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The statutory definition of homicide is the “unlawful killing of one human being by another.” Sometimes the phrase “with malice” is employed, the concept serving to distinguish murder from the numerous other occasions in which people deprive each other of life—wars and executions coming foremost to mind. “Malice” in the law doesn’t necessarily convey hatred or even ill will but refers instead to a conscious desire to inflict serious injury or cause death. In the main, criminal homicide is an intimate, personal affair insofar as most homicide victims are killed by close relatives, friends, or acquaintances. Reason enough to keep your distance, if you’re asking me.
In Santa Teresa, California, approximately eighty-fi ve percent of all criminal homicides are resolved, meaning that the assailant is identified, apprehended, and the question of guilt or innocence is adjudicated by the courts. The victims of unsolved homicides I think of as the unruly dead: persons who reside in a limbo of their own, some state between life and death, restless, dissatisfi ed, longing for release. It’s a fanciful notion for someone not generally given to flights of imagination, but I think of these souls locked in an uneasy relationship with those who have killed them. I’ve talked to homicide investigators who’ve been caught up in similar reveries, haunted by certain victims who seem to linger among us, persistent in their desire for vindication. In the hazy zone where wakefulness fades into sleep, in that leaden moment just before the mind sinks below consciousness, I can sometimes hear them murmuring. They mourn themselves. They sing a lullaby of the murdered. They whisper the names of their attackers, those men and women who still walk the earth, unidentified, unaccused, unpunished, unrepentant. On such nights, I do not sleep well. I lie awake listening, hoping to catch a syllable, a phrase, straining to discern in that roll call of conspirators the name of one killer. Lorna Kepler’s murder ended up affecting me that way, though I didn’t learn the facts of her death until months afterward.
It was mid- February, a Sunday, and I was working late, little Miss Virtue organizing itemized expenses and assorted business receipts for my tax return. I’d decided it was time to handle matters like a grown- up instead of shoving everything in a shoebox and delivering it to my accountant at the very last minute. Talk about cranky! Each year the man positively bellows at me, and I have to swear I’ll reform, a vow I take seriously until tax time rolls around again and I realize my finances are in complete disarray.
I was sitting at my desk in the law firm where I rent office space. The night outside was chilly by the usual California definition, which is to say fifty degrees. I was the only one on the premises, ensconced in a halo of warm, sleep-inducing light while the other offices remained dark and quiet. I’d just put on a pot of coffee to counteract the narcolepsy that afflicts me at the approach to money matters. I laid my head on the desk, listening to the soothing gargle of the water as it filtered through the coffee maker. Even the smell of mocha java was not sufficient to stimulate my torpid senses. Five more minutes and I’d be out like a light, drooling on my blotter with my right cheek picking up inky messages in reverse.
I heard a tap at the side entrance and I lifted my head, tilting an ear in that direction like a dog on alert. It was nearly ten o’clock, and I wasn’t expecting any visitors. I roused myself, left my desk, and moved out into the hallway. I cocked my head against the side door leading out into the hall. The tap was repeated, much louder. I said, “Yes?”
I heard a woman’s muffled voice in response. “Is this Millhone Investigations?”
“Hang on.” I put the chain on the door and opened it a crack, peering out at her.
She was on the far side of forty, her outfit of the urban cowgirl sort: boots, faded jeans, and a buckskin shirt. She wore enough heavy silver-and- turquoise jewelry to look like she would clank. She had dark hair nearly to her waist, worn loose, faintly frizzy and dyed the color of oxblood shoes. “Sorry to bother you, but the directory downstairs says there’s a private investigator up here in this suite. Is he in, by any chance?”
“Ah. Well, more or less,” I said, “but these aren’t actual office hours. Is there any way you can come back tomorrow? I’ll be happy to set up an appointment for you once I check my book.”
“Are you his secretary?” Her tanned face was an irregular oval, lines cutting down along each side of her nose, four lines between her eyes where the brows were plucked to nothing and reframed in black. She’d used the same sharpened pencil to line her eyelids, too, though she wore no other makeup that I could see.
I tried not to sound irritated since the mistake is not uncommon. “I’m him,” I said. “Millhone Investigations. The first name is Kinsey. Did you tell me yours?”
“No, I didn’t, and I’m sorry. I’m Janice Kepler. You must think I’m a complete idiot.”
Well, not complete, I thought.
She reached out to shake hands and then realized the crack in the doorway wasn’t large enough to permit contact. She pulled her hand back. “It never occurred to me you’d be a woman. I’ve been seeing the Millhone Investigations on the board down in the stairwell. I come here for a support group once a week down a floor. I’ve been thinking I’d call, but I guess I never worked up my nerve. Then tonight as I was leaving, I saw the light on from the parking lot. I hope you don’t mind. I’m actually on my way to work, so I don’t have that long.”
“What sort of work?” I asked, stalling.
“Shift manager at Frankie’s Coffee Shop on upper State Street. Eleven to seven, which makes it hard to take care of any daytime appointments. I usually go to bed at eight in the morning and don’t get up again until late afternoon. Even if I could just tell you my problem, it’d be a big relief. Then if it turns out it’s not the sort of work you do, maybe you could recommend someone else. I could really use some help, but I don’t know where to turn. Your being a woman might make it easier.” The penciled eyebrows went up in an imploring double arch.
I hesitated. Support group, I thought. Drink? Drugs?
Code pendency? If the woman was looney- tunes, I’d really like to know. Behind her, the hall was empty, looking fl at and faintly yellow in the overhead light. Lonnie Kingman’s law firm takes up the entire third floor except for the two public restrooms: one marked M and one W. It was always possible she had a couple of M confederates lurking in the commode, ready at a signal to jump out and attack me. For what purpose, I couldn’t think. Any money I had, I was being forced to give to the feds at pen point. “Just a minute,” I said.
I closed the door and slid the chain off its track, opening the door again so I could admit her. She moved past me hesitantly, a crackling brown paper bag in her arms. Her perfume was musky, the scent reminiscent of saddle soap and sawdust. She seemed ill at ease, her manner infected by some edgy combination of apprehension and embarrassment. The brown paper bag seemed to contain papers of some sort. “This was in my car. I didn’t want you to think I carried it around with me ordinarily.”
“I’m in here,” I said. I moved into my office with the woman close on my heels. I indicated a chair for her and watched as she sat down, placing the paper bag on the floor. I pulled up a chair for myself. I figured if we sat on opposite sides of my desk she’d check out my deductible expenses, which were none of her business. I’m the current ranking expert at reading upside down and seldom hesitate to insert myself into matters that are not my concern. “What support group?” I asked.
“It’s for parents of murdered children. My daughter died here last April. Lorna Kepler. She was found in her cottage over by the mission.”
I said, “Ah, yes. I remember, though I thought there was some speculation about the cause of death.”
“Not in my mind,” she said tartly. “I don’t know how she died, but I know she was murdered just as sure as I’m sitting here.” She reached up and tucked a long ribbon of loose hair behind her right ear. “The police never did come up with a suspect, and I don’t know what kind of luck they’re going to have after all this time. Somebody told me for every day that passes, the chances diminish, but I forget the percentage.”
“Unfortunately, that’s true.”
She leaned over and rooted in the paper bag, pulling out a photograph in a bifold frame. “This is Lorna. You probably saw this in the papers at the time.”
She held out the picture and I took it, staring down at the girl. Not a face I’d forget. She was in her early twenties with dark hair pulled smoothly away from her face, a long swatch of hair hanging down the middle of her back. She had clear hazel eyes with a nearly Oriental tilt; dark, cleanly arched brows; a wide mouth; straight nose. She was wearing a white blouse with a long snowy white scarf wrapped several times around her neck, a dark navy blazer, and faded blue jeans on a slender frame. She stared directly at the camera, smiling slightly, her hands tucked down in her front pockets. She was leaning against a fl oral- print wall, the paper showing lavish pale pink climbing roses against a white background. I returned the picture, wondering what in the world to say under the circumstances.
“She’s very beautiful,” I murmured. “When was that taken?”
“About a year ago. I had to bug her to get this. She’s my youngest. Just turned twenty-five. She was hoping to be a model, but it didn’t work out.”
“You must have been young when you had her.”
“Twenty-one,” she said. “I was seventeen with Berlyn. I got married because of her. Five months gone and I was big as a house. I’m still with her daddy, which surprised everyone, including me, I guess. I was nineteen with my middle daughter. Her name’s Trinny. She’s real sweet. Lorna’s the one I nearly died with, poor thing. Got up one morning, day before I was due, and started hemorrhaging. I didn’t know what was happening. Blood everywhere. It was just like a river pouring out between my legs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Doctor didn’t think he could save either one of us, but we pulled through. You have children, Ms. Millhone?”
“Make it Kinsey,” I said. “I’m not married.”
She smiled slightly. “Just between us, Lorna really was my favorite, probably because she was such a problem all her life. I wouldn’t say that to either of the older girls, of course.” She tucked the picture away. “Anyway, I know what it’s like to have your heart ripped out. I probably look like an ordinary woman, but I’m a zombie, the living dead, maybe a little bit cracked. We’ve been going to this support group . . . somebody suggested it, and I thought it might help. I was ready to try anything to get away from the pain. Mace—that’s my husband—went a few times and then quit. He couldn’t stand the stories, couldn’t stand all the suffering compressed in one room. He wants to shut it out, get shed of it, get clean. I don’t think it’s possible, but there’s no arguing the point. To each his own, as they say.”
“I can’t even imagine what it must be like,” I said.
“And I can’t describe it, either. That’s the hell of it. We’re not like regular people anymore. You have a child murdered, and from that moment on you’re from some other planet. You don’t speak the same language as other folks. Even in this support group, we seem to speak different dialects. Everybody hangs on to their pain like it was some special license to suffer. You can’t help it. We all think ours is the worst case we ever heard. Lorna’s murder hasn’t been solved, so naturally we think our anguish is more acute because of it. Some other family, maybe their child’s killer got caught and he served a few years. Now he’s out on the street again, and that’s what they have to live with— knowing some fella’s walking around smoking cigarettes, drinking beers, having himself a good old time every Saturday night while their child is dead. Or the killer’s still in prison and’ll be there for life, but he’s warm, he’s safe. He gets three meals a day and the clothes on his back. He might be on death row, but he won’t actually die. Hardly anybody does unless they beg to be executed. Why should they? All those soft-hearted lawyers go to work. System’s set up to keep ’em all alive while our kids are dead for the rest of the time.”
“Painful,” I said.
“Yes, it is. I can’t even tell you how much that hurts. I sit downstairs in that room and I listen to all the stories, and I don’t know what to do. It’s not like it makes my pain any less, but at least it makes it part of something. Without the support group, Lorna’s death just evaporates. It’s like nobody cares. It’s not even something people talk about anymore. We’re all of us wounded, so I don’t feel so cut off. I’m not separate from them. Our emotional injuries just come in different forms.” Her tone throughout was nearly matter-of-fact, and the dark-eyed look she gave me then seemed all the more painful because of it. “I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to think I’m crazy . . . at least any more than I actually am. You have a child murdered and you go berserk. Sometimes you recover and sometimes you don’t. What I’m saying is, I know I’m obsessed. I think about Lorna’s killer way more than I should. Whoever did this, I want him punished. I want this laid to rest. I want to know why he did it. I want to tell him face- to- face exactly what he did to my life the day he took hers. The psychologist who runs the group, she says I need to find a way to get my power back. She says it’s better to get mad than go on feeling heartsick and defenseless. So. That’s why I’m here. I guess that’s the long and short of it.”
“Taking action,” I said.
“You bet. Not just talking. I’m sick and tired of talk. It gets nowhere.”
“You’re going to have to do a bit more talking if you want my help. You want some coffee?”
“I know that. I’d love some. Black is fi ne.”
I filled two mugs and added milk to mine, saving my questions until I was seated again. I reached for the legal pad on my desk, and I picked up a pen. “I hate to make you go through the whole thing again, but I really need to have the details, at least as much as you know.”
“I understand. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to come up here. I’ve told this story probably six hundred times, but it never gets any easier.” She blew on the surface of her coffee and then took a sip. “That’s good coffee. Strong. I hate drinking coffee too weak. It’s no taste. Anyway, let me think how to say this. I guess what you have to understand about Lorna is she was an inde pendent little cuss. She did everything her way. She didn’t care what other people thought, and she didn’t feel what she did was anybody else’s business. She’d been asthmatic as a child and ended up missing quite a bit of school, so she never did well in her classes. She was smart as a whip, but she was out half the time. Poor thing was allergic to just about everything. She didn’t have many friends. She couldn’t spend the night at anybody else’s house because other little girls always seemed to live with pets or house dust, mold, or whatnot. She outgrew a lot of that as she matured, but she was always on medication for one thing or another. I make a point of this because I think it had a profound effect on the way she turned out. She was antisocial: bullheaded and uncooperative. She had a streak of defiance, I think because she was used to being by herself, doing what she wanted. And I might have spoiled her some. Children sense when they have the power to cause you distress. Makes them tyrants to some extent. Lorna didn’t understand about pleasing other people, ordinary give-and- take. She was a nice person and she could be generous if she wanted, but she wasn’t what you’d call loving or nurturing.” She paused. “I don’t know how I got off on that. I meant to talk about something else, if I can think what it was.”
She frowned, blinking, and I could see her consult some interior agenda. There was a moment or two of silence while I drank my coffee and she drank hers. Finally her memory clicked in and she brightened, saying, “Oh, yes. Sorry about that.” She shifted on her chair and took up the narrative. “Asthma medication sometimes caused her insomnia. Everybody thinks antihistamines make you drowsy, which they can, of course, but it isn’t the deep sleep you need for ordinary rest. She didn’t like to sleep. Even grown, she got by on as little as three hours sometimes. I think she was afraid of lying down. Being prone always seemed to aggravate her wheezing. She got in the habit of roaming around at night when everybody else was asleep.”
“Who’d she hang out with? Did she have friends or just ramble on her own?”
“Other night owls, I’d guess. An FM disc jockey for one,
Excerpted from K is for Killer by Sue Grafton.
Copyright © 1994 by Sue Grafton.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
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