|Illustration by Mark Satchwill|
There was a knot of people gathered on the street running parallel to the freeway, just north of Moorpark. Everyone was looking at a blanketed lump at the foot of a chain-link fence, avidly staring over the flimsy barrier of yellow crime-scene tape with curiosity but little concern.
A few of the onlookers were taking pictures with their phones.
Lot of men around for this time of day, Esme noted as she pulled up next to a black and white and flashed her credentials at the young cop directing traffic.
Lot of men who are out of work in the neighborhood.
“Isn’t this where they found that guy barbecued in the trunk of his car last year?” Edgar asked, interrupting her train of thought.
“Yeah,” Esme said distractedly as she parked behind a beat-to-shit Mazda. She’d noticed a tall black man standing apart from the lookie-loos.
“Isn’t that Gene Burkhart?” Edgar asked.
“Yeah, it is,” she said, not at all pleased to see him. Ever since the first North Hollywood victim had been found in the fall, he’d been dogging their steps and making noise about their lack of interest in catching a killer who was only preying on the homeless.
“Well now it’s a party,” Edgar said, ducking under the crime scene tape.
Ignoring Gene, Esme followed her partner over to the fence where an earnest young uniform was talking to a little old lady in a flowered cardigan. A sweet-faced long-haired dachshund sat quietly at her feet.
“Serafina and I were on our morning walk,” the old lady said.
“Serafina’s the dog,” the uni said, interrupting the old lady, who glared at him.
God bless dog walkers, Esme thought.
“And then Serafina told me she saw something by the fence.”
“I thought it was just a bag of garbage at first.”
“Easy mistake to make,” Edgar said snarkily. “Good thing you were with Serafina.”
Esme shot her partner a look that said Don’t be an asshole.
He looked back at her with wide eyes. What?
“I thought it was just a bag of garbage,” the old lady said again, “but then I thought about that head, you know, the one they found in Hollywood.” She looked up at Esme with watery blue eyes. “So we went over to take a look.”
Seriously? You thought it might be a dead head and your first thought was to go over and take a look?
The old lady saw the look on Esme’s face and misinterpreted it.
“Serafina wouldn’t have let anything happen to me,” she assured Esme.
The dog looked up when the old lady said her name and wagged her tail.
God help us, Esme thought.
“I saw it was too big to be just a head,” the old lady said, sounding disappointed.
“So I called the police,” she concluded.
“You did the right thing,” Esme said, and excused herself to have a word with the first responder.
Gene Burkhart stepped into her path. “This is the third dead veteran in a month,” he said, not counting the victims in Venice. Sounds to me like someone’s cleaning house.”
“You’re getting paranoid, Gene,” she said and stepped around him.
He zig-zagged back into her path.
“Maybe it’s time you put together a reward like they did in the OC. Maybe then you could catch your serial killer.”
“Who says it’s a serial killer?” Edgar asked, coming up behind them.
Gene regarded him coldly. “You are dumber than you look and I didn’t think that was possible.”
Esme snagged a uni walking by. “Shariz? Can you escort Mr. Burkhart off my crime scene?”
Gene stepped back and raised his hands in surrender.
“I’m just saying maybe we have a common interest here. Unless you figure one less homeless guy is nothing much to worry about.”
“Do you know something or are you just talking?” Edgar asked.
“I hear things,” Gene said to Edgar, but he was looking at Esme.
I’m not going to play this game, Esme thought.
“I hear things too,” she said. “I hear a certain homeless advocate is raising money for a run for mayor.”
“No shit?” Edgar asked. “I haven’t heard that. How come you didn’t tell me that?” he asked Esme, sounding wounded.
“Wanted to verify the information,” she said.
He turned to Burkhart. “Is it true?”
Burkhart shrugged. “I’m exploring possibilities.”
“And helping to bring a serial killer to justice wouldn’t hurt,” Esme said.
He shrugged again with a good-natured, “Busted.”
Esme turned away in disgust.
“Three men dead in North Hollywood,” Burkhart said, “and no leads at all. And no real outrage either. The one percent doesn’t care about these victims. Someone has to.”
Oh spare me, Esme thought.
“Retribution is coming,” he said, “you mark my words. A hard rain’s gonna fall.”
He held out his hand as if testing for raindrops.
“Shariz,” Esme said through gritted teeth. “Escort Mr. Burkhart back to his car. If he doesn’t leave, arrest him.”
“For what?” the bewildered cop asked.
“interfering with an investigation,” she said.
Burkhart smirked. “You do know I’m a lawyer, right?”
“Let’s go sir,” Shariz said, reaching for Burkhart’s arm.
“Touch me and it’s an assault charge,” he said, pulling back from the cop.
Shariz looked at Esme for help.
“You made your point,” she said to Burkhart. “And if you want to start setting up a reward, I’m sure the community would be grateful.”
“All right then,” Burkhart said. He turned to the uniform. “You can go back to work son, I’m finished here.”
Esme nodded that it was okay and Shariz melted back into the scrum of people surrounding the body.
“See you around detectives,” Burkhart said as he walked away.
“We done here?” Edgar asked. “I’d like to grab some lunch.”
“It’s not even 11,” Esme said.
“My blood sugar’s low,” he said.
Esme handed the car keys to Edgar. “You drive,” she said.
He took the keys and looked at her over the hood, smiling slightly.
“What?” she asked.
“I can’t believe you used to fuck that guy,” he said.