But she can't stop herself from digging deeper into Jake's death, a decision that exposes a world of power and violence and will have her risking her reputation and her life to find the truth.
With her tremendous expertise in the nuances of L.A. courts and crime, and with a vibrant ensemble cast of characters, Marcia Clark combines intimate detail, riotous humor, and visceral action in a debut thriller that marks the launch of a major new figure on the crime-writing scene.
About the Author
In May of 1997, her book on the Simpson case, Without a Doubt, was published and quickly rose to #1 on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, LA Times, and Publisher's Weekly bestsellers lists.
Marcia has published three novels which feature Los Angeles Special Trials prosecutor Rachel Knight: Guilt by Association, Guilt by Degrees, and Killer Ambition. TNT has optioned the books for a drama series. Marcia is attached as an executive producer.
Read an Excerpt
Guilt by Association
By Clark, Marcia
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2011 Clark, Marcia
All right reserved.
He snapped his cell phone shut and slid it into the pocket of his skintight jeans. The last piece was in place; it wouldn’t be long now. But the waiting was agonizing. Unbidden, the memory of his only ride on a roller coaster flooded over him, like a thousand tiny needles piercing his face and body: eight years old, trapped in that rickety little car with no escape, the feeling of breathtaking terror that mounted as it click-click-clicked its slow, inexorable climb to the top of the sky.
He shook his head to cleanse his mind of the memory, then abruptly grabbed his long brown hair and pulled it tightly into a ponytail behind his head. He held it there and exhaled again more slowly, trying to quiet his pulse. He couldn’t afford to lose it now. With the lift of his arms, his worn T-shirt rode up, and he absently admired in the little mirror above the dresser the reflection of the coiled snake tattooed on his slim, muscled belly.
He started pacing, the motel carpet crunching under his feet, and found that the action helped. Despite his anxiety, he moved with a loose-hipped grace. Back and forth he walked, considering his plan yet again, looking for flaws. No, he’d set it up just right. It would work. It had to work. He stopped to look around at the dimly lit motel room. “Room” was using the term loosely—it was little more than a box with a bed. His eyes fell on a switch on the wall. Just to have something to do, he went over and flipped it on. Nothing happened. He looked up and saw only a filthy ceiling fan. The sour smell of old cigarettes told him that it hadn’t worked in years. There were stains of undetermined origin on the walls that he thought were probably older than he was. The observation amused him. Neither the stains, nor the foul smell of decay, nor the hopeless dead-end feeling of the place fazed him at all. It wasn’t that much worse than a lot of the places he’d lived during his seventeen years on the planet.
In fact, far from depressing him, the ugly room made him feel triumphant. It represented the world he’d been born into, and the one he was finally leaving behind… forever. For the first time in a life that had nearly ended at the hands of a high-wired crackhead while his so-called mother was crashing in the next room, he was going to be in control. He paused to consider the memory of his early near demise—not a firsthand memory since he’d been only two months old when it happened, but rather a paragraph in the social worker’s report he’d managed to read upside down during a follow-up visit at one of the many foster homes where he’d been “raised” for the past sixteen or so years. As it always did, the memory of that report made him wonder whether his mother was still alive. The thought felt different this time, though. Instead of the usual helpless, distant ache—and rage—he felt power, the power to choose. Now he could find her… if he wanted to. Find her and show her that the baby she’d been too stoned to give a shit about had made it. Had scored the big score.
In just a few more minutes, he’d say good-bye to that loser kid who lived on the fringes. He stopped, dropped his hands to his hips, and stared out the grimy window as he savored the thought of having “fuck you” money. He planned to extend a vigorous middle finger to the many foster parents for whom he was just a dollar sign, to all the assholes he’d had to put up with for a meal and a bed. And if he did decide to find his mother, he’d show up with something awesome for her, a present, like a dress or jewelry. Something to make her sorry for all the years she’d let him be lost to her. He pictured himself giving her whatever it was in a fancy, store-wrapped box. He tried to picture the expression on her face, but the image wouldn’t resolve. The only photo he had of her—taken when he was less than a year old—was so faded, only the outline of her long brown hair was still visible. Still, the thought of being able to play the Mac Daddy puffed him up, and for a moment he let himself go there, enjoying the fantasy of his mother really loving him.
The knock on the door jolted him back to reality. He swallowed and struggled for a deep breath, then walked toward the door. He noticed his hands were shaking, and he quickly rubbed them on his thighs to make them stop. He slowly released his breath and willed his face to relax as he opened the door.
“Hey,” he said, then held the door open and moved aside to let in his visitor. “What took you so long?”
“Lost track of the time, sorry.” The visitor stepped inside quickly.
“You have it all?” the boy asked, wary.
The visitor nodded. The boy smiled and let the door close behind him.
“Guilty? Already? What’d they do, just walk around the table and hit the buzzer?” Jake said, shaking his head incredulously.
I laughed, nodding. “I know, it’s crazy. Forty-five-minute verdict after a three-month trial,” I said as I shook my head. “I thought the clerk was kidding when she called and told me to come back to court.” I paused. “Now that I think about it, this might be my fastest win ever on a first-degree.”
“Hell, sistah, that’s the fastest win I done heard on anythang,” Toni said as she plopped down into the chair facing my desk. She talked ghetto only as a joke.
“Y’all gotta admit,” I said, “homegirl brought game this time.”
Toni gave me a disdainful look. “Uh-uh, snowflake. You can’t pull it off, so don’t try.” She reached for the mug I kept cleaned and at the ready for her on the windowsill.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a choice: take that back and have a drink, or enjoy your little put-down and stay dry.”
Toni eyed the bottle of Glenlivet on my desk, her lips firmly pressed together, as she weighed her options. It didn’t take long. “It’s amazing. For a minute there, I thought Sister Souljah was in the room,” she said with no conviction whatsoever. She slammed her mug down on my desk. “Happy?”
I shrugged. “Not your best effort, but they can’t all be gold.” I broke the small ice tray out of my mini-fridge, dumped the cubes into her cup, and poured the equivalent of two generous shots of Glenlivet.
Toni shot me a “don’t push your luck” look and signaled a toast.
I turned to Jake and gestured to the bottle. “Maybe a token?” I asked. He was a nondrinker by nature, but he’d occasionally join in to be sociable.
He nodded and gave me that little-boy smile that could light up a room—the same one that had warmed the hearts of juries across the county. His wire-rim glasses, wavy brown hair, and country-boy, self-effacing style—the dimples didn’t hurt, though they were redundant—made a winning combination. Juries instinctively trusted him. He had a look that was almost angelic, making it hard for anyone to believe he’d even graduated from college, much less done all the backbreaking work required to finish law school and survive into his seventh year in the DA’s office. I poured him a short dog of Glenlivet with a liberal dousing of water, careful not to give him more than he could handle. I was careful not to give myself more than I could handle either: a heavy-handed, undiluted triple shot.
Toni raised her mug. “To Rachel Knight: she put the ‘speed’ in ‘speedy trial.’ ”
Jake lifted his cup. “To that,” he said with a sly grin. “Until I beat her record.”
I rolled my eyes. Jake had just thrown down the gauntlet. “Oh no, here we go,” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Toni replied. She narrowed her eyes at Jake. “It’s on now, little man.”
Jake gave her a flinty smile and nodded. They looked each other in the eye as they clinked cups. We all drank, Toni and I in long pulls, Jake in a more modest sip.
Toni turned back to the matter at hand. “Was this the dope-dealer shoot-out at MacArthur Park?” she asked.
I shook my head. Toni, Jake, and I were in Special Trials, the small, elite unit that handled the most complex and high-profile cases. Though Toni was as tough and competitive as anyone in the unit, she didn’t live the job the way Jake and I did. It was one of the many ways Toni and I balanced each other.
Before I could answer, Jake said, “No, this was the one where the defendant poisoned his wife, then dumped the body off the cliff in Palos Verdes.”
Toni thought for a moment. “Oh yeah. Body washed out to sea, right? And they never found a murder weapon.”
Toni shook her head, smiling. “Evidence is for pussies,” she said with a laugh. “You really are my hero.” She raised her mug for another toast.
“I got lucky,” I said with a shrug, raising mine to join her.
Toni made a face. “Oh please. Can you stop with the ‘I’m so humble’ stuff already? I’ve seen you pull these beasts together before. Nobody else drags their ass all over this county the way you do.” She turned to Jake and added, “ ’Cept maybe you.” She took another sip, then sat back. “Both of you are ridiculous, and you know it.”
Jake and I exchanged a look. We couldn’t argue. From the moment Jake had transferred into Special Trials two years ago, we’d found in each other a kindred workaholic spirit. Being a prosecutor was more than a career for us—it was a mission. Every victim’s plight became our own. It was our duty to balance their suffering with some measure of justice. But by an unspoken yet entirely mutual agreement, our passion for the work never led us into personal territory—either physically or verbally. We rarely had lunch outside the building together, and during the long nights after court when we’d bat our cases around, we never even considered going out to dinner; instead we’d raid my desk supply of tiny pretzels, made more palatable by the little packets of mustard Jake snatched from the courthouse snack bar. Not once in all those long nights had we ever discussed our lives outside the office—either before or after becoming prosecutors. I knew that this odd boundary in our relationship went deeper than our shared devotion to the job. It takes one to know one, and I knew that I never asked personal questions because I didn’t want to answer them. Jake played it close to the vest in the same way I did: don’t ask, don’t tell, and if someone does ask—deflect. The silent awareness of that shared sensibility let us relax with each other in a way we seldom could with anyone else.
“Well, she’s not entirely wrong, Tone,” Jake said with a smirk. “She did get lucky—she had Judge Tynan.”
Toni chuckled. “Oh sweet Jesus, you did get lucky. How many times did you slip?”
“Not too bad this time,” I admitted. “I only said ‘asshole’ once.”
“Not bad for you,” Toni remarked, amused. “When?”
“During rebuttal argument. And I was talking about one of my own witnesses.”
My inability to rein in my colorful language once I got going had earned me fines on more than one occasion. You’d think this financial incentive would’ve made me clean up my act. It hadn’t. All it had done was inspire me to keep a slush fund at the ready.
“There is an undeniable symmetry to your contempt citations,” Toni observed. “What did Tynan do?”
“Just said, ‘I’m warning you, Counsel.’ ” I sighed, took another sip of my drink, and stretched my legs out under the desk. “I wish I had all my cases in front of him.”
“Hah!” Jake snorted. “You’d wear out your welcome by your second trial, and you’d be broke by your third.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Jake shrugged. “Hey, I’m just sayin’…”
I laughed and threw a paper clip at him. He caught it easily in an overhand swipe, then looked out at the clock on the Times Building. “Shit, I’ve got to run. Later, guys.” He put down his cup and left. The sound of his footsteps echoed down the hallway.
I turned to Toni. “Refresher?” I said as I held up the bottle of Glenlivet.
Toni shook her head. “Nah. I’ve had enough of county ambience for one day. Why don’t we get out of here and hit Church and State? We should celebrate the hell out of this one.”
Church and State was a fun new restaurant in the old Meatpacking District, part of the ongoing effort to gentrify downtown L.A. Though how a restaurant that catered to a hip, moneyed crowd was going to make it with Skid Row just two blocks away was a looming question. I looked over at the stack of cases piled on the table where I kept my mini-fridge. I wanted to party, and with that gnarly no-body murder behind me, I could probably afford to. But the trial had taken me away from my other cases, and I always got a little—okay, a lot—panicky when I hadn’t looked in on a case for more than a few days. If I went out with Toni tonight, I’d just be stressing and wishing I were working. I owed it to her to spare her that drag.
“Sorry, Tone, I—”
“Don’t even bother—I know.” Toni shook her head as she plunked her mug down on my desk and stood to go. “You can’t even take time off for one little victory lap? It’s sick, is what it is.”
But it wasn’t news, as evidenced by the lack of surprise in Toni’s voice.
“How about tomorrow night? We’ll do Church and State, whatever you want,” I promised with more hope than conviction. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to wade through the pile of cases and finish all the catch-up work by then. But I hated to disappoint Toni, so I privately vowed to push myself hard and make it happen.
Toni looked at me and sighed. “Sure, we’ll talk tomorrow.” She slung her laptop bag over one shoulder and her purse over the other. “I’m heading out. Try not to stay too late. If even your OCD partner-in-crime took a powder,” she said, tilting her head toward Jake’s office, “you can spare a night off too.”
“I know.” I looked toward his office. “What’s up with that?” I laughed.
“Maybe his alien leaders told him to get a friggin’ life,” Toni said as she moved to the doorway. “And I’ve already got one, so I am now officially exiting the OCD Zone.” She smiled and headed down the hall.
“You too,” she called back. In a loud stage whisper, she muttered, “Ya freak.”
“I heard that!” I yelled out.
I leaned back to rest my head against the cold leather of the majestic judge’s chair. It was a tight fit at my little county-issue prosecutor’s desk, but I didn’t mind. The chair had mysteriously appeared late one night, abandoned in the hallway a few doors from my office. I’d looked up and down the hall to make sure the coast was clear, then whisked it into my office and pushed my own sorry little chair out to a hallway distant enough that it wouldn’t be traced back. As I’d returned to my office, scanning the hallway for witnesses, I wondered whether someone had “liberated” the chair straight out of a judge’s chambers. The possibility made my score even more triumphant.
I turned to the stack of case files and pulled the first one off the top, but within fifteen minutes I felt my eyelids drooping. I’d thought I’d had enough energy to plow through at least a few cases, but as usual I’d underestimated how tired I was. And the Glenlivet hadn’t helped.
I listened to the last stragglers chatter their way out of the office. As the door snicked closed behind them, silence filled the air. I was tired, but I wasn’t ready to go home. This was my favorite part of the day, when I had the whole DA’s office to myself. No phones, no friends, no cops to distract me. I exhaled and looked out the window at the view that never got old. The streetlights had blinked on, and the jagged outline of the downtown L.A. office buildings glowed against the encroaching darkness. From my perch on the eighteenth floor of the Criminal Courts Building, I could see all the way from the main cop shop, the Police Administration Building, to the theaters at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and all the streets and sidewalks in between. The irony of being in the middle of those two extremes still made me smile. Just having an office with a window was a coup—let alone one with a spectacular view. But the fact that it had come with my transfer into Special Trials—the unit I’d worked my ass off to get into for seven years—made it a delicious victory.
Not that I’d minded working the routine felonies during my stints in the smaller Van Nuys and Compton branch courts. Seeing the same defendants come back to the fold with a new case every couple of years gave the job a kind of homey, family feeling. Sure, it was a weird, dysfunctional, and largely criminal family, but still. So it wasn’t as though I was miserable when I worked the outlying courts. It just wasn’t for me. From the moment I’d heard of the Special Trials Unit, based in the hub of the DA’s office downtown, I’d known it was where I wanted to be. I’d been warned by the senior prosecutors in the branch courts about the long hours, the marathon-length trials, the public scrutiny, and the endless pressure I’d face in the unit. I didn’t tell them that, for me, that was the allure. And being in the unit was even better than I’d imagined. On almost every case, I got to work with great cops and the best lawyers—for both the prosecution and the defense—I’d ever seen. Far from a detraction, the intensity of the job was exhilarating. Too often in life a long-desired goal, once achieved, turns out to be much less than expected—as they say, “Be careful what you wish for.” Not this time. Getting into Special Trials was all I’d hoped for and then some, and I savored that fact at least once a day.
I tried to drag my mind back down to the supplemental reports—updates on the investigation—that had been added to the case file during the last month, but the words were blurring on the page. I leaned back in my chair, hoping to catch a second wind, and watched the cars crawl down Main Street. The sky had darkened, and clouds were moving in.
I could tell my second wind wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon. I decided to admit defeat and pack it in for the night. I got up, stretched, walked over to the table next to the window where I’d dropped my briefcase, and brought it over to my desk. I threw in five of the files—wishful thinking, I knew—picked up my purse, and grabbed my coat off the hook on the back of the door. I swung into my jacket and slung the strap of my briefcase over my shoulder, then reached into my coat pocket and flipped off the safety on my palm-size .22 Beretta. Then I kicked out the doorstop and headed down the hall toward the bank of elevators as my office door clicked shut behind me.
At this time of day I didn’t have long to wait. Within seconds, the bell rang and I stepped into a blissfully empty car. The elevator hurtled down all eighteen floors and came to a shuddering stop on the first floor. It was a head-spinning ride that happened only at quiet times like this. I enjoyed the rush as long as I ignored what it meant about the quality of the machinery and my possible life expectancy.
As I walked through the darkened lobby toward the back doors, I stretched my eyes for better peripheral vision. I’d been walking to work ever since I’d moved into the nearby Biltmore Hotel a year ago. It seemed stupid to drive the six blocks to the courthouse, and I enjoyed the walk—it gave me a chance to think. Plus it saved me a bundle in gas and car maintenance. The only time I had second thoughts about it was after dark. Downtown L.A. empties out after 5:00 p.m., leaving a population that lives mainly outdoors. It wasn’t the homeless who worried me as much as the bottom-feeders who preyed on them.
Being a prosecutor gave me an inside line on the danger in any area, but the truth was, I’d grown up with the knowledge that mortal peril lurked around every corner. So although I didn’t have a permit to carry, I never left either home or office without a gun. The lack of a permit occasionally worried me, but as my father used to say, “I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.” I’d never applied for a permit because I didn’t want to get turned down. There’d been a crackdown on gun permits ever since a certain sheriff’s brother-in-law had fired “warning shots” at some neighborhood kids for blasting rap music from their car. And, to be honest, permit or no, I was going to carry anyway. Besides, I was no novice when it came to guns. Being my father’s daughter, I’d started learning how to shoot the moment I could manage a shaky two-handed grip. If I had to shoot, I wouldn’t miss. I stood at the wall of glass that faced out toward the Times Building and scanned the parking lot and sidewalk, as always, looking for signs of trouble. Seeing nothing, I pushed open the heavy glass door and stepped out into the night.
As I walked toward the stairs that led down to street level, I heard the sound of sirens, distant at first but rapidly getting louder. Suddenly the air was pierced with the whooping screams and bass horn blasts of fire engines. They were close, very close. Police cars, their sirens shrieking, seemed to be approaching from all directions, and the night air jangled with wild energy. I watched intently, waiting to see where they were headed. The flashing lights seemed to stop and coalesce about four blocks south and east of the Biltmore, in the middle of a block I knew was filled with junk stores, iron-grilled pawnshops, and low-rent motels. I’d never seen this much action at a downtown crime scene. My usual “neighbors”—druggies, pimps, hookers, and the homeless—generally didn’t get this kind of “Protect and Serve” response. My curiosity piqued, I decided to find out what was going on. At least with all those cops around, I wouldn’t have to worry about muggers.
Within minutes, I could see that the hub of the action was on the corner of 4th and South Broadway, just around the corner from Pershing Square—at one of those seedy pay-by-the-hour motels. I brilliantly deduced from the hose snaking in through the front door, and the fact that there was only smoke and no flames, that the firefighters had gotten on top of it already.
Sliding through the scraggly bunch of lookie-loos who’d gathered on the sidewalk, I got as close as the police line allowed and looked for a familiar face to ask what was going on. As another plume of smoke wafted out through the front door of the motel, the seen-better-days coroner’s van pulled up. I peered through the haze and saw a head with a short crew cut pop out from the driver’s side of the van. It was followed by a short, square body dressed in high-water pants, a blue Windbreaker, and Nike sneakers.
I was in luck. “Scott!” I yelled out. Scott Ferrier was a coroner’s investigator. He’d become my buddy when I’d pulled my first homicide case, back in my baby DA days. He waved and trotted over.
“Does your mommy know you’re out after dark?” I asked. Scott cut me a look. “This is a lot of firepower for a pimp fight, don’t you think?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah, it’s weird. If you want to hang around, I’ll go see what I’ve got and fill you in.”
“Okay if I wait here?” I gestured to his van.
“Yeah, just don’t steal it,” he said with a snort, knowing he’d have to pay someone to take the beat-up corpse jalopy off his hands.
Scott turned and wove through the throng of police and firemen and made his way into the motel. I slid into the driver’s seat and tried not to think about the “passengers” that’d ridden around in the cargo space behind me.
A few more clouds of smoke drifted out as firefighters began to emerge from the building. One of them was rolling up the hose as he walked. They’d been here only a few minutes; if they were already wrapping up, this couldn’t have been much of a fire.
I watched the hunky firefighters at work and was pondering the truth of the old saying—that God made all paramedics and firemen good-looking so you’d see something pretty before you died—when a deep, authoritative voice broke my concentration.
“Miss, are you with the coroner’s office?”
I’d been sitting sidesaddle in the van, facing the motel. I turned to my left and saw that the owner of the voice was somewhere around six feet tall, on the lean side but tastefully muscled under his blue uniform, his dark-blond hair just long enough to comb. His eyes were a gold-flecked hazel, and he had wide, pronounced cheekbones, a strong nose, and a generous mouth. The bars on his uniform told me he was brass, not rank and file. His nameplate confirmed it: LIEUTENANT GRADEN HALES. His skeptical look annoyed me, but his presence made an already weird scene even more so. What the hell was a lieutenant doing here? I mustered up my best “I belong here” voice and replied, “I’m a DA, but I’m waiting for Scott.”
I expected that my status as a prosecutor would end the discussion. Wrong.
“I’m afraid you’re going to have to leave,” he said with a steely firmness. “Only crime scene personnel are allowed right now.”
High brass chasing me off a low-life bust? Something was really off here, and now I wasn’t just curious—I had to find out what was going on. “Well, I have to wait for Scott. He’s my ride.” It was a lie, but I figured that would push Lieutenant Officious out to greener pastures. Wrong again.
“I’ll arrange for one of the patrol units to take you home. Where do you live?”
Now I was pissed off. Since when does a DA get tossed out of a crime scene? Special case or no, this was bullshit.
I stepped down from the van. I was just about to open my mouth and get myself in trouble when the coroner’s assistants came out single file, rolling two gurneys carrying body bags. Suddenly Scott came running out of the motel and yelled to one of the assistants, “Get his glasses! Give me the glasses!”
The team rolling the first gurney came to an abrupt halt. They had been moving at a rapid pace, and when the assistant at the head of the line came to a sudden stop, the gurney kept moving and banged into his hip, causing him to yelp and curse. The other assistant, who’d been at the side of the gurney, quickly reached out and tugged down the zipper of the body bag.
Illuminated by the harsh streetlight, the face glowed a ghastly bluish white as the assistant lifted the wire-rim glasses from behind the ears and handed them to Scott. I’d been around more than my share of dead bodies, but the searing shock of what met my eyes made me reel and stumble backward into the side of the van. Then a firm hand gripped my arm, steadied me, and led me away from the scene. I looked up and saw that the hand belonged to Lieutenant Hales. I dimly realized that he was saying something, but I couldn’t make the sounds turn into words. I shook my head slowly, as if trying to wake up from a nightmare. This couldn’t be real, I thought, feeling as though I were watching a movie in slow motion with the sound turned too low. The coroner’s assistants loaded the gurney into the cargo area, and I stopped, transfixed, still unable to believe what I’d seen. The lieutenant pulled me by the elbow with one hand and pushed me on the back with the other, leaving me no choice. I moved in stiff, jerky steps, like a windup toy whose key was on its last few turns. He steered me toward his unmarked car, and I numbly let him stuff me into the passenger seat and buckle the seat belt.
I must’ve told him where I lived, but I don’t actually remember saying anything. I just remember staring blankly as the streets rolled by, telling myself it couldn’t be, that I had to be wrong.
Jake Pahlmeyer, my office soul mate—dead. In a rat hole like this. I closed my eyes and told myself I’d been wrong. Irrationally, I refused to ask the lieutenant. If no one confirmed it, it wouldn’t be true.
Lieutenant Hales pulled up to the Biltmore, guided me out of the car, and walked me to the front entrance. Through the fog of denial and disbelief, the shocked features of Angel, the doorman, floated before me.
“Rachel, what’s wrong?” he asked as he opened the door and took the elbow Hales wasn’t holding.
“She’s had a tough night,” Hales said tersely.
“I’ll take it from here,” Angel said proprietarily, with an accusatory glance at the lieutenant.
I didn’t have the energy or the sentience to explain that it was nothing the lieutenant had done. I remained mute as Angel led me inside and steered me toward the elevator.
He managed to get me to my room, and I meant to thank him, though I’m not sure the words made it out of my mouth. All I know is that the moment the door closed behind him, I pulled out the bottle of Russian Standard Platinum vodka someone had given me a while ago and poured myself a triple shot.
I looked at the television. Was the story being aired yet? I decided I didn’t want to know. And I couldn’t bring myself to call Toni. Talking about it would make it real. Right now, all I wanted was oblivion. I tossed down my drink, then poured myself another and didn’t stop pouring until I passed out cold.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Less so now, the morning after. I had a jittery, buzzy kind of hangover that told me this was going to be a really special day. I groaned as I got out of bed and crept into the shower. Somewhat revived, I called room service and ordered my usual pot of coffee and 2 percent milk, but this time I decided to treat myself to some real food—scrambled eggs and a bagel—instead of my usual egg whites and stewed tomatoes. Screw the diet; I needed some comfort food.
I ate as I stared at the blank television screen, daring myself to turn it on. Finally curiosity won out over denial, and I reached for the remote, dreading what I was about to see. But when I scrolled through the channels, I saw nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I frowned—that was odd, very odd. I clicked off the television and enjoyed the quiet that settled over the room. In my current condition, the less noise, the better.
Not seeing the story mentioned on the news even fleetingly had left me feeling weirdly isolated, the whole experience of last night surreal. Now eager to talk to Toni, I quickly downed enough coffee to be semifunctioning and went out onto the balcony to check the weather. I pulled my fluffy robe around me and shivered at the cold bite in the air. The darkened skies told me that the clouds that’d rolled in last night were going to show us why. I threw on gray wool gabardine slacks, a black turtleneck sweater, and black low-heeled boots. I decided to pack my .357 Smith & Wesson revolver instead of the more compact Beretta. After what I’d seen last night, I was willing to trade a lighter load for more firepower. I picked up my briefcase and the black cashmere muffler that had been a Valentine’s Day present—for some reason it was the only souvenir I’d kept from my last ill-fated relationship—wound it around my neck, and walked out to the elevator. I punched the down button and tried not to wince at the sound of the bell when the doors slid open.
The brisk six-block walk to the courthouse marginally helped to calm some of my jittery buzz, but as I approached the metal detectors, I noticed that I was holding the .357 in my pocket in a death grip. I flashed my badge, and the deputy waved me through. Seeing an open elevator, I ran for it and quickly jumped inside, then endured what felt like a million stops on the way to the eighteenth floor. I punched in the security code on the main office door and realized that I was going to be right next to Jake’s office. I wondered whether they’d put up crime scene tape to seal off his space and reflexively looked down the hall to see if it was there. Not yet. But the glimpse of his closed door undid me, and my eyes filled with tears. I blinked them back, then took deep breaths as I turned and walked up the hall, away from my office.
“Knock, knock,” I whispered hoarsely, unable to bear the sound of my knuckles on the frame of Toni’s open door.
Toni, who’d been working on her computer, turned to look at me. “My oh my, but you look like shit. So was it a very bad night or a very good one?”
I sank into the county-issue metal-framed chair that faced her desk. The sky had grown even darker in the few minutes it had taken me to ride up in the elevator. Right on cue, the first big, bloated drops of rain began to splat against the window. I took another deep breath, swallowed, and tried to make myself say the words I still didn’t want to believe. “Tone,” I began, then had to stop. A lump swelled in my throat as the enormity of it all hit me afresh.
Toni regarded me with alarm.
“Honey, what is it? You okay?” she asked.
“It’s Jake. He’s dead.”
Toni reflexively looked in the direction of his office. “What?” She shook her head, her face closed in denial.
I nodded, struggling to stop a fresh wave of tears. Her face frozen in shock, Toni automatically handed me the box of Kleenex we all kept at our desks for victims and their families.
As I pulled a tissue out of the box, it occurred to me that this was the first time I could remember either one of us using it.
“How? He’s, what, thirty-five?” Toni said as she focused on a point on the wall to the left of my head, trying to grasp the reality. “Was it a car accident?”
I shook my head and swallowed. “Somebody killed him, Tone.”
“No,” Toni said, shaking her head again. “That can’t be,” she said softly, almost to herself.
I told her what I’d seen the night before.
As I spoke, Toni folded her arms around her body and leaned forward.
“Our Jake—in that sleazebag motel. I can’t believe it. He was like my…” Toni broke off.
“… little brother,” I said, finishing the thought.
She nodded as her eyes welled up with tears. She bit her lip, then put a hand over her mouth, trying in vain to rein in her emotions. “It’s so wrong for someone so… young and so sweet to be… dead,” Toni said.
At her words, the last photo taken of my sister, Romy, with her sixth-grade gap-toothed smile, filled my mind, and my throat tightened with pain. I nodded, overcome, unable to speak. As always, I pushed the thought of Romy away. It did no good to revisit the memories that always ended in the same abyss of guilt and self-loathing.
I sat unmoving, trying not to think. Toni blinked rapidly and put a hand to her chest, as though to ease the ache in her heart. “Do you know if he has any family in L.A.? Or a girlfriend?” she asked.
In all the time we’d spent together, he’d never once mentioned his parents. But since we’d never really talked about anything personal, I’d never given it any thought until now. I scoured my memory for any personal snippet. “He never mentioned a girlfriend, but he did mention a sister.”
“What in the hell was he doing in that hole anyway?” Toni asked, her features twisted in confusion. “And who on earth would want to kill him?”
I’d been asking myself the same things for the past several hours. I shook my head, and we sat in silence for a moment. I again tried to make sense of it. And again I failed.
“I guess the Feds will handle the case?” Toni asked.
“Yeah, it’s a conflict of interest for us, so it’ll go to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Toni’s intercom buzzed, and we both stared at it as though it were a UFO. It had to buzz a second time before she finally reached out and picked up the phone.
“Yes?” Toni answered. She listened for a moment, then said, “Yeah, she’s here. Send him down.”
I looked at her quizzically. Before she could reply, a cop appeared in the doorway. It took me a second to recognize him as the brass from the crime scene. He had a gritty, stubbly look that told me he hadn’t been to bed yet, but his uniform still seemed remarkably crisp.
He nodded to Toni, then to me. “Lieutenant Hales, from last night,” he said. “I drove you—”
“I remember, of course.” My tone was frosty at best. Shooting the messenger.
“I was in the office for a meeting with your boss—”
“Eric?” I asked.
“No, Bill Vanderhorn.”
I nodded to myself. Of course. With a case this politically sensitive, he wouldn’t meet with the head of Special Trials—he’d go straight to the DA.
“The case going to the Feds?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said noncommittally. His attitude made it clear he didn’t want to discuss it, which annoyed me even more. If he didn’t want to talk about the case, then what the hell did he want?
He seemed to sense my irritation. “I just wanted to make sure you were, you know, okay.”
The warmth in his voice startled me. I looked up and saw that he was watching me intently, his expression one of concern. The personal interest flustered me and made me uncomfortable, which only served to increase my irritation. I knew that, as Carla would say, I was just displacing my grief with anger. Carla had been my childhood shrink in the aftermath of Romy’s disappearance. Twenty-six years later, with five hundred miles separating us, she was still a major force in my life. But I didn’t care what Carla would say. I’d burned right through the denial stage of grief and was eager to get to the fury. Anger was good. I was comfortable with anger. And action. I needed to do something about this. I wanted to get the son of a bitch who’d killed Jake.
“How about telling us what you’ve got? There’s no point keeping a lid on it. The news’ll be all over the place within the next hour, and we both know the DA’s office won’t be handling the case.”
Hales frowned and fell silent for a moment.
“She has a point, Lieutenant,” Toni said, using the velvety voice that usually made men blubber and stammer.
Hales did neither. If anything, his expression seemed to get more strained. He stared out the window, and I followed his gaze. The rain was beating steadily now, and traffic had snarled to a stop on First Street. A cab that’d been barreling down Temple Street came to a brake-squealing halt inches behind the bumper of a brand-new Mercedes that was ambling slowly through the intersection. I saw the cabbie lean out and shake his fist and then lift a middle finger at the driver of the Benz, who continued to amble at his own pace, slowly and implacably. I shared a moment of empathy with the cabbie.
“Please, my name’s Graden.” He paused a moment. “How well did you know Jake?”
I could tell him a lot about Jake professionally—the good-luck “believe me” suit he always wore at closing argument, his favorite judges and least favorite defense attorneys, but I knew that wasn’t what Graden was after. When it came to the personal things, I had nothing—I couldn’t even have said whether Jake liked Chinese food. I frowned as I realized how bad that would look. But I knew Hales would find out for himself soon enough, and since he wasn’t answering my questions, I didn’t feel any obligation to answer his. I kept it short and sweet. “Pretty well. He’s one of the best lawyers in the office and one of the hardest workers. Everyone in the unit liked him.”
That actually said a lot, though I doubted Hales would know that. Special Trials was a small unit, just seven deputies, and the major-league egos assigned to the unit were always on the prowl for the big case, which occasionally led to some nasty politicking. Personally, I never got into that politicking—not because I didn’t want the big case but because I was superstitious. I firmly believed that if you chased a case, it would come back to bite you.
But Jake never chased a case because he never cared about being a star—he just wanted to be in trial, so he’d take whatever came his way. This led to him getting more than his fair share of dogs, but it also meant that he was beloved by the piranhas in the unit. And the fact that he wound up being a star anyway said everything about how talented he really was. Was. My throat closed up again. I held my breath and willed the tears back as I looked out the window to give myself a moment.
Toni nodded her agreement. “I can’t imagine a soul in the world who’d want to do him harm.”
Graden looked uncomfortable, and I thought he was going to just clam up and leave. But after a beat, he took a deep breath and said, “Since you were close to Jake, you’re going to be questioned pretty closely, so you’d probably figure it out on your own anyway. But I need you to keep this to yourselves. There’s going to be a tight lid on this case for a while. Promise me you won’t talk about this to anyone until there’s an official release.”
He paused, waiting for our nods of agreement.
“Jake wasn’t alone in that motel room,” he said quietly. “There was a young boy—school ID said he was seventeen years old. We found a nude picture of the boy in Jake’s jacket. At this point, it looks like murder-suicide. Jake shot the boy, then himself.”
I felt all the breath go out of my body as the words sank in. Disoriented, I peered through the pouring rain at the clock on the Times Building, then glanced at Toni. She was staring out into the hallway, looking like a punch-drunk fighter. I turned to face the lieutenant to tell him it couldn’t be true, but my eyes wouldn’t track. Momentarily dizzy, I couldn’t find the words to put a sentence together. The ensuing silence felt leaden. Suddenly the buzz of Toni’s intercom pierced the air.
For the second time that morning, we both stared at the phone, then Toni slowly picked it up.
The lieutenant turned to me, his expression of concern now deepened. “I’m sorry,” he said. Although I could see he felt awkward, I mentally gave him points for not saying the usual dumb things like “I know how you must feel” or “Time will heal the wound.” No one knows how I feel, and time doesn’t heal the wound. The wound just becomes a part of you.
I nodded, and the lieutenant glanced over at Toni, who was still on the phone and looking away from him, out the window. He quietly said good-bye and left.
A few seconds later, Toni hung up. “Eric called for a unit meeting in his office ASAP.”
We exchanged a look. Neither of us was ready for a group appearance, but this wasn’t an optional invitation. Grim-faced and dreading what was to come, we left Toni’s office.
On our way up the hall, we passed by Jake’s area and saw a cop approaching with crime scene tape. Toni and I exchanged another look. We didn’t want to see that tape go up. We both veered off and turned into the hallway on the right to take the long way.
As we detoured around Jake’s office, Toni gamely tried to distract us from the morbid reality. “He’s interested.”
“He who? And in what?”
“You. Couldn’t you tell?”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“Who?” I repeated.
“Graden, the lieutenant. He’s interested.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Toni,” I replied sourly. The moment the words left my mouth, I wanted to snatch them back. I was in one hell of a state if I was taking my upset out on her. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, I know,” Toni said, waving off the apology.
After five years of best friendship, we’d learned how to surf each other’s rough spots. As we headed toward Eric’s office, I deliberately kept my eyes turned away from the end of the hall so I wouldn’t see the cop taping Jake’s door. Even from where I stood, a strange stillness seemed to surround his office. The memory of all the nights I’d sat with him there, talking about our cases, laughing about something a witness had said, was so vivid I could hear his voice, see him toss a mini-pretzel into the air and catch it in his mouth. Never again. I couldn’t bear the thought. I picked up the pace as we continued down the hall.
We marched into the anteroom of Eric Northrup’s office. Knowing what was going to be said about Jake, I felt raw and defensive, ready for a fight. Melia Espinoza, the unit secretary who was also known as Gossip Central, was on the phone, her hand covering the mouthpiece to muffle her words.
“We’re here to see Eric,” I said.
“Hang on a sec,” she said as she covered the phone, then looked up at us and replied, “He’s on the phone, and the rest of the unit isn’t here yet, so…”
The look on my face told her not to tell me to wait, so she stopped the sentence just short of a trip to the hospital.
“I’ll have to call you back,” she said into the phone quickly, then hung up.
“You know the meeting’s about Jake, right?” she asked.
“No, but obviously you do.” My tone was no more inviting than my look.
“You know, I always thought he was nice—kind of nerdy, but you know… now this, ay, Dios mío. I don’t get what he was doing in a place like that.” She said it with a mix of accusation and distaste that made me want to slap her. Hard.
“We don’t know the story yet, Melia,” I said, angry at the way she was so quick to believe the worst. I hoped the lieutenant was right about keeping a lid on the sordid details. The location of Jake’s death alone would raise enough nasty speculation, and I knew there’d be plenty of it. I needed to start getting used to it now or I’d wind up going postal.
Melia raised her eyebrows, then looked at me sympathetically and said, “I’m sorry, mija, I know he was your friend, but you didn’t hang with him, right?”
Hang with him, meaning outside the office. “No, but—”
“Sometimes people have dark sides you don’t know about.”
I stared at her for a moment, waiting for the inanity of what she’d just said to sink in. Fortunately I managed to bite back several remarks that would’ve ensured all of my messages would be lost for at least the next year. Further opportunities for disaster were averted, as the rest of the deputies appeared in the anteroom. Eric opened his door and, cradling his phone, motioned for all of us to come in, and Toni and I filed inside with the others.
As Head Deputy, Eric had a “corner pocket” office with a conference table, lots of space, and a panoramic view. The furniture was still the usual government-utilitarian ugly, but Eric had warmed it up with photographs of his wife and toddler twin boys. The boys’ artwork hung on the wall next to his desk. I’m a fan of kid art. The largest piece depicted a Santa Claus and a fire engine. I supposed an argument could be made for a thematic link between the two subjects, but I strongly suspected the connection more likely lay in the artist’s access to the color red. Years of training afforded me these astonishing insights.
Eric, who’d been on a call when we all filed in, hung up as we got seated. Looking as though he’d just lost his own son, Eric ran his hand through his permanently mussed hair, rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows, and got right to it. “I know everyone’s heard about Jake by now. I’m going to ask all of you to withhold any judgment until the investigation is complete,” he said, looking at each of us one by one. He did not appear optimistic, and I couldn’t blame him. But I liked him for making the effort.
Eric continued, his voice gruff with emotion. “For now, I want to say that I’ll really miss him. He was a great lawyer and a great person, and an asset to this unit.”
As I glanced around the room, I was pleasantly surprised to see the look of devastation on the faces of my fellow deputies. It was one of those rare occasions when my low expectations of others went unfulfilled. Then again, they didn’t know that Jake had been found with that kid’s picture in his pocket.
Eric paused to collect himself. “I have the unfortunate duty of having to deal with the business end of things,” he said, clearing his throat with obvious discomfort. “As you all know, Jake carried a heavy caseload. He has ten open cases that I’ve got to assign. The good news is that only four of them really need to be worked up.”
He began to hand out the case files, one or two to a deputy. He got to me last. “Rachel, I’m giving you the one that probably needs the most work-up.” He handed me the file. “You’ve got the Densmore case.”
Densmore—the name was familiar, but I couldn’t place it.
Eric filled me in. “Victim is a minor, her father is a big-time doctor, pediatrician. Very influential. We’ve got no suspect in custody, and Daddy’s pushing us to make an arrest and wrap up the case.”
Then it hit me. “Jake just got this last week, right?”
Eric nodded. “Vanderhorn specifically asked for you or Jake. You were in that no-body murder trial, so…”
Jake had told me about it. When the DA himself assigns a case, it’s serious. It was only a single-count rape case, not the high-profile murder cases we usually handled in Special Trials. In fact, when Jake gave me the rundown, I found that I couldn’t even remember when I’d last had a live victim. I’d asked him what made the case Special Trials material. Now the conversation came back to me:
“No,” I said.
“Come on, just one guess,” Jake teased.
I sighed, feigning annoyance, but the truth was, we both loved playing the riddle game. “Okay, fine. Densmore is Vanderhorn’s baby-daddy.”
Jake gave me a disgusted look. “Biological impossibility—an unworthy effort, Ms. Knight.”
I crossed my arms and waited. Seeing that I wasn’t going to keep playing, Jake finally relented.
“Densmore’s a real piece of work. I said, ‘Hello, I’m—,’ and didn’t even get my name out before he started telling me what a big Vanderhorn supporter he was. Then I did the math, all by myself in my little head, and guess what I realized?”
“It’s a reelection year,” I groaned.
“Clichés are clichés because they’re true, right?” Jake laughed, shaking his head. “So, big shock, Vanderhorn wants daily updates on our progress—”
“Jeez,” I said disgustedly. “I feel your pain, Jakie, I do. But I cannot lie—I’ve probably never been happier to be unavailable for duty.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have minded letting you take the fall on this one either,” Jake admitted with that impish grin of his. “Guess it’s my turn in the barrel, but feel free to try and buy your way out of any guilt trips you may be having.”
“Not a problem,” I joked. “I’ll stock up on pretzels and mustard.”
“Actually, I was thinking you’d want to offer to take the next dog that comes along,” he replied.
“It’s a guilt trip, Jake, not psychosis.”
We both laughed.
The memory made my heart ache, and I felt hot tears spring to my eyes. Alarmed—though Eric would’ve understood, I’ve never liked to get emotional in public—I swallowed rapidly to recover and flipped open the file. The first thing I saw was that the investigating officer—the detective in charge of the case—was Hughes Lambkin. Not so fondly nicknamed “Useless.” He was a notoriously dumb load. Nothing could have sobered me up faster.
“Can I pull my own IO?” I asked.
Eric looked at me silently for a beat. “I’ll back you, but don’t get your hopes up,” he said, his tone broadcasting what I already knew: getting the captain to approve a change in investigating officers was a fantasy. But I’d never get the case off the ground with Useless, so I had to try.
Eric adjourned the meeting, and we all trooped out with our newly assigned case files. I’d noticed that Toni had flipped through hers and read the summary Jake had prepared while Eric was doling out the rest of the cases, so as we walked down the hall, I asked, “What’d you get?”
“A double. You’ll love this: three-defendant case, all illegal Russian immigrants. They wasted the guys who brought them over to do a credit card fraud scam, then they dug the bullets out of the bodies so the ammo couldn’t be traced to their guns—”
“Smarter than the average bear so far,” I remarked.
“Right, so you’d think they’d know better than to leave behind the knife they used to dig out the bullets.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “And the cops made their prints on the knife.”
Toni nodded and grinned. “Sounds like you got something special too.”
“A one-count rape, no defendant in custody, a worthless sack for an IO, a father who’s in bed with Vanderhorn,” I said.
“So it’s a lot like mine, except without the evidence and with lots of pressure,” Toni remarked dryly.
“Exactly.” I seemed to be on a roll for getting cases with no evidence. “Maybe I should start a new unit: Crimes withOut Witnesses—COW. It’ll be a small unit, consisting of just me, but I’d get to be the boss. What do you think?” I paused. “And no milk jokes allowed.”
“I think you must still be hungover.”
That was a fair guess. Back in my office, I sat down at my desk with a whump and picked up the phone. I’d tried to make light of it, but this case was going to be serious trouble. I’d have to solve it and win it… with the victim’s daddy and the DA breathing down my neck.
“This is Rachel Knight. Can I have Bailey Keller, please?”
Bailey Keller was one of the best detectives on the force. From day one in the academy, she’d shown a rare combination of athleticism and brilliance that had foreshadowed a meteoric rise to the rank of detective and an assignment to the Major Crimes Division of the LAPD. The fact that on her third day of training she’d walked into a mom-and-pop liquor store to buy a Red Bull and wound up single-handedly busting a trio of gangbangers who’d been in the process of robbing the owners hadn’t hurt her prospects either. On top of all that, she was the kind of natural pretty that didn’t need makeup, and she had the obnoxious ability to be able to eat whatever she wanted without gaining an ounce. Toni and I regularly plotted to kill her for that particular gift. During our first case together, involving a serial killer who specialized in older women, Bailey and I had become fast friends. But it was her professional help that I needed now.
Bailey let herself be found.
“A little early for drinks, isn’t it, Knight?” she asked. “Not that it’s a problem.”
“It’s not, but we’ll do the drinks later.” I filled her in on the Densmore case. “I need you on this one. I can’t get stuck with Lambkin.”
“ ‘Useless,’ huh?” Bailey thought for a moment. “I have an idea. I’ll call you back in about an hour.”
We hung up, and I began to read through the file. Having a case like this, with a rummy like Lambkin for an IO, was a nightmare I wouldn’t wake up from until either the case or my career was over. I must have looked at the phone ten times when, one hour and five minutes later, Bailey called.
“You owe me,” she said in her rich contralto that was now tinged with a note of smugness. “Big-time.”
I wanted to kiss her, hug her, offer to bear her many children.
“How’d you manage?”
“If I told you…”
“You’d have to kill me, yeah, I know.” I didn’t tell her, but from what I’d seen of this case, that might be a favor. “Can you set up a meeting with the victim and her parents?”
“Meet me downstairs at three thirty,” she said, then hung up.
That was Bailey. A real blabbermouth.
We’d gotten lucky— traffic was moving on the 101 Freeway, and it took us only an hour to make the half-hour trip to Sunset Boulevard, heading west. The rain had stopped abruptly, and blue spaces peeked between gaps in the clouds, allowing random rays of sunshine to beam down on cars that flew alongside us. We were set to meet the Densmores at 5:00 p.m., and it was only a quarter till, so Bailey took the climb up through Pacific Palisades slowly, giving us a chance to get the lay of the land.
Usually the outskirts of a community are devoted to low-rent living options, small tract homes, drab apartment buildings—they always remind me of the Baltic and Mediterranean Avenue squares on a Monopoly board. But this being “the Palisades,” one of the toniest neighborhoods in L.A., no such reminders of real life were allowed. Here, the homes at the edge of the community were at least four thousand square feet, and none sold for less than seven figures.
Water fell over fake rocks and shot up in spouts in the man-made pools that heralded the entry to the gates that encircled the Cliffs. Carefully manicured lawns and colorful flowers covered the grounds in front of, and the hills behind, the large wrought iron gates. Huge, well-tended weeping willows hung over the drive that led up to the guarded entry. The “shack” that housed the security personnel was styled like a country cottage, with mullioned windows and wooden doors with decorative iron hinges. A uniformed guard was standing outside the door, and when Bailey held out her badge, he took it and inspected it, then waved us through. “Yes, Dr. Densmore is expecting you.”
La-di-da, I thought. As we headed up the hill toward Susan Densmore’s home, the lawns grew progressively bigger and greener, and the houses more palatial. Some were the one-story ranch style, albeit many thousand square feet thereof—not the kind of split-level, vinyl-sided ranches I grew up around, naturally—but there were also Tudor styles with dormers and brick fronts, and Mediterranean Modern styles painted in pale yellows with white columns and tiled roofs. Though architecturally eclectic, the neighborhood uniformly screamed money—big money. Predictably, the only people on the immaculate tree-lined streets were gardeners and nannies, tending dutifully to their employers’ impeccable pets, pools, plants, and children.
We pulled into the semicircular driveway of a two-story Tudor-style home that had wings extending to the right and left, and headed up the brick paved walk between banks of perfectly tended white rosebushes. A Porsche Cayenne with a bike rack was parked in front of the four-car garage.
“Ten thousand square feet, would you say?” I asked.
“Not counting the guesthouse we’ll definitely find out back.”
As usual, Bailey was dressed perfectly—a camel-colored trench coat and off-white turtleneck sweater that complemented her fair skin and short blond hair. And at a slender five feet nine, Bailey pulled off the tight cigarette-leg slacks better than I, at five feet six, ever could. I comforted myself once again with the knowledge that I could get away with wearing higher heels. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. We reached the massive oak double doors. Bailey ignored the heavy brass knocker and punched the doorbell. Even the chimes sounded rich. A matronly Hispanic woman answered so quickly I thought she had to have been waiting by the door.
“You are the detectives?” she asked.
Her English was careful, her expression skeptical. Why do people still think detectives have to look like Joe Friday?
“Right,” Bailey said, keeping it short. We’d explain exactly who was what to someone who cared.
The housekeeper nodded and motioned us inside.
Ordinarily you’d call it a foyer, but this? This was a lobby. The ceiling was easily thirty feet high, and the floor was a wide, circular expanse of cream-colored marble dotted with terra-cotta-colored diamonds. A gleaming teak elephant stood to the right of the door, its mouth open and waiting for umbrellas. A circular staircase on my left led to the second floor, where an open hallway branched off to the north and south, no doubt leading to the separate wings I’d noticed outside. On my right was a thickly carpeted and heavily draped drawing room. Just beyond that was an open, formal living room with French doors and windows that offered a view of the park the Densmores called the backyard. As the housekeeper led us toward the living room, I could see an outdoor kitchen; plush, brick-colored patio furniture; a huge swimming pool with a waterfall; and rolling grounds punctuated by jacaranda trees, bronze statuary, and hundreds of bushes that were obediently flowering in multicolored hues, although it was the dead of winter.
A perfectly groomed, rigorously fit-looking man stood up and extended his hand. A little taller than six feet, he had sharp features, precisely combed hair, and a piercing dark gaze.
“Dr. Frank Densmore,” he said.
There was a slight challenge to the way he said it. I was in just the mood to meet that challenge.
“Deputy District Attorney Rachel Knight,” I replied, giving his hand an extra-firm shake. “I’m the DA who’s been assigned to the case.” He gave my hand one and a half pumps, then dropped it. Done with me.
I gestured to Bailey. “This is Detective Bailey Keller. She’s going to be the investigating officer on the case.”
Bailey got the same requisite one and a half pumps.
He turned back to me. “I heard about Jake Pahlmeyer. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t sound all that sorry. “Yes, it’s a tragedy,” I said, trying to keep my tone neutral. I wondered what he knew of Jake’s death. Judging by his tone of voice, I guessed it wasn’t much. This told me that Densmore wasn’t a longtime member of Vanderhorn’s inner circle. Though, come to think of it, I’d bet Vanderhorn wasn’t talking to anyone about what the police suspected. Still, I made a mental note to find out exactly when Densmore had jumped on the Reelect Vanderhorn bandwagon—before or after his daughter’s rape. It wouldn’t matter to the case; I just wanted to know who I was dealing with.
Densmore turned abruptly to Bailey. “What happened to Detective Lambkin?” Jake’s death meant nothing more to him than a change in personnel, and his tone implied that someone should have run that change by him first. Not that I expected him to rip his clothes and douse himself with ashes over Jake’s passing, but I’d seen chimpanzees with more empathy.
Bailey didn’t miss a beat. “He’s been called out to handle a cold case that’s going to require some travel,” she said. “Your case needs full-time attention, so they put me on it.”
Damn, she was good. I could already tell that Daddy Densmore was the type who always thought he deserved more than what anyone else got, and I was right. I could see by his satisfied expression that Bailey’s words had had the desired effect—there’d be no more questions about why she’d taken over for Useless. And now the mystery of how Bailey had gotten rid of Lambkin was solved: she’d drummed up a no-pressure case that would give him “travel bennies.” How she’d managed to do that was something I didn’t want to know.
“Good. Hopefully you’ll be able to move this along now,” Densmore replied, looking across the room.
I followed his gaze to the woman and young girl seated on the giant gold-and-beige-striped couch. A family portrait that hung in the traditional spot over the mantel showed them sitting in an almost identical position: Father Frank standing behind them with a proprietary air—his girls. Susan Densmore had Alice in Wonderland long, golden hair and delicate features that came from the maternal end of the gene pool. Her mother wore her hair in a low ponytail, while Susan’s hung pale and straight, down to the middle of her back. Both were slender and sat primly, ankles crossed, hands folded in their laps like Lladró figurines. I bet it was some kind of fun to live in this house.
“Janet, my wife, and, of course, Susan,” said Frank Densmore, motioning toward them.
As though she’d been waiting for her cue, Janet unfolded, and I reached out to take her hand as she stood.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Densmore,” I said, and noticed her grip was surprisingly strong—quite a contrast to the demure pose.
“Please call me Janet,” she said as she glanced over at her daughter.
Susan took her cue and stood gracefully but was unable to meet my eyes as she reluctantly reached for my hand. “Nice to meet you,” she said politely, her voice barely above a whisper.
“I’m glad to meet you too, Susan,” I said. An air of sadness and shock floated around her like the broken tendrils of a spiderweb. The sight pulled at my heart. I knew that emotionally broken feeling very well—the world-shattering discovery that the safety net of security she’d always taken for granted was just a fairy tale. Whatever had happened here, Susan would never be the same. It’d been a while since I’d handled a case with a live rape victim, but my past experience had taught me that rape victims often don’t know who they hate more—the cops and prosecutors who make them relive the nightmare over and over, or the animals who put them in the position of having to do it. It would take some winning over to let Susan know I understood that.
“I hope you realize we already know who did this,” Frank Densmore said impatiently as he lifted his pant legs slightly and sat down in the leather wingback chair, careful to keep the crease straight.
I noticed that Susan suddenly stiffened, and Janet glanced warily between father and daughter.
I always loved it when witnesses let me know they had it all figured out. But this time I was prepared, because Jake had put a note in the file to that effect. The tension in the room after Densmore made his remark told me there was dissension among the ranks. I wanted to see how this played out. So I raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
The father steepled his hands and peered over them at me. “Susan’s been tutoring a boy from Sylmar—part of an ill-advised program at her school to bring young people from diverse backgrounds together. As soon as I saw him, I knew he was a gangbanger. I told Janet to get Susan out of the program, that he was bad news, but she wouldn’t listen.” He flashed a look of irritation first at Janet, then at Susan, who’d obviously colluded to defy him.
“Assuming he is a gang member, what makes you think he did it?” I asked, deliberately keeping my tone neutral.
“Isn’t it obvious? He saw all this,” Frank said, gesturing at the vaulted ceiling and everything it sheltered, “and got jealous and angry.”
That explanation seemed to fit a burglary a lot better than a rape, but I had no desire to get into a debate with him. Opinions didn’t matter; evidence did. “We’ll be looking into all possibilities, Dr. Densmore,” I said calmly, knowing my refusal to jump on his bandwagon would piss him off.
“Do your job,” he said dismissively, then continued, “but please don’t waste a lot of time looking around. It’s very clear who did it, and I don’t like having it dragged out.”
“I’d imagine it’s pretty hard on Susan too,” I said dryly. My sarcasm was lost on good old Frank, so I turned to the daughter. “Would you mind showing me where it happened?”
“They’ve already processed the area for evidence,” Densmore said, his expression broadcasting how much he’d loved having crime scene techs roaming around his house. “Of course I won’t object if you want to make sure nothing was missed, but I would think there isn’t much left to do.”
I didn’t think this was the time to share the joke about “Useless” Hughes Lambkin, so I just nodded. Densmore stood up, intending to lead the way.
I stopped him. “No need to join us. Susan can show me around for now. I just want to get a sense of how it happened—it helps if I can visualize the scene.” Taking a page out of Bailey’s book, I added, “I don’t want to take up any more of your time than necessary.”
Kiss-ass behavior generally goes against my grain, but I could suck it up and brownnose with the best of them when I wanted something. Right now, I wanted to talk to Susan alone, without Dr. Blowhard in the way.
Densmore frowned, and I saw him glance protectively at Susan. That, I understood and appreciated.
“We won’t be long, Dr. Densmore,” I said, attempting to reassure him with my look and tone of voice that we weren’t going to put his daughter through a grilling session.
He looked at me for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. “Fine. Let me know if you need anything. I’ll be here,” he said, a hint of warning in his voice.
“Will do,” I said.
Susan led Bailey and me up the wide spiral staircase with slow, leaden steps, gripping the polished mahogany railing like an arthritic ninety-year-old. We turned left at the top of the stairs and followed her to the door at the end of the hallway, which sported a framed poster of Albert Einstein. Not what I’d expected to see on this girl’s bedroom door. I noticed that the glass covering of the poster was sparkling clean—it had likely been dusted for fingerprints and in need of a thorough scrubbing after the crime scene techs had finished with it. The fact that it had been returned told me nothing useful had been found.
Susan took a deep breath and opened the door, then stepped in and stopped to the right of it, unwilling to go any farther than she had to. Bailey and I filed past her into a bedroom that was larger than most houses. It had a sitting room lined with closets and a huge bathroom with a steam sauna shower. The south wall was almost fully occupied by a set of glass French doors that led onto a balcony overlooking the back grounds. Her king-size bed—covered with a custom duvet colored in soft rose and blue flowers—was to the left of the window, just five feet away.
“So, Susan, what grade are you in now?” I asked conversationally, although I already knew she was fifteen years old.
“I’m a sophomore,” she replied in a small voice that sounded like she was closer to twelve.
The rape-kit exam indicated she’d probably been a virgin too, and judging by her shy demeanor and buttoned-up style, I’d bet that was true. Of course, I couldn’t be sure until I asked her; looks could be deceiving. Not that it mattered from a legal standpoint—rape was rape regardless—but knowing Susan’s specific situation would let me find the right tack in handling our interviews and preparing her for court. To do that, I had to establish some rapport so she’d open up and talk to me—no easy task after what she’d been through. I gazed out the window and wished for the thousandth time that rape were punishable by penis removal… with a rusty knife.
“You go to Pali High?” I asked. Ordinarily I’d have assumed that a girl living in a mansion and neighborhood like this went to a private school. But Palisades Charter High School was no ordinary public school. Due in no small part to the generous donations that were solicited throughout the year, it had all the perks of a private school and then some.
Susan nodded but said nothing more. I continued with nonthreatening get-to-know-you questions. “How is it being a sophomore? A little better than your freshman year?”
“I guess, maybe.” Her gaze slid off to the doorway, where I figured she’d like to be headed. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that while I was trying to loosen Susan up, Bailey was looking around the room, gathering some firsthand impressions.
I tried again, hoping to help her let go of what had happened in this room. “What’s your favorite subject this year?”
Susan shrugged, still not looking at me. “I don’t know. English, I guess.”
Aha. A hook. “Really? That was mine too. What are you reading?”
“Animal Farm by George Orwell,” she replied with as much animation as I’d seen since we shook hands.
“I read that too,” I said, smiling. “What’d you think of it?”
“Um, I liked it, actually,” Susan said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “At first, you just think it’s funny, but then it’s, like, about so much more. You know?”
“Yep. That book was so good, even school couldn’t ruin it,” I remarked with a little smile.
I was rewarded with Susan’s conspiratorial grin and brief nod. I hated to spoil the moment, but I knew we’d have to start talking about the case sometime. I intended to ease in and let her tell as much as she wanted to for now, then fill in the parts she couldn’t handle at a later date. I looked around the room for a moment, then back at Susan. This time, she returned my gaze. She was ready.
“Were you awake when he came into your room?” I asked.
“No, but I know he came in through there,” she said as she pointed to the French doors that led to the balcony. She looked at the bed as her next words poured out in a torrent. “I was asleep. Then he jumped on my bed. He pushed a pillow over my face, and I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was going to die.” She paused after she said this and took a breath.
I would bet there were times she’d wished she had.
“Susan, we don’t have to get into the details right now.”
“It’s okay… I’d rather just tell you and get it over with, you know?”
I really did. If the questions that force you to relive the nightmare are unavoidable, it’s better to answer them right away and get at least that part of the suffering over with. Postponing the inevitable only added days of dreaded anticipation to the pain. I nodded and squeezed her arm for support, then gestured for us to sit on the upholstered chest at the foot of the bed. As we moved into the room, I scanned the view through the French doors and made a mental note.
Susan took another deep breath. Staring at the floor, she began to speak. “I never saw him. All I know is I woke up with him on top of me. I tried to scream, but I had the pillow in my face, so nothing came out. Then he pulled up my nightgown and…”
She stopped, and I waited for her to recover. I hated putting any rape victim through this, but it was especially awful with Susan. She seemed so young, so vulnerable. Just like Romy. As it had countless times before, my mind replayed my last moments with her: my seven-year-old self saying, “Come on, Romy, you’re not even trying! Hide better!” Romy, shaking her head good-naturedly, walking away. The memory tightened my chest with pain and guilt, and I had to force myself to breathe past the moment.
I was about to prompt Susan to continue but thought better of it. There was no need. I knew her rape kit had not yielded any semen, but that wasn’t surprising—her vaginal swab had revealed lubricant of the type generally found on condoms. So he was a careful rapist, but he hadn’t been careful enough. They’d found DNA on the nightgown that didn’t match Susan or anyone else in the house. That was the good news. The bad news was that it didn’t match anyone in the state database either. Whoever had done it didn’t have a criminal record, or had one in another state, or hadn’t been asked to submit bodily fluids. I’d already made a note to myself to check and see if the so-called gangbanger Susan had been tutoring was in the DNA database. Ordinarily I’d have been fairly certain that the first detective would have taken care of something this routine, but with Useless Hughes Lambkin, you had no such assurance.
Based on the photographs and doctors’ reports I’d seen, there was a thinning to the hymen, which indicated there’d been sexual penetration, and there was some degree of vaginal tearing. It was better than nothing in terms of ruling out consensual sex, but it wasn’t a slam dunk. The fact that a condom had been used didn’t help much either. Still, from what I’d seen so far, Susan would make a compelling witness. Providing I could find someone to arrest.
“Did you see any part of him—his face, maybe in profile? Or his back? Do you remember any particular smell?” I asked.
Susan shook her head thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to remember, but I was afraid to pull off the pillow until he was gone. In case he might come back and…” She stopped and frowned to herself.
“I don’t blame you. I would’ve been afraid too, Susan,” I reassured her.
She nodded, took another breath, and continued. “I think he left through the balcony, because the French doors were still open, and I would’ve heard if he’d left through my bedroom door.”
I nodded. The French doors opened onto a semicircular balcony. Those doors now sported a not-so-decorative bolt-style lock. I scanned the room. Probably the crime scene tech had gotten all there was to get, but again, with Lambkin in charge, I had reason to doubt. Bailey noticed my look and nodded.
“Susan, would you mind if we had another crime scene technician take a look around?” Bailey asked. “We’ll be neat.”
“I don’t care. I don’t sleep here anymore,” Susan admitted. “I took the maid’s old room. I don’t even get dressed here.”
I couldn’t blame her. I got up to go, but Susan reached out and touched my arm, stopping me.
I turned to her.
She darted a furtive look at the doorway, then whispered with urgency, “Don’t listen to my dad. It wasn’t Luis. I know it wasn’t!”
Luis, the gangbanger, I knew from the file.
Struck by the vehemence in her tone, I asked, “What makes you say that?”
Susan shook her head sadly. “I know you must think I’m some little sheltered rich girl, and I am. But I’m not stupid. And I know Luis. He worked hard. He was looking to get out of his… situation. He might be a lot of things; he probably is. But he’s not a rapist. And he’d never hurt me.”
“Are you…?” I began.
She shook her head rapidly. “He’s just a friend.”
“Any idea where we might be able to find him?”
Susan dipped her head and looked at the floor. “No. I never knew where he lived. And I haven’t seen him since…”
We knew he’d been in the wind ever since the rape, which did not help his cause any—Susan knew it too. It wasn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but I couldn’t blame Frank Densmore for thinking otherwise. I always kept an open mind to all possibilities in the beginning of a case, but I had to admit that finding Luis was at the top of our to-do list.
I looked at Susan. Rich and sheltered, she certainly was, but she was a tough little thing for all that. And her willingness to stand up to her father for this Luis guy was impressive, even though it might be ill-advised. I had a feeling Daddy was always right, even when he wasn’t. Densmore didn’t seem like an easy person to stand up to.
We headed downstairs, and all of us were relieved to find that Daddy Dearest was gone.
“He had to go back to the office,” Janet explained. “He’s running six pediatric health centers,” she said apologetically. “All the kids in the neighborhood go to him. And then he’s got his charity work,” she said, a tinge of pride creeping into the apology. She sighed. “He’s spread awfully thin.”
He didn’t seem the saintly type, but there was no benefit in arguing the point with Mrs. Densmore. I figured nearly all of his clinics were in high-dollar neighborhoods. More businessman than doctor nowadays, Densmore rarely saw patients. “Not a problem,” I said.
“By the way, I noticed the bike rack,” Bailey said, nodding toward the Cayenne in the driveway. “Who’s the cyclist in the family?”
“Both of us,” Janet replied. “But Frank’s the real enthusiast. He does those marathon rides for charity. I tried it once, but…” She shook her head and gave Bailey a measuring look. “I bet you can do them.”
Bailey nodded. “On a good day.”
That, I knew, was bullshit. Bailey was a monster on two wheels.
Janet looked at me questioningly, but I shook my head. “Not me. Those crazy rides are a bridge too far.” This pulled a little smile out of Janet. I got her permission for a “do over” for the crime scene techs in Susan’s bedroom, and we said our good-byes for the time being.
As I got into Bailey’s car, I noticed a twenty-four-hour neighborhood patrol vehicle roll by. It said PALISADES SECURITY—24-HOUR PATROL on the driver’s-side door.
“We should check out the security patrol for this joint. They might have some ideas about who had access to the house,” I said.
Bailey nodded. “They might be on that list themselves.”
“Might be,” I agreed. It wouldn’t be the first time the security was actually the culprit, though I expected the background checks for a company that worked in neighborhoods like this were pretty thorough—if only to avoid the inevitable lawsuit if a baddie slipped through the cracks. “Did Useless door-knock the neighborhood?”
“Report says he did, but he doesn’t list any leads. My bet is he kissed off whatever the uniforms got as a dead end so he wouldn’t have to do the follow-ups. I’m starting over with my own team,” Bailey said, her voice grim and shaded with disgust. “We’ll run rap sheets on everyone, check ties to the Densmores, alibis—the whole shootin’ match. Start with neighbors tomorrow.”
“Make sure someone’s working on finding our gangbanger Luis Revelo while you’re at it—”
“Got it,” Bailey interjected.
She hated when I stuck in my two cents—especially on the obvious stuff. This never stopped me.
“Lot of workers in a place like this too,” I continued. “Pool men, gardeners, personal trainers—”
“Contractors, architects, carpenters, decorators—yeah.” Bailey’s tone told me I was pushing it now.
She shrugged. “Can’t get stuck on stereotypes.”
The decorators I’d met wouldn’t even walk around a ladder, let alone climb one to break into a young girl’s bedroom, but Bailey was right about stereotypes. “Have at ’em.”
We headed east on Sunset, now at a crawl through the thick commuter traffic.
“What do you think?” Bailey asked.
I watched as the neighborhood gave way to meaner streets and tiny storefronts bearing signs in foreign languages—moving backward on the game board, going from St. Charles to Oriental to Baltic and Mediterranean, heading toward “Go.”
“This guy Luis dropping out of sight like that? Seems awfully obvious, don’t you think?” I asked rhetorically.
I nodded. “I hate that.” But I also knew better than to fight it. Just because it was obvious didn’t mean Luis wasn’t our rapist. I’d long since learned that criminals generally aren’t the brightest bulbs in the chandelier—if they were, we’d never catch them. And, as my old mentor used to say, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”
“Did Useless run the guy?” I asked.
“Not likely. I’ll take care of it,” Bailey replied, making a note in her new cell phone.
“What happened to your BlackBerry?” I asked. Bailey was a gadget freak—the first to get the best in techie hot stuff.
She offered her iPhone to me. “Old news. This thing makes the BlackBerry look like a typewriter.”
I shook my head and refused to take the phone. “You should know better by now. I’ll break it before I can even pick a ringtone.”
“True,” Bailey said, and abruptly pulled her gadget back and dropped it into her pocket.
I watched a young girl in skintight jeans and Converse sneakers bobbing along to a tune on her iPod as she walked a ratlike dog. The dog, stopping suddenly to pee on a bus bench, pulled her backward and caused her earpieces to fall out. She looked completely befuddled for a moment, as though this were her first experience being out in the world without piped-in music. Maybe it was.
The sight of the young girl brought me back to Susan’s father. “Old Frank’s a piece of work, though, isn’t he?”
“A real dick,” Bailey agreed. “He’s the type who yells his own name when he comes.”
I shot her a look. “Must you? Now I’ve got that picture in my head.” I squeezed my eyes shut to block out the image of Frank Densmore in the throes. Yech.
She had an inborn gift for the gross-out, but growing up with three older brothers—not to mention working with cops—had raised her game to Olympic levels.
I deliberately turned off the image of Densmore and considered what bugged me about him. It wasn’t just that he was a control-freak know-it-all; it was that no matter what was going on, it was all about him—even his daughter’s rape. But, to be fair, I had seen some genuine concern for her. And if he’d bought his way into Vanderhorn’s inner circle just to get special attention for his daughter’s case, that was some evidence of real devotion—albeit in a sickening, influence-peddling sort of way. And, as it turned out, the sort of way that worked.
“You ever notice how rich people’s clinics are called ‘health centers’?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Bailey replied with a smirk.
After a moment, her expression darkened. “Tell you what, Knight. If Luis isn’t our guy, we’d better find something to work with in Susan’s bedroom, because otherwise this case is looking like a dead body in a locked room.” Bailey’s tone was sullen as she continued. “By the way, have I thanked you yet for getting me into this?”
“No, you haven’t. But you’ve always been the ungrateful type,” I replied.
Bailey gave me a sideways look.
“Still, we do know one thing,” I said. “The rapist definitely knew the Densmores. There’s no way anyone who hadn’t been in that castle would know how to dodge the security patrol and find her bedroom.”
“And do it in the middle of the night,” Bailey added.
Excerpted from Guilt by Association by Clark, Marcia Copyright © 2011 by Clark, Marcia. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
Marcia Clark's debut novel showcases her experience and knowledge of the legal system. The pace, plot and dialogue are as sharp as they come in the genre. Her character of Rachel Knight bleeds real blood, sweat and tears on the page. Guilt by Association is a four-bagger for Clark and her many new fans will eagerly await her next step up to the plate.
“The gritty world of violent crime collides with fiction! A thriller! I couldn't put it down!” --(Nancy Grace, former felony prosecutor and author of Death on the D-List)
“You must read this book: it is wildly and complexly plotted, ebulliently witty and filled with riotous humor; it details the inner workings of the L.A. legal system with unprecedented accuracy and verve – and to top it off, it is a damn, damn, good thriller.” --(James Ellroy)