Victims, page 11
“Thinking,” said his wife, “can be a big pain.”
Milo had his phone out before beginning the drive back to the station. He started with Moe Reed, checking again on the campgrounds.
Reed said, “Nothing, but Sean has something for you.”
Sean Binchy came on. “A neighbor thinks she saw someone lurking three days ago. White, indeterminate age, wore a coat, which she thought was weird, seeing as it was a warm night.”
“What kind of coat?”
“I didn’t ask. Is that important?”
“Maybe.” He recounted the Feldmans’ sightings, Sondra’s theory about a concealed weapon.
“Oh, boy,” said Binchy. “I’ll go back and requestion her.”
“No need,” said Milo. “Give me her info.”
We sped to Temescal Canyon.
The house was a wood-sided, two-story Craftsman on a generous lot due west and slightly north of the campground entrance, separated from the road by a densely planted berm. Plenty of hiding places among trees and shrubs.
Not ideal for a woman living alone, and that’s what the informant turned out to be. Stunning, fortyish, athletically built, she responded to Milo’s I.D. with, “Hi, Milo B. Sturgis, I’m Erica A. Vail.”
Stepping out onto her lawn, she bent to pluck a dead bud from an azalea bush. She wore a skimpy black top, leggings in a curious shade of green that took on pink highlights when the sun hit the fabric at a certain angle, pink Vans. Her hair was huge, dark, artfully mussed. A diamond chip pierced her left nostril.
“I don’t know what I can add to what I told that young cop. Didn’t know you guys could be so hip. Spiky hair, that whole surfer thing, Doc Martens. Someone brought that to me in a script I’d tell them to get authentic. But apparently I need to be more broad-minded.”
“You’re a director?”
“Producer.” She name-dropped a comedy series that had been off the air for five years, added the fact that she had three pilots in development for three separate networks.
“Glad Detective Binchy was helpful,” said Milo. “I’m his boss.”
Erica Vail flashed blindingly white teeth. “I merit the boss? Flattered. Maybe you’ll be a little more forthcoming. Who exactly got killed?”
“A man who lives nearby.”
“Couple of miles.”
“By lives do you mean actually lives, like in a house? Or one of those homeless guys who congregate at PCH?”
“He had a home. His name was Marlon Quigg.”
“Never heard of him,” she said. “I’d figured it for a homeless guy, once in a while they wander in. But when one of us asks them to leave we’ve never had a problem—did one of them kill Mr. Quigg?”
“Too early to say, Ms. Vail.”
“The guy I saw didn’t impress me as homeless. Too healthy-looking. Even a little on the heavy side.”
“Tell us about it.”
“Sure,” said Erica Vail, bright-eyed, cheerful. “Three nights ago, must’ve been close to ten, I came out and there he was.” Pointing to the berm. “I was just about where I am now and I could see him because the moon was fat, it created kind of a halo around him.” She smiled. “Almost a special-effects thing, forgive me, I tend to think in terms of movie frames.”
Milo said, “You don’t seem upset.”
“About the murder or seeing him?”
“The murder doesn’t bother me because it’s too abstract and back in a former life I was a surgical nurse, including duty in Afghanistan. So it takes a lot to gross me out. Seeing him didn’t bother me because of Bella.”
She jogged back inside her house, returned moments later with a beast in tow.
At least a hundred fifty pounds of defined blue-gray muscle was graced by a massive, blunt-nosed head. Spots of gold accented the brow above the small, watchful eyes, same for the bottoms of the legs. A color-morphed rottweiler. But bigger and leggier than a rottweiler with a tail docked to a stub and ears cropped to pointy remnants. Circling a tree-trunk neck was a stainless-steel pinch collar tethered to a stout leather leash.
“Say hello to the nice policemen, Bella.”
The dog’s lips drew back, baring lion-sized fangs. A low but thunderous noise—abdominal, menacing—emerged from its maws.
Erica Vail said, “Apart from me, Bella doesn’t like people.”
As if on cue, the dog lunged at us. Even with a pinch chain, Erica Vail had to labor to hold her at bay.
Erica Vail laughed. “Men, in particular. She was my present to myself after my divorce.”
“What’s her breed?” I said.
“Cane Corso. Combination of Roman war dog and some sort of Sicilian hound. Back in the old country they guard Mafia estates and hunt boar.”
“I am woman, hear me roar,” said Milo.
Erica Vail laughed. “You can see why Mr. Lurker didn’t bother me. Bella smelled him when she was still in the house. That’s why I came out, she was getting all restless, whining near the door. Once we got out she went straight for him, would’ve had him for a snack if I hadn’t been able to hold her back.”
“How’d he react?”
“That’s the funny thing,” she said. “Most people see Bella coming, they cross the street. This idiot just stood there. Maybe he was trying to prove how macho he was. But it was stupid, Bella pulls hard enough, I’m not sacrificing my shoulder.”
She tossed her hair, loosened her grip on the dog. Bella edged closer. I tried a closed-mouth smile; some dogs view teeth as a threat. She cocked her head, not unlike Blanche when she’s thinking. Favored me with a long stare and settled for aloof condescension.
Erica Vail said, “I was about to warn the fool when he finally got smart and split.”
Milo said, “Which way did he go?”
“Down the street, that way—south. If he’d disappeared into the berm I’d have called you guys.”
“Anything else you remember about him?”
“I figured him for a perv because he was wearing a coat. You know, a yanker, Joe Raincoat.”
“Exhibitionist,” said Milo.
“Exhibitionists I’m used to,” said Vail. “See ’em every day on the set. So what, you think he killed Mr. Quigley?”
“We’re just starting to investigate. How big was the guy you saw?”
“Average size.” Tapping my shoulder. “More like him than you.”
“What about the coat?”
“Knee-length. He wore it open, that’s another.”
“You could tell it was open because—”
“The shape, too wide to be zipped up. I got the impression of bulk, so nothing like microfiber. Hope you catch whoever killed that poor man. Bella and I are going back inside to read scripts.”
The dog had sidled close. I ventured a pet of her head. She purred.
Erica Vail stared at me. “Unbelievable, she never likes guys.” Smiling. “You married?”
Milo said, “What kind of scripts does Bella like?”
“She’s eclectic,” said Vail. “But discerning. If she doesn’t whine at a page of dialogue, I give it a second look. The caliber of stuff I’m getting lately, she whines plenty.”
Over the next few days, data trickled in.
Neither of Marlon Quigg’s daughters had any idea who’d want to harm their father. The same went for family friends Milo and Reed and Binchy interviewed. Belle Quigg, requestioned through a fog of sedation, repeated a mantra: Everyone loved Marlon, this had to be a maniac.
Animal Control reported thirty-three dead canines collected across the county since Quigg’s murder. Milo and the young D’s took the time to check each one. None was Louie.
Most of the dogs had been abandoned and had died of malnutrition or disease or from being hit by cars. A golden retriever
Milo grew excited and looked for the man. He turned out to have been on the open sea for seven months, working as a deckhand on a commercial freighter on its way to Japan.
The shelter where Marlon Quigg had adopted Louie employed no one who matched the description of the broadly built white man seen lurking near both murder scenes. With the exception of a Vietnamese American high school student and two octogenarian retirees, the staff was exclusively female.
The woman who’d handled Louie’s paperwork recalled Marlon Quigg because he’d been so easy to deal with and opined that he’d seemed the perfect match for Louie: quiet, laid-back, no-fuss kind of guy.
I thought: Easy victim.
Binchy and Reed visited other shelters with no better results.
Inspection of Quigg’s phone and financial records revealed nothing suspicious. An additional search of the campgrounds and interviews with a score of homeless people congregating near PCH and Sunset were futile, though one of the panhandlers, a wild-eyed, gap-toothed woman named Aggie, was certain Quigg had once driven by and given her fifty dollars.
Milo said, “Big haul.”
“Oh, yeah, he was great.”
“What kind of car was he driving, Aggie?”
“What else? Big Rolls-Royce. Like I say, some of those rich folk are nice!”
Quigg’s autopsy and lab results came in.
A significant bruise where the back of the neck met the skull suggested he’d been subjected to a single hard blow from behind. The C.I. hadn’t caught it at the scene because Quigg’s thick hair concealed it. Not a fatal blow but hard enough to stun.
No human hairs other than Quigg’s had been found on his person but Louie had shed a few more strands onto his master’s shirt. Three additional fibers turned out to be synthetic sheepskin.
I said, “Our bad guy wears a bulky coat. Maybe it’s a cheap shearling.”
“Dressed for the hunt ... in Montana ... may-be.” Milo scrawled in his pad. “What do you think of that head wound?”
I said, “Classic sneak-attack sucker punch. Vita didn’t need to be blitzed because she was reeling drunk and the pizza ruse caught her off guard. If the killer’s the guy Erica Vail saw, he was near the scene three days before he did Quigg. Quigg’s walks were predictable, it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge to pretend to be taking a walk himself. Pass by and smile and wave, maybe even stop to pet Louie.”
“Friendly stalking,” he said. “Till it’s not.”
“I’d go back to Belle Quigg and ask if Marlon ever mentioned encountering anyone during his walks.”
More writing. “On my list ... so we have a good idea how each of them was done. But that still begs the big question: What turned them into victims? There’s got to be something in common but hell if I can find it. I was hoping it would be Vita’s lawsuit but it’s not shaping up that way. The suits at Well-Start ended up being a lot more forthcoming than I expected. Not because they’re nice guys, because Vita’s murder has them worried the original gag order will be rescinded, they’ll have to deal with a whole bunch of bad publicity. They actually sent a lawyer over yesterday and she showed me a lot of paper: the prelim motions, all the interviews with the accused co-workers, Shacker’s report. Which came across as a lot of shrinky bullshit, no offense. But all in all, nothing new and the mouthpiece swore the company had no connection with Quigg. I didn’t take her word for it, emailed Well-Start’s CEO’s second in command in Hartford, Connecticut. He called me personally, gave me the name of the accounting firm that does their books, greased the skids so they’d talk to me. They’d never hired Quigg nor, to their knowledge, had Quigg ever applied for a job. That was backed up by Mrs. Quigg. Marlon wasn’t a ‘seeker.’ Happy with the status quo and figuring on retiring in a few years. Despite that, I got hold of Quigg’s boss at the CPA firm and probed about Quigg doing insurance work. The firm does some but not for Well-Start and not for Well-Start’s liability carrier. And even if they had, Quigg wouldn’t have been assigned to it, he was more than busy with his supermarket account. He described ol’ Marlon the way everyone else has: pleasant, compliant, even-tempered. So why were the two of them singled out? Or maybe there is no X factor and this bastard drives around, spots random prey, stalks and studies and sets up the hunt.”
Nothing about this kind of murder was ever random but it wasn’t the time to say so.
“Meanwhile,” he said, “both cases are thawing out fast. Bastard quits right now, he may get away with it.”
He needn’t have worried about that.
The following day, Milo’s mood lifted from subterranean to glum.
Belle Quigg had remembered a “nice young fellow” Marlon had met during his nightly walk.
Louie had “taken” to the man, a clear sign to Quigg that he was a person of sterling character.
Milo hmmphed. “Because we all know dogs are such great judges.” He spooned lentils onto a hillock of basmati rice. Sucked-out lobster claws were heaped in front of him, a gruesome display if you thought too much about it.
We were at his usual corner table at Café Moghul, an Indian restaurant around the corner from the station that serves as his second office. Over the years he’d handled a few disruptive psychotics wandering in from Santa Monica Boulevard. The owner, a sweet bespectacled woman who never wears the same sari twice, views him as Lord Protector and feeds him accordingly.
Today it was the lobster, plus tandoori lamb and a farm-plot’s worth of slow-cooked vegetables enriched by clarified butter. He’d downed six glasses of iced clove tea.
With nowhere to go on the murders, I figured it for an easy day and was nursing my second Grolsch. “Marlon say anything else about this nice fellow?”
“If he did, Belle doesn’t remember. By the way, I talked to a fabric analyst at the lab and the synthetic fleece found on Quigg would definitely be consistent with a low-budget shearling-type lining. Not that it leads me anywhere.”
I said, “You heard what David Feldman said: He still hasn’t unwrapped his winter coat. The fact that our boy wears his could mean he’s originally from a cold climate.”
“Or just rummaged at the right thrift shop. But if I come across a dogsled and mittens, I’ll go with that. I find the fact that Quigg could’ve been primed for days hugely creepy. Like those wasps, stroking caterpillars into a stupor before they plunge the stinger.”
I said, “Priming could serve an additional purpose: We’ve got a wasp who enjoys playing with his food.”
“Joy of the hunt.”
“A shearling might be something a hunter would own.”
“Homicidal fore-prey.” His laughter was harsh. The woman in the sari glided over. Today’s garment was a celebration of turquoise and coral-pink and saffron-yellow. The pink matched her eyeglass frames.
“You are enjoying?”
Milo patted his paunch. “Couldn’t handle another bite. I’ve already demolished an entire coral reef.”
She was confused by the reference, covered with a smile. “You want more, tell me please, Lieutenant.”
“Will do, but honestly, I’m done.”
“Not totally done,” she said. “Dessert.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Gulab jamun sounds good.”
“Very fine.” She glided away moving her lips. I caught two words: “My lieutenant.”
Milo caught nothing because his phone was vibrating on the table. When he processed the digital readout, his shoulders dropped.
“Sturgis, sir. Oh, hi, Maria ... oh. Jesu—when? Oh.
Pushing away from the table, he threw cash down, swiped his chin viciously with a napkin. As I followed his trot for the door, the woman in the sari emerged from the kitchen bearing a platter of dough balls glazed with rosewater syrup and two bowls filled to the brim with rice pudding.
“There’s kir, too,” she said. “For extra sweet.”
“Unfortunately, life isn’t,” said Milo, shoving the door open and leaving me to catch it.
He race-walked south on Butler, heading back to the station, flushed and breathing hard and wiping his face and grinding his teeth.
I said, “What’s up?”
“What do you think?”
“Maria Thomas is a pencil-pusher. Something mindlessly bureaucratic, like a meeting you’ve been avoiding?”
He stopped short, wiped his face so hard it was almost a slap.
“Our bad boy’s back in action and instead of calling me, the watch commander went straight to His Splendiferousness. Who handed off to Maria because he didn’t want to hear the sound of my voice. Obviously I’ve been under the microscope on these murders and not engendering confidence. I’m heading over to the scene now. Don’t be surprised if they yank me off.”
He resumed his march.
I said, “Who’s the victim?”
His jaw was tight; the answer came out hoarse and strangled.
“Think plural. This time the bastard doubled his fun.”
The house was a low, wide ranch on a street of similar structures in a no-name neighborhood of West L.A.
The man had been found in the backyard, lying on his stomach, wearing a black silk bathrobe. Deep stab wounds concentrated in a tight circle at the center of his chest. A couple of coup de grâce throat slashes had severed the right jugular and carotid and the trachea.
No disembowelment, nothing similar to Vita and Quigg. I watched as Milo examined the body.
The man’s hair was long, dark, and wavy. His mustache was clipped precisely. Thirty to forty, good-sized, well muscled.
No effort to clean up the blood; the grass beneath the body was glazed a slick, unpleasant brown. No shredded lawn or damaged shrubs or other sign of struggle.
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