Sunday, December 31, 2006
Benjamin Swardlick, one of our course members, wrote me from the UK on December 18th:
"5 dead prostitutes in Ipswitch, England. All the bodies found close together. The man in custody calls himself their driver... Says he helped them to hook up with drugs. I mean have ANY of these investigators read Birdman, this case is solved by Eng 193. Can't even believe the similarites. I'm staying tuned to figure out who plays Jack Caffery."
It's hard to tell who Caffery will turn out to be or if these women are going to get someone like that to help them. But here we are again, trying to honor the dead.
And here we are again wondering why.
There's a compendium of information here. Some of the commentary is good, including Diane Taylor's piece on the vulnerability of sex workers and society's calloused stupidity about them. The case has stood Britain (or at least its press) on its head.
May they rest in peace. And have some justice in 2007.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
We've talked a lot about war coming home as one of noir culture's causes. I thought about this reading Donald Rumsfeld's remarks yesterday as he stepped down from his position of Secretary of Defense. The Los Angeles Times article today has him saying this:
A conclusion by our enemies that the United States lacks the will or the resolve to carry out missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power. It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat, but the enemy thinks differently.
Even if you're one of the O'Reilly Factor fans who thinks that the Iraq war went bad only because of media nay-sayers, the logic here should interest you. Rumsfeld acknowledges the war has become an agony. But any exit would comfort "the enemy," which is unnamed and unchanging - remember Mike Hammer's "nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatzit." This is true even of "graceful" exits. What does graceful mean for Rumsfeld? Exiting after negotiation? Some form of agreement after which "enemies" smile and shake hands?
Noir goodbyes are always a kind of curse. They say, "I am the war god, and the rule of force. You embraced me, and then you fired me, because you are too weak to stick with the Way of Force. And now, without me, the enemy Force will destroy you."
Oh well. Goodbye anyway, Mr. Rumsfeld.
P is for Pedophile
I boarded the Number 7 AC Transit bus at on Wednesday morning and slid into a seat next to the window close to the back door. The thin pad of the seat next to me silently told its recent history of violation: illegibly tagged with a permanent marker, then knife-slashed open to let the sparse innards poke out. The bus was relatively empty at this early hour; just a couple of drowsy regulars sprinkled about. I stared out the scratched and nearly opaque window as we barreled down
The bus skidded to a stop by the Claremont Hotel. Some chatty Chinese women boisterously hurried on to claim the seats closest to the driver. More students reluctantly entered, shifting towards the back section. For some odd reason, Parker Parsley was not among the straggling group. I had come to look forward each morning to his hottie swagger and confident voice. Over the years I had developed what I liked to think was a “minor” infatuation with Parker. I had chosen this seat specifically to be within earshot of his most-interesting conversations.
Parker was a member of a gang of mostly upper-middle class white boys. His gang lifestyle, however, hardly paralleled that of Tony in “Westside Story.” Their “crimes” were comprised only of tough talk and excessive graffiti. If a rival gang existed, it was unbeknownst to me, perhaps dominating another bus line. Despite his “bad-ass” reputation, Parker was normally quite a prompt and a regular rider on the 7:23.
The rickety bus rattled on. It made countless stops to relieve itself of some noisy passengers, only to gain another few rowdier ones. It seemed that the noise of my co-commuters grew proportionally to the brightening of the morning. I disembarked on
“Another bomb threat or a pathetic attempt at arson?” I asked a girl standing next to me.
“I’ve only been here ten minutes, but some kids are saying there’s a dead guy at faculty parking,” she responded, sounding shockingly unfazed. I made my way through the crowds of whispering students. As I approached the old tennis courts, now used for faculty parking, police officers meandered through the swarm, yelling at us to “disperse and go to class.” The crime scene had been barricaded off and impossible to view even on my tiptoes.
“Pretty creepy huh?” my friend Emily asked as she slung her arm over my shoulder.
“Oh hi!” I startled, “yeah, hella creepy…”
“Who do you think it is? A homeless guy? Oh! Maybe it’s that ancient art teacher Ms. Hibbard. She always seems on the verge of keeling over,” she mused.
“You’re horrible!” We laughed as we made our way toward our first period English class.
The incident created a disjointed, weird mood the rest of the day. Many students proclaimed this event a valid excuse to ditch class, so there were actually enough wobbly desks per person. On a normal day, the back ledge of the classroom was lined with students balancing their notebooks on their laps. Today, the few remaining kids exchanged animated whispers with their neighbors throughout the period. The teachers seemed distracted as well, but ironically grumbled more about their difficulty parking this morning than “what the world is coming to.”
Before fifth period, I rammed my way through the overcrowded hallways in a desperate attempt to reach the third floor of the C building. Students greeted their friends loudly and rudely halted the flow of traffic. I grumbled to myself as I bounced between peers and lockers. This sea of students carried you with its tide, despite your desired destination. I exhaled as I finally reached the less populated haven of the third floor. Cigarette smoke seeped from underneath the bathroom door. This was the cleaner of the bathrooms, owing to the two flights of stairs necessary to reach it. The relative “cleanliness” label was earned by this bathroom’s retention of the majority of its stall doors and the minimal amount of graffiti and period blood smeared on the walls. I myself had trained my body to “hold it” until I could relieve myself at the Y during lunch.
My history teacher Mr. Fritch seemed remarkably undaunted by the day’s events.
“Good thing my car was in the shop today,” he grunted. Mr. Fritch was a slightly stout, balding man in his mid-forties. But beneath his paunch and hairless head, I could tell that he had been attractive in his youth. I imagined that his gruff behavior derived from his annoyance over the toll that age and gravity had taken on his body. There was something definitely off about Mr. Fritch, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The class as a whole tended to shift away from him toward the back of the room, leaving the front rows for the unlucky latecomers. He was one of those teachers who seemed to live at school; he popped unexpectedly out of corners and ate canned green beans from a massive stash under his desk. Mr. Fritch was completely unqualified for a history teaching position. He actually seemed completely unqualified for a teaching position in general. Nonetheless, the man dutifully mumbled his incomprehensible monologue to my World History class everyday for forty-five minutes.
The morning’s excitement flooded back to me as I traveled past the crime scene at the end of the day. The parking lot had been cleared of evidence, but still remained blocked off with caution tape. A couple of officials loitered around, chatting with each other. The crowd from this morning had dispersed and only a few rubberneckers slowed traffic as they drove by.
I scrambled onto the bus to retrace my route home. Students from multiple East Bay schools tightly packed the small interior of bus. I held on as we lurched forward. After a couple of stops, I had been shoved into the back. I nearly toppled onto the laps of Parker Parsley’s buddies. His best friend Matt Douglass, a short blonde kid sporting an excessively large Raiders jersey, was too distraught and irate to notice me.
“Who the fuck would do this? I bet it was Johnny and his gang! They’re hella shady dicks!” He loudly vented.
“Naw, they’re shady for sure, but they’re applying to college this year.” His baggy-pants friend responded.
“Yeah, I heard Johnny got in early to Stanford,” interjected another.
“Isn’t that some crazy shit? Then who would have murdered Parker?” Matt questioned sadly.
Parker? Murdered! The bus slammed to a stop and I almost toppled again onto Matt. I could not force my brain to process this new information. The bus suddenly seemed even more jammed than before. My breathing grew rapid and my body burned. I pushed myself off the bus and landed across the street from the UC Berkeley Clark Kerr dorms. I stood for a minute of two. Gravity seemed to have increased, making me unable to lift my legs. A cool breeze fluttered through the leaves and my hair. I slowly began the trip home.
By the time I passed by Star Market on
The next morning I woke up punctually to my alarm at . I threw on my sister’s oversized “Berkeley High Tennis” sweatshirt and slipped into my well-worn Birkenstocks. I shuffled down the stairs and popped two Eggos into the toaster.
“What are you doing up and dressed so early? I didn’t have to drag you out of bed this morning,” my mother muttered over her first cup of coffee, which she appropriately dubbed “the Breath of Life.”
“I have to meet Jane early to finish our poster for our Spanish presentation.” I lied because I had no time for explanations.
“All of those damn poster boards,” my mom grumbled, “You’d think you were still in middle school.” I nodded in response as I sandwiched syrup in between my two waffles.
I grabbed my pre-made lunch from the fridge and stuffed it into my “The North Face” backpack. I dashed out the door and power-walked my way to the bus stop. This earlier bus was filled with adults and a couple of unlucky students stuck with a zero period. I sat impatiently and read the English and Spanish advertisements that ran along the edge of the bus’ ceiling. I pulled the wire and heard the satisfying “ding.” The back double doors pushed open easily as the Number 7 came to a screechy stop. I raced towards school and sprinted up the stairs to the second floor of the G Building. Mr. Stoops was reclining at his desk when I entered his room.
“Can I help you?” he asked pleasantly.
“Um, yeah. You’re the soccer coach also right?”
“Yes ma’am. Math and soccer are my specialties.”
“Parker Parsley played for you right?”
“Really tragic, huh?” Mr. Stoops massaged his brow with his large pointer and middle fingers. I nodded in agreement as he continued. “Would have been a great player if he didn’t wear his pants so damn low. Slowed him down. Answer me this: how can you run after a ball if you’re holding your pants up with one hand?” He chuckled, lost in memory. A slamming of another classroom door brought him back. “So what is it you want to know?”
“Was he at practice last Tuesday? Was he acting weird at all?”
“He was there. Kicked harder than I’ve ever seen before. Something seemed to be on his mind, but I’m not sure what. He kept muttering about school corruption or something. I’m not the kid’s therapist, you know, just his soccer coach.”
“Yeah, totally. Did you see him leave?” I asked hopefully.
“Nope, he hung around alone after I left. Not sure what he was doing. Too bad that it got him in trouble. Anything else?”
“No, thanks so much for your help.” I must have sounded a little disappointed, because he called after me as I was leaving.
“If there’s anything else I can answer, feel free to stop by.” I smile and thanked him as I pushed my way into the crowds flooding the hallway.
I collapsed into my English classroom at . I barely clued in when Ms. Torrance announced: “Please turn your grammar books to page 36. Raise your hand if you are missing page 36.” My state-provided book from the 70’s had only half of page 36. I lazily lifted my hand along with a third of the class. I tuned back out after she passed us the photocopies of the page.
The day dragged on with my mind focused exclusively on the murder of Parker. I had decided to disregard Johnny and his “academic gang” that were Parker and Company’s rivals. No one would sabotage his Stanford career over a little punk. Parker appeared to be loved by many and tolerated by most. To my secret dismay, he was dating Layla Duncan, the free-spirit beauty with nipple rings. She was one to lust after, but not to kill for.
I avoided my friends at lunch and decided to eat in the park next to campus. As I was searching for a spot, I stumbled across my sister, Tania, and her friends, smoking weed in a circle.
“Come chill with us!” She uncharacteristically yelled over to me. I took a seat and pulled out my PB&J. I nibbled my sandwich to avoid the crust. We were sitting a couple yards away from the “tree people,” appropriately named after the tree under which they hung out. They all had multi-colored hair, black clothing, and combat boots. They smoked epic amounts of weed and were fabled to hold massive orgies.
Tania and her friends giggled and loudly cracked inside jokes. Her best friend Rachel pulled me out of my reverie.
“What class do you have next?”
“Oh, um. History with Mr. Fritch.”
“Eww!! What a creep!” My sister exclaimed.
“Hella sketchy!” Rachel added.
“What do you mean? I know he’s weird, but…” I sat up and leaned in towards them.
“You know that he used to be the old tennis coach right?” My sister asked. I shook my head no. “Yeah, he was caught spying on girls in the locker room. He got fired and then rehired as a history teacher. Leave it to Berkeley High to do something ridiculous like that. He’s still on probation I think.”
“Are you serious? That’s beyond gross!” I screeched.
“Dead serious. Sucks to be you.” Tania lit another joint and the conversation shifted to the latest Real World episode.
This new information was truly disgusting and disturbing. I decided to skip my next classes. Attendance never mattered much. My parents had learned to disregard the nightly “Your son and/or daughter have missed one or more classes today. To excuse this absence, press one” automated calls. We went to class just often enough to earn straight A’s.
On my bus ride home, images of both Parker and Mr. Fritch spiraled through my head. A murder and a pedophile. Berkeley High seemed to be going down the drain. With buildings as tired and decrepit as the bus I road on, and with unqualified, sketchy teachers, my high school was in serious need of a facelift.
I exited the bus in front of Star Market, the small local grocery that employed many Berkeley High students, including Parker and his crew. I walked towards the back section to the ice cream freezer. While I decided between a Choco Taco and a Drumstick, Layla walked by and began restocking the cereal isle. Every slow movement emphasized her dejected, depressed demeanor. She had donned an Indian print skirt and a tight tank top that showed off her tattooed arms. Even in her current state, I envied Layla’s gracefulness and unselfconscious beauty. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I blurted out: “I’m sorry.”
She turned and stared into my eyes. I wanted to crawl and hide amongst the frozen fruit bars. Her eyes softened and she whispered: “Me too.” I turned back to my ice cream selection with intense concentration.
“It’s my fault, you know.” Layla whispered softly. I looked up at her. She seemed to be examining the cereal boxes as if the Honey Nut Cheerio maze would solve all her problems. I kept looking at her, hoping she would keep talking.
“It’s all my fault,” She repeated with a little more intensity and conviction. “I told him not to do anything. I told him it was just looking, not touching. It’s not like he raped me.” I stared at Layla in confusion. Tears began rolling down her cheeks. She caught some with her tongue and closed her eyes as she tasted the salty product of her misery. I was about to ask her gently to explain, but Layla had already continued angrily, her intensity growing with each word. “That sick fuck! I knew he was a pervert, but I would have never guessed he was a murderer! Mr. Fritch killed Parker!” The last statement, the accusation, was almost lost in her flood of tears. I stood and watched her, unable to formulate an appropriate reply. Layla cried into her hands and had obviously forgotten my presence. I slowly crept away and out the store.
I collapsed onto the bench at the bus stop across the street. Cars sped noisily down
As I began my short walk home, I remembered something Mr. Fritch had said the day of the murder. He had been pleased that his car was in the shop. He must have run over Parker late at night and brought his car to be fixed to get rid of the evidence. That’s why he had been so “lucky” not to drive on Wednesday. My walk turned into a sprint up
I pulled out the
I began making calls and inquiring by his full name, Thomas Fritch, pretending to be his wife. I lucked out on the sixth call -- a repair shop at the intersection of Shattuck and Alcatraz Avenue had Fritch’s car. The mechanic began apologetically, “Your car’s still not ready ma’am.” It’s gonna be a couple more days or so. A wreck like that can’t be fixed in two days; he just brought it in yesterday morning. You’re husband sure did a whole lot of damage hitting that deer. I haven’t had to clean up blood like that in years.”
That was all that I needed to hear. I thanked him and slammed the phone down. I paced around the kitchen unsure of what to do. Police officers and courtrooms scared me, so I nixed the option of telling my story directly to the law. I’d watched enough Law and Order to fear the “Witness Protection Program.” I decided to call my friend who worked on The Jacket, our school newspaper. An issue came out every other Friday, so the next one was going to be published tomorrow. It seemed so ideal and fitting to expose Mr. Fritch in the place he must have thought of as his sanctuary, his home.
School was still in session, so she didn’t pick up her phone. I left an urgent message to call me back. I grabbed a pen and pad of paper and began scrawling everything I knew about the case and how I thought the events unfolded in the timeline between Layla talking to Parker and Mr. Fritch dropping his car at the garage. I described the murder, the motive, the cover-up. The account on this piece of paper would definitely send Mr. Fritch straight to San Quentin.
My journalist friend returned my call around . I twisted the cord to our ancient kitchen telephone nervously around my finger. I told her that I had a ground-breaking story, but something prevented me from describing it over the phone. I suddenly became mute at the most exciting moment of my fifteen year old life. I wondered if other detectives ever found themselves speechless before showing their hand. Sensing my discomfort, or doubting my sanity, my friend told me to bring my account to the school tonight, since the Jacket writers worked into the late hours.
When I wasn’t pacing around the living room, the dining room, and our back garden, I sat nervously on our front door landing, waiting for the hours to pass before I could leave for school. Luckily my sister walked through the door around .
“Thank God you’re home!” I shouted, perhaps a little too loudly.
“Jeez, calm down.” She said, plugging her ears. “What’s up?” The story finally spilled out of my mouth. Tania gawked as the chronicle progressed.
“Are you sure?” She exclaimed.
“Positive! And they’re publishing it in tomorrow’s Jacket. You just have to drive me there.” We sprinted out the door and into our prehistoric Mercury Villager minivan. It sputtered but we rolled quickly back towards Berkeley High. It was dusk when we reached the campus. Tania double-parked in front and I jumped out.
My friend was on her cell phone near the gate. She hung up as I approached her. She read the story with a journalist’s sick mixture of disgust and excitement.
“You sure you want to give me the credit for this?” She asked with an undertone of anticipation, “This is groundbreaking! This is the story of the Century! This is a ticket straight to Harvard!”
“I’m more than sure. I want this dirty investigation out of my life.”
“Thanks! I owe you one.”
I waved away her gratitude and headed back to the car. I fell into the waiting van and slammed the door quickly behind me. A shudder jolted through my body as I locked the door. I sat for a minute and stared at the desolate Berkeley High campus. I felt both fear and exhilaration about the article that would plaster the school grounds tomorrow.
“You get it to them on time?” Tania asked.
“We’re bringing that perv down!” She said, clapping my hand with a high-five that stung.
“We brought him down!” I yelled with conviction. We sailed down
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
My roommate didn’t exactly support my new agenda. Melanie Summers was a straight-A student from right here in Fullerton, California. She was blonde, bubbly and a goddamn neat-freak. We were basically polar opposites. Mel was always scurrying around our two-bedroom apartment cleaning, decorating or adding artistic trinkets that she had ingeniously crafted. It had taken a hell of a lot of convincing and a bottle of Beringer’s White Zinfandel to even get her to agree to the ratty EZ chair I brought home from the thrift store last week as a celebration of my new found freedom. I knew the wine would do the trick-alcohol was our common thread. Our love of liquor and our revulsion of sororities were, in fact, two of the only things we had in common, but they made for a well-matched friendship. Mel was very clever, however, and had even tried using our sacred booze bond against me when I told her I was dropping out.
“Jackie DeLyn,” she’d said in a more condemning tone than my own mother, “you are going to regret this after just one week of being a couch potato.”
Mel had poured herself a glass of the white zin and handed me an extra strong mix of rum and coke while she continued to chastise me. I noticed she had even pulled out two shot glasses and a handle of Popov for later.
I quietly laughed to myself now as I recalled my über-domestic roommate attempting to get me drunk enough that night to re-enroll. That sneaky bitch. Too bad her own tolerance is so low that she was the one who ended up with the murderous hangover the following morning.
A hazy image on the TV followed by a morbidly disturbing announcement shocked me out of my muddled thoughts. The newscaster was solemnly describing the live video footage being broadcast onto my 20-inch screen from a building I recognized as being just down the street. In front of the Sigma Alpha Omega house on the corner of State College and Yorba Linda Boulevard were swarms of news vans trying to capture the best angle of the naked male corpse sprawled over the railing of the upstairs balcony. I was lucky enough to be watching the future Pulitzer Prize winning cameraman as he somehow broke through the crowd and secured a close up from right beneath the body. The first sickening shot was of the poor schmuck’s dick. It had been branded with very small, hard to decipher Greek letters: ΠΕΛ. This sight was all the more gruesome due to the fact that the branding had obviously been recently executed since the letters were surrounded by tiny red inflammations and the whole penis itself had gotten so swollen and deformed that it appeared more like an elephant’s dick than a human’s. I continued to watch the screen, grotesquely mesmerized, as the camera changed its focus from the groin to the face. Holy fucking Jesus, I knew this guy. His name was Joey Dillow (nicknamed Dildo by his oh-so clever fraternity brothers) and he happened to be my roommate’s “casually seeing each other” boyfriend. But nothing was ever just casual with Mel and if she knew about this, she was probably on the verge of an ultimate emotional breakdown. I had to find her.
I grabbed my keys and headed out to the car to start my city-wide search, but I didn’t have to look any further than the parking lot. Mel was sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, just staring at the blinking red light that threatened an alarm if anyone attempted to harm the shabby 1991 Honda Civic. I tapped the window and realized how unusual her demeanor was. No tears, no hyperventilating. Just completely quiet stoicism, as if she had simply accepted the situation and had decided to move on.
“I’m guessing you already know?” I said through the single-paned glass window. “Are you okay?”
She got out of the car, gave me a tight hug and attempted a sad smile. I don’t think I had ever seen Mel so tranquil. She was one of those people that tears up at Hallmark commercials and Lifetime movies.
“Yeah. I’m okay. Have you heard what the police are saying?” she asked.
“No, I’ve only seen a short live clip. Do they know how it happened?”
She let out an exasperated sigh and shook her head disapprovingly. “The cops think it could have been a hazing prank gone wrong. Joey had an extremely high blood alcohol level and the letters burned onto his…well, his member, were apparently made with branding irons from the iron mill out behind the frat house. They are taking his body to the lab right now for testing but the investigators believe it to be alcohol poisoning.”
She had reiterated all this information as if it were an oral report on some random current news clipping. How could she be so withdrawn? Even I was upset from this situation and I never even liked Joey. He was a crude, cocky, dim-witted jackass and I told him so on several occasions. In fact, I never understood Mel’s attraction to him at all. But he sure didn’t deserve this repulsive death.
“Seriously, Mel, are you all right?” I asked her with genuine concern. “You don’t seem too shaken up about all this.”
“That’s because I’m trying to figure out what really happened.” She suddenly had a determined look in her eyes that I didn’t recognize. “I don’t believe this hazing theory. Joey wasn’t even pledging anymore. It’s ridiculous. The police are just trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug.”
She may have had a point there. The Fullerton Police Department would do anything to protect their precious reputation amongst the other stellar towns that made up the infamous Orange County. This is the same Orange County that had become a symbol in the past few years of excessive money and frivolous, yet dramatic issues. From Newport Beach to Brea to its outer exterior in Oceanside, the real “OC” displayed all the stereotypes its television counterpart exploited. Multi-level shopping centers were as commonplace as the monstrous SUVs that maneuvered between them. Girls paraded through the CSUF campus in pink velour sweat suits advertising “Juicy” on their ass to imply that they had spent hundreds of dollars to be that comfortable as they chattered endlessly with their matching pink Razorphone companions. These expensively strategic displays were not exclusive to college age females either, since even the elementary students across the street could be seen prancing to school in skirts short enough to buy them a drink at the local sports bar. The upper crust society that I was surrounded by discouraged most high crime and prided itself in its reputation for safety, cleanliness and close proximity to perfection. I had no doubt the police were eager to show their capabilities by quickly solving Joey’s death and encouraging citizens to move on.
“Ok, so it wasn’t hazing. What was it then? Suicide?”
“Oh please, Jackie.” Mel rolled her eyes at my apparently ridiculous suggestion. “Joey was an officer on the fraternity board and was well on his way to graduating in only five years. He was murdered. No doubt about it.”
“Why the fuck would anyone want to murder Joey Dillow? He may have been a moron but he never hurt anybody that I know of.”
Mel was silent for just a moment before responding. “I don’t know why, I just have a feeling okay? And that’s where you come in, Roomie!”
“I don’t follow.” I said dryly.
“You have serious background in law, criminal procedure and the workings of the human brain. You would have had even more know-how had you not recently given it all up on some ‘psychological breakthrough.’” Damn. Even in crisis mode she could still find a way to speak her mind.
“Nonetheless,” she continued, “now you have endless amounts of spare time and I have decided to take advantage of that.”
“So you want me to investigate the supposed murder of your dead boyfriend even though the case is already being solved by professional detectives?” The girl had finally gone off the deep end.
“First of all, he was not my boyfriend. We were casually seeing each other.” Jesus. My bad. “And second, why not? I really believe that something is not right about Joey’s death and all I want is justice for him. He deserves it.” Mel really emphasized this last part before continuing. “Please help, Jackie. You could check things out super-subtly because no one would imagine a college student trying to investigate a real murder mystery. Maybe it would even motivate you to continue your studies!”
“No. Wait, scratch that. Fuck no.”
“Pleeeeeeease?” She pleaded and then cunningly added, “I’ll make you cookies and buy you a handle of Captain Mo’!” Mel smiled and hugged me enthusiastically. She knew she had won.
“Son of a bitch.” I thought to myself.
I was standing in front of the “Farm Frat,” so aptly named by CSUF students due to the barn-like exterior of the Sigma Alpha Omega house. The newspaper article covering Joey’s death had been miniscule and only elaborated on the cause being “a fatal combination of pain pills, alcohol overdose and traces of the ammonia found in most household cleaning products.” This last part apparently baffled investigators because no explanation followed. I then had to resort to reading the write-up in the campus Daily Triton to even get a press photo of Joey’s body. Since the cops had done such an effective job of thoroughly concealing all traces of the inconvenient death, most Fullerton citizens had been easily persuaded to move on. True to form, the ΣΑΩ brothers were throwing a massive bash in memory of their deceased member. Although it truly killed me a little to be attending this superficial celebration, I had decided that the best way to find out more about Joey’s death was to go to the source. Mel had helped me dress for the occasion-a makeover that she was positively giddy about performing. I had been adorned in a black halter top, featuring a thick band of shiny gold sequins that lined the plummeting V-neck. My jewelry and makeup all shimmered and coordinated with Mel’s inherent fashion sense. Why did girls go through all that planning everyday? I would much rather have been in my tattered jeans, flip flops and Budweiser t-shirt. The answer came to me in the form of a tall, tan and muscular frat brother whose name was of no importance in comparison to his body which was what I can only describe as one hundred percent of hot hot hunk. His image was implanted in the imagination of every girl spending that extra 45 minutes perfecting her glistening eyeliner. Unfortunately for Mr. Gorgeous, his opening line instantly confirmed my lingering suspicion that those were a hopelessly wasted 45 minutes.
“Hey there girl.” He said with a sly grin. “I’ve never seen you before. But I’d like to see you in my arms.”
He must have been joking. That wasn’t even a real line! There were hundreds of cheesy pickups to choose from and he delivered that disaster? I hoped this was not an indication of how my entire night would turn out. Nevertheless, I had to start somewhere, so I smiled with as much flirtatious enthusiasm as I could and began my investigation.
“Well, you just might get what you want. Only if you give me something first though.” God this was lame. This guy better at least get me some beer out of that keg I spotted in the corner.
“And what might that be?” Mr. Gorgeous was hoping for a kinky response but I was tired of this game.
“I want to know about Joey Dillow. I assume you know him?”
“Well I KNEW him,” he corrected me, “and he was the shit! Dildo was my brand brother, you know, so we were pretty tight.”
“What the hell is a brand brother?” I asked. This guy might be a good source of information after all.
Mr. Gorgeous looked at me like I was a crazy person for not knowing this apparently sacred term. “It’s the guy you get matched up with at Rush to get branded together. There’s that iron mill out behind the barn and you have to get the Sigma Alpha Omega letters branded on your thigh to show your, you know, allegiance.”
“Branded!? You’re shitting me right?” These frat guys were so much more fucked up than I had ever imagined. It was all so animalistic. The name Farm Frat suddenly had so much more meaning and seemed extremely appropriate. At least that explained where Joey’s gruesomely placed brand had come from.
“Shitting you? No way!” Mr. Gorgeous was offended at my judgmental naiveté. “You’ve got to prove you’re a Sigma brother for life!”
“Well, yeah, I guess I can understand that.” I lied to calm him down. I needed more information from him. “But doesn’t that hurt like hell?”
“Well we’ve perfected it so it’s not so bad. First you take some pain medication with a ton of booze so you’re basically numb. Then you apply massive amounts of ointments and make sure the brand is done in one quick jab.” He demonstrated the jab with a point of his finger. “It’s the cost of being in the tightest brotherhood ever!” Mr. Gorgeous said this last part loud enough to incite an approving wave of deep, rowdy barks from all the guys packed into the filthy living room. “The brands are actually even easier than getting a tattoo.” Mr. Gorgeous showed me the purple viper tattoo on his rippling bicep to prove that he had backup for his claim.
I also had a tattoo-a small “J” on my lower belly-that I had gotten as an act of youthful rebellion in high school. The blistering flesh surrounding Joey’s most recent branding looked much more painful than the experience I remembered. When I expressed this thought to my attractive informant, he said it was because whoever was branding him from the Pi Epsilon Lambda sorority probably didn’t apply enough ointment or had left the iron on his skin for too long.
“Wait, wait, wait. What does Pi Epsilon Lambda have to do with Joey? If the branding is a frat unity thing, why would a sorority girl be doing it?” I asked.
“Beats me. I just figured it was one of them since the brand was their Greek letters.” Handsome shrugged and I could tell he was tiring of this conversation since he kept glancing around the room for a new possible target of his hunt to score. I decided to let him loose and make my way toward the Lambda house. But first I made a beeline to that keg.
There was no way the Pi Epsilon Lambda sisters would have given me the time of day unless I offered them bribery or was somehow connected to their beloved sorority. Being low on cash as always, I lied and said I was a visiting Lambda from the UCSB campus and wanted to make acquaintance with some fellow sisters. They welcomed me with open arms and ushered me into the kitchen where they were having an intimate cocktail party. After gladly partaking in some classy cocktail party shots of tequila, I asked to see the rest of the house. When the tour reached the living room, I was glancing over the wall of photos displaying only partially clothed 18-20 year olds in various stages of drunkenness when one picture specifically caught my attention. Joey Dillow was smiling back at me, arms wrapped tightly around a slender blonde knockout who was staring at him with deep affection. My chatterbox tour guide informed me that the blonde babe was Jessica Conrad, current president of the sorority.
“Joey Dillow went to my high school!” I lied, trying to succeed in my role as a foreigner to Fullerton. “How does she know him?”
The tour guide suddenly looked overcome with grief. “Oh you must not have heard then. Joey died last week from some sort of poisoning. And he was Jessica’s boyfriend. She has been awfully depressed.”
Fortunately my complete shock came across as a reaction to the sad news of Joey’s death as opposed to the real reason being the fact that my tour guide thought Joey was dating her sorority leader. A few other sisters had accompanied us on our tour and now produced scrap books so that I could see for myself what a cute couple they had been. The photos all showed the same Joey Dillow that had claimed his affection for my roommate but was here displaying quit a bit of physical affection for a stranger named Jessica Conrad. That cheating son of a bitch! Thank God Mel hadn’t known he was seeing another girl behind her back. And a sorority girl too! It would have crushed her.
I wandered home feeling pissed partly about Joey’s infidelity but mostly because the shock had killed the great buzz Jose Cuervo had so generously given me. On my way I passed by a Starbucks full of chatty sophisticates satisfying their seventh caffeine fix of the day and almost failed to notice the familiar head of long, wavy blonde hair sitting at the corner table. Mel was cautiously sipping from a steaming Grande Styrofoam cup and was listening intently to another familiar blonde across the table. Her companion was none other than Jessica Conrad, the Lambda president whose existence I had just recently become aware of. Judging from her puffy eyes and trembling hands that she repeatedly pressed against her flushed cheeks, Jessica was quite upset. I, of course, was just plain confused. Mel couldn’t stand sorority chicks and here she was socializing with the leader of their pack? Could it really be only a coincidence that this particular sorority sister was the target of Joey’s disloyal affections? And even if this meeting was purely circumstantial, what could these two possibly have in common that would cause such an emotional conversation? I hurried home to wait for Mel, get some answers and blaze my puzzled thoughts away.
When Mel finally returned, I casually mentioned I had seen her in the coffee shop with someone I knew to be in a sorority and asked how they knew each other. Interestingly, Mel reacted with pleasant surprise at my discovery and even seemed to welcome my little interrogation. She informed me that Jessica volunteered in the same organization that Mel was a member of and they had to meet that night to discuss an upcoming event.
“She’s your typical sorority bimbo,” Mel said. “When we got paired together for this event she told me she knew Joey and she wanted to meet tonight to express her sympathy. She was so emotional, though. It almost seemed like she was over-compensating for something else. Or maybe she’s just a sensitive sorority suzie.”
Mel tried shrugging nonchalantly but I could tell the meeting had sparked some curiosity. What if Mel had been just the sort of threatening incentive Jessica needed to commit murder? I couldn’t voice my suspicion yet without telling Mel about Joey’s affair and I didn’t think she was ready for that kind of news. It was time I spoke with Jessica myself.
Lucky for me the first place I looked was the right one. Jessica was in the meeting room of Mel’s volunteer organization, looking over the plans for their event. I made my presence known by slamming the door closed and taking over the chair beside her.
“Jessica, my name is Jackie DeLyn and I think I know what the fuck you did to Joey Dillow.”
It was the easiest confession ever obtained from a suspect in the history of investigations. Jessica began to sob and did not seem to care that she had no idea who I was.
“I didn’t mean to kill him!” She exclaimed. “I was just going to brand his arm, just to teach him a lesson and get back at him for cheating on me. But I must have mixed up the bottles and put something besides pain pills in his beer. Before I knew it, he wasn’t breathing anymore. I freaked out and left him on the bed. I know I should have told somebody but I was really afraid! It was an accident, I swear!”
She seemed so genuinely distressed that I almost felt a little sorry for her. Almost. She had still killed Joey and not told anyone. Jessica was a murderer, a liar and a criminal and I was going to put her away. But suddenly a detail of her confession struck me as odd.
“Jessica, you said you freaked out and left him on the bed?” I asked. “Then how did Joey get the brand on his dick and who put him out on the balcony?” This just didn’t add up.
Jessica seemed baffled, as if she had never even considered this enigma. Dumb sorority girl. “I guess I just assumed his brothers did it as a prank. Didn’t they?”
Before I could respond to her almost comically ignorant question, a handful of cops came storming through the doorway, shouting that they had heard the confession and she was under arrest. How had they known to be here? I had not planned on such an instant confession and had therefore not alerted anyone of my actions. I asked the deputy but all he was willing to say as he dismissed me with a wave of his gun was that they had received an anonymous phone call. His refusal to unleash any pertinent information to a public individual did not surprise me. Before they could take Jessica away though, a thought occurred to me and I shouted one more question at her.
“Did you say Joey cheated on YOU?” I thought Jessica was the supposed
“He was my boyfriend for three years!” She shouted back.
“How did you find out?” The cops were pushing her into the back seat of a patrol car so I could barely make out the response. In fact, I must have gotten it wrong. Did she just say “My friend Melanie”?
I decided to conceal this bit of information until I had talked with Mel. She owed me some rum in exchange for solving her mystery and I definitely wanted to cash in on that. I told her we should celebrate right away because a good solid night of endless alcoholic glory was just what we both needed. By the time 3 AM rolled around, we were both too hammered to even make it to our beds and decided to pass out in the living room. I had failed to remember what exactly I was supposed to be questioning Mel about but as we staggered to the couches Mel gave me a sloppy hug and made a slurred exclamation that became incredibly significant after my hangover had subsided the following morning.
The repeated ticks of the second hand in the living room clock were vibrating through my skull with deafening precision. I slowly shuffled to the kitchen for some orange juice and Advil and collapsed into a hard wooden chair. As I sipped on my dependable hangover remedy, I glanced through the pile of old papers strewn across the table. Amongst the grocery store coupons and credit card company pleas to register for yet another piece of valuable plastic lay the old Triton article describing Joey’s gruesome death. I re-read the report again and glanced at the grainy photo. There was something unfamiliar about those branded Greek letters. I had never looked closely, but had assumed the police report was correct in deciphering them. How could I have been so naïve? The letters were not ΠΕΛ, as I had originally presumed, but ΜΕΛ. Translation: MEL.
As soon as I was functional enough to brave the glare and noise of the outside world, I made my way back to the Pi Epsilon Lambda house.
“Hi again! You’re still in town! You should have stayed here at the house!” My bubbly tour guide greeted me at the door with far too many exclamation points punctuating her speech. My hangover had not fully subsided and her squeal made my head feel like the inside of the campus bell at every ten-minutes-to-the-hour warning.
“Yeah, hi there.” I tried, but just could not match her bouncy disposition. “I was actually wondering if I could talk to anyone from Jessica Conrad’s rushing class. You know, for moral support in this difficult time.”
“Oh, well that’s really sweet but Jess was actually the only sister to be pledged by the Lambdas at the time that she rushed.”
“Why is that? Don’t you usually pledge a group together?” I was sure this was a ridiculous question for a supposed sister to be asking.
“Well yes, as I’m sure you know,” my tour guide responded somewhat quizzically. “But during Jess’ freshman fall semester our house was having some financial trouble and could not afford all the events that go along with rushing. We decided to only pledge one girl and Jess just happened to be the one!”
The truth was slowly revealing itself but I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know it. My feet were apparently more determined to pursue my suspicions than my head, though, and they increased their pace toward home.
“They finally got what they deserved, those sorority phonies. I bet they’re sorry they chose Jessica now!”
I was too drunk the night before to pay Mel’s comment any notice, but as I hurried back to the apartment I realized she had mistakenly revealed everything to me in her drunken stupor. Lucky for me the newspaper photo had miraculously sparked the almost forgotten memory of her comment. My sorority tour guide’s description of Rush during Mel’s freshman year seemed to tie it all together, but I was still secretly hoping Mel would have a sensible explanation to ease my troubling feeling that she was much more involved than I had ever imagined.
Mel had already awakened, rid herself of a hangover and was busily Windexing the glass door of the oven when I returned. The accusatory look on my face immediately worried her.
“Where have you been JD? You okay?” She tried acting innocent but I could already tell that my verdict was right by the way she was obviously prepping for the defensive.
“I’ve actually made another breakthrough in Joey’s case.” I started.
“Oh really?” She asked. Her voice had become more high pitched with anxiety. “But the case has been solved. You found his murderer Ms. Detective!”
“Well it is true that Jessica administered the deadly poison but you can be damn sure there was another mastermind behind it all.” I said this in my calmest tone, as if I did not suspect her to be the mastermind at all. “Tell me, Mel, why exactly is it you hate sororities so much? I was always in agreement with you so I never asked, but come to think of it, you actually fit the sorority profile to a T. I’m sure if you had rushed you would have been pledged instantly!”
“Yeah if it wasn’t for the bribery of Jessica’s filthy rich family.” As soon as the words escaped her mouth, Mel dropped the Windex bottle and slapped both hands to her lips. She had so much repressed embitterment that she could not even hold back her vengeful feelings to protect her own lie. She had no choice but to own up.
“All right,” she said, lowering her hands and taking a deep breath. “My freshman year I did rush and was the first choice of the Pi Epsilon Lambda sisters. I rejected all other house offers because I was sure they were going to pledge me. But then Jessica Conrad’s parents come swooping in with their bundles of cash and a promise to fund the sorority on a yearly basis, thus ending the Lambda’s financial trouble for good. Of course they chose Jessica’s money over my qualifications, and I’ve hated the entire Greek system ever since.”
“So you flirted with Jessica’s boyfriend to get back at her for taking your place as a sister,” I said. “But I saw the way you talked about Joey. You were seriously into him. So when he wouldn’t give up his sorority girlfriend for you, I guess revenge on them both became necessary. I’m just not sure how you got Jessica to agree to your crazy scheme.”
Mel had turned somewhat ashen as she listened to my accurate theory, but she still nodded in confirmation and slowly clapped several times.
“Very good Jackie. Let me complete your little recap for you. All I had to do was tell Jessica her boyfriend was cheating on her with another girl and she quickly became convinced that payback was necessary. So I suggested a simple branding to prove he was hers. Joey had told me about the brothers’ pain pill and alcohol concoction so I supplied some meds to Jessica. Only I added my own personal touch of toxic kitchen cleaner beforehand.
“How very Martha Stewart of you,” I interjected sarcastically.
Mel smirked. “I knew Jessica wouldn’t finish when she realized she had killed him. That left the gratifying part to me. Joey had hurt my heart so I decided to hurt him where he was the most sensitive. Understand my placement of the brand now?” Mel seemed to be immensely satisfied with her symbolic act. “I even left my own name behind, but the letters are so similar to the Lambdas and the police were so eager to close the case that my little hint was completely overlooked. Displaying him on the balcony was only a last-minute stroke of genius so every stuck up Orange County citizen could see the consequences of their posh standards. Personally, I would have thought you’d be a bit more understanding Jackie. I mean, we both can’t stand all those Greek morons.”
“Understanding!?” I couldn’t believe how wrong I had been about Mel for the past three years. “You are fucking crazy. I might not approve of the Greek system, but none of them deserve what you have done.”
She just shrugged and picked up the Windex.
“You realize I’m going to the cops right?” I asked her.
“Go ahead. Jessica still thinks she was the one who made the fatal pill mistake and I was merely a caring friend who wanted her to know about Joey’s infidelity.” She said this with a pretend pout and batted her eyelashes as if she really was that sincere pal she had feigned to Jessica.
“Jessica won’t say a thing since she is so clueless and the cops certainly aren’t going to believe the accusation of a pothead dropout over a stellar student on her way to early graduation!” She had it all figured out didn’t she? She had even been able to convince me that Joey was her boyfriend and Jessica was the tramp because she knew I never socialized with those sorority girls and would never know the difference. How had I been so blind to her manipulation? At least I could be slightly satisfied in knowing how much she had underestimated me. By recruiting me to investigate Joey’s murder, she was able to frame Jessica and appear innocent and disconnected herself. Mel just never assumed I would solve the entire mystery.
“Fuck you Mel. I’m moving out tomorrow. If I can’t get justice by turning you in, then I’ll at least try to be content by pretending I never knew you.”
“Fine,” she said with indifference. “And don’t you fret, Jackie dear. Justice has indeed been served. Joey won’t break any more hearts, Jessica will have to survive in a prison cell not at all adorned with the expensive amenities she is accustomed to and my excellent reputation remains intact.”
It was just this type of “justice” that convinced me to stay out of school and leave Orange County’s legal system alone. No one could be saved from this Hell hole, especially when it appeared to the disillusioned masses as the glorious Garden of Eden.
The first encounter I had with the horse world was when my kid brother had a pony party for his third birthday. I was six at the time, and the only thing I vividly remember is the pungent smell of crap and a snappy little beast named Sunshine that bit my hand when I tried to feed it a carrot. My brother eventually took up horseback riding as a hobby, and although I learned a thing or two through osmosis I never really took interest myself. I'm not really a horse person, let alone an animal person. I'm not even a people person, really, but when you're a journalist you kind of have to deal with people. Pungent crap and all.
So when I got the call that there was a murder at Fair Oaks Stables, a hoity-toity equestrian facility off the five freeway, I involuntarily grumbled in disgust. It wasn't so much the horses I was worried about, because at least they don't talk. It was the people. Rich horse people are worse than country club people, because not only do they flaunt their money in the form of nice cars and fancy houses, but they pour it on their animals as well. Think of the heiress-types with their dressed-up Chihuahuas under their arms and then multiple the Chihuahuas by about a thousand pounds. That's a show horse. Big and expensive and dressed to the nines in braids and polish and expensive leather. They eat better than we do and they only work for about three hours a day - then they get a massage, a sponge bath, and then they go back to eating. Dear God what I'd give to be one of those animals.
You might think it's strange that there'd be a murder at an equestrian show stable, a cesspool of money and wealth and filth and prestige. But rich people are really no different than the rest of us. They kill people too, probably just as much as regular people. The only difference is that they tend to be less clever. They think their money will save them - and most of the time it does. But this time, the police were involved. Even worse than that, the press were involved. And that meant me. Ben Sanders, age thirty-two, principle columnist for The PILE - that is, The Police Investigator's Literary Journal.
The PILE is really no different than the headlines on a newspaper - we report the facts on crimes, print pictures, profile suspects, list victims, that sort of thing. The only difference is that we don't have all the nice stories - you know, the smut that the papers print when it's a slow news day. "Timmy saves baby kitten from tree!," "Felons give back to the community!," "Politicians tell the truth!" - that kind of sloppy garbage that's supposed to make people feel better about all the bad shit that happens in the world. We don't sugarcoat anything. People die, and we make a semi-glossy pamphlet about murder facts. I like my job.
Except for the day I drove to Fair Oaks Stables for the first time. The air conditioning was shot in my '91 Honda Civic and the only radio station I could get on my busted console was garbling out something peppy and hyper and in a different language. I wasn't happy about this job to begin with, already there were rings of sweat around my shirt collar, and on top of that I couldn't even listen to Ryan Seacrest on his morning talk show. Damn, what a day. When I pulled onto the stable grounds it was clear that a competition was in progress. A "show," as they call them. A show of what? Of how much money daddy was able to pour into Seabiscuit #12? Of your talent with hippity-hoppying over a pattern of Technicolor-painted poles? I didn't get it, but hey this wasn't my world.
I pulled into the dusty parking lot and found the police set-up: LAPD squad cars, big white vans that housed complicated technological equipment, and a bunch of unmarked vehicles about whose functions I never dared ask. It was none of my business, anyway. My business was the fact of the murder. I parked my Civic next to a cop car and got out, ignoring the sour glare I received from the officer leaning against the driver's side door when I flashed my press badge at him. The editor at PILE had some friends in the force - we never had a problem obtaining the proper press passes. Nevertheless, the officer was peeved enough to pull off his aviators and amble towards me as I mopped the sweat from my neck and day-old-stubbled cheek. Damn was it hot, and damn did it smell out here. The cop spat in the dirt by his feet before looking up at me, squinting against the harsh August sun. His upper lip curled with the effort and nearly buried his bushy moustache inside his nostrils as he did so. Cops are my favorite.
"What the hell do you want, Sanders?" the cop growled, not even looking at me as he spoke. I mean, I know I'm good-looking, but he didn't have to be so bashful. We were old friends, after all.
"What I always come for, Innis," I replied. Innis was my favorite cop. "Just the facts. Victim, cause of death, day, time, possible suspects... you know, the works." Innis spat again, as if doing so would properly state how much he disliked speaking to people in general. Innis didn't necessarily dislike me, but more like he tolerated me like a pig tolerated blow flies.
"Victim is James Jericho. Twenty-eight year old male, Caucasian, approximately six foot, blonde hair, brown eyes, no prior incidents of violence or conflict. No enemies, either, as far as we can tell. He was a regular Michael Jordan in the horse world, too. Champion rider, trainer, rode in the Olympics, all that. Started judging these junior horse shows about two years ago. Then last night some stable hand finds him an empty horse stall - standing up, dead as Cher's singing career, with a pitchfork through his chest. That shit went straight through him and pinned him to the wall."
"A pitchfork?" I tried to picture the scenario in my mind. I couldn't decide if it was outright horrifying or downright creative. In the end, I decided on both.
"Yeah, a pitchfork, that big sharp pronged thing that they use to clean up horse dookies. Classy way to end it, huh?"
"Very," I grunted as I pulled out the yellow notepad and pen that I had in the back pocket of my worn Levis. This was going to be a fun one, I could already tell. I scribbled out my notes and glanced up at Innis. "So, any suspects?"
"Nope, none. No leads. This person was neat about it. That, or it's so goddamn dirty around here that none of forensics team can get a damn thing. No fingerprints, no footprints. If there were any traces last night when the stiff got pronged, then they were covered by an inch of dust and dirt this morning when we were called. The only thing they found was an full syringe in the guy's pocket. Had some stuff called Clenbuterol in it, supposed to be some kind of asthma medicine for horses. Can you believe that? Horses with asthma?" Innis snorted, then continued, "And the only DNA the team got was a couple samples of horse hair. Something tells me that Flicka and Black Beauty aren't behind the murder."
I begged to differ. I was fairly certain that if the horses here were anything like that Sunshine creature in my childhood, they were capable of anything. But the odds were against it. I scowled and scratched the back of my head, and I could feel sweat collecting underneath my wiry brown curls.
"So why not seal the scene? Clean everything? Why let these yuppies to have their money show when there's a murder investigation going on."
"Have you met this people yet, Sanders? They're crazy. They spent their money on this show, and they won't stop it for anything. Some year end championship, some shit like that," he waved his hand indifferently and looked away. He sighed then said, "Plus, the chief's niece is riding today. She begged and pleaded for hours. The chief's a softy."
I tried really hard not to laugh at the irony. Persuadable policeman? Nooo, never heard of them! But policeman are like blondes: it's okay to make fun of them so long as you are one of them. Otherwise, you're an outsider, and laughing at them makes you judgmental. It seemed like Innis didn't notice, because after a moment he shrugged and turned his broad shoulders away from me, as if to leave. "Well, it's been great chattin' with you friend, but I have a murder investigation to oversee..."
"Wait, that's it?" I snapped, a little annoyed that he thought that was good enough.
"Yeah, that's it pal," Innis replied, his wily moustache twitching impatiently. "Can't give you anything else... it ain't there." Well that simply wouldn't do. My editor was picky, and half-formed murder speculations wouldn't make anyone pick up a PILE. If I couldn't get anything else on this Jacob Jericho and the mystery Poopfork, I was screwed. And I couldn't afford a screwing.
"Look, Innis, I need - "
"I know, I know, friend... you need the details. I don't know what to tell you. If the facts ain't there, then go find them." He was half-kidding, and I knew it, but I decided to take him up on it anyway. I stuffed the yellow notepad in my back pocket, tipped my head to Innis, and strode out of the parking lot in the direction of five rows of crisp, freshly painted rectangular barn isles. I sort of heard Innis yelping after me to make sure I stayed out of the investigators' hair, not cause any trouble, yadda yadda. I heard him, but the fact was I had a deadline to make and no story to write about. This was about a paycheck. And sometimes money is a powerful motivator - even for me.
I'd never really done this before, taken an investigation into my own hands for the sake of a story, but I didn't really have a choice. Besides, how hard could it be? I liked reading crime novels; I was a big Raymond Chandler fan, and he made it look like a cinch. Unfortunately, I didn't really know exactly what I was doing. While contemplating my next move, I ambled up to the crisp white railing of one of the sand arenas and hooked my sneaker on the bottom rung, watching the antics inside. They were awarding prizes to a line-up of horses and riders - colorful fake-satin ribbons that probably put the show manager back twenty cents a pop. All of this, the stress, the money, the time, the commitment, for a damn ribbon? These people must have been crazy - crazy and stupid - maybe even crazy and stupid enough to kill a man with a pitchfork.
"Is your kid riding in there?" The voice was bright and bubbly, way too bright and bubbly for such a hot day... way too bright and bubbly for any day, actually. I turned slowly and narrowed my eyes, taking in the effervescent, doll-like creature that had snuck up on my right side. She was shorter than me, probably about eighteen but she looked much younger, with ash-blonde hair and round, pink cheeks that must have been flushed from riding. Her black velvet helmet was propped between the crook of her elbow and one curved hip, and she wore the same ridiculous coat and breeches as the rest of the yuppies in the ring. She was smiling at me, an openly friendly smile that probably made her instantly likable to most people. It scared the crap out of me, though.
"I don't have any kids," I growled, looking back at the ring. "And if I did, I'd make them take up karate or bowling or something more practical." I figured if I ignored her she would go away. She didn't.
"Then if you don't mind my asking," she pursued, "... why exactly are you here? Not to be rude, but you don't exactly look like.. a horse person." I wasn't offended. She was right.
I wasn't going to tell her at first. Besides, aren't murder investigations supposed to be kept confidential? But I didn't have any idea where to start or what to look for, and it probably wouldn't hurt to have someone like this Barbie-kid around, someone who knew the place and probably knew a lot of people. I sighed gruffly and turned to her, sticking my hand out in greeting.
"The name's Ben Sanders, I'm a journalist," I said, somewhat reluctantly. She shook my hand - hard. She was tiny, but she had one hell of a grip and plenty of strength behind it.
"Hi there, I'm Lacey Simpson. You here to write about the Junior Championship? I'm in it, you know. I've got a scholarship to USC in the fall and a spot on the equestrian team, but it all kinda depends on today. I've got to place in the top three for them to take me, and I want to win, you know? I'd do anything for it --"
"-- that's.. nice, Lacey," I interrupted, trying to sound as if I actually cared. Truth was, I had no idea what she was talking about, and really it had nothing to do with me anyway. "I'm actually here to investigate a murder." Her eyes got so big and round that I thought they might swallow the rest of her face. She made a quiet little gasp, then nodded confidentially, as if I were to understand that my secret was safe with her.
"Oooh," she said in a whisper, "James Jericho's murder, right? I heard about it this morning. Crazy, isn't it? Everybody loved him, too..." She trailed off, then looked away, as if the heaviness of the subject were too much for her to bear at the moment. I was about to just give up and walk away when she finally mustered the courage to say, "Well, is there anything I can help you with? I'd met James a couple times, he judged some of the shows around here. I know this place like the back of my hand, and I've been riding horses since I could walk." She was smiling again, bright and bubbly.
"Sure..." I muttered, digging out my notebook again and trying to think of what sort of questions I should ask. I flipped over the top page, glancing over my chicken-scratch notes, and noticed one bullet point I'd made. Clenbuterol. I looked up at Lacey. She was still smiling. "Say, Lacey, have you ever heard of a horse drug called Clenbuterol? They found a syringe of it in Jericho's pocket, it's supposed to clear up horsey asthma or something --"
"Oooh," the girl-doll interjected, that same hushed tone she'd used when talking about the murder itself. "Clen? That's illegal on the show circuit, sort of acts like a steroid in most horses. We aren't allowed to give it to them but--" She stopped short, as if she felt like she shouldn't be saying what was poised on her flushed, sun-pinkened lips. "Well, this is supposed to be a secret around here but..." She glanced over her shoulder, then continued. "Some girls use it to lose weight. Boosts their metabolism, like a diet pill. I'd heard a nasty rumor that James was supplying this one girl with Clen, and she was supplying him with... well, you know, use your imagination." Lacey raised her blonde eyebrows and pursed her lips, as if to utter the word sex would somehow defame her character. I nodded politely.
"I see. Well, as long as we're on a role here, what's this gal's name?"
Vienna Sheraton was in no mood to talk. All she'd had to eat that day was a stalk of celery and an Evian, and she needed all of her strength for the Championship in a few hours. She was puffing anxiously on a cigarette, nibbling at the filter like it would provide her waif-like frame with much-needed sustenance, but the resulting effect made her look somewhat like a hungry gerbil. A handsome gerbil, though: she was much too skinny, definitely, but she was tall, with long dark hair and bright blue eyes that were probably quite nice if they weren't obscured by her half-mast eyelids. I wanted to tell the girl to go eat a damn sandwich, but that wasn't the point. This girl was a suspect in Jericho's murder.
"Vienna Sheraton, my name's Ben Sanders," I barked, sounding more confident by the minute. Lacey, who stood behind my left shoulder, had already told me what I needed to know. "Were you with James Jericho last night around nine o'clock?" I tried to sound tough, like Mick Stranahan did in Carl Hiaason's book, and I thought I was doing a pretty good job.
"Nope, I was with my spiritual counselor," Vienna replied, not even raising her heavy lashes to look at me directly. She had a thick, husky voice, one that didn't quite suit her frail physique. She took one last drag on the cigarette, as if saying goodbye, then stubbed it out with one expensively booted foot. Vienna was a hotel heiress, with money coming out of her emaciated ass, and she clearly didn't appreciate the fact that her good name was on the line.
"The truth would be nice, Miss Sheraton," I replied gruffly, already annoyed by this skeletal ditz. She tilted her head and looked at me sideways, then half-smiled.
"I'm sick and tired of this bullshit from you people. I told the same stuff to that cop with the bad moustache. James and I were bed buddies. So what? I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't kill the guy." Her voice never left the bored, steady pitch of a girl who really couldn't be bothered to care. "So what if he gave me a few breaks in the show ring? I work hard at my riding and my love making. I deserved every single ribbon I got." Her sleepy eyes drifted over my shoulder, to Lacey. Suddenly, the demure little sprite behind me seemed to spark to life. She started speaking so rapidly that I could feel a fine mist of spit coating the back of my neck.
"Fair? You call that fair? You had James all wrapped up, Vienna - he would have pinned you first even if you friggin' fell off!" Lacey was seething. "He was a crooked judge and you made him that way! I would have won those classes if it hadn't been for him!" I turned around and told her to shut-up: her face was ruddy with anger, but she begrudgingly complied.
"Did he supply you with Clenbuterol from his personal veterinarian?" I asked, trying to retain the composure of the moment. Lacey had tipped me off to that piece of information, too. Vienna laughed shortly, running a lethargic hand through her bone-straight mahogany hair.
"He did, up until last week. Said it was getting too risky, that his vet was on to him. I was paying him well enough, damn it," she snuck another glance at Lacey, "not just the body bonus, but with money, too. James was a bit short on cash; most judges are. But he bailed on me, that asshole, and I know for a fact he still had some Clen on him." Her voice dipped to a growl, and she dug in the pocket of her dark blue show coat for another cigarette. She held it between her twig-like fingers, not lighting it quite yet.
"Did that make you angry?" Lacey prompted from behind me, her nymph-like face puckering in a sour sneer.
This kid was really getting on my nerves. "Hey, I said I got this, okay?" I snapped, then turned back to Vienna. I waited a minute, trying to think of something more clever to ask, then I gave up. "Well, did it make you angry?"
The heiress laughed caustically. "Of course it did. That jerk was my lover, my dealer, and my ticket to winning the Championship. I'm pissed that someone killed him."
I was convinced that that someone was Vienna. Who else had the motivation? Who else could have known that Jericho had those pony drugs on him when he was killed? I pictured the scenario in my head: scarecrow woman - the lover scorned, the junkie needing her diet pill fix - flew into a hunger-induced rage and poked the crap out of the poor guy. But then why wouldn't she have taken the syringe of Clen for herself? And that girl looked like she could barely lift her cigarette, let alone impale a six-foot-tall man with a pitchfork. I had my doubts, but so far Vienna Sheraton was the only hope I had for a real story - and a real paycheck.
Lacey had to run off and get ready for the Championships - "I'll just die if I don't win!" - and promised to help as soon as the medal was awarded. I watched her scurry down the barn aisle and start pampering a big gray girl-horse - a mare, or so I'm told - a creature that was so fancy looking that it reminded me of a moving silver stature. I privately wondered how much that thing did cost as I turned sharply away from Vienna, whose own efforts to ready her show mount were excruciatingly slow and un-anxious. I promised her I'd be back, she promised me she wouldn't kill anyone while I was gone, and I made my way back to the dusty parking lot where the investigation team was still camped out.
I found Innis scarfing down a chili cheese dog and slurping on a root beer. He gestured his free hand over to a lunch truck parked next to one of the unmarked police vans. "Got this from the Roach Coach. Pretty damn good if you ask me."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that half of the chili had worked itself into the bushy tundra of his moustache. I didn't have the stomach to look at it for very long, either. I cleared my throat and turned away, pretending to be engrossed in my notebook. "Well Innis, I think I have a suspect."
"Ah! Really? Do tell!" the sarcasm in his chili-encrusted voice made my jaw get a bit more tense. I had opened my mouth to growl out Vienna's name when Innis interrupted, "If it's that Sheraton girl, forget it."
I tapped my pen petulantly. "Why?"
"Because her alibi checked out," he replied between mouthfuls of processed meat and gulps of root beer. "She was with her spiritual counselor from 6:30 to 10:30. By the time she got out, the murder had already been committed."
"Spiritual counselor?" I snorted. Was he kidding? "You're buying that garbage, Innis?"
"Have to. Her spiritual counselor is some upstanding citizen. Those fortune-teller people don't lie. She has her own hotline and everything. Plus, the secretaries at the front desks confirmed it too." He finished off his soda and belched happily. "Airtight, friend, airtight."
Well this was getting a little ridiculous. No wonder cops were always in such a lousy moods all the time - their jobs sucked. Dead ends, everywhere. "Any other leads at all?"
Innis thought about it for a second, his chili-soaked moustache twitching ponderously, then replied, "Oh, yeah, DNA got info back on those horsehairs they found in the stall with Jericho. Turns out only half of them actually belonged to a horse. The other half belonged to a hooker in South Florida who goes by the name Flipper Blue."
"Well she didn't kill him, obviously. She's a ward of state and can't leave Miami. They caught her selling her wares on a street corner and sentenced her to a year of probation. Made her donate her luxurious mane of raven locks as part of the terms of her probation. The hair was supposed to go to a charity wig factory, but somehow it ended up here."
"Apparently they make wigs for horse's tails. Did you know that? I didn't. Like them hair extensions those rich gals get on TV and stuff. Anyway, Flipper's hair ended up in a factory that makes wigs for horse's tails. They mix human hair and horse hair to make the pieces look more soft and luxurious. Crazy shit, huh?"
I couldn't decide which piece of information was more difficult to believe: the fact that people actually made a career of putting together wigs for a horses' asses, or that a hooker would actually name herself Flipper. Either way, it changed the situation entirely. "So what about the hair, you guys gonna follow up on it?"
I wasn't surprised in the least to hear Innis reply, "Yeah, tomorrow. The rest of the day is almost shot. When the Roach Coach leaves, our guys are packing up for the night. They got families too, ya know." The problem was, I needed my information today. Now, preferably.
After buying a burrito grande from the Roach Coach I made my way back to the show grounds, watching distractedly as a horse and rider pair hippity-hopped over a pattern of decorative jumps. Lacey would be in there soon, and so would Vienna. Maybe even the killer, too.
I didn't really know what to do with myself. I didn't have any other leads, and Lacey was busy - she couldn't help me with any more insider knowledge. Then again, her tip-off to Vienna was no good, so maybe I didn't need her after all. I wandered around the backsides of the crisply painted barns, watching silent stable hands scurry back and forth, supplying King Black Beauty and Queen Flicka their mid-afternoon food and beverage. I figured I may as well scope out the scene of the crime: Barn #6, stall #11. There was practically nobody around - apparently this Junior Championship thing was a big deal - so I ambled over to the caution-taped stall without being spotted. I shook my head and muttered (the stall wasn't even being guarded to preserve the crime scene, for God's sakes), then ducked under the poorly designed partition and into the stall. I stood up and nearly crapped my pants - in front of me was a giant mass of thick, black hair, held upright only by a pair of gnarled old hands. I shouted something obscene before the person behind the hair jumped and poked her head out, scowling at me angrily. It was then that I realized the hair didn't belong to this person staring at me: it was, in fact, a wig of some kind, which the old woman was clutching as if it were made of gold. I was at a loss for words (you'd be, too, if there was a giant hunk of hair in front of your face for no apparent reason) until I realized what that hunk was. It was a tail wig, or extensions, or whatever the hell Innis had called them.
"Who the hell are you?" the old woman demanded before I could get a word in edgewise. She was about four and a half feet tall and about seventy-five, her hair was pure white and her eyes were rheumy and clouded. She had a strong nose and leathery skin, as if she had swathed herself in Crisco and laid out in the sun for most of her life. I had a sneaking suspicion that she'd done just that. The old woman eyed me then slowly, carefully, then brought the extensions down to her side. "I asked you a question, sonnny."
I blinked, waited a beat, then answered, "My name's Ben Sanders. Are you aware that you're trespassing on a crime scene?" I wasn't sure if that was the right terminology or not, but I figured the Wicked Witch of the West wouldn't know the difference.
"I could say the same for you, skippy," she snarled, sizing me up. "My name's Rhonda. I just came back to collect what was mine, that's all." And with that she turned back around, stooped down, and began sifting through the sawdust on the stall floor like a hound looking for a squirrel. I stared at her in disbelief. She held the tail extension in her right arm, cradled to her flannel bosom like a baby, and poked around for something I certainly couldn't see. I thought I'd humor her, the poor dear.
"What exactly are you looking for, Rhonda?" Never mind that she was disturbing a crime scene.
"Hair," was her curt reply, as if I was so stupid she couldn't even stand it. Her voice sounded like dry needles cracking under work boots. "For the rest of these extensions. These things ain't cheap, ya know, and that bastard never paid me for this." She continued to shuffle around as if I wasn't even there.
"Are you talking about James Jericho, Rhonda?"
"Of course I am. Cheapest bastard on the southern California circuit. Bought three sets of tail extensions from me for his prized show horses and only paid me for two of them."
I wasn't sure if I was getting anywhere or not. I just went with it. "And the third?"
Rhonda stood up, so slowly that I probably could have heard her vertebrae crack one by one if I'd been paying attention, and sneered. "Are you stupid? I'm holding it right here, Sherlock." She stooped back down and kept looking. "Snatched it back from the cheapskate last night, as a matter of fact. No money, no hair. He's a strong man, but I'm pretty scrappy myself. Managed to get most of it, but he held on to a few hairs. I figured I'd come back later and collect them, sew it back into the piece." The sinister laugh that wheedled out of her senile lips made me cringe.
"You're not going to find anything," I stated simply.
"Why not?" she didn't bother to stand up this time.
"Because a murder investigation team already swept this stall for clues. They have the hair."
"What?" she croaked.
"Rhonda, are you aware that there was a murder here last night?" My gaze was steady. I wasn't sure I trusted this woman. "James Jericho is dead."
Her leathery skin lightened a few shades, and for a moment I thought she was going to faint. But the moment passed, and when it did her ancient expression was fiercer than ever. "Nope, didn't know that, have to be going, bye now!" She tried to hustle past me, but I stopped her. Rhonda stomped on my toe, but she only weighed about 85 pounds so I didn't even feel it.
"Get out of my way!" she snapped.
"I can't," I replied firmly. "You could be a suspect in a murder investigation." A dispute over money, scrappy little Rhonda, and a pitchfork? It could work.
"I didn't do shit, skippy, now let me be! All I want is my money and that's it. I didn't kill no James Jericho," her face was puckered and bright red, like Lacey's had gotten when she had been yelling at Vienna earlier. Puckered, and flushed. Angrier than hell. I wavered. I saw something I hadn’t seen before, and it didn’t have to do with Rhonda. Then I changed the subject.
"Rhonda, can I ask you a personal question?" I was looking at that big bushy tail, the ass ornament, and I couldn't possibly imagine why it was so expensive.
"I didn't kill nobody. But if I answer you, will you let me go?" Her eyes were black and gleaming, like marbles on a white plate.
"What's the purpose of these things?" I ran a hand down the tail extension. "Isn't it just silly?"
That same high, wheedling laugh came from her papery lips, and I realized that it sounded more sardonic than sinister. "Because this place is just like the rest of L.A. It's all about appearances, the way you look - not what it took to get here. Only the pretty ones win, and people will do anything to win. So they do anything it takes to make sure they win. Whether it's buying a tail wig or paying off a judge -- "
"-- or killing one," I murmured. I felt like someone had shoved a pitchfork through my chest. Her cheery voice echoed through my head. "... I want to win, you know? I'd do anything for it... I would have won those classes if it hadn't been for him... I'll just die if I don't win..."
Lacey. She would have done anything to win that medal, even if it meant murdering a judge who would have placed her anorexic rival over her in the final standing. She would have done anything to win the Championship - she would have died for it, and she would have killed for it.
She did kill for it.
I thought about everything, about Lacey's eagerness to help me, her false accusations of Vienna, her strangely powerful grip when we shook hands. She was small, but she could have easily javelined that pitchfork into James Jericho's chest, especially if she were angry enough.
I left Rhonda bewildered and confused as I sprinted towards the show arena. If I hurried, there would still be time. There would still be time to deny the murderer of what she wanted most - to win.
But it was too late. As I neared the fresh, white fence rail, I saw Lacey and her silver mare parading around the ring, a blue ribbon fastened around the horse's neck, a gold medallion around Lacey's. She played the part of a gracious winner quite well - smiling and waving, humble and gracious - too bad nobody knew she'd killed a judge for it. As she rode past she fasted her bright, bubbly smile on me, and I could tell by the stony look in her eyes that she knew I'd figured it out.
But I could tell from that psychotic smile on her face that it didn't matter. She'd gotten what she wanted. She'd won the Junior Championship. It didn't matter that she would be taken into custody that night (Innis made a special trip back to Fair Oaks for the occasion), posted at high bail, and would face the possibility of life in prison for premeditated homicide. She had that twenty cent blue ribbon, that twenty cent medal, and that's all that mattered. Lacey had won. Lacey Simpson and her blue-ribbon smile, pasted for eternity on a murderer's face