The rain had stopped just before dawn, but up on the coast highway the air was still laden with heavy mist, enough to dissolve the flashers on the police cruisers into pulses of smeary red light. A couple of uniformed officers Ellen didn't recognize were already putting up yellow tape to keep onlookers at a distance. The morning traffic was light, but word got around, even on a weekend. In twenty minutes they would have their hands full.
The site was a lookout point with space for about ten cars. She saw three black-and-whites and a dented powder blue Chevy, which presumably belonged to the man who had phoned in the report, which meant that Ellen's partner Sam hadn't yet made it up from Daly City.
Even before she had put her Toyota into park, a cop was leaning over the door.
“You'll have to move on, Miss. This is a police inquiry.”
Without so much as glancing at him, she opened the door and, as she stepped outside, took out her badge case and lapped it over the breast pocket of her worn tweed jacket. Standing there, she was almost as tall as he was.
“I'm Ridley,” she answered.
The dispatchers did this to her every time, as if the gag would never wear thin. They would radio the scene, Inspector Ridley will be there in twenty minutes, and never use her first name.
Two years ago, during her early days on the Homicide Squad, she would have made an issue of it. She would have looked the man straight in the face, daring him to smile or say a word, daring him to look beyond the badge to the slender woman with short reddish brown hair who appeared perfectly ready to break both his knees. But somewhere along the line she had made her peace with what the other women detectives referred to as the Nancy Drew syndrome. You can’t reform the world.
So she directed her attention to a group of four men drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups. All of them were cops except one, who looked ancient and was wearing a green Army coat he had probably owned since Korea.
“Is that the guy who found her?”
“Anybody question him yet?”
“No. We were waiting for you.”
Ellen nodded, as if acknowledging a neutral fact, but she was pleased. During her three years in uniform she had had it drilled into her that the officers who got there first were supposed to protect the crime scene, identify and detain any witnesses and keep their mouths shut, but not everyone followed procedure.
As she approached, the three uniforms faded back and left her alone with the man in the Army coat, who smiled at her until he saw the badge. He had a weathered face, and the fingernails of the hand that held the coffee cup were discolored by decades of cigarette smoke.
“You went fishing this morning?” she asked.
He nodded. “Down just before sunrise. That's the best time.”
His eyes glittered with excitement, but that was natural enough. Half an hour ago he had found a dead body, so the adrenaline was still rushing. He had had time to stop being scared and now he was just enjoying himself.
But he had been scared enough then. His khaki trousers were covered with fresh mud, as if he had scrambled back up that bluff on his hands and knees.
Ellen looked over to where the land seemed to end abruptly in a few tufts of dry grass. It was a good sixty feet to the beach and almost a straight drop. She would not have liked climbing around there in the dark.
“You know, you're not supposed to do that.” She tried to keep it from sounding like a threat. “The tide can come in here pretty fast. Every couple of years it catches somebody before they can get back on the trail, and the body washes up in Half Moon Bay.”
“Don't worry about me,” he said, happy to show off a little. “I've lived in the Bay Area for forty years. I know this coast, every inch of it.”
“So when was the last time you fished this stretch?”
“Two weekends ago. Yeah—last Sunday I was a couple of miles further south.”
“And you went down this morning in the dark? When did you find the body?”
“Right away. I had my flashlight with me, and she was hard to miss.”
He laughed nervously, making it sound like the punch line of a dirty joke, like whoever was lying down there dead was somehow the guilty one. Ellen decided she didn’t like the fisherman very much. She would leave him to Sam, who would manage to convey the impression that the police regarded him as a leading suspect. That would ruin his day.
“Thank you,” she said, glancing away. “Someone will be along shortly to take your full statement.”
“Will I have to go downtown?”
Ellen smiled at him, perhaps a trifle maliciously. “Oh yes. You’ll get to know us all real well.”
And now it was time to pay her respects.
Sam said you got used to it, but she was beginning to wonder. Death still had not lost its power to humble her. Even if the corpse was a drug mule, shot in a dispute with management and left in some alley off Mission Street, she could never quite overcome the feeling that she was intruding on a private tragedy, that she was out of place. That it was none of her business.
“You’re not being rude,” Sam had told her once, when she was a fresh transfer from Juvenile Division and he had only just stopped expecting her to sick up. “They’re dead. They won’t mind. Stop worrying about their modesty. If it makes you feel better, just remember that you’re the last person who’s ever going to do them a favor. You’re going to catch whoever killed them.”
The grass at the edge of the bluff waved forlornly in the ocean breeze. The path down to the beach was just wide enough for one person and the night’s rain had churned the gravelly ground into mud.
The victim was about fifteen feet from the top, head down, snagged on the bushes so that her left arm fell across the path as if she were trying to arrest her fall. Except for her bikini style red panties and a pair of red satin heels, she was naked. Her face was turned away and her short, dishwater blond hair was matted and dirty, almost as if she were wearing a cap. There were no obvious wounds, but she was lying face down so there wouldn’t be.
Ellen, standing on the edge, forced herself not to look away. It was the terrible helplessness of the dead that got to her. This woman, whoever she was, could not so much as put up a hand to ward off the disrespectful attention of strangers. She had been stripped not only of her life but of her dignity as a human being and had not even the power to protest. Somehow that fact made what was happening to her now almost as bad as death itself. It was as if they had all become accomplices in a murder of her soul as well as of her body.
“I think the shoes add a nice touch, don’t you? I always like a villain with a sense of humor.”
She hadn’t noticed Sam coming up behind her. He took off his hat to push back a tangle of steel gray hair. The hat was canvas, putty colored and brand new, the only thing he was wearing that didn’t look as if it had come out of the Good Will bag, and he put it back on his head with appropriate delicacy. Sam, who had a reputation for being the best homicide detective in the state, had been on Homicide for fourteen years and Ellen’s partner since she had come on the squad.
“He’s teasing us,” Ellen said, with just the faintest trace of resentment. “He wanted her found quickly, and he wanted us to know it. He didn’t just throw her out of the trunk of his car.”
“If he had, those bushes wouldn’t have held her. The crabs would be having her for breakfast. I think he carried her down there.”
“Probably. And the rain last night took care of any fiber evidence.”
“He’s a clever bastard.” Sam lit a cigarette, an unfiltered Camel, and took a drag so deep he gave the impression he had been holding his breath.
“What do you make of the panties?” she asked. “Why did he leave them on?”
“Good question. But I don’t suppose we’ll find out until we can ask him.” He took the cigarette out of his mouth and frowned slightly, as if faced with an unpleasant choice. “You want to go down there and do the honors?”
“Aren’t you coming?”
He shook his head and smiled. “She’s all yours, Ellie. I can wait until she’s on the table. Have you had a word with whoever found her?”
“Only just. I left him for you.”
This made Sam laugh. “I’ll see if I can’t smarten up his attitude a little,” he said.
The path to the beach was treacherous. She had to watch her feet every step or the rain slick, sandy earth would slip away under her shoes and take her with it. Ellen could see why someone going down here in the dark might make it almost to the body before noticing it.
And that, apparently, was what had happened to their fisherman, because his flashlight, coated with mud, was lying not five feet from where the dead woman’s hand reached out onto the path. His big surf casting rod was hung up in some bushes nearby. He must have had himself quite a shock.
“Steady, girl,” she told herself, just under her breath, so that no one except she could hear. “Stay below zero.”
She had learned she had to distance herself from the normal human responses. Disgust, anger and pity just got in the way. She was there to observe. That was it. And it was the only part of her job she really hated. But it was what she owed to the dead.
There were beads of rain water all over the woman’s skin. It was obvious there was no evidence here beyond the body itself, but Ellen still was careful not to disturb the scene. Holding on to some bushes, she went off the path to get lower down to have a peek at the face.
Nobody’s looks were improved by a night out in the rain, especially if they were dead to begin with, and Ellen had the impression this lady might have been someone who cared about appearances. There were still traces of makeup on her face, and from the way it was holding up it didn’t seem to be the kind you picked up at K-Mart. There was a thin gold chain around her neck that looked like it might be worth something.
She was a small woman, with the light bones of someone destined to stay slender. Her eyes were open. There was no expression in them, but there never was. Ellen didn’t see any obvious wounds or ligature marks around her throat.
She found herself staring at the arm stretched out into the path, and then she realized why. There was a band on the wrist where the rain water seemed to be beading differently. Ellen took a pair of latex gloves out of her jacket pocket and put them on. Then she reached out to touch the skin. It felt sticky. The murderer had probably used duct tape to bind his victim’s arms together. In a week they would probably identify the brand, which probably wouldn’t bring them any closer to catching the son of a bitch but at least would provide one more homely detail to add to their impression of him.
“You’ll have to pardon me, Inspector Ridley.”
Ellen looked up and saw Allen Shaw, M.D., Chief of Forensic Pathology for the City and County of San Francisco, standing almost directly above her. He was wearing a clear rain slicker over his brown suit and holding a black medical bag in his left hand.
She was surprised to see him because Dr. Shaw was not known to be a particularly zealous public servant. It was unusual to find him out this early on a Sunday morning, attending to a routine suspicious death. He had assistants for that sort of thing.
“All yours, Doc,” Ellen said, releasing her hold on the victim’s wrist and stepping a pace back down the slope.
Dr. Shaw frowned at her and crouched beside the body. He was a heavyset man in his early sixties, so that was a laborious process. He opened his bag, pulled on a pair of latex gloves, and took out a fingerprint kit.
“You’ll oblige me even further if you’ll stick around long enough to take these up to my truck,” he said as he began inking the fingers of the dead woman’s hand. “I’ll hardly be a moment.”
The coroner’s van was parked just at the edge of the bluff, and a middle aged woman in a white lab coat was standing in front of the open rear door. She almost snatched the fingerprint card out of Ellen’s hand.
Sam was still talking to the fisherman. When he finished he glanced in her direction and Ellen nodded toward her car.
“I think we’ve got a situation here,” she told him. “Shaw’s down there. The first thing he did was take prints. They’re being faxed in right now.”
“Since when can’t they wait to print her at the morgue?”
“My point exactly. You check the Missing Persons sheets lately? I don’t happen to recall seeing Reese Witherspoon’s name on the list.”
Sam appeared not to have heard. He was staring out at the highway, where cars were crawling past and a group of about thirty onlookers had already gathered beyond the yellow police tape.
Some were just passersby, and some, the Fans, had probably heard a report over their shortwaves and come running. Their cars were curbed across the highway, pulled up on the muddy shoulder.
They looked the usual sort: mostly male, mostly young to mid thirties, mostly giving the impression they had nothing better to do with their lives than be flies on the wall at every murder investigation since the Stone Age. They would hang around until the body was brought up, or until somebody got annoyed and went over to start handing out parking tickets.
Ellen glanced at them and then almost as quickly looked away.
“What do you think, Ellie? Did Our Boy get the door prize this time? You suppose maybe he killed somebody the world might miss?”
“Where’s the photographer, Sam?”
“Say what?” He looked at her as if she had just lapsed into Norwegian. “He came with Shaw, so I guess he’s down with our mystery guest.”
“I think I’ll go tell him to take some shots of the crowd.”
“Why? You see a familiar face?”
“I don’t know.”
“Woman’s intuition?” He smiled, as if he had decided to indulge her in a whim, and then he turned to look back toward the trail down to the beach. “I’ll see if I can scare him up.”
“And tell him not to announce himself, pretty please. Some people are camera shy.”
“I think he probably knows that, Ellie.”
As soon as she was alone, Ellen started to feel bored and then apprehensive. She glanced at the gray dawn sky and it occurred to her that she should probably phone Mindy Epstein, her roommate during their last two years in college, whom she was supposed to be meeting for lunch today to hear the details of her second divorce. Mindy was probably asleep in the arms of some new gentleman friend—Mindy had no gift for abstinence.
Her parents had almost certainly gone out somewhere last night, probably until the small hours. They had a wide circle of friends and belonged to a number of clubs, and Ellen’s mother was fervently sociable.
It was a Sunday morning and, except for fishermen, murder victims and cops, everyone was home in their beds. Even Gwendolyn was doubtless still asleep in her cage, dreaming of lamb chop bones.
Which constituted one more reason to resent the perpetrator, who had already started out on the wrong foot by leaving his victim on what amounted to a cliff face, where there was no room for a proper workup of the scene and where a nasty night could reasonably be expected to have scrubbed everything squeaky clean.
Ellen’s taste in homicides ran to dimly lit walkups, where the bedroom carpet was matted with fiber evidence and the light switch was always smudgy with fingerprints. It all might end up as nothing, but it gave you hope and something to do, and you didn’t have to stand around thinking about how clever this particular nut job was beginning to seem and how if you caught him at all it would probably be just dumb luck.
Ellen was reasonably sure he had killed at least twice before. There were at present two uncleared homicides of women, both apparently random and both what might best be described as recreational murders—someone’s idea of fun—but there was nothing specific in their methods or physical circumstances to connect them. Nothing except a certain polish to both performances.
The first victim was three months ago, a seventeen year old hooker, but already beginning to be known to the Vice Squad, who worked the downtown hotels and had turned up in a bathtub at the Marriott. Somebody had stuffed the muzzle of a .22 caliber pistol about four inches up her rectum and then fired off two rounds, hollow points that disintegrated without hitting anything vital but had torn her insides apart so that she bled to death in seconds. No evidence of sexual assault and, needless to say, nobody heard the shots, nobody saw anything, there were no prints and no trace of the weapon, and the room hadn’t been rented in three days. A “Do Not Disturb” sign was found hanging from the bathroom doorknob.
The murderer, who thereafter was referred to by Sam as “Our Boy,” couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start because, as it happened, the victim was known to Ellen.
Four years before, while she was still in her first year with Juvie, Ellen had arrested a thirteen year old named Rita Blandish for shoplifting at a gourmet food shop in North Beach. It was the second time in less than a week the manager had caught her at it, so he detained Rita in his office and called the police.
She was a dark haired little thing, vaguely pretty and still on the innocent side of puberty, and she was clearly terrified. She sat on the chair beside the manager’s desk, tears running down her face and her eyes wide with dread.
While her partner sat with the manager and filled out the complaint form, Ellen took Rita outside to their car.
Once she had the girl in the rear passenger compartment, which was as secure as any jail cell, Ellen climbed into the front passenger seat and twisted around to look at her prisoner through the clear plastic barrier.
“What did you steal?”
Immediately Rita began shaking her head, so fast she might have given herself whiplash.
“I didn’t steal anything,” he almost shouted. “I was gonna pay for it.”
Ellen made a sound that was just short of an exasperated laugh.
“You know, you’re not going to do yourself any good by lying, so let me rephrase the question. What did you steal?”
“Two cans of tuna fish.”
Instantly Rita began to cry again, and Ellen was left to wonder why any little girl who hadn’t even had her first period yet would steal tuna fish. Candy, yes. Something fancy and expensive, sure. But not tuna fish.
She couldn’t help herself. Ellen felt sorry for the little tyke.
“You know, it isn’t going to be that bad,” she said. “How old are you?”
“Thirteen last August.”
And here is was October. As old as that.
“Well, nobody’s going to assume that you’re a career criminal at thirteen. Have you ever been arrested before?”
“Then you’ll probably only get a little probation. And when you turn eighteen your juvenile records are sealed. It isn’t going to follow you through life.
“So, why tuna fish?”
“Why did you steal tuna fish?”
He question seemed to perplex Rita—not the question itself but why anyone would need to ask.
“You can go a long time on a can of tuna fish,” she said.
. . . . .
A little investigating cleared up the mystery of why the nutritional value of tuna fish might be important. While Rita was enjoying her first dinner at the Juvenile Detention Center, Ellen drove over to the address Rita had listed as home. It was a down at heel apartment building in the Mission District, and Ellen had to phone the owner, whose number was conveniently listed in the entranceway above the mail boxes, before she could get into Number 105.
There were the usual signs of recent human habitation—dishes in the kitchen sink, a sweater lying across the back of a chair in the only bedroom, etcetera—but the clothes closet contained only what one assumed was Rita’s meager wardrobe and the bathroom had been pretty well cleaned out. There was an empty box of Playtex tampons in the wastepaper basket, but no other sign that the apartment was inhabited by a woman old enough to be Rita’s mother, and evidence of any male presence was completely absent.
The refrigerator and the kitchen cabinets were almost empty of food, which explained by Rita had been stealing tuna fish.
At thirteen years old she had been left to fend for herself. What choice did she have except to steal?
“Mom took off,” was the way Rita explained things, the next morning. She didn’t seem to regard it as anything like an unusual occurrence, so perhaps it had happened before.
“When did she do that?”
“Eight or nine days ago. I’m not sure. It was a Friday.”
“Where did she go?”
The only answer was a shrug.
“What about your father?”
But Rita just looked at her blankly, and then said, “Mom had a lot of men friends.”
In the end Ellen talked the gourmet food store manager into dropping the charges, and Rita was classified as an abandoned child. She was put into foster care.
Nothing was ever again heard of her mother.
Thereafter, Ellen kept a loose watch on little Rita, and it turned out to be a sensible precaution. At its worst, foster care was little more than a racket, and Rita’s first such home was pretty bad. Ellen got her out of that, and her second placement seemed to be a little better. At least, Rita wasn’t complaining.
There was some trouble along the way, usually with boys or what passed among adolescents for recreational drugs. And then, the previous year, Rita simply disappeared.
. . . . .
And now she had turned up again, dead for probably a little less than twenty-four hours, crouched naked in a bathtub at the Marriot Hotel with a wide smear of dried blood trailing down the inside of her left leg from her anus.
Her face was turned to the right, as if the killer had twisted her head around, perhaps for the pleasure of watching her death agony. Ellen had recognized her at once.
It was too much. Ellen simply stood up and walked out of the room. When Sam followed her, he found her sitting on the corner of one of the twin bed, sobbing.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
It was a fair length of time before Ellen was able to answer him.
“No, I’m not all right,” she said, her voice ragged. “I knew that girl from Juvie.” Her shoulders hunched in a despairing shrug. “Sam, if ever there was a kid who didn’t get the breaks, it was her.”
Sam gave her about two minutes to settle down, and then he shook his head.
“We all get cases like that,” he said, almost wistfully. “I remember once. . .” And then his voice trailed off, as if whatever memory he was on the point of relating had suddenly engulfed him.
When he spoke again, his voice was almost grim.
“Ellie, very few people deserve to get murdered, but we’re homicide detectives, not social workers. Injustice is our stock in trade. Now get back in there and tell me what you see.”
Ellen got up from the bed and did as she was told. She would be fine, she thought. Or at least okay.
But she promised herself that Rita Blandish would have her revenge.
. . . . .
Then, last month, a man in North Beach had taken his car out of the garage, noticed a bad smell, and opened the trunk. There he found the body of a woman who had lived directly across the street, a saleswoman named Kathy Hudson with no known boyfriends, reported missing by her mother the week before. Her throat had been cut, very carefully, so that it took a while for her to die. There was minimal blood in the trunk, indicating she had been killed elsewhere, and the man who owned the car had just that afternoon returned from a two week vacation in the Philippines. No suspects, no leads, no useful physical evidence.
Like everyone else, murderers sharpened their skills with practice, and both of these crimes were what Sam described as “quality work,” not the kind of slapdash performance you see in your garden variety sex slaying. The odds of two such virtuosos operating in the same city at the same time were not very good.
Ellen wasn’t alone in making the link, but at present the Department was treating the two homicides as unrelated. The Department did not want to admit even the possibility that there was a serial killer at large in the Bay Area because the news media would go straight overboard with it and that wouldn’t be good for public morale.
Homicide—the Holy Grail of police work. It offered a panoramic view of all that was darkest in human character. Greed, lust and madness, in every possible permutation. From time to time it occurred to Ellen to wonder if she wasn’t a little mad herself to be so committed to it.
Only her father understood. “Sometimes I almost envy you,” he had told her once. “Working with children, I hardly ever see the aberration played out to its logical extremity. I haven’t dealt with a full blown sociopath since I was a resident.”
“I’m only interested in catching them, Daddy,” she had told him. “I don’t try to understand them.”
But he had smiled and said, “Oh yes you do.”
And now Mommy wanted him to give up his practice, so that he would have more time to partner her at bridge. What she didn’t understand—what she could not see, no matter how or how often Ellen explained it to her—was that if she succeeded in badgering him into retirement he would die of boredom. He would never live to collect Social Security.
Each of them, father and daughter, needed their work to keep life real.
It was twenty minutes before the photographer came up from shooting the body. He was carrying a video camera in a shoulder sling, so that it was pressed between his chest and his right arm. He was very good. He faced the road and then turned his body to pan the crowd that had collected behind the police tape. He did it twice, looking up at the sky over their heads like a man trying to decide whether it would rain again. They never noticed.
“How do you want ’em?” he asked, coming up next to her. “Stills or the movie?”
“Can I get both?”
The photographer shrugged. He was a short, compact man with a blond crew cut and a face suggesting that life had run out of surprises. He wore soiled jeans and a torn gray tee shirt. He looked about thirty-five.
“You can have anything you want. You’ll get the disk this afternoon, but the stills won’t be before Tuesday. Shaw wants to do the post right away, so I’ll be busy with that. Sorry.”
“The movie will be fine for starters. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
He took a stick of Juicy Fruit out of his pocket, peeled away the tinfoil, folded the gum in half and stuck it in his mouth, all without even glancing at Ellen.
“I hate this fucking job,” he said, and strolled away.
Sam came up to the top of the footpath and lit another cigarette. He had to step aside almost at once for a couple of young men in blue coveralls carrying either end of a stretcher. Strapped to it was a red blanket partially covering a dark gray body bag. The bag looked almost as if it were empty. The rear doors of the coroner’s van opened seemingly of their own will and the two men got the stretcher inside and pulled the doors shut behind them.
“Show’s over. We can go home now,” Sam announced. He didn’t look happy.
“Is it Our Boy?”
“Oh yes. She was opened up in one stroke, throat to crotch. Then most of her insides were taken out, leaving her hollow as a gourd. Shaw won’t know for sure until he checks the free histamine levels, but he doesn’t think the injuries were postmortem. ‘Our Boy’ cut her to pieces while she was still alive.”