The following is the first chapter of the first novel in a series featuring Los Angeles private investigator Locke Sherwood. This novel should be published soon.
The Mystique of
P. Pennington Douros
A wise man in the Himalayas once said the world is a creation of madness.
* * *
This is insane! Why do I torment myself? Donny bemoans as anxiety pricks like a swarm of biting ants. It’s supposed to be just a game.
Los Angeles, summer, Saturday afternoon. Ninety-eight degrees, edging the temperature of the human body. A little league baseball game plays on the raw, dirt field of Wakefield Junior High School, beyond a grassy slope behind the school. Rapt parents arrested between excitement and dread sit on the tiered planks of a green wooden bleacher. It is the bottom of the ninth inning, Wakefield Saviors eight, Kentmore Blasters seven. Two outs. The Blasters in red caps and T-shirts are batting. One Blaster is on second and one on third, posed like cheetahs to run. A burly kid with bushy brown hair stands at bat, a red devil face on his batter’s helmet. He snarls at the pitcher.
The pitcher trembles and then clenches his teeth. "Screw you!"
He lifts the ball to his chest and extends his pitching arm back, his stare a paragon of intention. The batter's eyes steel.
Donny Collins, eleven, in a team gold cap and shirt, recognizes him. The batter's name is Mondo. He beat up Donny once in the parking lot of the Rite Aid drugstore.
Donny wonders if he can run fast enough through the white, pressing heat to catch a ball. Maybe I won’t have to. He is in right field, the last position his team permitted him to play. If he blows it, his little league career is over. He glances at his father in the wooden stands who is watching with a father’s-pride smile.
"Oh!" Donny moans.
Mondo swings. A strike. Mondo swings. Contact--a foul ball out of left field. Mondo does not swing. A ball. Another ball.
A bead of sweat trickles down Donny’s forehead into his left eye, salty and stinging. Donny prays: do not hit the ball to me! He hears a motor whirring and looks up.
In the azure of the placid sky a white blimp, looking wondrously surreal, floats over the field. Otherworldly, Donny thinks. Like an airship from an old black and white science fiction movie. It descends lower, the sun shimmering across its cadaver-hued skin. Donny has seen it before. It often flies low over their Saturday games. Donny smiles. He loves watching it. The arid, dirt baseball field vanishes. Enemies evaporate and doom withdraws.
The wonderful, whirring magical airship.
* * *
The front of the zeppelin appears in the scope’s field. The image sweeps across its white shell and past red letters spelling the word 'Transcendence', the name of a fashion boutique chain. The scope’s cross hairs drop to the rear of the airship where the engine’s fuel tanks are located. The crosshairs lift slightly allowing for a trajectory drop. The finger on the rifle trigger tenses.
* * *
The crack of a bat pierces the field. The white ball soars into the air, heading toward right field. Donny tenses as acid burns in his stomach.
He takes several steps back, trying to determine the ball’s trajectory and where it will drop, and lifts his glove.
The sun’s glare sears. A momentary blackness. Another, louder crack, a distance away in the woods beside the field. Donny looks at the zeppelin, directly above. He has a peculiar, frigid sense. Two more reverberating blasts.
A huge flare of white explodes on the rear of the blimp’s side. Donny’s vision petrifies. A thundering boom quakes the sky and slams through his flesh. Yellow-orange flames spew from the zeppelin’s side and then engulf it. Donny’s mouth drops; his breath seizes. The fiery, oval shape, flaming objects hurling off it, descends straight toward the playing field, toward him, gray smoke pluming behind. The screams and yells of kids slash the air. People run. Across the field; down the wooden bleacher. A man trips and falls.
Screams, terrible flames, dark smoke.
Run! Blares in Donny’s mind. He runs fast, toward the sidelines, fiery particles showering around him. He looks over his shoulder and up. An inferno of flames. The acrid smell of smoke. Think! Don’t think!
A dazed, dreamy horror. Donny stops, turns, and stares.
Like a slow motion film. The tilted zeppelin crashes into the dirt infield, a glowing, crumbling frail shape, yellow and white flames erupting. Fiery, crackling pieces streak into the air and rain down.
Black smoke billows into the gray sky. A boy at the edge of the infield screams, his hand slapping his shoulder. His shirt is burning. A man brushes his hand several times across the boy’s shoulder and then grabs the boy’s hand and runs. A woman screams, a baby in her arms crying. People everywhere are running, shouting. The flaming wreckage covers the field.
An odor of burning flesh.
The air, his body, his blood feels cold. He stares into the fierce flames. Cold.
* * *
"You are the truest beauty. And all you have to do is just be."
Private Investigator Locke Sherwood gazed into the crystalline liquid of the tank, speaking to his fish. The rectangular glass box, three-feet deep, covered one-third of a wall in his white studio. Locke carefully examined each of the score of Dragonets, synchiropus splendidus, among the most beautiful and colorful fish in the world. The “little dragons” ranged from 6’’ to 12” long and were primarily orange with crytic patterns of swirls and dots in brilliant blue hues. They evoked 1950s abstract paintings. Their fins were large, showy and elongated. They had flattened, triangular heads and prominent white frog eyes.
Such aesthetic perfection, Locke mused. An ideal synthesis of form and function.
But they were challenging to maintain, feeding on cristaceam and other small invertabrates found in living rocks and sand. Locke was one of the largest breeders of Dragonets on the west coast, but he never sold them. He gave them away for free, complete with a reef aquarium, equipment, live rocks, and a care manual he wrote, to people whom he believed would cherish their exquisite beauty.
“Several are of the proper age to be given,” Locke spoke.
He observed one floating between twisted, pink coral on the opposite side of the tank. Come, my little friend. Come to me, he thought with a gentle but determined intention. The fish turned and faced him, but did not move. Come to me. The Dragonet swam to the glass and stared at its beseecher.
“What do you think, Watson? Can a human communicate to a fish? Or was it just curious to observe more closely the peculiar being before it?”
The golden brown Chinese Shar-Pei tilted its head in its expression of interest. Its deeply wrinkled face resembled an old, wise man. Or, Locke liked to think, an aged Doctor Watson.
“Perhaps I should first learn to communicate with you better. That would be more. . .elementary, my dear Watson.” He grinned. The phone rang. Locke walked to his desk.
“Locke, this is Lieutenant Burrows. I’m at a murder scene. I think you should come here. The Transcendence Blimp was shot down.”
There was a stretched silence on Locke’s end of the line.
"Yes. Where are you?"
“I’m on the baseball field behind Wakefield Junior High School, near to the Art Museum.”
“You’re not far. I’ll be there shortly.”
Locke hung up. He opened a desk drawer, removed a leather holster and strapped it over his shoulders. It held a gold-plated Beretta 92 Billenium 9mm. semiautomatic, which he always carried while on a case. The pistol’s rarity (only 2,000 had been produced) combined with its gold plating and pearl handle, engraved with his initials, catapulted the value of the gun to beyond a Gucci watch. He put on a lightweight black jacket to conceal it.
On his left wrist was a Swatch James Bond Dr. No edition watch--a broad black band with a chronograph face. He placed in his right pocket a black Beltrame Italian switchblade knife.
Locke took a lemon Tootsie Roll Pop from a bowl, unwrapped it, and placed it in his mouth. “Gotta leave, Watson. A higher, and lower, purpose calls."
The Transcendence Blimp, he thought.
* * *
Locke envisioned flames raining from the sky. “It must have evoked an apocalyptic vision. That seduction of beauty and horror,” he whispered.
Burnt remnants of the blimp scattered the baseball field---the broken plastic ribs of its frame, scraps of melted polyester fabric, shattered glass, a blackened engine with a propeller attached to a prop. Firemen with hoses watered down smoldering fragments. An eerie, filmy smoke wafted over the grounds and Locke smelled the acidic scent of burnt plastic and gas. The scene reminded him of a surrealist nightmare painting, although crueler.
Artistic death, he thought. A creation of madness.
Police investigators strolled among the debris, placing fragments in plastic bags. Ambulances and fire trucks were stationed beyond the field, and two news vans. One, from KWBC, had a satellite dish on its top, transmitting, and reporters and cameramen walked the perimeter of the area, filming.
A sensational disaster, Locke noted. Prime news.
Locke approached a detective standing beside a melted red seat.
“How many people killed?” he asked
“Two. The blimp’s pilots,” Lieutenant Burrows, Miracle Mile homicide division, replied. “Every person in their company probably told them, whatever you do, don’t fly low over the baseball field for there could be a sniper in the woods who would shoot you down. So what did they do? They flew low over the field and boom! Dead!” The lieutenant shook his head. “We found one ghastly charred body there,” he pointed to center field, “and one near third base. Didn’t make it home. I suspect they died immediately in the explosion. The blimp apparently flies regularly over the Saturday games. And, according to witnesses, it flies low.”
The lieutenant scratched a bald spot on the back of his graying auburn hair.
Woody Allen, Locke thought with a grin, perceiving his lieutenant friend. Bernard Burrows was fifty-two, five-feet-eleven, slender with black rim glasses perched atop a protuberant nose, Jewish and bred in New York City. He bore a notable resemblance to the comedian, including his mannerisms. The media even commented on it when they profiled him on a Los Angeles edition of the television show True Cops. Perpetual perplexity appeared to define the ieutenant.
“Were any kids hurt?” Locke asked.
“Fortunately, they have no serious injuries. Several kids have minor burns. They were able to run before the blimp crashed. Witnesses reported hearing three shots coming from the woods.”
The lieutenant pointed to the woods beside the field. “Officers are combing the woods for evidence. We may not find the bullets if they passed through the blimp, but they might be in the fragments.”
He looked at some of the kids being questioned. “It’s a blessing no kids were killed,” the lieutenant added. “Maybe God is compassionate. Not toward pilots who violate his air space, but kids, yes.”
The lieutenant brushed his right hand across his left sleeve as if swiping a fly that wasn’t there.
“Although I don’t believe the shooter cared,” Locke replied. “He could have chosen another location to shoot it down. This was planned carefully. I doubt that he wanted to kill any children, or he would have. But if they were, he would have considered it a necessary sacrifice. Collateral damage.”
Locke looked toward the woods. “The shooter perched in a tree that gave him an open view of the sky. The woods are not too dense. Used a high-powered scoped rifle, like a Remington 700.”
He stared at a white scrap of the ship. "The shooter knew his blimps. This one was smaller than the Goodyear Blimp. The explosion was not from the helium that filled the airship. That’s non-flammable. He shot into the engines’ fuel tanks.”
Locke glimpsed into the sky. “Moments before the sniper fired, he probably thought, such a lovely summer day. There’s no wind today. That helped. The shooter had to allow for a trajectory arch, but every competent rifleman knows that.” He paused. “It takes a fraction of a second to pull a trigger. Such death and destruction so fast.”
A news cameraman walked past, his camera aimed at Locke and the lieutenant. Locke scowled.
“This boy saw and heard it all, lieutenant.”
A blue uniformed L.A.P.D officer stood beside a man and a red-haired, freckled boy in a gold baseball cap.
“I’m Locke Sherwood, an investigator. What’s your name?”
“Donny Collins. I was there, in right field.”
The boy pointed to the location.
“Tell us what happened,” Locke requested. The boy looked at the batter’s base, now covered by a charred, smashed metal box with tools spilled out.
“The batter hit the ball. Then I heard another bang. Like a crack. From the woods.” He nodded toward the woods. “Then two more bangs. Bang! Bang! I looked up at the blimp. I’ve seen it before. Suddenly there was. . .a white light on its side. Then it all exploded. Kaboom!”
Donny’s hands swiped the air. “The explosion shook me. There were flames all around it and pieces flying off. It was coming straight down, toward me! Everybody was running and screaming. So I ran off the field. It crashed into pieces and kept burning.”
Donny stared down. “It was. . .very weird. There was fire everywhere, but everything felt cold.”
Locke nodded. “Did you see anyone in the woods?”
The boy shook his head. “No. I looked at the woods as I ran, but I didn’t see anyone. Someone shot it down, you think?”
“Yes, Donny, we believe so,” the lieutenant replied. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I got away in time.”
“Good, Donny. An officer will take your name and phone number, in case we need to talk with you again. Thanks for the information.”
Donny, staring down, walked away holding his father’s hand.
“The killer was here before,” Locke stated. “He knew the blimp flew lower here. He may have studied the airship’s route, tracked it in a car. It may fly the same route each Saturday. Talk to the parents who attend the games and see if they have any suspicions about who it may have been or if they had recently noticed a stranger at the games. And find out from the blimp company everyone who would know the route. We may get a lead.”
The lieutenant glared. “Ah, yeah, I already thought of all that. I am a detective too, you know.”
Locke nodded, twice. “Sorry Bernard. But if we find a suspect who likes summer days, baseball games, exploding zeppelins, and grisly victims, we’ll have our killer. Where are the bodies now?”
“There, on the stretchers, taking an eternal nap.” The lieutenant pointed toward an ambulance. “Haven’t brought them to the morgue yet. Thought you might wanna see them.”
“Yeah, the grisly details,” Locke replied. They walked around the perimeter of the field to the stretchers. Locke unzipped one of the black plastic body bags. The corpse resembled charred meat, its flesh a crusty black. He viewed the second body. Its features were burned beyond recognition.
“Ghastly indeed,” Locke stated.
He stared into the air. A silent moment. “Do you feel it, Bernard? Can you sense it? Their spirits are still here. They’re hovering over the scene. They’re. . .confused. They don’t understand why they’re in the air yet not in their blimp.”
“How do you know that?”
“I perceive it.”
The lieutenant shook rapidly his Woody Allen head. “So now you’ve become a psychic, too?”
Locke grinned. “It’s the pursuit of transcendence; always a worthy endeavor. You should try it, Bernard. You could be a transcendent police lieutenant.”
“Yeah, and a kook!”
Locke smiled. “You’re probably correct.”
“Or like our ill-fated Transcendence Blimp.”
Locke was mute. Yes.
He gazed again into the air. It’s all right. You are spirit now. You can move on, he silently communicated. Locke sensed a motion and nodded once.
The lieutenant peered. “The Transcendence Blimp shot with a rifle from a secluded location. Sound familiar?”
It was familiar to Locke. He gave a lecture, one year earlier, to the Wilshire community police officers at their station. He remembered.
Locke spoke before rows of blue uniformed attendees.
“There is no such thing as a perfect murder. The killer can always be caught. As long as he, or she, is human there can be a mistake. But there are murder scenarios that would be more ideal than others. The most effective murder would be simple and random. The more complex the murder, the more possible mistakes and evidence they leave behind. So what might be an ideal murder, from a killer’s viewpoint?”
Locke stared silent at his listeners, creating drama.
“A target chosen at random, even if the killing is planned. Victim or victims have no connection to the killer; possibly a sniping. The killer can be at a distance from the victim. He can choose a location beforehand that is secluded and offers coverage. No one sees him. He uses a common rifle whose ownership is impossible to trace, such as a Winchester model 70 with a 3-9x40 mm. scope; can accurately shoot an apple from a distance of hundreds of yards. He wears gloves, so as to leave no fingerprints. He wipes the rifle off to be certain. All the killer would have to do is dispose of the weapon. Even if found it could not be connected to the shooter.
“What, or who, would be the target? A randomly chosen individual. A pedestrian. A driver in a car.” He paused. “Have you ever watched the Transcendence Blimp floating leisurely over L.A. and wondered why there wasn’t some lunatic who shot it down? Especially at times when it flew lower? Chosen simply because it was a good target. A couple shots into its fuel tanks. An explosion. Lethal and spectacular. Anyone could have done it. No clues, no connection to the killer. A shooting like that could be the ideal murder. Randomness and simplicity.”
“I told your officers not to discuss that lecture with anyone,” Locke remarked, his attention returned to the crash scene. “But one of your men recorded it and gave it to a reporter. You know if an ideal murder scenario is published, someone will attempt it.”
The lieutenant fretted. “Well, because of these circumstances, I called you. So, is this your hypothetical ideal killing?”
Locke shrugged. “At least someone believes it is. Depends on whether we catch him or not. I do want to investigate this case.”
A fly buzzed before Locke’s face. Without thought, he took note of it. Fly. Blue brown. Four inches from face.
“I won’t stop you.” The lieutenant fiercely scratched his arm. “There already is one clue. You! The famous and infamous murder investigator, Locke Sherwood. Your work. You are the clue!”
* * *
Locke explored the woods, walking a dirt path that tracked its border, twenty yards in from the open field. There was an invigorating scent of spruce. He noticed how the sun sliced through the trees creating a mystical ambiance. Lovely! He approached a police officer and two plain clothes investigators standing near a tree partitioned off with yellow tape.
"Crime scene unit. Diligently on the job. Hello, Michael, the pirate. It looks like we share another case.”
Michael Draper looked up. He held a branch. “Oh no! Locke Sherwood. Sherlock.” A strategically mean scar on his right cheek twitched. “I still don’t believe that’s your birth name.”
“My father gave it to me. He was a private investigator and hoped I would follow in his. . .footprints. He thought the name was amusing.” Locke smiled. “I learned a lot from him. But I suspect I’ll never be as brilliant.”
Michael tossed down the branch.“Oh, I suspect you will surpass him.”
Locke’s brow cocked. “Thank you, Michael. You’re in a benevolent mood. I heard you were promoted to CSI Three. Congratulations."
“Thanks. I. . .understand killers better now.” Michael grinned.
Locke stared at him curiously but did not respond. He thought the wrapped red bandana atop Michael’s shaved head spoke of danger, or blood.
Michael, in his late thirties, had a rugged carriage and wore a loose, white cotton shirt with billowing sleeves and a flair collar. He enjoyed looking like a pirate.
“You on this case, Locke?”
“Appears so. What have you found?”
Michael glanced down and then up at Locke. “I don’t want to be difficult, Locke. I respect your work. But, you know, are you cleared on this? Or are you just being a nuisance?”
“Lieutenant Burrows knows I’m here. He called me.”
“Well, OK. An authorized nuisance. We think this is the tree the shooter used.” Michael nodded toward the sturdy tree. “It has an unobstructed view of the sky above the baseball field. There’s a recently broken branch about halfway up, probably from his foot.” He pointed to the branch. “And higher there is a division in the trunk where he could have sat to shoot.”
“Have you found any evidence?”
“No. No prints. The shooter probably wore gloves. This tree’s clean.”
The sun slashed off a large gold ring on Michael’s left ear creating a dramatic accent.
“Any identifiable footprints?” Locke perused the ground.
“No, too many people walk this trail. Kids probably use it to get to the games. I believe the shooter wore sport shoes, like sneakers.”
“Why would you think that?”
“They’re. . .easier to climb trees in.”
Locke nodded. “Quite so.”
“I found this on the ground.”
A female CSI, late twenties with cropped blonde hair and green eyes, whom Locke had not met, held up a plastic bag with a twig and leaf inside. California girl, Locke thought.
“I’m Daria Hawkins. I’m very happy to meet you, Investigator Sherwood. I’ve heard much about you.”
By the way Daria stared Locke could imagine what she thought of him. Others often commented that he resembled a forties movie star idol, or a film noir detective. He was middle-aged, six-feet-two and handsome with an athletic build, a masculine face, combed back black hair, and deep aqua eyes. This day he was dressed completely in black---jeans, a sport shirt and a jacket with a bulge on its left side indicating he carried a pistol. Around his neck was an ornate gold cross with a ruby in its center. A black pearl was on his left, pierced ear lobe. He was not wearing a wedding ring.
Locke offered his hand and they shook.
“You’re new in CSU,” Locke stated. “I’m happy to acquaint you, Daria. I always value a woman’s perceptions.”
Locke noticed the muscle tone of her arms and legs. “You’re a swimmer.”
Her blouse was unbuttoned down to her bosom. There was not a bathing suit line. “You sunbathe nude. A treat no doubt for any male spectator.”
He glanced at her hands. There was some soil under her nails. Hands always speak, he thought. “You like gardening. You were pulled away when called to this crime scene. Became annoyed, and then remembered your work purpose is more important. What do you have?”
Daria stared. “You’re good. It looks like someone picked this leaf from the tree and chewed on the stem, as one would a toothpick.”
"We’ll check it for DNA,” Michael interjected.
“It’s probably from a kid climbing the tree another time.” Locke examined the contents. “This killer is smart, wouldn’t leave a DNA signature like that. Most people know that saliva carries DNA. It’s on TV all the time. Your show, CSI. I watch it. But I’ll check with you on the results.”
Locke looked up the tree. “A wiseman in the Himalayas once said, ‘if you want to understand a sniper who shoots from a tree, climb his tree.’ Mind if I climb the tree?”
Michael shrugged. “Go ahead. But tell me if you notice anything.”
Locke crossed under the yellow tape.
“You did a good job on the Dawn Corpse Killing,” Michael stated. “I didn’t think you would resolve that one. We and homicide were getting nowhere on it.”
“The killer had a solid motive; you just had to search to find it. I just followed reason and intuition. You should always trust intuition. It’s a detective technique as old as Sherlock Holmes. But the findings you provided helped too. It’s best when we work together.”
“Strange words coming from L.A.’s most mysterious and eccentric private investigator.” Michael grinned. “But we’ll help you if we can. This lunatic could have killed kids.”
Locke nodded. He climbed the tree. Two thirds of the way up the trunk divided, providing a seat in its center. A branch above was positioned so the shooter could lay the barrel of the rifle on it for support, but Locke had to scrunch his body severely to assume the seated position. After a few moments the position became extremely uncomfortable. His leg cramped. He deduced the shooter was shorter than him, less than six-feet tall.
A black crow landed on a nearby branch. It glared at Locke and then cawed twice. Locke noted. Crow glares and caws twice.
The perch offered an unobstructed view of the sky where the fated zeppelin had flown past. Locke examined the branches around him. Nothing unusual. He closed his eyes, breathed deeply and waited.
The soft rustling sounds of the woods. A bird sang melodically and another chirped. A peacefulness.
Then something tense and harsher. Locke heard words, eloquent but pained, as in a theatrical soliloquy, or impassioned poetry. He could not identify them.
Our killer likes literature, he surmised. An educated, cultured man. Or my creative imagination is playing me. No! He remembered his own advice. Trust! Then he sensed something softer, and vulnerable, like a gentle touch on his chest. The killer also has a sensitive side, Locke deduced. Interesting. A duality.
Locke valued murder cases involving dualities. Or even ‘trialities’, he mused with a grin. If there be such a word.
He climbed down the tree. Locke followed the main trail deeper into the woods. At one point it forked. He chose the left path. It led shortly to a clearing with a trash can and a cracked wooden table and benches, a spot obviously used by local picnickers and hikers. He backtracked and walked the second trail. After ten minutes it exited on the opposite side of the woods that was bordered by a paved road. Across the road was a brown-roofed factory surrounded by a link-chain fence. The factory was closed, it being the weekend. Locke looked in both directions down the road. Apparently it was generally used only by the factory workers, who were not working that day. The killer had a secluded route. Up the road a short distance was a dirt road that veered off into the woods. He walked to it. About fifty yards in, it ended in a dirt clearing. There were empty beer cans and cigarette butts scattered around. Locke realized it was an isolated spot visited by teenagers in their cars to drink at night. He had done such things himself when younger. There were numerous tire tracks in the dirt, some probably from the previous nights. It would be impossible to distinguish the tracks of the shooter’s vehicle from the others.
Locke returned to the paved road. He now saw the entire scenario in his mind. The shooter drove down the main road. If he happened to pass another car he would have continued on and postponed the shooting until another weekend. But he passed no cars. He parked his car in the clearing where it would not been seen by any passing vehicles. The teenagers would not be there during the day. The shooter walked the wood’s trail to the tree, previously selected, climbed it, shot the blimp down and returned to his car. He was able to see if any cars were approaching before driving back onto the main road.There was one glitch in the shooter’s plan. As he drove away, another car could have passed him from the opposite direction. The witness could later identify the shooter’s vehicle. The killer was willing to chance that.
A flaw, Locke thought. All that’s needed. I can catch him.
Then a realization intruded. Perhaps not a flaw, but a communication. The killer agreeing with Locke’s lectured assertion that there was no such thing as a perfect murder. Then a second, more significant thought: there was also no such thing as a perfect murder investigator. Thus, there could be a game.
The game, Locke’s thought repeated. A euphoric horror whirled him.