If you had asked me before I heard of Maggie Reston whether a house could be a magnet for murder, I would have automatically thought of The Dungeon, which is what we've always called the coal-gray house on Martel. As it turned out, I would have been wrong, but I would have been in good company. For as long as I can remember, everyone in the neighborhood has hated the three-story cube that hogs sky and sunlight and its gloomy facade, and has speculated about its reclusive owners.
The house has become the stuff of dark legend. As kids, my friends and I, intimidated by its brooding countenance, shivered as we whispered deliciously gruesome stories about occupants we never saw, men who kidnapped children and kept them in a Chateau D'If-like basement. Years have passed. The flowers along the walk, beheaded regularly like Henry the Eighth's wives, have been replaced by threatening junglelike shrubs. But the house's charcoal walls are still decorated from time to time with bright-colored graffiti, probably by a new generation of kids who whisper about the bad guys inside.
I have learned that bad men have become brazen in the sunlight. I have learned that, as Tennyson says, "Woods have tongues/As walls have ears," and that dark houses are not necessarily those with dark secrets. But on that Monday morning I assumed the police report was about The Dungeon:
Friday, October 31. 9:37 p.m. 100 block of South Martel Avenue. A vandal threw a pumpkin through the front window of a house and several eggs at the front door.
It was probably another Halloween prank, I thought, all trick and no treat, a nasty, petty act. According to the police reports I'd read on my rounds of the stations, there had been Halloween vandalisms all over the city of angels--disheartening, but not surprising.
I copied the data from the Wilshire Division board for my weekly Crime Sheet column, the one that appears in the rubber-banded, sprinkler-soaked, sun-bleached independent tabloids you find on your lawn next to the Kmart and Target flyers. Several hours later, back in my apartment, I phoned my sister Mindy.
"It was The Dungeon, right?" I asked after I told her what I'd read. The house is across the street from hers.
"You'd think, huh?" Her sentence blossomed into a yawn. "No, it's the one-story taupe Tudor down the block. It looks awful, but they have someone repairing the damage right now." She yawned again.
Whoever said yawns are contagious was right. Mindy's three-month-old son is the reason for hers. Mine are the result of another late-nighter with (Rabbi) Zack Abrams, the man in my life, although you'd think by now my body would have adjusted to sleep deprivation.
Not that I'm complaining. "Did you or Norm hear or see anything?"
Mindy laughed. "Are you serious, Molly? At nine-thirty on Friday Norm and the girls were sleeping, and I was trying to stay awake while nursing Yitz. We weren't exactly out trick-or-treating."
My family--my mom and dad and seven of us Blume kids (Mindy is second, I'm third)--is Orthodox Jewish and we observe the Sabbath. Even if Halloween hadn't fallen on Friday night, Mindy and Norm wouldn't have taken their two girls trick-or-treating (despite its commercialization and allure, the holiday has its origins in religious ritual), though they always stock up on Hershey's Kisses and Reese's Pieces for the children who come to their door. And for me.
Thinking of chocolate made me long for some, but I'd had my quota for the day. "Who lives in that house?"
"Walter Fennel. He thinks he owns the neighborhood."
Every neighborhood has a Walter Fennel. I scribbled his name on a pad, though the Crime Sheet doesn't identify victims. "I take it you don't like him."
"Walter's okay. He's kind of cute sometimes. But he's an eighty-year-old busybody with way too much time on his hands. He's Mister HARP. H-A-R-P? We call him Harpy."
I crinkled my nose at an image of the predatory bird. "Not a great name for an organization."
"They were thinking the musical instrument. That's their Web site logo. Community harmony and all that. Fennel headed our area board until a month ago. He still patrols the neighborhood daily looking for violators."
"One of whom may have lobbed the pumpkin and eggs?" I'd heard Mindy and others complain about the Historic Architectural Restoration and Preservation board in their Miracle Mile North area. The members decide what you can do to your property's exterior--which, according to Mindy et al., isn't much.
"I'd hate to think it's a neighbor." There was a but in Mindy's voice. "Walter was harassing a homeowner on South Formosa about a new exterior light fixture, demanded to know whether he'd received HARP board approval. The homeowner, Ed Strom, told Walter to mind his own business."
"Strom?" I mentally scanned South Formosa and came up blank. Until five years ago, when I was twenty-four and left home to marry the philandering charmer who is now my ex, I'd grown up in the neighborhood, which has a large population of Orthodox Jews, many of whom I know.
"You wouldn't know him, Molly. He and his wife just moved here from New York. They bought the Gluckmans' house. Anyway, someone reported Strom to the board, and the city fined him. He refused to take down the fixture and swore he wouldn't pay the fine. Wednesday somebody ripped the fixture off the wall."
"Fennel swears he doesn't know anything about it."
"I assume the police questioned Strom."
"He and his wife were with friends Friday night."
"He could've paid someone to do it," I said, pointing out the obvious. It's one of my failings.
"He could have. But a lot of the area homeowners are angry at HARP, Molly. They sympathize with Strom. Of course, Walter has his allies." Mindy sighed. "I'm all for preserving the neighborhood's character, but some HARP rulings are egregious, not to mention expensive. I don't think people realized how intrusive and controlling HARP could be. And it's all because of that damn house."
The Dungeon, I knew, had prompted area homeowners, anxious to prevent the construction of similarly oversize structures, to request HARP status. As my grandmother Bubbie G says, you have to be careful what you ask for.
"What's the makeup of the board?" I drained the last of my coffee and, with the cordless phone at my ear, padded barefoot to the kitchen for a refill.
"Five people, all appointed, so there's no neighborhood input. There's going to be an opening soon. I'm tempted to try to get on the board to add a little sanity, but until Yitz sleeps through the night, I'm too tired to commit to anything. I'm not even working full-time yet." She yawned again, as if to emphasize her point.
I yawned, too. Pavlov would have loved me. "When do they meet?"
"Once a month, seven p.m. on Thursdays. Unless there's an emergency. Why, are you planning on going?"
"Maybe. Sounds like good material for a feature."
In addition to penning my weekly Crime Sheet column, I'm a freelance reporter and I write books about true crime under my pseudonym, Morgan Blake. I also have income from a substantial divorce settlement I invested in property. I think I earned every penny, and if you met my ex-husband, Ron, you'd agree.
Right now I was between projects, as they say in Hollywood. I'd just pitched a piece to the L.A. Times on the latest outrage in the health care industry. This was prompted by my parents' insurer advising my mom that mammograms and ultrasounds are covered "in network" at the facilities she'd selected, those within reasonable driving distance of her home, but the radiologist's reading of the films isn't, if you can believe that.
I was also awaiting the galleys of my second book, Sins of the Father, and I'd completed the second draft of my newest true crime, The Lady from Twentynine Palms. I needed a few weeks to achieve objectivity and distance before I reread the manuscript, made changes, agonized about the book's worthiness, and FedExed it to my editor and agent. A HARP story sounded like the perfect filler.
"It's been done," Mindy said. "There was an article in the L.A. Times magazine a couple of years ago on another HARP. Whitley Heights, I think."
At least I hadn't spent hours on the piece. "I must have missed that."
"You can try a different angle. Some Hancock Park homeowners are pushing for HARP status. They got the city to commission a historical survey, which is a major step. Wednesday night they're presenting the survey and getting neighborhood reaction. Should be interesting."
"How do you know all this? From a client?" Mindy is a tax attorney, and many of her clients deal in real estate.
"From Edie. She's with the opposition."
Edie is the oldest Blume sibling. She's organized and determined and formidable once she's committed to a cause. "I see fireworks ahead."
"You see a story."
"Here's hoping," I said, ignoring Bubbie G's advice, and we both laughed.
After grabbing a handful of Kisses from my pantry (they're barricaded behind a pathetic first-line defense of cereal boxes and canned goods), I returned to my office and continued entering police data into my computer files.
If you've read my column or one like it, you're familiar with the kinds of crimes listed: car thefts, armed robbery, sexual and nonsexual assaults, DUIs, car thefts, stolen wallets, domestic violence, home burglaries, vandalized cars, shoplifting, car thefts, indecent exposure. And have I mentioned car thefts?
Until I started doing the column four years ago, I had no idea how often automobiles are stolen, which is all the time. So are personal items--purses, briefcases, wallets, cash, ID, checkbooks--that people leave in their jackets or on tables in restaurants or on their front porches or in their unlocked cars. A recent L.A. Times story told of an identity-theft ring that targeted Southern California and Vegas fitness clubs, many of whose members leave their wallets and purses in their cars while they're working up a sweat inside. Which raises the question: Why do people leave valuable personal property unattended?
Once in a while I'd love to write something like this:
A trusting soul who depended on the kindness of strangers left her purse on a nightclub chair while dancing and was shocked to find that her cell phone and wallet containing $210 had been stolen.
In Arcata, a small town in Northern California's Humboldt County, there's a guy who writes a tongue-in-cheek and sometimes poetic police blotter, and I'm sure there are others like him around the country, but my editor, George, has excised all my attempts at creativity. Still, the Crime Sheet is quirky enough by virtue of the strange stuff that goes on in the city--the things people do and say to each other, most of it nasty, much of it bizarre. And you'd be amazed by the amount of mail we get. Some people love the column, some people hate it, but they sure do read it.
I finished entering the Wilshire Division data and found the item Mindy had told me about:
Wednesday, October 29, 10 p.m. 100 block of South Formosa Avenue. A vandal smashed an outside light fixture, then ripped it from the wall.
I phoned Wilshire, asked for Burglary, and spoke to Detective Vince Porter, whom I'd seen just this morning. Which is what he said when he came on the line.
"What now, Blume? Didn't get enough for your column?"
Porter and I have a lukewarm relationship. He tolerates my questions and I try not to ask too many. Unspoken between us is the fact that my best friend, Aggie Lasher, was murdered five years ago, that the case has never been solved, and that I still phone Wilshire every few months, sometimes more often, to find out if any leads have surfaced. Although I direct those inquiries to Homicide, I'm sure all the detectives are aware of my nagging interest, and I suspect that's why they have me copy data from the big board instead of giving me sanitized photocopies of the police reports, the way some other division detectives do to make my job easier.
"About the light fixture ripped from the wall Wednesday night on South Formosa," I said. "Any idea who did it?"
"Not a clue. The homeowners were out, came back after eleven, and discovered the vandalism. Is that it?"
"What about Walter Fennel?"
I could tell he was playing with me. "The Walter on Martel whose house was vandalized Friday night, the Walter who was the reason Ed Strom was fined for violating a HARP ordinance. Obviously, there's a connection."
"For your information, Fennel and his wife were home watching TV at ten on Wednesday night."
"So they say."
"They're in their eighties, Blume."
"How hard is it to remove a light fixture?"
"Not hard if you can reach it. It was a stretch for me, and I'm five-eleven. Fennel is five-six. And before you ask, Strom's ladder was in his garage, which was locked."
"Maybe Fennel brought something along to stand on."
"Maybe Mrs. Fennel lifted him to do the deed." Porter snickered. "Give it up, Blume."
I tried picturing an eighty-year-old man dragging a stool four blocks and had to admit Porter was right. "What about the vandalism to Fennel's house?"
"Strom has a solid alibi. Friday was Halloween. It was probably kids."
"You don't find all this too coincidental?"
"Do you know something I don't?" he demanded.
"No." Even if I had information, I wouldn't have volunteered it. I don't respond well to snide.
"Thanks for your interest, Blume. It's good to know you're vigilant. We can all sleep better."
"If you find out anything--"
"You'll be the last to know," Porter said, enjoying his own sarcasm.
I accessed the L.A. Times online archives and found "The War of the Rosebushes." Great title. Great story, too, about the Hollywood Hills neighborhood, bisected by the Hollywood Freeway, that is home to some of the Industry's celebrities (Francis Coppola's family owns three houses there). It's also home to the garden that was the subject of the article, a garden one critic found "tacky and ridiculous" while supporters, including friends of the garden's creators (all in the Industry), called it "restorative," a "beautiful metaphor" for the "spiritual experience of an entire life."
The latter was a little de trop, I'll agree, and I suppose one man's Eden is another's Jurassic Park. But I was intrigued to read that tempers had flared among homeowners and threats had been exchanged because of the garden, because of paint colors and planter boxes.
Because of HARP? I thought about Fennel and Strom, wondered whether this was the beginning of another war, whether wars were being waged in other HARP neighborhoods.
I checked the Times site and found nineteen HARP articles and a Web site with a list of all the HARPs. Twelve districts, and more under consideration. Thirteen soon, if the Hancock Park group had its way. Not a lucky number.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dream House by Rochelle Krich. Copyright © 2003 by Rochelle Krich. 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.