Authors: Jan Burke
June 28, 1976
he call should have gone to the SOC, Darryl Cross. Officer Frank Harriman, although a rookie, wasn't so naive about the way the Bakersfield Police Department worked that he didn't see what was going on here. He wasn't naive about anything concerning the department.
Frank had graduated from college and completed the academy at the same time Darryl did. Like Darryl, he had grown up around cops. Their fathers were both members of the department.
The difference was, Darryl's dad had given the long and unimaginative graduation speech at the academy.
Darryl was the SOC. Son of Chief.
Frank was the son of Brian Harriman, a man who had happily spent his life in uniform, working patrol.
Frank had heard rumors that the SOC could refuse certain radio calls, but until today, he hadn't had firsthand experience of Darryl's special treatment. He had heard the dispatcher, and knew where Darryl and his training officer were assignedâFrank and his own T.O., Gregory “Bear” Bradshaw, had passed them on their way to their own patrol area.
Bear was driving, and when the call came in Frank saw a speculative look on the older man's face as the silence stretched without a response from the SOC's car. No acknowledgment came, and a few minutes later there had been a second radio call, asking Bear and Frank to respond.
Bear accepted the request, signed off, and then shrugged. “Remember when Darryl's old man gave the speech and told all you greenhorns that it was âa privilege to serve' in this department? Well, Darryl gets the privilege, you get to serve. All I can say is that young Darryl better enjoy it while he can.”
“You think the chiefâ”
“Innocent until proven guilty,” Bear said, and laughed so hard he started wheezing.
Cross's downfall had been predicted before,
but Frank knew that predictions don't change anything about the here and now. Right now, Cross was the chief, and the SOC remained powerful enough to refuse any job he didn't want to take on. So it was Frank, not Darryl, who was investigating a report of a foul-smelling trailer in a mobile home park, late in the afternoon of a scorcher that was making its mark as the hottest day of the year.
Bakersfield's desert climate brought in over one hundred days a year above ninety, so natives like Frank were used to summer heat. The mercury had hit a hundred and twelve degrees about two hours ago, though, and no one wanted to answer a “foul odor” call on such a day. Or any day, really.
“The SOC is a fuckup,” Bear said. “And lately he's been worse than usual. Can't concentrate worth a damn. I don't think that kid has what it takes for the job. And as for this situationâhe wouldn't be able to handle it. You can.”
While he agreed about Darryl, Frank hoped Bear's confidence in him wasn't misplaced.
Reading his look, Bear said, “Hey, you're a quick study. You lifted your shoes last night, didn't you?”
Frank laughed, glad they were in a different patrol car today.
The night before, they had been called to a high school football game to arrest Len Meadows, a drunken sixteen-year-old who was big and brawny enough to cause trouble. Meadows was throwing punches at anyone who tried to prevent him from screaming obscenities at the cheerleaders, rampaging with a strength and energy that would have been useful on the fieldâif he'd been sober, better behaved, and on the team.
Frank and Bear had managed to subdue him, cuff him, and get him into the back of the cruiser, where he kept running his mouth for another ten minutes or so. Then, as they were approaching a stoplight, Meadows suddenly fell silent.
“Shit!” Bear shouted and lifted both of his feet off the floorboard. Frank, who had been applying the brake, heard the unmistakable sound of projectile puking behind him. Frank immediately lifted his free foot, just in time to prevent his shoes from getting soaked by the flow of vomit coming forward from under the seat.
“I wonder why that kid wasn't on the team?” Frank said now.
“Meadows? His old man set records at that school.”
“So he doesn't want to break them?”
“No, it's not that. His dadâMike Meadowsâabandoned the family. Mike ran off with his secretary, and the kid never went out after that. The secretary had been a cheerleader back when Mike was in school. Guess he wanted to go back to his glory days.”
When they arrived at the
mobile home park, Bear started driving toward the manager's office, but a waver waylaid themâa thin woman in a floral print dress. Her hair was pinned up in pink curlers, with a blue scarf wrapped around them. She gestured frantically and shouted, “Over here, over here.”
“Go on,” Bear said with a smile. “Listen to what the lady wants to tell you. I'll be sitting here in the air-conditioned vehicle, observing you.”
“With the windows up?”
“You better hurry up before she tries to get in the car with us.”
Her name was Madeline Erkstrom. Frank heard it as “irksome” and stopped her flow of chatter long enough to get her to spell her name for his notes. He then took down her address and phone number. That was the only pause she allowed before she launched into a disjointed recitation of the key points of her life history, beginning with the fact that as a young woman she had worked in a drugstore, where Mr. Erkstrom had bought sodas and fallen in love with her.
He knew some people had to give information this wayâthey took you back to when the dinosaurs died off.
Another listener might have rushed her by interrupting, thereby risking her shutting down or feeling the need to start again from the beginning. He waited, mentally noting any facts that seemed important. She had lived in the trailer park for ten years. She lived alone, having moved here after her husband died. She was the one who had called about the smell. She had first noticed it a day or so ago, but it became truly pungent with today's heat. The owner of the trailer was an elderly man named Donnie O'Keefe. She spelled out the name. When asked if she had O'Keefe's phone number, she recited it and mentioned that she had given this information to the dispatcher.
“Thank you,” Frank said, when she paused to take a breath. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to talk to the manager.”
“Well, he wouldn't be any help if he was here, which he is not. He's on vacation.”
“So if you have maintenance issues or other problemsâ”
“We have to put a call into the headquarters of the company, which is in Chicago and presently closed,” she said, smiling tightly as she played this trump card.
“Do you know the man who lives in the trailer that smells bad? Mr. O'Keefe?”
“Of course I do, our trailers are right next to each other, which is why I'm concerned about him. I'm sorry to say that I don't think âlives' is likely at this point. Not with that smell. The wind is blowing the other way right now, but just wait until you get close to it. You live a long time in a trailer park, you've smelled it before. It's something that happens now and then. The man is dead in there.”
“When's the last time you saw him?”
“I was trying to remember that. I'd say about two weeks ago. We were talking about finally being rid of Tomcat. Tomcat is what we called the young guy who lived on the other side of Donnie. He's moved out, but I don't think he's sold the trailerâit's been sitting there empty. I don't think Tomcat ever really lived there, but you can guess what he used that trailer for. Girls in and out of there all the time.”
“I'd bet real money about some of them, but I don't know. These days, you good-looking young men hardly have to pay for it, right? Times have changed. At least Tomcat wasn't a hippieâclean cut. Never smelled any funny smoke or anything. Had a couple of run-ins with Donnie.”
“I didn't actually overhear the arguments, just raised voices, but Donnie said it was about the television.”
“Me, I like to read. If Donnie ever used a book for anything other than a doorstop, I'd be surprised. Donnie keeps the TV on all the time, night and day. Keeps him company, I guess. He's hard of hearing, so the TV can get a little loud during the day, but not bad, and he keeps it down low late at night. Tomcat and all his lady friends always made more noise than Donnie did, driving in and out of here at all hours. Good riddance. Spoiled little brat, that's what he was.”
Frank decided they were getting off track, and tried to pull the conversation back to O'Keefe. “How long has Mr. O'Keefe lived here?”
“Oh, about a year, I'd say.”
“How often do you usually see him?”
“That varies. Sometimes I see him every day, and we'll talk or go out to lunch or down to the clubhouse we have here to play cards or whatever. Then weeks will go by when he just keeps to himself. He gets depressed, holes up, then ventures out again.”
“Does he have any family in the area? Someone we might call?”
“Oh, no. Donnie grew up an only child and never married. His people were back East, but I don't believe any of them are living. Come with me, I'll show you his Vagabond.”
“He has a vagabond staying with him?”
“Noâthat's the brand of mobile home he owns. It's about thirty years old nowâbuilt in the 1940s or early 1950s, I'd sayâbut he takes good care of it. Vagabonds are gorgeous trailers.”
Frank walked with her as she headed toward the back of the park.
“Do you know where Mr. O'Keefe works?”
“Nowhere. He's retired.” She sighed. “You'd not believe this, but until a year ago, he used to live very high on the hog managing a luxury apartment building. The Starlight Arms. You've heard of it?”
“I guess you have. Donnie told me the chief of police is one of the owners. Anyway, Donnie was well paid and got to live in one of the fancy apartments. I guess everybody who was anybody in Bakersfield must have said hello to him in the lobby or something, because he's something of a name-dropper. Hard to believe some of it. And you know, Donnie talked as if they came by to see him, and not the rich tenants. Or as if Bakersfield is anything but a small pond. Oh well, we do have our stars, and besides, I shouldn't speak ill of the dead.”
“Did he have any pets?”
“No, not so much as a goldfish.”
Frank felt relief at that.
“I would have broken down that door myself if I thought there was a pet in there,” she said.
Bear was following them at a creeping pace, enjoying his air-conditioned ride. Frank didn't want to let Bear see his misery, but eventually he wiped sweat off his forehead and pulled at his dampening uniform shirt, which adhered to his back and chest. He was starting to smell the sharp odor that had led to the call.
Mrs. Erkstrom pointed to a fire-engine red mobile home with curving lines and small windows. “That's the one,” she said.
“Did he paint it that color?”
“No, that's original. Donnie said he got a good deal on it because even though it was in good condition, the previous owner found not everyone wanted to live in a red place. Donnie claimed he wasn't so hot on it at first, but he figured he'd be living inside, not looking at it from the outside. I think he always liked itâmade him look daring or something. I don't know.”
The area outside of the trailer was neat and well maintained, as she had said it would be, but the overpowering stench was unmistakable. Frank wished he hadn't had lunch. He swallowed hard.
“Have you knocked on the door of Mr. O'Keefe's trailer?”
“Is it locked?”
“It is. I normally wouldn't have tried the door, but the smell worried me. And it's so strangeâI know he doesn't usually lock his door when he's home. I tried calling him on the phone, too. No answer. TV's running, but not so loud he couldn't hear me pounding on the door or hear the phone ring.”
“Did you look in through the windows of the trailer?”
“Oh no, that would be rude.” She seemed to realize the weakness of this defense and quickly added, “Well, to be honest, I'm half-afraid of what I might see in there. Besides, I'm not that tall.”
“Then it's possible that even if someone or something is dead in there, it may not be Donnie O'Keefe.”
Her eyes widened. “You think he killed someone and left a body in here?”
Frank silently cursed himself for fueling her imagination. “No,” he said firmly. “Not at all. I'm just saying that we really don't have enough information to know who or what is in there.”
“Oh. I see. Yes, of course you're right. I just can't picture who he would have murdered.”
With an effort, he didn't sigh. That would have meant drawing a deep replacement breath, and he wanted as little of this stench in his nose as possible.