Thousand Oaks, California, had an overzealous, sanitary charm. They didn’t build homes here. They manufactured them-a hundred identical Mediterranean villas at a stroke. Gated subdivisions named in every combination of “Bridge,” “Haven,” “Glen,” and «Lake» covered the hillsides.
Upscale retail chains had embassies in the city center, and the service people drove in each day from vassal communities. Where the medieval city of Lyon had its Lane of Tanners, Southern California had its Vale of the Baristas and its Canyon of Firefighters and Rescue Personnel.
For average working folks, America was becoming a puzzle. Who was buying all these two-hundred-dollar copper saucepans, anyway? And how was everyone paying for these BMWs? Were people shrewd or just stupefyingly irresponsible?
Pete Sebeck thought television held some clues. Channel surfing late at night, unable to sleep, Sebeck considered the commercials aimed at him. Was he their demographic? Had they correctly deduced him? And what did that say about him? The History Channel seemed to think he was either a Korean War veteran looking for a truly capable brush mower, or that he was desperately in need of a career change. He had a nasty suspicion they were right about one of them.
The 101 freeway cut Thousand Oaks in two, but there really was no wrong side of the freeway. It had been named the safest small city in America, and as Detective Sergeant Peter Sebeck watched the tidy boulevards roll past his passenger window, he recalled why he and Laura moved here thirteen years ago-back when it was affordable; Ventura County was a great place to raise children. If you fucked up raising kids here, then God himself could not have helped you.
Sebeck turned to Nathan Mantz, who was looking at him with concern from the driver’s seat. Sebeck barely shook his head. Mantz knew better than to pursue it.
Sebeck thought about the radio call from Burkow. It would certainly rattle a few country club gates. Sebeck and Mantz cruised through town with the strobes flashing but no siren. No need to alarm anyone. From his unmarked Crown Victoria, Sebeck watched the unsuspecting citizenry-the tax base on power walks. They’d have something to talk about tonight at Pilates class.
The Crown Vic descended into the undeveloped canyons just beyond the last subdivision wall. The scene wasn’t difficult to find. An ambulance, three patrol units, and a few unmarked cars on the sandy shoulder of Potrero Road marked the location. Two deputy sheriffs stood near a closed steel gate flanked by chain-link fence stretching out in either direction.
Mantz rolled the cruiser into the driveway before the gate. Sebeck stepped from the car and turned to the nearest officer. “Coroner?”
“En route, Sergeant.”
“Where’s Detective Burkow?”
The deputy thumbed in the direction of a hole cut in the side of the chain-link fence.
Sebeck waited for Mantz, who was radioing in. Sebeck looked back at the deputy. “Let’s get this gate open.”
“Can’t, Sergeant. It’s got one of those remote-control locks built into it. There’s nothing to cut.”
Sebeck nodded as Mantz caught up to him.
“The property is owned by a local company-CyberStorm Entertainment. We got through to their people. They’re sending someone down.”
Sebeck moved through the hole in the fence, followed by Mantz. They marched along a dirt road winding among the chaparral on the canyon bottom. Soon they came to a crowd of EMTs and deputy sheriffs standing well back from a photographer. They were all shiny with sweat in the midday sun. The paramedics had a gurney, but no one was in a hurry. They turned as Sebeck and Mantz crunched across the dirt toward them. “Afternoon, gentlemen.” A glance. “Ladies.”
They mumbled greetings and parted to let Sebeck and Mantz pass.
Detective Martin Burkow, a corpulent man in his fifties with ill-fitting pants, stood on a mound of sandy soil at the edge of the road. Next to him the police photographer leaned forward to get an overhead shot of a body lying in the road. A pool of brownish, dried blood stretched out beneath it and traced dark rivulets downhill.
Sebeck gazed over the scene. A motocross motorcycle lay twenty yards down the road, on the side of a nearby hill. He could see where it had bounded into the left wall of the canyon and then rolled back across the dirt road.
Above the road, between him and the body, a taut steel cable stretched at neck level. The cable traversed the road at a forty-five-degree angle, closer on the left side, farther away on the right. Anything racing through here would grind down the cable like a saw blade. The cable was bloodstained for a good ten-foot length. The body lay ten yards beyond that. A motorcycle helmet five yards farther still.
Sebeck’s eyes followed the thin steel cable rightward to a steel pole rising from the chaparral. Then leftward through the bushes. A freshly cut groove crossed the dirt roadway directly beneath the cable.
“Martin, what do we have?”
Detective Burkow coughed the consumptive cough of a lifelong smoker. “Hi, Pete. Thanks for coming down. Caucasian male, approximately thirty years old. A local walking his dog found the body about an hour ago. It was reported as a 10–54, but I thought I’d call you guys. This is looking more like a 187.”
Sebeck and Mantz looked at each other and raised their eyebrows. Homicide. Rare in Thousand Oaks. The only killings down here were made in real estate.
The photographer nodded to Burkow and made his way back along the edge of the road. Burkow motioned for them to move forward. “Stick to the left, in the ruts. All the footprints are on the other side.” He stepped down off the mound.
Sebeck and Mantz ducked under the cable and stood over the body. Sebeck was relieved to see the head still attached. The nearby helmet was empty. The dead man wore an expensive-looking motocross jumpsuit with logo patches. The yellow nylon was torn at chest level. It looked like he hit the cable with his torso, and it rode up to his throat. The man’s larynx was slashed, and flies buzzed over the gaping wound. His skin was alabaster white, and his lusterless, dry eyes stared at Sebeck’s shoes.
Sebeck pulled on rubber surgical gloves and leaned forward. He felt for a wallet or ID in the pockets. There didn’t appear to be any. He looked ahead at the dirt bike, then back at the police photographer. “Carey, try to read the plates on the bike. Maybe we can ID this guy.”
The photographer peered down the canyon, then affixed a 200mm lens to his camera and focused on the motorcycle.
Sebeck stood up, and his eyes once again traversed the cable behind them. He peered through the bushes where it disappeared. “Anybody know where this ends?”
The deputies and EMTs shook their heads.
“Nathan, let’s follow this thing. Stay clear of it. And look for tracks.” He turned back to Burkow. “Marty, what are all these footprints on the road?”
“The locals walk it all the time. I’ve already interviewed a few.”
“Get me a cast of every unique print in this area.” Sebeck waved his arms downward.
“That’s gonna be a lot of prints.”
“Tell forensics they don’t have to cast the dog tracks.”
Mantz grinned. “I don’t know, I hear Pekinese are pretty smart.”
Sebeck shot him a dark look and pointed at the bushes. The cable led through a gap in the hillside that opened up back onto Potrero Road. He and Mantz fanned out on either side and moved through the bushes while studying the sandy ground.
“Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, Pete.” Mantz jumped over a ditch of eroded soil.
The cable was easy to follow, and the groove in the soil beneath it shadowed it all the way. After sixty feet they were back at the chain-link fence on Potrero Road, staring at the back of a No Trespassing sign. The cable ran through the fence and into the back of a steel box two feet square sitting atop a thick pipe driven into the ground. The groove in the soil ended six feet away from the fence on their side. They had found no new footprints.
“Let’s head to the other side.”
* * *
In a few minutes they were back on Potrero Road at the gate. They walked a hundred yards down the shoulder and reached the front of the steel box. It had a sturdy lock in its face and was fashioned of welded steel. It had a few indentations where passing teens had taken potshots at it with rifles, but none had penetrated.
“Built to last.” Sebeck peered around to a square hole in back where the cable entered. “Winch housing?”
Mantz nodded. “At first I thought it might be kids playing an evil prank. But this is a serious piece of engineering. What use could this thing serve?”
They turned as a Range Rover and a pickup truck pulled to the shoulder of the road near the gate. A couple of guys in khakis got out of the Rover. They spoke briefly with the deputies there, who pointed down to Sebeck and Mantz. The khakis climbed back into the Rover. Both vehicles rolled down the shoulder and stopped in front of the detectives, sending a choking cloud of dust over them.
The khakis got out again. The one on the passenger side came forward with his hand extended. He looked like money-business casual with creases. “Detectives. Gordon Pietro, senior legal counsel for CyberStorm Entertainment.” They shook hands. Pietro pushed business cards on both of them. “This is our VP of public relations, Ron Massey.”
Sebeck nodded. Massey had longer hair than Pietro and a pierced eyebrow with a gold ring. He was in his late twenties and looked like money, too. A pang of jealousy shot through Sebeck. The fact that he could effortlessly beat the shit out of this kid sprang unbidden into his mind. He pushed it back down. “This is Detective Mantz. I’m Detective Sergeant Sebeck, East Ventura County Major Crimes Unit.”
Pietro stopped short. “Major Crimes Unit? We were told there was an accidental death on the property.”
“The responding officers called us in. We’re investigating this as a potential homicide.” Sebeck leaned around Pietro and looked at the pickup truck parked behind the Rover. The pickup had a logo on the side door, illegible at this angle. “Who’s in the truck?”
“Oh- a worker from the management firm. They maintain the property. He has a remote for the front gate.”
“Let’s get him out here. I want to talk to him.”
Pietro walked back, motioning to the guy in the truck.
Sebeck turned to Massey. “What’s this property used for?”
“CyberStorm purchased the land as an investment. It’s also used by the company for campouts, team-building exercises, things like that.”
Sebeck took out a pad and pen. “So you’re the PR guy? What’s CyberStorm Entertainment do, Ron?”
“We’re a leading computer game developer. Ever hear of
Burkow shouted from down near the gate. “Pete. I got a name from the DMV. The bike’s registered to a Joseph Pavlos. Lives up in those McMansions on the hilltop.”
Massey put a hand to his chin. “Oh man.”
“You know the victim?”
“Yeah. He’s one of our senior developers. What happened?”
Sebeck gestured with his pen. “He hit this cable with his neck. Do you know if he rode down here regularly?”
“I don’t, but his development team might.”
Pietro returned with a Mexican man in his forties dressed in a green jumpsuit. The guy looked like he’d had a tough life-and that he expected it to get a lot tougher any second.
“Ron? Pav was the one killed?”
Massey nodded and produced a cell phone. “Damn this canyon. Can’t get a signal.”
Pietro produced his phone for a bar-count contest. “What service do you use? I have two bars.”
Sebeck butted in. “You are?”
Pietro turned back to him. “This is Haime.”
“What’s your full name, Haime?”
“Haime Alvarez Jimenez, seor.”
“Can I see some identification, Mr. Jimenez?”
“What’s going on?”
“There’s been a fatality. Can I have that ID, please?”
Haime looked at Pietro and Massey, then dug into his pocket for his wallet. He found his driver’s license and held it out to Sebeck. Its leading edge quivered noticeably.
A slight smile creased Sebeck’s face. “Haime, did you kill this guy?”
“Then relax.” He took the ID and examined it.
Haime pointed at the steel box. “I close a ticket on this winch today. I just turn a key. Like it says on the work order.”
“Where’s the work order?”
“On the Pocket PC in my truck.”
“Do you have the key to this winch housing?”
Haime nodded and produced a bar-code-labeled key chain with three keys.
“You activated this winch today? What time?”
“About nine, nine-thirty. I can tell you exactly from the work order.”
Sebeck motioned for the keys, then used them to unlock the housing. He flipped it open with the tip of his pen. Inside, there was an electric winch with another keyhole in its face.
“What’s the third key for?”
“Manual override for the front gate.”
“So you turned the key. The winch activated and pulled the cable…” Sebeck leaned over, “…out of the ground.”
“No, seor. No cable. Just the winch motor.”
The others rolled their eyes in unison.
“Haime, if you were sent by your company to do this, then you don’t have much to worry about. What’s the purpose of this winch, anyway?”
Haime shrugged. “I not run it before.”
“Can you get me that work order?”
“Yes, sir.” Haime scurried toward his truck.
Pietro was looking down the length of the cable. “What exactly happened, Detective Sebeck?”
“Someone built this winch and the housing, then buried a steel cable in the soil. Running the winch stretched the cable across the dirt road at neck level.”
The two CyberStorm representatives looked confused.
Pietro put a hand to his chin. “Are you sure that it’s not a…like a chain across the road?”
“Why bury it? Why do it at all when you have a steel gate at the entrance?”
Pietro was at a loss.
Haime returned and pushed his Pocket PC into Sebeck’s face. He shadowed the screen with his callused hand and pointed to the work order displayed there. “See, it says ‘Run the antenna-lifting winch until it stop.'”
Sebeck took the handheld computer and with Mantz studied the data fields on-screen. “Nathan, we’re going to need a search warrant for the property management firm. Put their office under surveillance until we get a team over there. Also, get me a case number, and get me Burkow’s notes. I’m taking over the investigation. Everything goes through me from this point forward.” He looked up at Haime. “Haime, we’re going to want to chat with you at the sheriff’s station.”
“Seor, I didn’t do anything.”
“I know, Haime. That’s why you want to cooperate while we arrange a search warrant for your employer.”
Pietro interposed himself. “Detective Sebeck-“
“Counselor, this cable assembly was maintained by your property management firm-which would indicate they had prior knowledge of it. Would you prefer to make CyberStorm the responsible party, or does CyberStorm want to cooperate with my investigation?”
Pietro pursed his lips, then turned to Haime. “Haime, don’t worry. Go with them. Do everything they say. Tell them everything you know.”
“I don’t know anything, Seor Pietro.”
“I know that, Haime. But I think it best that you do what Detective Sebeck says.”
“I am a U.S. citizen. Am I under arrest?”
Sebeck looked to Mantz. Mantz stepped in. “No, Haime. We’re just gonna talk. You can leave the pickup truck here. We’ll take care of that.” Mantz motioned for Haime to move toward the patrol cars and started escorting him away.
Pietro nodded to Massey. “Detective Sebeck, we’ll contact your office for a copy of the police report. You know where to reach me.” Both men climbed back into the Range Rover and sped off, perhaps to find a better wireless signal.
Sebeck looked along the length of cable. Would someone really have built this just to kill a person? He could think of easier ways to kill someone.
He clamped back a smile. This wasn’t a murder-suicide or a botched drug deal. It might actually be a premeditated killing. Was it wrong to hope so? Accident or murder, the victim was dead. Nothing would change that. So what was wrong with hoping it was murder?
Pondering this, Sebeck turned and walked back to the front gate.