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Chapter 1


Barks as jarring as shotgun blasts exploded inside the house.

Danny took his finger off the doorbell and stepped out of the recessed entry, shading his eyes to squint up at the helicopter. Hopes for it being an LAPD airship were dashed as it began to hover, turning to display the colorful livery of a local TV station. 

The door opened and his impatient scowl flipped into a courteous smile that was banished by two black muzzles lunging at him through the breach. 

The snapping and snarling fangs were barely restrained by a grizzled woman with skin tanned to the point of leather, who was bent over to hold the animals by their collars. She wore a tank top and cutoff jeans, and her white hair stood out from her head in a wild, irritated spray.

Shouting to be heard, the woman said, “Don’t worry about them, they’re just big babies. What can I do for you?”

Trying to channel his most convincing Cesar Millan, he showed her his media badge and shouted back, “I’m Danny Kasho from SoCal Today. Mind if I get into your backyard for a minute?”

“This about whatever’s going on out there?” she asked. “I never heard such a racket.” 

Danny suspected that her neighbors might say the same thing about her dogs, either of which outweighed her, and were tugging themselves and her incrementally closer to him. He stood his ground, figuring that if he shrank back even a little bit, the animals would sense prey and tear loose from the woman, and tear into some Screaming Danny Surprise on her doorstep. “Yes ma’am,” he said. “I’d like to get some video of the racket real quick, if you don’t mind.”

She 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.” 

“You don’t say?” Danny squeezed his ultracompact camcorder as he heard another helicopter arrive. “So it’s okay if I go back there? These very good boys won’t be outside, will they?” His universal pup-friendly ooey gooey voice was rebuffed by a fresh salvo of strafing barks from the hellhounds.

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

Wondering 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. He followed a path across cracked pavement that snaked around a wheelless Town Car up on bricks, 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 woman’s fence leaned out toward a tree-lined berm that surrounded a man-made lake behind her house. Unable to see anything after first peering between the boards, then standing on his tiptoes with his camcorder hoisted blindly 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 over to the fence and climbed onto it. 

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

He zoomed in as far as he could.

Two rusting fifty-five-gallon drums lay in the brackish water. One end of the closer drum was open, but drooping branches obscured Danny’s view of the contents, which the cops and firefighters were avoiding looking at.

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

Carefully, he grabbed the top of the fence, awkwardly heaved himself up, and swung a leg over. The old boards creaked and trembled. He lifted his other leg over and quickly let go, dropping to the other side before any wood snapped or slivers stabbed into his crotch. 

With his camcorder recording, he trotted along the dirt service road atop the berm toward the drums, safely separated from the cops by the chain-link fence. The view he needed was only twenty yards away.


One of the cops had spotted him. 

The other cops turned to look.

Danny accelerated into a run. “Media!”

“Clear the area!” the first cop yelled. 

“Med—!” Danny stumbled over an exposed root, but with a fluke of near-acrobatic agility, managed to stay on his feet and avoid sprawling in the dirt in front of the cops. He checked his camcorder’s screen—almost there. 

“Clear the area!” the cop yelled again, waving his arm as if to shoo him away. 

Danny skidded to a stop with an elevated view over the cops and zoomed in on the bulky wet mass spilling out of the nearest drum. 

“Clear the area now!” The cop was getting mad now that it was obvious Danny was ignoring him. 

Danny saw him tilt his head to his lapel mic to call for reinforcements on his side of the fence. He figured he had three, maybe four minutes, tops.

Searching for anything recognizable in the mess, Danny discerned a swatch of soiled fabric wrapped around a bundle. A section of the fabric had been peeled back, revealing a pale rock stuck in the black sludge.

The cop was marching up to the fence as if he was going to taze Danny through it. “Now! I said clear the area! Now!”

The irate cop faded momentarily into the background as Danny realized what he was looking at.

“Bingo,” he muttered.

The pale rock was the top of a skull.



Chapter 2


Cold sea wind collided with the hot mass of exhaust from hundreds of cars idling at a standstill on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, where a green Subaru Outback had crashed into the back of a delivery truck. 

Reporter Ursula Ruda videoed firefighter paramedics working on the female driver, who wore jeans and a black T-shirt under a magenta hoodie, and lay on a backboard, unresponsive. 

There were no skid marks. Probably distracted, on her phone, Ursula thought. 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.

Stickers flanked the Subaru’s rear license plate—one depicted a beleaguered cartoon turtle and read Skip a Straw,Save a Turtle. The other was square and white, with Rio in red lettering. 

Twenty minutes ago, Ursula was parked in her new red Ford Escape, finishing up her notes at the scene of an overnight smash-and-grab burglary at a Montana Avenue jewelry store in Santa Monica. She’d heard the call come through the scanner mounted on her dashboard, quickly stowed her things, and joined every stringer in a ten-mile radius in a race to the scene.

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 local online newspaper LA Intercept. But everybody had to hustle for content. Exclusive video was the name of the game, so whoever got to a scene first won.

Blowing through intersections in the quiet residential blocks north of Montana, she’d hurtled past the mansions on either side of Entrada and down to Channel, where the big homes changed to small apartment buildings near the beach. Ignoring the signs prohibiting right turns on red, she sped north up PCH toward Malibu. Brake lights on the busy coastal artery announced the crash before she could see it. 

She drove up the shoulder as far as she could before she was forced to park beside the line of cars. She left her media pass on her dashboard to hopefully avoid getting towed, and went the rest of the way on foot. She won the scene, running up in time to video firefighters finishing sawing off the Subaru’s door to get to the driver. She was slumped to the side, her face turned away from the flashing lights. 

They were covering her body with a sheet now. The paramedics went to shake it off and start packing up.

Ursula 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. So many of her days started with a dead body somewhere, a lonely corpse whose family and friends were still living in an awful bubble of time, as if it was any other day, unaware that someone they loved had just died, often violently. 

Turning her gaze up to the sunrise outlining the mountains, Ursula wondered who’d mourn the Subaru driver. Who was going to get the news today that would change the rest of their lives. Today was the day they didn’t see coming. No one ever did—it was the sucker punch of all sucker punches. 

All the interviews she’d done with shocked, grieving relatives took their toll. It felt as if their pain was a tactile thing, a toxin in her blood that was robbing from her future to pay for every day she spent reporting on other people’s agonizing present. Coaxing family and friends caught in trauma’s fallout to articulate a pain beyond comprehension 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 some video of a parking pass still hanging from the Subaru’s rearview mirror: Rio Lot B/47, and the sawed-off door laying in the street like a severed limb from some mechanized carnage. A small black hole in it caught Ursula’s eye before shifting shadows smothered the detail.

She rewound and froze the video. Enlarging it on her screen, she 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 demands that she move back, Ursula finally convinced a female officer to look at the image.

Zooming in on the hole, she asked the cop, “What does that look like to you?”

The cop studied the image. Unable to dismiss Ursula’s concern outright, she aimed her flashlight at the door and saw the strange little hole for herself. Looked back at the close-up of it on Ursula’s screen.

She looked at Ursula and said, “Like a bullet hole.”

Copyright © 2023 by Steve McManus

All rights reserved.

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