Excerpt

The Burning

Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Burning, by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman. Deputy coroner Clay Edison is used to shocking murder investigations. But when a new body is found, he isn't prepared to discover a connection to his own brother.

Monday. Nineteen hours in the dark.

The dead man lived up the hill. We could have walked, if the world wasn’t ending and we didn’t have to bring him back.

But it was and we did, so Harkless and I suited up and went out to the parking lot. As we exited the building a stunning fist of heat descended on us. The nearest wildfire was thirty miles away. Gritty sky and roaring air gave the illusion it was right over the ridge, climbing fast.

The apocalypse smells like a campfire and glimmers gold. Through fierce raking wind we hurried to the body van, got in,

and slammed the doors.

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Above his respirator mask Harkless kept blinking. “God.”

He pulled the mask down over his chin and wiped at the sweat ringing his lips. “You know where we’re going?”

I nodded and started the van.

We climbed a steep, peaceful residential neighborhood crammed with split-level wood-frame ranch homes built in the late fifties.

Long before anybody could imagine that million-acre fires, killing winds, and weeklong blackouts would become a season unto themselves. The houses weren’t under direct threat, but tight spacing and a uniform color scheme made them look like rows of matchbooks ready to ignite.

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No cars on the road. No children playing.

Wind pummeled the van, rocking it from side to side.

Scottish theme for street names: Aberdeen, Ayr, Dumfries, Inverness. Kilmarnock Court tapered south to a single potholed lane. Then large white painted letters issued a warning: begin private road. The paving beyond was fresher, darker, glassy.

In lieu of a guardhouse, a stern sign limited access to members of the Chabot Park Summit Homeowners’ Association and their guests, forbidding parking, loitering, or hiking, and promising to tow.

I eased the van over a speed bump. The gurneys jounced and gave a cough.

Entering the development we passed through an invisible portal. The aesthetics changed as did the financial calculus. The guiding principle was no longer efficient rectangles but relaxed curves, the goal no longer maximizing units per acre but dollars per unit. Stately new-builds shied back behind stone walls and high hedges. Slate roofs replaced asphalt tile. The architectural styles were varied. You had the money; you got what you wanted.

Less a community than a series of fortresses. “I had no idea this was here,” Harkless said.

This: rich people. Here: less than two miles from the county morgue.

We banked through stands of eucalyptus and California live oak to reach a long driveway that sloped up and out of view. An ultramodern fence of black metal slats set between concrete pillars stretched at street level. Double gates lay open. Flanking them were two larger pillars, one of which sported a security camera.

An Oakland PD cruiser with nobody at the wheel blocked the path. We waited for someone to appear.

“Rise and shine, sweetheart,” Harkless said. He leaned over and thumped the horn.

A uniform waddled out from behind a sycamore, tugging up his fly. “Sorry.”

He signed us in and spoke into his shoulder. “Coroner’s here.”

The driveway was longer than I’d realized, switchbacking up through buckthorn, sagebrush, coffeeberry, manzanita—native species curated to simulate wildness. The effect was undone by drip tubes bulging through the ground cover like junkie veins. By the time we leveled out, we’d gained seventy feet of elevation.

The hilltop had been decapitated, smoothed, plumbed, and wired, then meticulously reassembled, stone by stone, shrub by shrub, like a monument to the vanquished. For all that, the house made no attempt to blend in: a towering stack of cantilevered glass boxes sandwiched between layers of whitewash.

The driveway broadened to a sprawling concrete motor court clogged with black-and-whites, an ambulance, the crime lab van.   A wide concrete tributary slipped between the redwoods toward a mini-me guesthouse. To the west, the downslope had been buzzcut. A clear day would give breathtaking views of the Bay, the city, all the bridges.

Lost, today, beneath a blanket of toxic haze. Breathtaking, in a different sense.

We put on our masks and got out. Harkless hustled up  the front steps. I followed with the Nikon slung over my shoulder.

Inside, a massive foyer opened out to a massive living room with double-height ceilings and vast glass walls. The décor was spaceship-chic: whites, blacks, Lucite, chrome. Furniture sectioned off zones serving various functions, all of them leisurely.

Mirrored wet bar with zebra-skin stools. White concert grand. Two white low-pile rugs, each large enough to swaddle a shipping container.

Only a scatter of yellow plastic evidence markers disrupted the color palette.

The power had been off for nearly twenty-four hours, and the interior had devolved to a greenhouse. I exhaled and my mask seemed to fill with warm syrup. I wondered how much it must cost to cool the place.

Anyone who could afford to live here wouldn’t worry about utility bills.

Few people thought about their electricity, until it stopped flowing.

A sitting area near the bar was in disarray, end table overturned and puddles of broken glass. Criminalists in coveralls dusted, swabbed, tweezed.

No body.

I could smell it, though.

At the foot of the staircase Harkless greeted the detective, a trim middle-aged guy with a gaucho mustache and a slab of chocolate-brown hair. Despite the stifling conditions, he’d kept his suit jacket on, the ensemble medium tan with sharp creases sewn into the pant legs. The knot of his tie looked hard as a walnut.

“Cesar Rigo,” he said.

The victim was a white male fifty-five to seventy-five years of age, dead of apparent gunshot wounds to the back and neck. The woman who’d called 911 confirmed him as the homeowner, Rory Vandervelde.

“Who’s she?” Harkless asked.

“Davina Santos. The victim’s housekeeper. She arrived for work at nine a.m. and discovered the body.”

“Is she still around?”

“I have an officer attending her in the pool house,” Rigo said.

“I feel compelled to warn you, she is rather distraught.” He sprinkled his words like a chef does salt.

“We’ll be gentle,” Harkless said. “She mention anything about family?”

“According to her he’s widowed. There’s a girlfriend who stays over on occasion and a son in Southern California. She professes not to know the son’s name. The girlfriend’s name is Nancy.”

“Last name?”

Rigo shook his head. “She referred to her only as Miss Nancy.”

Either the smell was getting stronger or I was homing in on its source. I lowered my mask, craning.

Rigo gave a slight, curious smile. “Shall we?”

Two drops of blood had dried on the marble near the hallway threshold. They continued as Rigo led us into a separate wing: coin-sized spots, widely spaced.

Harkless started to gag. An N95 might help with dust and smoke, but it’s no match for decomp. A uniquely repellent odor, Mother Nature’s way of alerting human beings to the presence of death, designed to send us running in the other direction. You never really get used to it, though most coroners manage to quiet the convulsive physiological response.

No such luck for Jed Harkless. Around the office he’s known as Yak-Yak for the noise he makes, swallowing back waves of nausea. Why he’s never transferred out is a mystery.

Cesar Rigo appeared unfazed, stepping nimbly through the evidence markers.

Around a bend the bloody ellipsis reached its end: a burst of spatter, a concentrated port-wine pool, drag marks curving through an open doorway.

A second clog, people instead of vehicles. Blood pattern analyst. PD photographer. LiDAR. Ballistics, meditating over a hole marring the baseboard. Everyone sweating and shifting on haunches.

The crowd parted for us, and we followed the drag marks into a capacious office. Piled against the near wall was a collection of lived-in furniture. There was a suede armchair with nailhead accents. A reading lamp hovered behind like a backseat driver. The windows over the desk looked west toward gray oblivion. Atop the blotter sat a lifeless computer and an old-school Rolodex.

Two snapshots in silver frames.

The first showed an Asian woman in her midto late forties. She was pretty, with caramel skin and liquid black eyes. She wore a lei and hoisted a cocktail. Tiki torches. Turquoise sea.

In the second photo, a young white male posed in cap and gown.

Both subjects were smiling. Both stood beside the same man. He was smiling, too, a mouthful of shiny veneers set in a prominent, pointed jaw. His hair was blond in the graduation photo. By Hawaii it had silvered and thinned, though he kept the same sweptback style. He had the brick complexion of one who burns easily but nevertheless spends his time outdoors, unwilling to capitulate to the elements or bother with sunscreen.

He was gazing at the woman in the lei fondly.

He was gripping the young man around the shoulders, fingers digging into the gown. The two of them didn’t resemble each other. The desk and its kin occupied maybe fifteen percent of the floor space. The remainder was given over to sports memorabilia: framed jerseys, pennants, helmets, ticket stubs, trading cards, programs, game balls encased on pedestals, a riot of team colors. Green and yellow for the A’s; yellow and blue for the Warriors; the Niners’ red and gold. Rory Vandervelde was a Bay Area native or he’d adopted local allegiances.

I was impressed.

Rigo said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

Harkless didn’t say anything, hiccupping and lurching after the drag marks that snaked between display cases and into a modest half bath.

Rory Vandervelde lay on his stomach, face cocked to the left, wilting hair grazing the tiles. He wore black terry-cloth pants with a grosgrain stripe down the side and a gray silk shirt whose collar had partially torn off. There was a crescent-shaped gash over his left eye, a hole in his back, and another near the base of his neck.   A third shot had bitten off a chunk of his left trapezius.

Blowflies swarmed, emitting a bowel-tickling drone. They’d colonized the wounds as well as the decedent’s mouth, nostrils, ears, and eyes. Eggs glistened like clumps of rice. A few had broken out into maggots. Competition was fierce. Most of the prime real estate was spoken for.

Heat accelerates postmortem processes. Tissue breakdown, rigor, livor, insect activity—they’d all been ripping along, the off-gases collecting to create a fetid pressure cooker. Condensation streaked the windowpane. My educated guess was that Vandervelde had been dead no fewer than twelve hours, no more than a day. But that’s what autopsy’s for.

Rigo said, “Do you gentlemen require anything further at this time?”

Yak-yak went Harkless.

I said, “All set, thanks.”

Rigo left.

I thumbed on the camera. “I’ll get you when I’m done.”

Harkless nodded gratefully and went to stand in the hall.

Capturing the correct angles required some acrobatics. I leaned over the toilet and against the wall, blinking and snorting and batting away flies that had seized on my orifices as the solution to their housing shortage. Dilute pink traces streaked the sink; a pink corona ringed the drain hole; watery pink spots on the wall implied wet hands shaken dry. Other than that, I saw no effort to clean up, and I wondered why the killer had moved the body in here.

Likely he’d been doing what most people did after they’d killed someone: freaking out and scrambling and committing one dumb messy error after another.

I finished up and stepped from the bathroom and called to Harkless. “All yours.”

He soldiered past, gagging beneath the ineffectual mask. Pity him. He’d picked up the call. Examination of the body fell to him  as the primary.

While he got to it, I returned to the foyer. By the front door stood a lacquered table topped with a silver dish for off-loading sundries. Sunglasses. Driveway clicker. Five keys on a sterling-silver fob engraved with the initials RWV, one of which fit the door.

No wallet. No phone.

I advanced toward the site of the altercation, taking photographs as I went. Mixed in with the broken glass was more dried blood—the origin of the trail. I traced it down the hall and around the bend. The scrum of investigators dutifully parted to give me a clear shot. Their reports would take days or weeks to prepare. Still, I’d seen enough homicides that I could speculate about the sequence of events.

It had begun in the living room. Maybe the assailant had broken in and stumbled upon the victim relaxing with a drink in hand. Although the front door, at least, didn’t show forced entry.

Maybe the assailant and the victim had been sharing a beverage and had gotten into an argument.

Whatever the cause of the fight, it was violent enough to draw blood. The victim fled into the hall, flinging droplets as he went. The assailant caught up and shot him in the back and neck. Fueled by momentum, the victim kept going for a few more steps before reality kicked in and he collapsed, bleeding out, while the assailant panicked and freaked out and tried to decide what to do with him.

I photographed the kill zone. Exteriors and the rest of the house would have to wait until I’d helped Harkless turn the body.

I found him in the office-cum-museum, gazing at a 1989 World Series commemorative baseball autographed by Dennis Eckersley.

“Wallet?” I asked.

Harkless shook his head. “No phone, either.”

“Okay. Ready?”

He exhaled noisily. “No.”

We went into the bathroom.

A coroner’s duties include care of the decedent’s body, determining manner of death, notifying next of kin, and securing property.

Rory Vandervelde owned a great deal of property.

Thirsty for air, I started upstairs.

The second floor held the living quarters, a horseshoe of bedrooms at one end and the master suite at the other, joined by a balcony that spanned the width of the living room. From that height the disorder below looked a carrion feast, scavengers in white coveralls swarming.

Each of the smaller bedrooms was pristine and impersonal, outfitted with a queen bed, hotel linens, a seventy-inch flat-screen, and an attached three-piece bath. Crash pads, maybe, for anyone too tipsy to get home safely. A spread like this cried out for parties, big and frequent. What determined who slept here and who got banished to the guesthouse?

The master, on the Bay-facing side, was predictably huge. Less predictably, it was unadorned, the walls white and free of art. But that was the idea. Anything that drew the eye would distract from the main event: an explosion of color every evening at sunset.

Tonight’s would be more spectacular than usual.

The bed was a California king, half slept in. Atop the nightstand were the remote control for the AV system, a white noise machine, and a stack of magazines. Cigar Aficionado. Vintage Guitar. Hemmings Motor News. I opened the drawer. Foam earplugs. Eye mask. Reading glasses in an octopus tangle. No cellphone, but I did find a money clip with a California driver’s license.

Rory Vandervelde’s DOB was 02/05/1951. He stood five foot eight, weighed two hundred ten pounds, and was an organ donor.

I clicked on my flashlight and went to inspect the closets and bathrooms.

Two of each, his and hers.

Vandervelde favored luxe, neutral casual wear purchased in quantity. One shelf contained nothing but gray cashmere sweaters, all Versace, a few with tags attached. Its neighbor contained more sweaters, same brand, in black. I ran the beam over shoes and boots and loafers and slippers in every color from black to brown.

In the center of the closet stood a marble-topped island that merited its own census tract.

I combed through socks and underwear.

Burled maple boxes stacked on the floor. Wristwatch storage. Vandervelde owned at least a hundred. Three times as many pairs of cuff links.

You don’t know the half of it.

The overabundance gave a whiff of anxiety. Stock up while you can; might be gone tomorrow. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d grown up poor.

Now it was all gone, forever.

I went into his bathroom.

Like basically every American over forty, Vandervelde took statins. Viagra, antacids, ibuprofen. That just about covered it. A man his age had aches and pains, but most days two fingers of single malt did the trick, thank you very much.

What sounds like voyeurism had a purpose. The physical environment we create for ourselves often speaks truths we prefer not to acknowledge.

Recreational drugs pose as prescriptions. A lack of hygiene can reflect mental decline. Regardless of how self-evident a cause of death seems, you never know what autopsy will reveal or what might acquire relevance.

So we open every drawer, every cabinet. Inevitably a picture of the person takes shape.

Rory Vandervelde’s private quarters drew the portrait of a robust, vain, compulsive, fun-loving, clean-living individual.

I crossed over to Miss Nancy’s territory.

A few couture sweat suits. Sneakers. Embroidered bathrobe. Built-ins meant for showing off handbags and shoes sat empty. Her island was close to bare, save half a dozen pieces of jewelry, each of which was dazzling. The warmth brought out remnants of perfume.

Her claim on the medicine cabinet felt equally tenuous: contact lens solution and a handful of cosmetics. The perfume was Chanel No. 19. Large bottle, mostly full.

Bringing luggage during stayovers? Valuing her independence? Or he didn’t like having her clutter around.

Or a relationship teetering, commitment ambiguous.

A spiral staircase in the corner of the bedroom led up to a roof deck. Vandervelde had reserved the best views for himself, restricting the deck’s footprint to a relatively compact twenty-by-twenty square. Enough for a hot tub, another wet bar, lounge chairs, and   a vintage coin-op telescope aimed at what would have been San Francisco if the gods weren’t angry.

The blurred sun hovered at its apex, unsure of whether to press on or retreat.

I stood by the railing to take in the property’s full scope. Generous lawn, L-shaped swimming pool, pool house with its façade of French doors. The guesthouse, while smaller than its older brother, was enormous in absolute terms—what most people would consider a dream home. There was a putting green, a sunken garden with a pond, and steps descending to a lower-terrace tennis court.

Harkless came trudging over the grass toward the pool house to interview Davina Santos.

My eyes had begun to itch.

Back on the first floor I went room-to-room. Gym. Twelve-seat high-def home theater. Multiple eating areas, stocked kitchen with butler’s pantry and regular pantry and a windowless wine gallery.  I started running out of terms for “a place to sit and relax.” Library. Conservatory. Parlor. Den. You could exhaust yourself, trying to sit and relax in all of them.

Every surface was dust-free. Credit Davina Santos.

Vandervelde’s other collections included electric guitars, Americana, and antique pocketknives. Nothing looked to be missing, no busted locks or glaring blank spots.

If robbery was the motive, the killer hadn’t done a very good job.

Or he’d done an incredible job, locating a single item of interest and leaving without succumbing to the urge to grab handfuls of plunder on the way out.

I still hadn’t found a cellphone.

My final stop was the office. I’d bypassed it, saving the sports memorabilia for last. Amid the pens and paper clips in the desk I found an iPhone charger cord. But no phone.

Maybe that was the killer’s object.

In the bottom left desk drawer was an estate planning portfolio, green pleather binder, four inches thick, gold embossing.

I set it aside, drew out the keyboard tray, tapped the space bar to revive the computer screen.

It stayed dark. No power.

I’d forgotten, just as I’d stopped feeling the heat or hearing the buzzing of the flies.

The Rolodex’s plastic frame was riddled with hairline fissures and discolored by sun. I spun the dial to the V section. The absence of Vanderveldes puzzled me till I realized the cards were alphabetized by first name.

I dialed to N.

One Nancy listed.

Nancy Yap

Phone number with a 415 area code.

No sense wasting time hunting for the decedent’s son: I didn’t know his name. He’d be in the estate documents or we could locate him through Accurint.

An average scene, with an average amount of stuff to sort through, takes an hour or less. In my decade-plus as a coroner I’d never worked a private residence this large or this lavish. Two hours in I still wasn’t done.

I wandered the display cases, taking photos of the signed jerseys, the signed shoes, the stubs; quietly thrilled by the icons of my childhood, where and when rendered in sweat and leather.

Montana and  Rice. McGwire and Canseco. Run TMC.

Memories, resurrected.

The heat of my brother’s body against mine. On the floor, in front of the TV; elbow-jousting, stop, idiot, jumping up to embrace and scream victory.

On the court, in front of a crowd.

We watched anytime, played anywhere, loved everything, but basketball best of all.

Whatever else came between Luke and me, we always had The Game.

Yellow and blue are Warriors colors. They’re also the colors of my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley. Cal’s reputation rests on academics, not athletics. The Golden Bears last won the NCAA tournament in 1960 and have since undergone something of a dry spell. There have been a few exceptions: the mideighties under Kevin Johnson, the mid-nineties under Jason Kidd, and then again a few years later, when I was the point guard and we clawed our way into the Final Four before I tore my knee ligaments into fettuccine.

Rory Vandervelde had my face on his wall.

It was a roster photo from the top of my sophomore season. A magical moment, pregnant with possibility. I knelt in the front row, balancing a ball on my thigh. I looked giddy. So did my teammates. We knew what we were capable of.

Our team made countless public appearances. For the boosters; for sick kids. I could never remember signing one particular photo. Yet the proof was in the margins, in black Sharpie.

CLAY EDISON #7

Neater than it would be today. In time, everything breaks down.

“Pardon me, Deputy.”

Rigo leaned in the doorway. I had no idea how long I’d been standing there or how long he’d been watching me.

“Your partner is looking for you,” he said.

I nodded thanks. “I see what you meant.” “What’s that?”

“This not being the half of it.”

He smiled his small, odd smile. “There’s more.”

I was still reeling from confronting my younger self when Harkless met me on the motor court to relay the substance of his conversation with Davina Santos.

“She’s worked for him eight years. Ever since she started he’s been with Nancy. She’s not sure when his wife died but she thinks about ten years ago.”

“What about the son?”

“She’s never met him.”

“Ever?”

“I asked her twice. That long, I’m thinking they must be estranged.”

Davina Santos came Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She had a clicker for the driveway gates. Upon arrival that morning she discovered them open. Usually they shut after thirty seconds.

“Power’s out,” I said. “Maybe he opened them manually and didn’t get a chance to close them.”

Harkless mulled it over. “That’s what happened, he was alive as of yesterday afternoon. There’s cameras. Did you check the computer?”

I smiled. It hit him. No power. No footage.

“Shit,” he said. “Is there a battery backup someplace?”

“Not that I’ve seen so far.”

“Whatever. PD’s problem. You get what you need?”

“Almost. I still have to shoot the outside.”

“Hurry it up? I feel like I’m gonna suffocate.”

“Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s get him loaded. You bring him in and intake. I’ll text when I’m done, you come pick me up.”

He jogged to the van for the gurney. I went to confer with Detective Rigo.

He was on the second-floor balcony, elbows on the balustrade, the suit coat taut against his narrow, muscular back.

“We’re ready to remove,” I said.

He straightened up. Only then did I register how short he was—about five-five, almost a foot shorter than me. The hair gave him several extra inches, as did his carriage: chest puffed, shoulder blades pinched. “Very good.”

I shared our findings, giving him Nancy Yap’s full name and phone number from the Rolodex. Rigo raised his eyebrows. Not expecting that much initiative from a coroner.

“Thank you, Deputy.”

“No problem. I haven’t seen a cell anywhere,” I said. “Did you guys take it?”

“We did not. Is it possible you overlooked it?”

“Anything’s possible,” I said. “You’ll keep an eye out and let me know if you find it.”

“Our policy is open communication.”

“Right. Considering how many valuables are lying around, I want to confirm that you’re going to leave a uniform onsite till you’re done and you can call us to seal up.”

“Of course.”

In my experience that was not of course; it was very far from of course. But it’s wise to play nice, so I thanked him and we traded phone numbers and spent a few minutes divvying up who got what. He wanted the computer. I wanted the estate planning portfolio. He wanted any other financial documents. I wanted the money clip, house keys, and medications. The conversation was measured and polite, like an amicable divorce mediation.

“Anything else?” Rigo asked.

“Open communication. You tell me.”

He chuckled and went to clear the hall.

With the body van dipping out of sight, I followed the concrete path that led from the motor court down to the guesthouse, crunching over twigs and redwood cones knocked loose by the wind. Eucalyptuses creaked. Past a mountain of honeysuckle, the entrance came into view.

Entrances, plural.

A regular pedestrian door.

A hangar door, twenty feet wide and seventy-five percent raised.

Not a guesthouse. A garage.

It made sense. Rory Vandervelde had suites for his guests. The motor court was for their parking convenience. He had to put his own cars somewhere. Logic—and the size of the building—dictated that he had a whole bunch of them.

Rigo’s smirk. There’s more.

The hangar door gave onto a startling darkness. The garage’s windows, I realized, were false.

I clicked on the flashlight.

Surfaces and shapes receded to infinity. Not a garage. A museum.

I inched forward, playing the beam over polished glass and polished hardware and vivid high-gloss paint. Each time I took a picture the flash went off around me like fireworks. The floor was shiny, too, black-and-white checkerboard mimicking a final-lap flag. Vehicles clustered in twos and threes like the patrons of a cocktail party. Impotent track lights ran overhead.

Normally the space would gleam, bright and jaunty. Now I walked a crypt.

I’m not a car guy. Most of what I know I’ve learned in the course of being a cop. Meaning most of what I know has to do  with extremely shitty cars. Give me a beat-to-hell ’93 Corolla or dirty white panel van and I’m good. Anything over thirty-five thousand dollars MSRP starts to get fuzzy.

Rory Vandervelde owned around thirty vehicles, none of them shitty.

The collection went for breadth over depth. Sports cars and luxury sedans, a three-wheeled oddity, a Harley and a Humvee. I recognized the better-known brands. Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari. The exotics I’d never heard of. What was a Koenigsegg? My brother would know. It looked supersonic and, for a person with long legs, super-uncomfortable.

Off the main display floor were nooks, man caves within the man cavern, side chapels in this cathedral of testosterone: billiards table, humidor, jukebox, yet another wet bar. Aerodynamic furniture and art picked up the same visual notes, but subtly. There were no images of cars per se, but rather art deco prints in black and silver and gold; photographs of the Rat Pack, Muhammad Ali exulting over a downed Sonny Liston. A wall safe with a thick glass front showed off the thirty-odd car keys. Several qualified as works of art unto themselves: tiny fantasies in precious metal and crystal, shaped like shields or rockets or the vehicles they started.

The air, already stodgy, grew hotter and denser the deeper I went. At the rear I came to boutique repair shop set up with a hydraulic lift, chrome tools, and a broad worktable. Sharp stack of chamois. Clean white rags, suitable for an operating theater.

I took one last picture and started for the exit.

My phone buzzed.

Harkless had texted images from the bottom of the driveway. The gate mechanism was hidden behind a shrub. Someone had removed the housing to expose the motor and gears. A crank jutted, labeled with a double-headed arrow: open and close.

I slowed, glanced up. The cars had to be the single most valuable collection. Yet I’d strolled right in without a second thought.

Not through the pedestrian door. Through the hangar door. Which was stuck, partway open.

Adjacent to it, a portrait of Frank Sinatra hung askew, as though pulling away from the wall. I went over and touched the frame, which hinged out to reveal a recess containing the guts of the hangar door mechanism and a crank handle.

RAISE   LOWER

The hangar door looked heavy. Moving it would take elbow grease. Arm burning. Back cramping. You’d do it no more than necessary. Get the door only as high as you needed and stop.

As it stood, the opening permitted the passage of a low-slung car. Margin for error, eighteen inches. Don’t scratch the roof.

I panned the flashlight. Just like in the main house, I could see no evidence of theft—no vacant hooks in the key safe, no gap in the display floor left by a missing vehicle.

I thought about the driveway gates, cranked open in anticipation.

The hangar door, ready to receive.

A vehicle coming in, then.

Who’s the new guy?

You couldn’t call me totally ignorant about cars. My brother was a lifelong motorhead. Every November he made our father take him to the San Francisco Auto Show. Often I got dragged along. We’re less than two years apart and grew up sleeping four feet away from each other. Inevitably some of his knowledge filtered over to me.

Luke’s particular passion was muscle cars. Chargers and Firebirds and Thunderbolts, machines and names that conveyed raw power. In our bedroom he kept a Bullitt movie poster over his headboard. Not for the film or for Steve McQueen—both well before our time—but for its image of a Ford Mustang GT, tearing across the white background like an artillery shell exiting the muzzle. Other posters went up around it as we got older. Michael Jordan. Tupac Shakur. But the Mustang retained its place of prominence.

Rory Vandervelde owned a single classic American muscle car. It lurked in the shadows, off to the right of the hangar door, as though it had shown up to the party stag and had yet to join a clique. Like a wallflower. Which was funny, because the car itself was the antithesis of shy: a late-sixties Camaro, restored to perfection, painted a searing shade of green, and kitted out with aftermarket embellishments. Towering rims and a spoiler and a gnashing grille.

Short of acquiring the Bullitt car itself—maybe Vandervelde had tried—you’d be hard-pressed to find a more extreme example of the species.

I’d missed the Camaro on my way in. So much to gawk at. Eyes not yet adjusted.

I saw it now. It was, to be specific, a 1969 SS/Z28. V-8 engine, concealed headlights, black racing stripes, custom leather upholstery.

A hell of a car. One that I recognized, specifically. I had seen it before, not once but many times.

It was my brother’s.

__________________________________

From The Burning by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ballantine © 2020 by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman.




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