It had been an impulse kill.
Sheriff Dunne mentally kicked himself as he steered his beast of a squad car down the desert road, sweat dripping down his ass crack. Stupid, he thought, pulling the trigger like that. Just plain dumb. You'd think it would've at least given him a little bit of satisfaction, just the tiniest bit, but no, even when he drew his gun and fired, he'd known it was a major fuckup.
And here he was, cruising on the outskirts of his little desert town, with a body in the trunk, looking for a place to dump it. Another in a long list of stupid moves.
Number one being marrying Jean. Everyone warned him about her — hell, she even tried to warn him not to do it. And maybe she tried to be faithful, those first few years, when things were good and he was climbing from deputy to sheriff. But soon as he pinned that star on his chest, she was out the door, chasing after whatever she could get between her thighs. He couldn't count the times he'd have to bust into some good ol' boy's house (or truck, or meth lab) and drag her out, usually butt naked. But he'd always managed to restrain himself, never to blow away her boyfriends, no matter how bad he wanted to.
And yet here he was, looking for a good place to dig a hole.
The sun was half above the horizon . . . goddamn hot already, and only gonna get hotter. He had to get rid of this sack of meat before it started to putrefy and stink up his car. Pulling off the road, navigating over cracked dirt and snake holes, he finally found a spot he figured was far enough away from the road, hidden behind a couple of dead trees, so in case somebody happened to be driving by, they couldn't see him.
Though, he realized, the big white Ford with the gold star that said "Sheriff" on it might be a dead giveaway.
He pulled the car as far behind the trees as he could, put it in park. He popped the trunk, reached past the garbage bag–wrapped corpse, pulled out his shovel. He tested a couple spots, found a place where the dirt wasn't packed hard as damn rock, and started digging.
He dug for a while. Dunne was thirty-six, and in decent shape, but outside of cracking heads, it'd been a while since he'd done any real physical labor. And Jean'd been no help in the workout department, wasting her best calorie burns on her degenerate fuck toys.
He'd dug what he figured was a decent-size hole, given the shovel one last heave to take out a chunk of dirt, when he felt it hit something soft. It didn't feel like rock or clay, but no matter what angle he went at, whatever was buried there was too big to pull out with the shovel. He used the blade to clear away the dirt, and it was then he saw that he wasn't the only one who thought this was a good place to bury a body.
A human hand, flesh rotting away, bones showing through, poked up through the dirt. Scraping at the dirt around it produced a man's corpse with the face bashed in so badly, it looked like a giant butt hole.
He stared at it a good while, not knowing what to do. If he called it in, his deputies, softheaded as they were, would probably ask a bunch of questions he couldn't rightly answer. He had a damn corpse in the trunk for cryin' out loud, and once they saw the face on it, there wouldn't be much doubt as to who did it.
He couldn't explain why he did it. It truly seemed like someone else was guiding him, opening up his car door, clicking on his radio, calling it in, with a voice that sounded just like his, but real far away. All he could think was, "This goddamn town . . ."
As expected, Dunne's deputies weren't much help. They fumbled around the hole, doing their best not to get their sweat and drool all over the corpse, but beyond that, they mostly stared wide-eyed and kept tipping back their hats like they saw people in the movies do when they were supposed to be impressed.
Dunne did his best to focus and lead the investigation, but he couldn't help glancing at his car every thirty seconds. If his deputies had been half as observant as the job required, they'd've noticed his behavior was, as they say, "a mite peculiar."
They probably also would've pressed Dunne a little harder when they asked how he came upon the body, instead of just settling for his muttered excuse of "anonymous tip."
Add to everything else, their town didn't have a fancy forensics lab like they did on TV; their only "expert" was a veterinarian named Dwayne, who wasn't all that astute, but darn it, he did watch the History Channel a good deal. He poked and prodded the body a bit, took a couple pictures with his fancy cell phone, and after a while was able to pronounce it "maybe a murder."
If there was one thing Dunne was sick of about this whole town, it was its utter obsession with mediocrity. A hot, dirty shit hole stuffed with losers and fools who strove for nothing better than to drink themselves stupider than they already were. But as his dad used to say, "We hate in others what we hate most in ourselves," so maybe the reason he was so pissed off was that he feared he was no better. He certainly had never excelled at much of anything, not high school football, not community college . . . the only reason he was able to make sheriff so quick was that the guy who held the job ahead of him, who was almost seventy years old, had finally gone belly up in his bathtub.
(A "cardial infarction" Dwayne had called it, "cause unknown," even though everybody knew he'd been jerking off when he went.)
Dwayne nodded to him. "Sheriff. How's your wife?"
Dunne always turned red when somebody asked after her. Everybody knew about her extracurricular activities, and he could never tell if they were being polite, or jabbing at him. He chose to ignore it. "Figure out who it is?"
"Well, that's the thing, Sheriff, I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to identify the body."
The town dentist kept dental records when he remembered to file them after his afternoon bottle of Jack, but Dunne didn't think that'd be much help, as the killer had had the foresight to knock out the teeth and cut off the fingertips. "It's a stone-cold mystery," Dwayne said, holding up one of the body's hands to demonstrate.
Dunne looked at the hand, then up at Dwayne, waiting for him to notice the obvious. He didn't. After a minute of staring, Dunne said, "Uh, Dwayne, y'think maybe that might give us a clue?" and nodded to the hand.
Dwayne looked down. A big thick class of '90 high school ring sat on one of the rotting fingers. Dwayne pulled it off, looked at the inside inscription. "Holy hell on a horse! It's Pat O'Connell! Jesus, please us, we played peewee Pop Warner together!"
The sheriff nodded and said, "Well done," trying not to grind his teeth.
"So, what d'ya figure?"
Dunne shrugged. "He ain't no mastermind. Seen enough TV to know you're supposed to cut off fingers and pull out teeth, but that's about as far as it seems to go."
He glanced over at his car for the forty-seventh time. One of his least retarded deputies, Kelly McIntosh, was leaning on the trunk. The Sheriff let out a deep breath, headed over to his car. "I'm heading back into town," he said. "Got a little business to take care of."
"You sure, Sheriff?" Kelly said as he slid his useless ass off the trunk, "We've got a situation here."
"Dammit, Kelly!" the sheriff said and immediately got ahold of himself. Took another breath. "Son, I got a demon ready to burst outta my asshole, and I gotta take care of it, understand? You're in charge while I'm gone. Make sure that body gets to the morgue." Thought for a moment, then added, "Today, if at all humanly possible."
Kelly nodded gravely, backed off.
Dunne slid into the car, tried to drive away as casually as he could. He flicked on the air-conditioning, heard a rattle and a clank as it died. He wiped the sweat from his soaking forehead. Then had to wipe his sopping wet hand on his pants.
After circling through town, brain reeling, trying to figure out a new spot, Dunne drove out to the abandoned factory. Used to be the car plant, then when the jobs had gone away, a prophylactics company had taken over for a while, but had gone belly up. Turns out folks prefer their condoms to prevent pregnancy or STDs. Go figure.
Anyway, it had been abandoned for years, and though it wasn't his first choice, there were enough places Dunne figured he could shove the body that by the time somebody decided to buy or demolish the place, the body would have long since turned to mush.
He tripped his way through the clutter and debris on the ground, the cardboard boxes with the cartoon rubber on the outside, ripped open and discarded by the local boys when they were feeling randy, and of course the resulting used condoms scattered in the dust.
Dunne dragged the body to the big metal packing machine in the middle of the factory, used to seal the rubbers in their individual blister packs. The thing was corroded, caked with inches of dust and cobwebs. Dunne figured he'd stuff the body in the metal compartment underneath, with all the gears and whatnot. Dunne held his breath, pulled on the metal plate on the back. It held for a moment, then slowly gave, allowing Dunne to pry it back . . .
. . . and a body fell out into a pile of used condoms.
Teeth gone, fingertips sawed off.
Dunne sighed again, squeezed the bridge of his nose, knowing what that meant.
The town had its first genuine serial killer.
It was like that the whole friggin' day. Everywhere he could think to stuff a body, somebody'd beaten him to it. There were stiffs everywhere: the town dump, the abandoned Methodist church, even the used-car lot, crammed in the trunk of an old Chevy. Guys that had been missing for months, or in the case of Jayden Barry, three years. Renny Daniels, Jake "Steelface" Ruggs, Henry Gordon . . . genuine shits and deadbeats, all. And in a town like this, deadbeats leaving town unexpectedly hardly got any alarms ringing, so Dunne hadn't really racked up the sheer number in his head. Nobody'd missed them, 'cause nobody cared. Some of 'em, like Keith Willis, Dunne figured he owed the killer a medal for doing the town a favor. Keith had a proclivity for underage pussy, and wasn't above using roofies or a crowbar to get it. Dunne would've been fascinated, maybe even amused, by the sheer volume, except it was making it fucking impossible to dump this goddamn body! The heat was in the hundred twenties, and no doubt about it, the body was starting to stink. Dunne could smell it from the driver's seat. And he was honestly feeling a little frustrated, because this clown was stealing all of his good ideas. Or maybe his ideas weren't so great to start with, and he was just as stupid as the killer.
He had stopped calling them in after the first couple. It was getting harder to say "anonymous tip" with a straight face, and his department was woefully undermanned for all these random bodies.
Weird thing was, every kill was different. One had been beaten to death, another shot, and Willis looked like he'd been hit with a car. Even had a tire tread across his face. No overall consistency whatsoever.
Dunne sat in his patrol car, racking his brain, windows wide open, trying to breathe through his mouth so as not to smell the putrid thing in his trunk. He tried to push his nervousness out of his head, but he couldn't. The sun was going down, and even though the dark would make it easier to hide a body, he was running out of spots. He was pushing it already, making excuses not to be at the various dumping sites helping with the clean-up (although Dwayne had said that Dunne was a true hero, tracking down all these poor souls, unjustly taken from this world. Dunne had almost laughed at that). But whatever it was that made him call in the first body was itching at the back of his brain. What was the connection? Was it a jilted lover? Somebody all these guys had in common? Or, if there was one woman between them, maybe a jealous boyfriend?
His heart about stopped when he considered who that woman might be. And even though he and the Almighty hadn't chatted in a good many years, he instantly began to pray that woman wasn't Jean.
And then, as if God had decided to answer (and remind Dunne of how shitty his life was), a memory came slamming back to him, full force. It was from a few months back, when Dunne had stopped at a local roadhouse to use the facilities. He'd nodded to the bartender, who'd flipped him the cuss finger, and stepped into the water closet, only to discover it was occupied. There it was, right when he opened the door, a dude standing in front of the toilet, pants around his ankles, so everything drew Dunne's eyes to that bony white ass. But it wasn't the ass he was staring at, it was the sexy fingers that were wrapped around it, and a wedding ring that looked awful familiar.
Ezekiel "Zeke" Sebastian. Local meth dealer. Dunne had given him a righteous ass whipping, nearly drowning him in the dirty toilet water, while Jean screamed and pounded on his back.
Thing was, Zeke was buddies with Renny and Jake and Henry, and all the others. Not exactly a rarity — everybody knew everybody here in Shitsville. And maybe there wasn't a connection. Maybe Dunne's guilty conscience was imagining smoke where there weren't no fire.
But now he couldn't unthink it.
Just to be sure, Dunne figured he'd stop by Zeke's house, see if he knew anything. Clear the deck, so to speak. The good thing was, Zeke lived out at the edge of the desert. Surely there'd be somewhere nearby he could dump the body.
As Dunne pulled up in front of Zeke's place, he hoped he hadn't made a fatal mistake. The stink from the trunk was so bad, he felt like he might pass out. Hopefully, Zeke wouldn't notice, on account of his own righteous b.o. But one way or the other, once he finished with Zeke, he'd have to get rid of the body. Maybe the car, too. Might have to burn the whole thing just to get rid of the smell.
He stepped up to the door, heard movement inside. He rapped on the door, and the movement immediately stopped.
Dunne knew what that meant.
Always knew what that meant.
That meant somebody was about to shoot at him.
He drew his pistol carefully, cocked the trigger as quietly as he could. Was about to speak up, thought for a second, then ducked down low. "Zeke? It's Sher— "
The door exploded with a shotgun blast. If he'd been standing up straight, it would've taken his head off.
He heard running footsteps, and he ducked to the side as the door was violently kicked open by Zeke himself, wiry and shirtless, the meth making all his muscles bulge like teeny little rocks. He was in such a rush to race out the door, he didn't see Dunne, or Dunne's foot sticking up, so he tripped and went flying, hitting the carport chin-first, teeth and blood scattering everywhere. "Shee-it!" Zeke howled.
Dunne put his pistol to the back of Zeke's head. Zeke froze, and Dunne said quietly, "Nice and easy, Zeke."
Zeke'd been arrested enough times before to know the drill: gun on the ground, hands in the air. "Sorry 'bout that, Sheriff," he muttered through a mouthful of bloody mush. "Had to try, right?"
Dunne cuffed Zeke's hands above his head, peeked into Zeke's living room. Another body, who Dunne thought he could make out as Wendell Roberts, was lying in a pool of blood.
Dunne pulled Zeke up to face him.
"The hell happened?"
Zeke shrugged. "Had a debate of which was better, CSI: New York or CSI: Regular. He was wrong."
Dunne stared at Wendell's caved-in head and the bloody peewee Pop Warner trophy next to him. "Guess so."
He turned back to Zeke. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about Pat O'Connell being buried out in the desert? Or Renny out in the rubber factory?"
Zeke didn't look terribly surprised to be caught.
"It was an accident, Sheriff."
"All of 'em?"
Zeke nodded. "Me 'n' Pat, we's playin' cards, and he tried cheatin' me, so I brained him with my whiskey bottle. Didn't figure he'd go pussy and die on me. Renny I accidentally hit with m'car after I dropped him off one night from drinkin'. I hit the gas when I should've hit reverse, wham! I shoon't have backed up over him, though, that was my bad, I wasn't thinkin'. And Jake 'n' me was just fuckin' around, shootin' each other with bulletproof vests on. I went first, and all it did was knock me on my ass. But I shot him, damned thing just tore right on through."
As Zeke recounted his tales, hands still on his head, Dunne noticed there were blood-red skulls tattooed on the underside of Zeke's biceps. Twelve of them. If those were what he thought those were, that meant he had at least five more bodies to find scattered somewhere in this town. He could feel a buzzing at the back of his head, like hearing an alarm clock from a deep sleep. "Zeke?" Dunne said in a tired voice. "What're those?"
Zeke peeked at his underarm. Smiled big.
"Figured I should mark 'em for posterity. Took me a while to get the idea, though, so I had to start with nine. That was pretty uncomfortable all at once, gotta say. But then, every time I accidentally killed one, I just got 'em one at a —"
Dunne shot him twice. He couldn't stand to hear any more. Not one goddamn word. He watched Zeke fly against the wall, slide down slowly, take one last jagged breath before the lights went out.
Dunne shook his head. "This goddamn town, swear to God . . ."
The aftermath was easier than Dunne had thought.
Kelly mostly alternated between staring at Zeke's body and trying not to vomit, and staring at Dunne with wide, admiring eyes.
"How'd you figure it out, Sheriff?"
Dunne just shrugged. Luckily, all he had to do was tell the truth. "Just meant to question him, that's all."
Kelly kept staring at him. "You're a hero, Sheriff."
Eventually, they loaded Zeke's body in the car. Eventually, Kelly went back to the station. Eventually, everybody lost interest and left, the town's one reporter, and the lookie-loos, and everybody else, and Dunne was alone with Dwayne in front of Zeke's house.
They didn't say anything. Finally Dwayne nodded, clapping Dunne on the back. "Town's lucky to have you, Carl." He got in his car, nodded. "Say hi to your missus for me."
Dunne nodded, tapped the roof of Dwayne's car to send him off. And for a while, he just stood in the front yard, hip deep among the weeds.
In their zeal to celebrate ending Zeke's one-day reign of terror, nobody had spent terribly much time searching the house, trusting that Dunne had already seen everything worth seeing. Kelly had done a quick once-over, but when there weren't any severed heads in the fridge or human teeth in a jar in the toilet tank, he went back to gawking at Zeke's corpse. But Dunne had known he couldn't be too careful. There was always the chance they'd search Zeke's house carefully.
But nobody would think to search the hero sheriff's car.
He waited a while before he went around to the back, where he'd parked his car, hoping that the wind would continue to blow the stink away from the house, which it luckily had. He popped the trunk, and hefted out the body. Hauled it down to Zeke's cellar, where he pulled up the floorboards, and dug a big enough hole to fit the body. He tossed the heavy garbage-bagged stiff in the hole, and carefully replaced the floorboards.
After a thought, he slid some boxes of Zeke's old copies of Juggs and Ammo America magazines over them.
And finally allowed himself to let out the breath he'd been holding in all day.
Dunne pulled his car up outside his house, got out, cracked his back. Hell of a day.
He walked inside, tossed his keys in the glass bowl in the entryway. He noticed Jean's keys in the bowl next to his. Out of habit he said, "Honey, I'm home."
He stepped into the kitchen, pulled out one of the rickety aluminum chairs from the table, wearily plopped himself down. Noticed the clock read 3:30 a.m. on the dot. Stared at the walls.
They were an explosion of blood.
This was where he'd shot her just twenty-four hours ago. After she'd come in reeking of booze and sex. After she'd told him she was gonna fuck who she wanted, she'd fuck the whole freshman line if she felt like getting her itch scratched, and there was nothing he and his limp dick could do about it. He'd calmly drawn his gun and blown a hole in her chest, right between the tits, where she'd forgotten to put her bra back on from whatever skank pit she'd been humping in. She'd looked surprised. That pissed him off, too. Where'd she get the nerve to be surprised?
He stared at the walls, how bloody beads had spattered on their wedding photo. After a few minutes, he took a bucket out from under the sink, filled it with warm, soapy water, dipped in a sponge. Got down on his knees, and started mopping up blood.
She'd run off before. Left town with whoever she thought could get her the furthest. It'd happened so often, Dunne didn't even have to explain it anymore, just said Jean was on one of her "walkabouts," and everybody let the matter drop. He figured if this was the time she went missing for good, people wouldn't think it odd. And if they found her, if somebody did have the bright idea to search under Zeke's cellar, well, Zeke had at least a couple of those skull tatts unaccounted for yet.
There was always the off chance, Dunne knew, that one of his deputies or Dwayne might notice she was Zeke's only female victim. That it might make them suspicious.
But somehow he doubted it.