By Barbara Seranella
Published by Scribner
May 2003; 0-743-24500-8; 304 pages
The sixty-two-year-old groundskeeper of the exclusive Riviera Country Club spotted the bodies at first light. The corpses huddled against each other at the bottom of the concrete storm channel just before it disappeared downstream beneath the golf course. Wide enough to drive through, the storm channel had offered many surprises in the past -- hubcaps, beach chairs, the broken shafts of misbehaving seven-irons -- but never anything so horrific. Hector Granados had been hoping for treasure this Monday morning, especially after the heavy winter rain the previous weekend. Golf games had been canceled and the typically barren storm drain that ran beneath the course had turned into a raging torrent. This amount of water, he knew, was capable of carrying and then depositing a vast range of large, sometimes valuable refuse.
At first he thought it was a bundle of clothing, then he saw the hands. The larger body, the female, clutched a baby to her bosom. He looked for a long time, and the baby never moved. Its little hand reached out stiffly from beneath a blanket. The slow-moving current carried a branch. It tangled with the woman's hair, causing her head to pull back. The gaping wound in her throat opened into a grotesque and silent scream. Her eyelids were purple and protruded from her face like two medallions of raw liver, and a small stream of foamy pink bubbles trickled from her lifeless mouth.
"Oh my God," he said first in English, then several more times in his native Spanish. He used his two-way radio to contact the clubhouse. "The police," he told Pat, the starter. "We need the police."
"What's wrong?" Pat asked.
"It's terrible," he sobbed. "Dios mío."
"Bodies, two of them," Hector said, his breath short as if he had been running. "In the canal. Ay, pobrecito bebé."
"Oh, shit," Pat said, "I just let the first foursome tee off ten minutes ago."
"C'mon, ladies," St. John said, feeling angry, wanting a live target to harangue. A lot of the officers with families had problems dealing with dead children. Hey, he didn't love it either, but the poor little kid was already dead and someone needed to figure out the who, how, and why of it.
The bodies were slumped against the south vertical wall of the large cement trough. At first glance they appeared to be embracing, but that tender impression was shattered when, after a moment's concentration, St. John made out the rope binding them together. It didn't seem likely that they had been dropped the twenty feet from the bank above. The woman's red shirt was scooted up her back, and her shoulder-length brown hair pointed downstream. They must have been dragged. Another ten yards and they would have been lost forever under the golf course.
Getting them out of there was going to be a trick. The storm channel was bordered by double rows of chain-link fence. There were narrow dirt easement roads in between the eight-foot chain-link fences, running parallel to the channel until it reached the perimeter of the country club. The entrances to those roads were off Allenford, across the street from Paul Revere Junior High School. The gates to the easements were padlocked, and signs posted by the Metropolitan Water District warned off trespassers. But St. John could see by the cigarette butts crushed into the dirt that the warning signs were regularly ignored, probably by students out sneaking a smoke. He was instantly grateful that kids hadn't been the ones to make this discovery. It was a difficult enough sight for even the most seasoned cop.
St. John stared at the dark mouth of the tunnel and the rocky, muddy embankment above it. Climbing down from above was out of the question. There were already piles of loose shale and scrub brush on the storm drain's concrete floor -- small-scale replicas of the Pacific Palisades' landslides that had recently narrowed the width of Pacific Coast Highway. All those hopeful idiots who'd built on the cliffs were now paying dearly for their ocean views.
St. John dragged a milk crate over to the fence and climbed atop it. White out-of-bounds markers stuck into sturdy kikuaya grass on the crest of the embankment defined the golf course's border. A low layer of fog hovered over the fairways. The scene reminded him of mornings in Vietnam when the steam rose off the rice paddies.
His radio crackled to life. He lifted the Handie-Talkie from his belt and pushed the transmit button. "Go ahead."
"MWD is on the way."
St. John had had dispatch call the Metropolitan Water District flood maintenance people to bring a key and charts of the system. He studied the chain-link fence again before responding. The poles were anchored in cement at ten-foot intervals. There were no recent tire tracks on the easement. The backyards of the houses on either side of the easement fences were heavily shrubbed. Storm water, he decided, had carried the bodies to this resting place from farther upstream.
"We're gonna need a fire truck with a detachable twenty-foot ladder, winch, litter, and bolt cutters."
St. John called over one of the uniformed patrol officers who had been guarding the scene.
"Where does this feed from?" He looked at the cop's name tag and added, "Henderson."
Henderson pointed as he explained that the system originated at Sullivan Dam to the northwest, and Mandeville Canyon due north. Natural tributaries and storm drains came together above Sunset Boulevard. Here the large concrete storm drain tunneled under Sunset and then ran open alongside the school, following the curves of the boulevard. It also went under Allenford. On the other side of the golf course, the channel reemerged in Santa Monica Canyon and ultimately ran into the ocean.
"We're going to need to look upstream," St. John said.
Henderson nodded and seemed ready to get started immediately. "No," St. John said, "I need you here." He got back on the radio and ordered a chopper to fly the fence line.
The fire engine arrived within ten minutes of the yellow MWD truck. St. John told the water district truck's driver what he needed. Minutes later, the gate was unlocked, and the eighteen-wheeled hook-and-ladder rolled noisily down the dirt easement. Schoolkids gawked as their buses turned into the school's driveway. St. John posted patrolmen at the gate to keep onlookers back. He sent Henderson to stand on the golf course.
"Should we call in divers?" Cassiletti asked.
"There's like an inch of water," St. John said as he snapped photographs with the Polaroid camera he always brought to crime scenes. "I think we can handle it."
Cassiletti cast a nervous eye downward. "That can change in an instant."
"We'll work fast."
To the dismay of the guy from MWD, St. John borrowed a pair of bolt cutters from one of the firemen and snipped the fence away from the pole twenty yards upstream from the bodies. He then asked the fireman to lower a ladder into the channel and was the first to climb down. The storm channel's floor had its own weather system, colder and damper than topside.
St. John understood Cassiletti's concern. It was February 16, 1985, still officially the rainy season, which stretched from October to April. Five feet up from the concrete floor, a crust of lighter wood and floatable garbage marked the height the storm water had reached in the last few days. But today the sky was clear, in fact it was a brilliant blue. The small grove of eucalyptus trees above them had put out small white tendriled blooms in response to the soaking of their roots. One of the houses nearby had a fire going, and the air carried the smell of wood smoke.
Up close, the bodies looked reasonably fresh, especially the child's, whose perfect little fingers were frozen in a reaching gesture. One small plump foot was bare. St. John looked closer and almost laughed out loud in his relief. The child wasn't a child at all, but a doll. No wonder it had yet to show the darkening signs of decomposition. He examined the real corpse, trying to get a fix on her age. She was either a teenager or a small woman. Her hands were ringless and withered from immersion. The face was unrecognizable, rendered a pulpy ruin from repeated blows and death's decay.
He walked past the body and shined his flashlight into the opening of the cement sleeve that ran beneath the golf course, built, he was told by the MWD guy, thirteen years ago in 1972 at a cost of $1.7 million. The tab was happily picked up by the golf course, relieved not to have an ugly cement trough bordered by chain-link fence running through the barranca of the first and seventh fairways.
St. John walked in increasingly smaller semicircles that brought him closer to the body, working with his eyes focused just ahead of his feet, pausing every now and then to squat and study the odd bit of flotsam that might possibly matter later. At last he arrived back at the corpse. The distinct, oddly sweet scent of decay rose to his nostrils. Seeping blood formed a halo on the wet cement around her head. The severity and abundance of the facial wounds meant that the dead woman's attacker probably knew her. The slit throat was very personal.
Had the rains continued, the corpse would have been swept into the tunnel and never discovered. St. John examined the cinder block that had been used to weigh down the body. It was the two-cell variety -- the sort of thing college kids used to build shelves for their stereos. Not much in the way of a clue, but every lead must be followed, no matter how unpromising.
He hunkered down next to the body to wait for the Scientific Investigation Division. There was not much more to be done, but the victim had the rest of eternity to be alone and forgotten. He'd stay with her until the criminalists came.
The crime scene photographer arrived and took pictures, beginning with over-alls of the scene, then close-ups of the dead female. The doll's face was buried in the woman's chest, nestled between her breasts. The two had been bound together with white cord, the ends of the rope fastened to the cinder block by odd, looping knots.
Firemen, at St. John's direction, built a dam of sandbags upstream. Kids from the junior high school drifted over to the fence at Allenford, trying to get a peek at what was going on. St. John sent a man to the administration office to find out if any student was absent. He particularly wanted to know about brown-haired girls.
Frank Shue from the coroner's office appeared at the top of the bank. As usual he wore wrinkled, ill-fitting trousers, and his striped, long-sleeved dress shirt was half untucked. "What you got?" he called down.
"Body dump," St. John answered, his voice echoing against the steep walls. The worst. Smart killers who dump the bodies simultaneously eliminated the victim, the crime scene, and most, if not all, of the trails leading back to the murder.
"Oh, jeez," Shue said, eyeing the ladder and rubbing an open hand across his mouth.
"I'd like to transport the body as is." St. John heard the crack in his own voice and cleared his throat.
"You got it," Shue said. He returned five minutes later with a four-by-ten-foot opaque sheet of plastic and a roll of twine. He joined St. John, wading through the muck in a pair of weathered high-top tennis shoes. The men put on latex gloves and laid the plastic on the paved floor of the storm channel.
St. John used a sharp pocketknife to sever the rope where it threaded through the cinder block, thus preserving the noose-like knots. He grunted slightly as he climbed halfway up the ladder and handed the wet block to Cassiletti. The second, younger detective took the evidence in one of his big hands and lifted it easily, as if it were made of Styrofoam.
"You should be down here," St. John said.
Cassiletti said, "Oh, I'm sorry," in that high, nervous voice of his and set down the cinder block on a sheet of white butcher paper he'd spread on the ground. St. John sighed as the big man climbed almost daintily down the side of the bank, taking his time as if worried that he might break a nail.
Shue secured paper bags over the woman's hands to preserve possible evidence under her fingernails, and then searched her pockets. He found no identification.
Overhead, a helicopter beat back ocean breezes. St. John caught himself listening for distant mortar fire.
"Let's get her out of here," he said, collecting his breath and feeling the ever-present weight in his chest, a reminder of the heart attack he'd suffered four months ago at the age of forty-two. His hand strayed for a moment to his pocket as he assured himself that he had his nitroglycerin tablets. It was a gesture he repeated at least twenty times a day.
The body flopped a bit as Cassiletti and Shue rolled it onto the plastic. The woman was now on her back, her bagged hand fallen to her side. Rigor mortis had come and gone, there would be no point in taking liver temperature readings to determine loss of live body temperature. She had been dead for over twenty-four hours, probably closer to thirty. St. John placed the woman's bag-encased hand over the doll's body, then Shue folded the tarp around the cadaver, burrito-like, and bound the macabre package with lengths of rope at the corpse's waist, ankles, and neck.
"Good thing she wasn't in the water that long," Shue said, "or you'd want to be real careful about tugging on any limbs."
St. John was also grateful the body hadn't been in salt water, where crabs and shrimp would nibble off the smaller extremities.
"See if you can plump up those fingers and get me some prints," he said, blinking into the sun. Her own mother wouldn't recognize the woman's face, not with that much damage.
At St. John's signal, the fire engine's boom swung over the canal, lowering a litter attached to a heavy steel winch hook. The shrouded body was loaded onto the litter, lifted over the embankment, and then laid on a gurney for transportation to the coroner's office.
The detectives and the coroner met up top for a brief huddle. Shue said he'd let St. John know as soon as he had any information on the deceased's identity.
St. John removed his latex gloves, clamped a hand on Cassiletti's big shoulder, leaving an imprint of the white powder from the gloves, and pointed at the cinder block. "Find out everything you can about this. I want to know where it's made, sold, and used. And I want to know it today."
Cassiletti, ever anxious to please, said, "I'll become the world's leading authority."
Leaving the scene, St. John drove the tree-lined, curving canyon roads north of Sunset Boulevard. Large convex mirrors warned of oncoming traffic. Many beautiful homes were nestled in the rustic hillsides, some were under construction -- signs of Reagan prosperity -- many had stables. He drove slowly, attempting to trace the route of the storm drains, but after Sunset Boulevard the channels weren't visible from the street. Riviera Ranch Road ended at a house that reminded him of the entrance to Disneyland's Frontierland, complete with a two-story outer wall made of logs and a wrought iron chandelier-sized porch light.
Back on Sunset Boulevard, where the channel split, he parked his car in a space between a wooden guardrail studded with orange reflectors and a six-foot-high redwood fence. The easement road here was no wider than a footpath but easily accessible. The chopper pilot had noticed a disturbance in the silt lining the bottom of the channel just before it turned under Sunset Boulevard.
The gate to the wooden fence was open, so St. John peeked inside. He saw six horse stalls, all occupied. A bay mare in the first stall stuck her head over her railing to greet him. He took a moment to stroke her soft muzzle and look into one of her big brown eyes.
"See anybody suspicious lately?"
She twitched her ears and snorted softly. Too bad he didn't have a carrot.
Beyond the mare's swishing tail, St. John noticed that someone had stacked several bales of hay on the narrow easement next to the fence flanking the canal. A strange place for hay. He pushed the top bale aside. The chain link had been cut. The severed ends of steel were still shiny, showing no hint of oxidation. He saw the bend marks where a triangular flap of chain link had been bent outward and then straight again. Using his car radio, he requested a Scientific Investigation Division unit. He told them what he wanted and how badly he wanted it.
Results from the fingerprints came in within an hour due to the lucky break that the decedent had a police record. Her name was Jane Ferrar. She had been arrested for prostitution, petty theft, and DUI. Most of her offenses were in neighboring Venice Beach, but one charge was listed in West Los Angeles -- St. John's division.
He returned to the station and pulled the hard copy of her arrest report. He had to hunt a bit in the station's archives to find it. The arrest date was ten years earlier, on June 10, 1975. The charge was driving under the influence. He brought the folder back to his desk and opened it. A black-and-white mug shot was paper-clipped to the 5.10 form.
"Oh God." His chest constricted. He picked up his telephone, but couldn't remember the number; digits kept transposing in his head. Still not breathing, he flipped through his Rolodex and stopped at M.
M for Mancini, for Munch, for mechanic, for mother of an eight-year-old daughter.
He punched in the telephone number of the Texaco station where she worked, her photograph gripped between his thumb and index finger. The telephone rang in his ear. Munch looked disheveled in the mug shot. Her light brown hair uncombed, a rebellious sneer on her face, not yet the smiling, sober young woman he'd come to know and --
"Bel Air Texaco," a man's voice answered.
St. John fought to calm his thoughts, trying not to superimpose Munch's face on the battered corpse. "Lou?"
"It's Mace St. John."
"How's it going? Just a sec." Lou put down the phone and called out, "Munch, line one."
St. John exhaled, and by the time Munch picked up, his heart rate was almost back to normal.
"I need to talk to you," he said.
"Sure, what's up?"
"Not on the phone."
"This can't be good," she said.
"It could be worse. Trust me."
© 2003 Barbara Seranella
Munch Mancini is one of those fictional characters who jump off the page and into readers' hearts. Mechanic, limo driver, mom, Munch -- short for Miranda -- has lived a hard life and done it all: sex, drugs, you name it. But now she has her adopted eight-year-old daughter, Asia; she has a house; she has a job she loves. And she has trouble.
The battered body of her former pal New York Jane has washed up in a Los Angeles drainage canal. Munch's policeman friend Mace St. John runs the dead woman's prints: She's Jane Ferrar, but in her arrest report Mace finds Munch's photo and fingerprints.
What's the tie between the two women? Who killed Jane and dumped her in the ditch? And what is the significance of the baby doll tied to her arms? Munch tells Mace that ten years earlier she had used Jane's name to beat a drunk driving rap. She'll do what's necessary now to clear her record, but that's where she wants it to end. She wants no more police digging into her past. It's done. It's over. She's severed all ties with the people she used to know, especially Jane Ferrar and a dangerous man named Thor.
Or so she hopes. It's not that easy, though, to escape one's history. There are always reminders, such as the fifteen-year-old boy who shows up at Munch's door one day asking for help. He's the son of an old friend, and he's a kid, so how can she say no? But is he what he says? Is Munch wrong to bring him into the house with little Asia? Munch will do anything to protect Asia from harm. Anything.
Meanwhile, Munch's boyfriend, homicide cop Rico Chacón, is investigating a cold case of triple murder that may be heating up and heading straight toward Munch. Her whole new life may unravel unless she can stop a killer. And Munch's life with Rico may unravel too unless his other girlfriend leaves town -- soon.
With Unpaid Dues, Barbara Seranella, one of the most passionate and resonating voices in all of crime fiction, gives us a gripping and suspenseful novel about the debts we owe but can never fully repay.(back to top)
Barbara Seranella was born in Santa Monica and grew up in Pacific Palisades. After running away from home at fourteen, joining a hippie commune in the Haight, and riding with outlaw motorcycle clubs, she decided to do something normal, so she became a mechanic. 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. She and her husband, Ron, and their dogs divide their time between Laguna Beach and La Quinta, California.