K is for Killer

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The statutory definition of homicide is the "unlawful killing of one human being by another." Sometimes the phrase "with malice" is employed, the concept serving to distinguish murder from the numerous other occasions in which people deprive each other of life -wars and executions coming foremost to mind. "Malice" in the law doesn't necessarily convey hatred or even ill will but refers instead to a conscious desire to inflict serious injury or cause death. In the main, criminal homicide is an intimate, personal affair insofar as most homicide victims are killed by close relatives, friends, or acquaintances. Reason enough to keep your distance, if you're asking me.


In Santa Teresa, California, approximately eighty-five percent of all criminal homicides are resolved, meaning that the assailant is identified, apprehended, and the question of guilt or innocence is adjudicated by the courts. The victims of unsolved homicides I think of as the unruly dead: persons who reside in a limbo of their own, some state between life and death, restless, dissatisfied, longing for release. It's a fanciful notion for someone not generally given to flights of imagination, but I think of these souls locked in an uneasy relationship with those who have killed them. I've talked to homicide investigators who've been caught up in similar reveries, haunted by certain victims who seem to linger among us, persistent in their desire for vindication. In the hazy zone where wakefulness fades into sleep, in that leaden moment just before the mind sinks below consciousness, I can sometimes hear them murmuring. They mourn themselves. They sing a lullaby of the murdered. They whisper the names of their attackers, those men and women who still walk the earth, unidentified, unaccused, unpunished, unrepentant. On such nights, I do not sleep well. I lie awake listening, hoping to catch a syllable, a phrase, straining to discern in that roll call of conspirators the name of one killer. Lorna Kepler's murder ended up affecting me that way, though I didn't learn the facts of her death until months afterward.


It was mid-February, a Sunday, and I was working late, little Miss Virtue organizing itemized expenses and assorted business receipts for my tax return. I'd decided it was time to handle matters like a grown-up instead of shoving everything in a shoebox and delivering it to my accountant at the very last minute. Talk about cranky! Each year the man positively bellows at me, and I have to swear I'll reform, a vow I take seriously until tax time rolls around again and I realize my finances are in complete disarray.


I was sitting at my desk in the law firm where I rent office space. The night outside was chilly by the usual California definition, which is to say fifty degrees. I was the only one on the premises, ensconced in a halo of warm, sleep-inducing light while the other offices remained dark and quiet. I'd just put on a pot of coffee to counteract the narcolepsy that afflicts me at the approach to money matters. I laid my head on the desk, listening to the soothing gargle of the water as it filtered through the coffee maker. Even the smell of mocha java was not sufficient to stimulate my torpid senses. Five more minutes and I'd be out like a light, drooling on my blotter with my right cheek picking up inky messages in reverse.


I heard a tap at the side entrance and I lifted my head, tilting an ear in that direction like a dog on alert. It was nearly ten o'clock, and I wasn't expecting any visitors. I roused myself, left my desk, and moved out into the hallway. I cocked my head against the side door leading out into the hall. The tap was repeated, much louder. I said, "Yes?"


I heard a woman's muffled voice in response. "Is this Millhone Investigations?"


"We're closed."


"What?"


"Hang on." I put the chain on the door and opened it a crack, peering out at her.


She was on the far side of forty, her outfit of the urban cowgirl sort: boots, faded jeans, and a buckskin shirt. She wore enough heavy silver-and-turquoise jewelry to look like she would clank. She had dark hair nearly to her waist, worn loose, faintly frizzy and dyed the color of oxblood shoes. "Sorry to bother you, but the directory downstairs says there's a private investigator up here in this suite. Is he in, by any chance?"


"Ah. Well, more or less," I said, "but these aren't actual office hours. Is there any way you can come back tomorrow? I'll be happy to set up an appointment for you once I check my book."


"Are you his secretary?" Her tanned face was an irregular oval, lines cutting down along each side of her nose, four lines between her eyes where the brows were plucked to nothing and reframed in black. She'd used the same sharpened pencil to line her eyelids, too, though she wore no other makeup that I could see.

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