Traffic near the Island Hotel was at a standstill. There was a convention of cop cars for two blocks on Santa Monica Boulevard and several on Wilshire Boulevard as well. Traffic cops had blocked off lanes on both streets. Parking anywhere near the Island Hotel alley, where the actual crime scene was, would be impossible. Rosemaria drove down the open inside lane on Wilshire at a crawl for two blocks, turned right into a side street, and found an available parking spot. She paid the meter with her card and started walking toward the hotel. She was apprehensive of what she would find and dreaded seeing someone she knew lying on the ground being checked by the medical examiner like a piece of meat. A murder that involved a friend was hard to take even for someone as hardened to the sight of violent death as she had been as a homicide investigator. Over a year away from the job didn’t make this any easier. The girl had been strangled. That and a few hours in a dumpster would not make for a pretty picture. At least Summers had told her to take her time. Her cases could wait until she came in. There was nothing urgent for her to deal with. So that worry was eased at least.
Rosemaria showed her ID to the cops who were keeping looky-loos at bay, signed in, then started walking down the alley. She saw some familiar faces—Sergeant Darryl Osborne and Jimmy Waite, who had been on her team when she had headed up the homicide unit, were having a discussion with Mal Crews, the medical examiner. She was a plain, middle-aged, no-nonsense kind of lady who did not approve of dark humor around the deceased. As far as Mal was concerned, everyone, even the dead, deserved respect. The victim was lying on the ground next to them as they talked and took in the crime scene. She was wearing a tight black dress that was pulled up to the top of her thighs. At least three people from the forensics unit were collecting evidence near the body and inside a dumpster. A few cops stood at the edge of the crime scene.
There were two dumpsters right outside the delivery entrance that were ready for the trash collectors. There was another walk-in entrance inside an alcove a few feet farther up.
Osborne looked up and smiled, genuinely happy to see her. Tall and skinny, he towered over her as he waved his plastic-gloved hand. “Good to see you, Baker. I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”
“Me too.” She turned to Waite. The redhead’s familiar, friendly grin made her feel like she’d never been away. He held up a plastic bag with a wrinkled card inside. She studied it and said, “It looks like an old one from six years ago, when I was working vice in Hollywood.”
Mal gave her a brief wave. “Have a look. We just brought her out of the dumpster. The garbage truck broke down on Wilshire this morning, or she would have been long gone by now. A housekeeper found her when she came out to empty a trash can.”
Rosemaria crouched down and studied the girl’s swollen face and, as much as she pitied the victim, felt overwhelming relief. “She’s not someone I know.” Mal handed Rosemaria her flashlight, and she aimed the light into the girl’s open, blank eyes, which were beginning to film over. “Petechial hemorrhaging.” Rosemaria looked at the bruising around the throat and mouth. “So, she was strangled.” She looked up and around her for cameras.
“There are cameras inside the alcove and in the loading area,” Osborne said, “but not right here by the dumpsters. Unfortunately.”
“Was she raped?” Rosemaria asked Mal.
“No bruising or evidence of semen.”
“Any skin under the fingernails?”
“I’ll check when I have her on the table.”
Rosemaria stood up and handed Mal her flashlight. “I know for sure I don’t recognize her. One of the older girls must have given her my card. Maybe there’ll be a match for her fingerprints in the computer, if she was ever arrested.”
Waite looked down at the girl. “She was probably here to cash in on the big Democratic political fundraiser Saturday and Sunday. Lots of out-of-town politicians looking for a good time away from their wives.” One of her high heels had fallen off and lay near her foot. It made the victim seem even more lost and pathetic. It had yet to be bagged. “Pretty girl, not more than sixteen, I’d say.”
Mal agreed. “She may have had an appointment or just hoped to meet customers at the bar. With her looks and age, it wouldn’t have taken her long.” Mal’s assistants were waiting next to their van, ready to lift the body and transport it to the morgue. She gave them the go-ahead. To Osborne and Waite, she said, “You want to be there when I do the autopsy, I presume?”
They both nodded yes, and Rosemaria felt oddly excluded. It had been her choice to leave the department. Nine years in Hollywood and then two in Beverly Hills had cemented her decision to become a prosecutor. She wanted to make sure criminals stayed in jail instead of seeing them walk free after doing all the hard work of tracking them down and arresting them. She loved the law and she loved justice—no, she needed justice—and she hated when defense lawyers found a way to convince juries that guilty people were innocent. Her connection to victims and their families was a sacred bond, and she mourned when she couldn’t give them the verdict they needed to hear. A crime scene and the challenge of tracking a killer used to be what got her up in the morning. She was surprised at how out of place she felt, like she was at a party she was no longer invited to. They all watched the body of the girl disappear into the back of the van.
Osborne was observing her expression. “Thinking of coming back already?” he teased.
“You took my job, remember?”
Waite’s blue eyes sparkled. “I could always teach you how to become an internet wizard. We have an opening because a recent hire decided to quit and work for a security firm. You might learn to love it.”
Rosemaria shivered involuntarily. “When hell freezes over. I’ll just head on over to the courthouse and leave the computers to you youngsters who were born attached to a keyboard.”
Osborne walked partway down the alley with her. “We’ll call you from time to time and keep you updated. You’re still family.”
“Thanks. I’d appreciate that. And speaking of family, is Larry still on leave until after Vanessa has the baby? She won’t say, but I think he’s driving her crazy hovering over her every day like she’s a piece of fragile crystal.”
Larry was her former partner at BHPD. He gave her a tough time when they first worked together but ended up becoming a good friend. One of the positive things that came out of the Levy investigation was that Larry, a former womanizer and heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune, had found his soulmate in actress Vanessa Sheridan, who had been an acquaintance of Lila Levy and a witness in the investigation.
“With over a month to go until the big event? Rumor has it among our administrative assistants that he’ll be back way before then.”
She smiled. “Well, if anybody knows what’s going on, they do. Thanks for calling me. I’m sad for the victim, but at least she wasn’t one of mine. I’d like to think they got out of the life and are alive and well.”
He nodded, turned, and walked back to the crime scene. She had a momentary feeling of regret that she was no longer needed there. Then, she shook it off and walked to her car.
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