around here had nowhere to go so he slept here. Big surprise to me is why more idiots don’t break in. I showed you that chain. Do you want to know about animals?”

“What kind of animals?”

“Critters,” said Bryczinski, savoring the word. “I find animal dirt all the time. Rats, mice. Coyotes, I know it’s coyotes because their dirt is these little shriveled things, look like dry Vienna sausage. I seen plenty of coyote dirt back when I lived in Fallbrook.”

“Avocado country,” said Milo.


“Don’t they grow avocados in Fallbrook?”

“My dad was in the navy, we lived in an apartment.”

“Ah… any visitors during the day, Doyle?”

“Never. Place is dead.” Bryczinski flinched. “So to speak.”

“Don’t get bothered by this but like I said I need to ask routine questions of everyone associated with a homicide.”

The guard’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“What were you doing last night?”

“You’re saying I’m in some kind of suspicion because I found them?”

“Not at all, Doyle. I need to be thorough.”

Bryczinski swiped his brow with a uniform sleeve. “Whatever. Last night, I was sleeping. I get up at four, Mom wakes me up, I hit the hay by nine.”

“You’re Mom’s sole caretaker.”

“Idiot cat sure can’t do much.”

Milo laughed.

The guard said, “Glad someone thinks it’s funny.”

Milo watched him hobble down the stairs, wincing. “And the diagnosis is…?”

I said, “No shortage of pent-up anger, but probably not enough physical strength and smarts to pull it off.”

“Even with a gun?”

“You find any kind of link between him and either one of your victims, I’ll change my mind.”

“He claims to have only a flashlight but he could’ve packed. I’ll have uniforms check the entire property for discarded weapons. Bryczinski’s prints are on file because of the security job. Maybe they’ll show up where they shouldn’t be. Like on the floor, right where they’re laying.”

Another glance at the bodies. “Cute couple. Tough luck for Ken and Barbie.”

I said, “Played with like dolls. Then discarded.”

He re-read Desmond Backer’s business card. “Up for Venice? We’ll take your gondola.”


Gemein, Holman, and Cohen weren’t advertising.

Skimpy oxidized-iron address numerals were placed low on the building’s facade, barely a foot above the sidewalk. Under that: GHC: CONCEPTS.

This was the south end of Main Street, where calculated edgy nudges random do-your-thing and parking’s a challenge. Milo said, “Use that pay lot, on me.”

He flashed his shield to the attendant, had to shell out seven bucks anyway. The walk back took us past boutiques featuring the kind of clothes you never see anyone wearing. Sunny weekday morning in Venice, only a scatter of pedestrians, but a piercing parlor was doing brisk business. Back in his acting days, the governor had bought up chunks of Main Street, accumulating rental income that helped finance his new hobby.

Maybe he owned the architectural firm’s avant-garde charmer.

A pair of isosceles triangles jousted with each other in precarious tilt, the larger one pumpkin-orange stucco, the other bluish green aluminum. A black shroud of solar panel capped the roof. A cement trough running along the base was crowded with horsetails, plant-tops lopped with neurosurgical care.

The triangles overlapped just enough to provide walk-space for the non-obese. Milo ’s been working on his weight. At a relatively svelte two thirty or so, there was no need to turn sideways, but he did so anyway. Body-memory runs long.

Inside was a courtyard roofed by corrugated metal, bordered by an inch-deep, rectangular pond. Too shallow for fish; maybe microorganisms frolicked.

The front door was an oxidized-iron slab. Milo ’s knock produced no sound.

No bell. He said, “Business is either real good or real bad.”

Pounding harder evoked a sorry thud. He said, “This is gonna hurt,” and poised a foot to kick. Before he made contact, the slab swung inward silently, catching him off balance.

A gorgeous woman with a shaved head watched him stabilize. “What is it?” All the warmth of a voice-simulator.

She was thirty-five or so, with some sort of Teutonic accent. Hemp disks the size of saucers dangled from exquisitely shaped ears. Nothing overtly medical about her hairlessness; lashes and brows were dark and luxuriant, the eyes below them a spectacular aqua. Her skull was smooth, round, and tan, stubbled white- blond, as if rubbed in salt. Like a minimal frame on a painting, the absence of coiffure emphasized everything else about her. So did a clinging, white tank top, ectodermal black tights, red spike-heeled boots.

Milo flashed the badge. “Police, ma’am.”

She said, “And?”

“We’d like to speak to someone about Desmond Backer.”

“Des is in trouble?”

“The worst kind of trouble, Ms…”

“Desmond did something illegal?”

“Desmond’s dead.”

“Dead,” she said. “And you want to come in.”


She marched back inside, left us to follow. Swinging her hips and stepping high.

The interior was one big space, unfurnished but for a black desk and a rolling chair in a corner. White walls, high windows, carpeting that matched the bald beauty’s hemp earrings. Skylights in odd places, some of them partially blackened by the solar panel. Others bore the streaks and splotches of moisture damage.

The bald woman sat behind the desk, laid her palms flat. Charcoal-gray manicure, some kind of mesh effect on the nails. “I have no chairs for you.”

“We’re fine standing, ma’am.”

“Something criminal happened to Des.”

“Sorry to say, ma’am. Mr. Backer was murdered.”

“That is bad.” Again, the lack of inflection.

“What can you tell us about him, Ms…”

“Helga Gemein.”

“You’re one of the partners.”

“There are no partners. We are dissolved.”

“As of when?”

“Six weeks ago. Don’t ask why.”

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