8

After leaving Lt. Long’s office, I took a moment to phone my house in Malibu, hoping to catch Catheryn before she went out. No one was home. Next I tried her cell. She wasn’t answering, so I left a message saying that I planned to stop by later that evening to take her and the kids out for a final bon-voyage meal-someplace close and casual.

I had spent most of my spare moments that morning thinking about Catheryn. Missing her, actually. Although I knew the previous evening had been a step in the right direction, I had no illusions about the fragile nature of our truce, and before she left I wanted a chance to solidify whatever progress I’d made.

Deciding to let taxpayers pay for the trip to Orange County, I made my way to the parking lot behind the station house and checked out one of three “city cars” assigned to the West LA Division. The unmarked vehicle I got, a late-model Chevy, was a piece of junk. Worse, apparently it hadn’t been serviced in a while, and halfway to Orange County I noticed the temperature gauge climbing into the red. Realizing I didn’t have time to stop if I wanted to make my meeting, I rolled down my windows and turned on the Chevy’s heater. Although making a sweltering day even hotter, my tactic bled off enough engine heat to keep the car running… barely. Cursing the LAPD motor pool, I drove the slow lanes of the 405 Freeway to the Interstate 5 Interchange, turned south, and crawled the remaining distance to Mission Viejo.

After exiting on Alicia, I nursed the Chevy east through the crowded Orange County streets, passing a procession of unfamiliar shopping malls and housing developments that had mushroomed since I’d last visited. Irritated and sweating, I finally arrived at my destination. Wheeling past a brace of flower beds and a carved wooden sign reading “Villa del Sol,” I pulled into a “Visitors Only” lane and eased to a stop before a flagstone-faced guardhouse. Beyond the gate I could see rows of model homes marching to the end of a pennant-lined street, with the blue of Lake Mission Viejo sparkling through trees farther in.

“Can I help you?”

Flipping out my shield, I addressed a young man who had stepped from the guardhouse. “I’m meeting somebody inside.”

The guard, a sallow youth with lank blond hair, gaped at my badge. “This about the murders?”

“That’s right. Open up.”

The youth swallowed nervously, reached into the guardhouse, and grabbed a clipboard. After jotting down the Chevrolet’s license number, he thrust a visitor pass through my window. “Here you go, sir,” he said.

The gate lifted. But instead of proceeding, I inspected the rectangular white card I’d been given. “You do this for every visitor coming through?” I asked, watching a gray Ford enter through a keyed gate marked “Residents Only.” “You write down every license?”

“Uh… yes, sir.”

“And you collect these cards on the way out?”

“No, but-”

“So I could give this pass to somebody else and you’d wave them by.”

“I… I guess,” the guard stammered. “But it’s no good after the expiration date.”

I tossed the card onto my dashboard. “How many gates are there into this place?”

“Three, but this is the only one staffed past nine PM. After that you have to have a keycard to get past the others.”

I watched as a young couple strolled into one of the model homes across the street. “Seems like you have a fair amount of construction going on. I’ll bet it gets busy around seven in the morning, with all the trade guys coming through.”

“It sure does,” the youngster conceded. “Sometimes they’re backed up around the block.

“So with everybody trying to make it to work on time, traffic jamming up and all, maybe not every license gets written down.”

“Sometimes,” the guard admitted.

By now a line of cars had formed behind me. “Thanks,” I said, heading through the gate. “You’ve been helpful.”

After rechecking my directions, I arrived minutes later at a two-story Mediterranean-style home with arched windows and a three-car garage. A gray Taurus sat in the driveway. Lounging against the fender, a heavyset man with a pronounced potbelly and the flattened nose of a prizefighter watched as I rolled to a stop.

“Barrello? Lou Barrello?” I called as I climbed out, sizing up the balding man across the driveway as a typical twenty-year cop-streetwise, jaded, and fast approaching burnout.

“Glad you could make it, Kane.”

I reached back into the car and grabbed my file on the Larsons. “Sorry I’m late,” I said, starting up the driveway. “Traffic.”

“Don’t give it a second thought,” Barrello said. “Orange County cops like me have nothing better to do than wait around for a hotshot big-city detective like yourself.”

I had extended my hand as I approached. Hearing this, I let it drop to my side. “You got a problem, Barrello?”

“Not at all. I love havin’ some expert drop by with helpful hints on how to run my investigation.”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” I said slowly. “I’m sure you boys down here can screw things up just fine without any help from me.”

“Think so, huh? Well, as we’re on the subject, let’s get somethin’ straight. No way LAPD’s taking over my case. Orange County is cooperating on a strictly voluntary basis.”

“Let me ask you something, Barrello. Ever consider switching to decaf?”

Barrello smiled thinly. “All the time,” he said, eyeing the folder in my hand. “You turn up anything?”

“See for yourself.” I started to pass him the file, then pulled it back. “You have something for me?”

“Yeah.” Barrello reached into his car and grabbed a thick binder marked “Pratt.”

I squinted at the sky. “What do you say we go inside, get out of the sun?”

“The lawyer ain’t shown up yet with the keys,” said Barrello. “Maybe it’s cooler over there,” he added, tipping his head toward a portico shading the front door.

I followed him to the front entrance of the house. Barrello sat on the landing and dived into my report. I leaned against a wall and started on his. For the next fifteen minutes we studied our respective folders in silence.

First, I turned to the description of the Pratt crime scene. According to the Orange County investigators, there had been no sign of a break-in. As with the Palisades killings, whoever murdered Andy, Carol, and Natalie Pratt had apparently gained access through their unlocked front door. Either that, or used a key. After entering sometime between one and two AM, the intruder disabled the phones and turned off the power at a breaker panel in the garage. Blood spatters and a trail of blood from the kitchen to the Pratts’ second-floor bedroom suggested that the husband, possibly hearing a sound, went downstairs to investigate, encountered the intruder, and suffered a cracked skull and. 25-caliber gunshots to the right elbow and left knee. Once he had dragged the husband upstairs, the killer bound him and his wife, gagging them with Ace bandages. Carol Pratt, hands and feet fastened to the bedposts, died of multiple stab wounds. Blood and urine on the carpet near the closet indicated that the killer-using rope and a piece of galvanized pipe-strangled Andy Pratt there, then placed his body on the bed alongside his wife. Investigators discovered extra rope under the covers. The murder knife, found beside one of three burned-out candles in the room, had been taken from a set in the kitchen.

The Pratts’ four-year-old daughter had died in her bedroom down the hall, suffocated with a plastic trash bag matching others found in the house. A later canvass of the area turned up little. None of the neighbors saw or heard anything out of the ordinary.

I flipped to the eight-by-ten crime scene photos, pausing on a closeup of the husband. Rope encircled his throat, almost hidden in the mottled flesh. The pipe used to tighten the coils had been wedged behind his shoulder to maintain pressure. A second ligature mark ran across his chest and beneath his armpits. I looked closer, noticing that one eyelid had been cut crudely up the center. The other was completely missing. After shuffling past photos of the child, I inspected several shots of the woman. Like Susan Larson, she had once been beautiful. Now her face appeared somehow out of focus, her lips drawn back in a grimace, dried blood on her cheeks giving the appearance of some grotesque makeup that had run under her tears. Shallow knife wounds traversed her upper torso, accompanied by a hideous pattern of bites. Like gaping mouths, deep incisions below her ribcage, probably the killing strokes, split the skin of her abdomen.

Moving on, I scanned the OC autopsy protocols, learning that the woman had died of penetrating wounds to the heart and aorta, her husband of soft ligature strangulation. The bruising, degree of swelling, and increased histamine levels in the husband’s eyelid cuts and the woman’s bites and incisions indicated that most of the wounds had been inflicted before the time of death. Both victims showed signs of skin and eye irritation from a chemical currently available in pepper spray. Vaginal and anal tears, along with traces of a gel-type spermicide, were present on the woman.

Other lab tests proved disappointing. Semen, saliva swabs, and fingernail-cutting examinations all came up negative. No unexplained blood was found at the scene. Unmatched latent prints were lifted with no computer hits, and six unidentified hairs were recovered from the bed sheets and pubic combings.

Closing the folder, I looked over at Barrello. The OC detective had already finished the smaller LAPD file. He now sat smoking an unfiltered Camel, seeming lost in thought. Noticing my glance, he took one last drag and ground the butt into a flower pot. “Same guy,” he said.

I nodded. “There are a few differences. The plastic bag on the kid, for instance. And the pepper spray. But yeah. It’s him.”

“When will your lab and autopsy reports be available?”

“It’ll be a couple days on the lab. The coroner’s report probably won’t be available for a while longer, but the results will show the same things you guys found down here. Eyelids, bites, knife wounds, ligature strangulation.”

“Damn.” Barrello pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and shook out another.

“How many confessions do you have so far?” I asked. Most cases like this usually generated a rash of idiots who want to confess, I suppose in the hopes of getting their fifteen minutes of fame.

“Seventeen.”

“So things should be cleared up in no time.”

“Right.” Barrello lit his cigarette and took a drag, then handed back my file.

I took it, returning Barrello’s at the same time. “Now, don’t take this wrong,” I said. “I’m not saying we’re doing any better, but you guys don’t have squat, do you?”

Scowling, Barrello shook his head. “No witnesses, no informants, nothing. The woman’s ex-husband came up clean, and so did every other suspect we interviewed-family, friends, anybody with a key. For a while we thought it might be someone living in the complex. When that didn’t pan out, we interviewed everybody on the visitor list for the past six weeks. Zip. We’re workin’ our way further back now. You wouldn’t believe how many people go through those gates.”

“Anything in the family’s letters, bills, private correspondence?”

“Nothing. But there’s gotta be a connection. The guy knew how to get in and where to turn off the power. Plus, he managed to find his way around the house in the dark. He had been here before. I’m sure of it.”

“I get that feeling, too.”

Just then a silver-gray Mercedes pulled to the curb, parking behind my car. “Lawyers,” noted with disgust Barrello as a razor-thin man in an expensive-looking suit stepped out. “Always late, ’less they’re sendin’ a bill.”

“There you are,” the man called. “Sorry I’m tardy. Traffic was horrendous on the way in.”

Barrello rose to his feet. “So I’ve heard. You bring the key?”

“Of course,” the man answered, pulling a small manila envelope from his pocket. “Unfortunately, I can’t stay,” he added. “The envelope is self-addressed. Please use it to return the key to my office when you’re done. By the way, I had the electricity and water turned back on for the painters and carpet people. They’re scheduled to come in next week, after which the house will be placed on the market. I hope you’re finished with whatever you have to do by then.”

Barrello took the envelope. “If we’re not, we’ll let you know.”

“Fine.” The lawyer climbed back into his Mercedes without saying good-bye.

“Shyster scumbag,” Barrello grumbled as the attorney drove off.

“You have a problem with this particular guy, or the entire legal profession in general?” I asked.

“Lawyers in general,” Barrello answered curtly. After withdrawing the key, he crumpled the manila envelope and tossed it into the flower bed. “My wife’s doctors screwed up some tests a couple years back. Let things go on too long. She wound up with a lot of surgery, and sorting it out’s been a mess. Everybody’s suing everybody. By the time it’s over, the attorneys will be happy as clams. We’ll be lucky if we wind up with enough for a cup of coffee.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Barrello twisted the key in the lock and opened the door. I followed him in, noting a tiled entry, a step-down living room, and a staircase leading to the second floor.

“What exactly are you looking for?” asked Barrello.

“I’m not sure. This place have a security alarm?”

“No. Most of the other houses around here do, but one of the neighbors said Mr. Pratt claimed a dead bolt was better than the best burglar alarm.”

“Dead bolt, huh? So why didn’t he use it?”

Barrello shrugged. “You tell me.”

After a circuit of the first floor, Barrello and I proceeded upstairs. From the look of things, the Orange County investigators had done a thorough job-beds stripped, sink traps and bathtub drains removed, dustings of ferric oxide applied. In the master bedroom I noticed a stained patch of carpet near the closet. I knelt to examine it. “This where the husband died?”

“Uh-huh. At least that’s the way we’ve got it figured. Our lab matched the stain to residual fluid in his bladder.”

As I rose, I noticed that the knob on the bathroom door was askew. I glanced toward the bed, then back at the doorknob. Leaning closer, I noted fibers stuck in the crack between the shaft and the flange. “Makes sense,” I said, remembering the ligature mark on Mr. Pratt’s chest.

“What?”

“Fibers caught in the door handle.”

“I see them. Shit, we missed that.”

“We did, too,” I admitted, making a mental note to have SID reexamine the Palisades scene.

“What do you mean, it makes sense?”

“Later. Was anything missing from the house?”

“Not that we could tell,” Barrello answered, clearly irritated at being put off. “Kinda difficult to determine with everybody… gone,” he added. “We found cash in the dresser. The guy’s wallet and the woman’s purse appeared untouched. Both cars were still in the garage.

I spent the next quarter hour inspecting the master bedroom and the remainder of the second floor, then headed back downstairs. Barrello followed me through a cluttered utility room into the garage. The Pratts’ cars, a brand-new Audi and an older Plymouth Voyager showing considerably more wear, sat like dusty sentinels in their spaces. In the remaining area, beside a neat arrangement of bicycles, I found a workbench with tools hanging in pegboard outlines, plastic hardware containers in pigeonholes, and power tools neatly arranged on racks and shelves. I shook my head in admiration, recalling my own messy workshop at home. After locating a button beside the light switch, I opened the garage door and made my way to an electrical panel on the far wall. “This where he shut off the power?” I asked.

Barrello nodded. “As you can see, it ain’t that easy to find.”

“No,” I agreed. “Can’t see the guy turning on lights to look for it, either.”

I stepped around the cars to the workbench, noticing the partly assembled hull of a model sailing ship-it’s masts, gaffs, and bowsprit already in place. A set of plans and parts from a model kit lay beside it, along with an oak rudder and a handful of miniature teak planks that apparently Mr. Pratt had been shaping using the kit pieces as templates. I opened a number of drawers, finding their contents perfectly arranged, immaculate.

“You seen enough?” asked Barrello impatiently. “I’ve got things to do.”

“Yeah. I’m finished.”

After returning to the utility room door, I hit the garage-opener button and started to follow Barrello inside. Something caught my attention. I reentered the garage and hit the button again.

“Kane. You comin’?”

“Give me a second.”

Barrello returned, watching curiously as I pulled on a pair of latex gloves, grabbed a stepladder from the corner, and removed the light cover on the door-opener motor.

“What’re you doin’?”

“The light on the opener’s out. The one in the Palisades was out, too. Probably doesn’t mean anything, but as anal as this guy Pratt seemed to be… Hmmm, what have we here?”

One of the two bulb receptacles on the front of the opener was empty. As Barrello moved closer, I pried something from the empty fixture with the tip of my pen.

“What’d you find?”

“Potato,” I answered, tossing Barrello a brown, shriveled chunk of vegetable. “Good for getting out broken bulbs. Appears that Mr. Pratt tried to change a dead bulb and wound up twisting it off in the socket.” I attempted to screw out the other bulb, holding it close to the stem. It wouldn’t budge.

I crossed to the workbench, returning with a pair of insulated pliers. After inserting the tool’s beaks into the vacant socket, I twisted, unsuccessfully trying to unscrew the broken bulb remnant. “You might want to have your guys dust the cover and remaining bulb,” I suggested as I stepped down from the ladder.

“Think the killer messed with them?”

“Maybe. We have a car missing from the Palisades house,” I answered. “It’s possible that the guy originally planned on stealing one of the Pratts’ cars, too. Maybe he intended to stash the bodies in the trunk and then hide the car, and he didn’t want the lights coming on when he opened the door.”

“So why didn’t he?”

“Hide the bodies? Who knows? Maybe he changed his mind. Hell, the guy’s a psycho-maybe he came down here to run around naked in the moonlight and didn’t want anybody watching. Bottom line, if he did mess with the lights, he went to a lot of trouble to make sure they couldn’t be fixed before he came back.”

“Pretty far-fetched. If he didn’t want the lights coming on, why didn’t he simply unscrew them? Or better yet, open the door manually?”

“I don’t know. I admit it’s a long shot, but something’s going on. Let me make a call and see what we come up with at the Palisades scene.”

“Go ahead,” said Barrello doubtfully.

I retrieved my cellular phone from the front seat of the Chevy. Returning to the shade of the portico, I punched in Paul Deluca’s number.

Deluca, who for the past hour had been at the Palisades crime scene awaiting the arrival of a technician from the security company, sounded testy when he answered. “I phoned that hump twice to remind him,” he complained. “Son of a bitch still forgot. I hate putting up with that kinda crap.”

“That’s why we’re getting the big bucks, Paul. Listen, go out to the garage and examine the door-opener lights. They’re dead, and I want to know if they’ve been tampered with. And don’t screw up any possible prints.”

“Don’t worry,” said Deluca. “I have done this kinda thing before. By the way, the missing car turned up. It’s in a Santa Monica body shop.”

“One mystery down. I still want the opener examined. Do it now, okay? I’ll wait for you to call back, so don’t take all day.”

After closing the garage and relocking the house, Barrello exited the front door in time to hear the last of my conversation. “So are we gonna cooperate on this?” he asked.

“Think you can handle working with a hotshot big-city detective such as myself?”

“I’ll do my best,” he said dryly. “What’s first?”

I thought a moment. “For one, we can have our labs cross-compare all physical evidence. We’re currently examining the Larsons’ personal records, and we’ll be interviewing every friend and family member we can turn up. I’m sure you guys have already done the same, so let’s cross-check those areas, too. It would be helpful to establish a link, even if it’s only marginal.”

“So we’re goin’ on the assumption that the killer knew both families?”

“Oh, he knew them,” I said, my eyes searching a ridge west of the house. “Maybe only peripherally, but he knew them. The women are the key. You don’t turn up two women that beautiful at random. He selected them, stalked them, and when the time was right, he killed them.”

Noting my stalking reference, Barrello glanced up at the ridge, where the framed skeletons of three homes under construction were silhouetted against the skyline. “Think he lives in the complex here?”

“Not necessarily, but close enough to know the area. By the way, I talked to a kid at the gate. Anybody can get through, especially in the morning when work crews arrive.” My cellular phone rang. I flipped it open. “Deluca?”

“The one and only, paisano, ” Deluca answered. “That prick from the security company finally called. He’s on his way.”

“What about the utility light on the door opener?”

“It was out, like you said. I pulled the cover and found what appeared to be two dead bulbs. I tried one in a house lamp, where it worked fine. But get this. As I was unscrewing the other bulb, I discovered that a wire had been cut on the light unit and tucked back into the housing.”

“Good work, Paul. Get SID out there again. Have them dust the bulbs and light cover, and anything else on the opener the guy might’ve touched. As a matter of fact, have them take the whole thing back to the lab. I want all doorknobs in the house examined for fibers, too.”

“Anything else?”

I thought a moment. “Sample any oil and radiator coolant drips in the garage.”

“I’m on it.”

I broke the connection, then looked over at Barrello. “The light on the Palisades opener was disabled. On purpose.”

Barrello nodded. “I’ll have our guys go over the Pratts’ opener. Doorknobs, too. Could be we’re on to something.”

“Maybe.” I glanced at my watch, realizing there was no way I would avoid freeway traffic on the return trip to West LA-especially if I stopped to have the Chevy checked. “Time to hit the road. I’ll be in touch.”

Barrello shoved his hands into his pockets. “Hey, Kane?” he said, gazing back at the house. “What’d you mean when you said it made sense? You know, when you found the fibers on the bathroom doorknob?”

“Simple. I’m betting those fibers will match the clothesline rope our guy used.”

“Gee, I’ll alert the media.”

“Remember the missing eyelids?” I continued, ignoring Barrello’s sarcasm.

“So?”

“So here’s what I think. Before our guy went to work on the wife, he trussed up Mr. Pratt, choked him out, and snipped off his eyelids.”

“But why?”

“Can’t close your eyes without eyelids.”

“Son of a bitch,” said Barrello, beginning to understand.

“Then, when the killer was ready to start on Mrs. Pratt,” I finished grimly, “he pulled the husband to his knees, tied him to the door, and made him watch.”

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