This one was different.
The first hint was Milo's tight-voiced eight a.m. message, stripped of details.
Something I need you to see, Alex. Here's the address.
An hour later, I was showing I.D. to the uniform guarding the tape. He winced. "Up there, Doctor." Pointing to the second story of a sky-blue duplex trimmed in chocolate-brown, he dropped a hand to his Sam Browne belt, as if ready for self-defense.
Nice older building, the classic Cal-Spanish architecture, but the color was wrong. So was the silence of the street, sawhorsed at both ends. Three squad cars and a liver-colored LTD were parked haphazardly across the asphalt. No crime lab vans or coroner's vehicles had arrived, yet.
I said, "Bad?"
The uniform said, "There's probably a better word for it but that works."
Milo stood on the landing outside the door doing nothing.
No cigar-smoking or jotting in his pad or grumbling orders. Feet planted, arms at his sides, he stared at some faraway galaxy.
His blue nylon windbreaker bounced sunlight at strange angles. His black hair was limp, his pitted face the color and texture of cottage cheese past its prime. A white shirt had wrinkled to crepe. Wheat- colored cords had slipped beneath his paunch. His tie was a sad shred of poly.
He looked as if he'd dressed wearing a blindfold.
As I climbed the stairs, he didn't acknowledge me.
When I was six steps away, he said, "You made good time."
"Sorry," he said.
"Including you." He handed me gloves and paper booties.
I held the door for him. He stayed outside.
The woman was at the rear of the apartment's front room, flat on her back. The kitchen behind her was empty, counters bare, an old avocado- colored fridge free of photos or magnets or mementos.
Two doors to the left were shut and yellow-taped. I took that as a Keep Out. Drapes were drawn over every window. Fluorescent lighting in the kitchen supplied a nasty pseudo-dawn.
The woman's head was twisted sharply to the right. A swollen tongue hung between slack, bloated lips.
Limp neck. A grotesque position some coroner might label "incompatible with life."
Big woman, broad at the shoulders and the hips. Late fifties to early sixties, with an aggressive chin and short, coarse gray hair. Brown sweatpants covered her below the waist. Her feet were bare. Unpolished toenails were clipped short. Grubby soles said bare feet at home was the default.
Above the waistband of the sweats was what remained of a bare torso. Her abdomen had been sliced horizontally below the navel in a crude approximation of a C-section. A vertical slit crossed the lateral incision at the center, creating a star-shaped wound.
The damage brought to mind one of those hard-rubber change purses that relies on surface tension to protect the goodies. Squeeze to create a stellate opening, then reach in and scoop.
The yield from this receptacle was a necklace of intestines placed below the woman's neckline and arranged like a fashionista's puffy scarf. One end terminated at her right clavicle. Bilious streaks ran down her right breast and onto her rib cage. The rest of her viscera had been pulled down into a heap and left near her left hip.
The pile rested atop a once-white towel folded double. Below that was a larger maroon towel spread neatly. Four other expanses of terry cloth formed a makeshift tarp that shielded beige wall-to-wall carpeting from biochemical insult. The towels had been arranged precisely, edges overlapping evenly for about an inch. Near the woman's right hip was a pale blue T shirt, also folded. Spotless.
Doubling the white towel had succeeded in soaking up a good deal of body fluid, but some had leaked into the maroon under-layer. The smell would've been bad enough without the initial stages of decomp.
One of the towels beneath the body bore lettering. Silver bath sheet embroidered Vita in white.
Latin or Italian for "life." Some monster's notion of irony?
The intestines were green-brown splotched pink in spots, black in others. Matte finish to the casing, some puckering that said they'd been drying for a while. The apartment was cool, a good ten degrees below the pleasant spring weather outside. The rattle of a wheezy A.C. unit in one of the living room windows was inescapable once I noticed it. Noisy apparatus, rusty at the bolts, but efficient enough to leach moisture from the air and slow down the rot.
But rot is inevitable and the woman's color wasn't anything you'd see outside a morgue.
Incompatible with life.
I bent to inspect the wounds. Both slashes were confident swoops unmarred by obvious hesitation marks, shearing smoothly through layers of skin, subcutaneous fat, diaphragmatic muscle.
No abrasions around the genital area and surprisingly little blood for so much brutality. No spatter or spurt or castoff or evidence of a struggle. All those towels; horribly compulsive.
Guesses filled my head with bad pictures.
Extremely sharp blade, probably not serrated. The neck-twist had killed her quickly and she'd been dead during the surgery, the ultimate anesthesia. The killer had stalked her with enough thoroughness to know he'd have her to himself for a while. Once attaining total control, he'd gone about choreographing: laying out the towels, tucking and aligning, achieving a pleasing symmetry. Then he'd laid her down, removed her T shirt, careful to keep it clean.
Standing back, he'd inspected his prep work. Time for the blade.
Then the real fun: anatomical exploration.
Despite the butchery and the hideous set of her neck, she looked peaceful. For some reason, that made what had been done to her worse.
I scanned the rest of the room. No damage to the front door or any other sign of forced entry. Bare beige walls backed cheap upholstered furniture covered in a puckered ocher fabric that aped brocade but fell short. White ceramic beehive lamps looked as if they'd shatter under a finger-snap.
The dining area was set up with a card table and two folding chairs. A brown cardboard take-out pizza box sat on the table. Someone-probably Milo-had placed a yellow plastic evidence marker nearby. That made me take a closer look.
No brand name on the box, just PIZZA! in exuberant red cursive above the caricature of a portly mustachioed chef. Curls of smaller lettering swarmed around the chef's fleshy grin.
Ooh la la!
The box was pristine, not a speck of grease or finger-smudge. I bent down to sniff, picked up no pizza aroma. But the decomp had filled my nose; it would be a while before I'd be smelling anything but death.
If this was another type of crime scene, some detective might be making ghoulish jokes about free lunch.
The detective in charge of this scene was a lieutenant who'd seen hundreds of murders, maybe thousands, yet chose to stay outside for a while.
I let loose more mental pictures. Some fiend in a geeky delivery hat ringing the doorbell then managing to talk himself inside.
Watching as the prey went for her purse? Waiting for precisely the right moment before coming up behind her and clamping both his hands on the sides of her head.
Quick blitz of rotation. The spinal cord would separate and that would be it.
Doing it correctly required strength and confidence.
That and the lack of obvious transfer evidence-not even a shoe impression-screamed experience. If there'd been a similar murder in L.A., I hadn't heard about it.
Despite all that meticulousness, the hair around the woman's temples might be a good place to look for transfer DNA. Psychopaths don't sweat much, but you never know.
I examined the room again.
Speaking of purses, hers was nowhere in sight.
Robbery as an afterthought? More likely souvenir-taking was part of the plan.
Edging away from the body, I wondered if the woman's last thoughts had been of crusty dough, mozzarella, a comfy barefoot dinner.
The doorbell ring the last music she'd ever hear.
I stayed in the apartment awhile longer, straining for insight.
The terrible competence of the neck-twist made me wonder about someone with martial arts training.
The embroidered towel bothered me.
Had he brought that one but taken the rest from her linen closet?
Yum. Bon appétit. To life.
The decomp reek intensified and my eyes watered and blurred and the necklace of guts morphed into a snake.
Drab constrictor, fat and languid after a big meal.
I could stand around and pretend that this was anything comprehensible, or hurry outside and try to suppress the tide of nausea rising in my own guts.
Not a tough choice.
ilo hadn't moved from his position on the landing. His eyes were back on Planet Earth, watching the street below. Five uniforms were moving from door to door. From the quick pace of the canvass, plenty of no- one-home.
The street was in a working-class neighborhood in the southeastern corner of West L.A. Division. Three blocks east would've made it someone else's problem. Mixed zoning allowed single-family dwellings and duplexes like the one where the woman had been degraded.
Psychopaths are stodgy creatures of routine and I wondered if the killer's comfort zone was so narrow that he lived within the sawhorses.
I caught my breath and worked at settling my stomach while Milo pretended not to notice.
"Yeah, I know," he finally said. He was apologizing for the second time when a coroner's van drove up and a dark-haired woman in comfortable clothes got out and hurried up the stairs. "Morning, Milo."
"Morning, Gloria. All yours."
"Oh, boy," she said. "We talking freaky-bad?"
"I could say I've seen worse, kid, but I'd be lying."
"Coming from you that gives me the creeps, Milo."
"Because I'm old?"
"Tsk." She patted his shoulder. "Because you're the voice of experience."
"Some experiences I can do without."
People can get used to just about anything. But if your psyche's in good repair, the fix is often temporary.
Soon after receiving my doctorate, I worked as a psychologist on a pediatric cancer ward. It took a month to stop dreaming about sick kids but I was eventually able to do my job with apparent professionalism. Then I left to go into private practice and found myself, years later, on that same ward. Seeing the children with new eyes mocked all the adaptation I thought I'd accomplished and made me want to cry. I went home and dreamed for a long time.
Homicide detectives get "used" to a regular diet of soul-obliteration. Typically bright and sensitive, they soldier on, but the essence of the job lurks beneath the surface like a land mine. Some D's transfer out. Others stay and find hobbies. Religion works for some, sin for others. Some, like Milo, turn griping into an art form and never pretend it's just another job.
The woman on the towels was different for him and for me. A permanent image bank had lodged in my brain and I knew the same went for him.
Neither of us talked as Gloria worked inside.
Finally, I said, "You marked the pizza box. It bothers you."
"Everything about this bothers me."
"No brand name on the box. Any indies around here deliver?"
He drew out his cell phone, clicked, and produced a page. Phone numbers he'd already downloaded filled the screen and when he scrolled, the listings kept coming.
"Twenty-eight indies in a ten-mile radius and I also checked Domino's and Papa John's and Two Guys. No one dispatched anyone to this address last night and nobody uses that particular box."
"If she didn't actually call out, why would she let him in?"
"Who discovered her?"
"Landlord, responding to a complaint she made a few days ago. Hissing toilet, they had an appointment. When she didn't answer, he got annoyed, started to leave. Then he thought better of it because she liked things fixed, used his key."
"Where is he now?"
He pointed across the street. "Recuperating with some firewater down in that little Tudor-ish place."
I found the house. Greenest lawn on the block, beds of flowers. Topiary bushes.
"Anything about him bother you?"
"Not so far. Why?"
"His landscaping says he's a perfectionist."
"That's a negative?"
"This case, maybe."
"Well," he said, "so far he's just the landlord. Want to know about her?"
"Her name's Vita Berlin, she's fifty-six, single, lives on some kind of disability."
"Vita," I said. "The towel was hers."
"The towel? This bastard used every damn towel she had in her linen closet."
"Vita means 'life' in Latin and Italian. I thought it might be a sick joke."
"Cute. Anyway, I'm waiting for Mr. Belleveaux-the landlord-to calm down so I can question him and find out more about her. What I've learned from prelim snooping in her bedroom and bathroom is if she's got kids she doesn't keep their pictures around and if she had a computer, it was ripped off. Same for a cell phone. My guess is she had neither, the place has a static feel to it. Like she moved in years ago, didn't add any newfangled stuff."
"I didn't see her purse."
"On her nightstand."
"You taped off the bedroom, didn't want me in there?"
"I sure do, but that'll wait until the techies are through. Can't afford to jeopardize any aspect of this."
"The front room was okay?"
"I knew you'd be careful."
His logic seemed strained. Insufficient sleep and a bad surprise can do that.
I said, "Any indication she was heading to the bedroom before he jumped her?"
"No, it's pristine. Why?"
I gave him the delivery tip scenario.
"Going for her purse," he said. "Well, I don't know how you'd prove that, Alex. Main thing is he confined himself to the front, didn't move her into the bedroom for anything sexual."
I said, "Those towels make me think of a stage. Or a picture frame."
"Showing off his work."
"Okay . . . what else to tell you . . . her wardrobe's mostly sweats and sneakers, lots of books in her bedroom. Romances and the kinds of mysteries where people talk like Noël Coward twits and the cops are bumbling cretins."
I wondered out loud about a killer with martial arts skills and when he didn't respond, went on to describe the kill-scene still bouncing around my brain.
He said, "Sure, why not."
Agreeable but distracted. Neither of us focusing on the big question.
Why would anyone do something like this to another human being?
Gloria exited the apartment, looking older and paler.
Milo said, "You okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. "No, I'm lying, that was horrible." Her forehead was moist. She dabbed it with a tissue. "My God, it's grotesque."
"Any off-the-cuff impressions?"
"Nothing you probably haven't figured out yourself. Broken neck's my bet for COD, the cutting looks postmortem. The incisions look clean so maybe some training in meat-cutting or a paramedical field but I wouldn't put much stock in that, all kinds of folk can learn to slice. That pizza box mean something to you?"