I NEVER NEEDED a murder so badly. Not just any run-of-the-mill killing, but something more spectacular. Like a celebrity homicide, mob hit, or cult execution. A high profile case that would capture the morbid curiosity of an already jaded public. As lead detective, the investigation of such a crime would give me the opportunity to make some big bucks by leaking insider information (real and fictitious) to unscrupulous reporters, trashy supermarket tabloids, and ratings-hungry cable talk shows—all on the sly of course. Just like the old timers had done in the O.J. Simpson case. After I caught the killer, I might be able to market the murder investigation as a True Crime book, Netflix documentary, or even a major motion picture.

Technically, none of us cops were allowed to capitalize on our cases while we were still on the force. It was considered unethical. A conflict of interest. No problem. That's where ghostwriters and pen names came in handy. Not to mention secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a bad cop. I've never taken a bribe or stolen drugs from the evidence locker. During my twenty-five years on the force, I've always tried to conduct myself on the up and up. At least for the most part. It's just that now I've found myself buried under an avalanche of debt and I can't see any other way to dig out.

Lately my murder cases have been rather mundane: gang drive-bys, drug killings, and accidental manslaughters to name a few. Nothing anyone would really care about unless you were the victim or a loved one. I hadn't had a newsworthy, first-degree homicide since the cold-blooded murder of porno king Maximilian Steele a few years ago. That one made headlines big time and grabbed everyone's attention. In hindsight, I could have merchandised my investigation and made a bundle except that Sasha Sawmiller, the reporter I was seeing on the sly, published a quickie True Crime account based on info that I thought was confidential pillow talk. Moral: Don't ever talk to a reporter you're sleeping with. You'll end up getting screwed in more ways than one. More about that case later.

Anyway back to my present predicament. As you might imagine, Santa Monica is a very expensive place to live. Even more so because my wife Delilah spends lavishly on designer clothes; weekly Mojito massages; season tickets to the opera; Meadow Preschool for our three year-old daughter, Coco; and a dog whisperer for her psychotic prize Shih Tzu, Ming Soo.

To make matters worse, my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease last year and is now confined to the Sunnyside Memory Care Residence in Pasadena. The cost sucks up all of her social security income, teacher's pension, and a monthly annuity funded by the sale of her house and what remained of my father's life insurance settlement. Left over is a monthly shortfall of $921.13, which is my responsibility. In order to keep my head above water, I had to augment my salary with a collection of high-interest credit cards. One by one they have all been cancelled for non-payment. At present, I am three months in arrears with Sunnyside and they are beginning to send me certified letters threatening mom's eviction.

No wonder I felt myself sinking into the quicksand of despair. My mind was a total mess. I couldn't concentrate on my cases during the day and at night I was beset with hellish nightmares. In fact, I thrashed around so violently that Delilah abandoned me and went to sleep in our second bedroom with Coco, Ming Soo, and a dozen Tibetan monks droning soothing mantras through her Apple earbuds.


Then late one night when I had finally succumbed to exhaustion, my cell phone vibrated me awake. On the other end was my supervisor, Lieutenant Butkus, who informed me that a 911 call had just come in. A body had been found on the garbage truck pickup route in Griffith Park. I was ordered to get over there as fast as I could. Was this just another heart attack victim or humdrum homicide? Or was it a marketable murder? Would this one be the answer to my prayers? I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.


ROARING OUT of Santa Monica, I got onto the 10 East and zigzagged through the late night traffic until I exited at Crenshaw Boulevard. A few blocks later, I screeched to a stop to pick up my partner, a seven-foot beanpole with a long name that contained more consonants than vowels. No wonder everyone shortened it to just plain K. Anyway, I found the big lug leaning against a lamppost dressed in a black net T-shirt and cut-off sweat pants held up by a gun belt buckled around his waist. As usual, he was bouncing a basketball. Or “The Rock” as he called it.

“Dammit, Nic,” he complained as he folded himself into my front seat. “You talk about bad timing! Kids just got to sleep and me and Elena were 'bout to get it on.”

“Too bad you got screwed by Lieutenant Butt Kiss instead,” I said.

“That a-hole.”

K slammed the door shut and I mashed down the accelerator just as he clicked on his seatbelt. As we gunned down the freeway, my lanky sidekick leaned back in his seat and tossed The Rock from hand to hand while he filled me in on last night's Lakers' game. As you might have guessed, K was passionate about the sport. Unfortunately his own playing days had been cut short when he was booted off his junior college team because of his clumsy ball handling and inability to consistently make standing dunk shots. I sometimes thought that K had joined the force so he could have a chance to play on the LAPD squad. Tryouts were coming up and he was determined to improve his ball handling skills before then. I was rooting for him. K was a good man. In contrast to his physical awkwardness, he possessed a very agile mind. And he always had my back. I was proud to have him as my partner.

Personally, I wasn't a big fan of basketball. Ice hockey was my thing. I loved seeing the Kings crash into their opponents and smack 'em about the head and shoulders with their sticks. Heavyweight boxing on ice. That's what I call a real man's sport. It's also a lot like life and I had the injuries to prove it. First, there was a bum left knee I got in the Marine Corps and after that, a bunch of others I picked up as a cop—namely a swollen right knuckle, missing incisor, green eyes laced with broken capillaries, and a crooked nose that still occasionally leaks blood into my neatly trimmed mustache. But I digress.

We veered north on the 110, then swerved onto the 101 and hotfooted up towards Griffith Park. Fifteen minutes later we turned into the Los Feliz Boulevard entrance and eased up Fern Dale Drive until it looped around into Western Canyon Road. It was then that we heard gunshots. Stepping on the gas, we careened through a couple miles of chaparral until we spotted a squad car pulled over on a shoulder across from a row of dumpsters. Its spotlight was trained on a body lying in the dirt. Feasting on it were a half-dozen turkey vultures—ugly raptors with purple-red heads, black plumage, and razor-sharp beaks. One officer was trying to knock them away with his baton while the other was firing shots in the air. At last the scavengers took off to find another meal with less hassle.

Exiting our car, we walked and double-dribbled over to the officer in charge of the scene—a Sergeant Gardenia. After logging in with him, we put our handkerchiefs to our noses and went over to take a closer look at the body. It belonged to a Caucasian male with a bullet hole in his forehead and goopy white vulture crap all over his chest. His right eye had been plucked out by the birds and his left ear was missing. Even so, the vic's face seemed somewhat familiar to me.

“Think I've seen this dude before,” I said.

K scratched his bald pate and nodded. “Yeah, Nic. Now you mention it, me too.”

“Think it's his hawk nose and cleft chin. Look kinda familiar.”


But neither of us could place where we might have seen the guy before. His long, dirty gray hair; faded Nirvana T-shirt; ratty jeans; and cheap, rubber flip-flops suggested he might have been a homeless beggar that we had encountered somewhere. I have to admit I was very disappointed. This wasn't the kind of marketable homicide I really needed.

Slipping on my blue nitrile gloves, I gently slid my hand under the body in search of a wallet. But the back pocket was empty.  Made me think the poor guy was the victim of a robbery gone bad.

About that time the county's morgue truck, informally known as the Meat Wagon, arrived. A couple of creeps in bloodstained jumpsuits hopped out of the Wagon followed by an odd-looking duck dressed in medical scrubs. It was my old high school chum, Dr. Buzzy Herman, now the Assistant Medical Examiner for L.A. County. I have to say the guy was a real sight to behold. He had long, premature white hair; alabaster skin; and bulbous eyes that were hidden behind very thick, almost opaque, spectacles. To top it off, he wore a brown leather Australian bush hat with a dozen or so corks dangling around the brim from strings of varying lengths. Odd but very effective in shooing flies away from his face.

Buzzy came over and we greeted each other with a fist bump and the phrase “Horny Toads Forever!” In case you're wondering, the horned toad was our mascot at Coalinga High. They were plentiful in the area and we used to race them after school. Pretty cool, huh?

Just then the chop of rotors announced the arrival of several media helicopters eager to get video feeds for the morning news. Their searchlights flicked on and a shaft fell on Buzzy. Looking up, he smiled and waved to the pilots. He always enjoyed being in the limelight. This was, after all, Hollywood. No wonder the copters' beams reminded me of those that heralded the opening of a major motion picture at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Only difference was this was no movie. This was the premiere of a real life murder mystery.

When Buzzy was sure the cameras were rolling, he knelt down for a closer look at the vic, shaking his corks to dispel the gathering swarm of blue flies.

“From the burned skin around the bullet hole, it appears that this dude was shot at point blank range. There's no exit wound in the back of the head, so it's probably a .22. No doubt the bullet bounced around inside his skull and turned the brain into spaghetti. Probably fragmented. But don't worry, bud, we'll be able to pick out the pieces so you can match it to the murder weapon.”

“Yeah, if I can find it.”

Buzzy stood up, took some pictures of the body on his cell phone, then turned to me.

“Hey, bud, this guy's face looks kinda familiar. Even without his right eye and left ear. Know who is he?”

“Haven't a clue, Buzz. Wallet's missing.”

“No problem. We'll log him in as John Doe for the time being.”

He turned around and snapped his fingers at his assistants. “Hey Igor! Ghoul! Get your asses in gear! Bring the gurney and a body bag!”

“Igor and Ghoul? You've got to be kidding.”

“Nicknames I gave 'em, bud. More colorful than being called John and Juan. They like it. Makes their work more glamorous. Like they're in a movie. Sometimes they pretend to be hunchbacks.”

“Okay, whatever.”

Inspired by the searchlights, Igor and Ghoul lowered their shoulders, humped over with the gurney, and google-eyed the body. They didn't speaka da English very well but I gathered they too thought they had seen the vic somewhere before.

Who was this guy anyway?

The second officer, a little guy named Horsman, tapped me on the back. “Detective Domino we found the 911 caller hiding in the dumpster over there. Thought you might want to talk to her.”

He turned his flashlight on an elderly woman who was rummaging around in a black plastic trash bag over by the dumpsters. The poor thing had wildly matted hair, wore a dirty apron over a soiled nightgown, and had her feet bound up in rags.

“Name's Yolanda Smuggins,” Sgt. Gardenia said. “Lives in one of those encampments in the woods.”

As we made our way toward the caller, K spun The Rock on his index finger until it fell off and he had to chase it down. So much for professional dignity.

Ms. Smuggins looked up at us as we approached. I could see she only had a few teeth in her mouth. Yellow to orange in color. A cheap throwaway cell phone was gripped in her right hand, a treasure she had just dug out of the trash bag.

“I didn't steal nuthin' officer. All this shit I found in de dumper. It mine now.”

“We don't care about that, Ms. Smuggins. Just tell us what you saw that made you call 911.”

“Like I tole the other cop, I just crawlin' inside dis here dumper when I hear a big ass car drive up. Music blaring inside. It 'bout an hour ago.”

“What kind of music?”

“Kind dat give my ass a headache. Sound like an oprah.”

“You mean opera?”

“Yeah, that whut I say. Oprah.”

“Okay, what happened then?”

“I peek otta de dumper. Dat when I seen dem throw da body out of de car. Den dey peel away. I climb out to help de man but he ded, real dead. Den dem vultures swoop down on him from dat big tree. Yappin' and crappin'. I turn and jump back in de dumper. Scared as shit. Dat when I call 911.”

“Could you describe the vehicle you saw, ma'am?”

“A little. Loose my eyeglasses in de dumper. Car kinda of a blur in de moonlight. Couldn't see no license plate. But I seen it was black. Looked like one of dem limos what they use to take dead peoples to de cement-terry.”

“You mean a hearse?”

“Thad whut I say. Had white curtains in de back winder and a long silver swoop on de side. Look like a snake wit two heads.”

I nodded. She was describing a Landau bar, which had become a fixture on funeral coaches since the 18th century. The witness had definitely seen a hearse. What the hell?

“Good luck finding it without the number on the plate or a partial,” K said. “Only 'bout a thousand black hearses in L.A.”

He was right. It would be next to impossible. Nuts. “Anything else you remember, ma'am?”

Ms. Smuggins suddenly looked a bit sheepish. “Now dat you mention it, yeah. Saw a winder open and a hand toss out a wallet. Landed over dere in de bush next to de body.”

K started over to look for it.

“Not dere now, officer,” Ms. Smuggins said. “Got it right here.” She dug deep into her garbage bag and brought out a black pleather billfold held together with duct tape.

“Took nuthin' from it, detective. Got no money in it.”

Somehow I believed her. It was probably planted at the scene to give us a false motive for the killing. To make it look like it was the unintended result of a robbery gone bad. But I was disappointed that Ms. Smuggins had handled the wallet at all. No doubt she smudged fingerprints that could lead us to the murderer. The billfold was all but useless to me now. I took it from her, opened it up, and checked out the name on the long-expired driver's license.

“Holy shit! The vic is Marty Polfus!”

“Who he?” my partner wondered.

“You know him by his screen name, K. Landon Larue!”

“Landon Larue? You mean that dude what starred in all those action flicks back in the nineties?”

“That's him.”

“Damn! He the man played that cool-ass bounty hunter in Terminal Sanctions. Heard he did all his own stunts.”

“Yeah,” I said, “and he was great as the secret agent in Capricorn Caper. Shot the bad guys and still had time to bang their babes.”

As a film buff I knew all about Larue and his career. The guy was once the toast of Tinsel Town. An action hero who appeared in countless films I had seen while growing up. He had been nominated three times for Best Actor in The Treasure of Timbuktu, Hieronymus Code, and Ring of the Nebuli before winning an Oscar for Mogadishu Mission. This led to a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Intoxicated by his success, Larue went heavily into gambling, booze, fast cars, and faster women. Apparently he had been married and divorced four times. He neglected his film career and dropped out of the public eye about fifteen years ago. It was said that he had blown through his multi-million dollar fortune and had lost his mansion in Beverly Hills and all his personal property, including his beloved Oscar. No one really knew what had become of him although the rumor was that he was living among the homeless bums that populated Skid Row and Santa Monica beach.

And now I had found his dead body dumped in a remote part of Griffith Park. I couldn't have been more pleased. The murder of a long missing and much beloved movie star was just what I needed to market my investigation all the way to a lucrative book and movie deal. Dollar signs started whirling around in my brain like the wheels of a slot machine about to hit a jumbo jackpot. I can't tell you how thrilled I was. All I had to do now was find the killer.

Copyright 2019 Cashel & Kells Publishing Company / Annapolis, Maryland 21403