Chapter Twenty-one Death and His Cousin Sleep

It was half past noon and the downtown streets were jammed with lunch hour traffic as I guided the Buick west, then north and then west again out Sunset Boulevard. Near Cahuenga I nearly rear-ended a car in front of me that had come to a stop to make a left turn. I willed myself to pay strict attention to whatever traffic hazards lay before me after that and less than fifteen minutes later I was turning off of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and up the side street to my residence.

I parked in my driveway, shut off the engine and simply sat behind the wheel for about two minutes. What I was doing was steeling myself for what I was going to do next. I got out of the Buick, taking my keys but leaving my briefcase on the front passenger seat. I set the electronic door lock. I went up in front of the car and around to the side of the garage. Using the proper key on the key ring, I opened the side door and pushed it gently so it swung about three-quarters open. I stood there at the entranceway for a few seconds. I sniffed in short and even but still shallow draws through my nostrils rather than taking a deep breath. The air at the threshold and just inside the door had a heavy, almost musty odor, but was not overpowering. I stepped into the garage then four steps or so until I was next to the lawnmower. From that distance there was no mistaking that something putrid, or putrefying, was nearby. I went in closer and when I reached down to pull back the portion of the oval rug that was flapped over him, the ripeness that Williams had achieved hit me full on in the face. It was nearly overwhelming, literally gagging me. I felt as if I were going to heave, but somehow managed to resist that reflex.

I had not thrown the light switch and the only source of illumination was from the open side door. Nevertheless, I could see what lay before me well enough. It was a pretty ghastly sight. Williams’ facial features had grown puffy to the point that the contours of his face, which in life had given it its subtly chiseled handsome ruggedness, were now disproportionate and bloated. Despite the grisliness of the moment, a felicitous flash sprang through my mind. Who’s better looking now? I thought. With my right shoe I nudged the corpse at several points. Rigor mortis was absolute. He was as stiff as firewood. I noticed too that a considerable amount of blood had issued from him and had well saturated much of his shirt and the rug. While it was not flowingly liquefied, neither had it for the most part fully coagulated in the dark and relatively cool enclosure of the garage. I dropped the rug back over the body and went out, closing and locking the door behind me.

Instead of crossing down to go around to the front of the house, I went around to the back and used another of the keys on the key ring to let myself in the back door. I went past the pantry and into the kitchen. I stopped at the sink, where I washed my hands and after rinsing them, splashed my face with water. I went over to the kitchen table, where I sat down. I tried to summon my thoughts together and figure out from there what my next move was to be. My mind was mush, a tangle of confusion and disjointed thoughts, coalescing around only a single goal, disburdening my garage, and myself, of Williams’ earthly remains. But where? And how? Certainly not in broad daylight, I considered. But daylight was what I would need if I was to find a suitable place. I would need to go through my options carefully. But I could not hold the same thought for anything more than a few seconds. I smelled my hands. Was it just my mind playing tricks or did they smell of mortality? It was not my hands, I concluded. Was it the air of decay from the garage that was clinging to my clothes? I sniffed again. I could not smell it. But then a few seconds later it seemed that I could. I went into the living room and down the short hall and into the bathroom.

When I came out of there a few minutes later, my thoughts still swirling but inexact, I had had enough. What I needed was sleep. It would do no good to try to plan anything out in the state I was in. There was too much of a chance that I would overlook something, fail to think things through, take a chance I should not take, act without fully sizing up the consequences. It occurred to me that someone might always be vantaged behind me, outside my field of vision, where I could not see him, but where he could see me. Well, there was probably nothing I could do about that. But I had the sensation that my peripheral vision was somehow narrowing, that there could be someone just off to the side, unbeknownst to me, watching me, taking in my every move. But if I was to take that attitude with my surroundings, I thought, and was continuously looking around, glancing left, glancing right, spinning around to look behind me, that would raise suspicion and then people actually would start watching me.

I really needed to sleep. I remembered what had occurred to me when I was at the office earlier that day: as important as it was that I act to defuse the time bomb sitting in my garage it would be better to take no immediate action rather than do something ill-advised. Sleep, I told myself. I headed up the stairs and went into my bedroom. For the second time that day, I was startled at the atypical disarray of my bed. I pulled off my suit coat, put it on a hanger and hung it in the closet. Without untying my shoes, I used one foot and then the other to pull them off while I was standing. I loosened my tie and then pulled it off, laying it atop the dresser. I did not want to bother with my pants, but did take my wallet and comb out of my back pocket and the keys and change out of the front ones. I set all of that next to the tie. I pulled the clothes in a heap on top of the covers down toward the bottom of the bed, and threw myself into the soft coolness of the remaining tangle of sheet, blanket and pillows. I lie there face down for a second when of a sudden I was seized by uncertainty. Had I locked the garage’s side door? I could not remember. Of course I had. Or had I? I must have. I had. But maybe I had not. I could not be sure. So what? I thought. So what? But I had to be sure. What if? What if? What if someone – who? – anyone, it did not matter, came by and went in there? What if? Reluctantly, I pulled my heavy body up and went out of the bedroom and down the stairs, through the living room, through the kitchen past the pantry and out the back door. I was still in my stocking feet. I walked around the backyard to the side yard and across and checked the door. It was locked. There. I started to walk back. I could feel the grass, not quite springy beneath my feat. Oh, yes, I remembered. I had not watered the lawn. I reversed my course and walked back to the front of the house and over to the waterworks panel. I turned on the water for the left side and then the knob for the right side. When I turned the second knob, the pressure on the left side, and therefore the spread of the water, diminished slightly. So I turned both knobs to open them fully. That boosted the flow. I went back around to the side of the house and then into the backyard. I went past the back door and over to the backyard waterworks panel. I turned the full gamut of backyard sprinklers on and upped the pressure to get full saturation for the back lawn.

I went back into the house through the back door and trudged through the kitchen, living room and up the stairs. I was ready to jump back into bed when instead I went over to the closet and pulled out a small fan. The room was not hot, really, but the thought of having some air circulating at that moment appealed to me. I reached down and with a little bit of difficulty plugged the fan’s cord into a socket on the wall behind the far side of the dresser. I placed and aimed the fan so that it was a good ten feet back from where my head would rest near the top of the bed but so that it would blow all the way across my body. I turned it on to the lowest speed. With no further adieu I plopped down into the bed. Almost as soon as my head hit the pillow and I shut my eyes, I dropped into the netherworld.

And sleep was what I had needed. It was deep and restful, absorbing all of my being. It did seem that at one point something had briefly interrupted it, the phone ringing perhaps, but that had not brought me fully around. When I did awake, it was a full bladder as much as anything else that had awakened me. It was pitch black. I lay there momentarily, coming fully to consciousness. The gentle whirring of the fan had such a lulling effect that I really did not hear it. My realization of its presence came to me from the pleasing sensation of forced air across my face. As I moved to rearrange myself and pivot my head back to glimpse the alarm clock to see what time it was, I could feel my shirt and pants, which I had not removed, binding up on me. I pressed myself up with my arms and turned to look at the clock. Quarter to eleven. Better than eight hours, moving on to nine, had elapsed since I had sacked out. I lifted myself completely up then and scooted out of the bed. I stretched the sleepiness out of my frame, yawned and stretched some more.

Reaching out, I shut off the fan and went into the bathroom. When I came out, I went over to the closet and slipped a pair of tennis shoes on and then carefully padded my way down the stairs in the darkness. I had heard, when I had been in the bathroom, the water running in the house’s pipe system and I remembered then the sprinklers. At the foot of the stairs I turned on the lights and went through the living room to the entranceway, unlocked and unbolted the front door and stepped out onto the porch. The cool evening air was bracing, making the skin on my face tingle. I stepped over to the waterworks panel and shut the sprinklers off and then went back into the house and all the way through it to the back yard where I shut the sprinklers back there off as well. I had given front and back about six more hours worth of irrigation than I had intended. What the hell, I thought. It’s only water.

The pantry is just inside the back door. I rummaged for just a few seconds among the cans on one of the shelves there and came up with a can of corned beef hash. I opened the can and used a tablespoon to dig its contents out and put them into the bottom of a frying pan. I mashed the hash down across the entirety of the pan bottom so it was evenly spread and then set the pan down onto one of the stove’s burners. I instigated the flame beneath the pan and adjusted it downward so that it was barely lit.

I went back out into the living room and down the hallway and opened the closet. I retrieved both of the shopping bags that Emli had filled with the detritus of her union with Williams. I took them into the living room and set them atop the low-lying coffee table in front of the divan.

Chapter Twenty-two Gentlemen Don’t Read Other Gentlemen’s Mail

I settled back into the divan and took the first of the two bags. Among the first of the items I encountered was the pair of gardening gloves I had given Emli to wear two nights previously. That jarred something in me. I put them on. I then began to rummage through the bags, taking the items out one at a time. There were the pictures, many of them photographs of Emli and Williams together, others of Emli alone and a few of Williams. Of the latter, I was curious at first as to why Emli had selected them but then I looked at the settings – nearly all of them looked to have been taken in Emli’s apartment. There were two coffee mugs, each of which was emblazoned with a photograph of Emli that had been either laminated into or otherwise reproduced onto the outer ceramic. There was a caption on each mug `For My True Love’. There were a couple of credit card receipts for various items, including a hotel room in Palm Springs, on Emli’s charge card. Another interesting item was a wrist chain with a dog tag with an inscription that read ‘To Greg on our First Anniversary  All my LOVE  Emli’. There were two framed 12 by 20 inch cardboard posters, one announcing an amateur two-person coed bobsledding contest and another listing the participants in the order of each team’s fastest time down the two-mile course. Greg and Emli had placed second. There was a pair of ski goggles. There was a prescription bottle half full of pills. The label identified them as 800 mg. prescription strength ibuprofen and were in Emli’s name. There was a black on white silhouette of what appeared to be Emli in profile, typical of the sort of souvenir items done at amusement parks. There was a plate, which I recognized as having come from Emli’s grandmother’s dinner set. There was a swimming cap. That was it for the first bag. I had set everything down in piles of like items or in the cases of the singular ones, separately on both the coffee table or the divan on either side of where I sat.

I got up and went into the kitchen and over to the stove, With a spatula I turned the hash in the bottom of the pan and checked the fire. I turned it up, but only slightly. I went back into the living room.

I went over to the fire place and drew open the screen. I spread several sheets of newspaper over the grate and then reached into the bin I keep to the side of the mantle and dropped a good half dozen handfuls of wood chips on top of the paper. Over that I laid down the small twigs and larger twigs from the kindling drawer. Over that went the split up logs and then the medium size logs. That was more than adequate for my purposes. I was not building the fire to heat the room. I retrieved a long-stemmed match from the top of the mantle and bending down on my haunches, scraped the sulfur head along the bricks in front of the fireplace, producing fire. I applied the flame to several places on the newspaper. I held my position long enough to satisfy myself that the fire was spreading from the paper to the wood chips. I drew the screen closed and went back to the divan and returned my attention to the second bag and its contents. First I reached in and retrieved Williams’ gun, setting it down on the coffee table. There were some more photographs, which I set aside with the rest. The next item was a handwritten letter, in Emli’s elegant scrawl. Cringing, but with a voyeuristic interest, I read:

 

Dear Greg,

 

I wish I knew better what to say. I’m sorry, I just don’t. I can’t really explain how I came to this decision, except to say it was something that I’ve been feeling and going through for a long time. Maybe you sensed that the last several months

I know now that it can’t ever be the way you said you want it to be. I know this is hard for you and it hurts me, too. I want you to know that. That’s heartfelt, honest to God, it hurts me, too. I don’t want to make it any worse than it needs to be, but you asked me to be honest. To be honest, I need to tell you I could never be happy with us going on. Not miserable or in agony, but our life together could never be what I want. And you would never be happy, truly happy with me like that. It may hurt too much for you to see that now, but in time you will. It’s better for us to end this now, as bad as that is, then to continue on and have to go through all of this later when it will only be worse and hurt more.

I want you to know that it doesn’t have to be the way you said Tuesday night – all or nothing. I still care for you very much. I still love you. But I just can’t say that I’m in love with you anymore. I’m not. I’m just not. I know how that hurts you and I can’t tell you how bad I feel. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can still be friends. We can’t be a couple anymore, but we’ll always have what we had. Nothing will ever change that.

It grieves me, Greg, it really does. I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. There’s nothing more I can say.

 

                                                                                       Emli

 

 

It was not a pleasant read, all in all. I set the letter down and got up from the divan and went into the kitchen. There I retrieved a plate and fork, and used the spatula to transfer the hash out of the frying pan and onto the plate. I retrieved a glass, filled it at the tap and headed out into the living room again. I set the plate down amidst the items on the coffee table. Before sitting down again, though, I headed up the stairs to my bedroom, where I went directly to the bottom drawer of the nightstand. It took me a little bit of digging among its contents, but I came up with the blue folder I was looking for. I shut the drawer and headed back to the ground floor.

I seated myself upon the divan again and opened the folder. I still had the gloves on, so leafing through its contents was not too easy. I located what I was looking for and pulled it out. I closed the folder, which I set on my lap, and then laid the letter, now four years old, out on top of it. I reached for the plate and, holding it to the left side of my chest in my left hand, used the fork in my right to relay the hash to my mouth, keeping my eyes fixed on the missive in my lap, which, like the one I had just read, was written in Emli’s hand.

 

Steve,

 

I don’t want to leave it where our conversation ended last night. You know how much I care for you. I always will. You need to know that. It’s just that we’re not going to be man and wife. You say you want the house and the white picket fence and everything that goes with it, but I’m not ready for that. Not now. Maybe not ever. Not with you. Not with anyone. Please don’t take it personally. Please don’t. My feeling for you is as strong, stronger than for any man I’ve ever known. The problem isn’t with you. Maybe it’s me.

I know this really hurts you. I’m sorry for that. But this was inevitable. And it’s better that it comes now instead of further on down the line when it’ll be that much harder for both of us. The worst thing would for me to keep on telling you all those pretty lies that I know you want to hear. But Steve, they wouldn’t be true! And it would be cruel of me, because I know I could never live up to them.

Try, try not to hate me! Whenever you think of me, please remember the good things. Don’t dwell on how bad this turned at the end. You’ll always be special to me. Let’s just let it go at that.

 

                                                                              Emli

 

I had stopped eating. For several seconds, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Slowly, that faded. I felt momentary disgust with myself. Why don’t you try crying about it, I muttered to myself. That’ll do you a whole lot of good. I put the letter back into the folder and shoved the folder over on the divan. I returned my attention to the hash. At least my senses had remained true to me, I thought. I can still enjoy a cheap meal out of a can.

After I had finished three-quarters of the plate of hash, I set it aside and took a long refreshing draw from the glass of water.

Remembering what I was about, I set the glass down on the table and reached for the still unemptied shopping bag. I pulled out some more items: an electric steam hair setting set, a handful of loose curlers, a scarf, a pair of ear rings, a small teddy bear,  a wooden music box with a tiny ballerina inside that tinkled swan lake when the top was opened; a couple of magazines – Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, both of which had post delivery tags with Emli’s name and address. There was also an envelope, stamped and postmarked, addressed to Williams with Emli’s return address, both in her hand. The envelope had been ripped open on the right hand side so the stamp was torn. With my gloved fingers, I reached inside and pulled the contents out and unfolded it. It was a short note, also in Emli’s hand.

 

Greg,

 

These antics of yours have got to stop. It’s all over between us. You’re an adult now. You can’t honestly think your impressing me by acting like that. I don’t believe that talk about suicide and neither do you. We both know you love life too much. Be realistic! There is no chance of us getting back together. None. Forget me. Get on with your life.

 

                                            Emli

 

For the second time that night I was filled with a strange sense of transpersonal deja-vu. I set the letter and envelope to the left side of the divan and reached over to the blue folder again. I leafed through its contents, hampered still by the gloves. I found what I was looking for, another letter, in Emli’s handwriting. I set it on my lap.

 

Steve,

 

You need to pull yourself together. Is this the way you want me to remember you? You’re stronger than that. You need to just accept that we’re not a couple anymore. We’re not. Nothing you say or do is going to change that. Stop torturing yourself! There was nothing that you did wrong. The timing was good for us then, but it’s over now. You’re a wonderful man. Move on with your life. There are great things for you if you can just get past this.

 

                                       Emli

 

 

I closed my eyes. At that moment, I felt an undeniable kinship with Williams. We were part of the same pattern, a recurring motif, an extension of the continuum. I recalled then, poignantly, how it had been. I could not remember threatening suicide as had apparently my doppelganger out in the garage, but I had gone to pieces. I functioned at the office and at the courthouse, but barely. I had fallen into a trough of despair so deep that all I wanted to do was get out of the light and into the black so I would not see anything. I tried to sleep it off, slumbering fourteen hours a day. About once a week or so I would raise the energy or nerve to call Emli. Two or three times I went out to the studio at lunch time or the close of the day. Emli was polite and I did not make a scene, really, but I could see it was very uncomfortable for her. That killed me, seeing her body language and reading the rejection in it. And the phone calls. Emli had described what she said were ‘phantom calls’ from Williams, ones where she would answer and he would be on the other end, silent. I had done that too, a number of times. Not that I had meant to, but I could not speak, and that is how it would turn out. I would talk myself into calling her, telling myself I would just start a friendly conversation, charm her, somehow magically revive her feeling for me. And then I would punch in her number and she would come on the line and I would just lose my nerve. I could not talk. It was as if my vocal chords were frozen. I would listen for a second or two to her exasperated “Hello… Hello. Who’s there?” and then I would hang up.

I thought of Williams. To both him and me had Emli been a paramour and paragon of womanhood. She had cradled each of us. To her we had each spoken of all we held sacred, as different as those things may have been. Through the experiences of the last two days I had somehow held myself above Williams, smug in this inexplicable confidence that I was in all the ways that counted his superior, although I was a little envious of the vitality, the physical prowess, he had embodied in life. But after reading Emli’s letters to him, I saw him as every bit my equal. She had cast him off as she had cast me off. I had been crippled, rendered docile, by the emotional paralysis she had inflicted on me. I had wanted to fight it, but could not or had not. In a way, Williams had been more noble, more majestic than I. He had acted. He had fought against her rejection. None too gracefully and ineffectually, perhaps. But he had at least fought back. He was still in action right up to the end, to the very last second reaching toward her, when the hollow-point had flashed from the muzzle to cut him down.

I tried to throw all of that from my mind. I reached for the shopping bag again and pulled out the next item. As fate would have it, it was a letter, an uncompleted one, this time in Williams’ hand. I set it before me and read:

 

Dear Emli,

 

Look I guess Im not what floats your boat anymore, you told me that. Im rill sorry about the time I hit you, I didnt mean it I was drunk. That will never happen ever again I promice. We can work this out. You dont need to worry, I jus want to talk to you and nuthing elce. Theirs things I need to say to you and I know if you here it youl change your mine. You just half to give me the chanse. But your not lissoning anymore and thats not fare and you now it. Cant we just get together and talk? We can do that cant we? Not at my house but at someplace youd rilly like like the seegul restorant that makes the shrimp with cocanut the way you like. Not what I want but what you want.

 

That was as far as Williams had gotten. Apparently, he never got around to sending it. He had never been in danger of winning the Nobel Prize for literature, to be sure. But he had managed to bleed his soul out onto the page. I set his uncompleted letter onto the coffee table and went into the blue folder again. In no time at all, I located a photocopy of a letter I had completed and sent to Emli some four years previously.

 

Goddess…

 

My hands are shaking as I’m writing this. What has happened to us is absolutely terrible. In my entire life, I’ve never been as sure of anything as I was about how I felt about you. Remember how it was before? I would start to say something and you would finish the sentence for me. We were man and woman, lovers, cosmic mates. You were the sister of my soul! What happened? How can what was so perfect be over just like that?

Please tell me this is just some test that will soon be finished. Has there been some horrible mistake, some misunderstanding? Has your passion truly died? Truly? Is there something here you haven’t told me? Why must you torture me like this?

This is insanity, us being apart. Why? Why? Don’t you see that you are it for me? That any woman that could possibly come after you will be compared to you and come up second best? Don’t you see that I will long for you forever?

Was it something I said? Something I did? Tell me. If you only knew what was in my heart, you wouldn’t hold yourself from me a second longer. Do you think another could feel for you even a thousandth of what I feel for you? Could any man love you and your children as I will? Does all that has passed between us now mean nothing?

 

                                              Don’t forsake me,

                                                                            Steven

 

 

Like Williams after me, I had been humiliated in my humanity. I reread the letter a second time. Upon reconsideration, the sentiment seemed to me a little overblown. Not that the feeling it had expressed had been insincere – for I knew what I had felt at the time was damnably too real – but I was suddenly weary of the intensity of emotion, the overhanging sense of loss, the well of depression.

It was with this sense of detachment that I took up the blue folder and then piled on top of it all of the photographs from the coffee table. Making sure Emli’s letters to Williams and his to her were not included in what I held in my hands, I went over to the fireplace and set everything down atop the mantle. I genuflected then and yanked down on the fireplace’s lever cord to pull open the ember screen. I stood again and deliberately, one by one, picked up each of the photographs, gazed at it one last time and wrist-flicked it into the fire. I periodically bent down to make sure that none had fallen behind or beyond the grate to elude being consumed. When all of the photographs were gone, I opened the folder, the portfolio of my now four-year-dead fling with Emli. In it was every love letter she had written me and photocopies or first drafts of the letters and poems I had written to her. And mixed in with those were the first drafts or copies of the letters of desperation I had written to her, together with her sparse responses, from the two-month period after she had called it quits when I was trying to convince her to rescind her decision. I repeated the ritual as with the photographs, pulling each one up separately, holding it before me, not reading it so much as scanning it just long enough to recognize it, remember it, acknowledge the sentiment it had represented, and then cast it into the fire, destroying it and the documentation it offered of our relationship or break-up forever.

The first ones to go had been the ones I had read on the divan. After that, everything was mixed haphazardly: love letters to and from, poems of passion, poems of bitterness. I remembered that in college someone – either another student or maybe a professor – had said that was why there were relationships and break-ups: so there would be enough bad poetry to go around. I steadily stoked the fire. At one, I stopped to read it all the way through.

 

She has driven us from Paradise

Where we both embraced

Our bodies one, our hearts entwined

It was her decision, not mine

We frolicked in the garden together

Long ago it now seems, though it was only yesterday

She was all earthly beauty

Endowed with the jewel of womanhood

I was her mate. Together we stood

On the cusp of eternity

That is all past now

Her nectar a fading memory

My impassioned entreaties ignored

Tears cloud the page before me as I write

Casually, as if it weren’t important

She has driven us from paradise

And the coarse world now stands between us

 

Remembering how I had awakened at 3:30 a.m. four years previously from a nightmare in which Emli was standing aloof from me and that I had sat on the edge of the bed to scrawl out the lines before I went back to sleep, I consigned it to the flames with all the others.

In this fashion I went through everything in the folder, destroying the documentation of our relationship. When all that had filled it was gone, I threw the blue folder in on top of the flames. I drew the screen closed and went back over to the coffee table. I picked up the handgun and stuffed it into my pocket. I went up to my bedroom and retrieved my key ring and then Williams’ key ring and my wallet. Determinedly, then, I descended the stairs, walked back into the kitchen and out the back door. I used the key to open the side door to the garage.

The smell of death permeated the confine of the garage, but I did not let it bother me. I switched on the light and went down a few feet toward the workbench affixed to the wall. I opened the metal tool chest and fished through its implements to find an awl. I pulled the gun from my pocket. I disconnected the magazine that fit into the handle and set it down on the workbench. I then drew back the cover over the chamber and used the awl to compress the loading spring. I turned the gun upside down and shook it to drop the bullet in the firing chamber down onto the bench. Next I used the awl to pick at and scratch the flat surface of the firing mechanism. I scratched Xs and Os and figure eights and squares and triangles, certain after about two minutes that I had left imperfections of some sort on the surface. Next I stepped over to the vice and with my left hand held the barrel of the gun between the two jaws. With my right hand and arm I spun the vice handle clockwise until it snugged up against the barrel and was holding it in place. Then using both hands and arms I yanked down on the vice handle, again and again and again. When it seemed as if the jaws would not tighten any further, I redoubled my effort and then did so again and again. At last the tubular barrel was rendered nearly flat, with the wall of one side only a millimeter or so from the other. I undid the vice and pulled the gun away and studied it. There was no way it would ever shoot again. I vaguely wondered what would happen if by chance someone were to load it, advance a shell and bullet into the firing chamber and pull the trigger. The bullet would dead end into the wholly collapsed barrel to begin with. What would happen from there I was not certain. But whatever would happen, performing any kind of ballistic test on it would now prove well nigh on impossible.

I stepped back over to the tool box, into which I reinserted the awl. At the same time, I pulled out from the box an old, beat-up pair of clear-lensed safety glasses. I put them on. I picked up the magazine and slammed it home into the gun’s handle. I retrieved the single bullet and put it and the gun back into my pocket. I went out from the garage, shutting off the lights and locking the door. I stopped and deliberately double checked to make sure it was locked and made a conscious note of having double-checked it.

Chapter Twenty-three The Criminal Always Returns To the Scene of the Crime

I was still wearing the gardening gloves as I came back into the house and I did not bother taking them off. In the living room I went over to the coffee table and picked up Emli’s two letters to Williams and his uncompleted letter to her. I took up with it the envelope in which Emli’s second letter to Williams had been sent, containing the postmark and Emli’s return address. I refolded the second letter and put it inside the envelope. I went down the hallway and into the closet there, retrieving a battered surplus Army jacket I have. I put the jacket on and put the letters into one of the large pockets. From the high shelf above where the garments were hung in the closet I retrieved an old blue Dodgers baseball hat, one with LA emblazoned on it. I put it on, closed the closet door and went out of the house.

I got in my car and headed out Laurel Canyon Boulevard north, and after about two miles was descending down from the Hollywood Hills and out toward the Valley. At Victory Boulevard I turned west and along a darkened section between Coldwater Canyon and Woodman Avenue I pulled over to the side of the road and took the gun out of my pants pocket. I pulled out the magazine and put the gun into one of the coat pockets.

I rolled down the window and shook the bullets out of the magazine onto the road and then drove on. A few blocks later, I threw the empty magazine out of the window. Several blocks further on I pulled into a closed gas station and drove around the back. There was a large dumpster there and I stopped the Buick but left it idling in park and got out. I looked around to make sure there were no onlookers and in one motion pulled the gun out of my jacket pocket and threw it into the dumpster. I fished in my pants pocket then and found the remaining single bullet. I threw it into the dumpster too. I got back into the car and headed out, eventually making my way to Van Nuys Boulevard.

I essentially retraced the route I had taken with Emli in the car two nights previously, turning off Van Nuys Boulevard and driving into the slumbering residential depths of eastern San Fernando Valley. I made the right turn at the street that connected with the dead-end cul-de-sac on which Williams’ residence was located, but did not make the immediate left turn as I had previously. Instead, I went down another block and at a suitable spot, pulled over and parked beneath the canopy of a huge oak tree, the still thick-leaved branches of which extended high above halfway across the lane.

I examined my surroundings. There were a few lights on at that hour here and there among the bungalows the street sported, but no one seemed particularly interested in my arrival. I gazed sharply to the right to make sure that the residents in the house I was now parked in front of were not observing me. The broad trunk of the oak obscured my view of the home, and the only lights were those behind an opaque amber window near the front entrance. There were no lights on at all in the house opposite to the left. I reached up to the dashboard and adjusted the knob there to turn the Buick’s dome light completely down. When I opened the door to get out, the dome light did not illuminate at all. I gently closed the door behind me and walked nonchalantly across the street. As I headed toward Williams’ cul-de-sac I adjusted the bill of the Dodgers cap even more sharply down. I was still wearing the safety glasses. I turned right and continued my casual nocturnal stroll toward my destination. As had been the case two evenings previously, the street was sleepy and inactive to all appearances, except for the house on the opposite side of the street further up toward the blind end where, as before, the glow of a television set was visible through the draped front window.

When I came to Williams’ yard I angled across it so I would stay well to the right side of the walkway and keep from triggering the security light. Despite the darkness, I had no trouble making out the newspaper on the lawn directly in front of me. And I could make out as well, again despite the darkness, that there was something extra tucked into the newspaper. Barely breaking stride, I bent and reached down to pick it up. I carried the paper in one gloved hand, while using the other gloved hand to retrieve Williams’ key ring from my pocket. On the first try I used the proper key to undo the deadbolt but did not find the right key to the doorknob lock until the third try. I went straight in and closed the door behind me. The light I had left on in the living room two days previously was still on and I had no trouble finding the light switch in the entranceway. I turned it on, as well. Directly beneath it I could clearly see that a six-inch by five-inch sheet of paper had been inserted under the rubber band holding the folded newspaper together. I pulled it out and turned it over. A short note in a child-like scrawl read:

 

Dear Mr. Williams,

This mite not be to importen but I thowt Id tell you. Yesderday morning their was some guy coming out of your house. Your truck was still their but your car was allready gone. I never seen him befor but he coud have been your brother. But I dont no so thats why Im telling you. He was driving a chevy and his license was  2wsl867.

                                      Your paperboy Billy

 

I cringed at the note and felt a chill in my body. Then I reread it, heartened by something. Four somethings, actually. First, my car is a Buick, not a Chevy. Second, third and fourth, its license plate is 2NSL637. I wondered if the paperboy was perhaps dyslexic. I decided probably not. It had not been entirely light at the time he jotted the license number down, the car had been moving and he may not have been able to get a good visual fix on it. At any rate, I had intercepted his note. It was fortunate for it to have fallen into my hands, rather than to lie there for the time when someone looking into Williams’ disappearance came across it. I crimped the note up and put it in my pocket. I set the still rolled up and banded paper down on the arm of the sofa.

I turned my attention to my purpose for having come, intent on acting with dispatch and getting away as quickly as possible. In and out, I told myself. I walked into the hallway, turning on the light there. I went down the hall into Williams’ bedroom and, without turning on the light there but making my way by the hallway light, went straight to the nightstand. I pulled open the top drawer and then placed into it Emli’s first letter to him, then over that her second letter, still in its addressed, stamped and postmarked envelope. On top of that I set Williams’ not fully completed letter to her. I closed the drawer. I made my way back out of the bedroom and down the hall, shutting off the light. I went back over to the sofa and picked up the newspaper. I went back to the front door, shut off the entranceway light and let myself out, setting the handle lock from the inside and using the key to secure the deadbolt from the outside. I angled away from the sidewalk to the left and back to the sidewalk. Maintaining a casual air I went down to the street to turn left on the street where I had parked and a hundred feet down or so crossed the street. When I got to my car, I opened the unlocked door, noting that my briefcase had not been stolen during my brief absence. I threw the newspaper on top of it, got in and fired up the engine.  I went down and turned around in a driveway and drove out of the neighborhood back toward Van Nuys Boulevard.

At that hour the streets – Van Nuys south, Burbank Boulevard east and Laurel Canyon south – were empty or nearly empty – the exceptions being occasional police cars and drunks now that it was nearing closing time for the bars. I turned the rearview mirror to an angle where I could see myself in it. The combination of the glasses and the cap had sufficiently altered my appearance, I could see. I pulled both of them off and set them down next to the newspaper atop the briefcase on the passenger side seat. While I waited at a red light, I did likewise with the gardening gloves.

I was back home in under twenty minutes. I parked on the street instead of in the driveway this time and went up to the house via the walkway. After I let myself in I went straight over to the fireplace. I pulled open the ember screen. The fire had died but was still smoldering. I pulled Billy the paperboy’s note from my pocket and studied it closely for a good minute. Then I dropped it in on top of the grate. I went back over to the coffee table and picked up the bottle of ibuprofen and peeled the pharmacy’s printed label with Emli’s name on it off. I next took up the two framed posters for the coed bobsledding competition and then the credit card receipts in Emli’s name. I took them all over to the fireplace. Billy’s note was still unsinged. I kneeled down then with my head actually in the fireplace. I took a deep breath and blew down on the smoldering remnants before me around the edges of the note. That almost dislocated the note from its place on top of the heap so I decreased the pressure of my forced exhalations. After several rapid but diminished bursts of my breath the note caught fire. I quickly tossed the credit card receipts and the prescription label in on top of it. And then as those caught flame I held one of the cardboard posters over the fire until it too caught. I dropped it onto the grate and then laid the other poster on top of it. I drew the screen closed and went back to the coffee table. I recollected everything except the mugs and the bracelet and put them into one of the bags, which I then set down at the foot of the divan. I set the mugs together and dropped the bracelet into one of them.

I turned the lights off on the ground floor and headed upstairs, where I prepared myself for bed. After I came out of the bathroom, I spent a few minutes tidying up, putting the clothes I had shuffled off in the past few days into the clothes hamper and then recompensed my bed, untwisting the sheet and blanket and folding down the bedspread. The fan had been so relaxing during my slumber earlier that day, I turned it on again. I turned out the lights and got into my just made up bed.

I did not fall to sleep at once, but lay there, contemplating events. It had been a fortuitous turn to have discovered the paperboy’s note, it seemed. I wondered if he had retained his original notation of my license plate number. I wondered, too, how likely it would be that he would be interviewed by the authorities if they ended up investigating Williams’ disappearance. Not very, I concluded. And if they did, he might not have his version of my license plate number to pass along. And even if he did, it would be wrong, off by three letters or digits, not to mention the mischaracterization of my Buick as a Chevrolet. Perhaps, by running the number through a computer to check for variants, they would come up with mine, but that would be among scores, hundreds or even thousands of others, I calculated. It was an omen that I would make it through this entire affair intact, a comforting thought, or relatively comforting thought, in a sea of disquieting ones.

On that upbeat note, I embarked on plotting out how I was going to use the next day to advance my cause. I was thinking far more clearly than I had been twelve or thirteen hours previously and one by one, piece by piece, the next steps of my game plan loomed into focus. In ten minutes or less, the entire procedure for safely getting rid of Williams’ body came to me and then I went back over it, mentally refining each successive step. I looked at it from the standpoint of foreseeable complications, obstructions and delays, not unlike a chess game against a challenging opponent. Then I tried to summon up scenarios of unforeseeable complications, imposing on myself a commitment to back off from the set of actions I was contemplating if at any point events turned to threaten me with exposure. With every confidence I had all contingencies covered and the feeling that everything was now ready to fall into place, I turned over, switched an underlying cool pillow atop the one my head was lying upon, and without concentration, fell to sleep.

Chapter Twenty-four Reconnoitering as an Amateur Ornithologist

I slept in until nearly 9 a.m. I lolly-gagged around for a few minutes but then turned serious. I did not bother to shower but went straightaway to my closet and located my khaki shirt and khaki pants. After I put those on, I retrieved the thickest pair of combed cotton socks I had and slid them on my feet. Over them I pulled on my only pair of hiking boots, ones which I rarely wear anymore and which I had owned for nearly 15 years. Though the boots had been broken in long before, they still felt stiff. From the upper shelf of the closet I took down my 30mm camera, a Minolta older than my hiking boots. I had purchased it – a significant outlay at that time – for a photography class I had taken when I was in college. There was film loaded in it and the battery was still good. I had already shot on four of the frames but for the life of me I could not remember what. It had been that long since I used it. I went back into the bathroom, briefly turned on the shower to wet my head under its stream and then brushed my hair without toweling it off.

I filled my pockets with change, keys, and my wallet and, taking the camera, headed downstairs. I set the camera down on the coffee table and continued through the ground floor and out the back door and over to the garage. Using the key, I let myself in the side door. I turned on the light and waded through the heavy air, holding my breath for the most part and when I did breathe, doing so only through my mouth. I had to step over the rug to get to what I was looking for, which I knew was in one of several boxes on the far side of the garage. Actually, I got lucky. I found it, a set of binoculars, in the second box I opened. I hastily closed the box and went out, shutting off the light and closing and locking the door behind me.

Back inside the house, I stopped just long enough to pick up a ripe banana that would have to serve as breakfast, the camera and the two cups, one of which contained the wrist chain and dog tag. I put the binoculars, the camera, and the banana into the empty shopping bag, which was next to the divan. I took the bag and went outside and down the walkway to the street. I opened the Buick and put the bag onto the floor in front of the passenger’s side seat. I went back up into the house and picked up the mugs and went into the kitchen. I pulled the trash liner out of the trash can and carried everything out the back door into the back yard. I fished the bracelet out of the mug it was in and dropped it into the trash bag and shook the bag to make sure it settled deep into it. Over next to the trash cans there were a couple of bricks. I set one of the mugs down on one of the bricks and picked up the other one and slammed it down onto the mug, shattering it in one blow into porcelain powder and a couple dozen small shards. Taking care not to cut myself, I picked up the shards and threw them into the trash bag. I lifted the brick that had served as the mortar, and tilted it over the bag to pour the porcelain powder into the trash bag. I set it down again, put the second mug on top of it and repeated the mortar and pestle application of the bricks to obliterate it. I again threw the shards and as much as the powder as I could collect into the trash bag. I pulled the top off the trash can I knew already had a trash bag in it, threw the trash bag into it and clamped the top back down on it. I lifted the can and then carried it the length of the side yard and down the driveway. I left it near the curb. It was Thursday and normal trash pick-up was scheduled for later that morning or afternoon.

I went back up and into the house, where I washed my hands and locked the back door. I went out through the front door, locking the dead-bolt behind me. I got into the car, fired her up and headed down to Laurel Canyon Boulevard and took Sunset to the 101. On 101 I went east and exited downtown where I covered the next few blocks to duck into the sub-level parking garage at Fourth and Flower below the skyscraper in which the Exeter, Delbert, Sampson and Shuey offices are located. Instead of going up to the 24th floor, though, I went up to the lobby and exited the elevator and walked out of the building entirely. I headed east out Fourth Street three blocks and turned south, going into the bookstore about halfway down between Fourth and Third Street.

I do not particularly enjoy shopping, but bookstores are my kind of place as far as emporia go. On occasion, I have wondered around bookstores for a couple of hours. This was not a leisurely excursion, though. I made my way past the best sellers and newly published offerings in the eye-catching displays up front and through the several sections – history, literature, classics, poetry and arts – that normally would have taken up my interest. I directed myself instead to the nature section. I had a rough idea of what I was looking for and after about two minutes I saw it – The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Birds Western Region  compiled by  Miklos D.F. Udvardy. There were two hardbound editions and one in paperback. I grabbed the paperback version, which cost $9.50 less than its counterpart. At the cashier’s counter I paid for it with cash. I declined the clerk’s offer of a bag and went straight out.

Walking the four blocks back to my office I scanned the book, gleaning from the table of contents a rough orientation of what the book covered. I then achieved a quick overview of a smattering, but by no means all, of specific bird types native to deciduous woods and coniferous forests: the Yellow Breasted Chat, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Acorn Woodpecker, Lazuli Bunting, Warbling Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, Purple Martin, Red-breasted Nuthatch. Red Crossbill, Purple Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, and the Pine Siskin, among others. At that point I was back at Flower and Fourth and I went in and took the elevator up to the 24th floor.

I checked with the receptionist for my messages and went down around the corner to my office, letting myself in with my key. My single message was from Michael Brandon. I punched in his number, listed on the message to return his call. His secretary piped me straight through, and he let me know that both he and Stewart had found the settlement draft acceptable. “Get me your copy back, signed and notarized and I’ll put this whole thing to bed next week,” I said.

Brandon said that would be fine, and we hung up.

As I was coming out of my office there was a group of my colleagues standing at the entranceway to one of the conference rooms.

“Where’s your tie, Steve?” one of them, David Fargus, asked.

“I have to be in court tomorrow, so I thought I’d do casual Thursday instead of casual Friday,” I quipped.

“Oh, Steve, that’s you,” said another lawyer, Robin Wyndham. “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.” That brought a laugh full around.

“What gives with the Boy Scout get-up?” one of the paralegals asked.

I held out the book I had just purchased. “In a few minutes I’ll be heading out and I’m going to go bird watching,” I said. I then took the opportunity to employ my just-found knowledge. “I’m hoping to get a glimpse of a Red-naped Sapsucker. My friend saw one last week. There have also been some sightings of Orange-crowned Warblers, Purple Finches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Cedar Waxwings lately.”

“Where are you going?” Fargus asked.

“Just up into the forest,” I said. “Not too far.”

“I didn’t know you were into ornithology,” Wyndham said.

“It’s just a casual hobby,” I lied.

“Well, don’t get lost,” Fargus said.

“Don’t worry,” I said, and headed toward the elevator.

The surface streets and the freeway were easy to negotiate as I encountered little in the way of head-banging traffic conditions, a phenomenon known in Los Angeles as “mid-morning light,” which refers to the two hours or so between the end of the morning commute rush and the lunch hour traffic jams. I took the 101 to the Glendale Freeway past Eagle Rock and then Glendale, and just east of La Crescenta exited. I took Foothill Blvd. east for a short distance to the Angeles Crest Highway through La Canada and Flintridge and the progressively grander homes that lay off the Highway. Then I was driving past the multi-million dollar estates, castles almost. The smog was not so bad and each successive tree off the side of the road crowded out the last in the scope and sweep of my vision. Then the forest started in earnest and from that point on there were no more homes. Beyond that the denseness of nature looms and only an occasional cabin or barn and the highway itself mar the natural landscape. A little bit further there was a sign telling me I was entering the Angeles National Forest. A sign just past that said the fire danger currently stood between moderate and high and urged caution with all sources of heat and combustion.

Past that point the Angeles Crest Highway is a two-lane roadway carved through the forest. Driving it in spots offers the sensation of being within a heavily wooded outback region. But then suddenly a wide-open vista over a majestic cliff falling away at one spot or another on either side of the road will loom into view. One is treated to a near and far perspective on sections of the forest that are thriving, but there are sections that appear to be dying out, either from erosion, fire or the ravages of the Southern California climate in conjunction with the Los Angeles smog. The entire span of the highway traverses some 49 miles, originating at Flintridge and terminating at the ski resort community of Wrightwood just east of the Los Angeles/San Bernardino county border. It runs through the middle of the Angeles National Forest. Along with the expanse of the desert I had traveled to in vain two-and-a-half days earlier, it is one of the few remaining spans of wilderness in Los Angeles County.

There was not much in the way of traffic out there, giving me the opportunity to drive slowly and take in the landscape. I knew there had to be scores of places along the highway that would suit the purpose I was seeking. The difficulty was that what I wanted, by definition, had to be beyond the line of sight of those driving. It was for that reason that I had the bird book, the binoculars and the camera. When I saw the first likely spot, I pulled over to the shoulder and shut off the engine. I reached into the grocery bag and pulled out the camera and the field glasses. I put the straps of both around my neck and got out of the car. The whole idea behind the bird watching ruse was that it gave me the perfect explanation for what I was doing. I was completely within my rights, of course, to be out for a quiet little mountain drive all by my lonesome self. And there was no body in my trunk. But if an authority were to confront me, I wanted to have some kind of plausible explanation as to what I was doing. Bird watching was an explanation that would be convincing enough to defuse a sheriff’s deputy’s or park ranger’s curiosity or suspicion and keep him from making note of my name or license plate number.

As it turned out, though, I need not have bothered. I never saw a ranger nor a sheriff’s car. My problem was a different one: I had tremendous difficulty finding what I was looking for.

I was looking to locate a spot where I could literally dump Williams. A spot within easy carrying distance from the road’s edge where I could just let him go and have gravity do the work of carrying him down into the underbrush, out of the line of sight of anyone who should come by later, and out of the line of site of any other vantage point. It needed to be a spot that would not be visited by hikers or rock climbers, off-roaders or dirt bikers. A spot where the underbrush would remain intact, providing cover for the months that would be required for the scavengers – the buzzards, and insects and worms – and the elements – the wind and heat and rain – to take away his flesh and leave only bones, unidentifiable bones, a bleached skeleton, to posterity.

The first spot I had stopped at was less than suited for my purpose I soon saw. There was only a shallow drop-off at that spot covered with very little vegetation. I got back into my car and continue on. I ended up pulling over to the side of the road more than two dozen times. Again and again I thought I saw what looked like a possibility, but when I got out of the Buick to fully examine it, there turned out to be some crucial flaw that rendered that particular spot unsuitable. Either the access I was seeking would turn out to be obstructed, or the drop-off not steep enough or obstructed by boulders or the jetting or outcropping of a rock formation, the undergrowth not thick enough to obscure a body or in a few cases too thick and too low to the ground to allow a body to pass beyond or beneath it. One spot I came upon fit the bill, or so it seemed, until I noticed that not too distant was a small spring and that there was some foot traffic to it because I could see where a trail was worn into the chaparral despite how steep the drop-off was. That was too close for psychological comfort.

I continued east out Angeles Crest, checking out every promising promontory and inward fold of the road, mile after mile. Generally, I was looking at spots on the right, or south, side of the road, although occasionally I went to the other side when a place caught my eye. Every once in a while a car would pass me going in one direction or the other.

I did not have to look at my watch to tell it was beyond the noon hour as my survey continued, for the sun was no longer directly overhead and the shadows from the trees, not yet long, had begun to fall eastward. I had consumed the banana some time before and with my continued exposure to the sun and empty stomach to say nothing of a growing thirst, I was beginning to feel the inception of a headache. I continued on doggedly, determined I would come across the safe harbor for Williams’ remains. And then, at last, at what was perhaps the thirtieth or thereabouts place I examined, Eureka! I found it. It was on the north side of the road. At that point the hill dropped away from the embankment of the road steeply. Nevertheless, the vegetation, relatively thick and at that time of the year untypically still somewhat green, that is to say, not entirely golden brown, covered the side of the hill almost up to the level of the road. And from where I stood one could clearly see a groove of erosion, formed it seemed by the flow of rainfall in a straight path fifty feet or so down. The transit of low-to-the-ground animals – squirrels, rabbits, foxes, bobcats and the like – appeared to have contributed to the erosion. No plants were growing in the narrow channel that the water and animals had cut down the side of the hill, but the vegetation on both sides of it had arched over to cover it. I took up the binoculars hanging around my neck, and pulling off the lens caps, gazed through the dual glasses to get an even better fix on it. This allowed me to see that the dry rivulet bed was indeed unobstructed, but beyond the fifty feet or so the focus faded into the shadowing beneath the brush. I walked back to the car, parked across the roadway, where I removed both the camera and the binoculars and placed them down on the passenger side of the front seat. I retrieved the gardening gloves and went back over the embankment across the street. No one who did not absolutely need to would ever attempt to make his way down the narrow channel at my feet. I pulled the gloves on and sitting on the seat of my pants, embarked on an excursion down the groove. Most of the way down there was but barely a body’s width of clearance from the bushes. It was something like going down a playground slide, on both sides and two feet above which is poised a steady progression of rosebushes. Brambles, branches, twigs and thorns cuffed me in the arms and gloved hands, which I held in front of my face as protection. I lay back as far as I could to keep my upper torso, neck and head close to the ground. Nevertheless, my forehead, scalp and ears sustained scratches, as did the back and sides of my arms their entire length between my wrists to halfway between my elbow and shoulder, where they were not protected by either the gloves or my shirt sleeves. Eventually I was obliged to press my feet and legs outward into the thick chaparral to slow and stop my rapid downward progression. I came to a stop none too soon, for at the point beyond which I could not see when I had looked down from above, the groove of erosion came to an abrupt end and the hillside dropped off at an even steeper angle. If I had gone just five feet further, I would have tumbled down into a thicket of underbrush growing out, it seemed, from a sheer wall down into the canyon, a spot from which I could most likely never climb out and in which I would probably perish. It was a truly miserable and precarious spot to be in. I felt positive about it, though, because I had satisfied myself that this was the ideal spot to deposit the albatross waiting patiently for me back in my garage. Once nudged beyond the point just below me, the body would drop another twenty or thirty feet to remain embedded in the dense hillside growth, obscured for a very long time and maybe forever, unless there was a fire at that spot or that portion of the forest in some other fashion was defoliated.

With no little difficulty, then, I managed to turn over. Slowly, my stomach and chest pressed closely to the ground and keeping my head down, I crawled, scratched, climbed and pulled myself, inch by inch, back to the top. I came fully to my feet and stretched, brushing the broken shoots and twigs, stems, grasses, crumbled leaves and dirt from me. I went across the street to my car and retrieved the shopping bag. Gathering some rocks, I put them in the bag and then rolled it up. I then went across the street again to set it down a on the dirt shoulder a few feet in front of the embankment over which the eroded groove down the side of the hill began. I stepped on it to flatten it and set a few large rocks down on top of it. It would serve as a marker I would be able to find when I returned.

I headed across the street, stripped off the gloves, and got back into my Buick, tossing the gloves onto the top of the binoculars. I started the engine up and U-turned to head back west. Before I proceeded, though, I punched the peg for my trip odometer on my dashboard below the permanent odometer under the speedometer. That zeroed it out. I started back. Twenty-five or so minutes later I came to the sign which heralded that I was leaving the Angeles National Forest. Directly across the street was its twin – the sign I had seen coming up that announced to those travelling in the opposite direction that they were entering the Angeles National forest. I noted the trip odometer reading – 14 and two-tenths miles.

I continued down through nearly a mile of semi-forest and undeveloped scrub land toward the foothills and the resplendent estates and mansions in the heights above La Canada /Flintridge. I passed by these in a flash, it seemed, and sped along another expanse of undeveloped land before the landscape I was passing grew slightly more suburbanized. I took the short jog on Foothill Boulevard where the Angeles Crest Highway ended and got back on the Glendale Freeway south.

By that point my temples were pounding. It has been my experience that I can readily skip breakfast with little or no consequence, but if I extend such a fast to exclude lunch as well, by no later than four o’clock I will inevitably have contracted an unforgiving headache. I looked at my watch. It was just past 2:30. At the first opportunity I stopped at a hamburger stand for lunch. I fairly inhaled a hamburger, together with some French fries and lemonade. Then for good measure, I ordered a taco, which I ate a little less hurriedly, and chased that with more lemonade. Even before I drove out of the hamburger stand’s parking lot, the victuals had done their magic and I could feel the throbbing in my head beginning to subside.

Chapter Twenty-five A Singularly Unpleasant Task

I got back on the Glendale Freeway south all the way to where it turns into Alvarado Street in the Silverlake District and then went down the a half dozen blocks and pulled into the parking lot of the shopping center there. I parked and went into the hardware store, making my way to the tool aisle. Past the hand held routers, hand held jigsaws, circular saws, grinders, sanders, drills, and soldering irons, I found what I had come for: a bottle of propane. They were on a shelf below the waste-high tool display counter next to the water soluble paste flux, and a host of wire solders – acid core, resin, lead free and something called lo-temp. I handled three or four of the cylinders, gauging their weight against one another. They were each marked 16.4oz. There was no discernable difference that I could feel and I took one back down the aisle and over to a cash register, paid $3.56 plus tax for it and went out. I did not feel good about buying the propane or the reason I was buying it. I tried to put that from my mind.

From the shopping center it was only a few miles more south to the Hollywood Freeway, which I took west through the sluggish mid-afternoon, pre-rush hour traffic. I exited at Barham Road and took the winding route in the hills around the Hollywood Bowl to where it meets up with Laurel Canyon Boulevard, a scenic, and what would normally be a leisurely eight or ten minute drive. But I did not have the peace of mind for it to be leisurely. My effort to push the misgivings I was feeling about what lay immediately before me was not succeeding. Soon after I would get home, I was going to be extremely disrespectful to Williams. I kept telling myself it was necessary. And it was necessary, in fact. I had every intention of seeing him laid to rest, permanently and very soon, in peaceful natural surroundings up in Angeles National Forest. With a little bit of luck, no one, but the worms and natural forest scavengers, would ever disturb him again. But I could not guarantee that. Somehow, as unlikely as I hoped it would be, someone might stumble upon his remains. And it would not be in Emli’s interest, nor mine at this point, for those remains to be identified. It was absolutely necessary that no such identification be made. The closer I got to my house, the slower I drove, subconsciously trying to forestall the inevitable.

Sooner than I would have liked, I arrived home. I drove slightly past the driveway, then stopped, put the Buick into reverse, cut the wheels and then backed up into place and stopped, leaving enough room for the garage door to be opened. I put it in park, set the hand brake and shut off the engine. I took the keys and grabbed the propane cylinder and got out of the car. I wanted to go in the house first, but I knew that was just a delaying tactic. I was carrying out an intense interior monologue with myself. I listened to it: Do it now. Just get it over with. It was good that the Forty-niner came along. The coyotes would have just dug him up anyway, and then where would I be? This way if they find him, it won’t matter. I’m not going to hurt him. He’s beyond pain, at this point. He won’t feel a thing.

By that point I had walked around to the side of the garage and was standing at the door. I paused for a second, summoning up the resolve. I had talked myself into it. Using the key, I opened the door. I went straight to work, without hesitation. I had suspended judgment and conscience and I was acting. My senses were about me, fully intact, but I was determined not to let them interfere with the execution of the mission. And I did not. I was a machine. An inhuman human machine.

It was warm in the garage and the odor was richly nauseating. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth. I turned on the light and shut the door. I set the propane canister on the workbench. From there I located two hammers, one a standard claw hammer, the other a mini-sledge hammer. I settled on using the mini-sledge hammer and took it up. I stepped over to the braided rug and pulled the edge that was flapped over the body to the side. I positioned myself to the side near the top half of the body and lifting the hammer straight up, brought it straight down on the corpse’s mouth. The blow had not had been as hard as I could have made it, but it shattered, from what I could see, three of the top front teeth. Some of the dislodged fragments, though, had fallen into the mouth or further. That was contrary to what I wanted. I reached into Williams’ mouth with two of my fingers and withdrew as many of those fragments as I could pull out. With some effort then, I attempted to turn the body sideways, a difficult undertaking given the body’s weight and state of rigor mortis. I needed to set the hammer down and use both arms and hands to prop the body onto its left side. With it in that position, I tried again, giving the right cheek a hard glancing blow. I repeated that, harder. I inserted two of my fingers into the mouth again and with them liberated as many of the teeth fragments as I could find. I set them into a tiny pile on the garage floor.

What the hell, I thought then. I really wound up and gave a home run blow to the mouth with the hammer. Then a second. And a third. When I reached into the mouth after that, I pulled a veritable mound of tooth fragments out. I set those aside and went back in. There were more and more tiny pieces of splintered ivory. I spent four or five minutes collecting them all. Nearly all of the front top teeth and most of the bottom front teeth were gone. Still, the teeth recessed further to the sides remained intact. I set to work with the hammer again, targeting the back part of the mouth on the right side. Then I took a couple of wallops at the jaw itself, again on the right sided. I again used my fingers to pull the tiny shards out. Still, teeth, either fragments thereof or relatively complete ones, remained. I pulled Williams over again to set him straight down on his back.

I went over to the workbench and opened the toolbox. I found in it a pair of channel-locks. Adjusting it to the right setting, I went back to Williams and, using the handle of the hammer to prop the still stiff but now battered lips back, reached in with the pincers of the channel-locks to get a grip on one of the remaining bottom teeth. Squeezing the handles with a death grip, I set my foot on Williams’ chest just below the neck and yanked. The tooth remained anchored, but I could feel it beginning to give. I maintained my grip and keeping my foot in place, pulled left and right in short jerky motions. Then I yanked again. The tooth came away. Keeping my grip on the channel-lock handle firm, I brought the pincers over to hold them above the heap of tooth shards I had already liberated with the hammer. Loosening my grip then, I deposited the tooth with its broken and liberated colleagues.

I went back into the mouth with the channel-locks again and again, and repeated this process for each of the remaining bottom dentition, achieving eventual success on each of the teeth that had enough of their surfaces remaining above the gums for me to get a grip on them. The process for the remaining top teeth required a variation in the angle necessary to pull each tooth away from the skull as well as the need to set my foot atop Williams’ forehead to get adequate leverage. Even so, the limited range of motion imposed on the process by the close proximity of the forehead to the mouth made the effort against the top teeth that much more difficult.

Eventually, though, I was able to completely remove all of the teeth, top and bottom, except those that had been completely broken off above the surface of the gums by the initial round of hammering I had employed. At any rate, it seemed a sure thing that any attempt to identify the body by the use of dental records would now prove impossible. I went over to the corner of the garage and retrieved a broom and dustpan. I used them to sweep up the heap of extracted teeth and tooth fragments. I set the broom back in its place and put the dustpan, still containing the teeth, on the workbench.

I picked up the propane cylinder. Using my fingernails, I ripped the tab of the plastic seal at the mouth of the bottle and pulled it off. From further down on the workbench, I took up the pencil flame blowtorch extension used for small soldering jobs I have. I screwed the self-sealing puncture fitting onto the circular mouth of the bottle and picked up a cutting blade and the flint striker that had been next to the blow torch extension.

I went back over to Williams. I set the blowtorch and flint striker down. I then used the cutting blade to cut the sleeves of the shirt he wore up near the shoulders. I did the left sleeve first. I pulled the sleeve down several inches so that it bunched up just below the elbow. No tattoo was visible. I then repeated the effort with the right sleeve. No tattoos there, I saw. I had not noted any tattoos on his forearms in the pictures I had seen of him, but I lifted the sleeves upward from the wrists, just to double check. None. I then unbuttoned the now sleeveless lumberjack shirt to check his chest. No tattoos there either. I would not say that I was disappointed, but I had expected otherwise. Williams seemed to me a tattoo kind of guy. Shows you how wrong you can be.

I took up the blowtorch and rolled the circular knob to open the propane flow. I heard its hiss and taking up the flint striker, flicked it in front of the flange. Blue flame with an orange tip caught immediately, converting the hissing to a deeper purl.  I did not bother making any air or fuel flow adjustments. Unflinchingly, I gripped Williams’ left arm at the wrist. Turning it with some difficulty because of the rigor mortis, I managed to face the palm toward me. I applied the flame to the tips of each of the partially curled fingers and thumb. I was girded for the odor of burning flesh this produced, but was nevertheless well on to sickened by the offense to my nostrils. I held the flame steady to the digits, not moving on to the next until each was singed far beyond blistering into blackness. I then vectored the flame in zigs and zags over the remainder of the hand, blistering and blackening the palms and lower portions of the fingers. When I was done with that hand, I repeated the process with the right.

Already I had inflicted and endured enough to supply me with nightmare fodder for a lifetime, but I did not shut the flame down. Instead, I stepped back a few steps and set the bottom of the propane canister down on the garage floor so the flame was shooting away from me. We’re all footprinted at birth, I said to myself. I took up Williams’ stiff left leg and was able to remove his shoe without much of a struggle by thoroughly unloosing the laces first. I peeled the sock down and pulled it off. I picked the blowtorch up once again and literally held the foot to the fire. I incinerated the flesh on the entire bottom surface, starting from the toes, then down to the ball of the foot to the narrow bridge opposite the instep all the way to the heel. I set the torch down and removed the right shoe and sock and turned the flame loose on that foot’s underside. When its surface was reduced to ash, I twisted the knob to shut down the flow of propane and the flame. At that point I did not trouble myself to recover Williams with the rug, but staggered more than stepped over to the workbench to set the blowtorch down. My gorge was rising. I went immediately out of the garage, merely pulling the door into the jamb behind me without locking it. As revivifying as the open air was, I was able to take no more than three or four steps before I collapsed onto my hands and knees, where I vomited violently, uncontrollably and fully onto the grass.

Chapter Twenty-six Some Professional Diversion

I remained poised over the half-deconstituted rejectus of my lunch, trying to pull myself together. Slowly, moving like a crippled-up octogenarian, I rose to my feet. With one hand against the garage to support myself, I took a couple of steps toward the driveway. I was stiff, but shaky, as if I had some paralytic palsy. The sudden malaise seemed physical, as if I had somehow contracted a dose of rigor mortis from being in such intimate proximity to Williams. But I knew what I was experiencing was the outward manifestation of a deep psychological breach. The place I had just delivered myself to was so ugly, so menacing, and so contrary to the benign and comfortable conception I had of myself that I knew I should not dwell on it. To consciously consider what I knew was roiling in me at the subconscious level would prevent me, I recognized, from carrying out what yet needed to be done. I could look for forgiveness later. But there could be no immediate extirpation. I needed to transcend the depth of revulsion I was caught in, move beyond it, or if not beyond it, away from it for the time being, as far as I could get. I continued to the front of the garage and went to the Buick. I opened the driver’s side door, leaned in and pulled out my briefcase. I backed up, closed the door and walked up across the front lawn, angling toward the porch. I bent down at the waterworks panel and turned on the sprinklers on both sides of the walkway.  From there I went up to the door and let myself in with my keys.

I set my briefcase on the coffee table and headed toward the hallway. The first thing I did when I got into the bathroom was go to the sink and turn on the spigot, wash and rinse my hands and then use my cupped palm to rinse my mouth out with cool water. When I came out of the bathroom, I still felt dazed and as if I was using an even smaller percentage of my brain than I normally did. I went over to the divan, sat down and leaned forward to open my briefcase. I pulled out the folders containing the materials for the two court cases I was to appear on the following day and which I had briefly reviewed just after noon Wednesday.

Languidly at first, but with increasingly more interest and intensity, I began a more in-depth review of the case Franklin vs. Mallory, et al I was scheduled to appear on at 9:30 at the downtown courthouse. It was a fair employment code violation matter. I was representing Bart Mallory and two of his employees, the defendants. They were alleged to have wrongfully terminated one of their employees, Kevin Franklin, after they had, again allegedly, directed him to engage in a series of professionally questionable and/or outright illegal actions. It was Franklin’s contention that he had complied with the illicit demands of his employer and supervisors, not knowing that the action he had taken was wrong and illegal, and that when he came to that realization and refused to continue to function in the manner he had previously, he was fired. We had a reasonably strong case to show that whatever illegal activity Franklin was now admitting to was nothing that had been instigated by his employers. There was even stronger evidence to show that Franklin indeed knew that he was skirting the law when he acted as he did. There would be an early showing of evidence as well, if I could get it before the court, that Franklin had been terminated shortly after Mallory discovered exactly what his wayward employee had been up to. The prickly element to the case was protecting Mallory and his company from further lawsuits from others or civil penalties down the road that would arise out of what might reasonably be interpreted as negligence on his and his employees’ part in having allowed Franklin to act illegally while functioning as their agent. I had a strategy that would in all likelihood see Mallory prevail in Franklin vs. Mallory et al, which I fine-tuned sitting there in my living room. My only misgiving was that Franklin’s lawyer might allow his client to make what was tantamount to a suicide dive into my clients in court, by admitting to a host of illegal acts that would throw the door open for later complications for my clients. There was very little I could do about that, I concluded.

I turned my attention to the case of Swihart v. City of Los Angeles, the matter I was set to appear on in Santa Monica Superior Court at 1:30 p.m. It too was a wrongful termination case. In this one, however, I was representing Miss Sandra Swihart in her suit alleging she had been fired for having learned that at least one of her superiors, and more likely two, were cooking the books in the city finance department where she had worked. Legally, we were in an extremely strong position. Unfortunately for the deputy city attorney assigned to represent the city and both of Sandra’s supervisors, we had a mole who was still inside the finance department who was feeding us both documentation and information that would just about cinch up the case for us. Without our source, Sandra, a sweet 23- or 24-year-old kid who had landed the finance clerk position with the city as her first job just after she graduated from college with an accounting degree, would have been out of luck. The city attorney had effectively blocked us early on from obtaining access to accounting records that were crucial to making our case. As it turned out, though, Sandra had made a friend who was in a position to see the raw deal she was getting and how at least one of the managers in the finance department had been playing fast and loose with hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues transferred through accounts Sandra at one point had been charged with reconciling. Already we had offered into evidence a showing that one of the supervisors had either outright embezzled more than $340,000 in funds or else had diverted the money to accounts where there was not authorization, either from municipal administration or the city council, for the money to go. The case against the other finance department supervisor was less clear-cut as to establishing criminal intent or direct involvement in the embezzlement, but at the least she was going to come across as grossly incompetent in not having applied the most rudimentary of professional accounting procedures to the money she was indirectly overseeing. I was truly having fun with the case. It was nearing the point, I believed, where the deputy city attorney was going to end up coming over to our side by either stipulating to an independent audit of the books or by calling on the district attorney’s office to conduct an investigation. I knew that the judge hearing the case had been astounded by several of the documents we had offered into evidence. Already he had indicated in an off-the-record comment to both the deputy city attorney and me that, knowing what he had learned from our presentation of documents obtained through our source, he felt his earlier ruling in favor of the city attorney’s motion to deny us access to the department’s accounting records reflected an unwarranted faith in the earlier representations of the city attorney as to the integrity of the finance department supervisors. I set the volume of filings from the case back into its folder and put it and the folder for Franklin v. Mallory into the briefcase on the coffee table and shut and latched it.

My concentration on the two cases had succeeded in diverting my attention from the traumatic episode I had endured and perpetrated in the garage earlier. My mind wanted to dart back to the dark import of all that, but I would not let it. Instead, I encouraged a sudden feeling of lethargy that was coming over me by first bending down to undo my bootlaces and then removing the boots themselves. I slid over then to lie out crossways on the divan, resting my head on the padded armrest. Without intending to do so, but not fighting the encroaching comfort of oblivion, I fell to sleep.

When I awoke roughly three hours later, it was dark. I felt physically refreshed and recharged, but my neck was a little stiff and my ear a little sore from my head having lain on the armrest. For a few seconds I was disoriented in the dark and not entirely certain where I was. Then it all came back to me, slowly at first and then in a flood. I yet had a Herculean task, fraught with risk, to complete that night. There was the psychological abyss I was perched over, as deep, and darker and more diabolic than the overgrown ravine I hoped to leave Williams in forever. There was the question of where I would move on to once the immediate issue of the corpus in my garage was settled. I sat up. The sound of the sprinklers, with the occasional tap of a flung drop of water upon the windowpane behind me, registered in my ears. I pulled myself up. Without putting on my boots, I stood and went over to the door. I opened it, noting there was a glimmer of faint moonlight against the sky, although the overhang of the porch and the house prevented me from seeing the sliver of moon itself. I stepped over to the waterworks panel and shut the sprinklers down. I went back into the house.

I turned the floor lamp on after I came in. I went over to stand next to the coffee table, peering down at my hiking boots for several seconds. I was debating on whether I should put them on. The footwear I chose might turn out to be important, I considered. At last I bent down to pick the boots up. I did not put them on, though. Instead, I took them and headed up the stairs and went into my bedroom, turning on the lights at each wall plate along the way. I put the boots in the closet and took up my jogging shoes. I sat on the corner of the bed, slipped my feat into them and tied them, tightly. I retrieved a windbreaker from the closet, put it on and went downstairs. In the kitchen I retrieved a flashlight from a drawer and replaced the batteries in it with two fresh ones from a pack in the same drawer. I went out the back door and around the house to the side yard. I saw then through the cracks at the side of the door, that I had not turned off the light in the garage. I went past the garage to the driveway and up to the driver’s side door. I opened it and leaned in to set the flashlight down on the front seat on the passenger’s side. I pulled myself back out and closed the door. I went around to the back of the Buick and taking my keys out of my pocket, opened the trunk. The flashlight I had used Monday night was still there. That was good. I was definitely going to need one tonight, despite the slight moonlight. Having a backup was not a bad idea. I found the proper key, the smallest one on the key ring, for the padlock on the large garage door. I went over and opened it and pulled it out of the protruding loop that secured the lock bolt. I threw the lock bolt back, but did not open the door. I set the padlock down on the grass next to the driveway. I walked around the garage to the side yard and down to the garage side door.

I pushed the door open. The odor of charred and putrefying flesh hung in the air like a dinner guest that has long before worn out his welcome and refuses to take the hint and leave. I left the door wide open and walked over to Williams. Not even his own mother would recognize him now. His head looked like a jack-o-lantern about a week-and-a-half after Thanksgiving. His jaw was broken in four or five places that were discernable, so that the lower half of his head looked askew from the top half. The area around the mouth, puffy though it was, was sunken in.

In the few hours I had been away, his feet, which had only been slightly swollen when I took his shoes off, had distended like balloons to at least one-and-a-half times their normal size. Balloons that were badly charred on the bottoms. I bent down and picked up the flint striker that was lying near them. I went back toward the workbench and put the striker down on it next to the blowtorch. I stepped over past the workbench toward the door and shut off the light at the switch plate. That threw the room into near total darkness, other than the hint of moonlight which shone in at the side door. I turned around and carefully negotiated my way to the front of the garage, extending my hands in front of me after about ten small steps to keep from banging into the large garage door. A few feet later my fingertips touched it. I moved sideways a few feet to where I calculated I was just about at the door’s midway point. I felt down to a level about at my knees and gripped one of the horizontal two-by-twos that formed the lattice work that was the frame for the door. I pushed it away from me and the entire door lifted on its springs and levered up and outward. I used my hold on the two-by-two to slow the door and keep it from flying up too quickly under the momentum of the springs as it rose beyond the halfway point.

I stood in the darkness of the garage then, looking out across the left side of the Buick and toward the street. In the partial moonlight, I could see no one out on the street. I could see Mrs. Reed was home, for the light in her living room was on. Further down the street, I could see that lights were illuminating the kitchens and living rooms of the other houses. The opening of my garage door had not captured anyone’s attention, or at least no one was peering in my direction. No one, in fact, was visible. Still, turning on the light in the garage did not seem all that good of any idea to me. I took a last look around and drew back into the middle of the garage. In the dark gray lighting, I could but barely make out the form of Williams’ body on the rug. I attempted to wrap him up in it again, flopping the far side over the front of him first and then the other side over that. It was not as easy as it had been three nights previously. Because of the rigor mortis, his right arm was extended out slightly and bent at the elbow, so that it resisted being covered. I had no choice but to deal with it as it was. Attempting to keep him in the middle of the rug, I then gripped the rug down near the bottom, one side of the bulk in it in either of my hands, and pulled hard to move it near the front of the garage. This worked well, although I had the sensation after I had moved him a few feet in five or so jerks that the rug was slowly pulling out from under him. I stood up and went around to the other side and, bending down and throwing both sides of the rug to the side, put my hands onto Williams’ still broad but now stiff shoulders and pushed. He scooted easily across the garage floor under the arrangement. I pushed him all the way to the point where his feet were across the dividing line between the concrete of the garage and the asphalt of the driveway. I threw the outer flaps of the rug over him again and went back to the other end near his feet. I gripped the rug as before and swung his feet and the lower portion of his body half way back toward the back of the garage so that the carpet roll and its contents were parallel to the back of my car.

I positioned myself then at the mid-point, or what I figured was the mid-point, of the roll. I bent down and scooped my arms, like the prongs of a forklift truck beneath the rug. Keeping my legs partially bent I got the foul-smelling package up on the first try. As I lifted it, I sensed – felt – for the first time that Williams had done some bleeding. The rug beneath was more damp than wet and actually more tacky than damp, but the coolness I felt across my arms was sticky. I staggered forward the four-and-a-half feet or so toward the back of the car.

While I was doing this, Williams’ hand seemingly sprung out of the rug to brush across my forehead, and as I flinched and blinked, against my closed eyelid. That unnerved me, as for a second it seemed Williams had suddenly come back to life. It was just the rigor mortis and I managed not to drop the load, although it was hard. As I reached the back of the car and could feel my knees against the bumper, I lowered the whole burden down gently the five or six inches toward the open trunk. But the manageable problem I had encountered three nights previously – that being that the length of Williams’ body outran the width of my trunk – was now exacerbated by the rigor mortis. The top of his head, beyond which was six inches or so of folded carpet, extended at least six inches beyond the side of the car and close to a foot beyond the opening of the trunk. His feet, which were about even with the coverage of the rug, likewise stretched half-a-foot beyond the outer frame of the car and a good 12 inches over the trunk rim. It flashed through my mind that it was a good thing I had not turned the garage light on. Any of my neighbors gazing out his or her window at that moment or walking a dog up the street would have been treated to the sight of two bundled and burned feet jetting out over the side of my car. I pulled my arms back and let the outer frame surrounding the trunk take on the full brunt of the corpse’s weight as I mentally jousted with the physical puzzle of making a six foot stiff fit through 52 inches of clearance.

I did not have the advantage of dealing with a pliant body as I had three nights previously when I could bend the top half one way and the bottom half another way to make it fit. Instead, I lifted the roll once more and taking one step backward, shuffled three steps to my left. I set the bundle down again. This time the head and the portion of the rug around it dropped down to the bottom of the trunk. I then undid the top flaps of the rug so the body was now fully exposed and pulled the legs toward me so that Williams was now inserted head first diagonally into the trunk compartment with his legs well past the knees plopped up over the back left corner of the rear fender. I next shoved the corpse to move the head as far as it would go into the far right corner of the trunk, so that the right side of its top was flush against the far right back side of the back seat of the Buick. The legs were still extended outside and atop of the back left corner of the trunk. Gripping the right leg with my left hand just above the ankle and the left leg at the same spot with my right hand I pressed the legs with all of my might toward the top of the body. The entire body, rigid as a plank, nonetheless bowed. I shoved even harder. At last, the feet reached a point where I could insert them into the trunk. As I did so the legs immediately sprung back to extend the feet into the very corner of the trunk. I grabbed the flashlight and used it to look and satisfy myself that they had not detached or in any way broken the wiring to the left taillight. The knees, still bowed out, very nearly reached the level of the top of the trunk. I flapped the right side of the rug over the body, turned the flashlight off and set it into the trunk next to the body. I looked out toward the street, assuring myself that there was no one out and about or on his or her way up to engage me in a friendly conversation. No one was out there, so I went back into the garage and over to the end of the workbench and threw the light switch. The first thing I noticed when I turned around was that some blood, now coagulated and mostly dried, lay where the rug had been. A smeared trail of it, so insubstantial that it could barely be seen, shone wear I had dragged and pushed the rug over to the front of the garage. I went over to the back of the Buick and looked at the outer shell of the trunk. I could see no blood but just to make sure, I went back and grabbed a rag from the workbench and wiped along that portion of the border of the trunk where the rug had come into contact with it. I closed the trunk down, not slamming it but dropping it firmly into place. It met with a slight bit of resistance as a portion of the lid came into contact with the rug in place over Williams’ bowed knees, but the latch engaged and held firmly. I walked back into the garage and went over to the light switch just beyond the end of the workbench next to the side door. I closed the side door from the inside, pushed in the locking pin and shut off the light. I came out of the garage and closed down the door. I slid the bolt lock into place and reached down onto the grass, feeling rather than looking for the padlock. I found it and put it into place, locking it.

I stood there for a second, thinking of whether there was anything else I needed to look after, any further precautions I should take. I walked across the front lawn then and at the waterworks panel next to the porch gave the control for the set of sprinklers to the right side of the lawn a slight one-fourth twist. This set the water flowing, but only so that it was barely bubbling up from the sprinkler heads. I went over to one of them and bent down to rinse my hands in the water. I then placed the bottom of first one shoe and then the other against the slight jet of water, letting it flow across each of the soles for fifteen seconds or so. I went back to the waterworks panel, dragging my feet each step of the way across the grass. I shut the water off and headed across the lawn, again dragging the bottoms of my feet across the grass and wiping my hands on the front legs of my pants.

Chapter Twenty-seven Over the Precipice

I continued toward the driveway, pulling the keys from my pocket as I did so. I got into the car,  started it up and turned on the lights. I noted that the gas gauge showed that I had under a quarter tank of gas. I undid the handbrake, and keeping my foot on the driving brake, put it into driving gear. Without so much as tapping the accelerator, I brought my foot away from the brake and guided the car out of the driveway and onto the street, driving gingerly out of a sudden paradoxical sensitivity to jostling my cargo. I headed down over to Laurel Canyon Boulevard and went north toward the San Fernando Valley. Just before I reached the Ventura Freeway I pulled into a gas station. I filled the tank and checked my fluid levels, which were fine. I paid by way of a credit card transaction right at the pump. I went up another two blocks and caught the Ventura Freeway, taking it east, away from Ventura. Where the Ventura Freeway, also known as the 134 meets the Glendale Freeway in Glendale I transitioned to the Glendale Freeway north. At that point I was headed straight up toward La Canada/Flintridge, essentially retracing, this time in the dark, the same path I had taken up into the National Forest late that morning.

On the way up I was mentally choreographing the mission, looking ahead, trying to anticipate any complications. When I caught the speedometer creeping beyond 75 miles an hour, I upbraided myself and decelerated to 63 miles per hour, intent that I not invite the scrutiny of any law enforcement agents. I rehearsed what I would say if, after I was headed east out the Crest Highway I was by chance stopped by a sheriff’s deputy who wanted to know where I was headed. I was prepared to tell him I was driving out to Wrightwood, a small resort town on the Los Angeles County/San Bernardino County border on the north side of the forest and south of the Mojave Desert. The Angeles Crest Highway – known as State Highway 2 – serves as a scenic back road to Wrightwood, though it is not often traveled even in the daytime because there are other, safer and less tortuous routes and it is traveled even less frequently at night. If I was pressed, I would say I was looking to spend some quality time away from the hectic rigors of the metropolis at a cabin owned by one of my friends up there.

I looked up to get a direct glimpse of the moon. There had been absolutely no moon on Monday evening, I recalled, so it was now two or three days into its waxing – the first phase. It was now a slice of light gold hanging in the sky, offering little in the way of visual assistance to us, the earthbound. Still, it might make it possible for objects to be discerned by someone with excellent night vision.

What it was going to come down to was timing. Fate and timing. The advantage to the well-hidden spot I had chosen was that it was far off the beaten track. Its remoteness would reduce the likelihood that Williams would be found, or found any time soon, and that was why I had chosen it. But the remoteness presented the secondary advantage of giving me time, time to pull over to the side of the road, open the trunk, pull out body, carry it to the dry rivulet bed and slide it downward and off the even steeper drop-off into the vegetation below – all without being seen. I was calculating exactly how long it would take me to do all that and then scramble back up the eroded groove and get back into my car and drive off. Barring any complications, I figured three minutes, maybe less. Barring complications. No matter how quickly I acted, though, there was always the chance that The Fates would be against me. I envisioned pulling over to the side of the road, getting out, heaving Williams up out of the trunk, only to have a car coming up or down the Highway at the crucial moment catching me full in its high beams embracing a three-day old corpse. Or I might get a little bit further and some Good Samaritan might chance by, see my car pulled off to the side of the road, and stop to see if I needed a hand. Or worst scenario of all, the vehicle that might chance by at the critical time could be a sheriff’s patrol car, out to keep the mountains above Los Angeles safe.

I accordingly had to reduce the time window I would be at the drop off spot as much as possible. The Glendale Freeway – also known as Highway 2 – was coming to an end where it dead-ends into the Foothill Freeway along the border to La Canada and Flintridge. I made a quick jog east out Foothill Boulevard and caught the Angeles Crest Highway. In no time at all I was passing by the estates and mansions along the mouth of the canyon, the still lighted ones of which were no less impressive at night by virtue of their stained glass and crystal picture windows. Two minutes or so later I was approaching the sign announcing I was entering the Angeles National Forest and that no fires were permitted without a permit. I slowed almost to a stop and as I grew even with the sign I punched the pin to zero out the trip odometer. It would be just 14.2 miles to the drop off spot, my destination. Fourteen-point-two miles.

It was not warm in the Buick, but I could feel sweat pouring down my sides below my armpits. All the chips were on the table. I turned on the air conditioning, putting it on high. I forced myself to drive with great caution, not overdriving my headlights, staying well to the right on the occasional turns. I drove for a while before I encountered any traffic coming toward me. And sure enough, the first car to pass me was a sheriff’s patrol car. I looked at the trip odometer. It read 2.7 miles. The only cars up here this time of night are sheriff’s cars, I heard myself thinking. They’ll catch me for sure. I tried to becalm myself. No. Don’t be foolish. They don’t have the budget to have heavy patrols on a Thursday night up here. All of their manpower is concentrated down in the populated areas, where the people and criminals and victims are. You just saw the only car they have up here and it’s going the other way, miles from your destination. That train of logic seemed to work. Instead of seeing the sheriff’s car as a negative omen, I looked upon it as a positive one. A few minutes later I was almost giddy with the expectation that I was going to be able to pull it off. I’ll be home free in another 45 minutes, the voice in my head said. But as soon as I took stock of my giddiness, I pulled the curtain down on it. I needed to stay sober and serious minded. I could take no chances. There was no room for error or sloppiness.

Here and there on the highway are switchbacks and at each of the hairpin turns the mountain folded into mysterious darkness, as visually deep in the night as the twists of the human soul. I encountered these, taking them in, but not contemplating their depths too conspicuously, cautious, ever vigilant to the road before me, determined to make no miscalculation that would undo me. I kept my speed to a prudent 35 to 40 miles per hour. Only a few westbound cars passed me going in the opposite direction. Just once did a car come up behind me to pass, a late model slope-backed Porsche with empty ski racks atop it. Its taillights, four red dots, remained a fixture growing constantly smaller in the distance before me for a few minutes until at a curve they disappeared entirely.

I drove on in concentration for what was a good distance, unmindful of the passage of time. When I next looked at the trip odometer, I saw I had gone more than nine miles. Another ten minutes, went the interior monologue. I concentrated on the road before me, gazing only occasionally at the spectacular panorama of the lights of Southern California that at certain vantage spots loomed into view. I forced myself not to look at the odometer then for another five minutes, worried that constantly taking my eyes off the roadway would cause a mishap. When I finally looked again, the trip odometer stood at 12.6 miles. I religiously checked it about once every forty-five seconds after that and after it passed 13.7 miles, I was practically watching it with one eye and watching the road with the other.

When the odometer rolled over to 14 miles even, I slowed so that I was crawling along between 15 and 20 miles an hour. I already had the high beams on as the trip odometer moved past 14.1 miles. When the 2 was starting to moved down into the tenths column, I spotted the bag I had left as marker off to the left side of the road on the shoulder. I drove a little bit past that spot and then turned a wide U-turn to come back. I pulled well over onto the shoulder, almost so the embankment was touching the right side of the car. I shut the headlights off and put the car into park. I shut the engine off and did not bother to set the hand brake. I grabbed the flashlight and keys and stepped quickly out of the car.

I opened the trunk, leaving the keys in the lock when I popped the lid. I shone light down into the trunk and threw the rug back. I bent over and used the light again to get as exact a fix on what I was working on as I could and then shut it off. I grabbed Williams’ left leg and attempted to shove it downward at the shin and shove it back to pull it out of the trunk. It was solidly wedged into the corner of the trunk and did not seem to want to budge at all. With all of my strength I tried again. No dice. That leg was firmly in place. I tried my luck with the right leg, half knowing I would fare no better and probably worse, given its position furthest from the back of the trunk. I was right. I could not dislodge it. In the cool air, my head felt suddenly warm, then as I thought of it, hot, and then downright overheated. The image of the rat trapped in the maze came to me again.

I bent in over the trunk and reached to the far right toward the upper part of Williams’ chest. I yanked the body at that point first toward me and then pushed it back. I repeated the movements. As I was doing that, I heard in the distance, behind me it seemed, the rush of the air being broken by a fast moving vehicle. I heard the parting-of-the-air effect much more clearly and well before I actually heard the engine. And then I could see the light of the headlights approaching. They were high beams and their right peripheral cast lit up the underside of the trunk hood. I remained in position, with my back to the approaching vehicle as it went past me, at a speed approaching, if not past, sixty miles an hour. It continued on without stopping.

At that point the adrenaline coursing through me had me charged up to a superhuman level. I reached in and, grasping Williams with both hands at his left knee, yanked that leg out from where it was stuck. His swollen foot came clear out of the trunk and slapped against my left shoulder. Not hesitating, but moving to take full advantage of the adrenaline surge and the strength it had empowered me with, I then grabbed his right leg, this time halfway between his knee and foot. I pulled. It was held up on something, possibly the backside of the taillight housing. I changed my angle slightly, reaching in closer to the ankle and pulled again, this time with less force. The foot slid toward me an inch or two. I regripped further up toward the knee and a pulled with all of my horsepower. The leg shifted, but still remained trapped inside the back portion of the trunk’s lip. I went to it again, this time working to bend and bow the leg almost downward and, as it did so inch by inch, jerking hard upward and away. The foot came clear out of the trunk. Not a minute too soon. I looked and approaching in the distance from the west and moving eastward, were a set of headlights. Grabbing both legs then, I pulled Williams straight toward the back of the car, moving his head out from the far right corner. I pulled his legs further out and then again so that the back edge of the trunk was serving as a fulcrum with his body poised almost midway on it. This time the stiffness of the rigor mortis was working with me and pulling down with as much force as I could muster on the area near his ankles, I brought them down toward the ground and through this teeter-totter effect, the top half of his body popped up out of the trunk. I locked my arms around him at the waist and then lifted him and turned, using the wave of adrenaline still coursing in me to march rapidly up and then over the embankment. I carried him quickly to the spot at the very top of the eroded groove I had checked out earlier that day and set him down. I then turned and dashed back up over the embankment and in one fell swoop, slammed down the trunk lid. Staying low to the ground, I virtually rolled over the embankment and then came down into a crouch on the other side, where I stayed in position just long enough to watch the car pass by in a flash eastward. I walked back over the embankment and went to the trunk. The keys were still in the lock. I opened the trunk again and reached in for the flashlight. I had a choice and I took the smallest one. I closed the trunk down and went back to Williams, whom I had left face down in the dirt.

I switched on the beam and directed it along the brush to find the dried out channel. It was just two feet or so from where Williams was rigidly sprawled out. I went over to him and, stretching my mouth out into as wide of an O as I could manage, stuck the back end of the flashlight in it. With the adrenaline rapidly abandoning me, I bent down and grabbed the corpse near the shoulders and slowly, but steadily angled it up. I spun him then, something like an upright bass player might maneuver his instrument, so I was standing behind him. The flashlight in my mouth rested on the top of his shoulder. I edged my way over toward the eroded groove then and lifted him to set his feet into it. I then stepped forward myself and awkwardly and with little regard for what damage I might do to my own tailbone leaned back, and with much of Williams’s weight on me, sat back until I hit the ground. It did jar my tailbone but, I was confident, did no permanent damage. I then pushed Williams down in front of me so that the back of his head was lying in my lap. I spread my legs slightly and heaved myself forward, straightening myself back. At that point, gravity, sweet gravity, did its work and we were headed down the eroded chute, like two kids riding double on a playground slide. There were crickets chirping all around, but it seemed as we moved downward, those then nearest us fell silent. Three times we came to a rough halt as one or the other of Williams’ legs headed askew and he got hung up in the surrounding vegetation. At each of those points, I was obliged to grip him under the armpits and pull him back toward me and then use my legs to realign him before proceeding. At the last stop, I let go of him with my right hand and pulled the flashlight out of my mouth to get a fix on where we were. We were just fifteen feet or so from the drop off point. After I reinserted the flashlight into my mouth and pulled him up, I slid with him down another five or so feet and then let him go, kicking my own feet to the side. He continued his slide, but got hung up again just a foot or so from the sheer drop into the thickets growing out of the canyon. Cautiously, I inched my way down to him. When I was poised just above him I pulled the flashlight from my mouth again and gave a close look at the situation. Instead of attempting to get under him to pull him back up, which I deemed to present too much danger to myself, I instead stuck the flashlight with its beam still switched on into the underbrush beside me and got into place just above him. I then placed the bottoms of my shoes upon his shoulders and gripping with my hands into the bushes to provide myself with security from going downward with unstoppable force myself, used my legs to press him downward, despite the resistance of the vegetation that was restricting his progression. This took a little effort, but then he was poised at the ridge. With one last double leg stomp, Williams disappeared over the edge and I could hear him impacting into the underbrush maybe thirty or forty feet below. It seemed that for a few seconds after his fall the crickets down below stopped their chirping, but then they gradually began their clicking again. That was that.

I awkwardly inched my way backwards up the incline the few feet to where my flashlight was wedged, scraping the back of my head on the scrub brush as I did so. I grabbed the flashlight, shut it off and jammed it down into my pocket. I then rotated myself around and, for the second time in the last eight hours or so but this time in the dark, belly crawled my way up the steep path of erosion Mother Nature had carved into the mountain 14.2 miles east of the western terminus of Angeles National Forest on the Angeles Crest Highway. It was harder not being able to see what I was doing, and again and again, the back and top of my head, forehead and occasionally even my face was scratched by the bristly undergrowth. I did not really mind that at that point, as I was hardly able to contain my glee at having gotten rid of Williams once and for all. About fifteen feet from the top, though, I had to take the flashlight out of my pocket and turn it on to see my way up. I carried it in my clenched right fist, not using that palm, as I did the left to support my forward weight as I made the climb. I emerged at the top and instead of switching off the light as I mounted the embankment, shone the beam down to locate the bag I had left as a marker. I turned off the light and reached down to snatch up the bag. I stepped rapidly toward and around to the left side of the car, opened the door. I tossed the bag into the backseat and the flashlight onto the passenger’s seat. I used my open palms to dust myself and my clothes off the best I could, and got in the car. Planting my feet flat on the floorboard, I arched my back and reached into my right pocket for my key ring. It was not there. I tried the left pocket. There was nothing but change in it. I tried the right pocket again. The key ring was not there. My head suddenly felt hot. I was slipping into a panic. What had I done with the keys? It occurred to me that I must have pulled them out of my pocket inadvertently when I took the flashlight out of it as I was climbing back up. I had no choice now but to go back down into the dry rivulet bank to retrieve them. What a nightmare! I grabbed the flashlight and got out of the car again. I went around the car and then up over the embankment. I went to where the groove of erosion started down the side of the mountain. I bent down and shone the light down it to see if I could see where they had fallen. I could not. I angled the light differently, hoping to see a glint of reflection off them. Nothing. Resignedly, I eased myself down on the seat of my pants and began the descent again. It had been only about fifteen feet from the top, I seemed to recall when I took out the flashlight. It seemed strange that I had not heard them jangle when I pulled them out. I eased myself slowly down, not wanting to kick them and send them further down or maybe all the way down to where Williams was. That would be unthinkable. I tried to calm myself and focus on the task at hand: simply retrieving the keys. When I was what I deemed to be about fifteen feet down the chute, I shone the flashlight all around. Above me I could hear the roar of a car engine and the whoosh of air as it passed. I could not tell in which direction it was travelling. Precious minutes, dangerous ones, were elapsing. I could not see the key ring anywhere. I looked to the right and to the left. I shone the light further down the groove of erosion. The image of the rat in the maze riveted through me. Then the realization: I was the rat in the maze. I could hear myself hyperventilating. I cursed at myself, out loud. I had prided myself on thinking of everything, covering every contingency. Why had I not taken along an extra set of keys? I shone the light down at my feet and then further down the dry rivulet bed, willing the keys to be there, to magically appear in my field of vision. It did no good.

At that point it occurred to me that I had not pocketed the keys at all, but had perhaps dropped them into the trunk when I slammed the lid down when the second car had passed. For the third time that day I flipped over onto my stomach and began the tortured climb up out of the narrow wash down into the canyon.  After I reached the top, I moved quickly to surmount the embankment and shone the light down at the ground around the back of the car to see if the keys had fallen there. They had not. I went to the driver’s side door, opened it and leaned in across the seat. I opened the glove compartment and pushed the yellow button inside it to pop the trunk latch. From inside the car I heard the latch give and when I came out of the car and went around behind it, the latch had already lifted on its springs to the open position. I used the flashlight, now in my left hand, to illuminate the inside of the trunk. I could see the other flashlight. There was the rug, which I noticed now was more heavily stained than I had realized with now-dried blood that had seeped from the corpse. The keys were nowhere to be seen. I pulled up the rug and ruffled it, hoping to hear the rattle of the keys. There was none. I bent far into the trunk, shining the light toward the interior of the rear fender and looking down at where it met the floor of the trunk. Nothing. I lifted the rug and looked under it. There was nothing under it except for a box of tire chains on the far left side near the back of the back seat and a pair of jumper cables. I set the rug down. I was about to slam the trunk lid down, but instead concentrated very hard for about fifteen seconds, trying to remember exactly what I had done with the keys. I took a step back and went down on my hands and knees, and used the flashlight to look beneath the car. The keys were not there either. I stood back up. I shone the light into the trunk and started to search in there again. At that point I could hear another car coming, this one headed west. I had no choice but to go back down the side of the mountain and look there for the keys again. I reached up to slam the trunk lid again, intent on ducking out of sight immediately to avoid being seen by the oncoming car. When the lid came down and articulated into place and latched, I heard the light clang of the keys. And then in the light of the approaching headlights on the back of the car, I saw them. In my previous hurry to retreat from view I had never removed the trunk key from the lock! There they were, plain as day, except now, of course, it was night. I reached out and took them. I did not bother ducking for cover as the car, not a car actually but a pickup truck, sped by.

I went around the left side of the Buick. The door was still open. I hurriedly dusted myself off again and got in, slammed the door shut, and both laughing at and upbraiding myself for having allowed my panic to stampede me away from conducting a rational search, I inserted the ignition key and turned the engine over. I reached to undo the hand brake, but could feel that I had not set it. I slipped the Buick into gear and turning the wheels to the left, crawled across the shoulder back out onto the highway. Still dwelling on my panicked search for the keys, I took the onus off myself by summoning to mind the trite witticism that things are always in the last place you look.

Less than a mile west I took a curve much too fast, having to veer well over into the eastbound lane. There was no oncoming traffic and I was able to pull out of the swerve without mishap. I looked at the speedometer as I pulled back into my lane and saw that I was nearing sixty miles an hour. I took my foot off the gas pedal and slowed into the forty-five miles per hour range, telling myself to drive prudently. I noticed then that I had not put on my seatbelt and shoulder harness and slowing considerably, reached over to secure myself in those safety restraints.

The remainder of the ride out Angeles Crest Highway was uneventful. I resisted the compulsion to drive faster, even along those long stretches where I could have safely accelerated beyond 60 miles per hour. At one point I was passed in quick succession by two speed demons who had moved up behind me almost before I had been aware of their presence. I passed out of the Angeles National Forest and then past the now mostly darkened mansions in the heights above La Canada/Flintridge. Where the Angeles Crest Highway dead-ended into Foothill Boulevard I took Foothill Boulevard west a short distance and then went south to get on the Glendale Freeway headed south. I was cruising along for about five minutes, doing fine, and then my calm was shattered when I was hit with a red spotlight from behind. When I looked into the rearview mirror, I could see that it was a Highway Patrol cruiser. I signaled and moved over two lanes, took my foot off the accelerator and drifted over onto the paved right shoulder. I shut the engine down and put it in park.

It was a tense fifteen or twenty seconds for me as the cruiser pulled to a halt behind me and I watched the patrolman, or his silhouette, against the red glare from his spotlight after he came away from his car and was approaching mine on foot.

I rolled the window down as he walked up to the side of the car.

“Your driver license, registration and proof of insurance, please,” he said.

I arched myself up to take out my wallet and got from it my license and insurance card. I handed them to him and then leaned over to get into the glove compartment. I fumbled around in it for a while before I found the registration. I brought it out and handed it up to him as well.

As he took it from me, he said, “Do you know why I stopped you?”

“Excessive speed?”

“No, your speed was fine.” That really made me nervous. I was silent for a while. I did not want him initiating a search of my car. I was suddenly acutely conscious of the bloodstains all over the rug in the trunk.

“I’m not sure why, officer,” I finally said.

“Your left taillight is out,” he said. He handed me my insurance card. “I’ll be right with you,” he said. He walked back toward his car. I looked down. In pulling Williams out of the trunk I must have dislodged the wiring in the corner, I figured. I had vaguely worried about doing just that at the time, I remembered. I was not too happy at the development, but in perspective, a ticket for a blown taillight was inconsequential compared to the dilemma I had been in less than an hour previously: unable to dislodge a corpse from my car. At that point I wished I had been a little more delicate in having yanked him out of there, but at the time it had seemed absolutely necessary. You make an omelet; You break a few eggs. You eighty-six a body; You bust a taillight. No big thing.

I looked in the rearview mirror. Against the glowing red, I could see the officer as he was writing into a pad that was down on the hood of his car.

A minute or so later, as I was tapping the side of the insurance card against my left wrist, he returned to the side of my car. He handed the hard-backed citation book down to me. “Sign right there,” he said, pointing to a blank line near the bottom of the topmost page. “It’s not an admission of guilt. This is an equipment repair citation. Fix your taillight and you can go to any Highway Patrol office or police station and get the backside signed off. Take the signed citation to court by the date indicated. There may be a nominal administration fee.” He handed me a pen. I signed the citation and gave everything back to him. He tore a yellow carbon copy, which in the lighting looked orange, from beneath the topmost document I had signed and gave it over to me. He then unclipped my license and car registration and gave them to me. “Have a nice night,” he said.

I resisted the temptation to thank him. I set the citation down on the passenger seat and leaned forward to put the registration into the glove box, which I had left opened. I closed it and then put my license and insurance card into my wallet and then arched my posterior and put the wallet away. I fired the engine up, and put it in gear. Glancing over my shoulder to see the highway patrolman sitting in his patrol car making notation onto his clipboard under his dome light and that there was no oncoming traffic in the slow lane, I took my foot off the brake and accelerated out onto the freeway.

I took the Glendale Freeway to the Ventura Freeway west. Instead of going all the way to Laurel Canyon Boulevard, I exited at Lankershim. I went north and turned up Vineland Avenue and cruised along past some of the offices there. There is a small side street a couple of blocks up that dead-ends at the start of an alley behind an expanse of the buildings there and I turned down it. Where the side street dead-ended, I made a right turn into the alleyway. Less than a half block down were three or four dumpsters. I stopped beside them, threw the car in park, left the engine idling and bent right to pop the trunk lid by pushing the yellow button in the glove compartment. I undid the shoulder harness and climbed out and went back to the trunk. I pulled the rug out and threw it into the one open trash bin. I closed the trunk but before I got back in the car, I used my hands to pat myself up and down and dust myself off. I bent in at the door and did my best to brush the dust, brambles, stems and twigs off the driver’s side seat. That done, I got back into the car and headed out of the alley and took the side street back to Lankershim. I went north up Lankershim and caught Burbank Boulevard west over to Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which I took south.

About fifteen minutes later I parked on the street out in front of my place. The big hand on the mantel clock was on the six and the little hand between the 10 and the 11 when I walked in and turned on the light:10:30. I went straight upstairs, where I showered and dressed no further than donning a pair of underwear and my bathrobe. Downstairs I made myself a sandwich and then watched some television while I ate it. I stayed in place to watch the first fifteen minutes or so of the 11 o’clock news and then went up to bed.

Chapter Twenty-eight True Confessions and Grilled Sole

Friday morning dawned bright, primed to grow into one of those perfect October days. I woke on my own a few minutes before my clock alarm knelled the 8 a.m. toll I had set and, once on my feet, I cruised through my morning routine. I knocked down a double serving portion of oatmeal and then took an abbreviated shower, having thoroughly washed the previous night. Based upon the early morning radiance, I dressed myself in my lightest summer plaid suit, complemented with a green tinted white shirt, maroon socks and a green and maroon tie. I was out the door by 8:45, briefcase in hand and drove directly to the downtown courthouse.

I parked in the $5 all day lot and went up to Division 26, the Honorable Harlan Gardner presiding, where the hearing on Franklin v. Mallory was scheduled to get underway sometime shortly after 9:30. Bart Mallory and both of his employees were outside the courtroom when I walked up. I conferred with them briefly before we all went in. Ours was the second matter up that morning, and things developed once we were underway much along one of the lines I had anticipated. It indeed appeared that Franklin was on the verge of doing an outright suicide dive into my clients. In as ambiguous of terms as were required to keep from conceding negligence on my clients’ parts, I gave indication in my responses to Gardner, in a fashion that was meant as a signal to opposing counsel that we were ready to put on a defense demonstrating complete ignorance on my clients’ behalf “about the illegal acts,” as I put it, “Mr. Franklin is now ready to acknowledge before this court. I am sure opposing counsel is aware of the obligation this court and I will have to inform the district attorney’s office of those admissions.” I could not tell whether my veiled threat made a dent in Franklin’s attorney, a fellow with the unfortunate last name of Gutglueck, who was based out of Pasadena. Gutglueck had an impassive, poker face. The hearing was essentially inconclusive, other than my assurance to Gardner that we stood ready to go to trial.

Out in the hallway after the hearing, I was straightforward with Mallory and the others, telling them that it appeared as if Franklin and Gutglueck were running a daring bluff, gambling that our sense of liability on the negligence issue would induce us to fold. I said the best strategy was to call their bluff by preparing to go to trial. “He’s basically saying he’s ready to risk going to jail over a chance that you’ll negotiate a $100,000 settlement on this,” I said. “He’s standing on the ledge of the fiftieth story with a rope around him that he thinks is tied to you. He’s saying ‘If you don’t stop me, I’ll jump.’ I say we don’t push him, but we stand out of the way and tell him we won’t stop him if he really wants to jump.”

“Let him swan dive,” Mallory said.

After I left the downtown courthouse, I drove over to Flower and Fourth and parked in the underground garage. I took my briefcase up to the 24th floor with me. I picked up my messages at the receptionist’s desk and went down to the hallway running along the west side of the building and then turned right to trudge the 25 feet or so down to my office. I opened my briefcase and pulled the Franklin v. Mallory folder out and slipped it into its proper alphabetical space in my filing cabinet. Consulting my appointment minder, I retrieved from the cabinet the file folders for the three cases I had hearings scheduled for on Monday and Tuesday. I put them in my briefcase and went back into the file cabinet for the even more substantial folder for the case I had that was set to begin trial the following Thursday. When I put it into my briefcase with the others, I could barely force the lid down, but did manage to latch it.

Since I am not a full partner with Exeter, Delbert, Sampson and Shuey, I am with all other associates and employees of the firm paid on a weekly basis. My paycheck varies depending upon how many of the number of cases I have been working on at any given time have been favorably settled, and how delinquent any of my various clients have been in responding to our billings. I’m guaranteed a certain base pay, of course and never gross less than $800 a week. After I locked up my office, I greeted a couple of my colleagues and went up the winding staircase to the 25th floor, carrying my briefcase in my right hand and trailing my left along the top of the glossy varnished oak balustrade. I went down to the controller’s office where I picked up my check. I signed for it and headed straight for the elevator.

When I was in the elevator car, I opened the envelope. The check was for $3,486.17. Not bad for five day’s work, I figured. I felt pretty good. Money has a way of doing that to me. I felt a whole lot better than I had the previous day. It had been bad and worse on Thursday, and for a while I had hit pretty close to bottom. Now though, the pressure was off. Williams was ensconced in the glory of nature deep within the Angeles National Forest, God was in His Heaven and all, or nearly all, was right with the world.

I went out from the elevator when it reached the basement and found my Buick. I drove out making a left turn from the entrance/exit on Flower, made an immediate right West out Fourth and two blocks further on a right to pick up the 101 which I back tracked on and took out to rejoin the 10 Freeway west. Traffic on it was moderate and I continued with it all the way to Santa Monica. I exited at Lincoln and turned left at Colorado Avenue. At Fourth Street I turned right and went all the way down past Broadway and Santa Monica Boulevard and then made an almost immediate right into the parking structure on the north side of Fourth there. They let you park two hours inside for free there and it was full up to the third level. I found a place to squeeze in on the fourth level, locked up and walked over to take the elevator down to the ground level. I walked out to the end of the block, crossed the street and went down to the Promenade. Half a block back was a branch of Brentwood Savings and Loan, the institution in which I do my banking. I went inside and waited in line less than ten minutes for a teller, depositing my check into my savings account except for $300 I took in cash. I was vaguely thinking of taking off up or down the coast over the weekend and would need some traveling money.

After I left the bank, I went down to a row of pay phones on the Promenade and called Westwood Studios. When the receptionist answered I asked for Neil McGetrick. I anticipated that Emli would answer the phone when the receptionist patched me through, but the voice that came on the line was not hers. I asked for Emli but was told that she had already left for lunch. I said I would call back and hung up.

I went back to my Buick and made 16 left hand turns in four concentric boxes to bring me to the exit, where I punched in the time coded card I had taken when I came in and the automatic guard rail lifted to let me out onto Fourth Street. I turned left, south, and continued across Santa Monica Boulevard, then Broadway and continued past Colorado Avenue, continuing toward the civic center and courthouse. I parked in the civic center parking lot between the courthouse and the civic auditorium in a two-hour space. I left my briefcase in the car, which I locked up. I went out of the parking lot and jaywalked across Main Street and then trudged over the parkway toward Brentano’s, the outdoor café there that backs up against the Pacific Shore Hotel and does a booming business off a clientele in large part composed of lawyers, judges and City Hall employees. I was going to go inside to see if I could find a table, when I heard my name being called.

I looked around but could not see anyone. Perhaps I had been mistaken or someone else was being called. I continued on.

“Steve… Steve!”

I looked around again.

“Over here.”

I saw then at a table under one of the parasols a woman waving. As I approached the table I saw it was Sylvia Kellison, an attorney. She and I had squared off against one another on two unrelated cases previously.

“Sylvia.”

“Care to join me?”

“If you’ll have me.” I sat down opposite her.

“You’re in court this afternoon?”

“One-thirty, department seven.”

“Judge Geary. What on?”

“Wrongful termination against the city of L.A. And you?”

“I just got out of a settlement conference on a medical malpractice case before Judge Danzig.”

“You’re representing the doctor.”

“Of course.”

In the law business, a lawyer who has made a name for himself by representing those bringing suit or who more often than not initiates litigation is referred to, somewhat contemptuously, as a “plaintiff’s attorney.” The suggestion by the sobriquet is that any law school graduate can find a cause or causes of action upon which to sue; the real test of an attorney’s skill comes in mounting a defense. Kellison was almost exclusively a civil defense attorney. I vaguely wondered if she thought of me as a “plaintiff’s attorney.” I handle civil defense from time to time but have more often  – about two thirds of the time – lodged suits rather than defended against them.

“Have you ordered yet?”

“No, I just got here when I saw you walk by.”

As if on cue, a waiter came up to our table and placed menus before us.

I hurriedly looked over the day’s specials. When I looked up, he was still standing there.

“Can I start you off with some cocktails?” he asked.

“Not for me,” I shot back. “Some Perrier or seltzer water.” I looked across at Sylvia.

“I’d like your tangerine lemonade,” she said. I could not help thinking of my experience with lemonade the day before. I tried not to dwell on it.

With her finger, Sylvia indicated to me the item she wanted for lunch. I ordered then for the both of us – a house specialty, baked chicken in sage and hickory marinade smothered in mushrooms, with a salad for her and for me the grilled sole.

After the waiter had gone, we picked up our conversation again, filling each other in on notable cases we had handled in the past few years.

Sylvia is an attractive girl, roughly my age or maybe a year or two younger. Things at one time might have been different for us. I had gotten the better of her, essentially, in both of the cases where we had met up. The second one was a lot more bitterly fought than the first. There had been nothing underhanded in that litigation on either side, just straightforward lawyering that hinged on in-depth trial preparation. And she had insisted on going to trial, even after I had made a better-than-fair settlement offer after discovery. To this day I am unsure, but she may have perceived the offer, in which I represented that I was willing to accept a fraction of the recovery amount specified in the original complaint, as weakness, either in me or in the case. We proceeded to trial. It was not that she was not adequately prepared, because she was. And she was excellent in court. But I was ready, too, and my client had a case. Otherwise, I would not have brought it. We captured a unanimous verdict. My client got everything we asked for in compensatory damages and a hefty punitive assessment too. Sylvia appealed that but the appellate court turned down the appeal. After that, I think she respected me. Not that that mattered. In our first go-round I had settled that matter on terms favorable to my client but for an amount that was probably less than we could have secured before a jury. The second trial had taken place when Emli and I were yet an item. I am sure I had recognized at that time that Sylvia was a woman and a very nice looking one at that, but I never considered her more than a professional adversary. I did not even know whether she was married.

As I was sitting across from her at that moment, her marital status loomed suddenly as an item of interest to me. I looked at her hands. There was no wedding band or engagement ring. I must have been unsubtle in my gaze, because when I looked up she smiled somewhat coyly and then said, boldly, “No, I’m not married.”

That must have made me blush.

“Well, I, uh…” my voice trailed off.

“Yes,” she said.

“I was just thinking professionally, is all,” I adlibbed after regaining my composure. “If we were to go into partnership together, Kellison & Forsyth doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as Forsyth and Forsyth.”

That made her laugh. “You were always pretty fast on your feet,” she said.

“When I’m not flat on my back in the middle of the canvas.”

The waiter returned with our drinks and Sylvia’s salad.  He set down coasters and put the glasses down on them and laid straws atop the glasses. Next to my ice-filled glass he placed a bottle of Perrier. With a bottle opener he undid the crimp top and then faded away.

As Sylvia was removing the paper from around her straw she said, “Who put you down? On the canvas, I mean.” She rolled up the paper and dropped it onto the tablecloth and inserted the straw into her drink.

“A little girl did, once.”

“Oh?”

“I didn’t see the punch coming, is all. If I had, I would have just rolled with it. It won’t happen again.”

I pulled the straw off the glass and set it down on the table. I took up the bottle of Perrier and poured about half of its contents over the ice.

“And you?” I continued.

“I’ve never been flat on my back, at least on the canvas,” she said. “I’m one of the ones that puts the big, hulking guys on their backs.”

“I can believe that,” I said and then took a long swig from my glass, savoring the water’s naturally carbonated bite.

While she was drinking through her straw, I said, “Okay. Let’s explore that. You’ve never been married, right?”

“Not even once.”

“But there have been a dozen guys that wanted to marry you, would have married you, asked to marry you.”

“More like a half dozen.”

“And none of them was good enough? They didn’t meet your standards?”

“I wouldn’t say it that way,” she said.

“Okay. Why didn’t you marry one of them?”

“Different reasons.”

“Such as?”

“The guy I went to the prom with in high school, he wanted to marry me. I just needed a date for the prom.”

She took another sip of the tangerine lemonade. “My boyfriend in college. We didn’t get married because I thought we were too young. I wanted to get through law school first and I never saw him after that but once when I was in law school. He married someone else. Couldn’t wait, I guess. I still think about him. Sometimes I wish I had married him. I wish he had waited. I loved him.”

She had a faraway look in her eyes when she said that. I waited for the look to go away. When it did, I said, “So that was the first two.”

Sylvia had begun to eat her salad. She took another few forkfuls and then dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. “Well, there was another one in college,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this. I was having an affair with him. I called it an affair because my boyfriend didn’t know. He was a professor. Not one of mine, but my roommate’s. She had a fling with him first; there was this kind of stupid competition between us. He was married. God, I can’t believe I’m telling you this. He said he’d leave his wife for me. That freaked me and I broke it off. He kept sending flowers to my dorm room after that. In the end I started to see him as really creepy. I didn’t want my boyfriend to find out and I’m glad he never did.”

“And number four…” I prompted her.

“A guy I was in law school with. He’s in practice out here. You might even know him. We went out a lot and had a lot of our classes together. We studied together. We never slept together until right at the end. I didn’t really love him. He wanted to get married even before we took the bar. He took it really hard when I said no. He barely passed the bar, because of me. It was really bad. That scared me off men for a long time. He’s with a really big firm now. Every once in a while I run into him and it’s kind of awkward.”

She went back to her concentrating on her salad, but then pushed it away from her, half-finished. She took another drink.

“And then there was the architect Steve. His name was Steve, like you. He is a very good architect. Successful. Really an interesting guy. Perfect, really. Too perfect. Good looking. Built like a god. Sophisticated. He goes to the opera, and gets into it. He doesn’t gossip. He talks about ideas, abstract concepts. Great family. Professional contacts. Works all over the world. He’s designed buildings, high rises, in places like China and Indonesia. He does skyscrapers and factories. He’s in demand. I was a fool not to marry him. It’ll sound stupid to you, but the whole idea of being married to him intimidated me. There was no competition between us, but, you know, I felt overwhelmed by him. Like I wasn’t his equal. That he should have been married to, I don’t know, a duchess or a baroness. I was afraid that if we married, I’d have to give up my practice. I was afraid that eventually he’d be bored with me and there would be other women. Does that sound stupid, or what?”

“I don’t know the guy,” I said. “From what you’ve told me about him, though, you’ve given me a little bit of an inferiority complex.”

Sylvia looked at me, then. “Technically that’s it, in answer to your question. You just wanted the ones who actually asked about getting married, right?”

I gave a closed-mouthed smile and nodded.

“Within the last few years there’s another guy, but he’s never really mentioned getting married. I wouldn’t marry him. He’s a writer, for the Times. He hates lawyers. And judges. Says we’re all liars and crooks. Now, if I asked him, he’d marry me.”

“But you’re a liar and a crook.”

“According to him, I’m a very beguiling liar and crook. He said he forgives me for it.”

As she said that, the waiter came up to our table and set down a basket containing hot hard-crusted sliced bread wrapped up in a towel. Next to it he slid a small bowl with cubes of butter in it. I waited for Sylvia to take a piece of bread before I took one myself. I rewrapped the remaining slices in the towel after I had done so.

As I was buttering my slice of bread, I said, “So all of those guys were way more serious about you then you were about them.”

“Serious? Now that’s the kind of term my mother would use.”

“But you know what I mean. Their feeling for you was more intense than your feeling for them.”

“Than for some of them,” she corrected me. “I really loved Brad, my boyfriend in college. I think I cared for him as much as he did me. Who can say?”

I finished eating the bread.

“What if,” I started, “What if you found out that one of them, let’s say the architect, had completely sworn off women after you? That you were it for him and you broke his heart. And he’s been celibate and alone ever since. That he still carries a picture of you around in his wallet. That whenever he thinks about you too hard he starts to cry. Would that mean anything to you?”

“Well, of course, that would mean something to me. But, I don’t think any of them are crying over me. I’d be surprised if any of them do much thinking about me at all. I… Every once in a while I wonder if Brad still thinks about me. If he thinks about me as often as I think about him. And, you know, if when he does remember me if it’s a good thought.”

I opened the towel and lifted the basket over to offer Sylvia another slice. She took one and I took one and set the basket down again in the middle of the table and rewrapped the bread.

As I was buttering my slice, I said, “So if this Brad fellow showed up on your doorstep, as it were, divorced, you’d take him in?”

“You want the truth?”

“Sure.”

“If he showed up at my door, not divorced, I’d take him in.”

The waiter came up, and with a flourish, set our plates down before us. He asked if we wanted more to drink. Sylvia said yes. “I’ll try one of those tangerine lemonades,” I said.

Sylvia settled her napkin into place and started in on her entrée. I tried the sole. It was excellent.

“So,” Sylvia said, “The little girl that sucker punched you… do you still have her picture in your wallet?”

“No, I don’t.”

“She broke your heart.”

I did not say anything.

“When you think about her too hard, do you start to cry?”

“Sometimes, if I’m alone.”

“And you’ve been celibate ever since.”

“Can I perjure myself?”

“No.”

“Yes, I have.”

“How long.”

“Can I perjure myself this time?”

Sylvia just gave me a closed mouth smile.

“I object to the question, but the witness will answer.” I paused.

“Well?”

“Four years.”

Sylvia was just about to put a forkful of chicken covered with mushrooms in her mouth. She brought the fork back down and set it into her plate.

“So you’ve sworn off women?” she said.

The waiter came up to our table and set two tall glasses of tangerine lemonade down.

I reached for the tangerine lemonade and, taking up my straw, pulled its paper wrapper off. I set the straw into my drink and took a long draw.

“No, I haven’t sworn off women. It’s just…”

Sylvia had gone back to the chicken. She ate for a little bit and then after my extended pause she finished my sentence.

“…you’re not really interested in anyone else. You compare all the women you meet to her, or what you thought she was. None of us really measure up.”

I let what she said sink in and concentrated on the sole and the rice and the steamed vegetables around it. I took a break from the food and concentrated on my beverage. When I looked up at Sylvia, she was looking at me with a quizzical look. I stopped eating and looked over at her. “Some might measure up,” I said. “I don’t know. I haven’t been interested in trying to find out, somehow. I’ve lost my confidence.” I went back to eating my lunch. Sylvia went back to hers.

“Been keeping busy?” I asked after I had finished everything.

“It ebbs and flows,’ she said. “It’s been pretty hectic lately. I managed to squeeze in a two-week vacation in August – well, almost two weeks. I had a court appearance on that Monday, so I had to make that and take a flight out later in the afternoon.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Hawaii.”

“How was it?”

“Oh, I enjoyed it.”

“Did you go with someone?”

“I went alone.”

“You know,” I said. “There’s an Arabic saying: ‘He travels swiftest who travels alone.’ Sometimes, anyway, if you have things in mind, places you want to go, things you want to see or do, having someone else along can get in the way.”

“That’s true, but it’s nice to experience new things with someone else there with you, sometimes,” Sylvia said.

“That’s true,” I said. There was a little bit of a pause. “Do you travel well?” I asked.

“How do you mean?”

“Does traveling agree with you?  Or does it kind of stress you out?”

“I can handle it.”

“I don’t know that I’m exactly cut out to be a member of the jet set,” I said. “I get lagged out and my internal clock gets all out of whack, especially if I’m going across too many time zones. I hate sitting around an airport if there’s a delay. I don’t mind doing a little bit of driving, but I’m not that fond of just driving for hours on end. I usually pick out nice places to go, but about half the time I get there and instead of seeing what I came for I get tired from the travel and end up sleeping until noon. I can do that at home.”

“I love to sleep,” Sylvia said.

“One of life’s hidden pleasures,” I said.

“Dreams,” Sylvia said. “If I could hook up a video camera to my brain while I’m asleep and just record my dreams, I could get an Academy Award. A dozen Academy awards.”

“Some of ‘em are good,” I said.

Sylvia took another couple of forkfuls and then pushed her plate toward the center of the table. She looked across at me and smiled. Then she reached over and lifted her glass of tangerine lemonade. I mirrored her action and reached for my own. My eyes locked on hers and hers on mine as we bottomed up. We each finished our draught and set the glasses down. I was still looking at her and she at me when the waiter came up. He lifted my plate and then motioned at Sylvia’s.

“Please,” she said.

The waiter lifted her plate as well. “Some dessert, this afternoon?” he asked.

“None for me,” I said.

“No, thank you,” Sylvia said.

“I’ll be back with the check,” the waiter said.

Sylvia and I returned our attention to one another.

She looked away first.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said.

“It is,” I said.

Shortly, the waiter came to the table with the check. He set it down a little closer to me than to her. Sylvia reached for it, but I beat her to picking it up.

“No, Steve, my treat,” she said.

“Possession’s nine-tenths of the law,” I said. “And I’ve got it.”

“I’m serious,” Sylvia said.

“Now that’s the kind of term your mother would use.”

She glared at me when I said that.

I stood up and turned my back on her and walked over to step through the entrance from the patio and went up to the cash register. I paid the bill and went back outside. I went back to the table and as I did so Sylvia was standing up. She had already laid a five-dollar bill down on the table as a tip. I laid a spoon over it to keep it from blowing away.

We headed out from the patio together, to the sidewalk, abreast.

Instead of jaywalking back across Main Street, I walked in a most civilized fashion with Sylvia down to the end of the block, where we took the crosswalk. I insisted on carrying her briefcase and she only put up a token resistance when I reached down and took it from her. We went into the parking lot and over to her car, a BMW. I handed her her briefcase as she got in. From out of nowhere, she produced a business card and a pen. She jotted something on the back of it.

“You can call me sometime,” she said and handed me the card. She closed the door and started up the engine. I headed across the parking lot. As I was approaching my car, I flipped the card over. On the back was her phone number and the notation “home.” I tucked the card into my suit coat pocket.

Chapter Twenty-nine “I’ll have to get back to you”

At my car, I opened the passenger side door and bending in from outside, opened my briefcase. I pulled the folders containing the materials for the trial I had upcoming the following week and put them on the backseat. I snapped the case up, locked the door and headed toward the courthouse.

As I was headed down the hallway in the courthouse, I saw Sandra Swihart sitting on a bench just to the side of the entrance into the courtroom. I sat down next to her. She was extremely nervous about that day’s hearing. I explained that there was nothing to be nervous about and that she would not be called upon to testify. A few minutes later we went into the courtroom. Fifteen minutes later I was up before Judge Geary, duking it out with the assistant city attorney. It started off bad for the city and got worse from there. Every motion I made was granted. Every motion he made was denied. It was clear, based upon the evidence we had gotten from our still unrevealed source deep inside the city’s finance department that we had provided to the court, Judge Geary no longer trusted the city attorney’s office. With each of my motions that he granted my confidence grew and I was finally so emboldened to float a motion I had not previously contemplated: requesting the same access to documents and finance department records that Geary had already denied us. Without batting an eye, Geary reversed his previous ruling and granted the motion. Then I got really cocky and asked that the city attorney’s office be directed to contact the district attorney’s office and turn over to it the same records with a request that they be reviewed for their potential criminal import, to wit, the embezzlement of public funds. Geary paused dramatically before making his ruling. Looking long at me and then fixing his gaze on the assistant city attorney, he said, “The court is inclined to go along with that. Motion granted.” By that point I figured I had gotten all I needed and we were out in the hallway a few minutes later.

I stood there with Sandra, basking in the glory of our triumph, when the assistant city attorney emerged from the courtroom.

“We should talk,” I said, turning toward him.

He stopped before me with his legs apart, almost like he was astride a horse. As if to calm himself, or perhaps to put on an air of nonchalance, he shifted his briefcase from hand to hand so it swung near his knees like a pendulum.

“We can talk right now,” he said. When I did not say anything, he said, “We’re willing to settle this thing up, here and now, for $150,000.”

After he said it, he did not look at me but was studying Sandra to gauge her reaction. She was to my side at the edge of my peripheral vision where I could not really read what her face conveyed at the mention of the dollar figure. I did not miss as much as a beat, though, in making my response.

“We’ll take the 150 grand after she is reinstated as a deputy accountant with the city,” I said.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said.

“Maybe we ought to go to trial, then,” I said.

“I’m sure I can swing the $150,000 and we can execute a settlement by the end of the month,” he said.

“If you’re willing to concede on the underlying issue, decency demands that you reestablish her reputation.” I said. “She didn’t do a thing wrong. She was an exemplary employee. This has really been traumatic for her. And getting fired… that could follow her for the rest of her life.”

“The city was within its rights,” he said. “She was within her one-year probationary term. She could have been let go any time, up to 364 days after she was hired, with or without cause.” He paused. “We’re giving you a deal. You should take it.” Then he intoned, “We’re not hiring her back.”

“You know,” I said, “Something tells me that after the district attorney’s office starts gumshoeing around, the city is going to be looking for a few honest accountants, maybe even a supervisor or two, in the finance department. You could spare the personnel department the trouble and expense of carrying out a recruitment drive.”

“I’m offering you three times her yearly salary,” the assistant city attorney said. “She was only on the job seven months. We’re being very reasonable.”

I glanced over at Sandra. I looked back at the deputy city attorney and said, “We haven’t gone to the newspapers yet. That’s our next move.”

For a second he glowered at me like he wanted to kill me. As quickly, his face changed and got almost friendly, kindly. Then he said, simply, “I’ll have to get back to you.” He switched the briefcase in his hands one last time and headed on down the corridor.

Sandra and I watched him as he moved away. When he was the requisite distance down the hall, I turned to her and said, “Well, what d’ya think?”

“You really think they’ll hire me back?” she said.

“If they don’t, they’re going to have to come up with a lot more than $150,000.”

“But what he said about them being able to fire me during the first year for any reason at all…”

“That’s correct, they had clearance to send you packing any time. I’d say on the simple point of the law, Judge Geary could have bounced us out of court two months ago on that point precisely. I’ll tell you right now that I was afraid when the city made that motion to dismiss early on, Geary was going to grant it. We’re past that point now, though and we’re headed to trial. You just heard him offer you $150,000.  They’re not afraid of losing as much as they’re afraid of what is going to come out during trial. I would predict that before we get to jury selection, they’re going to get even more generous with the taxpayers’ money. And if more comes out in discovery, who knows where this will go? You’re my client and my first loyalty in all of this has to be to you. But at issue in your case is the potential criminality of those who were responsible for your firing. What the judge did today is going to make the city look at seeing some of its people exposed as thieves. They’re going to want to handle that quietly, because it’s an embarrassment to them. Personally, I’d like to see them embarrassed. I think they deserve to be embarrassed. But if they’re willing to give you your job back or pay you $250,000 so they don’t have to be embarrassed, I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with that.”

I walked with her out of the courthouse and into the parking lot. I asked her how she was set financially. Without work, I knew things were tough on her. I told her I would give her rent money, pay her student loans for the time being and cover her living expenses if she needed it. She said she had already moved out of her apartment and had moved back in with her parents and that she would get by. I asked for her new telephone number and she wrote it down on a scrap of paper for me. I put the scrap into the same pocket I had put Sylvia’s card into. I told her I would call her as soon as I heard back from the city attorney’s office. She headed off toward her car and I went out to mine.