I'd say the girl was seventeen. I'd say she had been pretty.
Now her forehead shone with analien bulge, the left cheekbone was a pile of pink pulp, and a bite-line arched across her nose and mirrored under the left eye. The nipple of her blue-mottled left breast was missing. She lay on a twin-size mattress on the floor, a twisted sheet covering her pubis and right leg.
It was the end of February; air crisp and clean, sunlight sharp enough to shatter. I'd parked in front of a murky-green house a few houses up from the address we needed in this blue-collar section of Santa Ana, Orange County, fifty miles south of L.A. My partner, Joe Sanders, got our evidence kits out of the trunk, handed me mine, and we crossed the tree-lined street.
A sheriff's investigator on the sidewalk was talking to a man in a white T-shirt and dark pants whose hands were cuffed behind him. The detective nodded to us and turned back to his subject. Beyond them at the edge of lawn, a city cop in blue uniform was parting bushes with his baton.
Big yellow rings marred the lawn near the front of the house, as if a large dog loved the territory. Two plastic pots hung from an overhead beam on the porch, each trailing half-dead ivy. The aluminum screen door had screws missing out of its curlicued guard and the mesh itself bore punctures, rust, and tears.
Inside, the living room was a warren of sleeping-bags and twirled blankets strewn on a hardwood floor. Sunlight leaked under aluminum foil covering the windows, enough to reveal a fireplace mantel with a picture tipped against the wall of a haloed Christ with hands outstretched in benediction.
Theodor of death met us, and soon after, Deputy Martin, who came out of the kitchen and handed us a sign-in sheet on a clipboard. He looked like a wary ferret, hard-faced and wiry. Joe was acquainted with him but not me. When Joe said, "Smokey Brandon," by way of introduction the deputy's eyes narrowed and he said, "I've heard of you."
"All good, I'm sure."
"Just heard the name."
"Some of us go for the fame and glitter," Joe said."Others go for the glitter and fame."
Deputy Martin said, "Aren't you the one - I mean, didn't you used to -?" then caught himself before finishing.
"Yes, I'm the one," I said. "Want to show us what we have?" Joe started forward for emphasis. The deputy gave me a second glance, held it a moment, then led us down a hall.
We came to another room not so dark as the other rooms. A shade rolled up part way revealed a bare twin mattress on the floor beneath it. Next to it was a Styrofoam ice chest, an empty soda carton, and a brightly colored kiddy radio, the kind you get for a cheap hamburger plus 99 cents. Three couch cushions formed another bed on the floor, and lumps of blankets and personal belongings lay along the two other walls. Joe poked his head in and said, "This must be the master suite. Radio. Refrigerator."
"Somebody's coming who can habla bean-ola," Martin said."Bright's trying to get something out of him right now."
"The little guy on the sidewalk," Joe said.
"Yeah, him. He seen something." He's messin' his pants."
Martin stopped before a door to the right. The deputy's arms hung away from his sides as if his lats were too big. Cobra stance, swelling up to impress. "Found him peekiní out a car window, backseat. Thinks I don't see him, shit for brains."
"Who phoned it in?" Joe asked.
"White guy, two houses down. He come over to pay one of these tacos twenty bucks on something. The door's open, six in the morning. Finds our scene here and gets to keep his twenty bills one more day."
A second deputy came up behind us. High school would have been about where Iíd put him by looks, but he had a wedding ring on. Deputy Martin didn't offer introductions. "Here you have it," Martin said and stepped inside, holding his flashlight on the interior.
The second deputy's gaze roamed everywhere but straight ahead, as though a second look inside was prurient.
Joe stepped in first and lifted a forefinger to the empty socket in the center of the ceiling. "Can we get some light here?" The younger deputy went off to scrounge a bulb.
As Martin passed the beam over the red contusions on the girl's waist, arms, and exposed thigh, Joe leaned over with his hands shoved in his suit pockets, and I began a sketch of the placement of the body and the items in the room, noting an open cardboard box, a dark belt, and a ball of white nylon cord partly covered with a paper plate.
Joe straightened, closed his eyes a moment, then walked by me and out into the hall, a strange expression on his face. I was about to follow when Deputy Martin said, "Looky here." He spotlighted a mouse backed into a corner, alongside the cardboard box with clothes trailing out of it. "One mouse bound for custody." He drew his baton to move on the animal.
"Thanks, Deputy, we'll take it now," I said, and held out a hand for his flashlight.
He shrugged and gave it over with a grin."You're not going to be climbing a chair and shrieking for help, now are you, Smokey?"
"Stay tuned," I said.
I tapped the cardboard box. The mouse leapt straight upward, darted along the baseboard, halted at the doorway, then sprinted through. I looked out after him and saw Joe against the wall, studying his shoes. The younger deputy came with the bulb, Deputy Martin screwed it in, then left, saying if I needed his help to roust more rodents, just holler.
In a while the videographer, Bob Hammerly, arrived to shoot both still and video. I had what I needed so far and was glad enough to get out of the way and join Joe. Leaning against the wall opposite him, I asked, "You okay?"
"You look funny."
"That's kind of you."
"What do you say we get out of here? The heater's on in the living room, is why it's so hot," I said. Out of here meant only the front yard, because Joe wouldnít leave a scene even if all of California was doing the tectonic-plate rumba. We stood under an avocado tree heavy-laden with shiny boat-shaped leaves. A dead leaf slipped free of its mooring and glanced off Joe's shoulder.
"That girl was in there a lot of hours, people sleeping in the other rooms," Joe said. "Where are they?" His skin normally has a flush to it, heightened by hair the color of dimes, but he looked pale now, and I mentioned it. He explained it away by saying, "An ulcer, what you want to bet?"
"I think it's leprosy. Probably that."
"Sweetheart, I am circling the drain."
A bird cut in front of us, grabbed broken twigs from under a hedge, and zipped back to the eaves of the house.
"Wow. Close call," I said.
"They're out to get us," Joe said.
"You do have the grumpies this morning." I hoped to get to what was bothering him. He wasn't really grumpy, just different.
We walked to the edge of the lawn and looked down the street, deputies nodding or waving to Joe. After two decades at the lab, Joe seemed to know everybody, new employee or not.
On a block-wall fence bordering the next house sat two boys old enough to be in school. Their solemn eyes watched us and other scene personnel and followed the low-flying birds tracing patterns from shrub to eave. One of the boys picked up a piece of broken capstone that lay atop the wall and gave it an underhanded pitch, hitting the tail feathers of a bird in flight. The bird let loose of a strand of nest stash but managed to lift off anyway. Both boys looked at us, then quickly scrambled out of sight on the other side.
As we walked back toward the house, Joe said, "Know what the worst is?"
"Sunday, and no ball game?"
He shook his head and almost smiled.
"Cookies, no milk?"
He stopped and looked around slowly, as if any moment now he'd spot the killer and call him out of the deep-green junipers that brushed at window-level around the house.
"The worst is," he said, "you canít un-know what you know. You canít un-see a picture."
Bob Hammerly had moved on to other parts of the house. Joe and I set to work swabbing blood spatter and dusting for prints, then boxing up those items that might be better examined at thelab. All the while, Joe was quiet, not joking as he often did.
Soon another lab tech arrived, bringing the ID van. His name was King Davis. A small man, bald except for a robust ring of gray hair around the dome, King was as quiet as he was determined to get the job done and move on to the next. If he just worked fast enough, we told him, one of these days he'd close the gap between his arrival and the crime's commission so that he'd claim eyewitness to a murder.
The coroner's van arrived and the techs loaded the body. Joe and I finished our evidence gathering and turned the bags and tags into King, then left as he was wrapping the mattress the girl had lain upon in plastic, to take it, whole, to the lab.
The sun made Joe squint as he lifted the trunk lid. "I'll push, you steer," he said.
"Right," I said smiling, and moved to my door.
I glanced over as he came up on the passenger side and saw him put his hand to his stomach and wrinkle his face in a way that had nothing to do with the sun.
By Tuesday noon the girl from the shoebox house in Santa Ana had been identifiedas an illegal named Nita Estevez. 'Nita' for Juanita. The run thiding in the car was one of many illegals who slept in the house, paying a hundred a month to do so. He worked graveyard, he said, at a mailing company. That morning when he came home from his job, everyone had already scattered, the house was empty, and the girl was in the condition we found her. A nice girl, too, he said. Made him sick to think about it.
A little more inquiry with some others the runt had named produced a thumbnail history of Nita Estevez. Six months ago she'd paid a cousin to sweep her along a hazardous route from Mexico LaGrullita, to be exact: translation, Little Crane just below Yuma. She landed work in a Garden Grove garment factory, making tank-tops for women and swim trunks for men at a wage that should but doesnít shame the sweatshop owners.
It took a few days for a deputy coroner to bring the news to the girl's mother through a series of calls to Border Patrol, Mexican police, and friends of friends. Now Mrs. Estevez had come to claim her daughterís body, using most of the money her daughter had sent home, which she had been saving for the only child of hers who would get to go to high school, this year, because of Nita.
I was at the morgue for a meeting about a different case when Mrs. Estevez was shown the photo that would serve as official ID for her deceased daughter. From my vantage point in an office across the hall, I watched her take the photo in her hand, draw in a long breath and turn a peculiar greenish color. She dropped the picture, rose from her chair, and walked like a block of concrete to the side door, batting aside a young male companionís hands extended in solace. I excused myself from the meeting and went after her, but she was walking rapidly and rounded the corner to the front of the building before I got to her. Her companion had caught up to her too by then, and we watched helplessly as she cried, " asesinos!", then plopped down hard on the sidewalk, leaned to the side, and vomited into the flower bed.
Excerpted from THE JUAN DOE MURDERS (c) Copyright 2000 by Noreen Ayres. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Five Star. All rights reserved.