The Murder Book
Book 16 in the Alex Delaware series, 2002
The day I got the murder book, I was still thinking about Paris. Red wine, bare trees, gray river, city of love. Everything that happened there. Now, this.
Robin and I flew in to Charles de Gaulle airport on a murky Monday in January. The trip had been my idea of a surprise. I'd pulled it together in one manic night, booking tickets on Air France and a room at a small hotel on the outskirts of the Eighth arrondissement, packing a suitcase for two, speeding the 125 freeway miles to San Diego. Showing up at Robin's room at the Del Coronado just before midnight with a dozen coral roses and a voilà! grin.
She came to the door wearing a white T-shirt and a hip-riding red sarong, auburn curls loose, chocolate eyes tired, no makeup. We embraced, then she pulled away and looked down at the suitcase. When I showed her the tickets, she turned her back and shielded me from her tears. Outside her window the night black ocean rolled, but this was no holiday on the beach. She'd left L.A. because I'd lied to her and put myself in danger. Listening to her cry now, I wondered if the damage was irreparable.
I asked what was wrong. As if I had nothing to do with it.
She said, "I'm just… surprised."
We ordered room-service sandwiches, she closed the drapes, we made love.
" Paris," she said, slipping into a hotel bathrobe. "I can't believe you did all this." She sat down, brushed her hair, then stood. Approached the bed, stood over me, touched me. She let the robe slither from her body, straddled me, shut her eyes, lowered a breast to my mouth. When she came the second time, she rolled away, went silent.
I played with her hair and, as she fell asleep, the corners of her mouth lifted. Mona Lisa smile. In a couple of days, we'd be queuing up as robotically as any other tourists, straining for a glimpse of the real thing.
She'd fled to San Diego because a high school chum lived there- a thrice-married oral surgeon named Debra Dyer, whose current love interest was a banker from Mexico City. ("So many white teeth, Alex!") Francisco had suggested a day of shlock-shopping in Tijuana followed by an indeterminate stay at a leased beach house in Cabo San Lucas. Robin, feeling like a fifth wheel, had begged off, and called me, asking if I'd join her.
She'd been nervous about it. Apologizing for abandoning me. I didn't see it that way, at all. Figured her for the injured party.
I'd gotten myself in a bad situation because of poor planning. Blood had spilled and someone had died. Rationalizing the whole thing wasn't that tough: Innocent lives had been at stake, the good guys had won, I'd ended up on my feet. But as Robin roared away in her truck, I faced the truth:
My misadventures had little to do with noble intentions, lots to do with a personality flaw.
A long time ago, I'd chosen clinical psychology, the most sedentary of professions, telling myself that healing emotional wounds was how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. But it had been years since I'd conducted any long-term therapy. Not because, as I'd once let myself believe, I'd burned out on human misery. I had no problem with misery. My other life force-fed me gobs of misery.
The truth was cold: Once upon a time I had been drawn to the humanity and the challenge of the talking cure, but sitting in the office, dividing hour after hour by three quarters, ingesting other people's problems, had come to bore me.
In a sense, becoming a therapist had been a strange choice. I'd been a wild boy- poor sleeper, restless, overactive, high pain threshold, inclined to risk-taking and injuries. I quieted down a bit when I discovered books but found the classroom a jail and raced through school in order to escape. After graduating high school at sixteen, I bought an old car with summer-job cash, ignored my mother's tears and my father's scowling vote of no-confidence, and left the plains of Missouri. Ostensibly for college, but really for the threat and promise of California.
Molting like a snake. Needing something new.
Novelty had always been my drug. I craved insomnia and menace punctuated by long stretches of solitude, puzzles that hurt my head, infusions of bad company and the delicious repellence of meeting up with the slimy things that coiled under psychic rocks. A racing heart jolted me happy. The kick start of adrenaline punching my chest made me feel alive.
When life slowed down for too long, I grew hollow.
But for circumstance, I might've dealt with it by jumping out of airplanes or scaling bare rocks. Or worse.
Years ago, I'd met a homicide detective and that changed everything.
Robin had put up with it for a long time. Now she'd had enough and, sooner rather than later, I'd have to make some kind of decision.
She loved me. I know she did.
Maybe that's why she made it easy for me.
In Paris, clichés are just fine.
You leave your hotel, step out into the winter drizzle, walk aimlessly until you find yourself at a café near the Jardin des Tuileries where you order overpriced baguettes and grainy, French-press coffee, then move on to the Louvre, where even during the off-season the lines prove daunting. So you cross the Seine on the Pont Royal, ignoring the motor din that washes the bridge, study the murk of the water below, try the Musée d'Orsay and murder your feet for a couple of hours, sucking in the fruits of genius. Then, deeper into the grubby side streets of the Left Bank, where you press yourself into the all-in-black throng, and laugh inwardly at an imagined wheezy accordion sound track overpowering the burping motor scooters and the whining Renaults.
It was early afternoon, near a shop in St. Germain, when it happened.
Robin and I had stopped into a dark, narrow men's haberdashery with a window full of aggressive neckties and slouching mannequins with pickpocket eyes. The rain had been coming in fitful bursts all day. The umbrella we'd cadged from the hotel concierge wasn't generous enough to shelter both of us and we each ended up more than half-wet. Robin didn't seem to mind. Her curls were beaded with droplets and her cheeks were flushed. She'd been quiet since we'd boarded the plane in L.A., sleeping for most of the flight, refusing dinner. This morning, we'd woken up late and barely talked. During the walk across the river, she seemed distracted- staring off at nothing in particular, holding my hand, then dropping it, then grabbing again and squeezing hard, as if scrambling to cover for some infraction. I put it down to jet lag.
The St. Germain stroll led us past a private school where beautiful, chittering adolescents spilled out onto the sidewalk, then a bookstore where I'd intended to browse until Robin pulled me into the clothing store, saying, "These are good silks, Alex. You could use something new."
The store peddled menswear, but smelled like a nail salon. The shopgirl was a skinny thing with hacked-up hair the color of eggplant rind and the anxiety of a new hire. Robin took a while thumbing through the goods, finally found me a very blue shirt and an extravagant red-and-gold tie of heavy weave, got my nod, asked the girl to wrap it up. Aubergine Tresses scurried to a back room and returned with a stout, cardiganed woman in her sixties who sized me up, took the shirt, and returned moments later brandishing a steaming iron in one hand and the garment in the other- newly pressed, on a hanger, shielded by a clear plastic bag.
"Talk about service," I said, as we returned to the street. "Hungry?"
"No, not yet."
"You didn't touch breakfast."
The stout woman had followed us out and was standing in the doorway of the shop. She looked up at the sky dubiously. Checked her watch. Seconds later, thunder clapped. Flashing us a satisfied smile, she went back inside.
The rain was harder, colder. I tried to draw Robin under the umbrella but she resisted, remained out in the open, raised her face and caught the spray full force. A man scrambling for cover turned to stare.
I reached for her again. She continued to balk, licked moisture from her lips. Smiled faintly, as if enjoying a private joke. For a moment I thought she'd share it. Instead, she pointed to a brasserie two doors up the street and ran in ahead of me.
"Bonnie Raitt," I repeated.
We were at a tiny table tucked in a corner of the clammy brasserie. The restaurant floor was a grubby mesh of white tile and the walls were cloudy mirrors and oft-painted brown woodwork. A clinically depressed waiter brought us our salads and wine as if service was harsh penance. Rain washed the front window and turned the city to gelatin.
"Bonnie," she said. "Jackson Brown, Bruce Hornsby, Shawn Colvin, maybe others."
"At least three months," she said, still avoiding my eyes. "If it goes international, it could stretch longer."
"World hunger," I said. "Good cause."
"Famine and child welfare," she said.
She turned to me. Her eyes were dry and defiant.
"So," I said. "You're an equipment manager, now. No more guitar-making?"
"There'll be luthiery involved. I'll be overseeing and repairing all the gear."
I'll, not I'd. One-vote-election, nothing tentative.
"When exactly did you get the offer?" I said.
"Two weeks ago."
"I know I should've said something. It wasn't- it dropped in my lap. Remember when I was at Gold-Tone Studios and they needed those vintage archtops for that retro Elvis video? The tour manager happened to be in the next booth, watching some mixing, and ended up talking."
"Sociable woman," she said. "She had her dog with her- an English bulldog, a female. Spike started playing with her and we started talking."
"Animal magnetism," I said. "Is the tour dog-friendly, or do I keep Spike?"
"I'd like to take him along."
"I'm sure that'll thrill him to no end. When do you leave?"
"In a week."
"A week." My eyes hurt. "Lots of packing ahead."
She lifted her fork and pronged dead lettuce leaves. "I can call it off-"
"No," I said.
"I wouldn't have even considered it, Alex, not for the money-"
She named the figure.
"Very good money," I said.
"Listen to what I'm saying, Alex: That doesn't matter. If you're going to hate me, it can be undone."
"I don't hate you, and you don't want it undone. Maybe you accepted the offer because I made you unhappy, but now that you've committed yourself, you're seeing all kinds of positives."
I craved argument but she didn't answer. The restaurant was filling, drenched Parisians seeking shelter from the downpour.
"Two weeks ago," I said, "I was running around with Milo on Lauren Teague's murder. Hiding what I was doing from you. I was stupid to think this trip would make a difference."
She pushed salad around. The room had grown hotter, smaller; scowling people crowded tiny tables, others stood huddled at the doorway. The waiter began to approach. Robin repelled him with a glare.
She said, "I've felt so alone. For a while. You were gone all the time. Putting yourself in situations. I didn't bring up the tour, because I knew you couldn't- shouldn't be distracted."
She rolled the side of a small fist along the table rim. "I guess I've always felt that what you do is important and that what I do is… just craft." I started to speak but she shook her head. "But this last time, Alex. Meeting with that woman, seducing her. Planning a damned date in order to- your intentions were good, but it still came down to seduction. Using yourself as a…"
"Whore?" I said. Thinking suddenly about Lauren Teague. A girl I'd known a long time ago, from my quiet job. She'd sold her body, ended up head-shot and dumped in an alley…
"I was going to say 'lure.' Despite all we've had together- this supposed enlightened relationship we've got, you go about your own business… Alex, basically you've built this whole other life from which I'm excluded. From which I want to be excluded."
She reached for her wineglass, sipped, made a face.
"Fine vintage. I'm sorry, baby, I guess it just comes down to timing. Getting the offer exactly when I was so down." She grabbed my hand, squeezed hard. "You love me, but you left me, Alex. It made me realize how alone I'd been for so long. We both were. The difference is, you enjoy going it alone- you get high on solitude and danger. So when Trish and I started talking and she told me she'd heard about my work- my reputation- and all of a sudden I realized I had a reputation, and here was someone offering me great money and the chance for something of my own, I said yes. Just blurted it out. And then driving home, I panicked, and said, What did you just do? And told myself I'd have to renege and wondered how I'd do it without looking like an idiot. But then I got home and the house was empty and all of a sudden I didn't want to renege. I went out to my studio and cried. I still might've changed my mind. I probably would've. But then you arranged that date with that tramp and… it felt completely right. It still does."
She looked out the rain-clouded window. "Such a beautiful city. I never want to see it again."
The weather remained gray and wet and we kept to our room. Being together was agonizing: suppressed tears, edgy silences, too-polite chitchat, listening to the rain tormenting the dormer windows. When Robin suggested we return early to L.A., I told her I'd try to change her ticket but I'd be staying for a while. That hurt her but it also relieved her and the next day when the cab showed up to take her to the airport, I carried her bags, held her elbow as she got into the taxi, paid the driver in advance.
"How long will you be staying?" she said.
"Don't know." My teeth ached.
"Will you be back before I leave?"
"Please be, Alex."
Then: the kiss, the smile, trembling hands concealed.
As the taxi drove away I strained for a look at the back of her head- a tremor, a slump, any sign of conflict, regret, grief.
Impossible to tell.
Everything moved too fast.
The break came on a Sunday- some young smiley-faced, ponytailed guy I wanted to punch, arriving with a large van and two paunchy roadies wearing black Kill Famine Tour T-shirts. Ponytail had a Milk-Bone for Spike, high fives for me. Spike ate out of his hand. How had the bastard known to bring the treat?
"Hi, I'm Sheridan," he said. "The tour coordinator." He wore a white shirt, blue jeans, brown boots, had a narrow body and a clean, smooth face full of optimism.
"Thought that was Trish."
"Trish is the overall tour manager. My boss." He glanced at the house. "Must be nice, living up here."
"So you're a psychologist."
"I was a psych major in college. Studied psychoacoustics at UC Davis. Used to be a sound engineer."
How nice for you. "Hmm."
"Robin's going to be part of something important."
"Hey," I said.
Robin came down the front stairs with Spike on a leash. She wore a pink T-shirt and faded jeans and tennis shoes and big hoop earrings, began directing the roadies as they loaded her valises and her toolboxes into the van. Spike looked stoned. Like most dogs, his emotional barometer is finely tuned and for the last few days he'd been uncommonly compliant. I went over and stooped to pat his knobby French bulldog head, then I kissed Robin, and recited, "Have fun," and turned my back and trudged up to the house.
She stood there, alongside Sheridan. Waved.
Standing at the door, I pretended not to notice, then decided to wave.
Sheridan got behind the wheel of the van and everyone piled in behind him.
They rumbled away.
Now, for the hard part.
I started off determined to maintain my dignity. That lasted about an hour and for the next three days I turned off the phone, didn't check with my service or open the curtains or shave or collect the mail. I did read the paper because news coverage is heavily biased toward the hopeless. But other people's misfortunes failed to cheer me and the words danced by, as foreign as hieroglyphics. The little I ate, I didn't taste. I'm no problem drinker but Chivas became a friend. Dehydration took its toll; my hair got dry and my eyes creaked and my joints stiffened. The house, always too big, expanded to monstrous proportions. The air curdled.
On Wednesday, I went down to the pond and fed the koi because why should they suffer? That got me into a scut-work frenzy, scouring and dusting and sweeping and straightening. On Thursday I finally collected my messages. Robin had called every day, left numbers in Santa Barbara and Oakland. By Tuesday, she sounded anxious, by Wednesday, confused and annoyed and talking fast: The bus was headed for Portland. Everything was fine, Spike was fine, she was working hard, people were being great. Iloveyouhopeyou'reokay.
She called twice on Thursday, wondered out loud if I'd gone off on a trip of my own. Left a cell-phone number.
I punched buttons. Got: Your call cannot be completed.
Just after 1 P.M. I put on shorts and a workout shirt and sneakers, began stomping up Beverly Glen facing the traffic, easing into a clumsy jog when I felt loose enough, ending up running harder and faster and more punishingly than I'd done for years.
When I got home, my body burned and I could barely breathe. The mailbox down at the bridle path that leads up to the front gate was stuffed with paper and the postman had left several packages on the ground. I scooped it all up, dumped the batch on the dining room table, thought about more Scotch, drank a half gallon of water instead, returned to the mail and began sorting listlessly.
Bills, ads, solicitations from real estate brokers, a few worthy causes, lots of dubious ones. The packages were a psychology book I'd ordered a while back, a free sample of toothpaste guaranteed to heal my gums and feed my smile, and an eight-by-twelve rectangle wrapped in coarse blue paper with DR. A. DELAWARE and my address typed on a white label.
No return information. Downtown postmark, no stamps, just a meter. The blue paper, a heavy linen rag so substantial it felt like cloth, had been folded neatly and sealed tightly with clear tape. Slitting the folds revealed another snug layer of wrapping- pink butcher paper that I peeled away.
Inside was a three-ring binder. Blue, pebble-grain leather- substantial morocco, thumbed, grayed, and glossy in spots.
Stick-on gold letters were centered precisely on the front cover.
THE MURDER BOOK
I flipped the cover to a blank, black frontispiece. The next page was also black paper, encased in a stiff plastic jacket.
But not blank. Mounted with black, adhesive corner pockets was a photograph: sepia-toned, faded, with margins the color of too-whitened coffee.
Medium shot of a man's body lying on a metal table. Glass-doored cabinets in the background.
Both feet were severed at the ankles, placed just under ragged tibial stumps, like a puzzle in partial reassembly. No left arm on the corpse. The right was a mangled lump. Same for the torso above the nipples. The head was wrapped in cloth.
A typed caption on the bottom margin read: East L.A. , nr. Alameda Blvd. Pushed under a train by common-law wife.
The facing page featured a shot of similar vintage: Two sprawled gape-mouthed bodies- men- lying on a wooden plank floor, angled at forty degrees from each other. Dark stains spread beneath the corpses, tinted deep brown by age. Both victims wore baggy pants with generous cuffs, plaid shirts, lace-up work boots. Extravagant holes dotted the soles of the man on the left. A shot glass lay on its side near the elbow of the second, clear liquid pooling near the rim.
Hollywood , Vermont Ave. Both shot by "friend" in dispute over money.
I turned the page to a photo that appeared less antique- black-and-white images on glossy paper, close-up of a couple in a car. The woman's position concealed her face: stretched across the man's chest and sheathed by a mass of platinum blond curls. Polka-dot dress, short sleeves, soft arms. Her companion's head rested against the top of the car seat, stared up at the dome light. A black blood-stream trickled from his mouth, separated into rivulets when it reached his lapel, dribbled down his necktie. Skinny necktie, dark with a pattern of tumbling dice. That and the width of the lapel said the fifties.
Silver Lake , near the reservoir, adulterers, he shot her, then put the gun in his mouth.
Page 4: pale, naked flesh atop the rumpled covers of a Murphy bed. The thin mattress took up most of the floor space of a dim, wretched closet of a room. Undergarments lay crumpled at the foot. A young face stiffened by rigor, lividity pools at the shins, black-thatched crotch advertised by splayed legs, panty hose gathered to midcalf. I knew sexual positioning when I saw it so the caption was no surprise.
Wilshire, Kenmore St., Rape-murder. Seventeen-year-old Mexican girl, strangled by boyfriend.
Page 5: Central, Pico near Grand, 89 y.o. lady crossing street, purse snatch turned to head-injury homicide.
Page 6: Southwest, Slauson Ave. Negro gambler beaten to death over craps game.
The first color photo showed up on page ten: Red blood on sand-colored linoleum, the green-gray pallor that marked escape of the soul. A fat, middle-aged man sat slumped amid piles of cigarettes and candy, his sky-blue shirt smeared purple. Propped near his left hand was a sawed-off baseball bat with a leather thong threaded through the handle.
Wilshire, Washington Blvd. near La Brea, liquor store owner shot in holdup. Tried to fight back.
I flipped faster.
Venice, Ozone Avenue, woman artist attacked by neighbor's dog. Three years of arguments.
… Bank robbery, Jefferson and Figueroa. Teller resisted, shot six times.
… Strong-arm street robbery, Broadway and Fifth. One bullet to the head. Suspect stuck around, discovered still going through victim's pockets.
… Echo Park, woman stabbed by husband in kitchen. Bad soup.
Page after page of the same cruel artistry and matter-of-fact prose.
Why had this been sent to me?
That brought to mind an old cartoon: Why not?
I thumbed through the rest of the album, not focusing on the images, just searching for some personal message.
Finding only the inert flesh of strangers.
Forty-three deaths, in all.
At the rear, a black end page with another centered legend, similar stick-on gold letters:
I hadn't talked to my best friend in a while, and that was fine with me.
After giving the D.A. my statement on Lauren Teague's murder, I'd had my fill of the criminal justice system, was happy to stay out of the loop until trial time. A wealthy defendant and a squadron of paid dissemblers meant that would be years away, not months. Milo had remained chained to the details, so I had a good excuse for keeping my distance: The guy was swamped, give him space.
The real reason was, I didn't feel like talking to him, or anyone. For years, I'd preached the benefits of self-expression but my tonic since childhood had been isolation. The pattern had been set early by all those bowel-churning nights huddled in the basement, hands over ears, humming "Yankee Doodle" in order to block out the paternal rage thundering from above.
When things got rough, I curled like a mollusk into a gray pocket of solitary confinement.
Now I had forty-three death shots on my dining room table. Death was Milo 's raw material.
I called the West L.A. detective's room.
"Alex. What's up?"
"I got something I thought you should see. Photo album full of what look like crime-scene photos."
"Photos or copies?"
"You actually counted," he said. "Forty-three from the same case?"
"Forty-three different cases. They look to be arranged chronologically."
"You 'got' them? How?"
"Courtesy the U.S. Postal Service, first-class, downtown cancellation."
"No idea who might've favored you with this."
"I must have a secret admirer."
"Crime-scene shots," he said.
"Or someone takes very nasty vacations and decided to keep a scrapbook." The call-waiting signal clicked. Usually I ignore the intrusion, but maybe it was Robin from Portland. "Hold for a sec."
"Hello, sir," said a cheerful female voice. "Are you the person who pays the phone bill in the house?"
"No, I'm the sex toy," I said, and reconnected to Milo. Dial tone. Maybe he'd gotten an emergency call. I punched his desk number, got the West L.A. civilian receptionist, didn't bother to leave a message.
The doorbell rang twenty minutes later. I hadn't changed out of my running clothes, hadn't made coffee or checked the fridge- the first place Milo heads. Looking at portraits of violent death would make most people lose their appetites, but he's been doing his job for a long time, takes comfort food to a whole new level.
I opened the door, and said, "That was quick."
"It was lunchtime, anyway." He walked past me to where the blue leather binder sat in full view, but made no move to pick it up, just stood there, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, big belly heaving from the run up to the terrace.
Green eyes shifted from the book to me. "You sick or something?"
I shook my head.
"So what's this, a new look?" A sausage finger aimed at my stubbled face.
"Maintaining a leisurely shaving schedule," I said.
He sniffed, took in the room. "No one chewing at my cuffs. El Poocho out back with Robin?"
"She's here, right?" he said. "Her truck's out front."
"You must be a detective," I said. "Unfortunately, false leads abound. She's out." I pointed to the book. "Check that out while I forage in the larder. If I can find anything that hasn't petrified, I'll fix you a sandwich-"
"Something to drink?"
"Nothing." He didn't budge.
"What's the problem?" I said.
"How do I put this delicately," he said. "Okay: You look like shit, this place smells like an old-age home, Robin's truck is here but she isn't and my bringing her up makes your eyes drop to the floor like a suspect. What the hell's going on, Alex?"
"I look like shit?"
"Oh, well," I said. "Better cancel the photo shoot with In Style. And speaking of photography…" I held the book out to him.
"Changing the subject," he said, squinting down at me from his six-three vantage. "What do they call that in psychologist school?"
"Changing the subject."
He shook his head, kept his expression mild, folded his arms across his chest. But for spring-loaded tension around the eyes and mouth, he looked at peace. Pallid, acne-pitted face a bit leaner than usual, beer gut light-years from flat but definitely less bulge.
Dieting? On the wagon, yet again?
He'd dressed with uncommon color harmony: cheap but clean navy blazer, cotton khakis, white shirt with just a touch of fray at the neckline, navy tie, brand-new beige desert boots with pink rubber soles that squeaked as he shifted his weight and continued to study me. Brand-new haircut, too. The usual motif- clipped fuzzy at the sides and back, the top left long and shaggy, multiple cowlicks sprouting at the crown. A black forelock hooked over his pockmarked forehead. The hair from his temples to the bottoms of too-long sideburns had denatured to snow-white. The contrast with the black hair on top was unseemly- Mr. Skunk, he'd taken to calling himself.
"Spiffed and freshly barbered," I said. "Is this some new-leaf thing? Should I not attempt to feed you? Either way, take the damn book."
"Later." I thrust the blue album at him.
He kept his arms folded. "Just put it back down on the table." Pulling out a pair of surgical gloves from the sets, he encased his hands in latex, studied the blue leather cover, opened the book, read the frontispiece, moved on to the first photo.
"Old," he murmured. "The tint and the clothes. Probably someone's creepy collection from the attic."
"A home collection pilfered from the evidence room?"
"Cases get filed away, someone gets itchy-fingered, who's gonna notice if one shot per file gets lifted."
"A cop or a civilian ghoul. Lots of people have access, Alex. Some of them like the job because they dig blood."
" 'The murder book,' " I said. "Same title as an official case file."
"Same color, too. Whoever sent this knows procedure."
"Evoking procedure… why send it to me?"
He didn't answer.
I said, "It's not all antique. Keep going."
He studied several more photos, flipped back to the initial shot, then forward to where he'd left off. Resuming his inspection, picking up speed and skimming the horror, just as I had. Then he stopped. Stared at a photo toward the back of the book. Chunky knuckles swelled the gloves as he gripped the album.
"When exactly did you get this?"
He reached for the wrapping paper, took in the address, verified the postmark. Turned back to the album.
"What is it?" I said.
He placed the book on the table, open to the page that had stopped him. Resting his palms on either side of the album, he sat there. Ground his teeth. Laughed. The sound could have paralyzed prey.
Photograph Number 40.
A body in a ditch, muddy water pooled in the trough. Rusty blood on beige dirt. Off to the right side of the frame, dry weeds bristled. White-ink arrows were aimed at the subject, but the subject was obvious.
A young woman, maybe a teenager. Very thin- concave belly, rib cage washboard, fragile shoulders, spindly arms and legs. Slash and puncture wounds meshed her abdomen and neck. Curious black polka dots, too. Both breasts were gone, replaced by purplish discs the shape of marquis diamonds. Her angular face had been posed in profile, gazing to the right. Above her brow, where the hair should have been, floated a ruby cloud.
Purple ligature marks banded both wrists and ankles. More black dots speckled both legs- punctuation marks ringed with rosy haloes- inflammation.
Long white legs had been drawn up in a parody of sexual welcome.
I'd skimmed right past this one.
Central, Beaudry Ave., body dump above 101 freeway on-ramp. Sex murder, scalped and strangled and slashed and burned. NS.
" 'NS,' " I said. "No Solve?"
Milo said, "There was nothing else besides the book and wrapping? No note?"
"Nope. Just this."
He checked the blue wrapping again, did the same for the pink butcher paper, returned to the brutalized girl. Sat there for a long time until, finally, he freed one hand and rubbed his face as if washing without water. Old nervous habit. Sometimes it helps cue me in to his mood, sometimes I barely notice it.
He repeated the gesture. Squeezed the bridge of his nose. Rubbed yet again. Twisted his mouth and didn't relax it and stared some more.
"My, my," he said.
Several moments later: "Yeah, that would be my guess. No Solve."
" 'NS' wasn't appended to any of the other photos," I said.
"Meaning this is what we're supposed to look at?" I said.
"Who was she?" I said.
His lips slackened and he looked up at me and showed me some teeth. Not a smile, not even close to a smile. This was the expression a bear might take on when it spots a free meal.
He picked up the blue book. It vibrated. Shaking hands. I'd never seen that happen before. Emitting another terrible laugh, he repositioned the binder flat on the table. Squared the corners. Got up and walked into the living room. Facing the fireplace, he lifted a poker and tapped the granite hearth very softly.
I took a closer look at the mutilated girl.
His head shook violently. "What do you wanna fill your head with that for?"
"What about your head?" I said.
"Mine's already polluted."
Mine, too. "Who was she, Milo?"
He put the poker back. Paced the room.
"Who was she?" he said. "Someone turned into nothing."
The first seven killings weren't as bad as he'd thought.
Not bad at all, compared to what he'd seen in Vietnam.
The department had assigned him to Central Division, not far- geographically or culturally- from Rampart, where he'd paid a year of uniform dues, followed by eight months with Newton Bunco.
Managing to talk his way out of the initial Newton assignment: Vice. Wouldn't that have been a yuk-fest. Ha ha ha. The sound of one voice laughing.
He was twenty-seven years old, already fighting the battle of the bulge, brand-new to Homicide and not sure if he had the stomach for it. For any kind of police work. But, at this point- after Southeast Asia, what else was there?
A freshly minted Detective One, managing to hold on to his secret, though he knew there'd been talk.
No one confronting him directly, but he had ears.
Something different about him- like he thinks he's better than anyone.
Drinks, but doesn't talk.
Doesn't shoot the shit.
Came to Hank Swangle's bachelor party but when they brought the groupie in and the gang bang started, where the fuck was he?
Free blow job and he splits.
Doesn't chase pussy, period.
His test scores and solve-rates and persistence got him to Central Homicide, where they paired him with a rail-thin forty-eight-year-old DII named Pierce Schwinn, who looked sixty and fancied himself a philosopher. Mostly, he and Schwinn worked nights, because Schwinn thrived in the dark: Bright lights gave the guy migraines, and he complained of chronic insomnia. No big mystery there, the guy popped decongestants like candy for a perpetually stuffed nose and downed a dozen cups of coffee per shift.
Schwinn loved driving around, spent very little time at his desk, which was a pleasant switch from the butt-numbing routine Milo had experienced at Bunco. But the downside was Schwinn had no attention span for white-collar work, couldn't wait to shove all the paperwork at his new junior partner.
Milo spent hours being a goddamned secretary, figured the best thing was to keep his mouth shut and listen, Schwinn had been around, must have something to offer. In the car, Schwinn alternated between taciturn and gabby. When he did talk, his tone got hyper and preachy- always making a point. Guy reminded him of one of his grad school professors at Indiana U. Herbert Milrad, inherited wealth, specialist on Byron. Lockjaw elocution, obese pear of a physique, violent mood swings. Milrad had figured Milo out by the middle of the first semester and tried to take advantage of it. Milo, still far from clear about his sexuality, had declined with tact. Also, he found Milrad physically repugnant.
Not a pretty scene, the Grand Rejection, and Milo knew Milrad would torment him. He was finished with academia, any idea of a Ph.D. He finished the goddamned M.A. thesis by flogging the life out of poor Walt Whitman's words, escaped with a bare pass. Bored to tears, anyway, by the bullshit that passed for literary analysis, he left IU, lost his student deferment, answered a want ad at the campus student employment center, and took a job as a groundsman at the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, waiting for Selective Service to call. Five weeks later, the letter arrived.
By year's end, he was a medic wading through rice paddies, cradling young boys' heads and watching the departure of the barely formed souls, cupping steaming viscera in his hands- intestines were the big challenge, the way they slipped through his fingers like raw sausage. Blood browning and swirling as it hit the muddy water.
He made it home alive, found civilian life and his parents and brothers unbearable, struck out on a road trip, spent a while in San Francisco, learned a few things about his sexuality. Found SF claustrophobic and self-consciously hip, bought an old Fiat, and drove down the coast to L.A., where he stayed because the smog and the ugliness were reassuring. He knocked around for a while on temp jobs, before deciding police work might be interesting and why the hell not?
Then there he was, three years later. Seven P.M. call, as he and Schwinn sat in the unmarked in the parking lot of a Taco Tio on Temple Street, eating green chile burritos, Schwinn in one of his quiet moods, eyes jumpy as he gorged himself with no apparent pleasure.
When the radio squawked, Milo talked to the dispatcher, took down the details, said, "Guess we'd better shove off."
Schwinn said, "Let's eat first. No one's coming back to life."
Homicide number eight.
The first seven had been no big deal, gross-out-wise. Nothing whodunit about them, either. Like nearly every Central case, the victims were all black or Mexican and the same for the victimizers. When he and Pierce showed, the only other white faces at the scene would be uniforms and techs.
Black/brown cases meant tragedy that never hit the papers, charges that mostly got filed and plea-bargained, or, if the bad guy ended up with a really stupid public defender, a long stay in county lockup, then a quick trial and sentencing to the max allowable.
The first two calls had been your basic bar shootings, juicehead perpetrators drunk enough to stick around when the uniforms arrived- literally holding the smoking guns, putting up no resistance.
Milo watched Schwinn deal with fools, caught on to what would turn out to be Schwinn's routine: First, he'd mumbled an unintelligible Miranda to an uncomprehending perp. Then he'd pressured the idiot for a confession right there at the scene. Making sure Milo had his pen and his pad out, was getting everything down.
"Good boy," he'd say afterward to the suspect, as if the asshole had passed a test. Over-the-shoulder aside to Milo: "How's your typing?"
Then back to the station, where Milo would pound the keys and Schwinn would disappear.
Cases Three, Four, and Five had been domestics. Dangerous for the responding blues, but laid out neatly for the D's. Three low-impulse husbands, two shootings, one stabbing. Talk to the family and the neighbors, find out where the bad guys were "hiding"- usually within walking distance- call for backup, pick 'em up, Schwinn mumbles Miranda…
Killing Six was a two-man holdup at one of the discount jewelry outlets on Broadway- cheap silver chains and dirty diamond chips in cheesy ten-karat settings. The robbery had been premeditated, but the 187 was a fluke that went down when one of the stickup morons' guns went off by accident, the bullet zipping straight into the forehead of the store clerk's eighteen-year-old son. Big, handsome kid named Kyle Rodriguez, star football player at El Monte High, just happened to be visiting Dad, bringing the good news of an athletic scholarship to Arizona State.
Schwinn seemed bored with that one, too, but he did show his stuff. In a manner of speaking. Telling Milo to check out former employees, ten to one that's the way it would shake out. Dropping Milo off at the station and heading off for a doctor appointment, then calling in sick for the rest of the week. Milo did three days of legwork, assembled a list, zeroed in on a janitor who'd been fired from the jewelry store a month ago for suspected pilferage. Turned the guy up in an SRO hotel on Central, still rooming with the brother-in-law who'd been his partner in crime. Both bad guys were incarcerated and Pierce Schwinn showed up looking pink and healthy, and saying, "Yeah, there was no other possibility- did you finish the report?"
That one stuck in Milo 's head for a while: Kyle Rodriguez's beefy bronze corpse slumped over the jewelry case. The image kept him up for more than a few nights. Nothing philosophical or theological, just general edginess. He'd seen plenty of young, healthy guys die a lot more painfully than Kyle, had long ago given up on making sense out of things.
He spent his insomnia driving around in the old Fiat. Up and down Sunset from Western to La Cienega, then back again. Finally veering south onto Santa Monica Boulevard.
As if that hadn't been his intention all along.
Playing a game with himself, like a dieter circling a piece of cake.
He'd never been much for willpower.
For three consecutive nights, he cruised Boystown. Showered and shaved and cologned, wearing a clean white T-shirt and military-pressed jeans and white tennies. Wishing he was cuter and thinner, but figuring he wasn't that bad if he squinted and kept his gut sucked in and kept his nerves under control by rubbing his face. The first night, a sheriff's patrol car nosed into the traffic at Fairfax and stayed two car lengths behind his Fiat, setting off paranoia alarms. He obeyed all the traffic rules, drove back to his crappy little apartment on Alexandria, drank beer until he felt ready to burst, watched bad TV, and made do with imagination. The second night, no sheriffs, but he just lacked the energy to bond and ended up driving all the way to the beach and back, nearly falling asleep at the wheel.
Night three, he found himself a stool in a bar near Larabee, sweating too damn much, knowing he was even tenser than he felt because his neck hurt like hell and his teeth throbbed like they were going to crumble. Finally, just before 4 A.M., before sunlight would be cruel to his complexion, he picked up a guy, a young black guy, around his own age. Well-dressed, well-spoken, education grad student at UCLA. Just about the same place as Milo, sexual-honesty wise.
The two of them were jumpy and awkward in the guy's own crappy little grad student studio apartment on Selma south of Hollywood. The guy attending UCLA but living with junkies and hippies east of Vine because he couldn't afford the Westside. Polite chitchat, then… it was over in seconds. Both of them knowing there would be no repeat performance. The guy telling Milo his name was Steve Jackson but when he went into the bathroom, Milo spotted a date book embossed WES, found an address sticker inside the front cover. Wesley E. Smith, the Selma address.
A sad case, Kyle Rodriguez, but he got over it by the time Case Seven rolled around.
A street slashing, good old Central Avenue, again. Knife fight, lots of blood all over the sidewalk, but only one db, a thirtyish Mexican guy in work clothes, with the homemade haircut and cheap shoes of a recently arrived illegal. Two dozen witnesses in a nearby cantina spoke no English and claimed blindness. This one wasn't even detective work. Solved courtesy of the blues- patrol car spotted a lurching perp ten blocks away, bleeding profusely from his own wounds. The uniforms cuffed him as he howled in agony, sat him down on the curb, called Schwinn and Milo, then phoned for the ambulance that transported the wretch to the jail ward at County Hospital.
By the time the detectives got there, the idiot was being loaded onto a gurney, had lost so much blood it was touch-and-go. He ended up surviving but gave up most of his colon and a bedside statement, pled guilty from a wheelchair, got sent back to the jail ward till someone figured out what to do with him.
Now, Number Eight. Schwinn just kept munching the burrito.
Finally, he wiped his mouth. "Beaudry, top of the freeway, huh? Wanna drive?" Getting out and heading for the passenger side before Milo could answer.
Milo said, "Either way," just to hear the sound of his own voice.
Even away from the wheel, Schwinn went through his jumpy predrive ritual. Ratcheting the seat back noisily, then returning it to where it had been. Checking the knot of his tie in the rearview, poking around at the corner of his lipless mouth. Making sure no cherry-colored residue of decongestant syrup remained.
Forty-eight years old but his hair was dead white and skimpy, thinning to skin at the crown. Five-ten and Milo figured him for no more than 140, most of it gristle. He had a lantern jaw, that stingy little paper cut of a mouth, deep seams scoring his rawboned face, and heavy bags under intelligent, suspicious eyes. The package shouted dust bowl. Schwinn had been born in Tulsa, labeled himself Ultra-Okie to Milo minutes after they'd met.
Then he'd paused and looked the young detective in the eye. Expecting Milo to say something about his own heritage.
How about Black Irish Indiana Fag?
Milo said, "Like the Steinbeck book."
"Yeah," said Schwinn, disappointed. "Grapes of Wrath. Ever read it?"
"I didn't." Defiant tone. "Why the fuck should I? Everything in there I already learned from my daddy's stories." Schwinn's mouth formed a poor excuse for a smile. "I hate books. Hate TV and stupid-ass radio, too." Pausing, as if laying down a gauntlet.
Milo kept quiet.
Schwinn frowned. "Hate sports, too- what's the point of all that?"
"Yeah, it can get excessive."
"You've got the size. Play sports in college?"
"High school football," said Milo.
"Not good enough for college?"
"You read much?"
"A bit," said Milo. Why did that sound confessional?
"Me too." Schwinn put his palms together. Aimed those accusatory eyes at Milo. Leaving Milo no choice.
"You hate books but you read."
"Magazines," said Schwinn, triumphantly. "Magazines cut to the chase- take your Reader's Digest, collects all the bullshit and condenses it to where you don't need a shave by the time you finish. The other one I like is Smithsonian."
Now there was a surprise.
"Smithsonian," said Milo.
"Never heard of it?" said Schwinn, as if relishing a secret. "The museum, in Washington, they put out a magazine. My wife went and subscribed to it and I was ready to kick her butt- just what we needed, more paper cluttering up the house. But it's not half-bad. They've got all sorts of stuff in there. I feel educated when I close the covers, know what I mean?"
"Now you," said Schwinn, "they tell me you are educated." Making it sound like a criminal charge. "Got yourself a master's degree, is that right?"
" Indiana U. But school isn't necessarily education."
"Yeah, but sometimes it is- what'd you study at Indiana Yooo?"
Schwinn laughed. "God loves me, sent me a partner who can spell. Anyway, give me magazines and burn all the books as far as I'm concerned. I like science. Sometimes when I'm at the morgue I look at medical books- forensic medicine, abnormal psychology, even anthropology 'cause they're learning to do stuff with bones." His own bony finger wagged. "Let me tell you something, boy-o: One day, science is gonna be a big damn deal in our business. One day, to be doing our job a guy's gonna have to be a scientist- show up at a crime scene, scrape the db, carry a little microscope, learn the biochemical makeup of every damn scrote the vic hung out with for the last ten years."
"Transfer evidence?" Milo said. "You think it'll get that good?"
"Sure, yeah," Schwinn said, impatiently. "Right now transfer evidence is for the most part useless bullshit, but wait and see."
They had been driving around Central on their first day as partners. Aimlessly, Milo thought. He kept waiting for Schwinn to point out known felons, hot spots, whatever, but the guy seemed unaware of his surroundings, all he wanted to do was talk. Later, Milo would learn that Schwinn had plenty to offer. Solid detective logic and basic advice. ("Carry your own camera, gloves, and fingerprint powder. Take care of your own self, don't depend on anyone.") But right now, this first day, riding around- everything- seemed pointless.
"Transfer," said Schwinn. "All we can transfer now is ABO blood type. What a crock. Big deal, a million scrotes are type O, most of the rest are A, so what does that do? That and hair, sometimes they take hair, put it in little plastic envelopes, but what the fuck can they do with it, you always get some Hebe lawyer proving hair don't mean shit. No, I'm talking serious science, something nuclear, like the way they date fossils. Carbon dating. One day, we'll be anthropologists. Too bad you don't have a master's degree in anthropology… can you type okay?"
A few miles later. Milo was taking in the neighborhood on his own, studying faces, places, when Schwinn proclaimed: "English won't do you a damn bit of good, boy-o, cause our customers don't talkie mucho English. Not the Mexes, not the niggers, either- not unless you want to call that jive they give you English."
Milo kept his mouth shut.
"Screw English," said Schwinn. "Fuck English in the ass with a hydrochloric acid dildo. The wave of the future is science."
They hadn't been told much about the Beaudry call. Female Caucasian db, discovered by a trash-picker sifting through the brush that crested the freeway on-ramp.
Rain had fallen the previous night and the dirt upon which the corpse had been placed was poor-drainage clay that retained an inch of grimy water in the ruts.
Despite a nice soft muddy area, no tire tracks, no footprints. The ragpicker was an old black guy named Elmer Jacquette, tall, emaciated, stooped, with Parkinsonian tremors in his hands that fit with his agitation as he retold the story to anyone who'd listen.
"And there it was, right out there, Lord Jesus…"
No one was listening anymore. Uniforms and crime-scene personnel and the coroner's man were busy doing their jobs. Lots of other people stood around, making small talk. Flashing vehicles blocked Beaudry all the way back to Temple as a bored-looking patrolman detoured would-be freeway speeders.
Not too many cars out: 9 P.M. Well past rush hour. Rigor had come and gone, as had the beginnings of putrefaction. The coroner was guestimating a half day to a day since death, but no way to know how long the body had been lying there or what temperature it had been stored at. The logical guess was that the killer had driven up last night, after dark, placed the corpse, zipped right onto the 101, and sped off happy.
No passing motorist had seen it, because when you were in a hurry, why would you study the dirt above the on-ramp? You never get to know a city unless you walk. Which is why so few people know L.A., thought Milo. After living here for two years, he still felt like a stranger.
Elmer Jacquette walked all the time, because he had no car. Covered the area from his East Hollywood flop to the western borders of downtown, poking around for cans, bottles, discards he tried to peddle to thrift shops in return for soup kitchen vouchers. One time, he'd found a working watch- gold, he thought, turned out to be plated but he got ten bucks for it, anyway, at a pawnshop on South Vermont.
He'd seen the body right away- how could you not from up close, all pale in the moonlight, the sour smell, the way the poor girl's legs had been bent and spread- and his gorge had risen immediately and soon his franks-and-beans dinner was coming back the wrong way.
Jacquette had the good sense to run a good fifteen feet from the body before vomiting. When the uniforms arrived, he pointed out the emetic mound, apologizing. Not wanting to annoy anyone. He was sixty-eight years old, hadn't served state time since fifteen years ago, wasn't going to annoy the police, no way.
They'd kept him around, waiting for the detectives to arrive. Now, the men in suits were finally here and Jacquette stood over by one of the police cars as someone pointed him out and they approached him, stepping into the glare of those harsh lights the cops had put all over the place.
Two suits. A skinny white-haired redneck type in an old-fashioned gray sharkskin suit and a dark-haired, pasty-faced heavyset kid whose green jacket and brown pants and ugly red-brown tie made Elmer wonder if nowadays cops were shopping at thrift shops.
They stopped at the body first. The old one took one look, wrinkled his nose, got an annoyed look on his face. Like he'd been interrupted in the middle of doing something important.
The fat kid was something else. Barely glanced at the body before whipping his head away. Bad skin, that one, and he'd gone white as a sheet, started rubbing his face with one hand, over and over.
Tightening up that big heavy body of his like he was ready to lose his lunch.
Elmer wondered how long the kid had been on the job, if he'd actually blow chunks. If the kid did heave, would he be smart enough to avoid the body, like Elmer had?
'Cause this kid didn't look like no veteran.
This was worse than Asia.
No matter how brutal it got, war was impersonal, human chess pieces moving around the board, you fired at shadows, strafed huts you pretended were empty, lived every day hoping you wouldn't be the pawn that flipped. Reduce someone to The Enemy, and you could blow off his legs or slice open his belly or napalm his kids without knowing his name. As bad as war got, there was always the chance for making nice sometime in the future- look at Germany and the rest of Europe. To his father, an Omaha Beach alumnus, buddying up to the krauts was an abomination. Dad curled his lip every time he saw a "hippie-faggot in one of those Hitler beetle-cars." But Milo knew enough history to understand that peace was as inevitable as war and that as unlikely as it seemed, one day Americans might be vacationing in Hanoi.
War wounds had a chance of healing because they weren't personal. Not that the memory of guts slipping through his hands would fade, but maybe, somewhere off in the future…
But this. This was nothing but personal. Reduction of human form to meat and juice and refuse. Creating the antiperson.
He took a deep breath and buttoned his jacket and managed another look at the corpse. How old could she be, seventeen, eighteen? The hands, about the only parts of her not bloody, were smooth, pale, free of blemish. Long, tapering fingers, pink-polished nails. From what he could tell- and it was hard to tell anything because of the damage- she'd had delicate features, might've been pretty.
No blood on the hands. No defense wounds…
The girl was frozen in time, a heap of ruin. Aborted- like a shiny little wristwatch, stomped on, the crystal shattered.
Manipulated after death, too. The killer spreading her legs, tenting them, pointing the feet at a slight outward angle.
Leaving her out in the open, horrible statuary.
Overkill, the assistant coroner had pronounced, as if you needed a medical degree for that.
Schwinn had told Milo to count wounds, but the task wasn't that simple. The slashes and cuts were straightforward, but did he count the ligature burns around both wrists and ankles as wounds? And what about the deep, angry red trench around her neck? Schwinn had gone off to get his Instamatic- always a shutterbug- and Milo didn't want to ask him- loathed coming across uncertain, the rookie he was.
He decided to include the ligatures in a separate column, continued making hash marks. Reviewed his count of the knife wounds. Both premortem and after death, the coroner was guessing. One, two, three, four… he confirmed fifty-six, began his tally of the cigarette burns.
Inflammation around the singed circles said the burns had been inflicted before death.
Very little spent blood at the scene. She'd been killed somewhere else, left here.
But lots of dried blood atop the head, forming a blackening cap that kept attracting the flies.
The finishing touch: scalping her. Should that be counted as one giant wound, or did he need to peer under the blood, see how many times the killer had hacked away the skin?
A cloud of night gnats circled above the body, and Milo scatted it away, noted "removal of cranial skin," as a separate item. Drawing the body and topping it with the cap, his lousy rendering making the blood look like a beanie, so inadequately offensive. He frowned, closed his pad, stepped back. Studied the body from a new perspective. Fought back yet another wave of nausea.
The old black guy who'd found her had heaved his cookies. From the moment Milo had seen the girl, he'd struggled not to do the same. Tightening his bowels and his gut, trying to come up with a mantra that would do the trick.
You're no virgin, you've seen worse.
Thinking of the worst: melon-sized holes in chests, hearts bursting- that kid, that Indian kid from New Mexico – Bradley Two Wolves- who'd stepped on a mine and lost everything below the navel but was still talking as Milo pretended to do something for him. Looking up at Milo with soft brown eyes- alive eyes, dear God- talking calmly, having a goddamn conversation with nothing left and everything leaking out. That was worse, right? Having to talk back to the upper half of Bradley Two Wolves, chitchatting about Bradley's pretty little girlfriend in Galisteo, Bradley's dreams- once he got back to the States, he was gonna marry Tina, get a job with Tina's dad putting up adobe fences, have a bunch of kids. Kids. With nothing below the- Milo smiled down at Bradley and Bradley smiled back and died.
That had been worse. And back then Milo had managed to keep his cool, keep the conversation going. Cleaning up afterward, loading half-of-Bradley in a body bag that was much too roomy. Writing out Bradley's death tag for the flight surgeon to sign. For the next few weeks, Milo had smoked a lot of dope, sniffed some heroin, done an R and R in Bangkok, where he tried some opium. He'd even hazarded an attempt at a skinny Bangkok whore. That hadn't gone so great, but bottom line: He'd maintained.
You can handle this, stupid.
Breathe slowly, don't give Schwinn something else to lecture about-
Schwinn was back now, clicking away with his Instamatic. The LAPD photographer had spotted the little black plastic box, caressed his Nikon, smirked. Schwinn was oblivious to the contempt, in his own little world, crouching on all sides of the body. Getting close to the body, closer than Milo had hazarded, not even bothering to shoo the gnats swarming his white hair.
"So what do you think, boy-o?"
"About…?" said Milo.
Click click click. "The bad guy- what's your gut telling you about him?"
"Think so?" Schwinn said, almost absently. "Howling-lunatic-drooling-crazyman?" He moved away from Milo, kneeled right next to the flayed skull. Close enough to kiss the mangled flesh. Smiled. "Look at this- just bone and a few blood vessels, sliced at the back… a few tears, some serrations… real sharp blade." Click click. "A maniac… some shout-at-the-moon Apache warrior? You, naughty squaw, me scalpum?"
Milo battled another abdominal heave.
Schwinn got to his feet, dangled the camera from its little black string, fiddled with his tie. His Oakie hatchet face bore a satisfied look. Cool as ice. How often had he seen this? How often did this kind of thing come up in Homicide? The first seven- even Kyle Rodriguez, had been tolerable compared to this…
Schwinn pointed at the girl's propped-up legs. "See the way he posed her? He's talking to us, boy-o. Talking through her, putting words in her mouth. What's he want her to say, boy-o?"
Milo shook his head.
Schwinn sighed. "He wants her to say, 'Fuck me.' To the whole world- 'C'mon over, whole damn world, and fuck me silly, anyone wants to do anything to me, they can cause I got no power.' He's using her like… a puppet- you know how kids move puppets around, get puppets to say things they're too scared to say for themselves? This guy's like that, only he likes big puppets."
"He's scared?" said Milo doubtfully.
"What the fuck do you think?" said Schwinn. "We're talking about a coward, can't talk to women, get laid in any normal way. Which isn't to say he's a wimpy type. He could be macho. He's sure nervy enough, taking the time for that." Backward glance at the legs. "Posing her right out in the open, risking being seen. I mean, think about it: You had your fun with the body, needed to get rid of the body, you're carrying it around in your car, want to dump it, where would you go?"
"Yeah, 'cause you're not a nervy killer, to you it would just be dumping. Not our boy. On the one hand, he's smart. Doing it right by the freeway, once he's finished, he can get back on, no one's conspicuous on the 101. He does it after dark, checks to make sure no one's watching, pulls over, arranges her, then zoom zoom zoom. It's a decent plan. It could work nice, especially this late, rush hour's over. But taking the time to stop is still a risk, just to play puppet. So this wasn't about dumping. This was showing off- having his cake and eating it twice. He ain't stupid or crazy."
"Playing a game," said Milo, because that sounded agreeable. Thinking about chess, but unable to really reconcile this with any game.
" 'Look at me,' " said Schwinn. "That's what he's telling us. 'Look what I can do.' It's not enough he overpowered her and fucked the hell out of her- hundred to one we'll find a mess of semen up her twat, her ass. What he wants now is to share her with the world. I control her, everyone hop on board."
"Gang bang," said Milo, hoarsely, flashing back to Hank Swangle's party at Newton Division. The Newton groupie, a heavy, blond bank clerk, prim and upright during the day, a whole other life when it came to cops. Pillowy, drunk, and glazed when collegial hands had shoved Milo into the room with her. The groupie reaching out to Milo, lipstick smeared, mouthing, "Next." Like a take-a-number line in a bakery. He'd muttered some excuse, hurried out… why the hell was he thinking of that, now? And now the nausea was returning- his hands throbbed, he was clenching them.
Schwinn was staring at him.
He forced himself to release the fingers, kept his voice level. "So he's more rational than a maniac. But we are talking someone mentally abnormal, right? Someone normal wouldn't do this." Hearing the stupidity of each word as it tumbled out.
Schwinn smiled again. "Normal. Whatever the hell that means." He turned his back on Milo, walked away without a word, swinging his camera. Stood off by himself next to the coroner's van, leaving Milo with his bad sketches and compulsive hash marks.
Whatever the hell that means.
A knowing smile. Loose talk about Milo's sexuality wafting from Rampart and Newton to Central? Was that why the guy was so hostile?
Milo 's hands were clenching again. He'd started to think of himself as maybe fitting in, handling the first seven 187s okay, getting into the 187 groove and thinking he might stick with Homicide, murder would turn out to be something he could finally live with.
Now he cursed the world, got close to the girl. Closer even than Schwinn. Taking in the sights, the smell, every wound- drinking in the horror, telling himself shut up, idiot, who the hell are you to complain, look at her.
But the rage intensified, flowed over him, and suddenly he felt hard, cruel, vengeful, analytic.
Seized by a rush of appetite.
Trying to make sense of this. Needing to.
He smelled the girl's rot. Wanted, suddenly, to enter her hell.
It was nearly eleven by the time he and Schwinn were back in the unmarked.
"You drive again," said Schwinn. No sign of any hostility, no more possible double entendres, and Milo started to think he'd been paranoid about the normalcy comment. Just Schwinn flapping his lips, because the guy was like that.
He started up the engine. "Where to?"
"Anywhere. Tell you what, take the freeway for a couple exits, then turn around, go back downtown. I need to think."
Milo complied. Cruising down the ramp, as the killer had done. Schwinn stretched and yawned, sniffed and produced his bottle of decongestant and took a long red swallow. Then he leaned over and switched off the radio, closed his eyes, fooled with the corners of his lips. This was going to be one of those silent stretches.
It lasted until Milo was back on city streets, driving up Temple, passing the Music Center and the dirt lots that surrounded it. Lots of empty space as the rich folk planned additional shrines to culture. Talking urban renewal- pretending anyone would ever bother with this poor excuse for a downtown, pretending it wasn't a cement grid of government buildings where bureaucrats worked the day shift and couldn't wait to get the hell out of there and everything got cold and black at night.
"So what's next?" said Schwinn. "On the girl. What do you think?"
"Find out who she was?"
"Shouldn't be too hard, those smooth nails, nice straight teeth. If she was a street slut, her comedown was recent. Someone'll miss her."
"Should we start with Missing Persons?" said Milo.
"You'll start with Missing Persons. Start calling tomorrow morning 'cause MP doesn't staff heavy at night, good luck trying to get those guys off their asses at this hour."
"But if she was reported missing, getting the info tonight would give us a head start-"
"On what? This is no race, boy-o. If our bad boy's out of town, he's long gone, anyway. If not, a few hours won't make a damn bit of difference."
"Still, her parents have got to be worried-"
"Fine, amigo," said Schwinn. "Be a social worker. I'm going home."
No anger, just that know-it-all smugness.
"Want me to head back to the station?" said Milo.
"Yeah, yeah. No, forget that. Pull over- now, boy-o. Over there, yeah yeah yeah stop next to that bus bench."
The bench was a few yards up, on the north side of Temple. Milo was in the left-hand lane and had to turn sharply not to overshoot. He edged to the curb, looked around to see what had changed Schwinn's mind.
Dark, empty block, no one around- no, there was someone. A figure emerging from the shadows. Walking west. Walking quickly.
"A source?" said Milo, as the shape took form. Female form.
Schwinn tightened his tie knot. "Stay put and keep the engine going." He got out of the car, quickly, got to the sidewalk just in time to meet the woman. Her arrival was heralded by spike heels snapping on the pavement.
A tall woman- black, Milo saw, as she shifted into the streetlight. Tall and busty. Maybe forty. Wearing a blue leather mini and a baby blue halter top. Jumbo pile of henna-colored waves atop her head, what looked to be ten pounds of hair.
Schwinn, standing facing her, looking even skinnier than usual. Legs slightly spread. Smiling.
The woman smiled back. Offered both cheeks to Schwinn. One of those Italian movie greetings.
A few moments of conversation, too low for Milo to make out, then both of them got in the backseat of the unmarked.
"This is Tonya," said Schwinn. "She's a good pal of the department. Tonya, meet my brand-new partner, Milo. He's got a master's degree."
"Ooh," said Tonya. "Are you masterful, honey?"
"Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"Start driving," said Schwinn.
"Master's degree," said Tonya, as they pulled away.
At Fifth Street, Schwinn said, "Turn left. Drive into the alley behind those buildings."
"Masturbator's degree?" said Tonya.
"Speaking of which," said Schwinn. "My darling dear."
"Ooh, I love when you talk that way, Mr. S."
Milo reduced his speed.
Schwinn said, "Don't do that, just drive regular- turn again and make a right- go east. Alameda, where the factories are."
"Industrial revolution," said Tonya, and Milo heard something else: the rustle of clothing, the sprick of a zipper undone. He hazarded one look in the rearview, saw Schwinn's head, resting against the back of the seat. Eyes closed. Peaceful smile. Ten pounds of henna bobbing.
A moment later: "Oh, yes, Miss T. I missed you, did you know that?"
"Did you, baby? Aw, you're just saying that."
"Oh, no, it's true."
"Is it, baby?"
"You bet. Miss me, too?"
"You know I do, Mr. S."
"Every day, Miss T?"
"Every day, Mr. S.- c'mon, baby, move a little, help me with this."
"Happy to help," said Schwinn. "Protect and serve."
Milo forced his eyes straight ahead.
No sound in the car but heavy breathing.
"Yeah, yeah," Schwinn was saying now. His voice weak. Milo thought: This is what it takes to knock off the asshole's smugness.
"Oh yeah, just like that, my darling… dear. Oh, yes, you're… a… specialist. A… scientist, yes, yes."
Schwinn told Milo to drop Tonya off on Eighth near Witmer, down the block from the Ranch Depot Steak House.
"Get yourself a hunk of beef, darling." Slipping her some bills. "Get yourself a lovely T-bone with one of those giant baked potatoes."
"Mr. S.," came the protest. "I can't go in there dressed like this, they won't serve me."
"With this they will." Another handful of paper pressed into her hand. "You show this to Calvin up front, tell him I sent you- you have any problem, you let me know."
"You know I am."
The rear door opened, and Tonya got out. The smell of sex hung in the car. Now the night filtered in, cool, fossil-fuel bitter.
"Thank you, Mr. S." She extended her hand. Schwinn held on to it.
"One more thing, darling. Hear of any rough johns working the Temple-Beaudry area?"
"Ropes, knives, cigarette burns."
"Ooh," said the hooker, with pain in her voice. "No, Mr. S., there's always lowlife, but I heard nothing like that."
Pecks on cheeks. Tonya clicked her way toward the restaurant, and Schwinn got back in front. "Back to the station, boy-o."
Closing his eyes. Self-satisfied. At Olive Street, he said: "That's a very intelligent nigger, boy-o. Given the opportunity a free, white woman woulda had, she woulda made something of herself. What's that about?"
"What do you mean?"
"The way we treat niggers. Make sense to you?"
"No," said Milo. Thinking: What the hell is this lunatic about?
Then: Why hadn't Schwinn offered the hooker to him?
Because Schwinn and Tonya had something special? Or because he knew?
"What it says," offered Schwinn. "The way we treat niggers, is that sometimes smart doesn't count."
Milo dropped him off at the Central Division parking lot, watched him get into his Ford Fairlane and drive off to Simi Valley, to the wife who liked books.
Alone, at last.
For the first time since the Beaudry call, he was breathing normally.
He entered the station, climbed the stairs, hurried to the scarred metal desk they'd shoved into a corner of the Homicide room for him. The next three hours were spent phoning Missing Persons bureaus at every station and when that didn't pay off, he extended the search to various sheriff's substations and departments of neighboring cities. Every office kept its own files, no one coordinated, each folder had to be pulled by hand, and MP skeleton crews were reluctant to extend themselves, even on a 187. Even when he pressed, emphasized the whodunit aspect, the ugliness, he got resistance. Finally, he hit upon something that pried cooperation and curses on the other end: the likelihood of news coverage. Cops were afraid of bad press. By 3 A.M., he'd come up with seven white girls in the right age range.
So what did he do, now? Get on the horn and wake up worried parents?
Pardon me, Mrs. Jones, but did your daughter Amy ever show up? Because we've still got her listing as missing and are wondering if a sackful of tissue and viscera cooling off in a coroner's drawer just might be her?
The only way to do it was preliminary phone contact followed by face-to-face interviews. Tomorrow, at a decent hour. Unless Schwinn had other ideas. Something else to correct him about.
He transcribed all the data from his pad onto report sheets, filled out the right forms, redrew the outline of the girl's body, summarized the MP calls, created a neat little pile of effort. Striding across the room to a bank of file cabinets, he opened a top drawer and pulled out one of several blue binders stored in a loose heap. Recycled binders: When cases were closed, the pages were removed and stapled, placed in a manila folder, and shipped over to the evidence room at Parker Center.
This particular blue book had seen better times: frayed around the edges with a brown stain on the front cover vaguely reminiscent of a wilting rose- some D's greasy lunch. Milo affixed a stickummed label to the cover.
Wrote nothing. Nothing to write.
He sat there thinking about the mutilated girl. Wondered what her name was and couldn't bring himself to substitute Jane Doe.
First thing tomorrow, he'd check out those seven girls, maybe get lucky and end up with a name.
A title for a brand-new murder book.
Bad dreams kept him up all night, and he was back at his desk by 6:45 A.M., the only detective in the room, which was just fine; he didn't even mind getting the coffee going.
By 7:20, he was calling families. MP number one was Sarah Jane Causlett, female cauc, eighteen, five-six, 121, last seen in Hollywood, buying dinner at the Oki-burger at Hollywood and Selma.
Ring, ring ring. "Mrs. Causlett? Good morning, hope I'm not calling too early…"
By 9 A.M., he was finished. Three of the seven girls had returned home, and two others weren't missing at all, just players in divorce dramas who'd escaped to be with noncustodial parents. That left two sets of distraught parents, Mr. and Mrs. Estes in Mar Vista, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs in Mid-City. Lots of anxiety, Milo withheld facts, steeled himself for the face-to-face.
By 9:30 a few detectives had arrived, but not Schwinn, so Milo placed a scrawled note on Schwinn's desk, left the station.
By 1 P.M., he was back where he started. A recent picture of Misty Estes showed her to be substantially obese with short curly hair. West L.A. Missing Persons had misrecorded her stats: 107 pounds instead of 187. Oops, sorry. Milo left the tearful mother and hypertensive father standing in the doorway of their GI Bill bungalow.
Jessica Jacobs was approximately the right size, but definitely not the girl on Beaudry: She had the lightest of blue eyes, and the victim's had been deep brown. Another clerical screwup, no one bothering to note eye color in the Wilshire Division MP file.
He left the Jacobs house sweating and tired, found a pay phone outside a liquor store at Third and Wilton, got Schwinn on the line, and gave a lack-of-progress report.
"Morning boy-o," said Schwinn. "Haul yourself over here, there might be something."
"Come on back."
When he got to the Homicide room, half the desks were full, and Schwinn was balancing on two legs of his chair, wearing a nice-looking navy suit, shiny white-on-white shirt, gold tie, gold tie tack shaped like a tiny fist. Leaning back precariously as he chomped a burrito the size of a newborn baby.
"Welcome home, prodigious son."
"You look like shit."
"Don't mention it." Schwinn gave one of his corkscrew smiles. "So you learned about our excellent record-keeping. Cops are the worst, boy-o. Hate to write and always make a mess out of it. We're talking barely literate."
Milo wondered about the extent of Schwinn's own education. The topic had never come up. The whole time they'd worked together, Schwinn had parceled out very few personal details.
"Clerical screwups are the fucking rule, boy-o. MP files are the worst, because MP knows it's a penny ante outfit, most of the time the kid comes home, no one bothers to let them know."
"File it, forget it," said Milo, hoping agreement would shut him up.
"File it, fuck it. That's why I was in no big hurry to chase MP."
"You know best," said Milo.
Schwinn's eyes got hard. Milo said, "So what's interesting?"
"Maybe interesting," Schwinn corrected. "A source of mine picked up some rumors. Party on the Westside two days before the murder. Friday night, upper Stone Canyon- Bel Air."
"Filthy rich kids, probably using Daddy and Mommy's house. My source says there were kids from all over showing up, getting stoned, making noise. The source also knows a guy, has a daughter, went out with her friends, spent some time at the party, and never came home."
Schwinn grinned and bit off a wad of burrito. Milo had figured the guy for a late-sleeping pension-sniffing goldbrick and turned out the sonofabitch had been working overtime, doing a solo act, and producing. The two of them were partners in name, only.
He said, "The father didn't report it to MP?"
Schwinn shrugged. "The father's a little bit… marginal."
"Marginal," Schwinn repeated. Irritated, as if Milo was a poor student, kept getting it wrong. "Also, the girl's done this before- goes out partying, doesn't come home for a few days."
"If the girl's done it before, why would this be different?"
"Maybe it's not. But the girl fits stat-wise: sixteen, around five-seven, skinny, with dark hair, brown eyes, nice tight little body."
An appreciative tone had crept into Schwinn's voice. Milo pictured him with the source- some street letch, the source laying it on lasciviously. Hookers, pimps, perverts, Schwinn probably had a whole stable of lowlifes he could count on for info. And Milo had a master's degree…
"She's supposed to be cute," Schwinn went on. "No virgin, a wild kid. Also, at least one time before, she got herself in trouble. Hitchhiking on Sunset, got picked up by some scrote who raped her, tied her up, left her in an alley downtown. A juicehead found her, lucky for her he was just a bum, not a perve fixing to get himself some sloppy seconds. The girl never reported it officially, just told a friend, and the story made the rounds on the street."
"Sixteen years old, tied and raped and she doesn't report it?"
"Like I said, no virgin." Schwinn's hatchet jaw pulsed, and his Okie squint aimed at the ceiling. Milo knew he was holding back something.
"Is the source reliable?"
Schwinn's headshake was peevish. "Let's concentrate on the main thing: We got a girl who fits our vic's stats."
"Sixteen," said Milo, bothered.
Schwinn shrugged. "From what I've read- psychology articles- the human rope gets kinked up pretty early." He leaned back and took another big bite of burrito, wiped salsa verde from his mouth with the back of his hand, then gave the hand a lick. "You think that's true, boy-o? Think maybe she didn't report it cause she liked it?"
Milo covered his anger with a shrug of his own. "So what's next? Talk to the father?"
Schwinn righted his chair, swabbed his chin, this time with a paper napkin, stood abruptly, and walked out of the room, leaving Milo to follow.
Outside, near the unmarked, Schwinn turned to him, smiling. "So tell me, how'd you sleep last night?"
Schwinn recited the address on Edgemont, and Milo started up the car.
"Hollywood, boy-o. A real-life Hollywood girl."
Over the course of the twenty-minute ride, he laid out a few more details for Milo: The girl's name was Janie Ingalls. A sophomore at Hollywood High, living with her father in a third-floor walk-up in a long-faded neighborhood, just north of Santa Monica Boulevard. Bowie Ingalls was a drunk who might or might not be home. Society was going to hell in a handbasket; even white folk were living like pigs.
The building was a clumsy pink thing with undersized windows and lumpy stucco. Twelve units was Milo's guess: four flats to a floor, probably divided by a narrow central corridor.
He parked, but Schwinn made no attempt to get out, so the two of them just sat there, the engine running.
"Turn it off," said Schwinn.
Milo twisted the key and listened to street sounds. Distant traffic from Santa Monica, a few bird trills, someone unseen playing a power mower. The street was poorly kept, litter sludging the gutters. He said, "Besides being a juicehead, how's the father marginal?"
"One of those walking-around guys," said Schwinn. "Name of Bowie Ingalls, does a little of this, little of that. Rumor has it he ran slips for a nigger bookie downtown- how's that for a white man's career? A few years ago, he was working as a messenger at Paramount Studios, telling people he was in the movie biz. He plays the horses, has a chicken-shit sheet, mostly drunk and disorderly, unpaid traffic tickets. Two years ago he got pulled in for receiving stolen property but never got charged. Small-time, all around."
Details. Schwinn had found the time to pull Bowie Ingalls's record.
"Guy like that, and he's raising a kid," said Milo.
"Yeah, it's a cruel world, isn't it? Janie's mother was a stripper and a hype, ran off with some hippie musician when the kid was a baby, overdosed in Frisco."
"Sounds like you've learned a lot."
"That what you think?" Schwinn's voice got flinty, and his eyes were hard, again. Figuring Milo was being sarcastic? Milo wasn't sure he hadn't meant to be sarcastic.
"I've got a lot to learn," he said. "Wasting my time with those MP clowns. Meanwhile you're getting all this-"
"Don't lick my ass, son," said Schwinn, and suddenly the hatchet face was inches from Milo's and Milo could smell the Aqua Velva and the salsa verde. "I didn't do dick, and I don't know dick. And you did way less than dick."
"Hey, sorry if-"
"Fuck sorry, pal. You think this is some game? Like getting a master's degree, hand in your homework, and lick the teacher's ass and get your little ass-licking grade? You think that's what this is about?"
Talking way too fast for normal. What the hell had set him off?
Milo kept silent. Schwinn laughed bitterly, moved away, sat back so heavily against the seat that Milo's heavy body rocked. "Let me tell you, boy-o, that other shit we've been shoveling since I let you ride with me- niggers and pachucos offing each other and waiting around for us to pick 'em up and if we don't, no one gives a shit- you think that's what the 187 universe is all about?"
Milo's face was hot from jawline to scalp. He kept his mouth shut.
"This…" said Schwinn, pulling a letter-sized, baby blue envelope from an inside suit pocket and removing a stack of color photos. Twenty-four-hour photo lab logo. The Instamatic shots he'd snapped at Beaudry.
He fanned them out on his skinny lap, faceup, like fortune-teller's cards. Close-ups of the dead girl's bloody, scalped head. Intimate portraits of the lifeless face, splayed legs…
"This," he said, "is why we get paid. The other stuff clerks could handle."
The first seven murders had gotten Milo to think of himself as a clerk with a badge. He didn't dare agree. Agreement seemed to infuriate the sonofa-
"You thought you were gonna get some fun for yourself when you signed up to be a Big Bad Homicide Hero," said Schwinn. "Right?" Talking even faster, but managing to snap off each word. "Or maybe you heard that bullshit about Homicide being for intellectuals and you've got that master's degree and you thought hey, that's me! So tell me, this look intellectual to you?" Tapping a photo. "You think this can be figured out using brains?"
Shaking his head and looking as if he'd tasted something putrid, Schwinn hooked a fingernail under a corner of a photo and flicked.
Milo said, "Look, I'm just-"
"Do you have any idea how often something like this actually gets closed? Those clowns in the Academy probably told you Homicide has a seventy, eighty percent solve rate, right? Well, that's horseshit. That's the stupid stuff- which should be a hundred percent it's so stupid, so big fucking deal, eighty percent. Shit." He turned and spit out the window. Shifted back to Milo. "With this"- plink plink- "you're lucky to close four outta ten. Meaning most of the time you lose and the guy gets to do it again and he's saying 'Fuck you' to you just like he is to her."
Schwinn freed his fingernail and began tapping the snapshot, blunt-edged index finger landing repetitively on the dead girl's crotch.
Milo realized he was holding his breath, had been doing it since Schwinn launched the tirade. His skin remained saturated with heat, and he wiped his face with one hand.
Schwinn smiled. "I'm pissing you off. Or maybe I'm scaring you. You do that- with the hand- when you're pissed off or scared."
"What's the point, Pierce?"
"The point is you said I learned a lot, and I didn't learn dick."
"I was just-"
"Don't just anything," said Schwinn. "There's no room for just, there's no room for bullshit. I don't need the brass sending me some… fly-by-night master's deg-"
"Fuck that," said Milo, letting out breath and rage. "I've been-"
"You've been watching me, checking me out, from the minute you started-"
"I've been hoping to learn something."
"For what?" said Schwinn. "So you can add up the brownie points, then move on to an ass-warming job with the brass. Boy-o, I know what you're about-"
Milo felt himself using his bulk. Moving closer to Schwinn, looming over the skinny man, his index finger pointing like a gun. "You don't know shi-"
Schwinn didn't yield. "I know assholes with master's degrees don't stick with this." Tap tap. "I know I don't wanna waste my time working a whodunit with a suck-up intellectual who all he wants to do is climb the ladder. You got ambition, find yourself some suck-up job like Daryl Gates did, driving Chief Parker's car, one day that clown'll probably end up chief." Taptaptap. "This ain't career-building, muchacho. This is a whodunit. Get it? This likes to munch on your insides, then shit you out in pellets."
"You're wrong," said Milo. "About me."
"Am I?" Knowing smile.
Ah, thought Milo. Here it comes. The crux.
But Schwinn just sat there, grinning, tapping the photo.
Long silence. Then suddenly, as if someone had pulled the plug on him, the guy slumped heavily, looking defeated. "You have no idea what you're up against." He slipped the photos back in the envelope.
Milo thought: If you hate the job, retire, asshole. Grab your pension two years early and waste the rest of your life growing tomatoes in some loser trailer park.
Long, turgid moments passed.
Milo said, "Big whodunit, and we're sitting here?"
"What's the alternative, Sherlock?" said Schwinn, hooking a thumb at the pink building. "We go in there and talk to this asshole and maybe his daughter's the one who got turned into shit, or she's not. One way, we've crawled an inch on a hundred-mile hike, the other way, we haven't even started. Either way we got nothing to be proud of."
Just as quickly as his moods had shifted, Schwinn bounded out of the car.
The guy was unstable, no question about it, Milo thought as he followed.
The front door was unlocked. Twelve mailboxes to the right. The layout was precisely as Milo had envisioned.
Screw you, expert.
Box Eleven was labeled Ingalls in smudged red ballpoint. They climbed the stairs, and Schwinn was out of breath by the time they reached the third floor. Tightening his tie knot, he pounded the door, and it opened a few seconds later.
The man who answered was bleary-eyed and skinny-fat.
All sharp bones and stick limbs and saggy sallow skin but with a melon gut. He wore a dirty yellow tank top and blue swim shorts. No hips or butt, and the shorts bagged under the swell of his pot. Not an ounce of extra flesh anywhere but his belly. But what he carried there was grotesque and Milo thought, Pregnant.
"Bowie Ingalls?" said Schwinn.
Two-second delay, then a small, squirrelly nod. Beery sweat poured out of the guy, and the sour smell wafted into the hallway.
Schwinn hadn't recited any physical stats on Ingalls- hadn't said anything at all by way of preparation. To Milo, Ingalls appeared in his midforties, with thick, wavy coarse black hair worn past his shoulders- too long and luxuriant for a guy his age- and five days of gray stubble that did nothing to mask his weak features. Where his eyes weren't pink they were jaundiced and unfocused. Deep brown irises, just like those of the dead girl.
Ingalls studied their badges. The guy's timing was off, like a clock with damaged works. He flinched, then grinned, said, "Whus up?" The words wheezed out on a cloud of hops and malt that mixed with the odors already saturated into the building's walls: mold and kerosene, the incongruous blessing of savory home cooking.
"Can we come in?" said Schwinn.
Ingalls had opened the door halfway. Behind him was dirt-colored furniture, heaps of rumpled clothes, takeout Chinese cartons, Bud empties.
Lots of empties, some crushed, some intact. Even at a good clip, the number of cans added up to more than one day of serious drinking.
A multiday bender. Unless the guy had company. Even with company, a focused juice-a-thon.
Guy's daughter goes missing for four days, he doesn't report it, holes up instead, sucking suds. Milo found himself entertaining the worst-case scenario: Daddy did it. Began scanning Ingalls's sallow face for anxiety, guilt, scratches, maybe that explained the delays…
But all he saw was confusion. Ingalls stood there, caught up in a booze-flummox.
"Sir," said Schwinn, using the word as an insult, the way only cops can, "can we come in?"
"Uh- yeah, sure- whu for?"
"Whu for your daughter."
Ingalls's eyes drooped. Not anxiety. Resignation. As in, here we go again. Preparing himself for a lecture on child-rearing.
"Whu, she cut school again? They call in the cops for that now?"
Schwinn smiled and moved to enter the apartment and Ingalls stepped aside, nearly stumbling. When the three of them were on the other side of the door, Schwinn closed it. He and Milo began the instinctive visual scan.
Off-white walls, brown deepening to black in the cracks and the corners. The entire front space was maybe fifteen feet square, a living room-dining area-kitchen combo, the kitchen counters crowded with more take-out boxes, used paper plates, empty soup cans. Two miserly windows on the facing wall were shuttered by yellow plastic blinds. A scabrous brown-gray sofa and a red plastic chair were both heaped with unwashed clothes and crumpled paper. Next to the chair, a stack of records tilted precariously. The Mothers of Invention's Freak Out on top, a fifteen-year-old LP. Nearby was a cheap phonograph half-covered by a snot green bathrobe. An open doorway led to a dead-end wall.
A full-view of the front room revealed even more beer cans.
"Where does Janie go to school, sir?" said Schwinn.
"Hollywood High. What kinda hassle she get herself into now?" Bowie Ingalls scratched an armpit and drew himself up to his full height. Trying to produce some fatherly indignation.
"When's the last time you saw her, sir?"
"Um… she was- she slept over a friend's."
"When, sir?" said Schwinn, still taking in the room. Cool, all business. No one watching him do the detective thing would've imagined his lunatic tirade five minutes ago.
Milo stood to the side, worked on his cool. His mind wanted to work, but his body wasn't giving up the anger planted by Schwinn's outburst; heart still racing, face still hot. Despite the importance of the task at hand, he kept entertaining himself with images of Schwinn falling on his ass- hoist on his own petard, the self-righteous fucker- busted in flagrante with Tonya or some other "source." That brought a smile to Milo's brain. Then a question arose: If Schwinn didn't trust him, why had he risked doing Tonya right in front of him? Maybe the guy was just nuts… he shook all that off and returned to Bowie Ingalls's face. Still no fear, just maddening dullness.
"Um… Friday night," Ingalls said, as if guessing. "You can sit down if you want."
There was only one place to sit in the damned sty. A man-sized clearing among the garbage on the couch. Ingalls's dozing spot. Appetizing.
"No, thanks," said Schwinn. He had his pad out now. Milo waited a few moments before producing his. Not wanting to be part of some Ike-and-Mike vaudeville routine. "So Janie slept at a friend's Friday night."
"Four days ago." Schwinn's gold Parker ballpoint was out, and he scrawled.
"Yeah. She does it all the time."
"Sleeps over at a friend's?"
"She's sixteen," said Ingalls, whining a bit.
"What's the friend's name? The one from Friday night."
Ingalls's tongue rolled around his left cheek. "Linda… no- Melinda."
"You don't know Melinda's last name?"
"Don't like the little slut," said Ingalls. "Bad influence. Don't like her coming around."
"Melinda's a bad influence on Janie?"
"Yeah. You know."
"Gets Janie in trouble," said Schwinn.
"You know," said Ingalls. "Kids. Doing stuff."
Milo wondered what could possibly offend a scrote like Ingalls.
Schwinn said, "Stuff."
"You know," Ingalls insisted. "Cutting school, running around."
"I dunno about that."
"Hmm," said Schwinn, writing. "So Melinda's a bad influence on Janie but you let Janie sleep over Melinda's house."
"Let?" said Ingalls, coughing. "You got kids?"
"Haven't been blessed."
"Figures you ask me that. Nowadays, kids don't get let anything. They do whatever the hell they want to. Can't even get her to tell me where she's going. Or to stay in school. I tried dropping her off, personally, but she just went in, waited till I was gone, and left. That's why I figured this was about school. What is it about, anyway? She in trouble?"
"You've had trouble with Janie before?"
"No," said Ingalls. "Not really. Like I said, just school and running around. Being gone for a few days. But she always comes back. Let me tell you, man, you can't control 'em. Once the hippies got in and took over the city, forget it. Her mother was a hippie back in the hippie days. Hippie junkie slut, ran out on us, left me with Janie."
"Janie into drugs?"
"Not around here," said Ingalls. "She knows better than that." He blinked several times, grimaced, trying to clear his head and not succeeding. "What's this about? What'd she do?"
Ignoring the question, Schwinn kept writing. Then: "Hollywood High… what year's she in?"
Another delayed-reaction nod from Ingalls. How many of the cans had been consumed this morning?
"Sophomore." Schwinn copied that down. "When's her birthday?"
"Um… March," said Ingalls. "March… um… ten."
"She was sixteen last March ten."
Sixteen-and-a-half-year-old sophomore, thought Milo. A year behind. Borderline intelligence? Some kind of learning problem? Yet another factor that had propelled her toward victimhood? If she was the one…
He glanced at Schwinn but Schwinn was still writing and Milo hazarded a question of his own: "School's hard for Janie, huh?"
Schwinn's eyebrows rose for a second, but he kept making notes.
"She hates it," said Ingalls. "Can barely read. That's why she hated to-" The bloodshot eyes filled with fear. "What's going on? What'd she do?"
Focused on Milo, now. Looking to Milo for an answer, but that was one ad lib Milo wasn't going to risk, and Ingalls shifted his attention back to Schwinn. "C'mon, what's going on, man? What'd she do?"
"Maybe nothing," said Schwinn, producing the blue envelope. "Maybe something was done to her."
He fanned out the snaps again, stretching his arm and offering Ingalls the display.
"Huh?" said Ingalls, not moving. Then: "No."
Calmly, no inflection. Milo thought: Okay, it wasn't her, false lead, good for him, bad for us, they'd accomplished nothing, Schwinn was right. As usual. The pompous bastard, he'd be gloating, the remainder of the shift would be unbearable-
But Schwinn continued to hold the pictures steady, and Bowie Ingalls continued to stare at them.
"No," Ingalls repeated. He made a grab for the pictures, not a serious attempt, just a pathetic stab. Schwinn held firm, and Ingalls stepped away from the horror, pressing his hands to the sides of his head. Stamping his foot hard enough to make the floor quake.
Suddenly, he grabbed his melon-belly, bent over as if seized by cramps. Stamped again, howled, "No!"
Schwinn let him rant for a while, then eased him over to the clearing on the couch, and told Milo, "Get him some fortification."
Milo found an unopened Bud, popped the top, held it to Ingalls's lips, but Ingalls shook his head. "No, no, no. Get that the fuck away from me."
The guy lives in a booze-haze but won't medicate himself when he sinks to the bottom. Milo supposed that passed for dignity.
He and Schwinn stood there for what seemed to be an eternity. Schwinn serene- used to this. Enjoying it?
Finally, Ingalls looked up. "Where?" he said. "Who?"
Schwinn gave him the basic details, talking quietly. Ingalls moaned through the entire recitation.
"What can you tell us that would help us?" said Schwinn.
"Nothing. What could I tell…?" Ingalls shuddered. Shivered. Crossed skinny arms over his chest. "That- who would- oh, God… Janie…"
"Tell us something," pressed Schwinn. "Anything. Help us."
"What… I don't know… She didn't- since she was fourteen, she's basically been gone, using this place as a crash pad but always gone, telling me to fuck off, mind my own business. Half the time, she ain't here, see what I'm sayin'?"
"Sleeping at friends' houses," said Schwinn. "Melinda, other friends."
"Whatever… oh God, I can't believe this…" Tears filled Ingalls's eyes, and Schwinn was there with a snow-white hankie. PS monogram in gold thread on a corner. The guy talked despair and pessimism, but offered his own starched linen to a drunk, for the sake of the job.
"Help me," he whispered to Ingalls. "For Janie."
"I would… I don't know- she… I… we didn't talk. Not since… she used to be my kid, but then she didn't want to be my kid, telling me to fuck off all the time. I'm not saying I was any big deal as a daddy, but still, without me, Janie would've… she turned thirteen and all of a sudden she didn't appreciate anything. Started going out all hours, the school didn't give a shit. Janie never went, no one from the school ever called me, not one time."
"You call them?"
Ingalls shook his head. "What's the point? Talking to people who don't give a shit. I'da called, they'da probably sent cops over and busted me for something, child neglect, whatever. I was busy, man. Working- I used to work at Paramount Studios."
"Oh, yeah?" said Schwinn.
"Yeah. Publicity department. Information transfer."
"Janie interested in the movies?"
"Nah," said Ingalls. "Anything I was into she wasn't into."
"What was she into?"
"Nothing. Running around."
"This friend, Melinda. If Janie never told you where she was going, how do you know she was with Melinda Friday night?"
"Because I seen her with Melinda on Friday."
"Around six. I was sleeping, and Janie busts in to get some clothes, I wake up, by the time I'm sitting up, she's heading out the door, and I look out there." He jabbed a thumb at the shuttered windows. "I seen her walking away with Melinda."
"Walking which way?"
"That way." Hooking his finger north. Toward Sunset, maybe Hollywood Boulevard, if the girls had kept going.
"Anyone else with them?"
"No, just the two of them."
"Walking, not driving," said Schwinn.
"Janie didn't have no license. I got one car, and it barely drives. No way was I gonna- she didn't care, anyway. Got around by hitching. I told her about that- I used to hitch, back when you could do it, but now, with all the- you think that's what happened? She hitched and some… oh, God…"
Unaware of Janie's downtown rape? If so, the guy was being truthful about one thing: Janie had been lost to him for a long time.
"Some what?" said Schwinn.
"Some- you know," moaned Ingalls. "Getting picked up- some stranger."
The death snaps were back in the envelope, but Schwinn had kept the envelope in full view. Now he waved it inches from Ingalls's face. "I'd say, sir, that only a stranger would do something like this. Unless you have some other idea?"
"Me? No," said Ingalls. "She was like her mother. Didn't talk- gimme that beer."
When the can was empty, Schwinn waved the envelope again. "Let's get back to Friday. Janie came home to get clothes. What was she wearing?"
Ingalls thought. "Jeans and a T-shirt- red T-shirt… and those crazy black shoes with those heels- platform heels. She was carrying her party clothes."
"When I woke up and saw her going out the door, I could see part of what she had in the bag."
"What kind of bag?"
"Shopping bag. White- Zody's, probably, 'cause that's where she shops. She always stuffed her party stuff inside shopping bags."
"What did you see in the bag?"
"Red halter the size of a Band-Aid. I always told her it was hooker shit, she should throw it out, used to threaten her I'd throw it out."
"But you didn't."
"No," said Ingalls. "What woulda been the point?"
"A red halter," said Schwinn. "What else?"
"That's all I saw. Probably a skirt, one of those microminis, that's all she buys. The shoes she already had on."
"Black with big heels."
"Shiny black," said Ingalls. "Patent leather. Those crazy heels, I kept telling her she'd fall and break her neck."
"Party outfit," said Schwinn, copying.
Red-and-black party outfit, thought Milo. Remembering something that had gone round in high school, boys sitting around pontificating, pointing with glee: Red and black on Fridays meant a girl put out all the way. Him, laughing along, pretending to care…
Bowie Ingalls said, "Except for the jeans and T-shirts, that's all she buys. Party stuff."
"Speaking of which," said Schwinn, "let's take a look at her closet."
The rest of the apartment was two cell-sized bedrooms separated by a windowless bathroom stale with flatulence.
Schwinn and Milo glanced into Bowie Ingalls's sleep chamber as they passed. A queen-size mattress took up most of the floor. Unwashed sheets were pulled half-off, and they puddled on cheap carpeting. A tiny TV threatened to topple from a pressed-wood bureau. More Bud empties.
Janie's room was even smaller, with barely enough space for a single mattress and a nightstand of the same synthetic wood. Cutouts from teen magazines were taped to the walls, mounted at careless angles. A single, muddy-looking stuffed koala slumped on the nightstand, next to a soft pack of Kents and a half-empty box of Luden's cough drops. The room was so cramped that the mattress prevented the closet door from opening all the way, and Schwinn had to contort to get a look inside.
He winced, stepped out, and told Milo, "You do it."
Milo's size made the task excruciating, but he obeyed.
Zody's was a cut-rate barn. Even at their prices, Janie Ingalls hadn't assembled much of a wardrobe. On the dusty floor sat one pair of tennis shoes, size 8, next to red Thom McAn platform sandals and white plastic boots with see-through plastic soles. Two pairs of size S jeans were carelessly hung in the closet, one faded denim with holes that could've been genuine wear or contrivance, the other denim patchwork, both made in Taiwan. Four ribbed, snug-fit T-shirts with bias-cut sleeves, a floral cotton blouse with moth wounds pocking the breast pocket, three shiny, polyester halter tops not much bigger than the hankie Schwinn had offered to Ingalls- peacock blue, black, pearlescent white. A red sweatshirt emblazoned Hollywood in puffy gold letters, a black plastic shortie jacket pretending to be leather, cracking like an old lady's face.
On the top shelf were bikini underpants, bras, panty hose, more dust. Everything stank of tobacco. Only a few pockets to search. Other than grit and lint and a Doublemint wrapper, Milo found nothing. Such a blank existence- not unlike his own apartment, he hadn't bothered to furnish much since arriving in L.A., had never been sure he'd be staying.
He searched the rest of the room. The magazine posters were the closest thing to personal possessions. No diary or date book or photographs of friends. If Janie had ever called this dump home, she'd changed her mind sometime ago. He wondered if she had some other place of refuge- a crash pad, a sanctuary, somewhere she kept stuff.
He checked under the bed, found dirt. When he extricated himself, his neck killed and his shoulders throbbed.
Schwinn and Ingalls were back in the front room, and Milo stopped to check out the bathroom, compressing his nostrils to block out the stench, examining the medicine cabinet. All over-the-counter stuff- painkillers, laxatives, diarrhea remedies, antacids- a host of antacids. Something eating at Bowie Ingalls's gut? Guilt or just alcohol?
Milo found himself craving a drink.
When he joined Schwinn and Ingalls, Ingalls was slumped on the couch, looking disoriented, saying, "What do I do now?"
Schwinn stood away from the guy, detached. No more use for Ingalls. "There'll be some procedures to go through- identification, filling out forms. Identification can wait till after the autopsy. We may have more questions for you."
Ingalls looked up. "About what?"
Schwinn handed Ingalls his card. "If you think of anything, give a call."
"I already told you everything."
Milo said, "Was there anywhere else Janie mighta crashed?"
"Like a crash pad. Somewhere kids go."
"I dunno where kids go. Dunno where my own kid goes, so how would I know?"
"Okay, thanks. Sorry for your loss, Mr. Ingalls."
Schwinn motioned Milo to the door, but when they got there, he turned back to Ingalls. "One more thing: What does Melinda look like?"
Basic question, thought Milo, but he hadn't thought to ask it. Schwinn had, but he orchestrated it, timed everything. The guy was nuts but miles ahead of him.
"Short, big tits- built big- kinda fat. Blond hair, real long, straight."
"Voluptuous," said Schwinn, enjoying the word.
"And she's Janie's age?"
"Maybe a little older," said Ingalls.
"A sophomore, too?"
"I dunno what she is."
"Bad influence," said Schwinn.
"Do you have a picture of Janie? Something we could show around?"
"I'd have to have one, wouldn't I?" said Bowie, making it sound like the answer to an oral exam. Pulling himself to his feet, he stumbled to his bedroom, returned moments later with a three-by-five snap.
A dark-haired child around ten years old, wearing a sleeveless dress and staring at a five-foot-tall Mickey Mouse. Mickey giving that idiot grin, the kid unimpressed- scared, actually. No way to connect this child to the outrage on Beaudry.
"Disneyland," said Ingalls.
"You took Janie there?" said Milo, trying to imagine that.
"Nah, it was a school trip. They got a group discount."
Schwinn returned the photo to Ingalls. "I was thinking in terms of something more recent."
"I should have something," said Ingalls, "but hell if I can find anything- if I do, I'll call you."
"I noticed," said Milo, "that there was no diary in Janie's room."
"You say so."
"You never saw a diary or a date book- a photo album?"
Ingalls shook his head. "I stayed out of Janie's stuff, but she wouldn't have any of that. Janie didn't like to write. Writing was hard for her. Her mother was like that, too: never really learned to read. I tried to teach Janie. The school didn't do shit."
Papa Juicehead huddled with Janie, tutoring. Hard to picture.
Schwinn frowned- he'd lost patience with Milo's line of questioning and gave the doorknob a sharp twist. "Afternoon, Mr. Ingalls."
As the door closed, Ingalls cried out: "She was my kid."
"What a stupid asshole," said Schwinn, as they headed to Hollywood High. "Stupid parents, stupid kid. Genes. That's what you were getting at, right, with those questions about school?"
"I was thinking learning problems coulda made her an easier victim," said Milo.
Schwinn grumbled, "Anyone can be a victim."
The school was an ugly pile of gray-brown stucco that filled a block on the north side of Sunset just west of Highland. As impersonal as an airport, and Milo felt the curse of futility the moment his feet touched down on the campus. He and Schwinn walked past what seemed to be thousands of kids- every one of them bored, spaced, surly. Smiles and laughter were aberrations, and any eye contact directed at the detectives was hostile.
They asked directions of a teacher, got the same icy reception, not much better at the principal's office. As Schwinn talked to a secretary, Milo studied girls walking through the sweaty corridor. Tight or minimal clothes and hooker makeup seemed to be the mode, all those freshly developed bodies promising something they might not be able to deliver, and he wondered how many potential Janies were out there.
The principal was at a meeting downtown, and the secretary routed them to the vice principal for operations, who sent them farther down the line to the guidance office. The counselor they spoke to was a pretty young woman named Ellen Sato, tiny, Eurasian, with long, side-winged, blond-tipped hair. The news of Janie's murder made her face crumple, and Schwinn took advantage of it by pressing her with questions.
Useless. She'd never heard of Janie, finally admitted she'd been on the job for less than a month. Schwinn kept pushing and she disappeared for a while, then returned with bad news: no Ingalls, J. files on record for any guidance sessions or disciplinary actions.
The girl was a habitual truant, but hadn't entered the system. Bowie Ingalls had been right about one thing: No one cared.
The poor kid had never had any moorings, thought Milo, remembering his own brush with truancy: back when his family still lived in Gary and his father was working steel, making good money, feeling like a breadwinner. Milo was nine, had been plagued by terrible dreams since the summer- visions of men. One dreary Monday, he got off the school bus and instead of entering the school grounds just kept walking aimlessly, placing one foot in front of the other. Ending up at a park, where he sat on a bench like a tired old man. All day. A friend of his mother spotted him, reported him. Mom had been perplexed; Dad, always action-oriented, knew just what to do. Out came the strap. Ten pounds of oily ironworker's belt. Milo hadn't sat comfortably for a long, long time.
Yet another reason to hate the old man. Still, he'd never repeated the offense, ended up graduating with good grades. Despite the dreams. And all that followed. Certain his father would've killed him if he knew what was really going on.
So he made plans at age nine: You need to get away from these people.
Now he mused: Maybe I was the lucky one.
"Okay," Schwinn was telling Ellen Sato, "so you people don't know much about her-"
The young woman was on the verge of tears. "I'm sorry, sir, but as I said, I just… what happened to her?"
"Someone killed her," said Schwinn. "We're looking for a friend of hers, probably a student here, also. Melinda, sixteen or seventeen. Long blond hair. Voluptuous." Cupping his hands in front of his own, scrawny chest.
Sato's ivory skin pinkened. "Melinda's a common name-"
"How about a look at your student roster?"
"The roster…" Sato's graceful hands fluttered. "I could find a yearbook for you."
"You have no student roster?"
"I- I know we have class lists, but they're over in V.P. Sullivan's office and there are forms to be filled out. Okay, sure, I'll go look. In the meantime, I know where the yearbooks are. Right here." Pointing to a closet.
"Great," said Schwinn, without graciousness.
"Poor Janie," said Sato. "Who would do such a thing?"
"Someone evil, ma'am. Anyone come to mind?"
"Oh, heavens no- I wasn't… let me go get that list."
The two detectives sat on a bench in the counseling office waiting room, flipping through the yearbooks, ignoring the scornful eyes of the students who came and went. Copying down the names of every Caucasian Melinda, freshmen included, because who knew how accurate Bowie Ingalls was about age. Not limiting the count to blondes, either, because hair dye was a teenage-girl staple.
Milo said, "What about light-skinned Mexicans?"
"Nah," said Schwinn. "If she was a greaser, Ingalls would've mentioned it."
"Because he doesn't like her, would've loved to add another bad point to the list."
Milo returned to checking out young white faces.
The end product: eighteen possibles.
Schwinn regarded the list and scowled. "Names but no numbers. We'll still need a fucking roster to track her down."
Talking low but his tone was unmistakable and the receptionist a few feet away looked over and frowned.
"Howdy," said Schwinn, raising his voice and grinning at the woman furiously. She flinched and returned to her typewriter.
Milo looked up Janie Ingalls's freshman photo. No list of extracurricular activities. Huge, dark hair teased with abandon over a pretty oval face turned ghostly by slathers of makeup and ghoulish eye shadow. The image before him was neither the ten-year-old hanging with Mickey nor the corpse atop the freeway ramp. So many identities for a sixteen-year-old kid. He asked the receptionist to make a photocopy, and she agreed, grudgingly. Staring first at the picture.
"Know her, ma'am?" Milo asked her as pleasantly as possible.
"No. Here you go. It didn't come out too good. Our machine needs adjusting."
Ellen Sato returned, freshly made-up, weak-eyed, forcing a smile. "How'd we do?"
Schwinn bounded up quickly, was in her face, bullying her with body language, beaming that same hostile grin. "Oh, just great, ma'am." He brandished the list of eighteen names. "Now how about introducing us to these lovely ladies?"
Rounding up the Melindas took another forty minutes. Twelve out of eighteen girls were in attendance that day, and they marched in looking supremely bored. Only a couple were vaguely aware of Janie Ingalls's existence, none admitted to being a close friend or knowing anyone who was, none seemed to be holding back.
Not much curiosity, either, about why they'd been called in to talk to cops. As if a police presence was the usual thing at Hollywood High. Or they just didn't care.
One thing was clear: Janie hadn't made her mark on campus. The girl who was the most forthcoming ended up in Milo's queue. Barely blond, not-at-all voluptuous Melinda Kantor. "Oh yeah, her. She's a stoner, right?"
"Is she?" he said.
The girl shrugged. She had a long, pretty face, a bit equine. Two-inch nails glossed aqua, no bra.
Milo said, "Does she hang around with other stoners?"
"Uh-uh, she's not a social stoner- more like a loner stoner."
"A loner stoner."
The girl shot him a you-are-a-prime-lame-o look. "She run away or something?"
"Something like that."
"Well," said Melinda Kantor, "maybe she's over on the Boulevard."
The resultant smirk said, Another stupid question, and Milo knew he was losing her. "The boulevard's where the loner stoners go."
Now Melinda Kantor was regarding him as if he were brain-dead. "I was just making a suggestion. What'd she do?"
"Yeah, right," said the girl. "Weird."
"Usually they send over narcs who are young and cute."
Ellen Sato produced addresses and phone numbers for the six absent Melindas, and Milo and Schwinn spent the rest of the day paying house calls.
The first four girls lived in smallish but tidy single homes on Hollywood's border with the Los Feliz district and were out sick. Melindas Adams, Greenberg, Jordan were in bed with the flu, Melinda Hohlmeister had been felled by an asthma attack. All four mothers were in attendance, all were freaked out by the drop-in, but each allowed the detectives access. The previous generation still respected- or feared- authority.
Melinda Adams was a tiny, platinum-haired, fourteen-year-old freshman who looked eleven and had a little kid's demeanor to match. Melinda Jordan was a skinny fifteen-year-old brunette with a frighteningly runny nose and vengeful acne. Greenberg was blond and long-haired and somewhat chesty. Both she and her mother had thick, almost impenetrable accents- recent immigrants from Israel. Science and math books were spread over her bed. When the detectives had stepped in, she'd been underlining text in yellow marker, had no idea who Janie Ingalls was. Melinda Hohlmeister was a shy, chubby, stuttering, homely kid with short, corn-colored ringlets, a straight A average, and an audible wheeze.
No response to Janie's name from any of them.
No answer at Melinda Van Epps's big white contemporary house up in the hills. A woman next door picking flowers volunteered that the family was in Europe, had been gone for two weeks. The father was an executive with Standard Oil, the Van Eppses took all five kids out of school all the time for travel, provided tutors, lovely people.
No reply, either, at Melinda Waters's shabby bungalow on North Gower. Schwinn knocked hard because the bell was taped over and labeled "Broken."
"Okay, leave a note," he told Milo. "It'll probably be bullshit, too."
Just as Milo was slipping the please-call-us memo and his card through the mail slot, the door swung open.
The woman who stood there could have been Bowie Ingalls's spiritual sister. Fortyish, thin but flabby, wearing a faded brown housedress. She had a mustard complexion, wore her peroxided hair pinned back carelessly. Confused blue eyes, no makeup, cracked lips. That furtive look.
"Mrs. Waters?" said Milo.
"I'm Eileen." Cigarette voice. "What is it?"
Schwinn showed her the badge. "We'd like to talk to Melinda."
Eileen Waters's head retracted, as if he'd slapped her. "About what?"
"Her friend, Janie Ingalls."
"Oh. Her," said Waters. "What'd she do?"
"Someone killed her," said Schwinn. "Did a right sloppy job of it. Where's Melinda?"
Eileen Waters's parched lips parted, revealing uneven teeth coated with yellow scum. She'd relied upon suspiciousness as a substitute for dignity and now, losing both, she slumped against the doorjamb. "Oh my God."
"Where's Melinda?" demanded Schwinn.
Waters shook her head, lowered it. "Oh, God, oh God."
Schwinn took her arm. His voice remained firm. "Where's Melinda?"
More headshakes, and when Eileen Waters spoke again her voice was that of another woman: timid, chastened. Reduced.
She began crying. Finally stopped. "Melinda never came home, I haven't seen her since Friday."
The Waters household was a step up from Bowie Ingalls's flop, furnished with old, ungainly furniture that might've been hand-me-downs from some upright Midwestern homestead. Browning doilies on the arms of overstuffed chairs said someone had once cared. Ashtrays were everywhere, filled with gray dust and butts, and the air felt sooty. No beer empties, but Milo noticed a quarter-full bottle of Dewars on a kitchen counter next to a jam jar packed with something purple. Every drape was drawn, plunging the house into perpetual evening. The sun could be punishing when your body subsisted on ethanol.
Either Schwinn had developed an instant dislike for Eileen Waters or his bad mood had intensified or he had a genuine reason for riding her hard. He sat her down on a sofa, and began peppering her with questions.
She did nothing to defend herself other than chain-smoke Parliaments, was easy with the confessions:
Melinda was wild, had been wild for a long time, had fought off any attempts at discipline. Yes, she used drugs- marijuana, for sure. Eileen had found roaches in her pockets, wasn't sure about anything harder, but wasn't denying the possibility.
"What about Janie Ingalls?" asked Schwinn.
"You kidding? She's probably the one introduced Melinda to dope."
"That kid was stoned all the time."
"How old's Melinda?"
"What year in school?"
"Eleventh grade- I know Janie's in tenth but just because Melinda's older doesn't mean she was the instigator. Janie was street-smart. I'm sure Janie's the one got Melinda into grass… Lord, where could she be?"
Milo thought back to his search of Janie's room: no evidence of dope, not even rolling paper or a pipe.
"Melinda and Janie were a perfect pair," Waters was saying. "Neither of them gave a damn about school, they cut all the time."
"What'd you do about it?"
The woman laughed. "Right." Then the fear came back. "Melinda will come back, she always does."
"In what way was Janie streetwise?" said Schwinn.
"You know," said Waters. "You can just tell. Like she'd been around."
"I assume. Melinda was basically a good girl."
"Janie spend much time here?"
"No. Mostly she'd pick up Melinda, and they'd be off."
"That the case last Friday?"
"What do you mean?"
"I was out shopping. Came home, and Melinda was gone. I could tell she'd been here because she left her underwear on the floor and some food out in the kitchen."
"Food for one?"
Waters thought. "One Popsicle wrapper and a Pepsi can- I guess."
"So the last time you saw Melinda was Friday morning, but you don't know if Janie came by to pick her up."
Waters nodded. "She claimed she was going to school, but I don't think so. She had a bag full of clothes, and when I said, 'What's all that?' she said she was going to some party that night, might not be coming home. We got into a hassle about that, but what could I do? I wanted to know where the party was but all she told me was it was fancy, on the Westside."
"Where on the Westside?"
"I just told you, she wouldn't say." The woman's faced twitched. "Fancy party. Rich kids. She said that a bunch of times. Told me I had nothing to worry about."
She looked to Schwinn, then Milo, for reassurance, got two stone faces.
"Fancy Westside party," said Schwinn. "So maybe Beverly Hills- or Bel Air."
"I guess… I asked her how she was getting all the way over there, she said she'd find a way. I told her not to hitch, and she said she wouldn't."
"You don't like her hitching."
"Would you? Standing there on Sunset, thumbing, any kind of pervert…" She stopped, went rigid. "Where was- where'd you find Janie?"
Waters relaxed. "So there you go, the complete opposite direction. Melinda wasn't with her. Melinda was over on the Westside."
Schwinn's slit eyes made the merest turn toward Milo. Bowie Ingalls had seen Melinda pick Janie up on Friday, watched the two girls walking north toward Thumb Alley. But no reason to get into that, now.
"Melinda'll come back," said Waters. "Sometimes she does that. Stays away. She always comes back."
"Sometimes," said Schwinn. "Like once a week?"
"No, nothing like that- just once in a while."
"And how long does she stay away?"
"A night," said Waters, sagging and trying to calm herself with a twenty-second pull on her cigarette. Her hand shook. Confronting the fact that this was Melinda's longest absence.
Then she perked up. "One time she stayed away two days. Went up to see her father. He's in the Navy, used to live in Oxnard."
"Where's he live now?"
"Turkey. He's at a naval base, there. Shipped out two months ago."
"How'd Melinda get to Oxnard?"
Eileen Waters chewed her lip. "Hitched. I'm not going to tell him. Even if I could reach him in Turkey, he'd just start in with the accusations… and that bitch of his."
"Second wife?" said Schwinn.
"His whore," spat Waters. "Melinda hated her. Melinda will come home."
Further questioning was futile. The woman knew nothing more about the "fancy Westside party," kept harping on the downtown murder site as clear proof Melinda hadn't been with Janie. They pried a photo of Melinda out of her. Unlike Bowie Ingalls, she'd maintained an album, and though Melinda's teen years were given short shrift, the detectives had a page of snaps from which to choose.
Bowie Ingalls hadn't been fair to Melinda Waters. Nothing chubby about the girl's figure, she was beautifully curvy with high, round breasts and a tiny waist. Straight blond hair hung to her rear. Kiss-me lips formed a heartbreaking smile.
"Looks like Marilyn, doesn't she?" said her mother. "Maybe one day, she'll be a movie star."
Driving back to the station, Milo said, "How long before her body shows up?"
"Who the fuck knows?" said Schwinn, studying Melinda's picture. "From the looks of this, maybe Janie was the appetizer and this one was the main dish. Look at those tits. That'd give him something to play with for a while. Yeah, I can see him holding on to this one for a while."
He pocketed the photo.
Milo envisioned a torture chamber. The blond girl nude, shackled… "So what do we do about finding her?"
"Nothing," said Schwinn. "If she's already dead, we have to wait till she shows up. If he's still got her, he's not gonna tell us."
"What about that Westside party?"
"What about it?"
"We could put the word out with West L.A., the sheriffs, Beverly Hills PD. Sometimes parties get wild, the blues go out on a nuisance call."
"So what?" said Schwinn. "We show up at some rich asshole's door, say, 'Excuse me, are you cutting up this kid?' " He sniffed, coughed, produced his bottle of decongestant, and swigged. "Shit, Waters's dump was dusty. All-American mom, another poor excuse for an adult. Who knows if there even was a party."
"Why wouldn't there be?"
"Because kids lie to their parents." Schwinn swiveled toward Milo. "What's with all these fucking questions? You thinking of going to law school?"
Milo held his tongue, and the rest of the ride was their usual joy-fest. A block from the station, Schwinn said, "You wanna go snooping for Westside nuisance calls, be my guest, but I think Blondie was lying to Mommy like she always did because a fancy Westside party was exactly the kind of thing that would calm the old lady down. Hundred to one Blondie and Janie were fixing to thumb the Strip, score some dope, maybe trade blow jobs for it, or whatever. They got into the wrong set of wheels and ended up downtown. Janie was too stupid to learn from her past experience- or like I said, maybe she liked being tied up. She was a stoner. Both of them probably were."
"Your source mentioned a Westside party."
"Street talk's like watermelon, you got to pick around the seeds. The main thing is Janie was found downtown. And chances are Melinda's somewhere around there, too, if a scrote got her and finished with her. For all we know, he kept her in the trunk while he was setting up Janie on Beaudry. Got back on the freeway, he could be in Nevada by now."
He shook his head. "Stupid kids. Two of them thought they had the world in their sweet little hands, and the world upped and bit 'em."
Back at the station, Schwinn collected his things from his desk and walked off without a word to Milo. Not even bothering to sign out. No one noticed: None of the detectives paid much attention to Schwinn, period.
An outcast, Milo realized. Did they stick me with him by coincidence?
Pushing all that aside, he played phone poker until well after dark. Contacting every police entity west of Hollywood Division in search of 415 party calls. Throwing in rent-a-cop outfits, too: The Bel Air Patrol, and other private firms that covered Beverlywood, Cheviot Hills, Pacific Palisades. The privates turned out to be the worst to deal with- no one was willing to talk without supervisory clearance and Milo had to leave his name and badge number, wait for callbacks that probably wouldn't happen.
He kept going, casting his net to Santa Monica and beyond, even including the southern edge of Ventura County, because Melinda Waters had once hitched PCH to Oxnard to see her father. And kids flocked to the beach for parties- he'd spent many a sleepless night driving up and down the coast highway, spotting bonfires that sparked the tide, the faint silhouettes of couples. Wondering what it would be like to have someone.
Four hours of work resulted in two measly hits- either L.A. had turned sleepy, or no one was complaining about noise anymore.
Two big zeros: An eye surgeon's fiftieth birthday party on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills had evoked a Friday midnight complaint from a cranky neighbor.
"Kids? No, don't think so," laughed the BH desk officer. "We're talking black tie, all that good stuff. Lester Lanin's orchestra playing swing and still someone bitched. There's always some killjoy, right?"
The second call was a Santa Monica item: A bar mitzvah on Fifth Street north of Montana had been closed down just after 2 A.M., after rambunctious thirteen-year-olds began setting off firecrackers.
Milo put the phone down and stretched. His ears burned and his neck felt like dry ice. Schwinn's voice was an obnoxious mantra in his head as he left the station just before 1 A.M.
Told you so, asshole. Told you so, asshole.
He drove to a bar- a straight one on Eighth Street, not far from the Ambassador Hotel. He'd passed it several times, a shabby-looking place on the ground floor of an old brick apartment building that had seen better days. The few patrons drinking this late were past their prime, too, and his entrance lowered the median age by a few decades. Mel Torme on tape loop, scary-looking toothpicked shrimp and bowls full of cracker medley decorated the cloudy bar top. Milo downed a few shots and beers, kept his head down, left, and drove north to Santa Monica Boulevard, cruising Boystown for a while but didn't even wrestle with temptation: Tonight the male hookers looked predatory, and he realized he wanted to be with no one, not even himself. When he reached his apartment, images of Melinda Waters's torment had returned to plague him, and he pulled down a bottle of Jim Beam from a kitchenette cupboard. Tired but wired. Removing his clothes was an ordeal, and the sight of his pitiful, white body made him close his eyes.
He lay in bed, wishing the darkness was more complete. Wishing for a brain valve that would choke off the pictures. Alcohol lullabies finally eased him, stumbling, to bed.
The next morning, he drove to a newsstand and picked up the morning's Times and Herald-Examiner. No reporter had called him or Schwinn on the Ingalls murder, but something that ugly was sure to be covered.
But it wasn't, not a line of print.
That made no sense. Reporters were tuned in to the police band, covered the morgue, too.
He sped to the station, checked his own box and Schwinn's for jour-nalistic queries. Found only a single phone slip with his name at the top. Officer Del Monte from The Bel Air Patrol, no message. He dialed the number, talked to a few flat, bored voices before finally reaching Del Monte.
"Oh, yeah. You're the one called about parties." The guy had a crisp, clipped voice, and Milo knew he was talking to an ex-military man. Middle-aged voice. Korea, not V.N.
"That's right. Thanks for calling back. What've you got?"
"Two on Friday, both times kids being jerks. The first was a sweet sixteen on Stradella, all-girls' sleepover that some punks tried to crash. Not local boys. Black kids and Mexicans. The girls' parents called us, and we ejected them."
"Where were the crashers from?"
"They claimed Beverly Hills." Del Monte laughed. "Right."
"They give you any trouble?"
"Not up front. They made like they were leaving Bel Air- we followed them to Sunset, then hung back and watched. Idiots crossed over near UCLA, then tried to come back a few minutes later and head over to the other party." Del Monte chuckled, again. "No luck, Pachuco. Our people were already there on a neighbor complaint. We ejected them before they even got out of the car."
"Where was the second party?"
"That was the live one, big-time noise. Upper Stone Canyon Drive way above the hotel."
The locale Schwinn's source had mentioned. "Whose house?"
"Empty house," said Del Monte. "The family bought a bigger one but didn't get around to selling the first one and the parents took a vacation, left the kiddies behind and, big surprise, the kiddies decided to use the empty house for fun 'n' games, invited the entire damn city. Must've been two, three hundred kids all over the place, cars- Porsches and other good wheels, and plenty of outside wheels. By the time we showed up, it was a scene. It's a big property, coupla acres, no real close-by neighbors, but by now the closest neighbors were fed up."
"By now?" said Milo. "This wasn't the first time?"
Silence. "We've had a few other calls there. Tried to contact the parents, no luck, they're always out of town."
Del Monte laughed. "You didn't hear that from me. Anyway, what's up with all this?"
"Tracing a 187 victim's whereabouts."
Silence. "Homicide? Nah, no way. This was just kids partying and playing music too loud."
"I'm sure you're right," said Milo. "But I've got rumors that my db might've attended a party on the Westside, so I've gotta ask. What's the name of the family that owns the house?"
Longer silence. "Listen," said Del Monte. "These people- you do me wrong, I could be parking cars. And believe me, no one saw anything worse than drinking and screwing around- a few joints, big deal, right? Anyway, we closed it down."
"I'm just going through the routine, Officer," said Milo. "Your name won't come up. But if I don't check it out, I'll be parking cars. Who owns the house and what's the address?"
"A rumor?" said Del Monte. "There had to be tons of parties Friday night."
"Any party we hear about, we look into. That's why yours won't stick out."
"Okay… the family's named Cossack." Del Monte uttered it weightily, as if that was supposed to mean something.
"Cossack," said Milo, keeping his tone ambiguous.
"As in office buildings, shopping malls- Garvey Cossack. Big downtown developer, part of that bunch wanted to bring another football team to L.A."
"Yeah, sure," lied Milo. His interest in sports had peaked with Pop Warner baseball. "Cossack on Stone Canyon. What's the address?"
Del Monte sighed and read off the numbers.
"How many kids in the family?" said Milo.
"Three- two boys and a girl. Didn't see the daughter, there, but she could've been."
"You know the kids personally?"
"Nah, just by sight."
"So the boys threw the party," said Milo. "Names?"
"The big one's Garvey Junior and the younger one's Bob but they call him Bobo."
"Junior's probably twenty-one, twenty-two, Bobo's maybe a year younger."
More than kids, thought Milo.
"They gave us no trouble," said Del Monte. "They're just a couple guys like to have fun."
"And the girl?"
"Her I didn't see."
Milo thought he picked up something new in Del Monte's voice. "Name?"
"Younger- maybe seventeen. It was really no big deal, everyone dispersed. My message said you're Central. Where was your db found?"
Milo told him.
"There you go," said Del Monte. "Fifteen miles from Bel Air. You're wasting your time."
"Probably. Three hundred partying kids just caved when you showed up?"
"We've got experience with that kind of thing."
"What's the technique?" said Milo.
"Use sensitivity," said the rent-a-cop. "Don't treat 'em like you would a punk from Watts or East L.A. 'cause these kids are accustomed to a certain style."
"Being treated like they're important. If that doesn't work, threaten to call the parents."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"That usually works. Gotta go, nice talking to you."
"I appreciate the time, Officer. Listen, if I came by and showed a photo around, would there be a chance anyone would recognize a face?"
"No way. Like I said, it was a swarm. After a while they all start to look alike."
It was nearly 10 A.M., and Schwinn still hadn't shown up. Figuring sooner rather than later was the best time to spring Janie's photo on Del Monte and his patrol buddies, Milo threw on his jacket and left the station.
Del Monte had been decent enough to call and look where it got him.
No good deed goes unpunished.
It took nearly forty minutes to reach Bel Air. The patrol office was a white, tile-roofed bungalow tucked behind the west gate. Lots of architectural detail inside and out- Milo would've been happy to make it his house. He'd heard that the gates and the private-cop scrutiny had been instituted by Howard Hughes when he lived in Bel Air because the billionaire didn't trust LAPD.
The rich taking care of their own. Just like the party on Stone Canyon: ticked-off neighbors, but everything kept private, no nuisance call had reached the West L.A. station.
Del Monte was at the front desk, and when Milo came in, his dark, round face turned sour. Milo apologized and whipped out a crime-scene snap he'd taken from the pile Schwinn had left in his desk. The least horrifying of the collection- side view of Janie's face, just the hint of ligature ring around the neck. Del Monte's response was a cursory head flick. Two other guards were drinking coffee, and they gave the picture more careful study, then shook their heads. Milo would have liked to show Melinda Waters's photo, but Schwinn had pocketed it.
He left the patrol office and drove to the party house on Stone Canyon Drive. Huge, redbrick, three-story, six-column Colonial. Black double doors, black shutters, mullioned windows, multiple gables. Milo's guess was twenty, twenty-five rooms.
The Cossack family had moved to something more generous.
A huge dry lawn and flaking paint on some of the shutters said the maintenance schedule had slackened since the house had emptied. Shredded hedges and scraps of paper confettiing the brick walkway were the only evidence of revelry gone too far. Milo parked, got out, picked up one of the shreds, hoping for some writing, but it was soft and absorbent and blank- heavy-duty paper towel. The gate to the backyard was bolted and opaque. He peered over, saw a big blue egg of a pool, rolling greenery, lots of brick patio, blue jays pecking. Behind one of the hedges, the glint of glass- cans and bottles.
The nearest neighbor was to the south, well separated from the colonial by the broad lawns of both houses. A much smaller, meticulously maintained one-story ranch emblazoned with flower beds and fronted by dwarf junipers trimmed Japanese-style. The northern border of the Cossack property was marked by a ten-foot stone wall that went on for a good thousand feet up Stone Canyon. Probably some multiacre estate, a humongous chateau pushed back too far from the street to be visible.
Milo walked across the dry lawn and the colonial's empty driveway, up to the ranch house's front door. Teak door, with a shiny brass knocker shaped like a swan. Off to the right a small cement Shinto shrine presided over a tiny, babbling stream.
A very tall woman in her late sixties answered his ring. Stout and regal with puffy, rouged cheeks, she wore her silver hair tied back in a bun so tight it looked painful, had sheathed her impressive frame in a cream kimono hand-painted with herons and butterflies. In one liver-spotted hand was an ivory-handled brush with pointed bristles tipped with black ink. Even in black satin flat slippers she was nearly eye level with Milo. Heels would have made her a giantess.
"Ye-es?" Watchful eyes, deliberate contralto.
Out came the badge. "Detective Sturgis, Mrs…"
"Schwartzman. What brings a detective to Bel Air?"
"Well, ma'am, last Friday your neighbors had a party-"
"A party," she said, as if the description was absurd. She aimed the brush at the empty Colonial. "More like rooting at the trough. The aptly named Cossacks."
"Barbarians," said Mrs. Schwartzman. "A scourge."
"You've had problems with them before."
"They lived there for less than two years, let the place go to seed. That's their pattern, apparently. Move in, degrade, move out."
"To something bigger."
"But of course. Bigger is better, right? They're vulgarians. No surprise, given what the father does."
"What does he do?"
"He destroys period architecture and substitutes grotesquerie. Packing cartons pretending to be office buildings, those drive-in monstrosities- strip malls. And she… desperately blond, the sweaty anxiety of an arriviste. Both of them gone all the time. No supervision for those brats."
"If you'd care to be precise, it's Dr. Schwartzman."
"Pardon me, Doctor-"
"I'm an endocrinologist- retired. My husband is Professor Arnold Schwartzman, the orthopedic surgeon. We've lived here twenty-eight years, had wonderful neighbors for twenty-six- the Cantwells, he was in metals, she was the loveliest person. The two of them passed on within months of one another. The house went into probate, and they bought it."
"Who lives on the other side?" said Milo, indicating the stone walls.
"Officially, Gerhard Loetz."
Milo shot her a puzzled look.
"German industrialist." As if everyone should know. "Baron Loetz has homes all over the world. Palaces, I've been told. He's rarely here. Which is fine with me, keeps the neighborhood quiet. Baron Loetz's property extends to the mountains, the deer come down to graze. We get all sorts of wildlife in the canyon. We love it. Everything was perfect until they moved in. Why are you asking all these questions?"
"A girl went missing," said Milo. "There's a rumor she attended a party on the Westside Friday night."
Dr. Schwartzman shook her head. "Well, I wouldn't know about that. Didn't get a close look at those hoodlums, didn't want to. Never left the house. Afraid to, if you'd like to know. I was alone, Professor Schwartzman was in Chicago, lecturing. Usually, that doesn't bother me, we have an alarm, used to have an Akita." The hand around the brush tightened. Man-sized knuckles bulged. "But Friday night was alarming. So many of them, running in and out, screaming like banshees. As usual, I called the patrol, had them stay until the last barbarian left. Even so, I was nervous. What if they came back?"
"But they didn't."
"So you never got close enough to see any of the kids."
Milo considered showing her the death photo anyway. Decided against it. Maybe the story hadn't hit the papers because someone upstairs wanted it that way. Dr. Schwartzman's hostility to the Cossacks might very well fuel another rumor. Working alone like this, he didn't want to screw up big-time.
"The patrol," he said, "not the police-"
"That's what we do in Bel Air, Detective. We pay the patrol, so they respond. Your department, on the other hand- there seems to be a belief among law enforcement types that the problems of the… fortunate are trivial. I learned that the hard way, when Sumi- my doggie- was murdered."
"When was this?"
"Last summer. Someone poisoned him. I found him right there." Indicating the front lawn. "They unlatched the gate and fed him meat laced with rat poison. That time, I did call your department, and they finally sent someone out. A detective. Allegedly."
"Do you remember his name?"
Dr. Schwartzman gave a violent headshake. "Why would I? He barely gave me the time of day, clearly didn't take me seriously. Didn't even bother to go over there, just referred it to Animal Control, and all they offered to do was dispose of Sumi's body, thank you very much for nothing."
"They?" said Milo.
Schwartzman's brush pointed at the party house.
"You suspect one of the Cossacks poisoned Sumi?"
"I don't suspect, I know," said Schwartzman. "But I can't prove it. The daughter. She's mad, quite definitely. Walks around talking to herself, a bizarre look in her eyes, all hunched over. Wears the same clothes for days on end. And she brings black boys home- clearly not right. Sumi despised her. Dogs have a nose for madness. Anytime that crazy girl walked by, poor Sumi would fly into a rage, throw himself against the gate, it was all I could do to calm him down. And let me tell you, Detective, the only time he responded that way was to stranger intrusion. Protective, Akitas are, that's the whole point of an Akita. But sweet and smart- he loved the Cantwells, even grew accustomed to the gardeners and the mailman. But never to that girl. He knew when someone was wrong. Simply despised her. I'm sure she poisoned him. The day I found his poor body, I spied her. Watching me through a second-story window. That pair of mad eyes. Staring. I stared right back and waved my fist, and you'd better believe that drapery snapped back into place. She knew that I knew. But soon after, she came out and walked past me- right past me, staring. She's a frightening thing, that girl. Hopefully that party was the last time we'll see them around here."
"She was at the party?" said Milo.
Dr. Schwartzman crossed her arms across her bosom. "Have you been listening to me, young man? I told you, I didn't get close enough to check."
"Sorry," said Milo. "How old is she?"
"Seventeen or eighteen."
"Younger than her brothers."
"Those two," said Schwartzman. "So arrogant."
"Ever have any problems with the brothers other than parties?"
"All the time. Their attitude."
"Entitled," said Schwartzman. "Smug. Just thinking about them makes me angry, and anger is bad for my health, so I'm going to resume my calligraphy. Good day."
Before Milo could utter another syllable, the door slammed shut and he was staring at teak. No sense pushing it; Frau Doktor Schwartzman could probably beat him in an arm wrestle. He returned to the car, sat there wondering if anything she'd said mattered.
The Cossack brothers had a bad attitude. Like every other rich kid in L.A.
The sister, on the other hand, sounded anything but typical- if Schwartzman could be believed. And if Schwartzman's suspicion about her dog was right, Sister Cossack's quirkiness was something to worry about.
Seventeen years old made Caroline Cossack an age peer of Janie Ingalls and Melinda Waters. A rich girl with a wild side and access to the right toys might very well have attracted two street kids.
Taking black boys home. Racism aside, that spelled rebel. Someone willing to push the envelope.
Dope, a couple of party girls venturing from Hollywood into uncharted territory… still, it came down to nothing more than rumor, and he had nowhere to take it.
He stared at the empty party house, took in Bel Air silence, shabby grace, a lifestyle he'd never attain. Feeling out of his element, every inch the ignorant rookie.
And now he had to report back to Schwinn.
This is a whodunit. This likes to munch on your insides, then shit you out in pellets…
The bastard's reproachful voice had crept into his head and camped there, obnoxious but authoritative.
While Milo'd spun his wheels, Schwinn had come up with the single useful lead on the Ingalls case: the tip that had led them straight to Janie's father.
A source he wouldn't identify. Not even bothering to be coy, coming right out and accusing Milo of spying for the brass.
Because he knew he was under suspicion? Maybe that's why the other D's seemed to shun the guy. Whatever was going on, Milo'd been shoved square in the middle of it… he had to push all that aside and concentrate on the job. But the job- going nowhere- made him feel inadequate.
Poor Janie. And Melinda Waters- what was the chance she was alive? What would she look like when they finally found her?
It was nearly noon and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. But he could find no reason to stop for grease. Had no appetite for anything.
He arrived back at the station wondering if Schwinn had returned and hoping he hadn't. Before he made it to the stairwell, the desk sergeant said, "Someone's waiting for you," without looking up.
"Go see for yourself. Interview Five."
Something in the guy's voice pinged Milo's gut. "Interview Five?"
"Uh-huh." The blue kept his head down, busy with paperwork.
An interrogation room. Someone being questioned- a suspect for Ingalls in custody so soon? Had Schwinn pulled off another solo end run?
"I wouldn't keep them waiting," said the sergeant, writing something down, still avoiding eye contact.
Milo peered over the counter, saw a crossword puzzle book. "Them."
Milo hurried down the too-bright corridor that housed the interview rooms and knocked on Five. A voice, not Schwinn's, said, "Come in."
He opened the door and came face-to-face with two tall men in their thirties. Both were broad-shouldered and good-looking, in well-cut charcoal suits, starched white shirts, and blue silk ties.
Corporate Bobbsey twins- except one guy was white- Swedish pink, actually, with a crew cut the color of cornflakes- and the other was black as the night.
Together they nearly spanned the width of the tiny, stale room, a two-man offensive line. Black had opened the door. He had a smooth, round head topped by a razor-trimmed cap of ebony fuzz and glowing, hairless, blue-tinged skin. The clear, hard eyes of a drill instructor. His unsmiling mouth was a fissure in a tar pit.
Pinkie hung toward the rear of the tiny room, but he was the first to speak.
"Detective Sturgis. Have a seat." Reedy voice, Northern inflection- Wisconsin or Minnesota. He pointed to the room's solitary chair, a folding metal affair on the near side of the interrogation table, facing the one-way mirror. The mirror, not even close to subterfuge, every suspect knew he was being observed, the only question was by whom? And now Milo was wondering the same thing.
"Detective," said the black man. Offering him the suspect chair.
On the table was a big, ugly Satchell-Carlson reel-to-reel tape recorder, the same gray as the twins' suits. Everything color-coordinated- like some psychology experiment and guess who was the guinea pig…
"What's going on?" he said, remaining in the doorway.
"Come in and we'll tell you," said Pinkie.
"How about a proper introduction?" said Milo. "As in who are you and what's this all about?" Surprising himself with his assertiveness.
The suits weren't surprised. Both looked pleased, as if Milo had confirmed their expectation.
"Please come in," said Black, putting some steel into "please." He came closer, stepped within inches of Milo's nose, and Milo caught a whiff of expensive aftershave, something with citrus in it. The guy was taller than Milo- six-four or -five- and Pinkie looked every bit as big. Size was one of the few advantages Milo figured God had given him; for the most part, he'd used it to avoid confrontation. But between these guys and the Wagnerian Dr. Schwartzman it had been a bad day for exploiting body type.
"Detective," said Black. His face was strangely inanimate- an African war mask. And those eyes. The guy had presence; he was used to being in charge. That was curious. Since the Watts riots, there'd been some race progress in the department, but for the most part it was lip service. Blacks and Mexicans were despised by the brass, shunted to dead-end patrol jobs in the highest-crime segments of Newton, Southwest, and Central, with scant chance for advancement. But this guy- his suit looked like mohair blend, the stitching on the lapels, hand-sewn- what kind of dues had he paid and who the hell was he?
He stepped aside and as Milo entered the room, nodded approvingly. "In terms of an introduction, I'm Detective Broussard and this is Detective Poulsenn."
"Internal Affairs," said Poulsenn.
Broussard smiled. "In terms of why we want you here, it would be better if you sat down."
Milo settled on the folding chair.
Poulsenn remained in the far corner of the interrogation room, but cramped quarters placed him close enough for Milo to count the pores in his nose. If he'd had any. Like Broussard, his complexion glowed like a poster for clean living. Broussard positioned himself to Milo's right, angled so Milo had to crane to see his lips move.
"How do you like Central Division, Detective?"
"I like it fine." Milo chose not to strain to meet Broussard's eyes, kept his attention on Poulsenn but stayed inert and silent.
"Enjoying homicide work?" said Broussard.
"What about homicide work do you like, specifically?"
"Solving problems," said Milo. "Righting wrongs."
"Righting wrongs," said Broussard, as if impressed by the originality of the response. "So homicide can be righted."
"Not in the strict sense." This was starting to feel like one of those stupid grad school seminars. Professor Milrad taking out his frustration on hapless students.
Poulsenn checked his fingernails. Broussard said, "Are you saying you enjoy trying to achieve justice?"
"Justice," said Poulsenn, "is the point of all police work."
"Yes, it is," said Broussard. "Sometimes, though, justice gets lost in the shuffle."
Slipping a question mark into the last few words. Milo didn't bite, and Broussard went on: "A shame when that happens, isn't it, Detective Sturgis?"
Poulsenn inched closer. Both IA men stared down at Milo.
He said, "I'm not getting the point of-"
"You were in Vietnam," said Broussard.
"You were a medic, saw lots of action."
"And before that you earned a master's degree."
"Indiana University. American literature."
"Correct. Is there some-"
"Your partner, Detective Schwinn, never went to college," said Broussard. "In fact, he never finished high school, got grandfathered in back when that was acceptable. Did you know that?"
"Nor did Detective Schwinn serve in any branch of the military. Too young for Korea, too old for 'Nam. Have you found that a problem?"
"In terms of commonality. Developing rapport with Detective Schwinn."
"No, I…" Milo shut his mouth.
"You…?" said Broussard.
"You were about to say something, Detective."
"Oh, yes you were," said Broussard, suddenly cheerful. Milo craned, involuntarily. Saw his purplish, bowed lips hooked up at the corners. But Broussard's mouth locked shut, no teeth. "You were definitely going to say something, Detective."
"Let's recap, Detective, to refresh your memory. I asked you if Detective Schwinn's lack of higher education and military service had posed a problem for you in terms of rapport and you said, 'No, I…'. It was fairly obvious that you changed your mind about saying what you were going to say."
"There's no problem between Detective Schwinn and myself. That's all I was going to say. We get along fine."
"Do you?" said Poulsenn.
Broussard said, "So Detective Schwinn agrees with your point of view."
"I- you'd have to ask him."
"You've never discussed weighty issues with Detective Schwinn?"
"No, as a matter of fact, we concentrate on our cases-"
"You're telling us that Detective Schwinn has never verbalized any feelings about the job to you? About righting wrongs? Achieving justice? His attitude toward police work?"
"Well," said Milo, "I can't really pinpoint-"
Poulsenn stepped forward and pushed the RECORD button on the Satchell-Carlson. Kept going and ended up inches from Milo's left side. Now both IA men were flanking him. Boxing him in.
Broussard said, "Are you aware of any improper behavior on the part of Detective Schwinn?"
"Consider your words before you speak, Detective Sturgis. This is an official department inquiry."
"Into Detective Schwinn's behavior or mine?"
"Is there a reason to look into your behavior, Detective Sturgis?"
"No, but I didn't know there was any reason to look into Detective Schwinn's behavior."
"You didn't?" said Poulsenn. To Broussard: "His position seems to be that he's unaware."
Broussard clicked his tongue. Switched off the recorder, pulled something out of a jacket pocket. A sheaf of papers that he waved. Milo was craning hard now, saw the front sheet, the familiar layout of a photocopied mug shot.
Female arrestee, dead-eyed and dark-skinned. Mexican or a light-skinned black. Numbers hanging on her chest.
Broussard peeled off the sheet, held it in front of Milo's eyes.
Darla Washington, DOB 5-14-54, HT. 5-06 WT. 134.
Instinctively, Milo's eyes dropped to the penal code violation: 653.2
Loitering for the purpose of prostitution…
"Have you ever met this woman?" said Broussard.
"Not in the company of Detective Schwinn or anyone else?"
"It wouldn't be in the company of anyone else," said Poulsenn, cheerfully.
Nothing happened for a full minute. The IA men letting that last bit of dialogue sink in. Letting Milo know that they knew he was the least likely man in the room to engage a female hooker?
Or was he being paranoid? This was about Schwinn, not him. Right?
He said, "Never saw her anywhere."
Broussard placed Darla Washington's sheet at the bottom of the stack, flashed the next page.
"What about this woman?"
"Never saw her."
This time, Broussard didn't push, just moved to the next page. The game went on for a while, a collection of bored/stoned/sad-eyed streetwalkers, all black. Donna Lee Bumpers, Royanne Chambers, Quitha Martha Masterson, DeShawna Devine Smith.
Broussard shuffled the 653.2 deck like a Vegas pro. Poulsenn smiled and watched. Milo kept outwardly cool but his bowels were churning. Knowing exactly where this was going.
She was the eighth card dealt.
Different hair than last night's red extravagance- a bleached blond mushroom cloud that made her look ridiculous. But the face was the same.
Schwinn's backseat tumble.
Tonya Marie Stumpf. The Teutonic surname seemed incongruous, where had that come from-
The mug shot danced in front of him for a long time, and he realized he hadn't responded to Broussard's, "And this woman?"
Broussard said, "Detective Sturgis?"
Milo's throat tightened and his face burned and he had trouble breathing. Like one of those anaphylactic reactions he'd seen as a medic. Perfectly healthy guys surviving firefights only to keel over from eating peanuts.
He felt as if he'd been force-fed something toxic…
"Detective Sturgis," Broussard repeated, nothing friendly in his tone.
"This woman. Have you seen her before?"
They'd been watching the unmarked, surveilling Schwinn and him- for how long? Had they been spying the Beaudry murder site? Snooped during the entire time he and Schwinn had been riding together?
So Schwinn's paranoia had been well justified. And yet, he'd picked up Tonya Stumpf and had her do him in the backseat, the stupid, no-impulse-control, sonofa-
"Detective Sturgis," Broussard demanded. "We need an answer."
A whir from the table distracted Milo. Tape reels, revolving slowly. When had the machine been switched on, again?
Milo broke out in a full-body sweat. Recalling Schwinn's tirade in front of Bowie Ingalls's building, the sudden, vicious distrust, convinced Milo was a plant, and now…
Told you so.
"Detective," said Broussard. "Answer the question. Now."
"Yes," said Milo.
"I've seen her."
"Yes, you have, son," said Broussard, crouching low, exuding citrus and success.
Son. The asshole was only a few years older than Milo, but it was clear who had the power.
"You definitely have seen her."
They kept him in there for another hour and a half, taping his statement then replaying it, over and over. Explaining that they wanted to make sure everything had copied accurately, but Milo knew the real reason: wanting him to hear the fear and evasiveness in his own voice in order to instill self-loathing, soften him up for whatever they had in store.
He copped only to the basic details of Tonya's pickup- stuff they knew already- and resisted the pressure to elaborate. The room grew hot and rancid with fear as they changed the subject from Tonya to Schwinn's comportment, in general. Picking at him like gnats, wanting to hear about Schwinn's political views, racial attitudes, his opinions about law enforcement. Prodding, pushing, cajoling, threatening Milo subtly and not-so-subtly, until he felt as alive as chuck steak.
They returned to probing sexual details. He maintained his denial of witnessing any actual sexual encounters between Schwinn and Tonya or anyone else. Which was technically correct, he'd kept his eyes on the road, had harbored no desire to rearview peep the blow job.
When they asked about the conversation between Schwinn and Tonya, he gave them some bullshit story about not hearing because it had all been whispers.
"Whispers," said Broussard. "You didn't think that was unusual? Detective Schwinn whispering to a known prostitute in the backseat of your department-issue vehicle?"
"I figured it for work talk. She was an informant, and Schwinn was pressing her for info."
Waiting for the obvious next question: "Info on what?" But it never came.
No questions at all about Janie Ingalls's murder or any other case he and Schwinn had worked.
"You thought she was an informant," said Poulsenn.
"That's what Detective Schwinn said."
"Then why the whispering?" said Broussard. "You're Detective Schwinn's alleged partner. Why would he keep secrets from you?"
Because he knew this would happen, asshole. Milo shrugged. "Maybe there was nothing to tell."
"Nothing to tell?"
"Not every snitch has something to offer," said Milo.
Broussard waved that off. "How long were Schwinn and Tonya Stumpf in the backseat of the car as you drove?"
"Not long- maybe a few minutes."
Knowing the car had probably been observed, Milo kept it close to the truth. "Ten, maybe fifteen minutes."
"After which Tonya Stumpf was dropped off."
"Eighth Street near Witmer."
"After she left the unmarked, where did she go?"
He named the Ranch Depot Steak House, but didn't mention Schwinn's funding of Tonya's dinner.
"Did money exchange hands?" said Poulsenn.
Not knowing how much they'd seen, he chanced a lie. "No."
"During the entire time," Broussard finally said, "you were driving."
"When Detective Schwinn asked you to stop to pick up Tonya Stumpf, you weren't at all concerned about being an accessory to prostitution?"
"I never saw any evidence of prosti-"
Broussard's hand slashed air. "Did Tonya Stumpf's mouth make contact with Detective Schwinn's penis?"
"Not that I-"
"If you were driving, never looked back, as you claim, how can you be so sure?"
"You asked me if I saw something. I didn't."
"I asked you if oral-genital contact occurred."
"Not that I saw."
"So Tonya Stumpf's mouth might have made contact with Detective Schwinn's penis without your seeing it?"
"All I can say is what I saw."
"Did Detective Schwinn's penis make contact with Tonya Stumpf's vagina or Tonya Stumpf's anus?"
"I never saw that." Was the bastard emphasizing anus because…?
"Did Tonya Stumpf engage in physical intimacy of any sort with Detective Schwinn?"
"I never saw that," Milo repeated, wondering if they'd used some sort of night scope, had everything on film and he was burnt toast-
"Mouth on penis," said Poulsenn. "Yes or no?"
"Penis on or in vagina."
"Penis on or in anus."
Same emphasis. Definitely not coincidence. "No," said Milo, "and I think I'd better talk to a Protective League representative."
"Do you?" said Broussard.
"Yes, this is obviously-"
"You could do that, Detective Sturgis. If you think you really need representation. But why would you think that?"
Milo didn't answer.
"Do you have something to worry about, Detective?" said Broussard.
"I didn't until you guys hauled me in-"
"We didn't haul you, we invited you."
"Oh," said Milo. "My mistake."
Broussard touched the tape recorder, as if threatening to switch it on again. Leaned in so close Milo could count the stitches on his lapel. No pores. Not a single damn pore, the bastard was carved of ebony. "Detective Sturgis, you're not implying coercion, are you?"
"Tell us about your relationship with Detective Schwinn."
Milo said, "We're partners, not buddies. Our time together is spent on work. We've cleared seven homicides in three months- one hundred percent of our calls. Recently, we picked up an eighth one, a serious whodunit that's gonna require-"
"Detective," said Broussard. Louder. Cutting off that avenue of conversation. "Have you ever witnessed Detective Schwinn receiving money from anyone during work hours?"
No desire to talk about Janie Ingalls.
Caught up in his headhunter ritual, one that wouldn't- couldn't be stopped- until it played itself out. Or something else: an active disinterest in Janie Ingalls?
Milo said, "No."
"Not with Tonya Stumpf?"
"Or anyone else?" barked Broussard.
"No," said Milo. "Never, not once."
Broussard lowered his face and stared into Milo's eyes. Milo felt his breath, warm, steady, minty- now suddenly sour, as if bile had surged up his gullet. So the guy had body processes after all.
"Not once," he repeated.
They let him go as abruptly as they'd hauled him in, no parting words, both IA men turning their backs on him. He left the station directly, didn't go upstairs to his desk or bother to check his messages.
The next morning a departmental notice appeared in his home mailbox. Plain white envelope, no postmark, hand-delivered.
Immediate transfer to the West L.A. station, some gobbledygook about manpower allocation. A typed addendum said he'd already been assigned a locker there and listed the number. The contents of his desk and his personal effects had been moved from Central.
His outstanding cases had been transferred to other detectives.
He phoned Central, tried to find out who'd caught Janie Ingalls's murder, got a lot of runaround, finally learned that the case had left the station and gone to Metro Homicide- Parker Center's high-profile boys.
Metro loved publicity, and Milo figured finally Janie would hit the news.
But she didn't.
He phoned Metro, left half a dozen messages, wanting to give them the information he hadn't had time to chart in the Ingalls murder book. The Cossack party, Melinda Waters's disappearance, Dr. Schwartzman's suspicions about Caroline Cossack.
No one returned his calls.
At West L.A., his new lieutenant was piggish and hostile, and Milo's assignment to a partner was delayed- more department gibberish. A huge pile of stale 187s and a few new ones- idiot cases, luckily- landed on his desk. He rode alone, walked through the job like a robot, disoriented by his new surroundings. West L.A. had the lowest crime stats in the city, and he found himself missing the rhythm of the bloody streets.
He made no effort to make friends, avoided socializing after hours. Not that invitations came his way. The Westside's D's were even colder than his Central colleagues, and he wondered how much of it could be blamed on his pairing with Schwinn, maybe picking up a snitch jacket. Or had the rumors followed him here, too?
Fag cop. Fag snitch cop? A few weeks in, a cop named Wes Baker tried to be social- telling Milo he'd heard Milo had a master's, it was about time someone with brains went into police work. Baker figured himself for an intellectual, played chess, lived in an apartment full of books and used big words when small ones would've sufficed. Milo saw him as a pretentious jerk, but allowed Baker to rope him in on double dates with his girlfriend and her stewardess pals. Then one night Baker drove by and spotted him standing on a West Hollywood street corner, waiting for the light to change. The only men out walking were seeking other men, and Baker's silent stare told Milo plenty.
Shortly after, someone broke into Milo's locker and left a stash of sadomasochistic gay porn.
A week after that, Delano Hardy- the station's only black D- was assigned to be his partner. The first few weeks of their rides were tight-lipped, worse than with Schwinn, almost unbearably tense. Del was a religious Baptist who'd run afoul of the brass by criticizing the department's racial policies, but he had no use for sexual nonconformity. News of the porn stash had gotten round; ice-eyes seemed to follow Milo around.
Then things eased. Del turned out to be psychologically flexible- a meticulous, straight-arrow with good instincts and an obsession with doing the job. The two of them began working as a team, solved case after case, forged a bond based on success and the avoidance of certain topics. Within six months, they were in the groove, putting away bad guys with no sweat. Neither of them invited to station house barbecues, bar crawls. Cop-groupie gang bangs.
When the work day was over, Del returned to a Leimert Park tract home and his upright, uptight wife who still didn't know about Milo, and Milo skulked back to his lonely-guy pad. But for the Ingalls case, he had a near-perfect solve rate.
But for the Ingalls case…
He never saw Pierce Schwinn again, heard a rumor the guy had taken early retirement. A few months later he called Parker Center Personnel, lied, managed to learn that Schwinn had left with no record of disciplinary action.
So maybe it had nothing to do with Schwinn, after all, and everything to do with Janie Ingalls. Emboldened, he phoned Metro again, fishing for news on the case. Again, no callback. He tried Records, just in case someone had closed it, was informed they had no listing of the case as solved, no sighting of Melinda Waters.
One hot July morning, he woke up dreaming about Janie's corpse, drove over to Hollywood, and cruised by Bowie Ingalls's flop on Edgemont. The pink building was gone, razed to the dirt, the soil chewed out for a subterranean parking lot, the beginnings of framework set in place. The skeleton of a much larger apartment building.
He drove to Gower and headed a mile north. Eileen Waters's shabby little house was still standing but Waters was gone and two slender, effeminate young men- antiques dealers- were living there. Within moments, both were flirting outrageously with Milo, and that scared him. He'd put on all the cop macho, and still they could tell…
The pretty-boys were renting, the house had been vacant when they'd moved in, neither had any idea where the previous tenant had gone.
"I'll tell you one thing," said one of the lads. "She was a smoker. The place reeked."
"Disgusting," agreed his roomie. "We cleaned up everything, went neo-Biedermeir. You wouldn't recognize it." Grinning conspiratorially. "So tell us. What did she do?"
Milo finished the story and walked into my kitchen.
The beeline to the fridge, finally.
I watched him open the freezer compartment where the bottle of Stolichnaya sat. The vodka had been a gift from him to Robin and me, though I rarely touched anything other than Scotch or beer and Robin drank wine.
I watched him fill half a glass, splash in some grapefruit juice for color. He drained the glass, poured a refill, returned to the dining room table.
"That's it," he said.
I said, "A black detective named Broussard. As in…"
Tossing back the second vodka, he returned to the kitchen, fixed a third glass, more booze, no juice. I thought of saying something- sometimes he wants me to play that role. Remembered how much Chivas I'd downed since Robin's departure and held my tongue.
This time when he returned, he sat down heavily, wrapped thick hands around the glass, and swirled, creating a tiny vodka whirlpool.
"John G. Broussard," I said.
"The way he and the other guy leaned on you. Sounds Kafkaesque."
He smiled. "Today I woke up as a cockroach? Yeah, good old John G. had a knack for that kind of thing from way back. Served the lad well, hasn't it?"
John Gerald Broussard had been L.A.'s chief of police for a little over two years. Handpicked by the outgoing mayor, in what many claimed was an obvious pander aimed at neutralizing critics of LAPD's racial problems, Broussard had a military bearing and a staggeringly imperi-ous personality. The City Council distrusted him, and most of his own officers- even black cops- despised him because of his headhunter background. Broussard's open disdain for anyone who questioned his decisions, his apparent disinterest in the details of street policing, and his obsession with interdepartmental discipline helped complete the picture. Broussard seemed to revel in his lack of popularity. At his swearing-in ceremony, decked out as usual in full dress uniform and a chestful of ribbon candy, the new chief laid out his number one priority: zero tolerance for any infractions by police officers. The following day, Broussard dissolved a beloved system of community-police liaison outposts in high-crime neighborhoods, claiming they did nothing to reduce felonies and that excessive fraternization with citizens "deprofessionalized" the department.
"Spotless John Broussard," I said. "And maybe he helped bury the Ingalls case. Any idea why?"
He didn't answer, drank some more, glanced again at the murder book.
"Looks like it was really sent to you," I said.
Still no reply. I let a few more moments pass. "Did anything ever develop on Ingalls?"
He shook his head.
"Melinda Waters never showed up?"
"I wouldn't know if she did," he said. "Once I got to West L.A., I didn't pursue it. For all I know, she got married, had kids, is living in a nice little house with a big-screen TV."
Talking too fast, too loud. I knew confession when I heard it.
He ran a finger under his collar. His forehead was shiny, and the stress cracks around his mouth and eyes had deepened.
He finished the third vodka, stood, and aimed his bulk back at the kitchen.
"Thirsty," I said.
He froze, wheeled. Glared. "Look who's talking. Your eyes. You gonna tell me you've been dry?"
"This morning I have been," I said.
"Congratulations. Where's Robin?" he demanded. "What the hell's going on with you two?"
"Well," I said, "my mail's been interesting."
"Yeah, yeah. Where is she, Alex?"
Words filled my head but logjammed somewhere in my throat. My breath got short. We stared at each other.
He laughed first. "Show you mine if you show me yours?"
I told him the basics.
"So it was an opportunity for her," he said. "She'll get it out of her system, and come back."
"Maybe," I said.
"It happened before, Alex."
Thanks for the memory, pal. I said, "This time I can't help thinking it's more. She kept the offer from me for two weeks."
"You were busy," he said.
"I don't think that's it. The way she looked at me in Paris. The way she left. The fault line might have shifted too much."
"C'mon," he said, "how about some optimism? You're always preaching to me about that."
"I don't preach. I suggest."
"Then I suggest you shave and scrape the crud from your eyes and get into clean clothes, stop ignoring her calls, and try to work things out, for God's sake. You guys are like…"
"I was gonna say an old married couple."
"But we're not," I said. "Married. All these years together and neither of us took the initiative to make it legal. What does that say?"
"You didn't need the paperwork. Believe me, I know all about that."
He and Rick had been together even longer than Robin and I.
"Would you if you could?" I said.
"Probably," he said. "Maybe. What's the big issue between you guys, anyway?"
"It's complicated," I said. "And I haven't been avoiding her. We just keep missing each other."
"She's on the road, Milo."
"Try harder, anyway, goddammit."
"What's with you?" I said.
"Acute disillusionment. On top of all the chronic disillusionment the job deals me." He clapped a hand on my shoulder. "I need some things in my life to be constant, pal. As in you guys. I want Robin and you to be okay for my peace of mind, okay? Is that too much to ask? Yeah, yeah, it's self-centered, but tough shit."
What can you say to that?
I sat there, and he swiped at his brow. More sweat leaked through. He looked thoroughly miserable. Crazily enough, I felt guilty.
"We'll work it out," I heard myself saying. "Now tell me why you looked like death when you saw Janie Ingalls's photo?"
"Low blood sugar," he said. "No time for breakfast."
"Ah," I said. "Hence the vodka."
He shrugged. "I thought it was out of my head, but maybe I figure I should've pursued it."
"Maybe 'NS' means someone else thinks you should pursue it now. Do any of the other photos in the book mean anything to you?"
I looked at the gloves he'd discarded. "Going to run prints?"
"Maybe," he said. Then he grimaced.
"Ghost of failures past."
He poured a fourth glass, mostly juice, maybe an ounce of vodka.
I said, "Any guesses who sent it?"
"Sounds like you've got one."
"Your ex-partner, Schwinn. He had a fondness for photography. And access to old police files."
"Why the hell would he be contacting me, now? He couldn't stand me. Didn't give a damn about the Ingalls case or any other."
"Maybe time has mellowed him. He worked Homicide for twenty years before you came on. Meaning he'd have been on the job during much of the period covered by the photos. The ones that preceded his watch, he swiped. He bent the rules, so lifting a few crime-scene photos wouldn't have been much of an ethical stretch. The book could be part of a collection he assembled over the years. He called it the murder book and bound it in blue, to be cute."
"But why send it to me via you? Why now? What's his damn point?"
"Is Janie's picture one Schwinn could've snapped himself?"
Peeling on a new pair of gloves, he flipped back to the death shot.
"Nah, this is professionally developed, better quality than what he'd have gotten with that Instamatic."
"Maybe he had the film reprocessed. Or if he's still a photography bug, he's got himself a home darkroom."
"Schwinn," he said. "Screw all this hypothesizing, Alex. The guy didn't trust me when we worked together. Why would he be contacting me?"
"What if he learned something twenty years ago that he's finally ready to share? Such as the source that directed him to Bowie Ingalls and the party. Maybe he feels guilty about holding back, has the urge to come clean. By now, he'd be close to seventy, could be sick or dying. Or just introspective- age can do that. He knows he's in no position to do anything about the case but figures you might be."
He thought about that. Degloved again, stood, stared at the fridge but didn't move. "We can spin theories all day, but the book could've been sent by anyone."
"Could it?" I said. "Janie's murder never hit the news, so it had to be someone with inside information. And Schwinn's belief in science becoming a major investigative tool might play into it. That day has arrived, right? DNA testing, all that other good stuff. If semen and blood samples were saved-"
"I don't even know if there was any semen in her, Alex. Schwinn figured it for a sex thing, but neither of us ever saw the autopsy results. Once they closed us down, I never saw a scrap of official paper." A big fist slammed the table, and the murder book jumped. "This is total bullshit."
I kept my mouth shut.
He began pacing the dining room. "Bastard- I have a good mind to go face-to-face with him. If it was him- so why was it sent to you?"
"Covering tracks," I said. "Schwinn knew we worked together- another indication of an interest in police affairs."
"Or just someone who reads the paper, Alex. Our names were paired on the Teague case."
"And you came out of that one smelling sweet, big solve. Schwinn may not have liked you or respected or trusted you, but maybe he's followed your career and changed his mind."
"Give me a break." He picked up his glass. A thread of vodka had settled on the bottom, an icy ribbon of alcohol. "All this hypothesizing, my head feels like it's gonna split open. Sometimes I wonder what exactly it is that forms the basis for our friendship."
"That's easy," I said. "Common pathology."
"Mutual inability to let go. Schwinn- or whoever sent the murder book knows it."
"Yeah, well screw him. I'm not biting."
"Ah," I said.
"I hate when you do that," he said.
"Say 'Ah.' Like a fucking dentist."
His arm drew back and a big-fisted hand shot toward my jaw. He tapped gently, mouthed, "Pow."
I hooked a thumb at the blue album. "So what do you want me to do, toss it?"
"Don't do anything." He got to his feet. "I'm feeling a little… gonna take a nap. The spare bedroom fixed up?"
"As always. Pleasant dreams."
"Thank you, Norman Bates." He stomped toward the rear of the house, was gone for maybe ten minutes before returning tieless, shirt untucked. Looking as if he'd crammed a night's worth of nightmares into six hundred seconds.
"What I'm gonna do," he said. "-all I'm gonna do, is make a basic attempt to find Schwinn. As in make a call. If I find him and it turns out he did send the book, he and I will have a little chat, believe me. If it wasn't him, we forget the whole thing."
"Sounds like a plan."
"What? You don't like it?"
"It's fine with me," I said.
"Good. 'Cause that's it."
Regloving, he picked up the murder book, headed for the front door, said, "Sayonara. It's almost been fun." As he stepped outside, he said: "Be there for Robin's call. Deal with it, Alex."
"I don't like when you get agreeable."
"Then screw you."
He grinned. "Ah."
I sat there a long time, feeling low. Wondering if Robin would call from Eugene. Figuring if she didn't within a couple of hours, I'd go somewhere, anywhere.
I fell asleep at the dining room table. The phone woke me two hours later.
"I finally got you," she said. "I've tried so many times."
"Been out. Sorry."
"Out of town?"
"Just errands. How's it going?"
"Fine. Great- the tour. We've been getting excellent publicity. Sellout crowds."
"Green, pretty. Mostly I've seen soundstages."
"He's good… adapting… I miss you."
"Miss you, too."
"What's- are you okay?"
"Sure… so tell me, are sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll what they're cracked up to be?"
"It's not like that," she said.
"Which part? The sex or the drugs?"
Silence. "I'm working really hard," she said. "Everyone is. The logistics are incredible, putting everything together."
"I'd hope so," I said.
Longer silence. "I feel," she said, "that you're very far away from me. And please don't be literal."
"As opposed to metaphorical?"
"I'm not, I love you."
"I really do miss you, Alex."
"Nothing's stopping you from coming home anytime," I said.
"It's not that simple."
"Why not?" I said. "What, it's turned into a heavy metal tour, shackles and chains?"
"Please don't be like this, Alex."
"Sarcastic- veiled. I know you're mad at me, and that's probably the real reason you didn't call me back right away, but-"
"You leave, and I'm the bad guy?" I said. "Yes, the real reason we missed each other was I was in no shape to talk to anyone. Not anger, I just got… hollow. After that I did try to call but like you said, you're busy. I'm not angry, I'm… do what you need to do."
"Do you want me to quit?"
"No, you'd never forgive me for that."
"I want to stay."
"I'll try to be Mr. Cheerful," I said.
"No, I don't want that."
"Probably couldn't pull it off anyway. Never been much of a performer- guess I wouldn't fit in with your new buddies."
"Alex, please… oh, damn- Hold on! They're calling me, some sort of crisis- dammit, I don't want to sign off like this-"
"Do what you need to do," I said.
"I'll call you later- I love you, Alex."
Good work, Delaware. For this we sent you to therapist school?
I shut my eyes, struggled to empty my head, then filled it with mental snapshots.
Finally, I found the image I wanted and wedged it behind my eyes.
Janie Ingalls's brutalized body.
A dead girl, granting me momentary grace, as I lost myself in her imagined agony.
One thing about sensory deprivation: It does tend to freshen up your perceptions. And a plan- any plan- opens the door to self-importance.
When I left the house, the sun kissed me like a lover, and the trees were greener under a benevolent sun that reminded me why people kept moving to California. I collected the day's mail- junk junk junk- then walked around to the rear garden and stopped at the pond. The koi were a sinuous brocade, hyperactive, clamoring at the rock border, brought to the surface by my footsteps.
Ten very hungry fish. I made them happy. Then I drove to school.
I used my crosstown med school faculty card to get a parking spot on the U.'s north campus, walked to the Research Library, sat myself down in front of a computer, began with the in-house data banks, then logged onto the Internet and made my way through half a dozen search engines.
Janie or Jane Ingalls pulled up the Ingalls-Dudenhoffer family tree website from Hannibal, Missouri. Great-great-great-grandmother Jane Martha Ingalls would be 237 years old next week.
Bowie Ingalls connected me to a David Bowie fan club in Manchester, England, and to a University of Oklahoma history professor's site on Jim Bowie.
Several Melinda Waters hits popped up but none seemed remotely relevant: A physicist by that name worked at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, nineteen-year-old Melinda Sue Waters was hawking nude pictures of herself from a small town in Arkansas, and Melinda Waters, Attorney-at-Law ("Specializing in Bankruptcy and Evictions!") advertised her services on a legal bulletin board out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
No crime stories or death notices on either girl. Perhaps Janie's friend had indeed surfaced, as Milo had suggested, and slipped back into society unnoticed.
I tried her mother's name- Eileen- with no success.
Next search: Tonya Marie Stumpf. Nothing on Pierce Schwinn's backseat playmate. No surprise there, I hadn't expected an aging hooker to have her own website.
No data on Pierce Schwinn, either. His surname pulled up several Schwinn bicycle items and one news piece that caught my eye because it was relatively local: a Ventura weekly's account of a horse show last year. One of the winners was a woman named Marge Schwinn, who raised Arabians in a place called Oak View. I looked up the town. Seventy miles north of L.A., near Ojai. Exactly the kind of semirural escape that might attract an ex-cop. I wrote down her name.
Logging the activities of the Cossack family kept me busy for a long time, as I caught dozens of articles in the L.A. Times and the Daily News that stretched back to the sixties.
The boys' father, Garvey Cossack, Senior, had received intermittent coverage for tearing down buildings and putting up shopping centers, working the zoning board for variances, mixing with politicians at fund-raisers. Cossack Development had contributed to the United Way and to all the right diseases, but I found no records of donations to the Police Benevolent Society or any links to John G. Broussard or the LAPD.
A twenty-five-year-old social-page picture showed Cossack Senior to be a short, bald, rotund man, with huge black-framed eyeglasses, a tiny dyspeptic mouth, and a fondness for oversize pocket squares. His wife, Ilse, was taller than he by half a head, with dishwater hair worn too long for her middle-aged face, hollow cheeks, tense hands, and barbiturate eyes. Other than chairmanship of a Wilshire Country Club charity debutante ball, she'd stayed out of the limelight. I checked the list of young women presented at the ball. No mention of Caroline Cossack, the girl who never changed her clothes and might've poisoned a dog.
Garvey Jr. and Bob Cossack began making the papers by their midtwenties- just a few years after the Ingalls murder. Senior had keeled over on the seventh hole of the Wilshire Country Club golf course, and the reins of Cossack Development passed to the sons. They'd diversified almost immediately, continuing ongoing construction projects but also bankrolling a slew of independent foreign films, none of which made money.
Calendar shots showed the Cossack brothers attending premieres, sunning in Cannes, venturing to Park City for the Sundance Festival, eating hip-for-a-nanosecond cuisine, hanging out with starlets and fashion photographers, addicted heirs, people famous for being famous, the usual assortment of Hollywood leeches.
Garvey Cossack Jr. seemed to love the camera- his face was always closest to the lens. But if he thought himself photogenic, that was more than a bit of delusion. The visage he flaunted was squat, porcine, topped by thinning, curly, light brown hair and anchored by a squishy dinner roll of a neck that propped up the sphere of cranium like an adipose brace. Younger brother Bob ("Bobo" because as a kid he'd loved the wrestler Bobo Brazil) was also coarse-featured, but thinner than his brother, with long, dark hair combed straight back from a low, square brow and a Frank Zappa mustache that diminished his chin. Both brothers favored the black suit-and-T-shirt combo, but it came across as costumery. Nothing fit Garvey right, and Bobo looked as if he'd shoplifted his threads. These countenances were meant for the back room, not the klieg lights.
The Cossack brothers' big-screen adventures appeared to last for three years, then they shifted gears and began making noises about bringing a football team to the Coliseum. Resurrecting one of their father's unfulfilled dreams. Assembling a "consortium" of financial types, the brothers submitted a proposal to the city council that ended up being denounced by the more populist members as a scheme to lock in taxpayer financing of their for-profit plan.
The sports venture fizzled as had the movie game, and for a couple years, the Cossacks were out of print. Then Garvey Cossack resurfaced with plans for a federally funded community redevelopment project in the San Fernando Valley, and Bobo garnered attention for attempting to demolish a Hollywood bowling alley that the locals wanted preserved as a landmark in order to put up a giant strip mall.
Their mother's obituary was dated three years ago. Ilse Cossack had died "…after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease… private services, in lieu of flowers, donations to…"
Still no mention of Sister Caroline.
I began scanning the Web and the periodicals files for accounts of sexual homicides taking place within five years of Janie Ingalls's murder, found nothing dramatically similar. Interesting, because sexual sadists don't quit voluntarily, so maybe Janie's murderer was dead or imprisoned. If so, would Milo ever get the answers he wanted?
I went downstairs to the Public Affairs Room, got my hands on every back issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Journal I could find, along with stacks of forensic magazines and crime periodicals. Because the savagery of what had been done to Janie was notable and perhaps the wound pattern- scalping in particular- had repeated itself.
But if it had, I couldn't find the evidence. The FBI magazine had veered away from VICAP alerts and detailed crime studies to bland cop-speak articles geared for public relations, and the only case report involving removal of cranial skin cropped up in a wire service piece on crime in Brazil: A German-born doctor, son of a Nazi immigrant, had murdered several prostitutes and kept their scalps as trophies. The man was in his late twenties- a toddler at the time of the Ingalls case. Everyone starts off as a cute little baby.
Maybe Janie's murderer had continued to pursue his grisly interests without leaving any bodies behind.
But that didn't make sense. He'd flaunted Janie's corpse twenty years ago and was likely to get more, not less, brazen.
When I got home, my message machine registered zero calls. I phoned Milo's house and Rick Silverman answered, sounding sleepy. He's an ER surgeon. No matter when I call, I seem to be waking him up.
"Alex. How's it going?" He sounded casual. So Milo hadn't told him about Robin.
"Fine, and with you?"
"I'm working, they're paying me, I'm not complaining."
"You're the only doctor who isn't."
He laughed. "Actually, I'm bitching plenty, but too much of that, and you get bored with yourself. I keep telling myself it's a good thing I'm salaried, don't have to deal with the HMOs directly. Maybe one day Milo'll pay all the bills."
"That'll be the year he heads to Paris for the big couture shows."
He laughed again but I was thinking: Paris? Where did that come from, Professor Freud?
"So you're busy," I said.
"Just came off an eighteen-hour fun-fest. Multicar collision. Daddy and Mommy having a spat in front, two kids in the back, three and five, no car seats, no belts. Daddy and Mommy survived. She may even walk again- enough of this or I'll have to pay you. The big guy's not in. Breezed by for dinner, then left."
"He say where he was going?"
"Nope. We had Chinese takeout and I nearly fell asleep in my moo goo. When I woke, he'd tucked me in and left a note saying he might be busy for a while. He did seem a little edgy. Is there something I should know about? You two into something new?"
"No," I said. "Everything's old."
I tried reading, watching TV, listening to music, meditating- what a joke that was, all I could focus on was bad stuff. By 10 P.M. I was ready to claw the plaster from the walls and wondering when Robin would call again.
At this hour, the Eugene concert would be in full force and she'd be backstage, wonderfully harried. Needed. All those guitar-strumming, save-the-world sonofabitch-
My "hello" was breathless.
"What, you in the middle of working out?" said Milo.
"I'm in the middle of nothing. What's up?"
"I can't locate Schwinn, but I might've found his old lady."
"First name Marge? Mecca Ranch in Oak View?" I said.
His exhalation was a protracted hiss. "Well, well, well, someone's been a busy worker bee."
"More like a drone. How'd you find her?"
"Exemplary detective work," he said. "I got hold of Schwinn's retirement file- a naughty thing, so this stays between you and me."
"His pension checks went to the ranch?"
"For the first fifteen years after he left, they went to an address in Simi Valley. Then he switched to a post-office box in Oxnard for two years, then the ranch. He's not listed in any DMV files, but the address cross-referenced to Marge Schwinn. I just called her, got a machine, left a message."
"No DMV listing for him," I said. "Think he's dead?"
"Or he doesn't drive anymore."
"An ex-cop who doesn't drive?"
"Yeah," he said. "True."
"Suburban life in Simi followed by a two-year POB interlude before the ranch. That could be divorce, intervening lonely bachelorhood, remarriage."
"Or widowhood. His first wife was named Dorothy and she stopped being a beneficiary when he moved to Oxnard. Two years later, Marge came on." He paused. "Dorothy… I think he mentioned her name. It's getting hard to tell what I remember and what's wishful thinking. Anyway, that's it, for now."
I recounted my time in the library, what I'd learned about the Cossacks.
"Rich kids stay rich," he said. "Big surprise. I also looked for Melinda Waters. She's on no state files, and neither is her mother, Eileen. That may not mean much if she got married and/or Mom got remarried and they both changed their names. I wish I knew the name of Melinda's Navy dad, but I never learned it. The guy had shipped out to Turkey, good luck tracing that. I did locate Bowie Ingalls, and he's definitely dead. Nineteen years dead."
"A year after Janie," I said. "What happened?"
"Single-motorist vehicular accident up in the hills. Ingalls plowed into a tree and went through the windshield. Blood alcohol four times the legal limit, dozen Bud empties in the car."
"Up in the hills where?"
"Bel Air. Near the reservoir. Why?"
"Not that far from the party house."
"So maybe he was reminiscing," he said. "The facts still say drunk driver. The whole Cossack angle was pure supposition. For all I know, Janie and Melinda went to a whole other party. Or Schwinn was right and there was no Westside link at all, they got picked up by a psychopath and slaughtered nearer to the dump site. I'm tired, Alex. Gonna head home."
"What's the plan with Marge Schwinn?"
"She's got my message."
"And if she doesn't return it?"
"I'll try again."
"If Schwinn is dead, maybe Marge sent the murder book," I said. "She could've come across it in his effects, along with a reference to you and me-"
"Anything's possible, my friend."
"If you do reach her, mind if I tag along?"
"Who says I'm visiting her?"
I didn't answer. He said, "What, you've got nothing better to do?"
"Not a thing."
"Robin called," I said. "We talked."
"Good," he said, putting a question mark on the end of it.
I swerved back into safe territory: "By the way, did you have time to run the prints on the murder book?"
"Just one set that I can see."
"Well," he said, "I'm no ace powder man, but I have printed you, and those whorls look familiar."
"So whoever sent it wiped it clean," I said. "Interesting. Either way."
He knew exactly what I meant: a careful cop, or a fastidious, taunting killer.
"Whatever," he said. "Nighty-night."
"Have some sweet dreams, yourself."
"Oh, sure. Here come the sugarplum fairies."
I didn't expect to hear from him anytime soon, but the following morning at eleven, he showed up at my front door, wearing a navy windbreaker over a plaid shirt and baggy jeans. Below the jacket, his gun bulged his waistline, but otherwise he looked like a guy with a day off. I was still in my robe. No call, so far, from Robin.
"Ready for fresh air?" he said. "Horse manure? All of the above?"
"The second Mrs. Schwinn got back to you."
"The second Mrs. Schwinn didn't, but I figured what the hell, Ojai's pretty this time of year."
A reflexive "Ah" rose in my throat and stuck there. "I'll get dressed."
"That would be best."
He said, "The Seville's nice on long drives," and I obliged. The moment I started the engine, he threw back his head, shut his eyes, covered them with a handkerchief, let his mouth drop open. For the next hour, he dozed in the passenger seat, opening his eyes periodically to gaze out the window and appraise the world with distrust and wonder, the way kids and cops do.
I didn't feel conversational, either, and I played music for company. Some old Oscar Aleman cuts from the Buenos Aires days, Aleman wailing away on a diamond-bright, nickel-silver National guitar. The route to Oak View was north on the 405, transfer to the 101 toward Ventura, then an exit on Highway 33. Ten more miles on two lanes that sliced through pink-gray mountains but rose barely above sea level, took us toward Ojai. Ocean moisture hung in the air and the sky was cottony white above the horizon, then slate-colored strata where the sun should have been. The stifled light brought out the greens, turned the world nuclear-blast emerald.
It had been a few years since I'd been here- chasing down a psychopath bent on revenge and meeting up with an impressive man named Wilbert Harrison. I had no idea if Harrison still lived in Ojai. A psychiatrist and a philosopher, he'd taken a reflective view of life, and given the violence I'd introduced him to, I could see him moving on.
The first few miles of Highway 33 were insulted by slag fields, oil rigs, rows of metallic coils that crowned the cable-and-pylon salad of an electrical plant like so much oversize fusilli. Soon after that everything turned woodsy and Ojai-heterogenous: cute little cabins graced by meticulous stone walls and shadowed by live oaks and pines, cute little shops selling homemade candles and fragrances. Massage clinics, yoga institutes, schools that would teach you how to draw, paint, sculpt, find inner peace, if only you'd let them into your consciousness. Mixed in with all that was the other side of small-town life: rusty mobile homes be-hind barbed-wire fencing, bait-and-tackle sheds, trucks on blocks, dusty homesteads with one or two hollow-bellied horses nosing the dirt, crude placards advertising beef jerky and homemade chili, boarding stables, modest shrines to the conventional God. And everywhere the hawks, huge, relaxed, confident, circling in lazy predatory arcs.
Mecca Ranch was on the west side of 33, announced by nailed-on iron letters in a pine slab, the sign bordered by cactus and some sort of wild grass. A left turn up a barely paved road lined with scraggly birds of paradise in poor flower, took us five hundred yards into low, gentle hills that topped off at a couple of acres of gravel-colored mesa. Off to the right was a corral fashioned from iron posts and wooden crossbeams, more than big enough for the five brown horses grazing. Sleek, well-nourished steeds. They paid us no attention. Directly behind the enclosure were several unhitched horse trailers and a bunk of paddocks. Up at road's end, the birds of paradise were planted more closely together and better tended, and the orange-and-blue blossoms led the eye to a small, flat-roofed salmon-colored house with teal green wood trim. Parked in front were a ten-year-old brown Jeep Wagoneer and a Dodge pickup of the same color and vintage. A transitory shadow washed over the corral- a hawk orbiting so low I could see the surgical curve of its beak.
I turned off the engine, got out, filled my nose with the bite of pine and that curious maple syrup-and-rot tang of dried equine dung. Dead silence. I could see Pierce Schwinn thinking this would be heaven. But if he was like Milo and so many other people hooked on noise and evil, how long would that have lasted?
Milo slammed the passenger door hard, as if offering fair warning. But no one came out to greet us, and no face appeared in the house's undraped front windows.
We walked to the front door. Milo's bell-push set off fifteen seconds of chimes- some tune I couldn't identify, but it brought back memories of Missouri department store elevators.
Now, sound from the corral: one horse whinnying. Still no human response. The hawk had flown off.
I studied the animals. Well-muscled mahogany creatures, two stallions, three mares, manes glossy and combed. Over the corral arced a semicircle of iron soldered with vaguely Moorish lettering. Mecca. A triangle of blue had broken through the cottony sky. The foothills ringing the ranch were green-topped, gentle, a nurturant border. It was hard to imagine the murder book emanating from this quiet place.
Milo rang again, and a female voice called out, "One minute!" Moments later the door opened.
The woman who stood there was petite and strong-shouldered, anywhere from fifty to sixty. She wore a royal blue and yellow checked shirt tucked into tight jeans that showed off a flat tummy, tight waist, boyish hips. Creased but clean work boots peeked out from under the jeans. White hair that retained some of its blond origins was tied back in a short ponytail- a merest upward twist of free locks. Her features were strong in a way that made them attractive in later life, but as a girl she'd probably been plain. Her eyes were a mottle of green and brown, lacking too much of the former to be called hazel. She'd plucked her eyebrows into spidery commas but wore no makeup. Her skin was testament to everything the sun could to do to skin: puckered, cracked, corrugated, coarse to the point of woodiness. A few scary-looking dark patches danced under the eyes and crowned her chin. When she smiled, her teeth were the milky white pearls of a healthy virgin.
"Mrs. Schwinn?" said Milo, reaching for the badge.
Before he got it out of his pocket, the woman said, "I'm Marge, and I know who you are, Detective. I got your messages." No apology for not returning the calls. Once the smile faded, not much in the way of any emotion, and I wondered if that contributed to even-tempered horses.
"I know the cop look," she explained.
"What look is that, ma'am?"
"Fear mixed with anger. Always expecting the worst. Sometimes, Pierce and I would be riding, and there'd be a sound, a scurrying in the brush, and he'd get the look. So… you were his last partner. He talked about you." She glanced at me. The past tense hung heavy.
She bit her lip. "Pierce is dead. Died last year."
"So am I. I miss him terribly."
"He fell off a horse seven months ago. One of my tamest, Akhbar. Pierce was no cowboy, he never rode until he met me. That's why I gave him Akhbar as a regular mount, and they bonded. But something must've spooked Akhbar. I found him down near Lake Casitas, on his side, with two broken legs. Pierce was a few yards away, head split on a rock, no pulse. Akhbar had to be put down."
"I'm so sorry, ma'am."
"Yeah. I'm dealing with it okay. It's the gone-ness that hits you. One day someone's here and then…" Marge Schwinn snapped her fingers, looked Milo up and down. "Basically, you're what I expected, given the passage of time. You're not here to tell me something bad about Pierce, are you?"
"No, ma'am, why would I-"
"Call me Marge. Pierce loved being a detective, but he had bitter feelings about the department. Said they'd been out to get him for years because he was an individualist. I've got his pension coming in, don't want funny business, don't want to have to hire a lawyer. That's why I didn't call you back. I wasn't sure what you were up to."
Her expression said she still wondered.
Milo said, "It's absolutely nothing about Pierce's pension, and I'm not here as a representative of the department. Just working a case."
"A case you worked with Pierce?"
"A case I was supposed to work with Pierce, till he retired."
"Retired," said Marge. "That's one way to put it… well, that's nice. Pierce would've liked that, you seeking his opinion after all these years. He said you were smart. Come in, coffee's still warm. Tell me about your days with Pierce. Tell me good things."
The house was spare and low-ceilinged, walls alternating between rough pine paneling and sand-colored grass cloth, a series of tight, dim rooms furnished with well-worn, severe, tweedy fifties furniture for which some twenty-year-old starlet would gladly overpay at the latest La Brea junktique.
The living room opened to a rear kitchen, and we sat down opposite a blond, kidney-shaped coffee table as Marge Schwinn filled mugs with chicory-scented coffee. Western prints hung on the grass cloth, along with equestrian portraits. A corner trophy hutch was full of gold and silk. In the opposite corner was an old Magnavox console TV with Bakelite dials and a bulging, greenish screen. Atop the set was a single framed photo- a man and a woman, too far away to make out the details. The kitchen window framed a panoramic mountain view but the rest of the place was oriented toward the corral. The horses hadn't moved much.
Marge finished pouring and sat in a straight-backed chair that conformed to her perfect posture. Young body, old face. The tops of her hands were a giant freckle interrupted by spots of unblemished dermis, callused, wormed with veins.
"Pierce thought a lot of you," she told Milo.
Milo got rid of the surprised look almost immediately, but she saw it and smiled.
"Yes, I know. He told me he gave you all sorts of grief. His last years on the force were a rough time in Pierce's life, Detective Sturgis." She lowered her eyes for a moment. No more smile. "Did you know that when you rode with Pierce he was a drug addict?"
Milo blinked. Crossed his legs. "I remember that he used to take cold remedies- decongestants."
"That's right," said Marge. "But not for his sinuses, for the high. The decongestants were what he did openly. On the sly, he was fooling around with amphetamines- speed. He started doing it to stay awake on the job, to be able to get back home to Simi Valley without falling asleep at the wheel. That's where he lived with his first wife. He got hooked bad. Did you know Dorothy?"
Milo shook his head.
"Nice woman, according to Pierce. She's dead, too. Heart attack soon after Pierce retired. She was a chain smoker and very overweight. That's how Pierce first got his hands on speed- Dorothy had lots of prescriptions for diet pills, and he started borrowing. It got the better of him, the way it always does. He told me he'd turned really nasty, suspicious, had mood swings, couldn't sleep. Said he took it out on his partners, especially you. He felt bad about that, said you were a smart kid. He figured you'd go far…"
She trailed off.
Milo tugged at the zipper of his windbreaker. "Did Pierce talk much about his work, ma'am?"
"He didn't talk about specific cases, if that's what you mean. Just how rotten the department was. I think his work poisoned him as much as the speed. When I met him, he'd touched bottom. It was right after Dorothy's death, and Pierce had stopped paying rent on the Simi house- they never bought, just rented. He was living in a filthy motel in Oxnard and earning minimum wage sweeping the floors at Randall's Western Wear. That's where I first saw him. I was doing a show in Ventura, came in to Randall's to look at boots, collided with Pierce when he took out the trash. He knocked me on my rear, we both ended up laughing about it. I liked his laugh. And he made me curious. Someone that age, doing that job. Usually it's young Mexicans. Next time I came in, we talked some more. There was something about him- strong, no wasted words. I'm a gabby type, as you can see. Comes from living alone most of my life, talking to the horses. Talking to myself so as not to go nuts. This land was my grandfather's. I inherited it from my parents. I was the youngest, stayed home to take care of Mom and Dad, never strayed very far. The horses pretend they're listening to me. That's what I liked about Pierce, he was a good listener. Soon, I was making up reasons to drive down to Oxnard." She smiled. "Bought a lot of boots and jeans. And he never knocked me down again."
She reached for her coffee. "We knew each other a full year before we finally agreed to get married. We did it because we're old-fashioned, no way would either of us live together without paper. But most of what we had was friendship. He was my best friend."
Milo nodded. "When did Pierce get off speed?"
"He was already getting off when I met him. That's why he moved into that fleabag. Punishing himself. He had some savings and his pension, but was living like he was a broke bum. Because that's how he thought of himself. By the time we started going out, he was off dope completely. But he was sure it did damage to him. 'Swiss-cheese brain,' he used to call it. Said if they ever x-rayed his head, they'd find holes big enough to stick a finger through. Mostly, it was his balance and his memory- he had to write things down or they were gone. I told him that was just age, but he wasn't convinced. When he told me he wanted to learn how to ride, I worried. Here he was, not a young man, no experience, not the best balance. But Pierce managed to stay in the saddle until… The horses loved him, he had a calming influence on them. Maybe because of all he'd been through, getting himself clean. Maybe he ended up at a higher level than if he hadn't suffered. You'll probably find this hard to believe, Detective Sturgis, but during his time with me, Pierce was a blessedly serene man."
She got up, retrieved the picture atop the TV, held it out to us. Snapshot of Schwinn and her, leaning against the posts of the corral out front. I had only Milo's rawbone Oakie description to fuel my expectation of the former detective and had expected a grizzled old cop. The look. The man in the photo had long, white hair that snaked past his shoulders and a snowy beard that reached nearly to his navel. He wore a peanut-butter-colored buckskin jacket, denim shirt, blue jeans, a turquoise bracelet, one turquoise earring.
Old-time trapper or geriatric hippie, hand in hand with a sun-punished woman who barely reached his shoulder. I saw Milo's eyes widen.
"He was my Flower Power Grandpa," said Marge. "Different from when you knew him, huh?"
"A bit," said Milo.
She placed the picture in her lap. "So what kind of advice did you hope to get from him on this case of yours?"
"I was just wondering if Pierce had any general recollections."
"Something that old and now you're working it again? Who got killed?"
"A girl named Janie Ingalls. Pierce ever mention that name?"
"No," she said. "Like I said, he didn't talk about his work."
"Did Pierce leave any papers behind?"
"What kind of papers?"
"Anything to do with his work- newspaper clippings, photos, police mementos?"
"No," she said. "When he moved out of his Simi house, he got rid of everything. Didn't even own a car. When we went out, I had to pick him up."
"Back when I knew him," said Milo, "he was a photography buff. He ever get back into that?"
"Yes, he did, as a matter of fact. He enjoyed taking walks in the hills and capturing nature, bought himself a cheap little camera. When I saw how much he liked it, I bought him a Nikon for his sixty-eighth birthday. His pictures were pretty. Want to see them?"
She took us to the house's single bedroom, a tidy, pine-paneled space filled by a queen bed covered with a batik spread and flanked by two mismatched nightstands. Framed photos blanketed the walls. Hills, valleys, trees, arroyos dry and flowing, sunrises, sunsets, the kiss of winter snow. Crisp colors, good composition. But nothing higher than vegetable on the evolutionary scale, not even a bird in the sky.
"Nice," said Milo. "Did Pierce have his own darkroom?"
"We converted a half bath. Wasn't he talented?"
"He was, ma'am. When I knew Pierce, he liked to read about science."
"Did he? Well, I never saw that. Mostly he'd turned meditative. Could just sit in the living room and stare out at the view for hours. Except for the times when he got the cop look or had those dreams, he was at peace. Ninety-nine percent of the time he was at peace."
"During the one percent," I said, "did he ever say what was bothering him?"
"During the last month or so before his accident, how was his mood?"
"Fine," she said. Her face clouded. "Oh no, don't go thinking that. It was an accident. Pierce wasn't a strong rider, and he was sixty-eight years old. I shouldn't have let him ride that long by himself, even on Akhbar."
"That long?" said Milo.
"He was gone half a day. Usually, he only rode for an hour or so. He had his Nikon with him, said he wanted to catch some afternoon sun."
"He never got to. The roll inside his camera was blank. He must've fallen right at the beginning and lain there for a while. I should've gone looking sooner. The doctor assured me that kind of head wound would have taken him right away. At least he didn't suffer."
"Hit his head on a rock," said Milo.
She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
"Sorry, ma'am." Milo stepped closer to the photos on the wall. "These really are good, ma'am. Did Pierce keep any albums of his slides or proofs?"
Marge stepped around the bed to the left-hand nightstand. Atop the table were a woman's watch and an empty glass. Sliding open a drawer, she removed two albums and placed them on the bed.
A pair of blue leather books. Fine morocco, a size and style I recognized.
No labeling. Marge opened one, began turning pages. Photographs encased in stiff plastic jackets, held in place by black, adhesive corner pockets.
Green grass, gray rock, brown dirt, blue sky. Pages of Pierce Schwinn's fantasy of an inanimate world.
Milo and I made admiring noises. The second book held more of the same. He ran a finger down its spine. "Nice leather."
"I bought them for him."
"Where?" said Milo. "Love to have one for myself."
"O'Neill & Chapin, right down the road- over by the Celestial Café. They cater to artists, carry quality things. These are originally from England, but they're discontinued. I bought the last three."
"Where's the third?"
"Pierce never got to it- you know, why don't I give it to you? I have no need for it and just thinking about Pierce's unfinished business makes me want to cry. And Pierce would've liked that- your having it. He thought a lot of you."
"No, I insist," said Marge. Crossing the room and stepping into a walk-in closet, she emerged a moment later, empty-handed. "I could swear I saw it up here, but that was a while back. Maybe it's somewhere else… maybe Pierce took it over to the darkroom, let's check."
The converted bathroom was at the end of the hall, five-by-five, windowless, acrid with chemicals, a narrow, wooden file cabinet next to the sink. Marge slid open drawers, revealed boxes of photographic paper, assorted bottles, but no blue leather album. No slides or proofs, either.
I said, "Looks like Pierce mounted everything he had."
"I guess," she said. "But that third book- so expensive, it's a shame to let it go to waste… it's got to be here, somewhere. Tell you what, if it shows up, I'll send it to you. What's your address?"
Milo handed her a card.
"Homicide," she said. "That word just jumps out at you. I never thought much about Pierce's life before me. Didn't want to picture him spending so much time with the dead- no offense."
"It's not a job for everyone, ma'am."
"Pierce- he was outwardly strong, but inside, he was sensitive. Had a need for beauty."
"Looks like he found it," said Milo. "Looks like he found real happiness."
Marge's eyes moistened. "You're nice to say so. Well, it's been good meeting you. Coupla good listeners." She smiled. "Must be a cop thing."
We followed her to the front door, where Milo said, "Did Pierce ever have any visitors?"
"Not a one, Detective. The two of us hardly ever left the ranch, except to buy provisions, and that was maybe once a month for bulk shopping in Oxnard or Ventura. Once in a while we'd go into Santa Barbara for a movie or to a play at the Ojai Theater, but we never socialized. Tell the truth, we were both darned antisocial. Evenings we'd sit and look up at the sky. That was more than enough for us."
The three of us walked to the Seville. Marge looked toward the horses, and said, "Hold on, guys, groom time's coming."
Milo said, "Thanks for your time, Mrs. Schwinn."
"Mrs. Schwinn," said Marge. "Never thought I'd be Mrs. Anybody, but I do like the sound of that. I guess I can be Mrs. Schwinn forever, can't I?"
When we got in, she leaned into the passenger window. "You would've liked the Pierce I knew, Detective. He didn't judge anyone."
Touching Milo's hand briefly, she turned on her heel and hurried toward the corral.
Back on Highway 33, I said, "So now we know where the book came from."
Milo said, "Guy pierces his ear, turns into Mr. Serene."
" 'He didn't judge.' You know what she meant by that, don't you? Schwinn decided my being gay was acceptable. Gee, I feel so validated."
"When you rode together, was he homophobic?"
"Nothing overt, just general nastiness. But what man of that generation likes queers? I was always on edge with him. With everyone."
"Fun times," I said.
"Oh yeah, whoopsie-doo. I always felt he didn't trust me. Finally, he came out and said so but wouldn't explain why. Knowing what we know now, maybe it was speed-paranoia, but I don't think so."
"Think the department knew about his addiction?"
"They didn't bring it up when they interrogated me, just concentrated on his whoring."
"What I find interesting is that they eased him out with full pension rather than bring him up on charges," I said. "Maybe because going public about a doping, whoring cop might have brought other doping, whoring cops to light. Or, it had something to do with handling the Ingalls case."
Several miles passed before he spoke again. "A speed freak. Asshole was a jumpy insomniac, skinny as a razor, gulped coffee and cough syrup like a vampire chugs blood. Add paranoia and the sudden mood swings, and it's Narco 101, I shoulda seen it."
"You were concentrating on the job, not his bad habits. Anyway, turns out whatever personal feelings he had toward you, he respected your skills. That's why he had someone send you the book."
"Someone," he snarled. "He dies seven months ago, and the book arrives now. Think that someone could be good old Marge?"
"She seemed to be dealing straight with us, but who knows? She's lived alone for most of her life, could've developed some survival instincts."
"If it was her, what are we dealing with? Schwinn's last wish to wifey-poo? And that doesn't explain why you were the go-between."
"Same reason," I said. "Schwinn covering his tracks. He pierced his ear but held on to a cop's survival instinct."
"Paranoid to the end."
"Paranoia can be useful," I said. "Schwinn had built a new life for himself, finally had something to lose."
He thought about that. "Okay, put aside who sent the damn thing and shift to the big question: Why? Schwinn held something back about Janie for twenty years and started feeling guilty all of a sudden?"
"For most of those twenty years, he had other things on his mind. Bitterness toward the department, widowhood, serious addiction. Sinking to the bottom, like Marge said. He got old, kicked his habit, and bought himself a bunch of new distractions: remarriage, easing into a new life. Learning to sit still and stare at the stars. Finally had time to introspect. I had a patient once, a dutiful daughter taking care of her terminally ill mother. A week before the mother passed on, she motioned the daughter over and confessed to stabbing the woman's father with a butcher knife as he lay sleeping. My patient had been nine at the time, all these years, she and the rest of the family had been living with the myth of the bogeyman- some nocturnal slasher. Her life had been a mass of fear and now she learned the truth from an eighty-four-year-old murderer."
"What, Schwinn knew he was gonna die? The guy fell off a horse."
"All I'm saying is old age and introspection can be an interesting combination. Maybe Schwinn started reflecting about unfinished business. Decided to communicate with you about Janie, but still wanted to hedge his bets. So he used me as a conduit. If I didn't pass the book on to you, he'd have fulfilled his moral obligation. If I gave it to you and you traced it to him, he'd deal with that. But if you threatened him in any way, he could always deny."
"He puts together a whole bloody scrapbook just to remind me about Janie?"
"The book probably started out as a twisted hobby- exorcising his demons. It's no coincidence his later photos had no people in them. He'd seen people at the worst."
We rode in silence.
"He sounds like a complicated man," I said.
"He was a freak, Alex. Pilfered death shots from the evidence room and cataloged them for personal enjoyment. For all I know he got a sexual kick out of the book, then he grew old and couldn't get it up anymore and decided to share." He frowned. "I don't think Marge knew about the murder book. He wouldn'ta wanted her to think of him as a freak. That means someone else sent it to you, Alex. She made like the two of them had built this little domestic cocoon, but I think she was real wrong."
"Another woman," I said.
"Why not? Someone he visited when he wanted out from hilltop nirvana. This is a guy who tumbled with whores in the backseat while on duty. I don't have that much faith in transformation."
"If there was another woman," I said, "she might live far from Ojai. This is a small town, too hard to be discreet. That would explain the L.A. postmark."
"Bastard." He cursed under his breath. "I never liked the guy, and now he's yanking my chain from the grave. Let's say he did have some big moral epiphany about Janie. What does the book communicate? Where am I supposed to take it? Screw this, I don't have to play this game."
We didn't talk until I was back on the freeway. At Camarillo, I shifted to the fast lane, pushed the Seville to eighty. He mumbled, "Pedal to the metal… bastard starts feeling righteous, and I've got to jump like a trained flea."
"You don't have to do anything," I said.
"Damn right, I'm an Amurrican. Entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of unhappiness."
We crossed the L.A. county line by midafternoon, stopped at a coffee shop in Tarzana for burgers, got back on Ventura Boulevard, hooked a right at the newsstand at Van Nuys, continued to Valley Vista, and on to Beverly Glen. Along the way, I had Milo call my service on his cell phone. Robin hadn't called.
When we reached my house, Milo was still in no mood to talk, but I said, "Caroline Cossack sticks in my mind."
"A girl poisoning a dog is more than a prank. Her brothers are all over the papers, but she doesn't get a word of newsprint. Her mother ran a debutante ball, but Caroline wasn't listed as one of the debs. She wasn't even included in her mother's funeral. If you hadn't told me the poisoning story, I'd never know she existed. It's as if the family spit her out. Maybe for good reason."
"The neighbor- that cranky old lady doc- Schwartzman- might've been overly imaginative. She had no use for any of the Cossacks."
"But her most serious suspicions were of Caroline."
He made no move to exit the car. I said, "A girl using poison makes sense. Poisoning doesn't require physical confrontation, so a disproportionate number of poisoners are female. I don't have to tell you psychopathic killers often start with animals, but they're usually males who dig blood. For a girl that young to act out so violently would be a serious red flag. I'm wondering if Caroline's been confined all these years. Maybe because of something a lot worse than killing a dog."
"Or she died."
"Find the death certificate."
He knuckled his eyes, looked up at my house. "Poison's sneaky. What was done to Janie was blatant- the way the body was dumped in an open spot. No way did a girl do that."
"I'm not saying Caroline murdered Janie by herself, but she might've been part of it- might've served as a lure for whoever did the cutting. Plenty of killers have used young women as bait- Paul Bernardo, Charlie Manson, Gerald Gallegos, Christopher Wilding. Caroline would've been the perfect lure for Janie and Melinda- a girl their age, outwardly inoffensive. And rich. Caroline could've stood by and watched as some-one else did the wet work or participated the way the Manson girls did. Maybe it was a group thing, just like the Mansons, party scene gone bad. Females are affiliative- even female killers. Group settings lower their inhibitions."
"Sugar and spice," he said. "And the family found out, put the screws on with the department to hush up the case, locked Crazy Caroline away somewhere… the ghoul in the attic."
"Big family money can furnish a really nice attic."
He accompanied me inside, where I went through the mail and he got on the phone with County Records and Social Security. No death certificate on Caroline Cossack; nor had she received a social security number or a driver's license.
Melinda Waters had received a card at age fifteen, but she'd never driven in California or worked or contributed payroll tax. Which made sense if she'd died young. But no certificate on her, either.
"Disappeared," I said. "Melinda probably died the same night Janie did, and Caroline's either very well hidden or she expired, too, and the family hushed it up."
"Hidden as in hospitalized?"
"Or just watched carefully. Rich kid like that, she'd have a trust fund, could be living in some Mediterranean villa with twenty-four-hour supervision."
He began pacing. "Little Miss Nowhere… but at some point, when she was a kid, she had to have an identity. Be interesting to pinpoint when exactly she lost it."
"School records," I said. "Living in Bel Air would've meant Palisades or University High if the Cossacks chose public school. Beverly, if they played fast and loose with residency forms. On the private side, there'd be Harvard-Westlake- which was Westlake School for Girls, back then- or Marlborough, Buckley, John Thomas Dye, Crossroads."
He flipped open his pad, scrawled notes.
"Or," I added, "a school for troubled kids."
"Any particular place come to mind?"
"I was in practice back then, can recall three very high-priced spreads. One was in West L.A., the others were in Santa Monica and the Valley- North Hollywood."
I recited, and he got back on the phone. Santa Monica Prep was defunct, but Achievement House in Cheviot Hills and Valley Educational Academy in North Hollywood were still in business. He reached both schools but hung up frowning.
"No one'll give me the time of day. Confidentiality and all that."
"Schools don't enjoy confidentiality privileges," I said.
"You ever deal with either of the places, professionally?"
"I visited Achievement House, once," I said. "The parents of a boy I was seeing kept holding the place over the kid's head as a threat. 'If you don't shape up, we'll send you to Achievement House.' That seemed to scare him, so I dropped by to see what spooked him. Talked to a so-cial worker, got the five-minute tour. Converted apartment building near Motor and Palms. What stuck in my mind was how small it was- maybe twenty-five, thirty kids boarding in, meaning it had to cost a fortune. No snake pit that I could see. Later, I talked to my patient and turns out what he was worried about was stigmatization. Being thought of as a 'weirdo-geek-loser.' "
"Achievement House had a bad reputation?"
"In his mind, any special placement had a bad reputation."
"Did he get sent there?"
"No, he ran away, wasn't seen for years."
"Oh," he said.
I smiled. "Don't you mean 'Ah'?"
He laughed. Got himself grapefruit juice, opened the freezer and stared at the vodka bottle but changed his mind. "Ran away. Your version of loose ends."
"Loose ends were a big part of my life, back then," I said. "The price of an interesting job. As it turns out, this particular kid made it okay."
"He stayed in touch?"
"He called after his second child was born. Ostensibly to ask about how to handle sibling jealousy. He ended up apologizing for being a surly teen. I told him he had nothing to be sorry about. Because I'd finally learned the whole story from his mother. His older brother had been molesting him since he was five."
His face got hard. "Family values." He paced some more, finished his juice, washed the glass, got back on the phone. Contacting Palisades and University and Beverly Hills High Schools, then the private institutions. Putting on the charm, claiming to be conducting an alumnus search for Who's Who.
No one had Caroline Cossack on their files. "Little Miss Nowhere." He'd talked about washing his hands of the Ingalls case, but his face was flushed, and hunter's tension bunched his shoulders.
"I didn't tell you," he said, "but yesterday I went over to Parker Center and searched for Janie's case file. Disappeared. Nothing at the Metro office or in evidence or the coroner's, not even a cold-case classification or a notice that the file had been moved somewhere else. There is absolutely no paper anywhere that says the case was ever opened in the first place. I know it was because I opened it. Schwinn used to shove all the paperwork at me. I filled out the right forms, transcribed my street notes, created the murder book."
"No coroner's records, so much for science," I said. "When's the last time you saw the file?"
"The morning before my interrogation by Broussard and that Swede. After they worked me over, I was so shaken up I didn't return to my desk, just split the station. The next day, the transfer notice was in my box, and my desk had been cleared."
He tilted back in his chair, stretched his legs, seemed suddenly relaxed. "You know, my friend, I've been working too damn hard. Maybe that's what I can learn from old Mr. Serene. Stop and sniff the manure."
A smile, abrupt and broad, did something unsettling to his mouth. He rotated his head for several turns, as if working kinks out of his neck. Brushed black strands of hair out of his face. Sprang to his feet.
"See you. Thanks for your time."
"Where are you headed?" I said.
"Into a life of meditative leisure. Got lots of vacation time stored up. Seems a good time to cash in."
Leisure was the last thing I needed. The moment the door closed, I reached for the phone.
Larry Daschoff and I have known each other since grad school. After our internships, I took a professorship at the med school crosstown and worked the cancer wards at Western Pediatric Medical Center, and he went straight into private practice. I stayed single and he married his high school sweetheart, sired six kids, made a good living, converted his square-meal-in-a-round-can defensive-guard physique to middle-aged fat, watched his wife go back to law school, took up golf. Now, he was a young grandfather, living on investment income, wintering in Palm Desert.
I reached him at his condo, there. It had been some time since we'd spoken, and I asked him about the wife and kids.
"Especially the Ultimate Grandchild."
"Well, as long as you asked, yes Samuel Jason Daschoff is clearly the messenger of the Second Coming- another Jewish savior. Little guy just turned two and has evolved from sweetness and light to age-appropriate obnoxiousness. Let me tell you, Alex, there's no revenge sweeter than watching your own kids contend with the crap they shoveled at you."
"I'll bet," I said, wondering if I'd ever know.
"So," said Larry, "how've you been doing?"
"Keeping busy. I'm actually calling you about a case."
"I figured as much."
"You were always task-oriented, Alex."
"You're saying I can't be purely sociable?"
"Like I can be purely skinny. What kind of case, therapy or the bad stuff you do with the constabulary?"
"The bad stuff."
"Still subjecting yourself to that."
"I guess I can understand the motivation," he said. "It's a helluva lot more exciting than breathing in angst all day, and you were never one to sit still. So how can I help you?"
I described Caroline Cossack, without mentioning names. Asked him to guess where a teen that troubled might've been schooled twenty years back.
"Dosing Rover with cyanide?" he said. "Impolite. How come she didn't end up in trouble?"
"Maybe family connections," I said, as I realized incarceration would be an excellent reason not to have a social security card, and neither Milo nor I had thought of checking prison records. Both of us thrown off kilter.
"A rich, not-nice kid," said Larry. "Well, back then there was no real place for a run-of-the-mill dangerous delinquent other than the state hospital system- Camarillo. But I suppose a rich family could've placed her somewhere cushy."
"I was thinking Achievement House or Valley Educational, or their out-of-state counterparts."
"Definitely not Valley Educational, Alex. I consulted there, and they stayed away from delinquents, concentrated on learning probs. Even back then they were getting fifteen-grand tuition, had a two-year waiting list, so they could afford to be picky. Unless the family covered up the extent of the girl's pathology, but that kind of violent tendency would be hard to suppress for very long. As far as Achievement House, I never had any direct experience with them, but I know someone who did. Right around that time period, too, now that I think about it- nineteen, twenty years ago. Not a pretty situation."
"For the students?"
"For the someone I know. Remember when I used to do mentoring for the department- undergrads considering psych as a career? One of my mentorees was a freshman girl, precocious, barely seventeen. She got herself a volunteer placement at Achievement House."
"What problems did she have there?"
"The director got… overtly Freudian with her."
"Back then it was just called mashing and groping. Despite her age, the girl was a clearheaded feminist way ahead of her time, complained to the board of directors, who promptly gave her the boot. She talked to me about pursuing it- she was really traumatized- and I offered to back her up if she wanted to take it further, but in the end she decided not to. She knew it was his word against hers, he was the respected health administrator, and she was a good-looking teenager who wore her skirts too short. I supported the decision. What would she have gained other than a mess?"
"Was there ever any suggestion the director was molesting students?"
"Not that I heard."
"Remember his name?"
"Alex, I really don't want my mentoree drawn into it."
"I promise she won't be."
"Larner. Michael Larner."
"Psychologist or psychiatrist?"
"Business type- administrator."
"Are you still in touch with the mentoree?"
"Occasionally. Mostly for cross-referrals. She stayed on track, graduated summa, got her Ph.D. at Penn, did a fellowship at Michigan, moved back here. She's got a nice Westside practice."
"Is there any way to ask her if she'd talk to me?"
Silence. "You think this is important."
"Honestly, I don't know, Larry. If asking her will put you in a difficult position, forget it."
"Let me think about it," he said. "I'll let you know."
"That would be great."
"Great?" he said.
"You know," he said, "right as we speak, I've got my feet up and my belt loosened and I'm looking out at miles of clean white sand. Just finished a plate of chile rellenos con mucho cerveza. Just let out a sonic-boom belch and no one's around to give me a funny look. To me, that's great."
I heard from him an hour later. "Her name's Allison Gwynn, and you can call her. But she definitely doesn't want to get involved in any police business."
"No problem," I said.
"So," he said. "How's everything else?"
"We should get together for dinner. With the women. Next time we come into town."
"Good idea," I said. "Call me, Larry. Thanks."
"Everything's really okay?"
"Sure. Why do you ask?"
"Don't know… you sound a bit… tentative. But maybe it's just that I haven't talked to you in a while."
I called Dr. Allison Gwynn at her Santa Monica exchange.
A you-have-reached-the-office tape answered, but when I mentioned my name, a soft-around-the-edges female voice broke in.
"This is Allison. It's funny, Larry calling out of the blue and asking if I'd talk to you. I've been reading some articles on pain control, and a couple were yours. I do some work at St. Agnes Hospice."
"Those articles are ancient history."
"Not really," she said. "People and their pain don't change that much, most of what you said still holds true. Anyway, Larry says you want to know about Achievement House. It's been a long time- nearly twenty years- since I had anything to do with that place."
"That's exactly the time period I'm interested in."
"What do you need to know?"
I gave her the same anonymous description of Caroline Cossack.
"I see," she said. "Larry assures me you'll be discreet."
"That's essential, Dr. Delaware. Look, I can't talk now, have a patient in two minutes and after that I'm running a group at the hospice. This evening, I'll be teaching, but in between I will be eating dinner- fiveish, or so. If you want to stop by, that's fine. I usually go to Café Maurice on Broadway near Sixth, because it's close to St. Agnes."
"I'll be there," I said. "I really appreciate it."
"No problem," she said. "I hope."
I endured the afternoon by running too fast for too long. Trudged up my front steps winded and dehydrated and checked the phone machine. Two hang-ups and a canned solicitation for discount home loans. I pressed *69 and traced the hang-ups to a harried woman in East L.A. who spoke only Spanish and had dialed a very wrong number, and a Montana Avenue boutique wondering if Robin Castagna would be interested in some new silk fashions from India.
"I guess I should've left a message," said the nasal girl on the other end, "but the owner likes us to make personal contact. So do you think Robin might be interested? According to our records, she bought a bunch of cool stuff last year."
"When I talk to her, I'll ask her."
"Oh, okay… you could come in yourself, you know. Do like a gift thing? If she doesn't like it, we'll give her full store credit on return. Women love to be surprised."
"Oh, sure. Totally."
"I'll bear that in mind."
"You really should. Women love when guys like surprise them."
"Like a trip to Paris," I said.
"Paris?" She laughed. "You can surprise me with that- don't tell Robin I said that, okay?"
At 4 P.M., I stepped out the kitchen door to the rear patio, crossed the garden to Robin's studio, unlocked the cool vaulted room, and walked around smelling wood dust and lacquer and Chanel No. 19 and listening to the echos of my footsteps. She'd swept the floor clean, packed her tools, put everything in its place.
Afternoon sun streamed through the windows. Beautiful space in perfect order. It felt like a crypt.
I returned to the house and skimmed the morning paper. The world hadn't changed much; why did I feel so altered? At four-thirty, I showered, got dressed in a blue blazer, white shirt, clean blue jeans, brown suede loafers. At ten after five, I walked into Café Maurice.
The restaurant was compact and dark, with a copper-topped bar and a half dozen tables set with white linen. The walls were raised walnut panels, the ceiling repousse tin. Inoffensive music on low volume competed with low conversation among three white-aproned waiters old enough to be my father. I couldn't help but think of the Left Bank bistro where Robin had told me of her plans.
I buttoned my jacket and allowed my eyes to acclimate. The sole patron was a dark-haired woman at a center table peering into a glass of burgundy. She wore a form-fitted, whiskey-colored tweed jacket over a cream silk blouse, a long, oatmeal-colored skirt with a slit up the side, beige calfskin boots with substantial heels. A big leather bag sat on the chair next to her. She looked up as I approached and gave a tentative smile.
"Dr. Gwynn? Alex Delaware."
"Allison." She placed her bag on the floor and held out a slender white hand. We shook, and I sat.
She was a long-stemmed beauty out of John Singer Sargent. Ivory face, soft but assertive cheekbones highlighted with blush, a wide strong mouth shaded coral. Huge, judiciously lined deep blue eyes under strong, arching brows studied me. Warm scrutiny, no intrusiveness; her patients would appreciate that. Her hair was a sheet of true black that hung midway down her back. Circling one wrist was a diamond tennis bracelet; the other sported a gold watch. Baroque pearls dotted each earlobe, and a gold link cameo necklace rested on her breastbone.
Her hand returned to her wineglass. Good manicure, French-tipped nails left just long enough to avoid frivolousness. I knew she was thirty-six or -seven but despite the tailored clothes, the baubles, the cosmetics, she looked ten years younger.
"Thanks for your time," I said.
"I wasn't sure if you were a punctual person," she said, "so I ordered for myself. I only have an hour till class." Same gentle voice as over the phone. She waved, and one of the ancient waiters tore himself away from the staff confab, brought a menu, and hovered.
"What do you recommend?" I asked.
"The entrecôte is great. I like it rare and bloody, but they've got a pretty good selection of more virtuous stuff if you're not into red meat."
The waiter tapped his foot. "What're you drinking, sir? We've got a good selection of microbrews." I'd expected a Gallic accent, but his drawl was pure California- surfer boy grown old- and I found myself musing about a future where grandmothers would be named Amber and Heather and Tawny and Misty.
"Grolsch," I said. "And I'll have the entrecôte, medium rare."
He left and Allison Gwynn smoothed already-smooth hair and twirled her wineglass. She avoided my eyes.
"What kind of work do you do at St. Agnes?" I said.
"You know the place."
"I know of it."
"Just some volunteer work," she said. "Mostly helping the staff cope. Do you still work in oncology?"
"No, not for a while."
She nodded. "It can be tough." She drank some wine.
"Where do you teach?" I said.
"The U., adult extension. This quarter I'm doing Personality Theory and Human Relations."
"All that and a practice. Sounds like a busy schedule," I said.
"I'm a workaholic," she said, with sudden cheer. "Hyperactivity channeled in a socially appropriate manner."
My beer arrived. We both drank. I was about to get down to substance, when she said, "The girl you described. Would that be Caroline Cossack?"
I put down my mug. "You knew Caroline?"
"So it was her."
"How did you know?"
"From your description."
"She stood out?"
"What can you tell me about her?"
"Not much, I'm afraid. She stood out because of how they labeled her. There was a pink tab on her chart, the only one I'd seen. And I'd seen most of the charts, was a gofer that summer, running errands, picking up and delivering files. They used a color-coding system to alert the staff if a kid had a medical problem. Yellow for juvenile diabetes, blue for asthma, that kind of thing. Caroline Cossack's tab was pink and when I asked someone what that meant, they said it was a behavioral warning. High risk for acting out. That and your saying it might be a police case helped me put it together."
"So Caroline was high risk for violence."
"Someone thought so, back then."
"What specifically were they worried about?" I said.
"I don't know. She never did anything wrong during the month I was there."
"But she was the only one labeled like that."
"Yes," she said. "There weren't a lot of kids, period. Maybe thirty. Back then Achievement House was exactly what it is today: a repository for rich kids who fail to perform to their parents' expectations. Chronically truant, drug-abusing, noncompliant, children of the dream."
I thought: Take away the dream and you had Janie and Melinda.
"But," she went on, "they were basically harmless kids. Other than the obvious sneaky doping and drinking, nothing seriously antisocial went on that I saw."
"Harmless kids locked up," I said.
"It wasn't that draconian," she said. "More carrot than stick. High-priced baby-sitting. They locked the doors at night, but it didn't feel like a prison."
"What else can you tell me about Caroline?"
"She didn't seem scary, at all. I recall her as quiet and passive. That's why the behavioral warning surprised me."
She licked her lips, moved her wineglass aside. "That's really all I can tell you. I was a student volunteer, fresh out of high school, didn't ask questions." Her face tilted to the left. The enormous blue eyes didn't blink. "Bringing up that place is… not the most fun thing I've done all week. Larry told you about my experience there with Larner."
"If the same thing happened today," she said, "you can bet I'd be a lot more proactive. Probably page Gloria Allred, close that place down, and walk away with a settlement. But I'm not blaming myself for how I handled it. So… have you worked with the police for a while?"
"A few years."
"Do you find it difficult?"
"Difficult in what way?" I said.
"All the authoritarian personalities, for starts."
"Mostly, I deal with one detective," I said. "He's a good friend."
"Oh," she said. "So you find it fulfilling."
"It can be."
"Trying to explain the unexplainable."
One of her hands covered the other. Jewelry everywhere else, but no rings on her fingers. Why had I noticed that?
I said, "If you don't mind, I have a few more questions about Caroline."
She grinned. "Go ahead."
"Did you have much personal contact with her?"
"Nothing direct, but I was allowed to sit in on some therapy groups, and she was in one of them. General purpose rap session. The leader tried to draw her out, but Caroline never talked, would just stare at the floor and pretend not to hear. I could tell she was taking it in, though. When she got upset, her facial muscles twitched."
"What upset her?"
"Any personal probing."
"What was she like physically?" I said.
"All this interest twenty years later?" she said. "You can't tell me what she did?"
"She may have done nothing," I said. "Sorry to be evasive, but this is all very preliminary." Unofficial, too. "A lot of my work is random archaeology."
Both her hands cupped her wineglass. "No gory details? Aw shucks." She laughed, showed perfect teeth. "I'm not sure I'd really want to know, anyway. Okay, Caroline, physically… this is all through the perspective of my seventeen-year-old eyes. She was short, kind of mousy… a little chubby- unkempt. Stringy hair… mousy brown, she wore it to here." She leveled a hand at her own shoulder. "It always looked unwashed. She had acne… what else? She had a defeated posture, as if something heavy sat on her shoulders. The kids were allowed to dress any way they wanted, but Caroline always wore the same shapeless dresses- old lady's housedresses. I wonder where she found them."
"Dressing down," I said. "She sounds depressed."
"Did she hang around with the other kids?"
"No, she was a loner. Shleppy, withdrawn. I guess today I'd look at her and be thinking schizoid."
"But they saw her as potentially aggressive."
"How'd she spend her time?"
"Mostly she sat in her room by herself, dragged herself to meals, returned alone. When I'd pass her in the hall, I'd smile and say hello. But I kept my distance because of the pink tab. A couple of times I think she nodded back, but mostly she shuffled on, keeping her eyes down."
"Was she medicated?"
"I never read her chart. Now that I think about it, it's possible."
"The group leader who tried to draw her out. Do you remember a name?"
"Jody Lavery," she said. "She was a clinical social worker- very nice to me when I had my problem with Larner. Years later I ran into her at a convention, and we ended up becoming friends, did some cross-referring. But forget about talking to her. She died two years ago. And she and I never talked about Caroline. Caroline was more of a nonentity than an entity. If not for the pink tab, I probably wouldn't have paid her any attention, at all. In fact, the only-"
"Sir, madam," said the waiter. Our dishes were set in place, and we cut into our steaks.
"Excellent," I said, after the first bite.
"Glad you like it." She speared a french fry.
"You were about to say something."
"You were talking about Caroline not being memorable. Then you said 'In fact, the only- ' "
"Hmm- oh yes, I was saying the only person I ever saw her talk to was one of the maintenance men. Willie something… a black guy… Willie Burns. I remember his name because it was the same as Robert Burns and I recall thinking there was nothing Scottish about him."
"He paid special attention to Caroline?"
"I suppose you could say that. Once or twice I came across him and Caroline chatting in the hall, and they moved apart very quickly and Willie resumed working. And one time I did see Willie coming out of Caroline's room, carrying a mop and broom. When he saw me, he said she'd been sick, he was cleaning up. Volunteering an explanation. It was kind of furtive. Whatever the situation, Burns didn't stick around long. One week, he was there, then he was gone and Caroline went back to being alone."
"A week," I said.
"It seemed like a short period."
"Do you remember what month this was?"
"Had to be August. I was only there during August."
Janie Ingalls had been murdered in early June.
"How old was Willy Burns?"
"Not much older than Caroline- maybe twenty, twenty-one. I thought it was nice, someone paying attention to her. Do you know something about him?"
I shook my head. "You didn't read the chart, but did you ever hear why Caroline was sent to Achievement House?"
"I assumed the same reason every other kid was: unable to jump high hurdles. I know that world, Alex. Grew up in Beverly Hills, my dad was an assistant attorney general. I thought I wanted something simple, would never return to California."
"Larry said you went to Penn for grad school."
"Went to Penn and loved it. Then I spent a couple of years at Ann Arbor, came back to Penn and took an assistant professorship. If it had been up to me, I'd have stayed back East. But I married a Wharton guy and he got a fantastic job offer at Union Oil here in L.A. and all of a sudden we were living in a condo on the Wilshire Corridor and I was cramming for the California boards."
"Sounds like things have worked out," I said.
She'd speared steak on her fork and dipped it in bearnaise. The meat remained suspended for a moment, then she placed the fork down on her plate. "Life was rolling along quite nicely, then three summers ago, my father woke up at 4 A.M. with chest pains and my mom called us in a panic. Grant- my husband- and I rushed over and the three of us took Dad to the hospital and while they were working him up, Grant wandered off. I was so caught up supporting Mom and waiting for the verdict on Dad that I didn't pay much attention. Finally, just as they told us Dad was fine- gastric reflux- and we could take him home, Grant showed up and from the look on his face, I knew something was wrong. We didn't talk until after we dropped Mom and Dad off. Then he told me he hadn't been feeling well for a while- bad stomachaches. He'd figured it was job stress, kept thinking the pain would go away, was eating antacids like candy, hadn't wanted to alarm me. But then the pain got unbearable. So while we were at the hospital, he got hold of a doctor he knew- a Penn golfing buddy- and had x rays taken. And they found spots all over. A rare bile-duct tumor that had spread. Five weeks later, I was the mourning widow, living back with Mom and Dad."
She nudged her plate away. "It's rude of me to unload like this." Another tentative smile. "I'll blame it on your being too good a listener."
Without thinking, I reached out and patted her hand. She squeezed my fingers, then spider-walked away, took hold of her wineglass, drank while staring past me.
I took a healthy swallow of beer.
"Want to hear something funny?" she said. "Tonight I'm lecturing about post-traumatic stress. Listen, Alex, it's been nice meeting you, and good luck with whatever you're trying to do, but I've really got to run."
She summoned the waiter, and, over her objections, I paid the check. She removed a gold compact and lipstick from her bag, freshened her mouth, touched a long, black eyelash, checked her face in the mirror. We got up from the table. I'd figured her for tall, but in three-inch heels she wasn't more than five-five. Another little looker. Just like Robin.
We left the restaurant together. Her car was a ten-year-old black Jaguar XJS convertible that she stepped into with agility and revved hard. I watched her drive away. Her eyes stayed fixed on the road.
Two new names:
Perhaps both were irrelevant, but I drove south into Cheviot Hills, located Achievement House on a cul-de-sac just east of Motor and south of Palms, idled the Seville across the street.
The building was an undistinguished two-story box next to an open parking lot, pale blue in the moonlight, surrounded by white iron fencing. The front façade was windowless. Glass doors blocked entry to what was probably an interior courtyard. Half a dozen cars sat in the lot under high-voltage lighting, but the building was dark and there was no signage I could see from this distance. Wondering if I had the right location, I got out and crossed the street and peered through the fence slats.
Tiny white numbers verified the address. Tiny white letters, nearly invisible in the darkness spelled out:
Achievement House. Private Property.
I squinted to get a look at what was behind the glass doors, but the courtyard- if that's what it was- was unlit, and all I made out was reflection. The street was far from quiet; traffic from Motor intruded in bursts, and the more distant rumble of the freeway thrummed nonstop. I got back in the car, drove to the U., returned to the Research Library, got my itchy hands on that old friend, the periodicals index.
Nothing on Willie Burns, which was no surprise. How many janitors made the news? But Michael Larner's name popped up twelve times during the past two decades.
Two citations were dated from Larner's tenure as director of Achievement House: coverage of fund-raising events, no photos, no quotes. Then nothing for the next three years, until Larner popped up as official spokesman for Maxwell Films, demeaning the character of an actress sued by the film company for breach of contract. No follow-up on how that case resolved and a year later, Larner had made another occupational change: an "independent producer" inking a deal with the very same actress for a sci-fi epic- a movie I'd never heard of.
The Industry. Given Larner's sexual aggressiveness, it was either that or politics.
The next four citations caught my eye because of Larner's new affiliation: director of operations for Cossack Development.
These were brief items from the business section of the Times. Larner's job seemed to be lobbying council members for Garvey and Bob's development deals.
Caroline Cossack shunted to Achievement House soon after Janie Ingalls's murder. Not the kind of kid Achievement House accepted but a few years later, the director was working for the Cossack family.
I'd be brightening Milo's evening.
I got home and checked my phone machine. Still nothing from Robin.
Not like her.
Then I thought: Everything's new, the rules have changed.
I realized I'd never gotten an itinerary of the tour. I hadn't asked, and Robin hadn't offered. No one's fault, both of us caught up, everything moving so fast. The two of us tripping through the calisthenics of separation.
I went into my office, booted up the computer, found the Kill Famine Tour's homepage. PR shots and cheerful hype, links to mail-order CD purchases, photo-streams of previous concerts. Finally, times and dates and venues. Eugene, Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, Albuquerque… everything subject to change.
I phoned the Vancouver arena. Got voice mail and entered a push-button maze to learn Our offices are closed… open tomorrow at 10 A .M.
Left out in the cold.
I'd never set out to exclude Robin from my life. Or had I? During all the time we'd spent together I'd kept my work to myself- kept her at arm's length. Claiming confidentiality even when it didn't apply. Telling myself it was for her good, she was an artist, gifted, sensitive, needed to be protected from the ugliness. Sometimes she'd learned what I'd been up to the hard way.
The night I'd blown it, she'd left the house for a recording studio, full of trust. The moment she was gone, I left for a meeting with a beautiful, crazy, dangerous young woman.
I'd screwed up royally, but hadn't my intentions been noble? Blah blah blah.
Two tickets to Paris; pathetic. A sudden rush of memories took hold. Exactly what I'd worked hard at forgetting.
The other time we'd separated.
Ten years ago, nothing to do with my bad behavior. That had been all Robin, needing to find her own way, forge her own identity.
Lord, rephrased that way it sounded like a pop-psych cliché, and she deserved better.
I loved her, she loved me. So why wasn't she calling?
Grow up, pal, it's only been two days and you weren't exactly Mr. Charming the last time she tried.
Had I failed some kind of test by letting her go too easily?
Ten years ago she'd come back but not before…
Don't get into that.
But at that moment, I wanted nothing but punishment. Opened the box, let loose the furies.
The first time, she'd stayed away for a long time and eventually I'd found another woman. Then that had ended well before Robin returned.
When we reunited, Robin had seemed a bit more fragile, but otherwise everything seemed to be fine. Then one day, she broke down and confessed. She'd found someone, too. A guy, just a guy, a stupid guy, she'd been stupid.
Really stupid, Alex.
I'd held her, comforted her. Then she told me. Pregnancy, abortion. She'd never told the guy- Dennis, I'd blocked out his name, goddamn Dennis had gotten her pregnant, and she'd left him, gone through the ordeal alone.
I kept holding her, said the right things, what a sensitive guy, the essence of understanding. But a nagging little voice in my head refused to let go of the obvious:
All those years together, she and I had waltzed around the topic of marriage and kids. Had been careful.
A few months away from me, and another man's seed had found its way-
Had I ever really forgiven her?
Did she wonder about that, too? What was she thinking about, right now?
Where the hell was she?
I picked up the phone, wondered who to call, swept the damn thing off the desk and onto the floor- screw you, Mr. Bell.
My face was hot and my bones twitched and I began pacing, the way Milo does. Not limiting myself to one room, racing around the entire house, unable to burn off the pain.
Home smothering home.
I headed for the front door, threw it open, threw myself into the night.
I walked the glen, north, up into the hills. Did it the stupid way- with the traffic to my back, undeterred by the rush of approaching engines, the flash-freeze of headlights.
Drivers sped by honking. Someone yelled, "Idiot!"
That felt right.
It took miles before I was able to conjure up Janie Ingalls's corpse and relax.
When I got back to the house, the front door was ajar- I'd neglected to shut it- and leaves had blown into the entry. I got down on my knees, picked up every speck, returned to my office. The phone remained on the floor. The answering machine had tumbled, too, and lay there, unplugged.
But the machine in the bedroom was blinking.
I ignored it, went to the kitchen, got the vodka out of the freezer. Used the bottle to cool my hands and my face. Put it back.
I watched TV for hours, ingested hollow laughter, tortured dialogue, commercials for herbal sexual potency remedies and miracle chemicals that attacked the most hideous of stains.
Shortly after midnight, I punched the bedroom machine's PLAY button.
"Alex?… I guess you're not in… we were supposed to fly to Canada, but we've been held over in Seattle- doing an extra show… there were some equipment modifications that needed to be done before the concert, so I was tied up… I guess you're out again… anyway, I'm at the Four Seasons in Seattle. They gave me a nice room… it's raining. Alex, I hope you're okay. I'm sure you are. Bye, honey."
No I love you.
She always said I love you.
At 1 A.M., I called the Four Seasons in Seattle. The operator said, "It's past the time where we put calls through, sir."
"She'll talk to me."
"Are you her husband?"
"Well… actually, it looks like you're going to have to leave a message. I've got her as out of her room, her voice mail's engaged, here you go."
She put me through. I hung up, trudged to bed, fell into something that might've been called sleep had it been restful, found myself sitting up at 6:30 A.M. dry-mouthed and seeing double.
At seven, I phoned Milo. His voice was fuzzy, as if filtered through a hay bale.
"Yo, General Delaware," he said, "isn't it a little early for my field report?"
I told him what I'd learned about Caroline Cossack and Michael Larner.
"Jesus, I haven't even brushed my teeth… okay, let me digest this. You figure this Larner did a favor for the Cossacks by stashing Caroline and they paid him back- what- fifteen years later? Not exactly immediate gratification."
"There could've been other rewards along the way. Both Larner and the Cossacks were involved in independent film production."
"You find any film link between them?"
"No matter, I'll buy a relationship between Larner and Caroline's family. She was a screwy kid, and Larner ran a place for screwy kids. It says nothing about what got her in there in the first place."
"The behavioral warning on her chart says plenty. My source says Caroline was the only one tagged. Anyway, do what you want with it."
"Sure, thanks. You all right?"
Everyone kept asking me the same damn question. I forced amiability into my voice. "I'm fine."
"You sound like me in the morning."
"You rarely hear me this early."
"That must be it. Behavioral warning, huh? But your source didn't know why."
"The assumption was some kind of antisocial or aggressive behavior. Add to that Dr. Schwartzman's dead Akita, and a picture starts forming. A rich kid doing very bad things would explain a cover-up."
"Your basic disturbed loner," he said. "What would we homicide folk do without them?"
"Something else," I said. "I was thinking maybe the reason Caroline never got a social security card was because eventually she did act out and ended up in-"
"Lockup. Yeah, I thought of that right after we talked. Stupid of me not to jump on that sooner. But, sorry, she's not in any state penitentiary in the lower forty-eight, Hawaii or Alaska. I suppose it's possible she's stashed at some Federal pen, or maybe you were right about them shipping her to some nice little villa in Ibiza, sun-splashed exterior, padded walls. Know of anyone who'll fund a fact-finding Mediterranean tour for a deserving detective?"
"Fill out a form and submit it to John G. Broussard."
"Hey, gosharoo, why didn't I think of that? Alex, thanks for your time."
"The whole thing is still dead-ending, just like twenty years ago. I've got no files, no notes to fall back on, can't even locate Melinda Waters's mother. And I was thinking about something: I gave Eileen Waters my card. If Melinda never returned home, wouldn't she have called me back?"
"Maybe she did, and you never got the message. You were in West L.A., by then."
"I got other calls," he said. "Bullshit stuff. Central forwarded them to me."
Silence. "Maybe. In any event, I can't see anywhere to take it."
"One more thing," I said. I told him about Willie Burns, expected him to blow it off.
He said, "Willie Burns. Would he be around… forty by now?"
"Twenty or twenty-one, then, so yeah."
"I knew a Willie Burns. He had a baby face," he said. "Woulda been… twenty-three back then." His voice had changed. Softer, lower. Focused.
"Who is he?" I said.
"Maybe no one," he said. "Let me get back to you."
He phoned two hours later sounding tight and distracted, as if someone was hovering nearby.
"Where are you?" I said.
"At my desk."
"Thought you were taking vacation time."
"There's paper to clear."
"Who's Willie Burns?" I said.
"Let's chat in person," he said. "Do you have time? Sure, you do, you're living the merry bachelor life. Meet me out in front of the station, let's say half an hour."
He was standing near the curb and hopped into the Seville before the car had come to a full stop.
"Where to?" I said.
I continued up Butler, took a random turn, and cruised the modest residential streets that surround the West L.A. station. When I'd put half a mile between us and his desk, he said, "There is definitely a God and He's jerking my chain. Payment for old sins."
"The worst one: failure."
"Willie Burns is another cold one?"
"Willie Burns is an old perp on a cold one. Wilbert Lorenzo Burns, DOB forty-three and a half years ago, suspicion of homicide; I picked it up right after I transferred. And guess what, another file seems to have gone missing. But I did manage to find one of Burns's old probation officers, and he came up with some old paper and there it was: Achievement House. Willie'd finagled a summer placement there, lasted less than a month, and was booted for absenteeism."
"A homicide suspect and he's working with problem teens?"
"Back then he was just a junkie and a dealer."
"Guess Willie never told him about his background."
"Who'd he kill?"
"Bail bondsman name of Boris Nemerov. Ran his business right here in West L.A. Big, tough guy, but he sometimes had a soft heart for cons because he himself had spent some time in a Siberian gulag. You know how bail bonds work?"
"The accused puts up a percentage of the bail and leaves collateral. If he skips trial, the bondsman pays the court and confiscates the collateral."
"Basically," he said, "except generally the bondsman doesn't actually pay the initial bail with his own money. He buys a policy from an insurance company for two to six percent of the total bail. To cover the premiums and make a profit, he collects a fee from the perp- usually ten percent, nonrefundable. If the perp goes fugitive, the insurance company shells out to the court and has the right to collect the collateral. Which is usually a piece of property- Grandma letting her beloved felon offspring tie up the cute little bungalow where she's lived for two hundred years. But seizing the cottage from poor old Grandma takes time and money and gets bad press and what do insurance companies want with low-rent real estate? So they'd always rather have the perp in hand. That's why they send out bounty hunters. Who take their cut."
"Trickle-down economics," I said. "Crime's good for the GDP."
"Boris Nemerov made out okay as a bondsman. Treated people like human beings and had a low skip rate. But he sometimes took risks- forgoing collateral, discounting his ten percent. He'd done that for Willie Burns because Burns was a habitual client who'd never let him down before. Last time Burns presented himself to Nemerov, he had no collateral."
"What was the charge?"
"Dope. As usual. This was after he was fired at Achievement House and didn't show up at his probation appointment. Up till then, Burns had been nonviolent, as far as I could tell. His juvey record began at age nine and it was sealed. His adult crime career commenced the moment he was old enough to be considered an adult: one week after his eighteenth birthday. Petty theft, drugs, more drugs. Yet more drugs. A whole bunch of plea bargains put him back on the street, then he finally had to stand trial and got probation. The last bust was more serious. Burns was caught trying to peddle heroin to some junkies on the Venice walkway. The junkie he picked was an undercover officer and the arrest came during one of those times when the department claimed to be fighting The War On Drugs. All of a sudden, Burns faced a ten-year sentence and the court imposed a fifty-thousand-dollar bond. Burns went to Boris Nemerov, as usual, and Nemerov posted for him and accepted Burns's promise to work off the five grand. But this time, Burns skipped. Nemerov called around, trying to locate Burns's family, friends, got zilch. The address Burns had listed was a parking lot in Watts. Nemerov started to get irritated."
"Started?" I said. "Patient fellow."
"Cold winters on the steppes can teach you patience. Eventually, Nemerov put the bounty hunters on Burns's trail, but they got nowhere. Then out of the blue, Nemerov got a call from Burns. Guy claimed to want to give himself up but was scared the hunters were gonna shoot him in his tracks. Nemerov tried to put his mind at ease, but Burns was freaking out. Paranoid. Said people were after him. Nemerov agreed to pick up Burns personally. East of Robertson, near the 10 East overpass. Nemerov set out late at night in this big old gold Lincoln he used to tool around in, never came home. Mrs. Nemerov went crazy, Missing Persons prioritized it because Boris was well-known at the station. Two days later, the Lincoln was found in an alley behind an apartment on Guthrie, not far from the meeting place. Those days, the neighborhood was serious gang territory."
"Meeting Burns alone there didn't worry Nemerov?"
"Boris was self-confident. Big, jolly type. Probably thought he'd seen the worst and survived. The Lincoln was stripped and gutted and covered with branches- someone had made a half-baked attempt to conceal it. Boris was in the trunk, bound and gagged, three holes in the back of his head."
"Execution," I said.
"No good deed goes unpunished. Del Hardy and I got the case and worked it all the way to nowhere."
"You would think something like that would make the papers. Burns's name pulled up zilch."
"That I can explain. Nemerov's family wanted it kept quiet, and we obliged. They didn't want Boris's lapse in judgment made public- bad for business. And they had quite a few favors to pull in- reporters' kids who'd been bailed out. Cops' kids, too. Del and I were ordered to do our job but to do it very quietly."
"Did that hamstring you?"
"Not really. Finding Burns wasn't going to be accomplished by feeding the press. The Nemerovs were decent folk- first everything they'd gone through in Russia and now this. We didn't want to upset them, everyone felt bad about the whole thing. The business almost went under, anyway. The insurance companies weren't pleased, wanted to sever all ties. Nemerov's widow and son agreed to eat all fifty grand of Burns's forfeited bail and begged for a chance to prove themselves. They managed to hold on to most of their policies. Eventually, they got their heads above water. They're still in business- same place, right around the corner from the station. Nowadays they're known for never giving an inch."
"And Willie Burns's trail went cold," I said.
"I dogged him for years, Alex. Anytime I had a lull, I checked on the asshole. I was sure he'd turn up eventually because a junkie's unlikely to change his ways. My bet was he'd end up incarcerated or dead."
"Maybe he did end up dead," I said. "The Nemerov family had access to professional searchers. Even good folk can develop a thirst for revenge."
"My gut says no, but if that's what happened, it's a definite dead end. I'm starting to feel like I'm back in junior high, staring at tests I flunked."
"Maybe it's only one big test," I said. "Maybe Willie Burns knew Caroline before she was sent to Achievement House- one of the black guys Dr. Schwartzman saw Caroline hanging with. Burns's murdering Nemerov could've been nothing new for him, because he'd killed before. At a party in Bel Air."
"Burns's record was nonviolent, Alex."
"Till it wasn't," I said. "What if the nonviolent crimes were the ones he never got caught for. Was he only into heroin?"
"No, poly-drug addict. Heroin, acid, pills, meth. Since the age of ten."
"Ups and downs," I said. "Unpredictable behavior. Put someone like that in contact with an unbalanced kid like Caroline, stick both of them at a dope party where two not-too-bright street girls show up, and who knows what might happen? Caroline's family suspected- or knew she'd been part of something bad and sent her to Achievement House. Willie split back to the streets but found his way over to Achievement House to visit Caroline. Stupid move, but junkies are impulsive. And no one caught on. He worked there for a month, was fired because of absenteeism."
He drummed his fingers on his knees. "Burns and Caroline as a killing couple."
"With or without additional friends. Burns participating in a murder could also explain his skipping out on Nemerov. The city was clamping down on dope dealers, and he knew he was likely to serve time. That would've made him a captive audience if Janie Ingalls's murder came to light."
"Then why'd he call Nemerov and offer to turn himself in?"
"To accomplish exactly what he did: ambush Nemerov, rob him, take his car- it was stripped. For all we know, Burns fenced the stereo and the phone. And that half-baked attempt at hiding it is pure hype. Also, Caroline's disappearance could be Willie taking no chances. Figuring she was high risk to talk."
"If Burns or anyone else disappeared Caroline, you don't think her family would've reacted? Leaned on the department to solve it?"
"Maybe not. Caroline had been an embarrassment to them all through childhood- the weird sib- and if they knew she'd been an accomplice to murder, they'd have wanted to keep it quiet. It's consistent with sequestering her at Achievement House."
"With a pink tab," he said.
"Burns found her anyway. Maybe she contacted him. For all we know, she was with him when he ambushed Boris Nemerov. When exactly was Nemerov executed?"
"December, right before Christmas. I remember Mrs. Nemerov talking about it. How they were Russian Orthodox, celebrated in January, there'd be nothing to celebrate."
"Caroline was at Achievement House in August," I said. "Four months later, she could've been out of there. Willie could've broken her out. Perhaps they were planning to cut town all along, and that's why Burns was trying to sell dope in Venice."
"My, my, so many possibilities," he said. "Ah."
He had me drive in the direction of the station, then turn onto Purdue and park in front of an old redbrick building just south of Santa Monica Boulevard.
The entrance to Kwik 'n' Ready Bail Bonds was a glass-fronted storefront heralded by neon above the door and gold leaf on the glass. Unlike Achievement House, this placed welcomed attention.
I pointed to the No Stopping, Tow Away warning.
Milo said, "I'll watch out for the parking Nazis. Failing that, I'll go your bail."
The front office was a stuffy sliver of fluorescence with a high counter and walls paneled in something mustard-colored that bore no biological link to trees. A knobless door was cut into the rear paneling. A single Maxfield Parrish print- purple mountains' majesty- hung to the left of the doorway. Behind the counter, a round-faced man in his late thirties sat on an old oak swivel chair and ate a big wet sandwich wrapped in wax paper. A coffeemaker and a computer sat to his left. Cabbage and slabs of meat and something red protruded from the sandwich. The man's short-sleeved white shirt was clean but his chin was moist and as the door closed behind us, he swiped at himself with a paper napkin and aimed cautious gray eyes at us. Then he grinned.
"Detective Sturgis." He hauled a thick body out of the chair and a pink forearm shot across the counter. An anchor tattoo blued the smooth flesh. His brown hair was cropped to the skull and his face was a potpie that had been nibbled at the edges.
"Georgie," said Milo. "How's everything?"
"People are very bad, so everything's very good," said Georgie. He glanced at me. "He doesn't look like a business opportunity for me."
"No business today," said Milo. "This is Dr. Delaware. He consults for the department. Doctor, George Nemerov."
"A doctor for the cops," said Georgie, pumping my hand. "What do you specialize in, sexually transmitted diseases or insanity?"
"Good guess, Georgie. He's a shrink."
Nemerov chuckled. "People are nuts, so everything's good for you, Doctor. If you knew more about this business, you'd try to lock me up, too." Heavy eyelids compressed, and the gray eyes narrowed. But the rest of the soft, doughy face remained placid. "So what's up, Detective Milo?"
"This and that, Georgie. Eating your spinach?"
"Hate that stuff," said Nemerov, patting his anchor tattoo. To me: "When I was a kid, I was a big cartoon fan, Popeye the Sailor. One night, when I was a high school punk, me and some friends were over at the Pike in Long Beach and I got this shit put on me. My mother almost skinned me alive."
"How is your mom?" said Milo.
"Good as can be expected," said Nemerov. "Next month she's seventy-three."
"Give her my best."
"Will do, Milo. She always liked you. So… why you here?" Nemerov's smile was angelic.
"I've been looking into some old files, and your dad's case came up."
"Oh, yeah?" said Nemerov. "Came up how?"
"Willie Burns's name surfaced with regard to another 187."
"That so?" Nemerov shifted his weight. His smile had died. "Well, that wouldn't surprise me. The guy was lowlife scum. You telling me he's been spotted around?"
"No," said Milo. "The other case is also old and cold. Actually went down before your dad."
"And this never came to light when you guys were looking for that murderous fuck?"
"No, Georgie. Burns isn't officially a suspect on the other one. His name just came up, that's all."
"I see," Georgie repeated. "Actually, I don't." He rolled a wrist, and muscles bulged in his forearm. "What, things are so relaxed around the corner that they've got you chasing ghosts?"
"Sorry to bring up old crap, Georgie."
"Whatever, Milo, we all got our jobs. Back then I was a kid, first-year college, Cal State Northridge, I was going to become a lawyer. Instead, I got this." Pudgy hands spread.
Milo said, "I just wanted to verify that you guys never caught any wind of Burns."
Nemerov's eyes were ash-colored slits. "You don't think I'd tell you if we did?"
"I'm sure you would, but-"
"We go by the law, Milo. Making our living depends on it."
"I know you do, Georgie. Sorry-"
Georgie picked up his sandwich. "So who else did Burns off?"
Milo shook his head. "Too early to let that out. When you guys were looking for him did you uncover any known associates?"
"Nah," said Nemerov. "Guy was a fucking loner. A dope-head and a bum and a scumbag. Today, those Legal Aid assholes would call him a poor, poor pitiful homeless citizen and try to get you and me to pay his rent." His mouth twisted. "A bum. My dad always treated him with respect and that's how the fuck repaid him."
"It stinks," said Milo.
"It stinks bad. Even after all this time."
"Your dad was a good guy, Georgie."
Nemerov's gray slits aimed at me. "My dad could read people like a book, Doctor. Better than a shrink."
I nodded, thinking: Boris Nemerov had misread Willie Burns in the worst possible way.
Georgie rested one beefy arm on the countertop and favored me with a warm gust of garlic and brine and mustard.
"He could read 'em, my dad could, but he was too damn good, too damn soft. My mom tortured herself for not stopping him from going to meet the fuck that night. I told her she couldn'ta done nothing, Dad got an idea in his head, you couldn't stop him. That's what kept him alive with the Communists. Heart of gold, head like a rock. Burns, the fuck, was a loser and a liar but he'd always made his court dates before so why wouldn't my dad see the best in him?"
"Absolutely," said Milo.
"Ah," said Nemerov.
The door in the rear panel pushed open and seven hundred pounds of humanity emerged and filled the office. Two men, each close to six-six, wearing black turtlenecks, black cargo pants, black revolvers in black nylon holsters. The larger one- a fine distinction- was Samoan, with long hair tied up in a sumo knot and a wispy mustache-goatee combo. His companion wore a red crew cut and had a fine-featured, baby-smooth face.
Georgie Nemerov said, "Hey."
Both monsters studied us.
"Hey," said Sumo.
"Boys, this is Detective Milo Sturgis, an old friend from around the corner. He investigated the scumfuck who murdered my dad. And this is a shrink the department uses because we all know cops are crazy, right?"
Slow nods from the behemoths.
Georgie said, "These are two of my prime finders, Milo. This here's Stevie, but we call him Yokuzuna, 'cause he used to wrestle in Japan. And the little guy's Red Yaakov, from the Holy Land. So what's new, boys?"
"We got something for you," said Stevie. "Out back, in the van."
Stevie the Samoan smiled. "The 459 and guess what? A bonus. We're leaving the 459's crib- idiot's right there in bed, like he doesn't believe anyone's gonna come looking for him and in two secs we've got him braceleted, are taking him out to the car and a window shade in the next-door house moves and some other guy's staring out at us. And Yaakov says, waitaminute, ain't that the 460 we been looking for since the Democratic convention?"
Yaakov said, "Det stoopid guy Garcia, broke dose windows and reeped off all dot stereo."
"Raul Garcia?" said Georgie. He broke into a grin. "No kidding."
"Yeah, him," said Stevie. "So we go in and get him, too. Both of them are out there in back, squirming in the van. Turns out they played craps together- neighborly spirit and all that. They actually asked us to loosen the bracelets so they could play in the van."
Georgie high-fived both giants. "Two for one, beautiful. Okay, let me process the papers, then you can take both geniuses over to the jail. I'm proud of you boys. Come back at five and pick up your checks."
Stevie and Yaakov saluted and left the way they'd come in.
"Thank God," said Georgie, "that criminals are retarded." He returned to his chair and picked up his sandwich.
Milo said, "Thanks for your time."
The sandwich arced toward Nemerov's mouth, then paused inches from its destination. "You actually going to be looking for Burns again?"
"Should I?" said Milo. "I figure if he was findable, you guys woulda brought him in a long time ago."
"You got that," said Georgie.
Knots formed along Milo's jawline as he sauntered closer to the counter. "You think he's dead, Georgie?"
Nemerov's eyes shifted to the left. "That would be nice, but why would I think that?"
"Because you never found him."
"Could be, Milo. 'Cause we're good at what we do. Maybe when it first happened we weren't. Like I said, I was a college kid, what did I know? And Mom was all torn up, you remember how the insurance companies were jerking us around- one day we're doing the funeral, the next day we're fighting to stay out of bankruptcy. So maybe Burns didn't get looked for like he should. But later I sent guys out for him, we've still got him on our list- look, I'll show you."
He got up, pushed the paneled door hard, was gone for a few moments, came back with a piece of paper that he dropped on the counter.
Wilbert Lorenzo Burns's wanted sheet. Mug shot in full face and profile, the usual necklace of numbers. Medium-dark face, well-formed features that were soft and boyish- what would have been a pleasant face but for the hype eyes. Burns's long hair protruded in wooly tufts, as if it had been yanked. His statistics put him at six-two, one-sixty, with knife-scars on both forearms and the back of the neck, no tattoos. Wanted for PC's 11375, 836.6., 187. Possession with intent to sell, escape after remand or arrest, homicide.
" 'I think of him from time to time," said Georgie, between bites of wet sandwich. "Probably he is dead. He was a hype, what's those fuckheads' life expectancies, anyway? But you learn different, call me."
As we left the bail bond office, a meter reader's go-cart pulled up behind the Seville. Milo said, "Let's get going," and we ran for the car. The reader got out with his little computerized instrument of evil, but I peeled away before he could punch buttons.
"Close call," said Milo.
"Thought you had clout," I said.
"Clout's an ephemeral thing."
I turned the corner, headed back to the station.
He said, "So what do you think?"
"I don't know Georgie."
"He seemed to get edgy when you brought up Burns."
"He did, at that. Normally, he's even-tempered, you never hear him swear. This time he was tossing out the f-word."
"Maybe recalling his father's murder got him worked up."
"You're wondering if he did take care of Burns. But you're unlikely to ever know."
"Thought you were supposed to make people feel better."
"Purification through insight," I said, pulling up near the Westside staff parking lot and letting the Seville idle. Milo remained in place, long legs drawn up high, hands flat on the seat.
"Screw Schwinn," he finally said.
"That would be easy," I said. "If it was really about Schwinn."
He glared at me. "More purification?"
"What are friends for?"
A few minutes later: "Why the murder book? If he really wanted to help, all he had to do was call and give me the facts."
"Maybe there's more to the book than just Janie's photo."
"I don't know, but it's worth a second look."
He didn't answer. Made no effort to leave the car.
"So," I said.
"So… I was thinking of a visit to Achievement House, maybe pick up on the latest trends in special education."
"You're still on it."
"I don't know what I am."
I took Pico east to Motor, sped past Rancho Park and into Cheviot Hills. In the daylight, Achievement House didn't look any more impressive. The light stucco I'd seen last night was baby blue. A few more cars occupied the lot, and a dozen or so adolescents hung in loose groups. When we pulled up to the curb, they paid scant notice. The kids were a varied bunch ranging from black-lipped Goths to preppy chirpers who could've been extras on the Ozzie and Harriet set.
Milo rang the bell on the gate, and we were buzzed in without inquiry. Another buzz got us through the door. The lobby smelled of room freshener and corn chips. A reception desk to the right and an office door marked ADMINISTRATION were separated by a hallway that emptied to a softly lit waiting room where no one waited. Cream walls hung with chrome-framed floral prints, plum-colored carpeting, neatly arranged magazines on teak tables, off-white, overstuffed chairs. Glass panes in the rear double doors provided a view of more corridor and bursts of gawky adolescent movement.
The receptionist was a young Indian woman in a peach sari, surprised, but untroubled, by Milo's badge.
"And this is about?" she said, pleasantly.
"An inquiry," said Milo, with downright good cheer. During the ride he'd been tense and silent, but all that was gone now. He'd combed his hair, tightened his tie, was coming across like a man with something to look forward to.
"An inquiry?" she said.
"A look at some student records, ma'am."
"I'll get you Ms. Baldassar. She's our director."
She left, returned, said, "This way," and showed us to the door across the hall. We entered a front office and a secretary ushered us through a door to a tidy space where an ash blond woman in her forties sat behind a desk and stubbed out a cigarette.
Milo offered the badge, and the blonde said, "Marlene Baldassar." Thin, tan, and intensely freckled, she had hollow cheeks, golden brown eyes, and a knife-point chin. Her navy blue A-line dress was piped with white and bagged on her bony frame. The ash hair was blunt-cut to midneck, bangs feathered to fringe. She wore a gold wedding band and an oversize black plastic diver's watch. Tortoise-framed glasses hung on a chain. The big glass ashtray on her desk was half-filled with lipstick-tipped butts. The rim read Mirage Hotel, Las Vegas. The rest of the desk was taken up with books, papers, framed photos. And a shiny silver harmonica.
She saw me looking at the instrument, picked it up with two fingers, tooted twice, put it down, smiling. "Tension reliever, I'm trying to quit smoking. And obviously not doing very well."
"Old habits," I said.
"Very old. And yes, I have tried the patch. All of them. My DNA's probably saturated with nicotine." She ran a finger along the edge of the harmonica. "So, what's this Shoba tells me about a police inquiry? Has one of our alumni gotten into trouble?"
"You don't seem surprised by that possibility," said Milo.
"I've worked with kids for going on twenty years. Very little surprises me."
"Twenty years here, ma'am?"
"Three, here, seventeen with the county- Juvenile Hall, community mental health centers, gang-violence prevention programs."
"Welcome change?" I said.
"For the most part," she said. "But county work could even be fun. Lots of futility, but when you do come across a gem in the trash pile, it's exciting. Working here's extremely predictable. By and large, the kids are a decent bunch. Spoiled but decent. We specialize in serious learning disabilities- chronic school failure, severe dyslexia, kids who just can't get it together educationally. Our goal's specific: try to get them to a point so that when they get hold of their trust funds they can read the small print. So if your inquiry is about one of my current charges, I'd be surprised. We steer away from high-risk antisocials, too much maintenance."
Milo said, "Are the kids confined twenty-four hours a day?"
"Heavens no," she said. "This isn't prison. They go home on weekends, earn passes. So what do you need to know and about whom?"
"Actually," said Milo, "this is more of a historical venture. Someone who was here twenty years ago."
Marlene Baldassar sat back, fooled with her eyeglasses. "Sorry, I'm not free to talk about alumni. An emergent situation with a current student would be something else- someone in the here and now posing a danger to themselves and/or others. The law would require me to work with you on that."
"Schools have no confidentiality, ma'am."
"But psychotherapists do, Detective, and many of our files contain psychotherapeutic records. I'd love to help, but-"
"What about personnel records?" said Milo. "We're also looking into someone who worked here. There'd be no protection of any sort, there."
Baldassar fiddled with her glasses. "I suppose that's true, but… twenty years ago? I'm not sure we even have records going back that far."
"One way to find out, ma'am."
"What's this person's name?"
"Wilbert Lorenzo Burns."
No recognition on the freckled face. Baldassar got on the phone, asked a few questions, said, "Wait right here," and returned a few moments later with a scrap of pink paper.
"Burns, Wilburt L.," she said, handing it to Milo. "This is all we've got. Mr. Burns's notice of termination. He lasted three weeks. August third through the twenty-fourth. Was terminated for absenteeism. See for yourself."
Milo read the scrap and handed it back.
"What did Mr. Burns do?"
"There's a fugitive warrant out on him. Mostly he was a narcotics violator. Kind of alarming that when he worked here he was on probation for a drug conviction. About to face trial for selling heroin."
Baldassar frowned. "Wonderful. Well, that wouldn't happen today."
"You vet your employees carefully?"
"A pusher wouldn't get by me."
"Guess the former director wasn't that picky," said Milo. "Do you know him- Michael Larner?"
"The only one I know is my immediate predecessor. Dr. Evelyn Luria. Lovely woman. She retired and moved to Italy- she's at least eighty. I was told that she was brought in to beef up clinical services. I was brought in to organize things." She poked the harmonica. "You're not implying this Burns was dealing to the kids, here."
"Do the kids, here, have drug problems?"
"Detective, please," said Baldassar. "They're teenagers with poor self-esteem and plenty of disposable income. You don't need a Ph.D. to figure it out. But believe me, I don't allow any species of felon to pass through our gates. As far as what happened twenty years ago…"
She picked up the harmonica, put it down. "If that's all…"
"Actually," said Milo, "the investigation's not just about Willie Burns. It's about a student Burns was friendly with. A girl named Caroline Cossack."
Baldassar stared. Then she snorted- I suppose it was laughter, but she looked anything but happy. She said, "Let's go outside. I want to smoke, but I don't want to poison anyone else."
She took us through the glass-paned double doors, past ten rooms, some of which had been left open. We walked by carelessly made beds, piles of stuffed animals, movie and rock star posters, boom boxes, guitars, books stacked in little wooden desks. A few teens were stretched across beds listening to music through earphones, one boy did push-ups, a girl read a magazine- brow knitted, lips moving laboriously.
We followed Marlene Baldassar under a rear staircase, where she pushed a door marked EXIT and let us pass through to an alley behind the building. Two Dumpsters were pushed against a cinder-block wall. Nearby stood a chesty girl with her elbows to the block, hips thrust at a tall, buzz-cut boy wearing low pants that puddled around his unlaced sneakers. He looked like a scarecrow about to come apart. Moved in for a kiss but stopped as the girl said something, turned and frowned.
Baldassar said, "Hi, guys." Expressionless, the couple ambled off and disappeared around a corner.
"Somethingus interruptus," said Baldassar. "I almost feel guilty."
Power lines were strung ten feet above the wall, and I could hear them buzzing. A pigeon soared overhead. Baldassar lit up, dragged hungrily, smoked down a half inch of her cigarette.
"Is there any chance we can talk confidentially?" she said.
"I'd like to promise you that," said Milo. "But if you've got knowledge of a crime-"
"No, it's nothing like that. And I never met the Cossack girl, though I do know that she was once a resident. But in terms of her family… let's just say they're not very popular around here."
"Why's that, ma'am?"
Baldassar smoked and shook her head. "I suppose if you dug around enough, you'd find out, anyway."
"Where should I be digging?"
"What, I should do your job for you?"
"I'll take anything I can get, ma'am," said Milo.
She smiled. "County records. I'll tell you what I know, but I can't have any of it traced back to me, okay?"
"I'm trusting you, Detective."
"Thank you, ma'am."
"And no more ma'ams please," she said. "I'm starting to feel like I'm in some old Dragnet script."
"Fair enough, Ms-"
Baldassar cut him off with a wave of her cigarette. "To make a long story exquisitely short, several years ago- seventeen or eighteen years ago, Achievement House ran into some severe financial problems due to bad investments. The board was comprised of stuffy old farts who were conservative with their personal fortunes but turned out to be a good deal more adventurous with Achievement House's endowment. Remember all that junk-bond foolishness? The board hired a money manager who traded Achievement House's blue chips for a whole slew of what ended up as worthless paper. At the time, the interest rates were enticing, and the income allowed the school to run at such a high paper profit that the board was starting to think Achievement House would pay for itself. Then everything crashed. And to make matters worse, the manager had taken out a second mortgage and bought additional bonds on margin. When everything hit the fan, Achievement House was way in the hole and facing foreclosure on the property."
"The rich old farts would've let that happen?"
"The rich old farts served on the board in order to feel noble and to get their names in the social pages during gala season. To make matters worse, there'd been a bit of unpleasantness with the director- your Mr. Larner. I know all this from Evelyn Luria. She briefed me before she left for Europe, but wouldn't give me details. But she did hint that it had been something of a sexual nature. Something that might've gotten the board members the worst type of publicity."
"So the school was in danger of closing down, and the board wouldn't go to bat."
"God, I hope this doesn't blow up, after all those years. I was looking at this job as a way to relax."
"Nothing will get traced to you, Ms. Baldassar. Now tell me why the Cossacks aren't popular."
"Because they came to the rescue- white knights- and then turned into something quite different."
"Caroline's father and brothers. The three of them had some kind of real estate business and they stepped in and renegotiated with the bank and got a better rate for the mortgage, then had Achievement House's deed signed over to them. For a while, they made payments, no questions asked. Then a couple of years later, they announced they were evicting the school because the land was too valuable for a nonprofit, they'd been buying up lots, had plans to develop the entire block."
She dropped her cigarette, ground it out with the toe of her pump.
"Achievement House is still here," said Milo. "What happened?"
"Threats, accusations, lawyers. The board and the Cossacks finally reached an agreement, but it meant dipping into some deep pockets in order to pay the Cossacks off. From what I was told, the outrage was compounded by the fact that Caroline Cossack's stay here had been a favor to the family. She didn't qualify."
"She was a psychiatric case- severe behavior problems, not learning disabilities."
"Custodial care?" I said.
"Yes, the rules were bent for her. Then, for her family to do that."
Milo said, "Do you have any records on Caroline?"
Baldassar hesitated. "Let me check- wait out here, please."
She reentered the building. I said, "I wonder if Michael Larner had something to do with the Cossacks trying to evict the school. After the board fired him, he wouldn't have been fond of the institution."
Milo kicked one of the Dumpsters. Another pigeon flew overhead. Then three more. "Airborne rats," he muttered. Barely audible, but the vibrations must have reached the birds, and they scattered.
Marlene Baldassar returned, another cigarette in one hand, a pink index card in another.
"No chart, all I found was this, listing the dates of her stay."
Milo took the card. "Admitted August 9, discharged December 22. But it doesn't say where she went."
"No it doesn't," said Baldassar.
"You don't hold on to old charts?"
"We do. It should be here." She studied Milo's face. "You're not shocked."
"Like you, I'm pretty much beyond being shockable, Ms. Baldassar. And I'm going to ask you to return the favor: Keep this visit confidential. For everyone's sake."
"No problem with that," said Baldassar. She took a deep drag, blew a smoke ring. "Here I thought it was going to be a lazy day, and it turned out to be heavy-duty déjà vu. Gentlemen, you brought back memories of my days with the county."
"How so?" I said.
"Problems that can't be solved with phonics and a credit card."
"Interesting time line," I said, as we headed for the car under the now-watchful eyes of the kids in the parking lot. "Janie Ingalls is murdered in early June. Two months later, Caroline gets checked into Achievement House and Willie shows up and works there for three weeks. Willie's fired, then he's busted for dope, gets Boris Nemerov to bail him out. When was Nemerov ambushed?"
"December 23," said Milo.
"The day after Caroline leaves Achievement House- voluntarily or otherwise. Maybe Willie took his girlfriend out, then took care of her. Or, Cossack family money found both of them a nice safe place to hide out. And one more thing: Georgie could've gotten nervous when you brought up Burns not because his men finished off his dad's killer but because they didn't. Were paid off not to."
"He accepted money to let his dad's murderer off the hook? Uh-uh, not Georgie."
"He and his mother were in severe financial straits. Maybe it took more than twenty-hour days and clever negotiating to keep the business going."
"No, I can't see it," he said. "Georgie's always been a straight-ahead guy."
"Yeah, I'm a font of knowledge. C'mon, let's go over to my place, have another look at that damn book."
Rick and Milo lived in a small, well-kept bungalow in West Hollywood, on a quiet, elm-darkened street further shadowed by Design Center's alarming blue bulk. Rick's white Porsche was gone and the blinds were drawn. A few years ago, L.A. suffered through a drought and Rick had the lawn dug up and replaced with pea gravel and gray-leafed desert plants. This year, L.A. had plenty of water but the xeriscape remained in place, bursts of tiny yellow blossoms punctuating the pallid vegetation.
I said, "The cactus are thriving."
Milo said, "Great. Especially when I come home in the dark and snag my pants."
"Nothing like seeing the bright side."
"That's my core philosophy," he said. "The glass is either half-empty or broken."
He unlocked the front door, disarmed the alarm, picked up the mail that had fallen through the slot and tossed it on a table without breaking stride. The kitchen often lures him in his own digs, too, but this time he walked through it into the service porch nook that serves as his office: a cramped, dim space, sandwiched between the washer-dryer and the freezer and smelling of detergent. He'd set it up with a hideous metal desk painted school-bus yellow, a folding chair, and a painted wooden shark-face lamp from Bali. The blue book sat in an oversize Ziploc bag, on the top shelf of a miniature bookcase bolted above the desk.
He gloved up, unbagged the book, flipped to Janie Ingalls's photo, and studied the death shot. "Any sudden insights?"
"Let's see what follows."
Only three more pages after Janie. A trio of crime-scene photos, all of the victims, young men. One black youth, two Hispanics, each sprawled on blood-splotched pavement. White lights on the corpses and dark periphery said nighttime death. A shiny revolver lay near the right hand of the final victim.
The first photo was labeled "Gang drive-by, Brooks St., Venice. One dead, two wounded."
Next: "Gang drive-by, Commonwealth and Fifth, Rampart."
Finally: "Gang drive-by, Central Ave."
"Three of a kind," I said. "That's kind of interesting."
"Until now there was variety."
Milo said, "Gang stuff… business as usual. Maybe Schwinn ran out of interesting pictures- if these took place after Janie, when he was already out of the department, he coulda had trouble getting hold of crime-scene shots. God only knows how he managed to get these." He closed the book. "You see any way drive-bys could be connected to Janie? I sure don't."
"Mind if I take another look?"
"Take as many looks as you want." He produced another pair of gloves from a desk drawer, and I slipped them on. As I turned to the first photo, he stepped around the washer-dryer and into the kitchen. I heard the fridge door creak open.
"Want something to drink?"
Heavy footsteps. A cabinet opened. Glass touched tile. "I'm gonna go check the mail."
I took my time with the crime-scene shots. Thinking about Schwinn, addicted to speed and divesting himself of worldly goods even as he held on to his purloined photos. Moving on to a life of serenity but assembling this leather-bound monstrosity in secrecy. As I turned pages- now-familiar pages- and images began to blur, I tore myself away from speculation and tried to focus on each brutal death.
The first go-round, I came up with nothing, but on the second circuit something made me pause.
The two photos that preceded Janie's death shot.
The second page back was a full-color medium-range shot of a thin, rangy black man whose skin had begun to fade to postmortem gray. His long body lay on brown dirt, and one arm curled toward his face, protectively. Gaping mouth, half-open, lifeless eyes, splayed limbs.
No blood. No visible wounds.
Drug OD, possible 187 hotshot.
The next page faced Janie's. I'd avoided it because it was one of the most repellent images in the book.
The camera had focused on a heap of mangled flesh, beyond recognition as human.
Hairless legs and a battered, concave pelvic section suggested a woman. The caption precluded the need for deduction.
Female Mental Case, fell or thrown in front of double tractor trailer.
I flipped back to the skinny black man.
Returned to the beginning of the murder book and double-checked.
Then I went to get Milo.
He was in the living room, studying his gas bill, a shot glass of something amber in his paw. "Finished?"
I said, "Come look at this."
He tossed back the rest of his drink, held on to the glass, and followed me.
I showed him the pictures preceding Janie. He said, "What's your point?"
"Two points," I said. "First of all, content: Right before Janie are a black drug-using male and a white woman with mental problems. Sound familiar? Second, context: These two deviate stylistically from every other photo in the book. Forty-one photos, including Janie's, list the location and the police division where the murder took place. These are the only two that don't. If Schwinn lifted the photos from police files, he had access to the data. Yet he left the locales out. Are you willing to consider a bit of psychological interpretation?"
"Schwinn being symbolic?" he said. "These two represent Willie Burns and Caroline Cossack?"
"They're missing information because they represent the missing Willie Burns and the missing Caroline Cossack. Schwinn designated no locations because Burns's and Cossack's whereabouts remain unknown. Then he followed up with Janie's picture and wrote NS for No Solve. Right after Janie, he placed three drive-bys, grouped together. I don't think that's a coincidence, either. He knew how you'd see them: business as usual, just like you said. He's outlining a process here: A missing black man and mentally ill white woman are connected to Janie, whose murder is never solved. On the contrary: She's abandoned, and then it's business as usual. He's describing the cover-up."
He pulled at his lower lip. "Games… pretty subtle."
"You said Schwinn was a devious sort," I said. "Suspicious, verging on paranoid. LAPD dumped him, but he continued to think like a rogue cop, played games to the end, in order to cover his rear. He decided to communicate with you, but set it up so that only you would get it. That way, if the book went astray, or was ever traced back to him, he could disclaim ownership. He took pains to make sure it wasn't traced to him- no fingerprints. Only you were likely to recall his photography hobby and make the connection. He might have planned to send you the book himself, but changed his mind and chose someone else as a go-between, as another layer of security."
He studied the dead black man. Paged to the truck-crash nightmare, then Janie. Repeated the process.
"Willie and Caroline's surrogates… too weird."
I pointed to the black man's corpse. "How old does he look to you?"
He squinted at the ashen face. "Forties."
"If Willie Burns were alive today, he'd be forty-three. That means Schwinn saw the dead man as a surrogate for Willie in the here and now. Both the pictures are faded, probably decades old. But Schwinn oriented them toward the present. Meaning he finished the book fairly recently, wanted to focus you on the present."
He rolled the empty shot glass between his palms. "Bastard was a good detective. If the department got rid of him because someone was worried about what he knew about Janie, that means they didn't worry about me."
"You were a rookie-"
"I was the dumb shit they figured would just follow orders. And guess what?" He laughed.
"It's likely when Schwinn learned he'd been forced out and you hadn't, it confirmed his suspicions of you. Maybe he figured you'd played a role in his dismissal. That's why he didn't tell you what he'd learned about Janie for years."
"And then he changed his mind."
"He came to admire you. Told Marge."
"Mr. Serenity," he said. "So he enlists his girlfriend or some old cop washout to serve as go-between. Why'd whoever it was wait until seven months after Schwinn died?"
I had no answer for that. Milo tried to pace, but the confined quarters of the laundry area made it a two-step exercise.
He said, "Then the guy falls off a horse."
"A horse so gentle Marge felt comfortable with Schwinn riding up into the hills alone. But Akhbar got spooked, anyway. Marge said, by 'something.' Maybe it was someone."
He stared past me, reentered the kitchen, washed out the shot glass, returned, and glared at the book. "Nothing says Schwinn's death wasn't an accident."
"Nothing at all."
He pressed his hands flat against the wall as if straining to push it down.
"Bastards," he said.
We sat down in his living room, each of us thinking in silence, neither of us coming up with anything. If he felt as weary as I did, he needed a break.
The phone rang. He snatched up the receiver. "This is him… what? Who- yes… one week. Yeah… I did… that's right. What's that? Yeah, I just told you that, anything else? Okay, then. Hey, listen, why don't you give me your name and number and I'll-"
The other party cut him off. He held the phone at arm's length, began gnawing his upper lip.
"Who was that?" I said.
"Some guy claiming to be from Department Personnel downtown, wanting to verify that I was indeed taking vacation time and how long did I plan to be away. I told him I'd filled out the forms."
"Claiming to be from Personnel?"
"I've never known the department to make calls like that, and he hung up when I asked his name. Also, he didn't sound like a department clerk."
"He sounded like he gave a damn."
He slipped the murder book back into the plastic bag, and said, "This goes in the safe."
"Didn't know you had a safe," I said.
"For all my Cartier and Tiffany. Wait here."
He disappeared and I stood there, humbled once more by the truism I'd learned a thousand patients ago: Everyone has secrets. At the core, we're alone.
That made me think of Robin. Where was she? What was she doing? With whom?
Milo returned, minus his necktie. "Hungry?"
"Good, let's eat."
He locked up and we got back in the car. I said, "That call from Personnel. Maybe procedures have tightened up with John Broussard in charge. Isn't troop discipline his pet issue?"
"Yeah. How about Hot Dog Heaven?"
I drove to San Vicente just north of Beverly and parked at the curb. Hot Dog Heaven was built around a giant hot dog, yet another testament to L.A.'s literal thinking. The fast-food joint became a landmark when the pony ride that had occupied the corner of La Cienega and Beverly for decades was replaced by the neon-and-concrete assault known as the Beverly Center. Too bad Philip K. Dick had committed suicide. A few years later and he'd have seen Blade Runner spring to life. Or maybe he'd known what was coming.
Back during pony-ride days, the dirt track had been a favorite weekend visitation hangout for divorced dads and their kids. Hot Dog Heaven had thrived peddling nitrites to lonely men who smoked and hung around the low-slung corral, watching their progeny go round and round. Where did displaced dads go now? Not the mall. The last thing kids at the mall wanted was proximity to their parents.
Milo ordered two jumbo chili cheese dogs with extra onions, and I got a knockwurst. We filled out the bill with two large Cokes and sat down to eat as traffic roared by. It was late for lunch and early for dinner and only two other tables were occupied, an old woman reading the paper and a tall, long-haired youth in hospital blues- probably a Cedars-Sinai intern.
Milo wolfed the first chili dog without the aid of respiration. After tweezing every scrap of cheese from the wax paper with his fingers, he gulped Coke and got to work on the second. He finished that one, too, sprang up, and bought a third. My wurst tasted fine, but it was all I could do to feign hunger.
He was counting his change when a bronze Jeep Cherokee parked in front of my Seville and a man got out and walked past me toward the counter. Black suit, pearl shirt, soot-colored tie. Smiling. That's what made me notice him. A big, wide, toothy grin, as if he'd just received terrific news. I watched him stride quickly to the counter and come to a stop just behind Milo, where he waited, bouncing on his heels. His black suede loafers were lifted by two-inch heels. Without them he was an easy six feet. He stood close to Milo, kept bouncing. Milo didn't seem to notice. Something made me put down the wurst and keep my eyes on both of them.
Smiley was thirty or so, with dark hair gelled and combed back, curling over his collar. Big-jawed face, prominent nose, golden tan. The suit was well cut- Italian or pretending to be, and it looked brand-new, as did the suede shoes. The gray shirt was satin-finish silk, the tie a bulky knit. Dressed for an audition as a game show host?
He edged even closer to Milo. Said something. Milo turned and answered.
Milo picked up his food and returned to the table.
"Friendly sort?" I said.
"The guy behind you. He's been smiling since he left that Jeep."
"So what's to smile about?"
Milo allowed his own mouth to curl upward. But he let his eyes drift back to the counter, where the smiling man was now conversing with the counter girl. "Anything other than that bother you about him?"
"He was standing close enough to you to smell your cologne."
"If I wore any," he said, but he continued to watch the goings-on at the counter. Finally sat back and sank his teeth into the third chili dog. "Nothing like health food." He regarded my half-finished wurst. "What's with the anorexia?"
"Just out of curiosity, what did he say to you up there?"
"Oh, boy…" He shook his head. "He wanted to know what was good, okay? I told him I liked anything with chili. Heavy-duty intrigue."
I smiled. "Or flirting."
"Oh, sure, strangers always come up and hit on me. The old fatal charm and all that."
But he hazarded another glance at the counter where Smiley was still gabbing with the girl as he paid for his dog. Plain, no chili. He sat down at the table closest to ours, unfolded a napkin over his lap, flipped his hair, beamed at Milo, said. "Chickened out on the chili."
Smiley laughed. Tugged at his lapel. Took a bite. A dainty little bite that didn't alter the shape of the hot dog.
I mumbled, "Fatal charm."
Milo said, "Enough," and wiped his face.
Smiley continued to nibble without making much progress. Dabbed his chin. Showed off his dental work. Made several attempts at catching Milo's eye. Milo moved his bulk around, stared at the ground.
Smiley said, "These really are a mouthful."
I fought back laughter.
Milo nudged my arm. "Let's go."
We stood. Smiley said, "Have a nice day."
He got to his feet as we reached the car and jogged toward us, sandwich in one hand, the other waving.
"What the hell," said Milo and his hand sidled under his coat.
Smiley reached into his own jacket and all at once Milo had interposed himself between the stranger and me. A flesh barrier, immense; tension seemed to enlarge him. Then he relaxed. Smiley was still waving, but the something in his hand was small and white. A business card.
"Sorry for being so forward, but I… here's my number. Call me if you'd like."
"Why would I do that?" said Milo.
Smiley's lips drew back, and his grin morphed into something hungry and unsettling. "Because you never know."
He dangled the card.
Milo stood there.
Smiley said, "Oh, well," and placed the card on the hood of the Seville. His new face was serious, vulpine, purposeful. He trotted away from us, tossed the uneaten hot dog in the trash, got into the Jeep, and sped away as Milo hustled to copy down his license plate. He picked the card off the hood, read it and handed it to me.
Off-white vellum with a faintly greasy feel, engraved letters.
Paris M. Bartlett
Below that, a cell phone number.
" 'Because you never know,' " said Milo. "Health facilitator. Do I look sick?"
"Other than stains on your shirt you look perfectly put-together."
"Health facilitator," he repeated. "Sounds like something from the AIDS industry." He pulled out his cell phone and jabbed in Paris Bartlett's number. Frowned again. "No longer in service. What the hell…"
"Time to DMV the plates?" I said.
"DMV'ing is illegal when I'm on vacation. Using departmental resources for personal reasons, big no-no."
"John G. would disapprove mightily."
"Mightily." He made the call to State Motor Vehicles, recited the plate, waited a while, wrote something down. "The plates belong to a two-year-old Jeep, so that's kosher. Registered to the Playa del Sol Corporation. The address is right here in West Hollywood. I recognize it. Parking lot of the Healthy Foods market on Santa Monica. There's a post-office box outlet there. I know because I used to rent there myself."
"Long time ago."
A safe. A POB. All the new things I was learning about my friend.
"Dead number, shadow address," I said. "Playa del Sol could be nothing more than a cardboard box in someone's apartment, but it does have the ring of a real estate outfit."
"As in the Cossacks." He studied the card. "That and the call about my vacation time. Right after we talk to Marlene Baldassar. Maybe she can't be trusted."
Or maybe he hadn't covered his trail. I said, "It could be just a pickup attempt." But I knew that was wrong. Paris Bartlett had bounded out of his car with clear intention.
He slipped the card in his pocket. "Alex, I grew up in a big family, never got much attention, never developed a taste for it. I need some alone time."
I drove him back to his place, and he hurtled out of the Seville, mumbled something that might've been, "Thanks," slammed the door, and loped toward his front door.
I made it to my own front door thirty-five minutes later, told myself I'd be able to walk right past the phone. But the red blinking 1 on the answering machine snagged me, and I stabbed the message button.
Robin's voice: "Looks like I missed you again, Alex. There's another change in schedule, we're adding an extra day in Vancouver, maybe the same in Denver. It's crazy around here, I'll be in and out." Two-second delay, then several decibels lower: "I love you."
Obligatory add-on? Unlike Pierce Schwinn, I didn't need drugs to prime the paranoia pump.
I phoned the Four Seasons Seattle again and asked for Ms. Castagna's room. This time if they gave me voice mail, I'd leave a message.
But a man answered. Young, one of those laughing voices. Familiar.
Sheridan. He of the ponytail, the cheerful outlook, and the Milk-Bone for Spike.
"Robin? Oh hi. Yeah, sure."
Seconds later: "This is Robin."
"And this is Alex."
"Oh… hi. Finally."
"Finally we connect. Is everything okay?"
"Everything's peachy," I said. "Am I interrupting something?"
"What- oh, Sheridan? No, we were just finishing up a meeting. A bunch of us."
"I've got time, now. So how are you? Busy yourself?"
This was too much like small talk, and it depressed me. "Muddling along. How's Spike?"
"Thriving. There's a bunch of other dogs along for the ride, so there's a nice kennel space. Spike's getting pretty sociable. There's an eighty-pound shepherd bitch who seems to have caught his fancy."
"Does the kennel space include a ladder for him to reach her?"
She laughed, but sounded tired. "So…"
I said, "So are you getting in any social time?"
"I'm working, Alex. We're putting in twelve-, thirteen-hour days."
"Sounds tough. I miss you."
"Miss you, too. We both knew this would be difficult."
"Then we were both right."
"Honey- hold on, Alex… someone just stuck their head in." Her voice got muffled and distant; hand over the phone. "I'll see what I can do, give me a little time on it, okay? When's sound-check? That soon? Okay, sure." Back to me: "As you can see I haven't had much solitude."
"I've had plenty."
"Yes," she said. "We both like our solitude, right?"
"You can have yours back anytime."
"I can't exactly walk out on everyone."
"No," I said. "As Richard Nixon said, that would be wrong."
"I mean I- if there was some easy- if that would really make you happy, I'd do it."
"It would ruin your reputation."
"It sure wouldn't help it."
"You're committed," I said. "Don't worry about it." Why the hell is Sheridan so happy?
"Alex, when I do get a minute to breathe, I think of you, wonder if I did the right thing. Then I plan all the things I'm going to tell you, but then when we finally talk… it doesn't seem to go the way I'd planned."
"Absence makes the heart cranky?"
"Not my heart."
"Guess it's me, then," I said. "Guess I don't do well with separation. Never got used to it."
"Used to it?" she said. "Your parents?"
My parents were the last thing I'd thought of. Now bad old memories ignited: the wasting away of the two people who'd brought me into this world, bedside vigils, a pair of funerals in as many years.
"No," I said. "I was just talking generally."
"You sound upset," she said. "I didn't mean to-"
"You didn't do anything."
"What did you mean by that? Never getting used to separation?"
"Random blather," I said.
"Are you saying that even when we were together you felt abandoned? That I neglected you? Because I-"
"No," I said. "You've always been there for me." Except for the other time you left.
Except for finding another man and- "It really was blather, Rob. Put it down to missing you."
"Alex, if this is really bad for you, I'll come home."
"No," I said. "I'm a big boy. It wouldn't be good for you. For either of us."
And I've got things on my plate. Little odd jobs, the kind you hate.
"That's true," she said. "But just say the word."
"The word is I love you."
"That's three words."
She laughed. Finally. I uttered a few pleasantries, and she did the same. When we hung up she sounded okay, and I figured I faked it pretty well.
Milo claimed to want "alone time," but I figured he'd be nosing around on the fringes of the LAPD bureaucracy.
If the call from Personnel and/or the encounter with the toothy Paris Bartlett did have something to do with his raking up the Ingalls case, that meant he- we had been tagged, were being watched.
Marlene Baldassar as the source didn't sit right with me, and I thought about the trail we might've left.
My solo activities had consisted of the call to Larry Daschoff, dinner with Allison Gwynn, computer work at the Research Library. None of that was likely to attract attention.
Together, Milo and I had interviewed Marge Schwinn and Baldassar and Georgie Nemerov. I supposed either woman could've reported the conversation, but neither had been hostile, and I couldn't see why they'd have bothered.
Nemerov, on the other hand, had grown antsy when talking about his father's murder and Willie Burns's skip. Nemerov's bail bond business gave him close ties to the department. If John G. Broussard had been part of a fix, the department would care.
A third possibility was Milo's solo work on Janie Ingalls had attracted attention. As far as I knew that had been limited to phone work and unearthing old files. But he'd worked at the West L.A. station, sneaked around Parker Center.
Thinking he'd been discreet but he could've invited scrutiny- from clerks, other cops, anyone in a position to witness him nosing. John G. Broussard had sent a clear directive to tighten up discipline among the rank and file. The new chief had also waged war on the blue code of silence- talk about irony. Maybe cops informing on cops was the new LAPD zeitgeist.
The more I thought about that, the more it made sense: Milo was a pro, but he'd taken too much for granted.
Procedurally, he'd been outed.
That made me think about his continuing vulnerability. Twenty years in the department with one of the highest solve rates in Homicide, but that wasn't enough, would never be enough.
For two decades he'd functioned as a gay man in a paramilitary organization that would never be free of gut-level bias and still hadn't acknowledged the existence of homosexual cops. I knew- everyone knew- that scores of gay officers patrolled the streets, but not a single one had gone public. Neither had Milo, in a strict sense, but after those first brutal years of self-torment he had stopped hiding.
Department statisticians were happy to file his solves in the Assets column but the brass continued to retard his progress and made periodic attempts to get rid of him. Milo had collected secrets of his own along the way, finally managed to leverage his way to relative job security and seniority. He'd turned down the offer to take the lieutenant's exam twice because he knew the department's real intention was to shunt him to some desk job where they could pretend he didn't exist, while boring him to the point of voluntary retirement. Instead, he'd stayed on the detective track, had taken it as far as it would go: to Detective-III.
Maybe Pierce Schwinn had followed all that, come to respect Milo for holding his own. Offered Milo a perverse gift.
Normally, nothing heated Milo's blood like a good cold case. But this was a rethaw from his own past, and perhaps he'd gotten careless and turned himself into prey.
I thought of how Paris Bartlett had targeted Milo, ignored me.
Meaning I had room to move.
The timing was perfect, the logic exquisite: What were friends for?
Alone, at his crappy little piss-colored desk, the washer churning the clothes he'd just loaded for background noise, Milo felt better.
Free of Alex, he felt better.
Because Alex's mind could be a scary thing- cerebral flypaper; stuff flew in but never left. His friend was capable of sitting quietly for long stretches when you'd think he was listening- actively listening the way they'd taught him in shrink school- then he'd let loose a burst of associations and hypotheses and apparently unrelated trivialities that turned out too often to be right-on.
Houses of cards that, more often than not, withstood the wind. Milo on the receiving end of the nonstop volleys, felt like a wobbly sparring partner.
Not that Alex pushed. He just kept supposing. Suggesting. Another shrink tactic. Try ignoring any of it.
Milo had never met anyone smarter or more decent than Alex, but hanging with the guy could be draining. How many nights' sleep had he lost because one of his friend's suggestions had hooked a barb in his brain?
But for all his bloodhound instincts, Alex was a civilian and out of his element. And he'd failed to mature in one regard: had never developed a proper sense of threat.
In the beginning, Milo had attributed it to the carelessness of an overenthusiastic amateur. It hadn't taken long to learn the truth: Alex got off on danger.
Robin understood that, and it scared her. Over the years she'd confided her fears to Milo- more nuance than complaint. And when the three of them were together and Alex and Milo lapsed into the wrong type of conversation and her face changed, Milo caught it quickly and changed the subject. Strangely enough, Alex, for all his perceptiveness, sometimes missed it.
Alex had to realize how Robin felt, yet he made no effort to change. And Robin put up with it. Love is blind and deaf and dumb… maybe she'd simply made a commitment and was smart enough to know it was damn near impossible to change anyone.
But now, she'd gone on that tour. And taken the dog. For some reason that felt wrong- the damn pooch. Alex was claiming to be okay, but that first day Milo'd dropped in, he'd looked really bad, and even now, he was different… distracted.
Something was off.
Or maybe not.
He'd poked a bit at Alex's resistance. Playing shrink to the shrink and why the hell shouldn't he? How could you have a real friendship when the therapy went only one way? But no luck. Alex talked the talk- openness, communication blah blah blah, but in his own articulate, empathetic, ever-so-disgustingly civilized way, the guy was pain-in-the-ass, dead-end immovable.
Now that he thought about it, had Alex ever been deterred? Milo couldn't remember a single instance.
Alex did exactly what Alex wanted to do.
And Robin… Milo'd offered his smoothest reassurances. And he supposed he'd done a decent job of keeping Alex out of harm's way. But there were limits.
Everyone stood alone.
He got up, poured himself a vodka and pink-grapefruit juice, rationalizing that the vitamin C counteracted the oxidation, but wondering how closely his liver resembled that medical journal photo Rick had shown him last month.
Erosion of hepatic tissue and replacement with fatty globules due to advanced cirrhosis.
Rick never pushed either, but Milo knew he wasn't happy with the fresh bottle of Stoli in the freezer.
Switch channels: back to Alex.
Other people's problems were so much more engaging.
He walked half a mile to a Budget Rent-a-Car on La Cienega and got himself a fresh blue Taurus. Driving east on Santa Monica, he crossed into Beverly Hills, then West Hollywood. Not much traffic past Doheny Drive, but at the West Hollywood border the boulevard had been narrowed to one lane in either direction and the few cars in sight were crawling.
West Hollywood, The City That Never Stopped Decorating, had been digging up the streets for years, plunging businesses into bankruptcy and accomplishing little Milo could see other than a yawning stretch of dirt piles and ditches. Last year, the ribbon had been cut on a spanking new West Hollywood fire station. One of those architectural fancies- peaks and troughs and gimcracks and weird-shaped windows. Cute, except the doors had proved too narrow for the fire engines to squeeze through, and the poles didn't allow the firefighters to slide down. This year, West Hollywood had embarked on a sister-city deal with Havana. Milo doubted Fidel would approve of Boystown nightlife.
Among the few businesses the roadwork couldn't kill were the all-night markets and the gay bars. A guy had to eat and a guy had to party. Milo and Rick stayed in most nights- how long had it been since he'd cruised?
And now, here he was.
He found himself smiling, but it felt like someone else's mirth.
Because what the hell was there to be happy about? Pierce Schwinn and/or a confederate had manipulated him into warming up Ingalls, he'd accomplished nothing but had managed to screw up royally.
Playa del Sol. That toothy putz Paris Bartlett. First thing he did after ditching Alex was to check city records for a business registration on Playa. Nothing. Then he ran Bartlett through every database he could think of. Like that could be a real name.
Taking a giant risk because what he'd told Alex had been true: As a civilian he was forbidden to use departmental resources, he was treading felonious water. He'd put up a firewall by using the ID numbers of other cops for the requests. Half a dozen IDs of cops he didn't care for, jumping around different divisions. His version of identity theft; he'd been collecting data for years, stashing loose bits of paper in his home safe because you never knew when your back was gonna be against the wall. But if someone tried hard enough, the calls could be traced back to him.
Clever boy, but the search had been futile: no such person as Paris Bartlett.
Which he supposed he'd known right away, apart from the moniker having a phony ring, Bartlett, all hair and teeth and eagerness, had had that actor thing going on. In L.A. that didn't necessarily mean a SAG card and a portfolio full of headshots. LAPD liked guys who were good at pretending, too. Channeled them into undercover work. Nowadays, that meant mostly Narcotics, occasionally Vice when the word came down to run yet another week or two of hooker rousts for public relations.
Years ago undercover had meant another Vice game, a regularly scheduled weekend production: Friday and Saturday night operations put together with military lust. Staking out targets and delineating the enemy and moving in for the attack.
Bust the queers.
Not naked aggression, the way it had been back before Christopher Street, when gay bars were ripe for routine, big-time head-breaking. Most of that ended by the early seventies, but Milo had caught the tail end of the department's fag-bashing fervor: LAPD masked the raids as drug busts, as if hetero clubs weren't fueled by the same dope. During his first month at West L.A. he'd been assigned to a Saturday night bivouac against a private club on Sepulveda near Venice. Out-of-the-way dive in a former auto-painting barn where a hundred or so well-heeled men, believing themselves to be secure, went to talk and dance and smoke grass and gobble quaaludes and enjoy the bathroom stalls. LAPD had a different notion of security. The way the supervisor- a hypermacho D II named Reisan who Milo was certain was tucked deeply in the closet- laid out the plan, you'da thought it was a swoop on some Cong hamlet. Squinty eyes, military lingo, triangulated diagrams scrawled on the board, give me a break.
Milo sat through the orientation, struggling not to succumb to a full-body sweat. Reisan going on about coming down hard on resisters, don't be shy about using your batons. Then, leering, and warning the troops not to kiss anyone because you didn't know where those lips had been. Looking straight at Milo when he'd cracked wise, Milo laughing along with the others and wondering: Why-the-hell-is-he-doing-that? Fighting to convince himself he'd imagined it.
The day of the raid, he called in sick with the flu, stayed in bed for three days. Perfectly healthy, but he worked hard at degrading himself by not sleeping or eating, just sucking on gin and vodka and rye and peach brandy and whatever else he found in the cupboard. Figuring if the department checked on him, he'd look like death warmed over.
V.N. combat vet, now a real-life working detective, but he was still thinking like a truant high school kid.
Over the three days, he lost eight pounds, and when he stood his legs shook and his kidneys ached and he wondered if that yellow tinge in his eyes was real or just bad lighting- his place was a dingy hovel, the few windows it offered looked out to airshafts, and no matter how many bulbs he used, he could never get the illumination above tomb-strength.
The first time in three days that he tried food- a barely warmed can of Hearty Man chili- what he didn't heave whooshed out the other end. He smelled like a goat pen, his hair felt brittle, and his fingernails were getting soft. For a full week later, his ears rang and his back hurt and he drank gallons of water a day just in case he'd damaged something. The day he returned to the station, a transfer slip- Vice to Auto Theft, signed by Reisan- was in his box. That seemed a fine state of affairs. Two days later, someone slipped a note through the door of his locker.
How's your bunghole, faggot?
He pulled into the Healthy Foods lot, stayed in the Taurus, scanned the parking lot for anything out of the ordinary. During the drive from his house to the station, then from Budget to the market, he'd been on alert for a tail. Hadn't picked up any, but this wasn't the movies, and the hard truth was, in a city built around the combustion engine, you could never be sure.
He watched shoppers enter the market, finally satisfied himself that he hadn't been followed, and crossed over to the row of small stores- rehabbed shacks, really- that sat across from Healthy Foods. Locksmith, dry cleaners, cobbler, West Hollywood Easy Mail Center.
He flashed his badge to the Pakistani behind the mail-drop counter- pile up those violations, Sturgis- and inquired about the box number listed on the Jeep's registration. The clerk was sullen, but he thumbed through his circular Rolodex and shook his head.
"No Playa del Sol." Behind him was the wall of brass boxes. A sign advertised FedEx, UPS, rubber stamps, While-U-Wait gift-wrapping. Milo spotted no ribbons or happy-face wrapping paper. This was all about secrets.
"When did they stop renting?" he said.
"Had to be at least a year ago."
"How do you know?"
"Because the current tenant has been renting for thirteen months."
Tenant. Milo pictured some leprechaun setting up house in the mailbox. Tiny stove, refrigerator, Murphy bed, thumbnail-sized cable TV blaring The Pot of Gold Network.
"Who's the current tenant?" he said.
"You know I can't tell you that, sirrr."
"Aw shucks," said Milo, producing a twenty-dollar bill. Keep those felonies coming…
The Pakistani stared at the bill as Milo placed it on the counter, closed his hand over Andrew Jackson's gaunt visage. Then he turned his back on Milo and began fiddling with one of the empty mailboxes and Milo reached over and took hold of the Rolodex and read the card.
Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Block
Address on Cynthia Street. Just a few blocks away.
"Know these people?" said Milo.
"Old people," said the Pakistani, still showing his back. "She comes in every week, but they don't get anything."
"Once in a while, junk."
"Then why do they need a POB?"
The clerk faced him and smiled. "Everyone needs one- tell all your friends." He reached for the Rolodex, but Milo held on to it, thumbing back from Bl to Ba. No Bartlett. Then up to P. No Playa del Sol.
The Pakistani said, "Stop, please. What if someone comes in?"
Milo released the Rolodex, and the clerk placed it under the counter.
"How long have you been working here?"
"Oh," said the clerk, as if the question was profound. "Ten months."
"So you've never dealt with anyone from Playa del Sol."
"That is true."
"Who worked here before you?"
"Where is he?"
Milo glared at him.
"It's true," said the man. "He had enough of this place."
"America. The morals."
No curiosity about why Milo wanted to know about Playa del Sol. Given the guy's line of work, Milo supposed he'd learned not to be curious.
Milo thanked him, and the clerk rubbed his index finger with his thumb. "You could show your thanks in another way."
"Okay," said Milo, taking a very low bow. "Thank you very much."
As he left, he heard the man utter something in a language he didn't understand.
He drove to the Cynthia Street apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Block, pretended to be a census taker, and enjoyed an affable five-minute chat with the possibly hundred-year-old Selma Block, a blue-caftaned, champagne-haired pixie of a woman so bent and tiny she might very well have fit into one of the mailboxes. Behind her sat Mr. Block on a green-and-gold sofa, a mute, static, vacant-eyed apparition of similar antiquity whose sole claim to physiologic viability was the occasional moist and startling throat clear.
Five minutes taught Milo more about the Blocks than he'd wanted to know. Both had worked in the Industry- Selma as a costume mistress for several major studios, Irwin as an accountant for MGM. Three children lived back East. One was an orthodontist, the middle one had gone into "the financial world and became a Republican, and our daughter weaves and sews hand-fashioned-"
"Is this the only address you keep, ma'am?" said Milo, pretending to write everything down but doodling curlicues. No chance of Mrs. B. spotting the ruse. The top of her head was well below the pad.
"Oh, no, dear. We keep a post-office box over by the Healthy Foods."
"Why's that, ma'am?"
"Because we like to eat healthy."
"Why the post-office box, ma'am?"
Selma Block's tiny claw took hold of Milo's sleeve, and he felt as if a cat was using his arm for a spring post.
"Politics, dear. Political mailers."
"Oh," said Milo.
"What party do you belong to, dear?"
"I'm an independent."
"Well, dear, we like the Green Party- rather subversive, you know." The claw dug in deeper.
"You keep the box for Green Party mailers?"
"Oh, yes," said Selma Block. "You're too young, but we remember the way it used to be."
"The way it used to be when?"
"The old days. Those House UnAmerican fascists. That louse McCarthy."
Refusing the invitation to stay for tea and cookies, he extricated himself from Mrs. Block and drove around aimlessly, trying to figure out his next move.
Playa del Sol. Alex was right, it did have that real estate ring, so maybe the Cossacks did have their hand in this- assisted by LAPD.
The fix. Again.
Early on, he'd looked up Cossack Development's address, found it on Wilshire in Mid-City, but he hadn't retained the numbers in his head- those days were gone- so he called Information and fixed the placement between Fairfax and La Brea.
The sky was dark and traffic had started to thin and he made it over in less than a quarter hour.
The Cossack brothers had headquartered themselves in a three-story pink granite, ziggurat-dominated complex that occupied a full city block just east of the County Art Museum. Years ago, this had been junk real estate- the fringes of the pathetically misnamed Miracle Mile. Back in the forties, The Mile's construction had been an historic first: a commercial strip with feeble street appeal but entry through the rear parking lots- yet another symptom of L.A.'s postwar infatuation with The Car. Twenty years later, westward flight had left the central city area a sump of poorly maintained buildings and low-rent businesses, and the only miracle was that any part of The Mile survived.
Now, the current cycle: urban renewal. County Art- not much in the way of a museum, but the courtyard did offer free concerts and L.A. didn't expect much- had spawned other museums- tributes to dolls, folk art, and most effectively, The Car. Big, glossy office structures had followed. If the Cossacks had gotten in early and owned the land under the pink granite thing, they'd made out well.
He parked on a side street, climbed wide, slick granite steps past a huge, shallow black pool filled with still water and dotted with pennies, and entered the lobby. Guard desk to the right, but no guard. Half the lights were off and the cavernous space echoed. The complex was divided into east and west wings. Most of the tenants were financial and showbiz outfits. Cossack Industries took up the third floor of the east wing.
He rode the elevator, stepped into an unfurnished, white-carpeted, white-walled space. One big abstract lithograph greeted him- yellow and white and amorphous, maybe some genius's notion of a soft-boiled egg- then, to the left, double, white doors. Locked. No sound from the other side.
The elevator door closed behind him. Turning, he stabbed the button and waited for it to return.
Back on Wilshire, he continued to study the building. Lot of lights were on, including several on the third floor. A couple of weeks ago, the state had warned of impending power shortages, urged everyone to conserve. Either the Cossacks didn't care, or someone was working late.
He rounded the corner, returned to the Taurus, reversed direction, and parked with a clear view of the building's subterranean parking lot. Fighting back that old feeling: wasted hours, stakeout futility. But stakeouts were like Vegas slots: Once in a great while something paid off, and what better basis for addiction?
Twenty-three minutes later, the lot's metal grate slid open and a battered Subaru emerged. Young black woman at the wheel, talking on a cell phone. Six minutes after that: a newish BMW. Young white guy with spiked hair, also gabbing on cell, oblivious, he nearly missed colliding with a delivery truck. Both drivers traded insults and bird-flips. The streets were safe, tonight.
Milo waited another half hour, was just about to split, when the grate yawned once more and a soot gray Lincoln Town Car nosed out. Vanity plates: CCCCCCC. Windows tinted well past the legal limit- even the driver's pane- but otherwise nice and conservative.
The Lincoln stopped at the red light at Wilshire, then turned west. Traffic was heavy enough for Milo to obtain cover two lengths behind, but sufficiently fluid to allow a nice, easy tail.
Perfect. For what it was worth.
He followed the gray Lincoln half a mile west to San Vicente Boulevard, then north to Melrose and west again to Robertson, where the Town Car pulled into the front lot of a restaurant on the southwest corner.
Brushed steel door. Matching steel nameplate above the door, engraved heavily:
Sangre de Leon.
New place. The last time Milo had taken the time to look, an Indonesian-Irish fusion joint had occupied the corner. Before that had been some kind of Vietnamese bistro run by a celebrity chef from Bavaria and bankrolled by movie stars. Milo figured the patrons had never served in the military.
Before that, he recalled at least six other start-up trendolas in as many years, new owners refurbishing, grand opening, garnering the usual breathless puff pieces in L.A. Magazine and Buzz, only to close a few months later.
Bad-luck corner. Same for the site across the street- the bamboo-faced one-story amorphoid that had once been a Pacific Rim seafood palace was now shuttered, a heavy chain drawn across its driveways.
Sangre de Leon. Lion's Blood. Appetizing. He wouldn't take bets on this one enduring longer than a bout of indigestion.
He found a dark spot across Robertson, parked diagonal to the restaurant, turned off his headlights. The rest of the decor was windowless gray stucco and sprigs of tall, bearded grass that looked like nothing other than dry weeds. An army of pink-jacketed valets- all good-looking and female- hovered at the mouth of the lot. Stingy lot; the seven Mercedes parked there filled it.
The Town Car's chauffeur- a big, thick bouncer type nearly as large as Georgie Nemerov's hunters- jumped out and sprang a rear door. A chesty, puffy-faced guy in his forties with sparse, curly hair got out first. His face looked as if it had been used as a waffle iron. Milo recognized Garvey Cossack right away. The guy had put on weight since his most recent newspaper photo, but not much else about him had changed. Next came a taller, soft-looking character with a shaved bullet head and a Frank Zappa mustache that drooped to his chin- little brother Bobo, minus his slicked-back hairdo. Middle-aged sap doing the youth-culture thing? Cranial skin as a proud badge of rebellion? Either way, the guy enjoyed mirror time.
Garvey Cossack wore a dark sport coat with padded shoulders over a black turtleneck, black slacks. Below the slacks, white running shoes- now there was a touch of elegance.
Bobo had on a too-small black leather bomber jacket, too-tight black jeans and black T-shirt, too-high black boots. Black-lensed shades, too. Call the paramedics, we've got an emergency overdose of cool.
A third man exited the Lincoln, and the big chauffeur let him close his own door.
Number Three was dressed the way businessmen used to dress in L.A. Dark suit, white shirt, undistinguished tie, normal shoes. Shorter than the Cossack brothers, he had narrow shoulders and a subservient stoop. Saggy, wrinkled face, though he didn't appear any older than the Cossacks. Miniscule oval eyeglasses and long, blond hair that shagged over his collar fought the Joe-Corporate image. The top of his scalp was mostly bald spot.
Mini-Specs hung back as the Cossacks entered the restaurant, Garvey in a flat-footed waddle, Bobo swaggering and bopping his head in time to some private melody. The chauffeur returned to the car and began backing out, and Specs walked past the pink ladies' expectant smiles. The Town Car turned south on Robertson, drove a block, pulled to the curb, went dark.
Specs remained out in the lot for a few seconds, looking around- but at nothing in particular. Facing the Taurus, but Milo caught no sign the guy saw anything that bothered him. No, this one was just full of random nervous energy- hands flexing, neck rotating, mouth turned down, the tiny lenses of his glasses darting and catching street light, a pair of reflective eggs.
Guy made him think of a crooked accountant on audit day. Finally, Specs ran his finger under his collar, rotated his shoulders, and made his way to the pleasures of leonine hemoglobin.
No additional diners materialized during the thirty-seven minutes Milo sat there. When one of the untipped valets looked at her watch, stepped out to the sidewalk, and lit up a cigarette, he got out of the Taurus and loped across the street.
The girl was a gorgeous, little red-haired thing with blue-blue eyes so vivid the color made its way through the night. Maybe twenty. She noticed Milo approaching, kept smoking. The cigarette was wrapped in black paper and had a gold tip. Shermans? Did they still make those?
She looked up when he was three feet away and smiled through the cloud of nicotine that swirled in the warm night air.
Smiling because Milo had his latest bribe visible. Two twenties folded between his index and tall fingers, backed by a freelance journalist cover story. Forty bucks was double what he'd paid the Pakistani POB clerk but the valet- her tag said Val- was a helluva lot cuter than the clerk. And as it turned out, a lot easier to deal with.
Ten minutes later he was back in the Taurus, cruising past the Town Car. Mt. Chauffeur was snoozing with his mouth open. A shaved-head Latino guy. The redhead had supplied Mini-Spec's ID.
"Oh, that's Brad. He works with Mr. Cossack and his brother."
"Mr. Garvey Cossack. And his brother." Blue-eyed glance back at the restaurant. "He co-owns this place, along with…" A string of celebrity names followed. Milo pretended to be impressed.
"Must be a jumping place."
"It was when it opened."
"No more, huh?"
"You know," she said, rolling her eyes.
"How's the food?"
The parking cutie smiled and smoked and shook her head. "How would I know? It's like a hundred bucks a plate. Maybe when I get my first big part."
Her laugh was derisive. She added: "Maybe when pigs fly." So young, so cynical.
"Hollywood," said Milo.
"Yeah." Val looked back again. All the other girls were loafing, and a few were smoking. Probably keeping their weight down, thought Milo. Any of them could've modeled.
Val lowered her voice to a whisper: "Tell the truth, I hear the food sucks."
"The name can't help. Lion's Blood."
"Ick. Isn't that gross?"
"What kind of cuisine is it?"
"Ethiopian, I think. Or something African. Maybe also Latino, I dunno- Cuban, maybe? Sometimes they've got a band and from out here it sounds kind of Cuban." Her hips pistoned, and she snapped her fingers. "I hear it's on its way out."
"No, silly. This place."
"Time for a new job?" said Milo.
"No prob, there's always bar mitzvahs." Stubbing out her cigarette, she said, "You don't happen to ever work for Variety, do you? Or The Hollywood Reporter?"
"Mostly I do wire service stuff."
"Someone's interested in the restaurant?"
Milo shrugged. "I drive around. You've got to dig if you wanna find oil."
She looked at the Taurus and her next smile was ripe with sympathy. Another L.A. loser. "Well, if you ever do Variety, remember this name: Chataqua Dale."
Milo repeated it. "Nice. But so is Val."
A cloud of doubt washed over the blue eyes. "You really think so? 'Cause I was wondering if Chataqua was maybe, you know, over the top."
"No," said Milo. "It's great."
"Thanks." She touched his arm, let the cigarette drop to the pavement, ground out the butt, got a dreamy look in her eyes. Audition fever. "Well, gotta go."
"Thanks for your time," said Milo, reaching into his pocket and slipping her another twenty.
"You are soooo nice," she said.
"Oh, I bet you are- let me ask you, you meet people, right? Know any decent agents? 'Cause mine is an asshole."
"Only agents of destruction," he said.
Puzzlement lent the beautiful young face temporary complexity. Then her actor's instincts cut in: Still not comprehending, but recognizing a cue, she smiled and touched his arm again. "Right. See you around."
"Bye," said Milo. "By the way, what does Brad do?"
"Walks around with them," she said.
"A walking-around guy."
"You got it- they all need them."
"Rich types with gross bodies."
"Know Brad's last name?"
"Larner. Brad Larner. He's kind of a jerk."
"He's just a jerk," said Val. "Not friendly, never smiles, never tips. A jerk."
He drove the two blocks to Santa Monica Boulevard, made a right turn, and circled back to Melrose, this time approaching the corner from the east and parking just up from the shuttered Chinese place. The rest of the boulevard was taken up by art galleries, all closed, and the street was dark and quiet. He got out, stepped over the Chinese place's heavy chain, and walked across a lot starting to sprout weeds through the cracks and dotted with mounds of dry dog shit. Finding himself a nice little vantage point behind one of the dead restaurant's gateposts, he waited, taking in the Chinese place's grimness up close- black paint flaking, bamboo shredding.
Another dream rent asunder; he liked that.
Nowhere to sit, so he continued to stand there, well concealed, watching nothing happen at Sangre de Leon for a long time. His knees and back began to hurt, and stretching and squatting seemed to make matters worse. Last Christmas, Rick had bought a treadmill for the spare bedroom, used it religiously every morning at five. Last month, he'd suggested that Milo give regular exercise a try. Milo hadn't argued, but neither had he complied. He was no good in the morning, usually pretended to be asleep when Rick left for the ER.
He checked his Timex. The Cossacks and Brad "the jerk" Larner had been inside for over an hour, and no other patrons had materialized.
Larner was no doubt the Achievement House director's son. The harasser's son. Yet another link between the families. Daddy putting up Crazy Sister Caroline at Achievement House, buying jobs for himself and Junior.
Connections and money. So what else was new? Presidents were selected the same damn way. If any of this provided a hook to Janie Ingalls, he couldn't see it. But he knew- on a gut level- that it did matter. That Pierce Schwinn's forced retirement and his own transfer to West L.A. had resulted from more than Schwinn's dalliances with street whores.
Twenty-year-old fix, John G. Broussard doing the dirty work.
Schwinn had sat on whatever he'd known for two decades, pasted photos in an album, finally decided to break silence.
Maybe because Broussard had reached the top and Schwinn wanted his revenge to be a gourmet dish.
Using Milo to do the dirty work…
Then he falls off a docile horse…
Headlights from the north end of Robertson slapped him out of his rumination. Two sets of lights, a pair of vehicles approaching the Melrose intersection. The traffic signal turned amber. The first car passed through legally and the second one ran the red.
Both pulled up in front of Sangre de Leon.
Vehicle Number One was a discreet, black, Mercedes coupe- surprise, surprise!- whose license plate he copied down quickly. Out stepped the driver, another business-suit, moving so quickly the pink ladies had no time to get his door. He slipped a bill to the nearest valet, anyway, let Milo have a nice, clean look at him.
Older guy. Late sixties to midseventies, balding, with a sparse gray comb-over, wearing a boxy beige suit, a white shirt, and a dark tie. Medium height, medium build, clean-shaven, the skin falling away from the bone at jowls and neck. No expression on his face. Milo wondered if this was Larner, Senior. Or just a guy out for dinner.
If so, it wouldn't be a solo dinner, because the occupants of the second car nearly tripped over themselves to get to his side.
Vehicle Two was also black, but no feat of German engineering. Big, fat Crown Victoria sedan, anachronistically oversize. The only places Milo'd seen those things, recently, were government offices, but this one didn't have state-issue e plates.
But neither did lots of unmarkeds and for a second, he thought, department brass? and experienced a rush of expectations met too easily: documenting cop honchos with the Cossacks, why the hell hadn't he remembered to bring a damn camera?
But the moment the first guy out of the Crown Victoria turned and showed his face, it was a whole different story.
Long, dark, lizard face under a black pompadour.
City Councilman Eduardo "Ed the Germ" Bacilla, the official representative of a district that encompassed a chunk of downtown. He of the serious bad habits and poor work habits- Bacilla attended maybe one out of every five council meetings and a couple of years ago he'd been nabbed in Boyle Heights trying to buy powdered coke from an undercover narc. Quick and frantic negotiations with the D.A.'s Office had led to the draconian sentence of public apology and public service: two months on graffiti-removal detail, Bacilla working alongside some of the very gang-bangers he'd favored with city-funded scam rehab programs. Lack of a felony conviction meant the councilman could keep his job, and a recall effort by a leftist homeboy reformer sputtered.
And now here was ol' Germ, kissing up to Tan Suit.
So was Crown Victoria Rider Two, and guess what: another civil stalwart.
This guy had looped his arm around Tan Suit's shoulder and was laughing about something. No expression on Suit's CEO face.
Mr. Jocular was older, around Tan Suit's age, with white temples and a bushy, white mustache that concealed his upper lip. Tall and narrow-shouldered, with an onion-bulb body that a well-cut suit couldn't enhance, and the ice-eyed cunning of a cornered peccary.
City Councilman James "Diamond Jim" Horne. He of the suspected kickbacks and briberies and ex-wives hush-moneyed to silence back in the good old days when domestic violence was still known as wife-beating.
Milo knew through the LAPD gravevine that Horne was a longtime, serious spouse-basher with a penchant for pulverizing without leaving marks. Like Germ Bacilla, Diamond Jim had always managed to squeak through without arrest or conviction. For over thirty years, he'd served a district that bordered Bacilla's, a north-central strip filled with ticky-tack houses and below-code apartments. Once solidly working-class white, Horne's constituency had turned 70 percent poor Hispanic, and the councilman had watched his vote pluralities tumble. From 90 percent to 70. A series of opponents with surnames ending in "ez" had failed to topple Horne. The corrupt old bastard got the potholes fixed, and plenty else.
Germ and Diamond Jim, walking arm in arm with Tan Suit, heading for the steel door of Sangre de Leon.
Milo returned to the Taurus and, using the ID of a Pacific Division Vice detective he despised, pulled up the Mercedes coupe's plates.
He half expected another corporate shield, but the numbers came back matching a four-year-old Mercedes owned by a real-life person.
The three hundred block of Muirfield Road in Hancock Park.
Walter Obey. He of the billion-dollar fortune.
Nominally, Walt Obey was in the same business as the Cossacks- concrete and rebar and lumber and drywall. But Obey occupied a whole different galaxy from the Cossacks. Fifty years ago, Obey Construction began nailing up homes for returning GIs. The company was probably responsible for 10 percent of the tracts that snaked parallel to the freeways and sprawled across the smog-choked basin that the Chumash Indians had once called the Valley of Smoke.
Walt Obey and his wife, Barbara, were on the board of every museum, hospital, and civic organization that meant anything in the lip-gnawing, over-the-shoulder uncertainty known as L.A. Society.
Walt Obey was also a model of rectitude- Mr. Upright in a business that claimed few saints.
The guy had to be at least eighty, but he looked a good deal younger. Good genes? Clean living?
Now here he was, supping with Germ and Diamond Jim.
The Cossacks and Brad Larner had been inside for one hour. No shock, it was their restaurant. Still the question hung: table for three, or six?
He obtained Sangre de Leon's number from Information and called the restaurant. Five rings later a bored, Central European-accented male voice said, "Yes?"
"This is Mr. Walter Obey's office. I've got a message for Mr. Obey. He's dining with the Cossacks, I believe they're in a private room-"
"Yes, they are. I'll get the phone to him." Eagerness to please had wiped out the boredom.
Milo hung up.
He drove home trying to piece it all together. The Cossacks and Walt Obey and two city councilmen noshing on designer grub. Brad Larner along as a gofer, or his dad's surrogate? Alex had pulled up something about the Cossacks' trying to bring a football team to L.A., maybe reactivating the Coliseum. The scheme had died, as had nearly everything else the Cossacks had tried- movies, tearing down landmarks. On the face of it the brothers were losers. Yet they had enough clout to bring Walt Obey from Hancock Park to West Hollywood.
The Cossacks in their chauffeured Town Car with personalized plates screamed new money. But Obey, the real money man, drove himself in an anonymous, four-year-old sedan. The billionaire was so unobtrusive he could pass for your average, middling CPA.
What got vulgarians and bluenoses together? Something big. The Coliseum sat in Germ Bacilla's district, and next door was Diamond Jim Horne's domain. Was this one of those complicated deals that always managed to elude zoning laws and whatever else stood in its way? Taxpayers footing the bill for rich guys' indulgences? Something that might be jeopardized by the rehash of a twenty-year-old murder and the exposure of the Cossacks' role in covering up for their crazy sister and junkie-murderer Willie Burns?
Why had Georgie Nemerov gotten so antsy?
The only possible thread between Nemerov and the rest of it was the department.
And now the department was verifying his vacation time and maybe sending that Bartlettt asshole to spook him.
Health facilitator. Meaning what? Be careful not to get unhealthy?
Suddenly, he wanted very much to make someone else deathly ill.
When he pulled into his driveway, the white Porsche was parked up near the garage, little red alarm light blinking on the dash, extra-strength lock bar fixed to the steering column. Rick loved the car, was as careful with it as he was with everything else.
He found Rick at the kitchen table, still wearing his scrubs and eating warmed-up Chinese food from last night. A glass of red wine was at his elbow. He saw Milo and smiled and gave a weak wave and the two of them shared a brief hug, and Rick said, "Working late?"
"The usual. How'd your day go?"
"Hardly." Rick pointed to the empty chair across the table. The final dark hairs in his dense cap of curls had faded to gray last summer, and his mustache was a silver toothbrush. Despite being a doctor and knowing better, he liked to tan out in the backyard and his skin had held on to summer color. He looked tired. Milo sat down opposite him and began picking at orange chicken.
"There's more in the refrigerator," said Rick. "The egg rolls, the rest of it."
"No, I'll just take yours."
Rick smiled. Weary.
"Bad stuff on shift?" said Milo.
"Not particularly. Couple of heart attacks, couple of false alarms, kid with a broken leg from falling off a Razor scooter, colon cancer patient with a serious gut bleed that kept us busy for a long time, woman with a darning needle in her eye, two auto accidents, one accidental shooting- we lost that one."
"The usual trivia."
"Exactly." Rick pushed his food away. "There was one thing. The shooting was the last case I pulled. I couldn't do anything for the poor guy, he came in flat, never beeped. Looks like he was cleaning his 9mm, stared into the barrel, maybe making sure it was clear and boom. The cops who came in with the body said they found gun oil and rags and one of those barrel-reaming tools on the table next to him. Bullet entered here." Rick touched the center of his mustache, under his nose.
"An accident?" said Milo. "Not suicide? Or anything else?"
"The cops who came in kept calling it an accident, maybe they knew something technical. It'll go to the coroner."
"Sheriff's cops?" said Milo.
"No, you guys. It happened near Venice and Highland. But that's not what I want to tell you. The body had just gone to the morgue, and I came back to chart and the cops who brought the guy in were in the cubicle next door and I heard them talking. Going on about their pensions, sick leave, department benefits. Then one said something about a detective in West L.A. division who'd tested HIV-positive and put in for retirement. The other cop said, 'Guess, what goes 'round comes round.' Then they both laughed. Not a joyful laugh. A mean laugh."
Rick picked up a chopstick and seesawed it between two fingers. Looked into Milo's eyes. Touched Milo's hand.
Milo said, "I haven't heard anything about that."
"Didn't assume you had, or you'd have told me."
Milo withdrew his hand, stood, and got himself a beer.
Rick stayed at the table, continued to play with the chopstick. Tilting it deftly, precisely. A surgeon's grace.
Milo said, "It's bullshit. I'da heard."
"I just thought it was something you'd want to know."
"Highland and Venice. What the hell would Wilshire Division know about West L.A.? What the hell would blues know about D's?"
"Probably nothing… Big guy, is there something I should know? Some tight spot you've gotten yourself into?"
"Why? What does this have to do with me?" Milo didn't like the defensiveness in his own voice. Thinking: the goddamn department rumor mill. Then thinking: Health Facilitator. You never know…
Rick said, "Okay," and started to get up.
Milo said, "Wait," and came around and stood behind Rick and put his hands on Rick's shoulders. And told him the rest of it.
I got on the computer, typed in "Paris Bartlett" as a keyphrase on several search engines, and came up with nothing.
Next, I tried "Playa del Sol" and its English translation: Sun Beach, and connected to hundreds of resort links all over the world. Costa del Sol. Costa del Amor. Playa Negra. Playa Blanca. Playa Azul. Sun City. Sunrise Beach. Excursion packages, time shares, white sand, blue water, adults only, bring the kids. Also, a guy who'd devoted an obsessive site to the old song "Cuando Caliente El Sol." The joys of the information age…
I stuck with it for hours, felt my eyes crossing and broke for a midnight sandwich, a beer, and a shower before returning to the screen. By 2 A.M., I was fighting sleep and nearly missed the article in a three-year-old issue of The Resort Journal elicited by yet another try at Playa del Sol. This time, I'd logged on to a pay service- a business-oriented data bank that I hadn't used since last fall, when I'd considered selling a lot of municipal bonds. I clicked my assent to pony up by credit card and continued.
What I got was a rear-of-the-magazine piece entitled "Seeking the Good Life on Distant Shores: Americans Looking for Foreign Bargains Often Find Themselves on the Losing End." The article recounted several real estate deals gone sour, among them a construction project down in Baja named Playa del Sol: high-end condos peddled to American retirees lured by American-style luxury living at Mexican prices. Two hundred units out of a planned four hundred fifty had been built and purchased. The first wave of retirees hadn't yet moved in when the Mexican government invoked a fine-print provision of an obscure regulation, confiscated the land, and sold it to a Saudi Arabian consortium who turned the condos into a hotel. The Playa del Sol Company, Ltd., incorporated in the Cayman Islands, dissolved itself and its American subsidiary, Playa Enterprises, declared Chapter 11. The retirees lost their money.
No comment from the president of Playa Enterprises, Michael Larner.
Recalling the obscure business journal references that had come up on my first search for Larner- magazines not in the Research Library's holdings- I looked for anything else I could find on the former Achievement House director and came across several other deals he'd put together during the past five years.
Larner's specialty was real estate syndication- getting moneyed people together to buy out incomplete building projects that had run into trouble. High-rise apartments in Atlanta, defunct country clubs in Colorado and New Mexico, a ski lodge in Vermont, a golf course in Arizona. Once the deal was inked, Larner took his cut and walked away.
All the subsequent articles had the rah-rah tone of paid ads. None mentioned the Mexican debacle, Playa Enterprises, or the Playa Del Sol Company, Ltd. Larner's corporate face was now the ML Group.
No mention of the Cossack brothers, either. Or any of Larner's fellow venture capitalists, though showbiz and Wall Street affiliations were implied. The only other ML staffer named was Larner's son, Bradley, executive vice president.
Using "ML Group" as a keyphrase, I retraced all the search machines and obtained the exact same articles, plus one more: a two-year-old stroke job in a glossy rag titled Southwest Leisure Builder.
Centered amid the text was a color photo: Larners, father and son, posing on a bright day in Phoenix, wearing matching royal blue golf shirts, white canvas slacks, white smiles.
Michael Larner looked around sixty-five. Square-faced and florid, he wore wide steel-framed aviator's glasses turned to mirrors by the Arizona sun. His smile was self-satisfied and heralded by overly large capped teeth. He had a drinker's nose, a big, hard-looking belly, and meticulously styled white hair. A casting agent would've seen Venal Executive.
Bradley Larner was thinner and smaller and paler than his father- barely a nuance of his father. Late thirties or early forties, he was also bespectacled, but his choice of eyewear ran to gold-framed, narrow, oval lenses so tiny they barely covered his irises. His hair was that lank, waxy blond destined to whiten, and it trailed past his shoulders. Less enthusiasm in his expression. Barely a smile at all, though to read the article, the Larners were riding the crest of the real estate wave.
Bradley Larner looked like a kid forced to sit for yet another obnoxious family snapshot.
An accompanying picture on the following page showed Michael Larner in an ice-cream suit, blue shirt, and pink tie posed next to a white-on-white Rolls Royce Silver Spirit. To his father's right, Brad Larner perched atop a gold Harley-Davidson, wearing black leather.
The caption read: Different generations, but the same flair for the Ultimate Ride.
The Playa del Sol link meant "Paris Bartlett" was likely an envoy to Milo from the Larners.
Warning him off the trail of Caroline Cossack.
Because the Larners and the Cossacks went way back.
The families had something else in common: big deals that often went bad. But all of them managed to stay on top, maintaining the good life.
The Ultimate Ride.
In the Cossacks' case, inherited wealth might've provided a nice safety blanket. Michael Larner, on the other hand, had bounced from job to job and industry to industry, leaving scandal or bankruptcy in his wake but always managing to position himself higher.
That smile, teeth as white and gleaming as his Rolls Royce. A man willing to do whatever it took? Or friends in the right places? Or both.
Back when Larner had bent the rules and admitted Caroline Cossack to Achievement House, her brothers had been barely out of adolescence but already in the real estate business. Larner might have dealt initially with Garvey Cossack, Senior, but the relationship endured well after Senior's demise and found Larner working for men twenty-five years his junior. Then I thought of something: Bradley Larner was about the same age as the Cossack brothers. Was there some link, there? Something that went beyond business?
When searching for school data on Caroline, Milo hadn't gotten very far with the local high schools. Because everyone was litigation-wary and watched episodic TV and believed cops without warrants were impotent.
Maybe also because Caroline's emotional problems meant she hadn't enjoyed much of a school history. But perhaps tracking her brothers would be easier.
The next morning, I was back at the library thumbing through Who's Who. Neither Bob Cossack nor Bradley Larner were listed, but Garvey Cossack had merited a biography: a single paragraph of puffery, mostly what I'd already learned from the Web.
Tucked among all the corporate braggadocio was Garvey's educational history. He'd completed two years of college at Cal State Northridge but hadn't graduated. Maybe that's why he'd bothered to list his high school. And the fact that he'd been student body treasurer during his senior year.
I checked with the reference desk and found that the library maintained three decades of local yearbooks in the reference section. Uni was as local as it got.
Finding the right volume wasn't hard. I estimated Garvey's age and nailed it on the second try.
His graduation picture revealed a full-faced, acne-plagued eighteen-year-old with long, wavy hair, wearing a light-colored turtleneck. Sandwiched between the top of the sweater's collar and the boy's meaty chin was a puka-shell necklace. His grin was mischievous.
Listed under his picture were memberships in the Business Club, the "managerial staff" of the football team, and something called the King's Men. But there was no mention of his being treasurer. According to the Student Council page, the treasurer was a girl named Sarah Buckley. Thumbing through the three preceding yearbooks taught me that Garvey Cossack had never served in any student-government capacity.
Petty fib for a middle-aged millionaire; that made it all the more interesting.
I located Robert "Bobo" Cossack's headshot one class back. He'd come to photo day wearing a black shirt with a high collar and a choker-length chain. Equine face, hair darker and even longer than his brother's, a more severe blemish. Bobo wore a sullen expression and his eyes were half-shut. Sleepy or stoned- or trying to look the part. His attempts to grow a beard and mustache had resulted in a halo of dark fuzz around his chin and spidery wisps above his upper lip.
No affiliations below his picture other than the King's Men.
Also in the junior class was a very skinny Bradley Larner, wearing tinted aviator glasses, a button-down shirt, and peroxide surfer-do that obscured half his face. The part that was visible was as dispirited as Bobo Cossack's.
Another King's Man.
I searched the yearbook for mention of the club, found a listing in the roster of school service organizations but no details. Finally, in a breathless account of the homecoming game I spotted a reference to "the revelry, high jinks (and other good stuff) perpetrated by the King's Men."
An accompanying snapshot showed a group of six boys at the beach, wearing bathing trunks and striped beanies and clowning around with cross-eyed grins, goofy poses, behind-the-head rabbit ears. The beer cans in their hands had been blacked out clumsily. In one case, the Miller logo was still visible. The caption: Surf's Up! but the King's Men crave other liquid entertainment! Partying at Zuma: G. Cossack, L. Chapman, R. Cossack, V. Coury, B. Larner, N. Hansen.
The Cossack brothers had been high school party animals, and the Bel Air bash a couple of years later was just more of the same. And the link between them and the Larners had been forged on the sands of Zuma, not in the boardroom.
That made me wonder if the idea for secreting problematic sister Caroline might have originated with the boys, not their father. "Hey, Dad, Brad's dad works at this place for weirdos, maybe he can help out."
I searched the yearbooks for mention or a picture of Caroline Cossack.
I drove around the pretty residential streets of Westwood, thinking about Pierce Schwinn and what he'd really wanted from Milo. Had the former detective finally decided to come clean with secrets held for two decades, as I'd suggested, or had he undertaken his own freelance investigation late in life and come up with new leads?
Either way, Schwinn hadn't been as serene as his second wife believed. Or as faithful: He'd found a confidante to mail the murder book.
As I'd told Milo, Ojai was a small town and it was doubtful Schwinn could've pulled off a regular assignation there without Marge finding out. But before he'd married Marge, he'd lived in Oxnard in a fleabag motel. Marge hadn't mentioned the name, but she had given us the site of Schwinn's minimum-wage job, and said Schwinn hadn't owned a car. Taking out the trash at Randall's Western Wear. Somewhere within walking distance.
The place was still in business, on Oxnard Boulevard.
I'd taken the scenic route because it was the quickest way and I had no stomach for the freeway: Sunset to PCH, then north on the coast highway past the L.A.-Ventura line and Deer Creek Road and the campgrounds of Sycamore Creek- fifteen miles of state land that kissed the ocean and separated the last private beach in Malibu from Oxnard. The water was sapphire blue under a chamber-of-commerce sky, and the bodies that graced the sand were brown and perfect.
At Las Posas Road, I avoided the eastern fork that swoops into glorious, green tables of farmland and up to the foothills of Camarillo and continued on Route 1.
Nature's beauty gave way, soon enough, to dinge and depression and seventy-five minutes after leaving the house I was enjoying the sights of central Oxnard.
Oxnard's a funny place. The town's beach sports a marina and luxury hotels and fishing excursions and tour boats to the Channel Islands. But the core is built around agriculture and the migrant workers whose dreadful lives put food on the nation's tables. The crime rate's high, and the air stinks of manure and pesticide. Once you get past the marina turnoff, Oxnard Boulevard is a low-rent artery lined with trailer parks, auto-parts yards, thrift shops, taco bars, taverns blaring Mexican music, and more Spanish than English on the signage.
Randall's Western Wear was a red barn in the center of the strip, stuck between Bernardo's Batteries and a windowless bar called El Guapo. Plenty of parking in back; only two pickups and an old Chrysler 300 in the lot.
Inside was the smell of leather and sawdust and sweat, ceiling-high racks of denim and flannel, Stetsons stacked like waffles, cowboy boots and belts on sale, one corner devoted to sacks of feed, a few saddles and bridles off in another. Travis Tritt's mellow baritone eased through scratchy speakers, trying to convince some woman of his good intentions.
Slow day in the ranch-duds biz. No customers, just two salesmen on duty, both white men in their thirties. One wore gray sweats, the other jeans and a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt. Both smoked behind the counter, showing no interest in my arrival.
I browsed, found a tooled cowhide belt that I liked, brought it to the counter and paid. Harley-D rang me up, offering no eye contact or conversation. As he handed back my credit card, I let my wallet open and showed him my LAPD consultant badge. It's a clip-on deal with the department's badge as a logo, not good for much and if you look closely it tells you that I'm no cop. But few people get past the insignia, and Harley was no exception.
"Police?" he said, as I closed the wallet. He wore a bad haircut like his own badge of honor, had a handlebar mustache that drooped to his chin, and a clogged-sinus voice. Stringy arms and stringy hair, a scatter of faded tattoos.
I said, "Thought maybe you could help me with something."
Sweats looked up. He was a few years younger than Harley, with a blond-gray crew cut, a square shelf of a chin finishing a florid face. Stocky build, quiet eyes. My guess was ex-military.
"A few questions about a guy who worked here a while back. Pierce Schwinn."
"Him?" said Harley. "He hasn't been here for what- coupla years?" He looked back at Sweats.
"Coupla," Sweats agreed.
Harley looked at the belt. "What, you bought that to get friendly or something?"
"I bought it because it's a nice belt," I said. "But I have no problem with being friendly. What do you remember about Schwinn?"
Harley frowned. "When he worked here he was a bum. What's up with him now?"
"Have you seen him since he stopped working here?"
"Maybe once," he said. "Or maybe not. If he did come in, it was with his wife- that right?" Another consultation with Sweats.
"Why?" said Harley. "What he do?"
"Nothing. Just a routine investigation." Even as I said it, I felt ridiculous, not to mention criminal. But if Milo could risk violations of the public order, so could I. "So the last time Mr. Schwinn worked here was a couple of years ago?"
"That's right." Harley's smile was derisive. "If you wanna call it work."
"Man," he said, leaning on the counter, "let me tell you: It was a gift. From our mom to him. She owns the place. He used to live down the block, at the Happy Night. Mom felt sorry for him, let him clean up for spare change."
"The Happy Night Motel?" I said.
"Right down the block."
"So it was a sympathy thing," I said. "From your mother."
"She's got a soft heart," said Harley. "Ain't that so, Roger?"
Sweats nodded and smoked and turned up the volume on Travis Tritt. The singer's voice was plaintive and rich; I'd have been convinced.
"Schwinn have any friends?" I said.
"What about Marge- the woman who married him."
"She comes in for feed when she runs out on her bulk order," said Harley. "Yeah, she married him, but that makes her his wife, not his friend."
And when are you entering law school, F. Lee Picky?
I said, "Marge met him here."
"Guess so." Harley's brows knitted. "Haven't seen her either, for a while."
Roger said, "She's probably ordering off the Internet, like everyone. We gotta get with that."
"Yeah," said Harley, listlessly. "So, c'mon tell me, man, why're you asking about him? Someone off him or something?"
"No," I said. "He's dead, all right. Fell off a horse a few months ago."
"That so. Well, she never mentioned it. Marge didn't."
"When's the last time you saw her?"
Harley looked back at Roger. "When's the last time I saw her?"
Roger shrugged. "Maybe four, five months ago."
"Mostly everyone orders bulk from suppliers," said Harley. "And the Internet. We do gotta get hooked up."
"So Marge has been in since Schwinn died, but she never mentioned his death."
"Probably- I couldn't swear to it, man. Listen, don't pin me down on any a this."
Roger gave another sweat-suited shrug. "Marge don't talk much, period."
Travis Tritt bowed out and Pam Tillis weighed in about "The Queen of Denial."
Harley said, "Is this about drugs, or something?"
"Why do you say that?"
Harley fidgeted. His brother said, "What Vance means is that the Happy Night- everyone knows about it. People go in and out. You wanna do us a favor? Get it moved outta here. This block used to be a nice place."
I kept my car in the Randall's lot and walked the block to the motel. The place was a twelve-unit gray stucco C built around a central courtyard and open to the street. The yard was tiled with crumbling bricks, didn't look as if it had been designed for parking, but four dirty compact cars and an equally grubby truck with a camper shell occupied the space. The office was off to the right- a cubicle that smelled of gym sweat manned by a young skin-headed Hispanic man wearing an aqua blue cowboy shirt with bloodred piping. Spangling on the yokes, too, but oily splotches in the armpits and ketchup-colored freckles across the front mitigated the garment's charm. Resting on the pleat was a heavy iron crucifix attached to a stainless-steel chain.
My entry rang a bell over the door and the clerk shot a look at me then glanced under the counter. Reflexively. Probably checking out the requisite pistol. Or just wanting to let me know he was armed. A sign on the wall behind him said CASH ONLY. Same message in Spanish, right below. He didn't move but his eyes jumped around and the left lid twitched. He couldn't be more than twenty-two or -three, could probably take the adrenaline surges and blood-pressure spikes for a few more years.
I showed him the badge, and he shook his head. Atop the counter was a novella- black-and-white photos of characters speaking in captions, storyboard laid out like a comic book. Upside down I caught a few words "sexualismo" "con passion."
He said, "Don' know nothin' " Heavy accent.
"I haven't asked anything."
"Don' know nothin' "
"Good for you," I said. "Ignorance is bliss."
His stare was dull.
"Pierce Schwinn," I said. "He used to live here."
I repeated the name.
"Don' know nothin' "
"An old man, Anglo, white hair, white beard?"
"He used to work at Randall's."
"Randall's Western Wear- down the block?"
"Don't know nothin' "
"What's your name?"
"Don' kno-" Lights on in the brown eyes. "Gustavo."
"Gustavo Martinez Reyes."
"You speak any English, Mr. Martinez Reyes?"
"Anyone work here who does?"
"Don' know noth-"
So much for ace detective work. But I'd come this far, why not give Ojai another try- check out a place I knew Marge Schwinn had frequented. The shop where she'd bought the blue albums- O'Neill & Chapin… over by the Celestial Café… from England… discontinued… I bought the last three.
Maybe she hadn't. Or maybe Schwinn had also shopped for himself.
I continued to the next freeway on-ramp and was back on Highway 33 within minutes. The air was cold and clean, every color on full volume, and I could smell ripening fruit in the neighboring groves.
O'Neill & Chapin sat in one of those cozy commercial groupings that had sprouted along the road, this one a well-shaded segment just past the center of Ojai but several miles before the turnoff to Marge Schwinn's ranch. The shop was a miniscule, shingle-roofed, clapboard cottage dominated by live oaks. The boards were painted forest green, and the store was fronted by five feet of cobblestones running from the earthen curb to Dutch doors painted creamy mint. Gold leaf lettering across the front window proclaimed:
O'Neill & Chapin, Purveyors of Fine Paper and Pigments. Est. 1986.
Behind the windows were dark, oak shutters. A sign leaning against the slats said:
On a buying trip in Europe. Back soon.
I checked out the neighboring business. To the right was the candlery, also shuttered. Then Marta, Spiritual Counselor and the Humanos Theosophic Institute. To the left was a one-story office building faced in river rock: chiropractor's office, a notary public-cum-insurance broker, a travel agent specializing in "nature-friendly excursions." Next to that, in a sunnier spot, sat an adobe cube with a wooden sign over the door.
Gold stars danced around the edges of the signs. Lights flickered behind blue gingham curtains. It was nearly 3 P.M. and I'd fed neither my brain nor my gut. Times like this, I supposed, organic muffins and herbal tea wouldn't be half-bad.
But according to the blackboard mounted above the open kitchen, the café specialized in country French food- crepes, quiche, soufflés, chocolate desserts. Real coffee, Lord amighty.
Some kind of New Age sound track- tinkly bells, flute, and harp- eased out of speakers set into the low, wood-beam ceiling. More blue gingham covered half a dozen tables. A woman with elaborately braided gray hair wearing a buckskin jacket over a crinkly, pink dress sat enjoying what looked to be ratatouille. No server was in sight, just a pasty-faced, heavyset, white-aproned woman wearing a blue bandana over her hair cutting vegetables in the kitchen. At her elbow was a six-burner Wolfe range, with one flame aglow under a cast-iron crepe pan. Fresh batter had just been poured into the pan, and the cook stopped cutting long enough to grab a towel and take hold of the handle. Tilting deftly, she created a perfect disc that she slid onto a plate, then topped with creamed spinach. A dash of nutmeg, and the crepe was rolled and placed on the counter. Then back to the vegetables.
The gray-haired woman got up and took the crepe. "Beautiful, Aimee."
The cook nodded. She looked to be forty or so, had a squashed face and downturned eyes. The hairs that had peeked out from under the bandana were light brown and silver.
I smiled at her. Her face registered no expression, and she continued chopping. I read the blackboard. "How about a mixed-cheese crepe and coffee?"
She turned around, left the kitchen through a side door. I stood there, listening to bells and flute and harp.
Behind me, the gray-braided woman said, "Don't worry, she'll be back."
"I was wondering if it was something I said."
She laughed. "No, she's just shy. Heck of a cook, though."
Aimee returned with a small wheel of white cheese. "You can sit," she said, in a very soft voice. "I'll bring it to you."
"Thanks much." I tried another smile, and her mouth quivered upward for less than a second, and she began wiping the crepe pan.
The gray-haired woman finished her meal just as Aimee brought me my plate, a mug of coffee, utensils wrapped in a heavy yellow linen napkin. She returned to her vegetables and the gray-braided woman said, "Here you are, dear," and paid her cash. No change exchanged. No credit card signs anywhere in the café.
I unfolded the napkin, looked at my plate. Two crepes.
With her back to me, Aimee said, "You only have to pay for one. I had lots of cheese."
"Thank you," I said. "They look delicious."
Chop chop chop.
I cut into the first crepe and took a bite and flavor burst on my tongue. The coffee was the best I'd had in years, and I said so.
Chop chop chop.
I was working on the second crepe when the front door opened, and a man walked in and headed for the counter.
Short, chubby, white-haired, he wore a purplish red polyester jumpsuit, zipped in front, with big floppy lapels. Crimson clogs and white socks clad stubby feet. His fingers were attenuated, too, the thumbs little more than arced nubs. His ruddy face was impish but peaceful- an elf in repose. A leather-thonged bolo tie was held in place by a big, shapeless purple rock. Flashing on his left hand was a huge, gold pinkie ring set with a violet cabochon.
He looked to be in his midsixties, but I knew he was seventy-seven because I knew him. I also understood why he wore a single color: It was the only hue he could perceive in an otherwise black-and-white world. A rare form of color blindness was one of a host of physical anomalies he'd been born with. Some, like the shortened digits, were visible. Others, he'd assured me, were not.
Dr. Wilbert Harrison, psychiatrist, anthropologist, philosopher, eternal student. A sweet and decent man, and even a murderous psychopath bent on revenge had recognized that, sparing Harrison as he conducted a rampage against the doctors he believed had tormented him.
I hadn't been spared, and I'd met Bert Harrison, years ago, trying to figure all of that out. Since then we talked occasionally- infrequently.
"Bert," I said.
He turned, smiled. "Alex!" Holding up a finger, he greeted Aimee. Without making eye contact, she poured him tea and selected an almond-crusted pastry from the glass case beneath the blackboard.
He said, "Thank you, darling," sat down at my table, placed his cup and plate in front of him, and grasped my hand with both of his.
"Alex. So good to see you."
"Good to see you, too, Bert."
"What have you been up to?"
"The usual. And you?"
Soft gray eyes twinkled. "I've embarked on a new hobby. Ethnic instruments, the more esoteric the better. I've discovered eBay- how wonderful, the global economy in its finest form. I find bargains, wait like a child on Christmas Eve for the packages to arrive, then try to figure out how to play them. This week my project is a one-stringed curiosity from Cambodia. I haven't learned its proper name, yet. The seller billed it as a 'Southeast Asian thingamajig.' Sounds dreadful, so far- like a cat with indigestion, but I have no neighbors, per se."
Harrison's home was a purple cottage, high on a hill above Ojai, bordered by olive groves and empty fields and nearly hidden by snarls of agave cactus. Bert's old Chevy station wagon sat in a dirt driveway, always freshly waxed. Each time I'd visited, the house's front door had been unlocked.
"Sounds like fun," I said.
"It's great fun." He bit into the pastry, let loose a flow of custard, licked his lips, wiped his chin. "Delicious. What have you been doing for fun, Alex?"
Figuring out how to answer that must have done something to my face, because Harrison placed his hand atop mine and he looked like a concerned parent.
"That bad, son?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"Oh, yes, Alex. Oh, yes indeed."
I told him about Robin. He thought a while, and said, "Sounds like small things have been amplified."
"Not so small, Bert. She's really had it with my risk-taking behavior."
"I was referring to your feelings. Your anxiety about Robin."
"I know I'm being paranoid, but I keep flashing back to the last time she left."
"She made a mistake," he said. "But she bore the brunt of it, and you might think about disconnecting yourself from her pain."
"Her pain," I said. "Think it still bothers her after all these years?"
"If she allows herself to focus on it, my guess is she feels a good deal worse about it than you do."
He'd met Robin twice, and yet I didn't feel him presumptuous. A few months after our house had burned down, we'd driven up to Santa Barbara for a change of scenery and had run into Bert at an antiquarian bookstore on State Street. He'd been browsing through eighteenth-century scientific treatises. In Latin. ('My current hobby, kids.') Dust had speckled the front of his jumpsuit.
"She loves you deeply," he said. "At least she did when I saw her, and I have my doubts about that depth of feeling just vanishing." He ate more pastry, picked almond slivers from his plate, and slipped them between his lips. "The body language- the mind language, was all there. I remember thinking, 'This is the girl for Alex.' "
"I used to think so."
"Cherish what you've got. My second wife was like that, accepted me with all my irregularities."
"You think Robin accepts me, no matter what."
"If she didn't, she'd have left long ago."
"But putting her through more of my risk-taking would be cruel."
He squeezed my hand. "Life is like a bus stop, Alex. We map out our route but linger briefly between adventures. Only you can chart your itinerary- and hope God agrees with it. So what brings you to Ojai?"
"Enjoying the scenery."
"Then come up to my house, let me show you my acquisitions."
We finished our food and he insisted on paying. The old station wagon was parked out front, and I followed him into town and onto Signal Street, where we climbed past a drainage ditch paved with fieldstones and spanned by footbridges, up to the top of the road.
The front door to the purple house was open and shielded by a well-oxidized screen. Bert climbed the steps with agility and ushered me into the living room. The space was exactly as I remembered: small, dark, plank-floored, crammed with old furniture, shawls, throw pillows, an upright piano, the bay window lined with dusty bottles. But now there was no room to sit: A gigantic, hammered-bronze gong nudged the piano. Every couch and chair bore drums and bells and lyres and zithers and Pan pipes and harps and objects I couldn't identify. The floor space behind the piano bench was taken up by a six-foot dragon-shaped contraption topped with corrugated wood. Harrison ran a stick along the ridges and set off a percussive but melodic scale.
"Bali," he said. "I've learned 'Old MacDonald' on it." Sigh. "One day, Mozart."
He cleared instruments from a sagging sofa, and said, "Be comfortable."
As I sat, something metallic behind the couch caught my eye. A folded-up wheelchair.
Bert said, "I'm storing it for a friend," and settled his small frame on a hard-backed chair. The fingers of his right hand brushed against a pedal harp, but not hard enough to make a sound. "Despite your stress you look well."
"As do you."
"Knock wood." He rapped the rim of the harp, and this time a note rang out. "G sharp… so you're just passing through? Next time, call and we can have lunch. Unless, of course, you need solitude."
"No, I'd love to get together."
"Of course, we all need solitude," he said. "The key is finding the right balance."
"You live alone, Bert."
"I have friends."
"So do I."
"Milo and others."
"Well, that's good- Alex, is there anything I can do for you?"
"No," I said. "Like what?"
"If you could solve cold cases, that would be helpful."
"Cold cases," he said. "A murder."
"The body may be cold," he said, "but I wonder if the memory ever really cools. Care to tell me about it?"
I didn't. Yes, I did.
I described the Ingalls murder without mentioning names or places or the murder book. But there was no sense withholding Milo's name. Bert Harrison had met Milo, had given a statement to Milo on the Bad Love case.
As I talked, he rarely allowed his gaze to wander from my face.
When I finished, he said, "This girl- the one who poisoned the dog- sounds monstrous."
"At the very least, severely disturbed."
"First a dog, then a person… that's the typical pattern… though you have only the neighbor's accusation to go on."
"The behavioral warning in the girl's chart is consistent with the neighbor's report. She didn't belong in that school, Bert. String-pulling by her family probably got her in- safe hiding during the investigation of the murder."
He folded his hands in his lap. "And no word on the other possible victim… I assume Milo's been looking for her."
"No sign of her, yet," I said. "Most likely she's dead. The disturbed girl seems to have vanished, completely. No paper trail at all. That reeks of more string-pulling."
"A supportive family," he said.
"In terms of aiding and abetting."
"Hmm… Alex, if the case was taken out of Milo's hands twenty years ago, how did he manage to be reassigned?"
"He was unofficially reassigned," I said. "By someone who knew we worked together and was sure I'd give him the message."
"What message, Alex?"
I thought about how much to say. Told him about the murder book and its probable link to Pierce Schwinn.
"Pierce?" he said. "So that's why you're here."
"You knew him?"
"I did. I know his wife, Marge, as well. Sweet woman."
"Milo and I were up at her ranch a few days ago," I said. "It's a good bet Schwinn assembled that book, but the only photos of his she claims to know about are nature shots."
"Claims?" said Harrison. "You doubt her?"
"She seemed truthful."
"I'd believe her, Alex."
"Because she's an honest woman."
"I have nothing bad to say about him either."
"How well did you know him, Bert?"
"We ran into each other from time to time. In town- shopping, at the Little Theater."
"Are you aware of any confidante he might've had other than Marge? Someone he'd have trusted to send the book? Because it was mailed to me seven months after he died."
"You're certain it emanated from Pierce?"
"The photos are LAPD crime-scene shots, probably purloined from old files. Schwinn was a shutterbug, used to bring his own camera to crime scenes in order to snap his own pictures. On top of that, Marge Schwinn said she purchased three identical blue leather albums for Pierce, over at O'Neill & Chapin. She showed us two but the third was missing and she had no idea where it was. That's what drew me back here. I wanted to speak to the shop's owners to see if they'd sold any others."
"The owner," he said, "is a lovely woman named Roberta Bernstein, and she's in Europe. O'Neill & Chapin are her pet terriers." He pressed a blunt little index finger to his lips. "Sounds like the totality of evidence does point to Pierce…"
"No buts, Alex. You've put together a solid argument."
"Any idea who he might've passed it to?"
He crossed his legs, hooked a finger under the hem of a purple trouser leg. "The only person I ever saw Pierce with was Marge. And as I said, I doubt she's involved."
"Because she's honest."
"And because Pierce was protective of her, Alex. I can't see him exposing her to something like that."
"Sounds like you knew them both pretty well," I said.
He smiled. "I'm a psychiatrist. I'm allowed to theorize. No, we never really socialized, but this is a small town. You meet the same people over and over. I suppose I'm drawing upon Pierce's body language when they were together."
"Very much so. Marge seemed to take well to that. I found that interesting. She'd never lived with anyone before. Her family goes way back in this region, and she's taken care of that ranch nearly single-handedly for years. People of a certain age can get set in their ways, not take well to the demands of a relationship. But Marge seemed quite content with domestic life. They both did."
"Did you know Pierce had been a detective?"
"Marge told me," he said. "Soon after Pierce moved in. I believe it was at the theater, as a matter of fact. Out in the lobby, during intermission. She introduced me, and we began chatting about a crime story in the newspaper- something down your way, bank robbers, a shoot-out, the criminals had escaped. Marge said something along the lines of 'If Pierce were still on the force, he'd solve it.' "
"How'd Pierce react to that?"
"If I recall correctly, unreactive. Didn't say much of anything. That's the way he usually was. Reserved."
Milo had described Schwinn as verbally aggressive, prone to sermonizing. Lots had changed over twenty years.
I said, "Marge told us Pierce had grown serene."
"She'd know best… so Pierce was Milo's partner. How interesting. The world grows smaller yet."
"The way he died," I said. "Falling off that horse. Any thoughts about that?"
He uncrossed his leg, tapped a rosy cheek, and allowed his hand to brush against an ornate concertina. "You suspect something other than an accident? Why, Alex?"
"Because that's the way my mind works."
"Ah," he said.
I could hear Milo laughing.
"Small world," he repeated. "That's about all I can tell you… can I fix you some tea, Alex? Wait- you're a guitarist, aren't you? I've got something in back that might interest you. A turn-of-the-century Knutsen Hawaiian harp-guitar. Perhaps you can tell me how to tune the drone strings."
His spare bedroom was filled with instruments and antique music stands, and I hung around for a while watching him fiddle and tinker, listened to him expound on music and rhythm and culture. He began to reminisce about his time in Chile. Ethnographic research in Indonesia, a summer of musicology in Salzburg, ministering to Israeli kibbutz children who'd been traumatized by terrorism.
No mention of his Santa Barbara days- the years he'd spent at a school for troubled kids, just a few miles away. The kind of place someone like Caroline Cossack might easily have ended up. That high-priced travesty had caused more problems than it had solved.
Bert had a selective memory for the positive. Perhaps that's why he'd seemed reluctant to imagine a young girl evincing brutality.
He stopped narrating and threw up his hands. "I'm such a bore- you've probably begun wondering if I'm going senile."
"I haven't at all, Bert." Though I had thought: He seems distracted.
"The truth is, I have lost some short-term memory. But nothing beyond my age norms."
"Your memory seems fine to me," I said.
"That's kind of you to say…" He gestured around the room. "All this- all these toys, Alex, they're a wonderful distraction. A boy needs a hobby." Pudgy fingers took hold of my forearm. His grip was forceful. "We both know that, don't we?"
I stuck around for tea, finally told him I needed to get back to L.A.
As he walked me to my car, he said, "That girl. So monstrous, if it's true."
"You seem skeptical."
He nodded. "I do find it hard to believe that a young female would be capable of such savagery."
"I'm not saying she acted alone, Bert, or even initiated the murder. But she could've lured the victims, and either receded into the background or participated."
"Any theories about the main perpetrator?"
"The girl had a boyfriend, six years older, with a criminal history, including murder."
"No, an ambush killing."
"I see," he said. "Any particular reason you didn't mention him, initially?"
"The cover-up's more likely related to the girl."
"This fellow wasn't wealthy."
"Young black street pusher."
"I see- and what became of this murderous young felon?"
"He vanished, too."
"A girl and a young man," he said. "That would change things. Psychosocially."
"A killing team," I said. "One scenario is the two of them picked up the victims at the party and took them somewhere to be raped and murdered."
"A Svengali-Trilby situation," he said. "Dominant male, submissive female… because that's what it usually takes to get an impressionable young female involved in extremely violent behavior. Nearly all sexual violence seems to emanate from the Y chromosome, doesn't it? What else do you know about this boyfriend?"
"Apart from being a junkie and a pusher, he was manipulative enough to get a street-smart bail bondsman to forgo a bond. And calculated enough to ambush the bondsman- that's the homicide he's wanted for. Still wanted. Another of Milo's open cases."
"Sad convergence for Milo," he said. "A junkie in the strict sense- heroin?"
"Heroin was his first choice, but he was eclectic."
"Hmm… then I suppose that would explain it."
"Explain what?" I said.
"With sexual sadists, one usually thinks of alcohol or marijuana as the drugs of choice, correct? Something mild enough to take the edge off inhibition, but not sufficiently incapacitating to blunt the libido. Other drugs- amphetamines, cocaine- can foster violence, but that's usually more of a paranoid reaction. But heroin?" He shook his head. "Opiates as the great pacifiers. Take away the necessity to steal in order to obtain heroin and no place would be safer than a city full of addicts. I've certainly never heard of a junkie acting out in such a sexually violent manner."
"Not while high," I said. "But a heroin addict in need of a fix wouldn't be good company."
"I suppose." He scratched an ear. "Even then, Alex, wouldn't the violence be impulsive- born of frustration? An addict would be interested in the needle, not luring and raping and cutting up young girls. Just garnering the concentration would be difficult, wouldn't you say? At least that's the way it was years ago when I worked with addicts."
"When was that?"
"During my internship, I rotated through the Federal hospital in Lexington."
"Where haven't you been, Bert?"
"Oh, lots of places… do forgive my rambling, Alex. What do I know about crime? You're the expert."
As I got in the Seville, he said, "What I told you before about Robin. I didn't mean to presume to instruct you how to live your life. I've presumed an awful lot, today, haven't I?"
"I didn't take it that way, Bert."
He sighed. "I'm an old man, Alex. Most of the time I feel young- sometimes I wake up in the morning ready to dash to the lecture hall and take notes. Then I look in the mirror… the life cycle. One regresses. Loses one's sense of propriety. Forgive me."
Tears welled in the gray eyes.
"There's nothing to forgive-"
"You're kind to say that."
I placed a hand on his shoulder. Beneath the purple polyester he was soft and frail and small. "Is everything okay, Bert?"
"Everything is as it should be." He reached up and patted my hand. "Lovely seeing you, son. Don't give up."
"On the case?"
"On anything that matters."
I drove down the hill, paused to look through the rearview mirror. He remained standing in the driveway. Waved. A tired wave.
Definitely distracted, I thought as I drove away. And the sudden mood swings- the tears. A different Bert from the buoyant man I'd known.
The allusions to senility.
Nothing beyond my age norms.
As if he'd tested himself. Maybe he had.
An impressive man, afraid…
He called me son several times. I realized that for all his travels and adventures, the first-time mention of being married, he'd never spoken of having children.
Alone, in a house full of toys.
If I reached his age, how would I be living?
I got home just before dark, with a head full of road glare and lungs teeming with smog. No numeral blinked on my phone machine, but two messages had been left with my service: someone wanting to sell me earthquake insurance and a request to call Dr. Allison Gwynn.
A young female voice answered at Allison's office.
"Hi, Dr. Delaware, I'm Connie Martino, Dr. Gwynn's psych assistant. She's in session right now but she told me to let you know that she'd like to speak with you. Her last patient's finished by eight and you can drop by the office if you'd like. Or let me know what works for you."
"Eight works for me."
"Great. I'll tell her."
At seven-forty, I set out for Santa Monica. Allison Gwynn's building was on Montana Avenue, just east of the beach city's boutique row, a pale, one-story late-forties moderne affair with rounded corners and grilled slat windows and apricot-tinted accent lighting. A small patch of daylilies sprouted near the front door, bleached white by the night. Inside were four suites: a three-woman obstetric-gynecology group, a plastic surgeon, an endodontist, and, at the rear, A. GWYNN, PH.D. AND ASSOCIATES.
Allison's waiting room was empty and smelled of face powder and perfume and the merest nuance of stress. The decor was soft chairs and thick wool carpeting and marine prints, everything tinted in variants of soft aqua and beige, as if someone were trying to bring the beach indoors. Halogen spots tuned to dim cast a golden white glow- the beach at twilight. Magazines were stacked neatly. A trio of red call buttons next to the door listed Allison's name above those of two assistants: C. MARTINO, M.A. AND E. BRACHT, PH.D. I rang in, and, a moment later, she opened the door.
Her black hair was tied back into a ponytail and she wore an ankle-length, navy crepe dress above matte brown boots. The dress had a scoop neck that dipped just below her collarbone. The same meticulously applied makeup. Same diamond accents at wrist and neck and ears, but tension played around the big blue eyes. The first time I'd met her, she'd maintained steady eye contact. Now she was focused somewhere over my left shoulder.
"Sorry for bringing you all the way here," she said, "but I didn't want to talk over the phone."
"I don't mind being here."
Her eyebrows rose. "Well, then, come in."
Her inner office was more of the same maritime hues and compassionate lighting. The room was large enough for group therapy, but set up for individual work, with a desk in the corner, a sofa and a pair of facing easy chairs. She took one of the chairs, and I sat down opposite her. The navy dress covered most of her but clung to her body and as she positioned herself, I saw muscle and curve, the sweep of thigh, the tug of bosom.
Remembering her history with Michael Larner, I switched mental gears.
She said, "This may turn out to be nothing, but given the seriousness of what you're doing, I thought it best that I tell you."
She shifted in the chair, showed me another aspect of her figure. Not seductively; her mouth was set tight.
I said, "I appreciate any help you can give me."
The edge of her lower lip insinuated itself between her teeth, and she chewed. Her hands flexed. She shook her head.
Neither of us spoke. Two therapists measuring the silence.
She said, "I recalled something right after we talked. I'd forgotten about it- or maybe it never really registered because at the time… I'm sure it's nothing, but a short while after Willie Burns left Achievement House- maybe a week later- I was with him. Larner. And he was angry about Willie. Worked up. I know because he called me into his office and his anger was obvious. I never really thought about it in terms of Willie because I had my own issues…" She chewed her lip, again. "Let me back up…"
Undoing her ponytail, she shook her hair loose in a sable billow, tied it up again. Tucking her legs under her, she hugged herself and studied the carpet.
"Larner had been bothering me for a while. It began soon after I started volunteering. Nothing blatant- looks, smiles, little asides about my clothes- how cute they were, what a nice healthy girl I was. He'd pass me in the hall and pat me on the head or brush my hip or chuck my chin. I knew what was going on, but what I didn't realize was just how wrong it was." She took hold of her hair, smoothed the ends. "I didn't want to leave Achievement House, thought it would be a good summer experience. And even if I'd told someone, what was he really doing to me?"
"Insidious," I said.
"Insidious and devious and altogether creepy. I tried to avoid him. For the most part, it worked. But that day- it was a Monday, I remember that because I'd been to the beach over the weekend, had gotten tan. Willie Burns had been gone a good week, maybe more. I remember asking about Willie because with him gone the halls were quiet. When he worked, he'd usually be humming, low-key, some kind of bluesy thing. He always looked stoned, but he did have a good voice. And he was friendly, would generally look up and smile, and say, 'Hi.' "
"Friendly to everyone?"
"To the kids. They seemed to like him, though I got the feeling some of them were making fun of him- that drugged-out demeanor. The only time he got furtive was when he was with Caroline. Anyway, he was gone, and an older woman was doing his job- an old Latina who didn't speak English. I asked people what had happened to Willie, but no one seemed to know."
She twisted in her chair, cupped one hand over a knee. "That Monday, I'd been delivering charts when Larner called me into his office. Something about new filing procedures. That sounded strange- why would the director want to talk to a student volunteer about procedure? I didn't want to go, but I couldn't see any way out. If I refused, that would be insubordination. When I got there, Larner's secretary was out in front, and that made me feel better. But then she told me to go right in and closed the door after me. It was summer and I was wearing a sleeveless white sundress and my tan was pretty blatant and I just knew he'd say something about it and started to tell myself I was stupid for not covering up more. But Larner didn't even look at me. He was standing, sleeves rolled up, a cigar in one hand, his back turned, on the phone, listening. I stood near the door. He was rocking on his heels and clenching the phone tight- he was a big, pink disgusting thing, and his hands were tight around the receiver- mottled, like lunch meat. Then he half turned, but he still didn't acknowledge me. His face was different from all the other times I'd seen him. In the past he'd always smiled. Leered. Now he looked furious. Red-faced- he's naturally ruddy, but this time he was like a beet. I remember the contrast with his hair- he had this blond-white hair that looked as if he waxed it. I just stayed there, with my back against the door, and he barked something into the phone and slammed it down. All I caught was Willie Burns's name. Then something about 'We'd better do something about it.' Then he hung up." She held out one hand. "That's it. I never paid much attention to that, because it really wasn't the focus of my memories."
"You had your own issues," I said.
She lowered her head, then raised it very slowly. Her eyes were closed, and her face had lost color.
"After he slammed down the phone, he began to dial another number, then he saw me, gave me this surprised look- surprised and hateful. As if I wasn't supposed to be there. Then there it was- that smile of his. But the anger remained on his face, also, and the combination scared me- predatory. He came around from behind the desk, shook my hand, held on too long, told me to sit down, said something to the effect of 'How's my favorite volunteer?' Then he walked behind me and just stood there, not talking or moving. I could smell his cigar, the smoke kept wafting toward me. To this day, I can't see a cigar without…"
She sprang up, strode to her own desk, and sat down, putting wood and space between us.
"He started talking- softly, in a singsong. How did I like working at Achievement House? Was I finding satisfaction? Had I thought about career choices? Maybe teaching would be good for me because I was clearly a people person. I didn't say much, he really didn't want answers. It was a monologue- droning, hypnotic. Then he stopped talking and I tensed up, and he said, 'Don't be nervous, Allison. We're all friends, here.' Nothing happened for what seemed to be forever. Then suddenly I felt his finger on my cheek, pressing, stroking, and he said something about my skin- how clean and fresh it was, how nice it was to see a young lady who cared about her hygiene."
She caught hold of her hair with one hand and tugged hard. Then both hands slapped flat on the desk and she was staring at me- daring me to look away.
"He kept stroking," she said. "It was annoying- ticklish- and I twisted my head away. And then he chuckled and I looked up and I saw that it hadn't been his finger on my cheek. It was his thing- oh, listen to me, like a child- it was his penis, and he was rubbing it against my cheek, pushing. I was so freaked out that my mouth dropped open and that was the worst thing to do because he chuckled again and in it went and all of a sudden he was holding the back of my head with his other hand, the hand with the cigar, and the smoke wrapped around me, and he forced himself deeper into my mouth and I couldn't breathe, I was gagging. But my eyes were open, for some reason I kept them open, and I could see his white shirt and his tie- a striped tie, blue and black- and the bottom of his face, all that pink flab, quivering, his double chin and he was rocking on his heels again, but in a different way and the cigar smoke was burning my eyes and I started to cry."
She turned icy and still. Didn't move for a long time. "He didn't come. Thank God for that. I managed to wrench free, first, made it to the door, ran out, never looked back. Drove home like a zombie, called in sick. Which wasn't much of a stretch because I felt sick as a dog. For the next few days, I took to bed. Threw up when my mother wasn't listening, lay there feeling degraded and scared and worst of all stupid- replaying it over and over, blaming myself. For the tan and the dress and not being on guard- I know it's never the victim's fault, God knows how many times I've told that to patients. But…"
"You were seventeen," I said.
"I'm not sure I'd have handled it better- or felt differently- had I been twenty-seven. Not at the level of consciousness twenty years ago." She slumped, loosened her hair again, fooled with it, flicked something away from the corner of one eye.
"The worst part was how alone I felt. Abandoned, with no one in my corner. I couldn't tell my parents, because I was too humiliated. I told Larry Daschoff a sanitized version, because even though Larry had been my mentor for the summer and he'd been kind and helpful, he was a man. And I couldn't get rid of the feeling that I was to blame. So I just kept calling in sick to Achievement House, told my mother I had some kind of flu, stayed holed up in my room. Obsessing about what had happened, dreaming about it- in the dreams it was worse. In the dreams I didn't get away and Larner came in my mouth and then he hit me and raped me and forced me to smoke the cigar. Finally, I realized I was falling apart- was wasting. I needed to do something. So I found out the name of the school's chairman of the board- some downtown lawyer- Preston something- and after agonizing about it for a whole week, I called his office, got through after several attempts, and told him what had happened. Only I didn't really tell him. I soft-pedaled it. Reduced it to grabbing- the same story I told Larry."
Larry had told me, Mashing and groping.
"How'd Preston react?" I said.
"He listened. Didn't say anything at all, at first. Didn't ask any questions, which really upset me. I got the impression he thought I was crazy. Finally, he said he'd get back to me. Two days later a letter of dismissal arrived in the mail. I was being let go for poor work habits and excessive absenteeism. I never showed the letter to my parents, just told them I'd quit because the job wasn't challenging. They didn't care. My mother wanted me to swim at the club and play tennis and meet guys. What she wasn't happy about was that I just wanted to hang around the house and not be social. So she arranged a family cruise to Alaska. Big luxury liner cruising past the glaciers- baby otters nursing amid the ice floes. All that blue ice wasn't as cold as my heart was that summer."
She stood, returned to the easy chair, tried to look comfortable but couldn't pull it off.
"I've never told anyone what really happened. Not until now. But this was the wrong time and place, wasn't it? Using a stranger. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for, Allison."
"All these years," she said. "And it still eats at me- not going after that piece of dirt. Who knows how many others he's done that to. What I could've prevented."
"It would've been his word against yours, and he was in power," I said. "It wasn't your fault, then, and it's not your fault, now."
"Do you know how many women I've treated- how many patients I've helped deal with exactly this kind of thing? Not because I pursue those kinds of cases. Not because I'm using my patients to work through my own garbage. Because it's so damned common. I've helped my patients, but then when it comes to my own garbage, I repress. It's crazy, don't you think?"
"No," I said. "It's human. I've preached the virtues of talking it out, but when it comes to my own stuff, I usually go it alone."
"And you're going through something now, aren't you?"
I stared at her.
"Your eyes are sad," she said.
"I'm going through a bit of something," I said.
"Well, then," she said, "I guess we're kindred spirits. And I guess we'll leave it at that."
She walked me to the waiting room door. "Like I told you the first time, you're just too good a listener, sir."
"Was it helpful? Telling you that Larner was angry about Willie Burns?"
"Yes," I said. "Thanks very much. I know it was an ordeal."
She smiled. "Not an ordeal, an experience. What you're going through- it has nothing to do with Caroline Cossack or Willie Burns, does it?"
I shook my head.
"Sorry," she said. "No more prying." She reached for the doorknob and her shoulder brushed my arm. The contact sent something electrical down my arm. Suddenly I was rock-hard, fighting to keep my breathing even. To keep my hands off her.
She stared at me. No tension around the huge, blue eyes, just softness, sadness, maybe desire.
"It wasn't an ordeal," she said. "You said the right thing. Here's another confession: I was looking forward to seeing you again."
"Me too," I said.
I smiled and shrugged, and she did the same. Gracious mimickry.
"You too, but," she said. "That bit of something, right?"
"Well, maybe in another galaxy, Alex. You're very sweet. Good luck."
"Good luck to you, too."
She held the door open. Kept it open as I walked down the hall.
Milo woke up early the next morning, with the faces of the men at the Sangre de Leon meeting leering in his head. Thinking: Too many ways to take it, not enough of me to go around.
He stumbled to the shower, shaved, picked clothes randomly, got the coffee machine going, looked at the clock. Seven-thirteen. An emergency call had yanked Rick out of bed three hours ago. Milo had watched in the darkness as Rick slipped into the scrubs he kept neatly folded on a bedroom chair, picked up his Porsche keys from the nightstand, and padded out the door.
Rick stopped, returned to the bed, kissed Milo lightly on the forehead. Milo pretended to be sleeping, because he didn't feel like talking, not even "Good-bye."
The two of them had talked plenty all night, sitting up late at the kitchen table. Mostly Milo had blabbed and Rick had listened, maintaining a superficial calm, but Milo knew he was shaken by the Paris Bartlett encounter and the HIV rumor. All these years, and Milo's work had never intruded on their personal life.
Milo reassured him, and Rick nodded, complained of crushing fatigue and fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.
Milo cleaned up the Chinese take-out cartons and the dinner dishes and slipped into bed beside him, lying there for an hour or so, listening to Rick's even breathing, thinking.
The Cossacks, Walt Obey, Larner Junior, Germ Bacilla, Diamond Jim Horne.
Plus the player who hadn't shown up. He saw that face, clearly: a stoic, ebony mask.
Smiley Bartlett, the personnel inquiry, and the HIV rumor said John G. Broussard's hand was in all of it.
He recalled Broussard- smelled Broussard's citrus cologne in the interview room, twenty years ago. The hand-stitched suit, all that confidence, taking charge. He and his pink pal- Poulsenn. Milo had no idea what had happened to his career, but look how far John G. had come.
A white man and a black man teamed up, and the black man had been the dominant partner.
A black man advancing that quickly, back in LAPD's bad old racist days. That had to mean Broussard had harpoons in all the right whales. Had probably used his IA dirt to build up leverage.
Mr. Straight and Narrow. And he'd covered up Janie Ingalls and Lord knew what else. Milo had been part of it, allowed himself to be swept along, pretended he could forget about it.
Now he wondered what that had done to his soul.
He poured coffee but the muddy brew tasted like battery acid and he spit it out and gulped a glass of tap water. The light through the kitchen window was the yellow-gray of old phlegm.
He sat down, kept thinking about Broussard, a South Central guy who'd ended up in Hancock Park.
Neighbor to Walt Obey.
Every police chief before Broussard had lived in his own house, but John G. had convinced the mayor to give him an empty mansion on Irving Street, rent-free. The three-story edifice, donated to the city years ago by the heirs of a long-dead oil tycoon, was twelve thousand square feet of English Tudor with big lawns, a pool, and a tennis court. Milo knew because he'd done security years ago at a party for an ambassador- the envoy from some small Asian state that had since changed its name.
Set aside originally as a mayor's residence, the Irving house had sat dormant for years because the mayor's predecessor had his own place in Brentwood and the current mayor's even larger spread in Pacific Palisades was just fine, too.
John G. Broussard's crib, prior to his promotion, had been a too-small affair in Ladera Heights and John G. claimed he needed to be closer to headquarters.
Ladera Heights was a half hour ride downtown, the mansion on Irving was fifteen minutes up Sixth Street. The mayor's drive from the Westside could stretch to over an hour, but no one saw the inconsistency in John G.'s logic, and the new chief got himself baronial lodgings.
Irving Street, less than a mile from Walt Obey's estate on Muirfield.
Obey was one of the mayor's big donors. Had supported Broussard for chief over three other candidates.
The mayor and Obey. Obey and Broussard. Obey and a bunch of lowlifes supping nouvelle-whatever cuisine in a private room at Sangre de Leon.
Private enterprise and municipal government and the long arm of the law arm in arm. And Schwinn had thrown him right into it.
He left his house, looking in all directions and over his shoulder, got into the rented Taurus, and drove north. IDing the asshole who claimed to be Paris Bartlett shouldn't have been a problem, if his hunch about a department plant was true. Just head over to the police academy in Elysian Park and thumb through the face books. But that was too conspicuous; for all he knew it was his sneaky little trips to Parker Center and back to his West L.A. desk that had sicced the department on him in the first place. Besides, Bartlett was a minor player, just a messenger, and did it really matter who'd sent him?
Maybe he should return to Ojai and nose around a bit more up there. But what more could he learn? Schwinn was the Ojai link, and he was gone.
Falling off a goddamn horse…
He pulled over to the curb, yanked out his cell phone, got the number of the Ventura County morgue. Using an insurance-investigator lie, he spent the next half hour being bounced from desk to desk, trying to get the full facts on Schwinn's death.
Finally, a coroner's assistant who knew something got on the line. The death was written up just as Marge Schwinn had described: massive head injuries and fractured ribs consistent with a fall, copious blood on a nearby rock. Ruled accidental, no suspicious circumstances. No dope or booze in Schwinn's system. Or the horse's, the clerk added. An equine drug scan seemed thorough, and Milo told the C.A. so.
"Special request of the widow," said the guy, a middle-aged-sounding guy named Olivas. "She wanted the horse tested and was willing to pay for it."
"She suspect something?"
"All it says here is that she requested a full drug scan on Akhbar- that's the horse. We had a vet in Santa Barbara do it, and she sent us the results. Mrs. Schwinn got the bill."
"So the horse was clean," said Milo.
"As a whistle," said Olivas. "It busted itself up plenty, though- two broken legs and a torsion injury of the neck. When the widow got there, it was down on the ground moaning, pretty much out of it. She had it put down. What's up, the insurance company has problems with something?"
"No, just checking."
"It was an accident, he was an old guy," said Olivas. "Riding a horse at his age, what was he thinking?"
"President Reagan rode when he was in his eighties."
"Yeah, well, he had Secret Service guys to look after him. It's like old people driving cars- my dad's eighty-nine, blind as a bat at night, but he insists on getting behind the wheel and driving to L.A. to get authentic menudo. That kind of thing and idiots on cell phones, give me a break. You'd see what I see comes in here every day, you'd be scared."
"I'm scared," said Milo, hefting his phone.
"Pays to be scared."
He craved caffeine and cholesterol, drove to Farmers Market at Fairfax and Third and had a green chili omelet and two stacks of toast at DuPars. Keeping his eye on a homeless guy in the next booth. The bum wore three jackets and hugged a battered, stringless guitar. The instrument made Milo think about Robin, but the psychosis in the homeless guy's eyes pulled him into the here and now.
They engaged in a staring contest until the homeless man finally threw down a couple of dollars and waddled off mumbling at unseen demons and Milo was able to enjoy his eggs.
Once again, he thought, I've brought peace and light to the world.
But then the waitress smiled with relief and gave him a thumbs-up, and he realized he'd really accomplished something.
Still hungry, he ordered a stack of hotcakes, drained everything down with black coffee, walked around the market, dodging tourists, figuring the distraction might get his brain in gear. But it didn't, and after inspecting produce stands full of fruit he didn't recognize and buying a bag of jumbo cashews, he left the market, drove south on Fairfax, turned left on Sixth, at the old May Company building, now an adjunct of the art museum, and kept going east.
Chief John G. Broussard's official residence was beautifully tended, with grass as green as Ireland and more flower beds than Milo remembered from that diplomatic party. A flagpole had been erected smack in the middle of the lawn and the Stars and Stripes and the California Bear swooshed in the midday breeze.
No walls or fences or uniformed officer on patrol, but the driveway had been gated with wrought iron and through the stout bars, Milo saw a black-and-white cruiser, and behind that, a late-model, white Cadillac. The Caddy was probably Mrs. Broussard's wheels. He recalled her as a trim, pretty woman with henna-tinted, cold-waved hair and the resigned look of a political spouse. What was her name… Bernadette… Bernadine? Did she and John G. have kids? Milo'd never heard of any, and he realized how little he knew about the chief's personal life. How little the chief doled out.
Seven blocks west and a half mile south was Walt Obey's address on Muirfield. The billionaire's nest sat at the end of the road, where Muirfield terminated on the southern border of the Wilshire Country Club. No house in sight, just ten-foot stone walls broken by an opaque, black steel gate studded with enormous bolts. Closed circuit TV camera on one post. The implication was a grand place on multiple acres, and Milo flashed to Baron Loetz's spread, neighbor to the Cossack party house. Did Obey spend time on his veranda, sipping gin and enjoying what God had given him?
Eighty years old and still taking meetings with hustlers like the Cossacks. Some big deal on the verge?
He found himself staring at Obey's gate. The TV camera remained immobile. The place was close enough for an athletic guy like John G. to jog over. Obey and Broussard on the veranda? Making plans. Running things. All of a sudden Milo felt very small and vulnerable. He rolled down the window, heard birds peeping, a plink of running water behind Obey's walls. Then the camera began to rotate. An automatic circuit, or maybe his presence had attracted attention. He backed up halfway down the block, whipped a U-turn, and got the hell out of there.
A few minutes later, he was parked on McCadden near Wilshire, cell phone hot against his ear. More DMV finagling gave him other addresses, and he had a look at all of them.
Michael Larner lived in a high-rise condo just east of Westwood, in the Wilshire Corridor. Pink stone and cheesy-looking brick, doorman out in front, an oversize fountain. Son Bradley's Santa Monica Canyon place turned out to be a smallish, blue frame house with stupendous ocean views and a FOR RENT sign out in front. No cars in the driveway, and the gardening looked a little lax, so Brad was living somewhere else.
Garvey Cossack Junior and brother Bob bunked together at a Carolwood address in Holmby Hills, not far, geographically, from Alex's place off Beverly Glen, but a whole different world financially.
Carolwood was a lovely, hilly block, leafy and sinuous, shaded by old-growth trees, one of the highest-priced stretches in L.A. Most of the houses were architectural masterpieces landscaped like botanical gardens, many of them cosseted by greenery and bearing that classy look that only came from durability.
The Cossack brothers' pad was an exceedingly vulgar, blue-tile-roofed and monstrously gabled heap of gray limestone perched atop a scarred dirt hill with no grass or trees in sight. Stone facing, only. The sides were lumpy stucco. Bad trowel job. Cheap-looking white metal fencing and an electric gate partitioned the front of the property from the street, but without benefit of vegetation, the house sat in full view, baking in the sun, puffy flanks glaring white in spots.
A double-sized Dumpster overflowing with trash advertised ongoing construction, but no workers were in sight, drapes covered the windows, and a mini car museum took up the rest of the massive driveway.
Plum-colored Rolls Royce Corniche, black Humvee with blacked-out windows, red (what else?) Ferrari that came as close as Milo had seen to a penis on wheels, a taxi yellow Pantera, a pair of Dodge Vipers, one white with a blue center stripe, the other anthracite gray striped orange, and a white Corvette convertible. All under a drooping, makeshift canvas awning that stretched across listing metal stilts. Off to the side, in the full sun, was a ten-year-old Honda that had to be the maid's wheels.
Big house and all those cars, but no landscaping. Just the kind of eyesore a couple of teenagers would put together if they tumbled into endless cash, and Milo was willing to bet the Cossacks had six figures' worth of stereo equipment inside, along with a state-of-the-art screening room, a pub, a game room or two. He was starting to think of them as a dual case of profound arrested development.
The house was exactly the kind of eyesore that would provoke neighbor complaints in a blue-chip district, meaning now he had something to look for.
He drove downtown to the Hall of Records, made it through the traffic by 2 P.M., and combed through the zoning-board complaint files. Sure enough, three gripes had been lodged against the Cossacks, all by Carolwood residents, irritated about noise and dirt and other indignities caused by "protracted construction." All dismissed for lack of cause.
He moved over to the property files, ran searches on the Cossacks, Walt Obey, both Larners. John G. Broussard.
Obey's holdings were protected by a cadre of holding companies, a firewall that would take weeks, if not months, to break through. Same for the Larners and the Cossacks, although a few pieces of real estate were held privately by each duo. In the case of the Larners it was half a dozen condos in a Marina del Rey building owned jointly by father and son. Sixteen strip malls in low-rent exurbs were registered to the Cossack brothers.
The boys living together, working together. How touching.
Nothing was registered to Sister Caroline.
Shifting gears for a moment, he pulled up Georgie Nemerov's records. The bail bondsman and his mother co-owned a single-family dwelling in Van Nuys that Milo recognized as the family home from twenty years ago, and a six-unit apartment in Granada Hills, also jointly registered to Ivana Nemerov. Whatever Georgie had or hadn't done, building a real estate empire didn't seem part of the equation.
John G. Broussard and his wife- Bernadelle- had held on to the house in Ladera Heights as well as three contiguous lots on West 156th Street in Watts. Maybe the chief's or his wife's parents' place, an inheritance.
Once again: no empire. If John G. was trading for something, it wasn't land. Unless he was embedded somewhere in Walt Obey's corporate acreage.
He ran searches on Melinda Waters and mother Eileen and came up empty, was thinking about what else to do when the records clerk came over and told him the building was closing. He left and drove up and down Temple Street, past the place where Pierce Schwinn had spotted Tonya Stumpf strutting. The block was a Music Center parking lot now, filled with its daytime load of municipal workers' and litigants' vehicles, due to the Court Building down the street. Lots of people, lots of movement, but Milo felt out of it- out of the rhythm.
He drove toward home, slowly, not caring about rush-hour toxins, street-work delays, notably stupid driving by what seemed to be fifty percent of his fellow commuters. All the urban niceties that usually drove up his blood pressure and made him wonder why the hell he'd chosen to live like this.
He was sitting at a red light at Highland when his phone rang. Alex's voice said, "I got you. Good."
"Maybe nothing, but my source- the woman Michael Larner molested- called me again, and I met with her last night. Seems the day Larner made his move on her, he was angry about Willie Burns. Enraged, talking to someone about Burns. Willie had been gone from Achievement House for a few days so it sounds like Larner found out who Burns was, was steamed because Burns disappeared."
"Enraged," said Milo.
"That's how she describes it. She walked into his office just as he got off the phone, said Larner was flushed and agitated. Then he composed himself and turned his attention to her. Which could be more than a coincidence. Harassers and rapists often get stoked by anger. Anyway, it's probably no big deal, but it does fit with our working hypothesis: The Cossack family contracted Larner to hide Caroline until Janie Ingalls's murder cooled down. Burns made contact with Caroline, then split, and the family panicked. But they never found him, he even managed to slip away after his dope arrest, because Boris Nemerov bailed him out immediately. Four months later he ambushed Nemerov."
"Interesting," said Milo. "Good work." He summarized what he'd seen at Sangre de Leon last night.
"Big money," said Alex. "Same old story. One more thing: When I was looking for Melinda Waters on the Internet, I got a few hits but dismissed them. Then I realized maybe I'd been too hasty about one in particular. An attorney in Santa Fe, New Mexico, specializing in bankruptcy and evictions. I'd been thinking about Melinda as a stoned-out truant, didn't see a pathway from that to a legal career, but your comment about her turning up with a family and picket fence got me thinking, so I pulled up her website again and checked her bio. She's thirty-eight years old, which would be exactly our Melinda's age. And she didn't graduate college until she was thirty-one, law school till thirty-four. Before that, she worked as a paralegal for three years but her résumé still leaves the years between eighteen and twenty-eight unaccounted for. Which would mesh with someone going through changes, pulling her life together. And get this: She was schooled in California. San Francisco State for undergrad, Hastings for law."
"Hastings is a top school," said Milo. "Bowie Ingalls described Melinda as a loser."