It was the nightgown that hooked me:
Sunday, July 13. 1:46 a.m. Near Lookout Mountain and Laurel Canyon. An unidentified woman in her mid- to late-twenties, wearing a nightgown, was the victim of a hit-and-run accident that left her unconscious and seriously injured. There were no witnesses.
That’s how my copy would read in next Tuesday’s edition of the Crime Sheet. We’re not talking Chandler or Hammett—just the facts, ma’am. There would be no speculation about the nightgown mentioned in the police report, or about the woman wearing it.
Had she been in distress? I wondered. Desperate, maybe, her hair flying behind her like a banner as she dashed across the serpentine road, oblivious of the oncoming car? Had she been running for help, or away from something or someone? Had she been looking behind her in that final moment before the car slammed into her, several tons of metal crushing muscle and delicate bone, or paralyzed by the headlights, feral eyes gleaming menace in the dark, moonless night?
My editor, who constantly carps about lack of space, would probably cut the nightgown. People don’t care what she was wearing, Molly, he’d argue. For me, the nightgown was key. And in my opinion, it’s details like this that give the Crime Sheet its quirky flavor.
I’m a freelance reporter and I collect data from the Los Angeles Police Department for a section in the local independent throwaways that people read to find out what crimes are taking place in their neighborhoods and fig- ure out how nervous they should be. I also write books about true crime under the pseudonym Morgan Blake. I’ve always been inquisitive (“Excellent grades marred by interrupting class with too many questions”), and ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to crime stories, true and fictional. So with an English degree from UCLA and extension courses in journalism, I set about channeling my curiosity into a career.
As to my love of crime fiction, I inherited that from my maternal grandmother, Bubbie G (the G is for Genendel, a name Bubbie has forbidden any of us to mention although I think it’s cute). Bubbie, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Europe with my late grandfather in 1951, taught herself English and cut her teeth on Erle Stanley Gardner. Soon she was devouring four or five mysteries a week—cozies, hardboiled, Agatha Christie to Elmore Leonard—and whenever she babysat us kids, she’d read to us from Dr. Seuss and a few chapters from the latest mystery she’d picked up from the book sale table at the library. Of course, she skipped some of the choice words, something I didn’t discover until I became addicted myself.
None of my siblings (there are seven kids in the Blume mishpacha; I’m number three) share Bubbie G’s love of mystery, which gives Bubbie and me a special bond. The mystery gene skipped over my mom, Celia, who, aside from teaching high school English, has published one romance novel under the pen name of Charlotte D’Anjou, my father’s favorite pear. (Bartlett came in second.)
I suppose it’s funny that we both use pseudonyms, though our motives are different, and there’s nothing funny about mine. My mom does it because it fits her romantic sensibilities, and I suspect she’s not ready to test the reactions of her students and principal. I do it to protect myself from the criminals I write about, people for whom I have a healthy fear and from whom I’d like to keep my identity and address secret.
Because mystery fiction is different from true crime. There are experiences Bubbie won’t talk about, ever. There are events I choose not to remember that worm their way into my consciousness despite my efforts to keep them out. It’s those events and Bubbie’s unspoken past, not curiosity, that compel me to try to find out the why of the horrible things people do to each other. And there are moments when the sadness of the fractured lives I’m investigating makes me wonder whether my mother doesn’t have the right idea.
Lookout Mountain, the spot where the woman was hit, is about half a mile south of Mulholland, which is halfway between the city and the San Fernando Valley. I added the information to my hollywood computer file and, with a stack of note-filled pages and several photocopies of police reports in front of me (some divisions will give me photocopies, others will allow me to take notes “under scrutiny”), I proceeded to enter the details of other misdemeanors and felonies in the Hollywood area:
Sunday, July 13. 3:37 a.m. 8400 block of Fountain. A man broke into a woman’s home and raped her.
Sunday, July 13. 8:08 a.m. 8500 block of Beverly Boulevard. A suspect, angry about his cellular phone service, threatened his service consultant, saying, “I’m going over there to shoot and kill you.”
Monday, July 14. 9:58 p.m. 5700 block of San Vicente Boulevard. Sometime during the morning a thief removed money from a woman’s artificial leg.
You get the picture.
I had finished inputting half the police data and was returning to my office with a refilled coffee mug when the phone rang. The Caller ID on my desk phone told me it was my mother, who knows I generally don’t take calls when I’m writing. It’s so easy to destroy the gossamer filaments of creative thought, so hard to spin them.
I’m an excellent worrier, and my mind ran through several dire possibilities as I picked up the receiver. “Is everything okay, Mom?”
“Everything’s fine,” she said, panting. “I hate to interrupt you, Molly, but Edie wanted me to call right away.”
For my sister Edie, everything has “right away” significance. “You’re not interrupting, Mom. Why are you so out of breath?”
“Edie let us have a five-minute break from class,” she said, referring to the weekly Israeli dance lessons my sister gives. “She wants to set you up with someone. He’s very special. Brilliant, funny, sensitive, handsome.”
One of Bubbie G’s favorite jokes is about a shadchan (matchmaker) who raves to a young man’s parents about a girl who has everything: beauty, intelligence, a sterling character, wealth.
What doesn’t she have? ask the skeptical parents. A long pause before the shadchan replies: Teeth.
It’s even better in Yiddish.
“What’s the hitch?” I asked now, sandwiching the cordless phone receiver between my head and shoulder as I stirred artificial sweetener into my coffee.
“There’s no hitch. He’s thirty, just a year older than you are. Never married.”
“What does he do?”
My mother hesitated. Teeth, I thought, and then I heard her say, “He’s a rabbi.”
I laughed out loud. “I don’t date rabbis. I don’t even like most of them.” An exaggeration, but the idea was too ridiculous. “What was Edie thinking?”
“She says he’s a real catch, Molly. She wants to set this up quickly, before someone else grabs him.”
“Let them grab.” Ever since my divorce two years ago, my sister Edie has made it her mission to find my true bashert—my destined love. It’s probably easier to find a Kate Spade bag on a clearance table.
“One date can’t hurt. Edie says you know him, by the way.”
“Edie probably booked the Century Plaza for the wedding and ordered the flowers for the chuppa.” The wedding canopy. “What’s his name?” I took a long sip.
“Zachary Abrams. He’s—”
I coughed violently, spraying mocha droplets over my laptop and the papers on my desk. “I went out with Zack Abrams my junior year in high school, Mom. Don’t you remember? He French-kissed me.” All of which Edie knew. No wonder she hadn’t called me herself.
“That’s more than I care to know,” my mother, the romance writer, said dryly.
“Zack’s a rabbi? You’re sure?” I was back in his parents’ gray Pontiac, steaming up the windows with stuff that would be rated G today, and the memory was quite pleasant, to tell you the truth.
“The rabbi at B’nai Yeshurun is retiring,” my mom said, referring to a modern Orthodox synagogue about half a mile from my parents’ home. “Zachary Abrams is his replacement. Edie’s friend Harriet is a member. She thought of you and phoned Edie this morning.”
“You know that’s the Hoffmans’ shul.” The Hoffmans are my ex–in-laws. Since the divorce I’ve bumped into them several times—the Orthodox Jewish world in L.A. is small—and the encounters have been polite but strained.
“I can see that it might be awkward, Molly. But you shouldn’t let that get in the way.”
“Get in the way of what?” Way too small, I decided.
My mother sighed. “So should I tell Edie no?”
“Tell her yes,” I said, surprising myself and my mother, whose “Really?” conveyed the relief of a hostage negotiator braced for failure. “Just for old times’ sake.”
I had no intention of hooking up with a rabbi, or with Zack, with whom I had unfinished business, but I was curious to see what twelve years had done to him. They had added the hint of a few lines around my brown eyes, an inch to my five feet four, and five or six pounds that, like the tide, ebb and flow but make no discernible change to my topography.
After mopping up the coffee from my keyboard and papers, I refastened my unruly blond hair with a banana clip and tackled the rest of the police reports. An hour later I was done, and after stretching my cramped neck and back muscles and flexing my fingers, I sat down again and accessed the piece I was writing, an update on the chromium six some of us Angelenos are apparently sipping with our lattes. Yes, just like Erin Brockovich—life imitating art based on life—but I guess our city council members hadn’t seen the movie, because they were planning to study the effects of the chromium for five years before deciding what to do, if you can believe it.
I took out my notes and started writing, but the young hit-and-run victim kept calling to me, saying she had a story to tell. No, I don’t hear voices, but sometimes I have a sense about things. I think I get that from Bubbie G, too.
I wondered if the woman had died.