CHAPTER 13

Giacomo’s rental Escort was parked in a loading zone ten yards from Caf? Moghul, the predictable ticket secured by a wiper blade. Milo and I watched him snatch the citation and rip it into confetti. Paper snow floated to the curb.

He shot Milo a defiant look. Milo pretended not to notice.

Giacomo stooped, picked up the shreds, put them in his pocket. Rolling his shoulders, he got in the Escort and drove off.

Milo said, “Every time I start off in one of those situations I tell myself to be sensitive. Somehow, it gets messed up.”

“You did fine.”

He laughed.

I said, “With all his frustration and grief it couldn’t have gone any differently.”

“That’s exactly what you were supposed to say.”

“At least something in life’s predictable.”

We walked east on Santa Monica, passed an Asian import shop where Milo stopped and pretended to be fascinated by bamboo.

When we resumed walking, I said, “Think Giacomo’s right about Tori being dead?”

“It’s a distinct possibility, but maybe her mother’s right and she’s off partying in Capri or Dubai. What do you think of the acting-school angle?”

“Lots of those in L.A.,” I said.

“Lots of young waitpersons aiming for bigger and better. Be interesting if Tori took classes at the PlayHouse but short of that you see any stunning parallels?”

“A few similarities but more differences. Michaela’s body was left out in the open. If Tori was murdered, the killer sure didn’t want her discovered.”

We turned right and walked south on Butler.

“What if we’re looking at an escalation thing, Alex? Our bad boy started off hiding his handiwork but acquired confidence and decided to advertise?”

“Someone like Peaty moving from peeping to assault,” I said. “Getting progressively more violent and brazen.”

“That does come to mind.”

“A sexual aspect to Michaela’s killing would support it. There was no positioning and she was left fully clothed. But maybe she was played with at the kill-spot, tidied up before being transported. Autopsy’s due soon, right?”

“It just got kicked up another day or two. Or four.”

“Busy time at the crypt.”

“Always.”

“Are they really moving the bodies out that fast?”

“If only the freeways worked as well.”

“Wonder how many Jane Does are in storage?” I said.

“If Tori ever was there, she’s long gone. As her daddy will learn soon enough. What are the odds he’s calling them right now?”

“If she was my daughter, that’s what I’d be doing.”

He sniffed, cleared his throat, scratched the side of his nose. Raised a pink, wormy welt that faded as quickly as it had materialized.

“Got a cold?” I said.

“Nah, air’s been itching me, probably some crap blown in by the Santa Susannas…yeah, I’d be hounding them, too.”

***

Back at his office, he tried the coroner’s office again and asked for a rundown on young Caucasian Jane Does in the crypt. The attendant said the computer was down, they were short-staffed, a hand search of the records would take a long time.

“Any calls from a guy named Louis Giacomo? Father of a missing girl…well, he probably will. He’s having a hard time, go easy…yeah, thanks, Turo. Let me ask you something else: What’s the average transfer time to cremation nowadays? Just an estimate, I’m not gonna use it in court. That’s what I thought…when you do check the inventory, go back a couple of years, okay? Twenties, Caucasian, five five, a hundred twenty. Giacomo, first name Tori.” He spelled it. “She could be a blonde or brunette or anything in between. Thanks, man.”

He hung up, swiveled in his chair. “Sixty, seventy days and it’s off to the furnace.” Spinning back to his phone, he called the PlayHouse again, listened for a few seconds, slammed the receiver down. “Last time, it just rang. This time I got sultry female voice on tape. The next class- something called ‘Spontaneous Ingathering’- is tomorrow night at nine.”

“Nocturnal schedule, like we guessed,” I said. “Sultry, huh?”

“Think Lauren Bacall getting over the flu. Maybe it’s Ms. Dowd. If she’s an actor herself, velvety pipes wouldn’t hurt.”

“Voice-overs are a mainstay for unemployed actors,” I said. “So are coaching gigs, for that matter.”

“Those who can’t do, teach?”

“Entire universities operate on that premise.”

He laughed. “Okay, let’s see what DMV has to say about the golden-throated Ms. Dowd.”

***

Nora Dowd’s DOB made her thirty-six, five two, a hundred and ten pounds, brown and brown. One registered vehicle, a six-month-old, silver Range Rover MK III. Home address on McCadden Place in Hancock Park.

“Nice neighborhood,” he said.

“Bit of a drive to the school. Hollywood’s just across Melrose from Hancock Park, you’d think a Hollywood address would attract screen-hopefuls.”

“Maybe Dowd got a break on the rent. Or she owns the place. McCadden and her wheels says she’s got bucks.”

“A wealthy dilettante who does it for fun,” I said.

“Hardly a rare bird,” he said. “Let’s see if this one sings.”

***

Wilshire Boulevard near Museum Mile was disrupted by filming and we sat with the engine idling, an audience for nothing. Half a dozen triple-sized trailers filled an entire block. A fleet of carelessly parked smaller vehicles choked an eastbound lane. A squadron of cameramen, sound techs, gaffers, gofers, retired cops, and unionized hangers-on laughed and loafed and stalked the catered buffet. Two large men walked past, each carrying a lightweight, folding director’s chair. Stenciled names on the canvas backs that I didn’t recognize.

Public space commandeered with the usual insouciance. The motoring public on Wilshire wasn’t happy and tempers flared in the single open lane. I managed to escape onto Detroit Street, hooked a right on Sixth Street, cruised across La Brea. A few blocks later: Highland, the western border of Hancock Park.

The next block was McCadden, wide and peaceful and sunny. A vintage Mercedes rolled out of a driveway. A nanny walked a baby in a navy blue, chrome-plated stroller. Birds swooped and settled and chirped gratitude. Cold winds had been whipping the city for a couple of days but the sun had broken through.

Nora Dowd’s address put her half a block south of Beverly. Most of the neighboring residences were beautifully maintained Tudors and Spanish revivals set behind brilliant emerald lawns.

Dowd’s was a two-story Craftsman, cream with dark green trim.

Inverse color scheme of her acting school and, like the PlayHouse, girded by a covered porch and shadowed by generous eaves. A low rock wall at the curb was centered by an open gate of weathered iron grillwork. Splitting the lawn was a wide flagstone walkway. Similar old-school landscaping: birds of paradise, camellias, azaleas, fifteen-foot eugenia hedges on both sides of the property, a monumental deodor cedar fringing the double garage.

Barn doors on this garage, too. Nora Dowd’s house was twice the size of her school but anyone scoring above nine on the Glasgow Coma Scale could see the parallels.

“Consistent in her taste,” I said. “An oasis of stability in this hazy, crazy town.”

“Mr. Hollywood,” he said. “You should write for Variety.

“If I wanted to lie for a living, I’d have gone into politics.”

***

This porch was nicely lacquered, decorated with green wicker furniture and potted ferns. The pots were hand-painted Mexican ceramics and looked antique. The double doors were quartersawn oak stained dark brown.

Milky white leaded panes comprised the door window. Milo used his knuckles on the oak. The doors were hefty and his hard raps diminished to feeble clicks. He tried the bell. Dead.

He muttered, “So what else is new?” and stuck his business card in the split between the doors. As we returned to the Seville, he yanked his phone from his pocket as if it were a saddle burr. Nothing to report on Michaela’s Honda, or Dylan Meserve’s Toyota.

We returned to the car. As I opened the driver’s door, a sound from the house turned our heads.

Female voice, low, affectionate, talking to something white and fluffy, cradled to her chest.

She stepped out to the porch, saw us, placed the object of her affection on the floor. Looked at us some more and walked toward the sidewalk.

The physical dimensions fit Nora Dowd’s DMV stats but her hair was a blue-gray pageboy, the back cut high on the neck. She wore an oversized plum sweater over gray leggings and bright white running shoes.

Bouncy step but she faltered a couple of times.

She gave us a wide berth, started to walk south.

Milo said, “Ms. Dowd?”

She stopped. “Yes?” One single syllable didn’t justify a diagnosis of sultry, but her voice was low and throaty.

Milo produced another card. Nora Dowd read it, handed it back. “This is about poor Michaela?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Under the shiny gray cap of hair, Nora Dowd’s face was round and rosy. Her eyes were big and slightly unfocused. Bloodshot; not the pink of Lou Giacomo’s orbs, these were almost scarlet at the rims. Elfin ears protruded past fine, gray strands. Her nose was a pert button.

Middle-aged woman trying to hold on to a bit of little girl. She seemed well past thirty-six. Turning her head, she caught some light and a corona of peach fuzz softened her chin. Lines tugged at her eyes, puckers cinched both lips. The ring around her neck was conclusive. The age on her driver’s license was a fantasy. Standard Operating Procedure in a company town where the product was false promises.

The white thing sat still, too still for any kind of dog I knew. Maybe a fur hat? Then why had she talked to it?

Milo said, “Could we speak to you about Michaela, ma’am?”

Nora Dowd blinked. “You sound a little like Joe Friday. But he was a sergeant, you outrank him.” She cocked a firm hip. “I met Jack Webb once. Even when he wasn’t working, he liked those skinny black ties.”

“Jack was a prince, helped finance the Police Academy. About Michae- ”

“Let’s walk. I need my exercise.”

She surged ahead of us, swung her arms exuberantly. “Michaela was all right if you gave her enough structure. Her improv skills left something to be desired. Frustrated, always frustrated.”

“About what?”

“Not being a star.”

“She have any talent?”

Nora Dowd’s smile was hard to read.

Milo said, “The one big improv she tried didn’t work out so well.”

“Pardon?”

“The hoax she and Meserve pulled.”

“Yes, that.” Flat expression.

“What’d you think of that, Ms. Dowd?”

Dowd walked faster. Exposure to sunlight had irritated her bloodshot eyes and she blinked several times. Seemed to lose balance for a second, caught herself.

Milo said, “The hoax- ”

“What do I think? I think it was shoddy.”

“Shoddy how?”

“Poorly structured. In terms of theater.”

“I’m still not- ”

“Lack of imagination,” she said. “The goal of any true performance is openness. Revealing the self. What Michaela did insulted all that.”

“Michaela and Dylan.”

Nora Dowd again surged forward. Several steps later, she nodded.

I said, “Michaela thought you’d appreciate the creativity.”

“Who told you that?”

“A psychologist she talked to.”

“Michaela was in therapy?”

“That surprises you?”

“I don’t encourage therapy,” said Dowd. “It closes as many channels as it opens.”

“The psychologist evaluated her as part of her court case.”

“How silly.”

“What about Meserve?” said Milo. “He didn’t fail you?”

“No one failed me. Michaela failed herself. Yes, Dylan should have known better but he got swept along. And he comes from a different place.”

“How so?”

“The gifted are allowed more leeway.”

“Was the hoax his idea or Michaela’s?”

Five more steps. “No sense speaking ill of the dead.” A beat. “Poor thing.” Dowd’s mouth turned down. If she was trying to project empathy, her chops were rusty.

Milo said, “How long did Michaela take classes with you?”

“I don’t give classes.”

“What are they?”

“They’re performance experiences.”

“How long was Michaela involved in the experiences?”

“I’m not sure- maybe a year, give or take.”

“Any way to fix that more precisely?”

“Pree-cise-lee. Hmm…no, I don’t think so.”

“Could you check your records?”

“I don’t do records.”

“Not at all?”

“Nothing ’tall,” Dowd sang. She rotated her arms, breathed in deeply, said, “Ahh. I like the air today.”

“How do you run a business without records, ma’am?”

Nora Dowd smiled. “It’s not a business. I don’t take money.”

“You teach- present experiences for free?”

“I avail myself, provide a time and place and a selectively judgmental atmosphere for those with courage.”

“What kind of courage?”

“The kind that enables one to accept selective judgment. The balls to dig deep inside here.” She cupped her left breast with her right hand. “It’s all about self-revelation.”

“Acting.”

Performing. Acting is an artificial word. As if life is here”- cocking her head to the left- “and performance is out here, on another galaxy. Everything’s part of the same gestalt. That’s a German word for the whole being bigger than the sum of the parts. I’m blessed.”

Milo said, “With teaching- availing talent?”

“With an uncluttered consciousness and freedom from worry.”

“Freedom from record-keeping’s pretty good, too.”

Dowd smiled. “That, as well.”

“Does not charging mean freedom from financial worry?”

“Money’s an attitude,” said Nora Dowd brightly.

Milo pulled out the photo of Tori Giacomo and held it in front of her face. Her pace didn’t falter and he had to speed up to keep it in her line of vision.

“Not bad looking in a Saturday Night Fever kind of way.” Dowd fended off the photo and Milo dropped his arm.

“You don’t know her?”

“I really can’t say. Why?”

“Her name is Tori Giacomo. She came to L.A. to be an actress, took lessons, disappeared.”

Nora Dowd said, “Disappeared? As in poof?”

“Did she ever avail herself at the PlayHouse?”

“Tori Giacomo…the name doesn’t ring a bell but I can’t give you a yes or no because we don’t take attendance.”

“You don’t recognize her but you can’t say no?”

“All sorts of people show up, especially on nights when we do group exercises. The room’s dark and I certainly can’t be expected to remember every face. There is a sameness, you know.”

“Young and eager?”

“Young and oh-so hungry.”

“Could you take another look, ma’am?”

Dowd sighed, grabbed the photo, stared for a second. “I simply can’t say yes or no.”

Milo said, “Big crowds show up but you did know Michaela.”

“Michaela was a regular. Made sure to introduce herself to me.”

“Ambitious?”

“High level of hunger, I’ll give her that. Without serious want there’s no chance of reaching the bottom of the funnel.”

“What funnel is that?”

Dowd stopped, faltered again, regained her balance, and shaped a cone with her hands. “At the top are all the strivers. Most of them give up right away, which allows those who remain to sink down a little more.” Her hands dropped. “But there are still far too many and they bump against each other, collide, everyone hungry for the spout. Some tumble out, others get crushed.”

Milo said, “More room in the funnel for those with balls.”

Dowd looked up at him. “You’ve got a Charles Laughton thing going on. Ever think of performing?”

He smiled. “So who gets to the bottom of the funnel?”

“Those who are karmically destined.”

“For celebrity.”

“That’s not a disease, Lieutenant. Or should I call you Charles?”

“What’s not?”

“Celebrity,” said Dowd. “Anyone who makes it is a gifted winner. Even if it doesn’t last long. The funnel’s always shifting. Like a star on its axis.”

Stars didn’t have axes. I kept that nugget to myself.

Milo said, “Did Michaela have the potential to make it all the way to the spout?”

“As I said, I don’t want to diss the dead.”

“Did you get along with her, Ms. Dowd?”

Dowd squinted. Her eyes looked raw and inflamed. “That’s a strange question.”

“Maybe I’m missing something, ma’am, but you don’t seem too shaken up by her murder.”

Dowd exhaled. “Of course I’m sad. I see no reason to reveal myself to you. Now if you’ll let me complete my- ”

“In a sec, ma’am. When’s the last time you saw Dylan Meserve?”

“Saw him?”

“At the PlayHouse,” said Milo. “Or anywhere else.”

“Hmm,” said Dowd. “Hmm, the last time…a week or so? Ten days? He helps out from time to time.”

“Helps how?”

“Arranging chairs, that sort of thing. Now I need to get some cleansing exercise, Charles. All this talk has polluted the good air.”

She jogged away from us, moving fast, but with a choppy, knock-kneed stride. The quicker she ran, the more pronounced was her clumsiness. When she was half a block away, she began shadowboxing. Swung her head from side to side.

Clumsy but loose. Oblivious to any notion of imperfection.

Contents