I chucked the file and its fresh autopsy report onto my desk and turned away from my cubicle to head for the coffee machine. It was about time for a cup o’ joe and a look at the usual Monday doughnut selection. I realized I’d left my coffee cup on my desk and turned back.
“Are you my daddy?”
The voice came from behind me, so I swiveled, fully expecting that the female with the question was going to be some adolescent who’d mistaken me for another cop. What met my eyes was the last thing I expected: a honey blonde, maybe eighteen, nineteen years old, far too old to be my daughter. And she was smirking at me. “What?”
“I asked, ‘Are you my daddy?’ Didn’t you hear me the first time? Are you deaf or just stupid?”
“Listen, kid, I don’t have time for this. You know I’m not your father. Get lost.”
The captain walked up, and patted the young woman on the back. “Play nice, Striker. This is your new partner, Angelica Piccolino from Vice.”
Laughing, she nearly doubled over with mirth. My face heated, not with embarrassment, but with blazing irritation. Who was this Angelica Piccolino, and how was I going get rid of her?
“Cute,” I said. “You sent me a high school student to work on a homicide. Why would I ever think you were putting me on?” If my tone was gruff, I had a right. No one likes to be the butt of a joke.
“Aw, keep your pants on, Grandpa,” said the petite thorn in my side. “I’m fully qualified.”
Okay, so I snorted. Probably not the most adult thing I could have done, but not as juvenile as laughing out loud. How could a pint-sized, snot-nosed girl be qualified to work on a homicide? “You’re from Vice?”
This time, Captain Donati spoke up. “Don’t be such a hard-ass, Striker.”
I thought about it during the three-second pause in the conversation. Donati was trustworthy, and a conversation about the suitability of my new partner should not take place in the cubicle farm. “Yeah. Just surprised, is all.” I gave the girl a steady stare, hoping for a little intimidation. “And that was not the best way to introduce yourself, Piccolino.”
She had the nerve to shrug, grinning. “Gotcha good, though, didn’t I?”
A corner of my mouth almost turned up, but I stopped the grin from coming on. “Yeah.”
“You had the stupidest expression on your face, Striker. Priceless. You looked like a scorned cow.”
I didn’t even address that caustic remark, and perhaps it was small of me, but I was rather proud of my ability not to bite her head off. Instead, I took the bull—no, make that the cow—by the horns. “Captain, I need to talk to you in your office.”
His expression turned wary. “Is it about your case?”
It was only a slight prevarication when I said, “Yeah.”
“Okay, but Piccolino should be in on it.”
“I don’t think so. Not this time.”
“Hmm.” Maybe he was concerned about getting the little girl’s feelings hurt, or maybe he was just curious about what I had to say. Whatever his reasoning, he nodded and turned away. “Piccolino, your desk is across the aisle. Striker will be right back to help you get up to speed.”
Was that a pout on her lips? “Sure, Cap. I’ll straighten my pencils or something.”
I tried not to be too smug as I followed Donati to his office. He had a corner, closed office with lateral blinds that hid particularly difficult conversations from the view of the situation room. Lots of prying eyes tend to pop up over the cubicle walls when the Captain’s blinds go down.
We went in and I closed the door.
Donati and I both sat. “What’s this about, Striker? Problems with the case already?”
“Not exactly, sir. More like with the partner you’ve given me. I’ve been operating pretty well since Smitty retired. I don’t need a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to babysit.”
He leaned back in his chair and looked at me, his eyes inscrutable. Perhaps five seconds passed. I began to think I was supposed to say something else, but finally, he spoke. “Piccolino is qualified, Striker, or I never would have assigned her to you. She was one of the best detectives on the Vice Squad, an undercover operative who pulled in the bad guys like nobody’s business. But she became a known quantity on the street. Crooks had a habit of getting put away when she was around, and it seemed wiser to give her a different assignment where she could be herself.”
“She looks like a teenager, sir. She even dresses like a teenager. Since when does a pink hoodie and a miniskirt qualify as professional clothes? How does that reflect on the department?”
“Yeah, I already talked to her about that. She’ll be more business-like in the future.”
I had my doubts, but kept them to myself. “How old is she? Twenty? How’d she get promoted so fast? Was she that hot with Vice?”
“She’s twenty-six, but you could have asked her yourself. Piccolino just looks like a teenager. It’s gotten her pretty far, but she’s done her time on the team. I think you’ll find her knowledgeable. The only thing is…”
Oh, great. There was a but in there. “Yeah?”
“She’s a little bit of a hotshot. Takes chances when maybe she shouldn’t. When she was out on the streets with punks on her case, she had to be sharp and steady working on her own. It got her used to risky police work.”
Honest to God, I tried not to grit my teeth. My dentist would have caught me, but Donati didn’t. “So, I’m supposed to keep her in line, while training her for the Homicide Division, and solving crimes. Piece of cake,” I said, scowling.
“Damn it, Striker. Stop whining and get to work. You have a partner. She’s talented. You have experience and will be perfect for showing her the ropes. Now, get outta here.”
Maybe I was whining. The thing is, I enjoyed working on my own. When my partner retired, it was like I’d been freed from lock down. I could handle the cases the way I wanted to, following a logical progression, rather than following hunches and guesses. Sure, sometimes a hunch can lead you to an answer, but just as often they waste your time. Maybe Piccolino was meticulous, too. I wouldn’t know if I didn’t give her a chance.
“Okay,” I said as I rose and turned toward the door.
“Oh, and Striker—”
“Don’t fuck it up.”
What could I say to that? I twisted the doorknob and made my silent exit.
The coffee was fresh and hot from the industrial Keurig, and I popped a doughnut hole in my mouth, chewing the soft, greasy, sugar bomb as I made my way back to my cube. I poked my head into Piccolino’s space, intending to make peace, but she wasn’t there. Maybe she had to pee. I shrugged and walked across the aisle to my own desk.
There she was. Sitting in my chair, at my desk, poring over the case file I’d left there. She spoke up before I could give her a piece of my mind.
“Quiet as a yak.”
“Are you always so abrasive, or do I bring out your finer qualities?”
“This is how I roll, Striker. Get used to it. Time to enter the modern world where women don’t simper.” Finally, she looked up from the file. I saw that the autopsy report was on top.
“Get out of my chair.”
She closed the file folder, rose and took the chair next to the desk. “Fine. Your chair is shit anyway.”
“Geezus, Piccolino. You’ve got a mouth on you.”
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said, examining her nails.
“Look. I think we started off on the wrong foot. I’ll take part of the blame. Let’s try again.” I offered my hand. “I’m Jase Striker, Detective, Homicide.” I raised my eyebrows and wiggled my fingers.
She shook my hand. “Okay. Angelica Piccolino, Detective, Vi—, I mean, Homicide.”
“Better,” I said taking my hand back. Her fingers were small, delicate, the skin supple and smooth. I felt a little like a child molester just shaking her hand. The way she sat in the chair, her right knee bouncing a little, suggested that she was edgy, maybe a little nervous. Good. It was time I took the upper hand.
“So, what wild hair prompted you to become a cop?”
She shrugged. “I was an English Lit major in college and was working on a paper about the judicial system. I got really into it, so into it I realized that I was heading down the wrong path. I changed majors and a few years later became a cop.”
“You from Glendale originally?”
“No. The Valley.” She tucked a lock of her honey hair behind an ear, and glanced at me before turning her gray eyes back down to her lap. It was obvious that she was uncomfortable talking about herself.
“I’m from Portland,” I offered. “That’s where my family lives. Cop father and grandfather. I thought it might be smart to put a state between us rather than forming a Portland PD dynasty.”
“Want some coffee?”
“Yeah. Where is it?”
I gave her directions and watched her pink-skirted ass as she walked out of my cube. Nice ass. A spankable ass. In fact, an ass that needed a few good discipline swats. Off limits ass; that kind of fraternizing was definitely a no go. People did it, of course, and there was no rule against it, but I could see that in a dangerous division like Homicide, being too involved with your partner could get you both killed. I tucked my libido back into its hole and opened the case file.
There were pictures of the murder victim, and text descriptions of the findings. The subject had been identified as Amy Alexander, age twenty, late of Glendale, drug addict. She’d died of an overdose. So why was this a suspected homicide? Further digging into the file revealed that there had been a wilted white rose with the thorns cut off on top of the dead girl’s belly when she was found. CSI couldn’t figure out why that would be, so they bumped it up to my department. Hell, maybe Ms. Amy Alexander simply liked roses. But placement and cause of death indicated the further investigation was reasonable. There were a lot of unidentified fibers and hairs on the victim, as well, and those might mean something. Or they might be caused by the random encounters we all have during a day with other people.
It also turned out that Amy had a four-year-old son, one Barry Alexander. He’d been found hiding in a garbage bin in the same alley that his mother had died in. Poor kid. Who knows what he’d seen? Well, it fell to me, and now also to Piccolino, to gently ask him questions as Child Protective Services and his closest relatives sat by to reassure him. Apparently, his grandparents had already been located in Mazatlán, where they were vacationing, and were on their way to take charge of him.
I was staring at the file, trying to reconstruct the scene through the photos the CSI people had taken, when Piccolino returned.
“You shouldn’t hunch over your desk like that.”
Oh, so now she was full of helpful advice. “I only do it when I’m sitting here,” I told her, trying to make light of her observation.
“Heh.” She put her coffee on my desk and leaned over my shoulder. Her breasts rubbed against me; I tried to ignore the sensation. “I took a look at the file,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.” I turned toward her and she disengaged, going back to the chair next to the desk. It was a huge relief to have her a little distance away. “What did you think?”
“I think it’s cut-and-dried. The girl overdosed. Her kid was in the garbage bin to keep him from watching her shoot up.”
“I would think that he’d seen that plenty of times, since she was an addict. Why protect him now?”
“Maybe he crawled in there when he realized his mother was dead.”
“Maybe. But if you look at the dumpster pics, they’d be too tall for a little kid to get up into. And it doesn’t explain the rose.”
“Yeah, that is a puzzle. But not a very tough one. Maybe she just liked roses. Who knows why addicts do what they do?”
“There were fibers and hairs on her body that didn’t belong to her,” I pointed out.
“Those might not mean anything. She was in a fuckin’ alley, Striker. We need more than that to go on.”
“True, but CSI got a few details. No DNA ID on the hairs, however. Up to us to find someone to compare them to.”
“Waste of time. Someone could have searched the body for loose change. There are a lot of desperate people out there.”
“It’s our job to find out the details. So, let’s get busy.” I stood and Piccolino gulped down her coffee. She grinned when I put my fedora on my head.
“What are you? Like that guy from The Maltese Falcon?”
“That was Sam Spade. I prefer to think of myself as Mike Hammer.”
“You’re into all those old detective movies?”
“And the books and TV shows. I thought you were the Lit major.”
“Yeah, well, pulp fiction wasn’t my interest.”
“We’ll have to discuss your definition of ‘pulp fiction.’ In the meantime, grab your stuff.”
We made our way to the police vehicle, and I would have sworn that Piccolino was bouncing on her feet. I could feel the excitement wafting off her like an expensive perfume. It was kind of amusing, though I hoped she’d tone it down and not let her eagerness overrule the need to be focused and methodical.
We got in and I drove us out of the lot. She played with all the gizmos in the vehicle, though, because we were in an unmarked car, there weren’t too many visible. Alerting the bad guys of who we were was never a good idea.
“Never rode in an unmarked car before?”
“Not one like this,” she responded. “Vice uses civilian vehicles because of the undercover work.”
“Can’t we go faster?”
I got on the freeway. “We have to obey the laws like any other citizens, Piccolino.”
“You drive like my grandma. Let’s hurry the fuck up. The criminals could be getting away.”
“We’re not on our way to an arrest. Keep cool.”
“You should have let me drive. We’d have been there by now.”
Abrasive, childish, annoying, Piccolino was making me edgy. Still, the thought of her getting a spanking for being a brat kind of made it all better in my mind. Not that it would ever happen, but it was a calming thought. “I’ll do the driving today. It’s your first day in the department.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been driving for more than ten years. I think I can handle it. You’re just being an old fart.”
The idea of her yelping from hard swats was so pleasant, I didn’t have the desire to give her hell for being obnoxious. I think I had a smile on my face the rest of the way to the crime scene.
The scene of the crime looked pretty much like the pictures. It was an alley between two concrete block buildings, one a restaurant, the other a bar. It was in a shady area of town, about half a block from the no-tell motel that street walkers often used. That seemed suspicious to me, so I steered Piccolino down the block to the Rest Nest Motel. It was a beaten down place with white stuccoed walls and peeling blue doors. Two stories with stairs, no elevator. There were four cars parked in the lot. Piccolino drew a notepad from her backpack—another less-than-professional wearable—and began writing down license plate numbers. It was a good thing for her to do as I walked into the motel office and talked to the manager there.
The guy was slow to come out from behind his Lexan window, but he knew my badge meant something, so he came out grudgingly. He was maybe forty, with a significant paunch and a not-particularly-clean Hawaiian shirt. “Yeah?”
“I’m Detective Striker, Glendale PD. Your name?”
“You the owner or the manager here?”
“Manager. The owner’s a guy who lives in Florida. What do you want? I run a clean operation here.”
“Sure. Your reputation speaks for itself.” I got out my pen and small pad and wrote down his name.
“Wise guy, eh? What the fuck do you want?”
I drew a picture of Amy from my pocket. “Know this girl?”
He took the photo and looked at it for about two seconds. “No.”
“Look for a little while longer, Mr. Galinas. I want you to be sure.”
He snorted, but made a show of looking at Amy’s face for a few more seconds. “Yeah. She comes around now and then. I don’t stick my nose into anyone’s business. They pay, I hand over the key.”
“She usually come here alone?”
He began to sweat; I could smell it and see it near his receding hairline. “I mean no. But like I said, it ain’t my business. Did she break a law? Because if she did, I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”
Galinas went a little pale. “Damn.” Maybe he was thinking of the lost revenue. “She was a good kid when she wasn’t strung out. My wife sometimes watched her kid while she…” Clearly uncomfortable, he let the thought trail away.
“Did she have a pimp?”
“Don’t they all?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
Sighing, he answered with a little more respect than before. “Yeah, I guess they do. Sometimes I saw her exchanging something with a guy in the parking lot. He was kinda tall, with dark hair. I only saw him once or twice, so I’m not sure. Never saw his face.”
“When did you last see him?”
“Maybe a week ago.”
He shrugged. “I dunno. He has three, four girls who come here.”
“When did you last see Amy?”
“Over the weekend. Uh… Saturday night.”
According to the autopsy report, Amy died on Saturday around midnight. “Did she bring her kid with her?”
“No. Don’t know where he was.”
I was writing everything down, but not really because I needed to. I have a very good memory. However, it doesn’t hurt to be doubly sure of names, dates, details.
Piccolino came into the lobby and stood next to me. I nodded toward her. “This is Detective Piccolino. Piccolino, this is Mr. Galinas, the manager here.”
She nodded, but remained silent. I gave her a look that said she was doing the right thing. I had been on a roll with Galinas and I didn’t want to get sidetracked.
“How long was Amy here?”
“Maybe two hours. I didn’t set a stopwatch.”
Piccolino made a soft snorting sound, but it sounded disdainful, not coaxed by humor.
“I’ll need a description of the person she came with.”
“I didn’t pay attention.”
“Did she leave with the same man?”
“I dunno. She came in and dropped off the key, then she left.”
“No estimate of what time that was?”
“Well…” He pondered that for a few moments. “It was about when the news comes on. So maybe six o’clock?”
“Okay. I think that’s all for now.” I closed my notebook and put it back in my pocket next to Amy’s picture. “You might be called to give a deposition. We’ll see.”
“Great,” he said with a groan. “Like I got time for this crap.”
I turned away. A woman was dead. I didn’t much care what time he had for us; she had no time at all.
Piccolino slid into the car seat next to me, as I started up the unmarked police sedan. “What did you think?”
“He seemed nervous, but I think he was telling the truth,” she replied.
“Maybe. I don’t think we got all the truth, though.”
“How do you know?”
It was a good question, so I stabbed at an answer. “Because I think he gets a payoff from the pimps. He claims he hasn’t seen the guy’s face. I think it’s more likely that he has, but he’s too scared to describe him. I’d like to know why.”
“Yeah. Hmm.” I pulled out of the parking lot and we headed over to Amy’s last known residence: 424 Isabel Street. Piccolino said nothing as we drove.
The apartment building we arrived at was a standard stucco-with-wood trimmed building. Common in southern California and a product of the sixties. It was old, but pretty well cared for. Although there were cars parked in front of the building, no one was loitering around. We found the manager’s apartment and spoke to her for a little while. Apparently, three young women had lived with Amy in a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor. They’d moved out almost six months ago, leaving no forwarding address, and nothing but crumbs and cockroaches in the cupboards. The manager hadn’t taken note of who came and went. Like Galinas, she kept to her own affairs and didn’t ask questions of her tenants. So long as they paid the rent and didn’t blast their stereos, she had as little to do with them as possible.
I would have asked her if she’d seen the tall man with the dark hair, but there wasn’t much point. That description was so vague as to be useless. Hell, it came close to describing me!
We left, none the wiser for our efforts.
Back at the station, we found out that Barry’s grandparents had arrived back in town and were with him. I phoned and asked them to come to the station with him for some questioning. Although they were concerned about dredging up bad memories for the boy, they complied, and the trio came within the hour. I had Child Protective Services come in as well, to make sure everything was by the book. We met in one of the witness interrogation rooms. It was a comfortable, glassed-in space, with lots of chairs and a table. There was a plant in the corner, and it had the benefit of not smelling like the suspect interrogation rooms, which stunk of fear and lies.
My first impression of the grandparents was that they were conservative, freshly tanned, and the woman resembled Amy quite a bit. Too bad their daughter would never have the chance to reach their age. They looked sad and stressed. I introduced myself and shook their hands. Piccolino did the same. Hell knows what they made of her, but they both gave me a skeptical look after shaking her hand. Their grandson clung to Mrs. Alexander’s free hand like a lifeline. And maybe she was.
I hunkered down to the boy’s height—he was small for a four year old, in my estimation—and smiled at him a little, offering my hand. “I’m Detective Striker,” I said. “I’m a policeman. Detective Piccolino and I are trying to find out what happened to your mom.”
He didn’t cry, nor did he look anything but sad as he took my hand shyly. “Mommy is in heaven with my daddy.” I wondered who his daddy might be, but didn’t ask. He thought the man was dead, and I didn’t know anything different, so why argue the point?
“I’m sorry about that,” I said sincerely. “Let’s sit down. I want you to have the special chair right in the middle. Is that okay?”
Once we were all arranged, with the family across the table from me and Piccolino, I started with some small talk, asking him if he was in kindergarten yet, did he have a best friend, that kind of thing. He was reticent to talk to me, and appeared to be sizing me up suspiciously, looking at me with eyes the color of Amy’s. Piccolino wisely stayed quiet.
“Barry, was your mommy sick very much?”
“Was she sick the night she died?”
He shrugged again.
His grandmother piped in. “His mother called him ‘Bear-bear’ apparently.”
“Ah. Well, I hope I can call you that, too. I want to be your friend.”
Once again, he shrugged.
I gave him what I thought was a reassuring smile, though the subject was grim. “So Bear-bear, did your mommy seem sick the night she died?”
“What was she like?”
“I love my mommy. She loved me, too. She said so.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Mommies are supposed to love us. I’m sure your grandma and grandpa love you, too.”
“I dunno. They say so, but I don’t know them too good.”
I looked up at Mrs. Alexander. “Amy ran away from home several years ago. She was wild and undisciplined and there was nothing we could do, though we tried. We lost contact with her.”
Turning back to Barry, I asked, “Can you tell me what happened on the night the policemen came and found you?”
“You can’t? Why not?”
“He said the devil would come get me if I told. I promised to keep it a secret. I don’t want to be with the devil.”
“No, of course not, but who told you that?”
“Bear-bear, I want to make things right. It’s important that you tell me what you know about your mommy and that night especially.”
Tears formed in his big, hurt eyes. “No. I promised.”
“Promises made when people force you aren’t real promises,” I tried.
“Bear-bear,” his grandfather said, “Tell the policeman the truth. God hates lies worse than anything.”
“No,” the child replied stubbornly.
Ms. Renig with Child Protective Services spoke up next to me. “I think maybe Barry has had enough for now.”
“I agree,” said Mrs. Alexander, taking Barry’s hand and standing. “My grandson needs a nap.”
I stood as well, but kept my gaze on Barry’s face. “Bear-bear, if you ever want to talk about this, you go ahead and talk to your grandma or grandpa, or if you want to, you can talk to me about it. We’re friends now.”
“Okay. But I won’t break my promise. The devil will get me.”
“We can talk about that another day,” I said with a smile, offering the child my hand for a goodbye shake. “Maybe we can play catch sometime?”
“Is that a game?”
My heart lurched. The boy didn’t even know about something as simple as playing catch. “Yes. A fun game.”
Mrs. Alexander tugged at Barry’s hand. “Time to go, Bear-bear.”
He turned away from me and followed along as the Alexanders led the way out of the room. I turned to Ms. Renig. “That didn’t go so well.”
She smiled at me, and I had the impression, from the lines around her eyes, she’d seen a lot of pain in her job. “You have to remember, the boy’s been traumatized.”
“Yes, but he knows something.”
“He’ll tell you when he’s ready. Let his grandparents work on him for a while. I’m sure they want the truth, too.”
“Or maybe they just want to get this whole sordid business behind them,” I grumbled.
“Maybe. However, you can’t force things.”
We left it at that, but it was frustrating. I needed to know what the boy knew, and I needed to know it now. This had become a full-blown murder investigation, because we knew someone else was involved in Amy’s death. The man who threatened a four-year-old boy with hell was a suspect. We needed to find him.