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Working off duty meant doing the same job without pay. But since that call's location was only twelve blocks away and the case would wind up in his detail anyway, Decker figured he might as well jump the uniforms. Cordon off the scene before the blues could trample evidence, making his on-duty tasks that much easier. He unhooked his mike, answered the radio transmitting officer–and turned on the computer screen in the unmarked Plymouth. A few moments later, green LCD lines snaked across the monitor.
A female assault victim–suspected sexual trauma–no given name or age. The Party Reporting had been female and Spanish speaking. The victim had been found by the PR in a ransacked bedroom. Paramedics had been called down.
Decker made a sharp right turn and headed for the address.
The interior of the Plymouth was rich with the aroma of newly baked breads–a corn rye loaded with caraway seeds, two crisp onion boards, a dozen poppy-seeded Kaiser and crescent rolls, and assorted Danishes. Goodies just pulled from the oven, so hot the bakery lady didn't dare put them in plastic. They sat in open white wax-lined bags, exhaling their yeasty breath, making his mouth water.
Fresh bakery treats seemed to be Rina's only craving during the pregnancy and Decker didn't mind indulging her. The nearest kosher bakery was a twelve-mile round trip of peace and quiet. He enjoyed the early-morning stillness, cruising the stretch of open freeway, witnessing the fireworks on the eastern horizon. He reveled in the forty minutes of solitude and resented the intrusion of the call, the location so close he couldn't ignore it, his mindforced to snap into work-mode.
He turned left onto Valley Canyon Drive, the roadside cutting through wide-open areas of ranchland. In the distance was the renowned Valley Canyon Spa Resort–a two-story pink-stucco monolith cared into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. It looked like a giant boil on the sandy-colored face of the rocks. The guys in the squad room had shortened the spa's name to VALCAN, which in turn had been bastardized to VULCAN. The running joke was that VULCAN'S clientele were secret relatives of Mr. Spock beamed down to get ear jobs. VULCAN had hosted more stars than the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard, its facilities among the most exclusive in the United States. That, and the fact that the place was run by Davida Eversong's daughter, made it a national draw for rich anorexic women wanting to exercise themselves to skeletal.
Davida Eversong was one of those self-proclaimed grand dames of Old Hollywood. Scuttlebutt had it that she had burrowed herself into a bungalow on the spa's acreage. Once Decker had spotted her at a local mom-and-pop market. Her features had been hidden by sunglasses and a black turban that wrapped around her cheeks and tied under her chin. It had been her getup that had attracted his attention. Who dressed like that at night except someone wanting to be noticed? But only he had given her a second glance. To the rest of the shoppers, she had been just another L.A. eccentric.
Decker was barely old enough to remember the latter part of her long film career–the last three or four movie where she'd been thrown some bones–courtesy parts. Then came the talk-show circuit promoting the autobiography. The book had been a best seller. That had been about fifteen years ago and nothing public since. Still, the name Eversong conjured up images of studio Movie Queens and Hollywood glamour. Eversong's daughter was certainly not inhibited about using the connection. Maybe she was genuinely proud of Mama. Or maybe it just made good business sense.
Scoring the base of the spa's mountain was a single file of multicolored sweatsuits: the ladies coming back from their morning aerobic hike. From Decker's perspective, they looked like Day-Glo ants encircling a giant hill.
He reached inside one of the paper bags, broke off a piece of warm cherry Danish, and stuffed it into his mouth. Chewing, he called Rina on his radio, telling her why he wouldn't make it for breakfast. She sounded disappointed but he couldn't tell what bothered her more–his absence or the absence of her morning Kaiser roll.
Not that she didn't enjoy his company, but she was more preoccupied than usual. That was to be expected. Though he kept hoping her self-absorption would pass, he'd come to realize it was wishful thinking.
El honeymoon was finito. Time to get down to the business of living.
He remembered the physical exhaustion that accompanied a newborn–long nights of interrupted sleep, the bickering, the tension. His ex-wife had looked like a zombie in the morning. Acted like one, too. He also remembered the joy of Cynthia's first smile, her first steps and words. He supposed it would be easier the second time around because he knew what to expect. But damned if he wasn't going to miss being the center of Rina's attention.
He bit off another piece of Danish, wiped crumbs off his ginger-colored mustache.
Well, that's just life in the big city, bud.
He pushed the pedal of the unmarked, the car chugalugging its way up the curvy mountain road. The address on the computer screen corresponded to a ranch adjacent to the spa. The pink blob and its next-door neighbor were separated by ten acres of undeveloped scrubland, but he couldn't find any definitive line dividing the two properties.
He found the numbers posted on a freestanding mailbox at the driveway's entrance. Turning left down a winding strip of blacktop, he parked the unmarked in front of the ranch house. It was a white, wood-sided, one-story structure sitting on a patch of newly planted rye grass. Bordering the house were rows of fruit trees–citrus on the left, apricot, plum, and peach on the right. Between the trees, he could make out crabgrass and scrub, the foliage gradually thickening to gray-green shrubs and chaparral as the land bled into the base of the mountains.
He punched his arrival into the computer–a whopping two minutes, twenty-two seconds response time. Nothing like being blocks away to skew the stats in LAPD's favor. He stepped out of the unmarked and gave the place a quick glance. Although the house was modest in size, there was something off about it.
The wood siding sparkled like sun-drenched snow–not a flake of paint dared to mar the surface. The flagstone walkway held nary a crack, and the wood shingles on the roof were ruler aligned. The porch was also freshly painted. It didn't creak and held a caned rocking chair decorated with crocheted doilies draped over curved arms. The place was a perfect ranch house. Too perfect. It looked like a movie set.
Decker banged on the door and identified himself in Spanish as a police officer. The woman who let him in was frazzled and babbling incoherently, evoking Dios between hysterical sobs. She was around forty, her soft plumpish body squeezed into a starched-white servant's uniform. Her dark eyes were full of fear and her fingers were clutching the roots of her hair. She led him into a trashed bedroom. The bed was a heap of jumbled sheets and broken glass. Drawers had been opened and emptied of their contents. But Decker's eyes focused on the center of the floor.
She lay crumpled like a discarded article of clothing blindfolded, partially nude, her skin bruised and clay-cold. Immediately, he knelt beside her, checked her pulse and respiration. Though her breathing was shallow, her heartbeat was palpable. Quickly, Decker eyeballed the body for hemorrhage–nothing overt. Thought the floor was hard and chilled, Decker didn't dare move her in case there were spinal injuries. He ordered the maid to bring him a blanket, then carefully removed the blindfold and gasped when he saw who it was.
Copyright© 1998 by Faye Kellerman