With Wanton Disregard
Long Beach, California
Wednesday, 12:42 A.M.
Tim Mulrooney gripped the steering wheel of his unmarked Crown Vic as his excitement overcame his anxiety. The Belmont Shore area of Long Beach was the high-rent district—known as “The Shore” to the locals–a refuge of sunshine, bikinis, and trendy eateries. He couldn't help wondering what in the hell he was doing in beautiful Belmont Shore at 12:42 A.M. on a Wednesday morning chasing down a Code 187.
Mulrooney forced himself to relax and enjoy the welcome change of scenery. He liked his job, although lately the depravity he so often encountered had been burning a hole in his gut. In recent months he had found himself struggling with both self-doubt and a growing inability to dissociate from the horrors which were part of his daily routine. Mulrooney had long sensed that he was at some sort of crossroads in his life. But right now there was a corpse that needed his attention, so he stepped on the gas and cautioned himself to leave the self-analysis to the tofu eaters.
Barely twenty-four hours had passed since he had returned from his first vacation in four years–a jaunt to sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. While south of the border, Mulrooney had hit every fishing spot he could find and had consumed enough spicy food to make his stomach protest, in Spanish and in English. Now he was back–tan, attractive, and quite fit for his forty-eight years.
The vacation had been long overdue. His ex-wife, Isabella, had often complained that his work consumed him. It was something Mulrooney deeply regretted but never knew how to change. Mulrooney recalled a quote by Kipling that had always struck him as memorable: “More people are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies.” He tugged at his ear and grunted. Shoulda read Kipling before my heart attack. Nonetheless, Mulrooney knew he didn't have to justify his job dedication to Isabella anymore. She was gone. And Kipling was too dead to give a rat's ass. So Mulrooney shoved them both out of his mind and focused his attention back on the job.
After he turned onto Second Street, he lowered his car window and sucked in the sea air. I've gotta get me a little hacienda down here someday, he told himself. Mulrooney had long admired the mission-style architecture introduced by the Spanish friars who had come to California to spread the word of God among an increasingly hard-of-hearing populace. And the 1950's innocence and hospitality of the Belmont Shore area always plugged him into his youth with a soothing continuity. To him, it was like watching an old commercial of a dancing Alka-Seltzer tablet. When Mulrooney realized he was grinning like the village idiot, he self-consciously instructed himself to close his yap.
After cutting down Glendora, Mulrooney then turned east and followed the moonlight to Alamitos Bay. When he arrived at the crime scene, he automatically appraised the area. Road barricades were already in place. On the small bridge that traversed the bay, a crowd of locals was gathered to watch the action. Several black-and-whites had blocked off the south end of Bay Shore Avenue, and the Belmont Shore fire trucks had secured the north end. An Emergency Medical vehicle was parked at the scene in no apparent rush to go anywhere. Not a good sign, he concluded.
Another group of bystanders was gathered in front of a majestic Mediterranean-style villa that stood guard over the bay. The lights of at least ten squad cars illuminated the area like Cirque du Soleil while the onlookers watched expectantly, as if waiting to witness a death-defying high-wire act.
Mulrooney recognized the pale officer handling crowd control. It was Officer Kate Axberg's new sidekick, Sanders. Sanders appeared to be about fifteen years old, which made Mulrooney feel older than mold. He had dubbed the new crop of recruits the “Embryo Patrol” for good reason. As he watched Sanders tentatively admonish a reporter who had slipped under the police tape, Mulrooney could see the tension pulling at the rookie's jaw. The veteran cop still remembered the stress of his first homicide case; and he knew Sanders would harden fast. The kid had no choice. Suck it up or fuck it up.
“Get statements from everyone, Sanders,” he directed as he exited his car and headed for the villa. Mulrooney pretended not to notice the beads of sweat that had collected above Sanders' furrowed brow. “You're doing just fine, Officer,” he shot back over his shoulder as he approached the door of the villa.
Mulrooney paused to look around and listen. From somewhere inside the residence, the moody notes of Gershwin's Summertime seeped out into the night air. The contrast between the soothing music and the ghoulish crowd made him feel as if he were in the middle of Coppola film. Please, no horse head party gifts, he thought as he straightened himself up to his full height.
Mulrooney shoved open the door and stepped into a spectacular living room. Raising an eyebrow in admiration, he went to work, his photographic memory taking in every detail. There was a superb collection of original art including some aboriginal pieces and a Frederic Remington oil of the American Southwest. A bottle of Cristal champagne with balloons attached rested on a silver tray atop a Steinway.
While he was examining the champagne bottle, Officer Kate Axberg entered the room. Mulrooney noted the strained look that tugged at Kate's usually congenial face. Kate and Sanders had been first to arrive at the crime scene, and no 187 was ever pretty. It occurred to Mulrooney that Kate had probably never been first in on a homicide before. In Belmont Shore, a rainy day was a felony.
“You okay, Kate?” he asked.
“Yes, but I'm glad you're back, Tim,” she nodded.
“Thanks. So, you want to break it down for me, my pretty?” he cackled in his best wicked-witch voice. Although Kate usually smiled when he did his impersonations for her, her mouth remained hard. Mulrooney loosened his tie. He knew this one was going to be ugly.
When he looked up again, he saw his partner, Brian Clarke, stride into the house with Sanders trailing close behind like a uniformed cocker spaniel. “Hey, Smokey,” Mulrooney greeted his partner. Clarke's wife Karen had nicknamed Clarke “Smokey” because of his resemblance to Smokey Robinson. However, Mulrooney was the only other person allowed to use the moniker without incurring Clarke's wrath, which was never a wise choice.
“I can't believe the timing of your phone call, bro,” Clarke groused. “You interrupted the wife's lo-o-ve machine.”
“So your brother is visiting again?” Mulrooney baited. He laughed as Clarke scratched his brow with an erect middle finger. “Well let's just have Katie give us the tour so she can go home,” Mulrooney said, “and then you can drag your sorry ass old 'love machine' back to Karen. Mulrooney then turned to Sanders.”Keep at it outside," he directed.
Sanders obediently complied as Kate gestured for Mulrooney and Clarke to follow her. “One victim,” she pronounced as she led them through the hall. “Stabbing. No vitals upon arrival. Victim is Dr. Scott Connolly. Caucasian, forty-five. Wife, no kids.”
Mulrooney raised his brows when he heard the name. He had once seen an interview with the prominent Long Beach gynecologist on the local news. Connolly, dressed in Gatsby style, had oozed wealth and confidence, although he had appeared distracted during the interview. And Connolly's eyes had shown signs of stress, accented by inky depressions just below the rims. “Whoa,” Mulrooney whistled, “he's the safe-keeper of the Shore's finest resource!”
“Was,” Clarke corrected.
As they climbed the curved staircase, the hypnotic notes of Gershwin's I Love You, Porgy threw off Mulrooney's sense of the scene. Kate read his exasperated look. “The music was on when we arrived, Tim. I'll '86' it when Fingerprint wraps.”
When they reached the top of the stairs, Mulrooney made a mental note that the upstairs speakers were out of order; then he turned back to Kate as she continued her brief. “No weapon,” she reported, “and no signs of the assailant. We did the visual search, but Sanders got queasy, so I had to send him outside.”
“That explains the barf in the bougainvillea,” Clarke muttered.
“Yeah,” she winced, “he was really embarrassed. I backed out last and secured the area. Two women are downstairs in the den, so you'll want to question them. They were in the house together when we arrived, but we took their explanations separately of course.”
When they reached the large master suite, Mulrooney saw Kate hesitate then turn away. Unlike her to do that, he noted. He suddenly felt the familiar anxiety he had often felt as a kid when staring down the dark cellar stairs fearing some faceless intruder lying in wait. As he stepped into the bedroom, his eyes immediately lighted on the bed. “Jesus Frickin Christ!” he sputtered.
“Whoa, Mama!” Clarke yelped from behind.
The renowned Dr. Connolly lay completely naked on his back with his legs spread eagle. His eyes were open and his arms were outstretched as if nailed to a crucifix. Connolly's mouth was agape, as though the life in his body had crawled out the face hole, leaving nothing behind but a butchered carcass. The victim had been slit from pelvis to sternum. But worst of all, his insides were no longer inside. He was gutted like a fish.
Most of the viscera lay next to the corpse. However, the intestines, still attached to Connolly like an umbilical cord, were strung across the bed, and bits of tissue and fecal matter were splattered about in an eruption of gore. The odor was sickening.
“Jesus!” Clarke groaned as he looked around for footprints. “There's gotta be a Bruno Magli print here somewhere.”
“His wife got into bed and found him like that,” Kate winced.
Clarke grimaced. “Christ-on-a-cracker! She crawled into bed with THAT?”
“Yep,” Kate nodded, “and in her hysteria she ran out of the house naked and screaming. Her best friend arrived immediately thereafter. Interesting timing.”
Mulrooney examined the blood splash patterns closely. A blood smear on the closet door intrigued him. The wood bore superficial scratches, and there were fingerprints near the top of the frame.
“What do you make of those prints?” Kate asked.
Mulrooney and Clarke exchanged glances. “Correct me if I'm wrong, Smokey,” Mulrooney answered, “but I'd say that's a nipple print.”
Clarke pursed his lips and nodded. “Looks like a terrified woman tried to exit straight through the closet door, Kate.”
“Do you need me up here anymore, guys?” Kate asked as she backed further away.
Mulrooney shook his head. “No, Katie, not unless you brought a bigass sewing kit.”
* * *
When forensics finally arrived, Mulrooney gave orders as he and Clarke inspected the crime scene meticulously, maneuvering around the pieces of corpse. There were no signs of forced entry. One wall was lined with cabinets that contained a television, a DVD, an old VCR, and a rare book collection. Nothing had been disturbed. A telephone, a lamp, a digital clock radio, and two remote controls lay atop the nightstand. Mulrooney, while mentally photographing every detail, noticed that the mattress had drawn most of the blood to the victim's side of the bed.
“Rest in pieces, Doc,” he whispered, giving in to his old habit of talking to the victims whenever he felt anxious. The sour taste in his throat indicated that his anxiety level was rising. Not a bad thing, he reminded himself. In Iraq he had learned that a healthy dose of anxiety kept one's senses on maximum alert. His sergeant had repeatedly cautioned his platoon, “A fool acts without fear, but a brave man acts in spite of it.” Semper Fi, Mulrooney mentally saluted, determined to be nobody's fool. As he stared at Dr. Connolly's gaping mouth, he took out a tube of Blistex and coated his sunburned lips before continuing.
While Clarke inspected the corpse, Mulrooney focused on a pile of clothes on the floor near the blood pool. In the pocket of a pair of Armani trousers, Mulrooney found Connolly's wallet with three hundred dollars hidden in the inside flap. An 18 karat gold money clip was empty. “See if you can lift a print off this money clip,” he directed a technician.
After further inspection, Mulrooney discovered a small glass ampoule wrapped in cotton knitting in a back pocket of the trousers. He held it aloft for Clarke to see. “Lookee here, partner,” he said with a raised brow.
“Poppers!” Clarke exclaimed. “I haven't seen those in awhile. Either the doc had a heart problem, or a hard-on problem.”
“That's not his worst problem,” Mulrooney mumbled as he turned to inspect the blood on the dresser. Judging by the blank area in the pattern, the perp had taken much of the blood spatter. The blood pattern indicated the doctor had been lying on his right side when killed. The victim's body must have somehow been turned and the intestine yanked out afterward. But how…and why, he wondered?
Above the dresser was an etching of Duke Ellington at his piano. A drop of Dr. Scott Connolly's blood was still clinging to the flesh fold beneath the Duke's eye like a bloody tear. Mulrooney leaned closer to read the title of the etching: Mood Indigo, the name of a tune Ellington had composed for the film, Anatomy of a Murder. The irony didn't escape him.
“Hey, buddy,” Clarke called, interrupting Mulrooney's thoughts, “did you notice how the Duke's eyes follow you like the friggin' Mona Lisa?”
“So do the doc's,” Mulrooney grunted, as he moved to the dressing table on the south wall. He gazed at an angora robe that was draped over the vanity chair. Several birthday cards were jammed in the edge of the mirror, and a box of face powder rested on a silver tray. Mulrooney examined a pair of sheer panties and a bra that were in a pile on the table. When he looked up, he saw Clarke grinning.
“Don't you wear lingerie like that?” Clarke teased.
“Only when I'm on a date with your dad,” Mulrooney jabbed back. Mulrooney welcomed the easy repartee. Their sparring was a verbal barrier against the savagery. He was still staring at the vanity when something else caught his attention. Reaching down, he pried a photo out from under the opaque glass top. It was a snapshot of a man lounging near a hotel pool. The man had dark good looks and an easy smile. “MY LOVE ALWAYS, SAM” was written across the back of the photo in bold, assured handwriting. Mulrooney handed the snapshot to Clarke, who let out a low whistle as he bagged it into evidence.
Mulrooney then turned his gaze to a thin film of dust on one area of the vanity. It struck him as odd that the dust was much thicker around the area where the panties lay. He wondered if the perp had been looking for something specific, or something very personal. “See what you can make of this, Smokey,” he said to Clarke.
He watched as Clarke snorted several times to clean his nasal passages before bending down to inhale the dust particles near the lingerie. Mulrooney waited expectantly, knowing his partner had the nose of a bloodhound. One time Clarke had even sniffed out a suspect because of the type of alcohol on his breath–Guinness.
“It's sure not the face powder,” Clarke pronounced. “It's drywall.”
“Drywall? Damn, you're good, Smokey!” Mulrooney said.
“That's what Karen tells me,” Clarke grinned as he checked his watch. “And she's keeping my spot warm. I'm going down to wrangle some witnesses. You ridin' shotgun?”
“In a minute,” Mulrooney answered. “I need some air.”
After Clarke left, Mulrooney stepped out onto the deck. He could see the Queen Mary, illuminated by lights from the offshore oil islands as she reclined majestically in the water. The ship was a tranquil contrast to the din of the police chopper hovering overhead like a mutant praying mantis. Viewing the surroundings, Mulrooney noted that the bungalow next door was too far away to make a safe jump, and the two-story Connolly home offered no footholds for climbing. The assailant must have left through the front door, balls to the wind, he figured…unless the killer had never left the premises at all.
Mulrooney sucked in the ocean air and tried to scrape the taste of death from his tongue with his teeth. He was craving a drink for the first time in ages, but he hadn't touched alcohol since his heart had given out on him. Thus, there would be no wasting away in Margaritaville tonight.
After unconsciously glancing over his shoulder into the shadows, Mulrooney took another look at the strewn remains of Doctor Scott Connolly. He sensed that the killer's intimate contact with the victim had been motivated by more than hatred or passion. The rage was almost palpable. As he headed down to the den to join Clarke, he once again felt like a kid descending the dark cellar stairs into the abyss.