A Stranger Lies There

Stephen Santogrossi

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
“Hope you can drive fast.”
The dream always ended with those words, reaching through the years in that half-state between sleeping and waking, when my defenses were down. I was used to it, though; had been for quite some time. It brought guilt and an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach, but that Sunday morning, it became more than just a reminder of the mistake I’d made in my youth.
I woke up early, six sharp as usual. No alarm clock from years of regimented wakeup calls. Deirdre had been tossing and turning the last few nights, so I let her sleep. In the kitchen I made some coffee, the special blend I saved for weekends, and while it was brewing, wiped down the counter and rinsed out the mug that I kept on the hook next to the microwave. After checking on Deirdre—still knocked out—I put on some pants and a shirt, then went to get my coffee. I took it out to the front porch, but my first sip stalled halfway to my lips when I realized what I was seeing. Flies don’t circle like that around anything that’s alive.
My coffee cup dropped from my hand and shattered on the concrete. I stepped over it onto the lawn. Dry grass crackled under my feet, the sound of the insects, like high-tension wires, getting louder as I approached. I stopped. Squatted tentatively. Reached out my hand. But I knew it was no use and pulled it back. Then Deirdre was there kneeling beside me, nightgown fluttering in the hot morning breeze, cinnamon hair kissing her soft, bare shoulders.
“He looks like you,” she said quietly.
My neighbor’s timed sprinklers suddenly switched on. The spray misted in the morning sunlight. Rainbows danced like shimmering ghosts.
“Call the cops,” I said, standing. Deirdre backed away slowly, hand over her mouth. A wet sob hiccupped out before she turned around and hurried inside. I felt dizzy for a second, and had to steady myself. The sprinklers were a soft counterpoint to the hammering in my ears. I wiped the sweat from my forehead, which felt cold and clammy despite the temperature, like the TB patients that used to come out here to die. At funerals, I never wanted to view the body, laid out and posed in a casket, with too much makeup on. At least the eyes were always closed.
He was lying face up near the edge of the grass, gazing into the clear blue sky. He’d been shot in the side of the head near the temple, a small hole that was slightly elongated, like the bullet entered from an angle. Early twenties or so, wearing a concert T-shirt and faded jeans. Arms in the grass at his sides. Spent dandelions poked from between his fingers.
Deirdre didn’t say much when she came back out. “They’re coming. They said not to touch anything.” She wiped a tear from her cheek roughly, another one replaced it.
“How long?”
A resigned shrug. “Few minutes.”
I nodded, looking up and down the street. Still early, nobody around yet. Sirens wavered in the distance, getting closer. Deirdre grabbed my hand and squeezed. She was shivering in the sweltering heat. The flies were buzzing angrily, darting in and out over the body. One of them crawled back and forth over an eyeball. He’s really dead, I thought, as the sirens reached a fever pitch. Then two patrol cars rounded the corner, shot up the block and made a hard stop behind my car.
Moments later we were in the house with two of the officers.
“You made the call?” Things were moving fast now.
“Yeah. My wife did, actually.” The living room seemed small and unbearably hot. They both wore the black, short-sleeved uniforms of the Palm Springs PD, their black leather gunbelts shiny and dangerous. The officer who’d addressed me had his notebook and pen out while the other one was moving slowly about the room, looking around. The bookcase with its collection of counseling and psychology texts stopped him before he moved on. Deirdre watched him, her hands shaking; she could have been one of her strung-out clients.
“Are you okay?” the cop with the notebook, whose nameplate said Tyler, asked her.
Deirdre gave him a look: there’s a dead body on my front lawn, but didn’t voice anything.
“Why don’t we sit down,” he suggested.
Deirdre took a seat on the couch, switched on the table lamp next to the old photograph of her sister. I sat next to her on the edge of the cushions, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. I rubbed my hands together nervously.
Tyler didn’t move. “Mind if my partner looks around?”
“Looks around? Why? We’re the ones that called it in,” I pointed out.
“Just routine.”
“Routine? I don’t understand.”
“Look, we just have to cover all the bases. You can say no.”
“Go ahead,” Deirdre told him, putting a hand on my leg. “I don’t mind.”
“Well I mind,” I said, “but just get it over with. One of us can go with you, right?”
“If you think that’s necessary,” Tyler answered.
I nodded to Deirdre and she got up to follow the second officer. A worried glance over her shoulder as she left. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. But before I could say anything Tyler started in with me, and I let it go. I told him everything, starting with getting up this morning and making coffee. How I’d dropped it on the front porch in surprise. That Deirdre thought the boy looked like me. Tyler scribbled in his notebook. He took me back to last night.
I shrugged. “Worked in the shop till around ten. Then watched some TV and went to bed a little after eleven.”
“Yeah. My garage. Power tools.”
“They loud?”
“In there? Yeah. Not so much from outside.”
“Probably why you didn’t hear anything,” Tyler said, writing some more. “What time you start?”
“Must have been around eight. I was in there a couple hours.”
He asked about Deirdre. I told him she was asleep by the time I got in bed. No, we hadn’t seen anything unusual in the neighborhood recently. No unfamiliar cars parked on the street or strange people hanging around, at least that I could remember. When we were done, Tyler glanced out the front window.
“At least you found him early. Must be ninety out there already.”
I checked the indoor-outdoor thermometer by the front door. Eighty-eight.
“Detective Branson is here,” Tyler said. “Let’s go outside.”
The white coroner’s van had backed up to the driveway and yellow crime scene tape had already been strung up. Lots of uniforms; one guy in street clothes, carrying a toolbox and wearing a vest and baseball cap identifying him as PSPD. Some of my neighbors were gathered in the street, talking quietly, trying to process it all. We pushed through them to a patrol car, where the detective was speaking with one of the deputies. When he turned to us Tyler introduced me.
Branson was dressed in slacks and a sport coat, his tie pulled down to allow the top button of his shirt to be open. Tall and well built. Late forties, with a brown crew cut that was going gray at the top. He had a military man’s air about him and an arrogance that a lot of cops seem to adopt. I decided I didn’t like him.
He pulled off his sunglasses and addressed Tyler and the other uniform. “Start talking to the neighbors. See if anybody saw anything.” To me he said, “Let’s go over here,” as both officers hurried off. We crossed the street and went up a few houses to where his sedan was parked. He sat against the front side of the car, put his sunglasses in his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Lit one and stuffed the pack and lighter back in his pocket.
“Tell me what happened.”
He took a hard pull on the cigarette, his small, dark eyes appraising me. Blew smoke into the warm breeze. I’d read somewhere that a lot of homicide detectives smoked to mask the smell of death.
“There’s not much to tell. I woke up this morning about six, made some coffee and went out to the front porch with it. The body was lying there. There was nobody around. We called you guys—my wife did—and that’s it. We already told the deputies all this.”
Branson tapped his cigarette and I watched the wind carry the ash into the gutter.
“Uh-huh. Tell me about yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“How long you’ve lived here. What you do. Like that.”
Another pull, another tap, more drifting ash. Seemed to accelerate as it neared the ground. I couldn’t help thinking of the boy’s life in the same way—a fragile thing carried off by a killing wind. Figured what happened was just starting to hit me.
“Well . . . we’ve lived here about three years, been married for two. I do carpentry, woodworking, furniture refinishing and repairing. Most of it here at home in my garage. My wife works in a clinic—”
“What kind of clinic?”
“Drug rehab.”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “Young people?”
I shrugged. “Sure, I guess. You think this is drug related?”
“She know him?”
“No, of course not.” Silence. You sure? “Look, we have nothing to do with it. Neither of us has ever seen him before. I’m sure he could have ended up next door just as easy.”
Branson frowned. “That’s entirely possible. Either way, we’ll need you and your wife to make an official statement down at the station. Tomorrow morning? We’ll say eight o’clock.” He pulled a business card out of his shirt pocket and held it out for me. “Ask for me.”
I took the card. Branson started walking toward the crime scene.
“Do you know who the victim is yet?” I said to his back.
Branson stopped, turned around and told me, “That kind of information will be released at the appropriate time. See you tomorrow morning.” Then he continued towards the blinking red and blue lights, the uniforms, the milling spectators, and the news van that had just pulled up.
I followed him back to the house. Snatches of conversation billowed out: official talk, questions from reporters, cops interviewing the neighbors, conjecture about the crime. Across the street, a TV reporter live on camera. My house was dwarfed by the San Jacintos rising behind it—if it were an animal, it would have been trembling, ready to bolt. I wanted to go inside, lock the door, and never come out. But first I had to get through the rabble on my front lawn. A deputy cleared a path, and I stopped a moment before going inside.
The body was being lifted onto a stretcher. Someone hadn’t zipped the body bag all the way closed. They wheeled it over to the back of the white van and slid it inside. Just before the doors were slammed shut, one of his hands slipped out. Gloved with a brown paper bag and a rubber band, it dangled over the edge of the pallet, a parting gesture that only I seemed to notice. Then the van was gone and the space it had occupied was quickly filled with people, some of them here to investigate, some to keep order, and others to package the event and sell it.
I turned away. Deirdre had cleaned up the mess on the front porch and was sitting alone in the living room. Face the Nation on TV with the sound too low. I closed the curtains and sat beside her on the couch. We didn’t speak for a long while.
“What are you thinking about?” Deirdre finally said.
I shook my head slowly.
“I mean, I know what you’re thinking about, but . . .”
“How much we could get for the house. Where I would put my tools.”
She put down the remote she’d been holding for the last twenty minutes. “Why?”
“Been too long in the desert,” I answered, half to myself.
“You want to move.”
Ten years here, three of them with Deirdre. So the desert was only outside.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Santogrossi. All rights reserved.