Authors: Michael Connelly
“I know that you go to RHD. RHD never comes to you. I’ll see you there.”
She disconnected the call. She wasn’t sure she would go to the meeting—it was her goal in life to never be in the same room with Olivas again—but she needed Nuccio to think she was coming. That would rattle him and it would rattle Olivas when he was told. That’s what Ballard wanted.
Ballard spent the first hour after roll call trying to get a line on Edison Banks Jr. He had no criminal record and his driver’s license had expired three years earlier and not been renewed. Ballard pulled up the DMV photo and estimated it was taken seven years earlier, when the license was issued. It showed a blond-haired surfer type with thin lips and green eyes. Ballard printed it even though she knew that it would probably be useless in terms of showing it to people who might have known Banks in recent years.
Next, she started working the phone, calling shelters, soup kitchens, and homeless outreach centers in the Hollywood area. There weren’t many of them and not all of them operated twenty-four hours. She was looking for any sort of connection to Banks that she could have in her back pocket if she crashed the RHD meeting in the morning. She didn’t expect to be allowed to stay on the case—that was a given with Olivas the captain in charge—but if she could come up with information that kick-started the investigation or gave it a direction, then her actions on the night of the body’s discovery might not be judged so harshly. She knew that Olivas would take any opportunity to second-guess her decisions, and she was vulnerable to criticism on this one: she had passed off what might have been determined to be a homicide to the LAFD arson squad, and that shouldn’t have happened. She should have been the one to inform RHD, not the Fire Department.
At the end of an hour she had nothing. Banks had apparently steered clear of places where names and photos are taken in exchange for a bed, a hot meal, or a bar of soap. Or he was using an alias. Either way, he had successfully stayed off the grid. It clearly suggested that Banks had been hiding his trail and didn’t want his family to find him.
She grabbed the DMV photo off the printer and a rover from the charging station before heading down the hallway to the watch office. She told Lieutenant Washington that she was going out to conduct a second-level canvass of the area, now that the death had been ruled suspicious.
“Arson deaths go to RHD,” Washington said.
“I know,” Ballard replied. “There’s a meet tomorrow at eight. I just want to finish my report and pass it on. There’s a few people out there we missed the other night and now’s the time to get them. They scatter at sunup.”
Washington asked if she wanted backup and she declined. The presence of uniformed officers would not be conducive to getting information from the denizens of the Hollywood night.
She first cruised around the city park and slowly along Cole to check things out. She saw no activity, except for a few inhabitants of the encampment who were still awake and sitting on the curb or on folding chairs and smoking and drinking by themselves.
At the north end of the park, Ballard saw a group of men sitting under a streetlight. She parked her car across the street from them in front of a prop house and used the rover to call her location in to the watch office. It was a routine practice.
As she got out, she slipped off her suit jacket so the badge on her belt would be readily recognized when she approached the men. Crossing the street, she counted four men sitting together in a small clearing between two tents and a blue tarp lean-to attached to the park’s perimeter fence. One of the men spoke up in a raspy whiskey- and cigarette-cured voice before she got to them.
“Why, that’s the prettiest po-lice officer I think I ever seen.”
The other men laughed and Ballard could tell they weren’t feeling any pain at the moment.
“Evening, fellas,” she said. “Thanks for the compliment. What’s going on tonight?”
“Nothin’,” Raspy said.
“We’s just havin’ an Irish wake for Eddie,” said another, who was wearing a black beret.
A third man raised a short dog bottle of vodka to toast the fallen. “So, you guys knew Edison,” Ballard said. “Yup,” said the fourth man.
He appeared to Ballard to be barely twenty years old, his cheeks hardly holding a stubble.
“Were you guys here the other night?” she asked.
“Yeah, but we didn’t see nothing till it was all over,” said Beret.
“How about before?” Ballard asked. “Did you see Eddie earlier in the night? Was he around?”
“He was around,” Raspy said. “Had himself a fiver and he wouldn’t share none of it.”
“What’s a fiver?”
“A whole fifth of the good stuff.”
Ballard nodded. Judging by the one man’s short dog, she assumed scraping enough change on corners and from passersby to buy a fifth was a rare thing.
“How’d he get the fiver?” she asked.
“He, um, had a guardian angel,” said The Kid.
“Someone bought it for him? Did you see who?”
“Nah, just somebody. It’s what he said. Said somebody gave him the big boy for nothin’. Didn’t have to suck a cock or anything.”
“You remember what it was he was drinking?”
“No, vodka. The good stuff.”
Ballard pointed to the short dog in the other man’s hand.
“Where you guys buy your bottles?”
The man pointed with the bottle down toward Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Mostly over there at Mako’s.”
Ballard knew the place, an all-night market that primarily sold booze, smokes, rolling papers, pipes, and condoms. Ballard had responded to numerous calls there over her years on the late show. It was a place that drew rip-off artists and assaults like a magnet. Consequently, there were cameras inside and outside the business.
“You think that’s where Eddie got his fiver?” she asked.
“Yup,” said The Kid.
“Had to be,” said Short Dog. “Ain’t no other place round here open late.”
“You heard about Eddie having trouble with anybody?” she asked.
“Nah, ever’body like Eddie,” Short Dog said.
“A gentle soul,” Raspy added.
Ballard waited. Nobody volunteered anything about Eddie having trouble.
“Okay, guys, thanks,” Ballard said. “Be safe.”
“Yup,” said The Kid. “Don’t want to end up like Eddie.”
“Hey, Miss Detective,” said Beret. “Why you asking all these questions? Nobody give a shit ’bout Eddie before.”
“They do now. Good night, guys.”
Ballard got back in her car and drove down to Santa Monica Boulevard. She turned right and went down three blocks to a rundown strip shopping plaza, where Mako’s Market was located. The market anchored one end of the plaza and a twenty-four-hour donut shop held down the other end. In between there were two empty businesses, a Subway franchise, and a storefront business that offered one-stop shopping for notary needs, photocopying, and losing weight or quitting cigarettes through hypnosis.
The area patrol car was parked in front of the donut shop, confirming the cliché. Ballard got out of her car and waved her hand palm down, signaling smooth sailing. Behind the wheel of the patrol car, she could see Rollins, one of the officers who had responded to the fatal fire the other night. He flashed his lights in acknowledgment. Ballard assumed his partner was inside the donut shop.
Mako’s was a fortress. The front door had an electronic lock that had to be opened from inside. Once buzzed in, she saw the business was built like a bank in a high-crime neighborhood. The front door led to an anteroom that was ten feet wide and six feet deep. There was nothing in this space except an ATM machine against the wall to the left. Front and center was a stainless-steel counter with a large pass-through drawer and a wall of bulletproof glass rising above it. A steel door with triple locks was to the right of the counter. A man sat on a stool on the other side of the glass. He nodded at Ballard in recognition.
“How’s it going, Marko?” she said.
The man leaned forward, pushed a button, and spoke into a microphone.
“All is okay, Officer,” he said.
Ballard had heard a story about Marko Linkov having ordered the sign out front many years ago and then accepting the misspelled sign that arrived at half price. She didn’t know if it was true.
“You sell Tito’s vodka?” Ballard asked.
“Yes, sure,” Marko said. “Got it in back.”
He started to slip off his stool.
“No, I don’t want any,” Ballard said. “I just want to know. You sell a bottle of it the other night? Monday night?”
Marko thought about it for a moment and slowly nodded.
“Maybe,” he said. “I think so.”
“I need to look at your video,” Ballard said.
Marko got off the stool.
“Sure thing,” he said. “You come in.”
He disappeared to his left and Ballard heard the locks on the steel door being opened. She had expected no pushback on her request, no questions about search warrants or other legalities. Marko depended on the police to keep an eye on his business and to respond to his many calls about belligerent or suspicious customers. He knew that if he expected that kind of service it was a two-way street.
Ballard entered and Marko locked the door behind her. She noticed that in addition to the bolt locks he flipped down a metal burglar bar across the door. He wasn’t taking chances.
He led her past the display shelves to a back room used for storage and as an office. A computer stood on a small crowded desk that was pushed against a wall. A back door led to the alley behind the plaza; it, too, was steel and equipped with two burglar bars.
“Okay, so …,” Marko said.
He didn’t finish. He just opened up a screen that was quartered into four camera views, two outside the front, showing the parking lot and the front door of the shop, a third in the alley showing the back door, and the fourth a camera over the ATM in the front room. Ballard saw the patrol car still positioned outside the donut shop. Marko pointed at it.
“Those are good guys,” he said. “They hang around, watch out for me.”
Ballard still thought the donuts might be the draw but didn’t say so.
“Okay, Monday night,” she said.
Ballard had no idea when Edison Banks Jr. received the bottle of Tito’s his fellow encampment inhabitants saw him with, or how long it would have taken him to consume it. So she asked Marko to start running the playback fast, beginning at dusk on Monday. Every time a customer entered the store he would slow the video to normal speed until Ballard determined that the customer was not purchasing what she was looking for.
Twenty minutes into the playback they got a hit on Tito’s vodka but it wasn’t what Ballard expected: a Mercedes Benz coupe pulled into the lot and parked in front of Mako’s. A woman with long black hair, in stiletto heels and all-black leather pants and jacket, got out and entered the store. Inside, she bought a bottle of Tito’s after first withdrawing cash from the ATM. Mako’s was a cash-only business.
“Is she a regular?” Ballard asked.
“Her, no,” Marko said. “Never seen her. She don’t look like a working girl, you know? They different.”
“Yeah, they don’t drive Mercedes.”
Ballard watched as the woman returned to the car, got in, and drove out of the plaza’s lot, heading west on Santa Monica—the direction away from the city park where Edison Banks Jr. would burn to death about four hours later. Ballard committed the car’s license plate number to memory, which was easy because it was a California vanity plate—14U24ME.
“What is that?” Marko said.
“One for you, two for me,” Ballard said.
“Oh. That’s good.”
“Whose ATM is that?”
“It’s mine,” Marko said. “I mean, it’s a company that has them but they pay me to have it there. I get a cut, you know? It makes me good money because people need the cash when they come in here.”
“Right. Can you get records?”
“Of the withdrawals. Like if I wanted to know who she was.”
“Mmm, I don’t know. You might have to have the legal paper for that. Not my company, you see.”
“A search warrant. Okay.”
“I mean, if it was up to me, I give you, you know? I always help police. But this guy might not be the same.”
“I understand. I have her plate number. I can get it with that.”
“Okay. Keep going?”
He pointed to the computer screen.
“Yes, keep going,” Ballard said. “We’re not even halfway through the night.”
A few minutes later in real time and an hour later on the video playback, Ballard saw something that caught her eye. A man in ragged clothes pushed a shopping cart full of bottles and cans up to Mako’s, parked it on the sidewalk, and then buzzed to be allowed entrance. He came in and dumped enough change and crumpled bills into the pass-through drawer to purchase a forty-ounce bottle of Old English malt liquor. He then left the store and returned to his cart, securing the full bottle among the bottles and cans he had collected, and started pushing his way out of the lot. He headed east on Santa Monica and Ballard thought she recognized him as one of the onlookers from Monday night after the fire.
It gave her a new idea.
She decided to go find the man who collected the bottles.
Ballard caught a call just before end of shift that pulled her away from finishing her report for the RHD meeting on Banks and pushed her into unpaid overtime. It was a he said/he said case on Citrus just south of Fountain. Patrol called her out to referee a violent domestic dispute between two men who shared a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment and had fought over who got to use the shower first before work. They had been drinking and drugging most of the night and the fight began when one of the men took the last clean towel and locked himself in the bathroom. The second man objected and kicked the door open, hitting the first in the face and breaking his nose. The fight then ranged through the small apartment and woke other residents in the building. By the time the police arrived after multiple 911 calls, both men were showing injuries from the altercation and neither was going to work.