From the desk of Darren Hackett
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CHAPTER ONE

     There was nothing Jack Sheridan hated more than working homicides during the holidays.  Double murders only made matters worse.  The victims were David Lawson, a prominent neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai hospital, and his wife Sylvie, a published author and professor of Middle Eastern studies at UCLA.  Both had been shot execution-style inside their home in the Hollywood Hills.  Earlier that evening, the couple had paid $2,500 a plate to attend a dinner and private concert in support of a dozen local charities, including two of their favorites: Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and Toys for Tots.  The Lawsons had many influential friends, from civic leaders to movie stars, which meant the local media would jump all over it and the pressure to find the shooter would be intensified.  It was a pivotal case for Sheridan, a 10-year veteran detective with the Los Angeles Police Department’s homicide unit, and for his rising-star partner, Anthony Velasquez, who everyone called “Velly.”  The investigation had to go smoothly.  For Velly it was an opportunity to make his mark in the department, but for Sheridan the motivation was much deeper.  He needed to clear this case to keep his soul - what little of it remained - from withering away altogether.

     It was shortly before midnight, December 1, and traffic on Sunset Boulevard was choked to a crawl in both directions.  Ordinarily, Sheridan would have gone out of his way to avoid this route.  The Strip was always a mess on Saturday nights, jam-packed with carloads of beautiful people on their way to nightclubs and plenty of others out cruising for eye candy.  On this night, the gridlock status quo was exacerbated by police activity at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Plaza Drive, a mountain road that originated at the Strip and snaked its way up to the crest of the Hollywood Hills.




2


Sheridan and Velly could see the flashing red and blue lights of several police cars up ahead, but getting there felt like it would take all night. 

      “I don’t care how great the view is,” Velly said, “I wouldn’t want a house in the hills if I had to drive this way to get there.”

    No response from Sheridan, who was still hungover from the night before.  He sat behind the wheel, his gaze fixed on the car in front of them.  He was 42 years old, of Irish and Italian descent, lean and handsome in a rugged, well-worn way.  He noticed a rowdy pack of college students laughing and stumbling their way down the sidewalk.  Their freedom and frivolity made him envious.

     Velly checked an incoming text message and relayed it to Sheridan:  “Araceli wants to know if you’re coming to the party.”

     “We’ll see.”

     “Oh no, don’t even try it.”

     “What?”

     “You’re trying to blow off my party.”

     “Did I say that?”

     “You might as well have.”

     “I said I’m not sure. What’s the big deal?”

     “I told you.  She’s making tamales.  We need a head count, otherwise people end up fighting over the last one.  It can get ugly, believe me.”

     “I understand. I just don’t know if I’ll be feeling up to it.”

     “How could you possibly know that?  It’s a week from now.”

     “Jesus, Velly, give it a break.”



3




     “Yeah okay, fine.”

     There was always a party in Velly’s life.  Every other weekend it seemed, family and friends, this occasion and that.  He was 29 years old, Mexican American, the middle child from a family of seven, with countless cousins who all loved to laugh and drink and have a good time.  Their bond was strong, and they were competitive, too.  (A few years back, they won a raft of cash on Family Feud.)  After graduating from high school, Velly went to Villanova to study sociology and rounded out his east coast experience with a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania.  His Ivy League education did not diminish his street credibility in the slightest.  He grew up in South Los Angeles, where many of his friends and classmates chose the gang life over a future, so he was certainly no stranger to the realities of urban struggles and strife.  He was the boy scout of the bunch; it was his sense of duty to his community that inspired him to pursue a career in law enforcement. 

     Sheridan was his mentor – not by choice, but because Sheridan’s longtime partner, mentor and friend, Paul Papich, had retired earlier that year.  Papich and Sheridan closed a number of high profile cases together and earned themselves a bit of small-time celebrity in the process, having made numerous appearances on true crime television programs like Forensic Files and Crime 360.  Around the office, Sheridan had a reputation for being moody, but everyone liked him so no one took it personally.  Some thought he was too hard on Velly, especially in the beginning, but that didn’t stop Velly from looking up to him in the same way that Sheridan had looked up to Papich when he was the new guy ten years prior.

     As they inched their way closer to Sunset Plaza Drive, Velly couldn’t help himself:  “You should see my wife’s girlfriends.  They're all going to be there.  A guy like you could have a lot of fun.” 


4


     Velly knew exactly what to say, but Sheridan refused to take the bait.  He had always been popular with the ladies.  He was the type of guy who women desperately wanted to fix, and over the years there had been no shortage of willing hands. 

     “So seriously,” Velly said. “You’re not coming.”

     “You’re working my last nerve, Velly.”

     “Whatever.  I didn’t want you to come anyway.  Araceli told me I should invite you.”

     “Tell her I appreciate the thought.”

     When they finally arrived at the intersection of Sunset Plaza Drive, Sheridan flashed his headlights to get the attention of a uniformed police officer on the scene.  The officer walked over to the car.  Sheridan lowered the window and showed him his badge.

     “We’re here to work the crime scene at 423 Forest Glen," Sheridan said.  Why’s the road blocked?”

     “We’re looking for a hit-and-run suspect,” the officer said.  “He smashed his car into a cinder block wall a little ways up the hill and took off running.  The call came in a few minutes after the murders were reported, so we’re taking every precaution.”

     They heard a police helicopter patrolling the sky nearby.

     “You got a description on this guy?” Velly wanted to know.

     “African-American male, mid to late 20s, medium build with dreadlocks, wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt.  Two witnesses saw the accident.”  Velly jotted it down.

     “Anything else?” Sheridan asked.

     “That’s all the information I have right now.”



5


     “Thanks for your help.”

     “Sure, no problem.”

     The officer signaled to his partner, who moved the patrol car so they could pass.  Sheridan made a right turn onto Sunset Plaza Drive and pushed down hard on the gas to get them up the steep and winding road.

     When they arrived at the scene of the accident, they discovered that an ’89 Ford Mustang had careened out of control on a curve and collided with a landscaping wall in the front yard of a fancy house.  The mangled mess was cordoned off with yellow police tape.  Sheridan stopped the car to speak with one of the uniformed police officers on the scene, this time a young female.

     “The driver was gone by the time we got here,” she said.  “We sealed off the area, thinking it might be connected to the crime scene up the hill.”

     “Was it reported stolen?” Sheridan asked.

     “No sir.  It’s registered to a Malachi Monroe at 3006 Pacific Avenue in Venice.  We sent a patrol car to his residence to see if we can get some more information.” 

     “Good work.  We’ll be back in a little while to take a closer look.”  Sheridan gave her a nod and continued driving up the hill.

     Like most of the residential streets in the hills of Los Angeles, Forest Glen Road was narrow enough to make driving and parking a hassle and a hazard, even on a quiet night.  Whenever someone had a big party – or in the rare event a double murder was committed – the tiny streets with multimillion dollar addresses clogged up quite quickly.  The road was stacked with police cruisers, vans from the coroner’s office, vans belonging to the forensics team, and even a lone media van that had evidently made its way up the hill before the police roadblock was set up.



6


     There were lots of people standing around when Sheridan and Velly arrived on the scene.  Neighbors and curious onlookers had gathered in groups on the other side of the yellow tape to see what was going on.  Sheridan looked around at the faces in the crowd.  He took notice of a young couple — a man of Middle Eastern descent and a woman with long, blond hair.  The woman used the sleeve of her sweatshirt to dry her teary eyes.  The man put his arm around her shoulder.  Sheridan spotted the crime scene photographer and asked him to take some photos of the crowd...

     Sergeant Frank McClure, a friendly, barrel-chested cop who had known Sheridan for years, approached and greeted him with a smile.

     “Where have you guys been?  At the bar?”

     “Yeah, funny,” Sheridan said, clearly not amused.

     McClure gave them both a firm handshake.  He saw the stubble on Sheridan’s face and the dark circles under his eyes.

     “Jack, you look like hell.  Are you sick?”

     “Goddamn insomnia,” Sheridan said.  “I’ve been sleeping like shit for the past two weeks.”

     “You won’t sleep any easier after you see this one.”

     McClure gave them a quick briefing as he led them to the front door of the house.   “Okay, so here’s what we have so far.  One male, one female, both mid 50s, each with a single gunshot wound to the head.  A neighbor was walking his dog and got suspicious when he saw a black male with dreadlocks run from the side of the house and drive off in a blue Mustang.  The neighbor went to investigate, saw one of the bodies through the window, and called 911.”



7


    
The interior of the house was warm and inviting with delicate lighting and handsome rugs on hardwood floors.  Precious archeological artifacts from the Holy Land were prominently displayed throughout, giving the home an elegant, museum-like quality.

     “Nice house,” Velly said.

     “Wait until you see the view.”  McClure escorted them into the living room, where the forensics team was already hard at work, dusting for prints and scouring for evidence.  David Lawson’s body was tied to a wooden chair that had been knocked over on its side.  His hands were bound to the back of the chair with large, plastic zip ties, and his ankles were secured to the legs of the chair in the same manner.  His mouth was covered with a strip of gray duct tape, his right eye was bruised and swollen, and the side of his head rested in a dark pool of blood on the rug. 

     “How’s that for some twisted irony?” McClure said.

     “What do you mean?” Sheridan asked.

     “A neurosurgeon with his brains blown out.  What are the odds?”

     “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

     There was another chair, identical to the other, standing upright about six feet away.  On the floor near the second chair, there was a discarded strip of duct tape, along with several zip ties that had been fastened and then cut open with a knife.

     “Where’s the female victim?”  Sheridan asked.

     “Prepare yourselves, fellas — it ain’t a pretty sight.”

     “It never is.”


8


     McClure led them down the hall and into the study.  They turned the corner and were startled to see Sylvie Lawson’s lifeless eyes staring directly at them.  The force of the bullet striking her in the forehead had thrown her back and laid her flat, with the exception of her head, which was propped up against the bottom of the bookcase, positioning her face toward the door. 

     Sheridan squatted down to take a closer look at her forearms.  They were covered in black, blistery lesions.  There was an even larger lesion on her chin.

     “Those are some nasty burns,” he said.  “It looks like someone used one of those laser flame torch lighters and held it there for a hell of a long time.”

     “That’s fucked up,” Velly said.

     “And then there’s this,” McClure added.  They looked over their shoulders to see what he was referring to: it was a Byzantine icon painting of Jesus in a gilded frame.  A bejeweled dagger had been stabbed into the center of the painting, through the heart of Jesus, to affix a handwritten note.  Sheridan and Velly stepped closer to the painting with great curiosity.  The note was in Arabic.  It had been scrawled in blood. 




9


CHAPTER TWO

     By the time Sheridan got outside, the Middle Eastern man was nowhere in sight.  The teary young blond woman, who the man had been consoling, was still standing there on the other side of the police tape.  Sheridan walked over to her.

     “Hi, I’m Detective Jack Sheridan.  Do you mind if I ask you a few quick questions?”

     “Okay,” she said, pulling herself together as best she could.

     “How did you know the victims?”

     “I live up the street at 429.”

     “I take it you were close.”

     “No, just acquaintances really, but they were super nice.  Really great people.”

     “How long did you know them?”

     “My husband and I moved here from New York about six months ago.  The day after we moved in, David and Sylvie stopped by to introduce themselves.  They went out of their way to make us feel welcome.  They even brought us homemade cookies.”

     “Hospitality like that is a rare thing in this town.”

     “I feel bad for saying this, but when they invited us to the barbeque they were having on the Fourth of July, neither one of us wanted to go.  We didn’t know anyone, and we were guessing there wouldn’t be many people our age at the party, so we did the polite thing and said we would stop by for a few minutes.  We ended up staying the whole time.  It turned out to be a lot of fun.”

     “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

     “I’m Holly.  Holly Colson.”

     “Was that your husband standing with you a few minutes ago?”




10




     She looked confused.  “My husband’s out of town on a business trip,” she said.

     “Who was the man with his arm around your shoulder?”

     “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, genuinely perplexed.

     “The Middle Eastern guy.  Dark curly hair, hazel eyes...  I saw him standing with you when we walked up.”

     She shook her head.  “I’m sorry, you must have me confused with someone else.”

     This caught him off guard but he played it off well: “You’ll have to forgive me — it’s been a very long day.  What about David and Sylvie’s political views?  Would you happen to know anything about that?”

     “Gosh, I know they were involved with a few different community organizations if that helps.  Mostly charities.  I don’t know which ones though.  They told us but I can’t remember.”

     “What about their religious views?”

     “Why?” she asked, lowering her voice like a nosy neighbor.  “Is this some kind of religious hate crime?”

     “What would make you think that?”

     “Well, I don’t know exactly, but that was the first thing that came to mind when you mentioned religion.  They were an interfaith couple.  He was Jewish, she was Muslim.”

     “Can you tell me more about that?”

     “We only talked about it briefly.  The Fourth of July was the most time we ever spent with them.  I remember thinking how sad it was that both of their families were totally against it.  From the way they made it sound, everyone pretty much disowned them.” 



11


     She got teary again and wiped her eyes.  “It just doesn’t make any sense to me, she said.  How can bad things like this happen to good people?”

     Part of him wanted to reach out and hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.  Another part of him was annoyed that someone could be so broken up about someone they hardly knew.

     “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Colson.” He handed her his business card.  “If there’s anything else you can think of that might be helpful, please call me at this number.”

     As he turned and walked toward the house, he heard a familiar female voice:  “Hello there, Detective.”  Sophia de Franco, an impeccably dressed young woman with a face and hair made for the nightly news, stood sassily on the other side of the yellow tape.  This was the last thing Sheridan needed, but he walked over to her anyway.

     “When I saw the news van I had a feeling it was you.”

     “Nice to see you, too,” she replied.

     “I didn’t think we were speaking with each other anymore.”

     “Jack, how could I stay mad at you?”

     “Well, let’s see.  You threw a bottle at me, called me a selfish prick, and said you never wanted to see me again.  Then you said something about me getting hit by a truck.  Call me crazy, but that all sounded pretty damn final to me.”

     She reached over and gently touched his arm.  “A girl can say some stupid things when she’s upset, you know that.”

     “Is that all it was?”

     “That’s all it was,” she said with an irresistible coquettishness.  “I feel terrible for saying all those mean things to you.”



12



     “Aw, that’s sweet.  Straight from the heart.  I’m really glad we had this talk.”  He turned around to walk away.

     “Wait,” she said, “aren’t you going to tell me what’s going on here?”

     “We just started the investigation.”

     “Okay, so what do you know so far?  What can you tell me?”

     “Nothing.”

     “Come on, Jack.  Give me something to work with.”

     “Isn’t that what got us into trouble the last time?”

     She ignored the insinuation.  “Listen, these are two prominent people we’re talking about.  I’m the first one here and I want the exclusive.”

     “And I suppose I’d be a jerk if I said no.”

     “It wouldn’t be the first time,” she shot back.

     The comment pissed him off, but he had it coming.

    “See you later, Sophia.”

 

*          *          *

     

     When Sheridan stepped into the study, Velly was reading a book.

     “What are you doing?”

     Velly ignored him long enough to finish the sentence he was reading.  “Very interesting...” he said, snapping the book closed with one hand and offering it to Sheridan.  “This was on the desk.  I think we might have something here.”



13

    
     Sheridan read the cover: The Jerusalem Solution: Why Both Sides Are Dead Wrong by Sylvie Lawson.  He turned the book over and saw the author’s photograph.  The attractive, middle-aged woman with the bright smile and twinkle in her eye did not look like the woman lying on the floor next to them, but it was indeed the same person; death transforms faces, but in some cases, the difference is disturbingly dramatic.  Sheridan skimmed her bio: born in Tehran, educated at Oxford, author of numerous books on Middle Eastern history and politics, a well-known archeological enthusiast... When he opened the book, a post card slipped out and fell to the floor, face up, revealing the lanky shadows of palm trees on the side of a tall white building.  Sheridan reached down and picked it up.  It was an outdated flyer for an art exhibition — a collection of paintings by the late Edward Biberman.  Sheridan stuck the post card back in the book. 

      “Why both sides are dead wrong,” Velly said.  “That’s a bold thing to say.  Seems like the kind of book that might stir up some controversy.”

      “So you’re leaning toward a crime of ideology.”

     “Well, yeah.  What else do you call it when somebody shanks the Lord with a dagger and a bloody note written in Arabic?  It makes logical sense to me.”

     “I’m not so sure.”

     “I got the translation right after you left.  By the way, where did you go?”

     “It turned out to be nothing.  What does the note say?”

     Velly pulled out his phone and read him the translation: “The punishment for making insults against Islam is death.”

     “Well there you have it,” Sheridan said with sarcasm.  “Nice of them to give us such a clear and simple explanation.  How did you get it translated so quickly?”



14

    
    
“Do you know Kahlil Bashir in narcotics?”

     “No.”

     “We’ve been friends since the Academy.  You should meet him sometime; he’s a funny dude.  Anyway, he speaks fluent Arabic, so I took a picture of the note with my phone and sent it to him.  He was pissed that I woke him up but he’ll get over it."

     “I think the note is a red herring.”

     “Come on.  Are you serious?”

     “Why do you think the female victim was the only one who got her arms torched?”

     “Because somebody didn’t like what she had to say.”

     “Okay, sure, I admit — the subject of her book, the note, the dramatics involved — this could very well be a revenge killing for all we know.  They tortured her because they hated her.  Senseless cruelty just to make a point.  But why is her body in here?  Why didn’t they just finish her off in the living room?”

     “Because they wanted her to see that,” Velly said, pointing at the painting of Jesus.

     “I don’t know, Velly.  My gut is telling me otherwise.”  He motioned for Velly to follow him to the living room.  On the way, they crossed paths with Patti Norris, lead investigator on the forensics team, a perky young brainiac who wore it well.

     “Anything?” Sheridan asked.

     She shook her head.  “Whoever did this sure knew how to cover their tracks.”

     “When you get a chance, I’d like to have the note, the dagger and the painting all taken in as evidence.”

     “You got it,” she said.



15


     In the living room, Sheridan continued to build his theory.  “Okay, so the female victim was sitting here, strapped to the chair, facing her husband.  They tortured her, and then they cut her loose.  Just for the sake of argument, let’s say this had nothing to do with her opinions on religion or the Middle East or anything else for that matter.  What other reason is there to torture someone?”

     “To get information.”

     “Right.  Or maybe they were looking for an object of some kind, or a document, something incredibly valuable.  Whatever it was, she had no intention of giving it up.”

     “If that were the case, why not torture both of them?  There’s a better chance that you’d get one of them to talk.”

     “Take a closer look at the male victim’s face,” Sheridan said.

     Velly squatted to get a better look.  What at first glance appeared to be a nasty contusion on Mr. Lawson’s jaw was actually a second-degree burn.

     “She was the one they were after,” Sheridan said.  “And she was tough enough to take the pain to protect whatever she was hiding.  But when they turned the torch on hubby, it was time to tap out.”

     “But what about the note?  And that crazy Ali Baba dagger?  Why go through all that trouble if the real motive was robbery?”

     “I don’t know, but the problem I’m having is that the whole thing is too neat and tidy.  That always makes me suspicious.”

     “You really think this is the direction we should take with this?”

     “No, but it’s a possibility, so until we rule it out, we should keep it on the table.”

     Sergeant McClure stepped into the room and cheerfully interrupted their conversation.  “Good news, fellas.  One of our units has the suspect in custody.



16


CHAPTER THREE

     Fairfax Avenue through mid-city had a reputation for gastro-pleasures: there was the Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax with its mélange of mouthwatering eateries, and Canter’s Famous Deli in the heart of the Jewish District.  Not far from there, the air was rich with the ambrosial aromas of Little Ethiopia’s restaurant row.  Genghis Cohen was a popular and aptly named spot for kosher Chinese, and of course, there was always Oki-Dog for some late night artery clogging.  Other notable L.A. landmarks, including The Grove, the old Silent Movie Theatre, the Petersen Automotive Museum, CBS Television City, and the Farmer’s Daughter Motel were all situated along this vibrant thoroughfare.  But there was a much lesser known part of the avenue that was strangely dismembered and miles removed from the rest.  A map of the area revealed no apparent or logical reason why this short stretch of industrial road – which ran south through the brush covered oil fields of Baldwin Hills – should bear the name Fairfax Avenue.

     In the dead of night the road was ghostly.  The only sounds were the moving parts of automated derricks harvesting oil from deep in the earth.  With no other souls in sight, two men sat in a parked car on the dirt shoulder.  They smoked cigarettes and waited.

     Up ahead they saw headlights approaching.  Moments later, a top of the line luxury sedan drove past them, slowed down, made a u-turn in the middle of the road, and then pulled to a stop behind them.  The two smokers got out of the car to meet the driver of the luxury sedan, who was dressed in designer casual with a leather jacket and a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.  “Well?” he said with a tone of authority.

     One of the smokers flicked his cigarette into the street and opened up the trunk.  “Is this what you were looking for?”



17


     The driver of the luxury sedan looked inside.  “Sweet Jesus...” he muttered.  For a moment he simply stared into the trunk, amazed by what he was seeing.

     “Hey, can we snap it up here?” the other smoker said.  “I don’t like this place.”

     “Your money’s on the front seat,” the driver of the luxury sedan replied.

     The impatient smoker hurried to the passenger side of the luxury sedan.  He opened the door and grabbed a duffle bag from the front seat, then placed it on the ground and unzipped it.  The bag was stuffed to capacity with bundles of hundred dollar bills.

     “It’s all there, don’t worry,” the driver of the luxury sedan said.

     “Come on, let’s get out of here,” the first smoker said to the impatient one.

     “Hey, aren’t you guys forgetting something?”

     “What?”

     “I promised you Super Bowl tickets.  That was part of the deal.”

     “You were serious?  We thought you were just fucking with us.”

     “I have them right here.”  The driver of the luxury sedan reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out an automatic pistol instead.  With lightning-fast precision he squeezed off five quick rounds — two slugs in the chest for one smoker, three in the chest for the other.

 

*          *          *

     

     Seven thousand six hundred miles away, a stern-faced American Business Executive read an Arabic language newspaper in a Baghdad café.  The two bodyguards who sat with him at the table were geared up with assault rifles and body armor.

     The Executive’s cell phone rang.  The incoming number was restricted but he answered the call anyway.



18


 
    
“Who is this and how did you get this number?”

     “I understand you collect antiquities.” 

     The Executive lowered his newspaper.  “Who the hell is this?” he said with a calm and threatening growl.

     “You’ve been trying to track this one down for quite some time,” the caller taunted.

     “You still haven’t told me who you are.  I always find out.”

     “It’s on the market.  Care to make a bid?”

     “You’d be fascinated to know what happened to the last prick who tried to hustle me.”

     “I take it that means you’re not interested.”  The caller hung up.

     The Executive seethed but he kept it under control.  Behind his dark, angry eyes, the wheels of his mind were turning fast.  Who was that?  And how the hell did he know about the antiquity?



19


CHAPTER FOUR

     Malachi Monroe, a young African American man with thick, shoulder-length dreadlocks and a quiet intensity, sat solemnly at the interrogation table as he waited for Velly to come back into the room.  He had never been in trouble with the law, which was miraculous given all of the sketchy characters he used to call friends, back before he got shot and nearly died.  He knew he was in over his head this time.  He had blood all over his shirt, which he claimed was from the cut on his forehead, but that had yet to be determined.

     Velly stepped into the room and handed Malachi a small Styrofoam cup filled with lukewarm tap water, then closed the door and sat down at the table.  In a separate room, Sheridan watched the interrogation on a closed circuit monitor.

     “So we were talking about the accident,” Velly resumed. “Why did you leave the scene?”

     “I’m really sorry about that, sir.  I know you’re not supposed to leave the scene of an accident, but after I hit that wall I wasn’t thinking straight.  My mind was all scrambled.”

     “Don’t play games with me.  You ran because you’re guilty.”

     “Guilty of what?”

     “Two counts of murder, that’s what.”

     “You actually think I killed those people?  No way, man.  You got the wrong guy.  I didn’t kill anybody.”

     Velly referred to his notepad. “According to an eyewitness, a man fitting your description ran from the scene of a double murder at 423 Forest Glen, then sped off in a car that perfectly matches the description of your car.  Two minutes later, you go nose-first into a landscaping wall less than a half mile from the crime scene.  Am I missing something here?”



20


    “I swear to you on my mother’s life: I did not have anything to do with those murders.”

     “Then why were you there?”

     Malachi averted his eyes.

     “The less you tell me, the guiltier you look,” Velly warned.  “Why were you there?”

     “There’s no way you’re gonna believe me, so what’s the point?”

     “You let me worry about that.  Just answer the question.”

     There was an awkward silence as Velly waited for him to respond, but all Malachi could do was stare at the tabletop.

     “What kind of name is Malachi anyway?  Is that your real name?”

     “Yes it’s my real name.”

     “It’s a Muslim name, right?”

     “No,” Malachi said, clearly irritated by the line of questioning. “It’s Hebrew.”

     “How the hell does a guy like you end up with a name like that?”

     “I don’t appreciate you mocking my name.”

     Velly lost his temper.  “You listen to me, asshole.  You’re in a world of shit right now. We’re treating this one as a hate crime.  You know what that means?  It means you’re going to death row.”

     “Don’t put that lie on me.”

     “Where’s the weapon?”  

      “I told you!  I didn’t kill anybody!”



21


      “Then answer my question, goddammit!” he said with a slam of his hand on the table for emphasis.  “Tell me why you were at the scene of a double fucking homicide!”

      Malachi let out a deep breath.  He knew he was taking a risk, but at this point he didn’t have much choice.  Sheridan watched intently from the other room.

     “I was there to warn them,” he said.

     “What do you mean you were there to warn them?”

     “I knew they were in trouble.  I tried to call them but they didn’t answer.”

     “So you knew the victims?”

     “Yes.”

     “How did you know them?”

     “It’s a long story.”

     “Give me the short version.”

     “I met them at a drum circle.”

     Velly wasn’t expecting that.  “A drum circle?  You mean like the one at Venice Beach?”

     “Same basic concept.”

     “Okay, so you met them at a drum circle.  Where was this and when?”

     “About two years ago.  At a house in the Palisades.”

     “Fancy place for a drum circle.”

     “The family that hosted the circle needed me.”

     “Needed you for what?”

     “Their daughter was dying.  They were hoping for a miracle.”

     “I don’t understand.”



22



      “If you’re a believer, then you know there’s power in the circle.  People get healed.”

     “What are you, some kind of Rastafarian medicine man?”

     “I work for Jesus,” Malachi said with conviction.  “I work for the Lord.”

     This surprised Sheridan.  He could usually smell the Jesus on someone from a mile away.

     Velly was deadpan annoyed.  “So you’re a faith healer.  Is that what you’re telling me?”

     “No, that's not what I'm saying.  It's hard to explain.  I don't fully comprehend it myself.  But I can tell you this much: trippy stuff happens when prayer and rhythm collide.”

     “I see.  And why were the Lawsons there?”

     “They came as skeptics.  Dr. Lawson was a big-time brain surgeon.  He had a patient with an inoperable tumor who came to one of my drum circles and got healed, just like that.  There was no scientific explanation for it.”

     “Uh-huh.”

     “The man was terminal.  One day the tumor was there; the next day it was gone.  It was the hand of God, but Dr. Lawson didn’t want to believe it.”

     “Let me guess.  He came to your drum circle and you made a believer out of him.”

     “I didn’t have anything to do with it.  The Lawsons had a supernatural encounter; a profound spiritual experience.”

     “You sure know how to spin one hell of a story.”

     “I’m telling you the truth.”

     In the other room, two spectators joined Sheridan at the monitor.

     “Let’s talk about tonight,” Velly said.  “You said you were there to warn them.  How did you know they were in trouble?”



23


     “I had a prophetic dream, a premonition.”

     “This gets better and better.”

     “See?  What did I tell you?  I knew you wouldn’t believe me.”

     “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

     “It was a dream within a dream.  It’s never good when that happens.”

     Velly folded his arms and leaned back in his chair.

     “I had fallen asleep on the couch,” Malachi continued.  “I was dreaming about backpacking through Europe with this girl I used to date in college.  Somebody started banging real loud on the door.  It woke me up, but at that point, I didn’t realize I was still dreaming.  I answered the door and that’s when things got spooky.  It was the Lawsons.  As soon as I opened the door they rushed inside my apartment like somebody was chasing them.  I didn’t know what was going on, so I locked the door and turned around and that’s when I saw that their throats had been cut.  It was awful.  There was blood everywhere, and they had this crazy, crazy look in their eyes.  Both of them were real pale, like they had been dead for days.  They grabbed me and started pleading with me but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  They were desperately trying to tell me something, but when they moved their mouths nothing came out.  They just kept pleading and bleeding and that’s when I woke up.”

     “Wow.  And then what?”

     “I tried calling them on their home phone and both of their cell phones.  They didn’t pick up so I got in my car and drove to their house.  Their car was in the driveway, so when they didn’t answer the door, I knew that I had gotten there too late.  I went around to the back of the house to see if there was any sign of them.  I looked through the window and that’s when I saw Dr. Lawson on the floor.”



24


     “Why did you run?  Why didn’t you call the police?”

     “I don’t know, I guess I panicked.  Honestly, Detective.  I know I should have called the police, but I was too freaked out to do anything that made sense.  I just wanted to get as far away from that place as possible.”

     Velly stared at him and took a moment to let everything sink in.  “You know what I think?  I think you’re a bullshit artist with a wild imagination.”

     “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true.  I gave it to you just the way it happened.  What else can I say?”

     “I know you’re involved.  I don’t know how, but I can promise you that I will find out.  And when I do, we’re gonna nail your fucking balls to the wall.”

     Malachi chuckled in a fatalistic way. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” he said.

     “What’s that supposed to mean?”

     “For the last three and a half years, there’s been a whole lot of weird and unbelievable shit going on in my life that I have absolutely no control over, and clearly this is just a part of it, so why not just kick back and enjoy the ride?”

     “You lost me.  What exactly are you trying to say?”

     “Tell me this.  I know you don’t believe me and there’s nothing I can do about that, but I’m just wondering — me and my story aside — do you believe in God?”

     “What does that have to do with anything?”

     “Do you believe in angels?”

     “Okay, I think I’ve heard enough.”  Velly pushed back from the table and stood up. Just as he was about to leave the room, Malachi lowered his voice and posed another question in a manner and tone that was creepy enough to make Velly stop cold.

     “What about demons?”


25



     Velly looked over his shoulder at Malachi, who was staring at him with a serious and unsettling look in his eyes.  Without a word, Velly left the room and closed the door.

     Moments later he stepped into the observation room to confer with Sheridan. 

     “What the hell has this guy been smoking?” Velly asked.

     “Yeah, no kidding.”

     “So what’s your take?  Do you think anything he said is true?”

     “He’s a Jesus freak,” Sheridan said.  “Some are a little more delusional than others, but that’s beside the point.  It’s what he’s not telling us that matters.”

     Sheridan pointed at the image on the monitor.  They could see that Malachi’s nerves were starting to fray at the edges.  He was fidgeting and bouncing his knee.  It was time for Sheridan to go in and work his magic...

     A few minutes later, Sheridan stepped inside the interrogation room to find Malachi with his face buried in his hands.

     “I’m Detective Sheridan.”   

     As soon as Malachi looked up and laid eyes on him, his face turned ashen, as if he had seen a ghost.  He stood up quickly and backed away from Sheridan, tangling with his chair in the process and completely losing his balance, which sent both Malachi and the chair crashing to the floor.  Sheridan went over to help him up, but Malachi kicked his feet at Sheridan and shouted, “Stay away from me! I know what you are!”  There was a look of sheer terror in his eyes as he scrambled under the table and got to his feet on the other side.  He tried to open the door but it was locked so he pounded on it with his fist and shouted, “Help! Somebody let me out of here!” 

     While Malachi was yelling and climbing the walls, all Sheridan could do was stand there and watch in puzzled disbelief.  Rarely did it happen, but for the second time that night, he was caught completely off guard.



26

CHAPTER FIVE

     Just two days earlier, Sheridan had been thinking that maybe his drinking was starting to get the best of him.  He had always been a social drinker, but over the last few years, he had spent more and more time imbibing alone.  In particular, he knew the holidays had a way of fueling at least one or two notorious benders that he could never remember the next day.  He had come to accept that as a given.

     To illustrate how far out of balance his life had slipped, he sometimes imagined his brain floating by itself in a rusty bucket of scotch, like a lone pickle trapped in a jar of brine on a deli counter.  It worried him that his eyes had played tricks on him outside the Lawson’s house.  The neighbor’s reaction was genuine and that’s what scared him.  Throughout his career he had prided himself on his ability to accurately read people, so there was no doubt in his mind she was telling the truth: the Middle Eastern man with the hazel eyes and dark curly hair simply was not there.  Somewhere, deep in the hazy folds between intoxication and insomnia, Sheridan had crossed paths with a phantom. To think this momentary lapse of reality might somehow be related to Malachi’s meltdown was much too far of a leap for Sheridan, but it did cause him to take pause and wonder what the hell was going on.

     As for Malachi, he mellowed out a bit after Velly came into the interrogation room and Sheridan exited, but he remained paranoid and agitated and refused to say anything else until he spoke with a lawyer.  There was no way that was going to happen at four o’clock on a Sunday morning, so they had no choice but to lock him up and hold him on suspicion of murder.  In the meantime, Velly went to his desk to search through public records, the Internet, and the national law enforcement database to see what information he could find on both the suspect and the victims.  Sheridan got in the car to drive back to the crime scene.  He wanted to search for clues with a closer, undistracted eye. 



27


     As he drove west on Sunset, he heard the ring tone of his cell phone and checked the incoming number.  It was Patti Norris from the forensics team.    

     “Hey Patti, what’s up?”

     “It appears our female victim went down fighting.”

     “What makes you say that?”

     “We found skin and blood under her fingernails.  It looks like she took a pretty good swipe out of someone.”

     “That’s great news,” Sheridan said.  “How long will it take you to work up a DNA profile?  I know you guys are backlogged, but if there’s anything you can do—”

     “Don’t even worry about it, Jack.  I’ll take care of it for you right away.”

     “Thanks, Patti.  You’re the best.”

     “Oh, one more thing.  Cat blood.”

     “What?”

     “The murder note.  It was written in cat blood.”

     “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

     “I didn’t think it was human blood, and since the note was in Arabic, I was pretty sure it wasn’t pig blood.  I was expecting chicken or cow blood.”

     Using the blood of a cat as ink smacked of the occult.  Sheridan tried to snap this piece of information into the puzzle, but it didn’t immediately fit.

     “Thanks for moving so quickly on this,” he said.  “I owe you a drink.”

     “Isn’t that what you said last time?”



28

     “Then I owe you two.”

     “That sounds like a ploy to get me drunk.”

     “I figured a blood-and-guts girl like you could handle her liquor.”

     “I guess you’ll have to wait and see.”  She had flirted with him before, but this time her tone was a bit more suggestive.  Not that Sheridan minded.  There was something incredibly sexy about Patti, nerdy glasses and all.

     “I’m on my way back to the scene,” he said. “Call me if you need me.”

     “Likewise.”

     Up ahead at the intersection of Sunset and Fairfax, the traffic signal turned yellow.  Sheridan slowed the car and stopped at the light.  The streets were empty.  His was the only car in sight.  A billboard caught his attention.  The eyes of a homeless child pleaded with his conscience.  This holiday season, the pitch line stated, spread some joy by remembering those less fortunate.  The Generosity Genesis Foundation, sponsor of the ad, was a philanthropic organization that ran dozens of meaningful programs to help the poor and homeless in Los Angeles.  He had seen their billboards and bus stop ads before; their slogan was ubiquitous: Generosity Genesis... where giving begins.

     In June or July it would’ve been fine, but tonight Sheridan was annoyed by it.  Not that he was averse to generosity — quite the contrary — but the weight of the emotional burden he carried at this time of year was already heavy enough without having to worry about some sad kid he didn’t even know.  He looked away from the billboard and noticed a man walking down the street with a cigarette in his hand.  The man took a deep, long drag and exhaled a billow of smoke.  Sheridan knew exactly what that felt like.  It had been 11 months since he said goodbye to his filtered friends — one of the few New Year’s resolutions he had ever kept — but at that moment he was feeling desirous.  From the time he was a teenager, the power-packed pleasure of a nicotine surge to the brain had been a fast and familiar way to alleviate pain. 



29



     The traffic light at Sunset and Fairfax turned green.  Sheridan drove through the intersection, unaware that another double murder was being investigated at that very moment, exactly 7.7 miles to the south, along the short, industrialized stretch of Fairfax Avenue that was strangely dismembered and miles removed from the rest.  Unlike the Lawson murders, this crime scene was devoid of hoopla.  A police photographer snapped photos of the two dead smokers, who — just seconds before they were gunned down — had entertained extravagant notions of watching the world’s premier sporting event from a luxury box at the 50 yard line.  Their bodies had been dragged around to the side of the car and piled, one on top of the other, next to the barbed wire fence that separated the shoulder of the road from the private property of the oil fields.

     Homicide Detective Montressa Washington, an African American woman who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart after her convoy was attacked near Baghdad in 2004, opened the trunk of the car and discovered large quantities of common household products: drain cleaner, ammonia, matchbooks, batteries, paint thinner, lighter fluid, packages of sinus and cold medicine...  She was familiar with the ingredients.  These were the recipe requirements for cooking crystal meth.

 

*          *          *
     

     Sheridan drove up to the Lawson’s house to find a lone police car parked at the curbside.  The house was still ribboned off with yellow tape, but the scene was vastly different from the way it had been just a few hours before.  A coyote slunk across the neighbor’s yard and disappeared into the shadows, a common sight late at night in the hillside communities of L.A.  Sheridan figured it was probably on the prowl for cats, which made him think about, and pity, the innocent kitty that was sacrificed for its blood just so some sick bastard could add a little shock value to a murder note.



30



    Inside the house, the silence was eerie.  He walked down the hall to the study and switched on the light and immediately noticed the drying pool of blood at the foot of the bookcase.  He also noticed the bare space on the wall where the painting of Jesus had been.  Sylvie Lawson’s computer had already been taken in for analysis; Velly was coordinating that.  Sheridan was there to comb through her filing cabinets and to sift through the piles of paper that were stacked on and around her desk.  Much of it was university related.  Some of it was research material for an unfinished book she had been writing on ancient Middle Eastern metallurgy.  There were also lots of files dedicated to her personal interests and hobbies, with topics ranging from gardening, camping and quilt making, to the performing arts, museums, and more.  All of it painted a clearer picture of Sylvie’s life, but none of it stood out as being especially relevant to the investigation.

     As he was digging through a catchall drawer full of office supplies, loose change and random tchotchkes, he found an interesting letter opener that resembled a double-edged medieval sword.  It was burnished bronze, with a circular medallion embedded between the hilt and the blade.  On one side of the medallion there were three bold initials in raised relief: D.O.A.  The other side was almost identical, but instead of letters, there were three symbols: a six-pointed star, a cross, and a crescent moon.  It was definitely a curious find.  He pondered it for a moment, made a mental note, then pressed on...


31


       He opened the door to the walk-in closet and spotted another filing cabinet.  This one was locked.  He jimmied it open with his pocket knife and discovered a drawer full of manila file folders containing contracts, permits, and invoices — many of them bearing official stamps and government seals from countries in the Middle East — along with glossy 8x10 photographs that were taken at archaeological digs throughout the region.  Most of the photos were images of tagged artifacts; the rest were candid shots of excavation teams working in hot, dusty locations.  One folder in particular piqued his interest: it contained documents and newspaper clippings related to a nasty legal battle between Sylvie and a London-based antiquities dealer named Mudada Razak Bakhoum.  But Sheridan’s most intriguing find was a small, well-worn notebook, tucked away in the very back of the bottom drawer.  It was a diary.  The pages were filled with Sylvie’s handwritten field notes from an archaeological expedition near Antakya, a city in the Hatay Province of southern Turkey, twelve miles from the Syrian border.  One of her entries contained a cryptic reference to a discovery that was somehow connected to Paul the Apostle, and to a mysterious object that she called “the sacred offering”.  Whatever this discovery was, it had clearly overwhelmed her with excitement.

     Bleary-eyed and fatigued, Sheridan decided he could use some fresh air.  He stepped outside, into the backyard, which offered a spectacular, panoramic view of the glittering L.A. basin.  The early light of dawn was just beginning to glow on the horizon, and as the sky brightened, the expansive sea of city lights below twinkled with a different quality, changing in ever-so-subtle ways with each passing moment.  In the final seconds just before sunrise, he noticed that the lights of the city seemed to vibrate even faster, a brilliant fanfare to conclude their nightly dance.  Then, just like that, they were gone.

 


32


    The brief respite gave him a chance to digest everything he had learned.  He suspected he was on to something — that perhaps he had sniffed out a trail of some sort — but at the moment, it amounted to nothing more than a few tidbits of interesting information.  He didn’t find anything that even remotely suggested that David Lawson was the target; so far, all indicators were pointing toward Sylvie.  One thing was certain: Sheridan was in serious need of a meal and a cup of coffee.  He went to the kitchen to see if there was anything good to snack on, but all he could find was weird, health-conscious food that surely tasted as bland and disgusting as it looked.  His hunger would have to wait.

     He decided to search through the house one more time.  He strolled around and took a closer look at the ancient Middle Eastern artifacts that were on display.  The majority of their collection was pottery, jewelry, and decorative arts.  Nothing appeared to be missing or out of place.  He wandered into the living room and looked at the framed photographs that were neatly arranged on the fireplace mantle.  There were snapshots of David and Sylvie — smiling with each other, with friends, and with a young woman who Sheridan had to assume was their daughter Danielle, a 24 year-old graduate student in Chicago who, at that very moment, was on her way to O’Hare International to catch the first flight back to L.A.  He dreaded the thought of meeting her in a few hours.  No matter how many times he did it, facing the loved ones of murder victims never got any easier.

     Sheridan went back to the study to make one final pass.  He needed a clue to validate his hunch that Sylvie was murdered in the study for a reason that had nothing to do with the desecration of a religious painting.  He sat down behind the desk and let his eyes wander around the room.  He sat like a hunter in a stand, as if he were waiting and listening for a clue to whisper his name...

   


33

 
    
He picked up Sylvie’s book, The Jerusalem Solution, and stared at the cover.  Maybe Velly was right.  Perhaps this case had everything to do with religious ideology.  So why, then, was his gut pulling him in a completely different direction?  He opened the book and landed on the page where he had put the post card several hours before.  He picked up the card and studied the image on the front.  The building in Edward Biberman’s painting was somewhere on Wilshire Boulevard, he thought, but he couldn’t pinpoint it exactly.  The image captured his imagination; it was uniquely L.A. and masterful in its simplicity.  Sheridan’s appreciation for fine art dated back to his childhood.  Some of his earliest memories were of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and snack pies that his mother packed for their frequent excursions to the art museum.

     He put the post card down and read a few passages from Sylvie’s book.  This made him curious about the other books she had written.  He stood up and walked over to the bookcase.  It was built into the wall, floor-to-ceiling.  There were at least a thousand books, all neatly arranged in alphabetical order, first by author then by title.  While browsing the spines, Sheridan spotted something strange.  The entire library was shelved in a uniform manner, with the spines of all the books running in the same direction, but on one of the shelves, several of the books were upside down.  He also noticed that this particular section was alphabetized incorrectly; the books were in the right ballpark, but they were not in the proper order.  Instinctively, he pulled the books off the shelf and saw that there was something behind them.  He used the mini-flashlight on his key ring to get a better look and discovered a small, hidden safe that had been professionally installed in the back wall of the bookcase.  It was unlocked.  The door was slightly ajar.  And, to make matters even more compelling, there was a smudge of blood on the dial.

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