/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Bad Love

Jonathan Kellerman

It came in a plain brown wrapper, no return address – a tape recording of a horrifying, soul-lacerating scream, followed by the sound of a childlike voice delivering the enigmatic and haunting message: 'Bad love. Bad love. Don't give me the bad love…' For child psychologist Dr Alex Delaware, the chant, repeated over and over like a twisted nursery rhyme, is the first intimation that he is about to enter a living nightmare. Others soon follow: disquieting laughter echoing over a phone line that suddenly goes dead, a chilling trespass outside his home, a sickening act of vandalism. A carefully orchestrated campaign of vague threats and intimidation rapidly builds to a crescendo as harassment turns to terror, mischief to madness. Searching his memory for the phrase 'bad love', Alex recalls a symposium he attended over a decade ago commemorating the work of Dr Andres de Bosch who ran a clinic for troubled adolescents. But when he tries to contact the other delegates, Alex discovers a seemingly random series of violent deaths amongst them. As he delves deeper into the history of the clinic, the escalating pattern of violence becomes inescapably clear. And if Alex fails to decipher the twisted logic of the stalker's mind-games, he will be the next one to die.

Jonathan Kellerman

Bad Love

The eighth book in the Alex Delaware series, 1993

To my daughter Rachel.

Brains, beauty, grace, wit, style.

And a heart of gold.

Special thanks to Sheriff's Deputy Kurt Ebert.

1

It came in a plain brown wrapper.

Padded envelope, book rate, book sized. I assumed it was an academic text I'd forgotten ordering.

It went on to the mail table, along with Monday's bills and announcements of scholarly seminars in Hawaii and St. Croix. I returned to the library and tried to figure out what I was going to do in ten minutes when Tiffani and Chondra Wallace showed up for their second session.

A year ago their mother had been murdered by their father up on a ridge in the Angeles Crest Forest.

He told it as a crime of passion and maybe he was right, in the very worst sense. I'd learned from court documents that absence of passion had never been a problem for Ruthanne and Donald Dell Wallace. She'd never been a strong-willed woman, and despite the ugliness of their divorce, she had held on to "love feelings" for Donald Dell. So no one had been surprised when he cajoled her into taking a night ride with sweet words, the promise of a lobster dinner, and good marijuana.

Shortly after parking on a shaded crest overlooking the forest, the two of them got high, made love, talked, argued, fought, raged, and finally clawed at one another. Then Donald Dell took his buck knife to the woman who still bore his name, slashed and stabbed her thirty-three times, and kicked her corpse out of his pickup, leaving behind an Indian-silver clip stuffed with cash and his membership card in the Iron Priests motorcycle club.

A docket-clearing plea bargain landed him in Folsom Prison on a five to ten for second-degree murder. There he was free to hang out in the yard with his meth-cooking Aryan Brotherhood bunkmates, take an auto mechanics course he could have taught, accrue good behavior brownie points in the chapel, and bench press until his pectorals threatened to explode.

Four months into his sentence, he was ready to see his daughters.

The law said his paternal rights had to be considered.

An L.A. family court judge named Stephen Huff- one of the better ones- asked me to evaluate. We met in his chambers on a September morning and he told me the details while drinking ginger ale and stroking his bald head. The room had beautiful old oak paneling and cheap country furniture. Pictures of his own children were all over the place.

"Just when does he plan on seeing them, Steve?"

"Up at the prison, twice a month."

"That's a plane ride."

"Friends will chip in for the fare."

"What kind of friends?"

"Some idiocy called The Donald Dell Wallace Defense Fund."

"Biker buddies?"

"Vroom vroom."

"Meaning it's probably amphetamine money."

His smile was weary and grudging. "Not the issue before us, Alex."

"What's next, Steve? Disability payments because he's stressed out being a single parent?"

"So it smells. So what else is new? Talk to the poor kids a few times, write up a report saying visitation's injurious to their psyches, and we'll bury the issue."

"For how long?"

He put down the ginger ale and watched the glass raise wet circles on his blotter. "I can kibosh it for at least a year."

"Then what?"

"If he puts in another claim, the kids can be reevaluated and we'll kibosh it again. Time's on their side, right? They'll be getting older and hopefully tougher."

"In a year they'll be ten and eleven, Steve."

He picked at his tie. "What can I tell you, Alex? I don't want to see these kids screwed up, either. I'm asking you to evaluate because you're tough-minded- for a shrink."

"Meaning someone else might recommend visitation?"

"It's possible. You should see some of the opinions your colleagues render. I had one the other day, said the fact that a mother was severely depressed was good for the kid- teach her the value of true emotions."

"Okay," I said. "But I want to do a real evaluation, not some rubber stamp. Something that may have some use for them in the future."

"Therapy? Why not? Sure, do whatever you want. You are now shrink of record. Send your bill straight to me and I'll see you get paid within fifteen working days."

"Who's paying, our leather-clad friends?"

"Don't worry, I'll make sure they pay up."

"Just as long as they don't try to deliver the check in person."

"I wouldn't worry about it, Alex. Those types shy away from insight."

• • •

The girls arrived right on time, just as they had last week, linked, like suitcases, to the arms of their grandmother.

"Well, here they are," Evelyn Rodriguez announced. She remained in the entry and pushed them forward.

"Morning," I said. "Hi, girls."

Tiffani smiled uneasily. Her older sister looked away.

"Have an easy ride?"

Evelyn shrugged, twisted her lips and untwisted them. Maintaining her grip on the girls, she backed away. The girls allowed themselves to be tugged, but unwillingly, like nonviolent protesters. Feeling the burden, Evelyn let go. Crossing her arms over her chest, she coughed and looked away from me.

Rodriguez was her fourth husband. She was Anglo, stout, bottom-heavy, an old fifty-eight, with dimpled elbows and knuckles, nicotine skin, and lips as thin and straight as a surgical incision. Talk came hard for her and I was pretty sure it was a character trait that preceded her daughter's murder.

This morning she wore a sleeveless, formless blouse- a faded mauve and powder blue floral print that reminded me of a decorative tissue box. It billowed, untucked, over black stretch jeans piped with red. Her blue tennis shoes were speckled with bleach spots. Her hair was short and wavy, corn colored above dark roots. Earring slits creased her lobes but she wore no jewelry. Behind bifocals, her eyes continued to reject mine.

She patted Chondra's head, and the girl pressed her face against a thick, soft arm. Tiffani had walked into the living room and was staring at a picture on the wall, tapping one foot fast.

Evelyn Rodriguez said, "Okay, then, I'll just wait down in the car."

"If it gets too hot, feel free to come up."

"The heat don't bother me." She raised a forearm and glanced at a too-small wristwatch. "How long we talking about this time?"

"Let's aim for an hour, give or take."

"Last time was twenty minutes."

"I'd like to try for a little longer today."

She frowned. "Okay… can I smoke down there?"

"Outside the house? Sure."

She muttered something.

"Anything you'd like to tell me?" I said.

"Me?" She freed one finger, poked a breast, and smiled. "Nah. Be good, girlies."

Stepping out on the terrace, she closed the door. Tiffani kept examining the picture. Chondra touched the doorknob and licked her lips. She had on a white Snoopy T-shirt, red shorts, and sandals with no socks. A paper-wrapped Fruit Roll-Up extended from one pocket of the shorts. Her arms and legs were pasty and chubby, her face broad and puggish, topped by white-blond hair drawn into very long, very tight pigtails. The hair gleamed, almost metallic, incongruous above the plain face. Puberty might turn her pretty. I wondered what else it might bring.

She nibbled her lower lip. My smile went unnoticed or unbelieved.

"How are you, Chondra?"

She shrugged again, kept her shoulders up, and looked at the floor. Ten months her sister's senior, she was an inch shorter and seemed less mature. During the first session, she hadn't said a word, content to sit with her hands in her lap as Tiffani talked on.

"Do anything fun this week?"

She shook her head. I placed a hand on her shoulder and she went rigid until I removed it. The reaction made me wonder about some kind of abuse. How many layers of this family would I be able to peel back?

The file on my nightstand was my preliminary research. Before-bed reading for the strong stomached.

Legal jargon, police prose, unspeakable snapshots. Perfectly typed transcripts with impeccable margins.

Ruthanne Wallace reduced to a coroner's afternoon.

Wound depths, bone rills…

Donald Dell's mug shot, wild-eyed, black-bearded, sweaty.

"And then she got mean on me- she knew I didn't handle mean but that didn't stop her, no way. And then I just- you know- lost it. It shouldn'ta happened. What can I say?"

I said, "Do you like to draw, Chondra?"

"Sometimes."

"Well, maybe we'll find something you like in the playroom."

She shrugged and looked down at the carpet.

Tiffani was fingering the frame of the picture. A George Bellows boxing print. I'd bought it, impulsively, in the company of a woman I no longer saw.

"Like the drawing?" I said.

She turned around and nodded, all cheekbones and nose and chin. Her mouth was very narrow and crowded with big, misaligned teeth that forced it open and made her look perpetually confused. Her hair was dishwater, cut institutionally short, the bangs hacked crookedly. Some kind of food stain specked her upper lip. Her nails were dirty, her eyes an unremarkable brown. Then she smiled and the look of confusion vanished. At that moment she could have modeled, sold anything.

"Yeah, it's cool."

"What do you especially like about it?"

"The fighting."

"The fighting?"

"Yeah," she said, punching air. "Action. Like WWA."

"WWA," I said. "World Wrestling?"

She pantomimed an uppercut. "Pow poom." Then she looked at her sister and scowled, as if expecting support.

Chondra didn't move.

"Pow poom," said Tiffani, advancing toward her. "Welcome to WWA fighting, I'm Crusher Creeper and this is the Red Viper in a grudge match of the century. Ding!" Bell-pull pantomime.

She laughed, nervously. Chondra chewed her lip and tried to smile.

" Aar," said Tiffani, coming closer. She pulled the imaginary cord again. "Ding. Pow poom." Hooking her hands, she lurched forward with Frankenstein-monster unsteadiness. "Die, Viper! Aaar!"

She grabbed Chondra and began tickling her arms. The older girl giggled and tickled back, clumsily. Tiffani broke free and began circling, punching air. Chondra started chewing her lip, again.

I said, "C'mon, guys," and took them to the library. Chondra sat immediately at the play table. Tiffani paced and shadowboxed, hugging the periphery of the room like a toy on a track, muttering and jabbing.

Chondra watched her, then plucked a sheet of paper off the top of a stack and picked up a crayon. I waited for her to draw, but she put the crayon down and watched her sister.

"Do you guys watch wrestling at home?" I said.

"Roddy does," said Tiffani, without breaking step.

"Roddy's your grandmother's husband?"

Nod. Jab. "He's not our grampa. He's Mexican."

"He likes wrestling?"

"Uh-huh. Pow poom."

I turned to Chondra. She hadn't moved. "Do you watch wrestling on TV, too?"

Shake of the head.

"She likes Surfriders," said Tiffani. "I do, too, sometimes. And Millionaire's Row."

Chondra bit her lip.

"Millionaire's Row," I said. "Is that the one where rich people have all sorts of problems?"

"They die," said Tiffani. "Sometimes. It's really for real." She put her arms down and stopped circling. Coming over to us, she said, "They die because money and materials are the roots of sins and when you lay down with Satan, your rest is never peaceful."

"Do the rich people on Millionaire's Row lay down with Satan?"

"Sometimes." She resumed her circuit, striking out at unseen enemies.

"How's school?" I asked Chondra.

She shook her head and looked away.

"We didn't start yet," said Tiffani.

"How come?"

"Gramma said we didn't have to."

"Do you miss seeing your friends?"

Hesitation. "Maybe."

"Can I talk to Gramma about that?"

She looked at Chondra. The older girl was peeling the paper wrapper off a crayon.

Tiffani nodded. Then: "Don't do that. They're his."

"It's okay," I said.

"You shouldn't destroy other people's stuff."

"True," I said. "But some things are meant to be used up. Like crayons. And these crayons are here for you."

"Who bought them?" said Tiffani.

"I did."

"Destroying's Satan's work," said Tiffani, spreading her arms and rotating them in wide circles.

I said, "Did you hear that in church?"

She didn't seem to hear. Punched the air. "He laid down with Satan."

"Who?"

"Wallace."

Chondra's mouth dropped open. "Stop," she said, very softly.

Tiffani came over and dropped her arm over her sister's shoulder. "It's okay. He's not our dad anymore, remember? Satan turned him into a bad spirit and he got all his sins wrapped up like one. Like a big burrito."

Chondra turned away from her.

"Come on," said Tiffani, rubbing her sister's back. "Don't worry."

"Wrapped up?" I said.

"Like one," she explained to me. "The Lord counts up all your good deeds and your sins and wraps them up. So when you die, He can look right away and know if you go up or down. He's going down. When he gets there, the angels'll look at the package and know all he done. And then he'll burn."

She shrugged. "That's the truth."

Chondra's eyes pooled with tears. She tried to remove Tiffani's arm from her shoulder, but the younger girl held fast.

"It's okay," said Tiffani. "You got to talk about the truth."

"Stop," said Chondra.

"It's okay," Tiffani insisted. "You got to talk to him." She looked at me. "So he'll write a good book for the judge and he'll never get out."

Chondra looked at me.

I said, "Actually, what I write won't change how much time he spends in jail."

"Maybe," insisted Tiffani. "If your book tells the judge how evil he is, then maybe he could put him in longer."

"Was he ever evil to you?"

No answer.

Chondra shook her head.

Tiffani said, "He hit us."

"A lot?"

"Sometimes."

"With his hand or something else?"

"His hand."

"Never a stick or a belt or something else?"

Another headshake from Chondra. Tiffani's was slower, reluctant.

"Not a lot, but sometimes," I said.

"When we were bad."

"Bad?"

"Making a mess- going near his bike- he hit Mom more. Right?" Prodding Chondra. "He did."

Chondra gave a tiny nod, grabbed the crayon, and started peeling again. Tiffani watched but didn't stop her.

"That's why we left him," she said. "He hit her all the time. And then he came after her with lust and sin in his heart and killed her- tell the judge that, you're rich, he'll listen to you!"

Chondra began crying. Tiffani patted her and said, "It's okay, we got to."

I got a tissue box. Tiffani took it from me and wiped her sister's eyes. Chondra pressed the crayon to her lips.

"Don't eat it," said Tiffani. "It's poison."

Chondra let go and the crayon flew out of her hand and landed on the floor. Tiffani retrieved it and placed it neatly alongside the box.

Chondra was licking her lips. Her eyes were closed and one soft hand was fisted.

"Actually," I said, "it's not poisonous, just wax with color in it. But it probably doesn't taste too good."

Chondra opened her eyes. I smiled and she tried to smile, producing only a small rise in one corner of her mouth.

Tiffani said, "Well, it's not food."

"No, it isn't."

She paced some more. Boxed and muttered.

I said, "Let me go over what I told you last week. You're here because your father wants you to visit him in jail. My job is to find out how you feel about that, so I can tell the judge."

"Why doesn't the judge ask us?"

"He will," I said. "He'll be talking to you, but first he wants me to-"

"Why?"

"Because that's my job- talking to kids about their feelings. Finding out how they really-"

"We don't want to see him," said Tiffani. "He's an insument of Satan."

"An-"

"An insument! He laid all down with Satan and became a sinful spirit. When he dies, he's going to burn in hell, that's for sure."

Chondra's hands flew to her face.

"Stop!" said Tiffani. She rushed over to her sister, but before she got there, Chondra stood and let out a single, deep sob. Then she ran for the door, swinging it open so hard it almost threw her off balance.

She caught it, then she was out.

Tiffani watched her go, looking tiny and helpless.

"You got to tell the truth," she said.

I said, "Absolutely. But sometimes it's hard."

She nodded. Now her eyes were wet.

She paced some more.

I said, "Your sister's older but it looks like you take care of her."

She stopped, faced me, gave a defiant stare, but seemed comforted.

"You take good care of her," I said.

Shrug.

"That must get hard sometimes."

Her eyes flickered. She put her hands on her hips and jutted her chin.

"It's okay," she said.

I smiled.

"She's my sister." She stood there, knocking her hands against her legs.

I patted her shoulder.

She sniffed, then walked away.

"You got to tell the truth," she said.

"Yes, you do."

Punch, jab. "Pow poom… I wanna go home."

• • •

Chondra was already with Evelyn, sharing the front seat of the thirty-year-old, plum-colored Chevy. The car had nearly bald blackwalls and a broken antenna. The paint job was homemade, the color nothing GM had ever conceived. One edge of the car's rear bumper had been broken and it nearly scraped the ground.

I got to the driver's window as Tiffani made her way down the steps from the landing. Evelyn Rodriguez didn't look up. A cigarette drooped from her lips. A hardpack of Winstons sat on the dashboard. The driver's half of the windshield was coated with greasy fog. Her fingers were busy tying a lanyard keychain. The rest of her was inert.

Chondra was pressed up against the passenger door, legs curled beneath her, staring at her lap.

Tiffani arrived, making her way to the passenger side while keeping her eyes on me. Opening the rear door, she dove inside.

Evelyn finally took her eyes off her work, but her fingers kept moving. The lanyard was brown and white, a diamond stitch that reminded me of rattlesnake skin.

"Well, that was quick," she said. "Close that door now, don't kill the battery."

Tiffani scooted over and slammed the door.

I said, "The girls haven't started school yet."

Evelyn Rodriguez looked at Tiffani for a second, then turned to me. "That's right."

"Do you need any help with that?"

"Help?"

"Getting them started. Is there some kind of problem?"

"Nah, we been busy- I make 'em read at home. They're okay."

"Planning to send them soon?"

"Sure, when things calm down- so what's next? They have to come again?"

"Let's try again tomorrow. Same time okay?"

"Nope," she said. "Matter of fact, it isn't. Got things to do."

"What's a good time for you, then?"

She sucked the cigarette, adjusted her glasses, and placed the lanyard on the seat. Her slash lips twitched, searching for an expression.

"There are no good times. All the good times already been rolled."

She started the car. Her lips were trembling and the cigarette bobbed. She removed it and turned the wheel sharply without shifting out of park. The car was low on steering fluid and shrieked in protest. The front tires swung outward and scraped the asphalt.

"I'd like to see them again fairly soon," I said.

"What for?"

Before I could answer, Tiffani stretched herself out along the back seat, belly down, and began kicking the door panel with both feet.

"Cut that out!" said Mrs. Rodriguez, without looking back. "What for?" she repeated. "So we can be told what to do and how to do it, as usual?"

"No, I-"

"The problem is, things are upside down. Nonsensical. Those that should be dead aren't, and those that are, shouldn't be. No amount of talking's gonna change that, so what's the difference? Upside down, completely, and now I got to be a mama all over again."

"He can write a book," said Tiffani. "So that-"

Evelyn cut her off with a look. "You don't worry yourself about things. We got to be heading back- if there's time, I'll get you an ice cream."

She yanked the gear lever down. The Chevy grumbled and bucked, then drove off, rear bumper flirting with the road.

• • •

I stood there a while, sucking up exhaust fumes, then went back up to the house, returned to the library, and charted:

"Strong resistance to eval. on part of m.g.m. T overtly angry, hostile to father, talks in terms of sin, retribution. C still not communic. Will follow."

Profound.

I went to the bedroom and retrieved Ruthanne Wallace's police file.

Big as a phone book.

"Trial transcripts," Milo had said, hefting it as he handed it over. "Sure isn't because of any hotshot detection. Your basic moron murder."

He'd pulled it from Foothill Division's CLOSED files, filling my request without question. Now I flipped pages, not knowing why I'd asked for it. Closing the folder, I took it into the library and crammed it down into a desk drawer.

Ten in the morning and I was already tired.

I went to the kitchen, loaded some coffee into the machine, and started going through the mail, discarding junk mail, signing checks, filing paper, then coming to the brown-wrapped package that I'd assumed was a book.

Slitting the padded envelope, I stuck my hand in, expecting the bulk of a hardcover. But my fingers touched nothing and I reached deeper, finally coming upon something hard and smooth. Plastic. Wedged tightly in a corner.

I shook the envelope. An audiocassette fell out and clattered onto the table.

Black, no label or markings on either side.

I examined the padded envelope. My name and address had been typed on a white sticker. No zip code. No return address either. The postmark was four days old, recorded at the Terminal Annex.

Curious, I took the tape into the living room, slipped it into the deck, and sank back onto the old leather couch.

Click. A stretch of static-fuzzed nothing started me wondering if this was some sort of practical joke.

Then a shock of noise killed that theory and made my chest tighten.

A human voice. Screaming.

Howling.

Male. Hoarse. Loud. Wet- as if gargling in pain.

Unbearable pain. A terrible incoherence that went on and on as I sat there, too surprised to move.

A throat-ripping howling interspersed with trapped-animal panting.

Heavy breathing.

Then more screams- louder. Ear-clapping expulsions that had no shape or meaning… like the soundtrack from the rancid core of a nightmare.

I pictured a torture chamber, shrieking black mouths, convulsing bodies.

The howling bore through my head. I strained to make out words amid the torrent but heard only the pain.

Louder.

I leaped up to turn down the volume on the machine. Found it already set low.

I started to turn it off, but before I could, the screaming died.

More static-quiet.

Then a new voice.

Soft. High-pitched. Nasal.

A child's voice:

Bad love. Bad love.

Don't give me the bad love.

Child's timbre- but with no childish lilt.

Unnaturally flat- robotlike.

Bad love. Bad love.

Don't give me the bad love…

Repeating it. Three times. Four.

A chant, Druidish and mournful- so oddly metallic.

Almost like a prayer.

Bad love. Bad love…

No. Too hollow for prayer- too faithless.

Idolatrous.

A prayer for the dead.

By the dead.

2

I turned the recorder off. My fingers were stiff from clenching, my heart thumped, and my mouth was dry.

Coffee smells drew me to the kitchen. I filled a cup, returned to the living room, and rewound the tape. When the spool filled, I turned the volume to near inaudible and pressed PLAY. My gut knotted in anticipation. Then the screams came on.

Even that soft, it was hideous.

Someone being hurt.

Then the child's chant again, even worse in replay. The robotic drone conjured a gray face, sunken eyes, a small mouth barely moving.

Bad love. Bad love…

What had been done to strip the voice so completely of emotion?

I'd heard that kind of voice before- on the terminal wards, in holding cells and shelters.

Bad love…

The phrase was vaguely familiar, but why?

I sat there for a long time, trying to remember, letting my coffee go cold and untouched. Finally I got up, ejected the tape, and took it into the library.

Down into the desk drawer, next to Ruthanne's file.

Dr. Delaware 's Black Museum.

My heart was still chopping away. The screams and chants replayed themselves in my mind.

The house felt too empty. Robin was not due back from Oakland till Thursday.

At least she hadn't been home to hear it.

Old protective instincts.

During our years together I'd worked hard at shielding her from the uglier aspects of my work. Eventually, I realized I'd erected the barrier higher than it needed to be and had been trying to let her in more.

But not this. No need for her to hear this.

I sank lower into my desk chair, wondering what the damned thing meant.

Bad love… what should I do about it?

A sick joke?

The child's voice…

Bad love… I knew I'd heard the phrase before. I repeated it out loud, trying to trigger a memory. But the words just hovered, chattering like bats.

A psychological phrase? Something out of a textbook?

It did have a psychoanalytic ring.

Why had the tape been sent to me?

Stupid question. I'd never been able to answer it for anyone else.

Bad love… most likely something orthodox Freudian. Melanie Klein had theorized about good breasts and bad breasts- perhaps there was someone out there with a sick sense of humor and a side interest in neo-Freudian theory.

I went to my bookshelves, pulled out a dictionary of psychological terms. Nothing. Tried lots of other books, scanning indexes.

Not a clue.

I returned to the desk.

A former patient taunting me for services poorly rendered?

Or something more recent- Donald Dell Wallace, festering up in Folsom, seeing me as his enemy and trying to play with my head?

His attorney, a dimwit named Sherman Bucklear, had called me several times before I'd seen the girls, trying to convince me his client was a devoted father.

"It was Ruthanne neglected them, Doctor. Whatever else Donald Dell did, he cared about them."

"How was he on child support?"

"Times are rough. He did the best he could- does that prejudice you, Doctor?"

"I haven't formed an opinion yet, Mr. Bucklear."

"No, of course not. No one's saying you should. The question is, are you willing to form one at all or do you have your mind made up just because of what Donald Dell did?"

"I'll spend time with the girls. Then I'll form my opinion."

" 'Cause there's a lot of potential for prejudice against my client."

"Because he murdered his wife?"

"That's exactly what I mean, Doctor- you know, I can always bring in my own experts."

"Feel free."

"I feel very free, Doctor. This is a free country. You'd do well to remember that."

Other experts. Was this bit of craziness an attempt to intimidate me so that I'd drop out of the case and clear the way for Bucklear's hired guns? Donald Dell's gang, the Iron Priests, had a history of bullying rivals in the meth trade, but I still didn't see it. How could anyone assume I'd make a connection between screams and chants and two little girls?

Unless this was only the first step in a campaign of intimidation. Even so, it was almost clownishly heavyhanded.

Then again, Donald Dell's leaving his ID at the murder scene didn't indicate finesse.

I'd consult an expert of my own. Dialing the West L.A. police station, I was connected to Robbery-Homicide, where I asked for Detective Sturgis.

Milo was out of the office- no big surprise. He'd endured a demotion and six months' unpaid suspension for breaking the jaw of a homophobic lieutenant who'd put his life in danger, then a butt-numbing year as a computer clerk at Parker Center. The department had hoped inertia would finally drive him into disability retirement; the LAPD still denied the existence of gay cops, and Milo 's very presence was an assault upon that ostrich logic. But he'd stuck it out and finally gotten back into active service as a Detective II. Back on the streets now, he was making the most of it.

"Any word when he'll be back?" I asked the detective who answered.

"Nope," he said, sounding put upon.

I left my name. He said, "Uh-huh," and hung up.

I decided nothing further could be gained by worrying, changed into a T-shirt, shorts, and sneakers, and trotted out the front door, ready for a half-hour run, knees be damned.

Bounding down the steps, I jogged across the motor court, passing the spot where Evelyn Rodriguez's car had leaked oil. Just as I rounded the eugenia hedge that blocked my house from the old bridle path winding above the Glen, something stepped in front of me and stopped.

And stared.

A dog, but I'd never seen one like it.

Small dog- about a foot high, maybe twice that in length. Short, black coat brindled with yellow hairs. A lot of muscle crammed into the compact package; its body bulged and gleamed in the sunlight. It had thick legs, a bull neck, a barrel chest, and a tight, tucked-in belly. Its head was disproportionately wide and square, its face flat, deeply wrinkled, and pendulously jowled.

Somewhere between frog, monkey, and extraterrestrial.

A strand of drool dangled from its flews.

It continued to look me straight in the eye, arching forward, as if ready to spring. Its tail was an inch of stub. Male. Neutered.

I stared back. He snorted and yawned, showing big, sharp, white teeth. A banana-sized tongue curled upward and licked meaty lips.

A diamond of white hair in the center of his chest throbbed with cardiac excitement. Around his beefy neck was a nailhead-studded collar, but no tag.

"Hi, fella."

His eyes were light brown and unmoving. I thought I detected a softness that contradicted the fighter's stance.

Another yawn. Purple maw. He panted faster and remained rooted in place.

Some kind of bulldog or mini-mastiff. From the crust around his eyes and the heaving of his chest, the early autumn heat wasn't doing him any good. Not a pug- considerably bigger than a pug, and the ears stood upright, like those of a Boston terrier- in fact, he looked a bit like a Boston. But shorter and a lot heavier- a Boston on steroids.

An exotic dwarf fighter bred to go for the kneecaps, or a pup that would turn massive?

He yawned again and snorted harshly.

We continued to face off.

A bird chirped.

The dog cocked his head toward the sound for half a second, then peered back at me. His eyes were preternaturally alert, almost human.

He licked his lips. The drool strand stretched, broke, and fell to the pavement.

Pant, pant, pant.

"Thirsty?"

No movement.

"Friend or foe?"

Another display of teeth that seemed more smile than snarl, but who knew?

Another moment of standoff, then I decided letting something this pint-sized obstruct me was ridiculous. Even with the bulk, he couldn't weigh more than twenty or twenty-five pounds. If he did attack, I could probably punt-kick him onto the Glen.

I took a step forward, then another.

The dog came toward me deliberately, head lowered, muscles meshing, in a rolling, pantherish gait. Wheezing.

I stopped. He kept going.

I lifted my hands out of mouth range, suddenly aware of my exposed legs.

He came up to me. Up to my legs. Rubbed his head against my shin.

His face felt like hot suede. Too hot and dry for canine health.

I reached down and touched his head. He snorted and panted faster, letting his tongue loll. I lowered my hand slowly and dangled it, receiving a long lick on the palm. But my skin remained bone dry.

The pants had turned into unhealthy-sounding clicks.

He tremored for a second, then worked his tongue over his arid face.

I kneeled and patted his head again, feeling a flat plate of thick, ridged bone beneath the glossy coat. He looked up at me with a bulldog's sad-clown dignity. The crust around his eyes looked calcified. The folds of his face were encrusted, too.

The nearest water source was the garden-hose outlet near the pond. I stood and gestured toward it.

"Come on, buster- hydration."

The dog strained but stayed in place, head cocked, letting out raspy breaths that grew faster and faster and began to sound labored. I thought I saw his front legs quaver.

I began walking to the garden. Heard soft pads and looked behind me to see him following a few paces behind. Keeping to the left- a trained heeler?

But as I opened the gate to the pond, he hung back, remaining well outside the fence.

I went in. The pond water was greening due to the heat, but still clear. The koi were circling lazily. A couple of them saw me and approached the rim for feeding- babies who'd survived the surprise spawn of two summers ago. Most were over a foot long now. A few were colored brilliantly.

The dog just stood there, nose pointed at the water, suffering.

"Come on, pal." I picked up the hose.

Nothing.

Uncoiling a couple of feet, I opened the valve. The rubber hummed between my fingers.

"C'mere. H2O."

The dog stared through the gateway, panting, gasping, legs bowed with fatigue. But he didn't budge.

"C'mon, what's the problem, sport? Some kind of phobia, or don't you like seafood?"

Blink. He stayed in place. Swayed a bit.

The hose began to dribble. I dragged it out the gate, sprinkling plants as I walked.

The dog stood his ground until the water was an inch from his fleshy mouth. Then he craned his neck and began lapping. Then gulping. Then bathing in it, shaking his head and showering me before opening his maw and heading in for more.

Long time since the last tipple.

He shook and sprayed me again, turned his head away from the water, and sat.

When I returned from replacing the hose, he was still there, settled on his ample haunches.

"What now?" I said.

He ambled up to me, jauntily, a bit of roll in his stride. Putting his head against my leg, he kept it there.

I rubbed him behind the ears and his body went loose. He stayed relaxed as I used my handkerchief to wipe the crust from his face. When I was through, he let out a grumble of contentment.

"You're welcome."

He put his head against my leg once more, blowing out breath as I petted.

What a morning. I sighed.

He snorted. A reply?

I tried it again, sighing audibly. The dog produced an adenoidal grunt.

"A conversationalist," I said. "Someone talks to you, don't they? Someone cares about you."

Grunt.

"How'd you get here?"

Grumble.

My voice was loud against the quiet of the Glen, harsh counterpoint to the flow of the waterfall.

Nut mail and talking to a dog. This is what it's come to, Delaware.

The dog gazed up at me with a look I was willing to classify as friendship.

You take what you can get.

• • •

He watched as I pulled the Seville out of the carport, and when I opened the passenger door, he jumped in as if he owned the vehicle. For the next hour and a half, he looked out the window as I drove around the canyon, watching for LOST DOG posters on trees and talking to neighbors I'd never met. No one belonged to him and no one recognized him, though the checkout girl at the Beverly Glen Market opined that he was "a little stud," and several other shoppers concurred.

While I was there, I bought a few groceries and a small bag of kibble. When I got home, the dog bounced up the stairs after me and watched as I unloaded the staples. I poured the kibble into a bowl and set it on the kitchen floor, along with another bowl of water. The dog ignored it, choosing instead to station himself in front of the refrigerator door.

I moistened the kibble but that had no effect. This time the stubby tail was wagging.

I pointed to the bowl.

The dog began nudging the fridge door and looking up at me. I opened the door and he tried to stick his head in. Restraining him by the collar, I scrounged and found some leftover meatloaf.

The dog jumped away from my grasp, leaping nearly to my waist.

"A gourmet, huh?"

I crumbled some meatloaf into the kibble and mixed it with my fingers. The dog was snarfing before my hand was free, coating my fingers with a slick layer of drool.

I watched him feast. When he finished, he cocked his head, stared at me for a moment, then walked toward the back of the kitchen, circling and sniffing the floor.

"What now? Sorbet to clean your palate?"

He circled some more, walked to the service porch door, and began butting and scratching at the lower panel.

"Ah," I said, bounding up. I unlatched the door and he zipped out. I watched him race down the stairs and find a soft, shaded spot near a juniper bush before lifting his leg.

He climbed back up, looking content and dignified.

"Thank you," I said.

He stared at me until I petted him, then trailed me into the dining room, settling next to my leg, frog face lifted expectantly. I scratched him under his chin and he promptly flipped onto his back, paws upright.

I scratched his belly and he let out a long, low, phlegmy moan. When I tried to stop, one paw pressed down on my hand and bade me continue.

Finally he turned back on his belly and fell asleep, snoring, jowls shaking like mudflaps.

"Someone's got to be looking for you."

I slid the morning paper across the table. Plenty of lost-dog ads in the classifieds, but none of the animals remotely matched the creature stretched out on the floor.

I got animal control's number from information and told the woman who answered it what I'd found.

"He sounds cute," she said.

"Any idea what he is?"

"Not offhand- could be some kind of bulldog, I guess. Maybe a mix."

"What should I do with him?"

"Well," she said, "the law says you have to try to return him. You could bring him in and leave him with us, but we're pretty crowded and I can't honestly tell you he'll get anything more than basic care."

"What if you have him and no one claims him?"

"Well… you know."

"What're my alternatives?"

"You could put an ad in the paper-"founds' are sometimes free. You might also want to take him to a vet- make sure he's not carrying anything that could cause you problems."

I thanked her, called the newspaper, and placed the ad. Then I pulled out the Yellow Pages and looked under veterinarians. There was an animal hospital on Sepulveda near Olympic that advertised "walk-ins and emergencies."

I let the dog sleep for an hour, then took him for another ride.

• • •

The clinic was a milky blue, cement-block building set between a wrought iron foundry and a discount clothing barn. The traffic on Sepulveda looked angry, so I carried my guest to the front door, upping the weight estimate to thirty pounds.

The waiting room was empty except for an old man wearing a golf cap, comforting a giant white German shepherd. The dog was prone on the black linoleum floor, weeping and trembling from fright. The man kept saying, "It's okay, Rexie."

I tapped on a frosted glass window and registered, using my name because I didn't know the dog's. Rex was summoned five minutes later, then a college-age girl opened the door and called out, "Alex?"

The bulldog was stretched on the floor, sleeping and snoring. I picked him up and carried him in. He opened one eye but stayed limp.

"What's the matter with Alex, today?" said the girl.

"Long story," I said and followed her to a small exam room outfitted with lots of surgical steel. The disinfectant smell reminded me of traumas gone by, but the dog stayed calm.

The vet arrived soon after- a young, crewcut, Asian man in a blue smock, smiling and drying his hands with a paper towel.

"Hi, I'm Dr. Uno- ah, a Frenchie, don't see too many of those."

"A what?"

He one-handed the towel into a waste bin. "A French bulldog."

"Oh."

He looked at me. "You don't know what he is?"

"I found him."

"Oh," he said. "Well, that's a pretty rare dog you've got there- someone'll claim him." He petted the dog. "These little guys are pretty expensive, and this one looks like a good specimen." He lifted his flews. "Well cared for, too- these teeth have been scaled pretty recently and his ears are clean- these upright ears can be receptacles for all kinds of stuff… anyway, what seems to be your problem with him?"

"Apart from a fear of water, nothing," I said. "I just wanted him checked out."

"Fear of water? How so?"

I recounted the dog's avoidance of the pond.

"Interesting," said the vet. "Probably means he's been perimeter trained for his own safety. Bulldog pups can drown pretty easily- real heavy boned, so they sink like rocks. On top of that, they have no nose to speak of, so they have trouble getting their head clear. Another patient of mine lost a couple of English bull babies that way. So this guy's actually being smart by shying away."

"He's housebroken and he heels, too," I said.

The vet smiled and I realized something very close to owner's pride had crept into my voice.

"Why don't you put him up here on the table and let's see what else he can do."

• • •

The dog was probed, vaccinated, and given a clean bill of health.

"Someone definitely took good care of him," said Uno. "The basic thing to watch out for is heatstroke, specially now, when the temperature is rising. These brachycephalic dogs are really prone to it, so keep him out of the heat."

He handed me some brochures on basic dog care, reiterated the heat danger, and said, "That's about it. Good luck finding the owner."

"Any suggestions along those lines?"

"Put an ad in the paper, or if there's a local Frenchie club, you could try getting in touch with them."

"Do you have a list of club addresses?"

"Nope, sorry, we do mostly ER work. Maybe the AKC- American Kennel Club- could help. They register most of the purebreds."

"Where are they?"

" New York."

He walked me to the door.

"These dogs generally have good temperament?" I said.

He looked down at the dog, who was staring up at us and wagging his stub.

"From the little I've heard and read, what you're seeing right now is pretty much it."

"They ever attack?"

"Attack?" He laughed. "I guess if he got attached to you he might try to protect you, but I wouldn't count on it. They're really not good for much but being a friend."

"Well, that's something," I said.

"Sure it is," he said. "That's where it's at, bottom line, right?"

3

I drove away from the clinic stroking the dog and thinking of the child's voice on the tape. I wasn't hungry but figured I'd need some lunch eventually. Spotting a hamburger stand farther up on Sepulveda, I bought a takeout half-pounder. The aroma kept the dog awake and drooling all the way home, and a couple of times he tried to stick his nose in the bag. Back in the kitchen, he convinced me to part with a third of the patty. Then he carried his booty to a corner, sat, masticated noisily, and promptly went to sleep, chin to the floor.

I phoned my service and found out Milo had called back. This time he answered at Robbery-Homicide. "Sturgis."

"How's it going, Joe Friday?"

"The usual buckets of blood. How's by you?"

I told him about receiving the tape. "Probably just a prank, but imagine getting a kid to do that."

I expected him to slough it off, but he said, " 'Bad love'? That's weird."

"What is?"

"Those exact same words popped up in a case a couple of months ago. Remember that social worker who got murdered at the mental health center? Rebecca Basille?"

"It was all over the news," I said, remembering headlines and sound bites, the smiling picture of a pretty, dark-haired young woman butchered in a soundproof therapy room. "You never said it was your case."

"It wasn't really anyone's case because there was no investigation to speak of. The psycho who stabbed her died trying to take another caseworker hostage."

"I remember."

"I got stuck filling out the paperwork."

"How did "bad love' pop up?"

"The psycho screamed it when he ran out after cutting Becky. Clinic director was standing in the hall, heard him before she ducked into her office and hid. I figured it was schizo talk."

"It may be something psychological- jargon that he picked up somewhere in the mental health system. 'Cause I think I've heard it, too, but I can't remember where."

"That's probably it," he said. "A kid, huh?"

"A kid chanting in this strange, flat voice. It may be related to a case I'm working on, Milo. Remember that file you got me- the woman murdered by her husband?"

"The biker?"

"He's been locked up for six months. Two months ago he started asking for visitation with his daughters- around the same time as the Basille murder, come to think of it. If Becky's murderer screaming "bad love' was in the news, I guess he could have taken notice and filed it away for future use."

"Intimidate the shrink- maybe remind you of what can happen to therapists who don't behave themselves?"

"Exactly. There'd be nothing criminal in that, would there? Just sending a tape."

"Wouldn't even buy him snack bar demerits, but how could he figure you'd make the connection?"

"I don't know. Unless this is just an appetizer and there's more coming."

"What's this fool's name, again?"

"Donald Dell Wallace."

He repeated it and said, "I never read the file. Refresh me on him."

"He used to hang out with a biker gang called the Iron Priests- small-time Tujunga bunch. In between prison sentences, he worked as a motorcycle mechanic. Dealt speed on the side. I think he's a member of the Aryan Brotherhood."

"Well, there's a character reference for you. Let me see what I find out."

"You think this is something I should worry about?"

"Not really- you might think of locking your doors."

"I already do."

"Congratulations. You going to be home tonight?"

"Yup."

"How's Robin?"

"Fine. She's up in Oakland, giving a seminar- medieval lutes."

"Smart kid, working with inanimate objects. All right, I'll come by, rescue you from your hermitude. If you want me to I can fingerprint the tape, check it against Wallace's. If it's him, we'll report him to his keepers, at least let him know you're not going to roll over."

"Okay- thanks."

"Yeah… don't handle it anymore, hard plastic's a real good surface for preservation… Bad love. Sounds like something out of a movie. Sci-fi, splatter flick, whatever."

"I couldn't find it in any of my psych books, so maybe that's it. Maybe that's where Becky's murderer got it, too- all of us are children of the silver screen. The tape was mailed from the Terminal Annex, not Folsom. Meaning if Wallace is behind it, someone's helping him."

"I can check the rest of his gang, too. At least the ones with records. Don't lose any sleep over it. I'll try to get by around eight. Meanwhile, back to the slaughter."

"Buckets of blood, huh?"

"Big sloshing buckets. Every morning I wake up, praise the Lord, and thank Him for all the iniquity- how's that for perverse?"

"Hey," I said, "you love your work."

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I do. Demotion never felt so goddamn glorious."

"Department treating you well?"

"Let's not lapse into fantasy. The department's tolerating me, because they think they've wounded me deeply with their pissanty pay cut and I'll eventually cave in and take disability like every other goldbricking pension junkie. The fact that one night of moonlighting more than makes up for the difference in take-home has eluded the brass. As has the fact that I'm a contrary bastard."

"They're not very observant, are they?"

"That's why they're administrators."

• • •

After he hung up, I called Evelyn Rodriguez's house in Sunland. As the phone rang, I pictured the man who'd carved up her daughter playing with a tape recorder in his cell.

No one answered. I put the phone down.

I thought of Rebecca Basille, hacked to death in a soundproof room. Her murder had really gotten to me- gotten to lots of therapists. But I'd put it out of my head until Milo reminded me.

I drummed my fists on the counter. The dog looked up from his empty bowl and stared. I'd forgotten he was there.

What happens to therapists who don't behave themselves…

What if Wallace had nothing to do with the tape? Someone else, from my past.

I went into the library and the dog followed. The closet was stacked with boxes of inactive patient files, loosely alphabetized with no strict chronological order, because some patients had been treated at several different time periods.

I put the radio on for background and started with the A's, looking for children whom I'd tagged with psychopathic or antisocial tendencies and cases that hadn't turned out well. Even long-term deadbeats I'd sent to collections.

I made it halfway through. A sour history lesson with no tangible results: nothing popped out at me. By the end of the afternoon, my eyes hurt and I was exhausted.

I stopped reading, realized grumbly snores had overpowered the music. Reaching down, I kneaded the bulldog's muscular neck. He shuddered but remained asleep. A few charts were fanned on the desk. Even if I came up with something suggestive, patient confidentiality meant I couldn't discuss it with Milo.

I returned to the kitchen, fixed kibble and meatloaf and fresh water, watched my companion sup, burp, then circle and sniff. I left the service door open and he bounced down the stairs.

While he was out, I called Robin's hotel in Oakland again, but she was still out.

The dog came back. He and I went into the living room and watched the evening news. Current events were none too cheerful, but he didn't seem to mind.

• • •

The doorbell rang at eight-fifteen. The dog didn't bark, but his ears stiffened and tilted forward and he trailed me to the door, remaining at my heels as I squinted through the peephole.

Milo 's face was a wide-angle blur, big and pocked, its paleness turned sallow by the bug light over the doorway.

"Police. Open up or I'll shoot."

He bared his teeth in a Halloween grimace. I unlocked the door and he came in, carrying a black briefcase. He was dressed for work: blue hopsack blazer, gray slacks, white shirt stretched tight over his belly, blue and gray plaid tie tugged loose, suede desert boots in need of new soles.

His haircut was recent, the usual: clipped short at sides and back, long and shaggy on top, sideburns down to the earlobes. Country yokels had looked that way back in the fifties. Melrose Avenue hipsters were doing it nowadays. I doubted Milo was aware of either fact. The black forelock that shadowed his forehead showed a few more gray streaks. His green eyes were clear. Some of the weight he'd lost had come back; he looked to be carrying at least two hundred and forty pounds on his seventy-five inches.

He stared at the dog and said, "What?"

"Gee, Dad, he followed me home. Can I keep him?"

The dog gazed up at him and yawned.

"Yeah, I'm bored, too," Milo told him. "What the hell is it, Alex?"

"French bulldog," I said. "Rare and pricey, according to a vet. And this one's a damned good specimen."

"Specimen." He shook his head. "Is it civilized?"

"Compared to what you're used to, very."

He frowned, patted the dog gingerly, and got slurped.

"Charming," he said, wiping his hand on his slacks. Then he looked at me. "Why, Marlin Perkins?"

"I'm serious- he just showed up this morning. I'm trying to locate the owner, have an ad running in the paper. The vet said he's been well cared for. It's just a matter of time before somebody claims him."

"For a moment I thought this tape stuff had gotten to you and you'd gone out and bought yourself some protection."

"This?" I laughed, remembering Dr. Uno's amusement. "I don't think so."

"Hey," he said, "sometimes bad things come in small packages- for all I know it's trained to go for the gonads."

The dog stood on his hind legs and touched Milo 's trousers with his forepaws.

"Down, Rover," he said.

"What's the matter, you don't like animals?"

"Cooked, I do. Didja name it yet?"

I shook my head.

"Then "Rover' will have to do." He took his jacket off and tossed it onto a chair. "Here's what I've got so far on Wallace. He keeps a low profile in slam and has some associations with the Aryan Brotherhood, but he's not a full member. As for what kind of hardware he's got in his cell, I don't know yet. Now where's the alleged tape?"

"In the alleged tapedeck."

He went over and turned on the stereo. The dog stayed with me.

I said, "You know where the meatloaf comes from, don't you?"

He cocked his head and licked my hand.

Then the screams came on and the hairs rose on the back of his neck.

• • •

Hearing it the third time was worse.

Milo 's face registered revulsion, but after the sound died, he said nothing. Taking his briefcase over to the deck, he switched it off, ejected the tape, and removed it by inserting a pencil in one of the reel holes.

"Black surface," he muttered. "Ye olde white powder."

Placing the cassette atop the plastic cover of my turntable, he removed a small brush and a vial from the case. Dipping the brush into the vial, he dusted the cassette with a pale, ashlike powder, squinting as he worked.

"Well, looks like we've got some nice ridges and swirls," he said. "But they could all be yours. Your prints are on file with the medical board, right, so I can check?"

"They printed me when I got my license."

"Meaning a week or two going through channels in order to pry it loose from Sacramento – noncriminal stuff's not on PRINTRAK yet. You haven't been arrested for anything recently, have you?"

"Nothing I can remember."

"Too bad. Okay, let's get a quick fix on your digits right now."

He took an inkpad and fingerprint form from the case. The dog watched as he inked my fingers and rolled them on the form. The audiocassette was near my hand and I looked at the concentric white patches on its surface.

"Keep that pinkie loose," said Milo. "Feel like a scumbag felon yet?"

"I don't say squat without my lawyer, pig."

He chuckled and handed me a cloth. As I wiped my fingers, he took a small camera out of the case and photographed the prints on the tape. Flipping the cartridge over with the pencil, he dusted, raised more prints on the other side, and took pictures of them, muttering, "Might as well do it right." Then he lowered the cassette into a small box lined with cotton, sealed the container, and put it into the case.

"What do you think?" I said.

He looked at my print form, then at the tape, and shook his head. "They always look the same to me. Let the lab deal with it."

"I meant about the tape. Sound like any movie you know?"

He ran his hand over his face, as if washing without water. "Not really."

"Me neither. Didn't the kid's voice have a brainwashed quality to it?"

"More like brain dead," he said. "Yeah, it was ugly. But that doesn't make it real. Far as I'm concerned, it's still filed under B for "bad joke.' "

"Someone getting a child to chant as a joke?"

He nodded. "We're living in weird times, Doc."

"But what if it is real? What if we're dealing with a sadist who's abducted and tortured a child and is telling me about it in order to heighten the kick?"

"The screamer was the one who sounded tortured, Alex. And that was an adult. Someone's messing with your head."

"If it's not Wallace," I said, "maybe it's some psychopath picking me as his audience because I treat kids and sometimes my name gets in the papers. Someone who read about Becky's murderer screaming "bad love' and got an idea. And for all I know, I'm not the only therapist he's contacted."

"Could be. When was the last time you were in the papers?"

"This summer- when the Jones case went to trial."

"Anything's possible," he said.

"Or maybe it's more direct, Milo. A former patient, telling me I failed him. I started going through my files, got halfway and couldn't find anything. But who knows? My patients were all children. In most cases I have no idea what kind of adults they turned into."

"If you found anything funny, would you give me the names?"

"Couldn't," I said. "Without some kind of clear danger, I couldn't justify breaking confidentiality."

He scowled. The dog watched him unwaveringly.

"What're you staring at?" he demanded.

Wag, wag.

Milo began to smile, fought it, picked up his case, and put a heavy hand on my shoulder.

"Listen, Alex, I still wouldn't lose any sleep over it. Let me take these to the lab right now instead of tomorrow, see if I can get some night-shifter to put some speed on. I'll also make a copy and start a case file- private one, just for my eyes. When in doubt, be a goddamn clerk."

• • •

After he left, I tried to read a psychology journal but couldn't concentrate. I watched the news, did fifty pushups, and had another go at my charts. I made it through all of them. Kids' names, vaguely remembered pathologies. No allusions to "bad love." No one I could see wanting to frighten me.

At ten, Robin called. "Hi, honey."

"Hi," I said. "You sound good."

"I am good, but I miss you. Maybe I'll come home early."

"That would be great. Just say when and I'll be at the airport."

"Everything okay?"

"Peachy. We've got a visitor."

I described the bulldog's arrival.

"Oh," she said, "he sounds adorable. Now I definitely want to come home early."

"He snorts and drools."

"How cute. You know, we should get a dog of our own. We're nurturant, right? And you had one when you were a kid. Don't you miss it?"

"My father had one," I said. "A hunting cur that didn't like children. It died when I was five and we never got another, but sure, I like dogs- how about something big and protective?"

"Long as it's also warm and furry."

"What breeds do you like?"

"I don't know- something solid and dependable. Let me think about it and when I get back we can go shopping."

"Sounds good, bowwow."

"We can do other stuff, too," she said.

"Sounds even better."

• • •

Just before midnight, I fashioned a bed for the dog out of a couple of towels, placed it on the floor of the service porch, and turned out the light. The dog stared at it, then trotted over to the fridge.

"No way," I said. "Time to sleep."

He turned his back on me and sat. I left for the bedroom. He heeled along. Feeling like Simon Legree, I closed the door on his supplicating eyes.

As soon as I got under the covers I heard scratching, then heavy breathing. Then something that sounded like an old man choking.

I jumped out of bed and opened the door. The dog raced through my feet and hurled himself up on the bed.

"Forget it," I said and put him on the carpet.

He made the choking sound again, stared, and tried to climb up.

I returned him to the floor.

A couple more tries and he gave up, turning his back on me and staying hunkered against the dust ruffle.

It seemed a reasonable compromise.

But when I awoke in the middle of the night, thinking about pain screams and robot chants, he was right next to me, soft eyes full of pity. I left him there. A moment later, he was snoring and it helped put me back to sleep.

4

The next morning I woke up tasting the metal and bite of bad dreams. I fed the dog and called the Rodriguez house again. Still no answer, but this time a machine fed me Evelyn's tired voice over a background of Conway Twitty singing "Slow Hand."

I asked her to call me. She hadn't by the time I finished showering and shaving. Neither had anyone else.

Determined to get outdoors, I left the dog with a big biscuit and walked the couple of miles to the university campus. The computers at the biomed library yielded no references to "bad love" in any medical or psychological journals, and I returned home at noon. The dog licked my hand and jumped up and down. I petted him, gave him some cheese, and received a drool-covered hand by way of thanks.

After boxing my charts, I carried them back to the closet. A single carton had remained on the shelf. Wondering if it contained files I'd missed, I pulled it down.

No patient records: it was crammed with charts and reprints of technical articles I'd set aside as references. A thick roll of papers bound with a rubber band was wedged between the folders. The word "PROFUNDITIES" was scrawled across it, in my handwriting. I remembered myself younger, angrier, sarcastic.

Removing the band from the roll, I flattened the sheaf and inhaled a snootful of dust.

More nostalgia: a collection of articles I'd authored, and programs from scientific meetings at which I'd presented papers.

I leafed through it absently until a brochure near the bottom caught my eye. Strong black letters on stiff blue paper, a coffee stain on one corner.

GOOD LOVE/BAD LOVE

Psychoanalytic Perspectives and Strategies in a Changing World

November 28-29, 1979Western Pediatric Medical CenterLos Angeles, California

A Conference Examining the Relevance and Application of de Boschian Theory to Social and Psychobiological Issues

and Commemorating Fifty Years of Teaching, Research, and Clinical Work by

ANDRES B. DE BOSCH, Ph.D.

Co-sponsored by WPMC and The de Bosch Institute and Corrective School, Santa Barbara, California

Conference Co-Chairs

Katarina V. de Bosch, Ph.D.

Practicing Psychoanalyst and Acting Director,

The de Bosch Institute and Corrective School

Alexander Delaware, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychology, WPMC

Harvey M. Rosenblatt, M.D.

Practicing Psychoanalyst and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry

New York University School of Medicine

Headshot photos of all three of us. Katarina de Bosch, thin and brooding; Rosenblatt and I, bearded and professorial.

The rest was a list of scheduled speakers- more photos- and details of registration.

"Good Love/Bad Love." I remembered it clearly now. Wondered how I could have forgotten.

Nineteen seventy-nine had been my fourth year on staff at Western Peds, a period marked by long days and longer nights on the cancer ward and the genetic disorders unit, holding the hands of dying children and listening to families with unanswerable questions.

In March of that year, the head of psychiatry and the chief psychologist both chose to go on sabbatical. Though they weren't on speaking terms and the chief never returned, their last official cooperative venture was designating me interim chief.

Slapping my back and grinding their teeth around their pipe bits, they worked hard at making it sound like a stepping-stone to something wonderful. What it had amounted to was more administrative chores and just enough of a temporary pay raise to kick me into the next tax bracket, but I'd been too young to know any better.

Back then, Western Peds had been a prestigious place, and I learned quickly that one aspect of my new job was fielding requests from other agencies and institutions wanting to associate with the hospital. Most common were proposals for jointly sponsored conferences, to which the hospital would contribute its good name and its physical premises in return for continuing-education credits for the medical staff and a percentage of the box office. Of the scores of requests received yearly, a good many were psychiatric or psychological in nature. Of those, only two or three were accepted.

Katarina de Bosch's letter had been one of several I received, just weeks after assuming my new post. I scanned it and rejected it.

Not a tough decision- the subject matter didn't interest me or my staff: the front-line battles we were waging on the wards placed the theorizations of classical psychoanalysis low on our want list. And from my readings of his work, Andres de Bosch was a middleweight analyst- a prolific but superficial writer who'd produced little in the way of original thought and had parlayed a year in Vienna as one of Freud's students and membership in the French resistance into an international reputation. I wasn't even sure he was still alive; the letter from his daughter didn't make it clear, and the conference she proposed had a memorial flavor to it.

I wrote her a polite letter.

Two weeks later I was called in to see the medical director, a pediatric surgeon named Henry Bork who favored Hickey-Freeman suits, Jamaican cigars, and sawtooth abstract art, and who hadn't operated in years.

"Alex." He smiled and motioned to a Breuer chair. A slender woman was sitting in a matching nest of leather and chrome on the other side of the room.

She looked to be slightly older than me- early thirties, I guessed- but her face was one of those long, sallow constructions that would always seem aged. The beginnings of worry lines suggested themselves at crucial junctures, like a portrait artist's initial tracings. Her lips were chapped- all of her looked dry- and her only makeup was a couple of grudging lines of mascara.

Her eyes were large enough without the shadowing, dark, heavy lidded, slightly bloodshot, close set. Her nose was prominent, down tilted, and sharp, with a small bulb at the tip. Full wide lips were set sternly. Her legs were pressed together at the knees, feet set squarely on the floor.

She wore a coarse, black, scallop-necked wool sweater over a pleated black skirt, stockings tinted to mimic a Caribbean tan, and black loafers. No jewelry. Her hair was straight, brown, and long, drawn back very tightly from a low, flat brow, and fastened above each ear with wide, black, wooden barrettes. A houndstooth jacket was draped over her lap. Near one shoe was a black leatherette attaché case.

As I sat down, she watched me, hands resting upon one another, spindly and white. The top one was sprinkled with some sort of eczematous rash. Her nails were cut short. One cuticle looked raw.

Bork stepped between us and spread his arms as if preparing to conduct a symphony.

"Dr. Delaware, Dr. Katarina de Bosch. Dr. de Bosch, Alex Delaware, our acting chief psychologist."

I turned to her and smiled. She gave a nod so tiny I might have imagined it.

Bork backed away, rested a buttock on his desk, and cupped both his hands over one knee. The desk surface was twenty square feet of lacquered walnut shaped like a surfboard, topped with an antique padded leather blotter and a green marble inkwell. Centered on the blotter was a single rectangle of stiff blue paper. He picked it up and used it to rap his knuckles.

"Do you recall Dr. de Bosch's writing to you suggesting a collaborative venture with your division, Alex?"

I nodded.

"And the disposition of that request?"

"I turned it down."

"Might I ask why?"

"The staff's been asking for things directly related to inpatient management, Henry."

Looking pained, Bork shook his head, then handed the blue paper to me.

A program for the conference, still smelling of printer's ink. Full schedule, speakers, and registration. My name was listed below Katarina de Bosch's as co-chair. My picture below, lifted off the professional staff roster.

My face broiled. I took a deep breath. "Looks like a fait accompli, Henry." I tried to hand him the brochure, but he put his hands back on his knees.

"Keep it for your records, Alex." Standing, he sidled in front of the desk, taking tiny steps, like a man on a ledge. Finally, he managed to get behind the surfboard and sat down.

Katarina de Bosch was inspecting her knuckles.

I considered maintaining my dignity but decided against it. "Nice to know what I'm doing in November, Henry. Care to give me my schedule for the rest of the decade?"

A small, sniffing sound came from Katarina's chair. Bork smiled at her, then turned to me, shifting his lips into neutral.

"An unfortunate misunderstanding, Alex- a snafu. "Something naturally always fouls up,' right?"

He looked at Katarina again, got nothing in return, and lowered his eyes to the blotter.

I fanned the blue brochure.

"Snafu," Bork repeated. "One of those interim decisions that had to be made during the transition between Dr. Greiloff's and Dr. Franks' sabbaticals and your stepping in. The board offers its regrets."

"Then why bother with a letter of application?"

Katarina said, "Because I'm polite."

"I didn't know the board got involved in scheduling conferences, Henry."

Bork smiled. "Everything, Alex, is the province of the board. But you're right. It's not typical for us to get directly involved in that type of thing. However…"

He paused, looked again at Katarina, who gave another tiny nod. Clearing his throat, he began fingering a cellophaned cigar- one of a trio of Davidoffs sharing pocket space with a white silk handkerchief.

"The fact that we have gotten involved should tell you something, Alex," he said. His smile was gone.

"What's that, Henry?"

"Dr. de Bosch- both Dr. de Bosches are held in extremely high esteem by… Western's medical community."

Are. So the old man was still alive.

"I see," I said.

"Yes, indeed." The color had risen in his cheeks, and his usual glibness had given way to something tentative, shaky.

He removed the cigar from his pocket and held it between his index fingers.

From the corner of my eye I saw Katarina. Watching me.

Neither of them spoke; I felt as if the next line was mine and I'd flubbed it.

"High esteem," said Bork finally, sounding more tense.

I wondered what was bugging him, then remembered a rumor of a few years ago. Doctors' dining room gossip, the kind I tried to avoid.

A Bork problem child, the youngest of four daughters. A teenaged chronic truant with learning disorders and a tendency toward sexual experimentation, sent away, two or three summers ago, hush-hush, for some kind of live-in remediation. The family tight-lipped with humiliation.

One of Bork's many detractors had told the story with relish.

The de Bosch Institute and Corrective School…

Bork was watching me. The look on his face told me I shouldn't push it any further.

"Of course," I said.

It sounded hollow. Katarina de Bosch frowned.

But it made Bork smile again. "Yes," he said. "So obviously, we're eager for this conference to take place. Expeditiously. I hope you and Dr. de Bosch will enjoy working together."

"Will I be working with both Drs. de Bosch?"

"My father isn't well," said Katarina, as if I should have known it. "He had a stroke last winter."

"Sorry to hear that."

She stood, smoothed her skirt with brief flogging movements, and picked up her attaché. In the chair she'd seemed tall- willowy- but upright she was only five two or three, maybe ninety-five bony pounds. Her legs were short and her feet pointed out. The skirt hung an inch below her knees.

"In fact, I need to get back to take care of him," she said. "Walk me back to my car, Dr. Delaware, and I'll give you details on the conference."

Bork winced at her imperiousness, then looked at me with some of that same desperation.

Thinking of what he was going through with his daughter, I stood and said, "Sure."

He put the cigar in his mouth. "Splendid," he said. "Thank you, Alex."

She said, "Henry," without looking at him and stomped toward the door.

He rushed from behind his desk and managed to get to it soon enough to hold it open for her.

He was a politician and a hack- a skilled physician who'd lost interest in healing and had lost sight of the human factor. In the coming years he never acknowledged my empathy of that afternoon, never displayed any gratitude or particular graciousness to me. If anything, he became increasingly hostile and obstructive and I came to dislike him intensely. But I never regretted what I'd done.

• • •

The moment we were out the door, she said, "You're a behaviorist, aren't you?"

"Eclectic," I said. "Whatever works. Including behavior therapy."

She smirked and began walking very fast, swinging the attaché in a wide, dangerous arc through the crowded hospital corridor. Neither of us talked on the way to the glass doors that fronted the building. She moved her short legs furiously, intent upon maintaining a half-step advantage. When we reached the entrance, she stopped, gripped the attaché with both hands, and waited until I held one of the doors open, just as she'd done with Bork. I pictured her growing up with servants.

Her car was parked right in front, in the NO STOPPING ambulance zone- a brand-new Buick, big and heavy, black with a silver vinyl top, buffed shiny as a general's boot. A hospital security guard was standing watch over it. When he saw her approaching he touched his hat.

Another door held open. I half expected to hear a bugle burst as she slid into the driver's seat.

She started the car with a sharp twist, and I stood there, looking at her through a closed window.

She ignored me, gunned the engine, finally looked at me and raised an eyebrow, as if surprised I was still there.

The window lowered electrically. "Yes?"

"We were supposed to discuss details," I said.

"The details," she said, "are, I'll do everything. Don't worry about it, don't complicate things, and it will all fall into place. All right?"

My throat got very tight.

She put the car into drive.

"Yes, ma'am," I said, but before the second word was out she'd roared off.

I went back into the hospital, got coffee from a machine near the admittance desk, and took it up to my office, trying to forget about what had happened and determined to focus myself on the day's challenges. Later, seated at my desk, charting the morning's rounds, my hand slipped and some of the coffee spilled on the blue brochure.

• • •

I didn't hear from her again until a week before the conference, when she sent a starchily phrased letter inquiring if I cared to deliver a paper. I called and declined and she sounded relieved.

"But it would be nice if you at least welcomed the attendees," she said.

"Would it?"

"Yes." She hung up.

I did show up on the first day to offer brief words of welcome and, unable to escape graciously, remained on stage for the entire morning, with the other co-chair- Harvey Rosenblatt, the psychiatrist from New York. Trying to feign interest as Katarina strode to the podium, wondering if I'd see another side of her, softened for public consumption.

Not that there was much of a public. Attendance was thin- maybe seventy or eighty therapists and graduate students in an auditorium that seated four hundred.

She introduced herself by name and title, then read a prepared speech in a strident monotone. She favored complex, meandering sentences that lost meaning by the second or third twist, and soon the audience was looking glazed. But she didn't seem to care- didn't seem to be talking to anyone but herself.

Reminiscing about her father's glory days.

Such as they were.

Anticipating the symposium, I'd taken the time to review Andres de Bosch's collected writings, and I hadn't raised my opinion of him.

His prose style was clear, but his theories about child rearing- the good love/bad love spectrum of maternal involvement that his daughter had used to title the conference- seemed nothing more than extensions and recombinations of other people's work. A little Anna Freud here, a little Melanie Klein there, tossed with croutons of Winnicott, Jung, Harry Stack Sullivan, Bruno Bettelheim.

He leavened the obvious with clinical anecdotes about the children he'd treated at his school, managed to work both his Vienna pilgrimage and his war experiences into his summaries, name dropping and adopting the overly casual manner of one truly self-impressed.

Emperor's new clothes, and the audience at the conference didn't show any great excitement. But from the rapt look on Faithful Daughter's face, she thought it was cashmere.

By the second day, attendance was down by half and even the speakers on the dais- three L.A.-based analysts- looked unhappy to be there. I might have felt sorry for Katarina, but she seemed unaware of it all, continuing to flash slides of her father- dark-haired and goateed in healthier days- working at a big, carved desk surrounded by talismans and books, drawing in crayon with a young patient, writing in the brandied light of a Tiffany lamp.

Then another batch: posing with his arm around her-even as a teenager, she'd looked old, and they could have been lovers- followed by shots of a blanket-swaddled old man sunk low in an electric wheelchair, positioned atop a high, brown bluff. Behind him the ocean was beautiful and blue, mocking his senescence.

A sad variation upon the home-movie trap. The few remaining attendees looked away in embarrassment.

Harvey Rosenblatt seemed especially pained; I saw him shade his eyes and study some scribbled notes that he'd already read from.

A tall, shambling, gray-bearded fellow in his forties, he struck up a conversation with me as we waited for the afternoon session to begin. His warmth seemed more than just therapeutic veneer. Unusually forthcoming for an analyst, he talked easily about his practice in mid-Manhattan, his twenty-year marriage to a psychologist, and the joys and challenges of raising three children. The youngest was a fifteen-year-old boy whom he'd brought with him.

"He's back at the hotel," he said, "watching movies on pay-TV- probably the dirty ones, right? I promised to get back in an hour and take him out to Disneyland – do you have any idea how late they're open?"

"During the winter, I think only till six or so."

"Oh." He frowned. "Guess we'll have to do that tomorrow; hopefully, Josh can deal with it."

"Does he like arcade games?" I said.

"Does a duck quack?"

"Why don't you try the Santa Monica pier. It's open late."

"Okay- that sounds good, thanks. Do they have good hot dogs by any chance?"

"I know they have hot dogs, but I can't vouch for them being gourmet."

He smiled. "Josh is a hot dog connoisseur, Alex." He puffed his cheeks and smoothed his beard. "Too bad about Disneyland. I hate to disappoint him."

"Challenges of parenthood, huh?" I said.

He smiled. "He's a sweet kid. I brought him with me hoping to turn it into a semi-vacation for both of us. I try to do that with each of them when they're old enough. It's hard to reconcile working with other people's kids when you can't find time for your own- you have any?"

I shook my head.

"It's an education, believe me. Worth more than ten years of school."

"Do you treat only children?" I said.

"Half and half. Actually, I find myself doing less and less child work as time goes on."

"Why's that?"

"To be honest, kid work's just too nonverbal for me. Three hours in a row of play therapy makes my eyes cross- narcissistic, I know, but I figure I'm not doing them much good if I'm fading away. My wife, on the other hand, doesn't mind. She's a real artist with it. Great mom, too."

We walked to the cafeteria, had coffee and donuts, and chatted for a while about other places he could take his son. As we headed back to the auditorium, I asked him about his connection to the de Bosches.

"Andres was my teacher," he said, "in England. I did a fellowship eleven years ago at Southwick Hospital – near Manchester. Child psychiatry and pediatric neurology. I'd toyed with the idea of working for the government and I wanted to see how the Brits ran their system."

"Neurology?" I said. "Didn't know de Bosch was interested in the organic side of things."

"He wasn't. Southwick was heavily biological- still is- but Andres was their token analyst. Kind of a…" He smiled. "I was about to say "throwback,' but that wouldn't be kind. It's not as if he was some sort of relic. Quite vital, actually- a gadfly to the hard-wire boys, and don't we all need gadflies."

We entered the conference room. Ten minutes until the next speech and the place was nearly empty.

"Was it a good year?" I said after we were seated.

"The fellowship? Sure. I got to do lots of long-term depth work with kids from poor and working-class families, and Andres was a wonderful teacher- great at communicating his knowledge."

I thought: it's not genetic. I said, "He is a clear writer."

Rosenblatt nodded, crossed his legs, and looked around the deserted auditorium.

"How's child analysis accepted here?" he said.

"It's not used much," I said. "We deal mostly with kids with serious physical illnesses, so the emphasis is on short-term treatment. Pain control, family counseling, compliance with treatment."

"Not much tolerance for delayed gratification?"

"Not much."

"Do you find that satisfying- as an analyst?"

"I'm not an analyst."

"Oh." He blushed around his beard. "I guess I assumed you were- then how'd you get involved in the conference?"

"Katarina de Bosch's powers of persuasion."

He smiled. "She can be a real ball-breaker, can't she? When I knew her back in England she was just a kid- fourteen or fifteen- but even then she had a forceful personality. She used to attend our graduate seminars. Spoke up as if she was a peer."

"Daddy's girl."

"Very much so."

"Fourteen or fifteen," I said. "So she's only twenty-five or -six?"

He thought for a moment. "That's about right."

"She seems older."

"Yes, she does," he said, as if coming up with an insight. "She has an old soul, as the Chinese say."

"Is she married?"

He shook his head. "There was a time I thought she might be gay, but I don't think so. More likely asexual."

I said, "The temptation to think Oedipally is darn near irresistible, Harvey."

"For girls it's Elektra," he said, wagging a finger with amusement. "Get your complexes straight."

"She drives one, too."

"What?"

"Her car's an Electra- a big Buick."

He laughed. "There you go- now if that doesn't convert you to fervid belief in Freud, I don't know what will."

"Anna Freud never married, either, did she?" I said. "Neither did Melanie Klein."

"What, a neurotic pattern?" he said, still chuckling.

"Just presenting the data, Harvey. Draw your own conclusions."

"Well, my daughter's damned boy crazy, so I wouldn't get ready to publish just yet." He turned serious. "Though I'm sure the impact of such a powerful paternal-"

He stopped talking. I followed his gaze and saw Katarina heading toward us from the left side of the auditorium. Carrying a clipboard and marching forward while looking at her watch.

When she reached us, Rosenblatt stood.

"Katarina. How's everything going?" There was guilt in his voice- he'd make a very bad liar.

"Fine, Harvey," she said, looking down at her board. "You're up in two minutes. Might as well take your place on stage."

• • •

I never saw either of them again, and the events of that autumn soon faded from memory, sparked briefly, the following January, by a newspaper obituary of Andres de Bosch. Cause of death was suicide by overdose- prescription tranquilizers. The eighty-year-old analyst was described as despondent due to ill health. His professional achievements were listed in loving, inflated detail, and I knew who'd provided them.

Now, years later, another spark.

Good love/bad love. De Bosch's term for mothering gone bad. The psychic damage inflicted when a trusted figure betrays the innocent.

So Donald Dell Wallace probably wasn't behind it. Someone else had picked me- because of the conference?

Someone with a long, festering memory? Of what? Some transgression committed by de Bosch? In the name of de Boschian therapy?

My co-chairmanship made me seem like a disciple, but that was my only link.

Some kind of grievance? Was it even real, or just a delusion?

A psychotic sitting at the conference, listening, boiling…

I thought back to the seventy strangers in the auditorium. A collective blur.

And why had Becky Basille's murderer howled "bad love"?

Another madman?

Katarina might have the answer. But she hadn't had much use for me back in seventy-nine, and there was no reason to believe she'd talk to me now.

Unless she'd gotten a tape, too, and was frightened.

I punched 805 information. There was no Santa Barbara listing for either the de Bosch Institute or the Corrective School. Neither was there an office number for Katarina de Bosch, Ph.D. Before the operator could get away, I asked her to check for a home number. Zilch.

I hung up and pulled out the latest American Psychological Association directory. Nothing there, either. Retrieving some older volumes, I finally found Katarina's most recent entry. Five years ago. But the address and number were those of the Santa Barbara school. On the off chance the phone company had messed up, I called.

A woman answered, "Taco Bonanza." Metallic clatter and shouts nearly drowned her out.

I cut the connection and sat at my desk, stroking the top of the bulldog's head and gazing at the coffee stain on the brochure. Wondering how and when enlightenment had given way to enchiladas.

Harvey Rosenblatt.

Half past one made it four-thirty in New York. I got the number for NYU's med school and asked for the department of psychiatry. After a couple of minutes on hold, I was informed that there was no Dr. Harvey Rosenblatt on either the permanent or the part-time clinical staff.

"We do have a Leonard Rosenblatt," said the secretary. "His office is out in New Rochelle- and a Shirley Rosenblatt in Manhattan, on East Sixty-fifth Street."

"Is Shirley an M.D. or a Ph.D.?"

"Um- one second- a Ph.D. She's a clinical psychologist."

"But no Harvey?"

"No, sir."

"Do you have any old rosters on hand? Lists of staff members who've retired?"

"There may be something like that somewhere, sir, but I really don't have the time to search. Now if you'll-"

"Could I have Dr. Shirley Rosenblatt's number please?"

"One moment."

I copied it down, called Manhattan information for a listing on Harvey Rosenblatt, M.D., learned there was none, and dialed Shirley, Ph.D.'s exchange.

A soft, female voice with Brooklyn overtones said, "This is Dr. Shirley Rosenblatt. I'm in session or out of the office, and can't come to the phone. If your call is a true emergency, please press one. If not, please press two, wait for the beep, and leave your message. Thank you and have a lovely day."

Mozart in the background… beep.

"Dr. Rosenblatt, this is Dr. Alex Delaware, from Los Angeles. I'm not sure if you're married to Dr. Harvey Rosenblatt or even know him, but I met him several years ago at a conference out here and wanted to touch base with him on something- for research purposes. If you can help me reach him, I'd appreciate your passing along my number."

I recited the ten digits and put the phone back in its cradle. The mail came a half hour later. Nothing out of the ordinary, but when I heard it drop into the bin, my hands had clenched.

5

I went down to feed the fish, and when I got back the phone was ringing.

The operator at my service said, "This is Joan, Dr. Delaware, are you free? There's someone on the line about a dog, sounds like a kid."

"Sure."

A second later a thin, young voice said, "Hello?"

"Hi, this is Dr. Delaware."

"Um… this is Karen Alnord. My dog got lost and you said in the paper that you found a bulldog?"

"Yes, I did. He's a little French bulldog."

"Oh… mine's a boxer." Dejected.

"Sorry. This one's not a boxer, Karen."

"Oh… I just thought- you know, sometimes people think they're bulldogs."

"I can see the resemblance," I said. "The flat face-"

"Yeah."

"But the one I've found's much smaller than a boxer."

"Mine's a puppy," she said. "He's not too big yet."

I put her age at between nine and eleven.

"This one's definitely full-grown, Karen. I know because I took him to the veterinarian."

"Oh… um… okay. Thank you, sir."

"Where'd you lose your dog, Karen?"

"Near my house. We have a gate, but somebody left it open and he got out."

"I'm really sorry. Hope you find him."

"I will," she said, in a breaking voice. "I've got an ad, too, and I'm calling all the other ads, even though my mom says none of them are probably the right one. I'm paying a reward, too- twenty dollars, so if you do find him you can get it. His name's Bo and there's a bone-shaped tag on his collar that says Bo and my phone number."

"I'll keep an eye out, Karen. Whereabouts do you live?"

"Reseda. On Cohasset between Sherman Way and Saticoy. His ears haven't been cropped. If you find him, here's my phone number."

I wrote it down, even though Reseda was over the hill to the north, fifteen or twenty miles away.

"Good luck, Karen."

"Thank you, sir. I hope your bulldog finds his owner."

That reminded me that I hadn't yet called the Kennel Club. Information gave me the number in New York and another one in North Carolina. Both answered with recorded messages and told me business hours were over.

"Tomorrow," I told the bulldog.

He'd been observing me, maintaining that curious, cocked head stance. The fact that someone was probably grieving for him bothered me, but I didn't know what else to do other than take good care of him.

That meant food, water, shelter. A walk, when it got cool enough.

A walk meant a leash.

He and I took a drive to a pet store in south Westwood and I bought a lead, more dog food, biscuits in various flavors, and a couple of nylon bones the salesman assured me were excellent for chewing. When we returned, it seemed temperate enough for a stroll if we stayed in the shade. The dog stood still, tail wagging rapidly, while I put the leash on. The two of us explored the Glen for half an hour, hugging the brush, walking against traffic. Like regular guys.

When I got back, I called my service. Joan said, "There's just one, from a Mrs. Rodriguez- hold on, that's your board… there's someone ringing in right now."

I waited a moment, and then she said, "I've got a Mr. Silk on the line, says he wants to make an appointment."

"Thanks, put him on."

Click.

"Dr. Delaware."

Silence.

"Hello?"

Nothing.

"Mr. Silk?"

No answer. Just as I was about to hang up and redial the service, a low sound came through the receiver. Mumbles- no. Laughter.

A deep, throaty giggle.

"Huh huh huh."

"Who is this?" I said.

"Huh huh huh." Gloating.

I said nothing.

"Huh huh huh."

The line went dead.

I got the operator back on the line.

"Joan, that guy who just called. Did he leave anything other than his name?"

"No, he just asked if you treated adults as well as children and I said he'd have to speak to you about that."

"And his name was Silk? As in the fabric?"

"That's what I heard. Why, doctor, is something wrong?"

"He didn't say anything, just laughed."

"Well that's kind of crazy, but that's your business, isn't it, doctor?"

• • •

Evelyn Rodriguez answered on the first ring. When she heard my voice, hers went dead.

"How's everything?" I said.

"Fine."

"I know it's a hassle for you, but I would like to see the girls."

"Yeah, it's a hassle," she said. "Driving all the way out there."

"How about if I come out to you?"

No answer.

"Mrs. Rodriguez?"

"You'd do that?"

"I would."

"What's the catch?"

"No catch, I'd just like to make this whole thing as easy as possible for you."

"Why?"

To show Donald Dell Wallace I can't be intimidated. "To help the girls."

"Uh-huh… they're paying for your time, right? His… bunch a heathens."

"The judge made Donald Dell responsible for the costs of the evaluation, Mrs. Rodriguez, but as we talked about the first time, that doesn't obligate me to him in any way."

"Uh-huh."

"Has that been a problem for you?" I said. "The fact that he's paying?"

She said nothing for a moment, then: "Bet you're charging plenty."

"I'm charging my usual fee," I said, realizing I sounded like a Watergate witness.

"Bet it includes your driving time and all. Door to door, just like the lawyers."

"Yes, it does."

"Good," she said, stretching the word. "Then you can drive instead of me- drive slow. Keep your meter running and make them devils pay."

Angry laughter.

I said, "When can I come out?"

"How 'bout right now? They're running around like wild Injuns, maybe you can settle ' em down. How about you drive out here right this minute and see 'em? You ready for that?"

"I can probably be there in forty-five minutes."

"Whenever. We'll be right here. We're not taking any vacations to Hono-lulu."

She hung up before I could ask for directions. I looked up her address in my case file- the ten thousand block of McVine Terrace in Sunland- and matched it to my Thomas map. Setting the dog up with water, food, and a bone, I left, not at all unhappy about running up the Iron Priests' tab.

• • •

The 405 freeway deposited me in a scramble of northbound traffic just beginning to clot, facing hills so smogged they were no more than shrouded, gray lumps on the horizon. I did the L.A. stop-and-go boogie for a while, listening to music and trying to be patient, finally made it to the 118 east, then the 210, and cruised into the high desert northeast of the city, picking up speed as both the road and the air got clearer.

Exiting at Sunland, I hooked north again and got onto a commercial stretch of Foothill Boulevard that ran parallel to the mountains: auto parts barns, body shops, unfinished furniture outlets, and more roofers than I'd ever seen in one area.

I spotted McVine a few minutes later and turned left. The street was narrow, with grass growing down to the curb instead of sidewalks, and planted haphazardly with eucalyptus and willow. The curb grass was dry and yellow. The houses behind it were small and low, some of them no more than trailers on raised foundations.

The Rodriguez residence was on a northwest corner, a boxcar of mocha stucco with a gutterless, black composition roof and a flat, porchless face broken by three metal-sashed windows. One of the windows was blocked by a tilting sheet of lattice. The squares were broken in spots, warped in others, and a few dead branches wormed around them. A high, pink block wall enveloped the rear of the property.

I got out and walked up a hardpack lawn stippled with blemishlike patches of some sort of low-growing succulent and split by a foot-worn rut. Evelyn's plum-colored Chevy was parked to the left of the pathway, next to a red half-ton pickup with two stickers on the bumper. One sang the praises of the Raiders, the other dared me to keep kids off drugs. A stick-on sign on the door said R AND R MASONRY.

I pressed the bell and a wasp-buzz sounded. A woman opened the door and looked at me through the smoke vining upward from a freshly lit Virginia Slim.

In her late twenties, five seven and lanky, she had dirty blond hair gathered in a high, streaked ponytail and pale skin. Slanted, dark eyes and broad cheekbones gave her a Slavic look. The rest of her features were sharp, beginning to pinch. Her shape was perfect for the hardbody era: sinewy arms, high breasts, straightedge tummy, long legs leading up to flaring hips just a little wider than a boy's. She wore skintight, low-riding jeans and a baby-blue, sleeveless midriff top that showcased an apostrophe of a navel some obstetrician should have been mighty proud of. Her feet were bare. One of them tapped arrhythmically.

"You the doctor?" she said, in a husky voice, talking around the cigarette, just the way I'd seen Evelyn Rodriguez do.

"Dr. Delaware," I said, and extended my hand.

She took it and smiled- amusement rather than friendliness- gave a hard squeeze, then dropped it.

"I'm Bonnie. They're waiting for you. C'mon in."

The living room was half the width of the boxcar and smelled like a drowned cigar. Carpeted in olive shag and paneled with knotty pine, it was darkened by drawn drapes. A long, brown corduroy sofa ran along the back wall. Above it hung a born-again fish symbol. To the left was a console TV topped with some sort of cable decoder and a VCR, and a beige velveteen recliner. On a hexagonal table, an ashtray brimmed over with butts.

The other half of the front space was a kitchen-dining area combo. Between the two rooms was an ochre-colored door. Bonnie pushed it open, letting in a lot of bright, western light, and took me down a short, shagged hall. At the end was a den, walled in grayish mock birch and backed by sliding glass doors that looked out to the backyard. More recliners, another TV, porcelain figurines on the mantel, below three mounted rifles.

Bonnie slid open a glass door. The yard was a small, flat square of scorched grass surrounded by the high pink walls. An avocado tree grew at the rear, huge and twisted. Barely out of its shade was an inflatable swimming pool, oval and bluer than anyone's heaven. Chondra sat in it, splashing herself without enthusiasm. Tiffani was in a corner of the property, back to us, jumping rope.

Evelyn Rodriguez sat between them in a folding chair, working on her lanyard and smoking. She had on white shorts, a dark blue T-shirt, and rubber beach sandals. On the grass next to her was her purse.

Bonnie said, "Hey," and all three of them looked up.

I waved. The girls stared.

Evelyn said, "Go get him a chair."

Bonnie raised her eyebrows and went back into the house, putting some wiggle in her walk.

Evelyn shaded her face, looked at her watch, and smiled. "Forty-two minutes. Couldn't ya have stopped for coffee or something?"

I forced a chuckle.

"Course," she said, "don't really matter what you actually do, you can always say you done it, right? Just like a lawyer. You can say anything you please."

She stubbed her cigarette out on the grass.

I went over to the pool. Chondra returned my "Hi" with a small, silent smile. Some teeth this time: progress.

Tiffani said, "You write your book yet?"

"Not yet. I need more information from you."

She nodded gravely. "I got lots of truth- we don't want to ever see him."

She grabbed hold of a branch and started swinging. Humming something.

I said, "Have fun," but she didn't answer.

Bonnie came out with a folded chair. I went and took it from her. She winked and went back into the house, rear twitching violently. Evelyn wrinkled her nose and said, "Well, does it?"

I unfolded the chair. "Does it what?"

"Does it matter? What actually happens? You're just gonna do what you want to, write what you want to anyway, right?"

I sat down next to her, positioning myself so I could see the girls. Chondra was motionless in the pool, gazing at the trunk of the avocado.

Evelyn humphed. "You ready to come out?"

Chondra shook her head and began splashing herself again, doing it slowly, as if it were a chore. Her white pigtails were soaked the color of old brass. Above the pink walls the sky was static and blue, bottomed by a soot-colored cloud bank that hid the horizon. Someone in the neighborhood was barbecuing, and a mixture of scorching fat and lighter fluid spread its cheerful toxin through the autumn heat.

"You don't think I'll be honest, huh?" I said. "Been burned by other doctors, or is it something about me?"

She turned toward me slowly and put her lanyard in her lap.

"I think you do your job and go home," she said. "Just like everyone else. I think you do what's best for you, just like everyone else."

"Fair enough," I said. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm some saint who'd work for free or that I really know what you've been going through, 'cause I don't- thank God. But I think I understand your rage. If someone had done it to my child, I'd be ready to kill him, no question about it."

She took her Winstons out of her pocket and knocked a cigarette loose. Sliding it out and taking it between two fingers, she said, "Oh you would, would you? Well that would be revenge, and the Bible says revenge is a negational action."

She lit up with a pink disposable lighter, inhaled very deeply, and held it. When she let the smoke out, her nostrils twitched.

Tiffani began jumping very fast. I wondered if we were within her earshot.

Evelyn shook her head. "Gonna break her head one of these days."

"Lots of energy," I said.

"Apple don't fall far."

"Ruthanne was like that?"

She smoked, nodded, and started to cry, letting her tears drip down her face and wiping them with short, furious movements. Her torso pushed forward and for a moment I thought she was going to leave.

"Ruthanne was just like that when she was little. Always moving. I never felt I could… she had spirit, she was- she had… wonderful spirit."

She tugged her shorts down and sniffed.

"Want some coffee?"

"Sure."

"Wait right here." She went into the house.

"Hey, girls," I called out.

Tiffani kept jumping. Chondra looked up. Her mouth hung slightly open and water droplets bubbled her forehead, like oversized sweat.

I went over to her. "Swim a lot?"

She gave a very small nod and splashed one arm, turning away and facing the avocado tree. Young fruit hung from the branches, veiled by a cloud of whiteflies. Some of it was blackened with disease.

Tiffani waved at me. Then she began to chant in a loud voice:

"I went to the Chinese restaurant,

to get a loaf of bread bread bread,

a man was there with a big mustache,

and this is what he said said said.

El eye el eye chicholo beauty, pom-pom cutie…"

Evelyn came back holding a couple of mugs. Bonnie marched behind her carrying a small plate of sugar wafers. The look on her face said she'd been created for better things.

I walked back to the lawn chairs.

Bonnie said, "Here you go," handed me the plate, and sashayed off.

Evelyn gave me a mug. "Black or cream?"

"Black."

We sat and sipped. I balanced the cookie plate on my lap.

"Have one," she said, "or are you one of those health-food types?"

I took a wafer and chewed on it. Lemon-flavored and slightly stale.

"I dunno," she said, "maybe I shoulda been a health fooder, too. I always gave my kids sugar and stuff, whatever they wanted- maybe I shouldn'ta. Got a boy went AWOL over in Germany two years ago, don't even know where he is, the baby don't know zero about what she wants to do with her life, and Ruthie…"

She shook her head and looked over at Tiffani. "Watch your head on that branch, you!"

"Bonnie's the baby?" I said.

Nod. "She got all the brains and the looks. Just like her daddy- he coulda been a movie star. Only time I ever went gaga for the looks, and boy, what a mistake that was."

She gave a full smile. "He cleaned me out thirteen months after we were married. Left me with the baby in diapers and went down to Louisiana to work the deep-sea rigs. Got killed soon after in a fall that they said was an accident. Never took out the right insurance for himself, so I got nothing."

She smiled wider. "He had a temper on him. All my men do. Roddy's got a fuse on him, too, though it takes a while to get it lit. He's a Mexican, but he's the best of the lot."

She patted the T-shirt pocket that held the cigarette pack. "Sugar and bad tempers and cancer sticks. I really go for all the good things in life, huh?"

Her eyes watered again. She lit up.

"All the good things," she said. "All the blessed good things."

She kept the cigarette in her mouth, busied her hands by squeezing them together, letting go, repeating the motion. The lanyard lay on the grass, neglected.

"There's no room for your guilt," I said.

She yanked the cigarette out of her mouth and stared at me. "What'd you say?"

"There's no room for your guilt. All the guilt belongs to Donald Dell. One hundred percent of it."

She started to say something, but stopped.

I said, "No one else should carry that burden, Evelyn. Not Ruthanne for going with him that night, and certainly not you for the way you raised her. Junk food had nothing to do with what happened. Neither did anything but Donald Dell's impulses. It's his cross to bear now."

Her eyes were on me, but wavering.

I said, "He's a bad guy, he does bad things, no one knows why. And now you're having to be a mom, all over again, when you weren't planning on it. And you're going to do it without complaining too much and you're going to do your best. No one's going to pay you or give you any credit, so at least give yourself some."

"You talk sweet," she said. "Telling me what I want to hear." Wary, but not angry. "Sounds like you got a temper on you, too."

"I talk straight. For my own sake- you're right about that. All of us do what we think's best for us. And I do like to make money- I went to school a long time to learn what I do. I'm worth a high fee, so I charge it. But I also like to sleep well at night."

"Me, too. So what?" She smoked, coughed, ground out the cigarette with disgust. "Been a long time since I slept peacefully."

"Takes time."

"Yeah… how long?"

"I don't know, Evelyn."

"Least you're honest." Smile. "Maybe."

"What about the girls?" I said. "How do they sleep?"

"Not good," she said. "How could they? The little one wakes complaining she's hungry- which is a laugh, 'cause she eats all day, though you wouldn't know it to look at her, would you? I used to be like that, believe it or not." Squeezing her thigh. "She gets up two, three times a night, wanting Hersheys and licorice and ice cream."

"Does she ever get those things?"

"Hel- heck no. There's a limit. I give her a piece of orange or something- maybe a half a cookie- and send her right back. Not that it stops her the next time."

"What about Chondra?"

"She don't get up, but I hear her crying in her bed- under the blanket." She looked over at the older girl, who was sitting motionless in the center of the pool. "She's the soft one. Soft as jelly."

She sighed and looked down at her coffee with disdain. "Instant. Shoulda made real stuff."

"It's fine," I said, and drank to prove it.

"It's okay, but it's not great- don't see great around here too often. My second husband- Brian's dad- owned a big place up near Fresno- table grapes and alfalfa, some quarter horses. We lived up there for a few years- that was close to great, all that space. Then he went back to his drinking- Brian, Senior- and it all went to- straight down the tubes. Ruthie used to love that place- especially the horses. There's riding stables around here, too, out in Shadow Hills, but it's expensive. We always said we'd get over there but we never did."

The sun dropped behind the cloud bank, and the yard dimmed.

"What're you gonna do to us?" she said.

"To you?"

"What's your plan?"

"I'd like to help you."

"If you wanna help them, keep them away from him, that's all. He's a devil."

"Tiffani called him an instrument of Satan."

"I told her that," she said defiantly. "You see something wrong with that?"

"Not at all."

"It's my faith- it props me up. And he is one."

"How'd Ruthanne meet him?"

Her shoulders dropped. "She was waitressin' at a place out in Tujunga- okay, it was a bar. He and his bunch hung out there. She went out with him for months before tellin' me. Then she brought him home and the first look I got I said no, no, no- my experiences, I can spot a bad apple like that." Snap of fingers. "I warned her, but that didn't do no good. Maybe I gave up too easy, I don't know. I was havin' problems of my own, and Ruthie didn't think I had a single intelligent thing to say to her."

She lit another cigarette and took several hard, fast drags. "She was stubborn. That was her only real sin."

I drank more coffee.

"Nothing to say anymore, doc? Or am I boring you?" She flicked ashes onto the dirt.

"I'd rather listen."

"And they pay you all that money for that? Good racket you got there."

"Beats honest labor," I said.

She smiled. First friendly one I'd seen.

"Stubborn," she said. She smoked and sighed and called out, "Five more minutes, then into the house for homework, both a you!"

The girls ignored her. She kept looking at them. Drifted off, as if she'd forgotten I was there. But then she turned and looked at me.

"So, Mr. Easy Listener, what do you want from me and my little girls?"

Same question she'd asked me the first time she met me. I said, "Enough time to find out exactly how they've been affected by their mom's death."

"How do you think they've been affected? They loved their mama. They're crushed to dirt."

"I need to get specific for the court."

"What do you mean?"

"I need to list symptoms that prove they're suffering psychologically."

"You gonna say they're crazy?"

"No, nothing like that. I'll talk about symptoms of anxiety- like the sleep problems, changes in appetite, things that make them vulnerable to seeing him. Otherwise they're going to get swept up in the system. Some of it you can tell me, but I'll also need to hear things directly from them."

"Won't that mess them up more, talking about it?"

"No," I said. "Just the opposite- keeping things inside is more likely to create problems."

She gave a skeptical look. "I don't see them talkin' to you much, so far."

"I need time with them- need to build up their trust."

She thought about that. "So what do we do, just sit here jawing?"

"We could start with a history- you telling me as much as you remember about what they were like as babies. Anything else you think might be important."

"A history, huh?" She took a deep drag, as if trying to suck maximum poison out of the cigarette. "So now we've got a history… yeah, I've got plenty to tell you. Why don't you get out a pencil and start writing?"

6

She talked as the sky darkened further, letting the girls play on as she recounted nightmares and weeping spells, the terrors of orphanhood. At five-thirty Bonnie came out and switched on floodlights that turned the yard sallow. It stilled her mother's voice, and Evelyn stood and told the girls, "Go in the house, you."

Right after they did, a man came out, rubbing his hands together and sniffing the air. Five three or so, in his late fifties or early sixties, low waisted, dark skinned and weak chinned, with long, tattooed arms. Bowlegs gave him a tottering walk. His eyes were shadowed by thick, gray thatches, and a drooping, iron-colored Zapata mustache obscured his mouth. His bushy gray hair was slicked straight back. He wore a khaki workshirt and blue jeans with hand-rolled cuffs. His hands were caked with plaster and he rubbed them more vigorously as he approached.

Evelyn saluted him.

He returned the gesture and looked at me, stretching to stand taller.

"This here's that doctor," she said. "We been having a nice talk."

He nodded. The shirt was embroidered with a white oval tag that said "Roddy" in red script. Up close I saw that his face was severely pockmarked. A couple of crescent-shaped scars ran down his chin.

I held out a hand.

He looked at his palm, gave an embarrassed smile, and said, "Dirty." His voice was soft and hoarse. I put my hand down. He smiled again and saluted me.

"Dr. Delaware."

"Roddy. Pleased to meetchu." Boyle Heights accent. As he lowered his fingers, I noticed tattooed letters across the knuckles. L-O-V-E. Homemade job. On the other hand was the inevitable H-A-T-E. In the fold between his thumb and forefinger was a crude blue crucifix. Next to that, a tiny red-eyed spider climbed a tiny web above the legend NR.

He put his hands in his pockets.

"How's your day?" Evelyn asked him. She looked as if she wanted to touch him.

"Okay." He sniffed.

"Hungry?"

"Yeah, I could eat." The tattooed hands emerged and rubbed together. "Gotta wash up."

"Sure, patron."

He went into the house.

"Well," she told me, "I'd better get into the kitchen. Guess it's too late for you to talk to them, but you can come back tomorrow."

"Great."

We walked inside. Chondra and Tiffani were on the sofa in the rear den, watching cartoons on TV. A cat was being cheerfully decapitated. Tiffani held the remote control.

"Bye, girls."

Glazed eyes.

"Say bye to the doctor."

The girls looked up. Small waves and smiles.

"I'm leaving now," I said. "I'll be coming out here tomorrow- maybe we can get a chance to talk."

"See you," said Tiffani. She nudged her sister. Chondra said, "Bye."

Evelyn was gone. I found her out in the kitchen, pulling something out of the freezer. Rodriguez was stretched back in the velveteen recliner, eyes closed, a beer in his hand.

"See you tomorrow," I said.

"One sec." Evelyn came over. The package in her hand was a diet frozen entree. Enchilada Fiesta. "Better be the day after- I forgot there's some things I got to do."

"Okay. Same time?"

"Sure." She looked at the frozen package and shook her head.

"How 'bout New York steak?" she called out to her husband.

"Yeah," he said, without opening his eyes.

"He likes his steak," she said quietly. "For a fella his size, he's a real meat eater."

She followed me all the way out to the front lawn. Looked at the TV dinner in her hand. "No one likes this one. Maybe I'll have it."

I hit bad traffic on the western end of the 210, and by the time I pulled into the carport, it was after seven. When I got in the house, the dog greeted me, but he had his head down and looked subdued. I smelled the reason first, then saw it, on the service porch floor near the door.

"Oh," I said.

He drooped lower.

"My mistake for locking you in." I rubbed his neck, and he gave me a grateful lick, then trotted over to the fridge.

"Let's not push things, bucko."

I cleaned up the mess, reflecting on the responsibilities of pet foster-parenthood, and phoned in for messages, wondering if anyone had responded to my ad. No one had. Nothing from Shirley Rosenblatt, Ph.D., either. Or Mr. Silk. The operator gave me a few business calls. I decided to put the tape out of my mind, but the child's chant stayed there and I couldn't sit still.

I fed the dog and was contemplating what to do about my own dinner when Milo called at eight-ten.

"No prints on the tape except yours. Any mail problems today?" He sounded tired.

"No, but I did get a call." I told him about the giggling man.

"Silk, huh? Well, that's a pisser."

"What is?"

"Sounds like you've got a nutcase on your hands."

"You don't think it's serious?"

Pause. "Most of these guys are cowards, like to stay in the background. But to be honest, Alex, who knows?"

I said, "I think I may have found what "bad love' means," and filled him in about the symposium.

"Seventy-nine," he said. "Nut with a real long memory."

"Think that's a bad sign?"

"I- let's put our heads together and hash it out. You eat yet?"

"Nope."

"I'm over in Palms, got to finish up a few things. I could meet you at that place on Ocean in about half an hour."

"Don't think I'd better," I said. "Left my guest alone too long already."

"What guest? Oh, him. Why can't you leave him? Is he lonely and depressed?"

"It's more of a gastrointestinal issue," I said, rubbing the dog behind the ears. "He just ate and will be needing easy ingress and egress."

"Ingr- oh… fun. Well, get a dog door, Alex. Then, get a life."

"A dog door means sawing a hole. He's only a short-term lodger."

"Suit yourself."

"Fine," I said. "I'll put a door in- Robin wants a dog anyway. How about you bring one over, I'll install it, and then we can go out."

"Where the hell am I gonna find a dog door at this hour?"

"You're the detective."

Slam.

He arrived at nine-fifteen, pulling an unmarked Ford into the carport. His tie was loose, he looked wilted, and he carried two bags- one from a pet store, the other from a Chinese restaurant.

The dog came up and nuzzled his cuffs and he gave the animal a grudging pat and said, "Ingress and egress."

Removing a metal and plastic contraption from the pet store bag, he handed it to me. "Seeing as I don't feel like manual labor before dinner and the handy resident of this household is out of town, I figured we'd better do takeout."

He went over to the fridge, dog following.

Watching his slow trudge, I said, "You look wiped. New blood buckets?"

He got a Grolsch, opened it, and nodded. "Armed robbery, what I was working on in Palms. Little mom-and-pop grocery. Pop died a few months ago, mom's eighty, barely hanging on. Two little shits came in this afternoon, flashed knives, and threatened to rape her and cut off her breasts if she didn't hand over the cashbox. Old lady puts them at around thirteen or fourteen. She's too shook to say much else, chest pains, shortness of breath. They admitted her to St. John's for observation."

"Poor thing. Thirteen or fourteen?"

"Yeah. The timing of the robbery might mean the little assholes waited till after school to do it- how's that for your extracurricular activities? Or maybe they're just your basic truant psychopaths out for a fun day."

"Urban Huck and Tom," I said.

"Sure. Smoke a corncob of crack, gangbang Becky Thatcher."

He sat down at the table and sniffed the top of the beer bottle. The dog had remained at the refrigerator and was looking at him, as if contemplating approach, but Milo's tone and expression stilled him and he came over and settled at my feet.

I said, "So no one else's prints were on the tape."

"Not a one."

"What does that mean? Someone took the trouble to wipe it clean?"

"Or handled it with gloves. Or there were prints and they got smeared when you touched the tape." He stretched his legs. "So show me this brochure you found."

I went to the library, got the conference program, and gave it to him. He scanned it, "No one named Silk here."

"Maybe he was in the audience."

"You look intense," he said, pointing to my photo. "That beard- kind of rabbinic."

"Actually, I was bored." I told him how I'd become a co-chair.

He put down his bottle. "Nineteen seventy-nine. Someone carrying around a grudge all this time?"

"Or something happened recently that triggered a recollection from seventy-nine. I tried calling Katarina and Rosenblatt, to see if maybe they'd gotten anything in the mail, but she's closed up shop in Santa Barbara and he's no longer practicing in Manhattan. I found a psychologist in New York who may be his wife and left her a message."

He examined the brochure again. "So what could the grudge be about?"

"I have no idea, Milo. Maybe it's not even the conference, maybe it's someone who sees himself as victimized by the therapist- or the therapy. Maybe the grievance isn't even real- something paranoid- a delusion that would never occur to you or me."

"Meaning we're normal?"

"Everything's relative."

He smiled. "So you can't remember anything weird happening at the conference."

"Nothing at all."

"This de Bosch- was he controversial in any way? The kind to make enemies?"

"Not that I know, but my only contact with him was through his writings. They're not controversial."

"What about the daughter?"

I thought about that. "Yeah, she could have made enemies- a real sourpuss. But if she's the target of someone's resentment, why would I be? My only link to her was the conference."

He waved the brochure. "Reading this, someone could believe you were esteemed colleagues. She hemmed you in, huh?"

"Expertly. She had clout with the medical director of the hospital. My guess was that it was because she'd treated one of his daughters- a kid with problems- and called in a marker. But it could have been something else completely."

He put his beer bottle down on the coffee table. The dog looked up, then lowered his chin to the floor.

"The kid's voice on the tape," I said. "How does that figure in? And the guy who killed Becky Basille-"

"Hewitt. Dorsey Hewitt. Yeah, I know- what does he have to do with it?"

"Maybe he was treated by the de Bosches, too. Maybe "bad love' was a phrase they used in therapy. But what does that mean? A whole slew of therapy graduates freaking out- getting back at their doctors?"

"Wait a second," said Milo. "I'm sorry about your tape and your nut-call, but that's a far cry from murder." He handed the brochure back to me. "Wonder if Donald Wallace was ever treated by the de Bosches- still waiting for more info from the prison. How're those girls doing?"

"The kinds of problems you'd expect. Documenting a good case against visitation shouldn't be a problem. The grandmother's opening up a bit, too. I went out to the house this afternoon. Her latest husband looks like a retired cholo- lots of homemade tattoos." I described Rodriguez's skin art.

"Dealing with the elite," he said. "You and me both." He crossed his legs and glanced down at the dog: "C'mere, Rove."

The dog ignored him.

"Good dog," he said, and drank his beer.

• • •

He left at ten-thirty. I decided to put off installing the dog door till the next day. Robin called at ten-fifty and told me she'd decided, definitely, to come home early- tomorrow evening at nine. I wrote down her flight number and said I'd be at LAX to pick her up, told her I loved her, and went to sleep.

I was dreaming about something pleasantly sexual when the dog woke me just after three in the morning, growling and pawing the dust ruffle.

I groaned. My eyes felt glued shut.

He pawed some more.

"What?"

Silence.

Scratch scratch.

I sat up. "What is it?"

He did the old-man-choking bit.

Ingress and egress…

Cursing myself for not installing the door, I forced myself out of bed and made my way, blindly, through the dark house to the kitchen. When I opened the service porch door, the dog raced down the stairs. I waited, yawning and groggy, muttering, "Make it fast."

Instead of stopping to squat near the bushes, he kept going and was soon out of sight.

"Ah, exploring new ground." I forced one eye to stay open. Cool air blew in through the door. I looked outside, couldn't see him in the darkness.

When he didn't return after a minute or so, I went down to get him. It took a while to find him, but I finally did- sitting near the carport, as if guarding the Seville. Huffing, and moving his head from side to side.

"What is it, guy?"

Pant, pant. He moved his head faster but didn't budge his body.

I looked around some more, still unable to see much. The mixed smells of night-blooming plants hit my nose, and the first spray of dew moistened my skin. The night sky was hazy, just a hint of moonlight peeking through. Just enough to turn the dog's eyes yellow.

"Hound of the Basketballs," I said, remembering an old Mad magazine sketch.

The dog scratched the ground and sniffed, started turning his head from side to side.

"What?"

He began walking toward the pond, stopping several feet from the fence, just as he had during our first encounter. Then he came to a dead halt.

The gate was closed. It had been hours since the timed lights had shut off. I could hear the waterfall. Peering over the fence, I caught a glimpse of moonstreaked wetness as my eyes started to accommodate.

I looked back at the dog.

Still as a rock.

"Did you hear something?"

Head cock.

"Probably a cat or a possum, pal. Or maybe a coyote, which might be a little too much for you, no offense."

Head cock. Pant. He pawed the ground.

"Listen, I appreciate your watchfulness, but can we go back up now?"

He stared at me. Yawned. Gave a low growl.

"I'm bushed, too," I said, and headed for the stairs. He did nothing until I'd gotten all the way up, then raced up with a swiftness that belied his bulk.

"No more interruptions, okay?"

He wagged his stub cheerfully, jumped on the bed, and sprawled across Robin's side.

Too exhausted to argue, I left him there.

He was snoring long before I was.

• • •

Wednesday morning I assessed my life: crank letters and calls, but I could handle that if it didn't accelerate. And my true love returning from the wilds of Oakland. A balance I could live with. The dog licking my face belonged in the plus column, too, I supposed. When I let him out, he disappeared again and stayed out.

This time he'd gotten closer to the gate, stopping only a couple of feet from the latch. I pushed it open and he took another step.

Then he stopped, stout body angling forward.

His little frog face was tilted upward at me. Something had caused it to screw up, the eyes narrowing to slits.

I anthropomorphized it as conflict- struggling to get over his water phobia. Canine self-help hampered by the life-saving training some devoted owner had given him.

He growled and jutted his head toward the gate.

Looking angry.

Wrong guess? Something near the pond bothering him?

The growls grew louder. I looked over the fence and saw it.

One of my koi- a red and white kohaku, the largest and prettiest of the surviving babies- was lying on the moss near the water's edge.

A jumper. Damn.

Sometimes it happened. Or maybe a cat or coyote had gotten in. And that's what he'd heard…

But the body didn't look torn up.

I opened the gate and went in. The bulldog stepped up to the gatepost and waited as I kneeled to inspect the fish.

It had been torn. But no four-legged predator had done it.

Something was sticking out of its mouth- a twig, thin, stiff, a single shriveled red leaf still attached.

A branch from the dwarf maple I'd planted last winter.

I glanced over at the tree, saw where the bough had been cut off, the wound oxidized almost black.

Clean cut. Hours old. A knife.

I forced my eyes back to the carp.

The branch had been jammed down its gullet and forced down through its body, like a spit. It exited near the anus, through a ragged hole, ripping through beautiful skin and letting loose a rush of entrails and blood that stained the moss cream-gray and rusty brown.

I filled with anger and disgust. Other details began to leap out at me, painful as spattering grease.

A spray of scales littering the moss.

Indentations that might have been footprints.

I took a closer look at them. To my untrained eye, they remained characterless gouges.

Leaves beneath the maple, where the branch had been sheared.

The fish's dead eyes stared up at me.

The dog was growling.

I joined in and we did a duet.

7

I dug a grave for the fish. The sky was Alpine clear, and the beauty of the morning was a mockery of my task.

I thought of another beautiful sky- Katarina de Bosch's slide show. Azure heavens draping her father's wheelchaired form.

Good love/bad love.

Definitely more than just a sick joke now.

Flies were divebombing the koi's torn corpse. I nudged the body into the hole and shoveled dirt over it as the bulldog watched.

"Should have taken you more seriously last night."

He cocked his head and blinked, brown eyes gentle.

The dirt over the grave was a small umber disc that I tamped with my foot. After taking one last look, I dragged myself up to the house. Feeling like a dependent child, I called Milo. He wasn't in and I sat at my desk, baffled and angry.

Someone had trespassed on my property. Someone had watched me.

The blue brochure was on my desk, my name and photo- the perfect logic of trumped-up evidence.

Reading this, someone could believe you were esteemed colleagues.

I phoned my service. Still no callback from Shirley Rosenblatt, Ph.D. Maybe she wasn't Harvey's wife… I tried her number again, got the same recorded message, and slammed down the phone in disgust.

My hand started to close around the brochure, crumpling it, then my eyes dropped to the bottom of the page and I stopped and smoothed the stiff paper.

Other names.

The three other speakers.

Wilbert Harrison, M.D., FACP Practicing Psychoanalyst Beverly Hills, California

Grant P. Stoumen, M.D., FACP Practicing Psychoanalyst Beverly Hills, California

Mitchell A. Lerner, M.S.W., ACSW Psychoanalytic Therapist North Hollywood, California

Harrison, chubby, around fifty, fair, and jolly looking, with dark-rimmed glasses. Stoumen older, bald and prune faced, with a waxed, white mustache. Lerner, the youngest of the three, Afroed and turtlenecked, full bearded, like Rosenblatt and myself.

I had no memory beyond that. The topics of their papers meant nothing to me. I'd sat up on the dais, mind wandering, angry about being there.

Three locals.

I opened the phone book. Neither Harrison nor Lerner was in there, but Grant P. Stoumen, M.D., still had an office on North Bedford Drive- Beverly Hills couch row. A service operator answered, "Beverly Hills Psychiatric, this is Joan."

Same service I used. Same voice I'd just spoken to.

"It's Dr. Delaware, Joan."

"Hi, Dr. Delaware! Fancy talking to you so soon."

"Small world," I said.

"Yeah- no, actually, it happens all the time, we handle lots of psych docs. Who in the group are you trying to reach?"

"Dr. Stoumen."

"Dr. Stoumen?" Her voice lowered. "But he's gone."

"From the group?"

"From- uh… from life, Dr. Delaware. He died six months ago. Didn't you hear?"

"No," I said. "I didn't know him."

"Oh… well, it was really pretty sad. So unexpected, even though he was pretty old."

"What did he die of?"

"A car accident. Last May, I think it was. Out of town, I forget exactly where. He was at some kind of convention and got run over by a car. Isn't that terrible?"

"A convention?"

"You know, one of those medical meetings. He was a nice man, too- never lost patience the way some of the-" Nervous laugh. "Scratch that comment, Dr. D. Anyway, if you're calling about a patient, Dr. Stoumen's were divided up among the rest of the doctors in the group, and I can't be sure which one took the one you're calling about."

"How many doctors are in the group?"

"Carney, Langenbaum, and Wolf. Langenbaum's on vacation, but the other two are in town- take your pick."

"Any recommendations?"

"Well…" Another nervous laugh. "They're both- all right. Wolf tends to be a little better about returning calls."

"Wolf'll be fine. Is that a him or a her?"

"A him. Stanley Wolf, M.D. He's in session right now. I'll put a message on his board to call you."

"Thanks a lot, Joan."

"Sure bet, Dr. D. Have a nice day."

• • •

I installed the dog door, making slow progress because I kept pausing between saw swings and hammer blows, convinced I'd heard footsteps in the house or unwarranted noise out on the terrace.

A couple of times I actually went down to the garden and looked around, hands clenched.

The grave was a dark ellipse of dirt. Dried fish scales and a slick gray-brown stain marked the pond bank.

I went back up, did some touch-up painting around the door frame, cleaned up, and had a beer. The dog tried his new passageway, ingressing and egressing several times and enjoying himself.

Finally, tired and panting, he fell asleep at my feet. I thought about who'd want to scare me or hurt me. The dead fish stayed in my head, a cognitive stench, and I remained wide-awake. At eleven, he awoke and raced for the front door. A moment later, the mail chute filled.

Standard-sized envelopes that I sorted through. One had a Folsom POB return address and an eleven-digit serial number hand-printed above it in red ink. Inside was a single sheet of ruled notebook paper, printed in the same red.

Doctor A. Delaware, Ph.D.

Dear Dr. Delaware, Ph.D.:

I am writing to you to express my feelings about seeing my daughters, namely Chondra Wallace and Tiffani Wallace, as their natural father and legal guardian.

Whatever was done to our family including done by myself and no matter how bad is in my opinion, water under the bridge. And such as it is, I should not be denied permission and my paternity rights to see my lawful, legal daughters, Chondra Wallace and Tiffani Wallace.

I have never done anything to hurt them and have always worked hard to support them even when this was hard. I don't have any other children and need to see them for us to have a family.

Children need their fathers as I'm sure I don't have to tell a trained doctor like yourself. One day I will be out of incarceration. I am their father and will be taking care of them. Chondra Wallace and Tiffani Wallace need me. Please pay attention to these facts.

Yours sincerely,

Donald Dell Wallace

I filed the letter in the thick folder, next to the coroner's report on Ruthanne. Milo called at noon and I told him about the fish. "Makes it more than a prank, doesn't it?"

Pause. "More than I expected."

"Donald Dell knows my address. I just got a letter from him."

"Saying what?"

"One day he'll be out and wanting to be a full-time dad, so I shouldn't deny him his rights now."

"Subtle threat?"

"Could you prove it?"

"No, he could have gotten your address through his lawyer- you're reviewing his claim, so he'd be entitled to it legally. Incidentally, according to my sources he doesn't have an audio recorder in his cell. TV and VCR, yes."

"Cruel and unusual. So what do I do?"

"Let me come over and check out your pond. Notice any footprints or obvious evidence?"

"There were some prints," I said, "though they didn't look like much to my amateur eyes. Maybe there's some other evidence that I wasn't sophisticated enough to spot. I was careful not to disturb anything- oh, hell, I buried the fish. Was that a screw-up?"

"Don't worry about it, it's not like we're gonna do an autopsy." He sounded uneasy.

"What's the matter?" I said.

"Nothing. I'll come by and have a look as soon as I can. Probably the afternoon."

He spoke the last words tentatively, almost turning the statement into a question.

I said, "What is it, Milo?"

"What it is, is that I can't do any full-court press for you on this. Killing a fish just isn't a major felony- at the most, we've got trespassing and malicious mischief."

"I understand."

"I can probably take some footprint molds myself," he said. "For what it's worth."

"Look," I said, "I still don't consider it a federal case. This is cowardly bullshit. Whoever's behind it probably doesn't want a confrontation."

"Probably not," he said. But he still sounded troubled, and that started to rattle me.

"Something else," I said. "Though it's also probably no big deal. I was looking at the conference brochure again and tried to contact the three local therapists who gave speeches. Two weren't listed, but the one who was had been killed this past spring. Hit by a car while attending a psychiatric symposium. I found out because his answering service just happens to be the same one I use and the operator told me."

"Killed here in L.A.?"

"Out of town, she didn't remember where. I've got a call in to one of his associates."

"Symposium," he said. "Curse of the conference?"

"Like I said, it's probably nothing- the only thing that is starting to bug me is I can't reach anyone associated with the de Bosch meeting. Then again, it's been a long time, people move."

"Yeah."

"Milo, you're bugged about something. What is it?"

Pause. "I think, given everything that's been happening- putting it all together- you'd be justified getting a little… watchful. No paranoia, just be extra careful."

"Fine," I said. "Robin's coming home early- tonight. I'm picking her up at the airport. What do I tell her?"

"Tell her the truth- she's a tough kid."

"Some welcome home."

"What time are you picking her up?"

"Nine."

"I'll get over well before then and we'll put our heads together. You want, I can stay at the house while you're gone. Just feed me and water me and tell Rover not to make demands."

"Rover's a hero as far as I'm concerned- he's the one who heard the intruder."

"Yeah, but there was no follow-through, Alex. Instead of eating the sucker, he just stood around and watched. What you've got is a four-legged bureaucrat."

"That's cold," I said. "Didn't you ever watch Lassie?"

"Screw that, my thing was Godzilla. There's a useful pet."

• • •

By three, no one had returned my calls and I felt like a cartoon man on a desert island. I did paperwork and looked out the window a lot. At three-thirty, the dog and I hazarded a walk around the Glen, and when I arrived back home, there were no signs of intrusion.

Shortly after four, Milo arrived, looking hurried and bothered. When the dog came up to him, he paid no mind.

He held an audiocassette in one hand, his vinyl attaché case in the other. Instead of making his usual beeline to the kitchen, he went into the living room and loosened his tie. Putting the case on the coffee table, he handed me the tape.

"The original's in my file. This is your copy."

Seeing it brought back the screams and the chants. That child… I put it in my desk and we went down to the pond, where I showed him the footprints.

He kneeled and inspected for a long time. Stood, frowning. "You're right, these are useless. Looks to me like someone took the time to mess them up."

He checked around the pond area some more, taking his time, getting his pants dirty. "Nope, nothing here worth a damn. Sorry."

That same troubled tone in his voice that I'd heard over the phone. He was holding back something, but I knew it was useless to probe.

Back in the living room, I said, "Something to drink?"

"Later." He opened the vinyl case and took out a brown plastic box. Removing a videocassette from it, he bounced it against one thigh.

The tape was unmarked, but the box was printed with the call letters of a local TV station. Rubber-stamped diagonally across the label was the legend PROPERTY LAPD: EVIDENCE RM. and a serial number.

"Dorsey Hewitt's last stand," he said. "Definitely not for prime time, but there's something I want you to check out- if your stomach can take it."

"I'll cope."

We went into the library. Before inserting the cartridge into the VCR, he peered into the machine's load slot.

"When's the last time you lubricated this?"

"Never," I said. "I hardly use it except to record sessions when the court wants visuals."

He sighed, slid the cartridge in, picked up the remote control, pressed PLAY, and stood back, watching the monitor with his hands folded across his waist. The dog jumped up on a big leather chair, settled, and regarded him. The screen went from black to bright blue and a hiss filtered through the speakers.

A half minute more of blue, then the TV station logo flashed over a digital date, two months old.

Another few moments of video stutter were followed by a long shot of an attractive, one-story brick building, with a central arch leading to a courtyard and wood-grilled windows. Tile roof, brown door to the right of the arch.

Close up on a sign: LOS ANGELES COUNTY MENTAL HEALTH CENTER, WESTSIDE.

Swing back to a long shot: two small, dark-garbed figures crouched on opposite sides of the arch- toylike: G.I. Joe figurines holding rifles.

A side shot revealed police barriers fencing the street.

No sound other than static, but the dog's ears had perked and pitched forward.

Milo raised the volume, and a soup of incomprehensible background speech could be heard above the white noise.

Nothing for a few seconds, then one of the dark figures moved, still squatting, and repositioned itself to the left of the door. Another figure came from around a corner and lowered itself to a deep crouch, both hands on its weapon.

A close-up inflated the new arrival, turning dark cloth into navy blue, revealing the bulk of protective vesting, white letters spelling out LAPD across a broad back. Combat boots. Blue ski mask revealing only eyes; I thought of Munich terrorists and knew something bad was going to happen.

But nothing did for the next few moments. The dog's ears were still stiff and his breathing had quickened.

Milo rubbed one shoe with another and ran his hand over his face. Then the brown door on the screen swung open on two people.

A man, bearded, long-haired, scrawny. The beard, a matted frenzy of blond and gray corkscrews. Above a blemished, knotted forehead, his hair haloed in spiky clumps, recalling a child's clumsily drawn sun.

The camera moved in on him, highlighting dirty flesh, sunken cheeks, bloodshot eyes so wide and bulging they threatened to shoot off the shaggy launchpad of his face.

He was naked from the waist up and sweating furiously. The wild eyes began rotating madly, never blinking, never settling. His mouth was agape, like a dental patient's, but no sound issued forth. He appeared to be toothless.

His left arm was clamped around a heavy black woman, imbedded so tightly in her soft, skirted waist that the fingers disappeared.

The skirt was green. Over it the woman wore a white blouse that had come partially untucked. She was around thirty-five and her face was wet, too- perspiration and tears. Her teeth were visible, lips stretched back in a rictus of horror.

The man's right arm was a bony yoke around her neck. Something silvery flashed in his hand as he pressed it up against her throat.

She closed her eyes and kept them clenched.

The man was leaning her back, pressing her to him, convexing her neck and revealing the full breadth of a big, shiny carving knife. Red-stained hands. Red-stained blade. Only her heels touched the pavement. She was off balance, an unwilling dancer.

The man blinked, darted his eyes, and looked at one of the SWAT cops. Several rifles were aimed at him. No one moved.

The woman trembled and the collaring hand moved involuntarily and brought forth a small red mark from her neck. The blotch stood out like a ruby.

She opened her eyes and stared straight ahead. The man screamed something to her, shook her, and they closed again.

The camera stayed on the two of them, then shifted smoothly to another of the SWAT men.

No one moved.

The dog was standing on the chair, breathing hard.

The bearded man's knife elbow quivered.

The man closed his mouth, opened it. Looked to be screaming at the top of his lungs, but the sound wasn't carrying.

The woman's mouth was still open. Her wound had already coagulated- just a nick.

The man propelled her onto the sidewalk, very slowly. One of her shoes came off. He didn't notice it, was looking from side to side, cop to cop, screaming nonstop.

All at once the sound came on. Very loud. New microphone.

The dog began barking.

The man with the knife screamed, a howling, hoarse and wet.

Panting. Wordless.

Pain scream.

My hands dug into my thighs. Milo faced the screen, immobile.

The bearded man shifted his head from side to side some more, faster, harder, as if being slapped. Screaming louder. Pressing the knife up under the woman's chin.

Her eyes shot open.

The dog's barks turned to growls, guttural and bearish, loud enough to be scary and a lot more threatening than the warning sounds he'd uttered last night.

The man with the knife was directing his screams at a SWAT man to his left, haranguing wordlessly, as if the two of them were friends turned hateful.

The cop might have said something because the madman upped his volume.

Roaring. Shrieking.

The man backed away, hugging the woman more tightly, concealing his face behind hers as he dragged her into the doorway.

Then a smile and a short, sharp twist of his wrist.

Another spot of blood- larger than the first- formed on the woman's throat.

She raised her hands reflexively, trying to bend out from under the knife, losing her balance and stumbling.

Her weight and the movement surprised the man, and for one brief moment, as he tried to keep her upright and haul her backward, he lowered his right arm.

A quick, sharp sound- like a single handclap- and a red dot appeared on the man's right cheek.

He spread his arms. Another dot materialized, just left of the first one.

The woman fell to the pavement as a rain of gunfire sounded- corn popping in an echo chamber. The man's hair blew back. His chest burst, and the front of his face turned into something amoebic and rosy- a pink and white kaleidoscope that seemed to unfold as it imploded.

The hostage was facedown, fetal. Bloodspray showered down on her.

The man, now faceless, slumped and sagged, but he remained on his feet for one hellish second, a gore-topped scarecrow, still gripping the knife as red juice poured out of his head. He had to be dead but he continued to stand, bending at the knees, his ruined head shadowing the hostage's shoulder.

Then all at once he let go of the knife and collapsed, falling on the woman, limp as a blanket. She twisted and struck out at him, finally freed herself and managed to rise to her knees, sobbing and covering her head with her hands.

Policemen ran to her.

One of the dead man's bare feet was touching her leg. She didn't notice it, but a cop did and kicked it away. Another officer, still ski-masked, stood over the faceless corpse, legs spread, gun pointed.

The screen went black. Then bright blue.

The dog was barking again, loud and insistent.

I made a shushing sound. He looked at me, cocked his head. Stared at me, confused. I went over to him and patted his back. His back muscles were jumping and drool trickled from his flews.

"It's okay, fella." My voice sounded false and my hands were cold. The dog licked one of them and looked up at me.

"It's okay," I repeated.

Milo rewound the tape. His jaw was bunched.

How long had the scene lasted- a few minutes? I felt as if I'd aged watching it.

I stroked the dog some more. Milo stared at the numbers on the VCR's counter.

"It's him, isn't it?" I said. "Hewitt. Screaming on my tape."

"Him or a good imitation."

"Who's the poor woman?"

"Another social worker at the center. Adeline Potthurst. She just happened to be sitting at the wrong desk when he ran out after killing Becky."

"How is she?"

"Physically, she's okay- minor lacerations. Emotionally?" He shrugged. "She took disability leave. Refused to talk to me or anyone else."

He ran a hand along the edge of a bookshelf, grazing book spines and toys.

"How'd you figure it out?" I said. "Hewitt on the "bad love' tape?"

"I'm not sure what I figured, actually."

He shrugged. His forelock cast a hat-brim shadow over his brow, and in the weak light of the library, his green eyes were drab.

The tape ejected. Milo put it on an end table and sat down. The dog waddled over to him, and this time Milo looked pleased to see him.

Rubbing the animal's thick neck, he said, "When I first heard your tape, something about it bugged me- reminded me of something. But I didn't know what it was, so I didn't say anything to you. I figured it was probably "bad love'- Hewitt's using the phrase, my reading about it in the clinic director's witness report."

"Had you watched the video before?"

He nodded. "But at the station, with half an ear- a bunch of other detectives sitting around, cheering when Hewitt bit it. Splatter's never been my thing. I was filling out forms, doing paperwork… When you told me about the tape, it still didn't trigger, but I wasn't that bugged. I figured what you did- a bad joke."

"The phone call and the fish make it more than a joke, don't they?"

"The phone call, by itself, is stupidity- like you said, cowardly shit. Someone coming on your property in the middle of the night and killing something is more. All of it put together is more. How much more I don't know, but I'd rather be a little paranoid than get taken by surprise. After we spoke on the phone this afternoon I really wracked my brains about what was bothering me. Went back into the Basille files, found the video, and watched it. And realized it wasn't the phrase that I remembered, it was the screams. Someone had stuck Hewitt's screams on your little gift."

He pulled his wet hand away from the dog's maw, looked at it, wiped it on his jacket.

"Where'd the video come from?" I said. "TV station's raw footage?"

He nodded.

"How much of it was actually broadcast?"

"Not much at all. This TV station has a twenty-four-hour crime-watch van with a scanner- anything for the ratings, right? They got to the scene first and were the only ones to actually record the whole thing. Their total footage is ten minutes or so, mostly no-action standoff before Hewitt comes out with Adeline. What you just saw is thirty-five seconds."

"That's all? It seemed a lot longer."

"Seemed like a goddamn eternity, but that's what it was. The part that actually made it to the six o'clock news was nine seconds. Five of Hewitt with Adeline, three of Rambo close-ups on the SWAT guys, and one second of Hewitt down. No blood, no screaming, no standing dead man."

"Wouldn't sell deodorant," I said, pushing the image of the teetering corpse out of my head. "Why was the sound off for most of it? Technical difficulties?"

"Yup. Loose cable on their parabolic mike. The sound man caught it midway through."

"What did the other stations broadcast?"

"Postmortem analysis by the department mouthpiece."

"So if the screams on my tape were lifted, the source had to be this particular piece of footage."

"Looks that way."

"Meaning what? Mr. Silk's an employee of the TV station?"

"Or a spouse, kid, lover, pal, significant other, whatever. If you give me your patient list, I can try to get hold of the station's personnel records and cross-check."

"Be better if you give me the personnel list," I said. "Let me check it against my patients, so I can preserve confidentiality."

"Fine. Another list you might try to get is the one for your "bad love' conference. Anyone who attended. It was a long time ago, but maybe the hospital keeps records."

"I'll call tomorrow."

He got up and touched his throat. "Now I'm thirsty."

We went into the kitchen, opened beers, and sat at the table, drinking and brooding.

The dog positioned himself between us, licking his lips.

Milo said, "He doesn't get to go for the gusto?"

"Teetotaler." I got up and slid the water bowl over. The dog ignored it.

"Bullshit. He wants hops and malt," said Milo. "Looks like he's closed a few taverns in his day."

"There's a marketing opportunity for you," I said. "Brew a hearty lager for quadrupeds. Though I'm not sure you could set your criteria too high for a species that imbibes out of the toilet."

He laughed. I managed a smile. Both of us trying to forget the videotape. And everything else.

"There's another possibility," I said. "Maybe Hewitt's voice wasn't lifted from the video footage. Maybe he was taped simultaneously by someone at the mental health center. Someone who happened to have a recorder handy the day of the murder and switched it on during the standoff. There'd probably be machines lying around the center, for therapy."

"You're saying there's a therapist behind this?"

"I was thinking more of a patient. Some paranoids make a fetish of keeping records. I've seen some lug tape recorders around with them. Someone who'd been bearing a grudge since seventy-nine could very well be highly paranoid."

He thought about that. "Nutcase with a pocket Sony, huh? Someone you once treated who ended up at the mental health center?"

"Or just someone who remembered me from the conference and ended up at the center. Someone tying me in with bad love- whatever it means to him. Probably anger at bad therapy. Or therapy he perceived as bad. De Bosch's theory has to do with bad mothers letting their kids down. Betrayal. If you think of therapists as surrogate parents, the stretch isn't hard to make."

He put down his bottle and looked at the ceiling. "So we've got a nut, one of your old patients, gone downhill, can't afford private treatment so he's getting county help. Happens to be at the center the day Hewitt freaks out and butchers Becky. Recorder in his pocket- keeping tabs on all the people talking behind his back. He hears the screams, presses RECORD… I guess it's possible- anything's possible in this city."

"If we're dealing with someone who's been stewing for a long time, witnessing Becky Basille's murder and the SWAT scene could have set him off. Hearing Hewitt screaming about bad love could have done it, too, if he'd had experiences with de Bosch or a de Boschian therapist."

He rolled the bottle between his palms. "Maybe. But two nuts with a "bad love' fixation just happening to show up at the same place on the same day is too damned cute for my taste."

"Mine, too," I said.

He drank some more.

"What if it wasn't a coincidence at all, Milo? What if Hewitt and the taper knew each other- even shared a common rage about bad love, de Bosch, therapists in general? If the mental health center's typical, it's a crowded place, patients waiting for hours. It wouldn't be that strange for two disturbed people to get together and discover a mutual resentment, would it? If they were paranoid to begin with, they could have played upon each other's fears and delusions. Confirming for each other that the way they saw the world was valid. The taper might even be someone who wouldn't have been violent under different circumstances. But seeing Hewitt murder his therapist and then seeing Hewitt's face blown off could have pushed him over."

"So now he's ready to do his own therapist? So what's the tape and the call and the fish?"

"Preparing the scene. Or maybe he won't go any further- I don't know. And something else: I might not even be his only target. He might have a current therapist who's in danger."

"Any idea who it could be? From your patient list?"

"No, that's the thing. There's no one who fits. But my patients were all kids. Lots can happen over time."

He sat back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling.

"Speaking of kids," he said. "Where does the kid's voice fit in with your two-nut scenario?"

"I don't know, dammit. Maybe the taper's got a kid. Or he's abducted one- God, I hope not, but that voice stank of coercion, didn't it? So flat- did Hewitt have any children?"

"Nope. The report has him as unmarried, unemployed, un-everything."

"Be good to know who he hung out with at the center. We could also try to verify that my tape was taken from the video footage. Because if it wasn't, we wouldn't have to bother cross-referencing the station personnel list."

He smiled. "And you wouldn't have to expose your patient list, right?"

"Right. That would be a major betrayal. I still can't justify it."

"You're sure it's not any of them?"

"No, I'm not sure, but what am I going to do? Call hundreds of people and ask them if they've grown up to be hate-crazed nuts?"

"No Mr. Silk in your past, huh?"

"Only silk I know is in my ties."

"One thing I can tell you, your tape's not an exact lift off the video. The footage has Hewitt screaming for just over twenty-seven seconds out of the thirty-five, and your segment only lasts sixteen. I had a brief go at it before I came over here- tried running both tapes simultaneously on two machines to see if I could pick out any segments that coincided exactly. I couldn't- it was tricky, going from machine to machine, on-off, on-off, trying to synchronize. And it's not like we're dealing with words, here- doesn't take long before all the screaming starts to sound the same."

"What about doing some kind of voiceprint analysis? Trying to get an electronic match."

"From what I know, you need actual words for a match. And the department doesn't do voiceprints anymore."

"Why not?"

"Probably not enough call. What they're useful for, mostly, is kidnapping ransom calls, and that's usually the FBI's game. Also phone scams, bunco stuff, which is low priority with all the buckets of blood. I think one guy at the sheriff's is still doing them. I'll find out."

The dog finally put his head in the bowl and began slurping water. Milo lifted his bottle, said, "Cheers," and emptied it.

"Why don't you and I try a little bit of low-tech teamwork right now?" I said. "You take audio, I'll take video-"

"And I'll be in Screamland afore ye."

• • •

He took the portable tapedeck into the library and loaded the video. We sat across from one another, listening to screams, trying to shut out the context. Even with two people it was difficult- hard to divide the howls into discrete segments.

We played and rewound, doing it over and over, trying to locate the sixteen seconds of the bad love tape amid the pain and noise of the longer video segment. The dog tolerated only a minute or so before scooting out of the room.

Milo and I stayed and sweated.

After half an hour, a triumph of sorts.

A discrepancy.

A second or two of sing-song, wordless jabber at the tail end of my tape that didn't materialize anywhere on the soundtrack of the video.

Ya ya ya… the screamer lowering his volume just a bit- a barely discernible shift not much longer than an eyeblink. But once I pointed it out, it mushroomed, as obvious as a billboard.

"Two separate taping sessions," I said, as stunned as Milo looked. "Has to be, otherwise why would the shorter tape have something on it that's missing from the longer segment?"

"Yeah," he said quietly, and I knew he was angry at himself for not catching it first.

He sprang to his feet and paced. Looked at his Timex. "When'd you say you were going to the airport?"

"Nine."

"If you're comfortable leaving the place unguarded, I could go get something done."

"Sure," I said, rising. "What?"

"Talk to the clinic director about Hewitt's social life."

He collected his things and we walked to the door.

"Okay, I'm off," he said. "Got the Porsche and the cellular, so you can always reach me if you need to."

"Thanks for everything, Milo."

"What're friends for?"

Ugly answers flashed in my head, but I kept them to myself.

8

Just as I was preparing to head out for LAX, Dr. Stanley Wolf returned my call. He sounded middle-aged and spoke softly and hesitantly, as if doubting his own credibility.

I thanked him and said I'd called about Dr. Grant Stoumen.

"Yes, I got the message." He asked several tortuous questions about my credentials. Then: "Were you a student of Grant's?"

"No, we never met."

"Oh… what do you need to know?"

"I'm being harassed by someone, Dr. Wolf, and I thought Dr. Stoumen might be able to shed some light on it."

"Harassed?"

"Annoying mail. Phone calls. It may be linked to a conference I co-chaired several years ago. Dr. Stoumen delivered a paper there."

"A conference? I don't understand."

"A symposium on the work of Andres de Bosch entitled "Good Love/Bad Love.' The term "bad love' was used in the harassment."

"How long ago was this?"

"Seventy-nine."

"De Bosch- the child analyst?"

"Did you know him?"

"No, child analysis is outside of my… purview."

"Did Dr. Stoumen ever talk about de Bosch- or this particular conference?"

"Not to my recollection. Nor did he mention any… annoying mail?"

"Maybe "annoying' is too mild," I said. "It's fairly nasty stuff."

"Uh-hm." He didn't sound convinced.

I said, "Last night it went a little further. Someone trespassed on my property. I have a fish pond. They took a fish out, killed it, and left it for me to see."

"Hmm. How… bizarre. And you think this symposium's the link?"

"I don't know, but it's all I've got so far. I'm trying to contact anyone who appeared on the dais, to see if they've been harassed. So far everyone I've tried to reach has moved out of town. Do you happen to know a psychiatrist named Wilbert Harrison or a social worker named Mitchell Lerner?"

"No."

"They also delivered papers. The co-chairs were de Bosch's daughter, Katarina, and a New York analyst named Harvey Rosenblatt."

"I see… Well, as I mentioned I'm not a child analyst. And unfortunately, Grant's no longer with us, so I'm afraid-"

"Where did his accident take place?"

"Seattle," he said, with sudden strength in his voice. "At a conference, as a matter of fact. And it wasn't a simple accident. It was a hit-and-run. Grant was heading out for a late-night walk; he stepped off the curb in front of his hotel and was struck down."

"I'm sorry."

"Yes, it was terrible."

"What was the topic of the conference?"

"Something to do with child welfare- the Northwest Symposium on Child Welfare, I believe. Grant was always an advocate for children."

"Terrible," I said. "And this was in May?"

"Early June. Grant was on in years- his eyesight and hearing weren't too good. We prefer to think he never saw it or heard it coming."

"How old was he?"

"Eighty-nine."

"Was he still in practice?"

"A few old patients stopped by from time to time, and he kept an office in the suite and insisted on paying his share of the rent. But mostly he traveled. Art exhibitions, concerts. And conferences."

"His age made him a contemporary of Andres de Bosch," I said. "Did he ever mention him?"

"If he did, I don't recall it. Grant knew lots of people. He was in practice for almost sixty years."

"Did he treat especially disturbed or violent patients?"

"You know I can't discuss his cases, Dr. Delaware."

"I'm not asking about specific cases, just the general tenor of his practice."

"The little that I saw was pretty conventional- children with adjustment problems."

"Okay, thanks. Is there anyone else who could talk to me about him?"

"Just Dr. Langenbaum, and he knows about as much as I do."

"Did Dr. Stoumen leave a widow?"

"His wife died several years ago and they had no children. Now I really do have to get going."

"Thanks for your time, Dr. Wolf."

"Yes… hmm. Good luck on… working this through."

• • •

I got my car keys, left a lot of lights on in the house, and turned on the stereo to loud jazz. The dog was sleeping noisily on his towel bed, but he roused himself and followed me to the door.

"Stay and guard the home front," I said, and he harrumphed, stared for a moment, finally sat down.

I walked out, closed the door, listened for a protest, and when I didn't hear any, went down to the carport. The night had cooled, massaged by sea current. The waterfall seemed deafening and I drove away listening to it diminish.

As I coasted down toward the Glen, a sense of dread dropped over me, dark and smothering, like a condemned man's hood.

I paused at the bottom of the road, looking at black treetops and slate sky. A faint bit of light from a distant house blinked through the foliage like an earthbound star.

No way to gauge its distance. I had no real neighbors because an acre-wide strip of county land, unbuildable due to a quirky water table, cut through this section of the Glen. Mine was the only buildable site on the plot plan.

Years ago the isolation had been just what I wanted. Now a nosy streetmate didn't seem half bad.

A car sped down the Glen from the north, appearing suddenly around a blind curve, going too fast, its engine flatulent with power.

I tensed as it passed, took another look backward, and hooked right, toward the Sunset on-ramp of the 405 south. By the time I got on the freeway, I was thinking of Robin's smile and pretending nothing else mattered.

• • •

Slow night at the airport. Cabbies circled the terminals and skycaps looked at their watches. I found a space in the passenger loading zone and managed to stay there until Robin came out, toting her carry-on.

I kissed her and hugged her, took the suitcase, and put it in the trunk of the Seville. A man in a Hawaiian shirt was looking at her over cigarette smoke. So were a couple of kids with backpacks and surfer hair.

She had on a black silk T-shirt and black jeans, and over that a purple and red kimono-type shirt tied around her waist. The jeans were tucked into black boots with tooled silver toes. Her hair was loose and longer than ever- well past her shoulder blades, the auburn curls bronzed by the light from the baggage claim area. Her skin gleamed and her dark eyes were clear and peaceful. It had been five days since I'd seen her, but it seemed like a long separation.

She touched my cheek and smiled. I leaned in for a longer kiss.

"Whoa," she said, when we stopped, "I'll go away more often."

"Not necessary," I said. "Sometimes there is gain without pain."

She laughed and hugged me and put her arm around my waist. I held the door open as she got in the car. The man in the Hawaiian shirt had turned his back on us.

As I drove away she put her hand on my knee and looked over at the back seat. "Where's the dog?"

"Guarding hearth and home. How was your talk?"

"Fine. Plus I may have sold that archtop guitar I did last summer- the one Joey Shah defaulted on. I met a jazz musician from Dublin who wants it."

"Great," I said. "You put a lot of time into that one."

"Five hundred hours, but who's counting."

She stifled a yawn and put her head on my shoulder. I drove all the way to Sunset before she woke up, shaking her curls. "Boy… must have hit me all of a sudden." Sitting up, she blinked at the streets of Bel Air.

"Home sweet home," she said softly.

I waited until she'd roused herself before telling her the bad news.

• • •

She took it well.

"Okay," she said, "I guess it goes with the territory. Maybe we should move out for a while and stay at the shop."

"Move out?"

"At least till you know what's going on."

I thought of her studio, separated from the mean streets of Venice by a thin veneer of white windows and locks. Saws and drills and wood shavings on the ground floor. The sleeping loft in which we'd made love so many times…

"Thanks," I said, "but I can't stay away indefinitely- the house needs maintenance. Not to mention the fish that're left."

That sounded trivial, but she said, "That poor fish. And you worked so hard to keep them alive."

She touched my cheek.

"Welcome home," I said glumly.

"Don't worry about that, Alex. Let's just figure out how to deal with this stupidity until it's resolved."

"I don't want to put you in any danger. Maybe you should move to the shop-"

"And leave you alone in the middle of this?"

"I just want to make sure you're okay."

"How okay do you think I'm going to be, worrying every minute about you? I mean, the fish are wonderful, Alex, but you can hire someone to feed them. Hire someone to look after the whole house, for that matter."

"Pack up the wagons and head out?"

"What's wrong with being a little cautious, honey?"

"I don't know… it just seems awfully drastic- all that's really happened is malicious mischief."

"So why were you so upset when you told me about it?"

"Sorry. I didn't want to upset you."

"Of course it upsets me," she said. "Someone sending you weird tapes, sneaking in and…" She put her arm around my shoulder. The light changed to green and I turned left.

"Goes with the territory," she repeated. "All those troubled people you've worked with over the years. All that misdirected passion. The surprising thing isn't that it happened. It's how long it took."

"You never said it worried you."

"It wasn't a matter of worry- I didn't obsess on it. Just thought about it from time to time."

"You never said anything."

"What would have been the point? I didn't want to upset you."

I lifted her hand from my shoulder and kissed it.

"Okay," she said, "so we protect each other, Curly. Ain't that what true love's all about?"

• • •

I pulled up in front of the house. No obvious signs of intrusion.

I said, "Just let me check around for a sec before you get out."

"Oh, really," she said. But she stayed in the car.

I gave the pond a quick inspection. The fish moved with nighttime languor, and none was missing.

I jogged up the stairs to the landing, checked the front door, peered in through the living room window. Something moved as the drapes parted. The dog's face pressed against the glass, wetting it. I raised my hand in greeting. He pawed the window. I could hear the jazz through the redwood walls.

By the time I got back down, Robin was lifting her valise from the trunk. When I tried to take it from her, she said, "I've got it," and headed for the steps.

As I unlocked the front door, she said, "We could at least get an alarm. Everyone else has one."

"Never been a slave to fashion," I said, but when she didn't smile, I added, "Okay. I'll call a company tomorrow."

We walked in and almost tripped over the bulldog, who'd positioned himself on the welcome mat. He stared from Robin to me, then back to her, where he lingered with Churchillian dignity.

Robin said, "My God."

"What?" I said.

"He invented cute, Alex. Come here, sweetie." She bent down to his level with one hand extended, palm down.

He trotted forward without hesitation, jumped up, put his paws on her shoulders, and embarked on a lick-fest.

"Ooh!" She laughed. "What a handsome boy you are- what a cutie-look at those muscles!"

She stood, wiping her face, still laughing. The dog continued to nuzzle and paw her legs. His tongue was out and he was panting.

She placed a hand on my shoulder and gave me a grave look. "Sorry, Alex. There is now another man in my life." Bending, she rubbed him behind the ears.

"Crushed," I said, placing a hand over my heart. "And you might reconsider- he doesn't have gonads."

"Them's the breaks," she said, smiling. "Look at that face!"

"Also, he snores."

"So do you, once in a while."

"You never told me."

She shrugged. "I kick you and usually you stop- well, just look at you, you little hunk. Apathy's not your problem, is it?"

She knelt back down and got her face rebathed. "What a doll!"

"Think of the ramifications on your social life," I said. "Meatloaf and kibble by candlelight."

She laughed again and roughed the dog's fur.

As the two of them played, I picked up the suitcase and carried it into the bedroom, checking rooms as I passed, trying not to be obvious. Everything looked fine. I took Robin's clothes out and arranged them on the bed.

When I got back, she was on the leather couch, the dog's head in her lap. "I know this is heartless, Alex, but I hope his owner never calls. How long, legally, do you have to run the ad?"

"I'm not sure."

"There's got to be a limit, right? Some sort of statute of limitations?"

"Probably."

Her smile disappeared. "With my luck someone'll show up tomorrow and cart him off."

She covered another yawn. The dog looked at her, fascinated.

"Tired?" I said.

"A little. Everything okay around here? I'm sure you looked."

"Perfect."

"I'll get unpacked."

"Did it," I said. "Why don't you run a bath? I'll put your stuff away, then join you."

"That's sweet of you, thanks." She looked at the dog. "See, he really is a nice guy, our Dr. D. How 'bout you- you like baths, too?"

"As a matter of fact, he hates the water. Won't even get near it. So it's just you and me, kid."

"How Machiavellian of you- where does he sleep?"

"Last night he slept in the bed. Tonight he moves back into the kitchen."

She pouted.

I shook my head. "Uh-uh, no way."

"Oh, c'mon, Alex. It's just temporary."

"Do you want those eyes watching us?"

"Watching us do what?"

"The crossword puzzle."

"He'll be lonely out there, Alex."

"All of a sudden we're into voyeurism?"

"I'm sure he's a gentleman. And as you so unkindly pointed out, he has no…"

"Balls or no balls, he's a nudist, Robin. And he's got the hots for you. The kitchen."

She tried a bigger pout.

I said, "Put it out of your mind."

"Cruel," she said. "Heartless and cruel."

"Sounds like a law firm. Heartless, Cruel, and Horny- think I'll put 'em on retainer."

• • •

The dog posted himself at the bathroom door as Robin stepped into the suds. She soaped up, and I picked him up and carried him, grumbling, to his towel bed. The moment I put him down, he tried to escape. I closed the kitchen doors and gave him a Milk-Bone and as he began chewing, I snuck out.

He fussed for a while, attempting a sonorous rendition of the old-man-choking bit, but I applied sound behavior theory principles and ignored him, while trying to suppress my guilt. After a minute or so he calmed down and soon I heard him snoring in two-four time.

When I got back, Robin looked at me reproachfully. Her hair was up and the water's soapy surface reached just below her nipples.

"He's fine." I got out of my clothes. "Enjoying the slumber of the truly virtuous."

"Well," she said, putting her arms behind her head and watching, "I suppose it's best."

"Forgiven?" I said, sinking into the heat of the bath.

She contemplated. Breathed in. Smiled.

"I don't know…"

I kissed her. She kissed back. I touched one breast, kissed a soapy nipple.

"Umm," she said, breaking away. "Well…"

"Well, what?"

"You can forget Mr. Cruel and Mr. Heartless, but I think it's time to take a meeting with their partner- what's his name?"

9

Thursday morning she was up and out of the shower by six-fifteen. When I got to the kitchen I expected to see her dressed for work, that restless look in her eyes.

But she was still in her robe, drinking coffee and reading ArtForum. She'd set out food for the dog and only a few bits remained. He was at her feet and looked up at me only briefly before returning his head to the side of her leg.

She put the magazine down and smiled up at me.

I kissed her and said, "You can get going, I'll be fine."

"What if I just want to be with you?"

"That would be great."

"Of course, if you have other plans…"

"Nothing till the afternoon."

"What's then?"

"Patient appointment out in Sun Valley at three-thirty."

"Making a house call?"

I nodded. "Custody case. Some resistance and I want to see the kids in their natural environment."

"Three-thirty? That's good. We can hang out together till then."

"Terrific." I poured myself a cup, sat down, and pointed to the magazine. "What's new in the art world?"

"The usual foolishness." She closed it and pushed it aside. "Actually I have no idea what's going on in the art world or anywhere else. I can't concentrate, Alex. Woke up in the middle of the night, thinking about everything that's been happening to you and that poor psychiatrist up in Seattle. Do you really think there is a connection?"

"I don't know. It was a hit-and-run, but he was eighty-nine and couldn't see or hear well. Like Freud said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar- did you get any sleep?"

"A bit."

"Was I snoring?"

"No."

"Would you tell me if I was?"

"Yes!" She gave my hand a gentle cuff.

"Why didn't you wake me to talk?" I said.

"You were deep asleep. I didn't have the heart."

"Next time wake me."

"We can talk right now, if you want. This whole thing's giving me very definite creeps the more I think about it. I'm worried about you- what will the next call or mail delivery bring?"

"Milo's looking into it," I said. "We'll get to the bottom of it."

I took her hand and squeezed it. She squeezed back hard. "You can't think of anyone who'd want to get back at you? Out of all the patients you've known?"

"Not really. When I worked at the hospital, I saw physically ill kids. In practice, it was basically normal children with adjustment problems." The same kinds of patients Grant Stoumen had treated.

"What about your legal cases? All that custody garbage?"

"Anything's possible, theoretically," I said. "But I've gone through my files and found nothing. The conference has to be the link- bad love."

"What about that madman- Hewitt? Why was he shouting it?"

"I don't know," I said.

She let go of my hand. "He killed his therapist, Alex."

"Guess I could switch careers. But I'm really not good for anything else."

"Be serious."

"Okay- what happened to Becky Basille is the extreme. It's a long way from tapes and a crank call and a mangled carp to murder."

The look on her face made me add: "I'll be careful- scout's honor. I'll call an alarm company- get a referral from Milo."

"You won't consider moving out- just for a while?"

"Let's just see what happens over the next few days."

"What are you waiting for, Alex? Things to get worse? Oh, never mind, let's not bicker."

She got up, shaking her head, and went to the coffeepot for a refill. Stayed there drinking and looking out the window.

"Honey, I'm not trying to tough it out," I said. "I just want to see what Milo comes up with before I shake up our lives completely. Let's at least give him a day or two to look into it, okay? If he doesn't, we'll move to the studio temporarily."

"A day or two? You've got a deal." The dog padded over to her. She smiled at him, then at me. "Maybe I'm overdoing it. Was the tape that bad?"

"Bizarre," I said. "Like some kind of sick gag."

"It's the sick part that bothers me."

The dog snorted and jangled his collar. She took some cheese out of the fridge, told him to sit, and rewarded his obedience with small bites. He gobbled noisily and licked his flews.

"What do you call this?" she said. "Operant conditioning?"

"A-plus," I said. "Next week's topic is stress management."

She grinned. The last bit of cheese disappeared amid the soft folds of the dog's mouth. Robin washed her hands. The dog continued to sit and stare at her. "Shouldn't we give him a name, Alex?"

"Milo calls him Rover."

"Figures."

"I've stuck with "hey, you' because I keep expecting someone to call and claim him."

"True… why get attached… are you hungry? I can dish something up."

"Why don't we go out?"

"Go out?"

"Like normal people."

"Sure, I'll go change."

The sparkle in her eyes made me say, "How about changing into something semi-fancy and we can hit the Bel Air?"

"The Bel Air? What are we celebrating?"

"The new world order."

"If only there was one. What about him?"

"Milk-Bone en le kitchen," I said. "I don't have a suit that fits him."

• • •

She put on a silver crepe de chine blouse and a black skirt and I found a lightweight sportcoat, brown turtleneck, and khaki slacks that looked decent. I told my service where I'd be and we took Sunset to Stone Canyon Road and drove up the half mile to the Bel Air Hotel. Pink-shirted valets opened our doors and we walked across the covered bridge to the main entrance.

Swans glided below in the still, green pond, cutting through the water with blissful ignorance. A white lattice marriage canopy was being set up on the banks. Huge pine and eucalyptus umbrellaed the grounds, air-conditioning the morning.

We passed through the pink stucco arcade hung with black-and-white photos of monarchs gone by. The stone pathways had been freshly watered, the ferns dripped dew, and the azaleas were in bloom. Room service waiters rolled carts to sequestered suites. An emaciated, androgynous, long-haired thing in brown velvet sweats walked past us unsteadily, carrying The Wall Street Journal under one atrophied arm. Death was in its eyes, and Robin bit her lip.

I held her arm tighter and we entered the dining room, exchanged smiles with the hostess, and were seated near the French doors. Several years ago- soon after we'd met- we'd lingered right here over dinner and seen Bette Davis through those same doors, gliding across the patio in a long, black gown and coronation-quality diamonds, looking as serene as the swans.

This morning, the room was nearly empty and none of the faces had a measurable Q-rating, though all looked well tended. An Arab in an ice cream suit drank tea, alone, at a corner table. An elderly, dewlapped couple who could have been pretenders to a minor throne whispered to each other and nibbled on toast. In a big booth at the far end, half a dozen dark suits sat listening to a crewcut, white-haired man in a red T-shirt and khakis. He was telling a joke, gesturing expansively with an unlit cigar. The other men's body language was half humble servant, half Iago.

We had coffee and took a long time deciding what to eat. Neither of us felt like talking. After a few moments, the silence began to feel like a luxury and I relaxed.

We finished a couple of fresh grapefruit juices and put in our breakfast order, holding hands until the food came. I'd just taken the first bite of my omelet when I spotted the hostess approaching. Two steps ahead of someone else.

A tall, broad someone, easily visible over her coiffure. Milo's jacket was light blue- a tint that clashed with his aqua shirt. Pigeon-gray pants and brown-and-blue-striped tie rounded off the ensemble. He had his hands in his pockets and looked dangerous.

The hostess kept her distance from him, clearly wanting to be somewhere else. Just before she reached our table, he stepped ahead of her. After kissing Robin, he took a chair from another table and pulled it up perpendicular to us.

"Will you be ordering, sir?" said the hostess.

"Coffee."

"Yes, sir." She walked away hastily.

Milo turned to Robin. "Welcome home. You look gorgeous, as ever."

"Thank you, Milo-"

"Flight okay?"

"Just fine."

"Every time I'm up in one of those things I wonder what gives us the right to break the law of gravity."

Robin smiled. "To what do we owe the honor?"

He ran his hand over his face. "Has he told you about what's going on?"

She nodded. "We're thinking of moving into the shop until things clear up."

Milo grunted and looked at the tablecloth.

The waiter brought the coffee and a place setting. Milo unfolded the napkin over his lap and drummed a spoon on the table. As the coffee was being poured, he glanced around the room, lingering on the suits in the far booth.

"Meals and deals," he said, after the waiter left. "Either showbiz or crime."

"There's a difference?" I said.

His smile was immediate but very weak- it seemed to torment his face.

"There's a new complication," he said. "This morning I decided to have a go at the computer, tracking down any references to "bad love' in the case files. I really didn't expect to find anything, just trying to be thorough. But I did. Two unsolved homicides, one three years old, the other five. One beating, one stabbing."

"Oh God," said Robin.

He covered her hand with his. "Hate to spoil your breakfast, kids, but I wasn't sure when I'd be able to catch both of you. Service said you were here."

"No, no, I'm glad you came." She pushed her plate away and gripped Milo's hand.

"Who got killed?" I said.

"Does the name Rodney Shipler mean anything to you?"

"No. Is he a victim or a suspect?"

"Victim. What about Myra Paprock?"

He spelled it. I shook my head.

"You're sure?" he said. "Neither of them could have been old patients?"

I repeated both names to myself. "No- never heard of them. How does "bad love' figure into their murders?"

"With Shipler- he was the beating- it was scrawled on a wall at the crime scene. With Paprock, I'm not sure what the connection is yet. The computer just threw out "bad love' under "miscellaneous factors'- no explanation."

"Did the same detectives work both cases?"

He shook his head. "Shipler was in Southwest Division, Paprock over in the valley. Far as I can tell, the cases were never cross-referenced- two years apart, different parts of the city. I'm going to try to get the actual case files this afternoon."

"For what it's worth," I said, "I spoke to Dr. Stoumen's associate last night. The accident was a hit-and-run. It happened in Seattle, in June of last year."

Milo's eyebrows rose.

"It may have just been a hit-and-run," I said. "Stoumen was almost ninety, couldn't see or hear well. Someone ran into him as he stepped off a curb."

"At a psych conference."

"Yes, but unless Shipler or Paprock were therapists, what link could there be?"

"Don't know what they were yet. The computer doesn't give out that level of detail."

Robin's head had dropped, curls spilling onto the table. She looked up, clear eyed. "So what do we do?"

"Well," said Milo, "you know I'm not Mr. Impulsive, but with everything we've got here- nut mail, nut call, dead fish, two cold-case homicides, hazardous conferences-" He looked at me. "Moving's not a bad idea. At least till we find out what the hell's going on. But I wouldn't go to the shop. Just in case whoever's bothering Alex has done enough research on him to know the location."

She looked out the window and shook her head. He patted her shoulder.

She said, "I'm fine. Let's just figure out where we're going to live." She looked around. "This place ain't shabby- too bad we're not oil sheiks."

"As a matter of fact," said Milo, "I think I've got an option for you. Private client of mine- investment banker I moonlighted for last year. He's in England for a year, put his house up for rent, and hired me to keep an eye on the premises. It's a nice size place and not that far from you. Beverly Hills PO, off Benedict Canyon. It's still empty- you know the real estate market- and he's coming back in three months, so he unlisted it. I'm sure I can get his permission for you to use it."

"Benedict Canyon." Robin smiled. "Close to the Sharon Tate house?"

"Not far, but the place is as safe as you're gonna get. The owner's security conscious- has a big art collection. Electric gates, closed-circuit TV, screaming siren alarm."

It sounded like prison. I didn't say a thing.

"The alarm's hooked up to Beverly Hills PD," he went on. "And their response time's averaging two minutes- maybe a little longer up in the hills, but still damn good. I'm not going to tell you it's home, chillun, but for temporary lodgings you could do worse."

"And this client of yours won't mind?"

"Nah, it's a piece of cake."

"Thanks, Milo," said Robin. "You're a doll."

"No big deal."

"What do I do about my work? Can I go to the shop?"

"Wouldn't hurt to avoid it for a few days. At least until I find out more about these unsolveds."

She said, "I had orders piled up before I went to Oakland, Milo. The time I spent up there already set me back." She grabbed her napkin and crushed it. "I'm sorry, here you are getting threatened, baby, and I'm griping…"

I took her hand and kissed it.

Milo said, "In terms of work, you could set up shop in the garage. It's a triple and there's only one car in it."

"That's big enough," said Robin, "but I can't just pack up the table saw and the band saw and cart them over."

"I may be able to help you with that, too," said Milo.

"An alternative," I said, "would be moving to the studio and hiring a guard."

"Why take a chance?" said Milo. "My philosophy is when trouble calls, don't be there to answer the doorbell. You can even take Rover with. Owner keeps cats- a friend's taking care of them now, but we're not talking pristine environment."

"Sounds good," I said, but my throat had gone dry and a refugee numbness was rising up from my feet. "As long as we're talking critters, there're the rest of the koi. The pond maintenance people can probably board them for a while- time to get organized."

Robin began folding her napkin, over and over, ending up with a small, thick wad that she pressed between her hands. Her knuckles were ivory knobs and her lips were clamped together. She gazed over my shoulder, as if peering into an uncertain future.

The waiter came over with the coffeepot, and Milo waved him away.

From the big booth came the sound of male laughter. The levity had probably been going on for a while, but I heard it now because the three of us had stopped talking.

The Arab got up from his table, smoothed his suit, put cash on the table, and left the dining room.

Robin said, "Guess it's time to hitch up the wagons," but she didn't move.

"This whole thing seems so unreal," I said.

"Maybe it'll turn out we've hassled for nothing," Milo said, "but you two are among the few humans I hold any positive regard for, so I do feel an obligation to protect and serve."

He looked at our barely touched food and frowned. "This'll set you back some."

"Have some." I pushed my plate toward him.

He shook his head.

"The stress diet," I said. "Let's write a book and hit the talk-show circuit."

• • •

He followed us home in an unmarked Ford. When the three of us stepped into the house, the dog thought it was a party and began jumping around.

"Take a Valium, Rover," said Milo.

"Be nice to him," said Robin, kneeling and holding her arms out. The dog charged her and she tussled with him for a second, then stood. "I'd better figure out what I'm going to need to take."

She left for the bedroom, dog at heel.

"True love," said Milo.

I said, "Is there anything more you want to tell me?"

"You mean, am I shielding her from gory details? No. Didn't figure I should."

"No, of course not," I said. "I just- I guess I still want to protect her."

"Then you're doing the right thing by moving."

I didn't answer.

"Nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "The protective instinct. I keep my work out of Rick's face, he does the same for me."

"If anything happened to her…" From the back of the house came Robin's footsteps, rapid and intermittent.

Pause and decision.

Dull sounds as clothing hit the bed. Soft, sweet words as she talked to the dog.

I paced some more, circling, trying to focus… what to take, what to leave… looking at things I wouldn't be seeing for a while.

"Ring around the rosy," he said. "Now you're looking like me when I'm uptight."

I ran my hand over my face. He laughed, unbuttoned his jacket, and pulled a notepad and pen out of an inner pocket. He was wearing his revolver in a brown cowhide hip holster.

"Do you have any more details for me?" he said. "Like about the psychiatrist- Stoumen?"

"Just the approximate date- early June- and the fact that the conference was the Northwest Symposium on Child Welfare. I'm pretty sure it's sponsored by the Child Welfare League, and they have an office here in town. Maybe you can pry an attendance roster out of them."

"You have a go at the Western Pediatric roster yet?"

"No. I'll try right now."

I called the hospital and asked for the Office of Continuing Education. The secretary told me records of past symposia were only kept for one year. I asked her to check anyway and she did.

"Nothing, doctor."

"There're no archives or anything?"

"Archives? With our budget problems we're lucky to get bedpans, doctor."

Milo was listening in. When I hung up, he said, "Okay, scratch that. Onward. I'm going to hook up with the FBI's violent crime data bank and see if "bad love' shows up on any out-of-town homicides."

"What about Dorsey Hewitt?" I said. "Could he have killed Shipler and Paprock?"

"Let me try to find out if he was living in L.A. during their murders. I'm still trying to get hold of Jean Jeffers, the clinic director- see if Hewitt had clinic buddies."

"The taper," I said. "You know, that second session could have taken place the day of the murder- someone taping Hewitt right after he killed Becky. Before he ran out and the TV mikes picked him up. That's pretty damn cold- almost premeditated. Same kind of mind who could turn a child's voice robotic. What if the taper knew exactly what Hewitt was going to do and was ready to tape him?"

"An accomplice?"

"Or at least a knowing confederate. Someone who knew Becky was going to die, but didn't stop it."

He stared at me. Grimaced. Wrote something down. Said, "Ready to start packing now?"

• • •

It took an hour or so for Robin and me to throw together suitcases, plastic shopping bags, and cardboard cartons. A smaller collection than I would have expected.

Milo and I carried all of it into the living room, then I called my pond maintenance people and arranged for them to collect the fish.

When I returned to the pile, Milo and Robin were staring at it. She said, "I'm going to go over to the shop and get the small tools and the breakable things together- if that's okay."

"Sure, just be careful," said Milo. "Anyone weird hanging around, just turn around and come back."

"Weird? This is Venice we're talking about."

"Relatively speaking."

"Gotcha." She took the dog with her. I walked her down to her truck and watched as they drove away. Milo and I had a couple of Cokes, then the doorbell rang and he went to get it. After looking through the peephole, he opened the door and let in three men- boys, really, around nineteen or twenty.

They were thick faced and had power lifters' rhino physiques. Two white, one black. One of the white ones was tall. They wore perforated tank tops, knee-length baggies in nauseating color combinations, and black lace-up boots that barely closed around their tree-stump calves. The white boys had their hair cut very short, except at the back, where it fringed around their excessive shoulders. The black's head was shaved clean. Despite their bulk, all three seemed awkward- intimidated.

Milo said, "Morning, campers, this is Dr. Delaware. He's a psychologist, so he knows how to read your minds. Doctor, this is Keenan, Chuck, and DeLongpre. They haven't figured out what to do with their lives yet, so they abuse themselves over at Silver's Gym and spend Keenan's money. Right, boys?"

The three of them smiled and cuffed one another. Through the open door I saw a black van parked near the carport. Jacked-up suspension, black-matte reversed hubcaps, darkened windows, diamond-shaped bulb of black plastic set into the side panel, a skull-and-crossbones decal just below that.

"Tasteful, huh?" said Milo. "Tell Dr. Delaware who recovered your wheels for you, after a miscreant scumbag junkie made off with it because you left it on Santa Monica Boulevard with the key in the ignition."

"You did, Mr. Sturgis," said the shorter white boy. He had a crushed nose, puffy lips, a very deep voice, and a slight lisp. The confession seemed to relieve him and he gave a big grin. One of his canines was missing.

"And who didn't charge you his usual private fee because you'd run out of trust fund that month, Keenan?"

"You didn't, sir."

"Was that a gift?"

"No, sir."

"Am I a chump?"

Shake of the thick head.

"What did I demand in return, boys?"

"Slave labor!" they shouted in unison.

He nodded and rapped the back of one hand against the palm of the other. "Payoff time. All this stuff goes into the Deathmobile. The really heavy gear's over in Venice- Pacific Avenue. Know where that is?"

"Sure," said Keenan. "Near Muscle Beach, right?"

"Very good. Follow me there and we'll see what you're made of. Once you're finished, you'll keep your mouths shut about it. Period. Understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"And be careful with it- pretend it's bottles of liver shake or something."

10

We met up with Robin and loaded her pickup. Watching her shop empty made her blink, but she wiped her eyes quickly and said, "Let's go."

We set up a caravan- Milo in the lead, Robin and the dog in the truck, me in the Seville, the van trailing- and headed back to Sunset, passing Beverly Glen as if it were someone else's neighborhood, entering Beverly Hills, and driving north onto Benedict Canyon.

Milo turned off on a narrow road, poorly paved and sided with eucalyptus. A cheerless, white iron gate appeared fifty feet up. He slipped a card key into a slot and it opened. The caravan continued up a steep pebbled drive hedged with very high columns of Italian cypress that looked slightly moth-eaten. Then the road kinked and we descended another two or three hundred feet, toward a shallow bowl of an unshaded lot, maybe half an acre wide.

A low, off-white one-story house sat in the bowl. A long, straight, concrete drive led to the front door. As I got closer I saw that the entire property was hilltop, the depression an artificial crater scalped from the tip.

Canyon and mountain views surrounded the property. Lots of brown slopes and a few green spots, flecked with the lint of occasional houses. I wondered if mine could be seen from up here, looked around but couldn't get my bearings.

The house was wide and free of detail, roofed too heavily with deep brown aluminum tile supposed to simulate shake, and windowed with aluminum-cased rectangles.

A flat-topped detached garage was separated from the main building by an unfenced paddle tennis court. A ten-foot satellite dish perched atop it, aimed at the cosmos.

A few cactus and yuccas grew near the house, but that was it in terms of landscaping. What could have been front lawn had been converted to concrete pad. An empty terra cotta planter sat next to the coffee-colored double doors. As I got out of the car, I noticed the TV camera above the lintel. The air was hot and smelled sterile.

I got out and went over to Robin's truck.

She smiled. "Looks like a motel, doesn't it?"

"Long as the owner's not named Norman."

The black van dieseled as its ignition shut down. The three beef-boys exited and threw open the rear doors. Tarped machines filled the cabin. The boys did some squats and grunts and began unloading.

Milo said something to them, then waved to us. His jacket was off but he still wore his gun. The heat had returned.

"Crazy weather," I said.

Robin got out and lifted the dog out of the pickup. We walked to the front door, and Milo let us into the house.

The floor was white marble streaked with pink, the furniture teakwood and ebony and bright blue velour. The far wall was taken up by single, light French doors. All the others were covered with paintings- hung frame to frame, so that only scraps of white plaster were visible.

The doors looked out onto a yard encircled by a nearly invisible fence- glass panes in thin iron frames. A strip of sod-grass separated a cement patio from a long, narrow lap pool. The pool had been dug at the edge of the lot- someone aiming for a merge-with-the-sky effect. But the water was blue and the sky was gray and the whole thing ended up looking like an off-balance cubist sculpture.

The dog ran to the French doors and tapped the glass with his paws. Milo let him out and he squatted in the grass before returning.

"Make yourself right at home, why don't you." To us: "Called London, everything's set up. There'll be a token rent, but you don't have to worry about it until he gets back."

We thanked him. He dusted off one of the couches and I studied the art. Impressionist pictures that looked French and important nudged up against pre-Raphaelite mythology. Syrupy, Orientalist harem scenes neighbored with English hunt paintings. Modern pieces, too: a Mondrian, a Frank Stella chevron, a Red Grooms subway cartoon, something amorphous fashioned out of neon.

The dining area was all Maxfield Parrish: cobalt skies, heavenly forests, and beautiful blond boys.

Lots of nude male statuary, too. A lamp whose black granite base was a limbless, muscular torso- Venus de Milo in drag. A framed cover from The Advocate commemorating the Christopher Street riot side by side with a Paul Cadmus drawing of a reclining Adonis. A framed Arrow Man shirt ad from an old issue of Collier's kept company with a black-and-white gelatin print of a Paul Newman lookalike in nothing but a G-string. I felt less comfortable than I would have expected. Or maybe it was just the suddenness of the move.

Milo brought us back to the door and demonstrated the closed-circuit surveillance system. Two cameras- one in front, the other panning the rear of the house, two black-and-white monitors mounted over the door. One of them captured the three behemoths, shlepping and swearing.

Milo opened the door and shouted, "Careful!" Closing it, he said, "What do you think?"

"Great," I said. "Plenty of space- thanks a lot."

"Beautiful view," said Robin. "Really gorgeous."

We followed him into the kitchen and he opened the door of a Sub-Zero cooler. Empty except for a bottle of cooking sherry. "I'll get you some provisions."

Robin said, "Don't worry, I can take care of that."

"Whatever… Let's get you a bedroom- you've got your choice of three."

He took us down a wide, windowless hallway lined with prints. A wall clock in a mother-of-pearl case read two thirty-five. In less than an hour, I was expected in Sunland.

Robin read my mind: "Your afternoon appointment?"

"What time?" said Milo.

"Three-thirty," I said.

"Where?"

"Wallace's mother-in-law. I'm supposed to see the girls out there. No reason not to go, is there?"

He thought for a moment. "None that I can see."

Robin caught the hesitation. "Why should there be a reason?"

"This particular case," I said, "is potentially ugly. Two little girls, their father killed their mother and now wants visitation-"

"That's absurd."

"Among other things. The court asked me to evaluate and make a recommendation. In the very beginning Milo and I talked about the father possibly being behind the tape. Trying to intimidate me. He's got a criminal record and hangs with an outlaw motorcycle gang that's been known to use strongarm tactics."

"This creep's walking free?"

"No, he's locked up in prison. Maximum security at Folsom, I just got a letter from him, telling me he's a good father."

"Wonderful," she said.

"He's not behind this. It was just a working guess, until I learned about the "bad love' symposium. My problems have something to do with de Bosch."

She looked at Milo. He nodded.

"All right," she said, taking hold of my jacket lapel and kissing my chin. "I'm going to stop being Mama Bear and go about my business."

I held her around the waist. Milo looked away.

"I'll be careful," I said.

She put her head on my chest.

The dog began pawing the floor.

"Oedipus Rover," said Milo.

Robin pushed me away gently. "Go help those poor little girls."

• • •

I took Benedict into the valley and picked up the Ventura Freeway at Van Nuys Boulevard. Traffic was hideous all the way to the 210 and beyond, and I didn't make it to McVine until 3:40. When I got to the Rodriguez house, no cars were parked in front and no one answered my ring.

Evelyn showing her displeasure at my tardiness?

I tried again, knocked once, then harder, and when that brought no response, went around to the back. Managing to hoist myself up high enough to peer over the pink block wall, I scanned the yard.

Empty. Not a toy or a piece of furniture in sight. The inflatable pool had been put away, the garage was shut, and drawn drapes blocked the rear windows.

Returning to the front, I checked the mailbox and found yesterday's and today's deliveries. Bulk stuff, coupon giveaways, and something from the gas company.

I put it back and looked up and down the street. A boy of around ten zoomed by on rollerblade skates. A few seconds later, a red truck came speeding down from Foothill and for an instant I thought it was Roddy Rodriguez's. But as it passed, I saw that it was lighter in shade than his and a decade newer. A blond woman sat in the driver's seat. A big yellow dog rode in the bed, tongue out, watchful.

I returned to the Seville and waited for another twenty-five minutes, but no one showed up. I tried to recall the name of Rodriguez's masonry company and finally did- R and R.

Driving back to Foothill Boulevard, I headed east until I spotted a phone booth at an Arco station. The directory had been yanked off the chain, so I called information and asked for R and R's address and phone number. The operator ignored me and switched over to the automated message, leaving me only the number. I called it. No one answered. I tried information a second time and got a street address- right on Foothill, about ten blocks east.

The place was a gray-topped lot, forty or fifty feet behind a shabby brown building. Surrounded by barbed link, it had a green clapboard beer bar on one side, a pawnshop on the other.

The property was empty except for a few brick fragments and some paper litter. The brown building looked to have once been a double garage. Two sets of old-fashioned hinge doors took up most of the front. Above them, ornate yellow letters shouted R AND R MASONRY: CEMENT, CINDER, AND CUSTOM BRICK. Below that: RETAINING WALLS OUR SPECIALTY, followed by an overlapping R's logo meant to evoke Rolls-Royce fantasies.

I parked and got out. No signs of life. The padlock on the gate was the size of a baseball.

I went over to the pawnshop. The door was locked and a sign above a red button said, PRESS AND WAIT. I obeyed and the door buzzed but didn't open. I leaned in close to the window. A man stood behind a nipple-high counter, shielded by a Plexiglas window.

He ignored me.

I buzzed again.

He made a stabbing motion and the door gave.

I walked past cases filled with cameras, cheap guitars, cassette decks and boomboxes, pocket knives and fishing rods.

The man was managing to examine a watch and check me over at the same time.

He was sixty or so, with slicked, dyed-black hair and a pumpkin-colored bottle tan. His face was long and baggy.

I cleared my throat.

He said, "Yeah?" through the plastic and kept looking at the watch, turning it over with nicotined fingers and working his lips as if preparing to spit. The window was scratched and cloudy and outfitted with a ticket-taker remote speaker that he hadn't switched on. The store had soft, wooden floors and stank of WD-40, sulfur matches, and body odor. A sign over the gun display said NO LOONIES.

"I'm looking for Roddy Rodriguez next door," I said. "Have some work for him to do on a retaining wall."

He put the watch down and picked up another.

"Excuse me," I said.

"Got something to buy or sell?"

"No, I was just wondering if you knew when Rodriguez was-"

He turned his back on me and walked away. Through the Plexiglas I saw an old desk full of papers and other timepieces. A semiautomatic pistol served as a paperweight. He scratched his butt and held the watch up to a fluorescent bulb.

I left and walked over to the bar two doors down. The green board was rubbed to raw timber in spots and the front door was unmarked. A sun-shaped neon sign said, SUNNY'S SUN VALLEY. A single window below it was filled with a Budweiser sign.

I walked in, expecting darkness, billiard clicks, and a cowboy jukebox. Instead, I got bright lights, ZZ Top going on about a Mexican whore, and a nearly empty room not much larger than my kitchen.

No pool table- no tables of any kind. Just a long, pressed-wood bar with a black vinyl bumper and matching stools, some of them patched with duct tape. Up against the facing wall were a cigarette machine and a pocket comb dispenser. The floor was grubby concrete.

The man working the bar was thirtyish, fair, balding, stubbled. He wore tinted eyeglasses and one of his ears was double pierced, hosting a tiny gold stud and a white metal hoop. He had on a soiled white apron over a black T-shirt, and his chest was flabby. His arms were soft looking, too, white and tattooed. He wasn't doing much when I came in, and he continued along those lines. Two men sat at the bar, far from each other. More tattoos. They didn't move either. It looked like a poster for National Brain Death Week.

I took a stool between the men and ordered a beer.

"Draft or bottle?"

"Draft."

The bartender took a long time to fill a mug, and as I waited I snuck glances at my companions. Both wore billed caps, T-shirts, jeans, and work shoes. One was skinny, the other muscular. Their hands were dirty. They smoked and drank and had tired faces.

My beer came and I took a swallow. Not much head and not great, but not as bad as I'd expected.

"Any idea when Roddy'll be back?" I said.

"Who?" said the bartender.

"Rodriguez- the masonry guy next door. He's supposed to be doing a retaining wall for me and he didn't show up."

He shrugged.

"Place is closed," I said.

No answer.

"Great," I said. "Guy's got my goddamned deposit."

The bartender began soaking glasses in a gray plastic tub.

I drank some more.

ZZ gave way to a disc jockey's voice, hawking car insurance for people with bad driving records. Then a series of commercials for ambulance-chasing lawyers polluted the air some more.

"When's the last time you've seen him around?" I said.

The bartender turned around. "Who?"

"Rodriguez."

Shrug.

"Has his place been closed for a while?"

Another shrug. He returned to soaking.

"Great," I said.

He looked over his shoulder. "He never comes in here, I got nothing to do with him, okay?"

"Not much of a drinker?"

Shrug.

"Fucking asshole," said the man on my right.

The skinny one. Sallow and pimpled, barely above drinking age. His cigarette was dead in the ashtray. One of his index fingers played with the ashes.

I said, "Who? Rodriguez?"

He gave a depressed nod. "Fucking greaser don't pay."

"You worked for him?"

"Fucking A, digging his fucking ditches. Then the roach coach comes by for lunch and I wanna advance so's to get a burrito. He says sorry, amigo, not till payday. So I'm adios, amigo, man."

He shook his head, still pained by the rejection.

"Asshole," he said, and returned to his beer.

"So he shafted you, too," I said.

"Fucking A, man."

"Any idea where I can find him?"

"Maybe Mexico, man."

"Mexico?"

"Yeah, all a them beaners got second homes there, got they extra wives and they little taco-tico kids, send all they money there."

I heard a metallic click to the left, looked over, and saw the muscular man light up a cigarette. Late twenties or early thirties, two-day growth of heavy beard, thick, black Fu Manchu mustache. His cap was black and said CAT. He blew smoke toward the bar.

I said, "You know Rodriguez, too?"

He gave a long, slow headshake and held out his mug.

The bartender filled it, then extended his own hand. The mustachioed man jostled the pack until a cigarette slid forward. The bartender took it, nodded, and lit up.

Guns 'n Roses came on the radio.

The bartender looked at my half-empty mug. "Anything else?"

I shook my head, put money down on the bar, and left.

"Asshole," said the skinny man, raising his voice to be heard over the music.

• • •

I drove back to the Rodriguez house. Still dark and empty. A woman across the street was holding a broom, and she began looking at me suspiciously.

I called over: "Any idea when they'll be back?"

She went inside her house. I drove away and got back on the freeway, exiting on Sunset and heading north on Beverly Glen. I realized my error just as I completed the turn, but continued on to my house anyway, pulling up in front of the carport. Looking over my shoulder with paranoid fervor, I decided it was safe to get out of the car.

I walked around my property, looking, remembering. Though it made no sense, the house already looked sad.

You know how places get when they're empty…

I took a quick look at the pond. The fish were still there. They swam up to greet me and I obliged with food.

"See you guys," I said, and left, wondering how many would survive.

11

I made it to Benedict a few minutes later.

The black van and the unmarked were gone. Two of the three garage doors were open and I saw Robin inside, wearing work clothes and goggles, standing behind her lathe.

She saw me coming and turned off the machine. A gold BMW coupe was parked in the third garage. The rest of the space was a near duplicate of the Venice shop.

"Looks like you're all set up," I said.

She pushed her goggles up on her forehead. "This isn't too bad, actually, as long as I leave the door open for ventilation. How come you're back so soon?"

"No one home."

"Flake out on you?"

"It looks like they're gone for a while."

"Moved out?"

"Must be the week for it."

"How could you tell?"

"Two days' mail in the box and her husband's business was padlocked."

"Considerate of her to let you know."

"Etiquette isn't her strong suit. She wasn't thrilled about my evaluation in the first place, though I thought we were making progress. She probably took the girls out of state- maybe Hawaii. When I spoke to her yesterday she made a crack about a Honolulu vacation. Or Mexico. Her husband may have family there… I'd better call the judge."

"We set up an office for you in one of the bedrooms," she said, leaning over and pecking my cheek. "Gave you the one with the best view, plus there's a Hockney on the wall- two guys showering." She smiled. "Poor Milo- he was a little embarrassed about it- started muttering about the "atmosphere.' Almost apologizing. After all he did to help us. I sat him down and we had a good talk."

"About what?"

"Stuff- the meaning of life. I told him you could handle the atmosphere."

"What he say to that?"

"Just grunted and rubbed his face the way he does. Then I made coffee and told him if he ever learned to play an instrument I'd build one for him."

"Safe offer," I said.

"Maybe not. When we were talking, it came up that he used to play the accordion when he was a kid. And he sings- have you ever heard him?"

"No."

"Well, he sang for me this afternoon. After some prodding. Did an old Irish folk song- and guess what? He's got a really nice voice."

"Basso profundo?"

"Tenor, of all things. He used to be in the church choir when he was a little boy."

I smiled. "That's a little hard to picture."

"There's probably a lot about him you don't know."

"Probably," I said. "Each year I get in touch with more of my ignorance… Speaking of grunts, where's our guest?"

"Sleeping in the service porch. I tried keeping him here while I worked, but he kept charging the machines- he was ready to take on the bandsaw when I got him out of here and locked him in."

"Tough love, huh? Did he do his little strangulation routine?"

"Oh, sure," she said. She put her hand around her throat and made a gagging sound. "I yelled at him to be quiet and he stopped."

"Poor guy. He probably thought you were going to be his salvation."

She grinned. "I may be sultry and sensual, but I ain't easy."

• • •

I let the dog loose, gave him time to pee outside, and took him into my new office. A chrome-and-glass-topped desk was pushed up against one wall. My papers and books were piled neatly on a black velour couch. The view was fantastic, but after a few minutes I stopped noticing it.

I phoned superior court, got Steve Huff in his chambers, and told him about Evelyn Rodriguez's no-show.

"Maybe she just forgot," he said. "Denial, avoidance, whatever."

"I think there's a good chance she's gone, Steve." I described Roddy Rodriguez's locked yard.

"Sounds like it," he said. "There goes another one."

"Can't say that I blame her. When I saw her two days ago, she really opened up about the girls' problems. They're having plenty of them. And Donald wrote me a letter- no remorse, just tooting his own horn as a good dad."

"Wrote you a letter?"

"His lawyer's been calling me, too."

"Any intimidation?"

I hesitated. "No, just nagging."

"Too bad. No law against that… no, can't say that I blame her either, Alex- off the record. Do you want to wait and try again, or just write up your report now- document all the crap she told you?"

"What's the difference?"

"The difference is how quickly you want to get paid versus how much lead time you want to give her, if she has hightailed it. Once you put it in writing and I receive it, I'm obligated to send it over to Bucklear. Even with reasonable delays he gets it in a couple of weeks or so, then he files paper and gets warrants out on her."

"A murderer gets warrants on a grandmother taking her grandkids out of town? Do we file that under "I for irony' or "N for nuts'?"

"Do I take that to mean you'll wait?"

"How much lead time can I give her?"

"A reasonable period. Consistent with typical medical-psychological practice."

"Meaning??"

"Meaning what shrinks normally do. Three, four, even five weeks wouldn't chafe any hides- you guys are notorious for being sloppy about your paperwork. You might even stretch it to six or seven- but you never heard that from me. In fact, we never had this talk, did we?"

"Judge who?" I said.

"Attaboy- oops, bailiff's buzzing me, time to be Solomonic again, bye-bye." I put the phone down. The bulldog placed his paws on my knees and tried to get up on my lap. I lifted him and he settled on me like a warm hunk of clay. At least thirty pounds.

The Hockney was right in front of me. Great painting. As was the Thomas Hart Benton drawing on the opposite wall- a mural study depicting hypermuscular workmen cheerfully constructing a WPA dam.

I looked at both of them for a while and wondered what Robin and Milo had talked about. The dog stayed as motionless as a little furry Buddha. I rubbed his head and his jowls and he licked my hand. A boy and his dog… I realized I hadn't gotten the number for the bulldog club, yet. Almost five p.m. Too late to call the AKC.

I'd do it tomorrow morning.

Denial, avoidance, whatever.

• • •

That night I slept fitfully. Friday morning at eight I phoned North Carolina and got an address for the French Bulldog Club of America, in Rahway, New Jersey. A post office box. No phone number was available.

At eight-ten, I called the Rodriguez house. A phone company recording said that line had been disconnected. I pictured Evelyn and the girls barreling over a dirt road in Baja, Rodriguez following in his truck. Or maybe the four of them, wandering through Waikiki with glazed tourists' eyes. If only they knew how much we had in common now…

I began unpacking books. At eight thirty-five, the doorbell rang and Milo appeared on one of the TV monitors, tapping a foot and carrying a white bag.

"Breakfast," he said, as I let him in. "I already gave Ms. Castagna hers. God, that woman works- what've you been doing?"

"Getting organized."

"Sleep okay?"

"Great," I lied. "Thanks a lot for setting us up."

He looked around. "How's the office?"

"Perfect."

"Great view, huh?"

"To die for."

We went into the kitchen and he took some onion rolls and two Styrofoam cups of coffee out of the bag.

We sat at a blue granite table. He said, "What's your schedule like today?"

"It's pretty open now that the Wallace thing's on hold. Looks like Grandma decided to take matters into her own hands."

I recounted what I'd found in Sunland.

He said, "They're probably better off. If you feel like taking on a little assignment, I've got one for you."

"What?"

"Go over to the Mental Health Center and talk to Ms. Jean Jeffers. I finally got through to her- she actually called me back last night, which I thought was pretty cool for a bureaucrat. Better attitude than I expected, too. Down to earth. Not that she shouldn't cooperate, after what happened to Becky. I told her we'd come across some harassment crimes- didn't go into specifics- that we had reason to believe might be coming from one of her patients. Someone we also had reason to believe was a buddy of Hewitt's. Mentioning his name got her going- she went on about how Becky's murder had traumatized all of them. Still sounds pretty shook up."

He tore an onion roll into three pieces, placed the segments on the table like monte cards, picked one up, and ate it.

"Anyway, I asked her if she knew who Hewitt hung out with and she said no. Then I asked her if I could look at her patient roster, and she said she wanted to help but no- the confidentiality thing. So I threw Tarasoff at her, hoping she didn't know the law that well. But she did: no specific threat against a specific victim, no Tarasoff obligation. At that point, I played my trump card: told her the department had a consultant doing some profiling work for us on psycho crimes- a genuine "pee aitch dee' who respected confidentiality and would be discreet, and I gave her your name in case maybe she heard of you. And guess what, she thought she had. Especially after I told her you were semi-famous."

"Hoo-hah."

"Hoo-hah to the max. She said she couldn't promise anything, but she'd be willing to at least talk to you. Maybe there'd be some way to work something out. The more we talked, the friendlier she got. My feeling is she wants to help but is afraid of being burned by more publicity. So be gentle with her."

"No brass knucks," I said. "How much do I tell her?"

He ate another piece of roll. "As little as possible."

"When can she see me?"

"This afternoon. Here's the number." He took a scrap of paper out of his pocket, gave it to me, and stood.

"Where you going?" I said.

"Over the hill. Van Nuys. Try to find out what I can about who cut up Myra Paprock five years ago."

After he was gone, I called in for messages- still nothing from Shirley Rosenblatt in New York- then wrote a letter to the bulldog club informing them I'd found what might possibly be a member's pet. At nine-thirty, I phoned Jean Jeffers and was put through to her secretary, who sounded as if she'd been expecting me. An appointment with Ms. Jeffers was available in an hour if I was free.

I grabbed a roll, put on a tie, and left.

• • •

The center was in a block of cheerless, pastel-colored apartments, in a quiet part of West L.A. not far from Santa Monica. An old, working-class district, near an industrial park whose galloping expansion had been choked off by hard times. Constructus interruptus had left its mark all over the neighborhood- half-framed buildings, empty lots dug out for foundations and left as dry sumps, pigeon-specked FOR SALE signs, boarded-up windows on condemned prewar bungalows.

The clinic was the only charming bit of architecture in sight. Its front windows were barred, but boxes filled with begonias hung from the iron. The spot on the sidewalk where Dorsey Hewitt had fallen dead was clean. But for a couple of trash-choked shopping carts in front, it could have been a private sanitarium.

A generous lot next door was two-thirds empty and marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. NO PATIENT PARKING. I decided a consultant qualified as someone's employee, and parked there.

I made my way back to the front of the building, passing the section of wall that had been obsessed upon by the TV camera. A cement cornerstone etched with names of forgotten politicos stated that the building had been dedicated as a veterans clinic in 1919. The door Hewitt had come out of was just to the right, unmarked and locked- two locks, each almost as large as the one sealing Roddy Rodriguez's brickyard.

The main entrance was dead center, through a squat arch leading to a courtyard with an empty fountain. A loggia to the right of the fountain- the path Hewitt would have taken to get to the unmarked door- was sectioned off by thick steel mesh that looked brand-new. An open hallway on the opposite side led me around the fountain to glass-paned doors.

A blue-uniformed guard stood behind the doors, tall, old, black, chewing gum. He looked me over and unlatched one of the doors, then pointed to a metal detector to his left- one of those walk-through airport things. I set it off and had to give the guard my keys before passing silently.

"Go 'head," he said, handing them back.

I walked up to a reception desk. A young black woman sat behind more mesh. "Can I help you?"

"Dr. Delaware for Ms. Jeffers."

"One minute." She got on the phone. Behind her were three other women at desks, typing and talking into receivers. The windows behind them were barred. Through the bars, I saw trucks, cars, and shadows- the gray, graffitied walls of an alley.

I was standing in a small, unfurnished area painted light green and broken only by a single door to the right. Claustrophobic. It reminded me of the sally port at the county jail and I wondered how a paranoid schizophrenic or someone in crisis would handle it. How easy it would be for someone with a muddled psyche to make it from the no-parking lot, through the metal detector, to this holding cell.

The receptionist said, "Okay, she's all the way down at the end," and pressed a button. The door buzzed- not quite as loudly as the one at the pawnshop, but just as obnoxiously- and I opened it and stepped into a very long, cream-colored hall marked by lots of doors. Thick, gray carpeting covered the floor. The light was very bright.

Most of the doors were blank, a few were labeled THERAPY, and even fewer bore slide-in signs with people's names on them. The cream paint smelled fresh; how many coats had it taken to cover up the blood?

The corridor was silent except for my footsteps- the kind of womblike damping that comes only from real soundproofing. As I made my way to the end, a door on the left opened, spilling out people but no noise.

Three people, two women and a man, poorly dressed and shuffling. Not a group; each walked alone. The man was lantern-jawed and stooped, the women heavy and red-faced, with cracked swollen legs and stringy hair. All of them looked down at the carpet as they passed me. They grasped small white pieces of paper, "Rx" stamped at the top.

The room they'd exited was classroom-sized and crowded with another thirty or so people queued up before a metal desk. A young man sat at the desk, talked briefly to each person who stood before him, then filled out a prescription blank and handed it over with a smile. The people in line scuffed forward as automatically as cans on a conveyor belt. Some of them held out their hands in anticipation before they got to the doctor. None of them left without paper, none seemed cheered.

I resumed walking. The door at the end had a slide-in that said JEAN JEFFERS, MSW, LCSW. DIRECTOR.

Inside was a five-by-five secretarial area occupied by a young, full-faced, Asian woman. Her desk was barely big enough to hold a PC and a blotter. The wall behind her was so narrow that a dark, mock wood door almost filled it. A radio on an end table played soft rock almost inaudibly. A nameplate in front of the computer said MARY CHIN.

She said, "Dr. Delaware? Go right in, Jean will see you."

"Thank you."

She began to open the door. A woman caught it from the other side and pulled it all the way back. Forty-five or so, tall and blond. She wore a crimson shirtdress gathered at the waist by a wide, white belt.

"Doctor? I'm Jean." She held out her hand. Almost as big as mine, lanolin soft. The left one bore a ruby solitaire ring over a broad, gold wedding band.

More white in her teardrop earrings and a mock ivory bracelet around one wrist. A sensible-looking watch encircled the other.

She had a strong frame and carried no extra fat. The belt showed off a firm waist. Her face was long, lightly tanned, with soft, generous features. Only her upper lip had been skimped upon by nature- not much more than a pencil line. Its mate was full and glossed. Dark blue eyes studied me from under black lashes. Gold-framed half-glasses hung from a white cord around her neck. Her hair was frosted almost white at the tips, clipped short in back and layered back at the sides. Pure utility except for a thick, Veronica Lake flap in front. It swooped to the right, almost hiding her right eye. A handsome woman.

She flipped her hair and smiled.

"Thanks for seeing me," I said.

"Of course, doctor. Please have a seat."

Her office was the standard twelve-by-twelve setup, with a real wood desk, two upholstered armchairs, a three-drawer double file, a nearly empty bookcase, and some paintings of seagulls. On the desk were a pen, a memo pad, and a short stack of file folders.

A photo in a standup frame was centered on one of the shelves- she and a nice-looking, heavyset man about her age, the two of them in Hawaiian shirts and bedecked with leis. Social work diplomas made out to Jean Marie LaPorte were propped on another shelf, all from California colleges. I scanned the dates. If she'd graduated college at twenty-two, she was exactly forty-five.

"You're a clinical psychologist, right?" she said, sitting behind the desk.

I took one of the chairs. "Yes."

"You know, when Detective Sturgis mentioned your name I thought I recognized it, though I still can't figure out from where."

She smiled again. I returned it.

She said, "How does a psychologist come to be a police consultant?"

"By accident, really. Several years ago I was treating some children who'd been abused at a day-care center. I ended up testifying in court and getting involved in the legal system. One thing led to another."

"Day-care center- the man who took pictures? The one involved with that horrible molesters' club?"

I nodded.

"Well, that must be where I remember your name from. You were quite a hero, weren't you?"

"Not really. I did my job."

"Well," she said, sitting forward and pushing hair out of her eyes, "I'm sure you're being modest. Child abuse is so- to tell you the truth, I couldn't work with it myself. Which may sound funny considering what we deal with here. But children-" She shook her head. "It would be too hard for me to find any sympathy for the abusers even if they were once victims themselves."

"I know what you mean."

"To me that's the lowest- violating a child's trust. How do you manage to deal with it?"

"It wasn't easy," I said. "I saw myself as the child's ally and tried to do whatever helped."

"Tried? You don't do abuse work anymore?"

"Occasionally, when it comes up as part of a custody case. Mostly I consult the court on trauma and divorce issues."

"Do you do any therapy at all?"

"Not much."

"Me, neither." She sat back. "My main goal in school was to become a therapist, but I can't remember the last time I actually did any real therapy."

She smiled again and shook her head. The wave of hair covered her eyes and she flipped it back- a curiously adolescent mannerism.

"Anyway," she said, "about what Detective Sturgis wants, I just don't know how I can really help. I really need to safeguard our people's confidentiality- despite what happened to Becky." She folded her lips inward, lowered her eyes, and shook her head.

I said, "It must have been terrifying."

"It happened too quickly to be terrifying- the terrifying part didn't hit me until after it was over- seeing her… what he… now I really know what they mean by posttraumatic stress. No substitute for direct experience, huh?"

She pressed the skinny upper lip with one finger, as if keeping it still.

"No one knew what he was doing to her. I was right here, going about my business the whole time he was- the treatment rooms are totally soundproofed. He-" She removed her finger. A white pressure circle dotted her lip, then slowly faded.

"Then I heard noise from the hall," she said. "That horrible screaming- he just kept screaming."

" 'Bad love,' " I said.

Her mouth remained open. The blue eyes dulled for a second. "Yes… he… I went out to Mary's office and she wasn't there, so I opened the door to the hall and saw him. Screaming, waving it- the knife- splashing blood, the wall- he saw me- I saw his eyes settle on me- focusing- and he kept screaming. I slammed the door, shoved Mary's desk up against it, and ran back into my office. Slammed that door and blocked it. I hid behind my chair the whole time it was… it wasn't till later that I found out he'd grabbed Adeline." She wiped her eyes. "I'm sorry, you don't need to hear this."

"No, no, please."

She glanced at her message pad. Blank. Picking up the pen, she wrote something on it.

"No, that's it- I've told it so many times… no one knows how long he- if she suffered for a long time. That's the one thing I can hope. That she didn't. The thought of her trapped in there with him…" She shook her head and touched her temples. "They soundproofed the rooms back in the sixties, when this place was a Vietnam veterans' counseling center. We sure don't need it."

"Why's that?"

"Because no one does much therapy around here."

She took a deep breath and slapped her hands lightly on the desk. "Life goes on, right? Would you like something to drink? We've got a coffee machine in the other wing. I can have Mary go get some."

"No, thanks."

"Lucky choice." Smile. "It's actually pretty vile."

"How come no one does much therapy?" I said. "Too disturbed a population?"

"Too disturbed, too poor, too many of them. They need food and shelter and to stop hearing voices. The preferred treatment is Thorazine. And Haldol and lithium and Tegretol and whatever else chases the demons away. Counseling would be a nice luxury, but with our caseload it ends up being a very low priority. Not to mention funding. That's why we don't have any psychologists on our staff, just caseworkers, and most of them are SWAs- assistants. Like Becky."

"On the way in I saw a doctor giving out prescriptions."

"That's right," she said. "It's Friday, isn't it? That's Dr. Wintell, our once-a-week psychiatrist. He's just out of his residency, a real nice kid. But when his practice builds up, he'll be out of here like all the others."

"If no one does therapy, what was Becky doing with Hewitt in the therapy room?"

"I didn't say we never talk to our people, just that we don't do much insight work. Sometimes we get cramped for space and the workers use the treatment rooms to do their paperwork. Basically, all of us use what's on hand. As to what Becky was doing with him, it could have been anything. Giving him a voucher for an SRO hotel, telling him where to get deloused. Then again, maybe she was trying to get into his head- she was that kind of person."

"What kind is that?"

"An optimist. Idealistic. Most of us start out that way, don't we?"

I nodded. "Did Hewitt have a history of violence?"

"None that was listed in our files. He'd been arrested just a few weeks before for theft and was due to stand trial- maybe she was counseling him about that. There was nothing on paper that would have warned us. And even if he was violent, there's a good chance the information would never have gotten to us, with all the red tape."

She put down her pen and looked at me. Flipped her hair. "The truth is, he was exactly like so many others who come in and out of here- there's still no way to know."

She picked up one of the folders.

"This is his file. The police confiscated it and returned it, so I guess it's not confidential anymore."

Inside were only two sheets, one clipped to each of the covers. The first was an intake form listing Dorsey Hewitt's age as thirty-one and his address as "none." Under REASON FOR REFERRAL someone had written "multiple social problems." Under DIAGNOSIS: "prob. chron. schiz." The rest of the categories- PROGNOSIS, FAMILY SUPPORT, MEDICAL HISTORY, OTHER PSYCH. TREATMENT-had been left blank. Nothing about "bad love."

At the bottom of the form were notations of referral for food stamps. The signature read, "R. Basille, SWA."

The facing page was white and smooth, marked only with the notation, "Will follow as needed, R.B., SWA." The date was eight weeks prior to the murder. I handed the folder back.

"Not much," I said.

She gave a sad smile. "Paperwork wasn't Becky's forte."

"So you have no idea how many times she actually saw him?"

"Guess that doesn't say much for my administrative skills, does it? But I'm not one of those people who believes in riding the staff, checking out every little picayune detail. I try to find the best people I can, motivate them, and give them room to move. Generally it works out. With Becky…"

She threw up her hands. "She was a doll, a really sweet person. Not much for rules and regulations, but so what?"

She shook her head. "We'd talked about it- helping her get her paperwork in on time. She promised to try, but to tell the truth, I didn't harbor much hope. And I didn't care. Because she was productive where it counted- getting on the phone all day with agencies and arguing for every last penny for her cases. She stayed late, did whatever it took to help them. Who knows? Maybe she was going that extra mile for Hewitt."

She picked up the phone. "Mary? Coffee, please… No, just one."

Putting it down, she said, "The real horror is that it could happen again. We have a steel corral now, to direct them out onto the street after they get their meds. The county finally sent us a guard and the detector, but you tell me how to predict which of them is going to blow."

"We're not very good prophets under the best of circumstances."

"No, we're not. Hundreds of people file in here each week, for meds and vouchers. We've got to let them in. We're the court of last resort. Any of them could be another Hewitt. Even if we wanted to lock them up, we couldn't. The state hospitals that haven't been shut down are filled to capacity- I don't know what your theory is about psychosis, but mine is that most psychotics are born with it- it's biological, like any other illness. But instead of treating them, we demonize them or idealize them, and they get caught in the squeeze between the do-gooders who think they should be allowed to run free and the skinflints who think all they need is to pull themselves up by the bootstraps."

"I know," I said. "When I was in grad school the whole community psych thing was in full bloom- schizophrenia as an alternative lifestyle, liberating patients from the back wards and empowering them to take over their own treatment."

"Empowering." She laughed without opening her mouth.

"I had a professor who was a fanatic on the subject," I said. "Studied the mental health system in Belgium or somewhere and wrote a book on it. He had us do a paper on deinstitutionalization. The more I researched it, the less feasible it seemed. I started to wonder what would happen to psychotics who needed medication and couldn't be counted upon to take it. He handed the paper back with one comment, "Medication is mind control,' and gave me a C-minus."

"Well, I give you an A. Some of our patients can't be counted upon to feed themselves, let alone calibrate dosage. In my opinion, deinstitutionalization's the major culprit in the homeless problem. Sure, some street people are working folks who hit the skids, but at least thirty or forty percent are severely mentally debilitated. They belong in hospitals, not under some freeway. And now with all the weird street drugs out there, the old cliché that the mentally ill aren't violent just isn't true anymore. Each year it gets uglier and uglier, Dr. Delaware. I pray there won't be another Hewitt, but I don't count on it."

"Do you try at all to identify which patients are violent?"

"If we have police records, we take them seriously, but like I said, that's rare. We've got to be our own police here. If someone goes around making threats, we call security. But most of them are quiet. Hewitt was. Didn't really relate to anyone else that I'm aware of- that's why we're probably not going to be much help to Detective Sturgis. What exactly is he after, anyway?"

"Apparently, he suspects Hewitt had a friend who may be harassing some people, and he's trying to find out if the friend was a patient here."

"Well, after Sturgis called me I asked some of the other workers if they'd seen Hewitt with anyone, and none of them had. The only one who might have known was Becky."

"Is she the only one who worked with him?"

She nodded.

"How long had she been working here?"

"A little over a year. She got her assistantship from junior college last summer and applied right afterward. One of those second careers- she'd worked as a secretary for a while, decided to go back to school in order to do something socially important- her words."

Her eyes flickered and her mouth set- the lower lip compressing and making her look older.

"Such a sweet girl," she said. She shook her head, then looked at me. "You know- I just thought of something. Hewitt's attorney- the one defending him on that theft thing? He might know if Hewitt had any friends. I think I've got his name tucked away somewhere- hold on."

She went to the file, opened the middle drawer, and began flipping. "Just one second, so much junk in here… He called me- the attorney- after Becky's murder. Wanting to know if there was anything he could do. I think he wanted to talk- to get his own guilt off his chest. I didn't have time for… ah, here we go."

She pulled out a piece of cardboard stapled with business cards. Working a staple free with her fingernails, she removed a card and gave it to me.

Cheap white paper, green letters.

Andrew Coburg

Attorney-at-Law

The Human Interest Law Center

1912 Lincoln Avenue

Venice, California

"Human interest law," I said.

"I think it's one of those storefront things."

"Thanks," I said, pocketing the card. "I'll pass it along to Detective Sturgis."

The door opened and Mary came in with the coffee.

Jean Jeffers thanked her and told her to tell someone named Amy that she'd be ready to see her in a minute.

When the door closed, she began stirring her coffee.

"Well," she said, "it was nice talking to you. Sorry I couldn't do more."

"Thanks for your time," I said. "Is there anyone else I could talk to who might be able to help?"

"No one I can think of."

"What about the woman he took hostage?"

"Adeline? Now there's a really sad story. She'd transferred over here a month before from a center in South Central because she had high blood pressure and wanted a safer environment."

She threw up her hands again and gave a sour laugh.

"Any particular reason Hewitt grabbed her?" I said.

"You mean did she know him?"

"Yes."

She shook her head. The hair flap obscured her eye and she left it there. "Just pure bad luck. She happened to be sitting at a desk in the hall, working, just as he was running out, and he grabbed her."

She walked me to the door. People kept coming out of the psychiatrist's office. She looked at them.

"How can you ever know someone like that, anyway?" she said. "When you get down to it, how can you ever really know anyone?"

12

I decided to drive to Andrew Coburg's office and tender an appeal to his human interest. Getting onto Pico, I drove to Lincoln and headed south into Venice.

The Human Interest Law Center turned out, indeed, to be a storefront- one of three set into an old mustard-colored, one-story building. The brick facade was chipped. Next door was a liquor store advertising screwtop wine on special. The other side was vacant. On the window was painted DELI *** LUNCH & DINNER.

The law office window was papered with wrinkled aluminum foil. An American flag hung over the doorway. Printed on one of the white stripes was KNOW YOUR RIGHTS.

The door was closed but unlocked. As I pushed it open a bell tinkled, but no one came out to greet me. In front of me was a particle-board partition. A black arrow pointed left and handpainted signs said WELCOME! and BIENVENIDOS! A mass of noise- voices, phone rings, clicking typewriter keys- came from the other side.

I followed the arrow around the partition to a single large room, long and narrow. The walls were gray-white and crowded with bulletin boards and posters, the ceiling a high, dark nest of ductwork, electrical wiring, and stammering fluorescent tubes.

No secretary or receptionist. Eight or nine mismatched desks were spread around the room, each equipped with a black dial phone, a typewriter, and a facing chair. Behind each chair was a U-shaped construction of PVC tubing. White muslin curtains hung from the frame- the kind used for mock privacy in hospitals. Some of the curtains were drawn, others were open. Shoes and cuffs were visible beneath the hems of the drawn drapes.

Young people sat behind the desks, talking into phones or to people in the chairs. The clients were mostly black or Hispanic. Some looked asleep. One of them- an old man of indeterminate race- held a terrier mutt on his lap. A few small children wandered around looking lost.

The desk nearest to me was occupied by a dark-haired man wearing a green plaid suit jacket, white shirt, and bolo tie. He needed a shave, his hair was greased, and his face was as sharp as an icepick. Though the phone receiver was cradled under his chin, he didn't appear to be talking or listening, and his eyes drifted over to me.

"What can I do for you?"

"I'm looking for Andrew Coburg."

"Back there." Making a small, meaningless movement with his head. "But I think he's with someone."

"Which desk?" I said.

He put the phone down, swiveled, and pointed to a station in the center of the room. Drapes drawn. Dirty sneakers and an inch of hairy shin below the hem of the muslin.

"Okay if I wait?"

"Sure. You an attorney?"

"No."

"Sure, wait." He picked up the phone and began dialing laboriously. Someone must have answered, because he said, "Yeah, hi, it's Hank, over at H.I. Yeah, me too- yeah." Laughter. "Listen, what about that nolo we talked about? Go and check- yeah, I think so. Yeah."

I stood against the partition and read the posters. One featured a bald eagle on crutches and said HEAL OUR SYSTEM. Another was printed in Spanish- something to do with immigraciÓn and liberaciÓn.

The sharp-faced man started talking in lawyer's jargon, jabbing the air with a pen and laughing intermittently. He was still on the phone when the curtains at Andrew Coburg's station parted. An emaciated man wearing a filthy cableknit sweater and cutoff shorts got up. He was bearded and had matted hair, and my chest tightened when I saw him because he could have been Dorsey Hewitt's brother. Then I realized I was seeing the brotherhood of poverty and madness.

He and Coburg shook hands and he left, eyes half closed. As he passed me I backed away from the stench. He passed close to the man named Hank, too, but the lawyer didn't notice, kept talking and laughing.

Coburg was still standing. He wiped his hands on his pants, yawned and stretched. Early thirties, six one, two hundred. Pear shaped, fair haired, arms slightly too short for his long-waisted body. His hair was brass colored, worn full at the sides with no sideburns. He had a soft face, fine features, and rosy cheeks, had probably been a beautiful baby.

He wore a chambray work shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbows, loosened paisley tie five years too narrow, rumpled khakis, saddle shoes. The laces on one shoe were untied.

Stretching again, he sat, picked up his phone, and began dialing. Most of the other lawyers were on the phone now. The room sounded like a giant switchboard.

I walked over to him. His eyebrows rose as I sat down, but he didn't show any signs of annoyance. Probably used to walk-ins.

He said, "Listen, gotta go," into the phone. "What's that? Fine- I accept that, just as long as we have a clear understanding, okay? What?… No, I've got someone here. Okay. Bye. Cheers."

He hung up and said, "Hi, how can I help you?" in a pleasant voice. His tie was clipped with an unusual bit of jewelry: red guitar pick glued to a silver bar.

I told him who I was and that I was trying to locate any friends of Dorsey Hewitt.

"Dorsey. One of my triumphs," he said, all the pleasantness gone. He sat back, crossed his legs. "So what paper do you work for?"

"I'm a psychologist. Just like I said."

He smiled. "Really?"

I smiled back. "Scout's honor."

"And a police consultant, too."

"That's right."

"You don't mind if I see some ID, do you?"

I showed him my psych license, my med school faculty card, and my old LAPD consultant's tag.

"The police," he said, as if he still couldn't believe it. "Is that a problem for you?"

"In what way?"

"Working with the police mentality? All that intolerance- the authoritarianism."

"Not really," I said. "Police officers vary, like anyone else."

"That hasn't been my experience," he said. There was a jar of licorice sticks near his typewriter. He took one and held out the container.

"No, thanks."

"High blood pressure?"

"No."

"Licorice raises it," he said, chewing. "Mine tends to be low. I'm not saying they're intrinsically bad- the police. I'm sure most of them start out as okay human beings. But the job corrupts- too much power, too little accountability."

"I guess the same could be said for doctors and lawyers."

He smiled again. "That's no comfort." The smile stayed on his face, but it began to look out of place. "So. Why does a police consultant need to know anything about Dorsey's friends?"

I gave him the same explanation I'd offered Jean Jeffers.

Midway through, his phone rang. He picked it up, said, "What? Okay, sure… Hi, Bill, what is it? What? What? You've got to be kidding! No walkie, no talkie- I mean it. This is a bullsquat misdemeanor we're talking abou- I don't care what else he's- okay, you do that. Good idea. Go ahead. Talk to him and get back to me. Bye."

He put the phone down. "Where were we? Oh, yeah, harassment. What kind?"

"I don't know all the details."

He pulled his head back and squinted. His neck was thick, but soft. His short arms folded over his abdomen and didn't move. "Cops ask you to consult but don't let you in on the details? Typical. I wouldn't take the gig."

Not seeing any way out of it, I said, "Someone's been sending people harassing tapes with what may be Hewitt's voice on them- screaming "bad love'- the same thing he screamed after he murdered Becky Basille."

Coburg thought for a minute. "So? Someone taped him off the TV. No shortage of strange souls out there. Keeps both of us busy."

"Maybe," I said. "But the police think it's worth looking into."

"Who's getting these tapes?"

"That I don't know."

"Must be someone important for the cops to go to all this trouble."

I shrugged. "You could ask them." I recited Milo's name and number. He didn't bother to write it down.

Taking another licorice stick from the jar, he said, "Tapes. So what's the big deal?"

"The police are wondering if Hewitt might have had a close friend- someone influenced by what he did. Someone with the same dangerous tendencies."

"Influenced?" He looked puzzled. "What, some kind of harassment club? Street people going after the good citizenry?"

"Hewitt wasn't exactly harmless."

He began twisting the licorice stick. "Actually, he was. He was surprisingly harmless when he took his medicine. On one of his good days, you might have met him and found him a nice guy."

"Was he off his medicine when he committed the murder?"

"That's what the coroner says. Too much alcohol, not enough Thorazine. Given the biochemistry, he must have stopped eating pills a week or so before."

"Why?"

"Who knows? I doubt it was a conscious decision-"hmm, guess I won't take my meds this morning and let's see how the day goes.' More likely he ran out, tried to get a refill, and ran into such a hassle he gave up. Then, as he got crazier and crazier, he probably forgot all about the pills and why he was taking them in the first place. Happens all the time to people at the bottom. Every detail of daily living's a struggle for them, but they're expected to remember appointments, fill out forms, wait in line, follow a schedule."

"I know," I said. "I've been to the center. Wondered how the patients coped."

"Not well is how they cope. Even when they play by the rules they get turned away- mean old Mr. Recession. Do you have any idea how hard it is for a sick person without money to get help in this city?"

"Sure do," I said. "I spent ten years at Western Pediatric Medical Center."

"Over in Hollywood?"

I nodded.

"Okay," he said, "so you do know. Not that I'm glossing over what Dorsey did- that poor girl, every attorney's nightmare, I still lose sleep thinking about it. But he was a victim, too- as sappy and knee-jerk as that sounds. He should have been taken care of, not forced to fend for himself."

"Institutionalized?"

His eyes turned angry. I noticed their color for the first time: very pale brown, almost tan.

"Taken care of. Not jailed-oh, hell, even jail wouldn't have been bad if that would have meant treatment. But it never does."

"Had he been psychotic for a long time?"

"I don't know. He wasn't someone you just sat down and had a chat with- so tell me your life history, pal. Most of the time he was somewhere else."

"Where was he from, originally?"

"Oklahoma, I think. But he'd been in L.A. for years."

"Living on the street?"

"Since he was a kid."

"Any family?"

"None that I know of."

He took hold of the licorice, touched it to his lip, and used his other hand to caress his tie. Somewhere else, himself.

When he touched his phone I knew he was ready to break off the conversation.

"What kind of music do you play?" I glanced at the guitar-pick clasp.

"What? Oh, this? I just noodle around on weekends."

"Me, too. I worked my way through college playing guitar."

"Yeah? Guess lots of guys did." He pulled the front end of the tie down and looked at the ceiling. I felt his interest continue to slip.

"What do you do mostly, electric or acoustic?"

"Lately I've been getting into electric." Smile. "So what's this? Gaining rapport with the subject? Got to hand it to you. At least you didn't get into the usual police-prosecutor rap- guilt-tripping me for what Dorsey did, asking me how can I live with myself defending scum."

"That's because I don't have a problem with that," I said. "It's a good system and you're an important part of it- and no, I'm not patronizing you."

He held out his hands. "Whoa."

I smiled.

"Actually, it's an okay system," he said. "I'll bet if you met the Founding Fathers, you wouldn't think they were such great guys. Slaveowners, fat cats, and they sure didn't think much of women and kids."

The phone rang again. He took the call while gnawing on the remains of the licorice, talking lawyerese, bartering some defendant's future, never raising his voice.

When he hung up, he said, "We try to make the system work for the people the Founding Fathers didn't care about."

"Who funds you?"

"Grants, donations- interested in contributing?"

"I'll think about it."

He grinned. "Sure you will. Either way, we'll get by- bad salaries, no expense accounts. That's why most of these people'll be gone by next year- soon as they start thinking home equity and German cars."

"What about you?"

He laughed. "Me? I'm a veteran. Five years and thriving. Because it's a heck of a lot more satisfying than drawing up wills or defending polluters."

He turned serious, looked away from me.

"Sure it gets ugly," he said, as if responding to a question. "What Dorsey did was as ugly as it gets." Eye flicker. "Jesus, what a… it was a tragedy. How else can you put it? A goddamn stupid tragedy. I know I couldn't have done anything differently, but it shouldn't have happened- it just stinks, but what can you do when society keeps lowering itself to the brutal denominator? Dorsey'd never shown me any signs of violence. Nothing. I was serious when I said you would have liked him. Most of the time he was pleasant- soft-spoken, passive. One of my easier clients, actually. A little paranoid, but it was always low key, he never got aggressive with it."

"What kind of delusions did he have?"

"The usual. Voices in his head telling him to do stuff- cross the street six times one day, drink tomato juice the next- I don't remember exactly."

"Did the voices make him angry?"

"They annoyed him, but no, I wouldn't call it anger. It was as if he accepted the voices as being a part of him. I see that a lot in the long-timers. They're used to it, deal with it. Nothing aggressive or hostile, that's for sure."

"As long as he took his medication."

"I assumed he was taking it because he was always okay with me."

"How well did you know him?"

"I wouldn't call it knowing. I did some basic legal stuff for him."

"When did you first meet him?"

He looked up at the ductwork again. "Let's see… it would have to be around a year ago."

"Walk-in?"

"No, he was referred by the court."

"What kind of theft were you defending him on?"

Smile. "Cops didn't tell you?"

"I don't get involved in more than I need to."

"Smart. Theft is an overstatement. He lifted a bottle of gin from a liquor store, and a couple of sticks of beef jerky. Did it in plain sight of the clerk and got busted. I'm sure he didn't even mean it. Clerk nearly broke his arm restraining him."

"What defense were you planning?"

"What do you think?"

"Plea bargain."

"What else? He had no prior record other than petty stuff. The way the jails are crowded it would have been a slam-dunk."

He sat up and inserted five fingers into his thick hair. Massaging his scalp, he said, "Gritz."

"Pardon me?"

"It's a name. Gritz."

"As in hominy?"

"With a "z.' The closest I can come to someone who might be called Dorsey's friend."

"First name or last?"

"Don't know. He came by here a couple of times with Dorsey. Another homeless guy. The only reason I know his name is because I noticed him hanging around over there"- pointing to the partition-"asked Dorsey who he was and Dorsey said "Gritz.' First thing I said was what you just did: "As in hominy?' That went right over Dorsey's head, and I tried to explain it. Spelled "grits', told him what they were, asked him if it was a last name or a first name. He said no, it was a name and it was spelled with a "z.' He spelled it for me. Really slowly- he always talked slow. "G-R-I-T-Z.' Like it was profound. For all I know he was making it up."

"Did he tend to do that?"

"He was schizophrenic- what do you think?"

"Did he ever mention the term "bad love' to you?"

He shook his head. "First time I heard about that was from the police. Asking me why Dorsey had screamed it- as if I'd know."

Pushing himself away from the desk, he wheeled back in his chair, then sat up. "And that's about all she wrote."

"Can you describe this Gritz fellow?"

He thought. "It was a while ago… about the same age as Dorsey- though with street people you can't really tell. Shorter than Dorsey, I think." He looked at his watch. "There's a call I've got to make."

I got up and thanked him for his time.

He waved it off and picked up the phone.

"Any idea where this Gritz might be located?" I said, as he dialed.

"Nope."

"Where did Dorsey hang out?"

"Wherever he could- and I'm not being flip. When it was warm, he liked to go down by the beach- Pacific Palisades Park, all up and down the beaches on PCH. When it cooled down, I was able to get him into a shelter or an SRO a couple of times, but he actually preferred sleeping outdoors- lots of times he bunked down in Little Calcutta."

"Where's that?"

"Freeway overpass, West L.A."

"Which freeway?"

"San Diego, just past Sepulveda. Never saw it?"

I shook my head.

He shook his, too, smiled, and put down the phone. "The invisible city… there used to be these little hovels there called Komfy Kort- built God knows when, for Mexican workers doing the day-labor pickup thing on Sawtelle."

"Those I remember," I said.

"Did you happen to notice they're not there anymore? City tore them down a few years ago and the street people moved onto the property. Nothing to tear down with them, so what could the city do but keep chasing them out? And what with voodoo economics taking hold, that became too expensive. So the city let them stay."

"Little Calcutta."

"Yeah, it's a great little suburb- you look like a West Side kind of guy- live anywhere near there?"

"Not that far."

"Go by and take a look, if you can spare the time. See who your neighbors are."

13

I drove east to the overpass Coburg had described. The freeway formed a concrete ceiling over a fenced dirt lot, an arcing canopy of surprising grace supported by columns that would have challenged Samson. The shade it cast was cool and gray. Even with my windows closed I could hear the roar of unseen cars.

The lot was empty and the dirt looked fresh. No tents or bedrolls, no signs of habitation.

I pulled over across the street, in front of a self-storage facility the size of an army base, and idled the Seville.

Little Calcutta. The fresh dirt suggested a bulldozer party. Maybe the city had finally cleared it.

I drove farther, slowly, past Exposition Boulevard. The west side of the street was lined with apartment buildings, the freeway concealed by ivied slopes. A few more empty spots peeked behind the usual chain link. A couple of overturned shopping carts made me stop and peer into the shadows.

Nothing.

I cruised several more blocks, until the freeway twisted out of sight. Then I turned around.

As I neared Exposition again, I spied something shiny and huge- a white-metal mountain, some sort of factory or plant. Giant canisters, duodenal twists of pipe, five-story ladders, valves that hinted at monstrous pressure.

Running parallel to the machine works was a blackened length of railroad track. Bordering the rails was a desert-pale table of sand.

Twenty years in L.A., and I'd never noticed it before.

Invisible city.

I headed toward the tracks, getting close enough to read a small red-and-blue sign on one of the giant towers. AVALON GRAVEL AND ASPHALT.

As I prepared to reverse direction again, I noticed another fenced lot catercorner to the plant- darker, almost blackened by the freeway, blocked from street view by green-gray shrubs. The chain-link fence was obscured by sections of bowed, graffitied plywood, the wood nearly blotted out by the hieroglyphics of rage.

Pulling to the curb, I turned off the engine and got out. The air smelled of dust and spoiled milk. The plant was as still as a mural.

The only other vehicle in sight was the burnt-out chassis of something two-doored, with a crushed roof. My Seville was old and in need of a paint job, but here it looked like a royal coach.

I crossed the empty street over to the plywooded fence and looked through an unblocked section of link. Shapes began forming in the darkness, materializing through the metal diamonds like holograms.

An overturned chair bleeding stuffing and springs.

An empty lineman's spool stripped of wire and cracked down the middle.

Food wrappers. Something green and shredded that might once have been a sleeping bag. And always the overhead roar, constant as breath.

Then movement- something on the ground, shifting, rolling. But it was submerged deeply in the shadows and I couldn't tell if it was human, or even real.

I looked up and down the fence, searching for an entrance to the lot, had to walk a ways until I found it: a square hatch cut into the link, held in place with rusty baling wire.

Prying the wires loose took a while and hurt my fingers. Finally, I bent the flap back, squatted, and passed through, retying one wire from the other side. Making my way across the soft dirt, my nostrils full of shit smell, I dodged chunks of concrete, Styrofoam food containers, lumps of things that didn't bear further inspection. No bottles or cans- probably because they were recyclable and redeemable. Let's hear it for green power.

But nothing green here. Just blacks, grays, browns. Perfect camouflage for a covert world.

A vile smell overcame even the excremental stench. Hearing the buzz of flies, I looked down at a cat's carcass that was so fresh the maggots hadn't yet homesteaded, and gave it a wide berth. Onward, past an old blanket, clumps of newspaper so sodden they looked like printed bread dough… no people that I could see, no movement. Where had the movement come from?

I arrived at the spot where I thought the thing had rolled, toward the back of the covered lot, just a few feet from the inner angle of a canted concrete wall.

Standing again, I focused. Waited. Felt my back itch.

Saw it again.

Movement. Hair. Hands. Someone lying rolled up in a sheet- several sheets, a mummy wrap of frayed bed linens. Twitchy movements below.

Lovemaking? No. No room for two people in the swaddle.

I walked toward it slowly, making sure I approached head-on, not wanting to startle.

My shoes kicked something hard. The impact was inaudible over the roar, but the figure in the sheeting sat up.

A young, dark Latina, bare shouldered. Soft shoulders, a large vaccine crater on one arm.

She stared at me, pressing the sheets up to her chest, long hair wild and sticky looking.

Her mouth was open, her face round and plain, scared and baffled.

And humiliated.

The sheet dropped a bit and I saw that she was naked. Something dark and urgent snuffled at her breast- a small head.

A baby. The rest of it concealed by the filthy cotton.

I backed away, smiled, held up my hand in greeting.

The young mother's face was electric with fear.

The baby kept suckling and she placed one hand over its tiny skull.

Near her feet was a small cardboard box. I got down and looked inside. Disposable diapers, new and used. More flies. A can of condensed milk and a rusty opener. A nearly empty bag of potato chips, a pair of rubber sandals, and a pacifier.

The woman tried to nourish her baby while rolling away from me, unraveling more of the sheets and exposing a mottled thigh.

As I started to turn away, the look in her eyes changed from fear to recognition and then to another type of fear.

I whipped around and found myself face-to-face with a man.

A boy, actually, seventeen or eighteen. Also Latin, small and flimsily built, with a fuzz mustache and a sloping chin so weak it seemed part of his skinny neck. His eyes were downslanted and frantic. His mouth hung open; a lot of his teeth were gone. He had on a torn, checked flannel shirt, stretched-out doubleknit pants, and unlaced sneakers. His ankles were black with dirt.

His hands trembled around an iron bar.

I stepped away. He hesitated, then came toward me.

A high sound pierced the freeway din.

The woman screaming.

Startled, the boy looked at her and I moved in, grabbed the bar, and twisted it out of his grip. The inertia threw him backwards onto the ground so easily that I felt like a bully.

He stayed there, looking up at me, shielding his face with one hand, ready to be beaten.

The woman was up, tripping out of the sheets, naked, the baby left squalling on the dirt. Her belly was pendulous and stretchmarked, her breasts limp as a crone's, though she couldn't have been much older than twenty.

I threw the bar as far as I could and held out both hands in what I hoped was a gesture of peace.

The two of them looked at me. Now I felt like a bad parent.

The baby was openmouthed with rage, clawing the air and kicking. I pointed to it.

The woman rushed over and picked it up. Realizing she was naked, she crouched and hung her head.

The chinless boy's hands were still shaking. I tried another smile and his eyes drooped, tugged down by despair.

I took out my wallet, removed a ten, walked over to the woman and held it out to her.

She didn't move.

I put the bill in the cardboard box. Went back to the boy, took out another ten and showed it to him.

More of that same hesitation he'd shown before coming at me with the bar. Then he took a step, biting his lip and teetering like a high-wire artist, and snatched the money.

Holding out yet another bill, I headed for the place where I'd broken through the fence. Checking my back as I trotted through the muck.

After a few steps the boy started following me. I picked up the pace and he tried to catch up, but couldn't. Walking was an effort for him. His mouth was open and his limbs looked rubbery. I wondered when he'd last eaten.

I made it to the flap, untied the wire and walked out to the sidewalk. He came through several moments later, rubbing his eyes.

The light hurt my pupils. He appeared to be in agony.

He finally stopped rubbing. I said, "Habla inglés?"

"I'm from Tucson, man," he said, in unaccented English.

His hands were fisted, but the tremor and his small bones mocked his fighter's stance. He started to cough, dry and wheezing. Tried to bring up phlegm and couldn't.

"Didn't mean to scare you," I said.

He was looking at the money. I extended my arm and he snatched the bill and crammed it under his waistband. The pants were much too big for him and held together with a red plastic belt. One of his sneakers was patched with cellophane tape. As his hand balled up around the bill, I saw that the pinkie of his left hand was missing.

"Gimme more," he said.

I didn't say anything.

"Gimme more. But she won' fuck you, anyway."

"I don't want her to."

He flinched. Thought a moment. "I won', neither."

"I'm not interested in that, either."

He frowned, put a finger inside his mouth and rubbed his gums.

I gave a quick look around, saw no one, and took out a fourth ten.

"Whu'?" he said, yanking his hand free and making a grab for it.

Holding it out of reach, I said, "Is that Little Calcutta?"

"Huh?"

"The place we just were. Is that Little Calcutta?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe?"

"Yeah." He coughed some more, hit his chest with the four-fingered hand.

"How many people live there?"

"I dunno."

"Are there others in there right now? People I didn't see?"

He considered his answer. Shook his head.

"Are there ever others?"

"Sometimes."

"Where are they now?"

"Around." He looked at the money, worked his tongue against his cheek, and came closer.

"She fucks you, it's twenty bucks."

I put the bill in my pocket.

"Hey!" he said, as if I'd cheated at a game.

"I don't want to fuck anyone," I said. "I just want some information. Answer my questions and you'll get paid, okay?"

"Why, man?"

"Because I'm a curious guy."

"Cop?"

"No."

He flexed his shoulders and rubbed his gums some more. When he removed his hand, the fingers were bloody.

"Is the baby yours?" I said.

"Thas what you wanna know?"

"Is it?"

"I dunno."

"It needs to be looked at by a doctor."

"I dunno."

"Is she your woman?"

He smiled. "Sometimes."

"What's your name?"

"Terminator Three." Glaring. Challenging me to mock him.

"Okay," I said. "Are there more people in there?"

"I told you, man. Not now, just at night."

"They come back at night?"

"Yuh."

"Every night?"

He looked at me as if I were stupid. Shook his head slowly. "Some nights- it changes places, I dunno."

"It moves from place to place?"

"Yeah."

Tent City as a concept. Some New Wave journalist would have a ball with it.

"What about a guy named Gritz?"

"Huh?"

"Gritz." I began the description Coburg had given me, and to my surprise he broke in: "Yeah."

"You know him?"

"I seen him."

"Does he live there?"

The hand went back into his mouth. He fiddled, twisted, pulled out a tooth and grinned. The root was inky with decay. He spit blood onto the pavement and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

"Does Gritz hang out here?"

He didn't hear me, was looking at the tooth, fascinated. I repeated the question. He kept staring, finally dropped the tooth into his pocket.

"Not no more," he said.

"When's the last time you saw him?"

"Dunno."

"Days? Weeks?"

"Dunno."

He reached out to touch the sleeve of my jacket. Fifteen-year-old Harris Tweed. The cuffs were starting to fuzz.

I stepped back.

"Wool?" he said.

"Yeah."

He licked his lips.

"What do you know about Gritz?"

"Nuthin'."

"But you definitely know him?"

"I seen him around."

"When's the last time you saw him around?"

He closed his eyes. Opened them. "A week."

"A week definitely, or a week maybe?"

"I think- I dunno, man."

"Any idea where he is now?"

"To get rich."

"To get rich?"

"Yeah, that's what he said- he was drinking and partying, you know. And singing- sometimes he liked to sing- and he was singing about hey, man, I'm gonna get rich soon. Gonna get me a car and a boat- that kind of shit."

"Did he say how he was going to get rich?"

"Nah." A hint of threat sharpened his eyes. Fatigue wiped it out. He slumped.

"He didn't say how?" I repeated.

"No, man. He wuz partying and singing- he was nuts. That's it, man."

"Is Gritz a first name or a last name?"

"Dunno, man." He coughed, hit his chest, wheezed, "Fuck."

"If I told you to see a doctor, you'd shine me on, wouldn't you?"

Gap-toothed grin. "You gonna pay me to go?"

"What if you had a disease you could give to her- or the baby?"

"Gimme more money." Holding out a hand again.

"The baby needs to see a doctor."

"Gimme more money."

"Who'd Gritz hang out with?"

"No one."

"No one at all?"

"I dunno, man. Gimme more money."

"What about a guy named Hewitt?"

"Huh?"

"A guy named Dorsey Hewitt? Ever see Gritz with him?"

I described Hewitt. The boy stared- not that much blanker than his general demeanor, but enough to tell me his ignorance was real.

"Hewitt," I repeated.

"Don' know the dude."

"How long have you been hanging out here?"

"Hunerd years." Phlegmy laugh.

"Hewitt killed a woman. It was on the news."

"Don't got cable."

"A social worker named Rebecca Basille- at the Westside Mental Health Center?"

"Yeah, I heard something."

"What?"

Grin. "Music. In my head." He tapped one ear and smiled. "It's like rock and soul, man. The def cool no-fool."

I sighed involuntarily.

He brightened, latching on to my frustration like a buzzard on carrion. "Gimme money, man." Cough. "Gimme."

"Anything else you want to tell me?"

"Yeah."

Tapping one foot. Waiting for the straight man.

"What?" I said.

"The baby's mine." Smile. His remaining teeth were pink with fresh blood.

"Congratulations."

"Got a cigarette?"

"I don't smoke."

"Then gimme money. I aks around for you, man. You come back and I tell you everything I aksed."

I counted what I had in my wallet.

Two twenties and three singles. Gave him all of it. The jacket, too.

14

He scrambled back through the fence and disappeared. I hung around until his footsteps died, then walked back to the car. The air had cooled- sudden shifts were becoming the rule this autumn- and a soft wind from the east was nudging scraps of garbage off the sidewalk.

I gassed up the Seville at a station on Olympic and used the pay phone to get the number of the nearest Social Services office. After being put on hold several times and transferred from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, I managed to reach a supervisor and tell her about the infant living under the freeway.

"Was the baby being mistreated, sir?"

"No."

"Did the baby look malnourished?"

"Actually, no, but-"

"Were there bruises or scars anywhere visible on the baby's body or other signs of abuse?"

"Nothing," I said. "The mother was caring for the baby, but they're living in filthy conditions out there. And the boy who might be the baby's father has a cough that sounds tubercular."

"Was the baby coughing?"

"Not yet."

"For a tuberculosis investigation, you'd have to call public health. Ask for a communicable disease officer."

"There's nothing you can do?"

"Doesn't sound like there's anything we should be doing, sir."

"How 'bout getting the baby some shelter?"

"They'd have to ask, sir."

"The baby would?"

"The legal guardians. We don't just go out looking for people."

Click.

The dial tone was as loud as the freeway. I felt nuts. How did the certifiable psychotics handle it?

I wanted to call Robin. Then I realized I hadn't memorized my new phone number, didn't even know the name of the house's owner. I called Milo. He was at his desk and gave me the seven digits, then said, "Before you hang up, I just got through with Myra Paprock's file. She wasn't a therapist. Real estate agent, killed on the job. Showing a house and somebody cut her, robbed her, raped her, and wrote "bad love' on the wall with her lipstick."

"Oh, Jesus."

"Yeah. In the photos, the lipstick looks like blood."

"Real estate agent," I said. "That's sometimes a second career. Maybe she worked as some kind of therapist first."

"If she did it's not down here in the file, and the Van Nuys guys seem to have done a pretty thorough job. Plus Shipler- the beating victim- wasn't a shrink, either, so I don't see any obvious mental health connection here."

"What did he do?"

"Janitor. Night custodian at Jefferson High. I haven't gotten his file yet, but I had a records clerk over at Central give me the basics."

"Was he killed on the job, too?"

"Nope, in the comfort of his own home."

"Where'd he live?"

"Budlong Avenue- South L.A."

"Black?"

"Yeah."

"What happened to him?"

"Pounded to mush and the house was trashed."

"Robbery?"

"Doubtful. His stereo, TV, and some jewelry were left behind."

"What, then? Someone looking for something?"

"Or someone got really angry. I want to read the whole file- got a call in for it."

"Real estate agent and janitor," I said. "Doesn't make any sense. Any connection between them?"

"Other than "bad love' on the wall, there doesn't seem to be any. Nothing matches. She was thirty-five, he was sixty-one. He was killed early morning- right after he finished work on the nightshift- and she got it in the middle of the day. She was stabbed, he was clubbed. There were even differences in what the killer used to write "bad love.' Shipler's was done in molasses from his fridge."

"In both cases the killer was opportunistic- used something of the victim's."

"Weapons, too," he said. "She was killed with a kitchen knife from the house she was showing, Shipler with a fireplace poker that was identified as his. So?"

"I don't know, maybe it indicates some kind of power thing- dominance over the victims- turning the victims against themselves. Like using my tree branch on the koi. Were there any bondage or S &M overtones to either murder?"

"Paprock's bra was wrapped around her neck, but the coroner said it was done when she was already dead. Far as I can tell there were no sexual overtones at all to Shipler."

"Still," I said, "the message was important. It must mean something to the killer."

"I'm sure it does," he said, without enthusiasm.

"Did Shipler live alone?"

"Yeah, divorced."

"What about Paprock?"

"No match there, either. Married, two kids."

"If nothing was taken from Shipler's house," I said, "what was the assumed motive?"

"A gang thing- there was lots of activity in Shipler's neighborhood, even back then. Lots more, now. Like you said before, a trashed house could mean someone looking for something. Central figured dope. Figured Shipler was involved on some level and "bad love' was some sort of gangbanger slogan they hadn't heard of yet. They checked it out with the CRASH detail and they hadn't heard of it, but new stuff comes up all the time."

"Did Shipler turn out to be involved in gangs or dope?"

"Far as I can tell, he had no record, but plenty of scrotes slip through the cracks. In terms of there being no burglary, Southwest figured it was punks panicking and leaving before they could take anything. Which is consistent with gang wannabees- new recruits out on a virgin adventure."

"An initiation thing?"

"Yeah, they start ' em young. Automatics in the diapers. Speaking of which, I caught my little truant bastards on the Palms robbery- thirteen and fifteen. No doubt they'll get referred for some kind of therapy. Want a referral?"

"No, thanks."

"Cynic."

"Was there gang activity where Paprock was killed?"

"A little, on the fringes. It's mostly working-class tough- north end of Van Nuys. No one made the gang assumption in that one, but maybe if Van Nuys had talked to Southwest, they would have. Neither of them knew about the other case- still don't."

"Going to tell them?" I said.

"First I'm gonna read Shipler's file thoroughly, see what I can pull out of it. Then, yeah, I'll have to tell them, do the old network blah blah. Both cases are real cold- be interesting to see what kind of responses I get. Hopefully the whole thing won't deteriorate into endless memories. Though if "bad love' shows up anywhere in Stoumen's file, we've got interstate blah blah."

"Hear from Seattle, yet?"

"Very briefly. They're sending down records- it'll probably take a week or so. Both detectives on that one are retired and unavailable. Probable translation: burnouts gone fishing. If anything provocative comes up in the file, I'll bug 'em anyway."

"What about the FBI records on other "bad love' murders?"

"Not yet. Them gears grind slowly."

"A real estate agent, a janitor, and "bad love,' " I said. "I still think it has something to do with that conference. Or de Bosch himself- Paprock and Shipler could have been his patients."

"So why would someone kill them?"

"Maybe it's another patient, mad about something."

"Then what's your connection?"

"I don't know… Nothing makes sense, dammit."

"You learn anything from Jeffers?"

"No one at the center remembers Hewitt having any friends. But she referred me to Hewitt's lawyer and he gave me a name and possible address." I described my encounter with the people under the freeway.

"Gritz," he said. "As in hominy."

"With a "z.' Could be a first name or a last, or just a nickname."

"I'll run it through."

"The kid I spoke to said he's been gone about a week. He also said Gritz was talking and singing about getting rich."

"Singing?"

"That's what he said."

"Oh those romantic hoboes, strumming around the campfire."

"Maybe Gritz had some kind of job lined up, or maybe it's baloney. The kid could very well have been putting me on. For what it's worth, he said he'd ask around, I should come back later."

"Getting rich," he said. "Everyone talks and sings about it. That Calcutta place might be the dregs, but it's still L.A."

"True," I said. "But wouldn't it be interesting if Gritz really did expect to get paid for something- like killing my koi, and other nasties."

"Hitman on a fish? So who's doing the hiring?"

"The anonymous bad guy- I know, it's a ridiculous idea."

"At this point nothing's ridiculous, Alex, but if someone was looking to hire a nighttime skulker, would they choose a homeless nutcase?"

"True… Maybe what Gritz was hired for was to scream on tape- to imitate Hewitt because he knew what Hewitt sounded like."

"Imitate?" he said. "Those voice tracks sounded identical to me, Alex. Though we may never be able to verify it. I talked to the voiceprint guy over at the sheriff's, and screams are useless, legally. In order to make a match that can be used in court, you need two samples, minimum of twenty words on each and the exact same phrases. Even then, it gets challenged a lot and thrown out."

"What about for nonadmissible comparison?"

"Matching screams is still an iffy business. It's words that have unique characteristics. I asked the sheriff to give a listen anyway. He said he's backlogged but would try to get to it eventually… Why would someone want to imitate Hewitt?"

"I don't know- I can't help but think the tape's part of a ritual. Something ceremonial that means something only to the killer."

"What about the kid on the tape?"

"Could be a homeless kid- someone from Little Calcutta or some place like it. Living down there could explain the robot quality of the voice- despair. You should have seen it, Milo. The boy's teeth were rotting, he had a tubercular cough. The girl was naked, wrapped up in a sheet, trying to feed the baby. If I'd offered enough money, I probably could have bought the baby."

"I've seen it," he said softly.

"I know you have. I have too. It's all around. But I haven't really let it register for a while."

"What're you gonna do, solve everyone's problems? Plenty of your own to deal with, for the time being. You get names on the freeway people?"

"Not the girl. He calls himself Terminator Three."

He laughed. "No one else down there besides them and the baby?"

"No one I could see, and I was flashing ten-dollar bills."

"Real smart, Alex."

"I watched my back."

"Yeah."

"The kid said the place fills up at night. I could go back after dark and see if anyone else knows Gritz."

"You're really in the mood to get your throat cut, aren't you?"

"If I had a macho cop with me I'd be safe, right?"

"Don't count on it… Yeah, okay, it's probably a waste of time, but that makes me feel right at home."

• • •

Robin was still working in the garage, hunched over her bench, wielding shiny sharp things that resembled dental picks. Her hair was tied up and her goggles were lodged in her curls. Under her overalls, her T-shirt was tightened by perspiration. She said, "Hi, doll," as her hands continued to move. The dog was at her feet and he stood and licked my hand as I looked over Robin's shoulder.

A tiny rectangle of abalone was clamped to a padded section of the bench. The edges were beveled and the corners were inlaid with bits of ivory and gold wire. She'd traced the shell with minuscule curlicue shapes, cut out some of them, and was in the process of excising another.

"Beautiful," I said. "Fretboard inlay?"

"Uh-huh. Thanks." She blew away dust and cleaned the edge of a pick with a fingernail.

"You do root canal, too?"

She laughed and hunched lower. The tools clicked as she carved out a speck of shell. "Kind of baroque for my taste, but it's for a stockbroker who wants a showpiece for his wall."

She worked some more, finally put the tools down, wiped her forehead, and wiggled her fingers. "Enough for one day, I'm cramping up."

"Everything okay?" I rubbed her neck.

"Nice and quiet. How about you?"

"Not bad."

I kissed her. The wind got stronger and drier, ruffling the cypress trees and shooting a cold stream through the open garage. Robin unclamped the abalone, and put it in her pocket. Her arms were goosebumped. I put mine around them and the two of us headed for the house. By the time we got to the door, the wind was whipping the trees and stirring the dust, causing the bulldog to blink and sniff.

"Santa Ana?" she said.

"Too cold. Probably the tail end of something arctic."

"Brr," she said, unlocking the door. "Leave your jacket in the car?"

I shook my head. We went inside.

"You were wearing one, weren't you?" she said, rubbing her hands together. "That baggy brown tweed."

Artist's eye.

"Yup."

"Did you lose it?"

"Not exactly."

"Not exactly?"

"I gave it away."

She laughed. "You what?"

"No big deal. It was fraying."

"Who'd you give it to?"

I told her about Little Calcutta. She listened with her hands on her hips, shaking her head, and went into the kitchen to wash her hands. When she came back, her head was still moving from side to side.

"I know, I know," I said. "It was a bleeding-heart reflex, but they really were pitiful- it was a cheap old thing, anyway."

"You wore it the first time we went out. I never liked it."

"You didn't?"

"Nope. Too philosophy prof."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

She shrugged. "It wasn't that important."

"Snoring, poor taste in haberdashery. What else don't you like that you haven't informed me about?"

"Nothing. Now that you've ditched the coat, you're perfect."

She ruffled my hair, walked to the French doors, and looked out at the mountains. They were shimmering, denuded in patches, where the foliage was brushed back like blow-dried hair. The pool water was choppy, the surface gritty with leaves and dirt.

Robin loosened her hair. I hung back and kept looking at her.

Perfect female statuary, rock-still against the turbulence.

She unsnapped one overall strap, then the other, letting the baggy denim collapse around her feet, and stood there in T-shirt and panties.

Half turning, hands on hips, she looked back at me. "How 'bout giving me something, big boy?" she said, in a Mae West voice.

The dog grumbled. Robin cracked up. "Quiet, you! You're wrecking my timing."

• • •

"Now it feels like a home," she said, snuggling under the covers. "Though I do prefer our little love nest, be it ever so humble. So what'd you find out today?"

My second summation of the day. I did it quickly, adding what Milo'd told me about the murders and leaving out the gross pathology. Even sanitized, it was bad, and she turned quiet.

I rubbed her lower back, allowing my hand to linger on swells and dimples. Her body loosened, but only for a moment.

"You're sure you've never heard of those other two people?" she said, stilling my hand.

"I'm sure. And there doesn't even seem to be any connection between the two of them. The woman was a white real estate agent, the man a black janitor. He was twenty-six years older, they lived on opposite ends of the city, were killed in different ways. Nothing in common but "bad love.' Maybe they were patients of de Bosch."

"They couldn't be old patients of yours?"

"No way," I said. "I've been through every one of my case files. To be honest, I don't see the patient angle as too likely, period. If someone has a hangup with de Bosch, why go after the people he treated?"

"What about group therapy, Alex? Things can get rough in groups, can't they? People lashing out at one another? Maybe someone got dumped on badly and never forgot it."

"I guess it's possible," I said, sitting up. "A good therapist always tries to keep a handle on the group's emotional climate, but things can get out of control. And sometimes there's no way to know someone's feeling victimized. Once, at the hospital, I had to calm down the father of a kid with a bone tumor who brought a loaded pistol onto the ward. When I finally got him to open up, it came out that he'd been boiling for weeks. But there was no warning at all- till then he'd been a really easygoing guy."

"There you go," she said. "So maybe some patient of de Bosch's sat there and took it and never told anyone. Finally, years later, he decided to get even."

"But what kind of therapy group would bring together a real estate agent from the valley and a black janitor?"

"I don't know- maybe they weren't the patients, maybe their kids were. A parents' group for problem kids- de Bosch was basically a child therapist, wasn't he?"

I nodded, trying to imagine it. "Shipler was a lot older than Paprock- I suppose she could have been a young mother and he an old father."

We heard scratching and thumping at the door. I got up and opened it and the dog bounded in. He headed straight for Robin's side of the bed, stood on his hind legs, put his paws on the mattress, and began snorting. She lifted him up and he rewarded her with lusty licks.

"Settle down," she said. "Uh-oh- look, he's getting excited."

"Without testicles, yet. See the effect you have on men?"

"But of course." She batted her lashes at me, turned back to the dog, and finally got him to lie still by kneading the folds of flesh around his jowls. He lapsed into sleep with an ease that I envied. But when I leaned over to kiss her, he opened his eyes, snuffled, and insinuated himself between us, curling atop the covers and licking his paws.

I said, "Maybe Milo can get hold of Paprock's and Shipler's medical histories, see if de Bosch's name or the Corrective School appears on them. Sometimes people conceal psych treatment, but with the cost, it's more likely there's some kind of insurance record. I'll ask him when I see him tonight."

"What's tonight?"

"We were planning on going back to the freeway, try to talk to more of the homeless people in order to get a handle on this Gritz character."

"Is it safe going back there?"

"I'll have Milo with me. Whether or not it's productive remains to be seen."

"All right," she said uneasily. "If you want it to be productive, why don't you stop at a market and get those people some food?"

"Good idea. You're full of them today, aren't you?"

"Motivation," she said. She turned serious, reached up and held my face in both of her hands. "I want this to be over. Please take care of yourself."

"Promise." We managed to maintain a convoluted embrace despite the dog.

I fell asleep, smelling perfume and kibble. When I woke up my stomach was sour and my feet were sore. Inhaling and letting out the air, I sat up and cleared my eyes.

"What is it?" Robin mumbled, her back to me.

"Just thinking."

"About what?" She rolled over and faced me.

"Someone in a therapy group, getting wounded and keeping it inside all these years."

She touched my face.

"What the hell do I have to do with it?" I said. "Am I just a name on a damned brochure, or did I hurt someone without ever knowing it?"

15

I heard the unhealthy-sounding engine from inside the house. Milo's Fiat, reduced to a squat little toy on the monitor.

I went outside. The wind had stopped. The car expelled a plume of smoke, then convulsed. It didn't look as if it would survive the evening.

"Figured it would blend in where we're going," he said, getting out. He carried a large, white plastic bag and was wearing work clothes. The bag smelled of garlic and meat.

"More food?" I said.

"Sandwiches- Italian. Just consider me your official LAPD delivery boy."

Robin was back in the garage, working under a funnel of fluorescence. The dog was there, too, and he charged us, heading straight for the bag.

Milo lifted it out of reach. "Sit. Stay- better yet, go away."

The dog snorted once, turned his back on us, and sank to his haunches.

Milo said, "Well, one out of three ain't bad." He waved at Robin. She raised a hand and put down her tools.

"She looks right at home," he said. "How 'bout you, Nick Danger?"

"I'm fine. Anything on Gritz in the records?"

Before he could answer, Robin came over.

"He's brought us dinner," I said.

"What a prince." She kissed his cheek. "Are you hungry right now?"

"Not really," he said, touching his gut and looking down at the ground. "Had a little appetizer while I waited."

"Good for you," she said. "Growing boy."

"Growing the wrong way."

"You're fine, Milo. You've got presence." She patted his shoulder. From the way her fingers were flexing I knew she was eager to get back to her bench. I was itchy, too, thinking of the freeway people. The dog continued to sulk.

"How 'bout you, hon?" she said to me. The dog came over, thinking- or pretending- it was meant for him.

"I can wait."

"Me, too. So let me stick this in the fridge and when you guys get back, we'll chow down."

"Sounds good." Milo gave her the bag. The dog tried to lick it and she said, "Relax, I've got a Milk-Bone for you."

Above the roofline, the sky was black and empty. Lights from the houses across the canyon seemed a continent away.

"You'll be okay?" I said.

"I'll be fine. Go." She gave me a quick kiss and a small shove.

Milo and I headed for the Fiat. The dog watched us drive away.

• • •

The sound of the gate clanking shut made me feel better about leaving her up there. Milo coasted to Benedict, shifted to first, then upward, squeezing as much speed as possible out of the little car. Shifting roughly, big hands nearly covering the top of the steering wheel. As we headed south, I said, "Anything on Gritz?"

"One possible citation- thank God it's an unusual name. Lyle Edward, male white, thirty-four years old, five six, one thirty, I forget the color of his eyes."

"Coburg said he was shorter than Hewitt."

He nodded. "Bunch of drunk and disorderlies from back when we still bothered with those, possession of narcotics, couple of shoplifting busts, nothing heavy."

"When did he come to L.A.?"

"First arrest was fourteen years ago. The computer gives him no known address, no parole officer, either. He got probation for some of his naughties, lived at county jail for the others, and paid his debt in full."

"Any mention of mental illness?"

"There wouldn't be unless he was classified as a mentally disordered sex offender or committed some other kind of violent psycho crime."

"I'll call Jean Jeffers Monday, see if I can find out if he ever got treated at the center."

"Meanwhile, we can talk to the offrampers, for what it's worth. All he is is a name, so far."

"Robin suggested we should bring them food. Increase the rapport."

He shrugged. "Why not. There's a minimarket over on Olympic."

We drove a bit more. He frowned and rubbed his face with one hand.

"Something the matter?" I said.

"Nah… just the usual. Justice got raped again- my truant scumbags. The old lady died this afternoon."

"I'm sorry. Does that make it murder?"

He pumped his gas pedal leg. "It makes it shit. She had badly clogged arteries and a big tumor growing in her colon. Autopsy said it was just a matter of time. That, her age, and the fact that the kids never actually touched her means the DA's office doesn't want to bother to prove it was an unnatural death. Once they hospitalized her, she was never well enough to get even a deathbed declaration, and without her testimony, there's not much of a case against the little bastards even for robbery. So they probably get a stern lecture and walk. Wanna make a bet by the time they start shaving, someone else'll be dead?"

He got to Sunset and joined the smooth, fast traffic flowing west from Beverly Hills. Amid the Teutonic tanks and cigarillo sports jobs, the Fiat looked like a mistake. A Mercedes cut in front of us and Milo swore viciously.

I said, "You could give him a ticket."

"Don't tempt me."

A mile later, I said, "Robin came up with a possible link between Paprock and Shipler. Both could have been in group therapy with de Bosch. Treatment for themselves, or some kind of parent's group to talk about problem kids. The killer could also have been in the group, gotten treated roughly- or thought he had- and developed a grudge."

"Group therapy…"

"Some kind of common problem- what else would draw two people from such different backgrounds to de Bosch?"

"Interesting… but if it was a parent's group, de Bosch didn't run it. He died in eighty, and Paprock's kids are six and seven years old now. So they weren't alive when he was. In fact, at the time Myra died, they were only babies. So what kind of problems could they have had?"

"Maybe it was a child-rearing program. Or some kind of chronic illness support group. And are you sure Paprock was only married once?"

"According to her file she was."

"Okay," I said. "So maybe Katarina was the therapist. Or someone else at the school- maybe the killer believes in collective guilt. Or it could have been an adult treatment group. Child therapists don't always limit themselves to kids."

"Fine. But now we're back to the same old question: what's your link?"

"Has to be the conference. The killer's gotten severely paranoid- let his rage get out of control. To him, anyone associated with de Bosch is guilty, and where better to start than a bunch of therapists paying public homage to the old man? Maybe Stoumen's hit-and-run was no accident."

"What? Major-league mass murder? The killer's going after patients and therapists?"

"I don't know- I'm just grasping."

He heard the frustration in my voice. "It's okay, keep grasping. Doesn't cost the taxpayers a dime. For all I know we're dealing with something so crazy it'll never make sense."

We rode for a while. Then he said, "De Bosch's clinic was private, expensive. How could a janitor like Shipler afford getting treatment there?"

"Sometimes private clinics treat a few hardship cases. Or maybe Shipler had good health insurance through the school system. What about Paprock? Did she have money?"

"Nothing huge, as far as I can tell. Husband worked as a car salesman."

"Can you get hold of their insurance records?"

"If they had any, and haven't been destroyed."

I thought of two motherless grade-school children and said, "How old, exactly, were Paprock's children at the time of her murder?"

"Don't remember exactly- little."

"Who raised them?"

"I assume the husband."

"Is he still in town?"

"Don't know that either, yet."

"If he is, maybe he'll be willing to talk about her, tell us if she was ever a therapy patient at de Bosch's clinic."

He hooked a finger toward the rear seat. "Got the file right there. Check out the address."

I swung around toward the darkened seat and saw a file box.

"Right on top," he said. "The brown one."

Colors were indistinguishable in the darkness, but I reached over, groped around, and came up with a folder. Opening it, I squinted.

"There's a penlight in the glove compartment."

I tried to open the compartment, but it was stuck. Milo leaned across and slammed it with his fist. The door dropped open and papers slid to the floor. I stuffed them back in and finally found the light. Its skinny beam fell on a page of crime-scene photos stapled to the right-hand page. Lots of pink and red. Writing on a wall: a closeup of "bad love" in big, red block letters that matched the blood on the floor… neat lettering… a bloody thing below.

I turned to the facing page. The name of Myra Paprock's widower was midway through the intake data.

"Ralph Martin Paprock," I said. "Valley Vista Cadillac. The home address is in North Hollywood."

"I'll run it through DMV, see if he's still around."

I said, "I need to keep looking for the other conference people to warn them."

"Sure, but if you can't tell them who and why, what does that leave? "Dear Sir or Madam, this is to inform you you might be bludgeoned, stabbed, or run over by an unidentified, revenge-crazed psycho?"

"Maybe one of them can tell me the who and why. And I know I'd have liked to have been warned. The problem is finding them. None of them are working or living where they were at the time of the conference. And the woman I thought might be Rosenblatt's wife hasn't returned any of my calls."

Another stretch of silence.

"You're wondering," he said, "if they've been visited, too."

"It did cross my mind. Katarina's not been listed in the APA directory for five years. She could have just stopped paying dues, but it doesn't seem like her to just drop out of psychology and close up the school. She was ambitious, very much taken with carrying on her father's work."

"Well," he said, "it should be easy enough to check tax rolls and Social Security records on all of them, find out who's breathing and who ain't."

He reached Hilgard and turned left, passing the campus of the university where I'd jumped through academic hoops for so many years.

"So many people gone," I said. "Now the Wallace girls. It's as if everyone's folding up their tents and escaping."

"Hey," he said, "maybe they know something we don't."

• • •

The strip-mall at Olympic and Westwood was dark except for the flagrant white glare from the minimart. The store was quiet, with a turbaned Pakistani drinking Gatorade behind the counter.

We stocked up on overpriced bread, canned soup, lunch meat, cereal, and milk. The Pakistani eyed us unpleasantly as he tallied up the total. He wore a company shirt printed repetitively with the name of the mart's parent company in lawn green. The nametag pinned to his breast pocket was blank.

Milo reached for his wallet. I got mine out first and handed the clerk cash. He continued to look unhappy.

"Whatsamatter?" said Milo. "Too much cholesterol in our diet?"

The clerk pursed his lips and glanced up at the video camera above the door. The machine's cyclops eye was sweeping the store slowly. The screen below filled with milky gray images.

We followed his gaze to the dairy case. An unkempt man stood in front of it, not moving, staring at cartons of Half-and-Half. I hadn't noticed him while shopping and wondered where he'd come from.

Milo eyed him for a long moment, then turned back to the clerk.

"Yeah, police work's strenuous," he said in a loud voice. "Got to shovel in those calories in order to catch the bad guys."

He laughed even louder. It sounded almost mad.

The man at the dairy case twitched and half turned. He glared at us for a second, then returned to studying the cream.

He was gaunt and hairy, wearing a dirt-blackened army jacket, jeans, and beach sandals. His hands shook and one clouded eye had to be blind.

Another member of Dorsey Hewitt's extended family.

He slapped the back of his neck with one hand, turned again, tried to match Milo's stare.

Milo gave a salute. "Evening, pal."

The man didn't move for a second. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets and left the store, sandals slapping the vinyl floor.

The clerk watched him go. The cash register gave a computer burp and expelled a receipt. The clerk tore off the tape and dropped it into one of the half-dozen bags we'd filled.

"Got a box for all this?" said Milo.

"No, sir," said the clerk.

"What about in back?"

Shrug.

We carried the food out. The gaunt man was at the far end of the lot, kicking asphalt and walking from store to store, staring at black glass.

"Hey," Milo called out. No response. He repeated it, pulled a cereal variety pack out of one of the bags and waved it over his head.

The man straightened, looked toward us, but didn't approach. Milo walked ten feet from him and underhanded the cereal.

The man shot his arms out, missed the catch, sank to his knees, and retrieved it. Milo was heading back to the car and didn't see the look on the man's face. Confusion, distrust, then a spark of gratitude that fizzled just short of ignition.

The gaunt man hobbled off into the darkness, fingers ripping at the plastic wrapping, sprinkling cereal onto the pavement.

Milo said, "Let's get the hell out of here." We got into the Fiat and he drove around toward the back of the mall where three dumpsters sat. Several empty cartons were piled up loosely against the bins, most of them torn beyond utility. We finally found a couple that looked and smelled relatively clean, put the bags in them, and stashed the food in back of the car, next to Myra Paprock's homicide file.

• • •

A sliver of moon was barely visible behind a cloud-veil, and the sky looked dirty. The freeway was a stain topped with light and noise. After we rounded Exposition, Little Calcutta continued to elude us- the darkness and the plywood barrier concealed the lot totally. But the place on the sidewalk where I'd talked to Terminator Three was just within the light of an ailing street lamp and I was able to point it out to Milo.

We got out and found gaps in the plywood. Through them, blue tongues quivered- thin, gaseous alcohol flames.

"Sterno," I said.

Milo said, "Frugal gourmets."

I took him to the spot along the fence where I'd unhinged the makeshift hatch a few hours before. Extra wires had been added since then, rusty and rough, wound too tightly to unravel by hand.

Milo took a Swiss army knife out of his trouser pocket and flipped out a tiny pliers-like tool. Twisting and snipping, he managed to free the hatch.

We went back to the car, took out the boxes of groceries, and stepped through. Blue lights began extinguishing, as if we'd brought a hard wind.

Milo reached into his trousers again and pulled out the penlight I'd used in the car. I'd replaced it in the glove compartment and hadn't seen him pocket it.

He removed something from one of the grocery bags and shined the light on it. Plastic-wrapped bologna slices.

He held it up and shouted, "Food!"

Barely audible over the freeway. Fires continued to go out.

Training his beam more directly on the bologna, he waved the meat back and forth. The package and the hand that held it seemed suspended in midair, a special effect.

When nothing happened for several more seconds, he placed the meat on the ground, making sure to keep the penlight trained on it, then removed more groceries from his bag and spread them out on the dirt. Walking backward, toward the hatch, he created a snaky trail of food that led out to the sidewalk.

"Goddamn Hansel and Gretel," he muttered, then he slipped back out.

I followed him. He was standing against the Fiat, had emptied one bag and crumpled it and was tossing it from hand to hand.

As we stood there and waited, cars rocketed overhead and the concrete hummed. Milo lit up a bad panatela and blew short-lived smoke rings.

A few minutes later, he stubbed out his cigar and jammed it between his fingers. Walking back to the hatch, he stuck his head through, didn't move for a second, then beckoned me to follow him through.

We stopped just a few feet from the hatch and he aimed the penlight upward, highlighting movement about fifteen feet up.

Frantic, choppy, a scramble of arms.

Squinting, I managed to make out human forms. Down on their knees, scooping and snatching, just as the man at the minimart had done.

Within seconds they were gone and the food had vanished. Milo cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted over the freeway: "Lots more, folks."

Nothing.

He clicked his light off and we retreated to the other side of the fence again.

It seemed like a game- a futile one. But he looked at ease.

He began emptying another bag, placing food on the streetlit patch of sidewalk, just out of reach of the hatch. Then he returned to the car, sat on the rear deck causing the springs to groan, and relit his cigar.

Luring and trapping- enjoying the hunt.

More time passed. Milo's eyes kept shifting to the fence, then leaving it. His expression didn't change, the cigar tilted as he bit down on it.

Then he stayed on the fence.

A large, dark hand was reaching out, straining to grab a loaf of white bread.

Milo went over and kicked the package away and the hand drew back.

"Sorry," said Milo. "No grain without pain."

He took his badge out and shoved it at the hatch.

"Just talk, that's it," he said.

Nothing.

Sighing, he picked up the bread, tossed it through the hatch. Picking up a can of soup, he wiggled it.

"Make it a balanced meal, pal."

A moment later, a pair of unlaced sneakers appeared in the opening. Above them, the frayed cuffs of greasy-looking plaid pants and the bottom seam of an army blanket.

The head above the cloth remained unseen, shielded by darkness.

Milo held the soup can between thumb and forefinger. New Orleans Gourmet Gumbo.

"Lots more where this came from," he said. "Just for answering a few questions, no hassles."

One plaid leg angled forward through the opening. A sneaker hit the pavement, then the other.

A man emerged into the streetlight, wincing.

He had the blanket wrapped around him to the knees, covering his head like a monk's cowl and shrouding most of his face.

What showed of the skin was black and grainy. The man took an awkward step, as if testing the integrity of the sidewalk, and the blanket dropped a bit. His skull was big and half bald, above a long, bony face that looked caved in. His beard was a kinky gray rash, his skin cracked and caked. Fifty or sixty or seventy. A battered nose so flat it almost merged with his crushed cheeks, spreading like melted tar. His eyes squinted and watered and didn't stop moving.

He had the white bread in his hand and was looking at the soup.

Milo tried to give it to him.

The man hesitated, working his jaws. His eyes were quieter now.

"Know what a gift horse is?" said Milo.

The man swallowed. Drawing his blanket around himself, he squeezed the bread so hard the loaf turned into a figure eight.

I went over to him and said, "We just want to talk, that's it."

He looked into my eyes. His were jaundiced and clogged with blood vessels, but something shone through- maybe intelligence, maybe just suspicion. He smelled of vomit and alcohol belch and breath mints, and his lips were as loose as a mastiff's. I worked hard at standing my ground.

Milo came up behind me and covered some of the stench with cigar smoke. He put the soup up against the man's chest. The man looked at it and finally took it, but continued to stare at me.

"You are not police." His voice was surprisingly clear. "You are definitely not police."

"True," I said. "But he is."

The man glanced at Milo and smiled. Rubbing the part of the blanket that covered his abdomen, he shoved both hands under it, secreting the bread and the soup.

"A few questions, friend," said Milo. "Simple stuff."

"Nothing in life is simple," said the man.

Milo hooked a thumb at the bags on the sidewalk. "A philosopher. There's enough there to feed you and your friends- have a nice little party."

The man shook his head. "It could be poison."

"Why the hell would it be poison?"

Smile. "Why not? The world's poison. A while back someone gave someone a present and it was full of poison and someone died."

"Where'd this happen?"

"Mars."

"Seriously."

"Venus."

"Okay," said Milo, blowing smoke. "Suit yourself, we'll ask our questions elsewhere."

The man licked his lips. "Go ahead. I've got the virus, makes no difference to me."

"The virus, huh?" said Milo.

"Don't believe me, you can kiss me."

The man flicked his tongue. The blanket fell to his shoulders. Underneath, he wore a greasy Bush-Quayle T-shirt. His neck and shoulders were emaciated.

"I'll pass," said Milo.

The man laughed. "Bet you will- now what? Gonna beat it out of me?"

"Beat what out of you?"

"Whatever you want. You've got the power."

"Nah," said Milo. "This is the new LAPD. We're New Age sensitive guys."

The man laughed. His breath was hot and emetic. "Bearshit. You'll always be savages- got to be to keep order."

Milo said, "Have a nice day," and began to turn.

"What do you want to know, anyway?"

"Anything about a citizen named Lyle Edward Gritz," said Milo. "You know him?"

"Like a brother."

"That so?"

"Yup," said the man. "Unfortunately, this day and age, families deteriorating and all, that means not well at all."

Milo looked over at the hatch. "He in there now?"

"Nope."

"See him recently?"

"Nope."

"But he did hang out here."

"From time to time."

"When was the last time?"

The man ignored the question and began staring at me again.

"What are you?" he said. "Some kind of journalist riding along?"

"He's a doctor," said Milo.

"Oh yeah?" Smile. "Got any penicillin? Things get pretty infectious down here. Amoxicillin, erythromycin, tetracycline- anything to zap those little cocci boogers?"

I said, "I'm a psychologist."

"Ooh," said the man, as if wounded. He closed his eyes and shook his head. When he opened them they were dry and focused. "Then you're not worth a damn to me- pardon my linguistics."

"Gritz," said Milo. "Can you tell me anything about him?"

The man appeared to be contemplating. "White trash, juicehead, low IQ. But able-bodied. He had no excuse ending up down here. Not that I do- you probably think I was some kind of white collar overachiever, don't you? 'Cause I'm black and I know grammar."

Smiling.

I smiled back.

"Wrong," he said. "I collected garbage. Professionally. City of Compton. Good pay, you wear your gloves, it's fine, terrific benefits. My mistake was leaving and starting my own business. Vinyl flooring. I did good work, had six people working for me. Did fine until business slumped and I let the dope comfort me."

He produced one arm from under the blanket. Raised it and let the sleeve fall back from a bony forearm. The underside of the limb was knotted with scars and abscesses, keloidal and bunched, raw in spots.

"This is a fresh one," he said, eyeing a scab near his wrist. "Got off just before sundown. I waive my rights, why don't you take me in, give me a bunk for the night?"

"Not my thing," said Milo.

"Not your thing?" The man laughed. "What are you, some kind of liberal?"

Milo looked at him and smoked.

The man put his arm back. "Well, at least get me a real doctor, so I can get hold of some methadone."

"What about the county?"

"County ran out. Can't even get antibiotics from the county."

"Well," said Milo, "I can give you a lift to an emergency room if you want."

The man laughed again, scornfully. "For what? Wait around all night with gunshots and heart attacks? I've got no active diagnosis- just the virus, no symptoms yet. So all they'll do is keep me waiting. Jail's better- they process you faster."

"Here," said Milo, dipping into his pocket for his wallet. He took out some bills and handed them to the man. "Find a room, keep the change."

The man gave a warm, broad smile and tucked the money under his blanket. "That's real nice, Mr. Policeman. You made this po', unfortunate, homeless individual's evening."

Milo said, "Was Gritz into dope, too?"

"Just juice. Like I said, white trash. Him and his hillbilly singing."

"He liked to sing?"

"All the time, this yodely white-trash voice. Wanted to be Elvis."

"Any talent?"

The man shrugged.

"Did he ever get violent with anyone?"

"Not that I saw."

"What else can you tell me about him?"

"Not much. Sticks to himself- we all do. This is Little Calcutta, not some hippie commune."

"He ever hang out with anyone?"

"Not that I saw."

"How about Dorsey Hewitt?"

The man's lips pursed. "Hewitt, Hewitt… the one that did that caseworker?"

"You knew him?"

"No, I read the paper- when that fool did that, I was worried. Backlash. Citizens coming down here and taking it out on all us po' unfortunates."

"You never met Hewitt?"

"Nope."

"Don't know if he and Gritz were buddies?"

"How would I know that if I never met him?"

"Someone told us Gritz talked about getting rich."

"Sure, he always did, the fool. Gonna cut a record. Gonna be the next Elvis. Pour a bottle down his gullet and he was number one on the charts."

The man turned to me. "What do you think my diagnosis is?"

"Don't know you well enough," I said.

"They- the interns over at County- said I had an affective disease- severe mood swings. Then they cut off my methadone."

He clicked his teeth together and waited for me to comment. When I didn't, he said, "Supposedly I was using stuff to self-medicate- being my own psychiatrist." He laughed. "Bearshit. I used it to be happy."

Milo said, "Back on track: what else do you know about Gritz?"

"That's it." Smile. "Do I still get to keep the money?"

"Is Terminator Three still here?" I said.

"Who?"

"A kid from Arizona. Missing pinkie, bad cough. He has a girlfriend and a baby."

"Oh yeah, Wayne. He's calling himself that, now?" Laughter. "Nah, they all packed up this afternoon. Like I said, people come and go- speaking of which…"

He hooded himself with the blanket and, keeping his eyes on us, began edging toward the fence.

"What about your room for the night?" said Milo.

The man stopped and looked back. "Nah, I'll camp out tonight. Fresh air." Grin.

Milo laughed a little bit with him, then eyed the food. "What about all this?"

The man scrutinized the groceries. "Yeah, I'll take some of that Gatorade. The Pepsi, too."

He picked up the beverages and stashed them under the blanket.

"That's it?" said Milo.

"On a diet," said the man. "You want, you can bring the rest of it inside. I'm sure someone'll take it off your hands."

• • •

The hooded man led us through the darkness, walking unsteadily but without hesitation, like a well-practiced blind man.

Milo and I stumbled and fought to keep our balance, hauling boxes with only the skimpy guidance of the penlight beam.

As we progressed, I sensed human presence- the heat of fear. Then the petrol sweetness of Sterno.

Urine. Shit. Tobacco. Mildew.

The ammonia of fresh semen.

The hooded man stopped and pointed to the ground.

We put the boxes down and a blue flame ignited. Then another.

The concrete wall came into focus, in front of it bedrolls, piles of newspaper. Bodies and faces blue-lit by the flames.

"Suppertime, chillun'," shouted the man, over the noise of the freeway. Then he was gone.

More lights.

Ten or so people appeared, faceless, sexless, huddled like storm victims.

Milo took something out of the box and held it out. A hand reached out and snatched it. More people collected around us, blue tinted, rabbity, openmouthed with expectation.

Milo leaned forward, moving his mouth around his cigar. What he said made some of the people bolt. Others stayed to listen, and a few talked back.

He distributed more food. I joined in, feeling hands brush against mine. Finally our boxes were empty and we stood, alone.

Milo swung the penlight around the lot, exposing cloth heaps, lean-tos, people eating.

The hooded black man, sitting with his back up against the freeway wall, plaid legs splayed. One naked arm stretched out over a skinny thigh, bound at the biceps by a coil of something elastic.

A beautiful smile on his face, a needle buried deep in his flesh.

Milo snapped his head away and lowered the beam.

"C'mon," he said, loud enough for me to hear.

• • •

He headed west rather than back toward Beverly Hills, saying, "Well, that was a big goddamn zero."

"None of them had anything to say?"

"The consensus, for what it's worth, is that Lyle Gritz hasn't been seen for a week or two and that it's no big deal, he drifts in and out. He did, indeed, mouth off a bit about getting rich before he split, but they've all heard that before."

"The next Elvis."

He nodded. "Music fantasies, not fish murder. I pressed for details and one of them claimed to have seen him get into someone's car a week or so ago- across the street, over at the cement yard. But that same person seemed rather addled and had absolutely no clue as to make, model, color, or any other distinguishing details. And I'm not sure he didn't just say it because I was pushing. I'll see if Gritz's name shows up on any recent arrest files. You can ask Jeffers if he was ever a patient at the center. If he was, maybe you can get her to point you in any direction he may have gone. But even if we do find him, I'm not convinced it means a damn thing. Now you up for a little rest-stop? I'm still smelling that hellhole."

• • •

He drove to a cocktail lounge on Wilshire, in the drab part of Santa Monica. Neon highball glass above a quilted door. I'd never been there, but the way he pulled into the parking lot told me he knew it well.

Inside, the place wasn't much brighter than the overpass. We washed our hands in the men's room and took stools at the bar. The decor was red vinyl and nicotine. The resident rummies seemed to be elderly and listless. A few looked dead asleep. The jukebox helped things along with low-volume Vic Damone.

Milo scooped up a handful of bar nuts and fed his face. Ordered a double Chivas and didn't comment when I asked for a Coke.

"Where's the phone?" I said.

He pointed to a corner.

I called Robin. "How's it going?"

"Not bad," she said. "The other man in my life and I are cuddled up watching a sitcom."

"Funny?"

"I don't think so, and he's not laughing- just drooling. Any progress?"

"Not really, but we did give away lots of food."

"Well," she said, "good deeds don't hurt. Coming home?"

"Milo wanted to stop for a drink. Depending on his mood, I may need to drive him home. Go ahead and eat without us."

"Okay… I'll leave a light in the window and a bone in your dish."

16

Though Milo seemed coherent by the time we reached Benedict Canyon, I suggested he sack out in one of the bedrooms, and he agreed without protest. When I awoke Saturday morning at seven, he was gone and the bed he'd slept in was in perfect order.

At nine, my pond maintenance people called to confirm they'd be moving the fish at two p.m.

Robin and I had breakfast, then I drove to the biomed library.

I looked up Wilbert Harrison in the psychiatric section of the Directory of Medical Specialists. His most recent listing was ten years old- an address on Signal Street in Ojai, no phone number. I copied it down and read his bio.

Medical education at Columbia University and the Menninger Clinic, a fellowship in social anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and a clinical appointment at the de Bosch Institute and Corrective School.

The anthro training was interesting, suggesting interests that stretched beyond private practice. But he'd had no academic appointments and his fields of specialty were psychoanalysis and the treatment of impaired physicians and health professionals. His birthdate made him sixty-five. Old enough to have retired- the move to Ojai from Beverly Hills and the lack of a phone listing implied a yearning for the quiet life.

I flipped forward to the R's and found Harvey Rosenblatt's citation, complete with the NYU affiliation and an office on East Sixty-fifth Street in Manhattan. Same address as the Shirley I'd been trying to reach. Had she ignored my call because they were no longer together- divorced? Or something worse?

I read on. Rosenblatt had graduated from NYU, done his clinical training at Bellevue, the Robert Evanston Hale Psychoanalytic Institute in Manhattan, and Southwick Hospital in England. Fields of specialty, psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Fifty-eight years old.

He was listed in the next volume of the directory, too. I worked my way forward in time, until his name no longer appeared.

Four years ago.

Right between the Paprock and Shipler murders.

You're wondering if they've been visited, too.

One way to check: like most house organs, the Journal of the American Medical Association ran obituaries each month. I went up to the stacks and retrieved bound copies, four and five years old for Rosenblatt, ten and eleven for Harrison.

There were no notices on either psychiatrist. But maybe they hadn't bothered to join the AMA.

I consulted the American Journal of Psychiatry. Nothing there, either. Perhaps neither man had been a member of the specialty guild.

Bound copies of the American Psychological Association Directory were just a few aisles over. The five-year-old listing on Katarina de Bosch that I'd found in my volume at home was indeed her last.

No death notice on her, either.

So maybe I was working myself up for nothing.

I thought of another possible way to locate addresses- bylines in scientific publications. The Index Medicus and Psychological Abstracts revealed that Katarina had coauthored a couple of articles with her father, but nothing since his death. One of them had to do with child rearing and contained a reference to "bad love":

The process of mother-child bonding forms the foundation for all intimate relationships, and disruptions in this process plant the seed of psychopathology in later life. Good love- the nurturant, altruistic, psychosocial "suckling" by the mother/parenting figure, contributes to the child's sense of security and, hence, molds his ability to form stable attachments. Bad love- the abuse of parental authority- creates cynicism, alienation, hostility, and, in the worst cases, violent acting-out that is the child's attempt to seek retribution from the breast that has failed him.

Retribution. The abuse of parental authority. Someone had been failed. Someone was seeking revenge.

I checked for articles by Harrison and Rosenblatt. Neither had published a word.

No great surprise, most practitioners never get into print. But it still seemed odd that I couldn't locate any of them.

One therapist to go: the social worker, Mitchell Lerner.

He'd been last counted a member in good standing of the national social work organization six years ago. I made a note of his office address on Laurel Canyon and the accompanying phone number. BA from Cal State Northridge, MSW from Berkeley, clinical training at San Francisco General Hospital, followed by two years as a staff social worker at the Corrective School.

Another disciple. Under specialties he'd listed family therapy and substance abuse.

Not hoping for much, I took the stairs back up to the stacks and pulled out six- and seven-year-old bound volumes of the social work journal.

No obits on him either, but a paragraph headed "Suspensions" just below the death notices in a December issue caught my eye. A list followed. Thirteen clinical social workers dropped by the organization because of ethics violations. Dead center among the names, "Lerner, Mitchell A."

No details were given about his or any of the others' sins. The State Board of Behavioral Science Examiners was closed for the weekend, so I jotted down the date he'd been expelled and made a note to call first thing Monday morning.

Figuring I'd learned as much as I could from books, I left the library. Back at the house on Benedict, Robin was working and the dog looked bored. He followed me into the house and slavered as I fixed myself a sandwich. I did some paperwork and shared my lunch with him, and he tagged along as I walked outside to the Seville.

"Where to?" said Robin.

"The house. I want to make sure the fish get transferred okay."

She gave a doubtful look but said nothing.

"There'll be plenty of people around," I said.

She nodded and looked over at the car. The dog was pawing the front bumper. It made her smile.

"Someone's in a traveling mood. Why don't you take him along?"

"Sure, but pond drainage isn't his thing- the water phobia."

"Why don't you try some therapy with him?"

"Why not?" I said. "This could be the start of a whole new career."

• • •

The four-man crew had arrived early, and when I got there the pond was half empty, the waterfall switched off, and the fish transferred to aerated, blue vats that sat in the bed of a pickup truck. Workers uprooted plants and bagged them, shoveled gravel, and checked the air lines to the vats.

I checked in with the crew boss, a skinny brown kid with blond Rasta locks and a dyed white chin beard. The dog kept his distance, but followed me as I went up to the terrace to pick up two days' worth of mail.

Lots of stuff, most of it routine. The exception was a long white envelope.

Cheap paper that I'd seen before.

SHERMAN BUCKLEAR, ATTORNEY-AT-LAW above a return address in Simi Valley.

Inside was a letter informing me that Petitioner Donald Dell Wallace had good reason to believe that I had knowledge of the whereabouts of said petitioner's legal offspring, Chondra Nicolette Wallace and Tiffani Starr Wallace and was demanding that I pass along said information to said petitioner's attorney, without delay, so that said petitioner's legal rights would not be abridged.

The rest consisted of threats in legalese. I put the letter back in the envelope and pocketed it. The dog was scratching at the front door.

"Nostalgic already?" I unlocked the door and he ran ahead of me, straight into the kitchen. Straight to the refrigerator.

Milo's spiritual son.

Scratch, scratch, pant, pant.

I realized that, in all the haste of moving, I'd forgotten to remove the perishables from the fridge.

I did a quick visual survey of the shelves, spilled out milk and dumped cheese that had turned and fruit that was beginning to brown. Putting the unspoiled food in a bag, I thought of the people under the freeway.

Some meatloaf remained in a plastic container. It smelled okay and the dog looked as if he'd seen the messiah.

"Okay, okay." I put it in a bowl and set it down before him, bagged the good fruits and vegetables and brought them down to the car.

The pond crew was finishing up. The koi in the truck all seemed to be swimming fine.

The crew boss said, "Okay, we've got the sump running, it'll take another hour or so to drain off. You want us to wait, we can, but you're paying us by the hour, so you can stick around and turn it off yourself."

"No problem," I said, glancing at the truck. "Take care of them."

"Sure. When do you think you'll be wanting 'em back?"

"Don't know yet."

"Some kind of long vacation?"

"Something like that."

"Cool." He handed me a bill and got behind the wheel of the truck. A moment later, they were gone and all I heard was the slow gurgle of draining water.

I sat down on the bank of what was now a muddy hole, waiting and watching the level drop. The heat and the quiet combined to lull me, and I wasn't sure how long I'd been there when someone said, "Hey."

I jerked up, groggily.

A man stood in the gateway, holding a tire iron.

Late twenties or early thirties, heavy growth of dark stubble, thick black Fu Manchu that drooped to his chin.

He had on greasy jeans and Wellington boots with chains, a black T-shirt under a heavy black leather vest. Black, thinning hair, gold hoop earring, steel chains around his neck. Big tattooed arms. Big, hard belly, bowlegs. Maybe six one, two hundred.

Red-rimmed eyes.

At Sunny's Sun Valley, next door to Rodriguez's masonry yard, he'd been wearing a black cap that said CAT.

The muscular guy at the bar who hadn't said much.

He whistled once and came closer. Let one hand drop from the iron. Lowered the metal, swung it parallel to his leg in a slow, small arc and came a few steps closer. Looked at my face. His wore a slow, lazy smile of recognition.

"Retaining wall, huh?"

"What do you want?"

"Donald's kids, man." Deep slurry voice. He sounded as if he'd come straight from the bar.

"They're not here."

"Where, man?"

"I don't know."

The iron arc widened.

I said, "Why would I know?"

"You were lookin' for the little brown brother, man. Maybe you found him."

"I didn't."

"Maybe you did, man." Stepping forward. Just a few feet away, now. Lots of missing teeth. Mustache clogged with dandruff. An angry pus pimple had erupted under his left eye. The tattoos were badly done, a green-blue riot of female torsos, bloody blades, and Gothic lettering.

I said, "I already got a letter from Wallace's lawyer-"

"Fuck that." He came within swinging range, smelling like the bottom of a clothes hamper that needed emptying.

I backed up. Not much room to maneuver. Behind me was shrubbery- hedges and the maple tree whose branch had been used to skewer the koi.

"You're not helping Donald Dell," I said. "This won't look good for him."

"Who gives a fuck, man? You're off the case."

He swung the iron listlessly, pointing downward and hitting the dirt. Looking at the pond just for a second, then back at me. I searched the area for possible weapons.

Slim pickings: oversized polyethylene bags left behind by the pond crew. Lengths of rubber hosing. A couple of sheets of scummy filter screen. Maybe the koi net. Six feet of stout oak handle below a steel-mesh cup- but it was out of reach.

"Since when?" I said.

"What?"

"Since when am I off the case?"

"Since we said so, man."

"The Iron Priests?"

"Where're the kids, man?"

"I told you. I don't know."

He shook his head and advanced. "Don't get hurt over it, man. It's just a job, what the fuck."

"You like fish?" I said.

"Huh?"

"Fish. Finny creatures. Seafood. Piscinoids."

"Hey, ma-"

"You like to sneak around, spearing 'em? Breaking branches off trees and doing the old rotisserie bit?"

"What?"

"You've been here before, haven't you? Sportfishing carp, you sick fuck."

Confusion tugged at his face, zipping it up into something peevish and tight and offering a hint of what he'd look like on the off-chance he made it to old age. Then anger took its place- a brattish resentment- and he lifted the iron and took a poke at my middle.

I danced away.

"Hey," he said, annoyed. He jabbed again, missed. Sloshed, but not enough to stagger, and there was force in his movements. "Here, chickie chick." He laughed.

I kept moving away from his blows, managed to get up on the rock rim of the pond. The stones were slick with algae and I used my arms for balance. That made him laugh some more. He shouted, came after me, clumsy and slow. Caught up in the game as if it were what he'd come for.

He began making barnyard clucks.

I split my focus between the iron and his eyes. Readying myself for the chance to use surprise and his own weight against him. If I missed, my hand would get shattered.

"Boom, boom, boom," he said. "Chickie-chick."

"C'mon, stupid," I said.

His face puffed up and reddened. Two-handing the iron, he made a sudden swing for my knees.

I jumped back, stumbled, pitched forward onto the pond rim, breaking my fall with my palms.

The iron landed on rock and clanged. He raised it high over his head.

The next sounds came from behind him.

Deep bark.

Angry snorts.

He wheeled toward them, holding the iron in front of his own chest in instinctive defense. Just in time to see the bulldog racing toward him, a little black bullet, its teeth bared in a pearly grimace.

Just in time for me to spring to my feet and throw my arms around his front.

Not enough force to knock him over, but I got my hands on the ends of the iron and slammed it hard into his rib cage. Something cracked.

He said, "Ohh," sounding curiously girlish. Buckled. Bent.

The dog was on him now, fixing his teeth on denim leg, shaking his head from side to side, growling and spraying spit.

The man's back was pushing against me. I pressed up on the iron, sharply, forcing it under his chin. Got it against his Adam's apple and pulled in steadily until he made gagging noises and started to loosen his grip.

I held on. Finally, he dropped his arms and let his full weight fall against me. Struggling to remain on my feet, I let him sink to the ground, hoping I hadn't destroyed his larynx but not torturing myself over it.

The dog stayed on him, grunting and eating denim.

The man sank to the dirt. I felt for a pulse. Nice and steady, and he was already starting to move and groan.

I looked for something to bind him. The polyethylene bags. Telling the dog, "Stay," I ran to get them. I tied them together, managed to fashion two thick, plastic ropes and used one to secure his hands behind his back, the other his legs.

The dog had stepped back to watch me, head cocked. I said, "You did great, Spike, but you don't get to eat this one. How about sirloin instead- it's higher grade."

The man opened his eyes. Tried to speak but produced only a retching cough. The front of his neck was swollen, and a deep blue bruise that matched his tattooes was starting to blossom.

The dog padded over to him.

The man's eyes sparked. He turned his head away and grimaced in pain.

I said, "Stay, Spike. No blood."

The dog looked up at me with soft eyes that I hoped wouldn't betray him.

The man coughed and choked.

The dog's nostrils opened and shut. Saliva dripped from his maw and he growled.

"Good boy, Spike," I said. "Watch him for a sec, and if he gives you any problems, you're allowed to rip out his throat for an appetizer."

17

"What an idiot," said Milo, putting his notepad away. "His name's Hurley Keffler and he's got a sheet, but not much of one. More of a bad guy wannabee. We found his bike parked down the road. He claims he wasn't stalking you, got here just as the pond people drove away and decided to have a talk."

"Just one of those impulsive weekend jaunts, huh?"

"Yeah."

We were up on the landing, watching the police cars drive away. The dog watched, too, sticking his flat face through the slats of the railing, ears pricked.

"I found a letter from the Wallaces' lawyer in my mailbox," I said. "He wanted to know where the girls were and threatened me with legal action if I didn't tell him. Looks like the Priests decided not to wait."

"It might not be an official Priest mission," he said. "Just Keffler having a few too many and deciding to improvise. His dinky record, he's probably low man in the gang, trying to impress the hairy brothers."

"What are you booking him on?"

"ADW, trespassing, DUI if his blood alcohol's high enough to prove he drove over here soused. If the Priests go his bail, he'll probably be out within a few days. I'll have a talk with them, tell them to lock him in the house. What a clown."

He chuckled. "Bet your little chokehold didn't do much for his powers of comprehension, either. What'd you use, one of those karate things I'm always ribbing you about?"

"Actually," I said, bending and patting the dog's muscular neck, "he gets the credit. Pulled a sneak attack from the back that allowed me to jump Keffler. Plus he overcame his water phobia- ran right up to the pond."

"No kidding?" Smile. "Okay, I'll put him up for sainthood." He bent, too, and rubbed the dog behind the ears. "Congrats, St. Doggus, you're a K-9 hero."

The driver of one of the black-and-whites looked up at us and Milo waved him on.

"Good boy," I said to the dog.

"Seeing as he's saved your kneecaps, Alex, don't you think he deserves a real name? My vote's still for Rover."

"When I was trying to intimidate Keffler, I called him Spike."

"Very manly."

"Only problem is," I said, "he's already got a name- someone's bound to come get him. What a drag. I'm getting kind of attached to him."

"What?" He elbowed my ribs, gently. "We're afraid of getting hurt, so we don't reach out for intimacy? Give him a goddamn name, Alex. Empower him so he can fulfill his dogly potential."

I laughed and rubbed the dog some more. He panted and put his head against my leg.

"Keffler's not the one who killed the koi," I said. "When I mentioned it, he fuzzed over completely."

"Probably," he said. "That tree branch was too subtle for the Priests. They would have taken out all the fish and mashed 'em up, maybe eaten them and left the bones."

"Back to our "bad love' fiend," I said. "Anything new on Lyle Gritz?"

"Not yet."

"I was over at the library this morning, checking out the professional directories. No current listings on Rosenblatt or Katarina de Bosch. Harrison moved to Ojai and has no phone number, which sounds like retirement- and the social worker, Lerner, was suspended from the social work organization for an ethics violation."

"What kind of violation?"

"The directory didn't say."

"What's it usually mean? Sleeping with a patient?"

"That's the most common, but it could also be financial shenanigans, betrayal of confidentiality, or a personal problem, like drug or alcohol addiction."

He rested his arms on the top of the railing. The squad cars were gone now. My pond was a dry hole and the sump pump was sucking air. I went down to the garden, dog at my heels, and turned it off.

When I got back, Milo said, "If Lerner was a bad boy, he could have done something that pissed off a patient."

"Sure," I said. "I looked up de Bosch's writings on "bad love.' Specifically, it refers to abuse of parental authority leading to alienation, cynicism, and, in extreme cases, violence. De Bosch actually used the term "retribution.' But, pardon the whining, I still don't know what the hell I could have done."

"Why don't you try to get in touch with Harrison in Ojai, see if he has any idea what's going on? If his number's unlisted, I can get it for you."

"Okay," I said. "And Harrison may be a good source for another reason. When therapists are suspended, they're usually required to get therapy. One of Harrison's specialties was treating impaired therapists. Wouldn't it be interesting if he treated Lerner? It's not that farfetched- Lerner turning to someone he knew. Get me that number right now and I'll call."

He went to his car and got on the radio. Returned ten minutes later and said, "No listing at all, even though the address is still on the tax roles. Can you spare the time for a little drive? Ojai's nice this time of year. Cute little shops, antiques, whatever. Take the lovely Miss C for a cruise up the coast, combine business with pleasure."

"Get out of town for a while?"

He shrugged.

"Okay," I said. "And Ojai's close to Santa Barbara- I can extend my trip. De Bosch's school is defunct, but it might be interesting to see if any of the neighbors remember it. Maybe there was some kind of scandal, something that closed it down and left someone with a long-term grudge."

"Sure, snoop around. If Robin can stand it, who am I to try and stop you?"

He slapped my back. "I'm off."

"Where to?"

"A little more research on Paprock and Shipler."

"Anything new?"

"Nope. I'm planning to drop in on Paprock's husband tomorrow. He's still a car salesman at the Cadillac place, and Sunday's a good day for those guys."

"I'll go with you."

"Thought you were cruising to Ojai."

"Monday," I said. "Monday's a good day for psychologists."

"Oh, yeah? Why's that?"

"Blue day for everyone else. We get to concentrate on other people's problems and forget our own."

• • •

I went back into the house and looked through the freezer. In our haste to move, we hadn't emptied it, and there were several steaks in the top compartment. I took out a choice-cut rib eye and put it in the oven to broil. The dog's eyes were glued to my every move. As the aroma of broiling meat filled the kitchen, his nose started to go crazy and he got down on the floor in a supplicatory posture.

"Restrain the caballos," I said. "All good things come to those who salivate."

I petted him and called my service for messages. Only one, from Jean Jeffers. The clinic director had called at eleven a.m. leaving an 818 return number.

"Did she say what it was about?" I asked the operator.

"No, just to call her, doctor."

I did and got an answering tape with a friendly-sounding male voice backgrounded by Neil Diamond. I was starting to leave a message when Jean's voice broke in.

"Hi, thanks for calling back."

"Hi, what's up?"

I thought I heard her sigh. "I've got some… I think it would be best if we met personally."

"Something about Hewitt?"

"Somethi- I'm sorry, I'd rather just talk about it in person, if you don't mind."

"Sure. Where and when would you like to meet?"

"Tomorrow would be okay for me."

"Tomorrow's fine."

"Great," she said. "Where do you live?"

"West L.A."

"I'm in Studio City, but I don't mind coming over the hill on the weekend."

"I can come out to the valley."

"No, actually, I like to come out when it's not for work. Never get a chance to enjoy the city. Whereabouts in West L.A.?"

"Near Beverly Hills."

"Okay… how about Amanda's, it's a little place on Beverly Drive."

"What time?"

"Say one p.m.?"

"One it is."

Nervous laughter. "I know this must seem strange coming out of the blue, but maybe… oh, let's just talk about it tomorrow."

• • •

I gave the dog a few bites of steak, wrapped the rest in plastic, and pocketed it. Then we drove to the pet store, where I let him sniff around the food bags. He lingered at some stuff that claimed to be scientifically formulated. Organic ingredients. Twice the cost of any of the others.

"You earned it," I said, and I purchased ten pounds along with several packets of assorted canine snacks.

Going home, he munched happily on a bacon-flavored pretzel.

"Bon appetit, Spike," I said. "Your real name's probably something like Pierre de Cordon Bleu."

Back at the house on Benedict Canyon, I found Robin reading in the living room. I told her what had happened with Hurley Keffler and she listened, quiet and resigned, as if I were a delinquent child with no hope of rehabilitation.

"What a good friend you turned out to be," she said to the dog. He jumped up on the couch and put his head in her lap.

"So what are they going to do with him- this Keffler?"

"He'll be in jail for a while."

"How long's a while?"

"Probably not long. His gang's likely to make his bail."

"And then?"

"And then he'll be out, but he won't know this address."

"Okay."

"Want to take a drive up to Ojai and Santa Barbara, next couple of days?"

"Business or pleasure?"

"Both." I told her about Lerner and Harrison, my wanting to speak to the Corrective School's neighbors.

"Love to, but I really shouldn't, Alex. Too much work down here."

"Sure?"

"I am, hon. Sorry." She touched my face. "There's so much piled up, and even though I've got all my gear set up, it feels different here- I'm working slower, need to get back on the track."

"I'm really putting you through it, aren't I?"

"No," she said, smiling and mussing my hair. "You're the one being put through."

The smile lingered and grew into a soft laugh.

"What's funny?" I said.

"The way men think. As if our going through some stress together would be putting me through it. I'm worried about you, but I'm glad to be here with you- to be part of it. Putting me through it means something totally different."

"Such as?"

"Constantly diminishing me- condescending to me, dismissing my opinions. Anything that would make me question my worth. Do those kinds of things to a woman and she may stay with you, but she'll never think the same of you."

"Oh."

"Oh," she said, laughing and hugging me. "Pretty profound, huh? Are you mad at me for not wanting to go to Ojai?"

"No, just disappointed."

"You go anyway. Promise to be careful?"

"I promise."

"Good," she said. "That's important."

18

We had dinner at an Indian place near Beverly Hills' eastern border with L.A., washing the meal down with clove tea and driving home feeling good. Robin went to run a bath and I phoned Milo at home and told him about Jean's call.

"She has something to tell me but wouldn't elaborate over the phone- sounded nervous. My guess is she found something about Hewitt that scares her. I'm meeting her at one, and I'll ask her about Gritz. When were you planning to see Ralph Paprock?"

"Right around then."

"Care to make it earlier?"

"Dealership won't be open. I suppose we could catch him just as he comes in."

"I'll pick you up."

• • •

Sunday morning I drove to West Hollywood. Milo's and Rick's place was a small, perfectly kept Spanish house at the end of one of those short, obscure streets that hide in the grotesque shadow of the Design Center's blue-green mass. Cedars-Sinai was within walking distance. Sometimes Rick jogged to work. Today, he hadn't: the white Porsche was gone.

Milo was waiting outside. The small front lawn had been replaced by ground cover and the flowers were blooming bright orange.

He saw me looking at it and said, "Drought resistant," as he got into the car. "That "environmental designer' I told you about. Guy would upholster the world in cactus if he could."

I took Laurel Canyon up into the Valley, passing stilt-box houses and postmodern cabins, the decaying Palladian estate where Houdini had done tricks for Jean Harlow. A governor had once lived right around there. None of the magic had rubbed off.

At Ventura, I turned left and traveled two miles to Valley Vista Cadillac. The showroom was fronted by twenty-foot slabs of plate glass and bordered by a huge outdoor lot. Banners were strung on high-tension wire. The lights were off, but morning sun managed to get in and bounce off the sparkling bodies of brand-new coupes and sedans. The cars out on the lot were blinding.

A trim black man in a well-cut navy suit stood next to a smoke-gray Seville. When he saw us get out of my seventy-nine, he went over to the front door and unlocked it, even though business hours hadn't begun. When Milo and I stepped in, his hand was out and his smile was blooming brighter than Milo's lawn.

He had a perfectly trimmed pencil mustache and a pin-collar shirt as white as an avalanche. Off to the side of the showroom, beyond the cars, was a warren of cubicles, and I could hear someone talking on the phone. The cars were spotless and perfectly detailed. The whole place smelled of leather and rubber and conspicuous consumption. My car had smelled that way once, even though I'd bought it used. Someone had told me the fragrance came in aerosol cans.

"That's a classic you've got," said the man, looking through the window.

"Been good to me," I said.

"Keep it and garage it, that's what I'd do. One of these days you'll see it appreciate, like money in the bank. Meanwhile, you can be driving something new for every day. Good lines this year, don't you think?"

"Very nice."

"Got those foreign deals beat hands down. Get folks in to actually test drive, they see that. You a lawyer?"

"Psychologist."

He gave an uncertain smile and I found a business card in my hand.

John Allbright

Sales Executive

"Got a real good suspension this year, too," he said. "With all due respect to your classic, I think you'll find it a whole other world, drive-wise. Great sound system, too, if you go for the Bose option and-"

"We're looking for Ralph Paprock," said Milo.

Allbright looked at him. Squinted. Put his hand to his mouth and compressed his smile manually.

"Ralph," he said. "Sure. Ralph's over there."

Pointing to the cubicles, he walked away fast, ending up in a glass corner, where he lit up a cigarette and stared out at the lot.

The first two compartments were empty. Ralph Paprock sat behind a desk in the third. He was in his late forties, narrow and tan, with sparse gray-blond hair on top and a bit more of it on the sides, combed over his ears. His double-breasted suit was the same cut as Allbright's, olive green, just a bit too bright. His shirt was cream with a long-point collar, his tie crowded with parrots and palm trees.

He was hunched over some papers. The tip of his tongue protruded from the corner of his narrow mouth. The pen in his right hand tapped his blotter very fast. His nails were shiny.

When Milo cleared his throat, the tongue zipped in and an eager grin took hold of Paprock's face. Despite the smile, his face was tired, the muscles loose and droopy. His eyes were small and amber. The suit gave them a khaki tint.

"Gentlemen. How can I help you?"

Milo said, "Mr. Paprock, I'm Detective Sturgis, Los Angeles police," and handed him a card.

The look that took hold of the salesman next- What are you hitting me with this time?-made me feel lousy. We had nothing to offer him and plenty to take.

He put his pen down.

I caught a side view of a photo on his desk, propped up next to a mug printed with the Cadillac crest. Two round-faced, fair-haired children. The younger one, a girl, was smiling, but the boy seemed to be on the verge of tears. Behind them hovered a woman of around seventy with butterfly glasses and cold-waved white hair. She resembled Paprock, but she had a stronger jaw.

Milo said, "Sorry to bother you, Mr. Paprock, but we've come across another homicide that might be related to your wife's and wondered if we could ask you a few questions."

"Another- a new one?" said Paprock. "I didn't see anything on the news."

"Not exactly, sir. This crime occurred three years ago-"

"Three years ago? Three years and you've just come across it? Did you finally get him?"

"No, sir."

"Jesus." Paprock's hands were flat on the desk and his forehead had erupted in sweat. He wiped it with the back of one hand. "Just what I need to start off the week."

There were two chairs facing his desk. He stared at them but didn't say anything else.

Milo motioned me into the office and closed the door behind us. There was very little standing room. Paprock held a hand out to the chairs and we sat. A certificate behind the desk said he'd been a prizewinning salesman. The date was three summers ago.

"Who's the other victim?" he said.

"A man named Rodney Shipler."

"A man?"

"Yes, sir."

"A man- I don't understand."

"You don't recognize the name?"

"No. And if it was a man, what makes you think it has anything to do with my Myra?"

"The words "bad love' were written at the crime scene."

" 'Bad love,' " said Paprock. "I used to dream about that. Make up different meanings for it. But still…"

He closed his eyes, opened them, took a bottle out of his desk drawer. Enteric aspirin. Popping a couple of tablets, he dropped the bottle into his breast pocket, behind the colored handkerchief.

"What kind of meanings?" said Milo.

Paprock looked at him. "Crazy stuff- trying to figure out what the hell it meant. I don't remember. What's the difference?"

He began moving his hands around, stirring the air very quickly, as if searching for something to grab. "Was there any- some sign of- was this Shipler… what I'm getting at is, was there something sexual?"

"No, sir."

Paprock said, " 'Cause that's what they told me they thought it might mean. The first cops. Some psychotic thing- using- sex in a bad way, some sort of sex nut. A pervert bragging about what he did- bad love."

Nothing like that had been in Myra Paprock's file.

Milo nodded.

"A man," said Paprock. "So what are you telling me? The first cops had it all wrong? They went and looked for the wrong thing?"

"We don't really know much at all at this point, sir. Just that someone wrote "bad love' at the scene of Mr. Shipler's homicide."

"Shipler." Paprock squinted. "You're opening the whole thing up again, 'cause of him?"

"We're taking a look at the facts, Mr. Paprock."

Paprock closed his eyes, opened them, and took a deep breath. "My Myra was taken apart. I had to identify her. To you that kind of thing's probably old hat, but…" Shake of the head.

"It's never old hat, sir."

Paprock gave him a doubtful look. "After I did it- identified her- it took me a long time to be able to remember her the way she used to be… even now… the first cops said whoever- did those things to her, did them after she was dead." Alarm brightened his eyes. "They were right about that, weren't they?"

"Yes, sir."

Paprock's hands gripped the edge of his desk and he wheeled forward. "Tell me the truth, detective- I mean it. I don't want to think of her suffering, but if- no, forget it, don't tell me a damn thing, I don't want to know."

"She didn't suffer, sir. The only thing new is Mr. Shipler's murder."

More sweat. Another wipe.

"Afterwards," said Paprock. "After I identified her- I had to go tell my kids. The older one, anyway- the little one was just a baby. Actually, the older one wasn't much more than a baby, either, but he was asking for her, I had to tell him something."

He knocked the knuckles of both hands together. Shook his head, tapped the desk.

"It took a helluva long time to get it set in my mind- what had happened. When I went to tell my boy, all I could think of was what I'd seen in the morgue- imagining her… and here he is asking for Mommy. "Mommy, Mommy'- he was two and a half. I told him Mommy got sick and went to sleep forever. When his sister got old enough, I gave him the job of telling her. They're great kids, my mother's been helping me take care of them, she's close to eighty and they don't give her any problems. So who needs to change that? Who needs Myra's name in the papers and digging it all up? There was a time, finding out who did it was all that mattered to me, but I got over that. What's the difference, anyway? She's not coming back, right?"

I nodded. Milo didn't move.

Paprock touched his brow and opened his eyes wide, as if exercising the lids.

"That it?" he said.

"Just a few questions about your wife's background," said Milo.

"Her background?"

"Her work background, Mr. Paprock. Before she became a real estate agent, did she do anything else?"

"Why?"

"Just collecting facts, sir."

"She worked for a bank, okay? What kind of work did this Shipler do?"

"He was a janitor. What bank did she work for?"

"Trust Federal, over in Encino. She was a loan officer- that's how I met her. We used to channel our car loans through there and one day I went down there on a big fleet sale and she was at the loan desk."

Milo took out his notepad and wrote.

"She would have probably made vice president," said Paprock. "She was smart. But she wanted to work for herself, had enough of bureaucracies. So she studied for her broker's license at night, then quit. Was doing real well, lots of sales…"

He looked off to one side, fixing his gaze on a poster. Two perfect-looking, tennis-clad people getting into a turquoise Coupe de Ville with diamond-bright wire wheels. Behind the car, the marble-and-glass facade of a resort hotel. Crystal chandelier. Perfect-looking doorman smiling at them.

"Bureaucracies," said Milo. "Did she deal with any others before the bank?"

"Yeah," said Paprock, still turned away. "She taught school- but that was before I met her."

"Here in L.A.?"

"No, up near Santa Barbara- Goleta."

"Goleta," said Milo. "Do you remember the name of the school?"

Paprock faced us again. "Some public school- why? What does her work have to do with anything?"

"Maybe nothing, sir, but please bear with me. Did she ever teach in L.A.?"

"Not to my knowledge. By the time she moved down here, she was fed up with teaching."

"Why's that?"

"The whole situation- kids not interested in learning, lousy pay- what's to like about it?"

"A public school," I said.

"Yeah."

Milo said, "What subjects did she teach?"

"All of them, I guess. She taught fifth grade, or maybe it was fourth, I dunno. In elementary school, you teach all the subjects, right? We never really had any detailed discussions about it."

"Did she teach anywhere before Goleta?" said Milo.

"Not as far as I know. I think that was her first job out of school."

"When would that be?"

"Let's see, she graduated at twenty-two, she'd be forty this May." He winced. "So that would have been, what, eighteen years ago. I think she taught maybe four or five years, then she switched to banking."

He looked at the poster again and wiped his forehead.

Milo closed his pad. The sound made Paprock jump. His eyes met Milo's. Milo gave as gentle a smile as I'd ever seen him muster. "Thanks for your time, Mr. Paprock. Is there anything else you want to tell us?"

"Sure," said Paprock. "I want to tell you to find the filthy fuck who killed my wife and put me in a room with him." He rubbed his eyes. Made two fists and opened them and gave a sick smile. "Fat chance."

Milo and I stood. A second later, Paprock rose, too. He was medium-sized, slightly round-backed, almost dainty.

He patted his chest, removed the aspirin bottle from his breast pocket and passed it from hand to hand. Walking around the desk, he pushed the door open and held it for us. No sign of John Allbright or anyone else. Paprock walked us through the showroom, touching the flanks of a gold Eldorado in passing.

"Whyncha buy a car, as long as you're here?" he said. Then he colored through his tan and stopped.

Milo held out his hand.

Paprock shook it, then mine.

We thanked him again for his time.

"Look," he said, "what I said before- about not wanting to know? That was bullshit. I still think about her. I got married again, it lasted three months, my kids hated the bitch. Myra was… special. The kids, someday they're gonna have to know. I'll handle it. I can handle it. You find something, you tell me, okay? You find anything, you tell me."

• • •

I headed for Coldwater Canyon and the drive back to the city.

"Public school near Santa Barbara," I said. "Lousy pay, so maybe she moonlighted at a local private place."

"A reasonable assumption," said Milo. He lowered the Seville's passenger window, lit up a bad cigar, and blew smoke out at the hot valley air. The city was digging up Ventura Boulevard and sawhorses blocked one lane. Bad traffic usually made Milo curse. This time he kept quiet, puffing and thinking.

I said, "Shipler was a school janitor. Maybe he worked at de Bosch's school, too. That could be our connection: they were both staffers, not patients."

"Twenty years ago… Wonder how long the school district keeps records. I'll check, see if Shipler transferred down from Santa Barbara."

"More reasons for me to drive up there," I said.

"When are you doing it?"

"Tomorrow. Robin can't make it- all for the best. Between trying to find remnants of the school and looking for Wilbert Harrison in Ojai, it won't be a pleasure trip."

"Those other guys- the therapists at the symposium- they worked at the school, too, right?"

"Harrison and Lerner did. But not Rosenblatt- he trained with de Bosch in England. I'm not sure about Stoumen, but he was a contemporary of de Bosch, and Katarina asked him to speak, so there was probably some kind of relationship."

"So, one way or the other, it all boils down to de Bosch… Anyone seen as being close to him is fair game for this nut… Bad love- destroying a kid's sense of trust, huh?"

"That's the concept."

I reached Coldwater and started the climb. He drew on his cigar and said, "Paprock was right about his wife. You saw the pictures- she was taken apart."

"Poor guy," I said. "Walking wounded."

"What I told him, about her being dead when she was raped? True. But she suffered, Alex. Sixty-four stab wounds and plenty of them landed before she died. That kind of revenge- rage? Someone must have gotten fucked up big-time."

19

I made it to Beverly Hills with five minutes to spare for my one o'clock with Jean Jeffers. Parking was a problem and I had to use a city lot two blocks down from Amanda's, waiting at the curb as a contemplative valet decided whether or not to put up the FULL sign.

He finally let me in, and I arrived at the restaurant five minutes late. The place was jammed and it reeked of Parmesan cheese. A hostess was calling out names from a clipboarded list and walking the chosen across a deliberately cracked white marble floor. The tables were marble, too, and a gray faux-marble treatment had been given to the walls. The crypt look, nice and cold, but the room was hot with impatience and I had to elbow my way through a cranky crowd.

I looked around and saw Jean already seated at a table near the back, next to the south wall of the restaurant. She waved. The man next to her looked at me but didn't move.

I recalled him as the heavyset fellow from the photo in her office, a little heavier, a little grayer. In the picture, he and Jean had been wearing leis and matching Hawaiian shirts. Today, they'd kept the Bobbsey twins thing going with a white linen dress for her, white linen shirt for him, and matching yellow golf sweaters.

I waved back and went over. They had half-empty coffee cups in front of them and pieces of buttered olive bread on their bread plates. The man had an executive haircut and an executive face. Great shave, sunburnt neck, blue eyes, the skin around them slightly bagged.

Jean rose a little as I sat down. He didn't, though his expression was friendly enough.

"This is my husband, Dick Jeffers. Dick, Dr. Alex Delaware."

"Doctor."

"Mr. Jeffers."

He smiled as he shot out his arm. "Dick."

"Alex."

"Fair enough."

I sat down across from them. Both their yellow sweaters had crossed tennis-racquet logos. His bore a small, gold Masonic pin.

"Well," said Jean, "some crowd. Hope the food's good."

"Beverly Hills," said her husband. "The good life."

She smiled at him, looked down at her lap. A large, white purse sat there and one of her arms was around it.

Dick Jeffers said, "Guess I'll be going, Jeanie. Nice to meet you, doctor."

"Same here."

"Okay, honey," said Jean.

Cheek pecks, then Jeffers stood. He seemed to lose balance for a second, caught himself by resting one palm on the table. Jean looked away from him as he straightened. He shoved the chair back with the rear of his thighs and gave me a wink. Then he walked off, limping noticeably.

Jean said, "He has one leg, just got a brand new prosthesis and it's taking a while getting used to." It sounded like something she'd said many times before.

I said, "That can be tough. Years ago, I worked with children with missing limbs."

"Did you?" she said. "Well, Dick lost his in an auto accident."

Pain in her eyes. I said, "Recently?"

"Oh, no, several years ago. Before anyone really appreciated the value of seat belts. He was driving a convertible, was unbelted, got hit from behind and thrown out. Another car ran over his leg."

"Terrible."

"Thank God he wasn't killed. I met him when he was in rehab. I was doing a rotation at Rancho Los Amigos and he was there for a couple of months. He made a great adjustment to his appliance- always had until it started bothering him a few months ago. He'll get used to the new one. He's a good guy, very determined."

I smiled.

"So," she said, "how are you?"

"Fine. And intrigued."

"By?"

"Your call."

"Oh." The sheet of hair fell over her eye. She let it stay there. "Well, I didn't mean to be overly dramatic, it's just-" She looked around. "Why don't we order first, and then we can talk about it."

We read the menu. Someone in the kitchen had a thing for balsamic vinegar.

When she said, "Well, I know what I want," I waved over a waiter. Asian kid, around nineteen, with a waist-length ponytail and ten stud earrings rimming the outer cartilage of his left ear. It hurt to look at him and I stared at the table as Jean ordered an insalata something or other. I asked for linguine marinara and an iced tea. Ruined Ear came back quickly with the drink and a refill of her coffee.

When he left, she said, "So you live pretty close to here?"

"Not far."

"For a while Dick and I thought about moving over the hill, but then prices started to go crazy."

"They've slid quite a bit recently."

"Not enough." She smiled. "Not that I'm complaining. Dick's an aerospace engineer and he does well, but you never know when the government's going to cancel a project. The place we've got in Studio City is really pretty nice." She looked at her watch. "He's probably over at Rudnicks now. He likes to shop there for sweaters."

"He's not having lunch?"

"What I need to talk to you about is confidential. Dick understands that. So why did I bring him with me, right? To be honest, it's because I'm still shaky. Still haven't gotten used to being alone."

"I don't blame you."

"Don't you think I should be past it by now?"

"I probably wouldn't be."

"That's a very nice thing to say."

"It's the truth."

Another smile. She reached over and touched my hand, just for a second. Then back to her coffee cup.

"I'm sleeping a little better," she said, "but still far from perfect. In the beginning I'd be up all night, heart pounding away, nauseated. Now I can get to sleep, but sometimes I still wake up all in a knot. Sometimes the thought of going to work makes me just want to crawl back in bed. Dick works in Westchester near the airport, so sometimes we take one car and he drops me off and picks me up. I guess I've become pretty dependent on him."

She gave a small smile. The unspoken message: for a change.

"Meanwhile, I'm telling the staff and the patients there's nothing to worry about. Nothing like consistency."

Ear brought the food.

"This looks yum," she said, pushing her fork around in her salad bowl. But she didn't eat, and one arm stayed around her purse.

I tried a little linguine. Memories of school lunch.

She nibbled on a piece of lettuce. Dabbed at her mouth. Looked around. Unsnapped the purse.

"You have to promise me to keep this absolutely confidential," she said. "At least where you got it from, okay?"

"Does it relate to Hewitt?"

"In a way. Mostly- it's nothing that can help Detective Sturgis- not that I can see, anyway. I shouldn't even be showing it to you. But people are being harassed and I know what it's like to feel besieged. So if this does lead anywhere, please keep me out of it- please?"

"All right," I said.

"Thank you." She inhaled, shoved her hand into the purse, and drew out a legal-sized envelope. White, clean, unmarked. She held on to it. The paper made her nails look especially red.

"Remember how sketchy Becky's notes on Hewitt were?" she said. "How I made excuses for her, saying she'd been a good therapist but not big on paperwork? Well, it bothered me more than I let on. Even for Becky that was cursory- I guess I just didn't want to deal with anything related to her murder. But after you left, I kept thinking about it and went looking to see if she'd taken any other notes that had somehow been misfiled. With all the upheaval right after, housekeeping wasn't exactly a high priority. I didn't find anything, so I asked Mary, my secretary. She said all Becky's active charts had been distributed to other caseworkers, but it was possible some of her inactive files might have ended up in our storage room. So she and I took some time on Friday and looked around for a few hours, and sure enough, stuck in a corner was a box with Becky's initials on it-"RB.' Who knows how it got there. Inside was junk that had been removed from her desk- pens, paper clips, whatever. Underneath all that, was this."

Her hand shook slightly as she handed me the envelope.

I removed the contents. Three sheets of horizontal-ruled chart paper, slightly grimy and bearing deep fold marks, each partially filled with typed notations.

The first was dated six months ago:

Saw DH today. Still hearing vces, but meds seem to hlp. Still dealing w strss of strt-life. Came in with G, both strssd.

BB, SWA

Three weeks later:

D lots better. Snstv, too. Just meds, or me? Ha ha. Maybe some hope?

BB, SWA

Then:

D showing feelngs, more and more. Tlking lots, too. Very good! Yeah, thrpy! Success! But keep limits.

BB, SWA

D cohrnt- hr brshed, totally clean! But still late. Talk re childhd, etc. Some p-c, but approp. G there, waiting. A bit hostl? Jealous? Follow.

BB

D a diff prsn. Open, vrbal, affectnt. Still late. A bit more p-c. Approp? Set lmts? Talk to JJ? Wrth the progrss? Yes!

BB

D late, but less-15 min. Some anx. Hrng vcs? Denies, says strss, alchl- drnkng with G. Talked re G, re rel bet D and G. Some anx, defens, but also opn-mind. More p-c, but ok, relieves anx. O.K.

BB

D looking hppy. Vry vrbl, no angr, no hrng vcs. G not there. Conflct bet G and D? P-c, tried to kss, no hostil when I say no. Good! Approp soc sklls! Rah rah!

BB

The final note was dated three weeks before Becky's murder:

D early- positv change! Yeah! G waits in hall. Definit hostil. Rel bet D and G straind? Re me? D's growth a stress on G? More p-c. Kss, but quick. Much affectn. Talk re this. Boundaries, lmts, etc. D a little down, but dealt w it, approp.

BB

" 'P-c,' " I said, putting the papers down.

"Physical contact," she said, miserably. "I went over and over it and it's the only thing that makes sense."

I reread the notes. "I think you're right."

"Hewitt was getting attached to her. Progressively more physical."

She shuddered. "Look at the last one. She let him kiss her. She must have totally lost control of the situation. I had no idea- she never told me."

"She obviously thought of telling you-"talk to JJ?' "

"But she didn't follow through. Look what she wrote right after that."

I read out loud: " 'Worth the progress? Yes!' Sounds like she convinced herself she was helping him."

"She convinced herself she knew what she was doing." She shook her head and looked down at the table. "My God."

"Beginner's euphoria," I said.

"She was such a sweet thing- so naive. I should have kept a closer eye on her. Maybe if I had, it could've been prevented." She pushed her salad away. Her hair hung in a sheet. Her head rested in her hands and I heard her sigh.

I said, "Hewitt was psychotic, Jean. Who knows what set him off."

She looked up. "Letting him kiss her sure didn't help! She talks about setting limits, but he probably saw it as rejection, what with his paranoia!"

She'd allowed her voice to climb. The man at the next table looked up from his cappuccino. Jean smiled at him, picked up her napkin, and wiped her face.

I scanned the notes again. Yeah, therapy! Rah rah!

She held out her hand. "I need them back."

I gave her the papers and she slipped them back in the envelope.

I said, "What are you going to do with them?"

"Destroy them. Can you just imagine what the media would do with it? Blaming Becky, turning the whole thing into something sleazy? Please, Alex, keep it to yourself. I don't want to see Becky victimized a second time." She flipped her hair again. "Also, to be perfectly honest, I don't want to be blamed for not supervising her."

"It took guts for you to show it to me," I said.

"Guts?" She laughed softly. "Stupidity, maybe, but for some reason I trust you- I don't even know why I did show it to you- getting it off my chest, I guess."

She put the envelope in her purse and shook her head again.

"How could she have let it happen? She talks about him trying to touch her and kiss her, but what I got between the lines was her developing some sort of feelings for him. All that p-cing, as if it was a cute little game. Don't you agree?"

"Fondness for him definitely comes across," I said. "Whether or not it was sexual, I don't know."

"Even if it was plain affection, it was irrational. The man was psychotic, couldn't even keep himself clean. And this G person she keeps mentioning, I still have no idea who that is. Probably Hewitt's girlfriend- some other psychotic he met on the street and dragged in with him. Becky was getting herself involved in a love triangle with psychotics, for God's sake. How could she? She was naive, but she was bright- how could she have shown such poor judgment?"

"She probably didn't think she was doing anything wrong, Jean. Otherwise, why would she have kept notes?"

"But if she thought what she was doing was okay, why not keep those notes right in Hewitt's chart?"

"Good point," I said.

"It's a mess. I should have supervised her more closely. I should have been more in touch… I just can't understand how she could have let him get that close to her."

"Countertransference," I said. "Happens all the time."

"With someone like that?"

"Prison therapists get attached to convicts. Who knows what causes attraction?"

"I should have known."

"No sense blaming yourself. No matter how closely you supervise someone, you can't be with them twenty-four hours a day. She was trained, Jean. It was up to her to tell you."

"I tried to supervise her. I made appointments, but she broke more than she kept. Still, I could have clamped down further- I should've. If I'd had any idea… she never gave a hint. Always had a smile on her face, like one of those kids who works at Disneyland."

"She was happy," I said. "She thought she was curing him."

"Yup. What a mess… I probably showed it to you because you were sympathetic and I'm still so uptight over what happened… I thought I could talk to you."

"You can."

"I appreciate that," she said wearily, "but let's be honest. What good will more talking do? Becky's dead and I'm going to have to live with the fact that I might have been able to prevent it."

"I don't see it that way. You did all you could."

"You're sweet." She looked at my hand, as if ready to touch it again. But she didn't move and her eyes shifted to her salad.

"Happy lunch," she said glumly.

"Jean, it's possible the notes might be relevant to Detective Sturgis."

"How?"

" 'G' may not be a woman."

"You know who it is?" This time her hand did move. Covering mine, taking hold of my fingers. Ice cold.

"That lawyer whose card you gave me- Andrew Coburg? I went over to see him and he told me Hewitt had a friend named Gritz. Lyle Edward Gritz."

No reaction.

I said, "Gritz is a heavy drinker, and he has a criminal record. He and Hewitt hung out together, and now no one can find him. A week or two ago, Gritz told some street people he expected to get rich, then he disappeared."

"Get rich? How?"

"He didn't say, though in the past he'd talked about becoming a recording star. For all I know, it was drunk talk and has nothing to do with Becky. But if "G' does refer to him, it indicates tension between him and Becky."

"Gritz," she said. "I assumed G was a woman. Are you saying Hewitt and this Gritz had something homosexual going on and Becky stepped in the middle of it? Oh, God, it just keeps getting worse, doesn't it?"

"Maybe there was nothing sexual between Gritz and Hewitt. Just a close friendship that Becky intruded upon."

"Maybe…" She pulled out the envelope, removed the notes, ran her finger down the page, and read. "Yes, I see what you mean. Once you think of G as a man you don't have to see it that way at all. Just friendship… But whatever the reason, Becky felt G was hostile to her."

"She was getting between them," I said. "The whole therapy process was challenging whatever Hewitt had with Gritz. How did Becky phrase it in that last note?"

"Let me see- here it is: "Relationship between D and G strained. Me? D's growth?' Yes, I see what you mean. Then right after that, she mentions another p-c- the session where he actually kissed her… You know, you could read this and feel almost as if she was seducing him." She crumpled the notes. "God, what a travesty- why are you interested in this Gritz? You think he could be the one harassing people?"

"It's possible."

"Why? What else has he done criminally?"

"I'm not sure of the details, but the harassment involved the words "bad love'-"

"What Hewitt screamed… Does that actually mean something? What's going on?"

Her fingers had become laced with mine. I looked at them and she pulled away and fooled with her hair. The flap covered one eye. The exposed one was alive with fear.

I said, "I don't know, Jean. But given the notes, I have to wonder if Gritz played a role in getting Hewitt to murder Becky."

"Played a role? How?"

"By working on Hewitt's paranoia- telling Hewitt things about Becky. If he was a close friend, he'd know which buttons to push."

"Oh, God," she said. "And now he's missing… it's not over, is it?"

"Maybe it is. This is all conjecture, Jean. But finding Gritz would help clear it up. Any chance he was a patient at the center?"

"The name doesn't ring a bell… bad love… I thought Hewitt was just raving, now you're saying maybe he was reacting to something that had gone on between him and Becky? That he killed her because she rejected him."

"Could be," I said. "I found a reference to "bad love' in the psych literature. It's a term coined by a psychoanalyst named Andres de Bosch."

She stared at me, nodded slowly. "I think I've heard of him. What did he say about it?"

"He used it to describe poor child rearing- a parent betraying a child's trust. Building up faith and then destroying it. In extreme cases, he theorized, it could lead to violence. If you consider the therapist-patient relationship similar to child rearing, the same theory could be applied to cases of transference gone really bad. Hewitt may have heard about "bad love' somewhere- probably from another therapist or even from Gritz. When he felt Becky had rejected him, he fell apart, became a betrayed child- and lashed out violently."

"Betrayed child?" she said. "You're saying his killing her was a tantrum?"

"A tantrum heated to the boiling point by Hewitt's delusions. And by his failure to take his medication. Who knows, Gritz may have convinced him not to take it."

"Gritz," she said. "How do you spell it?"

I told her. "Be good to know if he was one of your patients."

"I'll comb the files first thing tomorrow, take that damned storage room apart if I have to. If he's anywhere in there, I'll call you right away. We need to know for our own safety."

"I'll be out of town tomorrow. You can leave a message with my service."

"All day tomorrow?" A touch of panic in her voice.

I nodded. "Santa Barbara and back."

"I love Santa Barbara. It's gorgeous. Taking some vacation time?"

"De Bosch used to have a clinic and a school up there. I'm going to try and find out if Hewitt or Gritz were ever patients."

"I'll let you know if he was ours. Call me back, okay? Let me know what you find."

"Sure."

She looked at her salad again. "I can't eat."

I waved Ear over and got the bill.

She said, "No, I invited you," and tried to take it, but she didn't put up much of a fight and I ended up paying.

She stashed the notes in her purse and glanced at her watch. "Dick's not coming back for another half an hour."

"I can wait."

"No, I won't keep you. But I wouldn't mind some fresh air. I'll walk you to your car."

• • •

Just outside the restaurant she paused to button her sweater and smooth her hair. The first time, the buttons were out of line and she had to redo them.

We walked to the city lot without speaking. She looked in shop windows but seemed uninterested in the wares they displayed. Waiting until I'd redeemed the keys from the attendant, she accompanied me to the Seville.

"Thanks," I said, shaking her hand. I opened the driver's door.

She said, "What I said before still stands, right? About keeping all this quiet?"

"Of course."

"It's nothing Detective Sturgis could ever use, anyway," she said. "Legally speaking- what does it really prove?"

"Just that people are fallible."

"Oh, boy, are they."

I got into the car. She leaned in through the window.

"You're more than just a consultant on this, aren't you?"

"What makes you say that?"

"Your passion. Consultants don't go this far."

I smiled. "I take my work seriously."

She moved her head back, as if I'd blown garlic in her face.

"So do I," she said. "Sometimes I wish I didn't."

20

Monday morning at nine, I set out for Ojai, taking the 405 to the 101 and making it to the strawberry fields of Camarillo in less than an hour. Migrant workers stooped in the stubby, green rows. The crop became blue cabbage and the air turned bitter. Kissy-face billboards boosted housing developments and home equity loans.

Just past the Ventura County Fairgrounds, I turned onto 33 north, speeding by an oil refinery that resembled a giant junkyard. Another few miles of trailer parks and mower rental sheds and things got pretty: two lanes draped by eucalyptus, black mountains off to the northwest, the peaks flesh colored where the sun hit.

The town of Ojai was a quarter of an hour farther, announced by a bike and equestrian trail, orange groves, and signs directing the motorist to the Ojai Palm Spa, the Humanos Theosophic Institute, Marmalade Hot Springs. To the south were the clean, green slopes of a country club. The cars were good-looking and so were the people.

Ojai proper was quiet and slow moving, with one traffic light. The main drag was Ojai Avenue, lined with the kind of low-rise, neo-Spanish architecture that usually means tight zoning laws. Unrestricted parking, plenty of spaces. Tans and smiles, natural fibers and good posture.

On the left side of the avenue, a colonnaded, tile-roofed building was filled with storefronts. Native American art and antiques, body wraps and herbal facials, a Little Olde Tea Shoppe. Across the street was an old theater, freshly adobed. Playing tonight: Leningrad Cowboys.

I had my Ventura County Thomas Guide on the passenger seat, but I didn't need it. Signal was a couple of intersections up, and 800 north meant a left turn.

Big trees and small houses, residential lots alternating with olive groves. A drainage ditch paved with fieldstones ran alongside the left side of the street, spanned every few yards by one-stride foot bridges. Wilbert Harrison's address was near the top, one of the last houses before open fields took over.

It was a shingle-roofed wooden cottage painted an odd purplish-red and nearly hidden behind unruly snarls of agave cactus. The purple was vivid and it shone through the agave's sawtooth leaves like a wound. Atop a steep dirt driveway, a Chevy station wagon was parked up against a single garage. Four stone steps led up to the front porch. The screen door was shut, but the wooden one behind it was wide open.

I knocked on the frame while looking into a small, dark living room, plank floored and crowded with old furniture, shawls, throw pillows, an upright piano. A bay window was lined with dusty bottles.

Chamber music came from another room.

I knocked louder.

"One minute." The music turned off and a man appeared from a doorway to the right.

Short. Chubby as in his old picture and white haired. He had on a polyester jumpsuit the same purplish-red as the house. Some of the furniture was upholstered that color, too.

He opened the screen door and gave me a curious but friendly look. His eyes were gray, but they picked up magenta accents from his surroundings. There was a softness to his face, but no weakness.

"Dr. Harrison?"

"Yes, I'm Bert Harrison." His voice was a clear baritone. The jumpsuit was zipped in the front and had large, floppy lapels. Short-sleeved, it exposed white, freckled arms. His face was freckled, too, and I noticed reddish-blond tints in his white hair. He wore a pinkie ring set with a violet cabochon, and a bolo tie with leather thongs held together by a big, shapeless purple rock. Sandals on his feet, no socks.

"My name is Alex Delaware. I'm a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles and I wondered if I could talk to you about Andres de Bosch and "bad love.' "

The eyes didn't change shape or hue, but they became more focused.

He said, "I know you. We've met somewhere."

"Nineteen seventy-nine," I said. "There was a conference at Western Pediatric Medical Center on de Bosch's work. You presented a paper and I was a co-chair, but we never actually met."

"Yes," he said, smiling. "You were there as the hospital's representative, but your heart wasn't in it."

"You remember that?"

"Distinctly. The entire conference had that flavor- ambivalence all around. You were very young- you wore a beard then, didn't you?"

"Yes," I said, amazed.

"The beginnings of old age," he said, still smiling. "Distant memories become clearer, but I can't remember where I put my keys."

"I'm still impressed, doctor."

"I remember the beard vividly, perhaps because I have trouble growing one. And your voice. Full of stress. Just as it is right now. Well, come in, let's take care of it. Coffee or tea?"

• • •

There was a small kitchen beyond the living room and a door that led to a single bedroom. The little I could see of the sleeping chamber was purple and book-lined.

The kitchen table was birch, not more than four feet long. The counters were old white tile trimmed with purple-red bullnoses.

He fixed instant coffee for both of us and we sat. The scale of the table put us close together, elbows nearly touching.

"In answer to your unasked question," he said, whitening his coffee with lots of cream, then adding three spoonfuls of sugar, "it's the only color I can see. A rare genetic condition. Everything else in my world is gray, so I do what I can to brighten it."

"Makes sense," I said.

"Now that that's out of the way, tell me what's on your mind concerning Andres and "bad love'- that was the title of the conference, wasn't it."

"Yes. You don't seem surprised that I just popped in."

"Oh, I am. But I like surprises- anything that breaks up routine has the ability to freshen our lives."

"This may not be a pleasant surprise, Dr. Harrison. You may be in danger."

His expression didn't change. "How so?"

I told him about the "bad love" tape, my revenge theory, the possible links to Dorsey Hewitt and Lyle Gritz.

"And you think one of these men may have been a former patient of Andres's?"

"It's possible. Hewitt was thirty-three when he died, and Gritz is a year older, so either of them could have been his patient as a child. Hewitt killed one psychotherapist, perhaps under Gritz's influence, and Gritz is still out there, possibly still trying to even scores."

"What would he be trying to avenge?"

"Some kind of mistreatment- by de Bosch himself or a disciple. Something had happened at the school."

No response.

I said, "Real or imagined. Hewitt was a paranoid schizophrenic. I don't know Gritz's diagnosis, but he may be delusional, as well. The two of them could have influenced each other's pathology."

"Symbiotic psychosis?"

"Or at least shared delusions- playing on each other's paranoia."

He blinked hard. "Tapes, calls… no, I haven't experienced anything like that. And the name of this person who giggled over the phone was Silk?"

I nodded.

"Hmm. And what role do you think the conference played?"

"It may have triggered something- I really don't know, but it's my only link to de Bosch. I felt an obligation to tell you because one of the other speakers- Dr. Stoumen- was killed last year, and I haven't been able to loca-"

"Grant?" he said, leaning forward close enough for me to smell the mint on his breath. "I heard he died in an auto accident."

"A hit-and-run accident. While attending a conference. He stepped off the curb and was knocked down by a car. It was never solved, Dr. Harrison. The police put it down to Dr. Stoumen's old age- poor vision, faulty hearing."

"A conference," he said. "Poor Grant- he was a nice man."

"Did he ever work at the school?"

"He did occasional consultations. Coming up summers for a week or two, combining vacation with business. Hit-and-run…" He shook his head.

"And as I was saying, I can't locate any of the other speakers or co-chairs."

"You've located me."

"You're the only one, Dr. Harrison."

"Bert, please. Just out of curiosity, how did you find me?"

"From the Directory of Medical Specialists."

"Oh. I suppose I forgot to cancel it." He looked troubled.

"I didn't want to impose on your privacy, but-"

"No, no, that's fine. You're here for my own good… and, to tell the truth, I welcome visitors. After thirty years in practice, it's nice to talk to people rather than just listen."

"Do you know where any of the others are? Katarina de Bosch, Mitchell Lerner, Harvey Rosenblatt."

"Katarina is just up the coast, in Santa Barbara."

"She's still there?"

"I haven't heard that she's moved."

"Do you have her address?"

"And her phone number. Here, let me call it for you."

He reached over, pulled a crimson rotary phone from the counter, and put it on the table. As he dialed I wrote down the number on the phone. Then he held the receiver to his ear for a while, before putting it down.

"No answer," he said.

"When's the last time you saw her?"

He thought. "I suppose about a year or so. By coincidence. I was in a bookstore in Santa Barbara and ran into her, browsing."

"Psychology?"

He smiled. "No, fiction, actually. She was in the science-fiction section. Would you like her address?"

"Please."

He wrote it down and gave it to me. Shoreline Drive.

"The ocean side," he said, "just up from the marina."

I remembered the slide Katarina had shown. Blue skies behind a wheelchair. The ocean.

"Did she live there with her father?" I said.

"Since the two of them came to California."

"She was very attached to him, wasn't she?"

"She worshiped him." He continued to look preoccupied.

"Did she ever marry?"

He shook his head.

"When did the school close?" I said.

"Not long after Andres died- eighty-one, I believe."

"Katarina didn't want to keep it going?"

He put his hands around his coffee cup. He had hammer thumbs and his other digits were short. "You'd have to ask her about that."

"Does she do any kind of psychological work now?"

"Not to my knowledge."

"Early retirement?"

He shrugged and drank. Put his cup down and touched the stone of his bolo tie. Something bothering him.

I said, "I only met her twice, but I don't see her as someone with hobbies, Bert."

He smiled. "You encountered the force of her personality."

"She was the reason I was at the conference against my will. She pulled strings with the chief of staff."

"That was Katarina," he said. "Life as target practice: set your sights, aim, and shoot. She pressured me to speak, too."

"You were reluctant?"

"Yes, but let's get back to Grant for a moment. Hit-and-run isn't really the same as premeditated murder."

"Maybe I'm wrong, but I still can't find anyone who was up on that dais."

He grabbed the cup with both hands. "I can tell you about Mitch- Mitchell Lerner. He's dead. Also the result of an accident. Hiking. Down in Mexico- Acapulco. He fell from a high cliff."

"When?"

"Two years ago."

One year before Stoumen, one year after Rodney Shipler. Fill in the gaps…

"… the time," he was saying, "I had no reason to assume it was anything but an accident. Especially in view of it being a fall."

"Why's that?"

He worked his jaws and his hands went flat on the table. His mouth twisted a couple of times. Anxiety and something else- dentures.

"Mitchell had occasional balance problems," he said.

"Alcohol?"

He stared at me.

"I know about his suspension," I said.

"I'm sorry, I can't talk any more about him."

"Meaning he was your patient- your bio mentioned your specialties. Impaired therapists."

Silence that served as affirmation. Then he said, "He was trying to ease his way back into work. The trip to Mexico was part of that. He was attending a conference there."

He put his finger in his mouth and fooled with his bridgework.

"Well," he said, smiling, "I don't go to conferences anymore, so maybe I'm safe."

"Does the name Myra Paprock mean anything to you?"

He shook his head. "Who is she?"

"A woman who was murdered five years ago. The words "bad love' were scrawled at the murder scene in her lipstick. And the police have found one other killing where the phrase was written. A man named Rodney Shipler, beaten to death three years ago."

"No," he said, "I don't know him, either. Are they therapists?"

"No."

"Then what would they have to do with the conference?"

"Nothing that I know of, but maybe they had something to do with de Bosch. Myra Paprock was working as a real estate agent at the time, but before that she was a teacher in Goleta. Maybe she moonlighted at the Corrective School. This was before she married, so her surname would have been something other than Paprock."

"Myra," he said, rubbing his lip. "There was a Myra who taught there when I was consulting. A young woman, just out of college… blond, pretty… a little…" He closed his eyes. "Myra… Myra… what was her name- Myra Evans, I think. Yes, I'm pretty sure that's what it was. Myra Evans. And now you're saying she was murdered…"

"What else were you going to say about her, Bert?"

"Excuse me?"

"You just said she was blond, pretty, and something else."

"Nothing, really," he said. "I just remembered her as being a little hard. Nothing pathologic- the dogmatism of youth."

"Was she rough on the kids?"

"Abusive? I never saw it. It wasn't that kind of place- Andres's force of personality was enough to maintain a certain level of… order."

"What was Myra's method for maintaining order?"

"Lots of rules. One of those everything-by-the-rules types. No shades of gray."

"Was Dr. Stoumen like that too?"

"Grant was… orthodox. He liked his rules. But he was an extremely gentle person, somewhat shy."

"And Lerner?"

"Anything but rigid. Lack of discipline was his problem."

"Harvey Rosenblatt?"

"Don't know him at all. Never met him before the conference."

"So you never saw Myra Evans come down too hard on a child?"

"No… I barely remember her- these are just impressions, they may be faulty."

"I doubt it."

He moved his jaws from side to side. "All these murders. You actually think…" Shaking his head.

I said, "How important was the concept of "bad love' to de Bosch's philosophy?"

"I'd say it was fairly central," he said. "Andres was very concerned with justice- he saw achieving consistency in our world as a prime motive. Saw many symptoms as attempts to accomplish that."

"The search for order."

Nod. "And good love."

"When did you become disillusioned about him?"

He looked pained.

I held my gaze and said, "You said Katarina pressured you to speak at the symposium. Why would a faithful student have to be pressured?"

He got up, turned his back on me, and rested his palms on the counter. A little man in ridiculous clothing, trying to bring color to his world.

"I really wasn't that close to him," he said. "After I began my anthropology studies, I wasn't around much." Taking a couple of steps, he wiped the counter with one stubby hand.

"Your own search for consistency?"

He stiffened but didn't turn.

"Racism," he said. "I heard Andres making remarks."

"About who?"

"Blacks, Mexicans."

"Were there black and Mexican children at the school?"

"Yes, but he didn't malign them. It was the workers- hired laborers. There was acreage behind the school. Andres hired people down on lower State Street to come clear the weeds every month or so."

"What did you hear him say about them?"

"The usual garbage- that they were lazy, stupid. Genetically inferior. He called the blacks one half-step up from apes, said the Mexicans weren't much better."

"He said this to your face?"

Hesitation. "No. To Katarina. I overheard it."

I said, "She didn't disagree with him, did she?"

He turned around. "She never disagreed with him."

"How did you happen to overhear their conversation?"

"I wasn't eavesdropping," he said. "That would almost have been better. I walked in on the middle of the conversation and Andres didn't bother to interrupt himself. That really troubled me- the fact that he thought I would laugh along with it. And it wasn't just once- I heard him say those things several times. Almost taunting me. I didn't respond. He was my teacher and I became a worm."

He returned to his chair, slumping a bit.

I said, "Did Katarina respond at all to his remarks?"

"She laughed… I was disgusted. Lord knows I'm no paragon of virtue, I've done my share of pretending to listen to patients when my mind was elsewhere. Pretending to care. Been married five times, never longer than twenty-six months. When I finally achieved enough insight to realize I should stop making women's lives miserable, I opted for the solitary life. Drew plenty of blood along the way, so I don't put myself up on any moral pedestal. But I have always prided myself on tolerance- I'm sure part of it is personal. I was born with multiple anomalies. Other things besides the lack of color vision."

He looked away, as if considering his choices. Held out his short fingers and waved them. Pointing at his mouth, he said, "I'm completely edentulous. Born without adult teeth. My right foot has three toes, the left one is clubbed. I'm unable to sire children and one of my kidneys atrophied when I was three. Most of my childhood was spent in bed due to severe skin rashes and a hole in the ventricular septum of my heart. So I guess I'm a little sensitive to discrimination. But I didn't speak up, just left the school."

I nodded. "Did de Bosch's intolerance come out in other ways?"

"No, that's the thing. On a day-to-day basis, he was extremely liberal. Publicly, he was liberal- took in minority patients, most of them charity cases, and seemed to treat them as well as the others. And in his writings, he was brilliantly tolerant. Have you ever read his essay on the Nazis?"

"No."

"Brilliant," he repeated. "He composed it while fighting in the French Resistance. Taking the bastards' own pseudo-theories of racial superiority and throwing it all back in their faces with good, sound science. That was one of the things that attracted me to him when I was a resident. The combination of social conscience and psychoanalysis. Too many analysts live in a twelve-foot-square world- the office as universe, rich people on the couch, summers in Vienna. I wanted more."

"Is that why you studied anthropology?"

"I wanted to learn about other cultures. And Andres supported me in that. Told me it would make me a better therapist. He was a great mentor, Alex. That's why it was so crushing to hear him sneer at those field hands- like seeing one's father in a disgusting light. I swallowed it in silence several times. Finally, I resigned and left town."

"For Beverly Hills?"

"I did a year of research in Chile, then caved in and returned to my own twelve-foot-square world."

"Did you tell him why you were leaving?"

"No, just that I was unhappy, but he understood." He shook his head. "He was an intimidating man. I was a coward."

"It had to take force of personality to dominate Katarina."

"Oh, yes, and he did dominate her… after I returned from Chile, he called me just once. We had a frosty conversation, and that was that."

"But Katarina wanted you at the conference anyway."

"She wanted me because I was part of his past- the glory years. By then he was a vegetable and she was resurrecting him. She brought me pictures of him in his wheelchair. "You abandoned him once, Bert. Don't do it again.' Guilt's a great motivator."

He looked away. Worked his jaws.

"I don't see any obvious tie-in," I said, "but Rodney Shipler, the man who was beaten to death, was black. At the time of his murder, he was a school janitor in L.A. Do you have any memory of him at all?"

"No, that name isn't familiar." He looked back at me. Edgy- guilty?

"What is it, Bert?"

"What's what?"

"Something's on your mind." I smiled. "Your face is full of stress."

He smiled back and sighed. "Something came into my mind. Your Mr. Silk. Probably irrelevant."

"Something about Lerner?"

"No, no, this is something that happened after the "bad love' conference- soon after, a couple of days, I believe." He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, as if coaxing forth memories.

"Yes, it was two or three days," he said, working his jaws again. "I received a call in my office. After hours. I was on my way out and I picked up the phone before the answering service could get to it. A man was on the other end, very agitated, very angry. A young man- or at least he sounded young. He said he'd sat through my speech at the conference and wanted to make an appointment. Wanted to go into long-term psychoanalysis with me. But the way he said it- hostile, almost sarcastic- brought my guard up, and I asked him what kinds of problems he was experiencing. He said there were many- too many to go into over the phone and that my speech had reminded him of them. I asked him how, but he wouldn't say. His voice was saturated with stress- real suffering. He demanded to know if I was going to help him. I said, of course, I'd stay late and see him right away."

"You considered it a crisis?"

"At the least, a borderline crisis- there was real pain in his voice. An ego highly at risk. And," he smiled, "I had no pressing engagements other than dinner with one of my wives- the third one, I think. You can see why I was such a poor matrimonial prospect… Anyway, to my surprise, he said no, right now wasn't a good time for him, but he could come in the next evening. Standoffish, all of a sudden. As if I'd come on too strong for him. I was a bit taken aback, but you know patients- the resistance, the ambivalence."

I nodded.

He said, "So we made an appointment for the following afternoon. But he never showed up. The phone number he'd given me was out of order and he wasn't listed in any local phone books. I thought it odd, but after all, odd is our business, isn't it? I thought about it for a while, then I forgot about it. Until today. His being at the conference… all that anger." Shrug. "I don't know."

"Was his name Silk?"

"This is the part I hesitate about, Alex. He never became my patient, formally, but in a sense he was. Because he asked for help and I counseled him over the phone- or at least I attempted to."

"There was no formal treatment, Bert. I don't see any problem, legally."

"That's not the point. Morally, it's an issue- moral issues transcend the law." He slapped his own wrist and smiled. "Gawd, doesn't that sound self-righteous."

"There is a moral issue," I said. "But weigh it against the alternatives. Two definite murders. Three if you include Grant Stoumen. Maybe four, if someone pushed Mitchell Lerner off that cliff. Myra Paprock was raped, as well. Taken apart physically. She left two small children. I just met her husband. He still hasn't healed."

"You're quite good at guilt yourself, young man."

"Whatever works, Bert. How's that for a moral stance?"

He smiled. "No doubt you're a practical therapist… No his name wasn't Silk. Another type of fabric. That's what made me think of it. Merino." He spelled it out.

"First name?"

"He didn't give one. Called himself "Mister.' Mr. Merino. It sounded pretentious in someone so young. Awful insecurity."

"Can you pinpoint his age?"

"Twenties- early twenties would be my guess. He had a young man's impetuousness. Poor impulse control to call like that and make demands. But he was stressed, and stress causes regression, so maybe he was older."

"When was the Corrective School established?"

"Nineteen sixty-two."

"So if he was in his twenties in seventy-nine, he could easily have been a patient. Or one of the field hands- Merino's an Hispanic name."

"Or someone with no connection to the school at all," he said. "What if he was just someone with deep-seated problems who sat in on the conference and reacted to it for one reason or another?"

"Could be," I said, calculating silently: Dorsey Hewitt would have been around eighteen in 1979. Lyle Gritz, a year older.

"All right," I said, "thanks for telling me, and I won't give out the information unless it's essential. Is there anything else you remember that might help?"

"No, I don't think so. Thank you. For warning me."

He looked around his small house with longing. I knew the feeling.

"Do you have a place to go?" I said.

Nod. "There are always places. New adventures."

He walked me to my car. The heat had turned up a bit and the air was thick with honeybees.

"Off to Santa Barbara now?" he said.

"Yes."

"Give Katarina my best when you see her. The easiest way is Highway 150. Pick it up just out of town and take it all the way. It's no more than a half-hour drive."

"Thanks."

We shook hands.

"One more thing, Bert?"

"Yes?"

"Mitchell Lerner's problems. Could they have resulted in any way from his work at the school- or did they cause problems there?"

"I don't know," he said. "He never spoke about the school. He was a very closed person- highly defensive."

"So you did ask him about it?"

"I asked him about every element of his past. He refused to talk about anything but his drinking. And even then, just in terms of getting rid of a bad habit. In his own work, he despised behaviorism, but when it came to his therapy, he wanted to be reconditioned. Overnight. Something short term and discreet- hypnosis, whatever."

"You're an analyst. Why did he come to you?"

"Safety of the familiar." He smiled. "And I've been known to be pragmatic from time to time."

"If he was so resistant, why'd he bother to go into therapy in the first place?"

"As a condition of his probation. The social work ethics committee demanded it, because it had affected his work- missed appointments, failure to submit insurance forms so his patients could recover. I'm afraid he acted the same way as a patient. Not showing up, very unreliable."

"How long did you see him?"

"Obviously, not long enough."

21

There seemed little doubt that Myra Evans and Myra Paprock were the same person. And that her murder and the deaths of others were related to de Bosch and his school.

Silk. Merino.

The conference putting someone in touch with his problems… some sort of trauma.

Bad love.

Taken apart.

A child's voice chanting.

I felt a sudden stab of panic about leaving Robin alone, stopped in the center of Ojai, and called her from a pay phone. No answer. The Benedict number had been channeled through my answering service, and on the fifth ring an operator picked up.

I asked her if Robin had left word where she was going.

"No, she didn't, doctor. Would you like your messages?"

"Please."

"Just one, actually, from a Mr. Sturgis. He called to say Van Nuys will be getting to your tape soon- got a broken stereo, Dr. Delaware?"

"Nothing that simple," I said.

"Well, you know how it is, doctor. They keep making things more complicated so people have to feel stupid."

• • •

I picked up 150 a few miles out of town and headed northwest on two curving lanes. Lake Casitas meandered parallel to the highway, massive and gray under a listless sun. The land side was mostly avocado groves, gold tipped with new growth. Halfway to Santa Barbara, the road reconnected with 101 and I traveled the last twelve miles at freeway speed.

I kept thinking about what Harrison had told me about de Bosch's racism and wondered what I'd tell Katarina when I found her, how I'd approach her.

I got off the highway without an answer, bought gas, and called the number Harrison had given me. No answer. Deciding to delay confrontation for a while, I looked through my Thomas Guide for the site where the Corrective School had once been. Near the border with Montecito, several miles closer than Shoreline Drive- an omen.

It turned out to be a straight, shady street lined with gated properties. The eucalyptus here grew huge, but the trees looked dried out, almost dessicated. Despite the fire risk, shake roofs were in abundance. So were Mercedes.

The exact address corresponded to a new-looking tract behind high stone walls. A sign advertised six custom homes. What I could see of them was massive and cream colored.

Across the way was a pink and brown Tudor mansion with a sign out in front that said THE BANCROFT SCHOOL. A semicircular gravel drive girdled the building. A black Lincoln was parked under a spreading live oak.

A man got out of the car. Midsixties- old enough to remember. I drove across the road, pulled up next to his driver's side, and lowered my window.

His expression wasn't friendly. He was big and powerful looking, dressed in tweeds and a light blue sweater vest despite the heat, and he had very white, very straight hair and knocked-about features. A leather briefcase- an old one with a brass clasp- dangled from one hand. The leather had been freshly oiled- I could smell it. Several pens were clasped to his breast pocket. He looked the Seville over with narrow, dark eyes, then had a go at my face.

"Excuse me," I said, "was the Corrective School once across the street?"

Scowl. "That's right." He turned to leave.

"How long has it been gone?"

"Quite a while. Why?"

"I just had a few questions about it."

He put his briefcase down and peered into the car. "Are you an… alumnus?"

"No."

He looked relieved.

"Do alumni come back frequently?" I said.

"No, not frequently, but… you do know what kind of school it was."

"Troubled children."

"A bad lot. We were never happy with it- we were here first, you know. My father broke ground thirty years before they came."

"Really."

"We were here before most of the houses. This was all agricultural back then."

"Did the students from the Corrective School cause problems?"

"And what's your interest in that?"

"I'm a psychologist," I said, and gave him a card. "I'm doing some consulting to the Los Angeles Police Department, and there's some evidence one of the alumni is involved in something unpleasant."

"Something unpleasant. Well, that's not much of a surprise, is it?" He scowled again. His eyebrows were bushy, low-set, and still dark, giving him a look of perpetual annoyance. "What kind of unpleasantness?"

"I'm sorry but I can't go into detail- is it Mr. Bancroft?"

"It certainly is." He produced a card of his own, white, heavy stock, a heraldic shield in one corner.

The Bancroft School

Est. 1933 by Col. C. H. Bancroft (Ret.)

"Building Scholarship and Character"

Condon H. Bancroft, Jr., B.A., M.A., Headmaster

"By unpleasant do you mean criminal?" he said.

"It's possible."

He gave a knowing nod.

I said, "Why did the place close down?"

"He died- the Frenchman- and no one was left to run it. It's an art, education."

"Didn't he have a daughter?"

His eyebrows arched. "She offered me the place, but I turned her down. Error on my part- I should have done it for the land alone. Now they've come and built those." He cast a glare at the stone wall.

"They?"

"Some sort of foreign group. Asians, of course. She offered me all of it, lock, stock. But she wanted an outlandish amount of money and refused to negotiate. For them, money's no object."