Release date: June 8, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Content advisory: Some profanity
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Listen to a sample
Outside the Lines, Forensic Handwriting Series
Sylvia Vasquez opened the back door and peeped out. The Señor would be angry if he knew she had not picked up the mail since Friday. He had warned her about mailbox thieves and instructed her to clear the box every day as soon as the mail carrier left, but Sylvia had been too busy enjoying the weekend with her new man to think about her employers’ mail. They were out of town again and would be all week.
It was too early to worry about the neighbors seeing her in the ratty bathrobe and worn slippers, and the morning fog would provide cover for a quick run to the box. Unlocking the steel security gate that led to the alley, she opened the flap and started to reach for the daily stack of catalogs and magazines, letters on top. It took a second to comprehend that a mass of crumpled toilet tissue had been crammed into the box. That boy across the street, no doubt. Tonto Adolecente! With a sigh of vexation, Sylvia grabbed a handful of tissue.
A sudden flash erupted from the mailbox and a bright tongue of flame shot out. With a loud crack-bang, the box exploded, fragments of black metal and masonry flying into the alley in a cloud of blue-black smoke. The blast of searing heat sent Sylvia staggering backward, the acrid sting of gunpowder in her nostrils. She stared down at her right hand, confused to see blood pulsing from the stumps where her index and middle fingers used to be. Where was her abuela’s ring? Where were her fingers?
The clamor of barking dogs came hollow and far away in her ringing ears. Unbearable pressure—the coils of a giant python squeezing her rib cage—robbed her of the breath to scream for help. Her eyes rolled back in her head. Her galloping heart had ceased beating.
Sylvia Vasquez dropped to the ground.
The marbled courthouse hallway was as silent as a held breath.
After ninety minutes of waiting on the cold, hard bench, Claudia Rose’s mind was as numb as her behind. She had flipped through her exhibit slides until she was sick of the sight of them. The handwritings on the tablet screen no longer registered in her brain.
The final witness from the morning session, a weapons expert, had been held over the lunch recess and was back on the hot seat. Endlessly, it seemed. A nearby door opened and two attorneys stepped into the hallway. They were not part of the Danny Ortiz trial; they were dueling over a hapless defendant’s fate—negotiations that could mean the difference between bail or no bail, or a reduction in prison time. For someone facing a life sentence, twenty years might sound palatable.
Claudia watched the minor drama unfold, her stomach clenching as it always did before she got on the witness stand. What if she forgot something important while testifying? What if she flubbed it? She was fully confident in her opinion. The big question was, could she convince the jury of what she believed to be the truth?
A text popped up from Joel Jovanic, her fiancé. He had made dinner reservations at their favorite restaurant. Texting him back, Claudia slid the iPad into her briefcase, got up and gave the navy-blue pencil skirt a tug. She should have worn something longer for court, but she knew Jovanic liked that it showed off her long legs. Now it was too late to change. She got up and strolled the long hallway, returned to the bench and waited some more.
It was 3:15 when the DA’s investigator finally came and let her know they were ready for her. Jesse Alvarez was a burly, dark-complexioned man from Belize who loved to make people laugh. The week before, when Claudia had met with him and his boss, Paul Feynman, he’d cracked a couple of lawyer jokes that left Feynman shaking his head in mock despair. Today, though, the humor was gone from his eyes. There was nothing remotely funny about the trial of a cop killer.
Taking a deep breath, Claudia grabbed her briefcase and followed Alvarez through the heavy oak doors. Curious faces turned toward her, but she paid little attention as she made her way through the gate that separated the gallery from the bench, and passed the counsel table.
Closest to the jury, tasked as champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, was the District Attorney, otherwise known as the one who has the burden of proof. Seated behind him was the grieving family and supporters of the undercover cop Ortiz was accused of killing.
The spectators had split into two sharply divided sides. The rows of seats behind the defendant, Danny Ortiz, and his public defender, Alison Smith, were occupied by young toughs sporting shaved heads and prison tattoos. Their chola girlfriends, clad in skintight Levis’, wore penciled-in eyebrows that made commas over heavily rimmed blue-shadowed eyes.
Claudia had been brought into the case to authenticate the handwriting of a letter that took credit for the execution of Detective Hector Maldonado, whose cover had been blown at a drug buy. The detective had been forced to his knees and shot twice execution style; his body dumped in an East Los Angeles alley.
From his lofty perch on the bench, Judge George C. Abernathy glanced at Claudia. “Good afternoon, Ms. Rose.”
“Good afternoon, Your Honor.”
She had testified before Abernathy in another case and was aware of his reputation: a jaded, hardnosed hang ’em high jurist that made him the kind of judge the prosecution prayed for and the defense dreaded. Broad across the chest in his black robes, a ring of white hair on his mostly bald head. Add a long white beard to the bushy brows and you had Santa without the ho-ho-ho.
Claudia took the oath, then mounted the witness stand. The unforgiving lens of a television camera stared at her from the back of the courtroom, reminding her not to swivel in her seat. Mindful that the slightest slip would be broadcast to the entire Southland, she carefully set aside a half-full cup of water left by the last witness.
“State and spell your name for the record.” The clerk must have said those words at least a thousand times, and her bored tone proved it.
As Claudia recited her response, the defendant, who had been doodling on a legal pad, looked up and caught her eye. The loathing in that dead black stare chilled her to the bone. If Danny Ortiz could have shot poison darts at that moment, she would be one dead handwriting expert.
Ortiz, a member of the 7th Street Crue, was known as “Li’l Dude.” The gang moniker was ironic. There was nothing little about Ortiz, who stood five-ten and weighed in at two-twenty. Though the ink on his neck was mostly hidden, the same could not be said of the crude prison-house tattoos on his face: devil’s horns on his forehead, two blue teardrops below his left eye—the gangbanger’s badge of honor awarded to a multiple murderer.
The public defender had supplied Ortiz with a conservative blue Oxford shirt that was intended to avoid the prejudice an orange jail jumpsuit might have raised. For the same reason, he was neither cuffed nor shackled.
The high-profile nature of the case meant three deputies stationed in the courtroom, rather than the standard two: a custody officer near the door to the holding area, a second at the back door leading to the judge’s chambers, and an elderly female deputy manning the desk where attorneys could quietly ask questions while court was in session.
Judge Abernathy surveyed his courtroom, his eyes coming to rest on the attorneys. “Are you ready, Counselors?”
“The People are ready, Your Honor.”
“The Defense is ready.”
“Mr. Feynman, please proceed.”
The DA’s doughy pink cheeks, sensuous lips and thick neck reminded Claudia of Alec Baldwin. He even wore the actor’s hairstyle—salt-and-pepper, slicked straight back. In an election year this case would be a good win for Paul Feynman. He had already conducted a press conference on the courthouse steps, assuring the public that the cold-blooded execution of a police officer deserved nothing less than his personal attention.
Feynman rose, buttoning his hand-tailored, charcoal-grey pinstriped suit coat, and bid Claudia a good afternoon. “Thank you for coming today, Ms. Rose. Would you please tell the jury what your occupation is and what that means?”
Claudia turned in her seat to face the jury box, aware of the red eye of the TV camera blinking at her.
In the back row, two young Hispanic women and a twenty-something Anglo in a UCLA sweatshirt all held their steno notebooks at the ready. Three grandmotherly types were likely defense picks who might feel compassion for Danny, even in the face of the vicious crime with which he was charged. An African American woman in a business suit, two men in t-shirts, one African-American, one Hispanic. An elderly man, who Claudia guessed was Filipino, had nodded off, chin on chest. In the front row a rail-thin Asian man in a cardigan wore the spaced-out gaze of a computer geek. At the other end sat his polar opposite: an obese, middle-aged white man in shirtsleeves and tie.
A jury of Danny Ortiz’s peers? Gang members did not get picked for jury duty.
Claudia spoke into the microphone. “I am a forensic handwriting examiner. That means I compare disputed handwriting to known samples—exemplars—and offer an opinion about who wrote it.”
“Thank you,” said Feynman. “I know you’ve been practicing in this field for quite some time. Would you kindly tell the jury about your background and education?”
There was a fine line between telling the jurors what made her an expert in the field and listing enough credentials that their eyes glazed over. Making sure to make eye contact with each member of the panel in turn as she spoke, Claudia kept the narrative moving. Along the way, the DA injected questions about papers she had published, conferences where she had spoken.
At the end, Alison Smith made a weak objection to her qualifications, but Claudia had testified in more than fifty cases. There was little chance the judge would not qualify her in this one.
“Overruled,” said Judge Abernathy. “Ms. Rose may testify.”
Feynman thanked him and turned back to Claudia, “Sometimes you are retained as a jury consultant, isn’t that right?”
“Yes, in those cases I use handwriting analysis to help my client select jurors.”
“And in such cases, you’re analyzing personality, is that correct?”
“Did you use personality analysis in the case we are talking about here today?”
“No. In this case my examination was limited to comparing handwritten samples for the purposes of authentication.”
“Please tell us about your assignment in this matter.”
“Your office provided me with a handwritten note known as a ‘kite,’ which is contraband communication passed between jail inmates. It’s unsigned and the defendant denies having written it.”
“Ms. Rose, do you see the Court’s exhibit book on the table in front of you?”
“Yes, Mr. Feynman, I see it.” She would have to be blind to miss the fat, black three-ring-binder whose contents had been entered into evidence.
Over the course of the next thirty minutes, the DA walked her through the documents in the exhibit book. First, the pages that contained the questioned handwriting, followed by the exemplars that represented Ortiz’s true, known handwriting. At last, he asked, “Have you formed an opinion as to whether the questioned writing is genuine or not?”
“Yes, I have.”
“And what is your opinion, Ms. Rose?”
Claudia sat straighter in her chair and spoke clearly into the microphone. “It’s my opinion, to a professional degree of certainty, that both the known and the questioned writing were written by the same hand.”
Everyone knew it was coming—this was what she was here for. Still, her words brought a hush to the courtroom, as though she had pronounced a death sentence.
“I believe you have prepared some demonstrative exhibits for the jury?”
“Yes. May I step down?”
The judge gave permission and Claudia took up a position before the jury, not surprised by the subtle shift in the energy of the room. It was easier to get people to pay attention to visual cues than just talking at them. A projection screen had already been set up and Jesse Alvarez, the investigator, was designated to operate the special document camera.
Even the sleepy juror sat at attention when the first exhibit—the kite Danny Ortiz denied writing—came into focus on the screen. The damning words tumbled across the page from edge to edge without respect for margins, the rounded letters slanting strongly to the left.
Early in the investigation, Alvarez had run up against a brick wall in his search for exemplars—samples of the defendant’s known handwriting that Claudia could use for comparison. Ortiz, citing the law against self-incrimination, had refused to provide additional samples of his handwriting, and the sole sample available was a form he had filled out in jail. The form, being hand-printed, was unsuitable for comparison, as the kite was written in cursive.
It was not until several months later—in what seemed an act of providence—that a packet of handwritten letters surfaced that Danny Ortiz had written to an ex-girlfriend on the outside. The girlfriend, who described Danny as “a piece of shit nastier than a cockroach,” could not have been happier to turn them over to the prosecutor’s office.
Claudia examined the evidence and found a few minor differences, but many significant similarities. Even if there had been no other commonalities, there was a rare distinguishing feature present in both handwritings: the bottoms and sides of letters contained a special type of gap, a result of the pen being lifted from the paper for a microsecond. The lift made it appear as if a tiny section of ink had been erased. There was no question in Claudia’s mind that the girlfriend’s letters could be used to identify Danny Ortiz as the writer of the kite.
She was not going to testify about his personality, but it was impossible for her to ignore what the handwriting told her about Danny Ortiz: immature, no more than average intelligence. He had a strong need for approval, unsatisfactory bonding with his mother, rebellion toward authority figures, and an utter lack of morality. Add to that a short fuse and zero self-discipline and you had an explosion waiting to happen.
The jurors were alert and interested as Claudia explained the exhibits. The first sample was one of the letters from Danny to his girlfriend. He had written that he loved her and she’d “better never fucking forget it.” He begged her to please start loving him the way she should, that his life was all about her.
From the corner of her eye, Claudia could see the defendant squirming in his chair. His attorney leaned over and whispered to him, her hand on his arm. Forcing herself to ignore the distraction, she asked Alvarez to show the second letter. “Fuck off and dye!!” it began. “You stupid lying fucking hoe.”
As she pointed to how radically the size and slant changed throughout the document, Danny Ortiz pushed back his chair and started to rise. The two bailiffs immediately moved away from the wall, hands resting on their weapons. Alison Smith, who was half Ortiz’s size, seized his arm and yanked him back down. Ortiz shook her off and slumped back in his chair, spewing a string of profanity directed at Claudia.
Judge Abernathy banged his gavel and jabbed an angry finger at the public defender. “Can you keep your client under control, Counselor, or do I need to have him restrained?”
Smith leaned down and whispered urgently in Danny’s ear. He gave a sharp nod, but Claudia saw that his face had paled and he was breathing rapidly.
“My apologies, Your Honor. Uh, my client was embarrassed at, er, having his words, which were written in anger—”
The judge’s expression darkened to a thundercloud. “Do I look like I care why, Counselor? There will be no further outbursts. Do I make myself understood?” His gaze swept the defendant’s supporters, who had begun chattering to each other. “Quiet!” Abernathy roared. “Or I’ll have the place cleared. Ms. Smith?”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“Then sit down and let’s get on with it.” At the judge’s nod, the bailiffs stepped away from the defendant and returned to their positions.
Smith resumed her seat, her cheeks red. “Thank you, Your Honor.”
The exchange left Claudia feeling sorry for the public defender, who was young enough to have passed the bar exam within the last couple of years. How had Alison Smith landed a trial opposing the high-profile district attorney himself? Had she pissed off the Chief Public Defender who knew this case was a no-win? Or was her boss showing confidence in her by giving her a big chance?
Gathering her wits, Claudia continued, glancing over at the jurors from time to time. She was pleased to see them nodding, their expressions rapt as they followed the red dot of her laser pointer. They did not appear to notice, as she did, that as she spoke about the similarities in the documents, Ortiz continued to glower at her.
When she had finished her presentation, she returned to the witness stand, ready for the defense to take a run at her. Early in her career, Claudia had learned that it was the opposing attorney’s job to make the expert witness look stupid. As the expert, it was her job not to help. She kept that rule in mind as Smith got to her feet for cross-examination.
Smith was medium height and thin, dressed in an ill-fitting, off-the-rack navy suit. Her wispy blonde hair, though it was held back in a bun, needed a brush. Despite her harried appearance, though, she stood straight-backed and spoke in a firm voice. “Ms. Rose, did you at any time meet with my client?”
“You did not personally take a handwriting sample from him?”
“I was told he had refused—”
Smith broke in. “So your answer is no. Is that right?”
“That is correct.”
“And all you have is an angry ex-girlfriend’s word that the letters she submitted were written by my client. Isn’t that right, Ms. Rose?”
“No?” Smith echoed, then made a rookie mistake that gave Claudia the opportunity to score an important point with the jury. “Then, how do you know those letters were written by Mr. Ortiz?”
“His inmate number is on the return address and his signature, which is consistent with other signatures on jail documents, is on the letters. The handwriting on the envelope is also consistent with the other handwriting.”
Smith pressed on, ignoring the titter that rippled through the courtroom. “But an ex-girlfriend could have had someone else—”
Feynman objected. “There’s been no offer of proof anyone else wrote the letters.”
“Sustained. Do you have anything else, Counselor?”
“No, Your Honor, thank you. Nothing further.” Smith took her seat.
Claudia’s testimony needed no rehabilitation; Paul Feynman passed on the opportunity for redirect. She had been on the stand for a little more than ninety minutes.
Judge Abernathy glanced at the clock, his lips twitching in an almost-smile, no doubt pleased that the afternoon session was coming to a close a little early. He turned to Claudia. “Since there are no further questions, Ms. Rose, you are excused.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Sliding her paperwork back into her briefcase, Claudia’s mind was already racing ahead to her dinner plans with Jovanic. She shot a glance at Feynman, wondering whether he wanted to her to stick around. His head was bent towards Alison Smith, who was urgently whispering in his ear. Maybe the public defender was ready to cut a deal for her client.
Abernathy began thanking the jury for their day’s service and instructing them not to discuss their opinions with anyone. Claudia stepped down from the witness stand.
At the same moment, one of the gangbangers in the gallery jumped up, his hands forming a gang sign. He pointed at Claudia, and shouted, “Better watch your back, puta!”
The judge rapped his gavel. “Bailiffs, get that person out of here. I’m holding him in contempt.”
Claudia froze in place as the two deputies pushed through the gate to the gallery and dragged Ortiz’s still-cursing homie past her to the lockup.
The door slammed shut behind them.
In the silence that followed, Danny Ortiz leapt out of his seat.
Homicide Detective Joel Jovanic had been working a gang killing in Mar Vista since early morning. By the time his team was free to respond to a second callout in Venice, the sun was already struggling to burn through the thick marine layer haze.
The new crime scene was a wide alley behind a McMansion two blocks from the Grand Canal. Yellow crime scene tape restricted access at both ends of the alley where a clutch of frightened neighbors and their live-in help had gathered.
Built tall, rather than wide, to accommodate the relatively small lots in the little-known area on the Westside of Los Angeles, the expensive homes were occupied for the most part by high-priced lawyers, CEOs, and television producers.
Early in the twentieth century, Abbott Kinney, a developer and conservationist, had constructed sixteen miles of canals, intending to recreate the cultural vibe of Venice, Italy. Almost immediately, though, it became apparent that the public preferred the beach town’s less highbrow amusements over art and speeches. Over the years, the waterways had been renovated and eventually reduced to six canals. The homicide had taken place behind one of the east-west ones.
The homicide team’s sergeant, Marvin Williams, was standing outside the tape near his black-and-white, talking to a patrolman. He glanced over as the four detectives approached. “Took you guys long enough.” His voice rumbled like a freight train. A defensive linebacker before joining the force, Williams made even Jovanic, who stood six-two in his socks, look like a runt.
“Hey, Sarge, what’ve we got?” Jovanic and his partner, Randy Coleman, added their names to the log. Every person coming and going at the scene had to sign in and out.
“Female, late 40s. Mailbox exploded when the victim picked up the mail around seven AM. Nobody else in the house. Dispatch got calls on the blast from two blocks away.”
“You honestly thought it would be that easy?”
“One can always hope.”
Williams explained what had taken place before his arrival. The EMTs had determined that there was nothing they could do for the victim. The home had been checked for any additional victims—under the exigent circumstances law there was tacit permission to enter and ensure that no one else was injured or dead inside. After that, no one was allowed to cross through the yellow tape until the lead detective had arrived.
While he listened, Jovanic observed the area, absorbing as much as he could before they entered the taped area. A sheet-covered form lay about twenty feet away, next to one of the three-car garages, of which there were three on each side of the alley.
In a tony neighborhood like this one, there was sure to be plenty of security. Glancing up, he spotted what he was looking for: a camera mounted in the garage eaves. Too bad it was pointed at the steel security gate, the wrong direction to be of much use, but with any luck, one of the neighbors’ cameras would have caught something.
Jovanic, Coleman, and Williams crossed through the tape. Everything within a ten-foot radius of the blast point was coated with plaster dust and fragments of broken masonry; torn Christmas catalogs and assorted mail pieces littered the ground.
There was a hole the size of a fist in the garage wall about four feet off the ground. All that was left of the mailbox was fragments of black metal strewn everywhere. Blood had spattered on the champagne-beige paint.
“Blew off a couple fingers,” said Williams. “Right hand’s a bloody mess. Kemp found the forefinger and the top section of the middle finger on the other side of the alley. One of the EMTs saw a dog sniffing around. Probably got what was left of the third finger.”
Jovanic crouched to lift the sheet. “Glad I haven’t had lunch yet.”
The victim had been a small woman, five-four at most, and trim. Attractive, too, with a mane of thick, black hair. Her eyes were open wide and staring, hands drawn up to her chest. Blood had soaked into the terrycloth robe. A lot of blood.
“Her heart was pumping hard when she went down,” Jovanic noted, mostly to himself, then added to his sergeant, “The coroner should be here in about thirty.”
Williams said, “The folks next door said the vic was the housekeeper. They think the homeowners—name’s Lockhart—are out of town, but nobody has their mobile numbers.”
“Homeowner was lucky they had a housekeeper to pick up the mail,” said Coleman. “Housekeeper, not so much.”
Williams ignored him and went to greet the other team members—Detectives RJ (Rebecca) Scott and Huey Hardcastle, who had just arrived. They volunteered to canvass the neighborhood with the patrol officers and interview anyone who had seen or heard anything immediately preceding or following the blast.
Jovanic had already requested a search warrant to look for anything that would lead to the owner. The electronic warrant landed in his phone mid-morning. “Let’s take a look inside.”
The door to the security gate had been propped open by a brick, the back door to the house left standing ajar, as it had been when the victim left the residence. As they entered the house—upward of five thousand square feet of über-luxury decorator living—he was already thinking about possible motives. Was it a prank gone horribly wrong? Or had someone set the device because they hated the homeowner? The cognac-hued, French Oak hardwood floors alone must have cost a fortune. It wasn’t hard to imagine someone with this kind of buying power having enemies. Aside from the garage wall, the explosion had not caused any property damage. Was the blast intended as a warning?
The ground floor comprised the garage, a laundry room, the housekeeper’s quarters and an enclosed patio that opened onto a terrazzo-tiled courtyard rimmed with well-cared-for potted plants.
Leaving Coleman to work on the family living areas, Jovanic started his search in the housekeeper’s room. The room was plainly furnished and her personal belongings relatively few. According to the driver’s license he found in her purse, the victim had been Sylvia Vasquez, forty-eight years old. A dog-eared address book held faded names and phone numbers, but nothing to immediately indicate who should be notified of Vasquez’s death.
The two detectives quickly recognized that the home was an adult domicile, with everything as pristine as a hotel waiting for its next guests. No rock star posters on the walls or other trappings of a teen’s abode in any of the four third-floor bedrooms. A box of toys appropriate for young children was in a guest room closet—most likely, grandchildren.
The second floor was a large, open-plan that appeared to serve as a family room or den. A mantelpiece over the fireplace held a collection of framed family photos. A handsome couple, aging through the years, along with two boys. Wedding photos, when the boys grew up, and the grandchildren whose toys were in the upstairs closet.
Jovanic rifled through a small stack of opened bills on a computer desk, most addressed to Evan Lockhart. He selected the mobile phone bill and called the number listed inside. A man answered.
“This is Detective Joel Jovanic, LAPD. Am I speaking to Evan Lockhart?”
“Yes, this is he.” The voice sounded suspicious. “Who did you say is calling?”
“I’m sorry to call you with this news, sir, but there’s been an incident at your house, an explosion.” As he expected, there was a stunned moment of silence. Then, “What? Who did you say you are? Is this some kind of sick joke?”
Jovanic repeated his LAPD credential. “Unfortunately, sir, it’s no joke. How soon can you get here?”
“Detective, my wife and I are out of the country. We’re vacationing in the Maldives.”
Jovanic was not sure where the Maldives was, but it sounded far. “When are you due back in town?”
“Not until next Sunday.”
“Do you have any thoughts on why someone would do such a thing, Mr. Lockhart? Or who?”
“No, I don’t. I just—I—how much damage is there?”
Jovanic noticed that he had not asked whether anyone was hurt or the cause of the blast. “There’s very little structural damage, but I have some bad news about your housekeeper…”
Lockhart listened in silence. “My God. We’ll leave right away.”
Jovanic could hear his muffled voice as he turned away and spoke to someone else. “There’s been an explosion at the house. Yes, our house. I don’t know—maybe a gas leak. Darling, Sylvia was killed.” Jovanic heard a woman cry out. Lockhart said, “I know, it’s hard to believe.” There was a brief pause, then he returned to the line, “This is all a bit hard to take in, Detective. You’re sure? Sylvia died?”
“Unfortunately, yes. Mr. Lockhart, are you aware of any family we can notify?”
“It’s Doctor Lockhart. I believe Sylvia’s from El Salvador. She doesn’t have anyone here that I know of. Let me ask my wife.” Jovanic heard him relay the question, then he returned to the phone again. “I’m sorry, Detective, my wife isn’t aware of anyone, either.” With a promise to contact Jovanic upon his return to L.A., the call ended.
The deputy coroner arrived and examined the body. His preliminary opinion was that Sylvia Vasquez had suffered a massive heart attack and died instantly.
When there was nothing further to be done at the site, the team broke for lunch at the Firehouse on Rose, their informal conference room when they were out in the field. Between the lunch and dinner crowds they had the place pretty much to themselves. No other diners in their section to complain about them ruining a meal with discussions of death and destruction.
The waitress showed up, joked with the group for a minute or two, then got serious and took their orders: meatball sandwich for Jovanic, tuna salad for Hardcastle. Scott wanted chili; Coleman, ever-health-conscious, ordered grilled chicken breast and broccoli.
As the lead, Jovanic started the conversation: “What do we know, or think we know?”
Hardcastle had a ready answer. “Kids setting off a cherry bomb. Who else is gonna blow up a damn mailbox?”
“They do it all the time,” Coleman agreed. “They just love blowing shit up. Remember that case in Mar Vista? Idiots set off firecrackers in every mailbox on the street.”
Scott was staring into her coffee, her expression contemplative as she dumped in a packet of sweetener. “It might just be a cherry bomb, but the vic is still dead.”
“It wasn’t the device that killed her,” Coleman argued. “Coroner said it looked like a heart attack. Won’t know for sure until they get her on the table.”
“If you opened your mailbox and it blew off half your hand, I think you might have a heart attack, too.”
“Seems like a lot of damage for a cherry bomb.”
“That’s why it’s a felony,” Hardcastle retorted. “The damn things can kill.”
“There would have to be a way that opening the mailbox lit the fuse,” Jovanic conjectured. “I doubt a kid is going to be watching at seven AM. for the housekeeper to come out, stick the cherry bomb in the mailbox and light the fuse, then duck around the corner to watch.”
“Where would a kid get one, anyway?”
“Tijuana. Plus, there are plenty of YouTube videos on how to make them. We’ll see what the fire investigator finds.”
“Never gonna prove Murder One,” Scott said. “Unless they stuck the bomb in her mouth, it’s Man One at best.”
“Was it random or targeted?” Jovanic mused aloud. “Was it a pro or, like Huey said, kids who made a big mistake?”
Scott nodded. “Or what if it was targeted and they hit the wrong house? Or right house, wrong person?”
“We need to talk to the neighbors again when people get home from work. Let’s find out who’s got issues with any of the homeowners, who’s on parole that might have a beef with someone in the neighborhood—anyone who might have heard something. What do the owners do for a living? Any drug connections, etcetera.”
Coleman plucked a paper napkin from the holder at the edge of the table and ran it around the lip of his water glass before taking a drink. “No witnesses, but there’s gotta be plenty of security footage in that part of Venice. Those homes list in the multi-millions.”
Jovanic said, “RJ and Huey, you can get started on that. Check with the neighbors on security cams on the alley and get their footage for the last forty-eight hours. The vic was picking up Saturday’s mail. That means the device could have been left anytime between Saturday’s mail drop and now. If we luck out, all the neighbors will give us access.” He consulted his notebook, thinking ahead as he made assignments. “While you two check on the video, Randy and I will start looking into the vic’s background, in case she was the target.”
“You’re thinking a drug thing?” Scott asked.
“Hey, guys,” Hardcastle interrupted, pointing at the silenced TV above the bar, where the camera was focused on an ambulance in front of the Criminal Courts Building in downtown L.A. “Something’s going down at CCB.”
“I heard there was supposed be a green protest today out back of there,” said Coleman. “No big.”
Jovanic, whose back was to the TV, shrugged. Somebody was always protesting something around the courthouse. Then he remembered. “Claudia has a trial down there today.”
“I hope she doesn’t run into that mess,” Scott said. “With that shitty downtown traffic, she won’t get home till midnight.”
Coleman laughed. “Where but L.A. would anyone talk about what time someone gets home from court?”
“Yeah, well you know how it is around here—traffic is like a monster. We all try to help each other avoid it.”
“What’s Claudia got going?” Hardcastle asked. “Anything interesting?”
“The Danny Ortiz trial.”
“She’s testifying on the kite he’s lying about?” Hardcastle’s opinion of Danny Ortiz was etched on his face. “Jury better crucify that motherfucker.”
“They will,” said Coleman, who was inexperienced enough not to be as jaded as his fellow detectives. “They have to.”
“I saw Claudia’s exhibits,” Jovanic said. “Anyone with half an eyeball can see Ortiz wrote it.”
Scott gave them all a knowing look. “You never can tell with juries.”
“C’mon, RJ,” said Jovanic. “Think positive.”
Hardcastle snickered. “Yeah, Joel. Cause you’re such a positive guy.”
“Hey, I’m a realist. I—”
Before a discussion of Jovanic’s philosophy of life and juries could get off the ground, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He flicked a glance at the screen: Number Unavailable. Let it go to voicemail. His head was buzzing from lack of sleep—they had gotten to the earlier crime scene at three AM. His blood sugar was in the dumper, the result of the day’s quota of sweetener-fueled coffee and Danish on the run. And his gut was lurching after dry-swallowing four Excedrin Migraine on an empty stomach.
Thirty seconds later the phone vibrated again. He let it go.
The third time, Jovanic started to get a bad feeling. Signaling the other detectives that he would be right back, he slid out of the booth, answering as he strode toward the front of the restaurant.
“Hey, Joel, Duane Roberts. Downtown?”
He recognized the name. The detectives were on friendly terms with the courthouse deputies, but none of them had ever called him before. Jovanic excused his way past a small knot of people in the lobby waiting to be seated. He pushed open the front door, squinting at the bright light after the dimness of the restaurant, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. In the background behind the deputy, Jovanic could hear the muffled whine of a siren. “Yeah, Duane, what’s up?”
“Uh, listen, man. I hate to tell you, but your girlfriend ran into some trouble. We’re on our way to USC.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...