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The Coast-to-Coast Murders
By J. D. Barker
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 21, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Los Angeles, California
What is the mind but thin glass?
—Barton Fitzgerald, MD
Where will you be when your life ends?
I was in the grocery store, squeezing a mango.
Sixteen minutes ago, I took a phone call from the woman who lived in the apartment below mine in Wilshire Village, a nondescript mustard-yellow monstrosity just off Broadway on Glendale, a block from Wilshire in Los Angeles.
I left my basket in the aisle and ran the ten blocks from the store, arriving home out of breath and sweating, to find the mailman in our lobby staring at the growing puddle of water under the bank of mailboxes. The steady stream was trickling down the stairs, flooding the first-floor alcove.
I rushed past him and up the steps, careful not to slip.
My phone rang again as I reached my door. Neighbor again.
"I see it, Mrs. Dowell. Must be a burst pipe or something." That happened back east during the winter. I'd had no idea it could happen in California.
The water came out from under my door and into the hall, pooling on the landing.
"Michael? It's dripping down my walls, from the ceiling," Mrs. Dowell said. "My paintings, my furniture…did you call the super?"
I fumbled with my keys, found the right one, and twisted it in the lock for the dead bolt. "I thought you called the super."
"Why would I call the super? It's your apartment."
Because the super could have been here half an hour ago and killed the water. "I'll call him the second we hang up, Mrs. Dowell, I promise."
I pushed open the door and stepped inside. I reached for the light switch but thought better of it—I was standing in at least a quarter of an inch of water.
Mrs. Dowell sighed. "Who's going to pay for all this?"
The hardwood floor glistened in the light of the setting sun. A small river flowed from the bedroom in the back to the living room, down the hall, and out the front door.
I could hear splashing and gurgling. "I think it's coming from the bathroom," I told her.
Mrs. Dowell said, "You didn't answer my question."
"I'll pay for it. Whatever the damage. Don't worry about that."
"My paintings are priceless."
I've seen your paintings. We'll take a trip to the flea market together and replace them.
The bedroom was the only carpeted room in the apartment, and I sloshed through it, my shoes leaving a trail of mushy footprints in my wake.
In the bathroom, water gushed from the sink tap. The bathtub faucet too. Water cascaded over the white porcelain sides of both.
"Mrs. Dowell, I'm hanging up so I can call the super. I'll call you back."
I looked over my shoulder at the bedroom behind me, knowing full well that I didn't leave the water on, so someone else had.
The room was empty, crowded with nothing but elongated shadows.
I turned to the sink, twisted the faucet, shut it off.
A towel was in the basin, blocking the overflow drain. I knew I hadn't done that.
I should have run at that point, left the apartment. I wish I had, because what came next was far worse than a stranger invading my home.
I took the few steps from my sink to the bathtub and looked into the overflowing water, down through the rippling surface at what lay beneath, lit only by the fading light of dusk. I looked down at the most beautiful face staring back at me. Her deep green eyes were open wide, her mouth slightly agape, her blond hair wavering gently with the current.
I found myself staring at her, this nude, lifeless girl in my bathtub. Smooth, flawless skin, the faintest patch of freckles on her nose.
At some point, I shut off the bathtub faucet. I don't remember doing it, though. I only remember sitting on the edge of the tub, my breath deserting me.
My cell phone buzzed in my hand. Mrs. Dowell again.
I hit Decline and dialed.
I did not call the building super.
She picked up on the third ring. "I'm thinking of a number between one and five."
"Meg, not now, something happened—"
"Ah, ah, ah, you know the rules, Michael. Pick a number."
I shook my head. "Meg, this is really—"
"Do you have any idea how many times I've called you in the past week? You didn't pick up. You didn't call me back. You didn't even bother with a Hey, I'm still alive but busy text," Megan rattled on. "Nineteen times. Is that any way to treat your sister? Dr. Bart's funeral is next Tuesday, and you pick this week to drop off the radar? No bueno, big brother. Dr. Rose is all over me. 'Where is your brother? Is he coming home? Have you talked to him? He'll be here, right?' It's bad enough you won't speak to her, but you can't shut me out. I know you don't want to be here for this, but you have to, Michael. I can't do Dr. Bart's funeral without you, I just can't. I know you didn't get along, not all the time—all right, never—but if you skip this, you'll never forgive yourself. This is the kind of thing that haunts you for the rest of your life. You'll regret it, and there's no way to take it back. If you don't want to be here for yourself, think about me and Dr. Rose. I know she can be a bitch, but she raised us. And she's a mess right now. She's barely holding it together. We need to think about appearances too. How will it look for her if you're not here? You know how people at the university talk, her colleagues. She doesn't need this—"
"Just tell me you'll be here, and I'll drop it. I won't bring it up again. You can even skip my next birthday, my next ten birthdays. Just be here for this. It's too important to—"
Megan fell silent.
"The number you're thinking of is three."
"How do you do that?"
"Meg, I need you to listen to me closely. Something's happened."
"Are you okay?"
The girl's blank face stared up at me from the bathtub, the rippling water distorting her features, a shimmer around her pale skin. She looked so calm, peaceful. She had the most beautiful green eyes. A lone bubble floated up from her lips, disappeared at the surface.
I wasn't okay. I wasn't okay at all.
"There's a girl in my bathtub."
Megan replied, "You sound awfully sad about that."
"The water flooded my apartment, Mrs. Dowell…I don't know who…" The words fell from my mouth, incoherent babble. My heart beat hard against my rib cage.
"Whoa, take a deep breath, Michael."
I did. I took two. "She's dead, Meg."
Megan said nothing.
"I…I don't know who she is."
My sister remained silent.
"You're fucking with me, right? Like the time you said you ran over that guy at the truck stop in Kansas City because he was wearing a New Kids on the Block T-shirt? Or the time you said you found a prostitute sleeping in the cab of your truck and decided to keep her? Like the time you said you picked up a hitchhiker in Nevada and left him in Utah, Colorado, and Missouri? Now is really not the time for practical jokes, Michael. I need to be able to tell Dr. Rose you're coming home."
"I…can't tell how she died. Not by looking at her. I don't see anything wrong. She looks like she's sleeping but she's not, not underwater. She's not breathing. I don't want to touch her. I know I shouldn't, and I haven't."
"Holy hell, you're serious? Did you call the police?"
"I called you."
"You need to call the police. Right now. You need to hang up and call them."
Can I change my pants?"
I was on the couch in my small living room.
From the corner of the room, Detective Garrett Dobbs looked up from his phone. His brow furrowed. "What?"
"When I sat on the edge of the bathtub, my pants and underwear got soaked. Can I change clothes, please?"
"No. Later. I want you to walk me through everything one more time. Start when you left your apartment this afternoon," Dobbs said.
The detective looked like he was in his mid- to late thirties. His brown hair was cropped close on the sides, longer on top, slightly tousled. He wore a black sweatshirt, jeans, and black boots. His badge hung around his neck on a metal chain. He made no effort to conceal the gun attached to his belt. I didn't know enough about guns to identify the make or model. It was black and seemed heavier than it probably was.
He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. Then it came to me. "You used to play football, right? For Syracuse? Running back, if I remember correctly."
His eyes had been on his phone and they stayed there for another moment. When he looked up, his expression remained blank. "Are you from New York? Not many Orange fans out here in LA."
"I went to Cornell."
He nodded. "Big Red, huh?"
"Not really. I dropped out my junior year."
"Last I checked, you don't need the degree to be a fan."
"You haven't spoken to my parents. Without a degree, you're not much of anything."
"You were fast. Always figured you'd head to the pros."
Another detective, I hadn't been told his name, leaned in and grinned. "Dobbs here ran the forty in four point two-seven seconds, the same as Deion Sanders. Fastest guy to come out of Syracuse till he tore his Achilles. Then he was only as fast as the rest of us humans."
Dobbs lowered his phone. "I tore it twice. Junior and senior year. When the NFL scouts came, they saw me as damaged goods. Stepped right on by like I was invisible. Past—"
"Past performance is not indicative of future results," the other detective said. "He always says that. Reminds me of a financial commercial."
Dobbs said, "I saw that phrase next to my name on one of the scout's clipboards. It stuck, I suppose. You hear something like that about yourself, and it gets caught in your head. Coach let me finish out my senior year riding the bench so I wouldn't lose my scholarship, but we all knew I was done with football."
This came from one of the CSI investigators near my bed.
The other detective, Wilkins, crossed the room.
Dobbs turned back to me. "You've got a good memory. I haven't played since 2001. Christ, seventeen years now."
"Some things do stick, I suppose."
My eyes went to the CSI investigator. Through the open bedroom door, I watched him reach down with gloved hands and pick up a woman's purse from the far side of my bed. He set it gently on top of my rumpled navy quilt. I hadn't seen the purse when I came in. He reached back down and brought up a small black dress, panties, matching bra, and a pair of black pumps. He laid each item down on the bed. A second CSI investigator placed small numbered placards next to each—4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. I wondered what had already been tagged 1 through 3. A third CSI photographed each item from multiple angles.
Dobbs watched me watching them, made another note on his phone. "You said you don't know her?"
He tilted his head. "Looks a lot like you know her."
"I don't," I repeated. "I have no idea who she is."
He nodded toward my front door. "We found no sign of forced entry. You said it was locked when you got home, right?"
"It was, yeah."
"The dead bolt, the knob, or both?"
"Just the dead bolt. I don't bother with the other one."
Two other CSIs were busy mopping up the water with large yellow sponges. They squeezed them out into white buckets. On masking tape, across the side of one bucket, printed in black blocky letters, was a case number, my last name, my address, and the number 2; the other bucket had the same information but with the number 3. I imagined yet another CSI studying that water in a lab somewhere, one drop on a slide at a time.
"Hey, Dobbs? We got an ID." Wilkins was busy going through the contents of the purse. He held up a driver's license. "Alyssa Tepper. Twenty-two years old. She lives in Burbank."
Dobbs nodded at me. "Alyssa Tepper. Her name mean anything to you?"
I shook my head.
Wilkins whistled. "Hey, look at this." He held up a baseball card. "This is a '36 Joe DiMaggio from World Wide Gum."
Dobbs went over to him. "Valuable?"
"In pristine condition, they can be worth upwards of ninety thousand. The back is jacked up on this one, though. Half the paper is missing. Left corner is torn. Still worth a pretty penny, but nowhere near that much." He placed it on the bed along with the various other items found in the purse.
Dobbs leaned into his ear and said something I couldn't make out.
Wilkins nodded, took out his cell phone, and made a call.
I knew that baseball card.
They found a key in her purse. The key fit my dead-bolt lock.
That was two hours ago.
When my building super finally showed up, the uniformed officers standing at my apartment door wouldn't let him in. His eyes met mine from the hallway. I turned away.
The water had been cleaned up, the buckets hauled off.
Dobbs was in my bedroom or the bathroom. He had closed the adjoining door so I could no longer see inside either room. There were at least twelve other people in there.
He'd left me on the couch. The same officers who kept my super out were clearly tasked with keeping me in.
When my bedroom door finally opened, two women from the medical examiner's office wheeled a gurney out, a zippered black bag on top.
Dobbs followed behind them, watched as they went out the front door, then sat beside me on the couch. "Your pants still wet?"
"Damp. It's okay. I'm fine."
He tossed a pair of jeans at me. Underwear, socks, and a worn Big Red sweatshirt followed. All of it had been pulled from my suitcase on the bedroom floor. A CSI investigator stood behind him with a large, clear plastic bag.
Dobbs said, "Change out of your clothes into those. Everything goes in the bag. Do you have anything in your pockets?"
"I told you I didn't the last two times you asked. One of the patrol officers checked before you got here."
His eyes dropped to my jeans. "Turn your pockets inside out. I need to see."
Although frustrated, I did as he asked. Everyone had a job to do.
Dobbs seemed satisfied. He nodded at the CSI.
The man with the clear plastic bag stepped up beside me and held it open.
I frowned. "Right here?"
"If you're shy, we can go into the hallway or the kitchen. Bathroom and bedroom are both off-limits."
I thought about my super out in the hallway. Probably Mrs. Dowell and who knew who else were standing out there too. I turned my back to Dobbs, faced the couch, and stripped off my clothes. Everything went into the plastic bag, and I dressed in the clothes Dobbs had brought me.
The CSI investigator pulled the drawstring on the bag, then took out a Sharpie. He wrote my name, a case number, and 47 on the front. The shoes found beside my bed had been tagged with an 8 and a 9. That meant there was a lot of evidence I had yet to see.
Through the bedroom door, I caught a glimpse of the open drawers, bare mattress, and items pulled from my closet and stacked against the wall—everything from clothing to sports equipment, photo albums, and various boxes I hadn't bothered to unpack since moving in.
Wilkins saw me and closed the door.
Dobbs asked me to take a seat on the couch. "Was anyone here when you left?"
I'd gone over this a dozen times. Not just with him but with the first responders. He's just doing his job, I told myself. I drew in a breath and started from the beginning. "I got in late last night and slept until a little after two this afternoon."
"Where were you last night?"
Dobbs read from his phone. "You said you're a long-haul truck driver, correct?"
I nodded. "For Nadler Distribution, off Wilshire. I pick up wine here in California and haul it back east. On that end, I load up with craft beer and bring it back."
"How often do you make the trip?"
"Three times per month."
"When did you get in last night?"
"I pulled into the distribution center just after midnight. By the time I finished up the paperwork and offloaded, it was nearly three. I got home around three thirty."
"You didn't stop anywhere between the distribution center and your apartment? No late-night snack, cigarettes at a convenience store, no bar, nothing?" Dobbs had his phone out again, no doubt comparing what I'd said this time to what I'd said the previous times.
I shook my head. "I ate on the road. I don't smoke, and I'm not much for the bar scene. I was tired. Everything ached—sleeping in the cab of a truck for a week will do that to you. I just wanted a shower and my own bed. I came straight here."
"Alone." I nodded.
"Did anyone see you? Is there someone who can corroborate that?"
"Nadler Distribution will have records of my arrival, offload, et cetera. There's cameras."
Dobbs said, "We'll get that information. That's not what I mean. Can anyone confirm you arrived home alone?"
"At three thirty in the morning?"
I looked down at my hands. "No. The building is quiet that time of night."
Dobbs typed something into his phone: "Let's backtrack a little bit. How did you get home? Where did you park?"
"I walked. It's not very far. I like to stretch my legs after a long haul."
"You walked," he repeated.
"I'll need the exact route."
I told him. I imagined he would check traffic cameras.
He looked toward my front door. "You don't have a security system. Don't you worry about your possessions, being that you're away from home so much?"
I shrugged. "I don't really have anything worth taking. Nothing that can't be replaced."
"How long have you lived here?"
"About two years."
"Yet you haven't hung up any pictures. Looks like most of what you own is still boxed up. Sparse furniture. A few essentials in the kitchen. Toothbrush, razor…not much of anything in the way of personal items," Dobbs pointed out.
"Like you said, I'm not home very much."
"No real security on your building either. No cameras. Your key unlocks the front door. No records, no time stamps."
"It's private. I like that. Sometimes it seems like everything people do is under a microscope. Recorded and cataloged in a dozen different places," I said.
He looked down at his phone. "When we check your social media accounts, are we going to find Alyssa Tepper?"
"I don't have any social media accounts," I said. "I told you, I don't know who she is. You've got my phone. Go through it, I don't care."
Dobbs glanced up at me. "Yeah, we've got your phone." He returned to his notes, then said, "You got home around three thirty, showered, and went to bed? Nothing else? No contact with anyone?"
"I was tired."
"Yeah, you said that. Then what happened?"
"I slept until around two this afternoon. Got up, took another shower to wake up. Ate some lunch, then went out to see a movie."
"The latest Marvel film."
"I'll need your ticket."
"Yeah. Your ticket from the movie. Your ticket stub."
"I tossed it."
Dobbs tapped at his phone again. "Can you log into your credit card account and show me the purchase?"
"I paid cash."
"You paid cash." Dobbs repeated this softly to himself. "Tell me about the movie."
I frowned. "I found a dead girl in my bathtub, and you want me to tell you about a movie?"
He smiled. "I don't need the blow-by-blow, just the major plot points. I love a good Marvel movie."
Frustrated, I closed my eyes for a second and rubbed my temples. He's just doing his job. He's just doing his job.
I told him about the film, what I could remember.
When I finished, he said, "Can you tell me something about the movie that I haven't already seen in one of the previews? We've all seen the previews."
The truth was, I had fallen asleep shortly after the film started. I missed most of it. I only went so I could get out of the house, relax, unwind a little. When you're cooped up in the cab of a truck by yourself for a week, sometimes it's nice to get out and be surrounded by people. Parks, libraries, anything to break up the isolation. Sometimes it's a movie. I told him the truth.
Dobbs studied his notes. "So even though you slept nearly ten hours and got up only two hours earlier, you couldn't keep your eyes open—that it?"
"Anyone see you there? Anyone you know?"
He sighed. "What time did the movie end?"
"Five fifty. I checked the time on the way out."
"And then you went where?"
"Big Six Market on Sixth and Rampart."
Dobbs said, "You walked?"
"And that's when your neighbor called?"
"Mrs. Dowell said there was some kind of water leak, so I dropped everything and came straight back. That's when I found her."
"And you called 911."
"After you spoke to your sister."
"Yeah, I called her first."
He had grilled me on that earlier, unsure why I would call her before calling the police. Now he said, "I want you to think long and hard before you answer me this one last time. Do you understand?"
He looked me directly in the eye. "Are you sure you don't know Ms. Tepper?"
I returned his gaze; I didn't hesitate. "I'm certain."
Dobbs shook his head, turned back to his phone, and scrolled through his notes again. After nearly a minute of silence, he stood. "Get up. We're going to take a ride."
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 576 pages
- Little, Brown and Company