The woman had haunted eyes.
Pale, drooping at the outer edges, they stared into theunseen camera with an odd combination of defiance and defeat.
She didn't move. Neither did the camera. The wall behindher was brown-blue, the color of an old bruise. The couch on which she perchedwas gray. She was a pretty woman, made less so by fear. Her shoulders werebunched high, her neck tendons taut as bridge cables. A black, sleeveless dressshowcased soft white arms. Too-blond hair fell limply to her shoulders.
Moments passed. Nothing happened. In another situation Imight've cracked wise about it being one of Andy Warhol's old anti-films:interminable, static studies of the Empire State Building, a man sleeping.
When a homicide lieutenant brings you something to watch,you keep your mouth shut.
Milo stood behind me. His black hair and raincoat wererumpled. The coat was cheap, green, wrinkled past the point of salvation. Itgave off a not unpleasant vegetative odor. He'd placed a massive breakfastburrito in a take-out box on my desk, hadn't touched it.
When he drops in, he usually beelines for the fridge,empties a quart of something, raids the shelves for bad carbs. This morning,he'd marched to my office, loaded the DVD with a flourish.
"For your consideration."
Blanche, my little French bulldog, sat next to me,uncharacteristically serious. She'd tried her usual smile, had figured outsomething was different when Milo didn't stoop to pet her.
I rubbed her knobby head. She looked up at me, returnedher attention to the monitor.
The woman's lips moved.
Milo said, "Here we go."
More silence on the screen.
"So I lied."
The woman said, "My name is Elise Freeman. I'm ateacher and tutor at Windsor Preparatory Academy in Brentwood." Her voicewas throaty. She knotted her fingers, flopped them onto her lap. "I'mmaking this recording to document sustained abuse I have received at the handsof faculty members at Windsor Preparatory Academy in Brentwood. Which I willhereon refer to as Prep."
Deep breath. "For the past two years at Prep, I havebeen subjected to repeated, unwarranted, aggressive, and distressing sexualharassment from three individuals. Their names are." Her right hand rose.A finger pointed upward. "Enrico Hauer. H-A-U-E-R." Two fingers:"James Winterthorn." More slow, enunciated spelling, then a trio ofdigits. "Pat Skaggs."
The hand dropped. "For the past two years EnricoHauer, James Winterthorn, and Pat Skaggs have made my life a living hell byengaging in brutal, unsolicited, and threatening sexual behavior. I am makingthis recording so that in the event something violent happens to me, theauthorities will know where to look. I do not know what else to do as I feeltrapped and frightened and have nowhere to turn. I hope this recording neverneeds to come to light but if it does, I am glad that I made it."
Her eyes clenched shut. Her lips moved soundlessly andshe slumped. Suddenly her jaw jutted and she was sitting up straight. Moredefiance than defeat.
Staring hard at the camera. "Thanks forlistening."
The screen went blue. Milo said, "Talk about a D-movieplot device."
I said, "But you're here. She was murdered?"
"Maybe. She's on ice."
"Backlog at the coroner?"
His laughter was harsh. "Nope, this morning I'm Mr.Literal. Ice of the dry sort. Frozen CO2. She was found in her home, lying in abathtub full of the stuff."
I tried to picture the blond woman as a frozen corpse, didn'tlike the image that flashed in my head, and reverted to Doctor Helpful."Someone trying to mess up the time-of-death estimate? Or maybe apsychopath coming up with a new way to showcase his handiwork."
He winced, as if all contingencies were painful. Removingthe disc, he slipped it back into a clear plastic jewel box. Not bothering toglove up; the DVD had already been printed, matched only to Elise Freeman.
I said, "Where are you going with this?"
He rotated his neck. "Got coffee? Maybe sometoast?"
We left myhouse with black coffee in travel-cups and six slices of lavishly butteredsesame-rye.
When Milo wants to think, phone, text, or sleep hesometimes asks me to do the driving. It's against LAPD regs but so are lots ofthings. He makes up for my mileage cost with bar tabs and such.
The toast was occupying his attention so I offered totake my Seville. He shook his head, scattering crumbs, continued to his latestunmarked, a bronze Chevy Malibu with a phlegmy ignition. Heading north onBeverly Glen, he steered with one hand, stuffed rye bread into his mouth withthe other.
The police radio was switched off. The burrito rested inthe backseat and filled the car with eau de frijole.
He said, "In answer to your question, toomessy."
"That was low on my list of questions. Where are wegoing?"
"Where she died, Studio City."
"Not a West L.A. case but you're on it."
"Not an official homicide but I'm on it."
The difference between an experienced psychologist and anovice is knowing when not to speak.
I sat back and drank coffee.
Milo said, "Maybe there'll be a microwave and I canheat up the burrito."
Elise Freeman had resided in a green-sided, tar-roofedbungalow on a spidery, tree-shaded lane east of Laurel Canyon and north ofVentura Boulevard. Close enough to the thoroughfare to hear Valley traffic, butmature vegetation and larger houses blocked any urban visuals.
The little green box sat at the terminus of a long dirtdriveway split by a strip of concrete. A gray sedan was parked near the frontdoor. Full-sized car but not big enough to hide the bungalow's blemishes as wedrew close: worn and ragged siding eroded to raw wood in patches, curlingshingles, a noticeable listing to the right due to a sinking foundation.
No crime scene tape that I could see, no uniforms onwatch.
I said, "When was she found?"
"Last night by her boyfriend. He says he talked toher on the phone three days ago but after that, she stopped returning hiscalls. A forty-eight-hour time frame fits the coroner's TOD guesstimate.Probably at the tail end-early morning. Apparently, dry ice doesn't melt, itsublimates-goes straight into the atmosphere-so there's no water residue forestimating degradation. In an ice chest, the rate of sublimation is five to tenpounds every twenty-four hours, but it's faster under normal roomtemperature."
"Any empty ice bags left behind?"
Someone had cleaned up.
"The scene's still intact?"
He scowled. "I never got a chance to see the scenebecause my involvement began at five thirty a.m. today when Deputy ChiefWeinberg woke me from a rare good dream. The DVD, the key to the house, and what'spassing for a file were messengered to my house ten minutes later."
"High intrigue and an egregious break inprocedure," I said. "Sounds like orders from on high."
He continued slowly up the drive, checking out thesurroundings. Layers of greenery to the left, a two-story Colonial mansion tothe right. The big house was wood-sided like the bungalow, but what I could seeof it was painted white and adorned with black shutters. It sat on a generouslot partitioned from Freeman's skimpy ribbon of real estate by a ten-footstucco fence topped with used brick. Bougainvillea topped areas of brick,amping up the privacy quotient on both sides.
The smaller structure might've begun life as anoutbuilding of the manse, back when multi-acre estates spread across Valleyhillsides. A guesthouse, servant's quarters, maybe tack storage for one of thecowboy actors wanting proximity to the Burbank film-lots that passed for WildWest badlands.
Milo rolled to a stop inches from the Crown Vic. No oneat the wheel, but a man in a cream-colored suit emerged from behind thebungalow.
A hair over Milo's six three, he was broad, black,bespectacled. The suit was double-breasted and tailored to nearly conceal a gunbulge.
He gave a cursory nod. "Milo."
"And this is..."
"That makes it sound like I'm in therapy,Stan."
"Therapy's in fashion now, Milo. The departmentlooks kindly on self-awareness and insight."
"Must have missed that memo."
A big hand extended. "Stanley Creighton,Doctor."
Milo said, "What brings you down from Olympus,Stan?"
"More like Bunker Hill," said Creighton."I'm here to keep an eye out."
"New clause in the captain's job description?"
Creighton said, "One does what one is told." Heturned to me. "Speaking of which, Doctor, I appreciate what you do but youshouldn't be here."
"He's cleared for takeoff, Stan."
Creighton frowned. Cool morning but the back of his neckwas moist ebony. "I must've missed that memo."
"Probably buried under a pile of wisdom from HisMunificence."
Creighton flashed beautiful teeth. "Why don't youcall him that to his face? Doctor, you really need to absent yourself."
"Stan, he really doesn't."
Creighton's smile degraded to something cold andmenacing. "You're telling me you got papal dispensation for his presenceat this specific crime scene?"
"Why would I improvise about that, Stan?"
"Why indeed," said Creighton. "Except forthe fact that rationality doesn't always figure into human behavior. Which iswhy my wife, who has an M.D., still smokes a pack and a half a day."
"Feel free to call the Vatican to verify,Stan."
Creighton studied me. "Can I assume that LieutenantSturgis has informed you of the need for exceptional discretion here,Doctor?"
"Exceptional," he repeated.
"I love exceptions," I said.
"Why's that, Doctor?"
"They're a lot more interesting than rules."
Creighton tried to smile again. The result fit him likepanty hose on a mastiff. "I respect what you do, Doctor. My wife's aneurologist, works with psychologists all the time. But now I'm wondering ifLieutenant Sturgis relies on you so not because of your professional skills,maybe it's more of a personality thing." Expanding his chest. "As inwiseass loves company."
Before I could answer he wheeled on Milo. "How muchtime are you going to need here?"
"Hard to say."
"I'm after a little more precision."
"You've already seen the crime scene pix, the body'slong gone, the prints and fluid swabs are at the lab, and your vic's computerwas lifted, so what do you expect to accomplish?"
No mention of the DVD.
Milo said, "Hell, Stan, why even bother to work whenwe can go on detective.com?"
"Yuk yuk yuk, ka-ching, rim shot," saidCreighton. "Bottom line: There's nothing this place can tell you. Unlessyou're one of those paranormals, think you can feel vibrations."
"You were in my place you wouldn't do a walk-through?"
"Sure, cover your ass. But walk quickly. I've beenhere since six a.m., which is an hour after Weinberg woke me up and gave me myorders. Morning's aren't my fun time. This particular morning, my knee's beinga nasty bitch. So what I'm gonna do right now is go for a nice, loose walk andwhen I get back, I strongly prefer to see you the hell out of here so I can getthe hell out of here and do the job they officially pay me for."
Favoring me with a contemptuous glance. "Be careful,Doctor."
We watched him stride off, limping slightly.
I said, "Who'd he play for?"
"U. Nevada, didn't make the big-time."
"What do they officially pay him for?"
"He used to work Sex Crimes. Now he pushes paper andattends meetings."
"And occasionally plays watchman."
"Funny 'bout that."
We continued toward the green house.
I said, "If it's all so hush-hush how'd you get thechief to approve me?"
"I'll answer that once you're approved."
The bungalow's front porch creaked under our weight. Ahummingbird feeder dangling from the overhang was empty and dry. Milo pulledout a tagged key and unlocked the door and we stepped into a small, dim livingroom. Blank space atop a TV table.
I said, "Her video gear's at the lab?"
"Where was the DVD found?"
"Stuck in the middle of a stack of her favoritemovies. Or so the file claims."
"Creighton didn't mention it."
"Like I said, it got messengered."
"Guy in a suit."
"And a badge?"
"A note in the envelope said it was found in a stackof the victim's DVDs."
"But not cataloged as evidence."
"Funny 'bout that."
"Who took the initial call?"
"Two North Hollywood D's who have absolutely nothingto say to me."
"Are you planning to tell me what got the gearsgrinding?"
"It wasn't her," he said. "They couldn'tcare less about her. That's the point, Alex."
I said, "The suspects are the point. Where they'reemployed."
"You never heard that from me."
"A school has that much clout?"
"It does when the right people's kids are enrolled.You ever have patients from Windsor Prep?"
"Any pattern you'd care to share?"
"Affluent, attractive kids. For the most part,bright, but under lots of pressure academically, athletically, and socially. Inother words, no different from any other prep school."
"This case makes it real different."
"Because of one student in particular."
"College applications go in soon," I said."Here's a wild guess: The chief has a kid aiming for the Ivy League."
He shoved a coarse shock of hair off his brow. Fuzzylight advertised every pock and knot on his face. "I never heard that fromyou."
"Son or daughter?"
"Son," he said. "Only child. Another Einstein,according to his mommy, the Virgin Mary."
"Talk about a mixed metaphor."
"What the hell, they were both nice Jewishboys."
"Graduating with honors and aiming for Yale."
I said, "It's the toughest year ever, huge upsurgeof applications, lots of honor students are going to be disappointed. A coupleof patients I saw as little kids have come back for moral support and they saythe most trivial factor can nudge the scales. A big-time scandal would energizethe Rejection Gods."
He bowed. "O Great Swami of the East, your wisdomhas pierced the miasma." He began circling the room. "Ol' Stanley waswrong. Why I rely upon you has nothing to do with personality."
Creighton might've been off about that but to my eye hewas right about the house yielding nothing of value.
The miserly space had already taken on an abandoned feel.The front room, carelessly and cheaply furnished, sported a U-build bookshelffull of high school texts, SAT and ACT practice manuals, a few photographyvolumes featuring pretty shots of faraway places, paperbacks by Jane Austen,Aphra Behn, and George Eliot.
The plywood-and-Formica kitchenette was a sixtiesbootleg. Wilting fruit and vegetables moldered in the mini-fridge; a couple ofLean Cuisine boxes sat in the freezer compartment. A kitchen cabinet wascrammed full of liquor mini-bottles and some full-sized quarts. Budget gin butGrey Goose vodka, no mixers prettying up intentions.