Murder Season: New Excerpt

Murder Season by Robert EllisDetective Lena Gamble knows how to handle the hottest cases—do it fast and keep her head down. Because if it all goes south, the department won’t hesitate to make a scapegoat out of her. So when she gets called to the scene of a double murder at Club 3 AM, the latest A-list hangout for Hollywood celebs, she knows the fun is only beginning.

And she’s not wrong. It’s just much worse than she imagined. As expected, one of the victims is club owner Johnny Bosco, one of the most well-connected men in Hollywood politics. But the shocker comes when Lena sees the other victim: twenty-five-year-old Jacob Gant, acquitted just days ago of murdering his sixteen-year-old neighbor, after L.A.’s latest trial-of-the-century. 

But are these victims of a father’s righteous anger or is something bigger at play?

 

Chapter 1

She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer. On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there.

Murder season.

She was floating, drifting. Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness.

She glanced at the clock radio but didn’t really see it, then fell back into the stream and let go. It was somewhere after midnight, sometime before dawn. Early spring, and the air inside the house was already deadened from the oppressive heat. A steep, lifeless desert wave had swelled over Los Angeles two days ago, pushing the marine layer and the cool breezes out over the ocean where they could be burned up and erased without a witness.

The city that was left behind felt dusty and canned in. Vacuum-packed. The air perfumed with spent diesel fuel and gasoline. Murder season would come early this year. It would roll in with the heat like they were best friends. Lovers. She reached across the bed, probing gently for a warm body but finding only emptiness. Only her dreams. A smile worked its way through her body. The one that came with her dreams. She could feel it in her chest and between her legs. She could feel it spreading across her face and blistering through her skin before it rose up and faded away.

She had spent the night on the terrace drinking ice-cold Irish reds with Stan Rhodes and Tito Sanchez. Sanchez had brought over a flank steak, marinating the meat, and working the grill with mesquite the way his grandmother had taught him. After dinner they sat on the stone wall and gazed down the hill, the lights of the city caught in the dust and glowing like cotton balls from downtown all the way across the basin to the Pacific. They laughed and told stories in the eerie light, opened fresh bottles, and talked shop. Rhodes and Sanchez were deep in on a new murder case and had worked the last forty-eight hours straight out. Both detectives needed to regroup and get some sleep. Lena had tomorrow off and could afford to relax, maybe even get buzzed. When they left around ten, she popped open the last bottle of ale, stripped off her clothes, and slipped into the pool.

Murder season. Trouble ahead. When the streets get hot, business burns.

She rolled onto her back, her mind cutting a jagged path to the surface. She could hear something going on in the house—something in the background behind her thoughts. A noise pulsing through the still air. She tried to ignore it, fight it. Tried to pretend that it wasn’t real. After a while, she wondered if it wasn’t part of her dream, a noise in the darkness breaking up her sleep.

Until she finally realized that it was her cell.

She opened her eyes and saw the light glowing from her phone. She grabbed it, recognized the caller, and slid open the lock on the touch screen. It was her supervisor, Lt. Frank Barrera, Robbery-Homicide Division. She didn’t need to guess what he wanted. She checked the clock and read it this time: 2:54 a.m.

Murder season. The train was rolling in.

“You cool, Lena?” he said. “I know it’s your day off, so I’m asking if everything’s cool.”

“I’m good. What’s up? What’s that noise in the background?”

She turned and looked out the window. Sirens. She could hear them in the distance, and she could hear them over the phone. She made the match—Barrera was close. He was in the neighborhood. She tried to look down the hill and thought she could see flashing lights. Something was going on just west of the Capitol Records Building.

“We’re in deep shit, Lena. Real deep shit.”

His voice broke. Barrera’s usual demeanor—steady as she goes— had become tainted with fear.

“Tell me what you want me to do,” she said.

“We’ve got two dead bodies in Hollywood. That’s all I can say over the phone.”

His voice cut off like he needed to catch his breath. Most homicides in Los Angeles were handled by investigators at the local level. For a murder to bounce up to RHD, the crime had to involve a high profile victim or be particularly horrific. For a Homicide Special detective to get the call with a crime scene still open, it had to be more than that. Some unlucky combination of the two.

Lena switched on the light, feeling the rush of adrenaline eat up what ever alcohol remained in her blood. She still didn’t have a partner and wouldn’t until the fall.

“Why me?” she asked.

“Orders from Deputy Chief Ramsey. You’ll know why when you get here.”

Ramsey was one of the few members of the old guard who had survived the department’s reorganization. He reported directly to Chief Logan, and had become his trusted right hand. His fixer. She knew that Chief Logan had left the city on a ten-day recruiting tour for the Scientific Investigation Division. With the success of the CSI franchise on television, the line of students wanting to become the real thing was a long one. Logan was offering better than decent money and the chance to move to L.A. He knew that he would have his pick of the best and brightest. He also knew that SID had taken a big hit recently and the division needed the fire that came with new blood.

“Where?” she asked.

“You ever hear of a place in Hollywood called Club 3 AM?”

Lena glanced at her .45 on the night table as Barrera gave her the address. She didn’t bother writing it down. Everyone in L.A. knew about Club 3 AM. It had become a celebrity hangout. A private nightclub catering to the A-list.

“Who’s dead?” she asked.

“Can’t do it, Lena. Not over the phone. Get here as soon as you can.”

Barrera’s cell punched out. Lena lowered her phone.

Murder season. It had come early this year.

Chapter 2

Showered and dressed in fifteen minutes, she raced down the hill, hit the straight track on Gower, and floored it past the Monastery of the Angels, estimating her time of arrival at less than five minutes. She was driving a metallic-green Crown Victoria with tinted glass that had “cop” written all over it. The take-home car floated over the road, cutting a wide path through the air. But Lena wasn’t thinking about the ride, or even the fact that her Honda had finally hit the skids and needed to be replaced at a time when money was tight. Instead, she was keyed in on the sound of Barrera’s shaky voice.

The roads were empty. She blew through the light at Franklin, the V8 kicking like a shotgun. She was thinking about Club 3 AM. And she was thinking about the man behind the club. A man with a certain reputation who knew things.

Johnny Bosco.

She made a right on Yucca Street. As she crossed Ivar and sped around the bend, she could see the nightclub in the distance and slowed down some. Club 3 AM was tucked in between Yucca and Grace Avenue. The place looked more like a three- story European villa than a nightclub. Easing closer, Lena noticed the high wall around the property and guessed that the front of the building was only a facade. The main entrance would be around back so Hollywood’s A-list could come and go without fear of being seen or photographed. Her view cleared as she passed a white van on the right. Ten black and white cruisers fenced in the street. Searching for a way through the blockade, she spotted a cop waving at her with a clipboard. But as she idled through the intersection, night became day—her car shelled with bursts of white-hot light.

She flinched, then turned to see the press crowding the other side of the street. One hundred cameras were blasting away on full automatic. The paparazzi could smell blood in the water: two dead bodies in Hollywood. They were pushing against the crime scene tape and shouting at each other—screaming at the patrol units holding them back.

She rolled down her window, squinting as the tinted glass gave way and the strobe lights penetrated the car bright as lightning. After signing in, the cop shielded his eyes and pointed at the gated drive.

“The place is set ass backward,” he shouted. “The front’s around back.”

There was no smile on his face, and no verbal acknowledgment of the chaos. But there was something in his eyes that reminded her of the fear she had heard in Barrera’s voice. He stepped away before she could ask him anything, then grabbed his radio mike and waved her through. Lena waved back, easing the Crown Vic down the drive and out of the paparazzi’s bent view.

She found a place to park, got out, and hit the door locks. As she scanned the lot beneath the palm trees, she was struck by the number of city cars already at the crime scene. There were too many patrol cars here as well, too many detectives’ cars. And that black Lincoln idling in the shadows could only mean that Deputy Chief Ramsey was here, too. She glanced over at the SID truck where a team of criminalists were preparing their evidence kits, then gave the lot another quick look.

What she didn’t see was what she had expected to see and wanted to see.

There wasn’t a single Ferrari here, or a single Lamborghini, or the possible witnesses that would have come with them. Club 3 AM never closed. It looked like the A-list had run for cover before anyone dialed

911. The Hollywood Station was just a few blocks south. The first responding units would have arrived in minutes and not let anyone walk away. Hollywood Homicide would have been right behind them.

“This way, Lena. Hurry.”

She turned to find her supervisor on the elaborate set of steps encircling a fountain. Barrera was clutching the rail with his left hand and waving her up to the porch and main entrance. She took the steps quickly and met him at the door. When she got a look at his face in the light, the worry in his eyes frightened her.

“What’s happened, Frank? Who’s dead?”

He couldn’t meet her gaze. “Not here,” he said. “Follow me.”

Barrera turned away, leading her through the foyer. As they passed the main bar, Lena saw a group of RHD detectives sitting at several tables. Some were working their cell phones. Others appeared to be on standby, watching her walk by with subdued faces and quiet nods, and drinking cups of takeout coffee. Behind them she recognized Johnny Bosco’s partner, Dante Escabar, standing alone behind the bar and pouring a glass of bourbon as if he needed it.

She turned back to Barrera, following him down the hall, and thinking about what she had just seen. “How many guys got tonight’s callout?”

“Everyone,” he said.

Barrera picked up speed, leading her up the main staircase. They were moving so fast that Lena didn’t have time to pick out many details. All she knew was that the nightclub exuded elegance and didn’t have the feel of a public place. That the European villa had high ceilings, ornate moldings, and appeared to have been built around a large courtyard that included a pool. She could see the light shimmering from the water through the windows and painting the stairwell blue.

They reached the top floor. As they swept past a series of open doors, Lena noted the private lounges with stocked bars and full windows that opened to recessed balconies she couldn’t see from the parking lot. Turning the corner, the private lounges gave way to a long line of equally private bedroom suites.

Things happened here, she thought. Johnny Bosco took care of people and learned their secrets. The A-list.

They made a final turn, passing through a set of French doors at the end of the hall and entering an offi ce. The doors to the balcony were open. Barrera told her to wait and stepped outside into the darkness. There were people out there. five or six shadows speaking in voices so low they didn’t carry into the room. Lena was beginning to lose her patience. She was thinking about crime scenes and the fact that an investigator only gets one shot at it. That this crime scene had the touch and feel of being filtered down or even swept away. She wanted to know where the bodies were. Why the entire division had been called out, but no one was doing anything. Why, if this was her case, she hadn’t been the first call, but obviously instead the last.

She shook it off, taking in the room as she waited. Shuttered windows of one-way mirrored glass gave way to views of the main bar and dining rooms on the floor below. What couldn’t be seen with the naked eye was picked up by security cameras feeding into a paper-thin flat panel TV monitor hanging above the fireplace mantel. She glanced at the couch and sitting area, then stepped behind the desk for a better look at the walls. The wood paneling had been carved to mimic the ripples in cloth curtains. She had never seen anything like it before and couldn’t imagine how it was done or what it might cost. This had to be Bosco’s office, not Dante Escabar’s. When she spotted the photographs on the far wall, that thought was confirmed. The wall was covered with pictures of Bosco arm in arm with his celebrity friends. Actors who had received Oscars, athletes who had won championships, and one of the few U.S. senators from California who served four terms without an indictment. When her eyes came to rest on a photo of Bosco with District Attorney Jimmy J. Higgins, she felt something hard pull at her chest.

She knew that Bosco and Higgins were friends. She even recognized the photograph. A copy had been published in The Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago.

Two dead bodies in Hollywood. Two heavyweights requiring a division callout. All hands on deck.

Lena checked her right palm, noticed the tremors creeping up her fingers, then turned as she heard someone enter the room from the balcony behind her.

Chapter 3

Deputy Chief Albert Ramsey stepped around Johnny Bosco’s desk with his steel-blue eyes pinned on her. Ramsey was a tall, stiff man with a shaved head, a square jaw, and pale, blotchy skin that had been ruined by too much time in the sun chasing the great white whale. There was something frightening about his presence, something about the glint in those eyes of his and the fact that he was a man of few words. Ramsey had survived for more than thirty-five years in a police department often drowning in political turmoil, and he knew where the bones were buried. When he entered a room, like Ahab in the flesh, everyone noticed. But something about tonight was different. Tonight, the deputy chief appeared more like a prizefighter who had just walked into a straight right and taken it on the chin. He may have been standing, Lena thought. He may have even had two legs. But tonight he looked punch drunk and ready to fall.

“Thank you for getting here so quickly,” he said in a low, raspy voice. “Detectives Sanchez and Rhodes are on their way. But we’ve made a decision, Gamble. This is your case now. What happens next is up to you. After tonight, you’re on your own.”

He didn’t wait for a response, cutting a sharp path to the set of double doors on the other side of the fireplace. Barrera had followed Ramsey into the room, but was still avoiding her gaze. Lena expected the others to join them, but they remained on the terrace whispering in the night.

Ramsey gave the doors a hard push. As they entered another foyer, Lena could feel the finish line approaching. They were walking through a private bedroom suite, bigger than the rest because it belonged to Bosco. They were passing a changing room and entering a large bathing area that included a massage table, an open shower, and a spa.

Lena’s eyes sprinted across the tiled floor until she hit pay dirt. The two dead bodies in Hollywood. She looked at the blood pooling on the floor—there was a lot of it—her hands instinctively digging into her pocket for a pair of vinyl gloves.

Two dead men. Two heavyweights. One faced down in a fetal position. The other, all bloodied up and leaning against the far wall.

Ramsey kept his eyes on her. “Everything remains the way we found it, Detective. As far as we know, nothing has been touched.”

As far as we know . . .

Lena took in a deep breath, pushing the air out of her lungs as if it was smoke. She noted the open windows by the spa. The cocaine piled on a marble slab—at least 10K’s worth—and the razor blade that went with it. The dead man in the silk suit had been shot in the back, a plume of blood oozing through his jacket just below his left shoulder. She checked the floor, stepping over the blood for a look at the man’s face. He was about forty-five, with wide shoulders, short brown hair, and a strong chin. Until a few hours ago, he had been the kind of man people like to look at. But not now. One eye remained open—his capped teeth jutting out—and Lena could see a double load of white powder still lodged in his flared nostrils.

No doubt about it, Johnny Bosco had been killed before the thrill and never saw the grim reaper coming. The bullet in his back—his last hit of hits—had been a complete surprise.

Lena glanced at the second corpse, taking in the view quickly just to make sure. The district attorney would have been a barrel-chested man in his mid-fifties with silver, overgroomed hair. The dead man propped against the wall with the bloody face was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and obviously much leaner and younger than that. Late twenties, early thirties at best. District Attorney Jimmy J. Higgins may have lost one of his celebrity friends tonight in Johnny Bosco, but he himself was alive and well, and still loose somewhere in the city.

She turned back to Barrera and Ramsey, feeling a certain degree of relief. But both men remained by the door, studying her like just maybe there would be no relief. Not tonight. Not with this crime scene.

“Body number two is who?” she said. “An actor? A dealer? A VIP’s son?”

Ramsey’s sharp gaze faltered as it shifted to the corpse. When he didn’t respond, her mind started churning. Why had she been the last call? Why the oppressive silence? It felt like they were playing her. Testing her. Bullshitting her when everyone in the room knew that a homicide investigation thrived on a quick start.

But there was something else going on. Something extra.

Johnny Bosco had been a player in this city. His murder would easily make the front page of The Times. His friendship with the district attorney, along with that pile of nose candy on the counter, would ensure that the story appeared above the fold and make things complicated for everyone. But Higgins was already damaged goods, particularly with the LAPD. According to The Times, his reelection next year was in trouble. Lena wondered if the politician really had enough clout with the department to insist on a division callout. Enough power to bring Deputy Chief Ramsey to a crime scene in the middle of the night. Even more unsettling, what about anything at this crime scene could create fear in two of the most seasoned police officers she knew?

She crossed the room and knelt before the second body, her heart pounding in her ears. The dead man was hard to look at. Although he had been shot in the stomach, it was the wounds to his face that made things difficult. His lights had been blown out. Even through all the blood, Lena could see the burned flesh and scorched eyebrows. The shooter had pressed the muzzle into the man’s eyes and pulled the trigger.

Both rounds had punched through the back of his skull, drawing brain matter out like a vacuum and splashing it against the wall.

Worse still, he was a lot younger than she first thought. She could see it now. Low to mid twenties.

She leaned closer and checked his nostrils, but found no visible sign of white powder. As her eyes drifted off his face, she noticed a large bruise on his neck. Similar bruises tattooed both arms. When she spotted the scabs on his knuckles and his clean fingernails, she took a moment to think it over. The kid had been in a fight sometime within the past week or two, the cuts and bruises in various stages of healing. But nothing she saw indicated that he had a chance to defend himself tonight. The shot he took in the stomach knocked him to the floor. From the amount of blood puddling around him, the round struck an artery. The two shots in the eyes came after that. He would have been alive, maybe even conscious when the killer approached. But he would have been bleeding out. He would have been docile and unable to fight back.

The shot in the stomach was enough to ensure the kid’s death. The shots to the eyes were about something more than the murder. Something psychotic. A killer overdosing on rage.

A memory surfaced—a movie she had seen more than ten years ago. A western. The Comanches believed that without eyes a victim couldn’t enter the spirit world. Without eyes, the victim would be forced to wander between the winds forever. She thought the scene might be from John Ford’s The Searchers, but wasn’t sure. It was too far back in her history and too late at night. Still, as she forced herself to take a second look at the kid’s broken face, she couldn’t help but wonder if his soul was lost between the winds.

After a long moment, the wonder vanished and she finally lowered her gaze. She didn’t recognize him. Not without his eyes and through all the blood masking his face. She doubted anyone could.

She climbed to her feet, checking the floor for shell casings but not finding any. When she looked up, she saw Sanchez and Rhodes standing beside Barrera. She hadn’t heard them enter, and for reasons she couldn’t explain, Barrera seemed to be holding them back. It didn’t really matter. Both detectives looked spent, their eyes glassy from working two days without sleep and topping the night off at her place.

Lena turned to the deputy chief. “Tell me what’s going on,” she said.

Ramsey broke open a roll of Tums, choosing his words carefully. “Escabar found the bodies, but didn’t call it in until after he cleared the place out. Hollywood detectives got here around one-thirty. They identified Bosco and passed the case up to Robbery-Homicide. When two of your colleagues arrived, they made an ID on the kid and called your supervisor. Frank called me, and then I briefed the chief at his hotel in Philadelphia. Once we got here and everything checked out, I called the chief back and we made a decision. Then Frank called you.”

She wondered if Ramsey had any idea that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line. Nothing about who called who or even why was important anymore. Body number two was the main event, not Bosco. She was sure of it now.

“Who is he?” she asked.

“A motherfucker,” Ramsey said. “A real asshole. As much trouble to us dead as he was alive. That’s why you got the call on your day off . The department needs you now. The people you work with, Gamble.”

Lena watched Ramsey dig an evidence bag out of his jacket. He held it up, displaying a pair of wallets, then passed it over.

“They found them over there in the trash,” he said. “The shooter took the cash, but left their credit cards. Johnny Bosco was known to carry a lot of cash, and there’s a fire escape right outside those open windows. His partner, Dante Escabar, believes that this was a robbery. That the mess we’re looking at was done by a pro. What’s your take?”

Lena glanced at the corpse, then turned back to the deputy chief. She lowered her voice because it seemed obvious that Ramsey already knew what she was about to say. She didn’t understand the play. Why was he running this out in slow motion?

“Number two was the target, not Bosco,” she said.

“You sure about that?”

She nodded. “The killer knew him. And whatever happened here tonight was payback. You don’t blow somebody’s eyes out if he’s a friend. And you don’t waste time shooting a dead man if he’s a stranger. You run.”

Ramsey stared at her for a moment. His eyes felt like needles.

“How long have you worked homicide, Gamble?”

“Long enough to know that this wasn’t a robbery, and that the killer wasn’t a pro. This was about something more personal than that. Something between the two.”

“I’m with you on that,” he said. “But I know the identity of the victim and you don’t. Tell me why you think it’s personal, Detective. I need to hear you say it.”

“If tonight was about a robbery, the coke wouldn’t be here. And if this was done by a pro, these wallets would have been left in their pockets. No pro would’ve taken the cash. Just a single credit card from Bosco’s wallet because everybody knows he’s loaded. One card with a decent credit line that wouldn’t be noticed for a day or two. That’s all it would take to bleed the account dry.”

Another moment passed as Ramsey considered what she had said. Lena traded looks with Rhodes, then moved to the counter and unzipped the evidence bag. She was tired of waiting. Tired of being tested at a crime scene that was stuck on hold. She pushed the leather wallet aside and pulled out the one made of nylon and Velcro. Ripping it open, she found the driver’s license and held it up to the light.

The victim was twenty-five years old. As her eyes slid over the name, those tremors began working through her fingers again. Lena finally understood why the deputy chief appeared so stunned. Why Barrera had been unable to look her in the eye all night. Why it didn’t matter that Escabar had shut down the club before calling 911 and all the Ferraris were gone. And why it didn’t even matter if the victim’s soul was lost forever between the winds.

The deputy chief had called it right. The kid with his lights punched out was more than an asshole. More than a motherfucker. And, in the end, he would be more trouble dead than alive.

She felt someone move in behind her and realized that it was Ramsey looking over her shoulder at the license. He was staring at it, but not seeing it—everything turned inward and lost in the black.

“Jacob Gant,” he whispered in a voice taut with emotion. “Now you know why we need you, Gamble. Now you know why we’re fucked.”

Chapter 4

Payback. A killer overdosing on rage. Lena didn’t need to do the math as she exited Bosco’s office and headed for the stairs.

Jacob Gant raped and murdered his sixteen-year-old neighbor Lily Hight. Six weeks ago he’d walked out of an L.A. courtroom a free man. Tonight the big wheel turned— yin finally met yang—and he was dead.

Gant’s crimes were executed with extreme brutality. After assaulting the girl in her home, he drove a foot-long screwdriver into her back and watched her bleed to death.

The not guilty verdict had stunned everyone in the courtroom, producing utter silence for almost ten minutes with only the faint sound of Lily’s father, Tim Hight, weeping in the background. Lena could still remember the moment—still hear the sound of Hight sobbing. Like everyone else, she had watched the trial on television from her desk. The shock of the verdict worked like an infection. In a single instant, the entire city knew what had happened in that courtroom and felt sickened by the result.

But the tent was bigger than Los Angeles. Jacob Gant’s trial for the murder of Lily Hight had juice and flowed like a river rising over its banks wherever satellites and computer servers and smartphones could take it. Particularly after Gant’s initial arrest when Lily’s father had given the district attorney’s office snapshots and home videos of his beloved daughter, his only child, to be distributed to the media outlets.

The images fed a fire that could no longer be contained. In the world of senseless murders, Lily Hight was what came next: a gorgeous blonde with striking blue-gray eyes and a gentle but outgoing spirit. An innocent teenager who faced the ultimate violation just as she had begun to flower. A grieving father who tried to protect his grieving wife and maintain their privacy, but seemed to look years older every time he was photographed.

And then there were the rumors that began soon after Gant’s arrest, salacious stories appearing in the rag sheets that the twenty-five-year-old killer and his teenage victim were lovers.

The public’s outrage to the crime, their compassion for Lily and her father, seemed to burn without end and evolve into near myth. Lily Hight’s image began showing up on coffee mugs and T-shirts months before the trial. Street artists blanketed the city with her face on posters and wall paintings that read Is Justice Really Blind? Local TV news stations from coast to coast could point to interviews with teens who claimed to have known Lily, or met Lily, or seen Lily and wanted to be just like their friend.

It was another circus. Another media trial set in L.A. Another slam-dunk murder case in which every piece of evidence collected at the crime scene pointed to one person and only one person.

Jacob Gant raped and murdered his next-door neighbor Lily Hight. And the LAPD blew it. The district attorney’s office blew it.

Again.

Blood samples were mishandled by SID techs at the crime scene and misplaced in the lab.

Again.

DNA analysis of semen collected from the victim pointed beyond all doubt to Jacob Gant, but like the blood evidence, it went missing and couldn’t be found in the lab.

Again.

Two deputy district attorneys, outmatched by Buddy Paladino, sat back and watched the defense attorney rip their rock solid case apart while making them look like bunglers and fools in a way that only Buddy Paladino could do.

Again.

A killer was released, free to enjoy the pleasures of life here in the City of Angels or anywhere else he wanted to go.

Again and again and again.

Lena hit the stairs, feeling the words ripple through her body until she reached the club’s foyer on the main floor. She was looking for Dante Escabar, but didn’t see him behind the bar. Someone had turned down the lights, and the place was empty now. Just the spent coffee cups left behind by a division callout, the detectives finally released and sent home. She pulled a stool away from the bar and sat down. When she noticed the pack of cigarettes left beside an open bottle of bourbon, she fought the urge and pushed them away. Her mind was still skipping through the details. Still reeling. But there was anger, too. Anger at the situation and for what she was being asked to do.

Payback.

A killer overdosing on rage.

A father who could claim both reason and cause. In some circles, even the moral high ground.

Other than Jacob Gant’s family, no one in the city would have a problem with his death tonight. Far from it. Lena imagined that when the news broke, the bars would be packed with people celebrating. But the party wouldn’t last very long. Once Tim Hight was arrested for killing the man who murdered his daughter, once Lena put the case together and slapped the cuffs on the grieving father’s wrists—a father in ruin doing what any father might do . . .

“Are you okay?”

She turned and saw Rhodes walking into the bar. She tried to find her voice, and it came out deep and scratched.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said.

He shrugged without an answer, crossing the darkened room for a peek out the window. Lena could hear the press corps still shouting at the patrol units holding them back. After a while, Rhodes joined her at the bar.

“The coroner,” he said. “Barrera asked me to show him the way up when he gets here.”

“Who got the call? Who got lucky?”

Rhodes gave her a look. “Besides you?”

She nodded. “Besides me.”

“Ed Gainer,” he said.

“Well, he’s not gonna like the stairs.”

“You’re right. Eddie won’t like the stairs.”

Rhodes reached for the pack of cigarettes, found a lighter beside a tray of spent candles, and lit up. When he passed it over, Lena shook him off. Neither one of them really smoked. Although tonight more than qualified as a crisis, she was no longer in the mood. Instead, she looked at the scar on Rhodes’s left earlobe. It was in the shape of an X, and she liked looking at it. His brown hair was cropped short again, his body lean and trim from daily jogs around Hollywood Reservoir. He looked good. The gunshot he’d taken to his left shoulder a few years back—a distant memory that only surfaced when it rained.

Rhodes stepped behind the bar and found a plate to use as an ashtray. “I guess Hight held it together for as long as he could,” he said. “I’ve never met him, but during the trial he looked okay. Wearing down maybe, but okay.”

Lena nodded again without answering. No one in the division had met Tim Hight because his daughter’s murder investigation had been handled by local detectives on the Westside. The case didn’t ignite until prosecutors released those family snapshots to the press. By the time the public met Lily Hight, Jacob Gant had already been arrested and moved from his parents’ home in Venice to an isolated cell at Men’s Central Jail.

Rhodes leaned on the bar directly across from her. “After tonight people will think that Tim Hight’s a hero. They’re gonna say that he did what we couldn’t. That he did what he had to do. That he finally got justice for his daughter.”

“He’s not a hero,” she whispered.

“It doesn’t make any difference, Lena. They’ll call him one.”

The words settled in for a while.

“He’s not a hero,” she repeated. “He didn’t shoot Gant, lay down the gun, and wait to face the music. He walked into the room and shot Johnny Bosco first. And he shot him in the back, Stan. Then he tried to make it look like a robbery and ran away. He hit the wall and blew.”

“I agree, but it won’t play that way. It’s still poison for us. Sugarcoated poison. Leave it to the LAPD to set the bad guys free and send the good guys to jail.”

Lena remained quiet because she knew that what Rhodes had just said was true. Barrera and Deputy Chief Ramsey knew how it would play as well.

She started to reach for that pack of cigarettes after all, but stopped when she heard movement in the foyer behind her. It was a group of about ten people walking toward the front entrance as if on autopilot. She recognized the mayor’s chief of staff , a city councilwoman from Hollywood, and the LAPD chief’s new adjutant, Abraham Hernandez. It seemed like a good guess that this was the group who had been whispering in the darkness from the balcony outside Bosco’s office. When she saw Steven Bennett and Debi Watson, she reached out for Rhodes and gave him a nudge.

Bennett and Watson were the deputy district attorneys who had brought the case against Jacob Gant to trial. Until Buddy Paladino humiliated them in front of a courtroom wired for TV and the electronic universe beyond, they were considered to be two of the best and brightest deputy DAs in Los Angeles. Particularly Steven Bennett, whom the district attorney had taken to and was grooming to replace him if he won reelection for his third term in office. Tonight, it looked like Bennett and Watson were anything but the best and brightest. Tonight, they were shuffling their feet and keeping their heads down. Tonight, they were passing the investigator from the coroner’s office at the door—mere shadows of their former selves—and leaving another crime scene in shame.


Robert Ellis is the international bestselling author of Access to Power, The Dead Room, City of Fire, and The Lost Witness—selected as top reads by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, People Magazine, USA Today, and The New York Times. His critically acclaimed novels have been translated into more than ten languages, are read in more than thirty countries, and are available in audio and all digital formats.

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