Critical Mass Excerpt

1

 Hell’s Kitchen

The sun scorched my back through my thin shirt. It was mid September, but out on the prairie, the sun still beat down with a mid-summer ferocity.

I tried the gate set in the front of the cyclone fence, but it was heavily padlocked; when I pushed hard to see if it would open at least enough for me to slide through, the metal burned my fingers. A camera and a microphone were mounted on top of the gate post, but both had been shot out.

I backed away and looked around the empty landscape. Mine had been the only car on the gravel county road as I bumped my way down from the turn-off in Palfry. Except for the crows circling and diving into the brown cornstalks across the road, I was completely alone.  The only other person I could see was a farmer some half mile distant, creating a dust cloud with his tractor. I felt tiny and vulnerable under the blue bowl of the sky. It closed over the earth in all directions, seeming to shut out air, to let in nothing but light and heat.

Despite dark glasses and a visored cap, my eyes throbbed from the glare. As I walked around the house, looking for a break in the fence, little purple smoke rings danced in front of me.

The house was old and falling down. Glass had broken out, or been shot out, of most of the windows. Someone had nailed slabs of plywood over them, but hadn’t put much effort into the job: in several places the wood swung free, secured by only a couple of nails. Behind the plywood I could see pieces of cardboard or tatty cloth stuffed around the broken panes.

The steel fence had revolving spikes on top to discourage trespassers like me. Signs at several intervals warned of guard dogs, but I didn’t hear any barking or snuffling as I walked the perimeter.

In front, the house was close to the fence and to the road, but in the back the fence took in a large stretch of land. An old shed had collapsed in one corner. A giant pit filled with refuse and stinking of chemicals, had been dug near the shed.  Jugs, spray cans of solvent, and all the other fixings of a meth operation fought with coffee grounds and chicken bones for top stench.

It was behind the shed that I found the opening I needed. Someone had been before me with heavy steel cutters, taking out a piece of fence wide enough for a car to drive through. The cuts were recent, the steel along the pointed ends shiny, unlike the dull grey of the rest of the metal. As I passed between the cuts, the skin on my neck prickled with something more than heat. I wished I’d brought my gun with me, but I hadn’t known I was coming to a drug house when I left Chicago.

Whoever had cut the fence had dealt with the back door in a similarly economic way, kicking it in so that it hung on one hinge. The smell that rolled out the open door was all too easy to recognize: a metallic iron mixed with rotting meat. I pulled my shirt up over my nose and looked cautiously inside. A dog lay just beyond the doorway, his chest blown open.  Some large caliber something had taken him down as he tried to protect the losers he lived with.

“Poor old Rottweiler, your mama never meant you to guard a drug house, did she,” I whispered. “Not your fault, boy, wrong place, wrong time, wrong people.”

Flies were busy in his wounds; the ends of his ribs were already exposed, patches of white beneath the black of dried blood and muscle. Insects had eaten out his eyes. I felt my lunch start to rise up and made it down the steps in time to throw up in the pit by the shed.

I went back to my car on wobbly legs, where I collapsed on the hot front seat. I drank some water from the bottle I’d brought with me. It was as hot as the air and tasted a little rubbery, but I suppose it was good for me. The rhythm of the distant farmer moving up and down the dusty rows was calming.  He was too far off for me to hear; the only sound came from the wind in the corn, and the crows circling above it.

When I thought my stomach and legs might behave, I took the big beach towel from the backseat where my own dogs sit when I drive them back from Lake Michigan. In the trunk I found an old t-shirt which I slit open so I could tied it over my nose and mouth. Armed with this makeshift mask, I returned to the house. I waved the towel hard enough to dislodge most of the flies, then covered the dog.

When I stepped over his body, it was into a kitchen from hell. A scarred wooden hutch, once painted white, was filled with spray cans of starter fluid, drain cleaner, jars part-full of ugly looking liquids, eye droppers, Vicks inhalers, and gallon jugs labeled “muriatic acid.” A makeshift lab hood with an exhaust vent had been constructed over the hutch. Half-buried in the filth I saw a number of industrial face masks.

Whoever had kicked in the door had also pulled linoleum from the floor in great strips and pried up some of the rotting floor boards. Through the exposed joists, I could see the basement. I squatted and pointed my flashlight through one of the openings. Water heater, furnace, but no bodies as far as I could tell. The basement had a dirt floor, and cool air rose from it, along with a smell of leaf mold that seemed wholesome in contrast to the chemicals around me.

I straightened up and played my light around the room. It was hard to tell how much of the shambles had been caused by the dog killers and how much by the natives.

I stepped over jugs that had been knocked to the floor, skirted a couple of plug-in heaters, and moved into the rooms beyond.

It was an old farmhouse, with a front room that had once been a formal parlor, judging by the remnants of decorative tiles around the empty fireplace.  These had been pried out of the mantel and shattered. Someone had held target practice against an old rolltop desk. An angry hand had smashed the drawers and scattered papers around the floor.

I stooped to look at them. Most were past-due notices from the county for taxes and for garbage pickup. The Palfry Public Library wanted a copy of Gone With the Wind that Agnes Schlafly had checked out in 1979.

The only item that seemed interesting was a black-and-white photograph, all that remained of a savagely mangled photo album. It was an old picture, bleached out and scarred from its time in the meth house. It showed a dozen or so people gathered around a large metal egg that stood on a giant tripod. It looked like a cartoon version of a pod landing from outer space, but the group around it looked at the camera with solemn pride. Three women, in the longer skirts and thick-heeled shoes of the thirties, sat in the middle; five men stood behind them, all in jackets and ties.

I frowned over it, wondering what the metal egg could possibly be. Pipes ran through it; perhaps it was the prototype of a machine to ferry milk from cow to refrigerated storage. Just because it was an oddity, I stuck it into my bag.

The adjacent room contained a couple of card tables and some chairs with broken backs. Empty pizza cartons, chicken bones, and a bowl of cereal that was growing mold made me think this might be the dining room.

A staircase led to a second floor; tucked underneath it was a stopped-up toilet. A better detective than I might have looked inside, but the smell told me more than I wanted to know.

Three bedrooms were built under the eaves at the top of the stairs. Two of them held only mattresses and some plastic baskets. These had been upended, spilling dirty clothes over the floor. The mattresses had been slit, so that hunks of batting covered the clothes.

There’d been an actual bed and a dresser in the third bedroom, but these, too, had been ripped apart. An eight-by-ten of a young woman holding a baby had been torn from the frame, which itself had been broken in half and tossed onto the shredded bedclothes.

I picked up the photo, cautiously, by the edges. Sun had bleached the colors. It was hard to make out the woman’s face, but she had a halo of dark curls. I slipped the picture into my shoulder bag along with the one of the milk pod.

A large poster of Judy Garland, with the caption Somewhere Over The Rainbow, hung by one corner over the bedstead, the tape ripped away from the other edges. I wondered if that was the drug user’s joke: “way up high.” It was hard to imagine a meth addict as a purveyor of wry humor, but of course it’s easy to be judgmental about people you’ve never met.

The few clothes in the closet—a gold evening gown, a velvet jacket that had once been maroon, and a pair of designer jeans—had also been slit.

“You got somebody pretty pissed off, didn’t you,” I murmured to whoever had once worn those clothes. My voice sounded odd in the dismembered room.

If there’d been anything to find in this ruined house, the dog’s killers already had it. In my days with the public defender’s office, I used to see this kind of destruction, usually over cocaine or pot—we didn’t have many meth labs in the city in my time.

Most likely the invaders had been hunting for more drugs. Or they felt the drug dealers had done them out of something. The addicts I’d known would have traded their mother’s wedding ring for a single hit and then come back to shoot up the place so they could retrieve their jewelry. I’d represented one woman who killed her own son when he couldn’t get back the ring he’d traded for a rock of crack.

I climbed down the steep stairs and found the door that led to the basement. I walked partway down the stairs, but a spider the size of my hand scuttling from my flashlight kept me from descending all the way. I shone my flash around but didn’t see signs of blood or battle on the dirt floor.

I left through the front door so that I wouldn’t have to wade through the kitchen again. The door had a series of deadbolts, as unnecessary an investment as the security camera over the padlocked gate. Whoever had been here before me had already shot them out.

Before retreating through the gap in the fence, I found a board in the high weeds around the shed and poked through the open pit. It held so many empty bottles that I didn’t want to climb down in it, but as far as I could tell, no one was buried among them.

I took a few pictures with my camera phone and headed for the exit. I was just skirting the fence, heading to the road, when I heard a faint whimpering from the collapsed shed.  I pushed my way through weeds and rubble and pulled apart the siding. Another Rottweiler lay there. When it saw me, it feebly thumped its stub of a tail.

I bent slowly. It made no effort to attack me as I cautiously felt its body.  A female, painfully thin, but uninjured as far as I could tell. She’d gotten tangled in a mass of old ropes and fence wires. She’d fled into the shed when her partner was murdered, I was guessing, then panicked and worked herself deep into the makeshift net. I slowly pried the wires away from her chest and legs.

When I moved away and squatted, hand held out, she got to her feet  to follow me, but collapsed again after a few steps. I went back to my car for my water bottle and a rope. I poured a little water over her head, cupped my hand so she could drink, tied the rope around her neck. Once she was rehydrated, she let me lead her slowly along the fence to the road. Out in the daylight, I could see the cuts from where the wires had dug into her, but also welts in her dirty black fur. Some piece of vermin had beaten her, and more than once.

When we reached my car, she wouldn’t get in. I tried to lift her, but she growled at me, bracing her weak legs in the weeds along the verge, straining against the rope to get out into the road. I dropped the rope and watched as she wobbled across the gravel. At the cornfield, she sniffed around among the stalks until she found what she was looking for. She headed into the corn, but was so weak that she kept falling over.

“How about if you stay here and let me find what you’re looking for?” I said to her.

She looked at me skeptically, not believing a city woman could find her way through a field, but unable to go any further herself.  I couldn’t tie her to the corn—she’d pull that over. I finally ordered her to stay. Whether she’d been trained or just was too weak to go on, she collapsed where she was and watched as I headed into the field.

The stalks were higher than my head, but they were brown and dry and didn’t provide any shielding from the merciless sun. All around me insects zinged and stung. Prairie dogs and a snake slipped away at my approach.

The plants were set about a yard apart, the rows appearing the same no matter which direction I looked. It would have been easy to get lost, except I was following a trail of broken stalks toward the spot where the crows continued to circle.

The body was splayed across three stalks. The plants had broken under its weight, but they still held it up so that it looked as though it was tied by invisible ropes. Crows were thick around the shoulders and hands and they turned on me with ferocious cries.