Ballard and Jenkins rolled up on the house on El Centro shortly before midnight. It was the first call of the shift. There was already a patrol cruiser at the curb out front and Ballard recognized the two blue suiters standing on the front porch of the bungalow with a gray-haired woman in a bathrobe. John Stanley was the shift’s senior lead officer — the street boss — and his partner was Jacob Ross.
“I think this one’s yours,” Jenkins said.
They had found in their two-year partnership that Ballard was the better of the two at working with female victims. It wasn’t that Jenkins was an ogre but Ballard was more understanding of the emotions of female victims. The opposite was true when they rolled up on a case with a male victim.
“Roger that,” Ballard said.
They got out of the car and headed toward the lighted porch. Ballard carried her rover in her hand. As they went up the three steps, Stanley introduced them to the woman. Her name was Leslie Anne Lantana and she was seventy-seven years old. Ballard didn’t think there was going to be much for them to do here. Most burglaries amounted to a report, maybe a call for the fingerprint car to come by if they got lucky and saw some indication that the thief had touched surfaces from which latent prints were likely to be pulled.
“Mrs. Lantana got a fraud alert e-mail tonight saying someone attempted to charge a purchase on Amazon to her credit card,” Stanley said.
“But it wasn’t you,” Ballard said to Mrs. Lantana, stating the obvious.
“No, it was on the card I keep for emergencies and I never use it online,” Lantana said. “That’s why the purchase was flagged. I use a different card for Amazon.”
“Okay,” Ballard said. “Did you call the credit card company?”
“First I went to check on the card to see if I’d lost it, and I found my wallet was missing from my purse. It’s been stolen.”
“Any idea where or when it was stolen?”
“I went to Ralphs for my groceries yesterday, so I know I had my wallet then. After that I came home and I haven’t gone out.”
“Did you use a credit card to pay?”
“No, cash. I always pay cash at Ralphs. But I did pull out my Ralphs card to get the savings.”
“Do you think you could’ve left your wallet at Ralphs? Maybe at the cash register when you pulled out the card?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’m very careful about my things. My wallet and my purse. And I’m not senile.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest that, ma’am. I’m just asking questions.”
Ballard moved in another direction, even though she wasn’t convinced that Lantana had not left her wallet behind at Ralphs, where it could have been snatched by anybody.
“Who lives here with you, ma’am?” she asked.
“No one,” Lantana said. “I live alone. Except for Cosmo. He’s my dog.”
“Since you got back from Ralphs yesterday, has anyone knocked on your door or been in the house?”
“And no friends or relatives visited?”
“No, but they wouldn’t have taken my wallet if they had come by.”
“Of course, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise. I’m just trying to get an idea of comings and goings. So you’re saying you have been home the whole time since Ralphs?”
“Yes, I’ve been home.”
“What about Cosmo? Do you walk Cosmo?”
“Sure, twice a day. But I lock the house when I go out and I don’t go far. He’s an old dog and I’m not getting any younger myself.”
Ballard smiled sympathetically.
“Do you take these walks at the same time every day?”
“Yes, we keep a schedule. It’s better for the dog.”
“About how long are your walks?”
“Thirty minutes in the morning and usually a little longer in the afternoon. Depending on how we feel.”
Ballard nodded. She knew that all it would have taken for a thief cruising the area south of Santa Monica was to spot the woman walking her dog and follow her home. He’d keep watch to determine if she lived alone and then come back the next day at the same time when she took the dog out again. Most people didn’t realize that their simplest routines made them vulnerable to predators. A practiced thief would be in and out of the house in ten minutes tops.
“Have you looked around to see if anything else is missing, ma’am?” Ballard asked.
“Not yet,” Lantana said. “I called the police as soon as I knew my wallet was gone.”
“Well, let’s go in and take a quick look around and see if you notice anything else missing,” Ballard said.
While Ballard escorted Lantana through the house, Jenkins went to check whether the lock on the back door had been tampered with. In Lantana’s bedroom, there was a dog on a sleeping cushion. He was a boxer mix and his face was white with age. His shining eyes tracked Ballard but he did not get up. He was too old. He emitted a deep-chested growl.
“Everything’s all right, Cosmo,” Lantana assured him.
“What is he, boxer and what?” Ballard asked.
“Ridgeback,” Lantana said. “We think.”
Ballard wasn’t sure whether the “we” referred to Lantana and the dog or somebody else. Maybe Lantana and her veterinarian.
The old woman finished her survey of the house with a look through her jewelry drawer and reported that nothing other than the wallet seemed to be missing. It made Ballard think about Ralphs again, or that the burglar possibly thought he had less time than he actually had to go through the house.
Jenkins rejoined them and said there were no indications that the lock on the front or back door had been picked, jimmied, or in any other way tampered with.
“When you walked the dog, did you see anything unusual on the street?” Ballard asked the old woman. “Anybody out of place?”
“No, nothing unusual,” Lantana said.
“Is there any construction on the street? Workers hanging around?”
“No, not around here.”
Ballard asked Lantana to show her the e-mail notice she had received from the credit card company. They went to a small nook in the kitchen, where Lantana had a laptop computer, a printer, and filing trays stacked with envelopes. It was obviously the home station, where she took care of paying bills and online ordering. Lantana sat down and pulled up the e-mail alert on her computer screen. Ballard leaned over her shoulder to read it. She then asked Lantana to call the credit card company again.
Lantana made the call on a wall phone with a long cord that stretched to the nook. Eventually the phone was handed to Ballard and she stepped into the hallway with Jenkins, pulling the cord to its full extension. She was talking to a fraud alert specialist with an English-Indian accent. Ballard identified herself as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and asked for the shipping address that had been entered for the credit card purchase before it was rejected as possibly fraudulent. The fraud alert specialist said he could not provide that information without court approval.
“What do you mean?” Ballard asked. “You are the fraud alert specialist, right? This was fraud, and if you give me the address, I might be able to do something about it.”
“I am sorry,” the specialist said. “I cannot do this. Our legal office must tell me to do so and they have not.”
“Let me talk to the legal office.”
“They are closed now. It is lunchtime and they close.”
“Then let me talk to your supervisor.”
Ballard looked at Jenkins and shook her head in frustration.
“Look, it’s all going to the burglary table in the morning,” Jenkins said. “Why don’t you let them deal with it?”
“Because they won’t deal with it,” Ballard said. “It will get lost in the stack. They won’t follow up and that’s not fair to her.”
She nodded toward the kitchen, where the crime victim was sitting and looking forlorn.
“Nobody said anything about anything being fair,” Jenkins said. “It is what it is.”
After five minutes the supervisor came on the line. Ballard explained that they had a fluid situation and needed to move quickly to catch the person who stole Mrs. Lantana’s credit card. The supervisor explained that the attempted use of the credit card did not go through, so the fraud alert system had worked.
“There is no need for this ‘fluid situation,’ as you say,” he said.
“The system only works if we catch the guy,” Ballard said. “Don’t you see? Stopping the card from being used is only part of it. That protects your corporate client. It doesn’t protect Mrs. Lantana, who had someone inside her house.”
“I am sorry,” the supervisor said. “I cannot help you without documentation from the courts. It is our protocol.”
“What is your name?”
“My name is Irfan.”
“Where are you, Irfan?”
“How do you mean?”
“Are you in Mumbai? Delhi? Where?”
“I am in Mumbai, yes.”
“And that’s why you don’t give a shit. Because this guy’s never going come into your house and steal your wallet in Mumbai. Thanks very much.”
She stepped back into the kitchen and hung up the phone before the useless supervisor could respond. She turned back to her partner.
“Okay, we go back to the barn, write it up, give it to the burglary table,” she said. “Let’s go.”
Ballard and Jenkins didn’t make it back to the station to begin writing the report on the Lantana burglary. They were diverted to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center by the watch commander to check out an assault. Ballard parked in an ambulance slot by the ER entrance, left the grille lights on, and then she and Jenkins entered through the automatic doors. Ballard noted the time for the report she would write later. It was 12:41 a.m. according to the clock over the reception window in the ER waiting room.
There was a P-1 standing there, his skin as white as a vampire’s. Ballard gave him the nod and he came over to brief them. He was a slick sleeve and maybe even a boot and too new in the division for her to know his name.
“We found her in a lot on Santa Monica by Highland,” the officer stated. “Looked like she had been dumped there. Whoever did it probably thought she was dead. But she was alive and she sort of woke up and was semiconscious for a couple minutes. Somebody had worked her over really good. One of the paramedics said she might have a skull fracture. They have her in the back. My TO’s back there too.”
The assault may have now been elevated to an abduction, and that increased Ballard’s level of interest. She checked the patrolman’s plate and saw his name was Taylor.
“Taylor, I’m Ballard,” she said, “and this is Detective Jenkins, fellow denizen of the dark. When did you get to Super Six?”
“First deployment actually,” Taylor said.
“Right from the academy? Well, welcome. You’ll have more fun in the Six than you’ll have anywhere else. Who’s your training officer?”
“Officer Smith, ma’am.”
“I’m not your mother. Don’t call me ma’am.”
“Sorry, ma’am. I mean — ”
“You’re in good hands with Smitty. He’s cool. You guys get an ID on the vic?”
“No, there was no purse or anything but we were trying to talk to her while we were waiting on the paramedics. She was in and out, not making a lot of sense. Sounded like she said her name was Ramona.”
“She say anything else?”
“Yeah, she said ‘the upside-down house.’”
“‘The upside-down house’?”
“That’s what she said. Officer Smith asked if she knew her attacker and she said no. He asked where she was attacked and she said ‘the upside-down house.’ Like I said, she wasn’t making a lot of sense.”
Ballard nodded and thought about what that could mean.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll go back and check things out.”
Ballard nodded to Jenkins and headed toward the door that led to the ER’s treatment bays. She was wearing a charcoal-gray Van Heusen suit with a chalk pinstripe. She always thought the formality of the suit went well with her light brown skin and sun-streaked hair. And it had an authority that helped overcome her slight stature. She pulled her jacket back enough for the receptionist behind the glass window to see the badge on her belt and open the automatic door.
The intake center consisted of six patient assessment and treatment bays behind closed curtains. Doctors, nurses, and technicians were moving about a command station in the center of the room. There was organized chaos, everybody with a job to do and some unseen hand choreographing it all. It was a busy night, but every night was at Hollywood Pres.
Another patrol officer was standing in front of the curtain for treatment bay 4 and Ballard and Jenkins proceeded directly toward him. He had three hash marks on his sleeves — fifteen years on the department — and Ballard knew him well.
“Smitty, the doc in there?” Ballard asked.
Officer Melvin Smith looked up from his phone, where he had been composing a text.
“Ballard, Jenkins, how’s it hanging?” Smith said. Then: “Nah, she’s alone. They’re about to take her up to the OR. Fractured skull, brain swelling. They said they need to open her head up to relieve the pressure.”
“I know the feeling,” Jenkins said.
“So she’s not talking?” Ballard asked.
“Not anymore,” Smith said. “They sedated her and I overheard them talking about inducing a coma till the swelling goes down. Hey, how’s Lola, Ballard? Haven’t seen her in a while.”
“Lola’s good,” Ballard said. “Did you guys find her, or was it a call?”
“It was a hot shot,” Smith said. “Somebody must’ve called it in but they were GOA when we got there. The vic was just lying there alone in the parking lot. We thought she was dead when we first rolled up.”
“Did you call anybody out to hold the crime scene?” Ballard asked.
“Nah, there’s nothing there but blood on the asphalt, Ballard,” Smith said. “This was a body dump.”
“Come on, Smitty, that’s bullshit. We have to run a scene. Why don’t you guys clear here and go hold the lot until we can get a team there. You can sit in the car and do your paperwork or something.”
Smith looked to Jenkins as the senior detective for approval.
“She’s right,” Jenkins said. “We have to set up a crime scene.”
“Roger that,” Smith said, his tone revealing he thought the assignment was a waste of time.
Ballard went through the curtain into bay 4. The victim was on her back on a bed, a light green hospital smock over her damaged body. She was tubed in both arms and nose. Ballard had seen plenty of victims of violence over her fourteen years with the department, but this was one of the worst cases she had seen where the victim was still alive. The woman was small and looked to be no more than 120 pounds. Both of her eyes were swollen tightly shut, the orbit of the right eye clearly broken under the skin. The shape of her face was further distorted by swelling down the entire right side, where the skin was abraded. It was clear she had been beaten viciously and dragged across rough terrain — probably the parking lot — on her face. Ballard leaned in close over the bed to study the wound on the lower lip. She saw that it was a deep bite mark that had savagely split the lip. The torn tissue was being held together by two temporary stitches. It would need the attention of a plastic surgeon. If the victim survived.
“Jesus Christ,” Ballard said.
She pulled her phone off her belt and opened the camera app. She started taking photos, beginning with a full face shot of the victim, then moving into close-ups of the individual facial wounds. Jenkins watched without comment. He knew how she worked.
Ballard unbuttoned the top of the smock to examine the chest for injuries. Her eyes were drawn to the left side of the torso, where several deep bruises were delineated and straight and appeared to have come from an object rather than someone’s fists.
“Look at this,” Ballard said. “Brass knuckles?”
Jenkins leaned in.
“Looks like it,” he said. “Maybe.”
He pulled back, disgusted by what he saw. John Jenkins had twenty-five years in and Ballard knew he had been running on empty for a long time when it came to empathy. He was a good detective — when he wanted to be. But he was like a lot of guys who had been around for so long. He just wanted a place to be left alone to do his job. The police headquarters downtown was called the PAB, for Police Administration Building. Guys like Jenkins believed that PAB stood for Politics and Bureaucracy, or Politics and Bullshit, take your pick.
The night-shift assignment was usually awarded to those who had run afoul of the politics and bureaucracy of the department. But Jenkins was a rare volunteer for the eleven-to-seven shift. His wife had cancer and he liked to work during her sleeping hours so he could be home every day when she was awake and needed him.
Ballard took more photos. The victim’s breasts were also damaged and bruised, the nipple on the right side torn, like the lip, by gnashing teeth. The left breast was round and full, the right smaller and flat. Implants, one of which had burst inside the body. Ballard knew it took a hell of an impact to do that. She had seen it only once previously, and that victim was dead.
She gently closed the smock over the victim and checked the hands for defensive wounds. The fingernails were broken and bloody. Deep purple marks and abrasions circled the wrists, indicating that the victim had been bound and held captive long enough to produce chafing wounds. Ballard guessed hours, not minutes. Maybe even days.
She took more photos and it was then that she noticed the length of the victim’s fingers and the wide spread of the knuckles. Santa Monica and Highland — she should have understood. She reached down to the hemline of the gown and raised it. She confirmed that the victim was biologically a man.
“Shit, I didn’t need to see that,” Jenkins said.
“If Smitty knew this and didn’t tell us, then he’s a fucking asshole,” Ballard said. “It changes things.”
She shoved the flare of anger aside and got back on track.
“Before we left the barn, did you see if anybody was working in vice tonight?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah, they have something going on,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what. I saw Pistol Pete in the break room, brewing a pot.”
Ballard stepped back from the bed and swiped through the photos on her phone screen until she came to the shot of the victim’s face. She then forwarded the photo in a text to Pete Mendez in the Hollywood vice unit. She included the message:
Recognize him? Ramona? Santa Monica stroll?
Mendez was legendary in the Six, but not for all the right reasons. He had spent most of his career as a UC in vice and as a younger officer was often put out on the stroll posing as a male prostitute. During these decoy operations he was wired for sound because the recording was what made the case and usually caused the suspect to plead guilty to the subsequent charges. A wire recording from one of Mendez’s encounters was still played at retirement parties and unit get-togethers. Mendez had been standing on Santa Monica Boulevard when a would-be customer rolled up. Before agreeing to pay for services, the john asked Mendez a series of questions, including how large his penis was when erect, though he did not use such polite terms.
“About six inches,” Mendez responded.
The john was unimpressed and drove on without another word. A few moments later a vice sergeant left his cover location and drove up to Mendez on the street. Their exchange was also recorded.
“Mendez, we’re out here to make busts,” the sergeant chided. “Next time a guy asks how long your dick is, exaggerate, for crying out loud.”
“I did,” Mendez said — to his everlasting embarrassment.
Ballard pulled the curtain back to see if Smith was still hanging around but he and Taylor were gone. She walked to the command station to address one of the nurses behind the counter. Jenkins followed.
“Ballard, Jenkins, LAPD,” she said. “I need to speak to the doctor who handled the victim in bay four.”
“He’s in two right now,” the nurse said. “As soon as he’s out.”
“When does the patient go up for surgery?”
“As soon as space opens.”
“Did they do a rape kit? Anal swabs? We also need to get fingernail clippings. Who can help us with that?”
“They were trying to save his life — that was the priority. You’ll have to talk to the doctor about the rest.”
“That’s what I’m asking. I want to speak to — ”
Ballard felt her phone vibrate in her hand and turned away from the nurse. She saw a return text from Mendez. She read his answer out loud to Jenkins.
“‘Ramona Ramone, dragon. Real name Ramón Gutierrez. Had him in here a couple weeks back. Priors longer than his pre-op dick.’ Nice way of putting it.”
“Considering his own dimensions,” Jenkins said.
Drag queens, cross-dressers, and transgenders were all generally referred to as dragons in vice. No distinctions were made. It wasn’t nice but it was accepted. Ballard had spent two years on a decoy team in the unit herself. She knew the turf and she knew the slang. It would never go away, no matter how many hours of sensitivity training cops were subjected to.
She looked at Jenkins. Before she could speak, he did.
“No,” he said.
“No, what?” she said.
“I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say you want to keep this one.”
“It’s a vampire case — has to be worked at night. We turn this over to the sex table, and it will be just like that burglary — it will end up in a stack. They’ll work it nine to five and nothing will get done.”
“Still no. It’s not the job.”
It was the main point of contention in their partnership. They worked the midnight shift, the late show, moving from case to case, called to any scene where a detective was needed to take initial reports or sign off on suicides. But they kept no cases. They wrote up the initial reports and turned the cases over to the appropriate investigative units in the morning. Robbery, sexual assault, burglary, auto theft, and so on down the line. Sometimes Ballard wanted to work a case from beginning to end. But it wasn’t the job and Jenkins was never inclined to stray one inch from its definition. He was a nine-to-fiver in a midnight-shift job. He had a sick wife at home and he wanted to get home every morning by the time she woke up. He didn’t care about overtime — money- or work-wise.
“Come on, what else are we going to do?” Ballard implored.
“We’re going to check out the crime scene and see if there really is a crime scene,” Jenkins said. “Then we go back to the barn and write up reports on this and the old lady’s burglary. If we’re lucky, there will be no more callouts and we’ll ride the paperwork till dawn. Let’s go.”
He made a move to leave but Ballard didn’t follow. He spun and came back to her.
“What?” he demanded.
“Whoever did this is big evil, Jenks,” she said. “You know that.”
“Don’t go down that road again, because I’m not going with you. We’ve seen this a hundred times before. Some guy’s cruising along, doesn’t know the territory, sees a chick on the stroll and pulls over. He makes the deal, takes her into the parking lot, and gets buyer’s remorse when he finds a Dodger dog under the miniskirt. He beats the living shit out of the guy and drives on.”
Ballard was shaking her head before he was finished with his summation of the case.
“Not with those bite marks,” she said. “Not if he had brass knuckles. That shows a plan, shows something deep. She was tied up for a long time. This is big evil out there and I want to keep the case and do something for a change.”
Technically he was the senior partner. He made the call on such things. Back at the station Ballard could appeal to command staff if she wanted to, but this was where the decision had to be made for partnership unity.
“I’m going to swing by the crime scene and then go back to start writing,” Jenkins said. “The break-in goes to the burglary table, and this — this goes to CAPs. Maybe even homicide, because that kid isn’t looking too good in there. End of story.”
Decision made, he again turned toward the doors. He had been so long in the job that he still called the individual crime units tables. Back in the ’90s that’s what they were — desks pushed together to create long tables. The burglary table, the crimes against persons table, and so on.
Ballard was about to follow him out, when she remembered something. She went back to the nurse behind the counter.
“Where are the victim’s clothes?” she asked.
“We bagged them,” the nurse said. “Hold on.”
Jenkins stayed by the door and looked back at her. Ballard held up a finger, telling him to wait. From a drawer at the station the nurse produced a clear plastic bag with whatever belongings were found with the victim. It wasn’t much. Some cheap jewelry and sequined clothing. There was a small mace dispenser on a key chain with two keys. No wallet, no cash, no phone. She handed the bag to Ballard.
Ballard gave the nurse a business card and asked to have the doctor call her. She then joined her partner and they were walking through the automatic doors to the sally port when her phone buzzed. She checked the screen. It was the watch commander, Lieutenant Munroe.
“Ballard, you and Jenkins still at Hollywood Pres?”
She noted the urgent tone in his voice. Something was happening. She stopped walking and signaled Jenkins closer.
“Just leaving. Why?”
“Put it on speaker.”
“Okay, go ahead,” she said.
“We’ve got four on the floor in a club on Sunset,” Munroe said. “Some guy in a booth started shooting the people he was with. An RA is heading your way with a fifth victim that at last report was circling the drain. Ballard, I want you to stay there and see what you can get. Jenkins, I’m sending Smitty and his boot back to grab you. RHD will no doubt be taking this over but they will need some time to mobilize. I’ve got patrol securing the scene, setting up a command post, and trying to hold witnesses, but most of them scattered when the bullets started flying.”
“What’s the location?” Jenkins said.
“The Dancers over by the Hollywood Athletic Club,” Munroe said. “You know it?”
“Roger that,” Ballard said.
“Good. Then, Jenkins, get over there. Ballard, you come as soon as you finish up with the fifth victim.”
“L-T, we need to set up a crime scene on this assault case,” Ballard said. “We sent Smitty and — ”
“Not tonight,” Munroe said. “The Dancers is an all-hands investigation. Every forensic team available is going there.”
“So we just let this crime scene go?” Ballard asked.
“Turn it over to day shift, Ballard, and let them worry about it tomorrow,” Munroe said. “I need to go now. You have your assignments.”
Munroe hung up without another word. Jenkins gave Ballard a told-you-so look about the crime scene. And as if on cue, the sound of an approaching siren flared in the night. Ballard knew the difference between the siren from a rescue ambulance and from a cop car. This was Smitty and Taylor coming back for Jenkins.
“I’ll see you over there,” Jenkins said.
“Right,” Ballard said.
The siren died as the patrol SUV came down the chute to the sally port. Jenkins squeezed into the back and it took off, leaving Ballard standing there with the plastic bag in her hand.
She could now hear the distant sound of a second siren heading her way. An ambulance bringing the fifth victim. Ballard looked back in through the glass doors and noted the time on the ER clock. It was 1:17 a.m. and her shift was barely two hours old.