Authors: Michael Connelly
“I probably should be putting Frederic to bed. He gets tired, you know.”
Ballard asked him for his phone number in case she wanted to follow up with any questions or show him photos of vans.
“Thank you, Mr. Kersey,” she said. “Have a good night.”
“You too, Detective,” Kersey said. “Good night and stay safe.”
He turned and headed back down the street, murmuring words of comfort to the dog in his arms.
Ballard walked up the street to her car, got in, and drove it down to where the darkened streetlight was. She popped the trunk and opened the plastic mini tool set she kept in the kit bag. After pulling on gloves, she returned to the streetlight with a screwdriver and quickly removed the access plate. The screws were tight but turned easily. It was not what she expected for something that was essentially an antique. She noticed a faded manufacturer tag on the plate that said Pacific Union Metal Division.
Once she had removed the plate, she pointed the beam into the opening and saw a tangle of wires hanging from a metal conduit that she assumed ran up the post to the light assembly. One of the wires had been cut, its copper center still shining brightly in the flashlight beam. The copper was not degraded or oxidized at all, indicating that it had been freshly cut.
Ballard had no doubt. The Midnight Men had cut the wire and killed the light on Wednesday before coming back Thursday night to break into Cindy Carpenter’s house to rape her. They had been as unlucky with Jack Kersey as she had been lucky.
He had seen them and he knew something about streetlights. His basic description of the van driver having red hair matched Cindy’s description of one of her attackers.
She now felt bad about giving Smallwood and Vitello shit for calling her out on the traffic stop. If they had not done that, she might not have cruised the neighborhood at the right time and run into Jack Kersey. Things felt as though they had aligned for her somehow, and now she was a step closer to the Midnight Men.
She screwed the access plate back into place and then headed back to her car. She wanted to drive south and check the streetlights outside the homes of the first two victims.
The streetlights were all now burning brightly on the streets where the first two Midnight Men attacks had occurred. Ballard did, however, get a direct example of the eclectic nature of the city’s street-lighting program. The two streets carried different styles of globes and posts, including ornate iron posts and double-globed lights on one street and simple acorns on the other. Ballard was annoyed at herself that she was a detective who worked the midnight shift but had never noticed the difference in streetlights from neighborhood to neighborhood. It served as a reminder to always be observant, to look for the details that made a difference.
She was pulled to the side of the road, looking up an address for the Bureau of Street Lighting, when she got another callout for the night detective. She needed to respond to a death scene under the Gower Street overpass. She noted the address of the nearest BSL office — there were actually many — and started the drive to Gower. She knew she was headed to one of the most crowded, ugliest homeless communities in Hollywood. During the pandemic it had grown from a few tents to a full community of tents, lean-tos, and other ragtag structures — some built with amazing ingenuity — belonging to a homeless community that numbered at least one hundred people. In the past ten months
Ballard had twice been called out to death scenes in Gower Grim, as the homeless zone had been termed by officers in the division. One of these deaths had been attributed to Covid-19, the other to an opioid overdose.
She came up from Hollywood Boulevard, the terrain gently rising toward Beachwood Canyon, the hillside community east of the Dell. She could see the flashers from two patrol cars, which told her a patrol sergeant was on the scene. She parked behind one of the patrol cars and saw the huddle of two P2s and Sergeant Spellman outside a small cubicle with sides made from shipping pallets. On the concrete wall that supported the freeway overpass someone had spray-painted the slogan “No Mask, No Vax, No Problem.”
Ballard pulled up her mask, got out, and joined the group of fellow officers.
“Ballard,” Spellman said. “Need you to sign off on this one. It’s another OD. Looks like fentanyl.”
Ballard was there to determine whether to call out the homicide team or write this one off as an accidental death, or “death by misadventure” — the phrase the Medical Examiner’s Office liked to use. Her decision would determine whether the whole machinery of homicide investigation would be cranked up, with detectives and forensic units being called out in the middle of the night.
The P2s were La Castro and Vernon, both young men fresh off their probation year and newly assigned to Hollywood from the quiet Devonshire Division in the Valley. They had not yet experienced the open and hostile environment that would return to Hollywood once the pandemic was over.
Ballard snapped on gloves and pulled out her mini-light.
“Let’s take a look,” she said.
A piece of blue plastic tarp used as a door had been flipped up
over the top of the makeshift shack. There was not enough room for anyone other than Ballard to enter. The space was smaller than a cell at the old county jail. There was a dirty mattress on the ground and on it the body of a fully dressed man with unkempt hair and a straggly beard. Ballard estimated that he was in his twenties even though he looked like he was in his thirties, his body aged by drug use and living on the streets. He was on his back, his eyes open in rictus and cast upward. There was no roof. Twenty-five feet above them was the steel underside of the freeway. It rumbled every time a car crossed it, and even at midnight the traffic up there was constant.
Ballard squatted and moved the light in closer to the body. The lips were bluish purple, the mouth slightly open. She could see dried, yellowish vomit on the lips, in the beard, and on the mattress next to the dead man’s right ear. She moved the light down the body and noted that the fingers of both hands were curled tightly toward the palms.
A truck rumbled heavily by overhead, causing the pallets to shudder. Ballard moved the light about and saw that the dead man had insulated his home with collapsed cardboard boxes nailed to the pallets. She saw that one box had contained a flat-screen television, the depiction of which was positioned so the man could look at it from his dirty mattress.
There was debris on and around the mattress. Overturned boxes, a dirty backpack pulled inside out, an empty mayonnaise jar that might have contained coins collected at street corners. Whatever else had been there was gone now. The fellow residents of Gower Grim had been sure to pick through the dead man’s belongings before alerting the police.
It was difficult with the homeless to determine death by overdose on-site. There were no empty or half-filled pill bottles left behind to help the investigator. The addicted in the homeless
camps couldn’t afford the luxury of surplus supply, or if they did, it was long gone by the time police were on scene. But more often than not, the threadbare existence determined that the pill that killed them was the last pill they could afford. This man’s cause of death would certainly be determined by autopsy and toxicity testing, but she had to make the call now as to whether to crank up the machine. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly. The safe thing to do would be always to call out Homicide. But that would often mean crying wolf. That would start a rumble in the ranks that would result in distrust of Ballard. In more than four years on the late shift, she had called out Homicide several times, but she had never been wrong.
She stood up and moved back out to the street. She saw the white coroner’s van with the blue stripe down the side pulling in.
“Well?” Spellman asked.
“Purple Haze,” Ballard said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jimi Hendrix asphyxiated on his own vomit after taking too many pills. So did this guy. Did anybody get an ID?”
Spellman started laughing.
“That’s good, Ballard,” he said. “I gotta remember that.”
Ballard immediately regretted using the phrase. It was callous and now this callous patrol sergeant would use it again. It would get passed on and add another layer of callousness to the department.
“ID?” she prompted, to get things back on course.
“No, no ID found,” said La Castro. “We asked around — people here just knew him as Jimmy.”
“Holy shit!” Spellman said. “Purple Haze is right.”
He turned away to jerk his mask down so he could laugh unbound. Ballard saw several of the homeless people watching
from the openings in their tents and lean-tos. Ballard felt all their hollow eyes on her as the originator of the joke that had made the sergeant laugh.
Ballard remained at the scene for the next half hour while the coroner’s investigator conducted the same overview as she had and came to the same conclusion. The death would not be ruled a homicide. While she waited, she used her rover to call for the unit that carried a mobile thumb reader. If the dead man had ever given a thumbprint while obtaining a California driver’s license or being booked into a jail or prison, his identity would come up. The readers were expensive and not distributed to every patrol car or detective.
When the reader arrived, Ballard took it into the dead man’s shack and placed his right thumb on the screen. It came back negative. No hits. The man was not in the system. This was unusual — almost unheard of — for a homeless drug user. Ballard took another read off his thumb and again the result was negative. This meant the coroner’s office would have to do a deeper dive to identify the man and notify next of kin. If that failed, his body would be kept in refrigeration for a year and then burned, his ashes buried under a number in Evergreen Cemetery in East L.A.
After the body was loaded into the blue-striped van, Ballard drove back to the station to get her paperwork done before end of watch. She first updated the chrono on the Midnight Men investigation, then wrote up the reports on the death of the unidentified man. She learned from the coroner’s investigator at the scene that he would be identified in records as John Doe 21-3 until his true identity was determined. Ballard realized that meant that only twenty-four hours or so into the new year, there were already three unidentified bodies in the Big Crypt at the coroner’s office. That so many were
anonymous and uncounted in this city carried through even in death.
When finished, she printed out her reports and left copies in the mailbox for the detective lieutenant. He would not see them until Monday, when he was scheduled to come back into work. She also emailed the updated chrono to Lisa Moore. This was not necessary but she wanted the sex crimes investigator to see how far she had moved the investigation forward without her help.
The paperwork took Ballard to the end of her shift at six. But she needed to kill another hour because she wanted to swing by Native Bean when it opened at seven. She spent the time checking email and surfing the Web, first putting “Peter the Hermit” into the search engine. She discovered that he had been a legendary denizen of the Dell. He had lived on Ivar Avenue and had long white hair and a beard, which got him work in movies with biblical themes in the 1920s and ’30s. He was also credited with being one of the first to work the character impersonator trade on Hollywood Boulevard, posing in his biblical robes for tourists in exchange for tips. He was a mainstay in the Dell into the 1960s, when he passed.
She then found herself going to the Wags and Walks website to check out the latest offering of dogs up for rescue. Ballard was still mourning the loss of her dog Lola, who had succumbed to bone cancer eight months earlier. With increasing frequency she found herself checking out rescue sites, looking at photos and thinking about bringing a dog home. Lola had been a pit bull mix and her look had intimidated more than a few people on Venice Beach. Ballard never had to worry about her belongings when she took her paddleboard out and left Lola at her tent.
But now that she was living in the new apartment, there was a weight limit on acceptable animals and Ballard was looking more for companionship than protection.
She scrolled through the photos and read some of the accompanying stories — all from the dog’s point of view. She finally came to Pinto, a Chihuahua mix with golden eyes and a sincere look. He had caught Ballard’s eye two weeks ago when he first showed up on the carousel of photos of dogs needing homes. He was still there at the shelter and still available.
Ballard looked up at the clock on the wall. It was time to go catch Cindy Carpenter as she opened the coffee shop for business. She looked back at Pinto. He was brown and white and had a longer snout than a pure-bred Chihuahua — like Frederic, the dog Jack Kersey carried. She clicked on a button under his photo and an email form came up. She typed, “I want to meet Pinto.” She hesitated, but only for a second or two, and then added her cell number and clicked the send button.
She was dead tired when she crossed the station parking lot to her Defender. But she was hopeful about Pinto.
She counted the hours since she had slept and it came to almost a solid day. She wanted to take her board out to the Sunset break and let the Pacific restore her, but she knew sleep was imperative. She would go by Native Bean, check on Cindy, then get to her apartment to sleep until at least noon. She drove out of the station lot and up to Sunset. She took a right and it was a straight shot to Hillhurst.
Ballard arrived at Native Bean at seven and saw four people already in line at the window. She parked across the street, pulled up her mask, and got out.
When it was Ballard’s turn, she was not waited on by Cindy. Ballard ordered a decaf black and could see Cindy in the background, making the drinks. She called out to her and waved.
“You got a minute?”
“Uh, not right — Let me get these orders out. There’s a table on the side.”
Because Ballard had not ordered a fancy coffee concoction, she received her cup right away. She took it around the side of the building, where there were four tables spaced properly along the sidewalk of the cross street. She sat at the table next to the side door of the shop and waited. She didn’t want the coffee she had just bought, even though it was decaf. She wanted to be able to sleep.
Carpenter came out with her own cup of coffee after about five minutes.
“Sorry, we got busy.”
She sat across the table from Ballard. The bruises on her face were spreading and had turned a deep purple. The lacerations were just starting to scab over.
“No problem,” Ballard said. “I didn’t tell you I was coming. I just wanted to check on you and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m all right,” Carpenter said. “I guess. Considering.”
“Yeah, you’ve been through something nobody should have to experience.”
“Is there any news? Did you — ”
“No, not really. I mean, no arrests. When we get them, I will let you know right away, day or night.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Did you have time to work on the questionnaire?”
“Yes, but I’m not finished. It’s a lot. I brought it with me and I’ll work on it after the morning rush.”
As if on cue, the screen door of the shop opened and the woman who had taken Ballard’s order at the window leaned out.
“We have orders,” she said.
“Okay,” Carpenter said. “I’ll be in.”
The employee let the door bang shut.
“I’m sorry,” Carpenter said. “I really need to be in there.”
“That’s okay,” Ballard said. “We can talk later when you finish
the questionnaire. I just wanted to ask if anything else came to mind. You know, you remembered about the photo, so I wanted to see if more details had come to you.”
Carpenter got up from the table.
“No, not really,” she said. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, nothing to be sorry about,” Ballard said. “But one other thing real quick. One of your neighbors saw a white van on the street before the attack on you. Two men, supposedly working on a streetlight, but the light is definitely out. I was up there. So I think it was them and they were disabling the light to make it darker outside your house.”