The house on Lookout Mountain Road was set far in from the street and nestled against the steep canyon embankment to the rear. This afforded it a long and flat green lawn running from the wide front porch to the white picket fence that ran along the street line. It was unusual in Laurel Canyon to have such an immense lawn, front or back, and one so flat as well. It was that lawn that would be the key selling point of the property.
The open house had been advertised in the real estate section of the Times as starting at two p.m. and lasting until five. Cassie Black pulled to the curb ten minutes before the starting time and saw no cars in the driveway and no indication of any activity in the house. The white Volvo station wagon she knew belonged to the owners that was usually parked outside was gone. She couldn't tell about the other car, the black BMW, because the little single-car garage at the side of the house was closed. But she took the missing Volvo to mean that the owners of the home were out for the day and would not be present during the showing. This was fine. Cassie preferred they not be home. She wasn't sure how she would act if the family was right there in the house as she walked through it.
Cassie remained in the Boxster until two p.m. and then grew concerned, her mind jumping to the conclusion that she had gotten the time wrong or, worse yet, the house had already been sold and the showing canceled. She opened the real estate section on the passenger seat and checked the listing again. She had been correct. She looked at the for sale sign posted in the front lawn and checked the broker's name against the name in the advertisement. They matched. She got her cell phone out of her backpack and tried to call the realty office but couldn't get a connection. This didn't surprise her. She was in Laurel Canyon and it always seemed impossible to get a clear cell transmission in any of L.A.'s hillside neighborhoods.
With nothing to do but wait and control her fears, she studied the house that stood behind the for sale sign. According to the advertisement, it was a California Craftsman bungalow built in 1931. Unlike the newer homes on either side, it was not only set back off the street into the hillside rising behind it, but it also seemed to possess a good deal of character. It was smaller than most of the neighboring homes, its designers obviously putting a premium on the large lawn and the openness of the property. The newer houses in the neighborhood had been built to every lot line, under the philosophy that interior space was premium.
The old bungalow had a long, sloping gray roof from which sprouted two dormer windows. Cassie assumed that one belonged to the bedroom shared by the couple and the other was the girl's room. The sidings were painted a reddish brown. A wide porch ran the length of the front of the house and the front door was a single-light French door. Most days the family lowered a set of blinds over the door's glass but today the blinds over the door and the front picture window were up and Cassie could see into the living room. An overhead light had been left on.
The front yard was definitely the play area. It was always neatly cut and trimmed. Built along the left perimeter was a wooden swing set and jungle gym. Cassie knew that the girl who lived in the house preferred to swing with her back to the house and facing the street. She had often thought about this, wondering if there was something about this habit that could be read as some sort of psychological clue.
The empty swing hung perfectly still. Cassie saw a kick ball and a red wagon sitting motionless in the grass, also waiting for the attention of the girl. Cassie thought the play area might be one of the reasons the family was moving. All things being relative in Los Angeles, Laurel Canyon was a pocket of reasonable safety in the sprawling city. Still, it wasn't desirable in any neighborhood to have your children playing in the front yard so close to the street, the place where harm could befall them, where danger could come to them.
© 1999 by Michael Connelly
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