BY: ROB SILVERMAN
Frank Grace, a homicide detective with a tarnished past, has always maintained the distinction between career and family. Until now. His marriage is on life support. And when an investigation into the killing of an elderly man in a seedy Hollywood bar hits close to home, he finds himself threading a perilous situation.
Along with his principled partner, Michelle Santana, Frank delves into his victim’s life. Digging deeper, one inescapable fact becomes painfully apparent.
His wife of fifteen years has been harboring a dark secret.
A distraught widow insists her husband’s death was not accidental. A hedge fund manager is found slain in a derelict part of Los Angeles. A highly-respected plastic surgeon with connections to the highest levels of local government has a personal ax to grind. A down-on-his-luck chauffeur with a gambling addiction needs to come up with forty thousand dollars. A blacklisted icon from the adult film industry is becoming unhinged.
Somehow, someway, these all circle back to the original murder.
As the detectives untangle a web of deceit, dishonesty, and distrust, Frank confronts a life changing, career altering decision between what’s legally just and morally right. Closing the case may very well close the door on his marriage.
Frank Grace stared helplessly at the gun kissing his wife’s temple knowing he couldn’t save her.
For sixteen years, he’d kept his family far removed from his job. Until tonight. Beneath disconsolate cloud cover, his two worlds collided. What do I tell our kids? How will I cope with being a single parent?
“This is hallowed ground, Detective,” declared the figure shrouded in the shadows.
Nightfall was bursting with diverse scents. Jet fuel hung in the air from nearby LAX. The pungent stench of scorched earth slithered through nearby canyons, a recent storm ineffective against brushfires. A narrow beam of iridescent moonlight sliced through the substantial haze, shining down like a spotlight from heaven. The fear? That—oozed from Frank’s pores. Finger coiling like a snake through the trigger guard of his Beretta, a bead of perspiration rolled down his forehead and stung his eye.
“Charlie Manson walked this very land.” The son of a bitch actually laughed.
In a bordering ravine, Frank heard the wail of a coyote howling at the scimitar moon, hoping it would mute the hammering in his chest. Tentatively striding nearer, he bypassed an inert form to his immediate right. He knew their identity but was unsure what to feel. After all, it was their involvement that brought about this hell.
The ominous man, appearing more resolute than Frank, cocked the hammer and pushed the barrel of his weapon against the hostage’s skull. Cowering, tears trickled from her alluring cobalt eyes.
“You’ll be alright, Abby.” Frank’s words lacked confidence. “It’ll be okay.”
“You’ll be alright, Abby,” the person parroted. “Pathetic, detective, just pathetic.”
Frank adjusted his fine-tuned senses. If anyone could execute a perfect kill shot it was his partner. Michelle Santana was more proficient with the steel but her whereabouts were unknown. He detected unbridled terror in his wife’s lovely face. Abby shuddered like a sheet hanging on a clothesline on a breezy April afternoon. Blood would be spilled, likely his own or his wife’s. Or both. Raising his hand in supplication, the hardened cop pleaded for mercy. “She’s got nothing to do with this.”
“That’s close enough,” the voice cautioned.
The words caught in Frank’s throat. “Let her go. Please.”
“You know what place this is, right?”
He was here to save his wife, bring this merciless psychopath to justice, and move beyond the worst week of his life. He didn’t need a history lesson.
“Spahn Ranch.” He sounded like a museum curator.
“The Manson family holed up here back in ’sixty-nine. This is where Charlie orchestrated the Tate and La Bianca massacres. The whole thing, right here, right where we now stand. As I said, hallowed ground. Almost gives you chills.”
“I’m begging you, let her go. You and I can work this out.”
The cloaked silhouette ignored the plea. “This used to be a movie studio. Westerns. Fuckin’ Bonanza.” He oscillated his arm like presenting a masterpiece in an art gallery. “Now it’s a state park. Kids play baseball, families have picnics, and dogs catch Frisbees where Manson planned his slaughter. Different times, indeed.”
Frank had no comeback, his throat too parched to reply. His finger ever-so-slightly grazing the trigger.
“That’s why this is textbook, why it’s symmetrical,” the adversary reasoned. “Like an old western, you and me. The big shootout at the end of the film between the lawman and the outlaw.”
“This isn’t a movie,” Frank avowed, surprised at his own tenacity.
“For once we agree. Movies have happy endings.”
And with that, gunfire split the night.
Seven days earlier
If Lonnie McKenzie repeated this mantra enough, maybe he’d find the fortitude to follow through.
He’d parked his nondescript sedan with out-of-state plates a mile lower on Canyon Lake Drive. Using the cover of a moonless night, he hiked the serene residential street. Estates sat concealed behind state-of-the-art security systems and twenty-foot walls. Those who hadn’t splurged for high-tech safeguards had their homes situated at the top of expansive pristine lawns.
The threatening bark of a dog caused Lonnie to flinch. He surveilled his surroundings, readjusted the backpack on his weary frame, and plodded higher.
At the end of the leafy lane, he came to a drop-arm gate. A dial turned to red warned of extreme fire danger. Beside it, a sign proclaiming Restricted Entry with a county ordinance stamped below. Lonnie peered over his shoulder and, verifying he wasn’t being followed, breached the prohibited grounds. A cursory glance at the iconic Hollywood sign, he slowly advanced into the knolls of Mount Lee.
Tonight, he wasn’t a tourist—he was an assassin.
Tramping uneven terrain, each step brought a rising emptiness in his gut. A career with the Seattle PD had garnered nothing but three commendations, two bullet wounds, and one divorce. Sixty-seven-years-old. And he felt every damn day of it. After all those years keeping the citizenry safe, he would now join the ranks of those he hunted down.
Taking a knee, he scanned the fringe. A light switched on in a backyard, the rear of the pricey estate becoming bathed in wavy aqua patterns followed by a splash. The homeowner doing a few laps before turning in.
Lonnie struggled to stifle his skyrocketing heart rate the way he’d been taught years ago at Parris Island in what now seemed another life. After a few moments of introspection, he stood and took one step. His right shoe brushed the side of a rock causing him to go down. He suppressed the urge to cry out. The abnormal lurching a vivid reminder of the shrapnel he carried courtesy of the Viet Cong.
Two hundred yards traversing gnarled undergrowth, the soon-to-be executioner reached his sniper’s nest. On four prior excursions, he’d scoped out the topography and sleeping habits of those whose homes abutted the hills. Nothing left to chance. He gave himself an eighty percent probability of successfully executing his charge. Getting away with manslaughter? Thirty percent tops.
The cop becoming the killer.
At this point in his existence, nothing mattered. When he looked back through the mists of time over his three score and seven years he had nothing to proudly hang his hat on.
Lonnie McKenzie would turn to dust, the world would continue, no one would miss him. His ex-wife broke off communication decades ago. Two of his three children already considered him dead. Three mornings each week he lumbered out of his meek apartment in Redmond, got behind the wheel of his rickety Plymouth, and stood like a statue in a bank. A deterrent only, his so-called pension made the part-time gig necessary.
Hips croaking in protest, he hunkered down behind a boulder and emptied his backpack: cell phone, Maglite, bottle of water, black tactical gloves, a padded mat with suction cups, a St. Michael medal, and one M24 Remington Sniper rifle he purchased online. He could have done more to keep his identity secret but after an uneventful and unmemorable life, Lonnie McKenzie no longer gave a damn.
Maglite between his desiccated lips, he proficiently assembled the killing weapon. During dry runs in his shoddy motel room, he’d done it quicker. Nerves? Doubt? Reluctance? He discarded his anxieties and refocused.
Weapon pieced together, he lowered it reverentially, affixed the suction to the boulder’s level top, and slipped on his gloves. Lifting the rifle, he locked his elbows. Nodding to himself, he placed his eye against the scope and brought the second-story window into the crosshairs. Seventy yards. The projectile would cover the distance in the blink of an eye.
The curtains, as expected, were drawn but he knew it was the bedroom. He knew the entire layout of the home even though he’d never set foot inside. It was alarming what one could find online with a few clicks.
A gentle gust caused his eyes to mist as if a higher power was granting him one final chance to walk away.
Disregarding the breeze, he lifted his cell. His target would answer. He’d tell them to look out the window. And then he’d fire a bullet through the brain. Finally. After all these years he’d exact revenge.
He made the call.
An image of his grandkids flitted across his mind.
His oldest daughter forbade Lonnie from ever meeting them. And once he’d be a convicted felon any chance of that changing would vanish. Kids, meet your grandpa. He’s a cold-blooded killer.
But there was a slight glimmer of hope. Lonnie met his son-in-law once, an informal breakfast two years ago at a hole-in-the-wall diner in Burbank. He got to see photos of his grandson and granddaughter. “Is there any way, any way at all, you can let me meet them? A park, maybe? Just five minutes.”
“Kids don’t go to parks anymore.”
“Maybe smooth things over with my daughter?”
“I tried,” the son-in-law replied miserably. “She wants nothing to do with you. She doesn’t want our kids anywhere near you.”
Lonnie pushed. “Can you…keep trying? I need something to cling to.”
The son-in-law nodded. “I will. There’s always a chance.”
Always a chance.
But once the ex-Seattle cop would be sentenced for manslaughter, there’d be no chance.
“Hello.” The person answered groggily, roused from sleep.
Lonnie flinched. The hope of a brighter tomorrow replaced by the harsh reality of today.
Lonnie terminated the call and speedily deleted the sent and received logs. His pulse shot up, his breathing intensified. Bowing his head, he was ashamed of what he almost did, yet proud for chickening out.
After a lifetime on the right side of the law, realizing he’d come within seconds of joining those dregs he used to arrest, caused a chill in his marrow.
The chirping shook the hillsides. Or so it seemed. The small light on the phone illuminated the area in a trivial glow. His would-be victim calling him after seeing a missed call.
Cringing, Lonnie peeked over the top of the boulder. The curtains were parted. His intended target was backlit and scanning the area. He quickly sandwiched his phone, hoping the glow amidst darkened foothills wouldn’t reveal his location.
Thankfully, the chirping stopped.
Lonnie feverishly removed all traces he’d been here. The suction mat ripped away. The untouched water bottle chucked into the brush. His car was parked a good mile away. No time to strip the Remington and hide it within the duffel, he scurried down the gradient as fast as his tired old bones would permit. The pack grew heftier with each harried stride. His feet crossed from dirt to cement back on Canyon Lake. His heart was about to catapult through his chest. Nine years since quitting the cancer sticks and his lungs still hadn’t recovered.
Instinctively glancing right, his feet tangled. He went down hard on his bad knee.
“What are you doing?” Her shrill scream capable of waking the entire street.
Struggling to his knees, Lonnie eyed the fifty-something female. Wet hair, towel wrapping her body. The swimmer.
Lonnie crawled on all fours like a dog to retrieve the knapsack he’d dropped.
The swimmer stepped forward and held out her phone like a cop presenting a badge. “I have your picture! I have your picture!” Noticing a big, long, scary rifle, she shrieked. “OmiGod, omiGod,” and hightailed it back inside.
“Dammit!” Injured, Lonnie hobbled down the sidewalk under the canopy of palm trees. His knee searing with each step, his thoughts a jumbled mess. Throwing himself into the Plymouth, he brought his car to life and squealed a U-turn.
Lonnie promptly became lost within the serpentine tangle of curving streets that were home to Hollywood’s rich and famous. Three times he came upon a dead-end and doubled-backed. He nearly broadsided a titanic black limo speeding around a blind curve. He may have sideswiped a parked car. His sweaty hands twice slipped from the steering wheel. “Damn old fool,” he scolded himself.
Inability to carry out his task was a fleeting moment of pride. However, between the swimmer taking his picture, his would-be victim having his cell number, and the limo driver who may have seen his plates, Lonnie was a marked man.
The mental self-flogging intensified. Screeching curbside, he rummaged through the duffel and frantically patted his pockets.
Where’s my cell? Did I leave it in the hills? Did I drop it when I fell? He took out his anger on the dashboard.
A thousand miles from home in a city he barely knew. Alone, totally alone. He could call one of his daughters, the one who still tolerated him. He could reach out to his son-in-law. But first, he had to escape.
Lonnie eventually found his way to Hollywood Blvd. Despite the late hour traffic was heavy. He became gridlocked between a souped-up Pontiac and a city bus. Hearing sirens approaching and noticing whirring lights headed his way, the cop-turned-fugitive panicked. He doubted they were already onto him. This was Los Angeles, after all. Sirens were common. Still, Lonnie couldn’t risk it.
He maneuvered his vehicle into a parking lot for a Thai restaurant, concealed the backpack in the passenger’s side foot well, and debated his next move.
The green neon of a four-leaf clover beckoned him. Craving good luck, Lonnie McKenzie locked his car and entered Finnegan’s.
It took a beat for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. The blast of refrigerated air contrasted with the perspiration stippling his neck. The ex-cop innately took measure of patrons huddled in murky corners. A few scowled at him for barging in with a flourish.
Three loping paces and he was at the bar. “You got a bathroom?”
The bartender stepped away from another customer. “Yeah, ‘course we do.”
Lonnie pivoted, then opened his palms in a want to tell me where fashion.
The corpulent man with a prizefighter’s nose pointed. “Probably where it says restrooms.”
“Can’t use it unless you buy something.”
“Fine. Gimme a Bud.”
“I’ll pay when I come back.”
“No, you’ll pay now.”
Frustrated, Lonnie pulled his wallet, threw down a five.
The bartender eyed the bill, Lonnie, the bill again. “I mean five-fifty.”
Lonnie grumbled, withdrew another five, and slapped it onto the counter.
The surly man forced a smile. “One Bud comin’ up.”
Lonnie shuffled down the hallway. The soles of his shoes sticking to the grimy floor as he sauntered past framed photos heralding Tinsel town’s Golden era and entered the men’s room.
Unlike the rest of the seedy establishment, the bathrooms were astonishingly hygienic. At the sink, he turned the C knob and agitatedly splashed water onto his face. Blindly extending his hand, he found the paper towel dispenser, yanked several free and stood, dabbing his eyes and face.
In the mirror, a lurking figure materialized over his shoulder. Lonnie stammered. “Wh..what …are you doing here?”
©2022 by Rob Silverman