Chapter 1 – Alex Dillon

The desert smells like rain.

From my comfortable perch in the city, I can romance the desert, but my ancestors lived there, ate from the desert, drank from it. I wouldn't know what to do, myself. I wonder. My mother used to climb our family tree, looking into our past and holding it up for me.

With my weak back and poor coordination, I'm no hero, Ma, I'm sorry. I know we used to be (heroes, that is) but this is now. All I do is punch information into a computer and crunch numbers. I look at data and make it tell me who did what to whom so that the real heroes can go out and catch the bad guy. No, it's not sexy, but I'm not sexy. I must not be, I'm still single.

And I'm no gunslinger. I leave that sort of thing for the guys in homicide and the Rangers. Me? I barely pass my quals each year with a standard sidearm and I failed marksmanship when I tried out for the Rangers because the carbine nearly knocked me on my ass. Hell, it dislocated my shoulder…twice. After that, they told me to stick to the labs. I'm a geek. The kind of heart in DPS call us squints; most of the other names they call us are unrepeatable in polite company.

I may be a geek but I'm also imaginative enough to wonder what it was like back then, before freeways and Indian casinos. Sometimes at night, away from the glow of screens and hum of hard drives, I sip whiskey and imagine I am camping in the high desert. I'm surrounded in my washout by scorpions I can't see and won't ever notice because they're so shy. The sky is huge and on the wind building and blowing dust, I can smell rain.

Then I wake up back in Dallas. It hums like any big city, possibly like New York (or so I've been told, never actually been there). This is a new West, one tamed by modern technology and artificial schedules which have nothing to do with the cycles of the season or the sun and moon. For a moment I think, this isn't really the West. Then I get up to make coffee and forget scorpions, the sky, and rain. I have too much else to do to be in love.

Time to go to work.

The traffic just about kills me every time. Dallas tries to be a metropolitan city but it's still a cow town at heart and the transit system hasn't quite caught up to the twenty-first century yet. They're working on it…and that's part of the problem. At least I no longer have to worry about suffocating in my own sweat while I sit in gridlock.

About two years ago, I got rid of a car that had served me since college. I drove it to Tennessee when I went to study forensic science at Knoxville where it snows in winter and where the smell of cow shit from the agriculture school often wafted across our lovely three acres of death.

When I graduated and got this job with the Texas Department of Public Safety, I drove it to Dallas. The Corolla was ailing by then --- paint peeling, radio didn't work, transmission out of whack, and the AC had long since given up the ghost --- but it got me to work and back. In the winter it wasn't a big deal but in the summer I drove around as little as I could get away with. I used to drive to work shirtless and then get dressed in the public bathroom so I could retreat into the AC without looking like someone who spent an hour in traffic stewing in his own sweat.

My little Toyota died on me so I turned my decent salary around and bought this hybrid. It has air conditioning and a radio. My car's not sexy, but it gets amazing gas mileage when I have to drive half way across the godforsaken Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I have to do that a lot. Most folk think squints spend all their time in the lab, but you never know when you're going to be called out to a scene. Sometimes the evidence is too fragile to be transported without damaging or destroying it. Other times, homicide wants a fresh eye.

That's where things stand– I have working AC, a cat, an apartment that doesn't embarrass me, and a good-paying job with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which also pays for my health insurance in the rare cases I need a doctor. Of all the things I ever feel grateful for, I enjoy good health (except the damned back, of course; Ma says that's the Marshal's fault, as he was a tall man and prone to disc slippage). My Ma puts it down to hearty pioneer stock and ancestors who tamed the West – people who didn't have time to fall ill, though I'm pretty sure they did. Look at Doc Holiday. Of course, he still kicked ass right and left, even when he was dying.

Now I'm in charge of my own little department, forensic toxicology. We analyze blood samples and other types of evidence. I can read blood types, drug content, and a lot else. My department is in the same building as Texas Rangers Company B and of course we're all lumped under the Department of Public Safety but I'm still not really a cop. My Ma's dead disappointed. She lives in a world where gunslingers rule the West, Sheriffs mosey up the street and just shoot the bad guys, and right and wrong are very obvious. I wish it was that easy. I would sometimes like to be a kid again, trying to outdraw Wyatt Earp on some TV show with my plastic six-shooter. I ought to admit, I still try to outdraw the gunslingers with my DPS issue piece and my television. I haven't beat them…yet.

All this is running through my mind as I sip my coffee and look over my day's tasks. The usual blood and urine samples, some crime scene stuff, scraps of cloth, and even a baggie filled with leaves. Harris is looking eagerly at my work, ready to question me about the evidence. Those little bags with the "EVIDENCE" strips draw him like the proverbial moth to a flame. He's had some law school and how he ended up here, I don't know --- an internship to fulfill some sort of class requirement, I guess. He's got a serious jones for serial killers.

"Whatcha got, Dillon?" My name's Alexander Dillon, but the custom is last names only. It makes me feel like I'm in boarding school.

"The usual, Harris. Whatever sludge the first secretary on hand can brew." I drop my half-empty cup in the trash. It really is sludge. I need to bring my own.

"Got some evidence there. D'you think it's from Fort Worth?"

"Why in hell would I think that?"

"You didn't hear about this job that went down? In one of the upscale neighborhoods. They found this old couple killed in their home, he was in bed, and she was out in the garden. No robbery or anything - just killed 'em." Harris prides himself on up to the minute knowledge of all suspected serial murders in the United States. I wonder what Harris' home looks like. I wonder if he'd cream his pants if I bought him a clown painting by John Wayne Gacy. He probably would.

"That's a shame, but I don't know where this is from. Hey man, I've got a lot on my plate today, I'll see you later, huh?" I slap him cordially on the arm and walk off. I want to like this guy, but he's too eager. It's creepy.

I start with the chemical forensics. I analyze blood samples, urine samples, test dried fluids found on upholstery, underwear, organic matter, you name it. I like my work, although "like" isn't a good word. I see the remnants of violent deaths, the flotsam washed up in the wake of horrible passions, and in an intellectual sense, I know what I handle relates to some human, someone like me who met with unbelievable pain and then with death. So I don't exactly like it, but it gives me great satisfaction. I do something good for others, even if they're already dead, but some people don't do anything except for themselves.

I put on some coffee of my own with a Bunsen burner and a knocked-together coffee maker my supervisor would freak out over. Misuse of government resources and all that jazz. But it gets me through the morning, and I can have a decent cup. I watch it perk while I prepare slides and get my wizard's brews of solvents and reagents going. I run this lab, and even with a host of interns and underlings, there are some things only I'm smart enough to do.

I am, I do, I think …. All about me so far. Let's talk about these leaves that I lied about. Yeah, they're from that crime scene out in Fort Worth. I talked to one of the guys in homicide and it seems this apparently harmless older couple were both shot execution-style in their home. I don't know what I'm looking for. I usually don't. Dried leaves and sticks. Scraps of carpet. Isolate blood or other body fluids and get a chemical profile. Really, what I'm trying to tell you is about these people, not me. I'm just the mouthpiece. Through me they find ways to speak from the grave. I've spoken to other forensics experts who feel the same. Our work is about them.

Recently, I heard a story about some fishermen down along the coast who found a murdered little girl adrift in one of those big Tupperware tubs you store sweaters in. While I look at the world with a realistic eye and I know people will do awful things to one another, things like that make me sick at my stomach. I suppose that's why I do what I do.

The same Ranger also told me the couple's adult daughter was starting up some night club in Austin – one of these deals where you can drink shots from between the breasts of some hot female bartender. It may prove worthwhile to do some investigation on my own and go see this place. Austin's a cool town anyway, and I like to go soak up some good music and cold beer.

Captain Marrin is still eating lunch when I knock on his door with the forensic report on those blood samples. He waves me in, mopping juice from a roast beef sandwich and I sit while he finishes off an e mail. Marrin is a Ranger, but he isn't such a prick like some of the others I'd had the misfortune of meeting. Finally, he is able to clear the decks for me.

"Here's what I got, but I want to know, what happened to the dog?"

Marrin looks at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, a couple of these samples here, these..." I separate them out and push them across his desk. "They're canine, not human. That's a shame, but I've seen cases where a killer murdered the family pets along with the people. I was just wondering." I start to feel a bit weird about this, and add, "I like dogs."

"I like dogs, too, but there weren't any dogs at the scene. From what I've been able to find out, Mrs. Dupree was allergic. So, it's dog blood?" He bends over the report, screwing his forehead up in a knot.

"Not quite," I say, "It's canine. It could be a dog, a coyote, maybe a wolf, or even a fox. I'd have to run more tests to pin that down. For one thing, there's this protein profile..."

I stop as Merrin pulls out the case file on the Duprees. "Look, I'll show you. Shut the door."

It isn't often I got to see this sort of thing. What Merrin spread in front of me, nudging the pictures into place with his stumpy, dark fingers, is not a surprise but it was a shock. There lay the older couple, faces obscured with blood or turned from the camera. "The woman was found outside in her garden and the man in the basement. They think he was taken there from the bedroom before being killed." The bedroom photograph shows a still burning cigar and a book opened but unread. No dead dogs, I notice. The position of the bodies is odd. I had seen enough to know how people fell down when dead and this wasn't it.

"Why are they posed like that?"

"You noticed that, huh? You're right, they were arranged after they were dead. Look at this one, see how Mrs. Dupree has these flowers and bits of herbs and stuff sprinkled over her? He had the same thing stuffed into his mouth, all post mortem. There was also ash, associated with burning herbs, and prints of bare feet. Those are being worked up now."

"Smudging."

"Huh?"

"Smudging. You know, when you burn sage and stuff, I don't know what all the hell's in it. You burn it prior to ceremonies and to clear the air. It's a magical kind of thing. Crystals and shit." I say that last bit to cover up, thinking of my ex-girlfriend with all her Native American stuff, ninety percent baloney and ten percent authentic history. My Ma's interest in history had rubbed off, and while I didn't know a whole lot about Native traditions, I have developed a 'bullshit meter.'

"Huh. Yeah, I bet that's what that is. There's probably some significance to the poses, too. I'll get someone in to look this over, we need an expert. Good thinking, Dillon." He smiles briefly before getting back to work, and I know I am dismissed. I push my blood work near the case files to make sure it isn't lost and slip out, back to my lab and test tubes before he could think to ask me more.