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Chapter 1

 

Danny pressed the doorbell, and dogs started barking inside the house. He stepped out of the recessed entry and squinted anxiously up at a helicopter arriving overhead. Hopes for it being an LAPD airship were dashed by the colorful logo of a local TV station on its side.

Scowling with impatience and frustration at the traffic that had delayed him, Danny was about to try the doorbell again when the door cracked open. A pair of angry barking snouts pushed through the breach, all snapping fangs and decibels. Danny yelped and jumped back behind his media ID, as if it would deter the dogs from lunging at him.

A grizzled woman whose white hair stood out from her head in a wild, irritated spray looked up at him as she held the indignant dogs back by their collars and by what Danny judged to be not enough fingers.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, raising her voice over the furious din.

“Hi there. I’m Danny Kasho. I’m a reporter from SoCal Today.”

“What’s SoCal Today?” she asked.

“It’s a regional news website. Can I get into your backyard for a minute?”

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

“Yes, ma’am. I’d like to get some video of the racket.” Danny held up his ultracompact Sony camcorder, figuring he’d throw it if the dogs got loose. Maybe he’d get lucky, and they’d play fetch instead of maul-the-reporter.

The woman pointed at his black baseball hat with press emblazoned on it in large white capitals. “My nephew’s got one like that, except it says CIA. He got it at the beach in Venice, I think.”

Danny heard another helicopter and forced a smile. “Isn’t that interesting? So it’s okay if I go into your backyard? The dogs can’t get out there, can they?”

The woman shrugged. “Be my guest. I’ll keep these dipshits inside. But watch your step back there—Earl’s shit’s all over the place.” She tugged the dogs back by their collars and slammed the door.

Danny jogged around the side of the house, past cacti and withered potted plants. A path across the patio’s cracked pavement snaked around a wheelless Town Car up on bricks, which was nestled behind old furniture, 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 flaking wooden fence leaned out toward the tree-lined berm that surrounded the lake behind the house. The man-made lake was more of a pond—only three hundred yards on its longest side and enclosed by a chain-link fence topped with coils of razor wire.

Danny couldn’t get a clear view between the most warped fence panels. He looked around Earl’s stuff, distinguishing a picnic table beneath a dirty tarp laden with boxes, and after testing the table’s weight with a tug, dragged it over to the fence and climbed atop it.

Between the thudding news choppers, of which there were now three, and the incensed dogs, who’d moved to a sliding door at the back of the house to be nearer the intruder, Danny’s audio was shot. But he had an unobstructed view over the fence of the cops and firefighters gathered a few feet away from an obstinate hump half submerged near the water’s edge.

Danny zoomed in as far as the camcorder could.

About eighty yards away, a rusting steel fifty-five-gallon drum lay on its side. One end of it was open, but Danny couldn’t see what was inside of it from here. A second group of firefighters stood along the scant shoreline barely fifty yards away from the first, but drooping branches obscured his view.

The buzzing of a drone cut through the heavier chop of the helicopters. Branches wouldn’t be an issue for whatever ballsy freelancer was operating the drone, but the cops would be if they saw it. They delighted in confiscating the machines at crime scenes and major incidents, a prohibition Danny wholeheartedly supported, especially when branches were spoiling his shot.

Carefully, he grabbed the top of the fence and swung a leg over. The old boards creaked and shuddered. He let go quickly and dropped to the other side. The fence wavered but remained more or less upright, as did he.

With his camcorder recording, he trotted along a dirt service road on the berm, safely separated from the cops by the chain-link fence. But with the way the drum was lying, with the open lid blocking the view of the contents, the only way to see inside would be to creep up behind where the cops were standing.

Danny ducked behind a tree and zoomed in on the second group of cops. There was another drum in the water. It, too, was old and rusting and lay on its side with the lid open. The cops were avoiding looking at whatever was inside.

“Hey!”

One of the cops by the first drum had spotted Danny. The other cops near him turned to look.

“Media!” Danny jogged down the berm to the chain-link fence to soften his camcorder’s angle to the open drum. “Media!”

“Clear the area!” the cop yelled at him.

Danny stumbled over an exposed root. “Right away, Officer! Leaving now!” He checked the camcorder’s LCD screen—almost there.

The cop was waving his arm at him and talking into his shoulder radio.

Danny’s view of the spillage from the drum cleared, and he skidded to a stop. He steadied his camcorder and sharpened the focus on what was in the drum. Dark sludge. A bulky wet mass.

Bones.

Chapter 2

 

The cold morning wind blowing in off the sea collided with the hot exhaust of the mass of cars stuck on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. The turbulent front was centered over a green Subaru Outback that had rear-ended a delivery truck, causing an epic inconvenience to morning commuters on the coastal road between Malibu and Santa Monica.

Reporter Ursula Ruda had been in Santa Monica, finishing up at the latest overnight smash-and-grab burglary, this one at a Montana Avenue jewelry store, when she heard the dispatch come through the scanner mounted on her dashboard. She promptly joined every stringer in a ten-mile radius in a mad dash to the scene. Whoever got there first won exclusive video from a fresh scene.

Unlike the stringers—freelancers who roamed the sprawling city to sell video of breaking news to local TV stations—Ursula had a steady employer in LA Intercept, but its insatiable need for content often cast her out into the nether hours along with them. And it was feeling more and more like a one-woman show.

Ursula had driven north past the big homes on Fourteenth Street, turned left onto San Vicente, where she was forced to slow for road repair from the Inglewood earthquake, then sped past the mansions set back from the divided road. She curved down the hill onto Entrada, which cut through a shallow valley of affluent homes, and stayed to the right at the Channel Road split and the big homes changed to small apartment buildings near the beach. She ignored the signs prohibiting right turns on red and raced up PCH to Malibu to the accompaniment of a ticking stopwatch in her head.

She won the scene this time by a critical minute or two, dashing out of her car to record video that she couldn’t have gotten had she arrived any later. She captured firefighters prying open the Subaru’s doors. The parking pass hanging from the Subaru’s rearview mirror was clearly visible with the windshield exploded out of its frame: Rio Lot B/117.

The driver was slumped in her seat, her face turned away from the flashing lights and mostly hidden by dark hair. She wore a black T-shirt under a magenta hoodie. A cardboard drink tray lay upended atop a hot mess of spilled Starbucks cups on the passenger floor.

The license plate on the back of the Subaru was sandwiched between bumper stickers—a square white one with Rio in red lettering and one that showed a beleaguered cartoon turtle and read Skip a Straw, Save a Turtle. The skid marks were only eight feet long, indicating she hadn’t noticed the sudden stoppage ahead of her until the last second, when it was too late to avoid plowing into the back of the truck. The truck driver was uninjured.

Ursula videoed firefighters covering the driver’s body with a sheet, to await the arrival of the coroner.

She looked away from the California Highway Patrol officers taking measurements in a long stretch of roadway marked off by pylons and flares and strewn with pieces of metal and plastic and glittering safety glass, and gazed up at the mountains being outlined by the sunrise. She couldn’t put a number on the times her day had started with the dead body of a woman somewhere. A body was both a symbolic and a very real manifestation of other people, family and friends who were living suspended in these minutes of ignorance, this awful bubble of time, unaware that the life of someone close to them had just ended.

As a fire engine was repositioned, she took advantage of the sweeping glare of its headlights to get a few extra shots of the damaged front end of the car. A small black hole above the deflated tire caught her eye before shifting shadows smothered the detail.

Before she was made to move, she zoomed in on the wheel well and lit up a shot of it with her flash. She enlarged the image on her camera as she backed away, staring at the curious puncture in its crinkled metallic gray halo, like the corona around the moon during a total solar eclipse.

Ursula tried to get the attention of the CHP officer who’d made her move back, but he refused to pay any attention to her after she was no longer where she wasn’t supposed to be. A female officer finally acquiesced and let Ursula show her the picture on her camera’s screen.

Ursula zoomed in on it. “What’s that look like to you?” she asked the cop.

The cop studied the photo. She started to answer Ursula’s question but stopped, seemingly conflicted. She aimed her flashlight at the wheel well and saw the strange little hole for herself. Looked back at the close-up image of it on Ursula’s camera.

Then she looked at Ursula with a tight mouth, and before she toggled the radio on her shoulder, she said, “It looks like a bullet hole.”

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