The northern stretch of Mulholland Highway ended in a T intersection with Mulholland Drive. It was an intersection that generated lots of confusion, and not only because of the nearly identical street names. It was also the intersection of two cities, three neighborhoods, two law enforcement jurisdictions, and on this hot, smoggy Thursday afternoon in December, life and death.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives Eve Ronin and Duncan Pavone headed to that intersection. They were driving east on Mulholland Drive in a plain-wrap Ford Explorer to investigate a possible homicide called in by the LAPD.
“There’s only one reason the LAPD would call us on a corpse,” Duncan said, sitting in the passenger seat and wiping donut crumbs from his big belly, which he used like an airplane tray table. “To tell us that it’s on our side of the line and not theirs.”
Jurisdictional disputes were inevitable, given the geography. The sheriff’s department was responsible for law enforcement in Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the surrounding communities of Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, Hidden Hills, and Calabasas. It was an enforcement area bordered by Ventura County to the west and northwest, the City of Los Angeles to the east and northeast, and Santa Monica Bay to the south. The intersection of Mulholland and Mulholland, on the northern lowlands of the Santa Monica Mountains, was the boundary between the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles and the City of Calabasas.
Eve had only been in the Robbery-Homicide Division, and working out of the Lost Hills station in Calabasas, for three months and this was her first encounter with a jurisdictional dispute. She was keenly aware of what she didn’t know and so was everybody else around her.
“How do you resolve the situation if it isn’t clear-cut?” Eve asked, even though she knew the question would reinforce the low opinion that Duncan and the other detectives already had about her qualifications for the job. But getting the knowledge was more important to her than her image.
“You piss, moan, and argue that the corpse is on their side or that the crime happened there. You get out a tape measure to prove where the boundary is or who has the bigger dick. You use whatever dirt you have on them, whatever favors they owe you, whatever leverage you’ve got to make them take the body and the aggravation that comes with it,” Duncan said. “But I almost always end up taking the body because I’m a softy.”
She took her eyes off the road to give him an incredulous look. “You care that much about some LAPD cop having a bad day?”
“Hell no,” Duncan said. “I do it because the victim deserves a cop who will work the case instead of one who is more intent on figuring out how some poor bastard who got shot four times in the back, and got dumped on the jurisdictional line, can be written off as a suicide.”
Eve smiled to herself. Maybe she was lucky to get partnered with a guy on his way out who didn’t give a damn anymore. At least he had once, and that counted for something. They made an odd-looking couple. He was old and fat and had a creative comb-over to hide his thinning hair. She was young and slim, her brown hair cut into a practical bob. They could be mistaken for a father and daughter who liked to carry Glocks.
At the intersection of Mulholland and Mulholland, there were some houses to the north, a two-story office building on the western corner behind a line of pines, and a wooded patch of oaks to the east that ran through the hillside between a private school and a housing tract.
Eve turned right onto Mulholland Drive, heading southbound, and saw a black-and-white parked behind a pickup truck on the side of the road. An LAPD plain-wrap Crown Vic was parked across the street, facing north. Two detectives leaned against their car, chatting with a uniformed officer. The detectives looked like they’d taken advantage of the “buy one, get one free” sale at Men’s Wearhouse and split the cost to get the off-the-rack suits they were wearing.
“The two suits are Detectives Frank Knobb and Arnie Prescott, out of Canoga Park,” Duncan said as she parked behind the black-and-white. “Our paths have crossed a few times. Between the two of ’em, they’ve been around as long as I have.”
Eve appreciated that Duncan didn’t use the opportunity to mention yet again that she wasn’t born when he’d first pinned on his badge. Duncan got out, hiked up his pants, waited for a car to pass, then crossed the street to speak to the detectives. Eve went over to check out the truck, which was covered with pine needles. The windshield was spattered with blood from the inside and a body was slumped in the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Dunkin’ Donuts,” one of the detectives said as Duncan approached them. “How’s it going?”
“Counting the days, Frank,” Duncan said. “Another hundred and sixty-three and I’m out of here. Have you heard about my new partner, Detective Ronin?”
The two LAPD detectives looked over at Eve, who was still across the street, studying the truck.
“Deathfist?” Frank Knobb said. “Sure. She’s a legend.”
Eve was previously a deputy out in Lancaster and unknown to anybody on the LAPD or anywhere else. But four months ago, while off duty, she witnessed actor Blake Largo, who starred as the invincible action hero Deathfist in a globally successful string of movies, assault a woman in a restaurant parking lot. Eve confronted him, he took a swing at her, and she put him on the ground. She pressed his million-dollar face to the pavement until police arrived. A bystander got it all on video with his phone and uploaded it to YouTube. The video got eleven million hits in less than a week. Now everybody called her Deathfist.
So she ignored Knobb’s snide remark and focused her attention on the driver of the truck. His head lolled back on the headrest. His throat was slit and the jagged cut gaped open like an obscene, bloody smile. A Rambo knife lay on the passenger seat. She thought it might be a suicide, considering that the knife was right beside him and the largely residential, very safe neighborhood where the victim was found. But if it was suicide, he’d picked an odd place to end his life. The last thing he saw as he bled out was Gelson’s, an upscale supermarket. Then again, Gelson’s was heaven to some people.
“You’re shitting me,” Arnie Prescott said, studying Eve. “A viral video is all it takes at the sheriff’s department to step up from burglary to homicide?”
It had more to do with the timing of the video, which came out amid revelations that sheriff’s deputies were beating prisoners at the county jail. The enormous positive PR she got was a welcome distraction from the scandal and encouraged the embattled sheriff to keep her at the top of the news cycle for as long as possible. He did that by showering her with accolades, which included offering her a promotion. What she wanted was a transfer to Robbery-Homicide and she got it, making her the youngest woman ever in the division. The public and the media loved it. The rank and file at the LASD, primarily the 86 percent of them who had testicles, did not.
“The sheriff’s department doesn’t have the LAPD’s high standards,” Knobb said.
“No wonder you’re cashing out now,” Prescott said to Duncan.
Duncan didn’t argue the point. “What’s the story on the dead man?”
“A jogger spotted the body and called 911,” Knobb said. “The operator called the LAPD. This fine young patrol officer showed up, saw the guy was not merely dead, but most sincerely dead, and brought us in.” “What this officer failed to notice in all the excitement was the boulder.” Prescott pointed to the median, where a newly installed boulder sat in a bed of flowers with the words Welcome to calabasas and a soaring bird decoratively carved on its north face. “And which side of the boulder the truck was parked on.” Knobb grinned at Duncan. “Your side.”
Sure enough, the truck was parked a few feet south of the invisible city limits line conveniently demarcated by the boulder, putting it in Calabasas. Eve looked at the road on the Los Angeles side and her anger flared. She didn’t like being played.
The uniformed officer shrugged sheepishly. “My bad.” “So here you are,” Prescott said.
“Lucky us,” Duncan said with a weary sigh.
“We stuck around to secure the scene as a professional courtesy,” Knobb said.
“Really?” Eve said. The two LAPD detectives looked at her like a naughty child who’d spoken up while the adults were talking. “Because I thought securing the scene meant making sure it wasn’t disturbed.”
“It doesn’t look disturbed to me,” Knobb said.
“The truck is covered with pine needles,” Eve said. “It obviously spent the night parked under a pine tree, which is odd, since the nearest one is down at the corner in Los Angeles.”
Prescott snorted. “You ever heard of wind?”
She stared at the detectives, not bothering to hide the disgust on her face. “So why aren’t there any pine needles on the sidewalk or the street around the truck?”
The two detectives maintained eye contact with her but the uniformed officer looked away. Duncan shook his head at the two remorseless detectives.
“It’s your case and as a professional courtesy we’re not going to tell anybody about this little stunt.” Duncan hiked up his pants and shifted his attention to the officer. “But I want you to think about something, son. If forensic issues end up torpedoing their case, do you think these two will have your back or make you the fall guy? I’d protect my ass if I were you.”
Duncan walked back across the street and gestured to Eve to follow him back to the car. Eve got into the driver’s seat, started up the car, made a U-turn around the median and then a right back onto Mulholland Drive, heading east.
Eve assumed the detectives had pulled rank and ordered the officer to push the truck over the line. The officer’s patrol car had welded steel bars on the front bumper that would enable him to move the truck without damaging his own vehicle.
“Who were they trying to screw by moving the body over the line into Calabasas?” Eve asked. “You or me?”
“Let me give you some advice. I know you’re used to being the center of attention, but when shit happens to you, it isn’t always personal.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? They intended to screw us.” “No, not us. All Knobb and Prescott knew was that two LASD detectives were going to show up. They didn’t know it was going to be the hotshot who didn’t deserve her promotion and the old fat ass on his way out the door.”
She nodded. “So they’re just lazy assholes.”
“That’s right. It’s nothing personal.” Duncan reached for the mike and let the dispatcher know that the body was in Los Angeles and that the LAPD was taking the case.
The dispatcher immediately responded with a new call for them, a possible person down at a home on a cul-de-sac in Topanga, which was only a few miles southeast of their current location.
“Reporting party Alexis Ward says the resident failed to show up for work and doesn’t answer her phone. The RP looked in a window and saw blood, believes the resident is inside, perhaps injured. 22-Paul-7, fire and paramedics are en route. You’re clear code three.”
“Copy,” Duncan said. “22-David-1 rolling from Mulholland Drive and Topanga Canyon.”
From Lost Hills by Lee Goldberg. Used with the permission of the publisher, Thomas & Mercer. Copyright © 2020 by Lee Goldberg.