Chapter 1 – A Fishy Tale
Detective Paige Burner sighed and pushed open the door that led into the Laguna Niguel Ritz-Carlton’s suite seven. She was immediately struck by the pungent odor of decaying seafood.
“Bleh,” she said, grimacing in mock disgust. The truth was, Paige can and has eaten sandwiches next to mutilated bodies writhing with maggots, where the victim fully lost control of their bowels before or after death. Simpler smells, like pooled and drying blood, were almost comforting.
The uniformed officer in charge of the crime scene, Clement Blankenship, greeted her at the door.
Blankenship was one of those wannabes who would never in a million years graduate to detective status. She held a general disdain for long-term uniformed officers in the abstract, and for Blankenship in the specific.
Paige felt that uniformed officers were fake cops. Street janitors. If you didn’t aspire to make detective, in her mind, you were lazy, ignorant, or corrupt. Uniformed officers didn’t solve crimes. And more often than not, they committed them. Low-paid, uneducated, if they didn’t steal dope money, they were sadists that took joy in human misery and beating suspects.
“Ah, Detective Burner! So good to see you,” Blankenship lied. He was an ugly little man, all balding head and decaying buckteeth. “What we have here is…” His eyes began to wander toward her chest. In another moment, he’d begin stammering.
Paige cut him off. It was best to not let him get worked up in the first place. “Has the scene been disturbed?” she inquired.
“No one has been into the bathroom, the actual site of the altercation.”
She winced internally at his misuse of terminology. Buffoons like Blankenship tried to use stilted speech, and often failed spectacularly at it. The department was trying to breed it out of them, because it hurt them in the courtroom when they testified.
“But,” he said, “About ten P.C. have been in here, and about four of us uniformed officers. The victim is, uh, in the state of being nude. Disrobed.”
“Plainclothesmen?” she asked. She knew what he meant, but felt like subtly chiding him.
“Affirmative. Detective Gautier, Detective Charles, Detect…” Paige cut him off again. She was in no mood for repetitive braying from a jackass.
“Thanks, Clement. That’ll be all. I’ll take it from here.”
“Are you sure? I could…”
“Quite sure, Clem. Thanks.”
Duly chastised, Blankenship had already slunk away, leaving behind only the faint, forgettable aura of a second-rate officer.
Paige was called in for the oddball murder scenes, the cases that had officers with twice her years on the force scratching their heads at the onset. This was undoubtedly going to be a doozy.
Now she could relax and work in peace and silence. She set her Rubbermaid bag down and donned her forensics gear: surgical scrubs, hairnet, O.R. mask, and gloves. Few were as meticulous as she.
Humming “Ode to Joy”, she turned the corner that led to the over-sized bathroom. Such opulent surroundings were rarely the setting for murders. Splayed awkwardly across the cold tile floor, under bright lights, was the corpse of an attractive thirty-something year old woman. No wonder they took so long to call her, she thought. Her body was perfect.
She raised her Nikon and began snapping photos before ever entering the bathroom. Considering it, she removed her shoes to enter in her stocking feet. This was one aspect of detective work she could never decide on. Outside shoes could bring in contaminants: dirt, dog shit, etcetera. But shoe covers could also remove evidence. When working alone, she usually worked barefooted or in pantyhose. She liked working alone.
The victim, a Ms. Maureen Bedford, lay on her back with her head facing the Jacuzzi tub. Her blond ringlets were matted, soaking in a puddle of blood that had already congealed to the consistency of thick Karo syrup. No flies in the Ritz at least, Paige mused. They would come, she knew. They always did.
Having read a scant dossier on Ms. Bedford, now Maureen to her, she knew she was unique, even for this upper-upper class coastal neighborhood. You don’t remain an unmarried woman here often, except in a few cases: gay, painfully ugly, or extremely eccentric. And Maureen was quite a catch.
Her file didn’t contain info on her family, but Paige knew the name. Descendants of a real estate mogul, the Bedford children each had a considerable nest egg. The four were probably sitting on twenty million or so apiece.
Jealousy, money and revenge being the primary motives for murder in Paige’s mind, net wealth and the bottom line had to be considered. And money was hard to forget in Laguna Niguel, where this branch of the Ritz-Carlton made other Ritz-Carltons look like Holiday Inns.
She loved the view from this hotel. Looking to the west, you saw the endless expanse of the Pacific, but also the cove that the Ritz inhabited. At nine a.m., it was already populated with nannies pushing strollers, gold-diggers in French-cut bikinis, and older men in Speedos and gold chains, trolling for either of the other two.
Opposite the slight inlet the hotel occupied, there was a private residence nearly the size of the hotel, and twice as ostentatious, all shining glass and metal. It was probably a forty million dollar home, minimum.
One of Paige’s first assignments as a uniformed officer was to escort a bewildered pair of married servants from that property. The couple, good-hearted but naive domestics from the south, learned the hard way about what happens if you stand up for yourselves against the super-rich.
They had apparently angered their boss. Their owner, really, Paige thought. And thus found themselves summarily evicted from the house on a Sunday morning, without warning.
It was hard for her to do, back then, because she understood the situation. Still, legally, the property owners could throw anyone out, live-in servants or not. But she didn’t enjoy it, and such interactions discolored her view of the elite.
Returning from her brief daydream, she gingerly padded into the room to gather evidence. Paige often didn’t like to receive the analysis of others beforehand, when working a scene. She didn’t want their preconceived notions to shape her view of events.
She snapped shots of the gorgeous-in-repose female body on the floor, including several close-ups. You never really knew what clues the photos might hold later, when the actual body had been vivisectioned, stuffed and mounted, or cremated. And she knew, as hot as this chick was, she’d probably be mounted and stuffed several times on the coroner’s table. Necrophilia was a privilege afforded that morbid profession. Everyone on the force knew it, but few discussed it.
So, it was best to get all of your evidence on the first pass. Paige didn’t usually leave a scene before she felt she’d solved the case, anyway.
She had graduated top of her class from the academy. This was no small task. She had worked her fingers to the bone, mentally and physically. She had endured hardships and trauma, repeated hazings, and even out-right threats.
In the end, she was their superior, and she never quite forgave or forgot the type of cretins who’d impeded her. She carried her dedication to excellence with her throughout her career.
While taking artful photos of the reclining nude, she noticed what had sent the other detectives running, and was also the source of the dead fish smell. A large Maine lobster, blue-green, lay on its back between the toilet and wastebasket, its claws open, tail extended. It was a big one, and her mouth watered slightly.
Rock lobster, B-52s aside, was for suckers. Maine lobster was the eatin’ kind. Boil for nine to twelve minutes, serve with real butter and ground garlic, a hint of sea salt and a fine wine. Yum.
Paige shuddered and reminded herself to let someone not entirely distasteful take her out to dinner soon. She wanted lobster and to get laid, in that order. Forced to choose, she’d settle for the lobster and an enjoyable conversation.
The future cadaver/necrophilia-subject-to-be mostly attended to, she redirected her focus on the ill-fated decapod, which belonged either in the North Atlantic, or in someone’s stomach. Paige had once wanted to become an oceanographer or marine biologist, until ‘Jaws’ came out when she was six. Thanks, Mr. Spielberg.
It was too bad she never got to utilize her marine biology knowledge, she thought. After snapping an abundance of photos of this dinner that got away, she produced an evidence bag, labeled it, and placed the lobster inside. She put the bag on the countertop, with the lobster lying on its back. For fun, she examined it with a biologist’s eye. It was an adult American lobster, about three pounds or so, female. Examining the swimmerets on the abdomen, she noted brine shrimp eggs and a few dead hatchlings.
This was symbiosis in action. The brine shrimp, sea monkeys to laymen, often spawned there, giving their eggs a fighting chance at survival. Unless the lobster was harvested. And this one was fresh, no more than two days from the sea. Three, max. Otherwise the shrimp would have all hatched by now.
Now donning her detective’s hat, she performed forensics on the lobster. The cephalothorax, or main shell, wasn’t cracked. It was too supple before boiling to crack, but it was bruised, indicating it may have been thrown or dropped. The facial region: eyes, brain, mouth and maxillipeds, was covered with ash. Interesting. Paige had no doubt that under the ash was a mass of burns.
She turned her attention to the ashtray on the counter, ignored until now. She counted eight butts, two with lipstick. Using her tweezers, she examined each in turn, after taking a few photos of their initial arrangement. She bagged them together as she examined them.
After she removed five of them, she found a roach buried in the ash. Unsurprising. This was California. Everyone, even a lot of cops, smoked pot. Paige certainly did, before work, after work. Occasionally at lunch. It made her a better detective, she felt, and relieved stress, helping her to sleep at night.
She brought it to her nose and inhaled, trying to place the strain. It smelled like Purple Haze, a potent, smooth-smoking hybrid favored by smokers with money. The hard weed-heads smoked B.C. bud from Vancouver, or whites, rhino and widow. But there was a base note to the scent she didn’t immediately recognize, a faint candy smell reminiscent of opium. On a whim, she left the bathroom and began to search the suite.
Within a few minutes, she had her answer. She found most of an eighth of Haze. She knew her weed. In the baggie was a piece of foil. Inside of that were three cubes of rock cocaine. This was a package deal some sellers offered. For a hundred dollars, you got a sack of high-grade hydro and five stones.
So, considering the lack of a pipe, the pack of Job Crystal papers, the roach, and the smell emanating from it, Paige concluded that the joint was a primo, marijuana laced with crack. And a good primo could burn for nearly ten minutes, she noted. Neither here nor there, but a good investigator considered everything, significant or not.
She returned to the lavatory, pocketing the herb sack. No need to shame the victim after death. The coroner’s toxicology report would show traces of THC and cocaine anyway, but that wouldn’t be widely known or reported.
Paige refocused on the wounds. Wound, in this case. Obviously, there was no gunshot involved, or stab wound. Blunt force trauma seemed most likely, but she knew poisoning or overdose could have had the same effect.
The victim, she surmised, was most likely struck in the head, assuming murder was the case. Barring that, one possibility remained. But the other half of the murder dichotomy was often not considered by many murder investigators: It might not have been a murder at all.
True, a long shot could mean that something akin to poisoning or overdose could have resulted in Lady Maureen falling over and striking her head on the floor. But what if that wasn’t the cause? Yes, you could fall out from smoking crack, or even have a heart attack, but it wasn’t very common in small amounts such as this. Maureen was a “chipper”, an amateur. A light, weekend smoker.
The autopsy would reveal more, but Paige wanted to know, now. She still had time to get herself a lobster for lunch, if she wrapped this up. She went back into the suite and called the front desk. “This is room seven. Do we have lobster on the menu?”
“Yes, ma’am. Shall I send up another one?”
Paige paused. “No, thanks. I’ll come down for lunch. Please have the chef prepare a two-pound lobster, with a Catalina chef’s salad and a glass of Zinfandel.”
The staff was polite to a fault.
So the front desk clerks still thought the Bedford woman was alive. In California, catering to the wealthy depended heavily upon discretion. Apparently the maid who found her was not the gossipy type.
Paige shed her forensics gear near the door to the hallway, so as to drop as few foreign hairs as possible, revealing a lithe body clad in tasteful business attire. In the hall, she shook her head, letting her own shockingly red tresses cascade down her neck and shoulders. Finally, she donned her bookish, vaguely horn-rimmed glasses and moved on.
The glasses were just that: glass. She didn’t need glasses to see, having twenty-thirty vision, but glasses were sexier. They implied intelligence, somehow, and she felt intelligence was sexy.
Not that she had trouble attracting men. It was all about attracting the right sort of man, when you got down to it.
The maître d' practically tripped over his Gucci loafers to seat her.
“Hi,” she said, “I phoned ahead for lunch a few minutes ago. Room seven?”
“Certainly, madam. Right this way. Your meal shall be out shortly.” He pulled out her chair, seated her, and silently padded away.
Thank god he didn’t say something awkward about a beautiful lady such as herself eating alone, Paige thought. She sometimes considered wearing a fake wedding ring, but had always decided, why limit herself? It’s not like she wouldn’t marry, much less date, a maître d', if he was “Mr. Right”. Or even a Mr. “Right Now”.
In less than a minute, a small army of Chicanos and out-of-work actors set upon her table like reverse locusts. At the two-minute mark, she found herself alone again, with her salad, which was sumptuous, her wine, aromatic, and three steaming, fresh-from-the-oven croissants.
The butter was of course, real butter and she had to have at least one croissant, so she dug in with ladylike grace combined with mannish hunger. Already, this was more food than she should eat in one sitting. Not one to fill up on bread, she had the salad and lobster to consider. She worked out too hard and often to let her stomach get distended. Better to eat smaller meals more often than to develop a pooch.
She spiked a cherry tomato and savored it. Organic, she knew. Most high-end food in California was, which was one of the reasons she settled here. It was French dressing, she noted, not Catalina. Most Cali chefs considered Catalina dressing to be French dressing for white trash, suitable for picnics and patrons of dining establishments such as Ryan’s, and therefore wouldn’t allow it to be served with their food, period. Chefs were fussy that way.
Oh well, she mused, I’m not paying for it. So she ate and drank, and thought deeply. Paige knew instinctively that she was missing something and needed to reconnoiter her thoughts.
She idly fingered the sack of irie in her pocket, but decided against it. As a rule, that was her reward, not her crutch. It was her breakfast, along with coffee, and her prize at the end of a hard day’s work. But sometimes she slipped and took a few tokes at mid-day to clear her head and think about a case in a different way.
Like clockwork, the well-oiled restaurant machinery arrived with a bright-orange steaming lobster as she reached the three-quarters point of her salad. Timing was everything.
Now she was glad she had stopped with one roll, as delicious as it was. The lobster was big, probably a full pound bigger than she had specified. T.S Elliot, she thought, I’m eating it all.
She began with the claws, cracking them with the nutcracker provided. That was her nickname at the police academy, of course. She was called nutcracker, for more than one reason. In hand-to-hand training, often against officers much bigger than herself, she wasn’t averse to hitting below the belt. Or kicking. Or biting, for that matter.
The garlic butter, combined with the freshest lobster you could get short of cooking it on a boat, actually made her a little wet. It was culinary ecstasy.
She ate some of the top half of her baked potato, but had no intention of eating it all. She got her potassium from a chemical supply house in Pomona, of all places. She had slathered it in cheese, butter and bacon from the crystal dishes provided with more than a little guilt.
I’ll work out on Sunday too, she rationalized.
The rest of her meal was a near feral experience. She all but grunted as she ate the second claw and started in on the tail. This, she decided, was better than sex. Slightly. Better than bad sex, anyway.
For a moment, she thought lovingly of her Hello Kitty vibrator waiting patiently in her underwear drawer at home, and then resumed her feast. She tried to slow down, but she had a serious case of the munchies, and was starting to realize what she had overlooked.
A few minutes later, having eaten all of the lobster, Paige stood, straightened her skirt and went back to the day’s case, after a brief trip to the hotel restaurant’s ladies room.
In the restroom, she had a revelation. She could barely wait to finish peeing before rushing to her vehicle for more forensics gear. All she needed was her black light, but she also grabbed a few sterile airtight containers.
Paige took the stairs to the first floor instead of waiting for the elevator, and had to discipline herself when she got there to wear her clean room attire.
Properly dressed and a little calmer, she reentered the bathroom and crouched by the toilet. It was difficult to discern, but she thought she had the missing piece of the puzzle.
When she turned off the fluorescents and turned on the black light, she knew she had solved it. She dialed the office.
“Chief, you need to come down here. I figured it out.”
Paige had it knocked out, but the last step had to be done before the chief got to the hotel, for decorum’s sake. She grabbed a spoon from the minibar. There was no real need to sterilize it, but she heated it under the tap for two minutes, and dried it on a clean hand towel. She had minimized the contaminants, at least.
High profile case that it was, or would be, she knew he would be here soon, so she had to act fast. She returned to the bathroom and took a picture of the late Ms. Bedford so she could reposition her later.
Carefully, she spread the dead girl’s legs. She then lay down on the floor and put her face close to her crotch. Spreading the labia minora with her gloved left hand, Paige spied her prize, this time visible to the naked eye. She used the spoon deftly.
“Just hold still, sweetheart. You won’t feel a thing. I even warmed it up for you.”
She bagged and tagged her last piece of evidence, then smoothed the deceased’s vaginal lips back into place, and reclosed her legs.
Just to be sure, she checked the viewfinder of her camera, and made a few adjustments. Satisfied, she sat on the bed and waited.
She could have left the body in its new position, but Paige felt the woman deserved a little decency in death. She thought about it some more, and then got up and covered her with a crisp linen sheet from the hall closet. Now she could relax.
Ten minutes later, the chief was banging the door down. He was a bit high-strung.
“Who is it?” she teased.
“Open the goddamn door, Burner. This is a bunch of goddamn bullshit!”
Paige smirked and then opened the door.
“Calm down, boss. She’s not going anywhere.”
The chief, Terry to her, exhaled sharply.
“Her family is hot! This is a big deal with them, personally and financially. I don’t know the specifics, but for someone found dead at 7:00 A.M., there’s been a ton of pressure applied to the department. What have you come up with?”
Terry had basically exhaled this mini-rant without breathing. He was going to blow a gasket someday, Paige thought with some concern.
“Chief, this was not a murder. Relax.”
“Not a murder! How can you be so sure?”
Paige shot a plucked eyebrow upward.
“I know, I know, you’re Paige Burner, girl wonder. So what’s the deal?”
“This, Chief, is a clear-cut case of death by misadventure. But be warned, the details might be worse than murder.”
It was now Terry’s turn to raise an eyebrow. He remained silent for a change, indicating she needed to spill the beans.
“Chief, you’re not going to believe me, but the lab will confirm it. Doubt me and you owe me a dinner.”
“Steak.” she added, considering the circumstances. “Ms. Bedford checked into the hotel for the weekend and ordered a live lobster. She then proceeded to get high and masturbate her Graftenberg area with the lobster tail.”
Terry exploded. “That’s the biggest bunch of goddamn bullshit I’ve ever heard, Burner.”
“Ssshhh,” Paige said, applying her index finger to his lips. He calmed and quieted. She had that effect on men.
“By inserting the lobster tail and burning its face, she was able to induce it to flex its abdomen, thus reaching orgasm. It was some sort of freaky fetish.”
Terry exhaled, exasperated. He strained, trying to remain calm. But he had to take this story to the family. He found himself wishing she had been murdered after all.
“Ok, I follow you so far. But how did you piece this together before,” he looked at his watch, “two in the afternoon, and how does it translate into a dead body?”
“She got high and masturbated herself to sleep last night. She then urinated before she went to bed, and neglected to flush the toilet.
In the morning, she got up to use the bathroom once again. I think she saw something frightening, fainted, hit her head, and never woke up. She passed out from the concussion and bled to death.”
“How do you know this, Encyclopedia Brown?” he asked, still perturbed.
“Check it out,” she told him, and led him into the bathroom. She didn’t flip the switch, but instead turned on her black light again and motioned to the toilet.
Terry looked closely, and saw tiny glowing creatures swimming to and fro.
“What the hell?”
“Sea monkeys, Chief. Brine shrimp.”
Terry gave no reaction at all, so she continued. “They sometimes lay eggs that get attached to the underside of the lobster’s tail.”
She paused. “Thinking about it, I bet those little feet really tickle your clit. I’d have put a condom on it, though.”
She didn’t expect a laugh, and wasn’t disappointed. Few on the force shared her sense of humor.
“Sooo, anyway. She didn’t flush last night. The chlorine dissipated from the water overnight.
Two applications of salt from her urine created the little biosphere we see here. She undoubtedly saw them on her, felt them, something like that.”
“In fact…” she turned on the light and looked in the waste basket. “The lack of toilet paper in the toilet means she probably threw some in there. When women urinate, it flushes down the vagina, in part. So we can’t just shake it off and put it away like you boys do. At any rate, she was freaked out enough to faint. And so here we are.”
She closed the door behind them as they exited.
“What else ya’ got?” she asked with a twinkle. “Tomorrow. I have a few things to do at home tonight.”