CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
Detective-two Carol Starkey spilled the fourth pack of
sugar into her coffee. She sipped,
but the coffee still tasted sour.
Starkey was using the large black
Hollywood Homicide mug Charlie
Griggs had given her as a welcome
aboard gift three weeks earlier. She
liked the mug. A big 187 was
stenciled on the side, which was the
LAPD radio code for a homicide,
along with the legend OUR DAY
BEGINS WHEN YOUR DAY ENDS.
Starkey added a fifth sugar. Ever
since she gave up the booze her body
craved enormous amounts of sugar, so
she fed the craving. She sipped. It
still tasted like crap.
Clare Olney, who was another hardcore coffee hound,
looked on with concern.
“You’d better watch it, Carol. You’ll give yourself
“Only live once.”
Clare filled his own mug, black, without sugar or milk.
He was a round man with a shiny bald
dome and pudgy fingers. His mug was
small, white, and showed the stick
figure image of a father and little
girl. The legend on its side read
WORLD’S GREATEST DAD in happy
“You like working homicide, Carol? You fitting in
“Yeah. It’s good.”
After only three weeks, Starkey wasn’t sure if she
liked it or not. Starkey had moved
around a lot during her career.
Before coming to homicide, she had
worked on the Juvenile Section, the
Criminal Conspiracy Section, and the
Bomb Squad. The Bomb Squad was her
love, but, of course, they would not
allow her back.
Clare had more coffee, noodling at her over the top of
his cup as he worked up to ask. They
all asked, sooner or later.
“It’s gotta be so different than working the bombs. I
can’t imagine doing what you used to
“It’s no big deal, Clare. Riding a patrol car is more
Clare gave a phony little laugh. Clare was a nice man,
but she could spot the phony laugh a
thousand clicks out. They laughed
because they were uncomfortable.
“Well, you can say it’s no big deal, but I wouldn’t
have the guts to walk up to a bomb
like that, just walk right up and
try to de-arm it. I’d run the other
When Starkey was a bomb technician, she had walked up
to plenty of bombs. She had de-armed
over a hundred explosive devices of
one kind or another, always in
complete control of the situation
and the device. That was what she
most loved about being a bomb tech.
It was just her and bomb. She had
been in complete control of how she
approached the device and when it
exploded. Only one bomb had been
beyond her control.
She said, “You want to ask me something, Clare?”
He immediately looked uncomfortable.
“No, I was just—“
“It’s okay. I don’t mind talking about it.”
She did mind, but she always pretended she didn’t.
Clare edged away.
“I wasn’t going to—“
“I had a bad one. A frakkin’ earthquake, for Christ’s
sake, imagine that shit? A temblor
hit us and the damn thing went off.
You can dot every i, but there’s
always that one frakkin’ thing.”
Starkey smiled at him. She really did like Clare Olney
and the pictures of his kids he kept
on his desk.
“It killed me. Zeroed out right there in the trailer
Clare Olney’s eyes were frozen little dots as Starkey
had more of the coffee. She wished
she could spark up a cigarette.
Starkey smoked two packs a day, down
from a high of four.
“The paramedics got me going again. Close call, huh?”
“Man, Carol, I’m sorry. Wow. What else can you say to
something like that, but wow?”
“I don’t remember it. Just waking up with the
paramedics over me, and then the
hospital. That’s all I remember.”
“I wouldn’t go back to a radio car. Screw that. Day to
day, that’s way more dangerous than
working a bomb.”
“Well, I hope you like it here on Homicide. If I can
help you with anything—“
“Thanks, man. That’s nice of you.”
Starkey smiled benignly, then returned to her desk,
glad the business of her bomb was
out of the way. She was the New Guy
at Hollywood Homicide, and had been
the New Guy before. Everyone talked
about it behind her back, but it
always took a couple of weeks before
someone asked. Are you the bomb
tech who got blown up? Did you
really get killed on the job? What
was it like on the other side?
It was like being dead,
Now Clare would gossip her answers, and maybe they
could all move on.
Starkey settled at her desk and went to work reviewing
a stack of murder books. This being
her first homicide assignment, she
had been partnered with a couple of
veterans named Linda Brown and Bobby
McQue. Brown wasn’t much older than
Starkey, but she was a
detective-three supervisor with nine
years on the table. McQue had
twenty-eight years on the job,
twenty-three working homicide, and
was calling it quits when he hit
thirty. The pairings were what
Poitras called a training rotation.
Brown and McQue had each dropped ten on-going cases on
her desk, and told her to learn the
books. She had to familiarize
herself with the details of each
case, and was given the
responsibility of entering all new
reports, case notes, and information
as the investigations developed.
Starkey had so much reading to do it
made her eyes cross, and when she
read, she wanted to smoke. She snuck
out to the parking lot fifteen or
twenty times a day, which had
already caught Griggs’s eye.
Jesus, Starkey, you smell like an
Eff you, Griggs.
Starkey palmed a cigarette from her bag for her third
sprint to the parking lot that day
when Lt. Poitras came out of his
office. Christ, he was big. The
sonofabitch was pumped-out like a
stack of all-terrain truck tires.
Poitras studied the squad room, then raised his voice.
“Where’s Bobby? McQue on deck?”
When no one else answered, Starkey spoke up.
“Court day, Top. He’s cooling it downtown.”
Poitras stared at her a moment.
“You were with Bobby on the house up in Laurel, right?”
“Pack up. You’re coming with me.”
Starkey dropped the cigarette back in her purse and
followed him out.
The late-morning sun bounced between sycamores and
hundred-foot eucalyptuses as I drove
up Laurel Canyon to the top of
Lookout Mountain. Even with the
heat, young women pushed tricycle
strollers up the steep slope,
middle-aged men walked listless
dogs, and kids practiced half-pipe
tricks outside an elementary school.
I wondered if any of them knew what
had been found up the hill, and how
they would react when they heard.
The family-friendly, laid-back vibe
of Laurel Canyon masked a darker
history, spanning Robert Mitchum’s
lurid “reefer ranch” bust to Charlie
Manson creeping through the 60s rock
scene to the infamous “Four on the
Floor” Wonderland Murders starring
John ‘Johnny Wadd’ Holmes. Driving
up through the trees and shadows,
the scent of wild fennel couldn’t
hide the smell of the recent fire.
The address Lou gave me led to a narrow street called
Anson Lane cut into a break on the
ridge. A radio car was parked
mid-way up the street with a blue
Crown Victoria behind it. Poitras, a
detective I knew named Carol
Starkey, and two uniforms were
talking in the street. Starkey had
only been on the bureau for a few
weeks, so I was surprised to see
I parked behind the Crown Vic, then walked over to join
“Lou. Starkey, you driving now?”
“I shot Griggs for the job.”
Poitras shifted with impatience.
“Catch up on your own time. Starkey rolled out with
Bobby when the uniforms phoned in
the body. They were on it until the
task force took over.”
“All of a day and a half. Fuckers.”
“Can we watch the mouth?”
Poitras turned toward the house.
“You wanted to see what we have, this is it.”
The house was a small Mediterranean with a Spanish tile
roof heavy with a mat of dead leaves
and pine needles. The lot was
narrow, so the living quarters were
stacked on top of a single-car
garage. The garage door was
splintered as if a latch had been
pried, probably so the police could
gain access. A rickety stair climbed
the entry side of the garage to a
tiny covered porch. On the far side
of the garage, a broken walk
disappeared between overgrown cedar
branches where it ran alongside the
garage. A single knot of crime scene
tape was still tied to the garage,
left by whoever pulled down the
Poitras squinted up at the house like it was the last
place on earth he wanted to go.
“Starkey can lay out the scene for you, but we don’t
have any of the forensics or case
files. Downtown has everything.”
“Okay. Whatever you have.”
“It’s going to be hotter than hell up there. The AC’s
“I appreciate this, Lou. Thanks. You, too, Starkey.”
Poitras stripped off his jacket, and we followed him
Stepping into the house was like walking into a
furnace. A ratty overstuffed chair
had been pushed against a threadbare
couch and a coffee table. Swatches
of cloth had been cut from the arms
and the back of the chair, leaving
straw-colored batting bright against
stained fabric. The stains were
probably blood. Light switches, door
jams, and the inside front door knob
were spotted with black smudges from
fingerprint kits. More black was
smudged on the telephone and coffee
table. Starkey immediately took off
her jacket, and Poitras rolled up
Starkey said, “Bleh. This smell.”
“Tell him what you found.”
Starkey glanced at me as if she wasn’t sure how to
“You knew this guy, huh?”
“I didn’t know him. I worked for his lawyer.”
Just being asked if I knew him seemed to imply we were
friends, and left me feeling
Poitras said, “Describe the scene, for Christ’s sake. I
want to get out of here.”
Starkey moved to the center of the room, indicating an
empty spot on the floor.
“The chair was here, not over by the couch. Once the
body was out, the SID guys moved
things around. He was here in the
chair, slumped back, gun in his
She held out her right hand with the palm up, showing
“--a Taurus .32 revolver.”
“The chair was in the middle of the floor?”
“Yeah. Facing the television. A bottle of Seagram’s was
on the floor by the chair, so he had
probably been hitting it. As soon as
Bobby saw the guy he said that
stiff’s been here a week. It was a
“How many shots fired?”
Poitras laughed, and moved closer to the door.
“You think he had to reload?”
Starkey said, “One spent, up through the bottom of his
chin. Wasn’t much blood. A little on
the floor here and up on the
She indicated an irregular stain on the floor, then a
spot the size of a quarter on the
ceiling. It looked like a roach.
Poitras spoke from the doorway. Sweat had beaded on his
forehead and was running down his
“The Coroner Investigator said everything about the
body, the gun, and the splatter
patterns were consistent with
suicide. We haven’t seen the final
report, but that’s what he told them
here at the scene.”
Starkey nodded along with him, but said nothing. I
tried to imagine Lionel Byrd slumped
in the chair, but his image was
formless and gray. I couldn’t
remember what Byrd looked like. The
only time I had seen him was on a
videotape of his confession to the
I considered the neighboring houses. From the front
door, I saw the roof of the black
and white and the houses across the
street. A woman was standing in a
window across the street, looking
down at the police car. Safe in her
“Anyone hear the shot?”
Starkey said, “Remember, the guy had been dead for a
week before we found him. No calls
were made to 911, and none of these
people remembered hearing anything
on or around the day of death.
Everyone was probably buttoned up
from the heat.”
Poitras said, “Tell him about the pictures.”
Starkey had been watching me, but now she glanced at
the floor. She seemed uncomfortable.
“He had an album with Polaroid pictures of his victims.
There were seven pages with a
different vic on each page. We
thought they were fake. You see
something like that, you think it’s
gotta be phony, like that porno
stuff with girls pretending to be
dead? We didn’t know the shit was
real until Bobby recognized one of
the girls. It was fucking
I said, “Where did you find the album?”
“On the floor by his feet.”
Starkey positioned herself as if she was sitting in the
chair and touched the top of her
“Here. We figured it slid off his lap when he went for
She suddenly glanced up.
“He only had one foot. The other was screwed up.”
Lionel Byrd had lost half of his left foot in a garage
accident when he was twenty-four
years old. I hadn’t remembered it
before, but now I recalled Levy
telling me about it. The settlement
had left Byrd with a modest
disability payment that supported
him the rest of his life.
Poitras said, “It was Bobby put it together. One of the
vics was a prostitute named Chelsea
Ann Morrow. Bobby knew her, and
after we had Morrow, we faxed the
pictures through the other
divisions. That’s when the IDs
started coming. Downtown rolled in
I stared at the floor as if I would suddenly see the
album. Maybe that was why Starkey
kept looking at the floor. Maybe she
could still see it.
“Did he leave a note?”
I glanced at Starkey.
“So all you found were the pictures?”
“We pulled a camera and a couple of film packs. There
was a box of ammo for the gun. If
the task force guys found anything
else, I don’t know.”
“Pictures don’t mean he killed them. Maybe he bought
them on eBay. Maybe they were taken
by one of the coroner
Poitras stared for a moment, then shrugged.
“I don’t know what to tell you. Whoever took them, the
geniuses downtown decided he’s good
The scores of black fingerprint smudges seemed to be
moving. They were worse than
roaches. They looked like swarming
“Can I see it?”
“Downtown has it.”
“What about crime scene snaps?”
Starkey said, “The task force. They cleaned us out,
man. The CI’s work and everything
from SID went to them. Witness
statements from the neighbors. All
of it. They hit this place like an
A car door slammed, drawing the three of us to the
porch. A senior command officer and
a younger officer had just gotten
out of a black and white, and were
speaking with the uniforms at the
foot of the steps. The senior
officer stared up at us. He had a
tight gray butch cut, razor-burned
skin, and a nasty scowl.
Poitras said, “Shit. He’s early.”
“Marx. The Deputy Chief in charge of the task force.”
Starkey nudged me.
“You were supposed to be gone before he got here.”
Poitras moved to greet him, but Marx didn’t want to be
greeted. He came up the steps at a
quick march, locked onto Poitras
like a Sidewinder missile.
“I ordered this scene to be sealed. I specifically told
you that all inquiries would be
handled through my office.”
“Chief, this is Elvis Cole. Cole is a personal friend
of mine, and he’s also involved.”
Marx didn’t offer to shake my hand or acknowledge me in
“I know who he is and how he’s involved. He conned the
DA into letting this murderer go.”
Marx was a tall, rectangular man built like a sailing
ship with tight skin stretched over
a yard-arm skeleton. He peered down
at me from the crow’s nest like a
parrot eyeing a beetle.
I said, “Nice to meet you, too.”
Marx turned back to Poitras as if I hadn’t spoken.
“I’m not just being an asshole here, Lieutenant. I
clamped the lid so nobody could run
to the press before the families
were notified. Two of those families
have still not been reached. Don’t
you think they’ve suffered enough?”
Poitras’s jaw knotted.
“Everyone here is on the same side, Chief.”
Marx eyed me again, then shook his head.
“No, we’re not. Now get him out of here, and take me
through this goddamned house.”
Marx went into the house, leaving Poitras to stare
I said, “Jesus, Lou, I’m sorry.”
Poitras lowered his voice.
“The real chief’s out of town. Marx figures if he can
close this thing before the chief
gets back, he’ll get the face time.
I’m sorry, man.”
Starkey touched my arm.
Poitras followed Marx back into the house while Starkey
walked me down. The two uniforms and
Marx’s driver were talking together,
but we kept going until we were
alone. Starkey fished a cigarette
from her jacket as soon as we
“That guy’s an asshole. It’s been like this all week.”
“Is Marx really going on TV tonight?”
“That’s what I hear. They wrapped up their work last
“A week to cover seven murders?”
“This thing was huge, man. They had people on it around
She lit the cigarette and blew a geyser of smoke
straight overhead. I liked Starkey.
She was funny and smart, and had
helped me out of two very bad jams.
“When are you going to quit those things?”
“When they kill me. When are you going to start?”
You see? Funny. We smiled at each other, but her smile
“Poitras told me about the Bennett thing. That must be
“Was her picture in the book?”
Starkey blew more of the smoke.
I looked up at the house. Someone moved in the shadows,
but I couldn’t tell if it was
Poitras or Marx.
Starkey said, “Are you okay?”
When I glanced back, her eyes were concerned.
“It was me, I’d be, I dunno, upset.”
“He couldn’t have killed her. I proved it.”
Starkey blew another cloud of smoke, then waved her
cigarette at the surrounding houses.
“Well, he didn’t have any friends here in the
neighborhood, I can tell you that.
Most of these people didn’t know him
except to see him, and the ones who
knew him stayed clear. He was a
“I thought the task force cut you out.”
“They used us here with the door-to-door. Lady at that
house, he told her she had a
muscular ass. Just like that. Woman
at that house, she runs into him
getting his mail and he tells her
she could pick up some extra cash if
she dropped around one afternoon.”
That was Lionel Byrd.
“Starkey, you’re right. Byrd was a professional asshat.
He was worse than an asshat, but he
didn’t kill Yvonne Bennett. I don’t
Starkey frowned, but the smile flickered again.
“Man, you are stubborn.”
“And cute. Don’t forget cute.”
I could have told her I was also sick to my stomach,
but I let it go with cute.
She drew another serious hit on the cigarette, then
flicked it into a withered century
plant. Here we were in fire season
with red flag alerts, but Starkey
did things like that. She pulled me
further away from the uniforms and
lowered her voice.
“Okay, listen, I know some things about this Poitras
doesn’t know. I’m going to tell you,
but you can’t tell anyone.”
“You think I’m going to run home and put it on my
“Guy I worked with at CCS is on with the task force.
All he did this week was analyze the
stuff we pulled out the house. You
won’t like this, but he told me
Byrd’s good for the killings. He
says it’s solid.”
“How does he know that?”
“I don’t know, moron. We’re friends. I took his word
Starkey nudged me farther from the uniforms again and
lowered her voice even more.
“What I’m saying, Cole, is I can have him explain it to
you. You want me to set it up?”
It was like being thrown a life preserver in a raging
storm, but I glanced up at the
house. Poitras was standing in the
door. They were about to come out.
“I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
“Hey, screw Marx. The real chief gets back, he’ll
probably ream the guy a new asshole.
You want in with my guy or not?”
I smiled, and Starkey flushed.
“That would be great, Carol. Really.”
The woman across the street was still in her window,
watching us as I left.
© 2008 by Robert Crais