The Night Fire: A Ballard and Bosch thriller (Harry Bosch 22) (5 page)

“But too late for you. So, forget workman’s comp. We’re talking about a major claim here.”

“What about the statute of limitations? The exposure was twelve years ago.”

“The clock on something like this doesn’t start ticking until you’re diagnosed. So you’re all right there. The deal we made when you exited the police department gave you a million-dollar health-insurance cap.”

“Yeah, and if I get sick from this—I mean like really sick—I’ll burn through that in a year. I’m not going to tap into my 401K. That’s going to Maddie.”

“Right, I know. With the department, we’ll have to go through arbitration and most likely we’ll get a settlement. The hospital will be the way to go. Poor security led to this scheme, which led to your exposure. That’s our A game.”

They started eating and Haller continued with his mouth full.

“All right, so I wrap up this trial—we’ll go to the jury in another day, two at the max—and then we file a notice. I’ll need to take a video deposition from you. We schedule that, then I think we’ll have everything we need to move on.”

“Why the video—in case I die or something?”

“There’s that. But it’s mostly because I want them to see you telling the story. They hear the story from you, instead of read it in a pleading or a depo transcript, and they’ll shit their pants. They’ll know they’re on the losing end of this thing.”

“Okay, and you’ll set it up?”

“Yes. I’ve got people who do these all the time.”

Bosch had barely gotten one bite of his sandwich but Haller was halfway finished. Bosch guessed that a morning in trial made him hungry.

“I don’t want this to get out,” Bosch said. “You know what I mean? No media on it.”

“I can’t make that promise,” Haller said. “Sometimes the media can be used to apply pressure. You’re the one who got dosed with this stuff while carrying out your job. Believe me, public sympathy will be with you ten to one easy. And that can be a powerful tool.”

“Okay, then look—I need to know ahead of time if this is going to break in the media, so I can talk to Maddie first.”

“That I can promise. Now, did you keep any records from that case? Is there anything I can look at?”

“Give me a ride back to my car after this. I have the chrono and most of the important reports. I made copies back then just in case. I brought it all in my car.”

“Okay, we go back and trade files. You give me that stuff, I’ll give you what I have on Herstadt. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“You just gotta be quick with Herstadt. I’m almost out of time.”

BALLARD
7

The tent was warm and cozy and she felt safe. But then the fumes of kerosene invaded her mouth and nose and lungs and it suddenly grew hot and then it was melting around her and burning.

Ballard sat up with a start. Her hair was still damp and she checked her watch. She had only slept three hours. She thought about going back down but the edges of the dream were still with her, the smell of kerosene. She pulled a length of hair across her face and under her nose. She smelled the apple in the shampoo she had used after paddling.

“Lola.”

Her dog shot through the tent’s opening and to her side. Lola was half boxer and half pit. Ballard rubbed her wide, hard head and felt the horror of the dream receding. She wondered if the man in the tent the night before had woken at the end. She hoped not. She hoped he was so doped up or alcohol addled that he never felt pain or knew he was dying.

She ran her hand along the side of her tent. It was nylon and she imagined heat from a fire collapsing it on her like a shroud. Awake or not, the man had died a horrible death.

She pulled her phone out of her backpack and checked for messages. No calls or texts, just an e-mail from Nuccio, the arson investigator, saying he had received her report and he would send her his reports in turn when completed. He said that he and his partner had determined the death was accidental and that the victim remained unidentified because whatever ID he had with him in the tent had burned.

Ballard put the phone away.

“Let’s take a walk, girl.”

Ballard climbed out of the tent with her backpack and looked around. She was thirty yards from the Rose Avenue lifeguard stand but it looked empty. There was nobody in the water. It was too cold for that.

“Aaron?” she called.

The lifeguard poked his curly-haired head up over the sill of the stand and she wondered whether he had been up there sleeping on the bench. She pointed to her tent and the paddleboard on the sand next to it.

“You watch my stuff? I’m going to get coffee.”

Aaron gave her the thumbs-up.

“You want anything?”

Aaron turned his thumb down. Ballard pulled a leash out of one of the zippered pockets on the backpack and snapped it onto Lola’s collar, then headed toward the line of restaurants and tourist stores that lined the beach walk a hundred yards from the ocean. She carried the backpack over one shoulder.

She went to Groundwork on Westminster, got a latte, and grabbed a table in the back corner where she could work without drawing attention from other patrons. Lola slid under the table and found a comfortable spot to lie down. Ballard opened the backpack and pulled out her laptop and the murder book Bosch had left for her.

This time she decided not to jump around in the book. The first section was most important anyway. It was the chronological record. It was basically a case diary, where the detectives assigned to the case described all their moves and the steps taken during the investigation.

Before starting her read she opened the laptop and ran the names George Hunter and his partner, Maxwell Talis, through the LAPD personnel computer and determined that both detectives were long retired, Hunter in 1996 and Talis the year after. It appeared that Hunter had since died but Talis was still receiving a pension. This was valuable information because if she decided to do a thorough reexamination of the Hilton murder, she should try to talk to him about what he remembered of the case.

She closed the laptop and opened up the murder book. She started reading the chrono from the first entry—the callout. Hunter and Talis were at their desks at Hollywood Detectives on a Friday morning when alerted that patrol officers had come upon a car parked in an alley behind a row of shops off Melrose Avenue and the 101 freeway overpass. The detectives responded along with teams from the crime scene unit and the coroner’s office.

The victim was a white male tentatively identified as John Hilton, twenty-four years old, by the driver’s license found in the wallet on the floor of the 1988 Toyota Corolla. The photo on the license appeared to match the face of the man lying on his right side across the front seats and center console of the car.

A computer check of the name and birth date on the DL determined that this Hilton was not the scion of a hotel family but an ex-con who had been released a year earlier from a state prison after serving thirty months for drug possession and burglary convictions.

As lead detective, George Hunter had composed all of the early entries of the chrono, signing each one with his initials. These gave Ballard a good insight into how the investigation was initially focused. As she had surmised on her first quick overview of the book, the investigation took its cue from the victim’s prior history of drug abuse and petty crime. Hunter and Talis clearly believed that this had been a drug rip-off and that Hilton had been murdered for as little as the price of a single hit of heroin.

Ballard now handled all calls for a detective on the midnight shift, but her previous posting had been as a homicide detective working specialty cases out of the downtown police headquarters. While the department’s look-the-other-way sexual politics and systemic misogyny had caused her transfer to the lesser assignment, her skills as a homicide investigator had not deteriorated. Bosch had recognized this and tapped into it when they had crossed paths on a case the previous year. They had agreed to work cases together in the future, even if off the record and below department radar. Bosch was retired and an outsider, no longer encumbered by LAPD rules and procedure. Ballard was not retired but she was certainly out of sight and out of mind on the midnight shift. That made her both an insider and an outsider. All of her homicide skills now told her this was most likely an impossible case: an eighty-dollar drug rip-off that had ended with a bullet nearly thirty years before. There might have been something here that stuck in John Jack Thompson’s craw and lit his fire, but whatever that was would be long gone now.

She first began to suspect that Hilton was a snitch. Perhaps a snitch for Thompson, which was why the detective took an active interest in the case, even though he was not assigned to it. She took a notebook out of her backpack. The first thing she wrote down was a question for Bosch.

How many other murder books did JJT steal?

It was an important question because it went to the level of dedication to this case. Bosch was right. If she could figure out why Thompson took this particular murder book, she might be able to zero in on a motive and then a suspect. But as described in the early entries of the chronology, this was a pedestrian murder—if there was such a thing—that would have been nearly impossible to solve at the time, let alone twenty-nine years later.

“Shit,” Ballard whispered.

Lola alerted, raised her head, and looked up at her. Ballard rubbed the dog’s head.

“It’s okay, girl,” she said.

She went back to the chrono and continued to read and take notes.

The manual transmission of Hilton’s car had been in neutral but the key was in the ignition and in the on position. The engine was dead because the gas tank was empty. It was assumed that Hilton had cruised into the alley to make a drive-through drug purchase and had been shot after stopping and putting the transmission in neutral. It could not be determined how much gas had been in the tank when Hilton entered the alley, but the coroner’s investigators estimated that time of death had been between midnight and four a.m., which was four to eight hours before the body was discovered by one of the shop owners arriving for work and parking behind his business.

Both front windows of the car were open. Hilton had been shot point-blank behind the right ear. This led the detectives to surmise that they were possibly looking for two suspects: one who came to the driver’s door and drew Hilton’s attention and another—the true killer—who came to the passenger door, reached through the window with a gun, and executed Hilton as he was turned and looking out the window. This theory was supported by the location of the shell casing ejected from the murder weapon. It was found on the passenger floor mat, an indication that the gun had been fired from that side of the car. Hilton then most likely slumped against the driver’s door but was pushed back over the center console when his pockets were searched. In the crime scene photos, both front pockets of his pants had been pulled inside out.

To Ballard, the theory of two killers and how they carried out the crime veered slightly from the idea of it being a robbery. It was colder, more calculated. It felt planned to her. A drug rip-off would have also been planned to some extent but usually not with this kind of precision. She began to wonder whether the original detectives had zeroed in on the wrong motive from the start. This could have led to tunnel vision on the investigation, with Hunter and Talis ignoring any clue that didn’t fit their premise.

She also discounted the theory by the original investigators that two killers were involved—one to distract Hilton from the left, one to reach into the car from the right to shoot. She knew that a solo gunman could have easily carried out the killing. Hilton’s attention to his left could have been drawn by any number of things in the alley.

She wrote another note, wanting to remind herself to bring all of this up with Bosch, and then went back to the chrono.

Hunter and Talis focused their search for suspects on the immediate neighborhood and among the dealers known to sell in the alley. They checked with the sergeant in charge of a street-level narcotics unit assigned to Hollywood Division who said his team had intermittently worked undercover buy-bust operations in the area, as it was a known drug market because of its proximity to the 101 freeway. Customers came to Hollywood, jumped off the freeway at Melrose, and made drug purchases before jumping back on the freeway and getting far away from the transaction. Additionally, the location was close to several movie studios, and employees picked up drugs on their way to or from work, unless they were upper-level creatives who had their purchases delivered directly to them.

The chrono noted that the drug clientele in the area was mostly white, while the dealers were exclusively black males who were supplied product by a street gang from South L.A. The Rolling 60s Crips gang had laid claim to this section of Hollywood and enforced its grip with violence. The murder of John Hilton was not good for business because it flooded the area with police activity and shut things down. One note on the chrono stated that a street informant had told a gang officer that members of the Rolling 60s were attempting to identify the killer themselves to eliminate and make an example of him. Business came first, gang loyalty second.

That note froze Ballard and made her wonder whether she was chasing a ghost. The Rolling 60s could have caught and executed the killer or killers of John Hilton decades earlier without the LAPD making the connection between the two cases.

Apparently undaunted by the same question, Hunter and Talis put together a list of known drug dealers who worked in the area and began bringing them in for questioning. None of the interviews produced suspects or leads on the case, but Ballard noticed that the roster was incomplete. A few people on the list were never found or questioned. Among them was a man named Elvin Kidd, a Rolling 60s Crips gang member who was at a street-boss level and ran the territory where the Hilton murder took place.

They steered completely clear of another dealer, Dennard Dorsey, when they were told he was on keep-away status because he was a valuable informant. The snitch’s handler—a Major Narcotics unit detective named Brendan Sloan—did the interview and reported back that his man knew nothing of value in regard to the Hilton murder.

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