Survival Of The Fittest
Book 12 in the Alex Delaware series, 1997
To my parents,
David and Sylvia Kellerman
Special thanks to
Detectives Paul Bishop and
vic Pietrantoni, and to
Dr. J. David Smith.
Hooray for Hollywood.
Brass stars with celebrities' names were inlaid in the sidewalk but the stars of the night were toxin merchants, strong-arm specialists, and fifteen-year-olds running from family values turned vicious.
Open twenty-four hours a day, Go-Ji's welcomed them all. The coffee shop sat on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard, east of Vine, between a tattoo parlor and a thrash-metal bar.
At 3:00 A.M., a Mexican boy was sweeping the sidewalk when Nolan Dahl pulled his cruiser into the front loading zone. The boy lacked documentation but the sight of the policeman didn't alter his rhythm; cops could care less about inmigraciÓn. From what the boy had observed after a month, no one in L.A. cared much about anything.
Nolan Dahl locked the black-and-white and entered the restaurant, sauntering the way only 220 pounds of young, muscular cop laden with baton, belt, radio, flashlight, and holstered nine-millimeter could saunter. The place smelled rancid and the aisle of deep red carpet between the duct-taped orange booths was stained beyond redemption. Dahl settled at the rear, allowing himself a view of the Filipino cashier.
The next booth was occupied by a twenty-three-year-old pimp from Compton named Terrell Cochrane and one of his employees, a chubby sixteen-year-old mother of two named Germadine Batts, formerly of Checkpoint, Oklahoma. Fifteen minutes ago, the two had sat around the corner in Terrell's white Lexus, where Germadine had rolled up a blue, spangled legging and shot fifteen dollars' worth of tar heroin into a faltering ankle vein. Now nicely numbed and hypoglycemic, she was on her second diluted jumbo Coke, sucking ice and fooling with the pink plastic stirrer.
Terrell had mixed heroin and cocaine into a speedball and was feeling as perfectly balanced as a tightrope walker. He slouched, forked holes in his cheeseburger, simulated the Olympic logo with five flaccid onion rings while pretending not to watch the big blond cop.
Nolan Dahl couldn't have cared less about either of them, or the five other things scattered around the bright room. Elevator rock played softly. A slim, pretty waitress the color of molasses hurried down the aisle and stopped at Nolan's booth, smiling. Nolan smiled back, waved away a menu, and asked for coconut cream pie and coffee, please.
“New on the night shift?” asked the waitress. She'd come from Ethiopia five years ago and spoke beautiful English with a pleasant accent.
Nolan smiled again and shook his head. He'd been working Hollywood night shift for three months but had never patronized Go-Ji's, getting his sugar rush from a Dunkin' on Highland recommended by Wes Baker. Cops and doughnuts. Big joke.
“Never seen you before, Officer- Dahl.”
“Well,” he said, “life's full of new experiences.”
The waitress laughed. “Well, hmm.” She left for the pastry counter and Nolan watched her before shifting his blue eyes, making contact with Terrell Cochrane.
Nolan Dahl was twenty-seven and had been formed, to a large extent, by TV. Before joining the force, his notion of pimps had been red velvet suits and big hats with feathers. Soon he'd learned you couldn't prepare for anything.
He scanned Terrell and the hooker, who had to be a minor. This month the pimp was into coarse, oversized, insipid plaid shirts over black T-shirts, abbreviated cornrows above shaved temples. Last month had been black leather; before that, African prince.
The cop's stare bothered Terrell. Hoping it was someone else under scrutiny, he looked across the aisle at the three transsexuals giggling and whispering and making a big deal out of eating french fries.
He eased back to the cop.
The cop was smiling at him. A weird smile- almost sad. What did that mean?
Terrell returned to his burger, feeling a little out of balance.
The Ethiopian waitress brought Nolan's order and watched as he tasted a forkful of pie.
“Good,” he said, though the coconut tasted like bad piÑa-colada mix and the cream was gluey. He was a practiced culinary liar. As a kid, when his mother had served swill he'd said, “Delish,” along with Helena and Dad.
“Anything else, Officer Dahl?”
“Not for now, thanks.” Nothing you've got.
“Okay, just let me know.”
Nolan smiled again and she left.
Terrell Cochrane thought, That smile- one happy fucker. No reason for a cop to be happy 'ceptin' he busted some rodney with no video going.
Nolan ate more pie and again aimed his smile at Terrell. Then he shrugged.
The pimp looked sideways at Germadine, by now nodding half-comatose into her Coke. Few minutes more, bitch, then back outside for more gravel-knee.
The cop ate the rest of the pie, finished his coffee and his water, and the waitress was there right away with refills.
Bitch. After bringing Terrell's and Germadine's food, she'd mostly ignored them.
Terrell lifted his burger and watched her say something to the cop. The cop just kept smiling and shaking his head. The bitch gave the cop his check and the cop gave her money and she turned all grinny.
A twenty, keep it, was the reason.
Fuckers always tipped big, but this? All that smiling, must be celebrating something.
The cop looked into his empty coffee cup.
Then something came out from under the table.
He was smiling at Terrell again. Showing him the gun!
The cop's arm stretched.
Terrell's bowels gave way as he ducked under the table, not bothering to push down on Germadine's head though he'd had plenty of practice doing that.
The other patrons saw Terrell's dive. The transsexuals and the drunken long-haul truck driver behind them and the toothless, senile, ninety-year-old man in the first booth.
Except the Ethiopian waitress, who'd been talking to the Filipino cashier. She stared, too terrified to move.
Nolan Dahl nodded at the waitress. Smiled.
She thought, A sad smile, what's with this guy?
Nolan closed his eyes, almost as if he were praying. Opening them, he slid the nine-millimeter between his lips and, sucking like a baby, fixed his gaze on the waitress's pretty face.
She was still unable to move. He saw her terror, softened his eyes, trying to let her know it was okay, the only way.
A beautiful, black, final image. God this place smelled crappy.
He pulled the trigger.
Helena Dahl gave me a mourner's account. The rest I got from the papers and from Milo.
The young cop's suicide merited only two inches on page 23 with no follow-up. But the flash-point violence stayed with me and when Milo called a few weeks later and asked me to see Helena, I said, “That one. Any idea yet why he did it?”
“Nope. That's probably what she wants to talk about. Rick says don't feel obligated, Alex. She's a nurse at Cedars, worked with him in the E.R. and doesn't want to see the in-house shrinks. But it's not like she's a close friend.”
“Has the department done its own investigation?”
“You haven't heard anything?”
“Those kinds of things are kept quiet and I'm not exactly in the loop. Only thing I've heard is the kid was different. Quiet, stuck to himself, read books.”
“Books,” I said. “Well, there's a motive for you.”
He laughed. “Guns don't kill, introspection does?”
I laughed back. But I thought about that.
Helena Dahl called me that evening and I arranged to see her in my home office the following morning. She arrived precisely on time, a tall, handsome woman of thirty, with very short straight blond hair and sinewy arms exposed by a navy blue tank top. The tank was tucked into jeans and she wore tennies without socks. Her face was a lean oval, well-sunned, her eyes light blue, her mouth exceptionally wide. No jewelry. No wedding ring. She gave my hand a firm shake, tried to smile, thanked me for seeing her, then followed me.
The new house is set up for therapy. I take patients in through a side door, crossing the Japanese garden and passing the fish pond. People usually stop to look at the koi or at least comment but she didn't.
Inside she sat very straight with her hands on her knees. Most of my work involves children caught up in the court system and a portion of the office is set aside for play therapy. She didn't look at the toys.
“This is the first time I've done this.” Her voice was soft and low but it carried some authority. An E.R. nurse would make good use of that.
“Even after my divorce, I never talked to anyone,” she added. “I really don't know what I expect.”
“Maybe to make some sense of it?” I said gently.
“You think that's possible?”
“You may be able to learn more, but some questions can never be answered.”
“Well, at least you're honest. Shall we get right into it?”
“If you're ready-”
“I don't know what I am but why waste time? It's… you know about the basic details?”
“There was really no warning, Dr. Delaware. He was such a…”
Then she cried.
Then she spilled it out.
“Nolan was smart,” she said. “I mean seriously smart, brilliant. So the last thing you'd think he'd end up being was a cop- no offense to Rick's friend, but that's not exactly what comes to mind when you think intellectual, right?”
Milo had a master's degree in literature. I said, “So Nolan was an intellectual.”
“How much education did he have?”
“Two years of college. Cal State Northridge. Psychology major, as a matter of fact.”
“He didn't finish.”
“He had trouble… finishing things. Maybe it was rebellion- our parents were heavily into education. Maybe he just got sick of classes, I don't know. I'm three years older, was already working by the time he dropped out. No one expected him to join the police. The only thing I can think of is he'd gotten politically conservative, real law-and-order. But still… the other thing is, he always loved… sleaze.”
“Spooky stuff, the dark side of things. As a kid he was always into horror movies, really gross stuff, the grossest. His senior year in high school, he went through a stage where he grew his hair long and listened to heavy metal and pierced his ears five times. My parents were convinced he was into satanism or something.”
“Who knows? But you know parents.”
“Did they hassle him?”
“No, that wasn't their style. They just rode it out.”
“Unassertive. Nolan always did what he wanted-”
She cut the sentence short.
“Where'd you grow up?” I said.
“The Valley. Woodland Hills. My father was an engineer, worked at Lockheed, passed away five years ago. My mother was a social worker but never worked. She's gone, too. A stroke, a year after Dad died. She had hypertension, never took care of it. She was only sixty. But maybe she's the lucky one- not having to know what Nolan did.”
Her hands balled.
“Any other family?” I said.
“No, just Nolan and me. He never married and I'm divorced. No kids. My ex is a doctor.” She smiled. “Big surprise. Gary 's a pulmonologist, basically a nice guy. But he decided he wanted to be a farmer so he moved to North Carolina.”
“You didn't want to be a farmer?”
“Not really. But even if I did he didn't ask me along.” Her eyes shot to the floor.
“So you're bearing all this alone,” I said.
“Yup. Where was I- oh, the satanic nonsense. No big deal, it didn't last long and then Nolan got back to normal teenage stuff. School, sports, girls, his car.”
“Did he maintain his taste for the dark side?”
“Probably not- I don't know why I brought that up. What do you think about the way Nolan did it?”
“Using his service gun?”
She winced. “I meant so publically, in front of all those people. Like saying screw you to the world.”
“Maybe that was his message.”
“I thought it was theatrical,” she said, as if she hadn't heard.
“Was he a theatrical person?”
“Hard to say. He was very good-looking, big, made an impression- the kind of guy you noticed when he entered a room. Did he milk that? Maybe a bit when he was a kid. As an adult? The truth is, Dr. Delaware, Nolan and I lost touch. We were never close. And now-”
More tears. “As a little kid he always enjoyed being the center of attention. But other times he didn't want anything to do with anybody, just crawled into his own little space.”
“A family trait.” She rubbed her knees and looked past me. “My dad underwent shock therapy for depression when Nolan and I were in grade school. We were never told what was going on, just that he was going into the hospital for a couple of days. But after he died, Mom told us.”
“How many treatments did he have?”
“I don't know, three, maybe four. When he'd come home he'd be wiped out, fuzzy about remembering- like what you see in head-injury patients. They say ECT works better now but I'm sure it damaged his brain. He faded in middle age, took early retirement, sat around reading and listening to Mozart.”
“He must have been severely depressed to get ECT,” I said.
“Must have been but I never really saw it. He was quiet, sweet, shy.”
“What was his relationship with Nolan?”
“There wasn't much of one that I could see. Even though Nolan was gifted, he was into typical macho stuff. Sports, surfing, cars. Dad's idea of recreation was…”- she smiled-“reading and listening to Mozart.”
“Did they have conflict?”
“Dad never had conflict with anyone.”
“How did Nolan react to your father's death?”
“He cried at the funeral. Afterward, we both tried to comfort Mom for a while, then he just drifted away again.”
She pinched her lower lip. “I didn't want Nolan to have one of those big LAPD funerals, gun salutes, all that crap. No one at the department argued. Like they were happy not to deal with it. I had him cremated. He left a will, all his stuff is mine. Dad's and Mom's stuff, too. I'm the survivor.”
Too much pain. I backtracked. “What was your mother like?”
“More outgoing than Dad. Not moody. On the contrary, she was always up, cheerful, optimistic. Probably why she stroked out- holding it all inside.” She rubbed her knee again. “I don't want to make our family sound weird. We weren't. Nolan was a regular guy. Partying, chasing girls. Just smarter. He got A's without working.”
“What did he do after dropping out of college?”
“Bummed around, worked different jobs. Then all of a sudden he calls me, announces he's graduated from the police academy. I hadn't heard from him since Mom died.”
“When was this?”
“About a year and a half ago. He told me the academy was a joke, Mickey Mouse. He'd graduated high in his class. He said he'd called me just to let me know. In case I happened to see him drive by in a car, I shouldn't be freaked out.”
“Was he assigned to Hollywood from the beginning?”
“No. West L.A. That's why he thought I might see him, at Cedars. He might come in to the E.R. with a suspect or a victim.”
In case I happened to see him. What she'd described was less a family than a series of accidental pairings.
“What kind of jobs did he work before he joined LAPD?”
“Construction, auto repair, crewing on a fishing boat off Santa Barbara. That I remember because Mom showed me some fish he'd brought her. Halibut. She liked smoked fish and he had some halibut smoked.”
“What about relationships with women?”
“He had girlfriends in high school, but after that I don't know- can I walk around?”
She got up, covered the room in small, choppy steps. “Everything always came easy to Nolan. Maybe he just wanted to take the easy way out. Maybe that was the problem. He wasn't prepared for when things didn't come easy.”
“Do you know of specific problems he was having?”
“No, no, I don't know anything- I was just thinking back to high school. I used to agonize over algebra and Nolan would waltz into my room, look over my shoulder, and tell me the answer to an equation. Three years younger- he must have been eleven, but he could figure it out.”
She stopped, faced a bookshelf. “When Rick Silverman gave me your name, he told me about his friend on the force and we got into a discussion of the police. Rick said it was a paramilitary organization. Nolan always wanted to be noticed. Why would he be attracted to something so conformist?”
“Maybe he got tired of being noticed,” I said.
She stood there for a while, sat back down.
“Maybe I'm doing this because I feel guilty for not being closer to him. But he never seemed to want to get close.”
“Even if you had been close, you couldn't have prevented it.”
“You're saying it's a waste of time to try to stop someone from killing themselves?”
“It's always important to try to help, and many people who are stopped never attempt again. But if someone's determined to do it, they'll eventually succeed.”
“I don't know if Nolan was determined. I don't know him!”
She burst into loud, racking sobs. When she quieted I handed her a tissue and she snatched it and slapped it against her eyes. “I hate this- I don't know if I can keep doing this.”
I said nothing.
Looking to the side, she said, “I'm his executor. After Mom died, the lawyer handling our parents' estate said we should each write a will.” She laughed. “Estate. The house and a bunch of junk. We rented out the house, split the money, then after my divorce, I asked Nolan if I could live there, send him half the rent. He wouldn't take it. Said he didn't need it- didn't need anything. Was that a warning sign?”
Before I could answer, she stood again. “How much more time do we have?”
“Would you mind if I left early?”
She'd parked a brown Mustang off the property, out on the bridle trial that snakes up from Beverly Glen. The morning air was hot and dusty, the smell of pines from the neighboring ravine piercing and cleansing.
“Thanks,” she said, unlocking the car.
“Would you like to make another appointment?”
She got in and lowered the window. The car was spotless, empty except for two white uniforms hanging over a rear door. “Can I get back to you? I need to check the on-call schedule.”
Patient's version of don't call me, I'll call you.
“Thanks again, Dr. Delaware. I'll be in touch.”
She sped away and I returned to the house, thinking about the meager history she'd given me.
Nolan too smart to be a cop. But plenty of cops were smart. Other characteristics- athletic, macho, dominant, attracted to the dark side- fit the police stereotype. A few years bumming around before seeking the security of a city job and a pension. Right-wing political views; I'd have liked to hear more about that.
She'd also described a partial family history of serious mood disorder. A cop judged “different” by his peers.
That could add to the alienation brought about by the job.
Nolan's life sounded full of alienation.
So even though his sister was understandably shocked, no big surprises, so far.
Nothing that came close to explaining why Nolan had sucked his gun at Go-Ji's.
Not that I was likely to get any closer to it, because the way she'd left told me it would probably be a one-shot deal.
In my business you learn to make do with unanswered questions.
Milo called two days later, at 8:00 A.M.
“They just gave me another cold one, Alex. I'm not sure I can pay you, though we did get brownie points on the last thing, so maybe.”
The last thing was the murder of a psychology professor stalked and stabbed a few yards from her home in Westwood. Thinking it unsolvable after months of no leads, Milo 's superiors had handed it to him as punishment for being the only openly gay detective in LAPD. We'd learned a few secrets about the victim and he'd managed to close the file.
“Well, I don't know,” I said. “Why the hell should I do you any favors?”
He laughed. “Because I'm such a pleasant fellow?”
I simulated a game-show buzzer. “Try again.”
“Because you're a shrink and committed to unconditional acceptance?”
“Don't go on Jeopardy! What's the case?”
I heard him sigh. “A kid, Alex. Fifteen years old.”
“I know how you feel about that but this is an important one. If you have any time at all I'd appreciate tossing things around.”
“Sure,” I said. “Come over right now.”
He showed up carrying a box of files, wearing a turquoise polo shirt that proclaimed his gut, wrinkled brown jeans, scarred beige desert boots. His weight had stabilized at around 240, most of it distributed around the middle of his six-three frame. His hair was freshly cut in his usual style, though to use style in conjunction with Milo was a felony: clipped short at the sides and back, shaggy on top, sideburns to the earlobes. Gray was winning the battle with black and the sideburns were nearly white. He's nine months older than I am and sometimes looking at him reminds me time is passing.
He put the box down on the kitchen table. His pocked face was chalky and his green eyes lacked spark. A long night, or several of them. Looking at the refrigerator, he frowned. “Need I spell it out?”
“Solid or liquid?” I said.
“Been working on this since six.”
“You're the doctor.” He stretched and sat heavily and I heard the chair creak.
I fixed him a cold roast beef sandwich and brought it over along with a quart of milk. He ate and drank quickly and exhaled noisily.
The box was filled to the top. “Looks like plenty of data.”
“Don't confuse quantity with quality.” Pushing his plate away, he began removing bound folders and rubber-banded stacks, arranged them neatly on the table.
“The victim is a girl named Irit Carmeli. Fifteen, slightly retarded. Thirteen weeks ago, someone abducted her and killed her during a school field trip up in the Santa Monica Mountains- some nature conservancy owned by the city. Her school goes there every year, the idea is to get a little beauty into the kids' lives.”
“Are all the kids retarded?”
“All with some kind of problem. It's a special school.”
He ran a hand over his face, as if washing without water. “Here's how it lays out: The kids were dropped off near the entrance by a chartered bus, and hiked about a half-mile into the park. It gets thickly wooded pretty quickly but there are marked pathways for novice hikers. The kids ran around for an hour or so, had snacks, bathroom breaks, then reboarded. Almost two hours had lapsed by then. They called roll, Irit wasn't there, they went looking for her, couldn't find her, 911'd Westside Division, who sent a couple of units, but they couldn't find her either and called for K-9 backup. It took half an hour for the dogs to get there, another half to sniff her out. The body was about a mile away, lying in a pine grove. No overt signs of violence, no ligature striations, no subdermal hemorrhaging, no swelling, no blood. Except for the positioning they would have assumed she'd had a seizure or something like that.”
“No, show you in a second. The coroner found bruising on the hyoid and the sternohyoid and the pharyngeal muscles. No sexual assault.”
“Strangulation,” I said. “Why no external marks?”
“Coroner said you can get that when the choke-force is spread out over a broad area- using a soft ligature like a rolled-up towel or a clothed forearm. Gentle strangulation, they call it.”
Grimacing, he removed the top file and flipped it open to two pages of snapshots in plastic strip-fasteners.
Some were of the surrounding forest. The rest were of the girl. Thin and fair-haired, she wore a white T-shirt with lace trim around the neck and sleeves, blue jeans, white socks, pink plastic shoes. Very thin. Pipe-cleaner limbs, the elbows prominent, as if recently enlarged by a growth spurt. I would have guessed her age at twelve, not fifteen. Lying on her back, brown earth beneath her, arms at her sides, feet pressed together. Too symmetrical to have fallen. Arranged.
I studied a facial close-up. Eyes closed, mouth slightly parted. The dirty-blond hair, long and very curly and spread on the ground.
Someone taking the time… playing.
Back to the full-body shot. Her hands were next to her thighs, palms up, curled open, as if asking Why?
Insipid olive-gray shadows washed across the pale face like brushstrokes.
Light filtering through the trees above.
My chest felt clogged and I started to close the file. Then I noticed something small and pink near the girl's right ear. “What's that?”
“Hearing aid. She was also deaf. Partially in one ear, totally in the other.”
“Jesus.” I put the file down. “Irit Carmeli. Is that Italian?”
“Israeli. Her father's a honcho at the Israeli Consulate. Which is why the department's inability to develop a single lead in three months is problematic.”
“Three months,” I said. “I never read about it in the papers.”
“It wasn't in the papers. Diplomatic pull.”
“Sounds like a very cold case.”
“Any colder and I'd be wearing fur. Any gut impressions?”
“He took his time with her,” I said. “Meaning he probably abducted her fairly soon after she arrived. When's the last time anyone saw her?”
“No one's sure. From the moment they let them off the bus it was chaos, kids running all over the place. That was the point of the conservancy. The school had gone there before, thought it was a safe place for the kids to run loose and explore.”
“How'd the murderer get in without being noticed?”
“Probably a backroad, the place is full of them on three sides, access from the Valley side, Santa Monica, and from Sunset. There's a thick belt of trees between the hiking area and the nearest road so you'd need to know your way around, meaning the piece of shit was familiar with the area, either hiked or drove. If he drove he parked at a distance because the roads closest to the murder scene were clean, no tracks.”
“He parks, walks through the trees, finds a spot where he can see the kids, watches,” I said. “Any tracks on more distant roads?”
“Nothing that could be identified because you get heavy enough traffic to blur everything. And I can't tell you they checked every square inch of the park early because in the beginning, it wasn't a crime scene, it was a missing kid. In addition to the K-9s and the teachers and the park rangers, her father came over with a whole posse of consulate people and everything got pretty much trampled.”
“What about at the scene itself?”
“Not a trace of anything physical, except for a few pieces of straw that the lab says came from a broom. Looks like the scumbag swept up the area around her.”
“A neat one,” I said. “Compulsive. That fits the way he arranged the body.”
I forced myself to look at the photographs again, picturing a fiendish face bent over the girl. But that's not the way it was. It always came down to people, not monsters.
“Strangulation and positioning are usually sexual,” I said. “No assault at all?”
“Nothing. She was a virgin. And you know how sex fiends usually position: spreading the legs, displaying the genitals. This was just the opposite, Alex. First time I saw the pictures she looked unreal. Like a doll.”
“Playing with dolls.” My voice was low and hoarse.
“Sorry for dropping this one on you,” he said.
“How retarded was she?”
“The file says “slightly.' ”
“Abducted without a sound and carried a mile from the group. How much did she weigh?”
“So we're talking someone strong,” I said. “Is the theory that she wandered off the path, just happened to be unlucky?”
“That's one of them. The other is that he picked her for some reason. As far as no sound, he could have clamped his hand over her mouth and carried her away. Though if he did clamp, it wasn't hard. No finger marks. Not a bruise anywhere.”
“So no evidence of any resistance on her part?”
He shook his head.
“Was she mute as well as deaf?”
“She spoke but not clearly and her main language was Hebrew.”
“But she had the capacity to scream?”
“I assume.” He finished the milk and crushed the carton.
“Watching til he found a victim,” I said. “Stalking the herd and picking off a weak one. How many other kids were in the group?”
“Forty-two. Plus four teachers and two aides. Some of the kids were in wheelchairs and needed close supervision. Another reason the kids who could run around had lots of freedom.”
“Still,” I said. “All those people and no one saw anything?”
He shook his head, again, and pointed to the files. “Everyone's been talked to twice, three times. Teachers, the bus driver, kids to the extent they could talk.”
“How often do they come to the conservancy?”
“Once a year for the past five.”
“Was the trip prearranged with the park?”
He nodded. “Lots of schools come up there.”
“So someone familiar with the park would know disabled kids were due to visit. Easy victims.”
“The first guys on the case- Gorobich and Ramos- interviewed every park and school employee as well as former employees. The only criminal records they found was some old DUI stuff on a couple of the gardeners and their alibis all checked out.”
“Sounds like they were thorough.”
“Both were competent and a kid victim plus a diplomat father made the case high-priority. But they came up with nada and last week they got pulled and transferred to auto theft. Calls from above.”
“So now they're trading two detectives for one?” I said. “I know you're good but-”
“Yeah, yeah, I asked the same thing. Lieutenant just shrugged and said, “What, Sturgis, you mean you're not a genius?' Only thing I can think of is the Israelis figure all the teamwork scut's been done, they want to keep it low-key so some Arab terrorist won't get ideas and declare open season on other consulate kids. As to why me?” He shrugged. “Maybe they heard about the Devane solve.”
“So you're supposed to clear it quickly but quietly,” I said. “Quite a mandate.”
“It has that smell of futility, Alex. For all I know someone's setting me up for a fall. Lieutenant was sure smiling a lot.” He drummed his fingers on the box.
I picked out the second file. Page after page of transcripted interviews with family members, teachers. Lots of stiff, wordy cop prose. Lots of pain seeping through but no revelations. I put it down.
“So,” he said. “Anything else?”
“A planner, a sneak. Maybe an outdoors type. Physically strong, possibly a history of child molestation, voyeurism, exposure. Smart enough to wait and watch and to sweep up. Maybe meticulous in his personal habits. He didn't assault her, so the thrill of the chase probably did it for him. Stalking and capture.”
Picking the weak one out of the herd… I said, “If he did choose Irit, why? With all those other kids, what made her the target?”
“You don't think it could be something to do with her father's position?”
“The father claims no and my feeling is if it was political the Israelis would take care of it themselves.”
“Being a diplomat's daughter,” I said, “did she have any special security training? Did her disabilities cause her to be especially gullible?”
“Gorobich said he asked the father that but the guy brushed him off, kept insisting the murder had nothing to do with Irit personally, that L.A. was a hellhole full of homicidal nuts, no one was safe.”
“And because he was a VIP, no one pushed.”
“That and basically Gorobich and Ramos agreed with him. It didn't look like anything the kid had brought on herself. More like some twisted fuck watched her and snatched her and dispatched her and cleaned up afterward. Like you said, playing. Big fucking game. God, I hate when it's a kid.”
He got up and paced, opened the fridge, looked inside, closed it, peered out the kitchen window.
“Have you met the parents yet?” I said.
“I put a call in today, waiting for an appointment.”
“Three months with no progress,” I said. “The grief may have turned completely to rage. It may be even more difficult to approach them.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I'll tackle that later. Meanwhile, trees don't have feelings, so how about taking a look at the scene?”
It was less than a half-hour drive, a right turn off Sunset, past the Brentwood intersection with Pacific Palisades. No signs. Sometimes people who love nature don't think other people should disrupt it.
A suburban street lined with middle-sized ranch homes led to a brush-shaded single-lane road that kept narrowing. A school bus would be scraped by branches.
The gate was steel painted ballpark-mustard yellow, latched but not locked. The first sign, orange city-issue, specified visiting hours. Opening time was an hour away. I got out, released the latch, returned to the unmarked, and we drove through more foliage-banked asphalt. We pressed on, rolling on dirty hardpack, now, as the brush turned to pines, cedar, cypress, sycamore. Trees planted so close together they formed deep green walls, nearly black, just the faintest delineation of branch and leaf. Anyone or anything could hide back there.
The road ended in a spoon-shaped clearing. Faded white lines marked off a dozen parking spots and Milo slid into one. Behind the lot was a ten-foot strip of dry, clipped grass upon which sat three rickety picnic tables, a U-drive mower, and several fastened lawn bags, stuffed, shiny-black.
Beyond the grass, more forest.
I followed Milo over the lawn to two signs, one atop the other, marking the mouth of a dirt path that dipped into the trees. Above: NATURE HIKE, PLEASE STAY ON TRAIL. An arrow pointed left. Below, a picture board behind cloudy plastic displayed leaves, berries, acorns, squirrels, rabbits, blue jays, snakes. A warning under the western rattler that when the days grew long and hot, the serpents came crawling out for action.
We began descending. The drop was gentle and the trail was terraced in spots. Soon other paths appeared, steeper, skinnier, branching from the side. The trees remained so dense only short portions of walkway resisted the shadows.
We walked quickly, not speaking. I was imagining, theorizing, and the look on Milo 's face told me he was doing the same. Ten minutes later, he stepped off the trail and entered the forest. The pine smell was much stronger here- almost artificial, like room freshener- and the ground beneath our feet was littered with needles and cones.
We walked for a long time before he stopped at a small clearing that bore no distinction.
Not even a clearing, just the space between huge old pines with gray, corrugated trunks. Trunks all around, like Greek columns. The space felt enclosed, an outdoor room.
Someone's idea of a death chamber… I said so but Milo didn't reply.
I looked around, listened. Bird calls, distant. Insects scattering. Nothing to see but trees. No backroads. I asked him about that.
He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “The forest ends about three hundred yards back, though you can't see it from here. There's an open field, then roads, then mountains, and more roads. Some eventually link up with highways but most dead-end. I traipsed around all yesterday, walking and driving, saw nothing but squirrels, couple of big hawks. Circling hawks, so I stopped to check, maybe there was something else dead down below. Nothing. No other predators.”
I stared in the direction he'd indicated. No breaking light, not even a suggestion of exit.
“What happened to the body?” I said.
“Buried in Israel. The family flew over, stayed for a week or so, came back.”
“Jewish mourning rituals take a week.”
He raised his eyebrows.
I said, “I worked the cancer ward.”
He paced around the clearing, looking huge in the dark, vaultlike space.
“Secluded,” I said. “Only a mile from the bus but secluded. It had to be someone who really knew this place well.”
“Problem is, that doesn't narrow it down very much. It's public access, there are always hikers.”
“Too bad there were none around that day. On the other hand, maybe there were.”
He stopped pacing. “What do you mean?”
“The news blackout. How would anyone have known to come forward?”
He thought about that. “Gotta talk to the parents. Though it's probably too late.”
“Maybe you can get them to compromise, Milo. Report the murder without identifying Irit by name. Though I agree, it's unlikely to pay off after all this time.”
He kicked a tree hard, muttered, walked around some more, looked in all directions, said, “Anything else?”
I shook my head and we retraced our steps to the parking lot. The U-drive mower was in use now, a dark-skinned man in a khaki uniform and pith helmet riding back and forth on the grass strip. He turned briefly and kept riding. The brim of the helmet shaded his face.
“Waste of time?” said Milo, starting up the unmarked and backing out.
“You can never tell.”
“Got time to read some of the files?”
Thinking of Irit Carmeli's face, I said, “Plenty of time.”
They hadn't paid him any attention, he was sure of that.
Waiting until the unmarked car had been gone for twenty minutes, he got off the mower, tied off the last of the leaf bags, got back on, and coasted down toward the park entrance. Stopping a short distance behind the yellow gates, he pushed the machine back to the side of the road. The park service had never missed it. Loose procedures.
Very loose. The girl's misfortune.
Good find, the mower a bonus added to the uniform.
As always, the uniform worked perfectly: Do manual labor in official garb and no one notices you.
His car, a gray Toyota Cressida with false plates and a handicapped placard in the glove compartment, was parked three blocks down. A nine-millimeter semiautomatic was concealed in a box under the driver's seat.
He was lean and light and walked quickly. Ten feet from the vehicle, he disarmed the security system with his remote, looked around without appearing to, got in, and sped off toward Sunset, turning east when he got there.
Same direction they'd gone.
A detective and a psychologist and neither had given him a second's notice.
The detective was bulky, with heavy limbs and sloping shoulders, the lumbering trudge of an overfed bull. The baggy, gnarled face of a bull- no, a rhinoceros.
A depressed rhinoceros. He looked discouraged already.
How did that kind of pessimism square with his reputation?
Maybe it fit. The guy was a pro, he had to know the chance of learning the truth was slim.
Did that make him the sensible one?
The psychologist was a different story. Hyperalert, eyes everywhere.
Quicker and smaller than the detective- five ten or so, which still put him three inches above the dark man. Restless, he moved with a certain grace. A cat.
He'd gotten out of the car before the detective turned the engine off.
Unlike the detective, the psychologist appeared to take care of himself. Solidly built, curly dark hair, a little long but trimmed neatly. Clear, fair skin, square jaw. The eyes very pale, very wide.
Such active eyes.
If he was that way with patients how could he calm them down?
Maybe he didn't see many patients.
Fancied himself a detective.
With his blue sportcoat, white shirt, and pressed khaki pants, he looked like one of those professors trying to come across casual.
That type often faked casual, pretending everyone was equal, but maintaining a clear sense of rank and position.
The dark man wondered if the psychologist was like that.
As he drove toward Brentwood, he thought again of the man's rapid, forward walk.
Lots of energy, that one.
All this time and no one had even gotten close to figuring out what had happened to Irit.
But the psychologist had forged forward- maybe the guy was an optimist.
Or just an amateur, too ignorant to know better.
Milo dropped me off and returned to the West L.A. station. As I headed up the stairs to the front entrance, I heard the whine of Robin's table saw from out back and detoured through the garden to her studio. Spike, our little French bulldog, was basking near the door, a mound of black-brindled muscle melting into the welcome mat. He stopped snoring long enough to raise his head and stare. I rubbed his neck and stepped over him.
Like the house, the outbuilding is white stucco, compact and simple with lots of windows and a tile roof shaded by sycamore boughs. Lateral sunlight flooded the clean, airy space. Guitars in various stages of completion were positioned around the room and the spicy resin smell of crisply cut wood seasoned the air. Robin was guiding a hunk of maple through the saw and I waited to approach until she finished and turned off the machine. Her auburn curls were tied up in a knot and her apron was filmed with sawdust. The T-shirt beneath it was sweaty, as was her heart-shaped face.
She wiped her hands and smiled. I put my arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek. She turned and gave me her mouth, then pulled away and wiped her brow.
“No.” I told her about the park, the leafy vault.
Her brown eyes got huge and she flinched. “Every parent's nightmare. What next?”
“Milo asked me to look over the files.”
“It's been a while since you got involved in something like this, Alex.”
“True. Better get to work.” I kissed her forehead and stepped away.
She watched me go.
By the end of three hours I learned the following:
Mr. and Mrs. Zev Carmeli lived in a leased house on a good street in Beverlywood with their now only child, a seven-year-old boy named Oded. Zev Carmeli was 38, born in Tel Aviv, a career foreign-service officer. His wife, Liora, was four years younger, born in Morocco but raised in Israel, employed as a Hebrew teacher at a Jewish day school on the West Side.
The family had arrived in L.A. a year ago from Copenhagen, where Carmeli had served for three years as an attachÉ at the Israeli Embassy. Two years before that he'd been assigned to the embassy in London and had obtained a master's degree in international relations at London University. He and his wife and Oded spoke English fluently. Irit, said her father, had spoken “very well, considering.”
All the quotes were from the father.
The girl's health problems had followed an influenza-like illness at the age of six months. Carmeli referred to his daughter as “a little immature but always well-behaved.” The term retarded never came up in the files, but an educational summary report supplied by her school, The Center for Development, indicated “multiple learning problems, bilateral hearing impairment, including total deafness in the right ear, and mild to moderate developmental delay.”
As Milo had said, Carmeli was adamant about having no enemies in Los Angeles and brushed off all questions about his work and the political situation in the Middle East.
Detective E. J. Gorobich wrote:
“V.'s father stated that his job is “coordinating events' for the consulate. I asked for an example and he said he'd organized an Israel Independence Day parade last spring. When I inquired about any other events he'd coordinated, he stated there were lots of them but that the parade was a main one. When I inquired about possible connections between what had happened to his daughter and his occupational/political position and/or activities, he became noticeably agitated and stated: “This wasn't political, this was a madman! It's obvious that you have many madmen in America!' ”
The Center for Development was a small private school in Santa Monica specializing in children with mental and physical handicaps. Tuition was high and student-teacher ratio was low.
A school bus had picked Irit up each morning at 8:00 A.M. and dropped her off at 3:00 P.M. Mrs. Carmeli taught mornings only and was always home to receive her daughter. Younger brother Oded was enrolled at the school that employed his mother and attended classes til four. Before the murder, he'd been taken home by car pool or a consulate employee. Since the murder, Mr. or Mrs. Carmeli picked him up.
Irit's academic records were skimpy. No grades, no quantitative testing, an assessment by her teacher, Kathy Brennan, that she was “making excellent strides.”
Brennan had been interviewed by Gorobich's partner, Detective Harold Ramos.
“Witness stated she feels “all torn up' and “guilty' about what had happened to V. even though she'd gone over the events of the day over and over and hadn't found anything she could have done differently except watch V. every second of the day, which would have been impossible because there were forty-two children at the park including some who needed extra-special care (wheelchairs pushed on the paths, etc.). Ms. Brennan also stated that going to the park was a regular thing for the school, they'd been doing it for years, it was always considered a safe place where “kids can just run around for a while and be kids, without being watched every second.' As to whether or not she'd seen anything suspicious, witness stated she hadn't, even though she'd been “racking her brain.' Witness then stated that deceased was a “really nice kid, so sweet, no problems ever. Why do the nice ones always have to suffer!' Immediately following this Ms. Brennan broke down and was tearful. When asked if she was aware of other nice ones suffering, she stated, “No, no. You know what I mean. All the kids are nice, they all have problems. It's just not fair that someone would do this to a child!' ”
Next came face-to-face meetings with every teacher and aide present at the field trip, as well as the teachers who'd remained at school; the principal, a Dr. Rothstein; the bus driver, Alonzo Burns; and several of Irit's classmates. No transcripts of the talks with the children were included. Instead, Gorobich and Ramos offered forty-two nearly identical summaries:
“Witness Salazar, Rudy, nine y.o., blind, interviewed in presence of parents, denies any knowledge.”,
“Witness Blackwell, Amanda, six y.o., braces on feet, not retarded, interviewed in presence of mother, denies any knowledge.”
“Witness Shoup, Todd, eleven y.o., retarded, in wheelchair, interviewed in presence of mother, denies any knowledge…”
End of that folder.
A thicker one contained interviews with every employee of the park and the results of a door-to-door canvass of the surrounding neighborhood. Twenty-eight employees, nearly one hundred neighbors. Gorobich and Ramos had “telephonically” recontacted every one of them two weeks later, with the same results: No one had seen or heard anything or anyone unusual in or around the park.
I reread the coroner's files, wincing at the term “gentle strangulation” before moving on to a beefy computer printout, the cover stamped with the seal of the state Department of Justice in Sacramento, Violent Crime Information Network.
Five separate lists of names followed, each tabbed, labeled with an acronym, and subheaded CATCHMENT AREA. For all five sections, the park's zip code and three adjoining codes were typed on a dotted line:
1. SAR (Sex Registration)
2. SHOP (Sexual Habitual Offenders)
3. ACAS (Child Abuse Reports)
4. ISU (M.O.'s related to violent crimes)
5. SRF (Persons on probation/parole from CDC/CYA)
Five databases filled with names and information on sex offenders. I counted 283 names, some overlaps circled in red. Ninety-seven offenders, including four of the overlaps, had been rearrested and were in custody. Two turquoise circles identified a pair of child murderers out on parole, one living three miles from the park, the other in Bell Gardens.
Gorobich and Ramos had interviewed both killers immediately and verified strong alibis for the day of the murder. The detectives then enlisted the help of three other investigators, two civilian clerks, and three volunteer police scouts to locate the 186 criminals still out there, though none of the names on the DOJ lists matched any of the park workers, neighbors, teachers, the principal, or the bus driver.
Thirty-one men were missing in violation of parole and warrants were issued for their rearrest. A handwritten note reported eleven already apprehended. The others were contacted and presented alibis of varying strength. A note by Ramos indicated no strong suspects because “No M.O. matches to this homicide were found among any of these individuals and given the lack of assault and other sexual patterning, it is still not clear that this was a sexual homicide.”
I read the M.O. file carefully.
With the exception of a few exhibitionists, the child molesters had all played with, bruised, penetrated, or somehow made physical contact with their victims and the vast majority had been previously acquainted with their victims: daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, grandkids, stepkids, the children of girlfriends, drinking buddies, neighbors.
Both of the alibied murderers had killed children known to them: One had beaten a girlfriend's two-year-old daughter to death with his fists. The other, a woman, had intentionally scalded her own son in the bathtub.
Nearly two hundred predators, roaming free in this relatively small area…
Why only four zip codes?
Because the detectives couldn't be everywhere and you had to draw the line somewhere.
Would doubling, tripling, quadrupling the area have accomplished much?
L.A. was a country-sized sprawl, ruled by the car. Give a stalker some gas money and coffee and he could go anywhere.
Hop on the freeway, weave nightmares, be back in bed in time for the evening news. Munching chips and masturbating, eyes glued to the headlines, hoping for fame.
Aimless driving was one characteristic of sexual sadists.
But Irit hadn't been tortured.
Still, maybe we did have a traveler. Someone who liked the backroads. Maybe this killer was up in Alaska by now, fishing salmon, or strolling the boardwalk in Atlantic City, or in New Orleans, hunkered down in a French Quarter club eating gumbo.
For all their numerical precision, the printouts seemed primitive. I put them down and picked up the next file, thin and black.
Still thinking of two hundred predators in four zip codes. What kind of society let people who raped and beat children back out on the streets?
It's been a long time, Alex.
Inside the black file were aerial photographs of the murder scene- fluffy, green-black patches of treetop, as distant and artificial as an architect's design sketch.
Tan laces at the upper periphery- the roads. Capillaries feeding mountains, gullies, the city sprawl beyond.
Facing the photos was a crisp white letter on FBI stationery. DEAR DETECTIVE GOROBICH correspondence from FBI Special Agent Gail Gorman of the bureau's Behavioral Sciences Regional Unit in San Diego.
Gorman acknowledged receipt of the aerial shots, the crime-scene data, and the completed questionnaire, but regretted that insufficient information existed for a definitive profile of the killer. However, she was willing to guess that he was most likely male, white, over thirty, of average to above-average intelligence, nonpsychotic, probably compulsive and perfectionistic, presenting a neat, clean, unremarkable appearance, probably employed at the present, though possibly with an inconsistent or checkered job history.
With regard to the crime being “sexual in nature,” she repeated the disclaimer of insufficient data and went on to say that “despite the obvious organization of the crime, the lack of sadistic or vicious elements mitigate against a sexual homicide, as does the absence of obvious or covert sexual activity at the scene. However, should future homicides bearing precisely these signature elements show themselves, we would be interested in hearing about them.”
The letter ended by suggesting that “victim characteristics should be explored further: age, ethnicity, specific disabilities. While this homicide might very well turn out to have been committed by an opportunistic or premeditated stranger, the possibility that the victim knew the perpetrator cannot be ruled out and, in fact, should be looked into, though, once again, this is only a suggestion, not a conclusion. Factors mitigating against victim-perpetrator acquaintance include leaving the body faceup in a location where it would eventually be found. Factors mitigating for acquaintance include the use of diffuse-force (“gentle') strangulation and other evidence of care and time taken to avoid brutalization and degradation of the body.”
Average to above-average. Organized, compulsive, perfectionistic.
That meshed with my first impression.
A planner- someone who took pride in setting things up and watching the elements fall into place.
Taking his time- spiriting Irit a mile from the bus so he'd have time.
It implied a certain relaxation- self-confidence? Arrogance?
Someone who believed he was clever.
Because he'd gotten away with it before?
No M.O. match existed in any of the state files.
Had he evaded detection by concealing other bodies?
Going public, now?
I let my mind dance around the data.
Someone who craved control because he'd been controlled as a child, perhaps brutally?
Maybe he was still under someone's thumb. A worker bee or submissive spouse?
Employed, possibly a checkered history…
Agent Gorman using sound psychological logic, because psychopaths' achievements nearly always lagged behind their own inflated self-images.
Leading to dissonance. Tension.
The need for release: the ultimate control.
I thought of a killer I'd met in graduate school. A strangler, as it happened, locked in a back ward of County General Hospital, waiting for the court system to evaluate his sanity. A professor who earned extra money as an expert witness had taken us to the killer's cell.
A gaunt, almost skeletal man in his thirties, with sunken cheeks and wispy black hair, the strangler lay on a cot, restrained by wide leather straps.
One of my classmates asked him what it felt like to kill. The gaunt man ignored the question at first, then a slow smile spread across his lips and they darkened, like paper held to a flame. His victim had been a prostitute whom he hadn't wanted to pay. He'd never known her name.
What it feels like? he finally said, in a disturbingly pleasant voice. It feels like nothing, it's no big fucking deal, you stupid asshole. It's not actually doing it, anyway, it's being able to do it, asshole.
Opportunistic or premeditated.
Had Irit's killer known about the annual field trip in advance or was he just aware that the park was frequented by schoolkids?
Were the Carmelis right about Irit's victimization being one of those wrong-time/wrong-place horrors of chance that give atheists fuel?
Predator leering as the school bus unloads.
Feeling sweet contentment the way a fox might as it views chicklets hatching.
Every parent's nightmare.
Picking a weak one out of the herd- but why Irit?
Special Agent Gorman had suggested the girl's disabilities, but Irit's problems weren't obvious to the casual observer. On the contrary, she'd been an attractive child. No shortage of other kids with more conspicuous handicaps.
Was that the cue? The fact that she looked normal?
Then I remembered the hearing aid on the ground.
Despite all the care taken to arrange the body.
Not an accident. The more I thought about it, the more certain I became.
Leaving the pink disc behind- a message?
I grabbed up the M.O. file again, looked for crimes committed against deaf people. Nothing.
Had the hearing aid told him Irit was the easiest target of all- less likely to be aware as he came up behind her, less likely to scream?
She wasn't mute, but maybe he'd assumed she was.
The phrase disgusted me…
Care and time taken to avoid degradation of the body… No sex at the scene but perhaps he'd gone elsewhere to get off, masturbating to memories, as sex killers usually do.
But sex killers often used trophies to trigger memories: clothing, jewelry. Body parts; the breasts were a favorite.
Irit's body had been left pristine, nothing taken. Posed- almost primly. Expressly unsexual.
As if the killer wanted the world to know she hadn't been touched.
That he was different?
Or maybe he had taken something- something unobtrusive, undetectable- a few strands of hair.
Or had the souvenirs been the images themselves?
Photos, snapped at the scene and pocketed for later.
I pictured him, faceless, standing over her, tumescent with power, arranging- posing, snap, snap.
Creating a tableau, a hideous art form.
Polaroids. Or a private darkroom where he could modulate optical nuance.
A self-styled artiste?
Taking Irit far enough from the path so no one would hear the click, see the flash.
Cleaning up… obsessive but not psychotic.
You have many madmen in America!
I reread S.A. Gorman's letter, everything else in the box.
For all the hundreds of pages, something was missing.
The Carmelis' friends and neighbors hadn't been interviewed. Neither had Mrs. Carmeli, and her husband had been contacted only twice, both times briefly.
Respect for the grieving or soft-glove treatment for a diplomat?
Now, months later, a dead end.
My head hurt and my lungs burned. I'd been at it for nearly three hours.
As I got up to make coffee, the phone rang.
The operator at my service said, “A Ms. Dahl is on the line, Doctor.”
“I'll take it, thanks.”
“Dr. Delaware? It's Helena. I just got my on-call schedule for the week so I thought I'd try for an appointment. Do you have anything in two days? Maybe around ten in the morning?”
I checked. Several court reports were due. “How about eleven?”
“Eleven would be fine. Thank you.”
“How's everything going, Helena?”
“Oh… about as well as can be expected… I guess I'm going through a point where I really miss him- more than I did… right after. Anyway, thanks for seeing me. Bye.”
I wrote down the appointment. So much for clinical predictions.
What was the chance I could do better for a dead girl?
“How far'd you get?” Milo asked the next morning. It was 9:00 A.M. and we were drinking orange juice in my office.
“All of it.” I lifted the offender printout. “New system?”
“Funded by Sacramento in response to the victims' rights movement. Great idea but so far reporting procedures are sloppy and lots of cities- L.A. included- don't have a system in place. Also, most cops are scared of computers so the best way to get info is still the horn and teletypes. What'd you think of the FBI letter?”
“Nothing I disagree with but Agent Gorman's careful not to commit herself.”
“So what else is new.”
I told him my conception of the murderer. The possibility that photos had been taken.
“Polaroids or a darkroom?” he said. “A professional photographer?”
“Or a serious amateur. Someone with artistic pretensions- there's something pretentious about the crime, Milo. Fussy. Arranging the body, sweeping up. A psychopath who wants to believe he's something else. But all that's predicated upon it being a sex crime.”
“You don't think it was?”
“Gorman may be right about its having something to do with Irit's background rather than being just a random thing. When Gorobich and Ramos did something, they were thorough. It's what they didn't do that's off. All those interviews with park neighbors but none in Beverlywood. The father talked to twice, the mother not at all.”
He wiped his face. “A family thing?”
“Most kids are killed by relatives.”
“Something about these parents comes across creepy?”
“Just how little attention they've received. And how little information they've offered.”
“A parent hiding in that forest- it would have to be the father 'cause the mother wouldn't be strong enough to carry Irit that far. And I know for sure it wasn't the father because when the call came in about Irit's being missing, he was at the consulate in a meeting.”
“Okay,” I said. “Any other relatives besides the younger brother?”
“Don't know.” He put his big hands on the side of the box and rocked it. “It's too weird, anyway, Alex. When relatives kill kids you know it's almost always at home. Or some family outing. I've never heard of them stalking like this. I know Gorobich and Ramos didn't turn over every rock but they claim there was nothing off about the Carmelis. Just parents destroyed by the worst possible scenario. Add VIP to the picture and you could see why they wouldn't want to pry too hard.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Get a callback from Mr. Carmeli yet?”
“Nope. And I can't wait to tackle that one. Little old moi crashing the halls of diplomacy.”
The image made me smile.
“What?” he said. “The tie?”
The tie was a limp, narrow strip of blue-green pseudosilk, too short to stretch the hump of his belly and flipped-up at the tip. Perfect with the beige-and-black-striped shirt and the faded olive sportcoat.
I used to think he didn't know better but a month ago, Robin and I had gone with him to the art museum and he had looked at the pictures the way someone who understands pictures does, talking about how much he liked the Ashcan painters, why Fauvism stank because of the vulgar colors. After all these years I was beginning to suspect the way he dressed was intentional. A distraction, so people would think him inept.
“The tie,” I said, “could cause an international incident. Why, are you planning a drop-in?”
“You know me. Mr. Spontaneous.”
“Soon as possible. Want to come along? No doubt you've got a diplomatically correct foulard- in fact, do you have one to lend me? More orange juice, too, long as you're up.”
I lent him a conservative paisley and we took the unmarked.
The Israeli Consulate was on Wilshire near Crescent Heights, on the top floor of a faceless seventeen-story tower. The first three floors were parking lot and Milo drove in, ignored the WAIT FOR VALET sign, and pulled into a space near the elevator. Pocketing the keys, he shoved a bill at the flustered attendant, flashed his badge, and called out, “Have a nice day.”
We rode up. The interior halls were narrow, white, free of decoration, topped by a low, gray, water-spotted acoustical ceiling. The carpeting was mint green with a faint dot pattern. Both needed cleaning and wallpaper seams had come loose in spots. Lots of doors, mostly white and blank.
At the end of the corridor was a TV camera aimed at the last door. A brown plastic sign announced the presence of the consulate and the Israeli tourist office and spelled out hours for visa applications. Just to the right was another plaque- the blue-and-white Israeli flag- and below that a plate-glass window with a steel document tray, a call button, and a speaker.
A young black-haired man in a blue blazer, white shirt, and tie sat behind the glass. His features were sharp and his hair was thick and cropped to the skull. He was reading a magazine and didn't look up until Milo pushed the button.
“Do you have an appointment?” Middle Eastern accent.
Milo produced the badge again.
“Drop it in, please.”
The badge hit the tray and slid into the reception booth. A steel shutter dropped over the slot. The guard inspected the badge, looked at Milo, held up a finger, got up, and disappeared. The magazine was Sports Illustrated.
Behind the booth was a nest of white cubicles and I could see two women and one man working at computers. A few travel posters hung on the walls. Everything looked just a bit off- cloudy. Refracted through the inch-thick glass.
The young man came back a moment later. “He's in a meeting-”
“This is about-”
The young man smiled and held up a finger again. “But,” he said, “he'll be out soon.”
He sat down and returned to the world of soccer.
“Doing us a big favor,” mumbled Milo.
A low-pitched whine sounded above. The camera rotated, aiming at us.
Milo pushed the button again and the young man looked up.
“Mr. Carmeli has it.”
We stood in the hall as the guard read. A heavy black woman in blue blazer and gray slacks came from around the corner and walked down the hall, glancing at doors. She saw us and turned around.
Three minutes passed, four, five. The guard picked up a phone, listened, put it back down.
Five more minutes until one of the white doors opened and a tall, pale man came out into the corridor. Stooped, with round shoulders, he wore a gray nailhead double-breasted suit, baby blue shirt, and maroon tie. The shirt's collar was too big and the suit bagged. His cheeks were sunken and the bones of his hawk face were oversized and painfully obvious. Wavy brown hair was neatly trimmed and thinning at the crown. He wore heavy, black-framed eyeglasses.
Handshakes were cursory. His fingers were long and very cold. The glasses were bifocals. Thirty-eight but he looked ten years older.
Milo started to speak but Carmeli interrupted him by returning the badge and turning to point down the hall. Leading us to another of the white doors, he unlocked it and motioned us into a windowless room set up with a brown sofa, Danish teak coffee table with brass ashtray, a pair of chrome and brown-tweed armchairs.
Blue carpeting, still nothing on the walls. Behind the couch was another white door, double-bolted.
Milo and I took the chairs as Carmeli relocked the outer door. Reaching in his coat, he placed a hardpack of Dunhills and a matchbook that said LEARN AT HOME TO BE A COURT REPORTER on the table.
He sat down on the couch and lit up, inhaling for a long time while studying the grain of the tabletop. His movements were slow and steady, as if everything required careful planning. He kept smoking, finally looked at us. His eyes were as black as the eyeglass frames, still and flat as a stain. The room fogged with nicotine, then I heard an air conditioner kick in and smoke began rising toward a duct in the ceiling.
Carmeli hiked his trousers up over black socks. His fingertips were stained amber.
“So,” he said to Milo, “you are the new detective.” Lighter accent than the guard's- Middle East tempered by upper-crust London.
“Milo Sturgis, sir. Pleased to meet you.”
Carmeli glanced at me.
“This is Dr. Delaware,” said Milo. “Our psychological consultant.”
I expected some reaction but Carmeli gave none. Finally he raised the flat, black eyes til they met mine. Another lungful of smoke.
“Good morning, Doctor.”
Everything on delay. Everything an effort. I'd met too many families of dead children to be surprised.
“You will be analyzing the murderer, Doctor?”
“And anything else that bears analyzing,” said Milo.
Carmeli didn't react.
“We're sorry for your loss, sir.”
“Have you learned anything?”
“Not yet, sir, I just got the files. I thought I'd start by touching base and-”
“Touching base,” said Carmeli, softly. “We are playing baseball… Your predecessors touched base with me, as well. Unfortunately, they struck out.”
Milo didn't answer.
The cigarette was only half-smoked but Carmeli crushed it out. Both of his feet were flat on the ground. He drew them closer to the couch and his knees pointed sharply through his trousers. The shirt collar at least one full size too big, his Adam's apple unusually sharp-edged, like a blade threatening to rip through his neck. A thin man who'd lost lots of weight.
New cigarette. I noticed the dark smudges under his eyes, his fingers squeezing the paper cylinder so tightly it was almost an L. The other hand rested on the couch, curled into a fist.
“A no-hitter,” he said. “So… we are touching base. What would you like to know, Mr. Sturgis?”
“First of all, is there anything you want to tell me?”
Carmeli stared at him.
“Anything,” said Milo, “that's occurred to you since Detectives Gorobich and Ramos spoke to you.”
Continuing to stare, Carmeli straightened the bent cigarette, then lit up and shook his head. A very soft “No,” emerged from clenched lips. “Nothing.”
“Then I'll ask a few questions, sir. Please understand that some of them may be repet-”
Carmeli cut him off with a wave of the cigarette. Smoke ribboned. “Ask, ask, Mr. Sturgis.”
“Your work, sir. The Middle East situation. I'm sure you receive threats-”
Carmeli laughed without changing the shape of his mouth. “I'm not James Bond, Detective. My title is deputy consul for community liaison. Did your predecessors tell you what that means?”
“They said something about organizing events. The Israel Independence Day parade.”
“Parades, Israel-bond luncheons, meetings at synagogues, talking to Hadassah ladies- do you know what Hadassah is?”
“Dear ladies,” said Carmeli. “Lovely people who plant trees in Israel. When wealthy donors want to have lunch with the consul general, I arrange it. When the prime minister comes to town to meet with the wealthiest of donors, I organize his itinerary. Double-O-Eight. License to cater.”
The free hand shot through his thinning hair.
“So you're saying you never encounter-”
“I'm saying there's nothing controversial or dangerous about my work, Mr. Sturgis. I'm saying what happened to my daughter had nothing to do with my work or my wife's work or our family and I don't understand why the police simply can't accept that.”
His voice had risen but remained soft. He leaned his head to the right as if loosening a neck kink. The black eyes were unflinching. He smoked some more, hungrily.
“Then again,” he said, “I've dealt with your department in the course of my duties.”
Instead of elaborating, Carmeli smoked aggressively.
“Sometimes,” said Milo, “we have to be annoying to do our job properly.”
“Yes, I'm afraid. Asking the same questions over and over.”
“Ask whatever you please but if you persist in emphasizing my work the answer will be the same: I'm a bureaucrat. No exploding pens.”
“Still, sir. Being Israeli, you have enemies-”
“Two hundred million of them. Though we're now on the road to peace, right?” Now, Carmeli smiled.
“Then how can you be sure this wasn't political? Despite your duties, you're a representative of the Israeli government.”
Carmeli didn't answer for several moments. Looking at his shoes, he rubbed the toe of the left one. “Political crimes are based upon hatred and the Arabs hate us. And there are thousands of Arabs in this city, some of them with strong political views. But the goal of even the most violent terrorist is to send a message in a way that will attract attention. Not one dead child, Mr. Sturgis. A busload of children. Copious amounts of blood, disarticulated limbs, TV cameras recording every agonized cry. Bombs that make noise, Mr. Sturgis. Literally and figuratively. Several years ago when the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank discovered that throwing rocks at our soldiers made them international heroes they began phoning the wire services to give journalists advance notice of impending riots. Once the film crews showed up…” He clapped his hands and ash scattered, landing on the table, his trousers, the floor.
“Your predecessors, Detective, informed me that the… crime was unusual in its lack of violence. Do you agree with that?”
Carmeli said, “That alone convinces me there was nothing political about it.”
“That alone?” said Milo. “Is there something else that convinces you?”
“Interpreting my phrasing, Mr. Sturgis? I thought he was the psychologist- speaking of which, have you developed any theories, yet, Doctor?”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Are we dealing with a madman?”
I glanced at Milo. He nodded.
“Outwardly,” I said, “the killer probably looks quite sane.”
“He's a mess. But clinically he's not mad, Mr. Carmeli. More likely he's what we call a psychopath- someone with a serious character disorder. Self-centered, lacking normal emotional responses, no empathy, an incomplete conscience.”
“Incomplete? He has a conscience?”
“He knows right from wrong but chooses to ignore the rules when it suits him.”
He rubbed his shoe again and sat up. The black eyes narrowed. “You're describing evil- and you're telling me he could be any man on the street?”
“Why does he kill, Doctor? What's in it for him?”
“Relief of tension,” I said.
He flinched. Smoked. “Everyone experiences tension.”
“His tension may be especially strong and his wiring's off. But these are just guesses, Mr. Carmeli. No one really understands what leads-”
“What causes this supposed tension?”
A sexual warp, but I didn't say that. “Possibly a gap between who he thinks he is and the way he lives. He may pride himself on being brilliant, believe he's entitled to fame and fortune. But he's probably an underachiever.”
“You're saying he kills to feel competent?”
“It's possible, Mr. Carmeli. But-”
“Killing a child makes him feel competent?”
“Killing makes him feel powerful. As does eluding capture.”
“But why a child?”
“At root, he's a coward, so he preys upon the weak.”
His head snapped back, as if struck. The cigarette shook and he jammed it into his mouth. Smoking, he played with a cuff button, stared at me again. “As you said, these are guesses.”
“But if there's any truth to them, the killing won't stop, will it? Because his tension won't simply disappear.”
“Also,” said Carmeli, “he may have murdered before.” He turned to Milo. “If that's so, why haven't the police discovered similar crimes?”
His voice had risen and the words tumbled out. Snubbing out the second cigarette, he used his index finger to shape the ashes on the table into a thin gray line.
Milo said, “This may be a beginning, sir. A first crime.”
“The killer began with my Irit?”
“Why?” said Carmeli, suddenly plaintive. “Why Irit?”
“We don't know yet, sir. That's one of the reasons I'm here to-”
“How extensively have you looked for other murders, Mr. Sturgis?”
“Very extensively, but we're still in the process-”
“The process, the process- your predecessors said there's no central crime computer in California. I was incredulous so I checked. And verified it.” Carmeli shook his head. “Absurd. Your department claims to be… Israel has a population of five million and our crime situation is much less severe than yours and we centralize our files. Excepting political incidents, we experience fewer than a hundred murders per year. That's comparable to a busy weekend in Los Angeles, right?”
Milo smiled. “Not quite.”
“A bad month, then. According to the mayor's office, Los Angeles had one thousand and four murders last year. Other American cities are even worse. Thousands and thousands of murders in this vast country. Without centralized files how can you hope to access information?”
“It's tough, sir. We do have some central-”
“I know, I know, the FBI,” said Carmeli. “NCIC, various state logs, I know. But reporting procedures are slipshod and inconsistent and there's tremendous variation from city to city.”
Milo didn't answer.
“It's chaos, isn't it, Detective? You really don't know if similar crimes have occurred and you're unlikely to ever know.”
“One thing that might help in that regard, sir, would be publicizing the crime. I understand your reluctance but-”
“Again,” said Carmeli, clenching his jaws. “Back to me. Us. What could you possibly expect to gain by publicizing the crime other than subjecting my family to more pain and possibly endangering the children of my colleagues?”
“Endangering them how, Mr. Carmeli?”
“Either by inspiring the murderer to kill another Israeli child or giving someone else ideas- go after the Zionists. At that point, we would be feeding terrorist fantasies.” He shook his head again. “No, there's no point, Mr. Sturgis. Besides, if this killer has struck before, it's been somewhere other than Los Angeles, right?”
“Why do you say that, Mr. Carmeli?”
“Because surely, even with your slipshod procedures, you would have heard about it, no? Surely child murders aren't that routine, even in Los Angeles.”
“No murders are routine to me, sir.”
“So you'd know if there were others, wouldn't you?”
“Assuming the crime was reported.”
Carmeli squinted in confusion. “Why wouldn't it be?”
“Many crimes aren't. Murders that look like accidents often aren't.”
“But the death of a child!” said Carmeli. “Are you telling me there are places in this city where parents wouldn't report the death of a child?”
“There are, sir,” said Milo, softly. “Because many child homicides are committed by parents.”
Carmeli went white.
Milo began to rub his face but stopped himself. “What I'm saying, sir, is that we can't assume anything at this point, and going public could jog someone's memory. A crime that was similar in some crucial way could emerge. Maybe years ago, maybe in another city. Because if we get good media coverage, the exposure would reach other cities. But I can also see your point about the danger. And to be honest, I can't promise it would do any good.”
Carmeli breathed rapidly several times and placed his hands on the couch. “Your honesty is… laudable. Now I will be frank with you: not a chance. The risk-outcome ratio isn't good, I won't have another child's death on my conscience. So what other avenues will you pursue?”
“I'll ask lots of questions. Could I ask you a few more?”
“Yes,” said Carmeli, weakly. He reached for a third cigarette, picked up the matchbook but didn't light up immediately. “But if they're about our family life, I'll simply tell you what I told the others: We were happy. A happy family. We never appreciated how happy we were.”
The black eyes closed, then opened. Flat no longer. Something burned within.
“Back to the political issue for a second, sir,” said Milo. “No doubt the consulate gets threats. Do you save them?”
“I'm sure we do but that's not my area.”
“Do you have any objection to turning over copies?”
“I can ask.”
“If you tell me whose area it is, I'll be happy to ask, myself.”
“No, I'll do it.” Carmeli's hand began to shake. “Your comment. About parents killing their own children. If you were implying-”
“I wasn't. Of course not, please forgive me if I offended you. I was just explaining why some crimes don't get reported.”
The black eyes were now moist. Carmeli removed his glasses and wiped them with the back of one hand. “My daughter was- a very special girl. Raising her was challenging and I believe we loved her more because of it. We never hurt her. Never lifted a finger against her. If anything we spoiled her. Thank God we spoiled her!”
He put the glasses back on, slapped his hands back down on the couch. “What other questions do you have?” Hardened voice.
“I'd like to know more about Irit, Mr. Carmeli.”
“In what way?”
“The kind of child she was, her personality. The things she liked and disliked.”
“She liked everything. A very agreeable child. Kind, happy, always laughing, always wanting to help. I assume you've got Gorobich's files?”
“Then I don't need to go over the details of her… medical condition. As a baby she had a fever that did damage.”
Slipping his hand under his jacket he drew out a large calfskin billfold. Inside were slots for credit cards. A photo sat in the first one and he slipped it out and showed it to us without relinquishing it.
Wallet-sized headshot of a beautiful, smiling child in a white dress with puff sleeves. Jewish star necklace. The same fair, curly hair and flawless skin, the same face… a mature face, no outward sign of retardation. In the death picture she'd looked younger. In this one, sparked by the joy of life, she could have been anywhere from twelve to seventeen.
“This was Irit, Detective. Not the images in your files.”
“How long ago was this taken?” said Milo.
“This year. At school.”
“Could I have a copy?”
“If I can find one.” Carmeli pulled the snapshot back, protectively, and returned it to the billfold.
“Did she have friends, sir?”
“Of course. At school. Children her own age were too… quick for her.”
“What about friends in the neighborhood?”
“Any older kids who'd bothered or bullied her?”
“Why? Because she was different?”
“No,” said Carmeli. “Irit was sweet. She got along with everybody. And we sheltered her.”
He blinked hard, lit up.
Milo said, “How hard of hearing was she?”
“She had no hearing in the right ear, about thirty-percent function in the left.”
“With or without the hearing aid?”
“With. Without the aid she could barely hear at all, but she seldom used it.”
“She didn't like it, complained it was too loud, gave her headaches. We had it adjusted several times but she never liked it. Actually I-”
He buried his face in his hands.
Milo sat back. Now, he rubbed his face.
A moment later, Carmeli sat up. Inhaling the third cigarette, he talked through the smoke.
“She tried to deceive us about it. Wearing it when she left the house, then pulling it out the moment she got on the school bus. Or if not then, in class. Or losing it- we went through several replacements. We had her teachers make sure she wore it. So she began leaving it in her ear but switching it off. Sometimes she remembered to switch it back on when she came home but usually she didn't, so we knew- she was a sweet child, Mr. Sturgis. Innocent, not good at sneaking. But she did have a will. We tried reasoning with her, bribing her. Nothing worked. Finally, we came to the conclusion that she preferred not hearing. Being able to shut the world out, create her own world. Does that make sense to you, Doctor?”
“Yes, I've seen that,” I said.
“My wife has, too. She's a teacher. In London she worked at a school for special children, said many kids with problems enter their own private worlds. Still, we wanted Irit to know what was going on around her. We never stopped reminding her to use it.”
“So that day,” said Milo, “even though she was wearing it, you don't know if it was switched on.”
“My guess would be that it was off.”
Milo thought, rubbed his face again. “Thirty percent in one ear at best. So even with the aid, it's likely she couldn't hear much of what was going on around her.”
“No, not much.” Carmeli smoked and sat straighter.
“Was Irit very trusting?” I said.
He took a deep breath. “You need to understand, Doctor, that she grew up in Israel and in Europe, where things are much safer and children are much freer.”
“Israel's safer?” said Milo.
“Much safer, Mr. Sturgis. Your media play up the occasional incident, but outside of political terrorism, violence is very low. And in Copenhagen and London, where we lived later, she was also relatively free.”
“Despite being the child of a diplomat?” I said.
“Yes. We lived in good neighborhoods. Here in Los Angeles, a good neighborhood means nothing. Nothing prepared us for this city- certainly, Irit was trusting. She liked people. We taught her about strangers, the need to be cautious. She said she understood. But she was- in her own way she was very smart. But also young for her age- her brother is only seven but in some ways he was the older child. More… sophisticated. He's a very gifted boy… Would Irit have gone with a stranger? I'd like to think no. Am I sure?” He shook his head.
“I'd like to speak to your wife,” said Milo. “We'll be talking to your neighbors, as well. To find out if anyone noticed anything unusual on your street.”
“No one did,” said Carmeli. “I asked them. But go ahead, ask them yourself. In terms of my wife, however, I insist on drawing some ground rules: You may not imply in any way that she could be responsible, the way you implied with me.”
“Do I make myself clear, Detective?”
His voice was loud, again, and his narrow torso had tensed, the shoulders up, as if he was prepared to strike out.
“Sir,” said Milo, “I have no intention of adding to your wife's stress and I'm sorry if I offended you-”
“Not a hint,” said Carmeli. “I won't permit you to speak to her, otherwise. She has experienced enough pain in her life. Do you understand?”
“I'll be present when you speak to her. And you may not talk to my son. He's too young, has no business with the police.”
Milo didn't answer.
“You don't like this,” said Carmeli. “You think I'm being… obstructionistic. But it's my family, not yours.”
He sprang up, stood at attention, eyes fixed on the door. A dignitary at a boring but important function.
We rose, too.
“When can we meet Mrs. Carmeli?” said Milo.
“I'll call you.” Carmeli strode to the door and held it open. “Be brutally honest, Mr. Sturgis. Do you have any hope of finding this monster?”
“I'll do my best, Mr. Carmeli, but I deal in details, not hope.”
“I see… I'm not a religious man, never attend synagogue except for official business. But if there is a life after death I'm fairly certain I'm going to heaven. Do you know why?”
“Because I've already been to hell.”
Descending in the elevator, Milo said, “That room. Wonder if Gorobich and Ramos merited his private office.”
“Putting some distance between the murder and his work?”
“Distance is a big issue for him, isn't it?”
“Can you blame him?” I said. “Losing a child is bad enough without attributing it to your career choice. I'm sure he considered the political angle right from the beginning. The entire consulate probably did, and they decided it wasn't a factor. As you said, if they thought it was, they'd handle it themselves. And what Carmeli said about terrorism as attention-seeking backs that up. The same thing applies to counterterrorism: Send a message. Someone's out for your kids, come down hard and fast and with enough publicity to provide strong deterrence. And something else: Carmeli's demeanor wasn't that of a man who's achieved even the slightest closure. He's hurting, Milo. Starving for answers.”
He frowned. “And we haven't given him any. Maybe that's another reason he doesn't like the department.”
“What do you mean?”
“That crack about having worked with us before. Someone probably screwed up on his parade or something. Sticking with the baseball analogies, I'm starting out with two strikes against me.”
The car was where we'd left it. He gave the parking attendant another tip, backed out, and drove down the exit ramp. Traffic was heavy on Wilshire and he waited to turn left.
“That room,” he said, again. “Did you see the way the smoke got sucked up into the ceiling? Maybe he's not James Bond but my Mossad fantasies are taking over and I keep flashing images of secret tunnels up there, all this cloak-and-dagger crap.”
“License to cater,” I said.
“And cynical old me thinks: protesting too much… any other impressions of him?”
“No, just what I said.”
“No special antenna-twang?”
He shrugged. “I can understand his wanting to keep distance between the murder and his job but don't you think he could have been a little more forthcoming? Like volunteering to turn over the consulate's crank mail… not that I blame him, I guess. From his perspective we're clowns who haven't done squat.”
He made the turn.
“Changing the subject,” I said. “The hearing aid. I keep thinking it was left there deliberately. Maybe the killer's telling us that's why he chose her.”
“Telling us? A game-player?”
“There's a gamelike quality to it, Milo. Malignant play. And what Carmeli told us about Irit's turning off the hearing aid, retreating to her own private world, would have made her a perfect target. For children, private worlds often mean overt self-stimulation: fantasizing, talking to themselves, strange-looking body movements. The killer could have watched and seen all that: first the hearing aid, then Irit wandering away from the others, acting preoccupied, lost in fantasy. He pulled her out of her script and into his.”
“Wandered off,” he said. “So maybe we're just talking real bad luck.”
“A mixture of bad luck and victim characteristics.”
A moment later something else hit me.
“There's a whole other possibility,” I said. “It was someone who knew her. Knew that even when she wore the aid, she turned it off and was easy to sneak up on.”
He drove slowly, jaws knotted, squinting at more than sun-glare. We traveled for three blocks before he spoke.
“So back to the old acquaintance list. Teachers, the bus driver. And neighbors, no matter what Carmeli says. I've seen too many girls brutalized by supposed friends and acquaintances. The wholesome kid down the block who up til then only cut up cats and dogs when no one was looking.”
“That why you asked about bullies in the neighborhood?”
“I asked because at this point I don't know what else to ask. But yeah, the thought did occur to me that someone could have had it in for her. She was retarded, deaf, Jewish, Israeli. Choose your criterion.”
“Someone had it in for her but took care not to violate the body?”
“He's twisted. You're the shrink.” His voice was husky with irritation.
I said, “The M.O. files you gave me didn't classify by victim characteristic other than age and sex. If you can get hold of the information, I'd look into murders of deaf people. Handicapped people, in general.”
“Handicapped defined how, Alex? Lots of our bad guys and their victims wouldn't win any IQ contests. Is a dope fiend who OD's and blasts himself into a coma handicapped?”
“How about deaf, blind, crippled. Documented retardation, if that doesn't get too unwieldly. Victims under eighteen and strangled.”
He put on speed. “That kind of information is obtainable. Theoretically. Given enough time and shoe leather and cops from other jurisdictions who cooperate and have decent memories and keep decent records. That's for L.A. County. If the killer's new to the region, did the same thing two thousand miles away, the chances dwindle. And we already know from Gorman's letter that nothing about the crime tipped off the FBI computers, meaning there's no VICAP match. Even if we do find another case, it'll be unsolved. And if the bastard swept up just as thoroughly, we're not any further along, forensically.”
“Pessimism,” I said, “is not good for the soul.”
“Sold my soul years ago.”
“The bitch goddess Success. Then she cut town before paying off.” He shook his head and laughed.
“Guy gets his statistics straight from the mayor's office. You see any career boost coming out of this one?”
“Let's put it this way,” I said. “No.”
He laughed harder.
“Your honesty is laudatory, Doctor.”
At Robertson he stopped at a red light and touched his ear.
“Her own little world,” he said. “Poor kid.”
A few moments later: “Hear no evil.”
That night I didn't sleep much. Robin heard me tossing and asked what was wrong.
“Too much caffeine.”
The neighborhood was worse than he remembered.
Nice houses on his friend's street. Big, by his standards, most of them still decently maintained, at least from what he could see in the darkness. But to get there he'd passed through boulevards lined with pawnshops, liquor stores, and bars. Other businesses, to be sure, but at this hour they were all shuttered and the street was given over to girls in minimal clothing and guys drinking out of paper bags.
Night sounds: music, car engines, laughter now and then, rarely happy. People hanging out on corners or half-concealed in the shadows. Dark-skinned people, with nothing to do.
He was glad the Toyota was small and inconspicuous. Even so, occasionally someone stared as he passed.
Watching him, hands in pockets, slouching.
The half-naked girls paraded up and down or just stood at the curb, their pimps out of eyeshot but no doubt waiting.
He knew all about that kind of thing. Knew all the games.
His friend had told him not to be shocked and he'd come equipped, the nine-millimeter out of its box beneath the seat and tucked on the left side of his waistband where he could draw it out quickly with his gun hand.
His gun hand… nice way to put it.
So here he was, reasonably ready for surprises, but, of course, the key was not to be surprised.
Suddenly his thoughts were drowned out by music from a passing car. Big sedan, chassis so low it nearly scraped the asphalt. Kids with shaved heads bobbing up and down. Throbbing bass beat. Not music. Words. Chanting- shouting to electric drums.
Ugly, angry rant that passed for poetry.
Someone shouted and he looked around and checked his rearview mirror.
A siren shrieked in the distance. Got louder.
The ultimate danger.
He pulled to the curb and an ambulance passed and Dopplered to silence.
Silence had been Irit's world.
Had she been cued into some internal universe, able to feel the vibrations of her own heartbeat?
He'd been thinking about her all day and into the night, imagining and supposing and replaying the scene. But when he began the drive to his friend's house he forced himself to stop because he needed to concentrate on the present.
Still, so many distractions. This city… this neighborhood, all the changes.
Don't be shocked.
He turned off onto a night-black side street, then another, and another, until he found himself in a completely different world: dim, silent, the big houses austere as bureaucrats.
His friend's house looked the same, except for the FOR SALE sign staked in front.
It was good he'd caught him in time.
He pulled into the driveway, behind the dark van.
Touching the gun, he looked around again, got out, alarmed the car, and walked up the flower-lined pathway to the paneled front door.
Ringing the bell, he uttered his name in response to the shouted “Who is it?”
The door opened and he got a face full of smile.
He stepped in and the two of them embraced briefly. To his friend's left was an old mahogany mail table against the wall. On it, a large manila envelope.
“Yeah, that's it.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem. Got time to come in? Coffee?”
“Sure. Thanks for that, too.”
His friend laughed and they went into the kitchen of the big house.
The envelope in his hand, stiff and dry.
The guy had come through. Taking risks.
But when had anything worthwhile ever come easy?
He sat and watched as his friend poured coffee, saying, “Easy drive over?”
“Good. Told you it got bad.”
“Yeah, but they rarely improve. So… you're back in the game. From the looks of it we've got plenty to talk about.”
“That we do.”
The hand stilled. “Black, right?”
“Not as good as it used to be.” The hand paused again. “Maybe that's for the better.”
“It's affecting my work,” said Helena. “I see a suicide attempt wheeled into the E.R. and I want to scream, Idiot! I watch the surgeons open a gunshot wound and start thinking about Nolan's autopsy… he was so healthy.”
“You read the report?”
“I called the coroner until someone spoke to me. I guess I was hoping they'd find something- cancer, some rare disease- anything to justify it. But he was in the pink, Dr. Delaware… he could have lived a long time.”
She began crying. Pulled a tissue from her purse before I could get to the box. “The damn thing is,” she said, catching her breath, “I've thought about him more in the last few weeks than all the years before combined.”
She'd come straight from the hospital, still wearing her uniform, the white dress tailored to her trim frame, her nametag still pinned.
“I feel guilty, dammit. Why should I feel guilty? I never failed him because he never needed me. We didn't depend on each other. We both knew how to take care of ourselves. Or at least I thought so.”
“Always. Even when we were little kids we went our separate ways. Different interests. We didn't fight, we just ignored each other. Is that abnormal?”
I thought of all the genetically linked strangers who'd passed through my office. “Siblings are thrown together by chance. Anything from love to hate can follow.”
“Well, Nolan and I loved each other- at least I know I loved him. But it was more of a- I don't want to say family obligation. More of a… general bond. A feeling. And I loved his good qualities.”
She crumpled the tissue. The first thing she'd done upon arriving was hand me insurance forms. Then she'd talked about the coverage, the demands of her job- taking time to get around to Nolan.
“Good qualities,” I said.
“His energy. He had a real-” She laughed. “I was actually going to say “love for life.' His energy and his intelligence. When he was young- eight or nine- the school tested him because he was goofing off in class. Turned out he was highly gifted- something like the top half-percent and he'd been tuning out because he was bored. I'm not stupid, but I'm not even remotely in that league… maybe I'm the lucky one.”
“Being gifted was a burden for him?”
“It's crossed my mind. Because Nolan didn't have much patience and I think that had to do with his intelligence.”
“No patience for people?”
“People, things, any process that moved too slowly. Once again, this was back when he was a teenager. He may have mellowed when he was older. I remember him always railing about something. Mom telling him, “Honey, you can't expect the world to go at your pace,- could that be why he became a cop? To fix things fast?”
“If he did that could have been a problem, Helena. There are very few fast fixes in cop work. Just the opposite: Cops see problems that never get solved. Last time you said something about conservative political views. That could have led him to police work.”
“Maybe. Although, once again, that's the last phase I knew about. He could have been into something completely different.”
“He changed philosophies often?”
“All the time. There were times he outliberaled Mom and Dad, radical, really. Just about a Communist. Then he swung back the other way.”
“Was all this in high school?”
“I think it was after the satanic phase- probably his senior year. Or maybe his freshman year in college. I remember his reading Mao's Little Red Book, reciting from it at the table, telling Mom and Dad they thought they were progressive but they were really counterrevolutionary. Then for a while he got into Sartre, Camus, all that existential stuff, the meaninglessness of life. One month he tried to prove it by not bathing or changing his clothes.” She smiled. “That ended when he decided he still liked girls. The next phase was… I think it was Ayn Rand. He read Atlas Shrugged and got totally into individualism. Then anarchy, then libertarianism. Last I heard he'd decided Ronald Reagan was a god, but we hadn't talked politics for years so I don't know where he ended up.”
“Sounds like adolescent searching.”
“I guess it was, but I never went through it. Always middle-of-the-road. The boring child.”
“How'd your parents react to Nolan's changes?”
“They were pretty cool about it. Tolerant. I don't think they really ever understood Nolan but I never saw them put him down.” She smiled. “Sometimes it was funny- the passion he put into each new phase. But we never made fun.”
She crossed her legs.
“Maybe the reason I never went through any of that was I felt Nolan was so unpredictable that I owed it to Mom and Dad to be stable. Sometimes it did seem that the family was divided into two segments: the three of us, and Nolan. I always felt close to my parents.”
She swiped at her eyes with the tissue. “Even when I was in college I'd go places with them, go out to dinner with them. Even after I was married.”
“And Nolan wasn't part of that?”
“Nolan stopped hanging out with us when he was twelve. He always preferred to be by himself, do his own thing. Now that I think about it, he always kept his life private.”
“I guess so. Or maybe he just preferred his own company because he was so smart. Which is another reason becoming a cop seems so strange. Who's more establishment?”
“Cops can be pretty alienated as a group,” I said. “Living with all that violence, the us-them mentality.”
“Doctors and nurses develop an us-them, too, but I still feel part of society.”
“And you don't think Nolan did?”
“Who knows what he felt? But life must have been pretty damn bleak for him to do what he did.”
Her voice was tight, dry as kindling.
“How could he, Dr. Delaware? How could he get to the point where he didn't feel tomorrow was worth waiting for?”
I shook my head.
“Dad's depressions,” she said. “Maybe it's all genetic. Maybe we're just prisoners of our biology.”
“Biology is strong but there are always choices.”
“For Nolan to make that choice he must have been profoundly depressed, wouldn't you say?”
“Men sometimes do it when they're angry.” Cops sometimes do it when they're angry.
“Angry about what? Work? I've been trying to find out more about his work record, see if he went through any bad work situations. I called the police department to get hold of his file and they referred me to his original training officer, a Sergeant Baker. He's at Parker Center, now. He was nice enough, said Nolan had been one of his best trainees, there'd been nothing out of the ordinary, he couldn't understand it either. I also went after Nolan's medical records, contacted the department insurance office and used some of my nursing skills to pry them loose. Back when I was still hoping for a disease. Nolan hadn't been treated for any medical conditions but he had seen a psychologist for two months before he died. Up til a week before. So something was wrong. A Dr. Lehmann. Do you know him?”
I shook my head.
“He's got an office downtown. I left him several messages but he hasn't called back. Would you have any problem calling him?”
“No, but he may not break confidentiality.”
“Do dead people have confidentiality?”
“It's an open question but most therapists don't breach even after death.”
“I guess I knew that. But I also know that doctors talk to doctors. Maybe Lehmann would be willing to tell you something.”
“I'll be happy to try.”
“Thank you.” She handed me the number.
“One question that I have, Helena, is why Nolan transferred from West L.A. to Hollywood. Did Sergeant Baker say anything about that?”
“No. I didn't ask him. Why? Is that strange?”
“Most officers consider West L.A. a plum. And Nolan went from the day shift to the night shift. But if he liked excitement, he could have wanted an assignment with more action.”
“Could be. He did like action. Roller coasters, surfing, motorcycling… Why why why, all these whys. It's stupid to keep asking questions that can't be answered, isn't it?”
“No, it's normal,” I said, thinking of Zev Carmeli.
She laughed, a jarring sound. “I saw this cartoon in the paper, once. That Viking, Hagar the Horrible? He's standing on a mountaintop, with rain and lightning all around, holding his hands up to the heavens, shouting, “Why me?' And down from the heavens comes the answer: “Why not?' Maybe that's the ultimate truth, Dr. Delaware. What right do I have to expect a smooth ride?”
“You have a right to ask questions.”
“Well, maybe I should do more than ask. There's still Nolan's stuff to go through. I've been putting it off, but I should start.”
“When you're ready.”
“I'm ready now. After all, it's all mine, now. He left everything to me.”
She made an appointment for next week and left. I called Dr. Roone Lehmann's number and gave my name to his service, asking for the office address.
“Seventh Street,” said the operator, reciting a number that put it near Flower, in the heart of the downtown financial district. Unusual location for a therapist but if he got lots of referrals from LAPD and other government agencies, I guess it made sense.
Just as I hung up, Milo called, his voice charged with some kind of energy.
“Got another case. Retarded girl, strangled.”
“Not from the files, Alex. I'm talking brand-new, here and now. Caught the radio call a few minutes ago and I'm headed over to Southwest Division- Western near Twenty-eighth. If you come by now you might get a look at the body before they take it away. It's a school. Booker T. Washington Elementary.”
Southwest Division was twenty miles and a universe away from the park where Irit Carmeli had lost her life. I took Sunset to La Cienega, headed south down San Vicente, and picked up the Santa Monica Freeway east at La Brea. Exiting at Western, I covered the next few blocks of inner city with relative speed. Few cars were on the street as I passed shuttered buildings and burned-out lots that hadn't been rebuilt since the riots and maybe never would be. The sky was very pale gray, almost white, looked as if it had given up on blue.
Washington Elementary was old, dun-colored, and cruelly graffitied. Set on acres of potholed playground, the entire property was surrounded by twelve-foot chain-link fencing that hadn't prevented vandals from pretending they were artists.
I parked on Twenty-eighth, near the main gate. Wide open but guarded by a uniform. Squad cars, technical vans, and the coroner's station wagon had converged at the south end of the playground, between the monkey bars and the swings. Yellow tape divided the lot in two. On the northern half children ran and played under the eyes of teachers and aides. Most of the adults watched the activity across the field. Few of the kids did and the yard was filled with laughter and protest, the scrappy doggerel of childhood.
No media cars, yet. Or maybe a murder down here just wasn't good enough copy.
It took a while to get past the uniform but finally I was allowed to make my way to Milo.
He was talking to a gray-haired man in an olive suit and writing in his notepad. A stethoscope hung around the other man's neck and he talked steadily, without visible emotion. Two black men with badges on their sportcoats stood twenty feet away, looking at a figure on the ground. A photographer snapped pictures and techs worked under the swing set with a portable vacuum, brushes, and tweezers. Other uniforms crowded the scene but they didn't seem to have much to do. Among them was a short, bearded Hispanic man around fifty, wearing gray work clothes.
As I came closer, the black detectives stopped chatting and watched me. One was fortyish, five nine and soft-heavy, with a head shaved clean, bulldog jowls, and a dyspeptic expression. His jacket was beige over black trousers and his tie was black printed with crimson orchids. His companion was ten years younger, tall and slim with a bushy mustache and a full head of hair. He wore a navy blazer, cream slacks, blue tie. Both had analytic eyes.
Milo saw me and held up a finger.
The black detectives resumed their conversation.
I took a look at the dead girl on the field.
Not much bigger than Irit. Lying the same way Irit had been positioned, hands to the sides, palms up, feet straight out. But this face was different: swollen and purplish, tongue extending from the lower left corner of the mouth, the neck circled by a red, puckered ring of bruise.
Her age was hard to make out but she looked in her teens. Black, wavy hair, broad features, dark eyes, some acne on the cheeks. Light-skinned black, or Latino. She wore navy sweatpants and white tennis shoes, a short denim jacket over a black top.
The eyes open, staring sightlessly at the milk-colored sky.
The tongue lavender-gray, huge.
Behind her, a foot of rope hung from the top bar of the swing set, the end cut cleanly. No breeze, no movement.
The coroner left and Milo approached the black detectives while waving me over. He introduced the heavy one as Willis Hooks, his partner as Roy McLaren.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Hooks. His hand was baked leather.
McLaren nodded. He had clear, nearly coal-black skin, and clean features. Turning back to look at the dead girl, he set his jaw and chewed air.
“Was she left that way or cut down?” I said.
“Cut down,” said Milo. “Why?”
“My first thought was she looks like Irit. The position.”
He turned to the body and his eyebrows rose a millimeter.
“Irit's yours?” said Hooks.
Milo nodded. “She was arranged just like that.”
“Well, unless the janitor's our killer I don't see any big deal about that.”
“The janitor cut her down?” I said.
“Uh-huh.” Hooks pulled out his pad. “School custodian, excuse me. Guillermo Montez, that older Mexican guy in the gray uniform. Showed up for work at seven this morning, mopped the main building first then came out here to pick up trash from the yard and found her. Ran back to get a knife and cut her down, but she was dead, had been for several hours. Said the rope was thick, it took work.”
“Dr. Cohen said she'd been dead at least three or four hours by then, maybe more,” said Milo.
“Cohen's usually pretty close,” said McLaren.
“So she was killed sometime during the night,” I said, “but the sun's been out since six. No one driving or walking by saw her?”
“Apparently not,” said Hooks. “Or maybe someone did.” He turned to Milo. “Tell me more about yours.”
Hooks listened with his finger to his mouth. “Apart from the retardation, I don't see any big parallels.” He looked at his partner.
McLaren said, “No, I wouldn't call this gentle strangulation.”
“Ours wasn't raped,” said Milo. “Cohen told me there were no obvious signs of rape with yours, either.”
“So far,” said McLaren. “But who knows. Janitor says her pants were up but maybe the bad guy pulled them up. Coroner'll get in there and let us know for sure.”
“The strangulation,” said Milo. “From the size of the ligature burn, the rope could have actually killed her, as opposed to his doing it some other way first and then stringing her up.”
Hooks said, “Could be. It would be tough stringing up someone who struggled, even a small girl, but if she was flying, maybe. We know she used crack.”
“Who was she?” I said.
“Local girl named Latvinia Shaver,” said Hooks. “Patrol officer ID'd her before we got here, but I know her myself from working Vice a couple of years ago.”
“A pro?” said Milo.
“She's been busted for it, but I wouldn't call her a pro. Just a street girl, nothing cooking up here.” He tapped his bald head. “Nothing to do all day, so she gets into trouble, maybe does some guy for a vial or some spare change.”
“Big crack habit?”
“Patrol officer said nothing big that she was aware of but hold on, let's ask her.”
He went over to the uniforms and pulled a short, slim woman away from the group.
“Officer Rinaldo,” he said, “meet Detective Sturgis and Dr. Delaware, who's a psychological consultant. Officer Rinaldo knew Latvinia.”
“Just a bit,” said Rinaldo, in a subdued voice. “From the neighborhood.” She looked to be twenty-five, with hennaed hair pulled into a ponytail and thin, pained features that seemed to be aging quickly.
“What do you know besides her tricking for dope?” said Hooks.
“Not a bad kid,” said Rinaldo. “Basically. But she was retarded.”
“How retarded?” said Milo.
“I think she was eighteen or nineteen, but she acted more like twelve. Or even younger. The family's pretty messed up. She lives with a grandmother or maybe it's an older aunt, over on Thirty-ninth, people constantly going in and out.”
“I don't know for sure but it wouldn't surprise me. She has a brother up in San Quentin, used to be big in the Tray-One Crips.”
“Don't know that either, sorry. I just remember that 'cause the grandmother told me about him, said she was glad he was gone so Latvinia wouldn't be influenced.”
She frowned. “The lady seemed to be trying.”
Hooks wrote something down.
“Any gangster boyfriends or known acquaintances?” said McLaren.
Rinaldo shrugged. “As far as I could see she didn't hang with anyone in particular. No gang, I mean. More like whoever was around… basically she was pretty promiscuous. She drank, too, 'cause I caught her woozy a few times, with bottles of malt and gin.”
“Bust her for it?”
Rinaldo blushed. “No, I just took it away and tossed it. You know how it is out here.”
“Sure do,” said Hooks. “Anything else in her fun-pack?”
“Probably, but I never saw anything worse- I mean, she didn't shoot heroin, far as I know.”
“She have any kids?”
“Not that I heard about. But maybe, she was pretty easygoing, you know? Easy to con. Like a kid with a grown-up body. So who knows.”
“Be interesting if she was pregnant,” said Hooks. “Can't wait to see the autopsy on this one.” He glanced back at the body. “Not that she's showing. Small lady.”
“Small,” McLaren agreed. “Cohen estimated five one, ninety.”
“Yeah, she was small,” said Rinaldo. “Anyone could have hurt her.”
“Any ideas about who did?”
“Not a one.”
“So no known enemies?”
“Not that I heard. Overall, she was a pretty nice kid, but anyone could have conned her. Like I said, she was retarded.”
“I'm still trying to get a feel for how retarded,” said Hooks.
“I don't know exactly, sir. I mean, she could talk and make sense and at first glance she didn't look weird, but once you talked to her you realized she was immature.”
“Like a twelve-year-old.”
“Maybe even younger. Ten, eleven. Despite all her fooling around she was kinda… innocent.” Another blush. “Not a hard kid, you know?”
“Was she in any program?” said McLaren. “Special school, that kind of thing?”
“I don't think she was in school, period. I just used to see her on the streets, walking around, hanging. Sometimes I had to tell her to get moving, go home.”
She winced. “The thing is, sometimes she didn't put on enough clothes. No underwear or bra and sometimes she'd wear real filmy see-through clothes. Or leave her shirt unbuttoned. When I'd say what on earth are you doing, girl, she'd giggle and button up.”
“Advertising for business?” said McLaren.
“I always thought she was just acting stupid,” said Rinaldo.
“Whether or not she was advertising,” said Hooks, “going around like that, she probably got business.”
“I'm sure,” said Rinaldo.
“No boyfriend,” said McLaren.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“No gangsters in her social life at all?”
“The brother's all I know. You'd have to ask her grandmother.”
“We'll do that,” said Hooks. “What's the home address?”
“Don't know the exact number but it's on Thirty-ninth a couple of blocks east of here. Green house, old, one of those big wooden ones converted to rooms, chain-link fence in front and cement instead of grass. I know because I took her home one time when she had a short dress and no panties. The wind was blowing the dress up and I just wanted to get her inside.” She blinked. “Grandmother's on the second floor.”
“When Latvinia was busted,” said Hooks, “were you the arresting officer?”
“Me and my partner, Kretzer. We pulled her twice for soliciting. Both times she was out late, over on Hoover near the freeway on-ramp, getting in the way of traffic.”
“East ramp or west?”
“Trying to snag a Beverly Hills guy, maybe,” said McLaren.
“When was this?” said Hooks.
“Last year. December, I think. It was cold and she had on a quilted jacket but no top underneath.”
Hooks wrote. “So I can get her personal info from the files.”
“Probably not, it was a juvey bust, sealed. She was just short of eighteen and I told her she was a lucky girl. If it's just the home address you need, I can take you there.”
“The address is a good place to start,” said Hooks. He looked at McLaren. “You want?”
The younger man said, “Sure.”
He and Rinaldo walked away, got into a black-and-white, and drove toward the south gate.
“See any dramatic parallels, yet?” Hooks asked Milo.
“Yours was a diplomat's kid?”
“Nothing in the news on anything like that?”
“They hushed it up.” Milo told him Carmeli's rationale.
“Well,” said Hooks, “he could be right, but I don't know. Sounds like a fun one.”
“Yeah. Where you going with this, Willis?”
“The usual. If we get lucky it'll be some dirt lives next door. If not, who knows? She didn't exactly lead a sheltered life.”
Milo glanced across the yard. “Those kids are looking at the body.”
“Would have been worse if the janitor didn't get here and they saw it swinging.”
“Interesting reaction, his cutting her down.”
Four parallel lines in Hooks's forehead deepened. “Civic volunteerism. Maybe he listens to the mayor's speeches. Hold on.” He made his way halfway to the crowd in a quick, rolling gait, caught the eye of the man in the gray uniform, and motioned him over.
The janitor came over licking his lips.
“If you got a minute again, sir,” said Hooks. “This here is Mr. Montez.”
The custodian nodded. Up close, I saw he was closer to sixty with a prizefighter's battered face and a coarse gray beard. Five seven and broad-shouldered, with thick, stubby hands and oversized feet.
“Detective Sturgis,” said Milo, holding out his hand. Montez shook it. His eyes were bloodshot.
“I know you told your story, sir,” said Milo, “but if you don't mind, I'd like to hear it, again.”
Montez looked up at him and put his hands in his pockets. “I come to work at seven o'clock,” he said, in clear but accented English. “I clean the main building and bungalow B, like always, then I come out to sweep, like always. I sweep early 'cause sometimes people leave shi- things on the yard. I don't want the kids they should see.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Liquor bottles, crack vials. Sometimes condoms, needles. Even used toilet paper. You know.”
“So people get into the schoolyard at night.”
“All the time.” Montez's voice rose. “They get in, do parties, do dope, shootings. Three months ago, three guys got shot dead. Last year, two guys. Terrible for the kids.”
“Who got shot?” said Milo.
“Gangsters, I dunno.”
Hooks said, “Wallace and SanGiorgio's case. Drive-by, through the fence.” Turning back to Montez: “What do they usually do, cut through the lock?”
“The chain. Or they just climb over. All the time.”
“Any idea the last time the chain was cut?” said Milo.
“Who knows,” said Montez. “We used to change the locks all the time. Now… the school they don't have money for books. My grandchildren go here.”
“You live around here, sir?”
“No, I live in Willowbrook. My daughter and her husband, they live here, on Thirty-fourth. The husband, he work over at the Sports Arena. They got three kids- the two here and one baby.”
Milo nodded. “So you came out and started sweeping and saw her.”
“Right away I see her,” said Montez. “Hanging there.” He shook his head and pain danced across his face. “The tongue…” Shaking his head again.
“Did you realize she was dead right away?” said Milo.
“That tongue? Sure, what else?”
“So you cut her down.”
“Sure, why not? I figure maybe…”
Montez stared at him. Licked his lips, again. “Maybe it's stupid, but I dunno, maybe I figure I help her- I dunno, guess it was… the way she was hanging, I didn't want no kids to see it… my grandchildren. And she was always a nice kid, I wanted her to look nice.”
“You knew her?” said Hooks.
“Latvinia? Sure. Everyone know her, she crazy.”
“She came round here a lot?”
“Not inside, on the street.” He tapped his temple. “She live on Thirty-ninth, few blocks from my daughter. Everyone see her walking around, no clothes. A little… not right.”
“No clothes at all?” said Hooks. When Montez looked confused, he added, “She walked around totally naked?”
“No, no,” said Montez. “A little clothes but not enough, you know?” Another tap. “Not right- you know? But happy all the time.”
“Yeah. Laughing.” Montez's eyes hardened. “I do something wrong, cutting her down?”
“I go out, I see her up there, think the kids see that. My grandchildren. Go get a knife from the supply closet.”
He slashed empty space.
“How long have you been working here, sir?” said Milo.
“Nine years. Before that, I worked over at Dorsey High, twelve years. Used to be a good school, there. Same problems now.”
Milo hooked a thumb at the body. “When you saw Latvinia hanging, were her clothes the way they are now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Were her pants up when you saw her hanging?”
“Yeah- what, you think I-”
“No, sir, we're just trying to find out what she looked like when you saw her.”
“The same,” said Montez, angrily. “ 'Zactly the same, pants up, the same. I get a knife, cut her down, and put her on the ground. Maybe a miracle, she not dead. But she dead. I call 911.”
“The way you placed her,” said Milo.
Montez's eyes were uncomprehending.
“Arms at her side,” said Hooks. “Like you wanted her to look nice.”
“Sure,” said Montez. “Why not? Why shouldn't she look nice?”
Hooks let him go and we watched as he returned to the school's main building.
“What do you think?” he asked Milo.
“Any reason to doubt his story?”
“Not really, but I'm going to do a background on him and if the girl was raped, I'll try to get some body fluids.” He smiled. “Some thanks for the good Samaritan, huh? But we've seen plenty of those turn out not so good, right? Thing is, though, if he's the bad guy, why would he do her right here where he works, focus attention on himself.”
“Bloodshot eyes,” said Milo. “Maybe he was up late.”
“Yeah,” said Hooks. “But no booze on his breath and he said he works two jobs. This during the day, part-time at a liquor store on Vermont at night. Says he was at the store last night, that should be checkable. Did he look hinky to you? If he's dirty, he's ready for the Oscar.”
He gazed through the fence at Twenty-eighth Street, then took in the traffic on Western. “Somebody driving or walking by could very well have seen her swinging, but you heard what he said about all the crap goes down on the schoolyard. Unlike Mr. Montez, people around here don't volunteer much.”
“If it was some dirt next door,” said Milo, “wonder why he'd take the trouble to hang her here.”
“Who knows?” said Hooks. “Maybe they ran into each other around the corner, made a date, headed over here to consummate. Montez said he finds condoms all the time.”
“Techs have any idea when the chain was cut?”
“Just that it wasn't fresh, which is also consistent with Montez.”
“The school keeps using a broken chain 'cause the minute they put a new one on, someone slices it.”
“Yeah,” said Hooks. “Nothing like security for our youngsters.” He looked at the body again. “Maybe it does mean something, bringing her here, the bad guy making some kind of statement.”
“I hate school.” Hooks smiled. “That narrows it down, huh? Pull in all the bad students.”
Milo gave a short, hard detective laugh and Hooks laughed, too, fleshy jowls undulating. The four wrinkles smoothed.
“Put your hands up, punk,” he said, making a finger-gun. “Lemme see your grade-point average. Two D's and an F? Off to the lineup.”
He chuckled some more, exhaled. “Anyway, except for strangulation and both being retarded, I still don't see any parallels with your case.”
“Strangulation, retarded, and no rape,” said Milo.
“We don't know for sure if there was no rape,” said Hooks.
“But if there wasn't any- no assault at all- that's interesting, right, Willis? How many sex fiends don't do anything to the body?”
“Maybe. But who knows what goes on in assholes' heads? Maybe hanging her got him off, he watched her dangle, came in his pants, went home, had sweet dreams. I remember one, few years back, guy got off on playing with their feet. Killed 'em first, set 'em up on their beds, played with their feet. That was enough to get him off- what do you think of that, Doctor?”
“Something for everyone,” I said.
“This guy, the foot guy, he didn't even have to yank the monkey. Just playing with the toes did it for him.”
“I had a foot guy, too,” said Milo. “But he didn't kill, just tied 'em up and played.”
“Probably woulda killed if he'd kept on.”
“You could probably sit down and dig up lots of stories about perverted stuff.” Hooks stiffened and shot Milo a quick, embarrassed look. Milo's face remained still. “Anyway, if Mac and I come up with something, we'll let you know.”
A young white cop jogged over.
“Excuse me, Detective,” he said to Hooks. “Coroner's driver wants to know if we can transport the vic.”
“You got anything more you want to do, Milo?”
“Go ahead,” Hooks said. The officer hustled back, delivered the word, and two morgue attendants came forward with a gurney and a black body bag.
I noticed movement from the north end of the playground. A few teachers had come closer to the tape and were watching while drinking coffee.
“School days,” said Hooks. “I was born on Thirty-second. We moved to Long Beach when I was three, otherwise I woulda gone here.”
The attendants got the body into the bag and lifted it on the gurney. As they wheeled her away, the white cop turned his attention to the ground and called over another uniform, a tall black man, even darker than McLaren. Then he jogged back to us.
“It's probably nothing, sir, but you might want to take a look.”
“At what?” said Hooks, already moving.
“Something under the body.”
We followed him over. The black uniform had his arms folded and his eyes were aimed at a small scrap of white paper, maybe two inches square.
“It's probably nothing,” the first cop repeated, “but it was under her and there's something typed on it.”
I saw the letters.
Hooks squatted. “D-V-L-L. That mean anything to anybody?”
The cops looked at one another.
“No, sir,” said the first.
“Maybe the devil,” said the second.
“Any gang using that moniker?”
Shrugs all around.
“And since when do gang bangers type,” muttered Hooks. “Okay, you're the eagle eye, Officer… Bradbury. Do me a favor and check that graffiti on the school buildings over there, see if the same thing comes up anywhere.”
“Yes, sir.” As Bradbury approached the yellow-tape border, the teachers backed away. But they watched as he scanned the graffiti.
“DVLL,” said Hooks. “Mean anything to you, Milo?”
“Me, neither. And seeing as she was laid down by the janitor, it was probably just something lying there on the cement before she got here. Maybe a piece of school memo or something.”
The paper remained motionless in the static, metallic air.
“Should I not bother to tell the techs?” said the black cop.
“No, tell them to bag it, take a picture,” said Hooks. “We wouldn't want to be accused of shoddy police work by some scumbag lawyer, would we?”
Milo drove out to the street and parked behind my Seville.
“Ah,” he said, looking in the rearview mirror. “Finally, the games begin.”
Behind us, a TV van from a local station had just pulled up, disgorging a gear-toting crew that sprinted for the gate. As the uniform checked with Hooks, a small gray car pulled away from the curb and passed us. The driver, Hispanic and wearing the same institutional-gray Montez had on, glanced at us for an instant and continued to Western.
“A diplomat's kid on the West Side and a crack-kid down here,” said Milo. “What do you think?”
“Some physical resemblance between Irit and Latvinia, both of them retarded, death by strangulation, no sexual assault on Irit, no evidence so far of an assault on Latvinia. And the position of the body. But Latvinia wasn't strangled with broad force and the janitor moved her.”
“You like him?”
“Sure. Because he was there. And because he moved her.”
“Sparing the grandchildren,” I said. “Janitors clean up. Janitors use brooms.”
“Something else, Alex: He cuts her down, arranges her respectfully but doesn't tuck the tongue back in her mouth? Hooks asked him about that and he said when he realized she was really dead he didn't want to mess things up. Make sense to you?”
“The average person seeing a hanging body would probably run for the phone. But if Montez is action-oriented, a family man, with strong attachments to the school, it could fit. But so does another scenario: Montez has a date with Latvinia- he admitted knowing her. They meet on the schoolyard because it's his turf. He kills her, hangs her, then realizes students are going to show up soon, maybe there isn't enough time to get rid of the body. So instead he plays hero.”
“Or it was colder: There was enough time to get rid of the body but he left her there because he got off on thumbing his nose at us. On being a hero- thinks he's smart, a pretender, just like you said. Like those firefighters who torch stuff and show up to hold the hose.”
“Another thing,” I said. “Montez wears a uniform. His is gray and the park worker I saw mowing at the conservancy was wearing beige, but someone else might not draw the distinction.”
His eyes narrowed. “Irit.”
“To her it might have connoted someone official. Someone who belonged and could be trusted. Most people relate to uniforms that way.”
“Montez,” he said. “Well, if there's anything to learn about him, Hooks is as good a detective as any.”
“That piece of paper,” I said. “DVLL.”
“Mean something to you?”
“No. I'm sure it's nothing- what Hooks said, a scrap of school memo.”
He turned to me. “What, Alex?”
“It just seemed too cute. Move the body and there it is. Nothing like that was found near Irit. According to the files.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “small things get overlooked.”
He frowned. “You think Montez or whoever killed Latvinia left a message?”
“Or it was in her pocket and fell out, either when she was hung or when Montez cut her down.”
He rubbed his face. “I'll get to the morgue and look at the evidence bags personally. That is, if the stuff hasn't been returned to the family. Speaking of which, Carmeli called me this morning, said he has copies of the consulate crank mail, I should come by and pick them up. I'll do it around five, after I play phone tag to see if anyone's got deaf or retarded victims that look interesting. If I drop the letters off this evening, could you analyze them?”
“Be happy to, for what it's worth. Quick cooperation on Carmeli's part. Attitude adjustment?”
“Maybe he was impressed 'cause I brought along a psychologist.”
“Sure,” I said. “That and the tie.”
I got home at two-thirty. Robin and Spike were out and I drank a beer, went through the mail, paid some bills. Helena Dahl had phoned an hour and a half ago- not long after her session- leaving her work number. And Dr. Roone Lehmann had returned my call.
The Cardiac Care Unit clerk told me Helena was in the middle of a procedure and couldn't come to the phone. Leaving my name, I phoned Lehmann.
This time no service; an answering tape with a low, dry-but-mellow male voice picked up, and as I introduced myself, the same voice clicked in.
“This is Dr. Lehmann.”
“Thanks for getting back to me, Doctor.”
“Certainly. Officer Dahl's sister called, too, but I thought I'd speak with you first. What exactly is she after?”
“Some understanding of why he killed himself.”
“I sympathize,” he said. “Of course. But can we ever really understand?”
“True,” I said. “Did Nolan leave any clues?”
“Was he despondent or profoundly depressed, overtly suicidal or making oblique cries for help? Not when I saw him, Dr. Delaware, but- hold on.”
He was off the line for thirty seconds, came back sounding rushed. “I'm sorry. Something came up and I can't talk at length right now. Not that I could, anyway. Even though the patient's dead and even though the courts have been hacking away at confidentiality, I'm one of those old-fashioned fellows who takes our vows seriously.”
“Is there anything you can tell me that might help her?” I said.
“Anything,” he repeated, drawing out the word. “Hmm… let me think on that- do you ever get downtown? I could give you a few moments. Because I'd rather not discuss these things on the phone. A police case and all that, the current climate. One never knows where the media lurks.”
“Do you see lots of police cases?”
“Enough to be cautious. Of course, if it's too much of a problem to drive all the way-”
“No problem,” I said. “When?”
“Let me check my calendar- I do want to emphasize that I can't promise anything until I go over the file. And I'd prefer not to speak to the sister directly. Please tell her we talked.”
“Sure. Have you had problems with these types of cases?”
“Not… as a rule. Ounce of prevention and all that- there's something you might want to consider, Doctor. As the sister's therapist. The search for understanding is normal, but the value of digging things up varies from case to case.”
“You don't think this case merits it?”
“What I'm… let's just say Officer Dahl was… an interesting fellow. Anyway, I'll leave it at that, for the moment. I'll be in touch.”
An interesting fellow.
Some dark secret that Helena was better off not knowing?
I thought of what I'd learned about Nolan.
Mood swings, sensation seeking, sudden shifts to political extremes.
Had he stepped over the line- in the course of police work? Something best left unexplored?
Something political- on the fringe?
A police case and all that. The current climate.
Videotaped beatings of suspects, cops sitting around as rioters torched the city, bungling of evidence in major cases, case after case of felonious cops caught in the act. LAPD was as popular as an abortionist at the Vatican.
The media lurking.
Had Lehmann been involved in other cop cases that had left him gun-shy?
Whatever the reason, he was definitely trying to steer me away from a psychological autopsy of Nolan.
The department hadn't argued when Helena had chosen to skip the full-dress funeral.
Eager to move things along?
Nolan, bright, different because he read books.
The switch from West L.A. to Hollywood.
Because he liked action?
Had he gotten himself into something that left suicide the only option?
As I thought about it, Helena phoned, sounding breathless.
“Rushed?” I said.
“Busy. We just had a patient infarct in the middle of an angio. Big artery the cardiologist hadn't known about, he's Roto-Rootering one and the other jams up. But he's okay, the patient, things have quieted down. The reason I called is, right after our session I went over to Nolan's apartment, all motivated to go through his stuff, maybe find something.” She paused and I could hear her inhale and blow it out. “I went to the garage first and it was fine but someone broke into the place, Dr. Delaware. It was a wreck. They took his stereo and his TV, his microwave, all his flatware, a couple of lamps, pictures off the walls. Probably some clothes, too. Someone must have come with a truck and loaded up.”
“Oh, boy,” I said. “I'm sorry.”
“Lowlifes.” Her voice shook. “Scumbags.”
“No one saw anything?”
“They probably did it at night. It's a duplex, just Nolan and the landlord and she's a dentist, out of town at a convention. I called the police and they said it would take at least an hour to get there. I had to be at work by three, so I gave my number and left. What can they do, anyway? Write a report and file it? The damage is already done. Even if the bastards come back, there's nothing to take except… Nolan's car- God, why didn't I think of that! His Fiero. In the garage. Either they didn't see it or they didn't have time and are coming back- God, I've got to go back there, get someone to take me so I can drive the Fiero over to my place… so many things to handle, the lawyer just called me about the final papers… robbing a cop. This damn city… his rent is paid up for the month but eventually I'm going to have to clean everything up and… go back there…”
“Would you like me to go with you?”
“You'd do that?”
“That's so nice, but no, I couldn't.”
“It's okay, Helena. I don't mind.”
“I just- you're serious?”
“Where's the apartment?”
“Mid-Wilshire. Sycamore near Beverly. I can't leave right now, too many iffy patients. Maybe midshift, if we're staffed enough. If they take the damn car before then, fine.”
“I can't impose on you to come out late, Dr. Delaware-”
“It's no problem, Helena. I'm a night person.”
“I'm not sure exactly when I'll be free.”
“Call me when you are. If I'm free, I'll meet you there. If not, you're on your own. Okay?”
She laughed softly. “Okay. Thanks so much. I really didn't want to go alone.”
“Have a minute?” I said.
“Unless someone else starts dying.”
“I spoke with Dr. Lehmann.”
“What'd he say?”
“As we expected, nothing, because of confidentiality. But he did agree to reread Nolan's file and if he comes up with something he feels comfortable discussing, he'll meet with me.”
“That is, if you want me to, Helena.”
“Sure,” she said. “Sure, that's fine. I started, might as well finish.”
Milo chomped a dead cigarillo and carried the consulate crank letters in an oversized, unlabeled white envelope.
“A year's worth,” he said, remaining out on the terrace.
“What do they do with the old ones?”
“Don't know. This is what Carmeli gave me. Or rather, his secretary. Still haven't gotten past the hall, yet. Thanks, Alex. Back to the phones.”
“No luck yet?”
“Lots of callbacks pending. Hooks has started to work on Montez. So far, the guy's clean. Totally. Just to be careful I double-checked the offender files. Nothing. See you.”
He patted my shoulder and turned to leave.
“Milo, are you aware of any scandals brewing in the department? West L.A. or Hollywood, specifically?”
He stopped short. “No. Why?”
“Oh,” he said. “The Dahl kid. Someone bad-mouthed him? Do you know something?”
I shook my head. “I'm probably overreacting, but his therapist implied I shouldn't ask too many questions.”
“Hmm. Nope, nothing that I've picked up. And even though I'm not Mr. Popular if it was something big-time I think I'd know.”
“Yeah… happy analysis.”
I emptied the envelope on my desk. A square of blue paper was stapled to each letter, saying L.A. and listing the date received.
Fifty-four letters, the most recent, three weeks ago, the oldest, eleven months.
Most were short, viciously to the point.
Anonymous. Three main themes.
1. Israelis are Jews and, hence, the enemy because all Jews are part of a capitalist banker/Masonic/Trilateral Commission conspiracy to dominate the world.
2. Israelis are Jews and, hence, the enemy because all Jews are part of a Communist/Bolshevik/cosmopolitan conspiracy to dominate the world.
3. Israelis are the enemy because they're colonial usurpers who stole land from the Arabs and continue to oppress the Palestinians.
Lots of misspellings, more disorganized handwriting than I'd seen in a long time.
The third group- Israel versus the Arabs- contained the most grammatical errors and awkward phrases, and I assumed some of the writers were foreign-born.
Five of the letters in group 3 also carried references to murdered Palestinian children and I set those aside.
But no specific warnings of revenge upon consulate children or other Israelis and no references to DVLL.
I shifted to the envelopes, examining the postmarks. All California. Twenty-nine had been mailed within L.A. County, eighteen from Orange County, six from Ventura, one from Santa Barbara.
Of the five with allusions to children, four were local, one from Orange County.
Another read. Run-of-the-mill racial venom and I couldn't see any way to connect it to Irit.
The office door opened and Robin came in with Spike. As I scratched his neck, her eyes lowered to the letters.
“Fan mail,” I said.
She read a sentence, turned away. “Vile. Were these sent to the girl's father?”
“To the consulate.” I began scooping up the letters.
“Don't quit on my account,” she said.
“No, I'm finished. Dinner?”
“I was going to ask you.”
“I could cook.”
“You want to?”
“Wouldn't mind feeling useful, if you don't mind quick and simple. How about lamb chops? We've got some frozen. I'll steam some corn. Salad, wine, ice cream- the works, babe.”
“Wine and the works? My girlish heart swoons.”
Concentrating on the grill helped me relax. We ate outside, slowly, quietly, and ended up in bed an hour later. At seven-thirty, Robin was in the tub and I lay atop the sheets.
Ten minutes later, Helena called and said, “I can get away, now, but you really don't have to bother.”
I went into the bathroom and told Robin.
“Well,” she said, “you've already done your good deeds here, so why not?”
Sycamore was an attractive, shaded street just west of Hancock Park, full of high-style duplexes dating from the twenties. Nolan Dahl's building was of that vintage, but a plain cousin. White lumpy stucco, no architectural embellishments, narrow windows like wounds, a few yucca plants pushing up against the front window, a fuzzy square of lawn. It gave no hint of falling victim to anything but tight budgeting.
I got there two minutes before Helena drove up.
“Sorry, had some discharge forms to finish. Hope you haven't been waiting long?”
Waving a key, she said, “His is the downstairs unit.”
We walked to the front door. A business card had been slipped between the door and the jamb and she pulled it out.
“Detective Duchossoir,” she read. “Well, thanks for showing up, guy- they never called me for a statement. What a joke.”
She unlocked the front door, turned on a light, and we stepped into disarray dimmed by heavy gold velvet curtains that looked as old as the building. The living room was nice-sized with beamed ceilings and off-white walls but it smelled of old dust and sweat and looked like a war zone. The furniture the burglars had left was upended and damaged: broken legs on wooden folding chairs, a brown corduroy sofa with Naugahyde trim turned onto its arms, the bottom slashed open, the wounds exposing coils and stuffing. A cheap ceramic lamp lay shattered on the green shag carpet, white grit littering the pile. Nothing on the walls but dark rectangles where something had once hung.
In the dining area a card table had been tossed against the wall, cracking the plaster. More folding chairs. In the tiny kitchen, drawers were open, most of them emptied to the yellow paper lining. Nolan's meager collection of crockery was strewn all over the lumpy linoleum floor. As Helena had said, no flatware.
The refrigerator, an old white Admiral too small for the nook provided, could have come from a thrift shop. I opened it. Empty.
Nolan had adopted the Basic Lonely Bachelor lifestyle. I knew it well. Once upon a time.
“They got in here, through the kitchen door,” said Helena, pointing to a tiny service porch, past an empty garbage can.
A window was set into the rear door and the glass had been punched out. Crudely- the edges were still ragged. After that, it had been easy to reach in and release the lock.
Simple lock, no dead bolt.
“Not much security,” I said.
“Nolan always prided himself on taking care of himself, probably felt he didn't need it.”
She picked up a broken bowl. Put it down, looking drained.
Gazing past the mess and seeing how her brother had lived.
We walked down a low, narrow hall past a small, green-tiled bathroom with an empty medicine cabinet. Toothbrush and paste and wadded towels on the floor. The shower was dry.
“Looks like they took the medicine, too,” I said.
“If there was any. Nolan was never sick. Didn't even take aspirin. At least when I knew- when he lived at home.”
Two bedrooms. The first was totally empty, curtained to gloom. Helena stared in from the doorway before forcing herself to continue. The one where Nolan had slept had a king-sized mattress and box spring that took up most of the floor space. A four-drawer fake-wood dresser- another thrift-shop candidate- had been pushed away from the wall, all the drawers pulled out and tossed on the floor. Underwear, socks, shirts were scattered like buckshot. An aluminum TV stand stood near the foot of the bed, but no set remained. Rabbit-ear antenna in the corner. The black quilted bedspread was drawn back from sweat-stained white sheets and the mattress had been yanked halfway off the box. Two rumpled pillows sat propped against the wall like ghosts pummeled to unconsciousness.
A disc on the wall above the bed said a clock had once hung there.
And that was it.
“The thing I don't get,” she said, “is where all his books are. 'Cause that's one thing he always had plenty of. He just loved to read. Do you think the burglars could have taken them?”
“Literate criminals,” I said. “Were any of them valuable?”
“Collectors' stuff? I wouldn't know. I just remember Nolan's room at home, books all over the place.”
“So you were never here?”
“No,” she said, as if it were a confession. “He used to have a place out in the Valley and I was there a few times. But after he joined the department, he moved to the other side of the hill…”
She shrugged and touched the bedspread.
“It's possible,” I said, “that he gave his books away.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Sometimes people contemplating suicide give away things that are important to them. It's a way of formalizing the final step.”
“Oh.” Her eyes misted and she turned away and I knew she was thinking, He didn't give them to me.
“There could be another reason, Helena. You said Nolan changed points of view pretty suddenly. If the books were on politics, something he no longer believed in, he could have decided to get rid of them.”
“Whatever. Let's get out of here, see if the car's still here.”
More care had been taken in the rear garden than in front- well-pruned apricot and peach trees and several flowering citrus that perfumed the air. The garage was a double. Helena pushed up the left-hand door. A pullcord to the right illuminated the narrow, lathe-walled space.
The Fiero was bright red covered with a fine coat of dust, sitting on half-deflated tires. A while since it had been driven.
I went over and looked at the driver's door. Deep gouges near the lock, and the window was cracked but not broken.
“They tried, Helena. Panicked or ran out of time.”
She came over and sighed. “I'll have it towed.”
The rest of the garage was taken up by a wooden workbench, bracket shelves of paint cans and dry brushes, a bicycle with one wheel, an airless basketball, several cardboard boxes under a crumpled wet suit. The pegboard above the bench was empty.
“His tools are gone,” she said. “He had them since high school. He went through an artistic phase- wood carving- convinced Mom and Dad to get him a complete set. Expensive stuff. Soon after, he lost interest… Maybe there are books in those boxes over there.”
She went over to check, tossing the black neoprene aside. Five cartons, the top one unsealed.
“Empty,” she said. “This is a waste- oh, hold on, look at this.”
She lifted a second box. Heavy, from the way her arms tensed.
“Still taped.” Using the house key, she tried to slit the binding without success. I took out my pocketknife and cut deeply.
Inside were several large leatherette albums in a variety of colors. The top one was black and said PHOTOGRAPHS in gold script. Helena flipped it open to faded color snapshots under plastic sheets.
She turned pages quickly, almost frantically.
The same image in varying forms: heavyset mother, ectomorph father, two pretty blond children. Trees in the background, or ocean, a Ferris wheel, or just blue sky. Helena no older than twelve in any of them. Had family life stopped, then?
“Our family albums,” she said. “I've been looking for these since Mom died, never knew he had them.”
She turned another page. “Dad and Mom… they looked so young. This is so…” She shut the book. “I'll look at them later.”
She lifted the box and carried it out to her Mustang. Placing it on the front passenger seat, she slammed the door.
“Well, at least I got something- thank you, Dr. Delaware.”
“I'll have the car towed tomorrow.” She placed a hand on her chest. The fingers shook.
“Nolan took the albums from Mom's house without saying a thing. Why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he tell me anything?”
The next morning, at ten, Dr. Roone Lehmann called.
“I've been going through Nolan's file. How's the sister doing?”
“Hanging in,” I said. “It's rough.”
“Yes. Well… he was a complex young man.”
“Complex and bright.”
“Helena told me he tested gifted.”
“I see… interesting. Is she gifted, as well?”
“She's an intelligent woman.”
“No doubt- well, if you'd like to come by the office, say around noonish, I can give you twenty minutes. But I can't promise it will be earth-shattering.”
“Thanks for your time.”
“It's part of the job, isn't it?”
Minutes later, Milo phoned. “Coroner says no sexual assault on Latvinia. Hooks says Montez the janitor is alibied for the time of her murder.”
“Not perfect but sometimes it's only criminals who come up with perfect alibis. Working at the liquor store from seven til eleven-thirty. The owner verifies, says Montez has an impeccable work record. Then home to the wife and kids- two older daughters, both of whom were up. All three of them swear he went to bed shortly after midnight, the wife is certain he never left the house. She got up at 3:00 A.M. to go to the bathroom, saw him there. His snoring woke her up again at five.”
“The wife,” I said.
“Yeah, but Montez is solid as they come: married thirty-five years, Vietnam service record, no criminal activity, not even traffic tickets. The school principal says he gets along great with everyone, always willing to go the extra mile, really does care about the school and the students. Told Hooks cutting the body down was exactly the kind of thing Montez would do. A couple of years ago a kid choked on something and Montez did the Heimlich maneuver and saved him.”
“A genuine hero.”
“Wait, there's more: Hooks located an old Army buddy of Montez's, a neighbor on the same block. Apparently Montez fended off a horde of Cong, rescued six other soldiers. Lots of medals. Now one thing I remember clearly is Cong stringing up bodies- we cut them down all the time. So that could be another reason. In terms of Latvinia, Hooks and McLaren talked to the grandmother and she said the girl was incorrigible, going out at all hours, wouldn't listen to reason. No steady boyfriends, no gang she hung out with. Just not too bright, easygoing and gullible and sometimes she'd just start acting weird- dancing and singing, pulling up her blouse. Neighbors said Latvinia's rep was a girl you could talk into anything.”
“Any drugs in her system?”
“Tox results aren't back yet and the coroner said there were no needle marks on the body. But her nasal passages were significantly eroded and there was some scarring on her heart, so coke for sure. I'm still looking for deaf-girl murders in other divisions and I've also been checking on that DVLL note. Nothing so far. It probably was a random scrap.”
“Nothing in Irit's evidence bag?”
“No personal effects in Irit's evidence bag. Everything was returned to the parents and the evidence-room log lists no pocket contents of any kind.”
“Is returning clothes on an unsolved standard procedure?”
“No, but with no semen or body fluids or any other evidence, and Carmeli being a big shot, I can understand why it happened.” Pause. “Yeah, it's a screwup. But at this point I'd settle for a bad guy's lawyer jumping up and down on it.”
“Going to ask the Carmelis to look at the clothes?”
“Think it's worth it?”
“Probably not, but why risk another omission?”
“Yeah. I'll bring it up when I speak to the mother. Left a message with Carmeli respectfully requesting blah blah blah, but haven't heard back. For all I know the clothes have already been buried. Do Jews bury the clothing?”
“Whatever. Okay, I'll call you if anything interesting comes up. Thanks for listening, send me a bill.”
I set out for downtown, avoiding the freeway and taking Sunset. Wanting to feel the city from Bel Air to Skid Row. Entering Hospital Row made me think of my days at Western Pediatrics Hospital, my induction into a world of suffering and occasional redemption. Heroics, too. I thought of Guillermo Montez, saving all those lives in Asia, winning all those medals, now a janitor working a second job.
At Echo Park, L.A. became Latin America. Then the downtown skyline came into view behind a cloverleaf of highway, blue steel and white cement and the pure gold of reflective glass towers incising a curdled-milk sky.
Lehmann's Seventh Street office was in a lovely six-story limestone building, one of the older ones, in a circumscribed part of the district where pinstripe and Filofax predominated and the homeless and diseased were invisible.
I parked at a nearby pay-lot and walked over. The entire ground floor of the building was taken up by an insurance company with its own entrance. To the right was a separate foyer for the rest of the structure, generous and chilly, charcoal granite with gold deco trim, two gold-cage elevators, a tobacco-and-aftershave smell, a carved walnut reception desk with no one behind it.
The directory said floors 2 and 3 were occupied by a private bank called American Trust and the fourth by something called the City Club, accessed by private elevator key only. The rest of the tenants were investment firms, lawyers, accountants, and, on the top story, Roone Lehmann, Ph.D., listed as a “consultant.”
Unusual setting for therapy and Lehmann wasn't advertising that he was a psychologist.
For the sake of treatment-shy police officers and other reluctant patients?
One of the cages arrived and I rode up six flights. The corridor ceilings were high, white, ringed with garland molding; the hallways, oak-paneled and carpeted in maroon wool printed with tiny white stars. The office doors were oak, too, and identified by small silver plaques that had been buffed recently. Soft, characterless music flowed from invisible speakers. Hunting prints hung on the walls and fresh flowers in glass vases sat on oiled Pembroke tables every twenty feet. Far cry from the plain-wrap ambience of the Israeli consulate.
Lehmann's office was in a corner, neighbored by multiple-partner law firms. His name and degree on silver, again no occupation.
I tried the door. Locked. An illuminated button off to the right glowed ember-orange against the wood.
I pressed it and was buzzed immediately into a very small brown-walled anteroom furnished with two blue wingback chairs and a stiffly upholstered deep green Queen Anne sofa. A glass-topped chinoiserie coffee table bore The Wall Street Journal, the Times, and USA Today. Artless walls. Reluctant light from two overhead recessed spots. Another button on the inner door over a PLEASE RING IN sign.
Before I reached it, the door opened.
“Dr. Delaware? Dr. Lehmann.” The dry-mellow voice, more muted than it had been over the phone, almost sad.
I shook a soft hand and we studied each other. He was in his fifties, tall and round-shouldered and soft-looking, with shaggy white hair and thick, flattened features. Bushy eyebrows bore down on fatigued lids. Brown eyes worked their way through a squint.
He wore a double-breasted navy blazer with gold buttons, gray flannel slacks, white shirt, loosely knotted pink tie, white pocket square carelessly stuffed, black wing tips.
Rumpled-looking, though the clothes were perfectly pressed. And expensive. Cashmere blazer. Working buttonholes on the cuffs said hand-tailored. Single-needle stitching on the shirt collar. The tie was silk mesh.
He motioned me in. The rest of the suite consisted of a small walnut-paneled bathroom and a huge butter-yellow office with a high, molded ceiling and distressed herringbone oak flooring that had lifted in places. A frayed blue Persian rug that looked very old spread diagonally over the wood. Two more blue wingbacks and a filigreed silver table formed a conversational area at the rear of the room. Between them and the desk was an empty expanse of rug, then a pair of black tweed armchairs closer to a massive cherrywood desk.
Two Victorian mahogany bookshelves were crowded with volumes but the glass doors to the cases spat back glare from a pair of windows, obscuring the titles. The windows were narrow and high, cut at the outer corners by ruby velvet pull-back drapes, offering rectangles of city view.
Great view. A newer building would have offered a full wall of transparency. When this one was built, the vista had probably been smokestacks and beanfields.
The yellow walls were silk. No credentials, no diplomas. Nothing that identified the purpose of the office.
Lehmann motioned me to take one of the black armchairs and sank behind the cherry desk. The top was green leather with gold-tooled edges and on it were a brown calfskin folding blotter, silver inkwell, letter knife, and pen cup, and a curious-looking silver contraption with a flamboyantly engraved crenellated top. Envelopes extended from compartments. Probably some kind of message rack.
Lehmann ran his finger along the edge.
“Interesting piece,” I said.
“Document holder,” he said. “Georgian. It sat in British Parliament two hundred years ago. Repository for history. There's a hole at the bottom where it was screwed into the clark's desk so no one could make off with it.”
He used both hands to lift it and show me.
I said, “Found its way across the ocean, anyway.”
“Family piece,” he said, as if that explained it. Spreading his hands flat on the blotter, he looked at a thin gold watch. “Officer Dahl. It would help me to understand what you already know about him.”
“I've been told he was bright and mercurial,” I said. “Not your typical cop.”
“Cops can't be bright?”
“They can be and are. Helena- his sister- described him as someone who'd read Sartre and Camus. I may be stereotyping but that isn't what you generally think of as typical LAPD material. Though if you work extensively with the police, you'd know better.”
His hands flew upward and the palms drifted toward each other and touched silently.
“Each year, my practice brings fewer surprises, Dr. Delaware. Don't you find it harder to resist seeing patterns?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “Did the department refer Nolan to you?”
Another pause. Nod.
“May I ask why?”
“The usual,” he said. “Adjustment problems. The work is extremely stressful.”
“What kinds of work problems was Nolan having?”
He licked his lips and white hair tumbled across his forehead. Pushing it away, he began playing with his pink tie, flicking the tip with a thumbnail, over and over.
Finally he said, “Nolan was having both personal problems and difficulties related to work. A troubled young man. I'm sorry, I really can't be more specific.”
Why had I driven across town for this?
He looked around the big, ornate room. “Mercurial. Is the term Helena's or yours?”
I smiled. “I've got a live patient, Dr. Lehmann. My own confidentiality issues.”
He smiled back. “Of course you do, I was simply trying to- let's put it this way, Dr. Delaware: If you're using mercurial as a euphemism for affective disorder, I'd understand that very well. Very well.”
Letting me know without saying so that Nolan had suffered from mood swings. Depression, only? Or manic-depression?
“I guess it's too much to ask if we're talking unipolar or bipolar.”
“Does it really matter? I'm sure she's not seeking a DSM- IV diagnosis.”
“True,” I said. “Do any other euphemisms come to mind?”
He tucked the tie in and sat up straighter. “Dr. Delaware, I sympathize with your situation. With the sister's. It's only natural that she'd seek answers but you and I both know she'll never get what she's really after.”
“What survivors always crave. Absolution. As I said, understandable, but if you've dealt with lots of similar cases, you know that leads them off the track. They haven't sinned, the suicide has. In a manner of speaking. I'm sure Helena is a lovely woman who adored her brother and now she's torturing herself with should-haves and could-haves. Pardon my audacity, but I'd say your time with her would be better spent guiding her toward feeling good about herself rather than fathoming the workings of a very troubled mind.”
“Was Nolan too troubled to do police work?”
“Obviously, but that never became clear. Never.” His voice had climbed and a flush had spread under his jaw, snaking downward and disappearing under his collar.
Had he missed a danger sign? Covering his own rear?
“It's a tragedy all around. That's really all I have to say.” He stood.
“Dr. Lehmann, I wasn't implying-”
“But someone else might and I won't have it. Any therapist worth his salt knows there's absolutely nothing that can be done if an individual's serious about destroying himself. Look at all the suicides that take place on psychiatric wards with full supervision.”
He leaned toward me, one hand tugging down at a cashmere lapel. “Tell your patient that her brother loved her but his problems got the best of him. Problems she's better off not knowing. Believe me- much better off.”
Staring at me.
“Sexual problems?” I said.
He waved me off. “Tell her you spoke to me and I said he was depressed and that police work may have exacerbated the depression but didn't cause it. Tell her his suicide couldn't have been prevented and she had nothing to do with it. Help her plaster her emotional fissures. That's our job. To patch, assuage. Massage. Inform our patients they're okay. We're couriers of okayness.”
Through the anger came something I thought I recognized. The sadness that can result from too many years absorbing the poison of others. Most therapists experience it sooner or later. Sometimes it passes, sometimes it settles in like a chronic infection.
“Guess we are,” I said. “Among other things. Sometimes it gets difficult.”
“Oh, I don't know,” he said. “One chooses one's job and one does it. That's the key to being a professional. There's no point complaining.”
When the going gets tough, the therapist gets tougher. I wondered if he'd used the chin-up approach with Nolan. The department would approve of something like that.
He smiled. “After all these years, I find the work enriching.”
“How many years is that?”
“Sixteen. But it's still fresh. Perhaps it's because my first career was in the business world where the philosophy was quite different: It's not enough for me to succeed. You must fail.”
“Brutal,” I said.
“Oh, quite. Policemen are easy, by comparison.”
He walked me to the door and as I passed the bulky bookshelves I was able to make out some of the titles. Organizational structure, group behavior, management strategies, psychometric testing.
Out in the waiting room, he said, “I'm sorry I haven't been able to reveal more. The entire situation was… bleak. Let the sister maintain her own image of Nolan. Believe me, it's far more compassionate.”
“This unspeakable pathology he displayed,” I said. “It's directly related to the suicide?”
“Very likely so.”
“Was he feeling guilty about something?”
He buttoned his blazer.
“I'm not a priest, Dr. Delaware. And your client wants illusion, not facts. Trust me on that.”
As I got back on the elevator, I felt as if I'd been rushed through an overpriced, tasteless meal. Now it was starting to repeat.
Why had he wasted my time?
Had he intended to say more but changed his mind?
Knowing he was professionally vulnerable because he'd missed something crucial?
Fear of a lawsuit would make Helena- and me- a major threat. Not talking to me at all would be seen as unreasonable obstructionism.
But if he was covering, why even hint around at Nolan's serious problems?
Wanting to find out what I knew?
The lift opened at 5 to let in three hefty men in gray suits and eyeglasses. Their jovial chatter ceased the moment they saw me and they turned their backs as the taller one slipped a key into the City Club slot. After they exited, the elevator took a while to kick in and I had a view of white-and-black checkerboard marble floor, polished wood walls, softly lit oil landscapes, riotously colored mixed flowers in obsidian urns.
A tuxedoed maitre d' smiled and welcomed them forward. They entered the club talking again. Laughing. Behind them, silverware clattered and red-jacketed black waiters hurried by with covered dishes on trays. As the elevator filled with the smell of roast meat and rich sauce, the gilded door slid shut silently.
I drove west, taking the freeway this time, still thinking about Lehmann.
Strange bird. And an old-world quality to his demeanor. British pronunciations. He'd said the right things but was unlike any therapist I'd ever met.
As if reciting for my benefit.
Some psychologists and psychiatrists- the bad ones- make a game of it.
Believe me, she's much better off not knowing.
Strange bird, strange location.
All those books on management and psychological testing, nothing on therapy.
Practicing beyond the boundaries of his competence?
Was that why he was edgy?
If so, how had he gotten LAPD's business?
No big mystery, there. Politics as usual. Who you knew.
The custom-made cashmere, the studied carelessness and old-money furnishings.
A consultant with family connections? Downtown connections could mean big business: a stream of referrals from the police department and other government agencies.
A potential flood of referrals because though LAPD maintained a few psychologists on staff, most of their time was spent screening applicants and teaching hostage negotiation and they were chronically overworked.
Something else: Milo had told me, once, that cops considered the in-house shrinks tools of the brass, were cynical about assurances of confidentiality, often reluctant to seek them out for help.
Except when filing for stress disability. Something LAPD officers had engaged in for years at a notorious rate, now even worse in the postriot era.
Meaning lots of money could be made contracting to field complaints. The unspoken directive from the department would be find them healthy.
Which would explain Lehmann's self-description as a courier of okayness.
And why he might have been reluctant to acknowledge warning signs in Nolan.
Had the young cop come to him with a history of mood swings and alienation, complaining of crushing job pressures, only to receive tough love?
One does one's job. That's the key to being professional.
Now Lehmann wanted to quash any budding inquiry.
Let the dead rest. His reputation, too.
When I got home, I looked him up in my American Psychological Association directory. No listing. None in any of the local guilds or health-care provider rosters, either, which was odd, if he was a contractor. But maybe LAPD referrals alone gave him enough business and he didn't need to solicit other sources.
Or maybe he really was old money, choosing psychology as a second career for personal fulfillment, rather than income. Respite after years in the heartless world of business.
The big office and leather desk and books- the trappings of doctorhood. Simply props to help him fill the hours before he rode down for a rubdown at the club?
I phoned the state medical board and confirmed that Roone Mackey Lehmann was indeed duly licensed to practice psychology in California and had been for five years. His degree was from a place called New Dominion University and he'd done his clinical training at the Pathfinder Foundation, neither of which I'd heard of.
No complaints had ever been filed against him, nothing irregular about his certification.
I thought about him some more, realized there was nothing I could- or should- do. Bottom line, he was right: If Nolan had been adamant about leaving this world, no one could have stopped him.
My question about sexuality had evoked a meaningful silence, so maybe that had been it.
A bleak situation.
The sister better off not knowing.
Leading me to the main question: What would I tell Helena?
I called her at the hospital but she wasn't in. Not at home, either, and I left a message and phoned Milo at the station.
“New insights?” he said.
“Sorry, no. Actually, I'm calling about Nolan Dahl.”
“What about him?”
“If you're busy-”
“Wish I was. Been on the phone all day and the closest case I've got to Irit is a retarded thirteen-year-old boy abducted a year ago in Newton Division. Body never found but his sneakers were, full of dried blood. Left in front of the Newton station. No lightbulb-over-the-head feeling but I'm driving over later to look at the actual file. What about Dahl?”
“I just met with his therapist, fellow named Roone Lehmann. Ever hear of him?”
“He got the referral through the department and I got the feeling he was on some LAPD list.”
“Could be. Is there some other reason you're asking about him?”
I told him.
“So you think maybe he botched Dahl's treatment and is covering his ass.”
“He implied that Nolan had serious problems that Helena doesn't want to know about.”
“Meaning if he missed the boat it was a big one.”
“Exactly. And he's an odd one, Milo. Works in a building with bankers and lawyers, labels himself a consultant but doesn't spell out what he does. But he's duly licensed, no checkered history, so maybe I'm being paranoid. I would like to know why Nolan went to see him. Would the department keep records?”
“If it was something to do with the job, they sure would, but good luck getting hold of it. Especially now that he killed himself. If he put in for a stress pension or some other compensation, there'd be a record of that, but once again, things get lost when it suits the right people.”
“That's another thing,” I said. “If he was under stress, why'd he transfer from West L.A. to Hollywood?”
“You got me- maybe he got tired of scumbag celebrities and their battered wives.”
“My thought was he craved action. Liked taking risks.” I told him about the break-in at Nolan's apartment, the cheap lock on the back door.
“No big surprise,” he said. “Cops can be super-security freaks or they become danger freaks and get lax. If the public knew how many times we got victimized, the confidence level would sink even lower. If that's possible.”
“But if Nolan craved danger, why would he buckle?”
He grunted. “Your field, not mine. Sounds like we're both running the blind-alley marathon. I'd offer to ask around about his records, but it would be a waste of time. One person who might be able to tell you something would be his training officer.”
“Helena already spoke to him and he was baffled by the suicide.”
“A Sergeant Baker.”
“Don't know the first name. Helena said he's at Parker Center, now.”
“That's Wes Baker.” His voice changed. Softer. Guarded.
“You know him?” I said.
“Oh, yeah… interesting.”
“Wes Baker training rookies again. I didn't know, but we don't have much contact with the boys in blue… Listen, Alex, this isn't the best time- or place- to have this discussion. Lemme get over to Newton, check out the year-old abduction file, and if nothing else comes up, I can drop by this evening. If you'll be home.”
“No plans not to be,” I said, realizing I'd been home for nearly an hour and hadn't gone back to see Robin. “If I go out, I'll call you.”
“Fine. I'm heading over to the East Side now. Sayonara.”
Robin was taking off her goggles when I walked in, and she reached for the vacuum cleaner. At the sight of the hose, Spike began barking furiously. He despises the industrial age. Canine Luddite. When he saw me he stopped, cocked his head, started to trot forward, then changed his mind and returned to attacking the vacuum canister.
Robin laughed and said, “Stop.” She tossed a Milk-Bone in a corner and Spike went after it.
“How was your day?” she said.
“Quite productive, actually.” She tossed her curls and smiled. “Don't hate me.”
“Because you're beautiful?”
“That, too.” She touched my cheek. “What went wrong, Alex?”
“Nothing. Just lots of seek and very little find.”
“That little girl's murder?”
“That and another case. A suicide that will probably never be explained.”
She put her arm through mine and we left the studio, Spike at our heels, breathing excitedly, Milk-Bone crumbs dotting his pendulous flews.
“I don't envy you,” she said.
“Don't envy what?”
“Hunting for explanations.”
She showered and changed into a charcoal-gray pantsuit and diamond stud earrings and said how about meat, that Argentinian place we'd tried a few months ago.
“Baked garlic appetizers?” I said. “Not very social.”
“It is if we both indulge.”
“Sure, I'll eat a whole bowl. Afterward we can tango or lambada, whatever, and fume up each other's faces.”
Suddenly she swooned into my arms. “Ah, Alessandro!”
She set Spike up with water and snacks while I changed and left messages at Milo's West L.A. desk, his home in West Hollywood, and the number he used for his after-hours private-eye business, Blue Investigations.
He'd begun the moonlight gig several years ago after the department took him off duty for punching out a superior who'd endangered his life and banished him to the Parker Center data-processing office in hopes of nudging him off the force. He'd managed to regain his detective position and it had been a while since he'd solicited private work, but he'd held on to the exchange.
Symbol of freedom, I supposed. Or insecurity. For all the talk of diversity and open recruitment, the role of a gay detective was far from comfortable.
Had that been Nolan's problem?
Never married. But he was only twenty-seven.
Relationships with women in the past, but, as far as Helena knew, nothing recent.
As far as Helena knew. Which wasn't very far at all.
I thought of Nolan's apartment. Mattress on the floor, no food in the fridge, the dingy furniture. Even accounting for the trashing, not exactly a swinging bachelor lair.
A loner. Flirting with all sorts of philosophies, shifting from one political extreme to the other.
Had self-denial been the latest?
Or had he divested himself of material pleasures because he just didn't care anymore?
Or wanted to punish himself.
Lehmann had used the word sin but when I'd asked him about guilt he'd said he wasn't a priest.
Somewhere along the line, had he judged Nolan?
Had Nolan judged himself? Passed sentence and carried out the execution?
I pictured the young cop in Go-Ji's, surrounded by the night denizens he'd been assigned to rein in.
Drawing out his service gun, putting it in his mouth.
Symbolic, as so many suicides are?
Stripping himself bare in front of other sinners?
Policemen committed suicide more frequently than civilians, but few did it publicly.
“Ready?” Robin called from the door.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Let's tango.”
His presence complicated matters: attend to him or Sturgis?
Sturgis was the professional, but so far all the big policeman had done was stay in his office all day.
On the phone, probably.
The psychologist was a bit more adventurous. He'd gone on two outings.
Perhaps he could be used to advantage.
The first trip had been to that duplex on Sycamore to meet the pleasant-looking but tense-faced blond woman.
Her tension made him think: patient? Some kind of on-the-street therapy?
Of course, there was another possibility: a girlfriend; the guy was stepping out on the woman with the auburn hair who lived with him. A beauty, some kind of sculptress. He'd seen her carrying blocks of wood from her truck to the rear of the house.
He watched the psychologist and the unhappy woman talk, then go inside the duplex. Liaison with one while the other one chipped away?
The blond woman was trim and nice-looking but nothing like the sculptress. And the two times he'd seen the sculptress with the psychologist the affection had seemed genuine. Touching each other a lot, that eagerness.
But logic had little to do with human behavior.
Terrible things had taught him about the self-destructive element that ran through the human soul like a polluted stream.
They stayed inside for twenty minutes, then went out to the garage. The psychologist didn't seem to be relating to her in a romantic way, but maybe they were having a rough time.
No, there was no hostility. She was talking and he was listening as if he cared.
Attentive, but maintaining distance.
So she probably was a patient.
Or a sister. It definitely didn't look romantic.
He copied down the license plate number on the blond woman's Mustang, waited til the two of them had driven off, then sauntered to the rear of the duplex in his electrician's uniform and let himself through the rear door by popping an absurd lock.
Pretty clear why the woman had looked so miserable.
He poked around in the debris, found utility bills with the name Nolan Dahl on them that matched the address. Later that night, after a cold-sandwich-and-bottled-water dinner and some praying with insufficient conviction, he turned on his computer, hacked into the Department of Motor Vehicles file, and ran the woman's license plates.
Helena Allison Dahl, thirty years old, blond hair, blue eyes, an address in Woodland Hills.
Ex-wife of the burglarized Nolan?
So where was Nolan?
Or maybe the guy was an irate husband who'd ruined his own place to get back at the wife.
She'd call her therapist for something like that.
One thing seemed likely: nothing to do with murder.
Which made sense. Sturgis would be concentrating full-time on Irit, but the psychologist would have a whole other life. To him, Irit would be just another consultation.
Tentative conclusion: Outing number 1 didn't relate to any of his concerns.
Neither, as far as he could tell, did the second one.
Downtown, terrible traffic all the way, and following the psychologist's green Cadillac at a discreet distance had been difficult. Another challenge was finding parking for the van near the lot the psychologist chose without losing sight of that curly head for too long.
Getting into the limestone building, though, was easy.
No guard, and the electrician's uniform gave him that air of belonging.
The van, too.
Uniforms and vans. He'd spent so much of his life in them.
His main prop for the building was a nice little toolbox whose contents could serve as more than props. He carried it in his good hand and kept the bad one in his pocket because why attract unnecessary attention.
He made it to the lobby just as the psychologist entered the elevator, watched the lift rise to the top floor.
Moments later, up there himself, he examined the doorplates, trying to figure out where the guy had gone.
Law firms, accountants, investment bankers, and one Ph.D.
Another psychologist? The sign said only CONSULTANT.
Roone M. Lehmann, Ph.D.
One consultant visiting another.
Unless the psychologist was a major investor and had come to check out his holdings.
Unlikely. The guy lived nicely but not extravagantly. Lehmann the consultant was the best bet.
He copied the name down for a DMV run, ducked around a corner that gave him a view of Lehmann's door, pulled out his electric meter, and unscrewed an overhead light fixture. If any of the wood-paneled doors had opened, he was ready to probe and tinker and look official.
Nothing happened until nearly a half hour later when the psychologist stepped into the hall.
Out of Lehmann's office. Lehmann, a big, flabby-looking white-haired guy with bushy eyebrows, watched Delaware depart with no friendliness in his eyes. Stood there looking unhappy til Delaware was on the elevator.
Delaware seemed to surround himself with unhappy people.
Finally, Lehmann went back inside.
The meeting had lasted twenty-eight minutes.
Brief consultation? About something relevant to him?
He screwed the fixture back in and put the meter in the box. Under the top tray of tools was a nine-millimeter automatic, not the one from the car, but the identical model, fully loaded, wrapped in black felt. With all the gear he was lugging he was a metal detector's dream.
So few buildings had metal detectors.
Even government buildings.
Last week an employee of the city's electronic-repair plant had come to work with a machine pistol and mowed down six coworkers.
So much madness and violence but people continued to pretend otherwise.
Crime and denial.
He understood that.
Back home, in the silence, he played.
The DMV listed Roone M. Lehmann, Ph.D., fifty-six, six one, 230, as living in Santa Monica.
The Thomas Guide map placed the address in one of the canyons that led down to Pacific Coast Highway.
Not all that far from Irit.
Another of life's little coincidences.
It was 8:00 P.M. and time to switch gears.
He phoned the West L.A. station and asked for Sturgis. A few moments later the big policeman came on the line. He hung up.
So the guy was still staying put.
Dedicated civil servant.
Back to the psychologist? Probably useless, but since the girl on the playground, nothing interesting had happened and he had to keep busy.
Keeping busy was his nature. It helped fight off the loneliness.
He drove to Beverly Glen and parked a ways down the road from the narrow pathway that curled up to the psychologist's and the sculptress's modern white house.
As luck would have it, eighteen minutes later the green Cadillac nosed out onto the glen and sped by him.
He caught a blur of two good-looking, smiling faces.
Ten minutes later he was at the front door, ringing the bell with a gloved good hand.
From inside, a dog barked. From the sound of it a small dog. Dogs could be dangerous, but he liked them.
He'd once had a dog that he loved, a friendly little spaniel with a black spot over one eye. A man had brutalized the animal and he'd killed the man in front of the dog. The dog recovered, though he was never quite as trusting. Three years later a bladder tumor finished him off.
Yet another loss… He examined the door lock. Dead bolt. A good brand, but a common one and he had masters for it.
The eighth key he tried worked and he was inside.
Nice place inside, too. High, airy ceilings, white walls, some art, good furniture, a couple of Persian rugs that looked to be quality.
A high-pitched alarm warning buzzer sounded as the dog raced forward.
Small and cute. Dark brindle, with ridiculous ears and a flat face that couldn't be taken seriously. Some kind of bulldog. A miniature. It charged his pants, snarling and howling and scattering spittle. Deftly, he picked it up- heavier than it looked, he needed two hands to keep it at arm's length as it struggled. Carrying it to a bathroom, he locked it in and it butted the door, over and over.
The alarm buzzer still going.
The keypad by the door flashing red.
Probably less than a minute before the alarm bells kicked in, but no worry, there. Police response in Los Angeles was slow, sometimes nonexistent, and in a remote area like this, with no close neighbors to complain, there was nothing to worry about.
Things had gotten to the point where only blood brought the police out and even then, not with much enthusiasm.
He walked around the house, quickly but calmly, able to block out the noise, smelling lemon wax, looking for a target.
The more he thought about it, the greater was his conviction that choosing the psychologist was the way to go. Whether or not the guy could do any direct good, he had access to Sturgis and was, thus, a conduit.
Two birds with one shot.
Now the bells were clanging. Very loud but it didn't bother him.
The alarm company would be phoning soon. If no one answered, they'd call the police.
In this case, the West L.A. station, but Sturgis, up in the detective office, would be unaware. Some uniformed officer would take the call, jot down the details. Eventually, maybe, someone would drive by.
Crime and denial… What he had to do wouldn't take long, anyway.
He wasn't without some guilt- breaking and entering wasn't part of his self-image. But priorities were priorities.
When he was finished, he let the dog out of the bathroom.
We never got to dance.
The call came just as we were thinking about dessert and I took it behind the bar of the restaurant.
“This is Nancy from your service, Dr. Delaware. Sorry to bother you, but your alarm company has been trying to reach you for a while and they finally figured to call us.”
“The alarm went off?” I sounded calm but was feeling a needle-stab of panic: not-distant-enough memories of intrusion, the old house reduced to cinders.
“Around an hour ago. The company records it as a circuit break at the front door. They've called the police but it might be a while before anyone gets there.”
“An hour and the police haven't gotten there, yet?”
“I'm not sure. Would you like me to phone them?”
“No, that's okay, Nancy. Thanks for letting me know.”
“I'm sure it's nothing, Doctor. We get this kind of thing all the time. Mostly they're false alarms.”
Before I returned to the table, I reached Milo, back at West L.A.
“Going to take advantage of our friendship,” I said. “How about getting a patrol car to go by my house?”
“Why?” he said sharply.
I told him.
“I'll go myself. Where are you?”
“Melrose near Fairfax. We'll leave in a minute, meet you there.”
“Get any dinner down?”
“All of it. We were just about ready to order dessert.”
“Order it. I'm sure it's a false call.”
“Probably,” I said. “But no, even if I could eat, Robin couldn't. Spike's there.”
“Yeah,” he said. “But who'd steal him?”
Robin didn't relax fully until we pulled up to the front and she saw Milo standing outside on the landing giving the okay sign. Spike was next to him and Milo looked like a dog-walker. An absurd notion. It made me smile.
The front door was open, the interior lights burning.
We rushed up the steps. Spike tugged, Milo let go of the leash, and the dog met us halfway.
“You're okay,” said Robin, sweeping him up and kissing him. He returned the affection and let me know with a look who was top dog.
We entered the house.
“When I got here the front door was locked,” said Milo. “Bolted, had to use my key. No windows jammed. Nothing messed and that safe you keep in the bedroom closet hasn't been touched. So it looks like a false. Contact the company tomorrow and have them come out and check the system. Only thing out of sorts is this guy.”
I rubbed Spike behind the ears. He harrumphed, turned away, and resumed licking Robin's neck.
“Muscling in on your lady?” said Milo. “You going to stand for that?”
We drifted into the kitchen. Robin's eyes were all over the place. “Seems fine to me,” she said. “Let me just check the jewelry I keep loose in my drawer.”
She was back in a moment. “Still there. Had to be a false alarm.”
“Good thing,” I said. “We didn't exactly get quick protection from the department.”
“Hey,” said Milo, “count yourself lucky you didn't get a false-alarm citation.”
“Protect and cite?”
“Anything that brings in revenue.”
Robin said, “Let's have dessert here. You up for ice cream, Milo?”
He patted his middle. “Aw shucks, I shouldn't- no more than three scoops and only a quart of chocolate sauce.”
She laughed and left, Spike trotting along.
Milo scuffed one shoe with the other. Something in his eyes made me ask if he'd learned anything in East L.A.
“The victim was a kid named Raymond Ortiz. IQ of seventy-five, overweight, some coordination problems, very bad eyesight, Coke-bottle glasses. He was on a school outing in a park at the east end of Newton Division. Tough place, known as a gang hangout, drugs, the usual. The theory is that he wandered away from the group and got grabbed. Never been found but two months later his blood-filled sneakers were left near the front door of the Newton station, resting on top of an old newspaper clipping about the disappearance. Raymond's blood was on record at County Hospital because he'd participated in a retardation study and they got a perfect match.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Poor, poor kid… in some ways it's so much like Irit, but in others-”
“It's nothing like Irit, I know. With Irit- and with Latvinia- we had the body but no blood, with this one, blood and no body. And the blood implies something other than strangulation. At least not gentle strangulation.”
“I hate that term, Milo.”
“Me, too. Pathologists are such dispassionate bastards, aren't they?”
I thought about what he'd told me. “Even with the differences, we've got two retarded kids, snatched out of a school group in a park.”
“What better place to snatch a kid, Alex? Parks and malls are favorite stalking zones. And this park was nothing like the nature conservancy. No trails, no surrounding wilderness. Your basic inner-city place, poorly kept up, bums and junkies on the grass.”
“And they took kids there for a field trip?”
“An outing, not a field trip. The school was being painted and they wanted to get the kids away from the fumes. The park's a few blocks away. They were taking them there every day.”
“The entire school went?”
“They brought them a few grades at a time. Raymond was with the special-ed kids and they were grouped with the first and second graders.”
“So there were lots of smaller children and the killer chose Raymond. Without wilderness, what did he use for cover?”
“There are some big trees behind the public rest rooms. The most logical scenario is Raymond went to the john and got dragged into a stall. Either killed right there or incapacitated. They never found any of his blood in the john, but he could have been killed cleanly, the blood for the shoes taken later. Whatever happened, no one saw it.”
“None of his blood? Does that mean someone else's?”
“Like I said, it's a drug place, junkies use the stalls to fix. There were blood-specks all over the place. At first they thought it would be a lead, but no match to Raymond. The samples are on file if they ever get a perp but why should the perp have bled? They also dusted for prints, found matches to a few local bums with sheets, but all of them had solid alibis and none of them had a history of pedophilia or sex crimes.”
Thinking of the boy trapped in a fetid stall, I felt my stomach knot up. “What's the theory about how the killer got him out of the park?”
“The parking lot's about thirty feet behind the bathrooms with the trees in between, a nice green barrier. If the asshole's car was nearby, he could have carried Raymond, tossed him in, driven off.”
“What time of day did this take place?”
“Late morning. Between eleven and noon.”
“Broad daylight,” I said. “Same as Irit- so damned brazen… You said Raymond was chubby. How much did he weigh?”
“Hundred and ten or so. But short. Four seven.”
“Heavier than Irit,” I said. “Once again, a strong killer. How's the case classified?”
“Open but very cold, not a single lead the entire year. The main Newton D on the case is an older guy named Alvarado, very good, very methodical. He began the same way we did on Irit: hauled in and interviewed sex offenders. He also grilled all the gang bangers known to hang out at the park. They said they'd never hurt a poor little kid- which is bullshit, they kill poor little kids in drive-bys all the time. But Raymond was actually a popular kid because his older brothers were bangers in Vatos Locos and Dad had been, too. VL rules that area and the family was well-respected.”
“But couldn't that be a possible motive?” I said. “Some internecine gang thing and Raymond was used to get a message across to the Vatos? Had the brothers or the father gotten on anyone's bad side? Were they involved in the drug trade?”
“Alvarado looked into that. The father served some time years ago, but he's straight now- works as an upholsterer downtown- and the brothers are low-status punks, not particularly aggressive. Sure they use, like all their buddies, but they're not kingpins and as far as Alvarado could learn, they hadn't pissed anyone off big-time. Plus, if it had been a gang message, some sort of revenge would have been taken. Alvarado's feeling right from the start was a sex crime because of the park setting, the john, the shoes left at the station. To him that was a taunt- a power-trip sicko trying to show how smart he was at the police's expense. Make sense?”
“It makes a lot of sense,” I said, remembering the business-world adage Dr. Lehmann had quoted this afternoon:
It's not enough that I succeed. You have to fail.
“Yeah, he was brazen, all right,” he said. “Arrogant bastard. To me, sending the clipping also meant he got off on the publicity, was hoping to stir things up.”
“How much publicity did the abduction create?”
“Couple of small articles in the Times, couple of larger ones in El Diario. More than Latvinia Shaver's gotten, by the way. All those media leeches came up with was a thirty-second story on the late news that night, no follow-up.”
“Which raises a question,” I said. “I can see him killing Irit to get publicity, but then why do Latvinia?”
“Exactly. I don't see enough of a match to consider these anything but three separate cases.”
“Did the shoes stir up the case again?”
“Nope. Alvarado never released anything to the press.”
“To hold something back, in case the asshole ever gets caught. I asked about the DVLL thing and Alvarado said it didn't ring any bells. So that scrap of paper probably was just trash.”
“Three separate cases,” I said.
“No,” I said. “Not yet. But the similarities do bear consideration: the choice of retarded teenagers, picking them out of a crowd in Raymond's and Irit's cases and in Latvinia's, from plenty of other girls working the street. I keep picturing the same kind of psychopath for each: smug, meticulous, confident enough to spirit a victim away in broad daylight or leave her in a public place like the schoolyard. Leaving the body out in the open in two instances, and a body-surrogate- bloody shoes- in another. Sneaky, but an exhibitionist. A show-off. Taken with himself. Which isn't profound because every psychopath is self-obsessed. They're like cookies out of a cutter: same power lust, same extreme narcissism, same need for excitement and total disregard for others.”
“Seen one psychopath, seen 'em all?”
“In terms of their inner motivation that happens to be true,” I said. “Psychologically, they're flat, banal, boring. Think of all the creeps you've put away. Any fascinating souls?”
He thought about that. “Not really.”
“Emotional black holes,” I said. “No there, there. Their crime techniques differ because of individual quirks. Not just M.O., because the same killer can change his method if it's not psychologically important to him yet still have a trademark.”
“Yeah, I've seen that. Rapists who'll switch back and forth from a gun or a knife, but always talk to their victims the same way. You see any trademark, here?”
“Just retarded kids with various disabilities,” I said. “I suppose that could indicate some twisted notion of eugenics- culling the herd. Though his basic motive would still be psychosexual. Give me a sheet of paper and your pen.”
Sitting down at the breakfast table, I drew a grid and filled it in as Milo watched over my shoulder.
“The asterisks are matches?” Milo said.
“Where's the ethnicity match?”
“All three were minorities,” I said.
“A racist killer?” he said.
“It also fits with the eugenics thing. As does the fact that all three were only mildly retarded, functioning very well. Teenagers. Meaning capable of reproduction. He tells himself he's cleansing the gene pool, he's not just some lust killer. Which is why he doesn't assault the victims.”
“Him,” he said. “One killer?”
“Usually lust killers prey on their own race.”
“The conventional wisdom used to be always until cross-racial serial killers started showing up. And murder and rape have been used for years as part of racial and ethnic warfare.”
He scanned the chart again. “Park and schoolyard.”
“Both are public places where kids congregate. I can't help thinking leaving Latvinia on that yard had some kind of meaning. Maybe to terrify the schoolkids the next morning- expand the violence.”
“Culling.” He shook his head.
“Just presenting another perspective, for argument's sake.”
He picked up the chart and ran his finger down the middle. “Truthfully, Alex, what I see is lots of partials, very little that goes across the board. And one killer operating out of three jurisdictions?”
“What better way to evade notice than by moving around?” I said. “It would lessen the chance of a connection being discovered because how often do detectives from different divisions get together? It could also be part of the thrill: By killing all over the city, he expands his sphere of influence. Rules the city, so to speak.”
“The Killer King of L.A.” He frowned. “Okay, let's stick with the one-killer hypothesis for argument's sake. Raymond's abduction was a full year before Irit, Latvinia three months after. You say he's compulsive. Not much even spacing there.”
“Assuming no murders took place between Raymond and Irit. And even if they didn't, with lust crimes the drive often accelerates as the victims pile up. Or he killed out of town. But let's assume he operates only in L.A. and Raymond was his first. Even with his arrogance he would have been apprehensive, pulling back to see if the investigation turned anything up. When it didn't, he left the shoes. When that didn't get any attention, he struck again. In a safe place, like the conservancy. And that success bolstered his confidence so he repeated sooner.”
“Meaning the next one could be even sooner.” Shoving his hands in his pockets, he began to pace.
“Something else,” I said. “If Raymond was his first, maybe he removed the body to use it. Kept it for two months until he thought he was finished with it. Or- and this is sickening- until it wasn't usable, anymore. At that point, he disposed of it, keeping the shoes and whatever else as mementos. Maybe he was still at a point where he wanted to quit. But after a while, the shoes no longer worked for him as sexual stimuli so he delivered them to Newton Division, with the clipping, to revive some of the power-thrill. That was temporary, too, and he went stalking. Driving around the city, looking for another outdoor setting. Some place that evoked Raymond's murder but different enough to avoid detection of a pattern.”
He stopped pacing. “First a boy, then girls?”
“He's ambisexual. Remember, he doesn't have sex with them. The thrill is the stalking and capture. That's why he took Raymond but not Irit and Latvinia. By then, he was less impulsive, had learned what really turned him on.”
“You've got some mind, Doctor.”
“That's what you pay me for. When you pay me.”
He tapped a foot and studied the rug. “I don't know, Alex. It's a clever construction but there are still too many differences.”
“I'm sure you're right,” I said. “But here's another thought: All three kids were murdered in public places. Perhaps because the killer- or killers- finds that erotic. Or, he has no access to an indoor killing spot.”
“No, I doubt it. He's got a car and I still see him as middle-class, neat and clean. I was thinking just the opposite: a family man, living an outwardly wholesome and conventional life. Maybe with a wife, or a live-in girlfriend. Even children of his own. A nice, cozy domestic setup where there'd be no convenient place to play with a dead body.”
“What about a van?” he said. “You know how many of these assholes love vans.”
“A van might work but sooner or later, he'd have to clean it up. If I'm right about his being a family man, with a job, it would be sooner.”
“Not a nine-to-five job, Alex, because he gets away in the middle of the day.”
“Probably not,” I said. “Someone with flexibility. Self-employed, an independent contractor. Or a work schedule with revolving shifts. Maybe a uniform. Some kind of repairman, or park maintenance worker. A security guard. One thing I'd do is cross-reference the personnel lists for the conservancy and the park where Raymond was killed. If you come across someone who switched jobs from East L.A. to the Palisades, ask him lots of questions.”
He pulled out his pad and made a note. “And keep looking for other retarded victims. Other divisions…”
Robin came in with three bowls and set them down. Milo folded the chart I'd made and slipped it in the pad.
“Here you go, boys. Chocolate syrup for you, Milo, but the only flavor we had was vanilla.”
“No prob,” said Milo. “The virtue of simplicity.”
At nine-thirty, I walked Milo down to his unmarked. He lagged behind me on the stairs and his footsteps were halting and deliberate.
“Going home?” I said.
“Nope, back to the office. Gonna call every goddamn night-shift detective in every goddamn division, look for any remotely possible matches. If I don't get any, that'll tell me something, too.”
He opened the car door. “Thanks for the input. Now let me tell you about Sergeant Wes Baker. We were classmates in the academy. Two of the oldest guys in the class, he might have been the oldest. Maybe that's why he started off thinking we were kindred spirits. Or maybe it was because I had a master's degree and he fancied himself an intellectual.”
“And you didn't want to be kindred with him.”
“What are you, a shrink? I didn't want to be kindred with anyone at that place, still tucked deeply in the closet, waking up with my jaws clenched so tight I thought my face would break. Every day I memorized another section of the penal code, shot bull's-eyes on the range, did hand-to-hand, the whole macho bit. After Vietnam, no big challenge, but it was like someone else going through it- I felt like an impostor, was sure I'd be found out and lynched. So I kept to myself, avoided after-hours with the other recruits, didn't have to pretend to be a pussy hound and smile through the fag jokes. Why I didn't quit, I still don't know. Maybe after the war I couldn't find any alternatives that seemed better.”
A sudden, frightening grin spread across his face. “And that's my confession, Father… back to Wes Baker. He was a relative loner, too, because he considered himself above it all, Mr. Experience. He saw me reading Vonnegut and got the idea we could relate because he was into books. Philosophy, Zen, yoga, politics. Psychology. Always eager for a meaning-of-life discussion. I pretended to go along, which was easy because he liked to talk and I know how to listen. He told me his life story in weekly installments. He'd knocked around a bit, traveled everywhere, Peace Corps, worked oil rigs and cruise ships, taught school in the inner city, been-there-done-it. He was always complaining he couldn't get a bridge foursome at the academy, that for the other guys poker was an intellectual challenge. He kept trying to buddy up, inviting me over. I kept declining politely. Finally, midway through the course, he asked me to his place to watch a Rams game and I agreed, wondering if he was gay, too. But his girlfriend was there- cute little grad student from the U. And her friend- a budding actress. My date.”
He smiled again, this time with some pleasure. “Noreen. Great legs, flat voice, maybe the silent era would have treated her better. Wes cooked up this Indian banquet- chutneys and curries, whatever. Okra, which to me is snot from the ground- chicken in a clay pot. He served some esoteric beer from Bombay that tasted like horse piss. The game was on the tube but it never got watched because Wes nudged us into a debate on East versus West, who really enjoyed the greater quality of life. Then he got down on the floor and demonstrated yoga positions, trying to show how they could be used to subdue suspects without undue violence. Gave a whole lecture on the history of martial arts and how it related to Asian religion. His girlfriend thought it was fascinating. Noreen got sleepy.”
“Sounds like a fun evening.”
“Real chortle fest. After that night, I was friendly to him but really kept my distance. The guy was too intense for me and life was hard enough without having to deal with all his cosmic bullshit. He must have sensed it because he cooled off, too, and eventually we were just nodding hello in the hall, then avoiding each other completely. About a week before graduation, I happened to be having one of my few nights out. Dinner at a place in West Hollywood with a guy I'd met at a bar. Older guy, an accountant, also struggling. He ended up divorcing his wife, had a massive heart attack shortly after and died at forty-two… Anyway, we'd been at this place on Santa Monica and when we came out some cars were stopped at a red light. The guy put his arm around my shoulder. I wasn't comfortable being public, and I moved away. He laughed it off and we walked to the curb to cross the street. Just then I got that back-of-the-neck feeling when someone's watching you, turned and saw Wes Baker in a little red sports car. Looking right through me, with this so-that-explains it expression. When my eye caught his, he pretended he didn't see me, and jackrabbited the moment the light turned green. A week later someone busted into my locker and filled it with a stack of gay porn. A huge stack, including some really nasty S and M stuff. I could never prove it was Baker, but who else? And a couple of times I caught him staring at me in a weird way. Studying me, like I was some kind of specimen.”
“You wondered about his sexuality,” I said. “Maybe he was cruising West Hollywood for a reason, was worried that you'd seen him.”
“And the locker was a best-defense-is-an-offense bit? Could be, but I think it was plain old homophobia.”
“Not very tolerant for an intellectual.”
“Since when do the two go hand in hand? And to me he's a pseudointellectual, Alex. Surfing the philosophical wave of the week. Maybe he is latent, I don't know. For obvious reasons I couldn't afford to make an issue of it, so I just stayed away. I didn't see him again for a long time. Then around five years ago he made sergeant and got transferred to West L.A. and I thought oh, shit, here come problems. But there weren't any. He made a point of coming up and saying hi, Milo, long time no see, how's everything? Mr. Jovial. I couldn't shake the feeling that he was putting me on. Patronizing me. But D's and uniforms don't have that much contact and his path never crossed mine. A few months ago, he got kicked upstairs to Parker Center. Some sort of administrative job.”
“If he fancies himself an intellectual,” I said, “how come he stayed in uniform and didn't try for detective?”
“Maybe he likes the streets- putting the cosmic yoga choke hold on bad guys. Maybe it's the image- tailored duds, gun, baton, stripes. Some blues think detectives are paper-pushing wusses. Or could be he likes training rookies, easing little bluebirds out of the nest.”
“In some ways he sounds like Nolan. Self-styled scholar, trying on different philosophies. I don't imagine the department operates like a computer dating service, but two guys like that getting together seems awfully coincidental.”
“I'm sure it's not. Baker would have been in a position to pick and choose.”
“I've been wondering if the suicide had something to do with the job, but Baker told Helena he's baffled.”
“The Baker I knew would have had an opinion. The Baker I knew had an opinion about everything.”
Thinking about Lehmann's reticence and wondering who else shared it, I said, “Maybe I'll talk to him myself.”
“Getting involved in this one, huh? When Rick sent the sister to you, he thought it would be a quickie.”
“He said she was a no-nonsense gal. All business. Move 'em up, get 'em out.”
I'd had the same feeling about Helena, had been surprised when she'd called for a second appointment. She hadn't returned today's calls, though.
“Suicide changes things,” I said.
“True. I called the department's personnel office and Lehmann is on their shrink referral list, along with a bunch of others, but that's all I can get on him.”
“Don't spend any more time on it. You've got your hands full.”
“Big hands,” he growled, and held them out, palms up. “For big man. With big job. Me go back to cave now. Try not to fuck up big-time.”
He got in the car and started the engine. “Lest I blanket you in total pessimism, Zev Carmeli called me just before I left for Newton, said I could talk to his wife tomorrow, at the family home. I told him I might be bringing you along, wondered if he'd give me some grief over that- psychoanalyzing the wife. But he didn't. In general, he seemed more cooperative. As if he finally believed I was on his side. Have you the time and inclination?”
“Should I meet you there?”
“Probably best 'cause I don't know where I'll be. They live on Bolton Drive.” He gave me the address, shifted the unmarked into drive, coasted ten feet, then stopped. “When you talk to Wes Baker, bear in mind that knowing me will not earn you gold stars.”
“I can live with that risk.”
“What a pal.”
The next morning I reviewed Irit's file again, learning nothing. The theories I'd spun for Milo last night seemed nothing more than random shots.
I wasn't any further along on Nolan's suicide, either. Some elements of the “typical” problem cop were there- alienation, isolation, family history of depression, possible job stress, the dark secrets Lehmann had intimated. But trying to explain self-destruction on the basis of a collection of symptoms is like saying people got poor by losing money.
Lehmann's caginess had accomplished just the opposite of what he'd hoped, piquing my interest.
What Milo'd told me about Baker was intriguing but before I talked with him I wanted Helena's go-ahead and she still hadn't returned my messages. I tried the hospital again and was told she'd called in sick last night. No one answered at her home.
Huddled under the covers, sleeping off a nasty virus?
Should I call Baker anyway? If I asked questions and told him nothing of substance, there'd be no breach of confidentiality.
But grief was a psychic tide, ebbing and flowing in response to the magnet of memory, and Helena's “sickness” could be something of quite a different nature.
Emotional withdrawal? Nothing healed but time, and sometimes that didn't work either.
The last time I'd seen her she'd taken home the family snapshot albums.
I decided to try Baker. He'd probably refuse to talk to me, anyway.
A Parker Center desk officer told me Sergeant Baker had a day off and I left my name and number, expecting nothing. But barely an hour later, as I sat typing a child-custody report, my service called and said he was on the line.
“Dr. Delaware? Wesley Baker, returning your call. What kind of doctor are you?” Clipped, businesslike. He was older than Milo but sounded in his thirties, an aggressive young lawyer.
“Thanks for calling back, Sergeant. I'm a psychologist looking into the death of Nolan Dahl.”
“Looking into it at whose request?”
“Officer Dahl's sister.”
“A psychological autopsy?”
“Nothing that formal.”
“Just trying to get some closure?” he said. “I'm not surprised. She called me a few weeks ago, trying to get some answers. Poor woman. I was extremely upset by Nolan's suicide, myself, disappointed that I couldn't tell her much. Because Nolan and I hadn't worked together for some time and I didn't want to give her information that might be irrelevant. She sounded depressed. It's good she got professional help.”
“Irrelevant in what way?”
Pause. “Not being a professional, I wasn't sure what would be therapeutic and what would be harmful.”
“You're saying Nolan had some problems that could upset her.”
“Nolan was… an interesting kid. Complex.”
The same term Lehmann had used.
“In what way?”
“Hmm… listen, I don't feel right getting into this without thinking it through. I'm off today, planned to get a little sailing in, but if you'll give me a little time to collect my thoughts, you can come by my boat, we'll see what turns up.”
“I appreciate that, Sergeant. When's a good time for you?”
“How say noon? If we're both hungry, we can grab some lunch. You can even pay.”
“Fair enough. Where's your boat?”
“Marina del Rey. She's called Satori. I'm docked right near the Marina Shores Hotel.” He gave me the slip number. “If I'm not there, it means the winds died and I had to tie up and use the engine. One way or the other, I'll be there.”
The boat was thirty feet of sleek white fiberglass with gray trim. Tall masts, the sails tied. Satori painted on the hull in black script edged with gold.
The sky over the marina was baby blue rubbed with chalk dust. Not much wind at all. The craft and its neighbors barely bobbed and I wondered if Baker had even gotten out of the harbor. Just a moment's walk away, the rear balcony of the Marina Shores Hotel extended over the footpath that ribboned the edge of the dock. Early lunchers sat nursing iced drinks and forking seafood.
A wall of chain-link sectioned the hotel property from the rental slips but it was unlocked and I walked through.
Satori. I knew it had something to do with Zen and had looked it up before leaving.
A state of intuitive illumination.
Maybe Sergeant Wesley Baker could illuminate Nolan's death.
He came out from below before I reached the boat, drying his hands with a white towel. Five nine, stocky, but without visible body fat, he wore a white Lacoste polo shirt, pressed black jeans, and white deck shoes. Looking every year of his age- around fifty, but a well-put-together fifty- he had a durable tan, short dark brown hair silvering at the temples, square, broad shoulders, and well-muscled, hairless arms. His head was slightly small for the blocky torso, the face round, vaguely childlike, despite sun seams and assertive features. Large, gold-framed eyeglasses were turned to ray guns by the midday sun.
A successful businessman on his day off.
He waved, I climbed aboard, and we shook hands.
“Doctor? Wes Baker. Up for lunch? How about the hotel?”
“Let me lock up and I'll be right up.”
He was gone for a moment, came back carrying a large black calfskin billfold. More like a purse, really, and he carried it in one hand. We got off the boat and headed for the hotel.
He walked very slowly- as if every movement counted. Like a dancer. Or a mime. Swinging his arms, looking from side to side, a faint smile on thin, wide lips.
Behind the glasses, his eyes were brown and curious. If he was planning to hide facts, it wasn't making him tense.
“Glorious day, isn't it?” he said.
“Living up here, you give up space- I make do with four hundred square feet- and the marina's as congested as the city. But at night, when things quiet down and there's a clear view out to the ocean, the illusion of infinity more than makes up for all that.”
“Satori?” I said.
He chuckled. “Satori is an ideal, but you've got to keep trying. Do you sail?”
“I'm comparatively new to it, myself. Did some work on boats when I was a kid but nothing that taught me how to operate a serious craft. I got into it a few years ago. Trial by ordeal. A few knocks on the noggin and you learn to watch out for the boom.”
“Nolan did some work on boats, too.”
He nodded. “Santa Barbara fishing boats. He did some abalone diving, too. Didn't care for any of it.”
“He didn't have a taste for manual labor.”
We climbed the stairs to the dining patio.
A sign said PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED and the host's lectern was empty. Two dozen tables covered in navy blue linen dotted the brick-floored terrace. Three were occupied. Crystal and silver played with the sun. The east wall was glass that looked into an empty dining room.
“Also, he said killing fish turned him off,” said Baker, looking around. “Killing, period. He was a nonviolent kid, had become a vegetarian the year before entering the academy. Probably the only vegetarian cop I ever met- hey, Max.”
A Chinese maitre d' emerged from inside the hotel. Black suit, black shirt, black tie, and a wide, professional smile full of distress.
“Hello, Mr. Baker. Your table's ready.”
We were shown to a waterside table big enough for four but set for two. I could smell brine and boat fuel and someone's sautÉed lunch.
“Nonviolent,” I said. “Yet he chose police work.”
Baker unfolded a navy napkin and placed it on his lap. “Theoretically there shouldn't have been a conflict. The goal of the police officer is to reduce violence. But of course, that's not reality.”
Removing his glasses, he looked through them, blew off a speck of something, and put them back on. “The reality is that police work entails being constantly submerged in violence. Take a sensitive kid like Nolan and the result can be disillusionment.”
“Did he talk about being disillusioned?”
“Not in so many words, but he wasn't happy. Always kind of down.”
“Looking back, maybe, but he showed no clinical signs.” He stopped. “At least that I'd know, being a layman. What I mean is, his appetite seemed fine and he was always on the job, ready to go. He just never laughed or got happy. As if he'd been dipped in some kind of protective coating- emotional lacquer.”
“To avoid getting hurt?”
He shrugged. “I'm out of my element here. I'm as puzzled as everyone by what he did.”
A young waiter brought French bread and asked for our drink order.
“Vodka and tonic,” said Baker. “Doctor?”
“I'm ready to order, too. The calamari salad's great if you go for seafood?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Two, then, and let's go with a nice white.” He looked up at the waiter. The young man's expression said his last audition hadn't gone well. “Do you still have that Bear Cave sauvignon blanc in stock?”
“The eighty-eight? I believe so.”
“If you do, bring us a bottle. If not, what's in the same league?”
“There's a good Blackridge sauvignon blanc.”
“Whatever's reasonable. The doctor here is paying.”
“Yes, sir.” The waiter left and Baker sniffed his finger. “Ah, a fine nose. Pretensions of peach and old leaves and the faintest hint of 7Up.”
He broke off some bread and chewed slowly. “What Nolan did has been bothering the hell out of me on two levels. Most important, of course, the act itself. The waste. But also narcissistically. Why didn't I see it?”
“How long did you work with him?”
“Three months, day after day. He was the fastest learner I've ever seen. An interesting kid. Different from other rookies I'd had but nothing that led me to believe he was high-risk- how much do you know about police suicide?”
“I know it's on the rise.”
“Sure is. The rate's probably doubled in the last twenty years. And those are only the acknowledged ones. Throw in guys taking excessive risks, accidents that really aren't, other “undetermined deaths,' and you probably double the count again.”
“Accidents,” I said. “Suicide by work?”
“Sure,” he said. “Cops like doing it that way because it spares the family the shame. The same thing happens with the people cops deal with: Some profoundly depressed character gets drunk or dusted, stands in the middle of the street waving a gun, and when the patrol car arrives, instead of dropping it he points it at the windshield.”
He pulled an imaginary trigger. “We call that suicide by cop. Only difference is, the character's family hires a lawyer, sues the city for wrongful death, and collects. Depression and litigation make a great combination, Dr. Delaware.”
“Do cops litigate, too?” I said.
He took off his glasses and stared reflectively out at the harbor. “Live ones do, Doctor. Stress pensions, all that good stuff. Lately, the department's been clamping down. Why? Does the sister want to sue?”
Casual tone and he was looking at his bread plate.
“Not that I know,” I said. “She's just looking for answers, not blame.”
“In the end, it's the suicide who's to blame, isn't it? No one else put that gun in Nolan's mouth. No one else pulled the trigger. Were there signs beyond his not being the life of the party? Not that I saw. He took things seriously, took his work seriously. I saw that as positive. He was no slacker.”
Our drinks arrived. As Baker tasted his, I said, “Besides being a fast learner, how was Nolan different from the other rookies?”
“His seriousness. His intelligence. We're talking major bright, Doctor. We'd go on Code 7s- breaks- and he'd whip out a book, start reading.”
“What kinds of books?”
“The penal code, politics. Newspapers and magazines, too. He always brought something. Not that I minded. I'd rather read a good book any day than talk about the usual cop stuff.”
“Harleys, Corvettes, guns and ammo.”
“He had a sports car. Little red Fiero.”
“Did he? Never mentioned it. Exactly the point. When we were out cruising, he concentrated on work. When we broke, he didn't make small talk. Intense. I liked that.”
“Did you choose to train Nolan because he was smart?”
“No. He chose me. When he was still at the academy I was over there to give a lecture on rules of arrest. Afterward he came up to me and asked if I'd be his T.O. when he graduated. Said he was a quick learner, we'd get along fine.”
Baker smiled, shook his head, and spread thick, bronze hands on the tablecloth. The sun was beating down. I could feel the heat on the back of my neck.
“Pretty damn audacious. I figured what he was really after was a West L.A. placement. But I was intrigued, so I told him to come to the station after shift and we'd talk.”
He rubbed the tip of his nose. “The very next day he showed up, on the dot. Not pushy at all. Just the opposite- deferential. I asked him what he'd heard about me, he said I had a reputation.”
“For being intellectual?” I said.
“For being a T.O. who'd show him the way things really were.”
He shrugged. “He was smart but I didn't know how he'd do on the street. I figured it would be interesting, so I said I'd see what I could work out. In the end, I decided to take him, because he seemed the best of the lot.”
“The usual,” he said. “The academy's not Harvard. Affirmative action has made things more… variable. Nolan did well. His size helped- people tended not to mess with him and he never bullied anyone or lorded it over the characters. By the book.”
“Did he ever talk politics?”
“Just trying to get as full a picture as possible.”
“Well,” he said, “if I had to guess, I'd say his politics were conservative, simply because you don't find too many flaming liberals in the department. Was he waving any Klan flags? No.”
I'd asked about politics, not racism. “So he got along well with the people you policed.”
“As well as anyone.”
“What about other policemen? Did he socialize much?”
“A couple of times he and I had dinner. Other than that, I don't think so. He stuck to himself.”
“Would you say he was alienated from the other rookies?”
“Can't answer that. He seemed comfortable with his own lifestyle.”
“Did he ever tell you what led him to become a cop?”
He put the glasses back on. “Before I took him on I asked him that and he said he wouldn't spin me some yarn about helping people or being a New Centurion, he just thought it might be interesting. I liked that, an honest answer, and we never discussed it again. In general, he was a closemouthed kid. All work, eager to learn the ropes. My policing style is to make lots of arrests, so most of the time we were pursuing calls aggressively. But no John Wayne stuff. I stay within bounds and so did Nolan.”
He looked away. The fingers remained on the table but their tips had whitened. Sensitive topic?
“So there were no egregious problems on the job.”
“Any alcohol or drug abuse?”
“He was health-oriented. Worked out after-hours at the station gym, jogged before shift.”
“But a loner,” I said.
He looked up at the sky. “He seemed content.”
“Any women in his life?”
“Wouldn't surprise me, he was a good-looking kid.”
“But no one he mentioned.”
“Nope. That wasn't Nolan's style- look, Doctor, you need to understand that the police world's a subculture that doesn't tolerate weakness. You need real symptoms to justify seeking help. My job was to teach him to be a cop. He learned fine and functioned fine.”
The waiter brought our lunch and the wine. Baker went through the tasting ritual, said, “Pour,” and our glasses were filled. When we were alone again, he said, “I don't know that we should toast to anything, so how about a generic “cheers.' ”
We both drank and he waited for me to begin eating before approaching the calamari, sawing each squid in half and studying the forked morsel before popping it into his mouth. Wiping his lips with the napkin every third or fourth bite, he sipped his wine very slowly.
“Someone sent him to therapy,” I said. “Or maybe he sent himself.”
“When was he in therapy?”
“I don't know. The therapist is reluctant to discuss details.”
“One of the department psychologists?”
“A private one. Dr. Roone Lehmann.”
“Don't know him.” He looked away again. Ostensibly at some gulls diving the harbor, but he'd stopped chewing and his big eyes were narrow.
“Therapy. I never knew that.” His jaws began working again.
“Any idea why he transferred from West L.A. to Hollywood?”
He put his fork down. “By the time he transferred, I'd moved to headquarters. An administrative carrot they'd been dangling in front of me for a while: revising the training curriculum. I have no great love for paperwork but you can't keep saying no to the brass.”
“So you didn't know about his transfer?”
“After the training period you and Nolan lost contact.”
He looked at me. “It wasn't a matter of losing contact- breaking off some major father-son relationship. The training period's time-limited. Nolan learned what he needed to learn and went out into the big bad world. I found out about the suicide the day after it happened. Police grapevine. My first reaction was to want to wallop the crap out of the kid- how could someone that smart be so stupid?”
He speared a calamari. “The sister. What does she do?”
“She's a nurse. Did Nolan ever talk about her?”
“Never mentioned her. The only thing he said about his family was that both his parents were dead.”
He pushed his plate away. Half the calamari were gone.
“What do you think about the way he did it?” I said. “So publically.”
“Pretty bizarre,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Could he have been making a statement?”
I shrugged. “Had Nolan shown any exhibitionistic tendencies?”
“Showing off? Not in the course of duty. Oh, he was into his body- getting buffed, tailoring the uniform, but lots of young cops are that way. I still don't know what you mean by a statement.”
“You mentioned before that cops always tried to minimize the shame of suicide. But Nolan did just the opposite. Made a spectacle of himself. Almost a public self-execution.”
He said nothing for a long time. Lifted his wineglass, drained it, refilled, and sipped.
“You're suggesting he punished himself for something?”
“Just theorizing,” I said. “But you're not aware of anything he might have felt guilty about.”
“Not something on the job. Did his sister tell you anything along those lines?”
I shook my head.
“Nope,” he said. “That just doesn't make sense.”
The waiter approached.
“I'm finished,” said Baker.
I seconded the motion, declined dessert, and handed over my credit card. Baker took out a big cigar and wet the tip.
“Against restaurant rules,” he said. “But they know me here and I sit where the wind carries it away.”
He inspected the tight brown cylinder. Hand-rolled. Biting off the tip, he placed it in his napkin and folded the linen over the scrap. Taking out a gold lighter, he ignited the cigar and puffed. Bitter but not unpleasant smoke filled the space between us before dissolving.
Baker eyed the boats in the marina and sat back, catching sun.
Puff, puff. I thought of how he'd likely stuffed Milo's locker full of porn.
“Supreme waste,” he said. “It still bothers me.”
But sitting there, smoking and drinking wine, cleanly shaved face buttered by sun, he looked the picture of happiness.
I left him on the terrace with his cigar and the rest of the wine. Just before I stepped onto the pathway that led back to the hotel parking lot, I stopped and watched him smile as he said something to the maitre d'.
Man at leisure. No clue he'd been talking about the death of a colleague.
Would it have bothered me had Milo not warned me about him?
For all his open manner, he'd told me less than Dr. Lehmann: Nolan had been an isolated, smarter-than-usual cop who played it by the book.
None of the serious problems Lehmann had alluded to. On the other hand, Baker had been Nolan's training officer, not his therapist.
Still, it was my second face-to-face meeting for no apparent reason.
People scurrying to protect themselves in the event of a lawsuit?
Helena still hadn't called. Maybe she'd decided that only Nolan would understand what Nolan had done. If she dropped out of therapy, it was out of my hands, and on some level that didn't bother me. Because Lehmann was right: Real answers were often unobtainable.
Once home, I tormented myself with a faster-than-usual run up the glen, showered and changed, and set out for Beverlywood at four-fifteen, reaching the Carmeli home with ten minutes to spare for the five o'clock meeting.
The house was a neatly kept single-story ranch on a block full of them. A negligible lawn sloped up to a used brick driveway. Parked on top were a blue Plymouth minivan and a black Accord, both with consulate plates. The curbs were empty save for two Volvo station wagons and a Suburban parked down the block and an electrical-company van across the street. Other driveways hosted more vans and wagons, lots of infant seats. Utility and fertility.
Tucked east of the Hillcrest Country Club and south of Pico, Beverlywood had been developed in the fifties as a starter community for the families of junior executives on their way to senior partnerships and manses in Brentwood and Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, and some people still called it Baja Beverly Hills. L.A. had essentially abandoned street maintenance, but Beverlywood looked manicured because of a homeowners' society that set standards and kept the trees trimmed. A private security company patrolled nightly. The land boom of the seventies had raised housing prices to the half-million mark and the downslide had kept them at a level where striving families found themselves at the top of their dream, nesting here permanently.
Milo pulled behind me two minutes later. He had on a bottle-green blazer, tan slacks, white shirt, and yellow-and-olive tartan tie. Green giant, but not jolly.
“Finally managed to locate six more creeps from the initial M.O. files, all moved to Riverside and San Berdoo. None check out time-wise, and their P.O.'s and/or therapists vouch for them. Nothing on DVLL, either, so I'm ready to chuck that one into the garbage file.”
At the house, Zev Carmeli answered Milo's knock, wearing a dark suit and a grim expression.
“Come in, please.”
There was no entry hall and we stepped right into a low, narrow, off-white living room. The deep green carpeting was amazingly similar in hue to Milo's jacket and for a second he looked like a fixture. The tan couches and glass tables could have been rented. The beige drapes drawn over the windows were filmy but most of the light came from two ceramic table lamps.
Sitting on the largest couch was a beautiful brown-skinned woman in her thirties with very long, curly black hair and moist, deep-set black eyes. Her lips were full but parched, her cheekbones molded so severely they seemed artificial. She wore a shapeless brown dress that covered her knees, flat brown shoes, no jewelry. Her eyes were nowhere.
Carmeli moved to her side and hovered and I fought not to stare.
Not because of her beauty; I'd seen Irit's death photos and here was the woman she might have become.
“This is Detective Sturgis and Dr. Delaware. My wife, Liora.”
Liora Carmeli began to stand but her husband touched her shoulder and she remained seated.
“Hello,” she said very softly, struggling to smile but not getting close.
We both shook her hand. Her fingers were limp and her skin was clammy.
I knew she'd resumed teaching school and couldn't be this depressed with her students. So our visit had raked things up.
“Okay,” said Carmeli, sitting next to her and waving at some chairs on the other side of a glass coffee table.
We sat and Milo went through one of those little detective speeches full of sympathy and empathy and possibility that he hates to deliver but delivers so well. Carmeli looked angry but his wife seemed to relate a bit- shoulders straightening, eyes focusing.
I'd seen that before. Some people- usually women- respond to him immediately. He gets no satisfaction from it, always worried that he'll fail to produce. But he keeps delivering the speech, knowing no other way.
Carmeli said, “Fine, fine, we understand all that. Let's get on with it.”
His wife looked at him and said something in what I assumed was Hebrew. Carmeli frowned and tugged down at his tie. They were both good-looking people who seemed drained of their life-juices.
Milo said, “Ma'am, if there's anything you can-”
“We know nothing,” said Carmeli, touching his wife's elbow.
“My husband is right. There's nothing more we can tell you.” Only her mouth moved when she spoke. The brown dress tented and I could see no body contours beneath it.
“I'm sure you're right, ma'am,” said Milo. “The reason I have to ask is sometimes things occur to people. Things they think are unimportant so they never bring them up. I'm not saying that's actually the case here-”
“Oh for God's sake,” said Carmeli, “don't you think if we knew something we'd tell you?”
“I'm sure you would, sir.”
“I understand what you mean,” said Liora Carmeli. “Since my Iriti is… gone, I think all the time. Thoughts… attack me. At night, especially. I think all the time, I am always thinking.”
“Liora, maspeek,” Carmeli broke in.
“I think,” she repeated, as if amazed. “Stupid things, crazy things, monsters, demons, Nazis, madmen… sometimes I'm dreaming, sometimes I'm awake.” She closed her eyes. “Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.”
Carmeli's face was white with rage.
His wife said, “The strange thing is, Iriti is never in the dreams, only the monsters… I feel that she is there but I can't see her and when I try to… bring her face into the picture, it… flies away from me.”
She looked at me. I nodded.
“Iriti was my treasure.”
Carmeli whispered urgently to her in Hebrew again. She didn't seem to hear.
“This is ridiculous,” he said to Milo. “I request you to leave at once.”
Liora touched his arm. “The monster dreams are so… childish. Black things… with wings. When Iriti was little she was afraid of black, winged monsters- devils. Shedim, we call them in Hebrew. Ba'al zvuv-that means “lord of the flies' in Hebrew. Like that book about the schoolboys… it was a Philistine god that controlled insects and disease… Beelzebub in English. When Iriti was little, she had nightmares about insects and scorpions. She would wake up in the middle of the night and want to come to our bed… to help her I told her stories about shedim. The Bible- how we- the Philistines were… conquered… and their stupid gods… my culture- my family is from Casablanca- we have wonderful stories and I told them all to her… stories with children conquering monsters.”
She smiled. “And she stopped being afraid.”
Her husband's hands were blanched fists.
She said, “I thought I was successful because Iriti stopped coming to our bed.”
She looked at her husband. He stared at his trousers.
“When Irit got older,” said Milo, “was she afraid of anything?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I thought I'd done a good job with my stories.”
She let out a short, barking laugh, so savage it tightened my spine.
Her husband sat there, then shot to his feet and came back with a box of tissues.
Her eyes were dry but he wiped them.
Liora smiled at him and held his hand. “My brave little girl. She knew she was different… liked being pretty… once, when we lived in Copenhagen, a man grabbed her and tried to kiss her. She was nine, we were shopping for jeans and I was walking in front of her instead of with her because Copenhagen was a safe city. There was a museum, there, on the Stroget- the main shopping street. The Museum of Erotica. We never went in but it was always busy. The Danes are healthy about those things but perhaps the museum attracted sick people because the man-”
“Enough,” said Carmeli.
“- grabbed Iriti and tried to kiss her. An old man, pathetic. She didn't hear him- she had her hearing aid off, as usual, probably singing songs.”
“Songs?” said Milo.
“She sang to herself. Not real songs, her own songs. I could always tell because her head would move, up and down-”
“She stopped doing that a long time ago,” said Carmeli.
“When this man grabbed her,” said Milo, “how did she react?”
“She punched him and broke free and then she laughed at him because he looked so frightened. He was a little old man. I didn't even realize anything was wrong until I heard yelling in Danish and turned around and saw two young men holding the old man and Iriti standing there, laughing. They'd seen the whole thing, said the old man was crazy but harmless. Irit kept laughing and laughing. It was the old man who looked miserable.”
“That was Denmark,” said Carmeli. “This is America.”
Liora's smile vanished and she lowered her head, chastened.
“So you feel,” said Milo, “that Irit wasn't afraid of strangers.”
“She wasn't afraid of anything,” said Liora.
“So if a stranger-”
“I don't know,” she said, suddenly crying. “I don't know anything.”
“Liora-” said Carmeli, taking hold of her wrist.
“I don't know,” she repeated. “Maybe. I don't know!” She broke free of her husband's grasp and faced the wall, staring at the bare plaster. “Maybe I should have told her other stories, where the demons won, so you needed to be careful-”
“Oh, please,” said Carmeli, disgusted. “This is idiotic. I insist you leave.”
He stomped to the door.
Milo and I got up.
“One more thing, Mrs. Carmeli,” he said. “Irit's clothes. Were they sent back to Israel?”
“Her clothes?” said Carmeli.
“No,” said Liora. “We sent only… she- when we- our customs- we use a white robe. Her clothes are here.” She faced her husband. “I asked you to call the police and when you didn't, I had your secretary call. They arrived a month ago and I kept them.”
Carmeli stared at her, bug-eyed.
She said, “In the Plymouth, Zev. So I can have them with me when I drive.”
Milo said, “If you don't mind-”
“Crazy,” said Carmeli.
“I am?” said Liora, smiling again.
“No, no, no, Lili, these questions.” More Hebrew. She listened to him calmly, then turned to us. “Why do you want the clothes?”
“I'd like to do some analyses,” said Milo.
“They've already been analyzed,” said Carmeli. “We waited months to get them back.”
“I know, sir, but when I take on a case I like to make sure.”
“Make sure what?”
“That everything has been done.”
“I see,” said Carmeli. “You're a careful man.”
“And your predecessors?”
“I'm sure they tried, too.”
“Loyal, too,” said Carmeli. “A good soldier. After all this time, the clothes being in my wife's car, what use are analyses?”
“I never touched them,” said Liora. “I never opened the bag. I wanted to, but…”
Carmeli looked ready to sting, said only, “Ah.”
Liora said, “I'll get them for you. May I have them back?”
“Of course, ma'am.”
She got up and went outside.
Unlocking the minivan's rear hatch, she lifted up a section and revealed the spare-tire compartment. Next to the wheel was a plastic bag still bearing an LAPD evidence tag. Inside was something blue- rolled jeans. And a white patch- a single sock.
“My husband already thinks I've gone crazy because I've started talking to myself- like Iriti's singing.”
Carmeli stiffened, then his eyes went soft. “Liora.” He put his arm around her. She patted his hand and moved away from him.
“Take it,” she said, pointing to the bag.
As Milo reached for it, Carmeli returned to the house.
Watching him, Liora said, “Maybe I am sick. Maybe I am primitive… What will you be analyzing? The first police told us there was nothing on it.”
“I'll probably repeat what's been done,” said Milo. He held the bag in both hands, as if it were something precious.
“Well,” she said. “Good-bye. Nice to meet you.”
“Thank you, ma'am. I'm sorry we upset your husband.”
“My husband is very… tender. You will return it?”
“Can you say when?”
“As soon as possible?”
“Thank you,” she said. “As soon as possible. I would like to have it with me again when I drive.”
She trudged back into her house and closed the door.
Milo and I returned to our cars. “I love my job,” he said. “Those light and airy moments.” The evidence bag was nestled against his barrel chest.
“Poor woman,” I said. “Both of them.”
“Looks like things aren't great between them.”
“Tragedy will do that.”
“Any other insights?”
“About what?” I said.
“He's protecting her and she doesn't want to be protected. Pretty standard male-female pattern. Why?”
“I don't know… the way she talked about being crazy, primitive. She's… something about her made me wonder if she has a psychiatric history.”
I stared at him.
“Like I said, light and airy, Alex.”
“Stalking her own child in the park and strangling her?”
“Strangling gently… could be a boyfriend, I've seen that plenty of times, guy develops a relationship, sees the kids as impediments- but no, she's not a suspect. I just think ugly by reflex.”
His arm dropped and the bag dangled. “I've seen too many kids killed by mama. Can't be effective if I avoid the shadows.”
“True,” I said. “My guess is that she might have been wound up pretty tight- a diplomat's wife- and has unraveled. She probably used to put on a happy face, suppress things, now she says to hell with it.”
He looked down at the bag. “What do you think about her keeping this in her car all this time?”
“A shrine. There are all sorts of them. She knew her husband would be offended so she created a private one but she's willing to risk his disapproval in order to cooperate.”
“Offended,” he said. “She talked about her culture. As opposed to his? Moroccan as opposed to wherever he comes from?”
“Probably. He looks European. When I was in private practice, I had a few Israeli patients and the East versus West thing came up. When Israel was created it became a melting pot for Jews and sometimes there was conflict. I remember one family with just the opposite situation. The husband was from Iraq and the wife was Polish or Austrian. He thought she was cold, she thought he was superstitious. Maybe Mrs. Carmeli didn't want Mr. to think she was engaging in primitive rituals. Maybe she just knew he'd be grossed out by the clothes. Whatever the reason, she had no hesitation telling you she had the bag.”
“One thing for sure, I'm talking to the neighbors. Carmeli will freak but so be it. Worse comes to worst, he gripes and they pull me off the case and someone else gets to feel useless.”
I looked up the block. The electrician's van was the only vehicle at the curb.
“Are you really planning to run new lab tests?”
“Maybe. First things first.”
I met him at the West L.A. station, upstairs in the detective room, relatively quiet now, with one other D, a young black woman, filling out forms. She didn't seem to notice as Milo sat at his metal desk, cleared papers, and placed the bag next to a stack of messages weighed down by a stapler. He scanned the slips, put them down. Then he put on surgical gloves and unsealed the bag.
Removing the jeans first, he turned each pocket inside out. The denim gave off smells of earth, mold, and chemistry lab.
Turning the pants over, he pointed out some very faint brown stains that I'd have missed.
“Dirt, from when she lay on the ground.”
Refolding the pants neatly, he took out the white sock and its mate, then a pair of white cotton underpants printed with small pink flowers, the crotch cut away cleanly.
“Semen analysis,” he said.
Next came tennis shoes. He peeled the insoles free and peered inside, saying, “The Ortiz boy's shoes were obviously bloody but let's check these out anyway- size six and a half, made in Macao, nada, no blood, surprise, surprise.”
A white cotton training bra caused him to pause for a second before removing the last garment- the lace-trimmed white T-shirt I'd seen in the photos. The front was clean but the back bore brown stains, too. Two breast pockets.
He put a thumb and forefinger inside the first, looked inside, moved on to the second and pulled out a small rectangle of paper, the size of a fortune-cookie slip.
“Aha, Dr. Sherlock, a clue-“Inspected by number 11.' ” Then he turned the scrap over and his mouth dropped open.
Typed neatly in the center were four letters.
That night at ten, we entered the rear party-room of a bar and grill on Santa Monica Boulevard, four blocks west of the West L.A. station. The plain-faced red-haired hostess looked happy to see us and a bill slipped into her hand improved her disposition even further.
The room was big enough for a wedding party, with asparagus-green wallpaper and brown banquettes that were either real leather or fake. Dainty Impressionist prints hung on the walls- street scenes of Paris, the Loire Valley, other places cops were unlikely to go, but the only people in the room were three cops at the largest booth, up against the back wall.
Southwest Division Detectives Willis Hooks and Roy McLaren drank iced tea, and a chunky, white-haired man of nearly sixty, wearing a houndstooth sportcoat and a black polo shirt, nursed a beer.
As Milo and I slid into the booth, he introduced the older man as Detective Manuel Alvarado, Newton Division.
“Pleased to meet you, Doctor.” His voice was mild, his skin was dark as a field-worker's, rough as bark.
“Thanks for coming on your night off, Manny.”
“A whodunit? Wouldn't miss it. Things are slow in Saugus.”
“You live all the way out there?” said Hooks.
“What do you do for fun out there?”
The hostess reappeared. “Is this the entire party?”
“This is it,” said Milo.
“Bring the mixed appetizer thing.”
When she was gone, McLaren said, “Gentlemen. She obviously doesn't know us.”
Obligatory smiles all around.
Hooks said, “Your call was the biggest surprise I've had since my ex-wife told me I wasn't handsome anymore.”
“It surprised me, too, Willis,” said Milo.
Alvarado took a pack of gum out of his jacket pocket and offered it around. No one accepted and he unwrapped a stick, and chewed. “DVLL. A common thread no one's ever heard of before.”
“We checked with every gang-cop and banger and social worker and youth leader in our division,” said McLaren.
“Same at West L.A.,” said Milo. “FBI has nothing in VICAP or any other files.”
“I went back through my copy of the Ortiz file,” said Alvarado.
“The original was missing, just came back today, some sort of storage screw-up, fortunately I always Xerox. No DVLL message in the bathroom where my victim was probably taken and I copied down every bit of graffiti at the time. I'm still trying to locate the boy's shoes, but from what I remember there was no writing in them at all, just blood. So I can't say mine belongs with yours.”
“And yours was a boy,” said Hooks.
“And we never recovered the body, which is a big difference from both of yours.”
“Not that pattern seems to mean a damn thing here,” said Hooks. “West L.A. diplomat's kid and a mid-city strawberry?”
He shook his shaved head. “This is nutty. Twilight Zone stuff- right up your alley, huh, Doc? What do you think, does DVLL stand for some devil thing?”
“Could be,” I said. “Despite the differences, Latvinia and Irit do have things in common: mildly retarded, non-Anglo teenage girls. The fact that the killer chose handicapped victims says he despises weakness in others, and maybe himself.”
“A handicapped killer?”
“Or someone preoccupied with strength and weakness. Domination. It could mean powerlessness in his life.”
“A wimp who kills,” said McLaren. His hands were huge and they closed around a spoon handle.
“Raymond Ortiz was retarded, too,” said Alvarado. “But being a boy… usually when they go for boys, they don't go for girls.”
“Usually,” said Hooks, “when they go for inner-city street kids they don't go for rich kids on the West Side. Usually when they string one body up, they don't leave the other one stretched out on the ground. So if there is a pattern, it's eluding me.”
He looked at me.
“Maybe the pattern here is deliberate avoidance of pattern,” I said. “To outsmart you guys. Serial killers often read up on police procedure, collect true-crime magazines, for stimulation. This one could have used it for reference material. Learning the rules in order to break them. Varying his M.O., moving from district to district, other surface variables.”
“What do you mean by surface?” said Alvarado.
“The core of the crimes will be consistent,” I said. “The trademark. Because sex killers are psychologically rigid, crave structure. In this case, it's retarded teens and leaving behind the DVLL message. That could be a private message for him or a taunt, or both. So far, he's not advertising: he left it so subtly he can't have expected anyone to find it. One advantage for the good guys. He doesn't know anyone's made a connection.”
“That paper in your victim's pocket, Milo,” said McLaren. “ “Inspected by number 11.' Was that preprinted or did he type that, too?”
“That part looks preprinted,” said Milo, “but with computers and desktop printers, you can't tell. I sent it over to the lab, maybe they can clarify. Either way, he brought it with him, because the DVLL part was in a different font, the lab says probably a computer, and I don't see anyone with killing on his mind bringing along a PC.”
“Hey, you never know,” said Hooks, “they make those laptop suckers pretty small nowadays. And the doctor, here, thinks maybe he took her picture. So if he had a camera, why not a laptop? Maybe he brought along a carful of stuff.”
“A vanful,” said Alvarado. “Those guys love vans.”
“Yeah,” said Hooks.
“I always look for vans,” said Alvarado. “On Raymond's case, I spent weeks checking out every van in the neighborhood- parking tickets, everything. Never found the killer but I did find quite a few set up as mobile bedrooms and one turkey who actually had handcuffs and burglary tools.”
“You bet,” said McLaren. “Vans and long-distance truckers, the well-equipped killer. There's probably a mail-order catalog out there somewhere.”
“So,” said Milo, “DVLL's important to him but he's not ready to advertise.”
I said, “Either he's still a beginner and building up his confidence, or he'll never advertise, too cowardly. The fact that he chose especially vulnerable victims points to cowardice.”
A knock sounded on the door and Milo said, “Come in, Sally.”
The hostess wheeled in a two-tiered cart full of platters. Fried wontons, fried chicken, fried shrimp, fried egg rolls, pigs in blankets, shish kebobs on wooden skewers, each piece of meat capped with fat. Miniature wedges of pepperoni pizza. Bowls of dip in various colors, nachos, pretzels, potato chips.
“Mixed appetizers, gentlemen.”
“Sure, why not,” said Hooks. “I walked fifteen feet today from the lunch truck to my car, musta burned up two calories.”
Sally served us and refilled the drinks.
“Thanks,” said Milo. “We're fine, now.”
“No more interruptions,” she promised. “You want something, stick your head out and holler.”
The men helped themselves to food and it didn't take long for half the serving plates to empty.
“I love this,” said Hooks, lifting a chicken wing. “Feeling my arteries clog up as we speak.”
“Your case,” Milo said to Alvarado. “You said the shoes are still missing.”
“The log says they're in the evidence room but they're not in the bin in the evidence room where they're supposed to be. Which is no heart-stopper, Milo, it's a year-old case, we've always got storage problems, stuff gets moved. It'll turn up, I'll let you know.”
Milo nodded. “Anything else?”
“Latvinia,” said McLaren. “We found lots of street creeps who knew her, even a couple who admitted doing her, but no one she hung with habitually. The grandmother says she went out alone at night a lot, the closest we've got to a hangout is that freeway on-ramp she got busted at. She went there from time to time so anyone could have picked her up- a West Side commuter who did her in his car- or van- then brought her back to the school so we wouldn't figure out he was a West Side guy.
“When the ramps are busy,” he said, “or when the freeway's metered, you get panhandlers, people selling flowers, bags of oranges. Traffic balls up, Latvinia's out there flashing skin, some joker picks her up… Maybe someone noticed that, someone stalled in the gridlock. I was gonna see if some TV station would flash her pic, though we couldn't get much exposure, she's just a Southwest hooker got in trouble. Then you told me about the gag order.”
“What gag order?” said Alvarado.
“My victim's family,” said Milo. “The Israeli Consulate. They insist it stays out of the media for security reasons and they've got major pull with the brass. I checked again today with my loo and he says it's come down from the mayor's office, don't mess with it.”
“So we're all gagged,” said Hooks.
Alvarado said, “So does that apply to mine, too? I'm still not convinced it's connected.”
“Why?” said Milo. “Were you thinking of going to the Spanish papers again?”
“No. I just want to know the rules- what exactly are the security concerns?”
Milo summed them up. “Now, with the tie-in to Latvinia, it doesn't sound like a terrorist. I explained that to my loo, but…” He covered his ears.
“Course it's not a terrorist,” said McLaren. “This is a freak.”
“Retarded kids,” said Hooks, shaking his head.
“So what's the plan?” said Alvarado.
“Keep looking for leads, keep in touch,” said Milo.
Alvarado nodded. “The shoes. I'll find them.”
“Maybe we'll get lucky and he'll make a mistake,” said Hooks.
McLaren said, “Our best friend: good old human error.”
“Assuming,” said Milo, “that he's human.”
The other detectives left and Sally brought Milo the bill. Typical cop tip; she looked ready to kiss him.
He pocketed the credit slip but stayed seated and she left. “What do you think?”
“Eight hands are better than two,” I said.
“I keep flashing to what you first said about Raymond Ortiz. The impulsiveness of a first murder. If that's true, we're right at the beginning of the killing curve… DVLL. What the hell does it mean?”
“I'll go to the U tomorrow and play with the computers.”
There was iced tea left in his glass and he drained it.
I asked where the men's room was.
He pointed across the room, to a door in the right-hand corner.
I pushed it open and on the other side was a pay phone, the rear door marked EMERGENCY ONLY. The lav was small, white-tiled, spotless, sweet with disinfectant.
Drafty, too. An oft-painted casement window had been left partially open and I heard engine noise from outside.
Then I noticed dry paint flakes on the sill. Recently opened window.
An alley ran behind the restaurant and a car was pulling into it.
Headlights off, but as it backed away it passed under the backdoor lamp.
Gray or light blue Ford Econoline. Electrician's logo.
I'd seen it or one just like it this afternoon, parked across the street from the Carmeli house.
The alley was narrow and the van had to manipulate a three-point turn, exposing a side panel.
I tried to force the window wider but it wouldn't budge. Straining, I made out the name of the company.
HERMES ELECTRIC. SPEEDY SERVICE.
Winged-messenger logo. An 818 number I couldn't catch.
A van. These guys love vans.
The Econoline straightened and the tires rotated. Dark windows, no view of the driver.
As it sped away, I tried for the license plate, managed to get all seven digits, kept reciting them out loud as I fumbled for a pen and a paper towel from the dispenser.
Milo got up so hard the table shook. “Stalking us, the Carmelis? He's that arrogant?”
He hurried back to the bathroom area and shoved the emergency door open.
Outside, the air was warm and the alley smelled of rotted vegetables. I could hear sirens, probably from the station. I handed him the paper towel.
“Hermes Electric,” he said.
“An electrician would wear a uniform. One of those anonymous beige or gray things that could resemble a park worker's. Electricians also carry lots of equipment, so who'd notice an extra camera in the back of the van? And I remember something Robin told me when we were rebuilding the house. Of all the tradesmen, electricians tend to be the most precise. Perfectionistic.”
“Makes sense,” he said. “Slip up and get fried… Was the van at the Carmelis' the whole time?”
We walked through the restaurant, moving quickly past diners. The unmarked was parked in front, in a loading zone.
“Hermes,” I said. “The god of-”
“Speed. So we've got a fast little motherfucker on our hands?”
He used the mobile digital terminal to connect to DMV, then typed in the plate number. The answer came back within minutes.
“Seventy-eight Chevy Nova registered to P. L. Almoni on Fairfax. So the asshole switched plates. This is looking better and better- I'm heading right over to the address… looks like between Pico and Olympic.”
“The number on the side of the van was an 818.”
“So he lives in the city, works in the Valley. Has a personal car and a work van and switches plates around when he wants to play… Almoni… that could be Israeli, too, right?”
“Juicier and juicier… okay, let's see what the state crime files and NCIC have to say about him.”
Checking those data banks produced no hits. He started driving.
“Clean record,” said Milo. “A goddamn beginner like you said… Let's see how this asshole lives- unless you want to go home.”
My heart was pounding and my mouth was dry. “Not a chance.”
The east side of Fairfax, a dark, relatively untraveled section of the avenue, was filled with one shabby storefront after another. Every store closed, except for an Ethiopian restaurant with no drapes over the window. Inside, three people sat concentrating on heaping plates.
The sign atop P. L. Almoni's address read NOTARY PUBLIC, PHOTOCOPY SERVICES, MAILBOXES FOR RENT. We got out and looked through the window. Three walls of lockboxes, a service counter in back.
“Goddamn mail drop,” said Milo. “Onward to his business.”
We got back in the car, where he phoned Valley Information, waited, said, “You're sure?” and wrote something down.
Hanging up, he gave a sour smile. “It's a Valley exchange all right, but the address is in 310 territory. Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. Welcome to the maze, fellow rats.”
Holloway was a ten-minute drive from the mail drop, nice and convenient for the convoluted Mr. Almoni. West to La Cienega, then north just past Santa Monica Boulevard, and a left turn onto a quiet street filled with apartment buildings. Well-designed buildings, many of them prewar, some concealed behind tall hedges. I guessed Almoni's would be one of them.
Only a short walk to Sunset Strip but insulated from the din and the lights. I noticed a woman walking a huge dog, its gait and hers long and confident. Tucked among the apartments was an old Mediterranean mansion turned into a private school.
So dark it was hard to read addresses. As Milo searched for the right number, I composed news copy in my head:
Not much is known about Almoni. He was a quiet man, residents in this comfortable neighborhood said.
Suddenly, he pulled to the curb.
Bad guess: Hermes Electric's home base was a newer, well-lit three-story structure with an unshielded brick face and glass doors leading into a bright, mirrored lobby.
A short walk, also, to Milo and Rick's West Hollywood house.
He was thinking the same thing, clenched his jaw and said, “Evening, neighbor.”
Out of the car, he studied a collection of parking signs on a lamppost. Bottom line: permit parking only.
Placing an LAPD sticker on the dash, he said, “Not that it'll help. West Hollywood's county territory, the meter-leeches they contract with could give a shit.”
We walked up to the glass doors. Ten mailbox slots, each with a call button.
Number 6 said I. BUDZHYSHYN. HERMES LANGUAGE SCHOOL, INC.
“Multitalented,” Milo said, squinting at his Timex. “Almost midnight… no jurisdiction, no warrant… wonder if there's an in-house manager- here we go, Number 2, hope he's not a morning person.”
He finger-stabbed Unit 2's button. No answer for several moments, then a thick, male voice said, “Yes?”
“Police, sir. Sorry to bother you but could you come down to the lobby, please.”
Milo repeated the greeting.
The thick voice said, “How do I know you're the police?”
“If you come down to the lobby, I'll be happy to show you identification, sir.”
“If this is some kind of joke-”
“It's not, sir.”
“What's this all about?”
“One of your tenants-”
“Please come down, sir.”
“… hold on.”
Five minutes later a man in his late twenties came into the lobby rubbing his eyes. Young, but bald, with a light brown mustache and clipped goatee, he had on a baggy gray T-shirt, blue shorts, and house slippers. His legs were pale, coated with blond hair.
Blinking and rubbing his eyes again, he stared out at us through the glass. Milo held out his badge and the goateed man studied it, frowned, mouthed, “Show me something else.”
“Great,” muttered Milo, “a picky one.” Smiling, he produced his LAPD business card. If the goateed man realized the department had no jurisdiction in West Hollywood, he didn't show it. Nodding sleepily, he unlocked the door and let us in.
“I don't understand why you couldn't come at a decent hour.”
“Sorry, sir, but this just came up.”
“What did? Who's in trouble?”
“No real trouble yet, sir, but we have some questions to ask you about Mr. Budzhyshyn.”
The young man smiled. “No such animal, here.”
“Is the home of Ms. Budzhyshyn. Irina. And she lives alone.”
“Is there a boyfriend, Mr.-”
“Laurel. Phil Laurel. Yeah, yeah, as in “and Hardy.' Never saw a boyfriend, don't know if she dates. She's gone most of the time. Nice, quiet tenant, no problems.”
“Where does she go when she's gone, Mr. Laurel?”
“Work, I assume.”
“What kind of work does she do?”
“Insurance company, some type of supervisor. She makes a good living and pays her rent on time, that's all I care about. What's this all about?”
“It says language school.”
“She does that on the side,” said Laurel.
“Budzhyshyn,” said Milo. “That Russian?”
“Yeah. She said in Russia she'd been a mathematician, taught college.”
“So the school's a moonlighting thing.”
Laurel looked uncomfortable. “Strictly speaking we don't allow tenants to conduct business out of their units but hers isn't any big deal, she maybe sees a couple of guys a week and she's very quiet. Very nice. Which is why I'm sure you have the wrong information-”
“Guys? All her students are men?”
Laurel touched his beard. “I guess they have been… oh, no.” He laughed. His teeth were stained brown from nicotine. “No, not Irina, that's ridiculous.”
“You're implying she's some kind of call girl. No, not her. We wouldn't allow that, believe me.”
“You've had problems with call girls?”
“Not in this building, but others, farther east, sure… anyway, Irina's not like that.”
“You own the building?”
“Co-own.” Brief glance at the floor. “With my parents. They retired to Palm Springs and I took over to help them out.” He yawned. “Can I go back to sleep now?”
“Does she also operate a company called Hermes Electric?” said Milo.
“Not that I know- what's this about?”
“Where's this insurance company she works for?”
“Somewhere on Wilshire. I'd have to go check her file.”
“Could you, please?”
Laurel stifled another yawn. “It's really that important? Come on, what is it she supposedly did?”
“Her name came up in an investigation.”
“About electricians? Some kind of construction fraud? I could tell you stories about construction. Everyone in construction is a sleaze, the work ethic is totally gone from American civilization.”
He stopped. Milo smiled. Laurel rubbed his goatee and exhaled. “All right, hold on, I'll get the file- want to come in?”
“Thanks, sir,” said Milo. “Thanks for your time.”
Laurel shuffled off, slippers flapping, and came back with a yellow Post-it stuck to his thumb like a tiny flag.
“Here you go. I was wrong, it's an escrow company, Metropolitan Title. On Wilshire, like I said. On her application she put data manager. I'm not comfortable giving information to you without her permission but this you could get anywhere.”
Milo took the yellow paper and I read the address. The 5500 block of Wilshire put it somewhere near La Brea.
“Thank you, sir. Now we're going to pay Ms. Budzhyshyn a visit.”
“At this hour?”
“We'll be sure to keep things quiet.”
Laurel blinked. “No… excitement or anything?”
“No, sir. Just talking.”
A tiny, mirrored elevator took us creakily up to the third floor and we stepped into a yellow hallway.
Two units per floor. Number 6 was on the left.
Milo knocked. Nothing happened for several moments and he was about to knock again when the peephole brightened. He showed his badge. “Police, Ms. Budzhyshyn.”
“We'd like to talk to you, ma'am.”
“To me?” Husky voice, thick accent.
“Yes, ma'am. Could you please open the door?”
“It's very late.”
“I'm sorry, ma'am, but this is important.”
“You wish to talk to me?”
“About Hermes Electric, ma'am.”
The peephole shut.
The door opened.
She was forty or so, five three and stout and barefoot, wearing a white Armani X sweatshirt over black sweatpants. Her brown hair was chopped short and her face was pleasant, maybe pretty ten years ago, with a small but bulbous nose shadowing full lips.
Beautiful complexion- rosy cheeks over ivory. Gray eyes, searching and alert under precisely plucked brows.
She'd opened the door just enough to accommodate her hips. Over her head was a darkened front room.
“Ms. Budzhyshyn?” said Milo.
One-beat pause. “I am Hermes Language School,” she said, pronouncing it Hoor-meez. She smiled. “Is there problem?”
“Well, ma'am,” said Milo, “we're a little confused. Because your address also matches a company called Hermes Electric out in the Valley.”
“That is… a mistake.”
“Yes, of course.”
“What about Mr. Almoni?”
She backed away from the door and narrowed the opening.
“Almoni. P. L. Almoni. He drives a van for Hermes Electric. Has a post-office box not far from here.”
Irina Budzhyshyn said nothing. Then she shrugged. “I don't know him.”
“Really.” Milo leaned forward and his foot slid closer to the door.
She shrugged again.
He said, “You're Hermes and they're Hermes and their number is listed with your address.”
“Where's Almoni, ma'am?”
Irina Budzhyshyn stepped back farther, as if to close the door, and Milo took hold of it.
“If you're protecting him, you could be in deep trouble-”
“I don't know this person.”
“No such guy? It's a fake name? Why does your boyfriend need one?”
Barking out the questions. The stout woman's lips blanched but she didn't answer.
“What else is phony? Your language school? The data-manager job at Metropolitan Title? What do you really do for a living, Ms. Budzhyshyn? Whether or not you tell us, we'll find out, so save yourself some trouble right now.”
Irina Budzhyshyn remained impassive.
Milo forced the door wider and she sighed.
“Come in,” she said. “We'll talk some more.”
She turned on a table lamp shaped and colored like a larva. Her living room was like thousands of others: modest proportions, low ceiling, wall-to-wall brown nylon, forgettable furniture. A folding card table and three folding chairs established a dining area. Behind a white Formica counter was a pale oak kitchen.
“Please sit,” she said, fluffing her short hair to no visible effect.
“That's okay,” said Milo, gazing at a back doorway blocked by strings of wooden beads. Through it I saw an open bathroom door: night-light dimness, underwear over a shower door.
“How many other rooms back there?”
Irina Budzhyshyn shook her head. “I am alone… Would you like some tea?”
“No thanks.” Milo took out his gun, passed through the beads, and turned left. Irina Budzhyshyn stood there, not moving, not looking at me.
A minute later he returned. “Okay. Tell us about Hermes Electric and Mr. P. L. Almoni.”
This time the name made her smile. “I need to make a phone call.”
“Someone who can answer your questions.”
“Where's the phone?”
“In the kitchen.”
“Anything else in there I should know about?”
“I have a gun,” she said calmly. “In the drawer next to the refrigerator, but I'm not going to shoot you.”
With a few quick strides, he retrieved it. Chrome-plated automatic.
“Loaded and ready.”
“I'm a woman living alone.”
“Any other arms?”
“And no P. L. Almoni lurking in some attic?”
“There's no such person.”
“If you don't know him, how can you be sure?”
“Let me make the call and you'll understand.”
“Who're you going to call?”
“I can't tell you until after I make the call. You're not a county sheriff so I don't even have to cooperate with you.”
Statement of fact, no defiance.
“But you're cooperating anyway.”
“Yes. It's… practical. I'm going to call now. You may watch me.”
They went into the kitchen and he stayed right next to her, towering over her, as she punched numbers. She said something in a foreign language, listened, said something else, then handed the receiver to him.
As he pressed it to his ear, his jaws bunched.
“What? When?” He was growling now. “I don't… okay, all right. Where?”
He hung up.
Irina Budzhyshyn left the kitchen and sat on a couch, looking content.
Milo turned to me. He was flushed and his shirt looked tight. “That was Deputy Consul Carmeli. We're to meet him at his office in fifteen minutes. Sharp. Maybe this time we'll actually get past the goddamn hall.”
Wilshire was empty as we pulled up in front of the consulate building. By the time we were out of the car, someone was standing in front of the unlit lobby door.
He studied us, then came forward into the streetlight. Young man in a sportcoat and slacks. Big shoulders, big hands, one of them carrying a walkie-talkie. His hair was dark and very short, just like that of the guard behind the consulate reception window. It could have even been the same man.
“I'll take you up,” he said in a flat voice.
Striding ahead of us, he unlocked the door and walked across the echoing lobby. The three of us rode up to the seventeenth floor. He looked bored.
The door opened on Zev Carmeli standing in the corridor. He said, “B'seder,” and the young man remained in the elevator and rode down.
Carmeli was wearing a dark suit and white shirt, no tie, and he reeked of tobacco. His hair had been watered and combed but several cowlicks sprouted.
“This way.” He did an abrupt about-face and led us to the white door of the same conference room. This time we walked through and out the back into the cubicles of the work area. Office machines, a water cooler, corkboard full of memos, the travel posters I'd seen through the reception window. The fluorescent panels in the ceiling were off and light came from a single corner pole lamp. Nothing to distinguish the place from any other site of repetitive-motion injury.
Carmeli kept going, hunched, arms swinging loosely, til he reached a door with his name on it. Twisting the knob, he stood aside and let us enter.
Like Irina Budzhyshyn's apartment, his office was characterless, with blue drapes over what I assumed were windows, a wall of half-empty board-and-bracket shelves, a wooden desk with steel legs, gray sofa and love seat.
A man sat on the love seat and when we came in he stood, keeping his left hand in the pocket of his blue jeans.
Late thirties to forty, five seven, around 140, he wore a black nylon windbreaker, pale blue shirt, black athletic shoes. His tightly kinked hair was black tipped with gray and trimmed to a short Afro. His face was lean, very smooth, cafÉ-au-lait skin stretched tightly over finely molded features. A strong nose was anchored by flared nostrils and his lips were wide, full and bowed. Very light brown eyes- golden, really- and shaded by long, curved lashes. Arched eyebrows gave them the look of permanent surprise but the rest of his face contradicted that: static, unreadable.
Probably Middle-Eastern, but he could have been Latin or American Indian or a light-skinned black man.
Familiar for some reason… had I seen him before?
He met my stare and volleyed it back. No hostility, just the opposite. Pleasant, almost friendly.
Then I realized his expression hadn't changed. Like a Rorschach card, his neutrality had led me to interpret.
Milo was looking at him, too, but his attention shifted to Carmeli as the consul passed behind the desk and sat down.
His big hands were clenched and I saw him open them. Forcing the appearance of relaxation. During the ride over from Holloway Drive, he'd been silent, driving much too fast.
He sat down on the sofa without being invited and I did the same.
The dark man with the golden eyes was still looking at us. Or past us.
Still pleasantly blank.
Suddenly I knew I had seen him. And where.
Driving away from Latvinia Shaver's murder scene. Driving some kind of compact car- a gray Toyota- just as the film crews arrived. Wearing a uniform like that of Montez, the custodian.
Another image clicked in.
A dark-skinned uniformed man had also been at the nature conservancy the day Milo took me to view Irit's murder scene.
Park-worker's uniform. Driving some sort of mowing machine, leaf bags stacked on the grass.
A pith helmet had hidden his face.
Following us? No, in both cases he'd gotten there before.
One step ahead because he had access to police information?
Listening in, somehow.
Milo'd said Carmeli's attitude had seemed to change suddenly. More cooperative.
Because he'd kept tabs, knew Milo was serious, working hard?
I nodded at the dark man, expecting no response, but he nodded back. Milo's big face was still full of curiosity and anger.
Zev Carmeli pulled out a cigarette and lit up. Not offering one to the dark man. Knowing the dark man didn't smoke. Knowing the dark man's habits.
The dark man remained still, left hand in pocket.
Carmeli puffed several times, cleared his throat, and sat up straight.
“Gentlemen, this is Superintendent Daniel Sharavi from the Israeli National Police, Southern District.”
“Southern District,” said Milo, very softly. “What does that mean?”
“Jerusalem and the surrounding areas,” said Carmeli.
“So on your map that includes Southern California, too.”
Sharavi leaned back in the love seat. The windbreaker was unzipped and the flaps parted, revealing a thin, flat torso. No shoulder holster, no visible weapon, and the bulge in his pocket was too small to be anything other than five fingers.
Carmeli said, “Several years ago, Superintendent Sharavi headed a major investigation into a series of Jerusalem sex killings called the Butcher murders.”
“Several years ago,” said Milo. “Must have missed that one.”
“Serial murders are almost nonexistent in Israel, Mr. Sturgis. The Butcher was the first in our history. We're a small country, the impact was huge. Superintendent Sharavi solved the killings. There've been none like them since.”
“Congratulations,” said Milo, turning to Sharavi. “Must be nice to have spare time.”
Sharavi didn't move.
Carmeli said, “Superintendent Sharavi is also familiar with Los Angeles because he was part of the security contingent that accompanied our athletes to the L.A. Olympics. We would like you to work with him on the current murders.”
“Murders,” said Milo, still facing Sharavi. “Plural, not just your daughter's. Sounds like you've kept abreast.”
Carmeli smoked and sanded his desk with the palm of his hand. “We are aware of… developments.”
“I'll bet you are,” said Milo. “So where're the bugs? Dashboard of my car? My office phone? Heel of my shoe? All of the above?”
“Probably in my house, too,” I said. “The night the burglar alarm went off. By listening in there, they'd have access to lots of information. But the superintendent's been with us well before then.”
I faced Sharavi. “I've seen you twice. At Booker T. Washington Elementary School the day Latvinia Shaver's body was found. And at the nature conservancy the day Milo and I looked over the crime scene. You were driving a mower. Both times you wore a uniform.”
Sharavi's expression didn't change and he didn't answer.
Milo said, “Isn't that interesting.” Striving for calm, too. The air felt ready to implode.
Carmeli smoked hard and fast, stopping only to look at the cigarette, as if the act required concentration.
“Well,” said Milo. “It's sure good to meet a genuine expert. A real back-alley sleuth.”
Sharavi removed his hand from his pocket and placed it in his lap. The upper surface was glossy with grayish-brown scar tissue and deeply caved, as if a chunk of flesh and bone had been scooped out. The thumb was atrophied and curled unnaturally and I'd overestimated the number of fingers: The thumb was intact but all that remained of the index was a one-knuckle stump and the remaining three were wasted, too, not much more than bare bone with a pallid brown sheath.
He said, “I began looking into the case just before you came on, Detective Sturgis.” His voice was youthful, barely accented. “I hope we can put that aside and work together.”
“Sure,” said Milo. “One big happy family, I trust you, already.” Crossing and uncrossing his long legs, he shook his head. “So, how many felonies have you racked up so far, playing James Bond?”
“Superintendent Sharavi is operating under full diplomatic immunity,” said Carmeli. “He's protected from threats and prosecution-”
“Ah,” said Milo.
“So it's arranged, Mr. Sturgis?”
“A working agreement to share and collaborate.”
“Share,” said Milo, laughing. “Christ. Show me yours, I show you mine? And if I say no?”
Carmeli didn't answer.
Sharavi pretended to study his ruined hand.
“Let me guess,” said Milo. “You put a call in to the mayor's office and I'm off the case, replaced with some lackey willing to share.”
Carmeli took a deep drag. “My daughter was murdered. I was hoping for a more mature attitude on your part.”
Milo stood. “Let me save you the trouble. Get yourself a mature guy and I'll go back to dealing with ordinary homicides with ordinary obstructions. No big loss to you- since you've been following closely, you know we haven't made much progress. Bye- shalom.”
He started out and I followed.
Carmeli said, “I'd prefer that you remain on the case, Detective Sturgis.”
Milo stopped. “I'm sorry, sir. It just won't work out.”
We left the office and were back at the door into the conference room when Carmeli caught up with us. Milo turned the knob. It wouldn't budge.
“There's a master lock for the entire suite,” said Carmeli.
“Kidnapping, too? I thought you guys rescued hostages.”
“I'm serious, Detective Sturgis. I want you on my daughter's case. You were assigned to it in the first place because I asked for you, personally.”
Milo's hand dropped from the knob.
“I asked for you,” Carmeli repeated, “because things had bogged down. Gorobich and Ramos were nice men, they seemed competent enough for routine cases. But I knew this wasn't routine and it soon became clear that they didn't measure up. Nevertheless, I gave them time. Because contrary to what you believe, it was never my intention to obstruct. All I want is to find the garbage who murdered my daughter. Do you understand that? Do you?”
He'd moved closer to Milo, closing the space between them the way- exactly what I'd seen Milo do with suspects.
“That's all I care about, Mr. Sturgis. Results. Do you understand? Nothing else. Gorobich and Ramos produced none so they-”
“What makes you think-”
“- were removed and you were brought in. I conducted some research. The performance of Robbery-Homicide detectives at the West L.A. station. I wanted to know which detectives avoided the quick and easy and had a record of tackling atypical cases. Of those, which detective had the highest solve rate for the past ten years. Things the department doesn't want made public, the data was hard to obtain, but I managed. And guess what, Mr. Sturgis? Your name kept coming up. Your solve rate is eighteen percent higher than your nearest competitor's, though your popularity rating is considerably lower than his. Which is also fine, I'm not running a social club. In fact-”
“I've never seen statistics like that-”
“I'm sure you haven't.” Carmeli pulled out another cigarette and waved it like a conductor's baton. “Officially, they don't exist. So congratulations. You're the winner. Not that it will help your career advancement… you were also described as someone lacking in polish and good manners, someone who doesn't give a damn about what people think of him. Someone who can be a bully.”
Puff, puff. “There are also people in the department who believe you harbor violent tendencies. I know about the incident in which you broke a superior's jaw. My reading of that was that you were morally justified but that nonetheless it was a stupid, impulsive act. It bothered me, but the fact that you haven't done anything like that in over four years encourages me.”
He came even closer, looking Milo straight in the eye. “The fact that you are gay encourages me, as well, because it's clear that no matter how liberal a line the police department takes in public, no matter how high the caliber of your work remains, you'll always be an outcast.”
Another long drag. “This is as high as you'll go, Mr. Sturgis. Which, for my needs, is perfect. Someone aiming for the top- someone cautious, a careerist-is exactly what I don't want. Some ambition-blinded monkey scampering up the administrative ladder, looking over his shoulder every other second, keeping his buttocks shielded.”
He blinked. “My daughter was taken from me. Bureaucracy is the last thing I need. Do you understand? Do you?”
“If you're after results, why make it so difficult for me to get info-”
“No, no, no,” said Carmeli, smoking and blinking through the haze. “In terms of reading my motivations, you're not as astute as you think you are. I haven't hidden anything important from you. I'd strip naked and parade down Wilshire Boulevard if it would bring the garbage who murdered my Iriti to justice. Do you understand that?”
“Life has its ups and downs, no one knows that better than Israelis. But losing a young child is an unnatural occurrence and losing one violently is an abomination. One can never be prepared for it and one finds oneself unable to help those who-” He shook his head violently. “I don't want a team player, Milo.”
Using the first name as if used to it. “On the contrary. Come to me and inform me that you've found him, that you've shot him or cut his throat, and I'll be a far happier man, Milo. Not happy, not jocular or sunny or optimistic. I've never been that sort, even as a child I had a pessimistic worldview. That's why I smoke sixty cigarettes a day. That's why I work for a government. But happier. Partial healing of the wound. Staunching the pus.”
He touched Milo's lapel and Milo allowed it.
“You saw my wife. Being married to me, holding things in- has always been difficult for her. Now she finds herself unwilling to live a shadow life, to put up with even the most trivial impositions. She works and comes home and won't leave, won't accompany me to functions. Even though I know she can't be blamed, I get angry. We fight. My work helps me escape but hers forces her to look at other people's children, day after day. I've told her to quit but she won't. Won't stop punishing herself.”
He rocked on his heels.
“It took thirty-three hours to give birth to Irit. There were complications, she always felt guilty because of Irit's disabilities, even though a fever caused them, months later. Now, her feelings are- when I go home I don't know what to expect. Do you think I want a team player, Milo?”
He let go of the lapel. Milo's face was white as moonlight, the skin around his mouth so tight the acne pits had compressed to hash marks.
“The stress,” said Carmeli, “has already taken its toll. Some things can't be fixed. But my- I want to know. I want resolution-”
“So you want to use me as an executioner-”
“No. God forbid. Stop reading between lines that bear no interpretation. What I want is simple: knowledge. Justice. And now, you'll admit, it's not just for me and my family, is it? That girl on the schoolyard, possibly the poor little boy in East L.A. Why should this… monster kill more children?”
“Final justice?” said Milo. “I find him, your boys finish him off?”
Carmeli stepped back, stubbed out the cigarette, and fumbled in his jacket for yet another one. “I'll grant you your moment of outrage. No one likes being watched, least of all a detective. But put your ego aside and stop being obstinate.”
He lit up. “We bent some rules to obtain information- fine, now we've confessed. I'm a diplomat, not a terrorist. I've seen what terrorists do and I respect the rule of law. Catch this piece of garbage and bring him to the bar of justice.”
“And if I can't?”
“Then your solve rate drops and I seek other solutions.”
As Milo regarded him, Carmeli took in lungfuls of smoke and tapped his foot. His eyes had turned wild and, as if realizing it, he closed them.
When they opened, they were dead, and the look on his face chilled me.
“If you refuse me, Milo, I will not make vengeful phone calls to the mayor or anyone else. Because vengeance is personal and you hold no interest for me personally, only as a means to an end. You might do well to adopt the same attitude. Think of me as a bureaucratic idiot, curse me every morning for listening in on your conversations. I'll live with your curses. But does your opinion of me mean Irit's murder doesn't deserve your best efforts?”
“That's the point, Mr. Carmeli. You've been hampering my best efforts.”
“No, I reject that. I reject that absolutely, and if you analyze the situation honestly, you will, too. If the Ortiz boy's shoes were left with the police to get attention, would giving the garbage more attention solve the problem? Be honest.”
Looking for an ashtray, he found one in a nearby cubicle, picked it up, flicked.
I thought of the kitchen conversation he'd heard. My theories, Milo's procedures.
Now he was face-to-face with Milo again, inches away, holding his cigarette next to his trouser leg.
Milo said, “Listen, I'm not gonna stand here and make a big deal out of this, because you've been through it, you've got serious rights, here. But I'm also not gonna let you control the investigation because of your outrage or who you happen to be. You're out of your element. You don't know what the hell you're doing.”
“The point is, Mr. Carmeli, my job is a lot more perspiration than inspiration and if I do solve a few more cases than someone else it's probably because I try not to get distracted. And you've been distracting me. Right from the beginning, you've been trying to call the shots. And now all this espionage shit. I just spent hours of investigative time chasing down your boy in there, instead of looking for Irit's killer. Now, you order me to adopt him and just-”
“Not an order, a request. And one that could help you. He's a very able detective-”
“I'm sure he is,” said Milo. “But one case, in a country where violent crime is rare, has nothing to do with what we're dealing with. And now I've got to take time off from the investigation to figure out where he stuck his goddamn bugs-”
“Not necessary,” said a quiet, boyish voice. I hadn't heard Sharavi come out of the office but he was there, hand in pocket again. “I'll tell you exactly where they are.”
“Great,” said Milo, wheeling on him. “Very comforting.” He gave a disgusted look.
Carmeli said, “We meant no harm, Milo. The intention was always to be open, eventually-”
“The surveillance was nothing personal. And if you must blame someone, blame me. Superintendent Sharavi happened to be in the States on other business and I had him brought to L.A. because Gorobich and Ramos were getting nowhere. They talked to me, those two, but they never told me anything. I'm sure you know what I mean.”
Milo didn't answer.
Carmeli said, “I needed a starting point. Some basic information. In my position, can you honestly say you would have done any differently? The idea, all along, was that if Superintendent Sharavi came up with something, you'd be the first to-”
“Eventually? What if Dr. Delaware hadn't noticed that van in the alley? Would we have ever been told anything?” He faced Sharavi. “Screwed up, didn't you, James Bond?”
Sharavi said, “Yes,” with an utter lack of defensiveness.
Milo shook his head. “License-plate switches, mail drop, and a phony language teacher to hide your trail? What's Irina, a full-fledged secret agent or just some free-lance? And who the hell is P. L. Almoni?”
Carmeli smiled and hid it behind his smoking hand.
“My mistake,” said Sharavi. “I didn't appreciate Dr. Delaware's powers of observation.”
“Underestimating Dr. Delaware is no way to win at blackjack,” said Milo. “He's a detail guy, attuned to all the nuances.”
“Obviously,” said Sharavi. “He was the one who urged pursuing the DVLL angle.”
“Our first real break,” said Carmeli, waving his cigarette. “Finally. We've plugged it into all our databases. Here, back in Israel, Asia, Europe. We have resources you don't. If we pool- this is no time to let egos get in-”
“Learn anything from your databases?” Milo asked him.
“Not yet, but the point is, the wider the net-”
“Sometimes the wider the net, the bigger the tangles, Mr. Carmeli.” He turned to Sharavi. “So tell me, Superintendent, is this conversation being taped, too?”
Sharavi's eyebrows arched higher. He glanced at Carmeli.
Carmeli said, “No, we've disconnected the recorders in the suite. However, you were recorded the first time we met.”
Milo allowed himself a tiny smile. Gut instincts confirmed.
“From now on,” Carmeli continued, “you have my word that no further surveillance will be conducted without your-”
“Assuming there is a “from now on,' ” said Milo.
“Are you that egotistical?” said Carmeli. He turned to me. “When I address Milo, I'm including you, Doctor. In light of the DVLL angle and two other related murders, we're clearly faced with a psychopathologic killer, so psychological input is called for. I'm not trying to get between you and Milo, but whatever he decides, the Israeli consulate is willing to reimburse you for your time at a very generous rate. The consulate is also willing to extend itself to you considerably. Because we know the deck is stacked against success and anything we can do to-”
“Anything?” said Milo. “You're saying the investigation gets the full clout of your office?”
“One hundred percent. It always has.”
“Full clout is yours to grant? Being only a social director? License to cater?”
Carmeli was thrown off. “Whatever is in my power I'll-”
Carmeli's eyes shifted over to Sharavi. The dark man said nothing.
“I'm an arranger,” Carmeli said. “I arrange all sorts of things.”
Milo and Carmeli remained eye to eye, each holding on to the stare as if it were precious.
Carmeli moved away first. “I've said what I have to say.” He walked quickly back to his office and closed the door.
Milo said, “How do we get out of here?” to Sharavi.
Sharavi reached behind the water cooler and something clicked. As Milo started for the door, Sharavi said, “In line with my promise to tell you everything, here's something important: Someone wrote DVLL in ballpoint pen in Raymond Ortiz's right shoe. Small letters, but discernible under the blood.”
Milo's hands clenched again and a dragon grin stretched his mouth unnaturally. “You have them.”
“No, they're in the Newton Division evidence room. Some of the blood has flaked away over time and it appears to have been applied thinly- probably with a brush, there seem to be strokes. But once you know what to look for, the letters are clear.”
“A brush,” said Milo.
“Painting with a child's blood,” said Sharavi, looking at me. “Maybe he sees himself as an artist.”
Milo cursed silently.
“One thing that interests me,” said Sharavi, “is the fact that the writing was done first and then the blood was added. So even back then, when, as Dr. Delaware has pointed out, he was still impulsive, those letters- leaving a message- meant something to him and he planned carefully. He's always had a definite agenda.”
“What else interests you?” said Milo.
“Just the elements that you're aware of. The variability in methods and body positioning, the geographic scatter, two girls, one boy. The lack of pattern to throw us off, but despite that, a pattern, as Dr. Delaware has suggested. Retardation's obviously an issue, so maybe DVLL has something to do with that, or handicaps in general- D for defective. Defective devils, something like that.”
He took out his bad hand and looked at it. “Until the match between Irit and the Shaver girl came up, I was skeptical about Dr. Delaware's theory of linkage. Even now, there's a disconnected feeling to these killings.”
“Disconnected, how?” I said.
“I don't know.” The smooth face tightened and lines showed around the eyes. “Not that my opinion means much. I have only dealt with one serial killer. In Israel that makes me an expert. Here…” He shrugged.
“How'd you get the shoe?” said Milo.
“I didn't get it, I got to it. Please don't ask more.”
“Because I can't tell you.”
“Open communication, huh?”
“From now on. The shoes are in the past. With three killings on your hands, maybe more, why bother?”
“At this level of subtlety,” said Sharavi, “there could be DVLL messages never detected. Don't you think?”
Milo didn't answer.
“I understand your not trusting me,” said the dark man. “In your position I'd feel the same way-”
“Cool it with the empathy, Superintendent. That's Dr. Delaware's territory.”
Sharavi sighed. “All right. Would you like me to remove the bugs tonight or tomorrow?”
“Where are they?”
“All in Dr. Delaware's home.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“No reason,” said Sharavi, “except I have no interest in lying to you. Check for yourself. I'll provide debugging equipment.”
Milo waved him off. “How many bugs are there in Dr. Delaware's home?”
“Four. In the phone receiver, under the living room couch, under the dining table, and the kitchen table.”
“Hook me up to a polygraph if it'll make you feel better.”
“Polygraphs can be fooled.”
“Sure,” said Sharavi, “by psychopaths with abnormally low levels of arousal. I'm not a psychopath. I sweat.”
“All the time. Now, shall I disconnect the bugs or do you want to do it yourself? Nothing complicated. Four little black discs that pop right off.”
“Where's the feed?”
“A phone at my place.”
“What else do you have there?”
“A police scanner, various equip-”
“A scanner with tactical lines?”
“The usual. A fax machine, computers.”
“You're hooked into all the police data banks,” I said. “DMV, NCIC.”
“State offender files, too?”
“Yes.” He turned to Milo. “I'm aware of all the work you've done looking into alibis-”
“Who else are you working with besides Ms. English-as-a-Second-Language?”
“I'm working completely alone. Irina is employed by the consulate.”
“Big shot's daughter gets killed and they send just one guy?”
“I'm all they have,” said Sharavi. “For this kind of thing.”
“Just how big is Carmeli?”
“He's considered… very talented.”
“What kind of case was this Butcher?”
“Sexual psychopath, organized, a careful planner. He murdered Arab women- runaways and prostitutes at first, then he progressed to less-marginal victims- a woman who'd just left her husband and was socially vulnerable. He gained their trust, anesthetized them, then dissected them and dumped their bodies in hilly areas around Jerusalem, sometimes accompanied by pages from the Bible.”
“Another case with messages,” I said. “What was his?”
“We never had a chance to interview him but we suspect he had some kind of racist agenda, possibly trying to cause a race war between Arabs and Jews. The FBI was informed fully. If you'd like, I'll get you copies of the VICAP case file.”
“You never had a chance to interview him,” said Milo. “Meaning he's dead.”
“I killed him.” The golden eyes blinked. “Self-defense.”
Milo looked down at the damaged hand.
Sharavi raised his arm and the limp flesh bobbed. “He doesn't get all the credit for this. I was partially disabled in the Six-Day War. He destroyed what function was left. I would have preferred capturing him alive in order to learn from him. But…” Another blink. “After it was over, I read all I could about people like him. There wasn't much, the FBI was just getting the VICAP program started. Now, they offer profiles but Dr. Delaware's point about profiles relying upon the past is well-taken. What's to stop some clever boy from doing his reading, too, and using it against us?”
“Us?” said Milo.
“Policemen. There is a certain… contrived feeling to these killings, don't you think?”
“Self-defense,” said Milo. “So now you've been brought over to “defend' yourself against our guy.”
“No,” said Sharavi. “I'm not a hired assassin. I'm here to investigate Irit Carmeli's death because Consul Carmeli thought I could be of use.”
“And Consul Carmeli gets what he wants.”
“He said you were in the States. Where?”
“Security work at the embassy.”
“You speak excellent English,” I said.
“My wife is American.”
“Is she here with you?” said Milo.
Sharavi gave a low, soft laugh. “No.”
“Where's she from?”
“Lots of L.A. connections,” said Milo.
“Another point in my favor. Shall I disconnect the bugs?”
“Ever been tapped yourself?”
“You don't mind?”
“No one likes the loss of privacy,” said Sharavi.
“You guys are big on that, aren't you? Gadgetry, top security, high tech. But all the Mossad crap didn't help your prime minister, did it?”
“No,” said Sharavi. “It didn't.”
“That was an interesting one,” said Milo. “I'm no conspiracy buff, but it made me wonder: The guy shoots Rabin in the back, from two feet away. Next day there's video footage on TV showing him heckling Rabin at a bunch of rallies, frothing at the mouth, having to be carried away. And within hours of the assassination all his confederates are rounded up. So he was well known to the authorities, but the security guards let him get right next to the target.”
“Interesting, isn't it?” said Sharavi. “What's your theory?”
“Someone didn't like the boss.”
“There are people who agree with you. Another theory is that even experienced security people couldn't imagine a Jewish assassin. Yet another is that the original plan was to use blanks, make a public statement, and the assassin changed his mind at the last minute. In any case, it's a national disgrace. And it's caused me additional pain because the assassin was of Yemenite descent and so am I- shall I disconnect now or later? Or would you care to do it yourself?”
“Later,” said Milo. “I think I'd rather look at your place, first.”
Sharavi was surprised. “Why?”
“See how the high-tech half lives.”
“Will we be working together?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“There are always choices,” said the dark man.
“Then my choice right now is to see your setup. If you can't even give on that, I'll know what I'm dealing with.”
Sharavi touched his lip with his good hand and gazed up at Milo. The surprised eyes looked innocent.
“Sure,” he said. “Why not?”
He gave us an address on the 1500 block of Livonia Street and told us to see ourselves out and meet him. Then he slipped behind a partition and disappeared.
We drove south on La Cienega, passing one dark restaurant after another, heading for Olympic. Milo said, “He uses that hand as a prop.”
“Handicapped detective on a case full of handicapped victims. It could give the case another dimension for him.”
“Despite what he says, think he's really here to clean up the mess?”
“I don't know.”
“Just between you and me and the dashboard, Alex, that doesn't sound half-bad. We catch the bastard, the Israelis finish him off, no publicity, no media bullshit, no goddamn lawyers, and the Carmelis and God-knows-how-many other parents get some closure.”
He laughed. “Some public servant I am. The rule of law. But someone who'd do that to retarded kids…” He cursed. “Painting with blood. DVLL in the shoes. So Raymond's a match, too. What bugs me is that it's only luck that led us to the message. And your hawkeye.”
He laughed and it jarred me.
“You ever come across this Butcher in your readings?”
“Bringing in a one-case homeboy.” He ran his hand over his face and looked at the dashboard clock. “Jesus, it's after two already. Robin gonna be worried?”
“Hopefully she's sleeping. When I left for the meeting with the other cops I told her I'd be late.”
“I was hoping for progress.”
“Well, we got some, all right.”
“Are you going to stay on the case if it means working with Sharavi?”
“Why should I give it up just because Carmeli's a control freak- oh hell, forget my righteous indignation. The guy lost his daughter, he's flexing whatever muscle he's got. Would I do differently if I had the clout? Not on your life. And it's bigger than just Irit, now.”
“Another thing,” I said, “by working with Sharavi, you can coopt him. Those resources Carmeli talked about.”
“Yeah. All sorts of surveillance toys. But first we need someone to surveil.”
We were south on Robertson now. At Cashio, he turned right and laughed again. “Besides, who better than me to work this puzzler, right? I do have the top solve rate in West L.A.”
“Eighteen percent higher than the competition,” I said. “Hoo-hah.”
“My mommy always told me I'd be tops.”
“Mom knows best.”
“Actually,” he said, “what she said was, “Milo, honey, how come you stay in your room all day and don't go out anymore? And what ever happened to that nice girl you used to date?' ”
Livonia was the first block west of Robertson. The 1500 block meant a left turn. He cruised slowly.
“Only a mile or so from the Carmelis' house,” I said.
“Maybe the boss drops in for briefings?”
“He probably does. That's why Carmeli's attitude changed. Sharavi told him you knew what you were doing. Or played him the surveillance tapes.”
“Endorsement from Big Brother,” he said. “Wonder if the neighbors know they're living with James Freaking Bond.”
The neighbors lived in small, seventy-year-old Spanish houses. Nearly obscured by a twisted hedge of Hollywood juniper, Sharavi's pink bungalow sat behind a tiny lawn shaved to the dirt. In the driveway was the gray Toyota I'd seen at the schoolyard.
A porch light yellowed the wooden front door. A small olive-wood mezuzah was nailed to the sidepost. Before we could ring, Sharavi opened the door and let us in.
He'd removed his windbreaker and was wearing the pale blue shirt and jeans. The shirt was short-sleeved and his forearms were hairless, thin but muscled, laced with veins. A wedding band circled the ring finger of the good hand.
There was an alarm panel just inside. The living room and dining room were completely empty: clean, golden hardwood under white ceilings; an unscreened, spotless brick fireplace; pleated blackout drapes over every window.
He waved us through a short, narrow center hall, past a kitchen with gray cabinets, to the rear of the house.
“Something to drink?” he said, passing a small bathroom. The lights were on. Every room was lit- showing us there was nothing to hide?
Milo said, “Let's see your gizmos.”
Sharavi surged past a bedroom. Queen-sized bed, topsheet with a military tuck, nightstand with nothing on it but a cheap lamp.
Our destination was the second bedroom at the end of the hall.
Metal-sheet shutters on these windows. A steel-legged desk identical to Zev Carmeli's was against the far wall and a black vinyl chair was wheeled up to it. On the desk were a police scanner, CB and shortwave radios, iron-gray laptop computer, laser printer, battery backup, fax machine, and a paper shredder with an empty catch basket. Empty trash basket on the wooden floor. Stacked neatly between olive-wood bookends was a collection of hardware and software manuals and boxes of backup tapes and CD-ROMs.
Next to the computer were two white phones, three reams of paper, and a pair of maroon velvet bags, each with gold-embroidered Stars of David. On top of the smaller bag was a crocheted skullcap- dark blue with red roses along the border.
Sharavi saw me looking at the bags.
“Prayer equipment,” he said. “Shawl and phylacteries and prayer book. I need all the help I can get.”
“What do you pray for?” said Milo.
“It depends,” said Sharavi.
“Upon what you want?”
“Upon how worthy I feel.” Sharavi unzipped the larger bag, drew out a folded square of white woolen cloth with black stripes.
“See, nothing dangerous.”
“Having God on your side can be dangerous,” said Milo. “Or thinking you do.”
Sharavi's arched eyebrows rose higher. “Because I'm religious, I'm a dangerous fanatic?”
“No, I'm just saying-”
“I understand your resentment, we had a bad beginning. But why waste any more time on it? You want to solve these cases and so do I. In addition to the professional incentive, I want to return to Jerusalem, to my wife and children.”
Milo didn't answer.
“How many children do you have?” I said.
“Three.” Sharavi returned the shawl to the bag. “I surveilled you because it was the only way to get information. Rude? Definitely. Unethical? I could debate that, but I'll say yes. But all in all, no big crime. Because an innocent child was murdered- three children, now. At the least. I'll live with my sins. And I suspect you would, too.”
“Know me, do you?”
Sharavi smiled. “Well, I have had a chance to learn about you.”
Milo said, “Hah. Do they have stand-up comedy in Jerusalem?”
“In Israel,” said Sharavi, “everyone's a prophet. It's the same thing.”
He touched the prayer bag. “You're effective, Detective Sturgis, and effective people focus on what's important. That's not an attempt to kiss your rear, just fact. I'm going to get some coffee. Are you sure you don't want any?”
He left us alone in the room.
I looked at the computer manuals and Milo unzipped the second velvet bag. Black leather straps and boxes.
“Phylacteries,” I said. “Inside are biblical-”
“I know what they are,” he said. “Had a robbery case last year, punks broke into a synagogue not far from here. Vandalized, stole money from charity boxes, ripped Torah scrolls and these things, too. I remember the scene, wondering what all those belts were doing there. The old guy who took care of the place- the sexton- explained it to me. Then he broke down and cried. Said it reminded him of pogroms he'd seen as a kid in Europe.”
“No. There's also a guy- cop named Decker- in the West Valley who's a religious Jew, actually uses them, himself. I know because someone saw him at a police retreat, getting up early to pray, all wrapped up. His wife got him into religion or something like that. They call him the Rabbi. I helped him on a case couple of years ago- Israeli connections, as a matter of fact. Maybe I should give him a call, see if he knows Carmeli, or this joker.”
“Another murder case?” I said.
“Missing family case that turned into murder. I churned some paper for him, no big deal. He was decent, but I don't trust him.”
“He got promoted to lieutenant.”
He opened the closet. No clothes on the rod. On the shelf above it were several small, crisp-looking brown cardboard boxes and three oblong black canvas cases.
He hefted the first case, opened it, and slid out something black and metallic.
“Uzi barrel, the rest is in here.” Sticking his hand into the case, he drew out submachine-gun components, inspected them, put them back. The other two cases contained a rifle with a telescopic sight and a double-barreled shotgun, both polished to a gleam.
The crisp cardboard boxes- ten of them- held ammunition.
“Ready for the battle,” said Milo. “He left us here to show us he's got nothing to hide, but that's bullshit, he's got to have handguns and other stuff he's not showing us.”
Sharavi came back with a mug in his good hand.
“Where's the nine-millimeter?” said Milo. “And whatever other small stuff you're hiding.”
“I'm not hiding anything,” said Sharavi. “Everything in its proper place.”
“Where would you keep your small arms? In the kitchen and the bedroom. Go see for yourself.”
“That's okay.” Milo sauntered to the closet. “Looks like you're ready for the big PLO assault. Sure you're not thinking of doing some hunting?”
“No,” said Sharavi. “I don't hunt.” He smiled. “Though I've been known to fish.”
“What else is in your arsenal?”
“Meaning my grenades, rocket launcher, and nuclear bomb?”
“No, your heavy stuff.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” said Sharavi. “This is it.” He sipped, lowered the cup. “Except for this.”
Removing a black disc the size of an M & M from his pocket, he handed it to Milo, who turned it over.
“This is what I attached to your couch and tables, Dr. Delaware.”
“Never seen one this small,” said Milo. “Cute. Japanese?”
“Israeli. The ones I installed at Dr. Delaware's are channeled to the phone on the left. The other phone's a conventional line and also connects to the fax. I taped your conversations, transcribed them, destroyed the tapes, gave the transcripts to Carmeli.”
“Covering your trail?”
“Obviously not well enough.” Sharavi shook his head. “Using the van twice in one day was stupid. Must be jet lag.”
“How long have you been here?”
“In L.A., five days. A month in New York.”
“They called me over because of the Trade Center bombing verdicts. We knew there'd be a conviction, expected some sort of reprisals. I ended up watching some people in Brooklyn. People I knew from the West Bank.”
“They do anything?”
“Not yet. I educated our New York staff, was about to fly home, when Zev's call came.”
“Do you know him from Israel?” I said.
“I know his older brother. He's in the police. Deputy commander. The family's prominent.”
“Superintendent,” said Milo. “What's the equivalent, here?”
“Probably a captain, but there's no real equivalent. It's a small pond, we're all minnows.”
“No,” said Sharavi. “Religious. It accomplishes the same thing.”
“So Carmeli calls you and you can't go back- how old are your kids?”
“My daughter's eighteen, just started the Army. I have two younger sons.” The golden eyes squeezed shut for a moment.
“Family man,” said Milo.
“Whatever that means.”
“Maybe that gives you insights I don't have.”
“Because you're gay? You don't believe that and neither do I. Policemen are like anyone else: a few genuine idiots at the bottom, equally few high achievers, the mediocre majority.”
“You a high achiever?”
“That's not for me to say.”
“Any more ideas about this case?”
“My instincts tell me the defective angle should be looked into, as well as the racial angle because all three victims were non-Anglo. But maybe that's because my case had racial aspects. I need to make sure my limited experience doesn't narrow my perspective.”
“Maybe it's your destiny to deal with racist killers,” said Milo. “Your karma, or whatever equivalent you've got in your religion.”
“Mazal,” said Sharavi. “Have you heard the expression mazal tov?”
“This ain't Kansas, Superintendent.”
Sharavi smiled. “How about Daniel?”
“Okay. I know what mazal tov is, Daniel. Good luck.”
“Yes, but mazal's not really luck,” said Sharavi. “It's fate- like karma. Rooted in astrology. A zodiac sign is a mazal. Yemenite Jews have a strong astrological tradition. Not that I believe in any of that. To me it boils down to hard work and what God wants you to do.”
“God wants you on the case?”
Sharavi shrugged. “I'm here.”
“Must be nice to have faith,” said Milo.
Sharavi wheeled the chair away from the desk, raised his arm, and let the bad hand flop on the headrest. “One way or the other I have to work the Carmeli case, Milo. Will you let me do it with you rather than at cross-purposes?”
“Hey,” said Milo, “far be it from me to argue with God.”
Milo and I stayed at Sharavi's house until after three, wearily establishing a division of labor:
Milo would drive to Newton Division, photograph Raymond Ortiz's shoes, and record the evidence in the growing case file. Then, back on the phone, to search for additional DVLL crimes.
Sharavi would use his computers to scan every available data bank for the same.
“Something else,” he said. “I could contact experts on crime against the handicapped. All over the world.”
“Didn't know there were experts on that,” said Milo.
“There may not be, but there are specialists in neo-Nazism, racism, that kind of thing.”
“You think this is political?”
“Not per se,” said Sharavi, “but the notion of eliminating the weak comes from somewhere. Maybe DVLL will crop up in racist literature.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Striking at the handicapped could be the killer's own form of selective breeding- eugenics.”
“Since the Berlin Wall came down, racist ideology has been circulating freely in Europe,” said Sharavi. “For obvious reasons, we monitor it, so I have my sources. If similar crimes have been recorded, if suspects have been arrested, it could give us some understanding into our killer's motives- at least the motives he honors himself with.”
“Honors,” said Milo. “Yeah, because his main motive is sexual.” He took a sip of the coffee he'd finally accepted from Sharavi and the dark man nodded.
“The asshole prides himself on mopping up the gene pool… sure, go ahead, check out all that stuff.”
His tone was agreeable but bland. Maybe it was fatigue, maybe he was glad to keep the Israeli busy.
“The gene pool,” I said. “Have either of you read The Brain Drain?”
They both shook their heads.
“Popular psychology, came out a few years ago. The basic premise was IQ means everything and stupid people- mostly dark-skinned people- are overbreeding, depleting our chromosomal resources. The book's answer was government control of fertility. The smart should be paid to procreate, those with low intelligence should be offered incentives to get sterilized. It was a minor best-seller, generated quite a bit of controversy.”
“I remember it,” said Milo, “some professor. You ever read it?”
“No,” I said. “But someone else might have.”
“Our boy uses pop psych for justification?”
“Everybody needs justification. Even sex crimes have a social context.”
“That makes sense,” said Sharavi. “Sex killers often go for prostitutes because prostitutes are at the bottom of the ladder and easier to dehumanize, right? From what I've seen, every killer needs to dehumanize his victim in some way: assassins, soldiers, sadists.”
“The social context,” said Milo. “He deals with his twisted little brain by convincing himself he's cleansing the world of defectives.”
His chin was resting in one hand and he kept it there, looking down at the hardwood floor.
“Death by Darwin,” he mumbled.
“It would also fit with the notion of someone who thinks he's superior,” I said. “He's operating out of some eugenic fantasy, so he doesn't carry out a sexual assault. And takes care to arrange the body with what he considers respect.”
“Only Irit's body,” he said. “Raymond was reduced to bloody shoes. I can buy the fact that the killer was just starting out, honing his craft. But what about Latvinia? She came after Irit and he strung her up, treated her rougher.”
“I don't know,” I said. “Something's off- maybe he's just jumping around to avoid an obvious pattern.”
No one talked for a while. Sharavi took a swallow from his third cup of coffee.
“DVLL,” he said. “That's the pattern he feels safe sharing.”
“Let's get back to the uniform angle,” said Milo. “In addition to it helping him snag victims, he could also like it because he's a man on a mission. Maybe someone with a military background or a military wanna-be.”
“If he served, he may very well have a dishonorable discharge,” I said.
Sharavi smiled weakly. “Uniforms can be valuable.”
“Being Israeli,” Milo asked him, “would Irit relate in a special way to someone in uniform?”
“Hard to say,” said Sharavi. “In Israel, we have a citizens' army, almost everyone goes in for three years and returns for reserve duty. So the country's full of uniforms, Israeli children see that as normal. Irit has actually lived outside of Israel for most of her life, but being around embassies and consulates she was accustomed to guards… it's possible. I don't really know much about her psychological makeup.”
“The Carmelis didn't fill you in?”
“They told me the usual. She was a wonderful child. Beautiful and innocent and wonderful.”
Milo said, “We could also be talking cop wanna-bes- like that asshole Bianchi.” To Sharavi: “The Hillside Strangler.”
“Yes, I know. Bianchi applied to many departments, got turned down and became a security guard.”
“Which is a whole other angle,” said Milo. “No one screens security guards. You get ex-cons, psychos, all sorts of fools walking around looking official, some with guns.”
“You're right about that,” I said. “I had a case a few years ago, child-custody dispute. The father was a guard for a big industrial company out in the Valley. Turned out to be flagrantly psychotic- paranoid, hearing voices. The company had issued him pepper spray, handcuffs, a baton, and a semiautomatic.”
“Let's hear it for personnel screening… Okay, so what do we have so far: Joe Paramilitary with high-IQ fantasies and weird ideas about survival of the fittest, a sex drive that goes out of whack every so often, maybe photographic equipment. By taking pictures for later usage and arranging the bodies in a way that throws us off, he has his cake and…”
He cut himself off, gave a sick look, rubbed his face. Hard. Rosy patches appeared on the pale, scarred skin. His eyelids were heavy and his shoulders sloped.
Sharavi shook his head.
“What I can do,” I said, “is see if any eugenic-related murders come up in the psychiatric literature. Who knows, maybe DVLL will crop up there.”
Sharavi's fax machine began spitting paper. He collected a single sheet and showed it to us.
Paragraphs in Hebrew.
Milo said, “That sure clarifies it.”
“Headquarters wants my weekly time-log. Precise accounting of my time.”
“Been a bad boy?” said Milo.
“Tardy.” Sharavi smiled. “One needs to prioritize. Perhaps I should go to Disneyland, bring the chief superintendent back a Mickey Mouse hat.”
Crumpling the paper, he tossed it into the trash basket.
“Two points,” said Milo. “You have basketball in Israel?”
Sharavi nodded, managed to smile. He looked exhausted, too, eyes sinking even deeper.
“Basketball but no sex killers, huh? What, you pick and choose what you borrow from us?”
“I wish,” said Sharavi. “If only we were that smart.”
Milo got up. “I'll take those bugs out myself, if it's only the four you said.”
“Then I can handle it.” He stared down at the smaller man. “You stay here and talk to Interpol, Nazi hunters, whatever.”
Once they were gone, Daniel locked the house, activated the alarm, and went to his bedroom, where he sat on the edge of the mattress.
He indulged himself in a few minutes of loneliness before pushing away thoughts of Laura and the children and assessing how it had gone.
Sturgis didn't trust him one bit, but still the situation was not bad, considering his own stupidity.
The psychologist. Those active eyes…
He'd had to notify Zev about being found out, but Zev had been decent about it. Bigger things on his mind. Since Irit's murder everyone said he was a different man.
Daniel understood the difference: craving only one thing.
What was the chance of delivering?
Listening in on Sturgis and Delaware had produced one good outcome: He'd learned that Sturgis was bright and focused, exactly the type of detective he enjoyed working with. He'd known a few guys like that. One with a brilliant future but he'd died horribly for no good reason…
Sturgis's history- his LAPD file full of complaints, striking out at the superior- had prepared Daniel for an outburst. But no fireworks tonight.
Delaware had remained very quiet, the eyes going constantly.
The quintessential psychologist. Though he had spoken up from time to time.
Asking about Daniel's accent, wanting to know about Daniel's family.
Like an intake at a therapy session. In the Rehab Center, after his first injuries, he'd spent time with psychologists and hated it less than he'd expected. Years later, on the job, he'd consulted them. On the Butcher case, Dr. Ben David had proved of some usefulness.
It had been a while since he'd been analyzed, though.
Those active, blue eyes, pale, appraising, yet not as cold as they might have been.
Sturgis's were green, almost unhealthily bright. What effect would they have on a suspect, so much intensity?
The two of them, so different, and yet they had a history of working together efficiently.
Friends, too, according to reports.
A homosexual and a heterosexual.
Daniel knew only one gay policeman, and not well. A sergeant major working out of Central Region. Nothing effeminate or overt about the man but he'd never married, never dated women, and people who knew him from the Army said he'd been spotted one night going onto the beach in Herzliyya with another man.
Not a brilliant policeman, that one, but competent. No one bothered him, but the other officers shunned him and Daniel was certain he'd never advance.
Sturgis was shunned, too.
For Daniel, the issue was a religious one, and that made it an abstraction.
For Daniel, religion was personal- his relationship to God. He cared nothing about what others did, if their habits didn't infringe upon his liberties or those of his family.
His family… in Jerusalem it was morning, but too early to call Laura. Like many artists, she was a nocturnal creature, stifling her internal clock for years to raise babies and coddle her husband. Now that the kids were older, she'd permitted herself to revert: staying up late sketching and painting and reading, sleeping in until eight or nine.
Feeling guilty about it, too; sometimes Daniel still had to reassure her he was fine making his own coffee.
He drew his knees up, closed his eyes, and thought about her soft blond hair and beautiful face, swaddled in topsheet, puffy with sleep, as he stopped to kiss her before leaving for headquarters.
Oh… I feel like such a bum, honey. I should be up cooking your breakfast.
I never eat breakfast.
Still… or I should give you other things.
Tugging him down for a kiss, then stopping herself.
My breath stinks.
No, it's sweet.
Pressing his lips upon hers, feeling her mouth parting, the wedding of tongue with tongue.
He opened his eyes, looked around the bare room.
In his Talbieh apartment, the walls were alive with color. Laura's paintings and batiks and the creations of her friends.
Her artsy friends, whom he seldom spoke to.
Painting with blood…
What would Laura say about that kind of art?
He never told her anything beyond the most general facts.
For twenty years of marriage, that had worked fine.
Twenty years. By today's standards, longevity.
Not mazal. Or the result of some amulet or chant or blessing from a Hakham.
God's grace and hard work.
Submerging your ego to be half of a pair.
Doing the right thing.
He wished he knew what that meant in this case.
The following morning as I drove to the U, I realized Helena still hadn't called.
Put Nolan's suicide to rest. I had plenty to do.
Snagging a Biomed computer terminal, I logged into Medline, Psych Abstracts, the periodicals index, every other database I could find, pulling up references on eugenics but finding none with any relationship to homicide.
Collecting handfuls of bound journals, I went looking for The Brain Drain. The book was filed under Intelligence, Measurement, three copies, two checked out. The one left was thick, re-bound in crimson, squeezed between manuals on IQ testing. A few books down the shelf I noticed a slim softcover entitled Twisted Science: The Truth Behind The Brain Drain, and I took that, too.
Finding a quiet corner desk on the tenth floor, I searched every source for a DVLL citation.
Absolutely nothing. But what I was learning kept me turning pages.
Because the idea that some lives were to be nurtured and others eliminated for the good of society hadn't begun with the Race Hygiene Program of the Third Reich.
Nor had it died there.
Selective breeding had appealed to the elite for centuries, but it had earned scientific respectability in the Europe and America of the late nineteenth century after being championed by a very respectable figure: British mathematician Francis Galton.
Unable to produce children himself, Galton had strong beliefs about survival of the ethnically fittest. Qualities such as intellect, zeal, and industriousness, he reasoned, were simple traits, much like height or hair color, and governed by basic rules of inheritance. In order to improve society, the state needed to collect detailed mental, physical, and racial information on every citizen, issue certificates to the superior and pay them for breeding, and encourage inferiors to remain celibate. In 1883, Galton coined the term eugenics, from the Greek meaning “well-born,” to describe this process.
Galton's simplistic theories of intelligence were undermined by a rebirth of the works of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who bred thousands of plants and found that some traits were dominant, others recessive. Later research showed that most defective genes were carried by outwardly normal parents.
Even vegetables didn't follow Galton's simplistic model.
But Mendel's ability to measure patterns of inheritance spurred on Galton's disciples, and eugenics took hold of the academic mainstream, so that by the twenties and thirties nearly all geneticists assumed mentally retarded people and other “degenerates” should be actively prevented from breeding.
These views made their way into public policy on both sides of the Atlantic, and by 1917, a Harvard geneticist named East was actively promoting the reduction of “defective germ plasm” through segregation and sterilization.
One of East's main influences was someone I'd considered a sage of my chosen field.
I'd been taught that Henry H. Goddard, of the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, had been a pioneer of psychological testing. What I hadn't known was that Goddard claimed “feeblemindedness” was due to a single defective gene and enthusiastically volunteered to administer IQ tests to thousands of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in order to weed out undesirables.
Goddard's bizarre finding- that over 80 percent of Italians, Hungarians, Russians, and Jews were mentally retarded- was accepted without question by a wide range of intellectuals and legislators, and in 1924 the U.S. Congress approved an immigration act curtailing the entry of Southern and Eastern Europeans. The bill was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, who declared, “America must be kept American. Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”
And Goddard wasn't alone. Chasing down footnotes and citations, I came across the writings of another giant of psychology: Lewis Terman of Stanford, developer of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Though the French Binet test had been developed to help identify children with learning problems so they could be tutored, its American modifier declared his major goal to be “curtailing the reproduction of feeblemindedness” with a subsequent reduction in “industrial inefficiency.”
According to Terman, intellectual weakness was “very, very common among Spanish-Indians and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial… children of this group should be segregated in special classes… They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers… from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”
But the prime mover of the U.S. eugenics movement was University of Chicago professor Charles Davenport, who believed that prostitutes chose their profession because of a dominant gene for “innate eroticism.”
Davenport's method of preserving the future of white America was castration of males of inferior ethnic groups.
Castration, not vasectomy, he emphasized, because while the latter prevented breeding, it also encouraged sexual immorality.
Davenport's views influenced the law well beyond immigration statutes, embraced as they were by many social-welfare groups, including some pioneers of the family-planning movement. The term final solution was first used by the National Association of Charities and Corrections in the 1920s, and between 1911 and 1937, eugenic sterilization laws were passed in thirty-two American states, and in Germany, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark.
Most enthusiastic among the self-appointed genetic janitors was the State of California, where in 1909, an order to compulsorily sterilize all inmates of state hospitals judged “sexually or morally perverted, mentally ill or feebleminded” got scalpels clicking. Four years later, the law was broadened to include noninstitutionalized people suffering from “marked departure from normal mentality.”
In 1927, forced sterilization reached its highest sanction when a young unwed mother named Carrie Buck was sterilized against her will in Virginia, by virtue of a U.S. Supreme Court decision, written by Oliver Wendell Holmes. Holmes's decision not only allowed the procedure to be carried out, but also praised it “in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence… the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the fallopian tubes… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Carrie Buck's baby- the “third generation of imbeciles” in question- grew up to be an honor student. Carrie Buck, herself, was eventually paroled from the Virginia Colony for Feebleminded and Epileptics, and lived out her life quietly as the wife of a small-town sheriff. She was later found out not to be retarded.
The Buck decision sped up the pace of forced sterilization and more than sixty thousand people, mostly residents of state hospitals, were operated on all across the U.S., as late as the 1970s.
In 1933, the Carrie Buck opinion was adopted as law in Germany and within one year, fifty-six thousand German “patients” had been sterilized. By 1945, under the aegis of the Nazis, the number had climbed to two million. For as Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “the right of personal freedom recedes before the duty to preserve the race. The demand that defective people be prevented from propagating equally defective offspring is a demand of the clearest reason and if systematically executed represents the most humane act of mankind.”
After World War II, the tide began turning. Revulsion at the Nazi atrocities- but more important, the demands of wartime service upon surgeons- slowed down the rate of eugenic sterilization, and though the practice continued for decades, most eugenics laws were eventually reversed in the face of scientific debunking.
But the cause hadn't been abandoned.
Far from it.
And sterilization seemed tame compared to some of the ideas being tossed about now. I found myself swimming in an ethical cesspool.
Calls for assisted suicide sliding quickly into recommendations that those with nothing to live for be put out of their misery.
A report from Holland, where physician-assisted suicide had been liberalized, that as many as one-third of euthanasias-“mercy killings”- had been carried out without patients' consent.
An Australian “bioethicist” proclaiming religion no longer the basis for making moral judgments and the sanctity of human life no longer a valid concept. His alternative: Fellow ethicists should assign numerical “quality of life” measurements to people and parcel out health care based upon scores.
The retarded, the handicapped, the elderly, the infirm, would find themselves low on the list and be treated accordingly. In the case of deformed and retarded babies, a twenty-eight-day waiting period would be offered so parents could choose infanticide for “a life that has begun very badly.”
Anyone who fell short on objective criteria of “personhood: rational thought and self-consciousness,” could be killed without fear of penalty. Humanely.
Gentle strangulation, indeed.
Britain's National Health Insurance had recently put forth a policy offering free abortions to mothers of genetically defective babies- rescinding the usual twenty-four-week limit and allowing termination til shortly before birth.
Also in England, the Green party's annual conference proposed a very deliberate 25 percent reduction in the U.K.'s population in the name of saving the planet, leading critics to evoke memories of the Nazi party's infatuation with ecology, natural purity, and antiurbanism.
The government of China was ahead of all this, having long enforced population control through coerced abortion, sterilization, and starving orphans to death in state-run facilities.
In the U.S., calls for prioritizing health-care services in the age of tight dollars and managed care had led many to question whether the seriously ill and the genetically disadvantaged should be allowed to “dominate” health-care expenditure.
I found a U.S. News and World Report article detailing the struggle of a thirty-four-year-old woman with Down's syndrome to receive a life-saving heart-lung operation. Stanford University Medical Center had rejected her because “We do not feel that patients with Down's syndrome are appropriate candidates for heart-lung transplantation,” as had the University of California at San Diego because it judged her incapable of cooperating with the medical regimen. Her doctor disagreed and the publicity had forced both hospitals to reconsider. But what of others, languishing outside the media spotlight?
It reminded me of a case I'd seen years ago, while working with child cancer patients at Western Pediatrics Hospital. A fourteen-year-old boy diagnosed with acute leukemia, by then a treatable disease with an excellent prognosis for remission. But this leukemia patient was retarded and several interns and residents began grumbling about wasting their precious time.
I lectured to them, with meager results- because I wasn't an M.D., wouldn't be administering chemotherapy and radiotherapy, simply didn't understand what was involved. The attending physician, a passionate and dedicated man, caught wind of the protest and delivered a diatribe about Hippocrates and morality that silenced the grumblers. But it had been a begrudging compliance.
What kind of doctors had those interns become?
Who were they judging, now?
Quality of life.
I'd worked with thousands of children with birth defects, deformities, mental retardation, learning disabilities, chronic and painful and fatal diseases.
Most experienced a full range of emotions, including joy.
I remembered one little girl, eight years old, a thalidomide casualty. No arms, stunted flipper feet, shining eyes, an eagerness to embrace life.
Better quality of life than some face-lifted psychopaths I'd known.
Not that it mattered, for it wasn't my role to judge, either.
The eugenecists argued that society's progress could be measured by the achievement of the gifted, and in part, that was true. But what good was progress if it led to callousness, cruelty, cold judgments about deservedness, a degradation of the godly spark in all of us?
Who'd be the new gods? Geneticists? Ethicists?
Scientists had flocked to Nazism in record numbers.
HMO executives with bottom-line obsessions?
And after we cleansed the world of one group of “degenerates,” who'd be next on the chromosomal hit list?
The flabby? The charmless? The boring? The ugly?
Scary stuff, and the fact that psychology had once swallowed it whole disgusted me.
The racist swill propagated by Goddard and Terman still reverberated in my head. Both had been names uttered with reverence in the corridors of the Psych Tower.
Like a child discovering his parents are felons, I felt a cold, dark pit open in my gut.
I'd administered countless IQ tests, had prided myself upon knowing the limitations of the instrument as well as the virtues.
Properly done, testing was valuable. Still, the rotten spot I'd just found at the core of my field's golden apple made me wonder what else I'd missed, despite all my education.
It was 1:00 P.M. and I'd been in the library for five hours. Lunchtime, but I had no appetite.
I picked up The Brain Drain.
The book's sole premise became obvious within pages:
Material success, morality, happy marriages, superior parenthood- all were caused by high g- a supposed general-intelligence trait whose validity had been debated for years.
This author presented it as a given.
The book had a smarmy, congratulatory tone: addressing itself to “you, the highly intelligent reader.”
The ultimate kiss-up, virtue by association.
Maybe that- and a harnessing of upper-middle-class anxiety during hard times- could explain its best-sellerdom.
It sure wasn't the science, because I came across page after page of faulty assumptions, shoddy referencing, articles the author claimed as supportive that turned out to be just the opposite when I looked them up.
Promises to back up assertions with numbers that never appeared. Revival of Galton's one-gene theory of intelligence.
Hundred-year-old nonsense- who'd written this garbage?
The author bio at the back said a “social scholar” named Arthur Haldane, Ph.D.
Resident scholar at the Loomis Institute in New York City.
No further credentials.
No book jacket on the library copy, so no photo.
So what else was new?
My head hurt and my eyes ached.
What would I report to Milo and Sharavi?
Pseudoscientific crap sold well?
What connection was there to three dead kids?
The killer, watching, stalking, culling the herd…
With scholarly justification?
Because some lives just weren't worth living?
So he wasn't really a murderer.
He was a freelance bioethicist.
The only thing i hadn't gotten to was Twisted Science, the critique of The Brain Drain, and though I couldn't see what it could add, I checked it out and took it home with me.
One message at my service. Milo's home number but the caller was Dr. Richard Silverman.
Rick and Milo had lived together for years but he and I rarely spoke. He was more prone to listening than talking. Reserved, meticulous, fit, always well-dressed, he was a striking contrast to Milo's aesthetic impairment and some people saw the two of them as an odd couple. I knew they were both thoughtful, driven, highly self-critical, had suffered deeply from being homosexual, had taken a long time to find their niche, both as individuals and members of a couple. Both buried themselves in bloody work- Rick spent over one hundred hours a week as a senior E.R. physician at Cedars-Sinai- and their time together was often silent.
He said, “Thanks, Alex. How's everything?”
“Great. With you?”
“Fine, fine. Listen, I just wanted to ask how Helena Dahl's doing- nothing confidential, just if she's okay.”
“I haven't seen her recently, Rick.”
“Well,” he said, “she quit the hospital yesterday, no explanation. I guess what's happened to her could unnerve anybody.”
“It's tough,” I said.
“I met the brother once. Not through her. He came in with a gunshot case, never mentioned being her brother, and I wasn't paying attention to nametags. But someone told me later.”
“Helena wasn't on duty?”
“No, not that particular night.”
“Anything unusual about him?”
“Not really. Big guy, young, very quiet, could have stepped right out of an LAPD recruiting poster. Back when that was the type they recruited. I was struck by the fact that he never bothered to ask for Helena, thought maybe he knew she was off. But when I told her he'd been in, she looked surprised. Anyway, I don't want to pry. Take care. If you do see her, say hi.”
He laughed. “Say hi to Milo, too. You're probably seeing him more than I am. This case- the retarded kids- it's really disturbing him. Not that he's been talking about it. But he's been tossing in his sleep.”
It was two-thirty. I hadn't come up with a thing on the DVLL killings. Robin was out for the afternoon, the house was too damn big, and the day seemed hollow.
I'd pushed Helena and Nolan to the back of my mind but Rick's call got me ruminating again.
What had caused her to make such a complete break?
Those family photos in Nolan's garage? Primal memories that strong?
She was tough and competent on the job but isolated in her private life.
More like her brother than she'd realized?
Had his self-destruction gotten her wondering about where she'd end up? Paths that hadn't been taken?
Depression ran in families. Had I missed something?
I called her home. The phone kept ringing and worst-case scenarios flashed through my head.
I thought about Nolan's showing up at the E.R., never asking for her.
Even when we were little kids we went our separate ways. Just ignored each other. Is that normal?
That kind of distance could pass for civility when life's rhythms remained shallow. But when things went bad, it could lead to the worst kind of guilt.
Parents dead, abandoned by her husband when he moved to North Carolina.
Going to work each day at the E.R., performing heroics. Coming home to…?
Had the reliable engine finally broken down?
I had nothing to do and decided to take a drive out to her house.
Maybe I'd find her in a bathrobe on the sofa, watching soap operas and stuffing her face with junk food. Maybe she'd get angry at the intrusion and I'd feel like a fool.
I could live with that.
It took forty-five minutes to reach the west end of the Valley and another ten to find her address in Woodland Hills.
The house was a small yellow structure of no particular style on a hot, wide side street lined with mature bottlebrush trees in full bloom. Red flowers and sticky patches from the trees littered the sidewalks and California jays dove among the branches. The sun bore down through the haze and even though I couldn't hear the freeway, I could smell it.
The front lawn was dry and needed mowing. Big, shapeless margarita daisy bushes pushed up against the front porch. No sign of her Mustang in the driveway and the garage door was shut. The mailbox was empty and my ring and knock went unanswered.
Two cars in the driveway next door, a white minivan and a white Acura.
I went over there. The ceramic plaque beneath the bell said THE MILLERS under a crucifix, and looked homemade. A window air conditioner played a waltz.
I rang and the brass cover on the peephole snicked back.
“Yes?” Male voice.
“My name is Dr. Alex Delaware. I'm a friend of your neighbor, Helena Dahl. She hasn't been around for a while and some of us have been getting a little concerned.”
“Um… one second.”
The door opened and cold air hit my face. A couple in their late twenties looked me over. He was tall, dark, bearded, with a sunburned nose, and wore a pink Hawaiian shirt, denim shorts, no shoes. The can of Sprite in his hand was sweating but he wasn't.
The woman next to him was slim, broad-shouldered, nice-looking, with butter-colored multiflipped hair sporting two curlers on top. An electric blue T-shirt was tucked into black shorts and her nails were long and pearly white.
“Who's concerned about Helena?” he said.
“Her friends, people she works with at Cedars.”
I said, “She quit her job without explaining why. Has she left town?”
He gave a reluctant nod, but didn't say more. Behind him was a neatly appointed living room, home-shopping show on a big screen hawking a pearl necklace with matching earrings, only 234 left.
“We just wanted to know how she's doing,” I said. “Do you know about her brother?”
He nodded. “He never came around. At least not since we've lived here, which is two years.”
The woman said, “But they both grew up here. It was their parents' house.” Southern accent. “Helena said he was a police officer. How strange, what he did.”
“Any idea where she is?” I said.
“She said she was going on vacation,” said the man. He took a drink from the can and offered it to his wife but she shook her head.
“Did she mention where?”
“No,” he said.
“When did she leave?”
“What'd you say your name was?”
I repeated it and held out my business card and my police-consultant badge.
“You're police, too?”
“I work with them sometimes but that has nothing to do with Officer Dahl.”
His posture loosened. “My work's kind of related to police work. I teach traffic school, just opened my own business- you're sure this doesn't have anything to do with him- investigating his death, for insurance or something like that?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I'm just concerned about Helena.”
“Well, she just went away to get some rest. At least that's what she said, and can you blame her?”
I shook my head.
“Poor thing,” said the woman.
Her husband stuck out his hand. “Greg Miller, this is Kathy.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“She left yesterday,” he said. “Pardon the suspicion, but you can't be too careful, all the stuff that goes on, nowadays. We're trying to get a block association together, in order to look out for each other. Helena asked us to watch her house while she was gone.”
“Crime problems in the neighborhood?” I said.
“It's not Watts but it's worse than you'd think- mostly stupid kid stuff, now they've got the white kids thinking they're gang bangers, too. There was a party last week, over in Granada Hills. Gang bangers showed up and when they didn't let 'em in, they did a drive-by. Sometimes I work nights so I taught Kathy how to shoot and she's good. Probably gonna get an attack dog, too.”
“Sounds like serious problems.”
“Serious enough for me,” he said. “I believe in prevention. All we had til recently was kids driving by booming their stereos late at night, speeding, screaming, throwing out bottles. But the last few months there've been burglaries, even during the day, while people are at work.”
Another glance between them. She nodded and he said, “Last burglary was Helena, as a matter of fact. Just two days ago. With her brother and that, you can't really blame her for wanting to take off, right?”
“Two days ago?”
“At night, hers was a nighttime thing. She went out to do some grocery shopping, came back, found the back door jimmied. Kathy and I were out, thankfully they didn't hit us. They took her TV and the stereo and some jewelry, she said. Next day she was packed up and asking us to look after the house. Said she'd had enough of L.A.”
“Did she call the police?”
“No, she said she'd had enough of the police, too. I figured she meant her brother, didn't want to push it. Even though I thought we definitely should call it in. For block security. But she was so stressed out.”
“Of all the people for it to happen to,” said Kathy. “She was so down to begin with. And she's such a nice person. Mostly she kept to herself, but she was always real nice.”
“Any idea where she went?” I said.
“Nope,” said Kathy. “She just said she needed a rest and we didn't want to be nosy. She had a couple suitcases in the back of the car but I don't even know if it was a driving trip or she was heading for the airport. I asked her how long she'd be away but she said she wasn't sure, she'd call to let us know if it was going to be long. If she does call, would you like me to tell her you were by?”
“Please,” I said. “And good luck with your block association.”
“Luck's what you make it,” said Greg. “God helps those who help themselves.”
Heavy traffic and bad tempers on the freeway ride back to the city. As I sat in a jam just north of the Sunset exit, I thought of the luck of the Dahl family.
Both Nolan's and Helena's homes defiled.
L.A.'s burglary rate had skyrocketed, but I'd never worshiped at the altar of coincidence and it made me edgy.
Someone out to get them?
Someone looking for something? Information about Nolan's death?
Data Helena had?
The family photo albums were all she'd taken the day I'd gone with her to Nolan's place, but maybe she'd returned, picked through the mess, discovered something that had upset her enough to cancel her therapy, quit her job, and leave town?
Or maybe it was just the final straw.
Traffic started again, then stopped.
Honks, lifted middle fingers, shouted expletives.
That night, at eight, Robin and I were in the bath when the phone rang. She faced me, her hair up, water reaching the bottoms of her breasts.
We played toesies. The damn thing quieted.
Later, drying off, I listened to the taped message.
“It's Milo. Call me on the car phone.”
I did and he said, “Found another DVLL case. Hollywood Division, before Raymond Ortiz. Seventeen months ago.”
“Another poor kid,” I said. “How old-”
“No. Not a kid. And not retarded, either. On the contrary.”
I met him at a twenty-four-hour coffee shop on Highland north of Melrose named Boatwright's. Rocket-to-the-moon architecture, boomerang-shaped counter, three of the stools occupied by pie-eating newspaper-nosers, the Hollywood Strings on scratchy soundtrack.
He was in his usual cop's back booth, sitting opposite a dark-haired woman. He waved and she turned. She looked around twenty-five. Very thin, pretty in a severe way, she had a pointed chin and ski-slope nose, ivory skin, glossy black wedge-cut hair, glossy brown eyes. Her pantsuit was black. In front of her was a big chocolate malt in a real glass. Milo had a napkin tucked under his chin and was eating fried shrimp and onion rings and drinking iced tea.
The woman kept watching me until I got two feet away. Then she smiled, more the right thing to do than amiability. Scanning me from head to shoe, as if measuring for a suit.
“Alex, this is Detective Petra Connor, Hollywood Homicide. Petra, Dr. Alex Delaware.”
“Good to meet you,” said Connor. A little makeup added depth to eyes that didn't need any more. She had very long, very thin hands with warm, strong fingers that squeezed mine for a second, then flew back to the straw in her malt.
I slid in next to Milo.
“Something to eat?” he said.
“No, I'm fine. What's up?”
“What's up is Detective Connor is an eagle eye.”
“Pure luck,” she said in a soft voice. “Most of the time I never pay attention to memos.”
“Most of the time they're bullshit.”
She smiled and twirled the straw.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I forgot. Working with Bishop you probably never hear sullied speech.”
“I don't, but Bishop does,” said Connor.
“Her partner's a Mormon,” Milo told me. “Very smart, very straight, probably be chief one day. Petra and he picked up the case in question a while back. He's currently off with the wife and million kids in Hawaii so she's riding alone.”
“The whole thing amazes me,” she said. “Being tied into a possible serial. Because ours wasn't even a murder, just an iffy suicide. Not iffy enough to change the coroner's verdict, so we closed it as a suicide. But when I saw your memo…”
Shaking her head, she pushed the malt aside and dabbed at her lips. The lipstick she left on the straw had brown overtones. The black in her hair was real. She was probably closer to thirty than twenty-five, but not a line on her face.
“Who was the victim?” I said.
“A twenty-nine-year-old scientist named Malcolm Ponsico. Cellular physiologist, recent Ph.D. from CalTech, supposed to be some kind of genius. He lived in Pasadena, but was working at a research lab on Sunset near Vermont- Hospital Row- and that's where he did it so it was our case.”
“I used to work at Western Peds,” I said.
“Right there. Two blocks up. Place called PlasmoDerm, they do skin research, developing synthetic grafts for burn victims, that kind of thing. Ponsico's specialty was cell membranes. He killed himself with an injection of potassium chloride- the stuff they use for lethal-injection executions. Did it while working late, the cleaning lady found him at 4:00 A.M., slumped over his lab table. Big laceration right here, where his head hit the edge.”
She traced a line over well-formed black brows.
“He fell on his head when he died?”
“That's how the coroner saw it.”
“Where's the DVLL tie-in?”
“He left it typed on his computer screen. Four letters, right in the middle of the screen. Stu- Detective Bishop- and I figured it for something technical, a formula. But we asked around, just to be careful, in case it was some kind of coded suicide note. No one at PlasmoDerm knew what it meant and it didn't show up in any of Ponsico's computer files- we had one of our data-processing guys check them out. All numbers, formulas. No one seemed surprised by Ponsico writing something only he understood. He was that kind of guy- major brain in a world of his own.”
“Did he leave a message at his home?”
“No. His apartment was in perfect order. Everyone said he was a nice person, quiet, kept to himself, really into his work. No one had noticed him being depressed and his parents in New Jersey said he'd seemed okay when he called them. But parents often say that. People hide things, right?”
“He seemed okay?” I said. “That's not a ringing endorsement of his happiness.”
“His parents said he'd always been a serious boy. Their word- boy. A genius, they'd always let him do his own thing and he'd always produced. Their word, too. They're both professors. I got the feeling it was a high-pressure household. It played out pure suicide. Ponsico's prints were all over the hypodermic and the potassium vial and the coroner said the position we found him in was consistent with self-infliction. Said also it was a fairly quick death- massive heart attack, though Ponsico could have made things easier on himself if he'd taken a tranquilizer like the ones they give Death Row guys. Then again, no one from the ACLU was looking over Ponsico's shoulder.”
“So what was iffy about it?”
“Ponsico's former girlfriend- another scientist at the lab, named Sally Branch- was convinced there was something wrong and kept calling us up, asking us to keep snooping. She said it didn't make sense, Ponsico had no reason to kill himself, she'd have known if there were something wrong.”
“Even though she was a former girlfriend.”
“My thought exactly, Doctor. And she also tried to cast suspicion on Ponsico's new girlfriend, so we figured it was jealousy. Then I met the new girlfriend and wondered.”
She took a sip of water.
“Her name was Zena Lambert and she was weird. She'd worked as a clerk at PlasmoDerm but left a few months before Ponsico's death.”
“Weird, how?” I said.
“Kind of… nerdy- but in a mean way. Snippy. As in, I'm smarter than you so don't waste my time. Even though she claimed to be grieving over Ponsico.”
“An intellectual snob?” I said.
“Exactly. Which was funny because Sally Branch, with her Ph.D., was down-to-earth, and here was this clerk who thought she was the end-all. Still, a bad personality doesn't make someone a suspect and we had absolutely nothing on her.”
“Did Sally Branch give some reason for suspecting Zena?”
“She said Ponsico changed noticeably after he started dating her- even quieter, less social, hostile. All of which seemed logical to me. He'd be less social with Sally because he'd broken up with her.”
“Did she say why he broke up with her?”
“All Zena. To listen to her, Zena swooped down like some harpy and stole him away. She also said Zena had gotten him into some kind of high-IQ club and he'd become obsessed with his intelligence. Big-time arrogant. But that was it, evidence-wise, and she gave me no motive for Zena wanting to hurt him. Eventually, I just stopped taking her calls. Now, Milo's told me about these DVLL murders, someone getting rid of retarded people, maybe a tie-in with genetic cleansing, so I have to wonder about that high-IQ group.”
She shook her head. “Though I still can't see any connection to Ponsico, unless he met your killer at the brainiac club and learned too much for his own good.”
“Did Zena get anothor job after she left PlasmoDerm?” I said.
“Bookstore in Silverlake, it's in the file.”
“Did Sally give you a name for the club?” I said, thinking about Nolan Dahl, another high-IQ suicide.
“Meta,” she said. “You really think there could be a link?”
I told the two of them what I'd learned in the library.
“Survival of the rotten,” she said. “Reminds me of something my father once told me. He was a professor in Arizona, physical anthropologist, did research on wolves, the desert. He said there was a giant study going on- the Human Genome Project- mapping every gene in the human body, trying to figure out which traits are caused by what. The ultimate goal is to collect detailed data on every one of us. My dad said the upside potential for medical research was tremendous but it was also frightening. What if insurance companies got hold of the information and decided to withhold coverage because of some mutation way back in the family tree? Or companies started refusing to hire someone because they were at elevated risk for cancer ten years down the line?”
“Or,” said Milo, “Big Bro identifies the mutations and kills off the carriers… was PlasmoDerm involved in that kind of research?”
“No, just skin grafts, but even if they were, it doesn't explain why Ponsico would kill himself.”
“Maybe he found out he had some incurable disease.”
“Nope, the coroner said he was perfectly healthy.”
Milo pulled out his pad. “Meta. Sounds like Greek.”
“It is,” said Petra. “I went over the file before I came here and looked it up. Means change, transformation. Something that breaks new ground.”
“Brave new goddamn world?” said Milo. “A bunch of arrogant geeks sit around theorizing about improving the species and one of them decides to put it into action?”
Both of them looked at me.
“Sure,” I said. “If you thought you were that superior, you might start figuring the rules didn't apply.”
Out in the parking lot, Connor said, “I spoke to Stu this morning. He won't be back from Maui for another week, says to give you all our data.”
She produced a file from a huge black bag and handed it to Milo.
“No problem.” She flashed an abrupt white smile. “Just promise that if I send around a memo, you'll read it.”
We watched her drive away in an older black Accord.
“Fairly new on the job,” said Milo, “but she'll go far… So I guess the next step is for me to go over this, then give you a look. Then have a talk with Ponsico's two girlfriends.”
“It's the best lead we've gotten, so far,” I said. Saying nothing about Nolan because I was still bound by confidentiality and there was no reason to violate.
We walked to the Seville. “Thanks for the library work, Alex. Have time to go back there and look up this Meta outfit?”
“First thing in the morning. Sharavi's well-equipped in the computer department. Planning to update him?”
“Haven't decided. Because anything I tell him goes straight to Carmeli and how much do I want a grieving high-powered father to know at this point… not that I can put him off too long- hell, if I don't cue him in, he'll probably start bugging the phones again.”
He laughed, cursed. “Distractions… by the way, I think I figured out how Sharavi got Raymond Ortiz's shoes. Same way he got the file- remember how the first time Manny Alvarado looked for it he couldn't find it? Seems a former Newton captain just happened to drop in to visit the station a couple days before. Guy named Eugene Brooker, one of the highest-ranked blacks in the department, they used to think he was on his way to deputy chief. But his wife died last summer and he retired. And guess what- he was a biggie on the same Olympics security Sharavi worked on. So the Israelis are connected to the department, who knows where else. No matter how aboveboard Sharavi acts, I'll always figure he's holding something back. You think his computers can help substantially?”
“I can get academic references from the library, material that's been in the English-language press. But if Meta's an international group, or if it's been implicated in anything criminal overseas, he could be useful.”
He thought about that. “All this assumes Meta's some big deal. For all we know, it's just a group of nerds getting together for chips and dip, patting themselves on the back because God gave them smarts. Even if the killer's one of them, how're we going to pick him out of the group?”
“If there's a membership roster and we get it, we could cross-check with the sex-offender and M.O. files. We can also see if any members present a clear opportunity or motive for the three killings. Like working at the park where Raymond was abducted and/or the conservancy.”
“Park worker with a high IQ?”
“Underachiever,” I said. “That's the way I've seen it all along.”
“Ponsico's second girlfriend- the Lambert woman- sounds like an underachiever, too. Clerking. Not that she's any big suspect, because our boy's definitely male and strong- the way he carried Irit and Raymond, trussed up Latvinia.”
I got in the car. He said, “What do you think of that gene project Connor talked about?”
“Just what we need in the age of kindness, Milo. Some map that determines whose life is worth living.”
“So you're not willing to depend upon the good graces of intellectuals and insurance companies, huh?”
I laughed. “Gang bangers and dope smugglers and back-alley junkie muggers, maybe. But no, not them.”
At 6:00 A.M. after working since midnight, Daniel opened the shutters on the computer room's windows and breathed in light.
Putting on his phylacteries, he prayed without feeling, looking out at the tiny backyard clad in concrete.
He'd spent most of the night on the phone, accommodating the European and Asian and Middle Eastern time zones. Making police-officer small talk in four languages, calling in favors, making his way through the various law-enforcement bureaucracies that somehow never changed from city to city.
Searching for DVLL references, murders with racial and ethnic overtones, any hints of serial crimes linked to genetic cleansing, any major changes in the policies of neo-Nazi and nationalist groups and others who thought themselves superior.
Quantity wasn't the problem. Plenty of information- as democracy spread over Europe, more and more lunatics crawled out of their holes and gorged themselves on free speech. But in the end he was left with no connections to the L.A. murders, nothing even close to a lead.
He cut his prayers short, apologized to God, wrapped up the tfillin, and went into the small, dark bathroom where he turned on the shower, stripped, and stepped in, not waiting for the water to turn hot.
It took exactly two minutes forty-one seconds for the old pipes to kick in. He'd timed it yesterday, arranged his morning schedule accordingly.
But this morning he endured the cold needles.
Flogging himself for the futile night?
He'd begun with Heinz-Dietrich Halzell at the Berlin police, who'd informed him the racist presses continued to churn out the nasty stuff; the moment the polizei got an injunction, the slime just moved and started up again. And stupid punks kept beating up Turks and anyone else with a dark skin, starting brawls, desecrating graveyards.
Apology in his voice. Deeply sorry, the way only a German could be. Daniel had hosted him at a security conference in Jerusalem, last year. A really decent guy, but weren't they always the ones who let themselves feel?
Murders of retarded kids? No, Heinz-Dietrich hadn't heard of anything like that. DVLL? Not in any of their files, but he'd ask around. What was going on in L.A.?
When Daniel told him, sketchily, he sighed and said he'd ask around seriously.
Uri Drori at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin did some double-checking and verified everything Halzell had said. Daniel called him not because he didn't trust the German, but because sometimes what you learned depended on who you were.
Drori reported a slowly escalating rate of low-level incidents, repeated almost word for word Heinz-Dietrich's lament about the idiots popping up like toadstools.
It will never end, Dani. The more democracy you have, the more you get this shit, but what's the alternative?
Same story with Bernard Lamont in Paris, Joop Van Gelder in Amsterdam, Carlos Velasquez in Spain, all the others.
No murders of defectives, no DVLL.
Which didn't really surprise him. These crimes seemed American. Though he couldn't explain why.
A wonderful country, America. Huge and free and naive; big-hearted people always willing to grant the benefit of the doubt.
Even after the Trade Center bombing, you didn't see large-scale anti-Muslim feelings. The Israeli Embassy in New York tracked that kind of thing.
But what was the price?
Last night, taking a coffee break, he'd heard police sirens, loud, close, looked out the same rear window and saw a helicopter circling low, beaming down on backyards, like some giant mantis scouting for prey.
His police scanner told him they were searching for an armed-robbery suspect- holdup at Beverly Drive and Pico.
A mile away, right near Zev Carmeli's place.
Not far from the house on Monte Mar where Laura had grown up. Her parents had sold it and bought two tiny condos. Beverly Hills, and Jerusalem, where they were now.
Before he'd left for the States, his father-in-law had warned him: Be careful, things have changed.
Gene said, Total breakdown, Danny Boy. Going to school can be hazardous to a kid's health.
Which was one reason Gene had sold his big house in Lafayette Park. Heading for Arizona… no real reason for Arizona, except that it was warm and “I'm not exactly worried about melanoma, right?”
Gene looked old. Since Luanne's death, his hair and mustache had turned snow-white and his skin bagged.
An untimely death, the poor woman had been only sixty when the massive stroke had knocked her to the floor of her kitchen. Gene discovering her, another reason to sell the house.
High blood pressure. A doctor friend of Daniel's told him blacks had more of it. Some said it was their diet, others genetics. His friend thought racism had a lot to do with it.
Daniel understood that. He couldn't count the times he'd been called a dirty Jew by Arabs and, because of his skin, a nigger by all sorts of people.
When it happened, he didn't react visibly but his heart pounded in his ears… he wondered if Gene was taking care of his diabetes. Cookies on the counter when he'd gone there to pick up the Ortiz file and the boy's shoes said otherwise.
His friend had come through for him and Daniel liked to think the favor had been good for Gene, too.
Nothing but time on his hands, poor guy. He'd called three times since returning the stuff, offering to do whatever Daniel needed.
But Daniel wouldn't go to Gene for any more favors. The man was ill, no reason to draw him in deeper.
If Sturgis cooperated.
He'd said he would, but hard to tell.
Sturgis would never score high on the Trust Index.
He stepped out of the shower just as the water warmed up, dried off, goose-bumped, amazed he hadn't felt any discomfort.
Democracy had begun in Greece but its real home was here. Birthplace of official compassion, too- no country had been as kind as America. Now Americans were paying for their compassion in drive-by shootings, the breakdown of rules and values, child-murderers let out on parole.
Same thing back home. For all his country's image as a tough little fighter state, Daniel knew Israel as one big, soft heart populated by survivors and rooters for the underdog with a reluctance to punish.
That's why victory doesn't sit well with us, he thought. Why we end up the first country in history to voluntarily give back land won in battle in exchange for an ill-defined peace with people who hate our guts.
He'd watched, during the intifada, as the Palestinian Arabs made the most of Israeli democracy: staging rehearsed events masquerading as spontaneous shows of protest, exaggerating the very real brutality of the occupation with hyperbole, kids with rocks playing for the camera. The press, of course, gobbled it up like a rich dessert. Day after day of photo-op baton-to-skull and rubber-bullet hailstorm broadcast worldwide, while Assad executed tens of thousands of potential enemies in Syria and got maybe two lines of newsprint.
Still, who ever said life was fair. He'd rather live in a free society… though sometimes…
And now he was thinking of Elias Daoud again, resolutions tossed to the wind.
The ginger-haired Christian Arab from Bethlehem had been his best homicide detective, playing a major role in the Butcher investigation, never letting the divided-loyalties thing get in the way though it hadn't been easy- no one but Daniel had trusted him.
The closing of the Butcher file got everyone on the team promotions, but Daoud's had taken a bit more prodding of the pencil pushers.
Daniel had been obdurate and finally Daoud ended up a mefakeah, Southern Division's first Arab inspector. The raise in pay for a guy with seven kids had made it more than just another ribbon.
Daoud was kept on Daniel's squad and Daniel assigned him to the few nonpolitical homicide cases that came up: Old City gang stuff, the drug and watermelon rackets, nothing with any security overtones. For Daoud's protection as well as for the brass. Daniel didn't want him branded a collaborator.
Then the intifada heated up. More rhetoric, more audacity, more violence- the wall of fear broken down, vermin scurrying through the rubble.
Religious militancy found new life, too, and Christians in Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and everywhere else Christian, remembered Beirut and grew less vocal, many of them bribing their way across the border to Jordan and onward to families in Europe and the States.
One morning, in the midst of a serious investigation into the Ramai gang's role in the hashish trade, with Daoud scheduled to give a progress report, everyone waiting in a restaurant on King George Street, the guy didn't show.
Right away Daniel knew something was wrong. The man was a walking wristwatch.
He dismissed the griping detectives, called Daoud's house, got a disconnected line.
The usual twenty-minute drive to Bethlehem took him less than fifteen. Before he got to the city outskirts he saw the military jeeps and the police Ford Escorts, blue lights flashing, people milling around, the simmering feel of an impending riot.
He showed his badge and made his way past grim faces to Daoud's house. Police tape had been wrapped around the little limestone cube and chickens circled the muddy ditch that passed for a yard. No more olive-wood crucifix in Daoud's window- when had that changed?
It had been a long time since Daniel had been there. Now, he realized what a sorry place it was, objectively. Not much better than the hovel in Yemen where Daniel's father had been born. But the promotion had allowed Daoud to finish payments on it, the guy had been so proud.
The uniform at the door warned him not to go in for his own sake, but he did anyway, thinking of Daoud, the young, fat wife Daoud loved madly and plied with chocolates, seven little kids…
The kids gone, no one knew where. Months later, Daniel found out they'd somehow showed up with relatives in Amman, but that was as far as the information went.
Daoud and the fat wife, still here.
Slaughtered like sheep for the market.
Sliced, trussed, dismembered, tongues severed. The wife a leaking bag of yellow adipose, eyes rolled back. Daoud castrated, his penis hacked off, the organ stuffed in his mouth.
Hatchets, the medical examiner said. And long knives, probably six or seven attackers, a midnight blitz.
Flies, so many flies.
Arabic scrawl on the wall in blood:
GOD IS GREAT! DEATH TO COLLABORATORS!
He drove back to French Hill, kept his feelings to himself.
Always, constantly, completely.
Like the Dead Sea, flat and bitter, yielding nothing organic.
Wanting to be dispassionate when he asked to run the investigation into the slaughter, so his superiors would consider it.
Of course, they refused, saying it was an Arab issue, he could never get close enough, no one would talk to him.
He kept asking, demanding, got the same answer, over and over. Refusing to give up, knowing he was being an idiot, he drove home each day with an inflamed belly and a raging headache, the strain of smiling at Laura and the kids just short of unbearable.
A case number was assigned to the Daoud murders but no one seemed to be actually investigating.
He lost interest in his gang cases; the Ramais could sell dope for another few months, big deal. And if they shot each other, no great loss.
He wrote memo after memo, received no answer.
Finally, in Laufer's office, after yet another dismissal, he exploded at the commander.
Is this what it's come to? He was an Arab so it's not worth the time and effort? Different values for different lives? What are we, Nazi Germany?
Laufer had looked him up and down, chain-smoking, sleepy eyes full of contempt, but he hadn't said a word. Daniel's solving the Butcher had gotten him kicked up from deputy commander. Who knew what other value the Yemenite might have for him?
After that, a few suspects were hauled in for questioning, but it led nowhere, the file was never closed, never would be.
Daniel thought from time to time of the savages who'd done it. Dispatched from Syria or Lebanon? Or locals, still living in Bethlehem, passing that house, now demolished, and really believing they'd shown God to be great?
And what of the seven kids? Who was raising them? What had they been told?
That the Jews had done it?
Daddy and Mommy, martyrs to Palestine?
The Arabs loved martyrs. After the intifada ended, there'd been a martyr shortage, young guys with scraped feet or the flu claiming they'd gotten hurt fighting the Zionists.
The virtue of suffering.
We, their Jewish cousins, aren't much different, are we? he thought. Though we're a little more subtle about it.
And now these American killings.
Three homicides of children in three separate police districts- Delaware had a point about that. Spread out over a vast, shapeless thing that calls itself a city.
Retarded kids, how could you get any crueler?
Gene said they called them something else nowadays… developmentally challenged.
“Nowadays, everyone's challenged, Danny Boy. Short people are vertically challenged, drunks are sobriety-challenged, criminal scumbags are socially challenged.”
“Socially challenged sounds more like someone shy, Gene.”
“That's the point, my friend. It's not supposed to make sense. A con game, like that book, 1984. Change the names to confuse the good guys.”
So what does that make me on this case? And Sturgis and Delaware.
No, just stuck.
Seven-thirty a.m. I was at the doors to the Biomed library when they opened, barely awake, showered but unshaven, still tasting gulped coffee.
I worked for two hours, finding only one reference to the group called Meta. But it was enough.
Wire-service piece, three years old, carried locally by the Daily News.
GENIUS GROUP EDITORIAL
NEW YORK- Opinions supporting selective breeding to improve genetic stock as well as mercy killing of the retarded, published by an organization of self-described geniuses, have raised controversy among members of social-advocacy organizations and put the group under an unaccustomed spotlight.
Meta, a little-known Manhattan-based club founded ten years ago to provide information about creativity and giftedness, now finds itself accused of fascism.
The article under fire was written by Meta director and attorney Farley Sanger in The Pathfinder, the group's quarterly newsletter. In it, Sanger calls for a “new utopia” based upon “objectively measured intellectual ability” and questions the value of providing special education and other services, including medical care, to the developmentally disabled, whom he labels meat without mentation.
Sanger also suggests that those lacking the ability to reason and care for themselves are not fully human and, thus, do not merit constitutional protection under the law. “An effective social-policy analogue,” he argues, would be “animal-protection statutes. Just as sterilization and euthanasia are widely held to be humane policies for cats and dogs, so should they be considered for those “quasi-human' organisms whose genetic makeup causes them to fall well short of the intellectual goalpost.”
The article, published several months ago without fanfare until it was brought to the attention of the press, has generated a predictably hostile reaction from advocates for the mentally retarded.
“This is fascism, pure and simple,” said Barry Hannigan, chairman of the Child Welfare Society. “Ugly stuff reminiscent of Nazi Germany.”
Margaret Esposito, director of the Special Children Foundation, an advocacy group for the retarded, said, “We've worked so hard to erase the stigma associated with developmental delay only to see something like this come along. I can only hope we're talking about a fringe group and that reasonable people will see it for what it is.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by clergy, social scientists, and jurists.
“Reprehensible,” said Monsignor William Binchy of the Manhattan archdiocese. “The Church believes only God should play God.”
The editor responsible for publishing the article in The Pathfinder, Wall Street securities analyst Helga Cranepool, was unfazed by these comments. Admitting that Sanger's essay contained “some push-the-envelope phraseology and adventurous notions,” Cranepool defended them on free-speech grounds and “the right of our members to be exposed to a wide spectrum of opinions. Two characteristics of very bright people are a willingness to take reasonable risks and an unquenchable curiosity. We're not for everyone, nor do we claim to be. We'll continue to do everything in our power to stimulate and challenge ourselves through an unfettered exchange of ideas.”
Author Sanger, reached at his Midtown law office, refused to comment beyond saying, “The writing speaks for itself.” Both he and Cranepool declined to offer the names of other Meta members, with Cranepool describing the group as “small and selective. We don't seek publicity.”
The chairman of the Manhattan chapter of the better-known high-IQ group Mensa, Laurence Lanin, described Meta as “one of our wackier imitators. There are lots of them, but they rarely endure.” He estimated Meta membership at no more than a few dozen.
As with Mensa, sources say admittance to the group is based upon scores on a self-designed IQ test. Mensa membership is based upon an upper 2 percent score and Meta is believed to be more selective. When asked if Mensa members shared Sanger's views, Lanin said, “I can only speak for myself but I find them repellent.”
I photocopied the article and searched local phone books for Meta listings. None. Big surprise.
How did they recruit members?
Mensa imitator… the better-known group was listed. West L.A. number, no address.
A recording listed the time and address for the next meeting and said messages could be left after the beep.
I said, “My name is Al and I'm an East Coast transplant looking for info on Meta. Are they out here?” and left my number.
Next, I reached Milo at his desk.
“Just the one article?” he said.
“So maybe that was Ponsico's club, too. Maybe Sharavi can find something on his computers.”
“You're going to call him?”
“He called me. Seven A.M., gotta give him points for industriousness. He said he'd been working all night with the foreign police and Israeli contacts- zippo. I think he was telling the truth, I know that pissed-off tone of voice. Now that we have a name, maybe he can pull something up. I'll arrange a meet at his place this afternoon but first I've got a lunch appointment with Malcolm Ponsico's first girlfriend. Sally the scientist, more than eager to talk about Zena the clerk. She's working out in Sherman Oaks now, near the burn center, and I'm supposed to meet her at an Italian place on Ventura and Woodman. In the mood for pasta?”
“The stuff I've been reading lately has killed my appetite,” I said. “But the company sounds fine.”
Sally Branch speared a piece of mussel from a nest of linguini and stared at it clinically.
She was thirty-one but had a teenager's eager, nasal voice- Valley Girl inflections overlaid on long, articulate phrases- thick, wavy chestnut hair, a broad, plain, freckled face, brown eyes, and a knockout figure enhanced by a black knit dress. A white lab coat was draped over her chair.
She said, “Malcolm was never a very communicative person but he got worse after he met her.”
“How long before his death did you have contact with him?” said Milo.
“A few days before, we had lunch in the PlasmoDerm cafeteria.” She colored. “I saw him and sat down. He seemed preoccupied but not depressed.”
“Preoccupied by what?”
“His work, I assume.”
“He was having work problems?”
She smiled. “No, on the contrary. He was brilliant. But every day something new comes up- specific experiments.”
Milo smiled, too. “You'd have to be a scientist to understand?”
“Well, I don't know about that.”
She ate the mussel.
I said, “So he never actually talked about something bothering him.”
“No, but I could tell.”
“The breakup,” said Milo. “Was it friendly?”
She swallowed and forced another smile. “Is it ever really friendly? He stopped calling, I wanted to know why, he wouldn't say, then I saw him with her. But I got over it- I guess I kept thinking Malcolm would come to his senses. Listen, I know I sound like just another jealous woman but you need to understand that suicide would have been a totally illogical choice for Malcolm. His life was going great, he never lost interest in his work. And he liked himself. Malcolm was someone who truly liked himself.”
“Good self-esteem?” said Milo.
“Nothing obnoxious but he was brilliant and knew it. He used to make wisecracks about winning the Nobel prize but I knew it wasn't a total joke.”
“What was he researching?” I said.
“Cell permeability- moving ions and chemical compounds of increasing complexity through cell walls without causing structural damage. It was still at a theoretical level- mouse cells. But the practical potential was enormous.”
“Getting drugs into cells without damage,” I said.
“Exactly. Drugs are basically cellular-repair agents. Malcolm was studying drugs that enhance tissue growth in burn patients. He described it as playing with toy trains on a cellular level.”
“Cellular repair- like patching up defective chromosomes?”
“Yes! I suggested that to Malcolm but he said he'd stick to medications. That it was possible inborn defects shouldn't be tinkered with.”
She looked at her plate. “Malcolm was a bit… stodgy. A determinist- he believed some things should be left alone.”
“Healing burns was okay but genetic problems shouldn't be fixed.”
“Something like that- I don't want to make him sound unsympathetic. He wasn't. He was kind. But extremely brilliant people are sometimes like that.”
“Like what?” said Milo.