The first thing Jones did when Carter walked in and dumped her handbag on her desk was lean across and hand her a scuffed address card. “What’s this?” she asked.
She turned it over. “Oh. Helen Marshall? This address current?”
“Far as I know.”
“We’ll run her details anyway. Fancy a road trip this afternoon?”
“I’m connected,” Jones said with an apologetic shrug.
“She’s my wife’s cousin’s best friend.”
“You’re about as connected to her as I am…”
“C’mon, she was Karen’s maid of honour, and I’m, like, ninety-percent certain I went to that wedding. She’d recognise me.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Uh…twenty years ago?”
“You always been that fat?”
“Fuck you. Get someone else. I gotta stay out of this one.”
Sergeant Beauchamp rapped Jones on the back of the head as he strolled past his desk. “Hey, department meeting, assholes.”
“Since when?” Carter asked.
“Since five fuckin’ minutes ago.” He pointed to the door to the little conference room off the main office. “Colburn looks pretty pissed.”
The Homicide department slowly filtered their way into the conference room where Lieutenant Colburn was waiting for everyone in her usual arms-folded stance. There were a dozen detectives – it was technically a small-town precinct, but on the fringes of the Los Angeles metropolitan area as they were their bloated staff was a simple necessity. Carter, as the most junior member of the department, hung near the back. Jones, as one of the longest-serving but least enthusiastic, did likewise. “Okay,” Colburn said, “this morning I got a call that I didn’t want to get. It’s probably going to affect us all in one way or another – especially you two, Jones and Carter.”
They exchanged a glance. “Us?” Carter asked.
Jones scratched at his unshaven chin. “The fuck’d we do?”
“Nothing. Yet. But it looks like someone leaked some details about our current investigations to the press. I got a tip-off that there’s a couple reporters sniffing around the Yucca Valley Barn Murder and that they know we think it might be connected to some other unsolved murders. I hope I don’t have to remind anyone that the last thing we need is hysteria about a serial killer on the loose.”
“This is bullshit,” Carter said for the second time in less than ten minutes. “All we got is a theory so far.”
“Well theory or not, someone found out. They’re not going to run anything until they have something else to go on – they know we’ll just deny everything and can the whole investigation if it gets compromised and that means no juicy details further down the line.”
“We can’t just can it,” Carter insisted.
“No one’s making any decisions yet,” Colburn said, holding up her hands. “But we’ve got to tread carefully now, all right? The problem isn’t just that they know we’re talking about a potential serial killer – they also know someone’s been talking to Calvin Hammersmith.”
Beauchamp looked across the room at Carter with a smirk. “Guess someone saw you two having coffee…”
“Oh fuck you,” Carter said, “it’s called fuckin’ following up a lead, all right? You might remember that from when you used to solve murders.”
“Hey, can we cool our jets here?” Colburn demanded, her voice carrying over the hubbub. “This department needs a win right now, and if we can bring in whoever this asshole is before the press manages to compromise the whole investigation it’s going to go a long way to reassuring the captain that we have things under control. Jones, Carter, this is your case, and I want something concrete by the end of today, understand?”
“We’re still waiting for the labs,” Jones said.
“So go bang some heads together and give me some real leads.”
Carter spoke up. “Uh…we have a lead, actually…”
Everyone turned to look at her and she suddenly felt a little stupid for even bringing it up. “I mean…it’s just a hunch…”
“My hunch,” Jones interrupted smoothly. “A friend of a friend.”
“This is too important for ‘friends of friends’,” Colburn said, but she didn’t sound as firm as she would have if she’d been telling Carter off. For all his flaws, Jones had the respect of the department. It made her bristle, but she was secretly glad he’d stepped in when he had.
“It’s a solid line of inquiry,” Jones went on, “but I’ll talk to forensics. We’ll get you something by this afternoon, lieutenant.”
“See that you do.” She looked around the room at the other detectives. “The rest of you: shut the fuck up about this case. You’ve all got your own work to do. Any reporters come sniffing around, you give them the standard schpiel, you got that?”
Everyone murmured their assent and filtered out slowly, but Colburn gestured to Jones and Carter to stay. They all adjourned awkwardly to the far corner of the room, by the whiteboard marked with the current open cases. She gave them both a hard look before she began. “Like it or not, this case is now connected to a high profile individual,” she said in a low voice. “Calvin Hammersmith isn’t exactly Tom Cruise, but he’s rich and he’s famous. If the press get the chance to speculate on this, we could all be in deep shit when it comes to nothing, okay?”
“And if it doesn’t come to nothing?” Carter said.
Colburn levelled a warning finger at her. “We need some evidence. Serious evidence. No fuck ups at this level, understand? That means one simple rule: neither of you go anywhere near Hammersmith until we can do some solid police work that involves him. That means proper witness statements or, if it comes to it, an arrest. No informal meetings over coffee, no house calls. Right now, his connection to this is circumstantial at best. He wrote a book that happened to contain a murder similar to one we’re investigating. That’s not enough to drag his name through the mud. At best, he’s a witness. At worst, he’s barely involved. We don’t even know if there’s a serial killer at large yet. Jones,” she moved her finger to him, “check and cross-check all the murders you think are connected to this one. I want names, locations, dates. I want to know for certain there’s anything more than a coincidental resemblance to a series of trashy novels before we pursue this any further.” The finger came back her way again. “Carter: what’s this lead of yours?”
“An ex- of his.”
“You mean Hammersmith?” Her expression looked distinctly cloudy.
“It’s solid,” Jones assured her. “The guy’s past is real murky.”
“He’s a best-selling author…a public figure…”
“With a very private life,” Carter said. “Something about him is setting off all kinds of alarms in my head, lieutenant. There’s something there. I’m sure of it.”
Colburn glanced at Jones. “Ray?”
“If she says there’s something there, there’s something there, Gloria,” he told her in a quiet voice.
“All right. You look into this, you see if it goes anywhere. But either way, at five pm I want this resolved. It’s either a dead end and we drop it or we go balls to the wall and see what this guy has on him. Like I said: the press is already wise to what we’re thinking. I don’t doubt for a second they’re going to be calling me for some kind of statement this time tomorrow. I want something better than ‘no comment’.” She held them in her gaze for a little longer, then dismissed them with a curt nod.
As they walked out of the conference room, Carter had to bite her tongue to stop from yelling at her partner. It wasn’t until he’d slumped down at his desk and was pawing through yesterday’s mostly-empty box of donuts that she felt calm enough to speak to him. “You two just talked about me like I wasn’t even there!” She kept her voice in a low hiss and was leaning in close to him, but they still got a couple of looks from detectives at nearby desks.
Jones looked up with half a donut in his mouth. He took it out and gave her a flat look. “What the fuck do you want from me? I stuck up for you, didn’t I?”
“I’m a fuckin’ detective! I can fight my own battles!”
“You’ve been doing this, what? Eighteen months?”
“Exactly. No one here trusts you yet. Why would they? We’re cops. Cops ain’t supposed to trust. It kinda goes with the territory, Hannah. You were a damn good beat cop, we all know that, but you got a long way to go here. Listen, I ain’t wanna be a douche about this, but twenty years ago – hell, ten years ago – if your senior partner and your lieutenant talked about you, it wouldn’t have ended with one of ’em saying we oughta trust your instincts, all right? Coburn changed a lot of things around here and you should be grateful for that. Bein’ patronised a little comes with the job, all right? But at least you got someone fighting your corner now.”
“Yeah, okay.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Thanks.”
Jones shoved the donut back in his mouth. “You’re a good cop,” he said with his mouth still full, “just take the shit now and one day it’ll all be a memory.”
“Sure.” She sat down at her desk and picked up the card with the address on it again. “When did this Helen chick go out with Hammersmith anyway?”
“Uh…after she got divorced. I think her kid must’ve been nine or ten so…uh…ten years ago maybe?”
“Huh.” Carter frowned and thought about that for a second. “You got the files from those other murders over there?”
Jones waved his hand at the big stack of bulging manila folders balancing precariously on his bombsite of a desk.
“When’s the first one?”
“The first murder. When did it happen?”
Jones narrowed his eyes at the pile of folders then stretched over to them without getting up off his chair. His gut threatened to force its way from the confines of his crumpled shirt, but he managed to get one podgy hand to the top file and then tossed it over to her. “See for yourself,” he said, collapsing back into his chair with audible relief.
Wiping some donut grease from the cover, Carter flicked through the file. “Ten years ago. November 15th.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So around the time Hammersmith was going out with your friend?”
“Wife’s cousin’s friend,” Jones corrected.
“Whatever. It matches.”
“Maybe. I could be way off with the dates though. And so what anyway?”
“If this is being done by someone who was pissed at Hammersmith,” she said, waving the folder at him, “he started being pissed at the same time he was dating Helen Marshall…”
“That’s only the first murder we have on file though. Don’t necessarily mean it’s when the spree started.”
“No…but it still elevates this lead from dubious to…”
“Slightly less dubious.”
“Yeah, well, you told Colburn to trust me.” She was already getting up and shoving things into her handbag.
“You’re my partner. I’m supposed to stick up for you.”
“You can’t take it all back now, Ray.” She swung her bag onto her shoulder. “You still think you gotta stay here?”
“I’m involved,” he shrugged. “Besides…” he tapped the pile of folders, “…Coburn wants concrete. I gotta prove these are linked if you want this visit of yours to mean a damn thing, right?”
Carter looked at her watch. “I should be back by lunchtime.”
“That’s gonna depend on traffic.”
“No sirens unless it’s an emergency,” he called after her as she walked out of the office.
Carter was halfway to Anaheim before she realised they hadn’t even checked if this address was current yet. It was a stupid mistake, but she didn’t want to pull over and call Jones. It’d mean more delays. But if the address was wrong… She decided she had to chance it and put her foot down as she raced along the interstate. She’d grown up in the Bay Area and still found the pace of life down in this part of California a little hard to take, but there was no denying that the weather was better. She buzzed along by red-brown hills covered in dark green scrub under a flawless blue sky. Only the haze to the west hanging ominously over LA ruined it somewhat. Going into the city was always something of a Kafkaesque ordeal, negotiating the endless suburbs, and if she wasn’t so convinced this was a good lead there was no way she’d be entering Anaheim with anything but blank resignation.
Traffic was kind, and she pulled up outside a neat suburban home less than an hour later. It looked to be a pretty affluent neighbourhood with two cars in most of the drives, kids bikes just left out in front yards and a generally clean, prosperous air. She parked up and checked there was no one around who might pay too much attention to her. It always paid to be careful in places like this – cops didn’t make house calls around here much, she figured. No need to set tongues wagging. Helen Marshall didn’t want to be the subject of neighbourhood gossip, she was certain.
She put on her shades and walked to front door. Unlike most of the houses nearby, this one had no evidence of any kids living there. It was all neat and tidy though. Just the one car. She knocked on the door and waited. Nothing happened. She knocked again and was just about to leave when she heard someone moving inside. The latch went and then the door opened. The woman standing there looked to be in her mid- to late-fifties. Slim and attractive, obviously dressed for being at home, but still managing to convey a vague sense of dignified glamour in her nicely-fitting jeans and t-shirt. “Hello, can I help you?” she asked.
Carter felt relived. She tucked her shades into her shirt collar and took out her badge. “I’m Detective Hannah Carter, San Bernardino County PD.”
Helen put a hand to her chest. “Oh my goodness…”
“There’s nothing to worry about, ma’am. I just wondered if I could ask you a couple questions.”
“Could I come inside?”
“Has something happened to Donny?” There was a look of panic in her eyes and Carter guessed that was the kid Jones had mentioned.
“Not as far as I know, ma’am. This has nothing to do with Donny. I just wondered if we could talk about someone I believe you used to know. It’s related to a murder enquiry.”
“Oh goodness! Well of course, yes.” Helen led Carter into her living room and invited her to sit down on the couch. Inside, the house was nicely kept. The lady was obviously pretty well-off, and there was a good mix of tasteful furniture and ornaments, quality electronics and lots of personal effects. The face of a young man was especially prominent. There were kid photos and more recent ones too – a graduation photo with Helen beaming on one side and a shyly smiling young woman on the other. Donny, clearly. It looked like he was probably an only child. “Could I get you something to drink?” Helen asked.
“No, thank you.”
Helen pulled up a dining table chair and sat across from Carter with a straight back and her hands folded neatly in her lap. She looked nervous. “There’s nothing to worry about,” Carter reassured her as she pulled out a notepad and pen. “We’re just following up a pretty obscure lead here.”
“That’s fine. Anything I can do to help, of course.”
“Right. Uh…okay…so, I believe that around ten years ago, you had a relationship with Calvin Hammersmith. Is that right? The author?”
Helen looked stunned. She opened her mouth to say something then placed her hand on her chest again. “Calvin…” she murmured. “Oh my, I haven’t thought about him in a long time.” Something suddenly seemed to occur to her. “Something hasn’t happened to him, has it? You said something about a murder…”
“He was fine when I last spoke to him,” Carter said with a slight grimace she couldn’t suppress. “We think someone might be using his books as a kind of…blueprint…if you like. We need to know whether there’s someone who might have a reason to be doing that. Someone with a grudge against Mr Hammersmith perhaps?”
“Well, you’d really need to speak to Calvin about that…”
“He’s a very private person,” Carter said, “he doesn’t like to talk about his past. That’s why I’m here. We believe some other murders going back about ten years might be related to a recent killing. That’s around the same time you two were in a relationship, is that right?”
“Yes,” Helen said thoughtfully, “it would have been about then, I suppose. Yes, because Donny had just turned eleven.”
Carter pointed at a nearby photo with her pen. “That Donny there? Your son, I assume.”
“Hm,” Helen nodded, “my little prince. Yes, it was ten years ago. We weren’t together very long you know. I don’t know how much help I can be.”
“How did you two meet?”
“Well, gosh, I don’t know if I remember exactly. I know he’d just recently moved to California.”
“That’s right. He’d written a few books then I suppose, but he wasn’t really what you’d call successful. I think he made enough to live on, but it hadn’t all taken off at that time.”
“Were you a fan of his novels?”
She laughed. “Oh, I’d never even heard of him! Well, nobody had. I think he’d sold well in Nebraska maybe, but he wanted to get to the next level, you know? So he came out here to make his fortune. It was all a bit romantic. And he was, well, I remember now it was in a bar downtown.”
“Here in Anaheim?”
“Yes. And he was this dashing gentleman from out of town. It was a very local bar, you have to understand. He was educated, scholarly, and really very charming. I was with a girlfriend and we got talking to him at the bar. He told us he was an author but he had writers’ block and, well, I suppose we just thought it was a line. But he was handsome and we hit it off I guess. I told him about Donny and everything, but he didn’t seem to mind any of that, and before I knew it we were an item. My divorce was barely final then. It seems a strange time now, looking back I mean.”
“Uh huh.” Carter was scribbling in her pad. “And was there anything strange that you noticed? Anything that made you suspicious at all?”
“I don’t know…any strange behaviour at all? Any reason to think there might be someone around he might want to avoid?”
“Well…you said you met him, didn’t you?”
“Then you know.”
“Know what?” Carter asked.
“How he is. He couldn’t have been more different from my ex-husband. Calvin was always so controlled, so smooth. He hated being on the back foot in any way. Hated unfamiliar situations. He always liked to be calling the shots. And he was private. Very private. About his work, about his past especially. He never talked about growing up in Nebraska.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right. Did he have any friends that you met?”
“Friends?” Another tinkling laugh. “No, not Calvin. He preferred to be alone. He took me to parties – publishers’ soirees, that kind of thing – but no, he didn’t really have friends like that. No interest in sports or art or anything. No hobbies except his work. And he was devoted to that. So devoted. He said I helped him shift the block. There’d be whole weeks when I’d barely see him because he’d be off writing. He had a punishing schedule. You know how many of those books he’s written?”
“Oh, they’re not exactly literature, I know. He was very aware of criticism like that though. He really resented the bad reviews he got. He was…quite a different man after reading those…”
Carter raised her eyebrows. “Oh? Did he have a temper?”
“Well…yes, I think that’s fair to say. He would fly into rages from time to time. He’d go from being the most calm, placid man you could ever hope to meet to something quite scary. It was like…like…”
“Like a light being switched on,” Carter said, thinking back to her last meeting with Hammersmith.
“Yes. Yes that’s exactly it. Sometimes I thought I was dating two different men.”
“And how long were you together?”
“Six months maybe? Not long, like I said.”
“And do you mind me asking why the relationship ended?”
“Well…” She hesitated and looked aside.
Carter felt her heart start to quicken slightly. It felt like this might be important. “Ms Marshall?”
“It was nothing really,” she said, but her hands were clutching the hem of her shirt reflexively, nervously. “I mean…well…it was Donny.”
“Yes.” She sighed heavily. “I’d only just divorced his father. He was always such a good boy, but he was starting to act out. It was inevitable, I guess. All the books said it was normal. I tried to be there for him, but what eleven-year-old boy wants to talk to his mother, especially if he blames her for taking his father out of his life? Then, when Calvin came on the scene, everything changed. They were like the best of friends.” She smiled faintly. “He did magic tricks.”
“Magic tricks? You mean Hammersmith?”
“Yes. Card tricks. Sleight of hand, you know? Silly things, but it impressed Donny. He’d teach him tricks, play games with him. It was sweet, really. He liked to show off, Calvin. Be the centre of attention.”
“So what happened?”
“I don’t know. One day, things just changed. Donny was bright and cheerful and then, suddenly, it was like the last six months had never happened. He went back into himself. He was sullen and miserable and there was nothing I could do. But one thing he was very clear on was that he didn’t want me to see Calvin anymore.”
“That’s very strange,” Carter said carefully. “Do you have any idea what happened?”
“No. Donny wouldn’t say what changed his mind. But I couldn’t very well carry on seeing a man my son seemed to hate, could I? Donny was my world. He still is.” She looked fondly at the graduation photo. “He studied at Brown. He’s working in New York now, doing consultancy or something. I don’t really understand it all.”
“That’s a long way from home. You must miss him.”
“I do,” Helen admitted.
“Breaking up with Hammersmith must have been hard…”
“Well, for him maybe. To be honest, things had cooled a little between us anyway.”
“Yes. I mean…I shouldn’t say anything about it really…”
“Any information you can give me would be helpful in our investigations, Ms Marshall.”
“It was the…well…the sex.” She almost mouthed the last word.
Carter blinked. “O…kay…”
Helen let out a melodious laugh. “Oh my! I’m sorry. I wouldn’t even mention it if you weren’t a woman too. Calvin was a very passionate man when it came to his work, but he wasn’t the most imaginative lover. He was really of the school of turning the lights out and just getting on with it.”
“Same as my ex-husband, really.” She leant over and put a hand on Carter’s arm. “Don’t worry, honey – I’ve made up for it since.” This time her laugh was more throaty and Carter found herself chuckling along with her. “I wonder how interested he really was in women, you know,” Helen mused, almost to herself, “I never caught him looking at anyone else, even at the parties we went to. He was just starting to become successful when we were together, working the publishing set in LA and there were no shortage of, you might say, literary groupies. And is there a housewife in America who wouldn’t open her legs for him now, I wonder? But do you ever hear about his affairs?”
Carter nodded. “That’s the whole reason I’m here talking to you.”
“I think he liked the idea of being with a woman. It was convenient. But he wasn’t interested in sex and he almost seemed scared to talk about that kind of thing. It was like he was embarrassed by it, or just found it beneath him. For all his charm, for all the things he puts in his books, he was strangely…well…sexless.”
“On the surface anyway,” Carter said. She wasn’t looking at Helen, and she wasn’t sure what had made her say that.
“Yes,” Helen said softly, “I spent six months trying to see what was beneath that surface, but I don’t know if there was anything to find. He’d worn his mask for so long, he’d forgotten how to take it off. He was the strangest man I’ve ever met.”
Carter sensed the interview had gone about as far as it was going to. “Ms Marshall,” she pressed, “was there anyone he had any kind of falling out with? An obsessive fan he mentioned, a business associate he upset? Anything at all?”
“No. Nothing at all like that. Like I told you, he didn’t have friends. He didn’t really associate with anyone besides me. At least as far as I knew.”
Carter folded her pad shut and stood up. “I think I have everything I need,” she said. “You’ve been very helpful indeed, Ms Marshall.”
The other woman stood up too and led her back into the hall. “Calvin is all right, isn’t he? I mean, as strange as he was sometimes, I don’t wish him any harm. He was quite sweet to me, in his way.”
“I don’t think Hammersmith is the problem here,” Carter said in as reassuring a tone as she could manage. She turned as she reached the door. “One last thing, actually. You said you were together about six months. When did you break up?”
“I don’t think I remember the exact date…”
“Well.” She thought about it. “I remember Donny had gone back to school after the summer vacation because he wanted to show everyone his card tricks. So it was Fall. And he went as a magician for Halloween that year. And I know we were meant to spend Thanksgiving together, but he had to work on his latest novel. It wasn’t long after that.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Thanks again, Ms Marshall,” Carter told her as she opened the door, “we’ll be in touch if we need anything else.”
When she got back to the car, she called Jones right away. He didn’t answer, but the signal in the station was notoriously bad. He’d pick up a voicemail when he went out to buy more donuts or some shitty fast food for his lunch. “Hey, Ray,” she said, “it’s Hannah. I’ve just been talking to your friend. We were right after all – there’s some heavy shit going on here. Look, this is gonna sound weird, but if you get a minute could you run a check to see if there’s anything on Hammersmith’s file about him being questioned for child abuse or anything like that? I’ll be back in the station in, like, an hour anyway. All right. Bye.”
The best laid plans. Carter pulled over on the interstate halfway back home when her car’s rear end started to feel weird and, when she got out to investigate, her heart sank at the sight of the slow puncture on one of the back tyres. She didn’t have a spare so she pulled out her phone and called the station. They passed her on to a local auto-shop and they told her they’d have someone out to tow her in under an hour, traffic permitting. Sighing, she clambered up onto the verge overlooking the road and sat down in the dirt. It was hot and she was tired and thirsty now. She should’ve taken Helen up on her offer of a drink. And she badly needed to get back to the station so she could get to the bottom of what was going on. This whole situation was unravelling fast. The revelation about the nature of Hammersmith’s relationship with Helen Marshall put a few things into context, but she still couldn’t see how it all fit together. There were a few possibilities though: the most likely one as she saw it was the possibility that Hammersmith’s interests lay in the direction of young boys, and that some previous victim was getting even in the most horrific way possible. Another was that Hammersmith himself was making sure potential witnesses to his crimes were keeping their mouths shut. But then, nothing Helen had said made it sound like she ever felt she was in danger. And surely the boy’s mother would be the first person he’d try to silence if that was his game. Then there was his temper…
A car pulled up just behind hers. It was an expensive European sedan. She didn’t know much about cars, but this one looked like it belonged to someone who might. The windows were darkened, so she couldn’t see the driver. Someone spotting a damsel in distress perhaps? She straightened slightly, but didn’t stand up. The door opened, and a man she recognised all too well climbed out.
“Detective Carter?” Calvin Hammersmith asked, shielding his eyes from the sun as he looked up at her. “What a strange coincidence!”
“Funny,” she called back, “I was thinking the same thing.” She stood up, brushed her pants down and walked slowly down the hill, trying to plan her next move.