The ninth book in the Alex Delaware series, 1994
To my daughter Ilana,
a fine and magical mind, a sweet soul,
and, always, music
She smiled, as usual.
From her chair she had a fine view of the ocean. This morning it was a wrinkled teal sheet gilded with sunrise. A triangle of pelicans reconnoitered overhead. I doubted she'd notice any of it.
She moved around a bit, trying to get comfortable.
"Good morning, Lucy."
"Good morning, Dr. Delaware."
Her purse was at her feet, a huge macramé bag with leather straps. She had on a light blue cotton sweater and a pleated pink skirt. Her hair was fawn-colored, sleek, shoulder length with feather bangs. Her slender face was lightly freckled, with great cheekbones and fine features ruled by huge brown eyes. She looked younger than twenty-five.
"So," she said, shrugging and still smiling.
The smile died. "Today I want to talk about him."
She covered her mouth, then removed her fingers. "The things he did."
"No," she said. "I don't mean what we've already been over. I'm talking about things I haven't told you."
She squeezed her lips together. One hand was in her lap, and her fingers began to drum. "You have no idea."
"I read the trial transcript, Lucy."
"All of it?"
"All the crime-scene details. Detective Sturgis's testimony." Private testimony, too.
"Oh… then I guess you do know." She glanced at the ocean. "I thought I'd dealt with it, but all of a sudden I can't get it out of my head."
"No, these are waking thoughts. Images float into my head. When I'm at my desk, watching TV, whatever."
"Images from the trial?"
"The worst things from the trial- those photo blowups. Or I'll flash on facial expressions. Carrie Fielding's parents. Anna Lopez's husband." Looking away. "His face. I feel like I'm going through it all over again."
"It hasn't been that long, Lucy."
"Two months isn't long?"
"Not for what you went through."
"I suppose," she said. "The whole time I sat there in that jury box, I felt as if I was living in a toxic waste dump. The grosser the testimony got, the more he enjoyed it. His staring games- those stupid satanic drawings on his hands. As if he was daring us to see how bad he was. Daring us to punish him."
She gave a sour smile. "We took the dare, all right, didn't we? I suppose it was an honor to put him away. So why don't I feel honored?"
"The end result may have been honorable, but getting there-"
She shook her head, as if I'd missed the point. "He defecated on them! In them! After he- the holes he made in them!" Tears filled her eyes.
"Why?" she said.
"I couldn't even begin to explain someone like him, Lucy."
She was silent for a long time. "Everything was a big game for him. In some ways he was just like an overgrown kid, wasn't he? Turning people into dolls so he could play with them… Some kids play like that, don't they?"
"Not normal kids."
"Do you think he was abused the way he claimed?"
"There's no evidence he was."
"Yes," she said, "but still. How could someone… could he really have been in some kind of altered state, a multiple personality like that psychiatrist claimed?"
"There's no evidence of that either, Lucy."
"I know, but what do you think?"
"My guess is that his crazy behavior at the trial was faked for the insanity plea."
"So you think he was totally rational?"
"I don't know if rational's the right word, but he certainly wasn't psychotic or the prisoner of uncontrollable urges. He chose to do what he did. He liked hurting people."
She touched a wet cheek. "You don't think he was sick."
"Not in the sense of benefiting from a pill or surgery or even psychotherapy." I handed her a tissue.
"So death's what's called for."
"What's called for is keeping him away from the rest of us."
"Well, we did that, all right. The DA said if anyone's going to get gassed, it's him." She gave an angry laugh.
"Does that trouble you?" I said.
"No… maybe. I don't know. I mean, if he ever makes it to the gas chamber I'm not going to be standing around watching him asphyxiate. He deserves it, but… I guess it's the calculated aspect that gets to me. Knowing that on such and such a day, at such and such a time… but would I do anything different? What would be the alternative? Giving him a chance of getting out and doing those things again?"
"Even correct choices can be agonizing."
"Do you believe in the death penalty?"
I thought for a while, composing my answer. Normally, I avoided injecting my opinions into therapy, but this time evasion would be a mistake. "I'm where you are, Lucy. The idea of someone being calculatedly put to death bothers me, and I'd have trouble pulling the switch. But I can see cases where it might be the best choice."
"So what does that make us, Dr. Delaware? Hypocrites?"
"No," I said. "It makes us human."
"I didn't jump at gassing him, you know. I was the holdout. The others were really on me to finish up."
"Was it rough for you?"
"No, they weren't nasty or anything. Just persistent. Repeating their reasons and staring at me, like I was a stupid kid who'd eventually come around. So I guess I have to wonder if part of it was good old peer pressure."
"As you said, what would have been the alternative?"
"You're in conflict because you're a moral person," I said. "Maybe that's why the images have started returning."
She looked confused. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe at this point in time you need to remember exactly what Shwandt did."
"To convince myself what I did was right?"
That seemed to calm her, but she cried some more. The tissue in her hand was wadded tight, and I handed her another one.
"It all boiled down to sex, didn't it?" she said, with sudden anger. "He got off on other people's pain. All that defense testimony about uncontrollable impulses was bull- those poor, poor women, what he made them- God, why am I starting my day talking about this?"
She looked at her watch. "Better be going."
The clock on the mantel said fifteen minutes to go.
"We've got time left."
"I know, but would you mind if I left a little early? Stuff's been piling up; my desk is a-" She grimaced and looked away.
"It's what, Lucy?"
"I was going to say a bloody mess." Laughter. "The whole experience has warped me, Dr. Delaware."
I reached over and touched her shoulder. "Give it time."
"I'm sure you're right… Time. I wish there were thirty-four hours in the day."
"Are you backlogged because of jury duty?"
"No, I cleared the backlog the first week. But my workload seems heavier. They keep shoving stuff at me, as if they're punishing me."
"Why would they be punishing you?"
"For taking three months off. The firm was legally obligated to grant me leave, but they weren't happy about it. When I showed my boss the notice, he told me to get out of it. I didn't. I thought it was important. I didn't know what trial I'd be assigned to."
"Had you known, would you have tried to get out of it?"
She thought. "I don't know… Anyway, I've got eight new major corporate accounts to clear paper on. Used to be only tax season was like this."
She shrugged and stood. Behind her, the pelicans began a dive in formation.
When we reached the door, she said, "Have you seen Detective Sturgis lately?"
"I saw him a couple of days ago."
"How's he doing?"
"What a nice guy. How does he deal with this kind of stuff constantly?"
"Not every case is like Shwandt."
"Thank God for that." Her skirt was in place but she tugged at it, smoothing the thin fabric over hard, narrow hips.
"Are you sure you want to leave early, Lucy? We've gotten into some pretty disturbing stuff."
"I know, but I'll be fine. Talking about it's made me feel better."
We left the house and walked across the footbridge to the front gate. I turned the bolt and we stepped out to Pacific Coast Highway. This far north of the Malibu Colony, coastal traffic was thin- a few commuters from Ventura and produce trucks rattling down from Oxnard. But the vehicles that did pass were speeding and deafening, and I could barely hear her when she thanked me, again.
I watched her get into her little blue Colt. The car fired up and she gave the wheel a quick turn, peeling out, burning rubber.
I went back inside and charted the session.
Fourth session. Once again, talking about Shwandt's crimes, the trial, the victims, but not the dreams that had brought her to me in the first place.
I'd mentioned them the first time, but she changed the subject abruptly and I backed off. So maybe the dreams had ceased as she got some of the horror out of her system.
I started some coffee, went out to the deck, and watched the pelicans while thinking about her sitting in the jury box for three months.
Ninety days in a toxic dump. All because she didn't eat meat.
"Pure vegetarian," Milo had told me, over his glass of scotch. "Save The Whales sticker on her car, donates to Greenpeace. Naturally the defense had the hots for her."
"Compassion for all living things," I said.
He grunted. "Defense thought she'd be too knee-jerk to send that piece of shit to the apple-green room."
He gave an ugly laugh, drank his Chivas, and ran his hand over his face as if washing without water. "Bad guess. Not that he's likely to eat cyanide soon, what with all the paper his lawyers are churning out."
He was pretty much drunk, but maintaining. It was 1 A.M. and we were in a half-empty cocktail lounge in a half-vacant high-rise office building downtown, a few blocks from the Hall of Justice where Jobe Rowland Shwandt had held court for one-quarter of a year, leering, giggling, picking his nose, squeezing blackheads, rattling his chains.
The press turned every twitch into news and Shwandt luxuriated in the attention, loving it almost as much as the pain he'd caused. The trial was a rich dessert for him after a ten-month banquet of blood.
The more repulsive the testimony got, the more he smirked. When the death penalty verdict was read, he yanked his crotch and tried to expose himself to the victims' families.
"No fish," said Milo, putting his glass down on the bar. "No eggs or dairy products either. Just fruits and vegetables. What's that called, a vegan?"
The bartender was Japanese, as were most of the patrons. The bar food was soy-flavored trail mix, cucumber and rice wrapped in seaweed, and tiny pinkish dried shrimp. Conversation was low and polite, and even though Milo was talking softly, he sounded loud.
"Lots of do-gooders are full of shit, but with her you get the feeling it's real. Real soft-spoken, gentle voice; pretty but she doesn't make a thing out of it. I knew a girl like that in high school. Became a nun."
"Does Lucy seem nunnish?"
"Who'm I to say?"
"You're a pretty good judge of character."
"Think so, huh? Well, I don't know anything about her love life. Don't know much about her, period, other than that she's having bad dreams."
"Is she single?"
"That's what she said at the voir dire."
"What about a boyfriend?"
"She didn't mention any. Why?"
"I'm wondering about her support system."
"She said her mother's dead and she doesn't see her father. In terms of social life, she comes across a little like Miss Lonelyhearts. Defense guys probably loved that, too."
"How come the prosecutors didn't eliminate her?"
"I asked George Birdwell about that. He said they were running out of disqualifications and figured her for a fooler. Inner toughness that would make her do the right thing."
"Do you sense that, too?"
"Yeah, I do. There's a… solid core there. You know the old joke about a conservative being a liberal who's been mugged? She impresses me as someone who's been through rough times."
"What does she do for a living?"
"Crunches numbers for one of those big accounting firms in Century City."
"Did she mention any problems other than the dreams?"
"Nope. And the only reason the dreams came up is I told her she looked tired and she said she wasn't sleeping well. So I took her out for a piece of pie and she told me about having them. Then she changed the subject fast, so I figured it was something personal and didn't push. Next time she called, she still sounded wiped out so I suggested she see you. She said she'd think about it; then she said okay, she would."
He took a cigar out of his pocket, held it up to the light, put it back.
"Are any of the other jurors having problems?" I said.
"She's the only one I had any contact with."
"How'd she hook up with you in the first place?"
"I was studying the jury the way I always do, and we happened to make eye contact. I'd noticed her before because she always seemed to be working real hard. Then, when I went up to testify, I saw her staring at me. Intense. After that, we kept making eye contact. The day the trial ended, the jury was being escorted out back and I was parked there, too. She waved at me. Really intense look. I felt she was asking me for something, so I gave her my card. Three weeks later she calls the station."
He pressed one hand down on the bar and inspected his knuckles. "Now I've done my good deed for the year. I don't know how much she can afford-"
"I don't imagine bookkeepers are investing in bullion," I said. "We'll work something out."
One hand pulled at his heavy jowls, knockwurst fingers tugging heavy flesh down toward his bull neck. In the ice-blue light of the lounge, his face was a pockmarked plaster cast and his black hair hung over his forehead, creating a hat-brim shadow.
"So," he said. "Is a day at the beach really a day at the beach?"
"Bitchin', dude. Wanna come by and catch some waves?"
He grunted. "You ever saw me in a bathing suit, you wouldn't offer. How's the house coming along?"
"Slowly. Very slowly."
"Each trade seems to have a sacred obligation to ruin the work of the previous one. This week, the drywallers covered over some electrical conduit and the plumbers damaged the flooring."
"Sorry Binkle didn't work out."
"He was competent enough, just not available. We needed more than a moonlighter."
"He's not that good of a cop, either," he said. "But other guys he did construction work for said it came out fine."
"As far as he got, it was fine. With Robin taking over, it's even better."
"How's she handling that?"
"Now that the workers are taking her seriously, she's actually enjoying it. They've finally learned they can't snow her- she gets up on the scaffold, takes their tools, and shows them how."
He smiled. "So when do you think you'll be finished?"
"Six months, minimum. Meanwhile, we'll just have to suffer along in Malibu."
"Tsk, tsk. How's Mr. Dog?"
"He doesn't like the water but he's developed a taste for sand- literally. He eats it."
"Charming. Maybe you can teach him to shit adobe bricks, cut your masonry costs."
"Always the practical one, Milo."
It had been a nomad year.
Thirteen months ago, just before Jobe Shwandt had started climbing through bedroom windows and ripping people to shreds, a psychopath high on vengeance had burned my house down, reducing ten years of memories to charcoal. When Robin and I finally mustered the strength to think positively, we began plans to rebuild and looked for a place to rent.
The one we found was on a beach on Malibu 's far west end. Old rural-route Malibu, nudging up against the Ventura County line, light-years from the glitz. The recession made it affordable.
Had I been smarter or more motivated, I might have owned the place. During my hyperactive youth, working full-time at Western Pediatric Hospital and seeing private patients at night, I'd earned enough to invest in Malibu real estate, buying and selling a couple of land-side apartment buildings and turning enough profit to build a stocks-and-bonds portfolio that cushioned me during hard times. But I'd never lived at the beach, thinking it too remote, too cut off from the urban pulse.
Now I welcomed the isolation- just Robin, Spike, and me, and patients willing to make the drive.
I hadn't done long-term therapy for years, limiting my practice to forensic consultations. Most of it boiled down to evaluating and treating children scarred emotionally and physically by accidents and crimes and trying to untangle the horror of child-custody disputes. Once in a while something else came along, like Lucy Lowell.
The house was small: a thousand-square-foot gray wood saltbox on the sand, fronted on the highway by a high wooden fence and a double garage where Robin, after deciding to sublet her storefront in Venice, had set up her luthier's shop. Between the house and the gate was a sunken garden planted with succulents and an old wooden hot tub that hadn't been serviceable for years. A planked footbridge was suspended over the greenery.
A rear gate opened on ten warped steps that led down to the beach, a rocky spit tucked into a forgotten cove. On the land side were wildflower-blanketed mountains. The sunsets were blindingly beautiful and sometimes sea lions and dolphins came by, playing just a few feet from shore. Fifty yards out were kelp beds, and fishing boats settled there from time to time, competing with the cormorants and the pelicans and the gulls. I'd tried swimming, but only once. The water was icy, pebble-strewn, and seamed by riptides.
A nice quiet place, except for the occasional fighter jet roaring down from Edwards Air Force Base. Lore had it that a famous actress had once lived there with two teenage lovers before making the Big Movie and building a Moorish castle on Broad Beach. It was documented fact that an immortal jazz musician had spent a winter shooting heroin nightly in a rundown cottage on the east end of the beach, playing his trumpet to the rhythm of the tide as he sank into morphiate peace.
No celebrities, now. Almost all the houses were bungalows owned by weekenders too busy to recreate, and even on holiday weekends, when central Malibu jammed up like a freeway, we had the beach to ourselves: tide pools, driftwood, and enough sand to keep Spike licking his chops.
He's a French Bulldog, a strange-looking animal. Twenty-eight pounds of black-brindled muscle packed into a carry-on body, bat ears, wrinkled face with a profile flat enough to write on. More frog than wolf, the courage of a lion.
A Boston terrier on steroids is the best way to describe him, but his temperament is all bulldog- calm, loyal, loving. Stubborn.
He'd wandered into my life, nearly collapsed from heat and thirst, a runaway after his mistress died. A pet was the last thing I was looking for at the time, but he snuffled his way into our hearts.
He'd been trained as a pup to avoid water and hated the ocean, keeping his distance from the breakers and growing enraged at high tide. Sometimes a stray retriever or setter showed up and he romped with them, ending up winded and drooling. But his new appetite for silica more than made up for those indignities, as did a lust for barking at shorebirds in a strangulated gargling tone that evoked an old man choking.
Mostly he stayed by Robin's side, riding shotgun in her truck, accompanying her to the jobsite. This morning, they'd left at six and the house was dead quiet. I slid open a glass door and let in some heat and ocean noise. The coffee was ready. I took it out to the deck and thought some more about Lucy.
After getting my number from Milo, she'd taken ten days to call. Not unusual. Seeing a psychologist is a big step for most people, even in California. Somewhat timidly, she asked for a 7:30 A.M. appointment that would get her to Century City by 9:00. She was surprised when I agreed.
She arrived five minutes late and apologizing. Smiling.
A pretty but pained smile, rich with self-defense, that stayed on her face almost the entire session.
She was bright and articulate and full of facts- the small points of the attorney's legal wranglings, the judge's mannerisms, the compositions of the victims' families, Shwandt's vulgarities, the yammerings of the press. When the time came for her to leave, she seemed disappointed.
When I opened the gate to let her in for the second session, a young man was with her. Late twenties, tall, slender, with a high brow, thinning blond hair, Lucy's pale skin and brown eyes, and an even more painful version of her smile.
She introduced him as her brother, Peter, and he said, "Nice to meet you," in a low, sleepy voice. We shook. His hand was bony and cold, yet soft.
"You're welcome to come in, take a walk on the beach."
"No, thanks, I'll just stay in the car." He opened the passenger door and looked at Lucy. She watched him get in. It was a warm day but he wore a heavy brown sweater over a white shirt, old jeans, and sneakers.
At the gate Lucy turned to look back, again. He was slumped in the front seat, examining something in his lap.
For the next forty-five minutes, her smile wasn't as durable. This time, she concentrated on Shwandt, intellectualizing about what could have led him to sink to such depths.
Her questions were rhetorical; she wanted no answers. When she began to look beaten down, she switched the topic to Milo and that cheered her up.
The third session, she came alone and spent most of the time on Milo. She saw him as the Master Sleuth, and the facts of the Bogeyman case didn't argue with that.
Shwandt had been an equal-opportunity butcher, choosing his victims from all over L.A. County. When it became apparent that the crimes were connected, a task force involving detectives from Devonshire Division to the Sheriffs substation in Lynwood had been assembled. But it was Milo 's work on the Carrie Fielding murder that closed all the cases.
The Fielding case had brought the city's panic to a boil. A beautiful ten-year-old child from Brentwood, snatched from her bedroom in her sleep, taken somewhere, raped, strangled, mutilated, and degraded, her remains tossed on the median strip that bisected San Vicente Boulevard, discovered by joggers at dawn.
As usual, the killer had left the crime scene impeccable. Except for one possible error: a partial fingerprint on Carrie's bedpost.
The print didn't match the little girl's parents' or those of her nanny, and neither was it a mate for any swirls and ridges catalogued by the FBI. The police team couldn't conceive of the Bogeyman as a virgin and went looking through local files, concentrating on newly arrested felons whose data hadn't yet been entered. No leads emerged.
Then Milo returned to the Fielding house and noticed planter's mix in the dirt beneath Carrie's window. Just a few grains, virtually invisible, but the ground beneath the window was bricked.
Though he doubted the importance of the find, he asked Carrie's parents about it. They said no new planting had been done in their yard since summer, and their gardener confirmed it.
The street, however, had been planted extensively- magnolia saplings put in by a city crew to replace some blighted old carrotwoods- in a rare show of municipal pride stemming from the fact that one of the Fieldings' neighbors was a politician. Identical planter's mix had been used around the new trees.
Milo set up fingerprinting sessions for the landscaping crew. One laborer, a new hire named Rowland Joseph Sand, didn't show up, and Milo went to his apartment in Venice to see why. No sign of the man or his registered vehicle, a five-year-old black Mazda van.
The landlord said Sand was paid up for another two months but had packed some bags and driven off yesterday. Milo got permission to search and found the apartment scrubbed neat as a surgical tray, reeking of pine cleaner. A little more searching revealed a disconnected hot water heater and the seams of a trapdoor barely visible underneath.
An old cellar, said the landlord. No one had used it in years.
Milo removed the heater and climbed down.
Straight down to hell, Alex.
Spatter and shreds and gobbets in formalin. Needles and blades and beakers and flasks.
In one corner of the cellar stood sacks of peat moss, sphagnum moss, planter's mix, human excrement. A shelf of pots planted with things that would never grow.
A background check showed Sand had given the city a false name and ID. Further investigation showed him to be Jobe Rowland Shwandt, alumnus of several prisons and mental hospitals, with convictions for auto theft, exhibitionism, child molestation, and manslaughter. He'd been in prison most of his life but had never served more than three years at a time. The city had given him a chain saw.
He was picked up a week later, just outside of Tempe, Arizona, by a highway patrolman who spotted him trying to change a tire on the black van. In his glove compartment was a mummified human hand- a child's, not Carrie's, and never identified.
The fingerprint on the bedpost turned out to be a false lead, belonging to the Fieldings' maid, who'd been in Mexico during the week of Carrie's murder and hadn't been available for comparison printing.
I sat silently through Lucy's recitation, recalling all those meetings with Milo for late-night drinks, listening to him go over it.
Sometimes my head still filled with bad pictures.
Carrie Fielding's fifth-grade photo.
Shwandt's methedrine eyes and drooping mustache and salesman's smile, the oily black braid twisting between his long white fingers.
How much restoration of innocence could Lucy hope for?
Knowing more about her background might educate my guess.
So far, she'd kept that door closed.
I did some paperwork, drove to the market at Trancas to buy groceries, and returned at two to catch Robin's call telling me she'd be home in a couple of hours.
"How're things at the money pit?" I said.
"Deeper. We need a new main for the sewer."
"That's metal. How could fire burn through that?"
"Actually it was clay, Alex. Apparently that's how they used to build them. And it didn't burn. It was demolished by someone's heavy equipment."
"No one's 'fessed up. Could have been a tractor, a Bobcat, one of the hauling trucks, even a pickax."
I exhaled. Inhaled. Reminded myself I'd helped thousands of patients relax. "How much?"
"Don't know yet. We have to get the city out here to take a meeting with our plumbers- I'm sorry, honey, hopefully this is the last of the major damage. How'd your day go?"
"Fine. And yours?"
"Let's just say I'm learning new things every day."
"Thanks for handling all the crap, babe."
She laughed. "A girl needs a hobby."
"Being a very good boy."
"Relatively or absolutely?"
"Absolutely! One of the roofers had a pit bull bitch chained up in his truck, and she and Spike got along just fine."
"That's not good behavior. That's self-preservation."
"Actually she's a sweet dog, Alex. Spike charmed her- she ended up grooming him."
"Another conquest for the Frog Prince," I said. "Want me to fix dinner?"
"How about we go out?"
"Name the place and time."
"Um- how about Beauvilla around eight?"
"You got it."
"Love you, Alex."
"Love you, too."
The beach house had cable hookup, which meant foolishness on sixty channels instead of seven. I found an alleged hard news broadcast on one of the local stations and endured five minutes of happy talk between the anchors. Then the male half of the team said, "And now for an update on that demonstration downtown."
The screen filled with the limestone facade of the main court building, then switched to a ring of chanting marchers waving placards.
Anti-capital punishment protestors bearing preprinted posters. Behind them, another crowd.
Twenty or so young women, dressed in black, waving crudely lettered signs.
At the trial, they'd favored ghost-white face makeup and satanic jewelry.
They were chanting too, and the admixture of voices created a cloud of noise.
The camera pulled in close on the preprinted placards:
LOCK THE GAS CHAMBER, GOVERNOR! ALL KILLING IS WRONG!
NO DEATH PENALTY!
THE BIBLE SAYS: THOU SHALL NOT KILL!
Then, one of the hand-scrawled squares: pentagrams and skulls, gothic writing, hard to make out:
FREE JOBE! JOBE IS GOD!
The marchers came up to the court building. Helmeted police officers in riot gear blocked their entry.
Shouts of protest. Jeers.
Another group, across the street. Construction workers, pointing and laughing derisively.
One of the Bogettes screamed at them. Snarls on both sides of the street and stiffened middle fingers. Suddenly, one of the hard hats charged forward, waving his fists. His companions followed and, before the police could intervene, the workers knifed into the crowd with the force and efficiency of a football offense.
A jumble of arms, legs, heads, flying signs.
The police got in the middle of it, swinging batons.
Back to the newsroom.
"That was- uh, live from downtown," said the woman anchor to her deskmate, "where there's apparently been some sort of disturbance in connection with a demonstration on behalf of Jobe Shwandt, the Bogeyman killer, responsible for at least… and- uh, we seem to have regained our… no, we haven't, folks. As soon as our linkup is restored, we'll go right back to that scene."
Her partner said, "I think we can see that passions are still running pretty high, Trish."
"Yes, they are, Chuck. No surprise, given the fact that it's serial murder we're dealing with, and- uh, controversial issues like the death penalty."
Grave nod. Shuffle of papers. Chuck fidgeted, checked the teleprompter. "Yes… and we'll have something a little later on the situation regarding capital punishment from our legal correspondent, Barry Bernstein, and some face-to-face interviews with prisoners on Death Row and their families. In the meantime, here's Biff with the weather."
I turned off the set.
The death penalty opponents were easy enough to understand: an issue of values. But the young women in black had no credo other than a glassy-eyed fascination with Shwandt.
They'd started as strangers, standing in line outside the courtroom door, sitting through the first few days of trial, sullenly, silently.
The gore level rose, and soon there were six. Then twelve.
Some press wit dubbed them the Bogettes and the morning paper ran an interview with one of them, a former teen hooker who'd found salvation through devil worship. Personality-cult magazines and tabloid TV picked them as freaks-of-the-week, and that attracted a dozen more. Soon the group was huddling together before and after each court session, a uniformed cadre in black jeans and T-shirts, ghostly makeup, iron jewelry.
When Shwandt entered the courtroom, they swooned and grinned. When victims' families, cops, or prosecutors stepped up to the stand, they put forth a battery of silent scowls, prompting protest from the DA and warnings from the judge.
Eventually, some of them earned jail time for contempt: exposing breasts to Shwandt; shouting "Bullshit!" at a coroner's sworn statement; flipping off Carrie Fielding's mother as she got off the stand, sobbing uncontrollably.
While locked up, they granted interviews full of sad autobiography- all claimed abuse; most had lived on the streets and worked as child prostitutes.
Low self-esteem, said the talk-show therapists. But that was like trying to explain Hitler in terms of artistic frustration.
Restricted from the courtroom during the last weeks of the trial, they assembled on the steps and howled for justice. The day of the verdict, they promised to liberate Shwandt at all costs and to seek their own "personal justice."
Milo had seen them up close, and I asked him if he thought they might act on the threat.
"I doubt it. They're publicity whores. When the talk-show morons stop calling, they'll crawl back into their holes. But you're the shrink, what do you think?"
"You're probably right."
The person who'd stalked me had warned me first. Other victims had died without warning.
Sometimes I thought about the others and thanked God that Robin and I had been lucky.
Once in a while I thought about the night the house had gone up in flames and found my hands clenching so hard they hurt.
Maybe I wasn't the right therapist for Lucy.
On the other hand, perhaps I was eminently qualified.
Robin and Spike came home at 4:15. Robin's green sweatshirt was smudged with dirt. The green played off the auburn in her hair.
She kissed me and and I put my hands under the shirt.
"I'm filthy," she said.
"Love a dirty woman."
She laughed, kissed me harder, then pushed me away and went off to bathe.
Spike had tolerated the display of affection, but now he looked put-upon. A visit to the water bowl perked him up. I fed him his favorite dinner of kibble and meat loaf, then took him for a waddle on the beach and watched him ingest silica. The tide was low, so he stayed mostly on track, pausing from time to time to lift his leg at the pilings of other houses. Neutered, but the spirit remained.
Robin spent some time soaking and reading and I polished a report to a family court judge, a custody case where a happy ending was too much to hope for. I just hoped my recommendations could save three kids from some of the pain.
At 7:30, I checked in with my service; then we left Spike with a Milk-Bone and a rap-music fest on MTV and took my old '79 Seville past Pepperdine University and the Malibu pier to Beauvilla.
It's a French place on the land side, ancient by L.A. restaurant standards, which means post-Reagan. Monterey colonial architecture, a bit of water view past a public parking lot, beautifully cooked Provençal cuisine, genuinely friendly service, and a slouching, smoking pianist who used to play soap-opera sound tracks and manages to turn a Steinway grand into a Hammond organ.
We had a quiet dinner and listened to a weird musical medley: "Begin the Beguine," something from Shostakovich, a slew of Carpenters' songs, the sound track from Oklahoma ! As we were having coffee, the maître d' came over and said, "Dr. Delaware? You have a call, sir."
I picked up the phone behind the bar.
"Hi, Dr. Delaware, this is Sarah from your service. I don't know if I did the right thing, but you got a call a few minutes ago from a patient named Lucy Lowell. She said it wasn't an emergency, but she sounded pretty upset. Like she was trying not to cry."
"Did she leave a message?"
"No. I told her you were out of the office but I could reach you if it was an emergency. She said it wasn't important; she'd call you tomorrow. I wouldn't have bothered you, but she seemed really nervous. When I deal with the psych patients I like to be careful."
"I appreciate it, Sarah. Did she leave a number?"
She read off an 818 exchange that I recognized as Lucy's home number, in Woodland Hills.
Peter's sleepy voice answered my call. "We're unable to come to the phone right now, so leave a message."
As I began to speak, Lucy broke in: "I told them there was no reason to bother you, Dr. Delaware. I'm sorry."
"It's no bother. What can I do for you?"
"Really, it's okay."
"Long as I'm on the phone, you might as well tell me what's up."
"Nothing, it's just the dream- the one I was having when I first started seeing you. It went away right after the first session, and I thought it was gone for good. But tonight it came back- very vivid."
"One dream?" I said. "A recurrent one."
"Yes. The other thing is I must have sleepwalked, too. Because I dozed off on the couch watching TV, the way I usually do, and woke up on the kitchen floor."
"Are you hurt?"
"No, no, I'm fine, I don't want to make a bigger deal out of it than it is- it was just a little weird, finding myself that way."
"Is the dream about Shwandt?"
"No, that's the thing; it's got nothing to do with him. That's why I didn't want to get into it. And then, when it went away, I figured…"
I looked over at Robin, alone at the table, powdering her nose. "Would you like to tell me about it?"
"Um, this is going to sound terribly rude, but I'd really rather not get into it over the phone."
"Is someone there with you?"
"Just wondering if it was an awkward time."
"No. No, I'm alone."
"Peter doesn't live with you?"
"Peter? Oh, the machine." Soft laugh. "No, he's got his own place. He made the tape for me- for safety. So people wouldn't know I was a woman living by myself."
"Because of the trial?"
"No, before. He tries to look out for me- really, Dr. Delaware, I'm okay. I'm sorry they called you. We can talk about it next session."
"Next session isn't for a week. Would you like to come in sooner?"
"Sooner… Okay, thanks."
"How about tomorrow morning?"
"Could I impose on you to meet early again? If it's a problem, just tell me, but work's still piling up and the drive from the Valley-"
"Same time. I'm an early riser."
"Thank you very much, Dr. Delaware. Good night."
I returned to Robin as she was putting away her compact.
"Nah, but I'm cheap."
"Good," she said, touching my cheek. "I was thinking of a walk on the sand and who-knows-what later."
"I don't know, you're a little clean for my taste."
"We'll roll in mud, first."
When we got back, MTV was broadcasting the Headbangers Ball and Spike had lost interest. We changed into sweats and took him with us down to the beach.
The sand was frosty, the breakers rising, with just enough space for a stroll up to the tide pools and back. Lights from some of the other houses cast gray stripes across the dunes; the rest was black.
"Pretty cinematic," said Robin. "I feel like I'm in one of those dreadful Movies of the Week."
"Me, too. Let's talk earnestly about our relationship."
"I'd rather talk about what I'm going to do to you when we get back."
She leaned in and did.
"What, it's funny?" she said.
"No, it's great."
The next morning, she was late leaving and Lucy met her coming through the gate.
"Your wife's really gorgeous," she told me, when we were alone. "And your dog is adorable- what is he, a pug?"
"Like a miniature bulldog?"
"I've never seen one before."
"They're pretty rare."
"Adorable." She turned toward the water and smiled.
I waited for a few moments to pass, then said, "Do you want to talk about the dream?"
"Guess I'd better."
"It's not an assignment, Lucy."
She chuckled and shook her head.
"What is it?" I said.
"This is a pretty good deal, Dr. Delaware. You cut your fee in half for me, and I still get to call the shots. Did you know there are quack hotlines on TV- dial-a-psychic-pal- that cost more than this?"
"Sure, but I don't claim to tell the future."
"Only the past, right?"
"If I'm lucky."
She turned serious. "Well, maybe the dream is coming from my past, because it has nothing to do with what's going on with me now. And in it I'm a little kid."
"Three or four, I guess."
Her fingers moved nervously.
"Okay," she said. "Better start from the beginning: I'm somewhere out in the woods- in a cabin. Your basic log cabin."
"Is the cabin somewhere you've been before?"
"Not that I know of."
She shrugged and put her hands in her lap.
"A log cabin," I said.
"Yes… It must be at night, because it's dark inside. Then all of a sudden I'm outside… walking. And it's even darker. I can hear people. Shouting- or maybe they're laughing. It's hard to tell."
Closing her eyes, she tucked her legs under her. Her head began to sway; then she was still.
"People shouting or laughing," I said.
She kept her eyes closed. "Yes… and lights. Like fireflies- like stars on the ground- but in colors. And then…"
She bit her lip. Her eyelids were clenched.
"Men," she said.
Quickening her breath.
She dropped her head, as if discouraged.
"Men you know, Lucy?"
Several quick, shallow breaths.
Her shoulders bunched.
"Who are they, Lucy?" I said softly.
Then: "My father… and others, and…"
Almost inaudibly: "A girl."
"A little girl like you?"
Headshake. "No, a woman. He's carrying her- over his shoulder."
Eyes moving beneath the lids. Experiencing the dream?
"Your father's carrying the woman?"
"No… one of the others."
"Do you recognize him?"
"No," she said, tensing, as if challenged. "All I can see is their backs." She began talking rapidly. "She's over one of their shoulders and he's carrying her- like a sack of potatoes- with her hair hanging down."
She opened her eyes suddenly, looking disoriented.
"This is weird. It's almost as if I'm… back in it."
"That's okay," I said. "Just relax and experience what you need to."
Her eyes closed again. Her chest heaved.
"What do you see now?"
"Dark," she said. "Hard to see. But… the moon… There's a big moon… and…"
"They're still carrying her."
"Don't know…" She grimaced. Her forehead was moist.
"I'm following them."
"Do they know that?"
"No. I'm behind them… The trees are so big… they keep going and going… lots of trees, everywhere- a forest. Huge trees… branches hanging down… more trees… lacy… pretty…" Deep inhalation. "They're stopping… putting her on the ground."
Her lips were white.
"Then what, Lucy?"
"They start talking, looking around. I'm scared they've seen me. But then they turn their backs on me and start moving- I can't see them anymore, too dark… lost… then the sound- rubbing or grinding. More like grinding. Over and over."
She opened her eyes. Sweat had trickled to her nose. I gave her a tissue.
She managed a weak smile. "That's basically it, the same scene over and over."
"How many times have you had the dream?"
"Quite a few- maybe thirty or forty times. I never counted."
"Sometimes. Sometimes it's just two or three times a week."
"Over how long a period?"
"Since the middle of the trial- so what's that, four, five months? But like I said, after I started seeing you, it stopped till last night, so I figured it was just tension."
"Does the girl in the dream look like any of Shwandt's victims?"
"No," she said. "I don't- maybe this is wrong, but I get the feeling it has nothing to do directly with him. I can't tell you why, it's just something I feel."
"Any idea what it does have to do with?"
"No. I'm probably not making much sense."
"You never had the dream before the trial?"
"Did anything happen in the middle of the trial to make you especially tense?"
"Well," she said, "actually, it started right after Milo Sturgis testified. About Carrie. What she went through."
She stared at me.
"So maybe I'm wrong. Maybe hearing about Carrie evoked something in me- I identified with her and became a little girl myself. Do you think that's possible?"
Her eyes drifted out toward the ocean. "The thing is, the dream feels familiar. Like déjà vu. But also new and strange. And now, the sleepwalking- I guess I'm worried about losing control."
"Have you ever sleepwalked before?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Did you wet the bed as a child?"
She blushed. "What does that have to do with it?"
"Sometimes sleepwalking and bedwetting are related biologically. Some people have a genetic tendency for both."
"Oh… Well, yes, I did do that. A little, when I was very young."
She shifted in her chair.
"Do the dreams wake you up?" I said.
"I wake up thinking about them."
"Any particular time of night?"
"Early in the morning, but it's still dark."
"How do you feel physically when you wake up?"
"A little sick- sweating and clammy, my heart's pounding. Sometimes my stomach starts to hurt. Like an ulcer." Poking her finger just below her sternum.
"Have you had an ulcer?"
"Just a small one, for a few weeks- the summer before I started college. The dreams make me feel the same sort of way, but not as bad. Usually the pain goes away if I just lie there and try to relax. If it doesn't, I take an antacid."
"Do you tend to get stomachaches?"
"Once in a while, but nothing serious. I'm healthy as a horse."
Another glance at the water.
"The grinding sound," she said. "Do you have any theories about that?"
"Does it mean anything to you?"
Long pause. "Something… sexual. I guess. The rhythm?"
"You think the men may be having sex with her?"
"Maybe- but what's the difference? It's just a dream. Maybe we should forget the whole thing."
"Recurrent unpleasant dreams usually mean something's on your mind, Lucy. I think you're wise to deal with it."
"What could be on my mind?"
"That's what we're here to find out."
"Yes." She smiled. "Guess so."
"Is there anything else you want to tell me about the dream?"
She thought. "Sometimes it changes focus- right in the middle."
"The picture gets clearer? Or fuzzier?"
"Both. The focus goes back and forth. As if someone inside my brain is adjusting a lens- some kind of homunculus- an incubus. Do you know what that is?"
"An evil spirit that visits sleeping women." And rapes them.
"An evil spirit," she repeated. "Now I'm lapsing into mythology. This is starting to feel a little silly."
"Does the girl in the dream resemble anyone you know?"
"Her back's to me. I can't see her face."
"Can you describe her at all?"
She closed her eyes and, once again, her head swayed. "Let's see… she's wearing a short white dress- very short. It rides up her legs… long legs. Trim thighs, like from aerobics… and long dark hair. Hanging down in a sheet."
"How old would you say she is?"
"Um… she has a young body." Opening her eyes. "What's weird is that she never moves, even when the man carrying her jostles her. Like someone… with no control. That's all I remember."
"Nothing about the men?"
"Nothing." Eyeing her purse.
"But one of them is definitely your father."
Her hands flew together and laced tightly. "Yes."
"You see his face."
"For a second he turns and I see him."
She'd gone pale and her face was sweaty again.
I said, "What's bothering you right now, Lucy?"
"Talking about it… when I talk, I start to feel- to feel it. As if I'm dropping back into it."
"Loss of control."
"Yes. The dream's scary. I don't want to be there."
"What's the scary part?"
"That they're going to find me. I'm not supposed to be there."
"Where are you supposed to be?"
"In the log cabin."
"Did someone tell you to stay inside?"
"I don't know. I just know I'm not supposed to be there."
She rubbed her face, not unlike the way Milo does when he's nervous or distracted. It raised blemishlike patches on her skin.
"So what does it mean?" she said.
"I don't know yet. We need to find out more about you."
She brought her legs out from under her. Her fingers remained laced, the knuckles ice-white. "I'm probably making much too big a deal out of this. Why should I whine about a stupid dream? I've got my health, a good job- there are people out there, homeless, getting shot on the street, dying of AIDS."
"Just because others have it worse doesn't mean you have to suffer in silence."
"Others have it a lot worse. I've had it good, Dr. Delaware, believe me."
"Why don't you tell me about it."
"Your background, your family."
"My background," she said absently. "You asked me about that the first time I came in, but I avoided it, didn't I? And you didn't push. I thought that was very gentlemanly. Then I thought, Maybe he's just backing off as a strategy; he probably has other ways of getting into my head. Pretty paranoid, huh? But being in therapy was unnerving. I'd never done it before."
She smiled. "Guess I'm waffling, right now. Okay. My background: I was born in New York City twenty-five years ago, on April 14. Lenox Hill Hospital, to be precise. I grew up in New York and Connecticut, went to fine upstanding girls' schools, and graduated from Belding College three years ago- it's a small women's college just outside of Boston. I got my degree in history but couldn't do much with that, so I took a job as a bookkeeper at Belding, keeping the accounts straight for the Faculty Club and the Student Union. Last thing I thought I'd be doing, never had a head for math. But it turned out I liked it. The orderliness. Then I spotted a job card from Bowlby and Sheldon on the campus employment bulletin board and went for an interview. They're a national firm, had no opening except in L.A. On a whim, I applied and got it. And came West, young woman. That's it. Not very illuminating, is it?"
"What about your family?" I said.
"My family is basically Peter, whom you met. He's one year older than me and we're close. His nickname's Puck- someone gave it to him when he was a little boy because he was such an imp."
"Is he your only sib?"
"My only full sib. There's a half brother who lives up in San Francisco, but I have no contact with him. He had a sister who died several years ago." Pause. "All my grandparents and uncles and aunts are deceased. My mother passed away right after I was born."
Young, I thought, to be so surrounded by death. "What about your dad?"
She looked down quickly, as if searching for a lost contact lens. Her legs were flat on the floor, her torso twisting away from me, so that the fabric of her blouse tightened around her narrow waist.
"I was hoping we could avoid this," she said softly. "And not because of the dream."
Wheeling around. The intense stare Milo 'd seen in the courtroom.
"If you don't want to talk about him, you don't have to."
"It's not a matter of that. Bringing him into it always changes things."
"Because of who he is."
She gazed up at the ceiling and smiled.
"Your line," she said, extending one hand theatrically.
"Who is he?"
She gave a small laugh.
"Morris Bayard Lowell." Enunciating.
Another laugh, totally cheerless.
I'd heard of M. Bayard Lowell the way I'd heard of Hemingway and Jackson Pollock and Dylan Thomas.
When I was in high school, some of his early prose and verse were in the textbooks. I'd never thought much of his paint-splotched abstract canvases, but I knew they hung in museums.
Published in his teens, exhibited in his twenties, the postwar enfant terrible turned Grand Old Man of Letters.
But it had been years since I'd heard anything about him.
"Shocked?" said Lucy, looking grim but satisfied.
"I see what you mean about things changing. But the only relevance he has to me is his role as your father."
She laughed. "His role? Roll in the hay is about it, Dr. Delaware. The grand moment of conception. Old Buck's a love-'em-and-leave-'em kind of guy. He cut out on Mother when I was a few weeks old and never returned."
She smoothed her bangs and sat up straighter.
"So how come I'm dreaming about him, right?"
"It's not that unusual. An absent parent can be a strong presence."
"What do you mean?"
"Anger, curiosity. Sometimes fantasies develop."
"Fantasies about him? Like going to the Pulitzer ceremony on his arm? No, I don't think so. He wasn't around enough to be relevant."
"But when he comes into the picture, things change."
"Who he is changes things. It's like being the President's kid. Or Frank Sinatra's. People stop perceiving you as who you are and start seeing you in relationship to him. And they get shocked- just like you did- to find out the Great Man spawned someone so crashingly ordinary."
"No, it's okay," she said, waving a hand. "I love being ordinary: my ordinary job, my ordinary car, my ordinary apartment and bills and tax returns and washing dishes and taking out the garbage. Ordinary is heaven for me, Dr. Delaware, because when I was growing up nothing was routine."
"Your mother died right after you were born?"
"I was a couple of months old."
"Who raised you?"
"Her older sister, my Aunt Kate. She was just a kid herself, new Barnard grad, living in Greenwich Village. I don't remember too much about it other than her taking Puck and me to lots of restaurants. Then she got married to Walter Lazar- the author? He was a reporter back then. Kate divorced him after a year and went back to school. Anthropology- she studied with Margaret Mead and started going on expeditions to New Guinea. That meant boarding school for Puck and me, and that's where we stayed all through high school."
"No, he was sent to prep academies, and I went to girls' schools."
"It must have been tough, being separated."
"We were used to being shifted around."
"What about the half siblings you mentioned?"
"Ken and Jo? They lived with their mother, in San Francisco. Like I said, there's no contact at all."
"Where was your father all this time?"
"Did he support you financially?"
"Oh, sure, the checks kept coming, but for him that was no big deal, he's rich from his mother's side. The bills were paid through his bank, and my living expenses were sent to the school and doled out by the headmistress- very organized for an artiste, wouldn't you say?"
"He never came to visit?"
She shook her head. "Not once. Two or three times a year he'd call, on the way to some conference or art show."
She pulled something out of her eyelashes.
"I'd get a message to come to the school office and some secretary would hand me the phone, awestruck. I'd brace myself, say hello, and this thunderous voice would come booming through. "Hello, girl. Eating freshly blooded moose meat for breakfast? Getting your corpuscles moving?' Witty, huh? Like one of his stupid macho hunting stories. A summary of what he was doing, then good-bye. I don't think I spoke twenty words in all those years."
She turned to me.
"When I was fourteen, I finally decided I'd had enough and got my roommate to tell him I was out of the dorm. He never called again. All you get with a Great Man is one chance."
She tried to smile, lips working at it, struggling to form the shape. Finally, she managed to force the corners upward.
"It's no big deal, Dr. Delaware. Mother died when I was so young I never really knew what it was like to lose her. And he was… nothing. Like I said, lots of people have it worse."
"This issue of being ordinary-"
"I really do like it. Not a shred of talent, same with Puck. That's probably why he has nothing to do with us. Living reminders that he's produced mediocrity. He probably wishes we'd all disappear. Poor Jo obliged."
"How did she die?"
"Climbed a mountain in Nepal and never came down. His wives oblige him, too. Three out of four are dead."
"Your mother must have been very young when she died."
"Twenty-one. She got the flu and went into some sort of toxic shock."
"So she was only twenty when she married him?"
"Just barely. He was forty-six. She was a Barnard girl, too, a sophomore. They met because she was in charge of bringing speakers to campus, and she invited him. Three months later she dropped out, he took her to Paris, and they got married. Puck was born there."
"When did they get divorced?"
"They didn't. Right after I was born, he went back to France. It wasn't long after when she died. The doctors called him, but he never came to the phone. Two weeks after the funeral, a postcard arrived at Aunt Kate's, along with a check."
"Who told you this?"
"Puck. He heard it from Aunt Kate- he went out to visit her in New Zealand after he finished college."
"Ken and Jo are older than you and Puck?"
"Yes. Their mother was his second wife, Mother was his third. The first was Thérèse Vainquer- the French poet?"
I shook my head.
"Apparently she was pretty hot in postwar Paris, hanging around with Gertrude Stein and that bunch. She left him for a Spanish bullfighter and was killed in a car crash soon after. Next came Emma, Ken and Jo's mom. She was an artist, not very successful. She died around fifteen or sixteen years ago- breast cancer, I think. He left her for my mom, Isabelle Frehling. His fourth wife was Jane something or other, an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They met because the museum had a bunch of his paintings stored in their basement and he wanted them exhibited in order to revive his painting career- it's pretty dead, you know. So is his writing career. Anyway, he dumped her after about a year and hasn't married since. But it wouldn't surprise me if he's got another sweet young thing right now. Illusion of immortality."
She crossed her legs and held one knee with both hands.
Tossing out details about a man who supposedly had no role in her life.
She read my mind. "I know, I know, it sounds as if I cared enough to find all this out, but I got it from Puck. A few years ago, he was into this discover-your-roots thing. I didn't have the heart to tell him I couldn't care less."
Folding her arms across her chest.
"So," I said, "at least we know the log cabin wasn't somewhere you've actually been. At least not with your father."
"Call him Buck, please. Mr. Macho, the Great Man, whatever, anything but that."
Touching her stomach.
Remembering the ulcer she'd had before college, I said, "Where did you live the summer after you graduated from high school?"
She hesitated for a second. "I volunteered at a Head Start center in Boston."
"Was it difficult?"
"No. I loved teaching. This was in Roxbury, little ghetto kids who really responded. You could see the effects after one summer."
"Did you ever consider a teaching career?"
"I tossed it around, but after all those years in school- growing up in schools- I just wasn't ready for another classroom. I guess I might have eventually done it, but the bookkeeping thing came up and I just rolled with the flow."
I thought of the isolation that had been her childhood. Milo had talked about tough times strengthening her- a mugging of sorts. But maybe it was nothing specific, just an accumulation of loneliness.
"That's it," she said. "Now do you understand my dream?"
"Not in the least."
She looked at me and laughed. "Well, that's straight out."
"Better no answer than a wrong one."
"True, true." Laughing some more, but her hands were tense and restless and she tapped her feet.
"I guess I'm ticked off," she said.
"Him in my dreams. It's an… invasion. Why now?"
"Maybe you're ready, now, to deal with your anger toward him."
"Maybe," she said doubtfully.
"That doesn't feel right?"
"I don't know. I really don't think I'm angry at him. He's too irrelevant to get angry at."
Anger had stiffened her voice. I said, "The girl in the dream, how old is she?"
"Nineteen or twenty, I guess."
"About your mother's age when she married him."
Her eyes widened. "So you think I'm dreaming about his violation of Mother? But Mother was blond and this girl has dark hair."
"Dreams aren't bound by reality."
She thought for a while. "I suppose it could be that. Or something else symbolic- the young chicks he always chased- but I really don't think I'd dream about his girlfriends. Sorry."
"I push you for interpretations and then keep shooting them down."
"That's okay," I said. "It's your dream."
"Yes- only I wish it wasn't. Any idea when I'll get rid of it?"
"I don't know, Lucy. The more I know about you, the better answer I can give you."
"Does that mean I have to keep talking about my past?"
"It would help, but don't make yourself uncomfortable."
"Do I need to talk about him?"
"Not until you're ready."
"What if I'm never ready?"
"That's up to you."
"But you think it would be useful."
"He was in the dream, Lucy."
She started to crack a knuckle and stopped herself.
"This is getting tough," she said. "Maybe I should call the psychic buddies."
After she was gone, I thought about the dream.
Fragmented sleep patterns were often displayed as multiple symptoms- persistent nightmares, insomnia, even narcolepsy. But the sudden onset of her symptoms implied a reaction to some kind of stress: the trial material or something the trial had evoked.
Her allusion to an incubus was interesting.
Daddy abducting a maiden. Grinding noises.
A Freudian would have loved it: unresolved erotic feelings toward the abandoning parent coming back to haunt her.
Feelings awakened because the trial had battered her defenses.
She was right about one thing: This father was different.
I drove down toward the city, taking the coast highway to Sunset and heading east to the University campus.
At the Research Library, I looked up M. Bayard Lowell in the computer index. Page after page of citations beginning in 1939- the year he'd published his landmark first novel, The Morning Cry-and encompassing his other novels, collections of poems, and art exhibitions.
Covering all of it would take a semester. I decided to start with the time period that corresponded to Lucy's dream, roughly twenty-two years ago.
The first reference was a book of poems entitled Command: Shed the Light, published on New Year's Day. The rest were reviews. I climbed up to the stacks and began my refresher course in American Lit.
In the poetry shelves, I found the book, a thin gray-jacketed volume published by one of the prestige New York houses. The circulation slip showed it hadn't been checked out in three years. I went to the periodicals section and lugged volume after volume of bound magazines to an empty carrel. When my arms grew sore, I sat down to read.
Command: Shed the Light turned out to be Lowell's first book in ten years, its predecessor an anthology of previously published short stories. The New Year's release date was also Lowell's fiftieth birthday. The book had attracted a lot of attention: six-figure advance, main selection by one of the book clubs, foreign rights sold in twenty-three countries, even a film option by an independent production company in Hollywood, which seemed odd for poetry.
Then came the critics. One major newspaper called the work "self-consciously gloomy and stunningly amateurish and, this writer suspects, a calculated effort on the part of Mr. Lowell to snare the youth market." Another, describing Lowell's career as "glorious, lusty, and historically indelible," gave him credit for taking risks but labeled his verse "only very occasionally pungent, more frequently vapid and sickening, morose and incoherent. Glory has yielded to vainglory."
Lots more in that key, with one exception: A Columbia University doctoral student named Denton Mellors, writing in the Manhattan Book Review, rhapsodized "darkly enchanting, rich with lyric texture."
From what I could tell, Lowell hadn't reacted to the debacle publicly. A bottom-of-the-page paragraph in the January twenty-fourth Publishers Journal noted that sales of the book were "significantly below expectations." Similar articles appeared in other magazines, ruminating on the death of contemporary poetry and speculating as to where M. Bayard Lowell had gone wrong.
In March, the Manhattan Book Review noted that Lowell was rumored to have left the country, destination unknown. In June, a cheeky British glossy reported his presence in a small village in the Cotswolds.
Having confirmed that the sweatered-and-capped personage meandering among the sheep was indeed the once-touted American, we tried to approach but were accosted by two rather formidable mastiffs who showed no interest in our bangers-and-chips and convinced us by dint of grease-and-growl to beat a hasty retreat. What has happened, we wonder, to Mr. Lowell's once insatiable Yankish appetite for attention? Ah, fleeting fame!
Other foreign sightings followed throughout that summer: Italy, Greece, Morocco, Japan. Then, in September, the Los Angeles Times Book Review announced that "Pulitzer prize-winning author M. Bayard Lowell" would be relocating to Southern California and contributing occasional essays to the supplement. In December, the Hot Property column in the Times Real Estate section reported that Lowell had just closed escrow on fifty acres in Topanga Canyon.
Sources say it is a heavily wooded, rustic campsite in need of repair. Last utilized as a nudist colony, it is off the beaten track and seems perfect for Lowell's new Salingeresque identity. Or maybe the author-cum-artist is simply traveling West for the weather.
May: Lowell attended a PEN benefit for political prisoners, a "star-studded gala" at the Malibu home of Curtis App, a film producer. Two more westside parties in April, one in Beverly Hills, one in Pacific Palisades. Lowell, newly bearded and wearing a blue denim suit, was spotted talking to the current Playmate of the Month. When approached by a reporter, he walked away.
In June, he delivered a keynote speech at a literacy fund-raiser where he announced the creation of an artists' and writers' retreat on his Topanga land.
"It will be a sanctum," he said, "and it will be called Sanctum. A blank palette upon which the gifted human will be free to struggle, squiggle, squirt, splotch, deviate, divert, digress, dig in the dirt, and howsoever indulge the Great Id. Art pushes through the hymen of banality only when the nerves are allowed to twang unfettered. Those in the know, know that the true luxuries are those of synapse and spark."
A September piece in the L.A. Times entertainment section reported that a grant from film producer App was financing construction of new lodgings at Sanctum. The architect: a twenty-four-year-old Japanese-American prodigy named Claude Hiroshima, whose last project had been the refurbishment of all the lavatories in a Madrid hotel.
"At Sanctum," he said, "my goal is to be true to the essential consciousness of the locus, selecting materials that provide a synthesis with the prevailing mental and physical geometry. There are several log structures already on the property, and I want the new buildings to be indistinguishable from them."
Either Lucy had read about the retreat or her brother had told her about it.
December, another Publishers Journal squib: Paperback publication of Command: Shed the Light was canceled and sales of Lowell's backlist- his previously published books- had bottomed, as had prices for his canvases.
March: The Village Voice ran a highly unfavorable retrospective of Lowell's body of work, suggesting that his place in history be reassessed. Three weeks later, a letter from someone named Terrence Trafficant of Rahway, New Jersey, attacked the article, labeling the author a "bloodsucking, motherfucking nematode" and hailing M. Bayard Lowell as "the dark Jesus of twentieth-century American thought- all of you are just too fucking blocked and preternaturally dense to realize it, you asshole-fucking New York Jew revisionist Pharisees."
July: Completion of construction at Sanctum was announced by Lowell in the L.A. Times Book Review. The first crop of Sanctum fellows was introduced:
Christopher Graydon-Jones, 27, sculptor in iron and "found objects," Newcastle, England.
Denton Mellors, 28, former doctoral candidate in American Literature at Columbia University and critic for the Manhattan Book Review; "Mr. Mellors will complete work on his first novel, The Bride."
Joachim Sprentzel, 25, electronic music composer from Munich.
Terrence Gary Trafficant, 41, essayist and former inmate at the New Jersey State Prison at Rahway, where he had been serving a thirteen-year sentence for manslaughter.
Next day's paper cared only about Trafficant, describing how acceptance as a Sanctum Fellow had hastened the ex-con's parole and detailing Trafficant's criminal history: robbery, assault, narcotics use, attempted rape.
Jailed almost continuously since the age of seventeen, Lowell's protégé had earned a reputation as a combative prisoner. With the exception of a prison diary, he'd never produced anything remotely artistic. A photo showed him in his cell, tattooed hands gripping the bars: skinny and fair, with long, limp hair, bad teeth, sunken cheeks, a devilish goatee.
Questioned about the appropriateness of Trafficant's selection, Lowell said, "Terry is excruciatingly authentic on smooth-muscle issues of freedom and will. He's also an anarchist, and that will be an exhilarating influence."
Mid-August: Sanctum's opening was celebrated by an all-night party at the former nudist colony. Catering by Chef Sandor Nunez of Scones Restaurant, music by four rock bands and a contingent from the L.A. Philharmonic, ambience by M. Bayard Lowell "in a long white caftan, drinking and delivering monologues, surrounded by admirers."
Among the sighted guests: a psychology professor turned LSD high priest, an Arab arms dealer, a cosmetics tycoon, actors, directors, agents, producers, and a buzzing swarm of journalists.
Terry Trafficant was spotted holding forth to his own group of fans. His prison diary, From Hunger to Rage, had just been bought by Lowell's publisher. His editor called it "an intravenous shot of poison and beauty. One of the most important books to emerge this century."
The New York police lieutenant who'd arrested Trafficant on the manslaughter charge was quoted, too: "This guy is serious bad news. They might as well light a stick of dynamite and wait for it to blow."
The next few citations on Lowell turned out to be cross-referenced interviews with Trafficant. Describing himself as "Scum made good, an urban aborigine exploring a new world," the ex-con quoted from the classics, Marxist theory, and postwar avant-garde literature. When asked about his crimes, he said, "That's all dead and I'm not an undertaker." Crediting Buck Lowell for his freedom, he called his mentor "one of the four greatest men who ever lived, the other three being Jesus Christ, Krishnamurti, and Peter Kurten." When asked who Peter Kurten was, he said, "Look it up, Jack," and ended the interview.
The article went on to identify Kurten as a German mass murderer, nicknamed the Däusseldorf Monster, who'd sadistically raped and butchered dozens of men, women, and children between 1915 and 1930. Kurten had other quirks, too, enjoying coitus with a variety of farm animals and going to his execution hoping he could hear his own blood bubble at the precise moment of death.
When recontacted and asked how he could term that kind of thing "greatness," Trafficant replied, "It's all a matter of context, friend," and hung up.
A storm of outraged letters ensued. Several religious leaders condemned Lowell in their Sunday sermons. Lowell and Trafficant refused further interviews, and after a week or so the fuss died down. In May, From Hunger to Rage was published to uniformly strong reviews, went into a second printing, and made it to Number 10 on The New York Times best-seller list. A scheduled book tour for Trafficant was canceled, however, when the author didn't show up for an interview on a national morning talk show.
When questioned about Trafficant's whereabouts, Buck Lowell said, "Terry walked out on us a couple of weeks ago. Right after all the sturmdrang idiocy about Kurten. Words mean different things to a man like that. He was wounded deeply."
A sensitive soul? asked the reporter.
"It's all a matter of context," said Lowell.
Over the next two decades, coverage of Lowell diminished steadily, and by the end of the period nothing was left but a few doctoral theses, inflicting upon him that peculiar gleeful viciousness that passes for wit in the academic world. Command: Shed the Light went out of print, and no further books or paintings materialized. No mention at all of Terry Trafficant, though his book did go into paperback.
Checking out the gray volume, I drove home. When I passed Topanga Canyon, I wondered if the great man was still living there.
At Las Flores Canyon, static wiped out the music on my radio. I fooled with the tuner and caught the word Shwandt at the tail end of a news broadcast. Then the disk jockey said, "And now back to more music."
I couldn't find a newscast and switched to AM. Both all-news stations were doing the sports scores, and everything else was chatter and music and people trying to sell things.
I gave up and concentrated on the beauty of the highway, open and clean as it ribboned past true-blue water. Even the commercial strip near the Malibu pier didn't look half bad in the afternoon sun. Bikini shops, diving schools, clam stands, real estate companies pretending they still had something to do during the slump.
Once home, I took a beer and Lowell's poetry onto the deck. It soon became clear this wouldn't be reading for fun.
Nasty stuff. Nothing like the luxuriant verse and lust-for-life stories Lowell had put out during the forties and fifties. Nearly all the poems dealt explicitly with violence, and many seemed to glorify it.
The first, entitled "Home-icide," was almost a haiku:
He walks in the door
She's shot the kids.
But the dog's still alive.
Time to feed it.
Over the meadows and through the woods to:
Prepared perfectly for truncation:
Hone the bone. Toss the I Ching,
then toss the rules out the window.
The title poem was an empty black page. Several other pieces seemed no more than random collections of words, and a six-page poem entitled Shaht-up consisted of four four-line verses in a language that a footnote explained was "Finnish, stupid."
The final piece was printed in letters so tiny I had to strain to read them:
Slung and arrowed, she begs for it.
Shitsmear idiocy- who does she think she is?
To give up!
Just like that-
Easy to see why the book hadn't worked- and why it had enchanted Trafficant.
I pictured him poring over it in his cell, then rushing to Lowell's defense.
His motive would have been more than shared literary taste. With a few supportive words, he'd bought himself early parole.
I reread the final poem.
A woman begging for it, then scorned for giving up.
Classic male rape fantasy?
The abduction imagery in the dream.
Had she come across this dreadful little book, perhaps as part of her brother's "roots" research?
Reading it and identifying with the victim?
Or what if the dream represented something more personal- being molested herself?
At the voir dire, she'd denied ever having been a crime victim. But if it had happened long ago and she'd repressed it, she wouldn't have remembered.
The dream had started right after she'd listened to Milo testify about Carrie.
Identifying with a child victim.
Abused in childhood, not by her father- he hadn't been around to do it- but by a father surrogate? A teacher or some other trusted adult?
Other men in the dream- melding with her father because he had hurt her in another way?
I thought of her waking up on the kitchen floor.
The helplessness of the position.
Or maybe none of the above.
I wrestled with it a while longer, got no further, and went back inside. Remembering the radio broadcast I'd heard in the car, I flipped TV channels till I found a news show. Something about Eastern Europe; then Shwandt's face appeared, leering, over the anchor's left shoulder.
"Police in Santa Ana are investigating the mutilation slaying of a young woman, still unidentified, whose body was found, stuffed in a trash bag, by the side of the Santa Ana Freeway early this morning near the Main Street exit. Sources close to the investigation say the slaying bears striking similarities to the serial murders for which the Bogeyman, Jobe Shwandt, was recently sentenced to death, and the possibility of a copycat killer operating out of Orange County is being considered. More on this breaking story as details emerge."
Too much bad stuff, time to sweat it out of my system. Pretending my knees were eighteen years old, I took a hard jog on the beach. When I got back, the phone was ringing. My service with Lucy, again.
"Dr. Delaware? I'm… calling from work. I had a… bit of a problem." Her voice dropped so low I could barely hear it. Noise in the background didn't help.
"What happened, Lucy?"
"The dream. I… had it again."
"Since this morning's session?"
"Yes." Her voice shook. "Here. At work, at my desk… God, this is so- I have to talk softly; I'm at a pay phone in the lobby and people are staring. Can you hear me?"
"I hear you fine."
She caught her breath. "I feel so stupid! Falling asleep at my desk!"
"When did this happen?"
"Lunch hour. I was brown-bagging, trying to catch up. I guess I nodded off, I don't know, I really don't remember."
"Had you taken any sort of medication?"
"Just Tylenol for a headache."
"No antihistamines or anything else that would make you drowsy?"
"Nothing. I just… fell asleep." She whispered: "It must have woken me up- I found myself on the floor, my legs… the dream was still in my head, reverberating. Right in the middle of the office! God!"
"Are you hurt?"
"Not physically. But the humiliation- everyone thinks I'm crazy!"
"Were there a lot of people around when you fell?"
"Not when I fell, but right after. It was lunchtime; a whole crowd was coming back and saw me on the floor! I ran to the ladies' room to straighten up. When I got back, my boss was there. He never comes into the staff area. The look on his face- like what kind of nutcase do I have working for me!"
"If he's worried about anything, Lucy, it's probably that you'll file a worker's comp suit."
"No, no, I'm sure he thinks I'm some kind of bizarro. Falling asleep in the middle of the day- I excused myself to the bathroom again, went down to the lobby, and called you."
"Come over, let's talk."
"I- I guess I'd better. I'm sure not in any shape to go back up there."
I called a neurologist in Santa Monica named Phil Austerlitz and told him I had a possible referral. When I recounted what had happened, he said, "You're thinking narcolepsy?"
"She's got a troubled sleep pattern. Some childhood enuresis."
"But nothing chronic in adulthood."
"It just started five months ago. While she was a juror on the Bogeyman trial."
"Sounds more like stress."
"That's what I think, but I want to cover all bases."
"Sure, I'll see her. Thanks for the referral. Sounds like a fun one. I've been dealing with brain tumors all week. People our age or younger. Must be something in the air."
She rang the gate bell just after five. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and her face was drawn. When I took her hand it was limp and damp.
I gave her a glass of water and sat her down. She took a sip and put her face in her hands.
"What's happening to me, Dr. Delaware?"
I touched her hand. "We'll find out, Lucy."
She tightened her mouth. "It was different this time. This time I saw more."
Taking a deep breath. And another. Sliding her hand out from under mine. I sat back.
It took a few more minutes for her to compose herself. "Remember the grating noise I told you about? What I thought might be sex? It had nothing to do with sex."
She leaned forward. "I saw it. They were digging a grave- burying her. The grating was their shovels hitting the rocks. This time, I was closer. Everything was clearer. It's never felt this real before. It was…"
She put a hand over her eyes and shook her head.
"I was close enough to touch them- right behind them. It felt so real."
"The same men."
"Yes. Three of them."
"Including your- including Lowell."
She bared her eyes and licked her lips and stared at the floor. "He was one of the diggers. Working hard- huffing and puffing. They all were. And cursing. I could hear their breathing- harsh, like runners. Then they put her in, and…"
Her shoulders started to shake.
"I started to feel myself transforming-my soul leaving my body. I actually saw it, fluttering like this thin white feather. Then it entered her body."
She stood suddenly.
"I need to walk around."
Pacing the room, she covered the width of the glass doors, then retraced her steps. Repeated it twice more before returning to her seat.
She remained standing, both hands on the chair back. "I could taste the dirt, Dr. Delaware. It felt as if I was in that grave… I tried to shake the dirt off of me but I couldn't move. It kept coming down on me- stuffing me. I thought: This is what death is like, this is terrible; what did I do to deserve this, why are they doing this to me?"
Her eyes closed and she swayed so low I jumped up and caught her shoulder. Her body tightened but she didn't seem to notice me.
The sound of the tide rose up from the beach, like a swell of applause. Suddenly, her breathing quickened.
"Lucy," I said.
As if her name were a posthypnotic suggestion, she opened her eyes and blinked hard.
"What happened then, Lucy?"
"I woke up. Found myself on the floor… again. My legs…" Wincing.
"What about your legs?"
"They were…" Spots of color appeared on her cheeks. "Spread- spread wide, in front of everybody. It made me feel so sluttish."
"People understand accidents, Lucy."
She looked at my hand on her shoulder. I removed it and she sat down.
"God," she said. "This is crazy- am I going off the deep end?"
"No," I said firmly. "You're obviously reacting to some kind of stress, and we're going to find out what it is. I also want you to see a neurologist to rule out anything organic."
She caught her breath and looked at me, terrified. "Like what? A brain tumor?"
"No, nothing like that, I didn't mean to alarm you. We just need to rule out a sleep disorder that responds to medication. It's unlikely, but I want to be careful, so our road's clear."
"Our road. Sounds like some kind of journey."
"In a way it is, Lucy."
She turned away from me. "I don't know any neurologists."
I gave her Phil's name and number. "It won't be intrusive or painful."
"I hope so. I hate to be pawed. I'll call him tomorrow, okay? I'd better get home now."
"Why don't you stay here and relax before you set out?"
"I appreciate the offer, but no, thanks. I'm really tired, just want to crawl into bed."
"Want some coffee?"
"No, I'll be fine- it's more emotional fatigue than sleepiness."
"You're sure you want to go right now?"
"Yes, please. Sorry for the hassle."
"It's no hassle at all, Lucy."
"Thanks for your time- we'll figure it out." Looking to me for confirmation.
I nodded and walked her to the door. She opened it and thanked me again.
"I don't want to add to your load," I said, "but you're going to see it on the evening news. A body was found today that matches the Bogeyman victims. There may be a copycat out there."
"Oh, no," she said, leaning against the doorpost. "Where?"
"That's Orange County- so Milo won't be in on it. Too bad. He could solve it."
Phil Austerlitz called me the following day at five.
"Clean bill," he said. "Healthiest person I've seen in a long time, except for her anxiety. Even with that, her blood pressure was great. Wish mine was as good."
"What kind of anxiety did you notice?"
"Jumpy. Nervous about being touched- wanting to know exactly what I was going to do to her, how, when, why. Want to know my guess? Extreme sexual inhibition. Is that what she originally came to you for?"
"I'm not dealing with her sex life right now, Phil."
"No? What kind of shrink are you?"
She didn't call for an appointment that day, or the next. The murder down in Santa Ana was a page-ten story, the victim a twenty-one-year-old prostitute named Shannon Dykstra who'd grown up a couple of blocks from Disneyland and had gotten addicted to heroin while still in junior high. The media had fun with that- lots of ironic comments about the Magic Kingdom gone wrong.
That night I cooked a couple of steaks and made a salad, and at seven Robin and I sat down to dinner, with Spike begging for sirloin. When we were through, Robin said, "If you've got no big plans, I thought I might do a little work. The time I'm spending at the house is crimping me."
"Want me to take a shift?"
"No, honey, but if I could catch up, it would help."
Spike watched her depart with longing, but he decided to stay and finish his table scraps. He hung around as I washed the dishes and followed me to the couch when I played guitar, settling next to me, loose lips blowing out B-flat snores that missed harmony by a mile.
Shortly after nine, Milo called and I asked him if he was involved in the Dykstra case.
"Involved but not committed- know the difference? In a ham-and-egg breakfast, the chicken's involved, the pig's committed. Santa Ana called me to compare notes, and they're driving down tomorrow to look at the Shwandt file."
"Is it that similar?"
"Damn near identical. Body position, wound pattern, decapitation with the head put back in place, shit smeared all over the body and stuffed in the wounds. But all that came out at the trial; anyone could have copied it."
"Another monster," I said.
"The press made such a goddamn celebrity out of Shwandt, they pump this one up as Bogeyman Two, we'll really have fun. Anyway, glad I'm not on it. Keeping busy with some nice old-fashioned drive-bys… So how's Miss Lucy?"
I cleared my throat.
"I know, I know," he said. "You can't get into clinical details. Just tell me she's basically okay. 'Cause she left four messages at my desk today. Called her back but got some lazy-sounding guy on a machine."
"That's her brother. I haven't heard from her for a couple of days. When'd she call you?"
"This morning. I was just wondering if some problem had come up- you are still seeing her- no, scratch that, you can't even tell me that, right?"
"Let's put it this way," I said. "If a patient's in imminent danger of self-injury, it's my ethical duty to call the police and/or appropriate medical personnel. I haven't called you or anyone else."
"Okay, good. So I'll try her tomorrow. How's everything by you?"
"Rolling along. How's Rick?"
"Cutting and suturing. With our schedules, there ain't much quality time. We keep talking vacation, but neither of us is willing to make plans."
"Commitment," I said. "Men have such a problem with it."
"Bullshit," he said. "I'm totally committed. I'm a pig, right?"
She called on Friday morning. "If you have time today, I could come in."
"Any time. I'm home."
"No, I haven't gone back since the… fall. Dr. Austerlitz was very nice, by the way. He says I'm fine."
"I know. I spoke with him. How've you been sleeping the last couple of nights?"
"Pretty well, actually, since I spoke to you. No dream, and I wake up in my bed, so maybe it was just a short-term thing and I needed to get things off my chest."
I recalled the last session. Lots of questions, no answers. "Did you ever reach Detective Sturgis?"
"He told you I phoned?"
"He called me last night wanting to know if some sort of emergency had come up. Said he hadn't been able to reach you."
"The two of you are close friends, aren't you?"
"Yes, we are."
"He talks about you as if you're some kind of genius. Did you tell him I was okay?"
"I didn't tell him anything. Confidentiality."
"Oh. That's okay; you can talk to him any time. I give you permission."
"There'd be no reason to, Lucy."
"Oh. Okay. All I'm saying is I trust him, and after what I've been through, I'm a good judge of men. Anyway, I reached him. The reason I wanted to talk to him is just, I've been getting some phone calls over the last few weeks."
"What kind of phone calls?"
"Hang-ups. I'm sure it's no big thing."
"Couple a week, maybe four or five in all, mostly when I'm cooking dinner or watching TV. For all I know it's some screwup with the phone lines. Milo didn't seem that concerned. Said I should hang up right away, and if it didn't stop there was a machine I could get from the phone company that would record the caller's number."
"Sounds like a good plan," I said, keeping my voice calm. The killer who'd burned down my house had worked up to it with harassment. "Would you like to come in at noon?"
"Oh," she said, as if she'd forgotten she'd called to make an appointment. "Sure. Noon would be perfect."
She was five minutes late and breezed in wearing a snug white cotton turtleneck and red bandanna over jeans, white socks, and moccasins. Tiny ruby studs in her ears and her hair was loose. First time I'd seen it that way. It flattered her.
She said, "Everything's really pretty fine."
"Glad you're feeling better," I said.
"I really am. Maybe it's taking a break from work. I always thought my job was so important to me, but after being away from it for a couple of days I don't miss it."
"Are you thinking of quitting permanently?"
"I'm not much of a spender, so I've got enough saved up to last awhile." She gave an embarrassed smile.
"What is it?"
"I've also got a trust fund- not enough to live rich, but it is a thousand a month, so that's a pretty good cushion. That's what I meant by others having things a lot worse."
"Are you uncomfortable having a cushion?"
"Well," she said, "I didn't do anything to earn it. And it comes from his side of the family- his mother. A generation-skipping thing, they call it. To save taxes. I generally give a big chunk of it away to charity, but if it can help me mellow out a little now, why not take advantage of it?"
"I mean, I've got nothing to prove. In three years I've never taken a sick day- do you think it's irresponsible? Quitting, just like that?"
"Not at all."
"So… like I said, everything's fine… I also talked to Milo about the new murder. The Santa Ana police are consulting with him, which is smart. I remember how impressed I was when he testified. All those details at his fingertips, he never let the defense lawyer intimidate him- I guess his size helps; what is he, six-four?"
Her color was high and her fingers were knitting an invisible sweater.
"There's something I want to tell you," she said. "I'm highly attracted to him."
Keeping my face neutral, I held eye contact.
She crossed her legs and touched an earring. "It's been a long time since I've felt this way about a guy." Looking away. "Except for a few mistakes, I'm basically a virgin."
"Big mistakes," she said, "I grant you. But I've put them behind me."
"Is that what you meant this morning when you said after what you'd been through you were a good judge of men?"
She muttered something I couldn't make out.
Another mumble that sounded like "Take a look."
I leaned closer.
Her mouth continued to work. She closed her eyes.
"I hooked. Okay?"
I didn't answer.
"Just for a summer," she said.
Remembering the ulcer, I said, "The summer you taught in Boston?"
"I was a bona fide virgin. Then I met someone at Head Start, the uncle of one of my students. Gorgeous, very charming, bright black guy. He used to come and pick the little boy up, and we started talking. One thing led to another. I thought I was in love. After we were together for a while, he asked me to be with a friend of his. I didn't like the idea but I agreed. It ended up not being as bad as I'd thought- the friend was okay and he gave me a gift, some shampoo. L'Oréal. I still remember that."
Her eyes opened. Tears filled them.
"I was able to put myself in another place and get through it. And Raymond was so proud of me. Telling me he loved me, I was showing real love for him. Next week he brought another friend over."
She threw up her hands.
"It was bad, but it could have been a lot worse. His other girls were all working on the street. He let me work out of a room. Clean, warm, color TV. He made sure I didn't get any violent ones. The men came to me. It was almost like being popular."
She let out a dead laugh.
"That's it. My sordid past. Ten weeks of white slavery and mortal sin, and then I went on to Belding and Raymond found some other gullible idiot."
Pushing hair away from her face, she forced herself to look at me. "I haven't been with a man since then. Do you think I'm still too sullied for your best friend?"
"It took courage to tell me," I said.
"Don't worry about my having evil designs on him or being some freak-case co-dependent. When I say I'm attracted to him, I mean psychologically. His kindness, his solidity. I'm working up my courage to let him know how I feel. Is that okay with you?"
"You don't need my permission, Lucy." Thinking of the complications that were sure to come.
She stared at me.
"You don't approve, do you?" Snapping her head down, she studied the floor. "Big mistake to tell you."
"Lucy, it's not-"
"I should have known," she said softly. "You're entitled to your feelings. I tell you I was a whore, it's only natural you wouldn't want me near your friend."
"It's not that at all."
"Then what? Why does your face change when I talk about liking him?"
"There's nothing terrible about that, or you. What goes on between you and Milo or anyone else isn't any of my business."
She studied me.
"Forgive me, Dr. Delaware, but that just doesn't ring true. You're a lovely man and I really appreciate all you've tried to do for me, but there's something going on here, some kind of resistance. I've got a feel for things like that." Another joyless laugh. "Maybe it comes from screwing ten strangers a day. You get good at gauging people quickly."
She got up and walked across the room.
"Lucy flunks therapy… Seeing Milo's friend was a mistake- how can I expose myself to you and expect you to be impartial? How can I expect you to take any sort of voyage with a whore?"
"You're not a whore."
"No? How can you be sure? Have you had other patients who were whores?"
"For seven years," she said, between clenched jaws, "I haven't touched a guy. For seven years I've been double-tithing my income to the poor, not eating meat, doing every good deed I can find to cleanse myself. That's why I wanted to be on that jury. To accomplish some greater good. And now I finally find a man I like, and I'm feeling dirty- judged by you just like I judged Shwandt. I should have gotten out of it. Who am I to judge anyone?"
"Shwandt is a monster," I said. "You got caught up in something."
She turned her back on me. "He's a monster and I'm sleazy- we're all defendants in one way or another, aren't we? Is that the only reason you don't want me near Milo, or is he involved with someone else?"
"It's not appropriate for me to discuss his personal life."
"Why not? Is he your patient, too?"
"We're here to talk about you, Lucy."
"But I like him, so doesn't that make it relevant? If he wasn't your friend, we'd be talking about him."
"And I wouldn't know anything about his personal life."
She stopped. Licked her lips. Smiled. "Okay, he's committed. Though I know he's not married- I asked him if he was and he said no." She turned sharply and faced me. "Did he lie to me?"
"So he's going with someone- maybe living with someone- is she beautiful? Like your wife? Do the four of you double-date?"
"Lucy," I said, "stop tormenting yourself." Knowing my reticence was feeding her fantasies. Knowing I couldn't warn Milo- strangled by confidentiality.
Turning her back on me, she pressed her hands up against the glass doors, saw the fingerprints she'd made, and tried to wipe them off with a corner of her sweater.
Nearly sobbing the word.
"There's nothing to be-"
"I can't believe I just said all those things. How could I be so-"
"Come on." I guided her back to her chair. She started to sit, then walked past it, snatching up her bag and racing for the door.
I reached her just as she opened it. A marine breeze ruffled her hair. Her eyes were watering.
"Please come back, Lucy."
She shook her head violently. "Let me go. I just can't take any more humiliation."
"Let's talk it ou-"
"I can't. Not right now. Please- I'll come back. I promise. Soon."
"Please let me go. I really need to be alone. I really need that."
I backed off.
She stepped out onto the footbridge.
Had I screwed up or was it something that couldn't have been avoided?
Seeing a friend of his was a mistake.
Who knew trauma counseling would turn into this?
Damn, what a mess!
I tried to call her an hour later. No answer. One more try, an hour after that, and I decided to give her time to think.
That evening, Robin and I cooked sand dabs and home fries and lingered over the meal. I was preoccupied and tried to hide it by being extra affectionate. She knew something was going on but said nothing as we watched the sunset.
Then she went to do some carving, Spike fell asleep, and I got in the Seville and drove aimlessly up the coast, getting off the highway at Ventura, for no particular reason, and gliding through dark, empty streets. Lots of boarded-up storefronts and FOR LEASE signs. The recession had hit the town hard, and seeing it did nothing for my mood.
When I got back, Robin was in bed reading Command: Shed the Light.
She closed it and dropped it on the covers. "Why did you check this out?"
"The dark side."
"Such garbage. I can't believe this is the same guy we had to read in English."
"The critics couldn't believe it either. It killed his career."
"He used to write totally differently," she said. "Dark Horses. That long poem about Paris: "The Market.' I remember Dark Horses especially because we had to analyze it in freshman English. I hated the assignment but I thought the book was fascinating, the way he turned the racetrack into a miniature world, all those quirky characters. This stuff is dreadful. What happened?"
"Maybe he used up his ration of talent."
"What a woman-hater! Seriously, what kind of research are you doing?"
"It has to to with a patient, Rob. Someone he's influenced."
"Oh. Sounds creepy."
I shrugged and got out of my clothes.
"Nice of you to empathize with your patient to that degree," she said.
"That's what they sent me to school for." I put the book on my nightstand and slipped under the covers. She rolled toward me.
"You sound upset."
"No, just bushed."
She didn't say anything. Her huge dark eyes snared mine and held them captive. Her curls fell over bare shoulders like a shadow on the moon. I wrapped her in my arms.
"Okay," she said. "Do you have enough energy to empathize with me? I've got all sorts of feelings."
I was still in my bathrobe when the phone rang at 7:10 the next morning.
"Dr. Delaware? This is your service. I have a Dr. Shaper for you."
The name was unfamiliar. "I'll take it."
A man's voice said, "Who do I have?"
"This is Dr. Delaware."
"This is Dr. Shapoor over at Woodbridge Hospital. We've got a suicide attempt came in last night. Lucretia… Lowell. She's finally awake and claiming she's your patient."
My heart rocked and rolled. "How is she?"
"Stabilized. She'll survive."
"When did she come in?"
"Sometime last night. She's been going in and out of consciousness. Claims she's never done this before. Has she?"
"Not to my knowledge, but I've only seen her a few times."
"Well, we're putting her on a seventy-two-hour hold- One second!" Then: "You know how those seventy-twos go?"
"She'll be seeing one of our staff psychiatrists. You can probably get some kind of temporary privileges- you're an M.D., right?"
"Oh. Then I don't know. Anyway-"
"What method did she use?"
"Gas. Turned on the stove and stuck her head in."
"Who found her?"
"Some guy brought her in. I just came on shift and saw the message in the chart to call you."
"Did she take any drugs or alcohol?"
"According to the chart, she denies any drug use, but we'll see when the blood work gets back. Does she have a drug history?"
"Not that I know of, but she has been through some rough times recently."
"Uh-huh- hold on. What? Tell them just to wait!… Anyway, I have to go now."
"I'd like to come over and see her now."
"Sure," he said. "She's not going anywhere."
After I hung up, I realized I had no idea where Woodbridge Hospital was. Obtaining the number from Information, I connected with a bored receptionist, who said, "They call it Woodland Hills, but it's really Canoga Park. Topanga just north of Victory."
I got dressed and drove south on PCH, taking Kanan Dume Road to the 101 Freeway, where I got stuck in a jam. Squeezing out at the next exit, I drove north till I found Victory and followed it ten miles to Topanga Boulevard. The hospital was a three-story brown-brick column that resembled a giant chocolate bar. Small smoked windows, small brass letters, and an illuminated emergency entrance sign bright enough to pierce the morning light.
Parking was free, in a giant lot. The guard at the door barely glanced up as I passed. I gave the clerk my name and she buzzed me in.
The place was brimming over with misery, injured and sick people propped up in plastic chairs. Periodic moans soloed above efficient medical chatter. A colostomy reek hung in the air.
As I passed, someone said, "Doctor?" in a weak, hopeful voice.
Shapoor was outside a room marked Observation 2, reading a chart. A tall, elegant Indian around thirty, he had wavy black hair, humid eyes, and nicotine breath. His badge said he was a second-year resident. His necktie was hand-painted, and the disks of his stethoscope were gold-plated. I introduced myself. He kept reading.
"Lucy Lowell," I said.
"Yes, yes, I know." Pointing to the door.
"How's she doing?" I said.
"We patched her up."
"There were wounds?"
"I was speaking figuratively." He snapped the chart shut. "She's fine. We saved her. For the time being."
"Has her blood work come back yet?"
"No narcotics that we pick up."
"What are the side effects of the gas?"
"A very unpleasant headache for the next few days, some general weakness, maybe disorientation, congestion, shortness of breath- it all depends on how much she actually took in. We cleaned her out thoroughly."
"Was she conscious when she came in?"
"Semi. But she keeps going in and out. Typical."
"Is the person who brought her in still here?"
"Don't know. The psychiatrist on call can fill you in. She won't be in till later today, but she feels an involuntary hold is definitely called for."
"What's her name?"
"Dr. Embrey. You can leave your card with the front desk or the triage nurse and ask them to give it to her." Pulling his stethoscope off, he walked to the next door. I pushed Lucy's open.
She was in bed, eyes closed, breathing through her mouth, hands flat on her thighs. Her hair had been topknotted with a rubber band. A plastic bag of something clear dripped into her veins; oxygen hissed into her nose from a thin tube that ran from a pressurized tank. A bank of monitors behind the bed beeped and flashed and gurgled, trying to quantify the quality of her life.
Her vital signs looked good, the blood pressure a little low. Her face was sweaty but her lips were dry.
I stared down at her, replaying our sessions, wondering if there had been warning signs.
Of course there'd been, genius. All that shame and rage.
Confession gone very sour.
Nothing to indicate she'd go this far, but what the hell did I know about her?
Out of my hands now. She was in the system, locked up for three days. More, if the psychiatrist convinced a judge she remained a danger to herself.
A woman psychiatrist. Maybe it was what she needed. God knows I wasn't her savior.
She made a deep snoring sound, and her eyes moved under swollen lids.
More fragile than I'd thought.
Was her summer as a prostitute the cause or, more likely, a symptom?
I wondered if everything she'd told me was true.
For all I knew, her father was really a truck driver from Bell Gardens, no closer to fame than a subscription to People.
Who'd brought her to the hospital?
Who'd pulled her head out of the oven?
Her eyes opened partially. She tried blinking but couldn't. I moved into her field of vision; at first she didn't focus. Then I saw her pupils dilate. One hand moved, the fingers stretching toward me. Suddenly, they dropped.
I took hold of them. Her mouth shifted, struggling for an expression, finally settling on weariness.
I smiled down at her. She gave a feeble nod. The oxygen tube fell out of her nose, the hiss growing louder as precious gas leaked.
I replaced it. She licked her lips, and her eyes opened completely.
Trying to talk, but all that came out were wordless croaks. Tears in her eyes.
"It's okay, Lucy."
She fell back. Her fingers grew cold and loose.
For the next twenty minutes, she slept as I held her hand. A nurse came in, checked her, and left, closing the door hard. Lucy woke up with a start, systolic pressure jumping.
Panic in her eyes.
"You're okay, Lucy. You're in the emergency room at Woodbridge Hospital, and you're doing fine."
She started coughing and couldn't stop. The oxygen line flew out again. Each spasm lifted her from the mattress, an involuntary calisthenic that tightened her face with pain. She coughed harder and spit up vile-looking gray mucus that I wiped away.
When the coughing stopped, I put the line back.
It took a long time for her to catch her breath.
"What," she said, very softly and hoarsely, "happen?"
"You're in the emergency room. Woodbridge Hospital."
"What's the last thing you remember, Lucy?"
She gave a mystified stare. "Sleeping."
Her face screwed up and her eyes closed. More pain- or shame? Or both?
The eyes opened. "Hurts."
She moaned and wept.
I checked the contents of her IV bag: glucose and electrolytes, no analgesic. I pressed the nurse call button. A bark came through a wall speaker. "Yes?"
"Miss Lowell's in pain. Is there anything she can have?"
Lucy had another coughing fit and spit up. She stared at me as I wiped her lips.
"What… happened?" She started to shiver and her teeth chattered.
I put another blanket over her. She said something I couldn't make out and I bent down to hear her.
"You've had a rough experience."
Tears trickled down her cheeks, flowing under the oxygen line and into her mouth. Fear was twisting her face like taffy.
"Sick?" she repeated.
I took her hand again. "Lucy, they say you tried to commit suicide."
Shock widened her eyes.
"No!" A whisper, more lip movement than sound. "No!"
I gave her fingers a soft squeeze and nodded.
Behind her, the monitors jumped. Heart rate up, systolic blood pressure rising. The hand in mine was a sodden claw.
"It's okay, Lucy."
"I believe you," I lied. "Try to relax."
"Okay, just calm down."
She shook her head. The oxygen line shot out of her nose like a slingshotted stone. When I tried to replace it, she turned her head away from me, chest heaving, breathing harshly.
The door opened and the same nurse came in. Young and heavy-faced with chopped hair. "What's going on?"
"What happened to her line?"
"It came loose. I was just putting it back."
"Well, we'd better get it right back." She took the line from me and tried to insert the nosepiece into Lucy's nostrils.
Lucy turned away from her, too.
The nurse put one hand on her hip and twirled the tube with the other.
"Now you listen to me," she said. "We're busy and we don't have time for fooling around. Do you want us to run tape all the way around your head to keep the line in? It'll have to be really tight, and believe me, your headache will get a lot worse. Do you want that?"
Lucy bit her lip and shook her head.
"So be still, it's for your good. We're just trying to take care of you and fix you all up."
The line went back in. "Good girl." The nurse checked the monitors. "Your pulse is up to ninety-eight. Better relax."
The nurse turned to me. "Are you family?"
Quizzical look. "Well, that's good. Maybe you can get her calm." She headed for the door.
"About her pain," I said.
"She can't have anything. Not until we really make sure she's been cleaned out."
"Sorry, hon, it's for your own good." The nurse swung the door open, letting in fluorescence and noise. "Just try to think of something pleasant. And don't get upset again, it'll only make your head feel worse."
The door closed. I picked up Lucy's hand again. Lifeless as a glove.
She said, "I didn't."
"I believe you, Lucy."
"They want to watch you for a while."
Her back arched.
"It's not up to me, Lucy."
She tried to push herself up from the bed. The line flew out, hissing and coiling on the bedcovers like an angry snake. The monitors were dancing.
"Listen to me," I said, putting my hands on her shoulders and easing her down without resistance.
Again, I replaced the line. She pushed up against me.
"I can't, Lucy. That nurse was no diplomat, but she was right about one thing: You need to relax right now. And to cooperate."
Terrified looks, roller-coaster eyes.
"Why," she said, nearly breathless, "can't… home?"
"Because they think you're a suicide attempt. They've got you on something called a seventy-two-hour hold. That means legally they can keep you here for three days and offer you psychiatric treatment. After that, if you're no danger to yourself or anyone else, you'll be free to go."
"No!" She moaned and rolled her head from side to side.
"It's the law, Lucy. It's for your own protection."
"I'm really sorry you have to go through this, and I want to see you up and around as soon as possible. That's why you need to cooperate."
"I'm sorry, Lucy. I'm not on the staff here. A psychiatrist named Dr. Embrey will be treating you, a woman. I'll talk to her first-"
"I know it's frightening, Lucy, but please ride it out."
"I'll stick by you. I promise."
More moans. She flinched and managed to raise a hand to her temple.
"Settle down," I said. "I know it's hard."
Her hand left her head and settled at her side. She poked her rib cage with one finger.
"What is it?" I said.
"You think you broke a rib?"
Headshake. "Me. Broken."
"No, you're not," I said, stroking her face. "Just a little bruised."
"You'll be fine, Lucy. Try to get some rest."
"You want me to tell Milo you're here?"
"Tell him… someone-"
"Someone-" Struggling for breath, she took a deep, wheezing inhalation.
Her heart rate had climbed over a hundred. A hundred and ten…
"Someone-" she repeated. Poking her ribs. Terror in her eyes. "Someone…"
"Someone what?" I said, leaning in closer.
She sank back and fell asleep. It took the monitors another minute to slow down.
I waited a while, then left to find some coffee. A man down the hall said, "Excuse me, are you her doctor?"
He looked to be around thirty. Five-ten, broad-shouldered, stocky, and round-faced, with light brown hair, a golf-course tan, and wide brown eyes. His blue blazer had some cashmere in it, his burgundy shirt was broadcloth. Beige linen trousers broke perfectly over oxblood tassel loafers.
"I'm Dr. Delaware, her psychologist."
"Oh, good." He extended his hand. "Ken Lowell. Her brother."
Movement down the hall distracted both of us. An old man, waxy white and skeletal, was being eased by an orderly into a wheelchair. Blood dripped from under his hospital gown, painting a winding, crimson trail on the gray linoleum floor. His eyes were blank and his mouth was open. Only his tremoring limbs said he was alive.
Ken Lowell stared as the chair was wheeled away. No one rushed in to clean up the blood.
He turned back to me, looking queasy. The good clothes made him seem a tourist who'd wandered into a slum.
"Dr. Delaware," he said. "She was asking for you. I thought she was delirious and wanted to go to Delaware for some reason." Shaking his head. "How's she doing?"
"She's recovering, physically. Did you bring her in?"
He nodded. "Has she done this before?"
"Not as far as I know."
Pulling a burgundy silk handkerchief out of his breast pocket, he mopped his forehead. "So what happens to her now?"
"She'll be here involuntarily for at least three days, and then a psychiatrist from the hospital will determine a treatment plan."
"She could be committed against her will?"
"If the psychiatrist- Dr. Embrey- believes she's still in danger, she can go to court and ask for an extension. That's unusual, though, unless the patient makes another suicide attempt in the hospital or experiences some sort of massive breakdown."
"What led up to this, doctor? Was she very depressed?"
"I'm sorry, but I can't discuss details with you- confidentiality."
"Oh, sure. Sorry. It's just that I don't know much about her. For all practical purposes, we're total strangers. I haven't seen her in twenty years."
"How'd you come to bring her in?"
"Pure chance. It's pretty scary. I was looking for Puck- my half brother, Peter- Lucy's brother. We had a dinner appointment at my hotel at seven, and he didn't show. It bothered me; I didn't think it was something he'd miss. So I waited for a while, then drove out to his apartment in Studio City. No one was home. He'd told me how close he and Lucy were, so, on a long shot, I decided to look for him at her place. It was after ten by the time I got there, and I wouldn't have gone up but her lights were on and the drapes were partially open. When I got to the door, I thought I smelled gas. I knocked, got no answer, looked through the window, and saw her kneeling on the kitchen floor. I tapped the glass hard and she didn't move, so I broke the door down and pulled her head out of the stove. She had a pulse and she was breathing, but she didn't look too good. I called 911. It took a really long time to get through. While waiting for the paramedics to arrive, I looked up hospitals in the phone book and found this place. When they still hadn't shown up, I said, Screw this, and brought her in myself."
He stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket and shook his head.
"You're from San Francisco?" I said.
"How'd you know that?"
"Lucy told me."
"She was talking about me?"
"I took a family history."
"Oh. Actually, I'm from Palo Alto, but I'm down in L.A. quite a lot on business- real estate, mostly buyouts and bankruptcies. What with the economy, I've been down here more than usual, and I started thinking about connecting with Puck and Lucy- it seemed wrong that we never even tried to get together. Lucy wasn't listed but Puck was, so a few weeks ago I called him. He was shocked to hear from me; it was awkward. But we talked a few more times, finally agreed to try dinner."
"Was Lucy going to be there, too?"
"No, he didn't want her to be- protecting her, I guess. It was a trial balloon. The deal was that if it worked out, we'd get her involved… he was pretty nervous about the whole thing. Still, I was surprised when he stood me up."
"Have you heard from him since?"
"No. I tried him a couple times from here, no answer." He looked at his watch. "Maybe I should try again."
There was a pay phone up the hall. He called, waited, and came back shaking his head.
"Poor kid," he said, looking at the door to Lucy's room. "Puck said she'd been through some kind of rough jury duty and was pretty freaked out, but I had no idea she was this… vulnerable."
He buttoned his jacket. Tight around the waist. "Too many business dinners," he said, smiling ruefully. "Not that I imagine she's had it easy. Did she tell you who our father is?"
He said, "I don't know if she's had any contact with him, but if she has, I'd be willing to bet that's at least part of her stress."
"The man's a total and complete sonofabitch."
"Have you had contact with him?"
"No way. He lives here- up in Topanga Canyon, big spread. But that's a call I'll never make." Unbuttoning his jacket. "When I first started in the business, I used to have fantasies of his going bankrupt and me buying his land up cheap." Smile. "I've been in counseling myself- got divorced last year."
"What happened twenty years ago?"
"You said the last time you saw Lucy was twenty years ago."
"Oh. Yeah, twenty, twenty-one, something like that." He squinted and scratched the side of his nose. "I was nine, so it was twenty-one. It was the summer my mother decided to go to Europe to take painting lessons- she was an artist. She drove us- my sister Jo and me- down to L.A. and dropped us off at Sanctum. That's the name of his place in Topanga."
"I've heard of it- a writer's retreat."
"Yeah. Anyway, here she is, dumping us on him, no advance notice. He was about as happy as getting a boil lanced, but what could he do, kick us out?"
"And Lucy was there too?"
"Lucy and Puck. They came up a couple of weeks after we did. Tiny little kids, we didn't know who they were; our mother had never told us they even existed, only that he'd left her for another woman. As it turned out, their mom had died a few years before, and the aunt who had taken care of them had gotten married and dumped them."
"How old were they?"
"Let's see, if I was nine, Puck would have had to be… five. So Lucy was four. We looked at them as babies, had nothing to do with them. Tell the truth, we resented them- our mother was always bad-mouthing their mother for stealing him away."
"Who took care of them?"
"A nanny or some kind of baby-sitter. I remember that because they got to sleep with her in the main house while Jo and I had to stay in a little cabin and basically fend for ourselves. But that was okay. We ran around, did whatever we wanted."
"Twenty-one years ago," I said. "That must have been right after Sanctum opened."
"It had just opened," he said. "I remember they had this big party for the opening, and we were forced to stay in our cabin. Along with plates of food. Tons more spread out on these long white banquet tables, leftovers for weeks. I used to sneak into the kitchen and swipe pastries. I gained ten pounds- that was the beginning of my weight problem."
People shouting or maybe they're laughing… and lights like fireflies.
Another glance at his watch. "Well," he said, "good to meet you. If there's anything I can do-"
He turned to leave.
"How long will you be in L.A.?"
"I was supposed to fly back tonight. Do you think- is there a chance Lucy would want to meet me?"
"Hard to say, right now. She's pretty out of it."
"Yeah, I understand," he said sadly. "I wonder where Puck is, why he didn't show. Here."
Pulling out a crocodile billfold, he removed a business card and gave it to me.
THE ALPHA GROUP
Kenyon T. Lowell
Senior Vice President,
"I've got meetings all day, but I probably can stick around till tomorrow morning. If she does want to meet me, or if you hear from Puck, I'm staying at the Westwood Marquis."
"Do you have Puck's number handy?"
"Right here." An identical card came out of the wallet. On the back was a Valley exchange, written in blue ballpoint.
"Let me get some paper and copy it down," I said.
"Take it," he said. "I know it by heart."
He left and I returned to Lucy's room. She was still sleeping, and I gave my name to the ward clerk along with a message for Dr. Embrey. Then I phoned West L.A. Detectives and got Milo at his desk.
"What's up, Alex?"
"Lucy tried to kill herself last night. She's out of danger, physically, but still pretty knocked out. I'm at Woodbridge Hospital, out in the Valley. They'll be keeping her here."
"Fuck. What'd she do, cut her wrists?"
"Stuck her head in the oven."
"You find her?"
"No, her half brother did. Lucky for her he stopped by looking for the other brother and saw her through the window, on her knees in the kitchen. Talk about Providence."
"Her drapes were open and she's got her head in the oven? What was it, a cry for help?"
"Who knows? She never dropped any hints to me. Still, I'm trying hard not to feel like an idiot."
"Jesus, Alex, what the hell happened?"
"It's complicated. More than you could ever imagine."
"And you can't tell me."
"No, in fact, I need to. But not over the phone. When can we get together?"
"Coming back into the city?"
"Gino's in forty-five."
Gino's Trattoria is on Pico, not far from the West L.A. station: checkered tablecloths, hanging Chianti bottles, rough wines.
Even during the day, the place is murky, lit by table candles in amber globes that are never washed. The one at Milo's rear corner table illuminated him from the bottom, accentuating every crater and lump, giving him the look of a gargoyle with chronic back pain.
He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and dark tie. Even at that distance I could tell his hair was freshly cut- military clip at the sides, long and shaggy on top, to-the-lobe sideburns that were hip, now, and against department regulations.
Two beers sat in front of him. He pushed one over to me. In the dirty glare his green eyes were gray-brown.
"How come all of a sudden you can talk to me?"
"Because Lucy asked me to. She said someone was trying to kill her, and she wants you to protect her. I'm sure it's some sort of gas-induced delusion- or massive denial because she just can't face the fact that she tried to kill herself. But I'm taking it as a formal instruction."
"How does she figure someone tried to kill her with gas? Dragged her to the stove and jammed her head in?"
"She's nowhere near coherent enough to discuss details."
"Remember those four calls she put in? Seems she's been getting some hang-ups."
"She told me. Said you didn't think it was serious."
"I didn't because she didn't. She told me it might be some technical problem with her phone; the line goes out all the time. Kind of casual about the whole thing, made me wonder if she just wanted to talk."
"I'm sure she did. That's part of what I have to tell you. She's got a major crush on you. Admitted it to me during yesterday's session."
He was silent and still.
"She wanted approval from me, Milo. I couldn't tell her you were gay because I didn't want to violate your privacy. And I couldn't warn you about the way she felt because of confidentiality. She got really upset and left. Now this. I feel like I've really screwed up, but I don't know what I could've done differently."
"You coulda told her about me, Alex. I'm not your patient."
"I didn't think it was appropriate to get into your personal life. She was the patient; I was trying to keep the focus on her."
"Jesus." His cheeks turned to bellows and he blew out beery air.
"Has she ever shown any romantic feelings?"
"I don't know," he said furiously. "I guess looking back… I mean, she hung around, phoned, but I figured it was a cop-victim thing. Looking for big brother." Rubbing one eye. "Pretty fucking dense, huh? Goddammit! I'm an asshole to let it get this far. All these years I've been careful not to get personal with victims or their families. So why her?"
"You didn't do anything wrong," I said. "You gave her support, and when it became clear she needed something more, you referred her to me."
"Yeah, but there was more. In my head. She probably picked up on it."
"Involvement. I'd find myself thinking about her. Worrying. Couple of times I called her, just to see how she was doing."
He slammed a big hand down on the table. "How else could she take it? What am I, brain dead?"
He shook his head. "For chrissake, she was only a juror. I've dealt with thousands of victims who had it a helluva lot worse. I must be losing it."
"You didn't put her head in the oven."
"Neither did you, but you still feel like shit."
Both of us drank.
"If I hadn't tried to help her," he said, "I wouldn't know about her head being in the oven, would I? And you and I would be sitting here talking about something else."
His glass was empty and he called for a refill, looking at me.
He said, "Ignorance is bliss, right? All the talk about insight and self-understanding, but far as I can tell, being a good ostrich is the key to psychological adjustment. Christ, now I have her sitting on my shoulder… So what do I do, tell her, Gee, honeybunch, if I went for women you'd be at the top of my list? Might as well shove her head back in the oven."
"There's no need to do anything right now," I said. "Let's see how she handles the seventy-two hours. If the psychiatrist at Woodbridge is good, she'll know how to deal with it."
"Seventy-two hours… praise the law."
"There's more you need to know about." I told him about Lucy's summer as a prostitute.
"Oh, man, it keeps getting better. Just a summer fling, huh?"
"So she says. She confessed right after she told me how she felt about you. Asked me if I thought she wasn't good enough for you. As if she was giving me a reason to reject her."
"Not good enough for me." He gave a scary laugh. "Remember I told you she reminded me of a girl in high school who became a nun? Someone else who convinced herself I was wonderful."
This time he rubbed his face. Hard.
"Prom night back in Hoosierville. All the little virgins and would-be virgins from Our Lady on the arms of us pimpled lads from St. Thomas. I was eighteen and knew I was gay for a couple of years, no one to tell it to. Her name was Nancy Squires, and when she asked me to be her date I said yes because I didn't want to hurt her feelings. Orchid corsage, tux, Dad's car washed and waxed. Doing the Twist in the gym. Mashed Potatoes and the fucking Hully Gully. Drinking the fucking spiked punch."
He looked into his beer glass.
"She was pretty, if you liked skinny and pale and tortured. Wrote poetry, collected these little porcelain doohickeys, didn't know how to dress, tutored the boys in math. Of course the other girls treated her like a leper."
He turned and faced me.
"She was nice to talk to, a little lady. Then when I drove her home, she put her hands all over me, and when I parked in front of her house she told me she loved me. It was like being sucker-punched. Genius that I was, I told her I liked her as a friend but couldn't love her. Then I explained why."
He gave another frightful laugh. In the bad light he looked homicidal.
"She didn't say a thing for a while. Just let her hands drop and stared at me as if I was the biggest goddamn disappointment in her eighteen-year life. She didn't have it easy. Her whole family was a bunch of assholes, brothers in jail, father a drunken shit who slapped her around from time to time, maybe worse. And here I was, the last straw."
He rubbed his eyelids. "She kept staring at me. Finally shook her head and said, "Oh, Milo, you're going to end up in Hell.' No anger. Sympathetic. Then she patted her brand-new Tonette and got out of the car and that's the last I saw her. Next week she shipped off to a convent in Indianapolis. Five years ago my mother wrote me she was murdered, over in El Salvador. She and a bunch of other nuns washing clothes in a stream." He threw up his hands. "Let's do a screenplay."
"Lucy reminds you of her that strongly."
"They could be sisters, Alex. The way she carries herself- the vulnerability."
"The vulnerability's definitely there," I said. "Given what I've learned of her childhood, it's no surprise. Her mom died right after she was born; her father deserted the family. She's functionally an orphan."
"Yeah, I know. She was talking to me about Shwandt, once. Said he had two parents, nice home, father who was a lawyer, so what was his excuse? Said her own father was a lowlife."
"Did she tell you who her father is?"
He looked up. "Who?"
"M. Bayard Lowell."
Staring, he put his hands around his beer glass. "What is this, Big Fucking Surprise Day? The goddamn moon in Pisces with Herpes or something? Lowell as in Mr. Belles Lettruh?"
"Unbelievable. He still alive?"
"Living in Topanga Canyon. His career died and he moved to L.A."
"I read him in school."
"She's his daughter? Unreal."
"You can see why he'd have impact, even being absent."
"Sure," he said. "He's just there, like the goddamn Ten Foot Gorilla."
"Lucy compared it to being the President's kid. I can understand her looking for a benevolent authority figure. Maybe your thoughts about a big brother weren't all that far from the truth."
"Great. And now I disappoint her, too… So how do I handle this? Visit or keep my distance?"
"Let's see how she does during the next few days."
"Sure. Head in the oven… No idea what could have led her to it?"
I shook my head. "She was upset, but nothing that pointed to suicide."
"Upset about me."
"That, but we'd also started to get into other things- the prostitution, feelings toward her father. And the dream she mentioned to you. That's something else I want to talk to you about."
I described the buried girl story.
He said, "I'm no shrink, but I hear, "Daddy scares the shit out of me.' "
"She started having it midway through the trial, right after you testified about Carrie. I figured all that horror raised her anxiety level and released long-buried feelings toward Lowell- seeing herself as some kind of victim. His last poems are viciously anti-woman; she may have read them and had a strong reaction. And the last time we discussed the dream she said she'd felt her soul entering the dark-haired girl's body- as if she were being buried too. Explicitly identifying with the victim. But something the half brother told me in the hospital makes me wonder if there's even more. She claims she's had no contact with Lowell her entire life, but the brother said twenty-one years ago she spent the summer with him in Topanga. All four of his kids did. Lucy was four years old at the time- the age she feels in the dream. And Lowell's place has log buildings, exactly what she describes. Now, the newspapers did cover the opening of the retreat, down to the architecture; I found the clippings so she could've also. Or she could have heard about it from her brother Peter. He did some family research and filled her in. If that's the case, she's flat out denying being there. But the alternative is that she really doesn't remember. Maybe because something traumatic happened that summer."
His jaw flexed. "Daddy did something to her?"
"Like I said, his last poems are grossly misogynistic. If he abused her, I can see why the trial might kick in the memories- sex and violence thrown together. One thing's for sure, she's struggling with something major. The recurrent nature of the dream and its intensity- when she talks about it she actually seems to experience it- she's trancelike. Almost as if she's going into hypnosis by herself. That tells me her ego boundaries are weakening; this is something potent. So maybe I should've been more careful. But there was no profound depression, no hint she'd do this."
"What about the other two guys in the dream?"
"Could be that part's fantasy, or maybe what happened to her wasn't a solo act. And I've got another possible participant. That summer, Lowell had a protégé living with him named Terry Trafficant. Career criminal, history of attempted rape, assault, manslaughter. Locked up long-term till Lowell helped him get parole and publish his jail diary. It became a best-seller."
"Yeah, yeah, I wasn't a cop yet, still in college, but I remember thinking how asinine."
"So did a lot of other people. The last cop who arrested him called him a stick of dynamite waiting to go off. There was a stink about Lowell's patronage, then Trafficant disappeared. A guy like that, all those years in confinement, stick him in Topanga Canyon with a cute little girl running around, who knows."
He grimaced. "Trafficant's record include pedophilia?"
"I don't remember reading that, but a guy like him might very well not be repulsed by sex with a little girl."
"Yeah. The other possibility, Alex, is that nothing happened directly to her but she saw something. And not even criminal violence- maybe wild sex, some kind of orgy. A girl and three guys- that would freak out a four-year-old, right? What if the grinding was exactly what she first thought it was and her mind ran away with it? Like you said, sex and violence are all mixed up in her head."
I thought about that. "It's sure possible. The half brother said the kids were at the retreat for the opening. A big party took place. The papers described it as a pretty wild scene. And in the dream, Lucy talks about noise and lights the night she leaves the cabin. She could've seen something X-rated."
"Involving Daddy. He and a couple of buddies having their way with a girl," he said. "Not the kind of thing a little kid could handle easily."
"And the trial reawakens it… On the other hand, what if she did witness violence and that's why hearing about Shwandt evoked memories of a crime? Maybe- unconsciously- she was motivated to be a juror in order to right some kind of wrong. Maybe that's the toughness the prosecutors sensed."
"Possible," he said.
"Trafficant was an attempted rapist, Milo. And he dropped out of sight right after the party."
"On the lam?"
"Why else would he disappear at the height of his celebrity? All those years behind bars, then he's a best-seller; it wouldn't have made sense to quit unless he had something to hide. He and Lowell- the publicity would have been devastating. So maybe he took the money and ran. For all we know, he's on some tropical island living off his royalties."
He rubbed his face and contemplated the table light. "For that to make sense, there would have to be no witnesses, meaning violence taken all the way."
"Maybe Lucy actually did witness a burial. Lowell and Trafficant and someone else getting rid of the body."
He thought a long time. "It's a helluva leap based on a dream. For all we know, Trafficant disappeared because he died. Blew all his dough on dope and OD'd. He was a psychopath loser. Don't they always end up doing something self-destructive?"
"Usually. But still, the idea of him and Lucy, up there at the same time, her blocking out that summer, and now she's dreaming about a dead girl… I could call Trafficant's publisher and see if they know where he is. If you feel up to it, you could run a background check."
"Sure, why not… Best-seller." Shaking his head. "What is it with these intellectuals anyway? All those fools marching for Caryl Chessman as if he was a saint. Norman Mailer with his pet creep, William Buckley rooting for that asshole Edgar Smith- beat a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat."
I thought about that. "I suppose artists and writers can lead a pretty insulated life," I said. "No freeway jams or time cards. Getting paid to make things up, you could start to confuse your fantasies with reality."
"I think there's more to it, Alex. I think the so-called creative bunch believe they're better than everyone else, don't have to play by the same rules. I remember once, when I was first on the force, I pulled jail duty down at the Hall of Justice, and some sociology professor was leading a tour- earnest students, pens and notebooks. They walked past one asshole's cell and it was full of drawings- bloody stuff but very well done; the guy had real talent. Not that it stopped him from robbing liquor stores and pistol-whipping the owners. Prof and the kids were totally blown away. How could someone that talented be in there. Such injustice! They started talking to the guy. He's a stone psychopath, so he immediately smells an opening and plays them like guitars: Mr. Misunderstood Artist, poor baby robbed 'cause he couldn't afford paints and canvas."
He shook his head. "Goddamn professor actually came up to me and demanded to know who the guy's parole officer was. Letting me know it was criminal for such a gifted fellow to be shackled. That's the equation they make, Alex: If you're talented, you're entitled to privileges. Every few years you see another bullshit article, some idealistic fool setting up a program teaching inmates to paint or sculpt or play piano or write fucking short stories. Like that's going to make a damn bit of difference. Truth is, there's always been plenty of talent in jail. Visit any penitentiary, you'll hear great music, see lots of nifty artwork. If you ask me, psychopaths are more talented than the rest of us. But they're still fucking psychopaths."
"There's actually a theory to that effect," I said. "Psychopathy as a form of creativity. And you're right, there's no shortage of artistically brilliant people who had low moral IQ's: Degas, Wagner, Ezra Pound, Philip Larkin. From what I hear Picasso was pretty hard to live with."
"So why are people so goddamn stupid?"
"Naäiveté, wanting to believe the best about others- who knows? And it's not just the creative bunch who buys into it. Years ago, social psychologists discovered something called the halo effect. Most people have no trouble believing that if you're good at one thing it transfers to unrelated areas. It's why athletes get rich endorsing products."
"Yeah," he said. "Trafficant shoulda stuck around. Somebody would have paid him to endorse cutlery."
"Lowell set him loose on society. Dropped him in a totally unstructured situation full of booze, dope, groupies. And cute little kids."
He laughed wearily. "Get us together, feeling like failures, and we do build a nice house of cards. I'll grant you it's interesting- scumbag on the loose almost always spells some kind of trouble. But like you said, Lucy could have read about him or heard about him from her brother. Maybe the goddamn dream is pure fiction."
"Could be," I admitted. "He got plenty of media coverage."
"Much as I like her, she's got problems, right? The head in the oven, this paranoid talk about someone trying to kill her. And those hang-up calls. I feel like a bum saying this, but now that I know she's been wanting to get close to me, I'd be an idiot not to wonder if she made them up to get attention. Even the way she tried to kill herself has a touch of that, doesn't it? Gas, with the drapes open?"
He gulped down the rest of his beer and looked at me.
"Yes, there is a hysterical quality to it," I said. "But let's be charitable and assume that even if she is making things up it's out of neediness rather than manipulation. That still doesn't eliminate the possibility that something traumatized her that summer. Don't forget, she's not trumpeting herself as a victim or trying to make anything out of the dream. On the contrary, she tends to minimize things, just as she did with the hang-ups. She's an ostrich, Milo, blocking out that entire summer. My gut tells me something happened when she was four and it's stuck down in her unconscious. Something that relates- directly or indirectly- to Lowell. She's not the only one with strong feelings about him. The half brother called him a total sonofabitch. He's in the real estate business and his big fantasy's foreclosing on Dad's land. Maybe that summer was bad for all the Lowell kids."
"Okay," he said. "Let's say we do somehow get to the bottom of it, find out Daddy did do something terrible twenty-one years ago. And let's assume Lucy gets herself to a point where she can deal with it. Then what? Bring the bastard to the bar of justice? You know what uncorroborated memories are worth in court. And the fact that it came out in therapy makes it even weaker. Nowadays prosecutors assume anything retrieved in a shrink's office is bullshit till proven otherwise. Too many cases thrown out of court, too much pop-psych crap, satanic bullshit- if you feel you've been abused, you have been."
"Baby-with-the-bathwater," I said, "just like when the courts tossed out hypnotic evidence. But you know as well as I do hypnosis does help some witnesses remember facts. And plenty of patients do retrieve valid memories during therapy. I've seen dozens of corroborations. The key is never to plant anything in a patient's head and never to lead. Stay skeptical as hell but keep it to yourself, and if you end up with something, check it out to the max."
"I know, I know, I'm just saying it's an uphill battle."
"Look, even if it never goes anywhere legally, I think, at some point, knowing what really happened- or didn't- will help her."
"What if we learn Daddy did something, can't touch him legally, and the bastard gets away with it? What does that do to her psyche?"
"So what do you suggest, drop it?"
"I'm not suggesting anything, just creating problems to keep your mind active."
"What a pal," I said. "Anyway, it's probably theoretical. After the way the last session went, I doubt Lucy'll want to see me. Maybe she'll hook up with Embrey- maybe seeing a woman will make it easier. Whoever her therapist turns out to be, they'll need to know what's going on."
"Think they'll keep her in past the seventy-two?"
"Not unless she really falls apart. It's what'll happen when she gets out that worries me."
Neither of us spoke for a while. I thought of all the possibilities we'd just raised. Wondered if Lucy would connect with Embrey. I found myself hoping so.
"What?" he said.
"That summer," I said. "At least we could try to narrow things down by finding out if any dark-haired girls were reported raped or murdered or missing in Topanga that summer. If they were, we've got possible corroboration. If not, that will also define the focus of Lucy's therapy. Either way, she doesn't need to be told until the time's right."
"Narrow things, huh?"
"I can't see it hurting."
He scraped a tooth with a fingernail. "Guess I could make a call to Malibu Sheriffs. It's a low-crime neighborhood, there shouldn't be too much paper to wade through, assuming they keep their old files. I can also look into any public records on Mr. Trafficant. When exactly was this party?"
He took out his notepad and wrote it down. His beer glass was empty and he reached for a breadstick.
"Hope she heals," he said softly.
Twirling the breadstick, he put it down. "Haven't had lunch yet. You in any mood to eat?"
He'd left his unmarked around the corner from the restaurant, in a loading zone, and a meter maid was approaching it with a predatory look in her eyes.
Milo flashed his badge, wagged his finger, and grinned. The meter maid snorted, returned to her buggy, and putt-putted away.
"Power!" he said. "Intoxicating as fine cognac and it won't damage your liver."
As he got in the car, I said, "Anything new on the Santa Ana murder?"
"Shwandt's lawyers are going to use it as grounds for a mistrial."
"In lawyer logic, the similarity between this one and the Bogeyman murders casts doubt on Jobe's guilt for all of them. We only had physical evidence on Carrie, Marie Rosenhut, and Berna Mendoza. All the others were circumstantial."
"So what? He still did those three."
"Three versus fifteen. The victim load- their phrase- prejudiced the jury against him and was responsible for the death penalty. They want a retrial on Carrie and the other two physicals, too- fruit of the poisoned tree or some shit like that."
"Absurd," I said. "Like you said, anyone who'd been at the trial or read the transcripts would have had enough information to copycat."
He put his hand on my shoulder.
"Logic has nothing to do with it. It's a game. There's a whole subspecies of sharpies makes a living filing death penalty appeals. They've got it down to a science, and we pay for it with our taxes."
He shook his head and laughed.
"What does that say about our society, Alex? A piece of shit like Shwandt can cut up women and kids, gouge their eyes out, shit on them, and get himself a supporting case of legal beagles, access to a law library, three squares, TV, magazines, nutritious snacks. I mean, let's cut through all the theology and ideology and tell me what reason can there possibly be to let someone like that live?"
"No argument from me."
"Does that mean you've finally converted?"
"The Church of Abject Hostility."
"Depends on what day you catch me."
He laughed and started his engine.
I said, "Do you think there's really any chance of a new trial?"
"Who the hell knows? The goddamn press corps loves the slimy fuck. He feeds them like trained seals."
I wondered how Lucy would react to the legal circus. Would she see it as diminishing what she'd done in that jury box?
Right now that seemed the least of her problems.
I called Woodbridge Hospital and used my title to cadge information from a nurse.
The patient was still sleeping. Dr. Embrey had not come in yet.
I tried to reach Peter Lowell. No answer.
Phoning my service, I discovered Dr. Wendy Embrey had left a message. My callback got her voice mail. I said I'd be happy to speak to her and returned to the Seville.
I couldn't rid myself of the thought that something had happened to Lucy that summer. Couldn't erase the idea of a little girl and a paroled killer thrown together. Heading north on Westwood Boulevard, I drove to Vagabond Books, parked in the back, and entered the store.
The owner was playing his sax. He looked up as I approached, not missing a note. Then he recognized me and said, "Hey."
The glass case of first editions fronting the register had something new in it, along with the books. Big silver automatic.
He saw me looking at it. "There's a guy running around robbing used bookstores. Comes in just before closing time, pulls a gun, beats and sodomizes the clerk, and takes the cash. Kid over at Pepys Books is getting tested for AIDS."
He fingered his ponytail. "So what can I do for you?"
"Terrence Trafficant. From Hunger to Rage."
He took the gun out, put it in his waistband, and stepped out from behind the counter. Ambling over to the rear of the store, he came back with a worn-looking paperback. Bright red cover, black title letters that resembled knife slashes.
Two cover blurbs:
"It stirs and jolts with all the cruel authority of the electric chair!"-Time
"Twisted, heroic, visionary, touched with genius, Trafficant holds us by the scruff and forces us to stare into our own nightmare. This may be one of the most important books of our century."- Denton Mellors, The Manhattan Book Review
"Doing some kind of psychology research?" he said, ringing up the sale. "You couldn't be reading for pleasure. It's really a piece of crap."
I opened the book. More raves from Newsweek, Vogue, The Washington Post, the Times on both coasts.
"The critics didn't think so."
"The critics are brainless sheep. Trust me, it's crap."
"Well," I said, paying him, "you've got the gun."
I got home at three, feeling antsy, yet tired. The ocean was green and silky. Putting the book on the coffee table, I went out, lay down on a lounge chair, caught a face full of ultraviolet, and fell asleep.
Robin kissed me awake.
"Someone on the phone for you."
"What time is it?"
"Must have dozed off."
She wiped my forehead. "You're really hot. Better watch that sun, honey."
I took the call in the kitchen, rubbing my eyes and clearing my throat. "Dr. Delaware."
"Doctor, this is Audrey from Dr. Wendy Embrey's office. Dr. Embrey said to tell you she'd like to meet with you concerning Lucretia Lowell, if you've got the time. Would sometime tomorrow be okay?"
"Tonight would be okay, too."
"Dr. Embrey's all over the place tonight- she attends at a bunch of different hospitals. How about tomorrow around lunchtime?"
"She'll be over at the university all morning. If it's convenient, she could meet you in the med school dining room at twelve-thirty."
"That would be fine."
"Good, I'll tell her."
"How's Ms. Lowell doing?"
"I'm sure she's doing as well as can be expected."
I read From Hunger to Rage over breakfast. The bookseller had been right.
Trafficant's style was crude and uncontrolled, boiling with junior-high revolutionary rhetoric and obscenities. His editor had left his faulty spelling and grammar intact, aiming, I suppose, for gritty authenticity.
In the first half, he worked two themes to the death: "Society screwed me" and "I'm getting even." The next fifty pages were letters he'd written to various celebrities and officials. Only two had answered, the congressman from Trafficant's home district in Oklahoma- who responded with a Dear Constituent form letter- and M. Bayard Lowell, who praised Trafficant's "bloody poetry."
The two men began to correspond, Trafficant ranting and Lowell commiserating. The final page was a photocopy of Trafficant's approved parole application.
A biography and picture were on the inside back cover, the mug shot the papers had run.
Terrence Gary Trafficant, of uncertain parentage and hot blood, was born April 13, 1931, in Walahachee, Oklahoma. Beaten often and suckled by wolves, he spent his formative years in various institutions and hells-on-earth. His first major punitive adventure came at the age of ten, when he was locked up at The Oklahoma Institute for Children for stealing cigarettes. He proved an uncooperative prisoner and alternated for the next thirty years between steadily escalating violence and incarceration, much of it in solitary confinement. He brings a unique perspective to our perception of right and wrong. From Hunger to Rage has been purchased for adaptation as a major motion picture.
A psychopath making it in Hollywood- not a huge stretch. Yet Trafficant had turned his back on it.
A best-seller who admired the Däusseldorf Monster.
Steadily escalating violence… The more I thought about it, the harder it was to ignore his presence that summer.
Call his publisher… too late to phone New York.
I let my own imagination run on: Trafficant seducing the long-haired girl. Things getting out of hand… or maybe she'd resisted and he'd raped, again, then killed her. And told Lowell. Lowell panicking, rushing to bury the evidence, unaware that a little girl was watching.
A little girl who wet the bed- maybe dank sheets had aroused her.
Waking and walking and witnessing.
And paying for it now.
The med school cafeteria was a mass of flatware clatter, white coats everywhere. Soon after I walked in, a pretty Asian woman in a plum-colored silk suit came up to me.
"Dr. Delaware? Wendy Embrey."
She was young and petite with long, straight, blue-black hair and onyx eyes. A faculty picture badge clipped to her lapel showed her hair permed. W. TAKAHASHI-EMBREY, M.D., PSYCHIATRY.
"I've got a table over there," she said. "Would you like to get some lunch?"
"No, I'm fine."
She smiled. "Have you eaten here before?"
"Are you on staff?" she said, as we walked to her table.
"I interned crosstown. Are you in Psychiatry?"
"Pediatrics. I'm a child psychologist."
She gave me a curious look and we sat down. On her tray were a tuna sandwich, coleslaw, red Jell-O, and milk. She unwrapped her utensils and spread her napkin on her lap. "But Lucretia was your patient?"
"Yes. Once in a while I see adults- short-term consults, usually stress-related. She was referred by the police."
Another curious look. She couldn't have been more than a year or two out of residency, but she'd learned her therapeutic nuances.
"I consult to the police occasionally," I said.
"What kind of stress had she been through?"
"She was a juror on the Bogeyman trial."
She picked up her fork. "Well, that could certainly be difficult. How long did you treat her?"
"Only a few sessions. She came to me because of sleep problems. A recurrent nightmare and, later, some somnambulism."
"Walking in her sleep?"
"At least once, before the suicide attempt. She woke up in her kitchen. I guess, looking back, it can be seen as a rehearsal for the attempt. She also had an episode of something that looked like narcolepsy- falling asleep at her desk at work and waking up on the floor."
"Yes, she told me about that. Said you'd sent her to a neurologist and he pronounced her healthy."
"Phil Austerlitz. He's on staff here."
"Did he come up negative, the way she claims?"
"Yes. He thought it was stress."
The fork dipped into the coleslaw. "That's what the neurologist at Woodbridge said, too. Interesting, though, the somnambulism. Do you think the suicide attempt could have occurred during some sort of sleepwalking trance? I've read case histories of self-destruction during arousal from deep sleep. Have you ever seen anything that extreme?"
"No suicide attempts, but I have treated children with night terrors who hurt themselves thrashing and walking around. I even had a family where the children and the father had terrors. The father used to try to strangle the mother in his sleep. And there are cases of people committing murder and claiming somnambulism."
"Claiming? You don't believe it's possible?"
"It's possible, but it's rare."
She ate some slaw, looked at her sandwich, then at me.
"It's a strange case. Her denial's so absolute. Usually, with attempters, you see just the opposite: guilt, confessions, promises never to do it again, because they feel physically lousy and want to get out of hold. The really severe ones- the ones who're sorry they failed- either get really mad or go mute. But Lucretia's cooperative and articulate; she understands why she has to be observed. Yet she remains adamant that she never tried to kill herself. Which would be a dumb approach to take if you were trying to convince your psychiatrist to let you go, right? In the wrong hands you could be tagged as delusional."
"You don't see her as delusional?"
"I'm not sure how I see her yet, but she sure doesn't look crazy. Maybe I'm missing something, but I think she truly believes, on a conscious level, that she didn't make an attempt."
"Did she give you an explanation for what happened?"
"She says she fell asleep and woke up in the hospital and that her first thought when you told her why she was there was someone had tried to kill her. Now that she's fully awake, she realizes it makes no sense. All in all, she's pretty confused. I could be missing the boat completely, but I don't see any schizophrenic output. Just depression- but not the crushing depression you'd associate with an attempt. I had our psychologist test her for a bipolar disorder. She seems to have such a big stake in keeping busy, I thought maybe there was some mania going on and the daytime sleep was crashing after an episode. He found her MMPI somewhat elevated on depression and anxiety but no hint of anything manic. And her Lie Scale was normal, so she seemed to be telling the truth. He said unless she's been tested a lot and knows how to fool the instruments, there's no serious personality disturbance."
"She'd have other reasons to be anxious," I said. "Just before the attempt, we got into some areas that upset her. She had a very isolated childhood- a mother who died when she was an infant, a highly troubled relationship with an absentee father. But she was always coherent, and if she was really disturbed I doubt she could have lasted three months on that jury."
"What areas upset her?"
I described the dream.
"Interesting," she said. "Any indication he molested her?"
"She denies ever being with him, but her brother told me she spent a summer up at his place when she was four. So she's either denying that or she's repressed it completely. As to what happened up there, I don't know."
I told her about Trafficant, emphasizing how speculative everything was.
"Well," she said, "at the very least it sounds like lots of garbage coming to the surface. Going to take a long time to sift through. This is one where we'll have to tread carefully."
"Adding to the garbage, she had a brief episode of working as a prostitute when she was eighteen. She denies any guilt, but there's probably lots. And she developed a crush on one of the detectives who worked on the Bogeyman case, the one who referred her to me. He's gay."
She put the sandwich down. "Just a few sessions and all that came out?"
"Most of it during the last one," I said. "Too much, too soon, but I couldn't stop her. That night she put her head in the oven."
"Are you planning to let her go after the seventy-two's up?"
"She's not psychotic or violent, I can't see a judge giving me any more time. But she sure needs careful outpatient follow-up… A prostitute- she seems so prim. How long is brief?"
"Part of a summer. She claims she's been celibate since. And Phil Austerlitz said she had a real aversion to being touched."
She put her hands together. "I can see what you mean about that summer with her father… Despite all that, she relates well to a male therapist- talks very fondly about you. Are you planning to follow her?"
"The last thing I want is for her to be abandoned again," I said, "but I may not be right for her. The policeman she likes is a close friend."
I recounted Lucy's request for permission to love Milo. My silence. The reaction.
"So she doesn't know he's gay."
She opened the milk carton. "I don't want to get personal, but is he your lover?"
"No, just a friend," I said. Adding, "I'm straight," and wondering why it sounded so defensive.
"I can see what you mean by complications."
"It might be in her best interests to transfer her care, if it can be done without traumatizing her. When I heard she was going to be seen by a woman, I was glad."
"We seem to have a good rapport," she said. "She cooperates, appears to be relating. Then I review my notes and realize she hasn't told me much."
"I felt the same way about her in the beginning," I said. "Like I said, most of the substantive material came out in the last session."
"Maybe it's her family style. I spoke to her brother, and he didn't tell me much of anything either. Given the situation, you'd think he'd want me to know as much as possible."
"He doesn't know much about her himself. He's a half brother, hasn't seen her in over twenty years."
"No, I'm not talking about the one who brought her in. This was the other one, Peter. He phoned me this morning from Taos. Said he'd heard about Lucretia from Ken. Very upset about not being able to be with her, but he couldn't fly back. And when I tried to ask questions, he backed away, like he was in a big hurry to get off the phone."
"Why can't he be with her?"
"Business obligations. I called Ken- he's gone back to Palo Alto. He knew nothing, like you said. Pretty nice of him to pay for her care."
"I got the sense he wants to make contact."
"Me, too. He offered to handle everything- he seems to have money. Lucretia has no insurance because she quit her job, so that's lucky. The hospital looks askance at doctors who treat nonpaying patients. Nowadays, we have to be bookkeepers, too, right?"
"Anyway," she said, "sounds like a complicated family. Are there any other relatives in town for support?"
"In town," I said. "But not for support."
I told her who Lucy's father was, and she reached for her Jell-O without registering much reaction.
"I was a math major, never much for fiction," she said. "Then you get into med school and your whole world really narrows… So the pain of abandonment would be that much worse. He's available to the whole world but not to her… and now that dream, that's pretty darn Freudian. This is starting to sound like old-fashioned psychiatry. I don't get much of that."
"What do you do mostly? Medication?"
"Almost totally. I attend at six different ER's and I rarely get to do any follow-up. So yes, if Lucretia's willing to see me, I'd be very interested. She's an interesting woman."
"Where's your office?"
"Tarzana. I rent space from another psychiatrist." She gave me her card. "Where are you?"
"Not too shabby. I would like you to stay closely in touch. We need to make sure she doesn't see you as yet another man who's walked out on her."
"I was planning to visit her while she's in. When would you like me to start?"
"Any time you're ready. I'll leave your name with the charge nurse."
She ate some more Jell-O and finished her milk, wiping away the white mustache. "While you're there, though, I'd keep it casual. Especially in terms of your gay friend. I'd just as soon hold off on any more surprises until I have a better feel for what's going on with her. Make sense?"
"Yes, but once she's out, she's likely to seek him out. She views him as a protector."
I described how Lucy and Milo had connected at the trial.
"Well," she said, "for now I'd tell him to keep a low profile. What she needs is protection from her own impulses."
I drove home thinking Wendy Embrey might be very good for Lucy. But I wondered how Lucy would react to a change in therapists.
I had conflicts of my own about the transition: relieved at the chance to get out of a mess, but more than a bit guilty at how good that freedom sounded. And I still wanted to know what had happened that summer. For her sake or mine? The answers weren't comforting.
I put on some music and drove like a robot. When I got home, surfers' vans were parked all along the turnoff to the public beach.
When I opened the door, the phone was ringing.
My service with a long-distance call from Ken Lowell.
"Hi, doctor. Anything new on Lucy?"
"She seems to be holding her own."
"I spoke to Dr. Embrey and she sounded pretty sharp, but I'm a little confused. Who's going to be Lucy's doctor?"
"As long as Lucy's in the hospital, Dr. Embrey's in charge."
"Unfortunately, I can't seem to reach Dr. Embrey now. Are you going to be speaking to her? If you are, I'd like to pass something along. I think she should know."
"I got a call from my brother early this morning, explaining why he hadn't shown up for dinner. Some sort of business emergency. In Taos, New Mexico, of all places. I told him what had happened to Lucy and he really went ballistic. But then he said he couldn't come back because he was tied up."
"He said the same thing to Dr. Embrey. Must have called her right after he spoke to you."
"But it doesn't make any sense. Because when we met last week he wasn't involved in any business- told me he'd been unemployed for a long time. So what was so urgent?"
"I really don't know, Ken."
"No, no reason for you to… I have to tell you, doctor, he sounded very edgy. I can't help thinking he's in some kind of trouble. I was just wondering if Lucy said anything to you that you could divulge without breaking confidentiality."
"She really didn't, Ken."
"All right. Thanks. I'll be back and forth to L.A. for the next few weeks. Would visiting Lucy be appropriate?"
"I'd talk to Dr. Embrey about that."
"Yes, of course. I have to tell you, doctor, this is strange."
At 4:10 Robin called to let me know she'd been invited to attend a showcase that night at the Whiskey, a band of thrash-metal heroes brandishing guitars she'd built.
"Would you mind if I passed?" I said.
"If I had a good excuse, I'd pass too. Zero showed up at the site and invited me personally."
"What time do you think it'll be over?"
"How about if I come by before and we grab some dinner."
"What about Spike?"
"I can bring takeout."
"That would be great."
"When should I get there?"
"Soon as possible."
I picked up earplugs at a pharmacy in Point Dume and sandwiches and drinks at a deli nearby. It took forty minutes to get to the jobsite. Several trucks were pulling away, and Robin was conferring with a bare-chested man with a tobacco-stained walrus mustache. Nearly bald except for some yellow back fringe and a ponytail, he was concentrating hard as she spoke.
She saw me and waved and continued to talk to him, waving a roll of blueprints. Spike was on the rear bed of her truck, and he stuck his frog face above the tailgate and barked. I went over and lifted him out. He licked my face and waved his forelegs in the air, and when I put him down, he stood up, hugged my knees, and rubbed his head against my leg.
"What a handsome guy you are," I said. "Handsome" was his favorite word, after "meat loaf." He started panting; then his nose went after the bag in my hand.
Robin said, "Okay, Larry?" in a tone of voice that meant she was working at patience.
"So let's try for inspection by next Monday. If there are any other problems, let me know right away." She shifted the blueprints to the other hand.
"Yes, ma'am. For sure." Larry looked at me.
"This is Dr. Delaware. He pays the bills."
"Sir," said Larry, "we're fixing up a nice new place for you, you bet."
"Great," I said.
He scratched his head, walked up toward the house, and began talking to another worker. The pond was empty and half filled with dirt. What had once been a garden was a muddy pit. The new house's roof points sliced the sky at sharp angles. The sun that showed through was platinum-white.
"What do you think?" she said.
"Soon." She kissed my cheek.
I kept looking at the construction. The framing was complete and the walls had been papered and partially mudded. The mud was ridged with trowel marks and still wet in spots. The original house had been redwood walls and a cedar roof. "Kindling on a foundation," the fire marshal had called it. The new building would be stucco and tile. I'd get used to it.
Robin put her arm around me and we walked to the truck. "Sorry about tonight."
"Hey, everyone has their emergencies. Here's something for your sanity."
I gave her the earplugs and she laughed. Pulling down the tailgate, she spread an army blanket and we set out the food. We ate listening to the sounds of hammer guns and saws, feeding Spike bits of sandwich and watching birds circle overhead. Soon, I felt pretty good.
I brought Spike home, fed him dinner, took him for a jog on the beach, and settled him in front of the tube. Then I showered, changed into fresh clothes, and headed for Woodbridge Hospital, making it to the parking lot by seven.
The Psychiatric Unit was on the third floor, behind swinging doors labeled LOCKED. I pressed a buzzer, gave my name, and heard the tumblers click. Pushing, I entered a long well-lit hallway.
The chocolate carpet was freshly vacuumed, the walls a pleasant brownish-white. Ten closed doors on each side, the nursing station at the end. One nurse sat there. Soft conversation came from somewhere, along with television dialogue, radio music, and an occasional ringing phone.
When I got to the station, the nurse said, "Dr. Delaware… yes, here it is. Lucretia's in 14, that's back there on the left side." She was very young and had yellow cornrowed hair studded with tiny blue ribbons, and beautiful teeth.
I retraced my steps. Before I got to 14, the door to 18 opened and a small, sweet-faced woman around fifty looked out at me. She wore a pink dress, pearls, and pink pumps. The back wall of her room was covered with family photos, and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies poured out.
"Have a nice day," she said, smiling.
I smiled back, trying not to look at the bandages around her wrists.
Her door closed and I knocked on Lucy's.
The room was eight by eight, painted that same brownish-white, with a bed, a fake-wood nightstand, a tiny doorless closet, and a desk and chair that looked child-sized. The TV was mounted high on the wall, the remote control bolted to the nightstand. Next to it was a stack of paperbacks. The top one was entitled Grievous Sin.
No bathroom. A single immovable window, embedded with metal mesh, offered a view of the parking lot and the supermarket that was the hospital's neighbor.
Lucy sat on the bed, on top of the covers, dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt. Her sleeves were rolled to the elbow, her hair was pinned up, and her feet were bare. An open magazine rested in her lap. She could have been a college girl relaxing in a dorm room.
"Hi." She put the magazine aside. Good Homemaking. The cover promised "Holiday Snacks Your Family Will Love You For."
"How's it going?" I said, sitting in the chair.
"I'll be glad to get out of here."
"They treating you okay?"
"Fine, but it's still prison."
"I spoke to Dr. Embrey. She seems nice."
"Nice enough." Flat voice.
"Nothing against her," she said, "but I'm not going to have anything to do with her when I get out."
"Because she's too young. How much experience could she have?"
"Did she do or say something to weaken your confidence?"
"No, she's smart enough. It's just her age. And the fact that she's the one who's keeping me in- a jailor's a jailor. Once I'm out, I'm finished with this place and anyone associated with it. Do you think that's foolish?"
"I think you need someone to talk to."
"What about you?"
I smiled and touched the gray at my temple. "So I'm old enough for you."
"You're experienced, Dr. Delaware. And we've already got a relationship, why start from scratch?"
"You don't agree," she said.
"I'll never abandon you, Lucy."
"But you think I should see Embrey." Her voice had tightened.
"I think ultimately you make the choice. I don't want you to feel abandoned, but I also don't want to sabotage Dr. Embrey. She seems very capable, and she's interested in you."
"She's a kid."
I said nothing.
She scooted to the edge of the bed and sat there, legs dangling, toes brushing the carpet. "So that's it for my therapy with you."
"I'll always be here for you and I'll help you any way I can, Lucy. I just want you to do what's best for you."
She looked away.
"Who knows, maybe I don't even need a therapist." She turned back to me sharply. "Do you really think I tried to kill myself?"
"It looks that way, Lucy."
A painful smile flickered. "Well, at least you're honest. And at least you call me Lucy. They call me Lucretia. He gave me that name. After Lucretia Borgia-he hates women. Jo's full name was Jocasta. How's that for Oedipal?"
"What about your brothers?"
"No, the boys' names are okay. He let the boys be named by their mothers. He was only out to ruin the girls."
"Rotten names, for one. How can I have confidence in this place when they don't even respect me enough to call me what I want? I keep telling them Lucy, but each time a new nurse comes on shift, all they do is read the chart. Lucretia this, Lucretia that. "How are you, Lucretia?' "
She got up and looked out the window.
"I didn't put my head in that oven," she said. "I have no idea how I ended up there, but I didn't do it. Not sleepwalking or any other way."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I just know. Not that I'd ever tell Embrey that. She'd think I'm crazy."
"She doesn't," I said. "And neither do I. But I do think you might have done it while sleepwalking. It's unusual but not impossible."
"Maybe for someone else, but not me."
She turned around. She'd cried, and moisture streaked her cheeks.
"I know it sounds bizarre and paranoid, but someone's trying to kill me. I told Embrey I changed my mind about that because I didn't want her to lock me up forever. But there's something you should know about. Can I tell you in confidence, without your telling her?"
"That puts me in a bind, Lucy."
"Okay," she said. "I understand. I don't want to do that to you. But either way, she won't know. Not until I get out of here."
We didn't speak. She dried her eyes and smiled.
"Thanks for coming. Thanks for doing what you think is right… I didn't put my head in that oven. Why would I do that? I want to live."
She dried her cheeks. "Those phone calls. I thought they were nothing- maybe they were nothing. But I am… going to tell you, even though you'll probably think I'm nuts and I'll get locked up till who-knows-when."
She began to cry.
I put my hand on her shoulder and it made her cry harder. When she stopped, she said, "I so don't want to be locked up. I cherish my independence."
"I won't do anything to lock you up, if you promise not to hurt yourself."
"That's easy. I don't want to hurt myself. I promise, Dr. Delaware- I swear."
She sat quietly for several moments. "One time- right after I started seeing you- I came home and found some of my stuff moved."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Clothes… underwear. I'm no neat freak, but I do have places for everything. And my panties and bras had been moved- reversed in the drawer- as if someone had taken them out and put them back, folded a way I never fold them. And one pair of panties was missing."
"Why didn't you tell anyone about this?"
"I don't know. It only happened once, and I thought maybe I was imagining it. I'd just done a load of laundry the day before; I figured it was possible I'd left the panties in the machine and maybe I had put my stuff back differently- absentminded. I mean, I'm not the kind of person to imagine the worst. But now I realize someone must have been in my place."
She grabbed my arm. "Maybe that's why I started having the dream again. Because I felt threatened. I don't know; sometimes I think I am imagining everything. But I'm not crazy."
I patted her shoulder and she let go of my arm.
"Did Ken really save me?"
"What's he like?"
"He seems nice."
"Another thing I'm worried about is, where's Puck? Embrey's giving me some story about his calling her from New Mexico, but that makes no sense."
"He called Ken from there, too."
She took hold of my arm again, harder. "Then why hasn't he called me?"
I was silent.
"It doesn't make sense," she said.
"He told both Dr. Embrey and Ken that he was on some kind of business trip. He had a dinner date with Ken a couple of nights ago but didn't show up. That's how Ken came to save you. He was looking for Puck at your place because Puck told him you were close."
"We are… Puck never told me about any dinner date."
"It was a trial balloon the two of them had worked out, to see how they'd get along. If they did, they were going to get you involved."
"Protecting me? Typical." She stood up and yanked her hair loose. "Puck's always trying to protect me, even though- so why hasn't he called?"
"Even though what?"
Hesitation. "Even though he's not the toughest guy in the world himself."
"What does he do for a living?"
Another pause. "Different things, over the years."
She turned around, brown eyes hot. "Right now, he's not doing anything. He has three years of college with a major in history. Try to find something decent with that. Well, I'm sure he'll be back soon and we'll straighten it out. I've got lots of things to straighten out. Thank God I'm getting out soon."
I left the hospital parking lot and got onto the freeway. I agreed with Embrey: Lucy really believed she hadn't tried to kill herself.
Had the walk to the oven occurred during sleepwalking?
Not impossible, I supposed. For some people, slumber could be a shadow life. Some sleepwalkers denied walking; lots of snorers claimed they were silent. I'd seen patients experience shrieking night terrors only to wake up the next morning claiming they'd had sweet dreams. The man who'd tried to strangle his wife in his sleep refused to believe it until confronted by videotape.
And Lucy did have a history of fractured sleep.
So maybe it all boiled down to a physiological quirk.
But what of her newly expressed belief that someone had stolen her underwear?
The hang-up calls… delusional thinking?
Embrey had found no psychosis or major personality disorder, and neither had I.
Both of us wanting to believe the best?
Even Milo had put aside his cop cynicism and gotten more involved with her than anyone he'd met on the job before.
I remembered his guilt as he aired his doubts about her credibility.
My quick response that she was needy, rather than manipulative.
I thought about the way she'd just gotten me to promise not to collude in locking her up.
My gut was telling me she was sincere, but was that worth as much as I wanted to believe?
Should I have tried to convince her to stick with Embrey?
Maybe Embrey could handle that on her own.
"Who knows, maybe I don't even need a therapist."
Had I let that go by too easily?
Should haves, could haves…
Tomorrow night she'd sleep in her own bed.
I hoped I hadn't made a terrible call.
I hoped freedom wouldn't kill her.
Milo phoned the next day, just after noon, and I recounted my visit to Woodbridge and Lucy's feelings about Wendy Embrey.
"What's Embrey like?"
"Personable, bright, motivated."
"But she ain't you."
"I'm not sure Lucy'll want me either. Last night she made noises about dropping out of therapy completely. A moment later, she's telling me she's scared someone's out to get her."
I told him about the underwear.
"All of a sudden, she remembers this?"
"She passed it off as absentmindedness, same way she dismissed the phone calls as technical problems. Like I said, she's not one to play victim. Has a hard time being dependent. She talks about her brother, Peter, as being her sole protector, but he's not exactly coming through. Out of town on urgent business, even though he hasn't worked for years. And he took the time to phone Ken and Embrey but not Lucy."
"Looks like it. Lucy insists they're close, but he's an odd one. I met him once when he came with her to a session. Refused to come in and sat in the car the whole time. Kind of withdrawn."
"Withdrawn as in schizo?"
"It was only a brief encounter and I didn't pick up anything bizarre- more like intensely shy. He was protective enough to shield her from meeting Ken right away, but when I asked Lucy what he did for a living she got very defensive and started making excuses for his being unemployed. As if she's used to protecting him. Now that she's in crisis, his failing to come through for her could be traumatic. Another abandonment's the last thing she needs."
"Should I visit her?"
"Embrey suggested you take a low profile for now, and I agree."
"You don't volunteer, but if she approaches you, don't turn her away."
"When's she getting out?"
"All right, you're the doctors… Anyway, what I was calling about is I talked to Malibu Sheriffs and they faxed me- if you're still interested in the dream."
"One way or the other, it's relevant to Lucy's mental state."
"Well, nothing juicy. No homicides or attempted homicides of females in the entire beach area from June to November of that year. And of the eight rapes they've got, seven were up in Oxnard, no victim matches to the long-haired girl. Two of them were probable domestics- middle-aged women- two were little kids, and the other three were Mexican bar scenes with hookers, all charges dropped. The eighth one was Malibu, but nowhere near Topanga. Ranch up in Decker Canyon, some cowboys getting drunk and assaulting a lady horse groom."
"Did the lady have long hair?"
"The lady was fifty-five, two hundred pounds and gray-haired. No Topanga missing females, either, during that time span. They did send me paper on four missing persons cases in the area that never got closed, but once again they were all north, Oxnard and Malibu. Given the flavor of the times- flower children hitchhiking- four doesn't seem like a lot."
"Do any of the four match the girl in the dream?"
"I didn't really study them, Alex. Hold on, let me pull them out… Number one is Jessica Martina Gallegos, Oxnard. Sixteen years old, high school sophomore, black hair, brown eyes, five one, hundred and fifty- doesn't sound long and leggy to me- last seen waiting for a bus at ten P.M. in front of the Teatro Carnival on Oxnard Boulevard. The pictures came through the fax pretty grainy, but I can see enough to tell you she doesn't have long flowing hair. Short and curly and light with dark roots.
"Number two, Iris Mae Jenrette, thirty-two, five-four, one-ten, blond and green, last seen at the Beachrider Motel, Point Dume… Apparently this one was out from Idaho on a honeymoon, had a fight with hubby, took the car, and split, didn't come home… Long hair, but it's ultra-platinum and teased. Want the other two?"
"Karen Denise Best, nineteen, five-seven, one-seventeen, blond and blue… Waitress at The Sand Dollar Restaurant in Paradise Cove, last seen working the dinner shift… reported missing by parents from New Bedford, Mass.; they didn't get their weekly phone call…
And number four, Christine no-middle-name Faylen, also nineteen, five-five, one-twenty, brown and brown, freshman at Colorado State… another tourist, traveling with two friends, staying at a rented place in Venice. Says here she went for a Coke on the beach at Zuma and didn't return to her buddies. Both of those have long straight hair, but only Faylen's is dark."
"Five-five, one-twenty," I said. "Slender. She could be leggy. And the circumstances are interesting. Going for a drink in broad daylight and not coming back?"
"And what? She ends up in Topanga, ten, fifteen miles away, at a party? For all we know, she showed up the next day and the friends never bothered to let the sheriff know. Missing persons cases are like that. And no red flags on any of these. My vote is Lucy never witnessed any crime, Alex. Either she saw people having sex, and misconstrued it, or Daddy and/or Scumbag Trafficant did something to her. Or the whole thing's total fantasy."
"I'm sure you're right."
"There's a "but' in your voice."
"Would you mind if I did a little follow-up?"
"What kind of follow-up?"
"Calling the families of the four missing girls. Especially Faylen."
"To eliminate as many variables as possible for whoever ends up doing therapy with Lucy. For Lucy herself. She's sounding more and more confused. The clearer the information we have, the more likely we are to get close to the truth."
"What if no one ends up doing therapy with Lucy? You said she wanted to drop out."
"Then I wasted a few phone calls. Let's say she ends up on your doorstep. Wouldn't you want to know as much as possible if she starts convincing herself she witnessed a murder?"
"Guess so… Okay, here're the numbers, I hope for your sake all of them did show up. Twenty-one years of grief ain't a pleasant thing to dig up."
I'd copied down:
Jessica Gallegos. Last Seen: 7/2. Parents, M/M Ernesto Gallegos.
Iris Jenrette. 7/29. Husband, James Jenrette.
Karen Best. 8/14. Parents, M/M Sherrell Best.
Christine Faylen. 8/21. Shelley Anne Daniels, Lisa Joanne Constantino. Parents, M/M David Faylen.
I sat for a long time trying to figure out how to cushion the shock of each call.
Then I punched buttons.
The Gallegos home number was now Our Lady of Mercy Thrift Shop. The Ventura/Oxnard directory listed a couple of dozen Gallegoses, none of them Ernesto or Jessica. The high school student would be close to forty now, maybe married, maybe with kids of her own…
I turned to the next number. Iris Jenrette. Boise. A woman answered.
"Is James Jenrette there?"
"He's at work. Who's this?"
"I'm calling about some information he requested on homeowner's insurance."
"He never mentioned anything about that. We're already insured up the hilt."
"Is this Mrs. Jenrette?"
"Iris," she said impatiently. "I don't know what he's up to now. You'll have to call him back after nine. He's working late at the store."
"Sure," I said.
The Best family's number in Massachusetts was busy, and at the Faylen household I got a recorded message: an older woman's voice softened by an undertone of laughter.
"Hi, you've reached the home of Cynthia and Dave, we're not in or maybe we are and are just too darn lazy to get off our butts and come to the phone. So if you're one of those persistent types, wait for the proverbial beep and speak your proverbial piece."
I tried Denver Information for a listing on Christine Faylen and got one immediately.
"Christine Faylen, please."
"The office is closed, this is the exchange."
"I'd like to reach Ms. Faylen. It's important."
A few minutes later a woman came on.
"Ms. Faylen, I'm calling from the Records Department at the City of Malibu. We're going through our old files, and your name came up as the subject of a missing persons report twenty-one years ago."
I gave her the exact date and time. "A Christine Faylen was reported missing from the Zuma Beach by Shelley Anne Daniels and Lisa Joanne Constan-"
"Shelley and Lisa, sure, sure, what a hoot. You're kidding, that's still on the books?"
"I'm afraid so."
She broke into loud, hearty laughter. "Unbelievable. Well, I can assure you I'm not missing- maybe a little mentally, but the bod's right here, safe and sound. Ha-ha."
"That's good to hear."
"All this time… no one's been looking for me, have they? God, this is so-" Guffaws.
"Not recently, it's just a matter of-"
"Unbelievable," she repeated. "What a scream. Do I have to fill out any forms or anything?"
"No, your verbal assurance is-"
"You're sure, now? Because I'm an attorney, it wouldn't do to be a nonentity. And I've seen all sorts of screw-ups when the paperwork's not complete- for all I know I haven't been accruing my Social Security all this time… unbelievable."
"None of our records are sent to the federal government."
Giggles. "Missing persons. Ha ha ha. I was only gone for three days, met a- ha ha, no need to get into that. Anyway, thanks for calling."
"Pleasure, Ms. Faylen."
"Back from the Land of the Missing. Ha ha ha."
I tried Karen Best's number again. This time the phone rang three times before a woman said, "Hello."
"Mrs. Sherrell Best?"
"No, this is Taffy. Who is this?"
"I'm calling from California, trying to locate Karen Best."
"Who is this?"
Her voice had ratcheted tight. A phony story wouldn't work.
"My name is Dr. Alex Delaware. I'm a psychologist who sometimes works with the Los Angeles police. Karen's name came up in a review of missing persons cases that I've been following up."
"Following them up how?"
"Checking whether or not the person ever showed up."
"Why?" More tension. My gut was tight, too.
"Because they may relate to a current case. I'm sorry, but I can't say any more, Mrs.-"
"What'd you say your name was?"
"Delaware. You can call Detective Milo Sturgis at the West Los Angeles Substation for verification."
I started to recite Milo's number.
She broke in. "Hold on."
The phone clanged down.
Moments later, a man said, "This is Craig Best. Karen was my sister. What's going on?"
I repeated what I'd told his wife.
"No, she was never found. What is this, some sort of a research project?"
"Your sister's name came up in relationship to another case."
"What kind of case?"
"An individual here in L.A.'s having memories of seeing a young woman abducted at a certain time and place. We've been reviewing missing persons cases that might be related."
"Memories? What, some kind of psychic? 'Cause we went through all that."
"No. This is a possible witness, but I have to emphasize it's very tenta-"
"What time and place are you talking about?"
"The Malibu area. Mid-August. Your sister was working as a waitress at a place called-"
"The Sand Dollar. Before that she worked in Beverly Hills."
"Yeah, a Chinese place, Ah Loo. She got jobs in the fancy neighborhoods because she wanted to be an actress and thought she'd run into movie stars. God knows who she did run into. What makes you think it was Karen this witness saw?"
"We don't think anything of the sort, Mr. Best. The investigation's still at a very early stage, and I'm sorry if this-"
"Investigation?" he said. "We could never get Malibu Sheriffs to do a serious one. So what are you investigating?"
"Would you mind verifying a few things for me?" I read off Karen's height and weight.
He said, "Yeah, that's right."
"Jesus," he said. "I can't believe that's still on there. We told them she dyed it brunette that summer. Brilliant!"
"Why'd she go from blond to brunette? It's usually the other way around."
"That was her point. Everyone in L.A. was blond. She wanted to stand out. Her natural hair was gorgeous; my parents thought it was- what color hair did this supposed witness see?"
"It's by no means a clear memory, but the girl's described as having long dark hair and long legs."
"Karen had really long legs; everyone said she should model- Lord Jesus, are you telling me we might finally get something here?"
"No, I'm sorry," I said. "Everything's very tentative."
"Yeah," he said. "Of course. Sure. No reason to start hoping now. Nothing to hope for anyway. She's dead. I accepted that years ago, haven't thought of her as alive in a long time. But my father… it was him you were calling, wasn't it? He'll freak out."
"He still thinks she's alive?"
"At this point, I don't know what he thinks. Let's just say he's not the type to let go. Looking for Karen wiped him out financially. We bought the house from him as a favor, after my mother died and he moved to California."
"He lives out here?"
An hour and a half drive from Malibu. I said, "Did he move in order to look for Karen?"
"That was the official reason, but he's… what can I say? He's my dad. Speak to him, see for yourself."
"I don't want to upset him."
"Don't worry- you couldn't. Here's the address and number."
I thanked him.
He said, "Now what do you mean by abducted? Kidnapped, something worse?"
"The witness remembers seeing a girl being carried off by some men, but the witness was very young at the time, so the details may not be accurate. It may not even have been Karen. I'm sorry for having to make this call without giving you something more concrete. We're a long way from hard evidence."
"Very young. You mean a kid?"
"Oh. So this really is pretty weak. Are there other girls involved, too? Because I can't believe you'd go to the trouble just for Karen. Is this some sort of serial killer thing?"
"There's no reason to believe that, Mr. Best. I promise to let you know if anything comes up."
"I hope you mean that. Karen was my only sibling. I've got six kids of my own… don't know what that has to do with anything."
I did. Replacement.
"Is there anything else," I said, "that you want to tell me about her?"
"What's to tell? She was beautiful, sweet, a real good kid. She'd be forty next month. I thought about that when I turned thirty-eight. She's dead, isn't she?"
"I'm not in any-"
"Bottom line," he said sadly. "She has to be. I knew something bad happened when she stopped calling- she always called, at least once a week on Sunday, usually other days too. She'd never have let us dangle all these years. If she was alive, we'd have heard from her. She got involved with something terrible out there. If you find out what, no matter how bad it is, call me. Don't rely on my dad to tell me. Give me your number."
I did, along with Milo's.
Before I hung up, he thanked me, and that made me feel low.
Twenty-one years of grief.
Sherrell Best's number stared up at me. It wasn't going to get easier.
A woman's taped voice answered.
"Welcome to the Church of the Outstretched Hand. If you're calling about food donations, our warehouse is located on Sixteen-seventy-eight North Cahuenga Boulevard, between Melrose and Santa Monica. Our dropoff chute is open twenty-four hours a day-"
Figuring it for a wrong number, I hung up, redialed, and got the same tape. This time I listened to the end.
"… specially canned goods, powdered milk, and baby formula. If you're calling for spiritual guidance, our twenty-four-hour Help Line is…"
I copied that number down. The tape ended with a quote from First Corinthians:
"Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."
The Help Line was answered by another woman. I asked for Sherrell Best.
"The Reverend's out in back with the packages. Can I help you?"
I gave her the police psychologist semi-truth.
"The police?" she said. "Is there some problem?"
"It's concerning the Reverend's daughter."
"Karen?" Her voice jumped an octave.
Seconds later, a man said, "Sherrell Best. What about Karen?"
I started to give him my intro.
He said, "Please, sir. Tell me about Karen."
I repeated the story I'd told his son. When I was finished, he said, "Praise the Lord, I knew she'd be found."
"Reverend Best, I don't want to-"
"Don't worry, sir, I don't expect her to be restored. There was only one Rebirth. But the truth- I knew it would come out. "In your patience possess ye your souls.' "
"We don't really have the truth, Reverend. Just-"
"This is the beginning, sir. What does this witness remember?"
"Just what I told you. Sir."
"Well, I have things for you. Names, dates, clues. May I show them to you? It may sound stupid, but, please, would you humor an old maniac?"
"Certainly," I said.
"When can we meet? I'll come to you."
"How about tomorrow?"
Pause. "If need be, sir, I'll wait until tomorrow, but today would be better."
"I could meet you tonight," I said. "Around nine."
"Nine would be perfect. Where shall it be? The file's at my home."
"Your home's fine."
"I live in Highland Park." Repeating the address his son had given me. "Where are you coming from?"
"The west side."
"If you'd like I can come to you."
"No, it's no problem."
"You're sure? All right, then. I can have it all organized for you by the time you get there. Will you have time for dinner? I can prepare something."
"That won't be necessary."
"Coffee, then? Or tea?"
"Coffee," he said, as if committing a menu to memory. "I look forward to it, sir. God bless you."
At eight-fifteen, I left Robin and Spike in the garage workshop and drove over Malibu Canyon to the 101. Midway through the Valley it turned into the 134, and a few miles later I connected to the Glendale Freeway south and got off just past Eagle Rock, in Highland Park.
The streets were dark, hilly, and tilting, crowded with small houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings on scratch lots, suburban silence broken by a constant freeway dirge. Runt lawns hosted old cars and trucks. The neighborhood had once been working-class white; now it was mostly working-class Hispanic. Gangs had made some inroads. A police chief had lived there, but that hadn't made much difference.
Sherrell Best's home was a single that overlooked a dry wash and the six lanes of asphalt that paralleled it. A box with a low-pitched tar roof. The stucco was sprayed on and looked pink in the nightlight. The grass was split by a concrete walkway. Iron grating shielded the windows.
Spanish music came from the place next door. Best's place was silent but all the lights were on- custard-colored patches behind woven curtains. A twenty-year-old Olds 88 sat in the driveway.
He was at the front door before I got there, a small round man with a small round head. He wore black-rimmed glasses, a wash-and-wear white shirt, and a narrow gray clip-on tie.
"Dr. Delaware?" he said, holding the door open, then closing it behind us and double-bolting. The house smelled of canned vegetable soup. The front was divided between a low narrow living room and a dining area even more pinched. The furniture was old and fussy-looking and arranged very neatly: polished wood tables with Queen Anne legs, beaded lamps with floral shades, overstuffed chairs sleeved with doilies. A gray hooked rug spread on the vinyl floor like a sleeping pet. The walls were covered with framed posters of biblical scenes. All the characters looked Nordic and on the brink of emotional collapse.
"Here's our coffee, sir. Please sit down."
The dining table was bridge-sized and metal-legged, crowded with an electric percolator, two plastic cups on saucers, a box of sugar, a pint container of half-and-half, and a plate of Oreo cookies. Next to that was a two-foot-square cardboard box labeled KAREN in black marker.
We sat down facing each other and Best picked up the pitcher and started pouring. His complexion was florid and mottled, like raw sweetbreads, and his blue eyes popped behind thick lenses. Furrows scored his brow, as if the flesh had been plowed. The rim of his collar bit into his neck flesh like a knife in shortening. His mouth was thin, his nose wide and bulbous with large pores. The little hair he had was slicked and black.
"Karen looked like her mother," he said. "Cream and sugar?"
"Black is fine." I took the cup.
"Mrs. Best was beautiful," he said. "Talk of our town was what did she ever see in me."
Short laugh. Wide spaces between brown teeth, lots of silver fillings.
"My son Craig took after her too. Here, have an Oreo- Karen used to break them apart and eat the filling first. She could spend half an hour on one cookie."
Behind him, against a backdrop of fruiting trees and golden wet sheaves, a wet-eyed Ruth embraced Naomi.
He filled his own cup. "So what, exactly, led you to Karen?"
"Just what I told you, Reverend."
"Memories? Do you have children, doctor?"
His lips puckered and his eyes closed for a moment. "Here." Reaching for the box. "Let me show you what I've got, and you tell me if any of it helps you."
Standing, he shoved his hands deep into the carton, like a surgeon rearranging viscera. What little space was left on the table quickly filled with spiral notebooks, bound stacks of newspaper clippings, and other papers.
He untied the clippings first and passed them to me. The newsprint was brittle and dry, the color of weak tea. The cutouts were twenty-one years old, all from a beachside throwaway called the Shoreline Shopper.
Best ate a cookie, then another, as he watched me read.
The first pages were taken from the classifieds. Two months' worth of a Personals ad, circled in blue:
Lost. Reward. Karen Denise Best, 19 y.o., 5-7, 117, blond hair maybe dyed brown, blue eyes, speaks with a New England accent, appendectomy scar. Our daughter was last seen walking up the road to PCH at the Sand Dollar Restaurant in Paradise Cove. We love her very much and miss her and we are worried. Please call collect, any hour, to 508-555-4532. Any information leading to finding her will be $$$ rewarded.
"Did anyone ever call?" I said.
"Lots of people called. Liars and practical jokers, and some well-meaning people who thought they'd seen her. I paid out eighteen hundred and fifty-five dollars." He poked a finger under his glasses, rubbing his eye.
I turned back to the clippings. The last was an article from the op-ed page, written by the editor of the paper, a woman named Marian Sonner, and surrounded by ads for local shops. A poor-quality photo of a beautiful fair-haired girl was set in the middle of the text. Even the blurred reproduction couldn't hide the innocence and enthusiasm on the heart-shaped face.
FATHER TRAVELS FROM EAST
IN QUEST FOR MISSING DAUGHTER
MALIBU. Special to the Shopper.
Sherrell Best is a determined man. Maybe even stubborn, but who's to blame him? Isn't stubbornness part of the American Dream, Malibuites?
Raised in the midst of the Great Depression, he fought in World War II, rising to the rank of sergeant, came back and married his high school sweetheart, the lovely Eleanor, and built up a plumbing supplies business from scratch. To top it off, he and Eleanor had two young'uns: beautiful blond Karen and, two years later, freckle-faced Craig.
So far so good. Then it crumbled.
Out here, no less. In golden So Cal, where the waves are blue and the sky is too, and sometimes what happens to people isn't all sun and prettiness.
Malibu. The golden heart of a golden state. Where peace and freedom and love are the bywords of a new generation that's never experienced the hardships of its forebears.
Karen, beauty of face and form and heart. Prom queen and volleyball player and lover of dogs, left vying suitors in New Bedford, Mass., to chase the Dream.
Hollywood. The Silver Screen.
She came on Greyhound and learned that the Dream was played out in Beverly Hills. And Malibu. To some of us, those places are just home. But to Karen they were Glamour and Excitement. The Dream.
Like so many others, she ended up slinging hash- or should I say Catch of the Day- sorry, Marv and Barb D'Amato of Sand Dollar fame.
Like so many others.
But then… unlike so many others… she disappeared.
Like the smog when the beach breeze hits it.
She was last seen six months ago. Leaving Marv and Barb's S.D. on foot after the night shift.
And that's the last anyone saw of her.
The sheriffs looked for her. They did their best, we're proud of our men in tan.
But they didn't find her.
Neither did a gumshoe hired by Sherrell and his beloved Eleanor.
So Sherrell's out here from Massachusetts. Staying at the Beachrider Motel and living off savings.
Trying to find his princess.
This is her picture.
Karen Best. Her hair might be dark. She wrote home that she was dying it.
To look more exotic.
Sherrell's a determined man.
He's not rich, but he'll pay a hefty reward to anyone who can find Karen.
Maybe you've seen him, handing out flyers in the parking lot at Alexander's market. Or in front of Bill and Sandy Levinger's Shell Shack or the Frostee Kup, down by Cross Creek.
Asking his questions.
"Have you seen this girl?"
Maybe you've walked right by him.
Maybe you just shook your head and said, Poor guy.
No matter. He's a determined man. He won't give up.
Help him, Malibuites.
If you can.
Maybe this story can have a happy ending.
Maybe this really is a generation of peace and freedom and love.
I put the page down.
Best said, "She meant well. She was a sweet old woman, died a few months later and the paper went out of business."
"Did you pay for the article?"
"I paid for many things. No regrets."
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes some more.
"No, thanks. Did the sheriffs do a thorough job?"
"I suppose they did their job. Asking questions of the same people I'd spoken to. Finally, they mounted a real search. For one day, in the canyons and gullies. Then they flew a helicopter over the coastline for an hour or so. They said the layout made it impossible to do much more. Too much brush, places that were hard to get to. I don't think they really believed she'd be found there. They were convinced she'd run away with a boy."
"Was any of this in the major newspapers?" I said.
"The papers weren't interested. I phoned all of them, over and over. They never returned my calls. Part of it was the way things were, back then. All those hippie boys and girls dropping out. But Karen wasn't like that. I'm not saying she was a perfect angel. But she was no hippie."
"When did you hire the private detective?"
"After the sheriffs stopped returning my calls. I hired two of them, really. It's all here."
He handed me a white sheet of paper, perfectly typed.
KAREN: PEOPLE INVOLVED
I. LAW ENFORCEMENT
A. L.A. County Sheriffs Dept., Malibu Station.
1. Deputy Shockley (took the call but nothing else)
2. Dep. Lester (took report)
3. Sgt. Concannon- in charge of search. His superior: Lt. Maarten, but never met him.
4. Various eagle scouts under Sgt. Concannon, along with other deputies, whose names weren't given.
B. PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS
1. Felix Barnard, 25603 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA.
(October-November. Spoke to staff at Sand Dollar: Sue Billings, Tom Shea, Gwen Peet, Doris Reingold, Mary Andreas, Leonard Korcik. Karen's landlady: Mrs. Hilda Johansen, 13457 Paso de Oro, Pacific Palisades.)
2. Charles D. Napoli, 6654 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, CA.
(December-Jan. Re-interviewed F. Barnard's subjects, met with sheriffs, brokered purchase of membership in PeopleFinders.)
"What's PeopleFinders?" I said.
"Napoli told me there was a national network of detectives who specialized in looking for missing children. Subscription was a thousand dollars for the first year, five hundred every year after that. The money was supposed to buy access to hundreds of files and contacts. No such outfit existed. Napoli took the money, and another thousand I paid him for investigation, and left town."
He smiled. "I don't regret my foolishness. "Hope maketh not ashamed.' After Napoli swindled me, I went to a third firm, one that advertised finding missing people within forty-eight hours. They took a consultation fee and said all that could be done, had been."
"After the first one, why'd you hire someone out in Hollywood?"
"I was hoping someone from the outside could see clearer. Barnard was slow. Very easygoing. All of Malibu seemed that way, people smiling but moving very slowly. I'd never been to California, wasn't used to it."
"When did you move out here?"
"Two years later. Permanently, that is. Before that, I was coming out every two months for a couple of weeks at a time. I stayed in motels or lived in a rented car, driving up and down the coast every day, from Manhattan Beach to Santa Barbara. Once I went as far north as San Simeon. Every canyon or state park I'd pass, I'd drive through, walk around, talking to the rangers, ground crews, campers, anyone. It became my job. My business suffered. Then Mrs. Best developed an aneurysm and died and I sold what was left of the business and came here to settle. Craig and Taffy were starting out, and I let them live in the house. A few years later, they bought it. It was a good time for me to leave- they needed their own life and I wanted to devote myself to looking for Karen. I spent ten hours a day in the car. Hoping one day I'd run into her somewhere. Maybe she'd lost her memory and was… somewhere."
He pushed the cookies away. "What does your witness remember?"
"Just what I told you, Reverend."
"A young girl being carried away by some men. That's vague."
"Yes, it is, and I'm sorry I can't promise you it means anything."
I tried to return the data sheet.
"No, that's a copy. Take it, I've got plenty."
I folded it and put it in my pocket.
"A young girl," he said. "Long dark hair, long legs- when Karen was a little girl we used to call her Storkie. For Stork. Where does your witness- is it a man or a woman?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
He frowned. "Where does this witness think this abduction occurred?"
"Some sort of rustic site. Maybe a log cabin. Trees all around."
He pressed his belly against the table edge. "You're a police psychologist. You could hypnotize this person, couldn't you? That helps with memory."
"That's a possibility."
"Why not a probability?"
"The witness is in a fragile state of mind."
"I'm sorry, I can't say any more."
"Yes, yes, of course, sorry… but you are going to follow up."
"I'll do whatever I can, Reverend."
"You work for the police department?"
"I'm a private consultant. The witness is a patient of mine. A police detective is aware of what I'm doing, but it's not official yet."
The bulging eyes narrowed. "Why are you going to all this trouble?"
"To help my patient."
He looked at me for a long time.
"You're a devoted fellow."
He fiddled with his glasses, looked at his coffee, but didn't touch it.
"I highly advise that you find some way to talk to Gwen and Tom Shea. On the sheet she's listed by her maiden name, Peet, but they're married now. They worked with Karen at the Sand Dollar. Worked with her that last shift. I've always felt they knew more than they let on."
"The way they acted when I spoke to them- shifty, nervous. Felix Barnard said they seemed innocent to him. So did the sheriffs. They were both local kids, good reputations, neither had any sort of criminal record. But I'll tell you one thing: When I asked them about Karen, they couldn't look me in the eye. They'd been friends with her; Gwen waited tables, Tom tended bar. Why would talking about her make them uncomfortable? And they left the restaurant just a few minutes after Karen did. Karen was walking, but they were in a car. Doesn't it make sense that they would have overtaken her?"
"Maybe someone picked her up."
"Who would she have allowed to pick her up? She wasn't dating anyone, had no close friends. And she never would have hitchhiked. We talked about that before she left Massachusetts."
His voice remained low, but his eyes bulged even more and the ridges in his forehead were wet.
"I'm sure they're hiding something. I know what guilt looks like."
I pulled the paper out of my jacket, unfolded it, and circled the two names.
"I kept going back to them," said Best, "offered them money- the last of my cash before I started selling off the stocks and bonds. They wouldn't even talk to me. Finally Tom called the sheriff, complained I was harassing them. I returned a few days later anyway, wanting to catch Gwen alone. She wouldn't open the door, and the next day Tom came to my motel and threatened to beat me up if I didn't leave them alone."
"Was that the end of it?"
He sighed. "I did drive by their house, once or twice a week. Then they upped and left- moved out of Malibu. If that isn't guilt, I don't know what is. I called up the restaurant, pretending to be a friend, and was told they'd gone to Aspen. But they've been back in Malibu for over sixteen years. Own a place called Shooting the Curl- surfing supplies shop, near the pier. Doing very well, I might add. Tom drives one of those BMWs and Gwen has a fancy van."
"You still drive by."
"Only once a year, Dr. Delaware. On the anniversary of Karen's disappearance."
"Do you do anything else?"
"Do I try to talk to them? No, what would be the use? For me, it's a day of reflection. I drive from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara. If I see a homeless person, I stop and give them food. Sometimes I pull over at a campsite, but I don't talk to anyone or show Karen's picture. What would be the sense showing the picture of a nineteen-year-old girl?"
He looked down. Hooked his fingers under his glasses and rubbed his eyes again. "She's almost forty by now, but I still think of her as nineteen… Don't worry, doctor, I don't bother the Sheas. Whatever they did, they have to live with. And they have their own troubles now: a crippled child. Maybe one day they'll come to see that Providence and Fate emanate from the same place. When you approach them, don't mention my name, I'm sure they think of me as a raving lunatic."
"How long was Karen out in California before she disappeared?"
"How often did she write?"
"She never wrote. She phoned. Always on Sunday, and sometimes on Wednesday and Friday. That's why we were alarmed that first Sunday. She was like clockwork when it came to those Sunday phone calls. We phoned the restaurant, and they said she hadn't shown up for work."
"I assume she never said anything on a previous call that hinted at her disappearance."
"Nothing. She was happy, enjoying the weather, enjoying her job, everything was fine. She was trying to earn enough money to enroll in acting school."
"Did she say which school?"
"No, it never got that far."
"How did you feel about her becoming an actress?"
"We didn't really think she'd become one. We thought she'd try awhile and come back, go to college, meet someone nice."
His lip quivered.
"My wife took most of the calls. I was usually at the store. After Karen disappeared, I grew to hate the store. Gave it to Craig, but he sold it and got a job with the state. Building and Safety. After I moved here, my first year was taken up completely by looking for Karen. The second year too, but nothing was turning up. I had time on my hands and started to read the Bible. Till then I wasn't a religious man- I'd gone to church but I thought about profits and losses while pretending to worship. This time, the Bible started to mean something to me. I found a seminary in Eagle Rock and enrolled. Got ordained five years later and started the church. Do you know what we do?"
"Distribute food to poor people."
"To anyone, we don't ask questions. No one gets paid. I live off my Social Security and the few bonds I have left, and the others are all volunteers. Restaurants donate the food. It's a good life. I only wish Karen were here to see it."
He gobbled a cookie and swallowed coffee that had to be cold.
I looked at the cardboard box.
He emptied the rest of the contents onto the table. "I'm going to clean up."
Clearing the dishes, he began washing them.
I opened the first of four photograph albums covering Karen Best's development from infancy to young womanhood. Taped to the second was a tiny envelope labeled First haircut.
Holding the packet up to the light I saw several curly snippets inside.
Grade school graduation program. Karen, the winner of a Good Citizenship award.
High school yearbook, Karen in French Club and Song Girls. Karrie. Her eyes speak volumes.
A prom shot: Karen beautiful and mature-looking by now, her blond hair long and silky and curled at the ends. On the arm of a gawky boy with a dark Beatles do and a struggling mustache.
A dessicated orchid corsage in a stiff plastic packet embossed with the name of a New Bedford florist.
A hundred or so copies of the sheet Best had given me, bound by rubber bands.
A copy of the Lord's Prayer.
I put it all back. Best was standing over the kitchen sink, hands in plastic gloves, the water full blast and steaming.
I went in.
As he washed, he stared at something over the faucet.
Another Bible picture, this one a black-and-white etching.
A young woman being dragged by her hair.
Dinah's Abduction by Shechem.
Best's gloved hands were clenched. The steam had fogged his glasses and his lips moved rapidly.
When I got back, I read the Bible. What I learned made it hard for me to fall asleep.
The next morning, Robin and I had breakfast in town; then I drove back to the library and had a second look at the newspaper account of the Sanctum party. August 15. Karen Best had been last seen the night before.
After xeroxing the article, I called Milo. He was out but Del Hardy picked up. The black detective was Milo's occasional partner, but they hadn't worked together recently.
"Hey, doc, how's it going?"
"Pretty good. How's the guitar?"
"Sitting in a closet, no time to play. Listen, Bigfoot's finishing up a robbery at the Smart Shop on Palms, maybe you can catch him."
He gave me the number, and I talked to a female officer who finally put me through to Milo.
"Morning salutations." He sounded distracted.
"Don't want to bug you but-"
"Nah, I'm finished here. What's up?"
I told him.
"The Best girl," he said. "Wasn't she a blonde?"
"She dyed her hair that summer. And according to her brother she had very long legs. It may turn out to be nothing, but I just-"
"It- uh-oh, TV crew just drove up, gotta split. Where are you?"
"Meet me at Rancho Park, on the north end, past the baseball diamond- take the first entrance past the golf course and go as far as you can. You'll know me 'cause I won't be feeding the ducks."
I got there a quarter hour later and found him on a bench, near a cement wading pond that had been drained but was still streaked with algae. A stray retriever was nosing the grass. No ducks or people in sight. I showed him Best's data sheet and the clipping and pointed out the date of the party.
"Night before she missed her call home, for what it's worth."
He skimmed and handed it all back to me. "You actually met with the father?"
"At his request."
"How does he grab you?"
"So you two got along great."
"There was a certain rapport there." I summarized what Best had told me about the search for Karen, ending with his suspicion of the Sheas.
"So what does that have to do with Lowell and Trafficant? Paradise Cove is- what?- ten, fifteen miles up from Topanga."
"She worked in Paradise Cove, but she lived near Topanga Beach. I passed the address coming into town. Just a hop and a jump from Topanga Canyon Road. Then there's the time frame and her physical similarity to the girl in the dream."
Crossing his long legs, he looked up at the sky. An airplane was writing something illegible. He shook his head. "This father sounds obsessive to the point of nuttiness. The way he's been bugging those people."
"He says he hasn't done it for years. If that's true, it indicates self-control."
He continued skygazing. "Actually, that does amaze me. Living in the same city with them, believing they know something, and letting it go."
"Maybe his work keeps him going. He fills his days with good deeds."
"Food to the poor, huh?"
"Could be I'm a chump, but he impressed me as a good guy, Milo. Trying to deal with his loss by finding some higher meaning. The only thing that bothered me was a picture he had hanging up in the kitchen over the sink. A Bible print- Dinah being abducted by Shechem. He was staring at it as he washed the dishes. I looked up the story when I got home. It's in the book of Genesis. Dinah was Jacob's daughter; Shechem was a Canaanite prince who kidnapped her and raped her. Two of her brothers took revenge by slaughtering him and his whole village."
"Nice image for a man of the cloth to meditate on."
"I don't want to light any fires under him. I know what revenge can do."
He lowered his eyes and looked at me.
"So what's the theoretical scenario here? She took a nature hike on Friday night, ended up at Lowell's place the day before the party, and got invited in?"
"Not unless she was a serious hiker. We're talking several miles up to the top of Topanga. But maybe she was hitchhiking and got picked up. And maybe the party started early- or it was informal. People drifting in at all hours." I held up the clipping. "This makes it sound like a loose scene rather than some formal bash."
"All those big shots and people are just wandering in?"
"You remember how things were back in the seventies. Peace, love, people playing at social equality. Best said that was one of the reasons the sheriffs didn't take Karen's disappearance seriously. Times were casual, kids on the road, everyone into free-and-easy."
He looked out at the baseball diamond and the rolling lawns beyond. "I spent the seventies grinding away in college, then shooting at guys in black pajamas, but I take your word for it."
"I was a grind too," I said. "But I remember hitchhikers thicker than gulls on PCH. Best says Karen was a good girl, but she'd been away from home for almost half a year, and kids can change fast when they taste freedom. Plus, she wanted to be an actress. What if she was thumbing- or just taking a short walk up the canyon, unwinding after work. And a person with a famous face pulled alongside her- in a stretch limo. Telling her there's a hot party up the hill, lots of other showbiz types, hop in. Would an aspiring actress turn that down?"
"Guess it's plausible," he said. "If the partying started early. But even then, all you've really got is a dream and a missing girl."
"A girl who called home every week and then stopped. And was never heard from again."
He faced me once more. "I'm not saying she's not dead, Alex. Sounds like she probably is. But that doesn't mean she died up in Lowell's place, and after all these years I don't see how you're gonna get any closer to it."
"I don't either. God, I really hope I haven't lit a fire under Best. At the very least, I'm giving him false hope."
"Well," he said, "if you're right about his being a man of faith, maybe it'll carry him through."
"Maybe." I sat forward on the bench. A tiny colorless spider had crawled onto my knee. I picked it up carefully, and its thread legs wriggled frantically. Placing it on the grass, I watched it disappear among the blades.
Milo said, "Something has been bothering me, though. What you told me about brother Peter. Guy never travels, but he just happens to be out of town when she sticks her head in the oven? Unemployed, but he's too tied up with business to get back? Then he takes the time to call Embrey and a half brother he hasn't seen in twenty years but not Lucy? Then you tell me he's weird. And now Lucy's saying someone swiped her underwear, and he has a key to her apartment."
"You think he did it?"
"I think it sounds like he's running from something. Maybe nasty impulses. Maybe he's close to her in a way that scares him, so he split to the desert to be alone with his goddamn thoughts."
"Oh, man," I said. "Just what Lucy needs."
I thought about my brief meeting with Peter, trying to remember as much as I could about him. Pale face, sleepy voice. Cold hands. Bulky sweater on a hot day. Eager to get back to the car. Looking down at his lap…
"What if he's running from something else?" I said.
I described the brother.
Milo looked at me. His big black eyebrows were up.
"It fits, doesn't it? His unemployment, Lucy's defensive attitude- evasive, actually. I remember her saying he was always trying to protect her "even though he'-and then she broke off the sentence. When I pressed she said, Even though he isn't the toughest guy in the world. But it wasn't what she started to say. I know it's conjecture, but he really wanted to get back inside that car. When I glanced back, he was sitting low in the seat. As if he was doing something. Lucy looked back too, and that session she dropped her chronic smile. He could have been fixing right there. She could have known."
"Junkie," he repeated. "Could be. Hungry hypes don't wait for a corner suite and fresh linens."
"It would explain his cutting out on Lucy in her time of need. Talking to everyone else but her because she'd know he was traveling to make a buy, and he didn't want to have to explain. Doesn't lots of stuff come into New Mexico from the border?"
He nodded. "But no shortage of stuff right here in L.A."
"Maybe he couldn't buy here. Because he'd run up some serious debts- that could be why he left town. Avoiding creditors. The kind who don't send overdue notices." My stomach tightened. "For all we know, the creditors know about Lucy and are trying to use her as leverage. Maybe those phone hang-ups were real. Maybe someone really did break in and mess with her underwear."
"No one broke in," he said. "She said there was no evidence of that."
"Okay, so they tossed Puck's place and found the key to Lucy's apartment."
"That's awfully subtle for people like that," he said. "They'd enjoy breaking in."
"Maybe it's at a subtle stage. Intimidating him so he makes a big score for them and settles up. Maybe he's a longtime seller. How else would he pay for his habit without a job? Lucy's got a family trust fund that pays her a thousand dollars a month, so he might too. But with any kind of habit, a thousand a month wouldn't go very far."
"Trust fund from Lowell's side of the family or the mother's?"
"Daddy abandons the kids, but supports them?"
"It's a generation-skipping thing set up by his mother for taxes. He may have no control over it."
"Leverage," he said. "Yeah, be nice to blame it all on the dope demons and restore her credibility. But I still don't see any connection to her head in the oven."
"What if someone drugged her and put her there? She's a creature of routine, has a drink of juice, every night, watches PBS. That would explain the drapes being open- they wanted her to be found. Wanted to send a message to Puck. Wouldn't that be something? We're all assuming she's lying or denying, and she's telling the truth?"
He rubbed his face. "It would absolutely be something, Alex. It would be Fantasyland, 'cause there's no knot on her head and the hospital found nothing on her dope panel."
"What if they gave her something the panel doesn't test for, like chloroform?"
"Hey," he said, "you wanna theorize, I say it's more likely Pucky himself tried to gas her- pissed 'cause she wouldn't give him dope money. Or maybe he's just after her chunk of the trust fund and split town to give himself an alibi. And he's calling Ken to find out if she's dead. You like that one, I can make up six more like it for a quarter. Couple more quarters, I'll fill your day with fantasy."
Off in the distance, the retriever sniffed the air and bolted off after something. "You're right," I said. "I'm lapsing into wishful thinking because I'd just love it if she didn't try to destroy herself. But she did. And for all I know, Puck never touched dope. Just a shy guy with circulatory problems."
"No," he said, "there's something off about him. I wanted to check him out on the computer this morning, but I got called to the market two-eleven at six-thirty. First thing I do when I get back is play computer games. Got an address for him?"
"Ken said Studio City. Are you still going to check out Trafficant?"
"Sure, why not? I'm already pushing buttons."
"Poor Lucy," I said. "Another hurt."
"Yeah," he said. "Hurt seems to be on her dance card."
It was 1 P.M. when I got back to Malibu. While stopped at a red light near the pier, I caught a look at Shooting the Curl's facade. White building, blued windows. A sign with fat white letters spelling out the name over a mural of a wet-suited surfer riding a big wave.
Paradise Cove was ten miles later. A neon sign on a tall pole pointed toward the beach. THE SAND DOLLAR Breakfast Lunch Dinner. Impulsively, I turned off.
A dipping road took me past an acre or so of wildflowers, then a trailer park shaded by huge shaggy eucalyptus. Between the trees, the water was flat and silver. Another hundred feet and I came up against a guardhouse and a lowered wooden arm. A sign said the beach was private and it would cost $5 to go any farther unless I was eating at the restaurant.
The kid in the guardhouse stuck his head out. His nose was peeling and his sunglasses were mirrored.
"Sand Dollar," I said.
"Five bucks." He handed me a ticket. "Get this stamped and I'll give it back to you when you leave."
I drove down the final slope to a big wide parking lot. The restaurant was down at the bottom, set on the sand, a wood-shingled shuttered thing with a Happy Hour banner above the door.
Inside was a dark waiting area carpeted in red felt, paneled in cheap wood, and hung with salt-eaten nautical gear. No one was waiting, but a cigarette was smoldering in an ashtray. To the right was a cavelike bar with a couple of people bellying up and watching stand-up comedy on cable. Straight ahead was an empty host's stand and, beyond that, the restaurant.
The main room was gigantic, the way L.A. restaurants used to be before the land boom, with two long rows of red brass-buttoned booths and the same felt carpeting. The entire beach wall was glass. A big storm, several years ago, had sheared off one-third of the pier. The remains jutted over the water. A few tourists sat on the beach. The people in the restaurant looked mostly like locals, but there weren't many of them and they were distributed thinly.
A couple of waitresses were working, one young and redheaded, the other in her fifties with a squat face and cropped gray hair. Both wore pink blouses, black pants, and red aprons, their sleeves rolled up, their eyes tired. A busboy collected dishes from a table in the far corner.
The host was a tall, heavy, white-bearded man. He noticed me and stopped talking to a busboy.
"Lunch for one," I said, and he took me to a window booth.
The older waitress showed up a few minutes later, all business. I ordered the Angler's Breakfast, $10.95 (Served All Day): deep-fried red snapper, eggs, hash browns, juice, and coffee. The food was good and I tried to eat slowly. By the time I finished, the restaurant was nearly empty and the waitress was nowhere in sight. I finally spotted her in the bar, smoking and watching TV, and gave a wave.
She came over, looking peeved. Her name tag said DORIS.
I handed her a twenty and the parking stub and she went to get change. Pulling out Best's data sheet, I scanned the names of the restaurant staffers.
When she returned, I said, "Keep five for yourself," and got a big smile.
"Thank you, sir, how was your meal?"
"The Angler's one of our popular ones."
"I can see why… looks like things are pretty quiet today."
"It goes up and down. On Sunday no one gets in without a reservation."
"All the Hollywood people show up- they're over at their beach places for the weekend. Barbra Streisand sits in that corner. She's tiny. We get chefs, too, like the guy who runs La Poubelle. They bring their kids. I keep telling Marvin to raise prices, but he won't."
She shrugged. "Old habits. We'll probably be closed down by next year anyway. Marvin's not healthy, and they keep after him for the land. It's worth a fortune."
"Too bad. I'll have to come here more often while you're still open."
"You do that. I could use customers like you." She laughed. "Live around here?"
"Just moved in," I said. "Near the county line."
"On the beach?"
"Ooh, that's pretty. I pass by there on the way home to Ventura. Own or rent?"
"Me too. Only the millionaires own, right?"
"Better believe it. Been working here for a while?"
She pulled on a jowl and grinned. "It shows, huh? But I won't tell you exactly how long, so don't even ask."
I smiled back. "So what'll you do if it closes down?"
"I don't know, maybe catering. All those chefs, there's always something comes up. Not that I look forward to that."
"You don't like catering?"
"Big hassle. Used to do it years ago. Friend of mine- she worked here too- used to get catering jobs for herself and anyone else who wanted them. Good money, but a big hassle." She winked. "Marvin never liked our moonlighting. We did it behind his back."
"I'm thinking of throwing a housewarming party, could use a good caterer. Who's your friend?"
She shook her head. "She doesn't do it anymore. Got rich- owns her own business."
"What kind of business gets you rich nowadays?"
She smiled at me. "You're living on the beach, what do you do?"
"Oh." She winked again. "So maybe I shouldn't be talking to you."
"Don't worry, off duty," I said.
"You know," she said, "I wouldn'ta tagged you for that. I figured you for a lawyer or the music business or something." Fingering her apron pocket, where the tip had gone.
"I used to play in a band," I said. "Cocktail lounges. I know what it's like to depend on people's generosity."
"Ain't that the truth. And most of the time, people aren't. That's what I hated about catering parties. You see people at their worst; to them you're a stick of furniture. And no tips. One collective service charge. If the boss isn't honest, you're sunk."
"Was your friend honest?"
"Which- oh, her. Yeah, honest enough."
"You must have seen some interesting parties, though. Working around here."
She reached for a cigarette. "Mind?"
I shook my head. She lit up.
"Maybe to some it was interesting. All it was to me was serving and clearing and people sticking their hands in my face." She shook her head and looked back. "Want more coffee? Maybe I'll have some myself. Marvin's in the john, as usual."
"Love the company," I said.
She got the pot and another cup. Sitting down opposite me, cigarette fuming, she poured for both of us.
"It's been real nice working here," she said. "So close to the ocean."
"How're things in Ventura?"
"Dying. Who knows, maybe I'll move. Got two grown boys, both in the army. One's in Germany, the other's near Seattle. Or Nevada. I like Nevada; things are booming there."
"Your rich friend can't help you find anything?"
"Nah, like I said, she's out of it. She and her husband own a surf shop- nothing for me to do there."
"Shooting the Curl?"
"Yeah, you know it?"
"I've passed by. Doesn't look like a big business."
"Believe me, it is. They've got a place right on the sand at La Costa – own, not rent- and that ain't Spam salad."
She took a deep drag as her eyes swung toward the window. "Here we go again."
I followed her eyes to the beach. A camera crew was setting up, sound trucks and vans were parked in the background, and a couple dozen people were standing around.
"Commercials," she said. "They come here all the time: suntan lotion, cars, Coca-Cola, you name it. Pay Marvin so much he doesn't have to raise his prices- speaking of the devil."
She looked out toward the front of the restaurant. The white-bearded man was coming toward us, head down, scowling, arms swinging.
She stood and held out a hand to him, smiling and muttering, "Hold your horses, Marvin." He stared at her, then at me, finally turned around and returned to his booth.
"Back to base," she said, stubbing out her cigarette. "Nice talking to you."
"Nice talking to you too."
"Doris," she said, touching her badge. "Ask for me the next time you come in. I'll get you a beach seat…"
Catering jobs, contracted by Gwen Shea.
For anyone who wanted them.
All those chefs… contacts.
Had Karen Best gotten a job at the Sanctum party?
Gone up early to set up and never come back?
I sat in the car and had another look at Best's data sheet.
Felix Barnard, the private eye, hadn't noted anything about moonlighting.
The others not telling him in order to hide it from Marvin?
Or maybe Barnard just hadn't asked the right questions.
Best had said the detective was slow-moving, too laid back.
Flipping through the Rostale directory, I looked for his name in both the yellow pages and the personal listings but found nothing.
House of cards.
But what Doris had just told me tightened the connection between Karen Best and Sanctum one tiny notch.
Maybe Sherrell Best's intuition about the Sheas was right on target.
Doris was an eager conversationalist. There'd been no way to bring up Karen's disappearance with her, but it was worth another try.
No telling what a little positive reinforcement could accomplish.
The names of the other Sand Dollar people:
I got home and looked them up. Neither of the women was in the book, but Korcik, L. T., was listed in Encinal Canyon.
A man answered. "Tree farm."
"Leonard Korcik, please."
"This is Len."
"Are you the same Leonard Korcik who used to work at the Sand Dollar?"
"No, that's my dad. Who's this?"
"I'm working with the police clearing some old missing persons cases. A girl named Karen Best disappeared a number of years ago. Your dad was questioned about it, and I just wanted to check a few things out."
"My dad died three years ago."
"I'm sorry. Did he ever mention Karen Best?"
"How long ago was this?"
He laughed. "I was seven years old, then. I never heard nothing."
"What did your dad do at the restaurant?"
"Worked the bar part time and cleaned up. We got a tree farm. You need any trees, call me."
Wendy Embrey phoned just before five. "Can't be sure, but my bet is she'll be back in your court."
"The minute I told her I was authorizing her release, she closed up- friendly but clearly nothing to say."
"What makes you think she'll want to see me?"
"I asked her if you'd visited and she lit up. If I were you, I'd be checking my transference meter regularly." Straining for graciousness, but an edge had come into her voice.
"I'm not so sure," I said. "When I was there she said something about not needing any therapy at all."
"Great," she said. "There's some A-plus reality testing for you. Well, you can only lead them to water- lack of insight isn't grounds for extending the seventy-two. Anyway, her father called me. Since I'm probably out of the picture, I thought I'd pass that along."
"When did he call?"
"This morning." She read off a number very quickly.
"Was there a message?" I said, copying.
"Nope, just to call him. Good luck. She's getting out tonight."
A woman answered. "Yes?"
"Dr. Delaware returning Mr. Lowell's call."
"I'm his daughter's psychologist."
"I thought she was seeing Dr.-"
"Embrey. She's off the case."
"Oh… Well, if you're the doctor, Mr. Lowell will have a meeting with you."
"Lucretia, I assume."
"I couldn't do that without Lucy's permission."
A few seconds passed; then a very loud, deep voice said, "Lowell. Who're you?"
"Delaware. The first state, an ignoble little backwater. What are you, French Canadian? Acadian? Coon-ass?"
"How can I help you, Mr. Lowell?"
"You can't help me at all. Maybe I can help you. My boy snitched on the girl's attempt to snuff herself, the implication being, of course, that it was my damned fault, nammer, nammer, nammer. I doubt she's changed much, the constipated squall, basic character never does, so I can give you some piercing insights. Unless you're one of those biopsychiatric Frankenmaniacs who believes character is all a matter of serotonin and dopamines."
"Which of your sons called you?"
"The opium fiend, who else?"
"Where'd he call from?"
"How would I know? My girl took it. And don't try arraigning me at the Tribunal of Ruined Progeny. Guilt may be your stock in trade, but it's not my currency. I'll see you not tomorrow but the day after. An hour at the most, significantly less if you annoy me. You'll come to me; I don't travel."
"Sorry," I said. "I can't talk to you without Lucy's permission."
"What?" He laughed so loud I had to move the phone away from my ear. "Bedlam is the New Olympus? The lunatics rule the asylum? What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Confidentiality, Mr. Lowell."
"There are no secrets, boy. Not in the massage-message age. McLuhan's books are a shitbin- furor loquendi-but it's true we're all staring up each other's assholes… Very well, you've lost your chance. Salaam, as the Arabs say, to hell with everyone."
"If Lucy does consent, I would like the opportunity to talk to you. May I call you back?"
"May you?" He laughed again. "At your own risk. You may also pass Go or eat raw fish with the Japs or take three baby steps or fuck yourself with a garden tool."
Robin and I had dinner out on the deck. The tide had whipped the sand like cream, and the beach at twilight was a graying plane of peaks and troughs. I couldn't stop thinking of my conversation with Lowell.
Had he missed a dose of lithium, or was he cultivating nuttiness for attention?
He probably didn't get much attention anymore.
Why had he called? His offer to provide insights was almost comical.
The opium eater. The hunch about Peter confirmed.
Maybe a shattered career and old age had finally caused Lowell to survey the ruins of his family.
One child dead, the other three estranged.
An addict, an attempted suicide…
Ken seemed a nice enough fellow, but his antipathy for his father was right on the surface.
"What's on your mind, honey?" said Robin.
She smiled and let her hand rest on my bicep. I tried to chase away clinical thoughts and turned to her. A trace of color remained in the sky- a paint smear of salmon, capping the sinking sun. It played on the auburn in her hair and made her eyes coppery and catlike.
"Still at work?" she said, stroking.
I drew her to me and kissed her deeply. Her tongue lingered in my mouth.
"Carpe foxum," I said.
"Seize the babe."
Despite a decent night's sleep, my first thought upon waking was: Lucy's out of the hospital.
I wasn't happy with the idea of her trying to make it on her own. But if I pushed she'd probably back away, so I decided to give her till noon before calling.
In the meantime, I'd catch Milo up on what Doris Reingold had told me.
He hadn't come into the station yet and no one picked up at his home. I called the business number he used for his private moonlighting and the tape answered: "Blue Investigations." I left a message.
It was just after nine; Robin and Spike had been gone for over an hour. I drove to the market at Trancas and bought groceries, thinking about all the places off the highway where a girl could disappear. Just as I got home, Milo phoned.
"I'm at Lucy's place. Can you come out right now?"
"Is she okay?"
"Physically, she's fine. Just come out; we'll talk once you get here. Here's the address."
The street was three blocks north of Ventura Boulevard. The block was treeless and sun-fried, all apartments, mostly mega-units with underground parking and security gates that would give an experienced burglar pause for about twenty seconds. FOR RENT banners and real estate brokerage signs on most of them. Promises of "move-in incentives."
Lucy's building was older and smaller, a two-story quadriplex of flesh-tone stucco and dark red wood. Two units on top, two below, each open to the street, with individual entrances set back from a covered walkway. Another FOR RENT sign staked in the lawn near the ground-level mailbox.
Her apartment was number 4, upstairs. Number 3 was vacant. Her welcome mat featured a chipmunk saying "Hi!" The windows through which Ken had seen her kneeling in the kitchen were masked by shades. The doorjamb around the hinges was splintered a bit and nailed together- Ken's breaking in to save her- but the door was locked. I rang the bell and Milo parted the shades, then let me in.
The front of the apartment was divided into living and dining areas. The kitchen was a cubby with avocado cabinets and white appliances. Barely enough room to kneel. All the walls were off-white, not that different from the Psych unit at Woodbridge.
The oven was a squat little two-burner Kenmore, maybe fifteen years old. The dining room table was fake oak surrounded by three folding chairs. In the living room were a tufted blue velvet love seat and two matching chairs, a glass-topped coffee table, and a 14-inch television and a VCR on a rolling stand.
On top of the TV was a single photo, of Lucy and Peter. Head shots, no identifying background. She was smiling, he was trying to.
Lucy sat on the blue couch, barefoot, wearing jeans and a baggy gray sweatshirt that said L.A.'s the One. Her hands gripped each other, and she looked up and gave me a struggling smile. Milo went and stood behind her. His jacket was over a chair. He wore his revolver in a waist holster.
He looked at the coffee table. "Look, but please don't touch."
A short stack of magazines had been pushed to one side. Next to it was a sheet of yellow ruled legal paper; next to that, a white envelope.
On the paper was a note, typed off-center, crowding the left margin and the top of the page:
FUCK YOU BITCH IN HELL
JOBE DIES, YOU DIE TWICE
Below that was something affixed to the page with transparent strips of cellophane tape.
Dark shriveled things, the size and shape of olive pits.
"Rat turds," said Milo. "Pending lab analysis. But I don't need a tech to tell me."
"Mailed or delivered?"
"Delivered right inside," said Lucy. "I found it on the table when I got home last night."
"What time was that?"
"Three in the morning. They let me out at one, but then there was paperwork and I left some clothes up in my room and had to go back. When I got here, the door was unlocked, but I just figured Ken or the paramedics had forgotten to lock it." Trying to be calm. Her hands were white.
"You came home alone?"
She nodded. "I didn't notice it because I was tired, just wanted to sleep. I fell off, then I woke up around five to get a glass of water and saw it."
"Who has keys to the apartment?"
"Just Peter and myself. And the landlord, I guess."
"Who's the landlord?"
"Some old woman who lives in Port Hueneme," said Milo. "Her handyman patched the jamb. I just spoke to him, and he claims he locked it when he was through."
"Anything weird about him?"
"Mr. Gonsalvez?" said Lucy. "No, he's a sweetie- and he couldn't have written that, he barely speaks English."
Milo nodded. Lucy hugged herself.
I found his eye. "Is the lab on its way?"
"Not yet." To Lucy: "Why don't you pack those few things."
"Can I take a shower? I really don't think anyone was in the bathroom."
She left. A door closed and a few moments later the sound of the shower filtered through, like heavy distant rain.
Milo sat down where she'd been. He pointed to the chair without the jacket, and I took it.
"What do you think?" he said softly.
"The timing is pretty convenient," I said. "Out of the hospital a few hours and she gets you right back here. But what about our theory about Peter's loan sharks?"
"Loan sharks tend to escalate the violence. Why would they gas her, than regress to this?"
"Maybe they came to do serious harm but didn't find her home. Or maybe they and Peter have nothing to do with it. What if it is someone connected to Shwandt- remember how the Bogettes threatened justice? Or some other nut who's latched on to Lucy- someone who noticed her at the trial."
"How would anyone know she was away?"
"They watched her- stalked her. Remember, she leaves her drapes open." Tension in my voice. "Is there anything that makes you doubt her?"
"No, that's the thing. She's calmed down now, but when I first got here she was petrified. Shaking. Either genuine terror or great acting, Alex. And she doesn't have a typewriter, so the note couldn't have been written here. Where else would she write it between two and five in the morning? Where the hell would she get rat shit?"
"That's reminiscent of Shwandt."
"Was anything else disturbed?" I said.
I took in the skimpy decor.
"You should see the bedroom," he said. "Single mattress on a board, a cheapie end table, nothing on the walls. Her clothes aren't bad, but she doesn't have much."
He looked at me sharply.
I said, "So what's bugging you about it?"
"I just don't trust my instincts with her."
He dropped his chin into one palm. Black and gray stubble popped through the pockmarks.
"How long have you been here?" I said.
It was after eleven.
"Why'd you wait so long to call me?"
"Didn't want to interrupt your beauty sleep."
He frowned and pushed hair off his forehead. "After I calmed her down, we talked. Capital T. I told her I was gay- I know you warned me, but it just seemed right. I followed my instincts; once in a while it works." Looking at me.
"Okay. How'd she take it?"
"Almost as if she was relieved."
"Maybe she is," I said. "On two counts. She's not personally rejected, and she can be with you while avoiding the mess of a sexual relationship."
"Whatever… Sorry if I jumped the gun, Alex. I didn't want to screw anything up. But sitting there, holding her, she's crying, her head on my shoulder, I could just see something happening, and all she needed was another rejection. I figured-"
"Obviously, you figured right."
His smile was slow to form. "Mr. Validation- ever think of working with people?"
"Are you going to call the lab to do a crime scene?"
"If I do, this could get really messy. Once those wheels start rolling, it'll be impossible to keep it quiet. Someone's bound to talk: Bogeyman juror harassed… It's only a matter of time before the press dogs find out and start peeing all over it. Then they start focusing on her and learn she tried to kill herself and got committed. Who'd love that?"
"Shwandt's lawyers," I said. "Mentally ill juror. Grounds for instant reversal."
"Especially coming on the heels of the copycat. My bet is they'd get the whole thing thrown out."
"Lucy would be humiliated," I said.
"Big time." He got up and paced.
I looked over at the note. "Is there any conceivable way this could be related to the copycat? Could the Bogettes or someone else in Shwandt's camp have hatched up some scheme to get his conviction reversed?"
"Who the hell knows? Those girls are crazy as shit. Low-IQ fanaticism, the worst kind."
"It would sure be a low-IQ plan. No other jury will ever let Shwandt walk the street again."
"Yeah, but if he's in court, they get to see him. For all I know, they're planning to liberate him out of there."
I read the note again. " 'Die twice.' Could that mean humiliation as well as the real thing?"
He shrugged. The shower stopped.
"Okay," he said. "Till we clear this up, priority one is keeping her safe. If she manufactured this, the worst thing is I get snookered. So where do I stash her? She says she's got no close friends and no family other than him." Glancing at the picture on the TV. "And he is a junkie, by the way."
"I know," I said. "His father told me."
"When did you speak with him?"
"Yesterday. I tried to get hold of you to tell you. I have some other stuff to talk about too, but let's figure out what to do with Lucy first."
"I could put her in a hotel, but any place above a fleabag is gonna eat into her money pretty damn fast."
"What about Ken? He's in real estate- deals with distressed properties. Even if he doesn't have anything himself, he might know of a low-cost, short-term rental. Here or up in Palo Alto. Maybe she should go out of town for a while."
"It's a thought," he said. "She talked about him a little, wanting to thank him for saving her but not knowing how to approach him. How weird it was having a brother she didn't know. Then she changed the subject to the Puckster. Worried that he hasn't called."
"Worried, not angry?"
"Worried. I got the feeling she's been worrying about him for a long time."
"I'm sure she has," I said. "She say anything more about him?"
"No, and I didn't push… Okay, can you reach Ken?"
"I've got his card."
The bedroom door opened and Lucy came in the room, toweling her hair.
"Definitely nothing else missing," she said. "My stuff's all intact."
"Good," said Milo. He got up and held out a chair for her.
"Another trial," she said. "Carrie's poor parents going through it again- all the families. You really think those horrible girls could be behind this?"
"We don't know," said Milo. "But publicity's their meat. That's why we want to keep you safe and do it quietly."
"My-" She bit her lip.
"What, Lucy?" I said.
"The… oven. I'd been starting to wonder if I really- but do you think someone could have done that to me? Drugged me somehow? Remember how I mentioned feeling drugged to you, a couple of sessions ago?"
"I thought I was just tired," she said. "Too much work, not enough sleep. But- could it be?"
"Anything's possible," I said.
She raised her knees to her chin. Her arms were around her legs and her body looked very small. "Well, do what you need to get to the bottom of it. Don't worry about me, I'll handle whatever comes along."
"Publicity would mean more than just a new trial," I said. "Instant celebrity, including the three days you spent at Woodbridge."
That made her flinch. "Oh… the crazy juror… oh, boy."
Looking at Milo.
He said, "I'm going to fingerprint your apartment myself instead of calling in the lab. It'll take longer, but I'll be able to keep it under wraps. Depending upon what I find, we'll take it from there. Has anyone visited you recently?"
"No. No one."
"I'll also find you a temporary place for the next day or so. After that, we thought we'd ask Ken to look into something 'cause he's in real estate. You okay with that?"
"Guess so. Sure." To me: "Would he want to?"
"At the hospital he mentioned wanting to meet you. Though I'm sure he's a little nervous about it."
She smiled. "Like I'm really scary."
"The unknown is scary."
The smile faded.
She began packing, and I returned to Malibu and called Ken's office. No secretary. I spoke to his answering-machine tape, and he came on the line as soon as I mentioned my name.
"Hi, doc, what's up?"
I told him.
"Someone broke in?"
"Lucy said she found the door open when she came home."
"Shit. I bet I left it open. I was in such a hurry to get her to the hospital-"
"No, the lock was fixed after that, and the handyman claims the door was locked. So either he was careless or someone jimmied it."
"Why would- maybe someone was casing the neighborhood, knew she was out. Did they take anything?"
"No, they just left the note. Detective Sturgis is looking into it, but we need to keep it quiet. To avoid publicity that might hurt Lucy and give Shwandt a retrial."
"Hurt her how?"
"If the story gets out, someone could do some checking and find out about her seventy-two hours at Woodbridge."
"Oh. Yeah, I see what you mean. That would be terrible."
"In the meantime, we're trying to find a safe place for her to stay. Your brother's still out of town, and we wondered if you could put her up in Palo Alto."
"That's okay with Lucy?"
"She's a bit nervous about meeting you, but you'd be doing her a great favor."
"Then, sure. But she doesn't even need to come up here. The company's got lots of vacant properties in L.A. Most are low-income, but some are pretty nice… I think there's a really good one in Brentwood, totally furnished. I was planning to fly down tonight anyway; let me check- unless you think she should leave town."
"No," I said. "A secure place down here would be fine."
"I could stay with her, if that'll help. I couldn't stick with her every moment, but I'd be home most nights."
"Sounds good. Thanks, Ken."
"Sure, no problem. Glad to be useful."
Milo called at three-thirty to say he was on the way over. He arrived just after four.
"Got her over at the Ramada on Beverly Drive and Pico, registered under my name." He gave me the room and the phone number.
"She okay by herself?"
"Seems to be. I gave her all the usual precautions, though I can't see how anyone could possibly find her there."
"After spending more time with her, any new thoughts about her credibility?"
"She seems goddamn credible, nothing shaky or flaky. If she's lying, she's either totally nuts or a stone psychopath, and I can't believe I'm that gullible."
"It's not a matter of gullible. All of us are like locks. No matter how strong the bolt, there's always a key out there that opens it."
"So what're you saying? I'm a sucker for her? You think she's lying?"
"I think she's a very confused young woman. The dream, now this. I'm having trouble sorting out reality, so I imagine it's pretty tough for her."
"You only answered one question."
"Do I think you're a sucker for her? I'd term it emotionally susceptible, and, yeah, you sure are. Do I think it's bad? No. She needs help and you're providing it. Like you said, the worst that can happen is you get snookered. Any more discussion about your being gay?"
"Nope, it didn't come up." He looked burdened.
"What?" I said.
"What's the other stuff you said you wanted to talk to me about?"
"The Karen Best scenario looks a little less theoretical. I was over at the Sand Dollar yesterday and happened to get served by a waitress named Doris Reingold. She was on Best's list- been working there all this time. She told me Gwen Shea recruited staffers regularly for nighttime catering gigs. Karen's name didn't come up- there was no way to work it into the conversation. But Best did say Karen was friendly with the Sheas. It's logical they'd have thrown some work her way. So maybe she worked the Sanctum party."
"Why didn't the private eye find any of this out?"
"Maybe he was incompetent and didn't ask the right questions. The staff kept catering gigs quiet. The Dollar's owner didn't approve."
He pushed back from the table and stretched his legs. "You just happened to get served by her, huh?"
"And you just happened to be eating there."
"Place has a great view," I said.
He looked at the glass doors. "Like you need to go somewhere for that."
"I didn't turn any rocks over," I said. "Doris thinks I'm just a friendly guy who tips big. And it's at least thought-provoking, isn't it? Karen fits the girl in Lucy's dream, she disappears the night before the party. Big bash like that could have taken a couple of days to set up. Maybe she went up early. If the Sheas hired her and something happened to her, that would be a fine reason for them to act evasive with her father. Throw in Trafficant and his disappearance, and it's a little more than random numbers, wouldn't you say?"
He walked over to the window. "Okay, my thoughts are provoked, but let's not forget the only reason this came up in the first place is Lucy's dream. And we still don't know how much of that is real."
"Karen Best's disappearance is real. And there'd be no easy way for Lucy to know that. Unlike the party, it wasn't covered in the Times. Best said all the major papers shined him on."
I got the copy of the Shoreline Shopper and handed it to him.
"He paid for this. The paper went out of business shortly after. I doubt it's catalogued in any library."
He read as I looked at the gulls. "Says here no one saw her after she left the restaurant at eleven P.M. on Friday, never came home that night. So you're saying she went up to Sanctum and spent the night?"
"Maybe she had a one-night stand with a guy. A guy who picked her up and hurt her."
"He was famous."
"Then what? He offs her Friday night? Or parties with her again on Saturday and then offs her?"
"In the dream, Lucy remembers lights and noise. Maybe that was the staff setting up, but it sounds more like the party itself."
"The dream," he said, shaking his head. "So she's there working on Saturday. Slinging designer hash to hundreds of people and no one remembers her."
"There's no indication either the sheriffs or Barnard made any connection to the party."
"Maybe because Karen wasn't there." He waved the clipping. "This is major coverage, locally. You'd think someone around the beach area would have seen it."
"That piece ran six months after the disappearance. Who's going to remember a waitress who served them half a year ago? With Lowell and movie stars at the party, who'd notice the staff, period? It would be nice to get hold of Felix Barnard and see if he has any of his old records, but I can't find a listing on him. Some background on the Sheas would be useful too. Like, have they gotten involved in anything shaky since then? I can pay another visit to the Sand Dollar and try to get more out of Reingold. The chef who catered the party would be another potential source. For old time cards or personnel records that could verify Karen's presence. Some guy named Nunez. Scones Restaurant."
"Dead," said Milo. "AIDS, couple of years ago."
"You knew him?"
"Rick knew him. Patched up a sliced finger in the ER. We went to his restaurant a couple of times and got comped. Vegetables I'd never seen before and the portions were too small." He tapped the glass lightly.
"Have you punched Trafficant into the computer yet?"
He nodded. "Nothing on NCIC. Haven't had a chance to look into his tax returns. Have you called his publisher?"
"No, too late to do it now, I'll try tomorrow. I may also get a chance to sound out his patron."
I described my conversation with Lowell.
He said, "Sounds like the asshole Lucy says he is. Why his sudden interest?"
"Good question. Peter phoned him from New Mexico, too, and told him about Lucy's suicide attempt. Lowell implied it was an attempted guilt trip that didn't work. He claims he has insights to offer on Lucy, though his tone was more contemptuous than concerned."
"Insights? After all these years?"
"He's sure she hasn't changed much. The only thing I can think of is he's trying, in a bizarre way, to get some kind of relationship going."
"By being contemptuous?"
"He's a real piece of work, Milo. Spews out words nonstop. He made such a point about not feeling guilty, it could mean on some level he does feel responsible."
"Weird," he said. "So old Pucko continues to call everyone but Lucy. Guy gives me a definite bad feeling- like that picture on her TV. She's smiling, but he looks like he can't wait to get the hell out of there and jam a spike in his arm. And he's more than a penny-ante addict. Three arrests for possession of heroin and two for selling, all within the last six years. There's also a sealed juvenile record back in Massachusetts and some misdemeanor stuff with Boston PD. The biggest bust was three years ago. He tried to peddle thirty grand worth of smack to an undercover cop. Got off on technicalities, case dismissed. Gary Mandel was his lawyer. Ever hear of him?"
"Ex-prosecutor, specializes in serious dope cases, very big retainer."
"Think Puck's connected?"
"Thirty g doesn't make him King Smack, but it does make him more than a street-corner pusher. If he was playing with the big-tentacle crowd and offended someone, that would explain the quick escape. Whatever, Lucy ain't winning any family values sweepstakes; hope Ken turns out to be a good egg. When you gonna go see Daddy?"
"I'm not unless Lucy wants me to. And I'm not going to bring it up until I'm sure it won't agitate her."
"Yeah." He turned toward the tide pools. A couple of skiffs were floating out near the kelp beds. "God, it's gorgeous here. You could forget what planet you're on."
"Sure could," I said, but I was thinking of log cabins and the crushing terror darkness could bring to a small child's mind.
The phone rang, jolting both of us. I picked it up.
"Doctor? Ken Lowell. I'm still in Palo Alto, but I wanted you to know I got that Brentwood place set up for Lucy. I'm catching a seven o'clock flight, should be able to be there by eight-thirty, nine. Do you want me to come by and pick her up or should I just meet you there?"
I asked Milo.
"Tell him to meet us."
"See you then," said Ken. He gave me an address on Rockingham Avenue. "How's she holding up?"
"Good. We Lowells are tough- built to take it."
He hung up. I gave Milo the address and he wrote it down. He returned to the table, glanced at the Shoreline Shopper piece, and headed for the door. "I'll see what I can do about locating the PI. Regards to Beauty and the Beast."
"Where are you off to?"
"Get Lucy some dinner, and then we'll drive over to Brentwood, get her set up. I'm glad he came through."
"Finally someone in the family does."
"Yeah… I was planning to spend the night with her. Rented a suite- two separate bedrooms and all."
No one had called by ten the next morning, so I phoned the Brentwood house. Ken answered, yawning.
"Oh, hi. We didn't get to sleep till late. Hold on, I'll get Lucy."
Seconds later: "Morning, Dr. Delaware."
"Fine. I just got up. Ken and I were up late, talking. Hold on, please-'Bye, Ken- he just left to buy some groceries. He's nice… I keep thinking about Puck- I'm sure he'll be back any day but… I guess the last few days are a jumble. It's hard to believe any of this is really happening."
She managed a brief, tight laugh.
"Would you like to come in?" I said.
"I would, but my car's still back at my place. I need to get it towed here."
"I can come out."
"No, I don't want to put you through any more bother."
"No, Dr. Delaware, I can't keep imposing."
"Don't worry about it, Lucy. How about noon?"
"Sure," she said. "Noon's fine." Another small laugh. "I'm not going anywhere."
Just as I was getting ready to leave, Sherrell Best phoned. "I'm sure there's nothing new, doctor, but-"
"Nothing yet, Reverend, though the police are interested in speaking with Felix Barnard. He's not in Malibu anymore. Any idea where he went?"
"Why do they want to speak to him?"
"Oh. Of course. No, I'm sorry, I don't know where he is. Probably retired. He was in his sixties back then, and he closed up shop right after he mailed me his report."
"Your case was his last?"
"The very last- at least that's what he told me. I thought his age meant experience, but maybe a young man would have done better. Some people get to a certain age, it's hard for them to feel inspired."
I got on the highway at eleven. The beach was placid, the land-side hills upholstered with yellow poppies. Reaching the pier and passing it, I spied the fat white letters of Shooting the Curl's facade and turned left, impulsively, into the shopping center.
Up close the painted sign was cartoonish, the surfer hyper-muscular with a massive head topped by brass-colored hair and a grinning mouth big enough to swallow a shark. He balanced on a swirl of foam while giving the thumbs-up sign with a swollen red digit. The white letters had been touched up recently, and they sparkled in the sun.
I found a parking space in front of the shop, next to a charcoal-gray BMW coupe with chromed wheels and a rear spoiler. Despite the customization, the car hadn't been washed in a while and the marine air had done its job on the paint. The license plate read SHT CRL. A bumper sticker said SAVE THE COAST, and a blue handicapped-parking permit rested atop the dashboard.
A cement ramp with metal railing led to the entrance of the store. Brass wind chimes tinkled as I stepped in; then I was assaulted by the drum solo from Wipeout. The store was double-width, with one half devoted to surfboards, custom wet suits, and surfing paraphernalia, the other to beachwear, suntan lotion, and posters, mostly variations on the tiny-man-rides-monster-wave theme or flesh-in-your-face shots of overripe women in micro-bikinis. Logos filled the rest of the wall space: BODY GLOVE. ONE WAVE. NO FEAR.
A few girls in their late teens browsed the poster bin, giggling, and a middle-aged couple stood by the swimwear, fascinated by the neoprene bathing suits. No one worked the clothing counter, but a man in his forties sat behind the surfboard register, eating a fast-food breakfast from a Styrofoam box and looking down at something. Above him a pink banner screamed SEX WAX!
Without glancing up, he said, "What can I do for you?"
He forked something into his mouth, and I noticed the sports section in his other hand. His hair was longish, very thin, minnow-silver, combed across his forehead but unable to hide the sunburnt skin of his brow. He had well-proportioned features, except for light-brown eyes that were set too close. His skin had loosened its hold on the bones below. The eyes were bloodshot and bagged and, though he was lean, a second chin tugged at his first. He wore a lime-colored polo shirt with sleeves that reached his elbows. His shoulders were broad, his forearms chunky and furred with gray hair that nearly obscured an anchor tattoo.
The music switched to the Beach Boys' "In My Room." One of the browsing girls brought a rolled poster over to the clothes counter and looked around as she fished money out of her jeans.
The man said, "I'll take that here."
He put down his paper. The girl came up and paid for her poster and left with her friends, laughing.
The man swallowed a mouthful of egg-muffin and watched the girls wiggle the glass doors.
"Having fun," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "You see what she bought? Stud poster- centerfold from Pretty Boy. It's meant for gays, but they put out a calendar and it sold so well to women, they decided to market the months separately." He grinned. "In our day, girls weren't like that, huh?"
"Not the ones I knew."
"So what is it for you?" he said. "Reincarnation, or just passing through from Chicago?"
"Second childhood. Second chance at the big wave. That's what it usually is when a guy your age comes in. Or a tourist wanting to bring home a little piece of California for Aunt Ethel."
I laughed. "I'm looking for bathing trunks."
He hit his forehead and gave another grin. "Wrong again. Good thing I don't gamble. Suits are over there."
I went over to a rack marked DUDES and flipped through the merchandise. A pair of baggy black trunks caught my eye because of a square patch with a Saint Bernard over the pocket bearing the legend BIG DOG. The mutt's tongue was out and he looked mischievous. Clearly a spiritual brother to Spike. I pulled the shorts off the rack and brought them up.
The man said, "Cool baggies," and rang up the sale.
I said, "What do the guys having a second childhood usually buy?"
"The works: board, board cover, leash, wet suit, wax, sport sandals, zinc, hair dye. We have the suits custom-cut for us; usually they're freaked out to see what size they take now. Plus all the changes in board technology. A guy your age might have rode something as big as a tree trunk. Name of the game now is minimum weight."
Turning his hand into a blade, he sliced air.
"The new stuff, once you get the feel, it's like hydroplaning. You can drive out to Zuma or County Line and see kids that are basically Jesus walking on water."
"Sounds like you did a bit of water work yourself."
"Still do." He grinned and handed me my receipt. "No second childhood for me, 'cause I never got out of my first."
The chimes sounded. A dark-haired woman had opened the door and stuck her foot in.
"I need help, Tom."
She was tall and nice-looking with a narrow, graceful figure and long thin arms with some muscle definition. Her hair was wavy and very short, almost black, her eyes so light they seemed pupil-less. The sun had cured her face to tight bronze leather. She wore high-cut pink shorts that exposed long smooth legs. Her blouse was white and sleeveless and tucked in snugly.
Tom said, "Just finishing up a sale, babe."
She didn't smile or answer, just kept standing there in the door. I heard a powerful engine idling and looked out to see a white Ford van conversion, smoke puffing from its rear.
The woman cleared her throat.
Tom said, "Here you go, pal, enjoy 'em."
I left the store, taking as long as possible to get back to the Seville. Once in the car, I sat behind the wheel pretending to look for something. A few seconds later Tom Shea came out of the shop and followed his wife to the van. She got behind the wheel and closed the driver's door and a metal ramp slid out from the rear of the vehicle. It touched the asphalt and I heard it scrape. Tom opened the rear door and reached in, back muscles bunching, as he pulled on something. A moment later an electric wheelchair appeared in the doorway, bearing a slumping, bronze-haired boy.
Tom guided the chair down the ramp. I started the Seville and inched out, watching. The boy could have been anywhere from twelve to twenty. His head was large and it lolled, eyes wide, tongue extended. His shrunken body was belted into the chair. Despite the restraint, he slanted sharply to the right, the head almost touching his right shoulder. One arm was belted, too. The other clutched a joystick at the front of the chair.
Tom wasn't smiling. He said something, and the joystick hand moved. The chair rolled down the ramp, very slowly, and when it was on the asphalt Tom closed the van door. Then he got behind the chair and guided it up the cement slope toward the store. The van's engine cut off and Gwen Shea came around, sprinted up ahead, and held the store door. As Tom eased the chair through, I caught a glimpse of the boy's face. Sleepy, but grinning. Big grin, almost voracious.
His hair a thick, straight mat, the kind that might turn silver-minnow when it aged.
But he reminded me of more than his father.
As I drove away, I realized what it was.
The grin. Triumphant, cartoonish.
He was an atrophied version of the surfer on the sign.
Years ago, the mother of a severely brain-damaged child sat in my hospital office and cried for half an hour without break. When she finally stopped, she said, "I love her, but God forgive me, sometimes I want her to die." She never cried again in my presence, and whenever we passed in the hall she looked away from me with a face that was part despair, part rage.
The same face Gwen Shea wore.
The idea of approaching her about a twenty-one-year-old disappearance seemed ridiculous and cruel. What reason did I have to believe Best wasn't just an old man deluded by hope?
I caught a green light and sped out of Malibu into the Palisades, making my way to Rockingham Avenue and possibly more delusions.
The house was a sizable two-story Tudor with pink roses and blue agapanthus along the front and a low hedge of waxy privet bordering the brick walkway. A white Ford Taurus with a rental sticker sat in the driveway. Ken Lowell answered the door wearing a blue suit and holding a Filofax. His shoes were shined and his hair was wet.
"Morning, just on my way out."
He let me into a parqueted foyer. A statuary-marble center table held a black vase full of white silk flowers. Behind it, the stairway was a softly curving arc of polished oak.
The front rooms on either side were dark and vaulted, shaded by heavy cream damask drapes and filled with gleaming furniture.
"Nice repo," I said.
Ken nodded. "The owners cut out to Europe overnight. Food in the fridge and clothes in the closet. Some kind of shopping center deal that went bad. People are looking for them."
"Been seeing a lot of that lately?"
"More than usual for the last couple of years. It's what we specialize in. We pick them up from the bank, rehab them, and turn them around. I guess that makes us capitalist exploiters." He smiled and picked out one of the silk flowers. "It's not what I thought I'd be doing when I was in Berkeley."
"What were you interested in then?"
"My sister Jo was an archaeology major; she turned me on to old bones. After she graduated, she went to Nepal to climb around and explore. I flew there to be with her and we hung out together in Katmandu- place called Freak Street, Telegraph Avenue transplanted to the Himalayas." He shook his head and looked at the flower. "I was with her when she died."
"What happened?" I said.
"We were hiking. She was experienced, very athletic. This was just a stroll for her. But she put her foot down and something gave way and she fell over a hundred feet. I was way behind. She passed right by me as she went down, landed on a ledge full of sharp rocks." He touched his eyes and pressed down on the lids. Then his hands flew to his lapels.
A door opened on the upstairs landing, and Lucy came down the stairs.
"Morning," she said, looking at Ken. "Everything okay?"
"Everything's great." He smiled and buttoned his jacket. "I should be back around six. Don't worry about your car, I'll have it brought over." A wave, and he was gone.
"Looks like you're being well taken care of," I said.
"He's a sweet guy." She looked at the living room. "Not too shabby for a hideout, huh? Can I get you something to drink?"
"Would you like to talk outside? It's nice in here, but I find it a little gloomy."
The backyard was generous, with a pork-chop-shaped swimming pool and waterfall spa. A brick patio running along the rear of the house contained a table and chairs and potted plants that needed watering. The neighboring properties were blocked from view by tall honeysuckle hedges and billowing mounds of plumbago.
We sat. Lucy crossed her legs and looked up at the sky. Her eyes were tired, and she seemed to be fighting tears.
"What is it?" I said.
"I can't stop thinking about Puck."
After a second's debate, I said, "He called your- called Lowell two days ago to tell him you were in the hospital. He obviously cares about you, but something's keeping him out of town."
Her legs uncrossed and her head shot forward. "Why would he call him-how do you know this?"
"Lowell phoned me, wanting to talk about you. I told him I couldn't without your permission."
"That's crazy. Why would Puck call him?"
"He knew you were at Woodbridge."
"He must have found out some- absurd. I don't understand any of this."
"I got the impression Puck had been in contact with him."
She stared at me, then lowered her head, as if ashamed.
"He told me Puck had a drug problem," I said. "I didn't assume it was true, but Milo checked it out."
Her mouth opened, then closed. Her fingernails scraped the glass top of the table, and my short hairs rose.
"Damn him. He had no right- why did Milo have to do that?"
"For your sake. And Puck's. We couldn't understand why he couldn't come back to see you, figured he might be in some kind of trouble. How long's he been addicted?"
"He- I don't know, exactly. He started smoking grass in prep school. By the time he started Tufts he was already into… the bad stuff. He had to drop out in his junior year because a campus policeman caught him shooting up in a dorm room. After that he didn't care and just hit the streets. The police kept picking him up for vagrancy, and the system kept spitting him back. He tried to get help- student health, free clinics, private doctors. Nothing worked. It's a disease."
Her fingers ran down the glass again, but silently.
"Even with all his problems," she said softly, "he was good to me- he cares about me. That's what scares me. He must be in trouble. It would have to be something serious for him not to be here."
"He's been telling everyone it was business."
She gave a miserable look. Covered her face. Exposed it. "Yes, he sold. Once in a while. Only to get his own stash. I know it's wrong, and I'm sure in some part of his brain he does too. But he felt he had no choice. He was broke, and he wouldn't give him more than pennies. I tried to help him, but most of the time he wouldn't take anything from me- not unless he was hurting really bad. He's the one who suffers… the way he lives- a hole over a hairdresser's."
She looked out at the landscaped yard.
"It's not like he sold to little kids or anything like that. Just to junkies, and they'd have to get it one way or the other… It's the heroin. All this talk about crack, and heroin goes on eating people up."
She began to cry.
I patted her shoulder.
"So many times I offered to have him come live with me. To try another program. He said he was beyond hope and didn't want to drag me down. Didn't want treatment- he liked junk, it was his lover, he'd never give it up. But still he was always there for me. If I called him to talk about something, he'd always listen. Even if he was stoned, he'd try. Sitting there, pretending to be normal- he'd be here now if he wasn't in some kind of major trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
She squeezed her hands together. "The people he hung out with."
"Who are they?"
"That's the thing, I don't know. He made a point about shielding me. Whenever I came over, he rushed around, cleaning up, putting his kit away. Lately, he didn't even want me over at his place- too depressing, he said. So we had coffee in restaurants. He'd come in looking half dead, trying so hard to act okay. I know he sounds like just another stupid junkie, but he really is a wonderful brother."
I nodded, thinking of Puck's dinner date with Ken, how an addict might have viewed the sudden appearance of a wealthy half brother. Yet he hadn't shown up.
"Milo's not going to call the police in Taos or anything like that, is he? I don't want to put him in any more danger."
"No," I said. "Milo's main concern is you."
"Yes, I can't believe all he's done. You, too. And now Ken."
She wiped her eyes.
"I must bring it out in people, like a wounded bird. Puck told me that, once. That he'd always seen me as wounded. I didn't like that. I wanted him to perceive me as strong."
"You are strong."
She spread her fingers on the glass. Looked through the tabletop, studying the pattern of the bricks. "Milo told me, you know. About being gay. It shocked me… Now I understand the position you were in. I really put you in the middle. I'm sorry."
"It was one of those things that couldn't be helped."
She shook her head. "I'd never have suspected it. A big, burly guy like that- that's stupid, of course, but still, it was the last thing I'd have guessed. It must be so hard for him. The job."
"How did finding out affect you?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you feel about his being gay?"
"How do I feel about it? Well… I'm certainly glad I know the truth now."
She looked away.
"Anything else?" I said.
"I guess- on a selfish level- I guess I'm disappointed."
She shook her head.
"Maybe it was just a stupid crush, but it sure- I mean, the feelings are still there. How can you kill feelings, right?"
She stood and walked up and down the patio.
"He and I both do this," she said. "Pace when we're nervous. We found out when we were at the hotel. All of a sudden, we started doing it simultaneously; it was a riot."
She looked at me. "You know how I feel? Cheated. But I'll get over it. And I'm still grateful to have him as a friend. Don't worry about me, I may look wounded but it's an illusion. All done with mirrors." Smile.
She sat down. "Now let's talk about the Great Man. What does he want, all of a sudden? What's his game?"
"I don't know, Lucy. Maybe to connect with you, somehow."
"No," she said angrily. "No way. He's up to something, believe me. He's a master manipulator, you have no idea. He loved hitting Puck when he was down."
"Puck went to him for money?"
"After he cut off the trust fund."
"He has that power?"
"Not officially, but the lawyers work for the family trust, and they do. One call from him." Snapping her fingers. "They invoked some sort of spendthrift clause. After that, Puck had to go to him. Only a few times, as a last resort. And of course he demeaned Puck and made him beg for every penny. Lectured him about financial responsibility, as if he's some expert. He lives off a trust fund, too. His mother's father owned textile mills all over New York and New Jersey, made a fortune before income taxes. He's never had to work a day in his life. If he did, he'd be sunk. He hasn't published or sold a painting in years."
She slammed a fist into a palm. "Forget him. Forget whoever played around with my undies and hung up on me and wrote that stupid note. No more fear, no more bullshit. I'm evicting it all from my mind. I don't care what it looks like, I never tried to kill myself. I love life. And I want a real life- a regular, boring, ordinary life. This is a nice place, but in a few days I'm out of here."
"I don't know. Somewhere on my own. I'm not going to spend my life looking over my shoulder."
She got up again. "Had the dream again last night. Ken came in, said he'd heard me crying out. I was sweating. It's as if that damned incubus is sitting back there, just waiting to torment me. As if there's a big pile of garbage stuck in my memory banks. I want to evict that, too. Get my head clear. How do I do that?"
I considered my answer. The delay brought panic to her eyes.
"What is it? Is there something wrong with me- did they find something on those tests in the hospital?"
"No," I said. "You're perfectly healthy."
Timing: the art of therapy.
Mine was off. I felt out of balance.
Her nails scraped the table.
"The dream," I said. "Has it changed in any way?"
"No. What are you holding back from me?"
"What makes you think I'm holding back?"
"Please, Dr. Delaware, I know your intentions are good, but I'm tired of being protected."
I thought of her head in the oven.
"Sometimes there's nothing wrong with being protected."
"Please. I'm not crazy- or do you think I am?"
"No," I said.
"Then what is it? What aren't you telling me?"
I continued to deliberate. She looked ready to jump out of her skin.
Feeling like a first-time skydiver about to step into space, I said, "Some things have come up. They may be related to your dream, or they may mean nothing. Given all your stress, I'm not comfortable dropping them on you, unless you can promise you'll take them calmly."
"Can you promise me?"
"Yes, yes, what?" Her hands were flexing. She stilled them. Forced a smile. Sat.
Waiting, like a child not knowing if candy was coming or the strap.
"You don't remember any contact with Lowell," I said. "But Ken says you spent a summer with him at Sanctum. All four of you did: you, Ken, Puck, and Jo."
"The summer the retreat opened. You were four years old."
"How could- when did he tell you this?"
"The night he brought you into the hospital. I asked him not to discuss it with you. I wanted to pace things."
"Four years old? How can that be? I'd remember that!"
"Your Aunt Kate had just gotten married and gone on her honeymoon. Does the time frame fit?"
She stared at the lawn. Slumped low in her chair.
"I-" she said, very softly. "I still can't see how I couldn't remember something like that."
"Memories from any age can be blocked out."
"Four… that's the age I feel in the dream."
She started to reach for my arm, then stopped herself. Her face had gone gray-white, like skim milk. "You think it could be real?"
"I don't know, Lucy. That's what we need to figure out."
"Four… I'm so confused."
"Some parts of the dream seem to match reality," I said. "There was a big party that summer. That could explain the sounds and lights. And the buildings at Sanctum are made of logs."
Her hands fisted. Her eyes were cold yet electric. "What about the rest of it- what I saw?"
"I don't know."
She started to shake, and I held her shoulders till she stopped.
Finally she was able to take a deep breath.
"Calm," she said to herself. "I can handle this."
Another breath. She closed her eyes, her shoulders loosened, and I let go. A few more inhalations, and for a moment I thought she'd lapse into the semihypnotic state I'd seen a few days ago. Then her eyes opened. "I don't feel anything. No big insights… but could it- the girl? What do you think? Do you know anything else that you're not telling me?"
I studied her face. No muscles moved. Her eyes were still and dry and piercing.
"Yes," I said. "After Ken told me, Milo and I did some research, looking into crimes in that area. We found no murders or rapes that matched, but we did come across a missing persons case involving a girl who was never found. She did have long dark hair and long legs, but that could apply to lots of girls. So let's not assume anything for the moment."
"It may very well mean absolutely nothing, Lucy, and latching on to it may distort your memories. That's why I didn't want to rush into it."
"It's okay," she said. "I won't rush into anything either." Putting her hands in her lap. Smoothing her hair. "What else do you know about this girl?"
"Her name was Karen Best. She disappeared the night before the party- which wouldn't fit with the dream. She was last seen in Paradise Cove, fifteen miles from Topanga. And there's no evidence she was ever up at Sanctum. The only thing that does match is her physical description, and there's nothing very distinctive about it. As I told you before, dreams can be mixtures of reality and fantasy. You were four years old, may very well have seen something a child's mind couldn't process."
"Something sexual, like you initially assumed. Small children who witness the sexual act often interpret it as an assault."
"But the scraping sounds- the last couple of times, like last night- it was definitely shovels digging. Burying her."
Hunching her back, she bit her finger.
She removed the finger and rubbed the upper joint. "Don't worry," she said softly. "I'm not going to fall apart. I'm just trying to put this into place."
"Don't try to do it all at once."
She nodded. Breathed deeply again, and placed her hands on the table, as if summoning a spirit at a séance.
"Why now?" she said. "If I've forgotten it all these years, why now?"
"Perhaps the stress of the trial," I said. "Hearing about all that sexual violence. Or maybe you're strong enough to deal with it now."
She expelled air. "What does Milo think about this?"
"He's open-minded but skeptical."
"But he didn't dismiss it… the girl. Karen. Do you have a picture?"
"Not with me, but I can get one."
"I want to see her."
"Does she have a family?"
"A father and a brother."
"Have you met them?"
"The father. The brother lives back east."
"Was she originally from back east?"
"I've been there plenty of times- used to go out there with Ray to buy squid from the Portuguese fishermen. What was she doing in L.A.?"
"She came out to be an actress and ended up waiting tables."
"Poor thing," she said. "Poor, poor thing… Does her family know about me?"
"I told the father someone had a distant memory of a girl who resembled his daughter being abducted."
"How did he take that?"
"He hopes something will come of it."
"What's he like?"
"He's a minister. Seems nice."
"Does he want to meet me?"
"At some point," I said. "If we learn more."
"So he hasn't given up on finding her?"
"He's not doing anything active anymore."
"No, of course not- all these years. What about right after it happened?"
"He mounted an intensive search."
"He loves her," she said flatly. "A minister. Which church?"
"It's a group that feeds the poor."
"A good man- maybe I can help him. Can you hypnotize me or something? I've heard that can unlock memories. I'm sure I'd be an easy subject. Sometimes I feel as if I'm walking around in a trance anyway."
She gave an angry, nervous laugh.
"When I hooked for Raymond, I used to trance out all the time- see how tough I am? I haven't repressed any of that. I even told Milo. The slate is clear. So let's get into my head. I want to get rid of all the garbage."
"Hypnosis isn't just something you jump into, Lucy."
"Not when done with a properly prepared patient."
"You're worried about my mental stability?"
"I'm concerned about your stress level."
She sat back, as if studying me. "Tell me honestly. Do you think I tried to kill myself?"
"I really don't know, Lucy. Ken saw you with your head in that oven."
"Okay, it was there," she said. "I'm not going to deny reality. But the phone calls, the undies, the note- I know it sounds paranoid, but all that happened. I didn't put those horrible rat things there. Tell me you believe that."
She said, "Maybe one of those crazy girls is out to get me. Or some other nut, who knows? I'm even willing to consider the possibility that I did it while I was sleepwalking- like the first time I ended up on the kitchen floor. But I wouldn't willfully try to kill myself. Life means too much to me, and killing myself would be giving in to him. Confirming his preconception that we're all weak and useless. That's what he told Puck every time Puck came to him. We were weak, spineless, useless. Banal. I'd never do myself in, give him the satisfaction. Do you understand?"
A distant look came into her eyes. "Sleepwalking. The more I think about it, the more I'm sure that has to be the key. From the beginning. I must have gotten up in the middle of the night and left that cabin and seen something… sex and violence, just like you said. I can't put it in words, but that feels right- there's an internal logic." She smiled and exhaled. "It's good you told me about all this. I won't disappoint you and misuse it. You've really helped me today, Dr. Delaware."
"Not that it's easy," she went on. "I'm still shaking inside." Touching her belly. "But things are finally starting to make sense. Viscerally."
She touched my arm.
"Keep helping me. Please. Help me get into my head and find out the truth. Help me get back in control."
A hummingbird shot up in the air, a tiny rocket. A gardener's air gun blasted from somewhere down the block.
Her eyes were fixed on me.
"I'll help you any way I can, Lucy."
"What about hypnosis?"
"Yes. I feel ready. I don't even care if it works, just that I tried my best. If I don't do something, I'll just sit around here feeling helpless. So much has come down on me."
"That's exactly why I don't want to jump into anything."
"I understand," she said. "But if hypnosis could help clarify things, wouldn't that help unload me?"
"What do you know about hypnosis?"
"Not much- I mean, I saw stage shows in college but they were rather silly, people quacking like ducks. I have heard that when you go under in therapy sometimes you can unlock memories."
"That's true," I said, "but any time you work with the unconscious, there's a risk of unleashing unpredictable things."
"I'm a veteran of that already, wouldn't you say?"
"All the more reason," I said.
"Okay," she said. "You're the expert. But I also know that what's stressing me is carrying around all this stuff and not understanding it."
I looked at her, trying not to appear coldly clinical.
Her posture was loose, receptive. She seemed calmer than ever before. Purposeful.
I gave her my preinduction lecture, explaining that hypnosis was deep relaxation combined with focused concentration, nothing magical. How it didn't weaken the patient's control but was merely the harnessing of a process that occurred naturally for most people. That all hypnosis was self-hypnosis, and the more she did it the better she'd get.
As I spoke, her body pitched progressively forward and her lips parted.
When I finished, she said, "I understand."
Her fingertips were inches from mine, her face close enough for me to see my reflection in her pupils. I looked worried.
"I want to help someone else," she said.
"All right, we'll start out with some simple muscle relaxation exercises. But we may not go any further today."
"Whatever you say."
I had her tense and loosen muscle groups, moving from her head to her toes. She closed her eyes and her body swayed in time with my voice. I was sure she'd go under quickly.
Instead, she fell asleep.
At first I didn't realize it and kept talking. Then I saw her head tilt back and her mouth open, letting out soft, delicate snores.
No more body sway.
No movement at all but the heave of her chest.
"Lucy, if you can hear me, lift your right index finger."
I picked up her hand. Limp.
I flexed her head. No tension.
Her eyes moved rapidly behind their lids, then stopped.
Sleep. The ultimate resistance.
I put her hand down and made sure she didn't slip off the chair. The air gun had stopped. The yard was too quiet.
She dozed for a while; then suddenly her body began jerking and twitching.
Crunching her facial features.
Fragmented REM, the kind associated with nightmares.
I stroked her hand, told her everything was okay. She fell asleep.
A moment later, the same pattern.
After two more episodes, I said, "Wake up, Lucy." She didn't till a minute later, and I wasn't sure it was in response to my voice.
Sitting up, she opened her eyes. Looking at me but not seeing me.
She closed them and went slack.
Oblivious, once more.
I tried to shake her awake, gently.
Each time I got her to open her eyes, she rolled them drowsily and the lids closed.
Finally, I managed to bring her out. She blinked and stared and muttered something and rubbed her eyes.
"What's that, Lucy?"
"You fell asleep."
"I did?" Yawn.
"You've been sleeping almost half an hour."
"I- we- we were doing hypnosis, weren't we? I wasn't dreaming about that, was I?"
"No, we were doing hypnosis."
"Was I hypnotized?"
"Yes. You were right about being good at it."
"Did I do- say anything?"
"No, you fell asleep."
She stretched. "I feel refreshed. Was that supposed to happen- falling asleep?"
"It needed to happen."
"I didn't say anything at all?"
"No, but we're just starting out. You did great."
"But I'm a good subject?"
"You're an excellent subject."
She smiled. "Okay, I guess I'd better just let it play itself out- but I do feel good. Hypnosis is great. You should do it with Ken."
"He's going through some very tough times. His ex-wife is really vindictive, out to take him to the cleaners, doesn't let him see his kids. He has visitation, and the court keeps ordering her to comply. But when she doesn't, they don't enforce it."
"When did they get divorced?"
"A year ago. He didn't come out and actually say so, but I get the feeling she had an affair. He's real cheerful all the time for my sake, but he's feeling it- very restless at night. I heard him go downstairs twice. This morning I got up at five-thirty and he was dressed and doing paperwork."
"Sounds like a hard worker."
"Very. He got into real estate right out of college. Started off as a clerk and worked himself up. But it's taken a toll. He's got a bottle of Maalox in his briefcase."
She was silent for a moment. "One big happy family, huh?"
Closing her eyes, she tilted her head back again.
"You know, it's strange, but as we talk right now I'm starting to get in touch with bits and pieces of memory- about being sent to California that summer."
"In touch how?"
"Like bits of- light. Poking through a piece of fabric. I can't really explain it… it doesn't feel bad."
"What do you remember?"
"Nothing specific, just the bits and pieces- like something on the tip of your tongue? It's almost as if the corners of my mind are being pulled back and I'm peeking through but I can't see clearly…"
She frowned. Her forehead knitted.
"Nothing more," she said, opening her eyes. "But it doesn't seem weird anymore- being up there and not remembering. It's as if I'm getting in touch with my own history."
I thought of the nanny Ken had mentioned. Enough for one day.
"When can we do this again?" she said.
"I can see you tomorrow. Two o'clock at my house."
"In the meantime, I assume you want me to ignore Lowell's invitation."
I expected a quick reaction, but she put her finger to her lip and thought. "I guess the only reason to talk to him would be to find out what he's up to. And maybe I should do that myself."
"That's a lot to bite off, right now," I said. "If you want to scope him out, I could listen to what he has to say and report back to you."
"Believe me, I'm not rushing off to have a tête-à-tête with him. But if I send you to represent me, that'll just show him I'm weak."
"He already knows you're seeing me. And why should we care what he thinks?"
"True," she said. "But I don't want anything to do with him, directly or indirectly. I'd rather put my head in the oven- just kidding."
We went back into the house.
"You know," she said, "maybe I'm being too rigid. I guess it would be okay for you to meet with him if you think it could do any good."
"I can't promise you it would."
"Are you interested in meeting the Great Man?"
"I'm interested in meeting someone so destructive."
"A psychological specimen, huh?"
That wasn't what I'd meant, but she went on.
"Putting him under the microscope- okay, go ahead. Meanwhile, I'll concentrate on relaxing. Getting comfortable with my unconscious."
I was surprised to find Robin and Spike home.
"The electricians didn't show up," she said. "The truck broke down."
"Probably in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium."
"No doubt. I left the drywallers there, figured I'd get some work done here, and then maybe you and I could go out and have some fun."
"Fun? What's that?"
"I think it's something the Chinese invented. They invented everything, right?"
She put her arms around my waist and her face against my chest.
"Actually," she said, "I'm glad the turkeys flaked out. I've been thinking about how little we've seen of each other lately."
"When it's all done," I said, "let's go away somewhere."
"Some remote island without phones or TV."
Something bumped my ankle. I looked down and saw Spike staring up at us. He cocked his head and snorted.
"But with air-conditioning for the pooch," I said.
Robin laughed and bent to pet him.
He began breathing hard, then rolled over on his back, paws up, offering his beer gut. As Robin scratched him, he grumbled with pleasure.
Once in a while, things are simple.
At nine-thirty that evening they got complicated.
We were watching a bad old movie, laughing at the dialogue, when the phone rang and Milo said, "There's someone I thought you might like to meet. Right in the neighborhood, actually."
"Must be. I see the ocean." He gave me a name, then an address in Paradise Cove.
"Trailer park, right near the Sand Dollar."
"Are you there now?"
"Actually, I'm at the Sand Dollar bar- is this a bad time?"
Robin sat up and mouthed, "Patient?"
"Milo," I told her. "He's got someone he'd like me to meet."
"Go," she said. "But definitely no phones on the island."
The road down to the cove was unlit and hemmed in by hillside and sky. The guardhouse was empty and the gate was up. Beyond the Sand Dollar lot, the ocean was a tight stretch of black vinyl. The lot was nearly empty, and the restaurant's neon sign was suspended in the darkness.
I turned right and drove up a short steep road to the trailer park. The mobile homes were stuck into the sloping terrain like metal studs in leather. To the left was a small flat parking area atop a low bluff. Rick's white Porsche 928 was parked there and I pulled in next to it, under the grasping branches of a huge pittosporum tree.
The units were numbered in a system that defied logic, and it took a while to find the address Milo'd given me.
I climbed nearly to the top of the park, walking on asphalt paths lined with rock and seashell borders. Most of the trailers were dark. Blue TV light seeped from behind a few curtained windows.
The address I was looking for matched a white Happy Tourister with aluminum siding and a bolt-on carport. A barbecue sat in the port. Geranium ivy grew around the wheel wells.
Milo answered my knock. A short, solid-looking woman in her mid-sixties stood behind him. Her hair was tinted the color of ranch mink and permed, and she had a small square face and searching dark eyes. She wore a pea-green sleeveless blouse and stretch jeans. She wasn't fat but her arms were heavy. Eyeglasses hung from a chain around her neck.
Milo stood aside. The trailer's front room was a gold-stained pine kitchen with a brown linoleum floor and white Formica counters. It was sweet with the smell of baked beans.
The woman met my smile with one of her own, but it seemed obligatory.
Milo said, "Mrs. Barnard, this is Dr. Delaware, our psychological consultant. Doctor, Mrs. Maureen Barnard."
"Mo," said the woman holding out a hand. We shook.
Milo said, "Mo was married to Felix Barnard."
The woman acknowledged the relationship with a sad look and led us into the living area. More pine, gold carpets, a quilted white sofa specked with gold, and a matching recliner. Big TV and a very small stereo. The place was immaculate.
Mo Barnard took the recliner and Milo and I shared the couch. The ceilings were very low, and Milo's bulk made the room look even smaller than it was. On the coffee table was a year's worth of Reader's Digest along with a thick bound stack of supermarket coupons and a sandpiper carved out of driftwood. Next to Mo was an octagonal pressed-wood table bearing a remote control and a cut-glass bowl of miniature candy bars: Hershey's, Mr. Goodbar, Krackel. She picked up the remote and put it in her lap, then handed the bowl to Milo.
Unwrapping a Mr. Goodbar, he said, "As I told you, it was Dr. Delaware who got us involved in the case that led us to look into your husband's death." To me: "Mr. Barnard was murdered a year after Karen Best disappeared."
Mo Barnard was looking at me.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Quite a shock when it happened," she said, "but it's been a long time. Strange to be hearing about it after all these years, but you never know, do you?"
Despite living at the beach, her skin was white and putty-soft. Her eyes had the flat, dark cast of a Grant Wood matriarch. She fingered the remote control and looked at the blank TV screen.
Milo gave me the candy bowl.
As I unwrapped a Hershey bar, he said, "Felix's killer was never found. He was shot in a motel on La Cienega near Pico. West side of the boulevard."
La Cienega was the border between Wilshire Division's jurisdiction and West L.A.'s. The west side of the street made it Milo's territory.
Mo Barnard sighed. Milo smiled at her, and the way she reciprocated it let me know he'd been here with her for a while.
"Strange," she said. "All these years. I thought he was with a whore, didn't know whether to be sad or mad. After a while, I forgot about that part of it. Now you come and tell me it could have been something else. You just never know, do you."
"Just a possibility," Milo reminded her.
"Yes, I know, it'll probably never be solved. But just the chance that he wasn't with a whore cheers me up a bit. He wasn't a bad guy- lots of good qualities, really."
Milo told me, "The motel was one of those places rented by the hour. So you can see why Mo assumed that."
"The police assumed it," she said. "Even though the motel clerk said he hadn't seen any woman go in with Felix. But of course, he could've lied. Felix was once a policeman himself. Just for a short time, in Baltimore; that's where he grew up. I met him in San Bernadino. He was working for an insurance company, investigating accident claims. I was a records clerk at city hall. He got let go right after we got married, and we moved to L.A."
"Did you work for the city here, too?" I said.
"No, I got a job doing the books for Fred Shale Real Estate, over in Pacific Palisades. I did that for thirty-one years. Felix and I lived in Santa Monica, near the Venice side. Felix's office was out here in Malibu, but this last year's the first time I've actually lived in Malibu. My sister and her husband own this place, but he's got bad lungs so they moved over to Cathedral City, near Palm Springs."
Milo said, "The interesting thing is, Mo feels Felix may have come into some money about a year before he was killed."
"I'm pretty sure of it," said Mo. "He denied it but the signs were there. I thought he was keeping someone on the side." Her cheeks colored. "Truth be known, he'd done that before, more than once. But in his younger days. He was sixty-three by then- ten years older than me, but when I married him I thought he was mature." She chuckled and said, "Hand me a Krackel bar, will you?"
"What signs did you notice?" I said.
"First of all, his retiring. For years he'd talked about it, but he always complained he couldn't get enough money together- always griped about my having health benefits and a pension from San Berdoo and from Shale, and he was out on his own with nothing. Then, all of a sudden, he just walks in and announces there's enough in the kitty. I said, "What pie dropped out of the sky, Felix?' He just smiled and patted my head and said, "Don't you worry, Sugaroo, we're finally going to get that place in Laguna Niguel.' We were always talking about buying a condo down there, but we didn't have the money. We might have been able to afford one of those retirement communities, but Felix never saw himself as old. When he turned fifty, he bought himself a toopay and contact lenses. I guess he figured being so much older than me- I used to look like a kid, people would sometimes mistake me for his daughter- he should do something about it. The other thing he did that made me suspicious was get a new car, a cherry-red Thunderbird, the Landau model, the vinyl top. Which was their top of the line. We had a big fight over that, me wanting to know how we could afford it and him saying it was none of my business."
She shook her head. "We fought a lot, but we stayed together thirty-one years. Then he got himself killed and there was no big money in his bank account, just a little over three thousand dollars, and I figured he'd spent whatever he had on the car. And whores. I drove that car for fifteen years, finally junked it."
"Did he leave any business records behind?" I said.
"You mean his detective files? No, I told Mr. Sturgis he wasn't much for keeping records- truth is, he was pretty disorganized in general. After he died, I went through his things and was surprised how little there was- just scraps of paper with scrawls. I figured, his line of work, there might be things there that would embarrass people. I threw everything out."
"What kind of cases did he work on?"
She looked at Milo. "Same questions- no, I don't mind. I don't really know what kind of cases. Felix didn't talk about his work. Truth is, I don't think there were too many cases, toward the end. I know he did some work for lawyers, but for the life of me I can't remember the names of any of them. I wasn't part of his work, had my own job to do. I'm no feminist but I always worked. We never had kids, both of us just went and did our own job."
She said, "I don't mean to paint him as some kind of bum. Basically, he was a nice guy, didn't raise his voice, even when we fought. But he could be a little… easy around the edges, know what I mean?"
" 'Zactly. The first time I met him he tried to pay me five dollars to release an accident record to him without filling out the proper forms and paying the county fee. I turned him down and he was real good-natured about it. Laughed it off- he had a great laugh. I was only nineteen, should have known better anyway, but I didn't. He came back the next day and asked me out. My parents hated his guts. Six months later we were married. Despite all the problems, he was a pretty good husband."
"So he never discussed Karen Best?"
"Never," she said. "Truth is, we didn't discuss much, period. We kept different hours. I'd be up at six, walking the dogs- we used to have miniature poodles- in the office at eight, back by five. Felix liked to sleep late. He claimed a lot of his work had to be done at night, and maybe it was true. He was gone a lot when I was home and vice versa." She grinned. "Maybe that's how we stayed together thirty-one years."
The grin dropped from her face.
"Still, his being killed was the worst thing ever happened to me after my parents passing away." To Milo: "When you first called, I didn't want to talk about it. But you were a gentleman, and then you told me maybe Felix didn't die because of whoring around. That would be nice to know."
She showed us two pictures of herself and Felix, saying, "These are the only ones I have. When you go mobile, you keep things to the minimum."
The first was a wedding portrait, the young couple posed in front of a painted backdrop of the Trevi Fountain. She'd been a pretty dark-haired girl, but even at nineteen her eyes had been wary. Felix wasn't much taller than his bride, a spare man with slicked hair and Clark Gable ears. He'd worn a pencil mustache, like Gable, but had none of the actor's strength in his face.
The second snapshot had been taken two years before Barnard's murder. The mustache was gone and the PI was stooped, his face lined, the toupee embarrassingly obvious. He wore a gray sharkskin suit with skinny lapels and a white turtleneck and held a cigarette in a holder. Mo's hair was bleached blond and she'd put on some weight, but despite that she did look young enough to be his daughter. The picture had been taken in a back yard, their faces shaded by a big orange tree.
"Our place in Santa Monica," she said. "I rent it out now. The income along with my pension's what keeps me going."
Milo asked to borrow the more recent photo, and she said, "Sure." We thanked her and left. As we stepped out of the trailer, she said, "Good luck to you. Let me know if you find out anything."
"Nice lady," I said, as we walked down to our cars.
"She fed me dinner," said Milo. "Beans and franks and potato chips. I was ready for camp songs. Before she really opened up, we watched Jeopardy. She knows a lot about presidents' wives."
"How long were you there?"
Four and a half hours. "Dedication."
"Yeah, beatify me."
"How'd you learn about Barnard's murder?"
"Social Security said he was deceased, so I checked county Death Records and it came up homicide, which needless to say surprised me. According to the autopsy report, he got shot in the back of the head in that motel, just like she said. What she doesn't know is that his pants were down around his ankles, but there was no evidence of sexual activity and he hadn't ejaculated recently."
"Was the place an outright bordello?"
"More of an anything-goes place. I knew it well from when I used to ride Westside patrol. Drugs, assaults, all-around obnoxious behavior. The detectives on the case assumed Barnard was a john who got in trouble."
"He was shot," I said. "Wouldn't a hooker have been more likely to stab him?"
"There are no rules, Alex. Some of the girls pack fire, or a pimp could have killed him; lots of them carry."
"Did anyone hear the shot?"
"Nope. Clerk discovered his body, cleaning up. By the time he called it in, place was empty."
"It's a busy street, he had the TV blasting, who knows? There was no reason to think it was anything more than Barnard picking the wrong time and place for a blowjob."
"Maybe still. I called you because the fact that he was murdered knocks the Karen Best case up another notch on the Intrigue Scale. As does Mo's feeling that he came into dough."
"Best told me Karen was Barnard's last case," I said. "And Barnard was killed a year after Karen disappeared. You think he could have been blackmailing someone about Karen and they finally got tired of paying?"
"Or he got too greedy. On the other hand, he could have been blackmailing someone about another case totally unrelated to Karen. Or maybe he got the T-bird by saving pennies behind his wife's back. Or at the track. She said all he left her was three thousand bucks- how much would a T-bird have cost back then?"
"Probably six, seven thousand."
"Not major-league blackmail. We're still a long way from evidence. Barnard could have been shot simply because some whore did get mad at him."
"So where do we go from here?"
"I'll see if I can turn up anything more on him. Then I guess the logical thing is to try to find those Sand Dollar people and see if they remember anything about Karen."
He looked through the trees at the restaurant. No cars in the lot and only a few lights were on.
"I went in there tonight looking for Doris Reingold, but she's off for a couple of days… The thing that bothers me about Barnard's investigation is if Karen was hired by the Sheas to work the Sanctum party, why wouldn't anyone at the Dollar have mentioned it?"
"You think someone told Barnard and he left it out intentionally?"
"Who knows? Like you said, maybe he was just an incompetent boob and didn't ask the right questions. Or he got answers and didn't think they were important."
"Malibu Sheriffs interviewed the same people," I said. "If Karen was working the party, why wasn't it in their reports?"
"Maybe she never was at the party. Or could be the sheriffs found out she was and didn't think it was important either."
"The last place she was seen wasn't important?"
"Her serving hors d'oeuvres to five hundred people isn't much of a lead, Alex. She could have been picked up by some party animal and run into trouble later. What reason would anyone have to suspect she was somewhere on the grounds, six feet under?"
We reached the bluff and I walked him to the Porsche. He opened the driver's door and fished for car keys.
"I told Lucy about Karen," I said.
"I'm still not sure it was right, but I followed my instincts. It was either continue to hold back information from her, and take the chance it would destroy our rapport, or be straight."
"How'd she react?"
"Initial shock. Then she warmed to the idea that the dream might actually mean something. Learning the truth's become her mission."
"I'm doing my best to keep the lid on. So far, she's being reasonable. She asked for hypnosis to enhance her memory, and I agreed to try some basic relaxation. I thought she'd be really susceptible, and at first she seemed to be. Then she fell asleep. Which means she's resisting strongly. She slept very deeply and her dream pattern's fragmented. I actually watched her go in and out of several phases. I'm not surprised she's a sleepwalker and has chronic nightmares. She'd like to believe she sleepwalked her way into the kitchen and put her head in the oven, and I guess it's possible. Sleep's her great escape. She blocks things out by dozing off."
The keys came out of his pocket, and he jangled them. "Did it bother her, falling asleep?"
"I downplayed it, made it sound routine. I was worried about getting into too much too quickly, but overall the session seemed to help her. She left in good spirits. Other than the dream, her main concern's Puck. She's well aware of his addiction, defends him as a sick guy. And thinking about him helps her forget about her own troubles. You had any thoughts on the note?"
"Anything new on the copycat?"
"Not a thing, but I'm gonna check out the Bogettes very seriously." He got in the Porsche, started it, and lowered the window.
"I went by the Sheas' surf shop today," I said. "Bought a pair of shorts. Gwen arrived with their son. He's got severe cerebral palsy, needs constant care. Tom Shea drives a newish BMW 735, Gwen's got a customized van for transporting the boy, and both Best and Doris Reingold said the Sheas have a house on the beach at La Costa. Even years ago that was serious money. Not to mention all the medical expenses. The shop didn't look like any big cash cow, but even assuming it is, how'd they get the capital to start up a business by tending bar and waiting tables? Now that we're thinking about Barnard getting paid off, it makes me wonder if they did, too."
"Gwen was obviously an enterprising lady, subcontracting catering. Maybe she had other things going."
"It's still quite a leap from moonlighting to living on the sand. Coming into a little venture capital twenty-one years ago would have helped. Be interesting to know what transpired between the time the Sheas left for Aspen and returned. And why they left in the first place. If it was just because Sherrell Best was bugging them, that would imply some kind of guilt."
"Well," he said, "I gave the widow Barnard plenty of information. Malibu's still a small town, there should be some whispering. Break a few eggs, and who knows?"
"Flushing out the prey?"
He turned his hand into a pistol and pointed it at the windshield. "Boom."
"I may have a shot at big game," I said. "Lucy and I decided I should accept Buck Lowell's invitation to chat."
His hand lowered. "Where you going to meet with him?"
"Don't go snooping around the dirt looking for burial plots."
"I promise. Dad."
"Listen, I know you… Meanwhile, you want to talk to Doris Reingold again, or should I try?"
"I can do it; we're already pals. If she's got nothing to hide, another big tip might be enough to pry something loose."
"Hoo-hah, Daddy Warbucks."
"I expect to be reimbursed by the department."
"Oh, sure, absolutely. Officer Santa Claus'll deliver it to you personally. And no new taxes."
The next morning, feeling like a hunter, I called Sanctum. The same woman who'd answered the first time picked up. Before I finished introducing myself, she said, "Hold on."
Several minutes later: "He'll see you here, tomorrow at one. We're hard to find, these are the directions."
I copied them and she hung up.
I got Terry Trafficant's book from the bedroom and searched for mention of his editor, but there was none. At his publisher, a confused receptionist said, "There isn't anyone here by that name."
"He's an author."
"Fiction or nonfiction?"
Good question. "Nonfiction."
A moment later, a man said, "Editorial."
"I'm trying to locate Terrence Trafficant's editor."
"Terrence Trafficant. From Hunger to Rage."
"Is that on our current list?"
"No, it was published twenty-one years ago."
A woman said, "Remainders."
I repeated my request.
"No," she said, "that isn't on our roster. When was it published?"
"Twenty-one years ago."
"Then I'm sure it's long gone to the pulp mill. Try a used bookstore."
"I don't want the book. I'm looking for the editor."
Click. Back to the same man at Editorial, very unhappy to hear from me. "I'm sure I have no idea who that was, sir. People come and go all the time."
"Would there be any way to find out?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Please connect me to your editorial director."
"That's Bridget Bancroft," he said, as if that ended it.
"Then that's who I'll speak to."
"Bridget Bancroft's office."
"I'd like to speak with Ms. Bancroft."
"Excerpting one of your authors. My name is Alex Printer, and I represent Delaware Press in California. We'd like to include some selections from Terrence Trafficant's From Hunger to Rage in a-"
"You'd need to speak to our Rights department about that."
"Could you tell me who Mr. Trafficant's editor is?"
"What's the author's name?"
"Trafficant. From Hunger to Rage. Published twenty-one years ago."
"I have no idea. People come and go."
"Would Ms. Bancroft know?"
"Ms. Bancroft's on vacation."
"Would you please ask her to call me when she gets back?"
"Certainly," she said. "Would you like to speak to Rights?"
Click. Voice mail. I left another message and hung up.
Lucy arrived precisely on time for her afternoon appointment. She looked energetic, and her eyes were bright.
"I got plenty of sleep last night- no dream- so I shouldn't doze off. It's a little weird sleeping in someone else's bed, but Ken said I'd get used to it; he does it all the time."
Suddenly, she clamped her lips. Her eyes misted.
"Anything wrong?" I said.
"Nothing… I was just thinking of the summer I worked for Raymond. Sleeping in that bed… I used to have to put on stuff for the customers: lots of makeup, skimpy outfits, sometimes wigs. Costume jewelry, so they could pretend they were rich."
She hunched and dropped her head. Each hand gripped a bicep and she hugged herself very tightly.
"They had their fantasies," she said.
The ocean roared. She didn't move.
"I hated it," she said softly. "I really hated it. Being invaded, hour after hour, day after day! I put myself somewhere else- like hypnosis, I guess. Maybe that's why it's easy for me."
"Cutting yourself off."
"Where'd you go?"
"To the beach." She laughed. "How's that for karma? Usually it worked. But sometimes I'd come back to the real world, lying there- someone on me. I don't want ever to lose control like that again."
Straightening her back, she said, "No offense, but no man can ever really understand. Men don't get invaded. Maybe that's why the dream's coming back. All those years ago I saw Karen invaded and it stuck in my head, and somehow…"
She reached for a tissue.
"So," she said, "time for hypnosis? I won't go bananas on you, I promise."
I had her relax and stare at the ocean as I explained that age regression wasn't always effective or accurate. How some people couldn't get in touch with childhood memories, even under the deepest hypnotic trance. How others imagined or manufactured false memories.
She nodded, dreamy already.
I began the induction and she went under almost immediately, achieving waxy limbs and surface anesthesia to a pinprick.
I had her go to a "favorite place" and left her there for a while. She looked serene.
I said, "Lucy, can you talk to me?"
Her "yes" was low and throaty, nearly inaudible over the waves.
"You can," I said, "but talking's hard work, isn't it?"
"But you're comfortable."
"And you want to communicate with me."
"Talking's hard work because you're so relaxed, Lucy. That's good. To make it easier for you to communicate, you can answer yes or no with finger signals. If the answer's "yes,' raise your right index finger. If it's "no,' raise your left index finger. Do you understand?"
She mouthed something. Then her right finger rose.
"Very good. Put it down now; from here on, you just have to leave it up for a second. Now, let's try a "no' for practice- good. You're going to stay deeply relaxed and be able to say what you need to say. Understand?"
The right finger rose and dropped.
"Do you want to stop our hypnosis right here?"
"You want to go on."
"Do you remember what we discussed about age regression?"
"Would you like to try that now?"
"Okay, take a nice deep breath and get even more relaxed, more and more peaceful, very much in control, hearing the sound of my voice but staying totally in control of your own feelings and perceptions. Good… Now I'd like you to picture yourself in a room with a giant TV screen. A very pleasant, comfortable room. You're in a comfortable chair and the screen is in front of you. You're watching the screen and feeling very relaxed. On the screen is a calendar with today's date on it. A desk calendar, the type with pages that flip. Can you see it?"
"Good. This calendar is special. Instead of each page being a day, this calendar holds the same date and changes years. The top page is today's date, this year. The one under it is today's date, last year- watch as I flip it."
Her right hand twitched and her eyes moved.
"Can you see last year's date?"
"Now I'm going to flip the next page."
"What date is it?"
Her lips moved. "Two… years ago."
"Right. Today's date, two years ago. Let's stay with that date for a minute. Take a deep breath and count to three, and at three you can go to where you were on that date. But you'll be watching yourself on the screen. As if you're watching someone else. Seeing what you need to see. But no matter what happens on the screen, it doesn't have to bother you. Understand? Good. Okay, ready: One. Two. Three."
She inhaled and let it out through an open mouth. The faintest of nods.
"Where are you now, Lucy?"
"Where at work?"
"At your desk. Good. Now tell me what you're doing at your desk."
She tightened her face; then it loosened very slowly.
"Simkins… Manufacturing… accounts receivable."
"Doing the books on Simkins Manufacturing. Is it a big job?"
"A big accounting job. How do the books look?"
Pause. Her brows knitted. "Sloppy."
"But that doesn't bother you, because you're just watching it, you're not experiencing it."
Her brow relaxed.
"Good. Do you want to stay there for a while, working?"
Left finger. Smile.
"Okay, let's go to another year. Take a deep breath, count to three, and we'll return to our calendar on the screen. One. Two. Three."
I took her back in time, gradually, careful to avoid the summer in Boston. She remembered her sixteenth summer, playing gin rummy with a cleaning maid in her summer school dorm room, no other children around. Twelve was similar isolation, reading Jane Eyre in a room with a single bed. As she felt herself younger, her posture loosened and her voice got higher, more tentative, displaying an occasional stammer.
I brought her back to the age of eight- a summer at yet another boarding school. Riding horseback with the headmistress but unable to remember any other children.
No mention of Puck or any other family member.
The loneliness she'd grown up with became more vivid. I felt sad and made sure to keep that out of my voice.
She sat very low in the chair, nearly supine, ankles crossed, knees slightly apart, a fingertip on her lip.
I changed the date on the calendar to August 14. Took her back to age six. Her eyes moved very fast and her voice assumed a slight whine as she told me about losing a favorite doll.
Breathing deeply and peacefully.
"Okay," I said, "now let's flip two more pages, Lucy. You're four years old."
Her breath caught and she knuckled her eyes.
"Deeper relaxed, Lucy. So, so peaceful. Watching the screen, so it doesn't have to bother you."
Her hands fell to her lap. Her legs spread more, the feet turned on their side.
"Four years old," I said. "What are you watching?"
"House." Very soft, very high, almost a squeak.
"Watching a house on the screen."
"A nice house?"
"Okay. Do you want to keep watching that house?"
"You want to watch something else?"
Silence. Confusion. Then: "Dark."
"It's dark outside."
"You want to watch yourself going out."
"Lights. Far… go out."
"It's dark and you want to go to the lights."
"Have you been sleeping?"
"You can also tell me "yes' with your finger."
"Very good. So you're in the house and you want to go out. Why don't you just tell me in your own words what's going on."
She fidgeted and touched her nose. Sniffed and blinked and opened her eyes. But she wasn't seeing me.
They closed again.
"Sleep… walk. Sleep… walk. Door… wood. Out… out, out… out…
She grimaced. Her breath quickened and her chest heaved.
"Relax, Lucy. Deeper and deeper relaxed, remembering what you need to remember, seeing what you need to see… Good, very good. Just keep breathing deeply. No matter what you see or hear or touch or smell or remember, you'll stay deeper and deeper relaxed, watching yourself from the TV room, so safe and calm and in control… good. Okay, go on."
"Out… lights. People yelling." Puzzled look. "Not my fault…"
"Deeper and deeper relaxed."
She sighed and her head drooped. Said something I couldn't hear.
I moved my chair right next to hers. A carotid pulse was beating slow and steady. Her cheeks were pink. I touched the top of her hand. Warm. Her fingers curled around mine and squeezed.
"Walk," she said. "Trees- pretty."
She said nothing for a long time, but her eyes kept moving and her head bobbed.
Walking in place.
Her head moved from side to side.
Taking in the scenery?
Suddenly, I felt her hand go cold.
"What is it, Lucy?"
"You see Father on the screen?"
Long pause as she gripped my hand. Then her right index finger rose but the rest of her fingers stayed clamped.
"Deeper and deeper relaxed, Lucy."
Slow breathing, but louder and harsher.
"You can leave this place, Lucy. You can turn off the TV any time you want to."
She made a growling sound, and the left finger stayed up in the air for several seconds.
"You want to stay here."
"Okay, that's fine. Go ahead, do what you want to do and tell me what you want to tell me."
A long silence. "Father… men… carrying lady. Pretty. Like Mama… dark… hair. Pretty… carrying."
More silence. The pulse in her neck quickened.
I said, "Other men, too."
Concentration. Her head moved from side to side. "Two."
"Two besides Father?"
Right finger. Her hand remained cold. Sweat flowed from her hairline, trickling down her cheek. She seemed impervious as I wiped it.
"You're just watching it," I whispered. "You're safe."
"Two," she said.
"What do they look like?"
"Can you see them?"
Right finger. "Carrying the lady."
"Is she saying anything?"
"What's she wearing?"
"Blouse… white blouse… skirt."
"What color skirt?"
"A white blouse and a white skirt. Any shoes?"
Left finger. "Toes."
"You see her toes."
"Is she moving them?"
Left finger. "Not moving."
"Can you see her face?"
Silence. "Pretty. Sleeping."
Confused look. "Not moving."
"She's not moving at all?"
"So you think she's sleeping."
Right finger. "Carrying her."
"The men are carrying her. Is Father carrying her?"
Left finger. "Hair… hairy lip."
"A man with a hairy lip is carrying her?" I thought of Terry Trafficant's bearded, skeletal face.
"You can see the men now."
She puckered her face. "Hairy Lip… other man turned around."
"The third man is turned around. You see his back?"
"Can you see what the other men are wearing?"
Silence. "Father… white… down to ground." Confused.
"Down to the ground. Long. Like a robe?"
"And the other men?"
"Both of them?"
Right finger. "Dark outside. Too."
"It's dark outside and it's hard to see. But you can see Father's white robe and the lady's white blouse. The other two men are wearing dark clothes."
Another look of confusion. She pouted. "Ha-ard."
"It's okay, Lucy. Whatever you see is okay. Just tell me whatever you want to."
She squinted, as if trying to focus. Tensed and sat up.
"Shovel… digging… Hairy Lip… Father holding the lady. Hairy Lip and the other man are digging. Digging fast, digging. Digging and digging. Digging. Father holding… heavy. Says "Heavy'… "Hurry the hell up!' Angry… puts her down…"
She shook her head and sweat flew.
I dabbed her again. "Father put the lady down on the ground?"
"Digging… and digging and digging… "Roll it.' " Her voice deepened. "Roll it, roll it!' "
"You're watching it, Lucy. On the screen. You're sa-"
Her fingernails dug into mine. The child's voice returned. "Lady… gone. Lady gone! Lady gone! Lady gone!"
She slipped into inert silence as I flipped the calendar pages back to the present.
Before I brought her completely out, I gave her posthypnotic suggestions to feel refreshed and successful and to be able to remember anything she'd seen that night while remaining relaxed.
She came out smiling and yawning. "I'm not sure what happened, but I feel pretty good."
I had her stretch and walk around. Then I told her.
"Three men," she said.
"You described one as having a hairy lip."
She rubbed the rim of her water glass. "A mustache? I can't really remember that- can't remember anything- but that feels right. Hints of memories, distant but right. Am I making sense?"
"Can I go back under and try some more?"
"I think we've done enough."
"What about tomorrow?"
"All right," I said. "But promise me not to try anything by yourself before then."
"I promise. Now can I see that picture of Karen?"
I went and got the clipping from the Shoreline Shopper.
The moment she looked at the photo her hands began to shake.
She took the paper from me, stared at it for a long time. As she began to read, her hands stilled. But the color had left her face and her freckles stood out like Braille dots.
Handing the clipping back to me, she nodded. Then she cried.
At four, I drove to the Sand Dollar. The film crew was there again and a blond beach goddess in a black thong bikini was posing on the sand with a sweating can of beer.
As I entered the restaurant, I spotted Doris Reingold at the bar. She got off her stool. "Hi, there." After seating me near the window, she said, "Back in a jiff."
I was the only customer in the place. The beach was unpopulated. A busboy brought me coffee and I watched the blonde smile on command, flipping her hair, turning herself slowly like a chicken on a spit.
"Good view?" said Doris, pad in hand.
"Hooray for Hollywood."
She laughed. "Good to see you back. Early dinner? We just got in some fresh local halibut."
"No, just a snack. What kind of pie do you have?"
"Lemme see." She ticked her pad with her pen. "Today we've got apple and chocolate cream and, I think, pecan."
"Apple with vanilla ice cream."
She brought me a double wedge under two dollops of ice cream.
"Feel free to sit down," I said.
She touched her gray hair. "Sure. Marvin's not in for a while, why not?"
After pouring coffee for herself, she slid into the booth, the way she had the first time. Looking out at the blonde, she said, "Girl like that, gonna get herself one of two things: rich or in trouble."
"Or both." I cut into the pie.
"True," she said. "One doesn't eliminate the other. You have kids?"
"No, I'm not married."
"That doesn't mean anything. You know the definition of a bachelor? No kids- to speak of."
We both chuckled.
I said, "You said you had two, right?"
"Two boys, both grown, both army master sergeants, both married with kids of their own. Their dad was an army man, too. I divorced him when they were little, but somehow it rubbed off."
"Must have been tough raising them by yourself."
"Wasn't a picnic." She freed her pack of cigarettes and lit up, then took in a mouthful of coffee. "Tell you what I do enjoy, being a grandmother. You buy them stuff, play with 'em, and then you go home."
"So I've heard."
"Yeah, it's great." She smoked and stirred some sugar into her coffee.
"I'd like to have kids of my own," I said.
"Why not, you're young."
"It's a little scary. All those things that can go wrong. I used to work in a hospital, saw plenty of misery."
"Yeah, there's plenty of that."
"I was over by your friends' surf shop the other day and saw their son. Really sad."
She appraised me, through the smoke. "What made you go there?"
"Needed some swim trunks. When I passed by I remembered your telling me about it. Nice place, but how'd they get a house on the beach with that?"
She shrugged and gave a sour look.
"Still," I said. "That kid. No money in the world can make up for that. What is it, cerebral palsy?"
"Birth accident," she said, but wariness had crept into her voice. "I think he twisted his neck coming out or something."
"How old is he?"
"Sixteen or so. Yeah, it's tough, but we've all got our crosses to bear, so why dwell on it?"
She kept smoking and pretending not to study me. I ate some more pie.
After dragging half her cigarette down, she put it in the ashtray and watched it smolder. "I do feel sorry for them. It's a good example of what you just said- money and trouble."
Looking at the film crew again, she said, "Why all the interest in Gwen and Tom, handsome?"
All friendliness gone from her voice.
"No particular interest. They just came up."
"Sure. Is something the matter?"
She stared at me. "You tell me."
I ate pie and smiled. "Everything's fine with me."
"You some kind of bill collector? Or a cop?"
"What are you then?"
"What's the matter, Doris?"
"That's not an answer."
"I'm a psychologist, just like I said. Are Gwen and Tom in some kind of trouble?"
She pocketed her smokes and her lighter and got up. Standing over me, one thigh pressing into the rim of the table, she smiled. To a casual observer she would have looked like a helpful waitress.
"You come on real friendly, and then you ease the conversation around to Tom and Gwen. That just seems a strange thing for a guy to talk to a gal about."
Turning her back on me, she walked back to the bar. The restaurant was still empty.
I ate a few more bites of pie and then I saw her leave the restaurant. Throwing bills down on the table, I went after her.
She was heading for a shopworn red Camaro parked near the movie crew trucks. Cables were strewn across the parking lot, and one caught her heel and she went down. One of the grips picked her up, and other film people gathered around her. The blond model stopped posing.
I was within twenty feet of her when she saw me. She pointed and said something that made the people look at me as if I was slime on bone china.
A human knot closed around her, protectively.
I turned around, walking, not running, but when I made it to the Seville I was breathless.
I got in the car. No one had followed me but everyone was still looking at me. They kept on looking as I peeled out.
I reached Milo at work and told him what had just happened. "Didn't have a chance to get to Karen. Just talking about the Sheas- how they made their money- upset her."
"There was some kind of hostility there. She wasn't sympathetic about their having a kid with CP. What if she and the Sheas all got paid off to keep quiet about Karen, but the Sheas used it to build up a personal fortune and she blew it? I know it's a big jump, but she did say she worked catering gigs for Gwen. If the Sanctum party was one of them, she could very well have been there."
"Huge jump," he said, "but I'll see what I can find out about her. Meanwhile, stay away from there."
"Something else: Lucy and I did hypnosis again, and this time there was no resistance. I age-regressed her back to four years old, and she was able to make out more details of the dream. Definitely two other men besides Lowell. One's back was to her the whole time; the other had what she called a hairy lip, which I assume is a mustache. Trafficant wore a mustache and goatee, back then. Anything come up on him yet?"
"Haven't learned a damn thing except he stopped filing tax returns the year he vanished. As far as I can tell, he hasn't shown up in any major penal institutions. No death records either, but a guy like that would know how to work the system."
"I tried to trace him through his publisher. No one seemed to remember him at all. I didn't get the feeling they were trying to stonewall, just that he'd really faded from the scene."
"Yeah. Well, for all we know he's in Algeria or Cuba or something, still getting his royalty checks. Meanwhile, I've got something more immediate to deal with. Another copycat, discovered this morning. We've kept the media at bay, but you'll see it on the eleven o'clock news. Fourteen-year-old kid named Nicolette Verdugo. Walking home from school yesterday, never showed up. Cal Trans crew found her at daybreak in a drainage ditch out in Diamond Bar, near the Orange County border."
"Fourteen," I said. "Oh, Jesus."
He coughed and cleared his throat. "So now it's a new task force, the FBI's probably going to be called in, and guess who's representing Angel City? When Shwandt's lawyers find out about this, I promise you it's war. But the whole thing stinks. Keep this confidential: Both Shannon and Nicolette were defecated on, but neither had any semen in or on or near them. Ejaculation was a major thing for Shwandt; sometimes he did it more than once on a victim. In fact, the only time he didn't ejaculate was with Barbara Pryor, because he was too stoned to get an erection. Now why would someone pull off a first-rate copycat, cover all the details, and leave that out?"
"Someone who can't ejaculate," I said. "A woman? You think the Bogettes really could be behind it?"
"Who the hell knows? It's pretty hard to imagine women butchering another woman that way, but Manson's hags were pretty good with forks and knives. Problem is, how do we get close to them? There's absolutely no grounds for warrants; all we can do is try to interview them, and if they say fuck you, as they did today, we say thank you, ladies, and go home. That leaves surveillance, and with their level of paranoia they'll probably burrow deep underground. Anyway, it means eighteen-hour days for me. So do me a favor and keep an eye on Lucy. I'm not going to be much of a guardian angel."
"Anything specific I should do?"
"Keep her away from her own apartment till I clear up that goddamn note. Given this new murder, I'd rather err by being too cautious. The turds, by the way, were of Rattus rattus origin- our little black scurrying pal. And speaking of rats, all I've been able to learn about Brother Puck was that he had some dealings a few years ago with a dope group from Montebello. Small-time buys and sells; then they handed him thirty grand to peddle to other junkies, and he got busted. After that they cut him off, and he's been going to East L.A. for bits and pieces."
"Who paid for his defense?"
"Haven't found that out yet. If he comes back to town, I'll have a little talk with him. Meanwhile, give Lucy my best."
"One more thing," I said. "I showed Karen's picture to Lucy, and she's sure Karen was the girl in the dream. It's possible she's confabulating- wishful thinking because she hates her father and is on a mission to learn the truth- but her reaction was pretty extreme: She went white, started shaking."
"Your intuition tells you it's genuine?"
"My intuition's been rather quiet recently."
"Mine, too, when it comes to her."
"Maybe we can get corroboration of Karen's presence at the party from someone who worked that night."
"Someone who wasn't paid off? You know, Alex, the more I think about it, the whole idea of payoffs doesn't really cut it, logically. All you've got on the Sheas is that Best doesn't like the look in their eyes and they were lucky enough to make some money over a twenty-year period. All you've got on Doris is she doesn't like the Sheas. No indication of any collusion. If something happened that the three of them and Felix Barnard found out about, what's the theory? The whole bunch of them put the arm on Lowell or Trafficant or whoever had something to hide? And if Barnard's death was tied in with blackmail, why would the others be allowed to live?"
"They didn't break the rules; Barnard did."
"Still, to leave all those loose ends for so long? People living down the road from you knowing you were involved in killing a girl?"
"Maybe they didn't know the gory details. Just that Karen was last seen at the party. Lowell could have told them she had a bad drug trip and left early, something like that."
"So why pay them off?"
"To avoid bad publicity for Sanctum. Trafficant's presence had already created controversy. Trafficant killing Karen would have finished Lowell off."
"So who's our corroborator, some other server? What do we have here, a whole platoon of people who knew Karen had worked the party? With Best looking for her obsessively, all those fliers he put up, cornering people at the shopping center, you mean to tell me no one came forward?"
"They might not have if they really didn't believe she'd been harmed. What if the other servers were told she'd run off with a boyfriend and didn't want to be found? Or that Best was an abusive father and Karen was scared to death of him? Maybe spinning that yarn was what the Sheas got paid for. Which would make them collaborators and help ensure their silence."
"A yarn," he said.
"Convincing young people it was true wouldn't have been too hard. Remember the times: Don't trust anyone over thirty."
"Maybe," he said doubtfully.
"Locating the other servers would help," I said. "Especially those other women from the Dollar- Andreas and Billings."
"Nothing on them yet, and I can't promise you I'll have time to do a comprehensive in the near future. So do me a favor and don't launch Lucy on any trajectory you can't control. Keep yourself safe, too. I've got enough to worry about."
A warm quiet morning, lit by a primrose-yellow sun. Hypnosis session number three. Induction was effortless. Within minutes Lucy was four years old and watching herself wander through the forest.
Once again, Hairy Lip's and Lowell's faces were visible, but the third man kept his back to her and she could produce nothing more about him.
I questioned her more about the mustache.
"Is the hair on his lip dark or blond?"
She looked confused.
"Is Hairy Lip's hair brown, Lucy?"
"Is it blond- yellow?"
"The hairy lip, is it just a mustache- is the hair only on the top lip? Or does he have a beard, hair all over his face?"
"Um…" Shrug. "Hairy lip."
"Just a hairy lip?"
When she came out, I reviewed what she'd told me.
"Didn't do very well this time, did I?"
"You did fine. It's not a performance."
She knuckled her forehead. "I know it's all in here. Why can't I bring it out?"
"Maybe there's nothing else to remember. You're seeing things the way you saw them then. Through a four-year-old's eyes. Certain concepts wouldn't have been available to you."
"I was so excited about today, I thought we'd make real progress."
"Give it time, maybe more will come out."
I let her sit quietly for a while.
"Actually," she said, "there was something. The trees where they buried her. I noticed something about them but you didn't ask me so I couldn't tell you- didn't have the words." Her eyes closed. "The image keeps coming back to me. Lacy."
She frowned. "I don't know."
"Just that they were lacy."
"And pretty. It's like"- her eyes opened-"I guess what you said was true. I didn't have the word "lacy' when I was four, so I couldn't put it into words. But now that I'm an adult again, it came back to me. Pretty, lacy trees. Does that make sense?"
She shook her head. "Lacy trees. That's all I can say. Do you have time for me tomorrow?"
"Any time. I've got nothing to do but read old magazines and watch TV. Being alone in a big house is a lot more solitude than I'm used to."
"Ken's not around much?"
"Hardly at all. We're planning to spend some time together over the weekend, maybe take a drive somewhere."
Her hands were busy, fingers rubbing against one another.
"The third man," she said. "He keeps his back to me the whole time. It's frustrating. And all I can really see of the other one is the mustache."
I went and got the copy of Terry Trafficant's book, opened it to the rear flap, and showed her the author photo.
"No, definitely not. Sorry. His mustache is wimpy. Hairy Lip's was big and dark and thick."
She put the book down.
I said, "Could you describe him so someone could draw him?"
Her eyes closed again. Her squint looked painful. "I can see him but I can't really describe his features- it's as if I'm… handicapped. As if part of my brain is working, but I can't translate what I see into words."
She opened her eyes.
"I think I'd know him if I saw him, but I just can't tell you anything more about him other than the mustache. I'm sorry- it's not like actually seeing. More like images making their way into my mind. That sounds flaky, doesn't it? Maybe I'm totally off base on all of it."
"We'll just take it as far as it goes, Lucy."
"But I want to find out- for Karen's sake."
"It's possible Karen has nothing to do with the dream."
"She does," she said quickly. "I feel it. I know that sounds as if I'm letting my imagination get out of control. But I'm not. I didn't wish this upon myself. Why would I want to be dreaming about him?"
I didn't answer.
"Okay," she said. "We'll just take it as it comes. Is today the day you go up to see him?"
"Today at one."
She scratched her knee.
"Has that been on your mind?" I said.
"Any change of heart about my meeting him?"
"No… I guess I'm a little nervous- though why should I be? You'll be dealing with it, not me."
I left the house at twelve-thirty, turned off PCH at the red clapboard buildings of the Malibu Feed Bin, and headed up Topanga Canyon Road, cutting through the palisades.
The drought had stripped the mountains down to the chapparal, but last month's freak rains had brought back some tender buds and the granite was freckled with weeds and wildflowers. Randomly planted eucalyptus appeared on the west side of the road. To the east was a gorge that deepened and darkened as I gained altitude.
There was little to break up the scenery for the first few miles other than an occasional shack or abandoned car. Then a scattering of small businesses appeared among dry, yellow clearings: a lumberyard, a general store and post office, a lean-to advertising magic crystals at discount.
At the top of the road was a fork that separated Old Topanga Road from the newer highway that led into the Valley. Both routes were empty.
The original Topanga settlers had been Californio homesteaders and New England gold panners, asking for little but beauty and riches and privacy. Their descendants still owned land in the canyon, and individualism remained the Topanga way.
During the sixties and seventies- the time of the Sanctum party- the hippies had invaded in giddy droves, living in caves, scrounging for food, and eliciting outrage the natives hadn't known they had in them. Gary Hinman had a house in Topanga back then, as did lots of other musicians, and he was recording rock 'n' roll tracks in his home studio when the Manson family murdered him.
No more hippies now. Most had wandered off, some had died from overdoses of freedom, a few had become transformed to Topanga burghers. But the canyon hadn't turned into Levittown. Artists and writers and others who didn't keep regular hours continued to homestake here, and I knew several professors and psychotherapists willing to brave the hour-plus drive to the city in order to return here at night. One of them, a man who studied the biochemistry of rage, once told me he'd come across a mountain lion in his back yard one night, savaging a raccoon and licking its chops.
"Scared the shit out of me, Alex, but it also took me to a higher spiritual level."
I turned left onto the old road. The next couple of miles were darker and greener and cooler, shaded by sycamores, maples, willows, and alders that arched over the blacktop.
Pretty, lacy trees.
Houses appeared every hundred to two hundred feet, most of them modest and one-storied and set into vine-crusted glades. Those on the left side of the road sat behind a dry wash, accessible by footbridge or through old railroad boxcars turned into tunnels.
Mine was the only car on the road, and though I could smell horse manure, there were no steeds in sight. I pulled over and read the directions the woman had given me.
Look for a private road around three miles from the bridge, and a wooden sign to the east.
I drove a slow mile. There were several dirt paths cutting into the hillside on the east, all unmarked, and I made a couple of false starts before spotting a wooden sign nearly obscured by a heavy bank of scarlet honeysuckle.
S NC M
The road, if you could call it that, was an acutely slanting dirt path lined with elderberry and ferns and sugar bush. I traveled a thousand feet of kidney-jarring, hairpin solitude. The trees, here, were thick-trunked and hypertrophied, the brush beyond them impenetrable. The growth was so thick that branches scraped the roof of the car, and in some places the vegetation sprouted in the center of the road and brushed the Seville's underbody.
Soon I heard the high-note trickle of a stream. Groundwater. That explained the lushness during the drought. Looking for trees here would be like searching for pedestrians in Times Square.
A couple of turns, then I saw a two-piece gate up ahead. Heavy-duty chicken wire framed by planks of weathered redwood.
Latched, but not locked.
I got out, freed the bolt, and swung both gates open. They were heavy and rusty and left brown grit on my hands.
Another five hundred feet. Another gate, a twin of the first. Beyond it was a big, low-slung, lodge-type building flanked by enormous bristlecone pines and backed by a forest of more pines and firs and coast redwood. The roof was green asphalt shingle, the walls, logs.
I parked in the dirt, between a black Jeep Cherokee and an old white Mercedes convertible. A row of iron hitching posts fronted the lodge. Behind it, wide wooden steps led to a wraparound porch shaded by the eaves of the building and set up with a few bent-willow chairs. The cushions on the chairs were blue floral and mildewed. The windows of the lodge were gray with dust.
Flat, thick silence; then a squirrel scampered across the porch, stopped, and shimmied up a rain gutter.
I climbed the stairs and knocked on the front door. Nothing happened for a while; then it was pulled open and a woman looked out at me.
Thirty-five or so, five-seven, with straight, shoulder-length black hair parted in the middle and painted with copper highlights. Her face was a tan oval, the skin smooth as fresh notepaper, the jawline crisp. She wore second-skin black leggings under a bright green, oversized, sleeveless T-shirt. Her arms were bronze and smooth, her feet bare, her eyes orange-brown.
She had the kind of face that would photograph beautifully: perfectly aligned, slightly oversized features. Both ears were double-pierced.
"Dr. Delaware?" she said in a bored voice. "I'm Nova."
She waved me into a gigantic main room furnished with sagging tweed couches and thrift-shop tables and chairs. To the right was a clumsy, narrow staircase. The grubby plank flooring was covered haphazardly with colorless rugs. The ceiling was beamed with more planks and raw logs, and each beige stucco wall bore two large windows. Plenty of furniture and still enough room to dance. Along the rear wall, beyond the stairs, what had once been a reception desk had been turned into a wet bar crammed with bottles. On either side of the bar were doors.
The walls were covered with scores of mounted animal heads: deer, moose, fox, bear, a snarling puma, lacquered trout with their vital statistics engraved on plaques. All the specimens looked moth-eaten and tired, almost goofy. One was particularly grotesque- a gray, lumpy, porcine thing with Quasimodo features and yellow mandibular fangs that hooked over a sneering upper lip.
"Wally Warthog," said Nova, stopping next to a serape-covered couch.
"Does Mr. Lowell hunt?"
She gave a staccato laugh. "Not with a gun. These came with the place and he kept them. He planned to add some of his own- critics and reviewers."
"Never bagged any, huh?"
Her face got hard. "Wait here, I'll tell him you've arrived. If you need to, fix yourself something to drink."
She walked off toward the left-hand door. I went over to the bar. Empty bottles lined the floor. Premium brands, mostly. On the counter were eight or nine cheap glasses that hadn't seen water recently. An old refrigerator was filled with mixers. I washed a glass and poured myself some tonic water, then returned to the center of the huge room. As I sat on a needlepoint rocker, dust shot up. In front of me was a coffee table with nothing on it. I waited and drank for ten minutes; then the door opened.
His face appeared two feet lower than I expected. He was sitting in a wheelchair, pushed by Nova.
The famous face, long and hatchet-jawed, with a bulbous nose and deep, dark eyes under shelf brows, now white. His hair was gray-black, worn past his shoulders and held together with a beaded band: the Venerable Chief look. His skin, liver-spotted and creased, was as rough as the ceiling beams.
My eyes dropped to his body. Wasted and spindle-limbed, reduced to almost nothing above the belt-line.
He wore a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants. Everything bagged and sagged, and though the trouser fabric was heavy wool, I could see his kneecaps shining through. His feet were encased in cloth bedroom slippers. His hands were huge and white and grasping, dangling from the thin wrists like dying sunflowers.
As Nova propelled him forward, he glared at me. The chair was an old-fashioned manual, and it squeaked and wrinkled the rug. She positioned him opposite me.
He didn't answer and she left.
He kept glowering.
I gave him a pleasantly blank look.
"Good-looking piece of veal, aren't you? If I was a fag, I'd fuck you."
"That assumes a lot."
He threw back his head and laughed. His cheeks were flaccid and they shook. He had most of his teeth, but they were dark and discolored.
"You'd let me," he said. "Without hesitation. You're a starfucker; that's why you're here."
I said nothing. Despite his crippled body and the size of the room, I began to feel hemmed in.
"What's in the glass?" he said.
He gave a disgusted look and said, "Put it down and pay attention. I'm in pain, and I don't have time for any lumpen-yuppie bullshit."
I placed the glass on a table.
"Okay, Little Dutch Boy, tell me who the hell you are and what qualifies you to be treating my daughter."
I gave him a brief oral résumé.
"Very impressive, you now qualify for a variable-rate mortgage of your IQ. If you're so smart, why didn't you become a real doctor? Cut into the cortex and get to the root of matter."
"Why didn't you?"
He pitched forward, winced, and cursed violently. Gripping the armpieces of the chair, he managed to shift slightly to the left. "William Carlos Williams was a doctor and he tried to be a poet. Somerset Maugham was a doctor and he tried to be a writer. Both sour, pretentious fucks. Mix-and-match works only in women's fashions; something's got to ebb, something's got to flow."
His eyes widened and he grinned. "Go ahead, patronize me, pricklet. I can chew up anything you serve me, digest it for my own benefit, and shit it back at you as high-density compost timbales."
He licked his lips and tried to spit. Nothing came out of his mouth.
"I'm interested," he said, "in certain aspects of medicine. Cabala, not calculus… A fool I knew in college became a surgeon. I met him, years later, at a party teeming with starfuckers, and the pin-brain looked happier than ever. His work; there was no other reason for him to be satisfied. I got him talking about it, and the bloodier he got, the more ecstatic- if words were jism, I'd have been soaked. And do you know what brought the greatest joy to his dysphemistic face? Describing the scummy details of exploratory surgery, while eating a cocktail frank. Cracking open the bones, tying off the veins, swan-diving into the heat and jelly of a stinking, cancerous body cavity."
He raised his hands to nipple level and turned the palms up. "He said the greatest fun was holding living organs in his hands, feeling their pulse, smelling their steam. He was a yawny idiot, but he had the power to flex a wrist and rip spleens and livers and shit-filled guts out of someone else's flesh-ark."
He let his hands fall. He was breathing hard, the remnants of his chest heaving. "That's what interests me about medicine. Dropping a nuclear bomb on certain individuals interests me, too, but I'd never waste my time studying physics. Man Ray once said perfect art would kill an observer upon first glance. Damned near close to universal truth. Not bad for a photographer, and a kike. Delaware… that's not a kike name, is it?"
"No. And it's not wop or nigger or spic, either."
His mouth ticced and he laughed again, but it seemed obligatory.
"Look what we have here, a wit- at least by half. A fucking yuppie halfwit- you're the future, aren't you? Off-the-rack Gentleman's Farterly suits pretending to be bespoke. Politically correct careerism masquerading as moral duty- do you drive a Beemer? Or a Baby Benz? Either way, Hitler would be proud, though I don't imagine you've ever studied history. Do you know who Hitler was? Are you aware that he didn't drive a Buick? That Eichmann worked for Mercedes-Benz while hiding out in Argentina- do you know who the fuck Eichmann was?"
Remembering the white convertible out front, I said, "I drive American."
"How patriotic. Did you get it from Daddy?"
I didn't answer, thinking suddenly of my father, never able to afford a new car…
"Daddy's dead, isn't he? Was he a would-be doctor, too?"
"A machinist," I said.
"Tool and die- he tooled, then he died. Tut-tut. So you're a blue-collar hero. Shaky-kneed arriviste by way of the public school system. First in the family to go to college and all that, a Kiwanis club scholarship, no doubt. Mommy's so proud in her Formica prison- is she dead, too?"
I stood up and began walking to the door.
"Oh!" he bellowed after me. "Oh, I've offended him; five minutes and he's running off to puke in the bushes, the fortitude of a mayfly!"
I half turned my head and smiled at him. "Not at all, it's just boring. The shape you're in, you should know life's too short for small talk."
His face incandesced with rage. He waited until I'd opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
"Fuck you and fuck your charwoman mother on a Formica counter! Walk out, now, and you'll eat my shit in a soufflé before I give you my insights."
"Do you really have any?" I said, with my back to him.
"I know why the girl tried to kill herself."
I heard squeaks, turned, and saw him wheeling himself forward very slowly. He stopped and spun the chair, finally managing to turn his back on me. His hair hung in greasy strands. Either Nova wasn't much of a caretaker or he didn't allow her to groom him.
"Fix me a drink, Cubby, and maybe I'll share my wisdom with you. None of that single-malt swill you yuppie pricks go for- give me blended. Everything in life is blended; nothing stands on its own." Spinning again, he faced me. I thought he looked relieved that I was still there.
"What's yellow and red, yellow and red, yellow and red?" he said.
"What?" I said.
"Jap in a blender, hawf, hawf-and don't give me that look of outrage, you buttoned-down poot. I fought in the only war that counted and saw what those scrawny-dicked monkey-men are capable of. Did you know they used to peel the faces off the Allied prisoners? Marinate human hearts and kidneys in teriyaki sauce and barbecue them? There's your sushi bar for you. Truman dry-roasted the buck-toothed capuchins, only good thing that exophthalmic rag-pimp ever did. Stop standing there, gawking like a virgin sailor at wet pussy, and fix me a fine blended drink before I tire of you beyond the point of forgiveness!"
I went to the wet bar and found a bottle of Chivas, almost empty. As I poured, he said, "Know how to read?"
I had no intention of answering. But he didn't wait for a reply.
"Ever read anything I wrote?"
I named a few titles.
"Did you have to write term papers on them?"
"What grades did you get?"
"Then fuck you, you didn't understand a thing."
I brought him his drink. He drained it and held out his glass. I refilled it. He took longer with the second drink, staring at the whisky, sipping, lifting a leg, and passing gas with satisfaction. I thought of all he'd written about heroism and finally understood the word fiction.
He tossed the glass away. His throw was weak, and the tumbler landed near the wheel of his chair and rolled on the rug.
He said, "The girl tried to end it all because she's empty. No passion, no pain, no reason to keep going. So anything you do with her will be worthless. You might as well be psychoanalyzing a tadpole in order to prevent its froggy fate. I, on the other hand, have a surplus of passion. Spilling over, as it were." He made slurping sounds. "The only thing that can save her is getting to know me."
I tried not to laugh or scream. "Getting to know you will be her therapy."
"Not therapy, you limited gowk. Therapy is for moral anencephalics and hamstrung aerobi-geeks. I'm talking about salvation."
Leaning forward. "Tell her."
"I'll let her know," I said.
He laughed and raised the pitch of his voice. "Does she hate me?"
"I'm not free to talk about her feelings."
"La da la da la da la da. You claim you read Dark Horses. What was the point there?"
"The racetrack as a mini-world. The charac-"
"The point was that we all eat horseshit. Some dress it up with béarnaise sauce, some nibble, some hold their noses, some stick their faces right in it and wolf, but no one plays hooky. Best novel of the millennium. Flew out of me; my cock tingled every day I sat down at the typewriter."
He looked at the glass on the floor. "More."
I obliged him.
"Pulitzer capons thinking they were giving me something." He finished the whisky. "She hates me. I don't give a shit about her feelings. Hatred's a great motivator. I've always hated writing."