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Los Angeles 6–17 March 1978
The rains had finally stopped. Los Angeles had begun the Herculean task of digging out after the series of devastating storms and the almost biblical downpour that had turned the county into a federal disaster area, converting the lowlands into rivers of mud, gouging out roadways and toppling houses from the hillsides. Angelenos would not soon forget the storms of early 1978.
Past midnight Jaymar Street was deserted. It usually was at that time. And dark. The neon lights from Lassen's Liquor Store on the corner of Franklin did not reach very far down Jaymar, and streetlamps were few and far between in the modest neighborhood.
His apartment hotel, incongruously named the King's Court, was on the east side of the street, and the outdoor spots that used to illuminate the shrubbery in front of the building with red and green lights had long since been turned off to save energy. And money.
He hurried along, the six-pack promisingly heavy in the brown bag. His mind was full. So much was happening....
Suddenly an urgent whisper from behind him shocked him out of his reveries:
"Don't turn around, man, or you're dead! Keep walking. Drop your wallet. And your watch."
He whirled around, the heavy beer bag swinging from his arm. Before him loomed two men. Burly. Young. Teenagers. He saw the face of the nearest one, distorted with fear and hate. He saw the piece of iron pipe clutched in the boy's hand descend toward his head. He seemed frozen in the eternity of no time at all. In the split second before death he registered the vicious blow that crashed into his temple....
Sprawled in an awkward heap on the sidewalk, he was unaware of the swift, callous hands that rifled his pockets and tore his watch from his wrist. He did not hear the hurried footsteps that disappeared into the night and the dark.
He was merely another mugging victim left in the shadows on the street—stripped of his valuables—and his life....
He knocked over the open aspirin bottle on the night table next to his bed as he groped for the telephone. He heard the tablets roll across the tabletop and clatter on the bare floor where the imitation Persian rug didn't quite reach the wall. Damn! That meant rummaging around on hands and knees. He fumbled the receiver to his ear.
"Bendicks," he growled, his sleep-numbed voice a full octave lower than normal.
He listened for a short while.
"Thirty minutes," he said.
He worked the receiver back onto its cradle. The large luminous figures on his digital alarm clock glowed 1:27.
Investigator II Harry Bendicks lay back in his bed. Just one more minute. He hated these calls in the middle of the night. He stretched. His joints felt stiff. At least the aspirin had taken care of the dull ache in his arm.
He let his left arm fall to the other side of the bed. It had been ten years since he had felt Edith there—or the warmth her body had generated. But he still slept on his own side of the double bed. And his arm—knowing it would find nothing—still automatically sought her. Some habits are hard to break.
He yawned and swung his legs out from under the sheet that was his only cover. He was wide awake. That was the worst of it, he thought. No way could he do his job half asleep, like most other working stiffs.
Hurriedly he began to dress.
At fifty-seven he was in pretty good shape, although the spare tire around his middle was getting a little too inflated—a fact he noticed every time he buttoned the top button of his pants, like now—and despite the fact that he occasionally had to cheat a little on the tests for his physical-fitness reports. Still, standing six feet one, with his full head of graying hair and strong features, he cut an impressive figure. And he had no trouble putting a nice, tight pattern in the paper man on the range.
He had five days to go. Five days before "busting out"—after thirty-two years. He felt a twinge of annoyance. What the hell was this DB in the street going to do to his last few days? He'd been looking forward to turning them into one long retirement party. A Dead Body could too damned easily turn into a dead end....
Harry had joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1946, a few months after his honorable discharge from the Army. He was still in top shape and he'd hated standing in line every week with the other members of the "52–20 Club" to collect his Veteran's Readjustment Allowance of a lousy twenty bucks. It was no life for a man who had volunteered immediately after Pearl Harbor and had served better than four years in the ETO as an agent in the CIC—the Counter Intelligence Corps. Detachment 212, XII Corps, AUS. Through France, the Battle of the Bulge, across the Rhine, through all of Germany into Czechoslovakia, and nine months of occupation. The works. It had been an obvious assignment. Harald "Harry" Bendicks was a second-generation Dane and spoke both Danish and German fluently. Moreover, he'd been familiar with those countries and their people from several vacation trips to the old country as a teenager in the 1930s. If it were possible to "enjoy" a war, Harry had enjoyed his investigative work as a CIC agent, and he'd opted to continue that kind of work with the LAPD. He'd had no trouble at all making the grade.
With his junior teammate, Pete, Investigator II Peter Hastings, he formed SIT-7—Special Investigation Team #7, Homicide, working out of the Hollywood Division of the LAPD.
He glanced at the digital alarm clock as he shrugged into his shoulder holster. 1:44. Pete would beat him to the scene....
Harry turned the corner from Franklin into Jaymar. Ahead of him down the street he could see the flashing red lights of the ambulance and the patrol cars. A patch of sidewalk was illuminated by the headlights. The proverbial "scene of the crime."
Looks something like a theater stage, he thought as he brought his car to a stop behind the Division Commander's vehicle, or a movie.... There's the set. The big star is the DB, the victim, his co-star the murderer. Offstage—for the moment. And the supporting players and bits, each acting out his role: the investigators, the uniformed cops, the Division officers, the deputy coroner, the ambulance attendants, the photo-and-print Man. Cast of thousands! And, of course, the curious. The extras. Just like shooting some two-bit movie. Only—this one's real....
Would anyone but a Hollywood cop think crazy like that? He grinned to himself.
As he got out of his car he saw Pete talking to one of the IHD investigators.
He took in the scene quickly. He was the last one to arrive. As if he'd missed his cue. He walked over to his partner.
"Car trouble?" Pete asked sweetly.
"Very funny," Harry growled. "What've we got?"
"Mugging," Pete answered matter-of-factly. "Murder. Male. Caucasian. Late fifties. Got himself his head bashed in."
Pete shook his head. "Negative. He was completely cleaned. Except for this." He handed Harry a small slip of paper.
Harry looked at it. It was a cash-register receipt. Lassen's Liquor Store. $1.75. 6 March 1978. He nodded toward the corner.
"That's the joint up there," he said. "Today's date."
"Yeah." Pete nodded. "I figure he was on his way back home with a six-pack." He gestured toward the gutter. "It's lying out there. Budweiser. The guy probably lived around here."
"Okay," Harry said. "First stop, Lassen's Liquor." He turned to the IHD investigator. "Who found him?"
The man from Investigative Headquarters Division at Parker Center, downtown LA, shrugged. "Who knows? A conscientious citizen who'd rather not get involved."
"So what's new?" Pete observed.
"A 187 was routed to IHD about an hour ago," the investigator went on. He glanced at the dead man. "And we rolled on it. It's a who-done-it. Have fun."
"Thanks a heap," Harry said sourly. Some fun for his last five days ...
The deputy coroner came up to them. "You boys going to handle this one?" he asked.
Harry nodded. "What's the story?"
"Well, unless we find a dose of arsenic or some exotic South American poison in his belly," the deputy said cheerfully,
"I'd say he died of a crushed skull. Left temple caved in. Dead about two hours."
Harry looked at Pete. "Any weapon?"
Pete shook his head. "None found."
"Iron pipe," Harry mused grimly. "Vicelords?"
"Could be," Pete agreed. "Likely as not. It's their MO."
"Well, back to bed," the deputy coroner said. "Unless there are more fun and games waiting somewhere." He walked off.
Harry turned to Pete. "Get Photo and Prints to give you a Polaroid mug shot of the stiff," he said. "We might need it."
Pete nodded. "Done." He walked away.
A police lieutenant started toward Harry. Harry watched him approach. He knew what was coming. Lieutenant Jack L. Stein was in charge of SIT at the Division.
"Bendicks," Stein said crisply, "this looks like just the case for SIT-7. Routine." He grinned at Harry. "Something to while away the long hours before your retirement."
"Don't expect me to break into a song-and-dance routine for joy," Harry said sourly.
"Harry, don't beef too much." Stein looked toward the dead man. The coroner was placing him on a litter. "It's a Meter Maid case. No reason to run your ass off on this one. You should already have a good idea who the bastards are."
"Yeah. We do. The Vicelords."
Stein nodded. "Our ruling resident gang shows surprisingly little imagination. Only this time they were a little too enthusiastic."
"The victim had no ID," Harry said. He showed Stein the liquor-store receipt. "We have a good lead, though."
"Okay, don't let me keep you." Stein turned to go. "I'll look for the papers on my desk tomorrow morning." He walked away.
"Sure. Look," Harry grumbled.
Pete joined him. "Got it."
Harry nodded. "Light's still on," he said. "Let's go see what they know at the booze bazaar."
Lassen's Liquor Store was blazing with light, but the door was locked and a cardboard sign with a corner missing hung inside it,
Harry and Pete could see a scrawny, elderly man working inside. They banged on the door.
Without turning toward them, the man called, "We're closed!"
Harry took out his badge and clanged it sharply on the glass. "Police!" he called. "We want to talk to you!"
The man looked up. Slowly, warily, he came to the door. He did not open it. He shouted through the glass. "What do you want?"
Harry held up his badge. "I'm Investigator Bendicks," he called. He nodded toward Pete. "That's Investigator Hastings. We'd like to talk to you."
The man peered nearsightedly at Harry's badge. He looked at the two men without the slightest expression of friendliness. Slowly he opened the door.
"What's going on down on Jaymar?" he grumbled. "Another break-in? It's getting so you can't—"
"Are you Mr. Lassen?" Harry interrupted.
"Yeah. I'm Lassen."
"We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"May we come in?"
"Sure. Come in." The man stood aside.
Harry and Pete entered the store. They looked around. Several empty and half-empty boxes and crates neatly divided into twelve bottle-sized spaces stood near a door to a back room.
"Have you been here for the last few hours, Mr. Lassen?" Pete asked.
"Yeah. I've been working on the inventory."
"You're working late," Harry observed.
"What the hell else is there to do?"
Harry fished the Polaroid snapshot of the mugging victim from his pocket. "Do you know this man, Mr. Lassen?" He showed him the photo.
Lassen looked uneasy as he inspected it. "Yeah. I know him."
"Who is he?"
"Name's Muller. Ernest Muller." He averted his eyes from the snapshot. "Lives down the street. At the King's Court."
"When did you see him last, Mr. Lassen?" Pete asked.
Lassen shifted uneasily on his feet. "Look," he said, "I don't want to get involved."
"Just answer the question!" Harry snapped. He bristled. Damn them! Nobody ever wanted to get involved....
"Okay, okay." Lassen peered sullenly at Harry. "But I don't know anything."
"When did you see Muller last?" Harry repeated the question.
"This evening," Lassen said. He seemed apprehensive. "Just—just before I closed. Couple of hours ago." He licked his lips nervously. "He's a—customer. Regular. Bought a six-pack of beer."
"Budweiser," Pete commented.
Lassen looked at him, startled. "Yeah. Budweiser." He looked suspiciously from one to the other.
Harry again showed him the snapshot. "And this is Ernest Muller?"
Lassen nodded affirmation. "Yeah." He swallowed. "Is he—has anything happened to him?"
"He was mugged," Harry said. "He's dead."
Lassen grew pale. "I—I know nothing about it," he mumbled.
"Nobody said you did," Harry snapped. He glowered at the storekeeper. "Anybody else? Who's been here since Muller left?"
Lassen shook his head. "Look—eh, officer, I don't know anything. Really. I don't want to get involved. I don't want to answer any more questions." He found sudden courage. "I—I don't have to! I'm not under arrest or anything. It's none of my affair."
Harry contemplated the man for a moment. Slowly he walked a little farther into the store. He looked around. He turned to Lassen, who was watching him apprehensively.
"That's right, Mr. Lassen," he said, his voice like poisoned honey. "You don't have to answer any questions. Now ..." He looked around appraisingly. "You have a nice store here, Mr. Lassen. Very nice. Business is probably good, right? As long as nobody cuts a hole in your pocket, right?" He looked straight into the man's face. His voice grew dangerously low. "Someone—like me ..."
He let the implication hang in the air.
Lassen stared at him.
"Now, as I was asking you, Mr. Lassen, has anyone else been here after Muller left?"
Lassen nodded. He looked frightened. "Yes. One. Just one.
A young man. Just to use the phone. He didn't buy anything." He licked his suddenly dry lips. "He said it was an emergency."
"Did you know him?"
Lassen shook his head.
"Think, Mr. Lassen," Harry said silkily. "Think. Try to remember. Did you know the young man?"
"Can you describe him?" Pete asked.
Lassen shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't really look at him good."
"How old was he?"
"Maybe twenty. Or—thirty. I don't know."
"Can you be a little more specific?"
"I'm not good on ages."
"How tall was he? How was he built?"
"Sort of—medium, I guess."
"Color of hair?"
"Was it long? How did he comb it?"
"Comb it?" Lassen shook his head. "I didn't notice. It wasn't too long, though—I don't think."
"I don't know."
"What was his ethnic background?"
"Was he white? Black? Chicano? Oriental?"
"How was he dressed?"
"I don't remember. A jacket. Yeah—some kind of dark jacket."
Lassen shrugged. "I couldn't say."
"Anything unusual about him? A limp? Tattoo?"
"No. Nothing. He was just—average, I'd say."
Harry listened with growing annoyance. The description could fit half the guys walking the streets of Los Angeles. Medium. Average. Shit! One of his pet peeves was the worthless descriptions the uniformed cops so often handed in. Not worth a damn to anyone—except the perpetrator. But when he ran into someone like Lassen, he realized what the men were up against. Dammit, there were so many things the store owner could have noticed. How did the guy speak when he asked about telephoning? Did he have an accent? A high voice? Low? Did he wear a beard? A mustache? Glasses? Christ, there were hundreds of details anyone with two eyes could see.
He was about to break in when Pete gave him a glance of exasperation. He clammed up. It would be a waste of time. Lassen wasn't going to give them anything concrete. And, anyway, the subject was only marginally involved. Not worth the time and temper it would take. He let it go.
"Is there anything else you can tell us about the man, Mr. Lassen?" Pete finally asked. "Anything at all that you remember?"
"No," Lassen said. "Nothing. Except—"
Excerpted from The Watchdogs of Abaddon by Ib Melchior. Copyright © 1979 Ib Melchior. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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