Whipping Boy by Katherine Tomlinson is a California cop mystery novella, the debut of a female criminalist whose strange existence swings from the grimmest crime scenes to life among Hollywood royalty—no wonder she has such a bad attitude (available March 12, 2014).
Murder hits close to home for criminalist Lark Riordan when a neighbor’s son is killed and another neighbor is arrested for the crime. Teaming up with homicide detective Max Siwek to investigate the case, Lark encounters family secrets, old grudges, and dysfunctional relationships that make her own life seem normal. And that’s saying something because her father is a self-involved actor who’s just been nominated for an Oscar, and she and Max have a thing for each other even though he’s her stepbrother. It’s… complicated.
I was working the night Jimmy Morrissey died.
I had been called out to an industrial park in Panorama City at seven o’clock, and three hours later, I was still processing the scene while the nineteen-year-old rent-a-cop who’d called 911 chain-smoked Marlboro Lights and tried not to puke on his already vomit-stained uniform. He’d told his story at least twice since I’d been there, and he was now telling it for a third time to the bored redheaded cop everyone called “Bozo” behind his back. Bozo’s job was to keep civilians away from the crime scene, but the industrial park had been pretty deserted by the time I arrived. The only people whose cars were still in the lot were a couple of kids who were working on a start-up that had outgrown their studio apartment.
They had bounced around the perimeter earlier, jacked up on energy drinks and curiosity, but there really wasn’t that much to see, so they’d eventually retreated to their office and returned to their regularly scheduled lives.
As the security guard droned on, I tried to tune him out, but he and Bozo were standing right outside the dumpster where I was working, and he had one of those voices—high and nasally—that was just the right frequency to cut through the white noise, so I couldn’t help hearing him as he once again recounted the sequence of events leading up to this horror show.
He’d been making his hourly circuit when he heard what he described as a “weird noise” coming from one of the huge dumpsters wedged into a remote corner of the employees’ parking lot.
When he investigated the source of the sound, he’d found a colony of rats feasting on the remains of two, possibly three, small children.
We weren’t sure yet.
Freaked out, the guard had pulled the weapon he was licensed to carry after passing the test required to earn a Handgun Safety Certificate, and emptied the whole clip into the depths of the dumpster, killing two rats and further mutilating the tiny bodies he’d found. It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed by a ricochet.
The two detectives who’d caught the case, Vernon and Malouf, were solid guys. LAPD’s Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau kept cruising Malouf because he spoke Arabic and had worked undercover, and they were just itching to send him nosing around some group they suspected of plotting bad things. He always told them “no thanks,” even when they tried to guilt-trip him. He had a wife and two small children and a sickly mother-in-law to look out for, and he wasn’t willing to put them at risk.
He and Vernon had been partners for a couple of years now, and despite being as different as possible in personality, their investigative styles meshed seamlessly. They had the best clearance rate in the department. Both of them liked to talk, and they always seemed to be engaged in one long conversation that continuously looped back to several topics, including Vernon’s impending retirement. Today’s riff on the subject had to do with the condo Vernon wanted to buy in Palm Desert.
“Why Palm Desert?” Jeff asked as he photographed the tire tracks by the dumpster. Jeff was new and hadn’t heard Vernon’s other monologues on the subject. They were all the same; only the places changed. Last I’d heard, Vernon had been planning to buy a cabin in Big Bear.
“Why Palm Desert?” Vernon repeated.
Malouf shook his head. “Now you’ve got him started,” he said to Jeff.
“The thing about the desert is that it’s clean,” Vernon said. “The burning sun just purifies everything like a refiner’s fire melting away the dross.”
“The burning sun just gives you skin cancer,” Malouf said. “The burning sun just makes you sweat like a hog.”
“Sweat washes away your sins,” Vernon said. “The Native Americans know that.”
“So what, Vernon, you have a Navajo grandmother all of a sudden?” Vernon waved his partner’s amusement away and focused on Jeff.
“The desert is implacable,” he said. “You meet it on its own terms. It is pitiless. It is merciless. The hot winds will scour your soul and leave you naked and howling before its desolation.”
“Dude,” Jeff said, “you seriously need to lighten up.”
Malouf burst out laughing, and Vernon turned away in disgust, muttering something about “no respect for your elders,” which just made Malouf laugh harder.
“You kids get off my lawn,” Malouf said when he got control of himself, which was what he always said anytime he thought Vernon was acting like an old fart.
“Your ancestors were Bedouins, Malouf,” Vernon said. “They understood what I’m talking about.”
Malouf’s cell phone rang, ending the conversation, and I stopped eavesdropping and turned back to my work. I’d hung a work light to my left so I could see what I was doing, but it cast harsh shadows that had me squinting to focus on anything.
It didn’t help that there was a strong smell of gas wafting up from inside the dumpster—not methane from rotting garbage, but the volatile, high-octane fuel you put in your car. I could hardly breathe, and I could feel the fumes dissolving my mascara.
One of the things that was spelled out right in the job description of an LAPD criminalist was the warning that you’d often work under “unpleasant conditions.” That was an understatement. I once took a pair of dress slacks to the dry cleaners to have a stain removed. “What exactly is that?” the woman processing the clothes asked. Brain matter and bile, most likely. “Not sure,” I said. “Something organic.”
You go into the job knowing that you’re going to see bad things. You go into the job knowing that it’s not all dusting for prints and waving black lights around. That’s a given.
It’s what you don’t expect that gets to you. And when I got up this morning, I did not expect to be climbing into an industrial-sized dumpster where rats had been feasting on the bodies of a couple of little kids.
If I’d been able to see what was coming, chances are I would have pulled the covers up over my head, turned over, and gone back to sleep.
For the next week.
But whoever had put these babies in this dumpster needed to be put somewhere themselves. And it was my job to do that. Or at least, that was the way I looked at it. So I sucked it up and got to it.
The body on top was a little girl wearing a diaper and a pink T-shirt with a smiling plaid elephant appliqued on the front. The T-shirt was cheaply made, the material some kind of rough acrylic knit that would have been scratchy against the child’s tender skin. You can buy shirts like that for a dollar at almost any thrift store in town, and even cheaper if you hit the yard sales late in the afternoon when the sellers are packing up and ready to offer bargains.
I knew the plaid elephant would have appealed to a little girl. She might have even asked her mom to buy that T-shirt for her as I had once begged my grandmother to buy me a purple T-shirt with a spotted kitten on the front. I’d seen the T-shirt hanging on a rack of similar shirts in a sidewalk display next door to the nail parlor where she had a standing weekly appointment for a mani-pedi. She dragged me along a couple of times a month, telling me it was to “give your poor mother a break.” I never quite understood what my mother needed a break from—she was a stay-at-home mom then, and my dad’s television series (Rincon, ABC, 1988-90) was the number-one show in its time slot, so she had a whole lot of help running the Hancock Park house where we lived.
But I liked going out with my grandmother. She disapproved of nail polish for little girls but had no problems with me getting my toenails painted pink. I was such a girlie little thing.
And back then, purple had been my favorite color.
I wanted that purple T-shirt so bad.
I wasn’t the kind of kid who was always asking for things. Even back then I understood that compared to most people, I had tons of stuff and didn’t really need any more. But I was seven, and that T-shirt spoke to me. So I asked my grandmother to please, please, please buy me the shirt.
I might have even whined a little.
And when she said no, I reminded her that I had a birthday coming up.
In the end, even though she thought man-made fibers posed a greater threat to the planet than global warming, my grandmother caved and bought me the damn T-shirt. It had ragged seams and a tag that rubbed the back of my neck raw. The first time our housekeeper washed it, the shirt bled purple dye all over, giving a whole load of dark clothes a vaguely violet tinge. The second time she washed it, the shirt fell completely apart.
And when my birthday rolled around, my grandmother reminded me that she’d already bought me a present.
Impulse buying. It’ll bite you on the ass every time.
Copyright © 2014 Katherine Tomlinson
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She lives in Los Angeles and sees way too many movies.