A Munch Mancini Crime Novel
By Barbara Seranella
Published by Scribner
May 2002; 0-743-21386-6; 304 pages
Los Angeles Homicide Detective Art Becker studied the trail of ants streaming into the open mouth of the dead man. After a minute he hefted his portly frame upright and waved to his new partner, Rico Chacón.
Chacón's athletic younger body moved effortlessly toward him. "We've got one more in the house," Chacón said, staring down at the first victim. Even on this overcast morning, he wore sunglasses -- Carreras, the kind that adjusted to the light.
The two detectives belonged to a team of robbery/homicide investigators that worked out of the Pacific Division station on Culver and Centinela. Homicide was not unheard of in these parts. The projects up on Slauson were usually good for at least a stabbing on a Saturday night. There was a block on Short Avenue where every other graffiti-covered house was for sale, the signs riddled with bullet holes. But this street was more your working-class residential -- a lot of Hispanics, a few blacks, but mainly Midwest transplants.
The two victims had been tentatively identified by the first unit on the scene as Dwayne and Lila Mae Summers. Approximate ages: mid-fifties. Becker made a note of the date, Thursday, January 17, 1985, on a fresh page of his notebook and next to that he wrote, Cloudy, 50°. In cross-examination, a criminal-defense attorney had once asked him what the weather had been like the day of the crime. It had looked bad to the jury when he had to admit he didn't remember. That was the last time he was going to get caught like that, he thought, as he continued his inspection of the corpse.
Cause of death for the guy was probably going to be related to the hole in his head. It looked like a bullet wound, but Becker knew better than to assume. He had seen enough tools, kitchen and garden implements, and scraps of hardware stuck in bodies to know how deceptive entry wounds could be. Skin stretched and hair made scalp wounds even more difficult to reckon. Size and shape of the projectile would be determined later by the coroner. However, judging from the scuff marks in the dirt, it was safe to say the vic had died on the run. Becker looked for scorch marks from muzzle flash but found none.
The two uniformed officers who had first responded to the call and now had the duty of guarding the bodies had made a game of picking an ant in line and wagering on the number of seconds it would take it to reach the guy's mouth.
"Just to the lips?" Becker asked. "Or all the way inside?"
"Inside," the taller of the two uniforms said.
Becker noticed a little piece of machinery sticking up out of the dirt. He kicked at it with his toe, and it came loose from the ground. The piece of black metal was an inch long, cast in a figure-eight pattern. Not a tool, he decided as he stooped and picked it up, but some sort of hardware. Two round half-inch stainless-steel prongs, their ends grooved, connected to the figure-eight-shaped flange. He turned it back and forth in his hand and showed it to Chacón. "Know what this is?"
"No, maybe a car part."
"Let's bag it," Becker said.
Chacón put the piece in a little plastic evidence bag on which he recorded the date and location.
"Who's the mope?" Becker asked, indicating the middle-aged white man sitting within the outside layer of yellow tape. Two perimeters had been erected. Tape one protected the interior scene. The second, encompassing driveways on either side of the house and part of the street, formed a staging area where the officers, witnesses, and forensics people could operate and be separated from the public and media.
"Neighbor," the second uniformed cop answered. "He's the guy who found the DBs and called it in."
"What's his name?" Chacón asked.
"Johnson. Cal Johnson."
Becker nodded toward the house. As primary officer assigned to this case, he made the call on how they would proceed. Before speaking to Johnson, he wanted to familiarize himself with the entire crime scene. He walked around an anemic flower bed of mostly dirt and dying daisies and stepped up the single wooden stair leading to the front door. To the right of the door a rusted hibachi sat in cement. The woman's body was just inside. From the neck down, her body faced the ceiling. It took him a second to realize that he was looking at the back of her head. Her face lay buried in the blood-soaked gray carpet. The torque that had snapped her neck had exposed white vertebrae. The fingers on both hands were bruised a deep purple and twisted at unnatural angles.
Chacón came up behind him. He was one of those tall, quiet types who observed everything but said little. Now he made a small grunt of shock.
Becker closed his eyes and took a deep breath through his mouth, giving his senses a break. He had seen death before, but this one made him check his gag reflex. Murder was one thing. People get mad, lose control, snap or whatever, and kill someone. It happened every day, every minute of the day somewhere, probably. But what kind of a human was capable of committing such extreme torture? That he would never fathom. Maybe he was old-fashioned, but the fact that the victim was a woman made this cruelty even worse. He flexed his own undamaged hands, unwillingly imagining the ache of having his fingers cracked like wishbones.
"Let's get to work," he said.
He opened his eyes and looked around the room. The table in front of the couch had been upended and several pictures torn from the wall. Rectangular patches of unfaded paint testified to their previous locations. From the doorway he could also see that drawers in the bedroom dresser had been pulled out and dumped on the floor. The two men toured the rest of the house. The first police on the scene had done this also, making sure no other victims had been overlooked. Becker and Chacón took care to travel in pathways already used by those officers. The kitchen appeared undisturbed as did the bathroom. They returned to the front room where the body was and tried to reconstruct what had happened.
It seemed that either the unknown subject(s) had found what they were looking for or something had interrupted them. A mass of aged papers was on the floor of the bedroom closet. The cardboard box that had apparently held the papers sat upright beside them. Ellen was written in Marks-A-Lot across the front. Clearly a parent's collection of mementos. They were arranged in chronological order, starting with grammar school report cards and childish drawings rendered in happy colors -- a girl and her mom and dad holding hands in the sun with flowers growing at their feet. Becker thought of the abused flower bed out front.
The artwork turned more sophisticated. Pencil sketches of horses and dogs. His own preteen girls were nuts for horses and dogs. Directly to the right of the sketches was a 1971 junior high school yearbook opened to the S's. He looked for and found a Summers. Ellen Summers. If she was in ninth grade fourteen years ago, that would put her age at about twenty-nine now.
The documentation that was fanned across the floor filled in those missing years. Release forms from county jail, bail receipts, and probation reports. There was also a flyer from a club called the Spearmint Rhino. It advertised itself as an adult cabaret. The picture of the sultry blonde on all fours and clad only in a G-string filled in the subtext. The face of the girl on the flyer matched the ninth-grade black-and-white photo of Ellen Summers given a few trips around a rough block. The flyer had crease marks in it, as if it had been folded in thirds and fitted inside an envelope.
An uneven spray of blood over the papers told him that they had been arranged here prior to at least some of the carnage.
"Time to talk to the neighbor," Becker said. The two detectives left the house and approached Cal Johnson, who was still sitting between the tapes.
"I couldn't figure it out," Johnson said. A black cap with SIR MIX CONCRETE PRODUCTS written in white letters above the brim shaded the top half of his face. The stub of an unlit cigar was wedged between his fingers.
He sat on a frayed lawn chair. It sagged under his weight. He was in his mid-fifties and had the milky eyes of a serious drinker. Broken capillaries flecked his nose and cheeks. His jowls wobbled as he shook his head, too overwhelmed to go on.
Becker waited patiently for the guy to continue. He'd seen this before. People needed to pick their own way to explain horror.
"I thought maybe her hair was covering her face. I even tried to push it aside so she could breathe but her face wasn't where it was supposed to be. Then I saw all the blood." Johnson stopped to spit.
Becker nodded, feeling the bile in his own throat. And then there were the fingers, he wouldn't have missed those. Judging from the darkness of the bruising, the damage to them had happened prior to death. Becker wondered again if the killer(s) had gotten what they wanted.
"Did you touch anything else?"
Johnson shook his head. "I just wanted out of there."
"Where did you call from?"
"My house," he said, nodding toward next door. "There's a daughter, I think."
"Yes, sir," Becker said. "I believe you're right."
"Dwayne wasn't the daddy," Johnson added, indicating the male victim. "Second marriage."
The rest of the forensic team arrived, and the next four hours were spent going over the crime scene and taking statements. One woman was almost certain she had heard a car speeding away, but she could offer no description.
It was midday when Becker and Chacón drove back to the station. They ran the daughter's name through the Criminal Justice Information System and were soon rewarded with an abundance of data. They cleared their intentions with the coroner's office. Death notifications usually fell to the medical examiner or at least were done in conjunction with the ME's office. This one Becker wanted to handle personally.
The two cops drove to the daughter's current known address: the California Institution for Women at Frontera. Becker had made many visits to closest of kin in his twenty-year career. Delivered horrible news -- a fifteen-year-old struck down on his bike in a straight-up hit-and-run. Spouses killed in freak accidents. An elderly relative not heard from in a while -- found dead a week and God forbid if a hungry Fido had been locked alone in the house with the dearly departed. It always surprised him how calmly most people took the news. Shock, probably. They'd shift into host mode, invite him in, make coffee, ask their questions politely, and he'd always put on his best I-give-a-shit face. There was the one time a guy acted differently. His father had been killed in a home-invasion robbery. The guy ranted and railed, got hysterical. Later it turned out the son had contracted the hit. Becker never forgot that.
Two things were on his mind as he headed east to San Bernardino County. He wondered how Ellen Summers was going to take the news and if his stomach would settle in time to enjoy Flo's daily special at the restaurant on the grounds of the nearby Chino Airport.
© 2002 Barbara Seranella
Munch Mancini used to be a biker chick who was handy with a wrench but had a few bad habits like booze, drugs, and bad taste in men. The heroine of Barbara Seranella's lively, engaging series of mysteries, Munch is trying to clean up her new life as a solid citizen and single mother by staying away from the temptations of her old one.
But when her closest friend, Ellen, gets out of jail and learns just how badly someone wants the money she took from a man who tried to kill her, Munch can't turn her away. It's not like Munch doesn't have her own problems: she's being stalked by the mother of one of her daughter Asia's playmates, trying to resuscitate her moribund limousine business, and in the middle of moving into the first house she's ever owned. And now she's got a sullen stripper on her bad side, counterfeit money in her kid's toy box, a new lover who's also a cop, and a very strange guy who says he's her friend's father but might also be a killer who's staying one step ahead of every move she makes.
Barbara Seranella was born in Santa Monica and grew up in Pacific Palisades. After a restless childhood that included running away from home at 14, joining a hippie commune in the Haight, and riding with outlaw motorcycle clubs, she decided to settle down and do something normal so she became an auto mechanic. In the back of her heart, she always wanted to be a writer, but first she had to make a living. She worked at an Arco station in Sherman Oaks for five years and then a Texaco station in Brentwood for another twelve. At the Texaco station, she rose to the rank of service manager and then married her boss. Figuring she had taken her automotive career as far as it was going to carry her, she retired in 1993 to pursue the writing life.
Mrs. Seranella divides her time between her homes in Laguna Beach and La Quinta, California where she lives with husband, Ron, their dogs and her four step-daughters.