L.A. was on fire.
On the second day of the riots, after she had been on keep-the-peace duty for thirty-six hours straight, Detective Layla Remington of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department watched an overweight figure wearing a police flak jacket take off running. He peeled away from the flaming chaos along San Fernando Road and hit an unlit alleyway a half block to Remington’s left. The reflective lettering on his body armor read “LAPD.” Thinking the officer could use some help, she took a step in that direction.
“Don’t,” Deputy Johnny Velske said. Just the single word, with the sound of a random far-off gunshot putting a period after it.
Stick together was the cardinal rule of the crisis. Backed off fifty yards from the main drag, Remington’s small contingent of sheriff’s department personnel were outgunned and outnumbered, but they hadn’t yet lost anyone.
Torched businesses illuminated the night along the major commercial strip in San Fernando, a heavily Hispanic community in the Valley. Looters raced to do their work before arsonists completed theirs. Pharmacies and gun shops got hit first, then liquor stores. A spectacular series of explosions in a sales lot of brand-new cars had mostly quieted, but every once in a while the air shook as another gas tank blew.
Whenever and wherever police or fire units showed, the rioters routed them with barrages of bricks, rocks and salvos of gunfire. Plumes of coal-colored smoke choked the skies over the neighborhood. The infamous Los Angeles smog, so much better of late, returned with a vengeance as a sooty gray cloud.
The unrest had erupted in the early evening two days before. That afternoon, an LAPD anti-gang task force shot up the wrong house. The raid was a disaster, with police killing six innocent residents, including a pregnant teenager. All the cops were white. The dead were Hispanic. In a heartbeat, the incident went wide on social media.
With no sleep and thirty-six hours of constant, grinding tension, Remington couldn’t judge whether her brain was working right. Everyone was exhausted, everyone was on edge. Despite her best instincts, she loped off toward a residential driveway that would give her access to the alley where the cop had disappeared.
Deputy Velske shouted after her, trying to call her back. Remington hurdled a pair of waist-high chain-links and cut across a small yard leading to the darkened alleyway. As soon as her boots cleared a last fence and crunched down on gravel, she propelled herself into the middle of a confrontation.
Seeing a cop in an all-out sprint, she had naturally concluded that he was running down some offender, a looter or an arsonist. Now Remington realized that she had made a serious error. The overweight cop wasn’t chasing anyone. He was fleeing for his life. A gaunt stickman dressed all in black pounded down the alley after him.
The husky cop tripped and sprawled forward. He turned back toward his pursuer, raising his arms in a defensive posture.
“Police!” Remington’s shouted warning was drowned out by gunshots to the immediate east. They resembled a string of firecrackers going off.
The stickman raised his right hand and pointed at the cop. In the smoky gloom, Remington couldn’t be sure the guy held a weapon until she saw the muzzle flash. She heard the snap of the round as it took the downed cop in the neck. She leveled her own sidearm, a seven-shot Ruger that was down to three loads because she had been firing warning shots into the air all day.
The cop in the LAPD flak jacket clutched his throat. At ten yards, Remington could hear him choking on his own blood. Stickman fired again. Remington had had enough. She put the rioter in her sights.
A citizen with a shotgun stepped out of the shadows of the yard across the alley. He aimed and fired. The blast twisted the stickman a half-turn around. With an odd buckling movement, as if he were merely settling in for a nap, the rioter lay down beside the wounded cop. He stayed where he fell, not moving.
“Drop your weapon!” Remington shouted, shifting her Ruger onto the newcomer. The citizen wore a dumbfounded expression, as if he couldn’t believe what happened when you pulled the trigger on a twelve-gauge that was aimed in the general direction of a flesh-and-blood human being.
For a split second in the dim light, Remington thought she recognized the guy as a vile criminal she had encountered before. She reacted immediately, reflexively, advancing with her pistol leveled and firing until her magazine emptied. The citizen was breathing when she ran up on him. Then he sighed and went quiet.
With a sick drop to her stomach, Remington realized she had been wrong. The dead man did not even faintly resemble the perp she had mistaken him for. Her extreme exhaustion, her frayed nerves, the confusion of the alleyway had betrayed her.
In the midst of a riot triggered by a police killing of Hispanic citizens, Detective Layla Remington had herself shot and killed a Hispanic citizen. She braced herself for all the trouble that was about to crash down on her.
Remington checked the others. The cop had bled out. She approached the stickman guy and felt for a pulse. He was gone, too.
Velske and a rookie deputy named Billy Horace—predictably nicknamed Horse within the department—came flying through the backyard into the alley, weapons drawn.
“What the hell!” Velske pointed his pistol in frantic stabs up the alley toward San Fernando Road, down the alley toward a gulf of smoldering black nothingness, then into the backyards on both sides. Scoping the dead guy in the LAPD flak jacket, Velske swore loudly.
“Eleven-ninety-nine!” he shouted into his two-way. “Nine-nine-nine!”
Officer down. Officer needs help.
“Forget it, Johnny,” Remington said. Sheriff’s Department dispatch had been overwhelmed all night. No one was going to be answering their calls.
Another round of gunshots exploded up on the commercial strip. From the dark alleyway they could see crowds of looters streaming southeast.
“We’ve got to move!” Deputy Velske was pumped up and breathing hard. “All they have to do is make a turn down this way and we’ll get run over.”
Remington didn’t think that was going to happen. The rioters weren’t interested in residential neighborhoods. They liked storefronts, the more plate glass the better.
“What the hell happened?” Velske asked her. “Never leave the unit! Never leave the goddamn unit!”
Technically, as a sergeant Velske should have been officer in charge. But chain of command had gone funky during the riot. Comms were spotty. Fatigue had taken its toll. They were like a platoon caught behind the lines, taking a stand with their backs to the freeway. The six-lane interstate was clogged with the hulks of a half-dozen burned-out vehicles. Remington had come to look upon Los Angeles as an abused spouse, repeatedly battered by disasters both natural and human-sourced.
“We’ve got a deceased officer over here,” Horse called out, stating the obvious. He tried for an official tone but couldn’t keep the shock and awe out of his voice. “Are we in trouble?”
Remington had an urge to laugh in the rookie’s face. We’re under siege, we have three DOAs at our feet, one of them a cop, we’ve been out on riot patrol for thirty-six hours straight—and Horse is asking if we’re in trouble?
“What a clusterf***,” Velske muttered.
“No, no, clusterf*** is down the road a piece,” Remington said. “This here is more on the order of reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned.”
She was wrong about the rioters sticking to the main drag. A group of them drained off San Fernando Road and came toward her, lofting rocks, bricks, garbage cans, anything that could be thrown.
“Get out!” Velske yelled. “Go, go, go!”
An angry, throaty rumbling rose from the mob. Remington stood her ground, a lone figure at the mouth of the dark alley, facing off the rioters. Stones whizzed past her face, ricocheting like bullets. She would have fired into the air but she had just emptied her sidearm into the fallen citizen who lay dead behind her.
Remington singled out a long-haired teenager in a black Gap T-shirt and a purple bandanna hiked up around his mouth. He and his comrades skidded to a halt, like a gang of kids in a cartoon. Moving as one, the group scrambled backward, retreating in a rush. She was about to congratulate herself on her command presence when a squad of a dozen military personnel in full combat battle dress double-timed forward and took up support positions around her.
The cavalry had finally showed.