Brad slipped his arms into his expensive Italian jacket, then adjusted his tie. Behind his desk were framed photographs of him standing in front of high-powered race cars. Racing was supposed to be his hobby. Carolyn thought it was more than that. He worked to occupy himself between races. His father had left him some money, and Brad had invested it wisely, earning ample funds to pursue his outside interests. A nonstop bundle of energy, he was able to handle twice as much work as the normal individual. Even with the demands of the job, his cars, his women, and his partying, Brad was always looking for something new and exciting. Carolyn recalled the nights she’d spent in his bed. When their bodies had connected, she felt as if she’d plugged herself into a wall outlet.
“How do I look?” he said. “Is my tie crooked?”
Out of habit, Carolyn walked over and redid the knot. She caught a whiff of his aftershave as she looked into his eyes and gathered his tie in her hands. “Continue Brubaker or I’ll strangle you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Brad told her. “I already did. The hearing is set for January fifth at three o’clock.” As Carolyn proceeded to fix his tie, he added, “As for Moreno, I’ll get all the trial transcripts and pertinent evidence moved to your office. If you think it’s necessary, we’ll send it home with you. That way, you can work without interruption until the report is ready to be dictated. The most vital thing was the interview with the defendant and you’ve already got that in the bag. I thought Veronica had already contacted the victims’ relatives. From what she just told me, she didn’t get a chance to speak to the mother’s sister.”
She snapped, “Why weren’t you straight with me about Brubaker?”
“Ah,” Brad said, smiling again. “Then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy our scintillating conversation. You look great in that suit. New, huh?”
“You’re an asshole,” Carolyn said, storming out of his office.
Carolyn sat at her desk with her head in her hands. She was so far behind, she would never catch up. The only way a probation officer could stay on top was to forge ahead each day. It was similar to climbing a ladder inside of a house with no ceiling. Every day, new cases were dumped in her basket. Brad Preston sat in his office and assigned them with the speed and efficiency of a Las Vegas dealer.
A clerk appeared in her doorway, pushing a dolly loaded with boxes. “Is that all?” she asked, telling him to stack them in the corner.
“Are you kidding?” the young man said, letting the dolly hit the floor with a thud. “I’ve got two more loads of this stuff. Preston said if I ran out of room, I could stash the rest in Veronica Campbell’s office. I just picked up the same boxes from her yesterday. I’ve only been working here six weeks,” he continued, straining as he lifted the boxes off the dolly. “Is this some kind of a test?”
Veronica worked in the partitioned space next to Carolyn. She’d have to call her friend at the hospital and get the password to her computer so she could retrieve the rest of the work she’d done on the case.
Carolyn’s phone rang. She heard the gravelly voice of Detective Hank Sawyer.
“Homicide is throwing a last-minute Christmas party tonight,” he said. “Wondered if you wanted to join us?”
“I can’t, Hank,” Carolyn said. “I caught Moreno this morning. The sentencing hearing is tomorrow.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll probably need to speak to you this afternoon or later this evening. If you go to the party, be sure you don’t drink.” Before he bit her head off, she added, “This has nothing to do with your history. I would have said the same thing to someone else.” Sawyer was a recovering alcoholic and could be touchy about it.
He paused before speaking and she could sense his irritation. “How could that prick, Preston, have dumped Moreno on you? We’ve been pressured from the beginning because the DA cut him a deal. The guy has only been in custody since November eighteenth. Anyway, I thought Veronica Campbell was handling it.”
“She’s not handling it now,” Carolyn said. “I’ve got to get going on this thing, Hank. Just make sure you’re available if I need to ask you some questions.”
“Listen to me!” he shouted. “Moreno attacked three inmates last night. Don’t go over there and put on your usual routine. You could get hurt, understand?”
“I’ve already spoken to him,” Carolyn said, searching in her desk for some Tylenol. It wasn’t noon yet and her head was already pounding. Veronica swore it was Carolyn’s eating habits. She never ate breakfast, and when she was busy, she frequently skipped lunch.
“Yeah,” she said, giving up and shutting her drawer. “I’m sweating him for a few hours, then I’m going back. If my instincts are right, there’s more going on than meets the eye. He’s nasty, but I’m almost certain he’s not crazy. Just the opposite. I think he’s smart, really smart.”
“You’re amazing,” the detective said. “I don’t know why in the hell you want to stay with the probation department. Come over here and I’ll make you a detective.” He coughed, then added, “I’m warning you, Carolyn, don’t push your luck with this guy.”
“I’ll do anything in my power to make certain he spends the rest of his life in prison,” Carolyn said. “Risking our lives is what we get paid for, in case you’ve forgotten. Sometimes it’s the only way to get the job done.”
“We make only a few dollars more than the sanitation workers,” Hank argued. “No one cares if you get your head blown off, or some psycho like Moreno cracks your neck like a twig. It isn’t worth it, understand?”
“Aren’t you the guy who jumped off the top of a moving car onto the back of a junkie with a shotgun?”
“That was different.”
“Sure it was,” Carolyn said, recalling at least fifteen other instances when Sawyer had done something with a million-to-one chance of succeeding. Even today, being a woman in law enforcement wasn’t easy. Most of the younger officers treated women like equals. Old-timers like Hank Sawyer would never come around. All she was to him was a little girl with a dangerous weapon. And it wasn’t necessarily a gun.
“Enjoy the party,” she said. “Some of us have to work around here.”
Thursday, December 23—4:00 P.M.
eil Sullivan’s home was on top of a hill overlooking the ocean. He unlocked the glove box in his Ferrari and removed a small white envelope. Pulling down the visor, he slipped out the makeup mirror and placed it on the center console. He separated the crystal meth into two thin lines, using the razor blade he kept in the ashtray. Bending down with a rolled-up hundred-dollar bill in his hand, he snorted the white powder up his nostrils. Better, he thought, leaning back in the seat.
He started to put the envelope back in the glove box when he noticed it was empty. How could it be gone? He’d just bought it yesterday. No, he thought, it must have been the day before. Then he remembered that he’d been driving his van, so he knew it had to have been Wednesday. He hadn’t picked up the Ferrari until after dinner. Someone had found his stash, maybe the valet at the restaurant he and Laurel had gone to last night.
He didn’t use on a regular basis, only when things went wrong. Something had gone terribly wrong today.
Images flashed in his mind. He remembered storming out of the house. Everything before that was muddled and frightening. No one had stolen his stash, he realized. This wasn’t the first time he’d snorted today. The ritual was so familiar, he sometimes used it twice without realizing it. He had to stop, but he couldn’t stop now. Now was never a good time to give up something you needed.
When he backed out of his driveway, transparent sheets of rain splashed against his windshield. Reaching over, he turned the wipers on high. He hoped the storm would pass soon. The drugs made him jittery, and he had a miserable hour-and-a-half drive ahead of him. He had to see Melody. He couldn’t be alone. He was flying far too high. That’s why he’d snorted twice in one day. He didn’t want to go down that far again. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.
His eyes filled with tears. He’d planned everything perfectly. He and Laurel had had a lovely dinner at his favorite French restaurant, Le Dome; then he’d surprised her with the Ferrari. They’d been so happy together. Then came today’s lunch, and it all changed.
He removed the two-carat diamond engagement ring from his pocket. Raising his hand to throw it out the window, he thought about how much he could get for it at the pawnshop. It wasn’t the money, it was the credit. Al’s Pawnshop was his drug connection. Not only that, it was on the way to Melody’s.
So much for “happily ever after,” he thought bitterly, placing the ring back in his pocket. Nothing ever worked out for him. Just when he got a taste of happiness, it was ripped away. God hated him. Everyone hated him. His paintings weren’t selling. Laurel was supposed to make everything right. Instead, she made everything wrong.
Neil downshifted as he navigated the winding road. He’d traded four of his best paintings for the red Ferrari. He hadn’t sold a painting in six months. His agent, Mark Orlando, had talked him into the deal, telling him that he could always sell the car later if business didn’t pick up. He swore only one 550 Barchetta Pininfarina Speciale had been manufactured. According to Mark, the woman who’d made the trade was a fool.
Suffering from a midlife crisis, Lou Rainey had been having an affair with a twenty-three-year-old girl. His wife had caught him and thrown him out a few days after he took possession of the four-hundred-thousand-dollar car. To spite him, Mrs. Rainey got drunk and impulsively traded the car while attending one of Neil’s shows. Mark had told him the Ferrari was too valuable to drive all the time. Who wanted a car you couldn’t drive?
Beautiful machine, Neil thought, hearing the powerful engine engage as he traveled down a treacherous decline. He wished people could be engineered. Then they might be able to live up to his expectations. He was a disgusting loser. Everyone else was worse, though. Everyone except Carolyn. His sister was an angel. He’d been worried when she had called him from the jail, particularly when the phone had gone dead. Thank God she had called him back later and let him know she was okay. She was tough like his mother, but right, always right, and always there for him. The first memories he had were of Carolyn. She used to stand by his bed at night until he fell asleep. She taught him how to ride a bicycle. She fought his battles for him, read to him, tutored him, nursed him when he was sick. No matter what he did, Carolyn would never abandon him. She was his security blanket.
Laurel Goodwin taught English at Ventura High. He’d bumped into her at Barnes & Noble six months ago. A mutual friend had told him that she was divorced and had moved back in with her family. They began seeing each other every now and then for lunch or a movie. When they’d finally made love, Neil knew that she was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
Neil had known Laurel since his teens. He would have married her straight out of high school, had her father not interfered. Even today, the old goat despised him. Stanley Caplin had worked for State Farm Insurance for thirty-five years. He couldn’t understand how a man who painted pictures for a living could afford a million-dollar home.
Laurel had laughed when she’d told him that her father thought he was a drug dealer. Neil didn’t think it was funny. Just because he used it occasionally didn’t mean he was a dealer. Crystal meth was his drug of choice. They lived in a chemical society. Everyone needed a fix. His friends who abstained from illegal drugs took antidepressants, tranquilizers, muscle relaxants, pain pills, steroids, or they drowned themselves in alcohol. The health nuts were just as bad. They mixed this herb with that and looked down their noses at people who used street drugs, while they ran around in their fancy workout clothes with their spray-on tans and liposuctioned fake abs. The doctors could do that now. Sit-ups weren’t necessary. For five grand, a guy could turn a beer gut into a six-pack. A few thousand more and he could have instant biceps.
People were idiots. Where did they think speed came from? What about cocaine? He’d been raised by a chemist. If he wanted to, he could go down in his mother’s basement and make his own drugs.
The speed allowed him to work for days on end, filling one canvas after another. Some of his best work had been done on drugs.
Neil had studied at the most renowned art institutes in the world—Rome, Florence, Paris. He’d even restored priceless paintings inside the Vatican. How many artists had had the honor of so much as touching the tip of their brush to a Michelangelo? He laughed, thinking the Sistine Chapel could have been painted in a few months if Michelangelo had cranked himself up with meth.
In contrast to conservative Laurel, Melody Asher was a gorgeous and seductive party girl. An heiress, she bought whatever she wanted. A newspaper story said she’d once paid fifty grand to buy a wedding ring right off a woman’s finger. When she walked into a room, everyone stopped and stared. Melody loved attention. She could never be happy with one man.
Neil pulled into the driveway at Melody’s tri-level Brentwood home. The rain persisted. Using a newspaper to cover his head, he jogged toward the front of the house. When he knocked, the door swung open. Obviously, she’d been expecting him.
“Melody,” he called out, “it’s Neil.” Stepping into the foyer, he turned to his left and passed through the archway into a long hall. He could hear the water running in the master bathroom. “Melody, I’m here,” he said again, glancing at the designer names on the unopened boxes scattered around the room. Melody didn’t use narcotics. She told him her scotch was medicinal. A robust girl, she was tall, thin, and blond, the kind of woman who could make a garbage bag look like it came from Saks Fifth Avenue.