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     ROBERT CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
     
                                     excerpt two

 

     2.


     On a moonless night three years before Bastilla and Crimmens came to my office, someone shattered Yvonne Bennett’s skull in a Silver Lake parking lot, one block north of Sunset Boulevard. The night was warm, though not hot, with the scent of spider-lilies kissing the air. The weapon of choice was a tire iron.
     Yvonne Bennett was twenty-eight years old when she died, though everyone I interviewed--including two former roommates and three former boyfriends--believed she was nineteen. As it was for many in Los Angeles, her life was a masquerade. She lied about her age, her past, her work history, and her profession. Of the twenty-three people I interviewed when I tracked her movements on the night of her death, three believed she was a student at UCLA, two believed she was a student at USC, one believed she was a graduate student working toward a doctorate in psychology, and one or more of the rest believed she was a production assistant, a makeup artist, a florist, a clothing designer, a graphic artist, a bartender, a waitress, a sales clerk at Barney’s on Wilshire Boulevard, or a sous chef who worked for Wolfgang Puck. Though she had been arrested for prostitution twice, she was not and never had been a streetwalker. She was a bar girl. She picked up men in bars and brokered the cash before leaving the premises. Even with the arrests, she denied being a prostitute, once telling a former roommate that, though she dated men for money, she never took money for sex. This, too, was a lie.
     There wasn’t much in my files about Yvonne Bennett or Lionel Byrd because I hadn’t spent much time on his case, eight days start to finish. Any moron could have solved it. No shots fired, no beatings given or received. The Batman cape stayed home.
     I passed the pages to Pike as I read them.
     At the time of his arrest, Lionel Byrd was a legitimate suspect in the murder. He had been seen talking to Yvonne Bennett earlier that evening and he had a criminal history with prostitutes—two pops for soliciting and a misdemeanor assault conviction eighteen months earlier when he argued with a prostitute about her services. Byrd was still on probation when Crimmens picked him up.
     A twenty-two-year-old coffee-shop barista and aspiring actor named Angel Tomaso was the last person to see Yvonne Bennett alive when she entered the alley behind his coffee shop at eleven-forty P.M. Her body was discovered at twelve-sixteen A.M. These two times created the thirty-six minute window during which Bennett was murdered, and would prove key to the charges against Byrd being dropped.
     Though the evidence against him was largely circumstantial, Lionel Byrd confessed the crime to Crimmens and his partner at the time, a fellow Rampart detective named Nicky Munoz. This sounds more telling than it was. With the assault prior and the witnesses who saw them together, Crimmens convinced Byrd he was cooked on the murder and promised a lesser charge if Byrd confessed. When Levy viewed the confession tape, it was clear Byrd had no knowledge of the crime; Crimmens had fed him the information with leading questions. Byrd later recanted, but by then the damage was done. The confession and its supporting evidence were enough for a murder charge to be brought.
     Levy convinced me that Byrd was being given the rush with the jacked-up confession. He also convinced the judge, who threatened to toss the confession. Eight days later I found a time-coded security video placing Byrd in the Two Worlds Lounge in Hollywood at the same time Yvonne Bennett was being murdered sixteen-point-two miles away. Levy, myself, and the bartender on duty that night met with the prosecutor in the judges chambers three days later, where, at the judge’s suggestion and in hopes of avoiding a slam-dunk acquittal, the deputy district attorney dropped the charges.
     Nothing in my files made me doubt myself. Nothing there made me feel wrong. They didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to put it together.
     Pike tamped the pages together.
     “How was it you found the tape and not Crimmens and Munoz? They had the same information as you.”
     “Crimmens had the confession, so he was lazy. We had a list of the places Byrd claimed he was in that night, but he only knew a few of the bars by name. We had to figure out where he was by working off the descriptions.”
     “Uh-huh.”
     “All of the bars checked out except the last one. He said he stopped for a nightcap at a place like a tiki bar that had bamboo. Everyone, including me, thought it was in Silver Lake.”
     “But it wasn’t.”
     “We found a bar like that, but not the one he meant. It was a lesbian bar. It wasn’t a tiki place, but it was small and dark with bamboo furniture. This was the only place that came close to his description, but the bartenders denied he was there. That sealed the deal for Crimmens, but here was the tell: Byrd told Crimmens he argued with the bartender because the bartender wouldn’t let him run a tab. In the tape, he says, that guy was a prick.”
     “A guy.”
     “The bartenders were women. All the other bars had checked out, so him getting it wrong about the bartender bothered me. Byrd had an apartment in Hollywood back then, so I looked for something closer to home. That’s where I found it, a little place between Santa Monica and Sunset. They were trying to look like the Alaskan wilderness. They had these fake totem poles behind the bar, not tiki idols. They still had the security tape, and there he was, having his drink. The time code put him in Hollywood during the window when Yvonne Bennett was murdered. The judge agreed. The DA. Everybody. That’s why they dropped the charges.”
     Maybe I was still trying to convince myself, but I didn’t see the hole. I didn’t see how Lionel Byrd could have killed her, and I didn’t see how Bastilla could be so certain that he had.
     Pike said, “What about the other murders?”
     “I was all over this guy’s life for eight days. I had his priors. I had everything. There was nothing to suggest he was a killer or was involved with anyone who was.”
     Pike put the files aside.
     “Only now the police say Byrd did it.”
     I got up for a bottle of water and looked for the fire Pike had seen, but the fire was out. The fire fighters had moved in hard and killed it. That’s the best way to stop these things. Kill them before they grow.
     I returned to my desk.
     “Listen, take off for Ray’s without me. I’m going to call Levy.”
     “I can wait.”
     I scrolled through my Palm for Levy’s number, and put in the call. I had not called or spoken with Alan Levy in almost three years, but his assistant immediately recognized my name.
     “Alan’s in court, but he told me to find him. He might not be able to talk, but I know it’s important. Can you hold while I try?”
     “I’ll hold.”
     Pike hadn’t moved, so I covered the mouthpiece.
     “You don’t have to wait. I’m going to be here a while.”
     Pike still didn’t move. Then Levy came on, speaking quickly in a low voice.
     “Have you heard about Lionel Byrd?”
     “Two detectives just told me Byrd was good for seven murders, including Yvonne Bennett. Is this for real?”
     “I got a call this morning from Leslie Pinckert in Major Crimes—did Pinckert talk to you?”
     “A detective named Bastilla was here. Crimmens was with her. They told me they have something that puts Byrd with the murders, but wouldn’t say what.”
     “Wait, hang on—“
     Muffled voices and court sounds whispered in the background, then he returned.
     “Byrd had pictures of the victims in some kind of album. That’s all she would tell me. They don’t want this thing out of the bag until they’ve gone public.”
     “That asshole Crimmens tells me I got two of those women killed, and they’re playing it tight? I need more than that, Alan.”
     “Just settle down.”
     “They wanted my files.”
     “I know. Did you give them anything?”
     “Not until I spoke with you. I thought there might be a privilege issue.”
     “Are you in possession of anything that wasn’t copied to me?”
     “Just a few notes I didn’t bother typing up in the formal reports.”
     “Okay. Get everything together, and we’ll make time tomorrow. I want to cooperate with these people, but I have to review the material first.”
     “Did Byrd have a picture of Bennett? Did Pinckert tell you that much?”
     Levy hesitated, and suddenly the sounds of justice behind him were loud.
     Pinckert promised to call this evening when she has more leeway to talk. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”
     The line went dead.
     Pike was still watching me.
     “What did he say?”
     “He thinks they’re keeping it buried until they know how to spin it.”
     “Hollywood Station covers the canyon. If a body was found up in Laurel, Poitras should know.”
     Lou Poitras was the detective-lieutenant in charge of the homicide bureau at Hollywood Station. He was also a friend. If a body dead from suspicious circumstances was found up in Laurel Canyon, Lou’s detectives would have rolled to the scene before Bastilla and her task force were involved.
     I immediately called his office, and got a sergeant named Griggs on the line. I had known Griggs almost as long as Poitras.
     “Homicide. Lt. Poitras’s office.”
     “It’s me. Is he in?”
     “Yes, he’s in. Some of us work for a living.”
     “That’s right, Griggs. And the rest of us are cops.”
     “Eff you.”
     Griggs hung up.
     I redialed the number, but this time Poitras answered.
     “Are you harassing my sergeant again?”
     “Did your people roll on a DB suicide up in Laurel by the name of Lionel Byrd?”
     The easy banter in his tone hardened as if I had flipped a switch.
     “How did you hear about this?”
     “A cop named Connie Bastilla just left my office. She told me something was found with his body that puts Byrd with seven killings.”
     Poitras hesitated.
     “Why would Bastilla tell you about this?”
     “Byrd was up for the murder of a woman named Yvonne Bennett. I was on the defense side. I found the evidence that freed him.”
     Poitras took even longer to answer this time.
     “Wow.”
     “What do they have?”
     “I don’t know what to tell you.”
     “Does that mean you won’t tell me?”
     “It means I don’t know what they have. You know Bobby McQue?”
     Bobby McQue was a senior detective on Lou’s squad.
     “Yeah, I know Bobby.”
     “Bobby had it, but downtown rolled in when they saw we had a possible serial. They cut us out.”
     “So what did McQue find before you were out? C’mon, Lou, I need to know if this is real, man. Right now, it feels like a nightmare.”
     Poitras didn’t respond.
     “Lou?”
     Behind me, Pike spoke loud enough for Poitras to hear.
     “Tell Poitras to man-up.”
     “Was that Pike?”
     “Yeah. He was here when Bastilla showed up.”
     Poitras hated Pike. Most L.A. police officers hated Pike. He was once one of them.
     Poitras finally sighed.
     “Okay, listen. The chief running the task force wants a tour before they go public, so I gotta go up there later. You want, you can meet me up there now. We’ll walk you through the scene.”
     Poitras gave me the address.
     “We won’t have much time, so get up there right now.”
     “I understand.”
     Poitras hung up.
     “He’s going to let me see Byrd’s house.”
     Pike said, “Poitras won’t want me up there.”
     “I’m just going to see what they have. You don’t need to come.”
     Pike moved for the first time since Crimmens and Bastilla left. Maybe I had stood a little too quickly. Maybe my voice was a little too high. Pike touched my arm.
     “Were you right three years ago?”
     “Yes.”
     “Then you’re still right. You didn’t get those two women killed. Even if the police have something, you didn’t kill them.”
     I tried to give him a confident smile.
     “Say hi to Ray. If it’s bad, I’ll give you a call.”
     Pike left, but I did not leave with him. Instead, I went out onto the balcony and let the bone-dry heat swallow me. The glare made me squint. The nuclear sun crinkled my skin.
     Picture the detective at work in his office, fourth floor, Hollywood, as the Devil’s Wind freight-trains down from the desert. Though dry and brutally harsh, the desert wind is clean. It pushes the smog south to the sea and scrubs the sky to a crystalline blue. The air, jittery from the heat, rises in swaying tendrils like kelp from the sea bed, making the city shimmer. We are never more beautiful than when we are burning.
     Knock, knock, thought you’d like to know, after you cleared that guy he murdered two more women, it should be hitting the news about now, their families should be crying about now.
     I locked my office and went to see what they had.
     The phone rang again as I went out the door, but I did not return to answer it.
 

© 2008 by Robert Crais 


   
 
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