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Blood Money

Chapter One

Back to Blood Main| Reviews

The dead man lay on a bed of twigs and leaves, half hidden by lazy, drooping branches that fanned him gently, nudged by a warm breeze. Early-morning July sunlight glinted off his thick brown hair, a startlingly youthful contrast to a weathered face whose crackled skin, mottled with reddish-brown stains, had been stretched paper-thin by decades of gravity into parallel, sagging furrows.

Only his head was visible. A dull brown, matted blanket, dampened by the sprinklers that hours ago had misted the park’s rolling green golf course, covered the rest of his body.

He looked like a caterpillar emerging from a cocoon, Detective Jessica Drake thought as she rose from a kneeling position at the old man’s side. She moved backward, careful to retrace her steps on the grass blades she’d flattened.

“I thought he was asleep,” the golfer who had discovered the body said somberly. His forehead glistened. “I was looking for my ball, and there he was. It’s not the first time I’ve come across some homeless person who decided to sleep in the park.” A hint of “why-can’t-the-police-clean-up-this-city?” peevishness had entered his voice.

She turned and looked at him, squinting because of the bright sunlight. He was about five feet ten inches, in his late thirties or early forties. Probably worked out regularly, judging by the contoured biceps and flat abs behind the white Ralph Lauren Polo shirt that perspiration had plastered against his skin. A Movado watch cut a silver-and-gold-toned swath on the reddish-brown hairs of his tanned arm.

An attorney? Doctor? Investment counselor? Corporate executive? She’d read that golf was becoming increasingly popular, and not just among the retired; with a touch of elitism underscored by the panoramic expanse of the playing field, it spelled success and was an avenue for the important networking that led to it. O.J. Simpson had figured that out long ago.

“Did you touch him?” she asked, even though Steve Kolakowski, the West L.A. officer who had responded to the call, had told her the golfer hadn’t touched anything.

“No.” A grimace flashed across his square-jawed face, as if the very idea of touching the old man were repellent. “But his color didn’t seem right. And flies were buzzing around . . . .” Another grimace, followed by the exaggerated lurching of his Adam’s apple. “So I used my cell phone and called 911.” Removing his visored black cap, he wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, then repositioned the cap on his head. “You think it was a heart attack?”

Not a doctor, she decided. “Could be. Someone from the coroner’s office is on the way.” Or maybe he just died in his sleep. The autopsy would determine the cause of death.

“You look familiar, Detective.” He had cocked his head and was studying her now, his tone more personal. “Have I seen your face in the papers or on TV?”

“It’s possible.” She couldn’t tell whether this was a come-on or whether he recognized her from her media-covered press conferences a year ago. She’d been spokesperson for the Parker Center task force formed to hunt a serial killer—her reward for realizing there was a serial killer responsible for almost a dozen apparently isolated murders.

“I thought so.” He nodded, pleased. “Of course, you looked different then.”

The golfer—he was good-looking, no wedding band on his finger—was eyeing her admiringly now, definitely flirting, and she couldn’t decide whether she should be flattered or annoyed. The dilemma of being a female cop. She’d flashed her badge when she’d arrived on the scene, but she hadn’t looked like a homicide detective in a scoop-necked, sleeveless baby-blue cotton knit dress and strappy white sandals that added two inches to her five feet six and revealed the blue polish on her toenails, still visible through the plastic police booties she’d slipped on before approaching the body.

No holster today—it didn’t go with the dress. But her personal Airweight revolver was in her purse. Don’t leave home without it.

She hadn’t expected to be called in this Sunday morning. “Why can’t your partner go?” her mother, Frances, had snapped when Jessie announced she had to leave the Martha-Stewart-perfect backyard brunch her sister had prepared. Why don’t you quit this distasteful, socially unacceptable job? So Jessie had explained through gritted teeth that Phil, her partner of five years whose name her mother always made a point of forgetting, had taken his wife and kids to San Diego for the weekend.

By that time Jessie hadn’t really minded leaving, because her mother had been riding her from the minute she and Jessie’s father had arrived from La Jolla. About her job, her hair (too long, too curly, why didn’t Jessie have highlights put in to liven up the dark brown?), her toenails (she’d known the blue would get a rise from Frances—was that why she hadn’t removed it?). About her ex-husband, Gary, the crime reporter.

“Why didn’t you tell your father and me that you were seeing him again? Why did I have to hear this from Helen? Although I suppose I should be thankful that you’ve come to your senses and stopped dating that detective.”

Helen is dead meat, Jessie thought, pursing her lips again at her sister’s betrayal, feeling instantly abashed, because here she was, standing a few feet away from some old man who had come to this park to die alone.

Dead lay he. The line from a poem she’d studied in high school flashed through her mind. What was the rest—something about the “vigorous summer” and the “naked frailty of the dead”? The golfer was right—the deceased probably was one of L.A.’s homeless. That made his death all the more poignant, didn’t it?

The sun was beating on her back. It was going to be another scorcher in a summer that had already proved “vigorous.” She thanked the golfer and told him he could leave. He’d given Kolakowski his name and a Beverly Hills address and phone number; they’d call him if they needed more information. He seemed reluctant—torn, she supposed, between watching the drama that would continue to unfold and escaping the gritty reality that had aborted his game.

He was still lingering when the white medical examiner’s van arrived. Jessie signaled to Kolakowski, who shepherded the golfer to the partner waiting about thirty feet away near a golf cart and a handful of other spectators held back by the yellow tape of authority. Then she walked to meet the M.E.

Henry Futaki. Jessie had seen him frequently when she’d been on the task force, less often during the past year. She’d been an insider then. Once in a while she missed the perks and the status, the high-level tension and high-profile attention; most of the time she was happy where she was, with Phil and the others at West L.A. in relative anonymity. The Mayor’s framed commendation for apprehending the killer hung on the wall in her den. For Jessie, it was a chilling reminder that her sister had almost lost her life in the process.

The medical examiner was short and thin, with thick, bushy black brows above deceptively sleepy, onyx-black eyes that, from Jessie’s experience, missed nothing. After exchanging hellos—warm on her part, a little curt on his--Jessie told him what she knew, which wasn’t much.

She followed him back to the body, wondering what he thought of her ever since she’d ended a months-long relationship with Detective Frank Pruitt, whom she’d met on the task force—Pruitt and Futaki were thick—and quickly decided the medical examiner wasn’t thinking about her at all. He was thinking about the body, which was what she should be doing.

Futaki was a bit of a showman. She watched as he slipped on latex gloves, snapping them crisply onto his wrists before he peeled away the blanket with the flamboyance of a magician about to wow his audience.

The dead man was wearing navy wool slacks, a white-on-white striped shirt with French cuffs, a blue-and-gold paisley tie, and black loafers. Somewhat formal for the park, Jessie thought, frowning, and all in too-good condition—the creases in the slacks still crisp; the shirt starched, though soiled from contact with the moist earth. The dead man’s fingernails were clean, recently trimmed. All out of character for one of the homeless.

Unless he’d joined their ranks last night? Jessie shook her head, dismissing the notion. More likely, he’d left his home intending to return. But why had he come here, to Rancho Park?

She looked to her left toward Pico, past the Hillcrest Country Club that abutted the park. Did the old man live in a nearby apartment or condo? In one of the smaller houses north of Pico? Did he live to the south in Cheviot Hills, near her sister Helen?

“When did the golfer find the body?” Futaki asked.

“A little after nine o’clock this morning.”

The medical examiner nodded. “I’d say he’s been dead since some time last night, judging from the body temperature and lividity. Hard to tell, though, in this heat.”

Had the old man decided to go for a walk last night? But that was dangerous—everyone knew that. What could have sent him out of his house? An angry fight with his wife? With his children? In either case, why had he taken a blanket with him, unless he’d planned to sleep in the park? Which didn’t really make sense. . . .

“No knife or gunshot wounds, nothing that would suggest he was assaulted,” Futaki said a few minutes later in his customary monotone. “No trauma to the head.” He probed the dead man’s neck and throat. “No bruising or swelling here that would indicate strangulation. Looks like natural causes.”

The grass leading up to the body had been trampled by several pairs of feet—hers, Futaki’s, the golfer’s. The dead man’s, of course, and maybe others’. Not that grass would yield much in the way of evidence. Squatting, Jessie examined the area immediately surrounding the body, exposed now that Futaki had removed the blanket. A single set of footprints was visible. She peered closely at the prints, then at the soles of the dead man’s shoes.

She frowned. “These prints were made by patterned rubber soles, probably an athletic shoe. Our guy’s soles are smooth, flat leather. I don’t see any prints to match his shoes.”

“You’re thinking someone positioned him here?” Futaki was frowning, too, his bushy brows forming a single hedge.

She studied the area again and pointed to the ground near the dead man’s feet. “He was dragged here. See those indentations leading in a curve from the grass? They could be heel marks.” She would have SID make casts.

“Did you check for any ID?”

Was Futaki testing her? Some medical examiners were sticklers about being the first to touch the body. “Nope. I waited for you.” Smiling at him.

No return smile. He slipped a gloved hand into one of the dead man’s pants pockets and produced a small vial. “There’s no label,” he said, uncapping the vial and spilling its contents into his palm. He picked up one of the round, white tablets and examined it. “Lanoxin. That’s the brand name for digoxin, or digitalis,” he said, looking up at Jessie. “The code number is X3A, so I can verify how many milligrams. I believe this is point two five.”

Futaki was showing off his knowledge. She nodded sagely, as if the dosage meant something to her. She knew digitalis was prescribed for cardiac patients to stimulate heart-muscle contractions and slow the rate of the heartbeat. So the dead man had been suffering from a heart condition. Arrhythmia?

Futaki checked the other pocket and shook his head. “No wallet.”

No cuff links, either, in the French cuffs. A watch was missing, too—from the circle of lighter skin above his left wrist, Jessie assumed he’d worn one.

“Maybe the old man had a heart attack while being mugged,” she said. “He couldn’t reach for the Lanoxin, so he died. The mugger panicked, dragged him here, and hid him in the bushes.” Which made this a homicide, even though there was no intent. “Either that, or he had a heart attack, wasn’t able to take the Lanoxin in time, and someone came across his body and moved it after taking his stuff.”

And covered him with a blanket? Maybe someone else had done that—a homeless person who’d found the old man before the golfer. Respect for the dead?

Futaki nodded. “There’s no evidence of a struggle. Without a witness, you couldn’t prove the old man died while being mugged.”

Jessie thought that over. “Someone could have injected the old man with a substance that triggered the heart attack. This person waited until he died, then moved him and took his stuff.”

“Why go to the trouble?” Futaki asked, but he rolled the dead man’s sleeves up past the elbows. “No punctures,” he said a little smugly.

“What’s that?” Jessie pointed to a puckered two-inch strip on the inside of the old man’s left forearm.

The M.E. glanced at the area. “Looks like he had a tattoo removed, but not recently. Not a great job, either,” he added prissily.

“He doesn’t strike me as someone who would have had a tattoo.”

“No,” Futaki agreed.

“Maybe he got the tattoo when he was young, regretted it later,” she mused aloud. “But then, why on the inside of his arm, where no one would see it?” She leaned forward. “Can you tell what it was?”

A tattoo might help identify the deceased. Then again, identifying him might not be difficult at all. Frantic relatives might already have reported him missing. Unless the dead man had lived alone, and no one knew he was missing.

Taking a magnifying lens from his black satchel, Futaki peered closer at the dead man’s arm. He moved his head back, then forward again. “Numbers. Maybe.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to make out.”

Numbers.

 

Look for Blood Money (ISBN: 0-380-78954-X) at abebooks or half.com. Or check the Deadly Directory at the Cluelass website for a list of bookstores that carry out-of-print and used titles.

 



On sale October 25
($13.95)



In paperback

 






 

All Molly Blume titles
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