Read an Excerpt
The Hillside Stranglers
By Darcy O'Brien
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Darcy O'Brien
All rights reserved.
Nude and violated, she lay on her back in the flowerbed like a discarded doll. Her head was turned toward the northern hills. Eyes shut, legs akimbo, fingers trapped beneath her buttocks, she proclaimed sacrifice. Ants crawled across her belly, leaving red bites. She was murdered and nameless.
Sergeant Frank Salerno, genuflecting to look, could feel the squeeze of the rope at her neck, which was encircled by a line of dark, purplish bruise. Rope or twine or cord, she had been strangled. Strangulation by ligature was the phrase that occurred to him. He would use it in his report.
It was now just after eight on the morning of Halloween, 1977, a gray day, the air about fifty-five degrees. Salerno, a detective with the Homicide Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, had been called from his bed to examine the body. It had been discovered at six o'clock where it now lay, about two and a half feet from the curb at 2844 Alta Terrace Drive in La Crescenta, a middle-class town in the foothills just north of Glendale. Charles Koehn, who had the curious habit of leaving his house at four each morning to go to work at his electrical shop and returning home at six to eat breakfast and check on his family, had noticed the body as he parked in front of his house in the early light. Forgetting what he had learned from hundreds of television cop shows about not disturbing evidence, Koehn had covered the body with a tarp. He had not wanted his or other neighborhood children to go off to school having seen a corpse.
Other detectives, who had arrived before Salerno, had not touched the tarp. Salerno removed it carefully, hoping that nothing important had been lost.
She was pale, small and thin, maybe ninety pounds, neither pretty nor not, her straight, reddish-brown hair neither long nor short. She could not have lived more than fifteen or sixteen years. Scrutinizing her, Salerno reflected that in a decade as a sheriff's deputy and in more than two years with homicide, he had never seen a body like this. He noted ligature marks at five points: neck, wrists, and ankles. The wrist and ankle bruises were fainter and more irregular than the line on her neck. She must have been tied or handcuffed or both. Her open mouth revealed blood along the upper gumline. Her body bore no other signs.
But as he stared at her face, leaning in closer, Salerno noticed something on the right eyelid. A speck, a white tuft of something. A wispy bit of fluff. He picked it off and held it up to the overcast sky. It looked like angel's hair, the stuff you put on Christmas trees. It would have to be analyzed. It might be all they had, and it might be nothing. He hoped it had not come from the tarp.
He rolled her over. Nothing. He assumed that she had been raped, but the coroner would determine that.
He stepped back to take in the scene. The body, lying so close and parallel to the street, could not have been missed as the people of the neighborhood began their Monday. It must have been placed there deliberately, Salerno reasoned, not tossed or dropped. On the north side of the street a chain-link fence, covered with oleander bushes, bordered a big storm basin. Had the killer or killers wished to conceal the body, he or they could have forced it up over the fence, where it would not have been noticed until the smell got bad. The way it lay there, knees out, meant that they had wanted it to be noticed and had wanted it to shock the neighborhood. The more Salerno looked at the position of the body, the more it seemed to him to have been placed there by two men, or more than two. They had probably removed it from a car, carried it over the curb, and put it down. There were no drag marks, neither on the body nor on the ice plant that, still wet with dew, covered the curb. One man could have carried her, but it was unlikely.
Salerno knew that he had no proof that there had been two, nor even that they were men, but he assumed it. He was confident of his instincts: they would not be enough in court but they were enough for him now.
It was a quiet neighborhood, heavily planted, high up in the hills above Foothill Boulevard, old Route 66, remote enough to make Salerno wonder from the start why, having traveled this far up, someone would pick this street to dump a body. Alta Terrace Drive was accessible only from La Crescenta Boulevard—at its other end it deadended—but someone this far up could have gone on only a little farther and hidden the body where it would not have been found so quickly. Relatively prosperous working people lived here. They were not rich, but they were well-off and respectable. They would notify the police immediately of anything unusual, as Charles Koehn had. The houses, one-story, ranch-style, had wonderful views of the city to the south at night or when there was enough wind to dissipate the smog. You could see Forest Lawn from Alta Terrace and, to the west, the San Fernando Valley.
Then Salerno noticed something that confirmed or at least supported his hypothesis that there had been two men. A portion of the ice plant next to the curb, almost directly opposite the girl's feet, had been pushed out of place, tufted up eighteen inches or more and folded back from the curb. He bent down. Under the disarranged ice plant, the dirt had been freshly disturbed. Kicked? Or had a car jumped the curb and done this?
The scene materialized in Salerno's imagination. Two men had removed the body from a car. One had carried her by the head or had gripped her under the arms; the other had held her feet or had gripped her under the knees. The man carrying the upper part of her body had stepped across the curb first, and his momentum had caused the other man to trip on the curb or to stumble, catching the toe of his shoe under the ice plant.
Then they had put the body down. Had she been placed facedown at first? Then unhandcuffed or untied? Then rolled over onto her back, hands still behind her? Salerno speculated. He guessed at last that she had already been unhandcuffed or untied. Her hands, dangling, had caught beneath her.
Salerno went into Charles Koehn's house to talk to him and his wife. They had heard nothing during the night. "I sleep like a log," Koehn said. Had he noticed anything when he had left for work at four in the morning?
"It was pitch-black."
What about the ice plant? Had it been tufted up like that yesterday? It had not, Koehn said. He would have noticed something like that. He took care of his property. He had just put in that fountain in the patio.
Salerno asked about the tarp. Koehn had taken it from the backyard, where it had been used to cover some toys.
"What kind of toys?"
"Stuffed animals and things. See for yourself."
In the backyard, Salerno was sorry to see the stuffed animals, some of which had fuzz that might be the wispy stuff he had plucked from the girl's eyelid. For the same reason, Salerno regretted the Koehns' white poodle. He called in the man from the Sheriff's crime laboratory and had him cut samples from the dog and the toys. Then he set about interviewing everyone on Alta Terrace. It was a peaceful street, he found. People worked hard to live there for the view.CHAPTER 2
Angelo Buono, inaptly named, looked like a gargoyle, but the resemblance was only skin-deep. Great roots of hands, with thumbs on them the size of zucchinis, hung down from his long, sinewed arms. The hands swung backward as he walked. He was wiry, about five foot ten. He had Sicilian coloring. He was kind to animals and had a way with the ladies.
That Sunday evening in the autumn of his forty-fourth year, Angelo was lying on his king-sized water bed, dressed in his customary blue workpants and short-sleeved shirt, bored. There was nothing on TV. He got up to straighten one of the framed family photographs on the wall: his son Peter, in full Marine dress uniform, posed before an American flag. Below Peter, Angelo Buono, Sr., deceased, looked content in his dark security guard's uniform, grinning. Farther along the wall hung a small Italian flag. And next to it, a print of an anonymous early Italian Renaissance Madonna, eternally serene, gazed at the room with ancient eyes.
Angelo wandered through his house, straightening, checking for dust. In the den he tidied shelves of knickknacks: his Zippo lighter collection, antique model cars, a plastic sphinx, a miniature barber's pole, poker chips and playing cards, against which was propped a little wooden sign, reading, "Candy Is Dandy but Sex Won't Rot Your Teeth." He made sure his files of Penthouse and Playboy magazines, two neat piles on a bottom shelf, were in order. He opened the glassed door of his gun case and dusted his five rifles, two .45 pistols, and Thompson submachine gun. Everything was shipshape.
Angelo was house-proud. He had tired of sharing apartments, putting up with other people's habits and tastes, having others' eyes on him. Angelo trusted no one. He had found this place at 703 East Colorado Street in Glendale in 1975, one of a very few inhabited one-story frame residences left on a street that was now four lanes and franchise restaurants, small businesses and the general offices of Bob's Big Boy hamburgers. It was ideal for him because he could live in the house and have his auto upholstery shop in a converted garage at the back. His girlfriends or children could come to stay, but he could kick them out when he chose. He had worked hard on the house, painting the outside a homey yellow with brown trim. Inside he selected an eggshell white for the walls and put down Mexican tile in the kitchen and dining area. He covered the spare bedroom's floor with wear-resistant auto carpeting. He hung his pictures, mingling family sentiment with aesthetic preference, a romantic seascape with Italian fisherman, for instance, next to a photograph of his daughter and another of a girl called Peaches. He did no cooking, but other than that Angelo was a domestic sort of fellow.
In the living room he lowered himself into the brown vinyl easy chair, rested his feet on the beanbag hassock, and stared at the lighted fish tank, listening to the hum of its electric pump, its air bubbles. Angelo liked angelfish. The little castle the fish swam through had fallen over. He got up, put the castle right, and sprinkled fish food on the water. The fish rose to the food, and he remembered the rabbits. He walked back through the kitchen and out the side door around to where the hutches were, between the house and the shop. Across the garage door "Angelo's Trim Shop" was spray-painted in black graffiti script.
Out back his yellow mutt, Sparky, greeted him and rolled over. Angelo scratched Sparky's belly and made guttural sounds. Then he opened the hutches and gave food pellets to the rabbits, stroking them with his big hands, mumbling at them.
He heard a car pull into the driveway. He could tell from the sound of the motor that it was Kenneth Bianchi's Cadillac. My crazy cousin, Angelo thought. Maybe we'll get some action.
They went into the house together. Kenneth Bianchi was twenty-six and more fashion-conscious than his cousin. This evening he wore a three-quarter-length brown leather coat, jeans, and earth shoes. His dark hair was freshly permed, not naturally curly like Angelo's. Bianchi was just under six feet, a fairly well-knit hundred and eighty pounds. With his mustache, he looked like one of the many thousands of young men in Southern California who aspired to stardom but had not landed a role. Something in his manner suggested that he thought he was being photographed. He was Burt Reynolds without a contract but not so tan. The acne scars on his neck lent some character to a bland though not unhandsome face. Lately he had been working for a land title company, where he always wore a dark three-piece suit and carried an attaché case, the eager young executive look. He was called a title officer, though he was but a clerk. Bianchi was a man of many parts. From time to time he lost conviction in his mustache and shaved it off. The perm, too, was a matter of whim from month to month. He was a man easy not to recognize.
"Great party last night," Bianchi said, pacing about. "Really terrific. Kelli and I and her brother and two other guys. We all hit the Circus Maximus. You wouldn't have believed it, you know?" They had celebrated Halloween two days early.
Angelo made a low noise.
"Guess what. We went dressed as—you're not going to believe this—slugs!" Angelo did not react. "Can you believe it? You know, like a snail or something. Really creepy. Kelli made the costumes. It was so very cool. We painted our faces green and put on these green garbage bags and green leotards and, get this, we had Saran Wrap kind of trailing off us, like slime, you know? It was so great. Fuck it! Halloween in Hollywood! Un-fucking-believable!"
"It ain't even Halloween yet. Halloween's tomorrow, dumbbell."
"What's the difference?"
"Nothing on TV," Angelo said. Sunday was a bad night for cop shows, Angelo's favorites. (He rarely missed an episode of Kojak or Baretta; he identified with their tough-guy heroes.) "What you want to do?"
Angelo's speech was rough—a grunt, a grumble, a rasp, the snarl of the underdog. If you had not known that he had been born in Rochester and raised in Los Angeles, you would have guessed Brooklyn or maybe Hoboken. A slight speech impediment, trouble with r's and l's, made him slide from syllable to syllable as though his tongue had been greased. Articulation was not Angelo's strong suit, but he always got his point across.
In the kitchen, he opened a can of clams, ate a spoonful of them, and followed that with a spoonful of olive oil. When he took this mixture, his ulcer never bothered him. With the back of his hand he wiped a smear of oil from his mustache, moving aside his long, arched nose.
"What'll we do?" Angelo said. "Gotta get out of the house. Need some action."
"It's super chilly out," Bianchi said. Though he had lived on the Coast for less than two years, Bianchi already spoke like a New Age Californian, inflectionless, smooth, a mellowed-out beach boy, not a trace remaining of the aggressive East in his sounds. "Hey. I wore my coat." He gave his ingratiating grin and half-twirled, like a fashion model.
"Yeah. That ain't what I asked. You want to do something?"
"You got something in mind?"
Angelo stared up at his cousin. Angelo's eyes were dark under bony brow ridges, his forehead prehistoric. He said nothing. Talking was not something he did much of. He had found that a few words usually got him what he wanted. One of the things he hated about his cousin was that Kenny never seemed to shut up. But Kenny could be useful. He was not stupid, and if you just stared at him long enough, he would get the picture. He would sense what Angelo wanted and then perform as if by remote control. Kenny was a willing slave, Angelo had figured out. A pain in the ass much of the time, but very cooperative when you wanted to make use of him. He was better than most bitches that way. And Angelo knew that he could do and say certain things with Kenny that he could not with anyone else. They had the understanding of an old married couple or two cellmates. Kenny was almost, but not quite, Angelo's punk.
"We could go scamming," Bianchi said. "We could go scamming in Hollywood." He sounded boyishly eager. A Beaver Cleaver. His voice lacked the resonance of manhood.
"We could do that," Bianchi said.
"Like last time. It worked."
"Better, mi numi. Got to be better."
"We go cruising. We pick up a girl. Same scam. Super."
"This time we need more time. Got to have time. Last time was rushed, man."
"Sure. Listen, I can tell you, it isn't super great in a backseat, either. I mean, what's that, you know? Strictly for kids. Backseat screwing is strictly overrated."
"You forget, asshole. I didn't get nothing."
"Sure, Tony." Angelo was sometimes called Tony by family and friends. They also called him the Buzzard. "It happened too fast. We just winged it. If you'd said something, you know. Anything I—"
"We got to plan this shit. We need more time, like I said." Angelo grunted out his words. His voice was a faulty pump spewing silt. "Scam's okay. We need a place. Need some place. Fucking pad someplace. Need a place to nail her, man, you see?"
"Hey, how about right here?"
Angelo sat down in the brown vinyl easy chair and pulled on his right earlobe with his right hand. He let half a minute pass. When Bianchi started to speak again, Angelo said, "Shut up." Finally Angelo said: "Yeah. Here would be good. Real good thinking. Nobody can't see nothing here, can't hear nothing. Perfect. You ain't so dumb."
"Well, I've got a master's from Columbia University, don't I?"
"Yeah, I seen it, asshole. You are some bullshitter. You oughta be rich. How come you ain't got a dime?"
"I'm getting there."
"How much money you owe me?"
"Give me some time, Angelo. Kelli's pregnant, you know."
"Dumb bitches," Angelo said. "Goddam bitches. That goddam Becky and that fucking Sabra. Tits. Okay, bullshitter. So we bring the cunt back here. So there's no question afterwards, we got to ..." He drew a line across his throat. "No problem?"
Excerpted from The Hillside Stranglers by Darcy O'Brien. Copyright © 1985 Darcy O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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