Excerpt from Buried Strangers
...they took council and bought...the...field to bury strangers.
"Somewhere around here," Hans said, swinging his flashlight beam from the dark tunnel in front of them toward the thick wall of vegetation on the right.
Geraldo acknowledged with a wordless grunt, pulled the truck onto the high grass bordering the rutted dirt road, and hit the brake.
Hans clambered down from the passenger's seat and disappeared into the brush.
Twenty seconds later, he was back.
"Yeah, here," he said, "on the other side of that big tree."
"They're all big trees," Geraldo said.
"That one," Hans said, shining his light up and down the trunk.
Gilda Caropreso hesitated for a moment, reluctant to leave the warmth of the cab. The others started opening doors and unloading equipment. Geraldo slung on his camera cases, freeing his hands for the heavier work ahead. Fernando produced a thermos bottle of hot coffee. They stood around for a while, leaning against the vehicles, blowing into their hands, waiting for dawn.
Then they set out to recover the body.
Frost coated the samambaia ferns like a sugar glaze. Nocturnal animals rustled in the darkness. Gilda's breath came out in white clouds, spreading and vanishing in the windless air. Twice she heard gunshots punctuating the rumble of traffic on the nearby belt road. The temperature was two degrees below freezing. The location was a rainforest less than twenty kilometers from the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. The jungle that surrounded them was as thick as any in the Amazon.
Yoshiro Tanaka looked down at his feet and grunted. His weight had carried him beyond a crust of ice and into a thick ooze of red mud. The little cop stepped onto firmer ground, bent over, and started scraping at the gooey mass with a handful of dead leaves from the forest floor.
Tanaka, shorter than Gilda by half a head, was a delegado titular. A man in his position had no need to risk his shoes. In fact, he had no need to be out there in the rainforest at all. But within the confines of his domain, the area covered by his precinct, Tanaka could do whatever he damn pleased. And what pleased Yoshiro Tanaka was the adrenaline rush he got from visiting crime scenes.
Gilda took a lead from his misstep and leaped clear of the slime. Her two assistants, Fernando and Geraldo, burdened by the toolkit, body bag and stretcher, (and in Geraldo's case the extra weight of the camera cases) were unable to follow her example. They squished their way through the mud, muttering imprecations as they went.
Beyond the rise was a clearing. On the far side, perhaps fifteen meters away, a ball-like object protruded from the ground. Hans stopped and waved his arms.
"I was right about here," he said, "when The Mop spotted me."
Hans, his last name was something Teutonic, and Gilda had promptly forgotten it, was about twenty-five, blue eyed and blond haired, clearly the offspring of German immigrants. The Mop, twenty years younger, brown eyed and properly called Herbert, was an old-English sheepdog, owned by Hans' employer, Senhor Manfredo. To hear Hans tell it, the animal was an escape artist, the Houdini of the dog world. Hans claimed he spent half of his working life chasing after him.
"He picked up this big bone," Hans said, moving forward again and holding his hands apart as if describing the proverbial fish that got away, "and came running toward me with the damned thing in his mouth. I thought it was from a cow – until I saw that."
He pointed at the ball-like object.
By then, the skull was only a few meters away. Gilda could see both of the eye sockets, but the mandible was still buried in the earth.
Fernando and Geraldo put down their burdens. Fernando lifted the lid on the box and started unloading tools. Geraldo unpacked a camera and started loading film. Gilda knelt down for a closer look at the corpse. The bones were free of flesh. There was no smell of corruption. Some wisps of black hair still clung to the cranium. She took a pair of latex gloves out of the pocket of her jeans, blinked at the flash from Geraldo’s first shot and selected a medium-sized brush.
Tanaka rubbed his hands together to warm them and said something to Hans that Gilda couldn't hear. Whatever it was set Hans to talking all over again. Most people become silent, almost reverent, in the presence of death, but not Hans. Hans was a talker.
He'd first missed The Mop, he said, just before lunchtime. He didn't have any idea how long the animal had been gone because it was a big yard, with bushes and shrubs where The Mop liked to hide. Besides, there were a lot of things that Senhor Manfredo expected him to do around the house, like washing the cars and cleaning the swimming pool. He couldn’t be expected to keep an eye on the damned dog all of the time.
"And then I saw another hole under the fence. Every time he digs his way out I drive stakes into the ground so he can't crawl through the same place again. But then he goes and digs somewhere else. I got stakes all over the place. The back of the yard is starting to look like one of the forts you see in those old American movies, the ones about cowboys and Indians."
"Dog never came back on his own?" Tanaka asked.
"Never. He likes wandering around, pissing on other people's fences, sticking his nose into other dogs' assholes – uh, sorry Senhora."
"Senhorita," Gilda corrected him without looking up.
"Senhorita," Hans repeated. "And running around after kids. The Mop is crazy about kids."
"The damned mutt will go to anyone who calls him. Anyone. And then he slobbers all over 'em."
"It would make him easy to steal, I suppose?"
"You suppose right. From what I understand, he cost a bundle, and Senhor Manfredo is scared to death of losing him. If I see The Mop is missing, I'm supposed to drop whatever else I'm doing and go after him."
"Doesn't sound as if you like him much," Tanaka said.
Gilda, following the conversation as she gently dug around the skull with her trowel, had a feeling that Tanaka had only asked the question to get a rise out of the caseiro.
If that was the delegado's intention, it worked.
"Like him? Like him. Are you kidding?"
"So why don't you let him get lost -- permanently?"
"Because Senhor Manfredo would have a fit, that's why. You should see the scene when he gets home from work. The Mop whining and licking, and Senhor Manfredo making little kissy-face sounds and stroking. I swear if The Mop learned how to cook, Senhor Manfredo would ditch Senhora Cristina and marry the dog. I lose that animal, and the next one out the door is going to be me. Senhor Manfredo would fire my ass in a heartbeat. First thing he asked me when I applied for the job was whether I liked dogs."
"And you told him you did?"
"I wasn't lying," Hans said defensively. "In those days, I did. And then Senhor Manfredo calls The Mop, and The Mop jumps all over me, and I scratch The Mop behind the ear, and Senhor Manfredo gives me the job. Jesus, if I'd known what I was getting into, I would never have applied. Did you see all that hair? Senhor Manfredo wants it brushed every day. Every. Single. Day."
Tanaka had, indeed, seen the hair. In fact, some of it was clinging to his pants - as was a stripe of Herbert's drool, picked up earlier that morning when they'd stopped at the house to pick up their guide.
"You have my sympathy," Tanaka said, but not as if he meant it. "Let's get back to what happened. You picked up his leash..."
"Yeah, I picked up his leash and went out to look for him."
"But not right away?"
"No. I told you. I had lunch first. A man's got to eat, doesn't he? Didn’t take long. Maybe twenty minutes, that’s all."
"So there I am, walking around, walking around, for the next four hours or so and then, just before dark, I hear him barking."
"And you knew it was your dog because..."
"It's not my dog. It's Senhor Manfredo's dog. And I knew it was The Mop because The Mop's bark is different. You heard it. He sounds like he's hoarse or something. Like some guy who just walked out of a stadium, somebody who screamed so much he lost his voice."
Tanaka smiled politely, as if it was the first time Hans had made the comparison.
"So, like I said, I followed the sound, found the path, came into this field and found him chewing on that bone. He only let me take it out of his mouth because he thought I was gonna throw it for him."
"So then you..."
"Took one look at the skull, put the leash on him, got the hell out of here and called you guys."
Tanaka nodded and addressed Gilda.
"I decided to leave it until morning," he said. "Can you imagine trying to find this place in the dark?"
Gilda shook her head and stood.
"We're on a incline," she said. "The grave wasn't deep. She was probably uncovered by erosion."
"She?" Tanaka sounded surprised. "A woman?"
Gilda pointed to the black hair still clinging to the skull. It was long, unlikely to be a man's.
"She's been here for quite some time," she said. "Hardly any flesh left at all."
"The dog, maybe?" Tanaka said.
"Not the dog. Decomposition and insects. Most of the bones appear to be in place, but I'll only be able to verify that once we get her back to the IML."
The IML, the Instituto Médico Legal, was the headquarters of Săo Paulo's Chief Medical Examiner and the place where Gilda spent most of her time. She was a slim brunette, who looked too young to be a full-fledged pathologist. When she neglected to pin on her name tag, visitors to the morgue often took her for a secretary or a medical student.
She was about to kneel down again when the sun crept over the encircling rim of forest. Long shadows fell across the field, emphasizing irregularities in the carpet of green. In the altered light, row upon row of rectangular mounds suddenly became visible.
Gilda saw them first and narrowly avoided putting one of her latex-gloved hands over her lips. Hans' mouth dropped open. Fernando and Geraldo looked at each other. Tanaka just stared.
Graves. Tens of graves, lined up row-on-row.
Herbert, The Mop, hadn’t just found himself one corpse to play with. He’d found himself an entire cemetery.