The Art of Detection

Prologue

Kate Martinelli had been in any number of weird places during her years as a cop.  She’d seen the dens of paranoid schizophrenics and the bare, polished surfaces attended by obsessive compulsives; she’d seen homeless shelters under a bridge and one-room apartments inhabited by families of twelve, crack houses that stank of bodily excretions and designer kitchens with blood spatter up the walls, suburban bedrooms full of sex toys, libraries filled with books on death, and once an actual, velvet-lined bordello.

She’d never seen anything quite like this.

The outside had looked normal enough, a San Francisco Victorian not far from Kate’s old Russian Hill neighborhood, tall and ornately traced with gingerbread decorations.  Actually, in its subdued colors it was considerably more sedate than several of its neighbors—the days of fuchsia and viridian Painted Ladies had passed, mercifully, but brightness and contrast were still too great a temptation for many owners.

The first indication of the house’s true nature stood just outside the door, a small brass knob below a neat enamel plaque that said, Pull.

Kate, feeling a bit like Alice faced with the vial reading Drink me, obediently reached out and pulled.  When she let go, the little knob jerked back into place and a bell began to clang inside the house—not ring: clang.

The sound died away, with no indication of life within.  She rang a second time, with the same lack of result, then she turned around and shrugged at the occupants of the departmental van and the green Porsche, who had hung back until the notification was finished.  Since it appeared that the notification was finished before it began, it was just a matter of getting a film record of the house before they went through it, and to have Crime Scene to a quick once-over to be sure the crime had not taken place here.  The chances against it were minuscule—why would any murderer remove a body from its own home to dump it?—but the walls had to be checked, the car gone over.

Kate and the Parks detective, Chris Williams, split up to hunt down a neighbor with a key.

They did not find such a thing, but the neighbor across the street, a man in his thirties with thinning hair and a boyish faced, pruning his roses in a button-down shirt and white pullover, told them that as far as he knew, a single man lived in the house.   However, he did know the name of the occupant’s security company.  A phone call and twenty minutes’ wait brought a company truck, from which hopped a brisk young woman with fifteen earrings and bleached-blond hair a quarter of an inch long.  She looked at their IDs carefully, made a phone call to confirm that they were who they said they were, then cheerfully unlocked the door for them—or rather she first locked the door, then unlocked it: The deadbolt had not been set, only the automatic lock in the knob itself.  Shaking her head at the carelessness of clients, she removed the key from the deadbolt and handed it to Williams, along with the code for the alarm box that her paper said was behind a picture just inside the door.  He gave Kate the key and wrestled the door open against the heap of accumulated mail inside, moving rapidly along the walls and pulling aside half a dozen pictures before he located the alarm panel, behind a framed pen-and-ink drawing of two men in old-fashioned dress, walking on a street.  He hurriedly tapped out the sequence of numbers, using the end of a pen so as not to obscure any possible fingerprints.  The official housebreakers held their breath, and when the alarm did not begin screaming, the woman from the department’s photo lab stepped inside and started the video camera running.  Kate said to the security woman,  “Thanks, we’ll hang onto the key.”

“My notes say there’s a pad upstairs, too, on the door to the third floor study.  Do you want me to open that as well?”

“Sure.”

The young woman ducked inside and headed for the stairs, with Kate’s companion on her heels to make sure she touched nothing.  Kate stepped into the victim’s house, and with the first breath of pipe tobacco, lavender, and furniture wax, the Wonderland imagery returned, more strongly: She was in another world.

She was also in a remarkably ill-lit world, as the late-January evening was coming on fast and the light switches were even more thoroughly hidden than the alarm panel had been.  Tamsin the photographer wandered off through the gloom, playing the camera through the rooms and up and down the walls, but Kate thought she was working faster than usual, as if afraid that soon she would be recording the inside of a cow’s stomach.  Kate trotted after Williams to get his car keys, went out to get her flashlight from the briefcase she’d left in his car, then paused inside the door to pile the mail to one side: The earliest postmark was from the twenty-second of January, nine days before.  When the mail was in order, she stood and wandered from the entrance foyer with its dangling bell and framed etchings into the shadowy rooms beyond, open-mouthed with disbelief.

The fireplace, for example.  It was a cramped, iron-lined box that would have spilled any self-respecting log onto the carpet, which she thought explained the shiny brass bucket of black lumps.  Except that, this being San Francisco in 2004 and not London in nineteen-whenever, the regulations against burning even the cleanest of anthracite coal were stringent.  And so the fireplace was in fact a fake, with black and red pseudo-coals that glowed and pulsed and gave out no more heat than a light-bulb.  Still, the coal in the brass bucket—wasn’t it called a scuttle?—was real.

Her companion came back downstairs, thanking the security company representative as he ushered her out the door, standing back to allow Crime Scene in, then stepping outside himself to make a phone call.  Lo-Tec glanced around and without a word, got out the equipment to search for organic trace evidence, blood spatter and the like: The darkness just meant he didn’t have to switch off lights.

There was not much to see in the lower floor, no sign of blood or disturbance, only the one ashtray to collect, no unwashed cups or glasses.   The sound of Williams’ voice outside stopped, and he came into the sitting room saying, “The upstairs study wasn’t locked, but there’s a safe—Jesus.”  He stopped, staring at the walls.

Kate lifted the powerful beam of her flashlight off the laden bookshelves and asked, “You think we can get some lights on in here?”

“There don’t seem to be any.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, there have to be lights.  There’s one on over the stairs.”

“Well, there’s things on the wall that look like light fixtures, but I don’t see any switches.”

Kate played her flashlight beam at the walls, and there, indeed, were fluted glass shapes that could only be light-covers.  She walked over to the nearest and peered up at it, frowning, then stretched up an arm to jiggle what looked like a key.  A faint hissing noise emerged from the fixture, and she hastily turned the key back until it stopped

“Hey Chris, do you see a box of matches anywhere?” she asked.  Chris Williams shone his own light around, coming to rest on the mantelpiece.  He picked up an ornate little box, shook it, and at the familiar noise, handed it to Kate.  “Thanks.  Hold your light on this thing for a minute,” she told him, sliding the butt of her flashlight into a trouser pocket.  Gingerly, she opened the stop-cock a partial turn and lit a match, holding it to the place where the hissing noise seemed to originate.  With a small pop, the flame ignited, and the gloom in the room retreated a bit.  Both cops watched the glowing white bowl of the light warily, but when it neither exploded nor sent flames crawling up the wall, Kate went to two other lights and set them aglow.

“Are those things legal?” her temporary partner asked.

“I’ve never seen anything like them before,” she said, adding, “outside of Masterpiece Theater.”

“It reminds me of something,” Williams said, looking around the space.

“Yeah, a movie set.”

Dark red flocked wallpaper, heavy velvet drapes that seemed to suck out the thin dusk light from the windows before it could reach the room—and apparently the air as well, for the atmosphere, though cold, was stuffy.  The furniture was of a kind that would have been out of date in her grandmother’s time, everything heavy and upholstered except one badly sprung wicker-work chair that sat in front of the fake fire.  Beside this chair stood a fragile-looking table with an inlaid top all but invisible under a jumble of objects, including two pipes and a laden ashtray that went far to explain the stuffiness of the room.  Through the gloom she could see a desk, on one corner of which stood a tall stick-like telephone with the ear-piece on a cord, straight out of the beginnings of the telephone era.  Even the drinks tray looked as if it had been brought here in a time machine, cut-glass decanters clustered around one of those tall bottles wrapped in silver mesh that let swooshed fizzy water into glasses in period movies.

“I know what this is meant to be,” Williams exclaimed.

“A museum?”

“Just about.  Look at this,” he said, and Kate turned, to see him studying a heavily gouged patch of the flocked wallpaper—and not random vandalism, she realized, but in lines.  “You ever read the Sherlock Holmes stories?”

“No.  Well, not since I was a kid.”  She’d seen plenty of dramatizations on the television, her partner Lee being a serious addict of public television—come to think of it, that was probably where the gas-light wisdom had come from.

“But you know who Sherlock Holmes is.”  Not waiting for a response, he went on.  “There’s one story where Doctor Watson mentions that the detective had shot up the wallpaper with the initials of the queen—V. R.  Wouldn’t you say that’s a V and an R?”

Kate stepped back, and indeed, the pockmarks could be interpreted as those letters, although lopsidedly so.  “You mean the vic shot a bunch of holes in the wall?  And the neighbors on the other side didn’t end up in the emergency room?”

With his face nearly brushing the flocking, Williams touched one of the holes, and shook his head.  “I don’t think he really used a gun.  These look too clean, and they’re not very deep.  More like he punched them into the Sheetrock.”

“Plaster,” Kate corrected absently.  After renovating two houses, there was not much she didn’t know about old walls.  “So the vic was a Sherlock Holmes nut?”

“Looks like.”

“Down to the gas lights.  And there’s the violin on the table over there.”

“Wonder how far he took it?”

“Why don’t we go see?”

The answer was, he took it very far indeed.  A subject of Victoria Regina would have felt instantly at home, with the furniture, the dusty house-plants (aspidistra? Kate’s mind provided) and the fountains of pampas-grass and peacock feathers.  The kitchen refrigerator was an actual ice-box, complete with near-melted stub of ice, and the single tap over the stone sink looked a hundred years old.  By some chain of thought connected to the plumbing, Kate was struck by an awful idea.

“God, don’t tell me this maniac used an outdoor privy.”  But upstairs was a vintage water-closet, with a flowered porcelain pull-chain to flush its multiple gallons of water.  Next to it was the bathroom with a cast-iron claw-foot tub, a peculiar copper device at one end that Kate thought might be an archaic in-line water heater, and a flowered sink with matching porcelain mug, tooth-brush holder, and shaving-brush with foam-encrusted mug.  Looped beneath the nearby cabinet was a wide strap with hooks at the ends, an object that stirred faint childhood memories of her grandfather’s morning ritual.  Sure enough, when Kate opened the cabinet, there lay the deadly artistry of a straight razor with an ivory handle.

She opened her mouth to call to Lo-Tec, then subsided: Gilbert hadn’t died of a cut throat.

The other second-floor rooms included a spacious sitting room with a bow window, considerably brighter than the downstairs sitting room, a guest bedroom that looked as if it had never been used, and across the hallway from it, the owner’s bedroom.  The ornate iron bedstead was painted white, its mattress so puffy it could only have been filled with feathers.  The bed-side table held an actual candle-stick, the lamp over the bed was again gas, and the man’s down-at-heel leather slippers sat on a tufted rug with pink roses in the design.  The floor-boards were otherwise bare, but scrupulously clean, and two free-standing armoires held clothes that went with the house below: a couple of ornate robes, one silk, though slightly more subdued than the one the house’s owner had been wearing when he was found, the other quilted velvet, such as Kate thought was called a smoking jacket.  Half a dozen somber suits; a number of shirts with buttons instead of collars at the necks and holes on the cuffs for links; dignified silk objects that were more like cravats than neckties; wool trousers with cuffs and buttoned flies; and finally, six pieces of head-gear including two tweed caps, two fedoras, a hard bowler, and an actual, gleaming, honest-to-God black silk top hat.

The shoes to go with this sartorial splendor were arranged on shelves inside one of the cupboards, four examples of the cobbler’s art: one pair of brown heeled boots, worn but well-maintained; a pair of polished black leather shoes, not particularly old-fashioned looking (then again, she reflected, men’s classic shoes didn’t change a whole lot over the years); a pair of ornate Moroccan-style house slippers, far less run-down than those under the man’s bed; and last, glossy patent leather shoes suitable for evening wear.

It wasn’t until they approached the third floor that the Twentieth, and even the Twenty-first, centuries made their appearance: The light burning over the landing was an electric fixture, so bright it spilled down onto the stairs coming up from the first floor as well.

Underfoot, too, there came a marked change of era.  In the lower portion of the house, the carpets had been either strips laid down the middle of the hallways and stairs or dark-colored Persian or Turkish rugs atop the polished boards.  Here, as soon as one’s feet left the half-way landing and started up the last bend, they knew they were in a different place, one that was soft with foam underlay and covered wall to wall with an expensive and modern Berber-style carpet.  It extended into some of the rooms, as well, such as the bedroom that lay immediately to the left of the stairs.

This third-floor bedroom was as modern as its carpeting, with box springs and a sophisticated brown-and-tan bedcovering that went nicely with the floor covering.  It was a large room, at the back of which was a separate, walk-in closet, holding clothes that could have come from Macy’s yesterday: The trousers had zippers, the shirts possessed the normal collars and cuffs, half a dozen pair of shoes covered the gamut of needs (except for athletic shoes—the Sherlock wannabe apparently hadn’t gone in for jogging), the neckties were unremarkable, and there was only one hat, a brown fedora.  There were no gaps in the row of shoes, and all the bare wooden hangers were neatly clustered nearest the door.

Next on from the bedroom was a bathroom, tiled on the floor and halfway up the walls.  No claw-foot tub here, but instead a glassed-in shower cubicle with chrome fittings.  An electric razor stood on the counter next to the sink; the cupboard below held a hair-dryer.

At the end of the hallway, the hall carpeting extended into a third-floor sitting room that overlooked the street.  Unlike its two brothers below, this one was fitted with electric lights, a matching mocha-colored leather sofa and armchair, two walls of modern books with bright covers, and, behind a discreet cabinet, a combination tape and CD player with an extensive collection of music, most of it classical, with heavy emphasis on pieces for the violin.

Next back from the front, across the hallway from the tiled bathroom, Gilbert had inserted a closet-sized kitchen, considerably more user-friendly than the one on the ground floor.  Here was his electric kettle, humming refrigerator, microwave oven, and small gas range.  A built-in table would seat two, or four at a pinch.

The final room on the third floor was where the new millennium reigned supreme: Across from the bedroom, Gilbert’s study filled the rest of the space on the floor, its lock-pad glowing green to show it was open.  Kate turned the handle, and despite the modern fittings of this level of the house, it still came as something of a shock to see the blatant display of modernity.  True, books covered one wall from floor to ceiling, most of them reference books or antique novels, but apart from the cloth-bound spines, the room was as modern as an electronics showroom: high-tech telephone with answering machine, desk-top computer with scanner and printer tucked underneath, a postage meter machine and a combination fax/photocopier to one side.  Modern halogen lights hung overhead, and a solid-looking safe was built into the wall over the computer.  There was even a second television set with cable and DVD player, in front of which was arranged a miniature island that might have been transported from the house below: A richly glowing Oriental rug sat on the light-colored hardwood floors; on top of it stood a deep maroon tufted leather chair, its matching hassock, and a low table with lion’s claw legs, old but beautifully polished.  The glossy wood held a small stack of magazines and catalogues, a coaster of inlaid marble from India, a glass with a glaze of dried brown in the bottom, a heavy marble ash-tray with ashes in it and a pipe, lighter, and tobacco pouch to one side, and a bare pad of paper with a silver retracting pencil resting on top; the red leather of the chair was worn along the arms and at the tufts of the headrest.

Only later, and then only because Kate told them to look for it, did Crime Scene find the blood among the leather folds.