I usually work Christmas. Someone has to; people never stop dying.
In fact, they tend to die in greater numbers on holidays, of both natural and unnatural causes. Too much food or booze. Too many relatives for too many days packed into too few bedrooms. The relentless demand for happiness that often leads to its opposite.
Thankfully, Amy’s not one to stand on ceremony. She’d rather I earn the overtime and cache the time off for when we truly need it.
When the main line rang, at eleven thirty-one p.m., on Friday, December 24, I was standing by the coffee station, topping up my mug, browsing a picked-over box of pastries dropped off by a former coroner who now ran a bakery. It was my second to last weekend before new shift assignments took effect and I left graveyard behind.
Enrolling Charlotte in daycare had put a serious dent in our savings plan. But she’d been there for four months, and so far, she was happy. They’d normalized her nap schedule. At night she was going nine hours.
I hadn’t bothered writing that down in her baby book, afraid I’d jinx it.
I selected an old-fashioned.
The phone continued to ring.
Brad Moffett yelled, “Someone want to answer that?”
On another night, under other circumstances, I never would have taken the call.
Kat Davenport was in the bathroom.
Rex Jurow was on another line.
“Fuck, never mind,” Moffett said. He jabbed the speakerphone. “Coroner’s Bureau.”
I overheard the information roll in.
Deputy Blanchard, ACSO badge 1440, apparent homicide, one victim, GSW, address 10206 Carlos Canyon Road.
I started across the squad room.
Blanchard was saying, “It’s called Rip’s Gulch.”
“I don’t know where the hell that is,” Moffett said.
“About eight miles southeast of Livermore,” I said.
“Right on,” Blanchard said.
Moffett looked at me funny.
“I got it,” I said, putting down my donut and reaching for an intake sheet.
Moffett shrugged. He snatched up the donut, broke it in two, stuffed half in his mouth, and strolled away.
“You’ve got Deputy Edison on the line,” I said. “Decedent’s last name?”
“Gunnar. With an A.”
I KNEW THE route well enough. I ought to. It was my third visit.
Kat Davenport gazed out the passenger-side window at the black, sloping terrain.
“Who lives here?” she said.
As we approached the final turn, a red corona appeared over the hilltop, and then, in the distance, we saw them: emergency vehicles, their flashers the sole source of illumination for miles, a malign throb surging unimpeded over the earth like a scarlet flash flood.
Davenport’s phone began to count down.
Five hundred feet, two hundred, one, we had arrived at our destination.
“Whoa, hang on,” she said.
“The entrance is up there.”
She looked at me the same way Moffett had.
The gate hung open. I took it slow, inching along the cratered road while in back the gurneys clattered and banged around. Gradually the homestead came into view, its cairns of garbage and appliances in disrepair.
“Seriously, what is this place?” Davenport said.
“White Trash Disneyland.”
Of the six trailers, three were dark. A group of uniformed deputies idled at the center of the semicircle, occupying the same spot I had, except that there were no women and children hemming them in, no twitchy shotguns aimed at their kidneys. I couldn’t see Dale or Kelly anywhere. I guessed everyone had been shepherded inside and ordered to stay put. Dogs, too.
I parked off to the side, near two squad cars, an unmarked, and the ambulance. We climbed out amid the eerie soundless pulse of the flashers.
Deputy Blanchard was a doughy twenty-something. He told us the call to 911 had gone out at around seven thirty p.m. EMTs coming from Tracy ran into problems trying to access the property. In the dark it took them thirty minutes to locate the gate. Not that they could’ve done anything, anyway.
“He’s in there,” Blanchard said, pointing to the trailer with the satellite dish.
“What’s the story?” I asked.
Blanchard waved vaguely. “Idiots arguing.”
One of the other deputies spoke up: “There’s two other brothers.”
“They separated them for questioning,” Blanchard said.
“Do you know who pulled the trigger?” I asked.
Blanchard shrugged. Why should I care? My business was the body, not the suspects.
The trailer’s interior was smaller than I remembered. I was sharing space with Kat Davenport, as opposed to all three Dormers, and you’d think I’d feel the extra elbow room, but the effect was similar to stripping a home of furniture, the sudden lack of reference points causing space to deflate.
Compounding the illusion was blood, lacquering the cabinetry and the vinyl flooring and flattening the visual field. Blood dripped from the light fixture; blood caulked the nooks of the acoustical baffling.
Gunnar Dormer sat in his comfy chair, swiveled toward the door, boots kicked out, body stapled in place by sheer bulk. More blood pooled beneath him. His belly was a glistening void. From within poked a white tuber of spine.
The size of the wound, along with peripheral holes in his chest and groin, suggested two barrels of buckshot. The blast had sheared off the bottom half of his beard. He’d raised his hands to try to stop it: Three fingers were missing. Cracks webbed the laptop screen, shot speckled the wall. Perhaps more than two barrels; perhaps a reload. Aside from the damage to his beard, his face was relatively unscathed. His headphones had been knocked off and hung down his back, the forked wire catching against his throat like a bolo tie. He’d been in the middle of recording. Someone had come in, called his name, and waited for him to turn around.
They didn’t want to shoot him in the back.
They wanted him to see it coming.
Davenport started taking flicks.
Knowing the decedent firsthand did not stop me from searching for ID. That he’d clearly been shot did not stop me from examining the body for other trauma.
We have a system.
I found his wallet in a drawer.
Gunnar Frederick Dormer. DOB October 11, 1984. He required corrective lenses to drive. He was not an organ donor. A moot point.
I headed outside to talk to Blanchard. The tight confines were making it tough for us to operate without disturbing the scene. We’d done our best not to touch the wrong things, and we’d taken pictures. If they wanted, though, we could wait to remove until the crime scene unit had done its thing.
He entered one of the lit trailers to ask the detective, returning shortly.
“He says go for it.”
Movement stirred behind a darkened curtain. A small face peered out.
“Probably best for the kids to stay inside,” I said.
“They are inside.”
“I mean away from the windows, so they don’t have to see it.”
“I told their mamas to put them to bed,” Blanchard said. “What do you want me to do, tie them down?”
“You might want to remind them,” I said.
I prefer the give of sheets to a plastic body bag, but in this case a waterproof barrier was necessary to contain the remains. Davenport and I eased Gunnar Dormer to the floor and zipped him up. When carrying a long, heavy, sagging object down the stairs, it’s a good idea for the taller person to lead. Kat Davenport took the shoulders, I took the legs, and at a silent three-count we stood, grunting. Even with the loss of tissue and fluid, he must’ve weighed two fifty.
We waddled toward the door, huffing and puffing and trying to steady the bag as it sloshed from side to side.
“Goddamn it,” Davenport muttered.
She halted abruptly, yanking back on the bag like the reins of a horse so that I lost my grip on the plastic. I barely managed to catch hold of it again before it hit the floor.
She said, “Excuse me.”
I craned around.
In the doorway, framed by darkness, stood a boy.
He looked to be about fifteen or sixteen, soft around the middle, with pimples clustered at the corners of his mouth and patchy facial hair. I recognized him as one of the twins, though I could not at a glance say which of the Dormers had fathered him.
The space around him blazed red, black, red.
“You can’t be here,” Davenport said.
She sounded a little irate, which was not ideal, but understandable, given how he’d sneaked up on us. His arms hung down at his sides, and he wiggled his fingers, swaying on locked knees, dreamy and halfway satisfied, as though he saw not us and the body bag and the blood-covered trailer but beyond, to some future moment when all this horror dovetailed with his fantasies. He radiated the patience of school shooters. And though I knew he was a child, and I knew what we ought to do—set the body down, talk to him, and bring him to his mother—I felt afraid, not for myself but for what had been put out into the world.
I gripped the slippery bag, my forearms starting to burn.
“Hey. Hey.” Deputy Blanchard came bounding up the trailer steps. “What you doing out here. Come on, son. Let’s go. Come on.”
Blanchard pulled, not gently, at the boy’s shoulder. There was brief resistance. Then he let himself be led away.
WE PLACED GUNNAR onto the gurney and began fastening the straps.
A door opened, and Dale Dormer emerged in handcuffs, followed by a uniformed deputy and a third man wearing slacks and an ACSO windbreaker. Despite Dale’s bloody clothes and face, he appeared at ease, docile as the deputy walked him to a squad car.
“Be right back,” I said to Davenport.
The detective was named Nelson O’Dwyer. He was in his fifties, sunburnt, with jostling teeth and a wattle of flesh below a thin face. He told me it wasn’t any big mystery what had happened.
“He got tired of taking his brother’s shit and shot him.”
I said, “He confessed.”
“More like bragged.”
“What about the younger brother?”
“They’re both saying he had nothing to do with it. How do you know these guys, anyway?”
“I’ve run into them before.”
“Yeah. You believe them, though.”
“Kelly not being involved.”
O’Dwyer frowned. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
I always wanted someone littler’n me to kick around.
“No reason,” I said. “Monday or Tuesday for the autopsy.”
“Pretty sure I don’t need to see that again.”
“You mind I say a quick hi to Dale?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Dale Dormer sat rigidly in the backseat of the squad car.
I came up and he turned his head, blinking at me through the window bars.
He spoke to the deputy at the wheel, who stopped typing on his MDT to peer at me, then lowered the rear window.
“How’s it going, Dale?” I said.
“You’re lookin at it.”
“Do you feel any better now?”
“Shit, I feel pretty fuckin good.”
“What did it for you?”
“Ah, shit, I dunno.” He paused. “He wouldn’t let me sing.”
“On the show. I thought it’d be fun to sing something.” There was blood crusted in his braids. “It’s fuckin Christmas.”
“Like a carol?”
“I’m not saying gimme the whole two hours. It’s one fuckin song we’re talking about. Gunnar, he’s, ‘Shut the fuck up, what do you think this is, American Idol.’ Always taking shit too serious, you know? Pokin and proddin. What about you? You doin all right?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Get your window fixed yet?”
I felt breathless with anger.
My wife. My daughter.
“Little on the nose,” I said, “a swastika.”
“You got the message, didn’t you?”
I said, “Be thankful for those bars.”
Dale laughed. “See you round, dickwad.”
AS I WAS backing the van out, a bowlegged Kelly Dormer stepped from his trailer. He came down and stood in the dirt with his hands on his hips, surveying the homestead that now belonged to him—all of it, along with all of its people. Drowned in red brake light, a woman and child watched him with faces full of expectancy and hatred, waiting on him like a fallen god.
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