CHAPTER 10

Much has been made of geographical profiling- criminals remaining within a comfort zone. Like any theory, sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn’t and you get killers prowling the interstate or venturing far from home so they can establish a comfort zone far from prying eyes.

With any alleged rules about human behavior, you’re lucky if you do better than chance. But the four-minute drive from Peaty’s apartment to Michaela Brand’s place on Holt was hard to ignore.

Her building was a mint-green fifties dingbat. The front was an open carport set behind oil-specked concrete. Six parking slots, unoccupied but for a dusty brown Dodge minivan. The facade was spanned by two olive-green diamonds. Speckles in the stucco caught afternoon light. Way too giddy.

A bank of key-lock mailboxes set into the wall just south of the parking area bore no names, only unit numbers. No manager designation. Michaela’s compartment was shut tight. Milo squinted through the slot. “Lots of stuff inside.”

Her apartment was at the back. Louvre windows as old as the building were a burglar’s dream. The glass slats were folded shut but green curtains had been left slightly parted. Dark inside, but the outlines of furniture were clear.

Milo began knocking on doors.

***

The only tenant at home was a woman in her twenties wearing a stiff, brandy-colored wig and a calf-length denim jumper over a white, long-sleeved sweater. The wig made me wonder about chemotherapy, but she was buxom and her gray eyes were clear. The same kind of lightly freckled complexion Michaela Brand had been blessed with. Open face tightened by surprise.

I saw the side curls and yarmulke on the squirming blond boy she was holding and got it: Some Orthodox Jewish women covered their natural hair out of modesty.

The badge made her press her son to her chest. “Yes?”

The boy’s arms and feet shot out simultaneously and she nearly lost her grip. He looked to be three or so. Stocky and sturdy, twisting and turning, emitting little growly noises.

“Calm down, Gershie Yoel!”

The boy waved a fist. “Hero hero Yehudah! Fall the elephant!”

He squirmed some more and she gave up and set him down. He rocked on his feet and growled some more. Eyed us and said, “Fall!”

“Gershie Yoel, go in the kitchen and take a cookie- but only one. And don’t wake up the babies!”

“Hero-hero! Yehudah HaMakawbee gonna spear you bad Greek!”

“Go now, good boy, or no cookie!”

“Grr!” Gershie Yoel ran off, past walls covered with bookshelves. Books on every table and the couch. Any remaining space was filled with playpens and toys and packages of disposable diapers.

The boy’s shouts diminished.

“He’s still celebrating the holidays,” said the young woman.

“Hanukkah?” said Milo.

She smiled. “Yes. He thinks he’s Yehudah- Judah Maccabee. That’s a big hero in the Hannukah story. The elephant is from a story about one of his brothers- ” She stopped, blushed. “What can I do for you?”

“We’re here about one of your neighbors, Mrs…”

“Winograd. Shayndie Winograd.”

Milo had her spell it and wrote it down.

She said, “You need my name?”

“Just for the record, ma’am.”

“Which neighbors, the punk rockers?”

“Which punk rockers are those?”

She pointed to an upstairs unit two doors down. “Over there, Unit Four. Three of them, they think they’re musicians. My husband tells me they’re punk rockers, I don’t know from such things.” She held her ears.

“Noise problem?” said Milo.

“There was before,” said Shayndie Winograd. “Everyone complained to the owner and it’s been okay…excuse me a second, I need to check on the babies, please come in.”

We cleared books from a brown corduroy couch. Leatherette-bound volumes gold-embossed with Hebrew titles.

Shayndie Winograd returned. “Still sleeping, boruch– thank God.”

“How many babies?” said Milo.

“Twins,” she said. “Seven months ago.”

“Mazel tov,” said Milo. “Three’s a lot to handle.”

Shayndie Winograd smiled. “Three would be easy. I’ve got six, five are school-age. Gershie Yoel should be in school but he was coughing this morning and I thought maybe he had a cold. Then, wouldn’t you know, he got miraculously better.”

Milo said, “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Her smile widened. “Maybe I should have you talk to him about honesty…so is the problem the punk rockers?”

“This is about Ms. Brand, the tenant in Unit Three.”

“The model?” said Shayndie Winograd.

“She modeled?”

“I call her that because she looks like a model. Pretty, very skinny? What’s the problem?”

“Unfortunately, ma’am, she was murdered last night.”

Shayndie Winograd’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, my God- oh, no.” She reached back for an armchair, removed a toy truck, and sat down. “Who did it?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out, Mrs. Winograd.”

“Maybe her boyfriend?”

“Who’s that?”

“Another skinny one.”

Out of Milo’s attach? came Dylan Meserve’s book shot from the hoax.

Winograd glanced at the photo. “That’s him. He was arrested? He’s a criminal?”

“He and Ms. Brand were involved in a situation. It was in the papers.”

“We don’t read the papers. What kind of situation?”

Milo gave her a summary of the phony abduction.

She said, “Why would they do such a thing?”

“It seems to have been a publicity stunt.”

Shayndie Winograd’s stare was blank.

“To help their acting careers,” said Milo.

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s hard to understand, ma’am. They thought the attention might help them get noticed in Hollywood. So why would you think Mr. Meserve would hurt Ms. Brand?”

“Sometimes they screamed at each other.”

“You heard it up here on the second floor?”

“It was loud.”

“What did they scream about?”

Shayndie Winograd shook her head. “I didn’t hear the words, just the noise.”

“Were these fights frequent?”

“Is he a bad person? Dangerous?”

“You’re not in any danger, ma’am. How often did he and Ms. Brand scream at each other?”

“I don’t know- he didn’t live here, he just came over.”

“How often?”

“Once in a while.”

“When’s the last time you saw him?”

She thought. “Weeks.”

“When’s the last time they had an argument?”

“Even longer…I’d say a month, maybe more?” She shrugged. “I’m sorry. I try not to notice things.”

“Not wanting to pry,” said Milo.

“I don’t want nahrish– foolish things in my life.”

“So Mr. Meserve hasn’t been here for a few weeks.”

“At least,” said Shayndie Winograd.

“And when did you last see Ms. Brand?”

“Her…let me think…not recently. But she used to come in late. The only time I ever noticed her was when I was out late with my husband and that’s not often.”

“The children.”

“The children get up early, everyone’s always needing something.”

“Don’t know how you do it, ma’am.”

“You concentrate on what’s important.”

Milo nodded. “So you haven’t seen Ms. Brand recently. Could you think back, maybe come up with something more specific?”

The young woman pushed back a lock of tight-sprayed, supplementary hair. “Maybe two weeks, three. I really can’t say more than that. Don’t want to give you false testimony.”

Milo suppressed a smile. The young woman shook her head. “I go out. To work. I just don’t look at things that aren’t important.”

“With six kids you have time to work?”

“At the preschool, I stay half a day. What happened to her, it’s terrible. Was it the way she lived?”

“What do you mean, ma’am?”

“I’m not insulting her, but we live one way, they live another way.”

“They?”

“The outside world.” Shayndie Winograd reddened. “I shouldn’t be talking like this. My husband says each person should pay attention to their own actions, not what other people do.”

“Your husband’s a rabbi?”

“He has smicha– he’s a rabbi but he doesn’t work as a rabbi. Half a day he does bookkeeping, the rest of the time he learns.”

“Learns what?”

Shayndie Winograd smiled again. “Torah, Judaism. He goes to a kollel– it’s like a graduate school.”

“Working on an advanced degree,” said Milo.

“He learns for the sake of learning.”

“Ah…anyway, sounds like you guys have your hands full…so, tell me about Michaela Brand’s way of life.”

“She was the normal way. What’s the American way now.”

“Meaning?”

“Tight clothes, short skirts, going out all the time.”

“Going out with who?”

“The only one I saw was the one in the picture. Sometimes she went out alone.” Shayndie Winograd blinked. “A few times we said hello. She said my children were cute. Once she offered Chaim Sholom- my six-year-old- a candy bar. I took it because I didn’t want to insult her but it wasn’t kosher so I gave it to a Mexican lady who works at the day care…she always smiled at the children. Seemed like a nice girl.” Deep sigh. “So terrible for her family.”

“She ever talk about family?”

“No, sir. We never really had a conversation, just to say hello and smile.”

Milo put his pad away. He hadn’t written anything down. “Anything else you can tell me, ma’am?”

“Like what?”

“Whatever comes to mind.”

“No, that’s it,” said Shayndie Winograd. Another deep blush. “She was beautiful but I felt sorry for her. Showing a lot of…herself. But she was nice, smiled at the babies, one time I let her hold one because I was getting into the car and had lots of packages.”

“So you had no problems with her.”

“No, no, not at all. She was nice. I felt sorry for her, that’s all.”

“Why?”

“Living by herself. All the going out. People think they can go out and do anything they want but the world is dangerous. This proves it, no?”

Squalls sounded from a bedroom. “Uh-oh.” We followed her into a ten-by-ten room taken up by two cribs. The occupants were a pair of infants, purple with indignation and, from the aroma, freshly soiled. Gershie Yoel bounced like a Slinky toy and tried to butt his mother as she changed diapers.

“Stop it! These men are policemen and if you don’t behave they can take you to the Beis Hasohar like Yosef Aveenu.

The little boy growled.

Beis Hasohar, I mean it, you good boy.” To us: “That’s jail. Yosef- Joseph, from the Bible, he ended up there, seven years until Pharaoh took him out.”

“What’d he do?” said Milo.

“Nothing,” she said. “But he was accused. By a woman.” She rolled up a filthy diaper, wiped her hands. “Bad things. Even then there were bad things.”

***

Milo left his card at the other apartments. When we got to the ground floor the mail carrier was distributing envelopes.

“Afternoon,” said Milo.

The postman was a gray-haired Filipino, short and slight. His U.S. Postal Service van was parked at the curb. His right hand grasped one of several keys on a chain attached to his belt as the left pressed bound stacks of mail against his torso.

“H’lo,” he said.

Milo identified himself. “What’s the situation in Box Three?”

“What do you mean?”

“When’s the last time she emptied it?”

The carrier opened Michaela’s compartment. “Looks like not for a while.” He let the keychain drop and used both hands to separate the stacks. “Two for her today. It’s not my regular route…lucky this is all she got, not much room left.”

Milo pointed to the two envelopes. “Can I take a look at those?”

The mailman said, “You know I cannot do that.”

“I don’t wanna open them,” said Milo. “She got murdered last night. I just wanna see who’s writing to her.”

“Murdered?”

“That’s right.”

“It’s not my regular route.”

“You already said that.”

The carrier hesitated, handed over the envelopes.

Bulk solicitation to apply for a low-interest home loan and a “Last Chance!” pitch to resubscribe to InStyle magazine.

Milo handed them back.

“How about the stuff inside?”

“That’s private property,” said the mailman.

“What happens when you come back in a few days and there’s no more room?”

“We leave a notice.”

“Where does the mail go?”

“Stays in the station.”

“I can get a warrant and come by and open it all up.”

“If you say.”

“I say I just wanna look at the envelopes that are in there. Seeing as the box is already open.”

“Privacy- ”

“When she got killed she lost her privacy.”

***

The carrier made a show of ignoring us as he went about delivering mail to the other tenants. Milo reached into Box Three, removed a thick stack wedged so tightly he had to ease it out, and thumbed through.

“Mostly junk…a few bills…urgent one from the gas company meaning she was overdue…same deal with the phone company.”

He inspected the postmarks. “Ten days’ worth. Looks like she was gone well before she died.”

“A vacation’s not likely,” I said. “She was broke.”

He looked at me. Both of us thinking the same thing.

Maybe someone had kept her for a while.

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