In his experience violence arrives when it wants to, and if it wants you it’ll find you, just like lightning. It’s the frail woman hardly noticed, quietly nursing a glass of wine until the wine spills and she has a steak knife in her ex-husband’s new wife, or the big, sorry boy out of the oilfields gone apeshit in a fight, or the fresh butchery of a car wreck, and this deal tonight might not be anything at all. He was stalling. So far this was only a call-in from Denise Rickert about something that didn’t sound like it should, but then Denise has lived thirty-nine years with old Bobby Rickert and never said hi, bye or kiss my ass about that arrangement, so whatever else she might be, it sure as hell isn’t prone to complaint.
The side of the trailer reflected dully in the moonlight, and he stood there for another minute. There was a lamp on in what he imagined was the bedroom, but the orange drapes were drawn. A radio was playing country music, faintly, though it wasn’t a song he remembered having heard.
He stepped out of the gravel and into the overgrown meadow grass to the side of the drive so his footfalls wouldn’t give him away. His heart raced as he thumbed back the pistol’s hammer, taking in three deep breaths. That’s the part he always forgets. To breathe.
He stopped next to the trailer, just below its wooden stoop, and breathing wasn’t a problem anymore. He sucked at the air as though he’d gained altitude, feeling the heat against his face and smelling the jumble of what remained: the sharp, acrid scent of burned chemicals and plastics, the sweet, sewer reek of propane, all of it seemingly extinguished by gallons of cat piss. And tonight there was something else, the odor of a branding, of burned hair and flesh.
He pulled the gas mask from his service belt and fit it over his head, thinking of the rookie deputy who got charged up last year and stormed a lab like this, inhaling enough of the fumes to have him drawing benefits from the county for the rest of his sicker-than-shit life.
At least there wasn’t a dog. Not yet, that is. He’d hate to have to kill a dog.
The door stood ajar and he pushed it back slowly with the barrel of the pistol, holding it up between himself and whatever was going to come at him. Nothing did. “Sheriff’s office,” he called, but most of that announcement echoed inside the mask.
The sound of his breathing filled his ears when he stepped through the doorway and he clenched his teeth. There was enough light from the bedroom that he didn’t need a flashlight, and he swung the pistol to his left and right, and when there was nothing but the still-smoldering squalor of the front room and kitchen he moved to the windows, lifting them open in their aluminum frames, keeping the pistol trained down the hallway, thinking, That’s the sweet thing about trailers, no surprise in the layout. He started toward the back as quickly as he could without stumbling in the debris, and when he reached the bedroom there was just the light on the nightstand where the radio was playing. He sat on the bed with both arms hanging between his knees. His shirt was stuck to his chest and across his shoulders, and when he eased the mask off the sweat ran into his eyes. He dragged a forearm across his face and switched off the radio. His hands were shaking and he slumped forward and stayed there until he steadied. Then he laid the pistol on the orange bedcover and took the handheld radio from his belt. He mopped at his forehead again before he called the office, and Starla’s voice came through cheap and tinny.
“This is Crane.”
“Hey, boss.” She snapped her gum, and he tried to remember if he’d ever heard her say anything with her mouth clear.
“I need an ambulance out here. I need one right now.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine, but there’s someone here who isn’t.”
“Let’s just stick with being glad it’s not me.” He heard her hit the speed dial for the hospital on the office console.
“You still out on Cabin Creek?” The gum snapping was like static.
“I’m in that trailer Jake Croonquist put out for his foreman. Where the road turns to gravel past mile marker twenty-four.”
He listened as she repeated the information to the dispatcher at the hospital, setting the handheld down by the pistol, shaking his left arm over the side of the bed. It felt like it had gone to sleep.
“You need me to locate one of your deputies?”
He grabbed up the handheld. “Say again?”
“Do you need backup?”
“I’m all right.” He shook his arm harder. “Have those boys pick up Dan Westerman on their way out.”
“Oh, my God, Crane. Tell me this isn’t something you had to do.”
“Somebody else did it before I got here.”
“But you’re sure?”
“I believe I’d know if I killed a man.”
“I mean, are you sure you need the coroner?”
“Jesus Christ, Starla.”
“I wish you’d stop with that.”
“You want me to call Jean?”
“No,” he said, “but I’m going to need a DCI unit before I can leave.”
“Is that everything?”
“I guess Jean’ll see I’m okay when I get home.”
He sat for a minute longer, then pulled a pair of latex gloves from his shirt pocket and snapped them on. He pushed against his knees to help himself stand, holstering the pistol when he noticed it lying on the bed.
He went back down the hallway, turning on the lights as he found the switches, and stopped in the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator. Half a pizza, a carton of Marlboro Lights and three bottles of decent lager from a brewery in Red Lodge, Montana. He twisted the cap off a beer, draining it without taking a breath. He set the empty bottle on the countertop that separated the kitchen from the living room and opened another beer, carrying it to the couch that sat squared against the far wall. The dead man lay curled on the floor at the end of it, with a ruptured propane bottle right in front of him and the rest of the floor strewn with melted and misshapen containers that once held benzene, Freon, white gas and black iodine. The rest of the mess was the tubing and pans, here and there the charred foil discarded from dozens of cards of cold tablets. The TV was turned on its side, next to a fire extinguisher with the pin pulled.
He wedged the beer between the cushions of the couch and knelt by the body. The head, shoulders and chest were badly burned, the flesh puckered, crusted black, frosted with foam from the extinguisher. When he noticed the sweep of blood leaking back toward the wallboard he gently lifted the head out of it, turning the misshapen face toward the light. There was a hole punched in the left temple, and he could feel the lack of skull in his palm, where the bullet had exited at the top of the spine. He lowered the head back into the blood, slumping back on his heels, his hands on his thighs, palms up and smeared.
“Fuck me.” He could smell the beer on his breath when he spoke, and peeled the gloves off.
He worked a billfold out of the dead man’s jeans, and when he heard the ambulance turn off the highway and cut its siren, and then the crunch of tires in the gravel drive, he was sitting on the couch with the wallet in one hand and the beer in the other. “Come on in,” he called.
“Is that Crane?”
“Yeah, it is.”
Dan Westerman stood in the doorway. “You need all of us?”
“We better start with just you.”
Dan stepped in gingerly, lifting a foot to check the sole. “Is it safe?”
“I believe it is, mostly. Just watch where you walk, and I’d hose off when you get back home.”
Dan wore dark green shorts with cargo pockets, a yellow knit shirt, white cotton socks and slip-on Birkenstocks. He held a small green duffel at his side. They were both staring at the body.
“The kids are home for the summer,” he said. “We were up talking when Starla called, and I didn’t have time to change.”
“I’m sorry to get you out here for this.”