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Shadows of Sin

Back to Shadows Main | Reviews |

"If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not hearken to the voice of his father and the voice of his mother, and they discipline him, but he does not hearken to them; then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city and the gate of the place. They shall say to the elders of his city, 'This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die; and you shall remove the evil from your midst. . . ." Deuteronomy, 21:18-21

 

Chapter One

Minutes before Marianna Velasquez's head slumped onto her desk, streaking blood into feathery fingers across the lined pages of the daily appointment book, she had been stamping envelopes while offering comfort through the phone to her eleven-year-old son, Alejandro, home from school with a stomach virus that had kept mother and son up all night.

The piercing whine of a saw coming from the adjoining offices had almost drowned out the chime announcing the opening of the door to the waiting room. Marianna looked up and pursed her lips, annoyed with this patient who had arrived late after insisting on the last appointment.

"No milk or cheese, just dry toast and tea," she reminded Alejandro. "I'll be home soon, querido." He sounded so miserable. She was loathe to hang up and wished she were home to comfort him.

Returning the receiver to the cradle, she forced her lips into a smile. She was not indifferent to the suffering of others but sometimes, like now, felt a twinge of impatience with patients--among them, she'd been surprised to learn when she'd first begun working here, a fair number of men--whose vanity made them risk cosmetic surgery and whose "emergencies" weren't always that. Envy, perhaps, she admitted, of those who could afford what was in many cases a luxury while she was just beginning to make ends meet.

And the boy had been so listless this morning, his dark brown eyes deep pools of sadness, his chalkwhite face a stark contrast to the thick, glossy black hair she had smoothed off his forehead while he was retching, poor thing.

All this flashed through her mind as she looked through the open reception window toward the door and the person who had entered. Her greeting froze in her throat, and she stared uncomprehending, mouth open, at the gun.

She had seen guns before in the gang-ridden East Los Angeles neighborhood of her childhood, and later, in Pico-Union, an area she had finally escaped as a single mother with Alejandro. She had shoved him countless times onto the threadbare carpet of the tiny bedroom they had shared, had covered his small body with her own when shots had rung out in the early evenings, a grim coda to her lullaby, or awakened them both in the middle of the night, leaving them huddled together waiting for a cease-fire. She had never thought to worry about her safety in the offices of a Century City plastic surgeon, and if she hadn't been so terrified she might have pondered the rich irony.

"Please," she whispered. Her heart was pounding against her ribs, her body stiff with fear. An inadequate, stupid word, she knew. She wanted to ask, "Why?" She wanted to say, "Let me help you, you don't want to do this," but the words wouldn't emerge, and she sensed that they, too, would be powerless against the dead expression of the eyes looking at her as though she didn't exist.

Inching her hand to the right, she pressed the intercom button to alert the doctor, who was in his office reviewing patient files with his nurse.

"Don't tell him I'm here." The voice was as dead as the eyes.

"I won't." Her fingers jerked back, as if singed by contact with the phone. She darted her tongue across her lips, terrified that at any second the doctor's response would testify to her lie.

The phone remained silent, and for the briefest moment she allowed herself hope-what did this have to do with her, after all? But the eyes told her she was deluding herself. She clutched the gold cross, embedded with tiny diamondlike glass chips, that Alejandro had proudly given her last Christmas, and she was praying for herself and for Alejandro, so young to be orphaned, when the bullets tattooed the hollow of her neck.

Her head fell forward, but she was aware that the door to the inner offices had been opened. Moments later, against the piercing aria of the nurse's hysterical shrieking, she heard the doctor's voice, steady and reasonable ("Let's stay calm, all right?" "If you put down the gun, I know we can talk this through, all right?"). Both voices were abruptly silenced by another round of gunshots (or was it the drilling next door?), followed by a duet of screams that subsided into a single moan.

Marianna's body was shaking with a leadlike cold that had begun to numb her fingers and toes but had not yet doused the needles of fire in her chest. She heard feet pounding past her toward the exit from the suite, the slamming of the heavy door. Finally, through the intercom, she heard the doctor's raspy voice--too late! too late!-- increasingly desperate but more distant and faint with each "Marianna! Marianna!" like the dying, plaintive echoes of a bell tolling her name.

Or maybe it was her mother, calling her home.

 

Chapter Two

There was something obscenely incongruous, Jessie Drake thought, about finding bodies brutally shot to death in the beautiful twenty-fourth floor Century City offices of a plastic surgeon. She voiced this in an undertone to her partner, Phil Okum, who nodded but kept his attention fixed on the medical examiner's gloved hands, busy with their preliminary exploration.

Looking around, she tried to imagine the room's preshooting appearance and noted the decorative details that had barely registered when she'd arrived over an hour ago.

Lush yellow, maroon, and gray cabbage roses blooming in profusion on the chintz of the overstuffed love seat. A handsome mahogany desk and chair. Two wood-backed armchairs upholstered in yellow and burgundy stripes. A silver tray centered on the polished mahogany credenza held a floral porcelain tea set (the Limoges pattern was one that her mother, Frances, had long admired), and ornately framed reproductions of Cassat and Monet watercolors hung on two of the banana-colored papered walls.

A third wall was taken up by a picture window that on a clear day, Jessie supposed, offered a view of Santa Monica and a tantalizing hint of the Pacific. Not today, though. It had been a hazy November morning and afternoon, with the temperature in the low sixties and the timid sun held captive behind a semiopaque curtain of smog that had erased half the city.

The overall effect of the room's decor, inviting and gracious, had been fatally marred by gunfire that had riddled the love seat, armchairs, desk, and art work with bullets holes, and by the presence of the two bodies being probed by the medical examiner while SID technicians finished dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence. That, and the rank perfume of fresh blood and death that made Jessie's stomach churn even after fifteen years on the force and a generous protective dabbing of Vicks in and around her nostrils.

The tea set had survived intact, orphaned, its delicate beauty grotesquely out of place amid the shambles.

The diplomas-they, too, had come under assault-were on the wall behind the desk. From the pocked parchment behind the shattered glass, Jessie had learned that Ronald Bushnell, M.D., had been certified by UCLA and was a member in good standing of the American Board of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. He had also received an impressive number of awards and commendations, including one for his work with burn victims.

On the credenza, near the tea service, was a silver-framed photo of a grinning, tanned, strikingly handsome Bushnell in a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt, his thick, dark brown hair ruffled by a breeze coming off the wave-capped green ocean in the background. One arm was around the waist of a tall, broad-hipped blond woman, the other around a reed-thin adolescent blond girl. Wife and daughter, presumably.

The man on the bloodstained, pale yellow rug was Bushnell, but whatever tan he'd possessed had been leeched by death, leaving his face a sickly blue-gray. He'd apparently tried to get help-a phone lay next to him, the receiver off the hook, the transparent flat cord stretched taut across the desk, straining against the wall jack.

Blood had darkened the front of Bushnell's china blue shirt. It had forever stained the white blouse of the woman in the far corner of the room. More blood had been sprayed on the love seat, armchairs, and ceiling, and smeared in wavy rows along the wall down which the woman had slid to the hardwood floor. She had been found slumped forward, her head with its bright auburn curls bowed, a dejected Orphan Annie sent to the corner for some nameless infraction and for whom the sun would not come up tomorrow or any other day.

"I thought she was a patient," Edie Colton, one of the West L.A. patrol officers who had responded to an anonymous 911 call, had told Jessie and Phil when they'd arrived. "But the gal down the hall said she's a nurse. Nicole something. Doesn't know her last name, though."

Her name was Nicole Hobart, and she was thirty-five, Jessie had learned from the woman's driver's license, which she'd found in a purse in a lower cabinet in the small rectangular reception office. My age, Jessie had thought, with a flutter of discomfiture. The nose in the license photo looked fuller and longer, the cheekbones less pronounced. Bushnell's work, maybe. Perks of the job?

Jessie had found the other dead woman's purse, too. Marianna Velasquez, twenty-nine years old. The receptionist's head was obscuring the bloodied pages of the appointment book, but Jessie would have to wait until Henry Futaki, the M.E., had examined the body before she could check the book to see the entries of today's patients.

An SID crime scene tech had photographed the bodies, offices and bloody shoe prints in Bushnell's office and on the patterned carpeting running along the hall. He'd placed lettered plastic tags next to the fingerprints on the doorknobs to the waiting room and Bushnell's office (probably a useless effort, given the number of patients and staff who had touched the knobs), the shoe prints, and the numerous bullet holes--evidence that couldn't be recovered and booked. Another tech had collected blood samples from the shoe prints with a cotton-tipped applicator dipped in distilled water. Numbered plastic tags, used to mark evidence to be picked up and booked, had been placed earlier next to the three dozen plus bullet casings, which had already been secured in evidence bags.

Using graph paper and a tape measure, Jessie and Phil had drawn to scale both rooms and their furnishings and the positions of the bodies, which they had been careful not to disturb. Waiting for Futaki to finish, Jessie was studying the ceiling in Bushnell's office-you never knew what evidence you might find on ceilings, she'd learned-when the medical examiner rose from what must have been an uncomfortable squat.

After peeling off and disposing of his gloves, he approached Jessie and Phil, careful to avoid the lettered tags next to the footprints. He was thin and short-an inch shorter than her five feet six--and was dwarfed by Phil, six four and burly, an imposing figure even after losing fifteen pounds over the past two months through serious dieting and exercise prompted by an episode that turned out not to be a heart attack but could easily have been one.

Futaki had assumed his customary frown, merging his brows into one dark, unruly bush that overpowered his small, almost dainty face. He cleared his throat in a way that smacked of self-importance: pay attention because I'm not repeating this.

"The woman was shot in the chest and abdomen," Futaki began in his dour monotone, as though he were alone at his desk, dictating into a tape recorder. "It would appear that she died almost immediately. The man was shot at closer range, in the chest, head, and genitals."

"Ouch!" Phil grimaced and held his large hands over his crotch. "That's gotta hurt."

"Unless he was already dead?" Jessie glanced at the body and the black trousers camouflaging the bloodstains.

"The profuse bleeding in the genitals would suggest that his heart was still pumping." Futaki directed this to Phil, clearly ignoring her, but she'd expected rudeness and refused to let it bother her.

"The head wound, however, appears to be postmortem. I won't know for certain until the autopsy," Futaki continued. "The star-burst splitting indicates that there was direct contact between the barrel of the gun and the skin."

"Execution style," Jessie observed, addressing Phil. The contact wound explained the bloody shoe prints leading from Bushnell's body out of the room and down the hall. The patterns of the soles suggested that the prints had been made by an average-size athletic shoe. One pair of shoes, as far as Jessie could tell. One shooter. An SID criminalist would make the determination.

"Definitely sending a message." There was no banter in Phil's voice now. "But what? And for who?" He played with his reddish brown mustache.

"That's your department, not mine," Futaki said. "Call Western Union-better yet, AOL. You might get a faster response." His short laugh sounded like a sea lion's bark.

Not even remotely funny, Jessie thought, suppressing a groan, but Phil chuckled and shook his head appreciatively, scoring a half smile from Futaki.

"Play the game," he'd urged her more than once. "Would it kill you to make nice?" Well, she'd tried "nice" over the years, and Futaki had never thawed. Maybe because she was taller than he was, maybe because she'd ended a relationship with a cop who was his close friend. Maybe because he thought women on the force should be sitting behind a desk or directing traffic. He wouldn't be alone in thinking that.

"What else can you give us?" Phil asked.

"I can't tell you which victim was shot first, and without an autopsy I can't determine cause of death. In all likelihood, the chest wound for the male, the abdominal wound for the female. But don't hold me to it."

"Time of death?"

"What do you have?" Futaki asked.

"Nine-one-one got an anonymous call at four forty-one. Aside from that, nothing. Most of the offices on this floor are closed for the day. The few that are open are way at the end of the hall. Plus there's construction going on in the office next to this one. Bottom line, no one heard anything." Phil shrugged. "Can you pin it down any closer?"

Futaki referred to his notebook. "No rigor yet in either of the victims. The body temperature of the male is ninety-six point seven. The female, ninety-six point nine. Based on that, the approximate time of death is an hour and a half ago, or a little after four. But there are variables."

Like the amount of clothing the dead person is wearing, or any illnesses he or she may have, or the room temperature. Following death, Jessie knew, the body cools approximately 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour under normal circumstances, with the assumption that the body's temperature at death is 98.6 degrees.

"You mentioned that Bushnell was shot at closer range," she said. "How close?"

Futaki pursed his lips, as if annoyed at being reminded of her presence. "Without knowing the kind of weapon used, it's difficult to be exact." His tone implied that an experienced detective would have known that.

Screw you, she thought. "Was there stippling?"

"I did find stippling on his neck and chest, none on the woman," Futaki allowed grudgingly. "I'd say the woman was more than five feet away from the shooter. The male, between one and three feet."

"That fits." Phil nodded. "We found over three dozen casings just inside the room, about two feet from where Bushnell's blood trail starts."

"There's no blood on or around the doctor's chair," Jessie said, "or on the wall behind the desk. So he wasn't hit at all while sitting there. Maybe he approached the shooter to try to reason with him or her."

"Or disarm him," Phil added. "Any sign that they struggled?"

Futaki shook his head. "No defense or hesitation wounds. No tissue under Bushnell's nails. No scratches, bruises, et cetera. None on the woman, either. I found no powder smudging on the male to indicate he was close enough to struggle for the weapon when he was shot." He closed his notebook and slipped it into a pocket. "I'm going to examine the other victim. I'll try to do the autopsies by Friday."

"I was hoping for sooner," Phil said pleasantly.

Futaki glowered at him, his joined eyebrows forming a vee. "It's Monday, and I'm drowning in bodies. Do you have any idea how backlogged I am? We're understaffed, underfunded, and everybody wants answers yesterday."

"Me, I'm easy. I'll settle for tomorrow." Phil smiled.

"Everybody wants crimes solved fast," Futaki snapped, "no one wants to pay for it. You want quicker results, get voters to put the crime lab bond on the ballot next time."

He caught the attention of an assistant who was talking to one of the SID techs. "I'm done here," he announced crisply and, grabbing his satchel, strode out of the room. The assistant hurried behind him like a puppy.

"This doesn't feel like a random shooting by some punk out to have a good time," Phil commented to Jessie. "And there's no indication the shooter was searching for something. No desk drawers or file cabinets ransacked. Drug supply seems untouched."

She surveyed the room again. "Somebody was pissed off."

Phil followed her gaze, and nodded toward Bushnell. "Yeah, with the doc. He was a hunk. Suppose he was doing one of his patients, and the husband or boyfriend found out. Or maybe Bushnell's wife found out."

"Maybe." A basic rule in a homicide investigation: check out the victim's immediate family. "Could be Bushnell botched a face or owed a lot of money. Or what if he's involved with organized crime? That would explain the shot to the head."

"You're watching too much Sopranos. Shooting Bushnell in his privates says the killer's beef was personal, Jess."

"Or business. 'You screw with us, we screw you.' And you're assuming that was intentional," she added, though she didn't disagree. "Could be the shooter had terrible aim or didn't know how to handle the weapon. That could account for the whole place being shot up like Swiss cheese. Even Bushnell's diplomas." Anger could account for it, too.

"Aim seemed just fine with the humans," Phil said.

She blinked away the mental picture of Bushnell and the two dead women--their gaping wounds, all that blood-and resigned herself to another night of restless sleep. She'd asked Phil how he dealt with the images, and he'd told her sometimes he didn't. Futaki, she guessed, slept fine. He probably never thought of bodies as ever having been alive.

"Bushnell must've thought he had a chance at talking his way out of this, or he wouldn't have approached the killer." Jessie studied the rug. "I think the nurse was on the sofa when the shooter arrived. The chairs are full of bullet holes, but little blood. Lots of blood on the sofa and the rug next to it, more blood leading to the wall where he shot her again."

Phil nodded. "Bushnell approaches the shooter. Shooter takes out Bushnell, then shoots the nurse. She runs to the back to open the bathroom door but doesn't make it. He finishes her off. Or he does her first, then Bushnell. Depends on who his main target was."

"Bushnell. The shot to his head says so. So why shoot the others?"

"Come on." Phil flashed her an impatient look. "Eliminate the witnesses. The shooter arrived around four, probably figured the place would be more or less empty."

"Only if he or she made an appointment for that time, or knew Bushnell's schedule." Jessie considered. "Or maybe he was acting on impulse and not thinking clearly."

"There you go." Phil smiled.

She stepped aside as two men entered the room carrying a gurney and an opaque plastic sheet to wrap the body. They approached the dead woman and unfolded the gurney.

Jessie returned her attention to Phil. "Suppose the shooter wasn't impulsive, Phil. Even if he came around four, and he was the last patient, he'd have to figure there would be staff here, right?"

Phil sighed. "Are we back to this?"

"If he was angry only at Bushnell, why shoot him here? Why not follow him home or take him out in the parking lot? It's a big place, poorly lit, lots of shadows. Not many people around when we parked. No witnesses to eliminate."

Phil shook his head. "The shooter couldn't count on that, Jessie. And what if a security guard happened to show? As far as why not at the doctor's house, it's easier to get into his office. No alarm or locks to worry about. Just waltz right in, do the deed. If he has to take out a few more people, he doesn't care. And if it's the wife, shooting the doc and the others at the office draws suspicion away from her."

"Makes sense. But we have to consider the possibility that the shooter had a problem with the doctor and his staff. An unhappy patient, or an angry employee."

Phil nodded. "Lots of office shootings these days. That lawyer in San Francisco, the day trader in the south, the other guy in Hawaii. That Boston guy killed seven co-workers in seven minutes. What the hell's going on, anyway?"

"Ask the NRA."

 

Shadows of Sin, an Avon Books title, is out of print. Look for it 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 books.

 


 

On sale October 25
($13.95)



In paperback

 

 


 

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