The fourth book in the Alex Delaware series, 1989
This one’s for Bob Elias.
If the rich could hire the poor to die for them, the poor would make a very nice living.
– Yiddish saying
Special thanks to
Steve Rubin, Beverly Lewis,
David Aftergood, and Al Katz
I’ve always hated parties and, under normal circumstances, never would have attended the one on Saturday.
But my life was a mess. I relaxed my standards. And stepped into a nightmare.
Thursday morning I was the good doctor, focusing on my patients, determined not to let my own garbage get in the way of work.
I kept my eye on the boy.
He hadn’t yet gotten to the part where he tore the heads off the dolls. I watched him pick up the toy cars again and advance them toward each other in inevitable collision.
The ringing concussion of metal against metal blocked out the whine of the video camera before dying. He tossed the cars aside as if they burned his fingers. One of them flipped over and rocked on its roof like a trapped turtle. He poked at it, then looked up at me, seeking permission.
I nodded and he snatched up the cars. Turning them over in his hands, he examined the shiny undercarriages, spun the wheels, simulated the sounds of revving engines.
“Voom voom. Cah.”
A little over two, big and husky for his age, with the kind of fluid coordination that foretold athletic heroism. Blond hair, pug features, raisin-colored eyes that made me think of snowmen, an amber splash of freckles across nose and chubby cheeks.
A Norman Rockwell kid: the kind of son any red-blooded American father would be proud of.
His father’s blood was a rusty stain on the central divider somewhere along the Ventura Freeway.
In six sessions, it was as close as he’d come to speaking. I wondered about it, wondered about a certain dullness in the eyes.
The second collision was sudden, harder. His concentration was intense. The dolls would come soon.
His mother looked up from her seat in the corner. For the past ten minutes she’d read the same page of a paperback entitled Will Yourself Successful! Any pretense of casualness was betrayed by her body language. She sat high and stiff in the chair, scratched her head, stretched her long dark hair as if it were yarn, and kept coiling and uncoiling it around her fingers. One of her feet tapped out a nonstop four-four beat, sending ripples that coursed upward through the soft flesh of a pale, unstockinged calf and disappeared under the hem of her sun dress.
The third crash made her wince. She lowered the book and looked at me, blinking hard. Just short of pretty- the kind of looks that flower in high school and fade fast. I smiled. She snapped her head down and returned to her book.
“Cah!” The boy grunted, took a car in each hand, smashed them together like cymbals, and let go upon impact. They careened across the carpet in opposite directions. Breathing hard, he toddled after them.
“Cah!” He picked them up and threw them down hard. “Voom! Cah!”
He went through the routine several more times, then abruptly flung the cars aside and began scanning the room with hungry, darting glances. Searching for the dolls, though I always left them in the same place.
A memory problem or just denial? At that age, all you could do was infer.
Which was what I’d told Mal Worthy when he’d described the case and asked for the consult.
“You’re not going to get hard proof.”
“Not even trying for it, Alex. Just give me something I can work with.”
“What about the mother?”
“As you’d expect, a mess.”
“Who’s working with her?”
“No one, for the moment, Alex. I tried to get her to see someone but she refused. In the meantime, just do your thing for Darren and if a little therapy for Mama takes place in the process, I won’t raise an objection. God knows she needs it- something like that happening to someone her age.”
“How’d you get involved in an injury case, anyway?”
“Second marriage. Father was my handyman. I handled the divorce as a favor. She was the other woman and remembered me with fondness. Actually, I used to do lots of P.I. in the beginning. Feels good to get back into it. So tell me, how do you feel about working with one this young?”
“I’ve had younger. How verbal is he?”
“If he talks I haven’t heard it. She claims before the accident he was putting a few words together, but I don’t get the impression they were saving up tuition for Cal Tech. If you could prove IQ loss, Alex, I could translate it into dollars.”
He laughed over the phone. “I know, I know, Mr.- excuse me, Dr. Conservative. Far be it from me to-”
“Good talking to you, Mal. Have the mother call me to set up an appointment.”
“- attempt to unduly influence an expert witness. However, while you’re analyzing the situation, you might consider imagining what it’s going to be like for her, raising a kid by herself, no training, no money. Living with those memories. I just got pictures of the crash- they almost made me lose my lunch. There are some deep pockets here, Alex, and they deserve being dipped into.”
“Dah!” He’d found the dolls. Three men, a woman, a little boy. Small, soft plastic and pink, with bland, guileless faces, anatomically correct bodies, and detachable limbs. Next to them another pair of cars, larger than the first two, one red, one blue. A miniature child’s car seat had been placed in the rear seat of the blue one.
I stood, adjusted the video camera so that it was trained on the table, then sat on the floor next to him.
He picked up the blue car and positioned the dolls using a familiar sequence: one man driving, another next to him, the woman behind the driver, the child in the car seat. The red car was empty. One male doll remained on the table.
He flapped his arms and tugged his nose. Holding the blue car at arm’s length, he looked away from it.
I patted his shoulder. “It’s all right, Darren.”
He inhaled, blew out air, picked up the red car and placed both vehicles on the floor, two feet apart, grille to grille. Taking another deep breath, he puffed up his cheeks and let out a scream, then smashed them together full force.
The male passenger and the woman flew out and landed on the carpet. The boy doll slumped in its harness, head down.
It was the driver doll that held his attention- lying across the front seat, its flight restrained by one foot caught in the steering wheel. Huffing, the boy struggled to pull it loose. Tugged and twisted, started to grunt with frustration, but finally managed to free it. He held it away from his body, examined its plastic face, and yanked its head off. Then he placed it next to the little boy.
I heard a gasp from across the room and turned. Denise Burkhalter ducked back behind her book.
Oblivious of her reaction, the boy dropped the headless body, picked up the female doll, hugged it, put it down. Then he returned to the male dolls- the decapitated driver and the front-seat passenger. Raising them over his head, he threw them against the wall, watched them hit, then fall.
He looked at the child slumped in the seat and picked up the head next to it. After rolling it under his palm, he tossed it aside.
He stepped toward the male doll that hadn’t been moved- the driver of the other car- took another step, froze, then backed away.
The room was silent except for the hum of the camera. A page turned. He stood still for several moments, then was overtaken by a burst of hyperactivity so fierce it electrified the room.
Giggling, he rocked back and forth, wrung his hands and waved them in the air, sputtering and spitting. He ran from one side of the room to the other, kicking book-shelves, chairs, the desk, scuffing the baseboards, clawing the walls and leaving little greasy smudges on the plaster. His laughter rose in pitch before giving way to a croupy bark followed by a rush of tears. Throwing himself to the floor, he thrashed for a while, then curled fetally and lay there, sucking his thumb.
His mother remained behind her book.
I went to him and scooped him up in my arms.
His body was tense and he was chewing hard on his thumb. I held him in my lap, told him everything was okay, he was a good boy. His eyes opened for an instant, then closed. Milk-sweet breath mingled with the not unpleasant odor of child sweat.
“Do you want to go to Mommy?”
She still hadn’t moved. I said, “Denise.” Nothing. I repeated her name.
She put the paperback in her purse, strung the purse over one shoulder, got up, and took him.
We left the library and walked toward the front of the house. By the time we reached the door he was sleeping. I held the door open. Cool air blew in. A gentle summer that kept threatening to heat up. From the distance came the sound of a motorized lawnmower.
“Any questions you want to ask me, Denise?”
“How’d he sleep this week?”
“Six or seven nightmares?”
“About. I didn’t count- do I still have to?”
“It would help to know what’s going on.”
“The legal part of the evaluation is over, Denise. I have enough information for Mr. Worthy. But Darren’s still struggling- totally normal for what he’s been through.”
“He’s come a long way,” I said, “but he hasn’t been able to act out the role of the… other driver yet. There’s plenty of fear and anger still in him. It would help him to express it. I’d like to see him some more.”
She looked at the ceiling.
“Those dolls,” she said.
“I know. It’s hard to watch.”
She bit her lip.
“But it’s helpful for Darren, Denise. We can try having you wait outside next time. He’s ready for it.”
She said, “It’s far, coming up here.”
“How long did it take you?”
“Hour and three quarters.”
Tujunga to Beverly Glen. A forty-minute freeway ride. If you could handle freeways.
“Surface streets jammed?”
“Uh huh. And you’ve got some curvy roads up here.”
“I know. Sometimes when-”
Suddenly she was backing away. “Why do you make yourself so hard to get to, living up here! If you want to help people, why do you make it so damned hard!”
I waited a moment before answering. “I know it’s been rough, Denise. If you’d rather meet in Mr. Worthy’s-”
“Oh, forget it!” And she was out the door.
I watched her carry her son across the deck and down the stairs. His weight caused her to waddle. Her ungainliness made me want to rush down and help her. Instead, I stood there and watched her struggle. She finally made it to the rental car, worked hard at opening the rear door with one hand. Bending low, she managed to get Darren’s limp body into the car seat. Slamming the door shut, she walked around to the driver’s side and threw open the front door.
Putting her key in the ignition, she lowered her head to the steering wheel and let it rest there. She sat that way for a while before turning on the engine.
Back in the library I turned off the video camera, removed the cassette, tagged it, and began my report, working slowly, with even greater precision than usual.
Trying to forestall the inevitable.
Several hours later the damned thing was finished; evicted from the helper role, I was, once again, someone who needed help. Numbness rolled over me, as inevitable as the tide.
I considered calling Robin, decided against it. Our last conversation had been anything but triumphant- tongue-biting civility finally sabotaged by depth charges of hurt and anger.
“… freedom, space- I thought we were past that.”
“Well, I never got past freedom, Alex.”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I really don’t.”
“I’m just trying to figure out what you want, Robin.”
“I’ve explained it over and over. What more can I say?”
“If it’s space you want, you’ve got two hundred miles of it between us. Feeling any more fulfilled?”
“Fulfillment’s not the issue.”
“Then what is?”
“Stop it, Alex. Please.”
“Stop what? Wanting to work this out?”
“Stop cross-examining me. You sound so hostile.”
“How am I supposed to sound, a week stretched to a month? Where’s the end point?”
“I… I wish I could answer that, Alex.”
“Terrific- the endless dangle. And what was my big sin? Getting too involved? Okay, I can change that. Believe me, I can be cool as ice. In training I learned how to detach. But if I pull away, ten to one I’ll be accused of male indifference.”
“Stop it, Alex! I was up all night with Aaron. I can’t handle this right now.”
“All your words. They’re coming at me like bullets.”
“How’re we supposed to work anything out without words?”
“We’re not going to work anything out right now, so let’s put it aside. Goodbye.”
“Say goodbye, Alex. Please. I don’t want to hang up on you.”
“Goodbye, Alex. I still love you.”
The shoemaker’s children go barefoot.
The shrink chokes on his words.
The low mood gathered strength and hit me full force.
Having someone to talk to would have helped. My list of confidants was damned short.
Robin at the top.
He was off with Rick, on a fishing trip in the Sierras. But even if his shoulder had been available I wouldn’t have cried on it.
Over the years, our friendship had taken on a certain rhythm: We talked about murder and madness over beer and pretzels, discussed the human condition with the aplomb of a pair of anthropologists observing a colony of savage baboons.
When the horrors piled up too high, Milo bitched and I listened. When he went off the wagon, I helped talk him back on it.
Sad-sack cop, supportive shrink. I wasn’t ready to reverse the roles.
A week’s worth of mail had piled up on the dining room table. I’d avoided opening it, dreading the superficial caresses of come-ons, coupons, and get-happy-quick schemes. But I needed, at that very moment, to keep my mind tethered to minutiae, free from the perils of introspection.
I carried the stack into the bedroom, pulled a wastebasket to the side of the bed, sat down, and began sorting. At the bottom of the pile was a buff-colored envelope. Heavy linen stock, a Holmby Hills return address, embossed silver script on the back flap.
Rich for my blood. An upscale sales pitch. I flipped the envelope over, expecting a computerized label, and saw my name and address printed in extravagant silver calligraphy. Someone had taken the time to do this one right.
I checked the postmark- ten days old. Opened the envelope and pulled out a buff-colored invitation card, silver-bordered, more calligraphy:
DEAR DOCTOR DELAWARE,
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO JOIN
DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI AND MEMBERS OF THE UNIVERSITY COMMUNITY AT A GARDEN PARTY AND COCKTAIL RECEPTION HONORING
DOCTOR PAUL PETER KRUSE,
BLALOCK PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY AND
UPON HIS APPOINTMENT AS
CHAIRMAN, THE DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY
SATURDAY, JUNE 13, 1987, FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON
LA MAR ROAD
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA 90077
RSVP, THE PSYCHOLOGY DEPARTMENT
Kruse as chairman. An endowed chair, the ultimate reward for exceptional scholarship.
It made no sense; the man was anything but a scholar. And though it had been years since I’d had anything to do with him, there was no reason to believe he’d changed and become a decent human being.
Back in those days, he’d been an advice columnist and a darling of the talk-show circuit, armed with the requisite Beverly Hills practice and a repertoire of truisms couched in pseudoscientific jargon.
His column had appeared monthly in a supermarket-rack “women’s” magazine- the kind of throwaway that prints articles on the latest miracle crash diet, closely followed by recipes for chocolate fudge cake, and combines exhortations to “be yourself” with sexual IQ tests designed to make anyone taking them feel inadequate.
Endowed professor. He’d made only the slimmest pretense of conducting research- something to do with human sexuality that never produced a shred of data.
But he hadn’t been expected to be academically productive, because he hadn’t been a member of the tenured faculty, just a clinical associate. One of scores of practitioners seeking academic cachet through association with the University.
Associates gave occasional lectures on their specialties- in Kruse’s case that had been hypnosis and a manipulative form of psychotherapy he called Communication Dynamics- and served as therapists and supervisors of the clinical-psych graduate students. A nifty symbiosis, it freed up the “real” professors for their grant applications and committee meetings while earning the associates parking permits, priority tickets to football games, and admission to the Faculty Club.
From that to Blalock Professor. Incredible.
I thought of the last time I’d seen Kruse- about two years ago. Chance passers-by on campus, we’d pretended not to notice each other.
He’d been walking toward the psych building, all custom tweeds, elbow patches, and fuming briar, a female student at each elbow. Letting loose with some profundity while copping fast feels.
I looked down at all that silver writing. Cocktails at four. Hail to the chief.
Probably something to do with a Holmby Hills connection, but still the appointment defied comprehension.
I checked the date of the party- two days from now- then reread the address at the bottom of the invitation.
Skylark. The very rich christened their houses as if they were offspring.
La Mar Road, no numbers. Translation: We own all of it, peasants.
I pictured the scene two days hence: fat cars, weak drinks, and numbing banter wafting across money-green lawns.
Not my idea of fun. I tossed the invitation in the trash and forgot about Kruse. Forgot about the old days.
But not for long.
I slept poorly and woke with the sun on Friday. With no patients scheduled, I dived into busywork: messengering the video of Darren to Mal, finishing other reports, paying and mailing bills, feeding the koi and netting debris out of their pond, cleaning the house until it sparkled. That took until noon and left the rest of the day open for wallowing in misery.
I had no appetite, tried running, couldn’t get the tightness out of my chest and gave up after a mile. Back home, I gulped a beer so quickly it made my diaphragm ache, followed it with another and took the six-pack into the bedroom. I sat in my underwear and watched images float across the TV screen. Soap operas: perfect-looking people suffering. Game shows: real-looking people regressing.
My mind wandered. I stared at the phone, reached out for the receiver. Pulled back.
The shoemaker’s children…
At first I’d thought the problem had something to do with business- with forsaking the world of high tech for the hand-cramping, poorly compensated life of an artisan.
A Tokyo music conglomerate had approached Robin about adapting several of her guitars into prototypes for mass production. She was to draw up the specifications; an army of computerized robots would do the rest.
They flew her first-class to Tokyo, put her up in a suite at the Okura Hotel, sushied and sake’d her, sent her home laden with exquisite gifts, sheaves of contracts printed on rice paper, and promises of a lucrative consultantship.
All that hard sell notwithstanding, she turned them down, never explaining why, though I suspected it had something to do with her roots. She’d grown up the only child of a mercilessly perfectionistic cabinetmaker who worshipped handwork, and an ex-showgirl who grew bitter playing Betty Crocker and worshipped nothing. A daddy’s girl, she used her hands to make sense of the world. Endured college until her father died, then eulogized him by dropping out and handcrafting furniture. Finally she found her perfect pitch as a luthier, shaping, carving, and inlaying custom guitars and mandolins.
We were lovers for two years before she agreed to live with me. Even then she held on to her Venice studio. After returning from Japan, she began escaping there more and more. When I asked her about it she said she had to catch up.
I accepted it. We’d never spent that much time together. Two headstrong people, we’d fought hard for independence, moving in different worlds, merging occasionally- sometimes it seemed randomly- in passionate collision.
But the collisions grew less and less frequent. She started spending nights at the studio, claiming fatigue, turning down my offers to pick her up and drive her home. I was keeping busy enough to avoid thinking about it.
I’d retired from child psychology at the age of thirty-three after overdosing on human misery, had lived comfortably off investments made in Southern California real estate. Eventually I began to miss clinical work, but continued to resist the entanglement of long-term psychotherapy. I dealt with it by limiting myself to forensic consultations referred by lawyers and judges- custody evaluations, trauma cases involving children, one recent criminal case that had taught me something about the genesis of madness.
Short-term work, with little or no follow-up. The surgical side of psych. But enough to make me feel like a healer.
A post-Easter lull left me with time on my hands- time spent alone. I began to realize how far Robin and I had drifted from each other, wondered if I’d missed something. Hoping for spontaneous cure, I waited for her to come around. When she didn’t, I cornered her.
She shrugged off my concerns, suddenly remembered something she’d forgotten at the studio and was gone. After that, I saw her even less. Phone calls to Venice triggered her answering machine. Drop-ins were maddeningly unsatisfying: Usually she was surrounded by sadeyed musicians cradling mangled instruments and singing one form of blues or the other. When I caught her alone she used the roar of saws and lathes, the hiss of the spray gun, to blot out discourse.
I gritted my teeth, backed off, told myself to be patient. Adapted by creating a heavy workload of my own. All during the spring, I evaluated, wrote reports, and testified like a demon. Lunched with lawyers, got stuck in traffic jams. Made lots of money and had no one to spend it on.
As summer neared, Robin and I had become polite strangers. Something had to give. Early in May, it did.
A Sunday morning, rich with hope. She’d come home late Saturday afternoon to retrieve some old sketches, had ended up spending the night, making love to me with a workmanlike determination that scared me but was better than nothing.
When I woke, I reached across the bed to touch her, felt only percale. Sounds filtered from the living room. I jumped out of bed, found her dressed, handbag over one shoulder, heading for the door.
“What’s the rush?”
“Lots of things to do.”
“Sunday, Monday, it doesn’t matter.” She put her hand on the doorknob. “I made juice- there’s a pitcher in the fridge.”
I walked over to her, put my hand on her wrist.
“Stay just a little longer.”
She eased away. “I really have to go.”
“Come on, take a breather.”
“I don’t need a breather, Alex.”
“At least stay for a while and let’s talk.”
“There’s nothing to talk about.”
Her apathy was forced, but it pushed my button anyway. Months of frustration were compressed into a few moments of blazing soliloquy:
She was selfish. Self-obsessed. How did she think it felt to live with a hermit? What had I done to deserve this kind of treatment?
Then a laundry list of my virtues, of every lofty service I’d performed for her since the day we’d met.
When I was through she put down her bag and took a seat on the couch. “You’re right. We do need to talk.”
She stared out the window.
I said, “I’m listening.”
“I’m trying to collect my thoughts. Words are your business, Alex. I can’t compete with you on that level.”
“No one needs to compete with anyone. Just talk to me. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know how to put this without being hurtful.”
“Don’t worry about that. Just let it out.”
“Whatever you say, doctor.” Then: “Sorry, this is just very hard.”
She clenched her hands, unflexed them and spread them out. “Look around this room- the furniture, the artwork- everything exactly the way it was the first time I saw it. Picture-perfect-your perfect taste. For five years, I’ve been a boarder.”
“How can you say that? This is your home.”
She started to reply, shook her head and turned away.
I stepped into her line of vision, pointed to the ash-burl trestle table in the dining room. “The only furniture that means anything to me is that. Because you built it.”
“Say the word and I’ll chop everything to matchsticks, Robin. We’ll start from scratch. Together.”
She put her face in her hands, sat that way for a while, and finally looked up, wet-eyed. “This isn’t about interior decorating, Alex.”
“What is it about?”
“You. The kind of person you are. Overwhelming. Over-powering. It’s about the fact that you’ve never thought to ask if I wanted anything different- if I had ideas of my own.”
“I never thought that kind of thing mattered to you.”
“I never hinted that it did- it’s me, too, Alex. Accepting, going along, fitting into your preconceived notions. Meanwhile, I’ve been living a lie- viewing myself as strong, self-sufficient.”
“You are strong.”
She laughed without joy. “That was Daddy’s line: You are strong girl, beautiful strong girl. He used to get mad at me when my confidence lagged, yelled at me and told me over and over that I was different from the other girls. Stronger than them. To him, strong meant using your hands, creating. When the other girls were playing with Barbies, I was learning how to load a band saw. Sanding my knuckles to the bone. Constructing a perfect miter joint. Being strong. For years I bought into it. Now here I am, finally taking a good look in the mirror, and all I see is another weak woman living off a man.”
“Did the Tokyo deal have anything to do with this?”
“The Tokyo deal made me stop and think about what I wanted out of life, made me realize how far I was from it- how beholden I’ve always been to someone.”
“Babe, I never meant to hem you in-”
“That’s the problem! I’m a babe- a damn baby! Helpless and ready to be fixed by Doctor Alex!”
“I don’t view you as a patient,” I said, “I love you, for God’s sake.”
“Love,” she said. “Whatever the hell that means.”
“I know what it means to me.”
“Then you’re just a better person than I am, okay? Which is the crux of the problem, isn’t it! Doctor Perfect. Ph.D. problem-solver. Looks, brains, charm, money, all those patients who think you’re God.”
She got up, walked the floor. “Dammit, Alex, when I first met you, you had problems- the burnout, all those self-doubts. You were a mortal and I could care for you. I helped you through that, Alex. I was one of the main reasons you pulled out of it, I know I was.”
“You were, and I still need you.”
She smiled. “No. Now you’re fixed, my darling. Perfectly tuned. And there’s nothing left for me to do.”
“That’s crazy. I’ve been miserable not seeing you.”
“Temporary reaction,” she said. “You’ll cope.”
“You must think I’m pretty shallow.”
She walked some more, shook her head. “God, I’m listening to myself and realizing it all comes down to jealousy, doesn’t it? Stupid, childish jealousy. The same way I used to feel about the popular girls. But I can’t help it- you’ve got it all together. Everything organized into a neat little routine: run your three miles, take a shower, work a little, cash your checks, play your guitar, read your journals. Fuck me until we both come, then fall asleep, grinning. You buy tickets to Hawaii, we take a vacation. Show up with a picnic basket, we take lunch. It’s an assembly line, Alex, with you pushing the buttons, and one thing Tokyo taught me was that I don’t want an assembly line. The crazy thing is, it’s a great life. If I let you, you’d take care of me forever, make my life one perfect, sugar-coated dream. I know lots of women would kill for something like that, but it’s not what I need.”
Our eyes met. I felt stung, turned away.
“Oh, God,” she said, “I’m hurting you. I just hate this.”
“I’m fine. Just go on.”
“That’s all of it, Alex. You’re a wonderful man, but living with you has started to scare me. I’m in danger of disappearing. You’ve been hinting about marriage. If we married, I’d lose even more of my self. Our children would come to see me as someone dull and unstimulating and bitter. Meanwhile, Daddy would be out in the wide world performing heroics. I need time, Alex- breathing space. To sort things out.”
She moved toward the door. “I have to go now. Please.”
“Take all the time you need,” I said. “All the space. Just don’t cut me off.”
She stood trembling in the doorway. Ran to me, kissed my forehead, and was gone.
Two days later I came home and found a note on the ash-burl table:
Gone up to San Luis. Cousin Terry had a baby. Going to help her, be back in about a week.
Don’t hate me.
One of the cases I’d just finished working on involved a five-year-old girl as the hostage in a vicious custody battle between a Hollywood producer and his fourth wife.
For two years the parents, encouraged to wage war by lawyers on retainer, had been unable to reach a settlement. Finally the judge got disgusted and asked me to come up with recommendations. I evaluated the girl and asked that another psychologist be appointed to examine the parents.
The consultant I recommended was a former classmate named Larry Daschoff, a sharp diagnostician whose ethics I respected. Larry and I had remained amicable over the years, trading referrals, getting together occasionally for lunch or handball. But as a friend he fell in the casual category and I was surprised when he called me at 10:00 P.M. on Friday.
“Dr. D.? It’s Dr. D.,” he shouted, cheerful as usual. A hurricane of noise roared in the background- squealing tires and gunshots from a blaring TV competing with what sounded like a schoolyard during recess.
“Hi, Larry. What’s up?”
“What’s up is Brenda is at the law library cramming for her torts course and I’ve got all five monsters to myself.”
“The joys of parenthood.”
“Oh, yeah.” The noise level rose. A small voice whined, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
“One second, Alex.” He put his hand over the phone and I heard him say, “Wait till I’m off the phone. No, not now. Wait. If he bothers you, just stay away from him. Not now, Jeremy, I don’t want to hear it. I’m talking on the phone, Jeremy. If you don’t cool it, it’s no Cocoa Puffs and twenty minutes off your bedtime!”
He came back on the line. “I’ve become an instant fan of aversion therapy, D. Fuck Anna Freud and Bruno Bettelheim. Both of them probably locked themselves in their studies to write their books while someone else raised their kids. Did old Anna even have kids? I think she stayed married to Daddy. Anyway, first thing Monday I’m sending away for half a dozen cattle prods. One for each of them and one to shove up my own ass for encouraging Brenda to go back to school. If Robin ever comes up with a creative idea like that, change the subject fast.”
“I’ll be sure to do that, Larry.”
“You okay, D.?”
“Just a little tired.”
He was too good a therapist not to know I was holding back. Too good, also, to pursue the issue.
“Anyway, D., I read your report on the Featherbaugh mess and concur in every respect. With parents like these, what would really benefit the kid would be orphanhood. Barring that, I agree that some half-assed joint custody arrangement’s probably the least terrible way to go. Want to take bets on the chances of its working out?”
“Only if I can wager on the down side.”
“No way.” He excused himself again, yelled for someone to turn down the TV. No compliance followed. “People are really fucked up, aren’t they, D.? How’s that for a major insight after thirteen years as a mind prober? Nobody wants to work at anything anymore- God knows I’m no day at the beach and neither is Brenda. If we can stick it out all these years, anyone should be able to.”
“I always thought of you two as the perfect couple.”
“One born every moment.” He chuckled. “We’re talking Italian marriage- mucho passione, mucho screamo. Bottom line, she puts up with me because of my erotic prowess.”
“That so?” he mimicked. “D., that was pretty damn shrinky sounding, not up to your usual level of sparkling repartee. Sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“If you say so. Anyway, on to my main reason for calling. Get the invite to Kruse’s big bash?”
“It’s gracing the bottom of my wastebasket- that sparkling enough?”
“Not by a long shot. Not planning on going?”
“You’ve got to be kidding, Larry.”
“I don’t know. It could be fun in a mondo bizarro kind of way- see how the other half lives, stand on the sidelines making nasty analytic comments while suppressing our bourgeois envy.”
I remembered something. “Larry, weren’t you Kruse’s research assistant for a while?”
“Not for a while, D. Just one semester- and yes, I’m being defensive. The guy was a sleaze. My excuse is that I was broke- just married, slaving over the dissertation, and my NIMH stipend ran out mid-semester.”
“C’mon, fess up, Larry. It was a plum job. You guys sat around all day watching dirty movies.”
“Not fair, Delaware. We were exploring the frontiers of human sexuality.” He laughed. “Actually, we sat around all day and watched undergraduates watch dirty movies. Oh, for those licentious seventies- could you see getting away with that today?”
“A tragic loss to science.”
“Catastrophic. Truth be told, D., it was total bullshit. Kruse got away with it because he’d brought in money- a private grant- to study the effects of pornography on sexual arousal.”
“Did he come up with anything?”
“Major data: fuck films make college sophomores horny.”
“I knew that when I was a sophomore.”
“You were a late bloomer, D.”
“Did he publish?”
“Where? Penthouse? Nah, he used the results to go on talk shows and cheerlead for porn as a healthy sexual outlet, et cetera, et cetera. Then, in the ‘uptight eighties,’ he made a complete about-face- supposedly, he’d ‘reanalyzed’ his data. Started giving speeches about porn promoting violence against women.”
“Lots of integrity, our new department head.”
“How’d he climb this high, Larry? He used to be parttime help.”
“Part-time help with full-time connections.”
“The name on the endowment- Blalock?”
“You got it. Old moolah- steel, railroads- one of those families that gets a penny every time someone west of the Mississippi breathes.”
“What’s Kruse’s connection?”
“Way I hear it, Mrs. Blalock had a kid with problems, Kruse was the kid’s therapist. Must have made it all better because Mommy’s been pouring money into the department for years- on condition that Kruse administer it. He’s been promoted, given everything he wants. His latest want is to be department head, so, voila, party time.”
“Tenure for sale,” I said. “I didn’t know things had gotten that bad.”
“That bad and worse, Alex. I still give those lectures in family therapy, so I’m involved enough in the department to know that the financial situation sucks. Remember how they used to push pure research at us, look down their noses at anything even remotely applied? How Ratman Frazier used to keep telling us relevant was a dirty word? It finally caught up with them. Nobody wants to fund grants to study the eyeblink reflex in decorticate lobsters. On top of that, undergraduate enrollment’s way down- psych’s not a hip major anymore. Nowadays everyone, including my oldest, wants to be a business major, inside-trade their way to health and happiness. Which means budget cuts, layoffs, empty classrooms. They’ve had a hiring freeze for nineteen months- even the full profs have got their noses to the floor. Kruse brings in Blalock money, he can eat tenure for breakfast. In the words of my oldest: Money talks, Dad. Bullshit walks. Hell, even Frazier’s jumped on the bandwagon. Last I heard he was into mail-order, marketing stop-smoking tapes.”
“I kid you not.”
“What does Frazier know about how to quit smoking? About anything human?”
“Since when is that important? Anyway, that’s the situation. Now, about Saturday. I managed to farm out all five cupcakes for three hours tomorrow. I could use the time to pump iron, watch the game, or do something else comparably thrilling, but the idea of getting all spiffed up and saturating myself with free drinks and haute-cuisine munchies at some Holmby Hills pleasure dome didn’t sound half bad.”
“The drinks are bound to be lousy, Larry.”
“Better than what I’m drinking now. Diluted apple juice. Looks like piss. It’s all that’s left in the house- I forgot to go shopping. I’ve been shoveling sugared cereal into the kids for two days.” He sighed. “I’m a trapped man, D. We’re talking terminal cabin fever. Come to the damned party and trade cynical barbs with me for a couple of hours. I’ll R-S-Veep for both of us. Bring Robin, parade her around, and let the rich farts know money can’t buy everything.”
“Robin can’t make it. Out of town.”
“Listen, D., if you’re tied up, I understand.”
I thought about it for a moment, considered another lonely day and said, “No, I’m free, Larry.”
And set the gears in motion.
Holmby Hills is the highest-priced spread in L.A., a tiny pocket of mega-affluence sandwiched between Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Financially, light-years from my neighborhood, but only about a mile or so due south.
My map put La Mar Road in the heart of the district, a winding bit of dead-end filament terminating in the rolling hills that overlook the L.A. Country Club. Not far from the Playboy Mansion, but I didn’t imagine Hef had been invited to this bash.
At four-fifteen I put on a lightweight suit and set out on foot. Traffic was heavy on Sunset- surfers and sun-worshippers returning from the beach, gawkers headed east clutching maps to the stars’ homes. Fifty yards into Holmby Hills everything went hushed and pastoral.
The properties were immense, the houses concealed behind high walls and security gates and backed by small forests. Only the merest outline of slate gable or Spanish tile tower floating above the greenery suggested habitation. That, and the phlegmy rumble of unseen attack dogs.
La Mar appeared around a bend, an uphill strip of single-lane asphalt nicked into a wall of fifty-foot eucalyptus. In lieu of a city street sign, a varnished slab of pine had been nailed to one of the trees above the emblems of three security companies and the red-and-white badge of the Bel Air Patrol. Rustic lettering burned into the slab spelled out LA MAR. PRIVATE. NO OUTLET. Easy to miss at forty miles per, though a blue Rolls-Royce Corniche sped past me and hooked onto it without hesitation.
I followed the Rolls’s exhaust trail. Twenty feet in, twin fieldstone gateposts tacked with another PRIVATE ROAD warning fed into eight-foot stone walls topped with three feet of gold-finialed wrought iron. The iron was laced with alternating twenty-foot sections of vines- English ivy, passion fruit, honeysuckle, wisteria. Controlled profusion masquerading as something natural.
Beyond the walls was a gray-green canvas- more five-story eucalyptus. A quarter-mile later the foliage got even thicker, the road darker and cooler. Mounds of moss and lichen patched the fieldstone. The air smelled wet and menthol-clean. A bird chirped timidly, then abandoned its song.
The road curved, straightened, and revealed its end point: a towering stone arch sealed by wrought-iron gates. Scores of cars were lined up, a double file of chrome and lacquer.
As I got closer I could see that the division was purposeful: sparkling luxury cars in one queue; compacts, station wagons, and similar plebeian transport in the other. Heading the dream-mobiles was a spotless white Mercedes coupe, one of those custom jobs with a souped-up engine, bumper guards and spoilers, gold-plating- and a vanity plate that said PPK PHD.
Red-jacketed valets hopped around newly arrived vehicles like fleas on a summer pelt, throwing open car doors and pocketing keys. I made my way to the gate and found it locked. Off to one side was a speaker box on a post. Next to the speaker were a punch-pad, keyslot, and phone.
One of the red-jackets saw me, held out his palm, and said, “Keys.”
“No keys. I walked.”
His eyes narrowed. In his hand was an oversized iron key chained to a rectangle of varnished wood. On the wood was burnt lettering: FR. GATE.
“We park,” he insisted. He was dark, thick, round-faced, fuzzy-bearded, and spoke in a Mediterranean accent. His palm wavered.
“No car,” I said. “I walked.” When his face stayed blank, I pantomimed walking with my fingers.
He turned to another valet, a short, skinny black kid, and whispered something. Both of them stared at me.
I looked up at the top of the gate, saw gold letters: SKYLARK.
“This is Mrs. Blalock’s home, right?”
“The University party? Dr. Kruse?”
The bearded one shrugged and trotted over to a pearl-gray Cadillac. The black kid stepped forward. “Got an invitation, sir?”
“No. Is one necessary?”
“We-ell.” He smiled, seemed to be thinking hard. “You’all got no car, you’all got no invitation.”
“I didn’t know it was necessary to bring either.”
He clucked his tongue.
“Is a car necessary for collateral?” I asked.
The smile disappeared. “You’all walked?”
“Where d’you’all live?”
“Not far from here.”
“Invited guest. My name is Alex Delaware. Dr. Delaware.”
“One minute.” He walked to the box, picked up the telephone, and spoke. Replacing the receiver, he said “One minute.” again, and ran to open the doors of a white stretch Lincoln.
I waited, looked around. Something brown and familiar caught my eye: a truly pathetic vehicle pushed to the side of the road, away from the others. Quarantined.
Easy to see why: a scabrous Chevy station wagon of senile vintage, rust-pocked and clotted with lumpy patches of primer. Its tires needed air; its rear compartment was crammed with rolled clothing, shoes, cardboard cartons, fast-food containers, and crumpled paper cups. On the tailgate window was a yellow, diamond-shaped sticker: MUTANTS ON BOARD.
I smiled, then noticed that the clunker had been positioned in a way that prevented exit. A score of cars would have to be moved in order to free it.
A fashionably thin middle-aged coupled climbed out of the white Lincoln and were escorted to the gate by the bearded valet. He put the oversized key in the slot, punched a code, and one iron door swung open. Slipping through, I followed the couple onto a sloping drive paved with black bricks shaped like fish scales. As I walked past him, the valet said, “Hey,” but without enthusiasm, and made no effort to stop me.
When the gate had closed after him, I pointed to the Chevy and said, “That brown station wagon- let me tell you something about it.”
He came up next to the wrought iron. “Yes? What?”
“That car is owned by the richest guy at this party. Treat it well- he’s been known to give huge tips.”
He swiveled his head and stared at the station wagon. I began walking. When I looked back he was playing musical cars, creating a clearing around the Chevy.
A hundred yards past the gate the eucalyptus gave way to open skies above a golf course-quality lawn trimmed to stubble. The grass was flanked by ramrod columns of barbered Italian cypress and beds of perennials. The outer reaches of the grounds had been bulldozed into hillocks and valleys. The highest of the mounds were at the farthest reaches of the property, capped by solitary black pines and California junipers pruned to look windswept.
The fish-scale drive humped. From over the crest came the sound of music- a string section playing something baroque. As I neared the top I saw a tall old man dressed in butler’s livery walking toward me.
“Dr. Delaware, sir?” His accent fell somewhere between London and Boston; his features were soft, generous, and pouchy. His loose skin was the color of canned salmon. Tufts of cornsilk circled a sun-browned dome. A white carnation graced his buttonhole.
Jeeves, out of central casting.
“I’m Ramey, Dr. Delaware, just coming to get you, sir. Please forgive the inconvenience, sir.”
“No problem. I guess the valets aren’t equipped to deal with pedestrians.”
We stepped over the crest. My eye was drawn toward the horizon. Toward a dozen peaks of green copper tile roof, three stories of white stucco and green shutters, columned porticoes, balustered balconies and verandas, arched doors and fanlight windows. A monumental wedding cake surrounded by acres of green icing.
Formal gardens fronted the mansion: gravel paths, more cypress, a maze of boxwood hedges, limestone fountains, reflecting pools, hundreds of beds of roses so bright they seemed fluorescent. Partygoers clutching long-stemmed glasses strolled the paths and admired the plantings. Admired themselves in the mirrored water of the pools.
The butler and I walked in silence, kicking up gravel. The sun beat down, thick and warm as melting butter. In the shadow of the tallest fountain sat a Philharmonic-sized group of grim, formally dressed musicians. Their conductor, a young, long-haired Asian, lifted his baton, and the players broke into dutiful Bach.
The strings were augmented by tinkling glass and a ground bass of conversation. To the left of the gardens a huge flagstone patio was filled with round white tables shaded by yellow canvas umbrellas. On each table was a centerpiece of tiger lilies, purple irises, and white carnations. A yellow-and-white-striped tent, large enough to house a circus, sheltered a long white-lacquered bar manned by a dozen elbow-greased bartenders. Three hundred or so people sat at the tables and drank. Half that amount crowded the bar. Waiters circulated with trays of drinks and canapés.
“Yes, sir. Can I get you a drink, sir?”
“Soda water would be fine.”
“Excuse me, sir.” Ramey widened his stride, walked ahead of me, disappeared into the bar throng, and emerged moments later with a frosty glass and a yellow linen napkin. He handed them to me just as I reached the patio.
“Here you are, sir. Sorry again for the inconvenience.”
“No problem. Thanks.”
“Would you care for anything to eat, sir?”
“Nothing right now.”
He gave a small bow and walked off. I stood alone, sipping my soda, scanning the crowd for a friendly face.
The crowd, it soon became obvious, was divided into two discrete groups, a sociologic split that echoed the double-filed cars.
Center stage was dominated by the big rich, an assemblage of swans. Deeply tan and loose-limbed in conservative haute couture, they greeted each other with cheek-pecks, laughed softly and discreetly, drank steadily and not so discreetly, and made no notice of the ethnically diverse bunch sitting off to the side.
The University people were the magpies, intense, watchful, brimming with nervous chatter. They’d congregated, reflexively, into tight little cliques, talking behind their hands while darting their eyes. Some were conspicuously sleek-in off-the-rack suits and special-occasion party dresses; others had made a point of dressing down. A few still gaped at their surroundings, but most were content to observe the rituals of the swans with a mixture of raw hunger and analytic contempt.
I’d finished half my soda when a ripple spread through the patio- through both camps. Paul Kruse appeared in its wake, weaving his way adroitly through Town and Gown. A small, lovely-looking silver-blond woman in a strapless black dress and three-inch heels hung on his arm. She was in her early thirties but wore her hair like a prom queen- ruler-straight down to her waist, the ends puffed and curled extravagantly. The dress clung to her like a coat of pitch. Around her neck was a diamond choker. She kept her eyes fastened on Kruse as he grinned and worked his audience.
I took a good look at the new department chairman. By now he had to be close to sixty, fighting entropy with chemistry and good posture. His hair was still long, a dubious shade of corn-yellow and cut new-wave surfer-style, with a flap over one eye. Once, he’d resembled a male model, with the kind of coarse handsomeness that photographs well but loses something in the translation to reality. And his good looks were still in evidence. But his features had fallen; the jawline seemed weaker, the ruggedness dissolved into something mushy and vaguely dissolute. His tan was so deep he looked overbaked. It put him in sync with the moneyed crowd, as did his custom-tailored suit. The suit was featherweight but conspicuously tweedy and arm-patched- an almost snotty concession to academia. I watched him flash a mouthful of white caps, shake the hands of the men, kiss the ladies, and move on to the next set of well-wishers.
“Smooth, huh?” said a voice at my back.
I turned around, looked down on two hundred pounds of broken-nosed, bushy-mustached square meal packed into five feet five inches of round can, wrapped in a brown plaid suit, pink shirt, black knit tie, and scuffed brown penny loafers.
“Hello, Larry.” I started to extend my hand, then saw that both of his were occupied: a glass of beer in the left, a plate of chicken wings, egg rolls, and partially gnawed rib bones in the right.
“I was over by the roses,” said Daschoff, “trying to figure out how they get them to flower like that. Probably fertilize them with old dollar bills.” He raised his eyebrows and tilted his head toward the mansion. “Nice little cottage.”
He eyed the conductor. “That’s Narahara, the wunderkind. God knows what he cost.”
He lifted the mug to his mouth and drank. A fringe of foam coated the bottom half of his mustache.
“Budweiser,” he said. “I expected something more exotic. But at least it’s full strength.”
We sat down at an empty table. Larry crossed his legs with effort and took another, deeper swallow of beer. The movement inflated his chest and strained the buttons of his jacket. He unbuttoned it and sat back. A beeper was clipped to his belt.
Larry is almost as wide as he is tall and he waddles; the reasonable assumption is obesity. But in swim trunks he’s as firm as a frozen side of beef- a curious mixture of hypertrophied muscle marbled with suet, the only guy under six feet to have played defensive tackle for the University of Arizona. One time, back in grad school, I watched him bench-press twice his weight at the university gym without breathing hard, then top it off with one-handed push-ups.
He ran blunt fingers through steel-wool hair, wiped his mustache, and watched as Kruse charmed his way through the crowd. The new department head’s route took him closer to our table- near enough to observe the mechanics of small talk but too far to hear what was being said. It was like watching a mime show. Something entitled Party Games.
“Your mentor’s in fine form,” I said.
Larry swallowed more beer and held out his hands. “I told you I was dead busted, D. Would have worked for the devil himself- a bargain-basement Faust.”
“No need to explain, doctor.”
“Why not? It still bugs me, being a party to bullshit.” More beer. “Entire semester a waste. Kruse and I had virtually nothing to do with each other- I doubt if we spoke ten sentences the entire time. I didn’t like him because I thought he was shallow and a phony. And he resented me ’cause I was male- all his other assistants were women.”
“Then why’d he hire you?”
“Because his research subjects were males and they were unlikely to relax watching dirty movies with a bunch of women around taking notes. Not likely to answer the kinds of questions he was asking, either- how often they jerked off, their most frequent masturbation fantasies. Did they do it in public toilets? How often and who they fucked, how long it took them to come. What was their deep-seated primal attitude toward liver in a can.”
“Frontiers of human sexuality,” I said.
He shook his head. “Sad thing is, it could have been valuable. Look at all the clinical data Masters and Johnson came up with. But Kruse wasn’t serious about collecting data. It was as if he was going through the motions.”
“Didn’t the granting agency care?”
“No agency. These were private suckers- rich porn freaks. He promised to make them respectable, put the academic imprimatur on their hobby.”
I turned and looked at Kruse. The blonde in the black dress was teetering on spiked heels.
“Who’s the woman with him?”
“Mrs. K. You don’t remember? Suzanne?”
I shook my head.
“Suzy Straddle? The talk of the department?”
“I must have slept through it.”
“You must have been comatose, D. She was a campus celebrity. Former porn actress, got her nickname for being… limber. Kruse met her at some Hollywood party while doing ‘research.’ She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen. He left his second wife for her… or maybe it was the third- who keeps track? Got her enrolled in the university as an English major. I think she lasted three weeks. Ring a bell yet?”
I shook my head. “When was this?”
“In ’74 I was up in San Francisco- at Langley Porter.”
“Oh, yeah, you double-shifted- internship and dissertation same year. Well, D., your precociousness may have dumped you in the job market one year sooner than the rest of us, but you missed out on Suzy. She was really supposed to be something. I actually worked with her- for a week. Kruse assigned her to the study, doing secretarial work. She couldn’t type, screwed up the files. Sweet kid, actually. But somewhat basic.”
The honoree and spouse had come closer. Suzanne Kruse tagged along after her husband as if bolted to a track. She looked fragile, with bony shoulders, a tight-corded neck bisected by a diamond choker, nearly flat chest, hollow cheeks, and sharply pointed chin. Her arms were shapely but sinewy, bony hands ending in long, spindly fingers. Her nails were long and red-lacquered. They clutched her husband’s sleeve, digging into the tweed.
“Must be true love,” I said. “He stuck with her all these years.”
“Don’t bet that it’s wholesome monogamy. Kruse’s got a rep as a major-league pussy hound and Suzy’s known to be tolerant.” He cleared his throat. “Submissive.”
He nodded. “Remember those parties Kruse used to throw at his place in Mandeville Canyon the first year he joined the faculty? Oh, yeah, you were in Frisco.” He stopped, ate an egg roll and ruminated. “Wait, I think they were still going on in ’75. You were back by ’75, right?”
“Graduated,” I said. “Working at the hospital. I met him once. We didn’t like each other. He wouldn’t have invited me.”
“No one was invited, Alex. These were open houses. In every sense of the word.”
He chucked me under the chin. “You probably wouldn’t have gone, anyway, because you were a good boy, so serious. Actually, I never got further than the door, myself. Brenda took one look at them coating the floor with Wesson oil and hauled my ass out of there. But people who went said they were plus-four orgies, if you could stand fucking other shrinks. Oh! Calcutta! meets B. F. Skinner- what a scary idea, huh? And Suzy Straddle was one of the main attractions- tied up, harnessed, muzzled, and flogged.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Campus gossip. Everyone knew- it was no secret. Back then, no one thought it was all that weird. Pre-microbe days- sexual freedom, liberating the id, expanding the boundaries of consciousness, et cetera. Even the radical libbers in our class thought Kruse was on the cutting edge of something meaningful. Or maybe it just got their rocks off being dominant. Either way, it was philosophically acceptable to flog Suzy because she was fulfilling some need of her own.”
“Kruse do the flogging?”
“Everyone did. It was a real gang scene- she was an equal-opportunity floggee. There, look at her, how she’s holding on to him for dear life. Doesn’t she seem submissive? Probably a passive-dependent personality, perfect symbiotic fit for a power junkie like Kruse.”
To me she looked scared. Adhering to her husband, but staying in the background. I watched her step forward and smile when spoken to, then retreat. Tossing her long hair, checking her nails. Her smile was as flat as a decal, her dark eyes unnaturally bright.
She moved so that the sun hit the diamond choker and threw off sparks. I thought of a dog collar.
Kruse turned abruptly to take someone’s hand and his wife was caught off balance. Throwing her arm out for support, she took hold of his sleeve and held on tighter, wrapping herself around him. He continued to knead her bare shoulder, but for all the attention he paid to her, she might have been a sweater.
Love. Whatever the hell that means.
“Low self-esteem,” said Larry. “You’d have to be down on yourself to fuck on film.”
He drained his mug. “Going for a refill. Can I get you something?”
I held up my half-full soda glass. “Still working on this.”
He shrugged and went to the bar.
The Kruses had circled away from our table toward one filled with magpies. A fizz of small talk; then he laughed, a deep, self-satisfied sound. He said something to a male graduate student, pumped the student’s hand while running his eyes over the young man’s pretty wife. Suzanne Kruse kept smiling.
Larry returned. “So,” he said, settling, “how’s it going with you?”
“Yeah, me too. That’s why we’re here without our women, right?”
I sipped soda and gazed at him. He maintained eye contact but busied himself with a chicken wing.
The therapist’s look. Gravid with concern.
Genuine concern, but I wanted no part of it. Suddenly I felt like bolting. A quick jog back to the big stone arch, farewell to Gatsbyland.
Instead, I dipped into my own bag of shrink-moves. Parried a question with a question.
“How’s Brenda doing in law school?”
He knew full well what was going on, answered anyway. “Top ten percent of the class for the second year in a row.”
“You must be proud of her.”
“Sure. Except there’s another entire year to go. Check me same time next year and see if I’m still functioning.”
I nodded. “I’ve heard it’s a rotten process.”
His grin lost its warmth. “Anything that produces lawyers would have to be, wouldn’t it? Like turning sirloin into shit. My favorite part is when she comes home and cross-examines me about the house and the kids.”
He wiped his mouth and leaned in close. “One part of me understands it- she’s bright, brighter than I am, I always expected her to go for something other than housework. She was the one who said no, her own mother had worked full time, farmed her out to babysitters, she resented it. She got pregnant on our honeymoon, nine months later we had Steven, then the rest of them, like aftershocks. Now, all of a sudden, she needs to find herself. Clara Darrow.”
He shook his head. “The problem is the timing. Here I am, finally getting to a point where I don’t have to hustle referrals. The associates are reliable, the practice is basically running itself. The baby starts first grade next year, we could take some time off, travel. Instead, she’s gone twenty hours a day while I play Mr. Mom.”
He scowled. “Be careful, my friend- though with Robin it’ll probably be different, she’s already had her career, might be ready to settle down.”
I said, “Robin and I are separated.”
He stared at me, shook his head, again. Rubbed his chin and sighed. “Shit, I’m sorry. How long’s it been?”
“Five weeks. Temporary vacation that just seemed to stretch.”
He drained his beer. “I’m really sorry. I always thought you guys were the perfect couple.”
“I thought so, too, Larry.” My throat got tight and my chest burned. I was certain that everyone was looking at me, though when I looked around, no one was. Just Larry, eyes as soft as a spaniel’s.
“Hope it works out,” he said.
I stared into my glass. The ice had melted to slush. “Think I will have something stronger.”
I elbowed my way through the crush at the bar and ordered a double gin and tonic that fell just short of single strength. On the way back to the table I came face to face with Kruse. He looked at me. His eyes were light-brown flecked with green, the irises unusually large. They widened- with recognition I was certain- then flicked away and focused somewhere over my shoulder. Simultaneously, he shot out his hand, grasped mine firmly, covered it with his other, and moved our arms up and down while exclaiming, “So nice you could come!” Before I had a chance to reply, he’d used the handshake as leverage to propel himself past me, spinning me halfway around before relinquishing his grip and moving on.
Politician’s hustle. I’d been expertly manipulated.
I turned, saw his tailored back retreating, followed by the shimmering silver sheet of his wife’s hair swaying in counterpoint to her narrow, tight derrière.
The two of them walked several steps before being taken in hand by a tall, handsome middle-aged woman.
Slim and impeccably assembled in a custard-yellow silk cocktail dress, white rose corsage, and strategically placed diamonds, she could have been any President’s First Lady. Her hair was chestnut accented with pewter, combed back and tied in a chignon that crowned a long, full-jawed face. Her lips were thin, molded in a half-smile.
Finishing-school smile. Genetic poise.
I heard Kruse say, “Hello, Hope. Everything’s just beautiful.”
“Thank you, Paul. If you’ve a moment, there are some people I’d like you to meet.”
“Of course, dear.”
The exchange sounded rehearsed, lacking in warmth, and had excluded Suzanne Kruse. The three of them left the patio, Kruse and the First Lady side by side, the former Suzy Straddle following like a servant. They headed for a group of swans basking in the reflected light of one of the pools. Their arrival was heralded by the cessation of chatter and the lowering of glasses. A lot of flesh was pressed. Within seconds the swans were all listening raptly to Kruse. But the woman in yellow seemed bored. Even resentful.
I returned to the table, took a deep drink of gin. Larry raised his glass and touched it to mine.
“Here’s to old-fashioned girls, D. Long may they fucking live.”
I tossed back what was left of my gin and sucked on the ice. I hadn’t eaten all day, felt a light buzz coming on and shook my head to clear it. The movement brought a swatch of custard-yellow into view.
The First Lady had left Kruse’s side. She scanned the grounds, took a few steps, stopped and flicked her head toward a yellow spot on the lawn. Discarded napkin. A waiter rushed to pick it up. Like a captain on the bow of a frigate, the chestnut-haired woman shaded her eyes with her hand and continued to scan the grounds. She glided to one of the rosebeds, lifted a blossom and inspected it. Another waiter bearing shears was at her side immediately. A moment later the flower was in her hair and she was moving on.
“That’s our hostess?” I said. “In the pale-yellow dress?”
“No idea, D. Not exactly my social circle.”
“Kruse called her Hope.”
“Then that’s her. Hope Blalock. Springs eternal.”
A moment later, he said, “Some hostess. Notice how we’re all kept outside, no one gets into the house?”
“Like dogs that haven’t been housebroken.”
He laughed, lifted one leg off the chair and made a rude sound with his lips. Then he cocked his head at a nearby table. “Speaking of animal training, observe the maze-and-electrode crowd.”
Eight or nine grad students sat surrounding a man in his late fifties. The students favored corduroy, jeans, and plain cotton shifts, lank hair and wire-rims. Their mentor was stoop-shouldered, bald, and wore a clipped white beard. His suit was mud-colored hopsacking, a couple of sizes too large. It shrouded him like a monk’s habit. He talked nonstop and jabbed his finger a lot. The students looked glassy-eyed.
“The Ratman himself,” said Larry. “And his merry band of Ratkateers. Probably going on about something sexy like the correlation between electroshock-induced defecation and stimulation voltage following experimentally induced frustration of a partially reinforced escape response acquired under widely spaced trials. In fucking squirrels.”
I laughed. “Looks like he lost weight. Maybe he’s doing weight-loss tapes, too.”
“Nope. Heart attack last year- it’s why he gave up being department head and passed it along to Kruse. The tapes started right after that. Fucking hypocrite. Remember how he used to put down the clinical students, say we shouldn’t consider our doctorates a union card for private practice? What an asshole. You should see the ads he’s been running for his little no-smoking racket.”
“Where’ve they run?”
“Trashy magazines. One square inch of black-and-white in the back along with pitches for military schools, stuff-envelopes-and-make-a-fortune schemes, and Oriental pen pals. Only reason I found out is, one of my patients sent away for it and brought the cassette in to show me. ‘Use the Behavioral Approach to Quit Smoking,’ the Ratman’s name right there on the plastic, along with this tacky mimeographed brochure listing his academic credentials. He actually narrates the damned thing, D., in that pompous monotone. Trying to sound compassionate, as if he’d been working with people instead of rodents all these years.” He gave a disgusted look. “Union cards.”
“Is he making any money?”
“If he is, he sure ain’t spending it on clothes.”
Larry’s beeper went off. He pulled it off his belt, held it to his ear for a moment. “The service. ’Scuse me, D.”
He stopped a waiter, asked for the nearest phone, and was directed to the big white house. I watched him duck-walk through the formal gardens, then got up, ordered another gin and tonic, and stood there at the bar drinking it, enjoying the anonymity. I was starting to feel comfortably fuzzy when I heard something that set off an internal alarm.
Familiar tones, inflections.
A voice from the past.
I told myself it was imagination. Then I heard the voice again and searched the crowd.
I saw her, over several sets of shoulders.
A time-machine jolt. I tried to look away, couldn’t.
Sharon exquisite as ever.
I knew her age without calculating. Thirty-four. A birthday in May. May 15- how strange to still remember…
I stepped closer, got a better look: maturity but no diminution of beauty.
A face out of a cameo.
Oval, fine-boned, clean-jawed. The hair thick, wavy, black and glossy as caviar, brushed back from a high, flawless forehead, spilling over square shoulders. Milkwhite complexion, unfashionably sun-shy. High cheekbones gently defined, rouged naturally with coins of dusty rose. Small, close-set ears, a single pearl in each. Black eyebrows arching above wide-set deep-blue eyes. A thin, straight nose, gently flaring nostrils.
I remembered the feel of her skin… pale as porcelain but warm, always warm. I craned to get a better view.
She had on a knee-length navy-blue linen dress, short-sleeved and loose-fitting. Unsuccessful camouflage: the contours of her body fought the confines of the dress and won. Full, soft breasts, wasp waist, rich flare of hip tapering to long legs and sculpted ankles. Her arms were smooth white stalks. She wore no rings or bracelets, only the pearl studs and a matching string of opera-length pearls that rode the swell of her bosom. Blue pumps with medium heels added an inch to her five and a half feet. In one hand was a matching blue purse. The other hand caressed it.
No wedding ring.
With Robin at my side, I would have taken brief notice.
Or so I tried to convince myself.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.
She had her eyes on a man- one of the swans, old enough to be her father. Big square bronze face corrugated with deep seams. Narrow, pale eyes, brush-cut hair the color of iron filings. Well-built, despite his age, and perfectly turned out in double-breasted blue blazer and gray flannel slacks.
Oddly boyish- one of those youthful older men who populate the better clubs and resorts and are able to bed younger women without incurring snickers.
What business was that of mine?
I kept staring. Romance didn’t seem to be what was fueling her attention. The two of them were off in one corner and she was arguing with him, trying to convince him of something. Barely moving her lips and straining to look casual. He just stood there, listening.
Sharon at a party; it didn’t fit. She’d hated them as much as I had.
But that had been a long time ago. People change. Lord knew that applied to her.
I raised my glass to my lips, watched her tug on one earlobe- some things stayed the same.
I edged closer, bumped into a matron’s padded haunch and received a glare. Mumbling apologies, I pressed forward. The crush of drinkers was unyielding. I wedged my way through, seeking a voyeur’s vantage- deliciously close but safely out of view. Telling myself it was just curiosity.
Suddenly she turned her head and saw me. She pinkened with recognition and her lips parted. We locked in on each other. As if dancing.
Dancing on a terrace. A nest of lights in the distance. Weightless, formless…
I felt dizzy, bumped into someone else. More apologies.
Sharon kept looking straight at me. The brush-cut man was facing the other way, looking contemplative.
I retreated further, was swallowed by the crowd, and returned to the table short of breath, clutching my glass so tightly my fingers hurt. I counted blades of grass until Larry returned.
“The call was about the baby,” he said. “She and her little playmate got into a fight. She’s tantrumming and insisting on being taken home. The other girl’s mother says they’re both hysterical- overtired. I’ve got to go pick her up, D. Sorry.”
“No problem. I’m ready to leave myself.”
“Yeah, turned out to be pretty turgid, didn’t it? But at least I got a look at La Grande Maison ’s entry hall- big enough to skate in. We’re in the wrong business, D.”
“What’s the right business?”
“Marry it young, spend the rest of your life pissing it away.”
He looked back at the mansion, cast his eyes over the grounds. “Listen, Alex, it was good seeing you- little male pair-bonding, hostility release. How about we get together in a couple of weeks, shoot some pool at the Faculty Club, ingest some cholesterol?”
“Terrific. I’ll call you.”
“Look forward to it, Larry.”
Buttressed by our lies, we left the party.
He was eager to get going but offered to drive me home. I said I’d rather walk, waited with him while the bearded valet fetched his keys. The Chevy station wagon had been repositioned for quick exit. And washed. The valet held the door open and expectorated a mouthful of “sirs” as he waited for Larry to get comfortable. When Larry put the key in the ignition, the valet shut the door gently and held his palm out, smiling.
Larry looked over at me. I winked. Larry grinned, rolled up the window, and started the engine. I strolled past the cars, heard the wheeze of the Chevy’s engine followed by curses muttered in some Mediterranean language. Then, a clatter and squeal as the wagon accelerated. Larry zipped past, stuck out his left hand and waved.
I’d walked several yards when I heard someone calling. Thinking nothing of it, I didn’t break step.
Then the call took on volume and clarity.
I looked over my shoulder. Navy-blue dress. Swirl of black hair. Long white legs running.
She caught up with me, breasts heaving, upper lip pearled with sweat.
“Alex! It really is you. I can’t believe it!”
“Hello, Sharon. How’ve you been?” Dr. Witty.
“Just fine.” She touched her ear, shook her head. “No, you’re one person to whom I don’t have to pretend. No, I haven’t been fine, not at all.”
The ease with which she’d slipped into familiarity, the effortless erasure of all that had passed between us, raised my defenses.
She stepped closer. I smelled her perfume- soap and water tinged with fresh grass and spring flowers.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“Oh, Alex.” She placed two fingers on my wrist. Let them rest there.
I felt her heat, was jolted by a rush of energy below my waist. All at once I was rock-hard. And furious about it. But alive, for the first time in a long while.
“It’s so good to see you, Alex.” That voice, sweet and creamy. The midnight eyes sparkled.
“Good to see you too.” It came out thick and intense, nothing like the indifference I’d aimed for. Her fingers were burning a hole in my wrist. I dislodged her, put my hands in my pockets.
If she sensed rejection, she didn’t show it, just let her arm fall to her side and kept smiling.
“Alex, it’s so funny we should run into each other like this- pure ESP. I’ve been wanting to call you.”
A triangle of tongue tip moved between her lips and licked away the sweat I’d coveted. “Some issues that have… come up. Now’s not a good time, but if you could find some time to talk, I’d appreciate it.”
“What issues would we have to talk about after all these years?”
Her smile was a quarter-moon of white light. Too immediate. Too wide.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t be angry after all these years.”
“I’m not angry, Sharon. Just puzzled.”
She worried her earlobe. Her fingers flew forward and grazed my cheek before dropping. “You’re a good guy, Delaware. You always were. Be well.”
She turned to leave. I took hold of her hand and she stopped.
“Sharon, I’m sorry things aren’t going well for you.”
She laughed, bit her lip. “No, they really aren’t. But that’s not your problem.”
Even as she said it, she came closer, kept coming. I realized I was pulling her toward me, but with only the faintest pressure; she was allowing herself to be reeled in.
I knew at that moment that she’d do anything I wanted, and her passivity touched off a strange meélange of feelings within me. Pity. Gratitude. The joy of being needed, at last.
The weight between my legs grew oppressive. I dropped her hand.
Our faces were inches apart. My tongue strained against my teeth like a snake in a jar.
A stranger using my voice said, “If it means that much to you, we can get together and talk.”
“It means a lot to me,” she said.
We made a lunch date for Monday.
The moment she disappeared behind the gates, I knew it had been a mistake. But I wasn’t sure I regretted it.
Back home, I checked with my service, hoping for a call from Robin, something to make me regret it.
“Your board is clear, Dr. Delaware,” said the operator. I thought I detected pity in her voice, told myself I was getting paranoid.
That night I went to sleep with a head full of erotic images. Some time during the early morning hours I had a wet dream. I woke sticky and cranky, and knew, without having to reason it out, that I was going to break the date with Sharon. Not looking forward to it, I went through the motions of a normal morning- showering, shaving, swallowing coffee, dictating reports, killed another couple of hours filing and skimming journals. At noon Mal Worthy called and asked me to reserve Wednesday for a deposition on the Darren Burkhalter case.
“Working on Sunday, Mal?”
“Brunch,” he said. “Waiting for a table. Evil never rests; neither can the good guys. Going to be seven attorneys on the other side, Alex. Have your bullshit detector finely tuned.”
“Why the army?”
“Multiple pockets. The other driver’s insurance company has assigned two of their downtown hotshots; the estate’s sending another. The drunk who rammed them was a fairly successful building contractor- there’re some bucks involved. I told you about the brakes, which gives us the auto manufacturer’s mouthpiece and the one representing the dealer who serviced the car. The restaurant that served him the drinks makes six. Add to that a county attorney because we’re claiming inadequate lighting and insufficient cones around the ditch, and you’ve got seven in toto. Intimidated?”
“Should I be?”
“Nope. It’s quality that counts, not quantity, right? We’ll do it at my office, get a little home-base advantage. I’ll start by reading off your qualifications, and as usual, one of them will cut it off before it gets too hoo-ha and stipulate to your expertise. You’ve done this before; you know the whole thing’s supposed to be fact-finding, polite, but I’ll be there to cover your ass if it starts to get nasty. The insurance guys will probably put up the biggest kick- their liability is clearest and they’ve got the most to lose. My hunch is that, rather than attack your information per se, they’ll question the validity of early childhood trauma as a concept- is it scientific fact or just shrinky bullshit. And even if it is, how durable is the damage? Can you prove that a traumatic experience at eighteen months will warp poor little Darren for life.”
“Never said I could.”
“I know that and you know that, but please be more subtle on Wednesday. The important thing is they can’t prove he’ll be fine. And if it goes to trial, believe me, I’ll make damn sure the burden of proof will be on them. A jury is going to feel mighty sorry for a cute little tyke who wakes up from a car nap only to see his father’s head sailing over the back seat and landing right next to him. Videotaping your sessions was a beautiful touch, Alex. The kid comes across wonderfully vulnerable. In a trial situation, I’d get to show every second of footage- all that hyper stuff- along with the Polaroids from the accident. Nothing like a bloody head to get the old sympathy juices flowing, huh?”
“Nothing like it.”
“A jury will fucking believe the concept, Alex. They’ll see no way this kid could ever be normal again- and let’s face it, can any of us guarantee something like that could ever heal? The other side knows that. They’ve already thrown out hints of settlement offers- penny-ante bullshit. So it’s just a question of how much, how soon. Your job will be to tell it like it is, but don’t get too academic. Just stick to the old ‘to the best of my psychological knowledge’ line and we’ll be fine. I’ve got my actuary working overtime, want to hook these bastards so tight they’ll be paying Darren’s rent at the old-age home.”
He paused, added, “It’s only fair, Alex. Denise’s life is shattered. It’s the only way for someone like her to beat the system.”
“You’re a white knight, Mal.”
“Something eating at you?” He sounded genuinely hurt.
“No, everything’s fine. Just a little tired.”
He said nothing for a moment. “All right, just as long as we’re communicating.”
“We’re communicating perfectly, Mal. Quality, not quantity.”
He was silent for a moment, then said, “Rest up and take care of yourself, doc. I want you in peak shape when you’re dealing with the seven dwarfs.”
I called Sharon just after noon. A machine answered- my year for them. (“Hello, this is Dr. Ransom. I’m not in right now, but I’m very interested in receiving your message…”)
Even on tape the sound of her voice brought back memories… the feel of her fingers on my cheek.
All at once I had to be rid of her, decided to do it now. I waited for the emergency beeper number that therapists typically include at the end of their tapes. But she didn’t mention one.
I said, “Sharon, this is Alex. Can’t make Monday. Good luck.”
Short and sweet.
An hour later her face was still in my mind, a pale, lovely mask drifting in and out of my consciousness.
I tried to chase the image away, succeeded only in making it more vivid. I surrendered to reminiscence, told myself I was being a horny jerk, allowing my little head to think for my big one. Nevertheless, I sank deeper into time-buffered memories and began wondering if I’d done the right thing by breaking the date.
At one, hoping to exchange one lovely mask for another, I phoned San Luis Obispo. Robin’s mother answered.
“This is Alex, Rosalie.”
“Is Robin there?”
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“She’s out. With friends.”
“So, how’s the baby, Rosalie?”
“Okay, then. Please tell her I called.”
The privilege of owning a mother-in-law without having to do the paperwork.
Monday, I struggled through the morning paper, hoping the venality and low-mindedness of international politics would cast my problems in a trivial light. It proved effective, until I finished the paper. Then that old empty feeling returned.
I fed the fish, did a wash, went down to the carport, started up the Seville, and drove into South Westwood to do some grocery shopping. Somewhere between frozen foods and canned goods I realized my basket was empty; I left the supermarket without buying a thing.
There was a multiplex theater up the block from the market. I chose a feature at random, paid the early-bird discount price and sat low in my seat along with giggling teenage couples and other solitary men. The show was a low-grade thriller graced by neither coherent dialogue nor plot. I walked out in the middle of a sweat-soaked love scene between the heroine and the dashing psychopath who was going to try to carve her up for postcoital dessert.
Outside, it was dark. Another day vanquished. I forced a fast-food burger down my throat, headed for home, then remembered that the newspaper had been temporarily therapeutic.
Evening. A new edition. A blind vendor was hawking it from a curb on Wilshire. I pulled over, bought a paper, paying with a dollar bill, not waiting for the change.
Back home, I called my service- no impersonal machine for old Alex. No messages either.
Stripping down to my undershorts, I took the Times and a cup of instant coffee to bed.
Slow news day; most of the evening special was a rehash of the morning edition. I stuffed myself on swindles and subterfuge. Found my eyes blurring. Perfect.
Then I was brought abruptly back to focus by a story on page 20.
Not even a story, just filler: a couple of column-inches next to a wire-service piece on the sociological structure of South American fire ants.
But the headline caught my eye.
(LOS ANGELES) Police sources said the death of a local psychologist, found this morning in her Hollywood Hills home, probably resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The body of Sharon Ransom, 34, was discovered this morning in the bedroom of her Nichols Canyon home. She had apparently died sometime Sunday night.
Ransom lived alone in the Jalmia Drive house, which also doubled as an office. A native of New York City, she was educated and trained in Los Angeles, received her Ph.D. in 1981. No next of kin have been located.
Sunday night. Just hours after I’d called her.
Something cold and rank as sewer gas rose in my gut and bubbled in my throat. I forced myself to read the article again. And again.
A couple of column inches. Filler… I thought of black hair, blue eyes, a blue dress, pearls. That remarkable face, so alive, so warm.
No, you’re one person to whom I don’t have to pretend. No, I haven’t been fine, not at all.
A cry for help? The implied intimacy had angered me. Had it blocked me from seeing it for what it was?
She hadn’t looked that upset.
And why me? What had she seen in that quick glance across the shoulders of strangers that had led her to think I was the right one to turn to?
Big mistake… old Alex fixated on his own needs, soft white thighs and pillowy breasts.
No, I haven’t been fine. Not at all.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Dispensing vending-machine empathy.
I’d reeled her in, not giving half a shit. Enjoyed the feeling of power as she floated toward me, passive.
If it means that much to you, we can get together and talk… and let me fuck your ears off.
It means a lot to me.
I clawed the page free from the paper, crumpled it, and threw it across the room.
Closing my eyes, I tried to let myself cry. For her, for me, for Robin. For families that fell apart, a world falling apart. Little boys who watched their fathers die. Anyone in the world who goddam deserved it.
The tears wouldn’t come.
Wait for the beep.
Pull the trigger.
Later, after some of the shock wore off, I realized that I’d rescued her once before. Perhaps she’d remembered it, had constructed a time-machine fantasy of her own.
The fall of ’74. I was twenty-four, a brand-new Ph.D., caught up in the novelty of being addressed as Doctor but still as poor as a student.
I’d just returned to L.A. from the Langley Porter Institute in San Francisco to begin my fellowship at Western Pediatric Hospital. The position came with a jawbreaker of a title: National Institute of Mental Health Postdoctoral Scholar in Clinical Psychology and Human Development, jointly appointed to the hospital and its affiliated medical school. My job was to treat children, teach interns, do research, and come up with a paper or two the chief psychologist could co-author.
My pay was $500 a month, which the IRS had just declared taxable. There was barely enough left over to cover rent and utilities on a dingy Overland Avenue bachelor flat, plain-wrap food, discount clothing, thrift-shop books, and ongoing life support for a moribund Nash Rambler. Not covered was an eight-year accumulation of student loans and debts filed too long under Miscellaneous. A number of bank creditors delighted in dunning me monthly.
In order to earn extra money, I took on nighttime gigs playing guitar in dance bands, the way I’d scratched by in San Francisco. Irregular work with spotty pay and all the bar food I could get down between sets. I also let the University psych department know its illustrious graduate was available for free-lance teaching assignments.
The department ignored me until one afternoon in November when one of its secretaries had me paged at the hospital.
“Dr. Delaware, please.”
“This is Dr. Delaware.”
“Oh. It says here Alice. I thought you were a woman.”
“Not the last time I checked.”
“Guess not. Anyway, I know it’s short notice, but if you’re available at eight tonight, we could use you.”
“Don’t you want to hear what it’s about?”
“Okay, we need someone to supervise Course 305A- the clinical practicum for first- and second-year graduate students. The professor who runs it was called out of town and none of the usual substitutes are available.”
Barrel-scraping time. “Sounds fine to me.”
“Okay. You’re licensed, right?”
“Not until next year.”
“Oh. Then I’m not sure… Hold on.” A moment later: “Okay. Because you’re not licensed the pay is eight dollars an hour instead of fifteen and subject to withholding. And there’s some paperwork you’ll have to fill out first.”
“You’ve twisted my arm.”
“I’ll be there.”
In theory, clinical practicum is a link between book learning and the real world, a way to introduce therapists-in-training to the practice of psychotherapy in a nurturant environment.
At my alma mater, the process started early: During their first semester clinical-psych graduate students were assigned patients- undergrads referred from the campus counseling service and poor people seeking free treatment at the University health clinic. The students diagnosed and treated under the supervision of a faculty member. Once a week they presented their progress, or lack thereof, to peers and instructors. Sometimes things stayed on an intellectual level. Sometimes they got personal.
Psych 305A was held in a windowless garret on the third floor of the Tudor mansion that housed the clinical program. The room was bare of furniture, painted a grayish blue, and carpeted in grubby gold shag. In one corner was a pair of foam-padded bats- the kind provided by marriage counselors for good clean fighting. In another were piled the remains of a disassembled polygraph.
I arrived five minutes late, “some paperwork” having turned out to be a mountain of forms. Seven or eight students were already in place. They’d removed their shoes and positioned themselves against the sloping walls, reading, chatting, smoking, catnapping. Ignoring me. The room smelled of dirty socks, tobacco, and mildew.
For the most part they were an older, seasoned-looking bunch- refugees from the sixties in serapes, faded jeans, sweat shirts, Indian jewelry. A few wore business clothes. Every one of them looked serious and burdened- straight-A students wondering if the grind was worth it.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Delaware.” I let the title roll off my tongue with delight and some guilt, feeling like an impostor. The students looked me over, less than impressed. “Alex,” I added. “Dr. Kruse can’t make it, so I’m taking over tonight.”
“Where’s Paul?” asked a woman in her late twenties. She was short with prematurely gray hair, granny glasses, a tight, disapproving mouth.
“Out of town.”
“Hollywood’s not out of town,” said a big, bearded man in plaid shirt and overalls, smoking a free-form Danish pipe.
“Are you one of his assistants?” asked the gray-haired woman. She was attractive but pinched-looking, with angry, nervous eyes; a Puritan in blue denim, she appraised me baldly, looked eager to condemn.
“No, I’ve never met him. I’m-”
“A new faculty member!” proclaimed the bearded man, as if uncovering a conspiracy.
I shook my head. “Recent grad. Ph.D. last June.”
“Congratulations.” The bearded man clapped his hands silently. A few of the others imitated him. I smiled, squatted, assumed a lotus position near the door. “What’s your usual procedure?”
“Case presentation,” said a black woman. “Unless someone’s got a crisis to bounce around.”
“All right. Whose turn is it to present?”
“Mine,” said the black woman. She was stocky, with a hennaed Afro haloing a round, chocolate face. She wore a black poncho, blue jeans, and red vinyl boots. An oversized carpetbag lay across her lap. “Aurora Bogardus, second year. Last week I presented the case of a nine-year-old boy with multiple tics. Paul made suggestions. I’ve got some follow-up.”
“For starters, nothing’s worked. The kid’s getting worse.” She removed a chart from the carpetbag, flipped through it and gave a brief case history for my benefit, then described her initial treatment plan, which seemed well thought-out, though unsuccessful.
“That brings us up to date,” she said. “Any questions, gang?”
Twenty minutes of discussion followed. The students’ suggestions emphasized social factors- the family’s poverty and frequent moves, the anxiety the child was probably experiencing due to lack of friends. Someone commented that the boy’s being black in a racist society was a major stressor.
Aurora Bogardus looked disgusted. “I believe I’m well aware of that. Meanwhile, I’ve still got to deal with the damned tics on a behavioral level. The more he twitches, the angrier everyone gets at him.”
“Then everyone needs to learn to deal with that anger,” said the bearded man.
“Fine and dandy, Julian,” said Aurora. “In the meantime, the kid’s being ostracized, I need action.”
“The operant conditioning system-”
“If you were paying attention, Julian, you would have just heard that your operant conditioning system didn’t work. Neither did the role manipulation Paul suggested last week.”
“What kind of role manipulation?” I asked.
“Change the programming. It’s part of his approach toward therapy- Communication Dynamics. Shake up the family structure, get them to change their power positions so that they’ll be open to new behaviors.”
“Get them to change in what way?”
She gave me a weary look. “Paul had me instruct the parents and siblings to start twitching and shaking too. Exaggeratedly. He said once the symptom became part of the family norm, it would cease to have rebellion value for the boy and would drop out of his behavioral repertoire.”
She shook her head. “It’s his theory, not mine.”
I said nothing, maintained a look of curiosity.
“Okay, okay,” she said. “According to Paul, symptoms are communications. Because the tic communication wouldn’t be unique anymore, the kid would have to find some other way of working through his rebellion.”
It sounded ill-conceived, potentially cruel, and made me wonder about Dr. Paul Kruse. “I see.”
“Hey, I thought it was bullshit too,” said Aurora. “Going to tell Paul that, next week.”
“Sure you will,” said someone.
“Watch me.” She closed the chart and put it back in her bag. “Meanwhile, this poor little boy’s shaking and twitching and his self-esteem is going right down the tubes.”
“Have you thought of Tourette’s syndrome?” I asked.
She dismissed the question with a frown. “Of course. But he doesn’t swear.”
“Not all Tourette’s patients do.”
“Paul said the symptoms didn’t conform to a typical Tourette’s pattern.”
“In what way?”
Another weary look. Her answer took five minutes and was seriously flawed. My doubts about Kruse grew.
“I still think you should consider Tourette’s,” I said. “We don’t know enough about the syndrome to exclude atypical cases. My advice is, refer the boy to a pediatric neurologist. Haldol may be indicated.”
“Ye olde medical model,” said Julian. He tamped his pipe, relit it.
Aurora moved her jaws as if chewing.
“What are you feeling now?” one of the other men asked her. He was narrow-shouldered and thin, with rusty hair tied in a ponytail, and a drooping, ragged mustache. He wore a wrinkled brown corduroy suit, button-down shirt, extra-wide rep tie, and dirty sneakers, and spoke in a soft, musical voice saturated with empathy. But unctuous, like a confessor or kiddie-show host. “Share your feelings with us, Aurora.”
“Oh, Christ.” She turned to me: “Yeah, I’ll do what you say. If the medical model is what it takes, so be it.”
“You sound frustrated,” said the gray-haired woman.
Aurora turned on her. “Let’s cut the shit and move on, okay?”
Before Gray Hair could reply, the door opened. All eyes drifted upward. All eyes hardened.
A beautiful black-haired girl stood in the doorway, holding an armful of books. Girl, not woman- she looked girlish, could have been an undergrad, and for a moment I thought she’d come to the wrong place.
But she stepped into the room.
My first thought was time warp: She had a dark, wounded beauty, like an actress in one of those black-and-white late-show films noirs, where good and evil blur, visual images vie for control with a sinuous jazz score, and everything ends ambiguously.
She wore a clinging pink knit dress piped with white and bisected by a white leather belt, pink pumps with medium heels. Her hair had been rolled and set, every strand in place, gleaming. Her face was powdered, mascaraed, her lips glossed a wet-looking pink. The dress reached her knees. The leg that showed was shapely, encased in sheer nylon. Her jewelry was real gold, her nails long and polished- the hue of the polish identical to that of the dress but precisely one shade deeper.
And perfume- the fragrance cut through the staleness of the room: soap and water, fresh grass, and spring flowers.
All curves and swells, porcelain whiteness and dusty rose, flawlessly put together. Almost painfully out of place in that sea of denim and deliberate drabness.
“Suzy Creamcheese,” somebody muttered.
She heard it and winced, looked around for a place to sit. No empty spaces. No one moved. I shifted to one side, said, “Over here.”
She stared at me.
“He’s Dr. Delaware,” said Julian. “Alex. He’s endured the rites and rituals of this department and emerged seemingly unscathed.”
She gave a fleeting smile, sat down next to me, folded her legs under. A stretch of white thigh showed. She tugged the dress down over her knees. It caused the fabric to go tight over her breasts and accentuate their fullness. Her eyes were wide and bright, midnight-blue, so dark the pupils blended with the irises.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. A sweet, creamy voice.
“So what else is new,” said Gray Hair.
“Any more follow-ups to present?” I asked.
No one answered.
“Then I guess we can move on to new material.”
“What about Sharon?” said Ponytail, grinning at the new arrival. “You haven’t shared a thing with us all semester, Sharon.”
The black-haired girl shook her head. “I really don’t have anything prepared, Walter.”
“What’s to prepare? Just pick a case, give us the benefit of your wisdom.”
“Or at least Paul’s wisdom,” said Julian.
Snickers, nods of assent.
She pulled at her earlobe, turned to me, seeking reprieve.
The crack about Kruse helped explain the tension that had accompanied her entrance. Whatever his therapeutic skills at manipulating roles, this supervisor had allowed his group to be poisoned by favoritism. But I was hired help, not the one to deal with it.
I asked her: “Have you presented at all this semester?”
“Do you have any case you could discuss?”
“I… I suppose so.” She gave me a look more pitying than resentful: You’re hurting me but it’s not your fault.
Shaken a bit, I said, “Then go ahead, please.”
“The one I could talk about is a woman I’ve been seeing for two months. She’s a nineteen-year-old sophomore. Initial testing shows her to be within normal limits on every measure, with the MMPI Depression scale a little elevated. Her boyfriend is a senior. They met the first week of the semester and have been going together ever since. She self-referred to the Counseling Center because of problems in their relationship-”
“What kinds of problems?” asked Gray Hair.
“A communication breakdown. In the beginning they could talk to each other. Later, things started to change. Now they’re pretty bad.”
“Be more specific,” said Gray Hair.
Sharon thought. “I’m not sure what you-”
“Are they fucking?” asked Ponytail Walter.
Sharon turned red and looked down at the carpet. An old-fashioned blush- I hadn’t thought it still existed. A few of the students looked embarrassed for her. The rest seemed to be enjoying it.
“Are they?” pressed Walter. “Fucking?”
She bit her lip. “They’re having relations, yes.”
“I really haven’t kept a record-”
“Why not? It could be an important parameter of-”
“Hold on,” I said. “Give her a chance to finish.”
“She’ll never finish,” said Gray Hair. “We’ve been through this before- terminal defensiveness. If we don’t confront it, cut it off where it grows, we’ll be spinning our wheels the whole session.”
“There’s nothing to confront,” I said. “Let her get the facts out. Then we’ll discuss them.”
“Right,” said Gray Hair. “Another protective male heard from- you bring it out in them, Princess Sharon.”
“Ease up, Maddy,” said Aurora Bogardus. “Let her talk.”
“Sure, sure.” Gray Hair folded her arms across her chest, sat back, glared, waited.
“Go ahead,” I told Sharon.
She’d sat in silence, removed from the fray like a parent waiting out a spat between siblings. Now she picked up where she’d left off. Calm. Or on the edge?
“There’s been a communication breakdown. The patient says she loves her boyfriend but feels they’re growing distant from one another. They can no longer talk about things they used to be able to discuss.”
“Such as?” asked Julian, through a cloud of smoke.
“Just about everything.”
“Everything? What to have for breakfast? Stuffing versus potatoes?”
“At this point, yes. There’s been a complete breakdown-”
“Breakdown,” said Maddy. “You’ve used that word three times without explaining what you mean. Try clarifying rather than restating. Operationalize the word breakdown.”
“Things have deteriorated,” said Sharon, making it sound like a question.
Maddy laughed. “Terrific. That makes it perfectly clear.”
Sharon lowered her voice. “I don’t really know what you’re getting at, Maddy.”
Maddy shook her head in disgust, said to no one in particular: “Why waste time on this shit?”
“Second the motion,” someone said.
I said, “Let’s stick to the case. Sharon, why does this girl feel things have broken down?”
“We’ve discussed that for several sessions. She claims she doesn’t know. At first she thought he’d lost interest and was seeing another woman. He denies that- he spends all his free time with her, so she thinks he’s telling the truth. But when they’re together he won’t talk and seems angry at her- or at least she feels that. It came on all of a sudden, got worse.”
“Did anything else happen at that time?” I asked. “Some kind of stressful event?”
“Did they begin having sex at that time, Sharon?”
Nod. “Around then.”
“Were there sexual problems?”
“It’s hard to know.”
“Bullshit,” said Maddy. “It would be easy to know if you’d done your job properly.”
I turned to her and asked, “How would you go about getting that kind of information, Maddy?”
“Be real, establish rapport.” She ticked each phrase off with her finger. “Know the specific defenses of the client- be prepared for the defensive bullshit and roll with it. But if that doesn’t work, confront and stay with it until the client knows you mean business. Then simply go for it- bring up the subject, for Christ’s sake. She’s been seeing this woman for two months. She should have done all of that by now.”
I looked at Sharon.
“I have,” she said, the blush still in force. “We’ve talked about her defenses. It takes time. There are problems.”
“Sure are,” said Julian.
“Seck-shoo-all problems,” enunciated Maddy. “Say the ‘S’ word, honey. Next time it’ll be easier.”
Scattered laughter. Sharon seemed to be taking it calmly. But I kept my eye on her.
“Share the problems with us,” Walter was urging, grinning and playing with his ponytail.
“They… she isn’t satisfied,” said Sharon.
“Is she coming?” asked Julian.
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t think so?”
“No. No, she isn’t.”
“Then what are you doing to help her come?”
She bit her lip again.
“Speak up,” said Maddy.
Sharon’s hands began to shake. She laced her fingers together to hide it. “We’ve… we’ve talked about… reducing her anxiety, relaxing her.”
“Oh, Christ, blame the woman,” said Maddy. “Who says it’s her problem? Maybe it’s him? Maybe he’s a bumbler. Or a preemie.”
“She says he’s… okay. She’s the one who’s nervous.”
“Have you done any deep muscle relaxation?” asked Aurora. “Systematic desensitization?”
“No, nothing that structured. It’s still hard for her to talk about it.”
“Wonder why,” said Julian.
“We’re just working on trying to stay calm,” said Sharon. It sounded like self-description.
“Hard to be calm about primal issues,” soothed Walter. “Have they done oral sex?”
“Uh, in what way?”
She looked back down at the carpet. “The usual.”
“I don’t know what that means, Sharon.” He looked at the others. “Do any of you?”
Orchestrated smiles and shakes of the head. A predatory bunch. I pictured them as full-fledged therapists in a few years. Scary.
Sharon was looking at the floor, fighting a losing battle with her hands.
I thought of intervening, wondered whether that violated the norms of the group. Decided I didn’t care if it did. But being too protective would harm her more, in the long run.
While I was deliberating, Walter said, “What kind of oral sex?”
“I think we all know what oral sex is,” I said.
His eyebrows rose. “Do we? I wonder. Do any of you wonder?”
“This is bullshit,” said Aurora. “Got too many things to do.” She stood, hefted her carpetbag, and stamped out of the room. Three or four others followed quickly.
The door slammed. A tight silence followed. Sharon’s eyes were moist and her earlobe had been tugged scarlet.
“Let’s move on to something else,” I said.
“Let’s not!” shouted Maddy. “Paul says no holds barred- why the hell should she be the exception?” Her anger seemed to lift her from the floor. “Why the hell does she get saved every time she gets into her defensive mode and shuts us out!” To Sharon: “This is reality, honey, not some fucking sorority game.”
“A fucking sorority game wouldn’t be half-bad,” mused Julian. He sucked on his pipe ostentatiously.
“Back off,” I said.
He smiled as if he hadn’t heard me, stretched and recrossed his legs.
“Sorry, Alex, no back-offs,” Walter informed me. “Paul’s rules.”
A tear dribbled down Sharon’s cheek. She wiped it away. “They do the usual.”
“Ah,” said Walter. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” He held out his hands, palms up, fingers curled. “Come on, keep going.”
The gesture seemed lecherous. Sharon sensed it too. She looked away from him and said, “That’s all, Walter.”
“Tsk, tsk,” said Julian, raising a professorial pipe. “Let’s operationalize. Does she suck him? Or does he suck her? Or have they advanced to mutual sucking, the old six-nine pretzel?”
Sharon’s hands flew to her face. She coughed to keep from crying.
“Camille,” said Maddy. “What bullshit.”
“Enough,” I barked.
Maddy’s face darkened. “Another authoritarian father figure heard from.”
“Easy,” said someone. “Everyone mellow out.”
Sharon got to her feet, scooping up her books, struggling with them, all white legs and rustling nylon. “I’m sorry, please excuse me.” She made a grab for the door-knob, twisted it and ran out.
Walter said, “Catharsis. Could be a breakthrough.”
I looked at him, at all of them. Saw vulture smiles, smugness. And something else- a flicker of fear.
“Class dismissed,” I said.
I caught up with her just as she reached the sidewalk.
She kept running.
“Wait a second. Please.”
She stopped, kept her back to me. I stepped in front of her. She stared down at the pavement, then up at the sky. The night was starless. Her hair merged with it so that only her face was visible. A pale, floating mask.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She shook her head. “No, it was my fault. I acted like a baby, totally inappropriate.”
“There’s nothing inappropriate about not wanting to be bludgeoned. They’re some bunch. I should have kept a tighter rein on things, should have seen what was happening.”
She finally made eye contact. Smiled. “That’s all right. No one could have seen.”
“Is it like that all the time?”
“Dr. Kruse approves?”
“Dr. Kruse says we have to confront our own defense systems before being able to help others.” Small laugh. “I guess I have a ways to go.”
“You’ll do fine,” I said. “In the long run, this kind of stuff’s irrelevant.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Dr. Delaware.”
The smile widened. “Thanks for checking on me, Alex. I guess you’d better be heading back to class.”
“Class is over. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, trying to get a firmer grip on the books.
“Here, let me help you with those.” Something in her was bringing out the Lancelot in me.
She said, “No, no, that’s okay,” but didn’t stop me from taking the books.
“Where’s your car?”
“I’m walking. I live in the dorms. Curtis Hall.”
“I can drive you to Curtis.”
“It’s really not necessary.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“Well, then,” she said, “I’d like that.”
I dropped her off at the dorm, made a date for the following Saturday.
She was waiting at the curb when I came to pick her up, wearing a yellow cashmere sweater, black-and-yellow tartan skirt, black knee socks, and loafers. She let me open the car door for her. The second my hand touched the steering wheel, hers was upon it, warm and firm.
We had dinner at one of the smoky, noisy, beer-and-pizza joints that cling to every college campus- the best I could afford. Staking out a corner table, we watched Road Runner cartoons, ate and drank, smiled at each other.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off her, wanted to know more about her, to forge an impossible, instant intimacy. She fed me nibbles of information about herself: She was twenty-one, had grown up on the East Coast, graduated from a small women’s college, come west for graduate school. Then she steered the conversation to grad school. Academic issues.
Remembering the insinuations of the other students, I asked about her association with Kruse. She said he was her faculty adviser, made it sound unimportant. When I asked what he was like, she said he was dynamic and creative, then changed the subject, again.
I dropped it but remained curious. After that ugly session, I’d asked around about Kruse, had learned he was one of the clinical associates, a new arrival who’d already earned a reputation as a skirt-chaser and an attention-grabber.
Not the kind of mentor I would have thought right for someone like Sharon. Then again, what did I really know about Sharon? About what was right for her?
I tried to learn more. She danced nimbly away from my questions, kept shifting the focus to me.
I experienced some frustration, understood for an instant the anger of the other students. Then I reminded myself we’d just met; I was being pushy, expecting too much too soon. Her demeanor suggested old money, a conservative, sheltered background. Precisely the kind of upbringing that would stress the dangers of instant intimacy.
Yet there was the matter of her hand stroking mine, the open affection of her smile. Not playing hard-to-get at all.
We talked psychology. She knew her stuff but kept deferring to my superior knowledge. I sensed real depth beneath the Suzy Creamcheese exterior. And something else: agreeableness. A ladylike niceness that caught me by pleasant surprise in that age of four-letter female anger masquerading as liberation.
My diploma said I was a doctor of the mind, a sage at twenty-four, grand arbiter of relationships. But relationships still scared me. Women still scared me. Since adolescence I’d indentured myself to a regimen of study, work, more study, struggling to pull myself up out of blue-collar purgatory and expecting the human factor to fall into place along with my career goals. But new goals kept popping up and at twenty-four I was still pulling, my social life limited to casual encounters, mandatory, calisthenic sex.
My last date had been more than two months ago- a brief misadventure with a pretty blond neonatology intern from Kansas who asked me out as we stood in the cafeteria line at the hospital. She suggested the restaurant, paid for her own meal, invited herself to my apartment, immediately sprawled on the couch, popped a Quaalude, and got peevish when I refused to take one. A moment later the peevishness was forgotten and she was buck-naked, grinning and pointing to her crotch: “This is L.A., Buster. Eat pussy.”
Now here I was, sitting opposite a demure beauty who made me feel like Einstein and wiped her mouth even when it was clean. I drank her in. In the candle-in-chianti-bottle light of that pizza joint, everything she did seemed special: spurning beer for 7-Up, laughing like a kid at the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, twirling strands of hot cheese around her finger before taking them between perfect white teeth.
A flash of pink tongue.
I constructed a past for her, one that reeked of high WASP sensibilities: summer homes, cotillions, deb balls, the hunt. Scores of suitors…
The scientist in me snipped my fantasies midframe: total conjecture, hotshot. She’s left you empty spaces- you’re filling them in with blind guesses.
I made another stab at finding out who she was. She answered me without telling me a thing, got me talking about myself again.
I surrendered to the cheap thrills of autobiography. She made it easy. She was a first-rate listener, propping her chin on her knuckles, staring up at me with those huge blue eyes, making it clear that every word I uttered was monumentally important. Playing with my fingers, laughing at my jokes, tossing her hair so that the light caught her earrings.
At that point in time I was God’s gift to Sharon Ransom. It felt better than anything else I could recall.
Without all that, her looks might have snagged me. Even in that raucous place teeming with lush young bodies and heartbreaking faces, her beauty was a magnet. It seemed obvious that every passing man was stopping and caressing her visually, the women appraising her with fierce acuity. She was unaware of it, remained zeroed in on me.
I heard myself open up, talk about things I hadn’t thought of in years.
Whatever problems she might have, she’d clean up as a therapist.
From the beginning I wanted her physically with an intensity that shook me. But something about her- a fragility that I sensed or imagined- held me back.
For half a dozen dates it remained chaste: hand-holds and goodnight pecks, a noseful of that light, fresh perfume. I’d drive home swollen but oddly content, subsisting on recollections.
As we headed toward the dorm after our seventh evening together, she said, “Don’t drop me off yet, Alex. Drive around the corner.”
She directed me to a dark, shaded side street, adjacent to one of the athletic fields. I parked. She leaned over, turned off the ignition, removed her shoes, and climbed over the seat and into the back of the Rambler.
“Come,” she said.
I followed her over, glad I’d washed the car. Sat beside her, took her in my arms, kissed her lips, her eyes, the sweet spot under her neck. She shivered, squirmed. I touched her breast. Felt her heart pounding. We kissed some more, deeper, longer. I put my hand on her knee. She shivered, gave me a look that I thought was fear. I lifted my hand. She put it back, between her knees, wedged me in a soft, hot vise. Then she spread her legs. I went exploring, up columns of white marble. She was splayed, had thrown her head back, had her eyes closed, was breathing through her mouth. No underwear. I rolled her skirt up, saw a generous delta soft and black as sable fur.
“Oh, God,” I said and started to pleasure her.
She held me back with one hand, reached for my zipper with the other. In a second I was free, pointing skyward.
“Come to me,” she said.
With Milo out of town, my only other police contact was Delano Hardy, a dapper black detective who sometimes worked as Milo’s partner. A few years ago he’d saved my life. I’d bought him a guitar, a classic Fender Stratocaster that Robin had restored. It was clear who owed whom, but I called him anyway.
The desk man at West L.A. told me Detective Hardy wouldn’t be in until the following morning. I debated trying him at home but knew he was a family man, always trying to scrounge more time for his kids, and left a message for him to call me.
I thought of someone who wouldn’t mind being called at home. Ned Biondi was one of those journalists who lived for the story. He’d been a metro writer-reporter when I met him, had since progressed to associate editor but managed to squeeze in a story now and then.
Ned owed me. I’d helped reverse his daughter’s descent to near-death from anorexia. He’d taken a year and a half to pay me, then added to his personal debt by profiting from a couple of big stories that I’d steered his way.
Just after 9:00 P.M. I reached him at his home in Woodland Hills.
“Doc. I was going to call you.”
“Yeah, just got back from Boston. Anne-Marie sends her love.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Still skinnier than we’d like, but otherwise great. She started social-work school this fall, got a part-time job, and found a new boyfriend to replace the bastard who dumped her.”
“Give her my best.”
“Will do. What’s up?”
“I wanted to ask you about a story in today’s final. Suicide of a psychologist, page-”
“Twenty. What about it?”
“I knew the woman, Ned.”
“Oh, jeez. That’s lousy.”
“Is there anything more to it than what you printed?”
“No reason for there to be. It wasn’t exactly a hot scoop. In fact I believe we got it over the phone from police communications- no one actually went out to the scene. Is there anything you know that I should?”
“Nothing at all. Who’s Maura Bannon?”
“Just a kid- student intern. Friend of Anne-Marie’s, in fact. She’s doing a semester of work study, little here, little there. She was the one who pushed for the piece- kind of a naïve kid, thought the shri… psychologist suicide angle was newsworthy. Those of us familiar with the real world were less impressed, but we let her stick it in the computer just to make her happy. Turns out Section One ends up using it as filler- the kid’s thrilled. Want me to have her call you?”
“If she has anything to tell me.”
“I doubt that she does.” Pause. “Doc, the lady in question- did you know her well?”
My lie was reflexive. “Not really. It just came as a shock, seeing the name of someone I knew.”
“Must have,” said Ned, but his tone had turned wary. “You called Sturgis first, I assume.”
“He’s out of town.”
“Aha. Listen, Doc, I don’t want to be insensitive, but if there’s something about the lady that would flesh out the story, I’d be open to hearing about it.”
“There’s nothing, Ned.”
“Okay. Sorry for snooping- force of habit.”
“That’s all right. Talk to you soon, Ned.”
At eleven-thirty I took a walk in the dark, trudging up the glen toward Mulholland, listening to crickets and night birds. When I got home an hour later, the phone was ringing.
“Dr. Delaware, this is Yvette at your service. I’m glad I caught you. A call came in for you twenty minutes ago from your wife up in San Luis Obispo. She left a message, wanted to make sure you got it.”
Your wife. Slap-on-a-sunburn. They’d been making the same mistake for years. Once upon a time it had been amusing.
“What’s the message?”
“She’s on the move, will be hard to reach. She’ll get in touch with you when she can.”
“Did she leave a number?”
“No, she didn’t, Dr. Delaware. You sound tired. Been working too hard?”
“Something like that.”
“Stay well, Dr. Delaware.”
“Same to you.”
On the move. Hard to reach. It should have hurt. But I felt relieved, unburdened.
Since Saturday I’d barely thought about Robin. Had filled my mind with Sharon.
I felt like an adulterer, ashamed but thrilled.
I crawled into bed and hugged myself to sleep. At two forty-five in the morning I woke up, wired and itchy. After throwing on some clothes I staggered down to the carport and started up the Seville. I drove south to Sunset, headed east through Beverly Hills and Boystown, toward the western tip of Hollywood and Nichols Canyon.
At that hour, even the Strip was dead. I kept the windows open, let the sharp chill gnaw at my face. At Fairfax, I turned left, traveled north, and swung onto Hollywood Boulevard.
Mention the boulevard to most people, and, inevitably, one of two images comes to mind: the good old days of Grauman’s Chinese, the Walk of the Stars, black-tie premieres, a neon-flooded night scene. Or the street as it is today- slimy and vicious, promising random violence.
But west of that scene, just past La Brea, Hollywood Boulevard shows another face: a single mile of tree-lined residential neighborhood- decently maintained apartment buildings, old, stately churches, and only slightly tarnished two-story homes perched atop well-tended sloping lawns. Looking down on this smudge of suburbia is a section of the Santa Monica mountain range that meanders through L.A. like a crooked spine. In this part of Hollywood the mountains seem to surge forward threateningly, pushing against the fragile dermis of civilization.
Nichols Canyon begins a couple of blocks east of Fair-fax, a lane and a half of winding blacktop feeding off the north side of the boulevard and running parallel to a summer-dry wash. Small, rustic houses sit behind the wash, concealed by tangles of brush, accessible only over homemade footbridges. I passed a Department of Water and Power terminal station lit by high arc lamps that gave off a harsh glare. Just beyond the terminal was flood-control district marshland fenced with chain link, then larger houses on flatter ground, sparsely distributed.
Something wild and swift scurried across the road and dived into the bush. Coyote? In the old days Sharon had talked about seeing them, though I’d never spotted one.
The old days.
What the hell was I expecting to gain by exhuming them? By driving past her house like some moony teenager hoping to catch a glimpse of his beloved?
But I craved something tangible, something to reassure me she’d once been real. That I was real. I drove on.
Nichols veered to the right. The straightaway turned into Jalmia Drive and compressed to a single lane, darkened even further under a canopy of trees. The road lurched, dipped, finally dead-ended without warning at a bamboo-walled cul-de-sac slotted with several steep driveways. The one I was looking for was marked by a white mailbox on a stake and a white lattice gate that sagged on its posts.
I pulled to the side, parked, cut the engine, and got out. Cool air. Night sounds. The gate was unlocked and flimsy, no more of a barrier than it had been years ago. Lifting it to avoid scraping the cement, I looked around, saw no one. Swung the gate open and passed through. Closing it behind me, I began climbing.
On both sides of the driveway were plantings of fan palm, bird of paradise, yucca, and giant banana. Classic fifties California landscaping. Nothing had changed.
I climbed on, unmolested, surprised at the absence of any kind of police presence. Officially, the L.A.P.D. treated suicides as if they were homicides, and the departmental bureaucracy moved slothfully. This soon after the death, the file would certainly be open, the paperwork barely begun.
There should have been warning posters, a crime-scene cordon, some kind of marker.
Then I heard a burst of ignition and the rumble of a high-performance car engine. Louder. I ducked behind one of the palms and pressed myself into the vegetation.
A white Porsche Carrera appeared from around the top of the drive and rolled slowly down in low gear with its headlights off. The car passed within inches, and I made out the face of the driver: hatchet-shaped, fortyish, with slit eyes and oddly mottled skin. A wide black mustache spread above thin lips, forming a stark contrast with blow-dried snow-white hair and thick white eyebrows.
Not a face easily forgotten.
Cyril Trapp. Captain Cyril Trapp, West L.A. Homicide. Milo’s boss, a one-time hard-boozing high-lifer with flexible ethics, now born again into religious sanctimony and gut hatred of anything irregular.
For the past year Trapp had done his best to wear down Milo- a gay cop was as irregular as they come. Closed-minded but not stupid, he went about his persecution with subtlety, avoiding deliberate gay-bashing. Choosing instead to designate Milo a “sex crimes specialist” and assign him to every homosexual murder that came up in West L.A. Exclusively.
It isolated my friend, narrowed his life, and plunged him into a roiling bath of blood and gore: boy hookers, destroyed and destroying. Corpses moldering because the morgue drivers didn’t show to pick them up, for fear of catching AIDS.
When Milo complained, Trapp insisted he was simply making use of Milo’s specialized knowledge of “the deviant subculture.” The second complaint brought him an insubordination report in his file.
Pushing the issue would have meant going up before hearing boards and hiring a lawyer- the Police Benevolent Association wouldn’t go to bat on this one. And unremitting media attention that would turn Milo into The Crusading Gay Cop. That was something he wasn’t- probably never would be- ready for. So he pushed his oars through the muck, working compulsively and starting to drink again.
The Porsche disappeared down the drive but I could still hear its engine pulsate in a chugging idle. Then the creak of the car door opening, padded footsteps, the scrape of the gate. Finally Trapp drove away- so quietly I knew he was coasting.
I waited a few minutes and stepped out of the foliage, thought about what I’d seen.
A captain checking out a routine suicide? A West L.A. captain, checking out a Hollywood Division suicide? It made no sense at all.
Or was the visit something personal? The use of the Porsche instead of an unmarked suggested just that.
Trapp and Sharon involved? Too grotesque to contemplate.
Too logical to dismiss.
I resumed my walk, climbed up to the house, and tried not to think about it.
Nothing had changed. The same high banks of ivy, so tall they seemed to engulf the structure. The same circular slab of concrete in lieu of a lawn. At the center of the slab, a raised circular bed rimmed with lava rock housed a pair of towering cocoa palms.
Beyond the palms a low-slung one-story house- gray stucco, the front windowless and flat-faced, shielded by a façade of vertically slatted wood and marked with over-sized address numerals. The roof was pitched almost flat and coated with white pebbles. Off to one side was a detached carport. No car, no signs of habitation.
At first glance, an ugly piece of work. One of those “moderne” structures that spread over postwar L.A., aging poorly. But I knew there was beauty within. A free-form cliff-top pool that wrapped itself around the north side of the house and gave the illusion of bleeding off into space. Walls of glass that afforded a breathtakingly uninterrupted canyon view.
The house had made a big impression on me, though I didn’t realize it until years later, when the time came to buy a home of my own and I found myself gravitating toward a similar ecology: hilltop remoteness, wood and glass, the indoor-outdoor blend and geologic impermanence that characterize canyon living in L.A.
The front door was unobtrusive- just another section of the slatted façade. I tried it. Locked. Looked around some more and noticed something different- a sign attached to the trunk of one of the palms.
I went over for a closer look and squinted. Just enough starlight to make out the letters:
A real estate company with an office on North Vermont, in the Los Feliz district. Below it another sign, smaller. The name and number of the salesperson. Mickey Mehrabian.
On the market before the body was cold.
Routine suicide notwithstanding, it had to be the fastest probate in California history.
Unless the house hadn’t belonged to her. But she’d told me it did.
She’d told me lots of things.
I memorized Mickey Mehrabian’s number. When I got back to the Seville, I wrote it down.
The following morning, I called the real estate office. Mickey Mehrabian was a woman with a Lauren Bacall voice, slightly accented. I made an appointment to see the house at eleven, spent the next hour thinking about the first time I’d seen it.
Something to show you, Alex.
Surprise, surprise. She’d been full of them.
I expected her to be flooded with suitors. But she was always available when I asked her out, even on the shortest notice. And when a patient crisis caused me to break a date, she never complained. Never pushed or pressured me for commitment of any sort- the least demanding human being I’d ever known.
We made love nearly every time we were together, though we never spent the night together.
At first she begged off going to my place, wanted to do it in the backseat of the car. After we’d known each other for several months she relented, but even when she did share my bed, she treated it as if it were a backseat- never completely disrobing, never falling asleep. After waking up several times from my own postcoital torpor to find her sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed, tugging her ear, I asked her what was bothering her.
“Nothing. I’m just restless- always have been. I have trouble sleeping anywhere but my own bed. Are you angry?”
“No, of course not. Is there anything I can do?”
“Take me home. When you’re ready.”
I accommodated myself to her needs: rut and run. Some of the edge was taken off my pleasure, but enough remained to keep me coming back for more.
Her pleasure- the lack of it- preyed on my mind. She went through passionate motions, moving energetically, fueled by an energy that I wasn’t sure was erotic, but she never came.
It wasn’t that she was unresponsive- she was easily moistened, always willing, seemed to enjoy the act. But climax wasn’t part of her agenda. When I was finished, she was, having given something to me, but not her self.
I knew damn well that it wasn’t right, but her sweetness and beauty- the thrill of possessing this creature I was sure everyone wanted- sustained me. An adolescent fantasy, to be sure, but a part of me wasn’t that far past adolescence.
Her arm around my waist was enough to make me hard. Thoughts of her trickled into idle moments and filled my senses. I put my doubts aside.
But eventually it started to nag at me. I wanted to give as much as I was getting, because I really cared for her.
On top of that, of course, my male ego was crying out for reassurance. Was I too quick? I worked at endurance. She rode me out, tireless, as if we were engaged in some sort of athletic competition. I tried being gentle, got nowhere, switched and did the caveman bit. Experimented with positions, strummed her like a guitar, worked over her and under her until I dripped with sweat and my body ached, went down on her with blind devotion.
I remembered the sexual inhibitions she’d projected in practicum. The case that had stymied her: communications breakdown. Dr. Kruse says we have to confront our own defense systems before being able to help others.
The attack upon her defenses had brought her to tears. I struggled to find a way to communicate without breaking her. Mentally composed and discarded several speeches before finally coming up with a monologue that seemed minimally hurtful.
I chose to deliver it as we lay sprawled in the back of the Rambler, still connected, my head on her sweatered breast, her hands stroking my hair. She kept stroking as she listened, then kissed me and said, “Don’t worry about me, Alex. I’m just fine.”
“I want you to enjoy it too.”
“Oh, I do, Alex. I love it.”
She began rocking her hips, enlarging me, then wrapping her arms around me as I continued to swell inside of her. She forced my head down, smothered my mouth with hers, tightening the pressure of her pelvis and her arms, taking charge, imprisoning me. Arcing and swallowing, rotating and releasing, heightening the pace until the pleasure was squeezed out of me in long, convulsive waves. I cried out, gloriously helpless, felt my spine shatter, my joints come loose from their sockets. When I was still, she began stroking my hair, again.
I was still erect, began to move again. She rolled out from under me, smoothed her skirt, took out a compact and fixed her makeup.
She placed a finger on my lips. “You’re so good to me,” she said. “Wonderful.”
I closed my eyes, drifted away for several moments. When I opened them she was gazing off in the distance, as if I weren’t there.
From that night on, I gave up hope of perfect love and took her selfishly. She rewarded my compliance with devotion, subservience, though I was the one being molded.
The therapist in me knew it was wrong. I employed the therapist’s rationalization to quell my doubts:
It did no good to push; she’d change when she was ready.
Summer came and my fellowship ended. Sharon had completed the first year of grad school with top grades in all her qualifying exams. I’d just passed my licensing exam and had a job lined up at Western Pediatric come autumn. Time to celebrate, but no income until autumn. The tone of the creditors’ letters had turned threatening. When the opportunity to earn some real money presented itself I grabbed it: an eight-week dance-band gig back up in San Francisco, playing three sets a night, six nights a week at the Mark Hopkins. Four grand, plus room and board at a Lombard Street motel.
I asked her to come north with me, spun visions of breakfast in Sausalito, good theater, the Palace of Fine Arts, hiking on Mt. Tamalpais.
She said, “I’d love to, Alex, but I’ve some things to take care of.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Problems back home?”
She answered quickly: “Oh, no, just the usual.”
“That doesn’t tell me a thing,” I said. “I have no idea what the usual is, because you never talk about your family.”
Soft kiss. Shrug. “They’re just a family like any other.”
“Let me guess: They want to haul you back to civilization so they can fix you up with the local scions.”
She laughed, kissed me again. “Scions? Hardly.”
I put my arm around her waist, nuzzled her. “Oh, yeah, I can see it now. In a few weeks I’ll pick up the paper and see your picture in the society pages, engaged to one of those guys with three last names and a career in investment banking.”
That made her giggle. “I don’t think so, my dear.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because my heart belongs to you.”
I took her face in my hands, looked into her eyes. “Does it, Sharon?”
“Of course, Alex. What do you think?”
“I think after all this time I don’t know you very well.”
“You know me better than anyone.”
“That’s still not very well.”
She tugged her ear. “I really care about you, Alex.”
“Then live with me when we get back. I’ll get a bigger place, a better one.”
She kissed me, so deeply I thought it signaled agreement. Then she pulled away and said, “It’s not that simple.”
“Things are just… complicated. Please, let’s not talk about this right now.”
“All right,” I said. “But consider it.”
She licked the underside of my chin, said, “Yum. Consider this.”
We began necking. I pressed her to me, buried myself in her hair, her flesh. It was like diving into a vat of sweet cream.
I unbuttoned her blouse, said, “I’m really going to miss you. I miss you already.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “We’ll have fun in September.”
Then she began unzipping my fly.
At ten-forty, I left to meet the real estate agent. The mild summer had finally begun to wilt, surrendering to high eighties’ temperatures and air that smelled like oven exhaust. But Nichols Canyon still looked fresh- sun-washed, filled with country sounds. Hard to believe Hollywood- the grifters and geeks- was only yards away.
When I got to the house the lattice gate was open. Driving the Seville up to the house, I parked it next to a big burgundy Fleetwood Brougham with chrome wire wheels, a phone antenna on the rear deck, and plates that said SELHOUS.
A tall dark brunette got out of the car. Mid-forties, aerobics-firm and shapely in tight acid-washed jeans, high-heeled boots, and a blousy, scoop-necked black suede top decorated with rhinestones. She carried a snakeskin purse, wore large onyx and glass costume jewelry and hexagonal, blue-tinted sunglasses.
“Doctor? I’m Mickey.” A wide, automatic smile spread under the glasses.
“It is Dr. Delaware?”
She pushed the glasses up her forehead, eyed the coat of dirt on the Seville, then my clothes- old cords, faded workshirt, huaraches.
Running a mental Dun and Bradstreet on me: Says he’s a doctor, but the city’s full of bullshit artists. Drives a Caddy, but it’s eight years old. Another phony putting on the dog? Or someone who once had it and lost it?
“Beautiful day,” she said, one hand on the door handle, still scrutinizing, still wary. Meeting strange men up in the hills had to give a woman frequent pause.
I smiled, tried to look harmless, said, “Beautiful,” and looked at the house. In the daylight, the déjà vu was even stronger. My personal patch of ghost town. Spooky.
She mistook my silent appraisal for displeasure, said, “There’s a fabulous view from the inside. It’s really a charmer, great bones- I think it was designed by one of Neutra’s students.”
“It just came on the market, Doctor. We haven’t even run ads- in fact, how did you find out about it?”
“I’ve always liked Nichols Canyon,” I said. “A friend who lives nearby told me it was available.”
“Oh. What kind of a doctor are you?”
“Taking a day off?”
“Half day. One of the few.”
I checked my watch and tried to look busy. That seemed to reassure her. Her smile reappeared. “My niece wants to be a psychologist. She’s a very smart little girl.”
“That’s terrific. Good luck to her.”
“Oh, I think we make our own luck, don’t we, Doctor?”
She pulled keys out of her handbag and we walked to the slatted front door. It opened to a small courtyard- a few potted plants, glass wind chimes that I remembered, dangling over the lintel, silent in the hot, static air.
We went inside and she began her spiel, all well-rehearsed pep.
I pretended to listen, nodded and said “Uh huh” at the right times, forced myself to follow, rather than lead; I knew the place better than she did.
The interior smelled of carpet cleaning fluid and pine disinfectant. Sparkly clean, expunged of death and disorder. But to me it seemed mournful and forbidding- a black museum.
The front of the house was a single open area encompassing living room, dining area, study, and kitchen. The kitchen was early deco-massacre: avocado-green cabinetry, round-edged coral-colored Formica tops, and a coral vinyl-covered breakfast nook tucked into one corner. The furniture was blond wood, synthetic pastel fabrics, and spidery black iron legs- the kind of postwar jet-streamed stuff that looks poised for takeoff. Walls, of textured beige plaster, were hung with portraits of harlequins and serene seascapes. Bracket bookshelves were crowded with volumes on psychology. The same books.
A bland, listless room, but the blandness projected the eye toward the east, toward a wall of glass so clean it seemed invisible. Panels of sheet glass, segmented by sliding glass doors.
On the other side was a narrow, terrazzo-tiled terrace rimmed with white iron railing; beyond the railing an eyeful- a mindful- of canyons, peaks, blue skies, summer foliage. “Isn’t it something,” said Mickey Mehrabian, spreading one arm, as if the panorama were a picture she’d painted.
We walked out on the terrace. I felt dizzy, remembered an evening of dancing, Brazilian guitars.
Something to show you, Alex.
Late September. I got back to L.A. before Sharon did, $4,000 more solvent, and lonely as hell. She’d left without leaving an address or number; we hadn’t exchanged as much as a postcard. I should have been angry, yet she was all I thought about as I drove down the coast.
I headed straight for Curtis Hall. The floor counselor told me she’d checked out of the dorm, wouldn’t be returning this semester. No forwarding address, no number.
I drove away, enraged and miserable, certain I’d been right: She’d been seduced back to the Good Life, plied with rich boys, new toys. She was never coming back.
My apartment looked dingier than ever. I avoided it, spent as much time as possible at the hospital, where the challenges of my new job helped distract me. I took on a full caseload from the waiting list, volunteered for the night shift in the Emergency Room. On the third day she showed up at my office, looking happy, almost feverish with delight.
She closed the door. Deep kisses and embraces. She made sounds about missing me, let my hands roam her curves. Then she pulled away, flushed and laughing. “Free for lunch, Doctor?”
She took me to the hospital parking lot, to a shiny red convertible- a brand new Alfa Romeo Spider.
“Sure, it’s great.”
She tossed me the keys. “You drive.”
We had lunch at an Italian place on Los Feliz, listened to opera and ate cannoli for dessert. Back in the car, she said, “There’s something I want to show you, Alex,” and directed me west, to Nichols Canyon.
As I pulled up the driveway to the gray, pebble-roofed house, she said, “So what do you think, Doc?”
“Who lives here?”
“You’re renting it?”
“No, it’s mine!” She got out of the car and skipped to the front door.
I was surprised to find the house furnished, even more surprised by the dated, fifties look of the place. These were the days when organic was king: earth tones, home-made candles, and batiks. All this aluminum and plastic, the flat, cold colors seemed déclassé, cartoonish.
She glided around exuding pride of ownership, touching and straightening, pulled open drapes and exposed the wall of glass. The view made me forget the aluminum.
Not a student’s pad by a long shot. I thought: an arrangement. Someone had set the place up for her. Someone old enough to have bought furniture in the fifties.
Kruse? She’d never really clarified their relationship…
“So what do you think, Doc?”
“Really something. How’d you swing it?”
She was in the kitchen, pouring 7-Up into two glasses. Pouting. “You don’t like it.”
“No, no, I do. It’s fantastic.”
“Your tone of voice tells me different, Alex.”
“I was just wondering how you managed it. Financially.”
She gave a theatrical glower and answered in a Mata Hari voice: “I haf secret life.”
“Oh, Alex, don’t be so glum. It’s not as if I slept with anybody to get it.”
That shook me. I said, “I wasn’t implying you had.”
Her grin was wicked. “But it did cross your mind, sweet prince.”
“Never.” I looked out at the mountains. The sky was pale aqua above a horizon of pinkish brown. More fifties color coordination.
“Nothing crossed my mind,” I said. “I just wasn’t prepared. I don’t see or hear from you all summer- now this.”
She handed me a soda, put her head on my shoulder.
“It’s gorgeous,” I said. “Not as gorgeous as you, but gorgeous. Enjoy it.”
“Thank you, Alex. You’re so sweet.”
We stood there for a while, sipping. Then she unlatched the sliding door and we stepped out onto the terrace. Narrow, white space cantilevering over a sheer drop. Like stepping onto a cloud. The chalky smell of dry brush rose up from the canyons. In the distance was the HOLLYWOOD sign, sagging, splintering, a billboard for shattered dreams.
“There’s a pool, too,” she said. “Around the other side.”
She smiled and leaned on the railing. I touched her hair, put my hand under her sweater and massaged her spine.
She made a contented sound, leaned against me, reached around and stroked my jaw.
“I guess I should explain,” she said. “It’s just that it’s involved.”
“I’ve got time,” I said.
“Do you really?” she asked, suddenly excited. She turned around, held my face in her hands. “You don’t have to get back to the hospital right away?”
“Nothing but meetings until six. I’m due at the E.R. at eight.”
“Great! We can sit here for a while and watch the sunset. Then I’ll drive you back.”
“You were going to explain,” I reminded her.
But she’d already gone inside and turned on the stereo. Slow Brazilian music came on- gentle guitars and discreet percussion.
“Lead me,” she said, back on the terrace. Snaking her arms around me. “In dancing the man’s supposed to lead.”
We swayed together, belly-to-belly, tongue-to-tongue. When the music ended she took my hand and led me through a short foyer into her bedroom.
More bleached, glass-topped furniture, a pole lamp, a low, wide bed with a square, bleached headboard. Above it, two narrow, high windows.
She removed her shoes. As I kicked off mine I noticed something on the walls: crude, childish drawings of apples. Pencil and crayon on oatmeal-colored pulp paper. But glass-framed and expensively matted.
Odd, but I didn’t spend much time wondering about it. She’d drawn blackout drapes across the windows, plunged the room into darkness. I smelled her perfume, felt her hand cupping my groin.
“Come,” she said- a disembodied voice- and her hands settled upon my shoulders with surprising strength. She bore down on me and lowered me to the bed, got on top of me, and kissed me hard.
We embraced and rolled, made love fully clothed. She, sitting, with her back against the headboard, legs spread and drawn up sharply, her hands clasping her knees. I, kneeling before her, as if in prayer, impaling her while gripping the top rim of the headboard.
A cramped, backseat position. When it was over she slid out from under me and said, “Now, I’ll explain. I’m an orphan. Both of my parents died last year.”
My heart was still pounding. I said, “I’m sorry-”
“They were wonderful people, Alex. Very glamorous, very gracious and courant.”
A dispassionate way to talk about one’s dead parents, but grief could take many forms. The important thing was that she was talking, opening up.
“Daddy was an art director for one of the big publishing houses in New York,” she said. “Mummy was an interior designer. We lived in Manhattan, on Park Avenue, and had a place in Palm Beach and another on Long Island- Southampton. I was their only little girl.”
The last sentence was uttered with special solemnity, as if lacking siblings were an honor of the first rank.
“They were active people, traveled a lot by themselves. But it didn’t bother me because I knew they loved me very much. Last year they were in Spain, on holiday near Majorca. They were driving home from a party when their car went off a cliff.”
I took her in my arms. She felt loose and relaxed, could have been talking about the weather. Unable to read her face in the darkness, I listened for a catch in her voice, rapid breathing, some evidence of sorrow. Nothing.
“I’m so sorry for you, Sharon.”
“Thank you. It’s been very hard. That’s why I didn’t want to talk about them- it was just too much to handle. Intellectually, I know that’s not the optimal way to deal with it, that keeping it bottled up only leads to pathological grief and raises the risk of all kinds of symptoms. But affectively, I just couldn’t talk about it. Every time I tried, I just couldn’t.”
“Don’t pressure yourself. Everyone goes at their own pace.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s true. I’m just explaining to you why I didn’t want to talk about them. Why I really still don’t, Alex.”
“I know you do.” Deep kiss. “You’re so right for me, Alex.”
I thought of the constricted way we’d just made love. “Am I?”
“Oh, God, yes. Paul-” She stopped.
“Paul approves of me?”
“It’s not like that, Alex. But, yes. Yes, he does. I always talk about how wonderful you are and he says he’s glad I’ve found someone so good for me. He likes you.”
“We’ve never met.”
“He likes what I’ve told him about you.”
“What’s the matter, Alex?”
“Sounds like you and Paul have lots to talk about.”
I felt her hand reach around and take hold of me. She squeezed gently, kneaded. This time I didn’t respond and she lowered her fingers, let them rest upon my scrotum.
“He’s my faculty adviser, Alex. He supervises my cases. That means we have to talk.” Gentle stroking. “Let’s not discuss him or anyone else anymore, okay?”
“Okay. But I’m still curious about where the house came from.”
“The house?” she said, surprised. “Oh. The house. Inheritance, of course. It belonged to them. My parents. They were both born in California, lived here before moving back East- before I was born. I was their only little girl, so it’s mine now. It took time for the estate to clear, there was so much paperwork. That’s the reason I couldn’t go with you to San Francisco- I had to clear everything up. Anyway, now I have a house and some money- there’s a trust fund, administered back East. That’s how I got the Alfa. I know it’s a little showy, but I thought it was cute. What do you think?”
She went on for a while, talking about the car, the places we could go in it.
But all I could think about was: a house. We could live here together. I was earning good money now, could pay the utilities- pay all the expenses.
“You’ve got a lot more room now,” I said, nibbling her ear. “Enough for two.”
“Oh, yes. After the dorm room, I’m looking forward to being able to stretch. And you can visit me up here, any time you want. We’ll have fun, Alex.”
“… good-sized, especially by today’s standards.”
Mickey Mehrabian was hitting her stride.
“Tremendous decorator potential, fabulous flow, and the price includes all the furnishings. Some of these pieces are really deco classics- you could keep them or sell them. Everything’s tiptop. The place is really a gem, Doctor.”
We toured the kitchen and walked through the short foyer that led to the bedrooms. The first door was closed. She passed it by. I opened it and went in.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “This was the master bedroom.”
The shampoo/disinfectant smell was stronger here, mixed with other industrial scents: the ammonia of glass cleaner, the malathion bite of insecticide, lye soap. A toxic cocktail. The drapes had been removed; only a tangle of cords and pulleys remained. All the furniture was gone. The carpet had been pulled up, revealing hardwood flooring marred by tacks. The two high windows revealed a view of tree-tops and power lines. But no breeze, no dilution of the chemical bath.
No apple drawings.
I heard a buzz. She heard it too. Both of us looked around for the source, found it immediately:
A swarm of gnats circling the center of the room, an animate cloud, its borders shifting amoebically.
Pinpointing the spot.
Despite the attempts to wash away the aura of death, the insects knew- had sensed with their primitive little gnat brains- exactly what had taken place in this room. On that spot.
I remembered something Milo had told me. Women kill in the kitchen and die in the bedroom.
Mickey Mehrabian saw the look on my face and mistook it for squeamishness.
“The open windows, this time of year,” she said. “No problem taking care of it. There’s a motivated seller, extremely flexible. I’m sure you’ll have no problem including any repairs or adjustments as contingencies during escrow, Doctor.”
“Why is he or she selling?”
The wide smile reappeared. “No he or she- an it, really. A corporation. They own lots of properties, turn them over regularly.”
The smile froze. “That’s a naughty word, Doctor. Investors.”
“Who lives here now?”
“No one. The tenant moved out recently.”
“And took the bed.”
“Yes. Only the bedroom furniture belonged to her- I believe it was a woman.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You know L.A., people coming and going. Now, let’s take a look at the other bedrooms.”
We left the death room. She asked, “Do you live alone, Dr. Delaware?”
I had to think before answering. “Yes.”
“Then you can use one of the bedrooms for a study, or even to see your patients.”
Patients. According to the newspaper, Sharon had seen her patients here.
I wondered about the people she treated. The impact her death could be having on them.
Then I realized there was someone else in her life. Someone upon whom the impact would be tremendous.
My mind went into overdrive. I wanted to be out of there.
But I let Mickey show me around, allowed her patter to pass through me for a while before consulting my watch and saying, “Oops, I’ve got to get going.”
“Do you think you’ll be putting in an offer, Doctor?”
“I need time to think about it. Thanks for showing it to me.”
“If it’s a view site you’re after, I’ve got some other listings I could show you.”
I tapped the watch. “Love to, but can’t right now.”
“Why don’t we make an appointment for another day?”
“Not even time for that,” I said. “I’ll call you when I’m free.”
“Fine,” she said, coolly.
We left the house and she locked up. We walked silently to separate Cadillacs. Before she could open the door of her Fleetwood, a hint of movement caught our attention. The rustle of foliage- burrowing animals?
A man shot out of the greenery and began running away.
“Excuse me!” Mickey called out, struggling to stay calm, her weirdo fantasies come to life.
The runner looked back, stared at us, stumbled, fell, and picked himself up again.
Young. Disheveled hair. Wild-eyed. Mouth open as if in a silent scream. Terrified, or mad, or both.
“That gate,” said Mickey. “It needs to be fixed. Better security- no problem.”
I was looking at the runner, called: “Hold on!”
“What is it? Do you know him?”
He picked up speed, disappeared around the curve in the driveway. I heard an engine start, began running myself, to the bottom of the drive. Got there just as an old green pickup pulled away from the curb. Gears grinding, swerving erratically, going too fast, weaving. Some letters were painted in white on the door, but I couldn’t make them out.
I ran back to my car, got in.
“Who is that?” said Mickey. “Do you know him?”
I managed to catch up to him, flashed my brights and honked. He ignored me, was all over the road, weaving, speeding. Then more gear-grinding as he tried to shift. The truck got stuck in neutral, slowed to a coast, the engine racing as he fed gas without disengaging the clutch. He hit the brakes suddenly, came to a full stop. I stayed back, could see him through the truck’s rear window, struggling, tugging.
The truck stalled. Started, stalled again. He began coasting, picking up some speed on the downhill, then braking, sliding, reducing it to a crawl.
At the fenced marshland he let go of the wheel and threw his hands up. The truck skidded, veered, headed straight for the chain-link fence.
He hit it, but not hard- didn’t even dent his fender. I pulled over behind him. The tires spun for a while; then the engine went dead.
Before I had a chance to get out of the car, he was out of the truck, lurching, arms hanging gorillalike, a bottle in one hand. I locked the car. He was right next to me, kicking the Seville’s tires, pressing both hands on my door. The bottle was empty. Gatorade. He raised it as if to smash my window, lost his grip and let it spin out of his hand. He followed its descent, gave up, looked at me. His eyes were watery, swollen, rimmed scarlet.
“Gonna… kill your… ass, man.” Slurred speech. Theatrical grimaces.
“The fuck… following me?”
He closed his eyes, staggered, fell forward, knocked his forehead on the roof of the car.
The brain-damaged stance of a lifelong boozehound. But his life hadn’t been that long- what was he, twenty-two or -three?
He kicked the car, grabbed the door handle, missed, and stumbled. Little more than a kid. Baby bulldog face. Short- five four or five- but strong-looking, with sloping shoulders and thick, sunburned arms. Red hair, shoulder-length, coarse, uncombed. Wispy mustache and beard the color of lint. Pimples on his brow and cheeks. He wore a sweat-stained T-shirt, cutoff shorts, tennis shoes without socks.
“Fuck, man,” he said, and scratched an armpit. His hands were blunt-edged, scarred and scabbed, caked with grime.
He rocked on his heels, finally lost balance completely and landed on his rear.
He stayed that way for a while. I slid across the seat and exited the Seville on the passenger side. He watched me, not moving, let his eyes drop shut again, as if lacking the strength to keep them open.
I walked to his truck. Thirty-year-old Ford, poorly maintained. Wobbly white letters spelled out D.J. RASMUSSEN, CARPENTRY AND FRAMING on the door. Under that, a post office box in Newhall. In the truck bed were two ladders, a toolbox, a couple of blankets weighed down by metal parts.
The interior was littered with empty bottles- more Gatorade, Southern Comfort, several brands of wine cooler.
I pocketed the key, removed the distributor cap, and returned to where he still sat.
Glazed look. Up close he smelled of ferment and vomit.
“What were you doing up there?”
“Were you paying last respects? To Dr. Ransom?”
The glaze melted fast. Right track.
“Me too,” I said.
“Fu-uck you.” Followed by a putrid belch that made me step back. He mumbled, tried to move an arm, couldn’t. Closed his eyes, seemed in pain.
I said, “I was a friend of hers.”
Belch and a gurgle. He looked ready to throw up. I took another couple of steps back, waited.
An unproductive dry retch. His eyes opened, stared at nothing.
“I was her friend,” I repeated. “How about you?”
He moaned. Dry-retched.
“Oh, man… you’re…” He trailed off.
“Fucking… with… my head.”
“I’m not trying to,” I said. “Just trying to understand why she’s dead.”
He ran his tongue over his lips, tried to spit and ended up drooling.
“If she was more than just a friend, it could be harder on you,” I said. “Losing a therapist can be like losing a parent.”
“Was she your doctor, D.J.?”
“Fuck you!” After several efforts he managed to get to his feet, came at me, fell upon me.
Limp as a bundle of rags, his arms bulky but booze-dead, carrying no punch. I stopped him easily with a hand to the chest. Took hold of his arm and sat him back down.
I showed him the cap and the keys.
“Hey, man… what the…”
“You’re in no shape to drive. I’m holding on to these until you show me you’ve got it together.”
“Fuck you.” Less conviction.
“Talk to me, D.J. Then I’ll be out of your hair.”
“About being Dr. Ransom’s patient?”
Exaggerated shake of head. “Uh-uh… not… crazy.”
“What’s your connection to her?”
“Lot of pain?”
“Hurt… fucking job.” Remembering, he bit his lip.
“Dr. Ransom was helping you with the pain?”
Nod. “And… after-” He made a feeble try for the keys. “Gimme my shit!”
“Gimme my shit, man!”
“After she helped you with the pain, then what?”
“Fuck you!” he screamed. The cords on his neck swelled; he punched out wildly, missed, tried to get up, couldn’t lift his butt from the ground.
I’d pushed a button. It set me thinking.
“Fuck nothing after! Fuck nothing!” He flapped his arms, swore, tried to get up and buckled.
“Who referred you to Dr. Ransom, D.J.?”
I repeated the question.
“There may be other patients who are feeling as bad as you do, D.J.”
He gave a sick smile, then a feeble head shake. “Uh-uh.”
“If we can find out who referred them, we can track them down. Help them.”
“No… fuck… ingway.”
“Someone should get in touch with them, D.J.”
“I’m… You’re some… fucking Robin Hood?”
“A friend,” I said. “A psychologist, like her.”
He looked around, seemed to be noticing his surroundings for the first time. “Where am I?”
“Side of the road. Just down from Dr. Ransom’s house.”
“Who’re you, some fucking… Robin Hood?”
“A friend. Who referred you to her, D.J.?”
He giggled. “Carmen… doctor.”
“What’s the name of Carmen’s doctor?”
A few more go-rounds before he said, “Bev… Hills Jew… Wein…”
I wasn’t sure if he was giving me a name or asking for a drink. “Wine?”
“Wein something? Weinstein? Weinberg?”
“Garden, grow grow grow.”
“Weingarden? Dr. Weingarden?”
“Big… mouthed Jew.”
He slumped and fell over, lay on his side.
I nudged him. Dead to the world. After copying down the post-office box number on the truck door, I searched among the bottles in the cab, found one that was half full, and emptied it. Then I let the air out of two of the tires, removed one of the blankets from the truck bed, hid the keys under the remaining two, stashed the distributor cap in the bottom compartment of his tool box. Figuring if he could work all that out, he’d be sober enough to drive. Then I spread the blanket over him and left him to sleep it off.
I drove away telling myself I’d use the post office box to reach him in a few days. Encourage him to get a new therapist.
God knew he needed the help. Through the booze haze there’d been heavy potential for violence- one of those tightly wound, pressure-cooked young bulls who let things build to an excruciating level, then blow it off without warning with fists, brass knuckles, blades, chains, and guns.
Not exactly your typical private-practice patient. Where had Sharon gotten him? How many others like him had she treated? And how many fragile personalities were on the verge of shattering because she’d no longer be there to hold them together?
I recalled Rasmussen’s sudden rage when I asked what had happened after the pain treatment was over.
An ugly hunch that I couldn’t justify, but one that refused to fade away, was that his relationship with Sharon had gone beyond treatment. Something strong enough to draw him back to her house. Searching? For what?
Following in Trapp’s footsteps…
Could she have been sleeping with both of them? I realized I’d wondered the same thing about the old sheik at the party. About Kruse, years ago.
Maybe I was getting carried away- projecting. Assuming sexual links that didn’t exist, because my own entanglement with her had been carnal.
As Milo would say: Limited thinking, pal.
But limited or not, I couldn’t shake it.
I got home at one-thirty, found messages from Maura Bannon, the student reporter, and Detective Delano Hardy. Del was on another line when I called, so I pulled out the phone book and looked for a Dr. Weingarden in Beverly Hills.
There were two by that name, an Isaac on Bedford Drive and a Leslie, on Roxbury.
Isaac Weingarden answered his own phone. He sounded like an old man, with a soft, kindly voice and a Viennese accent. When I found out he was a psychiatrist, I was certain he was my man, but he denied knowing Sharon or Rasmsussen.
“You sound upset, young man. Is there anything I can do?”
I phoned Leslie Weingarden’s office. The receptionist said, “Doctor’s with a patient now.”
“Could you please tell him it’s about Dr. Sharon Ransom.”
“Him is a her. Hold on.”
I listened to Mantovani for several minutes. Then: “Doctor can’t be disturbed. She said to take your number and she’ll get back to you.”
“Could you just tell me if Dr. Weingarden refers to Dr. Ransom?”
Hesitation. “I have no idea, sir. I’m only passing along what the doctor told me.”
At two-fifteen Del Hardy called.
“Hi, Del. How’s it going?”
“Busy. With this heat coming on, it’s going to get busier. What can I do for you?”
I told him about Sharon, about seeing Cyril Trapp. About the quick sale of the house.
“Trapp, huh? Interesting.” But he didn’t sound interested. Though he was one of the few detectives cordial with Milo, that friendliness didn’t stretch into friendship. Trapp was a burden he wasn’t willing to share.
“Nichols Canyon is Hollywood Division,” he said. “So I wouldn’t even know who’s on it. With the workload we’ve got, all the divisions are trying to clear the routine ones quickly, do lots of stuff over the phone.”
“Not usually,” he said, “but you never can tell.”
I didn’t say anything.
He said, “You say she was a friend of yours?”
“I suppose I could ask a few questions.”
“I’d really appreciate that, Del. The paper said no family members had been located. But I know she has a sister- a twin. I met her six years ago.”
I was their only little girl. Another surprise.
“Shirlee, with two e’s. She was disabled, lived in a board-and-care out in Glendale. South Brand, about a mile past the Galleria.”
“Name of the place?”
“I was only there once, never noticed.”
“I’ll check it out.” He lowered his voice. “Listen, about the Trapp thing. Captain wouldn’t be working some no-glory suicide. So his being up there was probably something personal- maybe a real estate thing. Some guys move in on properties, try to get ’ em cheap. Not in good taste, but you know how it is.”
“Donald Trump of the crime scene,” I said.
He laughed. “You got it. One other possibility- was the victim rich?”
“She came from money.”
“Then that could be it,” he said, sounding relieved. “Someone pushed a few buttons; the word came down from on high to keep it quiet, clear it quickly. Trapp used to be with Hollywood Division- maybe someone remembered that, called in a favor.”
“Happens all the time. Main thing about being rich is having stuff no one else can have, right? Nowadays, anyone can buy a Mercedes on payments. Dope, clothes, same thing. But privacy- that’s the ultimate luxury in this town.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was wondering who’d pushed the buttons. Thought, immediately, of the old sheik at the party. There was no way to pursue that with Del, so I thanked him again.
“Don’t mention it,” he said. “Hear from Milo recently?”
“No. Have you? I think he’s due back Monday.”
“Not a word. The duty roster says he’s supposed to be back in the office Monday. Knowing Milo, that means he’ll be in town Saturday or Sunday, pacing around, cussing. And none too soon, far as I’m concerned. The vermin are out in force.”
After he hung up, I looked in the Yellow Pages for a rest home on South Brand, found nothing. A few minutes later Mal Worthy called to remind me of tomorrow’s deposition. He seemed worried about my state of mind, kept asking me if I was okay.
“I’m fine,” I told him. “Perry Mason couldn’t get the better of me.”
“Mason was a wimp. Watch out for these insurance guys. By the way, Denise says definitely no more sessions for Darren. She wants to handle things by herself. But that’s off the record. As far as the other side’s concerned, the kid will be in treatment for the rest of his life. And beyond.”
“How’s Darren doing?”
“About the same.”
“Persuade her to continue treatment, Mal. If she wants someone else, I’ll get her a referral.”
“She’s pretty resolute, Alex, but I’ll keep trying. Meanwhile, I’m more concerned with helping her put food on the table. Ciao.”
I spent the next couple of hours preparing for the deposition, was interrupted by the phone.
“Dr. Delaware? Maura Bannon? L.A. Times?”
She sounded around thirteen, had a high voice with a slight lisp and a New England accent and turned her statements into questions.
“Hello, Ms. Bannon.”
“Ned Biondi gave me your number? I’m so glad I caught you- I wonder if we could meet?”
“For what purpose?”
“You knew Dr. Ransom, right? I thought maybe you could give me some background on her?”
“I don’t think I can help you.”
“Oh?” She sounded crestfallen.
“I haven’t seen Dr. Ransom in years.”
“Oh. I just thought… Well, you know, I’m trying to give a well-rounded picture, establish some context? For the profile? It’s such a strange thing, a psychologist killing herself like that- man bites dog, you know? People would be interested in finding out why.”
“Have you learned anything more than what you put in your first article?”
“No, I haven’t, Dr. Delaware. Is there anything more to find out? Because if there is, I’d surely appreciate knowing about it. I think the police have been holding back on me. I’ve put several calls in to them, but no one’s returned them.” Pause. “I don’t think they’re taking me seriously.”
Privacy, the ultimate luxury.
“I’d like to help you,” I said, “but I really have nothing to add.”
“Mr. Biondi said-”
“If I led Mr. Biondi to believe any different, I’m sorry, Ms. Bannon.”
“Okay,” she said. “But if you find out anything, please let me know?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Thanks, Dr. Delaware.”
I sat back, stared out the window, and felt the loneliness coming on.
Misery loves company- the bigger the other guy’s misery, the better the company. I called Newhall information and asked for a number on D.J. Rasmussen. No listing. Thinking of my only other connection to the young drunk, I phoned Dr. Leslie Weingarden’s office.
“I was just about to call you,” said the receptionist. “Doctor can see you after her last patient, around six.”
“I really don’t need an appointment. Just wanted to talk to her over the phone.”
“I’m telling you what she told me, Mr. Delaware.”
“Six will be fine.”
Leslie Weingarden’s building was a three-story, red brick Federal structure with limestone cornice and forest-green awnings, situated in the heart of Beverly Hills’ medical district. The interior was golden-oak raised paneling, green-and-rose carpeting. The directory listed several dozen tenants: M.D.’s, dentists, a handful of Ph.D.’s.
One of the Ph.D.’s caught my eye: KRUSE, P.P. SUITE 300. Made sense- this was couch row. But years before he’d had another address.
Leslie Weingarden’s office was on the ground floor, toward the rear of the building. Her nameplate listed her specialties as Internal Medicine and Women’s Health Issues. Her waiting room was small and decorated in budget good-cheer- white-and-gray miniprint paper, overstuffed white cotton chairs and Danish-modern tables, a scattering of art prints, a potted schefflera in a straw basket. No patients, but the remnants of the day’s traffic were apparent: gum wrappers, an empty aspirin bottle and a used emery board on the coffee table, magazines splayed open on the chairs.
I knocked on the glass partition, waited several seconds before it slid open. A Hispanic woman in her fifties looked out. “Can I help you?”
“Dr. Delaware. I have an appointment with Dr. Weingarden.”
“I’ll let her know you’re here.”
I waited for half an hour, leafing through magazines, wondering if any of them had carried Paul Kruse’s column. At six-thirty, the door to the inner office opened and a good-looking woman around thirty came out.
She was petite, very slender, with frosted short hair and a lean, alert face. She wore dangling silver earrings, a white silk blouse, pleated dove-gray gabardine slacks, and gray suede pumps. A stethoscope hung from around her neck. Under it was a heavy gold chain. Her features were delicate and regular, her eyes almond-shaped and dark brown. Like Robin’s. She wore little makeup. Didn’t have to.
I stood up.
“Mr. Delaware? I’m Dr. Weingarden.” She held out her hand and I shook it. Her bones were tiny; her grip, firm and dry. She placed both hands on her hips. “What can I do for you?”
“You referred patients to a psychologist named Sharon Ransom. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but she’s dead, committed suicide on Sunday. I wanted to talk to you about her. About getting in touch with those patients.”
No trace of shock. “Yes, I read the paper. What’s your involvement with her and her patients?”
“Mostly personal, somewhat professional.” I handed her my card.
She examined it. “You’re a psychologist too. Then it’s Dr. Delaware. Bea told me Mr.” She put the card in her pocket. “Were you her therapist?”
The question surprised me. “No.”
“Because she sure needed one.” Frown. “Why all the concern about her patients?”
“I ran into one of them today. D.J. Rasmussen. He gave me your name.”
That made her flinch but she said nothing.
“He was drunk,” I said. “Stoned drunk, really out of it. My hunch is that he was unbalanced to begin with, and is now at risk for some kind of breakdown. Maybe violence. Losing a therapist can be like losing a parent. I’ve been wondering how many of her other-”
“Yes, yes, of course. I understand all of that. But what I still don’t get is your concern. What’s your involvement in all of this?”
I thought about the best way to answer. “Some of it’s probably guilt. Sharon and I knew each other well- back in graduate school. I hadn’t seen her for years, ran into her by chance at a party last Saturday. She seemed upset about something, asked if she could talk to me. We made a date. I had second thoughts and canceled the next day. That night, she killed herself. I guess I’m still wondering if I could have stopped it. I’d like to prevent any more grief, if I can.”
She fingered her stethoscope and stared at me. “This is for real, isn’t it? You don’t work for some shyster lawyer, do you?”
“Why would I?”
She smiled. “So you want me to contact any patients I might have referred to her?”
“And tell me about any other referral sources you’re familiar with.”
The smile got cold. “That would be difficult, Dr. Delaware. Not a good idea at all- not that there were that many referrals, anyway. And I have no idea who else referred to her. Though I sure feel sorry for them.”
She stopped, seemed to be searching for words. “Sharon Ransom was a… She and I… Well, you tell me first. Why’d you break your date with her?”
“I didn’t want to get involved with her. She’s… She was a complicated woman.”
“She sure was.” She looked at her watch, removed the stethoscope. “All right, I’m going to make a call and check on you. If you’re who you say you are, we’ll talk. But I’ve got to eat first.”
She left me in the waiting room, came back several moments later, and said, “Okay,” without looking at me.
We walked a block to a coffee shop on Brighton. She ordered a tuna sandwich on rye and herb tea. I pushed rubbery scrambled eggs around on my plate.
She ate quickly, unceremoniously. Ordered a hot fudge sundae for dessert and finished half of it before pushing the dish away.
After wiping her mouth she said, “When they told me someone was calling about Sharon, frankly, I was uptight. She caused problems for me. We haven’t worked together for a long time.”
“What kinds of problems?”
“One second.” She called the waitress over and asked for a refill of tea. I ordered coffee. The check came with the drinks.
I took it. “On me.”
I smiled. “You were talking about the problems she caused.”
She shook her head. “Boy. I don’t know if I really want to get into this.”
“Confidential,” I promised.
“Legally? As in, you’re my therapist?”
“If that makes you comfortable.”
“Spoken like a true shrink. Yes, it makes me comfortable. We’re talking hot potato here-ethical problems.” Her eyes hardened. “There was no way for me to prevent it, but try telling that to a malpractice jury. When a shyster gets hold of something like that, he goes back in the chart, hits on every doc who’s ever passed the patient in the hall.”
“The last thing on my mind is fomenting a lawsuit,” I said.
“Last thing on my mind, too.” She slapped her hand on the table hard enough to make the salt shaker jump. “Darn it! She shafted me. Just thinking about her makes me mad. I’m sorry she’s dead, but I just can’t feel any grief. She used me.”
She sipped her tea.
“I only met her last year. She walked in, introduced herself, and invited me out to lunch. I knew what she was doing- hustling referrals. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve only been in practice a little over a year, have done my share of brown-nosing. And my first impression of her was very positive. She was bright, articulate, seemed to have it all together. Her résumé looked terrific- lots of varied clinical experience. Plus, she was right here, in the building- it’s always good business to cross-refer. Almost all my patients are women, most of them would be more comfortable with a female therapist, so I figured why not, give it a try. The only reservation I had was that she was so good-looking, I wondered if it mightn’t threaten some women. But I told myself that was sexist thinking, began sending her referrals- not that many, thank God. It’s a small practice.”
“Was her office on the third floor? With Dr. Kruse?”
“That’s the one. Only, he was never there, just her, by herself. She took me up there once- tiny place, just a postage-stamp waiting room and one consulting office. She was Kruse’s psychological assistant or something like that, had a license number.”
“An assistant’s certificate.”
“Whatever. Everything was kosher.”
Psychological assistant. A temporary position, aimed at providing experience for new Ph.D.’s under supervision of a licensed psychologist. Sharon had earned her doctorate six years ago, had been long eligible for full licensure. I wondered why she hadn’t gotten it. What she’d done for six years.
“Kruse wrote her this terrific letter of recommendation,” she said. “He was a faculty member at the University, so I figured that counted for something. I really expected it to work out. I was blown away when it didn’t.”
“Do you still have that résumé?”
“Remember anything else from it?”
“Just what I told you. Why?”
“Trying to backtrack. How did she shaft you?”
She gave me a sharp look. “You mean you haven’t figured it out?”
“My guess would be sexual misconduct- sleeping with her patients. But most of your patients are women. Was she gay?”
She laughed. “Gay? Yeah, I could see how you might think that. Frankly, I don’t know what she was. I was raised in Chicago. Nothing about this city surprises me anymore. But no, she didn’t sleep with women- as far as I know. We’re talking men. Husbands of patients. Boyfriends. Men won’t go into therapy without prodding. The women have to do everything- getting the referral, making the appointment. My patients asked me for referrals, and I sent half a dozen to Sharon. She thanked me by sleeping with them.”
“How’d you find out?”
She looked disgusted. “I was doing my books, checking out bad debts and failure-to-shows and I noticed that most of the women whose husbands I’d sent her hadn’t paid or kept their follow-ups. It stood out like a sore thumb, because other than those, my collections were excellent, my return rate close to perfect. I started calling around, to find out what had happened. Most of the women wouldn’t speak to me- some even hung up on me. But two of them did talk. The first let me have it with both barrels. Seems her husband had seen Sharon for a few sessions- something to do with job stress. She taught him to relax; that was it. A few weeks later she called him and offered a follow-up session. Free of charge. When he showed up she tried to seduce him, really came on strong- she took her clothes off, for God’s sake, right there in the office. He walked out on her, went home and told his wife. She was livid, screaming that I should be ashamed of myself for associating with a conniving, amoral bitch like that. The second one was worse. She just cried and cried.”
She rubbed her temples, took an aspirin out of her purse, and swallowed it with tea.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it? Free follow-up visits. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop- as in see-you-in-court. I’ve lost plenty of sleep over it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Not as sorry as I am. Now you tell me Rasmussen’s all freaked out. Great.”
“He was one of them?”
“Oh, yeah, a real prince. His girlfriend is the one who just cried. One of my walk-in patients, not too sophisticated, vague psychosomatic complaints- she needed attention. I got to know her a little and she started opening up about him- how he drank too much, took dope, pushed her around. I spent lots of time counseling her, trying to show her what a loser he was, get her to leave him. Of course she didn’t. One of those passive types with an abusive father who keeps hooking up with papa surrogates. Then she told me the bum had injured himself on the job, was having back pain, and was thinking of suing. It was his lawyer who suggested he see a shrink- did I know one? I figured here was a chance to get him some help for his head and sent him to Sharon, told her all about his other problems. Boy, did she help him. How’d you meet him?”
“He was up at her house this morning.”
“Up at her house? She gave a jerk like that her home address? What an idiot.”
“She had an office there.”
“Oh, yeah- the paper mentioned that. Makes sense, actually, because she moved out of this building right after I confronted her about the hanky-panky. Got a diagnosis on Rasmussen?”
“Some kind of personality disorder. Possible violent tendencies.”
“In other words, a troublemaker. Terrific. He’s the weakest link, a woman-hater with low impulse control. And he’s already got a shyster. Wonderful.”
“He won’t sue for sexual harassment,” I said. “Few men would. Too embarrassing.”
“Frontal assault upon the old machismo? I sure hope you’re right. So far, no one’s made any moves. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to. And even if I’m spared legal grief, she’s already cost me plenty in terms of my reputation- one patient bad-mouthing to ten others. And none of the dropouts paid me for work I’d already done- we’re talking solid four figures in lab fees alone. I’m not established enough to kiss off that kind of loss without pain- there’s a doctor glut here on the West Side. Where do you practice?”
“Here on the West Side, but I work with kids.”
“Oh.” She drummed her nails along the rim of the teacup. “I probably sound pretty mercenary to you, huh? Here you are, talking altruism, debriefing patients, all that good Hippocratic stuff. And all I’m worried about is covering my butt. But I make no excuses for it, ’cause if I don’t cover my butt, no one else will do it for me. When I came out from Northwestern to do my internship at Harbor General, I met the greatest guy in the world, married him three weeks later. A screenwriter, doing research at the hospital for a miniseries. Pow, love at first sight. All of a sudden I had a house in Playa Del Rey, till death do us part. He said he was turned on by my being a doctor, pledged he’d never leave me. Two years later he left me. Cleaned out our bank account and went to Santa Fe with some bimbo. It’s taken me two years to climb out of it.”
She looked inside the cup as if searching for gypsy leaves. “I’ve worked too darned hard to get this far and see some nymphomaniac ruin it all, so, no, I won’t be calling to debrief any of the men she screwed. They’re big boys- they can handle it. Probably turned it into a conquest by now, convinced themselves they’re hot studs. You let it rest, too, Dr. Delaware. Keep her buried.”
She’d let her voice rise. People were staring. She noticed and lowered it. “How does someone like that become a therapist anyway? Don’t you people do any screening?”
“Not enough,” I said. “How did she react when you confronted her?”
“Weirdly. Just looked at me with those big blues, all innocent, as if she didn’t know what I was talking about, then started in with the uh-huhs, as if she were trying to play therapist with me. When I was through she said, ‘Sorry,’ and just walked away. No explanation, no nothing. The next day I saw her carrying boxes out of the office.”
“As her supervisor, Kruse was legally responsible for her. Did you talk to him?”
“I tried to. Must have called him twenty times. I even slipped messages under the door. He never responded. I got pretty steamed, thought of filing a complaint. In the end I figured good riddance, just dropped it.”
“His name’s still on the office directory. Does he practice here?”
“Like I said, I’ve never seen him. And when I was looking for him, I spoke to the janitor and he said he’d never seen him. Ten to one Kruse set it up for her. She was probably screwing him too.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because screwing men was her thing, right? It was what she did. Probably screwed her way to that Ph.D.”
I thought about that, got lost in thoughts.
She said, “You’re not going to pursue this debriefing stuff any further, are you?”
“No,” I said, making the decision at that moment. “What you’ve told me puts things in a different light. But we should do something about Rasmussen. He’s a time bomb.”
“Let him blow himself up- more good riddance.”
“What if he hurts someone else?”
“What could you do to prevent that anyway?”
I had no answer.
“Listen,” she said, “I want to make myself very clear. I want out- free of all the garbage, the worrying. Got that?”
“I sure hope you mean that. If you use anything I’ve said to connect me with her, I’ll deny saying it. The files of all the patients she saw have been destroyed. If you mention my name, I’ll sue you for breach of confidentiality.”
“Take it easy,” I said. “You’ve made your point.”
“I certainly hope so.” She snatched the check out of my hands and stood. “I’ll pay my own way, thank you.”
Free follow-up visits. That brought back something I’d worked hard at forgetting.
Driving home, I wondered how many men Sharon had victimized, how long it had been going on. It was impossible now for me to imagine a man in her life without assuming a carnal link.
Trapp. The sheik. D.J. Rasmussen. Victims all?
I wondered especially about Rasmussen. Had he still been involved with her at the time of her death? It could explain why the loss had hit him so hard. Why he’d drunk himself stuporous, made a pilgrimage to her house.
Meeting another pilgrim: me.
How does someone like that become a therapist anyway? Don’t you people do any screening?
I hadn’t screened her out of my life, had long rationalized it by telling myself I’d been young and naïve, too green to know any better. Yet three days ago I’d been jacked up and ready to see her again. Ready to start… what?
The fact that I’d broken the date was small comfort. What would have happened had she phoned, put a catch in her voice, told me what a wonderful guy I was? Would I have been able to resist being needed? Spurned the opportunity to hear about her “problem,” maybe even solve it?
I didn’t have an honest answer. Which said plenty about my judgment. And my mental health.
I lapsed into the esteem-sapping self-doubts I’d thought resolved during my training therapy: What gave me the right to mold other people’s lives when I couldn’t get my own life straight? What made me an authority on other people’s kids when I’d never raised a child of my own?
Dr. Expert. Who the hell was I kidding?
I remembered the good-mother smile of my training therapist, Ada Small. Soft voice. Brooklyn accent. Soft eyes. Unconditional acceptance; even the tough messages sweetened by kindness…
… your strong need to always be in control, Alex. It’s not a totally bad thing, but at some point we will need to examine it…
Ada had taken me a long way; I’d been lucky to be assigned to her. Now we were colleagues, cross-referring, discussing patients; it had been a long time since I’d related to her as a patient. Could I ever go back to showing her my scars?
Sharon hadn’t been so lucky with her assignment. Paul Peter Kruse. Power junkie. Pornographer. Equal opportunity flogger. I could only imagine what training therapy with him had been like. Yet she’d stayed with him long after graduating, remained his assistant instead of getting her license.
Doing her dirty work in space he leased. It said as much about her as about him, and I had to wonder who’d called the shots in their relationship.
But her last victim had been herself. Why?
I forced myself to stop thinking about it, pushed Robin’s face into my mind. No matter how things turned out, what we’d had once had been real.
The moment I got home I called San Luis Obispo.
“Alex? Mom said you called. I tried to reach you several times.”
“Just got in. Mom and I had a charming conversation.”
“Oh. Did she give you a hard time?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Main thing is, how’s she treating you?”
She laughed. “I can handle her.”
“You sure? You sound wiped out.”
“I am wiped out, but that has nothing to do with her. Aaron’s turned out to be a screamer- Terry’s up all night. I’ve been relieving her- never been so exhausted in my life.”
“Good. Maybe you’ll yearn for the good old days and come back.”
“Anyway,” I said, “I just thought I’d call and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m hanging in. How are you doing, Alex?”
“Would you believe semi-dandy?”
“What’s the matter, Alex?”
“You sound as if something’s weighing on you.”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “It just hasn’t been a great week, so far.”
“I’m sorry, Alex. I know you’ve been patient-”
“No,” I said, “it has nothing to do with you.”
“Oh?” she said, sounding more hurt than relieved.
“Someone I knew back in school committed suicide.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Did you know this person well?”
That gave me pause. “No,” I said, “not really.”
“Still,” she said, “that kind of thing’s so upsetting to hear.”
“How about we change the subject.”
“Sure- did I say something wrong?”
“No, nothing. I just don’t feel like getting into it.”
“All right,” she said.
“Anyway, I’ll let you go now.”
“I’m not rushing anywhere.”
But we found little more to talk about and when I hung up I felt empty. I filled the void with memories of Sharon.
That second autumn, we remained lovers, of sorts. When I managed to reach her she always said yes, always had sweet things to say, stimulating bits of academic knowledge to share. She whispered in my ear, rubbed my back, spread her legs for me with the ease of applying her lipstick, insisting I was her guy, the only man in her life. But reaching her was the challenge. She was seldom home, never left a clue to her whereabouts.
Not that I was knocking myself out trying to find her. The hospital owned me fifty hours a week and I’d taken on private patients at night, in order to save up the down payment on a house of my own. I kept busy solving the problems of others and ignoring my own.
A couple of times I dropped in on her unannounced, making the drive up Jalmia only to find the gray house locked, the carport empty. I gave up trying, went without seeing her for a couple of weeks. But late one Saturday night, stuck in the stop-and-go on Sunset after a wrenching evening with the parents of a mercilessly deformed newborn baby, I found myself wanting a shoulder to cry on. Like a homing pigeon I veered north to Hollywood Boulevard, turned off at Nichols Canyon. When I pulled up the driveway, the Alfa Romeo was sitting there.
The front door was unlocked. I walked in.
The living room was brightly lit but empty. I called her name. No answer. Repeated it. Nothing.
I checked her bedroom, half expecting to find her with another man. Half wanting to.
But she was in there, alone, sitting cross-legged on the bed, stark naked, eyes closed, as if meditating.
I’d entered her body so many times, but this was the first time I’d seen it unclothed. She was flawless, unbelievably rich. I restrained myself from touching her, whispered, “Sharon.”
She didn’t budge.
I wondered if she was engaging in some kind of self-hypnosis. I’d heard Kruse was a master hypnotist. Had he been giving her private lessons?
But she looked stricken rather than entranced- frowning, breathing rapidly and shallowly. Her hands began to tremble. I noticed something in the right one.
A small black-and-white snapshot, the old-fashioned type, with sawtooth edges.
I came closer and looked at it. Two little beautiful black-haired girls, about two or three years old. Identical twins with Shirley Temple curls, sitting side by side on a wooden garden bench, clear skies and dark, brooding granite mountains in the background. Picture-postcard mountains, perfect enough to be a photographer’s backdrop.
The twins looked solemn and posed. Too solemn for their age. They’d been dressed in identical cowgirl suits- chaps, fringes, rhinestones- and held identical ice cream cones. Carbon copies of each other except for one small detail: One girl clutched her cone in her right hand; the other, in her left.
Their features were set, hyper-mature.
Sharon’s features, times two.
I was their only little girl.
I looked up at her, touched her bare shoulder, expecting the usual heat. But she felt cold and dry, strangely inorganic.
I leaned down and kissed the back of her neck. She jumped, cried out as if bitten. Striking out with her fists, she fell back on the bed, legs wide-flung in a helpless caricature of sexual welcome, panting, staring up at me.
She was looking at me as if I were a monster. Her mouth opened in a silent scream.
The snapshot fell to the floor. Picking it up, I saw something written on the back. A single sentence, in a strong hand.
S and S. Silent partners.
I turned the photo over, looked at the twins again.
“No!” she screamed as she sprang up and charged me. “No, no, no! Gimme, gimme! Mine, mine! Gimme!”
She clawed for the picture. Her fury was absolute, a hellish transformation. Stunned, I tossed it onto the bed.
She snatched it, clutched it to her chest, got up on all fours and crawled backward until she was up against the headboard. Her free hand struck out at the air between us, defining a no man’s land. Her hair was tangled, Medusa-wild. She got to her knees, swayed and shook, big breasts bobbling.
“Sharon, what’s the matter-”
“Go! Get out! Go! Go! Get out! Go!”
Sweat poured out of her, flowed down her body. Hot pink patches rose on the snow of her skin, as if she were burning from within.
She hissed at me, then whimpered and curled fetally, holding the snapshot to her heart. I watched it rise and fall with each labored breath. Took a step forward.
“No! Get out! Get out!”
The look in her eyes was murderous.
I backed out of the room, ran from the house, feeling dizzy, sick, sucker-punched.
Certain that whatever we had was over.
Not knowing if that was good or bad.
Wednesday morning I was back in Beverly Hills, in the penthouse offices of Trenton, Worthy and La Rosa. Waiting to give my deposition in a rosewood-paneled conference room slathered with abstract art and furnished with butter-colored leather chairs and a football-shaped smoked-glass table.
Mal sat next to me, grubbily trendy in an unstructured silver silk suit, five-day beard, and shoulder-length hair. Behind us was a blackboard on a rosewood easel, and a luggage rack holding a calfskin suitcase- Mal’s one-up on briefcase toters. Across the table sat a legal reporter with a steno machine. Surrounding her were eight- not seven- attorneys.
“Insurance company sent three,” Mal whispered to me. “Those first three.”
I looked at the trio. Young, pin-striped, funereal.
Their spokesman was a big, prematurely bald fellow in his early thirties named Moretti. He had a meaty cleft chin, wide shoulders, and the charm of a drill instructor. One of Mal’s secretaries served coffee and sweet rolls, and as we ate, Moretti made a point of letting me know he’d been a psych major at Stanford. He dropped the names of prominent professors, tried unsuccessfully to engage me in shoptalk, and watched me over the rim of his coffee cup with sharp brown eyes.
When I presented my report he moved to the edge of his chair. When I finished he was the first to speak. The other lawyers deferred to him. Like any wolf pack, they’d chosen their lead killer and were content to sit back and let him open the first wounds.
He reminded me that I was legally bound to tell the truth, just as if I were in court, that I was testifying under penalty of perjury. Then he removed a phone-book-thick pile of photocopied articles from his briefcase and made a show of stacking the papers on the table, shuffling and sorting and squaring off the corners. Lifting the top article, he said, “I’d like to read you something, Doctor.”
He smiled. “I really wasn’t asking permission, Doctor.”
“I really wasn’t granting it.”
The smile disappeared. Mal nudged me under the table. Someone coughed. Moretti tried staring me down, then put on a pair of rimless octagonal glasses, cleared his throat, and began to read. He finished a paragraph before turning to me. “Familiar, Doctor?”
“Do you remember the source?”
“It’s the introduction to an article I published in The Journal of Pediatrics in 1981. Summer of ’81, I believe. August.”
He examined the date but didn’t comment on it. “Do you remember the gist of that article, Doctor?”
“Could you summarize it for us?”
“The article describes a study I did from 1977 through 1980, when I was at Western Pediatric Hospital. The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and was designed to learn the effects of chronic disease upon the psychological adjustment of children.”
“Was it a well-designed study, Doctor?”
“I believe so.”
“You believe so. Tell us what you did in this well-designed study- be specific about your methodology.”
“I administered several tests of psychological adjustment to a sample of sick children and a control group of healthy children. The groups were matched in terms of social class, parental marital status, and family size. There was no significant difference between the groups.”
“No significant difference on any measure of psychological adjustment?”
Moretti looked over at the legal reporter. “He talks fast. Do you have that down?”
Back to me: “For the sake of those of us who aren’t familiar with psychological jargon, specify what no significant difference means.”
“The groups were statistically indistinguishable. The average scores on these measures were similar.”
“Median- the fifty percent mark. Mathematically, it’s the best measure of typicality.”
“Yes, of course, but what does all of that mean?”
“Chronically ill children may develop some problems but being sick doesn’t inevitably make them neurotic or psychotic.”
“Hold on for a moment,” said Moretti, patting the stack of papers. “I don’t see mention of any problems here, Doctor. Your basic finding was that the sick children were normal.”
“That’s true. However-”
“You spell it out right here, Doctor.” He held up the article, flipped a page, and jabbed his finger at it. “Right here in Table Three. ‘Spielberger State Anxiety scores, Rosenberg self-esteem scores, Achenbach Adjustment scores were all’- and I’m quoting verbatim-‘within normal limits.’ Put in simple English, these kids were no more nervous or insecure or maladjusted or neurotic than their healthy peers, were they, Doctor?”
“This is starting to sound argumentative,” said Mal. “We’re here to find facts.”
“Quasi-facts, at best,” said Moretti. “This is psychology, not science.”
“You quoted the article, Counselor,” said Mal.
“Your witness’s report seems to be contradicting his own published work, Counselor.”
“Would you like me to answer your question?” I asked Moretti.
He removed his glasses, sat back, and gave a quarter-smile. “If you can.”
“Read the discussion section,” I said. “The last three paragraphs specifically. I list several problem areas chronically ill children have to deal with throughout their lives- pain and discomfort, disruption of school due to treatment and hospitalization, body changes brought about by both disease and treatment, social rejection, overprotectiveness by parents. In general, children cope well with these problems, but problems still exist.”
“The discussion section,” said Moretti. “Aha. The place researchers dump their conjectures. But your own data- your statistics say otherwise. Really, Doctor-”
“In other words,” Mal broke in, turning to me, “what you’re saying, Dr. Delaware, is that sick children and traumatized children face a constant flood of challenges- life is agonizing for them- but some are able to handle it.”
Mal swept his eyes up and down the table, avoiding Moretti, establishing momentary eye contact with each of the other lawyers. “No reason to penalize a child for coping well, is there, gentlemen?”
“Who’s the witness here?” snapped Moretti, waving the reprint.
“No reason to penalize a child for dealing with his trauma,” said Mal.
“Trauma?” said Moretti. “There’s nothing in this article about traumatized children,” said Moretti. “These are chronically ill kids-chronic, as in long-term. Darren Burkhalter is a one-shot deal. He has no ongoing pain or physical change to deal with. He’d be even less vulnerable to problems than someone chronically disabled.”
He allowed himself a full smile.
To him it was all a game. I thought of little boys engaging in back-alley pissing contests and said, “Good point, Mr. Moretti. Chronically ill and traumatized children are very different. That’s why I was wondering why you quoted from the article in the first place.”
A couple of the other lawyers smiled.
“Touché,” Mal whispered in my ear.
One of the other insurance lawyers was whispering in Moretti’s ear. The lead man wasn’t pleased with what he was hearing but he listened impassively, then put the reprint aside.
“All right, Doctor, let’s talk about the whole notion of early childhood trauma. Your conclusion, as I understand it, is that Darren Burkhalter will be scarred emotionally, for life, because of his presence during an automobile accident.”
“You understand wrong,” I said. Moretti reddened. Mal raised his eyebrows and gave a soft whistle.
“What I did say, Mr. Moretti, was that during my examination of him, Darren Burkhalter exhibited classic symptoms of trauma for a child his age. Sleep problems, nightmares, phobias, aggressiveness, hyperactivity, tantrums, periods of increased clinginess. According to both his mother and his day-care teacher, he showed none of these behaviors prior to the accident. It’s reasonable to assume they were related to the accident- though I can’t prove that with hard data. Whether or not these problems will develop into chronic disabilities isn’t clear, although the risk is high if psychotherapy doesn’t continue. In addition, Darren is lagging in his speech and language development- his milestones are several months behind average. How much of that is due to the trauma is impossible to judge, but it’s well worth thinking about when considering this child’s future.”
“It certainly is impossible to judge,” said Moretti. “My reading of the literature in your field is that intelligence is primarily genetically determined. The best predictor of a child’s IQ is his father’s IQ- Katz, Dash, and Ellenberg, 1981.”
“This father’s IQ will never be tested again,” said Mal.
“In lieu of that, I requested that Mrs. Burkhalter take an IQ test, but you refused that request, Mr. Worthy.”
“She’s had enough stress, Counselor.”
“No matter,” said Moretti. “Inferences may still be drawn from what we know of these people. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Burkhalter finished high school. Both were dropouts, worked at menial jobs. That indicates a less than average genetic endowment for this family. I wouldn’t expect Darren to be average. Would you, Dr. Delaware?”
“It’s hardly that simple,” I said. “Parental IQ predicts children’s IQ better than most other factors, but it’s still not a very good predictor, accounting for less than twenty percent of the variance. Katz, Dash, and Ellenberg emphasize that in their follow-up 1983 study. One out of five, Mr. Moretti. Not great odds for a bet.”
“Are you a gambler, Doctor?”
“No. That’s why I took this case.”
The reporter smiled.
Moretti turned to Mal. “Counselor, I’d advise that you counsel this witness on appropriate demeanor.”
“Consider yourself advised, Dr. Delaware,” said Mal, fighting a grin. He flashed his cuffs and studied his Rolex. “May we proceed?”
Moretti put his glasses back on and scanned some papers. “Dr. Delaware,” he said, then paused as if anticipating a punch line. “Come now, Dr. Delaware. You’re not saying that except for the accident, Darren Burkhalter would have been expected to become a nuclear physicist, are you?”
“No one knows what Darren would have become or what he will become,” I said. “Right now, the facts are that following an unusually severe psychological trauma, his language is below average and he’s experiencing severe stress.”
“What was his language like before the accident?”
“His mother reports he was starting to talk. However, after the traum-”
“His mother,” said Moretti. “And you base your conclusions on what she tells you.”
“Along with other input.”
“Such as your interview with his day-care teacher.”
“His teacher’s your expert witness?”
“She seemed very credible and had a good understanding of Darren. She reported that the parents were very involved, very loving. His father, in particular, had taken an interest in his-”
“Yes, let’s talk about his father. Gregory Joe Burkhalter had a criminal record. Are you aware of that, Doctor?”
“Yes I am. A conviction for petty theft, several years ago.”
“Petty theft and larceny, Doctor. He did jail time.”
“What’s the point?” asked Mal.
“The point, Mr. Worthy, is that your expert, basing his opinion on an individual who would not qualify as an expert in court, wants to make a case for this father being a major source of intellectual stimulation for this child, hence major material and emotional loss due to paternal death. This father was a criminal, minimally educated…”
“Mr. Moretti,” I said, “is it your position that only educated parents are worth grieving for?”
He ignored me. “… while, in point of fact, the data pertaining to the case in point indicate a socially and emotionally impoverished…”
He went on for a while, picking up volume and speed, fairly glowing with combat lust. Mal, too, was caught up in the joust, poised for the riposte.
More pissing. And the truth be damned. It started to really get to me and I broke in, raising my voice to be heard over the tide of legalese: “Mr. Moretti, you’re a classic case of a little knowledge being dangerous.”
Moretti rose half out of his seat, caught himself, then settled back down and bared his teeth. “Getting defensive, Doctor?”
“This was supposed to be a fact-finding meeting. If you want to hear what I have to say, fine. If you want to play ego games, I won’t waste my time.”
Moretti clucked his tongue. “Mr. Worthy, if this is a portent of his courtroom behavior, you’re in a heap of trouble, Counselor.”
Mal said nothing. But he scrawled on his note pad: Have I created a monster? then covered it with his hand.
Moretti didn’t miss it: “Anything we should have on the record, Counselor?”
“Just doodling,” said Mal and he began to sketch a naked woman.
“We were talking about childhood trauma,” I said to Moretti. “Would you like me to address that issue or am I through?”
Moretti tried to look amused. “You may address it if you have something to add to your report.”
“Since you drew faulty conclusions from my report, I have plenty to add. Darren Burkhalter is suffering a post-traumatic stress reaction that may convert to long-term psychological problems. Brief play therapy and counseling for the mother have brought about some symptom reduction but much more treatment is indicated.” To the other lawyers: “I’m not saying long-term psychological problems are inevitable, but neither will I rule problems out. No reasonable expert would.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Moretti, “this child is two years old.”
“Same difference. He was eighteen months at the time of the accident. You’re telling me that you’ll be willing to go into court and testify under oath that when he’s twenty-six years old, he could be psychologically affected by an accident that took place when he was a baby?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you. A traumatic scene that vivid and bloody, buried in his subconscious-”
Moretti snorted. “What does a subconscious look like, Doctor? I’ve never seen one.”
“Nevertheless, you have one, Mr. Moretti. As do I and everyone else in this room. In simple terms, the subconscious is a psychic storage bin. The part of our mind where we put experiences and feelings we don’t want to deal with. When our defenses are down, the bin tips over and some of the stored material spills out- dreams, fantasies, seemingly irrational or even self-destructive behaviors that we call symptoms. The subconscious is real, Mr. Moretti. It’s what makes you dream of winning. A big part of what motivated you to become a lawyer.”
That got to him. He took pains to be cool but his eyes twitched, his nostrils opened, and his mouth drew so tight it puckered.
“Thank you for that insight, Doctor. Send me a bill- though judging from what you’re charging Mr. Worthy, I don’t know if I can afford you. In the meantime, let’s stick to the accident-”
“Accident doesn’t begin to describe what Darren Burkhalter experienced. Disaster would be more accurate. The boy was napping in his car up until the moment of impact. The first thing he saw when he woke up was his father’s decapitated head flying over the front seat and landing next to him, the features still twitching.”
Several of the lawyers winced.
“It missed falling right in his lap by inches,” I said. “Darren must have thought it was some kind of doll because he tried to pick it up. When he pulled away his hand and saw it covered with blood- saw what it really was- he went hysterical. And stayed hysterical for five full days, Mr. Moretti, screaming ‘Dada!’ totally out of control.”
I paused to let the image sink in. “He knew what was happening, Mr. Moretti- he’s played it out in my office every time he’s been there. He’s clearly old enough to form a durable memory. I’ll quote you statistics on that, if you’d like. And that memory won’t disappear simply because you want it to.”
“A memory that you’re keeping alive by making him go through it over and over again,” said Moretti.
“So what you’re asserting,” I said, “is that psychotherapy is making him worse. That we should simply forget about it or pretend it didn’t happen.”
“Double touché,” whispered Mal.
Moretti was bug-eyed. “It’s your position that’s under scrutiny, Doctor. I want to see you back up all this early trauma talk with data.”
“I’d be happy to.”
I had my own stack of articles, pulled them out, cited references, tossed out numbers, and gave a somewhat manic lecture on the development of memory in children and their reactions to disaster and trauma. I used the blackboard to summarize my findings.
“Generalizations,” said Moretti. “Clinical impressions.”
“You’d prefer something more objective?”
He smiled. “It would be nice.”
A secretary rolled in the video monitor, slipped the tape into the VCR, dimmed the lights, and pushed the PLAY button.
When it was over, dead silence. Finally, Moretti smirked and said, “Planning a second career in the film business, Doctor?”
“I’ve seen and heard enough,” said one of the other attorneys. He closed his briefcase and pushed his chair from the table. Several others did the same.
“Any more questions?” asked Mal.
“Nope,” said Moretti. But he looked buoyant and I experienced a pang of self-doubt. He winked and saluted me. “See you in court, Doctor.”
When they were all gone, Mal slapped his knee and did a little dance.
“Right in the cojones, absolutely beautiful. I should be getting their offers this afternoon.”
“I made a stronger case than I’d intended,” I said. “Bastard got to me.”
“I know, you were beautiful.” He began collecting his papers.
“What about Moretti’s parting shot?” I asked. “He looked happy about going to court.”
“Pure crapola. Saving face in front of his partners. He may be the last to settle, but believe me, he’ll settle. Some asshole, eh? Has a rep as a real black-hearted litigator, but you slammed him good- your little jibe about the subconscious was right on the mark, Alex.”
He shook his head with glee. “God knows how tight he had to hold his sphincter not to shit right then and there. ‘And a big part of what motivated you to become a lawyer.’ I didn’t tell you this, but Moretti’s dad was a big-shot psychiatrist in Milwaukee, did a lot of forensics work. Moretti must have hated him because he really has a thing for shrinks- that’s why they assigned him this one.”
“Stanford psych major,” I said. “Blah blah blah blah blah.”
Mal raised his arm in mock terror. “Boy, you’ve really become a nasty bastard, haven’t you.”
“Just tired of the bullshit.” I walked to the door. “Don’t call me for a while, okay?”
“Hey, don’t get me wrong, Alex. I’m not putting you down. I like it, I mean I really like it.”
“Flattered,” I said. And I left him to his triumphs and his calculations.
When I got back home the phone was ringing. I picked it up at the same time the service operator did, heard Del Hardy’s voice asking for Dr. Delaware. I broke in and told the operator I’d take it.
“I found out a little,” he said. “Couldn’t get much help at Hollywood but spoke to one of the coroners. You in any mood to hear that kind of thing?”
“Okay, first off is time of death- between eight P.M. and three A.M. Sunday. Second is cause of death. Twenty-two caliber bullet to the brain. It passed right into the cerebral cortex and bounced around in there, the way a small-caliber bullet will, doing lots of damage. Third, there were heavy amounts of alcohol and barbiturates in her system- borderline lethal dosage. Coroner also found some old scars between her toes that looked like tracks. You ever know this lady to be into heavy drugs?”
“No,” I said. “But it was a long time ago.”
“Yeah. People change. It’s what keeps us busy.”
“OD and a bullet,” I said.
“Seriousness of intent,” said Del. “Especially for a female, though if she really wanted to be sure, eating the gun would have been the thing to do, straight into the medulla, wipes out the autonomic system and cuts off respiration. But most folks don’t know that, they watch TV, think the temple shot…” He stopped. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “With that much downer in her system, wouldn’t she be too drowsy to shoot?”
“Not right away,” said Del. “Now here’s the interesting part: Coroner told me their office processed the case quickly, orders of the boss- their usual average is six to eight weeks this time of year. They got orders, also, not to discuss it with anyone.”
“Why all the secrecy?”
“Pathologist got the clear impression it was a rich-folks case, grease the skids to the max, keep it hushed.”
“The department released information to the press.”
“Controlled info,” said Del. “Strategic thinking. If you say nothing about something, and someone finds out you were holding back, they immediately start thinking conspiracy. Telling them what you want is safer, makes you look open and sincere. Not that there’s much to tell on this one- straight suicide, no evidence of foul play. As far as the drug-gun combo, the pathologist had two scenarios: A, she cocktailed booze and dope to do herself in, then changed her mind and wanted to get it over faster or maybe more dramatically and went for the gun. Makes sense to me- suicide’s a message, right? You guys taught us that- final statement to the world. People can get really choosy about how they phrase it, right?”
“Right. What’s B?”
“She used the dope and the booze to lower her inhibitions, build up enough courage to shoot herself. When she was feeling sufficiently mellow, she pulled the trigger. Either way you look at it, the end result’s the same.”
“Did she leave a note?”
“No. Lots of people don’t. Right?”
“Like that Canadian guy, McWhatsisname said, the medium can be the message all by itself.”
“Who’s the detective in charge of the case?” I asked.
“Guy named Pinckley, just left yesterday for vacation in Hawaii.”
“I wouldn’t get in an uproar over that,” said Del. “Vacations are scheduled way in advance. Pinckley’s a serious surfer- he used to compete nationally. He goes every year around this time, in order to catch the big ones at Wiamea. I called Hollywood and confirmed it- the duty roster’d been set months ago.”
“Who took over from Pinckley?”
“Nothing to take over, Doc. The case is closed.”
“What about Trapp being up at her house?”
He lowered his voice. “I said I found out a little, remember? That didn’t include walking into my captain’s office and giving him the third degree.”
“No apology necessary. Just gotta be careful.”
“Anything else, Del?”
Pause. “How well did you say you knew her?”
“It had been six years since I’d seen her.”
“Well enough to know that she wasn’t any nun?”
“Okay. If you were next of kin or a husband, I wouldn’t be telling you this. It’s strictly off the record. My source at Hollywood says there’s a rumor drifting around the station that when they went up to her place, one of the techs found a porn flick hidden under the mattress- nothing sophisticated, just a loop. But a loop with her in it. She might have been a doctor but she had other talents.”
I sucked in my breath.
“Is the loop still in the evidence room, Del?”
“Not everything makes it to the evidence room.”
“Case like this, it works out better for the lady. What’s better, having the damned thing stored in some cop’s underwear drawer, pulled out once in a blue moon for private screenings, or letting the papers get hold of it-‘Doctor Had Secret Life’? You know what they’d do with that. I mean this loop wasn’t Disney stuff.”
“What was on it?”
“What you’d imagine.”
“Could you be more specific, Del?”
“You really want to hear this?”
He sighed. “Okay. What I was told was that it was one of those doctor-patient things. You know, checkup turns to sex? She was the patient; some guy was the doc.” Pause. “That’s all I know. I did not see it.”
“Did she leave anything else behind, like patient files?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“What about the quick sale on her house?”
“With the case closed there’d be no reason not to sell.”
“Did she own the house?”
“I didn’t check that.”
“What about the twin sister? Has anyone located her?”
“No Shirlee Ransom on any of our files, which means nothing- she wasn’t a criminal. But DMV didn’t have her either.”
“They wouldn’t. She couldn’t have driven a car.”
“Whatever. Searching for heirs isn’t our business, Doc. Whichever lawyer’s probating the will would have to hire someone private. And to answer your next question, no, I don’t know who that is.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks for your time.”
“No problem. Glad to give it. When I have it.”
Which was a polite way of saying Don’t bother me anymore.
A porn loop.
Exploring the boundaries of human sexuality.
Larry had laughed about it, but self-consciously. Working for Kruse was a phase of his career he clearly wanted to forget. Now he was going to be reminded, again. I called his office in Brentwood, using the private line that bypassed his answering service.
“I’m with a patient,” he said, sotto voce. “Call you back at a quarter to the hour?”
He did, at precisely 2:45, munching on something and talking between bites.
“Missed me already, D.? What’s on your mind?”
“Yeah, I read about it. Oh, God, I forgot- the two of you were an item way back when, weren’t you?”
“She was at the party, Larry. I ran into her when you went to make your call. I talked to her the day before she died.”
“Jesus. Did she look depressed?”
“A little down. She said things weren’t going well. But nothing profound, nothing to set off any alarms. You and I both know how much that’s worth, though.”
“Yeah, ye olde professional intuition. Might as well use a ouija board.”
“Sharon Ransom,” he said. “Unreal. She used to be gorgeous.”
“Unreal,” he repeated. “I haven’t seen her since school, never ran into her at any meetings or conventions.”
“She was living in L.A.”
“Mystery lady. She always projected a bit of that.”
“Did she work on the porn project, Larry?”
“Not when I was there. Why?”
I told him about her being Kruse’s assistant. About the loop.
“Welcome to Hollyweird,” he said. But he didn’t sound surprised and I commented on it.
“That’s ’cause I’m not surprised, D. Someone else, maybe, but not her.”
“Truth be told, I always thought she was strange.”
“In what way?”
“Nothing blatant, but something about her just wasn’t set right- like a beautiful painting hung off kilter.”
“You never said anything to me.”
“If I’d told you I thought your girlfriend was iffy in the personality department, would you have listened to me calmly and said, ‘Gee, thanks, Lar’?”
“Nope is right. Au contraire, you would have been highly pissed off, probably never spoken to me again. No, no, kiddies, Uncle Larry keeps his mouth shut. First rule of therapy: When you’re not sure, say nothing. And I wasn’t sure. It’s not as if I was formally diagnosing her- this was just an impression. Besides, you seemed to be enjoying yourself with her, and I didn’t see you marrying her.”
“She just didn’t seem the marrying kind.”
“What kind did she seem?”
“The kind you keep on the side and destroy your life over, D. I figured you were too smart for that. And I was right, wasn’t I?”
Pause. He said, “Let me ask you a question and don’t take offense: Was she any good in bed?”
“Not really,” I said.
“Went through the moves but didn’t really dig it?”
I was startled. “What makes you say that?”
“Talking about the loop made me realize who she reminded me of: the porn actresses Kruse used to have in his movies. I met them when I worked for him. Those girls all oozed sex appeal, came on as if they could suck blood out of a rock. But you got the feeling it was just a veneer, something that came off with their makeup. Sensuality wasn’t integrated in their personalities- they knew how to split their feelings from their behavior.”
“Split,” I said. “As in borderline?”
“Exactly. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Sharon was a borderline, or even that all the actresses were. But she and they all had some of that borderline quality to them. Am I on target at all?”
“Bull’s-eye,” I said. “She had typical borderline qualities. All these years I never put it together.”
“Don’t shit on yourself, D. You were sleeping with her- afflicted with severe pussy-blindness. I especially wouldn’t expect you to be diagnosing her. But I’m not surprised she made a fuck film.”
Borderline personality disorder. If Sharon had deserved that diagnosis, I’d flirted with disaster.
The borderline patient is a therapist’s nightmare. During my training years, before I decided to specialize in children, I treated more than my share of them and learned that the hard way.
Or, rather, I tried to treat them. Because borderlines never really get better. The best you can do is help them coast, without getting sucked into their pathology. At first glance they look normal, sometimes even supernormal, holding down high-pressure jobs and excelling. But they walk a constant tightrope between madness and sanity, unable to form relationships, incapable of achieving insight, never free from a deep, corroding sense of worthlessness and rage that spills over, inevitably, into self-destruction.
They’re the chronically depressed, the determinedly addictive, the compulsively divorced, living from one emotional disaster to the next. Bed hoppers, stomach pumpers, freeway jumpers, and sad-eyed bench sitters with arms stitched up like footballs and psychic wounds that can never be sutured. Their egos are as fragile as spun sugar, their psyches irretrievably fragmented, like a jigsaw puzzle with crucial pieces missing. They play roles with alacrity, excel at being anyone but themselves, crave intimacy but repel it when they find it. Some of them gravitate toward stage or screen; others do their acting in more subtle ways.
No one knows how or why a borderline becomes a borderline. The Freudians claim it’s due to emotional deprivation during the first two years of life; the biochemical engineers blame faulty wiring. Neither school claims to be able to help them much.
Borderlines go from therapist to therapist, hoping to find a magic bullet for the crushing feelings of emptiness. They turn to chemical bullets, gobble tranquilizers and antidepressants, alcohol and cocaine. Embrace gurus and heaven-hucksters, any charismatic creep promising a quick fix of the pain. And they end up taking temporary vacations in psychiatric wards and prison cells, emerge looking good, raising everyone’s hopes. Until the next letdown, real or imagined, the next excursion into self-damage.
What they don’t do is change.
Ada Small had once talked to me about it- the only time I can remember hearing anger in her voice:
Stay away from them, Alex, if you want to feel competent. They’ll make you look stupid every time. You’ll work on getting rapport for months, even years, finally think you’ve got it and are ready to do some insight work, maybe get some real change going, and they’ll walk out on you in a minute. You’ll find yourself wondering what you did wrong, questioning if you went into the right profession. It won’t be you- it’s them. They can look terrific one moment, be out on the ledge the next.
Out on the ledge.
More than any other psychiatric patient, borderlines could be counted on to attempt suicide. And to succeed.
“I used to sit around bullshitting with the actresses,” Larry was saying. “Got to know some of them a little and began to understand them- their promiscuity, how they did what they did. From a borderline’s point of view, promiscuity can be a halfway decent adaptation, the perfect split- one man for friendship, another for intellectual stimulation, another for sex. Split, split, split, neat and clean. If you can’t achieve intimacy, it sure beats being lonely. Splitting’s also a great way to cut yourself off from fucking on film and letting guys come all over your face. Just another job. I mean, how else could you do it, then go home and make macaroni and cheese and do the crossword puzzle? The girls admitted it, said when they were on camera it was like watching someone else.”
“Dissociation,” I said.
I thought of all the fragmentation in Sharon’s life. The routinized, ultimately passionless way she made love. The refusal to live with me, with anyone. The detachment with which she’d spoken about her dead parents. Going into a helping profession and seducing her patients. Graduating but never getting her license. That horrible night I’d found her with the twin photo.
I’m their only little girl.
Hooking up with a sleaze like Kruse.
“Did Kruse ever film his students, Larry?”
“You think he made her do the film?”
“It’s logical. He was her supervisor. He was into porn.”
“I suppose so. Except his weren’t loops- they were half-hour features, color, full sound. Supposed to be marital aids for couples with sexual dysfunction, pseudodocumentaries with a disclaimer at the beginning and some guy who sounds like Orson Welles doing a voice-over narration while the camera zooms in on insertion. Besides, Kruse used actors and actresses. Pros. I never saw a student in any of his stuff.”
“There may have been stuff you didn’t see.”
“I’m sure there was. But do you have any indication he filmed her?”
“No. Just a gut feeling.”
“What do you know about the loop besides the fact that she was in it?”
“Supposed to be a doctor-patient seduction thing. The person who described it to me never saw it himself, and it’s since disappeared.”
“So basically you’re talking thirdhand information- the old telephone game. You know how that kind of thing improves with the telling. Maybe it wasn’t even her.”
Pause. “Wanna try to find out?”
“I might be able to get hold of a copy. Old contacts from the research project.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It would be kind of morbid- forget I mentioned it. Oops, my light just went on. Got a patient in the waiting room. Anything else on your mind?”
I wrestled with my feelings. Curiosity- no, tell it like it is, Delaware: voyeurism- locked in combat with fear of learning yet more repugnant truths.
But I said, “See if you can get hold of the movie.”
I wasn’t, but I heard myself say yes.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll get back to you soon as I know.”
Yesterday’s conversation with Robin- my irritability, the way things had fizzled- still preyed on my mind. At four I phoned her. The last person I wanted to talk to answered.
“It’s me, Rosalie.”
“She’s not here.”
“When are you expecting her back?”
“She didn’t say.”
“All right. Would you please tell her-”
“I’m not telling her anything. Why don’t you just quit? She doesn’t want to be with you. Isn’t that plain to see?”
“It’ll be plain when I hear it from her, Rosalie.”
“Listen, I know you’re supposed to be smart and all that but you’re not as smart as you think. You and her think you’re all grown up, got everything figured out, don’t need to hear advice from no one. But she’s still my kid and I don’t like people pushing her around.”
“You think I push her around?”
“If the shoe fits, mister. Yesterday, after she talked to you, she was all mopey for the rest of the day, the way she used to be when she was a kid and couldn’t get her way. Thank God some friends called, so maybe she can finally have a good time. She’s a good kid, doesn’t need that kind of misery. So why don’t you just forget it.”
“I’m not about to forget anything. I love her.”
I gritted my teeth. “Just give her the message, Rosalie.”
“Do your own dirty work.”
I sat there, tight with rage, feeling cut off and helpless. Grew angry at Robin for allowing herself to be protected like a child.
Then I cooled and realized Robin had no idea she was being protected, had no reason to expect her mother would protect her. The two of them had never had a close relationship. Daddy had seen to that. Now Rosalie was trying to reassert her maternal rights.
I felt sorry for Rosalie, but it only partially quelled my anger. And I still wanted to talk to Robin, to work things out. Why the hell was that turning out to be so difficult?
The phone was the wrong way to do it. We needed time alone, the right setting.
I called two airlines for flight schedules to San Luis. At both of them recorded messages put me on hold. When the doorbell rang, I hung up.
It rang again. I went to the door, looked through the peephole, and saw a familiar face: big and broad and lumpy, almost boyish except for the acne pits that blanketed the cheeks. Coarse black hair, slightly graying, cut unfashionably close around the ears and neck and left long up on top, with a Kennedyesque shock falling across a low, square brow and sideburns that reached to the bottom of fleshy earlobes. A big high-bridged nose, a pair of startling green eyes under shaggy black brows. Pallid skin now lacquered with a hot pink coat of sunburn. The nose, red and peeling. The entire ugly assemblage, scowling.
I opened the door.
“Four days early, Milo? Crave civilization?”
“Fish,” he said, ignoring the question and holding out a metal ice chest. He stared at me. “You look terrible.”
“Gee, thanks. You look like strawberry yogurt yourself. Stirred from the bottom.”
He grimaced. “Itching all over. Here, take it. I have to scratch.”
He shoved the chest at me. The weight made me step backward. I carried it into the house and placed it on the kitchen counter. He followed me in and flopped down on a chair, stretching out long legs and running his hands over his face, as if washing without water.
“So,” he said, spreading his arms. “What do you think? Pretty goddamned Abercrombie and Itch, huh?”
He had on a red-and-black plaid shirt, baggy khakis, rubber-soled lace-up boots, and a khaki fisherman’s vest with about a dozen zippered compartments. Trout lures hung from one of the pockets. A fishing knife in a scabbard dangled from his belt. He’d put on some weight- had to be pushing 230- and the shirt was tight, the buttons straining.
“Stunning,” I said.
He growled and loosened the laces on the boots. “Rick,” he said. “He forced me to go shopping, insisted we had to outmacho everyone.”
“Did you succeed?”
“Oh, yeah. We were so goddamned tough it scared the shit out of the fish. Little suckers jumped right out of the river, landing in our skillets, lemon slices in their mouths.”
“Hey,” he said, “man still remembers how. What’s the matter, guy? Who died?”
Before I could answer, he was up and prying open the chest, removing two big trout wrapped in plastic.
“Give me a fry pan, butter, garlic, and onions- no, excuse me, this is an upscale household-shallots. Give me shallots. Got any beer?”
I got a Grolsch from the refrigerator, opened it, and gave it to him.
“Going temperate on me?” he asked, tilting his head back and drinking from the bottle.
“Not right now.” I gave him the pan and a knife and went back to rummage in the refrigerator, which was near empty. “Here’s the butter. No shallots. No garlic either, just this.”
He looked at the wilted half Bermuda onion in my hand. Took it and said, “Tsk, tsk, slipping, Dr. Suave. I’m reporting you to the Foodie Patrol.”
He took the onion, sliced it down the middle, and immediately his eyes teared. Moving away and rubbing them, he said, “Better yet, we play hunters and gatherers. Me catch, you cook.”
He sat down and worked on the beer. I lifted a trout and inspected it. It had been gutted and cleaned, expertly.
“Nice, huh?” he said. “Pays to take a surgeon along.”
“Where is Rick?”
“Getting some shut-eye while he can. He’s got a twenty-four-hour coming up at the E.R., then twenty-four off and back on again for the Saturday night shift- gunshots and malicious foolishness. After that he’s started heading over to the Free Clinic to counsel AIDS patients. What a guy, huh? All of a sudden I’m living with Schweitzer.”
He was smiling but his voice was heavy with irritation, and I wondered if he and Rick were going through another tough period. I hoped not. I had neither the energy nor the will to deal with it.
“How were the great outdoors?” I asked.
“What can I say? We did the whole Boy Scout camping bit- my daddy would have been heapum proud. Found a gorgeous place near the river, downstream from white water. Last day we were there a canoe full of executive types came coasting by: bankers, computer jockeys- you know the type. Play it so straight all year ‘round, the moment they’re away from home they freak and turn into blithering idiots? Anyway, these yahoos come barreling downstream, stinking drunk and louder than a sonic boom, spot us, lower their pants, and flash us the moon.”
He gave an evil grin. “If they’d only known who they were shoving their asses at, huh? Panic time at the GOP convention.”
I laughed and began frying the onions. Milo went to the refrigerator, got another beer, and came back looking serious.
“Nothing in here,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“I need to shop.”
“Uh-huh.” He reached under his shirt and scratched his chest. Paced the kitchen and said, “How’s the lovely Ms. Castagna?”
“Uh-huh.” He kept pacing.
The onions turned translucent. I added more butter to the pan and put the trout in. They hissed and sizzled and the smell of fresh fish filled the room.
“Ah,” he said. “Nothing like a friend at home in the kitchen. Do you do windows too?”
“Why’d you come back early?” I asked.
“Too much pristine, unspoiled beauty- couldn’t take it. Amazing the things one learns about one’s wretched self out in the wilds. Seems both of us are urban sleaze-junkies. All that clean air and calm and we were going through the shakes.” He drank more beer, shook his head. “You know how we are, marriage made in heaven until we spend too much time together. But enough about the sweet agony of relationships. How’re the trout?”
“Be careful not to overcook.”
“Want to do it yourself?”
I gave him one and a half trout and put half a fish on my plate, then filled two glasses with ice water and brought them to the table. I had a bottle of white wine somewhere but it wasn’t chilled. Besides, I didn’t feel like drinking, and the last thing Milo needed was more alcohol.
He looked at the water as if it were polluted but drank it anyway. After finishing the trout in a few moments, he looked at my uneaten food.
“Want it?” I said.
I shook my head. “I ate just before you dropped in.”
He gave me a long look. “Fine, hand it over.”
When the half-trout was gone, he said, “Okay, tell me what the hell is bothering you.”
I considered telling him about Robin. Told him about Sharon instead, honoring my pledge to Leslie Weingarden and leaving out the patient seductions.
He listened without commenting. Got up and searched the refrigerator for dessert and found an apple that he demolished in four bites.
Wiping his face, he said, “Trapp, huh? You’re sure it was him?”
“He’s hard to miss with that white hair and that skin.”
“Yeah, the skin,” he said. “Some sort of weird disease. I described it to Rick and he gave me a name for it but I forgot it. Auto-immune condition- the body attacks itself by leeching pigment. No one knows what causes it, but in Trapp’s case I’ve got a theory: Asshole’s so full of poison, his own system can’t stand him. Maybe we’ll be lucky and he’ll fade away completely.”
“What do you think about his being at the house?”
“Who knows? I’d love nothing more than to get something on the scrote, but this one doesn’t scream felony. Maybe he and your late friend were getting it on and he went back to make sure he hadn’t left any evidence. Sleazy but not indictable.” He shook his head. “If she was getting it on with him she must have been nuts.”
“What about the quick sale on the house?” I asked. “And the twin sister? I know she exists- existed- because I met her six years ago. If she’s still alive she’d be Sharon’s heir.”
“Six years is a long time, Alex. And who’s to say she hasn’t been found? Del was right- that’s up to the lawyers. Sure, sure, it smells of cover-up, but that doesn’t mean what’s being covered up is anything juicy, pal. This kind of thing’s routine when you’re dealing with the pricey crowd. Just last month we had an art theft up in Bel Air. Thirteen million dollars’ worth of French Impressionism, gone, like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Private chef did it and split to Monaco. We filed the papers; family hired private help. They recovered the pictures; few months later the chef had an accident with scalding water.
“And speaking of accidents, last April the teenage daughter of a ‘prominent manufacturer’ up in the Palisades got pissed at the family maid for throwing out one of her magazines, stuck the poor lady’s hand in a garbage disposal. Bye-bye five fingers, but the maid changed her mind about filing charges. Took early retirement- ten thousand per digit- and shipped back to Guatemala. Then there’s a talk show host- everyone knows him, helluva witty and charming guy. His game is getting drunk and putting women in the hospital. The network adds two million a year to his salary for damage control. Ever read a word about any of it? Ever see it on the six o’clock news? Rich folk in awkward situations, Alex. Sweep it under the rug and keep it out of court. It happens all the time.”
“So you’re saying forget the whole thing.”
“Not so fast, Lone Ranger. I didn’t say I was going to forget it. I’ll pursue it. But for selfish reasons- the chance of getting something on Trapp. And there’s one thing about the film story that does snag my interest- Harvey Pinckley, the guy who caught the call. He was one of Trapp’s boys when Trapp was at Hollywood. First-class ass-kisser.”
“Del made it sound as if he was okay.”
“Del didn’t know him. I did. Besides, Del’s a good guy, but our relationship’s been a bit frosty of late.”
“Marital problems- his wife’s giving him grief. He’s sure she’s stepping out. It’s turned him asocial.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Me too. He was the only one in the division who ever treated me human. And don’t get me wrong- we’re not ripping each other’s throats out. But he’s not going to extend himself- for anyone. Anyway, the timing’s right for a little extracurricular info-gathering. I don’t have to report till Monday, and Rick will either be working or sleeping it off all weekend.”
He got up, walked around. “Idle hands make the devil’s work, lad. Far be it from me to tempt Satan. Just don’t expect anything dramatic, okay?”
I nodded, took the dishes to the sink and started washing.
He came over and placed a big, padded hand on my shoulder.
“You look down. ’Fess up, Doctor. This friend was more than just a friend.”
“A long time ago, Milo.”
“But from the way you look when you talk about her, it’s not that ancient a history. Or is there something else on that scary thing you call your mind?”
He removed his hand. “Do consider one thing, Alex. Are you ready to hear more dirt about her? ’Cause, from what we already know, once we start digging, it ain’t gonna be buried treasure time.”
“No problem,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Uh-huh,” he said. And went to get another beer.
When he was gone my nonchalance faded. How much more dirt did I really want to encounter, when I’d never made sense of what I knew already?
Free follow-up visits.
I’d been followed up too.
The scene with the twin photo left me addled, in pain, unable to concentrate on work. Three days later I started calling her, got no answer. Four days later I gathered my resolve and went back to the house on Jalmia. No one home. I inquired at the psych department, was informed she was on temporary leave. None of her professors was worried about her absence. She’d had to take leave before-“family business”- had always made up the work, was a top-notch student. They suggested I talk to her adviser, Dr. Kruse.
When Kruse didn’t return a week’s worth of phone calls, I looked up his office address and drove there. The building was five stories of anodized steel and bronzed glass on Sunset near Doheny, granite-lobbied and maroon-carpeted, with a noisy French restaurant that opened to a sidewalk café on the ground floor. The directory listed an odd mix of tenants: about a third psychologists and psychiatrists, the rest various film-related concerns- production companies, agents, publicists, personal managers.
Kruse’s suite was on the top floor. His door was locked. I kneeled, opened the mail slot, and peeked in. Darkness. I got up and looked around. One other suite took up the rest of the floor- an outfit called Creative Image Associates. Its double doors were locked too.
I taped a note under Kruse’s nameplate, leaving my name and number, and asking him to get in touch as soon as possible re: S.R. Then I drove up to the house on Jalmia again.
The oil stain in the carport was dry, the foliage wilting. The mailbox was crammed with at least a week’s worth of correspondence. I skimmed the return addresses on the envelopes. All junk. Nothing indicating where she’d gone.
The following morning, before heading for the hospital, I went back to the psych department and got Kruse’s home address out of the faculty files. Pacific Palisades. I drove there that evening and sat waiting for him.
The tail end of November, just before Thanksgiving. L.A.’s best time of year. The sky had just deepened from El Greco blue to a glowing pewter, swelling with rain clouds and sweet with electricity.
Kruse’s house was big, pink, and Spanish, on a private road off Mandeville Canyon, just a short drive down to the coast highway and the high, battering tides of autumn. The street was narrow and quiet, the nearby properties estate-sized, but Kruse’s layout was open, no high walls or gates.
Psychology had been good to him. The house was graceful, with two hundred feet of landscaped garden on each side, adorned with verandas, Monterey roofs, hand-turned wooden grillwork, leaded windows. Shading the south side of the lawn was a beautifully warped black pine- giant bonsai. A pair of Brazilian orchid trees had sprinkled the freshly sown rye grass with violet blossoms. A semicircular driveway inlaid with Moorish tile cut an inverted U through the grass.
At twilight, colored outdoor lights came on and high-lighted the landscaping. No cars, not a sound. More canyon seclusion. Sitting there, I was reminded of the house on Jalmia- the master’s influence?- thought about Sharon’s inheritance story and wondered again if Kruse had set her up.
I wondered, too, about what had happened to the other little girl in the photo.
He showed up shortly after eight, driving a black, gold pin-striped Mercedes two-seater with the top down. He gunned up the driveway. Instead of opening the door, he swung his legs over it. His long yellow hair was perfectly windblown; a pair of mirrored sunglasses dangled from a gold chain around his neck. He carried no briefcase, just a small, purselike calfskin shoulder bag that matched his boots. He wore a gray cashmere sport coat, white silk turtleneck, and black slacks. A black silk handkerchief trimmed with scarlet spilled out of his breast pocket.
As he headed toward his front door I got out of the Rambler. The sound of my door slamming made him turn. He stared. I jogged toward him and stepped into the artificial light.
“Dr. Kruse, I’m Alex Delaware.”
Despite all the messages, my name evoked no sign of recognition.
“I’m a friend of Sharon Ransom.”
“Hello, Alex. I’m Paul.” Half-smile. His voice was low, from the chest, modulated like that of a disc jockey.
“I’m trying to locate her,” I said.
He nodded but didn’t answer. The silence lengthened. I felt obligated to speak.
“She hasn’t been home for over two weeks, Dr. Kruse. I was wondering if you knew where she is.”
“You care about her,” he said, as if answering a question I hadn’t asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Alex Delaware,” he said.
“I’ve called you several times. Left messages at your office.”
Big smile. He gave his head a toss. The yellow hair whipped back, then settled across his forehead. He took his keys out of his purse.
“I’d love to help you, Alex, but I can’t.” He began walking to the door.
“Please, Dr. Kruse…”
He stopped, turned, looked over his shoulder, flicked his eyes at me, and smiled again. But it came out as a sour twist of his lips, as if the sight of me made him ill.
Paul likes you… He likes what I’ve told him about you.
“Where is she, Dr. Kruse?”
“The fact that she didn’t tell you implies something, doesn’t it?”
“Just tell me if she’s okay. Is she coming back to L.A. or gone for good.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I can’t talk to you about anything. Therapeutic confidentiality.”
“You’re her therapist?”
“I’m her supervisor. Inherent in the supervisory relationship is more than a little psychotherapy.”
“Telling me if she’s all right won’t violate confidentiality.”
He shook his head. Then something odd happened to his face.
The upper half remained all hard scrutiny- heavy blond brows and pale-brown eyes flecked with green that bored into mine with Svengali-like intensity. But from the nose down he’d gone slack, the mouth curling into a foolish, almost clownish leer.
Two personalities sharing one face. Freaky as a carny show and twice as unsettling because there was hostility behind it, the desire to ridicule. To dominate.
“Tell her I care about her,” I said. “Tell her whatever she does, that I still care.”
“Have a good evening,” he said. Then he went into his house.
An hour later, back in my apartment, I was furious, determined to flush her and her bullshit out of my life. A month later I’d settled down to solitude and a crushing workload, was managing to fake contentment well enough to believe it myself, when she called. Eleven P.M. I’d just gotten home, dog-tired and hungry. When I heard her voice, my resolve melted like old slush under a new sun.
“I’m back. I’m sorry- I’ll explain everything,” she told me. “Meet me at my house in an hour. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
I showered, put on fresh clothes, drove to Nichols Canyon prepared to ask hard questions. She was waiting for me at the door in a flame-red low-cut jersey dress that barely contained her. In her hand was a snifter of something pink and redolent of strawberries. It obscured her perfume- no spring flowers.
The house was brightly lit. Before I could speak she pulled me inside and pressed her mouth against mine, worming her tongue between my teeth and keeping us fastened by pressing one hand hard to the back of my head. Her breath was sharp with alcohol. It was the first time I’d seen her drink anything other than 7-Up. When I commented on it, she laughed and hurled the glass at the fireplace. It shattered and left pink snail-tracks on the wall.
“Strawberry daiquiri, darling. I guess I’m in a tropical mood.” Her voice was husky, inebriated. She kissed me again, harder, began undulating against me. I closed my eyes, sank into the boozy sweetness of the kiss. She moved away from me. I opened my eyes, saw her peeling out of the red dress, shimmying and licking her lips. The silk caught on her hips, gave way after a tug, then fell to the floor, just a flimsy orange ribbon. She stepped away from me, gave me a look at her: braless, in black garter belt, mesh stockings, and high-heeled shoes.
She ran her hands over her body.
In the abstract it was X-rated comedy, Frederick’s of Hollywood, a lampoon. But she was anything but abstract and I stood there, transfixed.
I let her strip me down in a practiced manner that excited and frightened me.
How many other times?
How many other men? Who’d taught her-
To hell with that. I didn’t care- I wanted her. She had me out, in her hand, kneading, nibbling.
We embraced again, naked. Her fingers traveled over my body, scratching, raising welts. She put my hand between her legs, rode my fingers, engulfed them.
“Yum,” she said, stepping back once more, pirouetting and exhibiting herself.
I reached for the light switch. She said, “No. Keep it bright. I want to see it, see everything.”
I realized that the drapes were open. We were standing before the wall of glass, top-lit, giving a free show to Hollywood.
I turned the light off.
“Party pooper,” she said and kneeled before me, grinning. I put my fingers in her hair, was engulfed, spun backward into a vortex of pleasure. She pulled away to catch her breath, said, “C’mon, the lights. I want to see it.”
“In the bedroom,” I gasped. Lifting her in my arms, I carried her down the hall as she continued to kiss me and stroke me. The bedroom lights were on, but the high windows afforded privacy.
I set her down on top of the covers. She opened like a book to a favorite page. I got on top.
She rounded her back and drew her legs up in the air. Put me in her and rocked her hips, holding me at arm’s length so she could stare at the piston merger of our flesh.
Once, she’d been married to modesty; there’d been a quickie divorce…
“You’re in me, oh, God.” She pinched her nipples, touched herself, made sure I watched.
She rode me, withdrew me, took me in hand, rubbed me over her face, slid me between her breasts, wrapped me in the soft tangle of her hair. Then got under me, pulled me down hard, and tongued my anus.
A moment later we were locked together standing, her back to the wall. Then she positioned me near the foot of the bed and sat on me, staring over my shoulder into the mirror above the dresser. Not satisfied with that, she pushed me off her and pulled me into the bathroom. I realized why right away- tall, mirrored medicine chests on two walls, mirrors that could be pulled out and angled, for side views, back views. After arranging her stage, she sat on the cold tile counter, shivering and goose-bumped, put me in her again, darted her eyes.
We ended up on the bathroom floor, she squatting over me, touching herself, tracing a vaginal trail up and down my chest, then impaling herself again.
When I closed my eyes she cried out, “No!” and pried them open. Finally she lost herself in the pleasure, opened her mouth wide, and panted and grunted. Sobbed and covered her face.
I exploded a second later. She extricated herself, licked me hard, and kept moving, slamming herself down on the tile, using me selfishly, climaxing a second time.
We staggered back to the bedroom and fell asleep in each other’s arms, with the lights still on. I slept, woke up feeling drugged.
She wasn’t in bed. I found her in the living room, hair pinned up, dressed in tight jeans and a tank top- another new look. Sitting in a sling chair drinking another strawberry daiquiri and reading a psych journal, unaware of my presence.
I watched her stick a finger in the drink, pull it out coated with pink foam, and lick it off.
“Hi,” I said, smiling and stretching.
She looked up at me. Her expression was odd. Flat. Bored. Then it heated and turned ugly.
She placed the drink on the carpet and stood up. “Okay,” she said. “You got what you wanted, you scummy prick. Now get the fuck out of here. Get the fuck out of my life- get out!”
I dressed hurriedly, carelessly, feeling as worthwhile as a scab. Rushed past her, out of the house and into the Rambler. Hands shaking, I started the car and hurtled down Jalmia.
Only when I was back on Hollywood Boulevard did I take the time to breathe.
But breathing hurt, as if I’d been poisoned. I wanted suddenly to destroy her. To leach her toxin from my blood.
Entertaining murderous thoughts, I sped along dark streets, as dangerous as a drunk driver.
I got onto Sunset, passed nightclubs and disco joints, smiling faces that seemed to mock my own misery. But by the time I reached Doheny, my rage had faded to gnawing sadness. Disgust.
This was it- no more mindfucks.
This was it.
Remembering had plunged me into a cold sweat.
She’d followed herself up too. With pills and a gun.
On Thursday morning I called Paul Kruse’s university office, not really knowing what I was going to say to him. He was out; the department secretary had no idea when he’d be back. I looked up his private office in the phone book. He had two: the one on Sunset and the one he’d leased for Sharon. No answer at either. Same old song- I’d become a virtuoso at playing it. I thought of calling the airlines again, didn’t relish handling more phone abuse. My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door- a messenger with a check from Trenton, Worthy and La Rosa and two large, gift-wrapped packages, also from the law firm.
I tipped him and after he left I opened the packages. One held a case of Chivas Regal, the other a case of Moët & Chandon.
A tip for me. As I wondered why, the phone rang.
“Did it get there?” asked Mal.
“A minute ago.”
“He-ey! Perfect timing or what? Don’t drink it all in one place.”
“Why the gratuity, Mal?”
“Seven-figure settlement is why. All that legal talent got together and decided to divvy up.”
“Moretti especially. Insurance company’s putting in the biggest chunk. He called a couple of hours after your depo, didn’t even bother to play hard to get. After he tumbled, the rest crashed like dominoes. Denise and little Darren have just won the lottery, Doctor.”
“I’m happy for them. Try to see that both of them get some help.”
“Being rich should help, but sure, I’ll push her. By the way, after we settled on a figure, Moretti asked for your number. He was very impressed.”
“I gave it to him.”
“He’s wasting his time.”
“That’s what I figured. But it wasn’t my place to tell him to shove it. Do it yourself. I imagine the new you will enjoy it.”
At one o’clock I went out and made another try at grocery shopping. In the produce section my cart collided with one pushed by a tall auburn-haired woman.
“Oops, sorry.” I disengaged, moved aside, and edged over to the tomatoes.
“Sorry myself,” she said cheerfully. “Gets like the freeway in here sometimes, doesn’t it?”
The market was nearly empty but I said, “Sure does.”
She smiled at me with even white teeth and I took a closer look. Late thirties or well-preserved early forties, a thick shag of dark hair surrounding a roundish, pretty face. Snub nose and freckles, eyes the color of a choppy sea. She wore denim short shorts that advertised long, tan, runner’s legs, and a lavender T-shirt that did the same for high, sharp breasts. Around one ankle was a thin gold chain. Her nails were long and silver; the ones on the index fingers had been inlaid with diamond chips.
“What do you think of this?” she asked, handing me a cantaloupe. “Too firm to be ripe?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Just right, huh?” Big grin, one leg bent and resting against the other. She stretched and the T-shirt rose up, exposing a flat, bronze tummy.
I turned the melon in my palms and knocked on it a couple of times. “Just right.” When I handed it back, our fingers touched.
“I’ve seen you here before, Alex. You buy lots of Chinese vegetables, don’t you?”
A shot in the dark- and a miss- but why make her feel bad? “Sure do.”
“Love that bok choy,” she said as she hefted the cantaloupe. Placing it in her basket, she turned her attention to half a pineapple wrapped in plastic. “Mmm, everything looks so good and ripe today. Yum.”
I bagged some tomatoes, selected a head of lettuce and a bunch of scallions, and began to wheel away.
I smiled and shook my head.
“Um, let’s see… architect.”
“No, I’m a psychologist.”
“Are you really? I love psychologists. Mine helped me so much.”
“That’s great, Julie.” I began pushing my cart away. “Nice meeting you.”
“Listen,” she said. “I’m on this one-meal-a-day cleansing diet, just lunch- lots of complex carbohydrates- and I haven’t had it yet. I’m famished. There’s a pasta bar up the block. Would you care to join me?”
“Love to, Julie, but I can’t. Thanks, though.”
She waited for me to make a move. When I didn’t, her face fell.
“Nothing personal,” I said. “It’s just a bad time.”
“Sure,” she said, and snapped her head away. As I left I heard her mutter, “All the cute ones are faggots.”
At six Milo came by. Despite the fact that he wasn’t due back at the station until Monday, he was dressed for work- wilted seersucker suit, wash-and-wear shirt, atrocious tie, desert boots.
“Spent all day detecting,” he said, after getting himself a beer and remarking that I was a good boy for restocking my cupboards. “Hollywood Division, the coroner’s, Hall of Records, Building and Safety. Your lady doc’s a goddam phantom. I’d sure love to know what the hell’s going on.”
He sat down at the kitchen table. I settled across from him and waited for him to finish the beer.
“It’s as if she never was processed through anyone’s system,” he said. “I had to skulk around at Hollywood, pretend to be looking at something else while I checked for any file on her. Nothing. Not on paper or in the central computer. I couldn’t even find out who put the call in the night she died, or who took it. Zilch at the coroner’s, too- no autopsy report, no cold-storage log, death certificate, release. I mean, there’s cover-up and there’s cover-up but this is twilight zone stuff.”
He rubbed his hand over his face.
“One of the pathologists,” he said, “is a guy Rick knew in med school. Usually I can get him to talk to me off the record, give me results before he writes up the final report, speculate about stuff that he can’t put into writing. I thought he’d at least get me a copy of the report. No way. He made a big deal out of showing me there was no report, made it clear I shouldn’t ask for any favors on this one.”
“Same pathologist Del spoke to?”
“No. That was Itatani. I talked to him first, and it was the same thing. The fix has come down hard and heavy on this one. I confess to being intrigued.”
“Maybe it wasn’t suicide.”
“Any reason to think that?”
“She made lots of people angry.”
I told him about the patient seductions, keeping Leslie Weingarden’s name out of it.
“Beautiful, Alex. Why didn’t you let me know about this in the first place?”
“Confidential source. I can’t give you any more details.”
“Jesus.” He got up, walked around, sat back down. “You ask me to dig you a hole, but won’t give me a shovel. Jesus, Alex.” He went to get another beer. “It’s bad enough being back in Realityville, without spinning my wheels all day.”
“I didn’t mean to send you on a wild-goose chase.”
Then he waved his hand. “Nah, who am I kidding- I didn’t do it for you. I did it for myself. Trapp. And I still don’t think there’s any big whodunit here. Ransom killed herself. She was a maladjust- what you just told me corroborates that.”
Out on the ledge. I nodded. “Find out anything about the twin sister?”
“Nada. Another phantom. No Shirlee Ransom in any of our files or anyone else’s. If you came up with the name of that hospital you saw her at, we could search the business transfer and bankruptcy files. But even then, tracing individual patients would be a very long shot.”
“I can’t come up with it, because I never knew it, Milo. What about checking the Medi-Cal files?”
“You said Ransom was rich. Why would her sister be on Medi-Cal?”
“The parents were rich, but that was years ago. Money runs out. Also…”
“Also,” he said, “with all the lying she did, you don’t know what to believe.”
“Lie she did, pal. Like about owning the Jalmia house. The place is deeded to a corporation, just like the real estate agent said. A management company named Western Properties that’s owned by a holding company that’s owned by a savings-and-loan that’s owned by the Magna Corporation. I think that’s where it ends, but I wouldn’t swear to it.”
“Magna,” I said. “Isn’t that Leland Belding’s company?”
“Was till he died. No idea who owns it now.” He drank beer. “The old basket-case billionaire himself. Now a guy like that you could see putting on a big fix. But he’s been buried for… what? Fifteen years?”
“Something like that. Wasn’t his death disputed?”
“By who? The guy who wrote that hoax book? He killed himself after they exposed it, which is a pretty good indication he had something to be ashamed of. Even the conspiracy freaks didn’t believe that one. Anyway, whoever owns it, the corporation lives on- clerk told me it’s one of the biggest landowners west of the Mississippi, thousands of parcels. Ransom’s house happened to be one of them. With that kind of landlord, you can see why there’d be a quick sale.”
He finished his beer, got up to get a third.
“How’s your liver?” I asked.
“Peachy. Mom.” He made a point of guzzling. “Okay, so where were we? Magna, Medi-Cal files on the sister. All right, I guess it might be worth a try in terms of finding her, though I don’t know what the hell finding her’s going to tell us. How disabled was she?”
“Could she talk?”
“Terrific.” He wiped foam from his lips. “I want to interview vegetables, I’ll go to a salad bar. What I am going to do is drive up Jalmia and talk to the neighbors. Maybe one of them phoned in the call, knows something about her.”
“About her and Trapp?”
“That would be nice.”
He went into the living room, turned on the TV, put his feet up, and watched the evening news. Within moments he was asleep. And I was remembering a black-and-white snapshot and thinking, despite what he’d said, about Shirlee Ransom. I went into the library and called Olivia Brickerman.
“Hello, darling,” she said, “I just got in and started tending to Prince Albert.”
“If I’m catching you in the middle of something-”
“What? Prunes and oat bran is something? Just hold on one second and I’ll be with you.”
When she came back on the line, she said, “There, he’s taken care of for the evening.”
“How’s Al doing?”
“Still the life of the party.”
Her husband, a grandmaster and former chess editor for the Times, was a white-haired, white-bearded man who looked like an Old Testament prophet and had been known to go for days at a time without talking.
“I keep him around for torrid sex,” she said. “So, how are you, handsome?”
“Just fine, Olivia. How about yourself? Still enjoying the private sector?”
“Actually, right now I’m feeling pretty abandoned by the private sector. You remember how I got into this hotshot group, don’t you? My sister’s boy, Steve, the psychiatrist, wanted to rescue me from civil service hell and set me up as benefits coordinator? It was fine for a while, nothing too stimulating, but the pay was good, no winos vomiting all over my desk, and I could walk to the beach during lunch. Then, all of a sudden, Stevie takes a position at some drug-abuse hospital out in Utah. He got hooked on skiing; now it’s a religion with him. ‘Gotta go with the snow, Aunt Livvy.’ That’s an M.D. talking. Yale. The guy who replaced him is a real yutz, very cold, thinks social workers are a notch below secretaries. We’re already having friction. So if you hear I’ve retired permanently, don’t be surprised. Enough about me. How’ve you been?”
“Terrific,” I said. “Keeping busy.”
“I’m waiting for an invitation, Alex.”
“One of these days.”
“One of these days, eh? Just make sure you tie the knot while I’m still functioning and can enjoy it. Want to hear a terrible joke? What’s the good thing about Alzheimer’s disease?”
“You get to meet new people every day. Isn’t that terrible? The yutz told it to me. You think there was an underlying message?”
“That’s what I think. The S.O.B.”
“Olivia, I need a favor.”
“And here I thought you were after my body.”
I thought of Olivia’s body, which resembled Alfred Hitchcock’s, and couldn’t help but smile.
“That too,” I said.
“Big talk! What do you need, handsome?”
“Do you still have access to the Medi-Cal files?”
“You kidding? We’ve got Medi-Cal, Medicare, Short-Doyle, Workmen’s Comp, CCS, AFDC, FDI, ATD- every file you can imagine, alphabet soup. These guys are serious billers, Alex. They know how to squeeze all the juice out of a claim. The yutz went back to school after his residency, and got an M.B.A.”
“I’m trying to locate a former patient. She was disabled, needed chronic care, and was hospitalized at a small rehab place in Glendale- on South Brand. The place is no longer there and I can’t remember the name. Ring any bells?”
“Brand Boulevard? No. Lots of places don’t exist anymore. Everything’s going corporate- these smart boys just sold out to some conglomerate from Minneapolis. If she’s totally disabled, that would be ATD. If it’s partial and she worked, she could be on FDI.”
“ATD,” I said. “Could she be on Medi-Cal too?”
“Sure. What’s the name of this person?”
“Shirlee Ransom, with two e’s. Thirty-four years old, with a birthday in May. May 15, 1953.”
“She had multiple problems. The main diagnoses were probably neurological.”
“Probably? I thought she was your patient.”
I hesitated. “It’s complicated, Olivia.”
“I see. You’re not getting yourself in trouble again, are you?”
“Nothing like that, Olivia. It’s just that there are some confidentiality issues here. I’m sorry I can’t get into it and if it’s too much of a hassle-”
“Stop being such a Goody Two-shoes. It’s not like you’re asking me to commit a crime.” Pause. “Right?”
“Okay, in terms of getting hold of the data, our on-line access is limited to patients treated in California. If your Ms. Ransom is still being treated somewhere in the state, I should be able to get you the information immediately. If she moved out of state I’d have to tap into the master file in Minnesota, and that would take time, maybe even a week. Either way, if she’s getting government money, I’ll get you an address.”
“Sure, everything’s on computer. We’re all on someone’s list. Some yutz with a giant mainframe has a record of what you and I ate for breakfast this morning, darling.”
“Privacy, the last luxury,” I said.
“You’d better believe it,” she said. “Package it; market it; make a billion.”
Friday morning I booked a Saturday flight to San Luis on Sky West. At 9:00 A.M. Larry Daschoff called and told me he’d located a copy of the porn loop.
“I was wrong. Kruse made it- must have been some kind of personal kick. If you still want to see it, I’ve got an hour and a half between patients,” he said. “Noon to one-thirty. Meet me at this place and we’ll watch a matinee.”
He recited a Beverly Hills address. Turning-over-the-rock time. I felt queasy, unclean.
“I’ll meet you there.”
The address was on North Crescent Drive, in the Beverly Hills Flats- the pricey prairie stretching from Santa Monica Boulevard to Sunset, and from Doheny west to the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Houses in the Flats range from two-bedroom “tear-downs” that wouldn’t stand out in a working-class tract to mansions big enough to corral a politician’s ego. The tear-downs go for a million and a half.
Once a quiet, cushy neighborhood of doctors, dentists, and show-business types, the Flats has become a repository for very new, very flashy foreign money of questionable origin. All that easy cash has brought with it a mania for monument-building, unfettered by tradition or taste, and as I drove down Crescent half the structures seemed to be in various phases of construction. The final products would have done Disney proud: Turreted Gray-stone Castle sans moat but cum tennis court, Mock-Moorish Mini-Mosque, Italianate-Dutch Truffle, Haute Gingerbread Haunted House, Post-Moderne Free-form Fantasy.
Larry’s station wagon was parked in front of a pea-green pseudo-French pseudo-Regency pseudo-townhouse with Ramada Inn overtones: glitter-flecked stucco walls, multiple mansards, green-and-gray striped awnings, louver windows, olive trim. The lawn was two squares of ivy, split by a concrete path. From the ivy sprouted whitewashed plaster statuary- naked cherubs, Blind Justice in agony, a copy of the Pietà, a carp taking flight. In the driveway was a fleet of cars: hot-pink ’57 T-bird; two Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows, one silver, one gold; and a maroon Lincoln Town Car with red vinyl top and a famous designer’s logo on its smoked windows.
I parked. Larry waved and got out of the Chevy. He saw me looking at the house and said, “Pretty recherché, huh, D.?”
“Who are these people?”
“Their name is Fontaine- Gordon and Chantal. They made their money in patio furniture somewhere out in the Midwest- the plastic strap and tubular aluminum stuff. Sold out for a fortune several years ago, moved to B.H., and retired. They give lots to charity, distribute Thanks-giving turkeys on Skid Row, come across like benevolent grandparents- which they are. But they love porn. Damn near worship it. They’re the private donors I told you about, the ones who funded Kruse’s research.”
“Good simple folk, huh?”
“They really are, D. Not into S and M or kiddie stuff. Just good old-fashioned straight sex on celluloid- they claim it rejuvenated their marriage, can get downright evangelical about it. When Kruse was setting up his research, he heard about them and tapped them for funding. They were so happy someone was going to finally educate the world about the therapeutic benefits of erotica that they coughed up without a fuss- must have handed over a couple of hundred grand. You can imagine how they felt when he changed his tune and started playing to the pro-censorship crowd. And they’re still steamed. When I called, Gordon remembered me as Kruse’s R.A. and let me know that as far as they’re concerned, Kruse is the scum of the earth. I mean he really catharted. When he stopped to take a breath, I made it clear I was no great Kruse fan myself, and told him what we were after. He calmed down and said sure, come on over. I think the idea of helping us really jazzed him. Like all fanatics, they love to show off.”
“What reason did you give him for wanting to see the film?”
“That the star was dead, we were old friends, and we wanted to remember her for everything she’d done. They’d read about it, thought it would be a dandy memorial.”
The grimy, Peeping Tom feeling returned.
Larry read my face, said, “Cold feet?”
“It seems… ghoulish.”
“Sure it’s ghoulish. So are eulogies. If you want to call it off, I’ll go in there and tell them.”
“No,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
“Try not to look so tortured,” he said. “One of the ways I gained entree was telling them you were sympatico to their hobby.”
I crossed my eyes, leered, and did some heavy breathing. “How’s that?”
We reached the front door, a solid slab painted glossy olive.
“Behind the green door,” said Larry. “Very subtle.”
“You’re sure they have the loop?”
“Gordon said definitely. He also said they had something else we might be interested in.”
He rang the bell and it chimed out the first few notes of “Bolero,” then swung open. A Filipino maid in a white uniform stood in the doorway, petite, thirtyish, bespectacled, her hair in a bun.
“Dr. Daschoff and Dr. Delaware to see Mr. and Mrs. Fontaine.”
“Yes,” said the maid. “Come in.”
We stepped into a two-story rotunda with a pastoral mural: blue skies, green grass, fluffy sheep, hay bales, a shepherd playing the pipes in the shade of a spreading sycamore.
In front of all that agrarian bliss sat a naked woman in a deck chair- fat, middle-aged, gray-haired, lumpy legs. She held a pencil in one hand, a crossword puzzle book in the other, didn’t acknowledge our entry.
The maid saw us staring, rapped her knuckles on the gray head.
“An original Lombardo,” she said. “Very expensive. Like that.” She pointed upward. Dangling from the ceiling was what appeared to be a Calder mobile. Christmas bulbs had been laced around it- a do-it-yourself chandelier.
“Lots of money,” said the maid.
Directly in front of us was an emerald-carpeted staircase that spiraled to the left. The space under the stairs terminated at a high Chinese screen. The other rooms were also blocked by screens.
“Come,” said the maid. She turned. Her uniform was backless and cut low, past the gluteal cleft. Lots of naked brown skin. Larry and I looked at each other. He shrugged.
She unfolded part of the Chinese screen, led us through twenty feet and yet another partition. Her walk took on a sashay and we followed her midway down the hall to a green metal door. On the wall was a keyhole and a key pad. She cupped one hand with the other, punched in a five-digit code, inserted a key, turned it, and the door slid open. We entered a small elevator with padded, quilted walls of gold brocade hung with ivory miniatures- scenes from the Kama Sutra. A button-press and we descended. The three of us stood shoulder to shoulder. The maid smelled of baby powder. She looked bored.
We stepped out into a small, dark anteroom and trailed her through japanned double doors.
On the other side was a huge, high-walled, windowless room- at least three thousand square feet paneled in black lacquered wood, silent and cool and barely lit.
As my eyes accommodated to the darkness, I was able to make out details: brass-grilled bookcases, reading tables, card catalogues, display cases, and library ladders, all in the same ebonized finish. Above us, a flat ceiling of black cork. Below, dark, carpeted floors. The only light came from green-shaded banker’s lamps on the tables. I heard the hum of air conditioning. Saw ceiling sprinklers, smoke alarms. A large barometer on one wall.
A room designed to house treasures.
“Thank you, Rosa,” said a nasal male voice from across the room. I squinted and saw human outlines: a man and woman sitting side by side at one of the far tables.
The maid bowed, turned, and wiggled away. When she was gone, the same voice said, “Little Rosie Ramos- she was a real talent in the sixties. PX Mamas. Ginza Girls. Choose One From Column X.”
“Good help’s so hard to find,” Larry whispered. Out loud he said, “Hello, people.”
The couple stood and walked toward us. At ten feet away, their faces took on clarity, like cinema characters emerging from a dissolve.
The man was older than I’d expected- seventy or close to it, short and portly, with thick, straight white hair combed back and a jowly Xavier Cugat face. He wore black-framed eyeglasses, a white guayabera shirt over brown slacks, and tan loafers.
Even shoeless, the woman was half a foot taller. Late fifties, slender and fine-featured, with an elegant carriage, poodle-cut red hair with a curl that looked natural, and the kind of fair, freckled skin that bruises easily. Her dress was lime-colored Thai silk with a dragon print and mandarin collar. She wore apple jade jewelry, gauzy black stockings, and black ballet slippers.
“Thanks for seeing us,” said Larry.
“Our pleasure, Larry,” said the man. “Been a long time. Excuse me, it’s Doctor Daschoff now, isn’t it?”
“Ph.D.,” said Larry. “Piled higher and deeper.”
“No, no,” said the man, wagging his finger. “You earned it- be proud.” He shook Larry’s hand. “Lots of therapists staking out L.A. You doing okay?”
“Oh, Gordie, don’t be so direct,” said the woman.
“I’m doing fine, Gordon,” said Larry. Turning to her: “Hello, Chantal. Long time.”
She curtsied and extended her hand. “Lawrence.”
“This is Dr. Alex Delaware, an old friend and colleague. Alex, Chantal and Gordon Fontaine.”
“Alex,” said Chantal, curtsying again. “Charmed.” She took my hand in both of hers. Her skin was hot and soft and moist. She had large hazel eyes and a jawline that had been tucked tight. Her makeup was thick, almost chalky, but couldn’t conceal the wrinkles. And there was pain in the eyes- she’d been a knockout once, and was still getting used to thinking of herself in the past tense.
“Pleased to meet you, Chantal.”
She squeezed my hand and released it. Her husband looked me over and said, “You’ve got a photogenic face, Doctor. Ever act?”
“I only ask because it seems everyone in L.A. has acted at one time or another.” To his wife: “A good-looking boy, honey.” He put his arm around her shoulder. “Your type, wouldn’t you say?”
Chantal gave a cold smile.
Gordon told me: “She has a thing for men with curly hair.” Running one hand over his own straight coiffure, he lifted it and revealed a bare scalp. “The way mine used to be. Right, honey?”
He put the hairpiece down and patted it into place. “So, did Larry tell you about our little collection?”
“Only in general terms.”
He nodded. “You know what they say about the acquisition of art being an art itself? Now, that’s pure bunkum, but it does take a certain determination and… panache to acquire meaningfully, and we’ve worked like the dickens to do just that.” He spread his arms as if blessing the room. “What you see here took two decades and I-won’t-tell-you-how-many dollars to put together.”
I knew my line: “I’d love to see it.”
The next half hour was spent on a tour of the black room.
Every genre of pornography was represented, in astounding quantity and variety, catalogued and labeled with Smithsonian precision. Gordon Fontaine jounced along, guiding with fervor, using a hand-held remote-control module to switch lights on and off, lock and unlock cabinets. His wife hung back, insinuating herself between Larry and me, smiling a lot.
“Observe.” Gordon rolled open a print drawer and untied several portfolios of erotic lithographs, recognizable without reading the signatures: Dali, Beardsley, Grosz, Picasso.
We moved on to an alarm-equipped glass case housing an old English manuscript handwritten on parchment and illuminated with copulating peasants and cavorting farm animals.
“Pre-Guttenberg,” said Gordon. “Chaucerian apocrypha. Chaucer was a highly sexual writer. They never teach you that in high school.”
Other drawers were filled with erotic sketches from Renaissance Italy, and Japanese art- watercolors of kimonoed courtesans entwined with stoic, top-knotted men lugging exaggerated sexual equipment.
“Overcompensation,” said Chantal. She nudged my arm.
We were shown displays of fertility talismans, erotic woodblocks, marital aids, antique lingerie. After a while my eyes began to blur.
“Those were used by Brenda Allen’s girls,” said Gordon, pointing to a set of yellowed silk undergarments. “And those red ones are from the bordello in New Orleans where Scott Joplin played piano.” He stroked the glass. “If only they could talk, eh?”
“We have edible ones, too,” said Chantal. “Over there, in a refrigerated case.”
We swept past still more sexual devices, collections of obscene party gags and novelties, raunchy record albums, and what Gordon proclaimed to be “the world’s finest collection of dildoes. Six hundred and fifty-three pieces, gentlemen, from all over the world. Every medium imaginable, from monkeypod wood to scrimshawed ivory.”
A hand brushed my rear. I did a quarter turn, saw Chantal smile.
“Our bibliothèque,” said Gordon, pointing to a wall of bookshelves.
Oversized, gilt-edged treatises bound in leather; hard-and soft-cover contemporary books; thousands of magazines, some of them still shrink-wrapped and sealed, with covers that left nothing to the imagination- grandly tumescent men, semen-bathed, wide-eyed women. Titles like Double-Fucked Stewardess and Orifice Supplies.
The Fontaines seemed to know many of the models personally and discussed them with near-parental concern. (“That’s Johnny Strong- he retired a couple of years ago and is selling securities up in Tiburon.” “Look, Gordie, there’s Laurie Ruth Sloan, the Milk Queen herself.” To me: “She married money. Her husband’s a real fascist and won’t let her express herself anymore.”)
I tried to look sympathetic.
“Onward,” said Gordon, “to the pièce de résistance.”
A click of the remote module caused one of the book-cases to slide back. Behind it was a matte-black door that swung open at Gordon’s prod. Inside was a large vault/screening room. Two walls were lined with racks of film reels in metal canisters and videocassettes. Three rows of black leather easy chairs, three chairs per row. Mounted on the rear wall was a gleaming array of projection equipment.
“These are the cleanest prints you’ll ever see,” said Gordon. “Every important explicit film ever made, all converted to videotape duplicate. We’re also trying really hard to preserve the originals. Our restorer is top-notch- twenty years at one of the studio archives, another ten at the American Film Institute. And our curator is a well-known film critic who must remain unnamed”- he cleared his throat-“due to lack of spine.”
“Impressive,” I said.
“We hope,” said Chantal, “to donate it to a major university. One day.”
“What she means by ‘one day,’ ” said Gordon, “is after I’m gone.”
“Oh, hush, Gordie. I’m going first.”
“No way, hon. You’re not leaving me alone with my memories and my hand.” He waved a fleshy palm.
“Oh, go on, Gordie. You’ll do just fine for yourself.”
Gordon patted her hand. The two of them exchanged affectionate glances.
Larry looked at his watch.
“Of course,” said Gordon. “I’m retired- I’ve forgotten about time pressure. You wanted to see Shawna’s loop.”
“Shawna who?” I asked.
“Shawna Blue. That’s the name Pretty Sharon used on the loop.”
“We always called her Pretty Sharon,” said Chantal, “because she was such a lovely thing, virtually flawless. Shawna Blue was her nom d’amour.” She shook her head. “How sad that she’s gone- and a suicide.”
“Do you find that surprising?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “To destroy oneself- how awful.”
“How well did you know her?”
“Not well at all. I believe we just met her once- am I right, Gordie?”
“How many films did she make?”
“Same answer,” said Gordon. “Just one, and it wasn’t a commercial endeavor. It was supposed to be for educational purposes.”
The way he said supposed made me ask, “Sounds like you have your doubts?”
He frowned. “We put up the money based on its being educational. The actual production was handled by that first-class cockroach P. P. Kruse.”
“Peepee,” said Chantal. “How apropos.”
“He claimed it was part of his research,” said Gordon. “Told us that one of his students had agreed to act in an erotic film as part of her course work.”
“When was this?”
“Seventy-four,” he said. “October or November.”
Not long after Sharon began grad school. The bastard had been a fast worker.
“It was supposed to be part of her research,” said Gordon. “Now we weren’t born yesterday, we thought that was pretty thin, but Kruse assured us it was all on the up-and-up, showed us forms approved by the University. He even brought Sharon to meet us, here in our home- that was the one time. She seemed very vivacious, very Marilyn- down to the hair. She verified it was all part of her course work.”
“Marilyn,” I said. “As in Monroe.”
“Yes. She projected that same innocent yet erotic quality.”
“She was a blonde?”
“Platinum,” said Chantal. “Like sunshine on clear water.”
“The Sharon we knew had black hair,” said Larry.
“Well, I don’t know about that,” said Gordon. “Kruse may have been lying about who she was. He lied about everything else. We opened our home to him, gave him free access to our collection, and he turned around and used it to pander to the bluenoses.”
“He gave a speech in front of church groups,” said Chantal, stamping her foot. “Stood there and said terrible things about us- called us perverted, sexist. If there’s one man who isn’t sexist it’s my Gordie.
“He didn’t use our names,” added Chantal, “but we knew he was referring to us.”
“His own wife was a porn star,” I said. “How’d he explain that to the church groups?”
“Suzy?” said Gordon. “I wouldn’t call her a star- adequate style, but strictly second drawer. I suppose he could always claim he saved her from a life of sin. But he probably never had to explain. People have short memories. After she married him, Suzy stopped working, disappeared from view. He probably turned her into a docile little hausfrau- he’s the type, you know. Obsessed with power.”
It echoed something Larry had said at the party. Power junkie.
“Onward,” said Gordon. He went to the back of the room and began fiddling with the projection equipment.
“Kruse has just been appointed head of the psychology department,” I said.
“Scandalous,” said Chantal. “You’d think someone would know better.”
“You’d think,” I said.
“All cued,” Gordon called from the back. “Everyone get comfortable.”
Larry and I took the front end seats; Chantal got between us. The room went black; the screen, dead white.
“Checkup,” he announced. “Starring the late Miss Shawna Blue and the late Mr. Michael Starbuck.”
The screen filled with dancing lint followed by flickering count-down numbers. I sat rigid, holding my breath, told myself I’d been an idiot to come. Then, black-and-white images floated in front of me and I lost myself in them.
There was no sound track, only the whir of projection breaking the silence. Lettering that resemb
A CREATIVE IMAGE ASSOC. PRODUCTION
Creative Image. A name on a door. Kruse’s neighbors in the Sunset Boulevard office. Not a neighbor after all, but the two faces of Dr. K…
PIERRE LE VOYEUR
A jumpy black-and-white sweep of a doctor’s examining room- the old-fashioned kind, with enameled fixtures, wooden examining table, eye chart, chintz drapes, a square of six framed diplomas on the wall.
The door opened. A woman walked in.
The camera pursued her, spending a long time on the sway of her buttocks.
Young and beautiful and well-endowed, with long, wavy platinum-blond hair. She wore a clinging, low-cut jersey dress that barely contained her.
Black-and-white film, but I knew the dress was flamecolored.
A flickering close-up magnified a beautiful, pouting face.
Sharon’s face. Despite the wig, no doubt about it.
I felt sick and regretful. Stared at the screen like a child at a squashed bug.
The camera pulled back. Sharon pirouetted, gazed into the mirror, and fluffed her hair. Then a quick zoom- more pout, big eyes gazing out at the viewer.
Boring into mine.
A full body shot, shift to buttocks, a series of quick bounces from mouth to hands to bosom.
Shoddy, the cheapest of the cheap. But perversely magical-she had come back to life, was up there, smiling and beckoning- immortality conceived in light and shadow. I had to restrain myself from reaching out to touch her. Wanted, suddenly, to yank her out of the screen, to pull her back in time. Rescue her.
I gripped my armrests. My heart was pounding, filling my ears like a winter tide.
She stretched languidly and licked her lips. The camera got so close her tongue resembled some kind of giant sea slug. More close-ups: wet white teeth. A purposeful bend forward, flashing cleavage. Moon-cratered nipplescape. Hands stroking breasts, pinching.
She was twisting, exhibiting, clearly enjoying center stage.
Keep it bright. I want to see it. See everything.
I thought of angled mirrors, started sweating. Finally, concentrating on the choppiness and relentless zooming helped restore her to something two-dimensional.
I exhaled, closed my eyes, determined to maintain a sense of detachment. Before my breath had been totally expelled, something dropped on my knee and settled there. Chantal’s hand. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She stared straight ahead, mouth slightly parted.
I did nothing, hoped she wouldn’t explore. Let my eyes settle back on the screen.
Sharon was performing a slow, sinuous striptease, peeling down to black garter belt, mesh stockings, and high-heeled shoes- a Frederick’s of Hollywood parody- touching herself, bending, spreading, and kneading, playing for the camera.
I watched her hands move. Felt them.
But something was wrong. Something about the hands- off-kilter.
The more I tried to figure out what it was, the further it receded: Chinese finger-puzzle time. I stopped trying, told myself it would come to me.
The camera got gynecologic, moved upward, inch by inch.
Sharon, on the examining table now, fondled herself, looked down at her crotch.
The camera swung to the doorknob as it rotated. The door opened. A tall, dark, broad-shouldered man walked in carrying a clipboard. Late thirties, long white coat, headlamp and stethoscope. A narrow, hungry face- down-slanted eyes, broken nose, thin wide lips, five o’clock shadow. The eyes were jumpy, those of a hustler on full burn. He’d greased his hair to shoe-polish sheen and parted it in the center. A pencil-line mustache traveled the length of his upper lip.
Classic Gigolo meets Dumb Blonde.
He stared at Sharon, raised his eyebrows, mugged for the camera.
She pointed to her crotch, gave a pained expression.
Scratching his head, he consulted his clipboard, then put it down and removed the stethoscope. He stood over her, bent his knees, and put his head between her legs, poking, probing. Looked up, shrugged.
She winked at the camera, pushed his head down, writhed on cue.
He came up, pretended to be gasping for breath. She pushed him down again. The rest was predictable- close-up of his trousered erection, she forcing him down, sucking the fingers of one of her hands.
She pushed him off, worked his zipper. His pants fell to his ankles. She removed the coat. He was shirtless, wore only a tie. She pulled the tie until he hovered. Took him orally, wide-eyed and gulping.
As he got up on the table and mounted her, Chantal’s fingers began spider-walking up my thigh. I placed my hand over them, preventing further progress, gave a friendly squeeze, and deposited them gently in her lap. She made no sound, didn’t move a muscle.
Comically rapid shifts in positions. Close-ups of both their faces, contorted. He saying something- cuing her- a series of rapid thrusts, withdrawal, the milky proof of climax flying through the air.
She retrieved some from her belly, licked her fingers. Winked at the camera again.
A checkup turned carnal. Follow-up visits…
I felt suffocated, angry. Sad.
The room stayed mercifully dark.
“Well,” said Gordon finally, “there it is.”
Chantal got up fast, smoothed her dress. “Excuse me, I have something to attend to.”
“Everything all right, hon?”
“Just fine, dearie.” She kissed his cheek, curtsied, and said, “Nice to see you again, Lawrence. Nice meeting you, Dr. Delaware.” She left the vault.
“The late Mickey Starbuck,” I said. “How’d he die?”
Gordon was still staring at his wife’s exit route. I had to repeat the question.
“Cocaine overdose, several years ago. Poor Mickey wanted to break into straight films but couldn’t- there’s terrible discrimination against explicit stars. He ended up driving a cab. A sensitive soul, really a fine young man.”
“Two actors, two suicides by overdose,” said Larry. “Sounds like a jinx.”
“Nonsense,” said Gordon sharply. “Explicit films are like any other aspect of show business. Fragile egos, instability, big ups, big downs. Some people can’t cope.”
“The production company?” I said. “Creative Image Associates- a shadow for Kruse?”
Gordon nodded. “Protection. Foolish of me not to smell something rotten when he set it up- if he’d really gotten University approval, why the need for a shadow? When I saw the finished product I knew precisely what he’d done, but I didn’t call him on it- he was the doctor, the expert. At the time I thought he was brilliant, visionary. I figured he had a reason.”
“What had he done?”
“Sit back down and I’ll show you.” He returned to the rear of the vault, the room returned to darkness, and another movie came on the screen.
This one had no title, no actors’ credits, just grainy, jumpy action, the camera work even more amateurish than the first, but clearly its inspiration.
The setting: a doctor’s office, same kind of furniture, same square of framed diplomas.
The stars: a gorgeous woman with wavy blond hair, long-legged, stacked, but several inches shorter than Sharon, the bones smaller, the face slightly fuller. Similar enough to be Sharon’s twin.
Twin. Shirlee. No, that was impossible. The Shirlee I’d met had been crippled in childhood…
If Sharon had told the truth.
Film number two was barreling along at a Keystone Kops pace: striptease, hair-fluffing, a tall dark man entering through the door.
Close-up on him: fortyish, shiny hair, pencil mustache. White coat, stethoscope, clipboard.
A crude resemblance to the late Mickey Starbuck, but nothing striking.
And no leer. This doctor seemed to be showing genuine surprise at the sight of the naked blonde lying spread-legged on the table.
No shifts of context, either. A stationary camera, fullview long shots and occasional close-ups that seemed less concerned with eroticism than identification of the actors.
The blonde got up and rubbed herself against the doctor. Showed herself, pinched her nipples, stood on tiptoes and licked his neck.
He shook his head, pointed to his watch.
She held him to her, ground her hips.
He started to pull away again, then loosened- like something thawing. Allowed himself to be caressed.
She moved in.
Then the same progression as in Sharon’s film.
Because this one wasn’t staged. This doctor wasn’t acting.
No mugging for the camera, because he didn’t know there was a camera.
She knelt before him.
The camera concentrated on his face.
They were up on the table.
The camera concentrated on his face.
He was lost in her, she in control.
The camera concentrated on his face.
A documentary- real peep-through-the-window stuff. I closed my eyes, thought of something else.
The blond beauty working like a pro.
Sharon’s twin- but from another time. His Alfalfa hairdo and pencil mustache authentic.
“When was this made?” I called back to Gordon.
“ 1952,” he said in a choked voice, as if resenting the interruption.
The doctor was bucking and gritting his teeth. The blond woman waved him like a flag. Winked at the camera.
“Sharon’s mother,” I said.
“I can’t prove it,” said Gordon, returning to the front of the room. “But with that resemblance she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? When I met Pretty Sharon, she reminded me of someone. I couldn’t remember who, hadn’t seen this film in a long time- years. It’s quite rare, a real collector’s item. We try to avoid exposing it to unnecessary wear and tear.”
He stopped, expectant.
“We appreciate your showing it to us, Mr. Fontaine.”
“My pleasure. When I saw Kruse’s finished product, I realized who she’d reminded me of. Kruse must have realized it too. We gave him full access to our entire collection, and he spent a lot of time in the vault. He discovered Linda’s film and set out to ape it. Mother and daughter- an intriguing theme, but he should have been truthful about it.”
“Did Sharon know about the first film?”
“That I can’t tell you. As I said, I only met her once.”
“Linda who?” said Larry.
“Linda Lanier. She was an actress- or at least wanted to be. One of the pretty young things who flooded Hollywood after the war- still do, I guess. I believe she got a contract at one of the studios, but she never actually worked.”
“Wrong kind of talent?” said Larry.
“Who knows? She didn’t stick around long enough for anyone to find out. That particular studio was owned by Leland Belding. She ended up being one of his party girls.”
“The basket-case billionaire,” I said. “The Magna Corporation.”
“You’re both too young to remember,” said Gordon, “but he was quite a guy in his day, Renaissance man- aerospace, armaments, shipping, mining. And the movies. He invented a camera that they still use today. And a no-shimmy girdle based on aircraft design.”
I said, “By party girl, you mean hooker?”
“No, no, more like hostesses. He used to throw lots of parties. Owning the studio gave him easy access to beautiful girls and he hired them as hostesses. The bluenoses tried to make a thing of it, but they never could prove a thing.”
“What about the doctor?”
“He was a real doctor. The film was real, too- the vérité is almost overwhelming, isn’t it? This is the original print, the only remaining one.”
“Where’d you get it?”
He shook his head. “Trade secret, Doctor. Suffice it to say I’ve had it for a long time and it cost me plenty. I could make copies and recoup all my original investment plus, but that would open the floodgates for multiple reproduction and dilute the historical value of the original, and I refuse to bend my principles.”
“What was the name of the doctor?”
“I don’t know.”
A lie. Fanatic and voyeur that he was, he wouldn’t have rested before gleaning every last detail about his treasure.
I said, “The film was part of a blackmail ploy, wasn’t it? The doctor was the victim.”
“What else, then? He didn’t know he was being filmed.”
“Hollywood practical joke,” he said. “Old Errol Flynn bored peepholes in the walls of his bathrooms, used a hidden camera to film his lady friends on the commode.”
“Tacky,” muttered Larry.
Gordon’s face darkened. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Dr. Daschoff. It was all in the spirit of fun.”
Larry said nothing
“Never mind,” said Gordon, walking to the door of the vault and holding it open. “I’m sure you gentlemen have to get back to your patients.”
He ushered us through the black room and to the elevator.
“What happened to Linda Lanier?” I asked.
“Who knows?” he said. Then he began to prattle about the relationship between cultural norms and erotica, and continued the lecture until we left his house.
“Never saw him like that,” said Larry, when we were back on the sidewalk.
“His belief system’s under assault,” I said. “He likes to think of his hobby as something benign, like stamp collecting. But you don’t use stamps to blackmail.”
He shook his head. “It was weird enough watching Sharon, but the second one was something else- really evil. That poor guy humping away, all the while he’s making his cinematic debut.”
Another shake of the head. “Blackmail. Shit, this is getting curiouser and curiouser, D. To make things worse I got a call this morning from an old fraternity brother. A guy Brenda and I both knew in college, also ended up a shrink- behavior therapist, had a huge practice out in Phoenix. Screwed his secretary, she gave him the clap; he passed it on to his wife and she kicked him out, started bad-mouthing him all around town, destroyed the practice. Couple of days ago he walks into the house, blows her brains out and then his own. Doesn’t say much for our profession, does it? Know how to take tests, write a dissertation, and you graduate. Send in your check, renew your license. No one checks for psychopathology.”
“Maybe the psychoanalysts have the right idea,” I said. “Making their candidates go through long-term analysis before being allowed to qualify.”
“Come on, D. Think of all the analysts you’ve met who are total weirdos. And all of us had our training therapies. Someone can be therapized up the ying-yang and still be a rotten human being. Who knows, maybe we’re suspect from the beginning. I just read this article, study of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ family histories. A whole bunch of us had severely depressed mothers.”
“I read it too.”
“Sure fits me,” he said. “How about you?”
“You see, that’s it. As kids we had to take care of our mommies so we learned to be hyper-adult. Then, when we grow up we look for other depressives to take care of- that in itself isn’t bad, if we’ve worked through all our personal shit. But if we don’t… Nah, there ain’t no simple answer, D. Let the buyer goddam beware.”
I walked him to the station wagon. “Larry, could Sharon’s film have had anything to do with Kruse’s research?”
“What about the University forms Gordon saw?”
“Bogus,” he said. “And illogical- even back then, no university would put itself out on a limb like that. Kruse showed him some piece of bullshit; Gordon believed it because he wanted to. Besides, Kruse never bothered to use any forms for anything- he and the department had a mutual apathy going. They took the bread he brought in, gave him a basement lab no one was using, didn’t want to know what he was up to. Compared to all the deception experiments the social psychologists were doing, his stuff seemed benign.” He stopped, looked troubled. “What the hell was he after, filming her like that?”
“Who knows? The only thing I can think of is some sort of radical therapy. Working through the sins of the mothers.”
He thought about that. “Yeah. Maybe. That kind of weirdness would be right up his alley: total control of the patient’s life, marathon sessions, regression hypnosis- break down the defenses. If in the process she found out that her mom was a bimbo, he’d have her vulnerable.”
“What if she found out because Kruse told her?” I said. “He had access to the Fontaines’ film vault, could have been looking through it and discovered Linda Lanier’s loop. Her resemblance to Sharon was striking- he put it together. Then he researched Lanier, learned some nasty details- maybe even about blackmail. Sharon told me some bogus story about rich, sophisticated parents. Looks like she was hiding from reality. Kruse could have shown her the film when she was under hypnosis, used it to break her down completely, put her completely under his control. Then he suggested a way she could work through the trauma by making a film of her own- cathartic role-playing.”
“Fucking bastard,” he said. Then: “She was a smart girl, D. How could she fall for it?”
“Smart, but screwed up- those borderline characteristics we talked about. And you yourself told me how persuasive Kruse was- he had radical libbers believing whipping his wife was something noble. Those were women he knew casually. He was Sharon’s supervisor, her training therapist, and she stayed with him after she got her doctorate, as his assistant. I never really understood the relationship between them, but I knew it was intense. The film was made soon after she came to L.A., which means he was monkeying with her head right from the beginning.”
“Or maybe,” he said, “he knew her from before.”
“Therapy plus cum shots.” He looked grim. “Our esteemed department head’s a real prince.”
“Do you think the University should be apprised of his methods?”
“A little fling at whistle-blowing?” He worried his mustache. “Brenda tells me the slander laws are pretty damned convoluted. Kruse’s got money- he could keep us in court for years- and no matter how it turned out, we’d be raked over in the process. Are you ready for something like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m not. Let the University do its own damned detective work.”
“Let the buyer beware?”
He put his hand on the door handle, looked peeved. “Look, D., you’re semi-retired, your own man, got plenty of time to run around looking at dirty movies. I’ve got five kids, a wife in law school, high blood pressure, and a mortgage to match. Forgive me for not wanting to play Crusader Rabbit, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Take it easy.”
“I try to, believe me, but reality keeps squeezing my nuts.”
He got in the car.
“If I do anything,” I said, “I’ll keep you out of it.”
“Good idea.” He looked at his watch. “Got to roll. Can’t say it’s been a yuck a minute but it certainly has been different.”
Two films. Another link to a dead billionaire.
And one amateur movie producer, masquerading as a healer.
I drove home determined to reach Kruse before I left for San Luis the next day. Determined the bastard was going to talk to me, one way or the other. I tried his offices again. Still no answer. I was about to phone his University exchange when the phone rang.
“Dr. Delaware, please.”
“Dr. Delaware, this is Dr. Leslie Weingarden. I’ve got a crisis on my hands that I thought you might be able to help me with.”
She sounded tightly strung.
“What kind of crisis, Dr. Weingarden?”
“Related to our previous conversation,” she said. “I’d rather not discuss it over the phone. Could you see your way clear to come down to my office sometime this afternoon?”
“Give me twenty minutes,” I said.
I changed shirts, put on a tie, called my service, and was told Olivia Brickerman had called.
“She said to tell you the system’s down, Doctor,” said the operator. “Whatever that means. She’ll try to get you what you want as soon as it’s up again.”
I thanked her and hung up. Back to Beverly Hills.
Two women sat reading in the waiting room. Neither appeared in good humor.
I rapped the glass partition. The receptionist came around and let me in. We passed several examining rooms, stopped at a door marked PRIVATE, and knocked. A second later it opened partially and Leslie slipped out. She was perfectly made up, every hair in place, but she looked haggard and frightened.
“How many patients out there, Bea?”
“Just a couple. But one’s a nagger.”
“Tell them an emergency came up- I’ll be with them soon as I can.”
Bea left. Leslie said, “Let’s get away from the door.”
We moved down the hall. She leaned against the wall, blew out her breath, knitted her hands.
“Wish I still smoked,” she said. “Thanks for coming.”
“D.J. Rasmussen. He’s dead. His girlfriend’s inside, totally coming apart. She walked in half an hour ago, just as I got back from lunch, and broke down in the waiting room. I hustled her in here fast, before the other patients arrived, and I’ve been tied up with her ever since. I gave her a shot of IM Valium- ten milligrams. That seemed to calm her down for a while but then she started falling apart again. Still want to help? Think you can do anything by talking to her?”
“How did he die?”
“Carmen- the girlfriend- said he’d been drinking heavily for the last few days. More heavily than usual. She was frightened he was going to get rough with her, because that was his usual pattern. But instead he got weepy, deeply depressed, started talking about what a bad person he was, all the terrible things he’d done. She tried to talk to him but he just got lower, kept drinking. Early this morning she woke up and found a thousand dollars in cash on his pillow, along with some personal snapshots of the two of them and a note that said ‘Goodbye.’ She jumped out of bed, saw he’d taken his guns out of the cabinet but couldn’t find him. Then she heard his truck starting and ran out after him. The truck was full of guns and he’d already started drinking- she could smell it on him. She tried to stop him but he shoved her away and drove off. She got in her car and followed him. They live out in Newhall- apparently there are lots of canyons and winding roads there. He was speeding and weaving, going over ninety. She couldn’t keep up and missed a turn. But she retraced, stayed with him, and saw him go over an embankment. The truck rolled around, landed at the bottom, and exploded. Just like TV, she said.”
Leslie chewed on a fingernail.
“Do the police know about this?”
“Yes. She called them. They asked her a few questions, took her statement, and told her to go home. According to her, they didn’t seem very concerned. D.J. was known locally as a troublemaker, history of driving under the influence. She claims she heard one of them mutter, ‘Fucking streets are safer now.’ That’s all I know. Can you help?”
We entered her private office- small, book-lined, furnished with a pine writing desk and two chairs, decorated with cute posters, plants, souvenir mugs, photo cubes. In one of the chairs sat a chubby young woman with a poor complexion. She wore a white blousy shift, brown stretch pants, and flat sandals. Her hair was long and black, blond-streaked and disheveled; her eyes, red-rimmed and puffy. When she saw me she turned away and buried her face in her hands.
Leslie said, “Carmen, this is Dr. Delaware. Dr. Delaware, Carmen Seeber.”
I sat in the other chair. “Hi, Carmen.”
“Carmen, Dr. Delaware’s a psychologist. You can talk to him.”
And with that, Leslie left the room.
The young woman kept her face hidden, didn’t move or speak. After a while, I said, “Dr. Weingarden told me about D.J. I’m very sorry.”
She started to sob, humped shoulders heaving.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Carmen? Anything you need?”
“I met D.J. once,” I said. “He seemed a very troubled person.”
A rush of tears.
“It must have been hard for you, living with him, all the drinking. But even so, you miss him terribly. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”
She began swaying, clutching her face.
“Oh, God!” she cried out. “Oh, God! Oh, God, help me! Oh, God!”
I patted her shoulder. She shuddered but didn’t move away.
We sat that way for a while, she calling out for divine help, me absorbing her grief, feeding her small bites of empathy. Providing tissues and a cup of water, telling her none of it was her fault, that she’d done the best she could, no one could have done better. That it was okay to feel, okay to hurt.
Finally she looked up, wiped her nose, and said, “You’re a nice man.”
“My papa was a nice man. He ya know died.”
“He left a long time ago, when I was in ya know kindergarten. I came home with stuff we made for Thanksgiving- ya know paper turkeys and Pilgrim hats- and I saw them take him away in the ambulance.”
“How old are you, Carmen?”
“You’ve dealt with a lot in twenty years.”
She smiled. “I guess so. And now Danny. He was ya know nice, too, even though he was a mean one when he drank. But deep down, nice. He didn’t ya know give me no hassles, took me places, got me ya know all kinds of stuff.”
“How long did you know each other?”
She thought. “’Bout two years. I was driving this catering truck- ya know, the roach wagon. Used to drive by all these ya know construction sites and Danny was working at one, framing.”
I nodded encouragement.
“He liked burritos,” she said. “Ya know meat and potato but no beans- beans made him toot which made him ya know mean. I thought he was kinda cute so I gave him freebies; the boss never knew. Then we started ya know living together.”
She gazed at me, childlike.
“I never, ever thought he’d really ya know do it.”
She bobbed her head. Tears ran down her pimpled cheeks.
“Had he talked about suicide, before?”
“When he drank and got all p.o.’d, ya know, he’d go on about how ya know life sucked, it was better to be dead, ya know, he was gonna do it some day, tell everyone the f-word off. Then when he hurt his back- ya know the pain, out of work- he was real low. But I never thought…” She broke down again.
“There was no way to know, Carmen. When a person makes up his mind to kill himself, there’s no way to stop him.”
“Yeah,” she said, between gulps of air. “Ya couldn’t stop Danny when he made his mind up, that’s fer sure. He was a real hardbutt, real ya know stubborn. I tried to stop him this morning but he just kept going, like he wasn’t ya know hearing me, just all juiced and ya know shootin’ ahead like a bat out of… hell.”
“Dr. Weingarden said he talked about some bad things he’d done.”
She nodded. “He was pretty broke up. Said he was a ya know grievous sinner.”
“Do you know what he was broken up about?”
Shrug. “He used to ya know get in fights, beat people up in bars- nothing really heavy, but he did hurt some people.” She smiled. “He was little but ya know real tough. Scrappy. And he liked to smoke weed and drink, which made him real scrappy- but he was a good dude, ya know. He didn’t do nothing real bad.”
Wanting to know her support system, I asked her about family and friends.
“I don’t got no family,” she said. “Neither did Danny. And we didn’t have no ya know friends. I mean I didn’t mind but Danny didn’t like people- maybe ’cause his papa beat him up all the time and it turned him ya know angry at the world. That’s why he…”
“He killed his father?”
“When he was a kid- self-defense! But the cops did a number on him- they sent him to ya know CYA till he was eighteen. He got out and did his own thing but he didn’t like no friends. All he liked was me and the dogs- we got two Rottweiler mixes, Dandy and Paco. They liked him a lot. They been crying all day, going to miss him something bad.”
She cried for a long time.
“Carmen,” I said, “you’re going through hard times. It will help to have someone to talk to. I’d like to hook you up with a doctor, a psychologist like me.”
She looked up. “I could talk to you.”
“I’m… I don’t usually do this kind of work.”
She pursed her lips. “It’s the bread, right. You don’t take no Medi-Cal, right?”
“No, Carmen. I’m a child psychologist. I work with children.”
“Right, I understand,” she said with more sadness than anger. As if this were the latest injustice in a life full of them.
“The person I want to refer you to is very nice, very experienced.”
She pouted, rubbed her eyes.
“Carmen, if I talk to her about you and get you her number, will you call?”
“A her?” She shook her head violently. “No way. I don’t want no lady doctor.”
“Danny had a lady doctor. She messed with him.”
“Messed with him?”
She spit on the floor. “Ya know ballin’ him. He always said, bullshit, Carmen, we never done it. But he’d come back from ya know seein’ her and have that ya know look in his eyes and he’d smell all of lovin’- disgustin’. I don’t want to talk about it. Don’t want no lady doctor in any case.”
“Dr. Weingarden’s a lady.”
“Dr. Small, the person I want to send you to, is different too, Carmen. She’s in her fifties, very kind, would never do anything dishonest.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Carmen, I’ve seen her myself.”
She didn’t understand.
“Carmen, she was my doctor.”
“You? What for?”
“Sometimes I need to talk too. Everyone does. Now promise me to go see her once. If you don’t like her, I’ll get you someone else.” I pulled out a card with my exchange number on it and gave it to her.
She closed one hand over it.
“I just don’t think it’s right,” she said.
“Her balling him. A doctor should, ya know, know better.”
“You’re absolutely right.”
That surprised her, as if it were the first time anyone had ever agreed with her.
“Some doctors shouldn’t be doctors,” I said.
“I mean,” she said, “I could sue or something.”
“No one to sue, Carmen. If you’re talking about Dr. Ransom, she’s dead. She killed herself too.”
Her hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, my God, I didn’t… I mean, I ya know wished it to happen, but I didn’t… Now it’s… oh, my God.”
She crossed herself, squeezed her temples, stared at the ceiling.
“Carmen, none of this is your fault. You’re a victim.”
She shook her head.
“A victim. I want you to understand that.”
“I- I don’t understand nothing.” Tears. “This is all too ya know… too… I don’t understand it.”
I leaned forward, smelled her anguish. “Carmen, I’ll stay here with you as long as you need me to. All right? All right, Carmen?”
A half hour passed before she’d composed herself, and when she dried her eyes she seemed to have regained some dignity as well.
“You’re very nice,” she said. “I’m okay. You can go now.”
“What about Dr. Small- the therapist I want you to see?”
“Just one time.”
Wan smile. “Okay.”
I took her hand, held it for a moment, then went to the front desk and told Bea to watch her. I used a phone in an empty examining room to call Ada. The operator at her service told me she was about to go into session.
“It’s an emergency,” I said, and was patched through.
“Alex,” said Ada. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve got a young woman in crisis that I’d like you to see as soon as possible. It’s not a choice referral, Ada- she’s on Medi-Cal and is anything but insightful. But when I tell you the details I think you’ll agree it’s important that she be seen.”
When I was through, she said, “How terrible. You were right to call, Alex. I can stay and see her at seven. Can she get here by then?”
“I’ll see that she does. Thanks so much, Ada.”
“My pleasure, Alex. I’ve got a patient waiting, so I can’t linger.”
“I understand. Thanks again.”
“No problem. I’ll call you after I’ve seen her.”
I went back to the private office and gave the number to Carmen.
“It’s all arranged,” I said. “Dr. Small will see you at seven tonight.”
I squeezed her hand and left, caught Leslie between examining rooms, and told her what I’d arranged.
“How’s she look to you?” she asked.
“Pretty fragile and she’s still cushioned by shock. The next few days could get really bad. She doesn’t have any support system. It’s really important for her to be seeing someone.”
“Makes sense. Where’s this therapist’s office?”
“Brentwood. San Vicente near Barrington.” I gave her the address and the time of the appointment.
“Perfect. I live in Santa Monica. I’ll be leaving the office around six-thirty. I’ll take her there myself. Until then, we’ll babysit her.” A moment’s hesitation. “This person you’re referring to is good?”
“The best. I’ve seen her myself.”
That bit of self-disclosure had reassured Carmen but it irritated her doctor.
“California honesty,” she said. Then: “Jesus, I’m sorry. You’ve really been nice, coming here on no notice- it’s just that I’ve become a total cynic. I know it’s not healthy. I’ve got to get myself to where I can trust people again.”
“It’s tough,” I said, thinking of my own crumbling sense of trust.
She fiddled with an earring. “Listen, I really do want to thank you for coming down here. Tell me what your fee is and I’ll write a check right now.”
“Forget it,” I said.
“No, I insist. I like to pay as I go.”
“No way, Leslie. I never expected to get paid.”
“You’re sure? I just want you to know I’m not into exploitation.”
“I never suspected you were.”
She looked uncomfortable. Removed her stethoscope and passed it from hand to hand.
“I know the first time you were here I sounded pretty mercenary, just out for myself. All I can say is, that’s really not me. I did want to call those patients, kept batting it back and forth in my mind. I don’t blame myself for Rasmussen’s death- he was a time bomb. It was only a matter of when. But it has made me realize I have to take responsibility, start acting like a physician. When I left you with Carmen, I went to the phone and started calling. I got through to a couple of the women. They sounded okay, said their men are okay, too, which I hope is true. Actually, it went better than I thought- they were less hostile than the first time. Maybe I got through, I don’t know. But at least I made contact. I’ll try until I reach all of them, let the darned chips fall where they may.”
“For what it’s worth, you’re doing the right thing.”
“It’s worth plenty,” she said, with sudden intensity. Then she looked embarrassed and glanced at the door of one of the examining rooms. “Well, I’ve got to be going, try to hang on to the patients I have. Thanks again.”
She stood on tiptoes, kissed me on the cheek. Caught by surprise, I moved my head and our lips brushed.
“That was stupid,” she said.
Before I could tell her it hadn’t been, she went in to see her next patient.
It was close to five by the time I reached the University. The psych building was emptying and only one secretary remained in the department office. I headed straight for the faculty roster and thumbed through it without her commenting. Maybe it was the corduroy jacket. Kruse was already listed in the directory as chairman; his office number was 4302. I took note of his home address- same place in Pacific Palisades.
I ran up the four flights, aware, suddenly, that my energy had returned; for the first time in a long while I felt imbued with purpose, righteous with anger.
Nothing like an enemy to cleanse one’s soul.
His office was at the end of a long white hall. Carved mahogany double doors had replaced the usual departmental plywood. The floor in front of the doorway was tarped with sawdust-coated canvas. From inside came the sound of sawing and banging.
The doors were unlocked. I walked into an outer office and found workmen laying parquet tile and hammering in mahogany molding, others on ladders painting the walls a rich, glossy burgundy. Brass wall sconces instead of overhead fluorescence, a leather armchair still wrapped in plastic. The air smelled of scorched wood and glue and paint. A transistor radio on the floor blared out country music.
One of the workmen saw me, turned off his skill-saw, and stepped down from his footstool. He was in his late twenties, medium-sized but burly, with enormous shoulders. A bandanna flowed out of the rear pocket of his filthy jeans and he wore a bent-visored baseball cap over black curly hair. His black beard was whitened by dust, as were his hairy Popeye arms. His utility belt was crammed with tools and rode low on narrow hips, clanking, as he swaggered over.
“Professor Kruse?” he said in a high, boyish voice.
“No, I’m looking for him.”
“Damn, aren’t we all. You know where he can be reached, tell him to get over here, pronto. Some fixtures came in that don’t match the specs. I don’t know if they changed their mind again or what, but we can’t go much further till someone clears it up, and the boss is out of the office, scoping another job.”
I said, “When’s the last time you saw him?”
He pulled out the bandanna and wiped his face.
“Last week, when we were laying out the plans, doing the rough work and the bathroom. We didn’t come back till yesterday, ’cause the materials weren’t in. Everyone was getting bent out of shape ’cause this was supposed to be a rush job. Now there’re other problems. They keep changing their minds about what they want.”
“Kruse and his wife. She was supposed to meet us an hour ago and go over everything, but she never showed. They’re not answering their phone, either. The boss comes back from Palm Springs he’s gonna be steamed, but I don’t know what the hell we’re supposed to do without the client showing up.”
“You don’t work for the University?”
“Us? Hell, no. Chalmers Interiors, Pasadena. This is a custom job- retile the bathroom, coffered ceiling in the big office, lots of wood, antique furniture, Persian rugs, fake fireplace with a marble mantel.” He rubbed his fore-finger against his thumb. “Big money.”
“They are- the Kruses. Cost plus, by the hour. You’d think they’d show up.”
He stuffed the bandanna back in his pocket. “Easy come, easy go, huh? Didn’t know professors did so good. You one, too?”
“Yes, but not here. Crosstown.”
“Better football team Crosstown,” he said. He removed his hat and scratched his head, gave a broad smile. “You here spying for the other side?”
I smiled back. “Just looking for Dr. Kruse.”
“Well, if you see him, tell him to get in touch, or tomorrow we’ll be somewhere else. Only got a half-day’s work for a two-man crew. Boss won’t want to commit.”
“I’ll do that, Mr…”
“Rodriguez. Gil Rodriguez.” He picked up a piece of scrap wood from the floor and used a stubby pencil to scratch his name and number on it. “I free-lance, too- dry wall, painting, plastering. Can fix anything that don’t have a computer in it. And if you got any football tickets you want to sell, I’ll be happy to take them off your hands.”
Traffic on Sunset was thick. The Stone Canyon entry to Bel Air was barricaded by roadwork, making things even worse, and the sun was sinking over the Palisades when I got to Kruse’s house. Same time of day as the first time I’d been there, but no teal sky; this one was baby-blue innocence melting to sea clouds.
After what Rodriguez had told me, I’d expected an empty driveway. But three cars were parked in front of the house: the customized white Mercedes with the PPK PHD plates I’d seen at the party, a restored blue Jaguar E-type with SSK plates and an old Toyota the color of split-pea soup. I walked past them, knocked on the front door, waited, knocked again, louder, then used the bell.
I could hear the chimes; anyone inside had to hear them too. But no one answered. Then I looked down and noticed the pile of mail on the front steps, wet and warped. Saw the wrought-iron mail slot stuffed with magazines and correspondence.
I rang again, looked around. To one side was the semienclosed courtyard, planted with perennials and climbing bougainvillea. It ended in a round-topped gate of weathered wooden planks.
I went to the gate, pushed it. It opened. I stepped through and walked toward the back of the property, along the south side of the house, passed under a wooden arbor, and found myself in a large backyard- gentle roll of lawn, borders of tall trees, freeform flower beds, rock pool with spa, backed by a waterfall that fell in a glassy sheet.
I heard a click. The yard was bathed in soft, colorful light and the pool glowed sapphire. Timers.
No light shone from inside the house, but a rose-colored bulb wired to a birch tree highlighted a patio with a shade-cloth awning and a floor of Mexican tile. Several groupings of stylish teak furniture. Suntan lotion on a table, crumpled bath towels on some of the chairs, looking as if they’d been there for a while. I sniffed mildew. Then something stronger. A swim interrupted…
One of the French doors was open. Wide enough for the stench to stream out. Wide enough to enter.
I put my handkerchief over my nose and mouth, stuck my head in far enough to see a rose-colored nightmare. Using the handkerchief, I fumbled for a light switch, found one.
Two bodies, sprawled across a desert of Berber carpet, barely recognizable as human but for the clothing that covered what remained of their torsos.
I gagged, looked away, saw high, beamed ceilings, over-stuffed furniture. Tasteful. Good decorator.
Then back down again to the horror…
I stared at the carpet. Tried to lose myself in the damn thing. Good weave. Immaculate. Except for the blackening stains…
One of the bodies wore a pink-flowered maillot bathing suit. The other, a once-white pair of Speedo shorts and a peacock-blue Hawaiian shirt patterned with red orchids.
The bright cloth stood out against glutinous, brownish green flesh. Faces replaced by lumps of oily, cratered meat. Meat thatched with hair- blond hair. On both. The hair on the bikinied corpse lighter, much longer. Tipped with brown crust.
I gagged again, pressed the handkerchief over my mouth and nose, held my breath, felt myself strangling, and backed away from the corpses.
Outside again, back onto the patio.
But even as I backed away my eye was drawn through the French doors, to the end of the room, up a flight of tiled stairs.
Rear staircase. Curving iron bannister.
On the top stair another decaying heap.
Pink housedress. What looked like dark hair. More putrefaction, more black stain, oozing down the steps like some malignant Slinky toy.
I turned and ran, past the pool, across springy grass to a bed of night-lit flowers, all unearthly blues and mauves. Bent low and smelled their perfume.
Sweet. Too sweet. My gut churned. I tried to vomit but couldn’t.
I ran along the side of the house, back to the courtyard, across the front lawn.
Empty road, silent road. All that horror, but no one to share it with.
I got back in the Seville, sat in the car smelling death. Tasting it.
Finally, though the stink remained with me, I felt able to drive and headed south down Mandeville, then east on Sunset. Wanting a time machine, anything that could turn back the clock.
Turn it way back…
But willing to settle for a strong cigar, a telephone, and a friendly voice.
I found a pharmacy and a phone booth in Brentwood. Milo picked up on the first ring, listened to what I had to say, and said, “I knew there was a reason I came home early.”
Twenty minutes later he came driving up to Mandeville and Sunset and followed me back to the murder house.
“Stay right there,” he said, and I waited in the Seville, drawing on a cheap panatela, while he went around to the back. A while later he reappeared, wiping his forehead. He got into the passenger seat, took a cigar out of my shirt pocket, and lit up.
He blew a few smoke rings, then began taking my statement, coolly professional. After leading me through my discovery of the bodies, he put down his pad and asked, “Why’d you come up here, Alex?”
I told him about the porn loops, D.J. Rasmussen’s fatal accident, the resurfacing of Leland Belding’s name.
“Kruse’s hand runs through most of it.”
“Not much hand left,” he said. “Bodies been there for a while.” He put the note pad away. “Any working guesses about whodunit?”
“Rasmussen was an explosive type,” I said. “Killed his father. For the last few days he’d been talking about being a sinner, doing something terrible. This could have been it.”
“Why would he snuff Kruse?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he blamed Kruse for Sharon’s death- he was pathologically attached to her, sexually involved.”
Milo thought for a while. “What’d you touch in there?”
“The light switch- but I used a handkerchief.”
“The gate… I think that’s it.”
“That’s all I can think of.”
“Let’s retrace your steps.”
When we were through, he said, “Go home, Alex.”
Glance at his Timex. “Crime scene boys should be here any minute. Go on. Disappear before the party begins.”
“Go on, Alex. Let me do the damned job.”
I drove away, still tasting decay through the bite of tobacco.
Everything Sharon had touched was turning to death.
Ever the mind-prober, I found myself wondering what had made her that way. What kind of early trauma. Then something hit me: the way she’d acted that terrible night I’d found her with the twin photo. Thrashing, screaming, collapsing, and ending up in a fetal curl. So similar to Darren Burkhalter’s behavior in my office. The reactions to the horror in his life that I’d captured on videotape, then played for a roomful of attorneys without noticing the connection.
Early childhood trauma.
Long ago, she’d explained it to me. Followed it up with a display of tender, loving kindness. Looking back, a well-staged display. Another act?
It was the summer of ’81, a hotel in Newport Beach, swarming with psychologist conventioneers. A cocktail lounge overlooking the harbor- tinted picture windows, red-flocked walls, chairs on rollers. Dark and empty and smelling of last night’s party.
I’d sat at the bar gazing out at the water, watching dagger-sharp yachts etch the surface of a blown-glass marina. Nursing a beer and eating a dry club sandwich while lending half an ear to the bartender’s gripes.
He was a short, potbellied Hispanic with quick hands and a coppery Indian face. I watched him clean glasses like a machine.
“Worst I’ve ever seen, without a doubt, yessir. Now, your salesmen- insurance, computers, whatever- your salesmen are serious drinkers. Your pilots too.”
“Comforting thought,” I said.
“Yeah, your salesmen and your pilots. But you psycho guys? Forget it. Even the teachers we had last winter were better and they weren’t any great shakes. Look at this place. Dead.”
Twisting open a bottle of baby onions, he drained the juice and poured the pearly balls into a tray. “How many of you guys at this shebang, anyway?”
“Few thousand.” He shook his head. “Look at this place. What is it, you all too busy analyzing other people, not allowed to have fun?”
“Maybe,” I said, reflecting on how dull the convention had been. But conventions always were. The only reason I’d attended this one was because I’d been asked to deliver a paper on childhood stress.
The paper having now been read, the inevitable picayune questions fielded, I was grabbing a bit of solitude before heading back to L.A. and a night shift on the adolescent ward.
“Maybe you guys should study yourselves, pal. Analyze why you don’t like to have fun.”
“Good idea.” I put some money down on the bar and said, “Have one on me.”
He stared at the bills. “Sure, thanks.” Lighting a cigarette, he poured himself a beer and leaned forward.
“Anyway, I’m for live and let live. Someone don’t want to have fun, okay. But at least come in and order something, know what I mean? Hell, don’t drink it-analyze it. But order and leave a tip. Leave something for the working man.”
“To the working man,” I said and raised my glass. I put it down empty.
“Refill, Doc? On the house.”
“I’ll take a Coke.”
“Figures. One rum and Coke coming up, hold the rum, hold the fun.”
He put the drink on the bar and was about to say something else when the door to the lounge opened and let in lobby noise. His eyes shifted to the back of the room and he said, “My, my.”
I looked over my shoulder and saw a woman in white. Long-legged, shapely, a cloud of black hair. Standing near the cigarette machine, head moving from side to side, as if scouting foreign territory.
Familiar. I turned to get a better look.
Sharon. Definitely Sharon. In a tailored linen suit, matching purse and shoes.
She saw me, waved as if we’d had an appointment.
All at once she was at my side. Soap and water, fresh grass…
She sat down on the stool next to mine, crossed her legs, and pulled her skirt down over her knees.
The bartender winked at me. “Drink, ma’am?”
After he handed her the drink and moved down, she said, “You look great, Alex. I like the beard.”
“Saves time in the morning.”
“Well, I think it’s handsome.” She sipped, toyed with her stirrer. “I keep hearing good things about you, Alex. Early tenure, all those publications. I’ve read quite a few of your articles. Learned a lot from them.”
“Glad to hear it.”
“I finally graduated,” she said. “Last month.”
“Thanks. It took me longer than I thought it would. But I got involved in clinical work and didn’t apply myself to writing the dissertation as diligently as I should have.”
We sat in silence. A few feet away, the bartender was whistling “ La Bamba ” and tinkering with the ice crusher.
“It’s good to see you,” she said.
I didn’t answer.
She touched my sleeve. I stared at her fingers until she removed them.
“I wanted to see you,” she said.
“I wanted to explain-”
“There’s no need to explain anything, Sharon. Ancient history.”
“Not to me.”
“Difference of opinion.”
She moved closer, said, “I know I blew it,” in a choked whisper. “Believe me, I know it. But that doesn’t change the fact that after all these years, you’re still with me. Good memories, special memories. Positive energy.”
“Selective perception,” I said.
“No.” She inched closer, touched my sleeve again. “We did have some wonderful times, Alex. I’ll never let go of that.”
I said nothing.
“Alex, the way we… it ended. I was horrible. You had to think I was psychotic- what happened was psychotic. If you only knew how many times I’ve wanted to call you, to explain-”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“Because I’m a coward. I run away from things. It’s my style- you saw that the first time we met, in practicum.” Her shoulders drooped: “Some things never change.”
“Forget it. Like I said, ancient history.”
“What we had was special, Alex, and I allowed it to be destroyed.”
Her voice stayed soft but got tighter. The bartender glanced over. My expression sent his eyes back to his work.
“Allowed it?” I said. “That sounds pretty passive.”
She recoiled as if I’d spit in her face. “All right,” she said. “I destroyed it. I was crazy. It was a crazy time in my life- don’t think I haven’t regretted it a thousand times.”
She tugged at her earlobe. Her hands were smooth and white. “Alex, meeting you here today was no accident. I never attend conventions, had no intention of going to this one. But when I got the brochure in the mail I happened to notice your name on the program and wanted suddenly to see you again. I attended your lecture, stood at the back of the room. The way you spoke- your humanity. I thought I might have a chance.”
“A chance for what?”
“To be friends, bury the hard feelings.”
“Consider them buried. Mission accomplished.”
She leaned forward so that our lips were almost touching, clutched my shoulder, whispered, “Please, Alex, don’t be vindictive. Let me show you.”
There were tears in her eyes.
“Show me what?” I said.
“A different side of me. Something I’ve never shown anyone.”
We walked to the front of the hotel, waited for the parking valets.
“Separate cars,” she said, smiling. “So you can escape any time you want.”
The address she gave me was on the south side of Glendale, the down side of town, filled with used-car lots, splintering, by-the-day rooming houses, thrift shops, and greasy spoons. Half a mile north on Brand, the Glendale Galleria was under construction- a polished brick tribute to gentrification- but down here, boutique was still a French word.
She arrived before me, was sitting in the little red Alfa in front of a one-story brown stucco building. The place had a jaillike quality- narrow, silvered windows bolted and barred, the front door a slab of brushed steel, no landscaping other than a single thirsty liquidambar tree which cast spindly shadows on the tar-paper roof.
She met me at the door, thanked me for coming, then pushed the buzzer in the center of the steel door. Several moments later it was opened by a stocky, coal-black man with short hair and a corkscrew chin beard. He wore a diamond stud in one ear, a light-blue uniform jacket over a black T-shirt and jeans. When he saw Sharon he flashed a gold-jacketed smile.
“Afternoon, Dr. Ransom.” His voice was high-pitched, gentle.
“Afternoon, Elmo. This is Dr. Delaware, a friend of mine.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” To Sharon: “She’s all prettied up and ready for you.”
“That’s great, Elmo.”
He stood aside and we entered a waiting room floored with oxblood linoleum and furnished with orange plastic chairs and green tables. To one side was an office labeled RECEPTION and windowed with a square of yellowed Lucite. We walked past it and up to another steel door, marked NO ENTRY. Elmo selected a key from a heavy ring and sprung the latch.
We stepped into brightness and pandemonium: a long, high room with steel-shuttered windows and a fluorescent ceiling that radiated a cold, flat imitation daylight. The walls were covered with sheets of emerald-green vinyl; the air was hot and rancid.
And everywhere, movement. A random ballet.
Scores of bodies, twitching, rocking, stumbling, brutalized by Nature and the luck of the draw. Limbs frozen or trapped in endless, athetoid spasm. Slack, drooling mouths. Hunched backs, shattered spines, nubbed and missing limbs. Contortions and grimaces born of ravaged chromosomes and derailed neural pathways and made all the more cruel by the fact that these patients were young- teenagers and young adults who’d never know the pleasures of youth’s false immortality.
Some of them clutched walkers and measured their progress in millimeters. Others, contracted stiff as plaster statues, bucked and fought the confines of wheelchairs. The saddest among them slumped, flaccid as invertebrates, in high-sided wagons and metal carts that resembled oversized baby strollers.
We made our way past a sea of glazed eyes as inert as plastic buttons. Past witless faces gazing up from the leather sanctuary of protective headgear, an audience of blank faces unperturbed by the merest flicker of consciousness.
A gallery of deformity- a cruel display of all that could go wrong with the box that humans come in.
In a corner of the room a rabbit-eared console TV blasted a game show at top volume, the shrieks of contestants competing with the wordless jabber and inchoate howls of the patients. The only ones watching were half a dozen blue-jacketed attendants. They ignored us as we passed.
But the patients noticed. As if magnetized, they swarmed toward Sharon, began flocking around her, wheeling and hobbling. Soon we were surrounded. The attendants didn’t budge.
She reached into her purse, took out a box of gumdrops, and began distributing candy. One box emptied, another appeared. Then another.
She dispensed another kind of sweetness, too, kissing misshapen heads, hugging stunted bodies. Calling patients by name, telling them how good they looked. They competed for her favors, begged for gumdrops, cried out in ecstasy, touched her as if she were magic.
She looked happier than I’d ever seen her- complete. A storybook princess reigning over a kingdom of the misshapen.
Finally, gumdrops depleted, she said, “That’s all, people. Gotta go.”
Grumbles, whines, a few more minutes of pats and squeezes. A couple of the attendants came forward and began corralling the patients. Finally we managed to pull away. Resumption of chaos.
Elmo said, “They sure love you.” Sharon didn’t seem to hear.
The three of us walked to the end of the big room, up to a door marked INPATIENT UNIT and shielded by an iron accordion grille, which Elmo unlocked. Another key twist, the door opened and closed behind us, and all was quiet.
We walked through a corridor covered in the same lurid green vinyl, passed a couple of empty wards reeking of illness and despair, a door with a mesh glass window that afforded a view of several stout Mexican women laboring in a steamy industrial kitchen, another green hallway, and finally a steel slab marked PRIVATE.
On the other side a new ambience: plush carpeting, soft lighting, papered walls, perfumed air, and music- the Beatles, as interpreted by a somnolent string orchestra.
Four rooms marked PRIVATE. Four oak doors, fitted with brass peepholes. Elmo unlocked one and said, “Okay.”
The room was beige and hung with French Impressionist lithos. More plush carpeting and soft lighting. Oak wainscotting and oak crown molding rimmed the ceiling. Good furniture: an antique chiffonier, a pair of sturdy oak chairs. Two generous, arched windows, barred and filled with opaque glass block, but curtained with chintz pull-backs and lace. Vases of fresh-cut flowers strategically placed. The place smelled like a meadow. But I wasn’t paying attention to decorator touches.
In the center of the room was a hospital bed covered by a pearly pink quilt, which had been pulled to the neck of a dark-haired woman.
Her skin was gray-white, her eyes huge and deep-blue- the same color as Sharon’s, but filmed and immobile, aimed straight up at the ceiling. Her hair was black and thick, spread over a plump, lace-trimmed pillow. The face it framed was emaciated, dust-dry, still as a plaster cast. Her mouth gaped- a black hole studded with peg teeth.
Faint movement nudged the quilt. Shallow breathing, then nothing, then re-ignition heralded by a squeeze-toy squeak.
I studied her face. Less a face than a sketch of one- anatomic scaffolding, stripped of the adornment of flesh.
And somewhere amid the ruins, resemblance. A hint of Sharon.
Sharon was holding her, cradling her, kissing her face.
A swivel table next to the bed held a pitcher and glasses, a tortoise-shell comb and brush set with matching manicure tools. Lipstick, tissues, makeup, nail polish.
Sharon pointed to the pitcher. Elmo filled the glass with water and handed it to her, then left.
Sharon tipped the rim of the glass to the woman’s mouth. Some of the water dribbled down. Sharon wiped the pale flesh, kissed it.
“It’s so good to see you, darling,” she said. “Elmo says you’re doing just fine.”
The woman remained blank as eggshell. Sharon cooed to her and rocked her. The covers slipped down, revealing a limp wisp of a body wrapped in a pink flannel night-gown, contracted, pathetic- too fragile to be viable. But the breathing continued…
“Shirlee, we have a visitor. His name is Dr. Alex Delaware. He’s a nice man. Alex, meet Miss Shirlee Ransom. My sister. My twin. My silent partner.”
I just stood there.
She stroked the woman’s hair. “Clinically, she’s deaf and blind- minimal cortical functioning. But I know she senses people, has some subliminal awareness of her surroundings. I can feel it- she gives off small vibrations. You have to be tuned in to them, have to be actually making contact with her to feel them.”
She took my hand, put it on a cold, dry brow.
Turning to Shirlee: “Isn’t that true, darling? You do know what’s going on, don’t you? You’re fairly humming today.
“Say something to her, Alex.”
“There,” said Sharon. “She’s humming.”
She hadn’t stopped smiling, but there were tears in her eyes. She let go of my hand, spoke to her sister: “Alex Delaware, darling. The one I’ve told you about, Shirl. So handsome, isn’t he? Handsome and good.”
I waited as she talked to a woman who couldn’t hear. Sang, prattled on about fashion, music, recipes, current events.
Then she folded back the covers, rolled up the pink nightgown, exposing chicken-carcass ribs, stick legs, spiky knees, loose, putty-gray skin- the remnants of a female form so pathetically wasted I had to look away.
Sharon turned her sister gently, searching for bed sores. Kneading and stroking and massaging, flexing and unflexing arms and legs, rotating the jaw, examining behind the ears before covering her up again.
After tucking her back under the quilt and propping the pillow, she gave Shirlee’s hair a hundred strokes with the tortoise-shell brush, wiped her face with a damp washcloth, dusted the collapsed cheeks with makeup and blush.
“I want her to be as ladylike as possible. For her morale. Her feminine self-image.”
She lifted one limp hand, inspected nails that were surprisingly long and healthy. “These are looking beautiful, Shirl.” Turning to me: “Hers are so healthy! They grow faster than mine do, Alex. Isn’t that funny?”
Later, we sat in the Alfa and Sharon cried for a while. Then she started to speak, in those same flat tones she’d used years ago, to tell me about her parents’ deaths:
“We were born absolutely identical. Carbon copies of each other- I mean, no one could tell us apart.” She laughed. “Sometimes we couldn’t tell ourselves apart.”
Remembering the photograph of the two little girls, I said, “One difference: mirror-image identical.”
That seemed to jolt her. “Yes. That- she’s a lefty; I’m a righty. And our hair whirls go in opposite directions.”
She looked away from me, tapped the Alfa’s wooden steering wheel. “Strange phenomenon, mirror-image monozygotes- from a scientific point of view. Biochemically, it makes no sense at all. Given an identical genetic structure in two individuals, there should be no differences at all, right? Let alone reversal of the cerebral hemispheres.”
She got a dreamy look in her eyes and closed them.
“Thank you so much for coming, Alex. It really means a lot to me.”
She took my hand. Hers was shaking.
I said, “Go on. You were talking about how similar the two of you were.”
“Carbon copies,” she said. “And inseparable. We loved each other with a gut intensity. Lived for each other, did everything together, cried hysterically when anyone tried to separate us, until finally no one tried. We were more than sisters- more than twins. Partners. Psychic partners- sharing a consciousness. As if each of us could only be whole in the presence of the other. We had our own languages, two of them: a spoken one, and one based on gestures and secret looks. We never stopped communicating- even in our sleep we’d reach out and touch each other. And we shared the same intuitions, the same perceptions.”
She stopped. “This probably sounds strange to you. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never had a twin, Alex, but believe me, all those stories you hear about synchrony of sensation are true. They were certainly true for us. Even now, sometimes I’ll wake in the middle of the night with an ache in my belly or a cramp in my arm. I’ll call Elmo and find out Shirlee had a rough night.”
“It doesn’t sound strange. I’ve heard it before.”
“Thanks for saying that.” She kissed my cheek. Tugged her earlobe. “When we were little, we had a wonderful life together. Mummy and Daddy, the big apartment on Park Avenue- all those rooms and cupboards and walk-in closets. We loved to hide- loved to hide from the world. But our favorite place was the summer house in Southampton. The property had been in our family for generations. Acres of grass and sand. A big old white-shingled monstrosity with creaky floors, wicker furniture that was coming apart, dusty old hooked rugs, a stone fireplace. It sat on top of a bluff that overlooked the ocean and sloped down to the water in a couple of places. Nothing elegant- just a few tortured old pines and tarry dunes. The beach hooked around in a crescent shape, all wide and wet and full of clam spouts. There was a dock with rowboats moored to it- it danced in the waves, slapped against all that warped wood. It scared us, but in a nice way- we loved to be scared, Shirl and me.
“In autumn, the sky was always this wonderful shade of gray with silvery-yellow spots where the sun broke through. And the beach was full of horseshoe crabs and hermit crabs and jellyfish and strings of seaweed that would wash up in huge tangles. We’d throw ourselves into the tangles, wrap ourselves in it, all slimy, and pretend we were two little mermaid princesses in silken gowns and pearl necklaces.”
She stopped, bit her lip, said, “Off to the south side of the property was a swimming pool. Big, rectangular, blue tiles, sea horses painted on the bottom. Mummy and Daddy never really decided whether they wanted an indoor or outdoor pool, so they compromised and built a pool house over it- white lattice with a retractable roof and devil ivy running through the lattice. We used it a lot during the summer, getting all salty in the ocean, then washing it off in fresh water. Daddy taught us to swim when we were two and we learned quickly- took to it like little tadpoles, he used to say.”
Another pause to catch her breath. A long stretch of silence that made me wonder if she’d finished. When she spoke again, her voice was weaker.
“When summer was over, no one paid much attention to the pool. The caretakers didn’t always clean it properly and the water would get all green with algae, give off a stench. Shirl and I were forbidden to go there, but that only made it more appealing. The moment we were free we’d run straight there, peek through the lattice, see all that gooky water and imagine it was a lagoon full of monsters. Hideous monsters who could rise from the muck and attack us at any moment. We decided the smell was monsters filling the water with their excretions- monster poop.” She smiled, shook her head. “Pretty repulsive, huh? But exactly the kind of fantasies children get into, in order to master their fears, right?”
“The only problem, Alex, was that our monsters materialized.”
She wiped her eyes, stuck her head out the window and breathed deeply.
“Sorry,” she said.
“No, it’s not. I promised myself I’d maintain.” More deep breathing. “It was a cold day. A gray Saturday. Late autumn. We were three years old, wore matching wool dresses with thick, knitted leggings and brand-new patent-leather shoes that we’d pleaded with Mummy to let us wear on condition that we wouldn’t scratch them on the sand. It was our last weekend on the Island until spring. We’d stayed longer than we should have- the house had poor heating and the chill was seeping right up from the ocean, that kind of sharp East Coast chill that gets right into your bones and stays there. The sky was so clogged with rain clouds it was almost black- had that old-penny smell a coastal sky gives off before a storm.
“Our driver had gone into town to fill the car with gas and have it tuned before the drive back to the city. The rest of the help was busy closing up the house. Mummy and Daddy were sitting in the sun-room, wrapped in shawls, having a last martini. Shirl and I were off gallivanting from room to room, unpacking what had been packed, unfastening what had been fastened, giggling and teasing and just getting generally underfoot. Our mischief level was especially high because we knew we wouldn’t be back for a while and were determined to squeeze every bit of fun out of the day. Finally, the help and Mummy had enough of us. They bundled us in heavy coats and put galoshes over our new shoes and sent us with a nanny to collect shells.
“We ran down to the beach, but the tide was rising and it had washed away all the shells, and the seaweed was too cold to play with. The nanny started flirting with one of the gardeners. We snuck away, headed straight for the pool house.
“The gate was closed but not locked- the lock lay on the ground. One of the caretakers had begun to drain and clean the pool- there were brushes and nets and chemicals and clumps of algae all around the deck- but he wasn’t there. He’d forgotten to lock it. We snuck in. It was dark inside- only squares of black sky coming in through the lattice. The filthy water was being suctioned through a garden hose that ran out to a gravel sump. About three quarters of it remained- acid-green and bubbling, and stinking worse than it ever had, sulfur gas mixed in with all the chemicals the caretaker had dumped in. Our eyes started burning. We began to cough, then broke out into laughter. This was really monstrous- we loved it!
“We began pretending the monsters were rising from the gook, started chasing each other around the pool, shrieking and giggling, making monster faces, going faster and faster and working ourselves up into a frenzy- a hypnotic state. Everything blurred- we saw only each other.
“The concrete decking was slippery from all the algae and the suds from the chemicals. Our galoshes were slick and we started skidding all over the place. We loved that, too, pretended we were at an ice rink, tried deliberately to skid. We were having a great time, lost in the moment, focused on our inner selves- as if we were one self. Round and round we went, hooting and slipping and sliding. Then all at once I saw Shirl take a big skid and keep skidding, saw a terrible look come on her face as she threw up her arms for balance. She called out for help. I knew this was no game and ran to grab her, but I fell on my butt and landed just as she let out a horrible scream and plunged, feet-first, into the pool.
“I got up, saw her hand sticking out, her fingers flexing, unflexing, threw myself at her, couldn’t reach her, started crying and screaming for help. I stumbled again, went down on my butt again, finally got to my feet and ran to the edge. The hand was gone. I screamed her name- it brought the nanny. How she’d looked- the surprise, the terror as she’d gone under- stayed with me and I kept screaming as the nanny asked me where she was. I couldn’t answer. I’d absorbed her, become her. I knew she was drowning, could feel myself choking and suffocating, taste the putrid water clogging my nose and my mouth and my lungs!
“The nanny was shaking me, slapping my face. I was hyperventilating, but somehow I managed to point to the pool.
“Then Mummy was there and Daddy, some of the help. The nanny jumped in. Mummy was screaming ‘My baby, oh, my baby!’ and biting her fingers- they bled all over her clothes. The nanny was thrashing around, coming up gasping, covered with muck. Daddy kicked off his shoes, tore off his jacket, and dove in. A graceful dive. A moment later he surfaced with Shirlee in his arms. She was limp, all covered with filth, pale and dead-looking. Daddy tried to give her artificial respiration. Mummy was still panting- her fingers were running with blood. The nanny was lying on the ground, looking dead herself. The maids were sobbing. The caretakers were staring. At me, I thought. They were blaming me! I started to howl and claw at them. Someone said, ‘Take her out,’ and everything went black.”
Telling the story had made her break out in a sweat. I gave her my handkerchief. She took it without comment, wiped herself, said, “I woke up back on Park Avenue. It was the next day; someone must have sedated me. They told me Shirlee had died, had been buried. Nothing more was ever said about her. My life was changed, empty- but I don’t want to talk about that. Even now; I can’t talk about that. It’s enough to say I had to reconstruct myself. Learn to be a new person. A partner without a partner. I came to accept, lived in my head, away from the world. Eventually I stopped thinking about Shirlee- consciously stopped. I went through the motions, being a good girl, getting good grades, never raising my voice. But I was empty- missing something. I decided to become a psychologist, to learn why. I moved out here, met you, started to really live. Then, everything changed- Mummy and Daddy dying. I had to go back East to talk to their lawyer. He was nice. A handsome, fatherly man- I remembered him vaguely from parties. He took me out to the Russian Tea Room and told me about my trust fund, the house, talked a lot about new responsibilities, but wouldn’t come out and say what they were. When I asked him what he meant, he looked uneasy, called for the check.
“We left the restaurant, took a walk down Fifth Avenue, past all the fine shops that Mummy had always loved. We walked in silence for several blocks and then he told me about Shirlee. That she’d never died, had been comatose when Daddy pulled her out of the pool, remained that way- damaged, with minimal cerebral functioning. All the time I’d thought her dead, she’d been living in an institution in Connecticut. Mummy was a perfect lady, very genteel, but she wasn’t strong, couldn’t cope with adversity.
“The lawyer said he knew it had to come as a shock, he was sorry I’d been lied to, but Mummy and Daddy had felt it best. Now, however, they were gone, and since I was next of kin, Shirlee was my legal responsibility. Not that that had to burden me. He- the law firm- would assume her guardianship, handle all the finances, administer her trust fund so that her medical expenses would continue to be paid. There was absolutely no need for me to disrupt my life. He had papers for me to sign and it would all be taken care of.
“I filled with an anger I didn’t know I was capable of, started yelling at him right there on Fifth Avenue, demanding to see her. He tried to talk me out of it, said I should wait until the shock subsided. But I insisted. I had to see her right now. He called for a limousine. We drove to Connecticut. The place was big and nice-looking- an old stone mansion, well-kept lawns, a big sun porch, nurses in starched uniforms, doctors with German accents. But she needed more than that- she needed her partner. I told the lawyer she’d be returning with me to California, to have her ready for travel within a week.
“He tried again to talk me out of it. Said he’d seen this kind of thing before- survivor guilt. The more he talked, the angrier I got, the poor man. And since I’d reached my majority, he had no choice. I returned to L.A. feeling righteous with purpose- no longer just another grad student caught up in the grind, I was a woman with a mission. But the moment I stepped into my dorm room, the enormity of everything hit me. I realized my life would never be the same, never be normal. I dealt with it by staying busy, ordering the lawyer around, moving into the house, signing papers. Convincing myself, Alex, that I was in control. I found this place- it doesn’t look that great on the outside, but they really treat her special. Elmo is fantastic, totally oriented toward one-on-one care.”
She lifted my hand to her cheek, then placed it in her lap and held it tight.
“Now you, Alex. Your entree to this mess. The night you found me holding the snapshot was soon after Shirlee had been flown out- what a job, just getting her off the plane and into a van. I hadn’t slept for days, was wired and fatigued. The photo had come in a box with other family papers; it had been in Mummy’s purse the day she died.
“I started staring at it, fell into it, like Alice down the hole. I was trying to integrate everything, remember the good days. But so angry that I’d been deceived, that my whole life had been a deceit- every moment colored by lies. I felt sick, Alex. Nauseous. My stomach was heaving. As if the photo was capturing me- eating me up, the way the pool had eaten Shirlee. I freaked out, stayed freaked for days- I was hanging by a thread when you came in.
“I never heard you, Alex. Not until you were standing over me. And you seemed angry- judging me. Disapproving. When you picked the picture up off the floor and examined it, it was as if you’d invaded me- forced your way into my private pain. I wanted the pain all to myself- wanted something all to myself. I just blew. I’m so sorry.”
I returned the pressure of her hand. “It’s all right.”
“The next couple of weeks were horrible, just a nightmare. I worried what I’d done to you and me, but frankly, I was too drained to do anything about it and guilty because I couldn’t get myself to care more about it. I had so much to deal with: my rage at my parents for lying to me, my grief at losing them, my rage at Shirlee for coming back so damaged, for being unable to respond to my love. At the time I didn’t realize that she was vibrating, trying to communicate with me. So many changes all at once, Alex. Like a jumble of crisscrossing live wires burning into my brain. I got help.”
“Despite what you think of him, he helped me, Alex. Helped put me back together again. And he told me you’d come looking for me, which let me know you cared. I cared about you- that’s why I finally forced myself to get together with you, even though Paul said I wasn’t ready. And he was right. I came on like a nympho because I was feeling worthless, out of control, felt I owed you something. Acting like a sexpot made me feel in charge, as if I were stepping out of my personality and adopting a new one. But just for a short while. Later, while you slept, I despised what I’d done, despised you. I dumped on you because you were there.”
She looked away. “And because you were good. I ruined what we had because I was unable to tolerate goodness, Alex. I didn’t feel I deserved goodness. And after all these years, I still regret that.”
I sat there, trying to take it all in.
She leaned over and kissed me. Gradually, the kiss took on heat and depth and we were pressed against each other, groping, our tongues dancing. Then we both pulled away.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “Not again. How could you ever know you’d be safe?”
She placed a finger over my lips.
“No reason to explain, Alex. Ancient history. I just wanted to show you that I’m not all bad.”
I kept quiet, didn’t say what had passed through my mind. That maybe we could start again- slowly. Carefully. Now that both of us had grown up.
She said, “I’ll let you go now.”
We drove away in separate cars.
Back from Kruse’s house, I sat in my living room with the lights out and turned it over, again and again. Park Avenue, Southampton summers. Mummy and Daddy. Martinis in the sun-room. Genteel cardboard cutouts.
But a nasty little scrap of celluloid said Mummy had been anything but genteel. A rich man’s party girl who’d made love on film, probably used it for blackmail.
My whole life had been a deceit- every moment colored by lies.
I thought about Shirlee Ransom. Vegetative. Squeaking. Wondered if any part of the story had been true.
If she loved her twin, how could she kill herself, abandon a helpless cripple?
Unless Shirlee was dead too.
S and S, silent partners.
A pair of little girls, beautiful, black-haired. Mountains in the background. Ice cream cones in opposite hands.
Mirror-image twins. She’s a lefty; I’m a righty.
Suddenly I realized what had bothered me about the porn loop- the tip-of-the-mind incongruity that stayed under my skin.
Sharon was right-handed but in the film- stroking, kneading- she’d favored her left.
Being a sexpot made me feel in charge. As if I were stepping out of my personality and stepping into someone else’s.
Switching? Trying on a new identity?
The left hand. Sinestra. Sinister. Some primitive cultures considered it evil.
Putting on a blond wig and becoming a bad girl… a left-handed sinister girl.
Suddenly something about the drowning story bothered me- something that hadn’t troubled me six years ago, when I’d wanted to believe her:
The details, the vivid imagery.
Too complex for a three-year-old. Too much for a toddler to remember.
Practiced detail. Or a well-rehearsed lie? Had she been coached? Had her memory enhanced?
As in hypnosis.
As in Paul Kruse, master hypnotist. Amateur film-maker. Professional sleaze.
I was certain, now, that he’d known enough to fill in lots of blanks. Had died with that knowledge. Horribly, bloodily, taking two other people with him.
I wanted, more than ever, to know why.
Feeling infected, the carrier of some dread disease, I canceled my flight to San Luis, turned on the TV, and created some electronic companionship.
The Kruse murders were the lead item on the eleven o’clock news, complete with sweeping live minicam shots of the murder house and inset photos of Paul and Suzanne in better days. The third victim was identified as Lourdes Escobar, age twenty-two, a native of El Salvador who’d worked as the Kruses’ maid. Her picture portrayed an open-faced young woman with plaited black hair and dark, melting eyes.
Innocent victim, pronounced the reporter, lowering his voice and oozing irony. She’d fled the turmoil and poverty of her native land, fueled by the dream of a better life, only to encounter violent death amid the seductive luxury of the City of the Angels…
That kind of philosophizing meant he didn’t know much.
I switched back and forth between channels, hungry for facts. All three newscasts were identical in style and lack of substance: reporters addressing the anchors instead of the audience, wondering out loud if one of Kruse’s patients had turned homicidal, or if this was just another random L.A. bloodletting.
I absorbed predictions of runs on gun shops, starved attack dogs. The reporter cupped one ear and said, “One moment. We’re about to have a statement from the police.”
The camera shifted to Cyril Trapp, clearing his throat. His shirt was TV blue. His white hair gleamed like a steel helmet. Under the spotlights his mottled skin was the color of dirty sheets. His mustache wriggled as he chewed his cheek. Establishing eye contact with the camera, he read a prepared statement pledging that the full investigative resources of the Los Angeles Police Department would be marshaled to solve these vicious slayings. A tight smile and head shake. He said, “That’s all I’m at liberty to divulge at this time,” and walked away.
The reporter said, “There you have it, Keith and Kelly. Reporting live at the scene of…”
I turned off the set, wondered about Trapp’s presence at the crime scene, waited for Milo to call and clue me in. When he hadn’t phoned by one, I undressed and slipped beneath the covers, dry-mouthed and so tense my palate ached. I tried deep breathing but, instead of relaxing, worked myself into a state of wide-eyed hyperawareness. Embracing the pillow like a lover, I tried to fill my head with pleasant images. None came. Finally, some time before dawn, I managed to sink into sleep.
The next morning I called Milo at the station and was told he was still on vacation. No one answered at his house.
I took in the morning paper. Unlike Sharon’s death, the Kruse murders were being treated as serious news- a headline shouting DOCTOR AND SPOUSE SLAIN bannered over the top half of page 3. The byline was that of a staff writer named Dale Conrad, a name I recognized because he’d covered behavioral science stories in the past, generally doing a slipshod job.
The Kruse piece was no exception. Despite all those column inches, Conrad had come up with nothing about the murders that hadn’t been covered on last night’s broadcasts. The bulk of the article was biographical information on Kruse. He’d been sixty at the time of his death, twice the age of his wife- whom the article described only as a former actress. His birthplace was New York City; his origins, moneyed. He’d been commissioned as an officer in Korea attached to a psychological warfare unit, received his doctorate from a university in south Florida and, aided by society connections and his advice column, built up a lucrative Palm Beach practice before moving to California. His recent appointment to head the department was noted, and his predecessor, Professor Milton Frazier, was quoted as being shocked by the senseless death of an esteemed colleague.
The death of Lourdes Escobar was a last-paragraph afterthought: “Also found was the body of the housekeeper…”
I put the paper down. New York, old money, society connections- reminiscent of the phony background Sharon had created for herself.
Had it been a total fabrication? Failed starlet mother or not, she’d lived like a rich girl- the clothes, the car, the house. Perhaps Linda Lanier had married money- the call girl’s fantasy come true.
Or perhaps she’d gotten it another way. Passing along to her daughter a choice chunk of hillside real estate once owned by a dead billionaire who’d employed her. Still deeded to that billionaire’s corporation and put up on the market the day after Sharon died.
Too many questions. My head was starting to hurt.
I dressed, found a legal pad and a couple of pens, and left the house. Walking down the glen, I crossed Sunset and entered the north end of the University campus. It was eleven-twenty when I passed through the doors of the research library.
I headed straight for the reference section, played with the MELVYL computerized index, and found two books on Leland Belding in the library’s holdings.
The first was a 1949 volume entitled Ten Tycoons. The second was The Basket-Case Billionaire by Seaman Cross. Surprised, because I’d thought all copies of the book had been recalled, I jotted down the call numbers, began looking for anything on Lanier, Linda, but found nothing.
I left the computer and did a little low-tech research- two hours spent turning the pages of volume after volume of the Periodicals Index. Nothing on Linda Lanier here either, but over a hundred articles on Leland Belding, stretching from the mid-thirties to the mid-seventies. I selected what I hoped was a representative dozen references, then took the elevator up to the stacks and began seeking out the sources. By two-thirty I was ensconced in a reading cubicle on the fourth floor, surrounded by stacks of bound magazines.
The earliest pieces on Belding were in aerospace-industry journals, written while the tycoon was still in his early twenties. In them, Leland Belding was hailed as a technical and financial prodigy, a master designer of aircraft and collateral equipment with three patents for every year of his life. The same photograph was used in each, a publicity shot credited to L. Belding Industries: the young inventor sitting in the cockpit of one of his planes, goggled and helmeted, his attention fixed upon the instrument panel. A handsome man, but cold-looking.
Belding’s enormous wealth, precocity, boyish good looks, and shyness made him a natural media hero, and the tone of the earliest popular magazine pieces was worshipful. One article designated him the Most Eligible Bachelor of 1937. Another called him the closest America had come to producing a crown prince.
A prewar profile in Collier’s summed up his rise to fame: He’d been born to wealth, in 1910, the only child of an heiress from Newport, Rhode Island, and a Texas oil wildcatter turned gentleman rancher.
Another official corporate photo. Belding appeared frightened of the camera, standing, shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows, a large lug wrench in one hand, next to a gargantuan piece of cast-iron machinery. By age thirty he’d attained a monkish look- high forehead, sensitive mouth, thick eyeglasses that couldn’t hide the intensity of round, dark eyes. A modern-day Midas, according to the article, representing the best of American ingenuity combined with good old-fashioned hard work. Though born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Belding had never allowed it to tarnish; he’d favored twenty-hour days, and wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. He had a photographic memory, knew his hundreds of employees by name, but didn’t suffer fools gladly, had no patience for the frivolity of the “cocktail crowd.”
His idyllic life as an only son had been cut cruelly short when both his parents perished in a car crash- returning, after a party, to their rented villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza, just south of Majorca.
Another layer. I stopped reading, tried to make some sense of that. When I couldn’t, I resumed reading.
At the time of the accident, Belding had been nineteen, a senior at Stanford, majoring in physics and engineering. He dropped out of college, returned to Houston to run the family petroleum business, and expanded immediately into the manufacture of oil-drilling equipment, using designs that he’d developed as student projects. A year later he diversified into heavy farm machinery, took flying lessons, proved to be a natural, and qualified easily as a pilot. He began devoting himself to airplane construction. Within five years he dominated the aerospace industry, flooding the field with technical innovations.
In 1939 he consolidated his holdings as the Magna Corporation (corporate press release: “… had Mr. Belding graduated Stanford, he would have received his degree magna cum laude.”), and moved from Texas to Los Angeles, where he built corporate headquarters, an aircraft assembly plant, and a private airstrip on a 1,500-acre tract in the suburb of El Segundo.
Rumors of a public stock offering made bulls and bears take note. But the offering never materialized and Wall Street regretted that out loud, calling Lee Belding a cowboy who’d eventually bite off more than he could chew. Belding had no comment, continued branching out- to shipping, railroads, real estate, construction.
He obtained the contract for a Department of Labor annex in Washington, D.C., built low-cost housing in Kentucky, an army base in Nevada, then bucked the mob and the unions in order to create the Casbah- the largest, most ostentatious casino ever to blot out the Las Vegas sun.
By his thirtieth birthday he’d increased his inheritance thirty times over, was one of the five richest men in America, and definitely its most secretive, refusing interviews and shunning public events. The press forgave him; playing hard to get only made him better copy and gave them more latitude.
Privacy, the last luxury…
It wasn’t until after World War II that the honeymoon between America and Leland Belding began to sour. As the nation buried its dead, and working people faced an uncertain future, left-leaning journalists began to point out that Belding had used the war to become a billionaire while ensconced in his penthouse at Magna headquarters.
Subsequent snooping revealed that between ’42 and ’45, the assets of the Magna Corporation had quadrupled, due to successful bidding for thousands of government defense contracts: Magna had been the armed forces’ prime supplier of bombers, aircraft guidance systems, antiaircraft weapons, tanks and halftracks, even K-ration kits and servicemen’s uniforms.
Terms like robber baron, profiteer, and exploiter of the working man began to crop up in editorials, commentators asserting that Lee Belding was all take, no give, a self-obsessed tightwad devoid of the slightest shred of patriotic spirit. One writer pointed out that he never donated to charity, hadn’t given a penny to the War Bond drive.
Rumors of corruption soon followed- intimations that all those contracts hadn’t been won by putting in the lowest bid. By early 1947 the intimations became accusations and took on enough substance for the U.S. Senate to pay heed. A subcommittee was created, charged with investigating the genesis of Leland Belding’s war profits and dissecting the inner workings of the Magna Corporation. Belding ignored the furor, turned his talents to movies, bought a studio, and invented a hand-held motion picture camera that promised to revolutionize the industry.
In November of ’47, the Senate subcommittee held public hearings.
I found a summary of the proceedings in a business magazine- conservative point of view, no pictures, all small print and dry prose.
But not dry enough to camouflage the racy nature of the main accusation against Belding:
That he was less captain of industry than high-class pimp.
Committee investigators claimed Belding had shifted the odds on contract bids by throwing “wild parties” for War Board officials, government purchasing agents, legislators. These bashes took place in several secluded Hollywood Hills houses purchased by the Magna Corporation expressly as “party pads,” and featured “stag movies,” flowing booze, indulgence in “marijuana reefers,” as well as nude dancing and swimming displays by legions of “young women of loose morals.”
These women, described as “professional party girls,” were aspiring actresses chosen by the man who ran Belding’s studio, a “former management consultant” named William Houck “Billy” Vidal.
The hearings went on for more than six months; then, gradually, what had promised to be a juicy story began to shrivel. The subcommittee proved unable to produce witnesses to the notorious parties, other than Belding’s business competitors, who testified from hearsay and crumpled in cross-examination. And the billionaire himself refused subpoenas to testify, on the grounds of endangering the national security, and was backed up by the Defense Department.
Billy Vidal did show up- in the company of high-priced legal talent. He denied his major role was to procure women for Leland Belding, described himself as a successful Beverly Hills-based management consultant to the film industry prior to meeting Belding, and produced documents to prove it. His friendship with the young tycoon had begun when the two of them were students at Stanford, and he admired Lee Belding. But he denied involvement in anything illegal or immoral. A legion of character witnesses backed him up. Vidal was dismissed.
When subpoenas for Magna’s accounting records were rejected by the company, once again on the basis of national security, and both Defense and State backed up Belding, the committee reached an impasse and died.
The senators saved face by delivering a mild reprimand to Leland Belding, noting his invaluable contributions to the national defense but suggesting he be more careful in the future with his record keeping. Then they assigned staffers to compile a report of their findings and voted the committee out of existence. Cynics suggested that in view of the charge that members of Congress had been on Belding’s party list, the entire process had been just another example of the foxes guarding the henhouse. But by this time no one really cared; now the country was ripe with optimism, intent on rebuilding, and determined to have a damned good decade. If a few hearty rascals had indulged in a little high living, so be it.
Party pads. A film connection. Stag films. I wanted to know more about Bashful Belding’s conduit to the fast life.
Before I could return to the index section to look for anything on William Houck Vidal, the announcement that the library was closing in fifteen minutes came blaring out of a ceiling speaker. I collected my two books and as many unread periodicals as I could carry, made a beeline for the photocopy machines, and spent the next ten minutes feeding dimes. Then I went downstairs and used my faculty card to check out the books. Armed with my treasures, I headed home.
A white VW Rabbit was parked in front of my carport, blocking the Seville. A young woman slouched against it, reading a book.
When she saw me she sprang up.
“Hi! Dr. Delaware?”
“Dr. Delaware? I’m Maura Bannon? From the Times? The Dr. Ransom story? I wondered if I could talk to you- just for a minute?”
She was tall and stick-skinny, about twenty, with a long, freckled face that needed finishing. She wore yellow sweats and white running shoes. Her pageboy hairdo was dyed orange with pink overtones, the same color as the lashes around her light-brown eyes. She had a marked overbite with a toothpick-wide gap between the upper incisors.
The book in her hand was Wambaugh’s Echoes in the Darkness and she’d flagged it in several places with yellow tags. Her nails were gnawed stubby.
“How’d you find out where I live, Ms. Bannon?”
“We reporters have our ways.” She smiled. It made her look around twelve.
When she saw I wasn’t smiling back, she said, “There’s a file on you at the paper. From a few years ago? When you were involved in catching those child molesters?”
Privacy, the last luxury. “I see.” At least Ned Biondi hadn’t played fast and loose.
“I could tell from reading the clippings on you that you’re a dedicated person,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t like bullshit? And bullshit is what they’re giving me.”
“My bosses. Everyone. First they tell me to forget the Ransom story. Now, when I ask to cover the Kruse murders, they give it to that dweeb Dale Conrad- I mean the guy never leaves his desk. He has about as much drive as a sloth on Quaaludes. When I tried to reach Mr. Biondi, his secretary told me he was out of town- off to Argentina, taking some Spanish course. Then she handed me an assignment to follow up a trained horse story- out in Anaheim?”
A mild, warm breeze blew in from somewhere across the glen. It ruffled the tags in her book.
“Interesting reading?” I said, holding my own books in a way that obscured their titles.
“Fascinating. I want to be a crime writer- get into the core of good and evil? So I need to immerse myself in life-and-death issues. I figured I’d go with the best- the man was a cop, has a real solid experiential base. And the people in this one were so weird- outwardly respectable but totally crazed. Like the people in this case?”
“Cases, actually. Dr. Ransom? Dr. Kruse? Two psychologists dying in the same week- two psychologists who were connected to each other. If they were connected in life, maybe in death too? Which means Ransom may have been murdered, don’t you think?”
“How were they connected?”
She made a naughty-naughty gesture. “Come on, Dr. Delaware, you know what I’m talking about. Ransom was one of Kruse’s students. More than that- a prize student. He was her doctoral committee chairman.”
“How do you know that?”
“Sources. C’mon, Dr. Delaware, stop being coy. You’re a graduate of the same program. You knew her, so chances are you knew him, too, right?”
“Just doing the job. Now could you please talk to me? I’m not giving up on this story.”
I wondered how much she actually knew and what to do with her.
“Want some coffee?” I said.
“Do you have tea?”
Once inside the house, she said, “Camomile, if you’ve got it,” and immediately began inspecting the decor. “Nice. Very L.A.”
Her gaze shifted to the pile of papers and unopened mail on the table and she sniffed. I realized the place had taken on a stale, unlived-in smell.
“Live alone?” she asked.
“For the moment.” I went into the kitchen and stashed my research materials in a cupboard, fixed her a cup of tea and myself a cup of instant coffee, put all of it on a tray with cream and sugar, and brought it into the living room. She was half-sitting, half-lying on the sofa. I sat down facing her.
“Actually,” I said, “I was off campus by the time Dr. Kruse came to the University. I graduated the year before.”
“Two months before,” she said. “June of ’74. I found your dissertation too.” She flushed, realized she’d given away her “sources,” and tried to recover by looking stern. “I’m still willing to bet you knew him.”
“Have you read the Ransom dissertation?”
“What was it about?”
She bobbed her tea bag, watched the water in her cup darken. “Why don’t you answer some of my questions before I answer yours?”
I thought of the way the Kruses had looked in death. Lourdes Escobar. D.J. Rasmussen. Bodies piling up. Big-money connections. Grease the skids.
“Ms. Bannon, it’s not in your best interests to pursue this case.”
She put the cup down. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Asking the wrong questions could be dangerous.”
“Oh, wow,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I don’t believe this. Sexist protectionism?”
“Sexism has nothing to do with it. How old are you?”
“That’s not relevant!”
“But it is, in terms of experience.”
“Dr. Delaware,” she said, standing, “if all you’re going to do is patronize me, I’m out of here.”
She sat. “For your information, I’ve worked as a reporter for four years.”
“On your college paper?”
She flushed, deeper this time. Bye-bye, freckles. “I’ll have you know the college beat had plenty of tough stories. Because of one of my investigations, two bookstore clerks were fired for embezzling.”
“Congratulations. But we’re talking about a whole other level now. It wouldn’t do to have you sent home to Boston in a box.”
“Oh, come on,” she said, but there was fear in her eyes. She masked it with indignation. “I guess I was wrong about you.”
She walked to the door. Stopped and said, “This is rotten, but no matter.”
Primed for action. All I’d done was whet her appetite.
I said, “You may be right- about there being a connection between the deaths. But at this point all I’ve got is guesses- nothing worth discussing.”
“Guesses? You’ve been snooping yourself! Why?”
“Were you in love with her?”
I drank coffee. “No.”
“Then what’s so personal?”
“You’re a very nosy young lady.”
“Goes with the territory, Dr. Delaware. And if it’s so dangerous, how come it’s okay for you to snoop?”
“I’ve got police connections.”
“Police connections? That’s a laugh. The cops are the ones covering up. I found out- through my connection- that they’ve done a total Watergate on Ransom. All the forensic records have disappeared- it’s as if she never existed.”
“My connection’s different. Outside the mainstream. Honest.”
“That gay guy from the molester case?”
That caught me by surprise.
She looked pleased with herself. A minnow swimming happily among the barracudas.
I said, “Maybe we can cooperate.”
She gave me something-intended to be a hard, knowing smile. “Ah, back-scratching time. But why would I want to deal?”
“Because without dealing, you’ll get nowhere- that’s a promise. I’ve uncovered some information you’ll never be able to get hold of, stuff that’s useless to you in its present form. I’m going to follow it up. You’ll have exclusive rights to whatever I come up with-if going public’s not hazardous to our health.”
She looked outraged. “Oh, that’s just great! It’s okay for big strong brave to go hunting but squaw must stay in teepee?”
“Take it or leave it, Maura.” I began clearing the cups.
“This stinks,” she said.
I waved goodbye. “Then go do your own thing. See what you come up with.”
“You’re boxing me in and pulling a power trip.”
“You want to be a crime writer? I’m offering you a chance- not a guarantee- to get a crime story. And live long enough to see it come to print. Your alternative is to barrel ahead like Nancy Drew, in which case you’ll either end up being fired and sent home on a supersaver flight, or shipped back in the baggage hold in the same physical state as the Kruses and their maid.”
“The maid,” she said. “No one talks about her.”
“That’s ’cause she’s expendable, Maura. No money, no connections- human garbage, straight to the compost heap.”
“This is no teenage sleuth fantasy.”
She tapped her foot, chewed a thumbnail.
“Put it in writing?” she said.
“Put what in writing?”
“That we have a deal? A contract? I have first dibs on your info?”
“I thought you were a journalist, not an attorney.”
“Rule one: cover your ass.”
“Wrong, Maura. Rule one is never leave tracks.”
I carried the tray into the kitchen. The phone rang. Before I could get to it, she’d picked up the living room extension. When I came back she was holding the phone and smiling. “She hung up.”
“A woman. I told her to hold on, I’d get you. She said forget it, sounded angry.” Cute smile. “Jealous.” Shrug. “Sorry.”
“Very classy, Maura. Is total lack of manners part of your job training?”
“Sorry,” she said, looking, this time, as if she meant it.
A woman. I pointed to the door. “Goodbye, Ms. Bannon.”
“Listen, that really was rude. I am sorry.”
I went to the door and held it open.
“I said I was sorry.” Pause. “Okay. Forget about the contract. I mean if I can’t trust you, a piece of paper would be worthless, wouldn’t it? So I’ll trust you.”
“I’m touched.” I turned the doorknob.
“I’m saying I’ll go along.”
I said, “Back-scratching time?”
“Okay, okay, what do you want in return?”
“Three things. First, a promise to back off.”
“For how long?”
“Until I tell you it’s safe.”
“Have a nice day, Maura.”
“Shit! What do you want!”
“Before we go on, let’s be clear,” I said. “No drop-ins, no eavesdropping, no cute stuff.”
“I got it the first time.”
“Who’s your contact at the coroner’s? The person who told you about the missing file.”
She was shocked. “What makes you think he- or she- is at the coroner’s?”
“You mentioned forensic data.”
“Don’t assume too much from that,” she said, struggling to look enigmatic. “Anyway, no way will I divulge my sources.”
“Just make sure he- or she- cools it. For personal safety.”
“Yes! Was that Two?”
“One-B. Two is tell me everything you’ve learned about the connection between Ransom and Kruse.”
“Just what I’ve told you. The dissertation. He was her supervisor. They had an office together in Beverly Hills.”
I studied her long enough to decide I believed her.
She asked, “What’s Three?”
“What was the dissertation about?”
“I told you I’ve only skimmed it.”
“From what you’ve skimmed.”
“It was something on twins- twins and multiple personalities and, I think it was, ego integrity. She used a lot of jargon.”
“Three is make me a photocopy.”
“No way. I’m not your secretary.”
“Fair enough. Return it where you found it- probably the ed-psych library at the University- and I’ll make my own copy.”
She threw up a hand. “Oh, what the hell, I’ll drop off a Xerox tomorrow.”
“No drop-ins,” I reminded her. “Mail it- express it.”
I wrote down my Fed-Ex number and gave it to her. She stuck it between the pages of the Wambaugh book.
“Shit,” she said. “Are you this authoritarian with your patients?”
I said, “That’s it. We’re in business.”
“At least you are. I haven’t gotten a damned thing but promises.”
She scrunched up her face. “You’d better come through for me, Dr. Delaware. Because one way or the other, I’m going to get a story.”
“When I learn something reportable, you’ll be the first person I call.”
“And one more thing,” she said, half out the door. “I’m no damned teenager. I’m twenty-one. As of yesterday.”
“Happy birthday,” I said. “And many more.”
After she drove off I called San Luis Obispo. Robin answered.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said. “Was that you a few minutes ago?”
“How’d you ever guess?”
“The person who picked up said there was an angry woman on the other line.”
“Some kid reporter who’s bugging me about an interview.”
“Kid as in twelve?”
“Kid as in twenty-one. Buckteeth, freckles, a lisp.”
“Why do I believe you?”
“Because I’m saintly. It’s great to hear from you. I wanted to call- each time I hang up I regret the way the conversation turned out. Think of all the right things to say, but it’s too late.”
“That’s the way I feel, too, Alex. Talking to you has been like walking a mine field. As if we’re lethal ingredients- can’t mix without exploding.”
“I know,” I said. “But I’ve got to believe it doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t always that way.”
She said nothing.
“Come on, Robin, it used to be good.”
“Of course it did- a lot was wonderful. But there were always problems. Maybe they were all mine- I kept it all inside. I’m sorry.”
“Blame is useless. I want to make it better, Robin. I’m willing to work at it.”
Then she said, “I went into Daddy’s shop yesterday. Mom has it preserved just the way it was at the time he died. Not a tool out of place, like a museum. The Joseph Castagna Memorial. She’s that way- never lets go, never deals with anything. I locked myself in, just sat there for hours, smelling the varnish and the sawdust, thinking of him. Then of you. How similar the two of you are: well-meaning, warm, but dominant- so strong you take over. Alex, he would have liked you. There would have been conflict- two bulls scratching and snorting- but eventually the two of you would have been able to laugh together.”
She laughed herself, then cried.
“Sitting there, I realized that part of what attracted me to you was that similarity- how much you were like Daddy. Even physically: the curly hair, the blue eyes. When he was younger he was handsome, the same type of good looks as yours. Pretty profound insight, huh?”
“Sometimes it’s hard to see that kind of thing. God knows I’ve missed plenty of obvious things.”
“Guess so. But I can’t help feeling stupid. I mean, here I’ve been going on and on about independence and establishing my identity, resentful of you for being strong and dominating, and all along I’ve wanted to be taken care of, wanted to be daddied… God, I miss him so much, Alex, and I miss you, too, and it’s all meshing into one big hurt.”
“Come back home,” I said. “We can work it out.”
“I want to but I don’t. I’m afraid everything will go back to being just like it was before.”
“We’ll make it different.”
She didn’t answer.
A week ago I would have pushed. Now, with ghosts tugging at my heels, I said, “I want you back right now, but you’ve got to do what’s right for yourself. Take your time.”
“I really appreciate your saying that, Alex. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
I heard a creak, turned and saw Milo. He saluted and retreated hastily from the kitchen.
“Alex?” she said. “Are you still there?”
“Someone just walked in.”
“Little Miss Buckteeth?”
“Big Mr. Sturgis.”
“Give him my love. And tell him to keep you out of trouble.”
“Will do. Be well.”
“You too, Alex. I mean it. I’ll call soon. ’Bye.”
He was in the library, thumbing through my psych books, pretending to be interested.
“Major league oops,” he said. “Sorry, but the goddamned door was open. How-many-times-have-I-told-you-about-that.”
He resembled an old sheepdog that had wet the rug. Suddenly all I wanted to do was alleviate his embarrassment.
“No secret,” I said. “Temporary separation. She’s up in San Luis Obispo. We’ll work it out. Anyway, you probably figured it out, right?”
“I had my suspicions. You’ve been looking stepped-on. And you haven’t been talking about her the way you usually do.”
“Thus spake the detective.” I walked over to my desk, began straightening papers without purpose.
He said, “Hope you guys work it out. The two of you were good.”
“Try to avoid the past tense,” I said sharply.
“Oops again. Mea culpa. Mia Farrow.” He beat his breast but looked genuinely abashed.
I went up to him and patted his back. “Forget it, big guy. Let’s talk about something more pleasant. Like murder. I went digging today, came up with some interesting stuff.”
“Dr. Snoop?” he said, adopting the same protective tone I’d used on Maura.
“The library, Milo. Not exactly combat duty.”
“With you, anything’s possible. Anyway, you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine. But not on a dry mouth.”
We went back into the kitchen, popped a couple of beers, and opened a package of sesame breadsticks. I told him about Sharon’s fantasy childhood- the East Coast society background that resembled Kruse’s, the orphanhood that echoed Leland Belding’s.
“It’s as if she’s collecting fragments of other people’s histories in order to build one of her own, Milo.”
“Okay,” he said. “Other than her being a stone liar, what does that mean?”
“Probably a serious identity problem. Wish fulfillment- maybe her own childhood was filled with abuse or abandonment. Being a twin played a part in it too. And the Belding connection is more than coincidence.”
I told him about the War Board parties. “Secluded Hollywood Hills houses, Milo. The one on Jalmia fits that bill. Her mother works the party pad circuit. Thirty-five years later, Sharon’s living in a pad.”
“So what are you saying? Old Basket Case was her daddy?”
“It would sure explain the high-level cover-up, but who knows? The way she twisted the truth has me doubting everything.”
“Cop-thinking,” he said.
“I checked out a couple of books on Belding- including The Basket-Case Billionaire. Maybe something in there will be useful.”
“The book was a scam, Alex.”
“Sometimes scams are laced with a bit of truth.”
He chewed a breadstick, said, “Maybe. How’d you find it, anyway? I thought the damn thing was recalled.”
“I asked the librarian about that. Apparently, large libraries get advance copies; the recall order only applied to bookstores and commercial distributors. Anyway, it’s been buried there since ’73, very few checkouts.”
“Rare show of good taste on the part of the reading public,” he said. “Anything else?”
I recounted my meeting with Maura Bannon.
“I think I convinced her to back off, but she’s got a source at the coroner’s.”
“I know who it is.”
“Nope. Your telling me clears something up. Few days ago there was this third-year med student from S.C. rotating through the coroner’s office. Asking too many questions about recent suicides, seemed to be snooping around the files. My source told me about it. He was worried it was someone from the city, spying around.”
“Is he still snooping?”
“Nah, rotation’s over, kid’s outta there. Probably just a boyfriend angling for some white-knight sex from Lois Lane Junior. Anyway, you did right to cool her off. This whole thing keeps getting weirder and weirder and the fix is in heavy. Yesterday, at the Kruse place, Trapp shows up before the crime scene crew arrives, all evil smiles, wanting to know how I caught the call when I’m still officially on vacation. I told him I’d come in early to the squad room, was working at my desk clearing some paperwork when an anonymous call came through reporting foul play at the Kruse address. Total crap, wouldn’t have fooled a rookie. But Trapp didn’t pursue it, just thanked me for my initiative and said he’d take over from here.”
Milo growled, cracked his knuckles. “Asshole co-opted me.”
“I saw him on the news.”
“Wasn’t that a display? Bullshit augmented by horseshit. And more to follow: Word has it Trapp’s pushing the sex maniac angle. But those women weren’t positioned like any sex murder victims I’ve ever seen- no spread legs or sexual posing, no rearranged clothing. And, as far as my coroner source can tell, given the state of the bodies, no strangulation or mutilation.”
“How did they die?”
“Beaten and shot- no way to tell which came first. Hands tied behind the backs, single bullet to the back of the head.”
“That would be my working guess.”
He took his anger out on a breadstick, crunching and wiping crumbs off his shirt. Then he finished his beer and went to get another one from the fridge.
“What else?” I said.
He sat down, tilted his head back and poured brew down his throat. “Time of death. Putrefaction’s no exact science, but for that much rot to go down in an air-conditioned room, even with the door open, those bodies had to be lying there for a while. There was gas bloat, skin peel, and fluid loss, meaning days, not hours. Four to ten days is my source’s theoretical range. But we know the Kruses were alive last Saturday, at that party, so that narrows it to four to six days.”
“Meaning they could have been killed either after Sharon died, or before.”
“That’s right. And if it was before, a certain scenario rears its ugly head confirming your theory about Rasmussen. I called the Newhall sheriffs station about him. They knew him well: ugly drunk, chronic troublemaker, very short fuse, multiple assault busts, and he did kill his dad- beat him to death, then shot him. Now we know he was getting it on with Ransom, but not as an equal, right? He was a major maladjust, probably had half her IQ. She was manipulating him, playing with his head. Let’s say she had some major beef against Kruse and mentioned it to Rasmussen. She wouldn’t even have had to be direct- as in go and kill the bastard. Just hint around, complain about how Kruse had hurt her- maybe use hypnosis. You said she knew hypnosis, right?”
“So she could have used it to soften Rasmussen up. Angling for some white-knight pussy of his own, he went and played Lord High Executioner.”
“Killing his father all over again,” I said.
“Ah, you shrinks.” His smile faded. “The maid and the wife died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He stopped talking. The silence put me somewhere else.
“What’s the matter?”
“Seeing her as a murder contractor.”
“Just a scenario,” he said.
“If she was that cold, why’d she kill herself?”
He shrugged. “Thought you might be able to fill in that one.”
“I can’t. She had problems, but she was never cruel.”
“Fucking all those patients wasn’t an act of charity.”
“She was never overtly cruel.”
“I know that but I just can’t see her as a killer, Milo. It doesn’t sit right.”
“Then forget it,” he said. “It’s all theoretical bullshit, anyway. I can spin you ten like it in as many minutes. And it’s about as far as we’re gonna go, given the state of the evidence- too many unanswerable questions. Like are there phone records tying Rasmussen to Ransom between the time the Kruses died and the time she died? Newhall to Hollywood is a toll call. Normally, that would be easy to trace, except when I tried, the records had been pulled and sealed, courtesy of my employers. And who reported Ransom’s death in the first place? Normally, if I wanted to know that, I’d just take a peek in her file, but there ain’t no goddam file. Courtesy, my employers.”
He got up, rubbed his hand over his face, and paced the kitchen.
“I drove up to her house this morning, wanted to talk to her neighbors, see if any of them had made the call. I even figured out who lived across the canyon and visited them to see if they’d seen anything, heard anything, maybe a peeper with a telescope. Zilch. Two of the four houses in hercul-de-sac were unoccupied- owners out of town. The third’s owned by this free-lance artist, old gal who does children’s books, shut-in, bad arthritis. She wanted to help. Problem is, from her place you can’t see what’s going on in Ransom’s- just the driveway. No good view from any of them, matter of fact.”
“Party pad architecture,” I said.
“Hmm,” he said. “Anyway, from her garden, the artist could see some comings and goings. Occasional visitors- women and men, including Rasmussen- in and out after about an hour’s time.”
“That’s what she assumed. But all that stopped about half a year ago.”
“The same time she was caught sleeping with her patients.”
“Maybe she decided to retire. Except for Rasmussen- she held on to him. He kept coming, not often, but up until a month ago, the artist remembered seeing the green truck. She also described a guy who sounded like Kruse- he stayed longer, several hours at a time, but she only saw him once or twice. Which doesn’t mean much. She can’t get around too well- it might have been more often. Other interesting thing is that a photo of Trapp didn’t register. Which means he probably wasn’t one of Ransom’s boyfriends. And if the bastard was investigating the case, he never bothered to talk to the next-door neighbor- didn’t even do the basics. Sum total: Slimeball’s involved in the cover-up. And I’m off the case. Goddammit, Alex, it makes my adrenals hurt.”
“There are other question marks,” I said. “Your scenario’s based on some kind of hostility between Sharon and Kruse. She was having problems- she told me so at the party. But nothing indicates they were with Kruse. At the time of her death she was still registered as his assistant. She showed up at a party to honor him, Milo. I did see her arguing with that older guy I told you about. But I have no idea who he is.”
“What else?” he said.
“There’s lots of other factors to consider: Belding, Linda Lanier, the blackmailed doctor, whoever he is. And Shirlee, the missing twin- I called Olivia Brickerman, tried to get into the Medi-Cal files. The computer was down. I’m hoping for something soon.”
“Why’re you still pushing that? Even if you find her, you won’t be able to talk to her.”
“Maybe I can find someone who knows her- knew both of them. I don’t believe we’ll ever understand Sharon without knowing more about Shirlee, about the relationship between the two of them. Sharon perceived Shirlee as more than a sister- they were psychological partners, halves of a whole. Twins can develop identity problems. Sharon chose that topic- or something like it- for her doctoral dissertation. Ten to one she was writing about herself.”
That gave him pause.
“Air your dirty laundry and get a Ph.D.? That’s considered kosher?”
“Not at all. But she managed to get around lots of things.”
“Well,” he said, “you go ahead, look for your twin. Just don’t expect too much.”
“What about you?” I said.
“I’ve got another day and a half left before Trapp locks me into some new plum assignment. Seeing as we’re dealing with thirty-five-year-old stuff, there comes to mind someone who might be able to educate us. Someone who was around in those days. Problem is he’s unpredictable, and we’re not exactly good buddies.”
He got up, slapped his thigh. “What the hell, I’ll give it a try, call you tomorrow morning. Meantime, keep reading those books and magazines. Uncle Milo will be giving you a pop quiz when you least expect it.”
I spent the rest of the day getting a master’s degree in Leland Belding, starting where I’d left off- the demise of the Senate hearings.
Immediately following his reprimand, the billionaire threw himself into the movie business, renaming his studio Magnafilm, scripting, directing, and producing a string of combat sagas featuring rugged individualist heroes who bucked the establishment and emerged victorious. All were panned by the critics as mechanical and bland. Audiences stayed away.
In 1949 he purchased a Hollywood trade paper, fired the film critic, and installed his own yes man. Bought a string of movie houses and filled them with his product. More losses. In 1950 he went into deeper seclusion than ever and I found only one reference covering the next two years: Magna’s patent application for an aluminum-reinforced girdle that suppressed bulges but heightened jiggle. The device, developed for an actress with a tendency to corpulence, was marketed as the Magna-Corsair. American women didn’t go for it.
In late 1952 he emerged, suddenly a new man- a public Leland Belding, attending premieres and parties, squiring starlets to Ciro’s, Trocadero, the Mocambo. Producing a new string of films- vapid comedies heavy with double entendre.
He moved from his “monastic” apartment at Magna headquarters to an estate in Bel Air. Built himself the world’s most powerful private jet, upholstered in leopard skin and paneled with antique walnut stripped from a centuries-old French chateau that he reduced to rubble.
He bought Old Masters by the truckload, outbid the Vatican for religious treasures plundered from Palestine. Snapped up race horses, jockeys, trainers, an entire racecourse. A baseball team. An entire passenger train which he converted to a moving party pad. He acquired a fleet of custom-made cars: Duesies, Cords, Packards, and Rolls-Royces. The world’s three largest diamonds, auction houses full of antique furniture, more casinos in Vegas and Reno, an assortment of domiciles stretching from California to New York.
For the first time in his life he began contributing to charity- hugely, ostentatiously. Endowing hospitals and scientific research institutions, on condition that they be named after him and staffed by him. He threw lavish balls supporting the opera, the ballet, the symphony.
All the while, he was assembling a harem: actresses, heiresses, ballerinas, beauty queens. The most eligible bachelor had finally come into his own.
On the surface, a radical personality shift. But a Vogue writer, reporting on a bash Belding threw for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the billionaire as “standing on the sidelines, unsmiling and fidgety, observing the festivities rather than participating in them. He looked, to these admittedly cynical eyes, like a little lost boy locked in a room full of candy- so much candy that he’s lost his appetite for sweets.”
Given all the partying, I expected to find something about William Houck Vidal. But there was nothing, not even a snapshot, to suggest that the former “management consultant” had participated in the metamorphosis of his boss. The sole mention of Vidal during the early fifties was a quote in a business journal regarding early development of a new fighter bomber. A quote attributed to “W. Houck Vidal, Senior Vice-President and Head of Operations for Magna.”
One man going from businessman to playboy. The other reversing the process. It was as if Belding and Vidal were perched on a psychic teeter-totter.
Then, in early ’55, all of it stopped.
Belding canceled a gala for the Cancer Society, dropped completely from sight. Then commenced what one magazine called “the greatest rummage sale in history.” The mansions, cars, jewels, and other trappings of princely consumption were sold- at great profit. Even the movie studio- nicknamed Magnaflop- earned millions in real estate appreciation.
The press wondered what Belding’s new “phase” would be. But there was none, and when it became clear that the disappearing act was permanent, coverage grew progressively sketchier until, by the mid-sixties, neither Belding nor Magna was mentioned other than in financial and technical journals.
The sixties: Oswald. Ruby. Hoffman and Rubin. Stokely and Rap. No shortage of actors willing to strip for the camera. No one cared about a rich hermit who’d once made bad movies.
In 1969, Leland Belding’s death was reported “somewhere in California, following a prolonged illness.” In accordance with the bachelor billionaire’s will, a group of former Magna executives assumed leadership of Magna, with the chairman of the board position going to William Houck Vidal.
And that was it. Until 1972, when a former reporter and hack ghostwriter named Seaman Cross produced a book claiming to be the unauthorized biography of Leland Belding. According to Cross, the billionaire had faked his death in order to achieve “true peace.” Now, having meditated in solitude for seventeen years, he’d decided he had something to say to the world and had chosen Cross as his Pepys, granting hundreds of hours of interviews for a proposed book before abruptly changing his mind and calling off the project.
Cross went ahead and completed the book anyway, titling it The Basket-Case Billionaire and obtaining a “strong six-figure advance.” During its very brief life, it had caused a furor.
Not my kind of stuff. I hadn’t paid much attention to it at the time. But I ate it up now, didn’t put it down until I finished.
Cross’s thesis was that a personal tragedy during the early fifties- a tragedy Belding refused to discuss but which Cross guessed was romantic- had plunged the young billionaire into a manic playboy phase, followed by serious mental collapse and several years of convalescence in a private mental hospital. The man who emerged was “a phobic, paranoid, self-obsessed devotee of a bizarre personal philosophy combining Eastern religion, militant vegetarianism, and Ayn Randish individualism taken to the extreme.”
Cross claimed numerous visits to Belding’s home, a hermetically sealed geodesic dome, somewhere out in the desert, which the billionaire never left. The mode of transport was dramatic: Cross was driven, always blindfolded, always in the middle of the night, to a heliport less than an hour out of L.A.- the implication was El Segundo- then flown to the dome for about two hours and whisked home before dawn.
The dome was described as equipped with a computerized communications panel by which Belding could monitor his international business interests, regulate air and water purification systems (developed by the Magna Corporation for NASA), automatic vacuuming and ambient chemical disinfection, and a convoluted network of pipes, valves, tubes, and chutes through which mail, messages, sterile food and drink entered and waste material exited.
No one but Belding was allowed inside the dome; no photos or sketches were permitted. Cross had been forced to conduct his interviews from a booth on wheels, positioned so that it abutted a speaker panel on the dome.
“We communicated,” he wrote, “by a two-way microphone system that Belding controlled. When he wanted me to see him, he afforded me a view through a clear plastic window- a panel that he could blacken with the touch of a button. He used this blackout panel, not infrequently, to punish me for asking the wrong question. He would withhold his attention until I apologized and promised to be good.”
Bizarre as that was, the strangest part of the story was Cross’s description of Belding:
Emaciated to near-Auschwitzian dimensions, full-bearded, with long, matted gray hair reaching halfway down his back, tangles of crystal necklaces hanging from his wattled neck, and huge crystal rings on every finger. The nails of those fingers were polished a glossy black, sharpened into points, and appeared nearly two inches long. The color of his skin was an eerie greenish-white. His eyes, behind thick rose-tinted lenses, bulged exophthalmically and never ceased to move, darting from side to side and blinking like those of a toad hunting flies.
But it was his voice that I found most unsettling- flat, mechanical, completely stripped of emotion. A voice devoid of humanity. Even now I shiver when I think of it.
Cross’s posture throughout the book was one of morbid fascination. He couldn’t conceal his antipathy toward the billionaire, but neither could he tear himself away.
At regular intervals [he wrote] Belding would interrupt our sessions to nibble on raw vegetables, drink copious amounts of sterilized water, then squat to urinate and defecate, in full view of this writer, into a brass pot that he kept atop an altarlike platform. Once the pot had sat on the altar for precisely fifteen minutes, he’d remove it and expel it through an evacuation chute. During the process of excretion, a self-satisfied, near-religious expression would settle upon his gaunt, raptorish features, and though he refused to discuss this ritual, my reflexive impression was: self-worship, the logical culmination of a lifetime of unbridled narcissism and power.
The latter half of the book was fairly dull stuff: Cross pontificating about the weakness of a society that could create a monster like Belding, transcripts of Belding’s ramblings on the meaning of life- a barely intelligible amalgam of Hinduism, nihilism, quantum physics, and social Darwinism, including indictments of the “mental and moral dwarfs who deify weakness.”
The biography ended with a final burst of editorializing:
Leland Belding represents everything wrong with the capitalist system. He is the grotesque result of the concentration of too much wealth and too much power in the hands of one eminently fallible and twisted man. He is the emperor of self-indulgence, a fanatical misanthrope who views other life forms as nothing more than potential sources of bacterial and viral infection. He is preoccupied with his own body on a corpuscular level and would like nothing more than to live out his days on a planet denuded of all animal and plant life, other than those organisms required to sustain what remains of the wretched life of one Leland Belding.
The Basket-Case Billionaire had been a well-kept publishing industry secret, catching even the Magna Corporation by surprise, garnering massive post-publication attention, and shooting immediately to the top of the nonfiction best-seller list. A record paperback sale was made. Magna lost no time in suing Cross and his publishers, claiming the book was a hoax and libelous, producing medical and legal documents proving Leland Belding had indeed died, years before Cross claimed to have spoken with him. Reporters were taken to a gravesite at company headquarters; a body was exhumed and verified as Belding’s. Cross’s publisher got nervous and asked the writer to produce his data.
Cross reassured them and held a defiant news conference, his editor at his side, in front of a public storage vault in Long Beach, California, where he’d stashed thirty cartons of notes, many of them supposedly signed and dated by Leland Belding. Cameras whirring, he unlocked the vault, opened box after box, only to find each stuffed with notes unrelated to Belding. Frantic, he continued searching, produced old college essays, tax returns, stacks of bound newspapers, shopping lists- the detritus of a life soon to be ruined.
Not a word on Belding. Cross’s horror was captured in close-up as he shrieked conspiracy. But when a police investigation concluded that no one but the writer had entered the vault, and his editor admitted she’d never actually seen the alleged notes, Cross’s credibility vanished.
His publishers, faced with public humiliation and a legal adversary rich enough and tough enough to bankrupt them, settled quickly: They ran full-page ads in major newspapers featuring apologies to the Magna Corporation and the memory of Leland Belding. Immediately ceased further publication, and recalled all volumes shipped to stores and wholesalers. Refunded the record paperback advance to the soft-cover house.
The publishers then sued Cross, demanding return of his advance plus interest plus punitive damages. Cross refused, hired attorneys, countersued. The publishing house filed a criminal complaint for fraud and misrepresentation in New York District Court. Cross was arrested, fought extradition and lost, was shipped back East and imprisoned for five days at Riker’s Island. During that time he claimed to have been beaten and homosexually raped. He tried to sell his account of the ordeal to several magazines but none was interested.
Released on bail, he was found one week later in a tenement room on Ludlow Street in New York’s Lower East Side, head in the oven, a note on the floor admitting the book had been fiction, an audacious scam. He’d taken the risk, believing Magna would be too publicity-shy to challenge him, hadn’t meant to harm anyone and was sorry for any pain he’d caused.
I turned to the magazines, looking for coverage of the hoax, found a long feature in Time, complete with a picture of Cross, shackled, in police custody. Next to that was a shot of William Houck Vidal.
The chairman of Magna had been photographed walking down courtroom steps, a wide smile on his face, the fingers of one hand held in a victory V.
I knew that face. Big and square and deeply tanned. Narrow pale eyes, a few blond hairs remaining in the brush-cut hair.
A country club face.
The face, fifteen years younger, of the man I’d seen with Sharon at the party. The old sheik she’d been trying to convince of something.
I reached Milo the next morning and told him what I’d learned.
He said nothing for a moment, then: “I’ve got us a history lesson lined up at eleven. Maybe we can tie up some more loose ends.”
He arrived at ten after ten. We got in the Seville and he directed me east on Sunset. The boulevard was Sunday-empty even on the Strip. Only a thin gathering of brunchers and featherheaded rockers hunched at sidewalk cafés, mixing with coke whores, call girls, and call boys trying to shake off the night before.
“Wholesome,” said Milo. He pulled out a cigar, said, “You got me started on these again,” lit up, and blew soapy-looking smoke out the window.
“What is that? Panamanian?”
“Transylvanian.” He puffed with enthusiasm. Within seconds the car was fogged.
We cruised past La Brea, past Western. No more café scene, just fast-food stands, pawnshops, discount outlets, and darker skin tones. Through the window came laughter and transistor music seasoned with bursts of Spanish. Families strolled the boulevard- parents young enough to be kids themselves, marshaling broods of black-haired cherubs.
“Now that’s wholesome,” I said.
He nodded. “Cream of the crop- I mean it. Poor devils ransom everything they own to the goddam coyotes, get raped, robbed, and ripped off trying to make it over the fence. Then we treat ’em like vermin and send ’em back, as if the goddam country wasn’t built on immigration- hell, if my forebears hadn’t stowed away on a steamer and snuck in through Canada, I’d be digging potatoes somewhere out in County Cork.” He thought about that. “Seen postcards of County Cork. Maybe better off?”
We passed through the Hospital Row that stretched between Edgemont and Vermont, rode past Western Peds, where I’d spent so much of my life.
“Where’re we going?” I asked.
“Just keep driving.” He ground the cigar out in the ashtray. “Listen, there’s something else I should tell you. After I left you yesterday, I took a drive out to Newhall and spoke to Rasmussen’s old lady- Seeber.”
“How’d you find her? I never gave you her name.”
“Don’t worry, your virtue’s intact. Newhall sheriffs took her statement on the accident. I got the address from that.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Seems to have made a good recovery- already has another guy shacking up with her. Skinny Casanova with junkie eyes and dirty arms, thought I was raiding and was halfway out the window before I calmed him down.”
He stretched, yawned. “Anyway, I asked her if Rasmussen had been working much recently. She says no, his temper had gotten him into too many scrapes. Nobody wanted him on their crew. She’s been supporting the both of them for the past six months with the roach wagon gig. Then I popped the matter of the thousand bucks he left her on the pillow, and she almost wet her pants. Even though the sheriffs released the money to her, she’s scared I’m gonna confiscate it- what’s left of it. Chances are Junkie’s shoveled most of it up his arm.
“I calm her down, tell her if she cooperates she can keep it, keep all the rest of it too. She gives me this look that says ‘How’d you know about all the rest of it?’ Bingo. I say, how much was it, Carmen? Fess up. She hems and haws, tries to play hard-to-get- gives it her best shot, but she really doesn’t have much will and finally she just blurts everything out: D.J. had come into lots of money recently, was throwing it around, buying expensive parts for his truck. She’s not really sure of the exact amount- ya know? But she found ya know forty-four hundred more in one of his ya know socks.”
“How long ago was recently?”
“Couple of weeks ago. At least one week before everyone started dying.”
I kept driving, past the Silverlake district and Echo Park, toward the western edge of downtown, where skyscrapers rose out of a tangle of freeway loops and back streets, glinting silver and bronze against a mud-bottomed sky.
“If it was cash for kill,” he said, “you know what that means. Premeditation- someone’d been planning that contract. Setting it up.”
He told me to turn left on an unmarked alley that climbed north of Sunset and tunneled between two building-supply lots. We passed dumpsters stuffed to the rim, graffiti’d rear walls, piles of plywood discards, damaged window screens, and hacked-up packing crates. Another quarter mile and we were weaving on cracked asphalt through weed-choked lots. At the back of some of the lots were lean-to shacks that looked ready to crumble. The alley angled and turned to dirt. Fifty yards later it terminated at a cinder-block wall. To the left, more dead grass; to the right of it a crow’s-eye view of the freeway.
“Park,” said Milo.
We got out. Even this high up, the traffic roared from the interchange.
The block wall was topped by barbed wire. Cut into the block was a round-topped wooden door scraped raw by time and the elements. No lock, no handle. Just a rusty metal spike imbedded in the wood. Looped around it was a leather thong. Hanging from the thong was an old, corroded cowbell. A tile sign over the door said: RUE DE OSCAR WILDE.
I looked up at the barbed wire, said, “Where are the gun turrets?”
Milo frowned, picked up a rock, and hit the cowbell. It gave off a dull clunk.
All at once, from the other side of the wall came a rising tide of animal sounds. Dogs, cats- lots of them. And barnyard clatter: poultry clucks. Goat bleats. The animals got closer, louder- so loud that they almost blocked out the sound of the freeway. The goats were the loudest. They made me think of voodoo rites, and the back of my neck tingled.
“Don’t say I never took you anywhere interesting,” said Milo.
The animals were scratching at the other side of the wall. I could smell them.
Milo called out, “Hello.”
Nothing. He repeated the greeting, pounded the cowbell several times.
Finally a whiny, crackling voice of indeterminate gender said, “Hold your frigging water. Who’s there?”
“So? What do you want me to do? Break open the frigging Mouton Rothschild?”
“Opening the door would be a good start.”
“Wouldn’t it just.”
But the door did push open. An old man stood in the doorway, wearing only a baggy pair of white boxer shorts, a red silk scarf around his neck, and a long puka-shell necklace that rested on a hairless chest. Behind him an army of quadrupeds bounced and squealed and churned up the dust: dozens of dogs of uncertain pedigree, a couple of battle-scarred tomcats, and in the background, chickens, geese, ducks, sheep, several black Nubian goats, which licked the dust and tried to chomp our cuffs.
“Cool it,” said Milo, swatting.
The old man said, “Down, quiet,” without enthusiasm. He walked through the opening, closed the door behind him.
He was midsized and very thin, but flabby, with stringy arms and knobby, varicosed legs, narrow, sagging, grandmother’s breasts, and a protuberant belly. His skin had been sun-baked the color of bourbon and had an oily sheen. The hair on his head was skimpy white fuzz, as if he’d coated his bare pate with glue, then dipped it in cotton wool. He had a weak chin, big beak nose, and narrow-set eyes that squinted so tightly they appeared sealed shut. A shaggy white Fu Manchu mustache ran down the sides of his mouth, continuing past the jawline and dangling an inch.
He looked us over, frowned, spat on the ground.
Gandhi with gastritis.
“Afternoon, Ellston,” said Milo. “Nice to see you’re in your usual good cheer.” The sound of his voice set the dogs howling.
“Quiet. You’re upsetting them- way you always do.” The old man came up to me and stared, running his tongue along the inner wall of one cheek, scratching his head. He gave off a strange blend of odors: children’s zoo, French cologne, mentholated unguent.
“Not bad,” he said finally, “but Rick was cuter.”
He touched my shoulder. I stiffened involuntarily. His stare hardened and he spat again.
Milo stepped closer to me. “This is Dr. Alex Delaware. He’s a friend.”
“Another doctor?” The old man shook his head and turned to me. “Tell me one thing, Curly: What the hell you upscale medico studs see in an ugly, uncouth lump like him?”
“Friend,” said Milo. “As in friend. He’s straight, Ellston.”
The old man raised a limp wrist, adopted a mincing pose.
“Sure he is, darling.” The old man looped his arm in mine. “What kind of doctor are you, Dr. Alex?”
“Ooh,” he drew away quickly, stuck out his tongue and made a raspberry. “I don’t like your type, always analyzing, always judging.”
“Ellston,” said Milo, “you gave me enough shit over the phone, I have no appetite for any more. If you want to help, fine. If not, that’s fine, too, and we’ll leave you to play Farmer John.”
“Such a rude lump,” said the old man. To me: “He’s a frigging rude lump. Full of anger. Because he still hasn’t accepted what he is, thinks he can deal with all of it by playing po-lice-man.”
Milo’s eyes flashed.
The old man’s opened wide in response. The left iris was blue; the right, milky gray with cataract.
“Tsk, tsk, our poor gendarme is upset. Hit a nerve, Lump? Good. The only time you look half-human is when you’re pissed off. When you get frigging real.”
“ ‘I don’t like your type,’ ” mimicked Milo. “ ‘Always analyzing, always judging.’ ” To me: “Enough of this crap. Let’s split.”
“Suit yourself,” said the old man, but there was worry in his voice. A headstrong kid who’d pushed his parents too far.
We headed back to the car. Every step we took made the dogs bark louder.
The old man cried out, “Stupid lump! No patience! Never had any.”
Milo ignored him.
“Just so happens, Lump, that the subject of your inquiry is one with whom I’m well versed. I actually met the rat bastard.”
“Right,” said Milo over his shoulder. “And you fucked Jean Harlow.”
“Well, maybe I did that too.” An instant later: “What’s in it for me, anyway?” The old man was raising his voice to be heard over the animals.
Milo stopped, shrugged, turned. “Good will?”
“Plus a hundred for your time. But forget it.”
“Least you could have frigging done,” shouted the old man, “was to be civil!”
“I tried, Ellston. I always try.”
The old man was standing with his hands on his hips. His boxer shorts flapped and his hair flew out like strands of cotton candy.
“Well, you didn’t try hard enough! Where was the introduction? A proper, civil introduction?” He shook one fist and his loose flesh danced.
Milo growled and turned. “An introduction will make you happy?”
“Don’t be an ass, Sturgis. I haven’t aimed for happy in a long, long time. But it might frigging placate me.”
Milo swore under his breath. “C’mon,” he told me. “One more try.”
We retraced our steps. The old man looked away from us, worked his jaws and tried hard to maintain dignity. The boxer shorts interfered.
“Ellston,” said Milo, “this is Dr. Alex Delaware. Alex, meet Mr. Ellston Crotty.”
“Incomplete,” huffed the old man.
“Detective Ellston Crotty.”
The old man held out his hand. “Detective First Grade Ellston J. Crotty, Junior. Los Angeles Police Department, Central Division, retired.” We shook. He thumped his chest. “You’re looking at the Ace of Central Vice, Dr. Curly. A pleasure to make your frigging acquaintance.”
The animals followed us as if heading for the Ark. A homemade pathway of railroad ties and cement squares bordered by unkempt hedges and sick-looking dwarf citrus trees took us to a small, asphalt-shingled house with a wide front porch littered with boxes and old machine parts. Next to the house an ancient Dodge coupe sat on blocks. The structure looked out on a flat half-acre of dirt yard fenced with chicken wire. More goats and poultry paced the yard. To the rear of the property was a ram-shackle henhouse.
The barnyard smell had grown intense. I looked around. No neighbors, only sky and trees. We were atop a hill. To the north were smog-glazed hints of mountaintop. I could still hear the freeway, providing a bass line to the treble clucks of the chickens.
Leaning against one of the fence posts was a bag of feed corn. Crotty stuck his hand in, tossed a handful of grain into the yard, and watched the birds scramble.
“Frigging greedy bastards,” he said, then gave them some more.
Old MacDonald’s farm on the edge of the urban jungle.
We climbed onto the porch.
“This is all frigging illegal,” Crotty said with pride. “Breaks every frigging zoning law in the books. But my compadres down the hill are all illegals living in noncode shacks. Love my fresh eggs and hate the authorities- hell if they’re going to rat. I pay their little kids to clean up the coop, two bucks an hour- more greenback than they’re ever gonna see otherwise. They think I’m some kind of frigging great white father.”
“Great white shark,” muttered Milo.
“Some of those little kids are pretty sharp.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that, but they do know how to work their little tushies off, so I pay ’em. All of them think I’m the greatest frigging thing since sliced bread. Their mamacitas are so grateful, they bring me food all wrapped in aluminum foil- they love aluminum foil. Good stuff, too, no fast-food shit- menudo and sweet tamales like you used to be able to get over on Alvarado before the corporate frigs took over.”
He pushed open a screen door, walked into the house, and let it slam shut. Milo caught it. We entered.
The house was small and unlit, crammed so full of junk there was barely room to walk. We inched our way past stacks of old newspapers, towers of cardboard boxes and raw-wood fruit crates, jumbles of clothing, an upright piano painted with gray primer, three ironing boards bearing a collection of clock radios in various stages of disassembly. The furniture that managed to coexist with the clutter was cheap, dark wood and overstuffed chairs sleeved with antimacassars and doilies. Thrift shop fare.
The floor was pine, trodden gray, splintered in several places by dry rot. A mantel above the bricked-in fireplace bore porcelain figurines, most of them chipped or missing limbs. The clock on the mantel wall said Coca-Cola. It was frozen at seven-fifteen.
“Sit,” said Crotty. He brushed newspapers off an easy chair and sank down. A cloud of dust rose and settled like dew.
Milo and I cleared a sofa with broken springs, created our own dust storm.
Crotty cleared his throat. Milo pulled out his wallet and handed him several bills. The old man counted it, fanned it out, closed his fingers over it. “Okay, let’s make this quick. Belding. Leland, A. Capitalist pig, too much money, no morals, a latent fag.”
I said, “Why do you say that?” and heard Milo groan.
Crotty turned on me. “Because I’m a frigging expert on latency is why, Dr. Psychology. You might have the diploma, but I’ve got the experience.” He grinned and added, “Hands-on experience.”
“Let’s stick to Belding,” said Milo.
Crotty ignored him: “Let me tell you, Curly, one thing I know, it’s latents. For thirty years I frigging lived that trip.”
Milo yawned, closed his eyes.
“He’s frigging bored,” said Crotty. “If anyone should be listening it’s him. Hell, you’d think someone in his position would seek me out, kneel at my feet and beg for my accumulated wisdom. But no, how do I meet the lump in the first place? Half-dead in the Emergency Room, sweet Rick massaging my heart, bringing me back to life. And then this lump shows up all Dragnet-butch, checking his watch and wanting to know when Rick’s going off-shift. Frigging Beauty and the Beast.”
He turned to Milo, shook one finger. “You were always insensitive. There I was fading away and all you could think of was your cock.”
“Don’t make it sound life-threatening, Ellston. You had an upset stomach. Gas. Too much menudo, not enough fiber.”
“So you say.” To me: “Got your work cut out for you, shrink. That is one big frigging piece of work sitting next to you- take you years just to get through the top layer of denial.”
“Belding,” said Milo. “Or give back the bread.”
“Belding,” repeated Crotty. “A capitalist. Vicious. Because he was a latent. I know what that does to a person.” He got up, looked over a group of boxes on the floor, went down on his knees in front of one of them and pawed through it with both hands.
“Here we go,” said Milo.
Crotty pulled out a brown cloth scrapbook, flipped pages, wiped his forehead, then sat down next to me and pointed.
His fingertip rested next to a snapshot of a young man in police uniform. Black-and-white, sawtooth edges, just like the one of Sharon and Shirlee.
The young man wore a police uniform, stood next to a patrol car on a palm-lined street. His features were delicate, almost girlish, his eyes big and round. Innocent. Thick, wavy dark hair parted in the middle, a dimple on his right cheek. A pretty boy- the easily bruised countenance of a young Monty Clift.
“Glom this,” said Crotty and pointed to another photo on the page. Same man in civilian attire, standing next to the Dodge I’d just seen in the driveway. He wore sports clothes and had his arm around the waist of a girl. She wore a halter and shorts, was shapely. Her face had been scratched out with a ballpoint pen.
“I was some piece of beef back then,” said Crotty. He yanked the book away, snapped it shut, and tossed it on the floor.
“Those were taken in ’45. I was just out of Uncle Sam’s Navy, earned ribbons in the Pacific, thought I was God’s gift to women and kept telling myself that those little shipboard episodes with the cook- sweaty Swedish meatball- had been just a bad dream. No matter that doing it with him had felt the way love should feel, and all the frails I nailed had a better time than I did.”
He tapped his chest. “I was as sweet as Mary Pickford but trying to convince myself I was frigging Gary Cooper. So what better job for an overcompensating macho buck than to wear blue and carry a big stick?”
He laughed. “Day I got my discharge papers, I applied to the force. Day I finished the academy I thought I was King Hetero Stud. Being Butch Blue was going to solve all my problems. The brass took one look at me and knew exactly where to send me. Toilet decoy in MacArthur Park till all the local queers made me, then gay-bar detail over in Hollywood. I was great, busted more faggots than any other piece of bait. Got promoted, assigned to Vice, spent the next ten years of my life busting more faggots- busting myself, drinking it off every night. I made detective in record time but was nothing more than a frigging lure- kissed up to so many sad suckers my lips started to callous. Vice loved me. I was their frigging secret weapon, batting my lashes, breaking up private parties up in the hills, rousting raucous black-and-tans out in the colored districts-that gave the other pigs the chance to break some nappy heads.”
He reached over, took hold of my collar, opened his good eye wide. He was sweating and seemed to have gone pale, though in the dim light it was hard to be sure.
“Know the reason I was so frigging good, Curly? ’Cause deep down inside I wasn’t acting Slam, bam, out in the alley, then here come the other Vice pigs with their saps and their sticks. Another meat wagon full of faggots expressed to County Lockup, black-and-blue, puking blood. Once in a while one of them would hang himself in his cell. The Vice boys would say good riddance, less paperwork. I’d laugh the loudest, chug-a-lug the fastest.”
His mustache quivered. “For ten years I was an accessory to the assault and murder of gay men, never stopped to wonder why I was going home each night, puking my own guts out and drinking gin until I could feel my liver sizzling.”
He let go of my collar. Milo was looking the other way, staring off into space.
“I was eating myself up is why,” said Crotty. “Until I took a vacation down south- Tijuana. Crossed the border looking for action, got stoned drunk in a cantina watching a donkey mount a woman, stumbled outside and asked a cabbie to take me to a whorehouse. But the cabbie wasn’t fooled. Drove me to a crappy little place on the outskirts of town. Cardboard walls painted turquoise, chickens outside the door and in. Twenty-four hours later I knew who I was, knew I was trapped. What I didn’t know was how to get out of it.”
He folded and unfolded the money, finally crumpled it in his fist. “No guts for quick suicide, I kept pouring the sauce down. Wasn’t till a year later- February- that opportunity knocked. Someone tipped Vice to a big soiree out on Cahuenga- absinthe drinkers and dancing boys, an all-sweet jazz band, things in drag smoking reefer. I sailed in wearing a boatnecked sailor shirt, red scarf-this frigging scarf. Inside of thirty seconds I’d snagged a fish- good-looking blond kid, Ivy League get-up, rosy cheeks. Took him outside, made sure to unlock the door, let him kiss me, then stood there fighting not to cry as he got beat up. They broke the whole place open, tore the frigging house apart, but I just sat on the sidelines, only got credit for the blond kid’s bust.”
He stopped, wiped his brow again. “Early the next morning I showed up to process the paper on him but they were gone and so was he. I got pissed, checked it out, found out he was the son of a city councilman, champion athlete, high school valedictorian, Harvard sophomore, BMOC. Leverage. I got off the force with honorable discharge, full pension plus another chunk of cash for ‘disability’ settlement. The blond kid went back to Boston, married money, had four kids, ran a bank. I bought El Rancho Illegalo, here, learned about myself, tried to undo ten years by helping others- giving wisdom to those who take it.” He glared at Milo, who ignored him, then turned back to me. “Happy ending, right, Dr. Psychology?”
“Then you guess wrong, because at this very moment that blond kid is stretched out on a sanitarium bed out in Altadena, dying of AIDS, frigging skeleton. Dying alone because wifey and the four kids have cut him off like an obscene phone call. I found out through the network, been seeing him. Saw him yesterday, in fact, and changed his frigging diapers.”
Milo cleared his throat. Crotty turned on him.
“God forbid you should get involved with the network, Lump. Maybe reach out to help someone. Perish the thought you should admit to sizzling your liver ’cause you don’t know who you are.”
“Belding,” said Milo, taking out his note pad. “That’s what we’re here to talk about.”
“Ah,” said Crotty disgustedly.
No one spoke for a while.
“Mr. Crotty,” I said, “why do you think Belding was latent?”
The old man coughed, waved his hand. “Ahh, who the hell knows. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe I’m full of shit. One thing I can tell you, he was no stud, despite how the papers played up his dating all those actresses. I did meet him. At a party. He used to hire off-duty cops for security. And sometimes not so off-duty- the department was in to him in a big way, kissing his rich ass until it sparkled.”
“Be specific,” said Milo.
“Yeah, right. Okay, one time, must have been back in ’49 or ’50, I got pulled off a child-molesting case and assigned to one of his bashes out in Bel Air- priorities, eh? Big charity thing, full orchestra, all the best folks tooting and shuffling, lots of female flesh, plenty of cloak-room clinches. But all Stud Belding did was watch everyone else. That’s what he was- a watcher. Like some frigging camera on legs. I remember thinking what a cold bastard he was- repressing. Latent.”
“That’s what you meant by meeting him?”
“Yeah. We shook frigging hands, okay?”
“Why’d you call him vicious?” I said.
“I call killing vicious.”
“Who’d he kill?” asked Milo.
Crotty wiped his brow and coughed. “Thousands of people, Lump- all the ones his frigging planes bombed.”
Milo looked disgusted. “Thanks for the political commentary. Anything more you want to tell us about Belding?”
“I told you plenty.”
“How about his sidekick, Vidal?”
“Billy the Pimp? He was at that party too. Very suave. Good teeth. Excellent-looking teeth.”
“Anything else besides his dental health?”
“He was supposed to be the one who supplied Belding with the girls.”
“What about the War Board parties?” asked Milo. “The ones Belding got investigated for. Did the department do guard duty on those?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. Like I said, the department was in to him.”
“Name names,” said Milo, pencil poised.
“It was a frigging long time ago, Lump.”
“Listen, Ellston, I didn’t pay a hundred to get stuff I can get in the locker room.”
Crotty smiled. “Guy in your situation, Lump, doesn’t get anything in the locker room.”
Milo ran his hand over his face. A knot swelled his jawline.
“Okay, okay,” said Crotty. “The two I’m sure were in Belding’s pocket were a couple of shits named Hummel and DeGranzfeld. Working Ad-Vice when I came on- as head crackers. Soon after, Hummel was transferred out to be the chief’s chauffeur. A year later he was a lieutenant out at Newton Division, which was a hell of a match because he was a racist pig, used to go down to Main Street and beat colored whores to a pulp. Wore pigskin gloves- said he wanted to avoid infection.”
“How do you know he and the other guy were Belding’s boys?”
“It was obvious from the way they moved up fast without earning it- they were connected. And both of them always dressed good, ate good. DeGranzfeld had a big house out in Alhambra, horses, orchard land. You didn’t have to be Sherlock to see they were in somebody’s pocket.”
“Lots of pockets besides Belding’s.”
“Let me frigging finish, Lump. Later, both of them quit the force and went to work for Belding at probably six times the salary, all the graft they could eat.”
“First names,” said Milo, writing.
“Royal Hummel. Victor DeGranzfeld- Sticky Vicky we used to call him. He was a twerp and a sneak, too yellow-bellied to get physical but just as sadistic as Hummel. When he worked Vice he was head bagman, coordinated collections from all the downtown bookies and pimps. When Hummel moved to Newton he had DeGranzfeld transferred over there as day-watch commander. Bosom buddies, probably a couple of latents themselves. Later both of them were picked to head Metro Narcotics- this was in the early fifties, there was a big dope panic, and the department knew it could get funding increases by making big busts.”
“All right,” said Milo. “Let’s talk about the houses Belding owned- the party pads. Know where any of them were located?”
Crotty laughed. “Party pads? Isn’t that sweet? Where’d you come up with that, Lump? Party pads. They were fuck pads- everyone called ’em that, ’cause that’s what Mr. Leland Belding used ’ em for. Brought bigwigs there, had a stable of bimboes all set to clean their pipes until they were ready to sign on any frigging dotted line. And no, I don’t know any locations. Never got invited to those soirees.”
He got up, sidestepped a wall of boxes, and went through a doorway into what I assumed was the kitchen.
Milo said, “Sorry you had to hear his life story.”
“It’s okay. It was interesting.”
“Not after the thousandth time.”
“You bad-mouthing me?” Crotty had come out of the kitchen, was glaring at us, a glass of water in one hand, the other balled up in a fist.
“No,” said Milo. “Just admiring the decor.”
“Hah!” The old man opened his free hand, revealing a palmful of pills.
“Vitamins,” he said and swallowed some of them. He washed them down, grimaced, swallowed some more, and rubbed his abdomen. “I’m getting tired. Get the hell out of here and let me get some rest.”
“Tab’s not run yet,” said Milo.
“Make it snappy.”
“Got a couple more names for you. Actress named Linda Lanier, rumored to be one of Belding’s bimboes. And some doctor she screwed on a stag film- give him the physical description, Alex.”
As I did, Crotty lost color and put the glass down on a crate. Wiped his forehead, seemed to lose balance, and rested his hands on the back of a moth-eaten settee. He puffed out his cheeks.
Milo said, “Let’s have it, Ellston.”