A World the Color of Salt (4 page)

BOOK: A World the Color of Salt
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But there's nothing so bleak as going home to a house with no lights on in it. The small brass weight I picked up from the ground at the Kwik Stop was excuse enough—I went to work.

The crime lab, or the barn as some people call it, for reasons I'm not sure about, is a gray-and-green structure in downtown Santa Ana, otherwise nondescript; in the county-office scheme of things, Building 16. On the south side of the
lab is OCTD—the Orange County Transit District bus line. Across from the lab is the Santa Ana Police Department, and just over one street is the sheriff's headquarters. Still, I'm careful driving there at night. The juries in the courthouse have gone home, the IRS clerks cleared out, the library patrons thinned. But moving toward Civic Center square, like fragments in a mass centrifuge, are the homeless, the disenfranchised, the ambulatory alkies seeking spots on concrete benches, or, if they're lucky, under the gazebo near the city library. Recently there was a roundup of dozens of homeless, the assignment called Operation Civic Center by Santa Ana cops but dubbed Littergate by the homeless. Arrests were made for committing such violations as sailing a paper airplane, picking a leaf, or dropping a “snipe,” as the vagrants call cigarette butts. They chained these serious bad guys to benches in Eddie West Field, the small stadium where city cops play ball against county sheriff's deputies, and marked an identifying number on their wrists with felt-tip pens. Imagine, correctly, how lawyers swarmed all over that one. The sheriff's office—not the Santa Ana Police Department, granted—has about five men on the gang task force, yet Santa Ana deployed twenty-three coppers on the homeless. Some things do get cocked.

Then there're people like the shoeshine man with a heart of, pardon me, gold, who brings discarded food from the markets and distributes it to the homeless. Wonder what my copper neighbors think about that. But I must say I've come to work at night or gone home late more times than I should've, maybe, on my paycheck, and to see a phalanx of black-and-whites across the street is vaguely comforting; so what is right, what is wrong? Though nothing has happened to alarm me yet, I'm still on the alert until I get up the back steps, ring the buzzer, and somebody lets me in.

Paula, the maintenance person, did. No one else there I could see. The radio hooked over the trash cart let me keep track of her. It played a minister's voice. “Friends,” the voice kept saying, “friends,
is what it's all about,
is God's plan. This is what we're here for. . . .” I wondered if Paula felt assured she was where she was supposed to be.

I took my brass whatever to my desk, opened a drawer, and
retrieved a brown bag to put the thing in, Kleenex and all. I stapled the bag closed and rummaged in the back of the top drawer amid the half-used label sheets and wayward pens and pencils for the yellow evidence tag. Filled it out: Dept. No.; Case No., which I didn't know right then; Crime Category—“HOMICIDE.” I wrote in black felt pen. Name of Suspect . . . nope. Name of Victim—“JEROME ALPHONSUS DWYER.” On the last lines, I entered the location from which the evidence was obtained, and by whom. Just above that, under Description, I wrote “UNKNOWN GOLD . . .”; crossed that out: “BRASS OBJECT, APPROX. ONE IN. DIAM.”

Pulling out the big drawer on the left, I put the bag in front where I usually kept my lunch. I'd take the thing to Property in the morning.

And then tell me why I did it—went into Joe S.'s office and grabbed files off his desk. Not always known for my good sense, I lifted Jerry Dwyer's file, Case 90-03284 HW, right out of Joe's bin and started going through it. At least I had the case number for the evidence tag. I'd remember it without writing it down because I'm good with numbers: I'm 32, and 32 is 8,
times. HW standing for the attending coroner on the scene, Hiro Watanabe, a man I didn't particularly like. This is what I was thinking. Not about protocol.

Billy Katch's photos of Dwyer's Kwik Stop Liquor and Grocery were thorough, to say the least. The outside, with the blue awning. The front door, magazines just ahead. The aisles. The counter. Palm print on the register, though palms won't usually give us anything, so that's more than likely useless. Lotto machine. The six shell casings on the floor, with bright ID cards next to them.

Before turning over the others, I went to the coffee room. Maybe somebody forgot to turn the coffee pot off. Who was I kidding? I wasn't ready for the shots of Jerry yet. About three ounces of hot, putrid black stuff lay in the bottom of one carafe. I flipped off the. power switch, poured the coffee into a plastic cup, and sat there on a table for a moment. I'd forgotten that the beige linoleum floor gleamed so highly from earnest waxing you could see the waves in it, rolly waves, like the contractor put them there for some decorative effect.

At my left shoulder, the same cartoon was on the bulletin
board as before I went on leave: a man holding an ax behind his back, saying, “I love you to pieces, Ethel.” Still wasn't funny.

Joe S. was in the doorway when I looked back. My face burned. He didn't say anything, just looked at me.

“Joe,” I said. “I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have gone in your files.”

“You're right, you shouldn't,” he said. “What're you doing here anyway? Didn't you just get off medical leave?” Not loud. He was furious.

“I said I was sorry.”

“You should be.” He had his hands on his hips, throwing the wings of his jacket out. His maroon tie was loosened, and maybe he had more of a shadow under his eyes, but otherwise he looked the same as he did six hours ago.

I got up and went back to Joe's office to get my purse. The pictures put away, the file nowhere in sight. Joe stood in the hall and watched me.

“Good night,” I said, heading for the door.

“Miss Brandon,” he said to my back.

I stopped. I didn't
to look him in the face. Understand, here was a man I'd been in love with for three years. Understand that I'd do things to gain his approval I wouldn't do for other people—work harder, work smarter, work when others would give up. And now there he was in the middle of the perfect, clean, and wavy hallway, lowering his head at me like a school principal.

I cinched the belt on my new leather jacket and said, “Fuck you, Joe.”


Raymond Vega, my CHP buddy, was at Dwyer's first thing the next morning, standing in front of his hot-shit Saleen SB/S 350, blowing on his coffee. That black Mustang's slick and mean, narrow eyes. Officially, it's a Law Enforcement Specialty Vehicle, and your captain has to have a lot of stroke to get one. The beefed-up suspension is what Ray brags most about.
, he says, meaning hot sex.

I parked my five-year-old white Toy by the hedge again. The sun shanked off the blue tile roof of the taco stand next door, dew brightening everything. Seven in the morning and I needed sunglasses. Raymond hauled out of the car when he saw me. Highway Patrol wears a tan uniform, and Raymond's dark hair and mustache set it off. His is the skin I'll have when I come back the second time around, and I'll borrow the deep brown eyes instead of these gray. City cops and sheriff's deputies make fun of CHP officers, calling them Triple-A With a Gun. They say their cars should have tow hooks. If anybody is likely to fuck up a crime scene, according to cops, your local handy CHP is. But Ray was not here for the investigation, I knew that.

His smile brought one to me as I was walking up. The man can fill out a shirt so it doesn't need ironing, just a sweet hunk of manhood. When I was recuperating, he'd call me from his field cellular, talk shop, and make me forget whatever hurt. Then end up with some salacious remark to remind me I was a woman. Raymond and I could, I suppose, get serious, but it would be made, not found.

“Look who's duded out,” he said, casting his eyes up and
down with approval. The week before, I treated myself to a charcoal leather jacket on a credit card. Under the jacket, a red shirt he could see only the collar of, tight black pants, ye olde black tennies.

“Sheena Easton, here I come. To what do we owe the honor, Raymond?” I looked at his clipboard on the hood of the car. “You'll put a scratch in Sweet Thang there you don't watch out.”

“No way.” He picked up the board in elaborate slo-mo without sliding it, no etching on
rooftop. “And what I'm doing here is looking after my lady.”

“Get up there on the freeway and nail some speeders.” I nodded back over my shoulder and said, “Look at 'em, eighty miles an hour,” because you could see the whole Southern California line of them shooping past until they'd come to a dead stop up ahead about a mile, I knew, and they knew, but that's how you drive it anyway or you're a wimp from Minnesota. “And here you're sipping coffee and flirting with me. Where's the doughnuts?”

I'm not as callous as this sounds. Sixty yards away there's a bloody crime scene and I'm talking doughnuts where a boy just died. You do that, that's all.

He tossed an arc of coffee alongside the curb and made a face. “Oily this morning. You want to go to Denny's?” Asking, but knowing I'd say no. Watching, I guessed, to see how ready I was to go inside. Joe must have called him. And then he said, “Your general told me.”

I said, “I guess the saying goes for forensics jocks too.”

“What saying is that?” Ray tucked his hands in his jacket pockets; his gaze flicked often to the street, to see what was passing by, which car carried the people who might come back to check what carnage they'd been responsible for yesterday.

“Telephone, telegram, tell a cop. What's all this fragile shit, he thinks I need my hand held?”

A sheriff's car pulled up. In it was Sergeant Gary Svoboda, with Bud Peterson, from the lab, beside him. “I gotta go,” I said.

“Don't take it personally,” Raymond said. “Joe just looks after his crew.”

“Have a nice day, Raymond.” It sounded sourer than I
meant it. I turned back and said, “Hey, I got a phone in my car now.”

“A phone? My, aren't we fancy.”

“Listen, I've got a ton of miles on my car. Who wants to get out on the shoulder of a freeway with a million cars whizzing by and hunt for a box to ring up help?
if the auto-club cop who comes to help has perfect dark eyes and the buffest bod?” He smiled, and then I made him take down the number.

The tape was still up at the front door of the store. The lock was thrown, and no one was around. I saw Joe's blue Chevy parked way at the end on the right side of the building, under a tall eucalyptus.

Svoboda caught up to me. Svoboda can be an ass, but a harmless one.

“Gary, what are you doing here?”

“This is a little strip of county area people don't know about. There's a Costa Mesa patrol officer here. He was first on the scene.”

Several cities in the county contract with the sheriff's department for law-enforcement services, but Costa Mesa wasn't one. The scene officer does the call-ins, the preliminary investigation, and the safeguarding of the area, but as soon as the sheriff's guys get there, activity is supervised by them if it's in county area. Bud Peterson, who got out of the car with Gary, was from our lab, the print section called CAL-ID I wasn't thrilled to see him.

Svoboda said, “This should bring the number of two-eleven's right up to around nine hundred for the year, don't you think?” I could hear him panting up the slight incline of the driveway. He's not that fat—he just pants. He said, “But robbery-homicides, maybe, what, twenty-five?”

“You keeping track, Sergeant?” I said. “Is there a pool? I want in, if so.”

Bud Peterson was behind us a few yards, not panting.

“No. No pool. Nine hundred so far. And that's your dopers doing our job for us,” he went on. “Two tacos blew away two more tacos Saturday come to collect a buzz right out there
near Burger King.” Svoboda doesn't hear himself. Someday somebody else is going to, though, and there'll be a flurry of public apologies. Some cops who use racist language mean it; Svoboda doesn't.

When Svoboda was talking statistics he was talking Santa Ana only, not Costa Mesa, where we were standing. I reminded him of that. I can be an ass too. If this were school, let's say Svoboda'd be a C, C+ student. Costa Mesa abuts Santa Ana, but it's got a much lower crime rate, maybe one to ten. His eyes were scouting as we walked, like all good cops. C+ doesn't meant not good, exactly.

I asked him if he'd talked to the people at the taco stand yesterday, or at the florist's in the next lot. The two stores nearest Dwyer's had been empty a few months now, the recession taking its toll. One was a tanning salon and the other a fake-nail place. I guess fast food and fake nails don't make the best business bedfellows.

“We got something from El Cochino, matter of fact.”

BOOK: A World the Color of Salt
11.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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