Even at slightly after one in the morning, the air out here is neither hot nor cold. Tepid, maybe. I like that word. The air is tepid, and fueled with a particular kind of dread.
It’s the fear of the expected. The ripe anticipation of knowing what we’re about to see, and knowing we can’t look away. We can’t just gawk and go on about our business. This is our business.
Red, blue, red lights slash in rotation through the moonlit darkness. They chase each other across the ground and up over the scrub brush.
We’re in the desert on an anonymous tip that came in a little before 10 p.m. There are still a few folks out there who support us. Not everyone’s afraid of us.
All around are scrub mesquite and creosote along with a few reddish prickly pear cactuses. Here and there, a dying yucca. Now and then, a withered fishhook barrel cactus. The kind of stuff that grows where there’s no gentle rain but maybe a deluge two or three times a year. Everything is harsh.
Nothing thrives out here. Old or new, ancient or modern. Growing or recently deceased and interred.
Small rocks glint everywhere in the moonlight.
The ground is mostly flat, mostly imbedded with rock of every bland color. Mostly a chalky off-white, but also tans, browns and every shade of black—all pitted like little moons with impact craters.
To my left front is a growing pile of dirt and rocks. To my right front is another. In front of me, side to side, stretches the hole that originally held all that.
The tip said she was at least three feet down. Said it would be easy digging. He forgot to mention the rock.
The sounds, human and otherwise, that fill the air are quiet. Respectful without meaning to be. Even the quiet rumbling of the river, some forty feet to the west and three hundred feet straight down.
If I killed somebody out here, that’s where they’d end up. Over the edge, a quick brush of the hands and no looking back. But somebody took the time to do all this.
Two vehicles are parked some twenty and thirty feet to the east of the grave.
The far one is a brownish-gold SUV, with Sheriff slashed diagonally across both doors. It brought me and the deputies to the scene.
This side of it is the white meat wagon. It’s the source of the red and blue lights. For some reason Mitch Billings left the emergency overheads on.
This side of the meat wagon are three men.
Mitch is next to the driver’s door, the driver’s side rear-view mirror to his back. The guy’s meaty and has a gut, but he’s not fat. Mid to late thirties and maybe 5’9”, close-cropped hair and a flat top. He’s the boss.
His arms are folded over his chest, and a camera dangles by a strap from his left hand. He doubles as the county crime photographer. As he talks quietly to the two other men, he alternately leans up on his toes, back on his heels.
The second guy is skinny as a rail and a head taller than Mitch. Mid to late twenties. Hair to his collar. His hands are shoved into his pockets, his butt leaning against the meat wagon. He’s bored, but he bobs his head now and then to prove he’s paying attention.
The third is the youngest by at least a few years. Probably in his early twenties. Close-cropped hair with just enough to comb on top. He’s a little shorter than Mitch but meatier than the other guy. He leans on the meat wagon with his right shoulder and his head bent slightly forward, like he’s paying attention. He probably is.
Or maybe he’s just avoiding looking at what’s going on to his left. His hands were in his pockets too. His fists are clenched.
Behind him, a nylon stretcher, poles together, is leaned against the wagon just ahead of the back bumper. Behind that, the white tailgate extends away from the back. It’s swung open sideways to the driver’s side.
The guys are all dressed in the black trousers and white shirts of the coroner’s office. They all have a little badge, and all they have to do is cart off the bodies.
Me, I’m Jack Tilden. I’m the director of this evening’s symphony.
I’m dressed like I’m always dressed. It’s always brown or grey trousers, a brown or grey jacket and tie, an off-white shirt, and a brown or grey fedora. Tonight everything is grey.
Down in the hole in front of me are the two deputies. Their current task is another reason I’m glad I’m a detective. My job is to watch and listen as the deputies work. I can do that.
The guy to the left is Pete Mason. He’s in jeans and a t-shirt and a brown and green Sheriff’s Department ball cap. On his feet are brown combat boots with thick hobnail soles.
A sweat stain stretches down the back of his t-shirt. It forms an elongated V from his neck to his belt.
The other one is Joe Mangum. He’s in jeans, a western straw hat and a long-sleeved khaki shirt. The sleeves are rolled midway up his forearms. Sweat and dirt glint in the hair on his forearms. His shirt’s soaked from beneath his left shoulder halfway down the side.
I can’t see Joe’s feet, but he’s probably wearing round-toed western boots. Probably with the dogger heels.
The guys are earning their sweat. They both have shovels. They’re bent to the task in a hole they’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty minutes.
The shovels clunk, scrape and chink on rocks. The shovel handles leap into the rotation of the lights. They sweep up, then over and down. Up, then over and down. A discordant kind of rhythm.
Moonlight and red and blue flashes glint off hands and knuckles over and over again.
Now and then, the deputies grunt softly. Now and then they curse.
An almost ethereal whump sounds as each shovel load of dirt lands on a pile, one to the left, one to the right. The piles peak a little taller each time. Each time a few rocks clatter quietly down the far side.
And the smell that hangs in that tepid air is as quiet and uncomplicated as everything else here. It’s simple, and it’s stark.
The strong, acid stench of rotted onions.
It evokes a childhood memory.
For a moment I’m standing in an old onion field. One that was picked over two weeks ago and everything healthy shipped to market. Only the dead and dying left behind.
Then picked over again ten days ago by the poor. Only the dead left to rot.
Then plowed under last week to make the ground ready for the next crop.
It’s a stench that lingers on your tongue.
And it isn’t onions at all. It’s beauty unearthed.
The deputies are getting close.
I wet my lips with my tongue, then reach inside the left lapel of my jacket. I fish a pack of Camels from my shirt pocket.
Even now I can’t look away. Even knowing what’s coming.
By rote memory I turn the pack up and tap out a cigarette. By feel I catch it between my thumb and forefinger, put it between my lips.
I return the pack to my shirt pocket and pull my lighter from my trouser pocket. I strike the lighter, another raspy, hushed sound.
My palm lights up as I focus beyond the flame and inhale some nerve.
It’s all right, I know. Just keep your distance. I’ve seen a lot of these and they’re all the same.
But no. Each one belongs to itself. Each one is different.
Just as I slip the lighter back into my trouser pocket, Joe says, “Oh.” It’s more a sigh than a word.
Pete stops. He looks over at Joe and nods. Quietly he says, “Yeah. I’ve got her too.”
There’s an inadvertent moment of silence.
Then a shovel scuffs on the other side of Joe as his shoulders hunch and twitch. The reds and blues flash off his khaki back.
The underside of his shovel scrapes lightly on a rock. It screams in the night before he tips the handle lower. Then he twists around, looks over his left shoulder.
I don’t see his face, but I catch the motion as he turns. I’m still looking past him.
“Here she is,” he says quietly. “We’ve got her.”
He says it like an official announcement. Like I didn’t know. Or maybe like it was a rescue mission.
In a way I guess it was.
I have to look at my feet for a moment, and I nod and take a drag. Then I look over at Mitch and gesture with the cigarette.
He says something to the guys, then starts toward us. He stops at my side, looks down and to the left, then moves around the hole. Now it’s a grave. He starts taking pictures.
The flash alternately enhances the moonlight and scares off the reds and blues.
When he’s through, he glances at me and nods.
I look at the deputies, then gesture again with the cigarette.
Both their faces are aimed up at me now. Is this what it’s like to be God? Am I waiting for a prayer?
As if they need to hear me say it, I say it. “Okay. Bring her up.” I pause, then, “Just go careful.”
That’s someone’s little girl. It’s someone’s wife, daughter, sister, mother.
I don’t have to say that part.
Joe knows. He nods and sighs as he turns his head back to the front. He lowers himself to one knee.
I can’t tell you whether he’s near her right shoulder or her left. The slope of the side of the hole lets me see a shadowy orb just past his side. But I can’t tell whether it’s her face or the side or back of her head.
At the other end, Pete knows too.
He half-stands and tosses his shovel up on the far side of the hole. A little harder than he meant to.
It screeches a little on rocks when it lands. It slides.
Then he crouches again, heels together in the small space, and bends forward with both hands extended. He has to grasp the ankles.
He lifts them a little, gently. Shakes them a little. Only a little.
Dirt rolls off bare calves, bare thighs.
In my periphery, a shooting star, falling. A grain of something, plunging to the earth. A flash, extinguished.
Mitch crouches to my left, raises his camera. It flashes a couple of times, blinds the night.
Pete lifts again, shakes again.
Some cloth shifts and more dirt falls away.
The way the body refuses to bend—so she’s buried face down. Still in her clothes. A skirt or a dress. Blue, maybe.
Mitch takes another picture. Another. Says, “Okay.”
Pete lowers her ankles, lets the toes of her white canvas boat shoes rest.
The dirt has turned them tan.
He leans back out of the way.
Mitch shoots a few more pictures, then stands and moves behind me to my right.
I take another drag on the cigarette, then expel a stream of smoke. Inside it, I say to Pete, “Easy, now. Easy.”
The back of Pete’s head nods as he shifts, twisting his body to the right. He adjusts his position with a step, too, moves his left foot across her feet to the other sloping side of the hole.
It was a silly thing to say. None of this is easy. None of it can be. But she’ll still come out of the ground more gently than she went in.
A friend of mine wrote one time, “No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.”
The line accompanied a picture he’d taken of a pretty little wild flower. A pretty little weed.
Guy’s weird for taking pictures of nice things, pretty things. Things that persevere against all odds.
Like little flowers pushing their way up, striving through rocky, hard soil to reach the air.
Life wants to live. Beauty strives to be restored to the light.
He didn’t know how right he was.
To the right, Joe’s still down on his right knee. His left is bent up almost under his chin. He arches his back, swings his shovel up and to the right.
It lands in a creosote bush on the other side of his pile of dirt and rocks. A few dry twigs snap, return to the earth.
He turns back and his shoulders twitch in little repeated movements as he dislodges her right shoulder.
Then he twitches again and tosses something underhand, behind him.
It turns out to be a fist-sized chunk of rock. It flies up out of the hole.
Something about the chunk of rock catches my attention as it flows through a low arc.
I track its progress, and for an instant in the moonlight there’s a bright yellow face. It’s a few inches above the ground. Petals surround a mottled center. A thin stem extrudes up from black olive drab leaves. Those spread in a flat circle on dirt and small rocks on the ground.
And the face, stem and leaves disappear as the rock hits with a satisfying thump.
No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.
But there’s no guarantee the ground won’t come back to spoil it.
A few minutes pass, and Joe has the shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Free of the soil.
Did you catch that? The shoulders and torso. That’s distance.
Did I say I’ve seen a lot of these? Did I say they’re all the same?
Distance does that.
But each one also belongs to itself. Each one also is different.
Every shooting star is a different grain of dust.
A few minutes pass, and Joe has her shoulders and torso free of the rocks. Her shoulders and torso are finally free of the soil.
He and Pete begin to shift someone’s little girl into the right position so they can bring her up.
They lift someone’s daughter gingerly.
They turn someone’s sister gently on her side.
They lift someone’s wife carefully, at the same time.
They ease someone’s mother down to rest on her back.
Mitch moves about in a different dimension, takes a series of pictures.
When he’s through, to nobody at all he breathes, “Okay.” Then he looks at the meat wagon, shatters the night with a few rapid fire snaps of his fingers.
The two men there straighten and look at him.
He points toward the stretcher and wags his hand at them.
The young one picks up the stretcher and the two start toward us.
The taller guy looks at the other one and utters a short laugh at something.
I jerk my head around and frown. Quietly, I said, “Hey.”
The taller guy looks at me and his smile evaporates. He averts his gaze.
Silence pervades the night again.
Rocks crunch beneath the men’s feet as they approach.
I step back and gesture toward the ground at my feet. It’s level there, and not so rocky. The ground on the other side of the grave is occupied. A mesquite and a creosote bush. Both scraggly, in need of rain.
The younger guy steps past me, offers one end of the stretcher to the other one.
Together they pop it open and kneel alongside the grave to receive the body.
Joe and Pete lift the body clear of the ground and the other two take over. Pre-chastised, they move her gently into position above the stretcher.
They lower her onto it just as gently.
It’s my turn to crouch. There’s no distance now.
A blue skirt and a white blouse. No belt. The white canvas boat shoes I thought I saw earlier.
A necklace of some kind just above her collar bone. The pendant, if there was one, is behind her neck. Dirt and rough pebbles mar her dark brunette hair.
She’s probably around twenty-five.
There’s a large, horizontal dent in the flesh of her forehead above her left eye. There’s another, diagonal dent in the flesh from her left cheekbone to her jaw. Other, smaller indentations dot her forehead and the other soft tissue on her face. No bruising though. Not there.
So at least she was dead before the killer put her in the ground. At least that was something.
Once we figure out her name, I’ll be sure to tell the family.
The only bruising is around the ligature marks. The thumb prints. The crushed larynx.
I straighten and gesture.
As the men lift the stretcher and move away, I glance around behind me. I need to find that rock.
There it is. I lift it gingerly, lay it to the side.
The yellow flower is crushed, bruised. Maybe it’s dead. Maybe it’ll be back.
Behind me, I hear Joe and Pete gathering their shovels. I turn around, say, “You guys ready to head back?”
They both nod and start for the SUV.
I glance one more time at the grave, then back at the flower, and send a thought its way.
No matter how hard the ground, beauty finds a way out.
* * * * * * *