34

Aspecial task force briefing was called later that morning. Minutes after starting, the meeting degenerated into a divisive confrontation brimming with recrimination and finger pointing. Captain Coiner and Sergeant Kinoshita, there to represent the Metro stakeout team, maintained that they should have been advised of the garage entry possibility, a detail that might have saved the life of Officer Patterson. That the intruder might actually be able to enter the locked house was a possibility no one had even considered. They were supposed to have stopped him on the street.

They also argued that because the task force had originally requested the operation, a task force member should have been present-an absence that had left the surveillance unit shorthanded. Lieutenants Snead and Huff closed ranks in defense of the Candlelight Killer Unit. Although under the circumstances averse to pointing out that the surveillance was supposed to have ended days earlier, Snead demanded to know why Metro hadn’t determined that Mr. Baker had a gun in the house. And why had it taken so long to get out an APB on the blue Toyota? They’d had the guy, and they’d let him escape. Taking a more temperate approach, Huff reminded Metro that the loss of one of their men was the direct result of Patterson’s entering the house contrary to orders. If he had remained outside as directed, he would still be alive. And maybe they would have caught the killer as well.

Even Chief Ingram made an appearance, the second in as many days. His previous visit had followed Lauren Van Owen’s most recent newscast, one in which she had disclosed confidential portions-albeit containing inaccuracies and exaggerations-of the killer’s psychological profile. Ingram had promised to find the source of the leak, promising dire consequences for the leaker. Now, after listening to several rounds of the group’s bilateral squabbling, he interrupted to offer his caustic assessment that both the task force and the Metro surveillance team had succeeded in at least one thing: making everybody look like shit. Establishing the definitive low point of the meeting, he added, “You guys have more excuses than a convent of pregnant nuns.”

Later, after everyone else had left, an atmosphere of resignation settled over the task force members. One thing Snead had said earlier summed up the mood. They’d had the guy. And they’d let him escape.

“Okay, who’s got something?” asked Huff glumly. “Kane?”

“We didn’t come up with much at the scene,” I answered. “Nobody got a good look at the killer’s face. He was wearing gloves, so no prints. We got tennis shoe impressions from a flower bed. The lab is comparing them to those taken from the Welsh and Larson scenes.”

“What else?”

“We found fresh oil drips at the end of the street where we think he parked the Toyota. Radiator coolant, too. SID’s sending samples over to Standard Oil for comparison with the drips taken from the Larsons’ garage. I also phoned the woman whose plates were on the Toyota. She didn’t even know they were missing. She has somebody else’s on her car.”

“By any chance, do they belong to our schoolteacher in Tarzana?” asked Barrello.

“None other.”

Nobody said anything for a moment. “Let’s move on,” suggested Huff. “The guy had a remote door-opener for the Bakers’ garage. How did he get it?”

“We know he broke in earlier,” said Barrello. “He could have stolen it then.”

“Who keeps garage-door openers lying around the house?” scoffed Collins. “You keep them in your car. The Bakers’ vehicles were gone the first time he broke in.”

“And if he were going to steal something, why not take a key?” added Snead.

“Maybe he tried and couldn’t find one,” I offered.

“So where’d he get the opener?”

“A while back you suggested a way yourself, Lieutenant,” I said, recalling my visit to Hank Dexter’s electronic shop. “He just went out and bought one.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“If he knows the settings or whatever, all he has to do is buy a replacement control and he’s in.”

“And he could’ve obtained the code from the base unit in the garage the first time he was in there,” said Deluca, catching on.

I nodded. “It’s probably not that simple, and we still don’t know how he originally got in, but let’s check the Bakers’ opener for prints. Maybe he got careless this time.”

“What about the attorney’s office in Santa Ana?” asked Barrello. “After this, we might have enough for a warrant to examine their files.”

“I already made a call on that,” answered Huff. “The DA says we can subpoena anything related to the DMV trace. We can also get a list of the firm’s employees, but not the clients. That’s still considered privileged.”

“So we put everybody working at the firm under the microscope and see what shakes loose?”

“Right. Other ideas?”

“We could check garage-opener distributors in the area,” I suggested. “Go through credit card purchases and work up a list of anybody who’s bought replacement remotes for the types of openers in the victims’ homes-say, for the past six months.”

“There could be thousands,” objected Fairfield. “And the guy could’ve bought them out of the area, or online, or paid cash-whatever.”

“Anybody have a better idea?” asked Huff.

No one answered.

“Okay, then let’s get to it. Barrello, you and Fuentes have dead ended on the rental car angle. Why don’t you-”

“A quick announcement before we parcel out assignments,” interrupted Snead. “We’ll all be working straight through the weekend. No exceptions. And Kane, I want to see you after the meeting.”

Following the briefing, I met Snead outside in the hall. “What’s this about?” I asked.

“You know damn well what it’s about,” Snead snarled. “I checked to see who extended the surveillance on the Baker residence. Guess what, hotshot? The request came from Nelson Long, y our lieutenant over in West LA. Odd, don’t you think?”

“What I think is odd is that the stakeout was about to get canceled in the first place. It was our best shot at catching that dirtbag.”

Snead’s face mottled with rage. “You’re missing the point. You had no right to sidestep the chain of command. Aside from making everybody appear incompetent, your interference resulted in the death of a police officer.”

“If Metro hadn’t been there, the Bakers would be in body bags right now.”

“That’s not what we’re discussing.”

“It should be, Snead. You’re more concerned with appearances than-”

“That’s Lieutenant Snead.”

“Fine, Lieutenant. What I’m saying-”

“I don’t think you realize your role in this conversation, Kane. It’s to shut up and listen. The media haven’t connected the task force with the Sherman Oaks fiasco yet. But if they do, they’ll crucify us. And if that happens, I guarantee that you’ll take your full share of the blame. Which brings us to your friend, Ms. Van Owen, and her mysterious sources inside the department. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“Why ask me?”

“Because over the past month, you’ve repeatedly been seen talking with her. Do you and Van Owen have something going, Detective? A little nookie on the side, maybe?”

“Are you accusing me of being the media leak?”

“Not yet,” Snead replied. “You’ll know when I do.”

“With all due respect, Lieutenant, go pound sand.”

Snead’s eyes narrowed. “Keep messing with me, Kane, and I’ll make your life a godforsaken misery.”

“Thanks, Bill, but I’m a married man. Glad to see you finally busted out of the closet, though.”

“You’ve always got something smart to say, don’t you?”

“It’s a gift.”

Snead glared. “I’ve got a gift too, hotshot. I can predict the future, and I predict that one of these days your luck is going to run out. And when it does, I’m going to be there, sitting in the front row.”

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