Over his years with the LAPD, Peter Decker has handled a number of tough cases and strange killers. Few of his previous assignments compare to his latest case—the most bizarre of his storied career.
When Hobart Penny is found dead in his apartment, the cops think that his pet cat—an adult female tiger—attacked the reclusive elderly billionaire. But it soon becomes clear that the beast that killed the eccentric inventor is all too human. Digging into the victim’s life, Decker and his colleagues, Detectives Marge Dunn and Scott Oliver, discover that Penny was an exceptionally peculiar man with exotic tastes, including kinky sex with call girls.
Following a trail of clues that leads from a wildlife sanctuary in the San Bernardino Mountains to the wild nightlife of Las Vegas, the LAPD detectives are left juggling too many suspects and too few answers. To break open a case involving the two most primal instincts—sex and murder—Decker wrestles with a difficult choice: turning to a man with expert knowledge of both—Chris Donatti, the dangerous man who also happens to be the father of Decker’s foster son Gabriel Whitman, a boy not without his own problems.
As their work and intimate worlds collide, Decker and his wife, Rina, find themselves facing tough questions. It just might be that family crises and work-related responsibilities prove too much for Decker’s career. A confluence of ordeals can stress even the most intact of families. And when all these shocking truths comes out, exactly how well will Decker and Rina cope as well as survive?
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It was the stuff of nightmares, starting with the slow walk down the courtroom aisle: as if his stall tactics had the power to stop the inevitable. Seven hours of testimony, but it wasn’t the length of time that was horrific. When practicing the piano, Gabe had done marathon sessions twice as long as that. But he had always used his music to zone out, and that was impossible to do when being grilled on the witness stand. It had required concentrating on things he was trying so hard to forget: how that day had started out so normal and within minutes had turned into something almost deadly. By four in the afternoon, the trial had finally recessed and the prosecution was essentially done, although Gabe knew the lawyers would have more questions on redirect. He walked out of the courtroom with his foster mother, Rina Decker, on one side and his foster dad, the lieutenant, on the other. They guided him into a waiting car. Sergeant Marge Dunn was behind the wheel. She maneuvered the silent group through the streets of the San Fernando Valley—a suburb of L.A.—until they reached the driveway of the Decker house. Once inside, Gabe collapsed on the living room couch, took off his glasses, and closed his eyes. Rina took off her tam, liberating a sheet of black, shoulder-length hair, and regarded the boy. He was nearly bald—courtesy of an indie film he had starred in—and his complexion was pale and pasty. Little red bumps covered his forehead. She said, “I’m going to change and get dinner ready.” At the sound of her voice, Gabe opened his eyes. “You must be starving.”
“Actually I feel queasy.” He rubbed his green orbs and put his specs back on. “Once I start eating, I’m sure I’ll be okay.” Decker and Marge came in a moment later, chatting about business. The lieutenant loosened his tie, and then took a seat next to the boy. The poor kid was constantly jockeying back and forth between the teen and adult worlds. For the last year, his foster son had been at Juilliard, finishing almost two years in one. Decker threw his arm around the kid’s shoulder and kissed the top of his peach fuzz head. Gabe wasn’t totally bald, but what was growing in was blondish. Gabe asked, “How’d I do?” “Phenomenal,” Decker said. “I wish every witness I had was half as good as you.” Marge sat opposite the boys. “You were a dream for the prosecution: completely credible, plainspoken, and damn cute.” When Gabe smiled, she said, “Plus being a movie star doesn’t hurt.” “Oh Jeez. It was barely above a student film on a shoestring budget. It’ll never go anywhere.” Decker smiled. “You never know.” “Believe me, I know. Did I ever tell you about my breakdown scene? I’m running down this long hallway of the sanitarium buck naked with my hair flying in back as attendants in white coats try to catch me. When they catch me, they start to shave my head and I’m screaming, ‘not my hair, not my hair.’ I haven’t seen the movie, so I’ll have to take the director’s word that it was a great scene.” “You haven’t watched your own movie?” Marge asked. “No. Too embarrassed. Not at me being naked, but I’m pretty sure I’m a dreadful actor.”
Marge smiled, stood up, and picked a piece of pilled wool off of her beige sweater. “Well, gentlemen, I’ve got to go back to the station house. I left a pile of paperwork on my desk.” “Not to mention everything dropped in your lap,” Decker said. “Thanks for picking up the slack.” Rina walked in. She had donned a long-sleeved black T-shirt, a jean skirt, and slippers. “You’re not staying for dinner, Marge?” “Can’t. Too much work to do.” Decker looked at his watch. “I’ll come join you in about an hour if you’re still around. I’ll bring you a care package from tonight’s dinner.” “In that case, I’ll make sure I’m around.” Marge waved and left. Decker said to his wife, “You need any help?” “I’m fine. It’s been a long day and a little quiet is okay with me.” She disappeared into the kitchen. Gabe said, “I should shower. I smell pretty bad. I was sweating a lot.” “Normal.” “I suppose this is only a warm-up for tomorrow. Defense is going to have a field day with me.” “You’ll be fine. Just stick to who you are and tell the truth.” “That I’m the son of a hit man?” “Gabe—” “I mean who are we kidding? You know they’re gonna bring him up.” “Probably. And if they do, your lawyer will object, because Christopher Donatti is irrelevant.”
“He’s a criminal.” “He is, but you aren’t.” “He runs whorehouses.” “Whorehouses are legal in Nevada.” “He cut up Dylan Lashay and turned him into a mass of jelly.” “Now you’re speculating.” Decker looked at the boy. “Okay. I’m the defense and cross direct, okay.” He cleared his throat and tried to act like a lawyer. “Have you ever participated in anything criminal? And be careful what you answer.” Gabe thought a moment. “I smoked pot.” “Ever take pills?” “Prescription medication.” “Such as.” “Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac ... a cornucopia of pharmaceuticals. My doctors rotate around to see what’s affective. And the answer to that is—nothing.” “It is sufficient to just list the medications, Gabriel.” “I know.” “Are you anxious now?” “I’m very anxious.” “Good answer,” Decker said. “Who wouldn’t be anxious during this process? The prosecution has presented you today as a gifted teen that has gone through a very traumatic experience. On cross, defense will try to trip you up. They’ll ask you about your dad, they’ll ask you about me. Always pause before you answer to give the prosecution time to object. And whatever you do, don’t speculate. On redirect, the lawyers will make sure that the jury knows that you are not your father’s son.” Gabe said, “I don’t really care about myself. I’m worried about Yasmine. It kills me to picture her being hammered at by some jerk lawyer.” “She’s sixteen, sheltered, an A student, and physically, she’s small and delicate. She’ll probably cry. Everyone will go lightly on her. What they’ll do is ask her to repeat verbatim what Dylan and the others said to her and argue about the meaning of their statements. I’m sure the defense will say something like they were just kidding around. Bad taste, but no serious intent.” “Dylan was going to rape her.” “He might have even killed her if you didn’t step in.” Decker paused. “It could be she won’t make it to the witness box. After your testimony, they may try again for a plea bargain.” “Dylan’s completely physically messed up. Why didn’t they plea bargain in the first place?” “The Lashays wouldn’t agree to jail time. We offered them a prison hospital, but the parents wouldn’t take it, claiming the prison hospital doesn’t have the wherewithal to care for Dylan in his current state.” “Surely someone can wipe his drool,” Gabe muttered. “I hope he dies a terrible death.” “He probably will,” Decker said. “In the meantime, he’s living a terrible life.”
Riding with the windows down, Decker enjoyed the air after being locked away in a stuffy and tense courtroom. He wasn’t anticipating anything more than a mountain of paperwork to deal with, but then his cell went off just as he was parking in the station house’s lot. Bluetooth told him Marge Dunn was on the line. “Yo, Sergeant, I’m right outside.” “Stay there. I’m coming down.” The phone disconnected. A few minutes later, she came out of the building and jogged over to the car. Sliding onto the passenger seat, she closed the door. The night was cool, and she wrapped her hands in the sleeves of her knitted hoodie. She gave him the address, which was fifteen minutes away. There was a tense look on her face. “We have an issue.” “Yeah, I ascertained that.” “Do you remember an eccentric millionaire named Hobart Penny?” “Some kind of engineer-inventor. Made his money in aerospace I want to say?” “That was Howard Hughes. But you’re not too far off. He holds about fifty different patents for high-heat polymers including glues and plastics used in aerospace. The consensus on the Internet says he’s worth around a half-billion dollars.” “Sizeable chunk of change.” “Exactly. And like Hughes, he became a recluse. He’s now either eighty-eight or eightynine, depending on what site you’re at. Did you know he lived in our district?” “Lived?” “Or maybe it’s still the present tense, but I don’t think so. He rents an apartment in the Glencove district and has resided there for the past twenty-five years.” “I had no idea.” “Neither did anyone in the complex. We got a call about a half-hour ago from a unit adjacent to his. Something stinks inside Penny’s apartment.” “That’s not good.”
“Not good but not unusual, considering his age. Okay. So he’s been dead for a couple of days. We can deal with that. But here’s the problem. The complainant has been hearing strange sounds coming from his apartment.” “Like?” “Clicking, scratching, and an unmistakable roaring.” “Roaring? As in a lion roaring?” “Or it could be some other big cat. The complainant had gathered up some of his fellow apartment dwellers along with the building’s manager whose name is George Paxton. I talked to the manager, told him I was sending some people down to get everyone out of the apartment building—as in immediately.” “God yes! We need a total evacuation of the structure.” “If you want the apartment buildings adjacent to be evacuated for good measure, I’ll radio for more units.” “Yeah, go ahead. Better to be safe, right. You’ve called animal control?” “Of course. I’ve requested people with experience working with big cats. That might take awhile.” Decker shook his head. “This is crazy.” “It’s a first for me.” Silence. Decker said, “How did you end up with the call?” “Someone in-house transferred the call to Homicide. Not a bad decision, considering we’ve got an old recluse, a rotten smell, and a roaring animal. I’d say the chance for finding a dead body is very high.”
The area was largely residential: a mix of apartments, condos, and single-family homes, but there was a small strip mall of businesses located across the street from the address. The black night mixed with floodlights and with blinking lights from the bars on the cruisers. Several ambulances had been called and were standing by, just in case. After double parking, Decker and Marge got out, flashed their badges, and were allowed entry into the activity. About fifty yards up was a huddle of animal control agents in tan uniforms. He and Marge fast walked over to the circle and displayed their badges. At that specific moment, something bestial let out a ferocious bellow. Decker jumped back. The roar was especially eerie because it was a foggy and moonless night. He held up his hands in a helpless gesture. “What the hey?” A sandy-haired, muscular man in his thirties stuck out his hand, first to Marge, then to Decker. Introductions were made all around—three men and a woman roughly ranging in age from midtwenties to midforties. “Ryan Wilner.” Decker said, “I thought it was going to take a while for you guys to get here.” “Me and Hathaway were in GLAZA, teaching a seminar on big cats. Zoo is a straight shot to here if there’s no traffic.” Hathaway was tall and bald. His first name was Paul. He said, “We’re usually the big cat guys, but we do everything.” Marge said, “How often do you deal with wild animals?” “Wild animals all the time—raccoons, skunks, possum … even bears coming in from Angeles Crest. Exotics are another bag of tricks. We deal with a big cat maybe once a year, mostly lions or tigers, but I’ve done jaguars and leopards. Couple times I’ve been asked to help out with wolf hybrid packs that had turned on their owner.” Wilner said, “I just did a chimp about a month ago.” “Lots of reptiles.” The woman who spoke had close-cropped blond hair and gray eyes and stood about six feet. Her name tag said ANDREA JULLIUS. “Local poisonous snakes like California rattlers or sidewinders. But like Ryan said, we get the exotics. Just recently, me and Jake pulled out a Gaboon viper and a monitor lizard from a trailer in Saugus.” Jake was Jake Richey. He was in his twenties with yellow hair. He looked like a surfer dude. “I’ve done lots of snake captures, but that was my first Gaboon viper.” Andrea said, “You wouldn’t believe the things people keep as pets—snakes, monitor lizards, crocs and alligators.” “What about that grizzly about a year ago?” Hathaway said. “That was a trick.” Wilner said, “And how about that female Asian elephant two years ago? In the same month, we captured a runaway male bison that was the family pet until it went into puberty and nearly took down the entire house.” But Decker was concentrating on the problem at hand. “How on earth do you get a big cat into Los Angeles?” “Mail order. You acquire some land and a license and say you’re going to set up a breeding program or a for-profit zoo or circus.” “That is crazy!” Marge said. “Not as crazy as the people who keep them as pets,” Andrea Jullius said. Wilner said, “People are delusional; always think that they have magical powers over the beast. Inevitably a wild animal lives up to its name. That’s where we come in. If everythingworks out well, the animal winds up in a sanctuary. It’s no fun putting down an animal that isn’t doing anything wrong except being what it is.” Another fierce roar pierced the miasma. Decker and Marge exchanged glances. She said, “That animal sounds pissed.” “It’s very pissed,” Wilner said. “We’re going over our next step.” “Which is?” Decker said. “Drill some peepholes and see what we’re dealing with.” “My bet’s on a Bengal female tiger ,” Hathaway said. “I agree,” Wilner said. “A male lion would be five times as loud. When the area is cleared out, we’ll put on some protective gear and drill some holes. Once we see what we’re working with, we figure out how to tranquilize it and get it out of here before we have a major problem.” Another howl echoed through the dripping fog. It was engulfing, as if being swallowed alive. Decker spoke to Marge. “We should assign some agents to the apartment doorway, just in case our friend feels like busting loose.” “One step ahead of you. It’s already done,” Wilner said. “I got one with a tranquilizing gun, one with a hunting gun. We aren’t taking any chances.” He turned to Agent Andrea Jullius. “What’s going on with the equipment from the zoo?” “Twenty more minutes.” Wilner tossed keys to Hathaway. “You wanna go get the protective gear?” “Sure,” Hathaway said. “Do you have a vest for me?” Decker said. “I want to take a look through the peepholes. Homicide was called because the apartment was rented to an old man.”
“Our policy is no civilians,” Wilner told him. “And what are the chances that the old man inside is still alive?” Decker said, “This is my community, and I feel responsible for everything that goes on here. I want to see the layout of the apartment so I know what I’m dealing with.” “It’s gonna be grisly.” “I’ve done grisly before. Once I saw a dead guy being gnawed on by a wild mountain lion. It bothered me, but that’s okay. When things stop bothering me, I’ll know it’s time to quit.”