. “You’re a red-wine drinker?”
“So what was your first outing?” Sammy asked.
Koby laughed. “My friend Reuven and I were given over to two eighteen-year-old yeshiva boys from Itri or Hakotel, someplace in Jerusalem. It was supposed to be a morning of learningChumashand an afternoon of fun and adventure. The morning was a bust. Their Hebrew was poorer than ours was. Perhaps it was the Long Island accent. We kept asking,‘Mah atem omrim?’‘What are you saying?’ We couldn’t understand a word! Besides, someone had set up a hoop in our refugee camp and all we want to do was shoot baskets. Finally, after lunch, they take us to the bus stop for our first day in the city. Reuven and I have never been on a real bus before.”
“I can see where this is leading,” Rina said.
“Up and down the aisle, people were screaming at us. We didn’t care. Then the boys take us toKanyonit.” He turned to me. “A minimall. Only it’s brand new and there are no shops inside. Just this one little store that sellsgoofiot-T-shirts. That’s it. All this empty space and nothing but T-shirts. The rest of the bottom floor of the mall was empty except for the escalators… which we had never seen before. To us, it was Disneyland. Up the down, and down the up, and over and over and over. Drove those poor boys crazy because, let me tell you, we were fast little bugs. I ran competitive track in Maccabee competition.”
“That’s really cool,” Jacob said.
“How’d you do?” Sammy asked.
“Good enough for my coach to say, think about the Olympics for Israel. But that would have meant devoting hours to running. I lacked the drive to work that hard. Without drive, forget it. Still, I could move, as the yeshiva boys found out.”
“Those poor white boys never had a chance,” Sammy remarked.
“Such is life.” Koby turned to Rina. “The lamb is delicious.”
“Then you’ll have more,” Rina said.
“Please.” Koby took another small piece, then started laughing. “Okay. So after the escalator rides, they get the bright idea to take us bowling. That is upstairs-a bowling alley and a snack bar. We’re running across the lanes. The manager screams at the boys in Hebrew, the boys scream at us in English, which, of course, we don’t understand. And the few Israelis there… they’re smoking away, shaking their heads in very much disapproval, saying‘Ayzeh chayot’-‘those animals.’ The boys finally hold us by our shirts-literally. Then we start begging them to buy us something to eat.”
He turned to me.
“The snack bar has noteudat kashrut-a certificate that states a place as kosher-and these two religious boys do not want to buy us anything from an uncertified place. We beg and beg and beg. They cave in and buy us a Coke. We beg some more. They cave in and buy us potato chips in a bag with a kosher symbol. Then I see this boy blowing up the bag and punching it until it makes a pop.”
Sammy started laughing. “I used to do that.”
“I know you did,” Rina said.
Koby said, “It is no problem if the bag is empty. Only I don’t know this. I do it with the potato chips still inside.”
Dad smiled. “So what happened after they arrested you?”
“The boys get us out in time, otherwise I’m sure I have a record. It was an unmitigated disaster. But I tell you this. Those boys… they had patience. They came back the next week and tried again… and again. They make a deal with us. If we learn ourChumash,they’d play basketball with us in the afternoon.”
“Were they any good at basketball?” Sammy asked. “It’s a yeshiva sport, you know.”
“Yes, I know. They teach us the game, Sammy. What do we know about organized sports in Ethiopia? I come from a small village near Lake Tana, not Addis Ababa.”
“Do you still play?” Sammy said.
“Basketball? I used to play all the time. Point guard, of course. Speed was never my problem. And I can shoot, hit layups in a game of HORSE and do swish shots from the perimeter. But I have problems when I play with people.” He laughed. “They get in my way.”
“A perfect metaphor for my life,” Dad said wryly.
Rina thumped his shoulder.
Koby said, “Especially here in L.A., they play rough. They block you and push, and slam and hit and shove. And then you push and shove and slam and hit. It gets very physical. In three months, I saw one guy twist an ankle, another break a wrist falling on it the wrong way, a third fall on his face and crack his two front teeth. The final thing was a very good friend of mine was guarding against a layup. The guy with the ball did a one-eighty spin with a raised elbow and caught my friend’s nose, snapping the septum. I had just turned thirty; I say, that’s it. God gave me one body. I keep it in shape by running four times a week, but no more weekend basketball.”
“One day, I’d like to play a game of one-on-one with you,” Sammy said.
“Sure, that I don’t mind. It is safe.”
“Now Dad here… he’d have to play center, don’t you think?” Sammy said.
“That’s because I’m too heavy and slow to move across the court.” Dad looked around the table, then at Rina. “Where’s Hannah?”
“She was reading on the couch. Maybe she fell asleep.”
It could have been my imagination but Dad looked envious. What he did was smile at Rina. “The meal was superb.”
Decker sipped wine. “Notice she doesn’t offer me another helping.”
“Take whatever you want, dear.”
“Actually, I’m full… more like stuffed.”
“Me too,” Jacob concurred.
“You hardly ate,” Rina said.
“Not true. I’m just leaving room for dessert.”
Dad said, “I need to take a walk.”
“I’ll come with you,” Jacob said. “God forbid you should have any solitude.”
My father smiled at my stepbrother with loving eyes, an expression he had yet to grace me with this evening. “I would love for you to come with me.”
“Wanna come, Shmuli?” Jacob asked.
“I’ll help Eema clear.”
“I’ll help her clear, Sammy,” I told him. “Go ahead.”
“Then let’s make this a true male-chauvinist outing,” Sammy announced. “Koby, you can come with us.”
He shook his head. “I thank you, but I shall pass.”
“Go,” I told him.
“No, no,” he insisted. “I’m fine.”
For the first time, I noticed the fatigue in his eyes. “Did you work a double shift again last night?”
“I’m fine, Cindy.”
“You’re falling off your feet.”
He shrugged. “Could be the wine. Perhaps we should sayBirkat Hamazon.”
“Absolutely.” Rina passed out prayer booklets for Grace after Meals.
My dad gave Koby the honors of leading the family in the singing of the prayers, not only because he was a guest but also because he was a Kohen. Five minutes later, Rina stood to gather up the dishes.
“I’ll help you clear,” I told her.
“No way,” Rina said. “I’ll make you a care package and then you both go home.”
“Oh please, don’t bother,” I said. “I’ve eaten enough for a week.”
Koby echoed my sentiments. He shook Rina’s hand. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Decker. This was a real treat for me.”
“Anytime… with or without her,” Rina answered.
“She means it,” I told him.
“You’re very gracious.” Koby turned to my father. “It is a pleasure meeting you, sir.”
“Same.” Dad gripped his hand and shook it with spirit. Then he patted Koby on the back, walking him to the door with his arm looped over his shoulder. I think at final count, Dad had polished off half the bottle of wine. “Drive carefully.”
“She’s driving,” Koby told him.
My father looked at me and rolled his eyes. “All the more reason for the caveat.”
Ileft Decker’s house,knowing that the Loo was peeved, but what could I do? He had played his part, had been gracious after the initial stiffness, even downright funny. I was thankful that however miffed he was with me, he had had the decency to keep it under wraps.
It was late by the time I pulled into Koby’s driveway. He offered a nightcap, but I declined, feeling drained and not very sexy. Plus, I still had some miles to travel before I got home. I think Koby was relieved not to play host, having worked so much overtime. We settled on a dinner date for Sunday.
I slept in Saturday morning, then met Mom for lunch. My luck was holding because she was in a great mood, and the hours passed as smoothly as oiled gliders. When I got home, I took a long bike ride west down Venice Boulevard, hitting the ocean and back in a little over an hour. After showering off the sweat and salt, I checked my phone messages and my e-mail. Koby had my phone number but hadn’t called. Instead he had e-mailed me, telling me how much he had enjoyed last night. I answered him back, then turned off the computer, along with the rest of the outside world.
Dinner was a tuna fish sandwich and a good book in bed. I turned in at midnight, determined to sleep eight hours without nightmares. Partial success. But even after being jolted awake with the usual shakes and a rapid heartbeat, I was able to calm down enough to fall back asleep.
I got up early on Sunday to prepare something warm and fuzzy for Dad, deciding on a breakfast of French toast and vegetarian breakfast links, with fresh orange juice and Ethiopian coffee. Even if no one ate anything, at the very least my place would smell good. Unlike Koby’s house, my interior decor was generic-basic furniture and a serviceable kitchen. The best part of my tiny apartment was the fireplace mantel that had once been filled with glass figurines and family photos representing better times in my life. Now it lay bare. I had meant to fix it up with homey touches, but after a maniac had trashed and violated my personal space, the energy was lacking. I needed an infusion of something.
Dad was on time, as usual, casual yet handsome in a black leather bomber jacket, a dark green polo shirt, and black jeans. He greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and a controlled smile.
“What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?” I said to him.
“Something smells good.” He unzipped his jacket and took it off.
“I’ll take that.” I opened the guest closet and hung it up. It was incredibly heavy and made the wire hanger sag. “Thanks again for Friday.”
I hesitated a fraction just to make sure he had nothing else to add. He didn’t. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“I am now.”
“Then… let’s eat.” I had set my small dinette table for two, complete with cloth napkins. I poured him some coffee and orange juice as he speared a piece of French toast onto his plate.
“I should wash,” he told me.
“Lucky for you, I have running water.”
He smiled and washed his hands, saying the ritual prayers before he bit into his breakfast. I drowned my French toast in maple syrup and dug in. “Not bad, if I say so myself.”
“Delicious.” Dad cut the bread into neat little bites. “So… you found the baby’s mother. I’m very proud of you.”
“Your interviews must have gone well.”
“You gave me some good advice.”
“Still, you must have executed it with aplomb.”
“I do listen when you talk to me.”
He stopped eating for a fraction of a second. “I know that.”
“You’re irritated at me.”
“Not at all.”
“Yes at all. Would you like to say what’s on your mind?”
“No, I’d like to enjoy this delicious French toast and help you with whatever you need help with.”
“I can’t concentrate if you’re mad.”
“That’s fine, because I’m not mad.”
“Did you like him?”
The Loo put down his fork and knife, then looked me squarely in the eye. “No buts, Cynthia. He’s a good guy. End of story.”
We ate in silence for a few moments. I suppose there was no purpose in pressing him until I found out how viable my relationship with Koby was. “I really did ask you here for a purpose other then getting on your nerves.”
He leaned over and kissed my forehead. “What do you need?”
“Spoken like a true parent. The baby’s mother, Sarah Sanders, I never really got a chance to interview her. Even if it had been my job, I didn’t feel capable of questioning her.”
“That’s okay, Cin. After you get your gold shield, you’ll feel much more comfortable with interviewing.”
“I talked to Russ MacGregor about it. He’s taking the case over for Greg Van Horn, who’s on vacation. I don’t know, Dad. I just want to make sure that certain questions are asked.”
“Questions about the father of the baby. I think it’s important to know.”
“Russ didn’t ask about it?”
“Russ interviewed her for about fifteen minutes, mostly details of her abandonment. Where did you give birth? Why did you throw the baby away? Why didn’t you tell your sister? Like she was the felon… I mean, she is a felon, but there are circumstances, you know.”
“I’m sure a judge will take her mental capacity into consideration.” Decker sipped coffee. “Why are you concerned? Did the sister call you up with a complaint?”
I shook my head.
“It’ll be okay, Cindy. You can’t mother the world.”
“I still think someone should ask about the father.”
“Talk to Russ.”
“I did. I spoke to him on Friday before I picked up Koby for dinner. He said he danced around the topic, but she wasn’t talking. He didn’t know if she was protecting someone or didn’t understand the questions. He said he’d deal with it on Monday when he came back from Mammoth. Then I asked him ifIcould talk to her over the weekend.”
“He was reluctant, Lieutenant. Didn’t say yes right away, but I played dumb and waited him out. In the end, he said to go ahead, but just don’t screw anything up.”
“Meaning don’t screw up the case, and don’t screw him by showing him up. He doesn’t want you to make him look bad. That’s understandable.”
“I understand about seniority. I’ll give him all the credit: I don’t care about that.” I leaned over the table. “I just want to make sure that the girl wasn’t raped-”
“Whoa! Hold on.” Decker put down his coffee cup. “The girl was raped?”
“I don’t know.”
“So why do you think she was raped? Retarded adults have sexual drives, too.”
“I know that. It’s just she didn’t have lots of opportunity. They’re watched pretty closely in the center.”
“All it takes is one time.”
“Shouldn’t it be considered as a possibility?”
Dad gave my question some thought. “If it were my case… I would consider it a possibility.” He rubbed his hands together. “Go interview her.”
“I’d like you to come with me.”
“For an independent woman, Cynthia, you are full of contradictions. Why do you want to bringDaddyinto this?”
“Because I don’t want to screw anything up.”
“Somewhere along the line, you’re going to have to learn to trust yourself.”
“How about if you do the interviewing and I watch and take notes?”
“Not a good idea.”
“Loo, I know this makes me look wussy. I don’t care. I want this done right.”
Decker shook his head. “Cin, I don’t work on cases out of my jurisdiction. That’s stepping on toes and I don’t know when and where I might need these guys.”
“All right.” I gave him a charitable smile. “More coffee?”
“Yes, it’s very good.”
Dad caught my eyes. “I’m sure there’s more where that came from.”
“I’ve got a source.”
Decker chuckled. “Okay, Officer, this is what I’ll do. I’llaccompanyyou.”
Better than I thought he’d do.
“You’ll nudge me in the ribs if I’m doing something wrong?”
“If I nudged you in the ribs every time you did something wrong, you’d have a hole in your side.”
“Aha! I knew you were mad!”
“I’m not mad-”
“Yes, you are. Just say it so we can move on.”
Decker locked eyes with me. I felt my face go warm.
“This has nothing to do with Koby. I meant it when I said he seems like a good guy.”
He gave me one of those scolding-parent looks. At twenty-eight, I don’t know why I had to deal with it, but that’s the nature of being a daughter.
“You should have told me, Cynthia. That would have been common courtesy.”
“Why? I wouldn’t have made a point of telling you if he had been white.”
Decker rolled his eyes. “I think you like to see me squirm.”
“Well, I don’t think so.” He stood up and cleared his plate. “I wash and you dry?”
“I can handle two plates.” I brought my own plate in. Together we cleared the table. “So that’s all you want to say about it?”
He lifted a strand of hair out of my eyes. “Yes. That is all I want to say. Now get a paper and pencil. Tell me what questions you want to ask this girl and why.”
I went to fetch my notepad, not happy about the dialogue between us. But at least it was a dialogue. By the time we were done refining our inquiries, it was almost eleven. I wrapped up the cold leftovers and stuck them in the fridge. I faced my father and made eye contact. “I like him, Daddy.”
“It’s important to like the person you’re dating.”
I tapped my toe. “Well, we’ll see what happens. It’s probably premature to talk about it.”
“For what it’s worth, I liked him, too, Cin.”
“It’s worth a lot to me.”
“A definite step up from your last fling.”
I hit my father’s shoulder. “I’m ready if you are.”
“Then let’s do it.” He threw his arm around my shoulder. “You tell your mother about him yet?”
“Like I said, it’s premature.”
Dad didn’t respond. He knew bullshit when he heard it.
Earlier in the weekend,Sarah had been discharged from the hospital. She was facing a court hearing on Wednesday, but for now she was out on a five-thousand-dollar bail bond and placed in her sister’s charge. Dad was pleased that Sarah was home: It was much easier to interview someone in the comfort of familiar surroundings. By the time we made it to Louise Sanders’s house, it was after twelve. She answered the door wrapped in a terry-cloth housecoat, a steaming mug of something in her left hand. She wasn’t overjoyed about our visit, but she did invite us in.
“It’s nothing personal, Officer Decker,” she told me. “You were very nice to us. I’m just tired of answering questions.”
“I can understand that.”
“I should get dressed.”
“You don’t have to bother, Louise. This is my father, Lieutenant Decker. We were in the neighborhood and thought we’d drop by to see how Sarah was doing.”
Dad and Louise exchanged smiles. He said, “How’s she dealing with everything?”
Louise laughed. “Honestly? I think she’s delighted by all the attention.”
“And how are you coping?”
Nice choice of words, Dad.Louise’s exasperation oozed out. “Youdon’twant to know. Would either of you like some coffee?”
We both accepted coffee. She told us to sit while she fetched our drinks. It took longer than it should have. When she came back, she had changed into a loose set of black sweats. We sipped java for a moment; then I broke the silence.
“If Sarah has a moment, we’d like to talk to her.”
Louise said, “Officer Decker, we already went over everything with Detective MacGregor.”
“I spoke to Detective MacGregor, Louise, and that’s why I’m here. He told me that Sarah didn’t say much about the baby’s father. There is someone else responsible for what happened.”
“I know. I hadn’t wanted to go there.” Louise threw up her hands. “She was supposed to be on the pill.”
“Why was she on the pill? Did Fordham know that she was sexually active?”
“She was under a doctor’s care,” Louise said. “Her gynecologist put her on as a precaution as well as a way to even out her periods. The decision wasn’t haphazard.”
“Of course not,” I concurred. “Listen, Louise, if her sexual activity was voluntary, then the baby’s father is her own business… or at least not police business. But like I said last week, if the activity was forced, that’s another matter.”
She stood up and began to pace. “I’mnotgoing to put her through a rape trial. That’s out of the question!”
“I understand your reluctance. But shouldn’t we at least find out?”
“No, we shouldn’t! Some stones are better left unturned.”
“Maybe she needs therapy-”
“Shehasa therapist. If the topic comes up in therapy, let her deal with it then.”
“Louise,ifthere’s a person out there raping disabled girls like Sarah, I want him behind bars. At least, let her tell meyesorno.”
Louise tried to stare me down. But her eyes told me she had relented. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Take your time.”
She disappeared into the back room.
Dad said, “Good job. You don’t need me.”
“Daddy, I always need you.”
Decker patted my knee. We exchanged shrugs and finished our coffees. When Louise came back, Sarah was holding on to her arm. The girl was dressed in blue pajamas with lambs on them. Louise settled her into a chair. “Do you remember Officer Decker, Sarah?”
The girl nodded. She was round and pink and her yellow hair was tied into a ponytail. I glanced at her hands. Her thumbs were short and stubby. She was looking at her lap.
“Sarah, can I…” I stopped myself, hearing my father’s words of warning. Don’t request to do something if you’re going to do it anyway. “Sarah, I’m going to ask you a few questions. It shouldn’t take long.”
Louise said, “Go ahead.”
“Do you know how the baby got in your tummy?”
“Can you explain it to me?”
She gave me a blank stare.
Dad broke in. “How do babies get in tummies, Sarah?”
Her eyes darted about the room. “They teached us in school. They showed us pictures.” She spoke haltingly, as if the words came from her diaphragm instead of her throat. Suddenly she giggled and turned red. “They were real”-again she giggled-“real embarrassing.”
“They showed you pictures of boys and girls naked?” I asked her.
“Not real pictures.Drawings.”
“Oh.” I smiled. “It’s good that you know about it… about sex.”
She giggled. “That’s abadword.”
“No, it isn’t,” Louise assured her. “It’s okay, Sarah. That’s what making a baby is. It’s called sex-”
The giggles smothered her words.
“Did you have sex to make your baby, Sarah?” I said.
She turned scarlet and broke into unrestrained laughter. “Yeah, I think I did.”
“Sarah, who did you have sex with?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. I promised.”
Louise said, “Sarah, you must answer their questions-”
“No!” The girl’s face became defiant. “It’s a secret!”
Decker held up his hand to Louise. His demeanor was as casual as a handshake. He smiled at the girl. “Do you have a boyfriend, Sarah?”
Her face darkened. “No.”
“A pretty girl like you-”
“I’m not pretty,” Sarah told him.
“Sure you are,” Decker said. “All that beautiful blond hair. I bet you do have a boyfriend.”
She looked away. Her eyes were downcast.
“What’s wrong, Sarah?Didyou have a boyfriend?”
She nodded slowly.
“What happened? Did he move away or something like that?”
Again with the nod.
Dad gave me the go-ahead to continue the questioning. I tried to follow his line of reasoning. “Was he someone from your school?”
“Do you know why he moved away?”
“Maybe.” She looked down. “But I can’t tell you. It’s a secret. I can’t tell a secret.”
Louise exhaled loudly, but Decker broke in before she had a chance to reprimand her sister. “Sarah, I’m going to tell you something. Because I think that you’re very smart-”
Her face drew tight. “I’m not smart. I’mretarded.”
“Well, you can be retarded and smart at the same time. So listen carefully, all right?”
Sarah didn’t answer.
Decker said, “In this world, there are good secrets and there are bad secrets. The good secrets are things like… well, when your sister buys you a Christmas present and doesn’t tell you about it even when you ask. Does that ever happen to you?”
She smiled. “Yeah, that’s happened.”
“That’s what you call a good secret. Your sister, Louise, wants you to be surprised, so she doesn’t tell you. A good secret. Do you understand?”
“See? I told you, you are smart.”
Her smile widened.
“Sarah, bad secrets are when people do bad things to you… then tell you not to tell anyone. Those bad secrets… those secrets you can tell. Those secrets youshouldtell. Especially to me or to Officer Decker because we’re the police. You can tell a police officer those secrets.”
“They said not to tell the police.”
“Theytold you not to tell?”
Both the Loo and I were doing some quick reassessments.
I said, “There was more than one boy who told you not to tell?”
Sarah said yes.
Decker said, “Those boys… Sarah, look at me.”
She lifted her face and glanced at my father. He said, “Those boys are very bad boys. I don’t like those boys.”
“I don’t like them, too,” Sarah said. “They hurt me.”
“I’ll bet they did,” Decker said. “Where on your body did they hurt you?”
Louise looked away, but I could see the tears in her eyes. But Sarah talked calmly about it. “On my bottom… They hurt me on my bottom.”
Dad looked at me to continue, but I gave him a slight shake of the head. This was too important for me to ruin. He said, “Did they put things in your bottom?”
Tears rolled down her cheek as she whispered yes.
“I told you they were bad boys,” Decker said. “They were very bad to do that to you. What kind of things did they put in your bottom?”
She didn’t answer, her eyes squeezed tightly.
“Was it sex? Like the drawings that they showed you in school?” he asked her. “Did they put the boy’s thing in you? You know what I mean… the thing that makes a boy a boy?”
She turned away.
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” Decker said. “You don’t have to talk. Just nod.”
“Where in your bottom did they put it?” Dad paused. “Did they put it where you poop or where you pee?”
Sarah said, “Where I pee.”
“Those boys…,” I said. “They did sex with you.”
“I didn’t like it at all. It hurt!”
“I’m sure it did.”
“It hurt like when the baby came out.”
“Not like with David.” She covered her mouth and abruptly giggled behind her fingers. “Oops.”
Decker and I exchanged glances. I said, “David was your boyfriend, right?”
She sighed. “He went away.”
“But he went to your school before he went away?”
“I don’t know any David,” Louise told us. “What’s his last name, Sarah?”
“We’ll find out,” my father whispered to her. “So… you had sex with David. But it was good sex, right?”
“Well, I didn’t like that sex, either. But David was my boyfriend. It’s okay with your boyfriend.”
I was trying to organize my thoughts. Two things appeared to be going on-consensual sex with David and then maybe an incident that could have been a gang rape. “Do you know why David went away?”
She nodded. “Because they put him in the trash can.”
Again I exchanged looks with my father.
Decker scratched his head. “Tell me about that. When they put David in the trash can.”
“They told me not to tell anyone. They said that if I told a policeman, they would kill me.”
I said, “The bad boys arenotgoing to hurt you!”
“You can’t be sure of that!” Louise spoke up.
Decker said, “Ms. Sanders, why don’t we try to figure out what happened first. Then you can decide how you want Sarah to help.”
Giving her the choice, empowering her. My father’s skills were amazing. Louise told him to go ahead.
He said, “Sarah, I want you to tell me what happened. Because that’s what you have to do.” He tried to make eye contact with her. “You’re a big girl now, Sarah. You had a big, strong baby because you’re a big, strong girl. So you can do this. You can tell me what happened. How did David get into the trash can?”
She started shaking her knee-up and down, and up and down. “We were in the park.”
“Who was in the park?”
“David and me.”
“Long time ago. Before David went away.”
“Like… last year?”
A shrug. “Maybe six months.”
“Okay. You were in the park with David,” I said. “Which park? MacFerren Park?”
Decker said, “Good. Now tell me what happened in the park.”
“I was supposed to go home right after school. But I didn’t.”
“I know. You didn’t go home. You didn’t listen to your sister.” Decker looked at Louise. “But Louise isn’t mad at you… right?”
In fact, Louise was furious. But she toed the line, even though she spoke through clenched teeth. “No, Sarah, I’mnotmad.”
Dad’s smile was endearing. “See? She’s not mad. Tell me about the park.”
“They came over.”
Dad looked at me, signaling with his eyes for me to continue. I said, “Who came over?”
“The bad boys.”
“Sarah, do you remember how many bad boys there were?”
“Three or four.”
“Three or four,” I repeated. “So they came over to you and David?”
“And where were you in MacFerren Park when the bad boys came over to you?” Empty eyes regarded my face. “Were you by a tree, or sitting on a bench, or-”
“In the bathroom.”
“Oh, okay. You and David were in the bathroom together?”
“Were you having sex with David in the bathroom?” I asked.
“No… just… you know…” She smiled and made chirps with pursed lips.
“You two were kissing?” I asked.
“Yeah… we were kissing.”
“Then what happened?”
“The bad boys came in.”
“Did the bad boys say anything to you?”
“What kind of bad words?”
She looked down. “The F-word.”
“I see.” My brain was scrambling for the right order to ask my questions. “And after they said the words, what happened?”
“They hit David hard. His nose was bleeding-”
“My God!” exhaled Louise. She turned away and put her fingers over her mouth. “This is…”
“Am I doing something bad, Louise?”
“No.” She smiled and wiped her eyes. “No, you’re doing something good. You’re doing the right thing. Go on, Sarah. Tell them what happened.”
Sarah dropped her head. “They put him in the trash can. He didn’t like it. He was yelling. But then they turned the can upside down”-she closed her eyes-“and one of them sat on it, so David was stuck inside. And every time he yelled, the boy would kick the trash can hard and tell him to shut up.”
She was flinching as she related the incident. I said, “And after David was put in the trash can, what happened next?”
Her voice was as soft as new snow. “They pushed me down and tore my underpants. Then… the first one did it… the sex. It hurt real bad. I wanted to yell for him not to do it, but I didn’t want to make him mad… because when David yelled, it made them all mad. I didn’t want my nose to bleed. So I closed my eyes and didn’t say anything.”
“That was very smart,” Decker said. “See, I told you, you were smart.”
Her chin was pressed against her chest, her eyes still shut.
Decker said, “Do you remember how many boys had sex with you?”
Slowly, she held up two fingers.
“Two boys had sex with you.”
She held up three fingers.
Louise blanched. I took her hand and squeezed it. Dad said, “Three boys?”
“Okay, Sarah. Now this is very important. What happened after they were done with the sex?”
“That’s when they made me promise not to tell. They said if I told the police, they would kill me. I believed them!”
“Yes, of course. And then did the bad boys leave the bathroom first or did you?”
“The bad boys did.”
“And what did you do?”
“I pushed the trash can over to help David. It was real heavy and I hurt from the bad boys and I was crying…”
“You must have been very scared,” I said.
“But you don’t have to be scared now because you’re safe,” Decker said. “Sarah, I want you to tell me this. When you pushed the trash can over, was David all right?”
She shook her head no.
Decker rubbed his face. “Was he moving?”
“His face had lots of blood on it.” She started to cry in earnest. “I wanted to help him. But I promised I’d keep it a secret. I didn’t know what to do!”
“You did the right thing,” my dad said soothingly. “What did you do after you saw David’s face?”
Her crying got stronger. Louise put her arms around her sister and let her cry on her shoulder. “It’s all over, Sarah. Don’t worry, it’s all over.”
But everyone in the room, including Sarah, knew it wasn’t over.
Decker kept his voice even. “Sarah, did you leave David in the trash can?”
She sobbed loudly. “I ran home. I washed myself. I was real scared.”
“Of course, you were.”
We waited until she had cried it out. It took quite a while. Finally, she looked at me. “I went to school the next day. He wasn’t there. He doesn’t come to school anymore. I want to ask Mr. Klinghoffner about it, but I’m too scared.”
“Then how about if I ask him for you?” I said.
“Thank you.” She smiled with wet eyes. “I don’t see him anymore. Maybe he didn’t like that the other boys had sex with me.”
“I’m sure that’s not the reason,” I told her.
“I didn’t want to do it. They made me.”
I told her I understood. “What did these boys look like?”
She closed her eyes. She was conjuring up something. “Maybe two were Mexicans.”
“Mexicans?” I repeated.
“Yes. Like the janitor in the school. His name is José. He’s Mexican. But he’s a nice Mexican. Sometimes he gives us candy and treats. The bad-boy Mexicans were mean.”
“Did they speak Spanish?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“So you think that two might be Mexicans,” Decker said. “You said there were other bad boys. What about them? Can you tell me what they looked like?”
Again she closed her eyes. “One was bald. He was the meanest one. He hit David first.”
“Was he white-skinned or black-skinned or brown-skinned?”
She made a face. “Not brown like José, but not pink like me. The not-bald one had lots of pimples. The bald one was the meanest. He didn’t have pimples.”
“And the other two were Mexican?” I asked.
“Yes. They had black hair and dark skin and looked like José, the janitor at our school.”
“Anything else?” Decker said.
Decker said, “Sarah, do you think if I showed you pictures that maybe you could pick out the bad boys to me?”
“Ms. Sanders, we’d like to bring Sarah in and show her some mug books. See if she could pick out anyone.”
“Perhaps a little later, Lieutenant Decker. We have a court case on Wednesday. I need to settle things before I have her go through another ordeal. I hope you can understand that.”
“Okay. Later then.”
It was my turn to get some information. “Sarah, was David a black person?”
Sarah glanced at her sister. Louise said, “It’s okay, Sarah. You can answer the question.”
“Yes.” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, Louise.”
“What are you sorry for?” Louise asked her.
“ ’Cause I liked David. You said to stay away from black people. That they do lots of bad things. But David was nice. He wasn’t mean… except he did the sex. But he was nice about it.”
By this time, Louise was bright red. After all she’d gone through, I decided to give her a little solace. “Everyone makes judgment calls, Louise.”
“I’m just trying to keep her safe…” She let out a mirthless chuckle. “I haven’t done a very good job.”
“Walk a mile in my shoes,” I said.
She laughed loudly. “You should have been a therapist.”
Sarah said, “Is my baby okay?”
“The baby is fine,” I told her.
“Can I see her?”
Louise said, “We’re working on it, Sarah.”
I said, “Louise, is it possible for you to bring Sarah down to the Hollywood Station tomorrow just to make a statement? That way we could get something going.”
Louise said, “I don’t think so, Officer Decker.”
“No mug books,” I told her. “Just let her repeat her story to Detective MacGregor, because he’s in charge. We’ll worry about identifying the perpetrators later on.”
Her sigh was heavy. “Lunchtime-twelve-thirty. I’ll give you twenty minutes. Then I have to get back to work.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “I’ll clear it with Detective MacGregor and call you if there’s a change in plans.”
“Your cooperation will be favorably looked upon by the judge,” Decker told her. “This is not for pressure, Ms. Sanders, just to let you know.”
The sarcasm was evident. We all stood except Sarah. Dad extended his hand to the girl. “Thank you for talking with us, young lady. Tomorrow, Louise is going to bring you to the police station to talk with Detective MacGregor. Do you remember him?”
“You’ll need to tell him exactly what you told us.”
“Okay…” Sarah was tentative.
“Don’t worry,” Decker said. “It will be easier the next time you talk. I promise. You’re a very good girl, Sarah.”
We all smiled. Louise said, “His name is Lieutenant Decker.”
“I thought her name was Decker.”
“We both are Decker,” I told her.
“Oh… you’re married.”
“Father and daughter,” Dad explained. “Was there something you wanted to tell me?”
“What, honey? Tell me anything you want.”
“Are you sure it’s okay to tell bad secrets?”
“Positive.” My father regarded her face. “Do you have another bad secret you want to tell me?”
“No.” But Sarah responded way too quickly.
“It’s okay,” Decker soothed. “If you want, you can whisper it in my ear.”
“Is David dead?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Sarah,” I told her. “I’m going to find out.”
“Will I get into trouble?”
“No, sweetie. It’s okay. You did the right thing by talking to us.” Decker gave her his card. “Anytime you have a bad secret, you can call me, okay?”
She nodded. I followed the Loo’s example and gave her my card as well. We exchanged good-byes and walked back to the car.
I strapped myself in and turned on the ignition. “Is Sarah sitting on something?”
“So what do we do about it?”
Staring out the windowof his daughter’s apartment, Decker organized his thoughts. His gaze shifted onto Cindy’s face. “This is the deal. It would be a good idea to type up your notes for when you talk to MacGregor. That way, you not only have something organized to look at, so you don’t have to grope for words, but also you have something concrete to hand him after you’re done. You don’t want to overwhelm him with detail. It’ll make you look like a hot dog and it’ll irritate-” Abruptly, Decker stopped talking. “Are you listening?”
Cindy’s eyes went from her lap to his face. “Yes, Dad, I’m listening.”
“Then can you stop playing with the fringes of your couch pillow and look like you’re paying attention?”
“Iampaying attention. Why are you chastising me like I’m five years old?” She jumped up. “I’m going to make some fresh coffee. Would you like some?”
Decker rubbed his aching temples. After a pause, he told her yes he would like coffee. As his eyes skipped over the place, he noticed how stark her apartment had become. Once the decor had been homey, almost girlish, as if her room as a teenager had been moved in toto. Now it bore the scars of its rape. He stood up and walked into her small kitchenette. It could barely contain both their bodies. “You can’t have it both ways. I can’t be a father and a lieutenant at the same time. So take your pick.”
She poured water into the machine. “I’m going to ask you this one more time, and I expect you to be totally honest. Are you pissed because Koby is black?”
She turned to face him. “Sowhyare you still pissed that I didn’t mention it to you?”
“Mentionit to me?” Decker regarded her dubiously. “Cindy, you deliberately withheld it from me!”
“Whatdifferencedoes it make?”
“It’s descriptive. You went out of your way to tell me he was Israeli-”
“No, Cindy, he lived in Israel. He is a self-described Ethiopian. All you had to do was tell me that. Instead, you caught me off guard.” A pause. “I probably acted like an idiot.”
“Well, I didn’t feelfine,I felt uncomfortable. That’smyproblem, not yours. But you could have helped me along. What were you afraid of? Do I make you that nervous?”
Decker sighed. “Well… then I’m sorry. That’s never my intention.”
“I know. It’s all right.”
Shoving his hands in his jeans pockets, he stared at her blank walls. Just once he’d like to end their time together by congratulating himself for a parenting job well done, instead of walking to the car feeling like a failure.
“I’ll try to do better, Cin.”
“You don’t have to do better. You’re great, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” He threw up his hands. “I don’t know. I keep thinking I should be mellowing with age. Instead, I’m more on edge… more frantic.”
“That means you’re vital, Dad.” Cindy took her father’s hand. “That’s a good thing. And I wasn’t being fair. Most of the time, you don’t make me nervous, just when you bark orders at me. I know it’s not personal, especially because I dragged you into this. When you chide me, it sets off something primal. But that’smyhang-up.”
Decker rolled his tongue in his cheeks. “He’d better treat you right or I’ll kill him.”
“Don’t commit homicide on my behalf. I barely know him.”
“He likes you-a lot. Make sure you’re moving at the same rate.”
“That’s my business, Dad.”
“Fair enough. Shall we go on withourbusiness?”
“You were saying I should type up my notes.”
“Why don’t you do this-after you’ve organized your thoughts on paper, e-mail or fax them to me and I’ll go over them.”
“That would be great. Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome, Princess. Keep your sentences simple, Cin. The average detective has maybe a few years of college.”
“No, not really.” She looked at her nails, bitten almost to the quick. “So you don’t think I should ask around about gangs in my area? The fact that these bad boys were a mixture of Hispanic and non-Hispanic narrows it down.”
Decker waited a beat. “Cindy, you are not a detective yet. You have to wait for Russ MacGregor to call the shots. Tell him what you told me and see what he says.”
“It’ll be junked in the circular file. What would be wrong with asking my street contacts a couple of questions?”
“You’re goading me.”
“I’m trying to give an old rape case some CPR.”
“Cynthia, listen to me.” A pause. “Are you listening?”
“Yes, Dad, I am listening.”
“Okay. Here goes. Every day you put your butt on the line. That means you need backup on occasion. And that means you have to be a team player. Besides, you don’t know who these punks are, so you don’t know what you’re dealing with. You ask the wrong people the wrong questions, your body winds up with homemade air-conditioning.”
“I’m not laughing, Cynthia.”
She looked at her watch. “You’d better go. Otherwise, you’re not going to make a two o’clock movie with Hannah Banana.”
“I’ll go. But you have to promise me not to get involved unless asked to do so.”
“I promise I won’t do a thing without Russ MacGregor’s explicit permission.”
“That was even better than I expected. Thank you.”
Just then, a chime dinged. Cindy said, “Coffee’s ready. How about one for the road? I have a travel cup.”
She went into her kitchenette and poured the steaming liquid into a thermal cup. She closed the lid tightly and handed the cup to him while formulating her thoughts. “I like him, too, Daddy.”
“I think that despite all the superficial differences, we have a lot in common.”
“Our jobs, for instance. We both love our jobs. And our jobs have lots in common.”
“A nurse and a cop?”
“Yeah, when you think about it. Most of the time, our jobs deal with routine. Lots and lots of routine. But when itisn’troutine… man, that’s when the adrenaline starts pumping… flowing full throttle. Boy oh boy, that’s what separates wheat from chaff. And if we’re good… really good… it’s in the clutch when we shine.”
He awoke with a crick in his neck, his nostrils piqued by the smell of barbecue, his ears hearing the whir of a kitchen fan. Rina was grilling indoors, and despite his drowsiness, his stomach rumbled as the aroma translated its signals to his brain. He lowered his feet from the ottoman, then got up, stretching his too-tall frame until he was steady enough to walk. His mouth was dry and parched. He went into the kitchen, spotting a hunk of roast with grid marks, bathed in onions and mushrooms, sizzling in the skillet.
“Have a good nap?” Rina asked him.
“Very good. Hannah is a great kid, but she’s exhausting.”
“The feeling must be mutual. She’s been a zombie since she’s been home.”
“Well, that makes me feel a little better.” He took a bottle of water from the refrigerator and gulped it down greedily. Rina was wearing an apron over a black knee-length knit skirt and black sweater. She had socks and sneakers on her feet and her hair was tied back in a high ponytail. She looked like a bobby-soxer. “Man, that smells good. What is it?”
“Beef on Sunday? What’s the occasion?”
“The boys are home. We’re healthy. Hannah’s not grumpy. Take your pick.”
“Where are the boys?”
“They’ll be back in fifteen minutes or so.” She took the cast-iron grill pan from the stovetop and slid it into the oven. “Dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes.”
“Absolutely. We all dislike shoe leather.”
“You’re incapable of serving shoe leather.”
“Thank you very much.” She wiped her hands on a napkin and turned to face him. “If you have a few minutes, I’d like you to scan my grandmother’s file.”
“Don’t get cranky. The papers are on the dining-room table. I’ve done homework for you.”
“I got you a map.”
“It’s a start.” He washed his hands in the kitchen sink and splashed water on his face. He glanced at the coffeepot. “I’ll need fortification.”
“I will make coffee.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed his forehead. “First you have to deal with Cindy. Then Hannah. Now me. And this is supposed to be your day off. I’m not without sympathy.”
Decker slipped his hands around her waist, her hair smelling of garlic powder and soy sauce. “All I want is a little appreciation. Having gotten it, I will be happy to help you out.”
He kissed her soft lips, then sat down at the dining-room table. Rina had laid it all out for him-a neat little stack of papers in a folder, an empty notepad, a pen, a pencil, and a good street map of Munich. In all honesty, he was happy to be occupied. His mind abhorred a vacuum because that meant that sooner or later it would fill with images he’d rather forget.
He picked up the folder and opened it.
Regina Gottlieb’s body was found in a tangle of foliage inside the Englischer Garten-a long stretch of parkland that ran parallel to the Isar River but was separated from it by several city streets. From the map, it looked like the two areas intersected in the northern neighborhood of Schwabing. But then the garden ended and the Isar broke away.
Decker sat back, visualizing his morning jog through the parklands that abutted the Isar-a hint of the indigenous Bavarian wilderness-the area so long that it went under city streets. The cement pillars that supported the roadways above had been stamped with graffiti that was-not surprisingly-written in German, the same crude epithets as in America no doubt. He recalled his body washed with numbness as his face hit the frigid air at six in the morning. Jet lag had been playing games with his diurnal clock, and at that hour it was still black outside, dawn at least an hour away. It was dangerous for him to be out so early, but he took a perverse pleasure in flirting with peril, daring anyone to try to mug him. The leafless trees had dripped gelid moisture, the ground wet and muddy in spots, filled with detritus from the nighttime Munich rains. The air reeked of moss, mold, and rotting flora. The Isar was roiling after the storm, bubbling over with water and spray, boisterously shouting as it rolled over rocks and boulders that lined the riverbed.
Toward the end of his jog, a gray light shrouded the city. Decker’s mind flashed back to the upscale neighborhoods on either side of the river. All around had been imposing stone buildings constructed with perfect proportions and mindful of detail.
He wished he had paid more attention to his surroundings. The trip was lacking the sharp, defined angles of clear retrospection, like reading the paper in bad light. Although he had passed many landmarks, he had no idea where they were in relation to one another. Then again, how was he to know that his sight-seeing might be crucial in solving this long-buried, unsolved case?
Looking at the city as a whole entity-not just a road map to chart where the hell they were in relationship to the hotel-Decker discovered that the Englischer Garten was located in Munich’s northeast corner. He and Rina had stayed at a hotel on Maximilianstrasse, a thoroughfare that housed great restaurants, five-star hotels, and most of the designer boutiques. When he was there, the distance between the hotel and the garden didn’t seem very far at all. On the map, it looked much more distant.
Rina had also provided him with a detailed map of the garden, vast with long stretches of lawn and lakes and lots of walking paths. The rebuilt Chinese Tower lay in the center, a bronze-colored, spire-shaped piece of architecture that approximated a pagoda. Next door was one of the many Munichbiergartens,a summer gathering spot filled with tables and chairs, where people sat around, drank beer, and enjoyed the open space. The concession stands were closed in the wintertime, naturally.
The garden also contained Munich’s Cricket Grounds, and along the northern perimeter, there was an area called Aumeister, which featured an early-nineteenth-century hunting lodge. Those landmarks failed to jar loose any recollections. What he viscerally remembered was empty copses of trees in steel-cold air, wetness, and the smell of decay.
It was probably his mood.
Rina came in with a cup of coffee and set the mug in front of him. “Anything?”
He glanced at his watch. “I’ve been here for four minutes.”
“I expect miracles.”
“Wait in line.” He sipped coffee. “Wow, this is good. Thanks.”
Rina sat down and placed her hand over his. “Take your time. Seriously.”
“I’m trying to picture the geography. The Englischer Garten is big. Your grandmother was dumped in the northern end. So that brings several questions to mind.”
He picked up a pencil and wrote on the notepad. “First, what was she doing there? From the guide books and my own pitiful memories, that area is and was very ritzy. Your omah wasn’t aristocracy. She wasn’t even petite bourgeoisie. She didn’t go on daily strolls through the park, twirling her parasol in a silk-embroidered gown. Your grandmother was a poor Jewish woman. She probably worked from the moment she woke up until she went to sleep. What was she doing in the area?”
“Maybe she wasn’t in the area. Maybe she was just dumped there because the park was big and a good place to hide bodies.”
“So then the murder wasn’t a random killing. Someonebroughther over there with the specific purpose of killing her or at the very least, dumping her there. Now these other two women-Marlena Durer and Anna Gross-they’re different stories. They lived near the garden, so they could have been random rapes and homicides-in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“So why did the other guy include Omah with Gross and Durer?”
“What other guy?”
“This one. Kriminalpolizeiinspektor Axel Berg.” She smiled. “That’s a tongue twister. I think all the homicides might be related. Did you read all of Inspektor Kalmer’s notes?”
Rina flipped through to his interview notes. “Read this. You’ll find it interesting.”
Decker’s eyes scanned over the writing until he came to the sentence in question. He backtracked and read it carefully:An interview with Julia Schoennacht was conducted. The victim, Regina Gottlieb, was in Frau Schoennacht’s employ for three months, with Frau Gottlieb’s employment ending after her services were no longer required.He looked at Rina. “Your grandmother worked outside the home?”
“The first I’ve heard of it.”
“What do you think she did? A maid?”
Rina tried out a winsome smile. “I’ve got a confession to make.”
Decker sneered. “Do tell.”
“I screwed up my courage and called my mother this morning after you left.”
“Iknewthis was going to happen! Did you get into a fight with her? Rina, the woman is in her eighties!”
“No, I did not fight with her. To my surprise, she was actually receptive to talking about her past. I was shocked.”
“Did you happen to tell her what you were doing?”
“Here we go again.” Decker was used to his wife’s little white lies. “What yarn did you spin?”
“I told her Hannah was doing a family tree. I just needed to know what her mother and father did. I told her that I knew that Opah was a tailor. Then I said I assumed that Omah was a housewife. I asked if she had anything to add…”
“There was this pause. Then, in a voice bursting with pride, Mama told me that Omah was also a very fine seamstress. She used to make Mama and her sister beautiful party dresses. They were the best-dressed girls in the neighborhood, and the most beautiful girls as well.”
“Your mother’s words? I’ve never known her to brag.”
“Old age… I guess her inhibitions are lowered. Then she told me that Omah used to sew dresses for some of the richest people in Munich. Then… almost conspiratorial, as if my grandfather could hear from the grave, she said that Omah was a better seamstress than Opah was a tailor. Then”-Rina’s face took on a slight blush-“Then she said if Hannah needs more information, she’d be happy to talk with her.”
“Have you informed Hannah about your deception?”
“Hannah was happy to help me out. I think she likes playing detective. Truly her father’s daughter. So putting two and two together, it stands to reason that Omah worked for this woman Julia Schoennacht as a seamstress.”
“Where did Julia Schoennacht live?”
She pointed to her address. “Near Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Schwabing… not so far from the Englischer Garten. So maybe Omahwasa random murder. Maybe she was walking through the park on her way home when someone grabbed her.”
“I don’t know where your grandmother lived. Would she have walked through the park to go home?”
“My grandmother lived around here.” Rina located the area on the map. “Near the Gartnerplatz off Reichenbachstrasse.”
“These names are going to kill me,” Decker said.
“You’ve got to add imaginary slash marks.”
“Your grandparents’ house was nowhere near the park,” Decker pointed out. “And to get to Julia Schoennacht’s house near… what’s this street… Ludwigstrasse or is it Leopoldstrasse… they look like they run into one another… Anyway, there wouldn’t be any reason for your grandmother to walk through the Englischer Garten. It’s out of the way.”
“It’s not that much out of the way and it is more scenic. And look here”-Rina flipped through several pages-“Look at this, Peter. My grandmother was-quote unquote-relieved of her services about two weeks before she was murdered. Do you want to hear my theory?”
“Lay it on me.”
“Maybe she went back to the house for some unfinished business. Maybe there was a pay dispute or something. Maybe a fight broke out and a tragedy occurred. The house was near the garden, so that was the easiest place to hide the body. And of course, Julia Schoennacht wouldn’t tell the police any of this.”
“So already you have decided that your grandmother’s killer was her former employer. It’s as good a theory as any.” Decker closed the file. “So why don’t we leave it at that. Besides, there’re too manystrasseson the map.”
Rina said, “I want to know the truth-or as close as I can come to the truth. Besides, I can’t picture a wealthy, aristocratic woman dragging my grandmother into a park and bludgeoning her to death.”
“She hired a servant to do it. You said it yourself, Rina. What would be the big deal? Another dead Jew? Good riddance to bad rubbish. When was Kristallnacht?”
“So this was before.”
“About ten years before. But Hitler was already a dominant force.” Rina rubbed her hands together. “Since everything was going so well with Mama, I accepted an invitation for dinner at her house on Tuesday night-if that’s okay with you.”
“If you want to be a masochist.”
Rina hit him. “Don’t be like that.”
“I like your parents. I don’t fight with them. You do.”
“Okay, you have a point,” Rina admitted. “Look. I promise I won’t fight. Besides, they want to see the boys. So maybe we can continue the family-tree ruse?”
“And you don’t think Mama will catch on when I start to take notes?”
“Could you be a little more subtle?”
“Subtlety is not my strong suit,” Decker remarked. “However, if I should think up the questions and you should ask them…”
“Better still, let Hannah ask them.”
“What kind of a mother would use her own daughter as a shill?”
“Not a shill-a cohort.” Rina patted his shoulder. “Detection as a family affair. I see a screenplay in the making.”
“Funny. All I see is trouble in the making.”
The urge to combthe streets for information was overwhelming. But I had made a promise to my father, and that was that. Even so, I devised a mental list of how I’d proceed if I were a gold shield. First I’d talk to Klinghoffner, and find out all I could about David-who he was and where he might have gone. Then I’d ask him if there had been any trouble between his students and street gangs. There were also the girls I had talked with at the high school. If anyone would know about street gangs, it would be those who lived where the hoodlums operated. I also knew street people: Alice Anne, Magenta and others of her ilk, and even her pimp, Burton. There were times I could have busted him, but I chose not to because, after some strong prodding, he had closed shop for the night. I had come by my “ears” honestly.
I also thought about how to approach Russ MacGregor. Would he want my help? Would he care about a six-month-old crime? Would he bother with a case that had never been reported to the police, where there was no physical evidence,andwhere the primary witness was a mentally disabled girl who had just abandoned her baby? I sorted through all these what-ifs because the morning’s conversation with Sarah and Louise Sanders had piqued my curiosity.
Then I remembered the last time I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong. A year of therapy and I could almost get through a session without breaking down. Progress was slow, and I didn’t need another trauma. I kept telling myself to play by the rules, but the old rebellious urges kept surfacing like bottles bobbing in the ocean. I guess that meant I was getting better.
At loose ends, I wanted to be anywhere but home. Once, I had loved my place, but now it was just a pit stop. I should have moved, but I didn’t want yet another upheaval in my life. So I slept and I ate and I pretended I was doing fine. With Dad gone, I felt very much alone. I put on a bright blue blouse, black wool crepe trousers, and four-inch-high black boots that adjusted my height to almost six feet. I made up my face and hit the road in my five-year-old black Lexus, courtesy of Dad and Mom. They had thought a big car would increase my sense of well-being. All it did was increase my gas allowance. I wasn’t complaining, though. My wheels had a drop-dead stereo and cushy seats with lumbar support, which helped my sore back as well as my bruised ego.
As I looked in the mirror, I struck a pose that said I hadn’t a care in the world. I was always an accomplished fibber.
From my apartment, I drove north on Beverly Drive, passing the green lawns and flower beds of suburban Beverlywood, through the shopping district of Beverly Hills-lots of foot traffic out today-into the astronomically expensive and bloated estates of Beverly Hills. From there, I continued north until I hooked a right onto Sunset. I cruised through West Hollywood in slow-moving traffic, passing all the hot clubs, one of them sporting long lines even though opening time was hours away. I drove by a half-dozen edgy clothing boutiques, a couple of live theaters, and a block filled with kissy-kissy restaurants offering sidewalk dining, overpriced grub, and lots of lost souls.
When I turned onto Hollywood Boulevard, I purposely avoided looking for any of my sources, figuring why screw if you can’t come. I opened the moon roof and enjoyed the heat and sunlight on my skin, the red downy hair of my arms bleached strawberry blond in the bright rays. Here, in the heart of old Tinseltown, pedestrians abounded. There were the tourists who gaped at the street show and snapped picture after picture of weirdo after weirdo. Joining the fray were scores of pierced and spike-haired kids, snacking on junk food, just hanging around. I even spotted some families out for the afternoon, reading the names on the famous star-studded sidewalks. I passed the Kodak Theatre, Mann’s Chinese Theatre, the El Capitan, the newly constructed shopping malls, the old kiosk gift shops, the tattoo parlors, the tacky lingerie boutiques, the sex shops, and other various and sundry scamsters including budget lawyers advertising special rates for bail bonds. Mixed into the scene were the ubiquitous high-rise office buildings. I turned left onto Western, riding the boulevard until it dead-ended at Griffith Park. More people and more traffic, but I didn’t care. I had a destination in mind, but I wasn’t in any hurry to get there.
The route to Koby’s place was circuitous, requiring me to snake through unfamiliar areas of Los Feliz. We had arranged to meet for dinner at a small Italian restaurant, a couple of miles from his house-good and fine, except I was four hours early. If he wasn’t home, well, no big whoop. Maybe I’d drop in on my little sweetie still resting in the baby nursery at Mid-City Peds, pending the outcome of the court custody hearing. I sure hoped the infant wound up with Louise, whoreallywanted her. The woman was a saint and I hoped a judge was smart enough to see that.
I started the climb into the hills of Silver Lake. The day was bright and beautiful, and when the reservoir came into view, iridescent cobalt against the cityscape, my spirits lifted. There was a whole big world out there, my perspective reminded me. It was up to me to make the most of it.
Koby’s ten-year-old Toyota was in the driveway. I parked curbside, got out, and skipped to the front door, where I rang the bell. It was one of those chimes that couldn’t be heard from the outside. When there was no response, I knocked hard and waited.
After a minute of loitering, I figured he had probably taken a bike ride or a walk. The day was certainly gorgeous enough. I went around to the back metal gate that spanned the driveway. It was rectangular, about five feet tall, and easily scalable. Feeling a bit like a Peeping Thomasina, I gripped the iron top bar and hoisted myself up, peering down his driveway. Toward the back, I could make out an open door, from which I heard the clipped notes of reggae music. The gate latch was padlocked, but that didn’t stop me. I flung myself over the top with minimum effort.
The music got louder as I approached the door, walking along the right side of his house. It was planted with espaliered citrus trees-vines of green weaving through white lattice. The leafy branches were frosted with perfumed white blossoms, and a gentle breeze blew through smogless skies. I was about to knock on the open door, but instead I elected to peer inside.
The room was devoid of conventional furniture, holding only a workbench with a circular saw. Koby was kneeling on all fours, hand-sanding the floor, dust flying every which way. He wore a yellow tank top and jeans, pads protecting his knees, and a surgical mask covering his nose and mouth. His well-defined muscles gleamed with sweat, as if sculpted and oiled. If I had arealvivid imagination, I could have added some jazz. Then the setting would have made a perfect backdrop for a blue movie.
I watched him for several moments, then rapped forcefully on the door. He looked up, turned to the source of the sound, then leaped to his feet, as graceful as a panther. He pulled his mask off his face and turned down the music. With Bob Marley in retreat, I heard the stream of fast patter/talk that could only come from a sports announcer. His face registered confusion.
“What time is it?” he said.
“I’m early,” I told him. “Very early.”
“Is everything all right?”
“Just fine.” I walked inside the room. He was repairing the floorboards, replacing the rotted pieces with fresh strips of wood. The room was small but held a beautiful backyard view: the red-tipped leaves of rosebushes not far from bloom, beyond the bushes a glimpse of the lake. There was sawdust all over the place. It speckled his dark skin like freckles.
“You do your own gardening as well?”
His eyes followed mine out the back window. “The yard is tiny-mostly the rosebushes. I love the roses. In a week or two, it should fill with flowers.”
“It must be beautiful.”
“It is very beautiful.”
I looked at the repairs he had done. The new strips fit perfectly into the running-board pattern. In the corner of the room was a small TV resting on the floor. The Lakers game was on. Conference play-offs.
I pointed to the TV. “What’s the score?”
“Lakers are up by three, two minutes to go to the end of the second quarter. Lawrence Funderburke just scored off the bench for the Kings. They’ve been trading baskets. It’s going to be close.”
I tapped my foot. “I’m restless. Need any help?”
“If you give me about twenty minutes to clean up this mess, and another twenty minutes to clean up myself, we can do something together.”
“You’ll miss the game then.”
“They will survive without my suggestions.”
“Really, I don’t mind helping out.” I looked at the workbench. “I wouldn’t trust myself with the circular saw, but I can sand with the best of them.”
“You’ve done woodwork before?”
“I used to help my dad out when he did the add-ons. He’s one of those handy guys.” I regarded his repairs with admiration. “Probably not unlike yourself. Are you a perfectionist, too?”
Koby shrugged. “Is there any other way?”
“Nowthatsounds like my father.” I continued to gaze outside. “I saw my father this morning. I asked him for help on a case, and he came through. It was productive. We got some good information. I would have loved to act on it right away, but I promised him that I’d wait until the lead detective got back from his weekend vacation.”
“Why did you promise to wait?”
“Because technically, it’s his case.” I turned to face him. “There’s this thing in LAPD. You’ve got to follow protocol. I have a little problem with that.”
“It’s a tightrope,” Koby said. “To think independently-but nottooindependently.”
“That sums it up.”
“It is the same in my field. I am the one to spot the first signs of trouble, but I’m not supposed to act without consultation. I must talk to the doctor; I must talk to the psychologist. I consult with the physical therapist, the occupational therapist, the play therapist, and if the kids are older, the speech therapist, the educational therapist, and the reading therapist. In the end”-he smiled-“I use my own judgment. I was a medic in the army. If it’s an emergency, I do what I have to do.”
“Does it get you into trouble?”
“No, because most of the time, I do the consults. I even see the point of the consults. It slows me down. In medicine, to be too quick is often not good.”
“Are you always this rational?”
“Most of the time, yes.”
“That’s also like my dad. Rational.”
“Why do you sneer when you say that?”
I laughed. “I apologize. It is a compliment-even though I’m saying it like it was an insult. My dad is very rational. It makes him really good at what he does.”
Koby caught my eye. “And how is he as a father?”
“He’s… very caring. In general, I’d say we have a good relationship.”
“I enjoyed meeting him.”
Suave, I thought. The man was diplomatic. I said, “He was a bit miffed with me.”
“Because I didn’t tell him you were black.”
“The color of my skin is important to him?”
“No. I think he was just taken aback. On the positive side, he thought that you were a good guy.”
“That sounds promising. Unless you don’t like good guys.”
“No, I like good guys very much. I just haven’t done a very good job of choosing them in the past.”
Koby was quiet.
“You don’t know me,” I said.
“But isn’t that what dating is for?”
I looked at the flowerless rosebushes. “True.”
Koby studied his dust-coated hands. “So… this lack of good guys… Is there like an ex-husband in the picture?”
“No… thank God for that.”
“So you… you’ve never been married or…”
I studied his quizzical face. “No, I’ve never been married. No kids, either. I’m a free agent. What about you? Have you ever been married?”
He shook his head, but his eyes seemed rife with relief. “Cindy, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting, no? That is what youth is for. And it’s good that both of us have never been married. One less piece of baggage.”
“I’ve still got plenty to deal with.”
“Don’t we all.”
Abruptly, he took my face in his hands and kissed me hard. When I didn’t object, he kissed me again, this time long and slow, his teeth nibbling my lips, his tongue dancing against mine. It was a kiss filled with lust and desire, a kiss that was hot and vibrant. He wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me into his body, his hands sweeping over my rear, his erection digging into my hip. I didn’t mean to do it, but the next thing I knew, I was stoking the engine, so to speak.
Not that it mattered, but the man was more than proportional.
Who the hell was I kidding?
He closed his eyes and moaned. “I am sweaty.”
“You smell like a man,” I told him. “That’s just fine with me.”
Eventually, he did shower. We both did… together… an act almost as intimate as the ones that preceded it. As he soaped my back, he kissed the nape of my neck, a sinewy arm snaking around me, his hand resting on my breast. I looked at his fingers, at his nutmeg-colored digits against my pale, freckled complexion, and for a moment, I fantasized about the progeny we’d produce-café au lait skin, with brown eyes and thick, thick hair. I always hated my complexion, and welcomed the thought of it changing in the next generation.
I got out first, toweling dry as I pulled off my shower cap, shaking out my hair. I shivered as water evaporated off my skin, then slipped under the crumpled sheets to get warm and catch my breath.
Several minutes later, he entered the room stark naked and eyed me in the bed.
“I’m just resting,” I told him. “I’m spent. At least, for a couple of hours.”
He picked up the watch on his nightstand, then slipped it on his wrist-still nude but now he could tell time. “Hungry?”
I sat up, letting the sheet fall from my breasts. “Actually, I am.”
His topaz eyes were still on my body. But he said, “I’ll get dressed then.”
He was one of those lucky people who looked great in or out of clothing, and I enjoyed watching him move. He opened a door to a tiny closet, his shirts hanging neatly inside. He stared at the array for almost a minute-something a woman would do-then picked out two shirts to show me. One was lilac, the other was tomato red.
“What color pants?” I asked.
I thought a moment. “The red.”
He placed the lilac shirt back in the closet. “Red to match your hair.”
“Then you’d need orange.”
He slipped the shirt on. “Not orange. The shirt would be the color of a sunset-brilliant and fiery with copper-and even that wouldn’t capture it.”
I stared at him shocked. “That was beautiful.”
He beamed. “Thank you. It took me twenty minutes to get the words right.”
I threw a pillow at him. He blocked it with an elbow. “Isn’t it the thought that counts?”
“Yes, that is worth something.”
“Worth a lot. I used a thesaurus. English isn’t my native language.”
“Don’t give me that. You’re totally fluent.”
He put on Jockeys, then slid into a pair of black jeans. “Nowthatis a very good compliment.”
His face was dead serious. I had hit something important. “How’d you learn?”
“I learned at first in Ethiopia, more in Israel, but mostly from my stepmother.” He buttoned his shirt. “She is English speaking… from Canada. I make her speak the language to me because I want to speakrealEnglish. I saw America as my ticket to freedom. I think my vocabulary is pretty good.”
“It’sexcellent,Koby.” I got up and started to dress. “I have Ivy League friends who don’t sound nearly as educated as you do.”
“Thank you, that means very much to me because I work very hard on it. Now I must work on my spelling. Other than medical terms, my English spelling is absolutely atrocious.”
“My spelling is atrocious and English is my native language.”
He smiled. “That is nice for you to say. English is the third alphabet I learned. There is little in common between Amharic and Hebrew, although both are Semitic languages, and English is totally different. When I first get here, I could speak and understand quite well, but I couldn’t read much except medical texts and that is only because the medical language in Hebrew is borrowed from English. There is an expression in Hebrew-to break your teeth, meaning to do a hard thing. I used to break my teeth reading the newspapers. Now I can read the words, but I still cannot spell them. That is the next hurdle.”
I tucked my blouse into my pants and began putting on my boots. “You’re very… driven, aren’t you?”
“You are first discovering this?”
I laughed and shook my head.
“What?” he asked.
“I know I keep harping on this, but”-I laughed again-“you are so like my father-just thinner and darker.”
“Don’t they say that girls are attracted to their fathers, as boys are attracted to their mothers?” He sat down next to me. “Now, my mother died when I was young. She is not so clear in my mind. So I can create whatever fiction I want.”
“What’s your stepmother like?”
He thought a moment. “Tall… strong… brown eyes… pale skin.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said. “Red hair?”
He shook his head no. “Brown. Then after ten of us, it turned gray. Batya was tough as a mother, but fair-minded. No sense of humor, but I could make her laugh.” He eyed me intently. “I like when you laugh. It’s good music.”
I looked down and patted his knee.
He raised my face and kissed me gently. Did it a second time, but with more passion. His hands stroked my arms, lust in those incredible jeweled eyes. “Still tired?”
“An easy thing to change if the spirit is willing.”
I bit my lower lip. “If you’re convincing, I could be persuaded.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I like challenges. Especially this kind.”
“Go for it, Yaakov.”
He grinned and started by unbuttoning my blouse and unhooking my bra from the front. Then he unzipped my pants but kept them on. He laid me down on the mattress; then beginning at my forehead, he gently kissed a path downward, his lips traveling onto the tip of my nose, onto my mouth, between my breasts, and over my stomach and navel until he reached the top of my pubis. He lowered the waistband of my panties, his tongue dipping into my thatch of red hair. Softly, he bit the skin. “How do I do?”
My fingers dived into his kinky black hair as I moved his mouth lower. “Very convincing.” I sucked in my breath when he hit the right spot. “Oh Lord, yes, I amdefinitelypersuaded.”
We eventually made itto dinner, then hit a ten o’clock movie. The cinema was followed by drinks at a small jazz club, talking and talking until the wee hours of the morning. We had been together for over twelve hours, and though I was zapped, I politely declined Koby’s offer to bunk down at his place. I didn’t have to work until the afternoon, but I wanted to wake up in my own bed, on my own time. He didn’t look insulted. On the contrary, I felt he needed breathing room as well.
We were quiet on the way home, tapped out on ideas, and happy to let the stereo provide the background noise. We were sailing on Sunset back into Silver Lake, his car finally missing a light and gliding to a stop. There were no other vehicles about us, no cross-traffic in sight.
But there was a lone pedestrian crossing the street. A woman-hunched and wrapped in a heavy black coat. She was clutching a purse to her chest.
I was suddenly alert. I looked at my watch: three in the morning.
“Poor thing,” Koby whispered. “Can’t we take her to a shelter?”
“I don’t know if she’s homeless,” I told him. “No shopping cart, no bags… just a purse. She’s also wearing sheer stockings, and in this light, her ankles look normal.”
“Most of the homeless women have terrible ankles from walking in ill-fitting shoes. And also, the poor health.”
“Not one that I recognize. To me, it looks like she had a fight with a boyfriend, and he kicked her out of the car. Look at the downcast gait.”
“Then perhaps we can take her home. It’s dangerous out here.”
Before I could agree, the horrid scene played out in slo-mo. A Jeep Cherokee SUV, tearingagainstthe light, smashed into her, five yards before the safety of the sidewalk. As the body flew upward, a Dodge Caravan minivan crossed the intersection, just in time for the Jeep to smack it broadside, flipping it over. As the woman fell back to earth, she was hit a second time by the minivan, spinning and bouncing on its roof, the van careening totally out of control until it crashed into a power pole. Electricity sparked. The noise was deafening. The woman had been propelled clear across the boulevard and had landed on the asphalt with a thud. The Jeep did a two-tire screeching turn, speeding off to freedom.
“Shit!”Koby screamed. He punched open a dashboard door, extracted a pair of latex gloves, and snapped them over his hands. He was out of the car before I could unbuckle my seat belt.“Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move!”he yelled out to the passengers in the wrecked minivan. He was running over to the woman’s inert body.
I raced out of the car, cell phone in my shaking hand.
“Go to the van and tell them not to move!” Koby ordered me. He was leaning over the pedestrian, checking her neck for a pulse. The face was unrecognizable pulp, her body as limp as a rag doll. I bit back bile and ran over to the van, calling 911 as my eyes gawked at the smoking hunk of sheared steel and tangled wires, the entire mess reeking of spilled gas and oil and the metallic stink of burned flesh. Inside, the air bags had deployed, but even so, there was so much blood, guts, and moaning that I nearly fainted at the grisly sight. But as soon as the operator came over my cell, I was surprised by my calm tone, telling him the precise location while requesting paramedics and the fire department stat.
After I hung up, with my mouth still agape, I stared at the carnage inside, unsure how to proceed. I just kept repeating over and over for the passengers not to move, hoping that the panic in my voice wasn’t noticeable. When Koby finally appeared at my side, I exhaled audible relief. Immediately, he went to work, his voice as soothing as lapping waves, as he told the passengers-two men, two women, a couple of kids, and a lifeless baby-not to move while he assessed the damage. Blood was spurting from the arm of one of the women. He tore off his shirt and tied up the artery. Though the night was cold, he was sweating and breathing hard. “You call 911?”
“I’ve got a first-aid kit and blanket in the back of my car.”
“I’m on it.” I rushed over to the car, my boot heels clacking against the street, then popped the trunk, taking out the kit as well as a flashlight and a blanket. He had another set of gloves in the kit, so I put them on, then brought the supplies to him and shone the light into the car.
“You brought the flashlight. Someone was thinking. Shine it here.”
“What about the pedestri…?”
“Gone. Ah, you’re gloved. Press down here, okay? No, not there… here.”
The wail of sirens in the background. At this hour, the noise could be heard blocks away. As I applied pressure to a leaking vessel with my left hand, I called 911 again with my right. Then I tucked the phone between my shoulder and cheek, so I could free up the other hand to direct light to where Koby was working. He was trying to liberate the infant-thankfully, he had found a pulse-but a web of razor-sharp metal was in his way.
“This is Officer Cynthia Decker from LAPD. I just reported a fatal hit-and-run traffic accident. I need to hook up with radio dispatch so I can give out pertinent information to all cruisers near the scene.”
My neck was constricted, screwed up into a god-awful position to secure the phone, and the muscles began to throb. Adrenaline was shooting through my system, choking my breathing with pounding heartbeats. Still, when the police RTO came on the line, I had found my voice.
“Reporting a hit-and-run with fatalities. The vehicle was a late-model Jeep Cherokee, dark in color, last four digits of the license plate-Henry-five-two-three, again, Henry-five-two-three-last seen heading northbound on Terrazzo Avenue. All officers in the area respond immediately. Requesting additional units to the scene of the accident-Terrazzo and Sunset.”
I waited until the operator repeated the information. When she did, I hung up, put the phone down, and rolled my neck. Koby was wrist deep in blood, dressing horrid gashes with gauze from the kit. It was like plugging up the proverbial dike with a finger.
The sirens grew louder. I could see flashing lights in the reflection of the shattered window glass. The EMTs arrived less than three minutes after my first call, though it had seemed much longer. When they pushed me out of the way, I wanted to say thank you. Koby spoke rapidly while continuing his work, informing them about the infant, then requesting to speak to the doctor on the ambulance phone. When my date started conversing in medical lingo, I walked away, trying to figure out how to be useful.
With great trepidation, I walked over to the thrown body and held my mouth. I regarded her-discarded, her limbs broken and distorted. Her skull had been cracked open and brain was oozing out. The urge to puke was almost as strong as the urge to pass out. I jerked my eyes away from the corpse just as an unmarked car pulled up. Two people got out, flashing their badges. They needn’t have bothered, because I knew both of them by more than just name.
Hayley Marx was a fellow officer in Hollywood, the closest thing I had to a friend in the Department. We used to eat dinner together twice a month, but now our schedules conflicted. We kept meaning to make time, but never got around to it. She looked great, her tall frame svelte in a black pantsuit. She’d grown out her blond hair so that it now brushed her earlobes, softening her face.
The man she was with was the last guy on earth I wanted to see. Detective Scott Oliver worked Homicide under my father’s leadership. Once, they had been colleagues, and there remained festering resentment over my father’s promotion, further aggravated by my idiotic fling with Oliver. It was over almost before it started, but I was told by sources close to both of us that he wasn’t thrilled. God only knew why. I wasn’t a day at the beach.
Scott was a sharp dresser. He had on a black jacket, black T-shirt, and khaki pants. His face was handsome in that middle-aged-man rugged way, and his thick hair had silvered at the seams. Ordinarily, his penetrating stare would have put me under, but at the moment, I was preoccupied with other things.
“Decker!” he barked out.
“Oh my God!” Hayley gasped. “You all right, Cin?”
I started babbling. “We were sitting at the intersection when a Jeep just smashed into her.” I realized I was sobbing. “I don’t know if we should move her out of the way-”
“First just calm down!” Oliver told me.
“Because we can’t move her until Traffic and Homicide get here. It was a hit-and-run, right?”
“We heard it go over the box; I’m sure others heard it, too. Just hang for a moment.” Oliver turned to Hayley. “I’ve got some crime tape in the trunk of my car. Can you get it for me?”
“I’ll go with you,” I told her.
“No, you stay here and tell meexactlywhat happened.”
Another cruiser had arrived: two more guys from my division-Bader and Guensweit. With others there, it made it easier to tell the story; the crowd mitigated the queasy feeling. Scott told the uniformed officers to rope off the body while he took me aside and pushed me for details.
“I told you, I only remember the last four digits of the license plate number, Scott. It happened so fast-”
“Just let me get a physical picture, okay?”
He sighed, making me feel like an errant child. Hayley said, “It’ll be okay, Cin-”
“Can you not interrupt, Marx?” Oliver’s eyes went to my face. “So you’re heading eastbound, stopped at a light.”
“Yes… exactly where the car is parked now. We haven’t moved it.”
“So where was the Jeep coming from?” Oliver asked.
“I told you I don’tknow.There were no cars on either side of us. The Jeep just came out of nowhere and ran the light.”
“Then it came up from behind you?” Oliver asked.
“Maybe. Probably. I don’t know, Scott, I wasn’t driving. I wasn’t checking the rearview mirror.”
“Who was driving?”
“Koby.” I turned toward the crash site. “My date. He’s over there somewhere, helping out the paramedics.”
“He’s a doctor?” Hayley asked.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed.
I exploded. “What the hell difference does it make?”
“Cin, I’m sorry-”
“She had a purse!” I suddenly recalled. “The woman… she was holding a purse. I remember pointing it out to Koby as we watched her cross the street. She looked so sad.” I began to pace. “We’ve got to find the purse. It’s bound to have her ID. I’ve got to find it-”
“No, you’ve got to sit down,” Oliver told me.
“No, no, I’m okay…”
Another cruiser pulled up. Oliver said, “Cindy, sit down! That’s an order. I’ll call it into Hollywood Homicide.”
But I didn’t listen. As Oliver left with Hayley to give instructions to the next set of units, I started hunting around for the handbag. There was blood all over the place. Piercing screams and sobs were coming from the pile of mangled metal. The group of EMTs working on the accident had grown. There were now two ambulances and two fire trucks with lots of firefighters in yellow slickers standing by. They were bringing out the Jaws of Life.
Koby emerged from the shadows, speaking to a paramedic, using his hands as he talked. I stared at him, in awe of how fast he had reacted. I jumped when Oliver tapped me on the shoulder.
“I told you to sit down.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Who’s your date?” Oliver asked.
I pointed to Koby. “Him.”
I jerked my head around and glared at him.
Oliver let out a bitter chuckle and shook his head. “Does Daddy know you’re eating chocolate cake?”
Stunned didn’t even remotely approximate the way those words hit me. Rage welled up so quickly, it made my eyes tear. The old Cindy would have slapped his face and berated him with a string of curse words. But if I had learned anything the past year, it was the value of saying as little as possible.
“Stay away from me, Oliver.” My voice was feral. “Stayfaraway.”
“Hey!” Hayley shouted as she tied up the last bit of crime tape. “Everything okay?”
The absolute fury must have showed on my face. “Just fine, Marx.” I stalked off, snapping off my gloves, and continued searching for the purse. Oliver had the good sense not to follow. Hayley joined me a minute later with a flashlight. “What’d he say to you?”
“Help me look for the handbag.”
“That’s what I’m doing.” She swept the light across the dark ground. “Who’s your date?”
I gave up on subtlety. “The black guy over there.”
“Really.”A pause. “Great body. Why’s he shirtless?”
I couldn’t keep the scorn out of my voice.“Becausehe ripped it off to tie up a gushing artery.”
“Wow… that’s cool.”
“Hayley, shut up!”
She held my shoulders, and I started to cry. She hugged me tightly and I let her do it. “You’re okay, Cin, you’re okay.”
“It was just so awful… that horrible noise!” I pulled away. “We’ve got to find the purse. We’ve got to find out who she is… was.”
“I know he’s a jerk, Decker. I know I’m a jerk for going out with him, especially ’cause he still likes you-”
“Not the time for a psychodrama, Marx.” I stepped away from her and took in my surroundings. The body had landed around ten feet from a stucco office building encircled by a three-foot hedge of waxy privet. Maybe the purse landed somewhere in the bushes. I began separating branch from branch. It was dark and I was looking into black holes.
“Maybe you’d do better if you could see.” Hayley offered me the flashlight. I took it and shone the beam into the thick leaves.
“How about I hold while you look?”
I nodded. “Thanks.” A pause. “I know I’m being a butt.”
“You’re fine, Decker, but you witnessed something shocking. Oliver’s right. You should sit down.”
Sharp twigs scratched the back of my hands. “Oliver’s not right about anything.”
“How long have you been going with this guy?”
“A week. It’s nothing, okay? You know you can shine the light and look at the same time.”
Hayley began a perfunctory search through the flora. “First date?”
“Third… It’s going well then.”
“Can I get a little illumination over here?”
She shifted the angle of the beam. “You do anything yet?”
I didn’t answer.
Excitement in her voice. “Is he good?”
Again I didn’t answer.
More excitement. “Is it true what they say about black guys?”
It took herculean effort not to punch her out, but once more I didn’t answer.
Hayley was staring into the bushes, bringing the light into focus on something. “What’s this?”
“That!” It was rectangular in shape and made from chrome or steel or silver. It winked in the dark. She squinted. “Maybe a pop-top?”
I went in for a closer inspection. “Too big. It could have come from her purse. We shouldn’t touch it… although I don’t know why.”
“Just in case.” Hayley reached in her own purse and pulled out a tissue. “Here.”
I retrieved the metal and was surprised to find it attached to a chain. It was the type of dog tag usually worn by GIs. The surface was embossed with a name, a phone number, and a notice that the wearer was on Dilantin and phenobarbital, and was allergic to penicillin and all its derivatives as well as erythromycin and all its derivatives.
“This is one ill girl.”
“ ‘Belinda Syracuse.’ ” Hayley read the inscription in the beam of light. “Think it’s her?”
I took out my cell phone, my heart thumping in my chest. “There’s one way to find out.” As I phoned the number, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu. Then I began to sweat, thinking about what I’d say to whoever answered the phone at three-thirty in the morning. After three rings, a machine kicked in. When the recorded voice told me who was on the other end of the line, I gasped and dropped the phone. It bounced several times but didn’t break.
The wonders of modern technology.
Ifinally tookOliver’s advice and sat down, because had I remained on my feet, I would have passed out. Hayley kept asking me questions. I could hear her voice but couldn’t understand the words because my head was still spinning. Eventually, things began to register.
“… you okay? Do you need water?”
“I’m fine!” I insisted.
The excitement in her voice attracted Oliver’s attention. He jogged over.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Hayley said. “Decker called up the number on the dog tag. Then she dropped the phone.”
“What dog tag?”
I showed Oliver the strip of metal that Hayley and I had found in the bushes. “The phone number on the tag is for Fordham Communal Center for the Developmentally Disabled. If the hit-and-run victim is this woman Belinda Syracuse, then in the famous words of Yogi Berra, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again.’ ”
“What the hell does that mean?” Oliver barked.
“Can you give me a minute to catch my breath?” I snapped back.
The two of them waited, staring at me. Despite Oliver’s incredible rudeness and brusque manner, there was concern in his eyes. He told me to take my time.
I said, “The baby that I plucked from the trash? The mother was a resident of the same center… the Fordham Center…”
They continued to study my face. Oliver said, “And…”
“Well, don’t you think it’s a big coincidence?”
Oliver held out his hands as if he were balancing scales. “Yeah… I suppose.”
I suddenly felt inane. Whatwasthe big deal?
“What?” Oliver asked. “You think they’re related? Tell me. I’m listening.”
“I don’t know.”
“So what are you getting all hysterical about?”
“I don’t know, Oliver, maybe it’s the shock of seeing a fellow human being batted around like a shuttlecock!”
I was talking louder than I thought. Koby shouted out, “Are you okay, Cindy?”
“I’m fine,” I yelled back. “Just having a spirited debate!”
My voice was razor sharp. Koby gesticulated to one of the paramedics, then sprinted over. Someone had provided him with a blue short-sleeved scrub top. He took in my face, his eyes also concerned. “You look pale.”
“I’m fine.” I pointed to my companions, one at a time. “This is Officer Marx, also from Hollywood PD… Homicide Detective Scott Oliver.”
“Yaakov Kutiel.” He lifted up his bloodied gloves. “Forgive the lack of handshake.”
Koby directed his attention to me. “Do you need me to take you home right now?”
“I can take her home if you’re busy,” Oliver volunteered.
I cringed. If our past wasn’t obvious before, it sure was now.
Koby spoke before I could. “No, that’s fine.”
“Just that you looked kinda busy,” Oliver said.
I said, “What I really need to do is go over to the Fordham Communal Center and find out if Belinda Syracuse is sleeping in a bed or not.” I showed Koby the dog tag. He read the information but didn’t touch it. “I found this in the bushes. The number corresponds to the Fordham Center, the same school that Sarah Sanders went to.”
“The abandoned baby’s mother?”
“I thought so. Probably one of those weird coincidences. Anyway, since I’ve already been to the place and dealt with some of the people there, I think I should go and find out about Belinda Syracuse. If she is the victim, it’s only proper to give her an identity.”
“You’re not a Homicide detective, Cindy.” Oliver found that necessary to point out.
“But you are. So come with me.” I added, “Both you and Marx.”
Koby said, “If you’re going to work, then I will go to the hospital with the children. Since I’ve been with them from the start, I’m familiar with their medical conditions. I might have something useful to contribute.”
“Koby’s a-” I started again. “Yaakov’s a critical-care nurse at Mid-City Peds.”
“Very dedicated,” Oliver said.
“You do your job, I do mine.” Koby regarded me. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, Koby, honest.” I stood up to prove the point. “Hayley will drive me to your place so I can pick up my car.” I kissed him lightly on the mouth. “Go. We’ll talk later.”
“MaybeI’lltalk to you later, too,” Oliver told him. “Decker here is a little sketchy on the details.”
Koby gave him the full force of his jeweled eyes. “I’m sure she remembers more than I do. But I will help you if I can.” He turned and jogged back.
Moments passed. It was late and I was spent and impatient. “The officers can wait with the body for Hollywood Homicide. Are we going or not?”
Oliver shrugged. Hayley took my arm and together we walked to Oliver’s Beemer.
I sat in the backseat, giving out directions but otherwise mute. Hayley didn’t push it, but Scott made some weak stab at chitchat, which mercifully died a natural death. I was livid at Scott, but I was trying very hard not to let the anger interfere with professionalism.
No traffic on the streets, just a misty fog that haloed road lights and turned Sunset into a blurred snapshot. We raced down the boulevard, the hour too late for even the dealers and hookers. Not a soul stirred, although we passed an occasional lump of covers on a bus bench. For all we knew, the body underneath could have been dead. The stillness was freaky, even to the most ardent of night owls, and time took on a surreal context. We made it to the Fordham Communal Center in less than fifteen minutes.
I rapped on the door, and it took several minutes to get a response. Once we did, I announced to the scared voice on the other side that we were the police. I’d never met the woman who answered. She was quite tall, swathed in a terry-cloth robe, her short dark hair sticking out at all angles, having been attacked by static electricity. She squinted when I showed her my badge, did the same when Hayley and Oliver showed theirs.
I started the ball rolling. “I’m very sorry to disturb you, ma’am. We have a couple of questions regarding Belinda Syracuse. We understand she lives here.”
“Belinda?” The woman was confused. “Belinda’s a good girl. What did she do?”
“Is she with you now?” I asked.
“No, she’s out on a weekend pass to visit her brother. May I ask what this is all about?”
I showed her the dog tag. The woman gasped. “What happened to her?”
“We’re not sure. That’s why we’re here.” Oliver walked across the threshold, into the house. We followed, glad to be out of the chill. “Right now, we need the name and phone number of Belinda’s brother.”
“May I please see your badge again?” the woman asked.
Because the lights were so dim, Oliver held it up to her face. “I know this must be upsetting. The sooner you give us the information, the sooner we’ll be able to tell you something.”
“I’ve been to the center before,” I added. “With the Sarah Sanders case.”
“She found Sarah’s baby,” Hayley joined in.
“I spoke to Mr. Klinghoffner.”
“He’s not in,” the woman told us. “He doesn’t sleep here.”
Hayley said, “And you are…”
Just then a voice came from above the stairs. “Ms. Manigan? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she shouted. “I’ll be up in a moment, dear.”
Oliver tossed her his most charming smile. “Please, Ms. Manigan. The number?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just so… discombobulating.” She turned on a few more lights. “Have a seat. What time is it?”
“Around fourA.M.,” Hayley said. “Do you need help?”
“No, I’m fine, but thank you. Wait a moment.”
When she was out of earshot, Hayley said, “Poor girl. First being retarded, then dying so dreadfully. What kind of life is that?”
A few minutes later, Myra came down the steps. “I’ve phoned Mr. Klinghoffner.”
“We still need the number,” Oliver told her.
“Yes, of course. But if you find out-”
“I’ll tell you what’s going on, yes.”
Still, she hesitated. Then, screwing up her courage, she handed me the name and number.
The number was a West L.A. exchange.
I traded glances with Oliver. “You’re the lead.”
Oliver threw it back to me. “Help yourself, Decker.”
I looked at Ms. Manigan. “Can I borrow your phone?”
I took a deep breath and phoned. The man who answered was groggy and pissed. I explained the dilemma as succinctly as possible but he was still at sea, although now he was agitated.
“She’s not over there?” he asked me.
“No, sir, she’s not. We were hoping she was with you.”
“But she’s supposed to be over there. What’s going on? Who is this?”
“Hollywood Police,” I told him again. “I’m at the Fordham Center right now. I think we could sort this out more efficiently if we spoke in person.”
“First things first,” Syracuse demanded. “Where is Belinda?”
“Sir, what’s your address?”
“Something’s happened to her, hasn’t it?” His voice broke. “She told me she was going back early. She told me she had a ride.”
“Did she tell you who her ride was?”
“Just someone from the center. What is it? What happened?”
“Sir, we really need to come down and see you.”
“Oh my God.” A heavy sigh. “Oh Jesus, just tell me what happened!”
“Your address, sir?”
He yielded to pressure. He lived in Mar Vista, not too far from my house. It didn’t make sense to go to his place, only to go back to Koby’s to pick up my car, but I couldn’t keep the man waiting.
Another thirty minutes of riding with Oliver.
I gritted my teeth and pretended that we were one big, happy team.
The brother was stocky, bordering on fat, with gray hair and lots of it. He was my height, but since I was wearing four-inch heels, I was looking over the top of his head. He had on black sweats, open-back slippers on his feet.
It went down like this. Terrance Syracuse was a self-employed personal-injury lawyer and sometimes his work intruded upon his weekends. This was one of those times. He had several cases pending, and really hadn’t thought about hosting Belinda. But because his wife and two daughters were visiting his in-laws in Vermont, he decided to call her up. His wife was tolerant of his retarded sister, but lately his children were getting to that age where Belinda’s presence embarrassed them. As much as he loved his sister, he had no problem choosing his daughters’ needs over Belinda’s because he had grown up with the stigma of a disabled sister. He could deal with it now, he was comfortable with the situation, but he knew that adaptation took time. He didn’t want to force his kids into an artificial relationship that they weren’t equipped to deal with.
“I suppose that won’t be necessary now,” he said, sobbing.
Before he left for the office, he had set Belinda up in front of the TV and told her he’d be back in time to take her out for dinner. He’d done it many times before. Belinda was a good girl, and she obeyed the rules. As far as he knew, she never opened the door for strangers. One time, his wife’s sister had come to the house, but Belinda didn’t know her. His sister-in-law was irate, yelling and screaming, but Belinda held fast and refused to let her in. She wasn’t the type to go off on her own. She was retarded, yes, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew that in the outside world, there were people who’d take advantage of her.
“And you don’t know who took her back to the center?”
“No. But she insisted it was someone she knew. I had no reason to doubt her.”
“We can check phone records,” I told Scott.
“It had to have been someone familiar,” Syracuse insisted. “Otherwise she wouldn’t have gone.” He gnawed on a raw thumbnail. “What in the world was she doing in that area at that time of night?”
I said, “I don’t know, sir. She looked lost. I was about to pull over to help her when it happened.”
“Actually, it was an SUV.”
“Did it… Was it gunning for her?”
I refrained from sighing. “It’s anyone’s guess. It happened so fast, I didn’t get all the details. Maybe later… if I think about it, something new will come to me.” I bowed my head. “I’m so sorry.”
He nodded, not daring to make eye contact.
Hayley said, “Did she know anyone else besides you who lived outside the Fordham Center?”
“She might have. My sister didn’t talk to me about her private life. And when she did… I didn’t listen too carefully. She was a typical teenage girl… only she was twenty-four. But she still had the teenybopper mentality-boy crazy, for one thing. Mostly movie stars. She talked about meeting them one day. She lived in a fantasy world and I zoned out half the time.” He started pacing. “This is too awful. I’m grateful that my parents aren’t alive to deal with this blow.” He regarded Cindy. “When can I bury her? The thought of her lying on a slab in cold storage is sickening.”
“We’ll let you know as soon as the ME is done.”
“What in the world is there to find out? She was massacred by some crazy or careless motorist. What will an autopsy tell you that you don’t already know?”
“It’s just procedure, sir,” Oliver told him.
He drew his hands down his face. “I have to start making funeral arrangements.” He checked his watch. “I don’t suppose anyone’s open at five in the morning.”
“You might have to wait a few hours.”
I said, “You won’t mind if we check your phone records?”
“Of course. Anything that would help. She’s been with the center over ten years. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her.”
“Has she been having any trouble with anyone there?”
“Not that I know about.”
“Has she talked about anyone specifically?”
“Like a boy or a man? No. Or if she did, I’m sorry to say I didn’t pay attention.” Again he checked his watch. “When can I make the identification?”
“How about if I take you down?” I offered. “See if we can speed up the process.”
“I’ll come with you,” Hayley stated.
“We can all go,” Oliver said.
“You have farther to travel to get home, sir,” I told him. “We can handle it, Detective.”
“We’ll all go,” Oliver insisted. “That way, it’ll be done by the book.”
I was in no position to argue.
Seniority had spoken.
By the timeTerrance had identified his sister and we were finally done, it was half past six. Hayley offered to buy us breakfast, but I was too nauseous to even think about eating. “Besides, I should see how Koby’s doing.”
Oliver’s shoulders tensed. “I’ll take you to his house after I drop off Marx.”
Hayley said, “I’ll take her, Scott. This is girl time, okay?”
That was Hayley to a T. It didn’t surprise me. She’d been there for me before. Oliver didn’t argue and the ride was wonderfully silent. We picked up Hayley’s car and made it to Koby’s by eight. My Lexus was right where I’d left it; his Toyota was nowhere in sight. I sighed. “I don’t think he’s home yet. He’s probably still at the hospital.”
“You aren’t going there, right?” Before I could answer, she said, “Cin, you need to go home and sleep.”
“No problem. I’m going home. You do the same. That’s an order.” We hugged. She said, “Breakfast on Wednesday?”
“How about Thursday?” I countered for no good reason.
“Thursday is perfect.”
I smiled, then got out of the car. After settling myself in my Lexus and placing the phone in the built-in recharge cradle, I put in a call to Koby’s cell.
I got his voice mail.
I left a brief message.
Next I tried the hospital. I was transferred about ten times and finally wound up talking to Marnie, the pixie nurse I had met the first time I had visited Sarah’s baby. She knew about the accident and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was.
There was an awkward pause.
“He’s in the ICU,” she told me. “Been there for a while. Maybe I can help you with something?”
Tension in her voice. It could have come from dealing with the horror of the accident, but the tightness told me it was probably more personal. That I was bugging her because I was bugging Koby.
“No… just tell him I called.”
“I will, Officer. Good-bye.”
She hung up before I could thank her.
I made it home by nine, then called Louise Sanders to cancel our lunch date at the precinct. She wasn’t in, but I left a message on her cell. Then after setting the alarm for one-thirty, I went to bed. The buzzer did its magic at the appointed time, and I was showered, dressed, and ready to go by two. There were messages on my answering machine from that morning. Three from my father, one from Hayley, and even one from Scott, his being two words-“Let’s talk.”
I’d deal with my messages later.
There was nothing from Koby.
I called his cell, but it was still on voice mail.
I called his house. He wasn’t home or he wasn’t picking up. This time, I left a message. I told him how proud I was of him. I told him I was okay and hoped he was okay as well. I was still shaken but otherwise fine. Then I hung up.
The ball was in his court. Tired and grumpy, I went to work.
It took some dogged determination, but I managed to catch up with Russ MacGregor while I was on break and he was in the squad room, working the phones before he went out on his next field call. The hit-and-run had given me some clout since I had reacted quickly and according to protocol. But Russ was far from generous. I had fifteen minutes to state my case.
Three things were on my mind: Sarah Sanders’s rape, locating the missing David, who was possibly the father of Sarah’s baby, and now the hit-and-run. I knew my limitations, and so did Russ. Still, I made a stab at it, trying to tie everything together. Russ was dubious.
“What in the world does this hit-and-run have to do with Sarah Sanders and an abandoned baby?”
“Maybe Belinda Syracuse knew something about Sarah’s rape. Girls do talk, you know. And maybe Belinda was murdered because of it.”
“Number one, Decker, you don’t even know if this rape is real or not. Number two, if you think Belinda’s death was related to Sarah Sanders’s alleged rape, why wait months before bumping Belinda off, and number three, if these cases are connected, why is Belinda dead and Sarah Sanders alive and well?”
I had no answer, so I ignored the questions. “I think we should explore the possibilities.”
“Are you deaf? They had nothing to do with one another.”
“It happens, Decker. Anything else?”
He was already walking away, the vents of his navy jacket flapping behind him. I said, “Nice suit.”
Russ slowed. “Thanks.” He stopped, then suddenly eyed me like a man. Then he thought better of it. “Decker, you did a good job. Everyone has taken note. Now leave the hit-and-run investigation to Homicide.”
“That’s not what I’m interested in.”
“Dare I ask what youareinterested in?”
“Finding the most likely candidate for the father of Sarah Sanders’s child. My vote is a boy named David, who also lived at the center.”
“The one who was supposedly beaten up.”
“Whysupposedly?Why would Sarah lie?”
“Because she abandoned her baby and is in big trouble. She’s facing a reckless-disregard charge.”
“Her mental condition is perfect for a mitigating-circumstances plea.”
“But maybe she’s also aiming for the sympathy plea. You have no idea if this rape and mugging are figments or are real.”
“So let me find out.”
“Decker, it happened months ago. It’s old news.”
“And that makes the crime any less horrific?” How could MacGregor respond to that? “It would be nice to find the guy… to make sure he’s all right.”
“When are you planning to do this, Sherlock?”
“I don’t start work until three tomorrow.”
“So you’re doing it on your own time? Why you buggin’ me about it?”
“I make it a point not to step on toes.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Drop by the center, but give it a day or two. I heard from Justice Brill-the Homicide detective in charge of Syracuse’s hit-and-run-that the place is pretty much up to their eyeballs right now, dealing with Belinda’s death.”
“I can identify with that.”
MacGregor must have seen something in my weary face. “You need some rest, Decker. Do you a lot more good than chasing down a half-baked memory.” He shook his head. “All right. But like I said, wait a day or two. You gotta think about priorities.”
“Of course. Thanks, Russ. Really.” I cleared my throat. “Sarah Sanders is willing to come in and make a statement about the rape.”
He sneered. “Your idea?”
“How about tomorrow around noon?Please?”
Again he eyed me. Then he gave me the “smile.” I pretended to be looking the other way. When we reestablished eye contact, it was gone. “Yeah, okay.”
“You’re a peach, Detective.”
“You’re a pain in the ass, Decker.”
“Don’t be mad. If I find something out, you’ll get all the credit.” On that positive note, I gave him a thumbs-up and walked away.
When I got home, there were two new messages-another one from Dad, and another from Hayley. I picked up the phone but thought better of it.
Instead, I turned on my computer and checked my e-mail. I saw his screen name sandwiched between an AOL discount special andLOW-RATE MORTGAGES FROM HOUSE EQUITY FUNDING. I wasn’t wild about electronic communication, but I was the one who had started it. I clicked on it.
Doing a double shift. That is good. Better than thinking about the accident. Call you later.
It was a rather curt e-mail, especially compared to my gushing phone calls. But he was probably dealing with life-and-death issues and didn’t have time for the niceties. So I wrote him back, again telling him how impressed I was with his swiftness of action. I wasn’t quite as effusive, but I was complimentary.
Maybe it would make him smile.
Maybe it would induce him to call.
This time,Decker was late. From down the aisle, he saw her in the corner booth, sipping coffee while reading the paper. From this distance, she looked so young and vulnerable. Maybe he just perceived her that way because she was his daughter. He took a deep breath, his heart skipping in his chest, and slapped a smile on his face. He slid into the booth on the opposite side.
“Sorry. Bad traffic.”
Cindy put the paper down and squeezed her father’s hand. “It’s fine. Just relaxing.”
“It’s rare these days.”
“You’ve been busy?”
“How’s Koby?” Decker asked.
Immediately, he heard the catch in her throat. Feeling like an idiot, he quickly changed the subject. “Well, our Tuesday breakfast is turning out to be a ritual.”
“One that I like,” Cindy stated.
She was somber. That made him feel real low. One of these days, he’d disconnect from his kids. His heart felt heavy. “You doing okay, sweetheart? Must have been pretty traumatic witnessing the accident.”
She started to talk, thought better, and answered him with a nod.
“Traffic accidents in general are horrible. One of my most vivid memories in police work is a bad accident from twenty years ago. Just…”
Cindy regarded her father’s pained expression. “Did you witness it?”
“No…” Decker exhaled. “No, just the first unit to arrive at the scene. That was horrible enough. I couldn’t even imagine seeing it unfold. I don’t understand how you can be working.” He held up a finger to the waitress for coffee. “You’re much stronger than I am.”
“I don’t think so, Dad.”
“Oh, yes you are. I’d be a basket case.”
“Daddy, I haveneverknown you once to be a basket case.”
“Then I did my job as a parent and hid it well.”
That gave Cindy pause. He must have handled hundreds of stressful cases over his career. And yet, except for the last few months, he had always seemed so placid.
“How areyoudoing?” Cindy asked.
The waitress came over with the coffee. “Are you ready to order?”
Cindy ordered toast, fruit, and more coffee; Decker made it times two. They sipped weak brew and smiled uncomfortably.
“We’re dancing around each other,” Cindy told him. “You’re not so good and neither am I.”
Decker held out his hand to her. “Can I help?”
“No,” Cindy answered. “Can I help?”
“Absolutely not.” Decker patted her hand, then pulled away. “And even if you could, I’d say no. Parents take care of the kids, not the other way around.”
“Will you ever stop thinking of me as your daughter?”
“Probably not. So tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I have lots on my mind. That’s why I have a therapist.”
Decker smiled. “I’m glad you’re still seeing someone. Rina tells me I need one.”
Cindy’s shrug was noncommittal.
“What do you think?”
She laughed. “You’re asking my opinion?”
“Yes, I am. I value your opinion. How’s your experience been with a shrink?”
She didn’t know if her father was patronizing her-trying to make her feel better-but she continued on the assumption that he wasn’t. “It’s good, Dad. You get to unburden yourself without burdening other people. I don’t like to spill my emotional guts. We’re more alike than you think.”
“I’d be honored to be like you.”
Cindy’s laugh was mirthless. “Man oh man, you must really think I’m bad off to be actingthisnice.”
Decker laughed. “Okay. Now you’re sounding familiar. I feel better.”
“So, Loo, how do you feel about talking business?”
“It’s better than getting all weepy.”
“Exactly. So let me tell you what I found out and you tell me if I’m thinking straight or what.” Cindy recapped her discussion with Russ MacGregor, mainly her thoughts about the two cases-Belinda Syracuse’s hit-and-run, and Sarah Sanders’s rape-and how they might be related. By the time she was done, the food had come.
Decker buttered his toast. “As much as I’d like to agree with you, Cin, I think I’m going with MacGregor on this one.”
“That they have nothing to do with one another,” Cindy stated.
Decker took a bite and nodded. “You don’t even know if the hit-and-run was intentional or not. Have they even found the car?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“Okay…” Decker polished off a piece of toast. He was hungry this morning. “Even if we assume that the hit-and-run was intentional, why would the two cases be related?”
“Maybe Belinda knew something about Sarah Sanders’s rape?”
“So why would someone bother to murder her now instead of six months ago?”
“That’s just what Russ said.”
“I’m not surprised. Care to answer the question?”
Of course, she didn’t have an answer. “I haven’t thought it all the way through. Don’t want to talk prematurely.”
Decker spooned fruit into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Good stall tactic. I’ve used it myself. Find another link, Cin. In the meantime, why don’t you wait until the SUV turns up before you continue on? I’m sure you have better things to do with your time.”
“Should I ask?”
“Nah, just feeling a bit blue. It’ll pass.”
Decker didn’t dare intrude. She’d just bite his head off. “Get a hobby, Princess. Didn’t you once want to make ceramics or something?”
“That was in tenth grade, Daddy.”
“See, I listen.”
Cindy smiled. “I still intend to go back to the Fordham Communal Center. I want to find out about Sarah Sanders’s boyfriend.”
“This guy David.”
“Who might be dead.”
“He might also be alive.”
“And MacGregor’s okay with that?”
“Yes, Father, he is.”
“So let me know what you come up with.”
“I will. Any suggestions?”
“Same ones that you used when you were looking for Sarah-shelters, halfway houses, drunk tanks, flophouses, homeless camps. It’s not fun work, Cindy. Sure you wouldn’t rather throw clay onto a wheel?”
She tossed a small piece of apple at him. “I don’t mind going back to the center. At least, Oliver won’t be standing over my shoulder this time.”
Decker tried to sound casual. “He give you a hard time?”
“Oliver’s Oliver. But he let me handle it.”
“Actually, it was. He’s a jerk but a good detective. No complaints.”
But Decker still sensed how unhappy she was. Probably the effects of witnessing something so traumatic. It blunted the senses for a while. For her, it also revived horrid memories from not too long ago. And who knew what it did to Koby, sticking his hands in all that blood and muck? Decker guessed that they were probably not offering each other too much in the way of mutual support.
Cindy saw the concern on his face. “I have an appointment with my therapist tomorrow. I’m sending you the bill. So stop worrying about me, all right?”
“I’m getting the bill?” Decker frowned. “How much does he charge?”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “First off, it’s a she. Second, I’m kidding. The Department is paying. It was part of the settlement. ‘Go to anyone, Cin, just so long as you don’t sue our asses off.’ ”
“I’ll be fine, Daddy. It just takes time.”
Decker took her hand and squeezed it. “I’m an impatient man when it comes to my kids. I love you, Princess.”
“I love you, too.” Her first thought was to steer the conversation back to work. Then she realized that’s exactly what her father would have done.
“I’m very proud of you,” Decker blurted out.
Cindy felt a lump in her throat. “Thank you, Daddy. That means so much to me.”
“I’m proud,” Decker reiterated, “but I have a confession to make. I’m very angry with you for joining the police.”
“Lordy-Lord, what a shock.”
“I know I’ve said it before. But this is the new part. After I got the news of the accident, my stomach was in an absolute knot. And then it hit me. I was not only angry for what you put me through by joining the academy, I was angry withmyselffor all the aggravation that I put my own family through-including your mother. I’ve gained a little insight and it isn’t pretty. I think I may have actuallywrongedyour mom.”
“Mom knew that it went with the territory.”
“No, Cindy, I blindsided her. She thought I was going to become this nice liberal, upper-class tax lawyer. Going back into police enforcement wasn’t on the agenda.”
“But you were unhappy as a lawyer.”
“I was, but she wasn’t. I must have put her through hell on so many different levels. First off, I made much less money. Then I worried her to death. Also, I was never home. I’m getting paid back for my transgressions.”
“If you consider doing your job a sin.”
“Neglecting her and you was wrong.” He took his daughter’s hand. “I want to thank you for not holding it against me.”
“You did the best you could, Daddy. That’s all that we can ever ask.”
“In some ways, Cin, you are so much more mature than I am.”
Cindy choked on her words. “You know how to make a girl feel good.”
“I’m reckless when it comes to myself, but a worrywart when it comes to my family. It’s hypocritical, but I’m too old to change.”
“I don’t want you to change. I think you’re terrific.”
“Cindy, I am so honored to be your father!”
“Thank you.” Her eyes started to water. Spontaneously, she leaned over the table and kissed his cheek. “Do me a favor, Pops. Hold that thought the next time you get frustrated with me.”
There was no love lostbetween Buck the bureaucrat and me, and tragedy did not bring us closer together. He was as obnoxious as ever, wearing a black turtleneck and jeans. His hands fluttered as he growled out the words.
“We’re rather busy, Officer. Our secretary is out, and we’ve had some bad news.”
“Then perhaps you can come back tomorrow with your pesky little questions.”
As he started to close the door on me, I pushed my way in. “Please get Mr. Klinghoffner for me, Buck.”
Having lost that battle, he sat down at his desk and glared at me. “You’ll have to wait! I’m elbow deep in paperwork.”
I went over to his desk. In a single sudden motion of my arm, I cleared his desktop. “Well, now you’re not. Go get him.”
“I could have you reported!” Buck was fuming.
“Last I checked, the phone lines were open. So if you don’t have the balls to do it, go get Klinghoffner.”
Slowly, slowly, he got up. “Typical heavy-handed cop. What is it, Officer? Are you jealous because most women still prefer me to big, strong you?”
I ignored him and checked my watch. I had only an hour before Sarah Sanders was coming in to make a statement. I set my angry eyes on him and waited. He tried out a glare, but it was more like a sneer. In the end, he picked up the phone and punched in some numbers. He turned his back to me and spoke quietly. After he hung up the receiver, he told me that Klinghoffner would be down in five minutes.
I told him thank you.
His eyes went from my face to the mess on the floor. I bent down to pick up the papers.
“Don’t touch anything!” he blurted out. “I… Let me handle it. Please.”
I stood up. “Sorry.”
He squatted down, scanned the mess, then began by picking up a pile of papers. “You’re not forgiven.”
I surveyed the room. I found what I was looking for-the requisite coffeemaker. “Can I make it up by fetching you a cup of home brew?”
He was still sitting on his haunches. “My mug is the blue one. One packet of creamer, one packet sugar.”
I went over to the stand and filled his order with the efficiency of the neighborhood Star$s. “Mind if I help myself?”
“That’s why the Styrofoam cups are there.”
I poured myself a half cup, then placed his mug on his desk.
Buck said, “You were there when it happened?”
He turned some pages over in his hands, then placed them down on the floor. He began to collate the piles. “It must have been awful.”
“What exactly happened?”
“Some other time, Buck.”
“Did you at least find the idiot?”
“It’s coming,” I fibbed.
“That means no.”
“No, it means it’s coming.”
He huffed disdain.
“It’s good to see you obnoxious again. I was getting worried.”
He started to talk but changed his mind. Instead, he stood up and shuffled the pages.
“Are your papers in order?” I asked him.
“For the most part, yes.”
“Want me to mess them up again?”
“I want you to go away. But since that’s not going to happen, at least don’t talk.” He sat back down at his desk, straightened a pile of papers, then sipped coffee.
“Did you know the girl, Buck?”
“I know everyone here.” He looked up at me. “Are you going to ask me more questions? Because if it’s yes, I won’t even start to concentrate.”
“Know anyone who’d want to hurt her?”
“Of course not. That would imply that someonecaresenough about them to kill them.” He bit his lip. “These are the discards of humanity. If it weren’t for Mr. Klinghoffner’s dedication, the city would have closed us down many moons ago.”
“Her brother said that someone from the center had called her, offering to take her back to Fordham.”
“We’re in the process of checking phone records. Any ideas?”
“No. I’m not here on weekends. I have an administrative job. But of course, someone was here. Check with them.”
I eyed him. “Where were you Sunday night?”
Buck broke into a savage smile. “Oh my!” He brought his hands to his chest. “Am I under suspicion?”
“Can you answer the question?”
“Let’s see.” He cleared his throat. “What time are we talking about?”
“Three in the morning. Monday morning.”
“At threeA.M.? I was sleeping.”
“Do you have a roommate?”
“What’d you do last Sunday?”
“Hmmm. I went out to brunch with a good friend… Café Romano. That was until… hmmm… three, three-thirty. Do you want her name?”
“On good days.” He sneered at me. “Jealous?”
“Green with envy. Go on.”
“Hmmm… I went home. I read. Watched TV. Played with my computer… Oh, I went to a video store. I rentedIn the Bedroom… something light and breezy.” He rolled his eyes.
Buck pointed to the stairwell. “Your interviewee awaits.”
I looked in the direction of his pointed finger. Klinghoffner was coming down the steps.
“Anything else?” Buck asked me.
I stood up. “Not at the moment.”
“Does this mean you’re going to pester me again?”
“Oh goody!” He graced me with a sour smile. “I’m rather enjoying thisbad-boyimage.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” I whispered as I passed his desk.
We went into a private office, away from Buck’s prying eyes and ears, and away from distractions. Klinghoffner was wearing a rumpled brown jacket, a wrinkled white shirt, and creased brown cords. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for days. His eyes were sunken and his skin had a sick pallor that usually accompanied bad news. He mirrored my own internal turmoil.
“They’re children,” he told me. “Little kids, Officer Decker. That’s all Belinda was… just a little kid.” He sank into a chair, motioning for me to sit as well. “I just can’t believe the bastard didn’t stop!”
“It was terrible.”
He regarded me with sympathetic eyes. “Did you get his license plate?”
“There’s an ongoing investigation. But actually that’s not why I’m here.”
“No?” He sounded surprised.
Before I started to explain myself, I said, “Have the police contacted you in regard to Belinda’s death?”
“No. Frankly, that’s what I thought this call was all about.”
I had no business asking about Belinda, no business investigating the hit-and-run. Not only would it have been unprofessional, it might mess something up in the future. And to that, I said to myself:So what?I said, “Her brother told me that someone had phoned her, offering to take her back to the center. Know anything about that?”
“No.” He thought a moment. “How odd. I have no idea who that could have possibly been. We’re on a skeleton staff over the weekend, just a couple of our teachers, sleep-in caretakers, and the janitor.”
“We’re in the process of checking phone records from her brother’s house. We’d like to look over your phone records as well.”
“Of course. Anything to find this monster.”
“Her brother said that she was boy crazy. Maybe she was on a secret tryst. Could she have been seeing someone without you knowing about it?”
“Like a boyfriend?”
“Yes, Mr. Klinghoffner, like a boyfriend.”
“It couldn’t have been anyone from here. None of our students have driver’s licenses.”
“And since when has that ever stopped a determined teenager from getting behind the wheel?”
Klinghoffner said, “It doesn’t, but these kids don’t have access to a car.”
“She was hit about five miles away from here. She could have taken a bus.”
He was straining with thought. “I’ll look into it.”
“Thank you,” I told him. “As I said before, I’m also here for another reason.”
“I’m interested in Sarah Sanders… her baby’s father, actually. I think he might have been a student here. She mentioned a boy named David. Probably black. Possibly Down’s syndrome… or maybe mosaic. That’s when-”
“I know what mosaic is,” Klinghoffner interrupted. “Why do you ask?”
“Am I on the right track?”
“David Tyler… twenty-four, black, and yes, he was mosaic. Again, why do you ask?”
“And why do you refer to him in the past tense?”
“Because he dropped out of sight about six months ago. I tried very hard to locate him.” He was pained. “Did Sarah tell you something about him?”
“This is her story. They used to meet in a park and fool around. One day, about six months ago, a gang of boys caught them in the bathroom. They raped her, beat him up and dumped him in the trash. Sarah left the bathroom not knowing if David was dead or alive. She’s been keeping this inside, too scared to tell anyone. It only came up because we asked about the father when we interviewed her about the baby.”
It took him a while to answer. “And you think that this is true?”
“Would she have a reason to lie?”
“Yes, if she was having sex. That’s against the rules here. Maybe she felt a rape would get her off the hook.”
“But then what happened to David?”
Klinghoffner sat back and sighed heavily. “David never lived here, Officer Decker. He was pretty high functioning, as mosaics often are. He had his own apartment, knew the bus lines, and was able to get from point A to point Z pretty well. He was able to do this because his life was very circumscribed.”
“If he was high functioning, what was he doing here?”
“He had a job. We used to have an art therapist, but budget cuts put a stop to that. David could draw and didn’t demand much in the way of salary. And being who he was, he worked well with the other residents. He was well liked.”
“By Sarah Sanders?”
“By everyone.” Klinghoffner’s lower lip trembled. “David was independent… but he was less than completely responsible. He often missed days… one day, two days. When he missed a week, I grew concerned. I went over to his place, knocked on the door, and when he didn’t answer, I opened it with the key.”
“You had a key.”
“I had a key. I insisted David give me a key, just in case. His place… food in the refrigerator… some things on the shelves. But his closet was empty. It seemed to me he had packed up and left.”
“Did you call the police?”
“Yes, of course. We’re still talking about a compromised individual. I told them about David’s condition. But since he was living on his own, and since itlookedlike he moved out voluntarily, they said their hands were tied.” He gave me an accusing eye. “The police threw it back in my lap.”
I didn’t respond.
Klinghoffner went on. “I made phones calls to some local shelters, also to his conservator. He hadn’t heard from David, either. This was worrisome. David got his money from him. David doesn’t really have skills to hold down a normal job. Without his money, he can’t survive.”
“Tell me about the conservator.”
“David comes from a well-to-do family. He was an only child and was born when the Tylers were older. Joe was sixty, Betty was forty-six. Down’s syndrome, or in his case the variant mosaic, is associated with maternal age.”
“Naturally, when they realized he had special needs, they set up a trust fund. When Betty died six years ago, all the money went to David. He’s been living off that fund.”
“And the conservator pays the expenses.”
“Yes,” the director replied. “David was high functioning, but he required help balancing a budget.”
“And you haven’t heard from David in about six months?”
He nodded. “Honestly, I stopped looking in earnest about three, four months ago. But I did make phone calls. And of course, I called up his conservator, asked him to keep me posted if he did hear from David. I wanted to make sure he was okay.”
“But you never heard from the conservator?”
“The last time I spoke to Mr. Paxton was about… let me think. Around two months ago.”
“You suspect the worst?”
Klinghoffner just shook his head. “It has been a terrible year.”
I said, “Have you considered a connection between David’s disappearance and Belinda’s death?”
He gave my question some consideration. “I don’t see how. The incidents were months apart. And I’m sure Belinda’s death was nothing but a terrible accident.”
I didn’t think so, but I kept my opinions to myself.
“No, no, no,” Klinghoffner insisted. “It’s all just a coincidence. A terrible, terrible coincidence.”
“Sir, do you know what happens to David’s money if he dies?”
“I haven’t any idea.”
“I take it that this Mr. Paxton is a lawyer?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Do you have his business address?”
“Of course.” He stood up. “I’ll get it for you. Would you like me to call him?”
“No, sir, I’ll do that. As a matter of fact, it would be better if you didn’t tell him about this discussion. He might not think kindly about your relaying all this information.”
“Why not? We all have David’s interest at heart.”
“You have David’s interest at heart. Where the lawyer’s interests are remains to be seen.”
Klinghoffner smiled. “Hold on. I’ll get you the address.”
He returned a few minutes later and handed me a slip of paper-Raymond Paxton, with a Century City address for his business. “I understand your suspicion, Officer Decker. But I must say that Mr. Paxton paid faithfully for David’s care for six years. I don’t see it, but…” He threw up his hands.
“Probably he’s as concerned as you are. I just want to talk to him.”
“I must attend to other matters now, Officer Decker. I must say I’m glad that the police are finally taking David’s disappearance seriously. But of course, it’s a bit late in the game, isn’t it?”
I answered with an enigmatic smile.
“I hope you pay more attention to the hit-and-run. As I said, I’m sure it was an accident, but since the driver didn’t stop, he must be apprehended. It’s been a very big blow.”
“I know. I was there.”
Klinghoffner turned red. “Of course… I am so sorry-”
“It’s fine, sir. I shouldn’t have even brought it up.”
“It must have been a terrible shock to witness something so terrible.”
“I’m sorry, but I do have to go.”
“Not that I mean to dismiss you-”
“No, no, I understand.”
But it seemed that everyone was dismissing me these days.
If there were D.T.’sfrom too much food, Decker was experiencing the phenomenon. Rina had learned cooking from a pro, but over the years, she had lightened the cuisine. Her sauces weren’t as heavy, her side vegetables barely blanched and often served plain except for a little salt. Mama was still in the old country, serving mass quantities ofheavyfood. But that didn’t stop Decker from stuffing his face. If he had eaten any more chicken paprikash, his face would have turned red and blotchy. But self-loathing had an upside: His mother-in-law was very pleased with his gustatory enthusiasm.
“It’s always a pleasure to serve you,” she told him. It came out:Eets alvays a pleasurrrre to serrrrve you.Her Hungarian accent was light and lilting.
Magda Elias was wearing a blue pullover sweater and white jeans. She was still beautiful and trim-a woman who took pride in her appearance. Her dyed black hair was always coiffed and she always wore makeup. Rina was a simpler, younger version of her mother.
They were eating in the formal dining room-a paean to porcelain. Magda’s breakfront was filled with her good dinner china, figurines, decorative plates, and vases. There were also a dozen pieces of expensive European silver. The woman could have opened up an antique shop.
“It’s always a pleasure to eat your cooking, Magda,” Decker parried.
Magda smiled. “You are being very charming tonight.”
“I’ve been practicing.”
She hit his shoulder. He and Rina’s parents got along well, although it hadn’t always been that way. It had taken a dozen years and the production of a granddaughter to get to this level of congeniality. He thought about that as Cindy came to mind. Decker had slipped up with Koby. He was still smoldering from her relationship with Scott Oliver and maybe that was the problem. He was too involved. Black, white, purple, old, young, female, whatever-he should have done better with her date. He made a pledge to mind his manners in the future, regardless of whom she brought home.
Sammy and Jacob pushed away their plates and groaned. Sam said, “Really dynamite, Omah, but I ate too much. No room for dessert.”
“Aaah.” She dismissed his announcement. “Just a leetle strudel. Mostly fruit.”
“Apple?” Sammy asked.
She nodded. “And a little nut cake.”
“There are cookies, too,” Jacob added. “I saw them in the kitchen.”
“For Hannah!” Magda explained.
“Where’s Papa?” Rina asked.
Magda pointed to the back room. Without fanfare, Stefan Elias had retired to the den, to his chair and his TV programs. Usually the routine required Decker to join him between dinner and dessert. Rina began helping her mother clear the dishes. Decker picked up a platter. He whispered to his wife, “So when are we going to talk about Hannah’s family-tree report?”
“Soon, soon,” Rina told him.
“Why don’t you just tell her-”
Decker rolled his eyes. “Are you going to wash the dishes?”
“No, the boys are going to wash.”
“We are?” Jacob said.
Magda interjected, “I have a dishwasher.”
She had adeeshvasher.
Rina said, “This is good china.”
“I have a delicate cycle, Ginny. You think I live in the nineteenth century?” She turned to her grandsons. “You just rinse and put it in the racks, okay? Then you work up an appetite for dessert.”
Sammy said, “Yeah, I hear that dishwashing is the new aerobics, Omah.”
Decker smiled and elbowed his son’s ribs.
Magda said, “You go join Stefan, Peter? He is expecting you.”
“In a few minutes. I wanted to hear you talk about your family with Hannah.”
“I don’t have much to tell.” Magda’s face tightened. “It was not a happy childhood.”
“I know that.” Decker went over to her and kissed her cheek. “If it’s too hard, we can skip the childhood and start with after you came to America.” Rina gave him dagger eyes. He ignored her. “It’s totally up to you.”
“That would be better.” Magda went back to the dinner table and began gathering dirty dishes.
“The boys will do that,” Rina said. “Sit.”
“No, I like to move around.”
Decker said, “Like mother, like daughter.”
They brought a new round of soiled dishes into the kitchen.
“Oh goody,” Sammy said. “I was almost through and just hoping for more.”
“Stop complaining,” Rina told him.
Magda went back out to the dining room. Decker and Rina followed.
“Sit down, Magda,” Decker told her. “The boys can get the rest.”
The old woman sat.
Rina said, “How come you listen to him and not to me?”
“He eats my food,” Magda retorted. “Where is Channaleh?”
“With Opah,” Decker answered.
It was interesting how he called Rina’s mother Magda but Rina’s father was Opah-grandfather. Decker sat on one side of his mother-in-law, Rina on the other. “The two of them are watching Animal Planet. How about we do this, Magda? You go over your childhood really briefly so Hannah will have something to put down. Not more than a couple of minutes. Just things like where you lived in Germany, what you remember about Munich before you moved to Budapest-”
“Not too much,” Magda said. “I moved when I was nine.”
“What year was that?” Decker asked.
“It was 1928 or maybe 1929. Before ’33. We moved because my mother died.” She whispered, “You know about her?”
Decker nodded. “I know what happened to her, yes.”
She looked around nervously. “I don’t want to tell Hannah this.”
“I agree,” Decker said. “Too much for her.”
Magda went on. “Then in Budapest, my father met my stepmother and they get married. They have three children together. So with my sister and me, we are five. Only my sister and I survived. I was at Monowitz, you know. That was the goyish side of Auschwitz. All the rest of the family went to Birkenau. Only my sister Eva made it through. I still see her. She lives in New York. She married very well.”
“So did you,” Decker said.
“Yes, I did,” Magda confirmed. “I married thebest!”
Rina smiled. It was wonderful how much her parents still loved each other.
“Is Eva a whole sister or half sister?” Decker asked.
“Half sister,” Rina said. “The middle of the three girls from Mama’s stepmother.”
“And Eva only survived because she was transferred back to Dachau-not to the main camp but to one of the smaller camps.” Magda’s face tightened. “There were many smaller camps-twenty, thirty in southern Bavaria-all of it Dachau. You know?”
Decker shook his head and looked at his wife.
“Satellite camps,” Rina said. “The entire complex was referred to as Dachau. It was very ironic. Hitler had succeeded in making GermanyJudenrein-Jewish free-but then toward the end when things were falling apart, he became desperate for domestic labor. So he brought the Jews backintoGermany to work in armament factories-slave labor. Most of these smaller camps produced weapons and armaments, but they were also death camps. We don’t have to talk about this, Mama. How about happier times, like earlier in your childhood?”
“They were not so happy…”
“Before it happened,” Decker said. “What do you remember about your mother?”
“She was very, very beautiful.”
“So you must have looked like her.”
Magda’s smile was radiant at the compliment. “She made beautiful gowns. The mostwunderbarfabrics.”
“Ja, ja, seide-silk. In such beautiful colors.”
The woman was Hungarian, but when she spoke of her childhood, rudimentary German came back. Decker said, “Who’d she sew the gowns for? Who were her clientele?”
“The rich people-the aristocrats, the bourgeois.”
“You know, Peter and I just came back from Munich,” Rina told her.
Magda was quiet.
“We saw a lot of old Jewish Munich. You lived near Gartnerplatz, right?”
She thought long and hard. “Nein,not the Isarvorstadt. That is for the Eastern Jews… the poor ones. My father was only a tailor, but my mother made money, enough for us to move. We were middle class. We even had a cleaning lady twice a week-an Austrian girl from Tirol. All the cleaning girls were Austrian.”
She searched the recesses of her memory.
“They used to fight-my father and my mother. He did not want her to work. It did not look nice, like my father was a poor man. But my mother loved to sew.” Magda furrowed her brow. “I used to go with her to visit the women, to the beautiful villas in Bogenhausen.Ach,such splendor, I remember so clear, especially the villas where the Russian aristocracy lived. There were many Russians in Munich… those who fled the revolution.”
She was quiet.
“My father did not think this was good for a woman to visit by herself to the rich goyim. They fought about it. It was not happy times.” She brushed her hand in the air. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I don’t blame you,” Decker said empathetically.
Rina tried to hide her frustration. “But you don’t remember whereyoulived, Mama?”
“I remember the name of the big street. We lived off of Turkenstrasse.”
“Schwabing,” Rina said.
“Ja, ja,Schwabing, of course!” Magda hit her head. “I am an old woman.”
“Schwabing was and still is kind of a bohemian area.” Rina kissed her mother’s cheek. “Very sporty of you, Mama.”
“It was probably my mother’s idea. She was very sporty. My father was a good Germanbürger.A good man, but very strict.” Her eyes started to water. “He would have been so proud of you, Ginny.”
Rina held her hand. Magda brought the free one to her chest. “It is so hard to talk.”
Decker said, “We can move on, Magda.”
She wiped her eyes with her finger and nodded.
Decker said, “Just for the record, do you happen to remember any names of childhood friends? I think that would be neat for Hannah to hear. You know how your granddaughter feels about her buddies.”
Magda gave him a tearful smile. “Let me think. There was Briget and Petra.” A pause. “Oh… there was also Marta. She was Marta number one. I was Marta number two. Marta was my name before we moved to Hungary.”
Rina was surprised. “You changed your name?”
“My father changed my name. So I would fit in better with the Hungarians, yes.”
“All these things I never knew.”
“Last names?” Decker said.
“Of the girls?”
“Yes. Do you remember their entire names?”
“Not the first two, no. The memory is gone. But Marta, yes, because in theschule,I was Marta Gottlieb and she was Marta Lubke. I was the Jew and she was the Protestant, which was not so common in Munich. Bavaria is very Catholic. My sister and I went to a very liberalschule-also my mother’s idea. My father wasn’t happy about that, either.” She sighed. “I remember my father with my mother; then I think about my father with my stepmother. The first marriage… I don’t think it was a happy one. I won’t tell Hannah this, either.”
“I think Hannah would like to hear about how her grandparents met and got married and came to the United States,” Decker said.
“We escaped in ’56 when the Communists came. Another story.”
Decker patted the old woman’s hand. “You’re a real old-fashioned hero.”
“Bah!” She slapped him on the shoulder and stood up. “I go see what my boys are doing in the kitchen. Do you want a piece of strudel, Peter?”
“Only if you serve it with decaf coffee.”
“What you think? Only decaf at this hour. Otherwise I spend the night on the phone with Ginny.” She laughed at her joke.
As soon as she was out of earshot, Rina whispered, “You did a good job of drawing her out.”
“But we barely even scratched the surface. We still don’t know anything about her mother’s life.”
“And we’re going to leave it at that,” Decker whispered emphatically.
“Rina, listen to me. She’s what? In her eighties? It’s a painful memory in a woman who has suffered many painful memories. We’re not going to push her any further. End of discussion.”
Rina sighed. “In my heart, I know you’re right. I just think she… she deserves to know what happened.”
“She’s fine with it. You’re the one who’s curious.” Decker rubbed his temples. “Rina, from what she told us, it could have been her father who murdered her mother-”
“No!” Rina was appalled.
“Yes!” Decker insisted. “By her own recollection, they had a troubled relationship. How would you feel uncovering that?”
She was silent.
“I have a few unsolved cases that still bug me, but I’ve learned to live with them.”
“It’s not your grandmother.”
“Then talk to her when I’m not here. I’m not going to be party to any more subterfuge.”
“All right,” Rina conceded. “You’re the detective, I’ll trust your judgment.”
“Thank you.” Decker regarded his wife. “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ve got an idea. I asked for the full names of her girlfriends for a reason. The memory may be painful for her, but probably not at all painful to Marta Lubke-ifshe’s not dead,ifI can find her, andifshe remembers anything.”
Rina looked at her husband with newfound admiration.
“Yeah… I’m good at what I do.” He unbuttoned the waistband of his pants and untucked his shirt. “I ate too much.”
“I’ll make a light supper tomorrow night.”
“For the next six nights, please.”
“Thank you, Peter, for going beyond the call of duty.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He gave her a mock frown, then kissed his wife’s lips. “You’re welcome. I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Rina kissed him back.
He stood up. “I’m going to join your father and Hannah and watch Animal Planet. Last time I checked, they were watching a special on Vietnamese potbellied pigs. I should feel right at home.”
Wednesday morning’s e-mailsimply read:
Still working overtime. Talk to you soon.
He didn’t even bother to address it with my name.
And not evenloveKoby-just plain Koby.
I could take a hint.
I knew a brush-off when it smacked me in the face.
I didn’t bother to answer.
Another one bites the dust.
“Fuck him,” I whispered as I wiped away the tears.
I was exhausted doing paid patrol-officer work and detecting on my own time, but work was a good substitute for a life. I debated making an appointment with David Tyler’s conservator, but decided to show up in the flesh.
Century City is L.A.’s attempt at a business district. The entire area had once belonged to Fox Studios and there still was a mammoth-size location back lot. But most of the neighborhood was dominated by office high-rises with underground parking that charged outrageous rates.
Raymond Paxton’s office was on the twenty-second floor, an ear-popping elevator ride that I wouldn’t have taken, had I been afflicted with a cold. I got off, turned left, and walked through a door embellished with a brass nameplate that told me Paxton was a legal corporation. The secretary, a twenty-something Asian with her hair tied in a ponytail, greeted me with the typical “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see Mr. Paxton,” I told her. “I don’t have an appointment.”
“That could be a problem” was her response. “He’s booked straight through until one. Then he has a lunch meeting.”
This meant he was in the office. Opportunity presented itself. I showed her my badge.
Now she looked worried. She had on a red silk blouse and she fingered the corner of the collar. “What’s this in regards to?”
“David Tyler. And it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”
“I’m not sure I know the name,” she told me.
“But Mr. Paxton will know it.”
She picked up the phone and spoke into the receiver with muted tones. Paxton came out a moment later. He was around five-nine, dressed in a silver suit with a black shirt and tie. He was also black, and when I realized that I had made that immediate distinction, I sort of realized my father’s point. I had also identified his secretary as Asian-using race as a descriptive factor. Confession wasn’t easy for me.
“You’ve heard from David?” Paxton’s voice was anxious.
“No, I haven’t heard from him. Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
His expression fell. The lawyer frowned and checked his watch. “Five minutes?”
“More than enough time.”
I followed him through the interior of his firm, down hushed and carpeted hallways. These places were labyrinths to me, and I always thought that such convoluted pathways were meant to confuse the enemy. Disorientation distracted from the purpose at hand and gave a home-court advantage when doing depositions. Eventually, we came to an open space. It wasn’t his office. It was a conference room, and a small one at that. He was kind enough to offer me coffee and I was smart enough to refuse politely. We sat down across from each other.
He said, “Is he all right? David?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m here. I take it you haven’t heard from him since Mr. Klinghoffner called you.”
“If I had, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” He leaned over the table. “Why are you here?”
“I have a story that might interest you. David had a girlfriend at the Fordham Communal Center, where he worked as an art instructor. Her name is Sarah Sanders. They used to go to the park and have sex. One day, a gang of punks walked in on them, raped Sarah, and beat David. They left him in a trash can. I believe that was the last time anyone who knew him has seen or heard from him. Forgive me for encapsulating this in a blunt manner, but you told me to be quick.”
His face registered pure shock. “Is… is this true?”
“I don’t have any reason to doubt it. Sarah Sanders gave a statement to the police just yesterday, although the incident happened about six months ago. This information was just given to me a couple of days ago. Why? you may wonder. Because Sarah Sanders was the girl in the paper who dumped her baby in a trash can. I found the infant and have taken a personal interest in the outcome and in everyone’s welfare.”
“Wait a minute.” He brought a finger to his forehead. “This is all coming way too quickly for me to absorb.”
“What would you like me to repeat?”
He stared at me with dark piercing eyes. “You haven’t found David?”
“Not yet. But I haven’t started looking for him.”
“Okay. And you think he was beaten up and… then what?”
“Sarah told us-us being the police-that they beat him and stuffed him down a trash can. Being frightened and retarded, she left not knowing what happened to him. She never told anyone because she was just too scared.”
“So are you saying that David is dead?”
“No, not at all. I suppose I was hoping you had heard from him.” His expression turned a mite hostile. “I haven’t.”
“He hasn’t called at all?”
“I said no.”
“No other kind of communication? A letter perhaps?”
“Are you accusing me of holding back?”
I was taken aback by his vehemence. I said, “Sir, all I’m trying to do is get some information on David Tyler’s whereabouts.”
“And I’m telling you I haven’t heard from him.”
“Fine,” I said coolly. “We can leave it at that. But there is another point to this little tête-à-tête. The baby that Sarah Sanders gave birth to. I think she’s David Tyler’s offspring.”
That gave Paxton pause.
“I know that there was money in a trust fund for David. Should it be determined that something happened to David, the money should go for the care of the child. The funds are legally hers-”
“Wait a minute! You come in with this fantastic story of crime and then lay a baby on top of it? Who are you?”
“Would you like to see my badge again?”
“What is this to you, Detective…”
I didn’t correct him. “Decker.”
“Detective Decker, where is the proof of this rape story? Where is the corroboration? And then how do you know that this child is David’s offspring? What is this to you?”
“Just doing my job. So there’s been no request for funds from David?”
“No. I told you I haven’t heard from him!” Paxton got up and went over to the coffee table. Out of nerves, he poured himself a cup.
“So his money is still in the trust?”
He spun around and glared at me. “Of course, his money is still in the trust! Are you implying some illegality on my part?”
“Absolutely not. I’m just trying to be brought up to date.”
He stared at me. “I did this as a personal favor to the Tylers. All I take out of it are small processing and conservator fees. And I wonder if you’d be grilling me so extensively if I were one of the big shots from Frisby, Mathews, and Young.”
“I didn’t realize I was grilling you, and truly I don’t understand what you’re driving at, Mr. Paxton.”
“Deny what you will, Officer, but I know intimidation when I see it.”
“You know what I mean. I know how you people feel about minorities!”
I jerked my head back in shock. “You people” being the police. He thought I was riding him because he was black. Man, was he off target. I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to shout:I’m not a racist, you jerk! I’m just trying to do a job! I’ve dated black guys!
Actually, it wasablack guy-in the singular-but that didn’t sound as good.
I softened my tone, trying to get him on my side. “You’re entitled to be compensated for the paperwork. If you think I’m implying any wrongdoing on your part, you’re mistaken.”
It mollified him, but not by much.
I pressed on. “What would happen to the money if there isn’t any offspring and David doesn’t surface?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.” He sat down again. “If David passes on before I do, the money is supposed to be distributed to various charitable institutions. Of course, if there is a legitimate offspring, that would change everything.” He regarded my face. “But I would need proof, Detective-a blood test, a DNA test. I hope you understand this. I can’t give away hundreds of thousands of dollars based on some disabled girl’s fantasy.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars.Sarah had chosen well. “That’s going to be hard to do with David missing.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see what choice I have.”
“Maybe if you saw the baby, you’d change your mind. She’s half black and the mother’s white. She’s a mosaic Down’s syndrome. I understand David had the same genotype.”
He stared at me. “Did you go to college?”
Now who was letting his prejudice show? “Columbia University.”
“And you’re a cop?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
I couldn’t swear, but I thought I saw him blush.
“You know, it is possible that David’s genetic profile has been mapped,” I stated. “Maybe at a hospital. Mosaics are rare. Maybe we can determine paternity based on some previous medical results.”
“We’re getting way ahead of ourselves. At this point, I’d say you’re stepping into personal territory. I’m not saying I wouldn’t permit it, but this is all too premature.”
“Not really. There’s an infant out there who could use some money.”
“Who has the infant?”
“The mother, but the baby is under the care of Sarah’s older sister. Would you like to see her?”
“Perhaps eventually, but not now. Not until we determine other things. If you want David’s medical information, you’re going to have to come back with a warrant.”
“Because I want to make sure that this girl isn’t scamming me to get money.”
“I don’t think she has the mental capabilities to scam.”
“You’d be surprised.” He checked his watch. “It’s been over five minutes.”
“Yes, it has been. Thank you.” I stood up and gave him my card. “You will call me if you hear from him?”
“Yes, of course. And I expect the police to call me as well.”
“Yes, I will.”
He read the card. “It doesn’t say here that you’re a detective.”
“I never said I was. You did.”
“Talk about scamming.” He gave me a critical look. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”
Getting it from all sides.
In civilian clothes, on my way home from my shift, I saw her rooting through the garbage. I pulled my Lexus to the curb, got out of the car, and called her by name. She looked up with that stunned deer-in-the-headlights look. She was wearing layers on layers, the top stratum being an old gray knitted sweater filled with holes. When she recognized me, she visibly relaxed and went back to her Dumpster. I took out a ten-spot, flicked it with my fingers, and pulled her aside. Her focus glommed on to the money with feral eyes. Her mouth spread into a gap-toothed smile.
I crushed the bill in her dirty hands. Her hair was soiled and greasy but not matted. “Nothing. Go buy yourself something decent to eat.”
She stared at her good fortune. “And you don’t want nothin’ for it?”
I held up my hands. “See. There is such a thing as a free lunch.”
Alice Anne didn’t get the joke.
“I don’ like sompin’ for nothin’. Makes me nervous.”
“I could take it back.”
She shook her head and deposited the bill between her pendulous breasts. “Wanna know anythin’?”
“Want to tell me anything?”
This time, she shrugged.
I thought a moment. “Gangs, Alice Anne. Mixed-race gangs. What do you know about gangs who jump their marks in MacFerren Park, specifically in the bathrooms?”
“Lotsa gangs, Officer Cindy.”
“I know that, honey.” It seemed they changed every week. You cleaned up one gang and then another moved in to take its place. When you cleaned up that group, the original gang moved back to its original turf. “I was just wondering if something came into your head. Mixed races, Alice Anne: white, Hispanics, maybe Asian. One white guy has lots of pimples; another is bald or has a shaved head-”
“Lotsa shaved heads.” She wrinkled her nose. “You mean gangs with whites and Mexicans together?”
“Yes.” Alice Anne didn’t subscribe to political correctness. “I’m looking for two Mexicans who hang around a white bald guy and a white guy with pimples. The bald guy might be the leader. Any ideas?”
“Share with me, Alice Anne.”
“There’re lotsa gangs working MacFerren, sure.”
“Do you have any names?”
“They bother me, too, Officer Cindy. Once they took my shopping cart.”
“Did you report it?”
Alice Anne smiled. “Aaahhh, now you’re jokin’.”
I smiled to show her I was. “So now we both got problems with these people. Names?”
“I seen a gang… Mexican and white… some Orientals, too.”
“No blacks. They don’t live here no more. But there’s more than four of ’em… mebbe like twelve of them shootin’ off guns at night. I stay away.”
“Well, these guys that I want, they could be part of that gang. Tell me about it.”
“Part of the BBs.”
Blood Bullets.I didn’t think they operated this far west-a recent development.
Alice Anne said, “I knowed one boy. They call him Hermano.”
“‘Hermano’means brother in Spanish, Alice Anne. That could be like, you know, ‘Bro.’ ”
She stared blankly.
“‘Hermano’is not necessarily a name.”
“Maybe it was Hermando.”
Herman in English. In Spanish, it was Germando, theGpronounced as a soft gutturalH. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. “Thanks.”
“He has this”-she scrunched up her face as she talked-“has thisbigtattoo of a tiger on his neck. Open mouth… teeth showing. You can’t miss it.”
“Okay.” I nodded. “That’s good, Alice Anne. Anything else?”
Her head bobbed up and down. “I seen him around.”
“Where? At MacFerren Park?”
“At the park, yeah, but also at the coffee shop. Late at night. Sometimes twelve, sometimes one. Sometimes even later. I seen him ’cause I check the garbage there. Twenty-four hours, so lots of fresh garbage.”
“That makes sense. Which coffee shop?”
“The place about five blocks down on the corner?”
“That’s the one. I seen Germando there. Lots of times. He likes the banana pancakes.”
Someone was hitting meover the head, just pulverizing my brains to dust. In horror, I could see the tissue flying around, splattering on the ground, but still the pounding wouldn’t stop. It took several minutes before I could translate the repulsive nightmare into sound… Someone was knocking on my door. When I opened my eyes, I felt my heart racing, smelled the sharp odor of sweat that was evaporating off my skin. Shaking from cold, I wiped the wetness off with my damp sheets. I knew I had a breakfast appointment with Hayley Marx, and I wondered if I had overslept and it was she. But checking my alarm, I still had a half hour to go. Ordinarily, I would have been angry at being awoken prematurely, but it was a relief to bury the evil specter.
Street dreams, they’re called, all too typical for new cops. First-year med students dreamed of a bleed-out from Ebola; first-year lawyers dreamed of arriving in court dressed only in underwear. So far as I knew, only cops dreamed of getting their heads blown off. I got up, my stomach in a knot, and threw on my terry-cloth robe.
Then, on the off chance that itmightbe Koby, I took off the terry robe and put on a silk one. I took a few quick moments to preen in front of the mirror; then I quickly brushed my teeth and rinsed out the bad taste with some no-name brand of electric green mouthwash. I was still mad at him, sure, but I wanted to look decent and smell good.
I checked through my peephole.
It was Oliver.
I was disappointed on so many levels, I couldn’t even begin to analyze my feelings.
I opened the door and tried to keep my face neutral. He was wearing a blue suit, white shirt, and gold tie. He had shaved and smelled nice-a fresh scent without the cloying sweetness common in most men’s cologne. His silver-streaked black hair was slicked back, but a chip was falling across his forehead. “I’m meeting Hayley Marx for breakfast, Scott.”
“It’ll only take a minute.”
I hesitated, then let him in. He walked past me, so I closed the door. He glanced around my living room as if it were foreign territory to him. It wasn’t, of course, but it was a lot barer than when he had last seen it. I had taken away all my personal effects, intending to pack up and bid the place good-bye, but I had never got around to the actual jump. The atmosphere was about as warm as Motel 6.
“A fan of the minimal look?”
“What do you want, Scott?”
“How are you doing, Cin?”
“I’m doing lousy. Why is none of your business.”
“Accepted. I have to go-”
“Can you give me a minute?”
“Why should I?”
“Maybe because you owe me?”
He stuck his hands in his pockets. “You know, you should have called me, Cin.”
I stared at him.“What?”
“Isaid”-his eyes bore into mine, but his voice got softer-“you should havecalledme.” A pause. “You know, last year after it all happened. I must have left fifty messages. I left those messages because I cared about you. Surely you could have found the time to return just one of them.”
We maintained eye contact.
He said, “You don’t want a relationship with me, fine. I’m a big boy. No prob. But you could have just been nice about it. You know how that works-asked how I’m doing, how my cases are going, was Daddy giving me a hard time. You know… chitty-chatty. You never had trouble talking to me when you wanted to talk.”
He dared me to respond. I didn’t accept the challenge.
“I was there when you needed me,” he said softly. “I wasgoodto you. You owed me civility.”
“I wasn’t uncivil to you, Scott.”
“You weren’t uncivil, no. You weren’tanythingto me. As far as you were concerned, I was a fucking nonentity.”
A good defense was a well-placed offense. “Nothing I did compared to how vile you were to me Sunday night. I was in shock… insevereshock… and your wretched selfishness just about put me over.”
He broke eye contact and turned away. “You serious with this guy?”
“Not in the least,” I said.
“Then what’s the problem? So I’m a racist. I’m not a nice person. But I was nice to you. I never kissed and told, and believe me, I had lots of opportunity for that.”
I gave out a sarcastic laugh. “I don’t think it would have been good for your career.”
“Your father can’t do a thing to me so long as I do my job well. And I do my job very well. I could have made you look bad, Cindy. I could have made you look bad and your father look even worse. You know gossiping is a cop’s pastime. It would have enhanced my image to brag about nailing the boss’s daughter… made you both look like clowns. But I didn’t because Icaredabout you. So all I’m saying is… is… I’m saying you could have called.”
I started to answer but then checked my psychological armor. When I stopped a moment, I didn’t like what I felt. I thought how hurtful Koby’s silence had been and I had only known him for a little over a week. I’d known Oliver for a very long time and he had come through for me. He had been there when I needed a shoulder to cry on, when I needed a warm, strong body to get me through some terrible nights. He had tucked me into bed and fixed me breakfast in the morning… made sweet love to me.
He was a jerk, but I’d been one, too.
My eyes watered. “You’re right. I should have called. My state of mind wasn’t too great right after… and then… I don’t know… I just didn’t bother. I apologize.”
He gave me the strength of his eyes. “Rather formal… but accepted.”
He deserved better. I swallowed dryly. “Scott, I am so very,verysorry.” Tears streamed down my cheeks. “I really am.”
“Hey…” He came over to me. “Hey, it’s fine.” He put his hands on my shoulders, then drew me to him. I sobbed on his white shirt. Everything came crashing down: this dreadful, stark apartment, the shock of the accident, my horrible first year on the force. I clutched his shirt as I wept on his chest. He wasn’t the one I should be crying to and I was very resentful. He threw his arms around me. “Hey, the score’s settled, old girl. It’s fine.” He patted my back. “I mean it. It’s fine. Stop that!”
I sniffed. “Thanks for not gossiping about me.”
“Thanks for not gossiping about me. I’m certain I had a lot more to lose than you did.”
I laughed and so did he.
“Are you all right, Cindy?”
“No.” I wiped my tears. “But I’ll be okay.”
He was still holding me. It felt good, but it wasn’t what I wanted or needed. I kissed his cheek and broke it off. “You’ve been a good friend and I don’t have many. I should keep that in mind.”
He nodded. “Thanks. That was nice.”
“I really do have to meet Hayley.”
“Have time for a cup of coffee tomorrow?”
“Scott, that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“Maybe not for you. For me, it would be a great idea.”
“You’re dating one of my good friends.”
“I’d take you back in a heartbeat.”
“It wouldn’t work, Oliver.”
“I’m not so sure.” He approached me from behind, slipped his arms around my waist. My robe was loosely bound, and his hands started to touch skin.
Again I pulled away. “You’re good, Oliver, but I’m trying to be better.”
“That’s no fun.”
“I’m trying to pull my life together. Please? Please, please,please?”
He frowned. “At least, tell me you were aroused.”
“I was aroused.”
“You fuck him?”
My face got warm. “Stop it.”
“Is it true what they say about bla-”
“Oliver, get the hell out of here.”
Still, he stalled. “So how are the kids?”
“Didn’t your friend go to the hospital with the kids in the accident? What was the guy’s name again?”
Like he didn’t know. Oliver, like my father, was an excellent detective. Those kinds of details would never slip his mind. “Yaakov.”
“Yeah, but you called him something else at first.”
“Like the basketball player? What the hell kind of a name is Koby?”
He was delving for more info. I said, “It’s short for Yaakov-Jacob. When he moved to Israel, he started using his Hebrew name, Yaakov, which is also Jacob.”
“Why does he have a Hebrew name?”
“Because Koby’s Jewish.”
Oliver laughed. “You’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m not.”
“No, he’s born Jewish. He’s an Ethiopian Jew. Can we switch the subject? Better still, can you leave and then I can get dressed?”
“Don’t let me stop you. You never answered my question. Did the kids in the accident pull through?”
“You know, Scott, I don’t know. I haven’t heard from Koby since the accident.”
“Ouch!” Oliver said.
“No big deal. I told you it was nothing.”
“Sure you don’t want that cup of coffee?” His smile was downright charming. “Talk it over with Uncle Scottie? Hmmm?”
I was down, he looked good, and it was tempting. But the past year had made me just a wee bit smarter. I kissed his cheek. “You were right to call me on my bad behavior. Let’s leave it on a high note.” Before I could weaken, I stepped out the door, waiting for him to follow. When he did, I closed the door behind me, hoping I didn’t lock myself out. “I won’t bother to tell Hayley about this.”
“What’s to tell? Nothing happened.” He smiled. “You still have time to change that.”
“Oliver, leave me alone or I’ll sic the Loo on you.”
“Bringing out the heavy artillery, huh?”
I smiled. When in doubt, punt to Dad.
After breakfast and girl talk/therapy with Hayley (no mention of Oliver’s visit, of course), I arrived at the station house a few hours before I was due to go on shift. I looked up any kind of information I could on Hermano or Germando. I didn’t know his last name because Alice Anne hadn’t known it, but there was a section for distinguishing marks and the tiger tattoo qualified under that category. When I typed it in, I was shocked at Alice Anne’s accuracy. A lesson well learned: Never discount anyone.
Germando El Paso was now eighteen and a half, with a warrant out for his arrest for unpaid traffic citations, specifically a speeding ticket and three parking violations. In the past, he’d been picked up for two DUIs, and his license was currently suspended, but hey, when did that ever stop bad guys from driving? He had also been arrested for a misdemeanor possession of marijuana, and had a sealed juvenile record. Since he wasn’t on probation, he had no probation officer. But there had been a juvenile officer who had worked with him. I took down his name and gave him a call.
I got voice mail, so I left a message.
I went down into the locker room and changed into my uniform. Homicide Detective Justice Brill snagged me right before I entered the roll-call room. Brill was in his mid-thirties, around five-ten, and good-looking in that seamed Steve McQueen/Paul Newman kind of way. They didn’t make movie stars like that anymore. Instead, it was all these slender pretty boys that I could probably beat in an arm wrestle. Brill was married but had a penchant for frequenting gentlemen’s clubs. I stayed clear of him.
“We think we found the SUV. It was a stolen vehicle with stolen plates, but you did get the last four digits right. Good for you.”
“You impound it?”
“No, I put it up on eBay.” Brill smiled, his eyes oozing sincerity. “You did a good job, Decker.”
I took the compliment with grace and aplomb, and a gallon of salt.
He said, “Here’s the thing. The front bumper of the car was an inkblot of smashed body parts, but the rear bumper was clean.”
“She wasn’t hit on the rear bumper.”
“Very good, Decker, I see gold in your future.” He rolled his eyes. “Now since the plates were stolen, the lab dusted it for prints. Guess what?”
“There were none.”
“Bingo. But the lab did find a smear of fresh blood on the top right screw, where you screw the license plate onto the bumper.”
“Was the smear enough for a partial?”
“There was a partial, but nothing popped up in the system.”
So much for that. “Did the blood match the victim’s?”
“We don’t know for sure because the tests are preliminary. But the lab did run a simple ABO-victim’s blood was O, the smear was B. There was nothing else on the plate.” He looked at me. “Any ideas?”
He was giving me a hurdle to jump. I thought about it for a moment. “And the lab didn’t find the B blood type anywhere else on the SUV?”
I tapped my foot. “It’s on the screw but not on the license plate.”
Suddenly sparks popped in my brain. “If there were no prints on the license plates, maybe instead of just wiping it down, he wore gloves. Thing is, license plate edges are sharp. Could be the plate cut the latex while he was fiddling with it. Maybe the edge was sharp enough to cut through the latex and exposed part of his fingertip-hence the partial. Maybe it also cut skin. But he didn’t notice it because it was only a few droplets. The blood could have leaked out onto the screw as he attached the plate to the bumper.”
Brill stared at me.
I shrugged. “You asked what I thought. It’s a theory.”
The nod came slowly. “Yeah, it’s a theory.”
That was as much of a concession as I’d get from him.
He gave me a wise-guy smile. “You know what? When I find out more, we’ll discuss it over a cup of coffee.”
Why was it that every time a guy wanted play, he offered me a lousy cup of coffee? What ever happened to dinner and a movie?
“Thanks for filling me in, Detective.”
“We’ll keep in touch, Decker,” he said. “You’re good.”
I smiled. I had so wanted things to work out with Koby. I had genuinely liked the man. But even if I hadn’t, he would have been worth dating just to keep the others off my back.
Germando El Paso’sjuvenile officer hadn’t returned my call, so I figured I might as well spend another fruitless night following up theories that evaporated like steam. I headed for Boss’s twenty-four-hour coffeehouse, a place that catered to freaks, chumps, hypes, and other ne’er-do-wells who couldn’t hack it in daylight hours. I was hoping to espy “Mr. Tiger Tattoo” himself. Alice Anne had produced a solid hit, so I made a mental note to slip her another ten-spot the next time I saw her.
I was seated by a toothpick of a guy with bad acne who appeared to be coming off a bad jones. Lucky for me, he was the maître d’ and not my server. That position was given to a captivating lady with blue spiked hair who dressed in black vinyl. She had a pierced upper lip and a pierced nose and small silver chain connecting the two metal studs together. I wondered if it hurt when she sneezed.
She poured me some coffee and left me the pot. I had brought the morning paper and was skimming the usual bad news, having made myself comfortable in a torn Naugahyde booth in the far end of the restaurant after sweeping bread crumbs off the tabletop with my hands. I kept a sharp eye out for my prey, and though I saw a good sideshow, Germando wasn’t part of it. I sipped coffee and munched on dry lettuce leaves of what was professed to be a dinner salad. When my cell phone rang, I jumped. I had forgotten to turn it off.
“I just got off shift. Are you still in the neighborhood?”
The voice from the netherworld. I didn’t want to lie, but I definitely didnotwant to see him. “It’s late.”
“You could come to my place,” Koby purred. “I’ll fix you something to eat… give you a massage…”
As anger played inside my gut, I tried to keep my voice even. “Sounds like a booty call.”
Silence over the line.
“No, Cindy, not at all.”
“Then explain it to me.”
The seconds ticked.
“Let’s try it again.” His voice was more somber. “I’m off all day Sunday. I’d love to see you. How about brunch and we go from there?”
That meant spending money on me. A step up, but I stillwasn’tinterested. So now I did lie. “I’m working Sunday.”
“Actually, I’m off Saturday night through Monday morning. Actually, Friday night through Monday, but Saturday isShabbat.But if Saturday is your only time, I can see you then. Please. Just give me a time.”
What in the world was going through that man’s head? Nothing for four days, then “Mr. Solicitous.” More than likely, he was horny. “Saturday I meet my mother for lunch. It’s sacrosanct.”
Another pause. “What does that mean… the word?”
“ ‘Sacrosanct’? It means if I miss a weekend with her, she goes ballistic.”
“Maybe after lunch, then…”
Not missing a beat. Tenacity had probably been a very useful asset for him. I relented, probably because he had asked me what “sacrosanct” meant. For some reason, I found it endearing. Still, I was cautious. “Actually, I’m still in the neighborhood. I’ve got a couple of odds and ends to pick up. How about I call you in a half hour? If I’m up to it, we’ll meet for coffee. All right?”
“Fine… anything. Great. Terrific-”
I hung up before he could think of more adjectives.
After forty-five minutes, the phone rang again.
“Are you still working?”
“Yeah, just like you’ve been doing for the last four days.”
I felt bad, not because he didn’t deserve it, but because it was unbecoming to be rude. I tossed him a bone. “If you come to Boss’s within the next half hour, I’ll still be here. Do you know where it is?”
“Then I’ll see you later.” I disconnected the call.
He showed up twenty minutes later. The first things I noticed were his eyes. How could I not notice? Usually luminous, his pupils were polluted brown muck, the formerly white irises were a combination of jaundice yellow and bright red bloodshot. He liked colors. He certainly had them.
I immediately thought of a drug binge. It wouldn’t be the first time that a health professional had dipped into the locked cabinet of a hospital. He smiled sheepishly as he sat across from me. I slid my coffee cup over to him and watched him closely. When he picked up the mug, I saw that his hands were as steady as rocks.
“I was supposed to meet someone,” I told him. “I think I got stood up.” I smiled. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
His tired eyes took in mine. “I’m sorry I haven’t called you.”
“S’right. You’ve been busy.”
“Who were you supposed to meet?”
“I hope I’m better company, even if the margin is small.”
Despite myself, I smiled. “You look exhausted.”
“I am. I finally told them that if I didn’t get some time off, I would collapse.”
“You should be home sleeping, not drinking bad coffee that’ll probably give you heartburn.”
“Yes.” He tried eye contact but couldn’t pull it off. “I’d like to make up my bad behavior to you. Can we see each other this weekend?”
“What bad behavior? All you did was work.” I paused, thinking of Nurse Marnie’s possessive voice over the line. Once there had been something. “Unless you have something else to tell me.”
He looked up. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Busy with someone else?” I was trying to sound casual. “What happened, Koby? Did she flake out on you or something? Call me for backup sex?”
His eyes swung back to mine. “No. It isnothinglike that. I really have been working-three 12-hour shifts and one 16-hour shift.”
I was silent.
“Ask anyone at the hospital,” he insisted. “And you can ask many people because I’ve practically lived there this past week.” He rubbed his bloodshot eyes. They watered with irritation. “Cindy, I have cash burning holes in my pockets. Please let me spend it on you.”
I studied his face.
I shrugged. “Sure. Let’s go out Sunday night.”
He blew out air and leaned back in the booth. “Thank you. I will try to redeem myself.”
“I’m tired. I’m going home.” I stood up, pitched a ten on the table, then walked away.
“I’ll walk you to your car.”
“I’m fine, Koby. I carry a gun.”
“I suppose I should keep that in mind.” He caught up with me, held my arm. “I really missed you.”
“You have a funny way of showing it.”
He held the door open for me. “I know.”
“So what was that all about?”
“Some other time, please? I’m so tired.”
I took pity on him. “Sure.”
As we walked out the door and onto the sidewalk, I saw the tiger tattoo before I saw the face. I broke away from Koby and took a couple of giant steps forward. “Hey!” I shouted. “Police!”
Germando took off.
I tore after him, grateful for my rubber-soled shoes, but I was out of my league. Koby however was a lightning bolt. A dozen long strides and he landed within striking distance. He whacked Germando between the shoulder blades and my traffic felon stumbled forward, falling flat onto his face. When I caught up, I was panting like a dog. Koby hadn’t broken a sweat. I leaned my knee between Germando’s shoulder blades and whipped his arms around his back.
“I said, ‘Police!’ That means youstop!”
“I no hear-”
“Well, now you hear! I am a police officer, Germando. Hold thefuckstill or I’ll break yourfuckingarms!”
“That’s brutality!” He craned his neck to look at Koby. With my knee in position, he was pretty well pinned. “You hear her-”
“You’re talking toair,my friend,” I yelled at him. “There’s no one here!” I retrieved the gun from my purse and held it at the base of his head. “Hold still, Germando. I’ve got bullets about an inch from your brain stem and I don’t want any accidents. I am going to cuff you.”
Out came the cuffs from my purse. As soon as he was in manacles, I felt my heart rate drop. I looked up… Koby staring at me, shocked and wide-eyed. I took out my cell and called for police backup and a transport.
His mouth was still agape. I said, “You can go now. In fact, it would be real good if you went now.”
He closed his mouth and turned to walk away.
“Hey,” I shouted.
He pivoted around.
“Thanks,” I told him. “But don’teverdo my job for me again, okay?”
He didn’t answer. He stared, blinked, then jogged off. I saw his Toyota hook a U, just as I caught the flash of a cruiser’s crossbar.
Good thing the occupants of the black-and-white were on a case. Otherwise a cop could have given him a ticket for crossing a double, double yellow line.
Let’s go overit again, Decker.”
I threw my head back, squirming in the hard seat, and studied the ceiling’s fluorescent lighting in the interview room. This wasn’t so bad, I rationalized. It gave me empathy with the scumbags that I’d be grilling one day. “What specifically, Detective?”
“You went to Boss’s because…”
“I went to Boss’s because I was looking for Germando El Paso, who often eats the banana pancakes there. I was looking for him because he had outstanding warrants.”
“Warrants just the same.”
Brill rubbed his forehead. “And this is what you do on your off-hours? Hunt for dudes with unpaid tickets?”
“I consider it a civic duty.”
His smile was wry. “You need a life.”
“I agree,” I answered. “But that doesn’t change this situation. It was a righteous bust and I did not plant that bag of X on him, no matter what he says.”
“You’ve got no witnesses to back you up.”
“Neither does he.”
“He claims you were with someone.”
“He claims a lot of things.” I looked at the one-way mirror. “Who’s back there?”
Brill followed the direction of my eyes. He wore a black suit and a white shirt. A badly knotted red tie ringed his neck. He had dressed hurriedly. “Someone from the DA… the Loo.”
“Detective or uniform?”
“He can come in and ask his own questions, if he wants.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass.”
“Believe me, Detective, I’m not trying to be snide.” I looked at my watch. It was two in the morning. At least, Koby was home sleeping. Thinking about him depressed me. “I’ll start from the beginning-again. I’ll repeat it as many times as you want me to repeat it.”
Brill gave me a hands-up.
I started to talk, then stopped. “Let me start from theverybeginning. This whole thing has its roots in the abandoned baby I pulled out of the garbage a couple of weeks ago. All right?”
I glanced at the tape recorder in the middle of the Formica table, which was scarred and scratched and held a dirty ashtray. “I found the mother on my own, I’d like to add-”
“Not the time to brag.”
“I’m only mentioning this to show the DA on the other side of the mirror that I am obsessive.”
“Seems to be a family trait,” Brill answered.
“You said it, sir, not I.”
He smiled. “You found the baby; you found the mother.”
“I pulled out the baby; I found the mother.” I readjusted my weight for the millionth time. “So now we’re up to date on that. After I found the mother, I wanted to know about the father-”
“I thought this poor little baby from a retarded mother deserved to know her entire genetic history.”
“Because I became attached to her. I visited her a couple of times in the hospital-on my own. This whole thing didn’t come out of nowhere.”
I said, “So I went to the mother’s home to interview her about the baby’s father. I did this with Detective Van Horn’s permissionandwith Detective MacGregor’s permission. I visited her on Sunday. I took my father, Lieutenant Decker, along with me because I knew I needed somebody experienced, and Detective Van Horn had gone on vacation. Detective Russ MacGregor, who had been assigned to the case, was away for the weekend.”
“And it was during this discussion that the girl”-Brill flipped through his notes-“Sarah Sanders… she mentioned being gang-raped and her boyfriend was beaten up and thrown into a trash can.”
“Exactly. But because the case was six months old, Lieutenant Decker suggested that I don’t act on my information until I informed Detective MacGregor of this latest development. Which I did.”
I smiled. “He thought it could be a fantasy. Still, the girl came in and made a statement. On the off chance that her story might be true, I asked MacGregor if I could look into it. He said that if I wanted to find the father on my own time, he wouldn’t have a problem with that.”
“To find the father, not to solve a six-month-old fantasy crime.”
“Look… sir. I went after Germando because I had heard that he hangs with punks who harass the homeless and jump people in public bathrooms. I looked Germando up. I knew he had an outstanding warrant. I knew I could pull him in on that. Why would I bother planting a bag of ecstasy on him?”
“To make the bust look more righteous.”
“The bag has been nothing but a pain in the neck.”
“But you didn’t know that at the time.”
“I know the Department’s attitude toward rogue cops. Give me a lie detector test if you have doubts.”
“What about this guy Germando claims you were with?”
I looked at my hands.
Brill pointed to the mirror. “They don’t like it when you’re not forthcoming. If you lie about this, no one’s going to believe you about the bag.”
I pursed my lips. “I sent him home.”
“That doesn’t look nice.”
“Why should he get involved?”
“He’s already involved.”
“Ask anyone in the restaurant. We weren’t together more than ten minutes.”
“We did ask people, Decker. And what you said is true. And that in and of itself is suspicious. Ten minutes is more than enough time to buy a baggie.”
I stared in disbelief. “You think he was a dealer?”
“You tell me.”
“Why?” I snapped. “Because he’s black?”
Brill’s face remained flat. “You tell me.”
“He’s a critical-care nurse at Mid-City Peds. We were arranging a date.”
“That can be done on the phone.”
“He just got off shift. He wanted to see me in person. The poor man had been working for almost four days straight. I took one look at him and sent him home to get some sleep.”
I sighed heavily. “Yaakov Kutiel. He was the same guy I was with when I witnessed the hit-and-run.”
Brill was silent.
“He was just walking me to my car.”
“So he’s your boyfriend?”
Not anymore,I thought to myself. “We’ve dated.” I was losing patience. I took a couple of deep breaths. “I didn’t plant the pills. End of story.”
Again he was silent.
“If I were you,” I said, “I’d start thinking about how I could use this boon.”
Brill looked at me.
“Like using the pills to get him to talk about Sarah Sanders’s rape.”
“If it wasn’t fiction.”
“Can’t we at least find out?”
It was time to show them I had an ego. “I made the bust. My presence in the room will make him nervous. But you can do all the talking.”
“Gee, thanks, Decker.”
“If he wasn’t the point man in the rape, maybe you can use the pills to get him to flip and tell us who it was.”
“What makes you think he wasn’t the point man?”
I shrugged. “Sarah described the meanest guy as being a white guy with a shaved head. Let’s just put him on the griddle and see how high he jumps.”
Brill got a call on his cell. He stood up, spoke a second, then hung up. “Excuse me.”
He left the room. I knew they were conferring on the other side of the mirror. Ten minutes later, Lieutenant Mack Stone from Hollywood Detectives came into the room with Brill. Stone was in his mid-fifties, around six-two, with a thick build, fleshy features, and a head of dark, curly hair. He sat across from me, giving me one of those intense looks.
“How’s your arm?”
“Connor says you have quite an arm.”
“Oh.” He was referring to my position on the LAPD Hollywood Bowling League-women’s division. We made first last year. “Ready to do it again, sir.” After my awful rookie year, I was determined to be ever the good sport.
Stone frowned, the creases on his forehead like wrinkles on a bulldog. Stubby fingers raked through his hair. “Germando El Paso. What do you want with him specifically?”
“I want to see if he was involved in the gang rape.”
“Where’d you get your information about his involvement?”
“A street person.”
I shrugged. “A bag lady, sir.”
“A bag lady?”
“Yes. But before I went after him, I looked him up and made sure I’d have something to hold him on if I caught him. The last thing I wanted was to be hung out to dry. The baggie was a bonus, sir. And it sure as hell explains why he ran from me.”
“He looks like a fast little mother. How’d you run him down?”
“I’m very quick, sir.”
“I mean, you wouldn’t have pulled a gun on him for a traffic warrant.”
“I would never point my weapon at a fleeing traffic violator. That is flagrant misuse of a firearm.”
“How’d you get him down without your gun?”
“I caught up with him and whacked him on the back. He tripped and fell.”
Stone studied my face. “Ever made the list of forty-four?”
I laughed. The list of forty-four was reserved for those officers with the worst civilian complaint records. “Uh, no.”
“Charges against you?”
“None.” I looked at him. “Why? Is El Paso thinking of throwing a brutality charge at me?”
He smiled. “Not by the time we’re done with him.”
“You’re in deep turd, mi amigo,” Brill said. “You’re looking at a felony drug conviction: possession with intent to sell. That’s a lot of jail time. Then, when you combine it with your traffic warrant and your prior drug conviction, I think a case could be made for three strikes.”
El Paso’s pitted, thin face lost color, his ashen cheeks in stark contrast to the black shirt he wore. His legs were housed in a pair of baggy, saggy jeans. His nose and forehead were scraped from his fall, adding more markings to his punk visage. He had tattoos on his hands, tattoos on the back of his neck. I’m sure if he took his shirt off, he’d be a gallery of blue ink.
Three strikes meant a mandatory life term in prison. Germando’s charges didn’t qualify, but he didn’t know that.
“She plant them,” he shouted out.
“No, she didn’t plant them,” Brill said. “You know how we know that?”
Germando didn’t speak.
“We found a witness who was with her.”
“See, I tell you she was with someone. A black man. A dealer-”
“No, he isn’t a dealer,” Brill explained, “but he is her boyfriend.”
“Her boyfriend is a dealer?”
“No, Germando, he’s not a dealer. But being as they’re close, when we get him on the witness stand, whose side do you think he’s going to be on, hmmm?”
Germando grew sullen. “I wan’ my lawyer.”
“Sure,” Brill said. “But before you make the call, I want to tell you a little story. It might help you out if you listen. Might help you out big time.”
El Paso raised his brown eyes to my face, then to Brill.
Justice said, “This story goes back maybe six months ago. A rape,amigo,and notjusta rape. This is a gang rape in the men’s bathroom at MacFerren Park. And not just any gang rape, it’s the gang rape of a retarded girl who was fooling around with her retarded boyfriend. Someone beat the crap out of him, then threw him in the trash can. He was left for dead. Sound familiar?”
His eyes got wide, but he shook his head. “No. I never hurt no one.”
“Nothing like that.”
“I don’t hurt no one.”
“I’m not saying you did. Just that you might have been there.”
“Nah… I no there.”
I said, “We put you in a lineup, Germando. We bring the girl in.” I pointed to his neck. “That tiger on your throat is a pretty obvious calling card.”
“You say she’s retarded.” El Paso rubbed his watery nose. “No one will believe her.”
“I think you’re wrong about that,” I told him. “I think lots of people will believe her.” I leaned across the table and poured him another glass of water. “The point is… are you sure enough to take a chance in front of twelve people who’d love to give a banger twenty to life?”
Brill said, “You want to call your lawyer now?”
Stark silence. We both waited him out.
El Paso said, “Wha’ happens when I call my lawyer?”
“Then we stop talking and you’re charged with felony drug possession,” I told him.
His eyes darted back and forth. “And if I no call him?”
“Then we keep talking,” Brill told him.
“We talk about the story Detective Brill just told you,” I added.
“I never touch that kind of girl. She no right in the head.”
“But you know who we’re talking about,” I said.
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe isn’t a good answer,” Brill told him. “Maybe makes us think you’d say anything to avoid a drug conviction.”
“I hear about it,” El Paso said. “I hear that they do a re-tard. Me? I no interested in the girl. Too ugly.”
“Who did her?” Brill asked.
“Wha’ you give me if I remember good?”
“Up to our lawyers,” Brill said. “I’ve got to present the situation to them. But I can’t present the situation if I don’t know it. That means you have to tell it to me.”
“But once I tell, I have nothin’.”
“You have to trust us,” I said.
El Paso laughed.
“That hurts my feelings,” I said.
“Not as much as you’ dealer boyfrien’ hurt my back.”
“Bah humbug!” I lit a cigarette for him. He took it.
Brill said, “Start talking, Germando. I’m tired.”
“I know. You look like shit.” El Paso gave me a lecherous smile. “Now, you, mama, you lookgood.”
I took his cigarette away. “Germando… ifIcan take you down like I did, those gorillas inside will have you touching your toes in an eye blink. Now be polite and start talking.” I stuck the cigarette back in his mouth, then sat back in my chair and folded my arms across my chest.
Brill’s eyes went from my face to El Paso’s ugly mug.
“I don’ do nothin’ to her,” he reiterated. “I just wait at the door till they done.”
“Who did something to her?”
“Maybe Juice Fedek… Pepe Renaldes maybe. I don’ remember. Long time ago.”
I said, “The boy you beat up-”
“I don’ beat up no one,” El Paso stated.
“Someone beat him up,” I said.
“Not me. Maybe the others.”
“Was he alive when you left?”
El Paso shrugged. “I jus’ wait at the door.”
“Where’d you get the bag from?” Brill asked.
“The bag of X,” Brill said. “Who’d you buy it from?”
Again El Paso asked for his lawyer. This time, he was adamant. The door to discussion was officially closed and dead-bolted.
Juice Fedekwas Joseph Nicholas Fedek: twenty-one years of age, a young man with a seasoned record-two breaking-and-entering charges, one assault, two misdemeanor drug possessions, two DUIs with a suspended license for a year. Eight months in county, bumped into early parole due to overcrowding. Then he was picked up on a DUI, served an additional four months, another early release, same reason. Where he parked himself was anyone’s guess and Germando claimed he hadn’t seen him since his last tour in the cellar.
Pepe Renaldes was gainfully employed by Do-Rite Construction-bonded and licensed. The company’s claim to fame was custom-built homes in Brentwood, a liberal, ritzy white area in the West Side of Los Angeles, a neighborhood I knew intimately because my mother and stepfather lived there. They had their book clubs, their wine-and-cheese parties, and their endless discussions on the state of the world. I loved my mother dearly. As my father admitted, she had not been given a fair shake in her first marriage. She was happy now, and that was good. But I could take the intellectualizing only in small doses. Their lifestyle had all the pitfalls of backbiting academia without the college credits.
Since both lads were lacking outstanding warrants, I had no choice but to wait until a game plan was formulated between El Paso’s lawyer and the DA. I had wanted to show their mugs to Sarah Sanders, see if she could pick them out of a six-pack, but I was told to hold off. With my hands figuratively bound, I went on my shift and worked a solid eight hours, getting home around twelve, exhausted and depleted.
Lots of phone messages, but none from Koby. No e-mails from him, either.
Why wasn’t I surprised?
Saturday was devoted to finding David Tyler. That meant phone calls to homeless shelters, halfway houses, and other community centers for the developmentally disabled. Then there was my “sacrosanct” lunch with Mom. As I traveled around Brentwood, I looked for houses going up and Do-Rite Construction signs, but was out of luck.
There were still no messages from Koby when I got home. That would die unless I got things going again. So on Sunday, I swallowed my pride. I went shopping and bought him an orange shirt-on sale and nonreturnable. Afterward, I wondered why in the hell I did it, because who was this guy to me.
I should have dusted him, except I was lonely. Over the past year, I couldn’t find the energy to attend parties or barhop, so where was I going to meet guys except at work and that wasO-U-T-out. There had been chemistry between us and I was loath to give that up. Still, I waged an internal debate.
In the meantime, I hopped in my car and went over the canyon to visit Dad, wanting to fill him in on my search for David Tyler-or so I told myself. What I really wanted was some old-fashioned pats on the back for a job well done with Germando El Paso. As I approached my father’s house, Koby’s gift in hand, I wondered why I was carrying it.
I knocked on the door. Rina answered. “Hi, honey. Your dad isn’t home. He took Hannah out for one of those painting things. You know, you paint a plate and they charge you fifty bucks for something you’re going to put in a drawer and never use.”
I smiled. I knew what she was talking about.
“Come in. I’ll find the address for you.”
“Nah, never mind. Just tell him I stopped by.”
Rina studied my face. By the look on hers, I must not have appeared neutral, let alone happy. “Cindy, you drove out all this way. Why don’t you wait for him? He’ll be back in an hour.”
“No thanks. Just tell him I’ve gone through about a quarter of the possibilities and I’m still looking for David. He’ll know what I mean. He can call me later on. Just to discuss a few things.”
Rina pulled me inside. “How about some coffee?”
I smiled and shrugged. She hooked a thumb in the direction of the kitchen. I followed obediently. I swept my hand across the kitchen counter.
Rina said, “What’s wrong, honey?”
“Nothing.” What a stupid response. “I’ll get through it, Rina. Thanks.”
She didn’t push it. “What’s in the bag?”
“Oh.” I took out my purchase. “It’s for Koby.”
The shirt was bright orange, more vivid than I had remembered. Rina stared at it.
I said, “I got it on sale. Nonreturnable.”
“I can… understand that.”
I smiled. “Koby likes color.”
“Well, then, he’ll certainly like that.”
“He ruined one of his shirts at the accident, using it to stop some bleeding. I thought I’d replace it.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“It will be if I give it to him.”
Rina waited for more. I didn’t offer up anything. She poured two cups. “It’s fresh. You take yours with cream, right?”
“Cream and an Equal. Girly coffee.”
I drank the coffee. It was good and had cinnamon in it, and that only made me feel worse.
She said, “This, too, shall pass.”
“I guess everything passes eventually. You die.”
Rina smiled. “Now you’re sounding like your father.”
“No, that’s a good thing. I love your father.”
“That makes two of us.” I put the cup down. “I don’t know, Rina. This was going to be a peace offering. Now I have doubts if it’s even worth it. Maybe I should cut my losses.”
“You know best.”
“I like him. But men are so damn difficult.”
“Get me in the right mood, I’ll agree with you,” Rina said. “This weekend, your father has been a doll.”
“Maybe it’s me.”
“Want my advice for what it’s worth?”
“The shirt’s not returnable. It’s for a rather specific taste. Give it to Koby. Otherwise it’ll go to waste.”
The day was spectacular, even if I wasn’t. His car was in the driveway, and for a moment, I just wished it would all go away-all the bad feelings that got in the way of life-so we could hop inside and cruise on an endless highway. I rang the bell, and when he didn’t answer, I went by the side and peered over the gate. This time, the back door wasn’t open, but I could see motion in the garden. I tried the latch, but it was padlocked. He wasn’t expecting visitors, but I didn’t care. I hopped the fence.
“Hello?” I called out.
The orange trees were still heavy with blossoms and perfume. I stopped at the entrance to his backyard. He was right. A week later and the garden had turned all color and aroma. He was trimming the rosebushes, wearing faded jeans, a green tank top, and sneakers without socks. He gave me the courtesy of a glance, then clipped off a stem containing a ruby red bud.
“Wow!” I brushed my black slacks off, dirty from my excursion over the fence. “It’s beautiful back here.”
“Thank you.” He glanced at me, then began to peel thorns off the branch. “But I think I have the better view.”
I thanked him. “How’s the back-room floor coming?”
He spoke to me, though he was focused on the flower. “It’s not coming. I don’t use power tools when I’m upset.”
He held out the stem to me.
I took it and sniffed it. “Très élégant!And as long as we’re in a giving mood…” I lifted the bag. “A little more pedestrian, but like someone said, it’s the thought that counts.”
He regarded my present, wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a shiny gift bag with rope handles. “For me?”
“Unless there’s someone behind you, yes.”
His eyes, although no longer bloodshot, still lacked sparkle. They went from the gift to my face. “I’m utterly stunned. I don’t know what to say.”
“ ‘Thank you’ is always in fashion.”
“Take it and open it.”
He did and pulled out the shirt. His smile was a brilliant crescent of white. “It’s perfect!”
“If you wear it with black on Halloween, people will think you’re a jack-o’-lantern.”
“Especially with my big teeth.” He looked at the label. “Right size.” He held it up to his chest. “What do you think?”
“It says you.”
“Then I think it is in serious trouble.” His smile dimmed, and he put the shirt back in the bag. “I would like to wear it tonight for you. Is that a possibility?”
“How much on a scale from one to ten?”
I couldn’t bring myself to smile. “I’m sorry I came down on you. I don’t like when other people do my job better than I do.”
“I don’t do your job.”
“I wouldn’t have caught him if you hadn’t been there.”
“I was a competitive runner. No doubt I could outrun anyone in your department.”
“But it wasn’tanyone.It wasme.And the guy was my responsibility. Koby, what if he had taken out a gun?”
“Then I would have perfect backup.”
“C’mon! I’m trying to make a point.”
He grew glum. “I hear you.”
“I’m… I don’t know. Sorry, all right?”
“It was more than just my speed,” he spoke softly. “You were already mad at me.”
I didn’t confirm or deny it. Again silence came between us. I said, “I saw the look on your face when I took that guy down. I’m sure I conformed to your image of the heavy-handed LAPD cop.”
“I flinched,” he admitted. “But I know there are two sides.”
“What did he do?”
“Technically, I arrested him because he has an outstanding warrant for unpaid traffic violations. But I wanted him in connection with a gang rape of a retarded woman.”
Koby screwed up his face in horror. I thought what my father must have thought dozens of times. Why did I tell him?
He said, “Did arresting him help you out?”
Eventually. After I fielded about a thousand questions.“Yes, it helped quite a bit.”
“I’m glad.” He tucked the clippers inside his pants pocket and looked at his watch. “How about if I make coffee? You relax here while I shower and get dressed. Then maybe we take a ride to the beach and watch the sunset. Then we have dinner.”
It sounded not only wonderful, but like instant therapy. But I was still tense. “Koby, why didn’t you call me? I was freaked out after the accident. I know you were busy with life-and-death issues, but a kind word or two on my message machine would have gone a long way. It wouldn’t have taken more than… two minutes.”
He looked away. “I should have.”
“So why didn’t you?”
He regarded a rosebush and took out the clippers. Again he spoke without looking at me. “I have these moods, Cynthia.” He snipped off a dead head. “I was hoping that maybe they wouldn’t surface until we were farther along… so you could see the good side of me.”
I was puzzled. “What do you mean ‘moods’?”
“Koby, everyone has moods.”
“Mine are very dark.”
He faced me. “An angry depression, I think. I am not nice to be around. I have found the best way to deal with it is to throw myself into work. So I work until I cannot work… until I am in a state of exhaustion. Then I sleep-one day, two days. And then… it passes. And it always does pass. Because the world is a good place.”
“Have you ever gotten help for it?”
“From a therapist?”
“Yeah, from a therapist. I see a therapist. It helps.”
“Why should I bother? It passes.”
“You should bother so you know what triggers it.”
“I already do know. This time, it was the accident. The little girl loses a leg but she lives. The baby died, Cindy, massive head injuries. That was it.”
“Koby, you work with dying babies all the time.”
“Yes, but those babies are sick. With those babies, one shoe has already dropped. There is expectation. So you are prepared. When it is a healthy baby… andallthe mother had to do was put her in a car seat… it makes me… It was the suddenness! One moment, I am elated with you… such a wonderful evening. Then…boom!” He punched one fist into another, the smack so loud it made me jump. “It’s like inZahal… doingshomrah-watch. One moment, you sit around smoking and talking about women with yourchevrah.Then abruptly, your friend is dead from a sniper’s bullet. Or when you’re a child and you walk out of yourtukul-your hut-and the women are weeping. But that is nothing new because death is all around. Until someone tells you that your mother has just died. It’s the unexpected death. It’s not like the hospital. In the hospital, the defenses are up. Am I making myself understandable?”
I exhaled. “You’ve had lots of trauma in your life.”
“I told you we all have baggage.”
“But some baggage is heavier than others.”
He nodded somberly. “Indeed. I don’t blame you for walking.”
“Did I say I wanted to walk?”
We were silent.
“That man Oliver…,” Koby said. “Do you still like him?”
I let out a small laugh. “That, my friend, is soover.”
“Not to him.”
“Isthatwhat it was all about?Oliver?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps a small part.”
“Small part, huh?”
“Teeny,teeny,tiny.” I nodded. “Okay.”
“Cindy, under normal circumstances, it is nothing. In combination with everything that happened, I just wonder, that’s all.”
I waited until I caught his eye. “You know, I never said anything about your friend Marnie. You shouldn’t have brought up Oliver.”
His gaze shifted, falling somewhere over my shoulder. He was silent.
I said, “I see you’re pleading the Fifth. So as long as you opened the door, let me say this. Relationships with people you work with are big mistakes. One that I never intend to repeat.”
“We’re in agreement.”
“So how about this:Idon’t ask… andyoudon’t ask.” I gave him a knowing look. “Besides, I have a feeling the score isn’t evenclose.”He actually blushed. I said, “Koby, there isno oneelse in my life at the moment. Put that baby to bed, all right?”
“I’m a fool.” He snipped another dead head. “Forgive me.”
I took the clippers away from him. “You’re not a fool, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s yesterday’s news. But in the future, you’ve got to let me know you’re interested.”
“Believe me, that is not a problem.”
“So if you’re having a black mood, just say I can’t talk, I’m having a black mood. That way, I’ll know it isn’t me. I come from a divorced home. Trauma is not foreign to me, either. I like order, same as you.”
“I can do that.”
I gave him back his clippers. “And maybe you want to consider talking to someone.”
“I’m talking to you.”
“I’m not a therapist.”
“No, but your hourly rates are very reasonable.” He took in my face, then ran a finger slowly across my cheek. “God gives me a chance at Heaven and I throw it away. I must be psychotic.”
I let out a small laugh. “I think you’re overstating the case.”
“You aresogorgeous, Cynthia. It is a thrill just to look at you.”
“And a cheap thrill at that.”
“Now who’s making nervous jokes?”
I didn’t answer.
“You are pure heat… Everything about you is fire.” His focus was penetrating. “There is this place in Malibu Canyon… next to a creek. All around are beautiful mountains and open sky. Lots of vegetarian dishes. The food is very good and the atmosphere is intimate.”
I knew the place. It was beautiful and very romantic.
“Shall I shower and put on the shirt?”
His eyes were already in sexual fantasy. But I had things on my mind. “This is the deal, Yaakov Kutiel. You told me your baggage. So now you’ve got to hear mine.”
“I’d be honored.”
So I told him. I talked, and talked, and talked, and talked.
We never got to the mountains. He didn’t even have a chance to wear the shirt. We never made it out of bed.
Iwas awakenedby a kiss on the cheek, my enchanting prince dressed in jeans and a blue T-shirt, with a plastic-wrapped, laundered set of blue scrubs draped over his shoulder. He was holding a cup of coffee.
“Good grief.” I sat up and pulled the covers over my breasts. “What time is it?”
“A little after ten.” He offered me the mug. “For you.”
I took the coffee and sipped. “Good stuff. Ethiopian. I know because a friend of mine bought me a pound.”
“There’s more where this came from. Plus, toast, juice, and the paper. But alas, you’ll have to eat alone. I must go to work.”
I rubbed my eyes and noticed Koby’s. Like sparkling Tokay. Finally, the brilliance was back. “Did you sleep well?”
“With you by my side, I slept with the angels. And yourself?”
“Great. I was knocked out.” I sipped more coffee, glancing around his tiny bedroom. It had a king-size bed, one nightstand with a phone and a clock, and a small closet with a mirror. No TV, because there was no room. Sunlight was streaming through the sheer curtains, the windows looking out to the rose garden. In actual size, the house was as small as my apartment. But with the homey factor, it wasn’t even close. “I’ll be leaving shortly.”
“Take your time.” He pulled something metallic out of his pocket and dropped it on my lap. “Lock up when you leave.”
A key. “Should I put it in the mailbox?”
“You can keep it. Use it with or without me. My house is close to your work. If you ever need a quick nap, the place will serve your purpose.”
I met his eyes. “I don’t know, Koby. This is a little rushed, maybe?”
“If you don’t want it, put it in the mailbox.” He sat beside me, laying his plastic-wrapped scrubs on the floor. “You say for me to show you I’m interested. Now maybe you believe me.”
“I meant responding to my phone calls, not moving-” I stopped myself. Talk about slips of the tongue. Now who needed to take it easy? But my first thoughts had been, If I lived here, where would I put my clothes?
Koby broke into a slow smile. “I think I ammadfor you, Cynthia.” He caressed my arm. “I think it scares me… how much I am mad for a woman.”
Men and their emotions.I gave him an out. “Don’t worry. You barely know me.”
“I know how I feel. I knew it when I first saw you. I felt it in the heart. I felt it other places as well.”
The bed was still redolent of pheromones. “We do have chemistry.”
He kissed my bare shoulder. “We have passionate colors.” His hand snaked under the covers. “Black and red, a lethal combination.”
I gasped. “I thought you were going to work.”
“That’s what I am doing.” He slipped his fingers between my legs. “I am going to work.”
“Work as in a job.” I was desperately trying not to be so damn wet under his touch. I was failing miserably. “Salaried work.”
“Ah, but this issomuch better.”
I pulled his hand away. “You’ll be late.”
“You are very cruel,” he told me.
Much nicer than saying,You know you want it bad, bitch.My eyes went down to his crotch, then up to his expectant face. He raised his eyebrows. He was waiting for a sign.
His clothes were off in thirty seconds. Fifteen minutes after that, he was dressed again. He eyed me in bed and I saw him grow. “I am like a schoolboy.” He checked his watch and frowned. “As frustrated as one, too.”
“It’ll go away as soon as you pull into the hospital parking lot.”
“No doubt.” He started to sit next to me, then thought better of it. He picked up the scrubs. “Can we see each other tonight?”
“I get off late.”
“So we’ll sleep in tomorrow.”
“I can’t,” I said. “I have to go to a lecture with my mother at nine in the morning.”
“Lecture on what?”
“Art history or something. Mom’s doing a master’s. She’s an eternal student. But I promised I’d go with her. I dare not back out.”
“I defer toKibud Aim-honoring one’s mother. Tomorrow night?”
I nodded. “That’ll work.”
“Do I get to meet her? Your mother?”
“Yes… when the time’s right.”
“You said that with hesitancy. She won’t approve of me?”
“We’ll find out. She professes to be liberal, but you’re the first black man I’ve ever dated.”
“Doesn’t matter.” He kissed my forehead, brushing hair from my eyes. “As long as you approve.” He lifted up my chin and brought my lips to his. He kissed me softly. Then again, and again. He sighed, then kissed me again. “Oh my God, I got itsobad!”
You and me both, hot stuff.But someone had to be mature. “Go. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
Reluctantly, he stood. Wordlessly, he left. I waited until I heard the front door close before I got out of bed. I showered and dressed. Because it was a lovely morning, I put my coffee, juice, toast, and paper on a tray and brought the ensemble out to his rose garden, placing my breakfast on the small, round table, settling into a patio chair. The lot, like all of them in the area, had been cut into the mountains, so I was afforded a view of hillside homes and rooftops. There were houses below me, houses above me, and it was all very charming. I felt as if I were in the artist colony of Montmartre, the Paris neighborhood where the Moulin Rouge still stood. Blue was breaking from the clouds, and in the distance, I caught a glimpse of Silver Lake-truly silver in the muted light.
A good guy, fabulous sex, coffee and the paper while breathing in the aroma of perfumed flowers,anda lake view to boot.
I could get used to this.
But alas, I, too, had work to do. When I was finished, I took everything back inside and washed and cleaned up. I knew he kept kosher, so I opened his cabinets and drawers, and sure enough, he had two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware. I placed the ones I had used with their matching set.
I shut the front door and locked it.
I hefted the key several times, then slipped it in my purse.
I owed Scott Oliver in ways he hadn’t considered. Since we stopped seeing each other, I had avoided visiting my father at his work out of embarrassment. Now that Scott and I were on speaking terms, I could go see the Loo without fear of running into him. I knew that Oliver was a clotheshorse. While buying Koby a shirt, I had bought Scott a tie. He wasn’t in when I came into the Devonshire Detective squad room, so I put the bag on his desk with a thank-you note. Homicide sat in the back of the squad room, its own little fiefdom. I hoped to be a full-fledged member one day, but for now I’d have to be content with vicarious thrills, knowing most of the gold shields here, and knowing that my father was in charge.
I made small talk with a few folks, then left them alone to do their job. I went to pester my father. His door was open. He always kept it open unless he was in conference. Protocol dictated that I knock, so I did. He was on the phone, taking notes, and when he heard the rap, he looked up and gave me five splayed fingers. I mouthed for him to take his time.
“Hold on,” the Loo said. To me sotto voce, “Come in and close the door.” To his caller, “Yeah, I’m here, go ahead.”
I closed the door and sat down across from him, watching him chicken scratch on a yellow notepad. “That’s not going to work, Alicia, especially with Malcolm Standish. He’s a stickler. Look, rather than bring the case to the grand jury and risk a dismissal, it makes more sense for you to get warrants for the phone calls and bank accounts. Then I’ll have one of my people just go through the paperwork and see if we can’t get a more direct connection.”
My father rolled his eyes. He had taken off his suit jacket and loosened a blue tie. He wore a white shirt and gray slacks. His hand made furrows through his hair. “Alicia, I’m telling you this from twenty-five years of experience, if you move too fast, you’re going to come away with nothing. We’ve got a good start. Don’t force it, it’ll… Yes, exactly. Go to Standish and ask for the warrants. He’ll appreciate the attention to detail. He’s simpatico to these kinds of cases if you cross yourt’s and dot youri’s… Yeah, specifically because we’re on the border. Yeah… yeah… okay… call me when you get the warrants, and I’ll go through the paper. Fine… fine… bye.”
He hung up and exhaled loudly.
“Not too bad. At least, she was open to suggestion. I must spend half my time telling young assistant DAs how to do their job.”
“You should have been a lawyer.”
My dad smiled at the joke. His eyes went to my face. “I want to ask you a question, Cindy.”
I leaned back, curious. “Sure.”
“I want to know what is the purpose of your having voice mail on your cell phone if you never return messages.”
My face went warm. “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“I understand you dropped by yesterday. Rina said you looked upset. That gave me concern. So I called you three times. But you didn’t answer. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Daddy. Again I’m sorry.”
“Were you sleeping off a depression or something?”
At this point, I could have gotten annoyed with him, but that wouldn’t have helped at all. “No.” I leaned over and kissed his nose. “No, I was with Koby and it was a rather emotional afternoon and evening, and then the time slipped away. It was wrong. For the third time, I apologize.”
“Why are you here, Officer?” he grumped at me.
“To aggravate you.”
“You’re doing a fine job at that,” he groused. “I heard about your bust. Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Have you heard good or bad things?”
“Mostly good. A couple of nasty comments about the convenient bag of X.”
“Scum is scum.”
“Did they hassle you?”
“Yes, but the one good thing about being honest is you have only one story. It’s easy to repeat and you don’t get mixed up in your lies.”
“You want to tell me about it?”
I told him about it. “I looked up the two names El Paso spit out. Joseph ‘Juice’ Fedek is not living at his last listed address, but Pepe Renaldes is. He works on a construction crew with a posh West Side builder-”
“See why I do my own renovation work?”
“Not all of us can build houses, Dad. Ideally, I’d like to bring Sarah Sanders down to the station and have her look through some six-packs from mug books and see if she picks out El Paso or Fedek or Renaldes. If she does, I’d like to check Renaldes’s employment record. I also want to hunt for Fedek. I want to do all those things, but no one’s letting me do anything. So I’m here, taking out my frustration on you.”
“Why not? Everyone else is. What is the status with the case right now?”
“Russ MacGregor and Justice Brill are waiting to see if there’s a drug plea. They tell me that El Paso’s willing to roll, but the DA would rather put him away with a sure thing than take a chance on an iffy six-month-old rape case.”
“That makes sense, Cin.”
“Yes, it does. Unfortunately, if they do it, it means that two very vicious men are out there, able to prey on the public instead of being locked up behind bars.”
“If Sarah’s story is true.”
“That’s why I’d like to show her the mug books and see if she could pick them out.”
“I’ll tell you the same thing I just told the young DA over the phone. Have patience.”
“Do you see me going behind anyone’s back? In the meantime, just because I’m obsessive and dedicated, I’m still looking for David Tyler. I figure if I find him and if both he and Sarah independently ID Fedek and Renaldes, then the rape/assault case is on much more stable ground.” I sat back in my chair. “At first, I thought the bag was good, something we can use to really squeeze El Paso. But I think they’re going for the slam-dunk drug conviction. Better for the statistics.”
“You’re too young to talk that cynically.”
“I’m not cynical, I’m practical. And I’m in a fine mood. A good date makes everything seem a little less hopeless.”
Dad faced me with unreadable eyes. “If you two are still speaking, you can bring him around again forShabbatdinner. I promise I won’t glare at you this time.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Have you told your mother?”
“It hasn’t come up.”
“You haven’t brought it up. What are you worried about? Your mother’s much more liberal than I am.”
“I’m not worried, Dad. I just want to see how it goes before I even bother.” We both knew I was stalling. I checked my watch. “So I guess I’m off to serve and protect and look for David Tyler.”
“Any leads at all with him?”
“Goose egg. For all I know, he may be dead. Sarah Sanders did say he wasn’t moving when she left the bathroom.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. David could be dead, but I doubt if he was dead from the assault. Cindy, the City changes the trash. People do use the john in the park. If there had been a dead body in it, someone would have noticed.”
“Unless the boys killed him, then came back to take him away and dump him in a less obvious spot.”
“I don’t think so, Cindy. It would draw way too much attention. This sounds like an impulsive type of rape. Why hassle with coming back? All it could do is screw them up.”
“Because David could identify them.”
“He’s mentally disabled. How much credibility would he have even if hecouldidentify the perps? And that’s a big if.”
I saw his point.
Dad said, “I know you’re working your way through the decidedly unglamorous part of detective work: the shelters, halfway houses, drug rehab, missions, Salvation Army, other areas that have homeless. It’s a tedious chore, but it’s your best bet right now.”
There was a knock on the door and in walked Oliver. He was holding up my tie. It was a nice one-a gold-and-sky-blue Mimi Fong print that I had gotten at deep discount. Furthermore, it went with the navy suit he was wearing.
“What do you think?” I asked him.
“It’s beautiful, Cin. Something I would have picked out. What is it? Battle pay?”
“You might say that.”
My father’s face held a sour look. “You bought him atie?”
“Yes, I bought him a tie when I bought Koby a shirt.”
“You bought Oliver a tie and Koby a shirt, but your father gets nothing.”
I got up and hugged him around the neck. “Daddy, you’ll always be my number one guy.”
“You’re choking me,” Dad grumped.
Oliver said, “So you and the guy are back together?”
“For the time being, and theguy-like you, Scott-has a name.”
“Yeah, he’s got a name. Theblackguy. OrifI feel like being politically correct, the African American guy.”
“If you want to get technical, then he’d be just the African guy. Or the Asian guy, because I think he’s an Israeli citizen. Now if he were an American citizen, then you’d have to call him African Asian American guy. Sothat’swhy it’s much more convenient to call him Yaakov.”
“You call him Koby.”
“That’s reserved for friends, Oliver.”
He smiled. Dad drummed his fingers on his desktop. “Anything official you need to talk to me about, Detective?”
“No, not really,” Oliver answered.
“Then close the door on your way out.”
Oliver laughed and left.
I said, “So it looks like my weekend is booked. On Saturday, I’ve got my workout at the gym, afternoon is lunch with Mom, and then I’ve got bowling practice from six to eight in the evening. Then maybe if Koby’s off, we’ll go out. Sunday morning is brunch with my friend Hayley. I’ll look for David in the afternoon, then Sunday evening if Koby and I are still in good standing, we’ll go out again.”
“I’m getting tired just listening to you. You’re hyperactive, Officer Decker.”
“Loo, it’s better than crying in my beer.”
Since last week’s dinnerat Mama’s, Rina had made a valiant effort to restrain herself, mentioning her grandmother’s case only a couple of times. Peter had played coy, refusing to take the bait. Since subtlety wasn’t working, it was time for the direct approach. After the dinner table had been cleared, she sashayed into the kitchen and slid her arms around his waist as he washed dishes. He had rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt but had still managed to get his cuffs wet.
“I’ll do that,” she said.
“I’m almost done,” Decker told her. “But you can keep hugging. It feels good.”
“I love a man who knows how to scour a roasting pan.”
He smiled. “What’s Hannah doing?”
“Her homework. So what’s going on?”
Rina broke away. Nervously, she smoothed out her denim skirt and hiked up the sleeves of her pink sweater to her elbows. She picked up a towel and began to dry the dishes. “Just answer me one question. Did you find Marta Lubke?”
Rina was flabbergasted. “Youdid?”
“Is she alive?”
“That’s two questions.”
She punched his shoulder.
“Yes, she’s alive,” Decker answered. “Even better, so is her older sister. I was going to tell you after Hannah went to bed. But since we started, what else would you like to know?”
“For starters, how’d you find her?”
“That would be giving away my trade secrets.” Decker winked at her. “I logged onto Google and got hits for around a hundred Lubkes… probably not the smartest thing to do since the Lubke I was looking for was from Germany. But I thought I’d test the waters here, maybe find a relative. From what I pulled up, I began a process of elimination mostly by age. I found about ten Lubkes who were old enough and sent out e-mails to all of them. I got unbelievably lucky. I received an e-mail response from an Anika Lubke. That, in itself, is pretty good-a woman in her eighties savvy in computers. You wouldn’t believe where she lives.”
“No, but almost as good. She lives up in Solvang.”
“Right north of Santa Barbara. I told you it was good.”
“You’re the best. So what did Anika Lubke write back?”
“That she was from Munich. And this is where it getsreallyunbelievably lucky. She has a sister named Marta, whose married name is Wallek. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, which I understand has a large population of people of German descent.”
“The home of Anheuser-Busch. As in Busch Stadium.”
“As in Budweiser beer,” Decker said.
“There was an expression my friend Ellie in Munich used to use-‘Bierbauch Bayer.’It means beer-bellied Bavarian. Beer is a cultural icon in Germany, especially Bavaria.”
“Well, beer doesn’t do too bad in the good old US of A, either. The upshot of this entire thing is that last night I got an e-mail from Marta. Did I do well or what?”
“I can’t believe you found out all this information in so short a time.”
“Thank the Internet. Both women are widows, by the way.” Decker held up a wet roasting pan. “Can you dry a little faster so I have some room for this in the dish rack?”
Rina picked up the dinner plates and stacked them on the counter. “Happy now?”
“I just didn’t want to nick the stoneware.”
She smiled. “You’re wonderful. I love you.”
Decker started washing the utensils. “I love you, too. You want to hear the interesting part?”
“Lots. Guess what Anika’s married name is?”
Rina finished with the dinner dishes, then picked up the pan and began to dry it. “Being as there must be about a million German surnames, I give up.”
“Even if you went through them all, you wouldn’t be close. It’s Emerson.”
“She married a