[If you have not already done so, you must
read the Introduction
Prologue 001-002 Chap 1 003-005 Chap 2 006 Chap 3 007-008
Chap 4 009-010 Chap 5 011-013 Chap 6 014-017 Chap 7 018-019
Chap 8 020-023 Chap 9 024-027 Chap 10 028-031 Chap 11 032-041
Chap 12 042-048 Chap 13 049-055 Chap 14 056-063 Chap 15 064-074
Chap 16 075-084 Chap 17 85-95 Chap 18 96-110 Chap 19 111-123
Chap 20 124-131 Chap 21 132-133 Chap 22 Chap 23
Revenge Should Have No Bounds
Chapter 24: Asking
I spent the weekend rereading the interview with the Caos and took copious notes. I wanted to be prepared to ask intelligent questions if – when – I could get a chance to talk to the detectives. Monday morning I showered and put myself together in some comfortable J. Crew grey trousers that rode low on the hips, a loose-fitting blouse in white, and a Donegal cap. I wanted to walk, so I put on some rubber-soled clogs I bought at a Swedish outlet. The weather was, as had been forecast, quite nice for August: warm but not hot, and the humidity was not unpleasant.
The handbag slung over my shoulder bounced as I started downtown briskly. I stopped off at a favorite breakfast place and had café-au-lait with two butter croissants. Skimming the paper I could see nothing about myself or the trial, and that cheered me up.
It was a good twenty-minute walk down to the city hall complex, and I remembered only too well how to make my way to the police station. At the desk I asked a bored officer if I could see Detective Light. After we tap-danced around each other about appointments and the nature of my business, he finally told me to take the elevator up to the third floor and check the name-board for her office. A secretary up there could help me out, he said, and went back to the sports section.
My tax dollars real hard at work.
But I thanked him and rode up to the third floor.
I found Light’s office and entered. A pert secretary whose nameplate said ‘Tanya’ looked up at me from her computer screen and smiled. How nice.
“Hi, there,” I said, “I’m wondering if there’s any chance I could speak with Detective Light?”
Her eyes expanded a little and I caught the glint of recognition in them. “You’re … your’re that woman in the murder trial, aren’t you?” she asked carefully, perhaps wondering if I would try to do her in next.
“Yes, that’s correct,” I affirmed.
“O.K. Normally she’s pretty busy, but I think she’ll make an exception for you.”
I didn’t know if that was good or bad, but at least I wasn’t getting the run-around. Tanya disappeared into an inner office, and shortly returned behind a shorter woman in her fifties, sort of chunky, but with an intelligent and open face.
“Ms. Cape,” she said, extending her hand. “I’m Phoebe Light. Can I help you?”
“Well, I was just wondering if I could impose on you for a little while. There are some questions I’d like to ask you, if you have the time.”
Phoebe shot Tanya a look and said, “Hold my calls for the next half hour. And see if you can round up some coffee for us. How do you take it, Ms. Cape.”
“Just a little cream, please.”
The detective nodded to Tanya and, her arm pointing towards her office, said, “Why don’t we go in here.”
The office was cluttered, but it was what I think of as orderly clutter. A person who inhabited the space would be able to find her way around. She indicated a chair for me to sit in and parked herself behind the desk mounded with piles of papers and reports flanking a computer. No sooner had we settled in than Tanya came in with a tray and some refreshments. In addition to coffee there were donuts and bearclaws, and though I wasn’t hungry, it seemed like a sound idea to counter this unneeded display of hospitality with a corresponding graciousness. We busied ourselves with food and drink.
“Now, what is it that you are looking for, Ms. Cape?”
“First, let me thank you for seeing me on such short notice. For seeing me at all, as a matter of fact.”
“And why shouldn’t I?”
“Well, you did put me on trial for the murder of a woman who was your case. And I was acquitted.”
The detective tapped the eraser-tipped end of an unsharpened yellow pencil on the top of the desk as she looked off into the ceiling and seemed to give my comments a lot of thought. Finally she put the pencil down, faced me squarely, and said, not unkindly, “You have a flawed view of how the system works, Ms. Cape. First of all it is not the police who put people on trial. That is the function of the district attorney’s office. The police merely conduct investigations into accidents and deaths and things of that nature, and it is then up to the D.A. to decide how to proceed: prosecute or not prosecute.
“Second,” she continued, “the police serve the public, and you are part of that public. The system found you not guilty, and there is no reason I should bear you animus on that score. My personal opinion – which, I might add, was never solicited by the D.A., or anybody else, either, for that matter – is that in this case the system probably worked.”
“In this case? Probably?”
“The system is not perfect, Ms. Cape, and mistakes are made. I have no problem acknowledging this. And you are the only one who truly knows if justice was done here.”
“That’s kind of refreshing,” I said, but I’m not sure Light took it in the positive way I meant it.
“Be that as it may,” she said, somewhat abruptly, “I assume you have an agenda here, and that’s why you decided to pay a visit to my office.”
“Now that I’ve been proved innocent in a court of law, what are the police doing about finding the real killer?” I asked.
Again she stared at the ceiling and the pencil started going boppety-bop on her desk.
“For the record, Ms, Cape,” she finally said, “you were proved not guilty. That is not the same as being proved innocent. I’m sure you see the distinction. But as I said, only you know the truth in this matter. I am inclined to believe you did not commit this murder, and I felt the D.A. had a weak case to begin with. But …”
She let the thought dribble out in the sand as it were.
“For what it’s worth, you are correct. I did not commit this murder.”
She looked at me calmly, assessing me, taking my measure, reaching some kind of conclusion.
“Do you recall the O.J. trial and it aftermath?”
“Who in America doesn’t?”
“Then you remember what the D.A., Garcetti, said after the verdict came in that so outraged O.J.?”
“No, not specifically.”
“He said the Los Angeles police department would not, I repeat, not continue searching for the murderer of Nicole and Ron. Now, on my personal understanding, the reason he said this was because he was confident the police had already found the murderer but that murderer had gotten of with a not-guilty verdict. So whom should they be looking for?”
I thought about that for a minute. “So you’re saying the police are not going to be looking for the murderer of Trinh Cao?”
“That’s what the D.A. has stated. And, yes, therefore the police are not looking for her murderer. As far as the D.A.’s office is officially concerned, the perpetrator has already been found, and that was you.”
“Do you believe this is right?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” she said. Echoes of Natalie Siu? I detected a wistful note in her declaration. “The whole thing has been put on ice, and the only way it will thaw is if in the future we do something like set up a task force to review inactive files. As you probably know, murder has no statute of limitations, and sometimes this kind of thing does happen. When there is money available. But for now,” she shrugged her shoulders, “no, the police are not actively investigating the murder of Trinh Cao.”
I knew I was being naïve, but I said it anyway. “That just doesn’t seem right.”
Detective Light gave me a tired smile. “No, I agree with you, it doesn’t. But that’s the way it is. Not enough money and not enough manpower to bring about perfect justice in this imperfect world.” I’m not sure I had expected a police detective to be so philosophical, if that was the correct word. “There are close to 200 murders a year in this city. That’s more than one every other day. I wish I could say we solved them all, but we don’t. Not by a long shot. It makes me sad, angry even, to have to admit that, but this is a matter of public record. Overall our clearance rate on murder is about 70%. Not real good, I admit, but it’s not so bad compared to some jurisdictions in this country where less than 8% of murders are actually cleared. Pretty frightening, isn’t it?”
It was. “Yes, that’s quite sobering,” I admitted.
“But I’m sure you didn’t come here to listen to me lecture. What’s on your mind, Ms. Cape?”
I plunged in and told her my own thinking on all of this. I made no secret of the nature of my involvement with Yukiko. And Trinh, too. I explained how I had interviewed the doorman at the Momiji and how that had led me to Ojiro Mizushima and how his comments had made me start to think I was mistaken in my original assumptions about Yukiko and now thought maybe the Caos might have had something to do with their daughter’s murder. I laid out for her my thinking on the matter of guilt and shame, and how the latter might have played a contributing rôle in the death of Trinh Cao.
The detective looked at me impassively, giving nothing away by either body gesture or facial mien. “You’ve been busy,” was all she said. And rather neutrally at that.
“Well, I know I didn’t kill Trinh. But as I’ve told you, I knew her and I liked her, and I’m very angry at having been framed.”
“Statistically, about 16% of people murdered are killed by some family member.” When she saw the excitement on my face, she held up a hand in front of her as if to stop me right there. “That’s less than one in five, which doesn’t make your suspicion a strong one, statistically speaking.”
“But it’s possible, isn’t it? 16% is not negligible.”
She nodded in agreement. “All right, let’s assume for the time being that you did not kill this woman. That the parents were involved. Are you sure the same person who killed her also set you up?”
That brought me up short. It had never occurred to me to separate the two acts.
“No, I guess I’m not, now that you mention it.”
“Supposing the parents are involved, why would they want to pin it on you? Aside from deflecting attention from themselves?”
“An ethnic thing?”
“That’s just a wild guess on your part. I wouldn’t even go there. You need something a lot more substantial than that to interest either the police or the D.A. Believe me.”
I knew she was right.
“Which parent did it?”
“I’m not sure.” I sounded less sure even to myself.
“Let me tell you how it will play out, then. If – and this is a huge if, maybe even an impossible if – but if you can come up with hard evidence and get the D.A. to file charges, will it be against the father or the mother? Suppose it’s the father. Even a mediocre defense lawyer will then put the mother on the stand. If she’s a defense witness, she’ll swear her husband couldn’t have done it because she did it. And if she’s a prosecution witness, she’ll swear her husband did it without her knowledge. Then the defense will put the husband on the stand and he’ll swear she did it. And if the D.A. charges the mother? In fact, all else being equal, this would be the more likely scenario, since in cases where a child is killed by a parent, 55% of the time the mother is the perpetrator. These are U.S. Justice Department stats, by the way. In any event, then the same thing will happen with the father: if he’s with the defense, he’ll say he did it, and if he’s with the prosecution he’ll say she did it and then she’ll say he did it. And in either case, as I’m sure you can appreciate, this is about as perfect a case of reasonable doubt as you could ever hope for.
“And forget about prosecuting both of them for the murder. The same problem!
“Now, the D.A. knows all of this full well. And that’s why he’s not going to prosecute either parent unless he has something like a confession from one of them, given after twenty Miranda warnings and with twenty of their lawyers in attendance at the time of the admission. And, again, you can surely appreciate that this is not likely to happen in this century.
“Does that give you some realistic sense of what you are up against here?”
She had been speaking slowly and carefully, almost droning, but what she said entailed a horrible kind of logic. I did see her point, and I felt numb.
Still, I made a weak feint. “But Natalie Siu told me no defense lawyer would ever put a client on the stand since he’d be subject to cross examination.”
“No, I think what your lawyer, Ms. Siu, told you was that she would never put you on the stand for that very reason. But what do the Caos have to lose except the freedom of one or both of them? And, to be frank, they don’t have your professional background to be crossed on and use to prejudice the jury against you.”
Of course, she was absolutely right, but I soldiered on. “My lawyer secured a copy for me of the police report and all the other material related to the trial. I notice that you and another detective, Ulla Sundelius, had conducted a rather extensive interview with the Caos.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Is it possible for me to talk to the other detective, too?”
“You can, but you’ll have to go to Stockholm to see her,” Light explained
“Yes, she was on an exchange program that we had with the Swedish police, but she left in July. I think I can probably answer all your question in this matter. She was a very competent detective, and we worked pretty closely on this case.”
“I see,” I said.
“What specifically did you want to ask about in that regard.”
“Well, I noticed that in the conclusion of your report you had pretty much dismissed the idea that the parents could have been involved in their daughter’s murder. I wondered about that earlier, and I wonder even more now, after you’ve given me the statistics on family and murder. It seems that at least the possibility might have been entertained and further investigation undertaken.”
The detective looked at her long and hard. “Yes, that’s always possible. In an ideal world. I admit I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the amount and quality of the investigation in this whole case. But the D.A. got it into his head that he absolutely had the murderer when they arrested you, and at that point it would have been superfluous both in time and expense to deploy more police effort in the pursuit of other suspects – unless the D.A. had requested it. But he didn’t.”
There was something else she wanted to say, but she held back. I decided to see if I could prompt a little.
“But there is more, isn’t there?”
Detective Light rocked her head up and down slowly. And began playing with her unsharpened pencil again.
“There is,” she said. “I probably acquiesced too quickly in the D.A.’s insistence that we had the perpetrator. Perhaps I should have been more forceful. It has bothered me.”
I admired her candor but the implications angered me.
“And if I had been convicted, would it still have bothered you? Bothered you enough to seek out the truth in the matter?”
She shrugged. “I just don’t know,” she said simply. She tapped a pile of folders on her desk. “I’ve got about fifty or sixty unsolved murders right here, and that’s just from the past year or so. Then there are rapes, robberies, muggings, missing children. Well, I’m sure you get the point. Unfortunately, the department has finite resources to spread around and I sometimes have to make decisions about using Homicide’s share that are dictated more by the funds available to this department to do its job than by any idealized demands of justice.” She held up her hand as if to block further protest from me. “I know that sounds harsh. It is harsh. I don’t like it, but it is part of a reality I have to live with.”
As I said, I admired her candor. There was no profit in it for me to mine this vein, and, bottom-lining the situation, I did not believe this woman was incompetent or corrupt or uncaring. She was trying to do a difficult and, I’m sure, often disheartening job under less than ideal circumstances. It made me shudder once more to think that some people might end up in prison because society couldn’t afford justice, only the wealthy could.
“Do you mind if I get personal a moment?” I asked.
She glanced up at me from concentrating on the pencil. “How personal?” she asked.
“I don’t mean to be insensitive, or pry, but Natalie Siu told me about your own daughter, Detective.”
The nervous pencil stopped bouncing up and down and there was a still silence in the room.
She spoke very quietly. “That is pretty personal, isn’t it?” She did not appear angry, just sad. But she had it under control. “You’re suggesting that my own experience influenced my judgment in dealing with the Caos? Something like that?”
“Something like that,” I said. “I could understand it.”
“If you consider those stats I told you about earlier, you’ll realize that a very small proportion of the murders this department investigates involve the possibility of a parent, mother or father, murdering a daughter. There have been a few cases with families that have recently immigrated from the Middle East, but not many. So-called honor killings. And then there are those equally incomprehensible cases where the mother drowned her kids. It does happen, but it’s rare.
“We are speaking off the record here, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I’m not taping you.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Light’s mouth. “In that case, let me say I suppose it’s possible that I may have let my professional judgment be affected by a personal loss. How could a parent murder a healthy and vibrant child? Of all the murders we see, this is the one that truly baffles me. I don’t condone it, but I can understand a spouse killing a spouse who is sick beyond human help and in agonizing pain. At some level I can even understand killing for money or revenge. Or lovers murdering out of some twisted sexual passion. But a parent killing a child? It is beyond me, even though I know it happens. Perhaps, since this was a daughter, a daughter who was just a few years older than my Melinda would have been … well, as I say perhaps I let my personal emotions seep too much into my work.” As if suddenly realizing she shouldn’t be talking this way to me, even off the record, she sat up and swiftly edited herself, “But this is all idle speculation. It means nothing. Spilt milk, so to speak.”
She was a tough lady, and my regard for her rose even higher for not giving me the run-around she would have been perfectly justified in doing under the circumstances.
“When you think back over the interview you and your colleague had with the Caos, was there anything, anything at all they said that you could take as an indication they had a hand in their daughter’s murder.”
The detective appeared to take this as a serious question and rolled it around in her head. After a minute or so she got up from her chair and walked over to a row of filing cabinets ranged along one wall and pulled out a drawer in one of them. She was a meticulously organized person, as evidenced by her going immediately to the folder she wanted in that drawer. She yanked it out and sat back down at the desk, starting to leaf through the materials in the folder. “These are my original interview notes, and I’m just refreshing my memory on a couple of things.”
I felt encouraged by this concession on her part.
“Well,” she said slowly, turning a page the size of the kind of notebook you might carry in a pocket or purse, “it’s normal when you first tell somebody close to a murder victim that they cry, kind of break down. Now, the normal interpretation of this kind of behavior is that they are just expressing grief at the finality of the news. But it is also possible that they are expressing guilt over the killing that has now come to police attention, or maybe it’s regret. In other words, are the tears tears of sadness at loss, tears of complicitous guilt over murder, tears of anger at having been caught out, or what? As a detective you have an open mind, but your natural and professional inclination is to believe that the parents are simply grief-stricken, and in the vast majority of the cases – over 80% according to the DOJ stats – that is the correct construction to put on their tears.”
That made sense to me and I told her so.
She had continued to study her notes.
“When we got to the house, the first thing Mr. Cao said after we had identified ourselves as detectives was that they had been expecting us. Now, you can take that in at least two ways, if you so choose. They’ve been expecting us because they are worried that something awful has happened to their missing daughter. Or they are expecting us because they already know she’s been murdered, know it because they were involved. I should add neither one of them cried. They certainly looked grief-stricken, but there were no tears. I don’t know, that might be a cultural thing. Maybe part of that shame-business you were talking about earlier. But at the time I didn’t take it as an sign of guilt at all.
“Mr. Cao was interested in what we knew about his daughter’s death. This, too, is subject to at least two interpretations. One, he was genuinely interested in knowing what had happened; and, two, he wanted to know what the police knew – how close was he to becoming a suspect.
“Then Trinh’s involvement with Fabian Darling came out. And they were not happy about this. Not at all. Especially the mother, Mrs. Cao, was unhappy with that relationship. She felt it was a very bad thing. Apparently the daughter had spoken to her mother about this on several occasions, and the feeling I got was that she, and her husband, had tried more than once to break up the connection: he was too old, he was divorced, he was a policeman, he was American. The mother had several reasons to be unhappy, no question about that. But enough to kill?” She wagged her had back and forth. “I doubt it seriously.”
At this point I interrupted. “Do you think the mother could have known about the sexual … the lesbian overture Yukiko had made to Trinh that Friday night she and I went up to Yukiko’s room at the Momiji? And that it could have helped push the mother over the edge, even if the daughter declined the invitation, as she definitely did? I mean, I was there.”
My question clearly perplexed her.
“I don’t see how that’s possible, do you?”
“Well, the last time the parents saw her that Friday was around … three in the afternoon.” Here she was checking her notes. “Yes, here it is. Friday afternoon around three. And from what you told me, you and Trinh went to visit with Yukiko later that day. No way Trinh could have gotten back to her mother …”
And then she saw the problem before I could point it out to her.
“But,” she said, sitting up straight and now suddenly interested, “you told me Yukiko’s brother had informed you he took the two women back to the Cao home much later that evening, after ten, I believe you said, and even saw the father open the door when Yukiko walked Trinh up to the house.”
“Yes, precisely,” I said eagerly.
“So,” Light said, incredulous and maybe even a little shocked, “he was lying to us. He did see his daughter later that evening. Friday afternoon around three was not the last time he saw her.” She slammed her fist down on the desk and some pencils danced a rattling jig.
I was excited now. Finally I was getting somewhere. “So now you can reopen the investigation and put the real murderer or murderers on trial, right?”
Light looked at me as if I were daft.
“I don’t think so.” She shook her head in dismay.
“What do you mean you don’t think so?” I was dumbfounded.
“The D.A. will never authorize further investigation in this matter.”
“But why not?”
“It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?”
“You mean he’ll look bad?”
“To say the least.”
“O.K., suppose the investigation goes forward and enough evidence is secured to warrant an arrest and indictment. And a trial. What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. They’ll be convicted, I hope.”
“No, that’s not going to happen, and the D.A. knows it. He doesn’t want this case anywhere near him.”
“I don’t understand this. It’s crazy,” I almost yelled.
“The first thing the defense lawyer is going to do is beat the D.A. over the head with his rock-solid confidence that you were the murderer. And now he’s putting another person on trial and once more he’s rock-solid confident that he’s got the right person. Does that promote reasonable doubt or what? The defense lawyer will make a laughing stock of the D.A., and, believe me, that is not something he’s going to set himself up for. Not in our lifetime!” She was disgusted. “That’s the problem with jumping to trial before you get all your ducks lined up in a row. If you lose, you’ve pretty much shot your wad. Barring, again, a full confession. And we can forget about that. Agreed?”
“That’s absolutely outrageous,” I said. And it was.
“I can’t disagree. But there you are.” She threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes.
“So they’re going to walk?”
“Hey, now, let’s not jump to our own hasty conclusions here? You don’t know that the parents did it. All you know for sure is that they did lie to the police about a time. They could just say they forgot. They were under stress. It was a difficult time for them. Their English is not that good and they misunderstood my question. Blah blah blah. Any defense attorney would say as much. Frankly, you’ve got nothing to go to court with.”
I could see she was right. But I wasn’t going to just forget about it. I planned to give this whole thing a lot more consideration when I had time to deal with. For now, I had gotten what I’d come for and, having struck oil, it was time to stop drilling and begin channeling the output.
“I am deeply indebted to you for your time, and for your … openness. It helps me to hear your side.” I stood up, ready to leave.
She came around from behind the desk and shook my hand, firmly, with a solid grip and genuine warmth in her eyes. “What are you going to do now?” she asked.
“I honestly don’t know.” And I didn’t. But I was not about to drop the matter.
“But nothing foolish, I hope,” she admonished.
“No, no, nothing like that. I value my freedom too much.”
“Good,” she said, and let go of my hand. “That’s good.” We walked out into the secretary’s office. “If need be, don’t hesitate to come back for a chat. I may do a little checking of one or two things on my own. Who knows?” she said.
We parted company and, as often, when by myself, I let my mind drift.
For a long time now the notion had been nudging me that we were both trying somehow to confront a mythic paradigm of great antiquity. Detective Light was perhaps not always so much a homicide investigator as she was an aging suburban Demeter on an endless search of the city for her dead Persephone. Similarly, could Trinh have been murdered by her father, playing Iphigeneia to his Agamemon? could the mother have played an Eastern Medea?
The archetypal patterns are deeply embedded in our history as humans. They know neither geographic nor temporal boundaries.
TO BE CONTINUED