The Washington Post
Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dogby Susannah Charleson
An unforgettable memoir from a search-and-rescue pilot and her spirited canine partner
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson clipped a photo from the newspaper of an exhausted canine handler, face buried in the fur of his search-and-rescue dog. A dog lover and pilot with search experience herself, Susannah was so/p>/p>/b>… See more details below
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An unforgettable memoir from a search-and-rescue pilot and her spirited canine partner
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson clipped a photo from the newspaper of an exhausted canine handler, face buried in the fur of his search-and-rescue dog. A dog lover and pilot with search experience herself, Susannah was so moved by the image that she decided to volunteer with a local canine team and soon discovered firsthand the long hours, nonexistent pay, and often heart-wrenching results they face. Once she qualified to train a dog of her own, she adopted Puzzle, a strong, bright Golden Retriever puppy who exhibited unique aptitudes as a working dog but who was less interested in the role of compliant house pet. Scent of the Missing is the story of Susannah and Puzzle’s adventures as they search for the missing—a lost teen, an Alzheimer’s patient wandering in the cold, signs of the crew amid the debris of the space shuttle Columbia disaster—and unravel the mystery of the bond between humans and dogs.
The Washington Post
"The transformation of Puzzle the cuddly pup into Puzzle the professional search-and-rescue dog would be story enough, but Susannah Charleson gives us far more. With lean, lovely prose she takes us on a clear-eyed, compassionate journey into a mysterious world in which every story begins as a ghost story. When Charleson turns the search inward, she does so deftly, never straying more than a leash-length from the heart and soul of this book: Puzzle, and the all-too mortal ghosts she seeks." –Michael Perry , author of Population: 485 and Coop
"Scent of the Missing is not only a 'stay up too late at night' story, it's a brilliantly written book that should be on every dog lover's bed stand. Her descriptions of her dogs are laugh out loud funny, and her use of language is so rich I’m not sure if I want to read her book or eat it.”
–Patricia B. McConnell , author of The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog
“A fascinating woman, Susannah Charleson, has written eloquently about her fascinating colleague, a golden retriever named Puzzle, and the critically important search and rescue work that these two faced together. Scent of the Missing is a clear documentation of the ability of search and rescue dogs, and a celebration of the human-animal bond." –Elizabeth Marshall Thomas , author of The Hidden Life of Dogs
"A riveting view of both the human animal bond and the training of search and rescue dogs. All dog lovers and people interested in training service dogs should read this book." –Temple Grandin , author of Animals Make us Human and Animals in Translation
“Scent of the Missing is heartwarming, heart-achingly poignant, and riveting from page one. Puzzle had me from her first joyous wroo!” –Hallie Ephron , author of Never Tell a Lie
“This book is a fantastic discovery! Dog and human decipher each other's language and behavior to solve the mystery of the missing, and along the way find their bonds of love, trust and friendship grow. I loved this book." – Lynne Cox , author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson
"[I]f you want to read about a dog who's a real hero, try Susannah Charleson's refreshingly grounded memoir, Scent of the Missing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)." —Washington Post
"In a dog book, I look for great information, a wonderful story about the relationship between humans and dogs, and anecdotes that are funny, insightful and memorable. Rarely do all three components come together, but Susannah Charleson's memoir has the whole package. Beautifully written, informative, charming in every detail that chronicle the life and work of Susannah and her dog Puzzle, and laugh-'til-you-snort funny, it's a magnificent work."
"In a revealing new book, author Susannah Charleson shares the trials, tribulations, and unexpected rewards of training her own search-and-rescue dog….gripping."
"Susannah's tales of searches are filled with urgency and suspense. They are tastefully and sympathetically portrayed, never delving into the macabre. This beautifully crafted and well-paced story, interwoven with threads on training, SAR science and the author's personal trials, makes for truly compelling reading."
"In this haunting meditation on trust, hope and love, Charleson chronicles her work as a handler with Dallas’ canine search-and-rescue team. A mesmerizing close-up of dogs trained to sniff for human scent, the book also celebrates Charleson’s extraordinary partnership with Puzzle, her golden retriever. Whether describing finding a missing child in an air duct or searching for survivors amid the debris of the Columbia space shuttle, Charleson’s prose is palpably alive, showing how each job, like life, entails placing "one foot before another, hoping for good but prepared for grief, and following the dog ahead anyhow."
—Caroline Leavitt, People Magazine
"Charleson's depictions of the dogs, how they work and their joys and pains (and hers) are a pleasure to read, both informative and heartwarming....A fascinating, intense and often delightful story about training a search-and-rescue dog."
"The unique dynamic between man and "man’s best friend" is passionately explored by a search-and-rescue dog handler....An inspiring collection of rescue tales ideal for dog lovers and armchair detectives."
"This memorable tribute to the dedication of these dog-handler teams is an essential read for dog lovers."
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Read an Excerpt
N THE LONG LIGHT of early morning, Hunter circles what remains of a burned house, his nose low and brow furrowed. The night’s thick air has begun to lift, and the German Shepherd’s movement catches the emerging sun. He is a shining thing against the black of scorched brick, burned timber, and a nearby tree charred leafless. Hunter inspects the tree: half-fallen, tilting south away from where the fire was, its birds long gone. Quiet here. I can hear his footpads in the wizened grass, the occasional scrape of his nails across debris. The dog moves along the rubble in his characteristic half-crouch, intense and communicative, while his handler, Max, watches.
Hunter rounds the house twice, crosses cautiously through a clear space in the burned pile, and returns to Max with a huff of finality. Nothing, he seems to say. Hunter is not young. There are little flecks of gray about his dark eyes and muzzle, and his body has begun to fail his willing heart, but he knows his job, and he is a proud boy doing it. He leans into his handler and huffs again. Max rubs his ears and turns away.
“She’s not in the house,” I murmur into the radio, where a colleague and a sheriff’s deputy wait for word from us.
“Let’s go,” says Max to Hunter.
We move on, our tracks dark across the ash, Hunter leading us forward into a field that lies behind the house. Here we have to work a little harder across the uneven terrain. Max, a career firefighter used to unstable spaces, manages the unseen critter holes and slick grass better than I do. Hunter cleaves an easy path. Our passage disturbs the field mice, which move in such a body the ground itself appears to shiver.
Wide sweeps across the field, back and forth across the wind, Hunter and Max and I (the assistant in trail) continuing to search for some sign of the missing girl. Hunter is an experienced search dog with years of disaster work and many single-victim searches behind him. He moves confidently but not heedlessly, and at the base of a low ridge crowned by a stand of trees, he pauses, head up a long moment, mouth open. His panting stops.
Max stops, watches. I stand where I last stepped.
And then Hunter is off, scrambling up the ridge with us behind him, crashing through the trees. We hear a surprised shout, and scuffling, and when we get to where he is, we see two men stumble away from the dog. One is yelping a little, has barked his shin on a battered dinette chair he’s tripped over. The other hauls him forward by the elbow, and they disappear into the surrounding brush.
A third man has more difficulty. He is elderly and not as fast. He has been lying on a bare set of box springs set flat beneath the canopy of trees, and when he rises the worn cloth of his trousers catches on the coils. We hear rending fabric as he jerks free. He runs in a different direction from the other twonot their companion, I thinkand a few yards away he stops and turns to peek through the scrub at us, as though aware the dog is not fierce and we aren’t in pursuit.
Our search has disturbed a small tent city, and as we work our way through the reclaimed box springs and three-legged coffee tables and mouse-eaten recliners that have become a sort of home for its inhabitants, the third man watches our progress from the edge of the brush. This is a well-lived space, but there is nothing of the missing girl here. Charged on this search to find any human scent in the area, living or dead, Hunter has done what he is supposed to do. But he watches our response. From where I stand, it is clear Hunter knows what we’ve found is not what we seek, and that what we seek isn’t here. He gazes at Max, reading him, his eyebrows working, stands poised for the “Find more” command.
“Sector clear,” I say into the radio after a signal from Max. I mention the tent city and its inhabitants and learn it is not a surprise.
“Good boy,” says Max. Hunter’s stance relaxes.
As we move away, the third man gains confidence. He steps a little forward, watching Hunter go. He is barefoot and shirtless. “Dog, dog, dog,” he says voicelessly, as though he shapes the word but cannot make the sound of it. “Dog,” he rasps again, and smiles wide, and claps his hands.Saturday night in a strange town five hundred miles from home. I am sitting in a bar clearly tacked on to our motel as an afterthought. The clientele here are jammed against one another in the gloom, all elbows and ball caps bent down to their drinksmore tired than social. At the nearby pool table, a man makes his shot, trash talks his opponent, and turns to order another beer without having to take more than four steps to get it. This looks like standard procedure. The empty bottles stack up on a nearby shelf that droops from screws half pulled out of the wall. Two men dominate the table while others watch. The shots get a little wild, the trash talk sloppier.
A half-hour ago, when I walked in with a handful of teammates, every head in the bar briefly turned to regard us, then turned away in perfect synchronization, their eyes meeting and their heads bobbing a nod. We are strangers and out of uniform, but they know who we are and why we are here, and besides, they’ve seen a lot of strangers lately. Now, at the end of the second week of search for a missing local girl, they leave us alone. We find a table, plop down without discussion, and a waitress comes out to take our orders. She calls several of us “honey” and presses a hand to the shoulder of one of us as she turns away.
Either the town hasn’t passed a smoking ordinance, or here at the city limits this place has conveniently ignored the law. We sit beneath a stratus layer of cigarette smoke that curls above us like an atmosphere of drowsy snakes, tinged blue and red and green by the neon signs over the bar. Beside the door, I see a flyer for the missing girl. Her face hovers beneath the smoke. She appears uneasy even in this photograph taken years ago, her smile tentative and her blond, feathered bangs sprayed close as a helmet, her dark eyes tight at the edges, like this picture was something to be -survived.
I have looked at her face all day. On telephone poles, in the hands of local volunteers, over the shoulder of a big-city newscaster at noon, six, and ten o’clock. She is the ongoing local headline. She’s the girl no one really knew before her disappearance, and now she’s the girl eager eyewitnesses claim to have known all their lives. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but for the most part that’s not our job. We go where law enforcement directs us. We run behind search dogs who will tell us their own truths in any given area: never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here.
We humans aren’t talking about the search, our first day at work in this town. Inappropriate discussion in a public place, and we are exhausted with it anyway. Though today’s bystanders seemed to think we could take our dogs to Main Street and race them outward across all points of the compassfirst dog to the victim winscanine search-and-rescue doesn’t work that way. Assigned to locations chosen by law enforcement, we work methodically, dividing a region into sectors to be searched by individual dog-and-handler teams. It’s a meticulous process, but trained dogs can quickly clear a large area it would take humans days to definitively search.
Even so, we could be here for weeks. We already feel the trackless absence of this girl. Her hometown is small, but its outlying population is widespread, and there are places to hide a living woman or the remains of a dead one that cross lines into other states. Today we were sent to clear more “hot spots”places where bodies have been dumped before. Shrouded, ugly areas they were too, scarred from previous events, but not this girl, this time. All day the dogs have been telling us: Not here. Not here. Not here.
I look at her photograph again. A big guy shifting on his stool blocks the ambient light from the bar, causing the girl’s face to purple beneath the neon and the whites of her eyes to swallow the irises. Her gaze no longer connects. It’s a condition that was true of her in life, some say. She has a history of scuttling head down, of sitting at the back of the class, never speaking unless spoken to, and even then as briefly as possible. She sounds uncertain on her voicemail greeting, enunciating her name with a rising inflection that suggests she isn’t quite sure of it.
We hear fragments. The cumulative description adds up to a girl who began inching away from this town six years earlier, who saved her allowance and bought a junky car simply to have her first job at a truck stop in another town fifteen miles up the road, who saved her paychecks to buy a used laptop, and who had begun re-creating herself in variations all across the Web. No judgment, says a neighbor. An accident waiting to happen, says one interviewee. Authorities suggest she might be a runaway if it weren’t for the methodical, calculated nature of her young choices. She might be a runaway if it weren’t for her purse, cell phone, keys, car, and laptop left behind at her grandmother’s house, the last place she was seen alive.
We’re told she has a tattoo, inked by a trucker where she worked: a butterfly with the letter K on her left wrist. The tattoo is in honor of an online friend, Katie, who had slashed her own wrists in a successful suicideor so it was rumored, until Katie returned to a chat room a month later with a new location, new name, new boyfriend, holding up her woundless wrists for photographs, laughing at the duped online friends who thought they knew her, who had responded to her loss with depression, Paxil, and new tattoos in her honor. April Fools, all.
Did our girl admire her, forgive her? I wonder. Is this a copycat drama?
I turn away from her photograph. She’s not my daughter, but I feel a mother’s impulse to push the bangs from her eyes, the rescuer’s urge to put two fingertips to her carotid to check for a pulse.
We’re a quiet group, tight and preoccupied. Still wired from the day’s search, we lean forward over our food, weight on the balls of our feet with our heels lifted, as though we’ll push up at any moment to go back to work. Unlikely. We’re stood down for the night and have an early call in the morning. It always takes a while to let go enough to sleep, especially as a search presses forward over days and investigators’ verbs begin to change from she is to she was. That little shift in tense is enough to keep us awake all night, revisiting the day’s barns, ravines, burned houses, tent cities, and trailer parks, triple-checking ourselves against the signals from the dogs. To say this girl haunts us is to overdramatize. But we all mull choices made in the field long after we should be sleeping. I stab at my coleslaw and wonder when one of us will finally relax into the back of a chair.
In time, Terry, a canine handler, leans over to say to me, “Hey. I hear you’re going to work a dog.”
The others look up.
“Yes,” I say. The word feels huge as a wedding vow.
I’ve been on the search-and-rescue (SAR) team for a while now, running beside certified dogs and their handlers, working as a field assistant responsible for navigation, radio communication, medical assessment, and other pragmatics of a working canine search team. After three years, I’m senior enough to have earned the next open slot to train and run beside a search dog. I am excited about this, but a little nervous too. Having run with more than a dozen breeds and their handlers, having searched night into day for the living, and having knelt over the dead, I’m aware how serious a proposition bringing a new dog to the team is. Working search is not a hobby or a Sunday pastime.
“What breed you thinking of running?” he asks. He handles a Border Collie, a high-drive, obsessive-compulsive boy who is good all around, but particularly good searching on water.
“I’m not sure. Maybe a Border Collie. Maybe an Aussie. Or maybe a Gol . . .”
“You give any thought to a Golden Retriever?”
I nod, and he tells me about his former Golden, Casey, a good dog with a lot of smarts and a lot of soul and a nose that never stopped. A good dog that died, too soon, of cancer. Though my colleague is not one who generally talks at length, his description is detailed. I see the shape of his Golden boy emerge. A sturdy fellow with a nice face and a wide grinfunny, perceptive, and compassionate. My teammate speaks, and his voice constricts. This dog has been dead for more than five years. Terry’s love for the animal had been too raw at the time he began training his own search canine, and he couldn’t go with a Golden. Listening to him now, I’m aware it’s an open wound. Toughened by years as a homicide detective, he is still not in shape to have another Golden, he says, but he’s safe enough recommending one to me.
And the breed has much to recommend it for search work: drive, stability, commitment to working with a human, congeniality, and nose. I already have other dogs and cats, and for reasons of amicability at home, as well, I’m also drawn to the idea of a Golden.
We speak of other search-and-rescue Golden Retrievers: iconic, much-photographed Riley traveling aloft in the Stokes basket across the debris of the World Trade Center and diligent Aspen supporting her exhausted handler as he presses his face to her back following a search of the collapsed Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This fine breed figures in virtually every aspect of search. Snow dogs, bomb dogs, drug dogs, arson dogs too.
“Got to love a retriever,” says Johnny, a Lab man himself, and then he chuckles. “But, girl, no matter what kind of puppy, there’s gonna be some housebreaking and chewed shoes in your future.”
“And sleepless nights,” says Ellen.
“And poop,” adds Terry wryly, a cautionary finger up. “These high-drive dogs. All that adrenaline. When a puppy starts working, you just wouldn’t believe the poo . . .”
I push away my coleslaw.
Leaning back in their chairs at last, the whole group seems pleased about my coming duress. They exchange young SAR dog stories, not one of them featuring angelic puppies poised for greatness. There’s disaster in every punch line“the neighbor’s TV made him howl” . . . “ate right through the drywall” . . . and “then her parrot learned to bark.” I look at the team trainer dubiously.
“This is good,” says Fleta, rubbing her forehead. “A new pup-in-training always gives the whole team a boost.” Her eyes are tired, but she grins as she lifts her glass in salute.On any given day in America, there are as many as one hundred thousand active missing persons cases. A large percentage of these cases go unresolved. At the same time, the recovered and unidentified remains of some forty thousand people are held by medical examiners across the country. As a search-and-rescue worker in the field, I am caught by those numbersthey equal the population of a small city. I’m aware that we run dogs in the thin air between possibility of life and probability of death, and that while we search for a single girl whose weathered flyers have already begun to fade, there are thousands of others actively being searched. Or not. Knowing how many people are involved on the search for this young woman, I cannot imagine the number of investigators, grid walkers, pilots, ATVs, equestrian units, dog teams, and forensic experts of every kind needed to resolve all the others. I suspect geography, marginalization, and limited resources mean quite a few of the missing are short-term questions that go unansweredor are never raised at all.
Our small-town girl disappeared in a slow news period. I wonder how much time she’s got before funds run out, new local troubles arise, and she is crowded from the docket to take her place in local lore. The margin between search continues for missing teen and unidentified remains uncovered in state park ten years from now seems narrow.
Time and numbers make me urgent. I cannot train my new dog too soon.Next morning’s light is hard as a slap. The community has rallied beneath a red, white, and blue striped tent donated by a used car dealership half the state away. The structure is shabby; its attached bunting is worn. The top line sags. A good wind could be a problem here, but the morning is windless.
At this early hour, the sun shines in at a slant, but it is already too warm inside the tent. Two hundred or so volunteers jockey for position behind the darker canvas of the wide blue stripes. We suck down donated orange juice or strong coffee or bothan unwise choice. The port-a-potties have not yet arrived, and today’s search has staged in the middle of nowhere, from a plain so flat that any thought of a quick whip around a bush to pee should assume an audience, both local and televised. A caravan of mobile units from TV stations miles away has also arrived. Their antennae and cranes have already begun to extend.
We hear more cars exit the road and crunch across the gravel and brush. Doors slam, and a voice from near the tent flap says that the sheriff’s here with the parents, and we should be starting soon. I don’t think so. I read a similar doubt on the faces of my teammates. Hurry up and wait is the case more often than not on large searches, and this one, with its ambiguous geography and its swelling ranks of volunteers, has become a large search. We were told to be on-scene at 7:00 a.m., and we’ve been here ninety minutes. I think if we deploy by 9:30, we’ll be lucky.
“I’m going to check on the dogs,” says Terry, four bottles of water in the crook of his elbow. The dogs are crated behind the shade of our cars with Ellen, a field assistant, in attendance. I can see them through the tent flap. They look a whole lot more comfortable than we do.
Aware they are on-scene to work, the dogs are alert. Collie Saber, German Shepherd Hunter, Border Collie Hoss, and Buster, a Lab. They scrutinize all newcomers, nostrils knitting and ears perked forward, their expressions speculative. I wonder how they sort passersby: old guy with a kidney problem . . . nice lady who ate bacon for breakfast, come here, nice lady . . . this guy’s got two dogsone of them, oh, one of them’s in heat! . . . hey, that kid dropped McMuffin on his pants. Terry’s approach makes them turn and grin. Their wagging tails bang-bang-bang against the bars of their crates.
Here in the tent, a community group has made T-shirts for its members, purple T-shirts bearing several photos of the missing girl. we’ll find you promise the shirts on the front. we love you they say on the back. Several participants have their video cameras out to record today’s events. The sheriff walks in with two deputies and the missing girl’s parents, and the group falls silent. A man whips his Tilley hat off. His friend with a digital camera continues to shoot: sheriff, mom and dad, TV reporter, crowd. A deputy’s leaden gaze stops her. I hear the little scree of it winding down. She puts the camera in her purse.
The sheriff’s briefing tells us little that gossip hasn’t already introduced. Yesterday’s search found nothing relevant to the missing girl. But, we are reminded, every area cleared contributes something to a final answer. The sheriff’s baritone is edged with weariness, ragged on its ending syllables, yet he speaks well. His words are clear and urgent. The community group will be divided into four units who will work, geographically, across today’s new areas. We should expect hardship, he says. These places are ugly and brushy and filled with debris from illegal dumping. High boots are recommended. There will be broken glass. There could be snakes. A woman in front of me, wearing shorts, sandals, and a baby in a papoose on her back, looks at her husband. He looks pointedly at her feet, and she sets her jaw and turns away.
The sheriff pulls the girl’s parents forward. Though the woman appears shattered with fatigue while her husband’s face is tight and reserved, it is his voice that gives way as he thanks the crowd. “Find our girl,” says his wife in his wordlessness. She guides him away from the television camera, but he turns and gives the lens a long look in passing.
“All right,” says the sheriff. “We’ve got no better reason to be here.” The crowd stirs beneath the tent, convicted again. As two deputies step forward to divide the ground-search volunteers, I feel a tug on my arm. “We’re going,” mouths Johnny. He jerks his head in the direction of another officer discreetly leading us out of the tent and away from the crowd.
As we gather around the deputy and the dogs press their noses to the crate bars to smell him, he opens a map on the hood of a truck and shows us where we’re headed. “The word is this may be it,” he says. “We think she’s here.” He points to a spot and then makes a wide circle with a forefinger.
“Why here?” asks Terry. The retired detective in him is never far away.
The deputy shrugs. “Anonymous tip.” He stares at the map a long moment. “That’s all we’ve got.”
The dogs quiver and circle and pee as we release them from their crates. A few bark excitedly as we load them into the trucks, engines and air conditioners on. Safe now in transport crates, they are ready to go. I can hear them winding themselves up behind the glass, scuffling and muttering, that signature dog sound that’s more grumble than growl.Three dogs work separate sections of the area we’ve deployed to, fifty acres of patchy terrain, dried creek bed, and dumped appliances. A variable wind has risen, strong enough to make a little thunder in our ears, but born of ground radiation, it offers no relief from heat. The dogs will use the wind, though. Turning east, north, then west, through binoculars I watch them sweep their individual sectors, heads up and tails visible above the bending grass, handlers following yards behind.
Collie Saber moves across the scrub at a steady trot, despite his heavy coat and the day’s temperature. I hardly need binoculars. He is easy to see from a distance, a tricolored boy flashing against the dun terrain. Fleta follows, watching him thoughtfully, with Ellen in trail behind them both, taking notes. The scruffy field is flat. Saber’s wide sweeps are clean and unbroken. At the end of the sector, they pause. The Collie looks back to Fleta and turns with a movement very like a shrug of his great ruffan all clear that’s readable even from where I stand. I see Fleta turn and shake her head to Ellen. A moment later, Ellen’s voice crackles across the radio that they’re coming in.
Max and Hunter are winding their way through a clutch of small trees that cling to the edge of a rainwater runoff gully. I watch the German Shepherd’s great dark ears working independently as he penetrates the sector, as though there is much to hear skittering in the grass. A nervous prairie bird flushes yards away from where they walk, and both Hunter’s ears come forward so rapidly that the light spots within them seem to blink like eyes. He doesn’t turn for the bird, however, continuing on his course, nose thrust forward. He leads Max through the trees and they disappear behind them, visible only as an occasional twitch and flash of Max’s red shirt as they work the rest of the sector.
Trained to alert differently on the living and the dead, the dogs’ demeanor across the area is consistent. No pause, no head pop, no sudden, energized movement, no bark. Their passage stirs rabbits and shivers a few snakes from the brush, but the dogs communicate their disinterest. They all seem to agree that nothing’s here.
The deputy watches quietly. “I hunt with a Lab,” he says, looking out to Johnny and Buster. “Great dogs. Can’t stop them.”
Fleta has already returned with Saber. Max comes in with Hunter, shaking his head. Hunter takes a drink of water as fast as Max pours it and flops down with a sigh. A few minutes later Johnny returns with Buster. “Nothing,” he says. “Except a bunch of baby rabbits in a washing machine out there.”
“Aw,” says Ellen. “Bunnies. How many?”
“Dunno,” Johnny replies. “Enough to be breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the snakes.”
“God.” Ellen folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head. Ellen’s worked ranches, but she’s ready for any kind of good word here.
The deputy says, “Thing is . . .”
We look at him. His cell phone buzzes, and he walks away, muttering into it, one hand pressed to the opposite ear to block the wind.
A new search area, and we are moving fast. Ground searchers have found a location where the scent of death is strong, and third-hand word to the deputy by cell phone suggests the presence of possible evidence too. Now a potential crime scene, the area has been cleared, and the sheriff waits for the dogs. We’ll use a different approach: one way in, one way outa cautious trail rather than a wide sweepto confirm or deny what’s been found.
We park at the base of a shallow rise crisscrossed with bike trails and more dumped appliances, a whole host of abandoned cars. Our deputy gives a little jerk of his head as we look upward, waiting for clearance to deploy.
“Kids park here,” he says.
I think of sex in this tangled, airless scrub and feel old. “Really?” I ask, doubtfully.
“The stars are nice,” he replies. A little twist of his mouth suggests he knows this from experience, and I wonder if he’s busted kids here or was once one of them himself.
His cell phone buzzes again. After a few moments he turns to us. “Thing is,” he says, “there’s a smell in a locked car, and an object not far away that may have been a weapon, and fresh clothes in the mud. Because this might be a crime sceneif not this one, then another onewe don’t want you to track the whole area, but we’d like you to bring the dogs and see what they think about the car.”
Fleta and Saber, Max and Hunter, Ellen and I follow the deputy up the thin trail to the top of the rise. A distance away, perhaps two football fields long, I can see a group of volunteer searchers watching us, their purple shirts dark as a bruise against the buff-colored ground. I hear the huddle of voices when the breeze shifts and I am downwind. At the top of the rise, the sheriff and two deputies are still and expectant. They turn to lead us carefully to the car in question, a battered blue ’72 Impala. Just beyond it, a stainless butcher knife lies in the dirt. The knife is clean and bright. Next to the Impala, a pair of crumpled blue jeans rest in such a way that it appears someone dropped his pants right there and stepped out of them. The jeans remain in that position, the legs stacked, the fly open, the waist upward and wide. A thread of dust marks a few denim folds that I can see, but it doesn’t appear to me that the jeans have been here long.
Ellen and I are taking notes as first Saber, then Hunter slowly circle the car. Both are experienced cadaver dogs, and though they sniff every crevice, neither gives a flicker of interest. Fleta shakes her head, and minutes later, Max does too.
“No,” says Max. “The dogs say no.”
The sheriff gestures us all closer forward, and the fug of decomposition is palpable. “Have any of you ever smelled a dead body?” he asks. Fleta, Max, and I nod and step nearer, and without thinking about it, we simultaneously put our noses just above the trunk. The air is thick and foul.
“This doesn’t smell right,” I murmur just as Fleta also shakes her head. I always have difficulty explaining it, but to me dead human smells different from squirrel, rat, or possum on the side of the road. Not just more scenthuman death seems specific and particular. I don’t know the why behind the chemistry. All that shampoo, maybe, or trans fat or antiperspirant, or maybe we’re all pickled in Coca-Cola, like the urban legend says.
“Something’s dead in here,” says Fleta, “but I don’t think it’s -human.”
Max guides Hunter forward again, watching. “Where’s the dead thing, Hunter?” he says. Off-command to find human scent, Hunter circles the car in the way of any curious dog, stopping warily and putting his nose to the back left wheel well. Max kneels into the area, then drops his head. “Got it,” he says, his voice sad. “It’s a dog.”
We all bend down, and there, caught above the back axle, we can see a dog’s paws and its limp head dangling. A medium-size mixed breed, brown fur ticked with black. The flesh of its mouth is pulled back from the teeth; the eyes are muddy and glazed. The pads are intact but slightly shriveled, and I can see a small white stone between two of them. This dog was either hit by the car or crawled up there to die. An uncomforted end. I hear the lazy drone of flies.
“Dead for a while,” says Max.
“Well, okay,” says the sheriff. He gets up stiffly. Though he is sunburned, the flesh beneath his eyes is gray.
“Got anywhere else for the dogs to search?” asks the deputy.
The sheriff shakes his head. “Don’t have anywhere else for anybody.” Then he adds, “This search is going to be a long one. Guess you folks can go home. We’ll call you back if we get something for the dogs.”
We stand a moment. He gazes along the rise to the motionless group of volunteers. Below us, another vehicle has pulled up and parked. The car doors slam, thunk, andslowerthunk. The sheriff turns.
“Right,” he says. “I’ll go tell the parents.”
He walks down the path, and they walk up toward him. As they near, I watch the sheriff stand a little straighter. The father, too, lifts his head and squares his shoulders and pulls his wife to his hip as they climb. And in that moment before they connect, on day thirteen of a search for a missing local girl, I wonder how they can bear the unknowing, what these parents most wish forwords that leave the door open or words that press the door closed.Our cars are loaded for the long drive home, and the dogs are having a last romp in a small park along a stream. Two of the local volunteers on today’s search stand with us beneath the shade of a pecan tree. One is about to drive back to her college for summer classes. The other has had a quick shower and will head another direction to her restaurant shift miles away.
One asks what we think the dogs know about this search. Do they feel what we feel? Does the search continue to trouble them, as we humans are troubled?
Fleta shakes her head, pointing out that from the dogs’ perspectives, this search was successful. They were asked to do a job: find the missing girl or indicate definitively she’s not here, and they did. Apart from three vagrants in a tent city, no one living or dead was there to be found. And after the day’s sectors were done, volunteers hid so the dogs could find them, a quick and upbeat conclusion to a hard workday, a game that fools no one but keeps motivation high. These dogs are all praise-hounds. They played along, finding and grinning and capering.
No, Fleta suggests. There are exceptions, but usually the dogs let go of a day’s search better than we do. We trust them to do their jobs, and they trust us to tell them they have done it well. And when we tell them, they believe us.
I watch them play. Common goals aside, these dogs are complete individuals in the field. I have searched beside Hunter’s intensity, Saber’s calm authority, and Buster’s bounding accuracy. Even this evening’s pleasure they pursue in different ways. The German Shepherd noses for critters in the brush, while the Lab snaps at minnows in shallow water, trying to catch them. We tease him, and Buster raises his head with muzzle dripping, looking fusty and bemused, but he grins at the sound of his name and tries for fish again. The beautiful Collie, Sabermuch-admired and he knows itrolls ungracefully in the grass, groaning unnh-unnh-unnhhhhh-mmmmmmm. His white ruff is streaked with green when he gets up, and his coat splays every which way. He is thoroughly happy to be such a mess. “Brickhead,” says Fleta, hugging him as he nuzzles her ear. “Doofus.”
The Border Collie brings every one of us his ball. Hoss is a dog of great charm and is completely tone-deaf to rejection. It’s time to leave, but he is persuasive. We throw and throw and throw again. “Fetch therapy” we call it, and it works. The local volunteers leave laughing, Hoss still petitioning them with his ball in his mouth all the way to their cars.
As we head out, I wonder what my own dog will bring to the work, to the team, and to me. I like the thought of a long drive home with a Golden snoring belly-up in the back of the car: a good dog who has worked well. A partner. A friend. After a search like this one, that companionship must take away a little of the ache.
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