Binchy said, "Anything with an M for starts, and if that doesn't produce, I'll just check every single name for felony records. Like you always say, tortoise beats hare."
Milo said, "Tortoise sometimes gets squashed in the middle of the highway by an eighteen-wheeler, but sure, keep the faith, kid."
He phoned me at eight the following morning. "Sister Ricki's due in my office in an hour."
"I'll be there."
"Thought you might also want to know that Doreen Fredd is, indeed, a real person. I searched genealogy sites last night, found a distant cousin living in Nebraska, e-mailed the photo. Family hasn't seen Doreen for years but verified that she got sent to Seattle when she was a teenager. Naughty girl, ended up in a group home."
"The family originally hailed from Tacoma, where Doreen's daddy worked at a gas station and mommy clerked at a food store. Nice people, according to the cousin, but major alkies, no 'parental supervision.' Doreen started running away at an early age. Finally, the court declared her incorrigible. The home worked out for a while, but Doreen split from there, too. She stepped off the map, no one's heard from her in all this time, she was an only child and both parents are dead."
"Is the group home still in business?"
"It is but there's been half a dozen changes of ownership, no staff remains from when Doreen was there, all the old records have been destroyed. Her hooking up with Des Backer makes sense, though: I back-traced his parents' residence. South Seattle, only a few blocks from the home. Cute girl, cute guy, chemistry, kaboom."
"Chemistry reignited years later," I said. "The wrong kind of explosion."
I showed up for the meet with Ricki Flatt on time, found her talking to Milo.
Des Backer's sister was faded by grief and fatigue. Long curly hair was tied back carelessly. She wore a baggy gray sweater unsuitable for the weather, mommy jeans, white tennis shoes. A huge canvas purse the color of smog lowered her right shoulder. An overnight bag of matching hue sat on the floor.
Milo lifted the suitcase and escorted her to the same room we'd used to powwow with Moe Reed. He offered her coffee, something to eat.
She touched her belly. "I couldn't hold anything down. Please tell me what happened to my brother."
"Mr. Backer and Doreen Fredd were found murdered in an unfinished house in a neighborhood called Holmby Hills. Ever hear of it?"
"Your brother never mentioned Holmby Hills?"
"Never. Where is it?"
"It's an extremely high-end area, just west of Beverly Hills. There's an indication your brother and Ms. Fredd had been to that location before."
"An unfinished house?"
"A construction project."
"Something Desi was working on?"
Instead of answering, Milo said, "So your brother and Ms. Fredd hung out in high school?"
Nod. "And during the plane ride, I remembered something else. One time, when she was at our house, my dad made a comment to Mom about her being troubled, it was good she was aiming for wholesome activities. You didn't say if the project was one of Desi's."
"It doesn't appear that way, ma'am. This was what you'd call a super-mansion."
"Then for sure it wouldn't be Desi's."
"Not into that kind of thing."
"He would've considered it grotesque. But if he wasn't working on it, why would he be there?"
"That's what we're trying to figure out, Ms. Flatt. This hiking group Desi and Doreen had, how many people are we talking about?"
"Just a few other kids, I really wasn't paying attention."
"And to your knowledge Desi and Doreen weren't romantically involved."
"I thought about that," said Ricki Flatt. "Maybe, I really can't say. Desi had so many girls who liked him. They were always calling him. Dad used to joke he needed a personal secretary."
"Do you have any knowledge of his other recent girlfriends?"
Head shake. "Sorry, I wasn't involved in my brother's personal life back then and that didn't change after we grew up."
"Did you know that Doreen lived in a group home not far from your house?"
"No, but you must mean Hope Lodge. That place was the talk of the neighborhood. My friends joked about it, called it 'Ho Lodge' because the girls were wild. I'm not saying they were, but you know how kids talk. That's probably why my dad said she had problems."
"Was he worried about her being a bad influence on Desi?"
Ricki Flatt smiled. "My parents made a big thing about Desi and me developing our own sense of right and wrong. But even if they had tried to rein Desi in, it wouldn't have worked. My brother did exactly as he pleased."
Milo said, "Did Desi's strong will lead to any-I have to ask this-iffy behavior?"
"What do you mean?"
"Anything out of the ordinary."
"If you consider leaving home after high school and hitting the road for ten years out of the ordinary, sure."
"Ten years," said Milo.
"Ten lost years," said Ricki Flatt. "Basically Desi disappeared. Once in a while we'd get postcards."
"All over the country. National parks, that kind of thing."
"What did Desi do to support himself?"
"He said odd jobs, temporary stuff that gave him time to explore nature, figure life out."
"Postcards," said Milo. "No visits back home?"
"Once, twice a year he'd pop up-Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays. He looked great, really happy and that rea.s.sured my parents. He was reviving the whole sixties thing-long hair, beard, hemp sandals. But always clean and well groomed, Dad said he looked like Hollywood's idea of Jesus."
"You mentioned handling your parents' affairs, so I a.s.sume-"
"Gone, Lieutenant. Four years ago. They were vacationing near Mount Olympia, decided to explore and drove onto a dirt access road that pa.s.sed through a heavy logging area. A load of huge pines came loose from a truck bed and crushed their car. We wanted to sue-Scott and I and Des-but the lawyers said our case was weak because the road was chained and warning signs were all around, Dad had lifted it and driven through, anyway. In the end we settled for a hundred thousand. The lawyers took forty percent and we split sixty with Des. He'd cleaned up his act and started architecture school, said it would help with tuition and living expenses. What made it horribly ironic is we're from an old logging family, four generations. My grandfather was a master sawyer and Dad did some logging before he became a firefighter."
"I'm sorry, ma'am."
"It happened before Sam was born, that's what hurts the most. Mom and Dad would've loved Sam." Tears. "She adored Desi and now he's gone."
"How did Desi react to losing your parents?"
"Terribly," said Ricki Flatt. "He got this empty look in his eyes, walked around for weeks as if he was in a trance. The walking wounded, Scott called it. I've never seen my brother like that, generally he's open and mellow and accessible."
"He drew into himself."
"I remember thinking this isn't healthy, he needs to deal with it, do some serious grieving or he's going to break down. I was sure he'd drop out of school but he didn't, he stuck with it and graduated with honors."
Milo tapped his pen on a corner. "Ms. Flatt, that remark you made yesterday on the phone, about it being political. We're still curious about that."
Ricki Flatt's eyes jumped all over the place. "Forget that, that was silly. I shouldn't have said anything."
"But you did, ma'am."
She untied her hair, shook it loose, fastened it tighter.
"Ricki, we have no interest except solving your brother's murder."
Thumping both elbows on the table, she pressed her palms to her cheeks. Her fingertips trailed above her ears, as if blocking out noise. See no, hear no.
Milo said, "The only thing we've heard remotely political about your brother is he was into green architecture, the whole environment thing."
Ricki Flatt's left cheek twitched.
Milo edged closer. "Did he get radical with that? Spend those ten years doing things that might be considered illegal?"
"I don't know how he spent them."
"But you're worried."
"Desi... used to talk."
"Burning down the house," she said. "That was the name of a song he liked. When he visited, he'd sometimes go off on speeches. About the beauty of untouched wilderness. About greedy people who raped the land and built monuments to their ego. What they needed, he said, was a good lesson."
"Monuments," said Milo. "Like the one he died in. And now you're worried he put himself in a bad position."
Ricki Flatt looked up. "Oh, G.o.d, I should've known something bad was going to happen when he gave me the money. Desi's never been able to hold on to money, he's never cared about money."
No need for Milo to press. He gave her a tissue, waited until she'd patted her eyes dry.
"All right," she said. "This is what happened: Des showed up six months ago with fifty thousand dollars in cash. Two big suitcases full. He asked me to hold it for him. I gave him a spare key to the unit."
"We're talking last January," said Milo.
"New Year's weekend, Scott and I were about to leave for a trip to New Mexico and Des showed up, no advance notice."
"Did he say where he got the money?"
"I know, I should've asked. Scott was furious with me, said it had to be drug money or something else illegal and I'd gotten us in way over our heads. I said that made no sense, Desi had never used dope or alcohol, took care of his body. Scott told me I was being nave, Desi had been on the road for years, we had no clue about what he'd done. We got into a big fight, Scott demanded I call Desi back, insist he take the suitcases." Shrill laughter. "It was pretty darn dramatic. Of course, I finally agreed."
"So you called your brother."
Ricki Flatt hung her head. "I lied to Scott-only time I've ever done that. Why? For the life of me, I wish I could tell you. I just couldn't bring myself to confront Desi. There's something about my brother that makes you want to say yes to him. He's so sweet and direct-in high school, he was voted most popular. It wasn't just girls who loved him, everyone did."
I said, "Charisma."
"Yes, but for me, it was more than that. With Mom and Dad gone, there was no one else. I guess I kept hoping we'd reconnect, be some kind of family. Sam seemed to be a vehicle for that." Burying her face in her hands, she mumbled.
Milo said, "You still have the money. You're worried it's political."
Ricki Flatt looked up. "When Desi brought it to me, he seemed nervous, made me promise not to ask questions. I keep thinking it was payment for something wrong."
"Burning down the house."
"Maybe not literally," she said. "But something ... why else would he hide the money? I promise to send it back to you as soon as I get back home but please don't tell Scott I kept it."
"Where is it?"
"Our storage unit. Scott and I rented one after Mom and Dad pa.s.sed. For their stuff, I couldn't bear to get rid of anything. I tucked the suitcases in back, behind Mom's piano. Scott never goes in there."
"So Desi had a key to the unit?"
"I gave him one. They were his parents, too."
"When's the last time you actually saw the money?"
"The last time," she said, "had to be... a couple of weeks after I stored it, so five months ago, give or take. I went in there and counted it. I'd never counted it initially. Why? Once again, I don't know."
"In fifty-dollar bills, bound neatly. Do you really think it has something do with what happened to Desi?"
"Money's the most common motive we see, Ricki."
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