Authors: Michael Connelly
“Look, just take me to the police, okay?” he said. “Turn me in.”
“I don’t think that’s — ”
There was a sudden crashing sound from the front of the house.
Ballard startled, then moved back into the hallway, raising her gun. Looking down the hall, she saw the front door of the house standing wide open, the jamb splintered where the lock had been. But there was no sign of anyone in her view. It was in that moment that she realized the man on the floor had given his partner a code.
— she had thought it an odd word when he said it, but it had not clicked in her brain that it was a code.
“Back here!” Brian yelled. “Back here!”
Ballard glanced behind her into the office and saw that the redhead was moving his wrists up and down, counter to each other, and trying to stretch the tape she had bound him with.
“Don’t fucking move!” she yelled.
He ignored her and kept churning his wrists like two pistons in an engine.
She raised her gun and pointed it at him. Face on the floor, he looked up at her and just smiled.
In her peripheral vision she saw movement to her left. She turned to see another man in blue coveralls and ski mask coming through the doorway from the kitchen into the hall. He closed on her without hesitation. She swung her aim to the left but he was on her too quickly, dropping his shoulder into her just as she fired the gun.
The report was muffled between their bodies as they crashed to the hallway floor. The masked man rolled off her, crossing his arms in front of his chest and groaning. Ballard saw a burn
mark and entrance wound from the bullet she had fired into his chest.
The shout came from the office. Ballard felt the floor against her back shake as the red-haired man came running into the hallway. Ballard saw that he had grabbed the knife off the desk and held it in a hand still cuffed in duct tape. He saw his partner writhing on the floor and then turned his hateful stare at Ballard.
“You — ”
Ballard fired one shot from the floor. It hit him under the jaw, its trajectory going up into the brain. He dropped like a puppet, dead before he even hit the floor.
The interrogation room was crowded. There was a lot of coffee breath and at least one of the men in front of Ballard was a smoker. It was one of the few times in the last year that she was only too happy to wear a face mask. She sat at a small steel table with her back to the wall. Next to her was Linda Boswell, her attorney from the Police Protective League. The three men in front of her sat with their backs to the door. It was as if Ballard had to somehow get past them to get out. And sitting shoulder to shoulder they took up the space from one side wall to the other. There was no getting around them. She had to go straight through.
Two of the men were from the Force Investigation Division. Captain Sanderson, head of the unit, was sitting front and center, and to his left was David Dupree. Dupree was thin, and Ballard pegged him as the smoker. She expected that if he were not wearing a mask, she would see a mouthful of yellow teeth.
The third man was Ronin Clarke, representing the Midnight Men task force since Neumayer was on vacation and Lisa Moore was on the outs with Lieutenant Robinson-Reynolds. The investigation had been designated a task force following the media frenzy that exploded after the story had been leaked to the
The three detectives normally assigned to the CAPs squad had also been assigned to the task force.
There were three different digital recorders on the table ready to capture the interview. Ballard had been given a Lybarger admonishment by Sanderson. This court-approved warning compelled her to answer questions about the shooting on Citrus Avenue for administrative investigative purposes only. If a criminal prosecution should arise from Ballard’s actions, then nothing she said in the interview could be used against her in a court of law. Ballard had thoroughly briefed her attorney on what had happened in Hannah Stovall’s house and what had led to the double shooting.
Boswell was now going to try to head things off at the pass.
“Let me just start by saying Ms. Ballard is not going to answer any questions from Force Investigation,” she said. “She — ”
“She’s taking the Fifth?” Sanderson asked. “She does that and she loses her job.”
“That’s what I was about to tell you if you didn’t interrupt. Ms. Ballard — you notice I didn’t say Detective Ballard — does not work for the LAPD and therefore FID has no standing in the matter on Citrus Avenue.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sanderson said.
“Earlier today, before the incident on Citrus Avenue, Ms. Ballard sent her resignation in an email to her immediate supervisor,” Boswell said. “If you check with Lieutenant Robinson-Reynolds, you will be able to confirm the email and the time it was sent. This means that Ballard was no longer a police officer at the time of the shooting of the two intruders to the house on Citrus. She was a private citizen and acted in defense of her life when two armed men broke into the home where she was lawfully permitted to be.”
“This is bullshit,” Sanderson said.
He looked at Dupree and nodded toward the door. Dupree got up and left the room, most likely to find Robinson-Reynolds, whom Ballard had seen in his office when she was brought to the Hollywood detective bureau for questioning.
“No, these are the facts, Captain,” Boswell said. “Ms. Ballard can show you her side of the email if you wish. Meantime, she is more than willing to tell Detective Clarke what happened and where a follow-up investigation might be warranted.”
“This is some kind of trick and we’re not going to play games,” Sanderson said. “She answers the questions or we go to the D.A. with it.”
“You can do that, of course,” she said. “But what will you go to the D.A. with? It is easily established through the home’s owner that she gave Ballard permission to be inside her home. She voluntarily gave her the keys to both her home and car. The physical evidence at the scene clearly shows a break-in and that Ballard, fearing for her safety, fired on two intruders who will soon be officially identified as the serial rapists known as the Midnight Men. So, let’s see, you are going to ask the elected district attorney to prosecute, for whatever reason, the woman who killed these two rapists after they broke into the house where she was alone? Well, all I can say is good luck with that, Captain.”
Clarke’s eyes betrayed that he was trying to repress a smile beneath his mask. The door to the room then opened and Dupree stepped back in. He closed the door but stayed standing. Sanderson looked at him and Dupree nodded. He had confirmed the resignation email to Robinson-Reynolds.
Sanderson stood up.
“This interview is now over,” he said.
He grabbed his recorder, turned it off, and followed Dupree
out of the room. Clarke didn’t move and looked like he was still working on keeping a straight face.
“That leaves you, Detective Clarke,” Boswell said.
“I’d like to talk to Renée,” he said. “But I need to — ”
The door was flung open, cutting Clarke off. Lieutenant Robinson-Reynolds stepped in. He stared at Ballard while talking to Clarke.
“Was she advised?” he asked.
“She got the Lybarger but not Miranda, if that’s what you mean,” Clarke said. “But she’s willing to talk and says there is a follow-up we — ”
“No, we’re not talking,” Robinson-Reynolds said. “This is over. For now. Step out.”
Clarke stood up, grabbed his recorder, and left the room.
Robinson-Reynolds continued to stare at Ballard.
“Turn that off,” he said.
Ballard started to reach for the last recorder.
“No,” Boswell said. “I don’t think that’s a — ”
“Turn it off,” Robinson-Reynold said. “And you can go. I have something to say to Ballard that doesn’t leave this room.”
Boswell turned to Ballard.
“You want me to stay, I’ll stay,” she said.
“That’s okay, I’ll listen,” Ballard said.
“I’ll be right outside.”
Boswell got up and left the room. Ballard turned off the recorder.
“Ballard,” Robinson-Reynolds said. “I find it hard to believe that you set this up to kill those two assholes. But if I find out you did, I’m coming after you.”
Ballard held his gaze for a long moment before replying.
“And you’d be wrong — just like you’re wrong about me
leaking to the
” she said. “And men like those two? They got off easy. I’d rather they rotted in prison the rest of their lives than get off the way they did.”
“Well, we’ll see about them,” he said. “And I already know who the leak to the
Robinson-Reynolds didn’t answer. He left the door open as he left.
“Nice working with you, too,” Ballard said to the empty room.
She pocketed her recorder and stepped out herself. Boswell was waiting for her in the squad room. Ballard saw Lisa Moore and Ronin Clarke at the CAPs pod along with the others assigned to the task force. The whole team had been called in to handle the investigation of the two men Ballard had shot. If Robinson-Reynolds had unmasked Moore as the leak to the
he had apparently not done anything about it yet.
“He say anything I should know about?” Boswell asked.
“Nothing worth repeating,” Ballard said. “Thanks for what you did in there. You kicked ass.”
“I’ve been going head-to-head with Sanderson for four years. He’s all bluster. The only thing intimidating about him is his breath, and thank god he had to wear a mask.”
Ballard couldn’t hold back her smile, even if it was hidden by her own mask.
“So he was the smoker,” Ballard said. “I thought it was Dupree.”
“Nope, Sanderson,” Boswell said. “So, now, the bad news. I can no longer represent you since you are no longer an officer.”
“Right. I understand.”
“I can recommend a good lawyer on the outside should you need one.”
“I don’t think you will, because I don’t think there’s any question about your actions. They were the definition of self-defense. And taking off my lawyer hat for a moment here, it was you who kicked ass today, Renée.”
“Things didn’t turn out the way I’d planned.”
“Do you need a ride somewhere?”
“No, I think I have somebody waiting out there.”
“Okay. Pleasure doing business with you.”
They bumped fists and Boswell headed to the front exit. Ballard walked over to the Sex Assault pod. Lisa Moore did not look up, though Ballard knew she had seen her approach. Clarke now had his mask off. He used his thumb and forefinger to pantomime shooting a gun, blowing into the barrel, then holstering the weapon like an Old West shooter.
“You guys get IDs on those two yet?” Ballard asked.
“Working on it,” Clarke said. “But L-T gave us orders. We can’t talk to you now.”
“Yeah, I get it,” she said.
She left the squad room for what she assumed would be the last time, heading toward the front exit, which took her by the lieutenant’s office. Robinson-Reynolds was behind his desk, mask off, talking on his landline. She held his eyes as she walked by. She said nothing.
Bosch was waiting in front of the station, leaning against the side of his old Cherokee.
“All good?” he asked.
“For now,” Ballard said. “But this isn’t over.”
On Wednesday morning Ballard and Bosch were at the international terminal at LAX, awaiting the arrival of AeroMexico flight 3598 from Cancún. Bosch was in a suit and was holding a piece of paper Ballard had printed with the name gilbert denning on it. They were standing outside the baggage and U.S. Customs exit, where professional drivers waited for their clients. The flight had landed thirty-five minutes earlier but there had been no sign of Denning yet. Ballard had a photo of him on her phone that she had gotten from Hannah Stovall. But with the mask requirement, it was hard to match a half face to the photo.
The airport was nearly empty. What few travelers there were came through the automatic doors in waves — a clot of people pulling their suitcases or pushing luggage carts followed by minutes of zero traffic. The drivers and families waiting for loved ones continued staring at the six doors.
Ballard was beginning to wonder whether they had somehow missed Denning, if he had walked by them or had taken a shuttle to another terminal. But then a man wearing a Dodgers hat and sunglasses and carrying only a backpack slung over his shoulder stepped in front of Bosch and pointed at the sign he held.
“Hey, that’s me, but I didn’t arrange for a driver. My car’s in the garage.”
Ballard quickly stepped over and spoke.
“Mr. Denning? We need to speak to you about your former girlfriend.”
“Hannah Stovall. We need to talk to you about her. Would you come with us, please?”
“No, I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s going on. Is Hannah okay?”
“We’re here to help you, sir. Would you please — ”
“What are you talking about? I don’t need any help. Are you police? Show me your badge, show me some ID.”
“We’re not police. We’re trying to keep this from getting to the police. I don’t think you would want that, Mr. Denning.”
“Keep what from getting to the police?”
“Your involvement in sending two men to Hannah’s house to have her beaten and sexually assaulted.”
“What? That’s insane. You two stay away from me.”
He stepped back so he could take an angle to Bosch’s left. Bosch shifted to block.
“This is your one and only chance to settle this,” he said. “You walk away and it’s a police matter. Guaranteed.”
Denning brushed past Bosch and headed toward the terminal’s exit door. Bosch turned to watch him. Ballard started to take off after him, but Bosch grabbed her arm.
“Wait,” he said.
They watched Denning go through the glass doors and step to the crosswalk that led to the parking garage. There were several people waiting for the light to change so they could cross.
“He’s going to look back,” Bosch said.
Sure enough, Denning looked back to see if they were still
there. He quickly turned forward again and the traffic stopped as the crossing sign started flashing. People started moving toward the parking garage. Denning entered the crosswalk, took three steps, and then turned around. He walked with purpose through the doors, back into the terminal, and right up to Ballard and Bosch.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“For you to come with us,” Ballard said. “So we can talk.”
“I don’t have money. And the health people at the gate said I’m supposed to quarantine for ten days now.”
“You can quarantine for as long as you want after we talk. If not, I’m sure they’ll find a single cell for you at the county jail.”
The blood was draining from Denning’s face. He relented.
“Okay, okay, let’s go.”
Now they walked out of the terminal together.
In the garage Denning was ushered into the back seat of Ballard’s Defender. Ten minutes later, they cleared the airport and were moving down Century Boulevard.
“Where are we going?” Denning demanded. “My car’s back there.”
“Not far,” Ballard said. “We’ll take you back.”
A few blocks later, Ballard made a left into the Marriott Hotel parking lot.
“I don’t know about this anymore,” Denning said. “Take me back. I want to talk to a lawyer.”
Ballard pulled into a parking space in the lot in front of the hotel.
“You want to go back now, you can walk,” she said. “But everything changes if you walk. Your job, your home, your life.”
She looked at him in the rearview mirror.
“Either way, it’s time to get out,” she said.
Denning opened the door, got out, and slung his backpack over his shoulder.
Bosch and Ballard looked at him from the car, as if awaiting his decision. Denning threw his arms out wide.
“I’m still here,” Denning said. “Can we just go to wherever we’re going?”
Ballard and Bosch got out and started walking toward the entrance to the hotel. Denning followed them.
They had booked a room on the sixth floor. They didn’t know how long it would take for Denning to spill, and Bosch liked that there would only be one way out, which he could easily block. It was called an executive suite, with a wall partitioning the bedroom area from a small sitting area consisting of a couch, a padded chair, and a desk.
“Sit on the couch,” Ballard said.
Denning did as he was told. Ballard took the chair, and Bosch pulled the desk seat out and turned it so he would be facing Denning but also blocking his way to the door.
“I can give you six thousand — that’s all I have saved,” Denning said.
“And what would you want from us in return?” Ballard asked.
“I don’t know,” Denning said. “Why am I here? You said it would be a police matter if we didn’t talk. I don’t know what this is about but I don’t want to involve the police.”
Ballard waited to see if he would further incriminate himself. But he stopped talking.
“We don’t want money,” Ballard said. “We want information.”
“Do you know what happened at Hannah Stovall’s house two nights ago?”
“Yeah, I saw it online in Mexico. The two guys that broke in, she shot ’em.”
Ballard nodded as if confirming the fact. It was easy to understand how Denning had arrived at the wrong conclusion. In the news that came out after the Monday-night incident, the LAPD did not name the woman who had killed the Midnight Men, citing a policy of not identifying victims or intended victims of sexual assault. It was clear that had Ballard not prevailed in those moments in the hallway, she would have become the latest victim of the Midnight Men. The department had withheld her identity to avoid the entanglements and questions that would arise should her name and former affiliation be known.
Ballard was not interested in disabusing Denning of his belief. She wanted him thinking that any connection to him might have died with the Midnight Men.
“We know you gave them the layout of the house and the combination to plug into a garage opener,” Ballard said.
“You can’t prove that,” Denning said.
“We don’t have to,” Ballard said. “We aren’t the police. But we know that’s what happened and we’re willing to keep what we know to ourselves in exchange for the information we need.”
“What information?” Denning said. “And if you’re not the cops, why do you want this?”
“We want to know how you contacted the Midnight Men,” Ballard said. “Because there are others like you out there and we want to contact them.”
“Look, that’s not what they even called themselves,” Denning said. “The media did that. The whole thing blew up in the news last week and I wanted to stop them but it was too late. They went silent. But that’s one thing I can prove. I tried to stop it. And if there are others, I don’t know them. Can I go now?”
He stood up.
“No,” Bosch said. “Sit back down.”
Denning stayed standing and looked at Bosch, likely taking
the measure of a man who was twice his age. Still, something about Bosch’s piercing stare chilled him and he sat down.
“You need to back up,” Ballard said. “Before you tried to stop them, how did you contact them?”
Denning shook his head as though he wished he could redo the past.
“They were just two guys on the Internet,” he said. “We started talking and one thing led to another. Hannah, she really fucked me over … and I … never mind. Fuck it.”
“These two guys, where on the Internet did you meet them?” Ballard asked.
“I don’t know. I was floating around … there’s a bunch of sites. Forums. You’re anonymous, you know? So you can say what you feel. Just put it out there, and some people respond and tell you things. Tell you about other places to go. Give you passwords. It just sort of happens. There’s a lot if you’re looking for it. You know, a place where everybody’s been there like you. Gotten fucked over by a woman. You sort of go down the rabbit hole.”
“This rabbit hole … are you talking about Dark Web stuff?”
“Yes, definitely. Everybody, everything anonymous. These guys, the so-called Midnight Men, they had a site and I got this password. And then … that was it.”
“How did you access the Dark Web?”
“Easy. Got a VPN first, then went through Tor.”
Ballard knew Bosch was probably at sea when it came to the Dark Web, but through cases and FBI bulletins, she had rudimentary knowledge of how virtual private networks and Dark Web browsers like Tor worked.
“So, how did you specifically find the Midnight Men?”
“They posted on a forum that said, you know, they were in the L.A. area and were, uh, were willing to … do things … to even the score, I guess you’d call it.”
Denning looked off to the side, too humiliated by his actions to hold Ballard’s eyes.
“Look at me,” Ballard said. “Is that what they called it? ‘Evening the score’?”
Denning turned his face back toward Ballard but kept his eyes down.
“No, they … I think the heading was ‘Teach a Bitch a Lesson,’ ” he said. “Yeah, and I … made a post about my situation and then they gave me a site and password to check out and things sort of went from there.”
“What was the site called?”
“It didn’t have a name. A lot of stuff doesn’t have names. It was a number.”
“Do you have a laptop in that bag?”
“I want you to show us. Take us to that site.”
“Uh, no, we’re not going to do that. It’s really bad stuff and I — ”
He stopped when Bosch stood up and came toward the couch. Ballard could see that something about Bosch’s demeanor unnerved Denning. Harry’s hands were balled into fists, the scars on his knuckles white. Denning leaned back into the couch while Bosch roughly grabbed his backpack and started unzipping compartments until he found the laptop. He stepped over to the desk, put the computer down, and brought the desk chair back over.
“Show us the fucking site,” Bosch said.
“All right,” Denning said. “Take it easy.”
He moved to the desk and sat down. He opened the laptop. Ballard got up and stood behind him so she could see the screen. She watched while Denning signed into the hotel’s Internet.
“Some places have blocks on the Dark Web,” he said. “They don’t let you use Tor.”
“We’ll see,” Ballard said. “Keep going.”
There were no blocks, and Denning was able to go into his private network and use the Tor browser to access the site put together by the Midnight Men. The number he typed in was 2-0-8-1-1-2 and Ballard committed it to memory. He then added a numeric password which Ballard memorized as well.
“What’s the significance of the numbers?” she asked.
“Numbers assigned to letters,” Denning said. “A-1, B-2, and so on. Translates to T-H-A-L — ‘Teach Her a Lesson.’ But I didn’t find that out till later.”
He said it in a tone that suggested he would never have ventured onto the site if he’d known that’s what the numbers meant. He might have been able to convince himself of that but Ballard doubted anybody else would believe it.
“And I think the password is — ”
“ ‘Bitch.’ Yeah, I figured that one out.”
The site was a horror show. It contained dozens of photos and videos of women being raped and humiliated. The men committing the atrocities were never seen, though it was apparent it was the Midnight Men, because the actions matched the reports of the victims in the cases known to Ballard. But there were more than three victims on the site. Cases had apparently not been connected or victims had not reported them, probably out of fear of their attackers or the system they would be sucked into.
Each of the digital files was labeled with a name. When Ballard spotted a file named Cindy1, she told Denning to open it. She immediately recognized Cindy Carpenter, though blindfolded with tape, in a horrific still shot from her assault.
“All right, enough,” she said.
When Denning was slow to kill the screen, Bosch reached over
and slammed the computer shut, Denning yanking his fingers away at the last moment.
“Jesus Christ!” he shrieked.
“Get back on the couch,” Bosch ordered.
Denning complied, holding his hands up like he wanted no trouble.
Ballard had to compose herself for a moment. She wanted to get away from this room and this man, but she managed to get her last questions out.
“What did they want?” she asked.
“What do you mean?” Denning asked.
“Did they want money to do this? Did you pay them?”
“No, they didn’t want anything. They liked doing it, I guess. You know, they hated all women. There are people like that.”
He said it in a way designed to convey that he was different from them. He hated a woman to the point that he would sic two rapists on her. But he didn’t hate all women, like they did.
It made Ballard feel all the more repulsed. She needed to go. She looked at Bosch and nodded. They now knew all they needed to know.
“Let’s go,” Bosch said.
He and Ballard stood up. Denning looked up at them from the couch.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it,” Ballard said.
Bosch picked the laptop up off the desk and tossed it, more at Denning than to him.
“Easy,” Denning protested.
He carefully slid it back into the cushioned compartment of his backpack and stood up.
“We’re going to get my car now, right?”
“You can walk,” Ballard said. “I don’t want to be anywhere near you.”