The male victim’s face was a husk of the handsome, smiling visage on the driver’s license in the blue vinyl wallet. Desmond Erik Backer, thirty-two years old last February, five eleven, one seventy, brown and brown, apartment on California Avenue in Santa Monica, an address that put it three blocks from the beach.

The wallet held two hundred dollars in fifties and twenties, two gold credit cards, a couple of wheat-colored business cards, a photo of a little blond girl around two wearing a lace-trimmed, red-velvet dress. TAG Heuer sport watch around left wrist, no other jewelry. No pale stripe of skin suggesting a wedding band, removed discreetly or otherwise.

Milo showed me the handwritten inscription on the back of the child’s portrait. Samantha, 22 mo. No one else would’ve caught the twitch in his eyelid.

He flipped to a business card. Desmond E. Backer, AIA, Gemein, Holman, and Cohen, Architects. Main Street in Venice.

“Nice watch,” he said, checking the back of the TAG for an inscription. Blank. Checking the leather label on the jeans. “Zegna.”

The C.I. said, “But her dress looks a little low-rent, don’t you think?”

She inspected the label. “Made in China, polyester… short and snug. Could she be a working girl?”

“Anything’s possible.” Milo returned the wallet. As he bagged, took notes, he continued to study the bodies.

No sign of the female victim’s purse. Generic gold hoops in her ears, three similarly nondescript silver bangles around one slender wrist. Light makeup.

He got down close to her right ear, as if wanting to impart some secret. “She shampooed recently, I can still smell it.”

The C.I. said, “I also smelled it. Suave. I use it myself.”


She chuckled. “With my pay scale?” Growing solemn as she took in the dead woman’s pale face.

Even degraded, an extremely nice-looking woman with a taut, full-breasted, somewhat low- waisted body, a smooth, oval countenance, and huge eyes, slightly down-slanted. Brown in life, filmed the color of dirty pavement by death.

Pink gloss on slack lips. Clean nails, no polish. The C.I.’s probing had revealed no bullet holes anywhere on her body, but the sclera of the woman’s eyes were marbled and speckled by hemorrhage and her long neck was swollen and bruised and bisected by an angry magenta line.

The C.I. pointed out the crusty, milky blotch on her thigh. Checked fingernails. “Doesn’t look like anything under there. Poor thing. Is it okay if I pull her dress down?”

“Do that,” said Milo. “Soon as our techies get here and print them and the room, you can transport.”

“Any idea how long that’ll take?”

“You in a hurry?”

“We do have another call, but no problem, Lieutenant.”

“Your drivers are paid by the hour.”

“Yes, sir. Anything else?”

“Nothing comes to mind, Ms…” Squinting to make out her I.D. badge. “Rieffen.”

“Lara. You’re sure there’s nothing else I can do for you, Lieutenant?”

“I’m open to suggestions, Lara.”

“Well… I’m just feeling my way around, don’t want to miss anything.”

“You’re doing fine.”

“Okay, then.” To me: “Nice to meet you, Detective.”

Milo said, “This is Dr. Delaware. He’s a consulting psychologist.”

“Psychologist,” she said. “For a profile?”

Milo knows I rate profiling just below reading tea leaves and political polling. “Something like that.” Glancing at the rickety spiral framework that led down to the second floor, he said, “We’re okay here, Lara, go take your next call.”

C.I. Rieffen gathered up her stuff and hurried down.

When her footsteps had stopped echoing, he pulled a panatela from a pocket of his forlorn, lint-colored windbreaker, jammed it in his mouth but didn’t light up. As his jaw bunched, the cigar tilted upward. He stared at the bodies some more. Got on the phone and searched for Desmond Backer’s registered vehicle.

Five-year-old BMW 320i. He put a BOLO on it, with instructions to transport but not search until processed forensically.

Pocketing his cell, he said, “Caught in the act but maybe staged to reconstruct.” Half smile. “The little death followed by the big one.”

He studied the sky. “No casings says our boy was careful, unless he’s nostalgic and likes revolvers. No bullet holes anywhere but the one in Mr. Backer’s head, and the diameter says probably small caliber. With her purse gone and no vehicle in sight, I’d say a jacking might indeed be part of it. Except Backer’s wallet is full of cash and that watch is serious money.”

I said, “Maybe this was about her and the purse has nothing to do with robbery.”

“Such as?”

“This early I’m better with questions than answers.”

“Join the club. Now all I need to do is find out who the hell she is. Any insights? Won’t hold you to them.”

“No sign of struggle and a contact wound says the bad guy achieved control early on. That could be the result of good planning. My bet is they were staged-there’s almost a theatrical quality to the position.”

“Something personal.”

“Strangling’s about as up close and personal as it gets,” I said.

“Control with a small-caliber gun? Shoot him, first, she’s too freaked out to resist, just lays there and gets choked out?”

“Maybe there were two killers.”

“Repositioning them,” he said. “That could be a statement-jealous rage. Ex-boyfriend follows them here, watches them do it, goes bananas.”

“If this was a tryst-spot, it’s pretty unromantic. No wine, no weed, no chocolate, not even a blanket.”

“Maybe the bad guy took all that with him. Getting rid of the evidence. Or wanting a trophy. Or both.”

“Leaving them this way could also be a way of demeaning them further. Which could mean jealousy.”

“Or a sadistic psychopath.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but what doesn’t fit that is the lack of overkill, her not being posed with her legs spread. There’s something subtle here. Possibly victim-specific. Taking her purse points to her being the main target. Wanting to hold on to a part of her.”

He circled the turret, took in the view to the west, lit up and blew out a blue stream that ribboned up through the rafters. “Hot date under the stars. Why here, specifically?”

“Backer was an architect, maybe he’d worked the site. Maybe he had a key, brought her up here to impress her.”

“I designed the Taj Mahal, baby, so do me? If so, Backer’s involvement was at least two years ago because that’s when the job went on ice. And he wouldn’t need a key, the chain’s long enough to swing the gate wide. That from the rent-a-cop who discovered the bodies. According to him, he reported it to his bosses but they shined him on. Which is consistent with security being a joke: one guy, seven to ten a.m., nothing on weekends, and the most lethal weapon they let him use is a flashlight.”

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