THE BORROW PIT
Gulls fussing in the trash, hundreds at a time. So it had gone in Auction City, and so it went at the Weroansquaw County dump. A new last stop for all that civic waste, several thousand tons of it a day. The traffic led gulls up the pike and they lit down on the old hydraulic cuts, waiting for garbage to be sown. Five hundred acres, once a quarry, lashed down to rock and left to yawn for sixty years.
The county had a hole to spare and Auction had the cash, so a shorebird had come into the woods. As had Steph Metzger, who ran the site. A city kid now pepper gray and walking with a limp. Just as strange out there, without the asphalt underfoot, but he could never take any gull for a neighborhood friend. Least when the flock drew that circle on the trash, a sloppy whirl that did no vulture proud. Here as back home men on shift knew how to leave a sight unseen. But this time Steph had been called out. “Get down here, boss,” twice, and nothing more from the office radio.
And there he stood on the edge of a circuit road, staring down into the washout and frowning on a cane. That gyre, same as four or five times a year. Close by was a dozer that had lent the shove. On the blade sat the driver, walkie talkie yet in hand. Name of Luke, thinning at twenty-two and in a fidget. He toed clay from his soles, and his thumb drew a tsk on the push-to-talk. His lunch box sat up in the cab—always kept close at hand, with a thermos, like a mousy youngster would at school.
One chain of prints led down to the bottom, one back up. The floor was strewn maybe to a knee and nothing leapt out from the clutter, even where birds fought for scrap. The cane gave Steph an authoritative pivot, all thanks to a Nipponese Type 97 hand grenade. Held plumb it made a man look tall no matter that he stood tit high. “How’d you walk that? Fifty-point slope goddam near.” Steph had sent the traffic to another tipping face, barely a hum from where they were. No need to shout, though shout he did. “It could pile onto you! Glass in the mix and baby diapers and Christ knows what, and then no one even knows to dig!” Luke kept quiet. He had taken his feet but kept the share of dirt between them in his sights. Steph gave him a moment and came up close, though no other man was near. When he had the eye he spoke no louder than was needed, and to the point.
“Son, you’ll get yourself buried.”
“’S not like that.”
“You know better.”
“’S not like that,” Luke said again. “That down there, that’s a woman.”
Save for the yawp all had gone still. Steph shook his head without a no, and again. “Hustler,” he guessed more than asked. And on the blank look he said, “A lady of the evening.”
“Looks more like a daughter than a flossie. Boss, it’s just not like that. Not like them others.”
Steph took time yet—no need for hurry. On the mention he had known that he would go, known in spite of twenty years. He looked to the topmost rim of the site, ten fathoms up. A certain kind of hole got measured like a depth of water, even a hole so dry and large, that had started out, innocently enough, as an open-cast mine. But the work there had never been kind or gentle. Once the china clay ran out, trees had taken time to inch up to the drop. Now saplings crowded at the ledge, and the oak stood thick behind them. Fill done, a billion cubic feet, whatever took root would sew it all shut.
“I’ll use the jeep then. I’m not itching for a sled ride. Stand where I can see you.”
“To show where? Those mews’ll do that, won’t they?”
Gulls would, however a youngster out of deep Virginny liked to name them. But down at the old man’s side was no place for Luke, not while he had a prayer. “Stand there anyway,” was how Steph put it, already moving for the jeep and fishing at a pocket. Like him, the jeep was military surplus and not so frisky. Roundabout—bad shocks and all the old hydraulicking made for a bumpy trip. But soon enough he got through the unnatural ravines to where soil had been laid. Under that soft pan was the trash he knew too well. Dump and cover, a daily routine, and by law the new way of doing things. It beat what Steph had seen before. Alkaline foam slavering out of a battery pile. Seeps of copper green with shorelines made of rust. Patchworks of tire and rag and bottle, in mounds that rose and fell as an eye sought the end. One site in town had been a whole neighborhood. Brick and concrete stood where fire had swept through, in a shape of doorway and window and a flight of steps leading down. He had watched those basements clot up, and when he drove the crawler at the end to spread the earth, he had never felt more like an undertaker. Not even when he caught glimpses of those nameless dead a few times a year, and busily unsaw them no sooner.
Any union shop ran with an understanding. What was understood got left some nights, put down where bulldozers were about to make the tuck. Steph had seen a cool dozen himself, and he knew of twice again as many, from times when a friend would walk up for the bucket. No word needed in the dripping of the ladle. A look back, a sure eye, and Steph had known then where not to go. The birds had told it first, of course. Just over a rise, pestering at the dirt.
Learning to skip the peek had taken time, and each lesson was vivid to this day. Swarthy-looking men in good suits. Fingers and face sometimes gone, but those were the wounds that had never bled. Gunshot, knife, piano wire, nothing sly in how. Some looked less guinea, even white, but Steph took those for Irish. Never a shine, though. Negroes must have got some shady place all to their lonesome.
There was Luke upslope, and the mews as he called them, in a flurry. Steph let the jeep stall out. He took the last few yards on foot, minding where the cane tip sank. All around was that ferment he had known half a life, that taste of garbage from the nose on down. Wrapper and table scrap and newsprint in a wilt. Tin can and broken jar and empty box and shirt. With a cuss gulls hopped out of reach. Slow going, save the race in his blood, one he had long hoped to forget. Steph had watched men fall back in the Pacific, even on his own aim and pull. Awful, true. And not the same.
Nor this, just as told. Blanket and cord part undone in the tumble. A driver had brought her in unknowing, he saw. Forked up in an alley bin by a truck out on a route. From there she would have gone to a transfer station, snug and well hid as a tilt loader took the pour. The gulls had mussed the hair and got into a lip and eye. The throat was a bruise, and a choker of pearls stood out crisp and whole. She had on one of those mod summer dresses—“hot cooter” was the gag—here in pale green and nothing like a joke. A Terrace deb, maybe, who said Chewsdie for Tuesday and played mallet games on a lawn with sweet tea in reach. Strung up cold and thrown into a dumpster.
Nothing like the usual and not the usual way. The handiwork never showed up like a wrapper or melon rind chucked into the haul. There was more care and a separate car besides. Some mornings saw a tire track at the gate, taking a puddle at the dip, whoever had a copy of the key. Just one more piece to keep from falling into place. And Steph had no wish to solve any puzzles on the look up.
Dillard, in badge and browns, and right beside Luke. The head deliveryman. All knew, none said.
Steph thought hard and quick on the drive. There would have been no time for the kid to use a phone—no jog to the front and back—even if Luke were fool enough to dial out. The walkie-talkie, open channel, it could only be. Not much had been said but the tone might have been enough to draw notice. A judas on the payroll. Steph should have known.
One car, and no deputy along for the ride, which meant it was not so grim. Dillard was Steph’s age and had come to Weroansquaw at the same time. They had met when both were young and Dillard had not been the name. The muscle at the union vote had ended in a vowel. Fix or no fix, an Anglo had wound up on the ticket. White mustache now, and all jaw and shoulder, same as then.
“So,” said the duly sworn hat and gun. He looked to Steph’s windbreaker, shed already and in a grip. “Those birds went and dotted you up, eh?”
“It’s sick. That’s what a gull does—sick on you. Can you and me talk?”
“Your man here filled me in. Seems I paid a visit just in time to catch grief.” The smirk let Steph know just who there owned the truth.
“Front office. Please. Just us two. Come on—it’s a Friday, right?”
Dillard gave a shrug. “Stay near,” he said to Luke. “There might be more to ask you.”
And Luke did, with the same fidget and guilt, on the bench outside the trailer door as Steph pulled it to. He dearly hoped it would keep, whatever built in that face, at least until the sheriff drove away. Dillard had already helped himself to the urn. The window had a sweep on the weigh bridge and wheel wash. Dawn to four, trucks came in on the one and left through the other.
“Butt tea,” the sheriff said, with a look at the mug. “And no sugar. Not going to call your rep?”
“That pot’s been on since morning. Would have told you if you gave me a chance.”
“Am though. Giving you a chance.”
Steph took a breath and a seat. “I wasn’t calling anyone. Can we talk plain? Two guys who have been there? The kid—hey, he didn’t mean no harm when he had me down.” There would be no proof that Luke had done anything but go in for birdwatching, even with a snoop on the walkie. “Just made him uneasy, whatever was at the bottom.”
“Who said kid? You’re what I saw there, and you’re no kid. Talking plain, and on a Friday.”
“Sorry. I am. Apologies to … to whoever takes apologies. But this is different.”
“The string of pearls? Is that what you were going to tell me about? The necklace, what it means? Still in one piece and not taken after. Maybe even put on at time of strangle, like dressup. Which would make the whole why of it a lot more gothic. But Steph”—thumb to uniform—“do I look like a cop to you?”
Some youngsters never knew when to shut a goddam mouth. The dump had a county contract and here was the county in the flesh, once town had put in the rig.
“That’s an innocent down there,” Steph said. “A civilian, let’s call her.”
The hand came up, open, to no flinch. “There’s a number I can call. That showing up here, everything says just dumb luck to me. Whoever did it better hope there’s no way to flush him out. Put our thing at risk, you know how it is. But this isn’t just about business. I’ve got a daughter, Steph. Not that you’d need a girl of your own to understand. You don’t have any little ones, do you? You and the wife?”
“No.” Same grenade.
“So I’ll get on that phone, but we both know the answer. Not out of heartlessness, but for a precaution. And we’ll have to live with it. No outside sleuth is going to poke around.”
There had been a weight on the for and Steph felt it drop. “Luke didn’t mean—like I said. This wasn’t like the rest.”
“How’d he know that before the walkup?”
No answer would help. “We all looked when we were green,” Steph said. “All of us.”
“I could let it go myself. But I’m obligated here. I have to make a report. Kid like that—hell, I bet there are walks all the goddam time.”
Which went a ways to explaining the remorse outside, just past the door. Steph shook his head. “We’re going to leave her there. Bury her with the city waste and finish up some bastard’s work.”
“The her in that was never here, if it helps.”
The shackle took the chain, and Steph drove off in a full gradient dusk, orange to stars. He and Alice lived in a foursquare on land they could call their own. A rickety kit brought in by train three deeds back. They were going to pour a new foot in the next year or two, put up a three bedroom once the permit came through, and meantime they had a private drive and six acres to guard the solitude. Better than any of the thin-walled fleabites where they had paid out monthly rent back in town.
Outcast gulls took to the cover of trees at night, even so far from the dump. Steph spotted one as the lamps went dark on his pickup. Brooding in the underbrush like a hen with the air let out. Wrongheaded, and cruelly stupid, but no ghost. Any harm a gull did was just for idiot hunger. Steph had thought to launder the jacket, but now he threw it in the can on the way to the door.
A shower, hot on through to cold. Tuna casserole with cheddar, and one bourbon too many. Alice sang mezzo in a church choir and she told him about the cutthroat politics. He could tell she saw the bother, the hands kneading at each other, but she never said a word. There was good footing on the home front. And some marriage-type fun once the dishes were dry, praises be that the Nip weapon had not been more thorough. On summer nights the bed went out onto a sleeping porch, and through the screens Steph heard a windless tick of branches. He was never close to sleep or rest. Nor had the girl been, however still. He had drawn the blanket up around that valentine face, pretty in life, and weighted down the edges with whatever he could scrounge up from the trash. The touch of that cloth was deep in his fingertips. A callback had come near the end of shift. Just a ring and a syllable on pickup. One he had said back to himself in the hours since. But at last he let it slip, and Alice asked him no what, what was wrong, and he told from start to finish. Or to somewhere near the middle, he saw now.
“You know better.”
He did, Alice was only right, yet here he was at the padlock again, well past twelve. His shadow broke the beams on the chainlink as he fed the key into the slot, one hand steadying the other. He had never thought to drive up blind and safe. Caught was caught if it came to that.
“Anyone can see us,” Luke said from the cab, of a different mind. “Car light’s like blazes.”
Steph had known the kid would be awake. A work file at home had every address, and Luke’s was a trailer park in outermost Cedarville. A hobbled vet was never going to make the carry on his own.
The wire played in afterimage as the pickup found the jeep. “Han’t been at night,” Luke said, and again, as the engine quit. The squirm from earlier that day was on him yet. There was no resenting a boyish man for nerves, or for the stream of chatter. Especially where fright put off coming clean, even for a weekend. “Han’t been at night. Why take the jeep instead?”
“Those are the axles I can risk.”
“My hands, they won’t sit.”
“There’s a flask in the glove box.”
“And a pistol,” the kid said, on looking. “And a Bible.”
“You take the whiskey and the book, and I’ll get the rest from the back.”
“Sure we don’t want that gun along?”
The kid had no share in the laugh. “Let’s go,” Steph managed at last, palming at an eye. A thirty-two Rem. Good one. The wheeze carried to the jeep along with shovels and a blanket from home.
Luke said, “I’m scared. But right is right.”
“So’s three lefts.” A lame try in a place without a city block. The jeep got in gear with a coughing start. Luke took a pull as they swung onto the bottom road.
“Bible’s for a verse, yeah?” he asked. “A prayer for after? We don’t know a thing about the lady. Can’t speak gospels if she were Jewish.”
“So we’ll go to that stuff at the front.” And Steph felt they already had, watching the scarp rise up. Those parts of scripture had a better line or two to name what lay ahead. Night made a difference, and so did the task.
“I got to tell you something, Mr. Metzger.”
“No you don’t.”
“I take pictures when it happens. My lunch pail—it an’t just a nutter sandwich and a apple I bring. There’s a camera, too.”
“Let me drive, son.”
“One of them Polaroids.”
That bought quiet as the trench grew deep. So much wreckage made, and not just where nozzle and hose had thrown a cut. Sediment had flowed to the southwest, every ton of dirt voided out—fields paved, creeks dammed up, back in the Aughts. There had been skirmishes, Steph had heard, and never in court with a lawyer or a judge. No, it was farm owners against the flood, with booby trap and a shotgun or two near the end, when the National Guard came in to break it up.
The past was no distraction, or not enough, and his misgiving got worse alongside the fear. Once he saw the sprawl of gulls Steph knew he had to try. He killed the motor and considered how to say what needed being said. The lamps stayed on, and the yellowish cast and clipped shadow made the birds read flat, unreal, like a theater prop. But a few shivered yet at the noise of the engine, and a head or two poked up from the puddle they had made of themselves. Hundreds in the open, miles from a tidal marsh. Steph had left the cover off at the end of shift, which was illegal. The gulls might have flown out to mass up someplace else, if not for the glory they took in a stink.
“Pictures,” he said to prompt the kid. “Instant pictures.”
“I’m sorry. I put them in this book I keep, just for my own. Wasn’t ever aiming to sell—I’m not stupid you know. And when I saw it was a, a lady instead, I never—”
“In a whisper, son. Or just, you know, not so damn loud. Why, though? Why keep photographs?”
The answer came quick, and Steph took the meaning. “To know what I saw.”
He could never have put it better himself—not with a sheepskin and twice as many words. “Here’s what you do,” he said at last. “You get home to that trailer, start a fire. Pack a bag first. You know what to leave. Get someplace before you call. And far. Never say where beforehand. I’ll wire out a little money.”
“But the sheriff, he was nice about it.”
“Nice just wants. How did this get here? Municipal waste hauled across the line, county and state, like a bumper crop. Auction is a maritime city—Christ almighty, on the water. You’d think a fleet of hopper barges might run it out for cheaper. Or at least take some across the roadstead and break the corner hold. But a couple years back there was that goof with the medical waste. A tugboat hooked up on the shallows, all those beaches decorated. Front page news, and then a big fat no on barges in the roads, by order of a judge. Was it a mishap, though? Just when every last dump in city limits got full or shut down? And that disposal act went through with the feds?”
The effort showed. “What’s that got to do with my trailer and me?”
“Scale,” Steph said.
“Like a snake?”
“Yes. And the size of it, too—a big where small won’t go unnoticed. Pack a bag. Burn what you leave. Get somewhere else.”
“Go before you know it. Hell, join up with the army. It’s not so bad. Hots, cots, and all your skivvies washed.”
“Military service, with that Gulf of Tonka thing getting worse? Hey, wasn’t you a marine?”
“Yeah. Join the army, kid. Come on.”
Said without heart. Once the quiet was on him Steph felt the volt lick in it. More gull heads came up as he and the kid took a wide lane. The whole bed of them was shivering now. Not far into their camp, there she lay, or no one at all, if it helped. The birds had got a corner up, bared a shoulder, teased a lock of hair, but the face was still kept safe.
“Brought a blanket,” Steph heard himself say.
“What? Who you talking to, Mr. Metzger?”
“Call me Steph.” His eye took a sleeve. “I don’t know. Let’s get that wrap off.”
“Because of who put it on her.” Cuts with a jackknife, fraying ends of cord. He saw more of what had been done. “Oh,” he said as the anger woke. “Oh you fucking bastard.”
The kid never shed a tear, which might have gone to credit until he spun away for a retch and spit. “An’t smell too good,” he said on coming back around. No eyes to wipe there, but a mouth and nose.
“Let’s get her on the jeep.”
Same gap between the birds, into the headlamp glare. It had grown only a little dimmer in the ten minutes that saw it through. The battery would turn the motor yet. Rigor had passed, and like a slow hinge the blanket wrap began to dip between them. A heave got her on the back. Gently on the finish—that bundled head laid down with a palm cradle. The knee had begun to hurt—given out a couple of times—but it had kept him upright. Steph put the cane to the dirt and caught his breath.
“Where next? Steph.”
“Above the site, I guess.”
“One of those pits where we took out the topper fill?”
“No, no—there’s a high spot where the trees grew back already. I don’t know. A sunrise view.”
“Well, she ought to like that, I’m sure.”
“She’d never like any part of this.”
And the gulls broke, all at once. No voice would carry through the rush of wings. Luke cringed as they beat about his head in the scatter for the dark. But Steph kept to his feet and stick, looking fast to where beams showed on the road above, gone bright all at once. For the life of him he had never heard a shot.
Fired into the grounded flock, or the sky. Steph took the meaning and called out, just as loud as he might, “We’ll be up,” once the racket died and every gull had fled. The bottom road only led one place, and that was back the way they had come. The quarry’s open end had taken a berm of clay to keep the leachate back, and apparently any fugitive from the mob. Steph never would have tried anyway, but those facts, once spelled out, kept Luke to a churchly sit and alive a bit longer. Now he showed some weeping, into a back pocket hanky festooned with baby ducks. The kid might have had talent for a slope, but a shortcut and lam would have gone no different from a suicide jump.
Four cars, all arrayed with headlights on the fork. Steph squinted through as he came to a stop. Three with the county logo, spinners off and two trunks open, and behind them a quad-lamp Sedan de Ville that was somehow more a threat. First and foremost were three backlit hats and two barrels held at presentation. The deputies had come this time, both of them, Stucky and Boone. They stood behind the sheriff to form the V, each with a high-caliber semiaut and extended clip. Not the standard issue for Weroansqaw County, nor any other. They, like Dillard, had got rechristened for the job, and Steph suspected the names they chose were a spoof, funny to someone for some reason. He led with no smile as he rose up from the jeep. No sign of more, not in the open, but that final car had not coasted in by itself.
“You left the cover off,” Dillard explained. His sidearm had kept to the holster, right beneath a hand spread to a hip. “That gave it up, but I knew already. Cops like to talk about a blue sense, so I guess that makes mine brown. Tell your fella there to come over.”
“Give him a sec.” Steph had taken three steps back, and he stood aside what had been rescued from the fill. “His knees are shaking pretty hard.”
“Good thing I got mad.”
A chuckle from the deputies. Even Dillard cracked a grin. “You’re angry with us, Steph? Take my word for it—there’s no call for brave here. I bet this isn’t going to go where you think it is.”
“Got sixteen bucks on me,” with a clap to a back pocket. “Whichever one of you takes the pot, I hope I mess myself.”
“Easy now. I had to report what you were up to before I acted. I know how this getup makes me look like a generalissimo, but I’m just a go-between. One more call—and lucky thing, because there was a lead.”
The grief up in the passenger seat quit all at once, but Steph hardly took notice. He put a hand to the blanket, at what felt like a shoulder. “She gets a funeral? Buried right?”
“Not that lucky. But yes, there’s maybe a name and even a tie. I didn’t get told what to what. And someone else will handle it from here—someone nameless, understand. They’ve come to take notes. Once that’s done we can put her wherever you like. As long as it’s good and secret.”
Secret would be good enough, but Steph kept guard. He believed the things he had said to Luke, most that nice only wanted. Luke showed more willingness to trust.
“Can I get out of here, Sheriff?”
“Quiet, son,” Steph said low. “And step clear. Let the people work.”
He was already looking to the sedan. On the sheriff’s glance the doors had swung out. The two who came up through the headlamp glare took him by surprise. Both were wrong, most that they should have come together. Some sort of Oriental, taller and sturdier than Dillard himself, and a woman. He was almost surely Chinese—none of that coarse Nip brow, seen from the far side of a bayonet—and despite the cut of a sharkskin suit not so interesting as she. A knockout, for one, and dressed to strange elegance for the job. Hot cooter once more, this time in a red. Called out in the middle of a function, Steph guessed, with no time for a change of wardrobe. Matching pumps took the dirt without a hitch. Each of the two had a kit slung to a shoulder, and what the woman brought out from hers turned out to be a camera with a flashcube. No word as the man snapped gloves on, nor as the flash pack began to whine. Steph’s knots were undone, the blanket spread. And then the scene was snatched away, and Steph blinked the whiteness out.
What came back first was a hard stare, from Dillard—straight at Luke. Steph turned just enough for a glimpse. Regret there at each pop of the bulb, a face hung low. Like a whupped dog.
“No,” he whispered, loud as he dared, and the kid never caught the hint.
Swabs, fingerprints, a piece cut from the dress. At last the blanket was folded shut, the gloves stripped off, the wad thrown to the tipping face. No outside sleuth, Dillard had said, and outside was key. Done, and not a word spoken. Nor did the sheriff ever look them in the face. Some kind of deference, maybe even worry. Certainly he was not the man in charge, not to them. Back into the sedan for an unhurried roll for the gate. The pop of gravel in the treads grew quiet.
Deep city, and much higher up, but Steph found himself uneasy to see them go. Dillard had turned for a soft word with Boone. Once the brakelight glow had gone to full black, he said to Luke, “You can get on home. I know the boss drove you, but the dep here will give you a lift.”
“Won’t Steph need a hand?”
“Nah. He’s got me and Stucky. Sleep tight.”
The chin had come up again, with a wink. “See you Monday, boss.”
Steph never would have thrown water on that wink. Nor was he rid of hope for his own sorry sake, not yet, even as he grew more sure. He had read it wrong, he tried to tell himself. Sore age and a few bad hours had made him see the worst. But then Luke began to name the intersection nearest to the trailer he called home, Deputy Boone said, “I know the way,” and Steph shut his eyes.
“If you think I’m going to dig my own grave,” he said soon after, “you’re out of your goddam mind.”
There was leadup of course. Several minutes more of roundabout driving, this time upward, off road, and to the spot he had in mind, the sheriff’s bumper right on the jeep and Stucky for a passenger. Then some coy talk about Dillard’s stiff back, and how the deputy had to keep a lookout, both hands free, and maybe Steph would be a pal and handle the excavation on his own. There was even a pat quip about shovels, when Steph pointed out that there were two. Good thing if one broke, the sheriff had replied. But now Steph was looking at the view he had chosen, where no one would ever come to look. A spade had been tossed to his feet but the cane was yet in hand. Maybe the Rem should have come out of the glove box after all. There had never been a frisk. Maybe—but no use now. That high up there was a long vantage eastward, and he could see the long curve of Marigold Hill with the city halo drawn about it. A radio mast stood atop, blinking red at tiptop to warn off air traffic, and even from so far away the lattice stood out against the glow. Not as pretty as a row of pearls, but no less clear a sign.
So he said it, and he stood his ground. Dillard and his man were impressed—a pleased look with none of the gangster slime. Almost a camaraderie. “It’s just too damn obvious,” Steph said. “Can we skip the obvious part?”
What came next was not. A jerk of Dillard’s head, and Stucky went to put the rifle in the trunk and have a smoke. “I’ll level,” Dillard said in the moment alone. “Yeah, you’re supposed to dig, thinking what you think right now. An act of contrition, like they say in church. But we’re just supposed to scare you, to remind you how things are. You’re a valuable man here. It’s even good that you watch out for the guys—and that you carry all those doubts of yours with such taste.”
“Why am I a valuable man?”
“Because you go with it,” Dillard said. “Year in, year out, you plug away. You’ve outlasted everybody, even knowing what. Next time you show up for work, take a look around. Do you recognize anyone on your crew? Does anybody out here look familiar to you? Anyone at all?”
A pause, long and fraught. “Just you,” Steph said. He no longer feared a bullet. “Well, you and the wife.”
“That’s the spirit. But the order came, and it’s to make you dig, and it won’t look right if I don’t. You’ve got that knee, and Monday it’ll be at lot worse from this, and both those hands will be good and raw. But that’ll all heal up. I’m really glad for what we’re doing here, Steph—that it all went this way. Like I said, I have a daughter. Speaking as a career man, this is the best thing I’ve done in years.”
“If you go ahead and shoot me after all of that, you’re a devil and a half.”
One more look to the east, a sky lit up like a dirty hearth. “Glad I got to the countryside.”
“This is the suburbs. You just don’t know it yet. All that over there, under the tower? Remember when they put up G.I. housing on the far side, ticky-tacky like Seeger said? This side of it just got zoned for plots. And there are surveys underway all over the valley. That’s the point of all this,” with a nod down to where the trash rankled. The drop was much closer than Steph had thought, just past a thinning in the trees, almost too dark to spot. “Development,” Dillard said. “The land’s all bought. Ten years, twenty, this will be a backyard. A swimming pool. Maybe a lawn with croquet balls.”
Steph had already begun to dig, just to shut it out. The blade cut into a root and pried through clutches of rock. A throw would have sent each shovelful past the edge and down into the site. But he kept the pile near, even too close, sifting back into his progress.
Hours—hours of digging with a merciless pace. Until true dawn began to overtake the city light. Until his war wound had gone numb and an ounce of weight was too much for the leg to bear. Until his hands were skinned to muscle and his face and clothes were a paste of dirt and sweat and blood wherever he had wiped. Laid out on a side and out of breath, he scraped up the last loose backfill with a shovel edge. He peeled his raw grip from the wooden handle and gave the earth a pat.
“Want to say something, Steph?” Dillard asked. He and the deputy had burned through all their smokes and met the creeping hours with talk of baseball. “A prayer for the lady?” In a show of kindness they had done the lowering themselves, with a pair of underslung ropes. Slow and deliberate, length by length meted out, cueing each other in a softest voice. Dillard held up something taken from the floor of the jeep. The Bible from Steph’s own glovebox, held not long before in a trusting lap.
Steph blinked in his stinging mud, trying to gather a thought. “Wish I could do more.”
A frown from the sheriff and his lackey. Dillard laid the Bible on the hood. Each took out a string and fell to a knee for the sign of the cross. In sync they said, “Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia piu es, requiem aeternum dona eis Domine,” and on through deliver us from evil, maybe. Steph was an Evangelical Lutheran and shy on tongues. One more reverence, knuckle to brow, and both took their feet. Steph stared all the while, gasping yet. The uniforms were costume, and they might just as well have shown up in black frock and bleachy collar.
Stucky said, “Now that’s how you say a prayer.”
Each lent a shoulder, helpful right up to the threshold of the door. There Alice took over at seven-thirty in the morning. She said little more than “Thank you, Sheriff” and “Thank you, Deputy,” because Steph Metzger had never put gold onto a fool. Nor did she get misty, even as her washcloth broke the two clean streaks on her husband’s face. A weekend on the recliner, with ice on the knee and in a glass kept otherwise full of whiskey. Hands in tape and gauze made for a tricky hold and he felt none of the dewy thaw as he drank it down. Alice came and went, to leave a sandwich and take a plate, with never a told you so. He had only asked for the file and, on confirming that the trailer had no line, a telephone book and the hefty black receiver. The manager at the park had gone up to knock on the door and come back to report no one home.
“Do you smell a fire?” Steph asked the second time he tried.
No, but there was neither hope nor dread in that alone. Monday morning came no less sure as Steph unlocked the gate with a bandaged hand. The pickup had been brought to him Sunday afternoon, yet another show of good faith, so he had made it without help, even with the step clutch. At first he skipped the office, where he had it in mind to fill up a meager box with what little he cared to take, and to leave an envelope on the desk. Instead he went straight out to the circuit road, yet in his own truck, foregoing any stretches on so bad a leg. And not long on that tour he took the answer. Gulls, hundreds, in a circle on the trash, a sloppy whirl that did no vulture proud.