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When the Bough Breaksby Jonathan Kellerman
Kellerman / WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS
It was shaping up as a beautiful morning. The last thing I wanted to hear about was murder.
A cool Pacific current had swept its way across the coastline for two days running, propelling the pollution to Pasadena. My house is nestled in the foothills just north of Bel Air, situated atop an old bridle path that snakes its way around Beverly Glen, where opulence gives way to self-conscious funk. It’s a neighborhood of Porsches and coyotes, bad sewers and sequestered streams.
The place itself is eighteen hundred square feet of silvered redwood, weathered shingles and tinted glass. In the suburbs it might be a shack; up here in the hills it’s a rural retreat—nothing fancy, but lots of terraces, decks, pleasing angles and visual surprises. The house had been designed by and for a Hungarian artist who went broke trying to peddle oversized polychromatic triangles to the galleries on La Cienega. Art’s loss had been my gain by way of L.A. probate court. On a good day—like today—the place came with an ocean view, a cerulean patch that peeked timidly above the Palisades.
I had slept alone with the windows open—burglars and neoMansonites be damned—and awoke at ten, naked, covers thrown to the floor in the midst of some forgotten dream. Feeling lazy and sated, I propped myself on my elbows, drew up the covers and stared at the caramel layers of sunlight streaming through French doors. What finally got me up was the invasion of a housefly who alternated between searching my sheets for carrion and dive-bombing my head.
I shuffled to the bathroom and began filling a tub, then made my way to the kitchen to scavenge, tak- ing the fly with me. I put up coffee, and the fly and I shared an onion bagel. Ten-twenty on a Monday morning with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Oh, blessed decadence.
It had been almost half a year since my premature retirement and I was still amazed at how easy it was to make the transition from compulsive overachiever to self-indulgent bum. Obviously I’d had it in me from the beginning.
I returned to the bathroom, sat on the rim of the tub munching and drew up a vague plan for the day: a leisurely soak, a cursory scan of the morning paper, perhaps a jog down the canyon and back, a shower, a visit to—
The doorbell jarred me out of my reverie.
I tied a towel around my waist and walked to the front entry in time to see Milo let himself in.
“It was unlocked,” he said, closing the door hard and tossing the Times on the sofa. He stared at me and I drew the towel tighter.
“Good morning, nature boy.”
I motioned him in.
“You really should lock the door, my friend. I’ve got files at the station that illustrate nicely what happens to people who don’t.”
“Good morning, Milo.”
I padded into the kitchen and poured two cups of coffee. Milo followed me like a lumbering shadow, opened the refrigerator and took out a plate of cold pizza that I had no recollection of ever owning. He tailed me back to the living room, collapsed on my old leather sofa—an artifact of the abandoned office on Wilshire—balanced the plate on his thigh and stretched out his legs.
I turned off the bathwater and settled opposite him on a camelskin ottoman.
Milo is a big man—six-two, two-twenty—with a big man’s way of going loose and dangly when he gets off his feet. This morning he looked like an oversized rag doll slumped against the cushions—a doll with a broad, pleasant face, almost boyish except for the acne pits that peppered the skin, and the tired eyes. The eyes were startlingly green and rimmed with red, topped by shaggy dark brows and a Kennedyesque shock of thick black hair. His nose was large and high-bridged, his lips full, childishly soft. Sideburns five years out of date trailed down the scarred cheeks.
As usual he wore ersatz Brooks Brothers: olive-green gabardine suit, yellow button-down, mint and gold rep stripe tie, oxblood wing tips. The total effect was as preppy as W. C. Fields in red skivvies.
He ignored me and concentrated on the pizza.
“So glad you could make it for breakfast.”
When his plate was empty he asked, “So, how are you doing, pal?”
“I was doing great. What can I do for you, Milo?”
“Who says I want you to do anything?” He brushed crumbs from his lap to the rug. “Maybe this is a social call.”
“You waltzing in, unannounced, with that bloodhound look all over your face isn’t a social call.”
“Such intuitive powers.” He ran his hands over his face, as if washing without water. “I need a favor,” he said.
“Take the car. I won’t be needing it until late afternoon.”
“No, it’s not that this time. I need your professional services.”
That gave me pause.
“You’re out of my age range,” I said. “Besides, I’m out of the profession.”
“I’m not kidding, Alex. I’ve got one of your colleagues lying on a slab at the morgue. Fellow by the name of Morton Handler.”
I knew the name, not the face.
“Handler’s a psychiatrist.”
“Psychiatrist, psychologist. Minor semantic distinction at this point. What he is, is dead. Throat slashed, a little bit of evisceration tossed in. Along with a lady friend—same treatment for her but worse—sexual mutilation, nose sliced off. The place where it happened—his place—was an abattoir.”
Abattoir. Milo’s master’s degree in American Lit asserting itself.
I put down my coffee cup.
“Okay, Milo. I’ve lost my appetite. Now tell me what all of that has to do with me.”
He went on as if he hadn’t heard me.
“I got called on it at five a.m. I’ve been knee-deep in blood and crud since then. It stunk in there—people smell bad when they die. I’m not talking decay, this is the stench that sets in before decay. I thought I was used to it. Every so often I catch another whiff and it gets me right here.” He poked himself in the belly. “Five in the morning. I left an irritated lover in bed. My head feels ready to implode. Gobs of flesh at five in the morning. Jesus.”
He stood and looked out the window, gazing out over the tops of pines and eucalyptus. From where I sat I could see smoke rising in indolent swirls from a distant fireplace.
“It’s really nice up here, Alex. Does it ever bore you, being in paradise with nothing to do?”
“Not a hint of ennui.”
“Yeah. I guess not. You don’t want to hear any more about Handler and the girl.”
“Stop playing passive-aggressive, Milo, and spit it out.”
He turned and looked down at me. The big, ugly face showed new signs of fatigue.
“I’m depressed, Alex.” He held out his empty cup like some overgrown, slack-jawed Oliver Twist. “Which is why I’ll tolerate more of this disgusting swill.”
I took the cup and got him a refill. He gulped it audibly.
“We’ve got a possible witness. A kid who lives in the same building. She’s pretty confused, not sure what she saw. I took one look at her and thought of you. You could talk to her, maybe try a little hypnosis to enhance her memory.”
“Don’t you have Behavioral Sciences for that?”
He reached into his coat pocket and took out a handful of Polaroids. “Look at these beauties.”
I gave the pictures a second’s glance. What I saw turned my stomach. I returned them quickly.
“For God’s sake, don’t show me stuff like that!”
“Some mess, huh? Blood and crud.” He drained his cup, lifting it high to catch every last drop. “Behavioral Science is cut down to one guy who’s kept busy weeding weirdos out of the department. Next priority is counseling the weirdos who slip through. If I put in an application for this kind of thing I’ll get a request to fill out another application form. They don’t want to do it. On top of that, they don’t know anything about kids. You do.”
“I don’t know anything about homicide.”
“Forget homicide. That’s my problem. Talk to a seven-year-old.”
I hesitated. He held out his hands. The palms were white, well-scrubbed.
“Hey, I’m not expecting a total freebie. I’ll buy you lunch. There’s a fair-to-middling Italian place with surprisingly good gnocchi not far from the . . .”
“Not far from the abattoir?” I grimaced. “No thanks. Anyway, I can’t be bought for noodles.”
“So what can I offer you by way of a bribe—you’ve got everything—the house in the hills, the fancy car, the Ralph Lauren gear with jogging shoes to match. Christ, you’ve got retirement at thirty-three and a goddamn perpetual tan. Just talking about it is getting me pissed.”
“Yes, but am I happy?”
“I suspect so.”
“You’re right.” I thought of the grisly photos. “And I’m certainly not in need of a free pass to the Grand Guignol.”
“You know,” he said, “I’ll bet underneath all of that mellow is a bored young man.”
“Crap nothing. How long has it been, six months?”
“Five and a half.”
“Five and a half, then. When I met you—correct that, soon after I met you, you were a vibrant guy, high energy, lots of opinions. Your mind was working. Now all I hear about is hot tubs, how fast you run your goddamned mile, the different kinds of sunset you can see from your deck—to use your jargon, it’s regression. Cutesy-poo short pants, roller-skating, water play. Like half the people in this city, you’re functioning on a six-year-old level.”
“And you’re making me this offer—to get involved in blood and crud—as a form of occupational therapy.”
“Alex, you can break your ass trying to achieve Nirvana Through Inertia, but it won’t work. It’s like that Woody Allen line—you mellow too much, you ripen and rot.”
I slapped my bare chest.
“No signs of decay yet.”
“It’s internal, comes from within, breaks through when you’re least expecting it.”
“Thank you, Doctor Sturgis.”
He gave me a disgusted look, went into the kitchen and returned with his mouth buried in a pear.
“All right, Alex, forget it. I’ve got this dead psychiatrist and this Gutierrez girl hacked up. I’ve got a seven-year-old who thinks she might have seen or heard something except she’s too damned scared to make any sense of it. I ask you for two hours of your time—and time is one thing you’ve got plenty of—and I get bullshit.”
“Hold on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. You have to give me time to assimilate this. I just woke up and you barge in and drop double homicide on me.”
He shot his wrist out from under his shirt cuff and peered at his Timex. “Ten thirty-seven. Poor baby.” He glared at me and chomped into the pear, getting juice on his chin.
“Anyway, you might recall that the last time I had anything to do with police business it was traumatic.”
“Hickle was a fluke. And you were a victim—of sorts. I’m not interested in getting you involved in this. Just an hour or two talking to a little kid. Like I said, some hypnosis if it looks right. Then we eat gnocchi. I return to my place and try to reclaim my amour, you’re free to go back to Spaceout Castle here. Finis. In a week we get together for a pure social time—a little sashimi down in Japtown. Okay?”
“What did the kid actually see?” I asked and watched my relaxing day fly out the window.
“Shadows, voices, two guys, maybe three. But who really knows? She’s a little kid, she’s totally traumatized. The mother’s just as scared and she impresses me as a lady who was no nuclear physicist in the first place. I didn’t know how to approach her, Alex. I tried to be nice, go easy. It would have been helpful to have a juvie officer there, but there aren’t too many of those any more. The department would rather keep three dozen pencil-pushing deputy chiefs around.”
He gnawed the pear down to the core.
“Shadows, voices. That’s it. You’re the language specialist, right? You know how to communicate with the little ones. If you can get her to open up, great. If she comes forth with anything resembling an I.D., fantastic. If not, them’s the breaks and at least we tried.”
Language specialist. It had been a while since I’d used the phrase—back in the aftermath of the Hickle affair, when I’d found myself suddenly spinning out of control, the faces of Stuart Hickle and all the kids he’d harmed marching through my head. Milo had taken me drinking. At about two in the morning he had wondered out loud why the kids had let it go on for so long.
“They didn’t talk because nobody knew how to listen,” I’d said. “They thought it was their fault, anyway.”
“Yeah?” He looked up, bleary-eyed, gripping his stein with both hands. “I hear stuff like that from the juvie gals.”
“That’s the way they think when they’re little, egocentric. Like they’re the center of the world. Mommy slips, breaks a leg, they blame themselves.”
“How long does it last?”
“In some people it never goes away. For the rest of us it’s a gradual process. By eight or nine we see things more clearly—but at any age an adult can manipulate kids, convince them it’s their fault.”
“Assholes,” muttered Milo. “So how do you get their heads straight?”
“You have to know how kids think at different ages. Developmental stages. You talk their language—you become a language specialist.”
“That’s what you do?”
“That’s what I do.”
A few minutes later he asked: “You think guilt is bad?”
“Not necessarily. It’s part of what holds us together. Too much, though, can cripple.”
He nodded. “Yeah, I like that. Shrinks always seem to be saying guilt is a no-no. Your approach I can buy. I tell you, we could use a lot more guilt—the world’s full of fucked-up savages.”
At that moment he got no argument from me.
We talked a bit more. The alcohol tugged at our consciousness and we started to laugh, then cry. The bartender stopped polishing his glasses and stared.
It had been a low—a seriously low—period in my life and I remembered who’d been there to help me through it.
I watched Milo nibble at the last specks of pear with curiously small, sharp teeth.
“Two hours?” I asked.
“At the most.”
“Give me an hour or so to get ready, clear up some business.”
Having convinced me to help him didn’t seem to cheer him up. He nodded and exhaled wearily.
“All right. I’ll give a run down to the station and do my business.” Another consultation of the Timex. “Noon?”
He walked to the door, opened it, stepped out on the balcony and tossed the pear core over the railing and into the greenery below. Starting down the stairs he stopped mid-landing and looked up at me. The sun’s glare hit his ravaged face and turned it into a pale mask. For a moment I was afraid he was going to get sentimental.
I needn’t have worried.
“Listen, Alex, as long as you’re staying here can I borrow the Caddy? That,” he pointed accusingly at the ancient Fiat, “is giving out. Now it’s the starter.”
“Bull, you just love my car.” I went into the house, got the spare keys and threw them at him.
He fielded them like Dusty Baker, unlocked the Seville and squirmed in, adjusting the seat to accommodate his long legs. The engine started immediately, purring with vigor. Looking like a sixteen-year-old going to his first prom in Daddy’s wheels, he cruised down the hill.
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