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Chapter 1


Barks as jarring as shotgun blasts erupted inside the house, as if the doorbell was wired to dogs instead of bells. They weren’t Toy breed yaps, either. Nothing so ankle-high and manageable. No, these were percussive explosions from the broad chests of big dogs with innate tendencies toward mauling hapless strangers.

Danny took his finger off the button with a mixture of trepidation and impatience, stepping out of the recessed entry and shading his eyes to squint up at the helicopter. Hopes for it being an LAPD airship were dashed as it began to hover, turning slightly to display the colorful livery of a local TV station. Everybody was coming.

His scowl deepening, he was about to press the doorbell again when the door opened and two black muzzles shot through the gap, furry missiles straight out of a mailman’s worst nightmare that sent Danny stumbling backward, after blurting a high-pitched yap that would have made a Toy snicker.

Snarling and snapping, the dogs were barely restrained by a petite, deeply tanned woman with a wild spray of burlap hair. She wore a tank top and cutoff jeans and was bent over to hold their collars, which sported stubby metal spikes. “Don’t worry about them,” she said, raising her voice to be heard, “they’re just big babies. Can I help you?”

Trying to summon his most convincing Cesar Millan, Danny calmly presented his media badge, hoping the dogs didn’t interpret the gesture to mean his hand was a Scooby snack. “I’m Danny Kasho from SoCal Today. Can I get into your backyard for a minute?”

“This about whatever’s going on out there?” the woman shouted. “Ain’t never heard such a racket.” 

Danny bet her neighbors said the same thing about her dogs, either of which outweighed her, and were tugging themselves and her incrementally closer to him. Gesturing with his compact Sony camcorder, which could carry less news-gathering credibility than a traditional shoulder-mounted camera but was eminently more portable, plus he could throw it at one of the dogs if he had to, albeit only one, Danny said, “Yes ma’am. I’d like to get some video of the racket real quick, if that’s okay.” 

The woman looked up at his black baseball hat that had press emblazoned on it in white capitals. “My nephew’s got one like that, except his says cia. Got it down in Venice. You know, on the boardwalk?”

Gritting his teeth as another news helicopter arrived, Danny asked, “So can I get into your backyard? These very good boys won’t be out there, will they?” His ooey gooey universal pup-friendly voice was violently rebuffed by a fresh salvo of roaring dissent.

“I’ll keep ’em in.” The descending tone of the woman’s voice alluded to a life kept lean by sacrifices great and small. “But Earl’s shit’s all over the place, so watch where you step.” Shouting at the dogs, she yanked them back and slammed the door.

Unsure if Earl was the woman’s husband or one of the dogs, Danny hurried around the side of the house, past cacti and withered potted plants, and through a waist-high chain-link gate. A path snaked around old furniture, a wheelless Town Car up on bricks, stacks of bald tires, a fridge. There was all manner of junk, automotive and otherwise. What wasn’t loose had been piled in shopping carts and oil-stained cardboard boxes.

The wooden fence leaned out toward a berm that surrounded a man-made lake behind the house. Unable to see anything after first peering between the boards, then standing on his tiptoes with his camcorder hoisted above his head, Danny looked around Earl’s shit and found a picnic table covered by a dirty tarp. After testing its weight with an exploratory tug, he dragged it noisily over to the fence and climbed up onto it. 

Between the thudding helicopters and the Cujo cousins, who’d relocated to a sliding screen door at the back of the house to be closer to their potential chew-toy-in-jeans, Danny’s audio was shot. But standing atop the picnic table, he could see that the lake was enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire. Inside the perimeter, cops and firefighters stood a few feet away from two obstinate humps half submerged near the water’s edge.

Danny zoomed in as far as he could.

Two fifty-five-gallon drums lay in the brackish water. One end of the closer drum was open. Drooping branches obscured his view of what was inside, which the cops and firefighters were avoiding looking at.

A drone’s buzz cut through the chop of the hovering helicopters. Branches weren’t an issue for whoever was operating the thing, but it was a risky move—the police relished confiscating private drones over crime scenes and slapping extravagant fines on their owners. Danny wholeheartedly supported the prohibition, especially when branches were spoiling his view.

He tucked his camcorder into his messenger bag. Mindful of splinters, he carefully grabbed the top of the fence, awkwardly heaved himself up, and swung a leg over. The old sun-warped boards creaked and trembled as he lifted his other leg over and quickly let go, dropping to the other side before any wood snapped and slivers turned his crotch into a pincushion. 

With his camcorder recording—credibility aside, you couldn’t climb over fences with a shoulder-mount—Danny trotted along the berm toward the drums, safely separated from the cops by the chain-link fence. A clear view of the open drum was only thirty yards away.


One of the cops had spotted him. 

Danny swore and started running. “Media!”

The other cops turned to look.

“Clear the area!” the first cop yelled. 

“Med—!” Danny tripped over an exposed root. Arms pinwheeling, he managed to stay on his feet and avoid sprawling in the dirt in a clownish pratfall. 

“Clear the area!” the cop yelled again, waving as if to shoo Danny away. He tilted his head to his lapel mic to call for backup on Danny’s side of the fence. 

Danny checked his camcorder’s screen and skidded to a stop with an elevated view over the cops. He zoomed in, searching for anything identifiable in the bulky wet mass spilling out of the drum. There was a swatch of soiled fabric wrapped around a bundle. A section of the fabric was peeled back, revealing a pale rock trapped in a tangle of fine weeds. 

Realizing what he was looking at, Danny’s surprise made the shouting cop fade into the background, as if a neighbor had just turned down their TV.

The pale rock wasn’t a rock at all. It was a blotchy, featureless face in a clutch of dark hair, its shriveled lips pulled back in a toothy wail of endless silence.


Chapter 2


A cold sea wind collided with the hot mass of exhaust from cars idling on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, where the early rush hour grind had stalled around a green Subaru Outback that had crashed into the back of a delivery truck. The Subaru’s front end crumpled like an accordion’s bellows, trapping the driver, and turning the morning commute on the busy coastal artery into a quagmire. 

Reporter Ursula Ruda videoed firefighter paramedics working on the driver, who lay on a backboard on the street beside the car. The driver was dark-haired and in her thirties, and wore jeans and a black T-shirt under a magenta hoodie. There were no skid marks—she hadn’t reacted to the sudden stoppage ahead of her and plowed into the back of the truck, the driver of which had escaped injury.

Ursula had been typing up an overnight smash-and-grab burglary at a Santa Monica jewelry store on her laptop, which hovered over the passenger seat of her car on its adjustable arm, when she heard the call come through the CHP scanner nestled into the customized console between the front seats. She had identical scanners tuned to LAPD, LA County Sheriff’s Department, and city and county fire. Immediately gauging the seriousness of the call and her proximity to it, she’d tabled the burglary joined every stringer in a ten-mile radius in a race to the crash. 

Unlike stringers—freelancers who roamed the sprawling city to sell video of breaking news to local TV stations, whose cameras couldn’t be everywhere—Ursula was a full-time staff writer for online newspaper LA Intercept. But the public’s appetite was insatiable. Everybody hustled for content. Exclusive video was the name of the game—whoever got to a scene first won.

Blowing through intersections in the quiet residential streets north of posh Montana Avenue in her red Ford Escape, she’d hurtled by the mansions on either side of Entrada on her way down to Channel, where the big homes changed to small apartment buildings near the beach. Rolling past the signs prohibiting right turns on red, she’d sped north up PCH toward Malibu. 

Brake lights announced the crash before she could see it. She squeezed up the shoulder as far as she could before she was forced to park, slipped her media pass onto her dashboard, which might just prevent it being ticketed, grabbed her burly JVC camcorder from the back seat, and started running. She won the scene, arriving in time to video firefighters sawing off the Subaru’s door to get to the driver, who was slumped to the side under the airbag, her face turned away from the flashing lights. 

But there would be no rescue this morning. They were covering the driver’s body with a sheet. The paramedics started packing up.

With a quiet sigh, Ursula turned off her light and lowered her camera. She looked away to the California Highway Patrol officers taking measurements in a stretch of roadway marked off by pylons and flares, and strewn with pieces of metal and plastic and safety glass. Northbound traffic was at a standstill behind the crash, while LA-bound traffic was backed up from drivers creeping past to gawk.

Most of Ursula’s days started with a dead body somewhere, a lonely corpse whose family and friends were often living in an awful bubble of time, unaware that someone they loved and assumed they’d see again was gone forever. She wondered who’d mourn the Subaru driver. Who was going to get the news today that would change the rest of their days. Today was the day no one ever saw coming, and it was her job to record their reaction to it. 

Turning her gaze up to the sunrise outlining the mountains, she thought about all the interviews she’d done over the years with shocked, grieving relatives. Repeated exposure to pain took its toll. Sometimes it felt as if their anguish had become a tactile thing, a toxin in her blood that was stealing from her future to pay for every day she spent recording strangers’ agonizing present. Coaxing family and friends paralyzed by trauma to articulate their pain to her readers, who were endlessly fascinated with unnatural death at a distance. 

With exclusive video of it.

A fire engine was being repositioned, and Ursula took advantage of the sweeping glare of its headlights to get additional video in the blinking red and blue twilight, accompanied by the rumble of fire truck engines—a parking pass hanging from the Subaru’s rearview mirror: Rio Lot B/47; stickers flanking the rear license plate, one square and white with Rio in red lettering, the other depicting a beleaguered cartoon turtle with the slogan Skip a Straw, Save a Turtle; the sawed-off door laying in the street like a severed limb. A small black hole in the door caught Ursula’s eye before shifting shadows smothered the detail.

She rewound and froze the video. Enlarged it on the screen. Stared at the curious puncture in its crinkled metallic halo, like the corona around the moon during a total solar eclipse.

Unable to get the attention of the nearest CHP officer, who simply repeated his command that she move back, she finally convinced a female officer to look at the image. 

The officer studied it on Ursula’s camera, then aimed her flashlight at the door to see the strange little hole for herself. Examined the close-up of it on the screen again.

Ursula tried one of the oldest methods of eliciting confirmation—the tantalizing lure of an unfinished sentence. “I don’t know about you, but to me, that looks like a . . . ”  

The officer stepped back and reached for her lapel mic, giving Ursula a sour look of resignation that her busy but routine morning had just taken a turn into the complicated. “Like a bullet hole.”

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