Alex Delaware – #18
To the memory of Warren Zevon.
Special thanks to Dr. Leah Ellenberg.
A few years ago a psychopath burned down my house.
The night it happened, I was out to dinner with the woman who’d designed the house and lived in it with me. We were driving up Beverly Glen when the sirens cut through the darkness, ululating, like coyote death wails.
The noise died quickly, indicating a nearby disaster, but there was no reason to assume the worst. Unless you’re the worst kind of fatalist, you think: “Something lousy happened to some poor devil.”
That night, I learned different.
Since then, the Klaxon of an ambulance or a fire truck in my neighborhood sets off something inside me- a crimp of shoulder, a catch of breath, an arrhythmic flutter of the plum-colored thing in my chest.
Pavlov was right.
I’m trained as a clinical psychologist, could do something about it but have chosen not to. Sometimes anxiety makes me feel alive.
When the sirens shrieked, Milo and I were having dinner at an Italian place at the top of the Glen. It was ten-thirty on a cool June night. The restaurant closes at eleven, but we were the last patrons, and the waiter was looking tired. The woman I was now seeing was teaching a night course in abnormal psychology at the U., and Milo’s partner, Rick Silverman, was busy at the Cedars-Sinai ER trying to salvage the five most seriously injured victims of a ten-car pileup on the Santa Monica Freeway.
Milo had just closed the file on a robbery-turned-to-multiple-homicide at a liquor store on Pico Boulevard. The solve had taken more persistence than brainwork. He was in a position to pick his cases, and no new ones had crossed his desk.
I’d finally finished testifying at the seemingly endless child-custody hearings waged by a famous director and his famous actress wife. I’d begun the consult with some optimism. The director had once been an actor, and both he and his ex knew how to perform. Now, three years later, two kids who’d started out in pretty good shape were basket cases living in France.
Milo and I chewed our way through focaccia and baby artichoke salad, orrechiati stuffed with spinach, veal pounded to paper. Neither of us felt like talking. A bottle of decent white wine smoothed the silence. Both of us were strangely content; life wasn’t fair, but we’d done our jobs well.
When sirens came, I kept my eyes on my plate. Milo stopped eating. The napkin he’d tucked in his shirt collar was spotted with spinach and olive oil.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Not a fire.”
He pushed hair off his forehead, picked up his fork and knife, speared, chewed, swallowed.
I said, “How can you tell?”
“That it’s not a big-red? Trust me, Alex. It’s a black-and-white. I know the frequency.”
A second cruiser wailed by. Then a third.
He pulled his tiny blue cell phone out of his pocket and punched a button. A preset number rang.
I raised my eyebrows.
“Just curious,” he said. His connection went through, and he told the phone, “This is Lieutenant Sturgis. What call just went out in the vicinity of upper Beverly Glen? Yeah, near Mulholland.” He waited, green eyes dimmed to near brown in the miserly light of the restaurant. Under the spotted napkin was a baby blue polo shirt that really didn’t work well with his pallid complexion. His acne pits were flagrant, his jowls gravid as freshly filled wineskins. Long white sideburns frizzed his big face, a pair of skunkish stripes that seemed to sprout artificially from his black hair. He’s a gay policeman and my best friend.
“That so,” he said. “Any detective assigned, yet? Okay, listen, I happen to be right near there, can make it over in ten- no make that fifteen- make it twenty minutes. Yeah, yeah, sure.”
He snapped the little phone shut. “Double homicide, two bodies in a car. Being this close, I figured I should have a look. The crime scene’s still being secured, and the techs haven’t gotten there, so we can still have dessert. How are you with cannoli?”
We split the check, and he offered to drive me home, but neither of us took that seriously.
“In that case,” he said, “we’ll take the Seville.”
I drove quickly. The crime scene was on the west side of the intersection between the Glen and Mulholland, up a skinny, decomposed, granite road marked PRIVATE that climbed through sycamore-crowned hillside.
A police cruiser was stationed at the mouth of the road. Staked to a tree several feet up was a FOR SALE sign bearing the logo of a Westside Realtor. Milo flashed the badge to the uniform in the car, and we drove through.
At the top of the road was a house behind high, night-blackened hedges. Two more black-and-whites kept us ten yards back. We parked and continued on foot. The sky was purplish, the air still bitter with the smolder of two early-summer brush fires, one up near Camarillo, the other past Tujunga. Both had just been vanquished. One had been set by a fireman.
Behind the hedges was stout wooden fencing. Double gates had been left open. The bodies slumped in a red Mustang convertible parked on a semicircular flagstone driveway. The house behind the drive was a vacant mansion, a big neo-Spanish thing that was probably cheerful peach in the daylight. At this hour, it was putty gray.
The driveway bordered a half acre of front yard, shaded by more sycamores- giant ones. The house looked newish and was ruined by too many weird-shaped windows, but someone had been smart enough to spare the trees.
The top was down on the little red car. I stood back and watched as Milo approached, careful to stay behind the tape. He did nothing but stare. Moments later, a pair of crime-scene techs walked onto the property lugging cases on a dolly. They talked to him briefly, then slipped under the tape.
He walked back to the Seville. “Looks like gunshot wounds to both heads, a guy and a girl, young. He’s in the driver’s seat, she’s next to him. His fly’s open, and his shirt’s half-unbuttoned. Her shirt’s clean off, tossed in the backseat along with her bra. Below the shirt she wore black leggings. They’re rolled down to her ankles, and her legs are spread.”
“Lover’s lane thing?” I said.
“Empty house,” he said. “Good neighborhood. Probably a nice view from the backyard. Seize the night and all that? Sure.”
“If they knew about the house, they could be locals.”
“He looked clean-cut, well dressed. Yeah, I’d say local is also a decent bet.”
“I wonder why the gate was left open.”
“Or maybe it wasn’t, and one of them has some connection to the house and a gate-clicker. For all we know, one of their families built the place. Crime Scene will do their thing, hopefully they’ll find IDs in the pockets. The car’s plates are being run right now.”
I said, “Any gun in sight?”
“A murder-suicide thing? Not likely.”
He rubbed his face. His hand lingered at his mouth, tugged down his lower lip and let it snap back up.
“What?” I said.
“Two head-shots plus, Alex. Someone jammed what looks to be a short spear or a crossbow bolt into the girl’s torso. Here.” He touched a spot under his breastbone. “From what I could see the damn thing went clear through her and is lodged in the seat. The impact jolted her body, she’s lying funny.”
“She was skewered, Alex. A bullet to the brain wasn’t enough.”
“Overkill,” I said. “A message. Were they actually making love or were they positioned sexually?”
He flashed a frightening smile. “Now we’re veering into your territory.”
The techs and the coroner gloved up and did their thing under heartless floodlights. Milo talked to the uniforms who’d arrived first on the scene, and I stood around.
He loped over to one of the big sycamores, said something to no apparent listener, and a nervous-looking Hispanic man in baggy clothes stepped from behind the trunk. The man talked with his hands and looked agitated. Milo did a lot of listening. He took out his notepad and scrawled without breaking eye contact. When he was finished, the man was allowed to leave the scene.
The spear in the girl’s chest appeared to be a homemade weapon fashioned from a slat of wrought-iron fencing. The coroner who manipulated it free said so out loud as she carried it beyond the yellow tape perimeter and laid it on an evidence sheet.
The uniforms checked the property for similar fencing, found iron around a pool, but a different diameter.
DMV came through with the car’s registration: the Mustang was one year old and registered to Jerome Allan Quick, of South Camden Drive in Beverly Hills. A wallet in the pocket of the male victim’s khakis yielded a driver’s license that confirmed him as Gavin Ryan Quick, two months past his twentieth birthday. A student ID card put him as a sophomore at the U., but the card was two years old. In another pocket, the techs retrieved a joint wrapped in a baggie and a foil-wrapped condom. Another condom, out of the foil but unrolled, was discovered on the floor of the Mustang.
Neither the girl’s black leggings or her gold silk shirt contained pockets. No purse or handbag was found in the car or anywhere else. Blond, thin, pale, pretty, she remained unidentified. Even after the spear was removed, she lay contorted, chest thrust at the night sky, neck twisted, eyes wide-open. A spidery position no living creature would have entertained.
The coroner wouldn’t commit but guessed from the arterial blood spatter that she’d been alive while being impaled.
Milo and I drove to Beverly Hills. Once again, he offered to drop me off; once again, I laughed. Allison would be home by now, but we weren’t living together, so there was no reason to let her know where I was. Back when Robin and I did live together, I checked in most of the time. Sometimes I was derelict. The least of my sins.
I said, “Who was the guy you interviewed?”
“Night watchman employed by the real estate company. His job is to drive around at the end of the day, check out the high-priced listings, make sure everything’s secure. The brokerage gives the key out to their agents, and agents from other outfits can come by and borrow copies. Supposedly a foolproof system, but doors don’t get locked, windows and gates are left open. That’s probably what happened here. The house was shown today by three brokers. It was the watchman’s last stop, he covers everything from San Gabriel to the beach. He’s the one who found the bodies and phoned it in.”
“But you’ll paraffin him, anyway.”
“Done. No gunshot residue. I’ll also be checking the three brokers and their clients.”
I crossed Santa Monica Boulevard, drove east, headed south on Rodeo Drive. Shops were closed, but storefronts were bright. A homeless man steered a shopping cart past Gucci.
“So you’re taking the case,” I said.
He rode half a block before answering. “Been a while since I had me a nice little whodunit, good to stay in shape.”
He’d always claimed to hate whodunits, but I said nothing. The last one had closed a while back, a cold-hearted killer executing people with artistic talent. The day after Milo filed his final report, he said, “Ready for some low-IQ bar shootings, bad guys holding the smoking gun.”
Now he said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m a glutton for punishment. Let’s get this over with.”
Jerome Allan Quick lived on a pretty street a block and a half south of Wilshire. This was the middle ground of Beverly Hills, meaning pleasant houses on fifth-acre lots that ran between one and two million.
The Quick residence was a two-story white traditional, open to the street. A white minivan and a gray baby Benz shared the driveway. Lights out. Everything looked peaceful. That would change soon.
Milo phoned Beverly Hills PD to let them know he’d be making a notification call, then we got out and walked to the house. His knock elicited only silence. His doorbell ring brought footsteps and a woman’s voice asking who it was.
Lights on in the entry illuminated the peephole in the door. The door opened, and the woman said, “Police? What’s going on?”
She was in her midforties, trim but wide in the hips, wore green velour sweats, glasses on a chain, and nothing on her feet. Ash-blond hair was texturized to faux carelessness. At least four shades of blond that I could make out in the light over the doorway, blended artfully. Her nails were painted silver. Her skin looked tired. She squinted and blinked. The house behind her was silent.
There’s no good way to do what Milo had to do. She sagged and screamed and tore at her hair and accused him of being crazy and a goddamn liar. Then her eyes bugged and her hand snapped across her mouth and a retching sound forced its way through her fingers.
I was the first to follow her into her kitchen, where she vomited into a stainless-steel sink. Milo hung near the doorway, looking miserable but still taking the time to examine the room.
As she threw up convulsively, I stood behind her but didn’t touch her. When she was finished, I got her a paper towel.
She said, “Thank you, that was very…”
She started to smile, then she saw me for the stranger I was and began to shake uncontrollably.
When we finally made it to the living room, she remained on her feet and insisted we sit. We perched on a blue brocade sofa. The room was pretty.
She stared at us. Her eyes were bloodshot. Her face had gone white.
“Can I get you coffee and cake?”
Milo said, “Don’t go to any trouble, Mrs. Quick.”
“Sheila.” She hurried back to the kitchen. Milo clenched and unclenched his hands. My eyes ached. I stared at a Picasso print of an old guitarist, a reproduction cherrywood grandfather clock, pink silk flowers in a crystal vase, family photos. Sheila Quick, a thin, gray-haired man, a dark-haired girl about twenty, and the boy in the Mustang.
She returned with two mismatched mugs of instant coffee, a jar of powdered whitener, a plate of sugar cookies. Her lips were bloodless. “I’m so sorry. Here, maybe this will make you feel better.”
Milo said, “Ma’am-”
“Sheila. My husband’s in Atlanta.”
“Jerry’s a metals dealer. He visits scrapyards and smelters and whatever.” She fooled with her hair. “Have one, please, they’re Pepperidge Farms.”
Lifting a cookie from the plate, she dropped it, tried to pick it up, crushed it to crumbs on the carpet.
“Now look what I did!” She threw up her hands and cried.
Milo was gentle, but he probed, and he and Sheila Quick fell into a routine: short questions from him, long, rambling answers from her. She seemed hypnotized by the sound of her own voice. I didn’t want to think about what it would be like when we left.
Gavin Quick was the younger of two children. A twenty-three-year-old sister named Kelly attended law school at Boston University. Gavin was a very good boy. No drugs, no bad company. His mother couldn’t think of anyone who’d want to hurt him.
“It’s really a pretty stupid question, Detective.”
“It’s just something I have to ask, ma’am.”
“Well it doesn’t apply here. No one would want to hurt Gavin, he’s been hurt enough.”
She said, “He was in a terrible car crash.”
“When was this, ma’am?”
“Just under a year ago. He’s lucky he wasn’t-” Her voice choked. She lowered her head to her hands, and her back hunched and trembled.
It took a while for her to show her face. “Gavin was with a bunch of friends- college friends, he was just finishing his second year at the U., was studying economics. He was interested in business- not Jerry’s business. Finance, real estate, big things.”
“What- oh the crash? Pointless, absolutely pointless, but do kids listen? They denied it, but I’m sure drinking had something to do with it.”
“The boy who was driving- his insurance company. They wanted to reduce their liability. Obviously. A kid from Whittier, Gavin knew him from school. He was killed, so we couldn’t very well harass his parents, but the time it took the insurance company to compensate us for Gavin’s medical was- you don’t need to hear this.”
She grabbed a tissue and wiped her eyes.
“What exactly happened, Mrs. Quick?”
“What happened? Six of them piled into a stupid little Toyota and were speeding way too fast on Pacific Coast Highway. They’d been to a concert in Ventura and were heading back to L.A. The driver- the boy who died, Lance Hernandez- missed a turn and plowed right into the mountainside. He and the front-seat passenger were killed instantly. The two boys in the back next to Gavin were only injured slightly. Gav was sandwiched between them; he was the skinniest, so he got the middle spot, and there was no seat belt. The Highway Patrol told us it was lucky for him he was squished so tight between them because that prevented him from flying. As is, he was thrown forward and the front of his head hit the back of the driver’s seat. His shoulder was wrenched, and some small bones in his feet broke when they were bent back. The funny thing is, there was no blood, no bruising, just the smallest bump on his forehead. He wasn’t in a coma or anything, but they did tell us he’d suffered a severe concussion. He had a memory loss that was pretty bad for a few days, it really took weeks for his head to clear fully. Other than that, when the bump went down, there was nothing you could see from the outside. But I’m his mother, I knew he was different.”
“Different how, Mrs. Quick?”
“Quieter- does it matter? What does it have to do with this?”
“Collecting background, ma’am.”
“Well, I don’t see the point of it. First you come in here and tear my life to shreds, then you- I’m sorry, I’m just taking it out on you rather than kill myself.” Big smile. “First my baby gets thrown against a seat, now you’re telling me he was shot by some maniac- where did it happen?”
“Off of Mulholland Drive, north of Beverly Glen.”
“All the way up there? Well, I wouldn’t know what he’d be doing there.” She looked at us with newfound skepticism, as if hoping we were wrong about everything.
“He was parked in his car with a young woman.”
“A young-” Sheila Quick’s hand wadded the tissue. “Blond, good figure, pretty?”
“Kayla,” she said. “Oh my God, Gavin and Kayla, why didn’t you tell me it was both of them- now I have to tell Paula and Stan- oh God how am I going to-”
“Kayla was Gavin’s girlfriend?”
“Is- was. I don’t know, they were something.” Sheila Quick placed the tissue on the sofa cushion and sat immobile. The crushed paper began expanding, as if by its own volition, and she stared at it.
“Mrs. Quick?” said Milo.
“Gavin and Kayla were off and on,” she said. “They knew each other from Beverly High. After the accident, when Gavin…” She shook her head. “I can’t tell her parents, I’m sorry- will you tell them?”
“Of course. What’s Kayla’s last name and where do her folks live?”
“You can use my kitchen phone. I’m sure they’re up, at least Stan is. He’s a night person. He’s a musician, composes commercials, movie scores. He’s very successful. They live up in the flats.”
“The last name, ma’am?”
“Bartell. Used to be Bartelli or something Italian like that. Kayla’s a blondie, but she’s Italian. Must be northern Italian. At least on Stan’s side, I don’t know what Paula is. Do you think I should call my husband in Atlanta? It’s really late there, and I’m sure he’s had a busy day.”
Milo asked a few more questions, learned nothing, got her to sip from one of the mugs of instant coffee, found out the name of her family physician, Barry Silver, and woke him up. The doctor lived in Beverly Hills and said he’d be over soon.
Milo asked to see Gavin’s room and Sheila Quick took us up a maroon plush-carpeted staircase, flung the door open, flicked a light switch. The room was generous and painted pale blue and stank of body odor and rot. A queen-sized bed was unmade, rumpled clothes were piled on the floor, books and papers were strewn haphazardly, dirty dishes and fast-food cartons filled in the empty spaces. I’ve seen the police leave drug houses more composed after an evidence toss.
Sheila Quick said, “Gavin used to be neat. Before the accident. I tried, I gave up.” She shrugged. Shame colored her face. She closed the door. “Some battles aren’t worth fighting. Do you have kids?”
We shook our heads.
“Maybe you’re the lucky ones.”
She insisted we leave before the doctor arrived, and when Milo tried to argue, she pressed a hand to her temple and grimaced, as if he was causing her great pain.
“Let me be with my thoughts. Please.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He got the address for Stan and Paula Bartell. Same street, Camden Drive, but the eight hundred block, one mile north, on the other side of the business district.
“The Flats,” Sheila Quick reiterated. “They’ve got some place.”
When you see stock footage of Beverly Hills in the movies, it’s almost always the Flats. Directors favor the sun-splotched, palm-lined drives like Foothill and Beverly, but any of the broad streets wedged between Santa Monica and Sunset will do when the connotation is primal California affluence. In the Flats, teardowns began at 2 million bucks and pumped-up piles of stucco can fetch more than triple that amount.
Tourists from the East usually have the same impression of the area: so clean, so green, such miserly lots. Houses that would grace multiple acreage in Greenwich or Scarsdale or Shaker Heights are shoehorned onto half-acre rectangles. That doesn’t stop the residents from erecting thirteen-thousand-square-foot imitations of Newport mansions that elbow their neighbors.
The Bartell house was one of those, a hulking, flat-faced wedding cake set behind a pitiful front yard that was mostly circular driveway. White fencing topped with gold finials shielded the property. A security sign promising ARMED RESPONSE hung near the electric gate. Through the fence, double doors with frosted-glass panes were backlit teal green. Above them, a giant porthole showcased a white-hot chandelier. No vehicles in front; a four-car garage provided ample shelter for automotive pets.
Milo inhaled, and said, “Once more with feeling,” and we got out. Cars zipped by on Sunset, but North Camden Drive was still. Beverly Hills has a thing for trees, and the ones lining Camden were magnolias that would’ve loved South Carolina. Here they were stunted by drought and smog, but a few were flowering, and I could smell their fragrance.
Milo punched a button on the squawk box. A man barked, “Yes?”
“Who is this?”
“Could we come in please, sir?”
“What’s this about?”
Milo frowned. “Your daughter, sir.”
“My- hold on.”
Seconds later, lights flooded the front of the house. Now I saw that the glass doors were flanked by orange trees in pots. One was failing. The doors swung open, and a tall man walked across the driveway. He stopped fifteen feet from us, shaded his eyes with his hands, took three steps more, into the floodlights, like a performer.
“What’s this all about?” said a deep, hoarse voice.
Stan Bartell stepped up close. Late fifties, Palm Springs tan. A big man with powerful shoulders, a hawk nose, thin lips, a bulky chin. Waxy white hair was drawn back in a ponytail. He wore black-framed eyeglasses, a thin gold chain around his neck, and an iridescent burgundy velvet robe that brushed the ground.
Milo produced his badge, but Bartell didn’t come any closer.
“What about my daughter?”
“Sir, it would really be better if we came in.”
Bartell removed his glasses and studied us. His eyes were close-set, dark, analytic. “You’re Beverly Hills police?”
“ L.A. ”
“Then what are you doing here- I’m going to check you out, so if this is a scam, you’ve been warned.” He returned to the house, closed the doors behind him.
We waited on the sidewalk. Headlights appeared at the south end of the block, followed by bass thumps as a Lincoln Navigator drove by slowly. Behind the wheel was a kid who looked no older than fifteen, baseball hat worn backwards, hip-hop music bellowing from the interior. The SUV continued to Sunset, cruising the Strip.
Five minutes passed with no word or sign from Stan Bartell.
I said, “How much detail will Beverly Hills PD give him?”
We waited another couple of minutes. Milo ran his hand along the white fence slats. Eyed the security sign. I knew what he was thinking: all the safety measures in the world.
The electric gate slid open. Stan Bartell stepped out of his house and stood on his front steps and waved us in. When we got to the door, he said, “The only thing they know about LAPD being here is something called a notification on a kid my daughter knows. Let me see your badge just to be safe.”
Milo showed it to him.
“You’re the one,” said Bartell. “So what’s with Gavin Quick?”
“You know him?”
“Like I said, my daughter knows him.” Bartell shoved his hands in the pockets of his robe. “Does notification mean what I think it does?”
“Gavin Quick was murdered,” said Milo.
“What does my daughter have to do with it?”
“A girl was found with Gavin. Young, blond-”
“Bullshit,” said Bartell. “Not Kayla.”
“Where is Kayla?”
“Out. I’ll call her on my cell phone. C’mon, I’ll show you.”
We followed him inside. The entry hall was twenty feet high, marble-floored, a lot larger than the Quick’s living room. The house was an orgy of beige, except for amethyst-colored glass flowers everywhere. Huge, frameless, abstract canvases were all painted in variations upon that same noncommittal earth tone.
Wordlessly, Stan Bartell led us past several other huge rooms to a studio at the rear. Wood floors and a beamed ceiling. A couch, two folding chairs, a grand piano, an electric organ, synthesizers, mixers, tape decks, an alto sax on a stand, and a gorgeous archtop guitar that I recognized as a fifty-thousand-dollar D’Aquisto in an open case.
On the walls were framed gold records.
Bartell slumped onto the couch, pointed an accusing finger at Milo, and pulled a phone out of his pocket. He dialed, put the phone to his ear, waited.
“Doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. Then his bronze face crumpled, and he broke into wracking sobs.
Milo and I stood by helplessly.
Finally, Bartell said, “What did that fucking little bastard do to her?”
“I told Kaylie he was weird, stay away. Especially since the accident- you know about his fucking accident, right? Must’ve had some kind of brain damage the little fu-”
“Her. Crazy bitch.”
“You’ve had problems with them.”
“She’s nuts,” said Bartell.
“In what way?”
“Just weird. Never leaves the house. The problem was their son going after my angel.” Bartell’s fists were huge. He raised his eyes to the ceiling and rocked. “Oh, Jesus, this is bad, this is so fucking bad!” His eyes sparked with panic. “My wife- she’s in Aspen. She doesn’t ski, but she goes there in the summer. For shopping, the air. Oh shit, she’ll die, she’ll just crumple up and fucking die.”
Bartell bent and grasped his knees and rocked some more. “How could this happen?”
Milo said, “Why do you think Gavin Quick would’ve hurt Kayla?”
“Because he was- the kid was weird. Kaylie knew him from high school. She broke up with him a bunch of times, but he kept coming back, and she kept letting him down too easy. Little bastard would show up, sniff around even when Kaylie wasn’t in. Bugging me- like kissing up to the old man would help. I work at home, I’m trying to get some work done, and the little fucker is bullshitting me about music, trying to have a conversation like he knows something. I do a lot of jingles, have deadlines, you think I want to discuss alternative punk with some stupid kid? He’d sit himself down, never want to leave. Finally, I told the maid to stop letting him in.”
“Obsessive,” I said.
Bartell hung his head.
“Was he more obsessive since the accident?” said Milo.
Bartell looked up. “So he did it.”
“Unlikely, Mr. Bartell. No weapon was found at the scene, so my instinct is he was just a victim.”
“What are you saying? What the fuck are you-”
Footsteps- light footsteps- made all three of us turn.
A pretty young girl in low-riding, skintight jeans that looked oiled and a black midriff blouse exposing a flat, tan abdomen stood in the doorway. Two belly-button pierces, one studded with turquoise. Over her shoulder was a black silk bag embroidered with silk flowers. She wore too much makeup, had a beak nose and a strong chin. Her hair was long, straight, the color of new hay. The blouse revealed luminous cleavage. A big gold “K” on a chain rested in the cleft.
Stan Bartell’s tan faded to blotchy beige. “What the-” He slapped his hand over his heart, then reached out toward the girl with both hands. “Baby, baby!”
The girl frowned, and said, “What, Dad?”
Stan Bartell said, “Where the hell have you been?”
Kayla Bartell stared at her father as if he’d gone mad. “Out.”
“I called your cell.”
Kayla shrugged. “I switched it off. The club was loud, I couldn’t have heard it anyway.”
Bartell started to say something, then drew her near and hugged her. She glanced at us, as if seeking rescue.
“Thank God,” said Bartell. “Thank almighty God.”
“Who are these people, Daddy?”
Bartell let go of his daughter and glowered at us. “Leave.”
Milo said, “Ms. Bartell-”
“No!” shouted Bartel. “Out. Now.”
“Who are they, Daddy?”
“They’re no one.”
Milo said, “At some point, I’d like to talk to Kayla.”
“When pigs take the Concorde.”
When we reached the door, Bartell stood on his front steps and jabbed a remote control. The gates began sliding, and Milo and I barely made it through before they clanged shut.
Bartell slammed his door.
Milo said, “Your friendly neighborhood policeman, making friends and spreading good cheer wherever he goes.”
As we drove away, he said, “Interesting how Bartell assumed Gavin had done something to Kayla. You used the word ‘obsessive.’ ”
“Bartell’s hostility could just be resentment at someone sniffing around his angel. But obsessiveness can be a side effect of head injury.”
“What about that pigsty room? Kid’s mother claims he used to be neat. That fits with brain damage?”
“Catch a strong blow to the frontal lobes, and there can be all sorts of changes.”
“Depends on the severity of the injury. In most cases, it’s temporary.”
“Gavin got hurt ten months ago.”
“Not a good sign,” I said. “I’d like to know how he was functioning, in general. The student ID in his pocket was two years old. Assuming he dropped out, what’s he been doing since then?”
“Maybe getting on the bad side of the wrong people,” he said. “Getting obsessive. I’ll have another go-round with Sheila. Bartell said she was weird. You spot anything?”
“The context we saw her in, anything less than breakdown would be weird.”
“Yeah… I’ll check the father out when he gets back from Atlanta… I love my job- enough for one night. Drop me back at the Glen and nighty-night.”
I got onto Sunset and crossed the border into Holmby Hills. Milo said, “The big question right now is, who was the girl? And why impale her and not Gavin?”
“That and the way she was left says a sexual thing,” I said. “Eliminate the male, have your way with the female.”
“Think the coroner will find evidence of sexual assault?”
“If we’re dealing with a sexual psychopath, the impalement might suffice.”
“So maybe it’s a twisted thing,” he said. “Nothing to do with the victims, they were just a couple of kids happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“It could go that way,” I said.
He laughed softly. “And I volunteered for this one.”
“Who better than you?” I said.
“Meaning you’ll do a good job on it.”
He didn’t answer. I slowed down for a couple of turns, got on a straight stretch, and glanced at him. The merest excuse for a smile wormed its way across his lips.
“What a pal,” he said.
The following morning I had an early breakfast with Allison Gwynn before her first patient. Her office is in Santa Monica, on Montana, east of Boutique Row, and we met at a pastry shop nearby. It was 7:40 A.M., and the place hadn’t yet filled with people of leisure. Allison had on a white linen suit and white sandals that set off her long black hair. She never goes out without makeup and an assortment of serious jewelry. Today it was coral and gold, pieces we’d picked up on a recent trip to Santa Fe.
She was there when I arrived, had finished half a cup of coffee. “Good morning. Don’t you look handsome.”
I kissed her and sat down. “Morning, Gorgeous.”
We’d been seeing each other for a little over six months, were still in that stage where the pulse quickened and the body flushed.
We ordered sweet rolls and set about getting into conversational gear. At first it was small things, then sexual banter, then work. Shoptalk can kill a relationship, but so far I’d enjoyed it.
She went first. Busy week, grading papers for the courses she taught, a full patient load, volunteering at a hospice. Eventually, we got around to talking about the previous night. Allison takes an interest in what I do- more than an interest. She’s attracted to the ugliest aspects of human behavior, and sometimes I wonder if that isn’t part of what cements us. Maybe it’s life experience. She was sexually humiliated as a teenager, widowed in her twenties, carries a gun in her purse, and loves to shoot at paper human targets. I don’t think much about it. Too much analysis, and there’s no time to live.
I described the crime scene.
She said, “ Mulholland Drive. When I went to Beverly, we used to go up there to park all the time.”
She grinned. “Me and the other alleged virgins.”
“A religious experience.”
“Not back then, you can be sure of that,” she said. “Young boys and all that- too much enthusiasm, not enough finesse.”
I laughed. “So it was a well-known make-out spot.”
“That you missed out on, you poor Midwest boy. Yup, my dear, Mulholland was the make-out spot. Probably still is, though there’s probably less lover’s lane stuff going on because kids are allowed to do it in their own rooms. I’m amazed at how many of my patients go along with that. You know the rationale: Better I should know where they are.”
“There are two families who probably feel that way right now.”
She pushed hair behind her ear. “Tragic.”
The sweet rolls arrived, coated with almond slivers, warm. She said, “A vacant house. That creative we weren’t. They probably spotted the FOR SALE sign and the open gate, seized the opportunity. Poor parents. First the boy’s accident, now this. You said he changed. In what way?”
“His room was a sty, and his mother claimed he’d once been neat. She didn’t say much. It wasn’t the time to press.”
“No, of course not.”
I said, “His ex-girlfriend’s father described him as obsessive.”
“In what way?”
“Showing up at the girl’s house unexpectedly. When she wasn’t home, he’d bug the father, hang around asking questions. The father also implied Gavin had been overly persistent with his daughter. His first reaction when he thought his daughter was dead was that Gavin had done something to her.”
“That could be more like Protective Dad.”
“Was there any postconcussive syndrome?” she said. “Loss of consciousness, blurred vision, disorientation?”
“Some transitory memory loss is all the mother mentioned.”
“The crash was ten months ago,” she said. “And the mother’s still talking about him as changed.”
“I know,” I said. “The damage might’ve been permanent. But I’m not sure any of that matters, Ally. Make-out spots attract voyeurs and worse. Either Gavin and the girl were interrupted midcoitus, or they were positioned to look that way.”
“A sicko.” She studied her sweet roll but didn’t touch it. Smiled. “To be technical.”
“It’s a little early in the day for technical,” I said.
“ Mulholland Drive,” she said. “The things we do when we think we’re immortal.”
We strolled the three blocks to her office. Allison’s hand clasped my biceps. Her open-toed white shoes had generous heels, and that brought the top of her head to my bottom lip. A bit of ocean breeze lifted her hair, and soft strands brushed against my face.
She said, “ Milo volunteered for this one?”
“He didn’t seem to need any convincing.”
“I guess it makes sense,” she said. “He’s been looking pretty bored.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“You’d know better, but that’s how it’s seemed to me.”
“He’ll be getting plenty of stimulation on this one.”
“So will you.”
“If I’m needed.”
She laughed. “Be good for you, too.”
“I’ve been looking bored?”
“More like restless. All that caged animal energy.”
I growled and beat my chest with my free hand and let out a low-volume Tarzan roar. Two women power-walking our way scrunched up their lips and gave us wide berth as they passed.
“You just made their day,” she said.
Milo , bored. He griped so much about work stress, personal stress, the state of the world, anything at hand, that I’d never considered the concept.
When had Allison seen him last… two weeks ago. Late-night dinner at Café Moghul, the Indian restaurant near the West L.A. station that he uses as a second office. The proprietors believe his presence ensures them peace and security and treat him like a maharajah.
That night, Allison and I, Rick, and the big guy had been treated to a gut-stretching banquet. Allison and Milo happened to sit next to each other and ended up talking for most of the evening. It’s taken him a while to warm up to her. To the notion that I’m with someone new. Robin and I were together for over a decade, and he adores her. Robin had found happiness with another man. I thought I was dealing with that pretty well as she and I struggled to build a new kind of friendship. Except for when I wasn’t.
I was waiting for Milo to stop acting like a kid caught in a custody dispute.
The morning after the Indian dinner, he called me, and said, “You have your quirks, but when you settle on one, she’s a keeper.”
The day after the murder, he phoned. “No semen on the girl, no sign of sexual assault. Unless you count the spear. The same.22 was used to shoot both of them, one bullet each, right to the forehead. Your hostile or out-of-control shooter tends to empty his weapon. Meaning this was a guy with confidence. Cool, maybe with experience.”
“Confident and careful,” I said. “Also, he didn’t want to make a lot of noise.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Though given the site- the nearest house is a couple of acres away- he was probably okay on that account. Also, the gun would have gone pop pop, no big explosion. No exit wounds, the bullets bounced around the kids’ brains, did the kind of damage you’d expect from a.22.”
“Has the girl been identified?”
“Not yet. Her prints don’t appear to be in the system, though I can’t say for sure, because the computer’s been screwing up. I’ve talked to our Missing Persons guys, and they’re putting together some paper. I did a bit of calling around to other stations, but young blond girls aren’t a rare commodity when you’re talking MP. My guess is she’ll turn out to be another of Gavin’s Beverly Hills friends. Though if she was, you’d expect someone to miss her by now, and no one called or filed at B.H. on a missing girl.”
“Sleepover,” I said. “Nowadays, parents are lenient. And affluent parents are more likely to be out of town.”
“Would’ve been nice to talk to Kayla… meanwhile, I got the coroner to shoot some preautopsy pictures. Just got back from picking them up, have the least scary one to show around. It almost looks as if she’s sleeping. I want the Quicks to have a look at it, figure the father’s back, maybe the sister, too. I put a call in to them, but no one answered, no machine.”
“Grieving,” I said.
“And now I’m going to interrupt the process. Care to join me? In case I need help in the sensitivity department?”
In the afternoon daylight the Quick residence was even prettier, well kept, the lawn clipped, the front yard ringed by beds of impatiens. Daytime parking was restricted to permit holders. Milo had placed an LAPD banner atop his dash, and he handed me one for the Seville. In his free hand was a manila envelope.
I put the banner in the car. “Now I’m official.”
“Hoo-hah. Here we go again.” He bent one leg and flexed his neck. Opening the envelope, he pulled out the death shot of the blond girl.
The pretty face was now a pale mask. I studied the details: ski slope nose, dimpled chin, eyebrow pierce. Lank yellow strands that the camera turned greenish. Greenish tint to the skin that was real. The bullet hole was an oversized black mole, puffy around the edges, just off center in the unlined brow. Purplish bruises had settled around the eyes- blood leaking from the brain. Bloody residue under the nose, too. Her mouth hung slightly open. Her teeth were straight and dull.
To my eye, nothing close to “almost sleeping.”
I returned the picture, and we approached the Quick house.
A woman in a black pantsuit answered. Younger than Sheila Quick, she was slim and angular and brunette, with firm features and an assertive posture. Her dark hair was short, feathered in front, sprayed in place.
Her hands clamped her hips. “I’m sorry, they’re resting.”
Milo showed her the badge.
She said, “That doesn’t change the facts.”
“Eileen. I’m Sheila’s sister. Here’s my badge.” She slid a cream-colored business card out of a jacket pocket. The diamond on her finger was a three-carat pear.
Senior Vice President and
Chief Financial Officer
Simi Valley, California
“Digimorph,” said Milo.
“Ultratech computer enhancement. We do film work. On the biggest pictures.”
Milo smiled at her. “Here’s a picture, Ms. Paxton.” He showed her the death shot.
Eileen Paxton’s gaze didn’t waver, but her lips worked. “She’s the one who was found with Gavin?”
“Do you recognize her, ma’am?”
“No, but I wouldn’t. I thought Gavin was found with his girlfriend. That little hook-nosed thing. That’s what Sheila told me.”
“Your sister assumed,” said Milo. “A reasonable assumption, but she was mistaken. That’s one of the reasons we’re here.”
He kept the photo in Eileen Paxton’s sight. She said, “You can put that away.”
“Is Mr. Quick back from Atlanta?”
“He’s sleeping. They both are.”
“When do you think they’ll be available?”
“How would I know that? This is a terrible time for the entire family.”
“Yes, it is, ma’am.”
“This city,” said Paxton. “This world.”
“Okay then,” said Milo. “We’ll check back later.”
We turned to leave, and Eileen Paxton began to close the door, when a male voice from inside the house said, “Who’s out there, Eileen?”
Paxton was halfway inside when she said something unintelligible. The male voice retorted. Louder. Milo and I faced the house. A man emerged, his back to us, talking to the doorway. “I don’t need to be protected, Eileen.”
Muffled response. The man closed the door, swiveled, and stared at us. “I’m Jerry Quick. Any news on my boy’s murder?”
Tall, thin, round-shouldered, he wore a navy blue crewneck sweater over khakis and white Nikes. Thinning gray hair was arranged in a careless comb-over. His face was long, deeply seamed, lantern-jawed. Bluish smudges stained the crinkled skin beneath wide-set blue eyes. His eyelids drooped, as if he were having trouble staying awake.
We returned to the front steps. Milo held out his hand. Quick shook it briefly, glanced at me, said, “Do you have anything yet?”
“Afraid not. If you’ve got time-”
“Of course I do.” Quick’s lips twisted as if he’d tasted something bad. “My executive sister-in-law. She met Spielberg once and thinks her shit doesn’t stink- come on in. My wife’s totally out of it, our doctor gave her Valium or something, but I’m fine. He wanted to dose me up, too. I want to be focused.”
Milo and I sat on the same blue sofa, and Jerome Quick took a Chippendale-repro armchair. I studied the family photos again. Wanting to imagine Gavin as something other than the thing in the Mustang.
In life, he’d been a tall, dark-haired, pleasant-looking kid with his father’s long face and wide-set eyes. Darker eyes than his father’s- gray-green. In some of the earlier pictures he wore glasses. His fashion sense never changed. Preppy clothes, designer logos. Short hair, always, in either a conservative crew cut or gelled and spiked cautiously. A regular kid with a tentative smile, not handsome, not ugly. Walk down any suburban street, check out a mall or a multiplex theater or a college campus, and you’d see scores just like him. His sister- the law student in Boston – was plain and serious-looking.
Quick saw me looking. “That was Gav.” His voice caught. He cursed under his breath, said, “Let’s get to work.”
Milo prepared him for the picture, then showed it to him.
Quick waved it away. “Never seen her.” Quick’s eyes dropped to the carpet. “Did my wife tell you about the accident?”
“That and now this.” Quick sprang up, strode to a mock-Chippendale coffee table, studied a crystal box for a while, then opened it and pulled out a cigarette and lit up with a matching lighter.
Blue smoke rose toward the ceiling. Quick inhaled deeply, sat down, and laughed harshly.
“I quit five years ago. Sheila thinks it’s gracious to leave these out for guests, even though no one smokes anymore. Like the good old days in Hollywood, all that crap. Her sister tells her about Hollywood crap…” He stared at the cigarette, flicked ash on the carpet, and ground it into the pile with his heel. The resulting black scorch mark seemed to give him satisfaction.
I said, “Did Gavin talk about a new girlfriend?”
“Her,” said Quick. “There’s an airhead for you. No, he didn’t say anything.”
“Would he have told you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was he open about his personal life?”
“Open?” said Quick. “Less so than before the accident. He tended to get confused. In the beginning, I mean. How could he not be confused, he caught a tremendous blow right here.” Quick touched his forehead.
Same spot where the bullet had entered his son’s skull. He didn’t know yet. No reason for him to know yet.
“Confusion,” I said.
“Just temporary. But he found he couldn’t concentrate on his studies, so he dropped out of school.”
Quick smoked and grimaced, as if inhaling hurt.
“He got hit on the prefrontal lobes,” he said. “They told us it controls personality. So obviously…”
“Gavin changed,” I said.
“Nothing huge, but sure, there’d have to be changes. But then he got better, almost everything got better. Anyway, I’m sure Gav’s accident has nothing to do with this.”
Quick puffed rapidly, flicked more ash. “We need to find out whoever did this. Bastard leave any clues?”
Milo said, “We have no suspects and very little information. We haven’t even been able to identify the girl.”
“Well I don’t know her, and I doubt Sheila does. We know the same people.”
“Is there anything you can tell us about Gavin that might help?”
“Gavin was a great guy,” said Quick, as if daring us to argue. “Had his head on his shoulders. Hell of a golfer. We both loved golf. I taught him, and he learned fast, leaped right over me- a seven handicap, and he was getting better. That was before the accident. Afterward, he wasn’t as coordinated, but he was still good. His attention would wander… sometimes he’d want to take the same shot over and over- wanted to do it perfectly.”
“Perfectionistic,” I said.
“Yeah, but at some point you’re causing a traffic jam on the green, and you have to stop. In terms of his interests, he liked business, same as me.” Jerry Quick slumped. “That changed, too. He lost interest in business. Got other ideas. But I figured it was temporary.”
“Other career ideas?” I said.
“More like career fantasies. All of a sudden econ was down the drain, and he was going to be a writer.”
“What kind of writer?”
“He joked about working for the tabloids, getting the dirt on celebrities.”
“Just a joke,” I said.
Quick glared. “He laughed, and I laughed back. I told you, he couldn’t concentrate. How the hell could he write for a newspaper? One time Eileen was over, and he asked her if she knew any celebrities he could get dirt on. Then he winked at me, but Eileen just about dirtied her pants. Gave some big speech about celebrities deserving their privacy. The thought of offending some big shot scared the hell out of her… anyway, where was I…” Quick’s eyes glazed. He smoked.
“Gavin becoming an investigative reporter.”
“Like I said, it wasn’t serious.”
“How did Gavin fill his time after he dropped out?”
Quick said, “By hanging around. I was ready for him to go back to school, but apparently he wasn’t, so I- it was a hard time for him, I didn’t want to push. I figured maybe he’d reenroll in the spring.”
“Any other changes?” I said.
“He stopped picking up his room. Really let it go to seed. He’d never been the neatest kid, but he’d always been good about personal grooming. Now he sometimes had to be reminded to shower and brush his teeth and comb his hair. I hated reminding him because he got embarrassed. Never argued, never gave me attitude, just said, ‘Sorry, Dad.’ Like he knew something was different and felt bad about it. But that was all getting better, he was coming out of it, getting in shape- he started running again. He was light on his feet, used to do five, six miles like it was nothing. His doctor told me he was going to be fine.”
“Which doctor is that?”
“All of them. There was a neurologist, what was his name-” Quick smoked and removed the cigarette and tapped his cheek with his free hand. “Some Indian guy, Barry Silver, our family doctor, referred us to him. Indian guy, over at Saint John’s… Singh. He wears a turban, must be one of those… you know. Barry is a friend as well as our doctor, I golf with him, so I trusted his referral. Singh did some tests and told us he really didn’t see anything off in Gav’s brain. He said Gav would take time to heal, but he couldn’t say how much time. Then he sent us over to a therapist- a psychologist. To help Gav recover from the trauma.”
“A neuropsychologist?” I said.
Quick said, “She’s a therapist, that’s all I know. Woman shrink, Koppel, she’s been on TV, radio.”
“Mary Lou Koppel.”
“You know her?”
“I’ve heard of her,” I said.
“At first Gav saw one of her partners, but they didn’t hit it off, so he switched to her.”
“What was wrong with the first partner?”
Quick shrugged. “The whole process- you pay for your kid to go in and talk to someone, it’s all hush-hush, you’re not allowed to know what’s going on.” He dragged on his cigarette. “Gavin told me he wasn’t comfortable with the guy and that Koppel was going to see him. Same price. They both charged two hundred bucks an hour and didn’t accept insurance.”
“Was it helpful?”
“What feedback did Dr. Koppel give you?”
“Nothing. I was out of that loop- the whole therapy thing. I travel a lot. Too much, been meaning to cut back.”
He smoked the cigarette down to the butt, snatched another, and chain-lit, then snuffed out the first one between his thumb and index finger. Onto the carpet.
He mumbled something.
Milo said, “Sir?”
Quick’s smile was abrupt and unsettling. “I travel all the time, and it’s hell. You know the airlines, disciples of the devil. Frequent business flyer? They could care less. This time, after Sheila called me about Gavin, and I told them why I needed to go home, I got treated like a king. They tag you as bereaved, and you get prioritized all the way. Upgrade to first class, no one could do enough for me.”
He barked what might’ve been laughter. Smoked, coughed, smoked some more.
“That’s what it took. That’s what it took to get treated like a human being.”
Milo asked him about his daughter, and Quick said, “I told Kelly to stay in Boston. She’s got law school, what good can it do her to come here? If you release the… release Gavin to us and we have a funeral, then she can come home. When will that be?”
“Hard to say, sir,” said Milo.
“That seems to be your tune.”
Milo smiled. “Kayla Bartell-”
“Haven’t seen her around for a while. She knew Gav from high school, and they fooled around for a while.”
“Like kids do,” said Quick. “Her father’s some kind of composer. Eileen informs me he’s important.”
“You’ve never met him.”
“Why would I?”
“Gavin and Kayla-”
“That was Gav’s business… to be honest, guys, I don’t get these questions,” said Quick. “What happened can’t have anything to do with Gav. He went up to Mulholland with some girl and a pervert- some sex fiend- took advantage, right? It’s obvious, right? Isn’t that what you’re thinking?”
Before Milo could answer, Quick’s eyes swung to the stairs. Eileen Paxton stomped down, ignored us, and hurried into the kitchen.
A kitchen faucet opened. Then, the hard clash of pans. Moments later, Sheila Quick made her way down the stairs, tentative, unsteady. She stopped on the bottom step, studied the floor, as if unwilling to commit. Her eyes were unfocused, and she gripped the banister for support. She wore a pink housecoat, had aged a decade overnight.
She saw us, said, “Hello” in a slurred voice. She noticed the cigarette in her husband’s hand, and her lips turned down.
Jerome Quick smoked defiantly. “Don’t stand on the bottom like that, come all the way down- be careful, you’re on Valium.” He made no effort to help her.
She remained in place. “Is there anything… new, Detective?”
Milo shook his head. “Sorry to bother you again, Mrs. Qui-”
“No, no, no, you’re helping me- us. You were very… gracious. Last night. It can’t have been easy for you. You were gracious. It wasn’t easy for you or for me.”
Jerry Quick said, “Sheila, go back to bed. You’re-”
“They were nice last night, Jerry. It’s only polite that I-”
“I’m sure they were great, but-”
“Jerry. I. Want. To. Be. Polite.” Sheila Quick came down the stairs and sat down on a side chair. “Hello,” she said, brightly.
“Ma’am,” said Milo, “we have learned that the girl with Gavin wasn’t Kayla Bartell.”
Sheila Quick said, “You said she was blond.”
Jerome Quick said, “There’s a rare commodity in L.A. ”
“I do have a picture,” said Milo. “It’s not a pleasant picture, it’s postmortem, but if you could look at it- if we could identify her, it might speed things along.”
Sheila Quick stared at him. He showed her the death shot.
“She looks so… dead. Poor little thing.” Shaking her head. She snatched the photo from Milo and held it closer. Her fingers trembled, and the corners flapped. “Are you showing pictures like this of Gavin to other people?”
“Sheila,” said Quick.
“No, ma’am,” said Milo. “We know who Gavin is.”
She examined the photo. “Gavin never said he had a new girlfriend.”
“Gavin was twenty,” said Jerome Quick. “He didn’t need to check in about his social life.”
Sheila Quick continued to stare at the picture. Finally, she handed it back.
“Another one,” she said.
“Someone else’s baby is gone.”
Milo received written permission to speak to Gavin’s doctors, and we left. It was nearly 5 P.M., the sky was milky white and poisonous, and both of us were low and hungry. We drove to a deli on Little Santa Monica, had sandwiches and coffee. Mine was roast beef with hot mustard on pumpernickel. Milo opted for a wet, multidecked monster layered with pastrami and coleslaw and pepperoncinis and some things I couldn’t identify, all stuffed into a French roll. When he bit into it, it collapsed. That seemed to give him joy.
He swallowed, and said, “Model family.”
“They’re no ad for domestic life,” I said, “but the father may be right, and it doesn’t matter.”
“Perverted stranger kills his boy. That sure distances it from the family.”
“I don’t see this as a family crime,” I said. “The fact that the family doesn’t know the girl could mean she’s the kind of girl you don’t bring home to Mother. Which may lead us to her being the primary target.”
“Someone with nasty friends.”
“The killer impaled her and took her purse. That could’ve been trophy-taking, but what if he didn’t want her identified quickly?”
“The primary target for sex, killing, or both?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “There was no sexual assault, but to me the impaling still has a sexual quality to it. Gavin was shot once- dispatched. That’s consistent with the killer wanting him out of the way so he could take care of his real business.”
“If Gavin was shot first. No way we can pinpoint that.”
“Logic says he was,” I said. “The girl was alive when the killer impaled her. It’s unlikely Gavin would’ve sat by passively while that happened. Or that the killer would’ve taken the risk of fighting a young, healthy male. He dispatched Gavin, with a single shot, then turned his attention to the girl. Her size, her fear, and the killer’s overwhelming dominance subdued her. Maybe he promised her he wouldn’t hurt her if she didn’t resist. Any signs she fought back?”
He shook his head.
I said, “She watched Gavin get murdered, sat there, terrified, and hoped for the best. The killer used the spear on her, then he shot her, too. To me that says big-time anger. With both kids dead, he had time to inspect his handiwork, fool with the scene. Either Gavin and the girl had already begun a sexually charged tableau, or he set one up. Either because it was a sex crime, or he wanted it to be seen that way.”
He put his sandwich down. “You’re offering me lots of choices.”
“What are friends for?” I said. “Have you come across any other impalement murders?”
“Nothing yet.” He picked up his sandwich, and a huge chunk disappeared in his maw. Think the condom was Gavin’s, or did the killer bring it?”
“It was in his pocket, so it was probably his.”
“So you think exploring Gavin’s psyche is a waste of time? I was thinking his therapist might be helpful. And you know her.”
“I know who she is.”
“From her being on TV.”
Here we go. I hid my mouth behind my coffee cup.
He said, “You make a face when you talk about her.”
“She’s not someone I’d refer to,” I said.
“I can’t get into the details.”
“Give me the basics.”
Five years ago, an otherwise thoughtful judge had asked me to evaluate a seven-year-old girl caught in a vicious divorce. Both parents were trained marriage counselors. That should have been ample warning.
The mother was a young, passive, pinch-featured, preternaturally anxious woman who’d grown up with violent, alcoholic parents and had shifted from couples work to processing hardened drug addicts at a county-financed clinic in Bellflower. Her ex-husband, twenty years older, was pompous and psychopathic, a newly minted sex therapist and guru of sorts, with an Ivy League Ph.D. and a brand-new job at a yoga institute in Santa Barbara.
The two of them hadn’t spoken in over a year but each insisted upon joint physical custody. The arrangement was to be simple: three days at one home, four at the next. Neither parent saw the problem shuttling a seven-year-old girl ninety miles between her father’s faux-adobe house at the ashram and the mother’s sad, furnished apartment in Glendale. The alleged crux of the conflict was the calendar- who got four days, who got three, and what about holidays? After two months of raging debate, the topic switched to coordinating the conventional diet favored by the mother with the vegan regimen embraced by the father.
The real crux was mutual hatred, two hundred thousand dollars in a jointly owned investment account, and the alleged sexual rapaciousness of the father’s four girlfriends.
When I do custody evaluations, I make it a point to talk to therapists, and these combatants each had one. The father’s was an eighty-year-old Indian swami who spoke heavily accented English and took medication for high blood pressure. I made a trip to Santa Barbara, spent a pleasant two hours with the corpulent, bearded fellow, breathing in incense and learning nothing of substance. The father hadn’t kept an appointment with his avatar in six months.
“Is that okay with you?” I asked the swami.
He shifted out of lotus position and did something impossible with his body, winked, and smiled. “What will be, will be.”
“There’s a song like that.”
“Doris Day,” he said. “Terrific singer.”
The mother’s therapist was Mary Lou Koppel, and she refused to talk to me.
First she avoided me completely by ignoring my calls. After my fifth attempt to get through, she phoned and explained. “I’m sure you understand, Dr. Delaware. Confidentiality.”
“Dr. Wetmore’s given consent.”
“I’m afraid it’s not hers to give.”
“Whose is it?”
The phone crackled. She said, “I’m speaking conceptually, not legally. Teresa Wetmore is in an extremely vulnerable place. Thad is extremely abusive, as I’m sure you know.”
“Emotionally,” she said. “Where it counts. Teresa and I have made progress, but it’s going to take time. I can’t risk unleashing the demons.”
“My concerns are for the child.”
“You have your priorities, I have mine.”
“Dr. Koppel, what I’m after is any insight you can give me that might help me make recommendations to the court.”
Silence on the line. Static.
“The only insight I can give you, Doctor,” she said, “is to avoid Thad Wetmore like the plague.”
“You’ve had troubles with him.”
“I’ve never met him, Doctor. And I intend to keep it that way.”
I wrote her a follow-up letter that was returned unopened. The custody case festered until the Wetmores ran out of money, and the lawyers quit. The judge followed my recommendations: Both parents needed extensive child-rearing education before joint custody had a chance of working. In any event, a weekly two-hundred-mile round-trip shuttle wasn’t in the best interests of the child. When the judge asked if I’d like to be the educator, I said I’d supply a list of names, then I thought about who’d annoyed me recently.
Three months later, Teresa and Thaddeus Wetmore filed separate ethical complaints against me with the state psychology board. It took a while to get out from under that, but finally the charges were dismissed for no cause. Shortly after that, Dr. Mary Lou Koppel seemed to be popping up all over the airwaves.
An expert on couples communication.
Milo finished his sandwich. “Sounds like a lovely person. What’s her shtick for the media?”
“Anything she wants it to be.”
“Talk shows are always hungry for filler,” I said. “If you say you’re a specialist, you are. My guess is Koppel hired a publicist and bought herself a nice little dog and pony show that feeds her practice.”
“So young, yet so cynical.”
“One out of two ain’t bad.”
He grinned, sopped juice from his plate with his sandwich, and finished off the soggy mess. “Is head injuries a hot media topic?”
“If you’re asking whether Koppel’s a qualified neuropsychologist, I don’t know. Which is what Gavin needed, at least in the beginning. Someone who could find out what was really going on with his brain and make specific recommendations for rehabilitation.”
“The neurologist said he couldn’t find anything.”
“All the more so,” I said. “If I had to bet, I’d say Koppel wasn’t into neuropsych. It’s a small field that requires specialized training. Most neuropsych people don’t do straight psychotherapy and vice versa.”
His eyes half closed. “Claire Argent was into that, right?”
Dr. Claire Argent had been one of many victims of a monster we’d chased a couple of years ago. A quiet woman, cloaked in secrets, found bisected at the waist and stashed in the trunk of her car.
“She was,” I said.
He breathed in deeply. Closed his eyes and massaged the lids. “You’re saying Gavin mighta been mishandled by Koppel?”
“Or I’m wrong, and he got a thorough workup.”
“I was thinking it would be smart to talk to Koppel. Even if Gavin turns out not to be the primary vic, maybe he mentioned the blonde to his shrink, and I can cut through a lot of procedure.”
“Don’t hold your breath trying to get through. Given her high profile, I don’t imagine she’d want to be associated with a murdered patient.”
“I’ve got written consent from the parents.”
“That allows her to talk,” I said. “It doesn’t compel her. She can be choosy about what she tells you. If she tells you anything.”
“You really don’t like her.”
“She was obstructive when she didn’t have to be. A child’s welfare was at issue, and she didn’t care.”
He smiled. “Actually, I was thinking I could ask you to speak with her. One doc to another. That would free me up to do the other stuff. As in following up with Missing Persons, maybe expanding to searches up and down the state, going over the autopsy reports, ballistics records, checking out the girl’s clothes. No sweat, though. I took this one on, I’ll see it through.”
He threw money on the table, and we left the deli.
“I’ll talk to her,” I said.
He stopped on the sidewalk. Beverly Hills women glided around us, in a cloud of perfume. “You’re sure.”
“Why not? No phone tag this time. Face-to-face, it’ll be interesting.”
My house, designed for two, is set among pines and perched above a bridle path that snakes through Beverly Glen. High white walls, polished wood floors, skylights in interesting places, and not too much furniture make it look larger than it is. Realtor’s hype would label it, “airy yet proportioned for intimacy.” When I arrive home alone, it can be a mass of echoes and negative space.
This evening it felt cold. I walked past the mail on the dining room table and headed for my office. Booting the computer, I looked up Mary Lou Koppel in the American Psychological Association directory and ran her through a few Internet search engines.
She’d earned her Ph.D. at the same place I had, the U. A year older than I, but she’d entered grad school shortly after I’d finished. Her dissertation on breast-feeding and anxiety in new mothers had been accepted five years later, and she’d followed up with an internship at one of the university hospitals and a postdoc fellowship at a mental health clinic in San Bernardino.
Her license was bona fide, and the state board listed no disciplinary actions against her. I’d been right about her lacking any training or certification in neuropsychology.
Her name pulled up 432 hits on the computer, all excerpts from interviews she’d given on various TV and radio shows. A closer look revealed lots of repetition; it cooked down to three dozen actual references.
Mary Lou Koppel had spoken with great confidence about communication barriers between men and women, gender identity, eating disorders, weight loss strategies, corporate problem solving, midlife crisis, adoption, learning disabilities, autism, puberty, adolescent rebellion, premenstrual syndrome, menopause, panic disorder, phobias, chronic depression, posttraumatic stress, sexism, racism, ageism, sizeism.
One topic that had held her interest was prison reform. She’d given eight radio interviews last year in which she decried the shift from rehabilitation to punishment. In two of the talks, she’d been joined by a man named Albin Larsen, listed as a psychologist and human rights worker.
The photos I found showed a pleasant-looking woman with short, shagged caramel hair. Her face was round with chipmunk cheeks and terminated in a sharp little off-center chin. Her neck was graceful but starting to loosen. Crisp, dark eyes. Wide, determined mouth. Gorgeous teeth, but her smile seemed posed. In every picture she wore red.
Now I knew whom to look for.
I left for her office the next morning at eleven-forty-five, figuring my best bet was to catch her during her lunch break. Her office was in Beverly Hills but not Bedford Drive ’s Couch Row or any of the other fashionable streets where high-priced therapists congregated.
Dr. Mary Lou Koppel plied her trade in a two-story building on Olympic Boulevard and Palm Drive – a mixed-use stretch near the glitzy city’s southern border. Down the block were an auto-painting franchise and a private school housed in what had once been a residential duplex. Beyond those sat a florist and a pharmacy advertising discounts for seniors. Traffic on Olympic was nonstop and freeway-deafening.
Koppel’s building had a windowless front, with brick facing painted the color of wet sand. No identifying marks other than black plastic address numerals too small to read from across the street. The front door was locked, and a sign said to enter through the rear. Behind the structures was a six-space parking lot backed by an alley. Three slots marked RESERVED were occupied by small, dark Mercedes sedans, not unlike Jerry Quick’s.
I fed a meter on Palm and made my way over.
The ground floor was a long, dim, red-carpeted corridor that ran along the east side of the building and had the popcorn smell of a theater lobby. One occupant: an outfit called Charitable Planning. An arrow painted on the wall directed me to the stairway and when I got there faux-bronze letters specified what awaited me on the second story.
PACIFICA-WEST PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES
Upstairs was pewter-colored industrial carpeting, blue-gray walls, better lighting. Unlike the first floor, no long hallway. Progress was halted by a perpendicular wall set ten feet in. A single door was marked RECEPTION.
Inside was a large unoccupied waiting room set up with blue tweed chairs and coffee tables stacked with magazines. No reception window, just a door and three signs. FRANCO R. GULL, PH.D., MARY LOU KOPPEL, PH.D., ALBIN A. LARSEN, PH.D.
Larsen was the human rights activist with whom Koppel had shared some of her prison reform interviews. Feeding two practices for the price of one.
Next to each sign was a call button and a tiny, faceted bulb. A sign instructed patients to announce themselves with a button push. A clear light meant the doctor was free, red signified Occupied.
Gull’s and Larsen’s lights were red, Koppel’s wasn’t. I announced myself.
A few moments later, the blank door opened, and Mary Lou Koppel stood there wearing a red short-sleeved cashmere top over white linen pants and red shoes. In person, her dark eyes were nearly black. Clear and bright and inquisitive, and all over me. Her hair was tinted lighter than in the photos, she’d put on a few wrinkles, her bare arms were soft, freckled, plumper than the rest of her. Yellow diamond cocktail ring on her right index finger. Big canary-colored stone, surrounded by tiny sapphires. No wedding band.
“Yes?” she said. Smooth, soft, low-pitched voice. Radio voice.
I gave her my name, handed her the card that says I sometimes consult to the police. She read the small print. “ Delaware.” She handed it back, looked into my eyes. “That’s an unusual name… have we met?”
“A few years ago, but only telephonically.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“The Wetmore divorce case. I was assigned by the court to make custody recommendations. You were Teresa Wetmore’s therapist.”
She blinked. Smiled. “If I recall correctly, I wasn’t very cooperative, was I?”
“Unfortunate,” she said. “What I couldn’t tell you at the time, Dr. Delaware – what I probably still shouldn’t tell you- was that Terry Wetmore tied my hands. She didn’t like you one bit. Didn’t trust you, forbade me to divulge anything to you. It put me in a bit of a bind.”
“I can imagine.”
She placed a hand on my shoulder. “The rigors of our profession.” Her hand lingered, trailed my jacket sleeve, dropped. “So what brings you here today- what else can I not cooperate with you about?”
“What about Gavin?”
“He was murdered two nights ago.”
“ Mur – oh my God. Oh, no… come in.”
She led me through a short corridor, past a copying machine and a watercooler, to one of three doors at the rear. Her office was paneled in slabs of pale bird’s-eye maple, carpeted in double-plush deep blue wool, and furnished with a glass desk on a black granite base, a Lucite desk chair, oversized, baby blue leather sofas and recliners arranged with a designer’s eye. The ceilings were cork- soundproofing. Nothing was nailed to the highly figured wood walls. Her diplomas and a framed psychologists’ license were propped in a glass étagère off to one side, along with crystal paperweights and what looked to be pueblo pottery. Sea-green drapes concealed what I assumed were the windows. Their placement meant a view of the parking lot and the alley. The room managed to be generous yet cozy. Airy yet proportioned for intimacy…
Mary Lou Koppel sat behind the glass desk. I took the nearest soft chair. Very soft. I sank low, was forced to look up at her.
She said, “This is horrible. I just saw Gavin last week. I just can’t believe it.”
I gave her the bare details, ended with the unidentified blond girl.
She said, “That poor boy. He’d been through so much.”
She placed her hands on the glass desktop. Her wrists were tiny, her fingers short but thin, the nails coated by clear polish. Near her right hand was a Limoges box filled with business cards, a pair of reading glasses, and a small, silver cellular phone. “Do the police have any idea what happened?”
“No. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m not clear what it is that you do for them.”
“Sometimes the same goes for me,” I said. “This time they’ve asked me to make contact with you because we’re peers.”
“Peers,” she said. “They think I can help solve a murder?”
“We’re talking to everyone.”
“Well,” she said, “I was Gavin’s therapist, but I don’t see how that can be relevant. Surely you don’t think this had anything to do with Gavin’s treatment.”
“At this point, it’s an open book, Dr. Koppel.”
“Mary Lou,” she said. “Well, sure, I can understand that logic… in the abstract.” She fluffed her hair. “Before we go any further, perhaps I should see some sort of written release. I’m aware that with Gavin deceased, there’s no legal confidentiality. And I certainly don’t want to be seen as obstructive. Again. But… you understand, don’t you?”
“Absolutely.” I gave her the release form the Quicks had signed. She glanced at it. “Can’t be too careful. Okay, what would you like to know?”
“Gavin’s parents implied there were personality changes following the accident. Some falling off in his personal hygiene, what sounds like obsessive behavior.”
“Are you familiar with the sequelae of closed-head injuries, Dr. Delaware?”
“I’m not a neuropsychologist,” I said, “but it sounds as if there was postconcussive syndrome and some personality changes.”
“With closed-head, anything goes- may I call you Alex?”
She showed me gorgeous teeth. Switched back to serious. “This was a prefrontal-lobe assault, Alex. You’re aware of the role of the prefrontals in terms of emotional reactivity. For all we know, when Gavin’s head hit the back of the seat, he received the equivalent of a minor lobotomy.”
“It had been ten months,” I said, “and he hadn’t recovered fully.”
“Yes… I found that worrisome. Then again, the human brain- especially the young human brain- can be wonderfully plastic. I was hopeful.”
“For full recovery?”
“Plasticity,” I said. “You do neuropsych.”
She studied me for half a second. “I keep up with the journals. There was no need for neuropsych because the organic end was being handled by a neurologist. He and I agreed there was nothing further to be gained by subjecting Gavin to yet more tests. What the patient needed was emotional support, and my job was to provide it.”
I pulled out my notepad. “Dr. Singh.”
“Very good man.”
“Did he refer Gavin?”
“Gavin’s been in treatment for about three months.”
“Seven months after the accident.”
“It took a while for things to settle.”
I pretended to read the pad. “He was referred to your group, not to you directly.”
“I’ve been told that Gavin began with one of your partners but switched to you.”
She crossed her legs. The black marble pedestal blocked most of the movement, but I could see the tip of one red shoe. “Now that you jog my memory, that’s exactly what happened. Singh referred Gavin to the group and Franco- Dr. Gull- was on call. Franco saw Gavin a couple of times, then I took over.”
“Problems between Gavin and Dr. Gull?”
“I wouldn’t term them problems,” she said. “Back then- immediately after the accident- Gavin was extremely irritable. Once again, par for the course. You know how it can be with therapists and patients. Sometimes you mesh, sometimes you don’t. And Franco’s patient load was already heavy.”
The black eyes found mine. “Like with you and Teresa Wetmore. I’m sure most of your patients adore you and trust you. But others… are you with the police full-time or do you still see patients?”
“I do short-term private consults.”
“Private practice can be tough,” she said. “The HMOs with their nonsense, the thin referral stream when money gets tight. I suppose working for the police can be helpful providing a nice steady income.”
“I’m not employed by the police. I do short-term consults for them, too.”
“Ah…” She smiled. “Anyway, Gavin did become my patient, and I felt we were making progress.” Her legs uncrossed, and she shifted forward in her chair. “Alex, I can’t think of anything I could tell you that would help a police investigation.”
“What about Gavin’s obsessiveness?” I said.
“I wouldn’t call it that. Nothing on the level of a full-blown OCD. Gavin could be a bit persistent, that’s all.”
“Getting an idea in his head and not letting go?”
She smiled. “You’re making it sound more pathological than it was. He could be a bit… enthusiastic.”
“His parents said he’d switched career goals. From business to journalism.”
That seemed to surprise her, and I wondered how well she’d known her patient.
“People change their minds,” she said. “Young people especially. Sometimes tragedies get people to focus on what they really want to do.”
“Is that what happened to Gavin?”
“Did he have any plans to return to college?”
“It was hard for him to stay motivated, Alex. One of my goals was helping restore a sense of meaning to his life. But it had to be gradual. Gavin was still wrestling with the changes.”
“So he’d slowed down cognitively.”
“Yes, but it was subtle. And, I believe, exacerbated by emotional stress. I’m curious, Alex. Why are you so interested in his personality?”
“I’m interested in his obsessiveness because the police are wondering if it could’ve gotten him into trouble.”
“Angering the wrong person.”
“The wrong person.”
“Anyone who’d react violently.”
She touched a finger to her lip. “I’d be surprised at that- Gavin consorting with violent people. He was a nice boy, a conventional boy. He certainly never mentioned anything like that to me.”
“Was he pretty communicative?”
The black eyes rose to the ceiling. “How shall I put this… like many young men, Gavin wasn’t much for introspection.”
“What did he talk about?”
“I was working on getting him to open up about his feelings. Anger at feeling different. Guilt, about surviving the accident. Two of his friends were killed, you know.”
She said, “My sense was that Gavin knew he’d lost something- an edge, a sharpness- but he had trouble expressing himself about it. I suppose that could’ve been aphasic. Or just a postadolescent male’s lack of verbal skills. Either way, I knew he was wrestling with his feelings. I couldn’t push him too hard, Alex. One time, though, he did express himself in a way that I thought was extremely eloquent. This was just a few weeks ago. He came to session looking downcast. I waited him out, and finally he punched the arm of the sofa- that sofa- and shouted, ‘This is fucked, Dr. K! To everyone else I look okay, everyone keeps telling me I’m okay, but I know I’m not okay.’ Then he stopped, his chest was heaving and he was flushed, and the next time he spoke it was so soft I could barely hear him. What he said was, ‘It’s like one of those android movies. I’m not me, anymore, I’m still the box I came in, but someone’s fucking with the wiring.’ Then he said, ‘I really miss being me.’ And, finally, he cried. I thought it was a breakthrough, but the following week, he canceled his appointment, and the one after that. I’ve only seen him once, since then, and during that session it was as if nothing had happened. All he wanted to talk about was cars and sports. It was as if we were starting from square one. But that’s how it goes with young men.”
I said, “Did he talk about his social life?”
“Social as in dating?”
“There’d been a girlfriend, some girl he knew in high school. But that was over.”
“Because of the accident?”
“That would be my assumption. Once again, I needed to step around personal topics.”
“Gavin was guarded about his outside life.”
“Did he mention any other girls?”
She shook her head.
“Would you mind looking at a picture of the girl who was killed with him? It is a morgue shot.”
She shuddered. “I don’t see the point.”
“No, you might as well show it to me,” she said. “I need to integrate all this misfortune.”
I placed the death shot on the glass tabletop. She didn’t attempt to touch it, just stared at it. Her mouth lost determination. A vein pulsed at her temple. Rapid pulse.
“You know her?” I said.
“I’ve never seen her in my life. I’m just imagining. The way it was for the two of them.”
Mary Lou Koppel walked me out of her waiting room and watched me descend the stairs. When I paused to look back, she smiled and waved her fingers.
Back home, I checked my messages. Three nuisance calls and Allison letting me know she’d had a cancellation, it had been a long time since we’d seen a movie, did I have time tonight? I phoned her exchange, said how about dinner first, I could be there by seven.
Next, I booted up the computer, logged on to my faculty MEDLINE account, and reviewed articles on closed-head prefrontal injuries. With serious brain trauma, bleeding and lesions showed up on X-rays or CAT scans. But in less dramatic instances, the damage was subtle and invisible, the result of something called axonal shearing- a microscopic shredding of nerve fibers. Those cases resisted neurological tests and could be best diagnosed by neuropsychological evaluation. Instruments like the Wisconsin Card Sort or the Rey-Osterreith Complex Figure test pulling up problems in attention and thought and information processing.
Patients with prefrontal injuries sometimes had temper-control problems. And they could grow impulsive and obsessive.
I printed a few articles, changed into shorts and a T-shirt and sneakers, and took a long, hard run, not wanting to think about the short sad life of Gavin Quick. I thought about it, anyway, and focused on appreciating my own life. After showering and getting back into street clothes, I tried Milo at the station. By the time I’d reached his car phone, I’d put the interview with Mary Lou Koppel in context.
She’d cooperated but really hadn’t told me much. Maybe she didn’t know much. Gavin had been in therapy for three months, and my guess was there’d been plenty of missed appointments. Combine that with his resistance and Koppel’s avoidance of his cognitive problems, and treatment didn’t amount to much.
Mary Lou Koppel’s approach boiled down to what’s known in the trade as “supportive therapy.” Not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes all a patient needs is a yeah-saying or a shoulder to cry on. But sometimes being “supportive” is an excuse for not doing more.
“You’re saying she was phoning it in?” said Milo.
“Maybe she did her best. She sat in that office with Gavin, I didn’t.”
“Chivalrous. But you still don’t like her.”
“I have nothing against her,” I said.
“I must’ve heard wrong. You get into why she stonewalled you the first time?”
“She brought it up right away. Said the patient hated and distrusted me and forbade her to tell me anything.”
“Taking a dig at you, pal?”
“The patient did file an ethical complaint against me.”
“Ouch,” he said.
“The charge was dismissed.”
“Course it was,” he said. “What, a disgruntled weirdo?”
“Something like that.”
I said, “Anyway, that’s about it on Gavin’s emotional state.”
“Not as smart as he used to be and obsessive.”
“We knew that before.”
“It’s still interesting.”
I said, “Anything new on the girl’s ID?”
“Nope. Not much in terms of physical evidence, either. Gavin’s prints popped up on the steering wheel but nothing on any of the door handles, not his, not the girl’s. Someone did a careful wipedown. Meaning an organized mind, right? Which would fit with the stalker scenario. Plenty of tire tracks on the driveway. Unfortunately, a whole mesh of them, too much overlay, so the techies couldn’t pick out a good impression. With Realtors going in and out, it’s what you’d expect. None of the neighbors saw or heard anything, no reports of suspicious characters or unfamiliar cars. I’m having the Sex Crimes people look at their files, see if any scary Peeping Toms are newly out on parole.”
“Any more about the sequence of death?”
“The coroner agrees with your logic about Gavin getting shot first, but he can’t make a definitive statement, has no physical evidence to back it up. The blood spatter says both Gavin and the girl were sitting down when they got popped, and the blood all over the girl’s chest plus almost nothing around the head wound says she was alive when that iron stick got jammed through her. I drove around looking for construction sites, see if I could find any missing wrought iron, but nada. I’m getting the feel of a surprise blitz. That make sense?”
“It makes perfect sense,” I said. “The bad guy follows them, watches, probably parks out on Mulholland and continues onto the property on foot. He waits, sees some necking, gets aroused. If the condom was Gavin’s, he and the girl would’ve been about to consummate. At that point, the bad guy steps out of the dark and boom.”
“The element of surprise. There was no semen in or on her, even though she was topless, her leggings were still on, so that sounds right.”
“Anything else on the autopsy?”
“Her last meal was half a Big Mac, a few fries, and ketchup. The estimate is six hours before she died. Gavin’s stomach gave up pasta with basil and garlic bread. Mrs. Quick confirms that’s what she’d cooked for dinner. She and Gavin ate together five hours before the murder. Then he spent some time in his room, and she went to hers and watched TV.”
“No dinner date,” I said. “Gavin and the girl ate separately, then hooked up. What time did Gavin leave his house?”
“Sheila didn’t hear him leave- got defensive about that and went on about Gavin being an adult, she didn’t want to hover.”
“Given what he’d been through,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “I showed Blondie’s picture to her again, ’cause she didn’t seemed as drugged. Same answer: total stranger.”
“Maybe it was a pickup,” I said.
“I thought about that and assigned a D-I to comb the clubs with both their pictures. The coroner prepared blood and tissue samples for DNA processing, but unless the girl’s physical data got coded in some official data bank, that’s likely to dead-end. So far, she doesn’t seem to be listed in any of our Missing Persons files. That could mean a runaway from another town, or the running away would’ve happened years ago. The coroner’s reluctant to estimate her age, but I had a close look at her and she seems slightly older than Gavin, maybe twenty-three to twenty-five. And she doesn’t look like a runaway. Her clothes were good, and she was put together nicely- makeup, earrings, nail polish. Not great teeth- she’s missing a few in the rear- but what shows is straight. Tint in the hair, but she’s a natural blonde. Coroner said he could smell perfume on her, thought it was Armani. I didn’t pick that up at the scene, and by the time I got to the morgue she was smelling of other things. But I’ll buy it, Dr. Quan has a good nose.”
“Too put-together for a prostitute?” I said.
“For a street girl, yes. Too conservatively dressed for your basic hooker. A higher-priced spread? Maybe. Why?”
“No dinner date,” I said. “Hooking up for one purpose.”
“You see a kid like Gavin knowing how to find himself a nice-looking pro like that? He was dressed like a student, it’s not like he put on a Zegna suit and trolled the B.H. hotels with a wad of cash.”
“But growing up in B.H. he might know about the hotels. With enough cash in his pocket, he’d be in a position to negotiate.”
“We found thirty bucks in his wallet.”
“What if he’d already paid the girl, and she had the money? Her purse is missing. If so, robbery would have been icing on the cake for the bad guy.”
“A call girl doing an outdoor trick with a brain-damaged kid,” he said.
“That’s the thing about some closed-head injuries. The problems can be subtle. Unless you knew what Gavin was like before, he wouldn’t have come across brain-damaged. Just a clean-cut kid driving a cute little red convertible. We know he could be impulsive and compulsive, and maybe that’s what led him to approach a pro. He’d have his needs- especially since the relationship with Kayla Bartell was over.”
“Koppel say why they broke up?”
“She assumed it was due to the accident. I don’t get the feeling she really knew much about Gavin.”
“A pro,” he said. “A young, horny guy, his girl breaks up with him, maybe his confidence slipped… could be.”
“Something else,” I said. “His talk about digging up dirt. What if he actually followed up on his tabloid dreams? What better place to nab a celebrity than an expensive hotel?”
“He starts out trawling for movie stars and picks up a pro?”
“Youthful impulsiveness heightened by brain damage.”
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll check out the concierges at all the Beverly Hoo-Has. Not that they’re going to admit letting pros through the door. I’ll also ask BHPD if they know her, as well as show her picture to our Vice guys. Meanwhile, she’s just a well-dressed blonde.”
“Anything traceable in her clothing?”
“The blouse was DKNY, Calvin Klein thong panties and pushup bra, no label in the leggings. Good shoes. Excellent shoes- Jimmy Choo. From what I hear, that’s a serious investment. There’s a Jimmy Choo store right in B.H, on Little Santa Monica, so I went over there. We’re talking five, six hundred bucks for a spike and a strap. No one recognized her as a customer, but when I described the shoe, the saleswoman knew it right away. Two seasons old, coulda been bought at discount at Neiman’s, Barneys, whatever.”
“Expensive shoes,” I said. “Well put-together. You’d think someone like that would be missed.”
“Sure, but a girl living alone, it could take a while for someone to realize she’s missing. It looks like this is gonna be a long, drawn-out deal. Thanks for your help, Alex. If I learn anything, I’ll let you know.”
I picked Allison up outside her office. Her hair was loose, and she laced her fingers through mine and kissed me hard. Neither of us was hungry, and we opted for movie first, food later. An old Coen Brothers film, Blood Simple, was playing at the Aero, a few blocks up on Montana. Allison had never seen it. I had, but the picture merited a second look.
We left the theater shortly after nine and drove over to Hakata on Wilshire where we sat in a booth, away from the rock-star posters and the good cheer of the sushi bar, and ordered sake and salmon skin salad and steak teriyaki and mixed sashimi.
I asked Allison how she’d have treated Gavin Quick.
“When I get head injuries they’ve usually been through a complete neuropsych eval,” she said. “If they haven’t, I send them for one. If the testing pinpoints deficits, I recommend some targeted special ed. With that out of the way, I concentrate on marshaling the patient’s strengths.”
“Sometimes they need more than that. The challenge is learning to deal with a whole new world. But sure, support’s a big part of it. It can be tough, Alex. Two steps backwards for every step forward, lots of mood changes, and you never know what the end result will be. Basically you’ve got a person who knows he’s not what he used to be and feels helpless to change.”
“Gavin told his therapist he missed being himself.”
I poured sake for both of us. “Nice lighthearted date, huh?”
She smiled and touched my wrist. “Are we still dating?” Before I could answer, she said, “Why all these questions about the technique, honey? Is his mental status related to his murder?”
“His mental status became an issue because Milo wondered if Gavin could’ve bothered the wrong person. But my guess is that the girl was the target, and Gavin was just unlucky.”
“Unlucky again,” she said.
A moment later: “Who’s the therapist?”
“A woman named Mary Lou Koppel. Her stated goal was to open him up emotionally. Doesn’t sound as if it went too well.”
She put her cup down. “Mary Lou.”
“You know her?”
She nodded. “How strange.”
“She’s had a patient murdered before.”
I pushed my food aside.
Allison said, “I’d met Mary Lou a few times before. Conferences, symposia. Once we sat on a panel together. Back when I was foolish enough to sit on panels. What I remember about her most vividly are her red clothes and her smile- she always smiled, even when it didn’t seem appropriate. As if she’d been prepped by a media coach. On the panel, she had lots to say but no data to back it up. Clearly, she hadn’t prepared, was relying on charisma.”
“You’re not a fan.”
“She put me off, Alex. But I wondered if I was just jealous. Because everyone knew how well she was doing professionally. Word had it she was charging fifty percent more than the rest of us and was turning away patients. The murder was over a year ago. I was at the Western Psych Association convention in Vegas and Mary Lou was scheduled to give a talk on psychology and the media that was canceled at the last minute. I hadn’t planned to attend, but one of my friends was registered to hear her- Hal Gottlieb. That night I was having dinner with Hal and some other folks and he joked that he’d lost money at the blackjack tables and that he was going to sue Mary Lou Koppel for it. Because Mary Lou’s canceling her talk had given him free time and he’d ambled over to the casino. Then he told us she’d canceled because one of her patients had been murdered. There was a long silence; finally, someone made a crack about bad publicity, then someone else said for Mary Lou there was no such thing as bad publicity, she’d turn it to her advantage.”
“Popular gal,” I said.
“We mind-healers can be as catty as anyone. If only our patients knew.”
“Do you recall any details about the murder?”
“For some reason I remember it as a woman victim. But I could be making that up, I really can’t be sure, Alex.”
“Over a year ago.”
“Two Aprils ago- after Easter. That would make it fourteen months.”
“Nothing about a murder came up when I ran Mary Lou through the search engines,” I said. “But she started giving interviews about prison reform around that time, so maybe the crime sparked her interest.”
“On some of the interviews, she was joined by one of her partners, a guy named Albin Larsen. Know him?”
She shook her head, probed her salad with a chopstick. “Two murders in one practice. I guess if the practice is large enough, it’s not that outlandish.”
“And Mary Lou’s was large.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“Well,” I said, “at the very least, it’s provocative. I’ll pass it along to Milo. Thanks.”
“Always happy to help.” She pushed a wave of black hair off her face and nibbled her lower lip.
I leaned across the table and kissed her. She took hold of my face with both her hands, pressed my mouth to hers, released me.
I poured more sake.
“This is good,” she said.
“Premium brand,” I said.
“I was referring to being here with you.”
“Oh.” I knuckled my brow.
She laughed and touched a diamond earring. “Despite my penchant for shiny things, I really don’t need much. We’re alive and our brains are working just fine- that’s a good start, wouldn’t you say?”
The following morning, I finished a custody report and, wanting to get out of the house, drove to the West L.A. courthouse and dropped off the papers at the judge’s chambers. The police station was nearby, and I walked over. The civilian clerk knew me and waved me up without clearance.
I climbed the stairs and walked past the big Robbery-Homicide room where Milo had once worked with all the other detectives, continued up the hall.
He’d spent a decade and a half in that room, never an insider because of his sexuality and his own loner tendencies. Early on there’d been plenty of hostility, mostly from uniforms and brass, but none recently and never from detectives.
Detectives are too bright and too busy for that kind of nonsense. For the last few years, Milo’s high solve-rate had earned him silent respect.
A little over a year ago, his life had changed. Chasing down a vicious, twenty-year-old cold-case sex murder had led him to unearth some of the police chief’s personal secrets. The chief, now deposed, had offered a solution: Milo, in return for not ruining both of them, would get promoted to lieutenant but would be spared the pencil-pushing that went with a lieutenant’s position. Exiled to his own space, away from other D’s, he’d be a special case: allowed to pick his cases, expected to keep a low profile. If he needed assistance, he was free to enlist junior D’s. Otherwise, he’d be on his own.
Shunting and coopting. It’s the kind of thing government does all the time. Milo knew he was being manipulated, and he hated the idea. He considered quitting- for a few moments. Veered away from self-destruction and convinced himself isolation could be freedom. Banking the extra salary wasn’t bad either, and while the chief was in power, his job security was assured.
Now the chief was gone, and a new replacement had yet to be picked. Ten candidates had announced their intentions, including an assistant chief from Community Services who tossed his name in the ring after granting an interview to a San Francisco paper in which he came out of a thirty-year closet and named his longtime companion.
I asked Milo if that would change things in the department.
He laughed. “When Berger’s name hit the list, eyes rolled so loud you could hear it in Pacoima. His chance of winning is about the same as my growing a second pancreas.”
“Even so. The fact that he went public.”
“Public as far as the public’s concerned. Everyone in the department’s known about him for years.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Times are different than when I started,” he said. “No one looks, no one tells, no one leaves nasty stuff in my locker. But the basics- the psychodynamics- aren’t ever going to change, are they? The way I see it, humans are built that way, it’s in our DNA. Us-them, someone’s gotta be in, someone’s gotta be out. Every few years we have to beat someone up to feel good about ourselves. If most of the world was like me, straights would be stigmatized. Probably some evolutionary thing, though I can’t figure it out. Got any wisdom for me?”
“Left the wisdom pills in the car.”
He laughed again, in that joyless way he’s perfected. “Savagery reigns. I’ll never be lacking for work.”
The door to his office was open, and he was sitting at his desk, reading a file. The space is windowless, barely large enough for him, with nothing on the wall and a picture of Milo and Rick on the desk. Fishing, somewhere in Colorado. Both of them in plaid shirts, they looked like a couple of outdoorsmen. For most of the trip, Milo had suffered from altitude sickness.
His computer was on, and his screen saver was a shark chasing a diver. Each time the fish’s rapacious jaws nudged the swimmer’s fins, he got kicked in the face. A floating legend read, NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED.
I knocked on the doorjamb.
“Yeah,” he grumbled, without looking up.
“Good day to you, too. Turns out Gavin Quick’s not the first patient of Koppel’s who’s seen an untimely end.”
He looked up, stared as if we’d never met. His eyes cleared. The file was Gavin’s. He slapped it shut.
I sat in a spare chair. Our noses were three feet apart. None of Milo’s cheap panatellas were in sight, but his clothes were ripe with stale tobacco.
He said, “Two Aprils ago.”
“Allison can’t be certain, but she thinks the victim was female. That’s all I can tell you.”
“Well, guess what? The department has finally limped into the cyberage.” He tapped his computer monitor. The shark and diver dissipated, giving way to several icons, haphazardly placed. The screen was clouded and cracked in one corner. “At least, theoretically. This little sucker tends to freeze- donated by some private high school in Brentwood, because the kids couldn’t use it anymore.” He began typing. The machine made washing-machine noises and loaded slowly. “Here we are, m’boy. Every felonious slaying under the department’s jurisdiction for the last five years listed by victim, date, division, and status. Probably no impaling, because I already searched for impaling… let’s see what April produces…”
He scrolled. “I’m counting six… seven females. Five closed, two open. Let’s start with Westside cases because Koppel’s practice is on the Westside. More important, I can walk a few yards and get hold of the folders.”
I scanned the screen. “Folder. Looks like only one’s West L.A.”
“Wouldn’t that be easy.”
Flora Elizabeth Newsome, thirty-one years old, brown and brown, five-five, 130. A third-grade teacher at Canfield Street School, found in her Palms apartment on a Sunday morning, stabbed and shot. She’d been dead for at least twelve hours.
Dr. Mary Lou Koppel had been interviewed by Detective II Alphonse McKinley and Detective II Lorraine Ogden on April 30. Dr. Koppel had nothing to offer other than the fact that she’d been treating Flora Newsome for “anxiety.”
I read the autopsy report. “Stabbed and shot with a.22. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the ballistics matched. And stabbing isn’t that far from impaling.”
Milo sat back in his desk chair. “I can always count on you to spark up my woefully dreary life.”
“Think of it as therapy,” I said.
Detective Alphonse McKinley had transferred to the Metro Squad at Parker Center. Detective Lorraine Ogden was down the hall, trying to make sense of the gibberish her computer was dishing out.
She was thirty-five or so, a big, square-shouldered woman with short, dark, gray-flecked hair and a determined jaw. She wore an orange-and-cream paisley blouse, brown slacks, cream-colored flats. Wedding band and half-carat diamond on one hand. High school ring on the other.
“Milo,” she said, barely glancing up. Her screen filled with rows of numbers. “This thing hates me.”
“I think you just broke into a Swiss bank.”
“Don’t think so, no swastikas. What’s up?”
Milo introduced me. Lorraine Ogden said, “I’ve seen you around. Something psychologically amiss?”
“Always,” said Milo, “but this is about business.” He told her about the Mulholland murders and the similarities to Flora Newsome.
“Same shrink,” she said. “I guess that’s a connection.”
“A.22 was used on all of them. Our vic was impaled, and yours was stabbed.”
“Iron rod through the sternum.”
“Flora was cut up pretty badly. Knife jammed through the chest, too.” Ogden bit down on her lower teeth, and her jaw got wider. “I never made any headway on her, wouldn’t it be nice.”
“I pulled the chart, but if you’ve got time, I wouldn’t mind hearing about it, Lorraine.”
Ogden glared at the computer, clicked it off. Her touch was hard, and the machine quivered. “My son tells me not to do that without going through the proper steps. Says it puts garbage into the system. But all I’ve been getting is garbage.”
She got up. Six feet tall in flats. The three of us left the detectives’ room and moved into the hallway.
“How old’s your son?” I said.
“Ten. Going on thirty. Loves math and all that techie stuff. He’d know what to do with that abysmal piece of crap.” To Milo: “I think Conference A’s vacant. Let’s play déjà vu.”
Conference A was a ten-by-twelve, low-ceilinged space set up with a folding table and chairs, so brightly lit it made me want to confess to something. Wal-Mart sales labels on the backs of the chairs. The table was cluttered with empty pizza boxes. Milo shoved them to the far end and sat at the head. Lorraine Ogden and I flanked him.
She took the Newsome file, paged through, paused at the autopsy photos, spent a lot of time on a five-by-seven glossy photo.
“Poor Flora,” she said. “This was her graduation picture. Cal State L.A., she got her teaching credential there.”
“She was thirty-one when she died,” said Milo. “Old picture?”
“Recent picture. She took time off, worked as a secretary between college and teaching school, had just graduated a year before. She was finishing her probationary year at the school. The principal liked her, the kids liked her, she was going to be asked to stay on.”
Her fingernail flicked the edge of the photo. “Her mother gave this to us, made a big point of telling us we could keep it- she kind of bonded with me and Al. Nice lady, she had faith in us, never bugged us, just called once in a while to thank us, let us know she was sure we’d solve it.” Her nostrils flared. “Haven’t heard from her in must be half a year. Poor Mrs. Newsome. Evelyn Newsome.”
I said, “May I?” and she slid the folder across the table.
In life, Flora Newsome had been attractive in a scrubbed, unremarkable way. Broad face, clear complexion, dark hair worn to her shoulders and flipped, bright pale eyes. For her grad shot, she’d put on a fuzzy white sweater and thin gold chain with a crucifix. An inscription on the back of the picture said, “To Mom and Dad. I finally made it!” Blue ink, beautiful penmanship.
“Mom and Dad,” I said.
“Dad died two months after Flora graduated. Mom wasn’t doing too great either- serious arthritis. Sixty years old, but she looked seventy-five. After Flora got killed, she moved out of her house and checked herself into one of those board-and-care places. If that doesn’t turn you old at warp speed…” She frowned. “So what can I tell you guys about it… Flora’s boyfriend found her around 11:30 A.M., Sunday morning. The two of them had a date for brunch, were gonna head over to Bobby J’s in the Marina.” She snorted. “Funny I should remember that. We checked, the restaurant confirmed the reservation. The boyfriend shows up, knocks, no one answers. He keeps trying, finally uses his cell phone to call Flora, still nothing. He bangs on her window, tries to look through, but the drapes are blocking. So he goes and gets the manager. Who didn’t want to let him in- he’s seen the boyfriend around but doesn’t really know him. The boyfriend makes noise about calling the cops, and the manager agrees to have a quick look. Minute later, the manager’s puking in the bushes and the boyfriend’s calling 911, shouting for an ambulance. Not that there was a chance. Coroner said she’d gotten killed around midnight.”
She motioned for the file. I slid it back and she skimmed it again. “Shot and stabbed. We counted thirty-four wounds- serious overkill. And yeah, here’s one, right under the sternum. Coroner said the bad guy made the most of it by churning the knife. Lots of blood. Big blade, single-edged, like a butcher knife. Flora had a set of cutlery in her kitchen, one of those wood-block things with slots for each knife and the largest was missing. We figured the bad guy took it for a souvenir or just to hide the evidence.”
“Our guy left the rail in the girl,” said Milo.
“Charming. So what, you’re thinking the shrink might be a link?”
Milo shrugged. “Two people in one practice murdered, some similarities in technique.”
Lorraine Ogden said, “What, they each encountered the same nutcase in the waiting room?”
“It’s not a bad screenplay, Lorraine.”
Ogden played with her wedding band. “I wish I could give you something more on Flora, but that baby was cold the day it got delivered. A victim with no kinks, everyone liked her, no known enemies. It smelled to me right away like a psycho killing. The problem was, a careful psycho. There were prints in the living room. Flora’s, the boyfriend, her parents, the manager- he’s an eighty-year-old geezer with cataracts, so don’t go thinking in that direction. And a few of Flora’s in the bedroom, in and around the closet area mostly. But nothing on or near the bed. Same for the kitchen and the bathroom. As in wiped. The bathroom, in particular. Not a smudge on the sink, no hair in the tub or on the soap. We had the techies check the pipes and the traps and sure enough, Flora’s blood showed up, plus Luminol made the place look like a slaughterhouse, all sorts of wipe marks in the blood, coroner said a right-handed person. There was also a row of drinking glasses in the kitchen and one, in particular, had that squeaky-clean feel like it had been put through the dishwasher. Techie confirmed dishwasher crystals at the bottom.”
“Bad guy does his thing, washes up, has a drink.”
“Meticulous,” said Ogden. “Not that there was any finesse to how he did her. He shot her after she died, but she was alive for at least some of the knife work. Lots of arterial spurt on the sheets, you saw the pictures. He left her lying on her back with her legs spread. Our theory was that she was surprised while sleeping. At least I hope so. Imagine waking up to that? Being fully aware?” She slapped the file shut.
“All that blood,” said Milo, “and no footprints.”
“Not a single one. Where’s O.J. when we need him? This bastard was careful, guys. So much for the old transfer theory. We did find a shred of neoprene- black plastic- stuck on a corner of Flora’s nightstand. Looked like a corner that got torn off a bigger piece. Al and I wondered if he’d brought garbage bags along, or some sort of tarp. Lab said it was consistent with industrial sheeting, the kind they use in construction. So maybe we’re dealing with someone in the building trades. We were hoping for a print on that shred, at least a partial.” She grinned. “Just like on TV.”
“Zip,” said Milo.
“Zip squared. I was so frustrated I even filled out one of those FBI profiling forms and sent it to Quantico. Four months later, I get an official Feebie letter. White male, organized psychopath, probably between twenty-five and forty and yeah, the building trades thing made sense, but they couldn’t be sure, don’t hold ’em to any of it.”
“Our tax dollars working for us.”
I said, “A wrought-iron fence rail might narrow down the building trades.”
Ogden said, “Murderous ironworker. Sure, why not? Or he just picked it up at a construction site and sharpened it. In terms of the shrink”- she glanced at me-“pardon, the therapist, the only reason we found out Flora was seeing one was biweekly checks drawn on her account. A hundred bucks, which seemed steep for someone taking home four hundred. When we asked the mother about it, she was surprised. Flora had never told her she was being treated for anything. Al and I called Dr.- what was her name-”
“Right, Dr. Koppel. We conferenced with her by phone, she said she’d only seen Flora a few times, which synched with the checkbook. Six payments over three months. She didn’t want to get into details- patient confidentiality. We told her dead people lose the privilege, and she said she knew that, but there was nothing to tell. She sounded pretty shook-up, said she’d flown in from a conference. Is there something hinky about her?”
“Not that I know,” said Milo. “Like you said, the bad guy could be another one of her patients. No idea why Newsome was in therapy?”
“I think Koppel said ‘adjustment issues.’ Something along those lines. I know she denied there was anything weird about Flora’s personality. We asked her about relationships with weirdos or bad guys, and she said Flora had never talked about that. She gave us a diagnosis- adjustment problem…”
“Adjustment disorder, anxious type?” I said.
“That sounds right. What it boiled down to was that Flora had been under stress- the pressure of her probationary year at the school, realizing she was going to be a teacher and all the responsibility that entailed. She was also having some financial difficulties because of the years she’d taken off from work to go back to school.”
“Financial difficulties,” said Milo, “but she shells out a hundred bucks every two weeks to Koppel.”
“Koppel said that was a discount rate. She’d cut her fee in half and agreed to see Flora every other week instead of weekly.”
“Doing Flora a favor.”
“Basically, yes,” said Ogden. “Koppel said once a week was usually the minimum in order to gain the benefits of therapy, but she made an exception for Flora. That true, Doctor? Is there a minimum?”
“Well,” she said, “that was Koppel’s way of looking at it.” One of her hands rested atop the other. A big woman, but delicate, pianist’s hands. “She made a big deal about that- how she’d accommodated Flora. I remember thinking she was talking mostly about herself, not Flora.”
“Bit of an ego,” said Milo. “She does the radio talk-show circuit.”
“Does she?” said Ogden. “All I listen to is The Wave, nice smooth jazz after a day of blood and evil. You talk to her yet?”
“Dr. Delaware has.” He looked at me.
I summarized the conversation.
Ogden said, “Sounds like you got lots of nothing, too.”
“Maybe all she’s got is nothing,” said Milo. “Dr. D. wonders if maybe Koppel went a little lax on our vic- therapy-lite. In any event, we’re gonna have another go at her. The coincidence is too damn cute. Anything else we should know about Flora?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“The boyfriend was never an issue?”
“Brian Van Dyne,” said Ogden. “Teacher at the same school, couple of years older than Flora. The night of the murder he went to a Lakers game with two friends, then out to dinner, then they hit a couple of bars. Confirmation on all accounts. The friends dropped him off at his apartment in Santa Monica after 2 A.M. I never saw him as our guy, but we polygraphed him anyway and gave him a paraffin test, just to be safe. No gunshot residue on his hands, but it was invalid because too much time had passed. He passed the poly with flying colors.”
“Why didn’t you see him as the guy?” I said.
“He seemed devastated by Flora’s death, really crushed. His friends said he’d been in a great mood at the game and later. Everyone we talked to said he and Flora got along fine. All that still wouldn’t have swayed me, but with the poly? No way. Not him.”
“Did he know anything about Flora’s therapy?”
“Nope. Like Flora’s mother, he hadn’t been aware she’d been going.”
“Biweekly appointments,” I said. “Easy enough to conceal.”
“And Flora was definitely concealing. She accounted for the appointments by telling Brian Van Dyne she was going to the gym. Which was logical. She’d joined the Sports Depot on Sepulveda. Step aerobics and whatnot. Al and I interviewed the people who worked there, wondering if she’d hooked up with some gym rat- maybe a muscle-bound bad boy to counterbalance wholesome Brian. But no, she kept to herself, just went there to sweat.”
“Keeping her therapy secret,” I said.
“That doesn’t really surprise me, Doctor. When one of our colleagues here gets a recommendation to see a shrink, they either ignore it, or, if they go, they keep it tightly buttoned.”
“It’s still there. Flora was serious about Brian Van Dyne. I can understand her not wanting him- or her boss at the school- to know she was having problems.”
“How long was she dating him?”
“Half a year.”
“Not exactly open communication,” I said, “but you could be right. It does make me wonder, though, if the reason she went into treatment was more stigmatizing than work stress.”
“Some deep, dark kink in her character? Who knows? Maybe Dr. Koppel will give it up.”
Milo said, “If our case is related to yours, you coulda nailed it, Lorraine. Some lunatic seeing Koppel spotted Flora- and our boy Gavin- in the waiting room and smelled Victim.”
“Male and female vics?” said Ogden. “What about the girl who died with yours?”
“No ID yet.”
Ogden frowned. “Not a head patient?”
“Dr. Koppel denied knowing the girl,” I said.
“For what that’s worth,” said Ogden.
Milo said, “You picked up a liar-vibe?”
“Nothing that strong, but it sounds like she was evasive with both of us, and the coincidence is giving off a definite scent. Let me know after you talk to her. Anything else?”
Milo said, “Lorraine, I was figuring to reinterview some of your principals, if that’s okay with you. The mom, the boyfriend, the people Flora worked with.”
“Talk to whoever you want, the main thing is closing Flora. You know Al McKinley.”
“Good man,” said Milo.
“Smart man,” she said. “Real bulldog.” She took a deep breath. “He and I really worked this one. Combed sex-offender records, did some cross-referencing with felons who work construction. It’s scary how many bad guys are doing roofing or day labor. But it all came to nothing. I was so frustrated I found myself hoping some other DB with the same signature would show up, maybe this time there’d be some forensics to work with. Nice, huh? Wanting someone else to die. The neoprene… he uses her knife but comes prepared with plastic. We’re talking a predator. And those guys don’t just stop. Right, Doctor?”
Milo said, “Maybe this one didn’t.”
Canfield School occupied a block of Airdrome Avenue, three blocks south of Pico and east of Doheny. Through the chain-link fence, kids played against a backdrop of mural. Peace, love, harmony. Little kids, their faces shone with possibility.
The neighborhood was Baja Beverly Hills, a five-minute ride from Mary Lou Koppel’s office on Olympic. If Flora Newsome had driven to therapy from her apartment in Palms, the trip would have stretched longer, but not much. Twenty minutes in bad traffic.
The vice principal was a black woman named Lavinia Robson with an Ed.D. and a pleasant demeanor.
She checked our credentials, asked the right questions, got on her intercom and summoned Brian Van Dyne.
“Coffee?” she said.
“Flora was a sweetie, we were all saddened. Is there new evidence?”
“Sorry, no, Dr. Robson. Sometimes it helps to take a fresh look.”
“That’s true in education, as well- ah, here’s Brian.
Flora Newsome’s former boyfriend was a tall, narrow-shouldered man in his midthirties with thinning blond hair and a wispy mustache the color of gruel. His complexion implied an aversion to sunshine. He wore a green shirt, khakis, a brown wool necktie, and rubber-soled walking shoes. Thick-lensed eyeglasses gave his eyes a stunned glaze. Add to that his genuine shock at our presence, and he looked like a man who’d landed on a foreign planet.
“Flora?” he said. “After all this time?” His voice was whispery, anemic.
Lavinia Robson’s phone rang. “Brian, Pat’s out for the day, why don’t you take these gentlemen to her office?”
The absent Patricia Rohatyn was the school’s special ed counselor. Her office was cramped, linoleum-floored, filled with books and games. The air-conditioning vent rattled. The room smelled of rubber eraser.
Two child-sized chairs faced a cluttered desk. Brian Van Dyne said, “You guys sit,” and went to fetch a third. He came back, settled opposite us in a large chair. No attempt to dominate; he slumped, trying to sink to our level.
“Your being here today is so strange,” he said. “I just got engaged yesterday.”
“Congratulations,” said Milo.
“For a long time after Flora, I didn’t feel like dating. Finally, I agreed to let my sister set me up on a blind date.” His smile was wistful. “Karen- my fiancée- doesn’t know the details of what happened to Flora. Just that she died.”
“No need for her to know.”
“Exactly,” said Van Dyne. “I still have trouble with it. Remembering. I was the one who found her… what brings you here? Do you finally have a suspect?”
Milo crossed his legs, taking pains not to kick over a stack of box games. “We’re reviewing the case, sir. Is there anything that’s occurred to you since the first detectives questioned you?”
“Reviewing,” said Van Dyne, deflated. “No, nothing.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Why has the case been reopened?”
“It never closed, sir.”
“Oh,” said Van Dyne. “Sure, of course.” His knees bumped together.
The small chair was cramping my back, and I stretched. It had to be agony for Milo, but he appeared fine.
He said, “One thing that came up in our review was that Ms. Newsome was seeing a psychotherapist. Detective Ogden told me that was a surprise to you.”
“It was a total surprise. Flora never told me. Which was strange because I’d been in therapy and told her.” Van Dyne fooled with his glasses. “I thought we had an open relationship.”
“You were in therapy, too,” said Milo.
Van Dyne smiled. “Nothing crazy, Lieutenant. I was married for three years, got divorced six months before I met Flora. My wife left me for some guy, and I was having a rough time. To be honest, I was pretty depressed. I saw a psychologist, and he counseled me and referred me to a psychiatrist for some short-term antidepressants. After three months, I felt a lot better and stopped the pills. Another two months of therapy, and I was ready to be on my own. That’s what enabled me to be open to a relationship with Flora. So I’d be the last person to look down on therapy. I guess Flora felt differently.”
“You think she was embarrassed?”
Van Dyne nodded.
Milo said, “Any idea why she sought treatment?”
“Not a clue. And believe me, I’ve thought about it.”
“She was well adjusted.”
“I thought she was.”
“You have doubts now?”
“I just assume she went for help because there was some kind of problem. It would have had to be something Flora viewed as serious. She wasn’t the type to talk for the sake of talking.”
“Serious in her mind.”
“You two meet here at the school?” said Milo.
“First day of school. I’d just transferred from the Valley, and Flora was beginning her probationary year. She got assigned to assist another teacher, but I was the one who ended up showing her the ropes. One thing led to the other.”
Milo pulled out his pad and scribbled. Keeping his eyes on the page, he said, “Any idea about who might’ve wanted to hurt Ms. Newsome?”
“Some nut,” said Van Dyne. “No rational person would do what I saw. It was… stomach-churning.”
“Did Flora ever talk about being afraid of anyone?” said Milo. “Someone harassing her, stalking her, that kind of thing?” Easing his big body closer to Van Dyne. Using Newsome’s first name.
“Never. But given the fact that she kept her therapy a secret, I can’t be sure she didn’t hide something else.”
“Did she ever seem scared or unduly nervous?”
“Being on probation was a little stressful. Who likes to be judged? But she was doing great, would definitely have passed. Teaching meant a lot to her, Lieutenant. She told me everything she’d done before that had just been a job, but this was her career.”
“What other jobs did she have?” I said.
“Office work, mostly. She did some filing for a law firm, worked at a parole office, then she managed the office of a software company that went bust. Evenings she studied for her credential.”
“The parole office downtown?” said Milo.
“She never said, only that she didn’t like it there. Too many weird characters coming in and out. I thought that might be important and mentioned it to the first detectives, but they didn’t seem to agree. Because Flora hadn’t worked there for a while.”
“Her phrase,” said Van Dyne. “She didn’t want to discuss it.” He laced his hands across his chest, as if guarding his heart. “The thing you need to understand about Flora was she wasn’t the most talkative person. Not very outgoing or passionate on the surface.” He licked his lips. “She was very… traditional, more like someone from my mother’s generation.”
“Very. That’s why I was so surprised to find out she’d been in therapy.”
“And you have no idea,” said Milo, “about what was bothering her.”
“She seemed happy,” said Van Dyne. “She really did.”
“About getting married.”
“About everything. She was a reserved person, Lieutenant. An old-fashioned girl.” Van Dyne’s fingers separated, but he kept his hand on his chest. “Have you talked to her therapist? Dr. Mary Lou Koppel, she’s one of those radio personalities. For all I know that’s how Flora found her, from hearing her on the radio.”
“Would Flora do something like that?” I said. “Listen to a show and call up for an appointment?”
Van Dyne thought about that. “It’s not what I’d have predicted, but who knows? What did Koppel say about treating Flora?”
“Haven’t spoken to her yet,” said Milo.
“Maybe you’ll have better luck than I did.” Van Dyne’s hands dropped to his lap. “I called her a few weeks after the murder, when I found out Flora had been seeing her. I’m not even sure what I wanted. Some memory of Flora, I guess. Maybe some sympathy, it was a horrendous time. But boy did I dial a wrong number. She was anything but sympathetic. Said confidentiality prevented her from speaking to me and hung up. Very curt. Not in the least bit therapeutic.”
Driving away from the school, Milo frowned and lit up a panatella. “Sensitive guy.”
“He bug you in some way?”
“Not in the criminal sense, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him. Too delicate.” He frowned. “Working at a parole office where the cons made her nervous. One reinterview and we’ve got info that wasn’t in Lorraine’s notes.”
“Lorraine and McKinley weren’t impressed with the parole job because a year had gone by.”
“I’m more easily impressed.”
We returned to the station, where he accessed Flora Newsome’s state employment records and located the parole branch where she’d clerked for five months. Not downtown, the North Hollywood office. A half-hour drive from the murder scene.
I said, “A con notices her, follows her home, stakes out her apartment. Breaking in wouldn’t be much of a challenge for a pro.”
“Ye olde failure to rehabilitate,” he said. “Wonder what Dr. Koppel thinks about that.” He stood, stretched, sat down hard.
I said, “There’s another possibility. The con didn’t follow Flora home, she already knew him. That’s why there was no sign of a break-in. Why he didn’t need to bring a knife. Maybe what brought Flora to therapy was more than adjustment problems.”
“Nice, old-fashioned girl getting it on with a lowlife?”
“She kept her therapy from her boyfriend, could’ve had other secrets.”
“Fooling with a con,” he said. “Forbidden pleasures. Guilt took her to Koppel.” He stared at me. “You do weave a web.”
He walked me through the station and out to the street, glanced at his Timex. “Think I’ll have a go at Koppel. Solo, seeing as you two have issues.”
“Issues.” I smiled.
“Hey, I’m walkin’ the walk, talkin’ the talk.”
Later that evening, he called, and said, “Did you know shrinks don’t have to hold on to files?”
“Koppel has no records of Flora Newsome’s treatment.”
“Straight into the shredder a month after Newsome died. Koppel says it’s routine, any closed case gets trashed. Otherwise, she runs into a ‘storage problem.’ Also, she claims it helps safeguard confidentiality because no one can ‘happen’ upon the chart.”
“Did she remember anything about Newsome?”
“Even less than she remembered for Ogden. ‘I treat so many patients, Lieutenant.’ ”
“But this patient was murdered.”
“She gave you a hard time,” I said.
“Not on the surface. She was superfriendly, nice smile, easy manner. Sends her regards, by the way. Says you’re a real gentleman.”
“I’m touched. She give you anything to work with?”
“She said she couldn’t be sure, but she thought Newsome had come in for ‘anxiety.’ I decided to be direct and brought up the possibility of a con boyfriend. No reaction. If she was hiding something, she’s Oscar quality.”
“What did she have to say about two patients murdered in fourteen months?”
“She looked a little shaken when I phrased it that way, but said she’d never thought of it that way, her patient load was so huge, it really didn’t mean anything. My impression is the lady’s got a busy life, doesn’t spend too much time focused on any single thing, including her patients. The whole interview was on the run. I caught her leaving the building and walked her to her Mercedes. She was scheduled to tape a show, and her cell phone kept ringing. One of her partners, some guy named Gull, had just parked his Mercedes in the lot and came over to say hi. She blew him off, and his expression said he was used to it.”
“Two murders in one practice is routine?”
“I pressed her, Alex. She got irritated, pressed me back about whether the evidence pointed to any connection between Gavin and Flora. I couldn’t give her any details, so I had to tell her no. She said, ‘There you go. Given the size of my practice, it’s a statistical quirk.’ But I’m not sure she believed it. Her hands were on the steering wheel, and her knuckles were white. They got even whiter when I asked her if she was treating any known felons. She said no, of course not, her patients were all decent people. But maybe I stirred up her you-know-what- her consciousness- and she’ll think of something. I’ll have another go at her in a couple days, and I’d like you to be there.”
“Issues and all.”
“At this point, the more issues the better. I want to rattle her cage. First, though, I’m gonna talk to the parole folks, see what they remember about Flora. I’ve also got an address and number for Flora’s mother, and if you could find time to see her, I’d really appreciate it. I’ve got to make sure I don’t veer completely into Newsome and neglect Gavin and the blonde.”
“I’ll try for tomorrow.”
“Thankee, thankee.” He read off Evelyn Newsome’s number and an address on Ethel Street in Sherman Oaks. “She’s not in board-and-care anymore, moved out six months ago and is living in a real house. Maybe someone came up with a miracle cure for arthritis.”
“Anything in particular you want me to probe for?”
“The deep dark recesses of her daughter’s state of mind before she got killed and any boyfriends Flora had prior to Van Dyne. After that, go anywhere you see fit.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Or reasonable facsimile. That show Koppel was taping, guess what the topic was?”
Silence. “How’d you know?”
“You scare me.”
I phoned Evelyn Newsome at ten the next morning. A woman with a vigilant voice answered, “Yes?” When I told her who I was, she softened.
“The police were very very nice. Is there something new?”
“I’d like to stop by to chat, Mrs. Newsome. We’ll be reviewing old ground, but-”
“We’re taking a look at Flora’s case from all angles.”
“Oh. That’s fine, sir. I can always talk about my Flora.”
Ethel Street just south of Magnolia was a twenty-minute ride over the Glen, past Ventura Boulevard, and into the heart of Sherman Oaks. This side of the mountains was ten degrees hotter than the city and dry enough to tickle my sinuses. The marine layer had burned off, endowing the Valley with blue skies.
Evelyn Newsome’s block was lined with modest, well-kept one-story houses, most of them nailed up posthaste for returning World War II vets. Old-growth orange and apricot trees rose above redwood fences. Huge, scarred elms, top-heavy pines, and untrimmed mulberry trees shaded some of the properties. Others flaunted themselves, naked, in relentless Valley light.
Evelyn Newsome’s new home was a pea green stucco bungalow with a fresh mock-shake roof. The lawn was flat, succotash-colored stubble. Birds-of-paradise flanked the front steps. A porch swing hung still in the baking, dormant air.
A screen door covered the entrance, but the wooden door had been left open, offering full view of a dark, low living room. Evelyn Newsome’s daughter had been murdered two years ago, and her default phone voice was wary, but on some level she still trusted.
Before I could ring the bell, a big, white-haired man in his seventies appeared and unlatched the screen.
“Doctor? Walt McKitchen, Evelyn’s out in back waiting for you.” He held his shoulders high, had a florid face built around a purple cabbage nose and a tiny mouth. Despite the heat, he wore a blue-and-gray flannel shirt buttoned to the neck over triple-pleated gray wool slacks.
We shook hands. His fingers were sausages breaded with callus. When he walked me to the back of the house he limped, and I noticed that one of his shoes was bottomed by a three-inch orthopedic sole.
We passed through a tiny, neat bedroom and entered an equally small add-on den paneled in knotty pine and set up with a fuzzy green couch, prefab bookshelves full of paperbacks and a wide-screen TV. The air conditioner in the window was silent. A couple of black-and-white photos hung on the walls. Group portrait of a military battalion. A young couple, standing in front of this very house, the trees saplings, the lawn just dirt. To the man’s right was a bubble-topped thirties Plymouth. The woman held a SOLD sign.
Evelyn Newsome sat on the fuzzy couch, rotund and hunched with cold-set white hair and kind blue eyes. On the redwood burl table in front of her was a teapot swaddled in a cozy and two cups on saucers.
“Doctor,” she said, half rising. “I hope you don’t prefer coffee.” She patted the sofa cushion to her right, and I sat down. She wore a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar over maroon stretch pants. She was top-heavy, with thin legs; more sag to the material than stretch.
“This is fine, thanks, Mrs. Newsome.”
She poured. The cups were silk-screened HARRAH’S CASINO, RENO, NEVADA.
“Sugar? Lemon or milk?”
Walt McKitchen lingered near the doorway. Evelyn Newsome said, “I’m all right, hon.”
McKitchen looked me over, saluted and left.
“We’re honeymooners,” she said, smiling. “Mr. McKitchen used to visit his wife at the board-and-care where I lived. She passed away, and we became friends.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“Thank you. I never thought I’d get out of that place. Arthritis. Not osteo, which everyone gets when they reach an age. Mine’s rheumatoid, it’s inherited. I’ve been achy my whole life. After Flora was gone I had nothing but pain. Now I’ve got companionship and my doctor’s come up with some new medication and I’m doing just fine. So it teaches you, things can get better.” She flexed her fingers and brushed at her hair.
The tea was lukewarm and insipid, but she closed her eyes with pleasure. Placing the cup on the table, she said, “I’m hoping for some good news about my Flora.”
“We’re just starting to reexamine the case.”
She patted my hand. “I know, dear. I meant in the long run. Now, how can I help you?”
“Is there anything you can think of that’s occurred to you since the first detectives-”
“They weren’t bad,” she said. “A he and she, and he was black. They meant well. At first I had hope, then I didn’t. At least they were honest. Told me they’d gotten nowhere. The reason was my Flora was so good, no bad influences. So it had to be someone she didn’t know, and that makes it harder. At least that’s what they said.”
“Not about Flora being good, but there was something that bothered me. A while before it happened Flora had worked at a parole office. Right from the beginning, she hated it and when I asked her why she said she didn’t care for the people she had to deal with. I said, ‘then quit.’ She said, ‘Mom, it’s just temporary until I get my credential, and the pay’s good. Good jobs are hard to find.’ I mentioned that to the detectives, and they said they’d check it out, but they doubted it was important because Flora hadn’t worked there for nearly a year.”
“What did Flora say about the people she had to deal with?”
“Nothing more than that, and when I asked, she changed the subject. Didn’t want me to worry, I suppose. Flora was always protective of me. I’ve had my ups and downs, health-wise.” Her blues eyes sharpened. “Do you think there could’ve been a connection to that place? Is that why you’re here-” Her hand trembled. “The first detectives seemed sure it wasn’t important, but you know, it did bother me.”
“There’s no evidence of a connection, but it’s being looked into.”
“So you already know about it.”
“Brian Van Dyne told us.”
“Brian.” She smiled. She ran her finger over the Harrah’s logo.
“Any problems between him and Flora?”
“Brian?” She chuckled. “The two of them seemed already married. Both of them so conservative, you know? Flora liked him just fine, and he adored her.”
“Conservative in what way?” I said.
“Old for their age. Flora was always that way, she grew up fast. Then when she found Brian, I said, ‘She’s got her counterpart.’ Flora’s father was a man’s man. So is Mr. McKitchen. That’s my type, but Flora…” She shrugged. “I’m not being kind to Brian, Brian’s a nice boy. My theory is that Flora went for him because he was so different from her last boyfriend. Now that one was masculine enough, but he had other problems. But you’d know about that.”
“The first detectives looked into him after I told them about his temper. They said he was under no suspicion whatsoever.”
There’d been no mention of a former boyfriend in the file. I said, “I haven’t reviewed every page, Mrs. Newsome. What kind of temper problems are we talking about?”
“Roy can be a nice young man, but he does fly off the handle. Flora used to say sometimes she had to walk on eggshells when Roy got in one of his moods. Not that he hurt Flora, there was never a whisper of that, he never even raised his voice. It was his quiet that bothered her- she told me he’d drop into these long, cold silences where she couldn’t reach him.”
“Moody,” I said.
She said, “I don’t believe Roy had anything to do with what happened to Flora. He has a temper, oh sure, but he and Flora parted on friendly terms, and I’ve known his family forever.” She blinked. “Truth be told, Roy’d have no reason to resent Flora. He was the one who ended it. Ended up with another woman, cheap type if you ask me. Now they’re getting divorced, and isn’t that just a great big mess.”
“You’re still in touch with Roy.”
“His folks were our neighbors back when we lived in Culver City. Roy and Flora grew up together, like brother and sister. Roy’s folks own an aquarium- one of those fish stores. Roy doesn’t likes animals, isn’t that funny? Him I haven’t seen for a while; it’s his folks I occasionally talk to. His mother told me about the divorce. I think what she was really saying was that Roy should’ve been smart and stuck with Flora.”
“What’s Roy’s full name?”
“Nichols. Roy Nichols, Jr. I told the other detectives, it should all be in the records.”
“Did Flora like animals?”
She shook her head. “She and Roy saw eye to eye on that. Neat, both of them. Everything had to be tidy. With all that, you’d’ve thought Roy would pick a cleaner job.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a carpenter, frames up houses. I suppose it’s cleaner than plumbing.”
“Construction,” I said.
I spent another quarter hour in the pine-paneled room, learned nothing more, thanked her, and left.
I reached Milo at his desk and told him about Roy Nichols.
“Bad temper, doesn’t like animals, works construction,” he said. “Something else Lorraine and Al didn’t think to include.”
“Evelyn Newsome said they talked to him and cleared him.”
“Yeah, yeah… let me run him through the county data bank just in case… I’ve got a Roy Dean Nichols with a birth date that would make him the right age… and look at this: two priors. A DUI last year and a 415 the year before that. Two months after Flora was killed.”
“Disturbing the peace can mean anything,” I said. “Given the DUI, it was probably alchohol-related.”
“I’m pulling up his DMV as we speak… here we go, an address on Harter Street. That’s Culver City, not far from Flora’s place in Palms. Are you on your way back to the alleged city? I can meet you at the station, and we’ll pay this joker a visit.”
“The Valley parole office isn’t far from Evelyn Newsome’s house. I was going to drive by, maybe go in and have a look.”
“Don’t waste your time. Flora only worked there for three days before they transferred her to a temporary branch office on Sepulveda and Venice. One of those projects funded by a federal seed grant. Small storefront offices, they opened half a dozen all over the city. Shorter distance for the cons to travel, heaven forfend we tax the poor souls. The hope was that the bad boys would be more compliant about checking in.”
“You’re talking in past tense,” I said.
“You got it. No better compliance and a few million bucks down the drain, the offices were shut down. Flora stayed on until the funds ran out, so she didn’t hate the job badly enough to quit. Didn’t make much of an impression either. Her supervisor remembers her as quiet, said she mostly filed and answered the phone. He doubts she’d get involved with a con.”
“He said she kept to herself and that not many cons came in.”
“Enough came in to bother her,” I said. “And Sepulveda and Venice is really close to her apartment. I’d like to know how many of the cons assigned to that office had sex-crime histories.”
“Good luck. Parole’s as bureaucratic as it comes. State office, everything’s filtered through Sacramento, and now that the satellites have closed, the records are somewhere in outer space. But if it shakes out that way, I’ll start digging. Meanwhile, Roy Nichols’s place is also close by, and he has a record that says impulse control’s a problem. And isn’t it you guys who make a big deal about psychopaths not liking animals?”
“Cruelty to animals,” I said. “Flora’s mother said Nichols is a neat-freak.”
“There you go, yet another quirk. Just the type to clean up a crime scene thoroughly. He’s worth looking into, right? See you in- what, twenty, twenty-five?”
“Zoom zoom zoom.”
Milo’s unmarked idled at the curb, in front of the station. He was at the wheel, smoking and tapping his finger.
I drove up next to the driver’s window. He handed me a staff permit, and I parked in the lot across the street. When I returned, the unmarked’s passenger door was open. We were heading south before I closed it.
“I pulled Roy Nichols’s file. The 415 wasn’t just some drunk breaking glass. Though you were right about it being booze-stoked. Nichols beat some guy up at a sports bar in Inglewood, did a real number on him, broke some bones. The report says Nichols thought the guy was leering at his date, a woman named Lisa Jenrette. They traded words, and one thing led to another. What got Nichols out of a felony assault charge was several other patrons swore the other guy had thrown the first punch and that he had come on to Nichols’s date. One of those habitual assholes, always picking fights. Nichols compensated part of his medical bills and pleaded down to Disturbing. He served no time, promised to stay away from the bar, and took a rage control class.”
He sped side streets to Olympic, turned left, headed for Sepulveda. “A severe jealousy problem could lead to the kind of overkill they found in Flora’s bedroom.”
“Evelyn Newsome said Nichols was the one who ended the relationship.”
“So maybe he changed his mind, got possessive. Alex, I read the medical report on the guy he pounded. Shattered face bones, dislocated shoulder. One witness said Nichols was about to stomp the guy’s head into pulp when they managed to pull him off.”
We drove in silence for a while, then he said, “Rage control class. You think that stuff works?”
“There’s a hearty endorsement for you.”
“I think it takes more than a few mandatory lectures to alter basic temperament.”
“The lightbulb has to want to change.”
“More tax dollars flushed,” he said. “Like those satellite parole offices.”
“Well,” he said, “that really pisses me off.”
Roy Nichols’s house was a slightly larger, pure white version of Evelyn Newsome’s bungalow that bore the signs of ambitious but wrongheaded improvement: overly wide black shutters that would’ve fit a two-story colonial, a pair of Doric columns propping up the tiny porch, a Spanish tile roof, the tiles variegated and expensive and piled too high, a three-foot sash of bouquet canyon stone veneered to the bottom of the facade. This lawn was lush, unblemished, the bright green of a Saint Paddy’s parade. Five-foot sago palms flanked the steps- five hundred dollars’ worth of vegetation. Dwarf junipers ringed the front, trimmed low to the ground with bonsai precision.
In the driveway something hulked under a spotless black cover. Milo lifted a corner of the cover on a shiny black Ford pickup with a freshly chromed bumper. Raised suspension, custom wheels. A sticker protected by a plastic coating said: How Am I Driving? Call 1-800-SCRU YOU.
We walked to the front door. A security firm sticker was centered on a black lacquer door. Pushing the bell elicited chimes. Oh-oh-say-can-you-see?
“Hold on!” A woman opened. Tall, young, pretty but washed out, she had a heart-shaped face, wore a filmy black tank top over white terry-cloth shorts. No bra, bare feet. Great legs, a shaving nick on one glossy shin. Her hair was white-blond with no luster, bunched above her head in a careless thatch. Pink nail polish on her fingers, chipped badly. Darker polish on her toes, in even worse shape. Behind her was a room full of cardboard cartons. New cartons with crisp edges, sealed with brown tape and marked CONTENTS followed by three blank lines.
She folded her arms across big, soft breasts. “Yes?”
Milo showed her the badge. “You’re Mrs. Nichols?”
“Not anymore. You here about Roy?”
She sighed and waved us in. But for a few feet inside the door, the entire room was filled with the packing boxes. A child-sized mattress stood propped against a tied-off garbage bag.
“Soon as I can get the movers over here. They say by tomorrow, but they’ve already missed one appointment. The house is already sold, I’ve got to vacate by next week. What did Roy do?”
“You’re assuming he did something.”
“You’re here, right? I didn’t do anything, and neither did Lorelei. My daughter. She’s four years old, and if she wakes up from her nap, I’m going to kick you guys out.”
“Your name, ma’am?”
“Ma’am,” she said, amused. “I’m Lisa. Nichols, still. I’ll probably go back to my maiden name, which is Jenrette, and I always thought was a lot prettier than Nichols. Right now I’ve got other things to keep me busy. So what’s he done?”
“Could be nothing. We just want to talk to him.”
“Then go over to his job site. He’s working in Inglewood. On Manchester, near the Forum. They’re fixing up an office building. I know he’s making good money but try getting a penny out of him. Thank God his parents are cool. They want Lorelei to live decently, even though she’s not theirs, biologically. I told ’em I’d stay in L.A. and they could see her if they make it easy for me; otherwise, I move back to Tucson, where my folks are.”
“Roy’s tight with a buck,” said Milo.
“Roy’s like a stingy old man except when it comes to his projects.”
“What kinds of projects?”
“His truck, his single-malt collection, fixing up the house. Did you have a look at this place- he never stopped fooling with it. If there weren’t so many boxes, I’d show you all the paneling he did in the back rooms. Rosewood paneling, expensive stuff, in all three bedrooms. Made it dark as a funeral parlor, but he claimed it would help the resale value. So what happens, we put the house up for sale and we get a buyer and the first thing they’re going to do is rip out the paneling.”
“That couldn’t have made Roy happy,” I said.
“Roy’s not happy about anything.”
She turned to me. “Sounds like you know him.”
“Never met him.”
Milo asked if she’d seen Roy recently.
“Not for a month. He’s living with his parents, four blocks away. You’d think he’d drop by to see Lorelei.”
“Not a single visit?”
“I bring Lorelei over once a week. Sometimes Roy’s there, but even if he is, he doesn’t play with her. To him it matters that she isn’t his.” Her eyes misted. She shifted her weight, uncrossed her arms, looked down at the carpet. “Listen, I’ve got calls to make. Why won’t you tell me what he’s done? I mean, if he’s dangerous, shouldn’t I know?”
Milo said, “You see him as potentially dangerous?”
“What are you,” said Lisa Nichols, “some kind of shrink? We went to one, ’cause of the divorce. The court ordered it, and he did that- the shrink. Asked questions instead of giving answers.”
“Roy hasn’t done anything. We just want to talk to him about a former girlfriend.”
“The one who got murdered? Flora?”
“You know about her.”
“Just what Roy told me.” Her hand flew to her mouth. “You’re not saying…”
“No, ma’am. We’re reviewing the case and are talking to everyone who knew her.”
“I’ve got a four-year-old,” said Lisa. “You’ve got to be straight with me.”
“You’re afraid of Roy,” I said.
“I’m afraid of his temper. Not that he ever did anything to me. But the way he gets- crawling into himself.”
Milo said, “What did he tell you about Flora Newsome?”
“That she was…” She folded her upper lip between her teeth. “It’s going to sound…”
“He said she was cold. In bed. Not good sexually. He said she probably came on to some guy, then wouldn’t come through and that’s what happened to her.”
“That was his theory, huh?”
“Roy sees everything in terms of sex. If it was up to him…” Her head flipped away from us. “I’ve got to finish up packing. Lori will be up soon and my hands will be tied.”
She gave us Roy Nichols’s parents’ address and phone number. Milo called there, spoke to the mother, lied about being a general contractor looking for framers and got the location of Nichols’s current job site.
As we drove south on Sepulveda toward Inglewood, he said, “My guess is Flora wouldn’t put out enough for Nichols, and that’s why he dumped her. Ergo, his theory. Or, he was- what do you guys call it, when you put your own crap on someone else-”
“Projecting,” I said. “No forced entry at Flora’s apartment is consistent with someone she knew. The overkill fits with a lot of background rage, and the sexual posing suggests the source of the rage.”
“Wrought-iron fence post. Got to be some of those lying around construction jobs. More than ever, I want to know where this bastard was the night Gavin and the blonde were killed. Speaking of which, I sent two D’s over to the fancy hotels, then they talked to BHPD, and no one knows our Jimmy Choo girl. The hotels are probably lying, but the B. H. cops do keep a file of high-priced call girls, and she’s not in it. It’s just a matter of time. Someone’s got to miss her.”
Roy Nichols’s supervisor was a compact middle-aged man named Art Rodriguez, with a graying beard and the excitability quotient of a stone Buddha. A DODGER BLUE sticker was emblazoned across his hard hat above an American flag decal. He wore an oversize Disneyland T-shirt under a chambray shirt, filthy jeans, and dusty work boots, held a folded racing form in one hand.
We stood out in the dusty sun, just inside the chain-link border of the construction site. The job was tacking a side addition onto an ugly brick-faced two-story office building. The original structure was gutted and windowless but a sign- Golden Age Investments- remained atop the door hole.
The new space was in the framing stage, and Roy Nichols was one of the framers. Rodriguez pointed him out- crouching on the second floor, wielding a nail gun. The air smelled of raw wood and pesticide and sulfur.
Art Rodriguez said, “Want me to get him? Or you can put on hats and go up there yourselves.”
“You can do it,” said Milo. “You’re not surprised we want to talk to him.”
Rodriguez gave a tobacco-laced laugh. “This business? All my roofers are cons, and a whole bunch of the other trades are, too.”
“Nichols isn’t a con.”
“Con, potential con, what’s the difference? Everyone gets a second chance. It’s what makes this country great.”
“Nichols impress you as a potential?”
“I don’t get into their personal lives,” said Rodriguez. “Step one, they show up, step two, they do the freaking job. I get that from a few of them with any regularity, I’m a happy guy.”
“He’s actually one of the good ones. Like clockwork. Here on the dot- kind of faggy, actually.”
“Faggy,” said Milo.
“Faggy,” Rodriguez repeated. “As in picky, prissy, choosy. Everything has to be just so, he reminds me of my wife.”
“He wants his lunch box kept away from dust, gets ticked when guys mess with his tools or don’t show up on time. Any change in routine ticks him off. He folds his jacket, for chrissake.”
“What’s your beef with him?”
“Hope it stays that way,” said Rodriguez. “He shows up, does the freaking job.”
Roy Nichols was six-three, an easy 250, with a hard, protruding belly, flour-sack arms and tree-trunk thighs. Under his hard hat was a head shaved clean. The stubble that blanketed his face was fair, and so were his eyebrows. He wore a sweat-soaked earth-colored T-shirt under blue denim overalls, had a rose tattoo on his right biceps. His face was square and sun-baked, bottomed by a double chin, scored with deep seams that made him look older than his thirty years.
Rodriguez pointed to us, and Nichols surged ahead of him and swaggered in our direction.
“Round one, ding,” muttered Milo.
Nichols reached us, and said, “Police? About what?” His voice was thin and shockingly high. I bet many a phone caller had asked to speak to his mother. I bet Roy Nichols never got used to it.
Milo extended a hand.
Nichols showed us a dusty palm, muttered, “Dirty,” and lowered it to his side. He rolled his neck. “What do you want?”
“To talk about Flora Newsome.”
“Now? I’m working.”
“We’d appreciate a few minutes, Mr. Nichols.”
“About what?” A flush rose from Nichols’s bull neck and made its way up his cheeks.
“We’re taking a fresh look at the case and are talking to everyone who knew her.”
“I knew her all right, but I don’t know who killed her. I’ve already been through all that crap with some other cops- I’m on the job, man, and they pay me by the hour. They’re Nazis, man. I stay too long in the bathroom, they dock me. If it was a union job, they couldn’t do that, but it isn’t, so give me a break.”
“I’ll square it with Mr. Rodriguez.”
“Right,” said Nichols. He toed dirt, rolled his neck some more.
“Just a few minutes.”
Nichols cursed under his breath. “At least let’s get out of the fucking sun.”
We walked to a corner of the site shaded by two portable toilets. The chemicals had failed, and the stench was aggressive.
Nichols’s nostrils flared. “Reeks. Perfect. This is all bullshit.”
“You get upset pretty easily,” said Milo.
“You would, too, if your time was money and someone wasted it.” Nichols unsnapped the leather lid of his wristwatch and peered at the dial. “Those first cops spent days with me, man. What a hassle. I could tell right away they thought I was a suspect because of the way they played around with me.”
“One’s nice, the other’s an asshole. A he and a she. He faked being the nice one. I’ve seen enough TV to know the game.” He ran a hand over his skinhead. “Now, you. What, you’re getting overtime, trying to stretch it out?”
Milo stared at him.
Nichols said, “Didn’t they tell you I had a perfect alibi for when Flora was killed? Watching the game in a sports bar, then I shot pool and played some darts and got drunk. A buddy drove me to my house just after midnight, and I threw up all over the living room couch. My wife tucked me in and didn’t give me shit until she woke me up two hours later after stewing on it and then she reamed me. So I’m accounted for, okay? A whole bunch of people verified it, and your buddies know it.”
Milo glanced at me. Both of us thinking the same thing: His wife hadn’t mentioned that.
“You have any theories about who killed Flora?”
“None at all?”
Nichols licked his lips. “Why should I?”
“We’ve heard you do have a theory.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Flora’s sex drive. Or lack thereof.”
“Shit,” said Nichols. “You’ve been talking to Lisa. What do you expect her to say? We’re getting divorced, she hates my fucking guts. Didn’t she tell you I was home that night? Shit, she didn’t. See- she hates my guts.”
“What about your theory?”
“Yeah, yeah, I told her that, but I was talking out of my butt- like you talk to your wife, you know.”
“They need you to talk,” said Nichols. “Females.” He opened and shut his hand several times, miming chatter. “You come home after a hard day’s work and just wanna chill and they want to talk. Myah myah myah. So you tell them what they want to hear.”
“Lisa wanted to hear about Flora’s sex drive?”
“Lisa wanted to hear that she was hot, the hottest, hotter than anyone else I ever met in my life.” Nichols humphed. “That’s what that was all about.”
Milo stepped closer to Nichols. “You stroked Lisa by putting down Flora? Any particular reason you chose Flora as the bad example?”
Nichols edged back.
“Did Flora have sexual problems, Roy?”
“If you call not being able to do it problems,” said Nichols.
“She couldn’t have sex?”
“She couldn’t come. She had no feelings down there, used to lie there like a… a carpet. She didn’t like to do it. Wouldn’t come out and say so, but she had a way of letting you know.”
“What way was that?”
“You’d touch her, and she’d get this… upset look. Like she- like you hurt her.”
“Doesn’t sound like a fun relationship.”
Nichols didn’t answer.
Milo said, “Still, you went out with her for what- a year?”
“Less than that.” Nichols’s eyes widened. “I know what you’re getting at.”
“What’s that, Roy?”
“That I got mad at her because she wouldn’t put out, but it wasn’t like that. We didn’t fight, I never did anything but be cool with her. I took her out to movies, dinner, whatever. Spent money on her, man, and it wasn’t like I was getting anything back.”
“Uneven trade,” said Milo.
“This is making me sound bad.” Nichols’s meaty shoulders flexed. He smiled. “Big deal how I sound, I have a total four-plus alibi, so you can think what you want.”
“Did you break up with Flora because of her sexual problems, Roy?”
“That was part of it, wouldn’t it be for anyone normal? But it’s not like we were even really going together. We were neighbors, grew up together. Our parents hung out, we had barbecues together, whatever. Everyone kind of threw us together, know what I mean?”
“Parental matchmaking,” I said.
He looked at me with gratitude. “Yeah, exactly. ‘Flora’s such a nice girl.’ ‘Flora would make a great mom.’ And she dug me, she definitely did, so why not, she wasn’t half-bad-looking, coulda been hot if she knew how to dress. And how to screw. But we hung out more than we went out, you know? Even so, I spent money on her, lots of lobster dinners. When we broke up everything was cool.”
“She wasn’t upset?”
“Sure she was, but it wasn’t any big hysterical scene, know what I mean? She cried a little, I told her we’d be friends, and that was that.”
I said, “Did you remain friends?”
“There was no… animosity.”
“Did you continue to see each other?”
“No,” said Nichols, regarding me with wariness now. He cupped his clean head with one big hand, scratched loose a flake of sun-baked skin. “I’d see her at my folks’. There was no bad feelings.”
Milo said, “Those lobster dinners. Any particular place?”
Nichols stared at him. “I can eat lobster anywhere, but Flora liked this place in the Marina, out by the harbor.”
“That’s the one. Flora liked to look at the boats. But then one time I offered to arrange a cruise around the Marina, and she said she got seasick. That was Flora. All talk.”
“Flora was scheduled to go to Bobby J’s for brunch the morning after she got murdered. She and her new boyfriend.”
Nichols said, “New boyfriend? What, I’m supposed to know that? Don’t make like I was the old boyfriend and she threw me over and I gave a shit because that is total bullshit.”
“Roy,” said Milo, “Flora’s problems aside, I assume you and she did sleep together?”
“Tried is more like it. Flora could make like her legs were glued together. And it was always like you were hurting her. You wanna know my opinion, that is how she ran into trouble.” Nichols’s chin jutted defiantly. “What if she led some guy on, then wouldn’t come through? Some dude not as understanding as me. For all I know, that boyfriend of hers snapped. He seemed like a wimp, but isn’t it always the quiet ones?”
“You met him?”
“One time. Flora brought him by my folks’ house. Thanksgiving, it was evening, after we finished stuffing our pie-holes. I was mellowing out on the couch, like when I eat that way don’t make me move, man. Lisa and my mom were washing up and my dad and me were both blissed out watching the tube and boing goes the doorbell. In comes Flora all dressed up, arm in arm with this pale-faced wimp-ass dude with this wimp-ass mustache, and he’s looking uncomfortable, like what the fuck am I doing here? She claims she came by to visit my folks, but I know she’s there to show me she’s doing okay without me. That’s how women are.”
Nichols tapped his upper teeth on his lowers. “Like Mr. Teacher’s gonna impress me. You check him out?”
“You don’t think much of Van Dyne.”
“I got nothing against him, I was happy he had her, maybe he could deal with her.” Nichols smiled. “Or maybe he couldn’t. That’s your job to find out. Now can I go back and earn some bucks?”
“Where were you Monday night, say between 7 and 11 P.M.?”
“Monday? Why? What happened Monday?”
Milo stepped closer. He and Nichols were eye level, their noses inches apart. Nichols’s chin continued to jut, but his eyes flickered, and he flinched.
“Answer the question please, Roy.”
“Monday… I was at my parents’.” The admission made Nichols flush again. This time the color reached his brow. “I’m living there till I find a new place.”
“You’re sure you were there Monday night.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I’m up every day at four-thirty in the morning so I have time to work out and shower and eat a good breakfast and be on the job at six-thirty. I work my ass off all day, come home, lift some more, eat, watch TV, go to sleep by eight-thirty. That’s my swinging life, and I’m cool with it, okay? What I’m not cool with is you coming by and hassling me for no reason. I’ve got no obligation to talk to you, so now I’m going back to work.”
We watched him swagger away.
I said, “And our first nominee in the Mr. Charm contest…”
Milo said, “On the edge.”
“You see him as our bad guy?”
“If his alibis don’t check out, I’d definitely be interested.”
“Flora was killed between midnight and two. He claims a buddy drove him home just after twelve, and his wife woke him at two. That sounds awfully cute, and I didn’t see any mention of it in the file.”
I said, “What if he came home a bit earlier and Lisa woke him up closer to one? She browbeat him, got everything off her chest, and hit the sack, left him furious and frustrated, unable to go back to sleep. He got out of bed, left the house, and drove over to someone else who’d frustrated him. High stress is a trigger for some sexual killers. And plenty of organized types maintain outwardly stable marriages while brutalizing other women.”
“Have a tiff with the wife, take it out on the ex.”
I said, “He seems under lots of stress now. A sexually charged fellow back to living with his parents.”
“Gavin and the blonde,” he said. “A couple about to get it on pushes his button because he’s all pent up sexually.”
“His alibi for Gavin and the blonde is even flimsier because he and his parents don’t share a room. He could’ve easily sneaked out without their knowing. Even if they claim otherwise, they’re his parents.”
Nichols continued toward the framework without looking back. We watched him climb up to the second floor, strap on his tool belt, stretch, and pick up his nail gun. He took another stretch- aiming for casual before pressing the gun to a crossbeam.
Snap snap snap.
Milo said, “Let’s get outta here,” and we returned to the car. He got back on Sepulveda and drove north, toward L.A. The boulevard was crammed and slow. The air- hot, unyielding- seemed to press upon the sides of the unmarked. Lots of stares. Everyone knew it was an unmarked. Even if we’d been in a VW, Milo’s restless eyes would have given him away.
He said, “What I’d like to know is why Lorraine and Al didn’t bother putting Nichols in the murder book.”
“You going to ask her?”
“That’s my way, bub. Open, honest, sincere.”
“That should be fun.”
“Hey,” he said, “I’ll be sensitive.”
He flipped on the police radio, listened to felony calls for a few moments, muttered, “I love this city,” and squelched the volume.
I said, “Even if Nichols is innocent, he gave us useful information.”
“Flora’s sexual problems?”
“Maybe the reason she went for therapy. That would explain her not telling Van Dyne. Now that I think about it, he also described her as not very passionate on the surface. The timing fits: She began treatment after getting dumped by Nichols and before meeting Van Dyne. Nichols claims he was gentlemanly, but I’m sure he was brutally clear about why he was ending the relationship.”
“Mr. Tactful,” he said. “ ‘Hey, bitch, unglue your legs or I’m outta here.’ ”
“Once Flora got over the hurt, maybe she decided she did have a problem. Seeking a woman therapist for a sexual issue makes sense.”
“Koppel does sex therapy, too?”
“There seems to be very little she doesn’t do.”
The light turned red, and he rolled to a stop. A jumbo jet swooped down low on its approach to LAX. When the noise cleared, I said, “Assuming Nichols’s alibis do check out, do you have the stomach for another theory?”
“At this point, I’ll take astrology.”
“As part of treatment, Koppel enouraged Flora to be more assertive and adventurous, and she began taking risks. It’s standard operating procedure in cases like hers.”
“What kind of risks?”
“Striking up conversations with strangers, maybe even getting picked up. And she picked up the wrong guy. Which could lead us right back to the parole office. What if Flora connected with a con? Someone aggressive and hypermacho- someone like Roy Nichols but with no boy-next-door history to rein him in. The murder could’ve been a sexual escapade taken too far. Or Flora changed her mind and paid for it horribly.”
“A Mr. Goodbar thing,” he said. “That girl was a teacher, too… but she was single, had a secret life. Flora was engaged to Van Dyne. And she was dating Van Dyne when she got killed. You saying Ms. Prim stepped out on her fiancé with a felon?”
“If it was a felon, she met him before she began with Van Dyne. I’m saying she could’ve kept another man on the side.”
“Or perhaps Flora broke off with the con after she met Van Dyne, but he wasn’t willing to accept that. There was no sign of forced entry. That could mean someone Flora knew, or an experienced burglar. Or both.”
“Flora told her mother and Van Dyne she hated the job at the parole office because of the lowlifes. You think she was lying?”
“People compartmentalize their lives.”
The light turned green, and we rolled along with the traffic sludge. The sky was brown at the horizon, bleeding to dishwater where the sun struggled through. He fooled with the radio dial again, listened to more police calls, lowered the volume.
“Cheating on Van Dyne with Mr. Bad Boy,” he said. “Or maybe Van Dyne found out something he shouldn’t have and went ballistic. Hell, for all we know, Van Dyne’s not as innocent as he comes across.”
I thought about that. “Flora’s mother implied that Van Dyne was less than manly. That could’ve come from Flora. And his alibi turned out to be no better than Roy’s.”
“So maybe the sexual problems weren’t limited to her. What if Ol’ Brian can’t cut the mustard? That could get a quiet boy plenty frustrated.” He turned up the volume, seemed to be lulled by the nonstop patter of the dispatcher. The traffic swell pitched us forward a few more yards, and he switched abruptly to AM. Tuning in a talk show, he listened to the host berate a caller for admiring the president, lowered the volume yet again.
“Ogden and Al McKinley didn’t include Nichols in the file, but they spent two days questioning him. Sweet old Brian didn’t even get that… but what the hell, it’s not even my case. Unless it ties in to Gavin and the blonde.”
He returned to the talk show. The host was berating a caller for not taking personal responsibility for her obesity. He cut her off and on came a commercial for an herbal weight-loss concoction.
He said, “What do you think of these shows?”
“The exuberance of free speech,” I said. “And bad manners. You a fan?”
“Nah, I get enough nastiness on the job, but according to today’s paper, our girl Mary Lou’s scheduled to be on in an hour.”
“Really,” I said. “You going to listen?”
“I believe in continuing education.”
Milo went to talk to Lorraine Ogden while I sat at his desk and reviewed the Gavin Quick murder book. Nothing new. I turned to the Flora Newsome file.
No progress there, either. Milo returned five minutes letter, red-faced, shaking his head.
I relinquished his chair, but he perched on the desk edge, stretched his legs, loosened his tie. “My sensitivity failed. I brought up Nichols and she told me she’d worked the hell out of the case and I had no business second-guessing her. She said I should stick to my own case, the more she thought about it, they weren’t that similar after all, keep her out of it. Then she shoved this in my face.”
He handed me a crumpled piece of paper that I smoothed. Ballistics report from the crime lab, stamped PRIORITY and initialed by Detective L. L. Ogden. Comparisons between the.22 used to kill Gavin and the blonde and the gun that had terminated Flora’s life. A tech named Nishiyama had signed off on the test.
Similar weapons, probably cheap, imported semiautomatics, but no match.
“With a cheapie,” I said, “you could use one, toss it, get another.”
“Anything’s possible, but a match would’ve been a helluva lot nicer. Now I’ve pissed off a colleague and gotten no closer to a solve.”
“She’s a D-II, you’re a lieutenant. I thought the lines of authority were clearer.”
“In title only. My lack of administrative duties cuts both ways, everyone knows I’ve got no juice.” He rifled though his messages. “Looks like no luck yet on the blonde…” His eyes shifted to his Timex. “Koppel’s on the air.”
He switched on his desk radio and tuned in the talk station. Another host, same level of derision. A rant about racial profiling; this guy hated it.
Milo said, “Sure, let’s inspect Grandma’s shoes at the airport while Mr. Hamas waltzes through.”
The host said, “Okay, folks, this is Tom Curlie at the top of the hour, and we’ve got a hot guest coming any minute. Dr. Mary Lou Koppel, noted psychiatrist, and anyone who listens to the show knows she’s been on before and knows she’s smart… and anyone who doesn’t listen, who the hell needs you heh-heh… today we’ll be talking about… what’s that… my engineer, the ever-charismatic Gary is informing me that Dr. Mary Lou Koppel is running late… better do something about the punctuality, Doc. Maybe see a psychiatrist heh-heh-heh… meanwhile let’s talk about car insurance. Have you ever been rear-ended by one of those lunatics who seem to be everywhere like invaders from outer space? You know what I’m talking about: space-outs, cell-phone freaks, and just plain lousy dri-vers. Has one of them bendered your fender? Or worse? Then you know the value of good insurance, and Low-Ball Insurance is the best value around…”
Milo said, “Koppel’s a psychologist, not a psychiatrist.”
“Why let facts get in the way?”
Tom Curlie finished his spiel and segued to a prerecorded commercial for do-it-yourself legal forms. Then a woman with a sultry voice reported on the weather and freeway traffic.
Another commercial came on- Tom Curlie rhapsodizing about something called a Divine Mochalicious that could be had at any branch of CafeCafe, then he said, “The enigmatic yet pedestrian Gary is informing me that Dr. Mary Lou Koppel, our psychiatric guest, has still not arrived at the studio and that said headshrinker cannot be reached on her cell phone. Tsk, tsk, Mary Lou. You are now officially off the privileged roster that makes up guests on the Tom Curlie show because Tom Curlie stands for punctuality and personal responsibility and all the other virtues that have made this country great. Even though this country, in a lapse of judgment, elected a president who don’t talk good… okay, who needs her, folks? Let’s talk about psychiatrists and why they’re so doggone nuts themselves. I mean, is that just my imagination, or are they all just a little bit off? So what’s that all about, gang? Someone becoming a headshrinker because her own head’s too doggone big for her own good? Or is it a matter of a rotten childhood heh-heh-heh? How do you guys feel about that, c’mon, call and let me know at 1 888 TOM CURLIE. Here we go, those lines are lighting up and my first call is Fred from Downey. Hey, Fred. Had your head shrunk lately?”
“Hey, Tom. First of all I wanna tell you that I listen to you every day, and that you’re really coo-”
“Excellent judgment, Fred, but what about those psychiatrists- those head docs, those voodoo incantators, those shrinks? Think they’re rowing with one paddle, blinking with one eye, suffering from brain freeze, dancing with shadows in the hall of mirrors? Is that what it boils down to, Fred? They become shrinks because they need to get shrunk?”
“Well, Tom, as a matter of fact, Tom, I know about those people. It was just about twelve years ago that I was sitting out under the stars minding my own business and they abducted me and implanted these electrodes in my-”
Milo flicked off the radio.
“Civilization and its discontents,” I said.
“Malcontents is more like it. Maybe Lorraine’s right, and I should keep focused on Gavin. I’m gonna call the kids who were in the crash with him, see what that dredges up. Also, see if I can have a go with the girlfriend- Kayla Bartell- without her old man hovering.”
“Still planning to reinterview Koppel?”
“That, too.” He settled in his chair. “She’s obviously not in her office, or that idiot could’ve contacted her. Let me make some calls first, then how about we drop by in two hours? Or later, if that cramps your style.”
“Two’s fine. Want me to try to talk to Kayla?”
“If you saw her on the street, I’d say fine,” he said. “But what with it being B.H. and the father so uptight, we’d better stick to protocol.”
“Visits limited to an official police presence.”
“Such as it is.”
I drove home listening to Tom Curlie. Mary Lou Koppel never showed up, and Curlie didn’t mention her again. He alternated between commercials and call-ins from sad, angry listeners, then brought on his next guest- a personal injury lawyer who specialized in suing fast-food chains for racial discrimination and brewing their coffee too hot.
Curlie said, “I don’t know about all that, Bill, but as far as I’m concerned, you can jail ’em for just plain lousy food.”
Instead of heading home, I continued on to Beverly Hills and drove past the Quick house. The same white minivan occupied the driveway, but the baby Benz was gone. The drapes were closed, and the day’s mail had collected on the front step. A gardener pruned a hedge. An anorexic woman walked by with a black Chow on leash. The dog looked drugged. A block and a half up, traffic zipped by on Wilshire. A family had been torn apart, but the world kept spinning.
I turned the Seville around, aimed it north through the business district, entered the Flats, cruised by the Bartell mansion. In daylight, the house was even more outsized, square and white as a fresh bar of soap. The fencing looked like a prison barrier. The four-car garage doors were closed but a red Jeep Grand Cherokee idled just inside the electric gates.
I parked and watched from across the street as the gates opened and Kayla Bartell sped through. She was on her cell phone and turned right without checking for cross traffic and sped toward Santa Monica Boulevard. She talked nonstop, animatedly, on a cell phone, with no idea I was following as she rolled through the stop sign at Elevado and ran the one at Carmelita. Without signaling, she hung a risky left turn on Santa Monica and continued east, one hand still grasping the phone. The other steered, and sometimes she removed it to gesticulate and swerved into other lanes. For the most part, motorists kept their distance from her, until another young woman in a Porsche Boxster honked and flipped her off.
Kayla ignored her, kept gabbing, weaved her way to Canon Drive, drove south, and parked in the service alley behind the Umberto hair salon. A valet held open the driver’s door, and Kayla sprang out wearing a lacy black midriff top, black leather pants, and high-heeled boots. On her head was a silver lamé baseball cap. Her blond ponytail protruded through the adjusting band.
No tip for the valet, just a smile. Someone had told her that was enough.
She entered the salon with a bounce in her step.
“Two-hundred-dollar haircut,” said Milo. “Ah, youth.”
We were in the Seville, and I was driving east on Olympic, toward Mary Lou Koppel’s office.
I said, “You reach the boys who were in the accident?”
“Both of them, and they back up what the Quicks told us. Gavin was in the back, sandwiched between them. When the car hit the mountain, they were belted and got jostled from side to side. But the impact squeezed Gavin forward, and he hit his head on the driver’s seat. He shot out like a banana out of a peel, one described it. Both said Gavin was a good guy but that he’d changed big-time. Stopped being social, withdrew from them. I asked if he’d slowed down mentally, and they hesitated. Not wanting to put him down. When I persisted they admitted he’d dulled. Just wasn’t the same guy.”
“Anything about obsessive behavior?”
“No, but they hadn’t seen him for a while. They were pretty shook-up about his being murdered. Neither had any clue who’d want to hurt him, and they didn’t know about any blonde he’d dated other than Kayla. Who one of them called ‘a spoiled little witch.’ ”
“The anonymous blonde,” I said.
“I called the TV stations,” he said, “asked if they’d run the death shot. They said no, too scary, but if I got an artist’s rendition that toned it down, they might. If airtime permitted. I sent a copy of the photo to one of our sketchers, we’ll see. Maybe the papers would run the actual photo. Grant the poor kid her fifteen seconds of fame.”
“Too scary,” I said. “Are they watching the same tube I am?”
He laughed. “The media talk about public service, but they’re out to sell commercial time. Alex, it was like pitching a story to some showbiz asshole. What’s in it for memememe- okay, here we are, why don’t you circle around to the back, see if Mary Lou’s Mercedes is there?”
It wasn’t, but we parked anyway and went into the building.
The door to the Pacifica-West Psychological Services suite was unlocked. This time, the waiting room wasn’t empty. A tall woman in her forties paced and wrung her hands. She wore a gray leotard set, white athletic socks, pink Nikes, had long legs, a tiny upper body, short, black, feathered hair combed forward. Her eyes were blue and sunken and pouched and too bright, her face was glossy and raw, the color of canned salmon. Skin flaked around her hairline and ears; recent skin-peel. Her expression said she was used to being mistreated but was learning to resent it. She ignored us and continued pacing.
All three call buttons were red.
Drs. Gull, Koppel, and Larsen healing souls.
Milo said, “I wonder when her session ends.”
The black-haired woman kept walking, and said, “If you’re talking about Dr. K, take a number. My appointment was supposed to start twenty minutes ago.” She crossed the office twice, picked at her scalp, stopped to investigate the magazines on a table. Selecting Modern Health, she leafed through the issue, kept it folded at her side as she paced some more. “Twenty-three minutes. She’d better have an emergency.”
Milo said, “She’s usually pretty punctual.”
The woman stopped and turned. Her face was stretched tight yet drawn. Fear scalded her eyes, as if she’d stared at an eclipse. “You’re not patients.”
“We’re not?” said Milo, keeping his voice light.
“No, no, no, no. You look like- why are you here?”
He shrugged, unbuttoned his jacket. “We’re just waiting to talk to Dr. Koppel, ma’a-”
“Well, you can’t!” the woman shouted. “I’m next! I need to see her!”
Milo glanced at me. Begging for help.
“Absolutely,” I said. “It’s your time. We’ll leave, come back later.”
“No!” she said. “I mean… you don’t have to, I don’t own this place, I’m not entitled to assert myself at that level.” She blinked back tears. “I just want to have my time. My own time, that’s not overly narcissistic, is it?”
“Not at all.”
“My ex-husband claims I’m an incurable narcissist.”
“Exes,” I said.
She stared at me, probing for sincerity. I must have passed because she smiled. Said, “It’s okay for you to sit down.”
The waiting room remained silent for another fifteen minutes. For the first five, the woman read her magazine. Then she introduced herself as Bridget. Returned her eyes to the pages, but her heart wasn’t in it. A pulse throbbed in her temple, conspicuous enough for me to see from across the room. Racing. Her hands clasped and unclasped, and her head bobbed from the magazine to the red buttons. Finally, she said, “I don’t understand!”
I said, “Let’s call her. Her service will pick up, and maybe they can tell us if she’s got an emergency.”
“Yes,” said Bridget. “Yes, that’s a good plan.”
Milo whipped out his phone, Bridget rattled off the number, and he punched it. What a team.
He said, “Dr. Koppel, please… Mr. Sturgis, she knows me… what’s that? You’re sure? ’Cause I’m right here in her waiting room, and her session light’s on…”
He clicked off.
Bridget said, “What, what?”
“Her service says she didn’t check in this morning the way she usually does, and they have no idea where she is. She had two early patients before her radio interview, missed them, too.”
Bridget cried out: “Damn her! That’s fucking narcissistic!”
Snatching her purse, she raced to the door, swung it open, slammed it behind her. The silence she left behind was sour.
“I think,” said Milo, “that I prefer my job to yours.”
Five minutes later, he was pounding the door to the inner offices. A muffled man’s voice said what might have been, “Hold on!” and the door opened a crack. The eyes that looked out at us were pale brown and down-slanted behind octagonal bifocals. Analytic. Not amused.
“What’s going on?” Well-modulated voice, tinged by a Nordic inflection. What I could see of his face was smooth and ruddy, the chin melting into soft flesh. A chin coated by a clipped, gray-blond goatee. Centering the beard was a prim, narrow mouth.
“Police,” said Milo. “We’re looking for Dr. Koppel.”
“Police? So you pound the door?” Calm voice- almost amused, despite the irritation.
“Dr. Larsen. I’m in the midst of seeing a patient and would prefer that you leave. Why are you looking for Mary Lou?”
“I’d rather not discuss that, sir.”
Albin Larsen blinked. “Suit yourself.” He began to close the door. Milo caught it.
“Her session light is on,” said Milo, “but she’s not in.”
The door opened wider, and Larsen stepped out. He was five-ten, in his midfifties, upholstered by an extra fifteen pounds, wore his whitening hair in a longish crew cut. A green, hand-crocheted, sleeveless vest sheathed a pale blue button-down shirt. His khakis were pressed and pleated, his bubble-topped brown shoes polished glossy.
He took a long moment to look us over. “Not in? How would you know that?”
Milo recounted his conversation with the service operator.
“Ah,” said Larsen. He smiled. “That doesn’t mean anything. Dr. Koppel could have been called in to the office because of a patient crisis and simply neglected to check with her service.”
“A crisis here in the office?”
“Our profession is rife with crisis.”
“Frequently enough,” said Larsen. “Now I suggest that the best way for us to deal with this situation is for you to leave your card, and I’ll make sure-”
“Have you seen her today, Doctor?”
“I wouldn’t have. I’ve been booked clear through since 8 A.M. So is Franco- Dr. Gull. We all have very full schedules and try to stagger our patients in order to avoid a logjam in the waiting room.” Larsen tugged at his shirtsleeve, exposed a pink-gold vintage Rolex. “In fact, my next appointment is in ten minutes, and I’ve left a patient waiting in my office, which is grossly unfair and unprofessional. So kindly leave your card, and-”
Milo said, “Why don’t we check to see if Dr. Koppel’s in her office?”
Albin Larsen began to fold his arms over his chest but stopped himself. “That would be inappropriate.”
“Otherwise, I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait right here, Dr. Larsen.”
Larsen’s prim mouth got even smaller. “I believe that if you pause to reflect, sir, you’ll find you are being heavy-handed.”
“No doubt,” said Milo. He sat down and picked up the copy of Modern Health discarded by the face-peeled woman.
Larsen turned to me, as if hoping for reason. I looked at the carpet.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll go check.”
He stepped back into the inner hallway and shut the door. Seconds later, he returned, expressionless.
“She’s not there. I don’t understand it, however I’m sure there’s an explanation. Now, really, I must return to my patient. If you insist on staying here, please don’t create a commotion.”
“Now that,” said Milo, as we left the building, “is what I call a shrink. Unflappable, soft-spoken, analyzing everything.”
“I don’t qualify?”
“You, my friend, are an aberration.”
“Too damn human. Let’s check out Dr. K’s residence. Have time?”
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s see how the real shrinks live.”
Motor vehicle records put Mary Lou Koppel’s address on McConnell Drive, in Cheviot Hills.
I drove west, past Century City and south to Pico, continued half a mile past Rancho Park and the radar gun of a stone-faced motorcycle cop. Milo waved at the officer, but he didn’t return the gesture. McConnell was a lovely street, hilly and winding and, unlike the horticulturally regimented arteries of Beverly Hills, graced by an adventurous mix of street trees.
Koppel’s house was a two-story brick Tudor set high on a knoll above thirty stone steps. The steep driveway would have been a challenge for a car with a puny engine. No sign of the Mercedes, but the garage door was closed.
Milo said, “Maybe she was more scared of two murders in her practice than she let on and decided to take a little vacation.”
“With no advance notice to her patients?”
“Fear can do that to you.” He eyed the climb. “Okay, pass the pitons and let’s start the climb. How’re your CPR skills?”
He trudged up first, muttering, “At least there’s a view,” and I followed two steps behind. He was huffing and gasping by the time we got to the top.
“With… this,” he panted, “she… doesn’t need… a… damnhomegym.”
Up close, the house was beautifully kept, windows sparkling, copper gutters spotless, carved oak door freshly varnished. Plantings of ferns and elephant ear and papyrus and white roses softened the used-brick front. A stone pot of mixed herbs bathed the covered entrance in fragrance. A multitrunk jacaranda formed the centerpiece of the tiny, perfect lawn. Between its branches was an eastern panorama: the L.A. basin and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. Despite the smog blanket, staggering. As Milo rang the bell, I stared out at miles of terrain and thought what I always think: way too big for one city.
No one answered. He tried again, knocked, said, “With her car gone, no big surprise, but let’s be thorough.”
We walked around the left side of the house to a small square of backyard dominated by a lap pool and more thick planting. High ficus hedging on three sides prevented scrutiny by the neighbors. The pool was gray-bottomed and immaculate. A covered patio covered a brick barbecue with a built-in chimney, outdoor furniture, potted flowers. A hummingbird feeder dangled from a crossbeam, and, off in a corner, a miniature fountain- a bamboo spout tipping into a tiny barrel- burbled prettily.
The rear wall was a bank of French doors. Three sets were blocked by drapes. One wasn’t and Milo went over and peered in.
“Oh my,” he said.
I went over to have a look.
The back room was set up with white leather sofas, glass side tables, an oak-and-granite wet bar, and a five-foot-wide plasma TV with accompanying stereo gizmos. The TV was tuned to a game show. Ecstatic contestants jumped as if on trampolines. Great color and definition.
Off to the left side, Mary Lou Koppel slumped on one of the sofas, facing us, her back to the screen. Her limbs were splayed, and her head was thrown back, mouth gaping, eyes staring at the vaulted ceiling.
Staring sightlessly. Something long and silver protruded from her chest, and her color belonged to nothing living.
All around her, white leather was blotched rusty red.
We remained outside as Milo called in the techies, the coroner, and two black-and-whites for sentry work. In twenty minutes, the scene was bustling.
The coroner was an Asian woman who spoke little English and slipped away without conferring. The coroner’s investigator, a heavy, gray-mustachioed man named Arnold Mattingly, emerged and said, “Cho says she’s all yours, Milo.”
Milo frowned. “She’s gone?”
“She’s busier than we’ll ever be,” said Mattingly. “Lots of bodies piled up at the morgue.”
“She give you any prelim?”
“Looks like stabbed in the chest with a letter opener, shot through the head. I know you like to draw your own DB chart, but if you want a copy of mine, I’ll xerox it.”
“Thanks, Arnie. Which came first, the stabbing or the shooting?”
“Not for me to guess, and Cho isn’t talking much today.” Mattingly cupped his hand but kept his voice loud. “Her husband left her.”
“Shame,” said Milo.
“Nice lady,” said Mattingly. “It really is. Anyway, you want to know my opinion, there was mucho blood around the knife wound. Copious, as they say. And just a little tiny trickle around the bullet hole, more plasma than red stuff.”
“Her heart was pumping hard when she got stabbed.”
“If I was a betting man,” said Mattingly.
“From the looks of it. Koppel, she’s that psychologist, right?”
“You know her, Arnie?”
“My wife listens to her when she’s on the radio. Says she talks common sense. I say if it’s that common, why do people have to pay her?” He shook his head. “The wife’ll have a fit when I tell her- it’s okay to tell her, right?”
“Go for it,” said Milo. “Call the networks for all I care. Any other ideas?”
Mattingly said, “What, this is guess day?”
“It’s a crappy day. I’m open to suggestions.”
“Humble civil servant like me.” Mattingly scratched his head. “My guess would be her line of work, maybe she got on the wrong side of some crazy person.” He seemed to notice me for the first time. “That make sense, Doc?”
Mattingly grinned. “That’s what I love about my job. I get to make sense. Then when I get home, I’m an idiot.” He collected his gear and left.
I said, “Call the networks. Maybe this is the hook you need.”
It took a while for the techies to finish printing the house, searching for shoe imprints, blood or other body fluids in remote rooms, signs of forced entry or struggle.
No prints on the letter opener. Nothing else revelatory except for the obvious fact that the opener, antique, bone-handled, with a sterling silver shaft, had come from the desk set in Mary Lou Koppel’s home office.
When the house cleared, Milo began the demeaning rummage that murder victims undergo.
A search of the medicine cabinet in Koppel’s private bathroom produced the usual toiletries along with birth control pills, a diaphragm and condoms (“Careful gal”), OTC allergy medicine, a salve for yeast infections, Tylenol, Advil, Pepto-Bismol, and physician samples of the sleeping pill Ambien.
“All that advice for everyone else, and she has trouble sleeping,” said Milo. “Something on her mind?”
Her bedroom was a cozy, soft-edged study in sage green and salmon. The quilted spread on the bed was tucked tight, the room perfectly composed.
Milo rifled through a closet filled with red and black. In dresser drawers he found sleepwear that ranged from sensible flannel to skimpy pieces from the Hustler Emporium. He held up a pair of crotchless panties in faux leopard skin.
“You don’t buy this for yourself. Wonder who her love interest is.”
At the bottom of the underwear drawer, he found a silver vibrator nestled in a velvet bag.
“All kinds of love,” he muttered.
I hadn’t liked Mary Lou Koppel much, but exposing the archaeology of her life was depressing.
We left the bedroom and headed back to the office so that Milo could sift through her papers. It didn’t take long for things to get interesting.
Like the rest of the house, the study was tidy. A squared stack of papers sat atop the dainty French revival desk, weighed down by a red crystal paperweight shaped like a rose. Just off center, next to a gilded leather blotter and below the sterling desk set from which the murder weapon had been lifted.
Milo attacked the drawers first, found Mary Lou Koppel’s financial records and tax forms and a stack of correspondence from people who’d tuned in to her media interviews and had strong opinions, pro and con.
Those he bundled together and stashed in an evidence envelope.
He said, “She declared 260 grand a year from treating patients, another 60 from public appearances and investments. Not too shabby.”
Court documents in a bottom drawer summarized a divorce twenty-two years ago.
“The husband was some guy named Edward Michael Koppel,” he said, running his finger along lines of print. “At the time the papers were filed he was a law student at the U… irreconcilable differences, splitting of assets… the marriage lasted less than two years, no kids… onward.”
He returned to the desktop, removed the rose-shaped paperweight, took hold of the paper stack.
On top was Gavin Quick’s chart.
It didn’t take Milo long to finish reading it, and when he did his jaw was tight and his shoulders were bunched.
He thrust it at me.
Mary Lou Koppel had written out a detailed intake for her treatment of Gavin Quick, but her subsequent notes were sketchy.
The intake said enough.
Gavin hadn’t come to her because of posttraumatic stress due to his accident. He’d been assigned to therapy by an Orange County judge. Alternative sentencing after being convicted four months ago of stalking a Tustin woman named Beth Gallegos.
Gallegos had been an occupational therapist at St. John’s Hospital, where she’d treated Gavin after his injury. According to Koppel’s notes, Gavin had become pathologically attached to her, leading Gallegos to transfer his care to another therapist. Gavin persisted in his attempts to date her, phoning her at home, sometimes two dozen times a night, then extending his attempts to early-morning wake-up calls in which he wept and proclaimed his love for her.
He wrote Beth Gallegos long amorous notes and mailed them with gifts of jewelry and perfume. For every day of one manic week, he had two dozen roses delivered to St. John’s.
When Beth Gallegos quit and took a job at a rehabilitation clinic in Long Beach, Gavin managed to find her, and his overtures resumed.
Knowing about his head injury, Gallegos was loath to prosecute, but when he showed up at her apartment in the middle of the night, banged on the door, and insisted she let him in, she called the police. Gavin was arrested for disturbing the peace, but the cops told Gallegos if she wanted a more serious charge, she needed to get a restraining order.
She bargained with Gavin’s parents: If he ceased, she’d drop the issue.
Gavin agreed, but a week later the phone calls started up again. Beth Gallegos obtained the order, and when Gavin violated it by waiting in the parking lot at the Long Beach clinic, he was busted for felony stalking.
Because of his accident, he was allowed to plead down to a misdemeanor harassment charge contingent upon seeking psychiatric help. His attorney requested and was granted the opportunity to suggest a therapist. With no objection from the D.A., the court assented, and Gavin was referred to Franco Gull, Ph.D.
Koppel noted that she’d informed the court of the transfer from Gull to her.
Covering the legal bases.
“Pt. has poor insight,” she wrote, at the end of the intake. “Fails to see what he did wrong. Possib. Rel. to head injury. Tx will emphasize insight and respect for personal boundaries.”
I gave the file back to Milo.
He was cracking his knuckles, and his thick, black eyebrows dipped toward anger-compressed eyes.
“Nice,” he said. “No one thinks to tell me.”
“The Quicks wouldn’t want Gavin’s memory fouled. Given that and the trauma of Gavin’s murder, I wouldn’t be surprised if they ‘forgot.’ ”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the goddamn Orange County D.A.? The goddamn court? Goddamn Dr. Mary Lou? The kid gets killed, and no one thinks to tell me he got weird less than half a year ago and made someone very, very unhappy?”
“The murder didn’t hit the news.”
“I’ve sent teletypes and requests for info on the blonde to every local jurisdiction, including Tustin PD, and Gavin’s name is all over it. No doubt it’s sitting in some goddamn in-basket.”
He tried to crack more knuckles, produced silence. “If the public only knew… okay, the kid was a stalker, it’s a whole new game.”
“How would that relate to Koppel’s murder?” I said. “Or Flora Newsome?”
“Hell if I know!” he shouted.
I kept quiet.
“Sorry,” he said. “Koppel probably died because of something she knew about Gavin. What that is, I don’t have a clue, but it’s got to be that. In terms of Newsome, it’s looking like Lorraine was right, and I made too much of the similarities between the cases, not enough of the differences.”
He bagged the file, paged through the rest of the stack, muttered, “Bills, subscription forms, junk,” and replaced it on the desk.
“I actually volunteered for this,” he said.
I thought: You need the challenge. Said nothing.
“For now,” he said, “Newsome stays Lorraine’s problem; I’m sticking to my boy Gavin. And all the complications he’s wrought. The crazy little bastard.”
Mary Lou Koppel’s murder hit the news in the usual way: lots of heat, no light, a bit of filler for the papers, a few paragraphs for the perky scripts read by bright-eyed TV smilers who fancied themselves journalists. Lacking much in the way of forensic details, the newsfolk made much of the victim’s incursion into their territory. The adjectives “savvy” and “media-smart” were bandied about with the usual relish reserved for clichés.
By the next day, the story was dead.
Milo went through channels and asked LAPD’s communications office to get the blond girl’s face some media exposure. The hook he presented was the possibility of a bigger story than two kids getting shot up on Mulholland: the link between those killings and Koppel’s. The PR cops questioned his grounds for that claim, said no way would TV stations run a morgue shot of a genuine dead person, said they were swamped with all kinds of requests for exposure from other detectives, promised they’d look into it.
I got to his office shortly after he did, sat there as he struggled out of his jacket, which seemed to be strangling him. The effort left his tie askew and shirt untucked. He sat on the edge of his desk, read a message slip, punched an extension on his desk phone. “Sean? Come in.”
I said, “Anything new on Koppel?”
“Oh. Hi. Coroner estimates time of death some time last night or early morning. No forced entry, no reports of strange vehicles in the neighborhood.”
“What about the gunshot?”
“The neighbors to the north are in Europe. To the south is a woman in her nineties under the care of a nurse. The nurse hears fine, but they both sleep in the old lady’s room, and there’s a humidifier and an air filter blowing, which blocks out anything short of a nuclear blast.” He laughed. “It’s like the gods are conspiring. You have any fresh insights?”
Before I could answer, a tall, red-haired man in his late twenties knocked on the door frame. He wore a four-button gray suit, dark blue shirt, dark blue tie. Doc Martens on his feet. His hair was cut short, and freckles speckled his brow and cheeks. He was loose-limbed and built like a point guard, had the rounded, baby-faced look you see on some redheads.
“Hey,” said Milo.
“Lieutenant.” Small salute.
“Alex, this is Detective Sean Binchy. Sean, Dr. Alex Delaware, our psych consultant.”
Binchy remained in the doorway and extended his hand. The room was small enough for us to shake that way.
“Sean’s gonna be helping me on Koppel.” To Binchy: “Any news on her family?”
“Both parents are dead, Lieut. I found an aunt in Fairfield, Connecticut, but she hadn’t seen Dr. Koppel in years. Quote-unquote: ‘After Mary Lou moved to California, she wanted nothing to do with any of us.’ She did say the family would probably pay for the funeral, send them the bill.”
“No one’s coming out?”
Sean Binchy shook his head. “They’re pretty much detached from her. Kind of sad. In terms of the ex-husband, he’s here. In L.A. I mean. But he’s not a lawyer. He’s into real estate.” He pulled out a notepad. “Encino. I left a message, but so far he hasn’t gotten back. I thought I’d do more on the neighborhood canvass near Dr. Koppel’s house, then try again.”
“Sounds good,” said Milo.
“Anything else you need, Lieut?”
“No, finishing the canvass is a good idea. Still nothing from the neighbors?”
“Sorry, no,” said Binchy. “Seems like it was a quiet night in Cheviot Hills.”
“Okay, Sean. Thanks. Sayonara.”
“See you, Loot. Nice to meet you, Doc.”
When Binchy was gone, Milo said, “His former occupation was, get this: bass player in a ska band. Then he got born-again and decided being a cop was the way he’d serve the Lord. He cut his hair and let his pierces close up and scored in the top ten percent of his academy class. This is the new blue generation.”
“He seems like a nice kid,” I said.
“He’s smart enough, maybe a little on the concrete side- A to B to C. We’ll see if he learns how to be creative.” He grinned. “ ‘Loot.’ Too much TV… so far he hasn’t brought up the born-again stuff, but I can’t help feel one day he’s going to try to save me. Bottom line is I can’t juggle Gavin and the blonde and Koppel all by myself, and he’s a good worker ant… so, any thoughts since yesterday?”
“Koppel brought Gavin’s chart home, had it at the top of her stack,” I said. “She brushed off two murders in her practice as a statistical quirk, but it bothered her, and she went back to review her notes. The fact that Newsome’s chart wasn’t there means she was probably telling the truth about shredding it.”
“Not a lot of notes on Gavin to review.”
“Maybe the intake was enough. In it, she detailed Gavin’s legal problems. What if she tied his murder to the Gallegos stalking? Came up with a suspect, voiced her suspicions to someone, and got killed for her efforts?”
“She voiced her suspicion directly to the bad guy? She’d be stupid enough to confront him?”
“She might have if he was her patient,” I said. “If she suspected someone in her caseload, she’d be reluctant to violate confidentiality and go straight to you.”
“Back to the nut-in-the-waiting-room theory.”
“It’s also possible that she wasn’t sure, just suspicious. So she discussed it with him.”
“Foolhardy,” he said.
“Therapy’s a lopsided relationship. Despite all the talk of a partnership, the patient’s needy and dependent, and the therapist has wisdom to grant. It’s easy to overestimate your personal power. Mary Lou was a strong personality to begin with. And she got caught up in the media game, convinced herself she was an expert on everything. Maybe she got overconfident, felt she could convince him to give himself up.”
“Talk about an ego trip, if she succeeded.”
“Psychologist solves multiple murders,” I said. “Talk about public relations.”
He thought about that for a long time. “One of her patients is a very bad guy.”
“No forced entry,” I said. “Someone she knew and let into the house. It’s worth looking into.”
“I can’t get hold of her patient records.”
“Her partners might know something.”
“They’re shrinks, too, Alex. Same confidentiality restriction.”
“I’m not sure of the legal issues; but if the bad guy isn’t officially their patient, they might be okay talking about him in general terms.”
“Sounds like legal precedent to me,” he said. “What the hell, it’s worth a shot.” He phoned information, got numbers for Drs. Larsen and Gull, and left messages to call him.
I said, “How’s it going with the prints from Koppel’s house?”
“There are so damn many, the print guys are figuring at least a week. One thing they did tell me: not a single print near the body. At least a ten-foot radius had been wiped clean. A psych patient who’s meticulous. Not an overt nutcase, right?”
“Not even close to nuts,” I said.
He flipped open the murder book that had been opened on Mary Lou Koppel. “Ballistics faxed a report this morning. The.22 used to shoot her was similar but not identical to either the Gavin Quick or the Flora Newsome guns. Even discounting Flora, we’ve got two separate weapons for two murders. This is some guy with easy access to cheapies, knows his way around the street.”
“An experienced con,” I said. “The kind Flora Newsome could’ve met on the job.”
“Would a guy like that go into therapy?”
“If he had to. Look at Gavin Quick.”
His eyes widened. “Alternative sentencing. Someone who had to get shrunk. And that gives me a way to get around the goddamn confidentiality. Go through court records, see if any judges assigned any other patients to Koppel.”
He slumped. “Huge job.”
“Narrow it down to a year or two and put your worker ant on it.”
“I will,” he said. “I will definitely do that. It’s also time to talk to Mr. and Mrs. Quick again, find out about their boy’s problem, if he harassed anyone else. So far all I get is their answering machine. I called the D.A. who prosecuted Gavin and the defense attorney. No help at all from them, just another case. I also recontacted Gavin’s two friends from the accident, and they had no idea he stalked Beth Gallegos or anyone else. On the intake Koppel did for the court, she said Gavin’s obsession could be related to brain damage. What do you think?”
“Another form of obsessive behavior,” I said. “Sure, it could be consistent with a prefrontal injury. The other thing to consider is that the vindictive boyfriend wasn’t the blonde’s. He’s Beth Gallegos’s beau. What if Gavin broke the terms of his probation and resumed stalking?”
“So the guy stalks Gavin in return, offs him and the blonde? And Koppel?”
“No accounting for passion,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s visit the object of Gavin’s passion.”
Phone work revealed that Beth Gallegos had switched jobs again, from the Long Beach clinic to a private educational therapy firm in Westwood.
“Westwood’s close to Beverly Hills,” I said, as we drove there. “If Gavin was still stalking her, I doubt she’d have chanced it.”
“Let’s find out.”
Beth Gallegos was gorgeous. That did nothing to explain Gavin’s obsession- stalking is psychopathology, and plain people are victimized as often as lookers- it was simply a fact.
Petite and black-haired and dusky-skinned, she wore a pale blue uniform cut for blandness that couldn’t conceal her tiny waist, flaring hips, and bountiful breasts. Her eyes were amber, her lashes long and curling. Twenty-seven years old, she wore no makeup and looked eighteen. A clean, fresh eighteen. Her nails were unpolished and clipped short. The black hair, sleek and wavy, was tied back in a ponytail and fastened by a rubber band.
Aiming for low-key. Her perfect-oval face and cameo features and lush body rendered the effort useless.
She was uncomfortable talking to us in the lobby of the educational service, and we took the elevator down to the ground-floor coffee shop. A young waitress approached us with a smile, but even though Milo smiled back, something in his greeting wiped the joy from her face.
Beth Gallegos ordered tea, and Milo and I had Cokes. When the order came, he pressed a bill into the waitress’s palm. She left quickly and never reappeared.
Gallegos had been edgy since we’d shown up, and Milo tried to put her at ease with chitchat about her job. The outfit she worked for was called Comprehensive Rehab and specialized in stroke victims. Her job was to help patients regain fine motor skills. She found the challenge satisfying.
Milo said, “Sounds like it would be.”
Gallegos fumbled with her teacup and avoided our eyes.
“Let’s talk about Gavin Quick,” said Milo. “Have you heard what happened to him?”
“Yes. I read it in the paper. It was horrible. I cried.” She had a slightly nasal, little-girl voice and narrow hands with smooth fingers. A diamond chip ring banded the third finger of her left hand.
More than a boyfriend.
“You cried,” said Milo.
“I did. I felt terrible. Despite what Gavin put me through. Because I knew what he’d been through. Knew it was the CHI making him do it.”
“Closed head injury,” I said.
Beth Gallegos nodded and spooned sugar into her tea but didn’t drink. “CHIs are weird that way. Sometimes nothing shows up on scans, but people change drastically. I’m sure Gavin wouldn’t have done those things if he hadn’t been injured.”
“You’ve had other brain-damaged stalkers?” said Milo.
Gallegos’s hand flew to her mouth. “No, God forbid I should ever go through that more than once. I’m just saying the brain controls everything, and when it’s compromised, you get problems. That’s why I did everything I could to avoid making it a criminal situation for Gavin.” Her eyes got wet.
“The way I see it, ma’am, he left you no choice.”
“That’s what everyone told me.”
“Your family local?”
“No,” she said. “My parents live in Germany. My father’s a captain in the Army. At first, I didn’t tell them what was going on because I knew how my dad would react.”
“For sure he’d have gotten himself a leave, flown right over, and had a stern talk with Gavin. Once he did find out, I had a hard time convincing him not to do exactly that. That’s part of what led me to file charges. I had to assure Dad I was taking care of myself. But I had to do it, no matter what. It was just getting too intense, and Gavin obviously needed help.”
“You never told your family, but they found out.”
“My sister told them. She lives in Tucson and I confided in her and made her promise not to tell.” She smiled. “Of course, she didn’t listen to me. Which I understand, I’m not mad. We’re close, she had my best interests at heart.”
“Anyone else tell you to file charges?”
“What do you mean?”
Milo looked at her ring.
Beth Gallegos said, “He wasn’t my fiancé, then. Actually, we started dating right before I filed charges.”
Milo tried to put warmth in his smile. “What’s the lucky young man’s name?”
“When’s the big day?”
“Fall.” Gallegos’s dark eyes picked up some wattage. “Lieutenant, why all these questions about me and my family?”
“I need to tie up loose ends.”
“Loose ends? Lieutenant, please don’t get me involved. I really can’t go through it again- please.”
Raising her voice. The coffee shop was nearly empty, but the few patrons present turned to stare. Milo glared at them until they turned away.
“Go through what, ma’am?”
Gallegos whimpered and wiped her eyes. “Legal stuff, the courts- I never want to see an affidavit again. Please keep me out of it.”
“I’m not out to cause you grief, Ms. Gallegos, but I do need to talk to anyone Gavin had conflict with.”
Gallegos shook her head. “There was no conflict. I never yelled at Gavin, never complained. It’s just that the problem got out of hand. He needed to deal with it.”
“Did he stop?” I said.
Her eyes danced to one side. I said, “You never heard from him again?”
She picked at her napkin, shredded the corners, created a small pile of confetti that she collected and placed on her saucer.
“It was basically over,” she said. “It was over.” Her voice shook.
Milo said, “Beth, you’re obviously a good person. That means you’re also a very poor liar.”
Gallegos glanced at the coffee shop door, as if plotting her escape.
Milo said, “What happened?”
“It was just once,” she said. “A month ago. Not really a problem call, a nothing call, that’s why I never told anyone.”
“Where’d he find you?”
“Here. At the office. I was between patients, and the secretary handed me the phone. He told her he was a friend. She has no idea about my… history with Gavin. When I heard his voice I… it made my heart pound, and I broke into a sweat. But he was… okay. Nothing weird. He said he was sorry for what he’d done, wanted to apologize. Then he told me he’d met someone and was getting his life together, and he hoped I’d forgive him. I said I already had, and that was that.”
“You figure he was telling the truth?” said Milo. “About meeting someone.”
“He sounded sincere,” she said. “I told him congratulations, I was happy for him.” She exhaled. “He sounded more… mature. Settled.”
“Did he tell you about the person he’d met?”
“No. He sounded happy.”
“He’s happy, he doesn’t bug you.”
“That, too,” she said, “but at the time what I thought was, ‘Gavin’s finally getting it together.’ ” She touched the handle of her teacup, swirled the bag. “I never disliked him, Lieutenant. All I ever felt for him was pity. And fear, when things got really intense. But I was happy things were working out for him.”
I said, “Anson’s probably happy, too.”
“I didn’t tell Anson about the call.”
“He’s been through enough with me,” she said. “We just started dating when the stalking began. It’s not a great way to start a relationship.”
Milo said, “Anson must’ve been pretty upset.”
“Wouldn’t anyone be?” Gallegos’s eyes got clearer. “You’re not going to talk to him, are you?”
“We are, Beth.”
“Like I said, anyone who had conflict with Gavin.”
“Anson didn’t have conflict- please, don’t go there- don’t draw Anson into this. He’d never hurt Gavin, or anyone else. He’s not like that.”
“Easygoing?” said Milo.
“Mature. Disciplined. Anson knows how to control himself.”
“What kind of work does he do?”
“Work?” said Gallegos.
“You’re actually going to talk to him?”
“We have to, ma’am.”
Beth Gallegos placed her face in her hands and kept it there for several moments. When she revealed herself again, she’d gone pale. “I’m so, so sorry Gavin got killed. But I really can’t stand any more of this. When Gavin had his trial I was subpoenaed; it was horrible.”
“Testifying was rough.”
“Being there was rough. The people you see in the halls. The smells, the waiting. I waited an entire day and never was called to testify. Thank God. It really wasn’t much of a trial, Gavin admitted what he’d done. Later, he and his parents walked right past me and his mother looked at me as if I was the guilty one. I didn’t even tell Anson I was going, didn’t want him to lose a day’s work.” Her attention shifted to the left. She bit her lip. “No, that’s not the real reason. I didn’t want the case to… pollute my relationship. I want Anson to see me as someone strong. Please let us be.”
Milo said, “Beth, I have no interest in adding stress to your life. And there’s no reason to believe you- or Anson-will be involved any further. But this is a homicide investigation, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t talk to him.”
“Okay,” Gallegos said, barely audible. “I understand… stuff happens.”
“What’s Anson’s address?”
“We live together. At his place. Ogden Drive, near Beverly. But he won’t be there, he’s working.”
“He teaches martial arts,” she said. “Karate, tae kwan do, kickboxing. He was a regional kickboxing champ back in Florida, just got hired by a dojo near where we live. Wilshire near Crescent Heights. He also does youth work. On Sunday, for a ministry in Bell Gardens. We’re both Christians, met at a church mixer. We’re getting married in September.”
“He’s a great guy,” said Gallegos. “He loves me and gives me my space.”
I drove east, toward Anson Coniff’s dojo.
Milo said, “Gavin had found someone to rock his world.”
“At least he saw it that way.”
“If we’re talking about the blonde, he was seeing straight. Why can’t I find out who the hell she is?”
A moment later: “A martial arts instructor. Maybe you can show off your whatchamacallit- those karate dances-”
“Katas,” I said. “It’s been years, I’m out of shape.”
“You make it to black belt?”
“Why’d you stop?”
“Not angry enough.”
“I thought martial arts helped control anger.”
“Martial arts is like fire,” I said. “You can cook or burn.”
“Well let’s see if Mr. Conniff’s the smoldering type.”
STEADFAST MARTIAL ARTS AND SELF-DEFENSE
One large room, high-ceilinged and mirrored, floored with bright blue exercise mats. Years ago, I’d taken karate from a Czech Jew who’d learned to defend himself during the Nazi era. I had lost interest, lost my skills. But walking into the dojo, smelling the sweat and the discipline, brought back memories and I found myself mentally reviewing the poses and the movements.
Anson Conniff was five-four, maybe 130, with a boyish face, a toned body, and long, lank, light brown hair highlighted gold at the tips.
Surfer-dude, slightly miniaturized. He wore white karate togs, a black belt, spoke in a loud, crisp voice to a dozen beginners, all women. An older, white-haired Asian informed us the class would end in ten minutes and asked us to stand to one side.
Conniff ran the women through a half dozen more poses, then released them. They dabbed their brows, collected their gym bags, and headed out the door as we approached.
Conniff smiled. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
Milo flashed the badge, and the smile disintegrated.
“Police? What about?”
“Him,” said Conniff. “Beth read about him in the paper and told me.” He laughed.
“Something funny, Mr. Conniff?”
“Not his death, I’d never laugh at that. It’s just funny that you’d be talking to me about it- kind of like a movie script. But I guess you’re just doing your job.”
Conniff flipped hair out of his face.
Milo said, “Why’s that?”
“Because the idea of my killing anyone- hurting anyone- is absurd. I’m a Christian, and that makes me prolife and antideath.”
“Oh,” said Milo. “I thought you might be laughing about Gavin Quick being dead. Because of what he did to Beth.”
The height disparity between Milo and Conniff was conspicuous. Karate and other martial arts teach you how to use an opponent’s size to your advantage, but pure conversation put Conniff at a disadvantage. He tried to draw himself up.
“That’s really absurd, sir. Gavin tormented Beth, but I’d never gloat about him or anyone else dying. I’ve seen way too much dying ever to gloat.”
“The Army?” said Milo.
“Growing up, sir. My brother was born with lung disease and passed away when he was nine. This was back in Des Moines, Iowa. Most of those nine years were taken up by Bradley going in and out of the hospital. I was three years older and ended up spending a lot of time at hospitals. I saw someone die once, the actual process. A man, not that old, brought into the emergency room for some kind of seizure. The doctors thought he’d stabilized and sent him up to the ward, for observation before discharge. The orderlies took him on a gurney in one of those big patient elevators, and my parents and I just happened to be riding in the same elevator at the same time because we’d gone down to X-ray with Bradley. The man on the gurney was joking, being friendly, then he just stopped talking, gave this sudden stare off into nowhere, then his head flopped to the side and the color just drained from his face. The orderlies began pounding his chest. My mother slapped her hand over my eyes so I couldn’t see, and my father started talking nonstop, keeping up a patter, so I couldn’t hear. Baseball, he talked about baseball. By the time we got off the elevator, everyone was quiet.”
Conniff smiled. “I guess I’m just not very death-oriented.”
“As opposed to?”
“People who are.”
“You’re protection-oriented,” said Milo.
Conniff motioned around the dojo. “This? It’s a job.”
Milo said, “Where were you last Monday night?”
“Not killing Gavin Quick.” Conniff relaxed his posture.
“In view of the topic, you’re being kind of lighthearted, sir.”
“How should I be? Mournful? That would be dishonest.” Conniff tightened his black belt and widened the space between his feet. “I mourn Gavin Quick in the sense that I mourn the loss of any human life, but I’m not going to tell you I cared for him. He put Beth through incredible misery. But Beth insisted on dealing with it in her own way, and she was right. The stalking stopped. I had no reason to want to hurt him.”
“Her own way,” said Milo.
“Avoiding him,” said Conniff. “Going through the legal system. I wanted to confront Gavin- on a verbal level. I thought a man-to-man talk might convince him. Beth said no, and I respected her wishes.”
Conniff rubbed his palms along the sides of his tunic. His hands were small and callused. “Yes, I can get protective. I love Beth. But I didn’t hurt Gavin Quick. I’d have no reason to.”
“Where were you Monday?”
“With Beth. We stayed in. Even if you don’t trust me, you should trust Beth. She’s all about forgiveness, operates at a high level, spiritually.”
“What’d you have for dinner?” said Milo.
“Who remembers… let’s see, Monday, so it was probably leftovers. Sunday we barbecued steaks and had a lot of leftovers… yeah, definitely, leftover steak. I cut it up and sautéed it with peppers and onions, did a stir-fry. Beth cooked up some rice. Yeah, for sure. We stayed in.”
“Ever been in psychotherapy, Mr. Conniff?”
“Why is that your business?”
“Covering bases,” said Milo.
“Well, I find the question kind of intrusive.”
“Sorry, sir, but-”
“I’ll answer it anyway,” said Conniff. “My entire family went into therapy after Bradley died. We all saw a wonderful man named the Reverend Dr. Bill Kehoe, and I talked to him by myself a few times, as well. He was the pastor of our church and a fully qualified clinical psychologist. He saved us from despair. Is there anything else you’d like to know?”
“That’s the only time you had therapy,” said Milo.
“Yes, Lieutenant. It took a while- a long while- to stop feeling guilty about Bradley’s dying and my surviving, but I got there. Life’s darned good, nowadays.”
Milo reached into his pocket and brought out the death shot of the blonde. “Ever see this girl?”
Conniff studied the picture. “Nope. But I know the look. Pure dead. That’s the look that flavored my childhood. Who is she?”
“Someone who died alongside Gavin Quick.”
“Sad,” said Conniff. “There are always sad things in this world. The key is to push past all that and lead a spiritual life.”
Back in the car, Milo ran Conniff’s name through the data banks. Two parking tickets.
“No con, but he’s a strange one, no?”
“Tightly wound,” I said.
“The type to clean up carefully.”
“He says he was with Beth.”
“I’ll ask Beth,” he said.
“Her say-so will be enough?”
“Like he said, she operates at a high level.”
A call from the car produced the same story from Beth Gallegos.
We returned to the station where Milo found a faxed artist’s rendering of the dead girl and a message to call Community Relations.
“Look at this,” he said. “Michelangelo’s rolling in his crypt.”
The drawing was sketchy, lacking in character, useless. He crumpled and tossed it, phoned CR downtown, listened, hung up, grinding his teeth.
“This city, everything’s a goddamn audition. They talked to the papers, and the papers aren’t interested. Maybe it’s even true.”
“I can call Ned Biondi. He retired from the Times a few years ago, but he’d know who to talk to.”
“Now that the PR idiots have given me an official ‘no,’ I can’t just go off and hot-dog. But maybe in a few days, if we still can’t ID her.” He peered at the Timex, muttered, “How’s your time and your intestinal fortitude?”
“A visit to the Quicks?” I said. “Sure.”
“You do tarot readings too?”
“That girl,” said Sheila Quick. “She was hired to help Gavin, so instead she goes and gets him into trouble.”
Her living room looked the same, but drawn drapes turned it funereal, and the space had gone stale. The cigarette box from which Jerome Quick had lifted his smokes was empty. Sheila Quick wore a black cotton robe with a zipper up the front. Her ash hair was turbaned by a black silk scarf. Her face was tight and white and old, and she wore pink mules. Above the slippers, her feet were knobby and blue-veined.
She said, “Unbelievable.”
Milo said, “What is, ma’am?”
“What she did to him.”
“You see Gavin’s arrest as Beth Gallegos’s fault.”
“Of course I do! Do you know how Gav met her? She was a therapist at Saint John’s, was supposed to be helping Gav get back his dexterity. She knew what he’d been through! She should’ve been more understanding!”
Milo and I said nothing.
“Listen,” said Sheila Quick, “if she was so concerned about her safety, why’d she take so long to complain? And then what does she do? Goes straight for the police, dials 911 like it’s some big-deal emergency when all Gav did was knock on her door- I know she said he pounded but no one else heard any pounding and Gav told me he just knocked and I believe my son!”
“You don’t think she should’ve called 911.”
“I think if she was so convinced there was a problem, she had ample opportunity to come to us. Why didn’t she? All she had to do was call and let us know she thought Gavin was a little… eager. We’d have talked to him. Why’d she let this alleged problem linger if it was so bad? You’re professionals. Does that make sense to you?”
Milo said, “She never got in touch with you beforehand.”
“Never, not once. See what I mean?”
“And then all of a sudden Gav’s arrested and we have to hire a lawyer and go through all that rigamarole.” Her smile was sickly. “Of course, in the end they dismissed it. Obviously, it was nothing.”
Gavin had pled to a misdemeanor and been sentenced to therapy.
Sheila Quick said, “Lieutenant, I certainly hope you don’t think what happened to my Gav was related to anything he did. Or anyone he knew.”
“It couldn’t be anyone he knew?”
“Of course not, we know only nice people. And Gavin…” She began to cry. “Gavin, after the accident, he didn’t have anyone in his life except his father and me and his sister.”
“No friends,” I said.
“That’s the point!” she said, pleased, as if she’d solved a difficult puzzle. “It was no one he knew because he really didn’t know anyone. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, Lieutenant, and I’m certain my baby just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“A stranger,” said Milo.
“Look at September 11. Did any of those people know the pigs who killed them? It’s exactly like that- evil’s out there and sometimes it bites you and now the Quick family’s been bitten.”
She sprang up, raced to the kitchen, came back with a plate of Oreos.
“Eat,” she ordered.
Milo took a cookie and finished it in two bites, passed the plate to me. I placed it on a side table.
“So tell me,” said Sheila Quick. “What progress have you made?”
Milo brushed crumbs from his trousers to his hand, searched for somewhere to put them.
“Just drop it all on the rug, Lieutenant. I clean every day. Sometimes twice a day. What else is there to do around here? Jerry’s already back at work, doing his businessman thing. I envy that about him.”
“Being able to concentrate?” I said.
“Being able to cut himself off. It’s a male thing, right? You men cut yourselves off and go out and hunt and prowl and make deals and do whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do, and we women are stuck waiting for you as if you’re some kind of conquering heroes.”
“Mrs. Quick,” said Milo, “you’re not going to like this question, but I have to ask it anyway. Did Gavin ever run into any problems with women other than Beth Gallegos?”
Sheila Quick’s hands closed into fists. “No, and the very fact you’re suggesting it- I tell you that’s just so… distorted- shortsighted.” She ripped the scarf-turban from her head and began kneading the fabric. Her hair was elaborately pinned, compressed tightly to her skull. White roots showed through the blond.
Milo said, “I’m sorry, but I need to-”
“You need to, you need to- what you need to do is find the madman who killed my son.”
“The young lady he was with, ma’am. We still haven’t been able to identify her.”
Sheila got up and snatched the plate of cookies from where I’d placed them. She returned to the kitchen, swung the door closed, stayed in there.
“As predicted,” said Milo, “a pretty scene. I know she’s gone through hell but ten to one she was a harpy before.”
He said, “I’d better go in there and finish up with her. Be kind to yourself and stay here.”
Just as he rose, the kitchen door swung open, and Sheila Quick stomped through. She’d unpinned and brushed her hair but applied no makeup. Milo sat back down. She stopped directly in front of us, placed her hands on her hips.
“Is there anything else?”
“The girl Gavin was wi-”
“Don’t know her, never seen her, can’t change that. No one in the family knows her, including my daughter.”
“You asked Kelly.”
“I called and asked her if Gavin was dating anyone, and she said she hadn’t heard that.”
“Were the two of them close?”
“Of course. Kelly’s my bright one, she knows her way around.”
I said, “Any plans for her to come back?”
“No. Why should she? She’s got a life. Even though I don’t.”
She stared at me. “Gavin was a good human being. A handsome human being, of course girls liked him. Which is why that Gallegos woman is so off base. Gavin didn’t need to chase some little… nurse type.”
“When did he and Kayla Bartell stop dating?”
“Don’t know,” she snapped. “Why don’t you ask her? The… she hasn’t even been by to see me. Not once. Not a condolence note.” A pink mule tapped the carpet. “Are we finished?”
Milo said, “You’ve heard about Dr. Koppel.”
“She got murdered,” said Sheila Quick. “I read about it yesterday.”
Matter-of-fact, no emotion.
“Any thoughts about that, Mrs. Quick?”
“It’s terrible,” she said. “Everyone’s getting murdered. What a city- I’m thirsty. Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thanks, ma’am. Let me toss a few names at you. Please tell me if any of them are familiar. Anson Conniff.”
“No. Who’s he?”
“Brian Van Dyne, Roy Nichols?”
“No, no, no. Who are these people?”
“Not important,” said Milo. “Nothing you need to worry about. Thanks for your time.”
“Time,” said Sheila Quick. “I’ve got too much of that.”
Sheila Quick turned her back on us, and we saw ourselves out.
Just before we reached the car, Milo’s cell phone beeped. He took the call, big hand concealing the little blue gizmo. “Sturgis… oh, hi. As a matter of fact, yes we are… right here, at the house… yes… that so?… where’s that? When? Sure, that would be fine. Thank you, ma’am, see you soon.”
He snapped the phone shut. “That was Eileen Paxton, Sheila’s ‘baby sister.’ She’s in Beverly Hills for a meeting, was planning to visit sis, drove by, saw us go in, and decided to wait until we were finished. She’d like to talk.”
“ ‘Family issues’ is how she put it. She’s a few blocks away, on Bedford, some Italian place, corner of Brighton.”
“Time for tiramisu,” I said.
He touched his gut and grimaced. “Even I have limits.”
The Italian place was named Pagano and it featured three wobbly outdoor tables that blocked most of its share of the sidewalk. Eileen Paxton sat at one of them, wearing a slim-cut black pantsuit and backless high-heeled sandals and sipping a café latte. She saw us, smiled, wiggled a pinkie. Her hair was trimmed shorter than a few days ago, tinted a couple of shades lighter, and her makeup was more intense. She wore diamond stud earrings and a jade necklace, looked as if she was celebrating something.
She said, “I’m so glad we could get together.”
Passersby brushed us. Milo edged closer to her, and said, “Here or inside?”
“Oh, here. I like the rhythm of the city.”
This particular city was barely a village, a precious display of conspicuous wealth. The rhythm was set by power-walking pedestrians and oversized engines belching toxins. Milo and I sat down and ordered espresso from an overly moussed waiter with drugged eyes. Eileen Paxton looked content, as if this was a quiet, restful place for al fresco dining.
She said, “How did my sister seem to you?”
Milo punted to me.
I said, “She looked a bit depressed.”
“What you need to know is that’s not all because of what happened to Gavin. Sheila’s got long-standing psychological problems.”
“Depression, anxiety, difficulty coping, you name it. She’s always been moody and high-strung. I’m the baby, but I always took care of her. When she married Jerry, I had my concerns.”
“About the marriage?”
“About Sheila being able to handle marriage,” she said. She turned her head quickly, flashed teeth at Drug-eyes. “Gio, could I have some of those lovely little pistachio biscotti? Thank you, you’re a true dear.” Back to us: “To Sheila’s credit, she worked at her marriage and seemed to do okay. Even though Jerry’s no prize.”
“He’s got problems, too?”
Her squint was furious. “Jerry’s sexually predatory. Hits on anything with a vagina and, for all I know, anything with anything else. He hit on me. I’ve never told Sheila, it would’ve destroyed her and the marriage, and I didn’t want that on my conscience.”
But you’re telling us.
I said, “When did this happen?”
“A month after they were married. Barely back from their honeymoon. I was also married, and the four of us spent a weekend in Arrowhead- my first husband’s family owned a place on the lake, great place with a double dock. Everything was rolling along nicely until one day Sheila went down for a nap- she runs out of steam easily- and my then-hubby had to go to town on business- he was an investment banker. That left just Jerry and me. I went down to sun on the dock in my bikini, and a few minutes later, Jerry came by. We weren’t alone ten minutes before he made his move. And I’m not talking subtle. Hand down the bikini bottom.” She clawed her hand, made a swooping motion. “He does not have a gentle touch.”
The plate of hard cookies arrived along with our espressos. Eileen Paxton patted the waiter’s hand, selected a crescent, broke it in half, nibbled the tip.
“What did you do?” I said.
“I yanked Jerry’s goddamn hand out of there, told him what I’d do to his balls if he ever tried that again. He’s despised me ever since, and the feeling’s mutual. Not just because of that. Because of what he does to my sister.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s cheated on her consistently throughout the marriage.”
I didn’t answer.
She said, “Trust me, I know the bum. All those business trips, doing God knows what. The looks he gives me when we’re alone. Gives other women- the girls he hires as secretaries.”
“What about them?”
“Sluts. They’re supposed to be doing secretarial work, but don’t look as if they know how to type. He goes off doing his thing, doing God knows what, and Sheila basically lives alone. She has no friends, no social network. Which is the way it was when we were growing up. I always had a huge social circle. Sheila had trouble relating.”
I said, “Doing God knows what. Sheila said he was a metals dealer.”
“So I’ve heard,” Paxton said airily. She chewed on a biscotti.
“You have doubts?”
“He must do something, the bills get paid. Yes, he travels around trading aluminum, whatever. But when my husband- my new one- tried to talk to him about investing, Jerry wasn’t interested. And Ted’s a fabulous broker, someone who could help Jerry. My sense is Jerry isn’t great at what he does, has to hustle just to keep his head above. He moves his office every few years, travels all the time.”
“Hires sluts as secretaries.”
She hesitated. “Maybe I was being a little harsh. I just know what he did to me on the dock that day. And the way his eyes rove.”
I said, “You’re thinking this could be related to Gavin.”
“I want you guys to have all the facts, and I know no one else will give them to you. The family’s screwed up, and Gavin was a weirdo. I know Sheila and Jerry are going to tell you he was just a regular kid before the accident, but that’s not the way it was. Gavin had problems.”
“What kinds of problems?”
Eileen Paxton rubbed the biscotti against her top teeth, as if caressing the enamel. Her tongue snaked out and tickled the pastry, then she took a hard bite and chewed slowly.
“I wouldn’t be telling you this except I don’t want you misled.”
“We appreciate that, ma’am,” said Milo.
“Well, good,” said Paxton. “Because I do feel uncomfortable, divulging family issues.” She sipped latte like a cautious cat, licked foam from her upper lip.
“What kinds of problems did Gavin have?” I said.
“Like father, like son.”
“He was sexually predatory?”
“That sounds too harsh,” she said. “Gavin hadn’t developed into a predator. Yet. But he was… okay, there’s no reason not to tell you: Last year, Gavin ran into some legal problems over a woman.”
“Beth Gallegos,” said Milo.
Paxton’s face slackened with disappointment. “So you know.”
“It came up recently, ma’am. In fact, we were just talking about it to your sister.”
“You’re serious? Sheila must have gone bonkers. She blamed the victim, right?”
“That’s always been her way of dealing with stress,” said Paxton. “My poor sister lives on another planet- well, yes, that was part of what I was going to tell you. But that was only Gavin’s most serious problem, there have been others.”
“Other women he stalked?”
“I know of at least one girl he harassed, and my guess would be more. Because that kind of behavior’s a pattern, right?”
“Sure,” said Milo. “Who’s the other victim?”
“Gavin had a girlfriend- some rich kid from the Flats, I only met her once, skinny little blond thing with a nose like a hawk. I found her kind of snotty. Her father’s a prominent jingle writer. Gavin got sexually aggressive with her, and she dumped him.”
“How do you know about this, ma’am?”
“Because Gavin told me.”
“Gavin talked to you about his personal issues?”
“From time to time.” Paxton smiled and caressed her own neck. “The young, hip aunt. He liked the fact that I’m in the industry, more in touch with pop culture than his parents. We’d chat from time to time. The time he told me about Little Miss Beverly Hills- I think her name was Katya, something like that- we were all out to dinner- right up the block at Il Principe, the food’s divine.”
“I’ll have to try it,” said Milo. “So this was a family dinner?”
“Gavin, Sheila, and I. Jerry was out of town. As usual.”
“How long ago?”
“Um, I’d say half a year, maybe more. Anyway, there we were enjoying the fabulous food- they cook sea bass in a wood oven, make their own pasta from scratch- and all of a sudden, Sheila wasn’t feeling well- another typical Sheila thing, she can’t enjoy anything, not even a good meal, without suffering- and she ran to the little girls’ room and stayed there for a while. Gavin started talking to me, he’d been looking kind of tense all night. Finally, I pried it out of him. He’d lost his girlfriend because she wasn’t interested in sex. He called her a ‘compulsive virgin.’ ”
She propped the chewed-down biscotti between her index fingers. Rolled it. Placed it on her plate. “I asked him what had happened, and he told me. While he was telling it, he really worked himself up. It was clear he was angry and frustrated.”
“About losing the relationship.”
“No, that was the thing. He said he couldn’t care less about having a girlfriend, it was not getting sex that griped him. It really made him angry.”
“This was after the accident.”
“Shortly after- maybe it was eight months ago. But Gavin was always easily frustrated. As a little boy he threw all kinds of tantrums.”
“Excitable,” I said. “And now he was all worked up about not getting sex.”
“He talked about sex as if it was his right. Said he and the girl, Katya, had been going together on and off since high school, it was about time she put out. Like there was a schedule you adhered to. Then he said everyone else was ‘fucking themselves blind,’ the whole world was one big fuckfest swimming in jizz and he deserved to swim, too, and she could just go to hell, he’d find someone else.”
“Lots of anger,” I said.
“He always had a bad temper. It got worse after the accident. It was like his emotional barometer was off- he just did or said what was on his mind. I mean, I’m his aunt and he’s talking about jizz in a booth at Il Principe. I was mortified. Important people dine at that place.”
“Gavin was talking loud?”
“His voice kept rising, and I had to keep telling him to lower it. I tried to reason with him, told him women weren’t machines, they needed to be cared for, sex could be fun, but it had to be mutual. He listened, actually seemed to be taking it in. Then he slid over in the booth, and said, ‘Eileen, thanks. You’re awesome.’ Then he grabbed my breast in one hand, the back of my head with the other, and tried to shove his tongue down my throat- Gio? A refill, please.”
Milo pressed her for more on Gavin’s sex life and the family, but once she’d gotten past the basic hatred, there was nothing. He steered the conversation to Gavin’s tabloid fantasies.
“That,” she said, “is another thing he was impressed with- my work in the industry. He kept asking me to hook him up with some celebrity parties, so he could observe.” She laughed. “As if I’d help him dig dirt on my friends.”
“What was his angle?”
“Unearthing filth and selling it to the tabs. He saw it as his journalistic debut, he was going to make his mark as a journalist. I told him the tabs were trash and full of lies, but he wouldn’t hear it. He claimed they were more honest than the establishment press because they were open about their goals.”
She nodded. “After the accident, Gavin saw the world as one big ball of filth.”
I said, “Did he make any progress toward being a journalist?”
“Like take a course or get an internship?” said Paxton. “Not to my knowledge. I’d doubt it. He really wasn’t in any shape to go back to school or hold down a job. Too flighty- he was drifting. Dropping out, sleeping in till noon, turning his room into a pigsty. I can’t blame him, I’m sure his brain was messed up. But Sheila didn’t even try to set limits. And Jerry, of course, was always gone.”
“Gavin did go into therapy.”
“Because the courts forced him to.”
“Did he tell you who his therapist was?”
“Jerry did. Dr. Koppel. Like it was some big deal.” She frowned.
“You know her?”
“I’ve heard her on the radio, and I have to say I’m not impressed. All she does is preach morality to idiots who phone in. Why not just go to church?”
Using the present tense. Milo and I looked at each other.
She said, “What?”
“Dr. Koppel was murdered.”
Paxton’s face went white. “What? When?”
“Couple of days ago.”
“My God- why don’t I know that- was it on the news?”
“There was an article in yesterday’s paper.”
“I never read the paper,” she said. “Except Calendar. Murdered, omigod. Are you saying it had something to do with Gavin?”
“But she- could it be coincidence?”
“Your sister didn’t seem impressed by that.”
“My sister’s crazy. Do you have any idea who killed her?”
Milo shook his head.
“Horrible, horrible,” she said. “You think there’s a chance it couldn’t be related to Gavin?”
“We don’t know, ma’am.”
“Oh, boy.” Paxton stayed serious for a while. Ate her biscotti and grinned. Back to coquettish. “Now you’re playing hard to get, Lieutenant.”
“Not really, ma’am.”
“Well… I hope this has been helpful. I’ve got to go.”
“One more question, ma’am. Do you remember that picture I showed you of the girl who died with Gavin?”
“Yes, of course. And I told you I’d never seen her before, and that was true.”
“Gavin talked to you about wanting to find a new girl. He told other people he’d succeeded.”
“What other people?”
“Let’s leave it at other people.”
“Mr. Inscrutable Detective,” said Paxton. She brushed her knee against Milo’s. “A new girl, huh? In Gavin’s mind that could’ve meant anything. Someone he decided to pursue, whether or not she wanted it. Someone he’d seen on TV.”
“The girl I showed you was real,” said Milo. “And she was in Gavin’s car, up on Mulholland, late at night.”
“Okay,” she said, annoyed. “So he found someone. Everyone finds someone eventually. Look what happened to her.”
She made sure Milo picked up the tab and flounced away on backless shoes.
“What a piece of work,” said Milo. “What a family. So what was her reason for talking to us? Dissing the Quicks?”
“She despises them,” I said, “but that doesn’t discount her information.”
“Gavin’s inappropriate sexual behavior? Yeah, he’s sounding nuttier by the day.”
“If she’s right about Jerome Quick, Gavin had a role model. Gavin may have started off with a certain view of women, and the accident weakened his inhibitions further. What intrigues me is the blonde. Gavin had problems approaching women, came on way too strong. Yet an attractive young woman was willing to get intimate with him. A young woman in five-hundred-dollar shoes whom no one’s reported missing.”
“A pro,” he said. “Got to be.”
“Severe frustration could lead a boy to buy sex. A Beverly Hills boy might have a decent budget. Especially with a father who sanctioned it. I know she hasn’t shown up in any Vice files, but a relative rookie lucky enough not to get busted wouldn’t. If she worked on her own, there’d be no one to miss her. If she worked for someone else, they might not want to go on record.”
“A father who sanctioned it,” he said. “Dad slips Gavin serious dough to get seriously laid?”
“And maybe,” I said, “Dad knew where to send him.”
Jerome Quick’s metals-trading firm was a few miles east of Beverly Hills, on Wilshire near La Brea, on the third floor of a shopworn four-story building wedged between taller structures.
A sign in the empty lobby listed several units for lease. Most of the tenants were businesses with names that told you little about what they did. Quick’s office was on the second floor, midway down a poorly lit linoleum-floored hall. A savory but discomforting odor- beef stew just past its prime- permeated the walls.
Quick didn’t keep much of an office: A small, mostly empty reception area fronted an office marked PRIVATE. The carpeting was brown, stomped glossy, the walls cheap woodite paneling. The receptionist sat behind a cheap woodite desk. She was young and thin, pretty but hard-looking, with randomly chopped hair tinted electric blue at the tips. Her makeup was thick and grayish, her lipstick, anoxic gray-blue. Curving bright azure nails were an inch long. She wore a tight white sweater over leather-look black vinyl pants and chewed gum. In front of her was a copy of Buzz Magazine. The lack of other periodicals or chairs and her surprise at our presence said visitors were infrequent.
The sight of Milo’s badge raised a penciled eyebrow, but the pulse in her neck was slow and steady.
She said, “Mr. Quick’s out of town,” in a surprisingly sultry voice.
“Where?” said Milo.
She wiggled her shoulders. “San Diego.”
“He travel a lot?”
“All the time.”
“Nice and quiet for you.”
“Uh-huh.” The blue nails tapped the magazine. No computer or typewriter in sight.
Milo said, “You’re not surprised the police want to talk to him.”
She shrugged. “Sure I am.”
“Is it the first time the police have wanted to talk to him?”
“I’ve only been working here for a couple of months.”
“Cops been here before?” said Milo.
Milo showed her the photo of the blonde. She blinked hard, turned away.
“You know her?”
“Is she dead?”
“Don’t know her.”
“She’s the girl who died with Gavin Quick.”
“You do know about Gavin.”
“Yeah. Of course.”
“Sad,” said Milo.
“I didn’t really know him,” she said. “Very sad.” She turned the corners of her mouth down. Trying to mean it. Her brown eyes were flat. “Who did it?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Ms…”
“Gavin come in here?”
“Once in a while.”
“How often, Angie?”
Milo unbuttoned his jacket and edged closer to her desk. “How long have you been working here?”
“Three and a half months.”
“In three and half months, how many times did you see Gavin Quick?”
“Hmm… maybe three times. Could be four, but probably three.”
“What did Gavin do when he was here?”
“Went in to see Jerry- Mr. Quick. Sometimes they’d go out.”
“Was it lunchtime?”
“I think it was.”
“What’d you think of Gavin, Angie?”
“He seemed like an okay guy.”
She licked her lips. “No.”
“No problems at all? He was always a gentleman.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“We’ve heard,” said Milo, “that Gavin could get pretty enthusiastic. Overly enthusiastic.”
“Overly enthusiastic with women, Angie.”
She placed a hand on the copy of Buzz. As if preparing to take an oath. I swear on all that is hip…
“I never saw that. He was polite.”
“Polite,” said Milo. “And by the way, what is your last name?”
“So Mr. Quick travels a lot.”
“All the time.”
“Must get boring, just sitting around.”
“It’s okay.” She flexed her shoulders again.
Milo sidled closer to the desk. The top bit into his thigh. “Angie, did Gavin ever hit on you?”
“Why would he do that?”
“You’re an attractive woman.”
“Thanks,” she said, without inflection. “He was always polite.”
“Where’s the boss off to?”
“Somewhere in San Diego. He didn’t say.”
“He doesn’t tell you where to find him?”
“He calls in.”
“Leaving you all by yourself,” said Milo.
“I like it,” she said. “Nice and quiet.”
Before we left, Milo took down her North Hollywood address and phone number and driver’s license registration. Driving back to the station, he ran her through the data banks. Three years ago, Angela May Paul had been arrested for marijuana possession.
“Paxton said Quick hired sluts for secretaries,” he said. “I don’t know if ol’ Angie would qualify for that, but he’s sure not tapping the executive roster. That office of his, pretty downscale, huh?”
“Keeping the overhead low,” I said. “Eileen said he’s no tycoon.”
“She said he was hustling… think Angie was telling the truth about not knowing the blonde? I thought she reacted a bit to the photo, though with that stone face it was hard to tell.”
“She blinked hard when you showed it to her,” I said, “but it is a death shot.”
“The blonde,” he said. “Jimmy Choo and Armani perfume. Maybe ol’ Jerry provided well for Junior.”
He checked his phone for messages, grunted, hung up.
“Drs. Larsen and Gull returned my call. They’d prefer to meet me away from the office, suggested Roxbury Park, tomorrow, 1 P.M. The picnic area on the west side, they go there for lunch from time to time. You up for some grass and trees and chewing the fat with a couple of colleagues? Should I bring a picnic basket?”
“Grass and trees sounds okay but forget the niceties.”
“Alex, I’m glad I caught you.”
It’d been months since I’d heard Robin’s voice, and it threw me. No rapid heartbeat; I was pleased about that.
I said. “Hi, how’ve you been?”
“Alex, I’m calling for a favor, but if you can’t do it, please just say so.”
“What is it?”
“Tim was just asked to fly to Aspen to work with Udo Pisano- the tenor. There’s a concert tomorrow, and the guy’s voice is freezing up. They want Tim there yesterday, are flying him on a chartered jet. I’ve never been to Aspen and would like to go along. We’re talking one, maybe two nights. Would you be able to babysit Spike? You know how he is with kenneling.”
“Sure,” I said, “if Spike can handle being here.”
A few years back, on a sweltering summer day, a little French bulldog had made his way across the murderous traffic of Sunset Boulevard and up into the Glen. He wandered onto my property, gasping, stumbling, dangerously dehydrated. I watered and fed him, searched for his owner. She turned out to be an old woman dying in a Holmby Hills manor. Her sole heir, a daughter, was allergic to dogs.
He’d been saddled with an unwieldy pedigree moniker; I renamed him Spike and learned about kibble. He reacted to his new surroundings with élan, promptly fell in love with Robin, and began viewing me as competition.
When Robin and I broke up, custody wasn’t an issue. She got him, his leash, his food bowls, the short hairs he shed all over the furniture, his snoring, snuffling, arrogant table manners. I was awarded an echoing house.
I considered finding a dog of my own, had never gotten around to it. I didn’t see Spike much because I didn’t see Robin much. He’d taken ownership of the small house in Venice that she shared with Tim Plachette, and his regard for Tim seemed no higher than for me.
Robin said, “Thanks so much, I’m sure he’ll be fine. Down deep he loves you.”
“Must be extremely deep. When do you want to bring him over?”
“The plane leaves from Santa Monica as soon as we’re ready, so I was thinking soon.”
“Come on over.”
This is not your typical dog.
His flat face implies as much frog DNA as canine heritage, his ears are oversized, upright, batlike, and they flex and pivot and fold in response to a wide range of emotions. He doesn’t take up much more space than a Pomeranian but manages to pack twenty-six pounds into that cubic area, most of it lead-bone and rippling muscle, clothed in a black brindle coat. His neck is twenty-one and three-quarter inches around, and his knobby head is three handbreadths wide. His huge brown eyes shine with confidence and he allows himself the barest, patronizing interest in the lives of others. His worldview is simple: Life is a cabaret, and it’s all about him.
When I used to take him out alone, women flocked. “Oh, that’s the most beautiful ugly dog I’ve ever seen!” was the operative phrase.
This afternoon, he had as much interest in leaving Robin’s side as in snarfing a bowl of lint.
I held out a chew stick. He shot Robin a mournful gaze. She sighed and stooped. “It’ll be fine, handsome.”
The Saran-wrapped nugget of hamburger I’d concealed in my shirt pocket perked his radar and brought him over, but once he gobbled it, he raced back and hid behind Robin’s legs. Great legs.
She said, “Look at this, he’s guilt-tripping me.”
“The joys of parenthood.”
Spike nuzzled her jeans. Tight jeans above suede boots. She wore a black silk T-shirt under a tapestry vest. Her auburn curls were loose, her face was scrubbed and fresh. Those big, liquid brown eyes. The clean sweep of jaw and thin, straight nose.
Those lips; the oversized incisors.
I said, “Let me take him, and you go. He’ll fuss, then he’ll be fine.”
“You’re right,” she said. She took Spike’s face in both her hands. “Listen, you rascal. Daddy will take good care of you, you know that.”
What did she call Tim? Stepdaddy?
Spike’s trapdoor mouth dropped open, teeth flashed, a purplish tongue flapped.
Beseeching the heavens, he bayed.
I swooped him into my arms, held his taut little body tight against my chest as he sniveled and writhed and hyperventilated. It was like restraining a bowling ball with legs.
“Oh dear,” said Robin.
I said, “Bon voyage, Rob.”
She hesitated, headed for her truck, changed her mind, and came back. Throwing her arm around my shoulder, she kissed Spike full on the snout.
She was kissing me on the cheek just as Allison drove up in her black Jaguar XJS.
The convertible top was down and her black hair blew like something out of a crème rinse commercial. She wore blue-tinted sunglasses and cream-colored knits with an aqua scarf. Glints punctuated her ears, neck, fingers, wrists; Allison is unafraid of adornment.
She switched off the engine and Robin’s arm dropped. Spike tried to leap out of my arms and reacted to his failure with a heart-wrenching howl.
“Hey, everyone,” said Allison.
“Hi,” said Robin, smiling.
Spike tried his I’m-strangling-do-the-Heimlich bit.
“Well, look who’s here.” Allison patted Spike’s head, then she kissed my lips. Robin backed away a few steps.
Spike froze; his head shifted from woman to woman.
It can get like that, buddy.
After Robin drove away, I trailed Allison up the stairs to the terrace, carrying a still-shuddering dog. When we reached the landing, she looked at me- no, at him. Touched his whiskered flews tentatively. “Look at this little guy. I forget how cute he is.”
Spike licked her hand.
“You are very, very cute!”
Spike began panting heavily, and she petted him some more. He wriggled, twisted his head back and managed to make eye contact with me.
A knowing look, rich with triumph.
Moments later, he was lying at Allison’s feet, nibbling on his second chew stick in as many minutes, damning my approach with a jaundiced eye.
Some guys have all the luck.
Mary Lou Koppel’s murder had shaken Allison, and that seemed to be why she’d dropped by. As I made coffee for both of us, she pressed for details.
I told her the little I knew.
“So it could be a patient,” she said.
“At this point anything’s possible.”
Her hands were tight around her mug.
I said, “You’re upset.”
“Not on a personal level.” She took a sip. “I have had patients- mostly husbands of patients- who made me uneasy. But that was mostly years ago, when I was taking more referrals from agencies… I guess Mary Lou’s death hits close to home. Thinking we know what we’re doing and maybe we get overconfident. It’s not just me. I’ve gotten calls from three other psychologists who just wanted to talk about it.”
“People who knew Mary Lou?”
“People who know I’m seeing you and thought they could get some inside information. Don’t worry, I was discreet.”
“What was on their minds?”
“Our line of work, the unpredictablity of human beings. I guess they want to convince themselves that Mary Lou was different, and that’s why it happened to her.”
I said, “They’re hoping she ticked off some talk-show nut, and it had nothing to do with her practice.”
“Bingo. But from what you’re telling me, it could be a patient. Someone who met the Quick boy in the waiting room.”
“Given the Quick boy’s impulsiveness- his behavior with women- the suspect pool has grown beyond the waiting room.”
“But Mary Lou’s murder,” she said. “It has to be something related to her work.”
“Any idea about gaining access to her patient files?” I said. “I can’t figure out a way to get around confidentiality.”
She thought about that. “Not without some kind of clear and present danger- documentation of a threat.”
“There was nothing like that in Gavin’s chart. And if she was threatened by anyone, she didn’t let on to me or Milo. We’ve got a meeting with her partners tomorrow.”
“Gull and Larsen.”
“Know them?” I said.
“I’ve said hi to both of them but nothing more.”
“Gull comes across very smooth- very much the Beverly Hills shrink. Larsen’s more the academic type.”
“Gull was Gavin’s initial therapist,” I said. “It didn’t work out, and Gavin was transferred to Koppel. Now that Gavin’s dead, maybe he can tell us why.”
“What a troubled kid,” she said. “The stalking, putting the make on his aunt.”
“If the aunt’s to be believed, the family’s beyond dysfunctional.”
She drank more coffee, took my hand and held it. “At least you and I will never be out of work.”
“Neither will Milo.”
Spike rolled on his back and began pumping his stumpy legs.
“He looks like an upended turtle,” she said. “What are you doing, cutie? Practicing for the upside-down bike race?”
“That’s the signal to scratch his belly,” I said.
She grinned and complied. “Thanks for decoding, I’m not fluent in dog.”
She stopped scratching and made a move for her coffee mug. Spike protested, and she bent down again.
I said, “One-trial learning. Consider yourself conditioned.”
She laughed, took the mug, managed to sip and rub. Spike burped, then purred like a cat. Allison cracked up. “He’s a sound effects machine.”
“He’s got all sorts of talents.”
“How long’s he staying?”
“Couple of days.” I told her about Robin’s call.
“That was very nice of you.”
“It’s the least I could do,” I said. “It was supposed to be joint custody, but he voted against it.”
“Well, that was foolish on his part. I’m sure you were a great father.” She sat up and touched my face and ran a finger over my lips.
Spike sprang to his feet and barked.
“Here we go,” I said. To Spike: “Cool it, clown.”
“Ooh, stern,” said Allison. “You do stern pretty well, my love. I’ve never seen it before.”
“He brings it out in me.”
“I always wanted a dog,” she said. “You know my mother. Way too neat for hair on the carpet. And Dad was always away on business. I did have a salamander once. It crawled out of its tank and hid under my bed and dried up. When I found it, it looked like a piece of beef jerky.”
“Poor neglected child,” I said.
“Yes, it was a tragic childhood- though, to be honest, I wasn’t very attached to Sally. Wet and slimy discourages bonding, don’t you think? But something like this.” She rubbed Spike’s head. “This I could see.”
“It gets complicated,” I said.
“I’ll show you.”
I got up, stood behind her, rubbed her neck and kissed it. Waited for Spike to go bonkers.
He stared. Defiant. Did nothing.
Her top was V-necked and I slipped my hand under it. She said, “Umm. As long as I’m here…”
“So you didn’t just come to talk about Mary Lou.”
“I did, but so what?” she said. I pinched her nipple lightly, and she leaned back in her chair and sucked in her breath and let it out in a soft laugh. She reached behind and ran her hand along my flank. “You have time?”
I glanced over at Spike. Impassive.
I took Allison by the hand, walked her to the bedroom. Spike trotted ten steps behind us. I closed the door. Silence. Back when it was Robin and me, he’d complained incessantly.
I drew the drapes, undressed Allison, got out of my own clothes. We stood belly to belly, blood rushing, cool flesh warming. I cupped Allison’s rear. Her hands were all over me.
Still no complaints from the other side of the door as I carried her to the bed.
We embraced and touched and kissed and I forgot about anything but Allison.
It wasn’t till I entered her that the scratching and mewling began.
Allison heard it right away. Lying there, her hands on my arms, her legs propped high on my back, she opened her blue eyes wide.
We began moving together.
The commotion on the other side of the door got louder.
“Oh,” she said, still rocking. “See… what… you… mean.”
I didn’t stop, and neither did she.
Spike kept it up.
To no avail.
When I awoke the next morning at 6 A.M., Allison was next to me, and Spike lay curled on the floor, at the foot of the bed. She’d let him in. For the next two days, he wouldn’t even be faking civil.
I left her sleeping and took him outside to do his business. The morning was moist and gray and oddly fragrant. Mustaches of haze coiled down from the mountains. The trees were black sentries. Too early for the birds.
I watched him waddle around the yard, sniffing and searching. He nuzzled a garden snail, decided escargot was an element of his Gallic heritage that he preferred to forget, and disappeared behind a bush. As I stood there in my bathrobe, shivering, head clearing, I wondered who’d been threatened to the point of murder by Gavin Quick and Mary Lou Koppel. Or maybe there was no threat at all, and this was all about pleasure killing.
Then I recalled Gavin’s journalistic fantasies, and my questions took off in a different direction.
At breakfast, I said nothing about the murders to Allison. By eight-thirty she’d left for her office, and I was doing some work around the house. Spike remained still in front of the cold TV. He’s always been a devotee of the blank screen; maybe he’s got something there. I headed for my office and cleared paper. Spike padded in and stared until I got up, went to the kitchen, and fetched him a scrap of turkey. That kept him happy for the rest of the morning, and by 10 A.M. he was sleeping in the kitchen.
When Milo called soon after and asked me to pick him up at noon for the meeting with Drs. Gull and Larsen, I was glad to hear his voice.
I idled the Seville in front of the station. Milo was late to come down, and I was warned twice by uniforms not to loiter. Milo’s name meant nothing to the second cop, who threatened to ticket. I drove around the block a couple of times and found Milo waiting by the curb.
“Sorry. Sean Binchy grabbed me as I was leaving.”
He closed his eyes and put his head back. His clothes were rumpled, and I wondered when he’d last slept.
I took side streets to Ohio, aimed the Seville east, fought the snarl at Sepulveda, and continued to Overland, where I could finally outpace a skateboard.
Roxbury Park was fifteen minutes away, on Olympic, less than a mile west of Mary Lou Koppel’s office. Even closer to the Quick house on Camden Drive. I considered the constricted world that had become Gavin’s after his accident. Until he’d driven a pretty blond girl up to Mulholland Drive.
Milo opened his eyes. “I like this chauffering stuff. You ever put in for mileage, the department takes a big hit.”
“Saint Alex. What did Binchy want?”
“He found a neighbor of Koppel’s, some kid living seven houses up McConnell, who spotted a van cruising the street the night of the murder. Kid was coming home late, around 2 A.M., and the van passed him, heading north, away from Koppel’s house and toward his. He locked his doors, stayed in his car, watched it turn around and return. Going really slowly, like the driver was looking for an address. The kid waited until the taillights had disappeared for a while. He can’t say if the van parked or just drove out of sight, but it didn’t make another pass.”
“Vigilant kid,” I said.
“There was a follow-home mugging over on the other side of Motor a few weeks ago, and his parents made a big deal about being observant.”
“Two o’clock fits the coroner’s estimate. Any look at the driver?”
“Too dark. Kid thought maybe the windows were tinted.”
“How old a kid?”
“Seventeen. Binchy says he’s an honor student at Harvard-Westlake, seems solid. He’s into cars, too, was pretty sure the van was a Ford Aerostar. Black or gray or navy blue, no customization he could spot. He didn’t get a peek at the plate, that would be too much to hope for. It’s not much, but if we turn up some suspect with an Aerostar, it’ll be a nice bit of something.”
“Any progress getting access to Koppel’s files?”
“I asked three ADAs, and each told me the same thing. Without overt violent behavior or threats by a specific patient against a specific person, forget it.”
“Maybe there’s another way to learn about Gavin’s private life,” I said. “He fancied himself a budding journalist, and journalists take notes.”
“Oh, man.” He sat up, pressed the dashboard with both hands, as if protecting himself from falling forward. “That sty he called a room. All that paper piled up, maybe he wrote something down. And I never checked. Shit.”
“It was only a suggestion-”
“The night we notified Sheila Quick, she showed us the room. I felt bad for her, seeing how embarrassed she was. I never bothered to toss.” He dug his thumbs into his temples. “Oh, that was brilliant.”
“That night we notified Sheila,” I said, “it presented as a lover’s lane sex murder. No one suspected Gavin might’ve played a role in his own death. We still don’t know that he did.”
“Yeah, yeah, I appreciate the therapy, Alex, but the fact is, I should’ve tossed the damn room right away. Maybe I’m losing it… I have to write things down or they leak outta my brain. Okay, no more whining. Proactive, proactive. After Gull and Larsen, I head back to the Quick house. Mrs. Q’s gonna love my excavating her dead boy’s personal effects.” He grimaced. “Hopefully, she didn’t throw stuff out.”
“I think it’ll be a while before she has the energy to face the job.”
“The life she leads,” he said, softly. “I looked into her hubby’s background. Ol’ Jerome has earned himself one ticket for speeding and one for failure to make a complete stop. He’s not known to our Vice unit or any other I talked to, including Santa Monica and West Hollywood. So if he hired call girls for himself or Gavin, he did it carefully. I ran him through a few search engines and his name comes up once. Reunion of Vietnam vets five years ago, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.”
At Century Park East, I stopped at a red light. A few blocks later, I passed the college-sized campus that was Beverly Hills High. Then a block-long stretch of green, clean, and orderly park, with that Potemkin village rightness that characterizes Beverly Hills’s public areas.
Milo said, “Ready to be collegial? Should I tell them who you are?”
“No, keep it low-key. I’ll just listen.”
“Ever the observer. Probably a good idea. Okay, turn here on Roxbury, keep going till you get to the south side of the park, and circle around. They said they’ll be waiting in the picnic area, off the Spalding side alley on the western edge. Near where the kids and the mommies play.”
Albin Larsen and a larger, dark-haired man in a black suit sat at a wooden table just inside the green iron fencing that marked the western border of the park. One of six tables, all shaded by a grove of old Chinese elms. Beverly Hills treats its trees like show poodles, and the elms had been clipped into towering green umbrellas. The psychologists had chosen a spot just north of a sand pit, where toddlers frolicked under the watchful eyes of mothers and maids. Their backs were to the children.
I found a parking slot facing the green fence. Most of the others were taken up by SUVs and vans. The exception was a pair of Mercedes 190s, both deep gray, positioned next to each other. Same cars I’d seen in the parking lot of Koppel’s building. Same model as Jerome Quick’s.
Milo said, “His and his Benz’s.”
“They work together but drove here separately,” I said.
“Meaning let’s see.”
Larsen and Gull were unaware of our presence and we watched them for a few moments. They sat talking to each other, and eating. Not much conversation, no obvious emotion. Milo said, “Let’s go.”
When we were ten yards away both men noticed us and put down their plastic forks. Albin Larsen’s dress was consistent with what I’d seen the day Mary Lou Koppel had failed to show up at her office: another sweater-vest, this one brown, over a tan linen shirt and a green wool tie. Franco Gull’s black suit was finely woven crepe with narrow lapels. Under it he wore a collarless white silk shirt buttoned to the neck. Gold wedding ring, gold watch.
Gull was broad-shouldered and powerful-looking, with a thick neck, a boxer’s nose, and a big, rough face that managed to be handsome. His head sported a mass of wavy, iron-flecked black hair. His chin preceded the rest of him by a half inch. Tailored eyebrows arched behind gray-lensed sunglasses, and his skin was rosy.
A bit younger than Larsen- midforties. When Milo and I reached the table, he removed the shades and exposed big, dark eyes. Sad eyes, bottomed by smudgy pouches. They added a couple of years and the suggestion of thoughtfulness.
He was eating take-out Chinese out of the carton. Shrimp swimming in red sauce and fried rice and a side of dwarf spring rolls. Albin Larsen’s lunch was mixed green salad heaped in a Styrofoam bowl. Both men sipped canned iced tea.
Larsen said, “Good day,” and gave a formal little nod. Gull held out a hand. His fingers were enormous.
Both men were in the shade, but Gull’s forehead was beaded with sweat. Spicy shrimp?
Milo and I brushed dust and leaves from the picnic bench and sat down. Larsen resumed eating. Gull smiled with uncertainty.
“Thanks for taking the time, Doctors,” said Milo. “Must be tough around the office.”
Larsen looked up from his salad. Neither man answered.
“Dr. Koppel’s patients,” said Milo. “Having to explain to them.”
“Yes,” said Larsen. “The vulnerability.”
Gull said, “Fortunately, we’re not talking about a huge number. Unlike physicians, each of us handles only forty, fifty patients at any given time. Albin and I divided up the actives and contacted each one. We’re still working on former patients, but it’s tough finding them. Mary didn’t hold on to her files for longer than a year.”
His voice was smooth and soft, but talking seemed to take the wind out of him. He wiped his forehead. The sweat kept coming.
“Is that typical?” said Milo. “Destroying files?”
“It’s something each therapist decides independently.”
“What about you and Dr. Larsen?”
“I hold on to files for two years. What about you, Albin?”
Larsen said, “It depends, but generally that’s about right.”
“No official group policy,” said Milo.
“We’re not an official group,” said Larsen. “We share an office suite.”
“So what happens to Dr. Koppel’s active patients now? In terms of treatment?”
Franco Gull said, “Those who choose to continue with either Albin or me are free to do so. If they prefer a female therapist, we’re happy to refer them out.”
“Sounds pretty organized,” said Milo.
“We need to be. As Albin said, we’re dealing with extreme vulnerability. What could be worse for someone needy than to be cast adrift so abruptly?” Gull shook his head and his wavy hair shimmied. “It’s a nightmare for them and for us. Unbelievable.”
“Dr. Koppel’s murder.”
Gull’s sad eyes tightened. “Are we talking about anything else?”
Albin Larsen speared a tomato but didn’t eat it.
“It’s a major loss,” said Gull. “For her patients, for us, for… Mary was vibrant, brilliant, dynamic. She was someone I learned from, Detective. It’s hard to comprehend that she’s really gone.”
He glanced at Larsen.
Larsen toyed with a lettuce leaf, and said, “To be snuffed out like that.” He wiped his eyes. “We’ve lost a dear friend.”
Franco Gull said, “Do you have any idea who did it?”
Milo placed his elbows on the picnic table. “I know you gentlemen are bound by confidentiality, but a viable threat nullifies that. Are either of you aware of any patient ever making a threat against Dr. Koppel? Any patient who resented her deeply?”
“A patient?” said Gull. “Why would you even think that?”
“I’m thinking anything, Doctor. Covering all bases.”
“No,” said Gull. “There are no patients like that. Absolutely not.” He groped for a napkin, took another swipe at his brow.
Milo glanced at Albin Larsen. Larsen shook his head.
Milo said, “Dr. Koppel dealt with troubled people. It seems a logical place to start.”
“Logical in the abstract,” said Gull, “but it doesn’t apply to our practice. Mary didn’t treat sociopaths.”
“Who did she treat?” said Milo.
“People with everyday problems of adjustment,” said Gull. “Anxiety, depression, what used to be called neurosis. And basically sound individuals facing choice points.”
“All kinds of guidance,” said Gull.
“You don’t call ’em neurotic anymore, huh?”
“We avoid labeling, Detective. Avoid stigma. Therapy’s not treatment in the way a medical procedure is- a doctor doing something to a passive patient. It’s contractual. We see ourselves as partners with our patients.”
“Doctor and patient working as a team.”
“Problems of adjustment,” said Milo. “You’re absolutely certain there were no dangerous people in Dr. Koppel’s practice.”
Albin Larsen said, “Mary would not have enjoyed working with violent individuals.”
“And she did only what she enjoyed?”
“Mary was busy. She could choose her patients.”
“Why wouldn’t she enjoy working with violent people, Dr. Larsen?”
“Mary was committed to nonviolence.”
“We all are, Doctor, but that doesn’t mean we’re insulated from the uglier aspects of life.”
Larsen said, “Dr. Koppel was able to insulate herself.”
Milo said, “Really?”
“I’ve heard radio tapes where Dr. Koppel talked about prison reform.”
“Ah,” said Larsen. “I’m afraid that was my influence. Was I on the tapes, as well?”
“Don’t think so, Doctor.”
Larsen’s mouth got tiny. “It was a topic I got Mary interested in. Not in a clinical sense. She was a socially aware individual, had a human as well as an academic interest in the larger social issues. But when it came to her practice, she concentrated on the everyday problems of everyday people. Women, mostly. And doesn’t that say something about the likelihood of her murderer being a patient?”
“Why’s that, Dr. Larsen?”
“Criminal violence is usually male-generated.”
“You’ve got an interest in criminal psychology?” said Milo.
“Only as part of the social rubric,” said Larsen.
Franco Gull said, “Albin’s being modest. He’s done terrific things as a human rights advocate.”
“From that to private practice,” I said.
Larsen glanced at me. “One does what one can in a given time.”
Milo said, “Human rights doesn’t pay the bills.”
Larsen turned to him. “I’m sorry to say, you’re correct, Detective.”
“So,” said Milo, “no psychopaths on Dr. Koppel’s patient roster.”
A statement, not a question, and neither psychologist responded. Albin Larsen ate a shred of lettuce. Franco Gull examined his gold watch.
Milo whipped out the picture of the blond girl. “Either of you gentlemen recognize her?”
Larsen and Gull examined the death shot. Both shook their heads.
Gull licked his lips. Sweat beaded atop his nose, and he wiped it away with irritation. “Who is she?”
“Was,” said Larsen. “She’s clearly deceased.” To Milo: “Is this related in some way to Mary’s murder?”
“Don’t know, yet, Doctor.”
“Did Mary know this girl?” said Gull.
“Don’t know that either, Doctor. So neither of you have seen her around the office.”
Gull said, “Never.”
Larsen shook his head. Tugged at a button of his sweater-vest. “Detective, is there something we need to know about? In terms of our own safety?”
“Are you worried about your safety?”
“You’ve just showed us a picture of a dead girl. I assume you feel her death is related to Mary’s. What’s really going on here?”
Milo put the photo back in his pocket. “All I can advise you is to exercise normal caution. Should either of you come up with a threatening patient- or anyone else from Dr. Koppel’s life who seems suspicious- you’d do best to let me know.”
He crossed his legs, looked over at the frolicking children. An ice-cream truck cruised through the alley and rang its bell. Some of the kids began pointing and jumping.
Franco Gull said, “Is there anything else? I’ve got a totally booked afternoon.”
“Just a few more questions,” said Milo. “About the structure of your partnership with Dr. Koppel.”
“Albin told you, it’s not a formal partnership,” said Gull. “We share office space.”
“A purely financial arrangement?”
“Well,” said Gull, “I wouldn’t reduce it to just that. Mary was our dear friend.”
“What happens, now that Dr. Koppel’s dead, in terms of the lease?”
Gull stared at him.
Milo said, “I need to ask.”
“Albin and I haven’t talked about that, Detective. It’s all we can do to take care of Mary’s patients.” He looked at Larsen.
Larsen said, “I’d be in favor of you and I picking up Mary’s share of the rent, Franco.”
“Sure,” said Gull. To us: “It’s no big deal. The rent’s reasonable, and Mary’s share was smaller than ours.”
“Why’s that?” said Milo.
“Because,” said Gull, “she found the building for us, arranged an excellent lease, oversaw the entire renovation.”
“Good negotiator,” said Milo.
“She was,” said Larsen. “Her skills were facilitated by the fact that her ex-husband owns the building.”
Franco Gull said, “Everyone calls him Sonny.”
Milo said, “Renting from the ex.”
“Mary and Sonny got along well,” said Gull. “The divorce was years ago. Amicable.”
“No problems at all?”
“He gave us a sweetheart lease, Detective. Doesn’t that speak volumes?”
“Guess so,” said Milo.
Gull said, “You won’t find anyone who knew Mary well who’s going to bad-mouth her. She was a fabulous woman. This is really hard for us.”
His chin trembled. He put his sunshades back on.
“Gotta be rough,” said Milo. “Sorry for your loss.”
He made no move to leave.
Larsen said, “Is there anything else?”
“This is just a formality, Doctors, but where was each of you the night Dr. Koppel was killed?”
“I was home,” said Gull. “With my wife and kids.”
“How many kids?”
Out came the notepad. “And where do you live, Doctor?”
“So you and Dr. Koppel were neighbors?”
“Mary helped us find the house.”
“Through Mr. Koppel?”
“No,” said Gull. “As far as I know Sonny’s only into commercial. Mary knew we were looking to upgrade. She was taking a walk and noticed the FOR SALE sign and thought it might meet our needs.”
“How long ago was that?”
“A year- fourteen months.”
“Before that you lived…”
“In Studio City,” said Gull. “Why is this relevant?”
Milo turned to Larsen. “And you, sir. Where were you that night?”
“Also at home,” said Larsen. “I live in an apartment on Harvard Street in Santa Monica, north of Wilshire.” He recited the address in a soft, weary voice.
“Live by yourself?”
“I do.” Larsen smiled. “I read and went to bed. I’m afraid there’s no one to verify that.”
Milo smiled back. “What’d you read?”
“Sartre. Transcendence of the Ego.”
“Sometimes a challenge is good.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Milo. “I’ll tell you, this case is a challenge.”
Larsen didn’t answer.
Franco Gull checked his watch again. “I really need to head back to the office.”
“One more question,” said Milo. “I know you can’t tell me about any deep dark patient secrets because of ethical restraints. But I do have a question that I think you are allowed to answer. Do any of your patients drive a dark Ford Aerostar minivan? Black, dark blue, maybe gray?”
Above us, the elm canopy rustled and the high, gleeful sounds of childhood play drifted over. The ice-cream truck rang its bell and drove off.
Albin Larsen said, “A patient? No, I’ve never seen that.” His eyes drifted toward Gull.
Franco Gull said, “I agree. No patients I’m aware of drive a car like that. Not that I’d notice. I’m in the office when they park their cars, don’t know what any of them drive- unless it comes up in therapy.”
His brow was slick with sweat.
Milo scribbled in his pad and closed it. “Thanks, gentlemen. That’s all for now.”
“There’ll be more?” said Gull.
“Depends upon what we find in the way of evidence.”
“Fingerprints?” said Gull. “That kind of thing?”
“That kind of thing.”
Gull stood so quickly he nearly lost his balance. “Makes sense.” Larsen got to his feet, too. Gull was a head taller and a foot and a half broader at the shoulders. High school football, maybe college.
We watched the two of them walk to their Mercedeses.
Milo said, “Now wasn’t that interesting?”
“Sweaty fellow,” Milo murmured, as he called DMV.
It didn’t take long to get the data. Three vehicles were registered to Franco Arthur Gull on Club Drive. A two-year-old Mercedes, a ’63 Corvette, and a 1999 Ford Aerostar.
“Well, well, well.”
He pulled the Thomas Guide out of my glove compartment, found a map, and jabbed his index finger. “Gull’s house is only a few blocks from Koppel’s, so on the face of it, one of his cars in the neighborhood isn’t weird. But the witness said the van drove away from his street. Seemed to be looking for something.”
I said, “Cruising back and forth at 2 A.M. isn’t neighborly. It’s the kind of thing stalkers do.”
“A shrink with problems in that area. Wouldn’t that be interesting?”
“A shrink the court refers stalkers to. Maybe Gavin found out somehow, and that’s why he dropped Gull and switched to Koppel.”
“Gull driving by Koppel’s house,” he said. “She wouldn’t have stood for that. Gavin tells her, he’s lighting a tinderbox.”
“On the other hand,” I said.
“Three vehicles in the Gull family. The Mercedes for him and a vintage Vette for weekend fun. That leaves the Aerostar for the wife.”
“Suspicious wife,” he said. “Oh, yeah. Gull and Koppel were having a fling.”
“When you talked about evidence, Gull asked about fingerprints. It struck me as out of context. That could be because he knows his prints are in that batch you dusted at Koppel’s house.”
“More than partners. More than neighbors. She finds him a house close by, all the easier for drop-in fun. Mrs. G suspects and drives by at 2 A.M. Checking up. No wonder the guy’s perspiring like a marathon runner.”
I said, “You’ll find out soon enough. He’s got a state license, so his prints are in the system.
He flipped the little blue phone open. “I’ll call the techs right now. Meanwhile, let’s visit the wife.”
“What about excavating Gavin’s room?”
“That, too,” he said. “but later.” Big grin. “All of a sudden, I’m busy.”
The Gull residence was a Tudor, not unlike Mary Lou Koppel’s, a bit less imposing on a flat lot with no view. Ballpark-quality lawn, the usual luxuriant beds of impatiens, a liquidambar sapling just beginning to turn color, staked in the crater vacated by a larger tree.
The Aerostar van was parked in the driveway. Deep blue. Two bumper stickers: MY CHILD’S AN HONOR STUDENT AT WILD ROSE SCHOOL. And GO LAKERS!
An Hispanic maid answered Milo’s knock. He asked for “La señora, por favor,” and she said “Un momento,” and closed the door. When it opened again, a petite, very slim blond-ponytailed woman in her thirties stood there, looking distracted. Milo’s badge changed nothing. She continued to look through us.
White-blond, ice-blue eyes, small bones, beautiful features. Even standing still, she seemed graceful. But dangerously slim; her skin bordered on translucence, and her black velvet sweats bagged. She’d done a fine job with her makeup, but the red rims around her eyes were impossible to conceal.
Milo said, “Mrs. Gull.”
“May we come in?”
“This is about a recent crime in the neighborhood.”
One slender hand drummed the other. “What,” she said, “another mugging in Rancho Park?”
“Something more serious, ma’am. And I’m afraid the victim’s someone you know.”
“Her,” said Patty Gull. Her voice had gone deeper, and any trace of distraction had vanished. Her hands separated, dropped, clamped on her hips. Her lower jaw slung forward. As fine-featured and aquiline as she was, her face took on a mastiff scowl.
“Sure, come in,” she said.
The living room was wood-shuttered and paneled in oak stained so dark it was nearly black. The decor looked as if it had been assembled in one day by someone with respect for convention, a tight deadline, and a nervous budget: middling antique copies, equine prints under glass, the kind of still-life paintings you can pick up at sidewalk sales. Further stabs at re-creating manor living were accomplished by a riot of floral chintz, too-shiny brass gewgaws, and artificially distressed surfaces. Just beyond the room was a hallway filled with toys and other child clutter.
Patty Gull perched on the edge of an overstuffed sofa, and we faced her from matching wing chairs. She took hold of a tasseled cushion, held it over her abdomen, like a hot-water bottle.
Milo said, “I noticed your bumper sticker. Someone a Lakers fan?”
“Me,” she said. “I used to be a Lakers Girl. Back when I was young and cute.”
“Not that long ago-”
“Don’t stroke me,” said Patty Gull. “I like to think I’ve held up pretty well, but I’m going to be forty in two years, and I screwed up my body giving my husband two gorgeous children. He pays me back by fucking other women whenever he can.”
We said nothing.
She said, “He’s a pussy hound, Detective. For that, I could’ve hooked up with a basketball player. Even one on the bench.” Her laughter was brittle. “I was a good Lakers Girl, went home after the games, didn’t party, held on to my morals. Nice Catholic girl, told to marry well. I married a psychologist, figured I’d be getting some stability.” She punched the tasseled pillow. Flung it to one side and hugged herself.
“Patty. I’ve had it, he’s history.”
“You’re getting divorced?”
“Maybe,” she said. “You take stock of your life, and say ‘This is what I have to do,’ and it seems so obvious. Then you step back and all the complications rain down on you. Kids, money- it’s always the woman who gets screwed moneywise. I’ve stayed out of Franco’s business affairs. He could hide everything, and I wouldn’t know.”
“Have you talked to a lawyer?”
“Not officially. I have a friend who’s a lawyer. She was a Lakers Girl, too, but unlike me, she was smart enough to go all the way with her education. I always wanted to get an MBA, do something in the corporate world. Maybe in sports, I love sports. Instead…” She threw up her hands. “Why am I telling you this? You’re here about her.”
“Dr. Mary Lou fuck-another-woman’s-husband Koppel. You think Franco killed her?”
Patty Gull examined her fingernails.
“Should I think that, Mrs. Gull?”
“Probably not. The papers said she was shot, and Franco doesn’t own a gun, wouldn’t have a clue how to use one. Also, he wasn’t with her that night. I know because I got up in the middle of the night and drove by her house looking for his car, and it wasn’t there.”
“What time was this, ma’am?”
“Must’ve been close to two in the morning. I went to bed at ten, like I always do. Big swinging life and all that. Franco came in before I could fall asleep and we had another fight and he left and I went to sleep. When I woke up and he wasn’t there and it was nearly two, I really lost it.”
“Because he hadn’t come home.”
“Because,” said Patty Gull, “he wasn’t being penitent. You’re having serious problems and you claim you’re penitent and then you have another fight. What do you do? You approach your wife on bended knees and beg her forgiveness. That’s the constructive thing to do. The caring, giving thing. Franco would tell a patient to do that. What does he do? Stalk out, turn off his car phone, and stay away.”
“So you went looking for him.”
“Figuring Dr. Gull would be with Dr. Koppel.”
“Doctor this, Doctor that. You’re making it sound like a medical convention. He was fucking her. I found them together before.” She grabbed for the same pillow, snatched it up, bounced it on a bony knee. “Bastard and bitch didn’t even try to be subtle. We live four blocks apart. I mean, rent a room for God’s sake, don’t soil your own nest.”
“You found them at her house.”
“A month ago. This is after Franco promised he’d finally deal with his problem.”
“Being a pussy hound.”
Hearing her own words repeated seemed to shock her. She said, “Uh, yes. He’s always been… it’s always been difficult. I’ve been more patient than Mother Teresa, they should canonize me. And then I find him with her- that was too much- she wasn’t even attractive. Now we’re talking another level of shoving it in my face.”
“How’d you find them?” said Milo.
“Oh, you’re going to love this,” said Patty Gull. “This is great. Franco gave me the old b.s. about working late. Then he had his answering service call me just before nine to let me know he was still tied up, it would be even later. I knew right away something was up. Franco doesn’t see emergency patients. Most of what he does is hand-hold bored Beverly Hills bitches. So I decided to drive over to the office and confront him. Enough is enough, right? So I tell Maria to watch the kids and I start driving to the office and something, I still don’t know what it was, makes me take McConnell. ’Cause it’s north, it’s basically on the way. And I pass her house, and there’s his car. Parked in front, parked right in front. Is that gall, or what?”
“I parked, ran up those stairs all the way to her backyard, and there they were in the back room. She’s got this big-screen TV and on it was a porn video and apparently the bitch and the bastard were feeling playful, decided to imitate whatever filth they were watching.”
“Wow,” said Milo.
“Wow, indeed. They didn’t even bother to lock the door, and I just walked in, walked right past them and they were so into what they were doing that they didn’t even hear me. It wasn’t until I switched off the TV that they opened their eyes.”
She closed her own. Remembering.
“That was delicious,” she said. “The expressions on their faces. The way they looked at me.”
“Shock,” said Milo.
“Beyond shock.” Patty Gull smiled. “It was like someone from another planet- another galaxy- had landed a UFO in that room. And I just stood there, let them know with my stare that they were busted scum and there was nothing they could do to change that. Then I walked out and drove back home. Twenty minutes later, Franco showed up, looking like he had cancer. I bolted the door and didn’t let him in and told him if he tried to trespass, I’d call the police. He left, I knew he would, he always leaves. I didn’t see him until the next day. He went to work and was a good little psychologist and came home and tried to talk to me using his psychologist voice. The only reason I let him in was by that time I’d spoken to my friend the lawyer, and she’d slowed me down.”
“She advised you not to file.”
“I was ready to do it, I really was, but she said life would get really complicated faster than I could imagine. So I allowed the bastard to come home, but he’s not allowed to touch me, and I don’t talk to him unless the kids are present.”
Milo said, “That was a month ago. Between then and the night Dr. Koppel was killed, have you driven past her house?”
“All the time.”
“Every other day,” said Patty Gull. “At least. Sometimes every day. It’s on my way to go shopping, whatever, so why not? I figure if I do serve Franco, I might as well pile up the evidence. My friend says even with no-fault divorce, the more you can get, the better.”
“Have you seen his car there, since?”
“No,” she said. “Unfortunately. Maybe they’re doing it in the office. Or at some motel.”
She clenched her eyes shut.
Milo said, “You do think they continued their affair after you discovered them.”
Her eyes flipped open. “That’s what Franco does. Fucks and fucks and fucks. He’s sick.”
“How many other women has he-”
“No,” said Patty Gull. “I don’t want to go there. Some things are private.”
“Were any of them his patients?” said Milo.
“I don’t know about that. Franco’s business was his domain. That was the deal.”
“The marriage deal. I gave up my career and my entire life for him and had kids, and he went out and provided.”
“He provide pretty well?”
She waved a languid hand around the dark, floral room. “He did okay.”
“I conceived it myself. I’m thinking of going back and studying decorating.”
“Mrs. Gull, in terms of the other women-”
“I said I don’t want to go there, okay? What’s the difference? I don’t know if he fucked his patients. I do know he fucked her. But he didn’t kill the bitch. I told you, he wasn’t there that night. And he doesn’t have the guts.”
“Where was he that night?”
“Some hotel, I forget- ask him which one.”
“How do you know he was there?”
“Because he called me and left his room number, and I called him back and he was there- the place on Beverly and Pico, used to be a Ramada, I don’t know what it is now.”
“What’d you guys talk about?”
“Nothing pretty,” she said. “Now please leave. I have things to do.”
“Don’t be offended by this question, ma’am, but where were you-”
“I didn’t kill the bitch either. Guns scare me, I’ve never even touched one. That’s one thing Franco and I have in common. We’re for outlawing guns, just despise what guns have done to our country. Besides, that night Franco wasn’t there with her, so why would I bother paying the bitch a visit?”
“You had reason to resent Dr. Koppel. Why not have a chat?”
“At that hour?”
“You were out driving at that hour.”
“Five minutes, back and forth,” said Patty Gull. “Just to see. I looked for his Benz, didn’t see it, drove back home, took an Ambien, and slept like a baby.”
Milo said nothing.
“Detective, if resentment was enough of a motive, I’d be killing tons of women, not just her.” She laughed, this time with genuine glee. “I’d be one of those serial killers.”
Out came the picture of the dead girl. “Know her, ma’am?”
Patty Gull’s bravado crumbled. Her mouth opened and her jaw shook. “Is she- she is, isn’t she?”
“Yes. Do you know her?”
“No, no, of course not- is she one of Franco’s- did he-”
“Right now, we don’t know who she is.”
“So why are you showing it to me- take it away, it’s horrible.”
Milo began to comply, but her hand shot out and held the photo in place.
“She looks like me. Not as pretty as I was at that age. But pretty enough, she’s a pretty girl.” She placed the photo in her lap, continued to stare.
“She looks like me. It’s horrible.”
We left Patty Gull sitting in the room she’d decorated.
Outside, Milo said, “Scary lady. Am I sweating?”
“She hates her husband but is sure he didn’t kill Koppel, provides what she thinks is an alibi. But her not seeing Gull’s car at Koppel’s the night of the murder says nothing. It’s a two-car garage, he could’ve moved his inside. Especially after being caught once. Or, he made sure to park several blocks away. A third possibility is he checked into the hotel and took a cab.”
“Hell,” he said, “he could’ve walked, it’s a mile and a half.” We headed for the car. “If he did call a taxi, I can find out. Gull interests you, the way he does me?”
“He’s smart enough to cover his tracks the way our boy’s been doing. And even if Patty’s exaggerating, his record with women is interesting. Also, he and Gavin didn’t get along. What if it was more than poor therapeutic rapport? What if Gavin learned something that made him a threat to Gull?”
“Sleeping with a patient,” he said. “Somehow Gavin finds out about it- hanging around the office, being obsessive. He talked about uncovering scandal, now he found one. But then why would Gull kill Koppel? They were lovers.”
“Maybe her indiscretions didn’t extend to murder. She figured out what had happened to Gavin and threatened to turn Gull in. Or the affair was no longer useful to Gull. Or both.”
“You’re talking about one cold guy.”
“Not that cold,” I said. “He sweats easily. I’m talking about a guy who experiences anxiety but still loves taking risks. Someone who sleeps with another woman four blocks from his house, gets busted, and possibly goes back for more.”
“Mary Lou threatening to turn him in… she sure wasn’t forthcoming when I spoke to her. Then again, maybe Gull hadn’t broken it off with her, yet. If he did it a few days later, he’d have two scorned women to deal with… what do you think about Patty’s seeing a resemblance in the dead girl?”
“It didn’t strike me,” I said. “I saw it as Patty having ego problems, but maybe she’s onto something.”
“Gull murdering the old lady symbolically? Right from the beginning you saw this as a symbolic deal.”
“If Gull’s our guy, it could also tie in with Flora Newsome. She was Mary Lou Koppel’s patient, so Gull would have had opportunity to see her. Combine Flora’s feelings of sexual inadequacy, Gull’s view of himself as a cocksman and the prestige of his position, and you’ve got fertile ground for an easy seduction.”
“Gull does her, then kills her. His lover’s patient, talk about taking risks.”
“By the time Flora was killed, she was dating Brian Van Dyne. Maybe Dr. Gull doesn’t take well to rejection. By a patient or a lover.”
“Evil shrink,” he said. “All that sweating. Someone that calculating, you’d think he could keep it under control.”
“It’s one thing to be cool when you’re calling the shots, be it seduction or murder,” I said. “Setting up the scene, choreographing, dominating because you’ve picked submissive partners. Being investigated by the police changes all that. All of a sudden, he’s placed in the one-down position.”
“My charm intimidates him?”
“Something like that.”
“So the best bet is come on strong with the bastard, bulldoze over him.”
“You got it,” I said. “Method acting.”
“The curtain rises,” he said. “Let’s boogie.”
We drove to Franco Gull’s office building, parked in an empty slot next to Gull’s Mercedes, and headed for the rear door. A janitor was vacuuming the ground-floor carpeting. All six doors to the Charitable Planning suite were closed, and the corridor smelled of inactivity and that same popcorn fragrance.
That same feeling of disuse, and I said so to Milo.
Milo hadn’t taken his eye off the janitor. Now, he went over to the guy. Skinny guy, midthirties, with the burnished skin of the hard-drinking homeless, a three-day stubble, lank brown hair, scared-rabbit eyes. He wore a UC Berkeley sweatshirt over baggy gray sweatpants and filthy sneakers. His fingernails were black at the edges. He kept his head down and pushed the vacuum cleaner, trying to pretend a big, hefty detective wasn’t heading his way.
Milo moved in that surprising, quick way he can muster, bending and flicking off the machine. When he straightened, he’d pushed closer, and his smile was all the man could see. “Hey.”
“Quiet afternoon down here on the ground floor.”
The man licked his lips. Very scared rabbit. “Yeah,” he finally said.
“What’s Charitable Planning all about?”
“Beats me.” The man had a whiny, congested voice, the kind that makes everything sound evasive. His shoulders rose and fell, rose again, and remained bunched up tight around his scrawny neck. Broken blood vessels explored his nose and cheeks. His lips were cracked and dry, and tattoos snaked their way up his wrist.
Milo glanced at them, and the man tried to slide his hand back into his sleeve.
“UC Berkeley, huh?”
The man didn’t answer.
“Work here long?”
“How long’s a while?”
“Ah… mebbe a… month, two.”
“I do a bunch of buildings for the owner.”
“Ever see anyone actually work at Charitable Planning?”
“That a tough question?” said Milo. “Required you to think?”
“I… ah… I want to answer right.”
“Truthful or right?”
Milo took hold of the man’s right wrist, slid the sleeve of the sweatshirt up a scrawny forearm. Grimy skin was specked with discs of scar tissue, most of it concentrated in the crook. The tattoos were blue-black sparked with intermittent red blotches, clearly homemade. Poorly rendered naked women with oversized breasts. A dull-eyed snake with dripping fangs.
Milo said, “Get these at UC Berkeley?”
“What’s your real alma mater? San Quentin or Chico?”
The man licked his lips again. “Neither.”
“Where’d you do your time?”
“So you’re a short-term guy.”
“What’s your specialty?”
“Drugs, but I’m clean.”
“Meaning burglary and shoplifting and larceny.”
The man placed one hand on the stalk of the vacuum cleaner. “Never any larceny.”
“Any assaults or other bad stuff?” said Milo. “You know I’m gonna find out.”
“One time,” said the man, “I did a battery thing. But the other guy started it, and they paroled me early.”
“Weapon of choice?”
“It was his knife. I took it away from him. It was an accident, mostly.”
“Mostly,” said Milo. “You cut him bad?”
“How about you show me some ID?”
“I do something wrong?”
“Perish the thought, amigo. Just being thorough- you know why we’re here, right?”
The man shrugged.
“Why’re we here, amigo?”
“What happened to the lady doc upstairs.”
“You don’t know her name?”
“Dr. Koppel,” said the man. “The ex-wife. They got along good.”
“Lovey-dovey,” said Milo.
“No, I… uh… Mr. Koppel always said just give her what she wants.”
“What she wants?”
“If there’s a problem. In the building. He said we should fix it fast, give her what she wants.”
“He doesn’t do that for all his tenants?”
The man was silent.
“So you’re trying to tell me not to suspect Mr. Koppel for killing his ex because they were still buddies.”
“No, I… uh… I don’t know nothing about nothing.” The man rolled his sweatshirt sleeve down his arm.
“Any ideas about who did kill Dr. Koppel?”
“Didn’t know her, didn’t hardly never see her.”
“Except to fix things for her.”
“No,” protested the man. “I don’t do that stuff, I call the plumbers, whatever, and they fix it. I’m just here to clean. Mostly I do Mr. Koppel’s buildings in the Valley.”
“But today, you’re on this side of the hill.”
“I go where they tell me.”
“Mr. Koppel’s company. They got properties all over.”
“Who told you to come here, today?”
“Mr. Koppel’s secretary. One of them. Heather. I can give you the number, you can check it out.”
“Maybe I will,” said Milo. “Now, how about some ID?”
The man fished in a front pant pocket and fished out a wad of bills secured by a rubber band. He slipped off the band, thumbed through the money- grubby singles and fives- and drew out a California identification card.
“Roland Nelson Kristof,” said Milo. “This your current address, Roland?”
Milo scanned the card. “Sixth Street… this is right past Alvarado, right?”
“Lots of halfway houses there. That your situation?”
“So you still paroling.”
“How’d you get the job with Mr. Koppel?”
“My PO got it for me.”
Milo gave him back his ID. “I’m going to run you through, Roland. Because a halfway-house guy working a building where someone got murdered is something I need to check out. I find out you lied to me, I pay a visit to your crib, and you know I’m gonna discover something that busts your parole, you know I am. So if there’s something you wanna tell me, now’s the time.”
“There’s nothing,” said Kristof.
“You never had problems with women? No bad behavior in that department?”
“Never,” said Kristof. Until then his delivery had been flat, mechanical. Now a hint of outrage had crept in.
“Never,” said Milo.
“Never, not once. I been a junkie since I was fourteen. I don’t hurt no one.”
“Still on the junk though.”
“I’m getting older, it’s getting better.”
“The hunger,” said Kristof. “Days are getting shorter.”
“How’s your sex life, Roland?”
“Ain’t got none.” Kristof’s declaration was free of regret, almost cheerful.
“You sound happy about that.”
“Yeah, I am,” said Kristof. “You know what dope does to all that.”
“No drive,” said Milo.
“Zactly.” Kristof smiled wearily, flashing intermittent, brown teeth. “Something else not to worry about.”
Milo copied down his address and allowed him to resume vacuuming.
As we climbed the stairs to Pacifica-West Psychological Services and the roar of the vacuum cleaner faded, he said, “That’s one habitual con.”
I said, “Criminal burnout. Get to a certain age, and it’s too pooped to pop.”
“Wanna guess how old he is?”
No one sat in the waiting room. Dr. Larsen’s session light was off. Dr. Gull’s shone red.
“It’s three-forty,” I said. “If he does the forty-five-minute hour, he’ll be out shortly.”
“I love your profession,” said Milo. “Imagine if surgeons could do that. Cutting out three-quarters of the appendix and billing.”
“Hey,” I said, “we use the time to chart and to reflect.”
“Or if you’re Dr. Gull, to put back all the stuff you swept off your desk when you decided to reflectively hump your patient all over it.”
At three-forty-six the door to the waiting room opened and a flushed, attractive woman in her forties backed out, still chattering to Franco Gull.
He was close behind her, holding her by the elbow. When he saw us, he dropped his hand. The woman sensed his tension, and her cheeks pinkened.
I waited for Gull to start sweating, but he recovered his composure and ushered the woman toward the door, saying, “Next week, then.”
The woman was brunette and well padded, swimming in a sea of gray cashmere. She brushed at her hair, favored us with a brittle smile, and left.
Gull said, “Again? Now what?”
Milo said, “We met your wife.”
Long silence. “I see.”
Gull said, “Patty’s going through a rough patch. She’ll be fine.”
“She didn’t sound fine.”
Gull smoothed back his hair. “Why don’t you come in? I’m free for the next hour.”
“Or at least forty-five minutes of it,” said Milo, under his breath.
Gull didn’t hear. He’d turned and was striding toward the trio of inner offices. Albin Larsen’s and Mary Lou Koppel’s doors were closed.
Gull’s was open. He stopped before entering.
“My wife- has got problems.”
“Bet she does,” said Milo. “Maybe she could use some therapy.”
Gull’s office was two-thirds the size of Mary Lou Koppel’s and set up surprisingly simply. No bird’s-eye maple paneling, just beige paint on the walls. Thin, beige carpeting blurred the room’s boundaries. Off-white leather couches and armchairs were loosely arranged. Koppel had displayed crystal eggs and Indian pottery. Franco Gull’s sole nod to decoration were cheaply framed photographic prints of animals and their young.
I found myself sniffing for the aroma of sex, smelled only a syrupy mélange of perfumes.
Gull sprawled on a sofa and invited us to sit. Before our butts hit the leather, he said, “The thing you need to know about Patty is that she’s dealing with some very serious issues.”
“Marital infidelity?” said Milo.
Gull’s lips produced a pained semicolon. “Her problems go way beyond that. Her father was extremely abusive.”
“Ah,” said Milo. “Ah” was a running joke between us. The old therapist’s dodge. He turned his head so Gull couldn’t see him wink. “All this talk about Mrs. Gull. Guess wives don’t get confidentiality.”
Gull’s eyes sparked. A fleck of moisture appeared from under the shade of a wavy, salt-and-pepper forelock.
I’d been right: Losing the power rule played havoc with his adrenals.
“I’m telling you about Patty because you need to put her in context.”
“Meaning I shouldn’t believe anything she tells me.”
“That depends on what she told you.”
“For one thing,” said Milo, “she thinks you didn’t kill Dr. Koppel.”
Gull had been primed to protest. He regrouped, shifted position. “There you go, even someone who’s not feeling kindly toward me knows I’d never do anything like that. I don’t even own a-”
“You hate guns,” said Milo. “She told us that, too.”
“Guns are an abomination.”
“Mrs. Gull feels she’s provided you with an alibi for the night Dr. Koppel was killed.”
“There you go,” Gull repeated, sitting a bit straighter.
“Yeah, I’m going strong,” said Milo. “The thing is, Doctor, what your wife considers an alibi, we don’t.”
“What? Oh, come on, you’ve got to be kidding.” Sweat beads popped at Gull’s hairline. “Why would I need an alibi?”
“Don’t you want to know what Mrs. Gull told us?”
“Not really.” Theatrical sigh, then: “Fine, tell me.”
“Mrs. Gull drove by Dr. Koppel’s house around 2 A.M., searching for your car. She didn’t see it-”
“She did that?” said Gull. “How… sad. As I told you, Patty’s got serious trust issues.”
“You blame her?” said Milo.
“Why did you speak to Patty in the first place? Why would you even consider something so far-fetched-”
“Let’s get back to the alibi, Doctor. Your car not being parked on McConnell. That really doesn’t mean much. You could’ve parked somewhere else in the neighborhood. Or taken a cab from the hotel you stayed at- which was…?”
Gull didn’t answer.
“This is my personal life, Detective.”
“Not any longer, sir.”
“Why?” said Gull. “Why are you doing this?”
Out came Milo’s pad. “Which hotel, sir? We’ll find out anyway.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. The Crowne Plaza.”
“Pico and Beverly Drive.”
“You stay there often?”
“Why would I?”
“It’s close to your office, for when you and the missus have a spat.”
“We don’t have spats that often.”
Milo’s pencil tapped the pad. “Same question, Doctor.”
“I’ve lost track of your questions.”
“Do you stay there often?”
“When your wife throws you out.”
Gull flushed. His hands tightened. His fists were enormous. “My marital issues are of no concern to-”
“What I’m getting at,” said Milo, “is do they know you at the Crowne Plaza?”
“I don’t know… those places.”
“What about them?”
“Businesslike, anonymous. It’s not exactly the wayfarer’s inn,” said Gull. “And I’m really not there that often.”
“How often is not that often?” said Milo.
“I couldn’t quantify.”
“Your credit card records could.”
“My- this is absolutely-”
“You don’t consider the hotel a home away from home? Being so close to the office.”
“I don’t need a home- I paid cash.”
“It seemed simpler.”
“For when you bring women there.”
Gull shook his head. “This is ridiculous.”
“Ever bring Dr. Koppel there?”
“No need to, I guess,” said Milo. “What with her living so close to the office. And to your house. Make a stopover after work, then continue on to the missus and kids.”
Gull’s brow was slick and pale. “I don’t see what your point is-”
“How far would you say it is, from the office to Dr. Koppel’s? A mile?”
Gull rolled his shoulders. “Closer to two.”
“All the way up Pico to Motor and then south to Cheviot.”
“Let’s split the difference,” said Milo. “Mile and a half.”
Gull shook his head. “I really think it’s closer to two.”
“Sounds like maybe you’ve clocked it, Doctor.”
“No,” said Gull. “I’m just- forget it. This is pointless.”
“You look in pretty good shape, Doctor. Work out?”
“I’ve got a treadmill at home.”
“A little mile and a half walk on a cool June night wouldn’t challenge you, would it?”
“That never happened.”
“You never walked from the Crowne Plaza to Dr. Koppel’s house.”
“The night she was killed,” said Milo. “Where were you?”
“At the hotel.”
“Did you call up for food?”
“No, I had dinner before I checked in.”
“Before the tiff.”
“Yes,” said Gull. He knuckled an eye. Sleeved his brow.
“You stayed in the hotel all night,” said Milo.
Gull rubbed his jaw. “I rented a movie. That’ll be on record.”
“I will,” said Milo, “but all that proves is you pushed a button on your remote, not that you stayed to watch.”
Gull stared at him. “This is absurd, I didn’t kill Mary.”
“What was the title of the movie?”
Gull looked away and didn’t answer.
“It was an adult film. I don’t remember the title.”
“I guess,” said Milo, “it wouldn’t help asking you to recap the plot.”
Gull managed a sickly smile.
Milo said, “When did you see Dr. Koppel last?”
“That afternoon,” said Gull. “Both of us were walking patients out to the waiting room, and we said hi. That was the last time.”
“No tryst later that evening?”
“No. That was over.”
“Mary and I.”
“Who broke it off?”
“It was mutual,” said Gull.
“Because it was the right thing to do.”
Milo flipped his pad open, scanned his notes. “Alternatively,” he said, “if you didn’t walk to her house, you could’ve called a cab.”
“It can be verified, Doctor.”
“Verify to your heart’s content.”
Milo slapped the pad shut. Gull gave a start and wiped his brow with his sleeve again.
“Doctor, why did Gavin Quick dump you as a therapist?”
“He didn’t dump me. I transferred him to Mary.”
“No it’s not,” barked Milo. “Gavin lost his privilege when someone shot him. Why’d he transfer away from you, Doctor?”
Gull’s arms had gone rigid, and his palms pressed against the seat cushions, as if bracing himself for takeoff.
“I’m not going to talk to you anymore,” he said. “Not without a lawyer.”
“You’re aware of how that makes you look.”
“I assert my rights, and it makes me look bad?”
“If you’ve got nothing to hide, why have concern about rights?”
“Because,” said Gull, “I don’t want to live in a police state. With all that implies.” He forced a smile. Perspiration glazed his face and his neck. “Did you know, Detective, that of all the professions who joined the Nazi party, the police were the most enthusiastic recruits?”
“Really? I heard it was doctors.”
Gull’s smile faltered. He burned some calories restoring it. “That’s it. Not another word.” He drew a finger across his lips.
“Sure,” said Milo, rising. “No sweat.”
As we left Gull’s office, he got on the phone.
Out in the hallway, Milo said, “Lawyering up.”
I said, “What did it was your question about Gavin transferring to Koppel.”
“Some deep dark secret,” he said. “Something that makes him look bad.”
“I wonder how much the Quicks know.”
“If they know, why didn’t they tell me?”
“Maybe it also reflected poorly on Gavin.”
“What, Gavin found out the guy supposed to help him with his stalking problem had outstalked him, so he decided to expose him? Why wouldn’t his parents talk about that? And how does Koppel figure in?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But everything seems to connect to this place.”
“I’ll have Binchy do a loose surveillance on Gull. See if I can get another baby D on it, too.”
“This ain’t TV, unlimited gizmos and manpower. I’ll be lucky to get two shifts a day.”
We descended the stairs to the ground floor. He said, “So, how effective do you think my leaning on him was?”
“He’s lawyering up,” I said.
“And would an innocent guy do that? Yeah, I got to him… I really wanna know why Gavin left him.”
“The neurologist who sent Gavin to Gull might know something about it. Specialists need to stroke their referral sources, so Gull would have offered some kind of explanation.”
“Singh,” he said. He whipped out his pad, flipped pages. “Leonard Singh, over at St. John’s. You mind doing the doctor-to-doctor bit?”
“Not at all.”
“Also, if you’re still up for calling Ned Biondi, to try to get the blonde’s picture in the papers, go ahead.”
He handed me a sealed envelope stamped PHOTO, DO NOT BEND. “Here’s your chance to be an ‘anonymous source.’ ”
I ran a finger across my lips.
We reached the bottom of the stairs. Roland Kristof and his vacuum cleaner were no longer in sight, and Milo gazed down the empty corridor.
“Ghost town,” he said. “ ‘Charitable Planning.’ You picking up eau de scam?”
“At the very least eau de shadow corporation,” I said. “You hassled Kristof. What about him bugged you?”
“He gave off eau de con in waves, and my nose is always sensitive to that.”
“I thought it might be more than that.”
“A parolee hired by Koppel’s ex, working in the building where three murder victims spent some time. Flora Newsome’s job at the parole office. Before Koppel got killed, we were surmising about an ex-con.”
“Flora again,” he said, and resumed walking.
When we got outside, I said, “It doesn’t bother you?”
“Sonny Koppel hiring a junkie parolee for building maintenance. The whole con connection?”
“Everything bothers me.” When we reached the car, he said, “In terms of Flora, what we were surmising about was her sleeping with a con. She mighta slummed, Alex, but I don’t see her getting anywhere near a burnout like Kristof.”
“So maybe Kristof’s not the only parolee on Koppel’s payroll. Maybe Koppel’s found himself a source of cheap labor. Mary Lou was into prison rehab. There could be some connection.”
“Larsen says he gave her the idea.”
“Larsen was disappointed we didn’t hear him on the interview tapes. Everyone’s got an ego.”
He tried to pull the car door open. I hadn’t unlocked the Seville, his arm strained, and he grunted. By the time I’d turned the key, he’d wandered back toward the alley.
When he returned, he said, “It’s time to meet Mr. Sonny Koppel. Something else that shoulda been done right away. Woman gets killed, go straight for the ex, it’s goddamned Detection 101.”
“You’re dealing with three cases that point in all directions.”
He threw up his hands and laughed. “Supportive therapy again.”
“If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t live in L.A.”
As we drove off, he sank into silence. I crossed Olympic, and he announced he’d face Sheila Quick alone for the toss of Gavin’s room. I dropped him at the station and returned home. Spike was waiting for me at the door, looking forlorn.
That was new. Generally, his game was nonchalance: remaining in the service porch when I came home, waiting me out when walk time approached, feigning sleep until I lifted his limp body and set four paws on the ground.
He snorted, shook a drizzle of saliva my way, licked my hand.
His head dropped, but his eyes remained fixed on me. One ear twitched.
He gazed upward and let out a low, hoarse moan.
“Hey,” I said, bending on one knee and ruffling his neck, “she’ll be home tomorrow.”
In the old days, I’d have added, I miss her, too.
Spike snuffled and rolled over. I scratched his belly. “How about some exercise?”
He snapped to attention. Pant, pant.
I had an old leash stored in my office closet, and by the time I brought it back he was jumping and yelping and scraping at the door.
“Nice to be appreciated,” I said.
He stopped fussing. His expression said, Don’t get carried away.
His stubby little legs and attenuated palate could handle a half mile up the Glen and back. Not bad for a ten-year-old pooch- in bulldog years, he was well past retirement. When we returned, he was famished and parched, and I filled his bowls.
While he ate, I called the most current number I had for Ned Biondi. Ned had retired as a senior writer for the Times years ago, talked about moving to Oregon, so when I got a no-longer-in-service message, I wasn’t surprised. I tried Oregon information, but he wasn’t listed.
I’d treated Ned’s daughter years ago, a brilliant girl with too-high standards who’d starved herself and nearly died. I supposed the fact that Ned hadn’t bothered to leave his forwarding was encouraging. The family didn’t need me anymore. How old would Anne Marie be, now- nearly thirty. Over the years, Ned had phoned to fill me in and I knew she’d gotten married, had a child, was still waffling about a career.
The information always came from Ned. I’d never achieved much rapport with his wife, who’d barely spoken to me during therapy. Once treatment was over, Anne Marie didn’t speak to me either, not even to return follow-up calls. I mentioned it once to Ned, and he grew apologetic and embarassed, so I dropped it. A year after discharge, Anne Marie wrote me an elegant letter of thanks on pink, perfume-scented stationery. The tone was gracious, the message clear: I’m okay. Back off.
No way could I call her to locate Ned. Someone at the paper would know where he was.
As I started to punch in the Times’s main number, call waiting clicked in.
Allison said, “Hi, baby.”
“How’s your day been?”
“Not bad,” I said. “Yours?”
“The usual… do you have a minute?”
“No, no. I was just- yesterday, when I came by- Alex, you know I like Robin, we’ve always gotten along. But when I drove up… seeing you two…”
“I know what it looked like, but she was just thanking me for taking Spike.”
“I know.” Her laugh was flimsy. “I called to tell you I know. Because maybe I let out a little jealous vibe. I was a little bugged. Seeing her kissing you.”
“Chastely,” I said. “On the cheek.”
She laughed again, then grew silent.
“I couldn’t ascertain the site,” she said. “All I saw was two people who… you looked like a couple- you looked comfortable with each other. That’s when it hit me. All the history you have with her. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just started contrasting it with- it just seems as if we’re a ways off from that…”
“I know, I know, I’m being neurotic and insecure,” she said. “I’m allowed to do that, once in a while, right?”
“Sure you are, honey, but in this case it’s not warranted. The only reason she was there was to hand off Spike. Period.”
“Just a peck on the cheek.”
“I don’t want you to think I’ve turned into some possessive, paranoid chick- oh, listen to me.”
“Hey,” I said, “if the situation were reversed, I’d react the same way. Robin has no interest in me, she’s happy with Tim. And I’m thrilled to be with you.”
“I’m your main squeeze.”
“Okay, I got my self-esteem injection,” she said. “Sorry for bugging you in the middle of the day.”
“You’re my girl, Dr. Gwynn. I find you smooching some dude, it won’t be a pretty sight.”
“Right. You, Mr. Civilized.”
“Don’t test me.”
She laughed, this time with heart. “I can’t believe I made this call. The last thing I want is to be possessive.” Her voice caught.
“Sometimes,” I said, “it’s nice to be possessed.”
“It is… okay, no more Ms. Mawkish. I’ve got three more patients coming and each needs to perceive me as all-knowing. Then, it’s over to the hospice.”
“Any free time at all?”
“I wish. The hospice is having a potluck dinner for all the volunteers, so I’m eating there. The only breathing time I have is right now, last-minute cancellation. What I should be doing is charting and returning calls, not whining to you.”
“I’ll be over in twenty.”
“What?” she said.
“I’m coming over. I want to see you.”
“Alex, my next patient’s due in forty. The drive, alone, will eat up-”
“I want to kiss you,” I said. “That won’t take long.”
“Alex, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’m okay; you don’t have to indulge my-”
“This is for me. I’m going to be in the neighborhood, anyway. Talking to a doctor at St. John’s.” Though I hadn’t made the appointment.
“Baby,” she said, “I can assure you that whatever it was that tweaked my anxiety has passed.”
“I want to see you,” I said.
“I want to see you, too.”
While driving to Santa Monica, I got Dr. Leonard Singh’s number from Information, found out he was on rounds, would be back in an hour. I told his secretary I’d be stopping by and hung up before she could ask why.
When I reached Allison’s office building, she was waiting out on the sidewalk, dressed in a sky-blue cashmere cowl neck sweater and a long, wine-colored skirt, drinking something from a cardboard cup and kicking the heel of one boot. Her black hair was tied back with a clip, and she looked young and nervous.
I swung into the no parking zone in front and she got in the passenger seat. The cup gave off coffee and vanilla fumes.
I leaned over, cupped her chin in my hand, kissed it.
She said, “I want lips,” and drew me close.
We connected for a long time. When we broke, she said, “I have staked my claim. Want a sip?”
“I don’t do girlie coffee.”
“Ha.” She has a soft, sweet voice, and her attempt at a growl made me smile. “That, my darling, is the primeval sound of the alpha female!”
I eyed the cardboard cup. “Alpha females drink that?”
She glanced down at the beige fluid. “In the postfeminist age one can be simultaneously girlie and strong.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s next? You drag me into your cave?”
“I wish.” She removed the clip, shook her hair loose, pushed thick, black strands behind one ear. Her skin was milk white, and I touched the faint, blue veins that collected at her jawline.
She said, “Alpha female, who’m I kidding? I mewl, and you hurry over. My professional advice is don’t encourage that kind of dependent behavior, Alex.”
“What’s your nonprofessional advice?”
She took my hand. The minutes ticked away, too hurried.
She said, “Does ‘not a bad day’ mean you’ve made some progress on Mary Lou?”
I told her about Patty and Franco Gull.
“Is Gull really a suspect?”
“Milo’s looking at him pretty closely.”
“Murderous shrink. There’s another PR coup for our profession.”
“You told me Gull came across slick. Do you recall anything else about him?”
She thought about it. “He just impressed me as really into image. The way he carried himself, the clothes, the hair. I’m certainly not surprised he’s promiscuous. He had that swagger- physical confidence, like someone who developed charisma early.”
“I was thinking high school jock.”
“That would fit,” she said. “If it turned out he slept with his patients, I wouldn’t be shocked either.”
“It’s just a feeling.”
“But you never actually heard anything to that effect.”
“Never heard anything about him except that he was Mary Lou’s partner. Maybe that colored my judgment. Because of her reputation. For being expensive and publicity-hungry. To me, Gull came across the same way.”
“Albin Larsen doesn’t,” I said.
“He’s more of a professor.”
“Apparently he’s some sort of human rights advocate. Maybe they brought him into the group for respectability. When we interviewed him and Gull, Gull was sweating and Larsen seemed to be holding his tongue. As if he found Gull a bit… distasteful.”
“It doesn’t sound as if Mary Lou and Gull were very discreet about their affair,” she said. “So maybe Larsen knew.” She shook her head. “Leaving his car parked in front of her house. I’m enough of a shrink to think accidents are pretty rare. My sense is they both wanted Gull’s wife to find out. Pretty cruel.”
I said, “Maybe Koppel saw herself as an alpha female.”
“A true alpha wouldn’t need to steal someone else’s man,” she said. She glanced at the dash clock. “I’ve got five minutes.”
“So what happens to the practice now that Mary Lou’s gone?”
“Gull and Larsen say they’ll take any patients who want to continue with them and refer the rest out.”
“If even a small percentage of her patients transfer, that could be quite an income boost.”
I stared at her. “You see a profit motive, here?”
“I agree with you, there’s dominance and anger at play and probably some sexual overtones. But profit would a nice side benefit. And if Gull’s your murderer, it would fit. What would be more intoxicating to a psychopath than eliminating someone he once possessed sexually and looting her business? It’s basic warfare.”
Coins of color spotted her ivory cheeks. Robin had always been repelled by these kinds of discussions.
“You,” I said, “are an interesting girl.”
She said, “Interesting but weird, huh? You drop by for some romance, and I’m analyzing at warp speed.”
Before I could answer, she kissed me full on the lips, sat back suddenly.
“On the other hand,” she said, “analyzing is what they sent us to school for. Gotta go. Call me soon.”
Dr. Leonard Singh was tall and slightly stooped, with nutmeg skin and clear, amber eyes. He wore an exquisite Italian suit- navy blue overlaid with a faint red windowpane check- a yellow spread-collar shirt, a glistening red tie with matching pocket foulard, and a jet-black turban. His beard was full and gray, his mustache Kiplingesque.
He was surprised to see me in his waiting room, even more surprised when I told him why I was there. But no guardedness; he invited me into the cramped, green space that served as his hospital office. Three spotless white coats hung from a wooden rack. A glass jar of peppermint sticks was wedged between two stacks of medical charts. His medical degree was from Yale, his accent by way of Texas.
“Dr. Gull,” he said. “No, I don’t really know him.”
“You referred Gavin Quick to him.”
Singh smiled and crossed his legs. “Here’s the way that happened. The boy came to me through the ER. I was one of two neurologists on call, just about to go off service, but someone I’ve worked with asked me to do the consult.”
Jerome Quick had given me a name. The family doctor, a golfing buddy…
“Dr. Silver,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Singh. “So I saw the boy, agreed to follow him, did what I could. Given the situation.”
“Closed-head injury, nothing obvious on the CAT scan.”
Singh nodded and reached for the candy jar. “Care for some late-afternoon sucrose?”
“Suit yourself, they’re good.” He pulled out a peppermint stick, bit off a section, crunched, chewed slowly. “Cases like that, you’re almost hoping for something blatant on the CAT. You’re don’t actually want to see tissue damage, because those situations are usually more severe. It’s just you want to know what the insult to the brain is, want to have something to tell the family.”
“Gavin’s situation was ambiguous,” I said.
“The problem with a case like Gavin’s is you just know he’s going to have problems, but you can’t tell the family exactly what’s going to happen or if it’s going to be permanent. When I found out he’d been murdered, I thought, ‘Oh my, there’s a tragedy.’ I called and left a message with his folks, but no one’s returned it.”
“They’re pretty torn up. Any thoughts about the murder?”
“Thoughts? As in who mighta done it? No.”
“Gavin’s symptoms had persisted for ten months,” I said.
“Not a good sign,” said Singh. “On top of that, all his symptoms were behavioral. Psychiatric stuff. We cellular types prefer something concrete- a nice solid ataxia, something edematous that we can shrink down and feel heroic about. Once we veer off into your field, we start to feel at loose ends.”
He took another bite of peppermint stick. “I did what I could for the boy. Which consisted of monitoring him to make sure I wasn’t missing something, then I prescribed a little occupational therapy.”
“He had fine motor problems?”
“Nope,” said Singh. “This was more supportive in nature. We knew he’d experienced some cognitive loss and personality change. I thought some sort of psychological support was called for, but when I suggested a psych consult to the parents, they didn’t want to hear about it. Neither did Gavin. So I backed off and offered O.T., figuring maybe that would be more palatable to them. It was, but unfortunately… you know about Gavin’s experiences with his therapist.”
“Nice gal. He tormented her.”
“Have you seen that before in CHI cases?”
“You can certainly have obsessive changes, but no, I can’t say I’ve seen anyone turn into a stalker.” Singh nibbled the broken edge of the peppermint stick.
“So the family was resistant to psychotherapy,” I said.
“Highly resistant.” Singh smiled, sadly. “I got the impression this was a family big on appearances. Dr. Silver said so, too. Though he didn’t know them well.”
“Really,” I said. “I got the impression he was a family friend.”
“Barry? No, not at all. Barry’s an OB-GYN, he’d only recently started treating the mother for premenopausal symptoms.”
Jerome Quick had lied about Silver being a golfing buddy. A small lie, but why?
I said, “So what was your connection to Dr. Gull?”
“I don’t have one,” said Singh. “After Gavin got into trouble because of what he did to Beth, the father called me, saying the boy had been arrested and that the court down in Santa Ana was going to lock him up unless they could show sort of mitigating circumstances. What he wanted from me was a letter stating that the boy’s behavior was a clear result of his accident. If that wasn’t enough, he wanted me to testify for Gavin.”
Singh finished the peppermint stick. “I have to tell you, I was of two minds on that. I hate going to court, I didn’t know that I could say all that and be truthful. Beth Gallegos was one of our best O.T.s, a really super gal, and I felt terrible about what happened to her. I had to wonder if letting Gavin off the hook completely was the best thing for anyone. The boy clearly had serious problems, so maybe he needed to learn a lesson. On the other hand, this was jail we were talking about and he had experienced a cerebral insult and he was my patient. I decided to call the district attorney who was prosecuting the case, and she told me it being a first offense, they weren’t gonna throw the book at him. She said if I referred him to a psychiatrist or a psychologist, that would work for her. I asked a couple of the psych guys who attend here, but they all felt it would be a conflict of interest because they knew Beth. Before I could make more calls, Mr. Quick phoned me and said he’d found a good psychologist, right there in Beverly Hills, real close to the house. He said that was important because he didn’t want Gavin going too far afield.”
“Mr. Quick asked to be referred to Dr. Gull,” I said.
“He asked to be referred to Dr. Koppel, but she punted and sent him to Dr. Gull. I had my secretary call up and check Dr. Gull’s credentials, and everything was in order. I called Dr. Gull, and he seemed like a nice fellow, so I wrote the letter.”
He smoothed his tie. The amber eyes were sharp. “So tell me, was there some problem with that? ’Cause my name’s on that referral letter, and if there are going to be problems, I’d sure like to know.”
“I can’t think of anything that would reflect on you.”
Singh said, “That sounds upsettingly vague.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but it’s too soon to be more specific. I’ll be sure to let you know if that changes.”
Singh touched his turban. “Much obliged.”
“Were you aware that Gavin didn’t stick with Gull?”
“Really?” said Singh.
“No one told you.”
“The only communication I got was from Gull. A week in, he called, thanked me, said everything was going fine. Never heard from him again. What happened?”
“Gavin didn’t get along with Gull and was transferred to Dr. Koppel.”
“Guess she found time for him. Poor Gavin. Whatever he did to Beth, the boy had it rough. Well, if there’s nothing else, I’ve got a ton of paperwork.”
He walked me out.
I thanked him for his time, and said, “Dallas?”
“Houston. Born and bred; my daddy was a heart transplant surgeon on Denton Cooley’s team.” He smiled. “Cowboys and Indians, and all that good stuff.”
I got home just after five, tried the Times human resources office, found out it was closed. I tried to recall the names of colleagues Ned Biondi had mentioned and came up with one, Don Zeltin, like Ned, once a reporter, now a columnist. I phoned the paper’s switchboard, asked for him, got patched through.
“Zeltin,” said a gruff voice.
I started to explain who I was and that I wanted to get in touch with Ned.
“Sounds complicated,” said Zeltin. “You could be some nut.”
“I could be but I’m not. If you don’t mind calling Ned-”
“Maybe Ned didn’t leave you a number because he doesn’t want to hear from you.”
“Would calling him and asking be a huge imposition? It’s important.”
“Psychologist, huh? My ex-wife decided she was going to be a psychologist. Back when she was still my wife. I’ve got three friends in the same boat. Wife talks about going back to shrink school, get on the horn to your divorce lawyer.”
He said, “It’s not funny. Actually, it is. She ended up dropping out, and now she lives in Vegas and sells clothes at a crappy boutique. Okay, what the hell, I’ll call Ned. Give me your name again.”
I looked up Franco Gull in my American Psychological Association directory. He’d gone to college at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. Double major: psychology and business. His move to Berkeley for grad school had been delayed by two years playing semipro baseball at a farm club in Fresno. Not the kind of thing generally listed in the APA book; Gull had been proud of his athletic stint.
Charismatic at a young age, sure about his physicality.
Gull had no academic appointments, had conducted no research since grad school that he cared to specify. His areas of interest were “interpersonal relations” and “insight-oriented therapy.” From what I could tell, he’d gone straight from a postdoc at UC Riverside into private practice with Mary Lou Koppel.
While I had the book in front of me, I checked out Albin Larsen. His bio was considerably longer and more impressive. Undergraduate work at Stockholm University, followed by a one-year fellowship in public policy at Cambridge, back to Sweden for a doctorate at Göteborg University and an assistant professorship in the Social Sciences Institute at that same institution. His areas of interest were cultural factors in psychological assessment, the integration of social and clinical psychology, the application of psychological research to conflict resolution, and the appraisal and treatment of war-related trauma and stress. He’d done relief work in Rwanda and Kenya, consulted to Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, the Human Rights Beacon Symposium, World Focus on Prisoners’ Rights, and a child welfare subcommittee of the United Nations. Though he’d lived in the U.S. for eight years and had earned a California license shortly after arriving, he’d maintained an academic appointment at Göteborg.
Substantive fellow. Would Koppel and Gull’s shenanigans have offended him?
I got on the computer, logged on to the California Board of Psychology website and checked the list of disciplinary actions. Nothing on Gull or Larsen. Whatever Gull’s transgressions had been, they’d remained private.
Which might very well be the point.
Had Gavin learned something that made him a threat to Gull?
Was the secret something to do with the Quick family? Why had Jerome Quick lied about Barry Silver being a golfing buddy? Why hadn’t he told us that he, himself, had spearheaded the referral?
Did Quick have some kind of prior relationship with Koppel or Gull? Some specific reason he wanted Gavin under the group’s care?
If so, he wasn’t saying, and now Gavin was dead.
And so was his therapist.
I turned it over a couple of times, produced nothing but a headache, broke for a cup of coffee, found the machine empty, and was loading it when Ned Biondi called.
“Doc,” he said. “Sorry for not keeping in touch, but I just moved, and the boxes aren’t even unpacked.”
“The other direction. Got myself a great little apartment on Coronado Island. Dinky little place because everything’s so expensive, but what do I need, one guy.”
I said, “It’s pretty out there.”
“Got a view of the bay, the bridge. Norma and I got divorced. To be accurate, I divorced her. Last year.”
“Sorry to hear about it.”
“Don’t be, I should’ve done it years ago. She’s a mean woman, terrible mother- you remember how she wouldn’t give you the time of day, wouldn’t participate in Anne Marie’s treatment?”
“Ice queen,” he spit. “As far as I’m concerned she was a big part of Anne Marie’s problem, I should’ve recognized it sooner. You probably saw it, but you couldn’t come out and say that, right? ‘Go divorce your wife, Ned.’ You’d have said that, I’d have fired you. But you’d have been right.”
“How’s Anne Marie?”
“Mostly good,” he said. “Not always great. She has her moods, but most of the time, good. That husband of hers is okay, and they just had a third kid. Career-wise, she never got it together, but she says she loves being a mom and why shouldn’t I believe her? She’s a terrific mom, the kids love her, Bob loves her. Do you know what made me realize I needed to divorce Norma?”
“I decided to quit smoking. Finally got serious about it. So what does Norma do? Tries to talk me out of it, I’m talking a pitched battle. She didn’t want to quit because smoking was something we did together- cigarettes and coffee in the morning, reading the paper. Taking walks and puffing away like the cancer fiends we were. She actually accused me of abandoning her by wanting to quit. I stuck to my guns, and she went ballistic. So I sat back and thought, ‘Dummy, she doesn’t care if you get sick or die, she just wants what she wants, it’s all about her.’ Thirty-five years too late, but what the hell, I’m here, and she moved to New York to write a novel and I’m wearing the patch and have worked myself down to seven Winstons a day.”
“Thanks. So what can I do for you?”
I told him about the photo of the blond girl.
He said, “I’ll make a call, but I’m sorry to say I can’t promise you, Doc. The paper’s not about public service- if it ever was. It’s about peddling ad space, and that means going for the hook. From what you’re telling me there’s no juicy angle to this one.”
“A double killing?” I said. “Two kids up on Mulholland?”
“Unfortunately L.A.’s more of a company town than it ever was, and juice means a Hollywood tie-in. Give me a klepto starlet boosting scanties on Rodeo, and I’ll guarantee you lots of print inches. Two kids on Mulholland is tragic, but it ain’t man bites dog.”
“How about this for a hook: The police didn’t want to release the photo because it was too early in the investigation, but an anonymous source supplied it to the Times.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Maybe the editors will go for that, they’ve got a reflexive dislike of authority. Anytime they can show they’re not in lockstep with LAPD it makes them feel the muckrackers they wish they were… okay, I’ll try. By the way, is it true?”
“LAPD Communications didn’t want to release it because they thought it lacked a hook.”
He laughed. “Everyone’s in showbiz. I’ll call and get back to you. Anything more you can tell me about this girl?”
“Nothing,” I said. “That’s the problem.”
“I’ll see what I can do, Doc. Good talking to you- as long as I’ve got you, let me ask you something. Do you believe that study that came out, said guys do better married than single?”
“Depends on the guy,” I said. “And the marriage.”
“Exactly,” he said. “You hit it on the head.”
Soon after I hung up, Milo called, and I told him Biondi would try to get the photo in.
“Thanks. Some of the prints came in from Koppel’s house, and sure enough, Gull’s are all over the place. Along with a bunch of others we can’t identify. One we could tag was some guy who showed up in the system because of an assault record, turns out he works for a heating and air-conditioning company, did a service call a month ago. His latents were on the furnace and nowhere else, so that fits. The assault was punching a guy in a bar.”
“Like Roy Nichols,” I said.
“Lots of anger out there. If people only knew who they let into their homes.”
“Do Gull’s prints mean much?” I said. “Given his relationship with Koppel?”
“That’s what he’d say. What his lawyer would say. He hired a B.H. mouthpiece, by the way. Don’t know him, but one of the guys here does. Not high-powered, more like medium-powered.”
“Meaning Gull’s not that scared?”
“He’s scared enough to lawyer up,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t know better. Or couldn’t afford better. He’s got his baby Benz and his Vette, but he’s not really rich, right? Even with a hefty fee, you guys are limited by the hours you work.”
“Interesting you should bring that up,” I said. I told him what Allison had said about profit motive.
“Kill Koppel and steal her patients… smart girl, Allison… I’d sure like to get into Gull’s finances but can’t see a way to do it yet.”
“How’d it go with Gavin’s room?”
“It didn’t,” he said. “No one home, I’ll try tomorrow.”
“I spoke to Dr. Singh.” I recapped the interview.
“Jerry Quick lied,” he said. “What was the point of that?”
“It’s time to pay Mom and Dad a closer look. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to arrange an appointment with Mr. Edward Koppel, but I can’t get past his receptionist.”
“The old tycoon shuffle?” I said.
“Seems to be. I figure the best thing’s to drop in tomorrow morning. Early, say eight-thirty, maybe catch him before his day gets too tycoonish. You up for that?”
“Want me to drive?”
“What do you think?”
He came by the next morning just before eight, marched into my kitchen, drank coffee and ate two bagels standing at the counter, and said, “Ready?”
I drove over the Glen into the Valley, then east, across Sepulveda, into the heart of Encino.
This was Boomtown Valley, high-rises shining like chrome in the morning sun, traffic jams worthy of downtown, the flavors of money and boosterism comingling easily. But Edward Koppel’s office was located in a straggler from an earlier age: a shopworn, two-story stucco box on Ventura just past Balboa, stuck between a used-car lot crammed with secondhand Jaguars, Ferraris, and Rollses, and a storefront Mideastern restaurant.
Behind the building was a small, outdoor parking lot accessible through an alley, with most of the spaces marked RESERVED. Entrance was through a glass door. Identical setup to the building that housed Mary Lou Koppel’s group, and I said so.
Milo said, “Here I was thinking some big-time executive suite setup. Maybe Koppel specializes in small buildings he can rent out easily. Why don’t you park at the far end, over there.”
He directed me to a spot where we could observe every vehicle that arrived. Over the next half hour, four vehicles did. Two compacts driven by young women, a bottled water delivery truck, and a faded green, ten-year-old Buick that disgorged a sloppy-looking, heavyset man wearing wrinkled pants and an oversized brown polo shirt. He carried a brown paper bag and looked half-asleep as he stumbled up the stairs.
Ten more minutes brought two more Toyotas bearing secretarial types. Soon after, the heavy man exited, and drove off, minus his sack.
“What was that?” I said. “A literal bagman?”
Milo frowned, read the face of his Timex, didn’t answer.
Half an hour after we’d arrived, we were still sitting there. Milo seemed fine, eyes alive under half-closed, hooded lids, but I was getting itchy. I said, “Looks like Mr. K keeps tycoon’s hours.”
“Let’s pay his office a visit.”
The ground floor of the building was divided into three offices: Landmark Realty, SK Development, and Koppel Enterprises. Above were a travel agency, a general contractor, and a secretarial service.
Milo tried the doorknob to Koppel Enterprises and Landmark Realty, found them locked. But SK Development was open for business.
We walked into a large, bright, open area, sectioned into cubicles by waist-high partitions. All four of the young women we’d seen in the parking lot sat at computers typing briskly. Three wore headsets.
At the rear was a door marked PRIVATE. Milo strode past the secretarial pool and tried it. Also locked. The sole typist without a headset got up and walked over to him. Midtwenties, pleasantly plain, she had short dark hair, freckles, and an easy smile, wore a tan cotton-poly pantsuit.
“Can I help you?”
“We’re looking for Mr. Koppel.”
“Sonny?” she said. “You just missed him.”
“What’s he look like?”
She glanced around, moved in close, cupped her hand over her mouth. “Kind of chubby. He was wearing a brown polo.”
“Drives an old Buick?”
“That’s him. Are you guys the police or something?”
Milo showed her the badge.
“Your name, ma’am?”
“Cheryl Bogard.” She looked back at the other women. They continued typing.
“They taking dictation on those headsets?” said Milo.
“Oh, no,” said Bogard. “They’re listening to music. Sonny has multiple CD tracks set up so they can listen to what they want.”
“So, Cheryl Bogard, what do you guys do here?”
“Help take care of Sonny’s properties. So how come you guys are here? Did one of the buildings get broken into?”
“Does that happen often?”
“You know how it is,” she said. “With as many properties as Sonny owns, something’s always happening somewhere.”
“Real estate empire,” said Milo.
“He’s got a lot of stuff.” Adding happily: “Keeps all of us busy. So where was the break-in this time?”
“Not important,” said Milo. “So that was the boss. He didn’t stay long.”
“He just picked up some papers.” She smiled. “Not what you were expecting, huh?”
Milo shook his head.
“You know what they say, Officer. Appearances can be deceiving.”
“When’s he coming back?”
“Hard to say. He’s out on the road a lot. He’s got properties in four counties, so that means lots of traveling. We kid him, say he should get himself a nice car, he can sure afford it. But he loves his Buick. Showing off isn’t Sonny’s thing.”
“He’s a real nice guy.”
“Could you call him for us?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Sonny doesn’t use a cell phone in the car. He’s kind of old-fashioned, says he doesn’t like being disturbed when he’s thinking and also, it’s not safe talking and driving.”
“Safety-conscious,” said Milo.
“He’s a pretty careful guy. Is there any message you’d like me to give him? About which building had the break-in?”
“Thanks, but it would be better if we spoke directly.”
“Okay,” said Bogard. “I’ll tell him you were here.”
“No idea at all when he’ll be back?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say late afternoon. If he comes back at all. You never know, with Sonny.”
Milo gave her a card, and said, “In case we don’t catch him today, please have him call.”
“Sure.” Cheryl Bogard returned to her cubicle, placed the card in front of her, looked up, and waved.
Milo started to leave, then changed his mind, went over to her, said something, listened to her reply.
As we stepped out into the hall, I said, “What did you ask her?”
“What was in the bag.” He rubbed the side of his nose. “Tootsie Rolls, M &Ms, Almond Joy. Ol’ Sonny brings candy for the girls. She said they were all watching their weight, ate very little of it. He finishes off what’s left.”
A block up from Sonny Koppel’s corporate headquarters was a coffee shop with a forties-era starship poised for takeoff atop an aqua metal roof. Milo and I sat at the empty counter, sucked in the aroma of eggs crackling in grease, and ordered coffee from a waitress old enough to be our mother.
He cell-phoned DMV. The address on Edward Albert Koppel’s driver’s license was the building we’d just visited. He’d registered four cars: the Buick, a five-year-old Cutlass, a seven-year-old Chevy, and an eleven-year-old Dodge.
“Buys American,” I said.
“You saw him,” he said. “You figure Mary Lou would go for a guy like that?”
“They were married years ago, when he was in law school,” I said. “Maybe he looked different.”
“The Candy Man… his secretary sure seemed wholesome.” He gulped down his coffee, drummed his fingers on the counter. “Kindly boss, noble patriot, all-around unpretentious guy… if it seems too good to be true, it probably is, right? Ready to go?”
“You’re going home, and I’m back to the Quicks’ for that toss of Gavin’s room. Did you have a chance to check the psych licensing board on Franco Gull?”
“Clean,” I said.
“That so? Well, maybe Gavin didn’t think so, and look what happened to him.”
It was two days before I heard from him again. Ned Biondi hadn’t called, and my thoughts had drifted away from murders.
Robin came by and picked up Spike. Despite the two days of bonding, he reverted to instant disdain for me at the sight of her Ford pickup. Running to Robin as she crouched in the driveway, leaping into her arms, making her laugh.
She thanked me for babysitting and handed me a small blue gift box.
“I appreciate the help, Alex.”
“How was Aspen?”
“Mean-looking men with bubble blond arm candy, lots of dead animal pelts, the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.” She played with an earring. Spike sat obediently at her feet.
“Anyway,” she said.
When she moved in to kiss my cheek, I pretended not to notice, and pivoted in a way that made me unavailable.
I heard the truck door close. Robin was at the wheel, looking puzzled as she started up the engine.
She returned the wave, hesitantly. Spike began licking her face, and she drove away.
I opened the blue box. Sterling cuff links, shaped like tiny guitars.
When Milo finally called, I was getting out of the shower. “Mr. and Mrs. Quick appear to have taken a vacation. The house is locked up tight. Her van’s there, but his car isn’t, and a neighbor said she saw them loading suitcases.”
“Taking some time off,” I said.
“I need to get into that room. I called the sister- Paxton- but she hasn’t gotten back to me yet. Onward to Mr. Sonny Koppel. He may drive old cars and dress like a slob, but it’s not due to poverty. Guy has title to over two hundred parcels of real estate. Commercial and residential rentals, four counties, just like his girl said.”
“Definitely a tycoon,” I said.
“He’s also got all sorts of holding companies and limited corporations as shields. It’s taken me this long to winnow through the basics. This guy’s big-time, Alex, and from what I can tell he likes to partner with the government.”
“Federal, state, county. A lot of his holdings seem to be cofinanced by public funds. We’re talking low-cost housing projects, senior citizen residences, landmark buildings, assisted care. And guess what: halfway houses for parolees. Including the one on Sixth Street where Roland Kristof crashes. The state legislature says we have to pay for the board and care of felonious individuals, and Koppel’s cleaning up.”
“Public-spirited,” I said.
“It’s a great arrangement. Find some building or construction project that’s eligible for bond money or a grant, split your costs with John Q, take all the income. In terms of Koppel’s background, all I can find is that he did his undergrad work and law school at the U. But he never practiced, and I can’t locate any record of his taking the bar. Somehow he got bankrolled and built up an empire.”
“Is the office building where Pacifica practices a government deal?”
“Doesn’t seem to be,” he said. “But not because it’s in Beverly Hoohah. Koppel owns two B.H. properties- a senior residence hotel on Crescent Drive and a shopping center on La Cienega – that were financed with tax bucks. The hotel qualifies for an HUD gift and the strip mall got a FEMA grant because the stores that stood there before were earthquake-damaged.”
“He knows how to work the system,” I said.
“He works it well. The only time his name appears on court documents is when he sues someone or someone sues him. Mostly the former- back-rent and eviction cases. Once in a while he gets tagged with a slip-and-fall by a tenant. Sometimes he settles, sometimes he fights. When he fights, he wins. He distributes his business among eight different law firms, all downtown, all white-shoe. But get this: He doesn’t even live in a house, let alone a mansion. His primary residence- and it was hard to find- is an apartment on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills. Which sounds nice, but it’s not one of the fancy condos, just an old building, kind of shabby, six units. One of Koppel’s limited partnerships owns the place, and Koppel lives in a two-bedroom at the back. The manager doesn’t even know her tenant’s really her boss, because she referred to Koppel as ‘the heavy guy, real quiet’ and said the owners were some Persians who lived in Brentwood. On several of his rentals, Koppel hires a couple named Fahrizad to serve as his front.”
“Elusive fellow,” I said.
“Let’s challenge that.”
Sonny Koppel’s stretch of Maple Drive lay between Beverly Boulevard and Civic Center Drive. Mixed-use neighborhood, the west side filled by a granite-clad behemoth that served as Mercedes Benz headquarters, a high-profile, extravagantly landscaped office complex that catered to entertainment lawyers and film agents, and construction dust from a fulminating high-rise.
Across the street were two-story apartment buildings, souvenirs of the postwar building boom. Koppel’s was one of the dingiest examples, an off-gray traditional with a cheap composite roof. Three upstairs units, three down, a scratchy lawn, struggling shrubs.
Koppel’s Buick was parked in back, squeezed into one of the half dozen slots in the open carport. We cruised and found each of Koppel’s other cars parked within two blocks, each with Beverly Hills street parking permits that were up-to-date.
An Olds, a Chevy, a Dodge. Gray, gray, dark green. Lots of dust on the first two. The Dodge had been washed recently. I idled the Seville as Milo got out and examined each vehicle. Empty.
I parked, and we headed for Koppel’s building.
Sonny Koppel answered the door palming popcorn out of a chartreuse plastic bowl. The fragrance brought to mind the theater-lobby smell of Pacifica’s building. Before Milo had his badge out, Koppel nodded as if he’d been expecting us and beckoned us in. He wore a royal blue U. sweatshirt over plaid pajama bottoms and fuzzy brown slippers.
Five-eight, 270 at least, with a melon gut and thinning reddish brown hair that frizzed above a high, glossy pate. He hadn’t shaved in a couple of days, and his stubble looked like dandruff. Saggy blue eyes, pendulous lips, short, thick limbs, beefy hands with stubby nails.
Behind him, an old nineteen-inch RCA TV blared financial news from a cable station. Koppel lowered the volume.
“My girls told me you were by,” he said, in a sleepy basso. “It’s about Mary, right? I was wondering if you’d get in touch- here, sit, sit.”
He stopped to study a stock quotation on the tube, switched off the set, cleared a massive pile of newspapers off a plaid sofa, and brought them over to a metal-legged dinette table. Four red vinyl chairs ringed the table. Hardback ledgers filled two of them. Half the table surface was taken up by more ledgers and legal pads, pens, pencils, a hand calculator, cans of Diet 7-Up, snack bags of assorted carbohydrates.
The apartment was basic: white walls, low ceilings, a front space that served as the living room-eating area, a kitchenette, the bathroom and bedrooms beyond a stucco arch. Nothing on the walls. The kitchen was cluttered but clean. A few feet from the counter, a PC setup was perched on a rolling cart. Aquarium screen saver. An air conditioner rattled.
Sonny Koppel said, “Can I offer you guys something to drink?”
Koppel’s soft, bulky shoulders rose and fell. He sighed, sank into a green tweed La-Z-Boy recliner, kept the chair upright.
Milo and I took the plaid sofa.
“So,” said Koppel, “what can I do for you?”
“First off,” said Milo, “is there anything you can tell us about your ex-wife that could help us solve her murder?”
“I wish there was. Mary was a remarkable person- attractive, really smart.” Koppel ran a hand over his scalp. Instead of settling, his hair picked up static and coiled as if alive. The room was dim and he was backlit with fluorescence from the kitchen and the hair became a halo. Sad-looking, pajama-bottomed guy with an aura.
“You’re thinking,” he said, “how did someone like her ever hook up with someone like me.”
His lips curled like miniature beef roulades, approximating amusement. “When Mary and I met I didn’t look like this. Back then I was more shortstop than sumo. Actually, I was a pretty decent jock, got a baseball scholarship to the U., had Major League fantasies.”
He paused, as if inviting comment. When none followed, he said, “Then I ripped a hamstring and found out I had to actually study to get out of there.”
One hand dipped into the popcorn bowl. Koppel gathered a full scoop and transferred the kernels to his mouth.
Milo said, “You met Dr. Koppel when you were in law school?”
“I was in law school, and she was in grad school. We met at the rec center, she was swimming, and I was reading. I tried to pick her up, but she blew me off.” He touched his abdomen as if it ached. “The second time I tried, she agreed to go out for coffee, and we hit it off great. We got married a year later and divorced two years after that.”
“Problems?” said Milo.
“Everyone’s got them,” said Koppel. “What’s the cliché- we grew apart? Part of the problem was time. Between her dissertation and my classes, we never saw each other. The main problem was I screwed up. Had an affair with a woman in my class. To make it worse, a married woman, so two families got messed up. Mary let me down easy, she just wanted a clean break. Stupidest thing I ever did.”
“Cheating on her?”
“Letting her go. Then again, she probably would have broken it off, even if I had been faithful.”
“I was kind of at loose ends back then,” said Koppel. “No goals. Only reason I went to law school was because I didn’t know what else to do. Mary was just the opposite: focused, put-together. She has”- He winced-“had a powerful persona. Charisma. I couldn’t have kept up.”
“Sounds like you’re selling yourself short,” said Milo.
Koppel looked genuinely surprised. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I’ve done some background on you, sir, and you’re one of the biggest landlords in Southern California.”
Koppel waved a thick hand. “That’s just playing Monopoly.”
“You’ve played well.”
“I’ve been lucky.” Koppel smiled. “I was lucky to be a loser.”
“I nearly flunked out of law school, then I chickened out of taking the bar. Started experiencing anxiety attacks about taking it that put me in the ER a couple of times. One of those pseudo-heart attack things? By then Mary and I were having our problems, but she helped me through it. Deep-breathing exercises, having me imagine relaxing scenes. It worked and the attacks stopped and Mary expected me to take the bar. I showed up early, looked around the room, walked out, and that was it. That bothered Mary more than my cheating on her. Soon after, she filed.”
Koppel’s hand waved again, this time limply. “Couple months after that, my mother died and left me an apartment building in the Valley, so all of a sudden I was a landlord. A year later, I sold that property, used the profit and a bank loan to invest in a bigger building. I did that for a few years- flipping and trading up. Real estate was booming, and I made out okay.”
He shrugged, ate more popcorn.
Milo said, “You’re a modest man, Mr. Koppel.”
“I know what I am and what I’m not.” Koppel turned his head to the side, as if recoiling from insight. His jowls quivered. “Do you have any idea who murdered Mary?”
“No, sir. Do you?”
“Me? No, of course not.”
“She was murdered in her home,” said Milo. “No signs of forced entry.”
“You’re saying someone she knew?” said Koppel.
“Any candidates, sir?”
“I wasn’t privy to Mary’s social life.”
“How much contact did you and she have?”
“We stayed friendly, and I kept up my spousal support.”
“How much support?”
“It evolved,” said Koppel. “Immediately after the divorce, she got nothing except the furniture in our apartment because we were both starving students. When I started to earn a decent income, she called and asked for support. We agreed on a figure and over the years I’ve increased it.”
“At her request?”
“Sometimes. Other times, I decided to share some of my good luck.”
“Keep the ex happy,” said Milo.
Koppel didn’t answer.
“Sir, how much were you paying her at the time of her death?”
“Twenty-five thousand a month.”
“It seemed fair,” said Koppel. “She stuck with me when I needed her. Helping through those panic attacks even after I cheated on her. That deserves something.”
Milo said, “Twenty-five thousand a month. I went through her bank records, never saw any back-and-forth on that level.”
“You wouldn’t,” said Koppel. “Mary lived off her practice and re-invested what I gave her.”
“We’re partnered on some of my properties.”
“She let you hold on to what you owed her and put it back in properties.”
“Mary did very well partnering with me.”
“Who gets her share of the partnered properties now that she’s dead?”
Koppel’s fingers grazed the rim of the popcorn bowl. “That would depend on Mary’s will.”
“I haven’t found a will, and no executors have come forth.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” said Koppel. “For years I’ve been telling her to do some estate planning. Between her practice and the properties, she was building up a comfortable estate. You’d think she’d have listened, being so organized about everything else. But she was resistant. My opinion is she didn’t want to think about death. Her parents died pretty young, and sometimes she had premonitions.”
“About dying young?”
“About dying before her time.” Tears beaded Koppel’s lower eyelashes. The rest of his stubbled face was impassive.
“She have those premonitions recently?”
Koppel said, “I don’t know. I’m talking back when we were married.”
Milo said, “Assuming there’s no will, what happens to her real estate holdings?”
“If there are no creditors or heirs,” said Koppel, “they’d revert to me. A hundred percent in the case of the ones whose mortgages I carry- I own a little financing company, allows me to keep things in-house. Those that are bank-financed, I’d have the choice of paying off Mary’s share or selling.”
“One way or the other, you’d get everything.”
“Yes, I would.”
Milo crossed his legs.
Koppel emitted a deep, rumbling laugh.
“Something funny, sir?”
“The implication,” said Koppel. “I suppose there’s a logic to it, Lieutenant, but do the math: Mary Lou’s holdings net out to… I’d say one and a half, maybe two million dollars, depending on the real estate market. I grant you that isn’t chicken feed. Eventually, she could’ve retired nicely. But to me, a sum like that isn’t significant… you say you’ve looked into my holdings?”
“Two million’s a drop in the bucket,” said Milo.
“That sounds ostentatious,” said Koppel, “but it’s true. A couple of million wouldn’t make any difference.”
“During good times,” said Milo.
“Times are good,” said Koppel. “Times are always good.”
“No business problems?”
“With business, there are always problems. The key is to see them as challenges.” Koppel placed the popcorn bowl between his knees. “What makes it easier for me is I have no interest in acquiring material goods. I do real estate because it seems to be what I’m good at. Since I don’t need much- without the burden of stuff- I’ve always got free cash. Meaning there’s no such thing as a bad market. Prices go down, I buy. They go up, I sell.”
“Life is good,” said Milo.
“I’d like to get back into shape physically, and I’m upset about Mary. But when I step back and assess, yes, I have a lot to be thankful for.”
“Tell me about the halfway houses you own, sir.”
Koppel blinked. “You really have been doing your research.”
“I ran into an ex-con vacuuming Dr. Koppel’s building and I got curious.”
“Oh,” said Koppel. “Well, I hire a lot of those guys for custodial work. When they show up, they do a good job.”
“They give you attendance problems?”
“No worse than anyone else.”
“What about pilferage problems?”
“Same answer, people are people. Over the years, I’ve lost a few tools, some furniture, but that goes with the territory.”
“Your secretary said properties get broken into.”
“From time to time,” said Koppel. “Not the halfway houses, though. What’s to take from there?”
“You recruit your own tenants as janitors?”
“I get recommendations from the halfway-house managers. They send me guys they think are reliable.” Koppel lifted the popcorn bowl.
“How’d you get into the parolee business?”
“I’m in the real estate business. A handful of my properties are halfway houses.”
“How’d you get into that, sir?”
“I’d never have done it on my own. I’m a bleeding heart liberal but only to a point. It was Mary’s idea. Actually, I was pretty wary, but she won me over.”
“How’d she come up with the idea?”
“I think Dr. Larsen suggested it- one of her partners. Have you talked to him yet?”
“He’s an expert on prison reform,” said Koppel. “He got Mary into it, and she was all afire. She said she wanted to do more than build up equity, she wanted her investments to do some social good.”
“The halfway houses are the properties she partners with you?”
“We’re also together on some conventional rentals.”
“When Mary believed in something, she got very focused.”
“But you tried to un-focus her.”
Koppel lifted a leg in order to cross it, changed his mind, and planted a heavy foot on the carpet. “I approached the issue like a businessman, let’s look at the assets and debits. Mary did her homework, showed me the subsidies the state was offering and I had to admit the figures looked good. Even so, I was concerned about tenant damage, so I’d look at the crowd you’re talking about. I also told her I could get equal or better subsidies on what seemed to be safer investments- senior citizen housing, historic properties, where, if you respected the integrity of the structure, you could get three separate funding sources.”
His eyes had dried, and he was talking faster. In his element.
Milo said, “Mary convinced you.”
“Mary said the tenants would be more reliable, not less, because they weren’t paying rent so they had no incentive to leave. On top of that, the state mandated supervision by parole officers and provided in-house managers and security guards. She had to work on me for a while, but I agreed to give it a try. Smartest thing I ever did.”
“The funding’s ironclad- long-term state grants that get renewed easily- and the properties can be had dirt cheap because they’re always in fringe areas. You’re not going to stick a building full of criminals in Bel Air, right? So there are no NIMBYs, no zoning problems, and once you get past financing the part the state doesn’t cover, the rents are great. And listen to this: On a square-footage basis, the income’s close to Beverly Hills, because you’re not talking multiroom apartments, it’s all single rooms. And as opposed to a senior citizen situation where the tenancy-terminating event is death so your occupancy is uncertain, you go in knowing the tenants are there on a short-term deal but they’re always going to be replenished.”
“No shortage of bad guys.”
“Doesn’t seem to be,” said Koppel. “And turns out there are fewer repairs. The bathrooms are all communal, so the plumbing’s centralized, there are no kitchens in the rooms, all the tenants get is hot plates. And their use is restricted to certain hours. There’s some paperwork, but nothing I haven’t seen before. And, let’s face it, the state wants you to be a success.”
“Define ‘success.’ ”
“The residents stay put and don’t roam out in the community to hurt or kill someone.”
“Where do I sign?” said Milo.
Koppel smiled. “I should’ve known listening to Mary would never lead me wrong.” He shifted his bulk in the recliner. “Now she’s gone. I can’t believe it- is there anything else I can tell you?”
“Back to the halfway houses, sir. Great deal notwithstanding, have you ever had any problems with tenant violence?”
“Not to my knowledge. But I wouldn’t know.”
“All that’s handled in-house,” said Koppel. “I’m not a warden. I just own the building, and the state runs it. Why, do you think one of those lowlifes killed Mary?”
“There’s no evidence of that,” said Milo. “Just covering all bases.” He opened his pad. “What’s Charitable Planning all about?”
“My foundation,” said Koppel. “I give away ten percent a year. Of after-tax income.”
“We’ve been in the building a few times and never saw any activity on the ground floor.”
“That’s because there isn’t much. Twice a month, I go in and write checks to worthy causes. It takes a while because the solicitations come in constantly, everything really piles up.”
“An entire ground-floor suite for you to write checks? That’s Beverly Hills space, Mr. Koppel. Why don’t you rent it out?”
“I had a deal, last year, for a tenant to take the whole floor. An online brokerage. You know what happened to the market. The deal fell through. I was planning to subdivide- rent most of it out and leave a small office for Charitable Planning. But Mary asked me to put a hold on that until she and Larsen and Gull could decide if they wanted it.”
“Why would they want it?”
“To expand their practice. They were talking about doing group therapy, needed larger rooms. The only space I use is a small office, the rest is empty. Mary was supposed to tell me in a week or so.”
“Group therapy,” I said.
“From a business standpoint, I thought it was a smart idea. Treat the max number of patients in the shortest time. I joked with Mary that it had sure taken her a long time to figure it out.” Koppel smiled. “She said, ‘Sonny, you’re the moneyman, and I’m the healer. Let’s stick to what we know.”
He tugged the side of his mouth, ate some popcorn.
Milo showed him the picture of the dead girl.
Koppel chewed faster, swallowed hard. “Who’s that?”
“Someone else who got killed.”
“Someone else? Related to Mary?”
“Don’t know, sir.”
“You’re saying what happend was part of something… that it wasn’t just Mary?”
“What’s really going on, Lieutenant?”
“That’s all I can tell you, sir. Does the name Flora Newsome mean anything to you?”
Koppel shook his head. Glanced at the photo. “That’s her?”
“What about Gavin Quick?”
“I know a Quick,” said Koppel, “but not Gavin.”
“Who do you know?”
“Jerry Quick- Jerome Quick. He’s one of my tenants. Who’s Gavin? His son? The one who had the accident?”
“You know about the accident.”
“Jerry told me about it, said his son was having some emotional problems. I referred him to Mary.”
“How long has Mr. Quick been your tenant?”
“Four months.” He frowned.
“Good tenant?” said Milo.
“He pays his rent, but not always on a timely basis. I felt a little… used. Especially after I listened to his problems and gave him a referral. I’ve had to pay Jerry a few visits.” He smiled. “That’s not what it sounds like- no goons with baseball bats, we just talked, and, eventually, he paid.”
“Why would I assume goons with baseball bats, sir?”
Koppel flushed. “You wouldn’t. So what’s with Gavin?”
“My God- what’s the connection to Mary?”
“All we know at this time was that Gavin was her patient, and they’re both dead.”
“My God,” Koppel repeated. “There’s a lot you can’t tell me.”
“Is there something more you could tell us, sir?”
Koppel considered that. “I wish there was. Mary and I- we rarely spoke, except when there was a business issue. Even then, there was little to talk about. I set up our partnership so she didn’t have to be hands-on. She had her practice, she didn’t need to