THE LITTLE DEATH
Back in seventy-eight, when we were making the arrangements, the funeral director said something I've never forgotten: Only when we face death do we see our lives clearly.
Still numb with the shock of seeing my husband, Keith, and infant daughter, Erica, lying murdered in my driveway, and my only brother, Perris, nearly getting killed in an on-the-job shooting, I had barely been able to ask the funeral director what he meant.
His reply: "The cars, houses, the distractions we surround ourselves with to keep us company on this journey called life fall away in the presence of death. In that moment, if we're lucky, we will see ourselves--and others--naked and unadorned, for who we really are."
Only twenty-five years old, I had clung to my big brother's hand, staring into the abyss of loneliness ahead of me, and asked: "But what if you don't like what you see?"
For that he had no answer.
But his words have stuck with me, have guided me in every death investigation I've conducted since becoming an LAPD homicide detective. His words especially rang true during the case I investigated in March of 1993.
Two uniforms from Wilshire Division, who had already set up a perimeter at the north end of the alley at Eighth and Vermont, were standing in the damp fog when I arrived at 0130 hours.
"I read in a book somewhere that they call an orgasm 'the little death,' " the middle-aged Latino was saying to his female partner. He kneaded his crotch and licked his lips. "But little or big depends on what you're packin', y'know what'm sayin'?"
The female, a brunette a head taller than her partner and maybe twenty years his junior, tried to hide the disgust on her face. "Thirteen Korean merchants killed in the last month, and now this," she said, edging away and shoving her hands deeper into her jacket pockets. "This is about the worst thing that could happen in Koreatown."
I coughed to hide the blush I could feel warming my cheeks. My own little death had been interrupted by the twelve twenty-five call from Lieutenant Stobaugh to roll out with my team to this crime scene in Koreatown. I had been about to leap out of Aubrey Scott's bed and get dressed when my lover stirred beneath me. "What's your hurry?" he'd asked, his arms trying to anchor my hips.
"You know how important this is. It's my first case since going back on the job!"
"Take it easy, Char." He pulled me closer. "Your victim isn't going anywhere."
But my face was burning with anger, too. I'd been in this young officer's position myself, and I'd be damned if I'd let this Neanderthal make another female's life on the job as miserable as mine had been.
"Can you stop playing with yourself long enough to tell me who's your CO?" I demanded of the crotch-grabbing senior officer, a uniform with four stripes on his arm and a brass nameplate that read paz.
The female smirked and Officer Paz blushed as he scanned the ID I'd flashed him. I wrote down my badge number and signed his crime scene log sheet. "Yes, ma'am. Lieutenant Graydon."
"The lead Wilshire detective--" I put down my MagLite, opened my briefcase, and extracted a fresh version of the notebook I carry on all my cases. I flipped to the page on which I'd hastily scribbled the address and basic facts when I got the call from my lieutenant. "Detective Bianchi, where is he?"
"Down at the south end of the alley with our lieutenant."
"Has Lieutenant Stobaugh from Robbery-Homicide signed in yet?"
Paz didn't need to consult his log for an answer. "In at twelve thirty-five, out at twelve fifty-five. Caught another high-profile case at a nursery on the Westside. Someone connected to the DA's office, I think."
I couldn't help but be curious. "Did he say who?"
"No, but he said to tell the lead detective--I guess that would be you, ma'am--that he'd be back to brief you as soon as possible."
"You mean me to brief him, don't you?"
"I'm just telling you what he said, ma'am."
There's no point getting into semantics with this guy, my inner voice told me. "Where's the vic?"
"Down by that Dumpster, Detective Justice."
"We secured the alley right away," the female added, gesturing toward the yellow tape. "Set up the whole thing as a crime scene."
"She's got eyes, Fontaine," Paz growled.
Ignoring him, I nodded thanks to his eager young partner. "Good thinking, Officer Fontaine. Anybody else been in that alley since you secured the scene?"
"Just our detectives," Paz replied, cutting his eyes at Fontaine. "But they didn't touch the body or any of the evidence."
And they shouldn't if they were following the basic rules of crime scene investigation, but I realized Paz was saying it for Fontaine's benefit as much as mine. "Who called her in?"
"We think it was a homeless guy. Only he was so addlebrained, he gave the dispatcher the wrong location."
"Where is he now?"
Paz hiked up his shoulders. "In the wind before we got here."
"Then how do you know he was homeless?"
"Towelhead clerk at the convenience store on Vermont said he came in screaming for help," he explained, oblivious to Fontaine's and my reaction to the crude slur. "He let him use their phone. Got a good look."
"Did this alleged homeless guy say anything significant to the clerk?"
"Just that he'd tried to make the call from the massage parlor next door but, not surprisingly, they turned him down." Paz smirked a little. "Probably didn't conform to the dress code."
I peered down Eighth, spotted the sign on the northeast corner of Vermont. Korean characters printed vertically on the top, on the bottom the words magic lotus massage, or would have been if the U in lotus and the M in massage weren't missing. "Who ID'd the vic?"
Glancing nervously at her partner, Fontaine spoke up again. "The homeless man, ma'am, initially--"
"But once we found her and realized that birthmark on her face wasn't a bruise," Paz interjected, "we figured it might be that Korean chick with the Santos campaign. So we radioed it in to our watch sergeant. Didn't say on the air who it was, but told him to come over and have a look-see. Once he did, he called out for our detectives and the lieutenant. And after they got a look at her, they called RHD via land line just in case."
I nodded. Wilshire detectives investigated murders all the time, but Robbery-Homicide Division where I worked was a specialized section of the LAPD's Detective Services Group, tasked with solving complex and high-profile crimes that might overwhelm a division's detective squad. The murder of a former reporter and political consultant for a mayoral candidate certainly warranted a call to RHD, if for no other reason than to take the heat off Wilshire in case things got funky.
"Who's working the case with Bianchi?"
"Neidisch and O'Donoughue," Paz replied. "Two of our best dicks."
Good choice of words, I thought, feeling the pressure building behind my eyes. The last case I'd worked I had taken over mid-investigation from that particular Wilshire detective team, and it was a wonder I could follow the murder book they'd established. Cleaning up another of their messes was not what I left a warm bed and a good man to do. "Where are they?"
"O'Donoughue's inside the Magic Lotus, interviewing the management." Paz pointed to another black-and-white at the south end of the alley, its blue and red light bar winking through the dense fog. "And Neidisch is down there, with Lieutenant Graydon and Detective Bianchi, in case anyone tries to come in that way."
"Let me take a look at that log." I counted eight people who'd been at the crime scene before me.
"Lieutenant Bianchi had Neidisch place the first call for the coroner, too," Paz informed me.
Although they didn't have to, I was grateful Wilshire had taken the initiative to put the coroner's investigators on notice that we'd need them later. And the sooner, the better. I didn't want the body lying out here subject to discovery by some Nosey Rosie with keen hearing and the number for the local TV station posted on her fridge.
"Did Detective Bianchi call SID, too?"
The way I pronounced it, old Rosie would think I was talking about a person, but the initials stood for LAPD's Scientific Investigation Department, full of tech wizards and weenies who supported our investigation of crime scenes by dusting for fingerprints, taking physical samples, and getting pictures of crime scenes, among other myriad functions that supported a murder investigation.
"I don't think so. I think he was waiting on you." Paz started for his car. "I'll just call and let him know you're here."
"Take your time."
He kept walking. "But Bianchi and Neidisch need to show you--"
"If you don't mind, Officer," I called out after him, "I'd like to see the crime scene for myself before I have them walk me through."
His car door open, Paz stiffened a bit at my violation of protocol, but I didn't feel the need to tell him my reasoning. "You're the lead detective," he grumbled, "so I guess that's your prerogative."
"I guess it is."
"It's just that . . . it's pretty messy, ma'am," Fontaine stammered.
"Murder usually is, Officer Fontaine."
Paz breathed out his exasperation and slammed the door. "Want me to lead the way?"
"No thanks, just show me the safe route you established."
We walked in a few feet, where he indicated the right side of the alley with his MagLite. The footpath was marked with orange traffic cones. "I knew not to disturb the scene any more than was necessary, so I had everyone come in and go out the same way."
"You ever consider detective work, Officer Paz?" I smiled, trying to throw him a bone.
I was about to duck under the yellow crime scene tape when Paz cleared his throat. "Uh, ma'am . . . I'd like us to be clear about my little joke with the boot back there."
"What joke?" I came up on the other side of the tape, focused my attention on my MagLite and away from my intensifying headache. "Probably her first murder scene. I'm sure you were just trying to lighten the mood."
"Trying to toughen up a young officer."
His head bobbed emphatically. "You got it."
I snapped on the MagLite. "And I'm equally sure you don't want that young officer to get the wrong idea and think you were trying to hit on her, now would you, Officer Paz?" I said it sweetly as I trained the flashlight on his reddened face. "Because if she did and filed a complaint to your commanding officer," I went on in the same tone, "I'd have to back her up, and I don't think you'd like that, would you?"
He narrowed his eyes at me, saw something there that made him look away.
"But that's not going to be necessary, because those kind of jokes will never happen again, will they, Officer Paz?"
"No, ma'am," he muttered, eyes still averted.
"Then I think we're clear." I smiled, turned my back on him, trained my light on the path ahead.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dirty Laundry by Paula L. Woods. Copyright © 2003 by Paula L. Woods. Excerpted by permission of Fawcett, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.