CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
Beakman and Trenchard could smell
the fire--it was still a mile away,
but a sick desert wind carried the
promise of Hell. Fire crews from
around the city were converging on
Laurel Canyon like red angels, as
were black and white Adam cars,
Emergency Services vehicles, and
water-dropping helicopters out of
Van Nuys and Burbank. The
helicopters pounded by so low
overhead that Beakman and Trenchard
could not hear their supervisor.
Beakman shook his head, cupping his
ear to indicate he had not heard.
“What did you say?”
Their supervisor, a patrol sergeant named Karen Philips
leaned into their car and shouted
“Start at the top of Lookout
Mountain. Emergency Services is
already up, but you gotta make sure
those people leave. Don’t take any
shit. You got it?”
Trenchard, who was senior and also
driving, shouted back.
“We’re on it.”
They jumped into line with the fire engines racing up
Laurel Canyon, climbing Lookout
Mountain Avenue up the steep hill.
Once home to rock ‘n roll royalty
from Mama Cass Elliot to Frank Zappa
to Jim Morrison, Laurel Canyon had
been the birthplace of country rock
in the sixties. Crosby, Stills, and
Nash had all lived there. So had
Eric Burdon, Keith Richards, and,
more recently, Marilyn Manson and at
least one of the Red Hot Chili
Peppers. Beakman, who banged away at
a Fender Telecaster in a cop band
called Nightstix, thought the place
was musical magic.
Beakman pointed at a small house.
“I think Joni Mitchell used to live there.”
“Who gives a shit? You see that sky? Man, look at that.
The frakkin’ air is on fire!”
A charcoal bruise smudged the sky as smoke pushed
toward Sunset Boulevard. Beginning
as a house fire at the crest of the
Hollywood Hills, the flames had
jumped to the brush in Laurel Canyon
Park, then spread with the wind.
Three houses had already been lost,
and more were threatened. Beakman
would have plenty of stories for his
kids when he returned to his day job
Jonathan Beakman was a Level II Reserve Officer with
the Los Angeles Police Department,
which meant he was armed, fully
sworn, and did everything a
full-time uniformed officer did,
except he did it only two days per
month. In his regular life, Beakman
taught high school algebra. His kids
weren’t particularly interested in
the Pythagorean Theorem, but they
bombed him with questions after his
weekend ride in the car.
Trenchard, who had twenty-three years on the job and
didn’t like music, said, “Here’s how
it goes down--we get to the top,
we’ll leave the car and work down
five or six houses on foot, me on
one side, you on the other, then go
back for the car and do it again.
Should go pretty quick like that.”
The Fire Department had been through the area,
broadcasting the order to evacuate
over their public address system. A
few residents already had their cars
piled high with clothes, golf clubs,
pillows, and dogs. Others stood in
their front doors, watching their
neighbors pack. A few were on their
roofs, soaking their homes with
garden hoses. Beakman worried the
hosers might be a problem.
“What if somebody won’t leave?”
“We’re not here to arrest people. We have too much
ground to cover.”
“What if someone can’t leave, like an invalid?”
“First pass, we want to make sure everyone gets the
word. If someone needs more help,
we’ll radio down or come back after
we reach the bottom.”
Trenchard, ever wise for a man who didn’t like music,
“A little nervous, maybe. One of these houses, you
watch. Some old lady’s gonna have
fifteen pugs waddling around. What
are we going to do with fifteen
Trenchard laughed, and Beakman found himself smiling,
though his smile quickly faded. They
passed a little girl following her
mother to an SUV, the girl dragging
a cat carrier so heavy she couldn’t
lift it. Her mother was crying.
Beakman thought, this is awful.
When they reached the top of Lookout Mountain, they
started the door-to-door. If the
inhabitants weren’t already in the
act of evacuating, Beakman knocked
and rang the bell, then pounded on
the jamb with his Maglite. Once, he
hammered at a door so long that
Trenchard shouted from across the
“You’re gonna knock down the goddamned door! If they
don’t answer, nobody’s home.”
When they reached the first cross street, Trenchard
joined him. The cross street cut up
a twisting break in the ridge, and
was lined with clapboard cabins and
crumbling stone bungalows that had
probably been built in the thirties.
The lots were so narrow that most of
the houses sat on top their own
Trenchard said, “Can’t be more than eight or ten houses
in here. C’mon.”
They split sides again, and went to work, though most
of the residents were already
leaving. Beakman cleared the first
three houses easily enough, then
climbed the steps to a rundown
stucco bungalow. Knock, bell,
“Police officer. Anyone home?”
He decided no one was home, and was half way down the
steps when a woman called from
across the street. Her Mini Cooper
was packed and ready to go.
“I think he’s home. He doesn’t go out.”
Beakman glanced up at the door he had just left. He had
banged on the jam so hard the door
“He’s an invalid?”
“Mr. Jones. He has a bad foot, but I don’t know. I
haven’t seen him in a few days.
Maybe he’s gone, but I don’t know.
He doesn’t move so well, that’s why
Now she had the irritated expression of someone who
wished she hadn’t gotten involved.
Beakman climbed back to the door.
“What’s his name?”
“Jones. That’s all I know, Mr. Jones. He doesn’t move
Beakman unleashed the Maglite again. Hard.
“Mr. Jones? Police officer, is anyone home?”
Trenchard, finished with his side of the street, came
up the stairs behind him.
“We got a hold out?”
“Lady says the man here doesn’t move so well. She
thinks he might be home.”
Trenchard used his own Maglite on the door.
“Police officers. This is an emergency. Please open the
Both of them leaned close to listen, and that’s when
Beakman caught the sour smell.
Trenchard smelled it, too, and
called down to the woman.
“He old, sick, what?”
“Not so old. He has the bad foot.”
Down on the street, she couldn’t smell it.
Beakman lowered his voice.
“You smell it, right?”
“Yeah. Let’s see what’s what.”
Trenchard holstered his Maglite. Beakman stepped back,
figuring Trenchard was going to kick
down the door, but Trenchard just
tried the knob and opened the door.
A swarm of black flies rode out on
the smell, engulfed them, then flew
back into the house. Beakman swatted
at the flies. He didn’t want them to
touch him. Not after where they had
The woman shouted up, “What is it?”
They saw a man seated in a ragged club chair, wearing
baggy plaid shorts and a thin blue
tee-shirt. He was barefoot, allowing
Beakman to see that half the left
foot was missing. The scarring
suggested the injury to his foot
occurred a long time ago, but he had
a more recent injury.
Beakman followed Trenchard into the house for a closer
look. The remains of his head lolled
backwards, where blood and brain
matter had drained onto the club
chair and his shoulders. His right
hand rested on his lap, limply
cupping a black pistol. A single
black hole had been punched beneath
his chin. Dried blood the color of
black cherries was crusted over his
face and neck and the chair.
Trenchard said, “That’s a damned bad foot.”
“Duh. I’ll call. We can’t leave this guy until they get
someone here to secure the scene.”
“What about the fire?”
“Fuck the fire. They gotta get someone up here to wait
for the CI. I don’t want us to get
stuck with this stink.”
Trenchard swatted futilely at the flies and ducked like
a boxer slipping a punch as he moved
for the door. Beakman, fascinated,
circled the dead man.
Trenchard said, “Don’t touch anything. We gotta treat
it like a crime scene.”
“I’m just looking.”
A photo album lay open between the
dead man’s feet as if it had fallen
from his lap. Careful not to step in
the dried blood, Beakman moved
closer to see. A single picture was
centered on the open page, one of
those Polaroid pictures that develop
themselves. The plastic over the
picture was speckled with blood.
The flies suddenly seemed louder to Beakman, as loud
now as the helicopters fighting the
“Trench, come here—“
Trenchard came over, then stooped for a closer look.
The Polaroid showed a female Caucasian with what
appeared to be an extension cord
wrapped around her neck. The picture
had been taken at night, with the
woman sprawled on her back at the
base of a trash bin. Her tongue
protruded thickly from her mouth,
and her eyes bulged, but they were
unfocused and sightless.
Beakman heard himself whispering.
“You think it’s real? A real woman, really dead?”
“Maybe it’s from a movie. You know, staged?”
Trenchard opened his knife, then used the point to turn
the page. Beakman grew scared. He
might have been only a reserve
officer, but he knew better than to
disturb the scene.
“We’re not supposed to touch anything.”
“We’re not. Shut up.”
Trenchard turned to the next page, then the next.
Beakman felt numb, but excited,
knowing he was seeing a darkness so
terrible that few people would ever
imagine it, let alone face it. These
pictures were portraits of evil. The
mind that had conceived of these
things and taken these pictures and
hidden them in this album had
entered a nightmare world. It had
left humanity behind. Beakman would
have stories for his kids when he
returned to school, but this story
would not be among them.
“They’re real, aren’t they? These women were murdered.”
“They look real. He fucking killed them.”
Trenchard lifted the album with his knife so they could
see the cover. It showed a beautiful
sunset beach with gentle waves and a
couple leaving footprints on the
sand. Embossed in flowing script was
a legend: My Happy Memories.
Trenchard lowered the cover.
“Let’s get away from these flies.”
They left the album as they had found it, and sought
solace in the smoky air.
Our office was a good place to be that morning. There
was only the tocking of the
Pinocchio clock, the scratch of my
pen, and the hiss of the air
conditioner fighting a terrible
heat. Fire season had arrived, when
fires erupted across the Southland
like pimples on adolescent skin.
Joe Pike was waiting for me to finish the paperwork. He
stood at the French doors that open
onto my balcony, staring across the
city toward the ocean. He had not
spoken nor moved in more than twenty
minutes, which was nothing for Pike.
He often went soundless for days. We
were going to work out at Ray
Depente’s gym in South-Central Los
Angeles when I finished the grind.
The first call came at nine forty-two that morning.
A male voice said, “Are you Elvis Cole?”
“That’s right. How can I help you?”
“You’re a dead man.”
I killed the call and went back to work. When you do
what I do, you get calls from
schizophrenics, escapees from Area
51, and people claiming to know who
killed the Black Dahlia and Princess
Pike said, “Who was it?”
“Some guy told me I was a dead man.”
Pike grunted, then said, “Smoke.”
I glanced up from the work.
“Malibu, looks like. Maybe Topanga.”
Then Pike turned toward the door, and everything that
had been normal about that ordinary
A stocky man with a short haircut and wilted tan sport
coat shoved through the door like he
lived in Fallujah. He flashed a
badge as if he expected me to dive
under my desk.
“Welcome to hell, shitbird.”
A woman in a blue business suit with a shoulder bag
slung on her arm came in behind him.
The heat had played hell with her
hair, but that didn’t stop her from
showing a silver and gold detective
“Connie Bastilla, LAPD. This is Charlie Crimmens. Are
you Elvis Cole?”
I studied Pike.
“Did he really call me a shitbird?”
Crimmens tipped his badge toward me, then Pike, but
talked to the woman.
“This one’s Cole. This one’s gotta be his bun boy,
Pike faced Charlie. Pike was six-one, a bit over two,
and was suited up in a sleeveless
gray sweatshirt and
government-issued sunglasses. When
he crossed his arms, the bright red
arrows inked into his deltoids
I spoke slowly.
“Did you make an appointment?”
Crimmens said, “Answer her, shitbird.”
I am a professional investigator. I am licensed by the
state of California, and run a
professional business. Police
officers did not barge into my
office. They also did not call me a
shitbird. I stood, and gave Crimmens
my best professional smile.
“Say it again I’ll shove that badge up your ass.”
Bastilla took a seat in one of the two director’s
chairs facing my desk.
“Take it easy. We have some questions about a case you
I stared at Crimmens.
“You want to arrest me, get to it. You want to talk to
me, knock on my door and ask for
permission. You think I’m kidding
about the badge, try it out.”
Pike said, “Go ahead, Crimmens. Give it a try.”
Crimmens smirked as he draped himself over the file
cabinet. He studied Pike for a
moment, then smirked some more.
Bastilla said, “Do you recall a man named Lionel Byrd?”
“I didn’t offer you a seat.”
“C’mon, you know Lionel Byrd or not?”
Charlie said, “He knows him. Jesus.”
Something about Crimmens was familiar, though I
couldn’t place him. Most of the
Hollywood bureau detectives were
friends of mine, but these two were
“You aren’t out of Hollywood.”
Bastilla put her card on my desk.
“Homicide Special. Charlie’s attached out of Rampart.
We’re part of a task force
investigating a series of homicides.
Now, c’mon. Lionel Byrd.”
I had to think.
“We’re talking about a criminal case?”
“Three years ago, Byrd was bound over for the murder of
a twenty-seven year old prostitute
named Yvonne Bennett, a crime he
confessed to. You produced a witness
and security tape that supposedly
cleared him of the crime. His
attorney was J. Alan Levy, of
Barshop, Barshop, and Alter. We
getting warmer here?”
The facts of the case returned with the slowness of
surfacing fish. Lionel Byrd had been
an unemployed mechanic with alcohol
problems and a love/hate
relationship with prostitutes. He
wasn’t a guy you would want to know
socially, but he wasn’t a murderer.
“Yeah, I remember. Not all the details, but some. It
was a bogus confession. He
I took my seat and hooked a foot on the edge of the
“Whatever. The video showed he was here in Hollywood
when Bennett was murdered. She was
killed in Silver Lake.”
Behind them, Pike touched his watch. We were going to
I lowered my foot and leaned forward.
“You guys should have called. Joe and I have an
Bastilla took out a note pad to show me they had no
intention of leaving.
“Have you seen much of Mr. Byrd since you got him off?”
“I never met the man.”
Crimmens said, “Bullshit. He was your client. You don’t
meet your clients?”
“Levy was my client. Barshop Barshop paid the tab.
That’s what lawyers do.”
Bastilla said, “So it was Levy who hired you?”
“Yes. Most of my clients are lawyers.”
Lawyers can’t and don’t rely on the word of their
clients. Often, their clients don’t
know the whole and impartial truth,
and sometimes their clients lie.
Since lawyers are busy lawyering,
they employ investigators to uncover
Bastilla twisted around to see Pike.
“What about you? Did you work on Byrd’s behalf?”
“Not my kind of job.”
She twisted farther to get a better look.
“How about you take off the shades while we talk?”
Crimmens said, “You hiding something back there, Pike?
How ‘bout we get a look?”
Pike’s head swiveled toward
Crimmens. Nothing else moved; just
“If I showed you, I’d have to kill you.”
I stepped in before it got out of hand.
“Joe didn’t help on this one. This thing was Detective
Work 101. I must pull thirty cases
like this a year.”
Crimmens said, “That’s sweet. You must take pride in
that, helping shitbirds get away
Crimmens was pissing me off again.
“What are we talking about this for, Bastilla? This
thing was settled three years ago.”
Bastilla opened her pad and studied the page.
“So you are telling us you have never met Lionel Byrd?”
“I have never met him.”
“Are you acquainted with a man named Lonnie Jones?”
“No. Is he your new suspect?”
“During your investigation into the matter of Yvonne
Bennett, did you discover evidence
linking Mr. Byrd to any other crimes
or criminal activities?”
“What kind of question is that? Have you re-arrested
Bastilla scribbled a note. When she looked up, her eyes
were ringed with purple cutting down
to her mouth. She looked as tired as
a person can look without being
“No, Mr. Cole, we can’t arrest him. Eight days ago, he
was found during the evacuation up
in Laurel Canyon. Head shot up
through the bottom of his chin. He
had been dead about five days.”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“Wouldn’t that be funny, Con? Wouldn’t that be too
perfect? Man, I would love that.”
Bastilla smiled, but not because she thought it was
“He committed suicide. He was living under the name
Lonnie Jones. Know why he was using
“Maybe he didn’t like being accused of murders he
Bastilla leaned toward me and crossed her arms on a
“The man’s dead now, Cole. Reason we’re here, we’d like
to examine the reports and work
product you have from the Bennett
case. Your notes. The people you
questioned. Everything in your
She waited without blinking, studying me as if she knew
what I would say, but was hoping I
might not say it. I shook my head.
“I was working on behalf of defense counsel. That
material belongs to Alan Levy.”
“Levy is being contacted.”
Crimmens said, “The fucker’s dead, Cole. You got him
off. What’s it matter now?”
“If Levy says fine, then fine, but I worked for him,
Crimmens, not you. There’s that
little thing about ‘expectation of
I looked back at Bastilla.
“If the man’s dead and you don’t think I killed him,
why do you care what’s in my files
about Yvonne Bennett?”
Bastilla sighed, then straightened.
“Because this isn’t only about Bennett. Lionel Byrd
murdered seven women. We believe he
murdered one woman every year for
the past seven years. Yvonne Bennett
was his fifth victim.”
She said it as matter-of-fact as a bank teller cashing
a check, but with a softness in her
voice that spread seeds of ice in my
“He didn’t kill Yvonne Bennett. I proved it.”
Bastilla put away her pad. She got up, then slung her
bag on her shoulder, finally ready
“Material linking him to the murder was found in his
home. He murdered a sixth woman the
summer after his release. His most
recent victim was murdered
thirty-six days ago, and now he’s
Crimmens licked his lips as if he wanted to eat me
“How do you feel now, Mr. Thirty-a-Year?”
I shook my head at Bastilla.
“What does that mean, you found material?”
“Something in your files might help us figure out how
he got away with it, Cole. Talk to
Levy. If we have to subpoena, we
will, but it’ll be faster if you
guys come across.”
I stood with her.
“Waitaminute—what does that mean, you found something?
What did you find?”
“A press conference is scheduled for this evening. In
the meantime, talk to Levy. The
sooner the better.”
Bastilla left without waiting, but Crimmens made no
move to follow. He stayed on the
file cabinet, watching me.
I said, “What?”
“Escondido and Repko.”
“Why are you still here, Crimmens?”
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Think about it. You must’ve read my reports.”
Then I realized why he was familiar.
“You were the arresting officer.”
Crimmens finally pushed off the cabinet.
“That’s right. I’m the guy who arrested Byrd. I’m the
guy who tried to stop a killer.
You’re the shitbird who set him
Crimmens glanced at Pike, then went to the door.
“Lupe Escondido and Debra Repko are the women he killed
after you got him off. You should
send the families a card.”
Crimmens closed the door when he left.
© 2008 by Robert Crais