Saturday, November 7, 2009

Part Two: Bodies. Chapter Six

Seattle Times Headline 11/09/09
Mass Grave Horror in Auburn

K9 Sergeant Herschel gagged inside his mask and his eyes watered.  The mask might keep out the shit in the air, and god only knew what kind of shit was in the air, but it didn't keep out the smell.  It wasn't just one of those wussy painter's filter masks, either, it was the full on industrial model, made of blue rubber with two round filters.  It was the kind of thing guys wore in auto shops.  The weight felt strange against his face and he was sweating where it touched him.  He wasn't even in the excavation, either.  He couldn't imagine how bad it was for the poor bastards who were actually digging the stiffs up. 

Patrolman McNeil, who was assigned to work with Herschel, had already thrown up and Herschel would be damned if he'd follow suit.  Poor McNeil had barely managed to get his mask off in time as they'd walked past the open hole with the bodies in it.  At least he'd puked away from the crime scene. 

Herschel breathed deeply and evenly through his mouth, swallowing often.  Ahead of him was Artemis, his sniffer dog.  She was a beautiful German Shepherd, tall and strong, and was trained particularly to find corpses, which was a specialty profession, so Herschel and Artemis traveled widely around the state.  They were based out of Seattle, of course, but he was an employee of the Washington State Troopers, not the Police Department.  Usually their job was to find the body that was buried and they were long gone by the time they dug it up.  Not so today, unfortunately.  There were two other dog teams working the hill, as well as some nerds wandering around with digital boxes that were supposed to do the same job.  No one trusted the sniffer boxes to do the job properly and the nerds were here to prove otherwise. 

Herschel had never seen anything like this.  Auburn PD had called in for support and other local cops, Staties, county deputies and Seattle's own had all responded.  McNeil, Herschel's assistant, was a patrolman from Seattle.  Herschel found himself wondering if the poor kid had pissed someone off to pull this crap detail.

McNeil carried orange flags on flexible poles, like half-size golf flags, which would mark potential bodies.  Each K9 unit, made up of a dog, a handler and an assistant, had been given a grid to cover.  The grids had been taped off with yellow nylon tape and each K9 unit would cover as many grids as possible before they lost the light.  The various police departments were trying to get lights up here, but it was rough going once they got off the trail.  On top of everything, it was supposed to start raining soon, and likely not stop for several days, so there was a debate whether they would dig up any more bodies today even if they did find them.

Herschel knew they would.  They'd cover them with tarps and shelters and everything would get wet and messy and there was always a chance that priceless evidence might get washed away.  But God forbid any of the press that were swarming the road beneath them like a hungry wolfpack found out they could have done anything that they didn't do.  Every last one of them would be out on the street, jobless, within a day, an example to the public that still vaguely remembered the horrors from the last time around, almost 30 years ago, when the last sick fuck started dropping bodies all over southeast Seattle. 

The initial grave, discovered by some poor schmoe out walking his dog, and wasn't that always the way?, was roped off with an extra 10 feet on each side.  Depending on which rumor he believed, they'd already found parts of two bodies, four bodies, or ten bodies, stacked several deep.  Either way, they were opening a larger area around the bodies they had found, assuming there were more.  In the rainy Northwest, one body is murder, two bodies is a potential serial and treated as such.  Couldn't say we didn't learn.  The Feds were already on the way, Herschel was sure.  You find enough bodies in a hole in the ground, some Federal statute or another is bound to have been broken.

Herschel, McNeil, and Artemis had grids that met the original grave site, three on the east side and one on the north, wrapping around the open excavation like an L.  Artemis was wearing a cover on her nose, a muzzle that prevented her from exposure to the air to keep her sense of smell isolated before it was needed.  She was whining and excited, her tail whipping.  She was well trained enough to not pull on her leash, but Herschel could see her practically quivering. 

He looked over his shoulder at the excavation.  There were two lights set up, aimed into the hole and working beneath them were two crime scene techs, hip deep in a hole.  There were stutter strobes of camera flashes.  Two more techs were off to one side sifting through dirt, looking for cloth, teeth, or any other evidence.  They were probably finding rocks and candy wrappers.  Herschel could practically see the smell rising out of the hole in waves, rippling like heat. 

“You ready, Sarge?” the kid asked.

Herschel turned back.  “No.  You?”

“Fuck, no, Sarge.”

“Okay.  Let's do it.”  Herschel knelt in the brush next to Artemis and thumped her flank with an open hand.  “Good girl.  You ready?” 

The dog whined again.

“Alright.”  He unbuckled her mask, and as he did so her head jerked as if she had been stuck.  “Find.”  He stood up and let her get to work. 

She whined again and looked around as though confused.  He scratched her head.  She wasn't used to working around so many people.  Usually the two of them were ahead of the pack.  Now she was hemmed in, surrounded by strangers and yellow tape. 

“Its okay, baby,” he said in a soothing voice.  “Find.”

She looked back at him, as if making sure that was what he really wanted.  Then she leaped forward, pulling him along on the leash, taking two bounds forward.  She sat in place and barked twice, her signal.  Herschel was surprised she found results so quickly.  His stomach turned at the thought of more bodies beneath them.  Usually she found the dead who had not survived accidents, avalanches, stupid lost hikers.  The two of them didn't often need to find murder victims.  Let alone one victim in a field of them.

“Mark it,” he said, not looking at the kid.  McNeil stepped into his peripheral vision and pushed a flag into the ground near Artemis' tail.

“Good girl,” he said, getting down to her level.  He slipped her a cookie.  She munched happily and then looked at him with her big brown eyes, asking what was next.

“Find,” he said again.  She cocked her head at him in confusion, but stood up again.  She lowered her nose to the ground, looked this way and that, and then deliberately took two steps forward and sat again, giving two sharp barks. 

“Mark it.”

“Is it another one?”

“This close?  Probably the same one.  Mark it anyway.”

He rubbed the dog's head.  “Find,” he repeated.

With a bark the dog charged forward again, closer to the other side of the grid.  She circled twice, as if getting ready to sleep, then sat and barked twice. 

Jesus.  “Mark it.”

“Sarge, do you--”

“Just mark it.”

McNeil placed the flag.  Herschel gave the dog another cookie.  “Good girl.  Who's a good girl?  Find.”

The dog stood, paused for a moment, took several steps forward, then sat and barked. 

“Unbelievable,” Herschel said to himself. 

“What, Sarge?”

“Mark it!”

As McNeil moved to the dog to place the flag, the dog stood up and moved forward again.  Herschel was taken by surprise and lost his grip on her leash.  She never did such things.  “Hey!”

The dog ran forward, stopped, sat, and barked.  Then she turned, moved, sat and barked again.  As McNeil and Herschel watched, the dog continued to sit, bark, and move. 

“You don't think those are all...” McNeil's voice trailed off.

Herschel was silent for a moment.  “Don't mark where she's sitting,” he said, “Mark around it.  We'll hang tape and mark off the whole area.”  They watched the dog, who had finished now and was sitting proudly on her haunches, expecting another cookie. 

McNeil tore off his mask and vomited again, aiming away from the flags.  Herschel didn't look, but heard him spitting.  There couldn't be much left in his stomach by now, he thought.  McNeil spoke again, and from the sound of his voice, he'd left his mask off.  Herschel turned then, and saw the kid hunched over with his elbows on his knees, wiping vomit off his mouth with his sleeve.  His face shone with sweat. 

“Seriously, Sarge, you ever seen anything like this?”

“Son,” Herschel said, “I've never even fucking heard of anything like this.”

There were still three grids left to go.  Herschel gave Artemis her cookie and they moved on.  It was a long day.  When the light went, another K9 team replaced them, covering grids further afield, armed with flashlights and glowsticks.

When he got home that night he had a tough time getting Artemis settled.  She'd had the most exciting day of her life and she was hopped up on dog biscuits.  He sat with her and stroked her until she made sleepy sounds and then he left her in the garage for the night.  She'd need a bath tomorrow, she smelled awful. 

So, Herschel's wife informed him, did he.  He spent an hour in the shower and still didn't feel clean.  He gargled and then snorted mouthwash up his nose to get rid of the death smell that seemed to cling to him.  It burned like a mother, but it seemed to do the trick.  He was pretty sure he was going to have to burn the uniform he wore today.  When he got back to the bedroom, his wife insisted that while he might think he smelled as fresh as a daisy, he still smelled like a zombie to her. 

He made up a bed on the living room couch and let Artemis in to keep him company.  The smell haunted him for days.  The memory of Artemis moving from body to body, cheerfully sitting over and over, haunted him for years.

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