Authors: Jeff Klima
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2015 Alibi eBook Edition
Copyright Â© 2015 by Jeff Klima
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the A
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover art and design: Scott Biel
Cover image reference: Andy Reynolds/Stone/Getty Images
I can tell exactly how he died just by looking at the splatter. I don't mean the manner in which the man died; “LAPD-assisted suicide” means just one thing: he went down in a hail of gunfire. What I can determine from the multihued viscera splashed across the asphalt are the contortions the victim made, the jerky half steps the perp took as each slug mushroomed against his vital organs and guaranteed me this week's paycheck. His final moments of life were likely spent dancing about the edge of the street like a busted marionette before he finally collapsed into the gutter and died from no fewer than eight impact wounds of various sizesâshotguns and semiautos. I can tell after that first bullet punched into his torso and his brain registered the mortal blow, he put up his hands in a misguided attempt to stop the other bullets. I can tell one of the cops was either a gunslinger or a lousy shot, as a single blast had veered from the man's chest cavity upward to explode several teeth from his head in thin, yellowed splinters. And I can tell all of this, and more, without ever seeing the body.
Whoever the dead man was, his corpse is now long gone, collected by the coroner's creeping black van, leaving the detectives to declare this an open-and-shut investigation. “Just another wrecked life,” one of them would have said. They too collected what they came for: photographs of the body, bullet shells foraged from beneath parked cars, the dead man's handgunâall taken as evidence in anticipation of the wrongful-death suit the man's family would doubtlessly file.
After the city dicks finally get their fill, that's when I step in to scavenge the remainder. Well-used crowd barriers have been erected and reinforced with yellow crime scene tape, effectively blocking Spring Street off to traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular. Some in the mob are eager to see firsthand what the news will broadcast live at five and taped at ten. Others are just eager to get home or go wherever it is people in Los Angeles go these days. Point is, nobody's moving fast in the fading heat of this summer day gone wrong, least of all me. I snap my own “before” photos from dramatic angles. My expression mirrors that of the young deputies left behind to manage crowd control. All of us are professionally grave in the public's presence, but the reality is that neither the cops nor I give a shit.
I finish my photo set and toss my digital Minolta into a plastic milk crate containing the basic tools of my trade. Unease ripples among the deputies as a voice in the crowd of buttoned-down Angelenos and tourists announces loudly to newcomers that the shooting, on the cops' part, was “racial as a muthafucka.” I tune the voice out along with the honking car horns, the general murmur of the crowd, and the ambient noise of downtown in the dirty big city. Instead, I focus on my own breath and the violent red matter decorating both the sidewalk and street before City Hall.
The specifics are that an African-American male, mid-forties and recently fired, went down to City Hall that morning to demand that he be given back his job. When he didn't receive the answer he was seeking, he came back with a loaded .38. He didn't enter City Hall, but the very presence of a gun-waving black man pacing the exterior steps and screaming gibberish about the iniquities of this modern, computer-centric age was enough to bring every cop from damn near every division of Los Angeles to City Hall. And as they formed a defensive semicircle of cars and guns in anticipation of the inevitable, the unemployed gunman strode out into the street to greet them. Now, whether he knew it or not, he had at least an 80 percent chance of surviving the incident as long as he kept the business end of his revolver pointed at the ground. The second our homey raised his gun on that street, even if only as a visual aid, central Los Angeles lit up like New Year's firecrackers in the Chinatown district. That he'd only been hit eight or so times is something of a miracle, as tiny chips and nicks in the concrete steps tell the true story of shots fired. Not that any of it matters to me.
Just inside the tape barrier, I slide into my protective white Tyvek bodysuit and feel the unblinking stare of news cameras shift in my direction. Peripherally, I know that I am currently the focal point of the mighty metropolis's attentive public, and yet, I do not turn and give the viewers at home the “hero shot.” My boss, Harold, I'm certain, will give me hell for this later, particularly because he recently paid extra to have the company's “Trauma-Gone” logo screened onto the front left tit of every disposable suit in our arsenal. I am also certain he is watching the coverage on a TV somewhere, because he isn't out here cleaning, like I am. I'd mostly made peace with such an arrangement a while back, though.
Still casual, I move back out to the thick of the mess, where I've left my supplies, coolly desperate to keep my face off the evening news. It is the sort of thing, though, where if I act like I don't want to be on TV, it draws even more attention my way. After all, who in Los Angeles doesn't want to be on television?
“Heyâ¦” a voice suddenly calls out from my left as I am bent over my crate, digging through it for fresh gloves. I look and it is an older cop, a Latino guy with coarse hair and reflective Oakley sunglasses. “You look familiarâ¦”
“We've probably been at a few of these together,” I try, staying casual.
“Nah, don't think soâ¦I didn't even know your job existed until today.”
Don't say “Tom Tanner,”
I beg silently, maintaining my exterior calm. If he places me, this day could get rough in a hurry. I always gotta be extra careful when I work gigs involving Central Division officersâespecially the older ones. Cops have long memories.
He stares at me, unabashed, for another long moment and I attempt to shield my face without letting him realize I am doing so.
I'm just a random guy out here doing his job, business as usualâ¦
“Ha, movie town, I guess,” he finally decides, laughing. “Everyone out here looks like someone, right? People say I look like an older Benjamin Bratt.”
I don't know who that is, but I nod quickly, say, “I can see it.” After that I relocate and make sure to stay the hell away from that guy.
Surveying my impending work, I know the street is, in this case, the logistical starting pointâget the visible stuff up, get the cars moving, and get L.A. back on track. Next, I'll work up onto the sidewalk where the real mess is: the thick pools of coagulating blood and bodily fluids, the ivory pebbles flecked off from bones, the gummy purple and melon-colored fragments of internal organs turned external. Under normal circumstances, I'd begin at the biggest and the baddestâsave the worst for first, begin where the body dropped and move outward from there. But, like I said earlier, because the gunman was a selfish prick, this scene isn't about normal circumstances.
Suicide is selfish. I used to kid myself about this way back when and justify offing oneself as a noble and profound exit, romantic even. I had it on the level that the Japanese did. I believed it was about respect for your loved ones, an act of restoring honor to your family name. But that was the old me. I killed him almost a decade ago. Besides, I don't have any loved ones.
Suicide-by-cop is an especially dick move. Forcing cops to off you is just dragging others (unwilling participants, the healthy among them) into your derangement. Now, I know prime-time television wouldn't be complete without some Hollywood make-believe super-cop on some hard-boiled TV drama blowing away a human gone haywire. It looks cool; hell, it probably feels cool. But the absent reality, the part they miss on TV these days, is the weeks and years that go by with the poor-bastard cop sick to his stomach, feeling gut-wrenched and miserable about his part in permanently laying some person down. Between ads for butter, Fords, and tampons, TV doesn't show that killing a person
fucks you up for good
What makes this particular suicide extra heinous is his unhinged need to come down to City Hall three hours before rush hour, six hours till sundown, and clog up some of the busier streets in the city. He got the news cameras involved and upset the balance of order and control in our big bubble of society. This, in turn, gets me on TV and, further, charges the taxpayers serious coin, all so that for the fleeting few minutes of life this jerkoff had left on this planet, he could feel important. He could feel like he was someone who mattered, someone in control. It takes someone completely out of control to consider any of that as a measure of “control.”
Once upon a life, I might have felt some sympathy for this man. I would have considered his “bigger picture”âthat maybe he had a family, that maybe the stress of our hard-charging society had ledânay, forcedâhim to act out. Ralph Ellison and all of that. Shit, I might have fashioned the man into a sort of martyr the way people do when they don't have all the facts. The Internet is rife with digital demigods, men and women who spring forth from the herd for some ridiculous reason, only to drop back into obscurity when they are exposed as pederasts, lunatics, or racists. But here, today, standing in the shadow of City Hall, thrust into the collective spotlight of frenzied media and staring at the spilled contents of this man's torso, I feelâ¦annoyed.
The only bigger picture here is the one our armed friend didn't care to consider: a single stunt like this, on average, costs taxpayers $100,000, and only a pathetic fraction of that is attributable to me. In fact, to get this job, I have to severely lowball my normal asking price. It's the bilious cost of doing business with municipalities. Anything over a thousand dollars and, suddenly, aggressive paperwork becomes involved. Government workers, in a successive chain of command, must look over said paperwork and each stamp their approval. Multiple bids must be considered, numbers must be factored, and environmental impact must be weighed. Blah blah blah. The unfunny of it all is that had I come down and said I couldn't do the job for a penny less than $1,000.01, the eggs and steak of our loco compadre would still be sizzling on this sidewalk a week later. It's chiefly why I don't have any competition in bidding for the job: most crime-scene-cleaning companies won't touch government work. As soon as reliable ol' Harold caught word of death on his police scanner, though, he sent me packing into the thick of it. Harold is a whore. Or, more accurately, a pimp. I know my orders well: seek out the highest-ranking officer who will sign my consent form and tell him that I will do the jobâno matter what the detailsâfor $950. Of course they signâfor the officiating lieutenant or whoever, I'm just one less paper-chain headache they've got to worry about.
This time, I get the signature off a detectiveâa young guy, handsome-ish, and a little taller and healthier than me. He is moving about the scene up on the steps of City Hall, trying to look important on a cell phone. Initially, he tries to wave me off; I persist, though, and tell him I need to get the signature of the ranking officer. This stokes his ego and he eagerly signs. “Residual staining may occur,” I caution himâmy standard boilerplate clause whenever dealing with trauma and a porous substance, like a concrete sidewalk. “Not everything comes upâsometimes there is a mark left over that takes a little time to fade.” But the detective has already waved me off.
So you see, “Trauma-Gone” is but one one-hundredth of the price tag in this whole crazy spectacle. The real price tag comes in the form of work stoppages, overtime, hazard pay, counseling, and those payouts to the family of the deceased. It's a damn good thing for City Hall that this son of a bitch actually had a gun, because when they don't, those payouts run into the millions.
In typical “fuck me” fashion, I just get into the rhythm of my work, my knees settled in the stranger's blood, my black-gloved hands completely sloppy with his snot-spackled guts, and then my cell phone rings. It's set to vibrate, so I don't hear it, but I certainly feel it, tucked near my nut sack, forgotten in its own special pocket.
A smarter me leaves the phone in my work truck, where it can cause no headaches till later, but the presence of a captivated audience has me jittered. I can't just ignore the damn phone, because if it is Harold or the service, and it is
ever Harold or the service, they will continue to call and call until I cum in my pants from the vibrations. Stripping off my gloves, I toss them down into the midst of the mess and zip open my work suit to reach inside.
Fearing the shotgun mikes fixed to the news cameras leveled in my direction, I keep my back to the crowd as I dig for the humming cell lost in layers of twisted fabric. The likelihood is that nobody is hunting sound and that the cameramen still here are just gathering B-roll, but better safe than sorry.
“Tom,” I mutter into the cell phone when I've retrieved it from the depths.
“Hello, sir,” the unfamiliar voice of a directory-assistance laypersonâa maleâchirps back, sycophantic and unaware. This voice is a piece of the collectiveâthe faceless phone service that Harold employs to volley service calls at me day and night. Each voice (and there seem to be a great many of them) is professionally pleasant, and as enthusiastic in informing me of a new death as it doubtlessly is when selling rain gutter varnish, or whatever it is that these people do when not interrupting my ennui. None of them ever call me “Tom,” though it is the only personal information I ever disclose when fielding their communiquÃ©s.
“We have a service request for you, sirâfrom the Offramp Inn on Ca-hewnega Boulevard.” It is their consistent mangling of street names that compels me to believe they are not headquartered in Southern California.
“Cahuenga,” I correct him, though it does not matter.
“Do you need the address?” he steamrolls on, refusing to let his circuits overload at the possibility of a chink in the collective's armor. There is probably an Offramp Inn located on each side of the mountain stretch that is the Cahuenga Pass, but I am in no mood to seek out a pen.