Jayda Crane panted in response to the 500-metre sprint she’d challenged herself to at the end of her morning run. Despite her exceptional physical fitness and lean frame, her lungs still gasped for breath and filled with the cool morning air. She smiled, enjoying the burning sensation which also served as a reminder to stay on track with her training. She had one month to be ready for her first marathon and nothing was going to get in the way of crossing the finish line.
She slid the key into the lock of her front door and twisted, listening for the familiar click before turning the knob. The house still had a faint aroma of the chicken she had cooked for dinner the night before. The smell made her stomach groan.
In her bedroom she sat on the edge of the bed, kicked off her sneakers and wriggled out of her running pants, pulling the spandex down to her aching feet. When she stood, her mind, already subconsciously aware that something was wrong, abandoned the to-do list she had been mentally penning. Instead, it began to wander through a montage of previously recorded smiles, birthdays, loves and losses, as if the mere second it took for her body to fall to the bed had lasted hours.
Jayda’s chest constricted and her breath caught in her throat. By the time her head hit the soft, imitation mink bed cover, her mind had traced every memory it had collected. For not more than a millisecond, as the last cells of her brain seized and ceased to function, she wondered why she was dying.
Dominic Santino woke with a start. There was a rapping at his front door, loud enough to wake every one of the neighbours in his modest apartment complex. He checked his alarm clock. 1AM. He threw on a t-shirt and went to see who was making the racket at such an ungodly hour. Through the peephole he could see his captain, Harry Bryant, leaning against the wall. His face looked red and his eyes heavy.
Harry rarely made house calls, especially in the middle of the night. Santino unlatched the chain and opened the door. ‘Harry? is everything…’
Harry Bryant shook his head, causing his straggly, sweat-dampened hair to fall across his forehead. He dismissed the concern with a wave of his hand and staggered past Santino, a strong smell of alcohol wafting behind him. At the kitchen table, he slumped into a chair, letting his large, loose frame fill the seat.
Santino followed, collecting some glasses and a bottle of scotch. Harry probably didn’t need any more alcohol at this point, but Santino knew his captain well enough to know that offering him a coffee or water was not going to fly.
‘Want to tell me what’s going on, Harry?’ he asked. He slipped into a chair at the other side of the table.
His usually rock-solid captain appeared to be coming undone before his eyes. He had good reason. Everyone who knew Harry was feeling for him, but seeing him in such bad shape, the shadows moving behind his eyes, black and crow-like, and his vulnerability, unnerved Santino. Harry was the man you turned to when everything fell to shit. Not the man who fell to shit himself. Ever. But this was different.
Harry looked up, allowing Santino to see the wiry red lines that were streaking the whites of his eyes. The skin on his face was ruddy and sagging, pulling his features down with it. ‘I wish I could answer that, Santino, I really do. I don’t know what’s going on, but I want to find out.’ The words came out in a rasp through chapped, raw lips.
Harry shook his head and poured almost half a glass of the scotch. ‘My mind feels like it’s going a million miles an hour all the time, coming up with different scenarios. Things that I know are stupid, but still, possible. That’s why I came here, Santino. I didn’t want to have this conversation at the station.’
Santino wondered what he meant by have this conversation. He was clearly there to get something off his chest, but what it was remained a mystery. ‘Harry, you just lost your nephew. Who wouldn’t be upset and confused? You know that better than anyone. You’ve seen families in the same situation. Hell, you’ve been the one to go in and tell them bad news more times than you can probably count. The shoe might be on the other foot now, but these are still really hard times for anyone. It’s not lessened just because of the work you do.’
Harry stared at the amber liquid in his glass. ‘I wish that was all it was. Something’s not right here, Santino, I can feel it.’
Santino nodded to reassure him. Harry was suffering and, when grief was raw, it was easy to create theories. They allowed the brain to bring sense to what was happening. It reminded Santino of a woman he had comforted some years earlier at an accident scene. She had hit a young boy, a seven-year-old, who had run onto the road in front of her car while chasing a ball. Santino had sat with her for some time, listening and watching her wild eyes dart back and forth while she came up with at least a dozen different theories about why it had happened. They ranged from the child being pushed, to her having accidentally taken a muscle relaxant instead of a pain killer earlier in the day. She was so desperate to find a reason to hang onto. In her mind, there had to be something, but the reality was that she was simply driving down that road at the exact moment the boy’s ball got away from him. It rolled onto the road and their worlds violently collided. Sometimes there were just accidents.
‘I feel like there might be something more to Jason’s death, Santino,’ Harry said.
Santino crossed his bare arms over his chest and listened to his friend and mentor with sadness and dread. He wanted to offer Harry support and reassurance, but he knew there were rarely any words that could offer real comfort. ‘It’s been less than a week, Harry. That’s not enough time to really know anything, especially from an evidence or medical point of view.’
From what Santino knew of the case, there had been no indication of anything suspicious reported by others who attended the scene. Harry’s nephew, Jason, had some kind of medical episode at the wheel causing a car accident, and he had died. Santino hadn’t checked on the details since the initial report, but as far as he knew, there had been no decision about the cause of death, nor any suspicion of foul play. If there had been, he would have heard about it by now.
The last thing he wanted was to come across as condescending or dismissive to a man he respected and admired, but at the same time, Santino wanted to be careful not to feed Harry’s suspicions about the possibility of something bigger going on. ‘Something might turn up, Harry, but you also have to accept the fact that it may well have just been a medical episode that led to Jason’s accident. Nothing sinister.’
Harry was again staring into his glass as if it was willing him to dive in and drown his sorrows. ‘I thought that at first, I did. This shit happens every day, right? I’ve seen it my whole career, we both have, and I know that families always want something or someone to blame, but that’s not what this is. I went to identify his body with my sister and something wasn’t right, I’m telling you. They can’t even explain what happened to him for Christ’s sake. Before I left, I spoke to one of the autopsy technicians at the morgue.’
‘You didn’t speak to Robert?’ Santino asked.
Robert James was the Chief Medical Examiner and a long-time friend of them both.
‘Robert wasn’t there, he’s away, but this other guy said they’ve had four others just like Jason in the last eight days.’
‘Just like Jason? I thought they hadn’t formally determined the cause of death.’
‘They haven’t, but that’s the whole damn point,’ Harry said. His eyes were wide and filled with a fiery determination. ‘They’re just like Jason in that they had some kind of brain haemorrhage that was listed as inconclusive or unexplained or something. They all had some kind of medical episode, but they have no clue what that episode was or why it occurred.’
Santino could see how much it was eating Harry up, but a passing comment made by a junior in the Medical Examiner’s office was no better than speculative gossip.
‘I’m not dismissing what you’re saying, but surely that’s fairly normal, Harry. People die. This is LA.’
Harry shook his head. He closed his eyes, placing his forefinger on one eyelid and his thumb on the other. He rubbed hard, pulling them together so tightly in the middle that Santino thought he might have to pry them loose before Harry did himself an injury. ‘I know you think I’m making something of this because he’s one of my own and I’m upset or grieving or whatever. Hell, I would too, but I’ve been a cop a long time, Santino, and standing in that autopsy suite, there was something in my gut that was churning.’ He looked at Santino with conviction in his eyes. ‘That feeling, you know what I’m talking about.’
Santino did know. He’d felt it many times throughout his career. It was like a knowing that wouldn’t leave you. A bad smell that would weave itself into the fabric of your clothing, and eventually into your skin. There was no washing it away, no matter how hard you tried.
‘Jason is dead, I accept that’, Harry said. His voice sounded almost pleading. ‘But five people, barely middle aged, all dead for no good reason and showing the same kinds of organ and tissue damage? What the hell is that? Jason wasn’t sick. He was the strongest lad I’d seen in a long time and to just go like that…’
Harry’s voice trailed off. Santino could almost see the lump in his throat bulging at the front of his neck as he gulped another mouthful of scotch to relieve it.
‘Okay, Harry. I hear you and I agree that it sounds a bit off, but what exactly are you getting at? If you want me to say that there might be more than a coincidence here, I can’t. I have no idea. A feeling isn’t really enough to go on, no matter how good your instincts are. I don’t have to tell you that. If this was a family you were talking to, what would you be saying to them?’
Harry was shaking his head. ‘Damn it, Santino, I know! Under different circumstances I’d say the same thing, but you weren’t there.’ Droplets of sweat slicked his hair to his forehead and ran down his face as he moved.
Santino took a drink and stayed silent. There was no point going back and forth over it while Harry was in this state. ‘I’m assuming you intend to look into it further then? Is that what this is about?’ Santino asked.
‘I have to. I can’t just let it go, not yet anyway,’ Harry shrugged.
Santino pushed his dark hair back from his face and made circles with his fingertips at his temples. He could feel a headache brewing behind his eyes. He tried to think of a way to measure what he was about to say so that it didn’t come out as if he was dismissing Harry’s claims, because he wasn’t. But Harry needed a reality check before he fell too far down this rabbit hole.
‘I know this is hard to hear, but it’s just not enough, Harry. In fact, it’s barely anything at all. It’s your gut instinct, and I’m not dismissing that because I know you have a sixth sense for this stuff, but what can I do to help with any of this? There’s nothing to go on at this point.’
‘There’s more though.’ Harry sat up straighter, the fire returning to his eyes. ‘One of my sister’s friends, an acquaintance really, her daughter died suddenly yesterday. My sister first met her when they were pregnant with the kids and now her daughter is in the morgue next to Jason. Same age. No signs of being sick or having a disease. I’m waiting on more information, but you can’t tell me that’s a coincidence too, because if it is, it’s a damn big one.’
Santino bit down on the inside of his cheek. It was a habit of his whenever something piqued his interest. Sometimes he bit so hard it bled. The death of the friend’s daughter raised some questions. It was, at the very least, a possible connecting factor. ‘Okay, I’m listening. Are you thinking there could be some kind of virus or something that people can catch, given that they knew each other? Centre for Disease Control would be all over it if it was.’
‘That’s just it, the mothers still kept in touch, but the kids hadn’t seen each other for years. And screw CDC. You know what they’re like,’ he snapped.
Santino raked his fingers through the waves of his thick hair. It was still damp from his earlier shower and left moisture on the inner sides of his fingers. He rubbed them together, thinking over what Harry had just said. He wasn’t convinced. Grief, particularly in the early hours and days after losing a loved one, had the keen ability to skew normal thought processes. It made people hear, see and feel things that they thought were signs from their lost loved one trying to tell them something, or lead them toward some kind of message. It also kept deep and restful sleep at bay, making wild and emotionally charged thoughts feel like reality. Even so, the hairs on Santino’s arms stood up slightly when Harry told the story. ‘I admit, it’s concerning, Harry, but if the kids hadn’t seen each other, maybe it is just a horrible coincidence. Either way, I still don’t know what it is you want me to do with this? What can I do?’
‘I trust you Santino and I need someone that I know will be discreet and keep it quiet, just while we check it out. There may be nothing to find and hell, my judgement might be way off with all this. God knows, I’m so close to retirement I can taste it, but I can’t rest until I’ve done all I can to make sure, for Jason. You would too if it was your family.’
Santino poured them both another whiskey, even though he knew he shouldn’t. He could feel his shoulders tensing and his head felt like it was being tightened in a vice. Whiskey would only make it worse. But Harry was right. If it was someone Santino loved, he would be at it like a dog with a fresh meaty bone. Nothing would get in his way, no matter how far-fetched it seemed. He would turn over every stone and go down every path, no matter how obscure, to make sure there was nothing left to find.
Harry Bryant was a good man and Santino owed him a lot. Whether to help him wasn’t even in question. What was in question was whether or not that help would just buy into a delusion most likely brought about by grief. And if it did, then he wasn’t helping Harry at all. It could actually cause more harm.
He studied Harry again, taking in how ravaged he looked. There were deep lines across his forehead, permanent reminders of the weight of all he had seen in his long career. It was sad to see it coming to a close like this. Harry deserved to end his career with a celebration of the blood, sweat and tears he had put into his work, but instead he risked killing himself with drink and stress before even reaching retirement.
‘Can you speak to Robert and see what he thinks?’ Santino asked. ‘He’d be the one who would know if there was any possibility of a connection. Regardless of your personal feelings, what about someone at Disease Control? You must have a CDC contact.’
‘Yeah, I’ve left a message for Robert to call me back, but I haven’t heard from him yet. I don’t want any other agencies getting involved right now if we can help it, especially not that mob.’ He sighed and shook his unsteady head. ‘I’m not so foolish as to think there’s going to be some miraculous discovery here that will explain everything and tie the reason for Jason’s death up in a nice little bow, Santino. All I want is for you to keep your eyes and ears open, that’s all. Make a few calls.’
Santino could make some calls. There was no harm in at least asking a few questions to put Harry at ease.
Harry continued. ‘I’ve told the guy at the Medical Examiner’s office to alert me to anything similar and I’ll be keeping watch myself. I’ve got feelers out with my contacts in other departments and if anything comes up, just go take a look for me, discreetly, that’s all I’m asking. See if anything stands out or if there’s any possible link between any of them. I trust your judgement. And if there’s not, I’ll accept that. I’ll have to, I guess.’
Harry leaned down and pulled a bundle of papers from his bag, placing them on the table between them. ‘This is what I’ve managed to put together so far. These are the ME’s notes and the notes in our system. I know this is a longshot, Santino, but as far-fetched as it might sound, I’ve always trusted my gut instinct and right now, it’s telling me there’s something here, something is off with these.’ He tapped his finger on top of the pile. ‘Just take a look, please.’
Santino nodded. ‘Go home and get some rest, Harry. You look like you haven’t slept in days. I’ll take a look, you have my word. I’ll text Robert and see what he thinks first and we can go from there. Do you know when he’s back?’
‘Tomorrow or the next, I think.’ Harry downed the rest of his drink and stood up on unsteady legs that threatened to buckle beneath him. He grabbed the edge of the table to balance himself before taking a step. ‘It means a lot, Santino. I just need to be sure about this before I walk away. Keep me updated.’
Harry reached out and waited for Santino’s hand. As they shook, Santino could sense the weight of grief in Harry’s grasp. Why did bad things happen to good people? There were so many scumbags who were deserving of a quick and unpleasant end, and yet good young men like Jason took the hit.
When Harry was gone, Santino collected the notes and spread them out on the living room coffee table. Five faces, including Harry’s nephew, Jason, who was a beat cop downtown. Five people, six if he included the friend of Harry’s sister, who were dead for apparently no good reason. The problem was, most times, death didn’t need a good reason. Death was one of those things that took without warning and left a hurricane in its wake. Families, questions and heartbreak. Perhaps Harry too was just a piece being flung around in the force of it. Either way, he’d keep his word and take a look, even if he wasn’t convinced.
Santino woke to the sound of his ringing phone. He squinted and rubbed at his eyes while feeling around in the bed covers to find it.
He pushed aside the files and photos of the deceased that Harry had left him and just managed to get to it before the call went to his voicemail. ‘Hello?’ he answered.
‘Santino, how can I help?’ Robert James bellowed down the line. His upbeat tone hurt Santino’s pounding head. He pulled the phone away to alleviate the pain before bringing it back to his ear.
‘Robert, thanks for calling me back so soon.’
‘Are you still sleeping, you lazy bastard? I’ve been at work since six,’ Robert teased.
‘Lucky you. You’ve also been away on holidays, I hear. When was the last time I took any time off?’
‘Fair call,’ Robert said, ‘but you’re an idiot. Life is short, believe me. I’m currently opening up a 43-year-old guy. Take time off, go and do something that’s actually fun for once in your life, or hey, here’s an idea, find a good woman and…’
‘You’re the last person I’m taking life advice from, Robert,’ he laughed. ‘I actually need to ask you about something.’
‘Well maybe you should call me for life advice, but I’ll leave that for another day. What do you need?’
‘Harry Bryant came by here two nights ago and was in a bit of a state,’ Santino said. ‘You’ve heard that he recently lost his nephew, Jason?’
‘Yeah, I only got back yesterday, but I heard about it this morning when I got in. Harry left me a message, but I haven’t called him back yet. My assistant mentioned something to me about a car accident with the nephew. I haven’t had a chance to scratch myself, let alone review any cases. Is there something I need to know?’
‘Sort of.’ Santino hesitated, unsure where to start. ‘Jason was behind the wheel at the time, but that’s not what caused his death. Someone at your office told Harry that the cause was some kind of brain haemorrhage, but that it’s still unclear what caused it. It’s hard to explain, but I was hoping to run a few things by you and get your opinion, off the record of course.’
‘Off the record? Okay, now you’ve got my attention.’
Santino didn’t explain the off the record comment. That could wait. ‘Harry seems to think there might be a bit more to Jason’s death than first thought and he wants me to quietly follow up on a few things.’
‘What sort of more are we talking about here, Santino?’
‘He thinks there might be others, deaths that are similar to Jason’s and that there could be something to it, maybe a link.’
‘I haven’t been here for three weeks, so I’m not up to speed, but I’ll talk to the others and check out the case load. Did he say what he was thinking in terms of a link?’
‘No, he doesn’t know and he’s not even sure there is something. Neither am I to be honest, but it’s got him a bit rattled so I’m checking into it for him.’
‘Come by and see me later, I’m here all day, and all night probably,’ Robert joked.
Santino laughed. ‘I will. And tell the 43-year-old I’m sorry he’s been left in your hands.’
‘Yeah, yeah, go away now, some of us have to actually work,’ Robert said.
Santino hung up and packed the files into his satchel. He showered, hoping the beating water and heat might clear his mind and his headache, but the quiet only complicated his thoughts.
Was he wasting his time with this? Looking into Jason’s death and getting Robert and God knows who else involved could end up wasting everyone’s time and prolonging Harry’s pain. The whole thing made him uneasy. He was being pulled into investigating this out of a sense of loyalty to Harry, but if it turned out there was no evidence to suggest anything other than a tragic accident in Jason’s death, he would have to convince Harry of that. Something like this could force Harry to end his career on a sour note, rather than the high he deserved after so many years of dedicated service to the people of LA.
He dressed and grabbed one of the bran muffins his elderly neighbour, Mrs Dawson, liked to bake for him and leave at his door. He had told her on numerous occasions that it was too much, but she insisted that the comfort of living next door to a detective was worth all the baking in the world. And he didn’t mind. She reminded him a little of his mother and to have Mrs Dawson occasionally visiting eased his guilt about not seeing his family nearly enough. He made a mental note to book some leave days and take a trip to Manhattan to visit his mum and sister. He hadn’t seen his nieces and nephew for months.
He hadn’t even started his car when a text message came from Robert.
Don’t bother coming here, I have to head to a scene, I’ll explain later. Had a quick glance at the case lists and it is looking a bit, shall we say, interesting. Can you meet me at the scene instead? This one might even fit the bill of what we were talking about. Female, name is Jayda Crane, 79 Carling Lane, Culver City.
Santino started the car and headed straight to the address Robert had given him. The faces and scenes in the photos Harry had left him consumed his thoughts on the drive. Heartbroken families that would want answers. They deserved to know why, but hoping for an answer that might never come was a terrible thing to cling to. It only led to dealing with the reality all over again when hopes were dashed. He wondered what Robert had meant about the latest death fitting the bill. Maybe he was seeing something there too, just as Harry had.
Pulling up out front, the stone-fronted cottage appeared clean from the outside. Neat garden, manicured lawn and a seemingly nice neighbourhood filled with what he guessed were middle-class families, most of whom were currently gathered on the other side of the road watching on.
Stepping out of his black Lexus, Santino took in the sound of the gravel-laden driveway that crunched beneath his leather shoes. He stopped at the porch, noticing pools of water that had gathered on the red concrete, most likely caused by the bright yellow watering can on a table nearby.
He turned at the sound of a vehicle pulling up. Robert smiled at him from the driver’s seat of the Medical Examiner’s van. ‘You got here fast, did you fly?’ Robert joked as he hopped out.
Santino went over to the van. ‘I was already in the car when I got your message. Have you got something for me?’
Robert took his bag from the back and moved closer to Santino. He kept his voice low. ‘I managed to get a quick look at the case load over the last few weeks and I’ll admit it’s a bit unusual – at least without some kind of event as a catalyst.’
Santino wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but he had known Robert long enough to know he would eventually explain himself properly.
‘I don’t think we’ve ever had so many cases listed as undetermined in all my years in the job. I’ll know more once I’ve had the chance to properly review a few, but this one inside might be something similar, based on her age and the info I was given over the phone. That’s why I’ve come myself. They said it looks like a natural death from the outset, but we’ll see.’
Robert pulled out a package of white coveralls and threw it at Santino. ‘Get that on and we’ll go in and have a look.’
Inside, there were no obvious smells, other than the scent from a vase of roses on a stand by the front door, their petals still fresh and full of a perfect red hue. They looked hand-picked and were probably from the bush in the front garden that he had passed on the way in.
The walls were adorned with wallpaper from an earlier era, its paisley swirls dressed the entrance hall and a matching orange and brown carpet covered the floor. Santino guessed that it was most likely a rental property.
Two local LA County Sherriff’s Department officers leaned against the wall of the long hallway that led to the bedroom. They were already whispering about Santino’s arrival, their voices travelling along the space, alerting the officer in the bedroom. Santino knew why but cared little for their questions about the presence of a Homicide detective at what appeared to be a natural death. He too was wondering why the hell he was there. There was also the fact that Santino wasn’t very popular in law enforcement circles thanks to the widely publicised Fitzgerald case. He had given up, or in their words, ‘ratted out’ several of his peers and others in positions of importance. Either way, today he was with Robert, so none of them would dare say a word.
In the bedroom, the dead woman was face-up across the middle of the bed, her legs draped over the edge. Jayda Crane’s right foot, still partially stuck inside a pair of black pants, indicated to him that she had been in the middle of changing when she died. Santino moved closer as the local officers continued their muttering.
Jayda’s eyes were open. She was looking at the ceiling, a pained expression contorting what had been a beautiful face. She was wearing only a singlet and briefs, her running shoes on the floor in front of her. Santino whispered a Catholic prayer for the dead. He thought of his mother and the image of her kneeling at the side of the bed where his dead father lay. Tears were streaming from her red eyes and falling onto her cheeks as she recited the rosary again and again. He had stood behind her, listening and studying his father’s face, the skin already waxy.
Santino could sense that the eyes in the room were on him. Their burning questions and judgement were burrowing into his back as he bent over Jayda and looked closely at her. She too had already taken on the waxy sheen. He turned his attention to Robert who had slipped on gloves and was gently lifting her left arm. At first glance, there didn’t seem to be anything that was ringing alarm bells.
Surveying the room, Santino looked for any clue that would tell Jada’s story, or at least tell him something about what had happened to her. The dead always had a story to tell if you knew where to look, but Jayda gave nothing away at this point.
‘Pity, she was a real looker.’ The words came from somewhere behind him.
Santino turned, anger surging through him. The voice had come from one of the young officers who had previously been in the hall. He was now standing in the doorway of the bedroom. Santino shot him a warning glare causing him to snort and shift nervously from one foot to the other. Santino left Robert to his work, pushing past the officer with a stiff elbow jab, causing the man to lurch forward clutching his stomach.
Santino ignored the abuse that followed and made his way down the hall to the other rooms. In the small kitchen, the stone benchtops were clean, except for a few items left out from the previous evening’s dinner. She had eaten alone, one plate and one glass, rinsed and drying on the sink. She had showered, the bathroom floor still slightly damp and the towel, not yet fully dry, slung over the top of the door the same way that he did at home. Every window was shut and locked and the rear door was still secured with a dead lock. No sign of forced entry.
His thoughts went back to Harry. Harry was convinced that Jason’s death was more than just an accident and Robert had, at the very least, confirmed that there had been some strange cases lately. If there was a connection of some kind, could Jayda be another to add to the list? He shook off the thoughts and reminded himself that all of this was nothing but theories and possibilities.
Robert appeared in the hall. ‘Anything?’
Santino shook his head. ‘Nothing that stands out.’
‘I’m nearly done here. Do you want to wait?’
‘I’ve got the files that Harry gave me in my car,’ Santino said. ‘Can you meet me at the bar around the corner on Pitt Street when you’re finished here? I want you to have a quick look over what I’ve got, but I don’t want to waste too much time on this if there’s nothing in it.’
Robert checked his watch. ‘Sure, but I’ve literally only got half an hour, we’re swamped back there. And there better be food. Order me something. Something with meat and none of that green crap.’
Santino laughed, shaking his head as he went back to the car. It always amazed him that in spite of the fact that Robert spent his days looking at the insides of people who had ruined their bodies through bad habits, he continued to drink, smoke and eat copious amounts of bad food.
When Robert arrived at the bar half an hour later, his face was flushed and his brow furrowed causing it to crease into a series of uneven grooves. ‘I don’t know who is recruiting these idiots, but the standard of these young cops is seriously at an all-time low. One of them was actually on the phone having an argument with his girlfriend – inside the house. Not outside, not quietly either. In the house, without giving a shit about who had to listen to it. Is my food coming?’
‘It’s ordered and coming,’ Santino assured him.
‘Good. I’m on a tight timeframe so you’ll have to catch me up on all the details later, just give me the short version for now and tell me whatever you think I need to know right now.’
Robert patted his forehead with a handkerchief. ‘I’m sweating like a pig here.’ He leaned back and eyed Santino from head to toe. ‘How is it that you, no matter what the circumstances, always look as if you stepped straight off one of those designer men’s mags with your pressed suit, crisp white shirt and slicked back hair? It’s bloody ridiculous. While I’m over here looking like I’ve come from Hobo magazine as their man-of-the-month.’
‘I do my best,’ Santino laughed. He pulled the case files from his satchel and handed them to Robert. ‘This is what Harry gave me, but there could be more. I’ll explain what Harry said later, but basically, there doesn’t seem to be any real explanation for Jason’s death and someone at your office told him there had been several cases just like it. The thing that did make me take notice though was that Harry mentioned a friend of Jason’s mother who had a daughter the same age as Jason, and she also died this week with no definitive reasons listed. You gotta admit, it’s odd.’
Robert was nodding while looking through the files. ‘There have been a higher than usual number of cases in the last few weeks overall, but we have a staff meeting this afternoon to go through each one in more detail. That should hopefully make things a bit clearer and give me a better insight into whether or not there are signs of a link between them.’
‘But there is a higher number overall?’ Santino pushed.
‘Yeah, that’s my understanding, although no red flags seem to have been raised at this point, so don’t get your hopes up just on that. We can get spikes when there’s a full moon, I shit you not. I’ll talk to the team and see if anyone has concerns.’
‘And what about this friend of Jason’s mother? Her daughter’s death?’ Santino asked.
Robert shrugged. ‘What about it? The mothers know each other, so what? It’s not uncommon for people who know each other to lose loved ones or die, you know that. If we can determine that there is a link based on their tox-screens or something else, then that could give us a starting point, but right now, I wouldn’t go making assumptions. You don’t want to end up under a microscope again with the LAPD and the media.’
Santino watched as Robert cut into the steak and chips that had arrived. He was scoffing it like a man who hadn’t seen food for a month.
‘I know that,’ Santino said. He didn’t need to be reminded. ‘But it could be something they had in common, or passed to each other, couldn’t it?’
‘No way to know.’ Robert was talking while moving a large piece of meat from one side of his mouth to the other. ‘Were they intimate? Did they go out and eat together or spend time together?’
‘Harry said the kids hadn’t, but the mothers had been in fairly recent contact,’ Santino explained.
‘There are too many variables here, Santino. Without looking too much into it, the cause of death in each of these looks like something from within rather than external factors. Now, that’s only a guess, I haven’t seen all of the info, but it doesn’t look like any common disease or illness that we’d usually see. Once I’ve had the chance to look inside the Crane woman, I’ll be able to tell you more. You can’t always rely on some of the juniors in my office.’
‘Well, that’s good to know. Jesus, it’s a pretty important job,’ Santino sneered.
Robert waved his hand at Santino, dismissing his concerns. ‘No, not like that. Don’t get on your high horse. They’re good at what they do, but they haven’t been around long enough to spot everything. Not like those of us who have been doing it since the dawn of time. You know what I mean, you see things others don’t see. That’s why I’m the boss.’ He grinned and slopped the last of his steak in the gravy before filling his mouth.
‘Still not comforting,’ Santino told him.
Robert’s phone chimed. He took it from the holder at his waist and answered. Santino could hear that it was a male on the other end. He stood up and turned away from Santino. The conversation was brief but seemed to leave Robert unsettled.
‘I have to get back,’ Robert said. ‘If you can bring me copies of these notes tomorrow, I’ll compare them to what we have, but I want to know exactly what Harry’s thoughts are on this before I give it any real time. If there’s any link, I’ll hopefully see it in the notes, but if not, you might want to seek out a genetics specialist to take a look as well.’
‘Genetics?’ Santino was thrown by the suggestion.
‘It would be worth seeing if you can get the cases reviewed to look for some kind of genetic condition or something along those lines as well. Keep in mind that if there’s any hint of there being a connection to anything viral or bacterial, the CDC will be in like a shot.’
‘What does that even mean?’ Santino held his hands palms up at Robert and shook them as he spoke. ‘In layman’s terms for God’s sake.’
Robert smiled understanding his frustration. ‘As I said, I’m not convinced from what I’ve read that this is about something viral or external. I’m thinking that it’s more likely something within the person themselves. A defect or congenital abnormality. It might not help in terms of linking them, but it’s worth checking out even to exclude something from being a possible link, especially in Jason’s case, so that Harry can be satisfied.’
‘And where do I find someone to do that?’ Santino asked.
Robert wiped his face with a napkin before tossing the crumpled paper onto his empty plate. ‘I do know of someone, but… ah…’
‘But what?’ Santino pushed.
‘She’s the best, brilliant actually, but I’m not sure she’s doing this kind of work anymore. I haven’t been in contact with her for a few years.’
‘I’ll find her, don’t worry. Just give me the details you have.’
Robert pulled a piece of paper from his bag and wrote down the information. He slid it across the table to Santino. ‘Tell her I send my regards.’