The fifth book in the Alex Delaware series, 1990
To my sister, Hindy Tolwin, with much love
Special thanks to Barbara Biggs and to all those writers who were there with counsel and/or kind words. To wit:
Paul Bishop, Lawrence Block, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Michael Dorris, James Ellroy, Brian Garfield, Sue Grafton, Joe Gores, Andrew Greeley, Tony Hillerman, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Elmore Leonard, the late Richard Levinson, William Link, Dick Lochte, Arthur Lyons, David Morrell, Gerald Petievich, Erich Segal, Joseph Wambaugh.
And, of course, Faye, whose strength, wisdom, and love could never be concocted in the wildest writer’s fantasy.
Egad! What a talented bunch!
“And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.”
– JONATHAN SWIFT
Back to school.
It evokes memories of the tests we’ve passed, or the ones we’ve failed.
Monday. Milo ’s call punctuated a hard, gray November day that had finally erupted into rain.
He said, “Turn on your TV.”
I glanced at my desk clock. Just after two-forty P.M.- talk show time. The cathode freak display. “What? Nuns who murder, or pets with ESP?”
“Just turn it on, Alex.” His voice was hard.
“Take your pick.”
I flicked the remote. The sound came on before the picture. Sobs and whimpers. Then faces. Small faces, lots of them. Eyes wide with bafflement and terror. Fragile bodies blanketed and huddled together on the floor of a large room. Gleaming hardwood floors and chalk-white goal lines. A gym.
The camera moved in on a little black-haired girl in a puff-sleeved white dress as she accepted a plastic cup of something red. Her hands shook; the beverage sloshed; a false bloodstain spread on white cotton. The camera lingered, feasting on the image. The little girl burst into tears.
A chubby boy, five or six, cried. The boy next to him was older, maybe eight. Staring straight ahead and biting his lip, straining for macho.
More faces, a sea of faces.
I became aware of a mellow-voiced commentary- calculated sound bites alternating with strategic pauses. Sucked into the visuals, I let the words pass right through me.
Camera-shift to rain-slick asphalt, acres of it. Squat flesh-colored buildings spattered calomine-pink where the rain had penetrated the stucco. The voice-over droned on and the camera got manic- a flurry of visual slices, so brief they bordered on the subliminal: flak-jacketed, baseball-batted SWAT cops crouched on rooftops, poised in doorways, and muttering into hand-held radios. Yellow crime-scene tape. Assault rifles; the glint of telescopic scopes; bullhorns. A cluster of grim men in dark suits conferring behind a barrier of squad cars. Police vans. Pulling away. Policemen packing and leaving. Then a sudden wide pan to something in a black zip-bag being carted away through the rain.
The owner of the mellow voice came on screen. Sandy-haired, GQ type in a Burberry trenchcoat and electric-blue crunch-knotted tie. The coat was soaked but his hair spray was holding up. He said, “Information is still trickling in, but as far as we can tell, only one suspect was involved and that individual has been killed. Here we see the body being taken away, but no identity has been released…”
Zoom in on black bag, wet and glossy as sealskin. Stoic morgue techs who might have been taking out the garbage. The bag was hoisted up and into one of the vans. Slam of door. Close-up of the reporter squinting into the downpour, playing intrepid war correspondent.
“… Recapping then, Nathan Hale Elementary School in the West Side community of Ocean Heights was the scene of a sniping that took place approximately forty minutes ago. No deaths or injuries are reported, except for that of the sniper, who is reported dead and remains unidentified. The exact circumstances of the death are still unknown. Previous rumors of a hostage situation have turned out to be false. However, the fact that State Assemblyman Samuel Massengil and City Councilman Gordon Latch were at the school at the time of the shooting has fueled reports that an assassination attempt may have been involved. Latch and Massengil have been on opposite sides of a controversy concerning the busing of inner-city children to underpopulated schools on the West Side and had planned a televised debate, though at present there is no indication if the shooting was related to-”
“Okay,” said Milo. “You’ve got the picture.”
As he spoke I spotted him standing behind the open door of one of the squad cars, one hand over his ear, the radio speaker pressed to his mouth. A background figure, too far away to make out his features. But his bulky figure and the plaid sport coat were giveaways.
“Alex?” he said, and I watched him scratch his head on screen. A weird juxtaposition- phone-a-vision. It faded as the camera swung back to the wet, empty schoolyard. A second of blank screen, station identification, a promise of resumption of “our regular programming” followed by a commercial for weight-loss surgery.
I switched off the TV.
“Alex? You still there?”
“All these kids- it’s a real mess. We could use you. I’ll give you directions. Use my name with the uniform at the command post. Ocean Heights isn’t far from your neck of the woods. You should be able to make it in, what? fifteen, twenty minutes?”
“Something like that.”
“Okay, then? All these kids- if anything’s got your name on it, this one does.”
I hung up and went to get my umbrella.
Ocean Heights adheres to the west end of Pacific Palisades, awkward as a pimple on a cover girl’s chin.
Conceived by an aerospace corporation as a housing tract for the hordes of engineers and technicians imported to Southern California during the post-sputnik boom, the district was created by bulldozing lime groves, landfilling canyons, and performing radical surgery on a few mountaintops. What emerged was a slice of Disneyana: a “planned community” of flat, wide, magnolia-lined streets, perfect square sod lawns, single-story ranch houses on quarter-acre lots, and small-print deed covenants prohibiting “architectural and landscaping deviance.”
The corporation is long gone, vanquished by poor management. Had it leased the houses instead of selling them, it might still be in business, because L.A. land-grab mania has pushed Ocean Heights prices into the high six-figure mark and the tract has emerged as an upper-middle-class refuge for those craving salt air seasoned with Norman Rockwell. Ocean Heights disapproves of the untrimmed, septic-tank-and-home-grown-dope ambience of neighboring Topanga, glares down like a dowager aunt upon the beach-blanket licentiousness of Malibu. But the view from the bluffs is often hazy. Fog, like complacency, seems to settle in and stay.
Milo ’s directions were precise, and even in the rain the drive went quickly- a spurt down Sunset, a turn onto a side street I’d never noticed before, three miles along a glassy canyon road that had a reputation for eating joyriders. A year of drought had ended with a week’s worth of unseasonal autumn downpour, and the Santa Monica mountains had greened as quickly as home-grown radishes. The roadside was a tangle of creeper and vine, wildflower and weed- a boastful profusion. Nature making up for lost time.
The entrance to Ocean Heights was marked by the death of that boast: a newly surfaced avenue bisected by a median of grass and shaded by magnolias so precisely matched in contour and size they could have been cloned from the same germ cell. The street sign said ESPERANZA DRIVE. Beneath it was another sign: white, blue-bordered, discreet, proclaiming Ocean Heights a guarded community.
The rain took on power and spattered against my windshield. A half mile later the police command post came into view: sawhorse barriers blocking the street, a domino spread of black-and-white squad cars, a battalion of yellow-slickered policemen projecting the guilty-till-proven-innocent demeanor of Iron Curtain border guards. Something else fed the checkpoint image: a group of about a dozen women, all Hispanic, all soaked and distraught, trying to cross the barriers, meeting stoic resistance from the cops. Other than that, the street was empty, shutters drawn on diamond-paned windows, color-coordinated panel doors dead-bolted, the sole movement the shudder of flowers and shrubs beneath the watery onslaught.
I parked and got out. The downpour hit me like a cold shower as I made my way toward the barricade.
I heard a woman cry out, “Mi nino!” Her words were echoed by the others. A chorus of protests rose and mingled with the hiss of the rain.
“Just a short while longer, ladies,” said a baby-faced cop, struggling to appear unmoved.
One of the women called out something in Spanish. Her tone was abusive. The young cop flinched and looked over at the officer next to him- older, thickset, gray-mustached. Catatonic-still.
The young cop turned back to the women. “Just hold on now,” he said, suddenly angry.
Gray Mustache still hadn’t moved but his eyes had settled on me as I approached. A third cop said, “Man coming up.”
When I was within spitting distance, Gray Mustache gave a straight-arm salute, showing me the lines on his palm. Up close, his face was wet and puffy, laced with veins, and chafed the color of rare steak.
“No further, sir.”
“I’m here to see Detective Sturgis.”
The mention of Milo ’s name narrowed his eyes. He looked me up and down.
He cocked his head at one of the other patrolmen, who came over and stood guard at the barrier. Then he went to one of the black-and-whites, got in, and talked into the radio. A few minutes later he came back, asked to see some ID, scrutinized my driver’s license, and stared at me a while longer before saying “Go ahead.”
I got back into the Seville and pulled forward. Two cops had cleared a car-sized space between the sawhorses. The Hispanic women surged toward it, automatically, like water down a drain, but were stopped by a shifting line of blue. Some of the women began to cry.
Gray Mustache was waving me through. I pulled up alongside of him, opened my window, and said, “Any reason they can’t go see their children?”
“Go ahead, sir.”
I drove on, braving a gantlet of accusing eyes.
Nathan Hale Elementary School was eight more blocks up Esperanza- a blacktop and flesh-stucco flashback to the images I’d just seen on the tube. Three empty school buses were parked at the curb, along with paramedics’ vans and a few straggling press vehicles. The main building was sprawling and gray-roofed, skirted by a waist-high hedge of podocarpus. The front door was pumpkin-orange. Two cops guarded it from behind a cordon of yellow crime-scene tape. More palm-salutes, dirty looks, and radio checks before the chain-link gate to the school grounds was unlocked and I was directed around to the back.
As I made my way I noticed another tape cordon, wrapped around a small shedlike structure with wire-mesh windows, about seventy feet from the main building. Over the door was a sign: EQUIPMENT. Crime-scene techs kneeled and stooped, measuring, scraping, snapping pictures, getting drenched for their efforts. Beyond them the rain-blackened schoolyard stretched like scorched desert, vacant except for the distant galvanized geometry of a jungle gym. A single female reporter in a red raincoat shared her umbrella with a tall young officer. What was passing between them seemed more flirtation than information transfer. They paused as I walked by just long enough to decide I was neither newsworthy nor dangerous.
The back doors were tinted double-glass above three concrete steps. They swung open and Milo stepped out, wearing a quilted olive-drab car coat over the plaid sport jacket. All those layers- and the weight he’d put on substituting food for booze- made him look huge, bearish. He didn’t notice me, was staring at the ground, running his hands over his lumpy face as if washing without water. His head was bare, his black hair dripping and limp. His expression said wounded bear.
I said, “Hello,” and he looked up sharply, as if rudely awakened. Then his green eyes switched on like traffic lights and he came down the stairs. The car coat had large wooden barrel-shaped buttons dangling from loops. They bobbed as he moved. His tie was gray rayon, water-spotted-black. It hung askew over his belly.
I offered him my umbrella. It didn’t cover much of him. “Any problems getting through?”
“No,” I said, “but a bunch of mothers are having a problem. You guys could use some sensitivity training. Consider that my initial consultation.”
The anger in my voice surprised both of us. He frowned, his pale face deathly in the shade of the umbrella, the pockmarks on his cheeks standing out like pinholes in paper.
He looked around, spotted the cop chatting up the reporter, and waved. When the cop didn’t respond, he cursed and lumbered away, shoulders hunched, like an offensive tackle moving in for the crush.
A moment later the patrolman was sprinting out of the yard, flushed and chastened.
Milo returned, panting. “Done. The mommies are on their way, police escort and all.”
“The perquisites of power.”
“Yeah. Just call me Generalissimo.”
We began walking back toward the building.
“How many kids are involved?” I said.
“Couple of hundred, kindergarten through sixth grade. We had them all in the gym, paramedics checking for shock or injuries- thank God, nothing. The teachers took them back to their classrooms, trying to do what they can until you give them a plan.”
“I thought the school system had people to deal with crises.”
“According to the principal, this particular school has trouble getting help from the school system. Naturally, I thought of you.”
We reached the steps, where we were sheltered by an overhang. Mile stopped and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Thanks for coming down, Alex. It’s a goddam mess. I figured no one would do a better job than you. I don’t know what your schedule’s like or if they’ll be able to pay you, but if you can at least get them started on the right foot…” He cleared his throat and rubbed his face again.
I said, “Tell me what happened.”
“Looks like the suspect got onto the school grounds before school opened, either by scaling or walking through- couple of the gates were left unlocked- proceeded into the storage shed, which had a dinky lock on it, and stayed there.”
“No one uses the shed?”
He shook his head. “Empty. Used to be for athletic equipment. They keep all that stuff in the main building now. Suspect was settled in there until a little after noon, when the kids came pouring out for recess. Latch and Massengil and their people showed up by twelve-thirty and that’s when the shooting started. Teachers began shoving the kids back in the building, but it was a real mob scene. Mass hysteria. Everyone falling over everyone else.”
I glanced back at the storage shed. “TV said no one was hurt.”
“Just the suspect. Permanently.”
He shook his head. “It was over before SWAT got here. One of Latch’s guys did the job. Fellow named Ahlward. While everyone else was diving for cover, he rushed the shed, kicked the door in and played Rambo.”
“I’m not sure what he is, yet.”
“But he was armed.”
“Lots of people in politics are.”
We climbed the steps. I took another look back at the shed. One of the mesh windows offered a clear view of the main building.
“It could have been a shooting gallery,” I said. “Near-sighted sniper?”
He grunted and pushed the door open. The interior of the building was oven-warm, ripe with the mingled aromas of chalk dust and wet rubber.
“This way,” he said, turning left and guiding me down a brightly lit hallway hung with children’s artwork in fingerpaint and crayon, and health and safety posters featuring grinning anthropomorphic animals. The linoleum floor was clay-colored and mottled with muddy shoeprints. A couple of cops patrolled. They acknowledged Milo with stiff nods.
I said, “The newscast said Latch and Massengil were going to debate on camera.”
“It wasn’t set up that way. Apparently Massengil had a solo press conference in mind. Planned to make some speech about government tampering with family life, use the school as a backdrop, the whole busing thing.”
“School know of his plans?”
“Nope. No one here had any idea he was coming down. But Latch’s people found out about it and Latch decided to come down himself and confront him. Impromptu debate.”
“Cameras ended up getting a better show,” I said.
The doors off the corridor were painted that same pumpkin-orange. All were shut and as we passed, sounds filtered through the wood: muffled voices, the matter-of-fact sonata of a police radio, what could have been crying.
I said, “Think Latch or Massengil was the real target?”
“Don’t know yet. The assassination angle brought the anti-terrorist boys zipping over from downtown. They’re interviewing both of the staffs right now. As long as the political angle is a possibility, they’re in charge- meaning I collect info and hand it over to them so they can classify it, then refuse to let me look at it on grounds that it’s classified. Perquisites of power, hoo-ha.” He gave a hollow laugh. “Top of that, the FBI just called from Westwood, wanting to know everything about everything, threatening to assign one of their guys as a consultant.”
He hummed a few bars of “Send in the Clowns” and lengthened his stride.
“On the other hand,” he said, “if it’s your everyday, run-of-the-mill SoCal psycho killer gunning for innocent babies, none of the muckamucks will give a shit, ’cause the psycho’s dead- no headline value- and yours truly will catch the paperwork. Good old perquisites of power.”
He stopped at a door marked PRINCIPAL, turned the knob, and shoved. We entered a front office- two straight-backed oak chairs and a secretary’s desk, untended. To the right of the desk was a door bearing a brown plastic slide-in sign stamped LINDA OVERSTREET, ED. D. in white. Milo knocked and pushed it open without waiting for a reply.
The desk in the rear office was pushed to the wall, creating an open space that accommodated a sand-colored L-shaped sofa, tile-topped coffee table, and two upholstered chairs. Plants in ceramic pots filled the corners. Next to the desk was a waist-high shelving unit well stocked with books, rag dolls, puzzles, and games. Framed watercolors of irises and lilies hung on the walls.
A woman got up from the sofa and said, “Detective Sturgis. Hello, again.”
For some reason I’d expected someone middle-aged. She was no older than thirty. Tall- five eight or nine- leggy, high-waisted, and slim, but with strong shoulders and full hips that flared below a tight waist. Her face was long, lean, very pretty, with a clear, fair complexion, rosy cheeks, and fine features topped by a thick shag of shoulder-length blond hair. Her mouth was wide, the lips a trifle stingy. Her jawline was crisp and angled sharply, as if aiming for a point, but ending in a squared-off cleft chin that granted her a bit of determination. She wore a charcoal cowl-neck sweater tucked into a knee-length denim skirt. No makeup other than a touch of eye shadow. Her only jewelry was a pair of square black costume earrings.
“As promised,” Milo told her, “Dr. Alex Delaware. Alex, Dr. Overstreet, the boss around here.”
She gave him a fleeting smile and turned to me. Because of her height and her heels, we were almost eye to eye. Hers were round and large, fringed with long, almost-white lashes. The irises were an unremarkable shade of brown but radiated an intensity that caught my attention and held it.
“Pleased to meet you, Dr. Delaware.” She had a soft voice mellowed further by some kind of Southern twang. She held out her hand and I took it. Long-fingered and narrow, exerting no pressure. I wondered how someone with hands that submissive, that beauty-contestant voice, would handle a position of authority.
I said hello. She freed her hand and brushed her bangs.
“Thanks for coming down on such short notice,” she said. “What a nightmare.”
She shook her head again.
Milo said, “S’cuse me, doctors,” and moved toward the door.
“See you later,” I told him.
When he was gone, she said, “That man is kind and gentle,” as if ready to argue the point.
I nodded. She said, “At first the kids were scared of him, scared to talk to him- his size. But he really handled them well. Like a good father.”
That made me smile.
Her color deepened. “Anyway, let’s get to work. Tell me everything I can do to help the kids.”
She took a pad and pencil from her desk. I sat on the short section of the L-shaped sofa and she settled perpendicular to me, crossing her legs.
I said, “Are any of them showing signs of overt panic?”
“Hysteria, breathing troubles, hyperventilation, uncontrollable weeping?”
“No. At first there were tears, but they appeared to have calmed down. At least the last time I looked they seemed settled- amazingly so. We’ve got them back in their classrooms and the teachers have been instructed to let me know if anything comes up. No calls for the last half hour, so I guess no news is good news.”
“What about physical symptoms- vomiting, urinating, loss of bowel control?”
“We had a couple of wet pants in the lower grades. The teachers handled it discreetly.”
I probed for symptoms of shock. She said, “No, the paramedics already went through that. Said they were okay. Remarkably okay, quote unquote- is that normal? For them to look that good?”
I said, “What do they understand about what’s happened?”
She looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Has anyone actually sat down and explained to them that there was a sniper?”
“The teachers are doing that now. But they have to know what happened. They heard the shots, saw the police swarm the campus.” Her face tightened with anger.
I said, “What is it?”
She said, “That someone would do that to them. After all they’ve been through. But maybe that’s why they’re handling it okay. They’re used to being hated.”
“The busing thing?”
“The busing thing. And all the garbage that resulted from it. It was a match made in hell.”
“Because of Massengil?”
“He hasn’t helped. But no doubt he speaks for his constituents. Ocean Heights considers itself the last bastion of Anglo-Saxon respectability. Till recently, the locals’ idea of educational controversy was chocolate-chip or oatmeal cookies at the bake sale. Which is fine, but sometimes reality just has to rear its ugly head.”
She drummed her fingers and said, “When you came in, did you notice how big the yard was?”
I hadn’t, but I nodded.
She said, “It’s a huge campus for such a small neighborhood, because thirty-five years ago, when the school was built, land was cheap, Ocean Heights was supposed to boom, and someone probably landed a juicy construction contract. But the boom never materialized and the school never came close to functioning at capacity. Until the budget crunches back in the seventies, no one paid much attention to that kind of thing. Who’d complain about small classes? But resources started to dry up, the Board began examining head count, efficient allocation of resources, all that good stuff. Most white schools were experiencing a dropping census but Hale was a real ghost town. The kids of the original homeowners were grown. Housing had gotten so expensive that few families with young children were able to move in. Those that could afford to live here could also afford to send their kids to private schools. The result was classroom capacity for nine hundred pupils and only eighty-six kids attending. Meanwhile, on the East Side, things were nuts- fifty, sixty per classroom, kids sitting on the floor. The logical thing seemed to be what the Board so quaintly terms ‘modulated redistribution.’ The B word. But totally voluntary, and one-way. Inner-city kids brought in, no locals bused out.”
“How long’s it been going on?”
“This is our second year. Hundred kids the first semester, hundred more the second. Even with that, the place was still a ghost town. But the locals felt crowded. Sixty of the eighty-six stragglers were transferred immediately to private schools. All the rest left mid semester. You would have thought we were importing the plague.” She shook her head. “I can understand people wanting to be insulated, the whole idea of the neighborhood school. I know they must have felt invaded. But that doesn’t excuse how ugly it got. Alleged grown-ups standing outside the gates waving signs and taunting the kids. Calling them greasers, wetbacks. Vermin.”
I said, “I saw it on TV. It was ugly.”
She said, “During summer vacation we got vandalized- racist graffiti, broken windows. I tried to get the Board to send down some mental health people, someone to mediate with the community before the new school year started, but all I got were memos and countermemos. Hale’s a stepchild that they’re obligated to feed but don’t want to acknowledge.”
“How have the children reacted to all the hostility?”
“Very well, actually. They’re so darned resilient, bless ’em. And we worked on it. Last year I met regularly with each class, talking to them about tolerance, respecting differences between people, the right to free speech, even if it’s unpleasant. I had the teachers play games and do things to enhance self-esteem. We kept drumming into them how good they were. How brave. I’m no psychologist, but psych was my minor and I think I did at least a passable job.”
I said, “Sounds like the right approach. Maybe that’s why they’re handling things well right now.”
She waved off the compliment and her eyes moistened. “That’s not to say everything was perfect- not by a long shot. They felt it- the hatred. Had to. A few families pulled their kids out of the busing program immediately, but most stuck it out, and after a while things seemed to be quieting down. I really thought this semester was going well. Hoped it had finally dawned on the good folks of Ocean Heights that a bunch of little kids weren’t going to rape their daughters and rustle their cattle. Or maybe they just got bored- this place is the capital of Apathy. Only other issues that get them going are offshore oil drilling within a fifty-mile radius and anything that relates to landscaping. So I made sure our shrubs were well trimmed.” Brief, bitter smile. “I was starting to think we could finally concentrate on educating. Then Massengil goes and dredges it all up- he’s always had a special thing for us. Probably ’cause he’s a local. Lives in Sacramento but keeps a house here for legal purposes. Obviously he views us as a personal burr in the butt.”
She punched her palm. Her eyes were flashing. I altered my assessment about her ability to handle authority.
“The creep,” she said. “If I’d known he was planning a dog-and-pony show today, I’d…”
She frowned, tapped her pencil on her wrist.
I said, “What?”
She hesitated, then gave another mirthless smile. “I was about to say I’d have met him at the gate with a loaded gun.”
She looked down at her pad, realized she’d written nothing, and said, “Enough talk. What’s your plan?”
“The first step will be to establish rapport with the kids. And the teachers. Your introducing me and explaining who I am will help that. Second, I’ll focus on getting them to express their feelings about what happened- talking, playing, drawing.”
“Individually or in groups?”
“Groups. Class by class. It’s more efficient and more therapeutic- opening up will be easier if there’s peer support. I’ll also be looking for the high-risk kids- those who are especially high-strung, have had previous anxiety problems or experienced loss or an unusual amount of stress within the last year. Some of them may need one-on-one attention. The teachers can help by identifying them.”
“No problem,” she said. “I know most of them myself.”
“The other important thing- maybe the toughest- will be to convince parents not to keep their children out of school for extended periods.”
“More than a day or two. The sooner they get back, the easier it will be for them to adjust.”
She sighed. “All right, we’ll get on it. What do you need in the way of equipment?”
“Nothing much. Some toys- blocks, figurines. Paper and pencil, clay, scissors, glue.”
“We’ve got all of that.”
“Will I need a translator?”
“No. Most of the kids- about ninety percent- are Latino but all of them understand English. We’ve worked hard at that. The rest are Asian, including some pretty recent immigrants, but we don’t have anyone on staff who speaks Cambodian or Vietnamese or Laotian or Tagalog or whatever, so they’ve come along pretty fast.”
“Ye olde melting pot.”
“Uh-uh, forbidden phrase,” she said. “The memo god commands us to use salad bowl.” She raised a finger and recited: “Every ingredient maintains its integrity, no matter how much you toss it around.”
We left her office and stepped out into the hall. Only one cop remained, patrolling idly.
She said, “Okay. Now what about your fee.”
I said, “We can talk about that later.”
“No. I want things straight from the beginning- for your sake. The School Board has to approve private consultants. That takes time, going through channels. If I put in a voucher without prior approval, they can use that as an excuse not to pay you.”
I said, “We can’t wait for approval. The key is to get to the kids as soon as possible.”
“I realize that, but I just want you to know what you’re dealing with. Also, even if we go through channels, there’re bound to be hassles getting you compensated. The Board will probably claim it has the resources to do the job itself; therefore there’s no justification for bringing in anyone from the outside.”
I nodded. “Same song and dance they pull with the parents of handicapped kids.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I worry about everything. It’s my job,” she said. Most of the softness in her eyes had melted away.
I said, “It’s okay. Really.”
“You realize we’re talking potential freebie?”
“I realize. That’s fine.”
She looked at me. “Why are you doing this?”
“It’s what I went to school to learn how to do.”
There was distrust in her eyes. But she shrugged and said, “Who am I to look a gift horse?”
We walked toward the first classroom. A door at the end of the corridor swung open. A tight cluster of nine or ten people poured out and barreled in our direction.
At the group’s nucleus was a tall white-haired man in his sixties wearing a gray sharkskin suit that could have been purchased for Eisenhower’s victory party. His face was stringy and hawkish above a long, wattled neck- beak nose, white toothbrush mustache, pursed mouth, eyes buried in an angry squint. He kept up a vigorous pace, leading with his head, pumping his elbows like a speed-walker. His minions were whispering at him, but he didn’t seem to be listening. The group ignored us and blew by.
I said, “Looks like the esteemed assemblyman’s run out of words.”
She closed her eyes and exhaled. We continued walking.
I said, “What do you know about the sniper?”
“Just that he’s dead.”
“It’s a start.”
She turned sharply. “A start at what?”
“Dealing with the kids’ fears. The fact that he’s dead will help.”
“You’re going to get into gory details with them right away?”
“I’m going to be truthful with them. When they’re ready for it.”
She looked doubtful.
I said, “The key is for them to make some kind of sense out of a crazy situation. In order to do that they’ll need as much accurate information as possible. Facts. About the bad guy- presented at their level, as soon as possible. The mind abhors a vacuum. Without facts, they’ll fill their heads with fantasies of him that could be much worse than reality.”
“Just how much reality do you think they need to absorb?”
“Nothing gory. Basics. The sniper’s name, age, what he looks… looked like. It’s crucial that they see him as human. Destructible. Gone forever. Even with facts, some of the youngest ones will be incapable of understanding the permanence of his death- they’re not mature enough, developmentally. And some of the older ones may regress because of the trauma- temporarily ‘forget’ that dead people don’t come back to life. So they’re all vulnerable to fantasies of the bad guy returning. Of his coming back to get them again. Adult crime victims go through it- after the initial shock’s worn off. It can lead to nightmares, phobias, all kinds of post-traumatic reactions. In children the risk is higher because kids don’t draw a clear line between reality and fantasy. You can’t eliminate the risk of problems, but by dealing with misconceptions right away, you minimize it.”
I stopped. She was staring at me, grimly, the brown eyes unwavering.
“What I want,” I said, “is for them to understand that the bastard’s truly destroyed. That he’s not some supernatural bogeyman that’s going to keep haunting them.”
“Bastard” made her smile. “Okay. Just as long as it doesn’t end up scaring them more-” She stopped herself. “Sorry. You obviously know a heck of a lot more about this than I do. It’s just that they’ve been through so much for so long, I’ve gotten protective.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Good to see someone caring.”
She ignored that. This one definitely didn’t like compliments.
“I don’t know a thing about the bastard,” she said. “No one saw him. We just heard the shots. Then there was a lot of panic- screaming and shoving. We were trying to stuff the kids back into the building, keeping their heads down. We ran as fast and as far away as we could, trying to make sure no one got trampled. No one even knew it was over until that guy Ahlward came out of the shed, waving his gun like a cowboy after the big draw. When I first saw him, it freaked me out- I thought he was the sniper. Then I recognized him- I’d seen him in Latch’s group. And he was smiling, telling us it was all over. We were safe.”
She shuddered. “Bye-bye, bogeyman.”
The lone patrolman had tilted his head toward our conversation. He was young, handsome, coal-black, perma-pressed.
I walked up to him and said, “Officer, what can you tell me about the sniper?”
“I’m not free to give out any information, sir.”
“I’m not a reporter,” I said. “I’m a psychologist called in by Detective Sturgis to work with the children.”
“It would be useful,” I said, “for me to have as many facts as possible. So I can help the kids.”
“I’m not free to discuss anything, sir.”
“Where’s Detective Sturgis?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
I returned to Linda Overstreet’s side.
She’d heard the exchange. “Bureaucracy,” she said. “I’ve come to believe it’s a biological urge.”
A door farther down the corridor opened, disgorging another group. This one revolved around a man in his early forties, mid-sized and chunky. He had a roundish, freckled face under an early-Beatles mop of gray-streaked dark hair which covered his brow. His clothes were formula junior-faculty: oatmeal-colored tweed sport coat, rumpled khaki pants, black-and-green plaid shirt, red knit tie. He wore round tortoise-shell eyeglasses, the kind the British health service used to give out for free. They rested atop a nose that would have done a French bulldog proud. The rest of his features were too small for his face- pinched, almost effeminate. I thought of old pictures I’d seen of him. Long-haired and bearded. The facial hair had made him look more seasoned, twenty years ago.
The academic image was enhanced by the people around him- young, bright-eyed, like students vying for the attention of a favorite professor. Each of them was final-exam solemn, but the group managed to radiate a boisterousness that was almost festive.
The round-faced man noticed us and stopped.
“Dr. Overstreet. How’s everyone doing?”
“As good as can be expected, Councilman Latch.”
He came over to us. The staffers hung back. With the exception of one bulky, blunt-faced, red-haired man about Latch’s age, none was older than twenty-five. A clean-cut bunch, dressed for success.
Latch said, “Is there anything I can do, Dr. Overstreet? For the kids? Or your staff?”
“How about calling out the National Guard for some protection?”
He flashed a brief, campaign-poster smile, then turned serious. “Anything a little less… martial?”
“Actually,” she said, “we could use some information.”
“What kind of information?”
“About the sniper. Who he was, his motivation. Dr. Delaware here will be working with the children. He needs to know as much as possible in order to answer their questions.”
He seemed to notice me for the first time, held out his hand and gripped mine hard. “Gordon Latch.”
“Good to meet you, Alex. You’re a psychologist? Psychiatrist?”
“From the School Board?”
Before I could answer, Linda said, “Dr. Delaware’s a private practitioner recommended by the police. He’s a specialist in childhood stress.”
Latch’s blue eyes focused behind his welfare specs. “Well, all power to you, and thanks for coming down on such short notice, Alex. It’s been a horror- unbelievable. Thank God it turned out the way it did.” He glanced back at his staffers, got nods from some of them. “What’s your game plan- vis-à-vis the kids?”
I gave him a brief rehash of what I’d told Linda.
He took a moment to digest it. “Sounds right on target,” he said. “I was involved in your field once upon a time- majored in psych up at Berkeley. Crisis counseling, community mental health, primary and secondary prevention. We had a place in Oakland. Trying to integrate mental patients back into the community. Back in the good old days when humanism wasn’t a dirty word.”
“So I’ve heard.” As had anyone who read the papers.
“Different times,” he said, sighing. “Gentler and kinder. What happened today just underscores how far we’ve drifted. Damn, what a tragedy!”
Linda said, “What can you tell us about the sniper, Councilman Latch?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. We don’t know much ourselves. The police have been awfully close-mouthed, as is their wont.”
She said, “Mr. Ahlward would know something. If he feels up to it, perhaps he could educate us.”
Latch looked over his shoulder again. “Bud? C’mere, please.”
The red-haired man raised pinkish eyebrows and stepped forward. He wore a brown suit, white shirt, solid brown knit tie, had the kind of overdeveloped upper body that makes custom tailoring a necessity. This suit was off the rack and hung on him like a tarp. His hands dangled loosely at his sides, big, pale, fuzzed with copper. His hair was tightly curled and he wore it close to his head. He had a fleshy, jutting jaw and lazy amber eyes that remained fixed on his boss.
“Councilman?” Up close he smelled of cigarette smoke.
“Bud, these good people want to know about the sniper. What can you tell them?”
“Nothing yet,” said Ahlward. He had a soft, boyish voice. “Sorry. Cops’ orders.” He zipped a finger across his mouth.
Latch said, “Nothing at all, Bud?”
“ATD was real clear on that, Councilman.”
Latch turned back to us. “Anti-Terrorist Division. You might recall them from a couple of years ago. The lovely fellows who were spending taxpayers’ money on surveilling innocent taxpayers? We’ve since gotten them to clean up their act, so I suppose we’ll have to let them do their thing, for the moment. And they were adamant about keeping things under wraps until they’re sure they’ve got the big picture. Bud’s on his way downtown right now to give a formal statement. If we’re all lucky, things’ll clear up soon after that.” To Ahlward: “Bud, soon as you get the green light vis-à-vis informational flow, make sure these good folks get anything they want. Immediately. Understood?”
“You bet,” said Ahlward.
Latch nodded. Ahlward returned to the group.
“Thank God for Bud,” said Latch, loud enough for the group to hear. Someone patted Ahlward on the back. The redheaded man appeared unmoved. Standing with the others but not one of them. A distant look had settled on his face- Zen placid, as if he’d projected himself to another place, another time. Not a hint that he’d spent his lunch hour shooting someone to death.
“Okay, my friends,” said Latch, taking a step backward. “It’s been a long day that shows no sign of ending. Dr. Overstreet, if you need anything, bypass the red tape and come straight to me. I mean it. Let’s get things on an even keel, once and for all. Dr. Delaware, sounds like the kids are in good hands, but you, too, feel free to get in touch if there’s anything I can do.”
He reached into his jacket, removed some business cards from a leather holder, and gave them to us. A two-handed grasp of Linda’s hand, then mine, and he was gone.
Linda crumpled the card. Her face had tightened.
I said, “What’s the matter?”
“Suddenly he’s Mr. Helpful,” she said, “but last spring, when the kids were being put through hell, I tried to get his help. Ocean Heights is part of his district, even though I’m sure he didn’t get too many votes here. I thought because of his reputation, all the civil rights stuff he used to be into, he’d come down, talk to the kids, show them someone with power was on their side. If for no other reason than to use it for public relations. I must have called his office half a dozen times. Not even a return call.”
“He came down today. To square off against Massengil.”
“Some kind of ulterior motive, no doubt. They’re all the same.” She blushed. “Listen to me. You must think I’m a foursquare ballbuster.”
“You might very well be,” I said, “but I’d have to study you under more optimal circumstances in order to be able to come to a conclusion vis-à-vis that issue.”
She opened her mouth, then broke into laughter. The cop down the hall pretended not to hear.
The classroom was large and bright and filled with an unaccustomed silence. Only the rain broke the quiet, sloshing against the windows in an insistent car-wash rhythm. Twenty pairs of eyes stared back at me.
I said, “I’m the kind of doctor who doesn’t give shots. I don’t look in kids’ eyes or ears, either.” Pause. “What I do is talk with kids and play with them. You guys like to play, don’t you?”
A few blinks.
“What kinds of games do you like to play?”
“How about ball? Any of you like to play ball?”
An Asian boy with a soup-bowl haircut said, “Base-ball.”
“Baseball,” I said. “What position do you play?”
“Pitch. Soccer and football and basketball too.”
“Jumpin’ rope” said a girl.
“Pizza Party,” said the Asian boy.
“That’s a board game,” explained the teacher. A stylish black woman in her forties, she’d relinquished her desk to me with eagerness, pulled a chair into a corner, and sat, hands folded, like a punished student. “We have that here in class. We have lots of board games, don’t we, class?”
“I like to be mushrooms,” said the Asian boy.
“Peppers,” said another boy, small-boned, with long, wavy hair. “Hot peppers. Muy caliente!”
I said, “Okay. What other board games do you like to play?”
“Chutes and Ladders!”
“I already said that!”
“No way. I’m Vietnamese!”
“I like to play too,” I said. “Sometimes for fun and sometimes to help kids when they’re scared or worried.”
Return of silence. The teacher fidgeted.
“Something very scary happened today,” I said. “Right here in school.”
“Someone got killed,” said a dimpled girl with coffee-colored skin.
“Anna, we don’t know that,” said the teacher.
“Yes,” insisted the girl. “There was shooting. That means killing.”
I said, “You’ve heard shooting before.”
She nodded with vehemence. “Uh-huh. On my street. The gangbangers drive by and shoot into the houses. That means killing. My papa said so. One time we had a bullet hole in our garage. Like this.” She measured a space between thumb and forefinger.
“My street too,” said a crew-cut boy with an elfin face and bat ears. “A dude got killed. Dead. Boom boom boom. Inna face.”
The teacher looked ill.
A few of the boys began to pantomime shooting using their fingers for guns and half-rising out of their seats.
“Sounds scary,” I said.
A boy laughed and shot at a girl. She said, “Stop it! You’re stupid!”
The boy swore at her in Spanish.
“Ramon!” said the teacher. “Now you just settle down. Let’s all of us settle down, class.” Her glance at me said Where’d you get your degree?
I said, “It’s fun to play shooting, because it makes us feel strong. In charge- the boss over our lives. But when it really happens, when someone’s really shooting at us, it isn’t too funny, is it?”
Headshakes. The boys who’d laughed hardest suddenly looked the most frightened.
I said, “What do you guys understand about what happened today?”
“Some dude was shootin’ at us,” said the Asian boy.
“Tranh,” said the teacher. “We don’t know that.”
“Yeah, he was shootin’ at us, Miz Williams!”
“Yes, Tranh. He was shooting,” she said. “But we don’t know who he was shooting at. He could have been shooting into the air.” A look to me for confirmation.
“He was shooting at us,” insisted Tranh.
I said, “Do any of you know what happened to him?”
“He got shot?” said the girl named Anna.
“That’s right. He got shot and he’s dead. So he can’t hurt you. Can’t do anything to you.”
Silence as they appraised that.
The boy named Ramon said, “What about his friends, man?”
“Like if he’s a homeboy and the other homeboys are gonna come back and shoot us again?”
“No reason to think he’s a homeboy,” I said.
“But what if he’s a stoner, man?” said Ramon. “Or a cholo.”
“Who is he?” asked another girl, chubby, with black Shirley Temple ringlets and a quiver in her voice.
Twenty faces, waiting.
I said, “I don’t know yet. No one does. But he’s gone. Forever. You’re safe from him.”
“We should kill him again!” said Ramon.
“Yeah! Kill him! Shoot him with a twenty-two!”
“With a Uzi!”
“Push his face inna pizza so he don’t breathe no more!”
“Push his face in ca-ca!”
The teacher started to say something. I stilled her with a glance. “How else could you hurt him?”
“Cut him up and feed him to Pancho- that’s my dog!”
“Shoot him, boom, inna balls!”
“Ay, los cojones!”
“Cut him up and grind him up and feed him to my dog!”
“You don’t got no dog, Martha!”
“Do so! Got a real mean pit bull and he’ll eat you!”
I said, “Shoot him, stab him, push his face down. Sounds like you guys are really mad.”
“Yeah, man,” said Ramon. “What you think, man? He try to kill us, we gonna kill him back!”
“We can’t kill him,” said the chubby girl.
“Why’s that?” I said.
“Because he’s big. We’re just kids. We got no guns.”
“That’s dumb,” said Tranh. “We can’t kill him ’cause he’s already dead!”
“Kill him again!” shouted someone.
“Find out where he lives,” said Ramon, “and kill his fuckin’ house!”
The teacher said, “Language!”
The chubby girl didn’t look reassured. I said, “What’s the matter?”
“Actually,” she said, “we can’t do nothing. We’re kids. If people wanna be mean to us all the time, they can.”
“Honey, no one wants to be mean to you,” said the teacher.
The chubby girl looked at her.
“Everyone likes you, Cecelia,” said the teacher. “Every-one likes all of you.”
The chubby girl shook her head and began to cry.
By the time I finished, the rain had abated. I made a stop at Linda Overstreet’s office, but it was locked and no one answered my knock. As I left the building I saw Milo in the yard, near the cordoned storage shed. He was talking to a slim, dark-haired man in a well-cut blue suit. He noticed me and waved me over.
“Alex, this is Lieutenant Frisk, Anti-Terrorist Division. Lieutenant, Dr. Alex Delaware, the clinical psychologist who’ll be working with the kids.”
Frisk checked me over and said, “How’s it going, Doctor?” in a tone that let me know he didn’t much care.
“Good to hear it.” He flashed a barrel cuff and consulted his Rolex. He was young and tan, the dark hair permed in a neat cap, and wore a mustache that had taken a long time to trim. The blue suit was expensive, the shirt Turnbull & Asser or a knockoff. The tie that bisected it was heavy silk patterned with dancing blue parallelograms on a background of deep burgundy. His eyes matched the parallelograms; they never stopped moving.
He turned to Milo and said, “I’ll let you know. After-noon, Doctor.” He walked away.
“Spiffy dresser,” I said. “Looks like a TV cop.”
“Young man on the way up,” said Milo. “Masters in public administration from S.C., good connections, D-Three by the age of thirty, promoted to loot three years later.”
“Is he taking over the case?”
“You just heard- he’ll let me know.”
We walked across the schoolyard.
“So,” he said, “how’d it really go?”
“Not bad, really. I managed to meet briefly with all the classes. Most of the kids seem to be reacting normally.”
“Meaning lots of anxiety, some anger. It’s the anger I tried to harness- get them to feel more in control. I told the teachers to contact the parents and prepare them for possible appetite loss, sloop problems, psychosomatic stuff, clinginess, some school phobia. Some of the kids may need individual treatment, but a group approach should work for most of them. The important thing was getting to them quickly- you done good.”
He said, “What’d you think of Ms. Principal?”
“Texas lady,” he said. “Cop’s kid- daddy was a Ranger, brought his work home. She knows this scene by heart.”
“She didn’t mention any of that to me.”
“Why should she? With you she probably talked feelings.”
I said, “Her main feeling right now is anger. Plenty of it simmering beneath the surface. It’s been building since she got here- she’s been dealing with lots of crap and getting very little support. She tell you about the vandalism?”
He frowned. “Yeah. First I’d heard of it. The School Board reported it directly to downtown- it never went any further.”
“Bad P.R.?” I said.
“Perish the thought.”
“Sounds like the school’s been embroiled in politics since they brought the kids in. Think the sniping was political?”
“At this point, who knows?”
“Latch or Massengil have any theories? About being targets themselves?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “Kenny Frisk and the ATD boys did all the interrogation. Hush-hush behind closed doors. Afterwards Kenny comes out and informs the rest of us peons that official policy is tight lips. All press re-leases to emanate from ATD. Informational infractions will be severely dealt with.”
I searched his face for signs of anger. All I saw was a big, white mask.
A few steps later he said, “Though with politicos, good luck keeping their lips from flapping.”
“So far Latch seems to be complying,” I said. “I ran into him in the hall as he was leaving. Tried to get some information from him and received zip.”
He turned his head and looked at me. “What kind of information?”
“Some sort of basic description of the sniper. Who he was. Anything tangible. The kids need to form an image of their enemy.” I repeated the rationale I’d given Linda and Gordon Latch. “They’re already asking questions, Milo. It would increase my effectiveness to be able to answer some of them.”
He said, “Just basics, huh? Who he was.”
I nodded. “Of course, any details you can tell me would be useful. Short of an ‘informational infraction.’ ”
He didn’t smile. “Details. Well, first thing I can tell you is that you’re operating on a false premise.”
“It wasn’t a he. It was a she.”
The restaurant was dim and mock-English: collections of tankards and heraldic shields displayed on rough-textured dun walls, dartboards in “Ye Olde Pub Room,” lots of distressed crossbeams, the tallowy, sweet smell of seared meat. A catacomb jumble of small dining rooms. A respectful maitre d’ had seen to it that ours was empty.
Milo looked up from his T-bone, put down his knife, and took something out of his coat pocket that he slid across the table.
A piece of white paper, folded double. In the center was a photocopy of a driver’s license.
The photo was dark and blurred. A young female face, oval, unsmiling. A little weak-chinned. Thin neck. White blouse. Dark straight hair, cropped short. Straight-edge bangs hovering above arched eyebrows.
I searched the features for something- some harbinger of violence. The eyes looked a little dull. Sullen. Heavy-lidded, shallow as rain puddles. But that could have been the poor quality of the copy or weariness at waiting in line at the DMV. Other than that, nothing. Average. A face you’d never notice.
I read the ID data.
HOLLY LYNN BURDEN
1723 JUBILO DR
OCEAN HEIGHTS CA 90070
SEX: F HAIR: BRN EYES: BLUE
HT: 5-05 WT: 117 DOB: 12-12-68
RSTR: CORR LENS
“Local girl,” I said.
“Very local. That address is five blocks from the school.”
“Jubilo Drive. Spanish for ‘joy.’ And I think Esperanza means ‘hope.’ ”
“A-plus, Sherlock. You caught the pattern. The street next to Jubilo’s Belleza Court. ‘Beauty.’ Some optimistic urban planner.”
“Hispanophile urban planner,” I said. “Guess the locals don’t share the spirit.”
“Hey,” he said, “street names are one thing; letting them marry your sister’s another.”
I examined the picture again, reread the information. “What do you know about her?”
“Just what you see in front of you. Frisk says ATD will be checking out known associates- going through their subversive files to see if her name comes up. When he left us he was on his way to her house.”
“Nineteen years old,” I said and gave him the paper. He folded it back up and put it away.
“Now forget you saw it, Alex. I’m not even supposed to have a copy.”
“Official ATD document.”
“How’d you get it?”
He shrugged and began sawing his steak. “After the print boys finished, Frisk designated one of the offices as a ‘data collection center.’ Had all the evidence hoarded in there, I just happened to saunter in when he just happened to take a leak. There just happened to be this Xerox ma-chine that kept whispering, ‘Turn me on, big boy.’ You know how I’ve always been a sucker for the soft touch.”
“Why all the obsession with secrecy, Milo? Once Frisk gave you her name, you could have gotten the license yourself. Hell, I could get it myself.”
“That’s the way ATD works- comes from spending too much of their time hanging around Washington. The Department sends them there- and to FBI heaven at Quantico. Seminars. Hobnobbing with the cloak-and-dagger freaks. Makes ’ em insufferable. But them’s the rules- no sense bucking without any payoff. Besides, it shouldn’t take long for things to ease up. Only a matter of time before the whole case goes public.”
“Unless something interesting turns up about the late Ms. Burden in somebody’s files, Frisk plans on releasing her name to the press around noon tomorrow. Soon as that happens, you can tell your kids the bogeyman looks like their friendly neighborhood babysitter.”
“How’s he going to stall the press in the meantime?”
“The old fashioned way: lie. ‘Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, no definitive ID pending autopsy.’ Which is almost true- she did take a couple of bullets in the face. But you could still tell it was the same face as the one on the license.”
I imagined the young, bland countenance swollen, perforated, bleeding; shook that picture out of my head and said, “Around noon should work out, anyway. I’m meeting with the kids at one.”
“Great. But if, for some reason, Frisk hasn’t gone public, neither do you, okay? I’ve got enough troubles without leaks getting traced back to me this early in the game.”
“What kind of troubles?”
“The usual.” His expression said: Change the subject.
We ate for a while. My mind kept drifting back to the license photo. “A girl sniper,” I said. “Hard to believe.”
“Women’s lib, Alex,” he said with his mouth full. “They’re trying to catch up to us in the asshole division.”
“Then they’ve got a long ways to go,” I said. “I remember County Jail- visiting Jamey Cadmus in the violent psych ward. One thing that impressed me was that they had twenty rooms for males, only two set aside for females, and those two were rarely used for females. What percentage of violent crime is committed by women?”
“Less than ten,” he said. “But the stats get interesting when you look at the age pattern- violent offenders under eighteen. The rate for males is still much higher than it is for females, but the overall rate for males is dropping, while for females it’s going up. The gap is closing. And even without the numbers, I’d know there’s something happening, Alex. On the streets. I can sense it- rules of conduct breaking down. Maybe Manson’s girls broke the ice, I don’t know- Squeaky and the other one taking potshots at Ford, those assholettes in the SLA. Now the gangbangers have started using fems as trigger-men… triggerpersons. They figure the courts will go easier on psychopaths in dresses, and they’re right. So far. Meanwhile, more and more Bonnies wanting to be Clydes.”
He cut a large piece of T-bone free and stuffed it in his mouth. “Hell,” he said, still chewing, “nastiest thing I’ve seen this year was some stenographer over in Mar Vista doing in her boyfriend with a Chinese cleaver. Jilted-lover stir-fry. Call the Frugal Gourmet.”
I looked at the sirloin on my fork and put it down.
“Bon appétit,” he said.
“Of course,” he said, “the distaff does have a long way to go. We’ve got thousands of years of experience behind us. Tankfuls of testosterone. But they’re working on it- the whole goddam culture’s changing. Female wrestlers, girls pumping iron, shooting steroids, talking dirty. Hell, you ever see women flipping off truckers on the freeway till recently? They’re feeling their oats, pal.”
I made another go at my steak.
“Prime, huh?” he said, taking another mouthful.
“Private stock. Management knows me.” He patted his gut. “Which is to love me. Big tips and it’s cholesterol heaven.”
He dipped a piece of meat in steak sauce. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have a thing against the fairer sex. Just telling it the way I see it.”
“I know that.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes people assume, you know?”
“I swore off assumptions for Lent.”
He gulped another gargantuan piece of steak. The meat was bloody-rare and some juice dribbled down his chin. He dabbed at it. “Did I ever tell you I once had a girlfriend?”
“Yup. High school days.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“No? What the hell does it take to surprise you?”
“How about an honest politician?”
His laugh was harsh. “Yeah, find one, put him in the cage next to the condor.”
I said, “Why bother?”
He laughed some more.
“Any indication the Burden girl was aiming at Latch or Massengil?”
“Ye olde participatory democracy?”
“I’m serious, Milo. Being able to tell the kids they weren’t the targets would make my job easier.”
“Then, by all means, go ahead and tell ’em.”
“No,” I said. “If I say it, I want it to be true.”
“Sorry, then,” he said. “Nothing solid to give you. She didn’t leave any political message at the scene, far as I know. No fringies have called yet expressing solidarity, and Frisk said he didn’t recognize her name offhand from his subversive lists, though like I said, they’ll be running her through the software. Maybe he’ll turn up something at her house- some diary, or wacko manifesto. Mean-while, all we’ve got is one dead girl and lots of question marks.”
He thought for a moment. “If she was trying for one of them, my guess would be Massengil. Looks like no one except Latch’s insiders knew their boy was going to be there.”
“The press knew.”
He shook his head. “Uh-uh. Only about Massengil. That much I confirmed from talking to the reporters. The invite came from Massengil’s staff this morning. It was supposed to be a one-man show. Latch didn’t announce he was coming. The idea was to surprise the enemy.”
“How’d Latch find out Massengil was going to be there?”
“Once the press knew, it wouldn’t be too hard for anyone to find out, would it?”
I said, “Anyone?”
“Anyone in the grapevine. Frisk does his job correctly, that’s the first thing he’ll check about her. Maybe she once worked for Massengil- or Latch. Or knew someone who did. No one on either staff recognized her name, but she could have been low-level- stuffing envelopes, whatever. Some meek little gofer they treated like shit, never took the time to notice. She swallows it for a while, then quits. No one notices she’s gone. Meanwhile, she’s smoldering, making plans for vengeance. Fits the mass-killer profile. Then again, maybe the political thing was coincidental- Latch and Massengil had nothing to do with it. Maybe all she wanted to do was kill kids, and bigger game intruded.”
“Local girl makes bad,” I said. “Wonder if she attended Hale.”
“Revenge for a bad report card?”
“Got anything that makes more sense?”
“As a matter of fact I don’t,” he said. “So far this is your quintessential senseless crime- as opposed to all the real sensible ones we get.”
“Were the reporters there when the shooting started?”
He shook his head. “No. The press conference wasn’t called until one. Massengil showed up half an hour before, walking around the yard, ‘observing.’ Latch dropped in on him a few minutes later.”
I said, “If Latch’s intention was to upstage Massengil, why not arrive when the media were in place? Make a dramatic entry.”
“We wondered about that too. According to Frisk, Latch’s explanation was that his object wasn’t to confront Massengil but to defuse him. He was giving Massengil a chance to call the whole thing off before the cameras showed up.”
“Yeah, and I’m Mother Teresa. My guess is his real intention was to spook Massengil, work him up good. Massengil’s got a reputation for having a short fuse- got into a punch-out with another politico couple of years ago, likes to yell back at hecklers, go head to head. Latch probably figured in half an hour he could get the guy apoplectic by the time the media showed. Really make a jerk out of him. Then the shooting started and took the edge off their little drama.”
“One of the kids told me it sounded like war,” I said.
“How would he know?”
“She. From Cambodia.”
“Oh. Tell you one thing, old Holly was no pro-warrior. The rifle was a Remington Seven-hundred Classic. Bolt action, scoped. Nine pounds, stripped- one of the heavier ones they make, lots of kick. Not a girl’s gun. You just don’t pick up something like that, go boom, and hope to hit your target.”
“Even with the scope?”
“Sighting and aiming wouldn’t have been the problem, Alex. Holding on to the damned thing would be. According to the license she weighed under a hundred and twenty. And she hadn’t gained anything since applying for it. I saw the body- skinny, no muscle on her. Unless she had plenty of practice, she might as well have brought a cannon to shoot mice. Women succeed in the shooting game, they get up nice and close, use a comfortable little handgun. Not that a handgun would have been of much use in a sniping situation.”
“The license also said corrective lenses. Was she wearing her glasses?”
“Yup. Took a bullet in one of them, glass went right into the eye socket. Like shrapnel.”
“How many shots did she get off before Ahlward stormed the shed?”
“Looks like three out of six rounds- though to listen to the teachers and kids, she had a machine gun; it was a regular blitz. But panic’ll do that, magnify things. And some of what they heard was probably Ahlward shooting her- he put eight right in her.”
“There’s your pro,” I said, remembering the redheaded man’s calm. “Ex-cop?”
“Nope. Frisk said some kind of ex-military commando.”
“Hard-ass type for a guy like Latch to employ.”
“Not if Latch is a pragmatist. It’s like that old bumper sticker that used to be on half the lockers at the academy: ‘Mugged? Call a hippie.’ Latch may spout the love-and-compassion line, but when it comes to saving his ass he ain’t gonna hire Cesar Chavez.”
“How’d Ahlward get into the shed?”
“Same back door Burden used. She left it unlocked- I told you she was no pro. He ran around the back, waltzed right in, and pow.”
I thought again of the face on the driver’s license. Superimposed a mesh of blood and glass over the dull face.
“What is it?” said Milo.
“My, my, my. You feel bad for her, don’t you?”
“Not really?” He clucked his tongue. “Jesus, Alex, you turning mushy on me? I thought by now I’d raised your consciousness.”
I said, “The whole thing’s pathetic, Milo. A girl, holed up with a rifle she couldn’t handle- God knows what’s going through her head.”
“So I guess it just would have been nicer for the bad guy to be badder.”
He put his fork down and stared at me. “Oh, she could have been plenty bad. No thanks to her she wasn’t real bad. Just imagine a couple of lucky shots- couple of those cute little kids catching rifle slugs in-”
“Okay,” I said, “I get the point.”
“Good,” he said, crumpling his napkin. “Get it and keep it. Situation like this, got to keep the old priorities straight. Now, how about some dessert?”
I got home by eight, picked up calls, did paperwork and chores, then spent half an hour with a new acquisition: a cross-country skiing machine. A genuine implement of torture that left me a sopping ball of sweat. In the shower I kept thinking about terrified children and evil babysitters. So much for aerobic cleansing.
At nine I watched the news on one of the local stations. The shooting at Nathan Hale was the lead story: file clips of weeping kids followed by the official LAPD statement delivered by Lieutenant Kenneth Frisk. The ATD man was articulate and at ease with the cameras as he sidestepped questions; his designer duds and mustache, prop-room photogenic. New-age cop. Lots of style, very little substance.
Armed with few facts and needing to stretch the broadcast, the newspeople flashed more file clips: a segment on Massengil’s State House fistfight, a year before, with an assemblyman from the northern part of the state named DiMarco. The bout had taken place in the chambers of the legislature, the two of them going at it verbally- some esoteric issue having to do with gerrymandered districts. Massengil had come out of it without a scratch; DiMarco had suffered a bloody lip. The camera showed the loser pressing a crimson handkerchief to his mouth, then cut to footage taken today: DiMarco leaving his Sacramento office. Asked about Massengil’s temper and how he thought it related to the sniping, he passed up a chance for retribution, said it wouldn’t be prudent to comment at this time, got in his state-issued car and drove away. Discretion, or a loser’s reticence.
Next came a retrospective on Gordon Latch- the speedy, compressed history that only a TV photomontage can accomplish, beginning with a twenty-year-old film: Latch, hirsute and bright-eyed, marching with Mario Savio at Berkeley, shouting slogans, getting busted at the People’s Park. Cut to a hippie-style marriage in Golden Gate Park to the former Miranda Brundage. The bride, only child of a movie tycoon, former art history grad student at Berkeley, former Young Republican fashion plate programmed for Deliberate Understatement and the Junior League, had worn tie-dye.
Latch had radicalized her fast. She got arrested with him regularly, dropped out of school, lived in splendid Telegraph Avenue squalor. To the press, the irony was irresistible: In Hollywood circles, Fritz Brundage had long been regarded as a crypto-fascist- a prime mover behind the McCarthy-era blacklist and a passionate union-buster. The media covered his daughter’s wedding as if it were hard news. Latch played to the cameras, enjoying his role as First Radical. Soon after the wedding he took Miranda to Hanoi, recorded messages for the Viet Cong exhorting GIs to desert their posts. The networks were there with open mikes. The Latches returned to the United States topping the Ten Most Hated List, fielding death threats and possible prosecution for sedition.
They went into seclusion at a ranch owned by the old man. Somewhere up north. People wondered why Fritz had given them sanctuary. The government decided not to prosecute. There were rumors of Fritz’s calling in markers. Latch and Miranda stayed out of the public eye for five years, until Fritz died, then emerged, the heirs to a fortune. Freshly barbered and mature. Apologetic for Hanoi, self-proclaimed “democratic humanists,” eager to work within the system.
A move to the West Side of L.A., a couple more years of good works- environmental activism, groceries for the homeless, charity camps for disadvantaged youths- and Latch was ready for the electoral process: a City Council seat vacated by the car-crash death of a well-loved incumbent with a well-hidden drinking problem and an abhorrence for delegating authority. No designated successor, a sudden vacuum filled by Latch. And some generous monetary transfers from the former Brundage estate to the party’s coffers.
The only protests against Latch’s nomination came from veterans’ groups. Latch met with them, ate crow, said he’d grown up, had a vision for the city that transcended partisan politics. He ran against token opposition. Regiments of college students went door-to-door in the district distributing potholders and talking clean air. Latch won, made an acceptance speech that sounded downright middle-of-the-road. Miranda seemed content to host political teas.
She photographed well, I noticed. Kneeling on the beach scraping tar off an oil-slicked pelican.
End of montage. The anchorman offered a two-sentence review of the racial tensions at Hale. More shots of crying kids. Worried parents. A long view of the empty schoolyard.
The tail end of the story was an interview with a portly, white-bearded psychologist named Dobbs, billed as an expert on childhood stress who’d been enlisted by the School Board to work with the children. That held my attention.
Dobbs had on a three-piece suit that looked as if it had been woven from Shredded Wheat, and toyed with a heavy-looking watch chain as he spoke. His face carried a lot of loose flesh and he pursed his lips a lot, which made him look like a rubber Santa mask gone sour. He used home-grown jargon that made my head reel, talked a lot about crisis intervention and moral values- had plenty to say about how society had lost its moral fiber. I kept waiting for him to hold up a book jacket.
The phone interrupted his spiel.
“This is Linda Overstreet. You gave me this number, so I figured it was all right to use it.”
“Sure, Linda. What’s up?”
“Have you by any chance been watching the news?”
“Got it on screen right now.”
“So you saw him- Dobbs.”
“In all his tweedy glory.”
“He’s lying, believe me. No one called him in on anything. I know because I spoke to the Board this afternoon and they hadn’t gotten themselves in gear yet.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. What I do know is that Dobbs has got connections with the Board. So he probably assumed they’d give him the okay, just went steamrolling ahead on his own.”
“What kind of connections?”
“A couple of years back, after one of the earthquakes, he presented a very slick proposal to the Board: crisis intervention free of charge, at several schools- including the one where I was in training. What he actually ended up doing was having his assistants administer computerized tests to the kids and hand out brochures. Nothing hands-on. Couple of weeks later, some of the parents started getting phone calls informing them the tests had shown their kids to be suffering from severe emotional problems. Strongly advising them to bring the kids in for individual therapy. Those who resisted got follow-up calls, letters, not-so-subtle pressure. Funny thing is, all of the ones who were followed up lived in high-priced ZIP codes.”
“The poor get poorer and the rich get therapy?”
“Yup. The Board got a few complaints about the hard sell, but overall they were pleased with Dobbs because he hadn’t cost them a dime and they got testimonials from some of the parents of the kids who went for treatment, saying it had been helpful.”
“Are his credentials on the level?”
“Far as I know.”
“Hold on for a second. I’ll check.”
I went into the library, got an American Psychological Association directory, and came back on the line.
“What’s his first name?”
I thumbed to the D’s, found a bio on Dobbs, Dr. Lance L., and skimmed it. Birthdate in 1943, Ph.D. 1980, in educational counseling from a land-grant college in the Midwest. Internship and postdoctoral training at a drug rehab center in Sacramento. State license in ’82. Director of Cognitive-Spiritual Associates, Inc., since ’83. Two addresses: West L.A. and Whittier.
“Looks bona fide,” I said.
“Maybe, but with assistants doing all the work, what’s the big deal if he himself is qualified? I see him as a self-promoter- the kind who loves to see himself on screen.”
“This is L.A.,” I said. “People demand more than their fifteen minutes of fame.”
She laughed. “So you’re not ticked off?”
“Why should I be?”
“You do the work; he takes the credit. Seems to me I spend half my time dealing with ego stuff, stepping on toes. Guess I’m sensitized to it.”
“My toes feel fine.”
“Okay,” she said. “I just wanted to keep things straight. If Dobbs’s people show up, I’ll handle it.”
“Thanks. And thanks for calling.”
I said, “How’s everything going at school?”
“Good as can be expected.” Her voice broke. “It’s just starting to sink in, how close we all came… what a mess the whole thing is.”
“How’re you doing?”
“Oh, I’ll survive. What I’m really concerned about is the kids. I talked to a few of the teachers and the feedback I got on your sessions was positive.”
“How do they look to you- the kids?”
“Scared. But nothing abnormal. What’s encouraging is that they seem able to express it. You and the teachers have obviously done a good job over the past two years.”
“What are they scared of, specifically?”
“The youngest ones are concerned about separation from their parents, so you may see some school phobia and increased absenteeism from them. The older ones talked more about pain and suffering- trying to imagine what it felt like to be shot. Some discussion of death. Some anger’s starting to come out, too, which is good. Anger and fear are incompatible in kids- one drives out the other. If they can harness their anger and focus it, it’ll help them feel more in control in the long run.”
“Anger heals, huh?” she said. “Maybe I should try it.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Though I have to be honest: With adults the fear-anger thing isn’t that clear-cut.”
“Figures. Why should life be simple? Anything else I should know?”
“I’ve made a list of about twenty kids who seem extra-fragile. I’ll keep an eye out for others. Any of the high-risk kids who still look shaky within the next few days will need individual attention and I’ll want to meet with their parents.”
“When do you want the parents?”
“How about Friday?”
“I’ll get Carla on it first thing in the morning.”
“Thanks. How’re you doing with the parents- persuading them to send their kids back?”
“So far so good. I’ve been through this before, with the busing, so most of them trust me. But it’s not easy telling them we’ve provided a safe place for learning for their kids. We’ll keep trucking.”
“Thanks. I saw you leaving today with Detective Sturgis. Learn anything new on the sniper?”
Remembering Milo’s warning, I hedged. “The police don’t know much yet. Expect to be finding out more soon.”
“Sounds like the old cop shuffle.”
That reminded me of what Milo had told me about her father. “Guess you’d know about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Detective Sturgis told me you were a cop’s kid.”
“Did he?” she said, suddenly chilly. “Yes, that’s true. Well, have a good evening, and thanks again.”
“See you tomorrow, Linda.”
“Maybe not,” she said. “I’ll be running around all over the place. If you need anything, ask Carla. Good night.”
I placed the phone in its cradle. The chill lingered. Milo hadn’t said anything about her being touchy about her background. I wondered about it. But not for long. Too many other things on my mind.
Tuesday morning was crystalline- the kind of nose-tweaking, palate-tickling weather L.A. earns after a storm. I checked the morning paper for an update on the shooting, found nothing, and scanned the TV and the all-news radio stations.
Just rehash. I returned calls, finished a couple of child-custody reports, working until just before noon, when I took a break for a pepper beef sandwich and a beer.
Remembering Milo’s prediction, I turned the TV on again, flipped channels. Game shows. Soaps. Vocational training commercials. I was just about to switch it off when a press conference cut into one of the serials.
Lieutenant Frisk. More than ever, his tan, his teeth, and his perm made him resemble a soap opera cop, and the conference seemed like a continuation of the serial, just another scripted scene.
He straightened his tie, smiled, then proceeded to give Holly Lynn Burden her own ration of fame, enunciating her name, repeating it, spelling it, adding her birthdate, the fact that she lived in Ocean Heights, and was believed to have had psychiatric problems.
“All indications,” he said, “are that Miss Burden was working alone, and no evidence of any political affiliation or conspiracy has been found, though we’re still investigating at this time.”
“What do you have,” asked a reporter, “by way of a motive?”
“None, at this time.”
“But you said she had psychiatric problems.”
“What kinds of problems did she have?”
“We’re still looking into that,” said Frisk. “Sorry I can’t be any more specific at this time.”
“Lieutenant, was she gunning for the children, or was this an assassination attempt?”
“We’re still collecting data on that as well. That’s all, at this time, folks. Get back to you soon as we have more.”
Segue back to the soap: a cocktail party full of beautiful people, haute-coiffured and haute-cuisined, but riddled with angst.
I knotted my tie and put on my jacket. Time for school.
I arrived at Hale at 12:45- lunch hour but the yard was empty. A grizzled man in shabby clothes was walking up and down the sidewalk in front of the school. He carried a ten-foot cross and wore a sandwich sign proclaiming JESUS IS LORD on the front, NO HEAVEN WITHOUT REDEMPTION on the back. A middle-aged cop stood at the entrance to the gate, watching him. Blue uniform, but not LAPD. I got close enough to read the insignia on his sleeve. School police. I gave him my name, he checked it against a list on a clipboard, asked for ID verification, and unlocked the gate.
The man with the cross had shuffled halfway down the block. Now he turned and shouted, “Suffer the children!” in a hoarse voice. The school cop looked at him as if at a puddle of vomit, but made no move. The cross-man resumed his march.
I entered the yard. The storage shed was still wrapped with crime-scene tape. Despite the fine weather, a sense of desolation hung over the grounds- gloom coupled with tension, like the pause between thunderclaps. Maybe it was the emptiness, the lack of childish laughter. Or maybe just my imagination. I’d had the same feeling before… at deathbeds.
I pushed that aside and checked in with Linda Over-street’s secretary. Carla was young, tiny, and efficient. She had a punk hairdo and a smile that said life was a big joke.
I went to the first classroom. Yesterday there’d been two dozen students; today I counted nine. The teacher, a pale young woman just out of training, looked defeated. I gave her an encouraging smile, regretted not having the time to do more. As I took her place at the front of the classroom, she excused herself, sat in the back, and read a book.
The pattern of absenteeism repeated itself in every other class- at least half of the children had stayed home. Many of the ones I’d tagged as high-risk were among the missing. Therapist’s dilemma: those who need help the most, run the farthest from it.
I concentrated on the help I could offer, went to work reestablishing rapport, giving the children time to ventilate, then introducing them to their bogeywoman: telling them Holly Burden’s name, the few facts I knew about her. They were skeptical about the notion of a female sniper. Many of the youngest kids kept calling her “him.”
I had them draw her, mold her out of clay, build her out of blocks. Rip her up, smash her, bludgeon her, erase her. Kill her, again and again.
Blood and glass…
Through it all, I kept talking, kept reassuring.
It went on that way until, in one of the fourth grade classes, the mention of Holly Burden’s name made the teacher go pale. A woman in her fifties named Esme Ferguson, she was a tall, square-faced bleached blonde, heavily made-up, conservatively tailored. She left the room and didn’t return. Some time later I spotted her in the hall, caught up with her, and asked if she’d known Holly Burden.
She took a deep breath and said, “Yes, Doctor. She was from here.”
“From Ocean Heights?”
“From Hale. She was a student here. I taught her. I used to teach sixth grade. She was in my sixth grade class. Years ago.”
“What do you remember about her?”
Penciled eyebrows rose. “Nothing, really.”
“Nothing at all?”
She bit her lip. “She was… odd. The entire family’s odd.”
“Odd in what way?”
“I really can’t… This is too hard to talk about, Doctor. Too much happening all at once. Please excuse me. I have to get back to class.”
She turned her back on me. I let her go, returned to my work. To talk of the odd girl. Try to explain madness to children.
Madness, as it turned out, was something these children grasped easily. They loved the word crazy, seemed to revel in it, in graphic discussions of deranged people they’d known. Their view of mental illness was skewed toward blood and guts: wet-brained vagrants carving each other up in alleyways over a bottle of redeye; hebephrenic bag ladies walking in front of buses; drooling molesters; shrieking youths run amok on PCP and crack cocaine. Random bursts of psychotic poetry at the corner mini-market.
I sat back, listened to all of it, tried to cloak myself in the therapist’s objectivity. After a couple of hours, the world they lived in began to overwhelm me.
In the past, when working with children who’d been traumatized, I’d always taken pains to put the traumatic event in context. Isolating disaster as a freak bit of cruelty. But looking into the knowing eyes of these kids, listening to their experiences, I heard myself faltering, had to force a note of confidence into my voice.
My last class of the day was a rowdy bunch of sixth graders whose teacher hadn’t shown up. I let the frazzled substitute out on parole, and was about to begin when the door opened and a young Latina walked in. She had teased, frosted hair, wore a tight, knit scarlet dress, and had matching inch-long nails. Her smile was glossy and happy-face wide. In one hand she carried a huge briefcase; in the other, a red purse.
“Hi, kids,” she announced. “I’m Dr. Mendez! How are you all doing today?”
The children looked at her, then at me. Her gaze followed theirs.
“Hi,” she said to me. “I’m Dr. Mendez. I’m a clinical psychologist. And you must be Mr…?”
I held out my hand. “Dr. Delaware. I’m a clinical psychologist too.”
Her smile went stale.
“Um…” she said, still staring at my hand. The purse dropped from her hand.
The kids started laughing. She bent- awkwardly be-cause of the tight dress- and retrieved it. They laughed harder.
I said, “Hold on a minute, guys,” and asked her to come out into the hall. I closed the door. She put her hands on her hips and said, “Okay, what’s going on?”
“Good question, Dr. Mendez.”
“I’m here to do therapy with them- for the sniping.”
“So am I. I’ve been doing it since yesterday.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, flustered.
“The police called me in.”
“This makes no sense at all,” she said.
I said, “Do you work with Dr. Dobbs?”
She pulled out an engraved business card and handed it to me. PATRICIA MENDEZ, M.A. COGNITIVE-SPIRITUAL ASSOCIATES, INC. Two addresses: on Olympic Boulevard in West L.A., and in Whittier. Four phone numbers. Tiny print at the bottom identified her as a Psychological Assistant to Lance L. Dobbs, Ph.D., and gave his license number.
I handed it back to her and said, “Have you checked with the principal? She should be able to clear things up.”
“She wasn’t in. But I’m here on authority of the School Board- they’re really in charge, you know, not the police.”
I said nothing.
Her briefcase was making her shoulder sag. She lowered it to the floor.
I said, “I think you should check in with the principal, anyway.”
“Well”- She folded her arms across her breast- “I only know what I was told.”
“Sorry you wasted time coming down here.”
She frowned, thought. “Look, I’m just here to do my job. Couldn’t you go to another class?”
“These kids have been through plenty. They need the comfort of routine. Predictability.”
“I can provide that,” she said.
“By walking in right in the middle of my session? Fitting them to your agenda?”
She tensed but smiled. “You seem to be coming from a hostile place. Possessiveness.”
“And you seem to be coming from a deceptive place, Ms. Mendez. Billing yourself as a doctor with just a master’s degree. Pretending to be a psychologist when you’re an assistant.”
She opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. “Tha… that’s just a technicality. Next year I’ll be a Ph.D.”
“Then next year you’ll be telling the truth.”
“If you’re implying there’s something-”
“How many classrooms have you been to, so far?”
“Didn’t anyone mention I’d been there?”
“They didn’t… I-”
“You didn’t really take the time to talk to them, did you? Just blew in, did your canned bit, and blew out.” I looked down at the briefcase. “What’s in there? Bro-chures?”
“You’re a very hostile man,” she said.
A wave of laughter rose from inside the classroom. Then a thump- overturned furniture.
I said, “Look, it’s been fun but I have to go. Until you check in with the principal and clear this up, please stay away from the kids. For their sake.”
“You can’t order me-”
“And please think twice about misrepresenting yourself. The Board of Medical Examiners wouldn’t be pleased.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Just sound advice.”
She tried to look tough and failed miserably. “It’s my job,” she said, almost pleading. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Check in with the principal.”
“You keep saying that,” she said.
“It keeps being a good idea,” I said, turning the doorknob. The sound on the other side grew louder.
“Just a minute,” she said. “Are you bilingual?”
“Then how in the world are you going to help them?”
“Their English is fine.”
“That’s not what I’ve been told.”
“Then you’ve been misled. In more ways than one.”
The sky was dimming as I left the yard. I saw Linda Overstreet just outside the gate, talking to the man with the cross. Trying to explain something to him. He stared at the sidewalk, then raised his head abruptly and seemed to swoon.
She backed away. He moved toward her, went nose to nose with her, wagging his finger. She attempted to talk back; he talked over her, gestured more wildly. She finally gave up, turned her back on him and walked away. He opened a toothless black hole of a mouth and began shouting- something raw and incoherent.
She made it to the gate before noticing me, gave a what-can-I-do shrug, stopped and waited until I caught up with her. She was wearing a black linen dress, simply cut, suitable for mourning. But the contrast with her blond hair and fair skin lent a touch of unintended glamour.
“Getting religion?” I said.
She grimaced. “Crazy old jerk. He showed up early this morning, screaming about the whore of Babylon, suffer the children, all this other garbage. I tried to explain to him that the kids didn’t need any more disruption, but it’s like talking to cement- he has this tape in his head, keeps on playing it.”
“What about the school cop?”
“See him anywhere?” she said, pointing to the un-guarded gate. “Gone at three, won’t stay a minute later. And not much good when he is here, standing around with his clipboard. Claiming he’s not authorized to deal with Old Screamo as long as all he does is mouth off- right to free speech and all that. He’s giving me a civics lesson.”
The cross-bearer howled louder.
“What is it, the phase of the moon?” she said. “Brings them crawling out of the woodwork? Speaking of crawlies, you’ve already made an enemy.”
“Ms. Red Dress?”
She nodded. “She came bursting into my office on the verge of tears, claiming you’d humiliated her.” She gave her arm a dramatic wave. “What really happened?”
I told her.
She said, “You really need this, don’t you? Try to help us out and get embroiled in all this political garbage.”
“I can take it in small doses,” I said. “The question is, how do you stand it?”
She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder. Anyway, don’t worry about her. I told her not to come back until I see the proper forms- gave her a stack to fill out. If there’s a call from the Board, I’ll deal with it the way they deal with nuisances- ignoring them, putting them on hold, memo blizzard. By the time they take a meeting and decide what to do, you’ll probably be finished and out of here and the kids will be all right. How’re they doing?”
“The ones that showed up are doing fine,” I said.
Her face fell. “Yes, fifty-eight percent absent and my ears are still burning. I’d like to think I was persuasive, but let’s face it, how can I in good conscience tell them everything will be okay?” She shook her head. I thought I saw her lip tremble but she covered it with a grimace.
“Wouldn’t it be something if they finally won because of something like this?” she said. “Some stupid crazy? Anyway, don’t let me keep you.”
“On your way out or in?”
“Out. I’m right over there.” She pointed across the street to a white Ford Escort.
I walked her to it. She unlocked the car and put her briefcase inside.
I said, “I’d think the principal would get a private parking slot.”
“The principal usually does. But the entire grounds are still closed off, orders of the police. No parking, no foot traffic. We’ve had to keep the kids inside for lunch and recess- not that they’re exactly begging to go back out.”
“It’s important they do go back out,” I said, “to desensitize their fears of the yard. How long did the police say they needed it closed?”
“They didn’t. No one’s been here at all today, collecting evidence or anything, so I can’t see the point- I mean, what could there be left to find out? Guess I’d better check it out. Meanwhile, you have a nice evening.”
I opened the car door.
“A gentleman,” she said, getting in. “How nice.”
I searched her face for sarcasm, saw only weariness. The black dress had ridden up. Very long, white legs…
“Take care,” I said, closing the door. “See you tomorrow.”
“Listen,” she said, “I’m heading out for some dinner- nothing fancy, but I wouldn’t mind some company.”
She blushed, looked away, jammed the key into the ignition and turned it. The Escort’s engine came to life with a poorly tuned sputter, belched, and finally caught. When it had settled to an idle, I said, “I wouldn’t mind some company either.”
She blushed deeper. “Uh, just one thing- you’re not married or anything, are you?”
“No,” I said. “Neither married nor anything.”
“That probably sounds weird to you, my asking.”
Before I could answer, she said, “It’s just that I like to keep things straight, give a wide berth to trouble.”
“Okay,” I said.
Her laugh was brittle. “Not that it’s worked too well so far.”
I followed her to a place of her choosing, on Broadway in Santa Monica. All-you-can-eat salad bar with enough produce to stock a county fair exhibit, seafood on a grill, lots of woodsmoke, lazy fly fans, Alphonse Mucha reproductions on paneled walls, sawdust on the floor. Nothing really good or really bad, budget prices.
We constructed our salads and took them to a back booth. Linda ate with enthusiasm, went back for a refill. When she finished the second bowl, she sat back, wiped her mouth, and looked sheepish.
“Good metabolism,” she said.
“Do you exercise a lot?”
“Not a fig- Lord knows my hips could use it.”
I thought her hips looked fine, but kept it to myself. “Count your blessings.”
The entrees came and we ate without talking, comfortable with the silence, as if we were old friends, using the silence to decompress. After a few minutes she said, “What do you think of the sniper- being a girl and all.”
“It took me by surprise. By the way, one of your teachers- Mrs. Ferguson- told me she knew her. Had taught her in sixth grade.”
“Taught her at Hale?”
“Good old Esme. She didn’t say a thing to me- par for the course. But if anyone would remember, it would be her. She’s been around for years and she’s a local. All the rest of us are recent transfers. Or carpetbaggers, as we’ve been called. What else did she have to say about her?”
“Just that she was odd. Her family was odd.”
“Odd in what way?”
“She didn’t get more specific. Didn’t want to talk about it.”
“The Ferg tends to get overwhelmed- a little Vic-torian,” she said. “To her, odd could mean anything… using the wrong fork at dinner. But I’ll have a talk with her, see what I can learn.”
“What about transcripts?” I said. “Can you look them up?”
“There may be some old records, but I’m not sure. Before we started busing the East Side kids in, the place was cleaned up. Most of the files were moved downtown. I’ll check tomorrow.”
“How long have you been working at Hale?”
“Since last year- they brought me in with the buses. First assignment out of postdoctoral probation. I think they sensed I was trouble, wanted to get rid of me quickly and thought a few months at Hale would do it.”
I said, “It is a hell of a way to start.”
She grinned. “Fooled ’em and stuck it out. Too young and too dumb to know better.”
“Same thing happened to me when I started out,” I said. “I was offered a very tough job right out of fellowship- working with kids with cancer. By the time I was twenty-seven I was directing a program for two thousand patients, overseeing a staff of a dozen. Trial by ordeal, but looking back, I’m glad I did it.”
“Cancer. How depressing.”
“It was, at times. But also uplifting. Lots of the kids went into remission. Some were cured- more and more each year. We ended up doing a lot of rehab- helping families cope, pain reduction, sibling counseling- clinical research that could be applied almost immediately. That was satisfying: seeing your theories come to life. Being useful in the short term. I really felt I was doing some good, making an impact.”
“Twenty-seven. God. How old were you when you got your Ph.D.?”
She gave a low whistle. “Whiz kid, huh?”
“Nah, just obsessive. I started college at sixteen, kept pushing.”
“Sounds like false modesty to me,” she said: “Actually, I was sixteen when I started, too. But in my case it really was no big deal. Small school back in Texas- anyone with fluent English and half a brain skipped.”
“Where in Texas?”
I said, “Nice town. I was there about ten years ago, consulting to the med school. Took a river ride, ate grits for the first time, picked up a pair of boots.”
“Remember the Alamo,” she said, gripping her coffee cup hard.
More chill. Time to veer onto a different road.
I said, “So here we are, couple of precocious kids. Enjoying the fruits of success.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, still tense. “Ain’t that a hoot.”
“What made you decide to stop teaching and go back for your doctorate?”
“I could give you all these highfalutin explanations, but truth be told, I wasn’t a very good teacher- not enough patience. I found it hard to deal with the ones who weren’t bright. I mean, I could sympathize with them in the abstract. But I’d grind my teeth waiting for them to come up with the right answer.” Shrug. “Not too compassionate, huh?”
“Compassionate enough to shift gears.”
“What choice did I have?” she said. “It was either that or become a witch and go home hating myself each night. You, on the other hand, must have tons of patience.”
“With kids, yes. Not always with the rest of the world.”
“So how come you don’t do therapy anymore? Detective Sturgis told me you’re retired. I was expecting an old guy.”
“I stopped a few years ago, haven’t gotten back yet- long story.”
“I’d like to hear it,” she said.
I gave her an abridged version of the last five years: Casa de Los Niños, death and degradation. Getting overdosed on human misery, dropping out, living on real estate investments made during the California boom of the late seventies. Then redemption: missing the joys of altruism, but reluctant to commit to long-term therapy, making a compromise- limiting myself to time-limited consultations, forensic referrals from lawyers and judges.
“And cops,” she said.
“Just one cop. Milo and I are old friends.”
“I can understand that- you both have that… heat. Intensity. Wanting to do more than just coast by.” She laughed, sheepish again. “How’s that for sidewalk psychoanalysis, Doc?”
“I’ll take my compliments any way I can get ’em.”
She laughed, said, “Real estate investments, huh? Lucky you. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have to work. I mean, sometimes I really despise my job. Maybe I’d opt for Club Med full time.”
“Your present job can’t be too easy on the old patience.”
“True,” she said, “but at least now I can close my door, get ticked off, scream my head off, throw something- Carla’s tolerant. I just didn’t want to be losing it in front of the kids- taking it out on them. Also, what you were talking about, the chance to do something, to be effective- on a large-scale basis- is appealing. I mean, if I can institute something systemic, something that really works, I’m affecting a couple of hundred kids at one time. But what I really hate is knowing what has to be done, knowing how to go about doing it, and having all these stupid roadblocks thrown in my way.”
She shook her head, said, “I really hate bureaucrats. Then some days I sit back, look at all the crap on my desk, and realize I am one.”
“Ever think of doing something else?”
“What, and go back to school? Nosir. I’m twenty-nine already. Comes a time you have to just settle down and bite the bit.”
I wiped my brow. “Twenty-nine? Whew. Ready for the old porch rocker.”
“Sometimes I feel I could use one,” she said. “Look who’s talking- you’re not much older.”
“Eight years older.”
“Whoa, grandpa, tighten the truss and pass the Geritol.”
The waitress came over and asked if we wanted dessert. Linda ordered strawberry shortcake. I chose chocolate ice cream. It tasted chalky and I pushed it aside.
“No good? Have some of this.”
Then she blushed again. From the intensity of her color, she might have offered me a bare breast. I remembered how she’d warded off compliments, pegged her as afraid of intimacy, distrustful- nursing some kind of wound. My turn at sidewalk analysis. But then again, why shouldn’t she be reticent? We barely knew each other.
I took some cake, less out of hunger than not wanting to reject her. She removed most of the whipped cream from her cake, ate a strawberry, and said, “You’re easy to talk to. How come you’re not married?”
“There’s a certain woman who could answer that for you,” I said.
She looked up. There was a crumb of cake on her lower lip. “Gee, I’m sorry.”
“No reason to apologize.”
“No, I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to pry… Well, yes, of course I did, didn’t I? That’s exactly what I was doing. Prying. I just didn’t realize I was prying into anything sore.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just about healed. We all have our sore spots.”
She didn’t take the bait. “Divorce is so rotten,” she said. “Common as brown sparrows, but rotten just the same.”
“No divorce,” I said. “We were never married, though we might as well have been.”
“How long were you together?”
“A little over five years.”
“No reason for you to apologize for that either.”
I realized my tone was sharp- irritation at doing all the revealing.
Tension filled the space between us like an air balloon. We busied ourselves with dessert, let it deflate gradually.
When we were through, she insisted on separate checks and paid with cash. “Well, Dr. Alex Delaware,” she said, putting away her wallet, “it’s been edifying, but I’ve got to get home and attack some paper. Will you be coming by tomorrow?”
“Same time, same station.”
We stood. She took my hand in both of hers. That same soft, submissive touch, so at odds with the rest of her. Her eyes were soft coals, burning.
“I really want to thank you,” she said. “You’re a very nice man, and I know I’m not always the easiest person in the world to be around.”
“I’m not always Joe Mellow either.”
Face to face. Tight silence. I wanted to kiss her, contented myself with walking her to her car and watching the movement of her hips and legs as she got into it. As she drove off, I realized we’d talked more about ourselves than the sniping.
But alone, back in the Seville, thoughts of the sniping kept intruding. I picked up an evening final at a 7-Eleven near Barrington, drove to Westwood and north through the village, and examined the front page as I waited out a red light at Hilgard and Sunset.
Two photos- one of the storage shed, titled SNIPER’S LAIR; the other a head shot of Holly Lynn Burden- shared center top. To the right a 64-point headline shouted SNIPER FIRE BREAKS OUT AT SCHOOL. LATCH AIDE ENDS IT. CHILDREN ON PLAYGROUND FLEE IN PANIC. FEMALE SNIPER SLAIN BY COUNCILMAN’S STAFFER.
The head shot looked as if it had been taken from a high school yearbook: white collar over dark sweater, single strand of pearls, starched pose. Same face I’d seen on the photocopied driver’s license, but younger, some baby fat softening the edges. Longer hair, flipped at the shoulders. Dark-framed eyeglasses, that same sullen dullness behind them.
The light turned green. Someone honked. I put down the paper and joined the chrome-surge onto Sunset. Traffic was slow but insistent. When I got home I started reading, skimming the recap of the shooting, slowing down when I got to the bio of the shooter.
Holly Burden had lived all nineteen years of her life in the house on Jubilo Drive, sharing it with her father, Mahlon Burden, fifty-six, a “widower and self-employed technical consultant.” The contents of the father’s police interview hadn’t been made public and he’d declined to talk to the press, as had a brother, Howard Burden, thirty, of Encino.
Through “School Board records” the paper had found out about Holly attending Hale but didn’t quote Esme Ferguson or anyone else who remembered her.
The future sniper had gone on to attend a nearby public junior high, then Pacific Palisades High School, where she’d dropped out one semester short of a diploma.
Guidance counselors had trouble remembering her, but an adviser at the high school managed to locate grade transcripts showing her to have been a poor student with “no participation in extracurricular activities.” The few instructors who remembered her at all described her as quiet, unobtrusive. One English teacher recalled she’d had “motivational problems, wasn’t academically oriented or competitive,” but hadn’t participated in remedial programs. Not an alumna to brag about, but no one had picked up the slightest hint of serious mental disturbance or violence.
Neighbors “along the quiet, tree-lined street in this affluent West Side district” were a good deal more forthcoming. Speaking anonymously, they described the Burdens, père et fille, as “unfriendly, secretive”; “not involved in the community, they stuck to themselves.” Mahlon Burden was characterized as “some kind of inventor- some people think he’s eccentric”; Holly was termed “a weird girl who hung around the house all day, usually inside- she never got any sun, was white as a ghost.” “No one really knew what she did with herself- she was a dropout, didn’t go to school or do any kind of work.” “There were rumors she was sick. Maybe it was mental.”
The reporter used that maybe as a bridge to the next focus of the article: guesswork about the state of Holly Burden’s psyche proffered by the usual pack of experts willing to pontificate without benefit of data. Prominent among the guessers was “Dr. Lance L. Dobbs, clinical psychologist and Director of Cognitive-Spiritual Associates of West Los Angeles, an authority on the psychological impact of childhood stress, hired by the School Board to treat the young victims at the school.”
Dobbs termed the dead girl a “probable antisocial schizoidal personality or sociopath- it’s the kind of aberrant character that’s made, not born,” and went on to lambaste society for “not meeting the spiritual growth needs of its young people.” He described his treatment plan as a “comprehensive and systematic program of crisis intervention, including the use of bilingual therapists. We’ve already begun working with the victims and have made excellent progress. However, based on prior experience, we do predict severe reactions on the part of some youngsters. They will have to be treated more intensively.”
The article ended with a profile of the hero of the day.
Darryl “Bud” Ahlward, forty-two, listed as Councilman Gordon Latch’s “chief administrative assistant.” More than just a bodyguard, unless that was Latch’s way of getting high-priced muscle on the city payroll. And muscle did seem to be what Ahlward was all about: former Marine drill instructor, commando, body-builder, martial arts expert. All of which fit the tight-lipped, macho posture I’d seen yesterday.
What didn’t fit was that kind of crypto-soldier working for someone of Latch’s political pedigree. Apparently, Latch had been asked about it before, explained it by citing a “mutual rapport between Bud and myself, especially vis-à-vis environmental issues.”
I put the paper aside.
A pebble-toss of whos, whats, hows.
I called my service for messages. Routine stuff except for a request to phone Assemblyman Samuel Massengil’s office, accompanied by two numbers- one local, one with a 916 area code. Sacramento. Curious, I phoned the L.A. number, got a recorded message expressing Assemblyman Massengil’s eagerness to be of service to his constituents, followed by a list of other offices and numbers where many “municipal and county services” could be obtained, thus avoiding contact with Assemblyman Massengil.
Finally, a beep. I left my name and number and went to bed with a head full of questions.
At eight-thirty the next morning I got a call from a woman with a laugh in her voice. She introduced herself as Beth Bramble, executive assistant to Assemblyman Samuel Massengil. “Thank you for returning our call, Doctor.”
“Executive assistant,” I said. “Bud Ahlward’s counterpart?”
Pause. “Not quite, Dr. Delaware.”
“You don’t have a black belt?”
Another pause, briefer. “I’ve never known a psychiatrist with a sense of humor.”
“I’m a psychologist.”
“Ah. Maybe that explains it.”
“What can I do for you, Ms. Bramble?”
“Assemblyman Massengil would like to meet with you.”
“For what purpose?”
“I really don’t know, Doctor. He’s flying back up to Sacramento this afternoon for a vote, and would be pleased if you could join him this morning for coffee.”
“I assume this is about the Hale School.”
“That’s safe to assume,” she said. “What’s a good time for you?”
“I’m not sure there is one. My work with the children is confidential.”
“The Assemblyman is well aware of that.”
“The last thing I want is to get involved in politics, Ms. Bramble.”
“I assure you, Doctor, no one has any intention of corrupting you.”
“But you have no idea what this is about.”
“No, I’m sorry, I really don’t- just delivering the message. Would nine-thirty be too early?”
The invitation intrigued me, but it smelled bad; my instinct was to stay away. Given Massengil’s temper, it was a tricky situation. Reject him and he just might vent more of his spleen on the school. Then there was the matter of my curiosity…
I said, “Nine-thirty’s okay. Where?”
“Our district office is on San Vicente. In Brentwood.”
She gave me the address and thanked me for my cooperation. After she hung up, I realized the laugh had left her voice early in the conversation and never returned.
A blue plastic sign stamped with the state seal was visible just above the address numerals, half-obscured by the leaves of a scrawny hibiscus. The building was anything but imposing, nothing remotely governmental about it. Two stories of white stucco moderne, trimmed with sand-colored brick and sandwiched between a larger, glass-fronted medical structure and a mini-mall whose main attraction was a frozen yogurt parlor. Svelte people in sweats streamed in and out of the parlor, concerned more with body tone than better government.
Fronting the building was a tow-away zone. I turned the comer, hooked into an alley, and parked in a visitor’s slot. Pushing open an iron gate, I stepped into more fresh air- the basic garden office setup: half a dozen suites on each floor, each with its own entrance, arranged in a right angle around a jungle of banana plants, clump bamboo, and asparagus fern.
The district office occupied two suites on the ground floor of the building, its neighbors an insurance broker, a graphic artist, a travel agent, and a publisher of technical manuals. The door to the first suite instructed me to please use the door to the second. Before I had a chance to comply, it swung open and a woman stepped out into the garden area.
She was in her mid- to late thirties, with blue-black hair drawn back and tied in a tight bun, a full face, icy gray-green eyes, a fleshy mouth, and ten pounds of extra weight in all the right places. She wore a tailored black suit that flaunted the weight, a white silk blouse, and black string tie fastened by a huge smoky topaz. The suit skirt ended at her knees. Her spiked heels were long and sharp enough to render grave bodily harm.
“Dr. Delaware? I’m Beth Bramble.” Her smile was as bright and durable as a camera flash. “Won’t you come in. The Assemblyman’s free.”
I resisted the urge to ask if the Assemblyman was also easy and followed her inside. She swayed when she walked- more flaunting- and led me into a reception area. Soft, spineless music flowed from an unseen speaker. The furnishings were vintage highway motel- wood-grain and Mylar, ostentatiously frugal. The walls were lime-sherbet grasscloth hung with a few blurry nautical prints and Rockwell reproductions. But most of the vertical space was covered by photos, scores of them, framed in black: Massengil entertaining foreign dignitaries, presenting trophies, holding aloft official proclamations crowded with calligraphy, gripping chromium-plated groundbreaking shovels, doing the banquet circuit surrounded by alcohol-glazed, tuxedoed, rubber-chicken eaters. And mixing with the people: wheelchair-trapped oldsters, sooty-faced firefighters, children in Halloween costumes, athletic team mascots dressed as hyperthyroid animals.
She said, “He’s a beloved man. Twenty-eight years representing this district.”
It sounded like a warning.
We made a sharp left turn, came to a door marked PRIVATE. She rapped once, opened it, stepped back, and ushered me in. When the door closed she was gone.
The office was small and beige, borderline-shabby. Massengil sat behind a plain, scuffed walnut desk. A gray suit jacket was draped over a gray metal file cabinet. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt and tie. The desk top was protected by a sheet of glass and bare except for two phones, a legal pad, and a bell jar of cellophane-wrapped hard candies. On the wall behind him were more photos and a diploma- a forty-year-old degree in engineering from a state college in the Central Valley.
Perpendicular to the desk was a hard brown sofa with wooden legs. A man sat on it, portly, white-bearded. Loose face, ruddy complexion. Santa Claus with indigestion. Just like on TV. Another vested suit, this one lead-heavy loden green, bunched up around the shoulders. Shiny gold watch chain and fob, which he toyed with. A fly-straining melon of belly protruded beneath the points of the vest. His shirt was yellow with a starched spread collar; his tie, a green paisley fastened in an enormous Windsor knot. He kept playing with the chain, avoiding my eyes.
Massengil stood. “Dr. Delaware, Sam Massengil. Appreciate your dropping by.” His voice was thin as charity soup, louder than it had to be.
We shook hands. His was large, hard with callus, and he squeezed my fingers a bit too tightly for the camaraderie he was trying to fake. A man prone to excess, though that didn’t apply to fashion. His shirt was wash-and-wear out of the sale bin, his tie a riot of powder-blue eagles soaring across a beige polyester sky. The short sleeves revealed arms too long even for his protracted body, scrawny but knotted with muscle and coiled with white hairs. Arms lathed by manual labor. A face sun-spotted and wrinkled as dried fruit. One side of the white toothbrush mustache was longer than the other, as if he’d shaved with his eyes closed. He looked every day of his age, but hard and fit. Rail-splitting? I couldn’t see him jogging with the yogurt crowd.
He sat back down, continued to look me over.
I said, “I didn’t realize there were going to be three of us, Assemblyman.”
“Yes, yes. This is a distinguished colleague of yours, Dr. Lance Dobbs. Dr. Dobbs, Dr. Delaware.”
“I’ve seen Dr. Dobbs on television.”
Dobbs gave a faint smile and nodded, made no effort to rise or shake hands.
I said, “What can I do for you, Assemblyman?”
Massengil and Dobbs exchanged glances. “Have a seat, won’t you?”
I took a chair facing the desk. Dobbs shifted position, the better to study me, and the brown couch squeaked.
Massengil held up the bell jar. “Candy?”
“No thanks.” No sign of the promised coffee.
“How ’bout you, Lance?”
Dobbs took the jar, palmed some candy, unwrapped a green one, and put it between his lips. He made wet noises, turning it between tongue and lips. Gazing past me, over at Massengil. Expectant. I thought of a soft, spoiled kid used to parental protection.
As if cued, Massengil cleared his throat and said, “We appreciate your coming down on such short notice, Doctor.”
“All in the interests of good government, Assemblyman.”
He frowned, exchanged another look with Dobbs. Dobbs ate another candy and made a lateral move with his eyes- some kind of signal. I began to wonder about their relationship. Who was the parent.
Massengil said, “Well, no sense shilly-shallying. Obviously, this is about the tragedy at the school. It’s been some couple of days, hasn’t it, Doctor?”
“Yes, it has, Assemblyman.”
“Now we know you’ve been working with those kids. Which is fine, as it stands, absolutely fine.” A smile that looked as if it hurt. “Now, exactly how did you get involved?”
“The police asked me to get involved.”
“The police.” Another smile. Photo-opportunity caliber. I put a black frame around it. “I see, I see. Wasn’t aware the police did that kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing is that, Assemblyman?”
“Referring to specialists. Getting involved in social welfare issues. Are you on some kind of official police referral list?”
“No. One of the detectives is a friend of mine. I’ve worked with traumatized children before. He thought-”
“One of the detectives,” said Massengil. “I’m a great friend of the police, you know. Best friend they have in Sacramento, in fact. Crime bill needs pushing, I’m the first one the police chief comes to. County sheriff too.”
He turned to Dobbs, was prompted again by a small nod. “So. A detective referred you. Which detective might that be?”
“Detective Sturgis. Milo Sturgis. He’s the new D-Three- the new supervising detective at Westside Robbery-Homicide.”
“Sturgis,” he said, contemplative. “Ah, yes, the big, heavy fellow with the bad skin. They didn’t let him in when they conducted the interrogation.” Throat clear. Another exchange of glances. Pause. “He’s homasexual, I’m told, though you wouldn’t know it to look at him.”
He waited for an explanation. When I offered none, Dobbs made a small, satisfied sound, as if I’d behaved predictably.
“Well,” said Massengil, “is he?”
“Is he what?”
“Assemblyman, I don’t think Detective Sturgis’ sex life is-”
“No need to shilly-shally. Sturgis’ sex life is common knowledge in the Police Department. Quite a bit of resentment, too- colleague-wise- regarding his promotion. His being in the Department in the first place, what with all the diseases and related hazards.”
My nails were digging into the arms of my chair. “Is there anything else, Assemblyman? I’ve got to be getting over to the school.”
“Ah, the school. How’s it going with those youngsters?”
“That’s good.” He leaned forward, put his hands on the desk, fingers blunt and splayed, yellow-nailed. “Let me ask you this point-blank. You one too?”
“Assemblyman, I don’t-”
“The thing is, Doctor, everything’s a real mess, societally speaking. I think we can all agree on that, right? My responsibility is to make sure things don’t get any messier than they’ve already gotten. It’s a crazy world we’re living in- punks shooting at elected public servants, big government forcing alternative life-styles down people’s throats, moving children around like truck produce. Pushing ivory tower theories not backed up by real life experiences. Making no one happy at either end- not the people or the youngsters. You, being in your line of work, should know all about that, though I’ve got to tell you it seems to me more often than not that people in your line of work forget all about reality, push for this’n that, quick fix here, quick fix there. Causing more erosion.”
He picked up the bell jar, caressed it, said, “Erosion. That’s an important word- the soil’s got a lot to teach us. ’Cause when you boil it all down, we’re talking erosion of standards. Boundaries. Gradual but severely deleterious, just like it is when the soil erodes. Everything boils down to that. Preservation or erosion- what stays; what goes. This is my district, son, my responsibility. For close to thirty years it’s been my responsibility. I fly up and down between here and Sacramento three times a week, using airplanes the way other people use cars, because this world we live in’s a big one, this district is the part of that world that’s my responsibility, and I’ve got to cover it, know what’s going on in terms of every part of it. And when I see changes I don’t like-erosion- I step in.”
He paused for dramatic effect, a dime-store Cicero.
Dobbs said, “Sam-”
“Hold on a minute, Lance. I want the doctor here to know… where I’m coming from.” Another big smile. “How’s that for your contemporary lingo? Where I’m coming from. And where I’m coming from is a posture of professional responsibility for my district, wanting… needing to know if standards are being compromised, the boundaries loosened up any further. Wanting to know exactly who’s in charge.”
“In charge of what?”
“Systems. Systems of influence. Educational systems. Psychiatric treatment systems. Anything that influences impressionable young minds.”
Dobbs smiled and said, “Dr. Delaware, given what the children have been through, we obviously need to make sure they’re being given optimal treatment.”
“We,” said Massengil. “My team.”
“Dr. Dobbs is part of your team?”
Another flash of ocular Morse code.
“He’s on the team,” said Massengil, boasting but sounding oddly defensive. “Along with lots of other good people.”
Dobbs said, “I’ve worked extensively with the Assemblyman’s staff- management seminars.”
“You bet,” said Massengil, too quickly. “Top-notch stuff.” He ticked off on his fingers. “Foundations of Character. Pathways to Leadership. Spiritual Growth in Service of the Soul.”
Dobbs smiled, but seemed wary, a drama coach watching the performance of an unreliable ingenue.
Massengil said, “We’ve all of us benefited from Dr. Dobbs’s input- the whole staff has. So you see, we’re not opposed to your line of work per se, as far as it goes. But we just need to know who’s doing it. Lance is someone we know and trust, because he understands the real world, the realities of the district. Real life and its spiritual underpinnings. That’s why he was asked to treat those kids after the earthquake, why he’s exceptionally qualified to treat these youngsters.” Wide smile. “Now, all of a sudden you’re involved, which is fine as far as it’s gone- we appreciate your enthusiasm and we thank you kindly. But we don’t know who you are, what your background is.”
I gave him my academic credentials, using the long form.
He half-listened and stroked the bell jar. “Sounds fine, sir. But you still haven’t answered the main, important question.”
I said, “Am I gay? No, I’m not. But Detective Sturgis is my friend- do you think I’m in danger of catching it?”
The creases around his eyes tightened into paper cuts and his fingers curled on the desk top. Clawing the glass, whitening the horny nails. But he kept smiling, showed those brown teeth. “No telling what can be caught nowadays, right? Bottom line, we’re all after the same thing, aren’t we?”
“Cleaning up the mess. Doing right by those youngsters. Seeing to it that they become good citizens. I’m sure you want that just as much as we do, now don’t you, Doctor?”
“Right now,” I said, “I’m less interested in teaching them civics than in helping them sleep through the night.”
His smile faded.
Dobbs said, “All Assemblyman Massengil is saying is that values are crucial when working with these children- any children. Maintaining an order.”
“What kind of order?”
“A system of values. Being overt and aboveboard with one’s personal value system is a necessity in clinical work- one that’s too olden neglected. Children need that kind of security. The knowledge that their significant others believe in something. Surely you wouldn’t disagree.”
Massengil said, “Let’s get down to brass tacks, Doc. We greatly appreciate everything you’ve done. I’m sure you’ve made a great start, psychology-wise. From now on, though, Lance’s people are gonna take over. The way it was supposed to be in the first place.”
I said, “I can’t agree to that, Assemblyman. Breaking off and starting with someone new would only confuse the children further- weaken whatever sense of security they’ve rebuilt.”
He gave his head a choppy wave. “Don’t you worry about that. I’m sure Lance will be able to remedy that.”
“Absolutely,” said Dobbs. “If you’re using a standard crisis-intervention mode, it should be no problem to transfer from one attachment figure to-”
I said, “Come on, Doctor. The last thing the children need is more unnecessary change.”
Before he could answer I stood and looked down at Massengil. “Assemblyman, if you’re really interested in their welfare, keep your politics out of their lives and let me do my job.”
Massengil put his hands on the arms of his chair, sucked in his breath, and rounded his shoulders as if preparing to himself up. But he stayed in place, all the tension rising to his face, compressing and darkening it, like meat turned to pemmican in the sun.
“Politics, eh? Like that’s some sort of dirty word? Like it’s somehow criminal to want to serve God and country? I’ve got news for you, young man. People don’t want to hear that kind of libertine guff anymore. They respect competence, experience, know who their leaders are, where the bedrock lies.” He shook a finger at me. “If it’s politics you find so objectionable, let me tell you something. Your homasexual friend got his promotion ’cause of politics. He called you in ’cause of politics. And this whole mess started in the first place ’cause of politics-those kids and the agitators behind them are making a deliberate choice to bring politics into their lives every morning they get on that bus from Boyle Heights and head west! So if you want to talk about politics, let’s talk about the whole damned picture!”
I said, “I’m not concerned with any of that. All I care about is helping them deal with being shot at.”
“Wasn’t them. Me! I was the target. Because of what I stood for. Put in the cross-hairs by some vicious radical punk trying to erode the boundaries!”
“Is that what you told ATD?”
He hesitated for a moment, looked at Dobbs, then back at me. “What I know is my business. Preservation and erosion. Fact is, it’s about time someone took charge of that school, set things right. Place is nothing but an open sore on the face of the district, social experimentation at the expense of stability. I try to talk straight about it and nearly get gunned down in cold blood. There’s your being shot at!”
He was breathing hard and his fingers had left wet marks on the glass.
Dobbs said, “Sam. Assemblyman.” He made a faint wiggling motion with one hand, then lowered it, like a magician de-levitating an assistant. Massengil settled back down and let out breath.
“All right, Doctor,” said Dobbs. “Let’s emphasize cooperation, not confrontation. Work together. I’d be happy to integrate you into my program.”
I remembered what Linda had told me about his earthquake “program” and shook my head. “That would be pointless, Dr. Dobbs. I’m well into my treatment; the children are responding well. There’s simply no reason to complicate things.”
The smile lingered but turned condescending. “Are you sure that isn’t ego talking, Doctor?”
“Not ego,” I said. “Just good common sense.”
“A contradiction in terms, if there ever was one, Dr. Delaware. If good sense was common, we’d both be out of business, wouldn’t we? Same goes for good values.”
“Values,” I said. “Like truth in advertising?”
He pursed his lips. Before he could get them in gear, I turned to Massengil and said, “Yesterday, at the school, I met one of Dr. Dobbs’s staff, handing out cassette tapes. Misrepresenting herself as a psychologist and claiming a doctorate she didn’t have. Two violations of the state business code, Assemblyman. How’s that for erosion?”
Massengil looked at Dobbs.
Dobbs laughed and said, “Picayune, Sam. A technical ity. Patty Mendez is a good gal, but green. Not well-versed yet in all the red tape the bureaucrats throw at us. Dr. Delaware here was pretty rough on her. I’ve talked to her, set her straight.”
Massengil stared at him for an instant, then swung his eyes back to me. “You heard that. Let’s not go making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“How about we get back on track?” said Dobbs gently.
“Right,” said Massengil. “I want Lance involved. One way or the other. Plain and simple.”
I looked at Dobbs. Self-satisfied. In control. Suddenly I understood. All the cross-glances, hand signals.
The bond between them went beyond management seminars.
What they had was deeper.
Something with a parent/child flavor to it.
It explained the odd defensiveness Massengil had shown when I’d asked about Dobbs’s being on his team.
We’ve all of us benefited, the whole staff.
All of us. Not just me.
Patient and therapist? The bedrock of the community baring his psyche to Santa Claus?
Psychotherapy under the guise of management seminars would be a nifty cover, legitimizing Dobbs’s presence in Massengil’s office and sparing Massengil the trip to the doctor’s office. Spiritual Growth in Service of the Soul… mind-probing disguised as “brainstorming.” The bills could be laundered among the office invoices…
Massengil’s thin voice snapped me back to the present. Making another speech. More gobbledygook about values…
I said, “Gentlemen, if that’s all, I’m on my way. And I expect to finish what I started without further interruption.”
“You’re making a big mistake,” said Massengil. “A damned big one.”
“No, you are,” I said, loud enough to surprise all three of us. “The latest in a series of mistakes. Like using the school- exploiting those youngsters- to further your own agenda. Obsessing on trivial nonsense when there are so many important issues to deal with. And if you are right about being the target, you did a lot worse than that- you drew a killer to that yard, put those kids in mortal danger.”
Massengil shot up and came around the desk. “You snotty fag bastard!” Froth had collected in the corners of his mouth. Flecks of it flew as he talked and one of them settled on his tie.
Dobbs looked pained. “Sam!” he said, struggling to his feet, trying to restrain the older man. But Massengil was strong for his age and fueled by rage. The two of them wrestled awkwardly for a moment. Then Dobbs said “Sam!” sharply, and Massengil stopped struggling.
He glowered at me from behind Dobbs’s sloping loden shoulder. “Loudmouthed snot.”
Dobbs turned and gave me a look-what-you’ve-done glare.
I said, “You have a very impolitic temper, Assemblyman.”
Massengil said, “Don’t worry, Lance. He’s out. You’re in. Got my word on it. Plain and simple.”
I said, “Assemblyman, here’s something plain and simple: The slightest attempt to interfere with my treatment and I’m going straight to the press. They don’t have many facts on the shooting itself, and you can bet they’ll be overjoyed to pick up a juicy side angle- political meddling.”
Massengil surged forward. “Now, you just-” Dobbs held him back but gave me a threatening look himself.
I walked to the door. “So juicy they’ll drool, Assemblyman. Doctors who aren’t doctors, a ‘crisis intervention’ program that hasn’t begun despite Dr. Dobbs’s inspired little TV speeches. A non-program that your office has already paid for. Sounds like poor fiscal policy at best, multiple fraud at worst. Someone’s going to want to know why- why the connection between you and Dr. Dobbs is so strong that you’re willing to stretch this far. At the very least there’ll be an ethics investigation. You know how those things get when they pick up momentum. So let’s see if those hungry newshounds think it’s picayune.”
The color drained from Massengil’s face. Dobbs’s face froze. He picked up his watch fob and began rubbing it hard.
I turned my back on them and left.
Beth Bramble was outside the office, smoking a long, pink, silver-tipped cigarette.
“Everything go okay?” she said, smiling. Squeezing the laugh back in.
“Peachy keen.” My jaws ached from tension and my voice was hoarse.
She stopped smiling, looked back at the office door.
“Don’t worry. He’s all right,” I said. “Still beloved.”
Good show of cool, but as I walked to the Seville the anger hit me. I found a pay phone near the yogurt place and put in a call to Milo. He was out and I left a message to phone. I went inside, bought a cup of coffee, drank it, and took a refill while standing at the counter. Lots of ambient conversation about pulse rates. Mine was racing.
I got out of there and drove to the school, traveling slowly, trying to settle down, arriving a little before eleven, still keyed up and not ready to face the kids.
I parked, did a little deep breathing, and got out of the car. Both the school cop and the crossbearer were gone. As I walked toward the gate a car came tooling slowly down the street. Silver-gray compact. Honda Accord in need of a wash, the body dimpled and scarred, the finish not much shinier than primer. But a single display of Kalifornia-kustom flair caught my eye: gleaming blackened windows that wrapped around the car like electrician’s tape, making the lackluster paintwork appear even more tarnished. Windows that would have seemed more in place on a stretch limo.
The little gray car stopped to let me cross, lingered, and continued cruising for a block before turning left. I walked onto the school grounds.
Linda was in her office, behind a pile of paperwork. When she saw me she swiveled, stood, and smiled. She was wearing a blue oxford button-down shirt and khaki skirt, brown boots with sensible low heels. The bit of leg that showed was smooth and white. Her hair was swept back and fastened at the temples with tortoise-shell barrettes, revealing small, close-set ears adorned with tiny gold studs.
“Hi. You’re early,” she said, pushing aside some papers.
“Got thrown off my schedule.”
Deep breathing or not, there was still ire in my voice.
She said, “What is it?”
I told her about the confrontation with Massengil and Dobbs, leaving out the part about Milo’s sexuality.
“The bastards,” she said and sat back down. “Trying to profit from tragedy.”
I took a chair opposite her.
“That’s what you get for being a nice guy,” she said.
“I wasn’t such a nice guy half an hour ago. When Massengil started leaning on me, things got hot. Hope I didn’t make things worse for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She sounded weary.
“How much damage can he do?”
“Nothing in the immediate, other than make more noise- which is unlikely after the shooting.” She thought for a moment. “I guess he could try to screw the school budget when it comes up next year in Sacramento. But it would be hard for him to target Hale specifically. So don’t worry about it. Just keep doing your thing.”
“He’s a strange one,” I said. “Really rough around the edges, not at all well-spoken.”
“What’d you expect? A statesman?”
“Some sophistication- polish. He’s been at it for twenty-eight years. On top of the crudeness, he’s got a nasty temper. Surprising he’s lasted this long.”
“He probably knows who to punch out and who to kiss up to- that’s the whole game, isn’t it? And over twenty-eight years he’s fixed plenty of potholes. Besides, being rough around the edges probably works well here- the whole cowboy thing.”
“He’s got to have something going,” I said. “Hasn’t had any opposition for the last two elections. I know, ’cause I’m a constituent. I keep leaving the space blank.”
“I’m a constituent too. I write in Alfred E. Newman.”
She said, “Might we be neighbors, sir?”
“I live up in Beverly Glen.”
“Beverly Glen and where?”
“North of Sunset, up toward Mulholland.”
“Mmm, real pretty up there,” she said. “Way out of my league. All I’ve got is a little hutch near Westwood and Pico.” Mischievous smile. “Guess neither of us loyal constituents has much chance of getting our potholes fixed.”
“Better learn to mix your own asphalt,” I said. “Or cozy up to Dr. Dobbs.”
“Speaking of which,” she said and took something off her desk and handed it to me.
It was a cassette tape, white plastic with black lettering that had smeared. The title was KEEPING A CLEAR MIND, AGES 5-10. Copyright 1985, Lance Dobbs, Ph.D. Cognitive-Spiritual Associates, Inc.
“This is what Little Miss Phony Doc was handing out before you aced her,” she said. “I confiscated all of them, took one home, and listened to it last night. Far as I can tell, what it comes down to is brainwashing. Literally. Dobbs goes on about how bad thoughts make children sad and angry. Then he tells them to imagine their mommies taking their brains out and scrubbing them hard with soap and water until they’re all clean, all the bad thoughts are gone, and what’s left are good, clean, sparkly thoughts. Sounds hokey to me. Is there any way something like that could be beneficial?”
“Doubtful,” I said. “Techniques like that have been used with chronically ill people- positive thinking, guided imagery, trying to get them to focus away from their discomfort. But generally those patients are screened and counseled first- encouraged to express their feelings before they try to clean their heads. That’s what our kids need right now. To unload.”
“So you’re saying this could hurt them- jam them up?”
“If they took it too seriously. It could also cause guilt problems if they started to view their fear and anger as ‘bad.’ To kids, bad means they’ve misbehaved.”
“Damn quacks,” she said, glaring at the cassette.
“Was there anything on the tape that would hold a child’s interest?”
“Not that I heard,” she said. “Just some ditsy music in the background and Dobbs droning on like some kind of oily guru. Real low budget.”
“Then there’s probably not much risk. The kids wouldn’t sit through it long enough to be damaged.”
“Low budget,” I said. “Just like Massengil’s interior decorating. I can see why that kind of thing would appeal to him- a quick fix, no mucking around with anything psychologically threatening. And outwardly cost-effective- two hundred kids treated at one time. Dobbs could probably rig up some computerized test showing the kids were doing great; then the two of them throw a press conference and end up heroes.”
I put the tape in my pocket. “I’ll take it home and give it a listen.”
She said, “What really burns me is the grief we go through trying to get mental health funds out of the legislature. They’re always demanding outcome studies, proof of efficacy, pages of statistics. Then a creep like Dobbs gets his mouth on the government tit with this kind of nonsense.”
“That’s because the creep has a special in.”
“I can’t be certain but I’d be willing to bet he’s Massengil’s therapist.”
She lowered her chin and raised her eyebrows. “Old Blowhard in analysis? C’mon. You just said he wouldn’t go for anything psychologically threatening.”
“He wouldn’t. Dobbs probably couches it in nonthreatening- nontherapeutic terminology. Muscle-relaxation training, management efficiency. Or even something quasi-religious- one of the seminars had something to do with the soul.”
“Down on the old knees and emote?”
“Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure there’s something going on between them.” I told her what I’d seen of the interchange between Dobbs and Massengil, the cues and covert looks. “When I hinted at exposing the nature of their relationship, Massengil almost lost his cookies.”
“Oh, boy,” she said. “There’s a charming image for you.” She touched a finger to her lips. “Wonder what kink he’s having straightened.”
“Maybe it’s temper control, or relief of some kind of stress-related symptom like hypertension. Dobbs seemed accustomed to calming him down and Massengil obeyed him. As if they’d practiced together.”
“A minor league Eagleton,” she said, shaking her head. “Wouldn’t play too well with the good folks of Ocean Heights, would it?”
“Hence the seminar cover,” I said. “And extra payoffs to Dobbs for being discreet- like referrals after the earthquake. And the tapes. How much you want to bet Massengil’s office paid for them? For a minor investment Massengil’s buying the chance to come out of this whole thing smelling fragrant. He and Dobbs had no way of knowing I’d get there first- after Dobbs had already started talking to the press. The scandal potential is there. At the very least Massengil would look like a damn fool.”
She shook her head. “Same old story. You’d think I’d get used to it. I hope all of this hasn’t soured you too much.”
I realized that talking about it had leeched the anger out of my system. “Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse. Anyway, I’m here to work. How many kids showed up?”
“A few more than yesterday, but not nearly enough. A lot of the parents couldn’t be reached by phone during working hours. Carla and I will try again tonight.”
I noticed how tired she looked and said, “Nice to see you haven’t been soured.”
She examined a cuticle. “One does what one can.”
I said, “I see the school guard is gone.”
“Must mean we’re safe, huh?”
“You don’t feel safe?”
“Actually, I do. I truly believe Massengil brought things to a head. The worst is over.”
The look on her face didn’t jibe with her words. I said, “What is it, then?”
She opened a drawer, pulled out a manila envelope, and handed it to me.
Inside were three sheets of paper, one blue-ruled and torn from a spiral notebook, the others cheap white stationery, unmarked. The message on one of the white sheets had been typewritten on an old manual; the other was handwritten in very dark penciled block letters. The blue-ruled sheet was covered with bird-scratch red-ballpoint cursive.
Different hands, the same message:
SPICK LOVER!!! FUCK YOU MONGREL RACEMIXER BICHES!!!
YOUR DAY OF RECKON IS SOON. REPENT OR BURN WITH ALL NIGGER TYPES IN DAMN NIGGER HELL…
ILLEAGALS GO BACK TO BEANERLAND. NO MORE STEALING JOBS FROM AMERICAN WORKING PEOPLE… WHITE PEOPLES LIBERATION FRONT.
She said, “I used to get this kind of swill regularly, but it had stopped. Guess it brings back memories of how rough things were in the beginning.”
“Have you told the police?”
She nodded. “I called that detective from the terrorist squad- Frisk. He had me read all of it to him over the phone, said he’d send someone over to pick up the letters. But he didn’t sound too hurried- kind of bored, actually. Didn’t care that I’d gotten my fingerprints all over it or that Carla had thrown out the envelopes. I asked him about putting the guard back on duty, just for a while. The guy was no great shakes but better than nothing, right? Frisk said the guard had been supplied by the school district and it was out of his bailiwick, but that it really didn’t seem to be anything to worry about- the perpetrator had acted alone. I asked him what about copycats, and he said that was highly unlikely.”
“Did you tell him about the crossbearer?”
“Old Elijah? That’s how I think of him- crazy prophet, down from the hills. I mentioned it, but Frisk said there was nothing he could do unless the turkey actually broke a law or unless I went to court and got a restraining order. Incidentally, he showed up again this morning- Elijah. Shouting through the fence about hell and perdition. I went out to him and told him he’d done good work here- everyone had heard the word. Then I asked if I could read his Bible with him. He jumped on that, turned to something from Jeremiah, death and destruction of the Holy Temple. You should have seen the two of us, reciting out on the sidewalk. After we finished I told him he should check out Hollywood Boulevard- lots of needy spirits aching for salvation over there. He called me a woman of valor, blessed me, and marched away singing.”
When I stopped laughing. I said, “Crisis intervention. You’ve got the knack, Doctor.”
“Right. All the time I was stroking the moron’s ego, what I really wanted to do was give him a good kick in the pants.”
“Any word from Frisk on when the kids will be allowed back in the yard?”
“They’re allowed as of this morning. When he said there was nothing to worry about security-wise, I asked him about releasing the yard. He said, ‘Oh, yeah, sure, go ahead.’ He’d clearly forgotten about it- no big deal to him that we’ve had to keep two hundred kids cooped up. We are not talking paragon of sensitivity.”
I said, “Did he have anything more to say about the shooting?”
“Not a blessed thing. And I asked.”
“Did you tell him about Ferguson knowing the Burden girl?”
She nodded. “He said to have her phone him- that same bored tone. Doing me a great big favor. Old Esme called in sick, so I phoned her at home and delivered the message. While I had her on the line I asked her what she remembered about the girl. Didn’t turn out to be much: Holly was a loner, not very bright, tended to space out in class, had trouble learning. But she did have one nugget of gossip- the girl had a black boyfriend. Old Esme lowered her voice when she delivered that. As if I cared. As if it really mattered, now. She also said the father’s got a reputation for being a little strange. Works out of his house, some kind of inventor- no one’s really sure how he supports himself. Incidentally, I did paw through our old records and found nothing on her. Apparently all the records that old were brought downtown. I called downtown and they informed me a manual search was being made of her transcripts; anything to do with her was classified information, orders of the police.”
“A boyfriend,” I said.
“You think that’s significant?”
“Not that he was black. But if the relationship was relatively recent, he might be able to tell us something about Holly’s state of mind. Did Ferguson say anything else about him besides that he was black?”
“Just that. Capital B. When I didn’t comment on it, Esme started making flu noises and I hung up.”
“Somehow I sense she’s not your favorite person.”
“I’m sure it’s mutual. She’s a grind, biding her time until pension. I wouldn’t count on getting any insight from her on the Burden girl or anything else.”
I said, “Speaking of insight, has Ahlward or anyone else from Latch’s office called yet?”
“Vis-à-vis informational flow,” I said in a puffed-up voice. “We good folks were supposed to get anything we wanted as soon as the police gave the old green light, right?”
“Not that it matters, at this point. In fact it’s better he’s stayed away. The kids don’t need any more political involvement.”
“Neither do the adults,” she said.
The noon bell rang outside in the hallway, loud enough to vibrate the office walls. I got up. “Time to heal young minds.”
She walked me to the door. “In terms of reaching the parents, I don’t know if Friday gives us enough time. How about Monday?”
“Monday would be fine,” I said.
“Okay. We’ll keep calling. I want you to know I really appreciate all you’re doing.”
She looked beaten.
I felt like putting my arms around her. Instead I smiled and said, “Onward. Non illegitimati carborundum.”
“Ah, on top of everything else, the man’s a Latin scholar. Sorry, Prof. I took Spanish.”
I said, “Inscription on ancient Roman tomb: Don’t let the bastards wear you down.”
She threw back her head and laughed. I kept the sound in my head as I went to class.
The children greeted me with eagerness, talking freely. I had the younger ones build replicas of the storage shed with blocks, manipulate figurines representing Holly Burden, Ahlward, the teachers, themselves. Acting out the shooting, over and over, until boredom set in and visible anxiety diminished. The older students wanted to know what had caused Holly Burden to go bad, caused her to hate them. I assured them she hadn’t targeted them, had been deranged, out of control. Regretted having little with which to back that up.
A sixth-grader said, “What made her crazy?”
“No one knows.”
“I thought that was your job, knowing what makes people crazy.”
I said, “Trying to know. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about craziness.”
“I got an aunt who’s crazy,” said a girl.
“She got it from you,” said the boy next to her.
And they were off…
I walked out of the last classroom sapped but feeling a sense of accomplishment, wanted to share that feeling with Linda and brighten up her day. But her office was locked and I left the school.
As I got in the Seville I noticed a car turn a corner and approach. Slowly. Silver-gray Honda. Dirty. Black windows.
It pulled up alongside me, stopped.
I power-locked the Seville. The Honda remained in place, engine idling, then suddenly drove off.
I snapped my head around and made out four digits and three letters of a license number. Held the information in my head until I could retrieve pen and paper from my briefcase and write it down. Then I sat there trying to figure it out.
Some kind of intimidation?
Or just a curious local, checking out the carpetbaggers?
I thought of the racist filth Linda had shown me and wondered if there could be a connection.
I looked over at the school grounds, graying in the autumn twilight. A handful of students remained in the yard, waiting to be picked up, playing under the watchful eyes of a teacher’s aide. The school buses were gone, transporting kids from suburbia back to the mean streets- but which streets were meaner?
I watched the children frolic. Enjoying their newly paroled schoolyard.
Hide and seek.
Losing themselves in the game of the moment.
So trusting it hurt.
I looked up and down the street before pulling out. Drove home too fast and kept checking my rearview mirror.
The first thing I did when I got in the house was pick up the phone and dial West L.A. Robbery-Homicide.
This time, the new D-Three was in.
“Hey, Alex. Got your message, tried to call. Kind of crazy right now-”
“Strange things are happening, Milo. Let’s talk.”
“Sure. Later,” he said, in a voice that let me know he wasn’t alone. “Let me handle a few things and I’ll get back to you on that.”
He rang the bell shortly before seven and, operating on reflex, went straight into the kitchen. I stayed on the leather sofa, watching the roundup of the news.
Nothing new on the shooting: just close-ups of Holly Burden’s yearbook picture, a School Board official reporting that a “detailed and extensive manual search of several years of school records” had confirmed her attendance and graduation from Nathan Hale Elementary School but revealed no new insights. Then more psychiatric speculation, including one theory that she’d returned to Hale to take revenge for some imagined slight. When asked to fill in the details, the psychiatrist demurred, saying he was speaking theoretically- in terms of “classical psychodynamic wisdom.” Dobbs came on again, in a segment that looked prerecorded. Caressing his watch fob, still talking about his treatment program at Hale, blasting “society.” I wondered how long he’d keep up the charade.
Milo returned with a comice pear in his mouth, one of a dozen sent me each year as a gift by a grateful patient now living in Oregon.
He chomped. “Nice to see you’re buying good healthy food again.”
“All for you,” I said. “Nutrition for a growing boy.”
He patted his belly and sat down, scowling.
The camera drew back from Dobbs’s rubber face. The psychologist was stroking his beard, had put on a sad, sanctimonious expression- part mourner, part huckster.
Milo snorted and began humming “Jingle Bells.”
I said, “Yeah, the resemblance is striking, but this guy’s no saint.”
“Better be careful. He knows if you’re naughty or nice.”
Dobbs’s pronouncements on spirituality dissolved into a commercial.
Milo stretched his feet out and said, “Okay, you promised me strange. Time to deliver.”
I started with my encounter with Massengil and Dobbs.
He said, “I don’t know that I’d classify any of that as strange, Alex. Seems like good old politics as usual: the asshole feels the school is his turf, wants his boy in on anything that goes on there. You have to think like these guys do- power’s their dope. You’ve infringed. Of course he’s gonna get offended.”
“So what should I do about it?”
“Not a goddam thing. What can he do to you?”
“Not much,” I said, “but he might be able to do something to you. He talked about how your promotion had caused resentment.”
“I’m quaking,” Milo said, and wiggled his hand. “But he’s right in one regard. The troops are not happy with my ascension up the administrative ladder. One thing to tolerate a faggot; whole other ball of wax to take orders from one. Make things worse, the other D-Threes are getting antsy with my ‘approach to the job.’ Most of them are your basic desk jockeys, marking off time. My wanting to work the streets makes them look like the comatose slugs they are. The only other guy who stays active is the Homicide D-Three out in West Valley. But he’s a born-again, doesn’t like deviates, so there’s no bonding potential there. Still, no sense pissing and moaning, right? Don’t do the crime if you can’t hack the slime. Besides, getting rid of me would be more trouble than it’s worth- Department’s like one of those dinosaurs with the pea-sized brains. Impossible to budge, real easy to get around if you watch your step. So don’t worry about me, do your job, and forget it.”
“That’s exactly what Linda said.”
He grinned. “Linda? We’re on first-name basis, hoo-hoo.”
“Linda. All that fluffy blond hair, the southern accent. But feisty- gives her an appealing edge. Not a bad choice at all, pal. Time for you to be getting back into the social swing, anyway.”
“No one’s made any choice.”
“Uh-huh.” He made rude sounds. “Leenda. Muy leenda.”
“Fine. Don’t change the subject.”
I said, “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” I told him about the silver Honda. He looked unimpressed.
“What did it do other than stop for a few minutes?”
“Nothing. But the timing was weird. It was there when I arrived, driving by when I left.”
“Maybe someone thinks you’re cute, Alex. Or could be it’s just one of the locals, playing paranoid posse, checking out the neighborhood for strangers, thinking you’re the weirdo.”
“If it would make you feel better,” he said, “give me the license number.”
I did and he copied it down.
“Service with a smile,” he said. “Anything else I can do for you?”
I said, “Massengil seemed sure he was the target. You hear anything backing that up?”
“Nothing- not that Frisk has opened his files to me. Maybe the old coot knows something, but what’s more likely is that he’s got an inflated sense of self-worth, thinks he’s actually worth shooting. Or maybe he’s the paranoid one and that’s what Santa’s treating him for.”
He ate more pear, said, “Some milk would go well with this,” and went to get some. He returned, drinking out of the carton.
“Something else you should know about,” I said, and told him about the hate mail.
“Your basic bedbugs,” he said. “Too bad she has to go through it.”
“She said Frisk didn’t take it too seriously.”
“To tell the truth, Alex, there’s not much you can do with that kind of garbage. Now if it turns out the Burden girl was affiliated with some racist group, that’ll be different.”
“Would Frisk tell you if she was?”
“Not until after he put on his Giorgio suit, smiled into the camera, and told the greater metropolitan area first. But chances are, if she was highly political he’d know already. ATD’s got everything computerized, would have moved on her known associates and I would have heard it through the old interoffice rumor transport system.”
“Is there anything now you can tell me about her, Milo? The kids are asking.”
“I’ve learned a few things by way of my source at the coroner’s but I doubt it’s the kind of info that’ll help you. She was wearing black- jeans, sweater, shoes, everything down to the undies.”
“Sounds like a commando getup.”
“Or ninja nutcase. Or her taste in couture ran to basic black and a string of bullets. Or maybe she just didn’t want to be seen in the dark- who the hell knows? What else- yeah, she was clean, drug-wiso and booze-wise, an intact virgin, in excellent physical health prior to being perforated. Stomach contents showed she’d eaten around six the previous evening. There was a paper cup with urine in it in the shed. The chemical composition of the pee implied she’d been camped out there some time during the night, sipping and waiting. Sound like something you want to tell the kids?”
I shook my head. “I learned something too. She had a black boyfriend.”
He put down the milk carton. “Oh, yeah? Where’d you hear that?”
“One of the teachers at Hale lives in the neighborhood, taught her years ago. She told Linda about the boyfriend and Linda told me. Linda told Frisk but he wasn’t any more interested than he’d been in the hate mail.”
He ran his hand over his face. “Boyfriend, huh? Active or ex?”
“That’s what I wanted to know. If he was recent, he might know something, right? But the teacher never said.”
“Not that active, anyway,” he said. “The intact virgin part. Got a name?”
“No. Just what I told you.”
“Well,” he said, “interracial dating’s no crime. Officially.”
I thought back to the hate mail. Racemixer biches. “Even casual interracial dating would be considered a felony in Ocean Heights, Milo. Meaning she might have gotten a lot of social punishment for it- nasty comments, ostracization, or worse. And it also implies she was anything but a racist- wouldn’t have been likely to be shooting at those kids.”
“Unless she and the boyfriend had a nasty breakup and she started resenting all minorities.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Here’s a more likely scenario: What if coming face to face with local racism radicalized her and turned her against someone she viewed as racist. A racist authority figure.”
“Maybe she and Massengil even had some kind of confrontation before the shooting. Something he’d never admit to. You should have seen how he reacted when I accused him of drawing a killer to the school, Milo. It definitely struck a nerve. With his temper, even a minor confrontation with her could have gotten ugly. Combine that with her history of psychological problems… By the way, where did Frisk come up with that?”
He shook his head in disgust. I resolved to stop evoking feelings of impotence.
“Anyway,” I said, “mix those elements and you’ve got something potentially explosive. It would explain why Massengil was so sure he was the intended target.”
Milo thought about it, said, “Guess it’s feasible, but good luck proving it.”
I said, “Don’t you think it’s worth talking to the boyfriend? Checking out known associates?”
“Sure. But it’s possible Frisk has already done it.”
“He didn’t mention it to Linda.”
“He wouldn’t. Guy would swear off orgasms if it gave him the upper hand.”
“He who dies with the most secrets wins?”
“You got it.”
“Must be a blast working with him.”
“Oh, yeah. Like a cattle prod to the prostate. Anyway, what’s this teacher’s name?”
“Esme Ferguson. She teaches fourth grade. She called in sick this morning. You can get her home number from Linda.”
He copied down the name. “She have anything else to say about the late Ms. Burden?”
“Lousy student, used to space out in class, not too social. Fits with what the neighbors told the papers about her hanging around the house all day.”
“How,” he said, “does she meet a black guy if she spends all her time just hanging around the house? In that neighborhood.”
He closed his pad, put it back in his pocket. “Only good question, my friend, is one that can be answered.”
“Yeah. Someone profound said it- Heidegger, Krishnamurti. Or maybe it was Harpo Marx. Squeak squeak.”
He finished the pear with two ferocious bites and emptied the milk carton.
“Sounds more like Zeppo,” I said. “Care for some dessert?”
After he left I listened to the white cassette. The contents were nothing that would have intrigued a grade-schooler: synthesized harp music that sounded as if it had been recorded underwater and Dobbs talking in the syrupy-sweet, patronizing tone people who don’t really like kids put on when they talk to them.
The gist of the message was Play Ostrich- clean your brain, blot out reality in order to make it go away. Pop psych in all its superficial glory; Freud would have turned over in his grave. B. F. Skinner wouldn’t have pushed the reward button.
I turned off the tape recorder, ejected the cassette, and lobbed a two-pointer into the nearest wastebasket, wondering how much Dobbs charged per tape. How many copies he’d peddled to the state, via Massengil’s expense account.
The phone rang. I took it in the kitchen.
“Hi, Alex, it’s me.”
A voice that had once soothed me, then cut me. First time I’d heard it in months.
She said, “I’m working late, waiting for some lacquer to dry. Just wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“I’m doing fine. How about yourself?”
Let’s hear it for sparkling repartee.
She said, “I’m fine too.”
“Burning the midnight oil?”
“The Irish Spinners just got into town for a concert at McCabes. The airline damaged a bunch of their instruments and I’m doing the repairs.”
“Ouch,” I said, imagining my old Martin guitar in splinters. “Emergency surgery.”
“I feel like a surgeon. The poor guys were devastated and they’ve been hanging around the shop, looking over my shoulder. I finally shooed them away. So now they stay outside in the parking lot, pacing and wringing their hands like relatives waiting for a prognosis.”
“How is the prognosis?”
“Nothing a little hot glue and artful splicing shouldn’t be able to fix. How about you? What’ve you been up to?”
“Repair work also.” I told her about the sniping, my sessions with the children.
“Oh, that. Alex, those poor little kids. How are they doing?”
“Not surprising. They’re in the best of hands. But wasn’t there another psychologist, talking about it on TV?”
“He’s limited himself to talk. Which is all for the best.”
“He didn’t impress me either. Too glib. Lucky for the kids they got you.”
“Actually,” I said, “the main reason they’re coping relatively well is they’ve grown up with violence, seen lots of hatred.”
“How sad… Well, I think it’s great you’re getting involved with them- using your talents.”
“Alex, I still think about you a lot.”
“I think about you too.” As little as possible.
“I… I was wondering- do you think it’s reached a point where we could get together sometime, to talk? As friends?”
“I don’t know.”
“I realize I’m coming at you out of left field with this. It’s just that I was thinking about how rare friendship is- between men and women. Part of what we had was friendship. Best friendship. Why do we have to lose that? Why can’t that part of it be preserved?”
“Makes sense. Intellectually.”
“But not emotionally?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alex, I won’t keep you. Just take care of yourself, okay?”
“You too,” I said. Then: “Stay in touch.”
“You mean that?”
“Sure,” I said, not knowing what I meant.
She wished the kids at Hale well, and hung up.
I stayed up and watched bad movies until sleep overtook me, sometime after midnight.
The Santa Ana winds arrived in the darkness. I awoke on the sofa and heard them shrieking through the glen, sucking the moisture out of the night. My eyes felt gritty, and my clothes were twisted around me. Not bothering to remove them, I made it to the bedroom, crawled under the covers, and collapsed.
Sunrise brought a glorious Thursday morning, skies scoured and buffed a perfect Delft blue, trees and shrubs varnished a luminous Christmas green. But the view through the French doors had the jarring, cold perfection of a computer-fabricated Old Master. I felt sluggish, drugged by dream residue. Confusing hyperactive images had embedded themselves in my subconscious like fishhooks. Too much pain to tug them loose; time to play ostrich.
I dragged myself into the shower. As I was toweling off, Milo called.
“Ran the plates on the Honda. The car is an ’83, registered to a New Frontiers Technology, Limited. Post office box in Westwood. Ring any bells?”
“New Frontiers,” I said. “No. Sounds like some kind of high-tech outfit- which would make sense if the driver was one of the locals.”
“Whatever. Meanwhile, thought you might want to know I’ve got an appointment this Saturday with Mrs. Esme Ferguson. Her residence, at two. Tea and sympathy, pinkies extended.”
“I thought Frisk was doing all the interviewing.”
“He has first dibs but he never called her. He’s just about ready to close the case. Apparently, nothing political’s come up on Burden in anyone’s files- no criminal record, not even a parking ticket. No funny phone calls that can be traced from her home to anywhere else, no job at Massengil’s or Latch’s. So they’re considering it a nut job and are ready to file it as a solve. Isn’t it nice when things go smoothly?”
Back at Hale by ten. Several dozen children were out on the yard for morning recess, running, climbing, hiding, seeking. The asphalt sparkled like granite under an unencumbered sun.
I finished my group sessions by noon, reserving the rest of the day for individual evaluations of the children I’d tagged as high-risk. After a couple more hours of evaluation, I decided five of them would be okay; the rest could use one-on-one treatment.
After spending another couple of hours doing play therapy, supportive counseling, and relaxation training, I checked in Linda’s office. Carla was going through a pile of forms. Her punk-do was wrapped in a blue bandana and she looked around twelve years old.
“Dr. Overstreet’s downtown,” she said. “At a meeting.”
“Poor Dr. Overstreet.”
Her smile seemed less carefree than usual.
“Any of Dr. Dobbs’s people been by?” I said.
“No, but someone else has.” She put her finger in her mouth and made a gag-me gesture.
She told me.
“Probably one of the classrooms- your guess is as good as mine.”
I didn’t have to guess. I heard the music as I walked down the hall. Awkward attempts at blues riffs tooted on a harmonica with warped reeds.
I pushed open the classroom door and found a dozen or so fifth-graders looking quieter than I’d ever seen them.
Gordon Latch was sitting on the desk, legs folded yogi-style, jacket off, tie loosened, sleeves rolled to his wrists. A chromatic mouth organ was in one hand; the other caressed his gray-brown mop of hair. Behind him stood Bud Ahlward, wearing a charcoal-colored sack suit, back to the chalkboard, arms across his bulky chest, expressionless.
He was the first to notice me. Then Latch turned, smiled, and said, “Dr. Delaware! Come on in and join the party.”
The teacher was sitting at the back of the room, pretending to grade papers. One of the younger ones, just out of training, quiet, with a tendency to be underassertive. She looked up at me and shrugged. The room had gone silent. The kids were staring at me.
Latch said, “Hey, guys,” put the harmonica to his lips, and blew a few bars of “Oh, Susanna.” Ahlward tapped one wing-tipped foot, concentrating. As if keeping rhythm required great effort. Latch closed his eyes and blew harder. Then he stopped, gave the kids a wide smile. A few of them squirmed.
I walked toward the desk.
Latch lowered the harmonica and said, “Bud and I thought it would be useful to drop by. Give these guys a chance to ask questions.” Half-wink, lowered voice: “Vis-à-vis our prior discussion.”
“Brought L.D. too,” he said, hefting the harmonica. Turning back to the kids, he gave a cheerleader flourish with the harmonica hand. “What’s L.D. stand for, guys?”
Rustling from the seats. Childish mumbles.
“Right,” said Latch. “Little Dylan.” Toot, inhale, toot. “Old L.D. here, had him since Berkeley- that’s a college up north, near San Francisco, guys. Any of you know where San Francisco is?”
Latch said, “They had a giant earthquake there a long time ago. Big fire too. They’ve got a great big Chinatown there and the Golden Gate Bridge. Any of you hear of the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“Anyway, old L.D. here is my little trusted musical buddy. He helped me get through some long days- days with lots of homework. You know about homework, don’t you?”
A few nods.
Ahlward lifted one foot and inspected the bottom of his shoe.
Latch said, “So. Anything you guys want to hear?”
Ahlward uncrossed his arms and let them dangle.
Latch said, “Nothing at all?”
A boy in the back said, “Bon Jovi. ‘Living on a Prayer.’ ”
Latch clicked his tongue a couple of times, tried a few notes on the harmonica, and moved it away from his lips, shaking his head. “Sorry, amigo, that’s not in my repertoire.”
I said, “Councilman, could I talk to you for a moment? Privately.”
“Privately, huh?” Mugging for the kids, he lowered his voice to a stage whisper: “Sounds pretty mysterious, huh?”
A few children responded with shaky smiles; most remained stolid. Up at the chalkboard, Ahlward had crossed his arms again and was alternating his gaze between the view out the window and a spot on the rear wall, over the heads of the children. Bored and watchful at the same time.
I cleared my throat.
Latch checked his wristwatch and slipped the harmonica into his shirt pocket. “Sure, Dr. Delaware, let’s talk.” Full wink. “Hang in there, guys.”
He got off the desk, flipped his jacket over one shoulder, and came my way. I held the door open for him and we stepped out into the hall. Ahlward followed us, silently, but remained in the doorway of the classroom. Latch gave him a short nod and the redheaded man closed the door, resumed the folded-arms, Secret Service stance, and looked up and down the corridor, a reflexive watchdog.
Latch pressed his back flush against the wall and bent one leg. The harmonica sagged in his pocket. The lenses of his welfare glasses were crystal-clear, the eyes behind them restless. “Good group of kids,” he said.
“Yes, they are.”
“They seem to be handling things pretty well.”
“That’s true too.”
“Though it seems to me,” he said, “that they’re a bit understimulated- not to know where San Francisco is, the Golden Gate Bridge. The system’s failing them, has a long way to go before it does right by them.”
I said nothing.
He said, “So. What’s on your mind, Alex?”
I said, “With all due respect to your intentions, Councilman, it would be best to let me know the next time you’re planning to drop in.”
He seemed puzzled. “Why’s that important to you?”
“Not me. Them. To keep things predictable.”
“They need consistency. Need to feel a stronger sense of control over their environment, not have any more surprises thrown at them.”
He lifted his glasses with one hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose with the other. I noticed that the skin behind the freckles was ruddy, tinged with bronze; since the sniping he’d taken some sun.
When the spectacles were back in place he said, “Maybe we got our signals crossed, Alex, but I thought this was exactly what you wanted. Exactly what you said you wanted that first time we met. Accurate information- firsthand information. Bypassing the red tape. Bud and I have been cleared by the cops in terms of informational flow, so I figured why not?”
“What I had in mind was something a little more organized,” I said.
He smiled. “Going through channels?”
“That’s not always a bad idea.”
“No, of course not. The thing is, Alex, this wasn’t really planned. Believe it or not, we public servants do get spontaneous once in a while.”
Grinning. He waited until I smiled back, then said, “What happened was, Bud and I were literally in the neighborhood. Driving down Sunset on our way from a meeting in the Palisades- keeping the developers in check. Give those boys a free rein and the whole coastline will be a strip mall inside of a month. It was a hellacious couple of hours, but we came out of it better than when we went in and I was feeling pretty good about my job- that’s not always the case. So when Bud mentioned that we were coming up on Ocean Heights, I said to myself, why not? It had been on my mind to get back here soon as the police cleared us but I’d been too caught up with backlog- dealing with the investigation set me back a couple of days. Things really piled up. But I felt badly about not keeping my word. So I told him to turn off, use the time we did have profitably.”
“I understand, Councilman-”
“I appreciate what you wanted to do, Gordon, but with all these kids have been through, it’s best to coordinate things.”
“Coordinate, huh?” His blue eyes stopped moving and got hard. “Why do I feel all of a sudden as if I’m back in school myself? Being called into the principal’s office?”
“That’s not what I intend-”
“Coordinate,” he said, looking away from me and giving a short, hard laugh that percussed in his chest and died before it got to his throat. “Go through channels. That’s exactly the kind of thing we tell taxpayers when they come up to the mike in Council chambers and ask us for something we don’t intend to give them.”
I said, “What exactly is your plan, Gordon?”
He turned back to me. “My plan? I just told you there was none.”
“Your intention, then, in terms of the kids.”
“My intention,” he said, “was to break the ice with a little help from L.D., then field their questions. Give them a chance to throw stuff at me- anything they want. Give them a chance to find out the system can work for them, once in a while. Give them the opportunity to learn from Bud what it feels like to be a hero. My intention was to listen to their feelings and share mine- what it felt like to be under fire. The fact that we’re all in this together- we’d better pull together or the planet’s in trouble. I was just about to get into that when you came in.”
Sidestepping the reproach, I said, “Were you planning to do that in every class?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“To do it thoroughly might take quite a bit of time. Several days. The media are bound to find out you’re here. Once they do, we run the risk of more commotion.”
“The media can be handled,” he said quickly. “My only goal is to protect the little guys.”
“Not what, Alex. Whom. The users. People who’d think nothing of exploiting them for personal gain.”
He emphasized the last three words and paused, shot a knowing look over at Ahlward, who remained stoic.
“The sad thing is,” he said, “with what they’ve experienced here- what they’ve seen of the political process- they run a heavy risk of growing up cynical. Uninvolved. Which doesn’t bode well for us as a society, does it? We’re talking stagnation, Alex. To the extent that that kind of thing takes over on a large scale, we’re really in trouble. So I guess what I want is for them to see that there can be another side to politics. That there’s no need to stagnate or give up.”
From erosion to stagnation. My second dose of political rhetoric in as many days.
I said, “Another side as opposed to the one represented by Assemblyman Massengil?”
He smiled. “I won’t kid you. My opinions on Assemblyman Massengil are public record. The man’s a dinosaur, part of an era that should be long-forgotten. And the fact that he’s involved has made me take a special look at this situation. This city’s changing- the entire state is. The world is. There’s a new age of transworld intimacy that won’t be stopped. We’re inexorably linked to Latin America, to the Pacific Rim. Cowboy days are gone, but Sam Massengil hasn’t the vision to conceive of that.” Pause. “Has he been causing any more problems for you?”
“You’re sure? Don’t be shy about letting me know, Alex. I’ll ensure you’re not caught in the middle.”
“I appreciate that, Gordon.”
His flipped his jacket forward and slipped it on. Patted his hair. “So,” he said, smiling, “this must be fulfilling work.”
“I notice there’s this other psychologist doing a lot of speechifying to the media. Fellow with a beard.”
“Lance Dobbs. So far he’s limited his involvement to talk.”
“You mean he hasn’t actually been here?” Indignation, mock or otherwise.
“No, he hasn’t, Gordon. One of his assistants came by but I convinced Dr. Dobbs that too many cooks would spoil the broth and she hasn’t been back since.”
“I see,” he said. “That’s certainly true- too many cooks. True in lots of other regards.”
I didn’t respond.
He said, “So. You feel you have it worked out. With Dr. Dobbs.”
“So far so good.”
“Excellent. Good for you.” He paused, touched his harmonica pocket. “Well, good luck and more power to you.”
The old two-handed grip and a nod at Ahlward. The redheaded man moved away from the door and smoothed his lapels. From inside the classroom came shouts and laughter, the young teacher’s voice, tight with frustration, trying to be heard over the tumult.
Latch turned his back on me. The two of them began walking away.
I said, “Planning on coming back, Gordon?”
He stopped, and lowered his eyebrows, as if pondering a question of cosmic proportions. “You’ve given me food for thought, Alex. I really heard you. About doing it right. Coordinating. So let me bounce it around, check my calendar, and get back to you.”
I waited until the corridor was empty, then followed at a discreet distance, made it to the door, and watched them crossing the yard, ignoring the children playing there. They then left the grounds, got into a black Chrysler New Yorker, Ahlward driving, and rode away. No other vehicles pulled out behind them. No retinue of young scrubs, no sign of the media. So perhaps the in-the-neighborhood story was genuine. But I had trouble buying it. Latch’s eager response to my question about Massengil, his questions about Dobbs, convinced me his agenda had been other than altruistic.
And the timing was too cute, coming so soon after my summons to Massengil’s office. Not that yesterday’s visit had been public knowledge. But Latch had already displayed access to Massengil’s itinerary- the day of the sniping. Ready to do battle on camera.
Now the two of them were would-be heroes. A couple of sharks, vying for a tooth-hold in the underbelly of tragedy. I wondered how long it would go on.
Politics as usual, I supposed. It reminded me of why I’d dropped out of academic medicine.
I left the school and tried to put all thoughts of politics out of my mind long enough to get some dinner down. Driving quasi-randomly, I ended up on Santa Monica Boulevard and stopped at the first place I spotted that offered easy parking, a coffee shop near Twenty-fourth Street. Someone had begun holiday decorations- plastic poinsettia on each table; windows frosted and painted with mistletoe; spavined, bucktoothed reindeer; and a few baby-blue menorahs. The good cheer hadn’t spread to the food and I left most of my roast beef sandwich on the plate, paid, and left.
It was dark. I got into the Seville and pulled out of the lot. Traffic was too heavy for a left turn, so I headed west. Another car’s headlights filled my rearview mirror. I didn’t think much of it until a few blocks later, when I turned right again and the lights stayed with me.
I drove to Sunset.
Still the headlights. I could tell, because the left one flickered.
Narrowly spaced beams. Small car. Compact car. Too dark to determine the color or make.
I joined the eastbound flow on the boulevard. Each time I looked into the mirror, the headlights stared back at me like a pair of yellow, pupilless eyes.
I caught a red light at Bundy. The headlights edged up closer. A filling station was at the nearest corner, the pre-embargo type- expansive lot, full-serve pumps, pay phone.
I rolled forward. The headlights followed suit. When the amber light flashed for the north-south traffic, I rolled for two seconds, then made a sharp turn up the driveway, kept going until I reached the pay phone.
The car with the flickering headlight started up and drove across the intersection. I followed it, taking in as many details as I could. Brown Toyota. Two people in front. Female passenger, I thought. I couldn’t see the driver. The passenger’s head turned, facing the driver. Talking to each other. Not even a glance in my direction.
I scolded myself for being paranoid, got back on Sunset, and drove home. The operator at my service gave me an earful of messages- one from Milo, the rest all business. I put in return calls, reaching one late-working attorney, a bunch of answering machines, and the desk sergeant at Robbery-Homicide, who told me Detective Sturgis was out, and no, he had no idea what the call had been about. I took the mail in, changed into shorts, running shoes, and a T-shirt, and went for a night jog. The Santa Anas had returned, gentler; I ran with the wind, felt airborne.
I came back an hour later and sat by the fishpond, unable to make out the koi as anything more than bubbles on the black surface of the water. But hearing them, hearing the song of the waterfall, my mind started to clear.
I stayed there a while longer, then went back up to the house, ready for the present tense. I thought of phoning Linda, tried to convince myself my motives were purely professional, then realized I didn’t have her home number. Neither did Information. I viewed it as an omen, settled in for another night alone.
Nine o’clock. Evening news on the local station; I was becoming a tragedy junkie. I cracked a Grolsch, settled back, and clicked the remote.
The broadcast began with a regurgitation of the usual international mess, followed by a machine-gun spatter of local crime stories: an armored-van robbery at a savings and loan in Van Nuys, one guard killed, the other in critical condition. A Pacoima crack-smoker who’d gone berserk and stabbed his eight-year-old son to death with a butcher knife. A five-year-old girl snatched out of her front yard up in Santa Cruz.
Tough competition; nothing on the Hale sniping.
I sat through ten minutes of the feathery stuff that passes for human interest journalism in L.A. Tonight’s main feature was a millionaire Newport Beach urologist who’d won the lottery and vowed his life-style wouldn’t change. Next came shots of the new Rose Queen opening a shopping mall in Altadena.
Happy talk between the anchors.
Weather and sports.
The doorbell rang. Probably Milo, here to tell me, in person, what he’d called about.
I opened the door, directing my eyes upward toward Milo’s six-foot-three level. But the eyes that stared back were a good nine inches lower. Bloodshot gray-blue eyes behind eyeglasses in clear plastic frames. Bloodshot but so bright and focused, they seemed to pierce the glass, dominating a smallish, triangular face. Pasty complexion rendered sallow by the bug-light over the door. Mouth tightly set. Small, thin nose with narrow nostrils flanking an incongruous bulb-tip. Wispy brown-gray hair blowing in the night wind. A nondescript face above a tan windbreaker zipped to the neck.
My gaze fell to his hands. Pale and long-fingered, wringing each other.
“Dr. Delaware. I presume.” Nasal voice. Not a trace of levity. The hackneyed line rehearsed… No, more contrived than that. Programmed.
I looked over his shoulder. Down in the carport was a silver-gray Honda with blackened windows.
I was suddenly certain he’d been standing out there for a while. My neck hairs prickled and I put one hand on the door and took a step backward.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is Burden,” he said, making it sound like an apology. “My daughter’s… There’s been some… trouble with her. She… I’m sure you know.”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Burden.”
He extended both hands in front of him, knitted together, as if containing something precious or lethal. “What I… I’d like to talk to you, Dr. Delaware, if you could spare the time.”
I stepped back and let him in.
He looked around, still wringing his hands, eyes bouncing around the living room, like a billiard trick shot.
“You have a very nice home,” he said. Then he started to weep.
I let him in and sat him down on the leather sofa. He sobbed tearlessly for a while, making dry, choking noises, hid his face in his hands, then looked up and said, “Doctor…”
His glasses had slid down his nose. He righted them. “I… May I please use your… facilities?”
I pointed him down the hallway to the bathroom, went into the kitchen, made strong coffee, and brought it back, along with cups and a bottle of Irish whisky. I heard the toilet flush. A few minutes later he came back, sat down, folded his hands in his lap and stared at the floor, as if memorizing the pattern on my Bukhara.
I put a cup of coffee into his hands and offered the whisky bottle. He shook his head. I spiked my own drink, took a long, hot swallow, and sat back.
He said, “This is… Thank you for allowing me into your home.” His voice was nasal, oboelike.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Burden.”
He shielded his face with one hand and moved it from side to side, as if trying to shake off a bad dream. The hand holding the cup trembled badly and coffee sloshed over the sides and onto the rug. He uncovered his face, put the cup down, rattling it against the glass top, snatched a napkin, and scrambled to mop up.
I touched his elbow and said, “Don’t worry about it.”
He backed away from the contact but allowed me to take the sodden napkin from his hand.
“I’m sorry… It… I don’t mean to intrude.”
I took the napkin into the kitchen in order to give him more time to compose himself. He got up and paced the room. I could hear his footsteps from the kitchen. Rapid, arrhythmic.
When I returned, his hands were back in his lap, his eyes back on the rug.
A minute passed slowly, then another. I drank coffee. He just sat there. When he made no attempt to speak, I said, “What can I do for you, Mr. Burden?”
He answered before the last word was out of my mouth. “Analyze her. Learn the truth and tell them they’re wrong.”
“Them. The police, the press, all of them. They’re delusional. Saying she shot at children, was some kind of homicidal monster.”
He shook his head violently. “Listen to me! Believe me! There was no earthly way she would… could do anything like that. No way she would use a gun- she hated my… She was pacifistic. Idealistic. And never children! She loved children!”
I imagined the final scene in the storage shed. Her lair. Black clothing, a rifle, a cup of urine.
He shook his head, said, “Impossible.”
“Why come to me, Mr. Burden?”
“For analysis,” he said, with just a trace of impatience. “Psycho-analysis. That’s your specialty, isn’t it? Childhood motivation, thought processes of the developing organism. And despite her age, Holly was a child. Psychologically. Believe me, I should know. That would put her within your professional purview, wouldn’t it? Am I correct?”
When I didn’t respond right away, he said, “Please, Doctor. You’re a scholar, an in-depth man- this should be right up your alley. I know I’ve chosen right.”
He began reciting the titles of studies I’d published in scientific journals. Ten-year-old articles. In perfect chronological order. When he was finished, he said, “I do my research, Doctor. I’m thorough. When things count, it’s the only way.”
The sorrow gone from his face, replaced by a haughty smile- an A student expecting praise.
“How’d you find me, Mr. Burden?”
“After I spoke to the police it became clear to me they weren’t after the truth, had preconceived notions. Just plain lazy, concerned with wrapping things up. So I began observing the school, hoping to learn something- anything. Because nothing they told me made sense. I recorded the license plates of anyone going in and out of the school grounds and checked them against my files. Yours cross-checked with several of my lists.”
The oboe played a couple of long notes close to laughter. “Don’t be alarmed- it’s nothing ominous. Lists are my business. I should have mentioned that in the beginning. Mailing lists. Direct mail advertising. Applied demography. Data that can be called up with regard to occupation, ZIP code, marital status- any number of variables. You were on the mental health specialist list. Subclass 1B: Ph.D. clinical psychologists. Yet you weren’t the psychologist who’s been talking to the media, claiming he’s been treating the children. It made me curious. I investigated you further. What I learned gave me hope.”
“My journal articles gave you hope?”
“Your articles were good- scientifically sound. Relatively hard methodology for a very soft science. That showed me you’re a thorough thinker- not some civil servant just coasting. But what really heartened me were the data I obtained from the lay press- newspaper articles. The Casa de Los Niños case. The Cadmus scandal. You’re obviously a man who seeks the truth singlemindedly, doesn’t run from challenges. I’m a good judge of character. I know you’re the man for me.”
More A-student hubris. And something else: a hunter’s smile.
Where had the grief gone? A spooky little man.
I said, “Speaking of the truth, how about showing some identification. Just to be thorough.”
“Certainly. It always pays to be thorough.” He produced a cheap wallet and from it plucked a driver’s license, Social Security card, and several credit cards. The photo on the license had a furtive, sullen look that reminded me of a dead girl. I glanced at the credit cards, all gold, all in the name of Mahlon M. Burden. Returned to the license photo and stared at it some more.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “but for the most part, she resembled her mother.”
I gave him back his ID.
“She had her mother’s innate goodness, as well,” he said. “Compassion for all living things. This whole thing is a travesty- you’ve got to help me.”
“Mr. Burden, what is it exactly you think I can do for you?”
“Conduct a psycho-biography. The life and times of Holly Lynn Burden.” Mention of her name made his gaze waver for an instant; then it hardened with intent. “Apply the same tools of scholarship you apply to your research and become the resident expert on my little girl- on what made her tick. Delve as deep as you like. Be unsparing with your questions. Do whatever it takes to get to the root of this mess. Learn the truth, Dr. Delaware.”
I took my time answering. His eyes never left me.
“Sounds like you’re talking about two separate things, Mr. Burden. Reconstructing your daughter’s life- what’s known as a psychological autopsy. And vindicating her. One may not lead to the other.”
I waited for the explosion. What I got was more of the hunter’s smile.
“Oh, it will, Dr. Delaware. It will. A father knows.”
A father knows. A mother knows. How many times had I heard that before.
“There’s something you should know,” I said. “You’re obviously not happy with the way the police are handling things, but it was the police who called me in.”
“Unless you’d lie to make them happy, that doesn’t bother me.”
“Something else. I can’t promise you confidentiality. On the contrary. My first allegiance is to the children at Hale. My main goal is helping them cope with what happened, and I can’t let anything distract me from that. If I found out something negative about Holly and disclosing it would serve a therapeutic purpose, I’d disclose. Unpleasant things could become public knowledge.”
“I’m not frightened of the truth, Dr. Delaware. Solid data never scare me.”
Boasting. I thought of him surveilling me, from behind blackened windows. Using his “files” to invade my privacy. Using tears to gain entry into my lovely home.
Assuming the patient role so that I’d play therapist?
No matter what his motivation, I’d been manipulated. I took another sip of spiked coffee and experienced a wave of lightheadedness. Alcohol or the strangeness of the moment?
I put the cup down, sat back, crossed my legs, and studied him. Tried to regain objectivity, pull out of the sorrow-sympathy circuit that he’d instigated on my doorstep.
“I absolutely accept your contingencies,” he said. “Will you help me?”
He leaned forward on the sofa. Dry-eyed.
One part of me- the invaded householder- wanted him out of there. But I found myself considering his proposition. Because what he was offering me was exactly what I’d been telling everyone I wanted. A chance to understand the bogey-woman. The opportunity to mine some bit of information that might speed up the healing of the kids at Hale.
Delve as deep as you like. Be unsparing with your questions.
Given the recency of his tragedy, his inability at this point to confront what had really happened in the storage shed- that pledge meant little. He might start out by answering my questions and end up seeing me as the enemy. But somewhere in between, I might very well learn something.
At what price?
I said, “Give me some time to think about it.”
That didn’t please him; he tugged at the zipper-pull of his windbreaker, opened and closed the jacket, and kept staring at me, as if waiting for me to change my mind.
Finally he said, “That’s all I can ask, Doctor.”
He stood. Out came the cheap wallet. He handed me a white business card.
NEW FRONTIERS TECHNOLOGY, LTD.
MAHLON M. BURDEN, PRES.
A phone number with a Pacific Palisades exchange had been penciled beneath his name.
He said, “That’s a private line- very few people have it. Call me, twenty-four hours a day. Chances are I’ll be out of the office most of tomorrow- downtown, at Parker Center. Trying to get the police to release the… her body. But I’ll be picking up messages.”
His chin quivered and his face started to sag. Trying not to look at him, I saw him out the door.
I was still thinking about him when Milo called.
“Got a fix on your Honda,” he said. “New Frontiers Tech is Burden’s father’s company.”
“I know.” I told him about the visit.
“He dropped in on you, just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“Traced you by running your plates?”
“That’s what he said.”
“You get any sense he was dangerous?”
“Not really. Just odd.”
“Odd in what way?”
“Calculating. Manipulative. But maybe I’m being too hard on him. The guy’s been through hell. Lord knows I’m not seeing him at his best.”
“Sounds to me like he piqued your professional curiosity.”
“Somewhat. That mean you’re gonna take him up on his proposition?”
“I’m thinking about it. Any problem if I do?”
“Doesn’t bother me, personally, Alex, but are you sure you want to get in any deeper?”
“If I can learn something that would help the kids, I do. I made it clear to him that my first allegiance was to them. No confidentiality. He accepted it.”
“He accepts it for now. But look at the guy’s state of mind. Heavy denial: he’s still claiming she’s innocent. What happens when reality hits him? What happens after you go in and do your thing and come out concluding his little girl was a wacko with blood on the brain? How do you think he’ll accept that?”
“I raised that possibility with him.”
“He said he was willing to take his chances.”
“Right. He also tell you it was his rifle she took to that shed? Apparently the guy’s a gun collector and she lifted one of his collectibles. What do you think that does to his ability to think straight about this?”
She hated my…
“When did you learn this?”
“Extremely recently.” Pause. “Sources at the ballistics lab.”
He cursed. I couldn’t tell how much of his resentment came from having to get facts on the investigation secondhand, how much from the possibility I might work with Mahlon Burden.
“So,” I said, “you’re saying I should turn him down?”
“Me telling you what to do? Perish the thought. I just want you to think carefully about it.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Milo.”
“While you had him there, did you ask him about the boyfriend?”
“I didn’t ask him about anything. Didn’t want to engage him until I was sure which way I was going to take it.”
“Sounds like you’re already engaged, pal. Only question is, when’s the wedding?”
“What’s bugging you, Milo?”
“Nothing. Oh, hell, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the idea of you working for the other side.”
“Not for. With.”
“What puts him on the other side, anyway?”
“Good guys and bad guys. Know of a more meaningful distinction?”
“He didn’t pull the trigger, Milo. All he did was sire her.”
“She was nutso. Where did it come from?”
“What, guilt by procreation?”
A long, uncomfortable silence.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” he said. “Where’s my milk of human compassion for him- he’s a victim too. It’s just that I called you in to help the kids. Trying to do something positive in the middle of all this crap. I guess I don’t want to see you used- to whitewash what she did.”
“That would be impossible. What she did is indelible, Milo.”
“Yeah. Okay, sorry. Don’t mean to ride you. It’s just been a terrific day. Just got back from another crime scene. Toddler murder.”
“Pure shit. Two-year-old victim. Mom’s boyfriend gets loaded on ice and dust and God knows what else, uses the baby for punching practice. Neighbors heard the kid wailing all day, called Protective Services two weeks ago. Social workers came down last week, evaluated, wrote it up as ‘high risk,’ recommended removal from the home. But they hadn’t gotten around to processing it yet.”
“Processing,” he said. “Don’t you just love that? Like sausage. Shit into the grinder, out the other end, tagged and wrapped. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. What new load of garbage will need to be processed.”
I mulled over Burden’s offer without coming to any conclusion, woke up Friday morning still thinking about it. I put it aside and drove to the school to work with the ones I was sure were the good guys.
I could tell I was making progress: The children seemed bored, and a good part of each session was spent in free play. Most of the afternoon was spent working individually with the high-risk youngsters. A few were still experiencing sleep problems but even they seemed more settled.
Doing remarkably well.
But what would the long-term effects be?
By four I was sitting in an empty classroom thinking about that. Realizing how poorly my training had prepared me for the work I was doing, how few insights standard psychology had to offer about the effects upon children of traumatic violence. Perhaps my experiences could be useful to others- other victims and healers, certain to materialize soon in a world grown increasingly psychopathic. I decided to keep detailed clinical records, was still writing at five when a custodian lugging a mop and bucket stuck his head into the room and asked how long I was planning to be there. I collected my stuff and left, passing Linda’s office. Carla’s work space was dark, but the light was on in the inner office.
She was at her desk reading, slightly stooped, looking intense.
I said, “Cramming?”
She put her book down, swiveled around, and motioned toward the L-shaped couch. She had on an off-white knit dress, thin gold chain, white stockings with a subtle wave pattern running through them vertically, and medium-heeled white pumps.
“I was wondering if you’d drop by,” she said. “Heard we had visitors yesterday.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “A veritable bath in the milk of human kindness.”
“Lord. And it just keeps on coming.”
She turned back toward the desk and took something out of a drawer. White cassette. “Three more boxes of these showed up this morning via registered mail. Carla didn’t know what it was. She signed for the whole shebang.”
“Just tapes, no people?”
“Just tapes. But Dobbs’s office did call to confirm the delivery. Carla was out delivering memos to the classrooms and I took the call.”
“Butt-covering,” I said. “The mail registration is proof for any state auditors that he fulfilled his contract and is entitled to every penny Massengil paid him.”
“That’s what I figured. I asked to speak to him directly and they put him on. The yahoo was all sweetness and light. Wanting to know how the poor little things were doing. Things. He probably sees them as things. Assuring me he was on twenty-four-hour call in case of emergencies. I’ll sleep so much better knowing that.”
“And no doubt the phone call will be logged as professional consultation and billed for.”
“He made sure to let me know you and he had conferred,” she said. “That the two of you were of one mind with regard to clinical issues. He approves of your methods, Doctor- doesn’t that make your day?”
“Sounds like he wants to compromise,” I said. “We don’t expose his little scam, let him make a few bucks on the tapes, and he backs off.”
“How does that sit with you?”
I thought about it. “I can live with it if it means he stays out of the picture.”
“So can I,” she said. “What does that make us?”
“Ugh.” She waved her hand. “I refuse to waste any more time on sleaze. How do the kids look to you?”
“Very good, actually.” I gave her a progress report.
She nodded. “I’ve been hearing the same kind of thing from the parents we’ve spoken to on the phone. Definitely less anxiety. It’s helped me to convince quite a few of them to send their kids back, so you’ve done a real good deed.”
“At first, mind you, they were skeptical. Confused by what the kids were doing- drawing pictures of the sniper, tearing her up, getting mad. There’s always that impulse to protect, try to hush things up. But results talk loudly. I’ve lined up at least a couple of dozen mothers for your Monday meeting.”
“There’s something else you should know about,” I said. “Another visit.” I told her about Mahlon Burden.
“How weird- out of the blue like that.”
“It was, but he’s pretty stressed. He’s convinced Holly’s innocent, wants me to conduct a psychological autopsy, show the world what made her tick. Somehow that’s going to lead to proving her innocence.”
Without hesitation she said, “I think you should do it. It’s a great opportunity.”
“Opportunity for what?”
“Learning. Understanding what went wrong- what did make her tick.”
“I can’t be sure I’ll come up with anything significant, Linda.”
“Whatever you come up with, it’ll be more than we’ve got now, right? And the more I’ve been thinking about it- now that the shock’s worn off- the weirder the whole thing is. A girl, Alex. What in the world could lead her to do something like that? Who was she shooting at? The media have basically dropped it. The police haven’t told us a thing. If her father’s willing to talk to you, why not take him up on it? Maybe you can learn something about her- some warning sign- that can help prevent something like this happening again.”
I said, “His willingness to have me exhume her psychologically is being influenced by heavy denial, Linda. Once his defenses break down, he’s likely to change his mind. If I start coming up with stuff he doesn’t approve of, he’ll probably end the whole thing.”
“So? In the meantime, you learn what you can.”
I didn’t reply.
She said, “What’s the problem?”
“My first allegiance is to the kids. I don’t want to be perceived as being aligned with the bad guys.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. You’ve earned your stripes around here.”
“Milo- Detective Sturgis- has reservations about it.”
“Sure he does. Typical cop-think- bunker mentality.”
Before I could answer, she said, “Well, no matter what anyone thinks, in the end it’s got to be your decision. So do what you feel is best.”
She looked away, put the tape down, and began straightening the papers on her desk.
I said, “I’m leaning toward telling him yes. I plan to let him know over the weekend.”
“Ah, the weekend,” she said, still straightening. “Can’t believe this week’s actually ending.”
“Got a busy one lined up?”
“Just the usual scut. Chores, TCB time.”
I said, “How about forgetting about business for a while?”
She arched her eyebrows but didn’t look at me.
“Let me be more explicit,” I said. “An early dinner- let’s say in half an hour. Somewhere quiet, with a well-stocked bar. All shoptalk forbidden. Bring a little elegance into our otherwise humdrum lives.”
She looked down at her dress, touched one knee. “I’m not exactly dressed for elegance.”
“Sure you are. Hand me the phone and I’ll make a reservation right now.”
The eyebrows arched higher. She gave a small laugh and turned to me. “A take-charge guy?”
“When something’s worth taking charge of.” It came out sounding like a line. I said, “Hey, babe, what’s your sign?”
She laughed harder and gave me the phone.
It took her a while to organize her things, write memos and reminders. I used the time to go into Carla’s office and call in for messages. Two people who’d started college at sixteen, unable to let go of the compliant-kid role.
Finally, we left the building. She still looked tense, but she slipped her arm through mine.
The custodian was eager to lock up the school grounds and begin his weekend, so she drove the Escort onto the street and parked just outside the gate. We took the Seville and headed west. The restaurant I’d chosen was on a busy stretch of Ocean Avenue across from the bluffs that look down on the birth of Pacific Coast Highway. French but friendly, a clean white decor and canvas-topped front porch with a waist-high brick wall that allowed alfresco dining while segregating the sidewalk throng. We got there by six-fifteen. Several homeless people were competing with the parking valets for turf. I gave away a few dollars and got dirty looks from the valets.
We were seated at the bar for another twenty minutes before being escorted to a spot under the canvas. By eight-thirty, the Big-Deal-Pending folks would be tooling up in rented Mercedes and designer Jeeps that would have intimidated Patton, but at this hour we were opening the place.
Across the street, a grove of coco palms crowned the bluffs. Through the crosshatched trunks of the big trees, the sky was trapezoids of blood-red streaked with aqua, diluting to hammered copper near the horizon. As we sipped our drinks, it deepened to indigo. I watched the play of light and shadow on Linda’s face. She’d pinned her hair up. A few fine golden strands had come loose near the nape of her neck. They caught the last hints of daylight and glowed like electric filament.
I said. “Isn’t this better than TCBing?”
She nodded, rested her chin in her hand, and looked out at the sunset. Long graceful neck. Grace Kelly profile.
The waiter came, lit the table candle, and recited the daily specials. The kitchen must have overstocked on rabbit, because he kept pushing some kind of hare stew provençale.
She smiled up at him, said, “Sorry, but I just couldn’t eat Bugs,” and chose grilled white sea bass. I ordered steak in peppercorn sauce and a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau.
We drank and didn’t say much. It took a long time to get served. When the food came she ate with the same gusto she’d shown the first time.
First time. Our second dinner. Despite that, despite all those chats in her office, I knew little about her.
I caught her eye and smiled. She smiled back but seemed preoccupied.
“What is it?” I said.
“Not back at work, I hope.”
“No, no, not at all. This is lovely.”
“But there’s still something on your mind?”
She ran a finger up the stem of her wineglass. “I guess I’m trying to figure out if this is a date.”
“Do you want it to be?”
She shook her finger at me. “Now you sound like a shrink.”
“Okay,” I said, sitting up straight and clearing my throat. “Back to take-charge guy. It’s a date, babe. Now be a good girl and eat your fish.”
She saluted and put her hand down on the table. Long, graceful fingers that I covered with mine.
She took a deep breath. Even in the dim light I could see her color deepen. “I’m really pretty full. How about we skip dessert?”
Time had raced; it was nearly nine by the time we got back in the car. She closed her eyes, put her head back, and stretched her legs. Then more silence.
I said, “How about a drive?” and when she nodded, headed north on Ocean and turned onto the ramp that leads down to Pacific Coast Highway. I slipped Pat Metheny into the tape deck and drove in the slow lane all the way to western Malibu, just past the Ventura County line. Mountains on one side, ocean on the other- past Decker Canyon, very little evidence of human disruption. I got to Point Mugu before beginning to feel drowsy. I looked over at Linda. The light from the dashboard was barely strong enough for me to make out her features. But I could see that her eyes were closed and she had a satisfied-child smile on her face.
The car clock said it was ten-fifteen. The highway sign said we were nearly at Oxnard. I thought of the last time I’d driven this way. To Santa Barbara, with Robin. I turned the car around, ejected Metheny, fed Sonny Rollins into the deck, and headed back to L.A. listening to the magic sax turn “Just Once” into something transcendental.
When I stopped at the light at Sunset Beach, Linda stirred and blinked.
I said, “Good morning.”
She sat up. “Good Lord! Did I fall asleep on you?”
“Like the proverbial baby.”
“How rude. I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry for. Your serenity rubbed off on me.”
“What time is it?”
“Ten after eleven.”
“Unbelievable- I just lost two hours.” She sat straighter and smoothed her hair. “I can’t believe I just conked out like this.”
I patted her wrist. “No sweat. I’ll just expect total vivaciousness next time.”
She gave a noncommittal laugh and said, “I guess you’d better take me back to get my car.”
The light turned green. I got onto Sunset, reached the manicured magnolias of Ocean Heights just before midnight.
A cold, thick fog had settled in. Esperanza Drive was silent and blanketed by a crushing darkness. Not a soul on the street; the diamond windows of the ranch houses were black as obsidian, the low-voltage glow of landscaping spotlights dulled to amber smudges. Only a few illuminated doorbell buttons managed to pierce the vapor, orange discs that followed us, a battalion of tiny cyclops eyes.
My windshield clouded and I turned on the wipers. They scraped out a lazy four-four and I felt my eyelids droop.
Linda said, “Never been here at this hour. It’s eerie- so… vacant.”
I said, “L.A., but more so,” and drove slowly toward the school. As we neared the spot where she’d left her car, I saw something. Two more eyes. Red irises. Taillights. Another car, parked in the middle of the street.
The fog had grown thicker; I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. I put the wipers on high, but the windshield kept beading with moisture and fogging up on the backbeat of the four-four. I reduced speed, rolled closer, saw movement through the haze- a manic blur of movement, trapped by my headlights. Then harsh music: dull percussion followed by a solo of breaking glass.
“Hey,” said Linda, “what the- that’s my car!”
More thumping and shattering. The crunch and scrape of metal against metal.
I gunned the engine and sped forward. Movement. Clearer, but not clear. Human movement. The pad of footsteps over the swoop-swoop of the wipers. Then another engine revving. I opened my window and screamed, “What the hell’s going on!”
Tires squealed and the taillights diminished to pinpoints before disappearing into the mist.
I jammed the Seville into park and sat there, breathing hard. I could hear Linda’s respiration racing ahead of mine. She looked terrified but made a move to get out. I held her wrist and said, “Wait.”
“Oh, Jesus Lord.”
I turned off the wipers. We endured an evil minute, then another. When I was convinced we were alone, I got out of the car.
Cold silent street. The fog had an ozone smell.
Beads of glass littered the street, vitreous against the damp pavement, like melting hail.
I looked up and down Esperanza. Down the row of ranch houses, still dark.
The silence stretched and became absurd. Not a hint of movement, not a single window yellowing, or the merest creak of curiosity.
Despite the racket, Ocean Heights slept soundly. Or pretended to.
Linda got out of the Seville. We examined her Escort. The windshield of the little car had been punched out. So had the windows on the driver’s side. The hood had been caved in and was riddled with fissures that were raw metal around the edges. Bubbles of safety glass dusted the surface and pooled in the low spots.
“Oh no,” she said, gripping my arm and pointing.
Another type of assault: the once-white roof was a cyclone scrawl of red and black spray paint.
Abstract art: a coiling, dripping portrait of hate.
Abstract except for one clear bit of representation.
Covering the driver’s door, sprayed and resprayed for emphasis, its diagonal cruelty unmistakable even in the fog, was a black swastika.
Her hands were shaking too hard to get the key in the lock, so I opened the door to the school. She managed to find the corridor light and flip it on, and we went to her office, where I phoned Milo. He answered, sounding groggy. When I told him what had happened, he said, “Wait right there.”
He arrived half an hour later. Thirty silent minutes with my arm around Linda’s shoulders, feeling the rigidity of her body, then watching her pull away, pace, shuffle papers, fuss with her hair. When Milo walked in she composed herself, thanked him for coming, but seemed cold.
Something about cops…
If Milo noticed it, he didn’t let on. He questioned her with a gentleness I’d seen him use with child witnesses, then put away his note pad and said, “Sorry you had to go through this.”
“So what else is new,” she said.
He stood. “I’ll use your phone and get the print boys down here, but that will take some time. So why don’t the two of you go on home. I’ve got all the info I need.”
She said, “No prints. Not another media circus.”
Milo looked at me, then back at her. “Dr. Overstreet, we’re in hear-no-evil territory- if anyone across the street saw what happened, they won’t let on. And even if we manage to find an honest person, chances are they saw nothing worthwhile ’cause of the fog. So pulling prints from the car is really our only chance of getting anywhere.”
“They were using crowbars or something like crowbars. What’s the chance of pulling any prints from the car?” she said.
“Slim,” he admitted. “Unless they slipped and touched the car. But without prints, we’ve got nothing- might as well forget the whole thing.”
“That’s what I want, Detective Sturgis. To forget it.”
Milo scratched his nose. “You’re saying you don’t want to file charges?”
I said, “Linda-”
She said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying. The children have been through enough. All of us have. The last thing we need is another fright, more attention.”
I said, “Linda, if there’s some danger, don’t you think the children and their parents should be aware of it?”
“There’s no danger- this is just more of the same garbage we’ve had since the beginning. The sniping put us back in the spotlight and another cockroach crawled out. And there’ll be others- phoning, mailing. Until they find someone else to pick on. So what would be the point of advertising this? No one would be caught and more kids would be scared into dropping out. That’s precisely what they want.”
Gutsy speech, but by the end of it she was talking in gulps, almost hyperventilating, and digging her nails into the arm of the couch so hard I heard fabric scrape.
I looked at Milo.
He said, “Did you keep any of the hate mail?”
“In the unlikely event we ever find the piece of shit who trashed your car, maybe we can match a print to one of the pieces of mail and add a federal charge to his grief. You’d be surprised how nasty those postal inspectors can get.”
She said, “I told you I don’t want to go public.”
Milo sighed. “I understand that, and I promise you there’ll be no official investigation. And that’s why I said ‘in the unlikely event’-‘near impossible’ would be more accurate. But let’s say the perp returns- emboldened by getting away with it. And let’s say someone catches him in the act. You’re not saying you’d want us to let him go, are you?”
She stared at him, threw open a desk drawer, and yanked out a stack of envelopes bound with string.
“Here,” she said, thrusting it at him. “My entire collection. I was going to donate it to the Smithsonian, but it’s all yours. Happy reading.”
“Who else touched the contents besides you and your secretary?”
“Just us. And Dr. Delaware.”
Milo smiled. “I suppose we can rule him out.”
She didn’t respond.
“Got something to put it in?” he said.
“Always happy to oblige, Detective.” She opened another drawer, found an interoffice mail envelope, and dropped the stack into it. Milo took it.
I said, “What about some kind of protection, Milo? In-creased patrol.”
Both of them turned to me, then exchanged knowing glances. Cop and cop’s kid. I felt like a new immigrant who didn’t know the language.
He said, “I can have a patrol car drive by once each shift, Alex, but it’s unlikely to make a difference.”
She told him, “Sorry for bringing you down here. If I’d thought it out rationally, I wouldn’t have bothered you.”
“No bother,” he said. “If you change your mind or need to file a report for insurance, let me know. I can push some paper for you, maybe speed things up. Meantime, let’s get your car towed.”
“If it still drives, I’ll take it home myself.”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Why not?” she said. “The damage is probably all to the body. If it rolls, home it goes. I’ll call my insurance company tomorrow and have it towed from there. The district will pay for a rental- one advantage of being a civil servant.”
“Linda, without a windshield you’ll freeze.”
“Fresh air. I’ll survive.”
She searched in her purse and pulled out her keys.
I looked at Milo. His shrug said, Nolo contendere.
The three of us left the office, Linda walking several paces ahead, no one talking.
Outside, the street was still silent and seemed more dank, a sump for the haze. The Escort looked like a piece of junk sculpture. Linda got in through the passenger door. When she closed it, it made an unhealthy, rattling sound, and a few pieces of glass fell onto the street and tinkled like wind chimes.
Milo and I stood by as she jammed the key into the ignition. The little car sputtered and belched and for a moment I thought there’d been mechanical damage. Then I remembered that it had sounded that way the first time I’d heard it.
She kept trying. Milo said, “Gutsy lady.”
I said, “You think this is the right way to handle it?”
“She’s the victim. It’s her choice, Alex.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
He ran his hand over his face. “Matter of fact, she’s probably right. She knows the way things work, knows we’ll never catch the assholes. All she’d buy would be more cameras and print space.”
The Escort started, then stalled and died.
I said, “Okay. Sorry for calling you out for nothing.”
“Forget it. I was restless anyway.”
I recalled his grogginess over the phone but said nothing. He took out his keychain and began swinging it like a lasso. Looked at the swastika, then out at the row of darkened homes.
“Lovely times we’re living in, Alex. National Brotherhood Week.”
That reminded me of something. “How’d your meeting with Ferguson go?”
“Nothing dramatic. Call me tomorrow and I’ll run it by you. Meanwhile, go and do your civic duty.”
“Make sure Dr. Blondie gets home in one piece.”
He patted me on the shoulder and shambled to his car. Just as he drove away, the Escort’s engine caught and stuck. Linda fed it gas. I walked up to the shattered window.
“I’ll follow you home, Linda.”
“Thanks, but I’m okay, it’s really not necessary.” Her face was streaked with tears but she was forcing a tough look- almost comically grave. The hand on the steering wheel was taut and ghost-white. I touched it. She pumped the gas pedal several more times. The Escort made a noise like an old man clearing his throat.
I said, “You might have radiator damage, something that’s not obvious. The last thing we need is for you to get stranded somewhere.”
She looked up at me. Lots of fine pale hair had come loose. Her mascara had run, creating sad-clown streaks.
I touched her cheek. “Come on- what are friends for?”
She looked at me again, started to say something, closed her eyes, and nodded.
I followed her east on Sunset, then south, past the dark-ened movie marquees of a deserted, littered Westwood Village, all the way beyond Pico and the post-moderne excess of the Westside Pavilion. Not far from Overland Avenue, where I’d lived in a dingy flat during indigent student days.
The Escort clanged along- no taillights, one headlight- molting bits of glass and flecks of paint. The swastika made me think of a battered Nazi staff car. But despite its pathetic appearance, the wreck moved fast enough and I had to concentrate in order to stay with her as she made a series of abrupt turns down side streets. She came to a halt at an apartment complex at the end of a cul-de-sac.
The building was monolith-graceless, four stories of peach-colored texture-coat, with aqua-green tubular iron railing and just enough landscaping to satisfy the zoning laws. There was a low roar in the distance: Through the branches of a malnourished pepper tree, the San Diego Freeway was a frantic light show.
A steep drive led down to a subterranean parking garage blocked by an aqua-green gate. She put a card in a slot and the gate slid open. Leaving the card in place, she drove through. I pressed the card to keep the gate open, retrieved it, and followed her. The garage was half empty and I found a spot next to her.
“Home sweet home,” she said, getting out. Her hair was mussed, her cheeks rosy. She touched them. “Ah, the bracing vapors. There’s something to be said for open-air motoring.”
“I’ll walk you in.”
She said, “If you insist,” but didn’t sound annoyed.
We walked across the garage, took stairs up to the lobby, which was oppressively small, furnished with a single upholstered bench and a fire extinguisher, and papered in green foil patterned with silver bamboo.
“I’m on the third floor,” she said and punched the elevator button. The lift was closet-sized. As the doors slid shut, we found ourselves standing close together. Flanks touching. Smelling each other’s breath. Her perfume. My after-shave. All of it overlaid with the bitter, hormonal essence of stress.
She looked at the floor. “Some date, huh?”
“Just don’t say I never took you anywhere interesting.”
She laughed, then broke into loud, spasmodic sobs and tucked herself into a corner of the elevator. I put my arm around her and drew her to me. She put her head on my shoulder, hiding her face. I kissed the top of her head. She cried some more. I held her tighter. She looked up, mouth slightly parted. I wiped her face. Her cheeks felt frozen.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
“At the far end,” she mumbled.
We made our way down a green-foiled hallway that smelled of mildew, both of her arms around my waist.
Inside, the place was sweet with her perfume. The living room was small and boxy, with oyster walls, potted plants, teak and polished-cotton furniture, apartment-grade gold carpeting ruled with vacuum tracks. Everything neatly ordered and lemon-oiled. I sat her down on a couch patterned with a fleecy blue-and-pink stripe, put her feet up on a matching ottoman, and removed her shoes. She covered her eyes with one arm and reclined.
The kitchen was tiny and opened to a six-by-six dining area that barely accommodated a stout-legged butcher-block table. A Mr. Coffee machine, a stack of filters, and a can of Colombian dark-roast sat on the counter next to an unmarked blackboard labeled THINGS TO DO. I brewed a couple of cups’ worth and filled two L.A. ZOO mugs- zebra and koala- that I grabbed from an assortment hanging on an accordion rack next to the phone.
When I got back to the living room, she was sitting up, watching me, looking dazed, her hair still windblown.
I gave her the coffee, made sure she had a firm grip on the cup before taking a seat across from her.
She lowered her lips to the rim, breathed in coffee steam, and drank.
I said, “Anything else I can get you?”
She looked up. “Come closer. Please.”
I sat next to her. We drank, drained our mugs.
“More?” I said.
She placed her mug on the coffee table, said, “Oh, Lord, what’s next?” and rested her head on my shoulder again.
I put my arm around her. She sighed. I nuzzled her hair, smoothed it. She turned her head so that her mouth brushed against mine- the merest contact- then turned back the other way and pressed her lips to mine, first tentatively, then harder. I felt them yield. Her tongue was hot and mocha-rich, exploring my teeth, sidling against my tongue, pressing against it, teasing it.
Without breaking the kiss, I put my own cup down. Fastened, we hugged each other, squeezing hard.
She shuddered and stroked the back of my neck. I mas-saged her shoulders, allowed my hands to dip lower, run over the knobs of her spine, the lean contours of her body. She kissed me harder, made throaty urgent sounds. I touched padded hips. A knee. She guided me higher. I felt the inside of her thigh, smooth and cool and firm through nylon. She lifted herself, tugged down at her panty hose, denuding one long, white leg. I touched her. Bare flesh. Softer, cooler. Then a wave of heat. She flushed, shuddered harder. Her hands left my neck and scrambled at my fly. More fumbling, eyes closed. Then she located me.
Her eyes opened wide. She said, “Oh, God,” caught her breath, and lowered herself.
She attended to me as if praying. When the feelings grew too intense, I pried her away, kissed her mouth, took her in my arms, stood, and carried her into the bedroom.
Blue-black darkness, just a hint of moonlight filtering through apartment-grade windowshades. A narrow brass bed covered in something that felt like satin.
We lay down, embraced, connected still partially clothed, and did a horizontal slow-dance, kissing all the while, moving together as if we’d been partners for a long time.
She came very quickly, unexpectedly, crying out, tugging my hair so hard the roots ached. I’d been holding back, gritting my teeth. I let go and felt my toes curl.
She breathed hard for a long time, clutching me. Then she said, “Oh, God, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
I lifted myself up on my elbows. She pulled me down hard, fastened her arms around my back, and gripped me so tight I could barely breathe.
We began kissing again, softer. Got lost in it. Then she pulled away, gasping. “Phew. Okay. I need… to breathe.”
I rolled off, caught my own breath. I was drenched with sweat, my clothing twisted and binding.
She sat up. My eyes became accustomed to the darkness, and I saw that hers were still closed. She reached behind her back and unzipped her dress, slipping her arms out of the sleeves and letting the fabric collapse around her. I made out the curves of her shoulders. White. Small-boned but strong. Delicious bumps atop each one. I kissed them. She gave a small cry, shook the hair out of her face, and leaned back on the flats of her hands. I unhooked her bra, freed her breasts, small but heavy. Hefted them, kissed them. She had tiny nipples, smooth and hard as pond pebbles.
We stripped and got under the covers.
She had a hungry mouth. A line of down that bisected her belly from umbilicus to mons. And those hips, jutting, nearly perpendicular to a small, tight waist. I gripped them and kneaded, felt fluid movement beneath the dermal sheath, heat and vitality. Her hands were warm again. She pulled me on top of her. Big, padded, welcoming hips, cradling me in a soft liquid core.
Again, she finished first, waited me out with a dreamy, content look on her face, then dropped off to sleep when I was through, holding me tight.
As she sank deeper and deeper into slumber, she maintained her hold around my waist, nestling her head in the crook of my neck, snoring lightly in my ear.
So different from Robin, who’d always signed off with a friendly, firm kiss, then rolled away, yawning, needing to stretch out. Needing space…
Robin, of the auburn curls and almond eyes. Firm body, strong worker’s hands, musky, athletic pleasures…
This one. This stranger… soft, long-stemmed and white as a calla lily, almost limp in repose.
But this one needed me, held me fiercely as she dreamed.
One hand in my hair. The other clamped around my middle.
Holding on for dear life.
A soft prison.
I lay there, not moving, shifting my eyes around the room.
White furniture, prints on the walls. A couple of stuffed animals atop a dresser. Perfume bottles on a mirrored tray. Paperback books. A digital clock that said 1:45 A.M.
A car with a souped-up engine roared by three stories below. Linda jerked and her breathing stopped, then quickened, but she stayed fast asleep.
I became aware of other sounds. A toilet flush somewhere in the building. Another car. Then a low hum, deep and constant as a Gregorian chant. Freeway dirge. A lonely sound. Years ago, I’d taught myself to perceive it as a lullaby…
She nuzzled in closer. One of my hands was between her legs, beautifully trapped. The other had come to rest upon the stem of her neck. I felt a pulse, slow and strong.
I used one finger to tent the covers, peeked at our bodies plastered together, nearly the same length, but hers so much lighter, softer, hairless.
Salt-and-pepper still life on a narrow apartment bed.
I kissed her cheek. She gripped me tighter, dug her nails into my rib cage, and threw one leg over mine.
I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
I awoke the next morning alone, smelling shampoo. The bathroom radiated moist heat as I passed it. She was sitting at the butcher-block table, wearing a black kimono printed with cherry blossoms. Her hair was wet and combed straight back. The water had darkened it to butterscotch. Her face was pale and scrubbed. Coral shells rode her ears. An untouched cup of orange juice sat in front of her. Without any makeup at all, she could have passed for a college student.
I said, “Good morning, Teach.”
“Hi.” Her smile was cautious. She drew the robe tighter. The few square inches of chest I could see were white dusted with a flush. I went behind her and kissed the back of her neck. Her skin smelled of lotion. She pressed her head back against my belly and rolled it back and forth. I touched her cheek, sat down.
She said, “What can I get you?”
“Just juice. I’ll get it myself.”
“Here, take mine.” She handed me the glass. I drank.
She said, “So.”
I looked toward the kitchen. “I notice your blackboard is blank. Any plans for today?”
She shook her head, looked preoccupied.
“Something the matter?”
Another shake of her head.
“What is it, Linda?”
“Nothing. Everything’s fine.” Wide smile.
“Okay.” I drank juice.
She got up and began straightening a living room that didn’t need it. Her hair hung down her back, flapping in a wet sheet against black silk. Her feet were bare, narrow, with curving toes, the nails polished pink, though her fingernails were unpainted.
Secret vanity. A woman who valued privacy.
I went to her and slipped my arms around her. She didn’t resist but neither did she yield.
I said, “I know. So much so fast.”
She gave a short, angry laugh. “For a long, long time I’ve pretended I had no needs. Now you come along and all of a sudden I’m a bundle of needs. It feels too much like weakness.”
“I know exactly what you mean. It’s been a long time for me too.”
She turned around sharply, searched my face, prospecting for lies. “Has it?”
She stared some more, then grabbed my face with both of her hands and kissed me so hard I felt myself spinning.
When we broke, she said, “Oh, Lord, the danger signs are all flashing.” But she took my right hand and pressed it to her left breast, over the heartbeat.
Afterward, she ran a bath for me, kneeled on the mat and scrubbed my back with a loofah. Too subservient for my taste but she insisted. After a minute or so I said, “Why don’t you get in?”
“Nope.” She touched her still-wet hair. “I’m already waterlogged.”
She kept scrubbing. I closed my eyes. She began humming, something in a major key. I realized her voice was something special- sweet, with a controlled resonance. Trained pipes. I listened more intently. She hummed louder.
When she paused, I said, “You’ve got a really great voice.”
“Oh, yeah, a regular diva.”
I opened my eyes. She looked cross.
“Ever sing professionally?”
“Oh, sure- the Met, Carnegie Hall, sold out the Super- dome. But the pull of the classroom was too darned strong. Hand me the shampoo.”
The strain in her voice let me know I’d touched another nerve. How many danger zones along the pathway to knowing her? Tired of backing away, I said, “How long ago was it?”
“Couldn’t be too ancient.”
“College days. That’s ancient enough.”
“I played music in college too.”
“Played guitar at nights, to put myself through.”
“Guitar.” Her mouth turned down. “How nice.”
I said, “Another danger zone, Linda?”
“What… what are you talking about?”
“When I get near certain topics- cops, now music- the No Trespassing signs start flashing.”
“Don’t be silly.” She pointed toward the shampoo bottle. “Do you want me to do your hair or not?”
I gave her the bottle. She lathered. When she was through she handed me a towel and left the bathroom.
I toweled off, dressed, and went into the bedroom. She was sitting at her vanity, putting on eye shadow. Looking miserable.
I said, “Sorry. Forget it.”
She began combing her hair. “The cop’s name was Armando Bonilla. Mondo. San Antonio PD, rookie in a squad car. I was just twenty when I met him, a junior at U.T. He was twenty-two, an orphan. Old Mexican family, but he barely spoke Spanish. One of those Latin cowboy types you see in Texas. He wore his hair longer than the Department liked, spent his nights playing in a band. Guitar.” She shook her head. “Good old guitar. Must be in my karma, huh?”
Her laugh was bitter.
“Six-string guitar and pedal steel. Flying fingers, self-taught- he was a natural. The other three guys in the band were cops too. More Latin cowboys. They’d known each other since sixth grade, joined the Department to have something stable, but the band was their first love. Magnum Four. Fantasies of recording contracts but none of them was ambitious or aggressive enough to pursue it and they never got out of the bar circuit. It’s how I met them… met him. Amateur night at a place near the Alamo; they were the house band. Daddy was a Sunday fiddler, used to push music on me all the time. Push me to sing. Traditional country, western swing- the stuff he liked. I knew every Bob Wills song note for note by the time I was eight.
“That night he dragged me there, then made me get up and sing. Patsy Cline. ‘I Fall to Pieces.’ I was so nervous, my voice cracked. I sounded horrible. But the competition was thin and I came in first- gift certificate for a pair of boots and an invitation to join the band. They were into country rock- Eagles, Rodney Crowell, old Buddy Holly stuff. Mondo did a mean ‘ La Bamba,’ putting on this humongous gag sombrero and this thick Spanish accent, even though he didn’t know what all the words meant.
“They renamed the band Magnum Four and Lady Derringer. I started to get into performing. You would have thought Daddy’d be overjoyed- music plus a bunch of cops. But he didn’t like the fact that they were Mexican- though he never would come out and admit it. In San Antonio the big myth is that brown and white live together in harmony, but that ain’t the way it goes down when tongues loosen at the dinner table. So instead of just coming out and saying it, he griped about the kind of garbage we were playing, how late I was coming home from gigs, stinking of booze and smoke. Mondo tried to relate to him on a cop level- Daddy’d worked in the same Department, made sergeant before getting accepted into the Rangers. But that didn’t make any difference. He cold-shouldered Mondo. Told me the guys were no-account punks masquerading as peace officers, nothing like the upstanding buckaroos of his day. The thing that made him maddest was that he’d gotten me into it in the first place. The more he bugged me, the more resolute I got. Closer to Mondo, who was really sweet and naïve beneath all the macho posturing. Finally, Daddy and I had a big fight- he slapped me across the face and I packed up and moved out of the house and into an apartment with Mondo and two of the band guys. Dad stopped speaking to me, total divorce. A month later- just after Christmas- Mondo and I got engaged.”
She stopped, bit her lip, got up, and walked back and forth in front of the bed.
“About a month after the engagement, he got pulled out of uniform and put on some kind of undercover assignment that he couldn’t talk about. I assumed it was Dope or Vice, or maybe some Internal Affairs thing, but whatever it was, it changed our lives. He’d work nights, sleep days, be gone for a week at a time. The band fell apart. Without him it was nothing. I used the extra time to study, but the other guys got depressed, started drinking more- bad vibes. Mondo started drinking too. And smoking dope, which was something he’d never done before. He grew his hair even longer, stopped shaving, wore ratty clothes, didn’t shower regularly- as if the criminal thing were rubbing off on him. When I ragged him about it, he said it was part of the job- he was just playing a role. But I could tell he was really getting into it, and I wondered if things would ever go back to the way they’d been.
“Here I was, all of twenty, lonely, scared about what I’d gotten myself into, unable- and unwilling- to go back to Daddy. So I swallowed my pride, put up with whatever Mondo wanted- which really wasn’t much. He was hardly ever around. Then, early in February, he traipsed in, the middle of the night, dirty and smelly, woke me up and announced he was moving out. Something really big, a new assignment- he’d be gone for at least a month, maybe longer. I started crying, tried to get him to tell me what was going on, but he said it was the job, I didn’t need to know- for my sake I shouldn’t know. Then he kissed my cheek- a passionless kiss, as if we were brother and sister- and left. It was the last time I saw him. Two days later he got caught in a dope burn and was gunned down, along with another rookie. The other guy survived but was a vegetable. Mondo was the lucky one- dead before he hit the floor. It was a big screw-up- dealers and junkies, and cops dressed as dealers and junkies, waging war at this dope factory out in the barrio. Four bad guys were killed too. The papers called it a slaughterhouse, made a big deal about how poorly prepared the two of them had been for the assignment. Lambs to the slaughter.”
She hugged herself, sat down on a corner of the bed, out of reach.
“After that, I fell apart, crying for days, not eating or sleeping. And there came good old Dad to the rescue, carrying me- literally- back home. Sitting me in the parlor, playing his old seventy-eights and fiddling for his little girl, just like old times. But I couldn’t deal with that, and I got really hostile to him, snappish, fresh-mouthed. In the old days he never would have tolerated it- he’d have taken a switch to me, even at my age. But he just sat there and took it, docile. That scared me. But mostly I was angry. Enraged at life. Insulted by God. And then the question marks started bugging me. Why had Mondo been thrown into something he wasn’t equipped to handle?
“The funeral made it worse- all those gun salutes and rah-rah speeches about valor. I rode to the grave site in the same car as Mondo’s commander and demanded to know what had happened. The bastard was an old friend of Dad’s, still considered me a child, and he patronized me. But when I showed up at his office the next day and got pushy, he lost patience- just like a father would- and told me since Mondo and I had never been legally married, just cohabitating, I had no rights to any information or anything else, shouldn’t start thinking I could put in a claim on Mondo’s pension.
“I went home sobbing. Daddy listened, got all indignant and protective, and told me he’d take care of that S.O.B. Next day, the commander came calling, Whitman’s Sampler tucked under his arm for me, bottle of Wild Turkey for Daddy. All apologetic, calling me Miss Linda and Pretty One- Daddy’s pet name for me when I was little. Sitting in the parlor and going on about how the strain of the tragedy was getting to all of us, what a great guy Mondo had been. Daddy nodding as if he and Mondo had been best friends. Then the commander handed me an envelope. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills- money the other cops had collected for me. Letting me know without saying it that even if I didn’t legally have rights, he was granting them to me. I told him I didn’t want money, just the truth. Then he and Daddy looked at each other and started talking in low, soothing tones about the dangers of the job, how Mondo’d been a true hero. The commander saying Mondo’d been picked for undercover because he was top-notch, had great recommendations. If only there were some way to turn back the clock. Daddy joining in, telling me about all the close calls he’d had, how scared and brave Mama had been when she was alive. How I had to be brave, go on and live my life.
“After a while it started to work. I softened up, thanked the commander for coming. Began to let my feelings out- to grieve. Started to finally be able to lay it to rest. Concentrate on what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Everything seemed to be going as well as could be expected until, about a month later, I got a call from Rudy- one of the other guys in the band- asking me to meet him at a restaurant out in the suburbs near Hill Country. He sounded uptight, wouldn’t tell me what it was about, just that it was important. When I got there he looked terrible- drained, pale. He’d lost a lot of weight. He said he was quitting the Department, moving the hell out of state- to New Mexico or Arizona. I asked him why. He said it was too dangerous sticking around, that after what had been done to Mondo, he’d never trust anyone in the fucking Department. I said what the heck are you talking about. He looked around- he was really jumpy, as if he was scared of being watched. Then he said, ‘I know this will blow you away, Linda, but you were his lady. You’ve got a right to know.” Then he told me he’d found out Mondo hadn’t been pulled off patrol because of his excellent performance. The opposite was true: He had a bad record- demerits for subordination, the long hair, borderline probation, low competence ratings. He’d been given dangerous assignments as a favor to someone.”
She stopped, touched her gut. “Lord, even after all these years it gets to me.”
Dull nod. “He and his old buddy, the commander. They set him up, put him in a situation they knew he couldn’t handle. Like throwing a new recruit into the jungle- sooner or later, you know what’s going to happen. Lamb to the slaughter. Damned close to premeditated murder, said Rudy, but nothing anyone could ever prove. Just knowing it put him in jeopardy, which was why he was getting the hell out of town.
“He left the coffee shop, looking over his shoulder all the while. I drove away at about ninety per- feeling out of my body, numb, like a player in my own nightmare. When I got home Daddy was sitting in the parlor. Fiddling. Grinning. After one look at my face, he put his bow down- he knew. I started screaming at him, hitting him. He reacted very calmly. He said, ‘Pretty One, what’s done is done. No sense fretting.’ I just looked at him, as if seeing him for the first time. Feeling nauseated, wanting to throw up, but determined he wouldn’t see me weak. I snatched the fiddle out of his hands- an old Czechoslovakian one that he really loved. He’d been buying and trading them for years until he’d found a keeper. He tried to grab it but I was too fast for him. I held it by the peg head and smashed it against the mantelpiece. Kept smashing until it was splinters. Then I ran from that house and never returned. Haven’t spoken to him since, though a couple of years ago we started exchanging Christmas cards again. He’s remarried- one of those men who needs a woman around. Some bimbo from Houston, half his age. She’ll get his pension, and the house I grew up in, and she’ll be the one tending his old bones.”
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “Cops and guitars.”
I said, “A long time ago.”
She shook her head. “Nine years. God. Haven’t had much of a taste for music for a long time- don’t even own a phonograph- and here I am humming to you and playing geisha and I barely know you.”
Before I could answer, she said, “Haven’t had anything to do with cops, either, till this mess.”
But I remembered that she’d mentioned being a Ranger’s daughter to Milo. Pushing the door open a crack.
“Maybe the time’s ripe for change, Linda.”
A tear made its way down her cheek. I moved closer to be able to hold her.
After a while she got up and said, “There’re some things I have to take care of. Boring stuff- shopping, cleaning. Been putting it off for too long.”
“What are you planning to do for transportation?”
“I’ll manage.” Restless. Embarrassed by it.
I said, “I’ve got some things to take care of too. The glories of the single life.”
We left the bedroom and walked to the front door, not touching. I opened the door and stepped out into the green corridor. Weekend-silent. The mildew smell seemed stronger. Newspapers lay in front of several doors. The headline was something about Afghanistan.
She said, “Thanks. You’ve been wonderful.”
I held her chin and kissed her cheek. She gave me her mouth and tongue and gripped me for a moment, then pulled away and said, “Out, before I yank you back in.”
“Is that a threat or a promise?”
She smiled, but so briefly it made me wonder if I’d imagined it. “You understand, I just need to…”
“Nothing like breathing to liven things up,” I said. “Would asking you out for tomorrow night lower the oxygen level?”
She laughed and her damp hair shook stiffly. “No.”
“Then how about tomorrow? Eight P.M. Take in a couple of art galleries, then dinner.”
“That would be great.”
We squeezed hands and I left, feeling a curious mixture of melancholy and relief. No doubt she viewed me as Mr. Sensitive. But I was happy to have some breathing space of my own.
When I got home, I called Milo.
He said, “How’s she doing?”
“Called you an hour ago. No one home. Must have been an extended consultation.”
“Gosh, you must be a detective or something.”
“Hey, I’m happy for you. The two of you are cute together- a regular Ken and Barbie.”
“Thanks for your blessing, Dad. What’d you learn at Ferguson’s?”
“Good old Esme? That was fun. She reminded me of the kind of teachers I used to have- more into what lines had to be skipped than what you actually wrote in the composition. Her house had this permanent Lysol smell- made me feel as if I was polluting it just by being there. Porcelain poodles on the hearth, little groupings of miniature doggies in glass cases. But nothing animate. She had me leave my shoes at the door- thank God I’d worn the socks without the holes. But for all the spick and span, she has a nasty little mind. Textbook bigot to boot. First she tested the waters with a few sly comments about the city changing, all those Mexicans and Asians invading, and when I didn’t argue, really got into how the coloreds and the other outsiders have ruined things. Listening to her, the school used to be a regular junior Harvard, chock full of genius white kids. Refined families. Fabulous school spirit, fabulous extracurricular activities. All her star pupils going on to bigger and better things. She showed me a collection of Dear Teacher postcards. The most recent one was ten years old.”
“What did she have to say about the latest illustrious alumna?”
“Holly was a very dull student-wholly unmemorable. A strange girl- the whole family was strange. Clannish, unfriendly, no pride of ownership in their house. The fact that no one really knows what Burden Senior does for a living bugs her. She kept asking me about it, didn’t believe me when I told her I had no idea what New Frontiers Tech was all about. This is a lady who mainlines conformity, Alex. Sounds like the Burdens broke too many rules.”
“Behavioral niggers,” I said.
He paused. “You always did know how to turn a phrase.”
“In what way was Holly strange?”
“Didn’t go to school, didn’t work, rarely left the house except to take walks at night- skulking, Ferguson called it. Said she saw her a few times when she was out trimming her flowers. Holly was skulking along, staring at the sidewalk.”
“Old Esme trims her flowers at night?”
“Twice a day. That tell you something about her?”
“Did Holly always skulk alone?”
“Far as she knows.”
“What about the boyfriend?”
“Sounds as if she was overstating, calling him a boyfriend. Just a colored boy she saw Holly talking to a few times. In old Esme’s world view, that implies fornication, but since we know Holly was a virgin, the two of them might actually have just talked. Or anything in between. Esme said the boy had worked at the local grocery last year but she hadn’t seen him in a while. Bag boy and deliveries. She always felt nervous about letting him into her home- guess why. She didn’t know much about him, just that he was Very Big And Black. But people tend to exaggerate what they’re afraid of, so I wouldn’t put heavy money on ‘big.’ ”
I said, “Perceptual vigilance. Learned about it in social psych.”
“I learned it interviewing eyewitnesses. Anyway, I couldn’t even get a full name out of her. She thought his first name was Isaac or Jacob but wasn’t sure. Something Jewish-sounding. She found it amusing that a colored boy would have a Jewish name. That launched her into another what’s-this-world-coming-to speech. I kept waiting for her to segue to faggots, but she just droned on about stupid stuff until I found myself staring at the poodles.”
“Sounds like a lonely lady.”
“Three times divorced; men are beasts. She probably talks to the goddam poodles. I finally got out of there and stopped by the grocers- place called Dinwiddie’s- to see if I could learn anything more about the boy, but the store was closed.”
“Planning on going back?”
“How about today?”
“Sure, why not? Not that it’s likely to lead to anything earth-shattering. But Rick’s out doing good works at the Free Clinic. If I stick around I’ll end up doing laundry.”
Or drinking too much.
I said, “An hour, lunch on me?”
“Hour it is. But forget lunch. While we’re at the market I can palm an apple, just like Pat O’Brien walking the beat. Always wanted to do that. Be a real cop.”
Despite his pessimism, Milo arrived dressed for work: gray suit, white shirt, red tie, note pad in pocket. He directed me to a street named Abundancia Drive, which ran through the center of Ocean Heights and ended at a small town square, built around a treeless circular patch of lawn. A hand-lettered sign- the kind you see in the small parks of Mayfair in London- designated the patch as Ocean Heights Plaza. The grass was bare except for a white Lutyens-style garden bench chain-bolted to the ground next to a NO DOGS, NO BICYCLES warning.
Ringing the patch were business establishments. The most prominent was a one-story red brick bank done in retro-Colonial, complete with pillars, pediments, and limestone planters brimming with geraniums. The rest of the shops were also red brick. Red brick and gingerbread cute enough for a theme park.
I found a parking spot in front of a dry cleaner’s. Gold-leaf Gothic lettering was de rigueur for the storefronts. Welcome to the home of mixed metaphors. Ficus trees pruned low and trimmed to look like mushrooms grew from circular metal grilles embedded in the sidewalk, spaced so the plantings fronted every other store.
The shops were a classic village mix. Haberdasheries for both sexes, each with a soft spot for Ralph Lauren. Ye Olde Gift Emporium and Card Shoppe. Alvin’s Apothecary complete with a stone mortar and pestle over Dutch doors. A medical building that could have passed for Santa’s Workshop. Arno’s Old World Jeweler/Watchmaker. Janeway’s European Bakery. Steuben’s Imported Sausage and Charcuterie. The Ocean Café.
Dinwiddie’s Fine Grocers and Purveyors was a double-width enterprise with forest-green wainscoting and a cream-colored oval sign over the entry that read EST… 1961.
The picture window was framed with green molding and dominated by a straw cornucopia, out of which tumbled a contrived flow of gleaming, oversized produce. More fruit was displayed in wooden crates slathered with old-fashioned painted labels. Each apple, pear, orange, and grapefruit had been polished to a high gloss and was individually cradled in damson-blue crepe.
“Looks like you picked the right place to palm,” I said.
Inside, the place was bustling and spotless, cooled by wooden fly fans, serenaded by Muzak. GOURMET FOODS at the front. A liquor section big enough to intoxicate the entire neighborhood. Foodstuffs stacked to the rafters, everything neatly ordered, the wide aisles marked by overhead wooden signs painted that same dark green.
A pair of green-aproned women worked steadily at antique brass cash registers hooked up to computerized scanners. Three or four shoppers waited in each line. No one talked. Milo walked up to one of the registers and said, “Hi. Where’s the owner?”
The cashier was young, chubby, and fair. Without looking up, she said, “In the back.”
We made our way past PASTA and BREADSTUFFS. Next to the DAIRY case was a green wooden panel door with a brass lock dangling from an open hasp. Milo pushed it open and we stepped into a short, dark hall, cold as a refrigerator, rank with an old lettuce smell, and filled with generator noise. At the end was another door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.
Milo knocked and opened it, revealing a small windowless office paneled in imitation knotty pine and furnished with an old mahogany desk and three red Naugahyde chairs. The desk was crowded with papers. A brass balance scale served as a paperweight for an inch-thick stack. An assortment of commercial calendars hung on the walls, along with a couple of faded hunting prints and a framed photo of a pleasant-looking, slightly overweight brunette woman kneeling next to two white-haired, ruddy boys of preschool age. A pine-ridged expanse of lake was in the background. The boys struggled to hold on to a fishing rod from which a healthy-looking trout dangled.
The obvious genetic source of the children’s pigmentation sat behind the desk. Early thirties, pink-skinned, with thin, near-albino hair cut short and parted on the right. He had broad, beefy shoulders, a nub of a broken nose above a bushy mustache the color and consistency of old hay. His eyes were large, colored a curious tan-gray, and had a basset droop. He wore a blue broadcloth button-down shirt and red-and-blue rep tie under a green apron. The shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbows. His forearms were pale, hairless, Popeye-thick.
He put down a hand calculator, looked up from a pile of invoices, and gave a weary smile. “Weights and Measures? We passed just Last week, gentlemen.”
Milo showed him his police ID. The blond man’s smile faded and he blinked several times, as if forcing himself awake.
“Oh.” He stood and extended his hand. “Ted Dinwiddie. What can I do for you?”
Milo said, “We’re here to talk about the sniping at Hale Elementary, Mr. Dinwiddie.”
“Oh, that. Horrible.” His wince seemed involuntary and sincere. He blinked a couple more times. “Thank God no one was hurt.”
“No one except Holly Burden.”
“Oh, yes. Sure. Of course.” He winced again, sat down, and pushed aside his paperwork.
“Poor Holly,” he said. “It’s hard to believe she’d go and do something like that.”
“How well did you know her?”
“As well as anyone, I guess. Which means not much at all. She used to come in here, with her dad. I’m talking years ago, when she was just a little girl. Just after her mom died. Back when my dad was alive.” He paused and touched the balance scale. “I used to bag and check after school and on Saturdays. Holly used to stand behind her dad’s legs and peek out, then draw back. Really shy. She always was kind of a nervous kid. Quiet, as if she was in her own little world. I’d try to talk to her- she never answered back. Once in a while she’d take a free candy, if her dad would let her. Most of the time she ignored me when I offered. Still, there was nothing…”
He looked up at us. “Sorry. Please, sit down. Can I get you some coffee? We’ve got a new European roast brewing out in front in the sample pot.”
“No thanks,” said Milo.
We sat in the red chairs.
Milo said, “Any more recent impressions of her?”
“Not really,” said Dinwiddie. “I didn’t see much of her. They were usually delivery customers. The couple of times I did see her wandering around the streets, she looked kind of… detached.”
“Detached from what?”
“Her surroundings. The external world. Not paying attention to what was going on. The kind of thing you see in creative people. I’ve got a sister who’s a writer- very successful screenwriter. She’s getting into producing. Emily was always like that, fantasizing, off in her own world. We used to kid her, call her Space Cadet. Holly was spacey but in her case I don’t think it was creativity.”
The grocer shifted in his chair. “I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but basically, Holly wasn’t very bright. Some of the kids used to call her retarded- which she probably wasn’t. Just dull, a little below average. But in her family that had to be especially tough- the rest of the Burdens were all pretty intellectual. Her dad’s downright brilliant- used to work for the government as some kind of high-level scientist or mathematician. The mom did, too, I think. And Howard- her brother- he was a scholastic ace.”
“Sounds like you knew the family pretty well.”
“No, not really. Mostly I’d just deliver the groceries or go over there for tutoring. From Howard. He was a math whiz, totally brilliant with numbers. We were in the same class but he could have taught it. Lots of kids went to him for help. Everything came easy for him, but he really had a thing for math.” He gave a wistful look. “He actually stuck with what he loved, became some sort of statistician. Has a great position with an insurance firm out in the Valley.”
Milo said, “When you say you and he were in the same class, was that at Nathan Hale?”
Dinwiddie nodded. “All the kids went to Hale back in those days. Things were different.” He fussed with the knot of his tie. “Not necessarily better, mind you. Just different.”
I said, “How so?”
He fidgeted some more and lowered his voice. “Listen, I work here, live here, lived here all my life- it’s a great neighborhood in many ways, great place to raise kids. But the people here pretend nothing will ever change. That nothing should ever change. And that’s not too realistic, is it?” Pause. “Standing behind the register, or making a delivery, or coaching Little League, kind of gives you the chance to observe- you hear all sorts of things- ugly things from people you thought were decent, people your kids play with and your wife has coffee with.”
“Racial comments?” Milo said.
Dinwiddie gave a pained look. “That’s not to say it’s any worse here than anywhere else- racism’s fairly endemic in our society, isn’t it? But when it’s your own neighborhood… you’d just like it to be better.”
Fairly endemic in our society.
It sounded like a phrase out of a textbook.
Milo said, “Do you think any of that- the local racial attitudes- are related to the sniping?”
“No, I don’t,” Dinwiddie said quickly. “Maybe if it had been someone else, you could make the connection. But I can’t see Holly being racist. I mean, to be racist you’d have to be political, at least to some degree, wouldn’t you? And she wasn’t. Least as far as I knew. Like I said, she wasn’t too in touch with her surroundings.”
“What kind of political attitudes did her family have?”
“No idea if they had any,” he said quickly. His hand flew to his tie again, and he blinked several times in succession. I wondered if something about the discussion was putting him on edge.
“Really, gentlemen, I just can’t see any political connec-tion,” he said. “I truly believe whatever Holly did came from inside her- her own problem. Something intrapsychic.”
“Mental problems?” said Milo.
“She’d have to be crazy to do something like that, wouldn’t you say?”
I said, “Besides being ‘spacey,’ did she ever show signs of other mental problems?”
“That I couldn’t tell you,” said Dinwiddie. “Like I said, I haven’t seen her in a long time. I was just talking theoretically.”
Milo said, “When you saw her walking around the neighborhood, was this at night or during the day?”
“Day. I’m only talking a couple of times. I’d be on my way to make a delivery and she’d be making her way down the street, kind of a loose shuffle, staring down at the sidewalk. That’s what I meant by spacey.”
“Anything else you can tell us about the family that might relate to the shooting?”
Dinwiddie thought. “Not really, Detective. They were never real social. Marched to their own drummer, but basically they were decent people. You can tell a person’s character when you check their groceries. When he was alive, my dad had a system for classifying folks- Grumblers, Skinflints, Nitpickers, Tomato Squeezers.” A sheepish smile spread under the mustache. “Kind of an us-them thing. Happens in every profession, right? Don’t let on to my customers or I’d be out of business.”
Milo smiled and ran his finger across his lips.
Dinwiddie said, “It’s funny. When I was younger I used to hear my dad come home and grouse, and think he was being intolerant, just didn’t understand people. I majored in sociology in college, had all sorts of theories and explanations for why he’d become so misanthropic, how what he really needed was more intrinsic satisfaction in his work. Now here I am, doing the same job he did, and I find myself using the same labels.”
I said, “Which of your dad’s labels would you apply to the Burdens?”
“None, really. They were easy to deal with, never complained, always paid their bills right away with cash. Mr. Burden always had a generous tip ready, though he wasn’t much for conversation. He always seemed busy with something, doing his own thing.”
“Another spacey one?” said Milo.
“Not like Holly. With him, you always felt he was lost in thought. Thinking about something important. With Holly, it just seemed- I don’t know- stuporous. As if she were withdrawing from reality. But if this is making her sound like some dangerous psychotic, that’s not what I mean at all. She’d be the last person I’d expect to do anything violent. On the contrary, she was timid, a real mouse.”
Milo said, “When did her mother die?”
Dinwiddie touched his mustache, then tapped a fingertip absently to his tongue. “Let’s see. I think Holly was four or five, so that would make it about fifteen years ago.”
“What’d she die of?”
“Some sort of stomach condition, I think. Tumors or ulcers or something- I’m not sure. Only reason I remember it being the stomach is she used to buy a lot of antacids, really stocked up on them. Whatever it was, it wasn’t supposed to be fatal, but she went in for surgery and didn’t come out. Howard was pretty freaked out- all of us were. It was the first time anyone in the class had lost a parent. We were in high school- sophomores. Howard had never been much of a joiner, but after his mom died he really pulled away, dropped out of Chess Club and Debate Club, gained a whole lot of weight. He kept on getting good grades- that was like breathing for him- but he cut himself off from everything else.”
I said, “How did Holly react?”
“I can’t say I remember anything specific. But she was just a little kid, so I’d expect she was devastated.”
“So you can’t say if her spaciness was due to her mother’s death?”
“No-” He stopped, smiled. “Hey, this sounds more like psychoanalysis than police work. I didn’t know you guys did this kind of thing.”
Milo hooked a thumb at me. “This gentleman’s a noted psychologist. Dr. Alex Delaware. He’s working with the kids at Hale. We’re trying to get a picture of what happened.”
“Psychologist, huh?” Dinwiddie said. “I saw a psychologist being interviewed about the kids on TV. Heavyset fellow, big white beard.”
“Change of plans,” said Milo. “Dr. Delaware’s the one.”
Dinwiddie looked at me. “How are they? The kids.”
“Doing as well as can be expected.”
“That’s real good to hear. I send my own kids to private school.” Guilty look. Shake of the head. “Never thought I’d be doing that.”
Another tug at his tie knot. “Truth be told,” he said, “I used to be pretty much of a radical.” Embarrassed grin. “For Ocean Heights, anyway. Which means I voted Democrat and tried to convince my dad to boycott table grapes in order to help the farm workers. That was back when the last thing I wanted to do was run a grocery. My actual goal was to do what you do, Doctor. Therapy. Or social work. Something along those lines. I wanted to work with people. Dad thought that was soft work- the ultimate put-down. Said eventually I’d come back to the real world. I set out to prove him wrong, did volunteer work- with crippled kids, Job Corps Inductees, adoption agencies. Became a Big Brother for a kid out in East L.A. Then Dad dropped dead of a heart attack, left no insurance, just this place, and Mom was in no position to run it, so I stepped in. One semester short of my B.A. It was supposed to be temporary. I never got out.”
His brow creased and his eyes drooped lower. I remembered his comment about Howard Burden, the wistful look: He actually stuck with what he loved…
“Anyway,” he said, “that’s about all I can tell you about the Burdens. What happened over at Hale was a real tragedy. Lord only knows Mr. Burden didn’t need any more. But hopefully time will heal.” He looked to me for confirmation.
I said, “Hopefully.”
“Maybe,” he said, “people will even learn something from all of this. I don’t know.”
He picked up his calculator, tapped the buttons.
“One more thing, Mr. Dinwiddie,” said Milo. “There’s a young man who works or used to work for you, making deliveries. Isaac or Jacob?”
Dinwiddie’s thick shoulders tightened and his breath caught. He let it out a moment later, slowly, deliberately. “Isaac. Ike Novato. What about him?”
“Novato,” said Milo. “He’s a Hispanic? We were told he was black.”
“Black. A light-complected black. What’s that… what’s he got to do with any of this?”
“We were told he was friendly with Holly Burden.”
“Friendly?” The shoulders hunched higher and shrugged.
Milo said, “He still work for you?”
The grocer glared at us. “Hardly.”
“Know where we can find him?”
“It would be difficult to find him anywhere, Detective. He’s dead, cremated. I scattered the ashes myself. Off the pier at Malibu.”
Dinwiddie’s gaze was angry, unyielding. Finally he looked away, down at his desk, picked up an order blank, gave it an uncomprehending look and put it aside.
“Funny you shouldn’t know,” he said. “That I should be telling you. Though I guess not, considering the size of this city, all the homicides you get. Well, he was one of them, gentlemen. Last September. Shot to death, supposedly in a drug burn, somewhere down in South Central.”
“Supposedly?” said Milo. “You have doubts?”
Dinwiddie hesitated before answering. “I guess anything’s possible, but I seriously doubt it.”
“He was a straight arrow- just wasn’t the dope type. I know cops think all civilians are naïve, but I did enough volunteer work with juvenile offenders to be a pretty good judge. I tried to tell that to the police but they never bothered to come down here and talk to me about him face to face. I only found out about the murder because when he hadn’t showed up for work for two days running, I called his landlady and she told me what had happened, said the police had been by, told her it was a dope thing. I got the name of the detective on the case from her. I called him, told him I was Ike’s employer, volunteered to come down to the station and give information. His attitude wasn’t exactly enthusiastic. A couple of weeks later he called me back, asked me if I wanted to come down and identify the body. ‘A formality’- his words- so that he could clear it. It was obvious that to him this was just a routine ghetto shooting- another case number. What really surprised me when I got there was that the detective himself was black. He hadn’t sounded black over the phone. Smith. Maurice Smith. Southeast Division. Know him?”
“Classical self-hatred,” said the grocer. “Turning all that rage against the self. All oppressed groups are at risk for it. Minorities in official capacities are really vulnerable. But in Smith’s case it may be getting in the way of his doing his job.”
“Why’d he need you to identify the body?”
“Ike had no family anyone could locate.”
“What about the landlady?”
Dinwiddie shrugged again and stroked his mustache. “She’s pretty old. Maybe she couldn’t handle the stress. Why don’t you ask Smith?”
“What else can you tell us about Novato?”
“Top-notch kid. Bright, charming, learned fast, not a lick of trouble. Always willing to do above and beyond the call of duty, and believe me, nowadays that’s rare.”
“How’d you hire him?”
“He answered an ad I put up on the bulletin board at the Santa Monica College job center. He was taking courses there, part time. Needed to work to support himself. The all-American work ethic, exactly the kind of thing Dad used to extol.” The gray eyes narrowed. “Course, Dad never would have hired Ike.”
I said, “Did you run into any problems having him work here? Given the attitudes you described.”
“Not really. People will accept blacks in relatively menial positions.”
Milo said, “Do you still have his job application on file?”
“Remember his address?”
“Venice. One of the numbered streets, Fourth Avenue or Fifth, I think. The landlady’s name was Gruenberg.”
Milo wrote it down. “What about a picture?”
Dinwiddie hesitated, opened a drawer, took out a color snapshot, and handed it to Milo. I craned and got a look at it. Group photo. Dinwiddie, the two cashiers out front, and a tall, lanky, mocha-colored young man, posed in front of the market, waving. Everyone wearing green aprons.
Ike Novato had light-brown kinky hair cut short, full lips, almond eyes, and a Roman nose. The stooped posture of one who’d reached full height early. Big, awkward-looking hands, shy smile.
“This was taken last Fourth of July,” said Dinwiddie. “We always throw a big party for the local kids. Safe and Sane Celebration. Free candy and soda instead of fireworks. One of the parents brought a camera and took it.”
Milo said, “Can I borrow this?”
Dinwiddie said, “Guess so. Are you saying there’s some connection between Ike and what happened at the school?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Milo said.
“I can’t see that,” Dinwiddie said.
I said, “Were there any problems with his doing deliveries? Having him come into people’s houses?”
Dinwiddie’s right hand curled into a fist. Mounds of muscle and sinew appeared along the massive forearm. “In the beginning there were a few comments. I ignored them and eventually they stopped. Even a stone racist could see what a decent kid he was.” He tightened his other hand. “Chalk up one puny point for truth and justice, huh? But at the time I thought I was doing something important- making a stand. Then he goes down to Watts and gets shot. I’m sorry, hut it still makes me angry. The whole thing was depressing.”
“Any other reason for him to be down in Watts?” said Milo.
“That was Detective Smith’s point. The street where he was shot was a notorious crack alley- why else would he be there except to make a deal? But I still have my doubts. Ike told me more than once how much he hated drugs, how drugs had destroyed his people. Maybe he was down there to catch a pusher.”
“His people,” said Milo. “Thought he had no family.”
“I’m speaking generically, Detective. The black nation. And your Smith’s the one who told me there was no family. He said they ran Ike’s fingerprints through all the police files- missing kids, whatever- and nothing turned up. Said Ike had applied for his Social Security card only a few months before working for me. They had no record of any previous address. He told me it would be a Potter’s Field situation if no one came forth and claimed the body.” Wince. “So I took him home.”
“What did the boy tell you about his background?”
“Not much. We didn’t have extended discussions- it was a work situation. I got the impression he’d had a good education because he was pretty articulate. But we never went into detail. The name of the game around here is hustle, hustle, hustle.”
“You never asked him for references?”
“He came from the college- they screen them there. And his landlady said he was reliable.”
“Have you talked to the landlady since his death?”
“Just once. Over the phone. I asked her if she knew anything about his family. She didn’t either. So I took care of everything. Did what I could. I figured cremation would be… I don’t know, cleaner. Ecologically. That’s what I want for myself.”
He raised his hands and let them settle on the desk. “And that’s about all I can tell you, gentlemen.”
Milo said, “What was the relationship between him and Holly?”
“Relationship?” Dinwiddie grimaced. “Nothing romantic, if that’s what you’re getting at. He was on a completely different level than she was. Intellectually. There’d be nothing in common between the two of them.”
“We’ve been told he was her boyfriend.”
“Then you’ve been misinformed,” Dinwiddie said, clipping his words. “Ocean Heights is flap-jaw capital of the world- too many small-minded people with too much leisure time. Take anything you hear around here with a container of salt. Iodized or otherwise.”
Milo said, “We’ve been informed that Ike and Holly used to talk.”
Dinwiddie’s hand rose to his tie and loosened it. “What Ike did tell me,” he said, “is that when he went to deliver to her house, occasionally they’d strike up a conversation. He said she was lonely. He felt sorry for her and took the time to make her feel good about herself- he was that kind of kid. She started preparing things for him- milk and cookies. Tried to keep him there. Which was really unusual for Holly- she never wanted to talk to anyone. I told Ike how unusual that was and I warned him.”
“About what?” said Milo.
“The sexual thing, her developing a crush on him. You know the fantasies people have about blacks- all the hypersexual nonsense. Put black and white together and everyone assumes it’s something dirty. Add to that the fact that Holly wasn’t psychologically normal and the risk of trouble was definitely something to worry about. To Ike’s mind he was just being friendly- the way you’d be to a needy child. But I could see her reading more into his friendliness than he’d intended. Coming on to him, getting rejected, and screaming rape. So I advised him to be careful. For all of our sakes.”
“Did he listen to you?”
Dinwiddie shook his head. “He thought I was worrying over nothing, assured me there was no danger of anything happening- Holly never got seductive. That all she wanted was a friend. What could I say to that? That he should reject her? Because she was white? What would that have said to him?”
Neither of us answered. Dinwiddie kept talking, in a low, deliberate tone, as if unaware of our presence. “One time I was driving home, doing a delivery that took me past the Burden house, and saw the two of them out in front. Ike was holding a bunch of books and Holly was looking up at him as if he were some kind of big brother. She and Howard had never been close. Ike looked more brotherly with her than Howard ever had. I remember thinking how strange it looked- a white kid and a black kid actually communicating. In Ocean Heights. It could have been a poster for tolerance. Then I thought how stupid it was that something as simple as that would be strange.”
He punched a button on his calculator, studied the number that came up as if it were a puzzle.
“They were just a couple of kids,” he said. “Trying to get through life. And now they’re both gone. And I’ve got a special on asparagus.”
He walked us out through the market. Business had slowed and the chubby cashier stood idle. I lifted a large yellow apple from its crepe bed and handed it to her along with a dollar bill. Before she could open her register, Dinwiddie said, “Forget it, Karen,” and removed the bill from between her fingers. Handing it back to me, he said, “On the house, Dr. Delaware. And here’s one for you, Detective.”
“Can’t take gifts,” said Milo. “Thanks anyway.”
“Then here’s two for Dr. Delaware.” Smiling but intense. I thanked him and took the fruit. He held the door open for us and stood on the sidewalk, next to a ficus mushroom, gazing after us as we drove away.
I cruised down Abundancia and came to a stop sign. There was a small golden sticker on each apple. Milo removed his, read it, and said, “Fiji. Hoo-hah, watch out, Gauguin.”
I said, “That was Tahiti.”
He said, “Don’t nitpick,” bit, chewed, swallowed. “A bit presumptuous, but fine nose and texture. These Ocean Heights folks sure know how to live.”
I said, “Let’s hear it for the good life,” lifted my own apple like a toast glass, and took a bite. Crisp and sweet, but I kept expecting a worm to wiggle out.
I drove through the empty, picture-perfect streets. At the next stop sign Milo said, “So. What’d you think of El Grocero?”
“Frustrated. Likes to think of himself as a fish out of water but feels guilty about keeping his gills wet.”
“Know the feeling,” said Milo, and I regretted the flippancy of my remark.
He knew what I was thinking, laughed, and cuffed my arm. “Don’t worry, pal. It’s a privileged position, being on the outside looking in.”
I turned onto Esperanza, and the conformist magnolias came into view. “Apparently the boyfriend wasn’t a boyfriend.”
“Maybe, maybe not. If this Novato kid did have a romance thing going with Holly, he wouldn’t have told the boss.”
“True,” I said. “So all we really know about him is that he and Holly talked a few times. And that he’s dead. Which in terms of- pardon the expression- understanding Holly could be relevant. If Ike meant a lot to her, his death could have tipped her over the edge.”
“Trauma leads to rifle games?”
“Sure. The loss could have been especially traumatic for someone with her history- the early death of her mother. She closed herself off from the world. Withdrew. I’ve worked with patients who lost a parent at a young age and didn’t get help. When you don’t grieve, the sorrow just sits there and festers. You stop trusting, learn to hate the world. Holly was a loner. If Ike was the first person who really tried to relate to her, he could have become a substitute parent- Dinwiddie said she was looking up at him as if he were a big brother. Let’s say he got her trusting again, brought her out of her shell. Then he dies. Violently. It triggers all the garbage she’d been sitting on for fifteen years. She explodes. Make sense so far?”
“As much sense as anything,” he said. “You know better than I do.”
I drove past another block of green lawns. A few people were out, walking dogs, washing cars. I thought of Linda’s car, remembered the fog and dread that had settled over Ocean Heights last night. The broken glass, the hooked cross.
What other demons hid themselves, crouching and sniggering behind the diamond-paned windows?
Milo stared out his window and munched. Cop-surveilling, force of habit. Pictures kept floating through my mind. Ugly possibilities.
When he turned away for a moment, I said, “What if Holly and Ike did more than just chat? What if they got into philosophical raps- the rotten state of the world, injustice, poverty, racism. Given Holly’s sheltered life, the experiences of someone like Ike would have been a real eye-opener for her- could have really changed her. That’s what happened in the sixties when white kids from suburbia went to college and encountered minority students for the first time. Instant radicalization. Someone else might have channeled it constructively- volunteer work, altruism. But Holly was vulnerable because of all that loneliness and anger and distrust. It’s the classic lone assassin profile, Milo. She could have seen herself as Ike’s avenger. Vanquishing Massengil- a symbol of racism- could have seemed noble.”
“Vanquishing,” Milo said. “Sounds pretty medieval. Maybe she just wanted to shoot kids.”
“What would be her motive for that?” I said. “We’ve no indication she resented their presence.”
“Look, Alex, you’re talking about a probable nutcase. Who knows what she would have had reason to do? Who knows what kind of crazy things actually ran through her head? When you get down to it, how much do you really know about her, anyway?”
“Not much at all,” I said, feeling suddenly like one of the pontificating TV experts.
I exited Ocean Heights, headed back on the winding canyon road toward Sunset. Milo said, “Don’t sulk,” and went back to looking out the window.
At the boulevard, I said, “Still entertaining questions, or is the cop-shop closed for the day?”
“Questions about what?”
“Novato’s murder. The way Dinwiddie talked about him. Any of that intrigue you?”
He turned and faced me. “What about it is supposed to intrigue me?”
“It just seemed as if Dinwiddie developed a lot of… passion when he discussed Ike. Really tensed up, got emotional. He got really defensive when denying that Holly and Ike had been lovers. Could have been jealousy. Maybe there was something more than a working relationship between him and Ike.”
Milo closed his eyes and gave a short, weary laugh.
“It happens,” he said, with a wicked smile. Then he ran his hand over his face. “Yeah, I was thinking that myself- the guy did get awfully righteous. But if there was something sexual, don’t you think he would be careful not to let on to us? I mean, how many Fiji apples do you think he’d sell if the good folks of Ocean Heights suspected him of that?”
“True,” I said. “So maybe his emotionality was a result of exactly what he said it was- liberal guilt. Still, the picture he painted of Novato was kind of odd, don’t you think? Black kid with a Latin name, comes from somewhere “back east” but doesn’t tell anyone where. Settles in Venice, enrolls in college in Santa Monica, gets a job in Whitebread Heaven, performs excellently in that job, inspires some kind of passion in his employer, makes friends with the girl no one talks to, then gets blown away in Watts. Not too long after, that girl goes for her gun and gets blown away herself.”
Milo was silent.
I said, “Of course, I’m just a rank amateur civilian. Theorizing. The pros… that guy from Southeast- Smith- didn’t think it was weird at all.”
Milo said, “What’d I say about sulking?” But he looked bothered.
I said, “Do you really know Smith?”
“Not the worst investigator in the world.”
“But not the best.”
Milo moved his bulk around, trying to get comfortable, frowning when he couldn’t. “Maury Smith is average,” he said. “Like most people in most jobs. Putting in time and dreaming about Winnebago Heaven. In all fairness to him, a place like Southeast Division’ll do that to you even if you start out determined to be Super Cop. More bodies in one hot week than we see in six months. No matter what anyone says, those kinds of numbers will change your attitude about the sanctity of life- the same way war does.”
“NAACP’s been saying that for a long time.”
“Nah, it’s not racism. Okay, maybe some of it is. But what it really boils down to is context: One DB out of a hundred thou just ain’t the same as one out of a hundred- I don’t care how pure your heart is. And a DB in Crack Alley just ain’t gonna merit the same care as one in Stone Canyon.”
“Meaning Smith’s investigation might have been cursory.”
“Meaning a black kid gets gunned down in a bad black neighborhood with a Baggie of rock clutched in his hot little hands doesn’t exactly shout high intrigue.”
“We don’t know Novato was carrying.”
“Yeah. Well, I guess I can make a few calls and find that out.”
He folded his arms over his chest.
I said, “Ready for lunch?”
“Nah, the goddam apple filled me. Complex carbohydrates. Who needs more?”
I kept my mouth shut.
A minute later he said: “Tell you what I’d really like. A tall, frosty, liver-eating Johnny Black or reasonable facsimile. In lieu of that, I’ll make those phone calls and do the goddam laundry. What do you guys call that- repression?”
“Sublimation. Yeah. Drop me back at your place. Gotta go home and sublimate.”
I didn’t like the edge in his voice, but his expression warned off debate.
Besides, I had a call of my own to make.
Mahlon Burden’s answering machine message was ten seconds of chamber music followed by a clipped “Leave your message,” and three short beeps.
I said, “This is Alex Dela-”
Click. “Hello, Doctor. What have you decided?”
“I’m willing to explore the possibilities, Mr. Burden.”
“I’ve got time today.”
“Doctor, I’ve got nothing but time. Name the place and the time.”
“An hour. Your house.”
“Perfect.” Strange word considering his circumstances.
He gave me an address I already knew and followed it up with precisely detailed directions.
“An hour,” he said. “Looking forward to it.”
No pride of ownership. I’d expected something flagrantly deviant- slovenly- at 1723 Jubilo. But at first glance the house was like all the others on the block. Single-story ranch, the walls sided with aluminum designed to resemble wood, painted the green-gray of a stormy sea. The window casements and front door were the same gray- ah, the first bit of deviance, a monochrome statement when viewed alongside the neighboring houses with their carefully contrasting color schemes.
I parked, began noticing other misdemeanors. The small lawn, mowed and neatly edged but a half-shade paler than the sprinkler-fed emerald of all the others on the block. A few thin spots in the grass that threatened to raise the offense to felony level.
No flower beds. Just a girdle of creeping juniper separating grass from house. No trees, either- none of the dwarf citrus, avocados, or birch triplets that graced the lawns of the other homes.
The gestalt: austere, but hardly quirky. Ocean Heights was easily offended.
The front door had been left slightly ajar. I rang the bell anyway, waited, then walked into an entry hall carpeted with a disc of mock-Persian. Before me was a compact, square living room, white-walled, flat-ceilinged, and rimmed with an obtrusively ornate band of egg-and-dart crown molding. The carpeting was green wool, spotless but thin as the lawn, and looked to be about thirty years old. The furniture was of similar vintage, the wood stained oxblood, the chairs and sofas quilted and upholstered in a chrysanthemum print that shouted spring, pleat-skirted and sheathed in condom-snug dear plastic. Everything matched, every piece arranged with showroom precision. An ensemble. I was certain all of it had been bought at the same time.
I cleared my throat. No one responded. I waited and gave myself over to fantasy. A young couple Sunday shopping in some suburban department store- Sears or a counterpart. The smell of popcorn, the ding of elevator bells. One child in tow- a boy. The parents anxious, budget-conscious, but intent on acquisition. Furniture, appliances, soft rolls of carpeting. Cookware, dishes, all the brand-new, optimistic words it took to fill a proper 50’s populuxe home: Pyrex, stainless, vinyl, Formica, rayon, nylon. Sheaves of receipts. Warranties. More promises. A shopping spree worthy of a game-show winner…
All these dreams reduced to an ensemble, static as a museum exhibit.
I said, “Hello?”
A white-painted brick mantel framed a fireplace that was too clean ever to have been used. No screen, andirons, or tools. The top of the mantel was as bare as the walls. White walls, blank as giant sheets of virgin notepaper.
The tabula rasa approach to domestic life…
Across the living room was a dining room two thirds its size. Crenelated molding. More green carpet, more notepaper walls. Pecan-finish china cabinet, matching buffet. A couple of souvenir plates on one of the cabinet shelves. Grand Coulee Dam. Disneyland. The rest of the shelves empty. An oval table surrounded by eight straight-backed, plastic-sheathed chairs and topped with a brown pad filled most of the floor space. A pass-through with sliding wooden doors was cut into the wall behind the head of the table, offering a view of a yellow kitchen.
I went over and peeked in. Thirty-year-old refrigerator and stove glazed with yellow porcelain. No magnets or reminders on the fridge. No cooking smells.
There was a doorway leading to the rear of the house. A note was tacked onto the threshold.
DR. D.: IN THE BACK. M.B.
Beyond the note, an unlit hallway lined with closed doors. White space deepening to gray. I stepped closer, made out the sound of music. A string quartet. Haydn.
I walked toward it, followed the right turn of the hallway, and came to a final door. The music was loud and clear enough to be live.
I turned the knob, stepped into a large, peak-ceilinged room, the planks and cross-beams painted white. Dark hardwood floor. Three walls of blond birch paneling; the fourth, a bank of sliding glass doors that looked out to a small backyard that was mostly cement driveway. A silver-gray Honda sat in front of a corrugated aluminum garage door.
The glass gave the room an indoor-outdoor look. What realtors used to call a lanai, back in the days when they were peddling tropical dreams. What had become, in this age of transience and marital fracture, the family room.
The Burden family room was big and cold and devoid of furniture. Devoid of nearly everything, except for six-figures’ worth of stereo equipment arranged in a bank against one of the birch walls. Black-matte cases, black-glass instrument panels. Dials and digital readouts bleeping green and yellow and scarlet and gas-flame blue. Oscilloscopic sine waves. Fluctuating columns of liquid laser. Pinpoints of bouncing light.
Amps and preamps, tuners, graphic equalizers, bass-boosters, treble-clarifiers, filters, a reel-to-reel tape player, a pair of cassette decks, a pair of turntables, a compact disc player, a laser-disc player. All of it connected via a tangle of cable to a Stonehenge arrangement of black, fabric-faced speaker columns. Eight obelisks, spread throughout the room, big enough to project a heavy metal band into the bleachers of a baseball stadium.
A string quartet flowed out at medium volume.
Three quarters of a quartet. Both violin parts and the viola.
Mahlon Burden sat on a backless stool in the center of the room cradling a cello. Playing by ear, eyes closed, swaying in tempo, thin lips pursed as if for a kiss. He had on a white shirt, dark trousers, black socks, white canvas tennis shoes. His shirt sleeves were bunched carelessly at the elbows. Gray stubble flecked his chin, and his hair looked unkempt.
Seemingly unaware of my presence, he played on, fingers assuming positions along the ebony board, bearing down, quivering with vibrato. Floating the bow across the strings in a horsehair caress. Controlling his volume so perfectly that the cello meshed seamlessly with the recorded sounds regurgitated by the speakers.
Man and machine. Man as machine.
To my ears he was good, symphony quality or close to it. But I was put off by the sterile staginess of the whole thing.
I was here to exhume, not to be serenaded. But I heard him out, kept waiting for him to make a mistake- some flaw in tempo or sour tone that would justify an intrusion.
He kept playing perfectly. I endured an entire movement. When the piece was finished he kept his eyes closed but flexed his bow arm and took a deep breath.
Before I could say anything, the next movement began, opening with an arpeggiated solo by the first violin. Burden smiled as if meeting an old friend, readied his bow.
I said, “Mr. Burden.”
He opened his eyes.
I said, “Very pretty.”
He gave me a blank look and his face twitched. The second violin joined in. Then the viola. He glanced back at the columnar speakers, as if making eye contact with their fabric faces could somehow forestall the inevitable- forestall what he’d initiated.
The moment for the cello’s entry arrived. The music flowed, exquisite but incomplete. Unsettling. Like a beautiful woman without a conscience.
Burden gave one last look of regret, then stood, put his cello in its case, then the bow. Out of a trouser pocket came a small black remote-control module.
A single button push.
Fade to black.
The silence emptied the room of more than music. I noticed for the first time that the birch paneling was really some kind of photoprinted plyboard. The scuffmarks on the hardwood stood out harsh as keloid scars. The sliding glass door hadn’t been cleaned in a while. Through the cloudy panes, the concrete and grass view was depressing.
Family room without a family.
He said, “I play every day without fail. Concentrate on the technically challenging pieces.”
“You play very well.”
Nod. “At one time I had ambitions of doing it for a living. But it’s not a very good living unless one is extremely lucky. I never counted on luck.”
Uttered with more pride than bitterness. He walked over to the stereo bank.
“I believe in doing things systematically, Dr. Delaware. That’s my main talent, actually. I’m not much in terms of innovation, but I do know how to put things together. To create systems. And to use them optimally.”
He fondled the equipment, then began delivering a lecture on each of the components. Waiting out delay tactics was one of my talents. I just stood there and listened.
“… so you might be asking yourself, why two cassette players? This one”- he pointed- “is conventional magnetic tape, but this one is DAT. Digital audio tracking. State of the art. The inventors hope to compete with CDs, though I’m not yet convinced. Still, the sound quality is impressive. I had a prototype a full year before it hit the market. It interfaces quite well with the rest of the system. Sometimes that’s a problem: Components will meet individual specifications but not blend well with other members of the system. Like an instrument that’s been tuned to itself with no regard for the rest of the orchestra. Acceptable only in a very limited context. The key is to approach life with a conductor’s perspective. The whole greater than its parts.”
He moved his hand as if wielding a baton.
I gave him a dose of therapist’s silence.
He stroked a black glass face and said, “I suppose you’ll want to know about our origins- Holly’s origins.”
“That would be a good start.”
“Come with me.”
We walked down the hallway. He opened the first door on the left and we entered a white-walled room with a single window covered with gray drapes. The drapes were drawn. Light came from a spindly chrome halogen lamp in one corner. The carpeting was an extension of the green I’d seen in the living room.
From the size and placement I guessed it had once been the master bedroom. He’d converted it into an office: one wall of sliding mirrored closet doors and, against the other three, white Formica cabinet modules arranged in a U, shelves on top, cabinets on the bottom, black Formica work space sandwiched in between. The shelves were filled with boxes of floppy disks, computer manuals, software manuals, hard-disk replacement units, stationery, office supplies, and books- mostly reference works. One entire wall was given over to phone directories- hundreds of them. Conventional, business only, something called the Cole Reverse, compendia of ZIP codes, and a hand-lettered volume entitled ZIPS: SUBANALYS.
The walls behind the desk tops were lined with power strips- a continuous stripe of electrical outlets, each connected to something by stout black cable: three PC work-stations, each with a brushed-steel and black vinyl secretary chair, battery backup, laser printer, and phone modem. An additional ten multiline phones, five connected to more modems and fax machines, the others to automatic answering machines; a trio of automatic dialers; a huge batch-copying Xerox machine sunk into one of the cabinets, only the top half of its bulky chassis visible; a smaller, desktop copier, an automatic check-writer, an electronic postage meter. Other apparatus I couldn’t identify.
The room buzzed and hummed and flashed, phones ringing twice before answering machines kicked in. Fax machines excreting sheets of paper at odd intervals, each sheet falling neatly into a collecting bin. The computer monitors displayed amber rows of letters and numbers bunched in groups of four and five- an incomprehensible series of alpha-numeric codes that moved across the screen in tiny increments, like cars in a traffic jam.
A herky-jerky electromagnetic kinesis that worked hard at simulating life.
Burden looked proud- paternally proud. His clothes blended with the room. Black-and-white camouflage.
This was where he went to disappear.
“My nerve center,” he said. “The hub of my enterprises.”
He nodded. “As well as marketing consultations to other corporations- demographic targeting. Give me a ZIP code and I’ll tell you worlds about a person. Give me a street address and I’ll go a good deal further- predict trends. It’s what led me to this.”
Another conductor’s flourish as he slid open a drawer, removed a booklet, and handed it to me.
Heavy stock. Glossy. A title in bright-yellow computer-type lettering: New Frontiers Technology, Ltd. over a jet-black banner.
Below the title, an ostentatiously muscular dark-haired man, naked from the waist up and wearing yellow Spandex pants, straddled a meter-laden exercise machine. Cords ran from the equipment to a yellow belt around his waist and to a matching sweatband. His deltoids, pecs, and biceps were hypertrophied meat-carvings. Veins popped as if worms had burrowed under his skin; every bead of perspiration stood out in vitreous bas-relief. His smile said pain was the ultimate high. Behind him, a similarly hewn blond woman in a yellow body suit and a belt/headband hookup created a marathon blur on a cross-country skiing machine- not unlike the one I had at home. The cords and headgear made them resemble candidates for electrocution.
I turned a page. Mail-order catalogue. One of those yuppy-stroking affairs that seemed to arrive in the mail every day. I thought I remembered throwing this one out.
You were on the mental health specialist list.
I had bought my ski machine from a catalogue. But not this one…
Burden was staring at me, prouder than ever. Waiting. I knew what I was expected to do. Why not? All part of the job.
I examined the catalogue.
The inside cover was a two-paragraph letter above a color photo of a handsome, broad-shouldered man in his mid-thirties. He had wavy hair, luxuriant walrus mustaches, and a clipped beard- the Schweppes man in his prime. He wore a pink button-down shirt with a perfect collar roll, blue foulard, and saddle-leather braces, and had been posed in a clubby atmosphere: mahogany-paneled room, high-backed leather chair, carved leather-topped desk. On the desk were an antique hourglass, brass nautical instruments, a blue-shaded banker’s lamp, and a cut-crystal inkwell. Baronial oil portraits hung in the background. I could almost smell the sealing wax.
Under the letter was a fountain pen signature, elaborate and illegible. The photo caption identified him as Gregory Graff, Esq., Chief Consulting Officer of New Frontiers Technology, Limited, headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut. The letter was concise but friendly, just this side of preachy. Extolling the virtues of vitamins, exercise, balanced nutrition, self-defense, and meditative relaxation. What Graff called the “New Age Actualization Life-style for Today’s Striving Man and Woman.” The second paragraph was a pitch for this month’s New Products, offered at special discount for those who ordered early. The facing page was an order form complete with an 800 number and the assurance that “purchase specialists” were standing by to take calls twenty-four hours a day.
The catalogue was divided into sections marked by blue-tabbed index pages. I turned to the first. “Body and Soul.” An assortment of iron-pumping gizmos that would have done the Inquisition proud, demonstrated by the sculpted couple on the cover, followed by nirvana-nostrums for the post-exhaustion wind-down: massage oil, air-purifiers, wave machines, white-noise simulators, little black boxes that promised to change the atmosphere in any home into one that stimulated “alpha-wave meditation.” An electric “Tibetan Harmony Bell, re-creating one developed centuries ago in the Himalayas to capture the unique harmonies and overtones of high-altitude wind currents.”
Section Two was “Beauty and Balance.” Organic cosmetics, high-fiber cookies and candies, little yellow bottles of beta-carotene powder, lecithin capsules, bee pollen, zinc lozenges, water-purifying crystals, amino-acid combos, something new called “NiteAfter 100” that claimed to repair physiological damage wrought by “the 3 Deadly P’s: pollution, pigging-out, and partying.” Pills for sleeping soundly, for waking up cheerful, for enhancing “personal power during business meetings and power lunches.” A mineral concoction that claimed to “restore psychophysiological homeostasis and enhance individual tranquillity”- presumably during bathroom breaks.
Next came “Style and Substance.” Clothing and accessories in exotic hides and brushed steel. A programmable, self-locking and -opening “Briefcase With a Brain”; pseudo-antique accoutrements “conceived for the 21st Century and beyond”; pre-distressed aviator jackets; Mega-Sweat Personal Sauna warm-up suits, a symphony in nylon, latex, Teflon, down-fill, napa-lamb, and cashmere.
Four was “Access and Excel,” which seemed to translate to geegaws the world had done quite well without till now. Voice-activated car starters, self-cooling oven mitts, motorized bagel slicers, chamois microwave covers, everything monogrammable for a modest extra charge. I zipped through and was about to close the catalogue when the title of the last section caught my eye: “Life and Limb.”
A study in style-conscious paranoia. Bugging devices, hidden tape recorders, phone-tap detectors, infrared cameras and binoculars for “turning your adversary’s night into your day.” Privacy Locks for conventional phones. Direct-link phones in hot-line red (“Take control of Ma Bell. Talk only when you want and to whom you want”). Polygraphic “stressmeters” camouflaged as transistor radios that promised to “unscramble and digitalize the double and multiple meanings in other people’s communications.” Voice-modifiers, footstep-triggered attack dog tapes (“Choose from 345D. Doberman, 345S. Alsatian Shepherd, or 345R. Rottweiler”). Ultra-thin paper shredders that fit into an attaché case. Cameras that looked like pens. Radios that looked like pens. Packets of dehydrated “Survival Cuisine.” A reprise of the water-purifying crystals. When l got to the New Age Graphite-Handled Swiss Army knife with Mini-Surgical Array, I closed the catalogue.
“Very interesting.” I held it out to Burden.
He shook his head. “Keep it, Doctor. My compliments. You’ve been receiving it for five months but haven’t ordered anything yet. Perhaps a closer look will change your mind.”
The catalogue went into my jacket pocket.
I said, “Quite an eclectic collection.”
He responded with all the hesitation of a rodeo bull let out of the stall. “My brainchild. I was in the army just after Korea. Cryptography and decoding and computer technology- the infancy of the Computer Age. After discharge I went to Washington, D.C., and worked for the Census Bureau. We were just starting to computerize- the old days of clunky mainframes and IBM cards. I met my wife there. She was a very bright woman. Mathematician. Master’s degree. I’m self-taught, never finished high school, but I ended up being her mentor. All those years working with statistics and demographic patterns, we got a good fix on shifting population masses, trends, how people in different regions and social strata differ in their purchasing patterns. The predictive power of residential variables. When ZIP codes came into being it was beautiful- such simplification. And now the new sub-codes make it even easier.”
He sat down in one of the secretary chairs, made a half whirl, and spun back.
“The beauty of it, Doctor- of the informational age- is that things can be done so simply. When I left public service, I adapted my knowledge to the business world. Given my excellent typing skills combined with programming ability, I’m a corporation to myself- don’t even need a secretary. Just a few toll-free lines, several free-lance operators working from home stations, and a few privately contracted printers in various locations around the country. I interface with all of them by modem. No inventory or warehousing costs- because there’s no inventory at all. The consumer gets the catalogue and makes his or her choice. The operators take the order, communicate it immediately to the manufacturer. The manufacturer sends the product directly to the consumer. Upon delivery confirmation, the manufacturer’s hired for retail markup- my fee for facilitating.”
“Yes. Exactly. The advanced state of my technology allows me to be extremely flexible. I can add and delete products based on sales performance, alter copy, and produce highly focused mail-outs within a twenty-four-hour period. I’ve even begun experimenting with an automated operator system- pretaped messages combined with voice-activated pauses: The tape waits until the consumer’s finished talking, then talks back in perfectly modulated, grammatical, regionless English. So one day I may not need any employees at all. The ultimate cottage industry.”
“A model. I got him through a New York agency. You’ll notice he’s designated as Chief Consulting Officer- a title that’s meaningless from a legal point of view. I’m the President and Chief Executive Officer. I went through hundreds of photos before picking him. My marketing research told me exactly what I was looking for: youthful vitality combined with authority- a beard works very well for the latter, as long as it’s short and neat. The mustache implies generosity. The surname Graff was chosen because upscale consumers respect anything Teutonic- regard it as efficient, intelligent, and reliable. But only up to a point. A forename like Helmut or Wilhelm wouldn’t have done. Too German. Too foreign. ‘Gregory’ scores high on the likability scale. All-American. Greg. He’s one of the boys, with Teutonic ancestry. A great athlete, smartest boy on the block- but someone you like. My research shows that many people assume he has a graduate degree- usually law or an M.B.A. The button-down shirt communicates stability; the tie, affluence; and the suspenders provide a flair- creativity. He’s a man you believe in, instinctively. Aggressive and goal-oriented but not hostile, dependable but not stodgy. And concerned. Humanistic. Humanism is important to my target consumers- feeling charitable. Twice a year I give them the option of donating one percent of their total purchase to a selection of charities. Gregory’s an excellent fund-raiser. People reach deep into their pockets. I’m thinking of franchising him.”
“Sounds very well thought-out.”
“Oh, it is. And very lucrative.”
Emphasizing the last word to let me know he meant megabucks. A cottage industry tycoon.
That didn’t mesh with the worn carpet, the thirty-year-old furniture, the dirty Honda. But I’d met other rich men who didn’t care to show it. Or were afraid to show it and hid behind a Just Plain Folks facade.
Right now he was hiding something else.
I said, “Let’s talk about Holly.”
He looked surprised. “Holly. Of course. Is there anything else you need to know about me?”
The naked narcissism threw me. I’d thought his self-absorption was a means of delaying painful questions. Now, I wasn’t sure.
I said, “I’m sure I’ll have lots of questions about all your family members, Mr. Burden. But right now I’d like to see Holly’s room.”
“Her room. Makes sense. Absolutely.”
We left the office. He opened a door across the hall. More notepaper walls. Two windows, covered by Venetian blinds. A thin mattress lay on the floor, parallel to a low wooden bedframe. The mattress had been slit open in several places, the ticking peeled back, the foam scooped out in handfuls. A crumpled ball of white bed sheet lay rolled in one corner. Nearby was a pillow that had also been slit and sat in a pool of foam chunks. The only other furniture was a pressed-wood three-drawer dresser below an oval mirror. The mirror glass was finger-smudged. The dresser drawers were pulled open. Some clothing- cotton undergarments and cheap blouses- remained inside. Other garments had been removed and piled on the floor. Atop the dresser sat a plastic clock radio. Its beaverboard back had been removed and it had been gutted, parts spread across the wood.
“Compliments of the police,” said Burden.
I looked past the disarray, saw the sparseness that had pre-existed any police intrusion. “What did they take with them?”
“Not a thing. They were after diaries, any sort of written record, but she never kept any. I kept telling them that but they just went in and pillaged.”
“Did they say you were allowed to clean it?”
He fingered his eyeglasses. “I don’t know. I suppose they did.” He bent and picked a piece of foam from the floor. Rolled it between his fingers and drew himself up a bit.
“Holly used to do most of the cleaning. Twice a year I’d bring a professional crew in, but she did it the rest of the time. She liked it, was very good at it. I guess I’m still expecting her to… walk right in with a dustrag and start tidying.”
His voice broke and he walked quickly to the door. “Please excuse me. Take as long as you like.”
I let him go and turned my attention back to the room, trying to conjure the place as it had been when Holly had been alive.
Not much to work with. Those white walls- no nails or brackets, not a single hole or darkened square. Young girls typically used their walls as plaster notebooks. Holly had never hung a picture, never tacked a pennant, never softened her life with rock-poster rebellion or calendar imagery.
What had she dreamed about?
I kept searching for some sign of personal imprint but found none. The room was cell-like, assertively barren.
Did her father realize this wasn’t right?
I recalled the back room, barren except for his toys.
His own place of refuge, cold as a glacier.
Emptiness as a family style?
Daughter as charwoman, handmaiden to the cottage tycoon?
The room began to close in. Had she felt it too? Living here, sleeping here, feeling her life drift by?
Ike- anyone who cared, who’d taken the time to care- might have been seen as a liberator. Prince Charming.
What had his death done to her?
Despite what she’d become- what she’d done- I felt for her.
I heard Milo’s voice in the back of my head. Getting mushy on me, pal?
But I wanted to believe that if Milo were to come to this place, he’d feel something too.
The door to the closet was partially ajar. I opened it and looked in. The poison/perfume of camphor. More clothing- not much of it, mostly casual knits, T-shirts, sweaters, a couple of jackets. The pockets had been slit, the linings shredded. Faded colors.
More heaps of clothing on the floor.
Bargain-bin quality. Daughter of a tycoon.
Above the clothes pole were two shelves. The lower one bore two games. Candy Land. Chutes and Ladders.
Preschool amusements. Had she stopped playing at the age of six? Apart from that, nothing. No books, no fan magazines, no stuffed animals or mugs printed with fatuous phrases. No clear-plastic things that snowed when you turned them upside down.
I closed the closet door and turned back to the ravaged room, tried to picture the way it had looked before the police had come. The damage made it seem more human.
Cot and a dresser. Blank walls. A radio.
The word cell kept flashing.
But I’d seen jail cells that looked more inviting.
This was worse. Punitive.
I had to get out of there.
Burden was back in his office, sitting at one of the computer workstations. I wheeled one of the secretary chairs into the center of the room and sat down. He touch-typed rapidly for a few moments before looking up, dry-eyed.
“So. What’s the next step, Doctor?”
“Holly didn’t seem to have many interests.”
He smiled. “Ah, the room. You’re thinking I isolated her. For some ulterior motive.”
Exactly what I’d been thinking, but I said, “No. Just trying to get a picture of the way she lived.”
“The way she lived. Well, it wasn’t like that, believe me. Though I can understand your thinking it was. I’ve done my reading on child psychology. So I know all the theories of child abuse. Isolating the designated victim in order to maximize control. But that had nothing to do with us. Not even remotely. That’s not to say we’re… we were social butterflies. As a family or individually. Our pleasures have always been solitary. Reading, good music. Holly loved music. I always encouraged discussions of current events, various cultural debates. Howard, my firstborn, took to that. Holly didn’t. But I always tried to provide the same sorts of things other children seemed to like. Toys, games, books. Holly never showed any interest in any of it. She hated to read. Most of the time the toys stayed in the box.”
“What did she do for fun?”
“Fun.” He drew out the word as if it were foreign. “Fun. For fun, she talked to herself, created fantasies. And she was inventive, I’ll grant her that. Could take a piece of string or a rock or a spoon from the kitchen and use it as a prop. She had a terrific imagination- genetic, no doubt. I’m highly imaginative. However, I’ve learned to channel it. Productively.”
“She simply fantasized, went no further with it.”
“What were her fantasies about?”
“I have no idea. She was a demon for privacy, liked to close her door tight even when she was very young. Just sit on the floor or on her bed, talk and mumble. If I prodded her to get fresh air, she’d go out into the backyard and settle down on the grass, and start in doing exactly the same thing.”
I said, “When she was younger, did she rock back and forth or try to hurt herself?”
He smiled like a well-prepared student. “No, Doctor. She wasn’t autistic- not remotely. If you talked to her she’d respond- if she felt like it. There was no echolalic speech, nothing psychotic. She was just very self-sufficient. From an amusement standpoint. She made her own fun.”
I watched the constantly blinking phones and self-shifting computer images. His fun.
“And she never kept any sort of diary?”
“No. She hated paper- threw everything out. Hated clutter, was a bug on neatness. Probably another example of genetics. I plead guilty to that kind of precision.”
He smiled, not looking guilty at all.
I said, “I saw only two games in her closet. What happened to all the toys and the books?”
“When she was thirteen she did a massive housecleaning, took everything out of her room except for her radio and her clothing, and piled it up in the hall- very neatly. When I asked her what she was doing, she insisted I get rid of it. So, of course, I did. Gave it to Goodwill. There was no arguing with Holly when she made her mind up.”
“She didn’t want anything to replace what she’d gotten rid of?”
“Not a thing. She was quite happy with nothing.”
“Nothing but Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land.”
“Yes. Those.” A split-second flinch. I snared it as if it were a moth.
“How old was she when she got those two games?”
“Five. They were bought for her fifth birthday by her mother.”
He flinched again, forced a smile. “You see, we’ve got an insight already. What do you make of it? An attempt on her part to cling to the past?”
His tone was clinical, detached- the classic intellectualizer. Trying to turn the interview into a chat between colleagues.
I said, “I’m not much for interpretation. Let’s talk about her relationship with her mother.”
“A Freudian approach?”
Trying to keep any edge out of my voice, I said, “A thorough one, Mr. Burden.”
He didn’t say anything. Turning slightly, he tapped his fingers on the keyboard. I waited, watched the letters and numbers on the monitor do their freeway crawl.
“So,” he finally said, “I guess this is what people in your field would call active listening? A strategic silence. Holding back to get the patient to open up?” He smiled. “I read about that too.”
I spoke with deliberate patience. “Mr. Burden, if this is uncomfortable for you, we don’t have to continue.”
“I want to continue!” He sat up sharply, without grace, and his glasses slid down his nose. By the time he’d righted them he was smiling again. “You’ll have to excuse my… I suppose you’d term it resistance. This whole thing has been… very difficult.”
“Of course it has. That’s why there’s no reason to cover everything at once. I can come back another time.”
“No, no, there’ll be no better time.” He looked away from me, touched the keyboard again. “Can I offer you something? Juice? Tea?”
“Nothing, thanks. If the things I’ve brought up are too hard for you to discuss right now, perhaps there’s some topic you’d like to get into?”
“No, no, let’s stay on track. Bite the bullet. Her mother. My wife. Elizabeth Wyman Burden. B. 1930, D. 1974.” He tilted his head back, gazed at the ceiling. “An exceptional woman. Deductive and intuitive and extremely talented- musically talented. She was very adept at the viola da gamba. Howard played the modern viola, seemed quite promising but dropped it. I helped Elizabeth develop her abilities. She complemented me beautifully.”
He twisted his mouth, as if searching for the right expression, settled on regret. “Holly was nothing like her, really. Nothing like me either, really. Both of us, Betty and myself, are- were- highly intelligent. That’s not a boast, simply a descriptive statement. As a couple, we were intellectually oriented. As is Howard. I saw early that he had a gift for mathematics and tutored him intensively- not remedial tutoring; he was always an excellent student. Supplementary tutoring, so that he wouldn’t sink to the level of the public school system- be dragged down to the lowest common denominator.”
“The school wasn’t meeting his needs?”
“Not by a long shot. I’m sure your experience has shown you the entire system’s oriented toward mediocrity. Howard thrived on what I gave him, stayed on the math track. He’s a graduate actuary, passed all ten exams the first time, which is almost unheard of. Youngest man in the state to do so. You should speak to him about Holly, get his point of view. Here, I’ll give you his number. He lives out in the Valley.”
He turned back toward his desk, took a small piece of paper out of a drawer, and scrawled on it.
I put it away.
He said, “Howard’s exceptionally bright.”
“But Holly wasn’t much of a student?”
He shook his head. “When she got C-minuses it was because of teacher charity.”
“What was the problem?”
He hesitated. “I could spin you some yarn about poor motivation, being bored in class, never finding her niche. But the truth is she simply wasn’t very intelligent. An IQ of eighty-seven. Not retarded, but the low end of the normal range.
“When did you have her tested?”
“At age seven. I did it myself.”
“You tested her?”
“Using what test?” I said, expecting some sort of quick-and-easy questionnaire lifted from a self-help book.
“The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. It’s the test of choice, isn’t it? The most extensively validated?”
“The Wechsler’s an excellent test, Mr. Burden, but it requires quite a bit of training in order to administer and score it properly.”
“Not to worry,” he said, with sudden cheer. “I trained myself. Read the manual carefully and boned up on a number of related articles in psychology journals. Then I practiced on Howard- he took to it like a duck to water. Scored one forty-nine, top tenth of a percent, I believe.”
“The Wechsler’s not supposed to be sold to laymen. How’d you get hold of it?”
Sly smile. “Not thinking of filing a complaint, are you, Doctor?”
I crossed my legs casually, returned the smile, and shook my head. “You must be pretty resourceful.”
“Actually,” he said, “it was painfully simple. I filled out an order blank at the back of one of the psychology journals, sent in my money, put a Ph.D. after my name, enclosed a card from my business at the time-‘Demographics, Incorporated. Applied Social Research.’ It must have sounded sufficiently psychological to the company, because a week later the test came, parcel post.”
Flaunting his duplicity. But then, why would someone who made his living hawking Tibetan Harmony Bells and personal power pills shy away from a bit of self-serving subterfuge?
“I did a fine job of testing,” he said. “More thorough than any school psychologist would have been. And I took the trouble to retest her twice. At ages nine and eleven. The results were almost identical- eighty-seven and eighty-five. No outstanding deficits or marked strengths, no imbalance between Verbal and Performance scores. Just a general dullness. My theory is that she experienced some sort of intrauterine trauma that affected her central nervous system. Perhaps due to her mother’s advanced age- Betty was thirty-nine when she conceived. In any event, there had to be some kind of brain damage, didn’t there? It might have been worse but for our unique situation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Given average heredity, she might very well have turned out truly retarded. With Betty and me as parents, she was given a genetic boost into the Dull Normal range.”
I said, “Do you have her testing profile?”
“No. I threw it all out years ago. What would have been the point?”
“Did you ever consult a specialist about her learning problems?”
“In the beginning I gave the school a chance to come up with something- saw the usual assortment of civil service flunkies. Counselors, special education teachers, whatnot. Holly didn’t fit into any of their classification groups- too smart for Educable Mentally Retarded, too dull for a normal classroom, no discipline or management problems that would have qualified her for Educationally Handicapped. They had conferences- those types love to have conferences. Sat there and talked down to me with their jargon-thought they could hide behind jargon because I didn’t have a degree after my name.”
“Would there be any records of those conferences?”
“No. I demanded they destroy them. I’m in the information business. I know how records can come back to haunt. They tried to protest- some stupid regulation- but I prevailed. Sheer force of personality. They were such a weak-willed bunch, so dull themselves. Endless talk, no action. I realized early on that I was on my own; any meaningful remediation would have to take place at home. So I washed my hands of them. It’s the same way I feel about that policeman Frisk. That’s why I took the initiative to call you. I know you’re different.”
The second negative reference he’d made to the school. I said, “Did you discuss your feelings about the school with Holly?”
He gave me a long stare. Searching. Illuminated by unwelcome insight.
“Doctor, are you trying to say I planted hatred in her mind?”
“I’m trying to get a picture of how she felt about the school.”
“She hated it. She must have. It represented failure to her. All those years of incompetence and insensitivity. How else could she have felt? But she wasn’t about to kill anyone because of that.”
He gave a derisive laugh.
I said, “What kinds of remedial things did you do?”
“Gave her my personal attention- when she’d accept it. Sat down with her every evening after dinner and walked her through her homework. Tried to get her to concentrate, tried to bribe her- what you’d call operant conditioning. That didn’t work, because she really didn’t want anything. Eventually I did get her reading skills and math levels to a point where she could function in the real world- simple instructions and computations, road signs. She wasn’t interested in- or capable of- any higher abstractions.”
“How was her attention span?”
“Just fine for things she was interested in- cleaning and straightening, listening to pop music on her radio and dancing to it when she thought no one was looking. Nonexistent for things she didn’t care about. But isn’t that true of anyone?”
“Dancing,” I said, trying to picture it. “So her physical coordination was okay?”
“Adequate. Which is all anyone needs for the dances they do today.” He flapped his arms and made a grotesque face. “Betty and I used to dance seriously. Long-forgotten baroque and classical terpsichore- gavottes, minuets. Steps that really required virtuosity. We were quite a pair.”
Drifting back, inevitably, to self-congratulation. Feeling as if I needed a thick rope to tug things back to Holly, I said, “Did you ever consider medication- Ritalin or something similar?”
“Not after I read up on the effects of long-term amphetamine usage. Stunted growth. Anorexia. Possible brain damage. The last thing Holly needed was more brain damage. Besides, she wasn’t hyperactive- more on the lethargic side, actually. Preferred to sleep late, loll in bed. I’m an early riser.”
“Did she have periods of emotional depression?”
He dismissed that with a wave. “Her mood was fine. She just lacked energy. At first I thought it might be nutritional- something to do with blood sugar or her thyroid. But all her blood tests were normal.”
Blood tests. Half-expecting him to answer that he’d punctured her vein himself, I said, “Did your family doctor have any suggestions when he gave you the results?”
“Never had a family doctor. Never needed one. I took both of them, Howard and Holly, to the Public Health Service for their blood work. For their immunizations too. Told the civil servants there that I suspected some kind of contagious infection. It’s their responsibility to check that kind of thing, so they were forced to do it. I figured I might as well get something back for my tax dollars.”
Genuine glee at dissembling. How much of what he told me about anything could be believed?
“Who managed their childhood diseases? Where did you take them when they had fevers and needed antibiotics?”
“They were very healthy children, rarely ran high fevers. The few times they did, I brought it down with aspirin, fluids- exactly what a doctor would tell me to do. The couple of times they needed penicillin, they got it from the Health Service. Measles passed them by. Chicken pox and mumps I managed according to the books- genuine medical books. The Physician’s Desk Reference. I can read instructions as well as any doctor.”
“Self-sufficiency,” I said.
“Exactly. In some quarters, that’s still considered worth-while.”
Trumpeting his achievements had made his Mr. Peepers persona fade completely. He looked belligerent, flushed, somehow bigger, huskier. A bantam cock swelling as he scanned the barnyard for rivals.
Changing the subject, I said, “There’s quite an age difference between Holly and Howard.”
“Eleven years. And yes, she was an unplanned child. But not an unwanted one. When Betty learned she was pregnant, she was surprised but happy. And that’s saying a lot, because she wasn’t a healthy woman- bleeding ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but she suffered from problem flatulence, very bad chronic pain. Nevertheless, she carried on like a trooper, nursed Holly for eleven months- exactly the time we’d allotted to Howard. She was an excellent mother, very patient.”
“How was Holly affected by her death?”
“Quite severely, I’d assume.”
“Assume. With Holly there was no way of knowing how she really felt about anything, because she didn’t talk, didn’t express herself very well.”
“Did she attend the funeral?”
“Yes, she did. I had one of the mortuary attendants watch over her in a room off the chapel during the service and when we went out to the grave. Afterwards I sat down with her and explained what had happened. She stared at me, didn’t say anything, cried just a bit, and then walked away. Out to the lawn. To sit. Spin her fantasies. I let her do it for a while, then took her home. A couple of times I heard her crying at night, but when I went in she stopped and rolled away and refused to discuss it with me.”
“How did you explain to her what had happened?”
“I told her her mother had been very sick. She knew that- she’d seen Betty take to bed. I said she’d gone into the hospital to be treated for her stomachaches but that the doctors had been stupid and made mistakes and they’d killed her with their stupidity and we’d have to go on without her and be strong. That we were still a family and would carry on as a family.”
“Your wife’s death was due to medical malpractice?”
He looked at me as if I were in the “dull normal” range. “The woman had a nonfatal condition, Doctor. She bled to death on the operating table, in the presence of a full surgical team.”
“Did you pursue it legally?”
He gave a sharp, mocking laugh. “I talked to a couple of attorneys, but they wouldn’t take the case. Supposedly it wasn’t cut and dried enough, given her prior medical history. The truth was, they had more than their share of whiplashes. They didn’t want to bet their contingency fees on something that required some real research. I suppose I could have found some ambulance chaser to take it on, but at the time I had other things on my mind. Two children to raise, a business to run- I was doing all direct-mailing back then, still building up my lists. Much more labor-intensive than it is today. So I needed all my energy for that.”
“It must have been a difficult time for you.
“Not really. I attacked it systematically, kept everything organized. Howard stayed on the straight-A track.” He stopped. “Still, I suppose the way Holly turned out was partly my fault.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I have an impressive array of intellectual skills and talents but I wasn’t successful in communicating them to her- in getting her going on some sort of goal-oriented program. She persistently shut me out and I allowed it, because I didn’t want to be cruel. So perhaps I was too kind.” He shrugged. “Of course hindsight is always twenty-twenty, isn’t it?”
Luxuriating in bogus confession.
Despite my aversion to snap diagnoses, a diagnostic label kept creeping into my mind:
Narcissistic personality disorder. Pathological egotism.
It fit. Even with the way he’d chosen to make a living. Beauty and Balance. Access and Excel. The catalogue was a paean to narcissism. I was willing to bet he’d put his brainchild ahead of his children. Put himself ahead of everyone and everything.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be one of his children, and my sympathy for Holly climbed another rung.
“So,” he said, “we seem to be doing well. What else can I help you with, Doctor?”
“How did Howard and Holly get along?”
“Very well- no fights.”
“Did they have much to do with each other?”
“Not much. Howard was busy with his activities- studies, extracurricular clubs- and Holly stayed in her room. That’s not to say he didn’t love her- he was always concerned about her, if a bit baffled.”
“How’s he holding up?”
“Like a trooper.”
“Is he married?”
“Of course. Has a big house in Encino, south of the boulevard. One lovely daughter, sharp as a tack. They’re all holding up like troopers. Go visit them, see for yourself. You really should, now that I think about it. Do speak with Howard.”
Go talk to my intelligent child. The one that came out good.
I said, “What about friends?”
“Holly? No, she didn’t have any. When she was very young I remember a few neighborhood children coming over. They made noise and bothered my work and I had to shoo them outside. But eventually that stopped. Holly wasn’t much for group play.”
“When did it stop?”
He thought about that. “What you want me to say is that everything changed after her mother died, right? But in terms of the friend situation, I’m afraid I can’t be that definite. In fact I’m almost certain she lacked playmates well before Betty’s death. She wasn’t much of a playmate herself, liked to go off on her own and leave her little guests in the lurch.”
“What about when she got older? Did she make any school chums?”
“None. She didn’t like anything related to school, wanted to drop out when she was fifteen, nagged me to allow her to take the equivalency test. I knew she’d fail it and refused to let her, but she kept on me- she could be quite stubborn when she set her mind on something. Finally, when she was sixteen, I agreed. She took it. And failed.”
“Did that bother her?”
“Not really. Neither of us was surprised. I made her stick it out at Pali until she graduated- at least get the paper. Not that she’d earned it, but the ninnies just kept passing her through. Typical civil service approach- take the path of least resistance.”
“What did she do after graduation?”
“Stayed home. Listened to her radio- the pop music, and talk shows. She could play it twenty-four hours a day. I assigned her household chores: straightening, cleaning, doing simple paperwork. She enjoyed doing things for me.”
Free live-in help. Convenient. Some men’s idea of a wife. “Did she make any recent acquaintances? Since graduation?”
“How could she? She never went anywhere.”
I said, “I’ve been told she was friendly with a delivery boy from Dinwiddie’s Market. Isaac Novato.”
His jaw set and he moved forward on his chair. “Where did you hear about this supposed friendship?”
“I was told he was someone she knew, they were seen talking.”
“Talking. Well, that’s possible. The boy delivered groceries to our home. Every week. Holly let him in and gave him his tip, so I suppose they might have talked as part of the transaction. What else did you hear?”
“That’s about it.”
“Is it? Well, I doubt they were actually friends. Not that it would bother me if they had been. No doubt you know he’s black. Unlike others in this neighborhood- in this country- I consider race irrelevant. I judge a person by his accomplishments, not the concentration of melanin in his skin.”
Given that credo, I wondered how he’d judged his daughter.
He said, “You seem skeptical.”
“Not at all.”
“Novato was treated decently in this house. Feel free to ask him.”
“That’s not possible,” I said. “He’s dead.”
“Dead?” The shock froze his face, thawing gradually but not completely, leaving him with a distant look in his eyes. First reaction I’d seen out of him that I was certain was spontaneous.
“When did he die?”
“September. Come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing him for a while.”
“Did Holly show any signs of being upset around that time?”
“Upset? No, not that I noticed. How did he die?”
“He was murdered.”
“Oh, my. By whom?”
“It’s unsolved. The police think it was some sort of drug deal gone bad.”
“The police… Do they think there’s some connection to Holly?”
“No. It just came up when they traced her former acquaintances.”
“Acquaintances,” he said. “One thing I can guarantee you is that Holly had nothing to do with drugs.”
“I’m sure she didn’t.”
“She had nothing to do with shooting at children, either.” Pause. “But what if she got… caught up in something? If Novato got her into something.”
“Some kind of corruption.”
He closed his eyes. A long silence passed and his face lost expression; taking his self-absorption under wraps. One of the laser printers spewed paper. Some of it fell to the floor. He ignored it, finally opened his eyes.
“Anything else?” he said, still sounding preoccupied.
“The police said it was your rifle she took to the school. Did she know how to shoot?”
“Not at all. She hated weapons. My firearms collection was the one part of the house she refused to clean. So that whole theory is nonsense.”
“She was found with the rifle.”
“That doesn’t make her a murderer. She could have been lured there, convinced to take the Remington with her.”
A flight of wishful thinking rapid enough to make my nose bleed. I said, “Lured how?”
“I don’t know. Yet. But this Novato situation gives me something to chew on. Perhaps one of his gang friends had something to do with it.”
“There’s no evidence he was involved with gangs.”
“In this city, drugs mean gangs.”
Another long silence.
I said, “When did yon notice the rifle was missing?”
“I didn’t, but that means nothing. I rarely looked at the collection- I’d lost interest in it.”
“Where do you keep the collection?”
He got up and took me back out into the hall. The door next to Holly’s room opened to a deep cedar closet lined with gun racks on three walls. The racks were empty. The floor had been vacuumed. The space smelled of machine oil and tarnish.
“The police took all of it,” he said. “Every piece. For analysis. I’m supposed to get it back soon. But you can bet it will take plenty of wrestling with red tape.”
I counted eight slots on each of the three racks. “Nice size collection.”
“All long guns. Antiques, for the most part. Flintlocks. Black powder. In nonfunctional condition. I bought the lot as an investment when I was being discharged from the service. An old army acquaintance needed quick cash. They’ve performed quite nicely as investments, though I never bothered to sell because, frankly, I don’t need the money.”
Thinking of Holly’s poor marksmanship, I said, “What about the Remington?”
“What about it?”
“Was it a collector’s item too?”
“No, just a run-of-the-mill Remington. Legal and registered.”
He shook his head. “Used to hunt but haven’t since I was a boy. I was an excellent shot- won marksman’s ribbons in the army- but I had no reason to pursue it any further. The rifle was for personal protection.”
I said, “Did you have some brush with crime that led you to arm yourself?”
That amused him. “No, this was an ounce of prevention. Where I grew up- rural Wisconsin- guns are a part of any household, just like salt and meat and butter. No doubt you advocate gun control.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Being liberal- most mental health people are liberal, aren’t they? Stubborn believers in the basic goodness of humanity. In any event, I’m not apologetic about keeping arms, and the suggestion that somehow I’m to blame for what happened is absurd. Besides, Holly never shot at anyone- never would, never could. She didn’t know how to handle firearms. That’s why none of what they’re saying makes sense. Unless she was corrupted.”
“The night before the shooting,” I said, “did you hear her leave the house?”
“No,” he said. “I go to bed early. I’m an extremely sound sleeper.”
“Does the house have an alarm system?”
“Yes,” he said. “Though you’ll notice there’s no console pad in the entry hall. My system’s a good deal more subtle.”
“Did Holly know how to operate it?”
“Of course. She wasn’t imprisoned.”
“And she switched it off before she left?”
“The alarm never went off, so obviously she did. But she switched it on again- it was set when I woke up. I had no idea she’d left.”
“Was that typical of her when she left at night?”
“Leaving at night wasn’t typical.”
“Mr. Burden, Holly was seen taking walks around the neighborhood at night.”
More genuine surprise. “Well… she may have stepped out from time to time- to chase away a cat, or take some air. But by and large she stayed in her room. She had everything she needed right here.”
His stare was fierce. He looked at his watch. “I suppose that’s it for today.”
A statement, not a question.
I said, “Sure.”
He walked me to the door.
“So,” he said, “How’re we doing? What do you think?”
“We’re doing fine.”
He took hold of my sleeve. “She was an innocent, believe me. A naïf. IQ of eighty-seven. You, more than anyone, know what that means. She lacked the intellectual capacity to plot. And violence wasn’t in her nature- I didn’t raise her that way. She’d have no reason to shoot anyone. Certainly not children.”
“Would she have reason to shoot a politician?”
He shook his head, exasperated. “I can’t help but feel, Doctor, that you’re still not grasping who she was, the way she lived. She never read the papers, never cared a whit about politics or current affairs or the outside world. She slept late, listened to her radio, did her dances, cleaned the house. Scrubbed it until it sparkled. At the proper time, she prepared simple meals for both of us- cold food. I did all the cooking when cooking was called for. She liked her routine. She found comfort in it.”
He removed his glasses, held them up to the entry light and peered through them.
“It won’t be the same without her. I’ll be doing those things for myself now.”
During the time I’d spent there, the sun had set and I walked out into darkness. It enhanced the feeling of having been away for a long time. Having been on another planet.
An unsettling man. The portrait he’d painted of his daughter was bleak. But instructive.
Living in a cell.
Talking to herself.
Scrubbing everything spotless.
Not autistic, but aspects of her behavior had an autistic flavor: self-absorption to an extent that implied mental disorder.
Creating her own world. Like father, like daughter.
But he’d willed his isolation. Channeled it lucratively. The New Age Entrepreneur.
Had she encased herself in a bubble only to be trapped within? A victim of genetic insult? Environmental accident? Some incalculable combination of both?
Or had she taken on her father’s life-style of her own free will?
Had she been capable of free will?
She enjoyed doing things for me.
Had the purveyor of gadgets manufactured himself a house-cleaning robot- efficient, mechanical, like some high-priced toy out of his catalogue? Adapted her inadequacies and pathology to his needs?
I’ve done my reading on child psychology… know all the theories of child abuse… She wasn’t imprisoned…
A little too quick on the draw?
Or was I just letting clinical guesswork get the better of me because he wasn’t a likable man?
I reminded myself he was a victim, wanted to feel more sympathy, not the resentment that had grown within me during my incarceration in that cold, empty house.
I realized I was thinking of him, instead of Holly. Taken in by his narcissism.
I forced myself back to the main subject.
Whatever her motivations, an image of Holly Lynn Burden had emerged from the murky ground of the interview.
Early childhood loss.
A young woman with no external life and a flood of unknown fantasies swimming through her head.
Stir in a parental attitude that disparaged authority. Disparaged all schools, and one school in particular.
Add a sprinkling of new friendship, snipped cruelly by violence. Buried rage that buds anew. And grows.
Guns in a closet.
Mahlon Burden couldn’t have come up with a better profile of a mass murderer had I dictated it to him.
A profile of a time bomb, ticking away.
I got home to a dark, empty house. Over the last few months- the post-Robin months- I’d worked hard at learning to consider that soothing. Worked hard under the tutelage of a kind, strong therapist named Ada Small. Ever the conscientious pupil, I’d applied myself, gaining an appreciation for the value of solitude- the healing and peace that could come from moderate doses of introspection. Not that long ago, Ada and I had agreed to cut the cord.
But this evening, solitude seemed too much like solitary confinement. I switched on plenty of lights, tuned the stereo to KKGO, and cranked up the volume even though the jazz that blared out was some new wave soprano-sax stuff in a bloodcurdling-scream-as-art-form mode. Anything but silence.
I kept thinking about my meeting with Burden. The shifting faces he’d shown during the course of the interview.
The shifting attitudes he’d displayed toward his daughter.
There’d been an introductory display of grief, but his tears had dried quickly in the sanctuary of his computer womb, only to be followed by a shallow lament: I’ll be doing those things for myself now.
He might have been discussing the loss of a cleaning woman.
Once again I told myself not to judge. The man had been through hell. What could be worse than the death of a child? Add to that the way she’d died- the public shame and collective guilt that even someone like Milo was quick to assign- and who could blame him for retreating, gathering whatever psychological armaments he had at his command?
I let that rationalization settle for a while.
His behavior still bothered me. The detachment when he’d talked about her.
An IQ in the Dull Normal range…
It was as if her weaknesses, her failure to be brilliant, had been a personal insult to him.
I imagined a Burden family crest. Crossed muskets over a field of Straight A’s.
A man used to having his way. She’d upset his sense of organization, had been an affront to his system.
Using her to clean house. Prepare cold food.
Some sort of punishment? Or simply an efficient allocation of resources?
Yet at the same time, against all logic, he was proclaiming her innocence.
Contracting me for… what? A psychological whitewash?
Something didn’t fit. I sat struggling with it. Finally told myself to stop taking my work home. Once upon a time I’d been good at following that dictum. Once upon a time life had seemed simpler…
Suddenly the music was ear-shattering. I realized I’d blocked it out. Now I could barely stand it and went to switch stations. Just as I touched the dial, the saxophonist quit and some Stanley Jordan guitar wizardry came on. Good omen. Time to push all thoughts of the Burden family from my mind.
But my mind was no different from anyone else’s: It abhorred a vacuum. I needed something to fill the space.
Call Linda. Then I remembered her restlessness. Needing to breathe. I’d learned the hard way not to crowd.
I realized I was hungry, went into the kitchen and took out eggs, mushrooms, and an onion. Jordan gave way to Spyro Gyra doing “Shake Her.” I cracked eggs, chopped vegetables in tempo. Paying attention in order to get it just right.
I fried up an omelet, ate, read psych journals, and did paperwork for an hour, then stepped onto the skiing machine and pretended I was crossing some snow-filled meadow in Norway. Midway through the fantasy, Gregory Graff’s bearded visage appeared through the sweat-haze, urging me to work harder. Reciting a list of brand-new products that could maximize my performance. I told him to fuck himself and huffed away.
I got off a half hour later, dripping and ready to sink into a hot bath. The phone rang.
Milo said, “So how’d it go?”
“No big surprises. She was a girl with lots of problems.”
“Nothing that overt.” I gave him a brief rundown on what Burden had told me.
He said, “Sounds like she led like a great life.” I thought I detected sympathy in his voice. “That’s all the father knows about Novato?”
“That’s what he says. You learn anything new?”
“Called Maury Smith at Southeast. He remembered the case- said it was still unsolved, one of many. He wasn’t working on it actively because no leads had turned up. There was definitely some of that attitude Dinwiddie had picked up- just another dope burn. He did wake up a bit when I told him it might be related to something on the West Side and he agreed to meet with me tomorrow for lunch and pull the file. I also got the address of the landlady- Sophie Gruenberg. He remembered her pretty vividly. Said she was an old commie, really hostile to the police, kept asking him how he could stand being a black cossack. That sounded so inviting I thought I’d drop in on her tomorrow morning.”
“Care for a ride-along?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Do pinkos relate well to shrinks?”
“Hell, yes. Marx and Freud bowled together every Tuesday at Vienna Lanes. Freud got strikes; Marx fomented them.”
“Besides,” I said, “what makes you think she’ll relate to a white cossack?”
“Not just any cossack, m’lad. This one’s a member of a persecuted minority.”
“Planning on wearing your lavender uniform?”
“If you put on your feather boa.”
“I’ll go digging in the attic. What time?”
“How’s about nine.”
He came by at eight-forty, driving an unmarked Ford that I’d never seen before. Sophie Gruenberg’s address was on Fourth Avenue, just north of Rose. A short stroll to the beach but this wasn’t Malibu. It was a cold morning, the sun lurking like a mugger behind a grimy bank of undernourished, striated clouds, but zinc-nosed pedestrians were already tramping down Rose, headed for the ocean.
The business mix on Rose proclaimed Changing Neighborhood. In Venice, that meant business as usual; this neighborhood never stopped changing. Designer delis, gelato parlors, and cubbyhole trendtiques shared the sidewalk with laundromats, check-cashing outlets, serious-drinking bars, and crumbling bungalow courts that could be emptied by scrutiny from the Immigration Service. Milo turned right on Fourth and drove for a block.
The house was a one-story side-by-side duplex on a thirty-foot-wide lot. The windows were covered with iron security bars that looked brand-new. The walls were white stucco with red-painted wood trim under a brick-colored composition roof. The front lawn was tiny but green enough to satisfy the Ocean Heights Landscape Committee, and backed by a large germinating yucca plant and a nubby bed of ice plants. Dwarf iceberg roses lined a concrete path that forked to a pair of front stoops. The two doors were also red-painted wood. Brass letters designated them “A” and “B.”
A white ceramic nameplate that said THE SANDERS had been nailed just beneath the “A.” Unit B was marked with something else: A white poster taped to the door, bearing the legend MISSING. REWARD!!! in bold black letters. Under that a photo-reproduction of an old woman- chipmunk face wizened as walnut meat, surrounded by a frizzy aura of white hair. Serious face, borderline hostile. Large, dark eyes.
Below, a paragraph in typescript:
SOPHIE GRUENBERG, LAST SEEN 9/27/88, 8 P.M., IN THE VICINITY OF THE BETH SHALOM SYNAGOGUE, 402 ½ OCEAN FRONT WALK. WEARING A BLUE-AND-PURPLE FLORAL DRESS, BLACK SHOES, CARRYING A LARGE BLUE STRAW HANDBAG.
WT: APPROX 94 LB.
MENTAL AND HEALTH STATUS: EXCELLENT
FOUL PLAY SUSPECTED
A $1000.00 REWARD HAS BEEN OFFERED FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO THE WHEREABOUTS OF MRS. SOPHIE GRUENBERG. ANYONE POSSESSING SUCH INFORMATION SHOULD CONTACT BETH SHALOM SYNAGOGUE.
The address of the synagogue was reiterated at the bottom of the page, along with a phone number with a 398 prefix.
I said, “September twenty-seventh. When was Novato killed?”
Milo frowned and rapped the door to Unit B, hitting it hard enough to make the wood rattle. No answer. He rang the bell. Nothing. We walked over to A and tried there. More silence.
“Let’s try around back,” he said. We peeked into a small yard landscaped with a fig tree and little else. The garage was empty.
Back on the sidewalk, Milo folded his arms across his chest, then smiled at a small Mexican boy across the street who’d come out to stare. The boy scampered away. Milo sighed.
“Sunday,” he said. “Hell of a long time since I’ve spent Sunday in church. Think I can get partial points for synagogue?”
He took Rose to Pacific, headed south for a couple of blocks, and hooked right onto an alley that ran parallel with Paloma. Still no sunshine but the streets and sidewalks were a moving meat market; even the crosswalks were jammed.
The unmarked car inched through the crowd before turning into a pay parking lot on Speedway. The attendant was a Filipino with hair down to his waist, wearing a black tank top over electric-blue bicycle pants and beach sandals. Milo paid him, then showed him a badge and told him to park the Ford where we could get it out fast. The attendant said yessir and bowed and stared at us as we departed, eyes full of curiosity, fear, resentment. Feeling the stare at my back, not liking it, I savored a tiny taste of what it was like to be a cop.
We walked toward Ocean Front Walk, making our way past street peddlers hawking sunglasses and straw hats that might last a weekend, and stands selling ethnic fast food of doubtful origin. The crowd was clearance-sale thick: multigenerational Hispanic tribes, shambling winos who looked as if they’d been hand-dipped in filth, mumbling psychotics and retro-hippies lost in a dope haze, Polo-clad upscalers side by side with rooster-coiffed high-punk roller skaters, assorted body-beautiful types testing the limits of the anti-nudity ordinance, and grinning, gawking tourists from Europe, Asia, and New York, overjoyed at having finally found the real L.A.
A kinetic human sculpture, a quilt patched together with every skin tone from Alpine vanilla to bittersweet fudge. The soundtrack: polyglot rap.
I said, “The Salad Bowl.”
“What?” said Milo, talking loudly to be heard over the din.
“Salad bowl, huh?” He eyed a couple on roller skates. Greased torsos. Zebra-skin loincloth and nothing else on the man, micro-bikini and three nose rings on the woman. “Pass the dressing.”
Splintering park benches along the west side of the promenade were crammed with conclaves of the homeless. Beyond the benches was a strip of lawn planted long ago with palm trees that had grown gigantic. The trunks of the trees had been whitewashed three feet up from ground level to provide protection from animals, four-legged and otherwise, but no one was buying it: The trunks were scarred and maimed and gouged, crisscrossed with graffiti. Past the lawn, the beach. More bodies, glistening, half-naked, sun-drunk. Then a dull-platinum knife blade that had to be the ocean.
Beth Shalom Synagogue was a chunky single story of tan stucco centered by aqua-green double doors recessed under a wooden plaque that bore Hebrew writing. Above the plaque was a glass circle containing a leaded Star of David. Identical stars floated above the arched windows on either side of the doorway. The windows were barred. Flanking the building to the north was a three-story drug rehab center. To the south was a narrow brick apartment building with two shopfronts on the ground floor. One space was empty and accordion-grated. The other was occupied by a souvenir shop entitled CASH TALKS, THE REST WALKS.
We walked to the front of the synagogue. Inside the entry alcove, a poster identical to the one we’d just seen on Sophie Gruenberg’s door had been taped to the wall. Below that was a small bulletin board in a glass-fronted case: corrugated black surface with movable white letters, informing the religiously curious of the times for weekday and Sabbath services. The sermon of the week was “When Good Things Happen to Bad People”; the deliverer, Rabbi David Sanders, M.A.
I said, “Sanders. Unit A.”
The doors were decorated with a pair of dead-bolt locks and some kind of push-button security affair, but when Milo turned the knob, it yielded.
We entered a small linoleum-floor anteroom filled with mismatched bookcases and a single wooden end table. A paper plate of cookies, cans of soda pop, a bottle of Teacher’s whisky, and a stack of paper cups sat atop the table. A wooden panel door was marked SANCTUARY. Next to it, on a metal stand, stood a battered brown leather box filled with black satin skullcaps. Milo took a cap and placed it on his head. I did the same. He pushed open the door.
The sanctuary was the size of a master suite in a Beverly Hills remodel- more of a chapel, really. Light-blue walls hung with oil paintings of biblical scenes, a dozen rows of blond-wood bench pews bordered either side of a central linoleumed aisle layered with a threadbare Persian runner. The aisle culminated at a large podium faced with another six-sided star and topped by a fringed throw of blue velvet. Behind the podium was a pleated velvet curtain sided by two high-backed chairs upholstered in the same blue plush. Dangling over the podium was a cone of red glass, lit. A pair of tall thin windows toward the front of the room allowed in narrow beams of dusty light. The rear was couched in semidarkness. Milo and I stood there, half-hidden by it. The air was warm and fusty, overlaid with kitchen aromas.
A fair-complected bearded man in his late twenties stood behind the podium, a book open before him, addressing a front-row audience of four, all elderly. One man, three women.
“So we see,” he said, leaning on his elbows, “the true wisdom of the Ethics of the Fathers lies in the ability of the tana’im- the rabbis of the Talmud- to put our lives in perspective, generation after generation. To teach us what is important and what isn’t. Values. ‘Who is rich?’ the rabbis ask. And they answer: he who is satisfied with his portion. What could be more profound? ‘Without manners, there is no scholarship. Without scholarship, no manners.’ ‘The more meat, the more worms.’ ” He had a soft, clear voice. Precise enunciation. Some sort of accent- my guess was Australian.
“Worms- oh, boy, is that true,” said the sole male student, using his hands for emphasis. He sat in the midst of the women. All I could see of him was a bald head wisped with white and topped by a yarmulke, just like the one I was wearing, above a short, thick neck. “Worms all the time- all we got now is worms, the way we let society get.”
Mutters of assent from the women.
The bearded man smiled, looked down at his book, wet his thumb with his tongue and turned a page. He was broad-shouldered and had a rosy-cheeked baby face that the dirty-blond beard had failed to season. He had on a short-sleeved blue-and-white plaid shirt and a black velvet skullcap that covered most of his tight blond curls.
“It’s always the same, Rabbi,” said the bald man. “Complication, making things difficult. First you set up a system. To do some good. Till then you’re okay. We should always be looking to do good- otherwise what’s the point, right? What separates us from the animals, right? But then the problem comes when too many people get involved and the system takes over and all of a sudden everyone’s working to do good for the system instead of vice-a-versa. Then you got worms. Lots of meat, lots of worms. The more meat, the more worms.”
“Sy, I think what the rabbi means is something different,” said a plump woman on the far right. She had fluffy blued hair and heavy arms that shook as she used her hands for emphasis. “He’s talking about materialism. The more foolish things we collect, the more problems we get.”
“Actually, you’re both correct,” said the blond man in a conciliatory tone. “The Talmud is emphasizing the virtue of simplicity. Mr. Morgenstern is talking about procedural simplicity; Mrs. Cooper, material simplicity. When we complicate things, we drift further away from our purpose on this planet- getting closer to God. That’s precisely why the Tal-”
“It happened with the IRS, Rabbi,” said a woman with a thin, birdlike voice and a cap of dyed-black hair. “The taxes. The taxes were supposed to be for the people. Now it’s people for the taxes. Same with Social Security. Moishe Kapoyr.” Twist of a wrist. “Upside down.”
“Very true, Mrs. Steinberg,” said the young rabbi. “Oftentimes-”
“Social Security, too,” said Mr. Morgenstern. “They make like Social Security is something we’re stealing, the young puppies, so they shouldn’t have a new BMW each year. How many years did I work and contribute, like clockwork, back before BMWs were enemy airplanes? Now, they make like I want charity, bread out of their mouths. Who do they think baked them the bread in the first place? From trees it fell?”
The young rabbi started to comment but was drowned out by a discussion of the Social Security system. He seemed to accept it with practiced good nature, turned another page, read, finally looked up and saw us, and stood up straight behind the podium.
He raised his eyebrows. Milo gave a small nod of acknowledgment.
The rabbi left the podium and walked toward us. Tall, built like an athlete, with a sure stride. His students- old enough to be his grandparents- turned their heads and followed his path. They saw us. The synagogue grew silent.
“I’m Rabbi Sanders. Can I help you, gentlemen?”
Milo flashed the badge. Sanders examined it. Milo said, “Excuse the interruption, Rabbi. When you’re through we’d like to talk to you.”
“Certainly. May I ask about what?”
The baby face braced itself, as if for pain. A child in a doctor’s office, anticipating the needle. “Do you have news for us, Officer?”
Milo shook his head. “Just questions.”
“Oh,” said Sanders, looking like a prisoner who’d had his sentence delayed but not commuted.
“What?” said one of the women at the front. “What is it?”
“Cops,” said Morgenstern. “I can always tell. Am I right?” Seen front on, he was thick, with doughy features, shaggy eyebrows, and meaty workingman’s hands that he waved as he talked.
I smiled at him.
He said, “I can always tell. Those yarmulkes are sitting there like they’re ready to fly off.”
Four faces stared at us. A quartet of antique masks scored by time but strengthened by experience.
Rabbi Sanders said, “These gentlemen are indeed police officers and they’re here to ask questions about Sophie.”
“Questions,” said the plump woman, Mrs. Cooper. She wore spectacles, a white sweater buttoned to the neck, and a string of pearls. The blued hair was precisely marcelled. “Why more questions, now?”
“All we’ve gotten from the police is questions,” said the hand-waving Morgenstern. “No answers- no meat, lots of worms. How long’s it been? What, month and a half?”
The women nodded.
“You think there’s a chance?” said Mrs. Steinberg, the black-haired woman. The hair was cut in bangs and bobbed. The face below it was chalk-white and thin and had once been beautiful. I pictured her in a Roaring Twenties chorus line, doing high kicks. “Even a little bit of a chance that she could still be alive?”
“Hush, Rose,” said Mrs. Cooper. “There’s always hope. Kayn aynhoreh, poo poo poo.” Her soft face quivered.
Morgenstern regarded her with a look of exaggerated scorn. “What’s with this aynhoreh business, my dear? The evil eye? Superstition-stupidstition. What you got to have is rationality, the rational mind. Dialectics, Hegel and Kant- and of course the Talmud, excuse me, Rabbi.” He slapped his own wrist.
“Stop joking, Sy. This is serious,” said the black-haired woman. She looked at us, pained. “Could she possibly be alive, Officers? After all this time?”
Five faces, waiting for an answer.
Milo took a step backward. “I’d like to hope so, Ma’am,” he said. To Sanders: “We can come back and discuss this later, Rabbi.”
“No, that’s all right,” said Sanders. “We were just about to conclude. If you wait a minute, I’ll be right with you.”
He went back behind the podium, said a few more words about values and proper perspective, dismissed the class, and returned to us. The old people lingered near the front of the synagogue, huddling in discussion.
“Refreshments out in front, people,” said Sanders.
The huddle buzzed, then broke. The women hung back and Mr. Morgenstern came forward, the designated quarterback. He was no more than five three, blocky and firm-looking. A toy truck of a man in khaki work pants and a white shirt under a gray sweater vest.
“You got questions,” he said, “maybe we can answer them. We knew her.”
Sanders looked at Milo.
Milo said, “Sure. We’d appreciate any information.”
Morgenstern nodded. “Good you agreed,” he said, “’cause we voted on it- the people have spoken. That should be respected.”
We reassembled near the podium. Milo stood in front of it. Sanders took a seat and pulled a briar pipe out of his pocket.
“Tsk, tsk, Rabbi,” said the woman who hadn’t yet spoken. Big-boned, no makeup, brushed-steel hair tied in a bun.
“I’m not lighting it, Mrs. Sindowsky,” said the rabbi.
“Better you shouldn’t do anything with it. What do you need problems on the lips for? More meat, more worms, right, Rabbi?”
Sanders blushed and smiled, cradled the pipe in one hand and touched it longingly, but didn’t put it in his mouth.
Milo said, “I want to be straight with you people. I’ve got absolutely nothing new to tell you about Mrs. Gruenberg. In fact, I’m not investigating her case and I only came here because her disappearance may be related to another case. And I can’t tell you anything about that one.”
“Such a deal,” said Morgenstern. “You must be fun at swap meets.”
“Exactly,” said Milo, smiling.
“What can we do for you, Officer?” said Rabbi Sanders.
“Tell me about Mrs. Gruenberg. Everything you know about her disappearance.”
“We told everything to the police already,” said Mrs. Cooper. “She was here, left, and that was it. Poof. Gone.” The heavy arms rippled. “After a couple days the police agreed to talk to us and they sent a detective down who asked questions. He filed a missing persons report and promised to keep in touch with us. So far, nothing.”
“That’s because,” said Morgenstern, “they got nothing. They had something, would this man be here, asking us to go over it again? How they gonna give you what they don’t have?”
Milo said, “Do you remember the name of the investigating detective?”
“What investigating?” said Morgenstern. “He took a report- that was it.”
“Mehan,” said the rabbi. “Detective Mehan from Pacific Division.”
“Which division you from?” said Morgenstern.
“West L.A.,” Milo said.
Morgenstern winked and said, “Silk stocking detail, eh? Lots of stolen BMWs.”
Rabbi Sanders said, “Detective Mehan did more than just file a report. He examined her… Sophie’s house. I know because I let him in. We, my family and I, were- are- her tenants. We live side by side, kept each other’s keys. Detective Mehan went into her unit and found no evidence of any crime being committed. Everything was in order. He also checked with her bank and found out she hadn’t made any large withdrawals recently. And she hadn’t asked the post office to withhold or forward mail. So it seemed to him she hadn’t planned to take a trip. He thought she might have gotten lost somewhere.”
“Impossible,” said Mrs. Steinberg. “She knew Venice like the palm of her hand. She would never get lost. Right?”
“True, but who knows?” said Mrs. Cooper. “Anything can happen.”
Vulnerable looks. Long silence.
“Ahh,” said Morgenstern. “All guesses. Including the bank stuff- you ask me, that means nothing. Sophie was a crafty one- she never told anyone what she was thinking or doing. Never trusted anyone- especially the capitalist bankers. So how much would she keep in bank accounts? The big bucks? Or just narrishkeit small change? Maybe she kept her serious cash somewhere else.”
“Where would that be?” said Milo.
“I don’t know,” said Morgenstern. “She didn’t tell no one, you think she’d tell me? I’m just guessing, same as you. Maybe in the house, under the bed, who knows? She had her ideas. Maybe she was saving up, waiting for the next revolution. So maybe she took that and left, and you wouldn’t know nothing from nothing by checking with any banks!”
The old man’s color had risen.
Milo said, “So you don’t know for a fact that she kept large amounts of cash around the house.”
I knew what he was thinking: dope.
“No, no,” said Morgenstern, “I don’t know nothing. Which puts me in the same club with everyone else. She wasn’t a personal person, know what I mean? Didn’t let on what she was thinking or doing. So I’m just saying, checking the banks doesn’t mean nothing as far as logical, rational thinking goes. A person could keep cash and just decide to leave- am I right?”
Milo said, “You’ve got a point.”
“He throws me a bone,” said Morgenstern. But he looked pleased.
Mrs. Sindowsky said, “Tell him about the pictures?”
“Oh,” said the rabbi, looking uneasy.
“What pictures?” said Milo.
“Detective Mehan went to the morgue and took pictures of any… senior citizens who’d been… any unidentified victims that matched Sophie in age. He brought them to me to look at. He put out some bulletins, called some other police departments- Long Beach, Orange County- and asked if they had any unidentified… people. None were Sophie. Thank God.”
Four echoing Thank God’s.
Sanders said, “In all fairness, he seemed to be thorough- Detective Mehan. But after three weeks had passed without her showing up, he told us there was a limit to what he could do. There was no evidence of any crime being committed. The choice was to wait or hire a private detective. We talked about doing that- the detective- made a few calls to agencies. It’s very expensive. We asked the Jewish Federation to consider funding. They wouldn’t approve a detective, but they did agree to the reward.”
“Those skinflints- to them it’s chump change,” said Morgenstern.
Milo said, “Can you think of any reason she’d just leave?”
“That’s the point,” said Mrs. Steinberg. “There’d be no reason for her to leave. She was happy here- why would she just leave?”
“Happy?” said Mrs. Sindowsky. “You ever see her smile?”
“All I’m saying, Dora,” said Mrs. Steinberg, “is that after all this time maybe we have to assume the worst.”
“Feh,” said Morgenstern, shaking a thick fist. “Always with the gloom and doom. Chicken Little. The smog’s falling.”
“I’ve lived,” said Mrs. Steinberg, drawing herself up, “through plenty. I know the way things are.”
“Lived?” said Morgenstern. “And what’ve I been doing? Hanging on the wall like an oil painting?”
Milo looked at Mrs. Steinberg. “Besides the amount of time she’s been gone, do you have any reason to assume the worst?”
All eyes focused on the black-haired woman. She looked uncomfortable. “It just doesn’t make sense. Sophie wasn’t the type to wander off. She was a very… regular person. Attached to her house, to her books. And she loved Venice- she’d lived here longer than any of us. Where would she go?”
“What about relatives?” said Milo. “She ever mention any?”
Rabbi Sanders said, “The only family she talked about were her brothers and sisters killed by the Nazis. She talked a lot about the Holocaust, the evils of fascism.”
Mrs. Sindowsky said, “She talked a lot about politics, period.”
“Tell the plain truth,” said Morgenstern. “She was a Red.”
“So?” said Mrs. Cooper, “That’s some sort of crime in this free country, Sy? Expressing political views? Don’t make to them like she was a criminal.”
“Who says it’s a crime?” Morgenstern retorted. “I’m only stating facts. The plain truth. What she was, was what she was. Red as a tomato.”
“What does that make me?” said Mrs. Cooper.
“You, my darling?” said Morgenstern. “Let’s say pink.” Smile. “When you get excited, maybe a nice shade of fuchsia.”
“Ahh,” said the plump woman, turning her back on him and folding her arms under her bosom.
Milo said, “The poster says she disappeared around here. How did that happen?”
“We were having an evening social,” said the rabbi. “A couple of weeks after Rosh Hashanah- Jewish New Year. Trying”
“Trying to rejuvenate community spirit,” Mrs. Sindowsky broke in, as if reciting from a lesson book. “Get a little action going, right, Rabbi?”
Sanders smiled at her, then turned to Milo. “Mrs. Gruenberg showed up but left after a short while. That was the last anyone saw her. I assumed she’d gone home. When the mail started piling up at her door, I got worried. I used my key and let myself into her unit and saw she was gone. I called the police. After forty-eight hours had passed, Detective Mehan agreed to come down.”
“And the last time you saw her- at the social- was around eight?”
“Eight, eight-thirty,” said Sanders. “That’s only an estimate- the social began at seven-thirty and ended at nine. She wasn’t there during the last half hour. We pulled up chairs and had a discussion. So she left some time before eight-thirty. No one’s really sure.”
“Did she bring a car or come on foot?”
“On foot. She didn’t drive, liked to walk.”
“It’s gotten kind of tough around here to be walking at night,” said Milo.
“Good of you to notice,” said Morgenstern. “Days aren’t so wonderful either.”
“She wouldn’t have worried about that?”
“She certainly should have,” said Mrs. Steinberg. “With all the nogoodniks and lowlife hanging around, taking over the neighborhood- all the drugs. We used to enjoy the beach. You come around here during the week, Officer, and you won’t see us taking the sun like we used to. All of us used to walk, to swim- that’s why we moved here. It was paradise. Now when we go out at night, we take a car, in a group. Park it back on Speedway and walk to the shul, marching like a battalion of soldiers. On a nice summer night, a late sunset, maybe we’ll take a longer walk. Still all together- as a group. Even then we feel nervous. But Sophie never joined in any of that. She wasn’t a joiner. She lived here a long time, didn’t want to admit things had changed. You couldn’t talk to her- she was stubborn. She walked around like she owned the neighborhood.”
“She liked to walk,” said Sanders. “For exercise.”
“Sometimes,” said Morgenstern, “exercise isn’t so healthy.”
Mrs. Cooper frowned at him. He winked at her and smiled.
Milo said, “Rabbi, you lived next to her. What was her state of mind during the last few days before she disappeared?”
“The last few days?” said Sanders. He rolled his pipe in his palm. “Truthfully, she probably was very upset.”
“She wasn’t one to express emotions openly. She kept to herself.”
“Then why do you say she was upset?”
Sanders hesitated, looking first at his students, then Milo.
“There was,” he said, “a crime. Someone she knew.”
“What crime?” said Morgenstern. “Say it. A murder. Drugs and guns, the whole shebang. Some black boy she was renting to. He got shot, over drugs.” He squinted and his eyebrows merged like mating caterpillars. “Aha! That’s the big secret you can’t tell us about, right?”
Milo said, “Do you know anything about that?”
Mrs. Sindowsky said, “Just what we heard from the rabbi here. She had a tenant; he got shot.”
“None of you knew him?”
Shakes of heads.
“I knew of him but not him,” said Mrs. Cooper.
“What did you know?”
“That she’d taken in a boarder. Once I saw him on his little motorbike, driving home. Nice-looking boy. Very big.”
“There was plenty of talk,” said Morgenstern.
“What kind of talk?” Milo said.
“A black kid- whadya think? Was she putting herself in danger.” Morgenstern looked accusingly at the women. They seemed embarrassed. “Everyone’s nice and liberal,” he said, “till it comes to putting the mouth where the money is. But Sophie was a Red- it was just the kind of thing she’d do. You think he got her into some kind of trouble, the kid? Keeping his dope money in the house-they came to get it and got her?”
Milo said, “No. There’s no evidence of that.”
Morgenstern gave him a conspiratorial wink. “No evidence, but you’re coming around asking questions. The plot thickens, eh, Mr. Policeman? More meat, more worms.”
Milo asked a few more questions, determined they had nothing else to offer, and thanked them. We left, replacing our skullcaps in the leather box on the way out, walked a ways up Ocean Front, and had a cup of coffee at a teriyaki stand. Milo glared at the winos hanging around the stand and they drifted away, like sloughing dead skin. He sipped, running his gaze up and down the walk-street, letting it settle on the synagogue.
After a few moments all four old people came out of the building and walked off together, Morgenstern in the lead. An elderly battalion. When they were out of view, Milo tossed his coffee cup in the trash and said, “Come on.”
The dead bolts on the synagogue’s doors were locked. Milo’s knock brought Sanders to the door.
The rabbi had put a gray suit jacket over his shirt, had his pipe in his mouth, still unlit, and was holding an oversized maroon book with marbled page-ends.
“A little more of your time, Rabbi?”
Sanders held the door open and we stepped into the anteroom. Most of the cookies were gone and only two cans of soda remained.
“Can I offer you anything?” said Sanders. He slid the book into one of the cases.
“No thanks, Rabbi.”
“Shall we go back in the sanctuary?”
“This is fine, thanks. I was just wondering if there was anything you hadn’t felt comfortable discussing in front of your students.”
“Students.” Sanders smiled. “They’ve taught me a good deal more than I’ve taught them. This is only a part-time job. Weekdays I teach at an elementary school in the Fairfax district. I conduct services here on weekends, give classes Sundays, run an occasional social evening.”
“Sounds like a full schedule.”
Sanders shrugged and adjusted his yarmulke. “Five children. Los Angeles is an expensive city. That’s how I came to know Sophie- Mrs. Gruenberg. Finding affordable housing’s impossible, especially with children. People in this city don’t seem to like children. Mrs. Gruenberg didn’t mind at all, even though she wasn’t very… grandmotherly. And she was very reasonable about the rent. She said it was because we- my wife and I- had ideals, she respected us for them. Even though she herself had no use for religion. Marxism was her faith. She really was an unregenerate communist.”
“She generally pretty vocal about her political views?”
“If one asked her, she’d speak her mind. But she didn’t go about volunteering them- she wasn’t a gregarious woman. Quite the opposite. Kept to herself.”
“Not a joiner?”
Sanders nodded. “I tried to get her more involved in the synagogue, but she had no interest in religion, wasn’t at all sociable. Truthfully, she wasn’t the most popular person. But the others do care about her. They all look out for one another. Wanted to dip into their own pockets in order to hire the private detective. But none of them can afford it- they’re all on pension. Detective Mehan told me it would probably be a waste of money, so I discouraged it, promised to bring it to the Federation again. Her vanishing has really frightened them- they’re slapped in the face by their own helplessness. That’s why I’m glad you returned when they were gone. Talking about Ike could only upset them more. That is what you want to talk about, isn’t it?”
“Why’d Detective Mehan feel it was a waste of time?”
Sanders lowered his gaze and bit his lip. “He told me- and this is something I haven’t told them- that it didn’t look good. The fact that she hadn’t made plans to leave meant there was a good chance she’d met up with foul play. The fact that her apartment was in order meant it had taken place on the street- as she walked home. He said that if she’d gotten lost and wandered away or had a stroke, she would have turned up by three weeks. One way or the other. He said private detectives could find people, but weren’t much use discovering bodies.”
He looked up. Blue eyes still. Jamming the pipe in his mouth, he bit down so hard his jaws bunched and the board bristled.
Milo said, “She’s your landlady. Is there a mortgage on the building?”
Sanders shook his head. “No, she owns it free and clear- has for several years. Detective Mehan found that out when he checked into her finances.”
“What about other bills that come in? Who pays them?”
“I do. It doesn’t come out to much- just utilities. I’ve also been collecting all her mail. What looks like a bill, I open and pay. I know it’s not perfectly legal to do that, but Detective Mehan assured me it would be all right.”
“What about your rent cheek?”
“I’ve opened an interest-earning account, deposited the October and November checks in there. It seemed the best thing to do until we learn… something.”
“Where do you keep her mail, Rabbi?”
“Right here, in the synagogue, under lock and key.”
“I’d like to see it.”
He said, “Certainly,” put his pipe in his jacket pocket, and went into the sanctuary. We watched him unlock a cabinet in back of the podium and draw out two manila envelopes, which he brought back and handed to Milo. One was marked SEPT/OCT.; the other, NOV.
Milo said, “This is all of it?”
“This is it.” Sad look.
Milo opened the envelopes, removed the contents, and spread them out on the ledge of the bookcase. He inspected each piece of mail. Mostly flyers and computer-addressed bulk mail. Occupant appearing more frequently than her name. A few utility bills that had been opened and marked Paid, followed by dates of payments.
Sanders said, “I was hoping there’d be something personal, to give us a clue. But she wasn’t very… connected to the outside world.” His baby face had grown sad. Stuffing one hand in his pocket, he groped until he found his pipe.
Milo slid the mail back in the manila envelopes. “Is there anything else you want to tell me, Rabbi?”
Sanders rubbed the bowl of the pipe against his nose.
“Just one thing,” he said. “And Detective Mehan filed a report on it, so you should have a record of it somewhere. The old people don’t know this either- I didn’t see any point in telling them. A few days after she disappeared- that was a Tuesday; this happened sometime over the weekend- burglars broke into the house. Into both our places. My family and I were out of town, at a school retreat in the city. Detective Mehan said it was probably a drug addict looking for things to sell. A coward: he’d watched the house- staked us out- waited until we were gone, and moved in.”
“What was taken?”
“As far as I could tell, what he took from Sophie was a television, a radio, a silver-plated samovar, and some inexpensive jewelry. From us, even less- we don’t have a television. All he got from us was some flatware, a ritual spice box and candleholder, and a tape recorder I use for teaching Hebrew. But he made a mess. Both units were in a shambles- food taken out of the refrigerator and thrown around, drawers opened, papers scattered. Detective Mehan said it showed signs of a disorganized mind. Immaturity- teenagers, or someone on drugs.”
“What was the point of entry?”
“Through the back doors. I’ve since had new locks put on and bars on the windows. Now my children look out through bars.”
He shook his head.
“The material loss was trivial,” he said, “but the feeling of violation- and hatred. The way the food was strewn about seemed so spiteful. And something else… that made it seem… personal.”
“What’s that, Rabbi?”
“He- the addict or whoever- wrote on the walls. In red paint that he took from the garage- the same red paint I’d just used a week before to paint the windows. It resembled blood. Hateful stuff- anti-Semitism. Profanities- I had to cover my children’s eyes. And something else that I found very strange: Remember John Kennedy! Several exclamation points after the word Kennedy. Which doesn’t make any logical sense, does it? Kennedy was anti-racist. But Detective Mehan said if he’d been crazy on drugs, he couldn’t be expected to make sense. So I suppose that would explain it.”
He frowned, chewed on the pipe some more.
Milo said, “You don’t like that explanation?”
“It’s not that,” said Sanders. “It’s… nothing tangible. Just a feeling my wife and I have had. Since Ike. Since Sophie. As if we’re in jeopardy- someone’s out there, intending to harm us. Despite the locks and the bars. Not that there ever is anyone, when I actually look, so I suppose it’s nerves. I tell myself this is simply the way America is- learn to get used to it. But my wife wants us to move back to Auckland. That’s New Zealand. Things were different there.”
“How long have you been in L.A.?”
“Just since July. Before that, we lived in Lakewood, New Jersey. I studied at a seminary there, did have occasion to visit New York City, so I guess I should have been prepared for urban life. But in California I expected things to be more… relaxed.”
“The term is laid back, Rabbi. Unfortunately, for the most part it’s a facade.”
“Seems to be.”
“Since the break-in, have you and your family had any other problems?”
“Nothing, thank God.”
Milo reached into a coat pocket, drew out the photo he’d taken from Dinwiddie, and held it in front of the rabbi’s baby face.
“Yes, that’s Ike,” said Sanders. “Did his death have anything to do with Sophie?”
“Nothing as far as we know, Rabbi. What can you tell me about him?”
“Not much at all. I barely knew him. We passed each other a few times- that was all.”
“How long had he been living here before he was killed?”
Sanders shook his head. “I don’t know. My feeling was it had been for a while.”
“They- he and Sophie- had a… comfortable relationship. As if they’d settled in with each other.”
“They get along pretty well?”
“Seemed to.” Sanders put his pipe in his mouth, then removed it. “Actually, they debated quite a bit. We could hear it through the walls. To be frank, she was a cantankerous old lady. But she and Ike did seem to have a certain… not rapport- I’d call it ease. He did chores for her, gardening, brought her groceries- I believe he worked at a grocery store. And the fact that she had him living with her, right in the apartment, would imply a great deal of trust, wouldn’t it?”
“Any reason for her not to trust him?”
Sanders shook his head. “No, I didn’t mean that at all. The racial thing has no personal relevance for me. But it is unusual. The old people have had bad experiences with black men- they tend to fear them. Not that there was any reason to fear Ike. From the few contacts I had with him he seemed a very good chap. Polite, pleasant. The only thing I did find unusual about him was his interest in the Holocaust.”
“Unusual in what way?”
“The fact that he was interested in it at all. Someone his age, not Jewish- it’s not a common interest, don’t you agree? Though I suppose living with Sophie made it not that unusual. It was a favorite topic of hers- she may have passed it along to Ike.”
“How do you know he was interested in it?”
“Because of an occurrence, last summer, about a week after we’d moved in. I ran into him in the garage. I was unpacking boxes and he’d just driven in on his motor scooter. He was carrying a huge armful of books and he dropped them. I helped him pick them up. I noticed a title- something about the origins of the Nazi party. I opened it and saw from the bookplate that it had come from the Holocaust Center- over on Pico, in West L.A. So had the others I picked up. I asked him if he was doing a school paper and he smiled and said no, it was a personal research project. I offered to help him if he needed it, but he just smiled again and said he had everything he needed. I thought it unusual, but I was pleased. That someone his age would take an interest. Most people his age have no idea what happened fifty years ago.”
“What did he and Mrs. Gruenberg used to argue about?”
“Not arguments, in the sense of quarreling. When I said debates, I meant discussions.”
“Lively discussions, but we couldn’t make out the words- we weren’t listening. Knowing Sophie, though, my assumption would be politics.”
“Any idea what Novato’s political views were?”
“None whatsoever.” Sanders thought for a moment. “Officer, do you suspect a political connection to… what happened?”
“No evidence of that either, Rabbi. How was Mrs. Gruenberg affected by Novato’s death?”
“As I said before, I assumed she was upset. But I didn’t see much of her reaction, because she stayed in her unit and didn’t come out much after it happened. In retrospect, I realize that was odd- she used to be out in the yard hanging laundry, or taking her walks around the neighborhood. I only found out about the murder because another policeman- a black man whose name I don’t remember- came by the house and asked me a few questions. About Ike. Did he use drugs? I told him, not to my knowledge. Who did he hang around with? I’d never seen anyone. Then he asked me about Sophie. Did she use drugs? Did she buy expensive things that she couldn’t seem to afford? That, I laughed at. But when he- the black detective- told me why he’d come, I stopped laughing. After he left, I went over to Sophie’s unit and knocked on the door. She didn’t answer. I didn’t want to violate her privacy, so I left her alone. I tried the next day, but she still didn’t answer. I started to worry- with an old person, anything can happen- but I decided to wait a while before using my key. Shortly after, I saw her come out, walking toward Rose Avenue. Looking angry. Very grim. I went after her, tried to talk to her, but she just shook her head and kept walking. The next time I saw her was here at the synagogue. She came to the social. Given her state of mind, that surprised me. But she kept to herself, avoiding people. Walking around the room, looking all around, touching the walls, the seats. Almost as if she were seeing it all for the first time.”
“Or the last,” said Milo.
Sanders’s eyes widened. He held the pipe with two hands, as if it had suddenly grown heavy.
“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “That could have been it. Seeing it for the last time. Saying goodbye.”
When we got back to the pay lot, the Ford was in easy-exit position. The Filipino attendant stopped traffic on Speedway to let us out. Milo didn’t acknowledge the courtesy.
I said, “Swastikas on cars, hate messages on walls. What do you think?”
He said, “I think the world’s a kind and compassionate place,” and nudged the car through the pedestrian jumble. The pedestrians weren’t feeling cooperative today. Milo cursed as he inched forward, but his heart wasn’t in it.
I said, “ ‘Remember Kennedy.’ It doesn’t make much sense. Unless it was a warning, not a tribute. As in, remember what happened to Kennedy- we’ll get you too.”
“Who’s warning who?”
I said, “I don’t know,” and grew silent.
He smiled. “Starting to see evil everywhere? Sounds like a peace officer’s perspective.”
“Speaking of peace officers, this Mehan a good cop?”
“Think he and Smith ever compared notes?”
He gave me a sharp look. “What is this, the Police Review Board?”
“Wondering what? If one arm of the octopus knows what the other’s doing? Usually not. But what if Mehan and Smith did put their heads together. What would they have ended up with? Double dead ends.”
I said, “The dope thing might have led them somewhere. Smith was thinking in that direction- the rabbi said he was asking if Gruenberg had been involved in drugs. Not that that seems likely.”
“Little old dope granny? She sure wasn’t living the life-style.”
“Alex, most likely Smith was just fishing- working with what he had, which in this case was close to zero. But the way things have turned, you can’t eliminate anyone. All the money to be made- it’s loony tunes out there. We’re getting old ladies packing their supp-hose with the stuff; people cuddling sweet little babies, the buntings crammed full of white powder; cripples using false limbs. And Gruenberg’s profile doesn’t contradict a dope granny- she had radical political views, which means she might not have been so reluctant to buck the establishment. She keeps to herself, doesn’t like company, and has Novato bunking in with her- some kid out of nowhere, with no ID, no past, and she’s got him living in the same unit with her. A black kid. Even for Venice, that’s strange- you saw how the other oldsters thought so. Then, just a few days after he’s snuffed, she’s gone. Maybe he was a commie too- that was the connection between them. Maybe the two of them had some political thing going. Hell, maybe that’s where the dough went.”
“Cash for the cause?”
“You want to speculate, I’ll speculate.”
I thought about it as he wrestled with the steering wheel and finally got back on Pacific. “Milo, if Gruenberg was involved in the dope scene, she could have made someone mad, and run out of fear. Or maybe the people she was afraid of got to her first. What if she’d ended up with a cash-flow or a dope-flow problem, and the break-in at her place was someone looking to collect?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But the other thing you’ve got to consider is that junkies are prime opportunists. The posters could have tipped them off that she was gone; her place was vacant, a perfect target. The bottom line is, all of this is just head-tripping- we don’t know shit.”
A block later I said, “Could Holly have been involved with them- Gruenberg and Novato’s cabal?”
“Cabal? An old lady, a bag boy, and a retarded kid who isn’t on anyone’s subversive list? Not much of a cabal.”
“She wasn’t retarded-”
“Okay, just stupid. Same difference.”
“I didn’t say it was a competent cabal. Two of them are dead and one’s missing. But maybe Holly’s shooting at Massengil was politically motivated.”
“If it was Massengil she was shooting at.”
Milo came to a short stop at Washington Boulevard.
“Too weird, Alex. Got a headache.” He drove into a self-serve gas station with a mini-mart at the back of the lot. I waited in the Ford as he purchased a packet of aspirin. Before he returned to the car, he went to the pay phone and stayed there for a while, popping tablets, feeding quarters and talking, the receiver tucked up under his chin. Making two calls.
When he came back, he said, “Mehan’s out of town, two weeks’ vacation, no one knows where any of his files are, they’ll get back to me.”
“Who was the second call to?”
He looked at me. “What a sleuth! I tried the Holocaust Center, wanted to leave a message for someone I know there. Got a tape, they’re closed Sundays.”
“That’s right,” I said. “They know you. You helped them trace that Nazi scientist- the one the army protected.”
“Good old Werner Kaltenblud, president of the Poison Gas Club. Bastard’s still alive in Syria, living like royalty, unrepentant. I’ve got a more recent connection to the Center. Last year someone painted swastikas on the side of the museum building they’re putting up. Not my usual thing, but they called me because of Kaltenblud. Then it hit the news and the brass took over. ATD.”
“No. The asshole who preceded him, but same old story: TV crews and politicos making speeches- Gordon Latch, in fact.”
“How about Massengil?”
“Nope. Not his district.”
“Maybe not his area of interest, either.”
“Could be. It was a real circus, Alex. ATD playing I Spy, asking lots of clever questions, filing lots of paper, but they never bothered to surveill. Next week there were broken windows and an arson fire in one of the trailers out back in the construction site. We never found out who did any of it. So much for my credibility. But maybe I’ve still got enough good-will residue for them to think back and try to remember something about this Novato kid. Something more than his library card.”
He turned left on Washington, driving parallel with the Marina. A different kind of crowd here. White slacks and deep tans and aggressive little foreign ears. The boulevard was lined with new construction- mostly low-rise designer office buildings festooned with reminders of an architectural heritage that had never existed, and nautical theme restaurants draped with BRUNCH! and HAPPY HOUR! banners.
“Pretty, huh?” said Milo. “The good life reigns.”
He drove a couple of blocks, turned off on a street that dead-ended a block later. Small houses, in varying stages of gentrification. Cars lining the street, no people. He parked in front of a hydrant, left the motor running, got out, and opened the trunk.
He came back carrying a shotgun. Clamped it to the dashboard, barrel-up, and pulled the car out onto the street.
I said, “Where to?”
“Somewhere not so pretty.”
He got back on Washington, took it to the Marina Freeway, switched to the 405, wrestled with the airport jam for a while, and got off on Imperial Highway heading east. Bordering the off-ramp were the broad gray lots of shipping terminals, import-export companies, and customs brokers, and a four-story self-storage facility that looked like the box an office building would come in. A red light halted us at the intersection of La Cienega and Imperial, and we waited it out, staring at the colossal truncated bulk of the unfinished Century Freeway: hundred-foot concrete dinosaur legs supporting a six-lane slab that ended in mid-air and was fringed with curling steel veins- a messy amputation.
The green arrow appeared and Milo turned. The terrain deteriorated rudely to a block of scabrous one-story buildings on a dry-dust lot. A pool hall, a liquor store, and a bar advertising “nude table dancers,” all plywood-boarded and choked with graffiti. Even sin couldn’t flourish here.
But a block later there were signs of revitalization. Weekly-rate motels, auto shops, car dealerships, wig stores, and rundown apartments. Several beautifully kept churches, a couple of shopping centers. The sprawling campus of Southwestern College. And for color, the Golden Arches and its rainbow-hued clones- modular fast-food setups so clean and unscarred they might have been dropped into the neighborhood just minutes before by some clumsy Franchise Stork.
Milo said, “Taking the scenic route.”
I said, “Long time since I’ve been down here.”
“Didn’t know you’d ever been down here. Most folks of the fair-pigment persuasion never find the opportunity.”
“Grad school,” I said. “First year. I was a research assistant on a Head Start program trying to increase the reading skills of ghetto kids. I took an interest in one of the children- a very bright little boy named Eric. I visited him a couple of times at home- I can still picture the place. He lived on Budlong, near 103rd. Nice-looking building, not at all what I expected for the area. Widowed mother, the father had been shot in Vietnam. Grandma helping out- place was neat as a pin. Lots of pressure from both Mom and Grandma for Eric to get A’s, become a doctor or a lawyer.”
“How old was he?”
Milo whistled. “Long ways to med school.”
“Fortunately he had the brains for it.”
“What happened to him?”
“I followed him for a couple of years- phone calls, Christmas cards. He was still getting A’s. And starting to develop bad stomachaches. I was going up to San Francisco for my internship. Referred the mother to a good pediatrician and a community mental health center. After that, we just kind of lost touch. He’d be college age by now. Amazing. I have no idea what happened to him. Guess that makes me your typical superficial do-gooder, huh?”
Milo didn’t say anything. I noticed he was driving faster than usual. Two hands on the wheel. As we zipped eastward, the business establishments grew smaller, sadder, rattier, and I noticed a certain consistency to their distribution: check-cashing outlets, rib joints, nail palaces, liquor stores. Lots of liquor stores. Thin dark men lounged against filthy stucco walls, holding paper bags, smoking, staring off into space. A few women in shorts and rollers sashayed by and caught whistles. But for the most part the streets were deserted- that much South Central and Beverly Hills had in common. A quarter mile farther, even the liquor stores couldn’t make it. Plywood storefronts became as common as glass. Movie theaters converted to churches converted to garbage dumps. Vacant lots. Impromptu auto graveyards. Entire blocks of dead buildings shadowing the occasional ragpicker or stray child. More young men, glutted with time, starved of hope. Not a white face in sight.
Milo turned left on Broadway, drove until 108th, and made a right. We passed an enormous, windowless brown brick fortress.
“Southeast Division,” he said. “But we’re not meeting him there.”
He drove for another few miles, through silent residential blocks of tiny, characterless bungalows. Ocher and pink and turquoise texture-coat competed with the angry black-and-Dayglo tangle of gang scrawl. Dirt lawns were surrounded by sheets of chain link. Undernourished dogs scrounged through the trash that lined the curbs. A quick turn took us to 111th. Another led us into a cracked-asphalt alley lined with an alternating band of garage doors and more chain link.
A group of black men in their early twenties loitered midway down the alley. When they saw the Ford cruising toward them, they stared defiantly, then sauntered away and disappeared into one of the garages.
Milo said, “Strictly speaking, this isn’t Watts- that’s farther east. But same difference.”
He turned off the engine and pocketed the keys, then unclasped the shotgun.
“This is where it happened,” he said. “Novato. You want to stay in the car, feel free.”
He got out. I did the same.
“Place used to be a major crack alley,” he said, looking up and down, holding the shotgun in one hand. “Then it got cleaned up- one of those neighborhood group things. Then it got bad again. Depends what week you’re here.”
His eyes kept moving. To each end of the alley. To the garage doors. I followed his gaze and saw the pock and splinter of bullet holes in stucco and wood- malignant blackheads among the graffiti blemish. The ground was struggling clumps of weeds, garbage, used condoms, cellophane packets, empty matchbooks, the cheap-jewelry glitter of foil scraps. The air stank of dog shit and decomposed food.
“You tell me,” said Milo. “Can you think of any reason for him to come down here except for dope?”
The sound of a car engine from the north end of the alley made both of us turn. Milo lifted the shotgun and held it with both hands.
What looked like another unmarked. A Matador. Sage-green.
The car nosed up next to the Ford. The man who got out was about my age, medium-sized and trim, very dark, clean-shaven, with a medium Afro. He wore a banker’s pinstriped gray suit, white button-down shirt, red silk tie, and glossy black wingtips. Square-jawed and straight-backed and very handsome, but, despite the good posture, tired-looking.
Milo said, “Maury.”
“Milo. Congratulations on the promotion.”
The two of them shook hands. Smith looked at me. His face was beautifully shaved and fragrant with good cologne. But his eyes were weary and bloodshot under long thick lashes.
Milo said, “This is Dr. Alex Delaware. He’s a shrink, called in to work with the kids at Hale School. He was the one who discovered the connection between the Burden girl and your guy. Been a department consultant for years but had never done a ride-along. I thought Southeast might be instructive.”
“Doctor,” said Smith. His grip was very firm, very dry. To Milo: “If you wanted to be instructive, how come you didn’t give him his own shotgun?”
Smith took out a pack of Marlboros, lit one, and said, “Anyway.”
Milo said, “Where exactly did it go down?”
“Far as I can remember,” said Smith, “just about exactly where you’re parked. Hard to recall with all the shootings we get around here. I brought the file- hold on.”
He went back to his ear, opened the passenger door, leaned in, and pulled out a folder. Handing it to Milo, he said, “Don’t show the pictures to the doctor here unless you want to lose yourself a consultant.”
“Shotgun, from up close- you know what that does. He must have put his hands up in a defensive reflex because they got shredded to pieces- I’m talking confetti. The face was… shotgun stuff. Barely enough blood left in him by the time the crime-scene boys arrived. But he was dope-positive all right. Coke and booze and downers- regular walking pharmacy.”
Milo thumbed through the folder, his face impassive. I moved closer and looked down. Sheets of paper. Lots of typewritten police prose. A couple of photos taped to the top. Living color. Long-view crime-scene shots and close-ups of something lying face-up on the filthy asphalt. Something ragged and wet that had once been human.
My stomach churned. I looked away but struggled to remain outwardly calm.
Smith had been watching me. He said, “I guess you guys see that stuff- medical school and all that.”
“He’s a Ph.D.,” said Milo.
“Ph.D.,” said Smith. “Philosophy doctor.” He stretched his arm down the alley. “Any ideas about the philosophy of a place like this?”
I shook my head and smiled. As Milo read, Smith kept checking the alley. I was struck by the silence of the place- a sickly, contrived silence, like that of a mortuary. Devoid of birdsong or traffic, the hum of commerce or conversation. I entertained postnuclear fantasies. Then all at once, noise intruded with all the shock and harshness of an armed robber: the scream and wobble of an ambulance siren from afar, followed by high-pitched human screams- an ugly duet of domestic violence- from somewhere close. Smith gave a distasteful look, glanced at Milo’s shotgun, opened his suit jacket, and touched the butt of the revolver that lay nestled in his shoulder holster. Then silence again.
“Okay. Let’s see. Ah, here’s the toxicology,” said Milo, flipping pages. “Yeah, the guy was definitely fried.”
“Deep-fried,” said Smith, sniffing. “Why else would he be down here?”
Milo said, “One thing I wonder about, Maury. The kid lives in Venice. Ocean Front’s a pharmacy in its own right- why bother coming down here?”
Smith thought for a moment and said, “Maybe he didn’t like the brand they were selling locally. People do that now- get picky. The businessmen we’re dealing with nowadays are into packaging and labeling. Dry Ice, Sweet Dreams, Medellin Mouton- choose your poison. Or maybe he was a businessman himself- selling, not buying, came here to collect something the boys over in Venice weren’t providing.”
“Maybe,” said Milo.
“Why else?” said Smith. “Anyway, don’t lose too much sleep over it. If I wasted my time trying to second-guess junkies and wet-heads, might as well nail my foot to the floor and run in circles all day.” He puffed on his cigarette.
Milo said, “Yeah, saw your stats on the last report.”
“Grim,” said Smith. “Wholly uncivilized.”
He smoked and nodded, tapped one wing-tip and kept looking up and down the alley. The silence had returned.
Milo returned the file to him. “Not much in the way of background on him- no priors, no history, no family.”
“Phantom of the opera,” said Smith. “Sucker came right out of nowhere, no files on him anywhere. Which fits if he was an amateur businessman. They’re getting crafty. Organized. Buying phony paper, moving around a lot, hiding behind layers, just like the corporations do. They’ve even got subsidiaries. In other cities, other states. Novato told his landlady he was from somewhere back east- that’s as specific as I got. She forgot exactly where. Or didn’t want to remember.”
“Think she was lying?”
“Maybe. She was something, that one- flaming commie, didn’t like cops, wasn’t shy about telling you. Being with her was like being back in the sixties, when we were the enemies. Before Miami Vice made it hip to oink.”
Smith laughed at his own wit, smoked, and said, “Nice to be hip, right, Milo? Take it to the bank, try to get a loan.”
Milo said, “She tell you anything?”
“Diddly.” It was all I could do to get her to let me in her house. She was real uppity. Actually called me a cossack- asked me how did it feel to be a black cossack. Like I was some kind of traitor to the race. You get anything out of her?”
“Couldn’t,” said Milo. “She’s gone. Disappeared four days after Novato got hit. No one’s seen or heard from her since.”
Surprise widened Smith’s weary eyes. He said, “Who’s on the case?”
“Hal Mehan out of Pacific. He’s on vacation, back in two weeks. From what I can gather, he did the usual missing-persons stuff, found out she hadn’t packed or taken money out of the bank. Followed it for a couple of weeks and told her friends to hire a P.I. or forget about it. Told her neighbor it looked like foul play out on the streets.”
Smith’s foot tapped faster. “Mehan know about Novato?”
“The friends say they told him.”
Smith said, “Hmm.” His eyes half-closed.
Milo said, “Yeah, I know, he coulda told you. Shoulda. But the bottom line is you didn’t lose anything. He dead-ended, moved on to greener pastures. The next-door neighbor saved her mail- I just had a look at it. Not much of it, just junk and a few bills.”
Smith continued to look perturbed. “Who are these friends of hers? No one in the neighborhood seemed to know much about her. Only one who knew anything at all was the guy next door, some kind of English rabbi. He the one who saved the mail?”
Milo nodded. “Just spoke to him. The friends were a few old folk she knew from temple. Acquaintances more than friends. According to them she wasn’t sociable, kept to herself.”
“That’s true,” said Smith. “Man, that was some little old battle-ax.”
“They also said she didn’t have any family. Same as Novato.”
Smith said, “Think that means anything?”
“Who knows?” said Milo. “Coulda been misery loving company. Two loners finding each other.”
Smith said, “Black kid and an old white woman? Some company. Or maybe the two of them were up to something, huh? When I went around there on the Novato thing, saw how hostile and radical she was, how she didn’t even want me to come inside, I asked around about her being involved in a dope thing. Asked the neighbors about people coming in and out at weird hours, fancy cars parked outside- the usual thing. No one knew anything.”
“No one still does,” said Milo. “There’s one other thing you should know. A few days after she was gone, someone burglarized her place. The rabbi’s too. Took small stuff, trashed everything, wrote nasty stuff on the walls.”
“What kind of nasty stuff?”
“Anti-Semitic. And something about remembering John Kennedy, in red paint they’d stolen from the garage. That jibe with any of the gang stuff you’ve been seeing?”
Smith said, “Kennedy? No. There’s some punk band- the Dead Kennedys. That’s all that comes to mind.” He thought. “If they got the paint right there, doesn’t sound like they came to paint.”
“Could have been just an opportunist junkie,” said Milo. “Asshole got caught up in the intruder high and got artistically inspired.”
Smith nodded. “Like a shitter.” To me: “There’re these guys break into houses, steal stuff, and dump a load on the floor. Or the bed. What do you think of that, psychologically? Or philosophically?”
“Power trip,” I said. “Forbidden fruit. Leave a signature someone’ll remember. Same as the ones who ejaculate. Or eat all the food in the fridge.”
“Anyway,” said Milo, “just thought you should know about all this.”
“Thanks,” said Smith. “In terms of a dope thing, I ran Novato through NCIC, the moniker files, DEA, called every smart narc in the Department as well as the Sheriff’s guys. Nothing. The kid had no name in the business.”
“Maybe he was a newcomer,” said Milo. “Trying to move in on someone and it got him dead.”
“A newcomer,” I said. “Novato. I’m pretty sure that’s Spanish for ‘novice.’ ”
Both of them looked at me.
I said, “Latin name on a black kid. It could be an alias.”
“El Novato, huh?” said Smith. “Well, it’s not a moniker- least not one of the ones we’ve got on file. Guess it could be an alias.” He enunciated and put on a Spanish accent. “El Novato. Kind of like El Vato Loco. Sounds like something out of Boyle Heights, but this bro was black.”
“Anything left of the fingers to print?” said Milo.
Smith shook his head. “You saw the pictures.”
“How’d you ID him?”
“Wallet in pocket. He had a driver’s license- that’s it- and a business card from the place he worked at, some grocery. I called his boss, asked him about any family to notify. He said he didn’t know of any. Later, after no one had claimed the body, I called the boss again, told him if he wanted, he could claim it, give it a decent burial.”
“Spoke to him, too,” said Milo. “He cremated it.”
“Guess that’s a decent burial,” said Smith. “Doesn’t make much difference one way or the other when you’re that way, does it?”
More screams from down the alley. The same two people tearing at each other with words.
Smith said, “I’ll probably be back in the near future, pick up one of their bodies. Anything more you want to know about Novato?”
Milo said, “That’s all that comes to mind, Maury. Thanks.”
“Far as I’m concerned, Milo, good riddance. If he was a businessman on top of doping, and getting hit slowed his business, I’m even happier. One less piece of shit to keep track of.”
Smith dropped his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.
“How well did the Burden girl know Novato?”
“They were seen talking to each other. Probably means nothing. I’m just following the chain wherever it leads. If there turns out to be a connection, I’ll call you in.”
“Yeah,” said Smith. “That’d be real nice. Meantime, how about you remember me when the West L.A. roster opens up. I put in an application last year- no vacancies. Wouldn’t mind getting over to civilized territory. Catch a little breathing time between homicidal incidents. Your promotion, you could have some say in it, right?”
“That kind of thing gets handled higher,” said Milo, “but I’ll do my best.”
“Appreciate it. Could use some civilization.”
“So he was a doper,” I said, after Smith had driven away. “So much for Dinwiddie’s expertise.”
“Wishful thinking,” said Milo, “does strange things to the old judgment quotient.”
He avoided the streets on the way back, getting on the Harbor Freeway and taking it through the downtown interchange into the West Side of town. Neither of us said much. Milo seemed eager to get away.
I got to Linda’s apartment at eight. She came to the door wearing a black silk blouse, gray jeans, and black western boots. Her hair had been done up, fastened by a silver comb. She had on large silver hoop earrings, blush that accented her cheekbones, more eye shadow than I’d seen before, and a look of reserve that forced its way through her smile. I was feeling it, too- a reticence, almost a shyness. As if this were a first date: everything that had happened two nights ago had been a fantasy, and we needed to start from scratch.
She said, “Hi, right on time,” took my hand, and led me inside. There was a bottle of Chablis and two glasses on the coffee table, along with dishes of sliced raw vegetables, crackers, dip, and cubes of cheese.
She said, “Just a nip before dinner.”
“Looks great.” I sat down. She took a place beside me, poured wine, and said, “How about a toast?”
“Let’s see. Things have been pretty nuts lately. So how about: to boredom.”
We touched glasses and drank.
She said, “So… what’s new?”
There was plenty to tell her: Mahlon Burden in his natural habitat, Novato and Gruenberg. Savaged cars. Neo-Nazis in suburbia, a crack alley…
I said, “Let’s honor the toast for a little while.”
She laughed and said, “Sure.”
We munched vegetables, drank some more.
“Got something to show you,” she said, got up, and crossed the room toward her bedroom. The jeans showed off her shape. The boots had very high heels and they did something to her walk that convinced me two nights ago had been real.
She came back with a boom box. “Amazing the sound you can get from one of these.”
She set it up on the coffee table, next to the food. “Takes cassettes and compact discs.”
Looking like a kid on Christmas morning, she set the control on battery, pressed EJECT, and handed me the compact disc that slid out. Kenny G: Silhouette.
She said, “I know you like jazz- saxophone. So I thought this might be right. Is it?”
I smiled. “It’s great. That was really nice of you.” I popped the disc back in and pressed PLAY.
Sweet soprano sounds filled the small apartment.
She said, “Umm, that’s pretty,” and sat back down. We listened. After a while I put my arm around her. During the brief dead time between the first and second cuts on the disc, we kissed. Gently, with restraint- a deliberate holding back that was mutual.
She pulled away, said, “It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you too.” I touched her face, traced her jawline. She closed her eyes and sat back.
We stayed locked in a lovely inertia. Kenny G did his thing. It seemed a personal serenade. After the fourth cut, we forced ourselves up and left.
We went to the galleries, taking in the newer places on La Brea, looking at lots of bad art, a few experiments that succeeded. The last gallery we visited was brand-new and a surprise- older stuff, by L.A. standards. Early twentieth-century works on paper. I found something I wanted and could afford: a George Bellows boxing print, one of the minor ones. I’d missed getting one from the same edition at an auction last year. After some deliberation I bought it and had it wrapped to go.
“Like the fights?” she said as we left the gallery.
“Not in the flesh. But on paper it makes for good composition.”
“Daddy used to take me when I was little. I hated it, all the grunting and the blood. But I was too afraid to tell him.” She smoothed her hair, closed her eyes. “I called him today.”
“How’d it go?”
“Easier than I thought. His… wife answered. She was kind of cool. But he actually sounded happy to hear from me. Agreeable- almost too agreeable. Old. I don’t know if it’s because it’s been such a long time or he’s really aged that much. He asked me when I was coming back for a visit. I beat around the bush, didn’t give him a straight answer. Even if I wanted to go back, so much else is going on right now. By the way, I confirmed your parents’ group for tomorrow. Should be a good turnout-” She stopped herself. “Ah, the toast. Viva boredom.”
“Forget the toast if you feel like it.”
“I don’t feel like it,” she said, and put her arm around my waist.
We got to the car. I put the print in the trunk and drove to a place on Melrose: Northern Italian food, seating inside and out on the patio. The night breeze was kind- the sort of caressing warmth that keeps people moving to L.A. despite the phoniness and the madness- and we chose outside. Small lacy trees in straw-covered pots separated the patio from the sidewalk. White lattice partitions had been set up around groupings of tables, affording the illusion of privacy.
The waiter was a pony-tailed recent acting-class graduate playing the part of Solicitous Server and he recited what seemed like an endless list of specials with the hubris of a memory course graduate. The lighting was so dim- just a single covered candle on each table- that we had to lean forward to make out the menus. We were hungry by now and ordered an antipasto, seafood salads, two kinds of veal, and a bottle of Pellegrino water.
Conversation came easily but we stayed faithful to the toast. When the food came, we concentrated on eating. Solicitous wheeled the dessert cart tableside and Linda chose a monumental cream and hazelnut thing that looked as if baking it required a building permit. I ordered a lemon ice. When she was halfway through the pastry, she wiped cream from her lips and said, “I think I can handle reality. Okay if we ditch the boredom pledge?”
“Then tell me about the Burden girl’s home. What was the father like? Can you talk about it?”
“In terms of confidentiality? Yes. One of the conditions I gave him was that anything I learned could be passed on to you, to the kids, or to the police. But I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering. Just confirmed what I suspected.”
I gave her a synopsis of my visit. She said, “God, he sounds like a real jerk.”
“He’s different, that’s for sure.”
“Different.” She smiled. “Yes, that’s much more professional than jerk.”
She said, “See why I wouldn’t make a good therapist? Too judgmental. How do you do it, keeping your feelings from getting in the way?”
“It’s not always easy,” I said. “Especially with someone like him. While interviewing him I realized I didn’t like him, resolved to keep that in the forefront of my mind. Which is what you do. Be aware of your own feelings. Stay aware. Put the patient’s welfare first, keeping yourself in the background. Like an accompanist.”
“You consider him your patient?”
“No. He’s more of a… consulting client. The way the court would be, in a custody evaluation. Not that I’m going to be able to tell him what he wants to hear: that she was innocent. If anything, she fits the profile of a mass murderer pretty closely. So my hunch is I’ll probably get fired fairly soon. It’s happened before.”
She put half a hazelnut in her mouth and chewed. Some tension- the intensity- had returned to her face.
I said, “What is it?”
“Nothing. Oh, heck, I just keep thinking about my car. It was the first thing I bought myself when I had money. It looked so sad when they towed it away. They say it’ll live, but surgery will take at least a month. Meanwhile, I’ve got a rental. If I’m lucky, the district won’t hassle me when it comes time to divvy up.”
She pushed her fork around on her dessert plate. The thing that keeps bugging me is: Why my little clunker? It was parked on the street with all the others. How’d they know who it belonged to?”
“Someone probably saw you in it.”
“Meaning someone was watching me? Stalking me?”
“No,” I said quickly. “I doubt we’re talking about anything that sophisticated. More likely someone spotted you, knew you were associated with the school, and decided to strike out.”
Opportunism. I knew why the word had leaped into my mind. All this exposure to politics. Ugliness.
“So you think it was someone local?” she said.
“Stupid punks,” she said. “I won’t let them dominate my life.”
A moment later, she said, “So what’s my next step? Start toting a gun?” She smiled. “Maybe not such a bad idea after all. Like I told you, I’m a crack shot.”
“Hope I stay on your good side.”
She laughed, looked down at what remained of her dessert. “Want any of this? I’m full.”
I declined, called for the check, and paid Solicitous. As we got up from the table I noticed simultaneous movement from a table on the other side of the lattice. As if we were sitting next to a mirror. The synchrony was so strong that it actually gave a second look to make sure we weren’t. But it was two other people- the vague outlines of a man and a woman. I thought nothing of it as we headed toward the car, but as I drove away from the curb, another car pulled out right behind us and stayed on our tail. I felt my chest tighten, then remembered the similar fantasy I’d had just a few days ago. The paranoia that had caused me to pull off Sunset into the service station.
Brown Toyota. What appeared to be two people. A couple. Absorbed with each other. Now another couple, right behind us, but from the spacing of the headlights, this car was larger. A midsized sedan. No flicker.
Okay. Definitely not the same car. Nothing odd about two couples leaving a restaurant at the same time. And heading this way on Melrose was the logical route for anyone living west of Hancock Park.
Ease up, Delaware.
I looked in the rearview mirror. Headlights. Same ones? The glare prevented me from seeing who was inside.
Ridiculous. I was letting all the talk of plots and counter-plots go to my head.
“What’s wrong?” said Linda.
“All of a sudden you’re all tensed up. Your shoulders are all crunched.”
The last thing I wanted to do was feed her anxiety. I consciously relaxed, tried to look more casual than I felt. Snuck another glance in the rearview mirror. Different set of headlights, I was pretty sure. A caravan of headlights, stretching for blocks. Typical weekend jam-up on Melrose…
“What is it, Alex?”
“Nothing. Really.” I turned off Melrose onto Spaulding and pulled a therapist switcheroo: “How about yourself? Still thinking about the car?”
“Got to admit I’m a little edgy,” she said. “Maybe we should have stuck to the boredom pledge.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I can get you bored again, really quick.” I cleared my throat and put on a whiny, pedagogical tone: “Let’s talk educational theory. The topic of the day is, ahem, curriculum adjustment. Macro- and micro-variables of a variety of contemporary text offerings that contribute to greater, ahem, student participation while holding constant class size, budgetary factors, and the, ahem, cement/asphalt ratio of the surrounding play areas in a suburban school prototype, as defined by-”
“All right, I believe you!”
“- the Harrumph-Pshaw Educational Coercion Act of 1973-”
“Enough!” She was laughing hard.
I looked in the mirror. No headlights. Stretched my arm across the seat and touched her shoulder. She scooted closer, rested a hand on my knee, then removed it. I put it back.
She laughed and said, “Now what?”
“More like wired.”
“Want to help me hang the print?”
“That kind of like ‘come up and see my etchings’?”
“Same general idea.”
I squeezed her shoulder, drove home feeling relaxed. Except for the two dozen times I checked my rearview mirror.
“I love everything about this place,” she said, stretching out on the leather sofa and undoing her hair. “The view, the pond- it’s simple but you’ve done a lot with it. Feels bigger than it is. How long have you been living here?”
“Almost seven years.”
“Out here that just about makes you a homesteader.”
“Got the wagon train out in back,” I said, holding up the Bellows. “How does this look?”
“Little to the left.” She got up. “Here, I’ll hold it. You take a look for yourself.”
We exchanged places.
She said, “What do you think?”
I measured, hammered the nail, hung the print, straightened the frame. We returned to the sofa and looked at it.
“Nice,” she said. “That’s a good place for it.”
I kissed her without restraint. Her arms went around me. We clinched till we lost breath. Her hand settled on my fly. Gently squeezing. I began unbuttoning her blouse, got two buttons loose before she said, “Whoa,” and lifted her hand.
“Something the matter?”
She was flushed and her eyes were shiny. “No, nothing… It’s just… every time we get together, we just do it? Bam?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
The white lashes fluttered like down. She took my face in her hands. “You really that chivalrous?”
“Not really. But all that talk about your being a crack shot has me worried.”
She laughed. Turned serious just as quickly. “I just don’t want it to be… easy come, easy go. Like everything else in this town.”
“That’s not for me either.”
She looked uncertain, but kissed me again. Deeply. I got into it.
I backed off. She pulled me closer, held me to her. My heart was racing. Or maybe it was hers.
“You want me,” she said, as if amazed at her own power.
A moment passed. I could barely hear the gurgle of the pond.
“Oh, what the heck,” she said, and put her hand back.
I heard her get up the next morning at six. She had dressed and was drinking coffee at the kitchen table when I came in half an hour later.
“Blue Monday,” she said.
“Actually, not one bit.” She gazed out the window. “Really love this view.”
I filled a cup and sat down.
She looked at her watch. “When you’re ready, I’ll take a ride back to my place. I want to get to school early, set up your parents for today’s group.”
“How many do you expect?”
“About twenty. Quite a few are Spanish-speaking. I can be your translator but it means I’ve got to clear my desk first.”
“Do you think you’ll need more than one session?”
“Probably not. I’ll be available for individual follow-ups.”
Both of us talking shop, skirting the personal as if it were a dead animal in the middle of the road.
I drank a little more coffee.
She said, “Want any breakfast?”
She shook her head. “How about a rain check, then? I’m a pretty good breakfast cook- nothing Cordon Bleu, just down-home integrity and high quantity.”
“I look forward to making you prove it.”
Her smile was sudden, white, dazzling.
We touched hands. I drove her home.
During the drive she looked out the window a lot and I sensed more pulling away- a reaffirmation of her ability to take care of herself. So I dropped her off in front of her building, told her I’d see her at eleven, put gas in the Seville, and used a pay phone at the station to call my service for the messages I’d neglected to pick up yesterday. Just one, from Mahlon Burden, reminding me to call his son and reiterating Howard Burden’s business number.
Just after nine I called Encino.
A female voice said, “Pierce, Sloan, and Marder.”
“Howard Burden, please.”
Her tone became guarded. “One moment.”
Another female voice, louder and nasal: “Howard Burden’s office.”
“I’d like to speak with Mr. Burden.”
“Whom shall I say is calling?”
“May I ask what this is about, Doctor?”
“A personal matter. I was referred by Mr. Burden’s father.”
Hesitation. “One moment.”
She was gone for what seemed like a long time. Then: “I’m sorry. Mr. Burden’s in a meeting.”
“Any idea when he’ll be free?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I’ll give you my number. Please ask him to call me.”
“I’ll deliver the message.” Frosty tone. Letting me know a call-back was about as likely as world peace. I thought I understood her protectiveness.
“I’m not with the press,” I said. “His father is pretty eager for me to talk with him. You can call Mr. Burden Senior and confirm that.”
“I’ll give him the message, sir.”
Another roadblock at the entrance to Ocean Heights. When I saw the pair of squad cars, my hands went clammy.
But this was a smaller police presence than on the day of the sniping- just two black-and-whites, an equal number of uniformed cops standing in the middle of the street, chatting with each other, looking relaxed.
They refused to answer my questions and had a few of their own. I spent a long time explaining who I was, waiting for them to call the school and verify it with Linda. She couldn’t be reached. Finally, after showing them my psych license and med school faculty card and tossing in Milo’s name, I was allowed through.
Before I walked back to my car I tried again. “So what’s going on?”
The cops looked amused and annoyed at the same time.
One of them said, “Show time, sir.” The other hooked his thumb toward the Seville and said, “Better be getting going.”
I drove off, speeding up Esperanza. The school was ringed with vehicles and I had to park more than a block away. More cop cars, along with bland-looking sedans that might have been unmarkeds, media vans, at least three white ultrastretch Mercedes. And spectators- a few of the locals, standing in front of their homes. Some looked sour- the put-upon resignation of picnickers invaded by ants. But others seemed pleased, as if waiting for a parade.
I walked on, wondering what had brought them out. What “show time” meant. Then I heard it, as I got closer to the school grounds. A relentless drumbeat. Synthesizer trills over a walking bass run.
Carnival sounds. A rock-and-roll carnival. I wondered why Linda hadn’t mentioned anything to me.
Directly across from the school entrance, a local stood blocking the sidewalk. Thickset older man in plaid madras pants and white Ban-Lon golf shirt, smoking a cigarette and flicking ashes onto the sidewalk. Flicking in the direction of the school. As I approached, he stopped and stared. Dry-ice squint, raw-pork complexion.
“Morning,” I said. “What’s all the hubbub?”
He peered at me, flicked, and said, “Some singer.” His tone of voice said he placed that one rung above pimp on the occupational ladder.
“Who knows?” He took a drag. “First they force themselves on us; then they bring in their jungle music.”
He gave me a challenging look. I walked around him and crossed the street. His cigarette flew by me, landed on the macadam, throwing off sparks.
The fence around the schoolyard was laced with orange and silver streamers, hung so densely I couldn’t see inside. The gate was locked. A school policeman was at the front door to the school building, along with a husky black man with Rasta dreadlocks and a patchy, blemishlike beard. The black man wore white sweat pants and an orange T-shirt that said THE CHILLER TOUR! MEGA-PLATINUM! in metallic letters. He held a clipboard in one hand, a set of gold-plated keys in the other. As I got closer, the school cop retreated.
Dreadlocks said, “Name.”
“Dr. Delaware. Alex Delaware. I work at the school.”
He looked at the clipboard, ran his finger down a page. “How do you spell thot, mon?” His enunciation was precise.
I told him. He turned a page and his brows compressed, pulling forward several twists of hair. “Delaware. As in the state?”
“Sorry, mon, I don’t see anything like thot.”
Before I could reply, the door swung open. Linda stormed out. She’d changed into a cheerful-looking yellow dress but didn’t look happy.
“Stop hassling this man!”
The school cop and Dread turned to stare at her. She came down the steps, took my arm, pulled me past them. Dread said, “Mo’om-”
She held up a warning finger. “Uh-uh, don’t say a word! This man works here. He’s a famous doctor! He has a job to do and you’re getting in the way!”
Dread pulled at a lock and grinned. “Sorry, mo’om. I was just looking for his name- no offense intended.”
“No offense?! I gave your people his name! They promised me there’d be no hassle!”
Dread smiled again and shrugged. “Sorry.”
“What the heck do you think this is anyway? Some disco club?” She glared at the school cop: “And what about you! What the heck are you here for- just here to keep him company?”
Before either of them could answer, we were inside. She slammed the door behind us.
“Jesus! I just knew that was going to happen!” She was still gripping my arm as we speed-walked down the corridor.
I said, “What’s going on?”
“DeJon Jonson is what’s going on. He’s chosen to honor us with a personal appearance. For the sake of the poor victimized children.”
“The Chiller himself?”
“In all his spangled glory. And his entourage. Groupies, roadies, press agents, an army of bodyguards- clones of Mr. Reggae out there. And a whole bunch of unclassifieds who look as if they should be shipped off to drug rehab. Not to mention every TV, radio, and newspaper hack in town and a dozen pencil-pushers from the Board who haven’t seen the inside of a schoolyard since Eisenhower.”
She stopped, straightened her dress, patted her hair. “And of course, our dear Councilman Latch- it was he who arranged the whole thing.”
She nodded. “Wifey-poo’s show biz connections, no doubt. She’s here, too, patting the kids’ heads and wearing a rock that could pay for all our school lunches for a year.”
“Diamonds on a revolutionary?”
“California revolutionary. What my dad used to call Cadillac Commies. Lord save me from Monday morning surprises.”
“No one told you?”
“So much for his hearing me.”
“Latch. The time he dropped in to play his harmonica. I talked to him about keeping things predictable. He told me he’d heard me- I’d given him food for thought.”
“Oh, he heard it all right. He just chose to disregard it.”
“When did you actually find out?”
We resumed walking. She said, “One of the pencil-pushers left a message on my machine last night at ten. I had the poor manners to be out with you, didn’t pick up until this morning. Which gave me a heck of a lot of time to prepare, right? I managed to get to Latch just a while ago, told him this could be disruptive. He didn’t process that at all, said getting a star of DeJon’s caliber wasn’t something that came up every day; this was a coup for the kids.”
I said, “Coup for him. Tape a few thousand feet of happy-face video for the next campaign.”
She made a taut, throaty sound, like a mama bobcat warning hunters away from the lair. “You know, what gets me the most is that Sunday call from downtown. That’s got to be a historical first. Ordinarily I can’t even get them to take a message during working hours. Ordering textbooks, begging for funds for field trips- everything takes forever. Molasses Standard Time. But for this, they can move like rockets.”
I said, “Rock and roll never dies. You even got your guard back.”
She gave a disgusted look. “You should see the production they’ve put together. Crew from the record company arrived at seven, along with carpenters from the district. They set up a big stage out on the yard in one hour flat. P.A. system, all those streamers, the works. They even printed up a schedule- do you believe that! Orange print on silver satin paper, must have cost a fortune. Everything laid out by the minute: Latch makes a speech; then DeJon does his thing, throws paper flowers at the kids, and is whisked off to a waiting limo. It actually says that-Whisked Off. To Waiting Limo. The whole darned thing gets filmed for the evening news and probably used on DeJon’s next rock video. His flunkies came into the classrooms and distributed release forms for the kids to take home.”
I said, “Mega-platinum and the Nobel Peace Prize too. With all this excitement, what’s the status of the parent group?”
“The parents are all here- though I had a heck of a time getting Jonson’s yahoos to understand they needed to be let through without a body search. I had to watch the door all morning. ’Course, once Latch’s people realized who they were, they laid out the red carpet- snapped their pictures with Latch, gave them front-row seats for the show.”
“How’d the mothers react to that?”
“Confused, at first. But they got into it pretty quickly- celebrities for an hour. Whether they’ll be in a receptive state for talking about problems, I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
I smiled. “Not receptive even for a famous doctor?”
She colored. “Hey, to me, you’re famous. The kind of fame that matters.”
We reached her office. As she unlocked it, she said, “Alex, I know it’s the same old question, but what’s the psychological effect of something like this on the kids?”
“Let’s hope they’ll have some fun, get back to their routine in a day or so, and move on. The main risk you run is that they’ll get so overstimulated that they experience a case of the morning-after blues once the hoopla dies down. I used to see it a lot when I worked at the hospital. Celebrities would blow in for photo-op visits with poor little sick kids, then disappear just as suddenly, and the kids would be left with their pain and disease and a sudden silence on the wards that was really… harsh. It was due to the shift in arousal- decompression. I started to think of it as the psychological bends.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “We see the same kind of thing after an all-day field trip. They’re supposed to be having fun but they fall apart.”
“Exactly,” I said. “It’s why so many birthday parties end up in tears. Another thing to consider is that all this excitement and strangers- politicians, the press- could cause them to remember the last time things got so excited around here.”
“The sniping? Oh, boy.”
“Some of them may flash back to it, get anxious all over.”
“Terrific,” she said. “What do I do?”
“Keep an eye out for anxiety reactions- especially among the younger ones. When things quiet down, try to get them back to a routine. Maintain discipline but be flexible. They may need to talk about the concert, talk out the excitement- and any fear they’re experiencing. If any persistent reactions develop, you know where to find me.”
“You’re becoming a fixture here, Doc.”
I smiled. “Ulterior motives.”
She smiled back, but looked low.
“What is it?” I said.
“I’m supposed to be in charge, but I feel… irrelevant.”
“This is a one-shot deal, Linda. By tomorrow you’ll be back in control. But yeah, it stinks. They should have told you.”
She gave another sad smile. “Thanks for the support.”
This time her smile was untarnished.
She took my hand and led me inside the office, locked the door behind us, threw her arms around me, and kissed me hard and long.
“There,” she said. “My own contribution to overstimulation.”
“Acknowledged,” I said, catching my breath. “And appreciated.”
She kissed me again. We went into her inner office. The music from the schoolyard pounded through the walls.
“Here’s the list of parents,” she said, handing me a sheet of paper.
I took it. The music stopped. An amplified, reverberating voice took its place.
She said, “Let the games begin.”
We stood at the back of the yard, looking out over hundreds of heads, watching Gordon Latch.
He stood behind a lectern at the center of the stage, brandishing his harmonica. The lectern was polished walnut embossed with the city seal. The stage was heavy lumber, elevated and backed with a thirty-foot wall of black silk that looked like a patch on the clear blue eye of the sky. Lots of sound equipment but no instruments. No musicians either. Just the press, crowding around on all sides, filming, talking into tape recorders, jotting. And a small army of hulking types in orange T-shirts patrolling with walkie-talkies. Some of the Beef Brigade stood on stage, others down at spectator level. From the way they glared and scanned the crowd, they could have been guarding the crown jewels.
Latch grinned and waved, puffed a couple of high notes into the mike, and said something about celebrating life. His words echoed across the schoolyard and died somewhere out on the spotless streets of Ocean Heights. A row of ten folding chairs had been set up to the left of the podium. Eight of them were occupied by middle-aged men and women in business suits. Except for the sound gear and the Orange Men lurking behind them, it could have been a middle-management seminar.
Sitting in the two seats closest to the podium were Bud Ahlward, in the same brown suit he’d worn the day he’d shot Holly Burden, and a thin, attractive woman with taffy-colored wedge-cut hair, a deeply tanned face, and a jawline so tight it looked like a seam.
Mrs. Latch. The former Miranda Brundage. Looking at her attire reminded me the sixties were ancient history. Or maybe they’d never happened at all. She had on a two-piece black leather outfit with padded shoulders and gold lamé appliqué, diamond earrings, and the rock Linda had mentioned- a solitaire on a chain that, even at this distance, reflected enough light to brighten a ballroom. Her legs were well shaped, sheathed in gray silk, crossed at the ankles, her feet encased in spike-heel thonged affairs that had to be handmade Italian. She alternated between gazing out at the audience and looking up at her husband.
Even at this distance she looked bored, almost defiantly jaded. I thought I remembered that she’d once wanted to be an actress. Either she had no talent or wasn’t bothering to fake it.
Latch held forth in echoplex eloquence:
“… so I told DeJon [jon… jon… jon] you’re someone everyone looks up to [to… to… to]. Your message is positive, a message for today, and the kids at Hale need you!”
Latch stopped and waited.
The kids didn’t get it, but the suits and the orange gorillas did. The sound of twenty pairs of hands clapping was feeble.
Latch beamed as if it had been an ovation at the National Convention, removed his welfare glasses, and loosened his tie. His wife’s affection for high style hadn’t rubbed off: He had on a rumpled tan corduroy suit, blue chambray shirt, and navy knit tie.
“DeJon said yes!” Up-raised fist.
“The school board said yes!” Punching air.
“So we put it together for you!” Both hands raised. Dual victory V’s.
“… So here he is, boys and girls of all ages: the Chiller, the ultimate Crowd-Thriller, DeJo-on Jonson!”
Power chords tumbled out of the speakers like avalanche boulders: rumbling, deafening, threatening, finally picking up melodic content and terminating as a sustaining organ tone- a fugue performed by an E. Power Biggs on acid. A hailstorm of guitar chords shattered the silence. Thunderous drums. Hissing cymbals. The suits on stage looked stricken but kept their places. The orange T-shirts marched toward them and touched the backs of their chairs. As if choreographed, the bureaucrats in the suits got up and filed off the stage. Miranda Latch and Ahlward hung back, she applauding with aerobic fervor that seemed disconnected to the ennui in her eyes.
Latch left the podium and took her hand. Waving to the audience, the two of them walked off the stage. Ahlward trailed, looking bored, one hand inside his jacket.
The three of them took seats in the front row, amid a group of plainly dressed women- my group. The mothers were all applauding. I couldn’t see their faces.
The music got louder. Linda grimaced.
I said, “One sec,” and made my way toward the front of the assembly, weaving past news crews and camera gear.
Finally I got close enough to see. Hundreds of faces. Some blank, some puzzled, some burnished with excitement. I glanced over at the front row. The mothers looked intimidated but not unhappy. Instant celebrity.
Latch noticed me. Smiled and continued snapping his fingers in time with the beat. Bud Ahlward followed his boss’s glance, let his eyes settle on me, then looked away. Miranda was snapping her fingers too. For all the fun she was having it might have been physical therapy.
I returned my attention to the kids. The volume of the music continued to climb. I saw one little girl- a first grader- slap her hands over her ears.
I moved forward to get a better look. The little girl’s eyes were squeezed shut and her mouth was trembling. A blast from the speakers and she burst into an open-mouthed wail rendered silent by the din. No one noticed. All eyes, including those of her teacher, were fixed upon the stage.
I went back to Linda and managed, with gestures and shouts in her ear, to communicate what was happening. She looked over at the little girl, who was crying harder. Then she nudged me and pointed. A couple of other kids in the lower grades were looking unsteady, holding their ears too. More tears.
Linda gave a furious look and stomped forward, elbowing cameramen and orange bruisers until she reached the little girl’s teacher. She talked behind her hand, pointed discreetly. The teacher’s mouth formed an O. Looking chastened, he turned his attention back to his class.
I counted about six or seven children crying by now, four of them kids I recognized easily because they were in the high-risk group. Linda saw them too. She went over to each of them, bending low, patting heads, talking in their ears. Taking their hands and offering them the choice of leaving.
Four headshakes, three nods. She removed the nodders from the group, herded them past the press clutch, back into the school building.
I followed her. It took me a while to get into the building. Linda was halfway down the main corridor, sitting on the floor in a circle with the three children. Smiling, talking, holding a hand puppet and making it talk in a high-pitched voice. The children were smiling. No distress that I could see.
I took a few steps forward. She looked up.
“Look, kids, it’s Dr. Delaware.”
“Hi,” I said.
“Anything you guys want to ask Dr. Delaware”
“Looks like everything’s under control, Dr. Delaware?”
I said, “Great, Dr. Overstreet,” and went back outside.
Though the music was louder, the stage was uninhabited. Not a musician in sight, not even a synthesizer wizard. I realized this was going to be a lip-sync exhibition. Prefab passion.
Nothing happened for several seconds. Then what appeared to be a huge orange flame burned its way through the black backdrop. Gasps from the audience. As the flame got closer, it turned into an oversized sheet of heavy satin, trailing along the stage. Beneath the satin was movement- a swelling and pulsating as the sheet shimmered forward. Like a gag horse, minus head or tail. Cheap trick, but eerie.
The sheet bumped and grinded its way center stage. Organ crescendo, cymbal crash, and the sheet dropped, revealing six more huge men, bare-chested and wearing orange tights and silver jackboots. Three blacks, on the left, scowling under broom-bristles of straightened yellow hair. On the right, a trio of Nordic types in royal-blue Afros.
The six of them spread their legs and assumed wrist-gripping iron-pumper poses. Between them appeared a very tall, very skinny man in his mid-twenties, with skin the color of India ink, Asian eyes, and orange Jheri-curled past-the-shoulders hair that looked as if it had been braised with axle grease. Wide shoulders, the hips of a prepubescent boy, rubbery limbs, a Modigliani neck, and the terminal-illness cheekbones of a Vogue model.
He wore electric-blue goggles in tiger-hide plastic frames that were wider than his face, a tight silver silk jumpsuit embroidered with orange thread and festooned with costume sapphires in baroque patterns. His hands were encased in fingerless blue satin weight-lifter’s gloves; his feet shod in silver high-tops with orange laces.
He snapped his fingers. The musclemen retreated, satin sheet in hand.
The music picked up pace. Jonson pranced, knees high like a drum majorette, did a Nijinsky leap, shot off a flurry of tap-dance pyrotechnics, and ended with a split that transformed him into an inverted silver T and made my groin hurt vicariously.
Then, sudden quiet topped by a high-pitched hum from the speakers. A few of the older kids were out of their seats, bouncing and clapping and calling out, “DeJon! DeJon! Do ‘Chiller’! ‘Chiller’! DeJon! DeJon!”
The orange-haired man scissored himself upright and smiled feverishly. Went pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, shimmied, squatted, did a backwards double somersault followed by a headstand and some rapid hand-walking, then jumped back to his feet, flexed each bicep, and bared his teeth.
The music resumed: a modified reggae beat supercharged by a string-popping funk riff.
His teeth parted and his mouth opened wide enough for a tonsil display. A very whispery tenor oozed out of the speakers.
When the night moves in,
And creepies crawl,
And thingies creep,
Over castle walls,
Gasp. Hand to mouth. Look of exaggerated fear.
That’s when I’m real.
That’s when I live.
I’m your party man,
Got so much to give.
Cause I’m a chiller. Love your chiller.
Baby I’m your chiller. Got to love your chiller.
Sweet kind of chiller. Got to kiss your chiller.
Seductive leer. Change of tempo to a manic two-four almost drowned out by shouts and applause. Jonson belly-danced, jumped back, raced forward, skidded to a stop at the edge of the stage, rolled his eyes. When he lip-synced again, his whisper had turned into a raspy baritone:
And when the snakes of wrath
Meet the toads of fire,
And scorpions waltz
Across the pyre,
That’s when I breathe.
That makes me whole.
I’m here to love
Your mortal soul.
Cause I’m a chiller. Love your chiller…
I searched for signs of anxiety among the children. Many of them were rocking and bopping, singing along, shouting out Jonson’s name. Taking it the way it was meant to be taken- as a sound-wave gestalt, the lyrics irrelevant. It went on for another minute. Then a rain of orange and silver flowers appeared out of nowhere, butterfly-delicate. The musclemen reappeared with the orange sheet and Jonson was whisked offstage. The whole thing had taken less than two minutes.
Latch got back onstage and mouthed inaudible thank-yous over the cheers. The press surged past him, taking off in the direction of the sheet. Latch stood there, abandoned, and I saw something- a spoiled, peevish look- creep onto his face. Just for a second. Then it was gone and he was grinning again and waving, his wife and Ahlward by his side.
Things had gotten wild out in the cheap seats. The kids were pelting each other with flowers; teachers struggled to line them up. I looked back at the front row and saw my mothers standing alone, confused. The Latches and Ahlward stood nearby, surrounded by young-scrubbeds like the ones I’d seen the day of the sniping. Lots of congratulations from the troops. Latch getting what he needed, soaking it up while maintaining a TV face. No one made any attempt to talk to the mothers.
I started making my way over, waiting for whole classes to pass, getting my insteps trampled by tiny feet. Camera crews were pulling up cable, creating tripwires, and I had to watch where I stepped. When I was a few feet away, Latch saw me, grinned, and waved. His wife waved too; Pavlov would have given her an A. Ahlward remained stolid, one hand in his jacket.
Latch said something to him. The redheaded man walked over to me and said, “Dr. Delaware, the councilman would like to speak with you.”
“Gee whiz,” I said.
If he heard me he didn’t let on.
I followed him, but at the last moment I veered away and went to the mothers. Latch’s face took on that same deprived-brat look. I wondered how long it had been since he had been told no.
The women looked deprived too. Of their bearings. A few held paper flowers, seemed afraid to throw them away.
I walked up to them and introduced myself. Before they could reply, a voice behind me said, “Dr. Delaware. Alex.”
No choice but to turn. The councilman had regained his camera happy-face. But his wife had gotten tired of wearing hers. She’d put on sunglasses- copper-and-gold designer originals with a lavender-blue tint. The two of them were standing together but seemed far apart. Ahlward and the dress-for-success bunch hung back several yards.
Latch held out his hand. “Good to see you again, Alex.”
The inevitable pressing of flesh. He pumped hard enough to draw water.
I turned back to the mothers, smiled, and said, “One minute, please,” in my basic Spanish.
They smiled back, still confused.
Latch said, “Alex, I’d like you to meet my first wife, Miranda.” Chuckling. Her smile was murderous.
“Randy, this is Dr. Alex Delaware, the psychologist I told you about.”
“Pleased to meet you, Doctor.” She gave me four fingertips and retracted them quickly. Her formality seemed defiant. Latch gave her a quick, nervous look, which she ignored. Up close she seemed smaller, brittle of voice and bone. And older. Her husband’s senior by a good five years. Betrayed by her skin. The rich tan and well-applied makeup failed to mask the fine wrinkles and liverish blotches. Her mouth was wide and had a nice, sensual curve to it but had started to pucker. Her nose was skinny and short with large nostrils- probably rhinoplasty. Her chin was marred by a sprinkle of pocks. Her diamonds were flawless but made her look washed-out in contrast.
Latch said, “Randy’s always had an interest in psych. We both have.” He put his arm around her. She tensed and smiled at the same time.
She said, “That’s true, Doctor. I’m a people person. We’re organizing- Gordie and I- a mental health committee for the district. Concerned citizens reaching out to help the mentally ill. I’d be privileged if you’d join our advisory committee.”
I said, “I’m flattered, Mrs. Latch, but my time’s pretty committed right now.”
Her smiled evaporated and her lower lip curled- another spoiled child. A little girl used to guilt-tripping Daddy. But she replaced it almost immediately with an inch of charm-school tooth-flash. “I’m sure it is,” she said airily. “But if you change your mind-”
“Let us know, Alex,” said Latch. He spread his arms over the yard. “Pretty fantastic, wasn’t it? The kids really got into it.”
I said, “He puts on quite a show.”
“It’s more than a show, Alex. He’s a phenomenon. A natural resource, one of a kind. Like the last golden eagle. We were lucky to get him- it was a coup. We owe it all to Randy.” Squeezing his wife’s shoulder again and jostling her. She dredged up yet another smile.
“The healing power of music,” said Latch. “We should have more shows, at other schools. Make it a regular thing. Give the kids a positive message. To raise their self-esteem.”
Snakes of wrath. Toads of fire.
I said, “The show was pretty intense, Gordon. Some of the children were frightened.”
“Frightened? I didn’t notice.”
“A handful, mostly younger ones- all the noise, the stimulation. Dr. Overstreet took them inside.”
“A handful,” he said, as if calculating electoral impact. “Well, that’s not too bad, considering. Put enough kids together anywhere and a few are bound to get uptight, right?”
Before I could answer he said, “Guess that means another lecture on coordination, huh? How about letting me off? Dr. Overstreet already read me the riot act before the concert.”
I looked back at the mothers and said, “It’s been good talking to you, Gordon, but I’ve really got to be going now.”
“Ah, your parents group- yes. I know about it because when I saw how uncomfortable they looked, I went up to them, found out who they were. We made sure to see they felt at home.”
Slightly different from the way Linda had told it.
I said, “Great.”
He stepped closer and put his hand on my shoulder. “Listen, I think what you’re doing is great. I didn’t have a chance to tell you that, last time. Looking at the whole family as a unit. Bringing your treatment to the community. We used to do that up at Berkeley. It was called street psychiatry back then and we were constantly being accused by the psychiatric establishment of being subversive. What it boiled down to, of course, was that they were threatened by challenges to the medical model. No doubt you’ve experienced that somewhere along the line, too. Being put down by M.D.’s?”
I said, “I try to stay out of politics, Gordon. Good to meet you, Mrs. Latch.”
I turned to leave. He kept his hand on my shoulder and held me back. A cameraman strolled by. Latch smiled and held it. I saw my reflection in his glasses. Twin reflections. A pair of unfriendly, curly-haired guys eager to be rid of him.
“You know,” he said, “I never did get around to coming back- to talk to the kids.”
“Not necessary,” I said. “I’d say you’ve done enough.”
He tried to read my face, said, “Thanks. It was quite an experience putting it together on such short notice. Dr. Overstreet’s gripes notwithstanding.”
I stared at him. The twins in the glass looked mean, which suited me just fine. I said, “Ah, the tortured life of a modern-day saint. Which network did you call first?”
He paled, and his freckles stood out. His expression was that of a guy with new white bucks who’s just stepped in fresh dog shit. But he kept smiling, looking out for cameras, put his arm around me, and drew me away from his wife. To an observer we might have been buddies sharing a smutty joke.
Over his shoulder I saw Ahlward, motionless, watching.
When we were out of earshot, Latch lowered his voice. “We live in a cold world, Alex. Adding to the cynicism level isn’t a virtue.”
I shrugged out of his grip. “What can I say, Gordon? Sometimes it just comes with the territory.”
I turned my back on him and went to do my job.
I led the mothers into the building, realizing I had no idea where the group session was going to be held. Nothing like a few minutes of wandering the building to engender confidence in the therapist. But just as we approached Linda’s office, she stepped out and took us to the end of the hall and through a set of double doors I’d never been through before. Inside was a wood-floored half-gym. I realized it was the room I’d seen that first day, on TV: children huddled together on the hardwood floor, the cameras moving in with surgical cruelty. In real life the room looked smaller. TV had the ability to do that- inflate reality or crush it to insignificance.
Plastic folding chairs had been arranged in a circle. In the middle was a low table covered with paper and set up with cookies and punch.
“Okay?” said Linda.
“Not the coziest environment, but with Jonson’s people taking over all the empty classrooms, it was all we had.”
We seated the women, then ourselves. The mothers still looked frightened. I spent the first few minutes passing out cookies and filling cups. Making the kind of small talk that I hoped would let them know I had a personal interest in their children, wasn’t just another authority figure pulling rank.
After explaining who I was, I talked about their children- what good kids they were, how strong, how well they were coping. Implying, without being patronizing, that children that robust had to have loving, caring parents. For the most part they seemed to understand; when I got blank looks I had Linda translate. Her Spanish was fluent and unaccented.
I called for questions. They had none.
“Of course, sometimes,” I said, “no matter how strong a child is, the memory of something frightening can come back- in bad dreams. Or wanting to hold on to Mama more, not wanting to go to school.”
Nods and looks of comprehension.
“If any of that has happened, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child. That kind of thing is normal.”
A couple of sighs of relief.
“But bad memories can be… helped. Cured.” Using the C-word they’d tried to drum out of me in grad school. Linda said, “Mejor. Curado.”
Several of the women leaned forward.
“Mothers,” I said, “are a child’s best helpers- the best teachers of their children. Better than doctors. Better than anyone else. Because a mother knows her child better than anyone. That’s why the best way to cure a bad memory is for the mother to help the child.”
“What can we do?” said a girlish-looking woman with thick black eyebrows and long coarse black hair. She wore a pink dress and sandals. Her English was barely accented.
“You can let your children know it’s okay to talk about being afraid.”
She said, “Gilberto, when he talks he gets more afraid.”
“Yes, that’s true. In the beginning. Fear is like a wave.”
The long-haired woman translated.
Puzzled looks all around.
I said, “At first, when a child meets something that scares him, the fear grows, like a wave. But when he goes into the water and swims- gets used to the water- the wave grows small. If we pull the child away when the wave is high, he never sees that, never learns how to swim and remains afraid. If he gets a chance to feel strong, in control, that’s called coping. When he copes, he feels better.”
“Of course,” I said, “we have to protect our children. We never throw them right into the water. We stay with them. Hold them. Wait until they are ready. Teach them to conquer the wave, to be stronger than the wave. With love, and talk, and playing games- giving permission to the child to swim. Teaching him to swim first in the small waves, then the bigger ones. Moving slowly, so the child is not frightened.”
“Sometimes,” said the long-haired woman, “it’s not good to swim. It’s dangerous.” To the others: “Muy peligroso. Sometimes you can drown.”
“That’s true. The thing is-”
“El mundo es peligroso,” said another woman.
The world is dangerous.
“Yes, it can be,” I said. “But do we want our children afraid all the time? Never swimming?”
A few headshakes. Doubtful looks.
“How?” said a woman who looked old enough to be a grandmother. “How can we make it not be dangerous?”
All of them looking at me, waiting. For my next words of wisdom. A cure.
Fighting back feelings of impotence, I said the things I’d planned to say. Offered small remedies, situational tinkering. Baby steps across a vast, cruel wasteland.
Afterward, when Linda and I were alone in her office, I said, “What do you think?”
“I think it went fine.”
I was sitting on the L-shaped sofa and she was picking dead leaves off a potted devil ivy.
“The thing that bugs me,” I said, “is that basically they’re right. The world they live in is dangerous. What could I tell them? Pretend it’s Dick-and-Jane territory and go merrily skipping along?”
“You do what you can, Alex.”
“Sometimes that doesn’t seem like much.”
“Hey,” she said, “what is this, role reversal? When I told you the same thing, you gave me a nice little speech about making a difference on an individual level.”
She said, “C’mon, Doctor. Moping doesn’t become you.”
She came around behind me and placed her hand on the back of my neck. Her touch was cool and soothing. “Why so low all of a sudden, anyway?”
“I don’t know. Probably a combination of things.” Things that seemed out of context but had stuck in my mind. Snapshots in a homicide file, a little boy who’d be college-age by now. Things I didn’t want to talk about.
I said, “One thing that gets to me is knowing Latch will come out of this smelling sweet. He buttonholed me after the show, trying to play Mr. Sensitive Guy in front of his wife. I let it ride for a while, tried to get through to him that this impulsiveness isn’t what the kids need. That some of them had actually gotten scared by the concert. He couldn’t have cared less. I half-expected him to rip open his shirt and have on one of those you’ve-obviously-mistaken-me-for-someone-who-give-a-shit T-shirts underneath. So I lost my cool, let on that I knew all he cared about was making political points. That got a rise out of him. So now I’m a bipartisan loudmouth. I’ve made fast friends on both sides.”
She began massaging my neck. “So you’re not a politician. Good for you. He’s slime. He deserved it.”
“His wife just might agree with you. I got the distinct impression theirs isn’t the ultimate love match.”
“Know what you mean,” she said. “He introduced me to her, and I did pick up on a certain lack of warmth on her part. Maybe she’s got on one of those T-shirts herself. Under the designer duds. Did you see that rock?”
“Power to the people,” I said.
“Serves him right if she hates him- for marrying money. Serves both of them right. Darned Cadillac Commies.” She laughed. “I just hate it when Daddy’s correct.”
A moment of silence while her fingers kneaded my neck. Then she said, “Daddy. He’s my wave, you know. I’m still figuring out what to do about him: Can I ever forgive him? Can there ever be anything good again- any family?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
“You’re pretty sure about that, huh?”
“Sure I’m sure. You’re a smart kid. Your instincts are good.”
“Smart kid. That so?” She put her face next to mine. “My instinct, right now, is to do something lewd in this office.”
“Like I said…”
“However,” she said, standing, “my better judgment- my superego- reminds me I’ve got work to do and a faculty meeting in twenty minutes.”
I said, “Aw, shucks,” and got up.
She pulled me to her and we embraced.
“You’re a sweet, sweet man,” she said. “And I’m glad you let me see you in a down mood, that you trusted me enough not to be Mr. Perfect.”
I kissed her neck.
She said, “Whatshername was crazy to let you go.” Then she tightened in my arms. “God, what a stupid thing to say. My mouth is really running-”
I silenced her with another kiss. When we broke apart, I said, “I want to see you tonight.”
“I’ve got homework.”
“Skip it. I’ll write you a note.”
“I certainly hope so.”
I was home by four and picked up three messages. None from Howard Burden, one from his father inquiring whether Howard and I had connected yet, and a couple of throwaways from people wanting to sell me things I didn’t need. I put those aside and returned the last one- from a Superior Court judge named Steve Hupp, with whom I’d worked on several child-custody cases. I reached him in chambers. He wanted me to consult on a custody battle between a famous entrepreneur and a famous actress.
“I do all the famous ones, Alex,” he said. “Particularly wonderful people, these two. She claims he’s a psychopathic coke-sniffing pederast; he claims she’s a psychopathic coke-sniffing nymphomaniac. For all I know they’re both right. She’s got the kid in Switzerland. They’ll pay your expenses to fly over there and evaluate. You can work in some skiing while you’re over there.”
“Buy a watch, then. Or start a bank account. You’ll earn plenty on this one.”
“Attorneys on retainer?”
“Both sides. It’s been going on for over a year.”
“Sounds like a real mess.”
“Truthfully? It is.”
“Thanks, but I’ll pass, Your Honor.”
“Thought you would. But if you have a change of heart, let me know. You can change the names, write a screenplay, and get rich.”
“So can you, Steve.”
“I’m doing it,” he said. “Got a script making the rounds right now at Universal- noble jurist takes on the system. Perfect for Michael Douglas. Things turn out right, I’ll be off the bench and on the set.” He laughed. “Right. Meanwhile, onward to stem the ever-rising tide of marital discord- you should see our dockets. How come people are so screwed up anyway, Alex?”
“How should I know?”
“We sent you to school to know that kind of stuff.”
“Maybe it’s poor water quality, Steve. Or not enough dietary fiber.”