Flesh And Blood
Book 15 in the Alex Delaware series, 2001
To my children -
Jesse, Rachel, Ilana, and Aliza
SAD TRUTH: Had she been just a patient, I probably wouldn’t have remembered her.
All those years listening, so many faces. There was a time I recalled every one of them. Forgetting comes with experience. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.
Her mother phoned my service on a Saturday morning soon after New Year’s.
“A Mrs. Jane Abbot,” said the operator. “She says her daughter’s an old patient. Lauren Teague.”
Jane Abbot’s name meant nothing to me, but Lauren Teague sparked an uneasy nostalgia. It was an 818 number, somewhere in the Valley. When I’d known the family they’d lived in West L.A. I searched my old case files before returning the call.
Teague, Lauren Lee. Intake date, ten years ago, the tail end of my Wilshire Boulevard practice. Shortly after, I cashed in some real estate profits, tried to drop out, met a beautiful woman, became friends with a sad, brilliant detective, learned more than I wanted to know about bad things. Since then I’d avoided the commitment of long-term therapy cases, stuck to court consults and forensic work, the kinds of puzzles that removed me from the confines of my office.
Lauren had been fifteen at referral. Thin file: one history-taking meeting with the parents followed by two sessions with the girl. Then a missed appointment, no explanation. The next day the father left a message canceling any future treatment. Unpaid balance for the final session; I’d made a halfhearted effort to collect, then written it off.
When old patients get in touch it’s usually because they’re doing great and want to brag, or exactly the opposite. Either way they tend to be people with whom I’ve connected. Lauren Teague didn’t qualify. Far from it. If anything, I was the last person she’d want to see. Why was her mother contacting me now?
Presenting problems: poor school achiev., noncompliance at home. Clin. impressions: fath. angry; moth. possib. deprssd. Tension bet. moth. and father – marital strss? Parents agree re: Lauren’s behavior as the prim. prob. Uneventful birth hx, only child, no sig. health probs., contact pediatric M.D. to verify. School: per Mom: “Lauren’s always been smart.” “Used to love to read, now hates it.” B2 aver. till last year, then “change of attitude,” new friends – “bums” (fath.), some truancy, C’s and D’s. Basic mood is “sullen.” “No communic.” Parents try to talk, get no resp. Suspect drug use.
As I leafed through the file, Jane and Lyle Teague’s faces came into semifocus. She, thin, blond, edgy, a former flight attendant, now a “full-time mom.” A heavy smoker – forty-five minutes without tobacco had been torture.
Lauren’s father had been slit-eyed, blank-faced, reluctant to engage. His wife had talked fast… nervous hands, moist eyes. When she’d looked to him for support, he’d turned away.
They were both thirty-nine, but he looked older… He’d done something in the building trades… here it was, elect. contractr. A powerful-looking man, fighting the advent of middle age with long hair, sprayed in place, that fringed his shoulders. Black pelt of beard. Muscles made obvious by a too-tight polo shirt and pressed jeans. Crude but well-balanced features… gold chain circling a ruddy neck… gold I.D. bracelet – how did I remember that? Put him in buckskins and he could’ve been a grizzly hunter.
Lyle Teague had sat with his legs spread wide, consulted his watch every few minutes, fondled his beeper as if hoping for intrusion. Unable to maintain eye contact – lapsing into dreamy stares. That had made me wonder about attention deficit, something he might’ve passed on to Lauren. But when I raised the topic of academic testing, he didn’t stir defensively, and his wife said Lauren had been examined two years before by a school psychologist and found to be “normal and extremely bright.”
“Bright,” he said, putting no praise into the word. “Nothing wrong with her brain that a little discipline won’t cure.” Accusing glance at his wife.
Her mouth twisted, but she said, “That’s what we’re here to learn.”
Lyle Teague smirked.
I said, “Mr. Teague, do you think anything else is going on, besides Lauren’s being spoiled?”
“Nah, basic teenage garbage.” Another look at his wife, this time seeking confirmation.
She said, “Lauren’s a good girl.”
Lyle Teague laughed threateningly. “Then why the hell are we here?”
“Yeah, yeah, fine.”
He tried to tune out, but I stuck with him, finally got him talking about Lauren, how different she was from the “cute little kid” he’d once taken to job sites in his truck. As he reminisced, his face darkened and his speech got choppy, and by the end of the speech he pronounced his daughter “a real hassle. Hope to hell you can do something with her.”
Two days later Lauren showed up in my waiting room, alone, five minutes late. A tall, slender, conspicuously busted, brown-haired girl, treated kindly by puberty.
Fifteen, but she could’ve passed for twenty. She wore a white jersey tank top, skimpy, snug blue-denim shorts, and ludicrously high-heeled white sandals. Smooth, tan arms and long, tan legs were showcased by the minimal clothing. Pink-polished toes glinted at the tips of her sandals. The strap of a small black patent leather purse striped a bare shoulder. If she’d been studying the hookers on Sunset for fashion tips, she’d learned well.
When young girls flaunt, the result is often a comic loss of equilibrium. Lauren Teague seemed perfectly at ease advertising her body – like father, like daughter?
She favored her father in coloring, her mother in structure, but bore no striking resemblance to either. The brown hair was burnt umber sparked with rust, thick and straight, hanging halfway down her back, parted dead center and flipped into extravagant wings at the temples. High cheekbones, wide mouth glossed pink, dominant but perfectly proportioned cleft chin, heavily lined, azure-shadowed blue eyes – mocking eyes. A strong, straight, uptilted nose was dashed by freckles she’d tried to obliterate with makeup. Lots of makeup. It stuccoed her from brow to jaw, creating a too-beige mask.
As I introduced myself she breezed past me into the office, taking long, easy strides on the impossible heels. None of the usual teenage slump – she held her back straight, thrust out her chest. A strikingly good-looking girl, made less attractive by cosmetics and blatancy.
Selecting the chair closest to mine, she sat down as if she’d been there a hundred times before. “Cool furniture.”
“Like one of those libraries in an old movie.” She batted her lashes, crossed and recrossed her legs, threw out her chest again, yawned, stretched, folded her arms across her torso, dropped them to her sides suddenly, a cartoon of vulnerability.
I asked why she thought she was there.
“My parents think I’m a loser.”
“What do you think of that?”
Derisive laugh, toss of hair. Her tongue tip skated across her lower lip. “May-be.” Shrug. Yawn. “So… time to talk about my head problems, huh?”
Jane and Lyle Teague had denied previous therapy, but Lauren’s glibness made me wonder. I asked her about it.
“Nope, never. The school counselor tried to talk to me a couple of times.”
“Did it help?”
She laughed. “Yeah, right. Okay, ready for my neurosis?”
“Neurosis,” I said.
“We have psych this year. Stupid class. Ready?”
“If you are.”
“Sure. I mean – that’s the point, right? I’m supposed to spit out all my deep, dark secrets.”
“It’s not a matter of supposed to-”
“I know, I know,” she said. “That’s what shrinks always say – no one’s gonna force you to do anything.”
“You know about shrinks.”
“I know enough. Some of my friends have seen ’em. One of them had a shrink give her that shi – That stuff about never forcing her, then the next week he committed her to a mental ward.”
“She tried to kill herself.”
“Sounds like a good reason,” I said.
“How’s your friend doing?”
“Fine – like you really care.” Her eyes rolled.
I said nothing.
“That, too,” she said. “That’s the other shrink thing – just sitting there and staring. Saying ‘Ah-ah’ and ‘Uh-huh.’ Answering questions with questions. Right?”
“Very funny,” she said. “At what you charge, I’m not coming here forever. And he’s probably gonna call to make sure I showed up and did a good job so let’s get going.”
“Dad’s in a hurry?”
“Yeah. So give me a good grade, okay? Tell him I was good – I don’t need any more hassles.”
“I’ll tell him you cooperated-”
“Tell him whatever you want.”
“But I’m not going to get into details, because-”
“Confidentiality, yeah, yeah. It doesn’t matter. Tell them anything.”
“No secrets from Mom and Dad?”
“What for?” She played with her hair, gave a world-weary smile. “I’ve got no cool secrets anyway. Totally boring life. Too bad for you – try not to fall asleep.”
“So,” I said, “your dad wants you to get this over with quickly.”
“Whatever.” She picked at her hair.
“What exactly did he tell you to accomplish here, Lauren?”
“Get my act together, be straight – be a good girl.” She laughed, arced one leg over the other, placed a hand on a calf and tickled.
“Be straight,” I said. “As in drugs?”
“They’re paranoid about that, along with everything else. Even though they smoke.”
“They smoke dope?”
“Dope, tobacco. Little after-dinner taste. Sometimes it’s booze – cocktails. ‘We’re mature enough to control it, Lauren.’ ” She laughed. “Jane used to be a stewardess, working all these fancy private charters. They’ve still got this collection of tiny little bottles. I like the green melon stuff – Midori. But I’m not allowed to touch pot till I’m eighteen.” She laughed. “Like I’d ever.”
“Pot’s not for you?” I said.
“Pot’s boring – too slow. Like hey, man, let’s pretend we’re in the sixties, get all wasted and sit around staring at the sky and talking about God.” Another gust of laughter, painfully lacking in joy. “Pot sure makes them boring. It’s the only time she slows down. And he just sits and vegges on the TV, munches nachos, whatever. I’m not supposed to be talking about their bad habits, I’m the one who needs to change.”
“Clean my room,” she singsonged. “Do my chores, get ready in the morning without calling my mom a bitch, stop saying ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and ‘cunt.’ Go to class and pay attention, build up my grades, stop breaking curfew, hang out with decent friends, not low-lifes.” She rotated one hand, as if spooling thread.
“And I’m supposed to get you to do all that.”
“Lyle says no way, you never will.”
Her eyes got merry. “That’s something else I’m supposed to not do. Call him by his name. He hates it, it drives him crazy.”
“So no way you’ll stop.”
She played with her hair. “Who knows what I’ll do?”
“How does he react when you do things that irritate him?”
“Ignores me. Walks away and gets involved in something else.”
“He has hobbies?”
“Him? Only thing he does is work, eat, smoke dope, stuff his face, watch TV. He has no faith in me. In you, either.” Conspiratorial smile. “He says shrinks are just a bunch of overpaid clowns who can’t screw in a lightbulb by themselves and I’m gonna just end up conning you like I con everybody. He’s only paying for this because Jane’s really getting on his nerves with all her nagging.”
“Mom has more faith in shrinks?”
“Mom’s totally worried,” she said. “Mom likes to suffer. They’re – Here’s a juicy one for you: They only got married ’cause they had to. One day I was looking for a bra in Jane’s drawer and I found their wedding license. Two months before my birthday. I was conceived in sin. What do you think of that?”
“Is it a big deal to you?”
“I just think it’s funny.”
“Here they are being all moral and… whatever.” Lifting the tiny black purse, she undid the clasp, peered inside, snapped it shut.
“Mom likes to suffer,” I said.
“Yeah, she hates her life. She used to work private charters, fly all around the world with superrich people. She regrets ever coming down to earth.” She shifted to the edge of the chair. “How much longer do I have to be here?”
Rather than pick apart the fine points of free choice, I said, “Half an hour.”
Opening the purse again, she pulled out a compact, checked her reflection, plucked an eyelash and flicked it away.
“Half an hour,” she said. “No way do I have half an hour of problems – want to hear all of them?”
She launched into a long, droning speech about stupid girlfriends getting on her case, stupid ex-boyfriends foolish enough to think they were still in her good graces, stupid teachers who didn’t know anything more than the students, stupid parties, a stupid world.
Talking nonstop in the flat tones of a rehearsed witness, looking everywhere but at me.
When she was through I said, “So everyone’s getting on your nerves.”
“You’ve got that right… How much longer now?”
“Shit. That much? You should have a clock up there. So people can keep track.”
“Usually people don’t want to.”
“They don’t want to be distracted.”
She favored me with a bitter smile, scooted forward on the chair. “Well, I want to leave early. Okay? Just today. Please. I’ve got some people waiting for me, and I need to get home by five-thirty or Jane and Lyle’re gonna freak out.”
“People waiting for what?”
“Friends are picking you up.”
“I told them to meet me a block from here. So can I go?”
“Lauren, I’m not forcing you-”
“But if I split early you’ll fink, right?”
“Look,” I said, “it’s a matter of twenty minutes. As long as you’re here, why not make good use of the time?”
I expected protest, but she sat there, pouting. “That’s not fair. I told you everything. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I’m not saying there is, Lauren.”
“So what’s the point?”
“I’d like to learn more about you-”
“I’m not worth learning about, okay? My life’s boring, I already told you that.” She ran her hands over her torso. “This is it, all of me, nothing exciting.”
I let several seconds pass. “Lauren, is everything really going as well as it could for you?”
She studied me from under grainy, black lashes, reached into the purse again, and extricated a pack of Virginia Slims.
When she produced a lighter, I shook my head.
“How can you do that? People coming here all stressed out. Don’t they complain – wasn’t Jane climbing the walls? She’s a chimney.”
“Mostly I see kids and teens,” I said. “People manage.”
“Kids and teens.” She gave a short, cold laugh. “Every teen I know smokes. Are you allergic or something?”
“Some of my patients are.”
“So why does everyone have to suffer because of a few? That’s not democracy.”
“It’s consideration,” I said.
“Fine.” She jammed the pack back into the purse. “How much time left now?”
THE SECOND TIME she was twenty minutes late, hurried into the office muttering what might have been an apology.
Same getup, different color scheme: black tank top, sunburn pink shorts, lips coarsened by bright red paste.
Same precarious sandals and cheap little purse. She reeked of tobacco and a rose-heavy perfume. Her cheeks were flushed, and her hair was mussed.
She took a long time settling in the chair, finally said, “Got hung up.”
“You and your friends?”
“Yeah.” Hair flip. “Sorry.”
“Hung up where?”
“Around… the pier.”
“Santa Monica?” I said.
“We like the beach.” She massaged one bare, bronze shoulder.
“Nice sunny day,” I said, smiling. “Classes must have let out early.”
Sudden, bright laughter tumbled from between the crimson lips. “Right.”
“School’s a drag, huh?”
“School would have to be on uppers to be a drag.” She produced the cigarette pack, bounced it on a shiny knee. “When I was little they tested my IQ. I’m supposed to be supersmart. They say I should be studying more. I say I’m smart enough to know it’s a waste of time.”
“No interest in any subject?” I said.
“Nutrition – love that garlic bread. Is today when we talk about sex?”
That caught me off guard. “I don’t recall our scheduling that.”
“They scheduled it. I’ve been instructed to talk to you about it.”
“By your parents?”
“It’s mostly Lyle’s idea. He’s positive I’m doing the dirty, gonna get pregnant, stick him with a ‘little nigger grandkid.’ Like if I was, talking to you about it would help. Like just because I don’t talk to them, I’m going to throw up my insides to some outsider.”
“Sometimes talking to an outsider can be safer.”
“Maybe for some people,” she said. “But explain me this: When you’re young everyone’s always knocking into your head never talk to strangers, beware of strangers, watch out for strangers. So now they’re paying for me to tell my secrets to a stranger?”
She ran a fingernail under the seal of the pack, slit it open, played with the foil flap. “What bullshit.”
“Maybe they’re hoping eventually you won’t consider me a stranger.”
“They can hope all they want.” Low, tight laugh. “Hey, I’m not trying to be rude, it’s just coming out that way – Sorry, you seem like a nice guy. It’s just that I shouldn’t have to be here, okay? Face it: They’re just using you to punish me – like grounding me or threatening not to let me get my license next year. None of that worked, and this won’t either. You have to care to be controlled, and I don’t do caring.”
“What are they punishing you for, Lauren?”
“They say it’s my attitude,” she said, “but you know what I think? I think they’re jealous.”
“You’re happy and they’re not.”
“They’re making themselves out to be all… in control. Especially him.” She lowered her voice to a hostile baritone parody: “‘Lauren, you’re screwing up your life. This therapy crap is goddamn expensive. I want you to go in there and spill your guts.’”
Last week she’d talked about spitting out secrets. The emetic approach to insight.
“So,” I said, “your parents aren’t happy, they’re taking it out on you, and I’m the weapon.”
“They’re stuck where they are and I’m cool, free, enjoying my life, and that bugs them. Soon as I get my own money, I’m out of there, bye-bye, Lyle and Jane.”
“Do you have a plan to get money?”
She shrugged. “I’ll figure something out – I’m not talking right now. I’m not impractical, I know even McDonald’s won’t hire me without their permission. But someday.”
“Did you try to work at McDonald’s?”
Nod. “I wanted my own money. But they said no. ‘No outside work until your grades come up.’ Which they won’t, so forget that.”
“Why won’t your grades come up?” I said.
“’Cause I don’t want them to.”
“So it’s a few more years of this.”
Her eyes shifted. “I’ll figure something out – Listen, forget sex. I don’t want to talk to you about it. Or anything else. No offense, but I just don’t want to spill my guts.”
“Okay, great.” She shot to her feet. “See you next week.”
Ten minutes to go. I said, “No way you can stick it out?”
“Are you going to tell them I split early?”
“Thanks,” she said. “No, I really can’t stick it out, this is hurting my head – Tell you what, next week I’ll come on time and stay the whole time, okay? Promise.”
“It’s only ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes too long.”
“Give it a chance, Lauren. We don’t have to talk about your problems.”
“Tell me about your interests.”
“I’m interested in the beach,” she said. “Okay? I’m interested in freedom – which is exactly what I need right now. Next week I’ll be good – I mean it.”
Next week. Conning me or did she really intend to return?
“I’ve gotta get out of here.”
“Sure,” I said. “Take care.”
Big smile. Hair flip. “You’re a doll.” Swinging the purse like a slingshot, she hurried out. I caught up with her in the waiting room, just as she whipped out her lighter.
Jamming the cigarette in her mouth, she shoved at the door. I watched her trot down the hall, a girl in a hurry, haloed by a cloud of smoke.
I thought about her a few times – the image of self-destructive escape. Then that faded too.
Six years later I was invited to a bachelor party the weekend before Halloween.
A forty-five-year-old radiation oncologist at Western Pediatrics was getting married to an O.R. nurse, and a consortium of hospital physicians and administrators had rented the presidential suite of the Beverly Monarch Hotel for the send-off.
Steaks, ribs, buffalo wings, assorted fried and grilled stuff on the buffet. Iced tubs of beer, serve-yourself bar, Cuban cigars, gooey desserts. My contact with the honoree – a mumbling loner lacking in social skills – had been a few stiff, unproductive discussions about patient care, and I wondered why I’d been included in the festivities. Perhaps every face helped.
There was no shortage of faces when I arrived late. The suite was vast, a string of mood-lit, black-carpeted rooms packed with sweaty men. Penthouse level – no doubt a great view – but the drapes were drawn and the air felt heavy. Suit jackets and neckties were heaped on a sofa near the door under a hand-lettered sign that said, GET CASUAL! I made my way through testosterone guffaws, random backslapping, blue cigar fog, the strained glee of boozy toasts.
A crowd swarmed the food. I finally got close enough to redeem a skewer of teriyaki beef and a Grolsch. Belched cheers and scattered applause from the next room drew me to a larger throng. I drifted over, found scores of eyes trained forward on the hundred-inch projection TV the hotel provided for presidents.
Skin flicks flashing larger than life. Bodies squishing and squirming and slapping in time to an asthmatic sax score. The men around me gaped and pretended to be casual. I wandered away, got more food, stood to the side, chewing and wondering what the hell I was doing there, why I just didn’t wipe my mouth and leave.
A pathologist I knew sauntered by with a whiskey in his hand.
“Hey,” he said, eyeing the screen. “Aren’t you the guy who’s supposed to explain why we do this?”
“You’ve obviously mistaken me for an anthropologist.”
He chuckled. “More like paleontologist. I’ll bet cavemen painted dirty pictures. How about we videotape this and show it at Grand Rounds?”
“Better yet,” I said, “at the next gala fund-raiser.”
“Right. Ten-inch cocks and wet pussies – better have oxygen ready for Mrs. Prince and all the other biddies.”
A roar from the wide-screen crowd made both our heads swivel. Then a sharp peal – flatware on glass, shouts for quiet, and the vocal buzz faded out, isolating the thump-thump of the porn soundtrack. Moans continued to thunder in stereo. A woman’s voice urged, “Fuck it – fuck me,” and nervous laughter rose from the audience. Then a tight, abrasive silence.
A thickset, ruddy man holding a nearly full beer mug – a financial officer named Beckwith – stepped into the space between the two front rooms. His eyeglasses had slid down his meaty nose, and when he righted them beer splashed and foamed on the carpet.
“Go, Jim!” someone shouted.
“Get a neuro workup, Jim!”
“That’s why pencil pushers can’t be surgeons!”
Beckwith staggered a bit and grinned. “Here, here, gentlemen – and I do use the term loosely – Look at what we’ve wrought – is this a goddamn blast or what!”
Cheers, hoots, nudges, bottoms up.
“You’re sure blasted, Jim!”
Beckwith rubbed his eyes and his nose, gave a one-armed salute, splashed more beer. “Since all of us are such serious, no-nonsense citizens – since we’d never dream of abandoning God and spouses and country and moral obligation except for the direst emergency” – raucous laughter – “thank God we’ve got ourselves one hell of an emergency, brethren! Namely the impending sentencing – uh, matrimony of our esteemed – steamed-up – buddy, the eternal, infernal, nocturnal Dr. Phil Harnsberger, wielder of the radioactive cancer-killer beam, better known to all of us as El Terminador, aka He Who Lurks Behind the Lead Door! Come on out, Phil – where are you, boy?”
No sign of the groom.
Beckwith cupped his hands into a megaphone. “Paging Dr. Deathray! Dr. Deathray to center stage, stat. Come on, Phil, show yourself, boy!”
Chants of “Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil…”
Then: “Here he is!”
Thunderous ovation as the crowd rippled and Phil Harnsberger, clutching a martini glass, was expelled from its midst and shoved next to Beckwith.
Balding and normally pallid, with a pink-red mustache demeaning his upper lip, the radiotherapist was flushed incandescent. His smile was a paranoid smear, and he seemed on the verge of tipping over. He had on a black T-shirt so grossly oversized that it skirted past the knees of his slacks. A yellow cartoon silk-screened across the front portrayed a hefty, leering bride gripping a leash that tethered a pint-sized groom prostrate before a hanging judge and looming scaffold. A bold legend protested: I Dint Kill No One, Yer Honor, So Why the Life Sentence?
Beckwith slapped Harnsberger on the back. Harnsberger flinched and tried to down some martini. Most of the liquid ended up on his chin, and he wiped himself with his sleeve.
“Sterile procedure!” someone shouted. “Call the fucking JCAH!”
“Fucking germ culture – stat!”
Beckwith slapped Harnsberger again. Harnsberger labored at smiling.
“Hey, Phil, hey, old guy – and I do mean old – speaking of which, it’s about time you lost your cherry!” Stooping, Beckwith pretended to search for something on the floor, examined Harnsberger’s cuffs, finally straightened and picked the olive out of Harnsberger’s martini. “Ah, here it is! Turned green from disuse!”
Whoops from the crowd. Harnsberger smiled but hung his head.
“Phil,” said Beckwith, “you may be pathetic, but know we love you, big guy.”
“Terminador?” said Beckwith. “Do you know it?”
Harnsberger muttered, “Sure, Jim-”
“You know what?” said Beckwith.
“You love me.”
Beckwith backed away. “Not so fast, Lone Ranger!” To the crowd: “Don’t ask, don’t tell is okay for those fruits in the Navy, but maybe someone should inform the bride!”
Harnsberger flushed. Wild laughter. Beckwith closed back in on his target, going nose to nose. “Seriously, Phil, you’re sure you’re having a good time?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely-”
Beckwith reached around and delivered yet another backslap, hard enough to cause Harnsberger to drop the martini glass. Beckwith crushed the glass underfoot, ground the shards into the carpet. “Like the Jews say, mazel tav – happy batch-day, Phil. Sure hope you’re enjoying your last meal – er, last rites. Grub to your satisfaction?”
“Get enough to drink?”
“’Cause none of us want you pissed off and beaming that death ray of yours down at us, Philly.”
Shouts of agreement. Harnsberger simpered.
Beckwith said, “That’s also why none of us want to be around when you get the bill!”
Momentary panic in Harnsberger’s eyes. Beckwith slapped him again. “Scared you there, huh, boy? Nah, don’t get your co-jone-jones in an uproar, it’s all taken care of – lifted it out of patient funds.” Beckwith rubbed an index finger against a thumb and winked. “Sorry. No kidney transplants for Medi-Cal patients this month!”
Peals of merriment.
Beckwith took hold of Harnsberger’s arm. “And now, for the pièce de résistance, Phil. Pieces. So to speak – Sure you’ve eaten enough?”
“I’m sure, Jim.”
“Well…” Beckwith grinned. “Maybe not.” He flourished an arm. Nothing happened for a moment; then the lights dimmed and music surged from behind the giant TV. Warp-speed disco beat, louder than the porn score.
The crowd parted, and two women in long black trench coats pranced into the clearing. As Beckwith slipped from view they positioned themselves on either side of Harnsberger.
Young women – tall, shapely, coltish, stepping high on spiked heels. Wide-smiling – tossing the smiles as if dispensing candy – they rotated their hips, thrust their pelvises, made the exaggerated moves of trained dancers. Long mass of coal black hair on one girl. Her partner’s coif was white-blond, boy-short, gel-spiked.
Synchronized butt shakes as they flanked Harnsberger, rubbed his neck, kissed his cheek, bumped his hips. A pair of tongues flicked the radiotherapist’s ears, now crimson. His face was polluted with arousal and fear.
The girls stomped and shouted, stroked their crotches, pretended to go for Harnsberger’s fly, threw back their heads and pantomimed openmouthed laughter, began shoving him gently between them – back and forth, the way baby jackals play with a rabbit.
The music took on even more speed. Off came the trench coats; the girls wore identical black leather bustiers, black thongs, garter belts, and fishnet stockings.
Several beats of bump and grind. I stared along with everyone else, caught a side view of busty profiles, heard the girls whoop and laugh as they continued to tease Harnsberger. The black-haired girl tickled his chin, veneered herself against him, ran her hands over his head, messed his hair. The blonde took hold of his face, kissed him long and hard on the mouth as he tried to wriggle away, hands flying wildly. Suddenly he succumbed to the kiss, getting into it. He was reaching for the blonde’s rear when she shoved him away, did an athletic squat, danced back up to him, shook her head from side to side, peeled back a bustier cup and flashed a nipple, let the leather flip back up.
The black-haired girl joined her for more crotch rubbing and prancing. Both bras teased down on cue, now shed and tossed to the crowd.
Full, young breasts bobbled and rotated. The girls pinched their nipples hard, bent low, dropped to perfect splits, bounced up, danced wildly, played with their G-strings.
Pointing at Harnsberger and moving in on him, but this time they guided him offstage and returned, just the two of them, holding hands. The G-strings popped, snapped back on firm, flat pubises.
A bit more genital hide-and-seek, then the black-haired girl got down on all fours, rotated her buttocks, pulled at the blonde’s ankle. The blonde stood there, shaking her head no, pouting, feigning resistance. Hoarse screams of encouragement from the choir. Everyone paying attention.
In a flash both girls were naked but for garter belts and fishnets. The music slowed to languid sludge in a too-sweet key, and they began caressing each other, vamping, stroking, kissing, tongues lizarding.
The black-haired girl sank to the carpet, lay on her back, arched her pelvis. The blonde shimmied between her partner’s legs, lowered to her knees, bowed her head prayerfully, grazed the dark girl’s abdomen with platinum spikes.
Tonguing the dark girl’s navel. The dark girl writhed.
The blond girl looked up, placed a finger on her lip, as if contemplating what to do next. A big-eyed travesty of innocence, holding out her hands as if seeking counsel from the crowd.
The crowd cheered her on.
She tilted her head back to the dark girl’s crotch, began to dip again, raised her face. Kneeling in place but not moving as the dark-haired girl, still bucking, took hold of her arm and urged her down.
The blond girl studied the audience. Took in the entire room.
Turning my way, giving me a full view of her face.
Long, oval face beneath the silvery spikes. Pale eyes under plucked brows, dominant but perfectly proportioned cleft chin.
Recognition was a splinter in my chest.
Hers too. The slyness dropped off her face, replaced by… a queasy smile.
She stared at me, and her head froze above the black-haired girl’s writhing hips. I thought I saw her give the faintest headshake – denying something?
The music oozed on. The black-haired girl kept gyrating, started to realize something was off. Made a grab for Lauren’s head.
Lauren didn’t budge.
Then she did.
As she allowed herself to be dragged down, I escaped.
I DROVE HOME nearly blind with shame, cutting through dark, cold streets as if nothing mattered.
The closest I’ve come to having children are the people who’ve depended on me. Encountering Lauren had given me a glimpse of what the parents of whores and felons go through.
The look in her eyes when she’d recognized me – stripper’s flaunt degrading to… imbalance. The uncertainty she’d never shown as a teenager.
Now she was twenty-one. Legal. That made me laugh out loud.
Why the hell had I gone to Harnsberger’s party in the first place? Why hadn’t I left when the tone of the evening became clear?
Because, as in most men, something in me craved fresh erotic imagery.
Robin was waiting up for me, but that night I was very poor company.
I slept terribly, woke the next morning wondering what, if anything, I should do about the encounter. At eight o’clock I called my service, and the operator informed me Lauren had phoned at midnight and asked for an appointment.
“She sounded urgent,” said the operator. “I knew about that cancellation at two, so I gave it to her. Hope that was okay, Dr. Delaware.”
“Sure,” I said, sick with dread. “Thanks.”
“We’re here to serve, Doctor.”
At two P.M. precisely the bell on the side door rang and my heart jumped.
Patients who’ve never been to my house usually remain down at the gate. The bell ring meant Lauren had unlatched the gate, mastered the route across the front drive and through the garden. No warning dog bark; Robin had gone up to Carpinteria on a wood-buying trip, left at daybreak, taking Spike with her.
I put down the coffee I hadn’t touched, hurried through the house, opened the door.
New face on the other side.
Fresh, scrubbed, expressionless, clipped snowy hair stripped of product, brushed forward, falling in a soft Caesar cut.
No makeup at all. The same blue eyes – tougher, tempered. An untested face, except for the eyes.
At twenty-one Lauren looked younger than she had at fifteen.
A bleached-denim shirt and easy-fit jeans covered her from neck to ankle. The shirt was buttoned to the top and cinched with a turquoise clasp. The jeans managed to hug her frame, advertise the tight waist, soft hips. On her feet were white canvas flats with straw soles. A big calfskin bag hung over one shoulder – rich, burnished roan, gold-clasped, conspicuously expensive.
Gazing past me she offered her hand. Her palm was cold and dry. I didn’t feel like smiling, but when her eyes finally met mine, I managed.
She didn’t. “You work at home now. Cute place.”
“Thanks. Come on in.”
I stayed just ahead of her during the walk to my office. She moved fast – as eager to enter as she’d once been to leave.
“Very nice,” she said when we got there. “Still seeing kids and teens?”
“I don’t do much therapy anymore.”
She froze in the doorway. “Your answering service didn’t say that.”
“I’m still in practice, but most of my work is consultation,” I said. “Court cases, some police work. I’m always available to former patients.”
“Police work,” she said. “Yes. I saw your name in the paper. That school-yard shooting. So now you’re a public hero.”
Still looking past me. Through me.
“Come on in,” I said.
“That’s the same,” she said, eyeing my old leather couch.
“Kind of an antique,” I said.
“You’re not – you really haven’t changed that much.”
I moved behind the desk.
“I’ve changed,” she said.
“You’ve grown up,” I said.
“Have I?” She sat stiffly, made a move for the calfskin bag, stopped herself, started to smile, quashed that too. “Still no smoking?”
“Filthy habit,” she said. “Inherited it from Mom. She had a scare a few years back – spot on her X ray, but it turned out to be a shadow – stupid doctor. So she finally stopped. You’d think it would teach me. People are weak. You know that. You make a living off that.”
“People are fallible,” I said.
One of her legs began to bounce. “Back when I came to you, I gave you a real hard time, didn’t I?”
I smiled. “Nothing I hadn’t seen before.”
“It probably didn’t seem like it, but I was actually getting into the idea of therapy. I’d psyched myself up for it. Then they killed it.”
The surprise in my voice made her flush. “They didn’t tell you.” Her smile was cold. “They claimed they did, but I always wondered.”
“All I got was a cancellation call,” I said. “No explanation. I phoned your house several times, but no one answered.”
“Bastard,” she said with sudden savagery. “Asshole.”
“Lying asshole. He promised he’d explain everything to you. It was his decision – He never stopped complaining about the money. The day I was supposed to see you, he picked me up from school. I thought he was making sure I showed up on time – I thought you’d lied to me and finked to him about my coming late. I was furious at you. But instead of heading to your office, he drove the other way – into the Valley. Over to this miniature golf course – this Family Fun Center. Arcades, batting cages, all that junk. He parks, turns off the engine, says to me: ‘You need quality time with your dad, not hundred-buck-an-hour baby-sitting with some quack.’”
She bit her lip. “Doesn’t that sound a little… like he was jealous of you?”
As I mulled my answer she said, “Seductive, don’t you think?”
I continued to deliberate. Took the leap. “Lauren, was there ever any-”
“No,” she said. “Never, nothing like that, he never laid a finger on me. Not for anything creepy or for normal affection. The fact is, I can’t remember him ever touching me. He’s a cold fish. And guess what: He and Mom finally got divorced. He got himself a bimbo, some slut he met on the job – So they never told you they canceled, that it wasn’t my idea. Figures. They brought me up with lies.”
“What kind of lies?”
The blue eyes met mine. Got hard. “Doesn’t matter.”
“That day at the golf course,” I said. “What happened?”
“What happened? Nothing happened. We played a few holes, finally I said I was bored, started nagging and whining to be taken home. He tried to convince me. I sat down on the green and wouldn’t budge. He got mad – got all red-faced like he does, finally drove me home, steaming. Mom was in her room – It was obvious she’d been crying. I thought it had to do with me. I thought everything had to do with me – thought it all the time, and it just sat there in my head like a tumor. Now I know better; they were totally messed up all along.”
She crossed her legs. “A few weeks later he walked out. Filed for divorce without telling her. She tried to get child support out of him, he claimed business was lousy, never gave us a penny. I told her to sue his ass, but she didn’t. Not a fighter – she never has been.”
“So you lived with her.”
“For a little while. If you call it living. We lost the house, moved into an apartment in Panorama City, real dive – gunshots at night, the whole bit. Things sucked, we were broke, she was always crying. But I was having a great time ’cause she wasn’t even trying to discipline me and finally I could do what I wanted. She wouldn’t fight with me either.”
She took a tissue from the box I position strategically, crumpled it into a ball, picked it open.
“Men suck,” she said, staring at me. “Now let’s talk about last night.”
“Last night was unfortunate.”
Her eyes sparked. “Unfortunate? That’s the best you can do? You know the problem with this goddamn world? No one ever says they’re sorry.”
“Forget it.” She waved the tissue dismissively. “I don’t know why I even bothered.” She began rummaging through the leather bag. “End of session. How much do you charge now? Probably more, now that your name gets in the papers.”
“No,” she said, shooting to her feet. “The time’s mine, so don’t tell me how to spend it. No one tells me what to do anymore. That’s what I like about my job.”
“Being in control.”
Her hands slapped onto her hips, and she glared down at me. “I know you’re giving me shrink talk, but in this case you happen to be right. Last night you were probably too turned on to notice, but I was in charge – Michelle and me. All you guys with your mouths hanging open and your dicks stiff, and we were calling the shots. So don’t judge me as if I’m some brainless slut.”
Her hands fisted and she stepped closer. “Why’d you have to leave like that? Why were you ashamed of me?”
As I considered my answer, she gave a knowing smile. “I turned you on and that freaked you out.”
I said, “If you were a stranger, I probably would’ve stuck around. I left because I was ashamed of myself.”
She smirked. “Probably would’ve stuck around?”
I didn’t answer.
“But we are strangers,” she said. “How can you say we’re not?”
“The fact that you’re here-”
“Lauren, once you came to me for help, I had a duty to be there for you. Like a surrogate parent. I felt my presence caused you shame too, but it was my own embarrassment that got me out of there.”
“How noble,” she said. “Man, you’re confused. Like all guys are – Okay, I got what I came for. Now I’m going to pay you.”
“There’s nothing to pay for.”
She wagged a finger. “Oh no, you don’t. You’ve got the title and respectability, and in your eyes I’m just some stripper-slut. But once I pay you, the balance of power equalizes.”
“I am not judging you, Lauren.”
“You say.” She whipped a wad of cash out of her jeans pocket. “What’s the tab, Doc?”
“Let’s talk about-”
“How much?” she demanded. “What’s your hourly fee?”
I told her. She whistled. “Not too shabby.” She peeled off bills, handed them to me. “Okay, here you go, and you don’t even have to declare it to the IRS. I’ll find my own way out.”
I followed her anyway. When we reached the door, she said, “My roll – that stash I paid you from? Did you see the size of it? That’s my tip money, honey. I do great with tips.”
NOW, FOUR YEARS later, I had to talk to her mother.
Mrs. Jane Abbot.
So she’d remarried. Was life treating her more kindly? Had the spot on her lung recurred? I was curious but could’ve lived without finding out.
Life would be so much easier if I was one of those flakes who felt no obligation to return calls.
My pompous little speech to Lauren about surrogate parenthood rang in my ears. I put off the call anyway. Revved up the coffee machine, tidied up an already clean kitchen, checked the stores in the pantry. When I returned to the kitchen I discovered I’d forgotten to put coffee in the filter and started from scratch. Listening to the machine bubble offered another few minutes of respite, and when I finally sat down to drink I dropped a little brandy in the mug, took my time sipping, scanned a newspaper I’d already covered from front to back.
Finally, the inevitable. Staring at the big pine that nearly blocks the kitchen window, I punched numbers.
Two rings. “Hello?”
“Yes, who’s this?”
Two beats of silence. “I didn’t know if you’d phone – Do you remember me?”
“Lauren’s mom,” she said. “My claim to fame.” Her voice broke. “It’s Lauren I’m calling about, Dr. Delaware. She’s missing. For a week. I know you work with the police. I’ve seen your name in the papers. Lauren saw it too. That impressed her. She always liked you, you know. It was my husband – my ex-husband – who stopped her from seeing you. He was a very mean man – is a mean man. Lauren hasn’t had contact with him in years. But that’s neither here nor there – The problem I’ve got now is I can’t find her. She’s been living on her own for a while, but this – it just feels wrong. By the third day I called the police, but they say she’s an adult and unless there’s evidence of a crime there’s nothing they can do other than have me come in and file a report. I could tell they weren’t taking me seriously. But I know Lauren just wouldn’t take off like that. Not without telling me.”
“Does she ever travel?”
“Occasionally, but not for this long.”
“So you’re in regular communication with her,” I said, wondering if Lauren was still stripping, and did her mother know.
Pause. “Yes. Of course. I call her, she calls me. We manage to stay in touch, Dr. Delaware.” Adding, “I live in the Valley now,” as if that explained the lack of face-to-face contact.
“Where does Lauren live?” I said.
“In the city. Near the Miracle Mile. She wouldn’t just walk out without telling me, Doctor. She didn’t tell her roommate anything either. And it doesn’t look as if she packed a suitcase. Don’t you think that’s frightening?”
“There could be an explanation.”
“Please, Dr. Delaware, I know how things work. It’s who you know. You’ve worked with the police – With your contacts, they’ll listen to you. You must know someone who can help.”
“What’s Lauren’s address?”
She recited some numbers on Hauser. “Near Sixth Street. Not far from the museum complex – the La Brea Tar Pits. I used to take her to the tar pits when she was little – Please, Dr. Delaware, call your contacts and ask them to take me seriously.”
My contact was Milo. His turf was West L.A. Division, and Hauser near Sixth was Wilshire. Petra Connor, my only other LAPD acquaintance, worked Hollywood Homicide. A pair of homicide detectives. Jane Abbot didn’t want to hear that.
I said, “I’ll make a call.”
“Thank you so much, Doctor.”
“How’s Lauren been doing?”
“You’d be superproud of her – I am. She – We had a few rough years after her father walked out on us. She dropped out of high school without graduating – it was kind of… But then she pulled herself together, got her GED, attended J.C., got her associate’s degree with honors, and transferred to the U this past fall. She just finished her first quarter, got all A’s. She’s majoring in psychology, wants to be a therapist. I know that’s your influence. She admires you, Doctor. She always said what a caring person you were.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling surreal. “It’s midquarter break at the U, for another few weeks. Sometimes students travel.”
“No,” she said. “Lauren wouldn’t have gone anywhere without telling me. And not without luggage.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“You’re a good man, I always sensed that. You were a great influence on her, Doctor. You only saw her that couple of times, but it had an impact. She once told me she wished you were her father instead of Lyle.”
I tried Milo at home first, got no answer, just the tape with Rick Silverman’s voice on it. I tried the West L.A. detectives’ room.
“Morning, this is your wake-up call.”
“Got sunrise for that, boyo.”
“Putting in weekend overtime?”
“What’s a weekend?”
“Thought the murder rate was down,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “So now we’re all ball-and-chained to subarctic cold cases. What’s up?”
“I need a favor.” I told him about Lauren, letting him know she’d been a patient, knowing he’d understand what I could and couldn’t say.
“She’s how old?” he said.
“Twenty-five. Missing Persons told her mother the only option was filing a report.”
“Did she file?”
“I didn’t ask her,” I said.
“So she wants some strings pulled… Problem is, Missing Persons is right. An adult case, without some evidence of disability or blood and guts or a stalking boyfriend – it comes down to routine for the first few weeks.”
“What if it were the mayor’s daughter?”
Long sigh. “What if I went down in a light plane off the coast of Cape Cod? I’d be lucky to get two drunks in a rowboat as a search party, let alone a Navy destroyer and a fleet of choppers. Okay, I’ll put in a call to MP. Anything else I should know about this girl?”
“She’s enrolled at the U, but it’s possible she got involved in something less than wholesome.”
“Four years ago she was working as a stripper,” I said. “Private parties. She may still be stripping.”
“The mother told you this?”
“No, I learned it myself. Don’t ask how.”
Silence. “Okay. Spell her full name.”
I did and he said, “So we’re talking bad girl here?”
“I don’t know about that,” I snapped. “Just that she danced.”
He didn’t react to my anger. “Four years ago. What else?”
“She’s done one quarter at the U. Straight A’s, according to her mother.”
“Mama knows best?”
“Some mamas do.”
“What about this one?”
“Don’t know. Like I said, it’s been a long time, Milo.”
“Your own cold case.”
“Something like that.”
He promised to get back as soon as possible. I thanked him and hung up, took a longer than usual run, returned home sweat-drenched and faded, showered off, got dressed, went down to the pond and fed the koi without bothering to enjoy their colors. Returning to my office, I started to clear some custody reports.
I ended up thinking about Lauren.
From stripping to straight A’s at the U… I decided to call Jane Abbot, let her know I’d followed through. Maybe that would be the end of it.
This time a machine answered. A man’s voice, robotic, one of those canned recordings women use as a security device. I delivered my message, worked for a few more hours on the reports. Shortly after noon I drove into south Westwood, bought a take-out Italian sandwich and a beer at Wally’s, returned to Holmby Park, where I ate on a bench, trying not to look ominous among the nannies and the rich kids and the old people enjoying green grass as cars whizzed by. When I got back the message light on my answering machine was a blinking red reproach.
One call. Milo sounding even more tired: “Hey, Alex, getting back to you on Lauren Teague. Call whenever you’ve got a chance.”
I jabbed the phone. Another detective answered, and it took a few moments for Milo to come on the line.
“The mother did file a report. Yesterday. MP ran a background on Lauren.” He coughed. “She’s got a record, Alex. They haven’t informed the mother yet. Maybe they shouldn’t.”
“What kind of record?” I said.
I kept silent.
He said, “That’s all, so far.”
“Does that alter the chance that someone will actually look for her?”
“The thing is, Alex, there’s nothing to go on. They asked the mother for any known associates, and she came up with zilch. MP detective’s feeling is that Mama is not in the loop when it comes to Lauren’s private life. And maybe Lauren traveling isn’t exactly an aberration. Her arrests weren’t only here. Nevada too.”
“Reno. Lots of girls work that route, hopping on cattle-car flights, doing one-, two-day turnarounds for fast cash. So maybe her picking up without explanation is just part of her lifestyle. Student, or not.”
“She’s been gone for a week,” I said. “Not exactly a turnaround.”
“So she stayed to play the tables. Or got herself a lucrative gig she wants to milk for a while. The point is, we’re not talking Suzy Creamcheese wandering away from the church bus.”
“When was her most recent arrest?” I said.
“Four years ago.”
“Here or Nevada?”
“Good old Beverly Hills. She was one of Gretchen Stengel’s girls, got nabbed at the Beverly Monarch Hotel.”
Site of Phil Harnsberger’s bachelor bash. The hotel’s vanilla rococo façade flashed in my head.
Tip money. I do great with tips.
“What month four years ago?” I said.
“What’s the difference?”
“Last time I saw her was four years ago. November.”
“Hold on, let me check… December nineteenth.”
“Gretchen Stengel,” I said.
“The Westside Madam herself. At least she wasn’t working the street for crack vials.”
I gripped the phone so hard my fingers ached. “Is there any record of a drug history?”
“No, just the solicitation bust. But Gretchen’s girls did tend to party hard – Look, Alex, you know passing judgment on people’s sex lives isn’t my thing, and I don’t even think much about dope unless it leads to someone being made dead. But the fact that Lauren’s a working girl does have to be taken into account here. Most likely she split for a gig and the roommate’s covering for her with Mom. I can’t see any reason to panic.”
“You’re probably right,” I said. “Mom may be out of the loop. Though she’s not totally unaware – told me Lauren went through some rough times, and her voice tightened up when she said it. And with the last arrest four years ago, maybe Lauren did turn herself around. She did enroll at the U.”
“That could be.”
“I know, I know – cockeyed optimism.”
“Hey, it gives you that boyish charm… So you treated her four years ago?”
“Ten. I saw her once four years ago. Follow-up.”
“Ah,” he said. “Ten years is a long time.”
“It’s a damned eon.”
Long pause. “You still sound… protective of her.”
“Just doing my job.” Surprised at the anger in my voice. I avoided further discussion by thanking him for his time.
He said, “The MP guy did agree to make some calls to hospitals.”
“Morgues too?” I said.
“That too. Alex, I know you didn’t want to hear about the girl’s sheet, but in this case maybe it puts things in a more positive light – she’s got a rationale for cutting out without explanation. Best thing to tell the mom is just wait. Nine times out of ten, the person shows up.”
“And when they don’t, it’s too late to do anything about it anyway.”
He didn’t answer.
“Sorry,” I said. “You’ve done more than you had to.”
He laughed softly. “No, I had to.”
“Up for lunch sometime?” I said.
“Sure, after I chip away at some of this ice.”
“I wake up middle of the night with penguins pecking my ass.”
“What kinds of cases?”
“Potpourri. Ten-year-old child murder, parents probably did it but no physical evidence. Twelve-year-old convenience store robbery-gone-bad, no witnesses, not even decent ballistics, ’cause the bad guys used a shotgun; drunk snuffed out in an alley eight years ago; and my personal favorite: old lady smothered in her bed back when Nixon was president. Should’ve gotten my degree in ancient history.”
“English lit’s not a bad fit either.”
“Everyone’s got a story,” I said.
“Yeah, but once I’m listening to them, you can forget happy endings.”
THE ROOMMATE’S COVERING for her…
A roommate who lived the same life as Lauren? If so, no reason for her to talk to Jane. Or the police. Or anyone else.
Jane Abbot claimed Lauren admired me. I found that hard to believe, but perhaps Lauren had mentioned me to the roommate and I could learn something.
I called the 323 number Jane had given me for Lauren, got another male robot on the machine, hung up without leaving a message.
I thought some more about the path Lauren’s life had taken. Given the little I knew about her family life, I supposed there was no reason to be surprised. But I found myself succumbing to letdown anyway.
Ten years ago. Two sessions.
When her father had terminated, had I let it go too easily? I really didn’t think so. Lyle Teague had never accepted the idea of therapy. Even if I’d managed to reach him by phone, there was no reason to believe he’d have changed his mind.
No reason at all for me to feel I’d failed, and I told myself I felt comfortable with that. But as the afternoon grayed Lauren’s disappearance continued to chew at me. Just after two P.M. I left the house, gunned the Seville down the glen to Sunset, and headed east, through Beverly Hills and the Strip, to the roller-coaster ramp that was the crest of La Cienega.
Catching Third just past the Beverly Center, I picked up Sixth at Crescent Heights and cruised past the tar pits. Plaster mastodons reared, and groups of schoolkids gawked. They pull bones out of the pits daily. One of L.A.’s premier tourist spots is an infinite graveyard.
Lauren’s apartment on Hauser sat midway between Sixth and Wilshire, a putty-colored six-unit box old enough for fire escapes. I made my way up a chunky cement path to a glass door fronted by wrought-iron fettuccine. Through the glass: dim hallway and dark carpeting. A column of name slots and call buttons listed TEAGUE/SALANDER in apartment 4.
I pressed the button, was surprised to be buzzed in immediately. The hallway smelled of beef stew and laundry detergent. The carpeting was an ancient wool – flamingo-colored leaf forms over mud brown, once pricey, now heeled and toed to the burlap. Mahogany doors had been restained streaky and lacquered too thickly. No music or conversation leaked from behind any of them. A flight of chipped terra-cotta steps at the rear of the building took me upstairs.
Unit 4 faced the street. I knocked, and the door opened before my fist lowered. A young man holding a white washcloth stared out at me.
Five-six, one-thirty, fair-haired and frail-looking, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, very blue jeans cinched by a black leather belt, black lace-up boots. A heavy silver chain looped a front jeans pocket.
“Oh. I thought you were…” Breathy-voiced, pitched high.
“Someone else,” I said. “Sorry if I’m interrupting. My name’s Alex Delaware.”
No recognition in the wide, hazel eyes, just residual surprise. The fair hair was dun tipped with yellow, clipped nearly to the skull. Zero body fat, but what was left was string, not bulk. Tiny gold ring in his right earlobe. A tattoo – “Don’t Panic” in elaborate blue-black script – capped his left shoulder. A band of thorns in the same hue circled his right biceps. He looked to be around Lauren’s age, had the round, unlined face, pink cheeks, and arched brows of an indulged child. As he looked me up and down, surprise began to give way to suspicion. He clenched the washcloth, and his head drew back.
“I’m an old acquaintance of Lauren’s,” I said. “One of her doctors, actually. Her mother called me, concerned because she hasn’t heard from Lauren for a week-”
“One of her doctors? Oh… the psychologist – yes, she told me about you. I remember your name was one of the states – are you Native American?”
“Kind of a mongrel.”
He smiled, pulled at the silver chain, produced a saucer-sized pocket watch. “My God, it’s two-forty!” Another eye rub. “I was catching a nap, heard the bell, thought it was three-forty, and jolted up.”
“Sorry for waking you.”
He let the washcloth unfurl, waved it in a tight little arc. “Oh, don’t apologize, you did me a favor. I have… an old friend dropping by, need the time to pull myself together.” A hip cocked. “Now, why are we having this conversation out in the hall?” A bony arm shot forward. His grip was iron. “Andrew Salander – I’m Lauren’s roomie.”
He swung the door wide open, stepped aside, and let me into a large parlor with a high, cross-beamed ceiling. Heavy ruby-and-gold brocade drapes sealed the windows and plunged the space into gloom. New smells blew toward me: cologne, incense, the suggestion of fried eggs.
“Let there be light,” said Andrew Salander as he rushed over and yanked the curtains open. A cigar of downtown smog hovered above the rooftops of the buildings across the street. Exposed, the living room walls were lemon yellow topped by gilded moldings. The cross-beams were gilded as well; someone had taken the time to hand-leaf. French cigarette prints, insipid old seascapes in decaying frames, and frayed samplers coexisted in improbable alliance on the walls. Deco and Victorian and tubular-legged moderne furniture formed a cluttered liaison. A close look suggested thrift-shop treasures. A keen eye had made it all work.
Salander said, “So Mrs. A called you. Me, too. Three times in as many days. At first I thought she was being menopausal, but it has been six-plus days, and now I’m starting to get concerned about Lo myself.”
He pulled a tattered silk throw off a sagging olive velvet divan and said, “Please. Sit. Excuse the squalor. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No thanks. It’s far from squalid.”
“Oh, please.” A hand waved. “Work in progress and very little progress at work – Lo and I have been going at this since I moved in. Sundays at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet, Western Avenue, once in a while you can still find something reasonable on La Brea. The problem is neither of us has time to really give it our all. But at least it’s habitable. When Lo lived here by herself, it was utterly bare – I thought she was one of those people with no eye, no artistic sense. Turns out she has fabulous taste – it just needed to be brought out.”
“How long have you been rooming together?”
“Six months,” he said. “I was in the building already – downstairs in Number Two.” He frowned, sat on a mock-leopard-skin ottoman, crossed his legs. “Month to month, I was supposed to move out to… Then things changed, as they so often do, and the landlord leased my space to someone else and suddenly I found myself without hearth or home. Lo and I had always had a good rapport – we used to chat at the Laundromat, she’s easy to talk to. When she found out I was stuck, she invited me to move in. At first, I refused – charity’s one of many things I don’t do. But she finally convinced me two bedrooms were too much for her and I could share the rent.”
A fingertip grazed a plucked eyebrow. “To be honest, I wanted to be convinced. Being alone’s so… dark. I hadn’t… And Lo’s a wonderful person – and now she’s flown off somewhere. Dr. Delaware, do we need to worry? I really don’t want to worry, but I must admit, I am bothered.”
“Lauren didn’t give a clue where she was going?”
“No, and she didn’t take her car – it’s parked in her space out back. So maybe she did fly off – literally. It’s not as if she’s a Greyhound girl. Nothing slow suits her, she works like a demon – studying, doing research.”
“Research at the U?”
“She never told me, just said that between her classes and research job she had a full plate. You think that’s what might’ve taken her somewhere – the job?”
“Maybe,” I said. “No idea who she worked for?”
Salander shook his head. “We’re chums and all that, but Lo goes her way and I go mine. Different biorhythms. She’s a morning lark, I’m a night owl. Perfect arrangement – she’s bright and chirpy for classes and I’m coherent when the time rolls around for my work. By the time I wake up, she’s usually gone. That’s why it took a couple of days to realize her bed hadn’t been slept in.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Our bedrooms are our private space, but Mrs. A sounded so anxious that I did agree to peek in.”
“The right thing to do,” I said.
“What kind of work do you do, Mr. Salander?”
“Andrew. Advanced mixology.” He smiled. “I tend bar at The Cloisters. It’s a saloon in West Hollywood.”
Milo and Rick sometimes drank at The Cloisters. “I know the place.”
His brows climbed higher. “Do you? So why haven’t I seen you before?”
“I’ve driven by.”
“Ah,” he said. “Well my Bombay martinis are works of art, so feel free to breeze in.” His face grew grim. “Listen to me, Lauren’s gone and I’m sitting here prattling – No, Doctor, she never gave me a clue as to where she was headed. But till Mrs. A called I can’t say I was ready to panic. Lauren did go away from time to time.”
“For a week?”
He frowned. “No, one or two nights. Weekends.”
“Maybe every two months, every six weeks – I can’t really recall.”
“Where’d she go?”
“One time she told me she spent some time at the beach. Malibu.”
He nodded. “She said she rented a motel room, needed some time to decompress, and the sound of the ocean was peaceful. As for the other times, I don’t know.”
“Those weekends, did she usually take her car?”
“Yes, always… So this is different, isn’t it?” He rubbed his armband tattoo, wincing as if the art were new, the pain fresh. “Do you really think something’s wrong?”
“I don’t know enough to think anything. But Mrs. Abbot seems to be worrying.”
“Maybe Mrs. A’s getting us all overwrought. The way mothers do.”
“Have you met her?”
“Only once, a while back – two, three months ago. She came to take Lo out to lunch and we chatted briefly while Lo got ready. I thought she was nice enough but rather Pasadena, if you know what I mean. Coordinated ensemble, several cracks past brittle. I saw her as a perfect fifties person – someone who’d drive a Chrysler Imperial with all the trimmings and pile the backseat full of Bullocks Wilshire shopping bags.”
“Conservative,” I said.
“Staid,” he said. “Theatrically sad. One of those women fighting the future with mascara and matching shoes and tiny sandwiches with the crust trimmed.”
“Doesn’t sound like Lauren.”
“Hardly. Lauren is très natural. Unaffected.” The washcloth was wadded once more. “I’m sure she’s fine. She has to be fine.” He sighed, massaged the tattoo some more.
I said, “So the time you met Mrs. Abbot, she and Lauren went out to lunch.”
“Long lunch – must’ve been three hours. Lo came back alone, and she didn’t look as if she’d had fun.”
“Upset and distracted – as if she’d been hit on the head. I suspected something emotional had gone on, so I fixed her a gimlet the way she likes it and asked if she wanted to talk about it. She kissed me here” – he touched a rosy cheek – “said it wasn’t important. But then she drank every drop of that gimlet and I just sat there emitting that I’m-ready-to-listen vibe – it’s what I do, after all – and she-” He stopped. “Should I be telling you this?”
“I’m beyond discreet,” I said. “Because of what I do.”
“I suppose. And Lauren did say she liked you… All right, it’s nothing sordid, anyway. She simply told me she’d spent her childhood fighting not to be controlled, had made her own way in the world, and now her mother was trying to do the same old thing, again.”
“Did she say how?”
“No – I’m sorry, Doctor, I’m just not comfortable flapping my trap. There’s nothing more to say, anyway. That’s the entire kit and caboodle.”
I smiled at him. Didn’t budge.
He said, “Really, I’ve told you everything – and only because I know Lo liked you. She came across your name in the paper, some kind of police case, said, ‘Hey, Andrew, I knew this guy. He tried to straighten me out.’ I made some remark – how it obviously hadn’t taken. She thought that was funny, said maybe it was patients like her who’d driven you to quit doing therapy and work with the cops. I” – his cheeks flamed – “I made some crack about shrinks being more screwed up than their patients, asked if you were… like that. She said no, you seemed pretty… I think conventional was the word she used. I said how boring, and she said no, sometimes conventional was exactly what you needed. That she’d screwed up, not making good use of her therapy, but looking back it had all been a setup anyway.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“She realized that her parents had set her up to rebel. Tried to use you as a weapon against her, but you hadn’t gotten sucked into their game, you had integrity – You’re sure I can’t get you a drink?”
My throat had gone dry. “A Coke would be fine.”
He laughed. “The soft stuff? Recovering juice fiend?”
“No, it’s just a bit early for me.”
“Trust me, it’s never too early. But all right, one cola-bean juice, coming up pronto. Lemon or lime?”
He hurried into the kitchen, returned with a tall drink on ice and a glass of white wine for himself. Settling back down, he rested one elbow on a knee, placed his chin in a cupped palm, stared into my eyes.
I said, “So Lauren felt her mother was trying to control her but she didn’t say how.”
“And the next day she was going about her business with nary a mention of mama. Truth is, I don’t think Mrs. A looms large in her life. She’s been on her own for years. And that’s absolutely all I can tell you about her family dynamics, so drink up.” He drew out the pocket watch.
“Your friend,” I said.
He flinched. “Yes.”
“Does Lauren have any friends I could talk to?”
“No one at all?”
“Not a one. She doesn’t date, nor does she chum around with the girls. We’re both social isolates, Doctor. Yet another tie that binds.”
“The night owl and the morning lark,” I said.
“Makes for a cozy little aviary – this is absolutely the best living arrangement I’ve ever had. Lauren’s a living doll and I simply insist that she be okay. Now, if you’d like, I can pour that drink into Styrofoam and you can take it to go-”
As charming a dismissal as I’d encountered. Placing the drink on a side table, I stood. “Just a few more questions. Mrs. A said Lauren didn’t pack a suitcase.”
“I told her that,” he said. “I know every item in Lauren’s wardrobe – She has luscious things. After I moved in I organized her closet. She owns two pieces of luggage – a pair of vintage Samsonites we picked up for a prayer at the Santa Monica flea market – and they’re both here. So is her backpack from school. And her books. So she must be planning to return.”
He began to sip wine, stopped himself. “That isn’t good, is it? Running off without luggage.”
“Not unless Lauren’s the impulsive type.”
“Impulsive as in meet someone hot and fly off to Cuernavaca? That would be nice.” He sounded doubtful.
“Well,” said Salander. “I just don’t think that’s Lo – If she’d fallen in love, I’d have known. She was a creature of routine: got up, jogged, went to class, studied, went to sleep, got up and did the same thing all over again. To tell the truth, she was a bit of a grind.”
“Strict routine except for occasional weekends away.”
“She’s in between quarters at school,” I said. “What’s she been doing with her vacation?”
“Going to work.”
“The research job.”
“A grind,” he said. “She’d spend every spare moment studying if I didn’t drag her out to do some antiquing.”
“Must have paid off,” I said. “Mrs. A said she got straight A’s.”
“Lo was so proud of that. Showed me her transcript. I thought it was adorable.”
“A grown woman, all excited like a little kid – She’s studying psychology, wants to be a therapist herself. You must have been a good influence.” Staring at me again. “You haven’t touched your drink, is it okay?”
I picked up the Coke and drank. “Terrific.”
“That’s Mexican lime, not Bearss lime. More bite.”
More cola flowed down my gullet. “Does the research job pay the bills?”
“Maybe some of it, but Lo also has investments.”
“Some kind of nest egg she put away from when she worked full-time. She told me she can coast for a few more years before she has to hit the boards again. I give her a lot of credit, giving up something so lucrative for the sake of her studies.”
“The runway – modeling,” he said. “Nothing Vogue-coverish or anything like that. She worked the Fashion Mart scene since she was eighteen. Made good money but said she detested being a brainless face and body – Now, Doctor, I’m sorry to be ill-mannered, but my appointment – it’s someone who… hurt me. I’ve been building my courage and finally I’m ready to face him and move on. Please.”
He indicated the door and led me out.
I said, “Thanks very much for your time. If you don’t mind, I’m going to have a look at Lauren’s car out back. What kind is it?”
“Gray Mazda Miata. Don’t steal it.” Nervous laugh.
I crossed my heart. “No joyrides today.”
Louder laughter. We shook hands again.
“I’m not going to worry,” he said. “There’s no reason to worry.”
“I’m sure there isn’t.”
“Watch,” he said. “I’ll be sitting here, worrying myself sick, and Lo will come waltzing through this door and I’ll scold her for putting all of us through this.”
He walked me out into the hall, looked toward the staircase. Chewed his lip. “You’re a good listener – Any time you want a career switch, I can get you a job at The Cloisters.”
I grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He laughed. “No, you won’t. For a whole list of reasons.”
Out in back was a carport that fronted the alley. The Miata was the only car parked there, several years old, lots of nicks and dents, coated with days of dust, locked, its oatmeal-colored canvas top set snugly. Campus parking sticker on the rear bumper, Thomas Guide map book in the driver’s door pocket, pair of sunglasses on the center console, just below the gearshift. Nothing else.
I returned to the Seville, trying to organize what I’d learned from Salander.
No friends, no dates. A grind.
Rooming with a gay man said Lauren prized companionship, wasn’t looking for sex.
Because she was still getting paid for it?
Working the Fashion Mart runway since eighteen. Maybe she really had done some modeling, or perhaps it was just a cover for selling her body in another way.
Weekends by herself. One in Malibu, other times unspecified. Keeping it vague to cover her trail as she met up with clients?
The night owl and the morning lark. If she wanted privacy, Salander was a perfect roommate. Still, the guy was perceptive. If Lauren had been working at her old profession, wouldn’t he have caught on?
Maybe he had and chose not to tell me. My gut told me he’d been forthcoming, but you never knew…
I thought of what he’d told me about Lauren’s income. Investments. From her working days. Enough to coast for a few years.
I do great with tips.
Good clothes but otherwise living frugally. Before Salander had moved in, she’d had virtually no furniture. That and the old car said she knew how to make do.
Budgeting but spending on luscious things in her closet.
Dressing for the job?
I wondered about the lunch with her mother, Lauren returning dazed and upset, complaining about Jane trying to control her. But that had been two or three months ago – no reason it would lead her to vanish now.
Vanish. Despite my reassurances to Salander, I was thinking worst-case scenario.
Seven days, no luggage, no car, no explanation.
Maybe Lauren would waltz in any minute. Straight-A student returned from a research trip – some professor asking her to attend an out-of-town meeting or convention, deliver a paper… She’d flown somewhere – that could explain no car. But it didn’t solve the problem of wardrobe, and why hadn’t she let anyone know?
Unless Salander wasn’t as familiar with her wardrobe as he claimed and she had packed something. Tossed casual clothes into a bag.
Research… A project at my alma mater, a psych major, so probably a psych job. At the very department from which I’d obtained my union card.
I headed west on Wilshire, caught snail traffic at Crescent Heights – an orange-vested Caltrans crew, stupidest agency in the state, taking petty-fascist satisfaction in blocking off two lanes. I sat, idling along with the Seville, rolled a foot or two, sat some more, finally got past La Cienega. Unmindful of the noise and the dirt. New focus: yearning to feel useful.
I REACHED THE city-sized campus of the U just after four-thirty. More people were leaving than arriving, and the first two parking lots I tried were being retrofitted for something. University officials gripe about budget constraints, but the jackhammers are always working overtime. It’s a boom time for L.A., might endure till the next time the earth shrugs.
It was nearly five P.M. when I hurried up the stairs to the psych building, hoping someone would be around. The cement-and-stucco waffle had been repainted: from off-white to a golden beige with chartreuse overtones. Uncommonly bright for a place devoted to the joys of artificial intelligence and compelling brain-lesioned rats to race through ever more Machiavellian mazes. Maybe boom times hadn’t loosened up grant money and the new hue was an attempt to connote warmth and availability. If so, eight stories of Skinner-box architecture said forget it.
By the time I entered the main office, half the lights were out and only one secretary remained, locking up. But the right secretary – a plump, ginger-haired young woman named Mary Lou Whiteacre, whose five-year-old son I’d treated last year.
Brandon Whiteacre was a nice little boy, soft and artistic, with his mother’s coloring and scared-bunny eyes. A freeway pileup had shattered his grandmother’s hip and sent him to the hospital for observation. Brandon had escaped with nothing broken other than his confidence, and soon he began wetting his bed and waking up screaming. Mary Lou got my name from the alumni referral list, but the department wasn’t picking up the tab. She was reeling from the crash and still chafing under the financial hardships imposed by a three-year-old divorce. Her HMO offered the usual cruelty. I treated Brandon for free.
My footsteps made her look up, and though she smiled she seemed momentarily frightened, as if I’d come to revoke her son’s recovery.
“Hi, Mary Lou. How’s everything?”
The red hair was a flyaway frizz that she patted down. “Brandon’s doing great – I probably should have called you to tell you.” She approached the counter. “Thanks so much for your help, Dr. Delaware.”
“My pleasure. How’s your mom?”
She frowned. “Her hip’s taking a long time to heal, and the other driver’s being a butt – denying responsibility. We finally got ourselves a lawyer, but everything just drags out. So what brings you here?”
“I’m trying to locate a student who was involved in research.”
“A grad student?”
“Undergrad. I assume you have a record of ongoing projects.”
“Well,” she said, “that’s generally not public information, but I’m sure you’ve got a good reason…”
“This girl’s gone missing for a week, Mary Lou. The police can’t do much, and her mother’s frantic.”
“Oh, no – but it’s midquarter break. Students take off.”
“She didn’t tell her mother or her roommate, though she did say she’d continue to come here even during the break, to do research. So maybe the job took her out of town. A conference, or some kind of fieldwork.”
“She didn’t tell her mom anything?”
“Not a word.”
She crossed the room to a wall of file cabinets. Same golden beige. The outcome of someone’s experiment on color perception? Out came a two-inch-thick computer printout that she laid on a desk and flipped through. “What’s her name?”
She searched, shook her head. “No one by that name registered with personnel on any federal or state grants – let’s see about private foundations.” Another flip. She looked up, with the same worried expression I’d seen on her first visit to my office. Psychology’s code of ethics forbids bartering with a patient. I’d traded something with her, wondered if I’d stepped over the line.
“Maybe there’s a misunderstanding,” I said. “Thanks.”
She crossed her mouth with an index finger. “Wait a second – when it’s part-time work, sometimes the professors hire out through one of those employee management firms. It avoids having to pay benefits.”
Another cabinet, another printout. “Nope, no Lauren Teague. Doesn’t look as if she’s working here, Dr. Delaware. You’re sure the study was in psychology? Some of the other departments have behavioral science grants – sociology, biology?”
“I assumed psychology, but you could be right,” I said.
“Let me call over to the administration building, see what the central employee files turn up.” Glance at the wall clock. “Maybe I can catch someone.”
“I really appreciate this, Mary Lou.”
“Don’t even think about it,” she said, as she dialed. “I’m a mom.”
No job listing anywhere on campus. Mary Lou looked embarrassed – an honest person confronting a lie.
“But,” she said, “they do have her enrolled. Junior psych major, transferred from Santa Monica College. Tell you what – I’ll pull our copy of her transcript. I can’t give you her grades, but I will tell you which professors she took classes from. Maybe they know something.”
“I appreciate it.”
“Hey,” she said, “we’re not even close to even in the thank-you department… Okay, here we go: This past quarter she took a full load – four psych courses: Introductory Learning Theory with Professor Hall, Perception with Professor de Maartens, Developmental with Ronninger, Intro Social Psych with Dalby.”
“We were classmates,” I said. “Didn’t know he switched from clinical practice to teaching Social.”
“He came on full-time a couple of years ago. Good guy, one of the less pompous ones. Even though he drives a Jag.” Her eyes rounded and she pretended to slap her wrist. “Forget I said that.” She began to return the transcript to the drawer.
“Lauren told her mother she got straight A’s.”
“Like I said, Dr. Delaware, grades are confidential.” Her eyes dropped to the paper. Tiny smile. “But if I was her mother I’d be proud. Smart girl like that, I’m sure there’s an explanation. Here, let me write those professors’ names down for you. Ronninger’s on sabbatical, but the others are teaching all year. By this time I doubt they’re in, but good luck.”
“Thanks. You’d make a good detective.”
“Me?” she said. “Never. I don’t like surprises.”
She locked up, and I walked her through the lobby, both our footsteps echoing on black terrazzo. When she was gone I strode back to the elevators and read the directory. Simon de Maartens’s office was on the fifth floor, Stephen Z. Hall’s and Gene R. Dalby’s on the sixth.
I pushed the button and waited and thought about Lauren’s lie to Andrew Salander. No research job. Probably covering for her real employment. Stripping, hooking, both. Resuming her old ways. Or she’d never stopped.
Runway modeling. Another lie? Or maybe gigs at the Fashion Mart were just another way to cash in on her looks.
Smart kid, but enrollment in college and good grades weren’t contradictory to plying the flesh trade. Back when Lauren had worked for Gretchen Stengel, the Westside Madam had employed several college girls. Beautiful young women making easy money – big money. Someone able to compartmentalize and rationalize would find the logic unassailable: Why give up five-hundred-dollar tricks for a six-buck-an-hour part-time bottle-washing gig without benefits?
Salander had said Lauren was living off investments, and I wondered if her body was the principal. If so, her disappearance could be nothing more than a quarter-break freelance to accrue spare cash.
No car, because she was flying – jetting off somewhere with a sheik or a tycoon or a software emperor, any man sufficiently rich and deluded to fall for the ego sop of purchased pleasure.
Lauren serving as amusement for a few days, returning home nicely invested.
But if that was the case, why had she raised her mother’s anxiety by not providing a cover story? And why hadn’t she packed clothing?
Because this particular job required a new wardrobe? Or no clothing at all beyond the threads on her back?
She had taken her purse, meaning she had her credit cards. What did a party girl require other than willingness and magic plastic?
Maybe she was punishing Jane by slipping away without explanation – letting Jane know she wouldn’t be controlled.
Or perhaps the answer was painfully simple: rest and recreation after grinding away for grades. Cooling out in one of the places she’d used before – nice quiet Malibu motel – if that was true.
Maybe Lauren had done the L.A.-to-Reno shuttle, found her old stomping grounds lucrative, decided to stay for a while… The elevator doors wheezed open, and I rode up to five. Professor Simon de Maartens’s door was decorated with Far Side cartoons and a newspaper clipping about moose deaths from acid rain. Closed. I knocked. No answer. The handle didn’t turn.
I had no more success at Stephen Hall’s unadorned slab of chartreuse wood, but Gene Dalby’s door was open and Gene was sitting at his desk, wearing a rumpled white shirt and khakis, bare feet propped, gray laptop resting on a skinny stalk of thigh. He typed, hummed tonelessly, wiggled his toes. A pair of huarache sandals sat near the legs of his chair. Coffee bubbled in an old white machine. A single window to his left framed rooftops and the northern edge of the campus botanical gardens. From a boom box on the ledge came supernatural guitar licks and a bruised voice. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Crossfire.”
I said, “Uh, hi, Professor Dalby. Could we talk about my grades?”
Gene’s head turned. Same bony pencil face and jug ears and rebellious ginger hair. His temples had silvered. Black-framed half-lens reading glasses rode the center of a swooping, askew hook of a nose. He grinned, placed the specs on the desk, did the same with the laptop. “No way. You flunk.”
Jumping up to his full, ostrich-necked six-four, all loose limbs and oversized hands and bobbing head, he clasped my shoulders and shook his head in wonderment, as if my arrival heralded the second coming of something.
Gene is one of the most outgoing people I know, a paragon of unadorned friendliness, hyperactive maestro of the thunderous greeting. His good cheer is nearly constant, and he avoids complexity. Unusual traits in a psychologist. So many of us were introspective, overly imaginative kids who got into the field trying to figure out why our mothers were depressed no matter what we did. In grad school a lot of people found him too good to be true and distrusted him. He and I always got along, though it rarely went beyond off-color jokes and casual lunches.
“So,” he said. “Alex. How long has it been?”
“Light-years, man. Here, sit – Coffee?”
I took a side chair, accepted a mug of something strong and bitter and vaguely coffeelike. He kicked the sandals under the desk. The office was tiny, and his size didn’t help. He hunched like a pet confined by a cruel owner.
“Working during the break?” I said.
“Best time, less distraction. Besides, back when I was in practice I used to see fifty, sixty patients a week. That was real work. This academic racket is legalized theft. Nine months a year, make your own hours.” He laughed. “These guys love to complain, but it’s a paid vacation.”
“When did you make the switch?” I said.
“Three years ago. Sold the practice to my associates and presented the department with an offer they couldn’t refuse: They take me on part-time, no job security, no benefits, and I carry a heavy teaching load, in exchange for a clinical full professorship and no assignment to committees.”
“No publishing treadmill.”
“Exactly, but the funny thing is even though I didn’t plan to, I’m doing research anyway. First time in years. Asking questions that really interest me rather than churning out garbage in tribute to the tenure gods. And I love the teaching, man. The kids are great. Despite what the idiot pundits say, students are getting smarter.”
“What kind of research are you doing?” I said.
“Political attitudes in little kids. We go out to grade schools, try to gauge their perceptions of candidates. You’d be surprised how much little kids know about the scumbags who run for office. I feel like I’m home – social psych was always my first love. I went into clinical because I also liked clinical and I thought it would be nice to help people and all that. But, mainly, because I needed to make a buck. Married with kids – unlike you, I never went through the swinging bachelor stage.”
“You’ve got the wrong guy there, Gene.”
“I don’t think so, man. I distinctly recall you being a departmental love object. Even the girls who didn’t shave their legs looked at you that way.”
“I must have missed it,” I said.
He grinned. “Listen to him, that coyness – all part of the charm. Anyway… you look great, Alex.”
“I look like I always did – Ichabod Crane on methamphetamine. But yeah, I’m doing what I can to stay in shape, got into long-distance hiking. Jan and I did the John Muir Trail last summer, Alaska before that.” He turned the volume down on Stevie Ray.
I named the song.
He said, “S.R.V. He was the man. Sad, huh? Struggles his whole life with dope and booze, plays bars for chump change, finally gets sober, makes it big, and the damn plane goes down. Talk about an object lesson.”
“Live life to the fullest,” I said.
“Live life and don’t worry. Be happy – like that other song. Been telling that to patients for years, now I’m following my own advice. Not that it took courage or some big-time follow-your-bliss thing to motivate me. I got lucky – bought in at ground level with a start-up software company, turned a penny stock into dollars. Ten years of bad stock tips from my brother-in-law, finally one pays off. We’re not talking private jet here, but now if I don’t like the taste of something I don’t have to eat it. The kids are in college and Jan’s law practice is doing fine. Life is shockingly good, thanks to dot-com madness. The company’s going to shit, but I’ve already sold.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Even traded the Honda for a Jag – Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.” He shifted in his chair, cracked his knuckles. “So what brings you here? Doing some teaching yourself?”
“No, I’m trying to locate a student named Lauren Teague.”
“Locate as in…?”
I told him about the seven-day absence, implied without spelling it out that Lauren had once been a patient, emphasized Jane Abbot’s anxiety.
“Poor lady,” he said. “So you were here and just dropped in?”
“No, I thought you might be able to help me. Lauren told her roommate she had a research job here, but that doesn’t seem to be true. She was in four classes last quarter, one of them your Intro Social section. I’m checking with all the profs, see if anyone remembers her.”
“Lauren Teague,” he said. “I sure don’t. Had five hundred plus kids in that class. What others did she take?”
I named the courses.
“Let’s see,” he said. “Herb Ronninger is out in the Indian Ocean somewhere studying violent preschoolers – his class pulls over six hundred, so even if he were here I doubt he could help you. De Maartens and Hall are young-buck new-hires, and Learning and Perception tend to be a bit smaller. Let me call them for you.”
“I already tried their offices. Do you have home numbers?”
“Sure.” He found and copied the listings, handed them to me.
“Lauren Teague,” he said, putting his glasses back on. He opened a bottom desk drawer, rifled papers for a while, pulled out a list of names and grades. “Yeah, she was enrolled all right… Did well, too. Very well – eighteenth out of 516… Good, solid A’s on all her exams… B plus on her paper.” More scrounging produced another list: “‘Iconography in the Fashion Industry.’ Oh, her.”
“You remember her.”
“The model,” he said. “I thought of her that way because she looked like one – all the basics: tall, blond, gorgeous. And when I read the paper, I figured she’d been writing from experience. She also stood out because she was quite a bit older than the average junior – pushing thirty, right?”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, she seemed older. Maybe because she dressed maturely – pantsuits, dresses, expensive-looking stuff. I remember thinking, This girl has money. Kind of aloof, too. She used to sit in the back by herself, take notes constantly. Never saw her with any other students… So why’d I give her a B plus on the paper?… If the students want them, I hand them back, don’t know if she picked hers up… but I do keep a comment card…” Bending low, he began tossing papers out of drawers, created a high pile on the desk. “Okay, here goes.” He flourished a stack of rubber-banded blue index cards. “My notes say, ‘High on anger, low on data.’ If I remember, it was a bit of a screed, Alex.”
“Anger at the fashion industry?” I said.
“From what I recall. Probably the usual feminist stuff – woman as meat, subservient roles coerced by unrealistic conceptions of femininity. I get at least two dozen every quarter. All valid points, but sometimes they substitute passion for facts. I really can’t remember this particular paper, but if I had to guess, that would be it. So she left without telling Mom. Is that an aberration?”
“According to Mom.”
He scratched his chin. “Yeah, as a parent that would worry me.” Placing his feet on the floor and his hands on his knees, he looked at me over the rims of the half-glasses. “It’s funny – actually it’s anything but funny – your coming around about a missing student. When you first told me, it gave me a start. Because something like this happened last year. Another girl – some kind of campus beauty queen. Shane something, or Shana… Shanna – I don’t recall her exact name. Left her dorm room one night and never came back. Big stir on campus for a few days, then nothing. It affected me more than it might’ve because Jan and I had just sent our Lisa off to Oberlin. She was fine in the separation-anxiety department, but we weren’t doing so well. I’d just started to settle down – had stopped phoning the poor kid twelve times a day – and this Shanna thing happens.”
“She was never found?”
He shook his head. “Talk about the ultimate parent’s nightmare. There’s no word I despise more than closure – pop-psych crapolsky. But not knowing’s got to be worse. I’m sure it has nothing to do with the Teague girl – it just reminded me.”
“Gene, in terms of the research job, is there something I might’ve missed? I checked federal, state, and private grants, including part-time positions.”
He thought awhile. “What about something off-campus? Paid subject positions. You see ads in the Daily Cub. ‘Feeling low or moody? You may be clinically depressed and qualify for our cool little clinical trials.’ Pharmaceutical outcome studies, obviously the FDA or whoever’s in charge doesn’t see a problem using paid participants. The Cub’s out of circulation till next quarter, but maybe you can find something. Still, what would that tell you about where she is?”
“Probably nothing,” I said. “Unless Lauren signed up for a study because she had a specific problem – as in depression. Depressed people drop out.”
“Her mother wouldn’t know if she was that low?”
“Hard to say. Thanks for the tip, Gene – I’ll look into it.”
I got up, placed the coffee on a table, and headed for the door.
“You’re really extending yourself on this, Alex.”
He stared at me but said nothing.
No longer a clinician, but he knew enough not to press it.
THE STORY WAS easy to find.
Beautiful face, heart-shaped, unlined, crowned by a tower of pale ringlets. Almond eyes, shockingly dark. Pixie chin, perfect teeth, beauty undiminished by grainy black-and-white miniaturization, the cold, metal frame of the microfiche machine, the stale air of the research library microfilm vault.
I stared at lovely glowing shoulders exposed by a strapless gown, sparkly things dotting the bodice. The gown Shawna Yeager had worn at her coronation as Miss Olive Festival. Silly little rhinestone crown pinned to the luxuriant curls, happiest-girl-in-the-world grin.
The contest had taken place two years ago in her hometown, an aggie community east of Fallbrook named Santo Leon. Shawna Yeager held a scepter in one hand, a giant plastic olive in the other.
The Daily Cub article said she’d graduated fifth in her class at Santo Leon High. A single paragraph summed up her pre-college history: small-town beauty queen/honor student travels to the city to attend the U. Shawna had surprised her friends by not pledging a sorority, choosing instead to live in one of the high-rise dorms. Turning into a “study grind.”
She’d majored in psychobiology, talked about premed, used her beauty contest winnings and income from a summer teacher’s aide job to pay her bills.
She’d been enrolled for only a month and a half when she left the dorm on a late October night, informing her roommate that she was heading to the library to study. At midnight the roommate, a girl named Mindy Jacobus, fell asleep. At eight A.M. Mindy woke, found Shawna’s bed empty, worried a bit, went to class. When Shawna still hadn’t returned by two P.M., Mindy contacted the campus police.
The unicops engaged in a comprehensive search of the U’s vast terrain, notified LAPD’s West L.A. and Pacific Divisions, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Police, and West Hollywood sheriffs of the girl’s disappearance.
No leads. The campus paper carried the story for a week. No sightings of Shawna, not even a false report. Her mother, Agnes Yeager, a widowed waitress, was driven to L.A. from Santo Leon by a representative of the chancellor’s office and provided living quarters in a graduate student dorm for the duration of the search.
A Cub follow-up – still no news – said the search had lasted three weeks.
After that, nothing.
I returned to the microfilm librarian, filled out cards, obtained spools from the Times and the Daily News for the corresponding dates. Shawna’s disappearance merited two days of page 20 media attention, then a senator’s drunken son crashed his Porsche on the I-5, killing himself and two passengers, and that story took over.
I returned to the Cub spool, wrote down the reporter’s name – Adam Green – and studied Shawna Yeager’s beauty contest photo some more, searched for a resemblance to Lauren.
She and Lauren did share a sculpted, blond loveliness but nothing striking. Both A students. Psychology major, psychobiology major.
Both were self-supporting too, one banking on pageant money, the other, “investments.” Had each been on the lookout for extra income? Consulted the campus classifieds and gotten involved in one of the research studies Gene Dalby had described?
I searched for more parallels, found none. All in all, nothing dramatic. And plenty of differences:
At nineteen Shawna had been considerably younger than Lauren when she disappeared. Small-town olive queen, big-city call girl. Widowed mother, divorced mother. And Shawna had vanished during the second month of the quarter, Lauren during the break.
I scrolled to the Cub’s want ads, worked backward until I came upon a boldface entry in the middle of the JOBS!! section, posted two weeks before Shawna vanished.
Tired? Listless? Inexplicably sad?
These may be normal mood changes, or they may be signs of depression. We are conducting clinical trials on depression and are looking for $$ PAID $$ volunteers. You will be offered free evaluation and, if you qualify, may receive experimental treatment as well as a handsome stipend.
No address, just a phone number with a 310 area code. I copied the information, kept scrolling, found two similar ads for the entire month, one researching phobias and featuring a different 310 listing, the other a study of “human intimacy” that provided a 714 callback.
“Human intimacy” had a sexual flavor to it. Racy research in Orange County? Sex was commerce to Lauren. Might something like that have caught her eye?
I obtained microfiche for the last quarter, checked classified after classified. No repeat of the intimacy ad, nothing even vaguely similar, and the only paid-research solicitation was for a study on “nutrition and digestion,” with a campus phone extension that meant the med school. I wrote it down anyway, left the library, headed for the Seville.
Two girls gone missing, a year apart, very little in common.
Shawna had never been found. I could only hope that Lauren’s disappearance would amount to nothing at all.
I drove home trying to convince myself she’d show up tomorrow, a little richer and a lot tanner, laughing off everyone’s worries.
Gene Dalby had pegged her at thirty, and maybe he was right about her maturity. She’d been living on her own for years, had street smarts. So no shock if the last week came down to a quick jaunt to Vegas, Puerto Vallarta, even Europe – money shrinks the world.
I drove up the bridle path that leads to my house imagining Lauren partying with a potentate. Then seeing the dark side of the fantasy: Those kinds of adventures can go very bad quickly.
Lauren getting herself into something she hadn’t counted on.
Silly to let my mind run. I barely knew the girl.
The girl. She was well past childhood. No sense obsessing.
I’d bother Milo one more time, tell him about Shawna Yeager, receive the expected response – the logical detective’s response -
Interesting, Alex, but…
I pulled up in front of the carport, pleased to see Robin’s Ford pickup there, ready to stop wondering about a near stranger and be with someone I cared about.
But as I parked and climbed the stairs to the front door, I wondered: What would I tell Jane Abbot?
I knew I’d say little, if anything, to Robin about my day.
Confidentiality protects patients. What it does to therapists’ personal relationships can be interesting. Private by nature, Robin’s never had a problem with my not discussing work in detail. Like most artists, she lives in her head, can do without people for long stretches of time, hates gossip.
We’ve had perfectly romantic dinners where neither of us uttered a word. Part of that’s her, but I tend to drift off and ruminate. Sometimes I feel she’s not with me, and I know there are instances when she views me as inhabiting another planet.
Mostly, we connect.
I called out a “Looocey, I’m home, babaloo!” and she shouted back, “Ricky!”
She was in jeans and a black tank top, everything filling nicely as she squatted to fill Spike’s feed bowl and sang along with the radio. Country station, Alison Krauss and Keith Whitley doing “When You Say Nothing at All.” Whitley’s rich baritone exhumed from the grave. Technology could resurrect sound waves, but it couldn’t dampen a mother’s grief.
Robin finished pouring kibble, stood, and stretched to her full, barefoot five-three. No bra beneath the tank top, and when I pressed her to me her breasts spread across my shirtfront. When I kissed her, her tongue tasted of coffee. Her auburn curls were loose and longer than usual – six inches past the middle of her back. When she gets her hair done, it’s a half-day, three-figure affair at a place in Beverly Hills that reeks of nail polish and people trying too hard. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d spent the time and money. Busy with a seemingly endless flow of guitar construction and repairs. “Better than the alternative” was her comment when I remarked on her long days. A few weeks ago she’d recorded a new phone message:
“Hi, this is Robin Castagna. I’m out in the studio carving and gluing, would love to talk to you, however it’s going to be a while before I can be polite. If you have an urgent message, please leave it in detail, but…”
We kissed some more, and Spike yelped in protest. He’s a French bulldog, twenty-five pounds of black brindle barrel, bat ears perked, and deceptively soft brown eyes. I’m the one who rescued him on a hot, arid summer day, but forget gratitude; the moment Robin smiled at him, I came to be viewed as an annoyance.
Keeping one hand on Robin’s bottom, I set my briefcase on the table. Spike nudged her shin. She said, “Hold on, handsome.”
“Sure,” I said. “Keep feeding his ego.”
She laughed. “You ain’t chopped liver either.”
Spike’s flat face pivoted, and he glared at me – I can swear he understands English. His attenuated larynx let out a strangled growl, and he pawed the floor.
“Tom Flews deigns to speak,” I said.
“Don’t feud, boys,” said Robin, bending to pet him. “Long day, sweetie?”
“Me or him?”
I’d thought the cheer in my voice sounded authentic, wondered why she’d asked. “Long enough, but over.”
Spike sputtered. A twenty-one-inch neck quivered. Drool sprayed.
“I’m staying for the evening, pal. Deal with it.”
His eyes pinched at the corners as he let out a belly grunt. I kissed the back of Robin’s neck, as much out of spite as anything. Spike began bouncing higher than stumpy legs had any right to take him, and Robin added something from the fridge to his dinner and toted it to the service porch. His nose was buried before the dish hit the floor.
“Is that last night’s Stroganoff?” I said.
“I figured we’re finished with it.”
“We are now.”
She laughed, bent, picked up a stray bit of meat, hand-fed it to him. Breathing hard, he plunged his head back into the bowl. “Bon appétit, monsieur.”
“He’d prefer foie gras and a fine burgundy,” I said, “but he’ll condescend.”
She laced her arms around my neck. “So, what’s up?”
“What shall our dinner be?”
“Haven’t thought about it,” she said. “Any ideas?”
“How about his leftovers?”
“Now you’re being cranky.” She started to leave, but I held her back, stroked her neck, her shoulder blades, slipped my hands under the tank top and kneaded the knobs of her spine, cupped a breast -
“Food, first,” she said. “Then, maybe.”
“Fun. If you behave yourself.”
“Define your terms.”
“I’ll define them as we go along. So what went wrong today?”
“Who says anything went wrong?”
“Your face. You’re all stressed around the edges.”
“Wrinkles,” I said. “The aging process.”
“Don’t think so.” Her small, fine-boned hand topped my knuckles.
“Look,” I said, stretching my lips with my thumbs and letting go. “Mr. Happy.”
She said nothing. I sat there and enjoyed her face. Another heart-shaped face. Olive-tinted, set upon a long, smooth stalk, framed by the mass of curls. Straight, assertive nose, full lips swelled by a hint of overbite, the faintest beginnings of crow’s-feet and laugh lines around almond eyes the color of bittersweet chocolate.
“I’m fine,” I said.
“Okay.” She played with her hair.
“How was your day?”
“No one bugged me, so I got more done than I’d planned.” Her hand finger-walked over to mine, and she began playing with my thumb. “Just tell me this, Alex: Is it one of your own cases or something Milo’s gotten you into?”
“The former,” I said.
“Got it,” she said, zipping a finger across her lips. “So nothing dangerous. Not that I’m harping.”
“Not remotely dangerous,” I said. Remembering the talk we’d had last year. After I’d role-played with a group of eugenic psychopaths and ended up too close to dead. The pledge I’d given her…
“Good,” she said. “’Cause when I see you… burdened, I start to wonder if maybe you’re feeling constrained.”
“It’s just a case from the past that I might’ve handled better. I need to make a few phone calls, and then we can figure out dinner, okay?”
“Sure,” she said.
And that’s where we left it.
I went into my office, poured the contents of my briefcase onto the desk, found the numbers Gene Dalby had given me for Professors Hall and de Maartens, and dialed. Two answering machines. I left messages. Next: Adam Green, the student journalist. Information had four Adam Greens listed in the 310 area code. No sense, at this stage of the game, trying to figure out which, if any, was the kid who’d covered the Shawna Yeager story. He’d spent three weeks of his life on the story a year ago. What could he possibly have to offer?
Arranging the photocopies I’d made of the Daily Cub microfiches, I retrieved the three phone numbers accompanying the want ads. The depression and phobia study listings were out of service, and the Orange County intimacy project – I’d saved the best for last – connected to a Newport Beach pizza parlor. In L.A. it’s not just the tectonic plates that shift.
Finally, I looked up hotels and motels in Malibu and made a dozen calls. If Lauren had checked into any of the establishments, she hadn’t used her real name.
One last call: Jane Abbot. That would wait till tomorrow.
No, it wouldn’t. I dialed the Valley number, planning to be vague but supportive, careful not to leech her hope. The phone rang four times, and I rehearsed the little speech I’d deliver to her robot guardian – ah, here he was: “No one can take your call but if you care to…”
“Mrs. Abbot, this is Dr. Delaware. I’ve talked to a police detective about Lauren. Nothing really to report, but he’s been made aware of the details. I’ll stay on it, get back to you the moment I learn-”
A real man’s voice broke in, very soft, halting. “Yes?”
I identified myself.
I said, “Hello?”
“This is Mr. Abbot.” More of an announcement than an exchange.
“Mr. Abbot, your wife spoke to me recently-”
“Mrs. Abbot,” he said.
“Yes, sir. She and I-”
“This is Mr. Abbot. Mrs. Abbot isn’t here.”
“When will she be back, sir?”
Several seconds of dead air. “The house is empty…”
“Your wife called me about Lauren, and I was getting back to her.”
“Her daughter, Lauren,” I said. “Lauren Teague.”
“My wife’s not here,” said the frail voice plaintively. “She goes out, comes back, goes out, comes back.”
“Are you all right, sir?”
“I’m upstairs, trying to read. Robert Benchley – ever read Benchley? Funny as hell, but the words get small…”
“I’ll call back later, Mr. Abbot.”
I HUNG UP, tried to figure out what had just happened.
Robin knocked on the doorjamb and said, “Ready.” She’d put on a tiny little charcoal sweater over a long, gray tweed skirt and glossed her lips. Her smile made putting the call aside a little easier.
We ended up at a Japanese place on Sawtelle south of Olympic, the only business open at night in an obscure little strip mall. We were the only non-Asians in the room, but no heads turned. A gaunt chef chopped something eelish behind the sushi bar. A tiny woman showed us to a corner booth, where we drank sake, laced fingers, and talked very little, then not at all. The service was formal but perfect as another diminutive woman brought us boxes of warm sake and pinches of exquisite food. The quiet and the dimness took hold, and when we stepped out into the night ninety minutes later, my lungs and brain were clear.
When we got back Spike was baying miserably, and we took him for a short walk up the glen. Then Robin ran a bath and I stood around doing nothing. Finally, I gave in and checked my messages, thinking again about Jane Abbot’s husband.
Callbacks from Professors Hall and de Maartens. In Hall’s case by proxy – a young man identifying himself as “Craig, the Halls’ house sitter,” informed me cheerfully that “Stephen and Beverly are in the Loire Valley with their children and won’t be back for another week. I’ll pass the message along.”
De Maartens spoke for himself, in a mellow, accented, puzzled voice. “This is Simon de Maartens. I have checked my records, and Lauren Teague was indeed enrolled in my class. Unfortunately, I have no personal recollection of her. Sorry not to have been more helpful.”
Robin called out, “Join me,” from the bathroom, and I was out of my clothes when the phone jangled. I let it ring and had a good soak, took my time washing her hair, then just lying back in the womb-warmth of the tub. Scrubbing and sponging led to caressing and nibbling, then giggling aquatic contortions that flooded the floor. We tripped to bed, made love till we were breathless, left the covers soaked and foaming with soap bubbles.
I was still gasping when Robin got up, wrapped herself in one of my ratty robes, danced into the kitchen, and returned with two glasses of orange juice. She poured juice down my gullet, spilled a good deal of the liquid, thought that was hilarious. My revenge was sloppy, and we changed the sheets. When she went to dry her hair, I put on a T-shirt and shorts, stepped onto the rear terrace, propped my elbows on the redwood railing, stared out at looming black shapes – the pines and cedars and blue gums that coat the hills behind our property.
Feeling like a California guy.
I was somewhere on the way to torpor when Robin’s voice stirred me: “Honey? Milo’s on the phone. He says he called half an hour ago.”
The ring I’d ignored.
She said, “You can take it in here. I’m going down to the pond – there’s a spotlight out.”
I went inside, picked up the bedroom extension. “What’s up?”
“Your girl,” said Milo. “The Teague girl. She’s my business now.”
Nine P.M., Sepulveda Boulevard. The commercial strip south of Wilshire and north of Olympic. Discount outlets, animal emergency rooms, ironworks, furniture wholesalers. Except for the veterinarians, everything shut down for the night. A cat screeched.
West side of the street, Milo had said. The alley.
Not far from the restaurant where I’d stuffed my face three hours before. Now the thought of eating churned my stomach.
A patrol car blocked the alley, ruby-sapphire lights flashing, the crown jewels of trouble. The uniform with his foot propped on the front bumper was young and pumped up and distrustful, and his palm shot out reflexively as I edged the Seville near. I stuck my head out, called out my name. He wasn’t hearing it, scowled at the Seville’s grille, ordered me to move it. I shouted louder, and he sauntered over, uni-browed angrily, hand on his holster. My face was hot, but I forced myself to talk slowly and politely. Finally, he made the call that cleared me, and when I got out he said, “Over there,” as if imparting something profound.
Pointing south down the alley, but there was no need for direction. The knot of vehicles was a huge chrome tumor under the sizzle of power lines. As I ran toward the crime scene, the stench of rotted upholstery and gasoline and putrefying vegetables nearly gagged me.
I spotted Milo next to the coroner’s van, hunched and scrawling furiously. One of his legs was bent, and the roll of his belly protruded far beyond his lapels. He licked his pencil, then jockeyed for comfort the way big, heavy men often do.
The high-intensity spots the techs had set up turned his face white and powdery, as if dusted with flour, showcasing pouches and pits, the saggy smudges under his eyes. I continued toward him, feeling numb and sick and out of place.
When I was ten feet away, he looked up. Now his face was strangely diffuse, as if my eyes had suddenly lost acuity. Except for his eyes: They gleamed, sharp, too bright, jumpy as a coyote’s, emerald green bleached by the spots to sea foam. He had on a flesh-colored, poly-wool sport coat, baggy brown cords, white wash-and-wear shirt with a skimpy, curling collar, and a skinny green tie that glistened like a strip of tooth gel. His hair needed cutting; the top, ink black, left longish, as usual, shot off in all directions, and the spiky forelock that shaded his brow arched over his high-bridged nose. His temples, clipped to bristle, were snow-white from ear top to the bottom of Elvisoid sideburns. The contrast was unnatural; recently, he’d taken to calling himself El Skunko, was making more and more cracks about senility and mortality. He was less than a year older than I, seemed to have aged a lot during the last year or so. Robin told me I looked young when she thought I needed to hear that. I wondered what Rick told Milo.
He closed his notepad, rubbed his face, shook his head.
“Where is she?” I said.
“Already in the van,” he said, tilting his head toward the coroner’s transport. The doors were closed. A driver sat behind the wheel.
I started toward the van. He held my arm. “You don’t want to see her.”
“I can handle it.”
“Don’t put yourself through it. What’s the point?”
I continued to the van, and he opened the door, slid out the gurney, unzipped the first two feet of the body bag. I caught a nose-full of rotten-meat stench and a glimpse of misshapen green-gray face, purplish, swollen eyes, protuberant tongue, long blond strands, before he resealed the bag and led me away.
As the van drove off he sighed, rubbed his face again, as if washing without water. “She’s been dead for a while, Alex. Four, five days, maybe more, at the bottom of one of the Dumpsters, under a load of trash.” He pointed. “That one, behind the patio furniture outlet. Someone wrapped her in heavy-duty plastic – industrial sheeting. Nights have been cool, but still…”
“Who found her?” I said.
“The outlet uses a private trash service. They pick up once a week, at night, showed up a couple of hours ago. When they latched the Dumpster onto their truck and upended it, she fell out – Do you really want to hear this?”
“Part of her rolled out. A leg. The driver heard her hit the ground, went over to check, and uncovered the rest of her. She was bound, hands and feet – hog-tied. Shot in the back of the head. Two shots, close range, both in the brain stem. Coroner says one bullet would’ve done the trick. Someone was being careful. Or angry. Or both. Or just liked to play with his firestick.”
“Large enough to blacken her eyes and do that to her face. Alex, why are you-”
“Sounds like an execution,” I said. It came out calm and flat. My eyes filled with water, and I swiped at them.
He didn’t answer.
“Four or five days or more,” I went on. “So it happened soon after she disappeared.”
“Looks like it.”
“How’d you identify her?”
“Moment I saw her, I knew exactly who she was. When I spoke to Missing Persons for you, they sent me her sheet and I’d seen her booking photo.”
“Well,” I said. “Now you’ve got a relief from your cold cases.”
“I’m sorry about this, Alex.”
“I just left a message for her mother. Told her I was still working on finding Lauren. Nothing like success, huh?” My eyes brimmed, and a hand-wipe didn’t do the trick. As I reached for my handkerchief, Milo turned away.
I stood there and let the tears gush. What the hell was this all about? I was no stranger to tragedy, had trained myself to maintain distance.
Lauren was dead at twenty-five, but my memories were dominated by a fifteen-year-old face. Too much makeup, useless little black purse. Ridiculous shoes.
You’ve grown up.
My gorge rose, and this time I didn’t think I could hold back.
Milo’s voice was far away, fuzzed and funneled by distance. “You all right?”
I tried to mouth the word “Fine.” Turned and sprinted up the alley, found a spot away from the crime scene, and vomited convulsively.
The burn of rice wine, the fishy aftertaste of a fine Japanese dinner.
I waited in Milo’s unmarked as he did what he needed to do. My throat was raw, and my body was sheathed in clammy sweat. Yet I felt strangely serene. Milo’d left his cell phone on the front seat, and I called Robin.
She picked up right away – waiting.
“Sorry to ruin another evening,” I said.
“Someone got killed. The case I mentioned today – what I couldn’t talk about. A girl I once treated. You’ll probably read about it in the paper tomorrow. They just found her body.”
“Oh, God – a child?”
“A young woman. She was a child when I met her. She’d gone missing, her mother asked me to help – I may end up going with Milo to notify her. I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”
“Alex, I’m so sorry.”
A laugh slipped out from between my lips. Inappropriate. Inexplicable.
“Love you,” I said.
“I know you do.”
Milo got behind the wheel, and I told him about Shawna Yeager.
He said, “I remember that one – the beauty queen. Guy named Leo Riley ended up with it, thank God.”
“Impossible from the get-go, not a shred of physical evidence and no witnesses. Leo used to gripe about it – his last case before retiring and he had to end it open. His hunch was some warpo got hold of the girl, did his thing, put her where she’ll never be found.” He eyed the Dumpster. “Whoever did this didn’t care about that.”
“True,” I said.
“Why’d you tell me about the Yeager girl?”
I repeated my conversation with Gene Dalby.
He said, “Two students, blond, good-looking, a year apart. If I’m right about the Yeager girl being a sex thing, that’s a long time between victims. Nothing you’ve said screams pattern.”
“Just thought I’d mention it.”
“I’ll keep it in mind if nothing else turns up on Lauren. Meanwhile, I’ve got uniforms headed over to her apartment to secure the premises and keep an eye on the roommate. Got a name on her?”
“Him. Andrew Salander. Mid-twenties. Tends bar at The Cloisters.”
“The Cloisters,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “Short, skinny, pale kid with tattoos?”
“Andy.” His smile was uneasy. “Claims to fix a mean martini.”
“Hell if I know – I hate martinis.” He frowned. “So she roomed with Andy. Any idea how long?”
“He told me about six months. Said he’d been living downstairs in the same building, couldn’t make the rent and Lauren invited him to share.”
“Interesting.” Turning the green eyes on me. “What do you think of that? Her living with him.”
“Maybe she considered him safe.”
“Maybe he was.”
“You know something about him that makes you doubt it?”
“No,” he said. “A little too chatty for my taste, but he always seemed like a nice kid. Then again, his roomie got killed. We’ll just have to see.” He shifted in the seat. “Meanwhile, the fun part of the job: notifying Mom.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“I know you will,” he said. “I wasn’t even thinking of talking you out of it.”
“Sherman Oaks,” he said from the passenger seat.
We’d swapped the unmarked for the Seville, and I was driving north on Sepulveda. I jumped onto the 405 north on-ramp, veered to the fast lane, pushed the car up to eighty-five.
Years ago the freeway would’ve been a clear sail at this hour. Tonight I had plenty of company, mostly big trucks lumbering and small cars rushing… The nerve to get in my way. I had big plans – Jane Abbot’s life to ruin.
I wondered if she was home yet. Or would we find the addled husband, alone? From mean old Lyle to that. Marital luck didn’t seem to be her specialty.
If she was home, what would I say – how would I tell her?
“Devana Terrace,” said Milo, reciting the address he’d gotten from Motor Vehicles. “South of Ventura Boulevard.”
I knew the neighborhood. Nice. Whatever his mental state, Jane Abbot’s second husband had provided well. Remembering his feeble voice, I wondered what she’d settled for.
“The Valley,” I said. “Lauren’s father took her to a miniature golf course in the Valley the day he terminated therapy.” I told him about Lyle Teague’s deception.
“Nice man,” he said. “You trying to tell me something about him?”
“No. Lauren denied abuse.”
“But you were concerned enough to ask her.”
“There was a seductive quality to his behavior. Lauren alluded to it herself – the time she came back to see me. She said it sounded as if he’d been jealous of her time with me. But she was very clear about there being no molestation.”
“Protesting too much?” he said.
“Who knows? I didn’t have time to find out.”
He grunted, stretched his long legs. “So after Daddy killed therapy, you saw her only that once?”
“I’m still not sure why she originally made the appointment, but she ended up unloading on me. Maybe that’s all she wanted.”
He was quiet for a while. I put on more speed and he laughed nervously and I slowed to eighty. He said, “From acting-out teenybopper to stripping and doing tricks. Lots of girls in the skin trade have abuse in their backgrounds.” Another laugh. “Who the hell am I lecturing to?”
“If her father did abuse her, he’s sure not going to admit it now.”
“Let’s see how he reacts to all this – and sooner, rather than later. He may be a schmuck, but as her parent he also merits notification.”
“If you can find him.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“He walked out on Lauren and her mother years ago, remarried. Sometimes men who run, run far.”
He whipped out the cell phone. “Lyle Teague?”
“He’d be about fifty.”
He began punching numbers. The fast lane was clear for a mile or so, and I sped up once more. Milo said, “Have mercy on my colon, Dr. Daytona,” and again I eased up on the gas pedal.
A moment later he had Lyle Teague’s address. “Reseda. Looks like everyone’s in the Valley.”
“Lauren lived in the city.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe no coincidence. Distancing herself from Mom and Dad.”
“Or she wanted to be closer to the U.”
“Then why didn’t she live on the Westside?”
“More bang for her rental buck,” I said.
“Speaking of which,” he said, “any idea how she made the rent?”
“She told Salander investments, never got specific.”
“A student with investments,” he said. “Tell me everything you know about her, Alex. Right from the beginning. The long version.”
Death ends confidentiality. Freed from that hurdle, I spilled. Not much confidentiality to honor anyway. Therapy with Lauren had amounted to so little, and the retelling drove home how little I’d accomplished. When I got to Phil Harnsberger’s party, my voice grew louder, faster. Milo kept his eyes on his pad, looked up only when the Ventura Freeway appeared and I forgot to veer to the right. Realizing my error, I asserted myself across three lanes as he sat up and gripped the armrest. Managing to bounce onto the eastbound off-ramp, I tortured my shock absorbers, drove for another couple of miles, exited at Van Nuys, found the south end of the Valley comfortingly quiet.
He said, “Well, that got my heart rate up. No need for the treadmill.”
“When’s the last time you saw the inside of a gym?”
“Sometime in the Pleistocene era. Me and all the other Neanderthals, pumping chunks of granite.”
I stayed on Van Nuys, reached Valley Vista, turned left, found Devana Terrace, and cruised slowly, looking for Jane Abbot’s address.
Dark street. Pretty street. I finished the account of Lauren’s strip, the recognition that had passed between us like a virus.
Milo wanted nothing to do with the confessor role, waved his pen, said, “Remember the other girl’s name?”
“Lauren never said.”
“Same age as Lauren?”
“Approximately. Around the same height, too. Dark-haired, maybe Latin.”
“Blonde and brunette,” he said, and I knew what he was thinking: Someone ordering a matched pair for the evening.
After I’d left, how far had Lauren and Michelle taken things?
He said, “Anyone mention the name of the company they worked for?”
“No. And even if you find the guys who organized the party, I doubt they’ll admit to anything. We’re talking medical school professors and financial types, and this was four years ago.”
“Four years ago would be right around the time Lauren was working for Gretchen Stengel. So maybe Gretchen had a party-rental sideline.”
“Where is Gretchen?”
“Don’t know. She served a couple of years for money laundering and tax evasion, but your guess is as good as mine.” He closed his pad. “Investments… So maybe Lauren stayed in the game. Be interesting if she and Michelle maintained a relationship.”
“Andrew Salander said Lauren didn’t have any friends.”
“Maybe there were things Lauren didn’t tell Andrew. Or he didn’t tell you.”
“That could very well be,” I said. Thinking: Lauren lied about the research job, so she’d probably erected other barriers. Constructing her own confidentiality.
Now all her secrets were trash.
THE HOUSE WAS too easy to find.
Two-story white colonial at the end of the block, almost grand behind black stripes of iron fencing, so brightened by high-voltage spots that it seemed to inhabit its own private daylight. Mullioned windows, green shutters, semicircular driveway, two gates, one marked ENTRY. Milo tightened the knot of his tie as I parked. We got out and walked toward the entrance gate. The night seemed drained of life force, or maybe it was the task at hand.
Lights yellowed a couple of upstairs windows, and the fanlight above the front door flashed chandelier sparkle. A white Cadillac Fleetwood blocked the view of the front door. Shiny enough to be brand-new but of a size no longer hazarded by Detroit. Handicap license plate. A metallic blue Mustang coupe, also spotless, was parked behind the Caddy, trailing the big car like an obedient child.
Milo glanced at the call box, then at me. “Either way.”
I pushed the button. A digital code sounded, then a ringing phone.
Jane Abbot said, “Yes?” in a sleepy voice.
“Mrs. Abbot, it’s Dr. Delaware.”
Her breath caught. “Oh… what is it?”
“It’s about Lauren. May I please come in?”
“Yes, yes, of course… Just one second, let me… Hold on.” Her voice climbed in pitch with each truncated phrase, and the last word was a tight screech. Moments later the door opened and Jane Abbot ran out wearing a quilted silk robe, hair pinned up. In her hand was a remote control that she aimed at the gate. Iron panels slid open. She was two feet away when we stepped through.
Ten years since I’d seen her. She was still trim and fine-boned, the blond hair now a salon ash barely darker than the platinum Lauren had sported. The decade had hollowed her face and loosened her skin and acid-etched fissures in all the typical places. As she ran toward us she breathed through her mouth. Fluffy slippers flapped on brick.
Milo had his badge out, but it wasn’t necessary. He had that terrible sadness on his face, and Jane Abbot’s curse was comprehension. She raised her hands to her head, jerked away from him, and stared at me. I had nothing better to offer, and she screamed and beat her breast, tripped and stumbled as her legs gave way. A slipper flew off. Pink slippers. The things you notice.
Milo and I caught her simultaneously. She struck at us, all bones and tendons, oddly slippery through the chenille of her robe. Her grief was raw and head-splitting, but no one else came to the door of the house. No reactions from the neighbors either, and I had a sudden taste of the solitude she’d face.
I picked up the slipper, and we guided her across the driveway and back inside.
Except for the chandeliered entry and a front room lit by a ceramic table lamp shaped like a beehive, the house was dark. Milo flipped a switch and revealed an interior surprisingly modest in scale: low ceilings, white wall-to-wall carpeting, furniture that had been pricey during the fifties, grass-cloth walls painted pink-beige and crowded with what looked to be real Picassos and Braques and tiny Impressionist street scenes. A sliver of eastern wall held built-in white bookshelves filled with hardcover books and black-spined folders, interspersed with framed plaques and gilded trophies. A rear wall of glass looked out onto nothing. We sat Jane Abbot down on a stiff, ocean blue sofa, and I settled next to her, smelling her perfume and metallic sweat. Milo took a facing armchair much too small for him. His pad wasn’t out yet. It would be soon.
Jane’s hands shook, caught in the fabric of her robe, became sharp-knuckled, paralyzed talons. Her cries degraded to gasps, then snuffles, then tortured squeaks that caused her to twist and jerk.
Milo watched her without seeming to. Relaxed but not blasé. How many times had he done this? Suddenly she became still, and silence captured the house – a cold, rotten inertia.
Where was the husband?
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Milo.
“My God, my God – when did it happen?”
“Lauren was found a few hours ago.”
She nodded, as if that made sense, and Milo began giving her the basics, speaking slowly, clearly, in low, even tones. She kept nodding, began rocking in sync with his phrasing. Shifted her body away from me and toward him. The logical realignment. I welcomed it.
He finished, waited for her to respond, and, when she didn’t, said, “I know this is a hard time to be answering questions, but-”
“Ask anything.” She clutched her head again, and her face crumpled. “My baby – my precious baby!”
More tears. A beeper went off. Milo reached for his and Jane Abbot pulled one out of her robe.
“My other baby,” she said wearily. She rose unsteadily, one foot still bare. I was holding the slipper, handed it to her. She took it, smiled terribly, shuffled to the next room, and turned on the light. The dining room. Mock Chippendale furniture, more pretty paintings.
She touched something near a side door, and the walls hummed and the door slid open. Home elevator. “I’ll be right back.” She stepped in, disappeared.
Milo exhaled, got up and walked around, stopped at the bookshelves, pointed to one of the trophies. “Hmm.”
“Couple of Emmys… from the fifties… early sixties. Writers Guild awards – and this one’s from the Producers Guild… Melville Abbot. All for comedy. Here’s a picture of Eddie Cantor… Sid Caesar… ‘Dear Mel.’ Ever hear of the guy?”
“No,” I said.
“Me neither. TV writer. You never hear of them…”
He pulled out one of the black-spined volumes, muttered, “Script,” just as the elevator door slid open and Jane Abbot came out pushing a man in a wheelchair. Her pink robe had been replaced by a long black-and-silver silk kimono. She still wore the fuzzy slippers.
The man wore perfectly ironed, pale blue pajamas with white-piped lapels. He looked to be eighty or more. A brown cashmere blanket draped a lap so shrunken it barely tented the fabric. His small, gray egg of a head was hairless but for puffs of white at the temples. His nose was a droopy, salmon-colored balloon, his mouth, pursed and lipless above an eroded chin. Small brown eyes – merry eyes – took us in, and he chuckled. Jane Abbot heard it and flinched. She stood behind him, hands squeezing the bar of the chair, her grimness a reproach.
He gave a thumb-up wave, called out in a jarringly hearty voice: “Evening! Les gendarmes? Bon soir! Mel Abbot!” Decibels above the tentative phone voice of a few hours ago.
Jane moaned softly. Abbot grinned.
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” said Milo, approaching the wheelchair.
“Les gendarmes,” Abbot singsonged. “Les gendarmes du Marseilles, the constabulary, de stiff awm o’ de law.” He craned, tried to look back at his wife. “Alarm go off again, dearest?”
“No,” said Jane. “It’s not that… It’s different, Mel. Something – Mel, something terrible has happened.”
“Now, now,” said Mel Abbot, winking at us. “How terrible can it be? We’re all alive.”
“Now, now, now,” Abbot insisted. “Now, now, now, now, cutie pie.” Raising a palsying hand, he reached back, groped without success. Finally, Jane took hold of his fingers, closed her eyes.
He winked at us again. “Like when they asked Chevalier, How does it feel to turn eighty? And Chevalier says, How does it feel?” Studied pause. “I’ll tell you how it feels. Considering the alternative, it feels terrific!”
“Now, now, dearest. What’s another false alarm citation? Así es la vida, you plays, you pays, we can afford it, denks Gott.” Melville Abbot freed his hand and waved floppy fingers. His head lolled, but he managed another wink. “The main thing is everyone’s alive, like Chevalier said, when they asked him how does it feel to turn eighty.” Wink. “And Chevalier says-”
“Mel!” Jane lurched forward and grabbed his hand.
“No jokes, Mel. Please. Not now – no more jokes.”
Abbot’s eyes bugged. His crushed-crepe face bore the humiliation of a child caught masturbating.
“My wife,” he said to us. “I’d say take her, but I wouldn’t mean it. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without – State trooper stops a fellow on the highway, fellow says, I wasn’t speeding, Officer. Trooper says, Didja notice a mile back your wife fell outta the car? Fellow says, Oh, good, I thought I was going deaf.”
Jane must have squeezed his fingers because he winced and said, “Ouch!” She moved around to the front of the wheelchair and kneeled before him.
“Mel, listen to me. Something bad has happened – something terrible. To me.”
Abbot’s eyes hazed. He looked to us for rescue. Our silence made his mouth drop open. Oversized dentures, too white, too perfectly aligned, emphasized the ruin that was the rest of him.
He pouted. Jane placed her hands on his narrow shoulders.
“What’s wrong with a little levity, dearest? What’s life without a little spice-”
“It’s Lauren, Mel. She’s-” Jane began weeping. The old man stared down at her, licked his lips. Touched her hair. She rested her head on his lap, and he stroked her cheek.
“Lauren,” he said, as if familiarizing himself with the name. His eyes closed. Movement behind the lids – flipping through a mental Rolodex? When they opened he was smiling again. “The pretty one?”
Jane shot to her feet, and the chair rolled back several inches. Gritting her teeth, she inhaled, spoke very slowly. “Lauren, my daughter, Mel. My child, my baby – like your Bobby.”
Abbot considered that. Turned away. Pouted again. “Bobby never comes to see me.”
Jane shouted, “That’s because Bobby-” She stopped herself, murmured, “Lord, Lord.” Kissed the top of the old man’s head – hard, more of a blow than a gesture of affection – and covered her face with her hand.
Abbot said, “Bobby’s a doctor. Big-shot plastic surgeon – Michelangelo with a knife, big industry practice, knows where all the wrinkles are buried.” He brightened, turned to his wife. “What do you say we go out for breakfast? All of us? We’ll pile into the Caddy, go over to Solly’s, and have some…” A second of confusion. “… whatever, with onions… Omelette? Maybe with lox?” To us: “That means you, gents. Breakfast is on me, long as you don’t give us a ticket for the false alarm.”
Jane Abbot lied to him as she wheeled him back to the elevator. Making breakfast plans, telling him they’d have lox and onions, maybe pancakes – she needed some time to straighten up, he should think about what he wanted to wear, she’d come back in a few minutes.
The lift arrived, and she pushed him in.
“I’ll wear a cardigan,” he said as the door closed behind them. “One of the good ones, from Sy Devore.”
Milo said, “My, my,” when we were alone again. He made another trip to the bookshelves. “Look at this. Groucho, Milton Berle – the guy knew everyone. Here’s a photo from a Friars Club Roast they did for him twenty years ago… The fires sure dim, don’t they? Gives me hope for the future.”
I inspected the signatures on the artwork. Picasso, Childe Hassam, Louis Rittman, Max Ernst. A tiny Renoir drawing.
The elevator vibrated the walls, the door groaned open, and Jane Abbot ran out, as if escaping suffocation. Her eyes were sunken and inflamed and she looked old, and I tried to think of her as a young flight attendant, smiling easily. “I’m sorry, he’s just – it’s been getting worse. Oh, God!”
She collapsed on the sofa, cried softly. Stopped and talked to her lap. “Bobby – his son – died ten years ago. Skiing accident. He was Mel’s only child. Mel’s wife – Doris – had been ill for a while. Bad arthritis, she bound up to the point where she couldn’t move. Bobby’s death made her worse, and eventually she needed round-the-clock care. After my divorce I went to nursing school, got my LVN, hired out for private duty. I took care of Doris until she died. Terrific lady, never lost her spirit. For five years I cared for her, sometimes I did two shifts a day. Basically, I moved in here. Mel was older than her, but back then he was in great shape. We all got along great. He had the best sense of humor – they both did.”
She clawed a cheek. “The man used to be pure sunshine. And brilliant. He had a repertoire of thousands of jokes, could rattle them off by category – you name it, he’d know twenty gags. After Doris’s funeral I moved out and got a job at a rest home. Two months later, Mel called me. When he asked me out, I thought it was for old times’ sake – to thank me. When he showed up at my apartment all spiffed up with a corsage, I was taken aback – shocked, really. I had no idea. But I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I went along with it. He took me to The Palm, we ate steak, drank great wine, and I ended up having the best time of my life. He was… We dated for a long time. I finally agreed to marry him two years ago. I quit smoking for his health. I know the age difference is… but it’s not what it seems.”
“No need to explain, ma’am.”
“Sure there is,” she said. “Sure there is – there’s always a need to explain. I know you’re thinking this is another May-December gold-digger routine. But it isn’t. Mel’s well-heeled, his art alone… But we have a prenuptial, and I don’t know the details of his finances – don’t want to know. I get an allowance. I’ve never asked him to amend his will. He’s the nicest man in the world. Until recently we-”
“ – just had the greatest time. Traveling, taking cruises, living life. Lauren only met him a few times, but she liked him – he made a point of telling her how gorgeous she was, ‘a regular Marilyn.’ She never got that from her father. Lauren’s never gotten anything from her father, and maybe that was my fault.”
She sobbed. I sat down next to her.
“So Lauren didn’t come by often,” said Milo.
“She was always busy. With school and all that – the times she was here, she loved Mel’s jokes.” Her eyes hardened. “Lyle never told her jokes. Lyle wouldn’t know a joke if it – There wasn’t much to laugh about in our family. I’m sure you remember that, Dr. Delaware.”
“What a grim life we had. Mel taught me what real living was all about. Then, a year ago, he had the first stroke. Then another. And another. His legs went first, then his mind. Sometimes he’s clear as a bell, but mostly he’s like what you just saw. My other baby. Thank God the elevator was already in place for Doris or I don’t know what we’d do. So it’s not that bad. He weighs next to nothing, getting him in the chair’s no problem – my training. Bathing him’s a bit of a – But no big deal, for the most part, things go smoothly.” Her face constricted, and tears gushed from her eyes. “For the most part, they go very very smoothly.”
I took her hand. Her skin was dry and cold, thrummed by an unseen tremor.
“He’ll be beeping me soon,” she said. “He misses me when I’m not there.”
“Do what you need to do, ma’am,” said Milo. “We’ll work with you.”
“Thank you. You’re sweet. Oh, this is… oh…” She threw up her hands, laughed horribly.
“A few questions, ma’am. If you feel you can handle it-”
“I can handle anything,” she said, without conviction.
“Some of these questions are going to seem stupid, but they need to be asked.”
“Can you think of anyone who’d want to harm Lauren?”
“No,” she said quickly. “Everyone loved her. She was sugar.”
“No ex-boyfriends? Anyone with a personal grudge?”
“She never had a boyfriend.”
“Never?” said Milo.
Jane Abbot said, “She was going places. With her work, her education. Didn’t have the time for relationships.”
“Did she tell you that?”
“She told Mel that. When she’d come over, he’d say, ‘You’re so gorgeous, doll. Why no stud on your arm?’ Or something like that. She’d laugh and say she didn’t have time to waste on a man, and Mel would make cracks about if only he were two hundred years younger… When – If he figures out what happened, it’ll crush him.”
Her nose began to run, and I handed her a tissue.
“Her work,” said Milo.
“Modeling – she freelanced, saved up quite a bit of money. It allowed her to go back to school.”
“No time for boyfriends,” he said. “Not a single one.”
“No one that I ever met.” Her eyes shifted to the floor, and I knew she was holding back. Aware of Lauren’s real profession?
“Busy with her studies,” said Milo.
“Yes. She loved her classes. Loved psychology, planned to go all the way – get a Ph.D.” To me: “You inspired her. She thought you were great.”
Milo said, “In addition to classes, did she do any psychological work?”
“You mean like volunteering? I don’t think so.”
“No,” said Jane. “Nothing that she mentioned.”
“What about travel?”
“She took off from time to time. But only for a day or two. Not a week – that’s how I knew something was wrong. Andy – her roommate – knew it too. I could tell when I spoke to him. He was worried. He knew this was wrong.”
“Andy,” said Milo. “Lauren and he get along pretty well?”
“Famously, like two peas. He finally got Lauren to spruce that place up. He has a great eye – most of them do.”
“Gays. They’re clever that way. It was a smart arrangement. I told Lauren that. No hanky-panky, and he had a great eye for decorating.”
“What did she say to that?”
“So,” he said, “you’re not aware of any conflict between her and Andy?”
She stared at Milo. “Andy? You can’t be – No, no, ridiculous. He’d have no reason – He’s more of a girl than a boy. They were like two sorority sisters.”
“No reason for conflict because no sexual tension.”
She blanched. “Well, yes – aren’t so many things like this… physical – men hurting women because they’re… twisted?”
“You think this might’ve been a sexual crime?”
“Well, no,” she said. “I don’t think anything – what do I know? Was there – Did someone abuse her?”
“Nothing points that way, ma’am, but we’ll have to wait for the coroner.”
“The coroner.” Jane began crying again. I was ready with another tissue, and Milo wrote in his pad. I hadn’t seen him take it out.
“When Lauren went off for a few days, where’d she go, Mrs. Abbot?”
She looked up. “I don’t really know.” Another eye shift, and something new had come into her voice. Wariness. Milo had to have heard it, but he kept his eyes on the pad.
“So she never told you details, just that she was taking off,” he said.
“Lauren was twenty-five, Detective.” Long bout of crying. “Sorry. I was just thinking: She’ll never be twenty-six… Lauren was a private person, Detective. I knew I had to respect that if I wanted to… keep getting along. We had… a history. Dr. Delaware can fill in the details. Lauren was a really rebellious teenager. Even as a small child, if I pushed, she’d pull. If I said black, she’d insist it was white. Then my ex walked out on us and we got poor overnight and Lauren didn’t want to know about that. She ran away when she was sixteen, never lived with me again. For years, I barely heard from her. I tried…” She looked at me for support.
I mustered a nod.
“We reconnected,” she went on. “All those years of barely hearing from her, and she wanted to reconnect. I was afraid if I bugged her, I’d lose her. So… I didn’t. And now… maybe if I’d…”
“No reason to blame yourself,” I said.
“No? Do you mean that, or is that something you just say to all the… whatever I am?”
Her head dropped into her hands. The nape of her neck was moist with sweat. I thought about the lunch that had sent Lauren home upset. Complaining Jane was trying to control her. At odds with Jane’s speech about restraint.
She sat up suddenly, flushed, cold-eyed. “What I’m trying to say is I was trying to get to know her again. To know my daughter. And I thought I was doing pretty good. And now… I should be able to tell you more but I can’t. ’Cause I don’t know – it’s come to this and I don’t know!”
“You’re doing fine, ma’am.”
She laughed. “Sure I am. My baby’s dead and the one upstairs will be beeping me soon. I’m doing fantastic, just fantastic.”
“I’ll do everything I ca-”
“Find whoever did this, Detective. Take this seriously and find him – not the way the cops took it like a joke when Lauren went missing-”
“Find him! So I can look him right in the eye. Then, I’ll slice his balls off.”
MILO QUESTIONED HER a bit longer, honing in on Lauren’s finances, any jobs she might’ve worked between seventeen and twenty-five, any business acquaintances.
“Modeling,” said Jane. “That’s the only work I know about.”
“How’d she get into that, ma’am?”
“I guess she just… applied and got work. She’s – was a beautiful girl.”
“Did she ever mention an agent? Someone who got her work?”
Jane shook her head. She looked miserable. I’ve seen the same thing happen to other surviving parents. The pain of ignorance, realizing they’d raised strangers. “She paid her own way, Detective, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of kids.”
She unlaced her hands, glanced toward the elevator. “I don’t like it when he gets too quiet. As is, I barely sleep – always worried about something happening to him.” Sickly smile. “This is a bad dream, right? I’ll wake up and find out you were never here.”
She sprang up, ran to the elevator. We saw ourselves out, trudged back to the Seville. From somewhere in the hills, an owl hooted. Plenty of owls in L.A. They eat rats.
Milo looked back at the house. “So she knows nothing. Think it’s true?”
“Hard to say. When you asked her about Lauren’s travel, her eyes got jumpy. Also, when she began talking about Lauren’s modeling. So maybe she knows – or suspects – about how Lauren really paid the rent.”
“Something else,” he said. “She was quick to tell us about her prenup with Mel. But even if she did marry him for the loot, I can’t see what that has to do with Lauren. Still, I think I’ll follow the money trail – Lauren’s finances. This one smells like money.”
“Sex and money,” I said.
“Is there a difference?”
I got behind the wheel and turned the key. The dash clock said 1:14 A.M. “Too late for Lyle in Reseda?”
He stretched the seat belt over his paunch. “Nah, never too late for fun.”
I drove back to Van Nuys Boulevard, turned right and picked up the 101 west at Riverside. The freeway had nearly emptied, and the exits before the Reseda Boulevard off-ramp zipped by like snapshots.
As I got off, Milo said, “Daddy and Mommy live pretty close. Wonder if they had any contact.”
“Mommy says no.”
“So near and yet so far – nice metaphor for alienation, huh? Not that I’m in any mood for that kind of crap.”
Lyle Teague’s street was a scruffy, treeless stretch, south of Roscoe, smelling of infertile dirt and auto paint. Apartments that looked as if they’d been put up over the weekend mingled uneasily with charmless single-family boxes. Old pickups and cars that had rolled off the assembly line without much self-esteem crowded curbs and front lawns. Crushed beer cans and discarded fast-food containers clumped atop storm gutters. My slow cruise brought forth a chorus of canine outrage. Dogs that sounded eager to bite.
The Teague residence squatted on a third-acre table of what looked to be swept dirt. Eight-foot chain link gave the property a prison-yard feeling. Something in common with his ex-wife: They both liked being boxed off.
But this house was dark, no outdoor lighting. Milo used his penlight to sweep the property. The narrow beam made it a lengthy exercise, alighting on windows and doors, lingering long enough to arouse suspicion, but neither that nor the continuing hound concerto brought anyone out to check.
The flashlight continued to roam, found a GUARD DOG ON DUTY sign, but no animal materialized to back up the warning. A chain heavy enough to moor a yacht tied the gate to the fence. A fist-sized padlock completed the welcome. The house was a basic box with a face as flat as Spike’s but none of my pooch’s personality. Pale stucco on top, dark wood siding below. A few feet away sat a prefab carport. A long-bed truck with grossly oversized tires and chromium pipes rested in front of the opening. Too tall to fit inside.
“No squawk box, no bell,” said Milo, scrutinizing the gate.
“Different tax bracket than Jane’s.”
“Could make a fellow irritable.” He rattled the chain, called out, “Hello?” got no response, pulled out his cell phone, dialed, waited. Five rings, then a voice on the other end barked loud. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was clear.
“Mr. Teague – Sir, please don’t hang up – This is Detective Sturgis of the Los Angeles Police Force… Yes, sir, it’s for real, it’s about your daughter… Lauren… Yes, sir, I’m afraid I am… Sir, please don’t hang up – This isn’t a prank… Please come outside, we’re right in front of your house… Yes, sir, at the gate – Please, sir. Thank you, sir.”
He pocketed the phone. “Woke him up and he’s not pleased.”
We waited. Two minutes, three, five. Milo muttered, “Tobacco Road,” checked his watch.
Still no lights on in the little house. Finally, the door opened and I saw the outline of a figure standing in the opening.
Milo called out, “Mr. Teague? We’re over here.”
No answer. Twenty seconds passed. Then: “Yeah, I see you.” Gravel voice. Thicker than I remembered, but I didn’t remember much about Lyle Teague. “Whyn’t you show some I.D.?”
Milo flashed the badge and waved it. The skimpy moon provided little help, and I wondered what Teague could see from this far.
“Do it again.”
Milo’s black brows rose. “Yes, sir.” Another wave.
“How do I know it’s not a Tijuana special?”
“Department’s not that hard up, sir,” said Milo, forcing himself to keep his voice light.
Teague took a few steps closer. Silent steps. Bare feet, I could see them now. Saw the barrel of his bare chest. Wearing nothing but shorts. One hand tented his eyes, the other remained pinioned to his side. “I’ve got a shotgun here, so if you’re not who you claim to be, this is fair warning. If you are, don’t lose your cool, I’m just protecting myself.”
Before the speech was complete, Milo had stepped in front of me. His hand was under his jacket, and his neck was taut. “Put the shotgun down, sir. Go back inside your house, phone the West L.A. Division at a number I’m going to give you, and check me out: Milo Sturgis, Detective Three, Homicide.” He recited his badge number, then the station’s exchange.
Teague’s shotgun arm flexed, but the weapon remained sheathed in darkness.
Milo said, “Mr. Teague, put the shotgun down, now. We don’t want any accidents.”
“Homicide.” Teague sounded uncertain.
“That’s right, sir.”
“You’re saying… This is about Lauren? You’re saying she…?”
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Teague.”
“Shit. What the hell happened?”
“We need to sit down and talk, sir. Please put down the shotgun.”
Teague’s gun arm remained pressed to his side. He stumbled closer, catching just enough moonlight to limn his flesh. But the light didn’t reach above his shoulders, and he turned into a headless man: white torso, arms, legs, making their way toward us unsteadily.
“Fuck,” whispered Milo, stepping back. “Put the gun down, sir. Now.”
“Lauren…” Teague stopped, spit, kneeled. Placed the shotgun on the ground, straightened, shot both arms up at the sky. Laughed and spit again. Close enough so I could hear the plink of saliva hitting dirt.
“Lauren – Lord, Lord, this is fucked.”
He made his way over to the gate, head down, arms stiff and swinging. Reaching into a shorts pocket, he took a long time to produce a key, tried to spring the padlock, fumbled around the hole, cursed, began punching the chain link.
Milo said, “Let me help you with that, sir.”
Teague ignored him and gave the lock another stab, with no more success. Breathing hard. I could smell his sweat, vinegary, overlaid with the rotted malt of too many beers. He pounded the fence again, cursed raggedly. Getting a closer look at him sprang a memory latch in my head. Same face, but his features had coarsened and his eyes had regressed to piggish slits. A clot of scar tissue weighed down on the right eye. Still bearded with a full head of long, wavy hair, but the strands were gray and drawn back in a ponytail that dangled over one beefy shoulder, and the once-barbered facial pelt was an unruly bramble.
As he attacked the fence his biceps bunched and his chest swelled. Big, slablike muscles but slackened – drained of bulk, like goatskins emptied of wine.
“Give that to me,” said Milo.
Teague ceased punching, stared at the lock, panted, tried once more to fit the key into the hole. His knuckles were bloody, and wild hairs, pale and brittle as tungsten filament, had come loose from the ponytail. The shotgun, lying in the dirt like a felled branch, might’ve made him feel younger, sharper.
Finally, he succeeded in springing the lock, ripped the chain free, and flung it behind him. It clattered in the dirt, and he yanked the gate open, holding his hands out defensively, letting us know he didn’t want to be comforted.
“Inside,” he said, hooking a thumb at his house. “Fuck if I’m going to let any of these bastards see it.” Squinting at me, he stared, and I prepared myself for recognition. But he turned his back on both of us and began marching toward his front door.
We walked along with him.
Milo said, “By the bastards you mean the neighbors?”
“Neighbor troubles?” asked Milo.
“Why do you think I came out carrying? If the assholes were human, they’d be neighbors. They’re fucking animals. Couple of months ago they poisoned my Rottweiler. Tossed in meat laced with antifreeze, the damn dog got kidney failure and started shitting green. Since the summer we’ve had three drive-bys. All those shitty apartments crammed with low life. Fucking wetbacks, cholos, gangbangers – I’m not prejudiced, hired plenty of them in my day, for the most part they worked their asses off. But that scum, over there?” His lower jaw shot out and beard hairs bristled. “I’m living in a war zone – this used to be a decent neighborhood.”
The shotgun was in reach. Milo got to it first, emptied the weapon, pocketed the shells.
Teague laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not blowing anyone’s head off. Yet.” He stared at me again, looked puzzled, turned away.
“Yet,” said Milo. “That’s not too comforting, sir.”
“It’s not my goddamn job to comfort you.” Teague stopped, placed his hands on his hips, spit into the dirt, resumed walking. The shorts rode lower, and strands of white pubic hair curled above his waistline. I remembered the way he’d dressed to showcase his body. “Your job is to find the low-life motherfucker who killed my daughter and bust his fuckin’ ass.”
“Agreed,” said Milo. “Any suggestions in that regard?”
Teague halted again. “What’re you getting at?”
“Any specific low-life motherfucker in mind?”
“Nah,” said Teague. “I’m just talking logic… How’d they – What did they do to her?”
“She was shot, sir.”
“Bastards… Nah, I can’t tell you a damn thing. Lauren never told me a damn thing.” Wolfish grin. “See, we didn’t relate. She thought I was a piece of shit and told me so whenever she had the opportunity.”
We reached the house. The door was still open. Reaching in, Teague switched on a light. A bare bulb hung from the raw fir ceiling of a twelve-by-twelve living room paneled in rough knotty pine. Red linoleum floors, faded hooked rug, brown-and-black-plaid sofa, coffee table hosting a Budweiser six-pack and five empties. A green tweed La-Z-Boy faced a big-screen TV. Illegal cable converter on top. Very little space to walk. Two openings along the rear wall, one leading to a cramped kitchen, the other exposing a chunky corridor with two doors to the right. The smell of must and lager and salted nuts, but no clutter. The carpet was old but clean, the linoleum rubbed dull. Different tax bracket.
Teague said, “You can sit if you want, I’m staying on my feet.” Standing next to the recliner, he folded his arms across his chest. The scar tissue over his eye was the color of cheap margarine. A hairline scar ran from the corner of the socket down to his jaw. The right eye was filmy. Not inert, but lazier than its mate.
Milo and I remained standing. Teague looked us over, tilting his head so his left eye caught a full view of my face. “Do I know you?”
“Alex Delaware. Lauren was my patient-”
“The shrink?” His jaw shoveled. “Oh, fuck – what are you doing here?”
Milo said, “Dr. Delaware’s a police consultant. In the case of your-”
One of the hallway doors opened and a woman’s voice called out, “Lyle, everything okay?”
“Go back inside,” Teague barked. The door shut quietly. “Consultant? What the hell does that mean? You’re saying you know something about Lauren? She’s been seeing you again?”
“No,” I said. “Lauren went missing and your ex-wife called me because she’d heard I had police contacts-”
“Police contacts.” Teague grabbed the bottom of his beard, twisted, let go. To Milo: “What is this bullshit?”
“Just what the doctor said. Now, I’d like to ask you-”
“Missing?” said Teague. “For how long?”
“Where’s that? She never told me where she was bunking down.”
“Hauser Street, in L.A.”
“She used to live all over,” said Teague. “The streets. After she ran away. She got wild – which any idiot could see coming.”
“Where on the streets, sir?”
“Hell if I know. Jane used to call me up to go looking for her, I could never find her. Hauser… That where it happened?”
“She was found on the Westside,” said Milo. “Back of a furniture store on Sepulveda. Someone shot her and left her body in an alley.”
Spitting out the details matter-of-fact, watching Teague’s reaction.
Teague said, “West L.A. We used to live there, over near Rancho Park.” He began to draw himself up. Gave up and slumped. “This is shit. My life can’t be this fucked up.”
The door opened again, and the hallway light went on. A woman stepped out wearing a long blue Dodgers T-shirt and nothing else. Seeing us, she threw a protective hand over her belly, ducked back inside, reappeared seconds later wearing acid-washed jeans under the same shirt.
“Lyle? Something the matter?”
“I said go inside.”
The woman stared at us. “What’s going on?” Bleary eyes, faint southern inflection. A good deal younger than Teague – maybe thirty, with long, limp, brown hair, grainy skin, wide hips, dimpled knees. Full face distorted by confusion. Well-proportioned but forgettable features. As a child she’d probably been adorable.
Teague swiveled fast and faced her. “They’re the goddamn police. Lauren got herself murdered tonight.”
The woman’s hand slapped over her mouth. “Oh my God – Omigod!”
“Go back to bed.”
Milo extended his hand. “Detective Sturgis, ma’am.”
The woman blubbered, shivered, hugged herself. Took the hand. “Tish. Tish Teague-”
“Patricia,” corrected her husband. “Keep it down. Don’t wake up the kids.”
“The kids,” said Tish Teague, dully. “You don’t need them, do you?”
“Oh, Jesus,” said Teague. “Why the hell would he need them? Get back in and go to sleep. It doesn’t concern you. You and Lauren had nothing, you can’t do any good.”
The young woman’s lips trembled. “I’ll be here if you need me, Lyle.”
“Yeah, yeah – go, git.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Tish Teague.
“Bye, ma’am,” said Milo.
Biting her lip, she fled.
“I left Lauren’s mother for her,” said Teague, laughing. “Met her on a construction job. She was this nineteen-year-old piece of ass, drove one of the roach coaches. Now we got two kids.”
“How old are your children?” said Milo.
“Six and four.”
“Two girls. When you called and said something happened to my daughter, I was thinking one of them. That’s what confused me.” He shook his head. “Lauren. Didn’t see much of Lauren.”
“When’s the last time you did see her?”
“Long time,” said Teague. “Real long time. She held it against me.”
“Everything. The divorce, bad luck – life. Anything shitty was my fault. She told me so. Called me up a few years ago and told me I was a selfish motherfucker who didn’t deserve to live.” Sick smile. “Because I didn’t want to stick around with that cold thing called Jane.” He hitched up his shorts. “Our marriage was crap from day one.” To me: “That was the problem, that’s what screwed Lauren up. Us. Jane and me. The whole thing – bringing Lauren to you – was a goddamn con. My wife’s idea. ’Cause she doesn’t like to face reality. Like Lauren was gonna straighten out, living in our shitty environment. She – Jane – wasn’t gonna be honest with you, she was just conning you, pal. One big happy family. That’s why I ended it. We were wasting your time and my money. Load of bullshit.”
Hands on hips again. His good eye bore into mine. My silence made his neck tendons fan.
“Why’s he have to be here?” he demanded of Milo.
“I want to solve your daughter’s murder. Dr. Delaware’s been helpful to us on a lot of cases. If it’s a big deal, I can have him wait in the car. But I’d think you’d be interested in helping us get down to brass tacks.”
Teague’s eyes brightened. “My daughter. Every time you say that I flash to Brittany and Shayla.” To me: “You haven’t changed much, you know? Got that young face – smooth. I remember your hands, man – real smooth. Nice easy life, huh?” Back to Milo: “Brass tacks, huh? Well, I can’t give you any kind of tack at all. After the divorce, I didn’t see Lauren for… must be what? Four, five years. Then she drops in one night, tells me I’m a piece of shit, Merry Christmas.”
“She visited on Christmas?”
“Deck the goddamn halls – Yeah, it was four years ago, Shayla’d been born a few months before – October. Lauren musta found out somehow, though I don’t know how. ’Cause she came by, said she wanted to see the baby, she’d never seen Brittany and she was already two, she had a right to see her sisters. A right. She brought gifts for the girls. I guess cussing me out was her Christmas present to me.”
Phil Harnsberger’s party had taken place four years ago in November. The next day Lauren had come to my office, talked about her father remarrying. No mention of her half sisters, but soon after she’d come to meet them.
Moving around to the front of the La-Z-Boy, Teague sat down on the edge. The chair rocked, and he stilled the movement by bracing his feet. “Go ahead, sit, there’s no fleas.”
We settled on the plaid couch.
“Four years ago,” said Milo. “Did she visit again?”
“Not till a year ago,” said Teague. “Christmas again, same damn thing. She just showed up with presents. We were in the middle of putting up the tree. Presents for the kids, not me and Patricia. She made that clear. Patricia never did a thing to her, so I don’t know what she had against her, but she wouldn’t give her the time of day, just blanked her out like she didn’t exist. She brought armloads of shit – toys, candy, you name it. Walked right past me and Patricia and headed for the girls. I could’ve kicked her out, but what the hell, it was Christmas. The girls didn’t know who the hell she was, but they loved those toys and candy. Patricia offered her a piece of pie, she said no, thanks, I went to get a beer, and when I came back, she was gone.”
“Any other visits?”
“No – wait, yeah. Once more, a few months after… Easter. Same thing, toys, crapola for the kids. These huge chocolate bunnies and some kids’ dresses from an expensive place in Beverly Hills – some French shit.”
“No contact since last Easter?”
“Nope.” Teague scowled. “Both times she turned the kids hyper, it took days to settle them down.” Looking to me for confirmation.
I said, “Overstimulation.”
His good eye winked. “Hey, that’s a good one.”
Milo said, “During those three visits, did she talk to you at all, tell you what she was up to?”
“Nah, just a fuck-you look, where are the kids, walk right past me, dump the gifts, good-bye.”
“Nothing about her life? Not a single detail?”
“She bragged, some,” said Teague.
“College plans. Having money. She was dressed expensive, especially the last time – Easter. Fancy suit, fancy shoes. I had my theories about where she was getting money, but I kept my mouth shut. Why start up?”
“What kind of theories, sir?”
Milo shrugged, gave an innocent look.
Teague eyed him skeptically. “You’ve gotta know – the wild life.”
“Whoring,” said Teague. “She got in trouble for that a few years back. You don’t know about it, huh?”
“The investigation has just begun.”
“Well, start by checking your own goddamn records. Lauren got busted for hooking when she was nineteen. Reno, Nevada. Got her ass thrown in jail with no money on her, called me to make her bail – no hide or hair of her for years, and she calls me. Then nothing for a couple of years till that Christmas, and all of a sudden she’s a big shot and I’m shit.”
Making no mention of the arrest as one of Gretchen Stengel’s girls. The Westside Madam’s name had hit the news big-time, but none of her call girls had been exposed. Nor had the clients.
Milo scrawled in his pad. “So there was another contact before the Christmas visit.”
“I wasn’t counting phone calls,” said Teague.
“Any other calls?”
“Did you send her bail money?”
“No way. I said forget it, you made your own bed, now sleep in it. She cussed me out and hung up.”
Teague snorted. “She tried to bullshit me, told me the whole thing had been a mistake, she’d been working at one of the casinos, escorting rich guys, nothing illegal, the cops had ‘overreacted.’ She said she just got caught with no cash on her, all she needed to do was get home to her credit cards, she’d fix it if I’d float her the dough. Credit cards – letting me know she was living the high life and here I was stuck, recuperating.”
“You were sick?” said Milo.
Teague touched the scar clump. “I used to have my own electrical business, was doing a job out in Calabasas. Someone fucked up, I ended up duking it out with a mass of rebar. I was in a coma for a week, had double vision for months. I still get headaches.” Glancing at the beer cans. “I sued, tied myself up for years, the lawyers took most of it. Then she tells me she’s pregnant.” Cocking his head toward the bedroom. “I was on painkillers, halfway groggy most of the time, and Lauren calling out of nowhere, whining about the police overreacting.”
Defiance spiked his voice. Even in death Lauren pushed his buttons.
“How’d she make her bail?” said Milo.
“How should I know?” Teague shook his head, picked something out of his beard. “I could’ve thrown her out the first Christmas, but I wanted to be decent. She might not’ve considered herself my daughter. But I was too mature to let that get to me.”
“She said she didn’t consider herself your daughter?”
Teague laughed. “That’s just one of the things she unloaded on me. Big truckload of shit, and I just sat there, being cool. That’s the way I always was with her – when she was a kid. She’d open up a big mouth and I’d just shine her on.”
Teague said, “Lauren and I, we never – She was always a handful. From day one she always tried to make me feel… like an idiot. Everything I said and did was insensitive. And stupid.” He placed his palm over his heart. “Lauren was – Sometimes there’re people you just can’t get along with, no matter what the hell you do. I was hoping maybe one day she’d grow up, understand, maybe she’d start being… polite.”
He shook his head. Moisture in his eyes, for the first time. “Least I got two others… They love me, those two. No shit outta their mouths – You really have no idea who did it?”
“Not yet,” said Milo. “Why?”
“No why. I was just thinking it couldn’t be any big mystery. Look for a low life, pal. ’Cause Lauren chose a low-life lifestyle. Fancy clothes and all. Last time she was here, bragging about enrolling in college, I had my doubts.”
“About her being a student. I figured it was another one of her cons.” To me: “She lied since she got out of diapers – whether you saw it or not, that’s the truth. When she was four, five years old she’d point to red, tell you it was blue, just about convince you. To me, she didn’t look like a student, never seen a student dress like that, flash all that jewelry.”
“Expensive stuff,” said Milo.
“To my eye, but what the hell do I know – I don’t shop on Rodeo. Her mother liked all that crap too, used to lean hard on my checkbook. I had a good business back then, but who wants to blow it on that crap?” He pitched forward. Smiled. “She married an old guy. My ex. Senile old bag of shit. She’s soaking him for his dough, waiting for him to croak – Did you tell her about Lauren yet?”
“Just came from her place, sir.”
Teague’s smile died. Suspicion slitted his eyes. “She probably told you I was an asshole.”
“We didn’t discuss you,” said Milo. “Only Lauren. And by the way, Lauren was enrolled at the U.”
“Yeah? Well, look where that got her.” Teague sat back in the recliner. The footrest shot out, and he stretched his legs. The soles of his feet were black and callused. He breathed in, let the air out. Beneath his rib cage his belly swelled. “I know you think I’m an asshole. ’Cause I’m not faking out that everything was cool between me and Lauren. But at least I’m honest. Okay, so Lauren was in school. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t still hanging around with low lifes. You won’t hear that from my ex – she’s living in a dreamworld, Lauren was some angel – How’d she take it?”
“Hard,” said Milo. “Any contact between you and your ex?”
“Same as Lauren. Every so often, she used to call, throw it in my face.”
“When was the last time?”
Teague thought. “Years ago.” His smile was reborn. “It’s not like she’s gonna come visit the kids. That pisses her off – my having kids. She and I tried real hard to have a bunch and all we could squeeze out was Lauren. Clear to see it was her problem – Anyway, check out Lauren’s lifestyle, that’s my suggestion. She was living the life, riding high on the wave. But it wasn’t for free.”
“Few things are,” said Milo.
“Wrong,” said Teague. “Nothing is.”
“A PRINCE AMONG men,” said Milo.
I was driving east on Ventura Boulevard. Blackened storefronts, bare sidewalks, a breeze had kicked up, and scraps of litter danced above the cement. Warm breeze. Unseasonal winter.
“He hated her, didn’t he, Alex?”
“You consider him a suspect?” I said.
“Can’t eliminate him. Am I the only one who picked up nuances of paranoia?”
“Unhappy man,” I said. “Lots of anger. But he didn’t try to soft-pedal. Doesn’t that imply nothing to hide?”
“Or he’s trying to be clever, pull some kind of stupid double bluff. What a family. The more I learn, the sorrier I feel for Lauren.”
I knew what was taking place: Lauren’s corpse had begun as business as usual, inanimate as the mountain of forms he was forced to fill out on every case. Enlarging her humanity brought out his empathy. It’s happened to him on most of the cases we’ve worked together.
I said, “You didn’t ask him where he was the night Lauren was killed.”
“I don’t know when she was killed – waiting till the coroner gives me an estimate. Also, there was no sense threatening him right off. If nothing else slam-dunks, he’ll get a recontact. Maybe I can pay him a morning visit, see what he’s like when he’s not beered up.”
“And the shotgun’s not within arm’s reach.”
“Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it? Loose cannon like that having access to a double-barrel. Just what the Founding Fathers had in mind… Wifey number two seemed quite the sheep. Think he slaps her around?”
“He dominates her.”
“I wonder if Lyle and Jane had violent stuff going on when they were hitched – Jane kept saying he was mean. Maybe something else Lauren was exposed to. That never came out when you treated her?”
“She complained about them but never mentioned violence. But the treatment wasn’t much.”
“Two sessions.” He rubbed his face. “Twenty-five years old and what did she have to show for it besides a nifty wardrobe?… People and their garbage. Some jobs you and I’ve got.”
“Hey,” I said. “Sure beats being rich and relaxed.”
He laughed. “You won’t catch me admitting this again, but your gig just might be tougher than mine.”
“I know what people are. You try to change ’em.”
As I turned onto Laurel Canyon, he phoned the officer at Lauren’s apartment, found out Andrew Salander hadn’t returned.
I said, “He works the night shift.”
“You up for The Cloisters?”
“Sure,” I said. “One of my favorite spots.”
He laughed again. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Ever been to a gay bar?”
“You took me to one,” I said.
“I don’t remember that. When?”
“Years ago,” I said. “Tiny little place over in Studio City. Disco music, serious drinking, lots of guys who didn’t look at all like you. Past Universal City – back of an auto body shop.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “The Fender. Closed down a long time ago – I actually took you there?”
“Right after our first case together – the Handler murder. The way I figured it, some friendship rapport was developing and you were still nervous.”
“Being gay. You’d already made the grand confession. I didn’t get overtly repulsed, but you probably figured I needed more testing.”
“Oh, come on,” he said. “Testing you for what?”
“Tolerance. Could I really handle it.”
“Why am I not remembering any of this?”
“Advanced middle age,” I said. “I can describe the room precisely: aluminum ceiling, black walls, Donna Summer on tape loop, guys going off in pairs.”
“Whoa,” he said. Then nothing.
A few miles later he said, “You weren’t overtly repulsed. Meaning?”
“Meaning, sure, it threw me. I grew up with sissies getting beat up on the school yard and ‘fag’ as acceptable speech. I never pounded on anyone, but I never stepped in to stop it either. When I started working, my practice emphasized traumatized kids, and homosexuality never came up much. You were the first gay person I’d ever known socially. You and Rick are still the only gay people I know in depth. And sometimes I’m not sure about you.”
He smiled. “Aluminum ceilings… guys who didn’t look like me, huh? So who’d they look like?”
“More like Andrew Salander.”
“There you go,” he said. “I am the great individualist.”
The Cloisters was on Hacienda just north of Santa Monica, notched unobtrusively into the gray side wall of a two-story building. It was nearly three A.M., but unlike the postnuclear silence of the Valley, the streets here were alive, lit by a steady stream of headlights, sidewalk cafés still serving a garrulous clientele, the pavement crowded with pedestrians – mostly, but not exclusively, male. West Hollywood was one of the first L.A. neighborhoods to earn itself a nightlife. Now people emerge for after-dark strolls in Beverly Hills, Melrose, Westwood. One day, Los Angeles may grow up and become a real city.
I found a parking space half a block up, and we walked to the front door. No bouncer on duty and we stepped right in. I’d allowed myself the luxury of prediction and expected the place to be stone walls, refectory windows, gothic gloom. It turned out to be off-white plaster, recessed lighting dimmed to soft-and-easy, a mahogany-and-black-granite bar with a brass rail and beige suede stools, a few booths along the opposite wall. Light classical music eased from unseen speakers, and the conversation from the fifteen or so men inside was low and relaxed. Casually but well-dressed men in their thirties and forties. Shrimp and meatball bar snacks, toothpicks sporting colored cellophane frizz. But for the fact that there were only men, it could’ve been an upscale lounge in any slick suburb.
Andrew Salander was easy to spot, working alone behind the bar, wiping down the granite, refilling glasses, attending gregariously to half a dozen patrons. His dress duds were a pale blue button-down shirt under a white-and-blue-striped apron. We were right in his face when he noticed us – first me, then Milo, back to me, back to Milo. One of the drinkers saw the scared-animal heat in his eyes and turned toward us with hostile curiosity. Milo leaned on the bar and nodded at him, and the man returned to his Scotch.
“Mr. Sturgis?” said Salander.
“Hi, Andy. Anyone to cover for you?”
“Uh… Tom’s on break – Hold on, I’ll get him.” Salander ran through a rear door with a tall young man dressed in a similar shirt and apron, holding a cigarette. Tom stubbed out his light and put on a smile, and Salander came around through Dutch doors at the other end of the bar.
“Please tell me this isn’t business,” he said to Milo. “Please.”
Milo eased him toward the door. Waited to say “Sorry,” until we were outside.
Salander wept. “It can’t be – I can’t believe it, why would anyone hurt her?”
“I was hoping you might be able to help me with that, Andy.”
“I can’t – Dr. Delaware already knows that. I already told him everything I knew – didn’t I, Doctor?”
I said, “Is there anything else you might remember?”
“What? You think I was holding back?”
“Back when we thought Lauren was coming back, I can see your not wanting to violate her privacy. But now…”
“That’s true, I was being discreet. But there’s still nothing else I can tell you.”
“Lauren gave you no hint of where she was going?” said Milo.
“No. It wasn’t that weird – her taking off. I already told the doctor she’d done it other times.”
“For a day or two.”
“This was a week.”
“I know, but…” said Salander. “I wish I could help.”
“Those short trips,” said Milo. “Did you ever have any reason to think they were for anything other than rest and relaxation?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did Lauren ever mention another reason for traveling?”
“Okay, Andy, let’s backtrack to the last time you saw her.”
“Last Sunday – a week ago,” said Salander. “I didn’t sleep well, got up around noon and Lo was in the kitchen.”
“How was she dressed?”
“Slacks, silk blouse – casual elegant, as always. She rarely wore jeans.”
“Did you guys talk?”
“Not much – just small talk. We had a light lunch before she left. Eggs and toast – I can eat breakfast any time of day. She left shortly after – I’d say one, one-thirty.”
“But she didn’t say where.”
“I assumed the U.”
“Her research job.”
“That’s what I figured.”
“On a Sunday?”
“She’d worked other Sundays, Detective Sturgis.”
“But this time she didn’t take her car.”
“How would I know that unless I followed her downstairs?”
“And you didn’t.”
“No, of course not-”
“When did you notice she’d left the car?”
“When I went to get my own car.”
“Which was?” said Milo.
“Later that evening, when I left for work – around seven-thirty.”
“And what did you think when you saw Lauren’s car?”
“I didn’t – didn’t think much, one way or the other.”
“Was that typical, Andy? Lauren not taking her car?”
“Not really. I just – It wasn’t on my mind. I can’t say I even consciously noticed it. When I got home she wasn’t there, but that wasn’t unusual either. She was often gone by morning. We were on different biorhythms – sometimes days would pass before we bumped into each other. I started to get a little concerned by Wednesday or so, but you know… She was an adult. I figured she had a reason for doing the things she did. Was I wrong?”
“About her having reasons?”
“About not doing something sooner. I mean, what could I have done?”
Milo didn’t reply.
Salander said, “I just wish – I feel sick – This is unbelievable.”
“Back to Sunday, Andy. What did you do after Lauren left?”
“Um, tried to go back to sleep, couldn’t, got up and went shopping over at the Beverly Center. I thought I’d buy some shirts, but I didn’t find anything, so I saw a movie – Happy, Texas. Hilarious. Have you seen it?”
Milo shook his head.
Salander said, “You should see it. Really funny-”
“What’d you do after shopping?”
“Came back, had some dinner, got dressed for work, came here. The next day I slept late. Till three. Why are you asking me all this? You can’t seriously think…”
“Routine questions,” said Milo.
“That’s so TV,” said Salander. “So Jack Webb.” Trying to smile, but his face had lost tone, as if someone had yanked out the bones.
“Okay, Andy,” said Milo. “There are police officers at your apartment. It’s going to be disruptive for a while. Legally, I don’t need your permission to search, but I’d like to know that I have your cooperation.”
“Sure. Of course – you mean my room too?”
“If the search does carry over to your room, would you have a problem with that?”
Salander kicked one shoe with the other. “I mean, I wouldn’t want my stuff trashed, or anything.”
“I’ll do it myself, Andy. Make sure everything gets put back in place.”
“Sure – but can I ask why, Mr. Sturgis? What does my room have to do with anything?”
“I need to be thorough.”
Salander’s narrow shoulders rose and fell. “I guess. Why not, I have nothing to hide. Nothing’s ever going to be the same, is it? Can I go back to work now?”
“When do you get off shift?”
“Four – then I clean up.”
“The officers may still be there when you arrive – you are planning to come home?”
“Where else would I go? At least for now.”
“I don’t know if I can afford the place by myself… Oh, God, this is just so nauseating – Did she suffer?”
“I don’t have the forensic details yet.”
“Who would do this?” said Salander. “What kind of twisted mind – Oh, Mr. Sturgis, I feel as if everything’s unraveling.”
Milo said, “Yeah, it’s rough.” He looked out at the traffic on Santa Monica, eyes unreadable. Then a glance at me.
I said, “Andrew, that lunch Lauren had with her mother, when she said she didn’t want to be controlled? Do you have any idea what she meant?”
“No. And even when she was upset at Mrs. A, she said she knew her mother loved her.”
“What about her father? Did he ever come up?”
“No, she never talked about him – refused to. Just clammed up the first time I brought him up, so I never did that again. It was pretty obvious she had no use for him.”
“But she never said why.”
Headshake. “There are so many reasons, though, aren’t there,” he said. “So many men who screw up fatherhood.”
“So,” I said, “you have no idea what the control issue was?”
“I just thought it was one of those family tension things, you know. I mean it’s not as if she told me about any big festering Jerry Springer thing.”
Salander rubbed the back of his head against the wall. “This is horrible, I hate this.”
“Hate what, Andy?”
“Talking about Lauren in the past tense – thinking about her suffering. Can I get back to work?”
“The show must go on?” said Milo.
Salander froze. “That was unkind, Mr. Sturgis. I cared about her, I really did. We cared for each other, loved to hang out together, but we didn’t – she didn’t confide in me. Can I help it if she didn’t confide? What I told the doctor about that lunch is all that I remember. She came back and looked miffed, didn’t want to talk about it, and I tried to get her to open up. But she really didn’t.”
“What did she say – as closely as you can remember?” I said.
“Something to the effect that she’d come this far on her own and wouldn’t be controlled – that’s it. Come to think about it, she might not have even said controlled by Mrs. A, specifically. I just assumed that’s who she was talking about, because it was Mrs. A she’d just had lunch with.” He sidestepped closer to The Cloisters’ front door.
“Let’s get back to that research job,” said Milo. “What else do you know about it?”
“Something to do with psychology – or maybe I’m assuming that, too. I’m so shook up, I don’t even know what I know.”
“When did the job start?”
Salander thought. “Soon after the quarter started – so maybe two, three months ago. Or maybe even before the quarter – I can’t swear to anything.”
“Was it a five-day-a-week job?” said Milo.
“No, it was irregular. Sometimes she’d work every day of the week, then she’d have days off. But I really wasn’t paying attention to her schedule. Half the time she was up and around, I was sleeping.”
“What else did she tell you about the job?”
“Just that she enjoyed it.”
“Did she mention who she worked for? What the project was?”
“No, just that she enjoyed it. I’m sure you can find out at the U.”
“That’s the problem, Andy,” said Milo. “We can’t seem to find any trace of her working at the U.”
Salander’s mouth dropped open. “How can that be? I’m sure it’s some mistake – she definitely told me it was on campus. That I do remember.”
“Well,” said Milo.
“Why would she make up something like that?”
“Good question, Andy.”
“My… You think the job had something to do with…”
“I’m not saying anything, Andy. But when people don’t tell the truth…”
“Oh, Lauren,” said Salander. He put his back to the wall of the building, cupped his hand over his eyes. “Oh, my.”
“What is it?” said Milo.
“I’m all alone now.”
During the drive to Hauser and Sixth, Milo ran Salander’s name through the files. One traffic ticket last year, no wants or warrants, no criminal record. Milo closed his eyes, and I realized how numb I felt – deadened and tired and marginal. We cruised the rest of the way in silence, gliding through city streets stripped of light and humanity.
Two squad cars and a crime-scene van were parked outside Lauren’s building. A uniform guarded the entrance. Another was stationed upstairs. Someone had opened the door to apartment 4. Inside the living room a young black woman kneeled and dusted and scraped.
“Loretta,” said Milo.
“Yeah, guess it is. Anything?”
“Lots of prints, as usual. So far, no blood, and the only semen’s on the roommate’s sheets. Nothing looks disturbed.”
“The roommate,” said Milo.
“Did both bedrooms,” said the tech. “Was that okay?”
“Nothing’s perfect,” said Loretta. “Not even me.”
We entered Salander’s room first. Midnight blue velvet walls and shabby-looking tapestry drapes turned the stingy space gloomy. A black iron queen-sized bed canopied by billows of what looked like cheesecloth took up most of the floor. A fake Persian rug left only a foot-wide border of scuffed board. Lining the ceiling were more of the gilded moldings I’d seen in the living room. A small TV and VCR perched atop a pale blue bureau decoupaged with pink cabbage roses. Replicas of Russian icons and filigreed crucifixes hung on the wall along with a white-framed photo of Salander and a stolid-looking couple in their fifties. At the bottom of the frame, someone had written in black marker: “Mom and Dad, Bloomington, Ind. ‘The Olde Country.’”
In the top drawer of the bureau, Milo found neatly folded clothing, tissues and eyedrops, a box of disposable contact lenses, six packets of condoms, and a passbook from Washington Mutual Bank.
“Four hundred bucks,” he said, flipping pages. “Little Andy’s highest balance for the year is fifteen hundred.” He ran through the book several times. “Every two weeks he deposits nine hundred – gotta be his take-home. On the fifteenth, he withdraws six hundred – the rent – spends around eight or so. Leaving a hundred or so in savings, but it looks like he eventually spends that too.”
“Tight budget,” I said. “He will have trouble making the rent by himself.”
He frowned and replaced the bankbook. “Giving him a legit reason to cut out.”
“You’re worried about him? I noticed you did ask him about time and place.”
“No specific reason to worry,” he said. “But no reason not to either. He’s the last person to see her alive, and that’s always interesting.”
Opening the closet door, he ran his hands over pressed jeans and khakis, two pairs of black slacks, several blue button-down shirts like the one Salander wore at the bar, a black leather jacket. Black oxfords, brown loafers, Nikes, and one pair of tan demiboots on the floor. Nothing on the top shelf. Plenty of empty space.
“Okay,” said Milo. “On to the main event.”
Lauren’s room was larger than Salander’s by half. Bare oak floors, walls painted the palest of yellows, and a low, narrow single bed with no headboard increased the feeling of space. Her dresser was a white, three-drawer affair. Flanking it on each side were low teak bookcases with the slightly askew stance of self-assembly. Hardback books filled every shelf.
Next to the bed was a matching teak desk with a built-in file drawer. Milo began there, and it didn’t take long to find what he was looking for.
“Smith Barney brokerage account. Out of town – Seattle.”
“Wanting things private?” I said. Thinking: Lauren had thrived on secrets. Kept everything segmented.
He turned pages, ran his finger down columns. “She kept some loose cash in a money market, the rest is in high-yield mutual funds… Well, well, well, look at this: quite a different league from little Andy. She’s put away three hundred forty thousand dollars and some change in… a little over four years… First deposit is a hundred grand, four years ago, December… Then fifty a year for the next three – last one was three weeks ago. Nice and steady – wonder where it came from.”
I do great with tips.
He opened another drawer. “Let’s see if she keeps her tax returns here. Be interesting to know how she categorized her employment.”
He found a paper-clipped stack of Visa Gold receipts that he examined as I looked over his shoulder.
Six months’ worth of records. Lauren had charged only a handful of purchases each month: supermarkets and gas stations, the campus bookstore at the U. And bills from Neiman-Marcus and several designer boutiques that amounted to 90 percent of her expenditures.
Dressing for the job…
No motel or hotel charges. That made sense if she’d paid cash to avoid leaving a trail. Or if someone else had paid for her time and lodgings.
The bottom dresser drawer yielded another stapled sheaf. “Here we go,” he said, “tucked in with the cashmere sweaters. Four years of short forms… Looks like she prepared them herself. Nothing before that – everything started when she was twenty-one.”
He scanned the IRS paper. “She called herself a ‘self-employed photographic model and student,’ took deductions for car expenses, books, and clothing… That’s about it… No student loans, no medical writeoffs… no mention of any research gig either… Every year for the past four, she reported fifty thousand gross, deducted it down to thirty-four net.”
“Fifty thousand a year coming in,” I said, “and she manages to invest every penny?”
“Yeah – cute, isn’t it.” He moved to the closet, opened a door on a tightly stacked assortment of silk dresses and blouses, pantsuits in a wide array of colors, leather and suede jackets. Two fur coats, one short and silver, the other full-length and black. Thirty or so pairs of shoes.
“Versace,” he said, squinting at a label. “Vestimenta, Dries Van Noten, Moschino – ‘arctic silver fox’ from Neiman… and this black thing is…” He peeled back the long coat’s lapel. “Real mink. From Mouton on Beverly Drive – hand me back those Visa receipts… The average is a grand or so a month on threads – that’s less than one of these suits, so she had to be spending more, had cash she didn’t declare.”
He closed the closet door. “Okay, add tax evasion to her hobby list… Over three hundred grand saved up by age twenty-five. Like Momma said, she took care of herself.”
“That first hundred plus the three fifty-thousand deposits is two fifty,” I said. “Where’d the rest come from, stock appreciation?”
He returned to the brokerage papers, trailed his finger to a bottom line. “Yup, ninety thou five hundred and two worth of ‘long-term capital appreciation.’ Looks like our girl played the skin game and rode the bull market.”
“That would explain the lie about having a job at the U,” I said, feeling a sad, insistent gnawing in my gut. “When she was arrested in Reno at nineteen, she called her father for bail money, claimed she was broke. Two years later, she deposited a hundred thousand.”
“Working hard,” he said. “The American way. She didn’t call Mom because Mom was poor.”
“That and she might’ve cared enough about Jane to keep secrets.” I took the brokerage packet from him, stared at zeros. “The first hundred was probably money she saved up. When she turned twenty-one, she decided to invest. I wonder if it came from multiple clients or just a few high rollers.”
“What makes you wonder?”
“A long-term client could be the reason she didn’t take her own car on Sunday. Someone sent one for her.”
“Interesting,” Milo said. “When the sun comes up, I’ll check with taxi companies and livery services. Gonna also have to canvass the neighborhood, see if anyone saw her getting into a car. If she was hooking up with some pooh-bah who wanted it hush-hush, he wouldn’t have had her wait right in front of her apartment. But maybe she didn’t walk too far.” He whipped out his pad, scrawled furiously.
“Something else,” I said. “Being in a cash business – wanting cash handy for expenditures – she could’ve been carrying a lot of money in her purse.”
He looked up. “A high-stakes mugging?”
“It’s possible, isn’t it?”
“I suppose… In any event, the money stink has now grown putrid.” He placed the tax returns atop the desk. Nothing but papers on the desk. That made me wonder about something else.
“Where’s her computer?” I said.
“Who said she had one?”
“She was a student. Every college kid has a computer, and Lauren was an A student.”
He gave the dresser drawers another shuffle, found a pocket calculator, grunted disgustedly. Returning to the closet, he searched the corners and the shelves. “Nada. So maybe she was storing data someone wanted. As in trick book. As in a pooh-bah with a good reason to value his privacy.”
“Trick database,” I said. “She was a modern girl.”
He frowned. “I’ll ask Salander if he ever saw a computer. And I just thought of something else that should be here but isn’t. Birth control. No pills or diaphragm in her drawers.”
“No medical charges on her Visa either. So she either paid her doctor in cash or used the Student Health Service.”
“Call girls get checked up regularly,” he said. “High-priced entertainment would have to be especially careful. She had to be using some kind of protection, Alex – Let me check the bathroom again. Why don’t you take a look at her books meanwhile, see if anything pops out.”
Starting at the top of the left-hand case, I traced two and a half years of required reading.
Basic math, algebra, geometry, basic science, biology, chemistry.
Economics, political science, history, the type of fiction favored by English professors. Sections underlined in pink marker. Used stickers from the bookstore at Santa Monica College.
The neighboring case was all sociology and psychology – dog-eared textbooks and collections of journals stored in transparent plastic boxes. The volumes on the top shelf matched Lauren’s classes last quarter. More pink underlining, Used stickers from the U bookstore – the charges I’d just seen on her Visa. Fifty grand a year but she watched her pennies.
Turning to the journals, I opened the first plastic box and found a collection of thirty-year-old issues of Developmental Psychology, each bearing the faded stamp of a Salvation Army thrift shop on Western Avenue and a ten-cent price tag. No receipt, no date of sale.
The rest of the magazines were of similar vintage and origin: American Cancer Society thrift, Hadassah, City of Hope. In a copy of Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being, I found a Goodwill receipt dated six years ago. A few scraps from the same time span turned up in other volumes.
Six years ago.
Lauren had begun her self-education at nineteen, nearly four years before she’d enrolled in junior college.
Intellectually curious. Ambitious. Straight A’s. None of that had stopped her from selling her body for a living. Then again, why should it? Knowledge can be power in all kinds of ways.
I took a closer look at the material Lauren had acquired before she’d gone back to school. Most of it centered on human relations and personality theory. No underlined sections; back then, she’d approached her books with the awe of a novice.
I shook each volume, found no loose papers.
Back to the required texts on the top shelf. Nothing illuminating or profound in the pink passages, just another student hypothesizing about what might appear on the final exam.
I was just about to quit when something in the margin of her learning theory book caught my eye. A neatly printed legend that matched the lettering I’d seen on her school papers.
INTIM. PROJ. 714 555 3342
That flipped a switch: the “human intimacy” study that had run in the Cub three weeks before Shawna Yeager’s disappearance. Disconnected Orange County number – the Newport Beach pizza parlor. Same area code, but this number was different.
There was no evidence Shawna had even seen the ad, let alone checked it out, but she had been a psychobiology major… living off savings.
Right up Lauren’s alley? What she considered a “research job”?
But Lauren hadn’t needed the money.
Maybe she’d been greedy. Or something else had attracted her to the ad.
Something personal, as Gene Dalby had suggested.
Intimacy. A beautiful young woman who faked intimacy for cash.
As in Dalby? No, Gene claimed to barely remember her, and I had no reason to doubt him. And his research was on politics, not intimacy.
Another of her teachers’ names began with a D – de Maartens. The psychology of perception. Lots of D’s.
Who was I kidding – I knew whose initial she’d jotted.
You were a great influence on her, Doctor.
The last time I’d seen her, she’d paid for the privilege of unloading her anger – not unlike the pattern she’d adopted with her father.
Years later she’d thought of me, made the notation.
Wanting something from me? Never building up the courage to ask?
I thought of that last, angry meeting, Lauren flashing the wad of bills, unleashing the acid of recrimination. I’d always felt she’d been after more than that.
But what had been her goal when she’d picked up the phone and dialed my service?
What had I not given her?
MILO CAME BACK shaking his head. “Nothing – maybe she kept her pills in her purse.”
I said, “Here’s something,” showed him the inscription, told him about the ad that had run before Shawna Yeager’s disappearance.
“Ads probably run all the time.”
“Not really,” I said. “From what I saw, they tend to come and go.”
“Did you find any ads before Lauren went missing?”
“No, but she could’ve seen it elsewhere.” It sounded feeble, and both of us knew it. He was enough of a friend not to dismiss me, but his silence was eloquent.
“I know,” I said. “Two girls, a year apart, no striking links. But maybe there were other girls in between.”
“Blondes disappearing on the Westside? I’d know if there were. At this point I’m not eliminating anything, but I’ve got a full plate right now: get hold of Lauren’s phone records, find out if she had a computer, look for possible witnesses to a pickup. Maybe find some known associates too. There’s got to be someone other than Salander and her mom who knew her. If all that dead-ends, I’ll take a closer look at Shawna.” He returned the textbook to me. “‘Dr. D.’ You’re sure that’s you?”
“Theoretically it could be one of her professors – Gene Dalby or another one named de Maartens. Neither of them remembers her. Big lecture classes.”
“Well,” he said, “I can’t exactly interrogate them because of this – hell if it means anything at all. The main thing’s still the money. Her job and the way she was killed – cold, professional, the body left out there, maybe as a warning – smacks to me of her getting in someone’s way. That’s why I’m not jumping on the Yeager girl’s case – Leo Riley felt that one was sexual. If Lauren deposited fifty a year, who knows how much she was taking in. And that makes me wonder if some of her income came from supplemental sources. Like blackmail. Who better than a call girl to hoard nasty secrets and try to profit from them.”
“That would also be reason to make off with her computer.”
“Precisimoso. Big bucks at stake. College profs don’t exactly fit the bill.”
“Some college profs are independently wealthy. Actually, Gene Dalby is.”
“You keep mentioning him. Something about him bug you?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Old classmate, tried to be helpful.”
“Okay, then – onward.”
“So we just let the intimacy project lie? This might be a current number.”
He took the book back, produced his cell phone, muttered, “Probably gonna get ear cancer,” and punched in the number. Nothing in his eyes told me he’d connected, but as he listened he groped in his pocket for his pad, wrote something down, hung up.
“‘Motivational Associates of Newport Beach,’” he said. “Friendly female voice: ‘Our hours are ten A.M. to blah blah blah.’ Sounds like one of those marketing outfits.”
“Intimacy and marketing,” I said.
“Why not? Intimacy sells product. Lauren sure would’ve known that. So this was a moonlight for her. She liked money, took another part-time gig. Make sense?”
“Look,” he said, “feel free to follow up on it. Call the other professor too – de whatever-his-name-is. Something bugs you, let me know. Right now what bugs me is no computer. I need a ride back to the station to pick up my car, see if any messages came in, then I’m packing it in. You up for chauffeur duty, or should I lean on one of the boys in blue?”
“I’ll drive you,” I said.
“What a guy,” he said airily as he strode out of the room.
As we left the apartment he said, “I’m really sorry the way this turned out.”
Nine o’clock the next morning, I phoned Dr. Simon de Maartens at home, and he picked up, sounding distracted. When I introduced myself his voice chilled.
“I already returned your call.”
“Thanks for that, but there are still a few questions-”
“Questions?” he said. “I told you I don’t remember the girl.”
“So you have no memory of her talking to you about doing some research.”
“Research? Of course not. She was an undergrad, only grad students are permitted into my lab. Now-”
“The perception course Lauren took from you,” I said. “Did the class subdivide into smaller discussion groups?”
“Yes, yes – that’s typical.”
“Would it be possible to get a list of the students in Lauren’s section?”
“No,” he said. “It would not be possible – You claim to be faculty and you are asking for something like that? That is appalling – What is your involvement in all this?”
“I knew Lauren. Her mother’s going through hell, and she asked me to be involved.”
“Well… I’m sorry about that, but it’s a confidentiality issue.”
“Being enrolled in a study section is confidential?” I said. “Not the last time I checked the APA ethics code.”
“Everything about academic freedom is confidential, Dr. Delaware.”
“Fine,” I said. “Thanks for your time. The police will probably be getting in touch with you.”
“Then I will tell them exactly the same thing.”
Something bugs you, let me know.
I called Milo. No answers at home, in the car, or at his desk. I told his voice mail: “De Maartens was not helpful. He bears attention.”
A live woman answered at Motivational Associates of Newport Beach, informing me in a bored-to-death singsong that the office was closed.
“Is this the answering service?”
“When does the office open?”
“They’re in and out.”
“Is there another office?”
“Do you have the number?”
“One moment, I have to take another call.”
She put me on hold long enough for me to wonder if the line had gone dead. Finally, she came back on with a 310 phone number. I called it and got her partner in ennui.
“The office is closed.”
“When will it be open?”
“I don’t know, sir – this is the service.”
“What’s the office’s address, please?”
“One moment, I have to take another call.”
I hung up and looked it up in the phone book.
The twelve thousand block of Wilshire Boulevard put Motivational Associates’ L.A. branch in Brentwood, just east of Santa Monica. A couple of miles from the U and even closer to the Sepulveda alley where Lauren’s body had been found.
But no sense dropping by and confronting a bolted door. I booted up the computer and plugged in “Motivational Associates.”
Three hits, the first a four-year-old article from the Chicago Tribune about a South Side shelter for battered women and the services it offered. Residential care, medical consultation, individual counseling, group therapy “provided by Motivational Associates, a private consulting group that offers pro bono services, particularly in the area of human relations.” The gist of the article was human-interest coverage of several abused women who’d gained emotional strength, and the firm’s participation earned no further mention.
The second reference was a shortened version of the Trib piece, picked up by the wire services and distributed nationally. Number three was an Eastern Psychological Association abstract of a paper presented two years ago at a regional convention in Cambridge.
“Buffington, Sandra, Lindquist, Monique, and Dugger, B. J. The Multidimensional Assessment of Intimacy: Factor Analysis of the Personal Space Grid Index (PSGI) and Self-Report Measures of Locus of Control, Trait Anxiety, Personal Attractiveness, Self-Concept and Extroversion.”
So much for racy research.
The authors’ affiliations were University of Chicago for Buffington and Lindquist and Motivational Associates, Inc., for B. J. Dugger.
I pulled out my American Psychological Association directory and looked up Dugger, betting on a woman. Barbara Jean, Barbara Jo -
Benjamin John. Not the day for me to play the ponies.
Dugger’s birth date made him thirty-seven. He’d earned a B.A. in psychology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the age of twenty-one and a Ph.D. in social psychology from the U of Chicago ten years later. Postdoctoral fellowship at UC, San Diego, then a two-year lapse until his first – and only – job: Director, Motivational Associates of Newport Beach, California. Areas of specialty: quantitative measurement of social distance and applied motivational research. The address he’d listed was on Balboa Boulevard, in Newport, and the number was the 714 I’d just called.
Not a clinician, so no need for a state license. That made checking with the Board of Psychology for disciplinary actions a waste of time. I called anyway. Zero.
I tried a pocketful of area codes for residential listings for Dr. Benjamin J. Dugger. Nothing. Scanning his name on the Internet pulled up only the same abstract of the Cambridge paper, which I reread.
Jargon and numbers and high-powered statistics, the arcane nutrients of tenure. Nothing remotely sexy.
Still, it had been Dugger’s number listed in Lauren’s book, and as much as I disliked de Maartens, that made Dugger the prime candidate for “Dr. D.” And he’d been running his ad during the time Shawna Yeager disappeared. Milo was probably right about there being no link between the cases, but still…
I thought about it some more. Dugger’s bio was about as provocative as the owner’s manual for a plow.
Weaker than weak.
I reread the bio and something shot out at me.
Two time lapses: ten years between his bachelor’s degree and his doctorate, another two between finishing school and taking his first job.
Nice first job. Most new Ph.D.’s enter the job market burdened by debt and are forced to accept temporary lectureships and entry-level slots. Benjamin J. Dugger had disappeared for two years, only to return in an executive position.
Offices in Newport Beach and Brentwood. A company sufficiently capitalized to offer free services. And what did personal-space research have to do with battered women?
It added up to money.
Some college profs are independently wealthy.
Simon de Maartens’s hostility made me wonder about his financial situation. Time to learn more about both Dr. D’s.
The Ovid files at the U’s research library spit out forty-five publications for de Maartens, all on the psychophysics of vision in primates. He was thirty-three, and there were no lapses in his professional life: B.A. at twenty from Leiden University in the Netherlands, Oxford doctorate in experimental psychology at twenty-five, two-year postdoc at Harvard, where he served a three-year lectureship, then assistant professorship at the U and fast-track promotion two years later to associate. The usual society memberships and more than a handful of academic honors, including a grant and a service award from the Braille Institute – perhaps his chimp research offered human possibilities.
Benjamin J. Dugger had been less prolific: five articles, none more recent than two years ago, all in the same dry vein. The last three had been coauthored with Barbara Buffington and Monique Lindquist, the first two had been solos – summaries of Dugger’s first-year graduate research study and dissertation: measuring personal space in hooded rats subjected to varying degrees of social deprivation. The dates allowed me to fix his graduate studies as beginning four years prior to receiving his Ph.D. That still left a six-year question mark between Clark University and Chicago.
Having nowhere else to go, I phoned both institutions and verified his degrees with the alumni associations. So far, nothing suspicious. Why should there be? I was groping.
Thinking about Lauren’s body tumbling out of the Dumpster, I called Chicago again and asked for Professor Buffington or Lindquist. The former was on sabbatical in Hawaii, but a woman answered Lindquist’s extension with a high, bright “This is Monique.”
“Professor, this is Mr. Lew Holmes from Western News Service. We’ve come across an article about some work you and your colleagues did on personal space and were wondering if one of you could talk to us about a piece we’re putting together on dating in the nineties.”
“I don’t think so,” she said, laughing. “That research was pretty esoteric – lots of math, nothing about dating. Where’d you come across it?”
“It came up on our database,” I said. “So you don’t think you can help?”
“I think if you wrote about our research your readers would fall asleep.”
“Oh. Too bad. Sorry for bothering you, and I guess I won’t follow up on Professor Dugger.”
“Professor – Oh, Ben. No, I doubt he could help you either.”
“Double too-bad,” I said. “We’re a California-based news service, and our clients are always looking for local sources to quote. With Professor Dugger being out here, it would’ve worked out great.”
“I don’t want to speak for Ben, but I doubt he could illuminate you either.”
“Well, let me ask you this, Professor, are you doing any other research that might be of interest to our clients?”
“No, sorry. But I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding someone wanting the attention. Especially out in California. Bye-”
“What about Professor Dugger? Would he be doing anything else that might be interesting?”
“As in sex? Is that what you’re getting at?”
“Well,” I said, “you know how it is.”
“I sure do. In terms of Ben Dugger’s recent work, I have no idea what he’s been up to. It’s been a while since we worked together.”
Matter-of-fact, no rancor.
“Maybe I’ll give him a shot,” I said. “I’ve got him in Newport Beach and Brentwood.” I read off the addresses. “This firm he’s got – Motivational Associates. What are they into, advertising?”
“Market research.” She laughed again.
“Something funny, Professor?”
“You’re out for the sex angle – like every other reporter. If that’s what you want from Ben Dugger, don’t count on it.”
“Why’s that, Professor?”
“That’s… all I have to say. Bye, now.”
“Some kind of hang-up?” said Milo. “Sounds more like he’s a prude.”
“There’s something there,” I said.
“She didn’t imply anything nasty.”
“No,” I admitted. “She was lighthearted. Like it was some kind of in-joke.”
“So maybe the guy’s a Catholic priest or something.”
“That wasn’t in his bio.”
He grunted over the phone. It was nearly noon. He’d taken two hours to return my call. Andrew Salander had verified that Lauren had owned a Toshiba laptop. After that Milo’d been tied up at the morgue, watching Lauren’s autopsy. The coroner had found no evidence of sexual assault – of any recent intercourse. No illness, surgery, scarring, or drug use. The preliminary finding was that the first bullet fired into Lauren’s brain stem – a 9 mm – had shut off her life functions nearly instantly. Until that second, a healthy girl.
“So she probably didn’t suffer,” he said. “I called her mom and told her she definitely didn’t. Woman sounds as if she’s been hollowed out and left to dry… So de Maartens is an uppity putz and Dugger doesn’t like to talk about sex.”
“Dugger may also have money.” I gave him the logic on that.
“If I had to choose, I’d say press the Dutch guy ’cause he got hostile. If you’re up to that, fine.”
“If I show up at his door, he’ll slam it. I told him the police would probably be stopping by.”
“Promises, promises. I’ll try to get to it eventually. So far, no record of any cab or limo making a pickup in the vicinity of Lauren’s apartment. Her broker in Seattle knows her only as a voice over the phone. She cold-called him a few years ago, said she had money to invest. Which is a switch, usually it’s the salesmen who call, so needless to say he didn’t argue. He said Lauren did her homework about the market, knew what she wanted but was willing to listen to advice. Overall impression: smart. He was surprised to learn she was only twenty-five, figured her for a good ten years older.”
“What did he say she wanted?”
“Blue-chip funds, and she was patient enough to hold. He figured her for a high-income lawyer or some other executive type. I put two uniforms on the door-to-door, a couple of people think they remember her vaguely from the neighborhood – jogging, driving around in her convertible – but no one saw her getting picked up. Not the day she disappeared or any other time. I got hold of six months’ worth of phone records. She actually used the horn very little. Talked to her mom every couple of weeks – the last call was two days before she disappeared. Nothing to Lyle – no surprise. The only things that did look interesting were five calls over the last two months to the same number in Malibu. Turns out to be a pay phone in Point Dume.”
“Lauren told Salander she went to Malibu for rest and recreation. Is the phone near a motel?”
“No. Shopping center at Kanan-Dume Road.”
“Have you found any cell phone account for her, or an answering service?”
“Not so far.”
“Don’t you find that surprising, if she was making dates?”
Pause. “A bit.”
“Unless,” I said, “she didn’t need a service because she wasn’t casting her net. Had one client who paid all the bills. Maybe someone who lives in Malibu, doesn’t want wifey-poo to hear Lauren’s call, so he uses the pay phone.”
“Fifty grand plus from one john? One helluva habit.”
“Lots of passion,” I said. “When those kinds of things go bad, they go very bad.”
“I’ll drive there today, see what kinds of shops are nearby – maybe someone noticed something. Maybe I’ll drop in on de Maartens on the way back. Where’s he live?”
“Don’t know, but his number’s a 310.”
“I’ll get it. Thanks for all the work, Alex.”
“Hey,” he said, “you can never tell what’ll pan out.”
Lying through his teeth. What else are friends for?
Just after one P.M. I got in the Seville and drove to Motivational Associates’ Brentwood office.
The building was one of a group of towers that had sprouted on Wilshire during one of the booms. Four stories for parking, eight for offices, zebra-striped walls of white aluminum and black glass. The packing carton a serious building came in.
I walked past an empty guard desk to the directory. No pattern to the tenant mix: computer consultants, insurance agents, lawyers, an occupational therapy brokerage, a few psychotherapists. Motivational Associates was Suite 717, a third of the way down a gray-walled, plum-carpeted hallway. Black doors with tiny chrome signage. Dugger’s was set between E-WISDOM and THE LAW OFFICES OF NORMAN AND REBBIRQUE.
No mail at or under the door, and when I peeked through the slot I saw an unlit waiting room, still no pile of letters. Either someone had collected or the post went to another location. I didn’t knock – the last thing I wanted was to have to explain myself.
I’d returned to the elevator, was waiting for it to ascend from the lobby when the door to 717 swung open and a man came out carrying a scuffed brown leather briefcase. Locking the dead bolt, he made his way in my direction, swinging his keys.
Thirty-five to forty, five-ten, one sixty. Dark hair trimmed close to the sides, thinning on top, freckled bald spot at the crown. He wore a shapeless oatmeal herringbone sport coat with brown-leather elbow patches, an open-necked white button-down shirt with blue stripes, faded beige cords that would’ve suited Milo had they been five waist sizes larger, and brown loafers with toes worn to gray gristle. A wadded selection from the morning’s Times was stuffed into a pocket of the jacket, weighing the garment down on one side and making him appear lopsided. Three black plastic pens were clipped to his handkerchief pocket. Tortoiseshell eyeglasses dangled from a chain around his neck.
He arrived at the lift just as the door opened, waited for me to step in, then followed and stood near the door. Placing the briefcase on the floor, he punched in P3 and said, “How about you?” in a pleasant voice. Straight nose, straight mouth, smallish ears, firm chin. Nothing out of proportion, but something – a blurring of contours – kept it just shy of handsome. The lapel of his sport coat was fuzzed where it met his shirt. Two white threads had come loose from his shirt collar.
I said, “Same, thanks.”
He turned, offering a view of his bald spot. I noticed a worn gold monogram above the clasp of the case. BJD. As we descended he began whistling, and his hands grew active – fingers drumming, tapping, stretching, curling. A shaving nick bottomed his right earlobe. Another cut flecked his jawline. He gave off the smell of soap and water.
He stopped whistling. Said, “Sorry.”
“They used to play Muzak. Someone must’ve complained.”
“People tend to do that.”
“They do, indeed.”
No further exchange until we reached P3 and I hung back as he stepped out into the parking area. As he headed briskly toward a nearby aisle, I was watching from behind a concrete pillar.
His car was a white Volvo sedan, plain-wrap model, several years old. No alarm click, and he’d left the door unlocked. Tossing the briefcase across the seat, he slid in, started up, backed out blowing chalky smoke. I ran up the three flights to the lobby, was heading for the Seville when I saw him pull onto Wilshire, going west.
Toward the beach? Malibu?
He was ten blocks ahead of me, and it took several traffic violations for me to catch up. I stayed two car lengths behind in the neighboring lane and tried to watch him. He kept both hands on the wheel; his lips were moving and his head was bobbing. Either a hands-off cell phone or singing to himself. My guess was the latter: he looked utterly at peace.
He drove to Long’s Drugstore in Santa Monica, stayed inside for ten minutes, emerged with a big bag of something, got back on Wilshire and drove to Broadway and Seventh, where he pulled up in front of a narrow, white-clapboard Victorian, once a three-story house, now THE PACIFIC FAITH APOSTOLIC CHURCH. One of the few old ones that had survived the Northridge quake.
The white boards were freshly painted, and a crisp picket fence boxed off the church’s yard. Sandboxes and swings and slides and monkey bars. Three dozen munchkins, mostly brown-skinned and dark-haired, scooted and jumped and shouted and squatted in the sand. Three young women wearing braided hair and long, pale dresses watched from the sidelines. A rainbow-lettered banner across the fence announced FAITH PRESCHOOL, SPRING REGISTRATION STILL OPEN.
Dr. Benjamin Dugger parked at the curb, walked through the picket gate, and entered the church. If he was burdened with sin, the bounce in his stride didn’t say so. He remained inside for fifteen minutes, emerged minus the bag from the drugstore.
Back to Wilshire. His next stop was a fish-and-chips place near Fourteenth Street, where he came out with another bag, smaller and grease-spotted. Lunch was enjoyed on a bench at Christine Reed Park, behind the tennis courts, where I watched from the Seville as he shoved french fries and something breaded into his mouth, drank from a can of Coke, and shared leftovers with the pigeons. A quarter of an hour later he was back on Wilshire, heading east this time, staying in one lane, sticking to the speed limit.
He entered Westwood Village, parked in a pay lot on Gayley, and entered a multiplex theater. Two comedies, a spy thriller, a historical romance. Showtimes said he’d chosen either one of the comedies or the romance.
What a sinister fellow.
I drove home.
At three, deciding I should stick to what I knew, I phoned the Abbot house. The robot voice answered and, feeling grateful when neither Jane’s nor Mel’s broke in, I hung up.
At 4:43, Milo called. “The pay phone’s in a gas station. Nearby are a gym, an insurance agency, and a café. No one remembers Lauren. The owner of the station doesn’t recall any frequent callers. It’s a busy place, lots of traffic, for him to notice someone they would’ve had to set up office in the booth. I also dropped in on a bunch of motels and showed Lauren’s picture around. Zero. I’m back at my desk, figured I’d check out snippy Professor de Maartens. Who, as it turns out, lives in Venice. Want to tag along?”
I debated whether to tell him I’d followed Benjamin Dugger. By now, the tail seemed ludicrous. No reason to share.
“Sure,” I said. “The charm of my company?”
“Just the opposite. You pissed him off once – maybe that can be harnessed.”
SIMON DE MAARTENS lived on Third Street, north of Rose. The beach was a short walk west. Crossing Rose brought you into gang territory.
The block was filled with tiny houses, some divided. Intermittent bright spots – fresh paint, brand-new skylights, flower beds, staked saplings – said gentrification had arrived. De Maartens’s abode was a brown-stucco, side-by-side duplex with a gray lawn, curling tar-paper roof, and flaking woodwork. The blue VW van in its driveway was patched and primered. Its rear bumper sagged, and so did the independent wealth hypothesis.
“Doesn’t look as if he’s been seduced by externals,” said Milo. “Life of the mind and all that?”
“Could be.” I realized the same could be said of Benjamin Dugger: Newport and Brentwood offices but a frayed lapel.
Not exactly the high rollers I’d conjured when imagining Lauren spirited away to some Casbah.
He switched off the engine. “How about I do the talking, and work you in as needed?”
“Sounds good to me.”
We were halfway to de Maartens’s front door when loud barking came from the brown house and a big, yellow face parted the curtains of the front window. Some kind of retriever. Steady barking but no enmity – announcing our presence without passing judgment. The door began opening before we got there, and a young, red-haired woman smiled out at us.
She was tall and solidly built, wore a black T-shirt and green drawstring pants, held a paintbrush in one hand. Wet, blue bristles. Her hair was the color of fresh rust, cut in a pageboy that hung to midneck, the bangs perfectly straight above inquisitive hazel eyes. The pants were baggy but the shirt was tight, accentuating a soft, friendly bosom and generous shoulders. Nice coating of flesh everywhere except for her hands, which were slim and white, with tendril fingers. The smell of turpentine blew through the doorway, along with classical music – something with woodwinds. No sign of the yellow dog. The woman had stopped smiling.
“Police, ma’am,” said Milo, flashing the badge. “Are you Mrs. de Maartens?”
“Anika.” Pronouncing her name as if it were required for border crossing. “I thought you were UPS.” “Thought” came out “taut.” Her accent was thicker than her husband’s, harder around the edges. Or maybe that was anxiety. Who likes the police on a sunny afternoon?
“Expecting a delivery?”
“I – I’m supposed to get art supplies. From back home. Was there a crime somewhere on the block?”
“No, everything’s fine. Where’s back home?”
“Holland… Why are you here?”
“Nothing to worry about, ma’am, we just wanted to talk to Professor de Maartens. Is he in?”
“You want to talk to Simon? About what?”
“A student of his.”
“It’s better if we talk to the professor directly, Mrs. de Maartens. Is he in?”
“Yes, yes, I go get him, hold on.”
She left the door open and headed toward the music. A big butter-colored form materialized. Heavy jowls, small bright eyes, short coat, droopy ears. Retriever mix, a splash of mastiff somewhere in the bloodline.
The dog regarded us for a second, then followed Anika de Maartens. Returned moments later with a man in tow. Man and beast walking in synchrony, the master’s hand resting lightly on the animal’s neck.
“I’m Simon. What is it?”
De Maartens was six feet tall and heavyset, with a whiskey-colored crew cut and a ruddy, bulb-nosed, thick-lipped face, as close to spherical as I’d seen on a human. Despite his clothing – gray sweatshirt, blue cutoffs, rubber beach sandals – he looked like a Rembrandt burgher, and I half-expected him to whip out a clay pipe.
“Detective Sturgis,” said Milo, extending a hand.
De Maartens looked past it, kept coming toward us. “Yes?” The sound of his voice made the dog’s ears perk.
Milo began repeating his name.
“I heard you,” said de Maartens. “I’m not deaf.” Smiling, as he and the dog stopped at the threshold. His head turned from side to side, and he stared blankly, settling on the space between Milo and me. That’s when I saw his eyes: black crescents set in bluish sockets so deep they appeared to have been scooped out of his flesh. Immobile crescents, the merest sliver of black showing through dull black, no gleam of pupil.
A blind man.
The psychophysics of vision in primates. The Braille Institute Award.
He said, “This is about the girl – Lauren.”
“Some of my students I do know,” said de Maartens. “The ones who ask questions, visit during office hours. Voices that recur.” He touched his ear. The dog looked up at him adoringly. “Lauren Teague was not one of them. She got an A in the class – a very high A, so perhaps she did not need to ask questions. I can produce her exams when I return to my office next week. But right now, I am on vacation and I do not see why I need to be bothered. What can you hope to learn from two exams?”
“So there’s nothing you can tell us about Ms. Teague?”
De Maartens’s thick shoulders rose and fell. He canted his face toward me. Smiled. “Is that you, Dr. Delaware? Nice aftershave. After your second call when I grew cross, I called the department to see what records they have on her. Just her grade transcripts. All A’s. I should not have grown cross, but I was in the middle of something and I did not see the point. I still do not.”
He scratched behind the dog’s ears, aimed his eye sockets back at Milo. “Three times during the quarter, the class was divided into discussion groups of approximately twenty students each, supervised by teaching assistants. The groups were optional, nothing discussed was graded. It was an attempt by the department to be more personal.” Another smile. “I checked with my department chairman, and he said it would be permissible to give you the names of the students in Lauren Teague’s group. Her T.A. was Malvina Zorn. You may call the psychology department and obtain Malvina’s number. She has been instructed to give you the names of the students in the group. The chairman and I have signed authorizations. That should be all you need.”
“Thank you, Professor.”
“You are welcome.” De Maartens rocked back and forth, then stopped. “What exactly happened to Ms. Teague?”
“Someone shot her,” said Milo. “You can read it in the paper-” He flushed scarlet.
De Maartens laughed uproariously and ruffled the dog. “Perhaps Vincent here can read it to me. No, I am sure my wife will give me every detail. She devours everything she can about crime and misfortune because this city frightens her.”
When we were back in the car I said, “So much for that.”
Milo said, “I don’t see Lauren’s academic life as the thing here, anyway. It’s the people she didn’t talk about that I’m interested in. I’ll phone the psych department, though, get those students’ names.”
He made the call, copied down a list of nine students that I inspected as we drove away. Three males, six females.
“Everyone out for the quarter,” he mumbled, as we drove away. “Fun.”
“I’m your partner in futility.” I told him about following Benjamin Dugger. He was kind enough not to laugh.
“Old Volvo and delivering goodies to kids at the church, huh?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Throw in the pro bono thing at the shelter in Chicago and he’s Mother Teresa in tweed. You’re right, guys like him aren’t what got Lauren into trouble. She lived in a whole other world.”
“Speaking of which,” he said. “I thought I’d drop in on Gretchen Stengel.”
“She’s out of prison?”
“Paroled half a year ago. Found herself a new line of work.”
“Similar to her old gig, but legal. Dressing the insecure.”
The boutique was on Robertson just south of Beverly, five doors north of a restaurant-of-the-moment where valets shuffled Ferraris and alfresco diners laughed too loudly as they sucked bottled water and smog.
Couture with a Past
Eight-foot-wide storefront, the window draped in black jersey and occupied by a single, bald, faceless, chromium mannequin in a billowing scarlet gown. A bell push was required for entry, but Milo’s bulk didn’t stop whoever was in charge from buzzing us in.
Inside, the shop’s mirrored walls and black granite floor vibrated to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” the bass tuned to migraine level. Nailed into the mirror were raw iron bolts from which garments dangled on chrome hangers. Velvet, crepe, leather, silk; wide color range, nothing above a size 8. A pair of orange deco revival chairs designed by a sadist filled a tight oblong of center space. Copies of Vogue, Talk, and Buzz fanned across a trapezoid of glass posing as a table. No counter, no register. Seams in the rear wall were probably the dressing rooms. To the right was a door marked PRIVATE. The fermented-corn sweetness of good marijuana tinctured the air.
A dangerously thin girl in her twenties wearing a baby blue bodysuit and a rosewood-tinted Peter Pan do stood behind one of the orange chairs, hips thrust forward, eyes guarded. White stiletto-heeled sandals put her at eye level with Milo. Pink eyes and dilated pupils. No ashtray or roach, so maybe she’d swallowed. The bodysuit was sheer, and the undertones of her flesh beneath the fabric turned the blue pearly. She seemed to have too many ribs, and I found myself counting.
“Yes?” Husky voice, almost mannish.
“I need something in a size four,” said Milo.
“My thumb.” He stepped closer. The girl recoiled and crossed her arms over her chest. The music kept pounding, and I looked for the speakers, finally spotted them: small white discs tucked into the corners.
Out came Milo’s badge. Rather than rattle the girl, it seemed to calm her. “And the punch line is…?” she said.
“Is Gretchen Stengel here?”
The girl gave a languid wave. “Don’t see her.”
Milo reached out toward the iron rack and fondled a black pantsuit. “Couture with a past, huh?”
The girl didn’t move or speak.
He examined the label. “Lagerfeld… What kind of past does this one have?”
“It went to the Oscars two years ago.”
“Really. Did it win and make a speech thanking the little people?”
The girl snorted.
“So where’s Gretchen?”
“If you leave your name I’ll tell her you were here.”
“Gee, thanks. And you are…”
“Ah,” said Milo. He dropped the sleeve, faced her, did one of those moves that makes him taller than you think possible. “Don’t they require two names for booking?”
The girl’s lips tightened into a little pink bud. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“C’mon, Stan,” said Milo. “Or I’ll tell Ollie.”
Her eyes filmed with confusion. “I don’t run her appointment schedule.”
“But you do know where she is.”
“I get paid to be here, that’s all.”
“Stan, Stan.” Milo sniffed the air conspicuously. “Why make this complicated?”
“Gretchen doesn’t like attention.”
“Well, I can sure understand that. But fame is like a dog with an unstable temperament. You feed it, think you’ve got it under control, but sometimes it bites you anyway. Now, where the hell is she?”
“Up the block.” She named the trendoid eatery.
He turned to leave.
Stanwyck said, “Don’t tell her I told you.”
“Promise,” said Milo.
“Yeah, right,” said the girl. “And you’ve got a Porsche and a house on the beach and won’t come in my mouth.”
We made our way past the valets, up brick stairs, and through a low picket gate to the front patio, turning the heads of the see-and-be-seen crowd. Lots of free-floating anxiety and ponytails on heads that didn’t deserve them, big white plates decorated with small green food. Some high fashion, though quite a few people were dressed worse than Milo. But at much higher cost, and everyone knew the difference. The maître d’s were two white-jacketed, black-T-shirted sticks, both too busy to stop us. But one of them did notice us enter the inner dining room at the rear.
The room was low and dark and cheap-chic, noisy as a power plant. As we made our way among the tables, I heard a man in a five-hundred-dollar Hawaiian shirt urging a waiter, “Speak to me of the crab cakes.”
Gretchen Stengel sat at a corner table opposite a sleek young woman with blue-black skin. A blue liter of esoteric water stood between them. The black woman picked at a salad, and Gretchen twirled a crayfish on a toothpick.
No problem recognizing the Westside Madam; three years ago she’d been evening news fodder for months, and, but for a few age lines, she hadn’t changed much.
Sunken cheeks, lemon-sucking mouth, stringy brown hair, skinny upper body but broad-beamed below the waist. An ungainly waddle as her lawyers hustled her to and from court. Brown eyes that claimed injury when they weren’t shielded by dark lenses. Today the glasses were in place – oversized black ovals that blocked expression.
It would have been easy to ascribe her pallor to the twenty-five months she’d spent behind bars for income tax evasion, but she’d been pale before then. Floppy hats, kabuki-white makeup, and the omnipresent black glasses fed rumors that she hated the sun. Interesting choice, if it was one, for a girl growing up at the beach. Then again, most daughters of Pacific Palisades corporate lawyers don’t grow up to be pimps.
Gretchen Stengel had been raised on two acres overlooking the ocean, attended the Peabody School and summer camps designed to pamper, vacationed at private villas in Venice and châteaus in southern France, flown the Concorde a dozen times before entering puberty.
Rocky puberty. Her arrest led to journalistic archaeology of the Stengel family and discovery of childhood learning problems, drug and DUI busts, and half a dozen abortions beginning when Gretchen was fourteen. At twenty she dropped out of Arizona State, having never declared a major. Unsubstantiated stories had her starring in a series of bottom-feeder porn loops featuring a variety of partners, not all of them two-legged.
Prior to her arrest none of her teenage problems had leaked out of sealed records, nor had she been disciplined by the system. Mildrew and Andrea Stengel were senior partners at Munchley, Zabella, and Cater, a downtown firm with a wide reach. After leaving college Gretchen moved back home to a guesthouse at their estate, attending openings of bad art and premieres of films that lost money, hanging out with the sweating throng of Eurotrash that filled Sunset Plaza cafés. Telling anyone who cared to listen that she was working on a screenplay, had a deal pending at one of the big independent production companies.
At some point she discovered long-hidden organizational skills and began mustering a small army of hookers: girls with great bodies and fresh faces and the ability to operate a credit-card machine. None was older than twenty-five, some had been Peabody School acquaintances, others she spotted on Sunset or the Colony. Many had never sold sex before. All were terrific at faking innocence.
The nerve center of the operation was Gretchen’s free digs behind the parental swimming pool. She called her employees “agents” and put them to work in the lounges and bars of hotels with “Beverly” in their names. Clients paid for the room and the flesh, the girls divvied up for clothing and cosmetics and birth control, and Gretchen financed quarterly medical checkups. Other than doctor bills, phone and credit company charges, her overhead was nil. By the time she was twenty-five, Gretchen was pulling in seven figures a year and lopping off a zero when she filed with the IRS.
What tripped her up was never made clear. The rumor mill spat out the names of famous clients: movie stars, assorted film industry lampreys, politicians, developers. Supposedly Gretchen had run afoul of the LAPD. But no john list ever materialized, and Gretchen sat mute during her indictment.
Her trial was slated to be the Next Big Media Event. Then Gretchen’s lawyer pled her to a single evasion charge and a money-laundering misdemeanor, and bargained her sentence to thirty-two months in federal lockup, plus restitution and penalties. Gretchen served solid but truncated time: no interviews, no wheedling, seven months lopped off for good behavior.
Now she was selling used clothes in a high-rent closet that reeked of weed and hiring ex-employees to stroke the customers.
It suggested an inability to learn from experience, but maybe Gretchen had learned something other than crime doesn’t pay.
Blaming her parents was easy but, like most pat solutions, that was just an excuse not to puzzle. Gretchen’s older brother had achieved honors as a flight surgeon for the Navy, and a younger sister ran a music school in Harlem. Following Gretchen’s arrest someone had suggested middle-child syndrome. They might as well have indicted the lunar cycle. Mildrew and Andrea Stengel were high-powered lawyers but by all accounts attentive parents. The week after Gretchen’s conviction they resigned their partnerships and moved to Galisteo, New Mexico, purportedly to live “the simple life.”
Milo and I walked up to the table. Gretchen had to have seen us, but she ignored us and tweaked the tail of the crayfish. Edging the creature toward her mouth, she changed her mind, drew back her arm, flicked the crustacean’s tail as if daring it to resuscitate. Then back to her lips. Licking but not biting. Some weight-loss behavior-mod trick? Play with your calories but never ingest them?
Nearby diners had begun to stare. Gretchen didn’t react. Her companion lacked Gretchen’s composure and started fidgeting with her salad. Scallops on something saw-toothed and weedlike. She was young like Gretchen, with cropped hair, felonious cheekbones, and slanted eyes, wore a sleeveless yellow sundress, pink coral necklace and earrings, long, curving nails painted a lighter shade of coral. All that color achingly dramatic against flawless black skin.
Gretchen’s cuticles were a wreck. She had on a shapeless black sweatshirt and black leggings. Her hair looked as if it hadn’t been washed in a week. The black lenses did their trick, putting her somewhere else.
Milo moved so he could smile down at the black woman. “Nice dress. Does it have a past?”
Painful smile in response.
“Have a bug,” said Gretchen, waving the crayfish. “That’s what they are. Bugs.” Her voice was nasal and scratchy. The black woman grimaced.
Milo said, “Thanks for the biology lesson, Ms. Stengel.”
Gretchen said, “Actually, they’re more like spiders.” To the black woman: “Think spiders taste any good?” Her lips barely moved when she spoke. The black woman put her fork down and picked up her napkin.
“What about flies and caterpillars?” said Gretchen. “Or slugs.”
Milo said, “Lauren Teague.”
The black woman wiped her mouth. Gretchen Stengel didn’t budge.
Milo said, “Lauren-”
“It’s a name,” said Gretchen.
The black woman said, “If you’ll excuse me, please,” and started to rise.
“Please stay,” said Milo.
“I have to go to the little girls’ room.” She reached down for her purse. Milo had placed his foot over the strap.
“Please,” she said.
Conversation at neighboring tables had died. A waiter came over. A glance from Milo made him retreat, but seconds later one of the white-jacketed maître d’s arrived.
“Officer,” he said, sidling up to Milo and managing to spit out the word while smiling wider than his lips had been built for. “You are a police officer?”
“And here I thought I was being subtle.”
“Please, sir, this isn’t the place and time.”
Gretchen twirled the crayfish. The black woman hung her head.
“For what?” said Milo.
“Sir,” said White Jacket. “People are trying to enjoy their food. This is a distraction.”
Milo spied a free chair at a neighboring table, pulled it over, sat down. “How’s this for blending in?”
“Fuck it, Damien,” said Gretchen. “Leave him alone, I know him.”
Damien stared at her. “You’re sure, Gretch?”
“Yeah, yeah.” She waved the crayfish. “Tell Joel to make it spicier next time.”
“Oh.” Damien’s acrobatic lips fluttered. “It’s too bland?”
“If you’ve got taste buds.”
“Oh, no – I’ll bring you some extra sauce, Gretch-”
“No,” said Gretchen. “That won’t help, too late. It has to be cooked into the meat.”
Damien simpered. “I am so sorry. I’ll have a fresh batch prepared right now-”
“Don’t bother. Not hungry.”
“I feel terrible,” said Damien.
“Don’t,” said Gretchen, flicking the crayfish’s tail. “Just do better next time.”
“Sure. Of course. Certainly.” To the black woman: “Is yours okay?”
“Perfect.” Glum tone. “I’m going to the little girls’ room.” She stood. Six feet tall in flats, sleek as a panther. Looking down at her purse, she left it there, edged past me, disappeared.
Damien said, “Really, Gretch, I can get you another plate in no time.”
“I’m fine,” said Gretchen, blowing a kiss at him. “Go away.”
When he departed she looked at me. “Sit. Take Ingrid’s chair, she’ll be gone awhile. Bladder infection. I tell her to drink cranberry juice, but she hates it.”
“Old friend?” said Milo.
“Let’s talk about Lauren Teague. Someone shot her and dumped her in an alley.”
Gretchen’s flat expression maintained. She put the crayfish down. “How terrible. I thought she was too smart for that.”
“Too smart for what?”
“Going into business without me.”
“You think that’s what killed her?”
Off came the sunglasses. The brown eyes were piercing and focused; childhood learning difficulties seemed remote, and I wondered how many of the rumors about her were true.
“So do you,” she said. “That’s why you’re here.”
“Were you and she in touch?”
Gretchen shook her head. “After I retired, I cut all ties to the staff.”
“How long has it been since you saw Lauren?”
Gretchen tried to pry something from between her teeth. Stubby nails weren’t up to the task. She removed the toothpick from a crayfish and began probing. “She resigned before I retired.”
“How long before?”
“Maybe a year.”
“Why?” said Milo.
“She never said.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“Why should I?” said Gretchen. “It wasn’t as if there was a personnel shortage.”
“Any idea why she quit?”
“It could’ve been anything.”
“You never discussed it.”
“Nope. She e-mailed me, I e-mailed back.”
“She was into computers,” said Milo.
Milo said, “What’s funny?”
“That’s like asking if she was into refrigerators.” She reskewered the crayfish.
“Any theories?” said Milo. “About why she quit?”
“What else do you remember about Lauren?”
“Great body, knew how to do makeup, no need for surgery. Some clients don’t like bionics.”
“Think she might’ve picked up a steady?” said Milo.
“Did you know she’d gone back to school?”
“Really,” said Gretchen. “How self-improving.” She folded her hands in her lap.
“When she was working for you, did she complain of problematic clients?”
“No problems at all?”
“She was good with people. I was sorry to see her go.”
“Did she have any particular specialties?”
“Other than being gorgeous and smart and polite?”
Gretchen smiled. “Kinks?”
“Anything out of the ordinary.”
Gretchen laughed. “How could I even begin to answer that.”
“How about yes or no, and if it’s yes, some details?”
Gretchen sat back and crossed her legs. Her back was against the wall, and she seemed to enjoy the support. “The truth is, people are depressingly ordinary.”
“Guys were willing to pay big-time for ordinary?”
“Guys were willing to pay to have it on their terms.”
“So Lauren had no specialties?”
“What about special clients? Guys who requested her specifically?”
Gretchen shook her head. Picked up a crayfish and stared at the crustacean. “Look at those eyes. It’s as if he knows.”
“That he’s dead.”
Milo said, “Who requested Lauren?”
“Nothing comes to mind.”
Milo edged his chair closer to her. From the way he talked into her ear and her sudden, warm smile, they might’ve been lovers.
“Help me out here,” he said. “We’re talking murder.”
“I can help if you want to buy a dress.” She drew her head back and looked him up and down. “I don’t think you’d like our styles.”
Milo stayed close to her. “Someone tied Lauren up and shot her in the back of the head and left her like garbage in a Dumpster. Give me a name. Anyone who had a thing for Lauren.”
Gretchen touched his tie, lifted it, and kissed the tip. “Nice syntho. Chez Sears? Tar-zhay?”
“What about girls she worked with? Friends on the staff?”
“Far as I recall, she went it alone.”
“What about Michelle?”
“Michelle,” said Gretchen. “As in…?”
“A brunette Lauren stripped with – they both did the party scene. Back when you were in business. Was that one of your subsidiaries?”
“Uh-uh. I specialized.”
“Networking. The tools of commerce.”
“Nuts into bolts,” said Milo. “So Lauren and Michelle were freelancing on the side?”
Gretchen smiled again. “You’re cute.”
“Did you have a Michelle on staff?”
“It’s a common name.”
“How about a last name?”
Gretchen placed her lips next to Milo’s ears. Flicked his lobe with her tongue. Gave a soft, dry laugh. “I have nothing to offer because I’m nothing. A speck of lint in the navel of the least important creature in the universe. And that makes me free.”
“You’re anything but nothing,” said Milo. “I’d say you’re a presence.”
“You are so sweet,” said Gretchen. “I’ll bet you treat the girls gently.”
Milo’s turn to smile. “So how about tossing me a bone? Off the record. Michelle what?”
“Michelle, ma belle. Sont les whatever.” Gretchen began toying with the crayfish. “Those eyes. He’s like, Let me sit on this plate dead and get all shriveled up but leave me intact, I just don’t want to be chewed up.”
“Lauren didn’t end up intact.”
Gretchen sighed. “They really should remove the eyes.”
Milo said, “So that’s it? Nothing?”
“Have a nice day,” said Gretchen.
On the way out we met Ingrid returning.
Milo blocked her way. “Lauren Teague was murdered.”
Lavender lips parted. “Oh.” Then: “Who’s Lauren?”
“An old friend of Gretchen’s.”
“I’m a new friend.”
“I don’t think so, dear,” said Milo. “I think you and ol’ Gretch go way back – Ten to one I can get hold of your sheet like that.” Snapping fingers in front of her face. “Seen Michelle recently?”
“My, my, the same old song – Michelle the tall brunette who used to dance with Lauren.”
Ingrid shook her head. Milo’s hand closed around her arm. “We can discuss this in my office or you can continue your meal.”
Ingrid’s eyes burned fiercely. She craned to get a look at Gretchen’s table.
“Don’t worry,” said Milo. “I won’t let her know you told me.”
“Told you what?”
“Michelle’s last name.”
“I don’t know any Michelle. I’ve heard mention of Michelle Salazar – Did Gretchen eat anything?”
“Damn! She needs to eat. Please don’t bother her lunch again.”
MILO PUNCHED THE MDT’s keypad, ran a search on Salazar, Michelle.
The screen lit up. Three hits: Michelle Angela, 47, with a record for larceny, Michelle Sandra, 22, imprisoned in Arizona for manslaughter, and Michelle Leticia, 26, arrested two years ago for prostitution, a year after that for possession of narcotics.
“There you go,” I said. “The age is perfect.”
“Echo Park. Let’s go – Would you recognize her?”
“No, it was dark,” I said. “Maybe.”
Michelle Salazar lived in a two-story, peach-colored sixplex on a twisting street one block east of Micheltorena and two blocks north of Sunset. A brown sky hung low over the potholes, boxy hieroglyphics sang gang sagas, small children played in the dust. Two doors up a cluster of shaved-head young men in white tank tops and baggy pants crowded an old white van, sharing cigarettes and beer and lean looks.
As we got out of the unmarked, some of the beer drinkers watched us. Milo’s gun hand was relaxed but in the right place as he threw them a salute. Big group effort not to respond. We were in Ramparts Division, where a police scandal had broken a couple of years ago – CRASH officers forming their own criminal gang. LAPD claimed the bad cops had been weeded out. LAPD had denied the existence of bad cops for too long to have any credibility.
The lock on the building’s front door was missing. Inside, a dark central hall was ripe with the gamy perfume of too-old menudo. Mailboxes set into the right-hand wall were padlocked and unmarked. Milo knocked on the first door, got no answer, tried the next unit and received a shouted “Sí?” in response.
“Policía.” Reciting the word quietly, but there was no way to make it inviting.
Long pause, then a woman said, “Eh?”
“Policía por qué?”
“Señora, donde está Michelle Salazar, por favor?”
“Número seis.” A radio was turned up loud enough to block out further discourse. We made our way to the stairs.
Different smells up on the second floor: sour laundry, urine, orange soda.
Milo rapped on number 6. Another female voice said, “Yeah?” and the door opened six inches before he could respond. Held in place by a loose chain, bisecting a woman’s face. One watery brown eye, half a parched lip, sallow skin.
“Michelle Salazar? Detective Sturgis-” The door began to close, and he blocked it with his foot, reached around, undid the chain.
I didn’t recognize her, but somehow I knew it was her.
Last time I’d seen her, she’d had two arms.
She wore a green nylon robe with moth holes on the lapels. Thirty pounds heavier than when I’d watched her dance with Lauren. A once-pretty face had puffed in all the wrong places, and sprays of pimples crusted her forehead and chin. The same luxuriant mop of jet-black hair. One hand held a cigarette with a gravity-defying ash. Her left sleeve was tied back at elbow length. Empty space from the shoulder down.
“Oh, shit,” she said. “I didn’t do anything – please leave me alone.”
“I’m not here to hassle you, Michelle.”
“Yeah, right.” The room behind her was squalid with dirty clothes and old food and clumps of what looked like dog waste on gray linoleum. As if confirming that, a small, hairless thing with a white-fringed head pranced across my field of vision. Seconds later a high-pitched yelp sounded.
“It’s okay, baby,” said Michelle. The dog mewed a few more times before withdrawing to tremulous silence.
“What is that, a Mexican hairless?” said Milo.
“Like you give a shit. Peruvian Inca Orchid.” Her voice slurred, and her breath was sharp with alcohol. A blue bruise smeared the left side of her neck.
Milo pointed to the mark. “Someone get rough with you?”
“Nah,” she said. “Just playing around. I’m tired, man – go hassle someone else. Every time you guys got free time, it’s always here.”
“Police harassment, huh.”
“How foolish to waste time here,” said Milo. “Place like this, a veritable church.”
Michelle rubbed her single arm against the front of her robe. “Just leave me alone.”
“Ramparts guys visit a lot, huh?”
“Like you don’t know.”
“I don’t. I’m West L.A.”
“Then you got lost.”
“This isn’t about you, Michelle. It’s about Lauren Teague.”
Two rapid blinks. “What?”
“West L.A. Homicide.” He showed her his card. “Lauren Teague got killed.” Yet another recitation of the details. I hadn’t gotten used to it, and my gut clenched.
Michelle began to shake. “Oh, God, oh, Jesus – you’re not lying?”
“Wish I was, Michelle. Can we come in?”
“It’s a shitpile-”
“I don’t care about interior decorating. I want to talk about Lauren.”
“Couldn’t care less about your medicine cabinet, Michelle. This is about someone making Lauren dead-”
The tremors continued. She reached around with her right hand, took hold of the empty left sleeve, and squeezed. “It’s not that – it’s… There’s someone in there.”
“Someone you don’t want listening in?”
“No, it’s-” She glanced back. “He didn’t know Lauren.”
“Long as he doesn’t come out shooting, he’s no problem for me.”
“Hold on,” she said. “Let me just go explain.”
“You wouldn’t be trying to rabbit, Michelle?”
“Sure, I’m gonna jump out of a two-story window – one of you wants to wait down below to catch me, fine.”
“How about this,” said Milo. “Have lover boy show himself, then go back to sleep or whatever he’s doing.”
“Whatever,” she said, backing away, then stopping. “Lauren’s really dead?”
“As dead as they come, Michelle.”
“Shit. Damn.” The brown eyes misted. “Hold on.”
We waited in the doorway, and a few moments later a man wearing nothing but red running shorts appeared from the left, rubbing his gums. Thirty-five or so, with unruly dishwater hair, a goatish chin beard, and sleepy, close-set eyes, shoulders brocaded by tattoos, chest acne, and fibroid scars up and down his arms. He held his hands up, accustomed to surrender, prepared to be rousted. Michelle materialized behind him, saying, “They’re cool, Lance – go back to sleep.”
Lance looked to Milo for confirmation.
“Pleasant dreams, Lance.”
The man returned to the bedroom, and Milo entered the apartment, maneuvering around the dog dirt, taking in everything. I followed his footsteps, struggled to keep my shoes clean.
The hairless dog perched on a folding chair, eyes bugging. The kitchen was an arbitrary clearing, with a hot plate and a minifridge and a single plywood cabinet hanging crookedly. Cracked tile counters were piled high with empty soda cans and take-out cartons. An ant stream originated under the plate and continued up the wall. Two small windows were browned by dirty shades, and Latin music – maybe the din from the unit downstairs – percussed the floor.
Besides the dog’s chair the only furnishings were a frayed brown sofa strewn with more empties, crushed cigarette packs, matchbooks, yet more dog droppings, and a redwood coffee table intended for outdoor use, similarly decorated.
Michelle stood watching us, playing with the sash of her robe. “You can sit.”
“Been sitting all day, thanks. Tell me about Lauren.”
Michelle sat down and placed the dog in her lap. It stayed in place, silent but edgy as she plucked at its ear. Michelle stretched out her index finger, and the dog licked it. “You just made me depressed beyond belief.”
“Sorry,” said Milo.
“Sure you are.” She reached around the dog and flicked her empty sleeve. “I’m like a pirate, see? Captain Hook. Only I’ve got no hook.”
She stroked the dog for a long time. “Infection – not AIDS. For the record.”
“Recently?” I said. Reflexively. For a second I’d felt I was facing a patient. If my breaking in bothered Milo, he didn’t show it.
Michelle said, “Couple of years ago. One of those flesh-eating bacteria things. They said I could’ve died.” Tiny smile. “Maybe I should’ve. The guy I was living with then didn’t want to take me to the hospital, kept saying it was just a mosquito bite or something. Even when it started spreading up my arm. Then half my body swelled up like a balloon, then everything just started rotting and he split, left me alone. By the time they got to me – man, I felt I was disappearing. And it hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” said Milo. “Really.”
“Yeah, sure – now you telling me this about Lauren… I can’t believe it.”
“When’s the last time you saw her, Michelle?”
Her eyes rose to the ceiling. “A year ago – no, after that. Later – six months? Could’ve been five, yeah, I think it was five months. She came by and gave me money.”
“Was that a regular thing?”
“Not regular, but she used to do it once in a while. Bring me food, bring me stuff. Especially after I got out of the hospital. When I was in the hospital, she was the only one who visited. And now she’s dead – Why the fuck did God bother creating this fucked-up world? What is He, some kind of fucking sadist?”
Her head drooped, and she ran her hand through her hair, pulling at black strands, muttering, “Split ends, cheap shitty shampoo.”
“Five months ago,” said Milo. “How was Lauren doing?”
She looked up. “Her? She was doing great.”
“How much money did she give you?”
“Seven hundred bucks.”
“Her and me go way back – went way back.” Her eyes flashed, and she stroked the dog faster. “In the beginning, I used to help her – taught her how to dance. In the beginning she used to dance like a white girl. I taught her all kinds of stuff.”
“How to deal with reality. Developing your attitude. Technique.” Smiling, she ran her finger around the contours of her lips. “She was smart, she learned fast. Smart about money too. Always saved whatever she could. Me, I have money, it just slips away, I’m extremely fucked up – and you won’t hear me blaming the bacteria, even though that really did fuck me up, because even before the bacteria I was pretty fucked up. Personally.”
She lifted the sleeve, let it fall. “Becoming a freak didn’t help my self-image, but I get by. You can always find some guy who digs… Like I’m talking to someone who cares.”
Reaching into a pocket of the robe, she pulled out a cigarette. No pack, just a loose cigarette; easier access with one arm. Milo was quick to light it for her.
“A gentleman.” She sucked smoke. “So who offed Lauren?”
“That’s the big question, Michelle.”
The brown eyes narrowed. “You really don’t know?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“Aw,” she said. “And here I was thinking it was my technique brought you over. Well, I sure can’t tell you. Lauren and I – we went different ways. I thought she was getting it together. Back when we were dancing and working together, I always thought she had a better chance of getting it together.”
“First, like I said, she was smart. Second, she never got into dope in any big way. Had no jones for men either. She never got attached to anyone, let them get their hooks into her. Tell the truth, she was really kind of a nun – know what I mean?”
“Not a party girl,” said Milo.
“Not a party girl,” Michelle repeated. “Even when she was partying, her real head was somewhere else, you know? It’s like no matter what we did, and we did some shit, believe me, she was like… doing something but really not doing it, you know?”
“Detached,” I said.
“Yeah. At first it used to bug me. I used to worry some customer would pick up on it and that would screw the whole deal – kill the fantasy, you know? ’Cause all they want – customers – is to be God for five minutes. And I knew Lauren – no matter what she was doing – thought the customers were pieces of shit. At first I thought she was this snotty bitch with a I’m-too-good-for-it vibe, you know? Then I realized it was just her way of getting through the night, and I came to respect her for that. And I tried it myself.”
She tossed her hair. “Being detached. I could never pull it off. Not without chemical help. That made me admire Lauren – like she had some special talent. Like she was going places. Now, look.”
She studied me. “You’re not a cop.”
I glanced at Milo. He nodded.
“I’m a psychologist. I knew Lauren years ago.”
“Oh,” she said. “You’re the one – what’s your name – Del-something?”
“Yeah, she talked about you, said you tried to help her when she was a kid, she was too messed up to work with you. Did she come see you again? She said she was thinking of it.”
“When was this?” I said.
“Last time I saw her – five months ago.”
“No, she didn’t. Her mother called me when she went missing.”
“She was gone for a week before we found her,” said Milo. “Left her car in the garage, took no luggage, didn’t tell anyone. Looks like she had an appointment with someone who got mean. Any idea who?”
“I thought she got out of the job.”
“She told you that?”
“Yeah, said she was back in school, wanted to be a shrink. I said, ‘Girl, you look like nothing but a yuppie bitch right now, so why bother?’ and she laughed. Then I told her to keep studying, and when she figured out why men are so fucked up, let me know.”
“You and she must’ve met some real sweethearts,” said Milo. “Back when you were working.”
“You forget ’em,” said Michelle. “Faces and dicks – one big picture that you rip up and throw out. I saw enough fat asses and melon bellies to last me halfway through hell.”
“What was working for Gretchen like?”
“Gretchen.” Her face hardened. “Gretchen’s got no heart. She fired me – I’m not going to have anything good to say about her.”
“What about dangerous types, Michelle? Customers you wouldn’t see a second time?”
“Anyone’s dangerous, given the right situation.”
“Did you and Lauren ever have any close calls?”
“Us? Nah. It was boring: bring your knee pads and fake out that you love to swallow, same old same old. Guys thinking they’re in charge – meanwhile we knew they were pathetic.”
“Why’d Gretchen fire you?” said Milo.
“She claimed I wasn’t reliable. So I was late a few times, so what – we’re not talking brain surgery. What does it matter if you show up five minutes late?”
“What about Lauren? How’d she and Gretchen get along?”
She inhaled and smiled around a cloud of smoke. “Lauren handled Gretchen – kissed up to her and did her job and was reliable. Then she quit on Gretchen. That was a switch.”
“When’d she quit?”
“Must’ve been… three, four years ago.”
“How’d Gretchen react to that?”
“I never heard one way or the other.”
“That the kind of thing make Gretchen mad?”
“Nah, Gretchen never got mad – never showed any feeling. Like I said, no heart. Cut her up and you’ll find one of those computer thingies – slickon chip, whatever.”
“Lauren ever have any steady clients? Someone who really liked her and was willing to pay for it? Someone she was seeing recently?”
“Nope. Lauren hated every one of them. Basically, I think she hated men.”
“Did she like women?”
Michelle laughed. “As in, Eat-me, girlfriend? Nah. We did doubles, playacted all the time, but basically Lauren wasn’t into it. Switched off – what you said: detached.”
“Why’d she quit Gretchen?” said Milo.
“She told me she saved up enough money, and I believed her. When she came by to tell me, she looked great, was carrying this little computer-”
“Yeah, she said it was for school. And she had real great clothes on – better than usual. I mean, Lauren was always into clothes. Gretchen made us buy our own shit, and Lauren always knew where to get the good stuff cheap – she used to do some modeling down at the Fashion Mart, knew all the bargains. But this time she was wearing the real thing – Thierry Mugler pantsuit, black, like poured over her. And a pair of Jimmy Choo pumps. Back then I was living in a real dump, over in Highland Park, told her, Girl, you are taking your life in your hands coming around like that, dressed like that. She said she could handle herself, showed me…”
She trailed off, smoked some more.
“Showed you what?” said Milo.
“She was carrying?” said Milo.
“Yeah, this little shooter – silver thing, kind of pretty, that fit in her purse along with the spray. I said, ‘Whoa, what’s that – school supplies?’ She said, ‘A girl can’t be too careful.’ ”
“Did she seem afraid of anything?”
“Nah, she was real casual about it. Not that that means much. Lauren was never much of a talker – you just didn’t push it with her.”
“So she came by to tell you she’d quit.”
“That and she gave me some money. That was the first time she brought me money-”
“Something like that – maybe five. It was usually between five and seven.”
“How often did she help you out?”
“Every few months. Sometimes she’d just slip it under the door and I’d find it when I woke up. She never made me feel like scum for taking it. She had a way of – She had class, should’ve been born rich.”
“Did Lauren ever say anything else that could help us find her killer?” said Milo. “Anyone who might’ve had it in for her?”
“Nah, it was all school with her. School this, school that. She was jazzed because she was meeting a different class of people, professors, whatever.” Two eye blinks. “She was real high on that – intellectuals, professors. Really got off on hanging around with smart people.”
“She ever mention any names of professors?”
“She ever talk about doing any work with professors?”
She gazed at the floor. Rolled the dog over and scratched its abdomen. “I’m thinking – Nah, I don’t think so – why?”
“She told people she had a research job.”
“Oh.” Another eye blink. “Well, she never told me.”
“Nothing like that, at all?”
“Uh-uh.” Dropping the cigarette on the floor, she ground it out, created a smoldering black wound on the linoleum, held out her hand. “I been putting out for you, how about returning the favor, stud?”
Milo pulled out his wallet and gave her two twenties.
She rubbed the bills between her fingers. “I used to do a whole lot less to get a whole lot more, but this doesn’t suck – you’re a sport.”
“Nothing about her job, huh?”
“Nothing… I’m getting tired.”
Milo handed her another twenty. She brushed the edge of the bill against the dog’s groin.
He said, “The money Lauren saved up. Was that all from working with Gretchen?”
“Probably. Like I said, she saved. The rest of us, the minute we had a dollar, it was gone, but Lauren was this little Scroogie thing, counting every buck.”
Milo turned to me.
I said, “Did Lauren talk about her family?”
“She used to in the beginning, but then she stopped. She hated her father, wouldn’t say a word about him. Called her mom weak but okay. Said she’d married some old guy, was living in a nice house. Lauren was happy for her, said she’d screwed up plenty but was finally getting it together.”
“Screwed up how?” I said.
“Life, I guess. Screwing up. Like everyone does.”
“Did she ever talk about her mother trying to control her?”
She produced another cigarette. Waited for Milo to light it.
“Not that I remember – from what she said her mom sounded like a wimp, not a bitch.” She put the cigarette to her lips, inhaled, held her breath. When she opened her mouth again, no smoke emerged.
“So she hated her father,” I said.
“He walked out on them, married some stupid cow, had a couple more kids. Little kids. She said they were cute but she didn’t know if she’d ever connect with them, because her dad was an asshole and the cow was stupid and she didn’t know if she wanted to invest any time in it. She was always talking like that. Everything was an investment – your face, your body, your brain. You had to think of it like money in the bank, not give anything away for free.”
Another deep inhalation. She coughed. Smoked rapidly, burning the cigarette nearly down to the filter. “She was smart, Lauren was. She shouldn’t be dead. Everyone else should be, but not her.”
“Everyone else?” I said.
“The world. Whoever killed her should fry in hell and then get eaten by rats.” Crooked smile. “Maybe I’ll be down there by then and I can train the rats.”
“A gun and a computer,” I said as we left the building. The angry young men two doors up hadn’t gotten any more lighthearted, and this time Milo stared at them until their heads turned. “Like Michelle said, not exactly school supplies.”
“Lauren told Michelle she was out of the game, but she’d stayed in it,” he said. “No one talks about her being jumpy or afraid. Not Andy or Michelle or her mother. So maybe the gun was to protect what was in the computer.”
“Data,” I said. “Secrets. And something else: Despite the gun and Lauren’s street smarts, someone managed to hog-tie her and shoot her in the head. Maybe she got caught off guard because the killer was someone she never imagined would hurt her. Someone she knew and trusted. As in big-bucks steady customer who’d been generous for years. Not blackmail – fee for service. But then the customer decided to end the relationship, realized the potential for blackmail existed, and took preventative measures.”
We got in the car. He sat behind the wheel, staring at the dash.
“For all we know,” I said, “Lauren was killed with her own gun. Michelle said a little silver shooter. Plenty of small nine-millimeters around. Someone she trusted and allowed to get close to her purse.”
Still no answer.
“Maybe I’m making too much out of it,” I said, “but you know how we always talk about the eyes giving it away – how people shift their gaze when they’re lying or holding back. Michelle started blinking and fidgeting when the subject of professors came up.”
“Yeah, I noticed that. When she talked about Lauren enjoying hanging out with ‘intellectuals.’ So maybe Lauren did tell her about some big-time john with a Ph.D… So why wouldn’t Michelle say so?”
“Maybe she thinks there’s a chance to profit from it.”
“Blackmail a killer?” he said. “Not too bright.”
“Michelle’s no paragon of judgment. And Lauren’s death means no more money under the door.”
He looked up at the peach building. “Or maybe she’s just used to holding back. Whores live by that creed… I’ll try her again in a couple of days, see if I can pry out the name of some rich intellectual.”
“Ben Dugger’s résumé – the easy way he slid into owning his own company, offices in Newport Beach and Brentwood – says money. And those lapses in his education are interesting.”
“Volvo and a frayed shirt says big spender?”
“Maybe he’s selective about what he spends on. Lauren did write down his number. And Monique Lindquist’s comment about his not talking about sex still has me wondering. During the ride down the elevator in his building, he was in fine spirits. Humming. Literally. Walking with a bounce and enjoying lunch in the park. So either he doesn’t know Lauren’s dead, or he does and he doesn’t care. Maybe it’s not high priority, but somewhere along the line I’d take a closer look at him.”
“High priority,” he said. “Right now, I’ve got nothing else going.” He tapped the MDT. “Let’s see what our computers say about this intellectual.”
THE CRIME FILES had nothing to say about Benjamin Dugger. DMV spit out his address.
The beach. An icy, white high-rise on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, one of those no-nonsense things knocked into place in the fifties and filled with moderate-income retirees until someone figured out that heart-stopping views of the Pacific and sweet air weren’t bad things after all. Now units started at a half million.
The nineties upgrade included new paint and windows, palm trees transplanted from the desert, and locked-door security. We stood out in front. Milo had punched the buzzer three times so far.
He peered through. “Doorman’s right there, yapping with some woman, pretending he doesn’t see or hear.” He cursed. “Give me hookers over petty bureaucrats any day.”
Echo Park to Santa Monica had been a rush-hour crawl across the city, and it was nearly five P.M. Ocean Avenue teemed with tourists, and restaurants ranging from quick grease to wait-at-the-bar haute were jammed. Across the street salt-cured planks and a cheery white arch marked the entry to the Santa Monica Pier, newly rehabbed. The Ferris wheel was still dormant. Evening lights started to switch on. Old Asian men carrying rods and reels exited the wharf, and kids holding hands entered. The ocean at dusk was polished silver.
Just a short ride up the coast was Malibu, where Lauren had supposedly escaped for rest and recreation. Where she’d called a pay phone at Kanan-Dume.
“Come on,” said Milo. He buzzed again, tapped his foot, clenched his hands. “Bastard actually turned his back.” He toed the door frame. Pounded on the glass. “Finally.”
The door opened. The doorman wore a bright green uniform and matching hat. Around sixty and a head shorter than me, with a squat, waxy face scored with frown lines and the squint of someone weaned on No.
He inspected the glass in the door, wagged a finger. “Now look here, you coulda broke-”
Milo advanced on him so quickly that for a moment I thought he’d bowl the little man down.
Green Suit stumbled backward. His uniform was pressed to a shine, festooned with gold braids and tarnished brass buttons. A gold plastic badge said GERALD.
“Police business.” The badge flashed an inch from Gerald’s eyes.
“Now, what kind of business are we talking about here?”
“Our business.” Milo moved around him, swung the door out of his grasp, and stepped in. Gerald hurried in after Milo. I caught the door and brought up the rear.
The lobby was a chilly vault filled with a clean, salty smell and the giddy glissando of Hawaiian guitar music. Dim, despite mirrored walls. Plush carpeting blunted our footsteps. A grouping of aqua leather chairs blocked our way to the doorman’s station. We stepped around, headed for the elevators. Gerald the doorman huffed to keep up.
“Wait a minute.”
“We waited enough.”
“I was on the phone, sir.”
We continued to the directory. B. Dugger: 1053. Top floor. The penthouse. The money trail…
Gerald said, “We’re a high-security-”
“Is Dr. Dugger in?”
“I must call up first.”
“Is he in?”
“Until I call, I couldn’t say-”
“Don’t call. Just tell me. Now.” A big finger wagged in Gerald’s face.
As we boarded the lift the doors closed on the doorman’s frog-eyed outrage.
“Yeah, I know,” said Milo. “Just doing his job. Well, tough shit – he’s the one chosen by God as today’s scapegoat.”
Three apartments on the penthouse level, all with high, gray double doors. Dugger’s was one of the pair that faced the beach. Dugger answered Milo’s knock within seconds, a rolled magazine in his hand, reading glasses hanging from a chain around his neck.
His clothes were a variant of yesterday’s rumpled casual: white shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, beige Dockers, crepe-soled brown loafers. The magazine was U.S. News.
“Dr. Dugger?” said Milo, flashing the badge.
“Yes – what’s going on?”
I was standing behind Milo, and Dugger hadn’t looked at me closely.
“I’d like to ask a few questions.”
“The police? Of me?”
“Yes, sir. May we come in?”
Dugger stood there, perplexed. Through the doors I caught an eyeful of floor-to-ceiling glass, black granite flooring, endless ocean. What I could see of the furniture looked medium-priced and insipid.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” he said.
“It’s about Lauren Teague.”
“Lauren? What about her?”
Milo told him.
Dugger went ghostly white and swayed. For a moment I thought he’d faint, and I got ready to catch him. But he stayed on his feet and tugged at his collar and pressed a palm to one cheek, as if stanching a wound.
“I’m afraid so, Doctor. Did you know her well?”
“She worked for me. This is… hideous. My God. Come in.”
The penthouse was lots of wide-open space. A step-down conversation pit increased the size of the glass wall, magnified the view. No terrace on the other side of the glass, just air and infinity. One of the few walls was covered with metal shelving, filled with journals and books. No food smells from the open kitchen. No woman’s touch or sign of domesticity. The first time I’d seen Dugger I hadn’t taken a look at his hands. Now I did. No ring.
He sat down, hung his head, dropped it into his hands. When he looked up his eyes aimed for Milo; he still hadn’t focused on me. “For God’s sake, what happened?”
“Someone shot her and dumped her in an alley, Doctor. Do you have any idea who would do something like that?”
“No, of course not. Unbelievable.” Dugger’s chest rose and fell. Breathing fast. He shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“What kind of work did she do for you, sir?”
“She was a research aide on a project I’m conducting. I’m an experimental psychologist.”
“What kind of project, Doctor?”
Dugger’s hand flapped distractedly. “I run a small market research firm. We do mostly contract work with ad agencies – focus groups, limited-topic opinion surveys, that kind of thing… Poor Lauren. When did it happen?”
“Several days ago. When’s the last time you saw her?”
“A couple of weeks. We’re on hiatus… This is so…”
“What was Lauren researching?” said Milo.
“She wasn’t actually – the study I hired her for is on interpersonal space,” said Dugger. “Why does that matter?”
Milo’s answer was a blank look. One of many tricks in his bag; it unsettles some people. It caused Dugger to shift his attention, and now he saw me and his mouth turned down. “You were just in the elevator at my office. Have you people actually been following me? Why in the world would you do that?”
Milo and I had prepared for this. He said, “First things first, sir. Please tell us about Lauren Teague’s role in your research.”
Dugger kept his eyes on me for several moments. “Lauren worked as an experimental confederate. But…” He shook his head. Still white.
“But what, sir?”
“I was going to say her job couldn’t be relevant. But I’m sure my saying so means nothing to you.”
Milo smiled and took out his notepad. “What’s a confederate, sir?”
Dugger touched the chain of his eyeglasses. “What psychologists call a plant.”
“I’m not a psychologist, sir.”
“In a sense,” said Dugger. “Lauren pretended to be an experimental subject.”
“But she was really in on the game?”
“Not a game, a study. Limited deception. It’s standard operating procedure in social psychology.”
“When the studies are over, we always debrief the subjects.”
“You tell them they’ve been fooled.”
“We – Yes.”
“How do people react to being fooled, Doctor?”
“It’s no problem,” said Dugger. “We pay them well and they’re good-natured.”
“No one gets irate?” said Milo. “No one who might want to take it out on Lauren?”
“No, of course not,” said Dugger. “You can’t be serious… Yes, I suppose you are. No, Detective, we’ve never had that kind of problem. We pretest our subjects, take only psychologically balanced people.”
“No weirdos even though it’s a psychology experiment.”
“I don’t deal with abnormal psychology.”
Milo said, “The client doesn’t want nutcases.”
Dugger scooted forward. “We’re not talking about anything strange here, Detective. This is quantitative marketing research.”
“Nothing sexy,” said Milo.
Dugger colored. “Nothing controversial. That’s the point, in marketing research one tries to establish norms, to define the typical. Deviance is our enemy. Nothing Lauren did for us could possibly have led to her death. Besides, her identity was always kept confidential.”
“But the subjects found out she’d fooled them.”
“Yes, but Lauren’s name and personal information were always kept confidential.” His chin quaked. “I can’t believe she’s… gone.”
“Tell me more about the study, sir.”
“Nothing about it could possibly be important to you.”
“Sir, this is a homicide investigation, and I need to know about the victim’s activities.”
The word victim made Dugger wince. His forehead was sweating, and he wiped it with his sleeve.
“Lauren,” he said. “It’s so… This is horrible, this is just horrible.” He shifted in his chair, played with his glasses. Stared at me and his eyes slitted. “The study Lauren’s been working on involves the geometry of personal space. How people configure themselves in various interpersonal situations. For example, if the client was a cosmetics company, they might want to know about the geometry of comfort zones.”
“How close people get to each other,” said Milo.
“How close people get to each other when they’re in varying social situations. How people approach each other.”
“Men and women?”
“Men and women, women and women, men and men, the influences of age, culture, distraction, physical attractiveness. That’s where Lauren fit in. She was very beautiful, and she served as our attractiveness confederate.”
“You wanted to know if guys got closer to good-looking as opposed to ugly women?”
“It’s not that simple.” Dugger smiled weakly. “Yes, I suppose that’s basically it.”
“How’d you come to hire Lauren, sir?”
“She answered an ad in the campus paper at the university. The ad was actually soliciting subjects – we were going to use a modeling agency to get confederates – but when we saw Lauren, we realized she might fit.”
“My staff and I.” Dugger looked pained. The sky behind him dimmed, turning the ocean black, graying his face.
“Because of her looks,” said Milo.
“Not just her looks,” said Dugger. “It was also her bearing and her intelligence. She was – so bright. The experiment involves following complex sets of instructions that change from situation to situation.”
“Instructions about what?”
“Where to position oneself in a room, duration of pose, what to say, what not to say, nonverbal cues. There’s some scripting involved – if the subject says one thing, you say another. When not to talk. We use a special room with grid sensors in the floor that are tied in with our computers, so we can track placement and movement directly-” Dugger stopped. “You don’t want to hear this.”
“Actually, we do,” said Milo.
“That’s it, really. Lauren was attractive, extremely bright, able to follow directions, motivated, punctual.” Dugger’s glance wandered to the ceiling, then lowered. His right hand slid over its mate, and both his knees began bouncing.
“She expressed an interest in psychology. Was considering a career in psychology.”
“She talked to you about that.”
“It came up during the screening interview,” said Dugger. Another quick glance upward. A man with Dugger’s training might have known, intellectually, about the telltale signs of evasion, but it didn’t stop him. His knees bounced faster, and sweat beaded his upper lip.
Milo wrote something down, kept his eyes on his pad. “So basically, you placed Lauren in this computerized room and measured how guys reacted to her.”
“For how long were she and the subjects in the room?”
“That’s one of the things we vary. Duration, temperature, music, dress.”
“Dress? She wore costumes?”
“Not costumes,” said Dugger. “Different outfits. Varying colors, styles. In Lauren’s case, she brought her own clothes, from which we selected what she wore.”
“It was actually Lauren’s idea. She said she had an extensive wardrobe, suggested we might make good use of it.”
“Creative,” said Milo.
“As I said, she was motivated. Punctual, absolutely reliable, terrific with details. Plus she had the perspective of a researcher – intensely curious. So many people say they want to become psychologists because they have some ambiguous notion about helping people. Which is good, nothing wrong with that. But Lauren went beyond that. She was extremely keen-minded and analytical. Had a very good sense of herself – socially poised, much more mature than other students we’d worked with.”
“Sounds like you came to know her quite well.”
“She worked with us for four months.”
“Since the summer.”
“Yes, late July. We ran the ad during the summer sessions.”
But Lauren hadn’t been registered for the summer session. I kept silent.
“Mature,” said Milo. “Then again, she was older than most students.”
“Yes, she was, but even so.”
“Four months… Full-time, every day?”
“Her work schedule was flexible. We run studies when we get enough subjects. Generally, I’d say it worked out to half-time – sometimes more, sometimes less.” Dugger wiped his lip with the back of his hand. His knees were still. Dealing with details had calmed him.
“How’d you reach her when you wanted her to come in?”
“We issued her a beeper.”
“When’s the last time you beeped her?”
“That I couldn’t tell you. However, if you call the Newport office tomorrow, I’ll make sure her time cards are available.”
“Why Newport and not Brentwood?”
“The Brentwood office is new, not operational yet.”
“So you beeped Lauren and she drove down to Newport.”
“How many other confederates are you using in this particular experiment?”
“Two other women and one man. None of them has met each other. None knew Lauren. We do that for contamination control.”
“And how many subjects did Lauren sit in a room with?”
“That I couldn’t begin to tell you,” said Dugger.
“But the information is available.”
“You can’t really expect me to hand over my subject list. I’m sorry, I really can’t do that – Detective, I won’t tell you how to do your job, but I’m sure there are more productive ways to solve your case.”
“I don’t know, I’m just saying it had nothing to do with the experiment – My God, the thought of someone destroying a life that vital is sickening.”
Milo got up, walked past him, stood near the wall of glass. A wisp of brass striped the southwest sky. “Gorgeous view – Did you and Lauren have any personal contacts?”
Dugger’s hands laced. Another ceiling glance. “Not unless you call going out for coffee personal.”
“A couple of times,” said Dugger. “A few times.” He’d gone pale again. “After work.”
“Just you and Lauren?”
“Sometimes other members of the staff were there. When work ran late and everyone was hungry.”
Milo said, “And other times it was just you and Lauren-”
“Hardly alone,” said Dugger, in a tight voice. “We were in a restaurant, in full public view.”
“More like coffee shops – the Hacienda on Newport Boulevard, Ships, an IHOP-” Dugger’s hands separated. He drew himself up, twisted in his chair, met Milo’s gaze. “I want to make this perfectly clear: There was absolutely nothing sexual going on between Lauren and me. If you had to characterize the meetings, I’d liken them to student-teacher chats.”
“What aspect of psychology?” said Milo.
Dugger continued to stare up at him. “Academic issues. Career opportunities.”
“Sometimes students confide in teachers,” said Milo, walking around so he faced Dugger. “Did Lauren ever get into her personal life? Her family?”
“No.” Dugger wiped his lip again, and his knees began bouncing again. “I’m a researcher, not a therapist. Lauren had questions about research design – excellent questions. Why we were structuring an experiment in a certain way, how we developed our hypotheses. She even had the courage to make suggestions.”
Dugger rubbed his thinning hair. His eyes were feverish. “She had terrific potential, Detective. This is a just a god-awful waste.”
“Did she ever tell you about any other jobs she’d held?”
“That would be on her personnel form.”
“It never came up in conversation?”
“I’d like to see her personnel form, sir. As well as any other data on Lauren you have at hand.”
Dugger sighed. “I’ll try to have them ready for you tomorrow. Come by the Newport office after eleven.”
Milo walked back to where I sat, remained on his feet. “Thank you, sir… Apart from filling out the form, did Lauren say anything about her professional background?”
“Professional?” said Dugger. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“Dr. Dugger, can you think of anything that might help us? Anyone at all who resented Lauren or would’ve had reason to harm her?”
“No,” said Dugger. “All of us liked her.” To me: “How did you connect me with Lauren anyway?”
“Your name was among her effects,” said Milo.
“Her effects.” Dugger’s eyes closed for a second. “So… pathetic.”
Milo thanked him again, and we walked to the door. Before Dugger could get to the knob, Milo took hold of it. Held it in place. “Are you married, Dr. Dugger?”
“Five years ago.”
“Divorce scars children,” said Dugger. “Would you like to know my blood type as well?”
Milo grinned. “Not at this point, sir. Oh – one more thing: the experiment – how long has it been running?”
“This particular phase has lasted around a year,” said Dugger.
“How many phases have there been?”
“Several,” said Dugger. “It’s a long-term interest of ours.”
“We found some notes in Lauren’s effects,” said Milo. “Your name and number and something about intimacy. Is that the same study?”
Dugger smiled. “So that’s it. No, it’s nothing sexy, Detective. And yes, it’s the same study. Intimacy – in a psychosocial sense – is a component of interpersonal space, sir. In fact, the ad Lauren answered used the term intimacy.”
“In order to…”
“As an eye-catcher, yes,” said Dugger.
“For marketing purposes,” said Milo.
“You could put it that way.”
“Okay, then.” Milo turned the knob. “So you have absolutely no knowledge of Ms. Teague’s prior work history?”
“You keep coming back to that.”
Milo turned to me. “Guess she wouldn’t have brought it up with someone like Dr. Dugger.”
“What are you getting at?” said Dugger.
“Your being her teacher and all that, sir. Someone she looked up to. You’d be the last person she’d tell.”
He opened the door.
“Tell what?” said Dugger.
Milo’s big face took on the burden of so many sad Irish centuries. “Well, sir, you’re likely to read about it in the paper, so there’s no sense avoiding it. Before Lauren showed up at your door – before she became a student – she had a history of exotic dancing and prostitution.”
A shudder ran down Dugger’s body. “You can’t be serious,” he said.
“I’m afraid I am, sir.”
“Oh, my,” said Dugger, reaching for the doorpost. “You’re right… She never mentioned that. That’s very… tragic.”
“Her death or working as a prostitute?”
Dugger turned away, faced the glass.
“All of it,” he said. “Everything.”
ON THE WAY OUT, Milo bellowed a cheery “Bye-bye” to Gerald the doorman.
We drove up Ocean. Night had settled in, streetlights were hazed, the ocean was reduced to a slash of reflection.
“He blushed the first time you used the word sexy, and he was sweating,” I said. “Did plenty of his own eye calisthenics, mostly when you suggested something personal between him and Lauren.”
“Yeah, but he looked genuinely shocked when he found out Lauren was dead.”
“Yes, he did,” I admitted. “I thought he was going to fall down. Still, that’s a strong reaction for an employer, wouldn’t you say?”
He guided the wheel with one finger. “So maybe he was screwing her – or wanted to. Doesn’t mean he killed her.”
“True. Then again, he could be characterized as an intellectual with bucks – nice penthouse. Be interesting to get a look at his bankbook, see if there are any withdrawals that match Lauren’s deposits.”
“No way to do that,” he said. “Not at this point. The guy’s not even close to warrant material – at this point he’s done nothing to even justify a reinterview. But after I have a look at Lauren’s time cards tomorrow, I’ll check out some of those coffee shops he mentioned. If anyone saw hanky-panky between him and Lauren, I’ll start talking to the D.A.”
“Want me there?”
He chewed his cheek. “No, I think I’d better do this alone. Got to be careful procedurally.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“Well,” he said, smiling, “I don’t know how anyone couldn’t like you, but right now I’m shining in comparison. Let me ask you about that experiment of his. Sound kosher?”
“Hard to say. I wonder who his client is.”
“What if Lauren did get to know one of the subjects – put two people in a room and who knows what can happen. Or suppose a subject got turned on to her, decided to pursue it, and it turned ugly.”
“Or what you suggested: A subject found out he’d been conned, didn’t like that one bit. He claims confidentiality, but how hard would it be for a guy to sit and wait for Lauren to come out.”
“I’d love to have his subject list, but unless he decides to cooperate voluntarily, forget it. Maybe I’ll appeal to his sense of morality – he strikes me as someone who likes to think of himself as upstanding, buying stuff for poor kids. He’s already been tenderized – maybe he’ll bleed some.”
He turned right on Wilshire, cruised past the Third Street Promenade, glanced at shoppers strolling, panhandlers trolling.
“What about his ex-wife?” I said. “If anyone’s gonna debeatify him, who better?”
He smiled. “You want to knock him off his pedestal.”
“Maybe I do,” I said. “I guess something about him bugs me – too good to be true.”
“Tsk, tsk, such cynicism.”
“Comes from spending too much time with you.”
“About time you learned,” he said.
Lauren’s murder rated three back-page Metro paragraphs in the next morning’s Times. The story listed her as a student.
I’d woken up thinking Benjamin Dugger. And Shawna Yeager.
The fact that Dugger’s intimacy ad had run during the weeks before both women’s disappearances – Milo was right about there being no logical connection, but rationality was his province; I was free to be foolish.
I turned it over for a while, decided to look for Adam Green, the student journalist who’d covered Shawna’s story.
Back to the phone book, the four Green, Adams. In 310; Lord knew how many others existed in the panoply of area codes that blanketed L.A. I began calling, got two wrong numbers, a disconnected line, then a phone message that sounded promising:
“This is Adam Green. I may be out seeking inspiration or slaving away at my word processor or just pursuing pleasure. Either way, if you don’t think life sucks, leave a message.”
Nasal baritone. Boy to man.
I said, “Mr. Green, this is Alex Delaware. I’m a psychologist working with the L.A. Police Department and would like to talk to you about Shawna Yeag-”
“This is Adam. Shawna? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, I’m not.”
“They’re reopening Shawna? Unreal. Did something happen – did they finally find her?”
“No,” I said. “Nothing that dramatic. Her name came up during another investigation.”
“Investigation of what?”
“Are you still a journalist, Mr. Green?”
Laughter. “A journalist? As in working for the Cub? No, I graduated. I’m a freelance write – Scratch that, that’s pretentious, I write ad copy. ‘Golden Dewdrops, an organic breath of morning freshness.’ Half of that was mine.”
“You don’t want to know – So what’s up with Shawna? What’s this other investigation all about?”
“Sorry, I can’t get into that,” I said. “But-”
“But I’m supposed to talk to you.” He laughed again. “Psychologist, huh? What is this, some kind of FBI profiling thing? Doing a special for A & E?”
“No, I really am working with LAPD. I was reviewing Shawna’s case and came across your coverage in the Cub. You were more thorough than anyone else and-”
“Now you’re butt-kissing. Yeah, I was good, wasn’t I? Not that there was much competition. No one else seemed to give a damn. Too bad Shawna’s dad wasn’t a senator.”
“I won’t say that, but it wasn’t exactly a task force offensive either. The unicops did their thing, but they’re no geniuses. And the guy LAPD assigned was an old fart – Riley.”
“Yeah. Ready to retire – I always felt he was phoning it in.”
“Where’d you get the material for your coverage?”
“Hung around the unicop station – mostly watched them work the phones and tack up flyers. When I bugged them, they treated me like a pain-in-the-ass kid – which I was, but so what, I was still covering it. I got the distinct feeling I was the only one making a deal out of it. Except for Mrs. Yeager, of course – Shawna’s mother. Not that it did her much good – they shined her on too. Finally, she started complaining, and some dean and the head unicop met with her and told her they were really on it. She didn’t think much of Riley either.”
He paused. “I think Shawna’s dead – I think she was dead soon after she disappeared.”
“Why do you say that?”
“It’s just a feeling I have. If she was alive, why wouldn’t she have turned up by now?”
“Could we talk about this face-to-face?” I said. “Breakfast, lunch, or whatever?”
“Cool,” he said. “Sure, my screen’s blank, anyway – can’t gear myself up for a go at ‘Ginkoba Ginger Gumdrops.’ Let’s see, what time is it – ten. Make it brunch, eleven. I’m over in Baja Beverly Hills – Edris and Pico, east of Century City. There’s a Noah’s Bagel right down the block – nope, too dinky. How about the kosher deli on Pico near Robertson?”
“Sure, I know the place.”
“Or maybe I should go for something even pricier.”
“The deli’s fine.”
“Yada yada,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get an extra sandwich to go.”
I arrived ten minutes early, secured a rear booth, and nibbled sour pickles while I waited. The deli was clean and quiet. Two elderly couples bent over soup, one young, bewigged Orthodox Jewish mother corralled five kids under the age of seven, and a Mexican weight lifter in bicycle tights and a sleeveless sweatshirt trained on chopped liver and a rye heel and a pitcher of iced tea.
Adam Green showed up at 11:05. He was a tall, lanky, dark-haired kid wearing a black V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt, and regular-cut blue jeans that transformed to easy-fit baggy on his ectomorphic frame. Size-thirteen sneakers, gangly limbs, a face that would’ve been teen-idol handsome but for not quite enough chin. His hair was short and curly, and his sideburns dropped an inch lower than Milo’s. A tiny gold hoop pierced his left eyebrow. He spotted me immediately, plopped down hard, and grabbed a pickle.
“Killer traffic. This city is starting to entropize.” He bit down, chewed, grinned.
“L.A. native?” I asked.
“Third generation. My grandfather remembers horses in Boyle Heights and vineyards on Robertson.” Finishing the pickle, he lifted a mustard jar, rolled it between his palms. “Okay, now that we’re auld acquaintances, let’s cut to the chase: What’s really up with Shawna?”
“Just what I told you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Another investigation. But why? ’Cause some other girl dropped off the face of the earth?”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Something like that… I always thought it would make a good book, Shawna’s story. Death of a Beauty Queen – something like that. You’d need an ending, though.”
A waitress came over. I ordered a burger and a Coke, and Green asked for a triple-decker pastrami-turkey-corned beef deluxe with extra mayo and a large root beer.
“And to go?” I said.
He showed lots of teeth and slapped his back against the booth. “Don’t think you’re safe yet.”
When we were alone again, he looked ready to ask another question, but I got there first. “So you think Shawna was dead soon after she went missing?”
“Actually, at first I thought she’d gone off with a guy or something. You know – a fling. Then when she didn’t show up, I thought she was dead. Am I right?”
“Why a fling?”
“’Cause people do that. Am I right about her probably being dead?”
“Could be,” I said. “Did you learn anything about Shawna that you didn’t put in your articles?”
He didn’t answer, had another go at the mustard jar.
“What?” I said.
He blew out air. “It’s like this. Her mom was a nice person. Basic – as in countrified. I don’t think she’d been to L.A. in years – she kept talking about how noisy it was. So here she was, someone who’d grown up in this hick town, raised a daughter all by herself. Shawna’s dad died when she was little – some kind of trucker. Just like a country song. And the daughter turns out to be gorgeous, goes on to become a beauty queen.”
“Shawna’s idea – entering pageants. Her mom never pushed her – at least that’s what she said, and I believe her. There was something about Mrs. Yeager. Straight. Salt of the earth. She supported herself and Shawna waiting tables and cleaning houses. They lived in a mobile home. Shawna was her main source of pride, then Shawna wins that Olive thing, announces she hates Santo Leon, is going up to L.A. to study at the U. Mrs. Yeager lets her go, but she worries all the time. About L.A., the crime. Then it happens – her worst nightmare comes true. I mean, can you think of anything worse?”
I shook my head.
He said, “Mrs. Yeager was destroyed – completely. It was pathetic. She comes up here by herself, no money, not a clue as to what things are like. The U – Just the size of it scared her. She hadn’t made any plans to stay anywhere, ended up in a crappy motel. Near Alvarado, for God’s sake. She was taking two-hour bus rides to Westwood, taking her life in her hands walking around MacArthur Park at night. No one’s giving her guidance, no one’s giving her the time of day. Finally, she gets her purse snatched and the U puts her in a dorm room. But still, no one’s really paying her any attention. I was the only one.”
He frowned. “To be honest, I went after the story in the beginning because I thought it was a cool human-interest hook. Then, after I met Mrs. Yeager, I forgot about that – Mostly I sat there while she cried. It kind of soured me on journalism.”
He put the mustard jar down, finished his pickle, snagged another.
“You liked Mrs. Yeager,” I said. “That’s why you didn’t answer my question about material you kept out of your articles. You’d hate to do anything that compounded her grief.”
“The point is, what good is it gonna do? If no one’s found Shawna yet, she’s probably never going to be found. You’re doing some profile thing to collect data, whatever reason, but you probably don’t care either. So what’s the point? Why add to Mrs. Yeager’s misery?”
“It might help solve another case,” I said. “Maybe Shawna’s too.”
He chewed noisily, lowered his head.
“It might, Mr. Green.”
“What did you find out about Shawna?” I said. “It won’t be released publicly unless lives are at stake.”
He looked up. “Lives at stake. Sounds ominous.” His eyes were bright blue, charged with curiosity. “Hey, here comes the grub.”
The waitress brought our sandwiches. My burger was good, and I ate half before putting it down. Adam Green’s order was a massive thing dripping with cold cuts and coleslaw, and he chomped furiously.
“I still don’t see why I should tell you anything,” he finally said.
“It’s the right thing to do.”
“So you say.”
“Yes, I do.”
He wiped his lips, held the sandwich like a shield. “Look, I need something out of this. If anything gets resolved – what happened to Shawna, or the other case you’re working on – I need to know before any of the media. ’Cause maybe I should write a book. Or at least an article for a magazine.” He wiped his mouth. “The truth is, it stayed with me – Shawna. She was so gorgeous, smart, had everything going for her – here she was, just a few years younger than me, and then it was all over for her. I’ve got a sister her age.”
“At the U?”
“No, Brown.” He placed what was left of his sandwich on his plate, reverentially, like an offering. “We’re talking great story elements here. If it’s not a book, it could be a screenplay. You learn something, I’ve got to know. Deal?”
“If the case resolves, you’ll be the first writer to know.”
“That sounds kind of ambiguous.”
“It’s not,” I said, without taking my eyes off him. He tried for impassive, fell way short. Just a kid. I felt exploitative, told myself he was over twenty-one, had come here voluntarily, was trying his own wheel-and-deal.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “It’s no big thing anyway. The basic point is that Shawna might not have been such an innocent farm girl.”
He took another giant gulp of sandwich, washed it down with root beer. I waited.
“Shawna – and this isn’t fact, it’s just my assumption, that’s why I never published it, along with not wanting to hurt Mrs. Yeager. Also, I did tell Riley and the unicops and they ignored me. The fact that you’re here tells me they never even bothered to put it in their file. Because obviously if they did, you’d have read it.”
“What did you learn, Adam?”
“Okay,” he said. “Shawna might’ve posed nude. Done a photo shoot for Duke magazine – or what she thought was a shoot for Duke magazine, ’cause I think it might’ve been a scam.”
“When did she do this?”
“Might’ve,” he emphasized. “And I don’t know. Probably sometime during the first part of the quarter would be my guess.”
“Not long after she arrived.”
“How’d you learn this?” I said.
“I saw a picture – what I’m pretty sure was a picture of Shawna. And the way her roommate reacted when I brought it up told me I was probably right.”
“Yeah, Mindy. I bugged her a lot, ’cause she was the last person to see Shawna alive. She never wanted to cooperate, said she and Shawna were close, she didn’t want to bad-mouth Shawna. Maybe she was being sincere, but I also think she was a little jealous.”
“Why’d you figure that?”
“You’ve seen pictures of Shawna?”
“Mindy was cute, but she was no Shawna. I’m not saying there was overt animosity between them. But something about the way she talked about her – I couldn’t put my finger on it, I just felt it. Whatever the reason, Mindy really didn’t want to talk about Shawna. I kept bugging her – showing up at her dorm room, catching her in between classes, playing Ace Newshound.” He smiled wistfully. “I must’ve been a real pain in the ass – today, she’d probably have me arrested as a stalker. But I was like… driven. Things bothered me. Like why didn’t Shawna have a boyfriend? Mindy had a boyfriend. Any good-looking girl can have a boyfriend at the snap of a finger, right? Mindy’s answer was that Shawna was a super-grind, end of story. Went to class, came back to the dorm and studied, went to the library and studied some more. But I checked out the grinds in all the libraries, and no one remembered seeing Shawna, and neither did the librarians. I also managed to get hold of Shawna’s library records – big no-no, don’t ask me how. Shawna hadn’t checked any books out the entire quarter.”
“Your article said she was headed for the library the night she disappeared,” I said.
“That was the official story. Mindy’s story. And the unicops believed it. But I’m not sure Mindy believed it. I think she was covering for Shawna. Because she got all shifty when I bugged her about it. And finally I got her to admit that the reason Shawna didn’t have a boyfriend was because she liked older guys. Mindy had tried to fix her up with a buddy of her boyfriend, and Shawna had turned her down flat. Said she preferred older guys – ‘grown-ups’ was the term she used.”
“You’re thinking she was having an affair with an older man,” I said.
“It crossed my mind,” he said. “But I was never able to take it any further. Mindy got all pissed off at me and got her boyfriend – he was this refrigerator-sized behemoth named Steve – to warn me off. I wasn’t about to risk life or limb, so I backed off. I did suggest to the unicops that they check out whether Shawna had ever been seen with an older guy – maybe even a faculty member – but they brushed me off.”
“Why a faculty member?”
“Campus life is isolated. What other older men do students come in contact with? But no one cared – not even my editor. She pulled me off, said they needed to run more political stories.”
He shrugged. “Being on the receiving end of all that apathy and hostility was an eye-opener. So now I write jingles, which is whoring but good-paying whoring. Douche and toothpaste don’t slam the door in your face.”
“The photo you saw,” I said. “Tell me about it.”
“It was the first time I went to the dorm to talk to Mindy – maybe two days after Shawna was reported missing. I don’t know if you’ve seen the dorms, but the rooms are tiny – cells, really. Two people in an area barely big enough for one and not enough closet space, so you tend to keep your stuff out in the open. Shawna must have been a neat freak, ’cause she’d stored her junk in shelves above her bed. I was surprised the police hadn’t confiscated it – doesn’t that show you how seriously they were taking the case? Anyway, I stuck my hand up to pull down her stuff – I really had nerve – got hold of some books and saw this magazine in the middle of the stack. Recent copy of Duke. Which was kind of weird in a girl’s room, right? I grabbed the stuff when Mindy had her back to me, then she turned and started screaming at me and knocked everything out of my hand. That’s when the photos fell out of the Duke. Black-and-whites, clearly nudies. Mindy scooped them up too fast for me to get a good look at them, stuffed them back in the Duke, shoved all of it under her own pillow, continued screaming at me. It all happened really fast, but I did see a killer bod and big blond hair, and that would fit Shawna. Mindy starts shoving at me, yelling at me to get out, and I’m saying, What’s with the skin shots? and she says it’s none of my fucking business. Then she says it belonged to Steve and I’m out in the hall and the door slams.”
He took another bite of sandwich. “It was almost as if she decided to give me some answer so I’d drop it. And maybe it was Steve’s, but then what was it doing on Shawna’s shelves? In the middle of Shawna’s books.”
“Did you tell anyone about this?”
“The unicops and Riley, just like with the older-man theory. Same reaction: Thanks, we’ll look into it. Maybe they did. Though my guess is if the pictures were of Shawna, Mindy might’ve gotten rid of them. To save Shawna embarrassment.”
“Any idea where Mindy is now?”
“She was older than Shawna, would be a senior by now. Don’t imagine it would be that hard to find her.”
“You never tried.”
“I was out of it – did those few stories, then moved on. But like I said, Shawna stayed with me. Though I never thought I’d be talking about her again. Is our deal still on?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You think any of what I told you might mean something?”
“I’m not dismissing it, Adam.”
Older man, younger woman. Dugger’s ad. Nude pictures. Sexual hang-ups.
I’d thought Dugger a prude, but prudes can have secret lives. Maybe Dugger’s donation to the kids at the church had been a guilt offering.
Adam Green was staring at me.
I said, “So maybe the older man in Shawna’s life was a photographer. Someone who claimed to be working for Duke.”
“Why not? I mean, I can’t see a sleazeball like that actually working for Duke, ’cause whatever else Duke is, it’s bona fide, right? They’d have to be careful – couldn’t assign some psycho to take pictures of young girls, right? But this is Hollywood – there’ve got to be armies of low lifes roaming around with cameras and bogus stories. Everyone says Shawna was smart, but she had gotten big-time strokes for her looks and she was still a country girl. How much of a stretch is it from posing in bathing suits and wearing a plastic crown to taking off the suit? And if Shawna did have a thing for older men, couldn’t she have been vulnerable to some guy coming across mature and sophisticated?”
“Makes sense,” I said.
“You’re not bullshitting me?”
“No. You’ve put together a logical scenario.”
He grinned. “I do that once in a while. Maybe I will write a screenplay.”
WONDERING IF MINDY Jacobus was also a psych major, I called Mary Lou at the department and asked her to look up Shawna’s roommate.
“That girl,” she said. “Lauren. I read about it – I’m so sorry, Dr. Delaware. That poor mother. What does this Mindy have to do with it?”
“Maybe nothing,” I said. “But you know how it is.”
“Sure – hold on.”
Several minutes later. “She’s not one of ours, so I called Letters and Science. She’s an econ major – or was. She didn’t reenroll this year. You don’t think she could also be…”
“No,” I said, feeling my heart jump. “Was any reason given for her dropping out?”
“I didn’t ask. If you can stay on, I’ll call over there again.”
A longer wait, then: “Nothing ominous, Dr. Delaware. Thank God. She got married, changed her name to Grieg, but the files didn’t get put together. So we saved her some red tape. She’s only enrolled in one business class this quarter, has a job at the Med Center in public relations.”
I thanked her and hung up. Even if I reached Mindy Jacobus Grieg, what would I say to her? Fess up about your missing roommate’s secrets?
No reason for her to respond with anything other than a call to Security.
There was another reason not to confront her. I was off my game. My surveillance of Benjamin Dugger had turned out to be an amateurish fumble. Milo’d been gracious enough not to point that out, and when Dugger had confronted me, he’d steered the conversation in another direction. But no sense adding to my list of gaffes. I’d check in with the pro, see what he thought about talking to Mindy. Later. At the end of his workday, when leads had either borne fruit or dead-ended.
No way to know how Milo would react to what I’d learned about Shawna’s posing for skin shots. He was reluctant to consider her as a factor in Lauren’s death, and all I really had to fuel my suspicion was a college newshound’s hunch. But as I sat there mulling, Adam Green’s intuition refused to fade.
Maybe because it fit my own premonitions. Shawna’s venture into the skin trade firmed the linkage between her and Lauren. So did the fact that both girls had studied psychology, talked about becoming doctors. Grown up deprived in the Daddy department – in Shawna’s case literal fatherlessness, in Lauren’s a cold, hostile relationship with Lyle Teague. I’d treated enough girls in similar situations to understand where that could lead: the search for the Perfect Father.
And who better than a seemingly gentle older man like Dugger – a man with a psychology doctorate, no less – to fill the void?
Shawna’s beauty pageant appearances would have put her in front of an appreciative crowd while still in her teens. Stripping and hooking and runway modeling had done the same for Lauren. I thought of her and Michelle, youth and agility and sexuality playing to a sea of middle-aged leers.
The following day Lauren had talked about the power.
During my attempt to treat Lauren – those few, pitiful hours – she’d been uncooperative, passive-aggressive, seductive. During her final visit sullenness had erupted into outright hostility. Yet Jane claimed she’d admired me, that I’d meant a lot to her and knowing me had fueled her career choice. And Andrew Salander had backed that up.
It was precisely the ambivalence you’d expect from a girl with a father like Lyle Teague. Could I have been smarter… Then I thought of something else: Jane Teague had also found solace with an older man. Perhaps Lauren hadn’t veered as far from maternal influence as she’d thought.
Lauren and older men… Gene Dalby had thought Lauren older. She dressed older. Playing for someone sophisticated?
When Lauren had vented at me, I’d sat there and taken it. Because that was part of my job. And because my shame at being at the party still resonated. But another man – a man who’d contracted to lease Lauren’s body – might not have been so understanding if Lauren’s ambivalence had twisted into verbal abuse.
Gretchen Stengel had put it perfectly: Men paid to have it on their terms. And challenging the rules – or trying to leave the playing field – just wouldn’t do.
Lauren had never been anything but a pawn, but her bravado – I do great with tips – said she’d fooled herself into thinking she was a queen.
The way she’d died – trussed, shot in the back of the head – spelled out cold execution. The killer making it clear that he was in charge.
The hallmarks of a professional job because the killer wanted to make it look professional. Or was he the type of man who kept his hands clean and hired professionals?
Just another business deal… Superficially, it was hard to see Benjamin Dugger – he of the frayed collar, delivering goodies to children – engaging in something like that. But if the man had sexual hang-ups and money, just because he affected a professorial stance didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of the worst kind of cruelty.
Either way, someone had been there to teach Lauren a final, horrible lesson: Self-delusion was the mother’s milk of prostitution, and fantasies of control were no protection against the worst kind of sore loser.
I made the call to the West L.A. station at five P.M. Milo was away from his desk, and a detective named Princippe told me he’d gone out on a call.
“Any idea where?”
I left my name, hung up, and went out for a run. When I got back the sun had set and Milo hadn’t called back. I showered and changed, and Robin phoned a few minutes later, telling me she’d gone out to Saugus to look at a rumored store of seasoned Tyrolean violin maple that had turned out to be wormed and worthless – and oak to boot.
“Now I’m stuck on the freeway,” she said.
“Guess it’s not a bad day compared to other people’s.”
“You don’t know?”
“Good point,” I said.
“You all right, hon?”
“I’m fine. Want to go out or should I fix dinner?”
I laughed. “Which?”
“Either. Just feed me.”
“That seems reasonable,” I said.
“You’re not getting into anything iffy, are you?”
“No. Why should I?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Love you.”
“Love you, too,” she said. But there was something other than affection in her voice.
I was grilling steaks and feeling quite useful when the phone rang again and Milo said, “What’s up?”
“Anything new on Dugger?”
“Talked to his ex-wife,” he said, sounding rushed. “Located her in Baltimore – English professor at Hopkins. And guess what: She loves the guy. Not romantically. As a person. ‘Ben’s a terrific person.’ No serious personality defects that she was willing to divulge.”
“Why’d they divorce?”
“‘We grew in separate directions.’”
“Sexually?” I said.
“I didn’t ask, Professor Freud,” he said with exaggerated patience. “It wasn’t appropriate. Bottom line: She was amused that the police would be interested in him.”
“He probably alerted her to the fact that you’d be calling.”
“As a matter of fact, I don’t think he did. She sounded genuinely surprised. Anyway, something else just came up. Citywide homicide sheets came in this afternoon, and a downtown case caught my eye. Two bodies left in an alley near Alameda late last night or during the early morning, the industrial area east of downtown. Man and a woman, shot in the head, then doused with lighter fluid and torched. The woman had only one arm. The right one. At first they thought it was burned off, but the bodies hadn’t burned long enough to do that.”
He kept reciting: “Coroner says an old amputation, they’re trying to roll prints off what’s left of the right hand, but whatever skin hasn’t been broiled is sloughed and messed up and it doesn’t look promising. Hopefully, she’s got a dentist.”
“The day after we talked to her.”
“Same thing vis-à-vis prints on the male, but they did find some scorched blond hairs. White male, six foot or so.”
“The junkie she lived with,” I said. “Lance.”
“I asked Ramparts Narcotics to pull up users named Lance. Hopefully I’ll have something soon.”
“You’re talking as if there’s a doubt,” I said.
Silence. “It’s them, and now I’m wondering if my visit signed their death warrant.” Using the singular. Shouldering the blame.
“Someone who didn’t like Michelle talking about Lauren?”
“On the other hand, a girl like Michelle could’ve been into anything. That place she lived, dope was flowing in and out, those tough guys next door. Or someone was watching her apartment, made me for what I am, figured Michelle had squealed. I wouldn’t have noticed – I wasn’t looking out for surveillance.”
I said, “Gretchen knew you were looking for Michelle. She gave you nothing, but Ingrid came up with Michelle’s last name. It’s not a stretch to think Ingrid told Gretchen.”
“Yeah,” he said, with forced calm. “The possibility occurred to me, so I called in a favor, asked one of the other detectives in the office to keep an eye on Gretchen’s movements for the next day or so. So far, it hasn’t come to much. She had a late lunch at the same place, again with Ingrid, went back to her boutique, stayed till three, then got in her little Porsche Boxter and drove to the beach-”
“No, no, hold on. She bypassed Santa Monica completely, took Sunset straight to PCH, broke the speed limit all the way to Malibu, turned off at Paradise Cove. One of those big gated estates that front the highway. The top was down on the Boxter, the whole time she was gabbing on the cell phone, looking carefree. Even when she was waiting at the gate she was yapping. It didn’t take long for her to get buzzed in. And my guy didn’t need a map to know where he was. He’d worked security for a party there several times. The Duke estate – the palace Tony Duke built on mammaries. Talk about your Silicone Valley. Apparently Duke hires off-duty cops all the time. Contributes to the police benevolent fund, part of the whole respectability thing. I guess it’s no surprise Gretchen would know Duke. Back when she was riding high, she was on every A party list.”
“Tony Duke,” I said. “Maybe there’s more to it.” I told him what I’d learned from Adam Green.
“You’ve been busy too,” he said evenly.
“I didn’t see the harm.”
“No harm done,” he said. “All this kid saw was some skin shots, he doesn’t know they were for Duke.”
“Shots hidden in an issue of Duke. Tony Duke has a thing for young blondes, doesn’t he? Both Shawna and Lauren fit that bill.”
“I’m sure Tony Duke has blondes lining up to be Treat of the Month, but his rep is for screwing them, not killing them. And why would he go for a call girl like Lauren?”
“No accounting for taste,” I said.
“I suppose, but some college kid’s screenplay fantasies and Gretchen taking a drive to Malibu doesn’t exactly get my heart beating.”
“Malibu’s where Lauren placed those calls to the pay phone.”
“Exactly. You see Tony leaving Xanadu to take calls at a gas station?”
“Can you tolerate more hypotheses?”
“Sure, hit me.”
I gave him my older-man theory, rambled about power and dominance, the vulnerability that Shawna and Lauren might’ve shared.
“Tony Duke,” I ended. “Talk about an older man.”
“So you’re trading Dr. Dugger for the Sultan of Skin?”
“I adapt to changing circumstance. Fifty plus thousand in Lauren’s account would be chump change for Duke. He’d also have a good reason to want her laptop.”
Milo didn’t reply. In the background a siren wail climbed like a slide trombone solo, then dopplered into silence.
“Tony Duke,” he finally said. “Christ, I hope you’re wrong. That’s just what I need.”
“Big game, small gun.”
FOR FORTY YEARS Tony Duke had preached the gospel of meaning through pleasure, converting a generation and scooping millions from the collection plate.
The easy life was his creed. For forty years every issue of Duke had splayed that dogma above the masthead.
Over four decades Duke pictorials had grown a bit more daring, but the magazine’s format hadn’t changed much since its first issue: golden-toned, milk-fed female nudity personified by the Treat of the Month, combined with suggestive cartoons, big-brotherly advice on dress, drink, and the acquisition of toys, token ventures into political journalism.
When Duke published his maiden issue, photographic essays of bare breasts, pouting lips, and willing thighs were nothing new. Pinup calendars had been gas station fixtures for years, and “nature pictorials” had occupied a stable market niche since the invention of the camera. But all that was under-the-counter stuff, supposedly for guys in raincoats and lowered fedoras – sex as dirty, in the finest American tradition. Marc Anthony Duke’s revolutionary act had been to veneer the skin rag with respectability. Now Suburban Dad could purchase T & A at the corner newsstand and be regarded as classy rather than creepy.
With its winking scamp logo and gloriously uddered, fresh-faced models, Duke magazine had been a major force in the crumbling of sexual censorship barriers, and Tony Duke had fought his share of legal battles. But his victories in court proved, ultimately, to be market-share defeats as each landmark decision allowed successively raunchier publications to achieve legitimacy. Now, in a world where hard-core porn rentals were the number-one video-store commodity, Duke’s airbrushed sensibilities seemed almost quaint. When Tony Duke hit the papers these days, it was usually because he’d thrown a fund-raiser for some worthy cause.
All this and whatever else I thought I knew about him had been gleaned from the papers: California farm boy morphed to starving bookkeeper to failed Hollywood scriptwriter to the author of a dozen forgettable science fiction paperbacks, then finally to head of the gutsy publishing venture that had earned him twenty beachfront acres and the kinds of toys his readers could only dream about. But the papers printed what you gave them, and no doubt Duke employed a fleet of publicists.
He had to be what – seventy, by now?
As far as I knew he’d never been implicated in anything violent. On the contrary, he had a reputation as someone who genuinely loved women. Years ago I’d caught the tail end of a televised interview with him – some biographical feature on a network that deluded itself as substantive. Duke had come across still boyish, if a bit frail. A small, narrow-shouldered, goateed, ludicrously tanned elf of a man with an easy-to-listen-to drawl and friendly brown eyes.
Small brown face under a steel-hued hairpiece. Your eccentric favorite uncle, on shore leave from his latest jaunt to locales exotiques, brimming with ribald anecdotes, naughty jokes, and the unspoken promise that he might, one day, take you with him.
As I watched the steaks sizzle, I continued to wonder. About Marc Anthony Duke and Lauren Teague and Shawna Yeager.
A few years ago, when our house was being rebuilt, Robin and I had rented on the beach in western Malibu. During that year I must’ve zipped past the Duke estate hundreds of times, never thinking about what went on behind those foliage-shielded walls. I had only the faintest memory of a green expanse: palms and pines, banks of devil ivy, geraniums, rubber plants. The gate that had admitted Gretchen Stengel.
Tony Duke had made a fortune knocking down barriers, but he hid behind high walls. Milo was right: If Duke was involved it was a whole new game.
I made a salad, mixed iced tea, set the table, tempted Spike outside with porterhouse, and bolted the dog door. Robin came home just as I had everything in place. She looked tired and pale, and her hair was half tied, half loose. A beautiful woman anyway, but I wondered if Tony Duke would’ve noticed.
“This is wonderful,” she said, washing up and pecking my cheek.
I took her in my arms, kissed her face, rubbed her back, ran my fingers through her curls, gently, so as not to snag. The sounds she made and the way she melted against me said I was doing okay, even though most of my concentration was spent blocking out the faces of dead people.
She found a bottle of cabernet that I’d forgotten about, and as we ate and drank my appetite returned. We did the dishes together, took a walk without Spike, holding hands, not saying much. The night was cold enough for visible breath, and the smog had traveled somewhere else. Winter, California style, was finally arriving. I’d check the garden tomorrow, maybe cut back some roses, see what the pond needed. Basic stuff. Concrete stuff. Time to get away from being useless.
When we got back home I got another peck on the cheek and a tired smile. Robin got into bed with a stack of magazines, and I went to my office and switched on the computer.
Marc Anthony Duke’s name pulled up sixteen quick hits, mostly press pieces and the official Duke magazine website, decorated with grinning portraits of the man himself and thumbnails of pastied and G-stringed Treats Through the Years that could be enlarged with a click.
I scanned for a while, learned only one new fact: Two years ago Tony Duke had gone into “ultraleisure mode” and passed the day-to-day operations of Duke Enterprises to his daughter Anita. The accompanying PR photo showed an indigo-robed Duke posing proudly with a sternly attractive brunette in her thirties wearing a strapless black evening gown. Anita Duke was taller than her father by several inches, a shapely woman with smooth, bronze shoulders and nice teeth displayed by a tentative smile that appeared anything but happy. Described as “an investment banker with a Columbia University MBA and ten years’ experience on Wall Street.” “These will be years of market growth and consumer-sensitivity for Duke Enterprises,” she predicted. “Soon we’ll be moving full-force into cyberspace.”
I searched for something less laudatory, found a couple of Bible Belt organizations listing Duke Enterprises as “a tool of Satan.” Then some paeans from fans – do-it-yourself stuff, with Tony Duke featured high on most-admired lists. From one of these I learned that Duke had been widowed two decades ago and remained single until four years ago, when he’d hooked up with a former Treat with the improbable name of Sylvana Spring (“the girl who tamed Tony!”), with whom he’d sired two children.
Any taming, though, had been short-lived. Duke and Sylvana had concluded an “amiable divorce” last year. The kids were proof, claimed the admiring webmaster, of “Tony Duke’s Eternal Virility – eat your heart out, Viagra-chompers! Beautiful Sylvan and the rugrats still live in a guesthouse right there on T.D.’s palatial Malibu spreadorama! The Man is ultra-generous and too-cool!”
Then pages of downloaded cartoons and centerfold photos, copyright infringements I supposed Duke tolerated. One unlined, doe-eyed, pouty-lipped face after another, sponge-rubber buttocks, geometrically barbered pubic triangles. And breasts. Peach-toned and pink-nippled, identically upswept, pneumatic in a way that Nature had never conceived.
I logged off, returned to the bedroom. Night chill had seeped in, and Robin was wearing a flannel nightgown, buttoned to the neck.
“I was just about to get you,” she said. “Ready to go to sleep? I am.”
Her hair was pinned, and she’d scrubbed her face clear of makeup. Her eyes still looked tired, and her lips were chapped. A tiny pimple that I hadn’t noticed before had sprouted on her forehead. I got into bed, rolled next to her, smelled toothpaste breath, the merest eau of perspiration. As she began to stretch away from me, I kissed her, touched her.
She said, “I look horrid – wasn’t planning to…”
Then she sighed, hiked up her gown, drew me to her, held me tight. She was wet when I entered her, came quickly, chewed on my nipple, and rocked the pleasure out of me. When her body peeled away from mine, she was already asleep. I lay there on my back, feeling the thump of my heartbeat, feeling alone. She began snoring lightly, and her hand snaked across the bedsheet, touched my arm, found my index finger. Her pinkie curled around the digit and held on.
Deep in slumber but gripping my finger hard.
Not daring to move, I waited for sleep.
I awoke the next morning knowing I’d dreamed but struggling to retrieve the details. Something to do with a party… palm trees, blue water, naked flesh. Or was I imagining that?
I took a very hot shower, dressed, made coffee, and brought it to Robin’s studio. She was goggled and gowned, about to enter the spray booth with a new mandolin, feigned patience when she saw me. After a few minutes of sipping and chat, I let her be and returned to the house. Thinking about parties again. Tony Duke’s lifestyle. The kind of opulence that might attract a girl like Lauren. Would be even more of a lure for the Olive Queen of Santo Leon. Had Shawna Yeager covered for a bash at the Duke estate with a story about going to the library?
I drove to the U, hurried into the research library, checked out spools of L.A. Times microfiche, and searched the social calendar for mention of any parties thrown by Tony Duke over the last year.
Given Duke’s reputation that seemed odd, and I retrieved the previous year’s worth of spools, covered another six months with still no mention of bashes or fund-raisers at the Malibu estate.
Maybe there were certain parties Tony Duke kept out of the papers. Or maybe, finding himself a father again, the King of the Easy Life had changed his ways.
I kept searching, finally found something nearly two years ago. A “star-studded” benefit for a free speech organization that had earned Duke two paragraphs in the social pages and was accompanied by photos of The Man, gaggles of Treats, and various screen-famous faces – a plastic surgeon’s bragging session. Anita Duke, too, standing behind her father wearing a conservative dark pantsuit and that same edgy smile as she looked down at her father.
His attention was elsewhere. He held two children in his lap – a plump-looking baby not more than a few months old and a two-year-old boy with a chubby face surrounded by cloud puffs of vanilla ringlets. No lounging duds for Dad – he wore a dark suit, white shirt, dark tie. The toupee was gone, and his bald head was exposed in full, iridescent glory. Older and smaller than in the official Duke shots – as captured by the paper, The Man resembled nothing but a model grandfather.
“Paternal pride” read the caption. “Magazine mogul Marc Anthony Duke relaxes with daughter Anita and her half-sibs, tykes Baxter and Sage. Only the absence of son Ben prevented the evening from being a complete family reunion.”
I hurried out of the microfilm room, raced to the reference stacks, found Who’s Who, pulled out the most recent copy, and paged furiously to the D’s.
Duke, Marc Anthony (Dugger, Marvin George) b. Apr. 15, 1929.
par. George T. and Margaret L. (Baxter).
m. Lenore Mancher, June 2, 1953 (dec. 1979) children:
Benjamin J., Anita C.
m. Sylvana Spring (Cheryl Soames) June 2, 1995 (div.) children: Baxter M., Sage A…
The rest didn’t concern me.
Professor Monique Lindquist’s laughter rang in my ears.
The sex angle – if that’s what you want from Ben Dugger…
Dugger dressed and drove below his means, used his father’s real surname, eschewed the camera. Casting off notoriety? Rejecting what his father stood for? Both?
Now his research made sense.
The mathematics of intimacy.
Reducing sweat and libido to grids and statistics.
The anti-Duke. Sins of the fathers… bearing some kind of guilt – had his church visit been part of a chronic quest for absolution?
An older man. Filling the Daddy void.
When I’d learned about Gretchen’s visit to his father’s estate, I’d veered away from Dugger, but now I was right back where I’d started.
Maybe it hadn’t been Tony Gretchen had come to see.
Shawna Yeager posing for Duke magazine. Lauren, reminding herself to call “Dr. D.” to talk about intimacy. Getting a job with Dugger, spending time with him in Newport Beach coffee shops – meals Dugger claimed were no more than vocational guidance. Dugger blushing and sweating as he insisted intimacy hadn’t crept into his time with Lauren. But pseudointimacy was exactly what Lauren had sold, and a man could be forgiven for failing to see the truth.
Self-delusion… Lauren, shot to death. Michelle, shot to death, maybe because Lauren had confided in her. Shawna, posing for someone who claimed to be working for Duke.
There had to be a syllogism floating somewhere in that tangle.
I had bad news for Milo.
SHORTLY AFTER FIVE P.M. he called me back.
“Official confirmation on Michelle and the boyfriend.” No triumph in his voice. “His full name’s Bartley Lance Flowrig. Bachelor’s degree in shoplifting and burglary, mostly real dumb stuff, no violence. Maybe he and Michelle got desperate and tried to break into the wrong house. Neighborhood like theirs, that could be dangerous.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But guess what?”
He took the news of Ben Dugger’s lineage more calmly than I expected.
“So maybe Lauren told Michelle about something Dugger would like kept private – a nasty kink, something at odds with his nice-guy image. Something that could damage him as well as his dad. Or expose the link to his dad – he seems to be doing his best to hide his family background. Once Lauren was gone, Michelle and Lance decided to profit from the information. Gretchen knew you’d get to them eventually, tipped off someone at the Duke estate.”
He let out a long, low whoosh of resignation, then laughed. “Tony Duke and Dr. Ben. No way I’d have made that connection.”
“That’s exactly the point. I picked up some kind of sexual hang-up, and I’ll bet I was right. Dugger wears frayed shirts, distances himself from his father and everything his father stands for. But maybe it’s a case of protesting too much.”
“Running from his own quirks… So you’re back on Junior. What about Senior?”
“Who knows?” I said. “But at this point that visit to Newport doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Not that Dugger won’t be prepared – he just about invited you to drop by. But throw out Shawna’s name at a strategic moment and see how he reacts. And check out the staff – see if anyone looks antsy.”
“Shawna,” he said. “Who might’ve posed for Duke.”
“Or someone she believed was working for Duke. What if Dugger only used his connections once in a while – to attract young, gorgeous blondes. Not a bad ploy at all, especially when he had a genuine link to back it up, could throw in a visit to the estate. And maybe he scammed Lauren too. Despite her years on the street, she could’ve been seduced by big bucks. Maybe those calls to Malibu were hooking up with Junior, his not wanting her to call him at either his home or Daddy’s. Someone as nondescript as Dugger could’ve used that phone booth without being noticed.”
“A rich kid,” he said. “Pretending to be regular folks… Okay, let’s do Newport tomorrow. I love Orange County – how can you not dig a place that names its airport after John Wayne?”
“Sure you want me along?” I said. “To Dugger I’m the bad cop.”
At nine A.M. Milo rolled onto my property. I had my keys out and headed toward the Seville.
“No,” he said, slapping the driver’s door of the unmarked, “we’ll take the Ferrari. I want this to look official. Hence the tie – excellent choice, by the way. Nice power stripes – Italian?”
I checked the label. “So it says.” I regarded the blue polyester ribbon riding his paunch. “Where’s yours from?”
“The Planet Vulgaro.” He tugged at the knot, licked his pinkie, pretended to slick his hair. “Spiffed and ready for action. What a team.”
As he drove past the gateposts I said, “You tell Dugger we were coming?”
He nodded. “Mr. Cooperative. Sounds a little depressed, though. I seem to have that effect on people.”
When we reached Sunset I said, “Leo Riley.”
“What about him?”
“How would you rate him on the ace detective scale?”
“Adam Green had the feeling Riley was phoning in the investigation on Shawna, just biding his time till retirement. Then again, he’s kind of a mouthy kid and had nothing to offer Riley but guesses about an affair with a professor.”
“Leo… I called him a few days ago – he’s living out in Coachella. Because I did look up the Yeager file, and there’s not much in it. Left a message – he hasn’t called me back.”
“Not much in the file because there wasn’t much to know – or was Green right about Riley?”
“Maybe both,” he said. “No, Leo was no workaholic… Still, there wasn’t much to go on. She told her roommate she was going to the library and never came back. Like I told you before, Leo figured it for a psycho sex thing, and I can’t say I argued with him. He even made some crack about it turning into a serial killer, and by that time he’d be playing golf in the desert and growing skin cancer. Let’s see what he says when he does call back. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about Gretchen’s trip to Duke’s place. What do you think – collecting for services rendered?”
“Gretchen’s never been picky about what she sells.”
“Something else,” he said. “What Salander said – the whole deal about Lauren not wanting to be controlled by her mom. During the notification interview Jane Abbot did all the right things grief-wise. But basically she gave us nothing. Usually the family throws something at you – wild guesses, suspicions, useless stuff, sometimes a real lead. Jane cried a lot, but there was none of that from her. So I called her last night, left a message.” His eyes shifted toward me. “She still hasn’t gotten back to me. Which leads me to the fact that she hasn’t called me once since the notification. That is also not typical, Alex. Your usual middle-class homicide, I get bombarded with messages: what progress has been made, how soon’s the autopsy gonna be over, when can we claim the body, have a funeral. Generally, my problem is playing shrink and clerk and still trying to do my job. This lady – not only doesn’t she get in touch on her own, she doesn’t take the time to call back.”
“Meaning is there anything more I should know about her?”
“No,” I said. “I barely knew her. Barely knew Lauren.”
He gave a cold smile. “And look where that got you.”
“The price of fame.”
“Yeah – Alex, I guess what I’m saying is there’s something about Jane – like maybe she knows something she isn’t letting on. The Duke angle’s nice and juicy, but what if this all traces back in some way to Lauren’s family – Jane, that asshole dad, whatever. I did some checking on ol’ Lyle. Couple of DUI’s, but that’s it. Still, you know better than anyone, this was not one happy family. Is there anything I should be looking at?”
I thought about that as Sunset sloped upward and the 405 on-ramp appeared. Milo pushed down harder on the accelerator, and the unmarked kicked, shuddered, and jammed into high gear.
“Maybe Jane hasn’t called back because she’s gone into seclusion,” I said.
“With Mel? Where? They both check into some rest home? So that’s my answer, huh? Don’t waste my time in the Valley.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Fair enough.” His hands were white around the wheel as he sped onto the freeway, narrowly passing a Jaguar sedan and eliciting angry honks. “Fuck you too,” he told the rearview mirror. “Alex, let’s say there is no big family issue. But what if Lauren got hold of juicy info on Dugger or Duke or whoever and passed it along to Jane? Maybe Jane reacted strongly – told her to keep her mouth shut, whatever, and that was the control thing Lauren talked about to Salander.”
“Lauren had been out of the house for years,” I said. “Had just reconnected with Jane. Their relationship was still thawing. That doesn’t mesh with her confiding something explosive, but maybe. When times get rough sometimes the chicks return to roost.”
“So maybe Jane hasn’t been in touch with me because she’s scared. Has an idea what led to Lauren’s death and is worried it could be dangerous for her too. That would be enough to get her to hold back on a lead to Lauren’s murder – I know, I know, now it’s me who’s hypothesizing. But when I’m finished with Dugger, I definitely want another try at her.”
“Makes sense,” I said.
He grinned fiercely. “Makes no sense evidence-wise, but thanks for the emotional validation. I’m flopping around like a fish on the pier – I know you like Dugger, but he just doesn’t bother me. I don’t pick up any guilt vibe. Sure, he reacted strongly to the news of Lauren’s death, but my immediate impression was it was just that: news. Okay, he was sweating, and maybe he and Lauren were doing the dirty – Let’s see if any of those Newport restaurants remember serious smooching. But still, he doesn’t give off any of that fear-hormone stink. He’s depressed, not spooked… What the hell, he could be a primary psychopath – hog-tied her, shot her, dumped her, and ate a candy bar afterward, and I’m being played like a cheap harmonica. Have you seen anything that points to that level of disturbance? I mean, you should’ve heard the ex-wife – ready to beatify the guy.”
“Psychopaths don’t get anxious, but they do get depressed. Let’s take a closer look at him today.”
Milo frowned, rubbed his face. “Sure. What the hell, at least we’ll get another trip to the beach.”
Just before LAX the freeway clogged. We rolled slowly toward El Segundo, and when the clog gave way Milo said, “What do you think Tony Duke’s worth – couple of hundred million?”
“The magazine’s not what it used to be,” I said, “but sure, that wouldn’t surprise me. Why do you ask?”
“I was just thinking. Big stakes if something Dugger did do placed the old man in jeopardy. As in sexual violence. ’Cause Duke’s image is good, clean licentiousness, right?”
A few miles later: “Think about it, Alex: John Wayne Airport… The guy spent World War II on the Warner’s lot and he’s a combat hero… Welcome to the land of illusion.”
“Maybe that’s why Dugger likes it here.”
Newport Beach sits forty miles south of L.A. Milo violated as many traffic laws as he could think of, but the LAX slowdown turned the trip into a full hour. Exiting at the 55 south, he stayed on the highway as it became Newport Boulevard, sped past miles of basic SoCal strip mall and some spanking new shopping centers with all the charm of theme parks on Prozac. The first evidence of maritime influence – boat brokers – appeared as we switched to Balboa, and soon I was seeing lots of anchor motifs, restaurants claiming FRESH FISH! and HAPPY HOUR! and people dressed for the beach. A silvery winter sky said the sand would be gray and cool, but there was no shortage of bare skin. I opened the window. Ten degrees warmer than L.A. Salt smell, clean and fresh. Between this and Santa Monica, Ben Dugger’s lungs would have to be pink and pretty.
A few blocks later Balboa turned narrow and residential: beautifully landscaped two-story homes lining both sides of the boulevard, beach view to the west, marina vista across the street. A turn onto Balboa East took us past more sparkling windows, bougainvillea flowing from railings, Porsches and Lexuses and Range Rovers lolling in cobbled driveways. Then a two-block, low-profile commercial stretch appeared, and Milo said, “Should be right around here.”
The shop fronts were shaded by multicolored awnings. More shade from street trees, immaculate sidewalks, easy parking, bird chirps, the merest drumbeat of the tide rolling in lazily. Cafés, chiropractors, wine merchants, beachwear boutiques, a dry cleaner. The address Dugger had given for Motivational Associates matched a one-story, seafoam green stucco structure near the corner of Balboa East and A Street. No signage, just a teak door and two draped windows. The immediate neighbors were a dress shop with a window full of chiffon and a storefront eatery labeled simply CHINESE RESTAURANT! Behind the glass front of the café, an Asian man played the deep fryers at warp speed as the woman next to him chopped with a cleaver. The aroma of egg rolls mingled with Pacific brine.
We parked, got out, and Milo knocked on the teak door. The wood was highly varnished, like a boat’s deck; with so many coats laid on the thump barely resonated. Ben Dugger opened and said, “You made good time.”
He wore a white shirt under a gray crewneck, wide-wale green cords, brown moccasins with rawhide laces. The sweater showcased dandruff flecks. He’d shaved recently, but not precisely, and dark hairs hyphenated a raw-looking neck. Behind the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes were bloodshot and resigned, and when they met mine the pupils expanded.
I smiled. He turned away.
Milo said, “Easy ride. Scenic.”
Dugger said, “Come on in,” and admitted us into an off-white anteroom set up with cream canvas chairs and tables piled with magazines and hung with photos of the ocean in various color phases. An unmarked door at the back took us into a larger space, empty and silent and lined with a white door on each wall. The entrance to the left had been left open, revealing a very small, baby blue room furnished with a single bed draped by an Amish quilt and a plain pine nightstand. Stacks of books on the stand, along with a cup and saucer and a pair of glasses. Dugger continued toward a door to the right, but Milo paused to look into the blue room.
Dugger stopped and raised an eyebrow.
Milo pointed at the blue room. “You’ve got a bed in there. Sleep research?”
Dugger smiled. “Nothing that exotic. It’s a genuine bedroom. Mine. I sleep here when it’s too late to drive back to L.A. Actually, this was my home until I moved.”
“The whole building?”
“Just this room.”
“You mean small?” said Dugger, still smiling. “I don’t need much. It sufficed.” He crossed to a closed door and took out a key ring. Double dead bolts, a sign marked PRIVATE. He’d unlatched the first bolt when Milo said, “So how long ago did you move to L.A.?”
The keys lowered. Dugger took a deep breath. “All these questions about me. I thought this was about Lauren’s employment.”
“Just making conversation, Doctor. Sorry if it makes you uncomfortable.”
Dugger’s lips curled upward, and his long, grave face managed a low, inaudible laugh. “No, it’s fine. I moved a couple of years ago.”
“Newport too quiet?”
Dugger glanced at me. Again I smiled, and again his eyes whipped away. “Not at all. I like Newport very much. But things came up, and I needed to be in L.A. more, so I opened the Brentwood office. It’s not really in full gear yet. When it is, I may have to close this place down.”
“Too much overhead. We’re a small company.”
“Ah,” said Milo. “Things came up.”
“Yes,” said Dugger, releasing the second bolt. “Come, let’s meet the staff.”
On the other side of the door was a large, bright office pool partitioned into workstations. The usual off-white blandness, computers and printers and bracket bookshelves, potted plants and cute calendars, stuffed animals on shelves, the smell of lilac air freshener, Sheryl Crow from a cassette player over the watercooler.
Four women stood by the watercooler, all blandly attractive, ranging from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Each wore a variant of sweater-and-pants, and it came across as a uniform. Dugger rattled off names: Jilda Thornburgh, Sally Patrino, Katie Weissenborn, Ann Buyler. The first three were research assistants. Buyler, the secretary, was already equipped with Lauren’s time cards.
Milo flipped through them, began questioning the women. Yes, they remembered Lauren. No, they didn’t know her well, had no idea who would have wanted to hurt her. The word punctual kept coming up. As they talked to Milo I searched for signs of evasiveness, saw only the discomfiture you’d expect from honest people confronted with murder. Ben Dugger had retreated to a cubicle dominated by a large, framed zoo association poster – koalas, cute and cuddly – and had turned his back to us.
Occasionally, one or more of the women looked his way, as if for support.
Surrounding himself with females.
Like father, like son?
Milo said, “Dr. Dugger? If you don’t mind, I’d like to see that room – the one where Lauren worked.”
Dugger turned. “Certainly.”
As he walked toward us Milo said, “Oh yeah, one more thing, gang. Shawna Yeager. Anyone by that name ever work here?”
“You’re sure?” said Milo. “Not as a subject or a confederate or anything else?”
Dugger said, “Who?”
Milo repeated the name.
“No,” said Dugger, eyes steady. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Ann?”
Buyler said, “I’m sure, but I’ll check.” She pecked at her computer keyboard, called up a screen, manipulated the mouse. “No. No Shawna Yeager.”
“Who is she?” Dugger asked Milo.
“So I gathered, Detective-”
“Let’s see that room,” said Milo. “Then I don’t need to waste any more of your time.”
BACK IN THE inner lobby Milo said, “So who’re your clients?”
“You’re not thinking of contacting them,” said Dugger.
“Not unless the need arises.”
“It won’t.” Dugger’s voice had grown sharp.
“I’m sure you’re right, sir.”
“I am, Detective. But why do I get the feeling you still suspect me of something?”
“Not so, Doctor. Just-”
“Routine?” said Dugger. “I really wish you’d stop wasting your time here and go out looking for Lauren’s killer.”
“Any suggestions where?” said Milo.
“How would I know? I just know you’re wasting your time here. And as far as clients go, in terms of the intimacy study there isn’t one. It’s a long-term interest of mine, goes back to graduate school. Our commercial projects tend to be much shorter – attitudinal focus groups, a specific product, that kind of thing. We work on a contractual basis, the timing’s irregular. When we’re in between projects, I focus back on the intimacy study.”
“And now’s one of those times,” said Milo.
“Yes. And I’d appreciate it if you don’t talk about clients to the staff. I’ve assured the women that their jobs are secure for the time being, but with the move…”
“You may be revamping. So you’re financing the intimacy study on your own?”
“There isn’t much expense,” said Dugger. “That woman you mentioned – Shawna. Was she murdered as well?”
“My God. So this – You’re thinking Lauren could’ve been part of something?”
“A mass murderer – a serial killer, pardon the expression.”
Milo jammed his hands into his pockets. “You don’t like the term, Doctor?”
“It’s a cliché,” said Dugger. “The stuff of bad movies.”
“Doesn’t make it any less real when it happens though, does it, sir?”
“I suppose not – Do you really think that’s what happened to Lauren? Some psychopathic creep?” Dugger’s voice had risen, and he was standing taller. Assertive. Aggressive. Locking eyes with Milo.
Milo said, “Any tips in that regard – speaking as a psychologist?”
“No,” said Dugger. “As I told you before, abnormal psychology’s not my interest. Never has been.”
“I prefer to study normal phenomena. This world – We need to emphasize what’s right, not what’s wrong. Now I’ll show you my room.”
Ten by ten, sand-colored walls, matching acoustical tile ceiling, the same kind of canvas chairs as in front, similar coffee tables but no magazines, no pictures. Dugger peeled back a corner of the carpet and exposed a series of stainless steel slats bolted to a cement floor. Soldered to some of the panels were wires and leads and what looked like integrated circuit boards.
“So they just sit here and you measure them?” said Milo.
“Initially, we tell them they’re here for marketing research and they fill out attitude surveys. It takes ten minutes on average, and we leave them in here for twenty-five.”
“Fifteen extra to get acquainted with the confederate.”
“If they so choose,” said Dugger.
“How many do?”
“I can’t give you a precise number, but people do tend to be social.”
I watched his lips, listened to his words for import. Flat tone, no commentary implied or expressed. Maybe that said plenty.
Milo walked around the room, seemed to fill it with his bulk. Running his hand along a wall, he said, “No one-way mirrors?”
Dugger smiled. “Too obvious. Everyone watches TV.”
“Set me straight on procedure, Doctor,” said Milo. “How do you ensure that the subjects and the confederates don’t meet after the experiment’s over?”
“The subject leaves the room before the confederate. While the subject is debriefed, the confederate is moved to a private waiting area – behind the main office. And we monitor subjects’ exits – walk them out, watch them drive away. There’s simply no opportunity for subsequent contact.”
“And there’s no one – a loose cannon, a subject who resented being deceived – who might’ve wanted to harm Lauren?”
“No one,” said Dugger. “We prescreen with a basic test of psychopathology.”
“You don’t like abnormal psychology but you recognize its worth.”
Dugger twisted his collar. “As a tool.”
Milo paced some more, scanned the ceiling. He stopped, pointed to a small metal disc in the corner. “Lens cover? You film them?”
“We’re set up for video and audio recording. It’s an option.”
“Do you keep the tapes?”
“No, we transcribe the data numerically, then reuse the tapes,” said Dugger.
“Nothing you’d want to hold on to?”
“It’s a quantitative study. The main findings are the informational bits that transmit from the grids to our hard drives. As well as the confederates’ observations.”
“The confederates report back to you?”
“We interview them.”
Dugger’s lips tightened. “Qualitative data – variables that can’t be numericized.”
“No, no – nuances. Observational impressions. Measures the grids can’t pick up.”
“And you have no interest in abnormality.”
Dugger pressed himself against the wall. “I really don’t see the need to discuss my research interests.”
“The fact that Lauren was murdered-”
“Sickens me. Just knowing someone who’s been murdered sickens me, but-”
“How well did you know her, Doctor?”
Dugger stepped away from the wall. His eyes rose to the ceiling. “Look, I know what you’re after, and you couldn’t be further off the mark. I told you the first time, I never slept with Lauren. The idea is ridiculous and disgusting.”
Milo’s shoulders bunched like a bull’s as he stepped closer to Dugger. Dugger’s hands rose protectively, but Milo stopped several feet away. “Disgusting? A beautiful girl like Lauren? What’s disgusting about sleeping with a beautiful girl?”
Once again sweat beaded Dugger’s upper lip. “Nothing. I didn’t mean it in that sense. She was – a lovely girl. It just wasn’t like that. She was an employee. It’s called professionalism.”
“An employee with whom you had dinner, several times.”
“Jesus,” said Dugger. “If I’d have known that would set you off, I’d never have mentioned it. We talked about psychology, her career plans. That’s it.”
“Beautiful girls aren’t your thing either?”
Dugger’s hands lowered, curled into fists, opened slowly. He smiled, brushed dandruff from his sweater. “As a matter of fact they’re not. Per se. I’m sure you’re constructed differently, but external beauty means very little to me. Now please leave – I insist you leave.”
“Well,” said Milo, remaining in place. “If you insist.”
“Oh, come on,” said Dugger. “Why does this have to be adversarial? I realize it’s an occupational hazard, but straighten your sights. Lauren deserves that.”
His head dropped, and he covered his eyes. But I saw what he was trying to conceal. The glisten of tears.
Before we got back in the car we stopped at the Chinese restaurant, got some egg rolls and wontons to go, showed the proprietors Lauren’s picture.
“Yes,” said the cook, in perfect English. “She came in here a few times. Chicken fried rice to go.”
“Always alone. Why?”
“Routine investigation,” said Milo. “What about Dr. Dugger? From next door.”
“No,” said the cook. “All these years we’ve been neighbors, and he’s never come in. Maybe he’s a vegetarian.”
Milo drove six blocks, pulled over, ate a roll in two bites, scattering crumbs and not bothering to brush them off. I got to work on a wonton. Greasy and satisfying.
“How’d he react when I popped Shawna’s name? I didn’t pick up anything striking.”
“No reaction at all,” I said. “Which is interesting in itself. Wouldn’t you expect some puzzlement?”
“Or, as you remind me from time to time, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” He opened the envelope with the time cards that Ann Buyler had given him, and I read over his shoulder. Ten to twenty hours a week, the last pay period three weeks ago.
I said, “So either Dugger’s concealing something or Lauren lied to Salander about going to work during the break.”
“Dugger concealing? What, you don’t believe him about no hanky-panky with the help, no attraction to mere physical beauty?”
“He was sweating again.”
“Noticed that. And did you see those tears when he went on about Lauren? What’s with the guy?”
“He’s holding back something.”
Still eating, he pulled away from the curb, and I slapped his sleeve lightly. “Mean, bad policeman. You made him cry.”
“Jesus, you’ve turned into a hard case,” he said, finishing another roll and reaching for a third.
“That marketing company of his,” I said. “There’s a phony feel to it – He got really defensive when you asked him about clients, claimed to be between jobs. Maybe because he doesn’t get many. Doesn’t need to, because he’s got funding from the Duke Foundation – overtly or otherwise. And that would’ve raised the blackmail stakes: What if the old man’s getting tired of financing Junior’s supposedly pure lifestyle? Especially with Ben distancing himself from all Tony Duke regards as holy. But still takes the money. What if Duke’s looking for an excuse to cut Ben off? A nasty scandal would play nicely into that. More than Dugger’s reputation could be at stake.”
“Well, let’s see if anyone around here remembers him doing anything scandalous. With Lauren or anyone else.”
We spent the next two hours cruising Newport and showing Lauren’s photo to restaurant servers and hosts, dropping Ben Dugger’s name, getting absolutely nothing. More than once someone said, “A face like that I would’ve remembered.” A kid in a seafood joint said, “If you find her, can I have her number?”
As we left the final restaurant Milo said, “If Dugger and Lauren were trysting, they weren’t doing it over food.”
“Maybe food’s not his thing either. How about motels?”
He groaned but nodded. Another hour was lost questioning desk clerks. Same result. Milo cursed all the way back to the 55.
“Maybe the guy’s gay,” I said. “You sense any hint of that?”
“What, I’m supposed to have gaydar?”
“Low blood sugar – anything left in that bag?”
“Hand it over.” Between mouthfuls: “Maybe he is gay. Or asexual, or virtuous, or Lord knows what.”
“Asexual,” I said. “Wouldn’t that be something? The Grand Stud spawns a son who’s anything but.”
“You don’t like him. I wouldn’t wanna go bowling with him either – guy’s a priss. But being Tony Duke’s kid isn’t grounds for a warrant. He’s untouchable with regard to Lauren, and so’s all his intimacy data. When we get back I’m getting on the horn to Central and the coroner, see if anything’s come up on Michelle. If they pull a bullet out of her head and it matches the nine millimeter in Lauren’s, maybe I can talk to someone about leaning on Gretchen. Right now, it’s time for that second face-to-face with Jane Abbot. Speaking of which.”
He placed another call to the Sherman Oaks number, got another taped reply. This time he hung up without leaving a message.
“I’ve also got a call in to Westside Vice about Gretchen. Be interesting if she’s gotten active again. If anything leads back to her and Duke, I’ll be on Junior like a rash. Let’s hit the Abbot house, see if the neighbors know where Jane and Mel are. I’ll leave my card in the mailbox, and if she doesn’t respond to that, I’ll really want to know why.”
“Would you consider a detour to Westwood?” I said. “Mindy Jacobus works at the Med Center in public relations. Adam Green feels she didn’t want to be helpful. Any statements from her in Riley’s file?”
“Just the library story.”
“Green checked out the library. No one remembers Shawna ever being there.”
He looked at his watch, gazed through the windshield at the clean stretch of freeway. Midday lull: just a few trucks and cars, and us in the fast lane, under a browning sky that mocked the virtues of progress.
“Nice little off-ramp in Westwood,” he said. “Why the hell not?”
Adam Green had described Mindy Jacobus as “no Shawna,” but she turned out to be a stunning young woman with flawless, lightly tanned skin and one of the healthiest heads of glowing black hair I’d ever seen. A tall, long-legged sylph in a pale blue knit dress and high-heeled white sandals, she strode out of the public relations office into a hallway that reeked of rubbing alcohol carrying a gold Cross pen, moving with a confidence that made her seem older than twenty.
More planes than curves; Tony Duke would probably have walked right past her, so maybe that was what Green had meant. But her stride was a hip-swiveling sashay that transcended lack of flesh.
“Yes?” she said with a publicist’s ready smile. Her I.D. tag read, M. JACOBUS-GRIEG. ASSISTANT PUBLICIST. Milo had given the front desk his name only, no title. The smile wavered when she got a good look at him. No way could that face – that tie – mean philanthropy or any other brand of good news.
When he flashed the badge her confidence shut down completely, and she looked like an overdressed kid. “What’s this about?”
“Shawna Yeager, Ms. Jacobus-”
We were in an administrative wing of the Med Center, far removed from clinical care, but the hospital smell – that alcohol stink – brought back memories of mass polio vaccinations in school auditoriums. My father accepting the needle with a smile, biceps tensing so hard the blood ran down his arm. I, five years old, fighting to squelch my tears as a white-capped nurse produced a frigid cotton swab…
“Weird?” said Milo.
Mindy Jacobus-Grieg’s fine-boned hand clutched the pen tighter. Closing the door behind her, she moved several feet down the hall and settled a lean rump against pale green plaster. The decor was photos of med school deans and famous benefactors at black-tie galas. Some of the angels were showbiz types, and I searched for Tony Duke’s face but didn’t find it.
“Hearing Shawna’s name again,” she said. “It’s been over a year. Has something finally – Did you find her?”
“Not yet, ma’am.”
Ma’am made her flinch. “So why are you here?”
“To follow up on the information you gave during the initial investigation.”
“Now? A year later?”
“What could I tell you that I didn’t already say back then?”
“Well,” said Milo, “we’re new on the case, just doing our best to see what we can learn. And you were the last person to see Shawna.”
“Yes, I was.”
“Just before she left for the library.”
“That’s what she said.” She glanced down at her left hand. The third finger was circled by a gold wedding band and a one-carat diamond ring. She rubbed the stone – reminding herself she’d made progress since then?
Milo said, “Newlywed?”
“Last June. My husband’s a rheumatology resident. I dropped out temporarily to help pay some bills – Does Shawna’s mom know you’re back on the case?”
“Are you in contact with Shawna’s mom?”
“No,” she said. “Not any longer. I did stay in touch for a while – a few months. Agnes – Mrs. Yeager – moved to L.A., and I tried to help her get adjusted. But you know…”
“Sure,” said Milo. “Nice of you to help her.”
A tiny pink tongue tip darted from between Mindy’s lips, then retracted. “She was pretty destroyed.”
“Any idea where she can be reached?”
“She’s not working at the Hilton anymore?”
“Beverly or Downtown?”
“Beverly,” said Mindy. “That’s not in the file? You must be missing a bunch of stuff. That other detective – the old one. He seemed a little… Is he your friend?”
Milo smiled. “Detective Riley? Yes, he did tend to get a little distracted.”
“I never felt he was really paying attention. Anyway, that’s where Agnes worked. I was just thinking about her on Christmas. Because Shawna’s birthday was December twenty-eighth and I knew her mom must be going through hell. I would’ve invited her to my parents’ house, but we all went to Hawaii…”
“What did Mrs. Yeager do at the Hilton?”
“Cleaned rooms. She needed something so she could stay in L.A., and she couldn’t find any decent waitress jobs. The U let her stay in a grad student dorm for a few weeks, but then she had to leave. She didn’t know the city at all, almost ended up near MacArthur Park. I told her to stay as far west as she could, and she found herself an apartment near La Brea and Pico – Cochran south of Pico.”
“So she stuck around.”
“For a few months. Maybe she moved back home – I don’t know.”
“Back to Santo Leon,” I said.
“Uh-huh.” She rolled the pen between her fingers.
Milo said, “So the last time you saw Shawna was that night she said she was going to the library. Remember what time that was?”
“I think I said eight-thirty. It couldn’t have been too much earlier ’cause I was out with Steve – my ex-boyfriend.” Tiny smile. “He had football practice until seven, and I used to pick him up and we’d have dinner in the Coop and then he’d walk me back to the dorms. Shortly after I got back, Shawna left. I studied for a while, went to bed, and when I woke up she still hadn’t returned.”
“Was the library a usual place for her to study?”
“You’re not sure?”
The hand clutching the pen tightened. “In the papers – the campus paper mostly – they said no one remembered Shawna in any of the libraries. Trying to make out like Shawna had lied. But the libraries are huge, so what does that prove? I had no reason to doubt her.”
Footsteps and laughter caused her to gaze down the hall. A group of people in suits passed, and someone called out her name. “Hey, guys,” she said, flashing the sunny smile, then turning it off as she faced us. “Is that it?”
“When Shawna left was she carrying books?”
“She’d have to be,” said Mindy.
“She’d have to be?”
“Even if she wasn’t telling the truth about studying, she would’ve covered herself, right? I mean, with no books, I’d have said something. And I didn’t. So, sure, she must’ve had books. I would’ve noticed if she hadn’t been.”
“Logical,” agreed Milo. “But do you specifically recall seeing books?”
Blue irises bobbled. “No, but… why do you doubt her?”
“Just trying to collect as many details as I can, ma’am.”
“Well, no way I can give you details after all this time, but the logical thing was she had books. Probably psych books. That’s all Shawna read, she was really into it – psychology, medicine. All she did was study.”
“A grind,” I said, remembering the phrase she’d used with Adam Green.
“Not in a dorky sense. She was just serious about her grades… Do you think she could still be alive?”
Milo said, “Anything’s possible.”
Mindy shut her eyes, opened them. “She was so beautiful.”
“If Shawna did make up the story about going to the library, what do you think she was covering for?”
“I don’t think she was covering, and if she was I wouldn’t have the faintest.” The pen slipped from her grasp. She moved fast and caught it.
“Could she have been hiding the fact that she had a boyfriend?” said Milo.
Mindy licked her lips. “Why would she hide that?”
“You tell me,” said Milo gently.
Mindy edged away from him. “I have no idea.”
“Did Shawna have a boyfriend, Ms. Jacobus-Grieg?”
“Not that I knew.”
Milo consulted his pad. “Funny, going over the file, I copied down something about a boyfriend… For some reason I thought that came from you.”
“No way. Why would I tell anyone that?”
“Must be a mistake, then. Oh, well.”
The smooth skin behind Mindy’s ears had pinkened. Milo began paging through his pad. Blank pages. From where Mindy stood, she couldn’t see that. “Here it is… ‘Possible boyfriend.’ ‘Maybe older guy.’ Per MJ.” Looking up, he favored Mindy with an innocent look. “I assumed ‘MJ’ was you, but maybe something got scrambled.”
“Probably.” The flush had spread to Mindy’s jawline.
Milo kicked the wall lightly with the back of his shoe. “Let’s talk theoretically, okay? If Shawna did have an older boyfriend, any idea who he coulda been?”
“How would I know?”
“I just thought, the two of you living together, being close-”
“We lived together, but we weren’t close. Anyway, it was only for a couple of months.”
“So you guys weren’t real friends?” I said.
“We got along but we were different. For one, I was older. A screw-up landed me in a room with a freshman.”
“Exactly,” said Mindy, relieved at being understood.
“Different how?” asked Milo, smiling.
“I’m social,” she said. “I like people, always had lots of friends. Shawna was more of a loner.”
“Interesting trait for a beauty queen.”
“Oh, that – well, that was back in Santo Leon.”
“No, no, I’m not putting it down – it’s just I gathered that back home Shawna was pretty important, but up here she was just another freshman. I went to Uni, had tons of friends here from high school, she didn’t. I tried to – She didn’t make too many of her own friends. I mean she probably would’ve – it was only the beginning of the quarter.”
“Not too social?” I said.
“So back in Santo Leon she’d been a big fish in a small pond, but in L.A. she had trouble distinguishing herself.”
“Yes – I mean she was beautiful. But kind of… country. Unsophisticated. Also, her basic personality was – I don’t want to say stuck up, more like private. She did like to keep to herself. Like when Steve would come over, Shawna would ignore him or leave – She said she wanted to give us space. But…”
“You thought maybe she was being a bit antisocial,” I said.
“To be honest? Kind of. That’s why I didn’t pay much attention that night when she left for the library. She was gone a lot.”
“Nights and days. I really didn’t see her much.”
“Did she spend nights away from the dorm?”
“No,” she said. “She always was there in the morning. That’s why when I woke up and she wasn’t, I thought it was weird. But still…”
“Still what?” said Milo.
“I didn’t freak or anything. You know – this was college. We were supposed to be grown-ups.”
Milo twirled his own pen. Blue plastic Bic. “So there was no boyfriend you know of.”
“And this other note I’ve got – about maybe it being an older man. Did Shawna ever say anything about liking older men?”
Mindy’s back was flat against the wall. Another upward glance. Both of her hands clenched the pen.
“Is this – is all this going to be publicized?”
“That’s not our priority.”
“’Cause it was really no big deal. And Agnes…”
“What was no big deal?”
Mindy shook her head. “I told a reporter – some pest from the Cub – and he told the police about a conversation Shawna and I had.”
“A conversation about what?”
“Guys – what girls talk about all the time. I shouldn’t have opened my mouth. And that pest shouldn’ve repeated it.”
“Repeated what, Mindy?”
Mindy rubbed one sandal against the other. “I wouldn’t want to ruin Shawna’s reputation.”
“Ruin it in what way?”
“Raising rumors – because what’s the point, a year later? Why should her mom read it and get upset?”
Milo moved closer to her, placed his weight on one foot, looking very tired. “What hurts Mrs. Yeager the most is not knowing what happened to Shawna. That’s the ultimate hell for a parent, so anything you can do to clear it up would be a good deed.”
Mindy bit back tears. “I know, I know, but I’m sure it’s nothing-”
“Indulge us. Unless it leads to a solution, we’ll keep it close to the vest.”
The flush had overtaken Mindy’s face. Coppery glow beneath the tan, but nothing healthy about it.
“It was really just a single conversation,” she said, swiping at her eyes again. “Maybe three weeks into the semester. Steve had a friend who thought Shawna looked hot, and he asked if Shawna wanted to be fixed up. Shawna said no, she had too much studying, but then she went out – and not to the library, this was a Friday morning and she said something had come up suddenly, she had to leave early for the weekend. Something back home in Santo Leon. But the thing is, she was all dressed up and made up – nothing like what you’d expect just to take the bus home. So I asked her who the guy was, said she wasn’t wasting stockings and all that lip gloss on some campus loser. And she gave me this – I can only call it an off look, know what I mean? Real serious – almost angry. But not angry – upset.”
“Like you’d hit a nerve,” I said.
“Exactly. She gave me the off look and said, ‘Mindy, I would never date anyone my age. Give me an older guy anytime, ’cause they know how to treat a woman.’ And that’s when it hit me: the way she was dressed. A suit – all that makeup. It’s like she was trying to make herself look older, so I wondered. And that’s what I told that pest from the Cub. Which is probably what you’ve got in there.” Pointing to the pad. “But I don’t know for sure,” she added.
“You didn’t ask her?” said Milo.
“I tried – I can be nosy, I admit it. But like I said, Shawna was private. She just kind of blew me off, picked up her suitcase, and left.”
“So older men know how to treat a woman,” said Milo. “You think she meant financially?”
“That’s the way I took it. ’Cause Shawna liked things. Talked about becoming a psychiatrist or a plastic surgeon, getting herself a big house in one of the Three B’s – Brentwood, Bel Air, Beverly Hills – like she’d read about that in some magazine. I mean, she actually took the bus into Beverly Hills once, walked up and down Rodeo Drive – unsophisticated. Kind of adorable, really.”
“Into stuff,” said Milo.
“Clothes, cars – she said one day she’d drive a Ferrari.”
“From being a plastic surgeon or marrying one?”
“Maybe both,” said Mindy.
“She ever talk about any professors she really liked?”
“What, you think it was a professor?”
“They’re the older men on campus.”
“No, she never said.”
“Okay, thanks for your time,” said Milo, flipping through his pad, then slipping it into his pocket. Mindy smiled, and her posture had just loosened when he said, “Oh, one other thing – and this’ll stay as private as possible too. There was mention of some photos Shawna might’ve posed for, for Duke magazine-”
“Oh, please,” snapped Mindy. “That stupid idiot – the weirdo from the Cub.”
“Obsessive. Like a stalker. He wouldn’t leave me alone. Kept dropping in at the dorm, doing his big reporter thing. The last straw was when he barged right past me, started poking around our stuff. The whole Duke thing came up because Steve had left some magazines around – Sports Illustrated, GQ. And, yes, some Playboys and Dukes too – you know guys. And the idiot has the nerve to start poking around in the stack and these loose pages fall out of the Duke and Green – the idiot – grabs them and says, ‘Whoa, is this Shawna?’ I grab them back and tell him to keep his filthy mitts off and his mind out of the gutter. And he gives me this knowing smile – this smirk – and he says, ‘What’s the matter, Mindy? Why shouldn’t Shawna pose? God gave her the bod and the hair – ’ disgusting talk. That’s when I threatened to scream and he left, but he kept hassling me, and I had to get Steve to warn him off. Maybe you should be looking at him.”
“Did he know Shawna before she disappeared?” I said.
“No – I don’t think so. I was just talking in the sense that he was weird. Anyway, that’s where that Duke stupidity came from.”
“So Shawna never posed.”
“Of course not. Why would she do that?”
“Same reason any girl does. Money, fame – or maybe she’d met an older guy who was also a photographer.”
“No,” said Mindy, “no way. Shawna wanted to be a doctor, not a centerfold. That’s not the kind of money and fame she wanted. None of us want that. It’s demeaning.”
“Shawna entered beauty contests,” said Milo.
“And hated it – Miss Olive Oil, whatever. She told me she only did it for the prize money and because she figured it would look good on her U application. She wasn’t that kind of girl.”
“What kind is that?”
“A bimbo. She was smart.” Another quick study of the ceiling. White knuckles around the gold pen. One hand let go and began tracing the outline of her narrow hip. Her face had turned salmon pink. Her eyes jumped around like pachinko balls.
“Demeaning,” she said.
Milo smiled at her. Let it ride.
AS MINDY RETURNED to her office the corridor filled with people.
Milo said, “That Chinese food made me thirsty.”
We rode a crowded elevator down to the med school cafeteria. Amid the clatter of trays and the odors of mass fodder, we bought Cokes and settled at a rear table. Behind us was a cloudy glass wall looking out to an atrium.
“So,” he said. “Mindy.”
“Not a terrific liar,” I said. “Her complexion wouldn’t cooperate, and she was squeezing that pen hard enough to break it. Especially when she talked about the photos. Adam Green said they were loose black-and-whites, not magazine pages. Mindy tried to make him out as some nut, but he seemed pretty credible to me. And Mindy’s explanation makes no sense. Why would her boyfriend keep skin mags in her room? Green wondered if both Shawna and Mindy had followed up on a solicitation to pose. That would explain Mindy’s nervousness.”
He nodded. “Especially now that she’s an old married woman.”
“You didn’t press her on it.”
“I felt I’d gone as far with her as I could. For the time being. Even if Shawna did pose for nudies, there’s no proof it was really a Duke gig, and not some con man with a business card. Fact is, I can’t see Duke using some psycho photographer – too much at stake. And I can’t exactly march into Tony’s corporate headquarters and demand access to the photo archives.”
His beeper went off. He read the number, cell-phoned, couldn’t get a connection, and stepped outside the cafeteria. When he returned he said, “Guess who that was? Lyle Teague. Mommy doesn’t call me, but Daddy does.”
“What did he want?”
“Have I gotten anywhere, was there anything he could do? Forcing himself to be polite – you could just about see his hands clench through the phone lines. Then he slips in a question about Lauren’s estate. Who’s in charge, what’s going to happen to her stuff, do I know who’s handling her finances?”
He shook his head. “The vulture circles. When I told him I had no idea about any of that, he started to get testy. Poor Lauren, growing up with that. Sometimes I think your job’s worse than mine.”
He bought another Coke, emptied the can.
I said, “The one thing Mindy did confirm was Shawna’s attraction to older men. That and a Duke angle – real or not – does provide a possible link between her and Lauren.”
“Dugger,” he said.
“Older man, rich, smart. A psychologist, no less. He fits Shawna’s list. And talk about business cards – he’s got paternity to back it up. For all we know he uses the magazine as a lure. Same for the intimacy study.”
“Double life, huh? Mr. Clean by day, God knows what after hours?”
“Even by day he’s strange,” I said. “He has no current clients but keeps that lab going. Putting people in a strange little room and measuring how close they get to each other. Sounds more like voyeurism than science to me. And he was running ads prior to both Shawna’s and Lauren’s disappearances.”
“His staff said Shawna had never been to Newport.”
“So he destroyed records. Or met Shawna another way. Taking glam pictures, or he used some other premise. Mindy said Shawna got all dressed up for that weekend thing back home. She didn’t buy the story, assumed the obvious: a date. Shawna was eighteen years old, hungry for the finer things, talked openly about digging older guys. It wouldn’t take a genius to seize upon that and exploit it. And here’s something else to think about: A year has passed between Shawna’s disappearance and Lauren’s death, but that doesn’t mean there’ve been no victims in the interim.”
“I checked for that,” he said. “Right after you told me about Shawna. No obvious similars.”
“Things happen,” I said. “Stuff no one knows about. Especially when there’s money involved.”
He didn’t answer. But he didn’t argue.
We left the Med Center and walked to the no parking zone in front, where he’d left the unmarked. A parking ticket flapped under the windshield wipers. He crumpled it and tossed it in the car’s backseat.
I said, “At the very least, it would be worth talking to Shawna’s mother. She might be able to confirm or deny the weekend event in Santo Leon. Maybe she’s still working at the Hilton.”
“Someone else to make miserable,” he said. “Yeah, yeah, let’s blow by. After that, I’m heading out to Sherman Oaks to see Jane Abbot. Happy Mother’s Day.”
The Beverly Hilton sits at the western edge of Beverly Hills, just east of where the L.A. Country Club begins its dominance of Wilshire. The drive from Westwood was five minutes. The hotel’s personnel office was cooperative but careful, and it took a while to find out that Agnes Yeager had left the Hilton’s employ nine months ago.
“She didn’t stay long,” said Milo. “Problems?”
“No problems at all,” said the assistant personnel manager, Esai Valparaiso, a small, friendly man in a tight brown suit. “We didn’t dismiss her, she just left.” Valparaiso’s thumb flicked the edge of the folder. “Without notice, it says here.”
“Any idea where she went?”
“No, sir, we don’t follow them.”
“And her job was to clean rooms.”
“Yes, sir – she was a Housekeeper One.”
“Could I have her most recent address?”
Valparaiso’s hands spread atop his desk. “I hope she hasn’t done anything that reflects upon the hotel.”
“Not unless grief’s bad for your image.”
“Twelve hundred Cochran,” Milo said, reading the slip as we headed for the car. “The place Mindy told us about.” He plugged Agnes Yeager’s name into DMV. “No wants, warrants, violations, but the address is back in Santo Leon.”
“Maybe she gave up, moved back.”
He got the area code for the farm town, called Information. “Not listed – Okay, let’s have a look at Cochran.”
The apartment was a six-unit dingbat just south of Olympic, on the east side of the street. White-stucco box faced with blue diamonds, remnants of sparkle paint glinting at the points, an open carport packed with older sedans, and a spotless concrete yard where there should’ve been lawn. No Yeager on the mailbox in front, and we were about to leave when an old black man leaning on a skinny chromium cane limped out of the front unit and waved.
His skin was the color of fresh eggplant, shaded to pitch where a wide-brimmed straw hat blocked the sun. He wore a faded blue work shirt buttoned to the neck, heavy brown twill trousers, and bubble-toed black work shoes with mirror-polished tips.
“Sir,” said Milo.
Tip of the hat. “So who did what to who, Officers?” The cane slanted forward as he limped toward us. We met him midway to the carport.
Milo said, “We’re looking for Agnes Yeager, sir.”
Cracked gray lips canted downward. “Agnes? Is this about her daughter? Something finally happen with that?”
“You know about her daughter.”
“Agnes talked about it,” said the man. “To anyone who’d listen. I’m around all the time, so I ended up doing lots of listening.” Bracing himself on the cane, he held out a horned hand, which Milo grasped. “William Perdue. I pay the mortgage on this place.”
“Detective Sturgis, Mr. Perdue. Nice to meet you. You’re talking about Mrs. Yeager in the past tense. When did she leave?”
Perdue worked his jaws and placed both hands on the cane. The straw of his hat brim had come loose near the band, and the sunlight poking through created a tiny lavender moon under his right cheekbone. “She didn’t leave of her own will – she got sick. Nine or so months ago. Happened right here. My niece was down visiting me from Las Vegas. She’s a traffic dispatcher for the police there, works the morning shift and tends to get up early, so she was out that morning just before sunrise. She heard it – a big noise from Agnes’s apartment.” Twisting slowly, Perdue pointed to the ground-floor unit across from his. “Agnes fell down, right inside her door. The door was open, and the newspaper was on the floor next to her. She went outside to fetch it, took a step back inside, and collapsed. Tariana said she was breathing, but not too strong. We called 911. They said it looked like a heart attack. She didn’t smoke or drink – all that sadness was probably what caused it.”
“Sadness over her daughter.”
“It cut her to the bone.” The cane wobbled, but Perdue managed to draw himself up.
“Any idea where she is, Mr. Perdue?”
“They took her right down the block – to MidTown Hospital. Tariana and I went to see her there. They had her in the intensive care and we couldn’t get in. She didn’t have insurance, so a while later they moved her to County Hospital for evaluation. That’s a far trip for me, so I just called her. She wasn’t in much of a state for talking, said they still didn’t know what was wrong with her, but she’d probably be moving out, she’d send someone for her things, sorry about the rent – she owed a month. I said not to worry and don’t be concerned about her things either – There wasn’t much, she rented the place furnished. I had everything packed up – two suitcases – and Tariana brought them over to County Hospital. That’s the last I heard from her. I know she was discharged from County, but no one would tell me where.”
“Mr. Perdue,” said Milo, “did she have any ideas about what happened to Shawna?”
“Sure did. She figured Shawna had been killed, probably by some man who lusted after her.”
“She used that word, sir? ‘Lusted’?”
Perdue pushed up the brim of his hat. “Yes, sir. She was a pretty religious woman, one of those with a strong sense of sin – Like I said, no drinking or smoking, and once she got home from work, she sat and watched TV all night.”
“Lusted,” said Milo. “Did she tell you why she thought that?”
“It was just a feeling she had. Shawna meeting up with the wrong gent. She also said the police weren’t doing much – no offense. That the officer in charge didn’t communicate with her. One time I met her out back. We were both taking out the garbage and she was looking sad and I said what’s wrong, and she just started bawling. That’s when she told me. That Shawna had been a little difficult back home and that she’d tried her best but Shawna had a mind of her own.”
“Wild in what way?”
“I didn’t ask her, sir,” said Perdue, sounding offended. “Why would I pour salt in her wounds?”
“Of course,” said Milo. “But she didn’t give you any details?”
“She just said she regretted the fact that Shawna’s daddy died when Shawna was a baby. That Shawna never had any father, didn’t know how to relate to men properly. Then she started crying some more, talking about how she’d done the best she could, how when Shawna announced she was moving down here to go to college it had scared her ’cause Shawna was all she had. But she let her go, because you couldn’t say no to Shawna – she’d do what she pleased, like entering those beauty contests. Agnes never approved of that, but Shawna wouldn’t be refused. Agnes figured you had to cut the apron strings. ‘Now look what’s happened, William,’ she told me. Then she just cried some more. Pitiful.”
Perdue ran a finger over his upper lip. The nail was hardened, cross-grained like sandstone but carefully shaped. “I told her it wasn’t any of her fault, that things just happen. I lost a boy in Vietnam. Three years I spent fighting Hitler’s war, and I came back without a scratch. My boy flies over to Vietnam, two weeks later he steps on a mine. Things happen, right?”
“They do, sir,” said Milo.
“They do, indeed.”
We drove to Crescent Heights, crossed Sunset as the street shifted to Laurel Canyon, and headed for the Valley.
“Woman with a heart condition,” said Milo. “I’m gonna kick her off the ledge?”
“What do you think about what she told Perdue?”
“About Shawna being wild?”
“Wild because she had no father in her life,” I said. “Wild in a specific way. I think her mother knew of Shawna’s attraction to older men. Meaning maybe Shawna had older boyfriends back home.”
“Maybe,” he said. “But that could also mean that Shawna’s story about heading home for the weekend was true. She got dolled up for some Santo Leon Lothario, it went bad, he killed her, dumped her somewhere out in the boonies. That’s why she’s never been found. If so, there goes the Lauren connection.”
“No,” I said. “Agnes might’ve been aware of Shawna’s tendencies, but I doubt she knew about a specific hometown boyfriend. If she had, wouldn’t she have given his name to the police? Even if the police weren’t listening.”
“Leo Riley,” he said. “SOB still hasn’t called back.”
“He probably couldn’t tell you much anyway. Milo, I think Agnes Yeager knew Shawna’s pattern and suspected history had repeated itself in L.A., but she didn’t know the specifics.”
“Could be… The thing that bothers me is that whoever made Shawna dead really didn’t want her to be found. But just the opposite’s true of Lauren, and Michelle and Lance. We’re talking bodies left out in the open, someone flaunting – maybe wanting to set an example, or scare someone off. Something professional. None of that fits with a sex crime.”
“So the motives were different,” I said. “Shawna was a lust killing, the others were eliminated to shut them up.”
We passed the Laurel Canyon market, and the road took on a steep grade. Milo’s foot bore down on the accelerator, and the unmarked shuddered. As the trees zipped by my heart began racing.
“What if Shawna’s death is the secret? Lauren found out somehow, tried to profit from it. Talk about something worth killing for.”
He was silent till Mulholland. “How would Lauren find out?”
I had no answer for that. He began pulling on his earlobe. Took out a panatella. Asked me to light it and blew foul smoke out the window.
“Well,” he finally said, “maybe Jane can elucidate for us. Glad you’re here.” Angry smile. “This might require psychological sensitivity.”
We drove up to the gates of the Abbot house just before four P.M. Both the blue Mustang convertible and the big white Cadillac were parked in front, but no one answered Milo’s bell push. He tried again. The digital code sounded, four rings. Broken connection.
“Last time it was hooked up to the answering machine,” he said. “Cars in the driveway but no one’s home?”
“Probably just as we thought,” I said. “They went away, took a taxi.”
He jabbed the bell a third time, said, “Let’s talk to some neighbors,” and turned to leave as the third ring sounded. We were nearly at the car when Mel Abbot’s voice broke in.
“Please… this is not… this is…”
Then a dial tone.
Milo studied the gate, hiked his trousers, and had taken hold of an iron slat. But I’d already gotten a toehold, and I made it over first.
WE RAN TO the front door. I tried the knob. Bolted. Milo pounded, rang the bell. “Mr. Abbot! It’s the police!”
No answer. The space to the right of the house was blocked by a ficus hedge. To the left was an azalea-lined flagstone pathway that led to the kitchen door. Also locked, but a ground-floor window was half open.
“Alarm screen’s in place,” said Milo. “Doesn’t look like it’s been breached. Wait here.” Unholstering his gun, he ran around to the back, returned moments later. “No obvious forced entry, but something’s wrong.” Replacing the weapon and snapping the holster cover, he flipped the screen on the partially open window, shouted in: “Mr. Abbot? Anyone home?”
“There’s the alarm register,” he said, glancing at a side wall. “System’s off. Okay, boost me.” I cupped my hands, felt the crush of his weight for a second, then he hoisted himself in and disappeared.
“You stay put, I’m going to check it out.”
I waited, listening to suburban quiet, taking in what I could see of the backyard: a blue corner of swimming pool, teak furniture, old-growth trees screening out the neighboring property, pretty olive green shadows patching a lawn skinned in preparation for fertilizer… Someone had plans for a verdant spring.
Eight minutes passed, ten, twelve. Why was he taking so long? Should I return to the car and call for help? What would I tell the dispatcher?
As I thought about it, the kitchen door opened and Milo beckoned me in. Sweat stains had leaked through the armpits of his jacket. His face was white.
“What’s going on?” I said.
Instead of answering he showed me his back and led me through the kitchen. Blue granite counters were bare but for a carton of orange juice. We hurried through a floral-papered breakfast nook, a butler’s pantry, the dining room, past all that art, and Milo ran past the elevator into the living room, where Melville Abbot’s trophies were gloomed by blackout drapes.
He vaulted up the stairs, and I followed.
When I was halfway up, I heard the whimpering.
Abbot sat propped in bed, cushioned by a blue velvet bed husband, hairless skull reflecting light from an overhead chandelier, slack lips shellacked with drool.
The room was huge, stale, someone’s vision of Versailles. Gold plush carpeting, mustard-and-crimson tapestry curtains tied back elaborately and topped by fringed valances, French Provincial replica furniture arranged haphazardly.
The bed was king-sized and seemed to swallow Abbot. The bed husband had slipped low against a massive swirl of rococo headboard of tufted yellow silk. Lots of satin pillows on the bed, several more on the carpet. The chandelier was Murano glass, a snarl of yellow tendrils crowned by multicolored glass birds. A small Picasso hung askew above the crest of the headboard, next to a dark landscape that could’ve been a Corot. A folded wheelchair filled one corner.
The straggling white puffs of Melville Abbot’s hair had been battened down by sweat. The old man’s eyes were vacant and frightened, lashes encrusted with greenish scum. He wore maroon silk pajamas with white piping and LAPD-issue handcuffs around his wrists.
To his left, a few feet from the bed, red-brown splotches Rorschached the gold carpet. The largest stain spread from under Jane Abbot’s body.
She lay on her left side, left arm stretched forward, legs drawn upward, ash hair loose and fanned across the thick pile. A silver peignoir had ridden up, exposing still-sleek legs, a sliver of buttock swelling beneath black panties. Bare feet. Pink toenails. Graying flesh, green-tinged, purplish suggestions of lividity at ankles and wrists and thighs, as dead blood pooled internally.
Her eyes were half open, filmed, the lids swollen and blueing. Her mouth gaped, and her tongue was a gray garden slug curling inward. One ruby-crusted hole blemished her left cheek; a second punctuated the hairline of her left temple.
Milo pointed to the floor next to the nightstand. A gun, not unlike his 9 mm, near the draperies. He drew the clip from his trouser pocket, put it back.
“When I got here, he was holding it.”
Abbot gave no indication of hearing. Or comprehension. Saliva trickled down his chin, and he mumbled.
“What are you saying, sir?” said Milo, drawing closer to the bed.
Abbot’s eyes rolled back, reappeared, focused on nothing.
Milo turned to me. “I walk in and he points the damn thing at me. I almost shot him, but when he saw me he let go of it. I kept trying to find out what happened, but all he does is babble. From the looks of her, she’s been dead several hours. I’m not pushing him without a lawyer present. It’s Van Nuys’s case. I called them. We should have company soon enough.”
Mel Abbot groaned.
“Just hold on, sir.”
The old man’s arms shot out. He shook his wrists, and the cuffs jangled. “Hurts.”
“They’re as loose as they can be, sir.”
The chocolate eyes turned black. “I’m Mr. Abbot. Who the hell are you?”
Abbot stared at him. “Sherlock Bones?”
“Something like that, sir.”
“Constabulary,” said Abbot. “State trooper stops a man on the highway – have you heard this one?”
“Probably,” said Milo.
“Aw,” said Abbot. “You’re no fun.”
MILO SCANNED THE bedroom as we waited. I could see nothing but tragedy, but his trained eye located a bullet hole on the wall facing the bed, just to the right of the wheelchair. He drew a chalk outline around the puncture.
Mel Abbot continued to hunch stuporously in the bed, cuffed hands inert. Milo wiped his chin a couple of times. Each time Abbot yanked his face away, like a baby repelling spinach.
Finally, the howl of sirens. Three black-and-whites on Code Two, a Mutt-and-Jeff detective duo from Van Nuys Division named Ruiz and Gallardo, a squadron of cheerful, bantering paramedics for Mel Abbot.
I stood on the landing and watched the EMTs set up their mobile stretcher. Milo and the detectives had moved out of the bedroom, out of the old man’s earshot, talking technical. Sidelong glances at the old man. A moist slick of snot mustached Abbot’s upper lip. Jane’s corpse was within his line of vision, but he made no attempt to look at her. A paramedic came out and asked the detectives where to take him. All three cops agreed on the inevitable, the prison ward at County General. The short D, Ruiz, muttered, “Love that drive to East L.A.”
“No place like home, ese,” said Gallardo. He and his partner were in their thirties, solidly built, with thick black hair, perfectly edged and combed straight back. He was around six-two, Ruiz, no more than five-eight. But for the height differential they could have been twins, and I began thinking of them as outgrowths of some Mendelian experiment: short detectives, long detectives… Anything to take my mind off what had happened.
It didn’t work – my head wouldn’t shake off images of Jane Abbot’s final moments. Had she known what was coming, or had the flash of the gun been sensation without comprehension?
Mother and daughter, gone.
A family, gone.
Not a happy family, but one that had cared enough, years ago, to seek help…
A restraint strap unbuckled with a snap, and the EMTs advanced on Abbot. He began to cry but offered no resistance as they eased him onto the stretcher. Then he gazed down at the body and screamed, and waxy arms began striking out. One paramedic said, “Now, come on,” in a bored voice. Snap snap. The paramedics went about their work, speedy as a pit crew, and Abbot was immobilized.
I ran downstairs, retraced the path through the house and out the kitchen door to the flagstone pathway. The sun was relenting, and the lowest quadrant of the sky was striped persimmon. A few neighbors had come out to stare, and when they saw me they edged closer to the gates. A uniform held them back. Someone pointed, and I ducked out of view, stayed close to the house, which was where Milo found me.
“Taking the air?”
“Breathing seemed a good idea,” I said.
“You missed the fun. Abbot managed to slip an arm out and grab hold of one of the EMTs’ hair. They shot him up with tranquilizer.”
“Pathetic but dangerous.”
“You really think he did it?”
“You don’t?” He slapped his hands on his hips. “I’m not saying it was premeditated, but hell, yeah. He was holding the gun, and that hole in the wall fits with a shot fired from the bed. My best guess is it happened last night. They probably had the gun in a nightstand, somehow he found it, was using it as a teddy bear, Jane entered the bedroom, freaked him out, and boom.”
“Suburban security goes bad.”
“We see it all the time, Alex. Usually with kids. Which is what Abbot really is, right? The nightstand drawer’s within arm’s reach. There’s another gun in there – older revolver, a thirty-eight, unloaded. So maybe Jane was being careful. But not careful enough. She forgot about the clip in the gun.”
“Tragic accident,” I said. “You’re the detective.”
He stared at me. “Spit it out.”
“Jane was an experienced caretaker. I can’t see her letting him get near a gun.”
“She had her hands full, Alex. People get careless. Perfectly competent parents turn their backs while Snookums toddles over to the pool.”
He stared down the length of the house. “There’re no signs of forced entry, there was a box of loose jewelry in Jane’s dresser and a nice fat safe in the bedroom closet, combination-locked. Not to mention all those paintings. Ruiz and Gallardo’s first order of business will be to see if the gun was registered. Solid citizens like them aren’t likely to own an illegal piece. If it was theirs, that pretty much clinches it.”
He took baby steps, turned in a small, tight circle, hitched his trousers. “Least I know why she didn’t return my calls.”
“You’re right about the art,” I said. “If it’s real, it’s worth a fortune. One hell of an estate. One hell of a community property. I wonder who inherits.”
He rotated, faced me, eyes half closed but alert, like those of a resting guard dog. “And the point is…”
“Mel Abbot’s only child died ten years ago, Jane’s, just a few days ago. Now Mel will be declared incompetent and someone else will be placed in charge of all the assets. Probably a court-appointed conservator. My guess is relatives will start lining up. I wonder who’s next in line, from a legal standpoint.”
“Some cousin from Iowa. So what?”
“Maybe not,” I said. “Jane mentioned a prenup, but that could’ve applied only to divorce, not death. If Mel’s will signed everything over to Jane, that would’ve put Lauren in place to inherit. But with Lauren dead, her closest living relative could step up to the plate. And look who just called you and asked about Lauren’s finances.”
His head shot forward, and the eyes opened wide. “Daddy dearest – Oh, man, you have a devious mind.”
“He did call. Hours after Jane died.”
“Jane and Lauren both hated his guts. There’d be no reason for him to think anyone made him a beneficiary.”
“Any will come up for Lauren?”
“If she died intestate,” I said, “her estate will end up in probate and be up for grabs. I’m no lawyer, but my bet is that, as her closest living blood relative, Lyle will have a strong claim. Sure, getting through the paperwork will be a hassle, and there’ll be estate taxes to pay, but if those paintings are real, even a chunk would be serious money. Lyle’s hurting financially. A Picasso or two would do wonders.”
“He offs his ex and plants the gun in the old guy’s hand?”
“Like you said, no love lost between them.”
“C’mon, Alex. He can’t be stupid enough to do it and call me the same day. Talk about obvious.” He frowned. “But it wasn’t obvious, was it? Not till your warped mind seized upon it. You are one creative puppy.”
He began pacing along the side of the house. Low chatter from the front of the property created an irritating soundtrack: noise but no reason.
“Lyle’s calling you was blatant,” I said. “But, like you said, people get careless. Did he seem the subtle type to you? The guy’s angry, depressed, out of work, drinks, stomps around his property with a loaded shotgun. If that’s not a recipe for violence, I don’t know what is.”
“You’re saying he did Jane and Lauren? No big bad Duke conspiracy or Shawna cover-up?”
“Who knows?” I said. “The other thing to think about is everyone around Lauren is dying. Which fits with Jane not being more forthcoming because she did know something explosive. Either way, pinning it on Abbot seems awfully convenient.”
“For argument’s sake, let’s say Lyle was the shooter. He shows up and Jane just lets him in?”
“She might’ve. Even with tons of hostility, there was that early bond – the years they’d been together, familiarity, chemistry. I’ve seen it plenty of times working custody cases. The nastiest divorces. Two people trying to rip each other’s hearts out in court, then they find themselves alone and end up in bed. Maybe Lyle put on a big show of grief – that’s the one thing they shared. Lauren’s death. For all we know he didn’t even come to kill her. They started talking, Lyle segued into money talk like he did with you, Jane lost it, and one thing led to another.”
“So why’s the old guy still breathing?”
“Because Lyle’s no genius, but he did have an inspiration. Picture it this way: The argument begins downstairs. Jane orders Lyle out, he refuses. She rushes upstairs, thinking to lock herself in the bedroom, then call the police. Lyle goes after her, gets in the bedroom, shoots her. It’s dark, they could’ve wrestled from a spot near the bed – the hole in the wall. He misses that time but hits his mark twice, and Jane goes down. Abbot’s asleep – maybe deeply, he’s probably on medication. The gunshot wakes him. He sits up. Disoriented. A senile old man confronted with sudden loud noise and darkness. His consciousness is clouded anyway. He wouldn’t have focused immediately – Where were his glasses?”
“On his nightstand.”
“He could’ve seen nothing. Lyle spots him, considers killing him, realizes Abbot’s no direct threat, and comes up with a better idea: plant the gun near or in Abbot’s hand and leave quietly. He might’ve even pressed Abbot’s finger on the trigger and fired and that’s where the hole in the wall came from. Even if Abbot’s head does clear and he recalls some details, who’s going to believe him? What’s his story? A mystery intruder with no signs of forced entry? A bogeyman who leaves his weapon behind? But I’ll wager Abbot comes up with nothing. He’s out of it. A few days in the prison ward at County and he’ll probably be completely vegetative.”
A door slammed at the front of the house. We stepped forward to see the paramedics trundle Abbot out. The old man lay strapped on the stretcher, eyes closed, mouth agape. As the EMTs carried him across the motor court, they chatted and seemed relaxed. No threat from the cargo. Neighborly necks craned as Abbot was loaded into the ambulance. Siren sonata as the uniform at the gate cleared an exit path and the ambulance sped away. Two vans drove up. One white, with the coroner’s logo on the door, was allowed through the gates. The silver one with a network affiliate’s call letters on the roof next to a satellite antenna was waved to the curb.
“The party begins,” said Milo. “At least it’s Ruiz and Gallardo’s bash.”
“I can just hear tonight’s broadcast,” I said, as a young redhead in a yellow pantsuit stepped out of the news van. “‘A Sherman Oaks man was arrested today on suspicion of murdering his wife. Neighbors described Melville Abbot as friendly but feeble – ’”
“That’s still where the facts point, Alex.”
“Guess so,” I said. “And Ruiz and Gallardo do seem like nice guys. Why complicate their lives?”
“Oh, my,” he said. “What the hell went down during your childhood to make you enjoy complications?”
“When my mother was pregnant with me she got startled by an obsessive-compulsive pit bull.”
The woman in yellow approached with a cameraman and a soundman in tow. The boom hovered over her coiffure as she flirted with the uniform at the gate. Smiles all around, then the cop shook his head and the reporter pouted and the news crew drifted toward the growing clot of suburban observers.
Milo said, “Let’s get the hell out of here. Just walk straight through and don’t make eye contact. If Ms. Bubblehead chirps, remember she’s a vulture, not a canary.”
“You heading home?”
He laughed harshly. “You kidding? I love the goddamn Valley – hey, how about a nice little jaunt to Reseda.”
The commuter rush. Ventura Boulevard was constipated, and a glance at the freeway overpass revealed a chromium still life. Milo stayed on surface streets, sitting too straight in the driver’s seat, jaw muscles pumping, lips twisting, one big hand shoving aside the hair lick that shadowed his brow – repeating the futile gesture over and over.
Silent, talking to himself. Assessing the possibilities I’d inflicted upon him.
I might’ve felt guilty, but my mental camera was working overtime too, flashing images of Jane Abbot’s gray-green corpse. Then: the trussed bundle of ruin that had been Lauren’s final pose.
I tried to switch channels, but the alternative fare wasn’t any prettier. Michelle and Lance, burned to cinders. Shawna Yeager brutalized unthinkably, then kicked into a hidden grave. Agnes Yeager probably still pictured her only child’s beautiful face, but by now Shawna would be nothing more than bones.
Mothers and daughters. Entire families, disappeared…
Past Haseltine the traffic eased up. Milo said, “Finally.”
The same soil-and-paint smell, the same irate dogs.
When we reached the chain-link around Lyle Teague’s property, the sun was a brick-colored skullcap on a flat, gray pate of horizon, and the smear of illumination in the lower sky had dulled to excremental brown.
Grimy chemical light revealed the shabby neighborhood at its worst. A few kids with shaved heads lounged in front of the apartments across the street, slouching and drinking, enjoying delusions of immortality. Their grins shifted to fear and distrust as we pulled up. When Milo parked a bottle shattered against the curb. By the time we got out of the car, the kids were gone.
The beefy padlock on Teague’s front gate was in place, but the pickup with the chrome pipes and the overgrown tires was missing, and we had a view of the carport littered with machine parts and broken toys.
“Gone,” I said.
Milo peered through the chain-link diamonds. “This one I don’t scale. Let me call his number.”
As he reached for his cell phone, the house’s front door opened a crack, then wider as Tish Teague stepped out into the dirt, holding the hand of a brown-haired girl around five years old. The child’s eyes were open, but she looked sleepy. The second Mrs. Teague wore a baby blue tank top and too-tight white shorts that sausaged her hips. Her bra strap did the same for her torso, turning her into a mass of soft rolls supported by pasty, dimpled legs. Blue tattoo on the left biceps. Her hair was drawn up at the top, rubber-banded into an off-center thatch.
Milo waved, but she just stood there, bland, pale pudding of a face aiming for stoic.
“Mrs. Teague,” Milo called. “Is your husband home?”
Headshake. Her mouth formed “No,” but the sound failed to make it across the yard.
“Where is he, ma’am?”
Instead of answering Tish returned inside, came back minus the child and with her hair loosened. Walking halfway across the dirt, she stopped, folded her arms under her bosom, and shouted, “Hunting.”
“Usually he brings back birds. Or a deer.”
Milo muttered, “Dan’l Boone.” To Tish: “Where’s he hunt, ma’am?”
“Up near Castaic. What do you need him for?”
“Doing some follow-up, ma’am – May we come in?”
“Follow-up on what?”
“Your husband phoned me today, and I was getting back to him. How long’s he been gone?”
Tish blinked three times. “Coupla days.”
“So he must’ve called me from somewhere else. He have a cell phone?”
“But he did take camping gear.”
“He’s hunting,” said Tish.
“What, the shotgun?”
“I don’t know what he takes. He wraps everything up in plastic. I don’t pay attention to guns – Why all these questions?”
“What, you’re saying Lyle could shoot someone?”
Milo paused. “Has that been on your mind, ma-”
“No way,” she said. “He keeps that stuff just for home protection and hunting – that’s all, and I like that. He’s a good man, why’re you hassling him?”
“I don’t mean to hassle, ma’am. So you haven’t heard from Mr. Teague in two days?”
“I told you, he don’t have one of those.” She pointed to the cell phone. Her tone said the deficiency was a crime for which someone needed to be blamed.
“Hmm,” said Milo. “Well, he did call me.”
“Well, he didn’t call me.” Tish aimed for defiance, but her gray eyes filled with hurt. She stepped a few yards closer. “Sometimes he uses a pay phone – What did he want?”
“To talk about Lauren.”
“Her? What for?”
“She was his daughter, ma’am.”
“Not if you asked her.”
“What do you mean, ma’am?”
Crossing her arms, she covered several more feet, stopped well before the gate. Bare feet, toes grayed with dust. The nacre of chipped pink polish glinting through. “She wasn’t nice to us.”
“Not to me or him or the girls.”
“I thought she brought the girls Christmas presents.”
Tish smirked. “Oh, sure. Big deal. She comes in wearing her cool clothes and her cool makeup and hypers them up with all that candy and junk, and then when she leaves I’m nice enough to thank her and say she can take home some of the apricot pie I baked from fresh apricots because that’s the kind of person I am, she laughs at me and looks down at the pie slice I’m offering her and says, ‘No, thanks.’ Like I stuffed shit in a crust or something. Then she says, ‘At least you’ve got better manners than him. Thanking me. Which you should, ’cause I didn’t have to do this.’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ And she’s like, ‘You better believe you should thank me, ’cause you don’t deserve a damn thing from me – you’re not even my family and neither is he and neither are your rugrats.’”
Tish’s lip trembled. “Just like that. Nasty mean. One minute she’s playing with the girls, and then she’s insulting us. I could’ve trashed her back, but I just said, ‘Well, sorry you don’t like apricot pie. Good-bye.’ And she laughed again and was like, ‘I came here ’cause I’ve got class – something you’ll never know, chubby.’ Then she prancie-pranced out the door.”
Tish released her arms, let the wrists go limp. “She prancie-prances around like she’s doing one of her strip dances – which is the class she had, a stripper and a whore. So who’s she to be snobbing and styling on me? I was so mad, it gave me a migraine, but at least she was out of here. Then, just as I’m closing the door, she turns around and starts coming back, and I’m like, Okay, Tish, you controlled yourself good, but she’s asking for it. I really thought we were gonna get into it, and I tell you, I was ready. But she musta figured that out or maybe it was the girls, running around the house, in and out of rooms, screaming and wild, all hypered up ’cause of her. Or maybe she was just a chicken – whatever.”
“She didn’t come back.”
“She didn’t come back all the way – just stopped in the middle, right back there.” Gesturing behind her. “Then she gives me a look and laughs and shakes her ass outta here. Laughing – loud, so the neighborhood could hear. That’s what she was after – to humiliate us.”
Milo said, “So what do we do for the next round of yuks?”
“Try to find Lyle?”
We got in the unmarked, and he drove back to Ventura Boulevard. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s call out the hounds and track the sonofabitch. And when we find him, we’ll have a weenie roast and tell ghost stories. While we’re at it, we can work in some fishing.”
“Fishing and hunting,” I said. “Wonder how many firearms he’s packing.”
“Given that bad eye of his, he wouldn’t be much good with a bow and arrow.”
“Jane’s dead, and he just happens to be gone,” I said.
“I’ll call the sheriffs up at Castaic, see if they can locate him, but I’m not putting in a requisition for a search party. Lyle may have all the charm of a warthog with piles, but at this point, before the ballistics and the registration on the gun that did Jane come in, he’s no suspect. And her other husband is. Ruiz and Gallardo should have word soon enough on all of it.”
“Even if the gun was registered to Jane or Mel,” I said, “that doesn’t rule out an outside shooter. Let’s say Jane was afraid, made a run for the bedroom, and grabbed her own gun, but whoever frightened her got hold of it.”
“When it comes to theories, you are human flypaper, my friend. First Dugger for Dr. Bloodlust, now Father of the Year for Lyle.”
“I’ve always been goal-directed.”
“Me too,” he said. “Least that’s what my third-grade teacher said. But screw goals. I need to connect the dots, and right now I don’t even have a pencil.”
At White Oak he said, “The thing that bothers me is maybe I narrowed my focus too quickly. I’m not saying the Duke thing or Lyle is wrong, but there’s always the danger of tunnel vision.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know Lauren… meant something to you, but the hard truth is she sold her body for a living, and women who do that live dangerously. The whole thing could trace back to some other john. Hell, I haven’t even followed up on her supposed modeling – the garment industry connections. There’s a real clean business for you – sweatshops and kickbacks.”
“What about Shawna and Duke?” I said.
He rotated his head, winced, rubbed his face. “I don’t know, Alex. My gut still tells me Shawna isn’t related to the rest of it.”
“Your gut’s worth listening to.”
“Thanks, Doc – see you next session.”
We traveled in silence all the way to Beverly Glen and Valley Vista, where Milo began the trip back to the city.
He let out a long, raspy sigh. “I respect your intuition also, Alex, but even an O-C pit bull takes a breather between bouts. Let’s both step back for a while. Maybe try to relax.”
ROBIN SAID, “FIRST the daughter, now the mother?”
We were on the big couch in the living room. She was sitting at the far end, just out of reach, still wearing her work overalls and her red T-shirt. I’d come home determined to put everything aside, had ended up talking about all of it: Lauren’s aborted therapy, Phil Harnsberger’s party, Michelle, Shawna, Jane Abbot, Mel Abbot’s senescent terror.
Death kills confidentiality.
“You’re making it sound like a confession,” she said.
“Yours. The whole sordid tale. As if you’ve done something wrong. As if you’re a main player in all of it and not just an extra.” She looked away. “It’s almost as if she’s seduced you – Lauren. Not sexually – you know what I mean. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Seduction’s how she made a living.”
“I don’t see that at all.”
She got up, went into the kitchen, returned with two bottles of water, and handed me one. Sitting just as far.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“You saw this girl, what – twice, ten years ago? – yet you’ve convinced yourself that you’re obligated to clarify every detail of her life. People like that don’t lend themselves to solutions. For them it’s always problems.”
“People like that.”
“Outcasts, troubled souls – patients, call them what you will. Didn’t you tell me one thing you had to learn so as not to become a toxic sponge was how to let go?”
“It’s not a matter of letting go-”
“What, then, Alex?” Her voice was low, but there was no mistaking the edge.
“Is there anything else that’s bothering you?” I said.
“That,” she said, “was very shrinky.”
“Your mind’s a fine piece of machinery, Alex. I’ve never encountered anything like it. You’re like a precisely tuned watch, always ticking – relentless. But sometimes I think you use what God gave you to dig ditches. Lowering yourself… these people…”
I reached for her, and she allowed me to touch her fingertips. But she exerted no stretch that would have allowed me to hold her.
“The thing is,” she said, “you get yourself on a track and you just keep running. People around this girl tend to die, Alex, and you haven’t even considered the possibility that you might be in danger.”
“The people who’ve died knew her well-”
She sighed and got up. “Listen, I’ve got work to catch up on – catch you later.”
“What about dinner?”
“You are not happy with me.”
“On the contrary,” she said. “I’m very happy with you. With us. That’s why I’d like us both to keep breathing for a while.”
“There’s no danger. I wouldn’t do that to you again.”
“To me? Why don’t you start thinking of yourself? Check out your own boundaries – what you’ll allow in and what you won’t.”
She bent and kissed my forehead. “I don’t mean to be cruel, baby, but I’m weary of all this surmising and ugliness. You did what you could. Keep telling yourself that.”
I spent the night alone, listening to music but ingesting no harmony, trying to read – anything but psychology – waiting for Robin to come back in the house. By eleven she hadn’t, and I went to bed – early for me – and woke at 4:30 A.M., fighting the urge to bolt, exhausted yet charged, using every relaxation trick in my repertoire to fall back asleep. I endured the tension for two more hours until Robin’s eyes opened and I pretended to be ready to greet the day.
She smiled at me, tousled my hair, showered alone but made coffee for both of us, and sat down with the first section of the paper. If Jane Abbot’s murder had made the edition, she didn’t say. I took the Metro pages. Nothing there.
By eight she’d headed back to the studio and I was running up in the hills, harder than usual, punishing my joints, trying to sweat off adrenaline. I’d promised myself to avoid the paper, but when I got back I thumbed quickly and found the summary of Jane Abbot’s death on page 25. Worded nearly exactly as I’d predicted: senile husband, shocked neighbors, domestic tragedy, investigation pending.
I finished up some court reports – a couple of personal injury cases where kids had experienced psychological sequelae and a custody battle with wealthy protagonists that might never end unless the principals died. Printing, signing, sealing, and addressing my findings to various judges, I reviewed my ledger books and tried to figure out if I’d owe taxes in April. By eleven I still hadn’t figured it out. By eleven-thirty Robin bopped in, Spike in tow, and informed me she had to deliver two repaired D’Angelico archtops to the Los Feliz home of a movie star who was considering playing Elvis in an upcoming flick.
“Elvis never played D’Angelicos,” I said.
“That should be the worst of it. This guy’s got a tin ear.” A peck on the cheek – hard, maybe dismissive – and she was off.
By noon I was jumping out of my skin.
At twelve-eighteen I gave up and drove away.
West. Toward Santa Monica. The ocean. Figuring I’d just cruise by Ben Dugger’s high-rise, then take a nice, relaxed drive north on Ocean Front, down the ramp to Pacific Coast Highway.
Malibu. Day at the beach. Nothing to do with Lauren, because Lauren had left no clues in Malibu, and why should I avoid an entire coastline?
I could be as Californian as anyone.
But when I passed the building, Dugger was standing out in front, and I reduced my speed to a crawl.
Standing alone. Checking his watch. Looking rumpled and tense in a tan corduroy sport coat, white shirt, gray slacks. Flicking his wrist again. Glancing at the ramp of the underground parking garage.
Circling the block, I returned, cruising as slowly as I could without drawing the ire of other motorists. That left me mere seconds to stare, but it was enough to catch a glimpse of a green-jacketed figure – the diminutive Gerald – pulling up in Dugger’s old white Volvo, getting out, saluting, opening the door for Dugger.
Dugger gave him a tip and got in.
I drove fifty feet, veered to the curb, parked in front of a hydrant, waited until the Volvo chugged by. Allowing three cars to get between us, I began the tail, knowing this time I couldn’t risk discovery. Figuring I could pull it off. No reason for him to suspect.
He turned right onto Wilshire, headed east to Lincoln, picked up the 10 east freeway and transferred to the 405 south. The route to Newport Beach. Probably just checking out the office; soon the Seville and I would be several dozen miles older with nothing to show.
It beat sitting around the house working at mellow.
But instead of continuing to Orange County, he exited at Century Boulevard and continued west.
LAX signs all over. Flying somewhere? I hadn’t seen luggage, but perhaps the car was already packed.
He headed into the airport. Maintaining the three-car shield, I stayed with him as he entered a parking lot opposite Terminal 4. Several airlines shared the lot, most prominently American. The driver in front of me had trouble figuring out how to take the ticket from the machine, and by the time I got inside the Volvo was nowhere in sight.
No parking spaces on ground level, and I took the ramp down, hoping Dugger had done the same. Sure enough, I spotted the Volvo’s square back just as Dugger nosed into a corner space between two SUVs. He got out and alarm-locked the car, carried no luggage as he headed for the elevators. I chanced parking the Seville in an illegal space and hurried after him.
I hid behind a concrete pylon as he stepped into the lift. Ran over in time to read the illuminated numbers. Two flights up. The footbridge to American Airlines. Vaulting up the stairs, I cracked the stairwell door and saw him lope past. But he didn’t take the right turn toward the escalator that led down to the ticket gates. Continuing straight toward the army of phony nuns and preachers hawking for nonexistent charities, he dropped a coin in a cup and walked hurriedly to the metal detectors.
Long queue of travelers at the single device in service and one sleepy-looking security attendant, so no problem putting space between us there. I watched Dugger place his wallet and keys in a plastic dish and keep his eyes on them as he sailed through. But the two people in front of me set off the machine, and I was forced to cool my heels as Dugger disappeared around a bend.
Finally, I got through and walked briskly through hordes of travelers and loved ones, flight attendants and pilots. No sign of Dugger. During the moments I’d lost sight of him he could’ve gone anywhere – the men’s room, a shop, any of the gates.
I strolled up the corridor trying to look casual, searching for a flash of tan jacket. Then I came to an elevator that led to the private lounge – the Admirals Club. Members Only. A woman sat behind a counter to the right, busy at her computer.
Dugger was a rich kid – why not? Affluence could also explain no luggage: He might have turnkey access to hideouts in Aspen, the Hamptons, Jackson Hole, Santa Fe.
As I approached the elevator the woman behind the counter smiled. “May I please see your membership card, sir?”
I smiled back and walked away. The elevator was in open view of the terminal’s main artery. If Dugger was in there, I had no way to observe his comings and goings without being spotted myself… No, there he was, twenty feet in front of me, stepping out of a men’s room.
I ducked behind an automated insurance machine and pretended to estimate actuarial odds as Dugger whipped out a handkerchief and blew his nose. A nice, heavy rush of newly arrived travelers added further cover. Dugger stashed the hankie and consulted his watch again. Paused at a bank of TV monitors set into the wall, resumed walking.
Not going anywhere. Meeting someone.
I stayed behind Dugger as he entered the main reception area – a wide, circular, noisy space around which the big-bodied jets docked. He bought a pretzel at a kiosk, took a nibble, frowned, tossed what was left into a trash basket.
Yet another consultation of his watch.
A newsstand-sourdough bread outlet occupied the center of the terminal, and I stationed myself at the paperback rack, pulled out a Stephen King, and stuck my nose between the covers. I had a good clear view of Dugger as he made his way to Gate 49A, walked up to the glass wall that offered a view of the landing strip, and peered through. A big, fat 767 sat in the bay.
He walked over to the desk, asked the ground clerk something, remained expressionless as she nodded. Plenty of empty seats in the arrival lounge, but he stayed on his feet. Paid further homage to his watch. Took another gander at the plane.
I was too far away to read the flight information at 49A. Placing the book back on the rack, I edged closer. The flight numbers remained blurry, but I was able to make out “New York.”
Dugger remained near the glass wall for a while before pacing some more. Tugging at his collar. Rubbing the crown of his scalp where the hair had deserted it. When the door to 49A finally opened, he gave a small start and hurried forward.
He edged to the front of the greeting crowd, standing with three uniformed livery drivers holding signs and a young, shapely woman rocking two-year-old twins in a dual stroller.
The limo drivers’ clients emerged first – a white-haired couple, a bespectacled black giant in a five-button cream-colored suit, and a bedraggled, sallow, unshaven wraith in his twenties, wearing dark shades and a food-stained T-shirt, whom I recognized as an actor on a cheesy TV comedy.
Then Dugger’s quarry.
Thickset, swarthy man in his mid-forties, wearing a well-cut black suit and glossy black silk shirt, buttoned to the neck. Black hair in a dense, dark crew cut. Beetle brows, simian hairline – only inches from the shelf of his brow.
Not tall – five-eight or -nine – but at least one ninety, maybe more. A dense, cubic mixture of muscle and fat. His brown neck bulged over the collar of the silk shirt. Suggestions of upper-body bulk and massive strength were enhanced by good tailoring. Flat, prizefighter’s nose. Huge hands. Squinty eyes, thin lips.
He toted a single piece of carry-on: a sleek black-leather bag that Dugger offered to take.
Black Suit refused, scarcely nodded at Dugger. Barely touched Dugger’s hand as they shook. No smiles exchanged, just a curt nod from Black Suit and the two of them were off, Black Suit running a palm over his bristly head.
Dugger hurried to keep pace as the stocky man pressed toward the GROUND TRANSPORTATION/BAGGAGE CLAIM sign. Then Black Suit pointed to the newsstand. Looked right in my direction. Said something. Changed direction and headed toward me.
How could he have seen me – No, there was no alarm in his eyes, just that same solid… flatness.
I backed away just in time to find an observation point behind a support column as the two of them reached the newsstand. They didn’t enter, remained near the register – in front of the candy rack, where Black Suit stopped and considered chewing gum options. Lifting packs, reading ingredients. Finally, he settled on a double-decker Juicy Fruit, popped two sticks in his mouth, pocketed the wrappers, chewed energetically as Dugger paid the cashier.
The two of them exited the reception hall.
Black Suit’s luggage was among the first to bounce down the ramp onto the carousel. A pair of midsized valises in that same expensive-looking ebony leather. Probably calfskin. First Class tags. Once again Black Suit rebuffed Dugger’s attempt to tote, swinging the strap of the carry-on over his shoulder and hefting a suitcase in each hand with no apparent strain. I’d hovered at the neighboring carousel, well concealed among a group of arrivals from Denver. Keeping Dugger and Black Suit in steady view – trying, without success, to read their lips.
Very little conversation anyway. Mostly one-sided: Dugger made an occasional comment while Black Suit chomped his gum and played Sphinx.
I stuck with them on their rapid march to the parking lot, was two minutes behind the Volvo as it left the airport.
Back on the 405 freeway. North. Return to L.A.
This time Dugger took the Wilshire west exit and drove into Brentwood, and I assumed he’d be heading for his L.A. office – soon to be the exclusive headquarters for his alleged consulting group.
But once again he proved me wrong, passing the black-and-white office building and continuing into Santa Monica. Back to the Ocean Front high-rise? Then why hadn’t he switched to the 10 west? No, he was swinging a quick right onto Nineteenth Street.
I turned too, in time to see him hook another right.
Nosing into an alley that fed into a parking lot behind several storefronts. Stationing the Volvo in an empty slot behind a rear door.
Red, white, and green sign: BROOKLYN PIZZA GUYS. Plastic pie above the lettering.
I stopped, backed up to the mouth of the alley, the Seville’s grille barely extending past a drive-up dry cleaners, just close enough to see the white car.
Dugger stepped out of the Volvo, looked at his watch yet again. Black Suit was more relaxed than he’d been at the airport, swinging his legs out with unexpected grace, looking up at the sky, stretching, yawning. Still chewing like mad.
Dugger made for the door to the restaurant, but Black Suit just stood there, and Dugger stopped.
The thickset man squeezed his eyes into slits. Scratched his head. Buttoned his suit jacket and rolled his neck. Working out kinks after the cross-country flight. But other than this gesture showing no signs of discomfort. No anxiety, either, on his broad, brown mask of a face. Mr. Tough Guy.
He said something to Dugger, who returned to the car and produced a white tissue. Black Suit extricated his gum, wrapped it in the paper, placed the paper in his pocket. Then he nodded, waited as Dugger held open Brooklyn Pizza Guys’ back door and passed through with an imperial air.
Gourmet lunch for a goombah? The guy had Brooklyn all over him.
The way she was hog-tied and head-shot tells me this was all business.
Central casting goombah. I was willing to bet the pizza joint sported checked tablecloths and straw-wrapped Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes people defy stereotypes. Mostly, they lack imagination.
Goombah traveling first-class with expensive luggage.
High-priced specialist. A guy who lived well when a well-heeled client was paying the bills.
I drove up the alley, exited at Twentieth Street, drove to the drugstore where Dugger had bought goodies for the church-school kids, and bought a cheap camera. The wonders of technology – for a few bucks you could get one with a zoom.
Then back to Nineteenth, where I parked on the street and returned on foot to Brooklyn Pizza Guys’ alley entrance. Stationed myself behind a Dumpster and hoped no one would spot me. I was lucky. The neighboring businesses were a hearing aid store and an employment agency, and neither seemed to be meriting any rear-entrance traffic. But the Dumpster reeked of rotten produce, and it was thirty-three smelly minutes before Dugger and Black Suit reemerged.
The restaurant’s air conditioner chugged away, more than loud enough to cover the sound of my click click click.
Nice, clear medium shot of the two of them, side by side.
Close-up of Dugger, biting his lip.
Then one of Black Suit’s impassive face and flat, dark eyes.
I kept the camera going as they made their way back to the Volvo, filling the roll with side- and rearviews. Caught them walking in step. No amiability. All business.
Dugger backed the Volvo diagonally across the alley and aimed it west. I gave him a two-minute lead before starting my own engine.
DUGGER DROVE ALL the way to Ocean Avenue. Bringing a hit man home? That surprised me.
But instead of turning left toward the high-rise, he made a right and swung into the left-turn lane. Only a truck between us now, but the height of the cab kept me safely out of view as we sped down toward PCH.
I switched to the right lane, got close enough to see Dugger behind the wheel, sitting straight, head not moving. Black Suit turned from side to side. Catching an eyeful of the mansions lining Santa Monica’s Gold Coast, the white-clapboard palace William Randolph Hearst had built for Marion Davies, now a crumbling mass of planks, generous expanses of beach parking lot that afforded a clear view of the Pacific, churning and silver under a charcoal cloud bank. Gulls flecked the clouds with avian static. A few wet-suited surfers had paddled out yards from the tide line, despite breakers that degraded to a dribble.
The ocean is never anything but beautiful.
Black Suit taking it all in.
Dugger stared straight ahead and put on speed.
He sped through the Palisades and into Malibu, past the latest slide zone and Caltrans’s feeble attempt to battle nature with concrete barriers and sandbags and pink, gritty fiberglass slopes as genuine as Caltrans promises. A few more wet winters and the coastline would look like Disneyland. Black Suit’s head had stopped swiveling – fixed on the ocean. Easy choice: The land side was shopping centers and pizza joints and schlock shops not much different from what he’d encounter in Brooklyn.
I followed the Volvo through Carbon Beach, La Costa, past the private road that led to the Colony, the emerald hills of Pepperdine University, where the commercial clutter gives way to brown mountains, black gorges, orange poppies, and more than a hint of what Malibu must have been like when the Chumash Indians roamed.
Latigo Beach, the Cove Colony, Escondido. No suspense: I knew exactly where Dugger was headed and was ready well before his left-turn signal flashed and he pulled into the center turn lane.
He stopped a quarter mile before the Paradise Cove intersection and Ramirez Canyon. A towering plastic sign advertised the Sand Dollar Restaurant and the trailer park that bordered the restaurant’s private beach.
Malibu’s estate zone. A half mile broken by a handful of gates, each handcrafted and unique and flanked by old trees and hedges, too-perfect beds of flowers, closed-circuit TV cameras, No Trespassing warnings.
Prime of the prime: the few multiacre Malibu properties blessed with sheltered coves and sandy beach and views of the shipping channels that lead to Asia.
The gate that held Dugger’s interest was a tangle of burnished copper tentacles shadowed by the palms and pines I remembered, as well as gigantic rubber trees and schefflera and sagos and birds-of-paradise blazing flamelike in the afternoon sun. He must have had a remote-control unit, because before he completed the turn across PCH the octopus arms swung open and he sailed through. I had my cheapie camera ready and hustled for shots of the Volvo’s rear end as it vanished into green.
Click click click.
The gates closed. I was going no farther.
But Dugger had a busy day lined up.
Chauffering Black Suit to Daddy’s place. The pleasure dome conceptual light-years from the little cell in Newport that Dugger had once called home. For all his rumpled guy pretense – attempts to distance himself from his father and what his father represented – when things got rough Junior returned with the volition of a homing pigeon.
Walking in step with a cold-faced man in a black suit.
Business. Tying up loose ends.
Who was next?
I returned to Santa Monica, found a MotoPhoto with a FREE DUPLICATES! banner, had a cup of coffee while my film developed, then inspected my handiwork. Most of the roll was taken up by rear shots too distant to be useful, but I had managed to snag Dugger and Black Suit together in full-frontal midrange and in two individual close-ups. Nice clear view of the Volvo passing through the coiling copper gates but, once again, too far to catch the license plate. Tony Duke’s address was partially obscured by greenery, but no matter: Those tentacle gates were unique.
I drove home. Robin’s truck was gone, and I was ashamed for being happy about that. Hurrying into my office, I called Milo.
“The gun that killed Jane was registered, all right,” he said. No greeting, no preliminaries. “And guess who?”
I said, “Charles Manson.”
“Lauren. She bought it two years ago at a Big Five on San Vicente – not far from her apartment. She probably figured in her line of work, she could use protection. Or maybe she was just another single woman wanting the security of firepower. Looks like she lent it to her mother, and stepdad got hold of it.”
“Another unfortunate accident.”
“So far, that’s how it’s going down, Alex.”
“What will Mel Abbot be charged with?” I asked.
“The D.A.’s office is brainstorming because it’s a tricky