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     ROBERT CRAIS: CHASING DARKNESS
     
                                     excerpt three

 

     3.


Starkey


     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 diabetes.”
     Starkey shrugged.
     “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 pink letters.
     “You like working homicide, Carol? You fitting in okay?”
     “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 do.”
     “It’s no big deal, Clare. Riding a patrol car is more dangerous.”
     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 way.”
     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 park. Dead.”
     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.”
     “Wow.”
     “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, motherfucker.
     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 ashtray.
     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?”
     “Yes, sir.”
     “Pack up. You’re coming with me.”
     Starkey dropped the cigarette back in her purse and followed him out.










4.


     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 her.
     I parked behind the Crown Vic, then walked over to join them.
     “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.”
     Poitras frowned.
     “Can we watch the mouth?”
     “Sorry, Top.”
     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 tape.
     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 off.”
     “I appreciate this, Lou. Thanks. You, too, Starkey.”
     Poitras stripped off his jacket, and we followed him up.
     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 his sleeves.
     Starkey said, “Bleh. This smell.”
     “Tell him what you found.”
     Starkey glanced at me as if she wasn’t sure how to start.
     “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 resentful.
     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 right hand—“
     She held out her right hand with the palm up, showing me.
     “--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 mess, man.”
     “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 ceiling—“
     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 cheeks.
     “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 police.
     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 air conditioning.
     “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 disgusting.”
     “The mouth.”
     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 right foot.
     “Here. We figured it slid off his lap when he went for the gold—“
     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 that afternoon.”
     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?”
     “Uh-uh.”
     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 investigators.”
     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 for it.”
     The scores of black fingerprint smudges seemed to be moving. They were worse than roaches. They looked like swarming spiders.
     “Can I see it?”
     “What?”
     “The album.”
     “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 invasion.”
     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.”
     “Who’s that?”
     “Marx. The Deputy Chief in charge of the task force.”
     Starkey nudged me.
     “You were supposed to be gone before he got here.”
     Great.
     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 any way.
     “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 after him.
     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.
     “C’mon.”
     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 stopped.
     “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 night.”
     “A week to cover seven murders?”
     “This thing was huge, man. They had people on it around the clock.”
     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 grew awkward.
     “Poitras told me about the Bennett thing. That must be weird, considering.”
     “Was her picture in the book?”
     Starkey blew more of the smoke.
     “Yeah.”
     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.
     “I’m fine.”
     “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 total asshat.”
     “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 believe it.”
     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 blog?”
     “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 for it.”
     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 


   
 
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