Wednesday, November 1, 1961 – Midnight
It was the laughter that did it. It was the throaty, lewdly lascivious laughter that first woke me in the middle of the night from a deep sleep. Blinking, stumbling down the darkened corridor, still more asleep than awake.... First came the shock of discovery. Then the nightmares. The laughter haunted me, drove me to despair, I was helpless, maddened—then entered Dr. Omega. He soon put a stop to Alpha’s wantonly riotous revelry, and the next night, Beta’s. His methods were macabre, but resulted in years of peace.
Then out of nowhere emerged Gamma and Delta, taunting me, tormenting me, just as Alpha and Beta had done, so many years before. When I thought I could stand it no more, a presence stepped from the shadows, an old and terrifying friend, smiling grimly, taking charge, ending the laughter with it, the madness. But peace came with a price. The good Doctor forced me to watch, in fascinated horror, every grisly detail as it unfolded. Then he took me by the hand, whispering that more is better, more is essential if the laughter is to ever stop, this time forever. Last night it was Epsilon. Tonight, Zeta. The Doctor is, after all, always right.
Thursday, November 2, 1961 – 0155 hours
“Six-Adam-Eleven, see the woman, prowler there now, 2211Crest Way—Code Two.”
The crackling radio snapped officer Mike Montego back to attention. His mind had wandered to last night’s game at Memorial Sports Arena, where the lazy Lakers had won by five points over the Cincinnati Royals. Giving six points was stupid, there goes ten bucks down the toilet, Montego thought irritably as he grabbed the mic, keyed it and mumbled “A-Eleven, roger,” then noisily re-racked the dash-mounted handset.
His partner, Trev Brannock, sped the unit to their urgent call in the Hollywood Hills. Minutes later, Brannock idled the black-and-white around the corner with headlights off.
“Stop, Trev.” Montego popped open his door. “Go down to Ivarene, block his route in case he heads that way.” Something had briefly glinted, catching his eye, then he thought he’d seen a dark figure gliding between their target house on Crest and the neighbors, heading downhill.
Montego raced to where the suspect had disappeared, quickly casting about his flashlight beam. A dog barked. No sign of the prowler, but he found a break in the thicket, and signs of a faint footpath. It angled down sharply, it would be tricky in daylight, treacherous at night. He scanned the darkness for any reflection, alert for the slightest hint that something other than bushes and dirt awaited him below. Nothing. But the guy had to be somewhere down there. A gut-level tickle kept Montego from rushing headlong down the steep path.
Switching off the light, he crouched, held his breath, and listened for any sort of sound others might miss but he had trained himself to hear. There it was; a crackling below him. Another dog barked.
The bastard must be at Ivarene already.
Montego switched the flashlight on again and hurled himself down the hill, raising an arm to protect his face from the thorns that tore at him. He came out on a poorly lit street, his scratched cheek burning. Nothing moved. Then he heard a faint rustling, swiftly followed by a deep snarling.
A dog crashed against a nearby chain link fence—a good guard dog, and pissed off, too.
Montego leaped an intersecting fence in the direction of the sounds. The canine was going crazy. Searching the undergrowth ahead of him, Montego spotted a trace of path, and scrambled down it. A few strides, then suddenly his right foot found a loose stone. His ankle turned. He fought for balance, failed, and fell. He hit the ground hard, then rolled into a stump, killing the light and knocking the wind out of him.
Groping around in the dry undergrowth, he found his flashlight. He shook it. Nothing. He got gingerly to his feet, willing his heart to beat slower. He gave the light a final rap against his palm. Still nothing. He sucked in the night air.
In the near distance, a slamming noise followed by a motor revving, the rumble of a V8 and squealing tires caught his attention.
“Tanto,” he muttered the “safe” swear learned as a foster kid to avoid tasting green Palmolive soap every other time he opened his mouth.
Standing there in the dark, goose bumps rose on the back of his neck, followed by a shiver. There was something about this situation that stirred a deeply held childhood memory he’d rather stay forgotten. He shook his head to snap himself out of it, and listened for Brannock and the squad car. Not hearing it, he limped his way down to the next street, Holly Drive.
The unmistakable sound of another V8 broke the sudden silence, this time headed straight for him.
Montego turned and squinted, putting a hand up in front of his eyes as his partner captured him in their unit’s high beams.
“Lose him?” Brannock called out through the driver’s side window.
You see anyone in cuffs, partner? Montego thought with more than a little irritation.
“Yep, ’fraid I did. I slipped. Busted my light. Bastard’s in North Hollywood by now.” Montego slid onto the gray vinyl seat and slammed the car door.
“You got good eyes, Tonto, ’cause I never saw anyone except your bouncing light crossing Ivarene—figured I’d find you down here.”
Montego didn’t mind being called Tonto. He’d gotten the tag as a kid, thanks to his unique manner of swearing. The son of a Mexican dancer, he often blurted tanto peor, meaning “so much the worse,” when excited or pissed. Mostly he’d simply exclaim, tanto, and the nickname was born—Anglos heard Tonto. With his olive complexion, the link-up to the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion was inevitable.
“You heard the dogs yapping, didn’t you, Trev?”
“Yeah, after you started running up the road.”
“Let’s head to the PR’s pad.”
Brannock backed the nearly year-old Plymouth along Holly to Primrose Avenue, then swung east to Willetta, and north to Crest Way, stopping in front of number 2211.
The Person Reporting turned out to be a little old lady with bluish hair holding a yapping black toy poodle.
When asked what she’d observed, she replied, “I didn’t see anyone, but Beauregard heard a sneaky someone outside. My brave little boy barked.”
Friday, November 3, 1961 – 1321 hours
“Six-Whiskey-One—stand by L-Five, we’re minutes away.” Detective-Sergeant Alex Strait cradled the transmitter. He’d asked Communications to have the one-man radio unit switch to the tactical frequency used by detectives.
“I’ve got a heavy donut and cold coffee feeling about this one.”
Detective-Sergeant Wayne Nells grunted as he turned their unmarked sedan north toward the steep hillside neighborhood. He pulled onto Crest, a cul-de-sac, and told his taller partner, “Good, the uniform’s got the area secured. Thank God no old-school street cop has told him to forget all the “crap” they teach at the Academy and do it his way—the real way.”
Alex Strait half-grinned and grabbed his legal-size clipboard with lined yellow pad. He checked his wristwatch then jotted down: Friday, sunny—TOA: 11/3/61–1326 hours. Unit 6-L-5, Officer Serial #, reporting a DB, dead body at 2214 Crest Way.
Stepping from the car, he greeted the patrol officer, got his full name and serial number, and carefully wrote the info on the empty lines in neat, block letters.
The kid’s a probationer—they got five digit numbers now—I’m getting old. Damn, thought a vaguely irritated Alex as he finished writing, clipboard now at his side.
He turned to the young cop, he said, “Okay, first things first, Officer Zappalini. Who’s the PR?”
“Wouldn’t you know it, sir—my last shift working a one-man Lincoln unit and I get a nasty-ass one—oh, ah, that’s the person reporting, that old gal over there.”
Following the direction of Augie Zappalini’s pointing index finger, Alex heard a yipping dog, then quickly spotted a little poodle collared in rhinestones, yo-yoing on the end of a long pink leash gripped by an elderly woman with light blue hair.
He walked to the front porch where the frail old gal and her miniature mutt were perched. “Hello, ma’am. Did you call the police?”
“Yes, officer, I’m so worried—I didn’t see Nola out washing her car this morning, she always cleans and polishes it on Fridays, she likes it pretty for the weekend. Oh dear, I’m afraid for her. We had a prowler Wednesday, around midnight, you know—I phoned the police.”
“What’s Nola’s last name, ma’am, and which house is hers?”
“Hunter. Her name is Nola Hunter. She lives right next door.” Clutching the nasty-looking little dog to her sagging bosom with her left hand, she aimed a shaky, arthritic right index finger toward a single-story house with a red tile roof.
“I just feel something is terribly wrong. My dear little Beauregard here” (at this she paused to squeeze the poodle even closer to her chest—Alex was certain he saw the dog roll its beady little eyes in pissed-off resignation), “my sweet little Muffin Man is so upset. He really does like Miss Nola. She lives all alone, poor girl.”
“All right, thanks for the information, ma’am. Please stay here while I go check on Miss Hunter.”
Alex reached out to give the elderly woman a reassuring pat on the arm, a move that sent Beauregard into a whirling tizzy. He yanked his hand back quickly, then turned and headed back to the narrow street where his shorter partner and the probationer stood.
He eyed the blue-suit. “Zappalini. Nobody calls you that, right? What name do you go by?”
“Augie, short for Augustus, or Augie Z—some call me Zapper.”
“Well, Augie Z—and I won’t ask you to explain Zapper—please tell us exactly when you arrived and what you’ve done so far.”
“I arrived at the PR’s place at 1310 hours. She told me she was worried about her neighbor.” Zappalini pointed to the red-roofed house. “I went over and knocked but got no answer. I went along the side of the building and found an unlatched window. I smelled something raunchy, so I climbed through. Probably should’ve called for you first, didn’t want to though if it wasn’t necessary. Anyway, I dropped into a freestanding bathtub, then went into a hallway. It was hotter than hell inside.”
He glanced at the old lady, who’d left the porch and edged closer, the little dog, his ears perked, now tightly held in both her thin arms.
“One look inside the bedroom and a nasty whiff and I was outta there, belly bile bubbling. I came back out through the window, went to my car and radioed for a Whiskey Unit. Did I screw up?”
“You did fine, Augie Z, you did just fine,” Alex said. The self-proclaimed master of alliteration gave the rookie an approving look as he jotted down the information. He turned and told the old lady, “Please go back home, ma’am.”
He and Nells then studied the perimeter of the Hunter residence, noting the window where the patrol officer said he’d entered and exited.
Alex pulled out his lock picks and soon had the back door open. Moving carefully, the detectives entered. Their noses instantly wrinkled as they eased from room to room, closing in on the source of the stench. All the while, Alex took notes of their observations, fighting the putrid odor and excessive heat that quickened the rotting process, dreading what he would come upon. No matter how many times, one never got used to it.
Wayne Nells fumbled a handkerchief free of a plastic bag, then placed the cloth over his nose and mouth. “The donut just sank,” he mumbled.
“Yeah, and my coffee’s iced up.”
Alex pretended he was sucking on the soggy end of a big Cuban cigar. The thought of harsh tobacco smoke helped him suffer through the reek of death. He’d forgotten to pack a treated painter’s mask—a big mistake. In the beginning of their long-time partnership, he’d been impressed by how well Wayne handled the stink of rotting flesh and guts. His senior partner seemed immune to smells that made the younger Alex want to run retching from the scene.
It took only one nasty smelling homicide before he learned Wayne kept a mentholated handkerchief bagged in an inside coat pocket. Smart man.
They paused at a hall doorway, left slightly ajar. Alex loosened his tie and yanked out his handkerchief. Just as the probie had said, Hot as hell.
Wayne pulled another handkerchief from his rear pocket, and used it to push the bedroom door all the way open.
Alex peered over his partner’s left shoulder. He shuddered, appalled by the sight. Both detectives stepped back, exhaled audibly as they eyed each other knowingly.
“Nola’s cadaveric,” he muttered into his kerchief. There was nothing else to say.