The Night Fire: A Ballard and Bosch thriller (Harry Bosch 22) (6 page)

Ballard wrote all of the names down. She was bothered that the homicide detectives didn’t interview all the dealers and had left questioning the snitch to his department handler. To her it meant that this angle of the investigation was incomplete. She didn’t know whether laziness or something else had gotten in the way. The murder counts in the city back in the late ’80s and early ’90s were the highest in the city’s history. It was likely that Hunter and Talis had other cases at the time, with new ones constantly coming in.

She finished going through the chronology an hour and one more latte later. The thing that struck her was that the document ended with an entry from Talis on the one-year anniversary of the murder:

No new leads or suspects at this time. Case remains open and active.

And that was it. No explanation as to how it was still actively being pursued.

Ballard knew it was bullshit. The case had ground to a halt for lack of leads and viable angles of investigation. The detectives were waiting for what in homicide was called a “miracle cure” in the form of someone coming forward with the killer’s name. This would most likely have to be someone from the underworld—someone arrested and facing charges, looking to deal their way out of a jam. Only then would they get a name they could run with. So it was kept “open and active,” but Hunter and Talis were on to other things.

What also struck Ballard as missing was the work of John Jack Thompson. During the years he had held the murder book, he had apparently added nothing to it. There was nothing from him in the chronology that indicated he had made any moves, conducted any interviews, or broken any new ground on the case. Ballard wondered whether he had kept notes of his private investigation separate so as not to change or taint the record of the original investigation. She knew she would have to talk to Bosch about it and possibly go back to Thompson’s house and home office to see whether there was a second murder book or any record of Thompson’s work on the case.

She moved on from the chronology to fuller reports filed by the investigators based on the evidence collected and witness interviews. In the victim section of the murder book she read a bio authored by Talis and drawn from interviews and official documents. The victim’s mother and stepfather were still alive at the time of the killing. According to the written account, Sandra Hilton expressed no surprise at her son’s demise and said he had come back from his stint at Corcoran State Prison a different person. She said he seemed broken from the experience and wanted nothing more than to get high all the time. She admitted that she and her husband kicked John out of the house shortly after he returned from prison and appeared to be making no effort to integrate into society. He said he wanted to be an artist but did nothing to pursue it as a career. He was stealing from them in order to support his drug habit.

Donald Hilton stood by his decision to evict John from the family home in the Toluca Lake area. He was quick to note that John was his adopted son but was already eleven when Donald met Sandra and the two got married. His biological father had not been a part of John’s life for those first eleven years, and Donald said that behavioral problems were already deeply set in the boy. Lacking a blood relation to the young man he raised apparently allowed him to kick him out of the house later on without a guilty conscience.

A section of the report had been redacted with a black marker. Two lines in the middle of the interview summary were completely blacked out. This seemed odd to Ballard because a murder book was already a confidential document. The exception to this was when a case was filed and murder book documents became part of discovery and turned over to the defense. On some occasions redacting occurred to protect the names of informants and others. But this case had never resulted in charges, and it seemed odd to Ballard that an interview with the parents of a victim would contain any information that would need to be kept hidden or secret. She opened the binder’s rings and removed the page, studying the back to see if any of the redacted words could be read. Unable to make anything out, she put the page at the front of the binder to remind herself of the anomaly every time she opened the book: What information had been redacted from the case file? And who did it?

Ballard’s review of the other witness summaries produced only one notable question. Hilton had shared an apartment in North Hollywood with a man named Nathan Brazil, who was described as a production assistant at Archway Studios in Hollywood. Ballard knew the studio was on Melrose Avenue near Paramount—and near where Hilton was murdered. Brazil told the investigators that he was working the night of the murder on a film production and Hilton had dropped by the guarded entrance to the studio and asked for him. Brazil did not get the message until hours later and by then Hilton was gone. Presumably he left the studio and proceeded down Melrose to the alley where he was shot and killed. Brazil told investigators that it was unusual for Hilton to come to his workplace. It had never happened before and he didn’t know why Hilton did so or what he wanted.

It was another mystery within the mystery that Hunter and Talis had not solved.

Ballard looked at her notes. She had written down the names of several people she would have to run down and interview, if they were still alive.

Maxwell Talis

Donald Hilton

Sandra Hilton

Thompson widow

Vincent Pilkey, dealer

Dennard Dorsey, dealer/snitch—protected

Brendan Sloan, narcotics

Elvin Kidd

Nathan Brazil, roommate

Ballard knew that John Jack Thompson’s widow was alive, as well as presumably Maxwell Talis. Brendan Sloan was still around as well. Sloan, in fact, was well known to her. He had risen from narcotics detective to deputy chief in the twenty-nine years since the Hilton murder. He was in charge of West Bureau. Ballard had never met him but since Hollywood Division fell under West Bureau’s command, Sloan was technically her boss.

Ballard’s back was stiffening. It was a combination of a tough morning paddle into strong headwinds, a lack of sleep, and the hard wooden chair she had been sitting on for two hours. She closed the murder book, deciding to leave the remaining pages and reports for later. She reached down to ruffle Lola’s scruff.

“Let’s go see Double, girl!”

The dog’s tail wagged violently. Double was her friend, a French bulldog being boarded at the day-care center where Lola spent most nights and some days when Ballard worked.

Ballard needed to drop Lola off so she could continue to work the case.

8

Ballard’s first stop was Property Division, where she checked out the sealed evidence box marked with the John Hilton murder case number. She could tell right away that it was not a twenty-nine-year-old box and the sealing tape was not yellowed as would have been expected. The box had obviously been repacked, which was not unusual. The Property Division was a massive warehouse but still too small for all the evidence stored there. Consolidation was an ongoing project and old, dusty evidence boxes were often opened and repacked in smaller boxes to save room. Ballard had the evidence list from the murder book that she could use to make sure everything was intact—the victim’s clothes, personal belongings, etc. She was primarily looking for two things: the expended bullet retrieved from Hilton’s body during autopsy and the casing retrieved from the floor of his car.

She checked the sign-out sheet on the box and saw that, other than the repackaging that had taken place six years earlier, the box had apparently not been opened since it was placed in Property by the original two detectives—Hunter and Talis—nearly three decades before. This would generally not be unusual because no suspects had ever been developed, so there was no reason to analyze collected evidence in regard to a potential killer. Hunter and Talis had collected the evidence and had a list of the box’s contents in the murder book. They knew firsthand what they had. They had seen it and held it.

However, what Ballard did find curious was that John Jack Thompson, when he took possession of the murder book and apparently started working the case, had never gone to Property and pulled the box. He had never checked out the physical evidence.

It was literally the first move Ballard had made. Yes, she had the property list from the murder book, but she still wanted to see the evidence. It was a visceral thing, like an extension of the crime scene photos. It brought her close to the case, closer to the victim, and she could not see pulling and working a case without this necessary step. Yet Thompson, the mentor to two generations of detectives, had apparently chosen not to.

Ballard put the question aside and started going through the contents of the box, checking them off against the list from the murder book and studying each piece of clothing and every item gathered from the Corolla. She had seen something in the crime scene photos that she wanted to find: a small notebook that was in the console between the front seats of the car. An entry on the property list said simply
notebook
, with no description of its contents or any detail about why Hilton kept a notebook by his side in his car.

She found it in a brown paper bag with other items from the console. These included a lighter, a drug pipe, spare change amounting to eighty-seven cents, a pen, and a parking ticket issued six weeks before Hilton’s death. The parking ticket had been explored by the original investigators and there was a report in the murder book on their efforts. The ticket appeared to be a dead end. It had been issued on a street in Los Feliz where a friend of Hilton’s lived. The friend recalled that Hilton had visited to sell the friend a clock radio he said his stepfather had given him. But he ended up staying at the apartment for several hours when the friend shared a hit of heroin with him. While Hilton was nodding off in his friend’s apartment, his car was being ticketed. Hunter and Talis deemed the ticket irrelevant to the investigation and Ballard saw nothing that made her think otherwise.

Now she opened the notebook and found Hilton’s name and a number she assumed was his prisoner number at Corcoran written on the inside flap. The pages of the notebook were largely filled with pencil studies and full sketches of hard-looking men, many with tattoos on their faces and necks. Other prisoners, Ballard surmised. The finished drawings were quite good and Ballard thought Hilton had some artistic talent. Knowing that he had this other dimension beyond drug addict and petty thief humanized him to her. Nobody deserved to be shot to death in a car, no matter what they were doing, but it was helpful to get a human connection. It added fuel to the fire that the detective needed to somehow keep burning. She wondered if Hunter or Talis or Thompson had made a connection to Hilton through this notebook. She doubted it. If they had, it would have been kept in the murder book so that the detective could see it and open it when he needed to stoke the fire.

Ballard finished flipping through the pages. One sketch caught her eye and she held on it. It was of a black man with a shaved head. He was turned away from the artist and on his neck was a six-pointed star with the number
60
in its center. Ballard knew that all Crips gangs or sets shared the symbol of the six-pointed star, its points symbolizing the early altruistic goals of the gang: love, life, loyalty, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. The
60
in the middle of the star was what caught Ballard’s eye. It meant that the subject of the sketch was a Rolling 60s Crip, a member of the same set of the notoriously violent gang that controlled drug sales in the alley where Hilton was murdered. Was that a coincidence? It appeared that Hilton had sketched this man while in prison; less than two years after his release, he was killed on Rolling 60s turf.

None of this had been in any reports in the murder book that Ballard had read. She made a mental note to check again. It might be a significant clue or it might be purely coincidental.

She flipped farther into the notebook and saw another drawing, which she thought might be the same man with the Rolling 60s tattoo. But his face was turned away and shadowed. She couldn’t be sure. Then she found what she believed was a self-portrait. It looked like the face of the man she had seen in the crime scene photos. In the drawing, the man had haunted eyes with deep circles beneath them. He looked scared, and something about the drawing punched Ballard in the chest.

Ballard decided to add the notebook to the items she checked out of Property. The drawings reminded her of a case that was cracked by the cold case unit a few years earlier, when Ballard had been assigned to the Robbery-Homicide Division. Detective Mitzi Roberts had connected three murders of prostitutes to a drifter named Sam Little. Little was caught and convicted, then from prison started confessing to dozens of murders committed over four decades and all over the country. They were all “throwaway” victims—drug addicts and prostitutes—whom society, and police departments, had marginalized and given little notice to. Little was an artist and he sketched pictures of his victims to help visiting investigators identify the women and the cases. He held their images in his head, but not so often their names. He was given a full set of artist supplies and his drawings were in color and very realistic, eventually matching up to victims in multiple states and helping to clear cases. But they didn’t serve to humanize Sam Little, only his victims. Little was seen as a psychopath who showed no mercy to his victims and deserved no mercy in return.

Ballard signed out the bullet evidence and the notebook and left the Property Division. She called Bosch when she got outside.

“What’s up?”

“I just came out of Property. I pulled the bullet and casing. Tomorrow is Walk-In Wednesday at ballistics. I’ll go right after my shift.”

“Sounds good. Anything else in the box?”

“Hilton was a sketch artist. He had a notebook in his car that had drawings from prison. I checked it out.”

“How come?”

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