Accused murderess Rachel Spillane refused to finger any of her johns as a murderer in any case pending. Terry Rocket, her accomplice in the murder of his brother, Brock, said she could. From the evidence room, San Francisco Police Inspector Hieu Trang had retrieved Rachel’s little black book, a flexible sheath the color of cold coal, yet soft and warm to the touch. At half-past eight in the morning, Hieu opened the vellum cornucopia of pastel pink, yellow, and green pages. Surely, the contents of Rachel’s book would brighten a colorless room and dispel the dim prospects of another day under COVID-19 lockdown.
With one hand on the book to keep it open and the other hand on his keyboard, Hieu rearranged every unsolved murder of 2019 and 2020 by last name. The most recent case was Doyle. He read aloud the first line in the electronic murder book and its addendum: Tarquin Doyle, age 70, murdered April 30, 2020, Margaret Doyle, age 68, died from COVID-19 April 25, 2020
Next, Hieu thumbed through Rachel’s pages labeled C-D and quickly found Doyle, Lafayette.
There it is. What luck! Hieu thought.
He tenderly spoke Rachel’s personal notes on Doyle – white, beautiful, age 36, busty, luscious lips, favorite drink Sex on the Grass...
“I heard that,” Lead Inspector Larry Leahy said as walked in, fondling the hearing aid in his right ear. “You tried to make an arrest too soon in the Rachel Spillane case. We don’t want that to happen again. So, careful as you go, Saigon Boy.”
“It won’t happen again, Red Hen.”
Their cute little nicknames had evolved over the course of a year and eight murder investigations, which Larry had personally chosen for them to work as a pair. Chief Haggerty said Larry loved Hieu. That was true.
“Christ Almighty. People have weird names. Lafayette?”
“Larry, everybody is different.”
“What’s Sex on the Grass?”
“Can you google it?” Hieu asked.
Larry stopped fondling his hearing aid and extracted the cell phone from his pants pocket, an odd dime sticking to its glassy surface and falling off.
“Sex on the Grass—vodka, peach schnapps, and Southern Comfort, which is bourbon. You didn’t know that did you?”
“Yeah, I knew that.” He didn’t.
“Two deaths in one family in five days. That could cause some grief.”
Hieu said firmly, “I think we need to talk to this woman.”
Hieu called and heard a slurred complaint from the woman about the early hour. They agreed on noon. Hieu did some other business for three hours, long enough to go skateboarding incognito around DiMaggio Playground and still be on time for the big meeting with Lafayette, but he didn’t. At 1 PM, she swashed into his office, one hour overdue. He estimated her to be 5’6, 145 pounds, looking as if she had smoked more cigarettes than thirty-six years could hide. She stroked wavy black hair all the way down to a cinching cobalt belt.
Fawn diamond color eyes shrewdly observed him from inside thick, black eyeliner. Hieu stared unconsciously at an upturned nose with a septum piercing, sugary skin, pronounced widow’s peak, and a face that’d stand out in Hell. She wore a wide-open gold lamé blouse, and Hieu couldn’t help snatching a peek at legs crossed faster than a guillotine could fall.
Does she think I’m all interested?
“Miss Doyle, sitting next to you is Inspector Leahy. We are deeply sorry about the untimely deaths of your mother and father. As I explained on the phone, we are investigating another matter and wonder if you could help us. Did you have any trouble getting here?”
“I wondered why you didn’t come to me, Hieu. It was a lot to ask me to drive to North Beach all the way from Sea Cliff.” She smiled coyly as if to say kiss me now. “Busy this afternoon?” she queried. “I want to show you my new Mercedes AMG GT 53, Jupiter red outside, hot red inside. My Chinese boyfriend helped pick it out, but I’m growing tired of him. You know how it is.”
Hieu said, “How do you feel about being interviewed?”
Larry interrupted, “Miss Doyle, that’s Inspector Trang, not Hieu. Do you know Rachel Spillane?”
Lafayette looked at Larry as if he were from outer space, “No, who is she?”
Hieu said, “Your name is in Rachel’s black book. We arrested her two days ago for the murder of her boyfriend, Brock Rocket.”
“I don’t know her...or why I’m in her book...if you say I am. You didn’t tell me this would be about a woman I don’t even know. Waste of time.”
Hieu observed her not knowing which way to look.
“May I go?” she asked.
He said without emotion, “Miss Doyle, murder is a serious matter. We were told a client of Rachel’s was involved in murder. What we know so far is that your father met his terrible fate a little more than a week ago, and Rachel was arrested just a few days ago. Her boyfriend, Brock Rocket, was found with a cord around his throat, and your father had his throat cut. I read in the file that someone else found Mr. Doyle at home. Where were you?”
The voice of a frog hopping from one sewage pond to another said, “I was interrogated that day. Isn’t my statement in the file?”
Hieu stood up and walked behind her chair. Looking at the back of her head, he said, “I’m not sure you were completely honest.” He leaned forward over her shoulder and put his face inches from hers. “Were you?”
She winced, pulled away, and cleared the frog in her throat. “I was honest with the other detective. There is absolutely nothing more to tell. May I go?”
“Let’s ignore Rachel Spillane for now. You had some problems at home. Your father was unhappy with your, uh, lifestyle and said something about it and about the will. It wasn’t fair. You were honest with him, and he was changing his mind on you. Isn’t that true?” Hieu asked, not knowing anything about a will.
“Yes, my father could be a tyrant and very prejudiced and even hypocritical. My mother told me he had an affair, but she forgave him. What a lucky louse.”
“I can understand how you feel, and he was doing the same thing to you, letting you down, right?”
“I’d say so.” Lafayette’s fawn diamond eyes seemed to brighten inside the eyeliner.
Her hands are clenching the arms of the blue plastic chair.
Hieu took his seat again and said sympathetically, “Is that what brought things to a head?”
Suddenly, she let go of the chair and shouted, “Why do yooouuu think I killed him?”
“Remember, this interview is being recorded. It can come back to haunt you, Miss Doyle. Do you want to be arrested…” gingerly completing the question, “for impeding an investigation?”
“You didn’t tell me it was being recorded.” She stood up, turned around, and placed her hands on top of her buttocks. “Go ahead. Handcuff me and don’t let it worry you that the psych just gave me new meds to control my temper…pig.”
Hieu saw her jaw moving and imagined grinding molars.
“You’re a lost girl. I could make the cuffs pinch…bitch.”
Larry shot out of his chair and stood between Lafayette’s buttocks and the desk. “Doyle, step outside and wait for me there.”
She flew out with a flourish, and not much was seeable, not even her legs.
Larry screamed, “She may be a lost girl, but that was the damndest strategy. This is the second time.”
Hieu did not look at Larry, nor did he feel the need to, and simply shrugged his shoulders. “She’s lying.”
Back in his own office, Hieu dropped the Doyle file on the pile. He saw a princely face and perfect teeth in the reflection of his cell phone and punched his wife’s number. She got a call every day at approximately the same time, circumstances permitting, which was standard procedure even before her present condition. They, no he, hoped for a boy.
I didn’t do so bad.
Just after 4 PM, he heard a call over the radio about a domestic dispute at 4 Sea Cliff Avenue, the Doyle home. Larry came running in and said, “Let’s go.”
Upon arrival, the front door of the Doyle home was wide open, exposing a man standing on floors polished to the hilt by Mexican maids, and behind him plate glass framing the Golden Gate Bridge in all its orangey glory. The man held a long knife.
Lafayette was standing in the courtyard and screaming, “He tried to kill me.”
Hieu ordered Lafayette to stay outside while he entered the low-roofed, modern-style home with hand on the exposed service revolver riding his right hip. “Sir, place the knife on the floor and keep your hands where I can see them at all times.”
The man complied. The knife’s gleam matched the floors.
“Sir, keep your hands where I can see them. What is your name?”
“What is your relationship to Lafayette?”
“I’m her brother.”
“Please come toward me and walk outside to the sidewalk. I will question you there.”
Trick wore a light blue and green striped dress shirt and dark slacks, not the kind of attire one would expect a killer to be wearing. Hieu guessed Trick to be 6’ and 190 pounds as he passed, and though he averted his eyes, Hieu gauged him to be non-defiant, with the usual reservations.
Lafayette shouted, “He straddled me and held the knife to my throat. I want him banned from the house. I live here. He doesn’t.”
“Who called 9-1-1?”
Lafayette looked at Larry and brazenly said, “I did, you jack-ass.”
“Did you threaten Lafayette with the knife?” Hieu asked.
“No, sir. She started hitting me and I picked it up to defend myself.”
“Where did this happen?”
“In the living room.”
“Why was a knife in the living room?”
“I don’t know. I just saw it and picked it up.”
“What is your address, Trick?”
“175 El Camino Del Mar...around the corner.”
Hieu frisked Trick.
“I’ll walk you home.”
Lafayette’s hands went up in the air.
“Your word against his, lady.”
Hieu’s hand came off his service revolver.
Without warning, Lafayette lunged at Hieu.
Larry stuck his foot out, and she fell face first onto the brick floor of the courtyard.
Hieu ordered her to stand up. “You’re under arrest for assaulting an officer.”
Larry got in front of Hieu and murmured, “Let me handle it.”
“All right, but I think she should be arrested.”
Hieu looked at Trick. “Stand still. Is Trick your real name?”
“No, my real name is Alexander.”
Hieu backed himself into his black 4Runner and reached for the car radio. Dispatch said Alexander Doyle had no record.
Hieu motioned to Larry the direction in which he and Trick would be headed. Hieu and Trick walked a safe distance from each other. Most of the homes in Sea Cliff were old San Francisco. Some of them were undergoing renovation, the kind he and Larry had talked about. Larry called it the city’s downhill slide and destruction of character. The commotion brought no one out of their homes, typical in lofty neighborhoods.
Trick said, “She’s mulish, but she isn’t that bad. You know, a Mensa girl.”
“All right. Is she married?”
“She’s divorced, two children, both living with their father in Southern California. Her boyfriend is Chinese, and I know he’s a gang leader.”
“How do you know?”
“He’s abusive and gives her expensive gifts when he wants her back. I’ve seen him in Chinatown when I go out for dinner...when we used to go out for dinner...my friend nodded in his direction and whispered he was a gang leader. It was that Chinese kitchen on Stockton and Broadway. Now, I feel totally isolated...no eating out, no Mass, no youth group, and I’m banned from my father’s business.”
“What business is that?”
“Doyle Real Estate on Lombard.”
“Who banned you?”
A slight declination led to Trick’s house, which looked as if it were taking a power nap under the shade of black-green cypress trees marking the entrance to the Presidio and the Brobdingnagian state of emergency siren across the street. Traffic passed by in spite of lockdown, now two months old, and indeed, this tenth day of May was becoming both bright and depressing.
They reached the front door. Trick looked even sadder there. There’s not much that marks a rich boy as any different from a poor boy, and Trick looked as if he might know there was little to distinguish him from his Mission District counterpart, but it was hard to know.
“Trick, promise you will not return to your parents’ house?”
“I promise. Please come in.”
Windows as broad and long as those in the other home lacked the million-dollar view. They walked on smooth mahogany floors and sat down on modern furniture, probably picked out by Margaret, the mother. Hieu felt the wooly mohair of a long snow-white divan, one of two, and Trick sat on the other with his exceptionally fair face turned toward Hieu. Trick didn’t really flaunt his Vantablack hair and aquiline nose that gave his aquamarine eyes a deep-set appearance.
“Do you know Rachel Spillane?”
“She was in the newspapers. We arrested her for murder. Know her?”
“I visited her once, and I read about it.”
“Why did you visit her?”
Trick rose. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No. Answer me.”
“I’d rather talk about something else.”
“Do you have something to hide? No, let me put it another way. I think you do.”
“I’m the one who found my dad. I have nothing to hide.”
“Is Lafayette bisexual?”
“Recently, I heard my father yelling at Lafayette about her lifestyle, but I don’t know exactly what he was complaining about.”
“What about you?” Hieu asked.
“I truly, deeply loved my parents, and they truly, deeply loved me. I think Lafayette is jealous of that. She never got along with them.”
“That’s not what I asked. What kind of sex life do you have, sir?”
“None of your business, officer. Maybe we should end the conversation now.”
“Getting tough with me won’t work. I’m sorry about your parents, but I need to know more. Who do you think killed your father?”
“I have no idea.”
Trick looked as if he wanted to slip away to a monastery, and Hieu wondered if he might be a loner with a weird fixation. Brock Rocket and Terry Rocket both had a wolf delusion.
I should probe him on his psychological health.
“I need to talk to someone. Will you listen?”
“You mind me asking how old you are?”
Trick sat down.
Hieu felt a brotherly bond about to precipitate with a man three years his senior. It was similar to the moment when a new kid says hello in the schoolyard, and he’s Chinese or not, and one baby step forward establishes a friendship that lasts ten years. As an officer, however, one could never be too sure about these things. With a little smile Hieu signaled him to begin.
“I feel an obligation to my dad to keep running the real estate office, but Lafayette wants it all, and my dad is not here to stop her. I feel so lonely without him. I feel like no one is noticing me. I have a beautiful house and car. You saw my BMW 8 in the driveway. You might think I have it all, but it’s really a nightmare. The only thing I want now is to go to Boys Town and live with my students, but I’m not married, and they want married couples. What am I to do...and what do I deserve? I don’t think anyone loves me.”
Okay, he’s normal.
Hieu said, “Maybe the students are the people who deserve you.”
“It’s tough being isolated, really, really isolated.”
Okay, that’s not so normal.
“I became a cop because I wanted to be one, and in the beginning my parents didn’t want that, but when they saw the badge and me being sworn in, everything changed. Then I got promoted to inspector and for the first time I saw satisfaction in my dad’s face, but I didn’t do it for that reason. Their approval followed, but I would’ve become a cop anyway. My choice gave me independence from my parents and my own kind of integrity. Agree with that?”
“A friend said I was too dependent on my parents.” Trick looked out the window. “Today I was repeating the Boys Town motto. ‘Father, he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.’ I found something in the basement. You have to realize I want to help my sister carry her burden. I didn’t know what to do. I want to show you something.”
Trick disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared holding a long sword. Trang turned it over several times and withdrew the sword from the saya with a kind of sad excitement, not sure what it portended. He knew it was a quality Katana, a fine reproduction Japanese feudal sword with curved, single-edged blade and tsuba grip for two hands. The grip was as soft and buttery as human muscle. He pulled back a black silk cover to reveal stingray skin and bamboo plant inserts.
“Where did you get this?” In the right hands, this could kill a man.
“I didn’t see it until this morning. You are the right person to show. Know what I mean?”
“Uh, yeah. How tall was your dad?”
“Same as me, six feet.”
“What’s her boyfriend’s name?”
“Danny. He’s Wah Ching.”
“Right. He’s a known member.”
“Scary dude, but Laf likes him a lot.”
“Is that her nickname?”
“Yeah, since we were kids.”
“You stay here. I’m returning to your parents’ house with the sword. Maybe she can tell me something about it. You like kids?”
“Yes, I work with a youth group at St. Dominic’s.”
“Follow your dream. Go to Boys Town.”
“Oh, before you go, Inspector Trang, I have something else to tell you. I had a toy soldier set when I was young. Laf took it and never gave it back. The set belonged to our father.” A fat tear took a nosedive to the corner of his mouth. “I...I saw the set for sale on Etsy yesterday. That’s the reason I went over to see Laf. I said to her, ‘Let’s try to get along.’ The will gives her the right to take over the business, but she’s required to pay me my share, and she hasn’t.”
He licked the tear and brushed away another tear. “I try not to judge Laf. Very difficult people want their way. It’s like living a nightmare.”
“Don’t go anywhere, yet, Mr. Doyle.”
Holding the sword close to his right leg to conceal it, and careful not to scrape the steel tip on the sidewalk, Hieu hobbled double-quick back to Sea Cliff Avenue.
Larry and Laf sat across from each other on long sofas, the Bridge in the background and peering in.
She stood quickly and gaped when Hieu held the sword horizontally. Hieu landed himself on the spot where Tarquin’s dead body had lain. With a curled forefinger he motioned Laf to approach. She moved as if Hieu’s digit were an incubus pulling her somnolent body forward.
“Where was your father found?”
“I...I don’t know.”
“Come closer. This is the spot. Take a good look.”
Hieu looked down at the spot and took a wide stance.
Without notice, he grabbed Laf by the back of her head, forced her to her knees, and pressed her nose ring to the floor.
“Smell it! Smell murder?”
“Smell it. Take a deep breath. Death has a smell all its own. What do you smell?”
She squirmed under the pressure, jerking her head from side to side, unable to get free.
“Silence is as good as an admission of guilt, so start talking, Laf. I have the evidence in my hand. Should I swing it down on your neck the way you did when you committed murder, or do you want to explain?”
“I didn’t do it.”
From the long sofa Larry said, “That’s right. It was someone else who committed the murder. This is your father we’re talking about. You couldn’t kill your own father. Not you!”
“You understand me. I loved my father, Mr. Leahy.”
“That’s right, Inspector Trang. She's telling the truth.”
Hieu calmly said, “Well, then, Laf, tell me who did it.”
She started crying.
“Tell me, Laf. Just get it out. You’ll feel better. C’mon. Stand up.”
Still bent over at the waist and breathing heavily, she said again, “I didn’t do it.”
Hieu grabbed her long black hair, bore her down to her knees, and rammed her nose into the shiny hardwood. "Admit it, bitch." He pulled her head back, exposing the front of her bloodless neck.
Larry jumped up. Hieu thought it was the morning interview all over again, but he heard a firm voice from behind say, "She didn't do it. I did."
Hieu turned around and saw Trick standing there.
"I couldn't let my sister take the blame. Yes. I killed him. I believed I had seen my dad winsome for the first time in his life, but he fooled me. When I confessed to sleeping with Rachel, he said he would cut me out of the will. I was a disgrace to the family for being with a prostitute. I went out of my mind. I'm so sorry for what I did. Lafayette didn't know what horror would follow when she introduced me to Rachel. Don't blame her. We were good people until love smote us.”
Hieu let go of Lafayette.
Larry unhooked his handcuffs and walked over to Trick, who offered his hands.
Larry called in the arrest. Knowing nothing of the conversation between Hieu and Trick that had transpired over the last hour, Larry said, "Feeling sorry for yourself leads to bad results. That's what I taught my son. Didn't your parents teach you that?"
Hieu answered for Trick, "Those who learn from the past will perceive the future much better."