Victims, p.10

Victims, page 10

 

Victims
 


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  “Only different thing that came up the second time was a dead snake near an empty garbage can. California king, a baby, pretty little thing, with blue and yellow and red stripes. And I’m not sure you can call that out of place.”

  “Didn’t know you watched Animal Planet, kid. Bring me a cobra and I’ll be impressed.”

  Reed laughed. “Really was a nice snake, poor thing.”

  Milo ended the call; a second later it beeped Brahms. “Sturgis ... oh, hi. Thanks for calling back ... sure ... actually I understand the whole schedule thing, a good friend of mine’s a physician ... Richard Silverman, he’s also at Cedars ... you do? Yes, he is. So when can I speak to both of you? Sooner’s better than later ... I see. Well, that’s fine, just give me your room number. Great, see you in twenty.”

  He accelerated, zoomed around curves. The unmarked’s loose suspension griped. He kept racing, zipping past the tree-shrouded northern border of the U.’s massive campus.

  I said, “Vita’s downstairs neighbors?”

  “The Drs. Feldman. That was the male half. They both just got off call, found out about Vita, and are too freaked out to return home. So they’re staying at the Sofitel across from Cedars.”

  I said, “Freaked out because they know something or just general anxiety?”

  “We’ll find out soon enough, I’m headed straight there. Any thoughts about poor Mr. Quigg?”

  I repeated what Letty Pomeroy had told me.

  “Mr. Nice Guy,” he growled, as if that was the gravest personality flaw of all. “Maybe too trusting?”

  “Sounds like Louie sure was. No protective instinct at all.”

  “And now he’s probably lying in a ditch with his own guts churned up. What the hell’s going on, Alex? One victim’s the most hated woman in Southern California, the other’s ready to be sainted. There’s a rational pattern for you.”

  I said, “Only thing I can see in common is they were about the same age.”

  “A psycho who targets aging boomers? Now all I have to do is keep a close watch on a few million potential carvees. Hell, Alex, maybe I sic AARP on the damn case. Here I’d convinced myself this had something to do with Vita specifically. Now I’m picking up that random stench. Or something so crazy it might as well be random. Please tell me I’m wrong.”

  “Too much planning went into the killings for a random strike. Same goes for the cleanup and sitting by the bodies until they were safely dead before mutilating.”

  “So something nuts. Wonderful.”

  “Calculated evil, not insanity. My bet is Vita and Quigg were both stalked. Vita was a stay-at-home who went out to shop and eat. Quigg took the same walk with his dog every night.”

  “Creatures of habit,” he said. “Fine, but what made them targets? Vita pissing off some psycho I can see. But mild-mannered Marlon? So maybe Quigg’s not as perfect as his wife made out. You have time to revisit her? Maybe she’ll give something up.”

  “I have time, but she sure seemed to like your big manly chest.”

  “Hate to deprive her but you’ll be an excellent second choice.”

  A mile later, he said: “The dog bothers me. So he’s no pit bull. But standing around while Quigg got butchered?”

  I said, “All the killer needed to do was incapacitate Quigg then tie the dog’s leash to a branch or pin it under a rock. If Louie did react to seeing his master die horribly, that could’ve heightened the pleasure.”

  “A sadist.”

  “With a captive audience.”

  “Think the dog’s dead or a live trophy?”

  “Could go either way.”

  “Either,” he said. “God, I hate that word.”

  CHAPTER

  16

  Dr. David Feldman sat on the edge of the hotel bed. Dr. Sondra Feldman sat so close the two of them looked glued together. The room was compact, tidy, air-conditioned frigid.

  He was thirty or so, tall, thin, and long-limbed as an egret, with wavy black hair and the anxious nobility of a Velasquez prince. His wife, pretty and grave with nervous hands and straight black hair, could’ve been mistaken for his sib.

  They’d insisted that Milo slip I.D. under the door before unlatching. The chain had remained in place while two sets of eyes checked us over through the crack.

  After letting us in, Sondra Feldman bolted and rechained and David Feldman double-checked the strength of the hardware. Both Feldmans wore jeans, sneakers, and polo shirts, hers a pink Ralph Lauren Polo, his a sky-blue Lacoste. Their white coats were draped individually over separate chair-backs. A bowl of fruit on a nightstand was untouched. A bottle of Merlot had been touched to half empty.

  Sondra Feldman saw me looking at the wine. “We thought it might help but it was all we could do to hold it down.”

  Milo said, “Thanks for getting back to me.”

  David Feldman said, “We’re hoping you can protect us. Or is that unrealistic?”

  “You think you’re in danger?”

  “A neighbor gets murdered right above us? Wouldn’t you consider that danger?”

  Sondra said, “There’s no alarm system in the apartment. That always bothered me.”

  “Have you had security problems?”

  “No, but we’re into prevention not treatment. We talked to Stanleigh—Mr. Belleveaux. He was reluctant to install anything for a one-year lease.”

  David said, “For lack of contradictory data, we’re assuming we’re in danger. We’ll be moving soon as we find another place but at some point, we’ll need to go back to retrieve our stuff. Is there any way we could receive some sort of police escort? I know we’re not celebs and the city’s tight financially, but we’re not asking for anything extensive, maybe one cop.”

  Milo said, “Until you find a new place, you’ll be staying here?”

  Sondra frowned. “The cost is crazy and we get what, two hundred square feet?”

  David said, “We both have tons of loans. Stanleigh’s place seemed like a great deal because he was friendly and honest and it was reasonably close to both our work. But after this? Not a chance.”

  “You’re a resident at Cedars?”

  “And Sonny’s at the U.”

  The mention of work seemed to relax them. I said, “What are your specialties?”

  “I’m in medicine, want to do a gastro fellowship. Sonny’s pediatrics.”

  Sondra Feldman said, “Can we interpret your not answering the request for an escort as a no?”

  Milo said, “Not at all. Once you’re ready, get in touch. If I can’t accompany you myself, I’ll get someone else.”

  “You’d do that?”

  “Sure. I’ll be back to the scene several times, anyway.”

  The Feldmans exchanged quick rabbity looks. Sondra said, “Well, thank you.”

  Milo said, “Hey, a neighbor murdered is heavy-duty, I don’t blame you for being on edge. But is there some specific reason you feel you might be targeted?”

  Another exchange of jumpy eye-language.

  David said, “We may just be paranoid, but we think we might have seen something.”

  Sondra said, “Someone. The first time was around three weeks ago. Davey saw him—you tell them, honey.”

  David nodded. “I can’t be sure exactly when this was, given our sleep patterns, time blurs. We get home, take Ambien, collapse. The only reason I noticed him in the first place was the neighborhood’s generally quiet, you never see anyone out past five. Not like Philly, we lived in City Center, there was street life all the time.”

  Sondra said, “The second time was maybe two weeks ago and I was the one who saw him. Davey hadn’t told me he saw him so I never mentioned it. It was only after what happened to Vita that we compared notes.”

  Milo said, “Who’s him?”

  She said, “Before we get into it, Lieutenant, we need to feel certain we’re doing the right thing.”

  “Believe me, Doctor, you are.”

  “We don’t mean morally, we mean per
sonal-safety-wise. What if it gets back to him that we played a role in his apprehension and he comes after us?”

  “Dr. Feldman, we’re a long way from that.”

  “We’re just saying,” said Sondra. “Once we pass along information we’re part of the process. There’ll be no way to get uninvolved.”

  Milo said, “I appreciate your concern but I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never had someone in your situation harmed.”

  David said, “Please excuse us for not finding that comforting. There’s always a first time.”

  I said, “You returned Lieutenant Sturgis’s call. That wasn’t just to ask for a police escort to pick up your stuff.”

  “That’s true,” said David. “We wanted to do the right thing. But then we got to discussing it.”

  “A criminal investigation is a complex process. Before anyone’s apprehended, let alone charged and brought to trial, there’ll be thousands of bits of data added to the pile. Your contribution won’t stand out.”

  Sondra said, “You sound like my father. He’s a psych prof, always dissecting things logically.”

  “What does your father think you should do?”

  “I haven’t told him! Neither of us has told anyone.”

  David said, “If he knew, he’d be here on the next plane. Trying to run things, telling us, See, I was right, you should’ve stayed in Philly.”

  She smiled. “Your mom, too.”

  “In spades. Meddle-city.”

  They held hands.

  I said, “Who’d you both see?”

  Sondra said, “If our contribution’s so insignificant, you probably don’t need us in the first place.”

  “Not insignificant,” I said. “But not conspicuous, either. Isn’t medicine like that? You don’t always know what will work?”

  David said, “We’d like to think medicine can be pretty scientific.”

  “We’d like to think criminal investigations can be scientific but reality doesn’t always cooperate. The information you have may turn out to be irrelevant. But if it narrows things down, it could help.”

  Sondra said, “Okay, fine.”

  “Sonny?”

  “It’s the right thing, Davey. Let’s just get it over with.”

  He inhaled, massaged the little crocodile snarling at his left breast. “I was coming home from work around a month ago, saw a guy across the street. It was at night but I could see him, I guess there were stars out, I really don’t know. My initial impression was he was staring at our building. Up, at the second story.”

  I said, “Vita’s apartment.”

  “I can’t swear to it but from the way his neck was tilted that’s what it seemed like. I found that curious because in all the time we’d been there, we never saw Vita have a visitor. I suppose it’s possible she entertained during the day when we were gone. But all the times we were home during the day, we never saw anyone.”

  “Total loner,” said Sondra. “No surprise.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Her personality.”

  “Abrasive, combative, obnoxious, pick your adjective,” said David. “She’s on top, we’re on bottom, if anyone’s going to hear footsteps it’s us. But we never complained and trust me, her steps were heavy, she wasn’t exactly a fashion model. Sometimes, after we’d been on call, it was hell being woken up by her clomping around.”

  Sondra said, “It seemed to happen a lot when we came back from call.”

  Milo said, “You think she was trying to bug you?”

  “We wondered.”

  David said, “We didn’t get into it with her, what’s the point? Then she goes and complains to Stanleigh about us.”

  Sondra said, “How can you hear footsteps from downstairs? Plus we always go barefoot. Plus we’re careful. Stanleigh was cool, said he was sorry. Obviously he was paying lip service. After that, anytime we’d see Vita she’d give us the stink eye.”

  David said, “Anyway, back to the salient issue: She never once had a visitor that we saw and now some guy was looking up at her place.”

  I said, “From across the street.”

  “He took off the moment he saw me watching him.”

  “What did he look like?”

  “White, maybe five eleven. What I did find unusual was how he was dressed. It was a warm day but he was wearing a coat. No one wears coats in L.A., I brought one from Philly, it’s still in a garment bag.”

  “What kind of coat?”

  “Kind of bulky. Or maybe he was bulky and filled it out.”

  Sondra said, “Given the benefit of hindsight, maybe he chose a bulky garment in order to conceal a gun. Was she shot?”

  Milo said, “She was stabbed.”

  She gripped her husband’s arm. “God, even if we had been there, it could’ve gone on right under our noses and we might not have heard it. That’s repellent.”

  I said, “What else can you remember about this person, David?”

  “That’s it.”

  “What was his age?”

  “I really can’t say.”

  “When he left how did he move?”

  He thought. “He didn’t limp if that’s what you’re getting at ... didn’t move like an old guy, so probably not too old. I wasn’t close enough to get details. I was more concerned about what he was doing there. In fact, I wasn’t really worried, more like curious. It’s when he got out of there that I started to wonder.”

  Milo said, “Think he was younger than fifty?”

  “Hmm ... probably.”

  “Younger than forty?”

  “That I can’t tell you.”

  “If you had to guess.”

  “Twenties or thirties,” he said. “And I don’t even know why I’m saying that.”

  “Fair enough.” Milo turned to Sondra.

  She said, “Three weeks ago—I know that because I was rotating at a clinic in Palmdale, too far to commute so mostly I slept out there but that night I got off early and David was on call and I wanted to clean up the apartment. So that would make it a week or two after Davey saw him. It was also at night, nine-ish, I’d gotten home at eight, eaten, showered, was doing some puttering, it relaxes me. Part of that was emptying the trash baskets into a big garbage bag and taking them out to the alley.”

  She bit her lip. “In retrospect, it’s terrifying.”

  I said, “Someone was in the alley.”

  She nodded. “Not near our garbage, near the garbage next door. I must’ve spooked him because as soon as I got to our garbage, I heard footsteps. Then I saw him running. That freaked me out. Not only had he been there and I was unaware, but the fact that he ran away. Why would you run if you weren’t up to no good? He ran fast, west up the alley. Some of the properties have security lights and as he passed under them I could see his form diminishing. Could see his coat billowing. That’s why I know—I think—it’s the same person Davey saw. It was a warm night, why wear a coat? I can’t give you his age, saw him from the distance and from the back. But from the way he moved—more like a bear than a deer—I got the feeling he was kind of husky, the bulk just wasn’t the coat. Do you think Vita’s murder had to do with her specifically?”

  Milo said, “As opposed to?”

  “A random psychopath.”

  David said, “Obviously we’d rather it be something specific and not some sexual predator targeting all women.”

  Sondra said, “That night, when I went down to the garbage, it really was warm. I had on a tank top and shorts. And I’m not sure I drew all the drapes on our windows.”

  Her eyes teared up.

  Milo said, “We have no evidence he was after anyone at the building other than Vita.”

  “Okay,” she said. Her tone belied any confidence.

  David said, “No matter, we’re out of there.”

  I said, “Sonny, when you saw this person running away, what did you do?”

  “I hurried back inside.”

  “The only rational respon
se,” said David.

  Her eyes shot to the left.

  I said, “Did you look around at all before you hurried back?”

  David said, “Why would she?”

  Sondra said, “Actually ...”

  David stared at her.

  “Just for a second, Davey. I was frightened but I was also curious, what would someone be doing there? I wanted to see if he left something. Some kind of evidence. So I’d have something to report to the police if he came back.”

  “Wow,” said David. “Wow-ow.”

  “It’s okay, hon, he was long gone, there was absolutely no danger. I only looked around a bit and then I went right back inside.”

  I said, “What’d you see?”

  “Not much. There was a box on the ground so I assumed he’d been rooting around in the trash. I wondered if he was just a homeless guy scrounging for something to eat. That could explain the coat. When I rotated through Psych they told us schizophrenics sometimes dressed way too heavy.”

  “What kind of box?”

  “A pizza box, empty. I know that because I picked it up and put it in the trash and from the weight you could tell it was empty.”

  David said, “Ugh, time for Purell.”

  She shot him a sharp look. “Like I didn’t?”

  “I’m kidding.”

  Milo said, “Any markings on the pizza box?”

  “I didn’t notice. Why? Does pizza have something to do with Vita?”

  Milo said, “Nope.”

  “So maybe,” said Sondra, “he was just a mentally disturbed homeless guy Dumpster-diving, no big deal.”

  “Anything else?”

  Twin head shakes.

  “Okay, thanks, here’s my card and when you need that escort, give a ring.”

  Both Feldmans stood. He was an easy six four, she was four inches shorter. One day they might breed and create a brainy power forward.

  As we headed for the door, I said, “Philly as in Penn?”

  Sondra said, “Undergrad and med school for me, med school for Davey, he did undergrad at Princeton.”

  David allowed himself a smile. “We come across as Ivy League twits?”

  “You come across as serious thinkers.”

  “Thanks,” he said. “I think.”

 
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