C A I T L I N R O T H E R
|Sample chapter from NAKED ADDICTION |
Santa Ana winds were spreading their evil dust and waves of heat were oozing from exhaust pipes, casting a blur over the gridlock of cars ahead of Detective Ken Goode. Santa Anas always made him feel a little off.
Sweat dripped into his tired eyes as he sat in his Volkswagen van, waiting for the light to change on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach. He’d stayed up too late the night before, reading Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, Philosophical Suicide, pausing intermittently to deconstruct the state of his life. He needed a mind-bending career change. He felt it coming, any day in fact, just around the corner. But patience wasn’t one of his strongest traits. He wanted out of undercover narcotics and into a permanent gig working homicides. Not just as a relief detective as he’d been for the past three years, but the real thing. The only questions were how and when.
Goode always took stock at this time of year and he was rarely satisfied. After getting the green light, he drove a few blocks to a flower shop he’d passed a hundred times. He was constantly on the lookout for florists because he didn’t want to go to the same one twice. He chose to keep his annual ritual to himself, even more private than the rest of his rather solitary existence.
Goode parked near the door and glanced at himself in the rear-view mirror, running his fingers through his sun-bleached brown hair and wiping moisture from his forehead with a beach towel. His green eyes had been red around the edges since the Santa Ana kicked up and he hadn’t been sleeping much either, although that wasn’t unusual lately.
The cool air inside the shop chilled his overheated skin, making the hairs on his arms stand up. Inside the refrigerated case nearest the door, a few dozen long-stemmed, red roses poked their heads out of a white bucket of water. He slid open the door and bent his tall, lean frame over to inspect them more closely. He wanted the most perfect one he could find, just starting to bloom. He selected one from the middle, sliding it carefully out of the bunch.
“How would you like a pretty bud vase for that?” the sales girl chirped. She was a teen-ager. Bright-eyed. Hopeful.
“No, thank you,” Goode told her. He knew she meant well, but she had no idea. “That won’t be necessary.”
She looked a little disappointed. “Then how ‘bout you let me wrap it up with some baby’s breath?”
“Sure,” he said, smiling weakly and nodding. He didn’t want to have to tell her that wouldn’t be necessary either. “That would be nice.”
The cellophane crinkled as he walked back to the van and laid the rose gingerly on the passenger seat. He turned right on Grand Avenue and headed south on Interstate 5 toward Coronado.
He still remembered how green and sparkly the bay had looked that day thirty years ago. He’d just turned six. He, his mother, father and baby sister had finished a lunch of tuna sandwiches together at their small, rented house in La Jolla – all two high school teachers could afford – when his mother announced she was going for a drive. His father, Ken Sr., said he'd planned to take a nap while the baby took hers and asked if she'd take Kenny Jr. with her. She looked a little irritated and a little sad, so Kenny thought she didn't want him to come along. When she looked over at him and saw she'd upset him, she gave him that forced melancholy smile she’d been wearing of late and tousled his hair.
“Okay, then,” she said quietly. “Let's go.”
The two of them piled into the family’s Honda Accord and she stopped at Baskin Robbins to buy him a Pralines-and-Cream cone and a strawberry shake for herself. She took a prescription vial of pink pills out of her purse and popped one of them into her mouth, chasing it with a long draw on her shake. She announced that she wanted to drive over the new bridge to Coronado.
“You can see forever up there,” she said. “It feels like you can just fly off into the clouds. Don’t you think?”
Kenny nodded happily, feeling privileged to have some one-on-one time with his mother. She’d been acting so down since Maureen was born. She hardly ever wanted to play with him. It felt nice when she talked to him like that.
They were about halfway across the bridge, where the two lanes turned into three, when she pulled over to the side and told him to wait. He watched her get out of the car in her black dress, the one with the bright red roses and green leaves all over it. She stepped out of her red pumps and reached through the driver’s side window to set them on the seat next to him, giving him that same droopy smile again. The skin around her eyes wrinkled softly, reflecting a sense of tragedy that made her seem older than her thirty-six years.
“It’s dangerous out here, so stay buckled-up, okay, pumpkin?” she said.
He’d watched her put on some red lipstick before they left the house, and he thought again how it set off the whiteness of her very straight teeth. She was so much more beautiful than any of his friend’s mothers. It made him proud.
Kenny took her words as the law, never questioning why she’d parked where there was no shoulder. With his seatbelt fastened as instructed, he watched the cars whizzing by, and wondered where she'd gone. Strapped in and helpless, he couldn't see into the rear-view mirror without undoing his belt. Surely, she wouldn't be gone for long. Finally, he undid the buckle and twisted the mirror so he could see behind the car. There she was, gazing intently out into the distance. He carefully refastened the seatbelt, feeling guilty as it clicked home.
Minutes later, he still couldn’t shake the feeling of apprehension, so he looked into the mirror again. This time he saw her throw one leg over the railing, and then the other. What was she doing? Then, in one quick movement, she dropped herself over the edge.
For a while there, he was sure she’d climb right back over the top of the railing. When she didn’t reappear, the ice cream began to curdle in his stomach and his heart began to pound.
It seemed like hours that he sat there, waiting for her, when a police cruiser pulled up behind the car. A young officer slowly approached, his hand on his gun, and stuck his head through that same window.
“Where are your parents, son?” he asked.
But all Kenny could do was stare straight ahead, his fists clenched so tightly his nails bit into his palms. He knew he would start crying if he met the officer’s questioning gaze. He figured what the man really wanted to know was why he hadn’t tried to stop his mother from jumping into the nothingness.
The officer went back to his cruiser for a minute to talk into his radio, then he got in the car with Kenny while they waited for a tow truck to arrive. He put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and made him feel safe enough to convey the bare facts of what had happened and to obediently recite his home address. The officer patiently walked Kenny back to his cruiser and took him home to what was left of his family.
From that day on, Ken Goode knew he wanted to be a policeman.
Goode drove a little more than halfway over the bridge before he reached the spot where his mother had jumped. He pulled to the side, turned on his hazard lights and unwound the rubber band holding the cellophane together, easing the stem out of its casing. He brought the bud to his nose and breathed in its sweet fullness. He felt a stab of the old pain and his eyes teared up. He was feeling really tired and vulnerable for some reason. But that was okay. He’d allow himself that, for a few minutes at least. Maybe it was just the hot wind blowing the hair into his eyes.
He stood at the railing, facing north. To his left was the small island city of Coronado and to his right were the blue steel towers of the bridge, curving around to the San Diego marina and downtown skyscape. He tried to push the hair out of his face so he could take in the view, but it was useless. He could only look down.
Goode began his ritual of tearing off the rose petals, one at a time, and watching them catch the breeze. It always amazed him what a long way down to the bay it was. He looked it up on the Internet once, and learned it was a two-hundred-foot drop. Sometimes, he’d start to wonder how much the fall would hurt from this height, but he’d immediately push the thought from his brain. He wouldn’t go there. Couldn’t go there.
“How are you Mom?” he said into the wind. “Are you happy?”
A seagull swooped out of the sky, settled on the railing a few feet away, and looked right at him. Part of the bird’s upper beak was chipped off. He found its proximity a little unnerving and he wondered for a second whether that could possibly be his mother. He wasn’t a religious man, but he did get spiritual from time to time. It couldn’t be, he thought. That’s ridiculous. He turned away and watched the sun reflect off the ripples in the San Diego Bay.
“What’s it like where you are?” he asked. “Do you have friends?”
A few moments later, a second seagull touched down on the railing, right next to the first. Goode really didn’t believe in the whole New Age thing, but this was a little weird, even for him. He broke the stamen from the rose and tossed it over, watching it float down.
“Okay, if this is real,” he said into the wind, “then show me one more sign.”
One of the cars whipping past honked. He felt the wind pick up and blow his hair the other direction, out of his eyes. It was a little cooler, there by the ocean. He closed his eyes and let the breeze kiss his face. But then, abruptly, it … just … stopped … blowing. The high-pitched traffic noise dulled and he felt a strange calm. Soon, beads of sweat began to form on his upper lip. He started feeling woozy.
He heard the crunch of tires on asphalt and turned to see a police cruiser park behind his van. Just like the first time. A young officer in his mid-twenties, approached with his hand on his gun. It could have been the son of the officer who’d stopped there thirty years ago.
Goode shivered. “No shit,” he whispered. He smiled and shook his head.
“Everything okay here? You know you can’t park your van on the bridge,” the officer said, sticking his chest out with more than enough bravado. Bulletproof vests always made cops seem more macho than they really were.
Strangely enough, Goode hadn’t had to deal with Coronado police much during his yearly ceremony, usually because he did it in the middle of the night when traffic was light to nonexistent. He figured he’d tell his fellow officer the truth.
Goode extended his hand to shake the officer’s. “Ken Goode, San Diego P.D.,” he said, retrieving his badge from his shorts pocket. “Just checking in with my mother. She jumped here thirty years ago today.”
The officer gave him a firm shake, but his eyes softened and he relaxed into a less aggressive stance. “Joe Johnston, Coronado PD,” he said. “Wow. That’s rough.” Johnston paused and shook his head, as if he didn’t know what else to say. “Well, I guess I’ll … hang out here in my cruiser for a few minutes to make sure no one bothers you. Take your time.”
Goode thanked him. He wasn’t sure what it all meant, but he felt as if his mother was okay, wherever she was. Maybe she was a teacher there, too. Or maybe she’d become the painter she’d always dreamed of. He threw the rose stem over the side and watched it swing idly down to the water, coming to rest on the surface and bob along with the current. He wiped a tear from his cheek with his sleeve.
“See you next time,” he whispered.
Goode waved thanks to the officer and drove the rest of the bridge to Coronado so he could make a U-turn and head back to a quiet surfing spot he liked in Bird Rock, the neighborhood between La Jolla proper and Pacific Beach. He longed to get out of his head and into the glassy tube of a six-footer, his surfboard cutting through the water like he was Moses. He’d been so busy he hadn’t been able to paddle out for the past week. Surfing was his primary stress outlet and going without it for long made him feel like he was coming out of his skin. A lack of positive ions or something.
He’d been ordered by the brass to do some weekend catch-up work at the station, but he liked typing up reports about as much as scrubbing the bathtub. His talent for procrastination had been fully engaged that morning, most of which he’d spent at an outdoor café, enjoying the slow creep of heightened awareness that came with two café lattes and the Sunday New York Times. He felt twice as smart when he finished, although he knew enough to credit the fickle embrace of caffeine. He figured he’d do his personal business, get some surf time, and then run down to headquarters later in the afternoon. But first things first. He was feeling a little run down. The Narcotics-Homicide double duty he’d been doing over the past few years was taking its toll. It was worth it, though, and a necessary step toward making the move. He really felt he belonged in Homicide; he had a calling for it. He’d paid his dues and he was ready, right on the brink. He could feel it.
Mission Boulevard was still grid-locked. To his right, a twenty-something brunette with long legs sauntered along the sidewalk, holding up her hair to cool her neck. The white nape beckoned to him. She recognized him, then smiled and waved, as if she had nothing but time to get to a destination unknown – with him if he wanted. Goode grinned and waved back. They’d met at Jose’s Cantina in La Jolla a few weeks back. Jennie was her name. She’d told him he was smart and sexy. Why didn’t he have a girlfriend? He told her he liked being alone. He’d tried marriage and it didn’t work out. He also recalled thinking he could really use some human contact. It had been too long, so long that he almost couldn’t remember what it felt like to have a soft, warm body like hers curled around him in the middle of the night. But he’d resisted. This time, he almost gave in to the impulse, opened his door and asked if she wanted to join him for a beer.
That’s when his rational mind took over. Even though she seemed like an innocent waif, he knew only too well that his picker was broken and that before long, she was sure to turn into another roller coaster ride. Then, as if to close the matter, he felt that queasy feeling come back and a stab of the old pain – the other old pain, that is.
“You’ve been doing so well,” he said to himself in the rear-view mirror, trying not to move his lips so people wouldn’t see him talking to himself. “Don’t blow it now.”
Even after his divorce, he still seemed to attract the women with the most baggage: the neurotic and the narcissistic, the closet alcoholics and the prescription-drug abusers. He began dating to distract himself from the hurt he felt when his wife, Miranda, left him. Again. But one distraction led to another and his life became a bad game of dominos. So, he developed the discipline he needed to stay celibate. At least it kept one part of his life simple. It kept his mind clear, which freed him up to focus on his career.
He’d had it with the traffic and was honking at the low-rider in front of him when he saw an opening. He cranked the wheel, hit the gas and cut into an alley parallel to the beach, his tires squealing. It felt good to catch a little speed and the cool air that came with it.
He glanced at his watch to see how much time he could spare before he could expect a second call from his sergeant in Narcotics, telling him to get his lazy ass in gear on the paperwork. When he looked up again, something small and brown had come out of nowhere. His van was almost on top of it before he could tell what it was – one of those damned rat-dogs. He swerved to avoid it and practically put his foot through the floorboard trying to stop.
“Stupid dog,” Goode yelled as his van careened toward a row of black trash bins and a young guy who was crouched down, examining something between the cans. Goode's brakes screeched as his van came to a halt just a few feet short of him. He was a stocky guy in his early twenties, a little heavyset and not all that tall, with short dark hair and big dark eyes, wearing a backwards baseball cap. Goode guessed he was probably of Italian or Greek origins. The kid’s face conveyed a whole spectrum of emotions, only one of which was relief that he hadn't been flattened by a VW van.
Goode sat for a minute, took a deep breath, and let it out. He’d almost killed a guy, trying to avoid a dog. He was shaking his head when he noticed a pair of ivory feet with red toenails sticking out from between the bins next to the guy’s Vans skateboarding shoe, the ones with the checkerboard pattern. Was that a mannequin... or a body?
“Hey, sorry. Are you okay?” Goode asked as he hopped out of his van and walked toward him. As he suspected, the kid’s eyes were dark brown, with long lashes, and he had a curiously inscrutable expression on his face.
“I thought you were going to run me over,” the kid replied, smiling a little as he squinted up at Goode, who had the sun behind him. “My life flashed before my eyes, the whole deal. I was cruising down the alley when I found her,” he said, nodding at his skateboard lying wheels-up nearby.
Goode’s eyes followed the ivory feet up a pair of long legs to see it was not a mannequin, but the crumpled body of a raven-haired young woman, stunning even in death. Goode kneeled down to take a closer look. She didn’t smell very fresh, but it was hard to tell with the heat. She was wearing a man's shirt, white with red pin stripes. And nothing else. Her lower abdomen was marked with purple blotches, as if two hands had grabbed her and squeezed. Her neck was bruised and patches of skin were ripped away, as if she’d been strangled. The red fingernails on one hand were ragged at the ends, like they’d been broken off during a struggle. But this was no skanky tweaker. He could tell by her hair, nails and skin that she ate well and had recently had a manicure-pedicure. She was also well toned, her hair looked highlighted and styled, and her shirt was a Ralph Lauren. It was clear she came from money and attracted men of the same ilk.
Goode sensed something familiar about this girl. He felt one of those jolts where a memory creased his consciousness and then dissipated like the trails of a fireworks display. But he couldn’t get it back. Something was blocking the image. The alley was quiet and still for a moment as time seemed to stop. The sun was beating down on his head. He felt dizzy again, like he had on the bridge.
The kid suddenly reached out to touch the girl's shirt, but Goode grabbed his wrist before he could make contact. His skin was all sweaty, and his face was all flushed, too, which was not all that surprising on such a hot day.
“Don't touch anything,” Goode said. “This is a crime scene now.”
A puzzled expression crossed the guy’s face, as if the cylinders in his head were running but he didn’t quite know what to say.
“What?” Goode asked. “You touched her already?”
The kid nodded, reluctantly. “Yeah, I don’t know, I’ve never seen a dead person before. It was weird. Her cheek felt like a cold peach. Then I got freaked out by her eyes. They were this amazing turquoise blue, staring at nothing. So I closed them.”
Goode stood up and pulled the guy to his feet, up and away from the body. “Let's talk over here,” Goode said. “I'm a police detective.”
The guy came willingly. When they reached the other side of the alley, about fifteen feet from the body, he still had that confused look on his face, but it looked a little more like fear than it had initially.
“I’m not in any trouble am I?” he asked.
It was too soon to tell. Goode didn’t get a killer vibe off him, but since he had been right there with the body, he was a natural suspect. And Goode had learned long ago that oftentimes, a murderer came with no identifiable marks. You had to go deeper. Pretty much everyone he met for the next couple of days would be a suspect.
“You tell me,” Goode said, staring into his eyes. The guy had regained his composure and stared back. Then he started smiling again, which Goode found to be an odd response given the circumstances. “What’s so amusing?”
“So, you're a cop?” he replied, shaking his head.
Goode duly noted that he answered his question with a question, a useful deflection technique if the other person doesn’t notice.
“Yes, I am. Appearances can be deceiving.”
“No joke,” the kid retorted.
“What's your name?” Goode asked.
“You have any ID on you, Jake Lancaster?”
Jake pulled a canvas wallet out of his back pocket and ripped open the Velcro flap to reveal his driver's license, which said he was twenty-three. Goode saw a student ID card in the wallet, from the University of California, San Diego. So he was no dummy. UCSD was a tough school. Goode had gone there a couple of quarters before transferring to UCLA.
“What are you studying up there?” Goode asked, hoping Jake would show his true colors.
Jake said he was in the biochemistry master’s program. He'd applied to medical school but had been rejected, so he was going for a little “extra credit” to juice up his next round of applications.
“I know what you're thinking,” Jake said, smiling mischievously and pointing at his shoes. “Appearances can be deceiving.”
“You’re Italian, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, on my mother’s side,” Jake said, grinning. “How’d you know?”
“Just a feeling.”
Goode was trying to make a subtle point that being a good detective meant he could sense things based on little or no information. He only hoped that Jake was as smart as he seemed, so that he would pick up on it. He told Jake to wait while he notified the Homicide unit. Goode didn’t want Jake disappearing while he was making the call, so he made sure to keep his tone suspicion-free.
“We’re going to need to get a statement from you, Mr. Lancaster,” Goode said as he started walking toward the van. Then he turned, paused, and said, “By the way, did you know her?”
Jake looked him straight in the eye, almost as if he knew he needed to show he was honest and sincere or he might end up as a case of wrong place, wrong time. Maybe he got Goode’s point after all.
“Not really,” Jake said. “I had just found her when you found me.”
“Don’t go anywhere,” Goode said, as he got into his van and rolled up the window so Jake couldn’t hear his conversation. Goode didn’t want him to know that he was still a relief homicide detective, without a whole lot of pull. As Goode rummaged around on the passenger seat for his cell phone, he looked back over at those red toenails and flashed on the girl’s beautiful face. She was so young. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-four herself, about the same age as Jake. What a waste.
He found the cell phone and started punching in the numbers, glancing over his shoulder and around the alley as he waited for Sergeant Stone to pick up. He didn’t want anyone or anything else to pollute the crime scene.
Rusty Stone was a surfing buddy, who had been telling Goode for the past decade what a great homicide detective he’d make. He’d helped Goode land the prestigious relief job, and then tried to grease the way for him to get the experience he needed to get the transfer.
“It’s show time, buddy,” Goode said when Stone answered. The sergeant had been napping in his hammock in the back yard and was still a little groggy. But the news perked him right up.
Stone told Goode to call the watch commander and report finding the body while he called the homicide lieutenant, Doug Wilson, to see if Goode could work with the team that was up in the rotation, especially since he’d already gotten a leg up on the investigation. In the meantime, Stone told him not to let Jake leave without giving a full statement. He also told Goode to ask dispatch to run a quick criminal check on the kid and make sure he didn’t have any outstanding warrants.
“I’m on it,” Goode said.
Goode called the watch commander and then dispatch. Jake came back clean. He tucked the cell phone into his pocket and watched Jake play with the rat dog. Goode’s body was flooded with so much adrenaline he could hardly think straight. He didn’t want to do anything wrong. It was too important. He took another deep breath and let it out slowly. Down boy, he told himself. He had to show Stone and Wilson he could do this.
For months now, he’d been thinking he couldn’t take one more night of buying crystal meth undercover in Ocean Beach. So, this was it. His big chance to get the hell out of Narcotics. But self-interest aside, he really did want to know what had driven someone to kill such a beautiful girl. Unless, of course, her beauty was reason enough.