The Museum of Desire
When it comes to murder, nighttime’s the right time. So when Milo calls me, I often find myself driving to crime scenes on dark L.A. streets.
This time, the phone rang just after nine a.m. Lovely Sunday in May. Robin and I and Blanche, our little French bulldog, had taken a leisurely two-mile walk followed by a pancake breakfast.
Robin was washing, I was drying, Blanche’s sausage body was prone on the kitchen floor as she snored and let out periodic dream squeaks. My phone, on vibrate, bounced on the kitchen counter. Milo’s number on the screen.
I said, “What’s up, Big Guy?”
Detective II Moses Reed said, “Actually it’s me, Doc. He asked me to phone you.”
“We’re all busy. This is utterly horrible.”
Reed’s a terse young man; it takes a lot to get him using adverbs.
I sat down and listened as he explained, images tumbling into my brain. Robin turned from the sink, pretty eyebrows arching. I shook my head and mouthed Sorry, and said, “Where, Moe?”
“Private road called Ascot Lane, off Benedict Canyon. Easy to miss, kind of like your street, but this one’s more like a big driveway, only goes to one house.”
He sighed. “Half mile north of the Beverly Hills border.” But for a couple thousand feet, someone else’s problem. I said, “Give me half an hour.”
“Whenever you get here, Doc. No one’s leaving for a while.”
In the movies when detectives encounter terrible things they frequently banter and tell tasteless jokes. That may be because screenwriters or the people who pay them are emotionally shallow. Or the scribes haven’t taken the time to hang out with real detectives.
I’ve found that the men and women who work homicide tend to be thoughtful, analytic, and sensitive. Despite a certain gruffness, that certainly applies to Milo.
My best friend has closed over three hundred fifty murders and he’s never lost his empathy or his sense of outrage. Notifying families still rips at him. He eats too much, sleeps poorly, and often neglects himself while working two, three days in a row.
Once you stop caring, you’re useless.
Milo leads by example so the same approach is taken by the three younger D’s who work with him when he can pry them away from other assignments.
When he can’t, it’s just him. And sometimes me. Rules are often bent. Milo was a gay soldier when gay soldiers didn’t exist, a gay cop when LAPD was still raiding gay bars. Things have changed but he continues to disdain stupid regulations and often overlooks social niceties in a paramilitary organization that prizes conformity.
Murder solve rates have dropped but his rate remains the highest in the department so the brass looks the other way.
This morning the sense of anxious gloom I’ve seen so many times at murders—stiff posture, tight faces, sharp but defeated eyes—extended to the two halfback-sized uniformed officers blocking the entrance to Ascot Lane from Benedict Canyon.
They’d been given my personal info and the Seville’s tags but checked my I.D. anyway, before the bigger one said, “Go on in, Doctor,” in a defeated voice.
To get to them, I’d nosed past half a dozen journalists stationed on Benedict as they tried to rush the Seville before being shooed by another pair of cops.
Different emotional climate for members of the press: a heightened energy bordering on ebullience. Misfortune is the mother’s milk of journalism but with the exception of war correspondents, those who suckle the teats of tragedy are rarely forced to confront evil directly.
I’d kept the Seville’s windows open and as I climbed the road, a bee-swarm of words followed me.
“Are you the owner?”
“Sir! Sir! Do you rent out your house for parties? How much do you get? In view of this, was it worth it? He the owner, Officers? Yes? No? Aw, c’mon, the public has a right to know—if he’s not the owner, how come he gets in?”
If I’d said anything it would’ve been, “I get in because it’s bad and strange.”
I drove through a wrought-iron gate propped open by two bricks and began to climb. Halfway up, another cop waved me on. The road ended at a flat acre or so of brown dirt crowded with vehicles. Four white coroner’s vans, a scarlet fire department ambulance, half a dozen patrol cars, two blue-and-white Scientific Division vans, a bronze Chevy Impala I knew to be Milo’s unmarked, two black Ford LTDs, and a gray Mustang. I wondered who’d scored the sports car.
Like a lot attendant at a county fair, a fourth uniform waved me to the far-right end of the dirt. When I got out, she said, “Walk around there, Dr. Delaware,” and tried to smile but failed.
I said, “Tough scene.”
“You have no idea.”
The path she’d designated took me along the right side of the massive house that fronted the expanse of soil. A semicircular drive of cracked brick girded the house. What you’d expect to see at a grand English manor, which was what this pile of faux-stone was striving to be.
Strange-looking place, thirty-plus feet high, graceless and blocky with a double-width entry fronted by curvaceous gold-painted iron over glass.
But for the lack of gardens and a pair of strange turret-like projections erupting from either end of the pretend-slate roof, one of those country homes featured on genteel PBS dramas. The kind of place where plummy-voiced tweedy people gather to natter, get soused on mah-tinis, and labor to make their way through all seven deadly sins.
Long walk to the back. At the end of my trek, I reached crime scene tape stretched across the drive. No one guarding the tape. I ducked under.
Given the dimensions of the frontage and the house, the rear of the property was surprisingly skimpy, much of it taken up by an empty Olympic-sized pool and a massive domed pavilion set up with cheap-looking outdoor furniture. At the far end, a wall of pines constricted the space further.
Another uniformed duo saw me and approached. Recheck of my I.D.
“Past the pool, Doctor.”
Needless direction; on the far-left side of the property was a crime scene tent big enough for a circus.
I headed for the main event.
The tent’s floodlit interior smelled of people. Lots of them, suited and gloved and masked, worked silently but for the rasp and clop of equipment cases being opened and shut and the snick-snick of cameras.
Everyone knowing their role, like a colony of ants swarming a giant larva.
The object of all the attention was as white and fat as a larva. A stretch Lincoln Town Car, its blunt snout pointed toward the house. Oversized red-wall tires, chrome reversed hubcaps, a strip of LED lighting running just under the roofline.
The doors I could see were wide open but the interior was blocked by squatting techs.
Four heads rose above the roof on the other side of the car.
To the far right was Moe Reed, ruddy, baby-faced, blond, unreasonably muscled. Next to him stood a taller, freckled young man with a red spiky do: Sean Binchy. Leftmost was a handsome, ponytailed woman of forty with knife-edged features and piercing dark eyes aimed at the forensics symphony. Alicia Bogomil had tinted the ends of her hair platinum blond. Feeling secure in her new position as Detective I.
To the left of the three was the tallest man.
Bulky, slope-shouldered, full-faced and jowly, with pallid skin ravaged by youthful acne, a high-bridged nose, and a curiously sensitive mouth that tended to purse. His hair was coal black except where white had seeped from temple to sideburn. What Lieutenant Milo Bernard Sturgis calls his skunk stripes.
He saw me and walked around the limo. Brown suit, brown shirt, limp black tie, gray desert boots. The only splash of color, conspicuously green eyes brighter than the morning.
We go way back but this wasn’t the time and place for a handshake. I said, “Hey.”
He said, “Big production, huh? First responders got here at six twenty-seven, fourteen minutes after the 911 call. Place is vacant, used as a party house, most recent party was a rave-type deal that started eleven p.m. Friday night and stretched to Saturday around three. The cleaning service didn’t send a guy until this morning and that’s who found it. He says he phoned it in right away. After throwing up. He’s in the FD van, getting looked at. Said his chest and tummy hurt. Addict with a long sheet, so who knows what’s going on.”
“He interests you?”
“Not as the main offender but I wanna have a chat with him once he’s cleared by the EMTs.”
I said, “Criminals clean up rich people’s houses.”
“Apparently. This prince calls himself Eno, full name’s Enos Verdell Walters. For the most part, his pedigree’s not violent. Weed, meth, crack, and all the crap that finances weed, meth, and crack: shoplifting, theft, forgery, fraud. But there was a knife ADW a while back, he cut some guy up pretty viciously.”
“You researched him right away.”
“Nothing else to do while the science majors do their thing.”