Factor X


The canyons Northeast of Los Angeles are labyrinthine, semi-remote hideaways notable for their primordial beauty. In the 1960's and 70's, roving bands of counterculture crusaders set up utopian communes; their altered consciousness allowing them a pretense of existing separately from the world. The winds blowing in the canyons are haunted by ghosts of those Aquarius Agers who extolled the philosophy of "peace, love and dope" defined by an aversion to anything establishment. And yet, these self-proclaimed harbingers of love and peaceful revolution, produced the next generation: "X."

"Bradley, gotta call from the SO in Soledad. 187. You and Dietz want it?"

Detective David Bradley sat before a stack of call backs on his desk, grateful for the salvation being offered.

"Sure. Another shallow grave in the forest?"

"Jogger stepped on a head in Bouquet Canyon. Appears to be that of a Caucasian male. An initial didn't turn up the rest of 'im."

"Christ!" Bradley immediately repented his boredom.

"Coroner's on the scene now," the CO advised.

David Bradley and his partner, Detective John Dietz arrived at the scene in Bouquet Canyon less than an hour after the Sheriff's office phoned the station. The pale and shaken jogger was still there, literally hanging from the drivers seat of his vehicle. Bradley and Dietz, in plain clothes, approached the sport-utility vehicle where an officer stood talking to the jogger, badges out.

"Bradley, LAPD," he addressed the sheriff.

"Got a weird one here."

Bradley nodded. "Guy's head and feet. Anything else turn up?"

"The remains were found partially inside a plastic garbage bag. We found bits of it stuck to bushes here and there, nothing else so far."

"What about him?" Dietz pointed to the jogger.

"Made the call from his car phone."

"Did you open the garbage bag?" Bradley asked the man.

The man shook his head. His pallor was greenish, his features pinched downward, his face as a painted mask on a totem. "It was out of the bag."

"Probably a dog or a coyote," the sheriff continued man. "It's been chewed. You'll wanna have a look." He gestured toward the coroner's van.

"Jesus," Bradley whistled through his teeth. The remains lay on clear plastic bags in the back of the coroners van. "They sure didn't leave us much to work with."

He bent over and with a hand sheathed in latex, gently turned the head over to view the other side. It was indeed Caucasian, had longish brown hair and brown eyes. There was a three-inch gash in the forehead and lacerations on the left side of the face. Facial hairs indicated a male, probably young. The head had been severed beneath the temporal bone, the second cervical vertebrae was exposed and appeared serrated. The maxillary and mandible both were shattered into pulp. It was difficult to be exact without the rest of the body to gauge, but Bradley guessed that death had occurred within a day or two.

"How long?" Bradley asked the coroner.

"Thirty-six hours, max. The lacerations to the left cheek area are zooidal, probably a coyote. Might be what happened to at least some of the rest of 'em. You can see the bag it was in is chewed open."


The coroner chuckled. "Are you kidding? It's probably not natural causes."

Los Angeles county processes over one-thousand missing person reports in a "good" month, depending on your point of view, often more, rarely less, though most are made by frantic mother's whose teenager has gone AWOL. When unidentified, or unidentifiable remains are found, homicide takes the case, unless the coroner can somehow determine a natural cause of death. Not likely with dismemberment.

On August 23, armed with twenty-eight possibilities based on description and a semi-profile photo taken carefully of the remains not to reveal the head was bodiless, Bradley and Dietz conducted interviews with the persons who's filed descriptions matched what they could determine from the remains. At the fifteenth interview, the woman who a week before filed a missing-person report on her nephew and ward to which she'd never responded back, took a longer look at the photograph than Bradley and Dietz thought necessary before handing back the photo and eyeing the officers intently.

"Bobby called this morning," she said, "and he's okay. But. . ."


"Well, he called to let me know he was okay because. . .um, this girl he's been staying with. . .he said she told him she saw someone get killed." The woman looked to the shirt pocket where Dietz had deposited the picture. "She told him they cut the guy up pretty bad. I think he was just playing me, you know, sympathy for stayin' out all this time. But I dunno. This girl.

she's a bad sort."

"Who's the girl?" Bradley asked.

"Gina Laring. She lives over in Palmdale with her mom." The said the way someone would say "with a hideous insect."

Back in the car, Dietz repeated what the woman had said, "'. . .cut the guy up pretty bad.' People." Dietz shook his head.

Her name lit up the computer like a slot machine hitting a row of sevens. Five arrests, no convictions. Shoplifting, truancy, curfew violation, under the influence, and gang affiliations. The possibility of Gina Laring witnessing a murder was, in the investigating officers' expert opinions, a likelihood. She lived with her mother, a twice-divorced repeat drug-offender on parole, in a trailer park in Palmdale. Gina was easy to find.

Rose Laring walked into her parole officer, Bob Aljo's office and found two men in addition Bob. The inexpensive suits and rubber-soled shoes left no doubt as to what they were, only who and why.

"Sit down," Bob gestured to a chair. Rose sat.

"These gentlemen are from homicide, Rose. They want to speak to you about Gina," he said evenly. "And when they are finished, I would like to speak to you." Bob Aljo left, closing the door behind him.

Rose's heart thumped in her chest, her throat pulsed.

"Rose, what do you know about a house in Bouquet Canyon?" Bradley began.

"Nothing," Rose said, too quickly and too automatically.

Bradley looked at Dietz.

"C'mon Rose, we've talked to Bobby M-----. Tell us what you know."

"I don't know anything."

"No? Tell you what, how 'bout we mention to Mr. Aljo you've been harboring a runaway minor. I believe, Ms. Laring, that's a direct violation of your parole agreement."

Rose looked at them vehemently. "My daughter saw something that upset her. She's been sick. She doesn't know what she saw."

"Maybe we better talk to her."

Dietz suggested Rose find Gina. Now.

"Gina, your mom's going back to prison, today, unless you help us." Gina sat on one side of the table across from Det. Bradley who spoke. Dietz paced behind her.

"My mom didn't do anything."

"Maybe not. Maybe she doesn't know anything about what happened in Bouquet Canyon, but we think she does. That's enough to put her parole status in violation."

Gina glared at Bradley. "I don't have any idea what you're talking about."

Bradley leaned back in his chair. "Quite a story you told your friend, Bobby." He paused to light a cigarette. "He told us everything you told him." Bradley paused for effect. "Gina, we have a body."

"All of it?" Gina blurted.

Dietz leaned over from behind her. "You have the right to remain silent. . ."

Gina's life began in a run down motel in the desert, the product of the feckless union between an alcoholic airman and a young British woman, barely eighteen, who came to America with her new husband seeking escape from a past involving neglect, physical abuse and a pregnancy at fifteen that ended when she gave her baby boy up for adoption at two-weeks old. She was following her natural mother who had given her to her father and stepmother to raise after having married an American herself, and settling in the California desert.

Rose's first husband, Gina's father, a second-rate soldier unable to climb the echelon's of the Air Force, was driven to helpless distraction by his inability to satisfy his quiet, sad-eyed bride, who only looked at him with large, misty blue eyes, begging for something she apparently could not find in her husband. Pregnancy brought initial joy, quickly replaced by dejected resentment when Rose was left for days on end, caring for her baby daughter in a dingy, insect infested motel room, having to sterilize bottles on a hot plate and wash cloth diapers in the bathroom sink while her husband spent money on booze and billiard games.

Desperate and lonely, Rose befriended a homeless meth addict, a woman who introduced her to the seamy side of remote desert life, and a means of escape. Rose would take her daughter, whom she'd named Virginia Dare after that first mysterious Roanoke daughter, "Gina," along on their often week long marathons of wakefulness at various hippie hangouts and crashpads around the desert. Gina's parents divorced, an occurrence that none of them noticed in its passing.

Rose became a part of the element of being that is the spiritual equivalent of a pack of hyenas disguised as lambs. She read Tarot cards and ran drugs for money, had sex for drugs, and believed herself a fairy queen in a past life. She worshipped the gods of electric music and gave herself to any male that could wield a guitar in any fashion, each one the next popular discovery.

She craved the vagabond lifestyle of the rich and ever drunken, feeling life tolerable only in a fog of substance abuse. Rose was a groupie to a way of life that, for all intent toward being alive, did not exist.

At the age of two years, Gina entered the public social system when her mother was arrested the first of many occasions for selling methamphetamine to undercover police. By that time, her father, having been discharged from duty, had moved East to his origin. Rose stayed in the California desert. She remarried and re-divorced. But for Gina, the ritualistic pattern of an unwanted child's life was begun.

At thirteen, a tattooed Gina appeared a grotesque debutante, a social outcast well-versed in sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. She had lived with her mother an intermittent five years of her life, the brief times between Rose's incarcerations. The interim was spent running away from her grandmother's trailer in Palmdale.

Rose was guru to Gina's friends; the "cool" hippie mom who listened to heavy metal music and approved of anything if it was considered "hip" or "cool." She sported a tattoo on her upper thigh, the anarchy symbol, an actual relic of that romantic caste of so-called revolutionaries known as "flower children." She even wore flowers in her hair and dressed with many silken scarves, gypsy fashion. Gina and her mom dated the same men and boys. They did the same drugs, shooting each other up. Eventually, Rose was busted for selling meth to school kids.

It was during that sentence that Gina met Tommy Norman.

Near Gina's sixteenth birthday, Rose was released to California Rehabilitation Center in Corona, the infamous "Hotel California." Gina was back living with Rose's mother and stepfather after splitting up with an older man. It was more than an hour away, but Gina made it almost every weekend to visit Rose.

Rose had been there five months when she met him. Tommy Norman was a "resident counselor" at CRC and like Rose had gone there from prison. He'd finished twenty-five months of a five-year sentence for armed robbery and still had six months at CRC. He was savvy and manipulative; only by becoming a "counselor" to other inmates could Tommy have access to the women at CRC. Covered in tattoos, his shaved-head bore a legend: "--th Street Assassin." It was tattooed in the same script he used when tagging it on walls in the metropolitan valleys of Southern California. His smiling blue-eyes sparked when he spoke in a soft baritone, heavy with a colloquial Latino flourish. A strapping twenty-four year old with all the Gen X trimmings. Rose thought.

him terribly attractive; having failed to arouse any interest from Tommy, Rose introduced him to Gina on one of her weekend visits. Gina fell in love the minute she laid eyes on him. Tommy thought Gina perfect.

He wrote her poetry and called her "mija." He wanted a son, to which she readily agreed. When he got out, there would be work for Tommy and a home for Gina. For the first time in her life, Gina felt like she was going somewhere.

Tommy Norman walked from CRC at six AM, August ninth.

The telephone rang.

"Mija." Came the silky voice. "I'm at my folks' in Canyon Country. They just left for vacation, man. I got the whole place to myself."

"What the hell are you waiting for!?!" Gina yelled.

"I gotta go to the Valley first, mija, old business. I'll call you in a while."

Gina sat by the phone for three hours while the radio played. When he finally phoned, she met him at the corner grocery, a block from the trailer park. Rose's parole conditions did not permit another parolee within fifty yards of her residence.

"Hey baby, wanna ride?" he said from the passenger side of the white Mustang pulling up beside her. Laughing, she pulled the door open and let him take her into his arms. Tommy turned to the car.

"Dave," he addressed a shadow in the back seat. "Get in front."

The shadow crawled from the back, blinking in the light.

"Hi," he said to Gina. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair stringy and dirty looking. The pits of his elbows bore a testimony to self-inflicted trauma.

Gina got in first, avoiding Dave. Tommy got in after her.

"Hey Jimmy!" Gina whacked the driver in the back of the head. She looked at Tommy. "You guys know each other?"

"Baby doll, Me and Tommy go way back. Ain't that right esse?" They high-fived each other.

"Dave too," Tommy said.

"San Fernando, --th Street gang," Jimmy said. "I told you where I was from."

"Small damn world," Gina said. "What about him?" She pointed to the shadow.

"He's nothing," Tommy said.

The shadow laughed nervously.

It was thirty miles into the canyons. Along the way, they stopped for beers and a bottle of tequila. They smoked joints along the windy dirt road to Tommy's parents' house. They finally arrived at the house, nestled in a beautiful, remote box canyon.

"There's burgers, chips, every little thing," Tommy stood at the open refrigerator, gesturing to Gina. "C'mon mija. I'll start the fire. Wanna beer?"

"I'll have one," Jimmy chimed.

Dave mumbled unintelligibly. Tommy turned to him.

"Shut up, puto," Tommy snarled at him. He threw a can to Jimmy. He walked past Dave toward the patio door, reached out and sucker-punched him in the jaw. Dave fell through the open door onto the patio. He struggled to rise. Tommy put charcoals in the bar-b-que.

Gina followed with bowls of chips and salsa. "What the fuck's goin' on here?"

"Old business, mija. De Nada." Tommy lit the charcoal with gasoline from a five-gallon can. Gina backed away from the explosion and nearly tripped backward over Dave who crawled along the patio.

"What's wrong with you, you fuck?" she shrieked at him.

"He's a punk, that's what's wrong with him,' Tommy said in his smooth voice.

"Motherfuckin' punk-ass snitch," Jimmy said coming out of the patio door with his beer. He walked to Dave and kicked him.

Tommy pulled the patio gate shut and locked it. Dave pulled himself into a sitting position and leaned his back against the stucco of the house, his chin on his chest.

"Go make burgers, mija," Tommy told Gina.

When Gina came back outside with a plate full of hamburgers, Dave was sitting in a chair, mumbling to himself again. Tommy and Jimmy were smoking a "sherm," a General Sherman cigarette laced with Angel Dust. Gina put the burgers on the grill.

"Let me have some," she said.

They laughed, teased, pushed and shoved Dave between the three of them. He was like a rubber doll, at once stiff and flexible, barely on his feet.

"What this fucker do again?" Gina waxed.

"Dumbshit got busted in Encino for a burg an' fuckin' fingered Tommy," Jimmy said. He kicked Dave. "Punk needs his teeth rearranged."

"Right on," Gina said.

"Easy, homie," Tommy said to Jimmy. "This sonofabitch's gonna be shit soon, and I take care o' my own business. You're lieutenant."

Tommy socked Dave, hard, in the face. Dave reeled toward Jimmy who hit him again. He went back and forth, back and forth.

Rap music played in the background.

"I been doin' all the dumb shit
Yo, 'cause I bet it's comin' from it
I'm not gonna waste no time. . ."

Gina fixed herself a herself a hamburger and sat down in a chair. She heard Dave calling to her softly beneath the pummeling that was rendering his face a bloody mess.

"Gina," he called to her. "Gee-naa, help me."

"Fuckin' 'round like I got ya hummin'
Hummin'. . .comin' at ya
And ya know I had to get ya. . ."

"Shut up, motherfucker!" Tommy hit him in the solar plexus, silencing him.

She never saw where the machete came from. She had just taken a bite of her hamburger when the blade struck Dave across his forehead from the side. He went down and lay still.

"And you know I had to get ya
Here is somethin' you can't understand
(what does it all mean)
How I could just kill a man."

Gina dropped her burger into her lap, jumped up quickly and ran into the kitchen. She stood over the sink, both hands spread apart on either side of her, grasping at what she'd just seen.

"You okay mija," Tommy's soft baritone came from behind. Gina, in disbelief, caught the tenderness in his voice.

"Yeah," she said hoarsely.

"You gotta be okay with this, I love you, you know?" There was meaning in his voice.

"I'm fine. . .good. . .this is good. . .okay," Gina stammered.

"Come outside then, mija."

Gina grabbed the bottle of tequila on her way out. She sat again in the chair, opened the bottle and started to swallow mouthfuls. Jimmy had taken all of Dave's clothes off of him. He lay naked on the strip of grass next to the patio, Gina thought that she'd never seen anyone look that white. His forehead, laid open, did not bleed like it head wounds should. She knew he was dead.

"Put these fuckin' rags in a garbage bag," Tommy said to Jimmy. "They're under the sink in the kitchen. Bring the box."

Tommy picked up the machete and began hacking Dave's legs at the thighs. With some effort, both were severed.

"Just like cuttin' up a chicken," he said to Gina.

Gina, eyes wide, merely nodded.

With viscious strokes, Tommy dismembered the body and hacked the limbs into pieces. He ordered Jimmy to put the pieces into trash bags, telling him which pieces to put together in which bags. Gina watched in horror, unable to look away.

The dulled blade of the machete would not complete the job. The boy's neck, however delicate compared to the rest of the body, withstood the machete blade. After six tries, Tommy threw it aside.

"Shit," he said.

Jimmy's face was ashen, his eyes all over his face. "We don't have enough bags," he told Tommy. "Can't you like, cut 'im in half or somethin'?"

"Man, what'choo thinkin', we'd never be able to clean up that mess. I need a power tool."

Tommy left and returned from the garage with a small chain saw. As the chain hit the body at the neck, gore issued up in a fountain all over Tommy, Jimmy, into the tree. Gina scooted further away, avoiding the shower.

Tommy took the head in his hands, held it up. "What you got to say now, motherfucker?" He spat into the face. He put it face up on the ground and with the machete handle knocked out every tooth. "If you're ever found, motherfucker, no one'll ever know who the fuck you are."

The head went into a bag.

Tommy walked over to Gina. He was smeared in gore. He leaned over and kissed her lips.

"You okay, mija?" his voice unimaginable.

"I have to go to the bathroom," she said.

"Stay away from the phone," he warned her.

She stared at him.

"Jimmy, go with her."

When they came back, the trash bags were neatly piled outside the patio gate. Tommy took the chain from the saw and dropped it into the gasoline can. He picked up the garden hose.

"Hey, turn this on, man," he told Jimmy.

Gina drank some more.

She awoke with Tommy on top of her. Blood had dried on his forehead and his arms. He pumped into her furiously.

"A son, mija," he grunted into her ear. "A son."

An indeterminable amount of time had passed.

"My mom's gonna get worried if I don't call," Gina said.

"Can't have that, can we?" Tommy handed her the phone and sat next to her. "Tell her you're staying with me, nothing else."

Jimmy was passed out on the floor next to the couch.

Afterward, Gina could not remember what she said to Rose, but Rose had understood something was wrong. She made up a story that her stepdad was in the hospital and she had to be get Gina there, now. Tommy, for whatever reason, relented and gave directions, to a house in another part of the canyon. Rose screwed them up and found Tommy's folks' house. She saw the green trash bags stacked next to the gate.

Rose told Gina never to say anything about it. They were thankful for the simple fact of Rose's parole, that Tommy did not know exactly in which coach in which park Gina lived. When he called, Rose told Tommy Gina'd gone to her dad's in Missouri. Gina drank, got stoned. Bobby M---- came by to party one night and Gina, crying, told him what had happened.

Gina finally stopped talking, her head dropping to her chest.

Bradley looked at Dietz and nodded. Dietz removed Gina's handcuffs and motioned Bradley into the hall.

"I'll get the DA on the horn to strike a deal before she gets scared and changes her mind," he told Bradley.

"Already scared as hell. Can you blame her? Christ. I'll send someone over to the address in Bouquet Canyon. Tell the mother to sit tight, I wanna talk to her."

"Right. Coffee?" Dietz asked.

"Water for the kid."

Bradley walked back into the room. Gina hadn't moved.

"Wanna smoke?" Bradley offered.

Gina lifted her head, took the cigarette and let Bradley light it for her.

"Okay Gina, someone from the DA office is going to come and see us about what you need to do. What we need is for you to agree to testify against Tommy Norman and his accomplice in exchange for not being charged as an accessory. You think you can do that?"

Gina, her face streaked with mascara, nodded.

"What about my mom?"

"Her parole officer will decide. Have you told this to anyone besides Bobby?"

Gina shook her head.

Dietz entered the room, holding a glass of water. "It's a go, whenever we're ready," he told Bradley. He motioned him to the side. "Warrants are being issued, Jimmy Wright's currently wanted on an FTA. The SF gang unit knew who I was talking about, seems a few years back there was a similar homicide in Chatsworth, just body parts. Tommy Norman was questioned but ruled out as the perp. We're trying to locate the family, forensics are ecstatic, this one would've taken a century to ID without any help." They looked at Gina.

"Gina?" Bradley asked.

She stared at the wall ahead of her.


She just smoked and stared.

The End

Authors Note: Most of this story is made up of whole cloth. Names have been changed. Newspaper accounts of the murder can be found in the LA Times archives, September 8, 1995, Metro section, p. B-4; March 7, 1997, Metro section, p. B-6; April 10, 1997, Metro section, p. B-4, and June 11, 1997, Metro section, p. B-3.