HOME BIO WORKS MEDIA AUDIO APPEARANCES LINKS FAQ NEWSLETTER CONTACT
     

     ROBERT CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
     
                                     excerpt one

 

     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 again.
     “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 on Monday.
     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, glanced over.
     “You okay?”
     “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 pugs?”
     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 street.
     “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 garages.
     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, Maglite.
     “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 had rattled.
     “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 I’m saying.”
     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 so well.”
     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 door.”
     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 been.
     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.”
     “Suicide?”
     “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 flames.
     “Trench, come here—“
     Trenchard came over, then stooped for a closer look.
     “Holy Mother.”
     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?”
     “Dunno.”
     “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.”
     “I dunno.”
     “They look real. He fucking killed them.”
     “Stop it.”
     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.

 

Part One
Lookout Mountain



1.


     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 Diana.
     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.
     “Where?”
     “Malibu, looks like. Maybe Topanga.”
     Then Pike turned toward the door, and everything that had been normal about that ordinary morning changed.
     “Listen--”
     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 shield.
     “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.”
     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 rippled.
     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 once worked.”
     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 blanks.
     “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 recanted.”
     Crimmens shifted.
     “Wasn’t bogus.”
     I took my seat and hooked a foot on the edge of the desk.
     “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 be late.
     I lowered my foot and leaned forward.
     “You guys should have called. Joe and I have an appointment.”
     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 the facts.
     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?”
     “No.”
     Crimmens said, “You hiding something back there, Pike? How ‘bout we get a look?”
Pike’s head swiveled toward Crimmens. Nothing else moved; just his head.
     “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 with murder.”
     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 him?”
     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 dead.
     “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.”
     Crimmens laughed.
     “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 funny.
     “He committed suicide. He was living under the name Lonnie Jones. Know why he was using an alias?”
     “Maybe he didn’t like being accused of murders he didn’t commit.”
     Bastilla leaned toward me and crossed her arms on a knee.
     “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 file.”
     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 confidentiality.’”
     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 belly.
     “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 to go.
     “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 murdered himself.”
     Crimmens licked his lips as if he wanted to eat me alive.
     “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?”
     “Should I?”
     “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 free.”
     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 


   
 
Contents of this web site are copyright 2017 by Robert Crais.
Photo of Robert Crais by Greg Gorman
Website designed and maintained by Dovetail Studio