Archive for April, 2009
April 24, 2009
A Joe Downing Mystery
The following is fiction:
Part Two: Thud, Baby, I mean Thuddd!!!
“David!!! Julie Johansen cried out to her husband. “David!” She cried out in a faltering, distraught voice. She gathered her head in her hands despairingly and tried unsuccessfully to speak. At last, she screamed: “She’s gone! I can’t find her! I’ve looked and looked and – oh, David!” She stopped speaking and buried her face in her husband’s chest and sobbed passionately and uncontrollably. The flood of tears convulsed her exhausted body, and utter despair and loss were written now all over Julie’s face. Dismay slumped her shoulders. Johansen looked away blankly from h er, unseeing. Julie began to weep so bitterly as to tremble. Johansen pulled her closer. It was a scene of such particular poignancy, of such familial intimacy, that I felt it incumbent upon me to turn away. But I had to push, I had to do my job, and it had to be now.
“Mrs. Johansen, how long ago? How long ago was it that you last saw Chelsea?” Julie acknowledged me, as Johansen calmed his wife. She looked at me accusingly, reprovingly, as if I had taken Chelsea. I persevered:
“Mrs. Johansen, they still might be close. It’s surprising how long it takes them before they’re actually gone. We can still catch this guy right now.” She wiped her face with the back of her hand, and steadied herself. She was a little surprised at my optimism.
“I…..I don’t know…..I suppose it was just a few minutes ago…..I’m not sure…..” Her hands and lips were shaking from the fear, aggravated by the chilliness. She wasn’t dressed for outdoors in winter, she wore just blue jeans and a navy blue Cal Berkeley sweatshirt. Her hands grasped the lapels of her husband’s coat, and her knuckles looked white.
“I was just making some dinner and Chelsea was watching TV and I went to ask her what she wanted for Christmas Eve dinner but she was gone…..she wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere…..” She put her face in Johansen’s shoulder in renewed tears, a tortured pain written o her face beyond description. Total defeat ruled her spirit.
“Mrs.Johansen, did they leave from the back deck, maybe? Can I look there, is that all right?” Johansen looked at me like I was crazy, as if I had suggested that Chelsea and the kidnapper could still be there waiting for us to come play gin rummy. He recovered, roused himself, and replied:
“You can look, Joe, sure! Let me take you.” He moved hurriedly with his wife towards a wooden side gate sand undid the latch. We then moved along the side of the white-stuccoes house, and into the backyard. As we entered, I saw a tear-drop shaped pool and various pool furniture. I bumped my shin on the dark and confusion. I stepped on a garden hose somewhere on a patch of lawn. A friendly, motley dog presently ran up to me, panting, and put two wet paws on my black, faded jeans. The dog started to play, barking and running around crazily, stamping its front paws on the wet ground in mock challenge. I petted the dog as I looked up, above the pool. I had my Colt Diamondback revolver in my waistline, but in the back, as was customary with me, so the dog wasn’t leaning on it as he sidled up.
“Spark! Stop!” Johansen said suddenly and angrily. There was a slope over strewn with seemingly half-established ground cover rising up sharply about 40 feet in elevation from behind the pool. The slope was a work-in-progress, perhaps. All was quiet as we stood silently peering up the dim slope, listening; listening for a pin to drop. Julie and Johanasen clung to each other, twisting their necks all about as they sought out their daughter frantically. I could just see dark against dark up at the crest line of the slope. A puff of clouds slowly moved across the moon. Some acacia-type bush up there moved somewhat, and there was a slight, quick, arboreal sound as the bush retracted. A towering, dark figure receded from the crest hurriedly. Lightning shot through me like quicksilver: I bolted like a horse out the gate at the Kentucky Derby. I called out in rage, as I ran and slipped on the dewy slope:
“Hey! Stop! Let her go! Stop, mister! Let her go! Don’t do this! Stop now!” I couldn’t breathe any longer as I climbed frantically, as I climbed more than frantically. Drums thundered in my ears and chest. I could hear mingled voices above me and below me, mixed in with the sounds of my own footsteps. Spark followed me noisily. Below me, Julie was crying out for Chelsea, and admonishing her husband to join the chase. I could hear him scrambling up the slope, and he obviously navigated no better than I. Above me, I could hear a confused female voice, evidently not knowing what to do, and a gruff male voice vehemently denouncing her. My heart beat in my chest like a hammer. I fell to my knees repeatedly on the bare, slick mud. My face was scratched by the lower branches of slim trees planted on the slope.
I reached the crest at last, breathing hard, my lungs bursting. As I stood recovering, chest heaving, I saw the back of a wide figure, dressed all in black, apparently, about 50 yards away over the grass mesa, roughly pulling on a blonde girl. Her short hair reflected what little light remained. The dark one wore a black raincoat or trench coat extending to the knees, looked like some sort of hat, a black fedora possibly, and black pants. I thought I could see a dirty gray ponytail bouncing against his upper back as he ran confidently away over the mesa with the girl. I could just make out the sound of her trying to mollify him, and then his sharp, autocratic rebuke, instructing her.
Suddenly nothing but silence. I scanned the landscape in front of me, a landscape of tall grass and reeds, damp and soggy like me. I started forward only slowly now, since it seemed the twosome had stopped. Plenty of time at this point. I looked left, right, and center, still breathing hard, sweat forming on my neck in the cold air. I peered and squinted into the obscurity. Spark reached me, panting like he was famished for air, bumping hard and clumsily into my leg. He barked into the darkness irritably. I shushed him gently, and he obeyed. I whispered to Johansen, halfway up, to stop and listen. I looked out over the sodden heath as best I could, acutely alert, on a hair-trigger response. I slowly took out my Colt, which had stayed put on the climb. My left hand curled around the grip and the trigger, the familiar balance in my palm.
I surveyed. Anticipation hung in the air. A crow squawked stupidly overhead, on its way somewhere to stand all night in a tree. All was quiet, as if no human had ever trod that pristine soil. I felt like the first European in the New World. Spark then began to utter a low guttural sound from deep in his neck. He scoffed and harrumphed menacingly and disapprovingly. He kept it up, and I didn’t scold him this time. We looked into the night, cautiously advancing.
A silvery, sliding , pushing sound then started up quietly, close off to my right, as if emanating somehow from my own unconscious mind. I turned towards it, too late, as a loud, prolonged, and hysterical growl erupted from the sable nothingness. Some club struck me ferociously in the neck on my left side. I staggered, but remained vertical. My shoulder had absorbed part of the blow as it slid up to my neck. Spark leapt upon my assailant, tearing fiercely and repeatedly at his clothes. The dog’s eyes shone with rage eerily in the moonlight.
The swinging club kept coming at me, hitting me again and again all over my raised arms and hands. Johansen got knocked off the ridge by a blow like it was a game of king of the hill. I stumbled forward to try and catch the club out of the air. My Colt had been knocked out of my hand, who-knows-where.
All of a sudden I heard a corporeal-sounding thud, and then another, accompanied by a pair of high-pitched, agonizing wails that pierced the veil of night: Spark lay motionless. I lurched forward and grabbed at the man, catching a button and pulling it off the coat desperately, as I tried to bring him down from my knees. A muddy, wet boot smacked me on the side of the face hard, and the club then rained blows down upon my upper back as I fell onto my stomach. The club was like a lash of fire through my woolen shirt. On and on the beating went until spent, exhausted, and satisfied, the insane growling stopped, and the blows ceased.
Detectives Mick McNulty and Lawrence Vaughan of the Deep Gorge P.D. sat looking at me in the living room of the Johansen residence. A Christmas tree in the corner was bulging with ornaments, lights, tinsel, and unopened gifts. Plates of half-eaten food were strewn on the coffee table in the midst of the two facing couches. The TV and the stereo were both off, the atmosphere was hushed and grim. Family heirlooms, photos, and Christmas stockings were on the hearth above the fireplace that cheerily flamed with illumination, in contrast to the defeated humans sitting close by. Julie Johansen and her husband sat on dining room chairs that had been brought over from the dining nook. Johansen himself was muddy and disheveled, his eyes downcast. Both the Johansens were silent, and caressed one another in their agony of loss. Mick McNulty broke the silence:
“Joe, you should’ve called us that you were here.”
“Yeah, I know that Mick, but we had no intel that she was gone until we got here. We were just doing a recon, and then it all started to happen. There was no time to call.” I shrugged my shoulders. Vaughan then observed intelligently, with the wit he was known for:
“He sure beat the crap outta you, Downing.”
“C’mon, Larry, zip it! Just give it a rest! Now – Mr. and Mrs. Johansen – we’re gonna run an Amber Alert on this for your daughter, and we’re gonna get her back. We’re gonna get her back! Of that, you can rest assured. In the morning, we’ll do a more thorough search up at the top, and we’ll find out what that guy left us. There must be plenty of Christmas presents up there for us. And tonight, right now, we’re gonna do a forensics on your dog, to ascertain if anything caught in his teeth when he was biting this man. This perp will be brought in, and your daughter restored to you, Mrs. Johansen. You can rest assured.”
The two detectives stood up in tandem, their neckties remaining perpendicular to the carpeted floor as their backs angled forward t rise from the couch. Leather sounds came from their belts and side-arm holsters. They secured a photo of Chelsea from the Johansens, pulled the uniforms down off the slope, put Spark in a small body bag, and then departed, wishing us good night and Merry Christmas. They admonished us all to keep them in the loop should the kidnapper contact them.
“Mr. Downing, are you sure you’re all right?” Julie asked after shutting the door.
“I’ll be sore, I’m sure of that, but I’m okay, thanks. But I’d like to come back in the morning and look for my Colt, before the cops get here. There’s no telling what else is up there, too.” Johansen then said:
“Of course, Joe! You can do anything you like. And I wouldn’t blame you if you told us to go jump in a lake. I didn’t really know I was drawing you into something like this. God, this guy! If you want to relinquish the case, I understand perfectly.”
“Absolutely not. I’m involved now completely, and I’m glad. We’ve gotta nail him. He’s going away for a long time when we catch up to him. And if there’s something up there tomorrow, we’ll submit it to the Bureau through the P.D., and find out who this perp is.” I gingerly fingered my neck, and put the ice to it again. I obtained my own photo of Chelsea from her two parents, and took my leave.
The image impressed upon my mind now is the gloomy picture of their worried faces as they stood on their front door stoop. The neighborhood was undoubtedly abuzz with speculation about Chelsea.
“I’m sorry we didn’t get him,” I said to them. “I’m sorry he’s got Chelsea. But call me ASAP if anything develops. I’m gonna get some help right now, and I’ll see you at first light tomorrow. Is it all right if I let myself into the backyard tomorrow?” They assured me it was.
I lumbered out to the Corvette, feeling as battered, beaten, and bruised as the car appeared. I slid in behind the wheel painfully. I felt ashamed that all I had been able to offer them was cliché rhetoric like: “We’ll get this perp, rest assured of that, Mrs. Johansen!” I was as bad as McNulty. I pulled out onto Via Capri and then onto Portuguese Hills Drive North, headed for Whitefox Drive and the townhouse of Tommy Wilkinson. It was just a few clicks away, still in Rancho Verde. A gentle rain began to fall, mocking the violence. It was 9pm on Christmas Eve.
…..to be continued…..
April 20, 2009
A Joe Downing Mystery
The following is fiction:
Mr. Scary Smart
Part One: NOW THAT I KNOW YOU EXIST
IT WAS 4:45 ON THE AFTERNOON of Christmas Eve when I first encountered the Johansen family. Sunset had arrived, and the long shadows had begun their slow rule. The temperature had dropped to “shivering.” The year 2009 was about to turn the corner and take its much-lamented leave. But you knew that. Sammy, the building custodian here in my little office complex, had given me the head’s up from the foot of the old staircase:
“Hey, Joe?! You up there? There’s a man here seems to be lookin’ for ya. Says he’s sorry it’s late, and can he see ya? I could tell him you’re OH-YOU-TEE….. if you want…..”
“Yeah, I’m right here, Sammy. And yeah, it’s okay. Business is business, or…..whatever. I’ll come down for him. He can probably tell by now that I’m not O-U-T, anyway.” I started to descend. An articulate voice I didn’t know then entered the fray:
“I’d be glad to come up there, Mr. Downing, if your office is up there…..I mean, uh, I don’t wish to trouble you unnecessarily.” I then saw a tallish, early-middle-aged man emerge into view. He wore a dark, expensive business suit, and a red, floral-patterned tie over an immaculate white dress shirt. He had a full head of sandy hair, and trim, athletic looks. He was the very picture of responsible success in every way. This success undoubtedly was won through long application and through confident, prolonged effort, but now he had a vulnerable look, a deeply troubled look.
Bay City or L.A. were both a bit far away to come for just me; Portuguese Hills was closer, of course, and rich, but it had an older population, an elderly demographic; Rancho Verde, on the other hand, was all about up-and-coming executives, six-figure-annual-income-heaven, with a decidedly younger demo to go with it. Which one was he, ya think? Sammy called up to me, past the shoulder of the upwardly mobile gentleman caller who effortlessly ascended the stairs:
“Merry Christmas, Joe! You have yourself a nice Christmas Day tomorrow with your family.” (What family?! I thought to myself.) But I returned the sentiment, envying Sammy the wholesome, conventional life he possessed. Not a lot of money in his stock portfolio, to be sure, but he was rich in other ways. My client-in-training now reached the top of the darkly-lit, darkly-carpeted stairway. He extended his hand with a friendly, professional, and practiced smile.
“Hello, sir. I’m David Johansen…..I would very much like to speak to you, if I may intrude upon your time at such a moment. It’s very important to me that I get your advice on a certain matter — I’ve heard great things about your competence and discretion, and I’d be very grateful for your time, Mr. Downing.” He meant it. There was a desperation and unsettled quality to his voice, barely controlled. I could only respond with a neutral graciousness until I knew more.
“Certainly, Mr. Johansen, I’d be glad to speak with you. ‘Time’ is what I do for a living….. and please call me ‘Joe.’” We shook hands over a small smile, and his shake was firm, but he seemed to show nevertheless a slight deference towards me at the same time. (What in the world for?) I motioned, and suggested we stroll down the gloomy hallway to my office (but I didn’t say it that way).
We quietly padded past the now darkened and silent real estate firm, past the usually-busy law firm, too, with the two gorgeous babes, now off-duty, and finally we passed the Marriage and Family Counseling office. Absurdly, we were at pains to keep quiet, though the building was deserted for the Christmas Eve festivities. We were playing some role we knew not what.
Inside the inner office we settled down. I sat behind the oak desk in front of the window, Johansen on the couch. He suddenly got up, however, with considerable alacrity, and moved into the solid, not-very-comfortable, straight-backed pinewood chair at the corner of my desk. He did it hurriedly, as if he had to just beat the 24-second clock. He looked like someone from the right side of the tracks who had gotten lost over here on the wrong side. (The City of Deep Gorge is not your dream condo in the Hamptons, let me help you out.) But there was no arrogance about him. He seemed a good guy: not much use for digging ditches, but an okay sort. The shadows grew longer outside, and the white courtyard below us was now illuminated through Sammy’s ministrations. A Douglas fir Christmas tree could be seen down there twinkling green and red. I eyed my new client silently. Johansen began:
“I live in Rancho Verde with my wife Julie and our daughter, Chelsea. I’m a stock broker at Mills, Robertson, and Johansen in Century City. And, well, anyway, I mean, I don’t know how to put it, Mr. Downing, but there’s been some, uh, trouble, Joe, that we’ve been experiencing…..some real trouble. We’re just at sea about it, we’re worried sick about it, and we just don’t know what to do. We really need your help.” He sighed so deeply I thought his lungs would pop.
“What’s been going on, Mr. Johansen?” I said patiently. He fidgeted nervously in the chair, crossing and uncrossing his legs perpendicular on his thigh, trying different ways to get comfortable. None worked. (He had some expensive socks, boy, I noticed that.) It was tough for him to come out with it: maybe a sense of shame that fate had picked him out to sound his depths. Maybe he felt it was punishment? Who knows…..as he thought over how to put his points, he looked the office over: fairly Spartan quarters, to be sure, not real impressive, I had found out, to the high-powered legal babes: a TV/DVD player on a little stand in the corner, a photo here and there of old girlfriends, the dark, oaken desk, the light-colored, birch bookcase my dad had made for me — not much, admittedly.
Oh, yes, there was also a framed photo in the bookcase of my mother’s grandfather in his old Civil War uniform, a daguerreotype: Colonel Joseph Patrick Spillane, Union side. I was named after him. May I live to be half the man he was. Johansen then roused himself and laughed uncertainly, sighed once more, and continued his narrative:
“Well, my daughter has unfortunately made a new acquaintance, shall we say. An unwanted acquaintance, Joe. It’s so outrageous! I could pummel this guy! I mean, I don’t want to do anything illegal, to risk everything, but I’ve been sure thinking about it…..but I haven’t done anything yet, you understand.” I nodded gravely and respectfully. I then had to ask the obvious, to manipulate him a little (in a benevolent way), to establish a clear benchmark:
“I understand, Mr. Johansen. It sounds like a serious matter. Now, is this ‘new acquaintance’ positively being forced on Chelsea against her will?”
“OH, VERY MUCH SO! Very, very much so! It is definitely being forced on her against her will! That’s absolutely the perfect description, Joe! We’re just minding our own business and then this creep outta nowhere comes into our lives! I just don’t know what to do, Joe. I’ll do it, whatever it is, you just tell me what I need to do. This guy is a freak! We gotta end this!” He certainly could bristle with anger. I didn’t think he was lying. His eyes were full of pain, too, that he couldn’t help his daughter more. Maybe he felt a failure in that way. His eyes almost asked for forgiveness. But why from me, of all people?
“We’ll get him, Mr. Johansen. That you can be sure of. We’ll just go through the steps, one-by-one, and we can’t fail. We will end this. Now, how old is Chelsea, and what’s happened so far?”
“She’s 17, about a month short of 18. This guy, this damn guy, has been staring at her relentlessly through our windows at night for about three weeks. And then he goes to her school during the day and stalks her there, too! He’s unbelievable! Sometimes he talks to her, I don’t know what he says exactly, but he’s careful, I’ll say that for him. He knows how to have his cake and eat it, too.”
Johansen took on a bitter countenance now, and sat on the edge of the chair — now he looked the very picture of edginess and agitation. Their family life had become pins and needles, obviously. He abruptly continued: “This guy was even on the back deck, just now, less than an hour ago! Looking in! Right up against the sliding glass door of the deck! Julie almost died from fear! It scared the living daylights out of us! The cops won’t do anything until he actually touches her…..some Constitutional thing, but I don’t care, it’s my daughter!”
I was paralyzed: a sense of doom came over me, and not for the last time: “Just an hour ago?! On your back deck?” I stood up suddenly. “Where’s Chelsea now?”
“She’s at home with Julie. She’ll call if he appears again.”
“You can call her, too, and I suggest you do so frequently. Mr. Johansen, this could very well be extremely serious, and we can’t take any chances. At all. I’m glad you’ve come to me. I’ll be glad to take your case. And from now on, until this thing is settled, don’t let Chelsea out of your sight. Take her to work with you, check in on her bedroom in the middle of the night. Do everything. She must be on Christmas vacation, so that’ll help us out. Keep all doors and windows doubled-checked. Watch her like a hawk constantly while I track this guy. It ain’t complicated – stand in the way!”
“I will, Joe. I definitely will. I’m grateful for your help. This has been going on so long, we’re just drained with the worry…..the cops say we have to catch him trespassing…..”
“That’s true – they’d have to be there actually on guard when he comes over, and of course they can’t just sit there waiting…..that’s where I come in. I’ll need to talk to Chelsea, though, and get this going quick. With you present, of course.”
“That would be great, Joe. You’ve really given me a sense of hope! We haven’t slept in days, weeks even…..when can I bring Chelsea over?” An aggressiveness took root in his eyes.
“Or when can we meet at your house in Rancho? I should get a look at the grounds, to get a feel for what this guy is doing and thinking.” Johansen was astonished:
“You mean, at my house?! Right now, possibly?!”
“Yes, yes, of course! No time like the present. We better get over there. Will you lead me there?” Johansen broke into a broad, relieved smile like you’ve never seen.
“Will I! God yes, let’s go! No time like the present I always say! This is great, really great, Joe! Thank you so much!” Off we went, me in the battered, weathered Corvette, him in his black Mercedes SL. As I pulled out onto Mission Boulevard behind him, I wondered, as I always do (and with considerable trepidation), what new wonders of the human soul this case would bring. It’s usually more than you would’ve thought possible.
We went up Mission and then left onto Footfalls Boulevard, and then left again after a while onto the eucalyptus-lined, downward-curving, Portuguese Hills Drive North. The dark, rolling waves of the Pacific were just visible from the drive, in the distance and in the gathering gloom. The stars overhead began to be visible, and radiated from the darkening ether.
We drove into the night on a chilly Christmas Eve, the Nativity displays of Rancho Verde blinking from the wide, well-manicured lawns, the tidy neighborhoods passing us by until we reached Via Capri. We drove up a slope on that winding way and finally arrived at the broad, clean, up-tilted driveway of the Johansen residence. As we pulled in, an anxious, maternal, illuminated face appeared at the just-opened front door of the sprawling, two-story, ranch-style house. Gazing upon that worried face, so wracked with pain, a face so unaccustomed to danger, a sense of doom came over me for a second time.
…..to be continued…..