The Red-Carpet Noir


CHAPTER 1
I’m in the front yard of my bungalow in Venice, California, sitting on the roots of the only Oaktree in the Oakwood area. I have a couple of minutes before an early online video meeting. Breakfast is coffee and sunflower buttered toast. A tiny round warbler peers at me through the branches of the old oak. It one-eyes me with thought, pondering my existence in his world, deciding whether I am a danger. My computer makes a noise that sounds like a submerging submarine. Alerted, the warbler’s head turns to the sound. I dash into the house.
A voice cries out, “Joan? Joan, are you there? It’s Elsi!”
Elsi is a prosecuting attorney. She’s got a problem regarding a celebrity who was caught shoplifting in one of those horribly expensive boutiques in Malibu. VaVa. VaVa is my ward. Her fame qualifies her as a media madness concern. Something we deal with a lot on the fifth floor, Homicide, Special Section, at Parker Center. The fact that she is my ward, makes it an issue that is even more delicate for the department. Elsi is a rabid prosecuting attorney with big plans for her future. She’s Latina, younger than me, shorter than me. In some ways, we are from the same tribe. In other ways, not so much. This call is a special favor to me. If you know people in the department, things can go easy on you, or they can go very hard. The actress in question, VaVa Terraza, my ward, is only seventeen. She lives in Mandeville Canyon, has an entourage of servants and a custom jeweler who creates diamond jewelry in rainbow motifs. VaVa, with the overkill on cotton candy colors and unicorns, lives up to her amatory name. She does these online performances, streaming videos and film and has a massive following. Besides VaVa’s drug problem, I suspect it’s all the rainbow diamonds that Elsi finds particularly abhorrent. I don’t think they’re so bad. I mean, they’re not illegal. Maybe it’s VaVa’s mix-ins of kid stuff with her young sexuality that perturbs Elsi the most. I get that. I understand her ire on that subject. It bugs me too, and it would, even if I weren’t her guardian.
“Here I am,” I call out to the video.
“Fully clothed?”
I bring my face into view. “Yes, fully clothed.” I had slipped on a pair of black men’s slacks and a grey shirt without even thinking about it.
“Too bad, was hoping to catch you full Monty. Sorry, Joan but it’s the detention center for VaVa, not her first offense.”
“No, nope, it’s rehab,” I insist.
“What’s wrong with detention? Teach her a lesson.”
“She’s a winning candidate for drug rehab.”
“How’s that?” Elsi asks derisively.
“It’s painfully evident on the security tape that VaVa was zonkers on her meds while shoplifting.”
“Not so painful for me.”
“You obviously never lost a loved one to drug abuse.”
“You sound more liberal every day. Thought you were from Missouri.”
“Yep, the Ozarks. Alcohol and drug abuse are a sickness, Elsi.”
“I would argue that she is a flagrant, repeat offender.”
“Rehab. She reimbursed the store $50,000 and signed a statement promising not to return. Send her before a judge, it’ll waste time and money. He’ll say the same. She’s only seventeen, Elsi. Give her a chance.”
“Fine. Call over there to Rodeo Drive and ask them to drop charges and it will be a non-issue. You can notify her. I’m busy putting people behind bars.”
“Only the guilty ones, I hope.”
“Very funny. If she doesn’t report to rehab, it’s on you. I’ll go ahead and take her off the detention track. I know a judge I can get to sign off on it. You’re her guardian, make sure she checks in. You might also like to know that you’re scheduled for a visit at a women’s college and you’re listed for a mandatory interview with Jesse Cand.”
“What woman’s college? Be serious. A mandatory interview? How do you know that? Why on earth?”
“Bye Joan, I have work to do.”
“Bye, Elsi.”
The submarine noise signals the end of our conference and Elsi is gone.
In some ways, VaVa is a typical seventeen-year-old and I was hoping she’d stay out of trouble, but, I’m not terribly shocked that it hasn’t worked out that way. The only good thing about this is that VaVa will get real professional help. She has trauma that she hasn’t dealt with and other issues besides a drug problem. Maybe I am empathetic. Perhaps I could be more so.
I remember that I have my own scheduled therapy session tomorrow. So far, I’ve had a successful run working in Special Section on an elite squad. They push me in the front for all the high-profile events, but truth is, my success is despite, not because of, department policy. I hadn’t talked to Jesse Cand, an investigative reporter, for some time. I’d heard he was being courted for a television show. I could only pray that he didn’t have the intention of featuring me. It was looking likely that I would have some good material for my therapy session manana.
My cellphone makes the sound of a freight train. It’s a real estate agent. I tell her to come that evening. I’ve decided to sell my Venice bungalow. I hang up the phone and my cell immediately emits a hard-hitting blues riff before I can even get my finger off the button good. It’s the unique ringtone I created for Satch Johnson, my boss. He’s what they call Homicide Coordinator.
“Joan!”
“Yah?”
“Your old beau came around asking for you.”
“What now?” Satch is a big bear of a man with a red beard like the dodger pitcher.
“Not the last guy, not that surfer dude, the one before him, your old partner, Carl, the PI? He’s looking for someone to help him out with new business and wanted to know if you were available. I guess he was hoping that-”
“No, please! I’m with you, Satch. Don’t even tell me about it. I don’t want to know. Seriously.” I was shocked how fast the word got out to the department about my recent crash and burn. Offer from an old ex through my supervisor? “Satch, may I ask how many people you told about my breakup with Eddy?”
“Just your partner, Gus.”
“Oh, kay. So, that explains it. Men are worse gossips than women. Alright, what’s going on?”
“Just thought I’d check on you.”
“Don’t lie. I’m ready. Let’s go, what is it? What do you want to tell me?”
“Okay. But the truth hurts.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“How do you feel about nuts?”
I pause for a moment, thinking I’d make a joke about liking to kick them, or about being one myself. Satch waits, expecting something along that line but I demur.
“What kind of nuts?”
“Pistachios.”
“I like them quite a lot, but they are pricey.”
“You just said a word.”
“A homicide case about pistachios?” I reflexively sketch a cracked pistachio nut in a small notebook.
“Like you said, they’re very expensive what with tariffs and climate change.”
“And?”
“Quite a few have gone missing.”
“Oh! Hard to trace I bet.”
“Exactly.”
“And where’s the body?”
“Meet Gus at the Firehouse Diner in 45. He will fill you in and explain how the case comes to us. It’s a little squirrely.”
“In 45? Give a woman time to brush her teeth.” I could be there in fifteen if necessary.
“Firehouse in 45.”
“I’m with Gus? Again?”
“Yes, Gus again.”
“I’ll be there.” I finish with my cracked nut sketch and pocket the notebook.
Truth is, Gus is the greatest. I like to pretend that I’m tired of him, that I don’t need him. I don’t let on that he is my respected elder. Or that I count on his guidance, except for when I don’t. Gus knows of course. The guy knows everything which can be tedious. I always get teamed up with Gus since Carl and I are no longer partners. Maybe cuz’ nobody else wants to work with me. I’m a little young for the position, but hey, I started young, when I was a kid. I wonder how the hell pistachios come into a homicide investigation. I leave immediately to meet Gus, as Satch directed, in downtown Santa Monica. It’s an upscale seaside town a few minutes from my place so I walk. Gus also lives in a beach town. Pacific Palisades, a little more upscale than my neighborhood, heading Northwards towards Malibu. We tend to have breakfast together and then drive to Parker Center downtown in the same car or even straight to the crime scene depending on where it is.
I stroll by The Brig, the only early morning joint serving alcohol. I survey the reliable line of drunks holding up the brick wall, waiting to get in, as I pass. No eye-contact there, which is fine.
I step it down Abbot Kinney, quiet this early, and finally approach Rose Avenue. I easily spot the Firehouse, a bright red building plainly in view on the corner of Main St and Rose.
I enter the big wide doors of the engine house and instantly, my appetite is back. I spot the back of a head, a thick peppered gray mane. Gus has already ordered us avocado omelets with basil and Gouda cheese. I slide into a roomy black leather booth and show Gus my teeth. People who wear the blues, as we say, love to eat at firehouses converted into restaurants and there are a few of them in Los Angeles. My clothes are hanging on me. I’m down with having a real breakfast, looking forward to slathering butter and jam on my biscuits.
“Are you ready?” Gus asked.
“Nevermore.” I answer.
“How very Poe of you.”
“I think it’s apropos.”
“Carl asked about you.”
“Stop. Don’t even go there. Carl? No way.” Can’t understand why people insist on talking to me about him. Just because Eddy broke my heart, it doesn’t mean I’m going to run back to Carl. Anyway, Carl has a new girlfriend already, a very beautiful Korean woman who works in Missing. Debby.
Gus points at me. I hate it when he does that. “You know what the problem with you is?”
“No, I don’t. Why don’t you tell me?”
“You and Carl are exactly alike.”
“Hardly.”
“Neither of you ever want to go by the book. He has that new PI firm up and running and you oughta go work for him. He’s getting respectable cases, not just divorces and cheating spouses. He’s already raking in cash money baby, more than we will ever see and he needs your expertise in his corner. I think that big rock star just hired him. There’s been quite a few threats on that guy’s life.”
“Yah, I saw something about that on the news this morning. Austin Mears? Uh, no thank you.”
“You and Carl being together. That’s right as rain. You’re a great team. Never saw two people who could crack a case like you two. He was good for you. You should help him out.”
“Why would I do that? Gus, listen to me.” He looks dead at me, unimpressed. “One, I have a job, thanks. Some people think I’m good at it. Two, rock stars are not my thang. Three, under no circumstances, do I want you to talk to me about Carl, ever again.”
“What happened, anyway?
“Two words: overly protective.”
“You know I’m right about this.”
I glare at him. I try to make steam shoot out of my nostrils.
“What about country singers, how do you feel about them?” he asks.
With Gus it’s better to say nothing. I look around the room. The wait staff are dressed in yellow firemen overalls. Some of them even wear helmets. I stare for a moment at the shiny fire pole that glistens in the corner and listen in on a conversation going on in the booth behind me about a woman’s disappointing sexual encounter the night before. I glance behind me, pretend to look for the waiter, to see a distressed redhead with mascara running down her face. Seems to me she’s way too pretty to get burdened with a lousy lay, but I guess it can happen to anybody.
My cellphone rings with woo-woo music. That could only be one person. A woman who wears flowing silks, semi-precious stones, who recently dyed her hair a blazing red color. Kunda. Kunda explained her new look to me as having something to do with her kundalini rising and spouting like a fountain at the top of her head. Recently, several D-List actresses have taken to seeking Kunda’s advice for a renewal of energy and psychic insights. I hope it’s helping them. I can’t help but wonder how these actresses feel about being referred to as D-List. The Hollywood hierarchy is so, uh, I dunno.
“Hello, Kunda.” I say into the phone so she doesn’t take up time saying this is Kunda.
“Joan! I had a dream about you this morning.”
This should be good. “Not about me?”
“All about you. You are in for a great transformation.”
“Transformation? Ummm. Is that a good thing?”
“It’s revolution, revelation, a rebirth.”
“Something new?”
“New could describe it but not wholly new.”
“This is a fun game, Kunda.”
“It’s your life, your sacred journey, your soul.”
“Sounds serious.”
“You come into your power, Joan. You come into your power.”
“I don’t know what that means but I take that as a positive transformation then, correct?”
“We should meet in person.”
“No, uh, thank you. It’s very kind of you to communicate such a message from the Universe.”
“You do need to be careful.”
“In my business that’s par for the course.”
“I mean, really careful.”
“About what do ya think?”
“Your friends.”
“My friends?”
“People you love and trust.”
“Okay, noted, I need to go now, Kunda. Thanks again. Bye.”
“Joan – “
I cut her off before she can say more. I despise fortune tellers who make people feel paranoid. It’s such an old trick. In my last investigation, Kunda was a dubious but admittedly helpful psychic who has a habit of providing us cryptic clues. I find her unsolicited advice galling.
“That was Kunda,” I say, “with unsought guidance. Now, what are you and I talking about? Career and love advice?”
Finally, Gus relents. “Okay, I get it, nevermore. I’m not going to mention Carl again.”
“Good. I’d appreciate it.”
“Everything okay with your klepto?”
“Her name is VaVa.”
“That’s a name.”
“I begged Elsi to send her to rehab and she said yes. I don’t know how I got conned into being her guardian.”
“One word. Vernice. How could you say no?”
“Wish I wasn’t so judgy. I feel like I’m always frowning at her.”
“She certainly gives you reason to.”
“Children who steal want love.”
“Did you read that in a book on how to raise other people’s kids?”
“It’s Forensic Psychology, Gus.”
“You have a degree in that now?”
“More like a Ph.D.” Gus chuckled at me. “Yah. Okay, Gus, what’s the point here, enlighten me, wise one, as to the location of this pistachio plant. What’s the dealio?”
“Lost Hills.”
“Sounds prophetic. Not our usual territory.”
“A bit far from the red carpet and the typical action but it’s connected.”
“How exactly?”
“You’ll see.”
“I’ll see why we’re chasing our tails looking for someone who stole some pistachios?”
“We haven’t started chasing anything yet. And it’s more than a few pistachios. A truck, Joan. A truck. It’s not like someone stole a bucket of nuts and sold them at the Farmer’s Market.”
“Okay, a lot of pistachios. Where’s the homicide?”
“A man is missing from his home, a renown healer. We think we have a kidnapping and there was blood at the scene.”
“What does that mean, a renown healer?”
“A highly esteemed holy man in the Hollywood community.”
“Oh, well then, that’s why qualify. Whose blood?”
“We don’t know yet. Could be the drivers or it could belong to the healer. We’re running tests now.”
“The blood was found… where?”
Gus sips his coffee, “On the sidewalk leading from the holy man’s home out to the street where presumably he was put into a pistachio truck.”
“We are presuming this because there is no witness and no real reason to believe there is a connection between the darling healer’s disappearance and a pistachio truck parked on the street? I just want to be sure I have a clear understanding of what we’re doing.”
“The man is a very celebrated and beloved healer, husband and father. The blood is no joke, it was quite a bit more than a few drops.”
“And some famous person called the DA? Who was it?”
“Donna Freed, she’s a distinguished activist with a strong grip in Hollywood and the political scene.”
“Apparently.”
“How about you take a look at these photos?” Gus put a stack of xerox sheets on the table under my nose. He knows I can’t resist the perusal, it’s part of my arsenal, my ability to recall faces. I do take pride in my skills on the job.
Gus doesn’t like to distract me when I’m examining photos and so he allows me my own thoughts and we eat our breakfast in silence, each of us in our own worlds.
The department xerox machine is nearly as good as a photo printer and Gus can have the photos enlarged so that each face gets a full page, which he does. That gives me more of an idea of how people really look. It’s almost the same size as the average human face, and they stick in my mind better, especially if I’ve seen them before. It’s something I noticed when I first started working as an investigator and now it has become usual procedure for me. You’d be surprised how many people I’ve identified this way. People joke that I’m better than a face recognition scan, which isn’t true at all, but I am good at it. Maybe because I can make associations that computers don’t. My memory is not photographic by any means, but I did have it tested once before I came on the job and the results said that only 1 percent of the population had a memory as good or better than mine. I think that’s why I got the job, to tell you the truth, or maybe it just helped push the verdict to a yes on my behalf. There’s been some outcry about the justice department using the facial scan recognition devices. I can’t recall at this moment what the exact objection is. Something to do with surveillance or incrimination, some legal concern.
I start off sort of slow, not really committed to it, not quite familiar with the case but the images are going in my brain and I’ll be able to access them if I run into someone down the road that looks like one of these guys. I slurp down coffee every few pages and eat a few bites of my yummy omelet, allowing the images to sink in while I chew. I’m feeling good. I’m back on the job. I’m flexing my muscles, firing up the pistols of my high-performance brain when, it happens. I recognize one of the men.
I look closer and it’s as if a ghost has appeared before me. Condor. My best friend growing up. Condor is his actual name. I was flabbergasted to bump into my childhood pal on a case. What was Condor’s chiseled face doing in this photo stack of pistachio drivers. Though I had lost track of him, I was pretty sure he played college football on one of the University teams. Harvard has a football team, right? I recalled that somebody told me Condor was going to Harvard, taking courses in humanitarian endeavors, leadership during crisis and other goodwill skill type programs. Soft skills they call them. He’d always been bright, and I had imagined that he’d become an engineer or scientist or maybe even an animal conservationist like his father. Not a trucker, delivering overpriced pistachios.
Gus indicated that the waiter should bring the bill. His cell phone rang.
“Sling it!” he said.
Gus raised his eyebrows at me, then nodded meaningfully at the phone.
“We’re right here, boss. Two blocks away. We got it.”
What homicide could have taken place since I last talked to our boss, Satch, that would prompt him to assign us two blocks from here? The area was expensive real estate, Main Street, Santa Monica, luxurious office buildings, pricey boutique shops, yoga and Pilates studios. You get the picture, money. New money.
“What’s up?” I ask as Gus slips his cell into his designer suit pocket.
“Some real estate king is dead in his bookkeeper’s office just up the road. We can walk. The pistachios will have to wait.”
“Can I finish my omelet?” I asked.
“Yah, sure, but let’s not dawdle.”
Being a cop, you learn to eat quickly, like record time. I didn’t say anything about recognizing Condor. In fact, I slipped Condor’s photo back in with the others. I wanted to fold it and put it in my pocket but that would be too conspicuous. I hand the xerox stack back to Gus; he places it in a folder, then tucks that into a portfolio with a zipper. I chow down my food and chase it with coffee.
We walk out of the restaurant and onto the street where I was nearly run over by a woman flying by on what looked like a skateboard with a motor and handlebars. She dons big black goggles and a tiny black tankini, with thong bottoms and leaves behind a strong fragrance of coconut butter. I saw the brand logo, Blackbird, whizz by.
“Watch out, those things will jump out and clip you.” Gus advises.
Her bare cheeks are well exposed for the whole of Main Street to see. She flies off down the road, her butt jiggling about, probably on her way to the beach. I look at Gus.
“Save your outrage for murder,” Gus says.
“It’s rude on so many counts.”
“I know, let’s keep steppin’, got a body getting cold as we lament young people these days.”
“I’m still young. Speak for yourself,” I insist.
“Hurumph!”
We walk two blocks past hip coffee joints with artisan bakery goods and customers thoughtfully clicking on their laptops. We pass a covered bus stop bench with a poster of the movie remake of SHAFT. On the ground are three homeless men. They were sleeping, completely unconscious in various positions. One is asleep sitting with his upper torso propped up against the SHAFT poster, unintentionally making a social statement. There’s no room for anyone who might be waiting for a bus under the cover but in Santa Monica no one would publicly resent what was certainly a group of homeless friends setting up camp. We move past them. A smell of feces rises from their slumbered bodies.
Several different storefronts featured mannequins sport short skirts, heels and workout apparel. A taco stand is serving egg burritos and Mexican coffee. At the corner, we enter a century-old building. The kind I like. Gus had been given the code to enter. The elevator isn’t working so we climb five floors of the stairway and walked down a dark hallway to suite five hundred. An overweight Santa Monica police officer with a bad over-comb of greasy hair greets us with a self-serious demeanor. He’s large, his stature looming, a belligerent air about him. He’s well-grown out of the uniform he was wearing
“Ms. Rand is inside, sitting on the couch in the foyer. She’s the bookkeeper. The body is in her office. She discovered the owner, dead on the floor, and called 911. I didn’t take a full statement from her.”
“Why bother since you knew we were on the way?” said Gus.
“Where is the body?” asked Gus.
“In the first room on the left. Seems to be an electrical closet turned into an office. The deceased is one of the owners and the chief financial officer. He’s lying face down in a puddle of blood with a pencil in his eye. His name is Donald J. Flunk. His family owns Santa Monica. Well, they share it with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Cosby. They own about a third of Santa Monica, to be correct.”
“Anybody else around?” I ask.
“There’s an ex-girlfriend of the deceased, who lives downstairs on the second floor. She’s the property manager or used to be. She has a key to the office as does Ms. Rand.”
“I thought you said you didn’t take a statement, uh, Kent,” I said as I noticed his nameplate.
“I received that information from the woman in Suite 506, she’s a television writer-producer, some series. One of those Hollywood wives or something or another wives type thing. She lives in an apartment that includes several suites.”
It was odd to me that he considered the size of her apartment an important detail to convey. Always aware of status, those Santa Monica police officers. They were known for that. I recognized his name, Kent, from research I did once on a case.
“Okay, we have it from here, thank you,” said Gus. We both pull out gloves and paper shoes from our pockets. Gus and I enter the office.
The first room is an improvised foyer. It features an old couch in what I assume was originally a living room. On the ratty couch is a tiny old lady in a pink print dress and rubber-soled sandals. Her head is covered in thick grey curls. Round green eyeglasses that make her look like a strange owl. Her hands are folded in her lap. She could have been praying but I wasn’t sure. She stares directly at me as we enter as if she’s hoping someone will rescue her. I assume she didn’t like the first officer on the scene. I look into the office off to the left and see the body face down on the floor. A man in a suit, a pool of blood using from under his face. Gus and I exchange a look. I walk over to Ms. Rand and sit beside her on the couch and purposely slouch a bit as if I was tired and making myself comfortable. She stares at me with those owl eyes. Gus enters the bookkeeper’s to more thoroughly check out the body. A lovely cloud of fragrance floats about Ms. Rand. As Gus disappears into her office, I notice a thick utilitarian chain hanging from the frame of the doorway of the office and a hook on the opposite frame post. Why would there be a chain across the doorway like that? There’s another doorway eight foot into the foyer to that same office and it has a similar setup, a chain hanging on the doorframe with a hook across from it. Was there some need to chain the bookkeeper in her office? Was such a thing even effective? I turn to the little old lady in the pink dress.
“I’m Detective Joan Lambert, Ms. Rand. Are you okay? Do you need a glass of water or anything?” She silently shakes her head no. I notice there are beads of sweat on her forehead. The room is unusually hot. I assume because heat naturally rises, and we are on the top floor.
“What happened, Ms. Rand?”
She shrugs and looks up to the heavens. Her mouth opens in an expression of horror like that famous Munch painting, but she says nothing. I watch as Officer Kent finished up with tying off the crime tape across the front door.
“Are you going to need additional assistance?” Kent asked.
I looked at him with distaste. Yes, of course. “Someone on the both ends of the hall and at the front door.”
He nods and made a call on his cell.
“You found the body?” I ask Ms. Rand.
She nods yes. Tiny jerky nods of her head.
Was Mr. Flunk your boss?”
She nods yes.
“Did you like him?”
She turns to me, her blue eyes get bigger. I didn’t think bigger eyes was possible. Betty Davis eyes.
“Not exactly fond of him. Not much to like often, but perhaps, I was empathetic. He had deep issues.”
“Mental health issues? Money issues? What exactly?”
She looks down at her hands. I did as well. Her knuckles sre white from clasping her hands so tight. I’m hoping she isn’t too stressed out to answer my questions. I decide to continue to ask the questions as if I were a friend who wanted to know what happened to her. It’s a technique that works better than a terse interrogation anyway.
“Those chains across the doorways, were they a symptom of his issues?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Tell me honestly, Ms. Rand, do you think anybody wanted to kill him?”
She nods her head yes.
“A lot of people?”
She nods yes.
“Tenants?”
Slowly, she nods yes again.
“How many is that? Tenants.”
“About 100.”
“What about the ex?”
She glances at me.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said softly, she held my eyes. “He pays all her bills, kids are expensive, living on the Westside. It was an accident.”
“Really.”
“The man’s heart was as hard as hickory. He was cruel. He enjoyed tormenting the disabled. Lots of people could be suspect. But, really, I think it was an accident. Is it okay if I make some coffee? I usually make coffee first thing and I’m not sure I can answer many more questions without some Joe.”
“Where’s the kitchen?” I asked.
I entered the most beautiful kitchen I’d ever seen. It was in stark contrast to the foyer and the accounting office. Gorgeous woodwork around the windows matched the cabinets. A stone counter made a u-shape with the oven and stove in the middle. A wooden dining room table dominated the rest of the large room. I could go for another cup of java.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Rand as soon as we finish this conversation you can leave and go buy some coffee down the street. Are there a lot of disabled people living in the building?”
“Yes, the original owner, the father, was extremely kind to the disabled and many of the elderly here are people he helped get government paperwork filed so they could have discounted housing. He built his empire on compassion and goodwill.”
“That’s remarkably admirable.”
“Yes, and he was admirable in other ways. But not so his son.”
“Why do you think the son was so different from the dad?”
“Spoiled, debauched, perverted. He had Commodus complex.”
“I’m not familiar with that.”
“You could Google it. You young folks like to do that.”
One thing I know about elderly people, they don’t mind telling you what to do. I pulled out my iPhone and Googled Commodus. In no time I learned that Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor. Apparently, Commodus sucked at his inherited reign as Emperor, making everyone wish his father was still alive. He alienated the senate and deeply offended the gladiators, killing them in the arena providing them with only wooden swords while he wielded a very sharp one. He pretended they were true battles instead of executions. Alienating gladiators is never a smart thing to do. Essentially, Commodus was the beginning of the fall of Rome.
I look up from my phone into the face of Ms. Rand. There’s a defiant edge to her expression.
“I see, learned something not so new today.” I said.
She smiles for the first time and revealed nearly perfect white teeth. I note that she’s wearing mascara, eyeliner and lip gloss to good effect. In fact, if you took off her glasses, you might notice that she didn’t have wrinkles, none. A stroke of pinkish bronze dances across her cheekbones. She’s damn pretty and youthful, and her skin glows impressively for what might be considered a much older woman. In different clothing she would come off significantly younger than this granny personae she’s sporting. I began to wonder if those big grey curls are a wig.
“He’s a lousy guy, but you don’t think anyone killed him. Even though, he was known to be cruel, to abuse the disabled tenants?”
“It was an accident, I’m sure.”
She’s sure. “Why was he cruel to them, do you think?”
“Because he thought he could, that he could get away with it.”
“What exactly denotes abuse in your mind?”
“Verbal abuse, a certain undercurrent of hatred and violence, constant threats of eviction. Sometimes he disappeared their leases.” She frowns when she said the last bit as if that was what really bothered her the most.
“What?”
“The ones the tenants signed under his father.”
“But the tenants had their own copies, to argue that point, I’m sure.”
“Some of them are mentally or emotionally challenged and since the lease was signed with Mr. Flunk’s father over a decade ago, not everyone has a copy of their lease anymore. A couple of times I had to do recon work to get a copy of the original lease and provide it to the tenant.”
Recon is a military word. I imagined her parachuting and fighting her way through a bureaucratic jungle of files and backrooms. “Did any of this recon work endanger life or limb?”
“Only if I had been discovered,” she replies with a coy and satisfied expression.
“But you’re absolutely convinced none of these disabled individuals or their family members would kill him?”
“No. No way. There was nobody here this morning but me. It was,” she paused for a moment, gave me some heavy-duty eye contact before she said, “an accident.”
“Nobody here but you, ya say. You mean when you arrived and discovered the body?”
She nodded yes.
“Maybe he was cruel to someone who was not so disabled,” I suggested.
“Maybe.” She sighed. “Sometimes he picked on the ex-cons. Or the Mexicans.”
“The Ex-Cons?”
“We have a couple in the building. Nice people really but they have a history.”
“Hmmm. The Mexicans?”
“I should say the Maintenance Men. They’re not all Mexican. He was abusive to them; he would make jokes of them, humiliate them at every opportunity, called them stupid and he wouldn’t allow them breaks of any kind, which is against the law. But they can’t exactly fight back… it’s not like they could file a complaint to the labor board.”
“Why not?”
“Maybe some of them don’t have their real IDs.”
“Real IDs. You mean, the new ones that the DMV is requiring?”
“Mmm-hmmm.”
That’s not exactly what she meant. But I got the drift. She had a funny way of telling the truth without saying it.
“I see.”
“You can be sure that situation was by design. Everything Donald J. Flunk did was by design. They need their jobs. Of course, Mr. Flunk knew that.”
I look at her for a moment, taking in her meaning.
“Let’s just say, he always arranged things in his favor,” she added.
“Okay, Ms. Rand, let’s go back to something you said. “Why do you insist that it’s an accident?’
I give her a wry look.
“Please put these on your feet.” I hand her some paper shoes from my pocket. She dutifully pulled them over her open-toed shoes. I noticed her toes were painted a perfect shade of pink that matched her long-nailed manicure. She wore no stockings and her leg skin was smooth, oiled. She virtually smelled like a field of flowers.
“That’s a nice fragrance you’re wearing,” I said.
“Flower Bomb by Victor Rolf.” She beams, “They use gun powder as a component to stabilize the fragrance.”
“May I ask your age, Ms. Rand?”
“Why I’m 62 years young.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
She smiles diffidently. “Ms. Rand, please stay here for a moment.”
I leave Ms. Rand on the couch. When I ducked under crime tape, I found Gus squat down staring at the body. The dead man was on his stomach facing the floor. Blood oozed out from the front of his face, raised a bit off the floor by the end of the pencil sticking out the right eye. The deceased had blonde fuzzy hair with a large bald spot. He was dressed in a blue plaid suit. I couldn’t see his face. Usually, by now I would have pulled out his wallet, but I didn’t want to do anything to move the body as it might change something about how the pencil was lodged in his eye that could mean a compromised crime scene.
Gus was frowning.
“Do you think he fell like that?” I asked.
Gus shrugged his mouth a contorted shape. “His fist is wrapped around the pencil.”
“Maybe he was holding the pencil in his fist when he stumbled and fell.”
Gus exhaled, his cheeks puffing out. He does that when he is at a loss.
“Ms. Rand says it was an accident,” I offered.
“An accident?”
“That’s what she says.”
“Maybe she’s protecting someone.”
“Yes, well, we have to interview the ex-girlfriend. Ms. Rand is protective of her for sure. And she’s protective of all the disabled tenants in the building.
“Are there a lot of disabled in this building? How on earth do they afford to live in Santa Monica?”
“Yah, that’s the thing. I’ll tell you about it. The government helps with the rent.”
“Really?”
I bumped into a xerox machine, bruising my hip. It was at this moment that the point was driven home to me that the room was short on space. Not much air to breathe either. Not one window or vent in the room. Wires were spread out all over the back wall making it rather uninhabitable except for one corner. Small paintings of personable birds, cows, goats, dogs, cats, and other charming critters surrounded the walls around what had to be the bookkeeper’s desk. Stacks of account books on shelves over the desk area and a photo of Ms. Rand with a sweet little lamb in her arms gave me the strongest clues for that deduction. Kids and old folks are my weak spot. Animals too. I’m pretty sure it would be impossible to convince a judge that Ms. Rand was a murder suspect. It would necessitate strong evidence. The strength it would require committing the crime was a factor that excluded her. Pretty much the disabled were not strong suspects either. But apparently everyone else in the building was. That’s a lot of interviews.
Just then, the crime photographer showed up. Satch had called him. Police photographer, Craig Jones, is a black guy, slight of build, shy and quiet. He nodded at Gus and me, saw the body, and started snapping pictures.
It was getting a little tight in the room so I got out of the way so Craig could properly document the body. Gus followed me out for the same reason. Gus turned to me then looked past me, over my shoulder. “We’re going to have quite a few visitors,” he said to Kent who appeared in the doorway. “We’ll need you to handle the front line, okay?”
Kent nodded, “Got it covered,” he turns and walked down the hall.
“Ms. Rand is on the couch?” Gus asks. I nod. “Find out why exactly she thinks it’s an accident. You don’t think she’s a suspect?”
“I find her suspicious, indeed. But murder? I don’t think so. She’s grandmotherly with an undercurrent of something else. Know what I mean?”
Gus appears to be evaluating what I meant by that. Maybe he’s thinking about the dead man and wondering if an old lady could jab a pencil into a man’s eyeball and then into his skull that deep. I thought that perhaps a fall could have caused an eye injury to be fatal. One reason you want to avoid physical confrontations, if possible, is that often people are seriously hurt and die.
“I think I do. Remember, there’s investigative protocol in place for you to follow. Protocols provide steps professionals follow during investigations. These protocols help provide standards of expectations and processes so there is continuity and uniformity for each investigation. It also helps to reduce chances of cross-contamination.”
“I know, Gus, and I know you know I know. This is absurd.”
“How’s it go, again?”
“The Investigative Protocol includes: first and utmost one must preserve the crime scene, retain/segregate witnesses, conduct a walk-through of the scene, search for evidence, record the crime scene, locate all evidence and number, tag or bag it for preservation.
“Why?”
“To maintain the integrity of the investigation and the evidence.”
“Don’t play it loosie goosey with Ms. Rand.”
“I’m working her.”
“She’s not working you. What is it? She remind you of your gramma?”
I looked up at the ceiling. “Have I ever destroyed, lost or compromised a crime scene, ever?”
“No.”
“No,” I said directing my gaze back to him, “In fact, I care deeply about the preservation of evidence. I’m pretty good at discovery, too, and, oh! Look who’s here to help make sure that all the right things happen.”
Rose Torres, a Filipino woman from the crime lab, appears in the doorway. After a quick handshake to Gus and a hello, she gazes at the body for a moment, then turns her inscrutable face to me. Thank God she showed up just then, Gus wouldn’t continue his admonishing tangent with anyone from the department present. I stand above Rose, nearly two feet taller. But she’s a woman who knows how to hold her ground.
“Thinking it’s an accident,” I say. Her eyes go to Gus who shrugs and then to the hardwood floor. Rose doesn’t waste much energy on words, but she didn’t look particularly convinced “Usual search for fibers,” I say. “I need to know that it’s only his prints on the pencil for one.”
She nods and moves her short thick body into her well-known efficiency mode. Rose is instantly in the office inspecting cabinet doors, pen holders, holding several items up to the light.
“This one is for sure odd, Joan.” Gus assures me.
“Right, I get it. Did you see those chains across the doorways of the bookkeeper’s office?”
“I did,” mutters Gus. “What are those for?”
“To keep that monster of a bookkeeper under control?”
“On the weird side,” adds Gus.
“Doesn’t sound like anyone in the building will miss him much.”
I walk out the front door to the hallway, at the end there was a little curve to the wall, I follow it. It led to an old-fashioned fire-escape. I open the full-length windowed door with gloved hands and let in some air. I leaned against the door frame and took some nice deep breaths. You must have oxygen for your brain to work. There wasn’t much air at all in the bookkeeper’s office. How many times had Ms. Rand stood in this exact spot, getting a little fresh air? Down on the ground, in the parking lot, I spotted the newly arrived news crews, all microphones, cameras, and notepads. They had followed the coroner’s truck, like dogs on a trail. I thought it odd that they had no idea that I was looking down on them, observing.
Gus comes up behind me. Looks over my shoulder. “Here comes his ride downtown with the first group of mourners,” he observed.
“I have a funny feeling not many are going to be mourning this guy,” I say.
“Do you approve of him chaining Ms. Rand in an electrical closet?”
“Niet.”
“What’s that, Russian?”
“Dah.”
Gus looks at me curiously. How could I explain that the photo of my childhood friend, Condor, prompted me to recall the days of my youth and my father? My dad carried on speaking Russian long after he won the light armored Kombat vehicle from Oleg Krasnov at the St. Louis car show. It’s a story, tell you more about it later. Gus has the portfolio with the photos tucked under his arm. I thought of Condor’s face in black and white and I grinned at Gus. He gave me a droll look.

Outside, an ocean breeze picks up, handing out a bad hair day to the newshounds that snarled and whine around the Coroner’s truck. Kent made way to allow the coroner’s staff out of the truck. Looky-loos gather on the sidewalk and down the street. People come out of their storefronts. A tall black woman exits the death wagon. Monica Sutton, ME from the coroner’s office, a modern-day African goddess.
“A wealthy real estate man is dead in Santa Monica,” says Gus. “People are going to want to know why. Do you have an answer?”
“The price of rent in this area? Driving up the rising tide of homeless? Higher than it’s ever been? Regular people are having trouble making it work. Seniors, homeless, on the street. Maybe nobody will question why,” I say. “I have a few ideas, but who knows, maybe it was an accident. Not even murder. Certainly not one to muster up much of an outcry.”
Gus joins me and leans on the other side of the door frame. Then he spots Jesse. Jesse Cand of the LA Times has a thing for me that I find exasperating. I don’t want to make a statement. I don’t even want to be on this case. I’m not feeling it. Jesse looks thicker and stronger, much more studly.
“Looks like he’s been working out since we saw him last,” I said.
“For who?” asked Gus. “You?”
“I certainly hope not,” I answer.
“I thought you two were trying to get along lately.”
“I’m not trying that hard.”
When Monica, the stately coroner, finally makes it up the five floors with the gurney, Gus does the talking. “No indication of foul play or violence, particularly,” says Gus. “The time of death and the issue of likely suspects is dodgy at this point. Maybe it was an accident. You and the lab guys should be able to say for sure.”
Her arm muscles flex as she sets down and prepares the gurney. She has an assistant helping her, but I bet she could carry that thing up five floors under one arm. Her amber eyes alight with curiosity when she peers into the office at the scene as opposed to her ordinarily detached manner. Monica shook her head like a disenchanted sovereign while she waited for the photographer to do his thing.
“It’s hot in that room. Any known conditions?” asks Monica.
“We’re pretty sure he died from the pencil lodged in his eye,” says Gus.
“Right, and there’s probably a family doctor, I’ll give him a ring,” I say.
Monica asks with an elegant hand gesture if it was time to move the body.
“Give me a moment more,” I said.
I go back into the small room and stand over the body. I look around the room. Those chains that hook across both doorways add to the claustrophobic office. Rose places Mr. Flunk’s wallet in a cellophane bag. I watch curiously as she presses a button on some new-fangled gadget attached to a cord around her neck. It’s the size of a large cellphone that issued a red scan with square-shaped meridians. It appears to take 3-D x-ray type records.
“What’s that?”
“I’m recording information to be evaluated about the gesture of the body and the bloodstain.”
“Okay, then.”
I can hardly breathe so I go out to the foyer where Ms. Rand is waiting for me. She rolls her big pretty eyes at me. If I didn’t know better, I’d says she’s flirting. Maybe she’s an aging actress, they try to seduce everyone. I’m almost thirty-four and my doc says I’m in excellent shape, except for one knee. I’m crazy powerful for a woman. I suspect my unusual strength might be driven by rage. I take a moment and ask myself how strong will I be at the age of 62? I decide I would still be badass. It’s not something that you want to lose if you can help it. I’m going to have to ask Ms. Rand more questions. More about her past. I sit back down on the couch.
“He was debauched.”
“How do you know that?” I give her my best tough cop look.
She shrugs her shoulders. Debauched is an elder person’s word. So maybe she is sixty-two after all. “I overheard him bragging about things to his Billionaire Boys Club friends on the phone.”
“Got a name?”
“One of them races horses, that’s all I know. Just terrible, they know exactly why all those horses are dying on those racetracks. Forty this year.”
“Why are they dying, Ms. Rand?”
“They are racing them too young, Two years old. You’re supposed to wait until they are four, not before.”
“How do you know that?”
“I overheard Donald on the phone with his friend, he’s hard of hearing and puts the speakerphone all the way up.”
“Donald?”
Ms. Rand looks shamed.
“Why do you keep insisting it was an accident, Ms. Rand?”
“Just, um a feeling I have?”
“Was he still alive, did he say something to you?”
“No, he didn’t say anything, I don’t think he was still alive. I didn’t check to be honest. He looked dead to me, so I called you right away. I believe he fell on the pencil. Is that something possible to prove?”
***
Patrice Ann, the Hollywood Wives producer, sports short black hair and is dressed in a tight black body-con dress. She’s in a red pair of very expensive looking shoes, by that French designer, Christian Louboutin, if I had to guess. And red eyeglasses. The kind that float in front of your eyes as if suspended by magic. Titanium, I think. Patrice Ann is impatient as I had interrupted her writing schedule. I thought writers worked in their pajamas, not like they were on a hot date. I walk into a spacious living room with large movie posters, most of them vintage. They feature Clara Bow, the “it” girl and Louise Brooks, the flapper, an early film star and I also recognized Mary Pickford tied to train tracks with that character, the banker, Snidely Whiplash, stroking his mustache as a train came steaming down the tracks.
“I already gave information to an officer,” said Patrice Ann. She was standing in front of a poster of Dolores Del Rio, known as the Latin “orchid” of the screen.
“Yes, thanks for that. But I was curious, did you hear anything?” To her left was a poster of Maria Montez from the Cobra Jewel movie. Montez was a dark beauty in a tight green dress with a volcano spewing red lava behind her. An angry cobra was curled and poised to attack at her feet.
“Nothing. I heard nothing,” said Patrice Ann.
“Were you on good terms with the deceased?”
“I don’t know who was.”
Patrice Ann gave me a sullen look and I noticed that she had the smallest, barely visible piece of tape just above her eyebrow near the hairline on the side of the forehead. I checked and noted the same above the other eyebrow. Her dark bangs were pulled back into a headband.
“Do you have a photoshoot or something today?”
“No, but I do have to go the set and justify my existence.”
“Okay, I’ll try to make this quick.”
She backed into her apartment and indicated that I should have a seat on what was obviously high design furniture: wood, suede and odd shapes of color. I sat on what looked like a Ralph Lauren chair. All her accouterment was extremely high priced.
“Don’t get the wrong idea but many of us joked that we wanted to murder him but, we were just, you know, releasing tension, blowing off steam, making fun of the situation.”
“What situation?” I scribbled in my notebook.
“Really? Okay, sure, in my case, I wanted to knock down a wall, and he didn’t want me to do it, that sort of thing. He said it was illegal but it’s not like he cares about legal, really. He’s controlling or was… anyway. A strange guy. A total pothead, the office always smelled like weed. Sometimes my whole apartment smelled like a pot den, because of the vents I suppose.”
“Did you complain?”
“Of course, I complained but I was cool about it, only because I was vying for my remodel. But there were times when I was sure I was experiencing a contact high.” I stopped writing and looked at Patrice Ann. “You know when you come in contact with pot even though you aren’t smoking it yourself.”
“Right.” I went back to scribbling.
“I guess I can knock down my wall now. Who’s going to stop me?”
“I can’t comment on that. I’m merely trying to figure out how Mr. Flunk died.”
“That guy was always stoned. I’d bet a thousand bucks that he fell on that pencil.” She stood up and peered into a mirror on the wall, noticed the tape on her temples was showing. She pulled off her headband, mussed up her bangs, the tape now well disguised. A tight smile crossed her face.
I remained sitting, stared for a moment at a gorgeous painting of a flapper. I marveled at how the painter managed the beads and fringe of the dress, the jewels in the headpiece. She was doing the Charleston and grinning, a flask in her garter belt at her thigh. “Just one more question, what were the other issues?”
“Other issues?”
“That the other tenants were angry about?”
“Oh, I don’t know, really. The guy was an asshat. I think Tracy had constant fights with him over the storage. Nothing too serious, I suppose. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but on several occasions, I witnessed him screaming at one of the elderly renters and I didn’t like it. She’s a lady with mental health issues and he was just railing at her.”
“Why do you think?”
“There were bedbugs and moths in her place. You’d be shocked at the roach problem I had for nearly a year before he did anything about it. I must say, shook me up the way he bullied her. The hatred in his voice and the tension in his body as if he was going to leap at her or attack her or something. She held her space though. I admired her for that. So, maybe I sort of hated him. Not actively or anything but I won’t be going to the funeral or crying in my cups.”
“Makes sense. What’s this renter’s name?”
“Oh, she didn’t kill him. She’s a little old lady.”
“I understand what you’re saying, but can you please tell me her name?”
“Her name is Tina. She lives on the second floor. Is that enough now, can I go back to my work? I have a deadline and places to be.”
“Yes, thank you for your time.” I made for the door but just as I was about to exit, I turned back. “I may have to ask more questions, later.”
“Fine. Whatever. Bye now.”
I exited feeling like the dead man’s story was filling out and not painting a pretty picture.
Down on the second floor, Tina was a woman in her late 70’s with wiry hair, a gaunt look to her demeanor with energy that indicated she may be drinking too much coffee. She was wearing a cashmere sweater with holes in it. At first, she opened the door with the chain lock still on. I offered my badge and she allowed me in.
Her place was neat with little old lady knick-knacks and comfy furniture. I was hesitant to sit on the couch with the warning of bedbugs and such. Tina hadn’t heard of her landlord’s demise. She was quite disturbed to hear he was possibly murdered.
“You don’t think I did it, do you?”
“Why would I think that?”
“We had lots of fights over the years.”
“Fights?”
“Not physical, but loud arguments I should say.”
“About what?”
“Well, just look at my sweater!” the volume went up as she emphatically pointed to the holes in her cashmere sweater. “I’ve got many more of these with holes in them. They were gifts to me, and they are all ruined by moths because that cheap ass… Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t mean… and there’s these awful bed bugs. They are in my bed, but I think they are also in my books. I love my books! He’s dead, I suppose I must forgive him. I’ll just get rid of the pests myself. I suppose they will hire a management company to take his place.”
How much rent do you pay, Christina?”
“Nobody calls me that, it’s just Tina. And to answer your question, 250 bucks a month.”
“Good rate.”
“Yes.”
“Okay, well thanks, Tina. I may be back with more questions.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Don’t you?”
“Just that I hated him.”
“Enough to kill him?”
“Yes, but I didn’t.”
“Why not?”
“Because I don’t want to go to jail, obviously, but mostly because I’d really hate to lose my apartment for any reason.”
“Especially at that rate.”
“That’s right.”
I met Gus in the hallway. He was strolling toward me and we met in the middle of the hall.
“Who did you interview?” I asked.
“Some Latin lover guy who was ripped off fifty bucks by Donald Flunk.”
“Fifty bucks? The man was a multi-millionaire, why would he rip off a tenant for fifty bucks?”
“That’s the same thing Latin lover said. The guy returned his garage key and tried for months to get the garage key deposit back.”
“Sounds annoying but hardly worth killing him for. Anybody else?”
“A nice couple with a five-year-old daughter who is suffering from asbestos poisoning.”
“Omigod, that’s serious.”
“I’d say.”
“Suspects, ya think?”
“I don’t think so. Mostly, they wanted the girl’s dolls and pajamas back, that is if they were deemed safe. They have moved to another suite while their place is being repaired or de-asbestode.”
“The place will be safe after that?”
“Supposedly.”
“Says who?”
“The supervisor.”
“What’s he like?”
“He’s drunk.”
“Wow.”
Gus is disgusted by the whole thing. “Guess that’s why the elevator isn’t working. It’s been out for a year.”
“Not having an elevator must be very hard on the disabled.”
“And the pregnant, and people with kids, and the elderly. One guy has to scoot down five floors on his ass to get out of the building.” Gus spit out the words with anger.
“Maybe they get discounts on the rent.”
“Harumph! I wouldn’t assume that, no. Let’s wait and see what the ME says before we move further with the interviews, huh?”
“Okay. You’re thinking it’s an accident now?”
“I sure as hell hope so.” Gus rubs his neck. He does that when he’s incensed. I could see the trial unfolding and countless witnesses being brought to testify as to their motives. Beyond a reasonable doubt would be a miracle.
“Yah,” I agree, “Otherwise we’re going to be interviewing and re-interviewing for weeks.”
“The guy has pissed off quite a few people over the years.” As Gus says this, he looks up and down the hallway as if the angry tenants will come out of their apartments shouting accusations.
“What? Ya think they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Or maybe they did like the Roman Senate, and all convened to stab him in the eye with a pencil.” Gus deadpans me, I moved on to what I think is a logical question. “Did you talk to the Maintenance men?”
“Right, yes, I did. They’re mostly Mexicans. Do you think it’s believable that don’t speak much English?”
I laugh. “Did you get a look at the video picked up by the spy ring?”
“Yes, just now.”
“And?”
“Donald J. Flunk came in, used his key to enter the bookkeeper’s office. Shortly thereafter the bookkeeper came into frame, put her key in her office door. She appeared surprised that her door wasn’t locked; with suspicion she entered her office and came out within a couple of minutes. She called the police immediately on her cellphone.”
“Did she cry out or look distressed?”
“No.”
“No?”
“She looked vexed.”
In my mind’s eye, I see Gus on the stand saying those exact words, exactly the way he said them. We learn to talk like that, like we’re in the witness box. “How long was Mr. Flunk in the bookkeeper’s office before she arrived? Exactly how long after Ms. Rand entered, did she exit?”
“I’ve got it all down precisely in my notebook, in answer to your question. We also entered Donald Flunk’s office, or should I say office/bedroom, sex-toys, a swing, two giant pot plants.”
“Mmm, interesting, sort of. More like a cliché, I have to go,” I say, “gotta meet with VaVa and explain to her the conditions of her rehab deal.”
“Oh, Christ,” says Gus. “Can’t you just Facetime her?”
I’m not really in the mood for a chic luncheon with my unicorn girl, “Why not?” I say.
“Do it in the car on the way to the pistachio plant, right?”
“We’re still going there?”
“Ordered by Satch.”
“Another non-case?”
“We don’t know whether it’s a non-case.”
“Okay. Sure. Facetime then. Good idea.”
We start our exit outta there. We’re on our way down the stairway when Ms. Rand appears on the stair landing one floor above us. She calls down to us, “Are you leaving?”
“Yes, I say, “Is there another way out besides the way we came in?”
“If you take the stairs all the way down the basement, where the Maintenance office is,” she looked at Gus, “and take a right you can walk out of the parking entrance onto the street. You’ll be at the back of the building.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“And thanks for the coffee,” adds Gus.
Ms. Rand gives him a shy smile, “welcome” she says and skips away.
“Did you see that?” I ask.
“What?”
“She skipped away.”
“So?”
“I think that’s odd.”
“Odd, yes. Let’s go, Joan.”
I didn’t know what to make of it. I’m thinking that I can avoid Jesse, the news guy. It’s an old game we play. He rushes to my crime scene. I do everything I can to avoid him. If he catches up with me, I try to scrap all his questions. Today, it looks like Ms. Rand has advanced my ability to vacate the premises without even seeing Jesse face-to-face. That could induce even me to skip. Something I haven’t done since grade school. Gus and I race down the rest of the stairs, past a few concerned tenants on the way. I guess it’s obvious we’re cops. I assume word is out that a criminal investigation is in process and that the landlord is dead. I’m intent with getting out of the building and remarkably unconcerned about the image of two cops running down the stairs. At the main floor, in the lobby, I see Jesse standing trying to get in but the glass door had a mirror effect so he can’t see in. I guess he doesn’t have the code and there’s nobody in reception to buzz him in. Too bad.
We turn on the stairway and continue down the stairs to the basement. The basement door opens to a very large SUV painted candy apple red. Imagine the sportiest SUV you’ve ever seen. This is like that but on steroids. It has long muscular lines. It seems about to pounce. A big healthy panther. I glance into the window and note a luxurious leather design with individual rear seats and a cool looking instrument display on the dash.
“What is this?” I ask Gus.
“That’s what you call a red Lamborghini SUV.”
“It has a presence.”
“It should, it cost enough.”
“How much?”
“Starts at 200 thou.”
“Who do you think it belongs to,” I ask.
“Three guesses,” smirks Gus.
“What does it do?”
“It’s got a twin-turbocharged 4.0-liter V-8 that puts out 650 horsepower. Lamborghini says the zero-to-62-mph time is 3.6 seconds and the top speed is 190 mph.
“Well now, you seemed to know quite a bit, Gus.”
“I wouldn’t mind one.”
I look around the basement and spot a video camera. “Maybe before we book it outta here, we should look at more video,” I say.
“Hmmm?” Gus looks where I gestured.
“The maintenance supervisor has access to that?” I ask.
“His office is right here.” Gus strolls about four steps to the door with a sign that reads, ‘maintenance,’ and knocked.
We viewed the tape several times but see nothing except the deceased parking the Lamborghini, locking it and moving out of frame. Usually, we get something but nada.
Gus is a little miffed. Disappointed. I guess he thought he might see something more revealing. He takes down the time of arrival of the deceased and thanks the supervisor who clearly has a drinking problem. I might get a contact drunk just off his fumes. We make our way out of the basement. We have to step it up a small incline. The supervisor manages to press the button for us, opens the iron gate, and we walk out onto the street. Gus called Kent and asks him to secure the crime scene until we officially released it. I’m steppin’ it back toward the Fire House café with Gus, to his car, when we turn the corner and run smack dab into Jesse Cand, news reporter. He leans against the building, a big camera on his shoulder and a grin on his face. How did he do that? He’s so waiting for us. He snaps off a few pics.
“Investigative team on the run,” he’s captioning his photo.
“Jesse!” I rankle.
“Where are you off to?” he demands.
“What?” I bark back. “I don’t report to you.”
“Just ignore him,” whispers Gus. “Don’t engage, keep walking, get to the car.”
“I’m your ally,” insists Jesse, “I have questions.”
“Talk to me tomorrow, then I can say something.” Gus starts a quick gait, I follow. Jesse chases.
I turned around back to Jesse and he nearly runs into me. Snaps more pictures into my face.
“Stop that. What are you, the nightcrawler?” I say into his camera.
“It’s 9 AM, Joan.”
“Never too early to increase your value and leverage your position.”
“Please don’t denigrate the service I provide to the LA community.”
We are both loosely quoting lines from the movie, Nightcrawler.
“Thought you were a global guy. Weren’t you in Denmark last month?”
“You’re following my career?”
“I read the newspapers.”
“You know, Nightcrawler is actually a LA noir love story,” insists Jesse.
“To you.”
“Between a news director and her number one video newsman,” he adds.
“You’re not well, you know that, right?”
Gus intervenes. “If only this little sparring match was amusing. Let’s go, Joan, we have a long drive.”
I turn away from Jesse and pick up my pace to stay in step with Gus. His legs are so long. I look back to see Jesse staring after us. When he sees me turn back, he takes more photos. Yep, I was back on the job. Fo sho.

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