The dead were rising in the fire-blackened Santa Monica Mountains and Eve Ronin, the youngest homicide detective in the history of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was on her way to examine one of them.
“Are you sure you ought to be driving?” asked her partner, Duncan Pavone, who took a bite out of his morning donut and rested it on a napkin that was spread out on his considerable belly. He was more than twice her age, three times as heavy, and four months away from retire- ment. “You just got the cast off your wrist yesterday. What if you have to make a sudden move?”
She’d been stuck at a desk for weeks, pushing paper while waiting for her wrist to heal. It was broken during the course of her first murder investigation as a member of the Robbery-Homicide Division at the Lost Hills sheriff’s station in Calabasas, a small city on the northwest edge of the San Fernando Valley. Eve was eager to get out and do some real detective work again. So she was excited when they were dispatched to investigate a call from a homeowner in the Santa Monica Mountains who’d found bones in his backyard.
“My wrist is fine,” Eve said, “and even if it wasn’t, it’s still safer than you driving with one hand on the wheel and the other holding your donut.”
“What if a frightened deer leaps out in front of us?”
“From where?” Eve gestured to the desolate mountains all around them as they headed south on Kanan Dume Road in their plain-wrap Ford Explorer on a hot, muggy Monday morning in mid-January. “There’s no place for a deer to hide.”
Six weeks earlier, a raging wildfire in Valencia, thirty-three miles north of Los Angeles, was pushed southwest by scorching Santa Ana winds. The flames converged in the Santa Monica Mountains with another blaze in Topanga Canyon to create a cataclysmic firestorm that roared through one hundred thousand acres of dry mustard weed and chaparral, devouring sixteen hundred structures before it was finally put down.
Five residents and one firefighter were killed in the inferno. But in the days and weeks that followed, the burned remains of four other people were found, corpses that had been hidden in the brush and ravines before the flames revealed them.
“What about a death-crazed raccoon?” Duncan said. “A what?”
“A raccoon driven mad after the fire by pain, hunger, and thirst.” “I’ll run it over,” she said. “We probably won’t even feel a bump.” “That’s heartless. I can’t believe you’d do that.”
“I’ll be putting him out of his misery and protecting others from the danger he poses. What if he attacks a puppy or a newborn baby?”
“Why would he do that?” “Because he’s death crazed.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would a puppy or a newborn baby be out here?”
“It’s as likely as a raccoon hurling himself at a speeding SUV.”
“I feel like the last man on earth in one of those Twilight Zone epi- sodes,” Duncan said, ignoring her comment and looking out the win- dow at the desolation. “Like the guy who finally has eternity to indulge his love of reading books and then sits on his last pair of glasses.”
Eve also thought there was an eerie, postapocalyptic feel to the naked mountains. There was virtually no traffic on the road. The only people in sight were utility workers installing new poles for the downed power and telephone lines.
“Then you better be careful you don’t sit on your last donut,” she said.
Duncan took her advice, ate the remainder of his glazed old-fashioned, then balled up his napkin and tossed it in the back seat. His nickname at the station was “Dunkin’ Donuts” and this was how he’d earned it.
She made a left onto Hueso Canyon Road. The narrow strip of cracked asphalt was bordered on three sides by steep blackened slopes and above by a winding, perilous stretch of Latigo Canyon Road that ran just below the ragged ridgeline.
They passed a small winery that had been spared by the flames, but the homes on either side of the vineyard hadn’t been so lucky. All that remained of them were twisted pipes, freestanding brick chimneys, toppled water heaters, and the hulks of a few burned-out cars. As Eve drove farther along, the random nature of the destruction became more evident. Four houses in a row, on the south side of the road, backed up to the mountain. The first two homes and the fourth were gone, but the third was untouched. That house was their destination.
It was two stories with a four-car garage, a red-tiled roof, and lots of stone cladding. There was something unnatural about how pristine the home and landscaping were, as if the property had been under a protec- tive dome when the blaze swept through. The lawn and flowers, con- trasted against the black ash everywhere else, struck Eve as outrageously colorful, like something out of The Wizard of Oz. The only thing on the property that had burned was the fence. A few scorched posts remained, marking the property’s boundary with a ghostly dotted line.
A man stood in the cobblestone driveway, waiting for them. He was in his fifties, with a goatee and long gray-flecked hair tied into a ponytail. He wore a faded Fleetwood Mac T-shirt, jeans with holes in the knees, and flip-flops.
Eve parked the Explorer at the curb and the two detectives got out. She wore a white blouse, a loose-fitting navy-blue blazer to hide her hip-holstered Glock, and slacks. Duncan was in one of his many off-the-rack gray suits and ties.
The man smiled with recognition when he saw Eve, as if they were old friends, and that made her uncomfortable.
“Are you Sherwood Mintner?” Eve asked.
“Yes I am,” Mintner said. “Are you the Deathfist?”
“I’m Detective Eve Ronin and this is Detective Duncan Pavone,” she said, tipping her head toward her partner, who was grinning, enjoy- ing her discomfort.
Mintner nodded a few times, eager to get her back to his point. “Yes, but you’re the deputy who beat up Blake Largo, right?”
She was. Eight months ago, she’d been off duty, riding her bike on Mulholland, not far from where they were standing right now, when she saw the movie star assaulting a woman in a restaurant parking lot. Eve stepped between the couple, Largo took a swing at her, and she swiftly planted him facedown on the pavement. The incident was filmed by several astonished onlookers with their phones.
A video of a lean, radiantly blue-eyed young woman in a body- hugging bike jersey and shorts easily overpowering the muscled, internationally famous actor who played Deathfist, the invincible mixed-martial-arts-fighter-turned-vigilante, was irresistible clickbait. It immediately went viral, getting eleven million hits in a week.
“I didn’t beat him,” Eve said. “I subdued him.”
“It was awesome.” Mintner grinned, flashing his capped, too-white teeth. “The sequel was even better.”
He was referring to another viral video, this one shot six weeks ago by a firefighter as Eve ran toward his rescue helicopter with a child in her arms, all of Malibu Creek State Park ablaze behind her. The video looked like the trailer for a Deathfist movie and only solidified her unwanted nickname within the department and among the public.
“Could I get a selfie with you?” Mintner asked, taking his phone out of his back pocket.
“No, sir,” she said. His smile disappeared. No selfie. “We’re here because you reported finding human remains on your property. Can you please show us what you found?”
“Yeah, this way,” he said, his shoulders slumped in disappointment as he led them single file around the side of his property. “It’s in my backyard. It’s a piece of a skull, but it wasn’t here before.”
“Before what?” Duncan asked, walking behind him. “The fire.”
“How do you know?” Eve asked, bringing up the rear.
“Because I’ve lived here for twenty years and we’ve relandscaped the backyard a few times. We definitely would have noticed it. The skull is right on top of the dirt.”
The backyard had a pergola that jutted out from the house, a stone firepit, a swimming pool, and a gazebo. The property backed up to the canyon walls, which Eve figured had once provided some privacy. But all the thick vegetation on the slopes had burned away and anyone on Latigo Canyon Road could now look directly down into their yard. The upside was there was nobody on the road and probably wouldn’t be for a long time. Most of the homes above had burned down and the road was open only to locals until the cleanup was complete.
Duncan took a notepad out of his back pocket. “How did you discover the skull?”
“I was out here with a contractor, getting an estimate on building a new fence, and there it was.” Mintner pointed beyond the pool, to where his property abutted the hillside. “It was like something out of a horror movie. I should know.”
“Why is that?” Eve asked.
“I’m the Sherwood Mintner,” he said, waiting a beat for the rec- ognition that didn’t come from Eve or Duncan. “The screenwriter of Bloodbath Day Camp for Girls.” He paused for a reaction again, but still got nothing. “It’s a horror classic, for Christ’s sake.”
“Where’s the contractor?” Eve said.
“Probably on his way to Oregon. Seeing that empty eye socket scared the shit out of him. He peeled out while I was calling you.”
“Because he’s superstitious?” Duncan said.
“Because he’s an illegal immigrant and an unlicensed contractor.” “But you were willing to hire him anyway,” Eve said.
“I want to build a fence, not a nuclear reactor.” Mintner led them around the pool, past the gazebo, to one of the scorched fence posts. He stopped and pointed at the ground. “Here it is.”
A jagged piece of a human skull peeked out of the dirt. It was part of a forehead, the left eye socket, part of the nasal cavity, and the cheekbone. The charred fragment reminded Eve of the mask worn by the Phantom of the Opera.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Mintner asked. “What is?” Duncan asked.
“Hueso is Spanish for bone,” Mintner said. “This is Bone Canyon.
It’s one of the reasons I built a house here. It fits my brand.” “Is this a stunt for your brand?” Duncan asked.
Mintner held up his hands. “I have nothing to do with this bone being here. It’s divine providence.”
Eve looked at Mintner. “Have you touched it?” “Nope,” he said.
She gestured to the phone in his hand. “Have you taken a picture of it to enhance ‘your brand’?”
Mintner shifted his weight between his feet. “A few.” “Have you posted them on social media?”
“Not yet,” he said.
“Please don’t,” Duncan said.
“Would it be a crime if I did?” Mintner asked.
“No,” Duncan said, tipping his head toward the skull. “But that’s somebody’s spouse, son, or daughter. It wouldn’t be very sensitive to the families who loved this person to have those pictures out there, especially after we ID the remains.”
“Oh well,” he said with a sigh. “There goes a couple of hundred likes.”
“That’s important to you?” Duncan asked.
“Of course it is. Likes are power,” Mintner said, and looked at Eve. “You know what I’m saying. Isn’t that how you became a homicide detective?”
Everybody knew that. The YouTube video of her taking down the Deathfist made her a hero with the public and the media, right in the midst of a sheriff’s department scandal involving deputies beating up prisoners at the county jail. The embattled sheriff wanted to keep Eve, and the positive press she was generating, at the top of the news cycle for as long as possible. So Sheriff Lansing offered her a promotion. She asked for Homicide and got it, making history and more headlines. The public loved it. The rank and file within the department didn’t.
“We have to treat this like a crime scene and seal the area,” she said. “That means your backyard is off-limits until we can get a forensic unit out here to process the evidence. You’ll have to go back inside your house.”
“You’re kidding me,” Mintner said.
“No she’s not,” Duncan said. “Please go inside, sir, and we’ll get a formal statement from you in a few minutes.”
Mintner sighed and walked away.
Eve glanced up at the barren slope. “I’ll bet the body was up there, hidden in the brush, and tumbled into the yard after the fire burned everything away.”
“It’s a safe bet,” Duncan said. “It’s what’s happened with four of the bodies that have been discovered since the fire.”
Three of the four were executed gang members whose bullet-riddled or multiply stabbed bodies were tossed into ravines by their killers. Those homicide cases were all being handled by the LASD gang unit. The fourth body belonged to an elderly man who’d wandered away from an Alzheimer’s care facility in Calabasas several years ago. The ME had determined that he’d died from a fall.
“Don’t even think about climbing up there to look around,” Duncan said.
“It’s not that steep.” “It’s not worth the risk.” “What risk?”
“To your wrist, you idiot. What if you slip?” “My wrist is healed,” she said.
“Are you in a hurry to break it again? Besides, it’s not your job to collect bones and your first physical therapy appointment is in an hour.” She’d forgotten about the appointment, which was back in Calabasas, eight miles northeast. “I’ll cancel it. This is more important.” “Go,” Duncan said. “I’ll stay here, get Mintner’s statement, and call in the forensic unit. I promise you won’t miss anything.” “You could get attacked by a death-crazed raccoon.”
“Don’t say that. I’m 118 days from retirement,” Duncan said as she walked away. “With my luck, it’ll happen.”