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There's a body at the top of Sepulveda Pass. I want more information but that's all I hear before the scanner moves on to robberies and assaults and domestic disputes.
I could use a story so I drive to the scene. I know the shortcuts.
Two squad cars and an unmarked vehicle are parked beside the road. It's not much really. A uniformed cop stops me at the edge of the roped-off area, but I recognize the detective standing over the body. I call his name.
"Let him through," the detective says. "He's okay."
The cop stands aside. "Fucking vulture," he says.
I walk up a slight slope and shake hands with Frank Gruley. He points at the ground. Below us is a girl who looks to be twelve or thirteen. She's naked except for a pair of white socks. A thin layer of dirt and sand covers her body. Bugs whiz by, settle on her, take off. I notice patches of dried blood on her face and head, part of which has been smashed open.
"Was she killed here?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "Dumped."
I make the notes and walk back to my car. Gruley goes with me. He says the girl most likely was raped. There are bruises on her genitalia and traces of semen. He says a case like this can bother him. He's a professional but he has two girls himself and he can't stop imagining what might happen. I tell him it sounds awful, having to worry all the time.
He says they think several perps were involved but they'll have a better idea once the tests are done. The hair and fiber guys went over her thoroughly. The girl was beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, probably a baseball bat. They found slivers of wood in her skull. Near the body was a footprint, size ten and made by a shoe nobody recognizes. This could be important. Or maybe it isn't.
They think the girl put up a fight. Some skin from another person was found under her fingernails.
The detective scratches the ground with his shoes. Their leather is dusty and faded, and I wonder how long he intends to keep wearing them.
"That's the first body I've ever seen," I tell Gruley.
"What did you think?"
"Why would somebody do that to someone?"
"Usually it's because they feel like it."
Back at the office I write the story. It's only a few paragraphs long.
I walk around to the rear of Noreen's place, past the red Volvo with a AAA sticker and the garbage cans and the papers set out for recycling. As I let myself in, I hear a dog barking in a distant yard. He sounds angry about something.
"Is that you?" she asks.
"No," I reply.
Noreen watches the news in the living room. The colors from the set reflect back, turning her normally translucent skin blue and purple. There was a smog alert today in the Valley.
"Where's Kristen?" I ask.
"At her father's. She's at her father's every Thursday. I've told you that."
I kiss her on the cheek. She keeps chewing a piece of gum. I wonder if I've done something wrong and decide I must have. She asks what I'd like for dinner. I say it doesn't matter. She says she doesn't feel like cooking and I say that's all right. We can order takeout we can get a pizza we can go someplace. It doesn't matter.
We eat Mexican. Noreen knows the owner. Raul engages in a bit of a fuss and my ladyfriend smiles at the waitress. When the meal is over Raul insists on joining us for a drink. I'd prefer to leave.
"Things are very bad," Raul says.
I say the place is crowded. Business looks fine.
"That's not what I mean," he says. "I'm talking about the gangs and the drugs and the lack of values. Nobody cares about anything anymore."
"People used to care," I say. "It never accomplished anything."
The girl's name is Megan Wright. That's the first thing I learn at work. She went to a private school in Sherman Oaks and her teachers say she'd just started, but she seemed to fit in. That's the most important thing at that age. Fitting in.
I call Gruley and ask how he made the ID. He says it's his fucking job to make an ID in cases like these. I say I realize that but I'd like some specifics. He says they matched her against a missing person's report. The mother made the ID at the morgue.
"How'd she react?" I ask.
"All things considered, she was pretty calm."
My editor wants a picture of the girl.
The Wrights live in one of those communities that's surrounded by a high stucco wall and protected by a gate and booth occupied by a minimum-wage security guard. A couple of TV trucks are parked outside, so I continue to drive. On Ventura I pull into a strip mall and take out the reverse directory I keep under the driver's seat. The police scanner reports that an elderly couple has been found bound and gagged in their home in Reseda. The woman has had a heart attack. Emergency units are responding to the scene.
After a few tries on my car phone, I find a house near Megan's that seems unoccupied. I use papers and notebooks to stuff a package from a courier service that I keep for situations like this. Then I drive back. The guard leans out of his cage as I pull up. I display the package and say I have to deliver it to Mr. Roswell's house. I'm from the office and it's important he get the material right away.
The guard rings the house. "There's no answer," he says. "I can take that for him."
"I have to deliver this personally. Can you let me in? It'll take five minutes."
"You know where you're going?"
I assure him I do.
The gate goes up. I enter a world of winding streets and lookalike houses, putty-colored with red roofs. Street signs with large eyes at the top advertise the presence of Neighborhood Watch.
When I find the Wrights' address I park in the driveway and walk to the door as if I belong. The blinds are drawn and I hear no sound except for the bell echoing through uninhabited rooms. As I head back to the car I rehearse what I'll tell my editor.
"What do you want?"
It's a female voice. It demands attention. I haven't heard anything open but she's standing in the doorway, her form bordered by the frame. With the cool dark of the house behind her, nothing about this woman is distinct.
"I wasn't expecting anybody. They didn't call from the gate. What do you want?"
I identify myself and ask if she's Megan's mother. She says she is.
"I'm terribly sorry about what happened," I say.
The words spill out of me. I've said them before. I've said the so often.
"I know this seems rude and intrusive, but I'd like to take a minute of your time and ask you some questions. I want to find out what kind of a girl your daughter was."
The woman says nothing. She stands perfectly still.
"I want to make sense of this tragedy," I say. "For myself and for my readers."
I'm almost at the door. I've approached it slowly.
"Sometimes it's good," I say. "Sometimes it's good to talk."
She tells me to come in.
We stand in the hall a few seconds. Her eyes are clear and she's wearing a touch of makeup. She's dressed in white shorts and a pale pink top. I tell her the house is nice. She thanks me and asks if I need anything. For a second I think about the picture, but it's too soon to mention it. She leads me into the living room and perches on the edge of a leather sofa. I take a high-backed chair. The woman's posture is perfect and her hair is blond and I figure she's about the same age as Noreen. She puts her hands on her knees, looks at me directly and tells me to go ahead.
"When did you first think something was wrong?"
She says she got home quite late that night -- it was the night before last, as she recalls -- and didn't bother to check on the kids. It wasn't until morning --
"Excuse me," I find myself saying.
I don't have children so I'm unsure how these things are handled, but I know my girlfriend always looks in on Kristen after we've been out. So I ask:
"Why didn't you check on them?"
"It was quite late," she says. "I was very tired. I work hard."
I tell her I understand. I ask her to continue.
She says it was only in the morning that she began to realize what had happened. Jeffrey (that's her youngest) got ready for school and came downstairs for breakfast while she discussed what needed to be done that day with Maria (that's her house keeper), and all the while she had a terrible headache and it was getting late and there was no sign of Megan so she asked Maria to go upstairs and fetch the girl. A few seconds later Maria came running down saying Megan wasn't there and the bed hadn't been slept in and somebody had better do something. Actually she was carrying on in Spanish so it took a few minutes to figure out, but once they did she called the police. They told her the girl had probably run away. She'd turn up in a couple of days. Most of them do.
"Did they say anything else?" I ask.
"They told me not to worry."
I ask if Megan had seemed upset about anything in the days before she died, if she was anxious or preoccupied about something, if an event out of the usual had occurred that might have some bearing on what happened.
"She stayed out late a few times," Megan's mother says. "We fought about that. And she bought some terrible clothes her last few trips to the mall. I tried to make her take them back, but she wouldn't."
She was discovering boys and staying over at friends' houses and talking on the phone for hours on end. She was keeping a diary. She was starting to have secrets but all girls do, especially from their mothers.
"Have you looked at her diary?" I ask.
"No. And I won't. The diary was hers. I have no right to read it."
"The police might want it."
"They can't have it. I'd burn it before I'd give it to them."
I ask if she has any theories about who could have done it or why. She looks up at the ceiling and down at her hands, then twists her fingers around each other until the veins in her wrists stick out. I notice that she's wearing no rings. She hasn't alluded to a husband or father.
She shakes her head and says this whole thing is puzzling to her. Perhaps it was drug addicts who thought she had money or just did it for the thrill. There seems to be a lot of that these days.
I thank her for her time. As she leads me to the door she says she hopes I got something useful. She's never seen her name in the paper. I tell her she's been more than cooperative and I appreciate what she's done and then I say there's just one more thing...one more thing that would help.
She asks what it is.
I say I'd like a picture. My editors want to run it with the story to let our readers know what this wonderful young girl looked like and who knows, maybe somebody saw something.
She says she'll be right back. After she disappears I look around. The front hall has some prints of Impressionist paintings. Off to the side is a den with a large-screen TV. In back is a kitchen that's light, open and airy. Beyond that a swimming pool glitters in the yard.
Megan's mother returns with her arm outstretched.
At the gate the guard says I took more than five minutes. I apologize for getting lost. I tell him I didn't know where I was going after all.
Noreen says she can't believe the woman was so calm. In fact she can't believe Megan's mother even talked to me.
When we go to bed I tell her to let loose. That's what I want. I know she wants it too. She can yell, she can scream, she can let me know exactly what I'm doing to her.
She says she can't. She's afraid of waking Kristen.
When we're through Noreen asks if I've ever considered getting another job. I say I don't know what else I could do. I have a pretty good salary and my work is more interesting than most and I'm not qualified to go into business, if that's what she has in mind.
"You're wrong," she says. "You're limiting yourself. There are other things you can do."
"Public relations. Advertising. Businesses are always looking for people who can communicate."
I tell her I like what I do.
Megan's hair is dark and teased and falls over the left side of her face. Her eyebrows are quite dark.
They changed the lead.
Noreen tells Kristen to put on her blue dress. It's just been cleaned and today's the class picture. Doesn't she want to look good for the class picture? Kristen says she'd look fine in a sweatshirt.
Megan's face is thin but not pinched. Her eyes are deep-set. I wonder what color they were. I should have looked at the photo more carefully before I gave it away.
"Put on your dress."
"I don't want to."
"Put it on."
I pour some coffee that I made myself. I don't trust Noreen. She keeps trying to give me decaf.
The dress hangs limply on Kristen, reminding me of a flag on a windless day. I say hello in as cheerful a tone as I can muster. I once read that children like bright, happy sounds. Kristen takes out a box of cereal and dumps it into a bowl.
Megan's nose is small and straight, and I notice she's wearing an earring. I try to figure out why they changed the lead.
"I want some juice!"
"Can't you get it yourself?"
"I'm eating my cereal!"
I go to the refrigerator, take out the juice and pour it into a glass. Kristen glares as I put it in front of her.
The corners of Megan's mouth are turned up slightly. For a moment I think of the Mona Lisa.
I'm glad for this chance to see her whole.
Copyright © 1999 by Tom Coffey