A Bad Day’s Work ONE
The pager woke me.
In the dark, my hand reached for the nightstand and found the small, shrieking device. I was the on-call shooter that night, but not every page was something worth photographing.
I pushed my tangled curls out of the way and focused on the flashing display panel. Possible 187. Valley Farms. Weedpatch HWY. Sheriff’s Dept. on scene.
“Crap.” My hand darted for the light switch.
I grabbed my jeans from the floor and slammed into them. No sign of my red shirt with the TV station logo. I threw on something from the hamper and ran down the hall to the living room.
Boots? Not under the coffee table. Not by the door.
I put on my blue coat and unzipped one of the bulging pockets. From the mess of batteries, antacids, mic cables, and who knows what else, I pulled out a large rubber band. I jammed my hair into a ponytail and searched for the hiking boots I wear to work.
A cell phone rang. I flew to my canvas gear bag at the front door. I grabbed the cell phone, and found the boots hiding underneath the bag.
I shoved a bare foot into the already tied boot while cradling the phone between my ear and shoulder. “I got the page. I’m on my way.”
“It’s a 187. Do you understand? Am I being clear? A 187.”
Walter Trent, my station’s news director, was in his early
thirties, upwardly mobile, and just doing time in Bakersfield on his way to a better job in a bigger city. He had a habit of making a statement and then asking, in the most condescending way possible, if it had been understood.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand. I’m on top of it.”
“Because David’s ready if you can’t handle it.”
I almost dropped the phone. “You called David? Do you know how that makes me look?”
“This story is more important than how you look. There’s only two more nights of sweeps and we’re in position to take back the number one spot from Channel 19. Do you know what that means?”
It meant Trent would get a bonus and the rest of us would share a pizza, but I didn’t say so. “We all want to be number one, but that’s no reason to second-guess me.”
His voice abruptly softened. “You’ve covered a lot of shifts this week. Haven’t you earned a break?”
He was right. I’d worked nine days straight, one of them Thanksgiving, and felt way past fried. But this was a question of professional pride. “You know I won’t be able to show my face in the newsroom if you send David out on my night.”
“It’s not that simple.” He paused in a rare moment of indecision. “You’ve been screwing up a lot lately.”
There it was. I knew the talk of the watercooler was my descent from dependable pro to unreliable screwup, but until now the talk had stayed behind my back.
“It’s been bad luck, not screwing up.” My second foot was stuck half in its boot so I kicked against the wall. The leather refused to give way. “And my luck is due to change.”
A sharp exhale cut through the phone line. “Lilly, if you take this call and don’t come back with an amazing story, you’ll be looking for another job. Understand?”
“I can do it.” I raised my knee and kicked harder. My foot went through and landed in the boot. The boot also went through and landed in the wall.
“Then get off the phone and get down to Arvin. Am I being clear?”
I pulled my foot out of the wall and shook off the plaster. “Crystal.”
The line went dead.
I hauled my bag outside, pausing only to lock the front door. I turned quickly, anticipating a sprint to the news van parked at the end of the walk, but instead stopped cold.
No walkway. No palm trees. No neat row of fifties-era bungalows. Even the neon lights from the top of the Golden State Hotel had vanished. All of downtown Bakersfield had been eaten by the tule fog.
A parade of bloody images flashed through my mind. Every winter the tule fog creeps into California’s Central Valley and kills motorists stupid enough to drive in its pea-soup conditions. I’d photographed enough of the gruesome wrecks to know.
My hand made a furtive move to the gear bag, but stopped midway. Calling Trent back was the smart thing. No shooter would be stupid enough to go out in this, not even a testosterone-fueled alpha male like David, but I wasn’t just any shooter. I was the only woman in town who did this for a living, and plenty of jerks quietly thought I wasn’t up to it. If a rival station got a shooter down to Arvin, they’d get a scoop during sweeps and I’d be the wimpy girl who chickened out.
And Trent was right, things hadn’t been going well for me—mics not working, taking home the wrong pager—and this wouldn’t help.
I found the news van and tossed the gear bag in the back next to my emergency stash of Mountain Dew and the already loaded camera.
I drove slowly and listened out the open window for traffic. On Highway 58 I trailed a truck in the slow lane. I followed his lights east, then exited at Weedpatch Highway.
The fog thinned as I sped past miles of Kern County farmland immortalized by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath
. In the seventy
years since my grandparents had made that desperate journey from the Dust Bowl, billions of crops had been planted, grown, and harvested, and the towns of Lamont and Arvin had become small but thriving Latino communities. Agriculture had remained, along with pockets of shocking poverty, but now there were subdivisions and SUVs as well.
I had no trouble finding the right place despite the fog and the way the orchards bled into one another. A Sheriff’s Department cruiser, its lights flashing alternately red and white, guarded a dirt road from behind sawhorses and police tape. Farther into the orchard, where the dirt road began to fall into darkness, a Valsec Security car held two rent-a-cops. One was older and talking on a cell phone while his younger female partner slept.
An officer jumped out of the police cruiser as I cut the engine. I took the camera from the back of the van and went to meet him at the barricade.
“I’m a shooter from KJAY. We got an automated page about a 187 at this location.”
His arm swung up and pointed a blinding flashlight in my face. This wasn’t the plastic kind you buy at the supermarket for $5.99. This was in the hard-core, let-there-be-light, professional-law-enforcement category.
“No statements and nobody’s getting in,” he said.
I raised my free hand to shield my eyes. “No statements at all?”
The officer ran the light up and down my body and settled the brightest part on my chest. “Did you say you were a reporter?”
I’m a petite woman and I’ve been told my dark, curly hair and big green eyes are pretty. I don’t fit the mold for a typical shooter, and this wasn’t the first time someone had doubted my profession. It shouldn’t annoy me anymore, but it does. “No, I’m a shooter,” I said. “Reporters aren’t on call in the middle of the night.”
“Really? You’re a shooter?” He tilted his head as though it might change what he was seeing. “We’re talking about the same thing, right? A news photographer? ’Cause those guys are usually pretty big and—”
“Yes, we’re talking about the same thing,” I interrupted. “I shoot video for KJAY’s local news. Can you at least confirm there’s been a murder?”
He didn’t answer. His attention had been sucked back to my chest.
I was ready to reach out and smack him, cop or not, when something sparkly on my shirt caught my eye. With dawning horror I recognized the metallic decal. I was wearing my Care Bears T-shirt. I’d bought it as a joke. It depicted Care-A-Lot, the magical cloud city where the Care Bears did their best caring and sharing. I’d hoped it would look innocently sexy if I ever found the time for a social life.
This was not the time or place to look innocently sexy.
“You don’t look like a shooter,” the officer said.
I set the camera down in the dirt and tried to zip up my coat. “We usually have shirts with the station logo, but I dressed in a hurry.” The small metal tongue fit into the zipper and I quickly pulled up. “Wanted to be first on the scene, you know, scoop the competition.”
He ran the light up and down my five-foot-four-inch frame. “How do you carry all that equipment?”
I reached down and picked up the camera. “Like this.”
The officer was silent behind his flashlight.
I smiled. “So, you got a dead body in there, or what?”
“I’m not authorized to comment.”
My smile disappeared. “You must at least know if someone’s dead.”
“This is crazy. We always get something.” I paused and took a deep breath. “Okay. You can’t comment, but when will someone be here who can?”
He shook his head. “No one is giving any statements. You can take it up with the department’s information officer in the morning.”
Part of me knew it was a mistake to lose my temper, but it wasn’t the part of me that was talking. “I want to take it up with you, right now. Do you have a body in there?”
His eyes collapsed into thin slits. “Step back onto the highway. You’re trespassing.”
Technically he was right. The road leading into the orchard was private property, but I doubted the owners would mind if I stood on their dirt. “I’m four feet from the public road.”
He leaned forward over the barricade and raised the flashlight so it shone directly in my face. “I said step back.”
I took two large steps backward onto the asphalt. “Yes, sir.”
He kept the light on me as I took my tripod, called sticks by most shooters, from the back of the van. After making a few minor adjustments I attached the camera and checked its settings. When I was ready to record, the officer retreated to the darkness of his vehicle so I couldn’t photograph him.
At least there were flashing police lights. They can make a grandma knitting look sinister. As if cued to my thoughts, the cruiser lights abruptly stopped. A dim bulb lit a VALLEY FARMS
sign, but I knew it wasn’t enough for video. I turned on the small light attached to the top of my camera and iris’d up, but a quick look in the viewfinder confirmed I’d need more light.
“I’m so fired,” I mumbled.
At minimum, a VO/SOT would be required for a story this big. A VO is video that the anchor speaks over, and a SOT is a sound bite taken from an interview. I had neither.
I took a deep breath, and for the first time the familiar smells of earth and fertilizer registered. I’d spent my early childhood on a farm, and this smell, part growing, part decomposing, was almost comforting.
My eyes fell on the security car where I’d seen the man and the woman. Without the flashing lights from the police cruiser I couldn’t see inside, but I knew they were there.
I raised my arms and waved back and forth. Nothing happened so I picked up a pebble and threw it at the hood of their car. The
driver’s door opened and the light came on inside the vehicle. The male guard pointed a questioning finger at himself.
“Yes,” I said. “Please, can you come over here for a second?”
He reached for one of two identical uniform caps sitting on the dashboard while saying something to the female guard. She nodded and went back to sleep.
He ran a hand through his hair and put on the hat. It gave him a more formal air, and when he tugged on the plastic brim, it reminded me of a TV cop. As he walked to the barricade, I looked him over. He appeared to be in his fifties with salt-and-pepper hair and a comfortable spare tire. He didn’t wear a jacket over his khaki-colored uniform even though it was cool enough to see our breaths.
“You’re persistent, aren’t you?” the man asked. The words could have been hostile, but his tone conveyed reluctance, not aggression.
“Can I interview you? It’ll be real quick.”
The man’s mouth twisted into a sheepish frown as he shook his head. “Wish I could help, but the boss doesn’t like us talking to the press. I shouldn’t even be out of the car.”
I didn’t pause to feel disappointed. “How about off-camera? Is there anything you can tell me about what happened?”
“Not much.” He gestured behind him to the cruiser. “Me and my partner were doing rounds when we got a call from the cops. They let us know about 911 calls on properties we patrol.” He shrugged. “Thought it was a prank, but we headed over anyway. Cops got here right after we did.”
“A couple hours ago. Near midnight.”
I looked past him. The fog and darkness combined to hide everything beyond the security car. “How far is the crime scene?”
“A ways in. I think it’s one of the spots where they load up trucks during the harvest.”
“Did the victim work here?”
He rubbed his arms to fight the cold and I knew he was
regretting not wearing a jacket. “Nobody does right now. These orange trees won’t yield for another year.”
“Then what was he doing here?”
“There’s an empty truck with the body. Looked to me like maybe a trucker got hijacked and they needed an out-of-the way spot to unload the cargo.”
He stepped back as a prelude to leaving so I rushed in with another question. “Can you describe the victim?”
He shook his head. “Nah. The cops asked us to have a look, but, well . . . my partner took it kind of bad. The EMT gave her something to calm down.” He looked at his shoes. “We don’t usually handle this kind of thing. The most trouble we get out here is kids drinking or sweethearts using the secluded areas.”
My voice softened. “Finding a body would be awful.”
“It’s not a good thing, that’s for sure. Truth is, I’m a bit shook up myself.”
“There’d be something wrong if you weren’t.”
He nodded and rubbed his arms again.
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” I asked. “You didn’t see anyone when you got here?”
“Nope. Place was deserted. The cops said to wait out here and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
“Frank?” His partner had got out of the security car and leaned against the hood. She wore a zipped-up Valsec Security jacket over her khaki pants. “When can we go home?”
“I don’t think it’ll be much longer,” he said over his shoulder. “Why don’t you get back in the car and rest. I’ll try and find out.”
She nodded and got back in.
“I better get back. I have a couple more calls to make to my supervisors.” He shook his head. “You have no idea the amount of paperwork something like this is going to generate.”
I stepped back to the camera. “Thanks for your help and I’ll keep it off-the-record.”
“Sorry it has to be like that, but my boss is kind of a jerk.”
“So is mine. That’s why I’m worried. He wants pictures of the
crime scene and they won’t let me in.” I looked back at the news van. “I’ll try putting my headlights on and shooting here. If I’m lucky, there’ll be enough light.”
The security guard looked around, eyed the cop in his cruiser, then leaned toward me. “On the south side of the orchard,” he whispered. “There’s a dirt road that runs the edge of the property. You can get in from there.”
I managed to suppress my excitement in case the cop was watching. “Thanks.”
Frank smiled. “If anybody asks, you didn’t find out from me.”
He returned to his car and I rolled off some shots of the entrance. It was still too dark for the camera to work, but my suddenly rushing off might have made the cop suspicious. After a minute or two I casually packed up my equipment.
I sped down Weedpatch Highway as the fog poured in like cotton batting. The dirt road was small and, in the fog, would have escaped my notice without the tip. I slowed the van and left the main road. Visibility was back to a couple feet, and there was a real danger of driving into an irrigation canal.
A flashing red light broke through the fog. I slammed on the brakes and narrowly avoided a police car.
I jumped out and spotted what looked like another dirt road cutting into the orchard. The police cruiser, a circling stream of red and white light shooting from its roof, blocked the road. I had my camera out, gear bag strapped across my chest, and the sticks up on my shoulder before the two cops could get out of their cruiser and stop me.
The female officer took the lead. Her partner was a younger Latino man with dark patches on his face I guessed were acne. He hung a few feet back but smiled in a friendly way. Both wore the brown uniform of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is a crime scene,” the female officer said. “Turn your vehicle around and return to the highway.” Her voice was matter-of-fact. She held a flashlight, but was careful to keep it out of my face.
“All I need is a statement and a couple pictures of your car with the lights going.”
She shook her head. “Not tonight. We’ve got a complete media blackout in effect. Order came down from the top.”
I glanced toward the dirt road. Visibility lasted about three feet beyond the police cruiser, but somewhere down there was the crime scene. Was my job worth making a run for it?
I turned my body away from the dirt road. “I guess the crime scene is in the orchard anyway.”
“It’s down that road, but we’re . . .”
I ran straight for the trees. “I’m so sorry,” I yelled.
Considering all the equipment I was carrying, they should’ve been able to stop me. I think it was simple shock that held them back.
“Sorry about what? Where are you going?” she shouted. “I said the crime scene is off-limits.”
“I have to get some shots.” My voice echoed as I disappeared into the fog. “I’ll be real careful.”
The last thing I heard was the male officer’s quiet lament “Tell me that didn’t just happen.”
I went in the direction I thought the road would be. I’d gone a couple feet when I hit a tree. The sticks, balanced on my shoulder and jutting out in front of me, took the hit. I readjusted and stumbled on an irrigation hose.
I pushed forward, reasoning that if I moved in the opposite direction from the police lights, I’d travel directly down the dirt road. Before long, even those tiny flashes were smothered, and I was plunged into complete darkness. I could have used my camera light, but if one of the officers followed me, I’d be a sitting duck.
“His head looks like the inside of a watermelon.” The man’s voice came from my right.
I dropped the sticks and flipped on the camera light. Tree limbs poked out of the fog. Small white flower buds dotted the dark foliage.
“More like sloppy joes,” a second voice teased from behind me. “You know, with extra sauce.”
I swung the camera around. Nobody was there.
“Show some respect for the dead, you jackass,” the first voice scolded.
I did a 360-degree turn, confirming I was alone, and switched off the light. Fog can do strange things to sound. The men could have been a few feet away or a mile.
“Oh, and I suppose your watermelon crack was respectful?” They both laughed.
I knelt down onto the rock-hard dirt and thought about my options. I could keep moving forward, hoping I was going toward the crime scene, or I could turn around and try to find my way back to the van. The latter might end with Trent firing me.
A breeze came though the trees, turning the beads of sweat accumulating around my hairline into icy pinpricks. It must also have cleared some fog because, for an instant, a dull flash broke through.
I lifted the sticks back onto my shoulder and carried the camera with my other hand.
Another flash of light. I followed.
Some distance later I emerged, unseen, at the edge of a large clearing in the heart of the orchard. Water particles danced in the beams of a powerful work light and made the air appear dense and alive. On one end of the clearing a series of official vehicles stretched down a dirt road into the darkness. At the opposite end sat a large, white, unmarked tractor-trailer. Through the open side door I saw two men with the Technical Investigations logo on their jackets. They took photos inside the semi’s empty cavern while a female TI appeared to be taking fingerprints from the open cab door. At various places around the clearing numbered, yellow plastic markers were placed in the dirt.
On the ground, in the middle of all this, two plainclothes officers squatted next to a blue tarp. I recognized their laughter.
A crash of metal startled me and I turned to see two attendants
pulling a stretcher from the back of the coroner’s wagon. “Hey, are we clear?” the first one asked.
One of the officers stood up. He wore a badge on a chain around his neck identifying him as Arvin PD. “You’re fine. They got photos and did a grid search.”
“For all the good it’s going to do.” The second officer stood and watched the attendants wheel over the stretcher. “I know you’re upset we missed jurisdiction by two miles, but I’m glad the Sheriff’s Department is stuck with this case. Who knows how many footprints and tire tracks those security guards destroyed driving through here.”
Still unobserved, I opened my sticks and attached the camera.
“You’re right, but I still don’t like getting cut out of a murder case this close to Arvin.”
My fingers fumbled for the record button. My eye looked through the viewfinder. I cranked up the iris and the grainy black-and-white scene sprang to life.
Behind me I heard soft steps in the dirt. “There you are.” I recognized the voice of the young male officer I’d run away from. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
I ignored him and focused on my shots. Close-up of the word MORGUE
. Medium shot of the blue tarp. Close-up of a shell casing next to a numbered, yellow marker. Wide shot of the clearing. Every extra second it took to get me out of there was another shot I could take back to the station.
A walkie-talkie crackled and then I heard the young officer say, “I found her. We’re on our way back.”
“Ten-four,” the female officer’s voice replied through static.
“Okay,” he said to me. “Time to go.”
I kept my eye glued to the viewfinder. “Just another minute.”
“You could contaminate the crime scene, jeopardize evidence.”
“I promise I’ll stay right here.”
The two gloved attendants lowered the stretcher and knelt next to the blue tarp. I knew the shot of the night was about to play itself out. The wheeling of the body into a morgue van would be the
perfect five-second distillation of an unfathomable tragedy, easily conveyed to the morning TV audience over their oatmeal. Without that shot all my little close-ups were worthless.
The morgue attendants lifted the blue tarp off the ground.
My stomach did a somersault and I tasted burnt metal at the back of my throat. The two Arvin PD officers walked away and disappeared behind the truck. Behind me the male officer took several deep breaths.
I continued to record as the attendants carefully bagged the victim’s hands, then lifted the body into a black bag on the stretcher.
The officer behind me took a final deep breath and said, “Time to go. I really mean it.”
“Just another minute.”
“No. If you don’t come with me right now, I’ll tell one of the detectives in charge and you’ll be arrested for trespassing and tampering with evidence.”
Cops don’t arrest the media. It’s bad PR. If you misbehave, they usually complain to your news director or even the station’s general manager. Even so, I was pushing it and I knew I should leave. Not just because I didn’t want to go to jail, but because I didn’t want to jeopardize their investigation.
But the shot was seconds from playing itself out. I think my staying had more to do with that, the compulsive need to get it right, than trying to please Trent.
The officer took a few steps back and called to someone off-camera. “Detective? We have a situation over here.”
My finger gently pressed on the zoom as the attendants wheeled the body to the morgue van. The picture grew in size and panned in exact synchronization. It was textbook smooth. I was in the zone. As the van doors closed a hand covered my lens.
“Turn it off,” said a voice featured prominently in my fantasies.