Dogs started barking inside the house as soon as Danny pressed the doorbell. He stepped out of the recessed entry and shaded his eyes, squinting anxiously up at the helicopter. Hopes for it being an LAPD airship were dashed by the colorful logo of a local TV station on its side.
As the door cracked open, his impatient frown turned upside down into a hopeful smile that was immediately banished by a pair of angry black snouts pushing through the breach, all snapping fangs and snarling decibels barely restrained by a grizzled woman whose white hair stood out from her head in a wild, irritated spray.
“Yeah?” she asked, shouting to be heard as she held the dogs back by their collars.
Danny showed her his media badge. “I’m Danny Kasho from SoCal Today. Can I get into your backyard for a minute?”
“What’s SoCal Today?”
“It’s a regional news website. I’m a reporter.”
The woman looked up at his black baseball hat with PRESS emblazoned on it in large white capitals. “My nephew’s got one like that, except his says CIA.”
“Cool. So, do you think I can get into your backyard?”
“This about whatever’s going on out there?” the woman asked. “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, squeezing it as he heard another news helicopter arrive. “The pups won’t be out there, will they?”
“I’ll keep these knuckleheads inside. But watch your step—Earl’s got his shit all over the place back there.” Shouting at the dogs, she pulled them back 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, 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 flaking wooden fence leaned out toward a tree-lined berm surrounding a man-made lake behind the house. The lake was really 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.
Amongst Earl’s shit was a picnic table beneath a dirty tarp laden with boxes. After testing the table’s weight with an exploratory tug, Danny dragged it over to the fence and climbed up onto it.
Between the thudding news choppers and the incensed dogs, who’d relocated to a sliding screen door at the back of the house to be closer to him, 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.
He zoomed in as far as the camcorder could.
A rusting fifty-five-gallon drum lay on its side. One end was open, but Danny couldn’t see its contents from here. A second group of firefighters and cops stood along the scant shoreline barely fifty yards away from the first, but drooping branches obscured the view of what they’d found.
A drone’s high-pitch buzz cut through the chop of the hovering news helicopters. Branches may not be an issue for whatever ballsy freelancer was operating the thing, since the LAPD delighted in confiscating private drones flown over crime scenes. Danny supported the prohibition wholeheartedly, especially when branches were spoiling his shot and not theirs.
Carefully, he grabbed the top of the fence and swung a leg over. The old boards creaked and trembled. 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 the dirt service road atop the berm, safely separated from the cops by the chain-link fence. The drum was lying such that the only way to see what was inside would be to get behind where the cops were standing.
He could see that the second group of firefighters and cops were standing near another drum in the water. It, too, lay on its side with the lid open. The cops were avoiding looking at whatever was inside.
One of the cops by the first drum had spotted him. The other cops turned to look.
“Media!” Danny jogged down the berm to the chain-link fence to soften his camcorder’s angle to the closer drum. “Media!”
“Clear the area!” the cop yelled.
Danny stumbled over an exposed root. “Right away, Officer!” He checked the camcorder’s screen—almost there.
The cop started talking into his shoulder radio. Calling in the air strike on the incursive reporter.
Danny skidded to a stop as his view of the drum cleared. He steadied his camcorder and sharpened the focus on what was in the drum.
Dark sludge. A bulky wet mass.
The cold wind blowing in off the sea collided with the hot exhaust from the mass of cars stuck on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. A green Subaru Outback had crashed into a delivery truck, killing the Subaru driver and causing an epic inconvenience to morning commuters on the coastal artery between Malibu and Santa Monica.
Reporter Ursula Ruda had been finishing up at the scene of an overnight smash-and-grab burglary, this one at a Montana Avenue jewelry store in Santa Monica, when she heard the dispatch for the crash come through the scanner mounted on her car’s dashboard. She promptly joined every stringer in a ten-mile radius in a mad race to the location. 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 exclusive video was the name of the game, and whoever got there first won.
She’d driven north past the big homes on Fourteenth Street, turned left onto San Vicente, where she was forced to slow for ongoing road repairs from the 2022 Inglewood earthquake, then sped past the mansions set back from the divided road. She curved down the hill onto Entrada, and stayed to the right at the Channel Road split, where the big homes changed to small apartment buildings near the beach. She ignored the signs prohibiting right turns on red and drove up PCH toward Malibu to the accompaniment of a ticking stopwatch in her head.
Ursula won the scene by a critical minute or two, recording video as she dashed out of her car.
The Subaru’s rear license plate 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. A parking pass hanging from the rearview mirror was clearly visible with the windshield exploded out of its frame: RIO LOT B/117.
Firefighters had cut off the Subaru’s door to get to the driver, who wore a black T-shirt under a magenta hoodie and was slumped to the side under the air bags, her face turned away from the flashing lights. 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 driver of which escaped injury.
One of the firefighters covered the driver’s body with a sheet.
Ursula looked away to 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 up at the mountains being outlined by the sunrise. She couldn’t put a number on the days that had started with a dead body somewhere. A lonely corpse that was both a symbolic and literal manifestation of other people, family and friends who were, at that moment, living in suspended minutes of ignorance, an awful bubble of time, unaware that the life of someone they loved had already ended.
A fire engine was being repositioned, and Ursula took advantage of the sweeping glare of its headlights to get a few extra shots of the damaged front end of the Subaru. A small black hole above the deflated tire caught her eye before shifting shadows smothered the detail.
She zoomed in and lit up a shot of the wheel well with her flash. She enlarged the image on her camera, staring 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 refused to listen and simply repeated his instructions that she move back, Ursula managed to grab a female officer who let her show her the picture on her camera’s screen.
“What’s that look like to you?” she asked the cop, zooming in on the image.
The cop studied the photo. She started to answer the question but stopped. The cop 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.
Before she toggled the radio on her shoulder, the cop said, “It looks like a bullet hole.”