The Night Fire: A Ballard and Bosch thriller (Harry Bosch 22) (2 page)

From there Ballard took a walk up and down the block, looking for cameras. The homeless encampment ran along the city park’s outdoor basketball courts, where there were no security cameras. On the west side of Cole was a line of one-story warehouses inhabited by prop houses and equipment-rental houses catering to the film and television industry. Ballard saw a few cameras but suspected that they were either dummies or set at angles that would not be helpful to the investigation.

When she got back to the scene, she saw Dvorek conferring with two of his patrol officers. Ballard recognized them from the morning-watch roll call at Hollywood Division.

“Anything?” Ballard asked.

“About what you’d expect,” Dvorek said. “‘I didn’t see nothin’, I didn’t hear nothin’, I don’t know nothin’.’ Waste of time.”

Ballard nodded. “Had to be done,” she said.

“So where the fuck is arson?” Dvorek asked. “I need to get my people back out.”

“Last I heard, in transit. They don’t run twenty-four hours, so they had to roust a team from home.”

“Jesus, we’ll be waiting out here all night. Did you roll the coroner out yet?”

“On the way. You can probably clear half your guys and yourself. Just leave one car here.”

“You got it.”

Dvorek went off to issue new orders to his officers. Ballard walked back to the immediate crime scene and looked at the tent that had melted over the dead man like a shroud. She was staring down at it when peripheral movement caught her eye. She looked up to see a woman and a girl climbing out of a shelter made of a blue plastic tarp tied to the fence that surrounded the basketball court. Ballard moved quickly to them and redirected them away from the body.

“Honey, you don’t want to go over there,” she said. “Come this way.”

She walked them down the sidewalk to the end of the encampment.

“What happened?” the woman asked.

Ballard studied the girl as she answered.

“Somebody got burned,” she said. “Did you see anything? It happened about an hour ago.”

“We were sleeping,” the woman said. “She’s got school in the morning.”

The girl had still not said anything.

“Why aren’t you in a shelter?” Ballard asked. “This is dangerous out here. That fire could’ve spread.”

She looked from the mother to the daughter.

“How old are you?”

The girl had large brown eyes and brown hair and was slightly overweight. The woman stepped in front of her and answered Ballard.

“Please don’t take her from me.”

Ballard saw the pleading look in the woman’s brown eyes.

“I’m not here to do that. I just want to make sure she’s safe. You’re her mother?”

“Yes. My daughter.”

“What’s her name?”

“Amanda—Mandy.”

“How old?”

“Fourteen.”

Ballard leaned down to talk to the girl. She had her eyes cast down.

“Mandy? Are you okay?”

She nodded.

“Would you want me to try to get you and your mother into a shelter for women and children? It might be better than being out here.”

Mandy looked up at her mother when she answered.

“No. I want to stay here with my mother.”

“I’m not going to separate you. I will take you and your mother if you want.”

The girl looked up at her mother again for guidance.

“You put us in there and they will take her away,” the mother said. “I know they will.”

“No, I’ll stay here,” the girl said quickly.

“Okay,” Ballard said. “I won’t do anything, but I don’t think this is where you should be. It’s not safe out here for either of you.”

“The shelters aren’t safe either,” the mother said. “People steal all your stuff.”

Ballard pulled out a business card and handed it to her.

“Call me if you need anything,” she said. “I work the midnight shift. I’ll be around if you need me.”

The mother took the card and nodded. Ballard’s thoughts returned to the case. She turned and gestured toward the crime scene.

“Did you know him?” she asked.

“A little,” the mother said. “He minded his own business.”

“Do you know his name?”

“Uh, I think it was Ed. Eddie, he said.”

“Okay. Had he been here a long time?”

“A couple months. He said he had been over at Blessed Sacrament but it was getting too crowded for him.”

Ballard knew that Blessed Sacrament on Sunset allowed the homeless to camp on the front portico. She drove by it often and knew it to be heavily crowded at night with tents and makeshift shelters, all of which disappeared at daylight before church services began.

Hollywood was a different place in the dark hours, after the neon and glitter had dimmed. Ballard saw the change every night. It became a place of predators and prey and nothing in between, a place where the haves were comfortably and safely behind their locked doors and the have-nots freely roamed. Ballard always remembered the words of a late-show patrol poet. He called them
human tumbleweeds moving with the winds of fate.

“Did he have any trouble with anybody here?” she asked.

“Not that I saw,” said the mother.

“Did you see him last night?”

“No, I don’t think so. He wasn’t around when we went to sleep.” Ballard looked at Amanda to see if she had a response but was interrupted by a voice from behind.

“Detective?”

Ballard turned around. It was one of Dvorek’s officers. His name was Rollins. He was new to the division or he wouldn’t have been so formal.

“What?”

“The guys from arson are here. They—”

“Okay. I’ll be right there.”

She turned back to the woman and her daughter.

“Thank you,” she said. “And remember, you can call me anytime.”

As Ballard headed back toward the body and the men from arson, she couldn’t help remembering again that line about tumbleweeds. Written on a field interview card by an officer Ballard later learned had seen too much of the depressing and dark hours of Hollywood and taken his own life.

4

The men from arson were named Nuccio and Spellman. Following LAFD protocol, they were wearing blue coveralls with the LAFD badge on the chest pocket and the word
ARSON
across the back. Nuccio was the senior investigator and he said he would be lead. Both men shook Ballard’s hand before Nuccio announced that they would take the investigation from there. Ballard explained that a cursory sweep of the homeless encampment had produced no witnesses, while a walk up and down Cole Avenue had found no cameras with an angle on the fatal fire. She also mentioned that the coroner’s office was rolling a unit to the scene and a criminalist from the LAPD lab was en route as well.

Nuccio seemed uninterested. He handed Ballard a business card with his e-mail address on it and asked that she forward the death report she would write up when she got back to Hollywood Station.

“That’s it?” Ballard asked. “That’s all you need?”

She knew that LAFD arson experts had law enforcement and detective training and were expected to conduct a thorough investigation of any fire involving a death. She also knew they were competitive with the LAPD in the way a little brother might be with his older sibling. The arson guys didn’t like being in the LAPD’s shadow.

“That’s it,” Nuccio said. “You send me your report and I’ll have your e-mail. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.”

“You’ll have it by dawn,” Ballard said. “You want to keep the uniforms here while you work?”

“Sure. One or two of them would be nice. Just have them watch our backs.”

Ballard walked away and over to Rollins and his partner, Randolph, who were waiting by their car for instructions. She told them to stand by and keep the scene secure while the investigation proceeded.

Ballard used her cell to call the Hollywood Division watch office and report that she was about to leave the scene. The lieutenant was named Washington. He was a new transfer from Wilshire Division. Though he had previously worked Watch Three, as the midnight shift was officially called, he was still getting used to things at Hollywood Division. Most divisions went quiet after midnight but Hollywood rarely did. That was why they called it the Late Show.

“LAFD has no need for me here, L-T,” Ballard said.

“What’s it look like?” Washington asked.

“Like the guy kicked over his kerosene heater while he was sleeping. But we’ve got no wits or cameras in the area. Not that we found, and I’m not thinking the arson guys are going to look too hard beyond that.”

Washington was silent for a few moments while he came to a decision.

“All right, then come back to the house and write it up,” he finally said. “They want it all by themselves, they can have it.”

“Roger that,” Ballard said. “I’m heading in.”

She disconnected and walked over to Rollins and Randolph, telling them she was leaving the scene and that they should call her at the station if anything new came up.

The station was only five minutes away at four in the morning. The rear parking lot was quiet as Ballard headed to the back door. She used her key card to enter and took the long way to the detective bureau so that she could go through the watch office and check in with Washington. He was only in his second deployment period and still learning and feeling his way. Ballard had been purposely wandering through the watch office two or three times a shift to make herself familiar to Washington. Technically her boss was Terry McAdams, the division’s detective lieutenant, but she almost never saw him because he worked days. In reality, Washington was her boots-on-the-ground boss and she wanted to solidly establish the relationship.

Washington was behind his desk looking at his deployment screen, which showed the GPS locations of every police unit in the division. He was tall, African-American, with a shaved head.

“How’s it going?” Ballard asked.

“All quiet on the western front,” Washington said.

His eyes were squinted and holding on a particular point on the screen. Ballard pivoted around the side of his desk so she could see it too.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’ve got three units at Seward and Santa Monica,” Washington said. “I’ve got no call there.”

Ballard pointed. The division was divided into thirty-five geographic zones called reporting districts and these were in turn covered by seven basic car areas. At any given time there was a patrol in each car area, with other cars belonging to supervisors like Sergeant Dvorek, who had division-wide patrol responsibilities.

“You’ve got three basic car areas that are contiguous there,” she said. “And that’s where an all-night
mariscos
truck parks. They can all code seven there without leaving their zones.”

“Got it,” Washington said. “Thanks, Ballard. Good to know.”

“No problem. I’m going to go brew a fresh pot in the break room. You want a cup?”

“Ballard, I might not know about that
mariscos
truck out there, but I know about you. You don’t need to be fetching coffee for me. I can get my own.”

Ballard was surprised by the answer and immediately wanted to ask what exactly Washington knew about her. But she didn’t.

“Got it,” she said instead.

She walked back down the main hall and then hooked a left down the hallway that led to the detective bureau. As expected, the squad room was deserted. Ballard checked the wall clock and saw that she had over two hours until the end of her shift. That gave her plenty of time to write up the report on the fire death. She headed to the cubicle she used in the back corner. It was a spot that gave her a full view of the room and anybody who came in.

She had left her laptop open on the desk when she got the callout on the tent fire. She stood in front of the desk for a few moments before sitting down. Someone had changed the setting on the small radio she usually set up at her station. It had been changed from the KNX 1070 news station she usually had playing to KJAZ 88.1. Someone had also moved her computer to the side, and a faded blue binder—a murder book—had been left front and center on the desk. She flipped it open and there was a Post-it on the table of contents.

Don’t say I never gave you anything.
B
PS: Jazz is better for you than news.

Ballard took the Post-it off because it was covering the name of the victim.

John Hilton—DOB 1/17/66–DOD 8/3/90

She didn’t need the table of contents to find the photo section of the book. She flipped several sections of reports over on the three steel loops and found the photos secured in plastic sleeves. The photos showed the body of the young man slumped across the front seat of a car, a bullet hole behind his right ear.

She studied the photos for a moment and then closed the binder. She pulled her phone, looked up a number, and called it, checking her watch as she waited. A man answered quickly and did not sound to Ballard as if he had been pulled from the depths of sleep.

“It’s Ballard,” she said. “You were in here at the station tonight?”

“Uh, yeah, I dropped by about an hour ago,” Bosch said. “You weren’t there.”

“I was on a call. So where’d this murder book come from?”

“I guess you could say it’s been missing in action. I went to a funeral yesterday—my first partner in homicide way back when. The guy who mentored me. He passed on and I went to the funeral, and then afterward at his house, his wife—his widow—gave me the book. She wanted me to return it. So that’s what I did. I returned it to you.”

Ballard flipped the binder open again and read the basic case information above the table of contents.

“George Hunter was your partner?” she asked.

“No,” Bosch said. “My partner was John Jack Thompson. This wasn’t his case originally.”

“It wasn’t his case, but when he retired he stole the murder book.”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d say he stole it.”

“Then what would you say?”

“I’d say he took over the investigation of a case nobody was working. Read the chrono, you’ll see it was gathering dust. The original case detective probably retired and nobody was doing anything with it.”

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