June 28, 1976
The call should have gone to the SOC, Darryl Cross. Officer Frank Harriman, although a rookie, wasn’t so naive about the way the Bakersfield Police Department worked that he didn’t see what was going on here. He wasn’t naive about anything concerning the department.
Frank had graduated from college and completed the academy at the same time Darryl did. Like Darryl, he had grown up around cops. Their fathers were both members of the department.
The difference was, Darryl’s dad had given the long and unimaginative graduation speech at the academy.
Darryl was the SOC. Son of Chief.
Frank was the son of Brian Harriman, a man who had happily spent his life in uniform, working patrol.
Frank had heard rumors that the SOC could refuse certain radio calls, but until today, he hadn’t had firsthand experience of Darryl’s special treatment. He had heard the dispatcher, and knew where Darryl and his training officer were assigned—Frank and his own T.O., Gregory “Bear” Bradshaw, had passed them on their way to their own patrol area.
Bear was driving, and when the call came in Frank saw a speculative look on the older man’s face as the silence stretched without a response from the SOC’s car. No acknowledgment came, and a few minutes later there had been a second radio call, asking Bear and Frank to respond.
Bear accepted the request, signed off, and then shrugged. “Remember when Darryl’s old man gave the speech and told all you greenhorns that it was ‘a privilege to serve’ in this department? Well, Darryl gets the privilege, you get to serve. All I can say is that young Darryl better enjoy it while he can.”
“You think the chief—”
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Bear said, and laughed so hard he started wheezing.
Cross’s downfall had been predicted before, but Frank knew that predictions don’t change anything about the here and now. Right now, Cross was the chief, and the SOC remained powerful enough to refuse any job he didn’t want to take on. So it was Frank, not Darryl, who was investigating a report of a foul-smelling trailer in a mobile home park, late in the afternoon of a scorcher that was making its mark as the hottest day of the year.
Bakersfield’s desert climate brought in over one hundred days a year above ninety, so natives like Frank were used to summer heat. The mercury had hit a hundred and twelve degrees about two hours ago, though, and no one wanted to answer a “foul odor” call on such a day. Or any day, really.
“The SOC is a fuckup,” Bear said. “And lately he’s been worse than usual. Can’t concentrate worth a damn. I don’t think that kid has what it takes for the job. And as for this situation—he wouldn’t be able to handle it. You can.”
While he agreed about Darryl, Frank hoped Bear’s confidence in him wasn’t misplaced.
Reading his look, Bear said, “Hey, you’re a quick study. You lifted your shoes last night, didn’t you?”
Frank laughed, glad they were in a different patrol car today.
The night before, they had been called to a high school football game to arrest Len Meadows, a drunken sixteen-year-old who was big and brawny enough to cause trouble. Meadows was throwing punches at anyone who tried to prevent him from screaming obscenities at the cheerleaders, rampaging with a strength and energy that would have been useful on the field—if he’d been sober, better behaved, and on the team.
Frank and Bear had managed to subdue him, cuff him, and get him into the back of the cruiser, where he kept running his mouth for another ten minutes or so. Then, as they were approaching a stoplight, Meadows suddenly fell silent.
“Shit!” Bear shouted and lifted both of his feet off the floorboard. Frank, who had been applying the brake, heard the unmistakable sound of projectile puking behind him. Frank immediately lifted his free foot, just in time to prevent his shoes from getting soaked by the flow of vomit coming forward from under the seat.
“I wonder why that kid wasn’t on the team?” Frank said now.
“Meadows? His old man set records at that school.”
“So he doesn’t want to break them?”
“No, it’s not that. His dad—Mike Meadows—abandoned the family. Mike ran off with his secretary, and the kid never went out after that. The secretary had been a cheerleader back when Mike was in school. Guess he wanted to go back to his glory days.”
When they arrived at the mobile home park, Bear started driving toward the manager’s office, but a waver waylaid them—a thin woman in a floral print dress. Her hair was pinned up in pink curlers, with a blue scarf wrapped around them. She gestured frantically and shouted, “Over here, over here.”
“Go on,” Bear said with a smile. “Listen to what the lady wants to tell you. I’ll be sitting here in the air-conditioned vehicle, observing you.”
“With the windows up?”
“You better hurry up before she tries to get in the car with us.”
Her name was Madeline Erkstrom. Frank heard it as “irksome” and stopped her flow of chatter long enough to get her to spell her name for his notes. He then took down her address and phone number. That was the only pause she allowed before she launched into a disjointed recitation of the key points of her life history, beginning with the fact that as a young woman she had worked in a drugstore, where Mr. Erkstrom had bought sodas and fallen in love with her.
He knew some people had to give information this way—they took you back to when the dinosaurs died off.
Another listener might have rushed her by interrupting, thereby risking her shutting down or feeling the need to start again from the beginning. He waited, mentally noting any facts that seemed important. She had lived in the trailer park for ten years. She lived alone, having moved here after her husband died. She was the one who had called about the smell. She had first noticed it a day or so ago, but it became truly pungent with today’s heat. The owner of the trailer was an elderly man named Donnie O’Keefe. She spelled out the name. When asked if she had O’Keefe’s phone number, she recited it and mentioned that she had given this information to the dispatcher.
“Thank you,” Frank said, when she paused to take a breath. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to talk to the manager.”
“Well, he wouldn’t be any help if he was here, which he is not. He’s on vacation.”
“So if you have maintenance issues or other problems—”
“We have to put a call into the headquarters of the company, which is in Chicago and presently closed,” she said, smiling tightly as she played this trump card.
“Do you know the man who lives in the trailer that smells bad? Mr. O’Keefe?”
“Of course I do, our trailers are right next to each other, which is why I’m concerned about him. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think ‘lives’ is likely at this point. Not with that smell. The wind is blowing the other way right now, but just wait until you get close to it. You live a long time in a trailer park, you’ve smelled it before. It’s something that happens now and then. The man is dead in there.”
“When’s the last time you saw him?”
“I was trying to remember that. I’d say about two weeks ago. We were talking about finally being rid of Tomcat. Tomcat is what we called the young guy who lived on the other side of Donnie. He’s moved out, but I don’t think he’s sold the trailer—it’s been sitting there empty. I don’t think Tomcat ever really lived there, but you can guess what he used that trailer for. Girls in and out of there all the time.”
“I’d bet real money about some of them, but I don’t know. These days, you good-looking young men hardly have to pay for it, right? Times have changed. At least Tomcat wasn’t a hippie—clean cut. Never smelled any funny smoke or anything. Had a couple of run-ins with Donnie.”
“I didn’t actually overhear the arguments, just raised voices, but Donnie said it was about the television.”
“Me, I like to read. If Donnie ever used a book for anything other than a doorstop, I’d be surprised. Donnie keeps the TV on all the time, night and day. Keeps him company, I guess. He’s hard of hearing, so the TV can get a little loud during the day, but not bad, and he keeps it down low late at night. Tomcat and all his lady friends always made more noise than Donnie did, driving in and out of here at all hours. Good riddance. Spoiled little brat, that’s what he was.”
Frank decided they were getting off track, and tried to pull the conversation back to O’Keefe. “How long has Mr. O’Keefe lived here?”
“Oh, about a year, I’d say.”
“How often do you usually see him?”
“That varies. Sometimes I see him every day, and we’ll talk or go out to lunch or down to the clubhouse we have here to play cards or whatever. Then weeks will go by when he just keeps to himself. He gets depressed, holes up, then ventures out again.”
“Does he have any family in the area? Someone we might call?”
“Oh, no. Donnie grew up an only child and never married. His people were back East, but I don’t believe any of them are living. Come with me, I’ll show you his Vagabond.”
“He has a vagabond staying with him?”
“No—that’s the brand of mobile home he owns. It’s about thirty years old now—built in the 1940s or early 1950s, I’d say—but he takes good care of it. Vagabonds are gorgeous trailers.”
Frank walked with her as she headed toward the back of the park.
“Do you know where Mr. O’Keefe works?”
“Nowhere. He’s retired.” She sighed. “You’d not believe this, but until a year ago, he used to live very high on the hog managing a luxury apartment building. The Starlight Arms. You’ve heard of it?”
“I guess you have. Donnie told me the chief of police is one of the owners. Anyway, Donnie was well paid and got to live in one of the fancy apartments. I guess everybody who was anybody in Bakersfield must have said hello to him in the lobby or something, because he’s something of a name-dropper. Hard to believe some of it. And you know, Donnie talked as if they came by to see him, and not the rich tenants. Or as if Bakersfield is anything but a small pond. Oh well, we do have our stars, and besides, I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“Did he have any pets?”
“No, not so much as a goldfish.”
Frank felt relief at that.
“I would have broken down that door myself if I thought there was a pet in there,” she said.
Bear was following them at a creeping pace, enjoying his air-conditioned ride. Frank didn’t want to let Bear see his misery, but eventually he wiped sweat off his forehead and pulled at his dampening uniform shirt, which adhered to his back and chest. He was starting to smell the sharp odor that had led to the call.
Mrs. Erkstrom pointed to a fire-engine red mobile home with curving lines and small windows. “That’s the one,” she said.
“Did he paint it that color?”
“No, that’s original. Donnie said he got a good deal on it because even though it was in good condition, the previous owner found not everyone wanted to live in a red place. Donnie claimed he wasn’t so hot on it at first, but he figured he’d be living inside, not looking at it from the outside. I think he always liked it—made him look daring or something. I don’t know.”
The area outside of the trailer was neat and well maintained, as she had said it would be, but the overpowering stench was unmistakable. Frank wished he hadn’t had lunch. He swallowed hard.
“Have you knocked on the door of Mr. O’Keefe’s trailer?”
“Is it locked?”
“It is. I normally wouldn’t have tried the door, but the smell worried me. And it’s so strange—I know he doesn’t usually lock his door when he’s home. I tried calling him on the phone, too. No answer. TV’s running, but not so loud he couldn’t hear me pounding on the door or hear the phone ring.”
“Did you look in through the windows of the trailer?”
“Oh no, that would be rude.” She seemed to realize the weakness of this defense and quickly added, “Well, to be honest, I’m half-afraid of what I might see in there. Besides, I’m not that tall.”
“Then it’s possible that even if someone or something is dead in there, it may not be Donnie O’Keefe.”
Her eyes widened. “You think he killed someone and left a body in here?”
Frank silently cursed himself for fueling her imagination. “No,” he said firmly. “Not at all. I’m just saying that we really don’t have enough information to know who or what is in there.”
“Oh. I see. Yes, of course you’re right. I just can’t picture who he would have murdered.”
With an effort, he didn’t sigh. That would have meant drawing a deep replacement breath, and he wanted as little of this stench in his nose as possible.
“Stay here.” He took two steps and felt her touch his ass.
He whirled to face her. “What the—”
She drew back quickly and blushed all the way up to her curlers. “Oh, Officer Harriman! I’m so sorry! It’s just that . . . it’s just that . . . well, sir, look at the seat of your uniform!”
“Lady, please never do something like that to someone who’s armed!” he said in some exasperation. He craned his neck and caught a glimpse of what she was talking about. He brushed at the seat of his pants, then looked at his hand. A white, powdery substance covered his fingers and palm. “That white streak goes all the way across?”
He looked toward the patrol car. Bear was weeping with laughter.
Frank’s dad had warned him of the tricks likely to be played on a rookie, which only made him feel twice as embarrassed. He knew that when he got back to the car, he’d find an open, small plastic bag full of flour stuffed down in the crevice between the back and bottom of the car seat. It was set up so that when Frank sat down in the passenger seat, a little puff of flour would escape and stripe his dark pants white. No wonder Bear had insisted on driving today.
Mrs. Erkstrom was a quick study. “That was a mean and childish trick. He’s old enough to know better.”
“A rookie is not allowed to think such thoughts, ma’am,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed and she marched off toward the patrol car. Bear stopped laughing.
Frank used the opportunity to go up the metal stairs at the trailer’s front door. As Mrs. Erkstrom had said, a television could be heard in the background, the volume down too low for Frank to hear more than voices and a little music. Standing on the small platform in front of the door, he tried knocking. He tried rapping on the door with his nightstick. He double-checked that the door was locked—it was. He called loudly for Mr. O’Keefe.
That meant taking in the reeking air. His stomach began to rebel.
He made himself think of something that smelled good, like the honeysuckle growing on the back fence at home, and went down the stairs again. He walked around the trailer to the farther end, the one that housed the bedroom. The sound of the television was slightly louder there, but was still hardly more than background noise. He glanced toward the “Tomcat” trailer, which was filthy by comparison. It had once been white, but its windows and siding were dust-covered, and some seams showed signs of rust. There were cobwebs and dead leaves underneath it.
Although there was a little dust on O’Keefe’s trailer and windows, it was easy to see that it had been more recently washed than Tomcat’s. The windows were smaller at this end of O’Keefe’s trailer and were placed too high for Frank to manage a look inside standing at ground level. He was just hunting around for something he might stand on when Mrs. Erkstrom approached. She was using the fingers of one hand to pinch her nose shut. In the other hand, she was carrying a small stepladder.
“Thought you might be able to use this,” she said, her voice altered to something between Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine and Minnie Mouse.
He thanked her.
Flies were thick on all of the windows, buzzing around between the glass and the curtains, but there were more of them on the window at the back of the trailer. Those curtains were closed but not drawn together perfectly, so he positioned the ladder below that slight opening.
A brief look told him most of what he needed to know for the moment. A nude male lay sprawled across the bed. His skin was distorted and discolored. His body appeared to be in an advanced state of decomposition. Light flickered from a small color television on top of a dresser. On the screen, a couple in a soap opera were having an argument.
Frank stepped down off the ladder and closed his eyes for a moment.
Maybe it helped, growing up around cops, hearing stories about some of the worst cases they had come across—those had certainly included catching calls for “stinkers” and “floaters.” But if it helped, it didn’t help enough. He again fought down nausea.
He also fought down a set of emotions that ran twisting through him in rapid succession. He felt shaken at the sight, despite the slide shows he had seen at the academy. Sadness for O’Keefe’s lost battle with despair. An uncomfortable sense of having invaded his privacy in the worst sort of way. Anger that O’Keefe had given up. Anger that he had left the job of cleaning up the messy end of his life to the Bakersfield PD. Dread of talking to Mrs. Erkstrom or anyone else. And a desire to wring Darryl Cross’s neck for handing off this call.
Mrs. Erkstrom asked, “Is he in there?”
He broke a rule and nodded.
He thought she might start babbling at him again, but to his surprise, she turned away and went inside her trailer without another word.
He walked back to the car and sat down.
Bear was quiet for a long time, then said, “Bad one?”
“You never forget your first one.”
“That’s the worst news I’ve had all day.”
Bear made the radio call. Detectives and the coroner would be called out. They were given further instructions.
Bear turned off the mike. “So, the body snatchers will bring the meat wagon whenever they get a moment, but in the meantime, we’re supposed to make sure no one else is in there, maybe wounded.”
“Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, ‘only if they can breathe through their ass, like a maggot.’ But you’d be surprised. One time, when I was about as new on the job as you are, I was sent inside a stinking apartment. I go in, find an old man dead on the bed and rotting away. I step closer and I hear a moan. I just about shit myself.
“I hear another moan, look over on the far side of the bed, and there’s the guy’s old lady, on the floor between the bed and the wall. I get a closer look, see that she was wounded but alive.”
“She make it?”
He hesitated and then said, “For a while. But that’s all any of us do, really.” Then he grinned and said, “Harriman?”
“Before you break into that trailer, you may want to dust off your ass. You forgot about the bag of flour.” He made no attempt to stifle his laughter as Frank stepped out of the vehicle. Cussing as he removed the bag, Frank was tempted to toss it in Bear’s face.
Bear grinned knowingly, then relented. “Check under the metal steps for a key holder. People are idiots. Especially old men.”
So Frank caught a break. Searching under the steps, he saw a magnetic key hider. He put on a pair of gloves and pulled it loose. It contained two keys. One was clearly a post-office box key. The other unlocked the trailer. He glanced back at Bear, who flashed him a peace sign.
Bear was a clown who didn’t know that no one flashed the peace sign anymore—or did know and thought he was being funny—but he wasn’t an idiot. And he wasn’t old, either—not really. He was a little younger than Frank’s dad, in his early forties. And unlike some of the guys with twenty years in, Bear was in good shape.
Opening the trailer door let out a cloud of flies and stench, although he was almost getting used to the smell. He had heard stories of detectives putting a pan of coffee on the stove at a scene like this, heating it until its aroma masked the odor of decomp. He was the rookie here, though, and didn’t dare mess with anything. He reminded himself that he was just here to take a quick look around, to make sure there were no additional victims.
Insect life and bad air aside, the inside of the trailer was beautiful, lined with curving honey-colored birch that gave it a golden glow. O’Keefe kept the place clean and neat. There was a small living room, then a kitchen, a bathroom, and the bedroom beyond. Frank steeled himself and made his way toward it.
The heat inside the trailer was punishing. He was drenched in sweat by the time he made the short walk to the back.
O’Keefe looked even worse up close and personal, but Frank had expected that.
He turned away, toward the television. It was louder here, distracting. How would he hear anyone sigh over that? He noted the volume level and channel and turned it off. He might get in trouble, but he couldn’t think with it on.
In the ensuing silence, he listened for a moment, but all he heard were flies and a crackling sound. After a second, he realized the crackling sound was being made by maggots. He again managed not to let nausea get the better of him, then tried to keep his thoughts clear, detached. It was a struggle.
He glanced around the bed and peered into the bathroom and the front closet. No wounded spouses, gagged hostages, or other living individuals who might have needed his help. There was a closet in the bedroom he hadn’t checked. Did he really need to do that?
“You want to work homicide?” he murmured to himself. He forced himself to do what he’d been avoiding—to go into the bedroom again and look at the victim.
O’Keefe’s head and face were a mess, but there were two oddities he noticed having to do with O’Keefe’s right arm and his left hand. His right arm rested behind his head—O’Keefe had apparently propped his head on this arm, which seemed an odd position to be in to commit suicide. It would have been a natural one for watching television, though. Why would someone who’s committing suicide have the television on? It hadn’t been on at a volume that would have covered a gunshot, if that was what he had intended.
There was a gun in O’Keefe’s left hand. His fingers were curled around the grip.
He was distracted by a whistling sound. The wind had come up, and he could hear whistling from windows and the vent above, and, at a different pitch—somewhere to his right as he faced the bed. He looked at the wall and saw a small circle of light and damaged paneling.
It looked for all the world as if someone had fired a bullet into the trailer.
He drew in a sharp breath, regretted it, and made another check of the trailer. Certain no one else was inside, he left, locked the door, and went around to the other side of the trailer. There was a hole, and if he looked through it, he was looking at Donnie O’Keefe’s head wound.
He turned around. There was a hole in Tomcat’s trailer, directly opposite the one in O’Keefe’s. Around the hole, the torn metal of the siding flared out.
When he walked back around to the patrol car, Bear was standing beside it, talking to Mrs. Erkstrom, who had reemerged from her trailer. They fell silent when they saw him approach.
“Just the one,” Frank said to Bear, then turned to Mrs. Erkstrom. “Do you know Tomcat’s real name?”
“No. When I tried to introduce myself, he played deaf and ignored me. So I said to myself, ‘Well, nuts to you, buddy.’ Most people here are really nice and friendly. Not him. He was a jerk. You act like that, one day you’re in trouble, nobody’s going to help you out. Even a saint will flip you the bird, and I’m no saint.”
“Sorry he was rude to you.”
“Now see, you—you’re a polite young man.”
She turned to him with a frown. “You, on the other hand—”
Frank intervened with another question. “Mrs. Erkstrom, do you happen to know whether Mr. O’Keefe was left-handed or right-handed?”
“He was right-handed. At least, that’s the hand he wrote with.”
Bear raised his brows. Mrs. Erkstrom watched Frank in anticipation. Fortunately, they heard the approach of a car, so he was spared explaining his question. It was an unmarked black sedan. As they emerged from the car, Frank recognized two friends of his dad, Detective Mattson and Detective Tucker.
They wore suits—although each had taken his suit coat off and left it in the car—and carried less equipment than Frank or Bear, but they looked nearly as overheated.
Some detectives snubbed uniformed officers once they were promoted. Mattson and Tucker didn’t have that attitude. They had known Bear Bradshaw and Brian Harriman for many years, and they had each been to the Harriman house for parties and barbeques. Of the two, Frank knew John Mattson the best.
Ike Tucker was the one who initially spent time talking to Frank, while Mattson conferred with Bear. Other neighbors were now coming out of their homes, walking toward whatever excitement this promised.
“You’re getting a baptism of fire,” Ike said, when Frank had given him the first few bits of information. “I thought the SOC was supposed to be out this way today.”
Frank tried unsuccessfully to hide his surprise.
“Oh yes, we all call the little son of a bitch that. As a matter of fact—”
Whatever else Ike was going to say was cut off when Mattson called to Frank from the far end of the Vagabond. Frank walked toward him, wondering if he should just let the detectives notice things on their own or point out what he had noticed. Would they resent it? Would they be mad about the TV being off? That he had been walking through the trailer, coming up with theories? Tucker knew he had been inside, but didn’t seem upset about it. Frank decided that getting his ass chewed out wouldn’t be as bad as not doing right by Mr. O’Keefe. If you wore a uniform and you entered a man’s home and saw him in that condition, you ought to do what you could on his behalf.
Still, he knew that rookies were infamous for overstepping boundaries. He didn’t want to act like a horse’s ass before he had a month on the job. They might all come up with some awful nickname for him, the way they had for Darryl, the SOC.
“So,” Mattson said, “Bear tells me you’ve wanted to work homicide since you were twelve.”
“I know I can’t do that right away,” Frank said.
“Of course not. But you’re Brian Harriman’s son, which leads me to believe you are no dummy, and besides, Bear seems to think you’ve noticed something.”
“How could he—”
“Bear notices things, too. Like your dad, he should have been promoted to detective a long time ago. While he and Tucker talk to the neighbors, you talk to me.”
So Frank told Mattson what he had learned from Mrs. Erkstrom about Donnie O’Keefe’s background and habits, about his own look through the trailer, and about the troublesome former neighbor.
“Probably should have left the television alone,” Mattson said mildly. “Your job in this situation is to observe and secure the scene, not to touch. The coroner and the Kern County crime lab folks get unhappy when we do anything that might change the temperature in the room, or if we drag in whatever little fibers or hairs or—ahem!—flour that was previously clinging to our asses. All of that disturbs the scene. To some extent, that can’t be helped, of course. But the television—well, you’ll know for next time.”
“So—what bothered you other than the stink and the flies and the heat?”
“I saw a couple of things that don’t make sense.”
“The position of O’Keefe’s right arm didn’t seem likely for suicide. He was positioned as if he had been relaxed and slightly propped up, watching TV on a hot night in the nude—not attractive, but would someone committing suicide want to be found in the nude?”
“Naked suicide isn’t all that common, but it isn’t unheard of, especially not in indoor suicide cases.” Mattson paused. “Don’t see it much in suicide-by-firearm cases.”
“Why was the television on? The volume wasn’t up high enough to cover the sound of a shot.”
“Another unknown. Televisions provide the illusion of companionship. Maybe he wanted company, of a kind. What else bothered you?”
“Why would he put his dominant hand behind his head and shoot with his left?”
“That’s a little harder to figure out.”
“Also, his fingers were wrapped around the grip of the gun—”
“That can happen—it’s called cadaveric spasm.”
“But he didn’t have a finger on the trigger.”
Mattson raised his brows. “No shit. That’s the trouble for killers—can’t make it look like cadaveric spasm after the fact.” He made a few notes, then asked, “You didn’t touch anything other than the TV, right?”
“Right, except a couple of doors, when I was making sure no one was in a closet or the bathroom. I wore gloves.”
Mattson smiled. “Okay, I’m listening.”
Frank explained about the holes in the two trailers.
After looking at them, Mattson stared at the other trailer. “What do we know about the owner?”
“Not much. We didn’t get to see the manager, so we don’t have a name. I’m not even sure he’s the owner of the trailer, but the person who was living there until recently is a young man O’Keefe and Mrs. Erkstrom nicknamed ‘Tomcat.’”
“Did you get a description of him from her?”
“No, not really,” Frank said, feeling foolish for not asking her for more details. “She did say he was clean-cut and, um . . .”
“Sexually active with numerous partners?”
“Could have guessed that from the nickname. Females?”
“She only mentioned women.”
He made more notes, then looked up at the sound of an approaching vehicle. “Here comes the meat wagon. Go help Bear to keep the neighbors back. Also try to keep them from talking to one another about anything they may have seen or heard, so we can get witness statements—although based on how long they waited to call about this smell, I’ll be surprised if we get anything from them.”
Eventually, Frank and Bear went back to patrolling the part of town originally assigned to them. Bear was cracking jokes. Frank was trying to decide if he could really still smell decomp or if it was his imagination when Bear asked him if he thought he could shower and change and still have time to eat something on their dinner break.
“You know,” Bear said suddenly, “too much of this job is just sad shit, but today I’m going to get to do the amount of ass-kicking I need to do to cheer myself up.”
He pulled over, jumped out of the car, and started running. By then Frank had seen why he’d stopped—Mouse was getting beat up by her pimp, Alvin.
Mouse was April Strange, Leticia Anderson, Bonnie Boone, or Callie Comet, depending on which ID she had on her at the time. She was an addict who supported her habit through prostitution. She was petite, improbably blonde, and thin to the point of fragility. She wore a red crop top, hot pants, fishnet stockings, and platform heels, which likely had made it impossible for her to keep her balance after Alvin struck the first blow. Alvin, five times her size, straddled her now, pinning her to the sidewalk and raining blows on her face. A crowd was gathering, but no one intervened.
Bear shouted, “Step away from her, Alvin, and keep your hands where I can see them!”
Alvin took one look at Bear, already halfway to him, and took off. Frank was just steps behind his TO when Bear caught Alvin and tackled him to the ground. “Take care of Mouse,” Bear said, as he put the cuffs on Alvin.
Frank still felt adrenaline pumping through him, but Bear was cool and calm. Bear took out his reading glasses and began to read from his Miranda card, all to hooting from the crowd. Frank was relieved to see that they were rooting for Bear.
“I’m done with that bitch!” Alvin shouted from the ground.
When Frank came closer to Mouse, stooping down next to her where she lay curled up on the hot sidewalk, she flinched away.
“Hey, Mouse, it’s Frank Harriman. You remember me, don’t you?”
Mouse’s face was a mess. Her eyes were beginning to swell shut, her nose was bleeding, and her lips were cut. She was crying and seemed dazed.
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “You’re Brian’s kid.”
Kid. She was younger than he was. In years, anyway.
“Yes,” he said, “he’s my dad.”
“You smell weird.”
“Sorry about that. Visited a dead guy in a trailer today and haven’t had time to clean up. I’ll bet you feel worse than I smell,” he said, handing her a Kleenex.
“I’m not sure about that,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Had the dead guy been there a long time?”
“Hard to tell, with all the heat lately.”
“What happened to him?”
“Hard to tell that, too.” He could see that she was looking for distraction from her pain, though, so he added, “It’s a beautiful old trailer, although I don’t know if they’ll ever get the stink out of it now. You’d like it—it’s your favorite color.”
“Is it at Lazy Acres Trailer Park?”
Surprised, he said, “Yes.”
“I think I’ve seen it. At the back?”
“Yes,” he said, realizing that she might have been there with a john. “You ever been inside it?”
Bear passed them with Alvin, giving Frank a grin and saying, “Guess who didn’t have time to dump his weapon or take the coke out of his pockets?” He glanced at Mouse and added, “I’ll call for an ambulance. Go with her, I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
He almost asked Bear if he was going to need help handling Alvin, but stopped himself. Bear had been at this job a long time. He knew his limits.
Mouse slowly moved herself to a sitting position, but didn’t try to stand. Doing even that much seemed to make her dizzy. She closed her eyes and put a hand to her forehead. “Alvin’s gonna kill me,” she said softly.
“Looks like he already made a try.”
“He’ll get out. He always does. He knows people—not all cops are like you, baby. He’ll pay them off, they’ll let him out, he’ll come looking for me, and that will be that.”
“You know people, too,” Frank said, thinking of Bear.
“That little bastard?” She glanced up at him and sighed. “Hell, I wish I didn’t.”
At Frank’s puzzled look, she said, “You know Alvin lets the dude have it for free.”
She frowned, then glanced at the thinning crowd. “Forget I mentioned it.”
The ambulance pulled up, so Frank held his questions for the time being.
Later, after Mouse’s injuries had been photographed and X-rayed, her wounds cleaned and treated, she was released by the hospital. Frank drove her back to headquarters, where Bear brought a meal to her while Frank showered and changed clothes.
“Much better,” Bear said, when he rejoined them. “Let’s take Mouse back home.”
As they started to walk out, Darryl Cross walked in. He came to a sudden, startled halt, then continued walking into the building.
“What was that all about?” Bear asked.
Mouse was shaking.
“Mouse?” Frank asked.
“Get me out of here,” she said.
When they were in the parked patrol car, she said, “I mean it, Bear. Please! Please get me out of here.”
“What’s going on, Mouse?”
“That guy—the one that just walked in? He’s gonna make sure Alvin gets out. I can’t stay in Bakersfield, Bear. You know what Alvin will do to me.”
“You know him?” Bear asked. “The guy who just walked in?”
“I don’t know his name,” she said, but Frank thought she was lying about that.
“Where’d you meet him?”
“Where do I meet anybody? At a curb.”
“Can’t help you if you bullshit me,” Bear said.
She was silent for so long that Frank turned around to make sure she hadn’t passed out. The doctors had said she had a mild concussion.
But she was awake, arms crossed over her stomach. She was shivering. He got out of the car and opened the trunk. He retrieved a blanket—an item he was beginning to see he’d use more often than his gun. He opened the back door farthest from her and placed it on the seat, then closed the door. He got back in the front seat.
She pulled the blanket around her, looked at him, and said, “Thank you.”
As if this small kindness and polite exchange had decided something for her, she said, looking at Frank and not Bear, “We all know who he is, and who his father is. He’s got a place out in the trailer park. Alvin says Darryl’s dad doesn’t know about it, but Alvin lies all the time. So I don’t know about that. I just know he’s got this place next to that red trailer we talked about.”
Frank forced himself not to look at Bear, prayed Bear would just let her talk. He needn’t have worried.
“Alvin says, ‘I’m taking you there, you show him a good time, he just likes knowing that he’s doing something his old man doesn’t know about.’ So he took me out there.”
She looked toward the building, pulled the blanket closer around her. “Some men—you know, some men don’t really want sex. Well, they want sex, but it’s not about having fun or feeling good. It’s all about the power. They get mean. He’s mean.”
“He hurt you?”
“Nothing that hasn’t happen to me before. I’m just saying, you’re going to work with him, you should know he’s mean.”
“Thanks,” Frank said, although he already knew this about Darryl.
“It scared him to see me with you two, and when mean people get scared, they get even meaner. You know what I’m saying, right, Bear?”
“I do, Mouse. See it every day.”
Frank hoped Darryl didn’t come back out of the building anytime soon, because he didn’t trust himself to keep hold of his temper if the SOC showed his face.
Then he thought of his dad, who had once told him, “The best cop is a cop who can stay calm in a situation that practically begs him to go apeshit on somebody. That’s the real test of respect for the uniform.”
He calmed down.
Bear said to Mouse, “How long have you been clean?”
“Two weeks,” she said. “Not long. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stay clean. Not with all this shit happening.” She paused. “How’d you know?”
“No fresh tracks, no doctors telling me that your head injury couldn’t be evaluated because you were high. And—well, you’re a different person when you’re clean. More yourself. Alvin didn’t like it?”
“No. He didn’t like it at all.”
Bear put the car in gear. “I must have a hole in my head,” he murmured, and drove off the lot.
“Where are you taking me?”
“You want to be safe?”
“What if I told you that right now you are the most powerful person in Bakersfield?”
“I’d say you do have a hole in your head. Stop clowning, Bear.”
“I’m not. Let me see what I can do.”
He drove to a gas station at the edge of town, told Frank to stay in the car, gathered up a roll of dimes, got out, and walked over to a pay phone.
When he got back to the car, he seemed amused.
“What’s so funny?” Frank asked.
“I’ll tell you in a second.” He turned to Mouse. “Just talked to Detective Mattson. He and Tucker are going to meet with you and a prosecutor who’s the head of a task force that has been working on an investigation into Chief Cross. Cross is about to lose his job. And being unemployed will be the least of his problems.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“Just tell them what you told us, and they’ll put it together with some other little facts they have about Darryl and his dad.” He hesitated, then said, “When all that’s over, I have a friend who will give you a ride to Las Piernas. She has family there and is headed back there for a visit tomorrow. She’ll take you to a place that’s run by another friend of mine down there, someone nobody else here is connected to. It’s a place where runaways can stay, so you’ll be older than most of them, but she said she’d welcome having someone there who’s between her age and theirs to listen to them, help them out. If you can’t stay clean while you’re there, then I’ll find another situation for you, but you have to promise me you’ll at least try to stay out of trouble while you are under her roof.”
“Does she know I’m a junkie and a hooker?”
“Ex-junkie, and I’m hoping, ex-hooker. Up to you, Mouse. But she’s not afraid of your history, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
“What is she, some kind of nun?”
He laughed. “No. Her name is Althea Fremont. Her son ran away from home and joined a biker gang. She can’t do much for him, so she decided she’d give other runaways a safe place to stay while they sort things out.”
“I could have used a place like that a couple of years ago.”
“I knew you’d see why it’s important. What do you say?”
“She really wants me to be there?”
Frank saw a look of longing come over her face.
“What if I fuck up, Bear?”
“Not the end of the world. Humans fuck up all the time. You’re a survivor, Mouse. And if you don’t like it there, give me a call. I’ll drive down there personally and help you work something else out.” He reached into his roll of dimes and held up a pair of them. “Before you leave, I’ll give you my number and a couple of emergency dimes. You lose the dimes, you can call collect.”
She stared out the windows, tears rolling down her face. “Okay,” she whispered. Then louder, she said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
As they drove toward the place where they were meeting the detectives and the prosecutor, she said, “You never told Frank what was so funny after you got off the pay phone.”
Bear laughed. “The person who is giving you the ride to Las Piernas is Irene Kelly. She’s a young reporter, new here in town.”
“He’s been trying to get me to meet her,” Frank said.
“So far, he’s been cleverly sabotaging my efforts. Anyway, she’s on the police beat, and she won’t be able to keep hold of this story—too big for a new reporter, so it’s already been taken from her.”
“You told a reporter about this?” Frank asked, appalled.
“Hell, no. No need to. She heard the call for the meat wagon on the scanner and went out to the trailer park, where she got very little of the story until she talked to one Mrs. Erkstrom.”
“Before anything was on the television news,” Bear went on, “she was over at the Starlight Arms, the snazzy apartment building O’Keefe used to manage. She goes door-to-door, good little news hound that she is, breaking the news to the tenants and asking about O’Keefe, when all of a sudden she hits pay dirt.”
“I’m afraid to ask,” Frank said.
“One woman turns pale as polar ice and says, ‘Oh my God! I never thought this day would come. Wait here.’ And she goes back into the apartment and comes back with a shoebox full of cassette tapes. She says, ‘Donnie told me that if he ever died under mysterious circumstances, I was supposed to turn these over to the newspaper. I thought he was being overly dramatic, but I humored him.’”
“Chief used to keep a mistress at the Starlight Arms. He used her place to meet some other—‘associates,’ let’s say. Mistress used to drive Donnie nuts, and he knew she wanted him out of the job. So Donnie bugged her place, and thought at first of using the recordings as a threat—until he figured out what kind of people he’d be threatening. So he decided instead to have this lady who was fond of him keep the tapes as a kind of insurance, in case something happened to him. Tapes may not be admissible in court, since the taping couldn’t have been legal, but they will still cause him problems. Plus, they included one Donnie made himself, saying he was afraid Chief Cross would have him killed for what he knew about him.”
“The Bakersfield Californian has them now?” Frank asked.
“Contacted the DA’s office about them almost immediately.”
“Made copies first, of course.”
“Wow. I could almost feel sorry for your reporter friend. Would have been a big story for her.”
“You feel bad about what happened to the big case you worked on today?”
“No. I’m not ready for a homicide case. I’d rather see the bad guy get what’s coming to him.”
“I have a feeling Irene would understand that exactly.”
Darryl Cross said that the death of O’Keefe was accidental. He liked O’Keefe, who had set him up at the trailer park and kept his identity a secret, so that he could have a place to have a little fun without his dad watching his every move. He’d been cleaning a gun when it discharged, and the stray bullet had gone through the wall of his trailer and into O’Keefe’s. When he saw that it had killed O’Keefe, he panicked and staged a suicide scene.
No one believed him.
Which might not have been fair, Frank thought, but the privilege of being the SOC was backfiring on Darryl in a big way. Frank wasn’t going to waste sympathy on him.
“You wanted to kick his ass that night, didn’t you?” Bear asked when they heard of his arrest.
“So hard he’d have to find a new way to shit.”
“What made you change your mind?”
“Something my dad once said to me.”
“About staying calm in the face of provocation?”
“Something like that.”
Justice and its wheels ground on, slow and fine.
They were grinding the chief’s privileged life down to dust.
Alvin, without his protector to save him, was also looking at a long stretch in prison.
Mouse had mailed the dimes back to Bear, with a note thanking him. She was happy at the Casa de Esperanza, the place Mrs. Fremont owned.
One night, at the conclusion of a long shift of what seemed like an endless walk down a hallway of human misery, Bear again invited Frank to meet his friend the reporter for dinner. Frank thanked him, but told him he had something planned.
Frank just smiled and said he’d see him the next day.
He was starting to be curious about the reporter, but he hadn’t lied about having plans. He drove to an apartment building, where Len Meadows, the person he was meeting for a late dinner at a Denny’s, was waiting at the curb.
Maybe someone else would have shunned the company of a kid who had puked all over his patrol car, but the remorse Len had later shown for his actions caught Frank’s attention.
So with the gratitude and approval of Len’s overwhelmed mom, he met with Len, and suggested that instead of staging drunken rampages at sporting events, it might be better if once in a while the two of them went out for a burger and Len talked to him about whatever was on his mind. Len could have turned the offer down, but he didn’t. He later told Frank that he felt as if he couldn’t go any lower than he had the night of the game.
Frank had seen plenty of examples of going lower, but kept that to himself. Len was a smart kid. Frank was going to encourage him to do more with his life than live it as a self-destructive protest against his father.
So even though he had decided that one day soon he was going to have to give in to Bear’s pressure and meet the reporter, today wasn’t that day—he had made a promise to Len, and he kept such promises.
He kept them because he owed something to Brian Harriman, a man who cared about his children and the example he set for them.
And that, Frank decided, made him one of the most privileged of men.