Homicide detectives in South-Central Los Angeles usually do not wait long for a murder. So on Friday night, during Detective Marcella Winn's first weekend on call, she spends an edgy evening at home, waiting for the call of death. She watches a video of the movie "Tombstone" and munches on popcorn, but she can not keep her mind on the plot. She keeps waiting for the phone to ring. Winn has only been in the homicide bureau two weeks, and this will be her first murder investigation. She would just as soon get started tonight. But this is a rainy spring night, one of the rare Friday nights in South-Central when people are not being battered, bludgeoned, knifed or shot to death.
On Saturday morning, she cancels her pedicure appointment. She is afraid of having to race to a murder scene with wet toenail polish. She spends a few hours watching reruns on television, but it is impossible to relax. Waiting for a homicide call is like waiting for a big sneeze that just won't come.
When the sun goes down, Winn is sure that tonight is the night. After all, this is Saturday night, the most murderous night of the week. And there is a full moon, which usually kicks the pace of mayhem and murder on the streets into another gear. At 9 p.m., she turns in, hoping to catch at least a few hours sleep. She tosses and turns, waking up every hour or two to check her answering machine and her beeper to make sure she has not slept through a call.
By Sunday morning, Winn is a wreck. She buys a paper and discovers that people were murdered all over the city this weekend. Just not in South-Central. All that worry for nothing. She dozes off at about 11.
It seems to Winn that she just closed her eyes when her telephone finally rings. She checks her alarm clock. It is a few minutes before midnight. "This is it," she says to herself. "No one else would call this late."
"You got one," the night supervisor tells her. "Male Hispanic. Shot in the chest. On the street. Two possible witnesses. Forty-ninth and Figueroa."
Winn meets Detective Pete "Raz" Razanskas, who is waiting at the Southeast Division parking lot in an unmarked squad car, engine running. They are partners, but for a while, it will be an unequal partnership. He will play the role of mentor and teach Winn the rudiments of a murder investigation. Razanskas (pronounced ra-ZAN-skus) is a supervising detective at South Bureau Homicide. The bureau is responsible for all murder investigations in Los Angeles' killing fields, a jagged strip of streets that runs from South Los Angeles to the harbor. This is such murderous terrain that if it were a separate city, it would rank among the nation's top 10 for homicides. Winn and Razanskas work a section of South Bureau centered in South-Central.
Winn, a detective trainee, has passed the written detective exam and is waiting to take her orals. As a trainee, she has all the responsibility and authority of a detective. She just has not earned her shield.
Razanskas pulls out of the parking lot and asks Winn if she wrote down what the night supervisor told her about the homicide. No, she says.
"You got to write down the details," Razanskas tells her. "Who told you and at what time."
Winn shakes her head and stares glumly out the window. She is not used to being awakened like this.
Razanskas and Winn are a study in contrasts. Razanskas is a wise-cracking, tobacco-chewing, cowboy boot-wearing cop of the old school. He is 46 years old and has spent almost half his life in the Los Angeles Police Department. He worked his first homicide in 1980, and since then he has investigated more than 350 murders. His strength as a homicide detective is at crime scenes, where he is an expert in tracing leads out of a melange of bloodstains, shell casings and shotgun wadding, and in interviews, where his low-key manner and off-the-wall humor usually put even the most tightly wound witnesses at ease.
Winn is a child of South-Central and grew up in the neighborhood in which she now investigates murders. In her seven years with the department, she has quickly risen through the ranks. She has been promoted quickly and often: from patrol to a gang task force, to vice, to an elite burglary unit, to a detective trainee in bunko forgery, where she investigated a number of complex white-collar crimes. She has proven that she has the toughness and the smarts to succeed in a department that has traditionally been white and male.
Razanskas and Winn pull up at the murder scene, an intersection lined with ramshackle two-story apartments, tiny storefront churches and auto-repair shops. A few palm trees break the weathered monotony of the neighborhood. The area is blocked off with yellow crime-scene tape, and a pair of parked squad cars cut off the ends of the street.
The uniformed officers tell the detectives that three men in a car were shot in what appeared to be a botched robbery. Two of the wounded victims sped away and left the slain man on the sidewalk.