Authors: Susan Dunlap
I nodded. Lots of people in Berkeley did yoga. I was not one of them.
But Takai must have taken my nod as encouragement, for she continued, “Forward bends not only calm the mind; they massage the digestive organs, tone the urinary system, the abdominal muscles, and strengthen the entire back. If you practice them daily, you—” She stopped abruptly. I was sure she’d slipped into a spiel from one of her classes. “My first class is at nine thirty. So if you can be brief …”
A woman used to being in control. I said, “I need to identify a man in an accident. A friend of yours, Mason Moon, said the victim was an IRS agent who’d been dealing with you.”
She sucked her lips in. It looked as if she didn’t have lips at all, at least not in the middle of her mouth. For another person it might not have been much of a response, but for a woman who had shown nothing but controlled impatience, this was the kind of reversion it would take a lot of forward bends to rectify. “What kind of accident?” she asked in a completely different tone of voice.
She waited. I didn’t elaborate but said, “His name?”
“Drem,” she snapped. She shut her eyes momentarily (a little forward bend of the lids?) and said only slightly more calmly, “Philip Drem.
“Does he live in Berkeley?” If he didn’t, Pereira could call his jurisdiction and have them deal with the family.
“I don’t know. We didn’t deal in small talk. Now if you’re finished …” She glanced toward the door. It was virtually beside her since she hadn’t encouraged me in farther than was necessary to shut it.
I hate to leave when people want me to go. I took a step away. “Was Philip Drem difficult to work with?”
“He was here to audit me!” she said in an exasperated tone that conveyed not only her opinion of the event but of me for being dense enough to question her.
Defensiveness like that is a flashing red light. “Was he overzealous? You complained enough about Drem to Mason Moon.”
Takai let her eyes close again. When she opened them, they looked different. “It’s hard not to grumble when someone demands money. But Mason tends to dramatize everything. Anyway, that’s over and done with. Drem’s out of my consciousness. Before you brought him up, I hadn’t even thought about him in ages.”
Whether by visualized forward bend or whatever, she had managed to tone down her response. I wasn’t sure where the truth was between Moon’s flashing red version and her pallid gray one. If I’d had another ten minutes, I could have found out. But if Drem survived, it wouldn’t matter; if he died, I’d be back. Now I wanted to get the ID to Pereira. Philip Drem’s six minutes would be long gone. But maybe he’d done better than I imagined; maybe the ID would help him.
Before I finished telling Takai I’d probably need to see her again, she had closed the door.
I hurried past the fridge and that odd tuliped sink around the side of the house to my car. Since it was my own car rather than the patrol car, there was no radio.
I flagged down a patrol car on Telegraph and called in the ID. Then I drove back to the scene of the accident. Almost an hour had passed since I’d left. I looked quickly to the end of the street by People’s Park, but there was no sign of Howard’s sting. He’d have reeled in his victim by now, and the action would be down at the station.
Regent Street too looked merely middle-of-the-night now. A pair of patrol cars was still there, parked by a hydrant and in a crosswalk, lights out, radios off. And the slow progress of the officers going house to house would have been noticeable only to someone spending the night looking out a darkened window. I waited till one of the uniforms emerged from a house near the spot where Drem’s bicycle had been abandoned. It was Leonard, a short gray-haired guy who’d been a veteran when I started in Patrol.
Leonard had been laid-back before the term entered the realm. There was a disarmingly shambling quality about him. He was the kind of cop who knew everyone on his beat and found a soupçon of decency in felons the rest of us would have classified as pornographic (no socially redeeming qualities). Because of that, he’d managed to get case-breaking hints from guys who knew they were on their way home to Q. (Or maybe they couldn’t quite believe this cop whose shirtsleeves were always wrinkled, whose pencil point was always broken, could be smarter than they were.) Whatever the reason, patrol was Leonard’s forte, and he knew it.
Leonard should have gone off duty at eleven o’clock. It was going on 1:00
now, but he didn’t seem to mind. The wind had picked up, and it flapped at the sides of his tan jacket, the summer-weight jacket. But he seemed no colder than Lyn Takai had.
“So,” I said, “you manage to massage anything out of the neighbors?”
“It was late, you know. A time people are watching the tube, or listening to the stereo, or getting ready for bed.”
From another man, that might have been an excuse for coming up empty. From Leonard, it meant full pockets. “Someone saw Drem get off the bike?”
“After a fashion.” Leonard hated to overstate.
“The house right by the bike, the one propped up, with the foundation damage,” I said, looking over at one of the earthquake’s casualties. The whole crawl space was open to the air. “Are there people living there?”
“No. Anyway, it wasn’t the neighbors. It was one of the street people, guy named Sierra. Mason Moon spotted him. Murakawa passed him on to me. You heard of Sierra?”
I shook my head. It had been years since I’d had this beat.
“Well, he’s not someone you’d want to take on the stand, if you know what I mean. And really, Smith, when you find out what he said …” Leonard shrugged,
motion for which his shambling body seemed to have been created. “It’s no help, but he’s the only one who saw anything. I’ll have another go at him tomorrow. He could have been hoping for a few bucks from the snitch fund. Maybe he really didn’t see anything at all. It doesn’t make much difference.”
“Leonard!” I said, exasperated. No wonder felons let down their guard with him. “What did Sierra see?”
Leonard leaned an arm on the patrol car. His tan shirtcuff stuck out beyond his sleeve, wrinkled. “Sierra said Drem looked shaky, like he was on something, which is an area Sierra knows about. Said Drem propped the bike against the phone pole and had to brace himself on it before he squatted down and fiddled with his locks. Said he didn’t think a guy in that condition could get them out of his baskets and through the tires, but he did. Got them partway locked, and then it seemed like he didn’t realize they were still open. He pushed himself up and staggered into the street.”
That confirmed what we’d figured, but it broke no new ground. And if I knew Leonard, it wasn’t what his pockets were full of. “And?”
“And then, Sierra said, a patrol officer came.”
“Now that’s the odd thing that makes me wonder if Sierra really saw anything. He says a dark-haired officer in uniform. Came up to the bike, but didn’t see Drem.”
“Looked at the bike and left?” I asked, amazed.
Leonard shrugged again. “Like I said, it’s not worth much. Probably nothing. I’ll catch him again tomorrow.”
“Could have been his own private screening,” I said. “Whatever Sierra saw, it was not a patrol officer eyeballing the scene and wandering off into the dark.” No Berkeley patrol officer would have left the scene—I knew that, I believed it. But just in case, I was glad to have Leonard following up.
I walked back to my car and headed for the station. I thought Howard and his crew might be there celebrating his sting. They weren’t. I’d hoped Raksen, the lab tech, might have seen something telling on Drem’s bike. But it was way too soon for the compulsively thorough Raksen to say anything. What I wasn’t expecting was Pereira.
I walked in from the parking lot through the squad room. Seeing me, Pereira jumped up and raced toward me, her face flushed. “Philip Drem,” she said. “Do you know who he is?”
“An IRS agent.”
“Not just any Treasury agent, Smith. Philip Drem is the Al Capone of the auditors. When word that he’s been hospitalized hits, half of Berkeley will be sighing in relief.”
HEN A YOUNG, HEALTHY-LOOKING
man stumbles into the street and collapses, it makes me wonder. When he’s one of the most hated employees of the nation’s most-loathed bureaucracy, I get suspicious. And when I hear a cockamamy tale about a patrol officer ignoring his fallen body, eyeing his bicycle, and wandering off into the night …
I had the feeling that this case was going to blow any minute. But before the eruption came, there was not a thing I could do to contain the disaster.
I pulled my car into Howard’s driveway, wishing Pereira’d had some conclusive word on Drem’s condition. Drem was still alive, barely. I kept picturing him lying in the road with that terrified look. The face I saw wasn’t the “Al Capone of the auditors.” It belonged to someone who’d nonchalantly climbed on his bike, turned downhill, and ridden straight into the angel of death.
But there was nothing I could do now. My skin felt clammy from exhaustion, and it quivered from stress that wouldn’t dissipate before I was called to the next crime scene. It certainly wouldn’t ease up enough so I could sleep tonight. I’d spend the night thrashing around. I’d probably kick over Howard’s tax door-table, knock his tax forms all over the bedroom, and break my foot in the bargain.
And to make matters worse, I was starved. I’d bought a quart of Chocolate Chocolate Shower ice cream yesterday. What were the chances of any of it still being in the freezer? Yesterday (Thursday) had been the beginning of spring break for Howard’s tenants (two students, one prof, and one TA, all of whom would have dropped out before taking a class that met on Friday). They’d all packed and departed for beaches, friends’ houses, or places where they could do even less than they managed here. I would have bet my car that my Chocolate Chocolate Shower had left inside of one of them.
But at least they were gone. And the brown-shingled other woman was empty of the increasingly “tolerant” tenants Howard was forced to accept in order to pay the rent. The only ones who were willing to join his indolent assemblage of lessees, their ever-changing live-in or-out lovers, tabbies, beagles, and, on one occasion, boa constrictor (who was reputed to have disappeared into the pipes) were more of the same. Howard’s house was one of the few places where I could be living in sin and still feel like a mother superior.
I came around the front of the house. The wind ruffled the leaves of the hornbeam or hackberry. My skin was still quivering and cold. It wasn’t just from the wind or the Drem case. I stopped and glanced up at Howard’s bedroom windows. The panes were dark. The chill in my chest faded. It didn’t take a shrink to interpret that. But I was too tired to ponder the house and the reason I didn’t just resent it but was physically uncomfortable every time I had to go inside. It was decrepit, of course, but I’d lived in worse places. Shabbiness had a certain appeal to me. And for Howard, every scraped or nicked doorjamb was part of an elegant entryway waiting for rebirth, an entryway to one of the future rooms of his dreams. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t see that. I wasn’t sure either, but I didn’t. For me, those oak doors only swung closed. And locked.
If I’d had this reaction to anything else, I would have worked it through by talking to Howard. God, I missed the old Howard: leaning back in his chair, his long legs extended, feet the size of skateboards tapping against the coffee table, and that wry grin on his face as he elucidated the male point of view. Or lantern chin extended, blue eyes scrunched as we considered the problem and played through and discarded the options. The old Howard would have asked if my reaction would be the same to any house that captured Howard. Or was there something unnerving about this particular house? But the old Howard was little more than a memory, and even the new Howard wasn’t in sight. He was probably out celebrating with Castillo and the other guys on his sting.
Pushing aside my irrational discomfort, I opened the door and stepped into the dark foyer. The cavernous living room seemed dark and empty, but I could make out the pale glow in the fireplace.
I sighed. Damn—one of the tenants hadn’t left. I’d come in on romantic scenes here before. The Never-on-Friday set had lots of time for liaisons of the heart, which frequently ended up liaisons on the sofa. Passion, I’ve found, is not so attractive to the observer as to the participants, and I was too tired to deal with one of those awkward conversations where only one third of the conversants is clothed. I moved as silently as possible, giving the sofa a wide berth.
I was almost at the corner of the dining room when the figure on the sofa rose to sitting. Alone. It was Howard.
“What are you doing here in the dark?” I said. “I figured you’d be off celebrating Hentry’s collar.”
“No collar,” Howard snapped.
“Oh, no. How could it … Damn!” I sat down next to him and turned on the light. “Did Hentry spot the trap?”
“By the time Hentry got there, there was no trap.” Howard spoke through gritted teeth, directing his comments to his knees. The fire was down to embers. The flue, one of the many marginally working items here, must have been about a third open. The whole room smelled of smoke, the dark-green walls almost invisible, and it was cold. Howard, in a cotton shirt, didn’t seem to notice. But I was shaking. I pushed back into the sofa cushions and drew my feet up under me.
Howard’s sting had been half a block from Drem’s accident. Could the crowd left over from Drem have derailed Howard’s plan? Surely Pereira and the backups had gotten them dispersed well before midnight. Surely … “What happened?”
He sucked in air through his clenched teeth. “Okay. You know the setup. Castillo’s already in People’s Park with the regulars there. He’s got his sleeping bag and a backpack full of gear. All the guys in the park—the street people, the homeless guys, the winos, the addicts, the runaways—they all think Castillo’s a regular too. He’s spent a month of his life sleeping in shelters, or in the park, or in alleys. He’s eaten in soup kitchens. He’s worn the same stinking clothes for a week at a time. I mean, I could barely stand to talk to him. You can imagine what his wife thought.”