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Smoking Guns, Hot Pussy 

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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Illustration by Dave Shulman

LOCKWOOD SAID, "TELL ME ABOUT THE GUN."

"Why? She was killed with a knife."

"Your knife."

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We were sitting in a back booth at the House of Pies on Vermont. I'd ordered breakfast to prove I wasn't cowed. Lockwood ordered coffee and asked the waiter not to bother us.

He said, "Tell me about the gun."

"It's part of a set that my grandfather bought to protect himself from Bonnie and Clyde. According to family legend he drove the oil fields of east Texas with one gun strapped to the steering wheel and the other one on the seat beside him. They're both hair-trigger — he had them customized."

"Why does a movie critic need a customized Colt .41?"

I shrugged. "My father gave it to me."

"Why?"

"He thinks L.A. is a dangerous place, and he knows I wouldn't buy a gun myself."

"It's too much weapon for a smaller woman."

"I agree, and besides I don't like handguns — I'm better with shotguns and rifles."

Lockwood stirred his coffee, obviously waiting for an explanation. I said, "I was raised in western Canada. I fired my first .22 when I was 10."

"How did your people end up in Canada?"

"They're in the oil business."

"And now you write about movies in Los Angeles."

I felt myself smile. "Have gun, will travel."

The joke fell flat. I flushed red as Lockwood just looked at me. The official mask was working on my nerves. I said, for something to say, "It took a while to get used to the Colt."

"Do you mean you target practice?"

I showed him the calluses on the webbing of my thumbs. I always practiced with both hands, like Father taught me.

Lockwood said, "Why wouldn't you purchase your own firearm?"

"Because I don't like them. I've seen what they do."

Lockwood picked up on the phrasing. He said, "'Seen'?"

With my own two eyes, I thought. I didn't ever talk about the family tragedy, but if he really suspected me, he'd check my background and get the story anyway.

I cleared my throat. "Thirteen years ago my mother shot herself in front of all of us. My father was throwing my sister around, and Mother took one of the Colts and threatened to kill herself if he didn't stop. I arrived in time to see the gun go off."

Lockwood sipped his coffee. "What did they rule it?"

"Accidental death."

"Is that accurate?"

"As accurate as any single label could be. I personally think it was murder, suicide, and an accident combined."

"And the Colt we found — "

" — is the Colt that killed her."

"And you practice with it."

"Because it's tricky and I don't want to be afraid of it. Mother hated guns. She refused to come shooting or listen to Father's lectures. If she'd listened, she wouldn't have been so cavalier about a loaded gun with a hair trigger — "

I realized I was babbling. I broke off, and Lockwood let the sentence hang. He said, "You mentioned two guns. Where's the other one?"

"My sister has it."

He got out his notebook and pen. "I'd like to speak to your family."

I gave him my sister's phone number in Venice, and told him that Father was staying at the Biltmore downtown. He asked when Father had arrived in L.A. I told him, yesterday morning. Lockwood wrote notes and drew linking arrows in the margin.

What had Vivian said at the party? Lockwood was a mystery; he'd hardly talked to the media, and it'd be a coup to get him on record.

That's what I remembered from the Burger King siege: his stone-faced silence. A Latin gangbanger took some people hostage, and Lockwood, who was inside the restaurant at the time, shot and killed the kid. It was one of many second-tier police scandals. He hadn't talked at the press conferences I saw, and he'd looked to me like the intellectual version of an unrepentant thug. I wanted to believe it, but seeing him in person, I couldn't tell if that were true. He was smart — but there was no clue about the personality or character behind the brains. He held himself straight, the lines of his face were austere, and he had a stern, self-contained manner.

Lockwood dropped his pen and leaned forward. "How did the victim know the pool house would be empty?"

"I don't know."

"How did she know what you looked like?"

"I don't know."

"Why didn't you ask her to leave the rear office?"

"Because I'm not Barry's bouncer at these parties. I just look after the house, and she wasn't hurting anything."

"What were you doing in the back hall at that point of the party?"

"I told you before."

"Tell me again."

"I was going to bed because I was tired, and I wanted to avoid more conversation with Barry and his movie boys."

Lockwood repeated, "'Movie boys.'" It was the same thing he'd done with "She was very beautiful."

I said, "Critics shouldn't hang around with Industry people. It messes with your objectivity — "

Lockwood wasn't listening; he was off on a different track. "What kinds of parties are held at the house?"

"What do you mean?"

"Who rents the house? For what occasions?"

I gave him a rundown of the activity in the past six months. The people and occasions were so different that there was no short answer.

He said, "Are there ever all-women parties?"

"All women?"

I saw right then where he was leading. I said, "You think I'm a dyke, don't you? You think this is some kind of lesbian love-nest killing?"

Lockwood gave me his standard look.

I said, "I'm heterosexual, a fact you can easily check. Just because I called her 'beautiful' doesn't mean I desired her."

"There are other indications."

"Did 'movie boys' sound anti-male?"

"The victim wore no makeup, brassiere or jewelry, and neither do you. Her way of dressing was masculine, like yours. And she owned a man's watch."

I laughed, and for one second didn't feel tense. "Detective, you have quaint notions about the modern woman."

Lockwood closed his notebook. "You made Xerox copies of Miss Stenholm's personal papers, didn't you?"

The question caught me off guard. I hesitated — and knew instantly I'd lost. So I said, "Yes."

"Where are they?"

I was silent.

He said, "Where are they?"

"At the house."

"Where at the house?"

He'd take everything if I didn't make a last stand. I swallowed and said, "You'll have to find them yourself."

 

Excerpted from The Ticket Out, published this month by Harcourt. Helen Knode will be reading and signing books on Monday, January 27, at 7 p.m., at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood; Tuesday, January 28, at 7 p.m., at Vroman's in Pasadena; and on Wednesday, January 29, at Mysteries To Die For in Thousand Oaks at 1 p.m., and at Barnes & Noble (with James Ellroy) in Westwood at 7:30 p.m.

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