THE SAFEST PLACE IN THE CITY
The radio crackles with an incoming call. I think of the joke: When people ask if LAPD is just like the old TV show Adam12, we say no, but we’re still using the same equipment. I smack the radio like a bad child and hear the dispatcher say, “14 Adam 10, see the man, 1647 Bonaparte Court, DB, Code 2.”
Training Officer Haynes’ eyes blaze. He grabs the mic and sails the police car leftward across two lanes. “14 Adam 4, we’ll take that call, we’re close,” he says. He does a U-turn and flashes me an electric smile. “Your first dead body.” He clicks his tongue warningly. “I hope you have your kit.”
I wonder if he’s like this with his male rookies, eager to put them through a gauntlet of experience. I surmise that he’s not. There’s a certain cherry-popping exuberance of the male training officer toward the female probationer. “Gee, thanks,” I say with a grimace.
Of course, I have my kit. It’s in my police bag in the trunk. Vasquez, my previous training officer, helped me assemble it. The kit consists of a box of latex gloves (for the everyday dead bodies), heavy rubber gloves (for the messy ones), a white paper mask, sanitizing fluid, and a jar of Vicks vaporub. “You shove the vaporub in your nose for decomposing bodies, so you don’t throw up and ruin the crime scene,” Vasquez advised. “And keep two pairs of latex gloves rolled up in your pocket. You’ll use them every day patting down those hypes and Skid Row types.” I pat my pants pocket to confirm the gloves are there and hope it’s a fresh and clean body, hope I don’t need the kit.
We wend our way up gritty Lincoln Boulevard and I mentally tick off cross streets as we pass them, Maple, Pine, Cedar, Pearl—I don’t have to look at the signs anymore. I’ve studied the maps, mentally traced routes on long runs after work. Haynes may suddenly pull off the road, grab his chest dramatically and yell “I’m shot, probie, where are we?” And I’d better know. Immediately. Even Vasquez, normally so playful, would drill his black eyes into mine when I failed, saying, “It’s the first rule of the street: always know where you are. You never know when you’ll have to put out a help call.”
I pride myself on this: I always know where I am.
From Lincoln we head east on Pico, then duck into the tony neighborhoods just south of L.A.’s border with Santa Monica. Off the harsh geometry of the main streets, we enter a softer, gentler world. Sinuous roads curve past sprawling expanses of bright, expensive lawn. It smells like a damp meadow, maybe the only place in this desert city that does. An etched stone sign announces we’re in Shady Hills. Around the next bend, we pass below a sea of massive jacarandas that snow purple blooms all over us like a ticker tape parade. A plum-colored celebration of my first DB.
Farther in, the million-dollar matte brick homes peek out from under the arms of giant oaks. Brick homes are rare here in earthquake country. They feel exotic and solid, like ancient stone relics in a land of mirrored glass.
“Rich bastards,” Haynes mutters. He parks us discreetly across the street under heavy branches. “Fancypants neighborhood like this, folks only like to see us cruising. Parked police cars means the neighborhood’s going downhill. Remember that.” It’s a phrase Haynes uses often.
He used it the first day I rode with him, just three weeks ago. “Take a deep breath and be ready for anything. Remember that,” he said. As if to illustrate it, he gunned the accelerator for a half-block and screeched to a halt in front of a dilapidated house. The two Crips out front leaped to attention, as surprised as I was. Haynes jumped out of the car and slammed his door shut. He strode up to the older one, C-clamped his neck and smacked him hard against the wall.
I slipped from the car and dropped into a fighting stance, but the younger gangster took off. I looked to Haynes, who had twisted his adversary’s arm behind his back, holding him against the wall. His indignant glare told me to give chase.
I bolted down an alley, sheathing my baton as I ran so I could scale each fence as it came up. With blood pounding in my ears, I considered what I might have done had I caught him. He’d committed no crime, I had no probable cause to arrest or even detain him. I knew this could go nowhere; my boots and belt felt heavier than ever. He was better at jumping fences than I was, and I soon lost sight of him.
At the end of the alley I saw Haynes pull up in the black and white, smirking. As I got in, I noticed the back seat was empty. Of course he’d let the guy go—there was no charge. Too furious to control my expression, I felt my eyes narrow. When Haynes slapped me on the back playfully, it was all I could do not to swing back.
“Had to make sure, heh-heh” he said, breathing hard, massaging one sore hand with the other.
“Of what!” I spat.
“That you didn’t freeze up, girlie. And you didn’t. Everyone wants to know,” he said. “Remember that.”
I shake off the memory and hit the “Code 6” button on the console computer to show we’ve arrived at the location. I sheath my baton in my duty belt and don my “bus driver” hat. The other training officers don’t require me to wear the hat. Vasquez never made me do that, treated me like an equal partner. But Haynes is different, with an earnestness that can lapse into swaggering arrogance. Before he exits the car, he touches his badge with his right hand quickly, almost imperceptibly.
It’s a habit I’ve seen him do at every call, and I know why. Once, over greasy tacos, he took off his badge, cupping the face of it in his palm. “This is what I’m all about,” he said. On the back was taped a photo of a little girl, maybe three or four, with big blue eyes and masses of light brown curly hair. “Sarah Jane.” For a moment he froze there, lips pressed tightly, eyes shimmering, then he doused his tacos with a second layer of hot sauce.
Word around the station is that his ex is busting his balls in custody court, so I try to cut him some slack.
We take the walkway, flanked by meticulous flowerbeds, up to the front porch of 1647 Bonaparte. Under a grand portico, an old man leans against a rose bower. He uncrosses his arms and smooths his steel hair back with a wrinkled hand. He’s been waiting for us. At the steps, Haynes drops behind me and cautions, “It’s your call, but I’ll be watching you.” I nod. With Haynes, the less said, the better.
“Good morning,” I say, extending a hand to shake. “I’m Officer Moore and this is Officer Haynes.”
“I’m John Givens,” the old man says, encasing my hand with both of his. He has a kindly face. Wrinkles have stitched half-moons under his eyes and at his jawline. “I’m Carl’s best friend, the one the housekeeper called. I’m the one who found him, and then I called you. Please come in,” he says, as if inviting us to a buffet lunch. He opens the carved glass door.
I steel myself, images from countless TV dramas slideshowing across my mental screen. I visualize a body sprawled across a living room floor dotted with shell casings, blood spattered up the wall. Or worse, the raw hamburger of a bludgeoning. Or would it be some lonely old fart, found dead by a friend or relative, still sitting on the toilet bearing down for a shit, having blown a vascular fuse? Vasquez told me that happens all the time.
It’s a pristine living room, flawless, dustless, like something out of Good Housekeeping. There’s an island of cream silk-upholstered furniture with carved arms and lion-paw feet planted in plush beige carpeting, freshly raked. John Givens glides through the room, and we follow, fat and clunky with our 20-pound duty belts, our thick-treaded boots stamping footprints in the carpet. A collection of ceramic Hummels beam their baby faces at us through an illuminated glass cabinet. I’m shocked by the stillness, and chide myself. For Christ’s sake, what else should I have expected from a dead body scene—a party? Nothing at all moves. Even the ceiling fans hang still, like giant spiders pinned to the ceiling.
Givens’ eyes blink nervously. “I left the sign up for you, left Carl’s letter, left everything just as I found it. I’m not sure what you need,” he says, his voice going raspy.
“I’m sure you’ve done just fine, Mr. Givens,” I offer, “but we need to see Carl first. You don’t have to go with us. Just tell us where he is.”
“Upstairs,” he says, pointing up a grand, arching staircase. “First room on the right, in the bathroom. But don’t you want to know what happened?”
“We’ll get to that, thanks sir. Is anyone else in the house?”
“No. Carl’s wife, Jean, is at the beauty parlor. Maria’s at my house next door with my wife. Maria’s the housekeeper.”
“Ok. We’ll need to talk to her as well. Please wait here, sir.”
Haynes motions me ahead up the stairs. My baton bangs the bannister and I reach down to clamp it against my thigh. Above us, a skylight spotlights a polished marble floored landing, inlaid with an intricate rose design. Four doors spin off from the landing.
To the right is the only open door, and it gives onto an immaculate master bedroom, handsome with an ossified grace, so spotless that I pity the housekeeper. The dresser is polished mirror-bright with not a drawer askew, adorned only with a cut crystal vase of white silk peonies. The nightstands are bare but for a posed photograph of an elderly couple flanking a young man and woman, each holding a young child. A massive four-poster bed dominates the room, with a gold brocade bedspread adorned symmetrically with three blue velvet pillows. On the middle pillow balances a thin white business envelope, like a ring in a wedding. In the far corner the pendulum of a grandfather clock fills the room with mechanical reverberations. I wonder how anyone could sleep with all that racket.
Givens’ loafers squeak behind us. He points a trembling finger toward a white bathroom door hanging ajar. A piece of paper taped to it says CALL POLICE.
“He’s in there,” Givens says, as he perches on the too-high bed, covers his face with his hands. I glance at Haynes, who motions toward the bathroom door with his chin, so I lead the way, hardening my reflexes against blood, against body parts, against all the movie murder drama scenes my memory has catalogued.
I open the door. My eyes sweep the room—outward, upward, sideways—anxiously. But it’s the last thing I expect: It’s as if the sun itself occupies the room. Surgically bright light ricochets off brassy fixtures, off wall mirrors, off a white marble floor that leads us to a large soaking tub at the back of the room where a man lies slumped back as if sleeping in his bath. I see no blood anywhere, and for a moment I wonder if he’s actually dead. But as we approach the body, I am struck by the quality of its pallor. The skin is slack yet rigid, as if bleached and solidified over centuries.
My peripheral vision blurs, then narrows. I realize what’s happening. I remember in academy class Officer Riley making a tunnel with his hands and cinching it down to a pinpoint. “Tunnel vision,” he said, “is a stress reaction. Keep pushing your attention outward or you might miss something crucial, putting yourself and your partner in danger.”
But this is a dead body call, not a tactical situation. I let the tunnel vision happen, feel my focus tighten and lock magnetically on Carl’s faded eyes, which I know I will remember forever, will see again many times, so that this feels like a déjà vu in reverse. Against my will, my mind records it. His eyes are a watery and insubstantial blue, bulged with shock, as if, having never died before, he found it more terrifying than he had imagined. I’m surprised at how clear and veinless his eyes are, until I remember that when the heart stops pumping, the blood vessels collapse.
His gray hair is tucked up neatly into a clear shower cap. His neck is craned far back, resting on the marble frame of the tub, his mouth is wide open as if to snore broadly.
Haynes stands against the wall, arms crossed, legs locked John-Wayne-wide—a giant forked animal. He rocks back on his heels looking bored.
I squat down and peer into Carl’s wide open mouth, at the hole blasted through its corrugated roof, charred with gunshot residue. From the far corner of his mouth, a few elastic drops of dark blood trickle and pool onto the clear plastic sheeting that covers his naked body from the chin down, anchored in place by his arms. In his lap lie his lined and pillowy upturned palms and a small black pistol. His right index finger is still threaded through the trigger assembly, and a single brass casing has tumbled into the crook of his right elbow.
Under his body is another sheet of plastic, encasing him above and below like bedsheets, and I wonder why he is wrapped in this way. Is it to protect him from the tub or the tub from him?
I’m lucky—I won’t need my kit. This body is a fresh one, an unusually clean one, allowing me a scientific calm that is both relaxed and focused at the same time. There’s something empowering in the presence of the helpless. I wonder if this is how doctors feel, pulling a newborn from the body of a woman or massaging a still heart back to life. I catch my mind lingering there and retrieve it.
I pull on my latex gloves with a snap-snap and carefully twist and lift the pistol from Carl’s finger, pop an empty magazine, rack back the slide and lock it open. There is no second round in the chamber.
“Wow,” quips Haynes, “talk about your one-shot deals, heh-heh.” He bobbles on the balls of his feet.
I set the gun on the floor, nestle the casing beside it, and begin inspecting the body without moving it, as I’ve been trained to do in the academy. The inside of the nose is crusted. Fresh blood has settled into the ear hollows. The lower jaw has a five-o-clock shadow of gunshot residue. I check the roof of the mouth for trajectory. I inspect what I can see of his scalp and find nothing. Even pressing the shower cap against his hair, I find nothing.
“What are you looking for?” Haynes asks.
“The exit wound. It should be here,” I say, “right near the crown.”
“I’m bettin’ there isn’t one,” says Haynes. “That pistol’s a twenty-two. A .22 round usually won’t penetrate the skull. It just pinballs around in there. His brain’s gotta be mush by now.”
I imagine a quivering gray soup in the bowl of Carl’s skull. It calls to mind something almost lost to memory—my 7th grade biology partner, Cecilia, and I, neither of us wanting to pith the frog before us, but both of us knowing that I’ll end up doing it.
“What’s your theory, Moore?” Haynes tests.
“I guess it’s a straight-forward suicide,” I reply.
“What else do you look for? How do you know it’s a suicide?”
I know I’ll have to search for syringes, sleeping pills, anything of interest, but I think I’ll find nothing. “Because I don’t see any signs of foul play, so far anyway.”
“What about his head at that weird angle?”
“Maybe the blast threw it back?”
“Right,” he says. “So what do you do now?”
I call to mind my academy training, natural death vs. overdose vs. homicide vs suicide. “Call the coroner,” I say.
“Righto, probie,” Haynes says, clicking his tongue approvingly. I know I’ll have to take statements, do my incident report in duplicate. I stand up and start to pull my gloves off, but Haynes winks at me. “Keep your gloves on. This’ll be a day you’ll never forget.”
I give him a quizzical look and he chuckles. He’s enjoying this too much and I wonder what’s in his mind, a body cavity search? Something worse? I look back at Carl’s helpless body and my guts shiver and churn. Suddenly, I feel sorry for Haynes’ wife. “You’re the boss,” I say, and I radio dispatch to send the coroner.
When Haynes and I come out of the bathroom, John Givens is still sitting on the bed, turning the envelope over and over in his hands. The flap is open, and Jean is scrawled diagonally across the front. Givens looks at the name as if it’s a hieroglyph.
“Mr. Givens, are you ok?” I ask, wiping my gloved hands on my pants legs. But he doesn’t answer. “Do you think you could tell us what happened?” I sit down next to him, pull my little notebook from my shirt pocket and click my pen. Haynes stands a ways off but still within earshot, looking at his cell phone.
Mr. Givens passes me the envelope. He rubs his face hard, as if trying to rearrange his features, leaving it red and puffed.
“Well,” his voice catches, then breaks. He clears his throat and looks up at me through his tangled eyebrows. “My wife and I were home, just sitting there watching TV when Maria flung open the back door and came running in, terrified, unable to speak. She grabbed my hand and pulled me next door, I mean here, and up the stairs.” Givens shifts his gaze to the wall behind me, and his eyes lose focus. “She calmed down enough to say she was washing the dishes when she heard a gunshot from upstairs. She knew Carl was up there so she ran up the stairs, but when she saw the sign on the door she came to get me. She didn’t call the police.”
I scribble furiously. “Right, to her we’re all federales. I get it, but I’ll have to get her statement.”
“She won’t like that,” says Givens, shaking his head. “And then I went inside and found Carl, you know, just like you see him there. So I called you. Oh, and I found this on the bed. It’s to his wife.” A sob catches in his throat. “I admit, I read it—just had to know what it said because Jean’s like a sister to me, and now I don’t know what to tell her. I’m afraid to call her.”
“Where is she now?” I say, pocketing my notebook.
“Getting her hair done, then to lunch with her friends. Like she does every Thursday. She’ll be home in a little over two hours.”
I ask him for the envelope, retrieve the note. The handwriting is giant, all geometric and angular, long sticks carefully balanced to hold each other up.
My dearest Jean,
I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do the doctors and the checkups and the pills, the country club lunches and all. I can’t do the empty days and nights and no sex. I’m all dried up. I can’t do the no sex. I can’t live like this.
You have your house, it’s always been your house anyway, and all the money.
I made sure there’s no mess, as best I could.
“I knew he felt this way,” says Givens. “Been telling me about it for years, but God, I never thought he’d do this. I mean, he beat cancer ten years ago. He’s got grandkids. Jesus!”
I’m not sure what to say, so I look around for Haynes but he’s not there. Before I leave the room I fold the note up and tell Givens, “I need to take this for evidence.”
“I know,” he says.
I find Haynes on the front porch smoking. He holds the cigarette backwards in the cup of his hand like a mobster. I show him the note and watch him as he reads it.
“Heh, that sucks.” He throw his cigarette down and mashes it with his boot. “What a sorry bastard.”
I remind myself that this is probably a weekly event for Haynes, that this is likely upwards of his hundredth DB. I wonder if I will say the same thing at my hundredth one. He hands the note back to me and narrows his eyes. “You’d better hop-to on that incident report, with a carbon for a duplicate. The coroner should be here soon. Tries to get here quick for these fresh ones, before they go into rigor, ’cause then it’s a real bitch getting them out of the house.”
I search the cabinets for clues, but find nothing out of the ordinary. So I follow Givens next door to take Maria’s statement, but she’s hiding in a closet. It takes ten minutes of promising not to deport her before she opens the door slightly, talking to me in halting English through the six-inch gap. “Den I hear gonshot,” she says, “I know de sound. And I go get Señor John.”
I scribble the last of my notes as Givens and I walk back to Carl’s house. On the way, he tells me about Carl. “We came here together from Indiana. That was back in the 1940s, just after we returned from the war. That’s when everyone was moving to California,” he says. “Carl and I opened an engineering firm together. We designed the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Do you know the Vincent Thomas Bridge?”
I tell him I live out in San Pedro, right near it. Sometimes I jog over it when I get off work.
I go to the front porch of Carl’s house to find Haynes, but he’s turned toward the outside wall arguing on his cell phone. I can hear the woman’s voice shrieking from the phone. He cups his hand around the conversation and turns his face away, so I duck inside the house and finish writing my report at the kitchen counter. Givens is there too, slumped on a kitchen stool in a corner. I tell him he can go if he likes, but he declines. “Jean’ll be back in a while. I have to be here for her.”
Through the window, I see the coroner’s van pull up next to our black and white. He probably knows to hide too in these neighborhoods.
Haynes pockets his phone and shakes hands with the coroner in the entryway. The man is carrying a black leather medical bag. I assume he’s a doctor until the jacket of his gray suit falls slightly open, revealing a badge clipped to his belt and next to it a holstered gun. Haynes grins broadly. “Make her do all of it,” I hear him tell the coroner. “Every little thing.”
“All of it? Are you sure?” Behind his nerdy round glasses, the coroner’s eyes flare. His forehead tightens in surprise.
“Yeah, as much as you can anyway,” says Haynes. The coroner eyes him for a moment, cocks his head a bit. Then he nods, sighs, and walks toward me.
“Ok, Officer Moore, I suppose we should start,” he says gloomily, almost apologetically, pulling latex gloves from his pocket. We chat on the way up the stairs. His name is Schultz and he’s a sheriff. He’s doing his year as a coroner so he can be a homicide detective. He looks me square in the eye when he talks to me, like Vasquez always did. I decide he’s a nice guy.
In the bathroom, he lays open his coroner’s bag like a book. It’s full of shiny tools, all held there by elastic loops. He withdraws a small camera and while he snaps photos—first the body and then close-ups of the wall and ceiling—I examine the instruments. There are curved probes, delicate pliers, something T-shaped. There are two long, thin tongs, bent at the ends like talons. There’s a gauge wired to what looks like a knitting needle and a vise on a crank. I wonder which ones we will use today.
“We have to work quickly, before rigor sets in,” says Schultz as he hangs his suit coat from a towel hook and pulls on his gloves. Just what Haynes said. Hard as he is to work with, I concede that Haynes knows a lot. I can learn from him. I ought to cut him more slack. Schultz says, “Let’s get him out of there. Don’t know why he’s on that dropcloth, but it makes our work easier.”
I use the surrounding plastic sheet under Carl’s body to wrap his feet. I’m worried I’ll drop him, which will make me, and by extension all female officers, look weak. It’s an unspoken rule among female officers: show no weakness, no matter what. I clamp my hands tightly around the plastic-wrapped ankles and wince, feeling tendon crush against bone. It’s a corpse, I chide myself. Schultz hikes up his white shirt cuffs and scrunches fistfuls of plastic sheeting. Using his upper arms, he pushes the head and shoulders vertical so he can hook his forearms under the armpits. Carl’s teeth clack as his jaw hinges shut, but the eyes stay open, crazed, as if sighting a ghost over my shoulder.
“Okay, one, two, three,” Schultz says, and we lift the plastic sheeting and body together. The body is unbelievably heavy, dead heavy, so that I have to slide my stance wider for stability. Carl’s hands slip from his lap and dangle over the edge of the plastic sheeting. One of the hands flexes and I jump. “Ha,” Schultz laughs. “That’s just the nerves firing.” He has an easy, cheerful laugh. “Spooked me the first time too. I forgot to tell you, he may let go of some urine or bowel as we move him, so be ready for that.”
But there’s no shit or piss, and I’m not surprised. Carl is fastidious if nothing else, and I realize he thought of this too, when he was planning it all—the gun, the ammo, the plastic, the shower cap.
We lay the body down carefully on the white marble floor. Carl’s butt and the backs of his legs are blushing underneath his papery skin. “That’s the lividity starting,” says Schultz, squatting on his haunches and pointing at the marbled flesh. “When the heart stops pumping, gravity pulls the blood downward.” Schultz raises Carl’s neck and tilts his head back, unleashing a faint tracheal sigh that smells of copper and singed meat. He hands me a caliper, has me estimate the diameter of the entry wound, removes the shower cap. Squatting there, watching Schultz inspect the scalp for an exit wound, I realize that Carl had done his research, knew the capabilities of a .22 round, and used the shower cap and plastic sheeting just in case. He’s a belt and suspenders thinker. It occurs to me that the Vincent Thomas Bridge is the safest place in the city. I think it will never fall.
I hear Haynes’ footfalls coming up the stairs, and Schultz and I shoot each other a quick glance. Haynes doesn’t say a word, but leans triangularly against the bathroom wall in supervisory stance, beefy arms crossed, wide-spaced shins two feet from our backs. But something is different. His mouth is turned down at the corners, lips pressed in a tight line. I hear him breathing like a riled bull.
I wonder if Haynes is angry that I’ve messed up or angry that I haven’t. I review my mental checklist: investigation done, statements taken, report complete, and here I am working with the coroner on my first dead body. Already I’ve learned so much. I’ve discovered that the key is to compartmentalize, shrinking my focus to regard just the entry wound, just the scalp, the hands, the feet—pieces of a man. That way I can look at it mechanically and keep the butterflies in my stomach down. I think I understand why surgeons drape the bodies of their patients, exposing only what’s necessary. I congratulate myself on my calm, my clinical detachment.
Schultz reaches for the knitting needle-looking instrument with its trailing gauge. He flips a switch and explains. “First we get a reading of the ambient room temperature. See here, it’s 75 degrees.” He jots it on his clipboard, along with the time. “The liver cools at a calculable rate that we can use to work backwards to find an accurate time of death. We see if it corroborates the testimony of the witnesses.” With his pen he points to a place on the upper right side of Carl’s chest and withdraws a scalpel. “I make an incision here between these ribs…“
Haynes clears his throat and coughs so loudly it’s almost comedy. He rolls up on the balls of his feet for a moment. I think of aggressive animals who puff up their size and I stifle a laugh. I decide he’s a clown and I should definitely cut him some slack.
Schultz hands me the scalpel and inks a dot on Carl’s pale chicken skin. The bright edge of the scalpel unnerves me, chases my clinical detachment away. Something half-formed rises in my chest, and I again remind myself that this is a corpse. But I hesitate. I can’t seem to make my hand do this.
Haynes nudges my knee with the toe of his boot. When I look up at him, he raises his eyebrows. “It’s okay,” he croons. “Maybe you’re just not cut out for this line of work, heh.”
I turn back to Carl, picture myself messing it up, the dermis ripping open, organs spilling out. But I close my eyes, constrict my focus, tamp the feeling down. I will my cool clinician to reassert itself, and, to my surprise, it does. I make a little cut in the chest, and the sides gape gently, making little rosebud lips. There is no blood, only a thick, clear syrup that weeps into the wound. Schultz hands me the knitting needle. As he directs the tip inside the cut, something sour coagulates in the back of my throat and I turn away.
“You’re doing great, now keep going…” Schultz counsels, letting go of the needle. I force myself to look again, constricting my focus to just the needle and the hole, compartmentalizing my thoughts, and it works—I can swallow the sour taste down. I press the needle in farther, navigating between muscle layers, maneuvering around bulbous organs. Then the needle stops. I push again and it bounces back. Schultz says, “That’s the liver. We need to get in the middle of it, so you’ll have to punch through the membrane.”
My guts are churning, but I feel Haynes standing over me. I know I have to perform. I wonder why Schultz is obeying Haynes when clearly he doesn’t want to. But I’ve noticed at the station that even the seasoned officers obey Haynes. It’s in the folded and geometric way he holds himself, the cool command presence that sets him apart.
I look up at Haynes. I see his nostrils flare, his jaw muscles bunch, his brow furrow. He’s not angry, I realize, but insular. I understand now why his wife left, why she’s fighting him for custody. I decide not to cut him slack anymore.
I gather my resolve and punch through the membrane. Suddenly the needle is being pulled in, and I know it’s in the center of the liver. A bubble of queasiness rises and bursts silently, but this time I let it fill my chest. “Perfect,” whispers Schultz. After a few seconds, he checks the gauge and scrawls the reading and the time on his clipboard.
Schultz brushes off his pants and stands up next to Haynes. “Good job, Moore,” he announces. Haynes clucks approvingly and leaves the bathroom. I hear the ring of his boots fade down the stone stairs.
Schultz goes to his van to get a gurney while I bag and label the evidence: the gun, the magazine, the casing, the shower cap, the CALL POLICE sign, the note. It’s only when I take a final look around to make sure I haven’t missed anything that I notice an odd-looking crack in the tub enamel at the edge of the drain. I peer more closely, noticing it’s too curved to be a crack. It’s something Carl never intended, something that fell through despite the plastic, something nobody would ever think about except maybe Maria, the housekeeper, or us, the evidence collectors. It’s a single kinked pubic hair. Reflexively, I reach for it with my glove, small evidence bag in hand, but at the last minute decide to leave it there, untouched.
When Schultz returns with the gurney, he squats to scrutinize Carl’s face. “Look here how his pupils are constricting. We don’t have much time.” We load the body onto the gurney quickly, while it’s still pliable, but I can feel the rigor settling into the joints. The slight rigidity has made Carl easier to handle. We roll the plastic sheets and stuff them into a large evidence bag. Schultz takes a few last photos of the room, pristine like the rest of the house, as if Carl never existed. We strap the body onto the gurney, maneuver it down the stairs with it, and roll it out to the van. It takes only a soft push to send it gliding into the back of the van, the articulated aluminum legs folding themselves under perfectly, an engineered precision Carl would have appreciated. I wish Schultz luck in homicide, thank him, and give him a copy of my incident report.
As I walk back to the house, I silently congratulate Carl for a mission well executed. It was almost perfect—quick and final for himself, unsoiled for Jean, and almost uninvolved for his best friend John. It should have gone flawlessly, the police removing his body before anyone he loved had to see him. But he hadn’t realized that someone like Maria, who knew all about gunshots, all about disappearing, would never call the police.
I understand now that Officer Riley is right—the key is stopping that cinching down, that narrowing detachment that distances. A burning furnace blast of shame floods my face, literally stops me in my tracks, as I remember that I too wished so fervently for this to be a tidy death. I stand there transfixed and overwhelmed for just a breath or two, reeling at my own depravity, and then am shocked to recognize that for a single moment in time, I have forgotten where I am, something a police officer can never, ever do, not even for a moment.
The sudden ripping sound of a leaf-blower motor cuts through the air, yanks me awake. A young dark man across the street, a rag tied over his head, is herding the purple blossoms to the edge of the lawn.
As I re-enter the kitchen, I take off my gloves inside out, rolling one inside of the other, according to my training. I throw them into the kitchen trash, but, imagining Maria or Jean finding them, I fish them out and stow them in my pocket. Not like I’m getting another day out of this uniform anyway.
“Hey Moore,” I hear Haynes call from the living room. “Hey, hurry up. She’s here,” he says.
“The wife. You get to tell her.”
“Because I’m a probationer?”
“No, because you’re a girl.”
Through the living room bay window, I see her gold Buick in the driveway. She steps out of the car, carefully smooths the lapels of her crepe blouse, hangs a big square handbag on her forearm, and pats her lacquered hairdo. Her hair is almost translucent—pale yellow tinged with a coppery purple, the color of a bruise in the final stage of healing. I recognize her from the nightstand photo. Her close-set eyes lock on the ground in front of her, and her little feet mince forward. I’m amazed that she hasn’t seen our car or the coroner’s van. Then I remember the enormous handwriting of Carl’s note to her and realize she doesn’t like to wear her glasses. I worry about her driving.
While I watch her, working so very hard at those few steps, I consider the resilience of prostitutes and addicts clinging to a precarious existence back on Lincoln Boulevard, of the Marias who sneak across badland borders in the middle of the night for the chance to mop floors and blow leaves across lawns. Then I think of Carl who, in a palatial marble bathroom of a brick house under the foot-thick arms of a hundred-year-old oak, willingly pithed himself like a frog.
Jean is climbing the brick steps now, sideways, slowly, and one at a time. Her wrinkled lips gather with the concentration of her effort. Behind her, the setting sun burnishes the sky like a new red planet. A gust sends a shower of purple jacaranda blooms across the lawns of Shady Hills and across the windshield of the coroner’s van, which slips away silently in the street. I will not tell her about Carl’s note, and I believe John Givens will not either. I take a deep breath and open the heavy glass door.
Teri Moore served two years in the Peace Corps before settling on a career in law enforcement as a military police officer in the army and then as a patrol officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. She now lives and works as a freelance writer and editor in Sarasota, Florida.