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It was raining in Neptune. That was rare, even for early March; the little SoCal city usually boasted blue skies year-round. But the clouds had rolled in off the ocean, and now raindrops pattered across the houses of rich and poor alike, the one great equalizer in a town without a middle class.
A grimy white van trolled slowly through the east edge of town, where Zen landscaping gave way to weed-strewn lots. There were no millionaires’ homes here—no boutiques, no surf shops, no post-op resorts for wealthy nip/tuck patients. Out here were prefab houses propped on cinderblocks, biker bars, chop shops. The buildings were all sun-bleached and dingy, the roads speckled with potholes that sent the van bucking on its worn-out shocks.
Frank Kozlowski was a junk dealer, just like his old man had been. His late wife always liked to say he was in “antiques,” but ninety percent of what he found was well and truly junk—broken appliances he stripped for parts, scrap metal he recycled at a buck a pound. But every so often he found something really good. In a town like Neptune, where the wealthy always had more than they knew what to do with, a guy with wheels and initiative could make out like a bandit. High-end furniture that just needed reupholstery or refinishing; designer clothes with minor stains and tears. Paint-by-numbers art, antique road signs, and metal lunch boxes with ’70s-era cartoon characters on the front. He salvaged the best of it and resold it from his garage, mostly to young, Tyrolean-hatted guys and buzz-cut girls in resale mom jeans who used words like “naive” and “authentic” to describe his wares. Kozlowski didn’t mind—or in most cases even notice—the affectation. These kids kept the mortgage paid and the fridge stocked with beer.
He drove slowly through the rain, alert for any kind of glimmer from the underbrush. A rosary swayed back and forth from his rearview mirror, almost in time with the wipers. In the passenger seat, his little wire-haired mutt, Gus, sat at attention, ears pricked forward. It was just after seven a.m. and he’d already been out here for two hours. So far all he’d found was a stack of warped two-by-fours, a brass drawer pull, and a molded plastic chair pocked with cigarette-burn stigmata.
But the business was like that. Some mornings were a bust. Other mornings, the junk fairy lit a path at your feet and led you to something special. That’s what really got him out of bed at four in the dark, cold-ass morning. Not so much the promise of cash as that into-the-red spike of adrenaline, the thrill of the next big find. The way a single magic discovery could vindicate a hundred shitty, wasted trips. He’d never been able to explain that to Nell. She always groaned when he came back with rusted, filthy roadside dross. “Jesus, Frank, why can’t you just hit up estate sales like everyone else? Flea markets. Thrift shops. This stuff is worthless.”
Worthless. The word—the very idea—left him dumb-struck. Nothing was worthless. Not if you knew who needed it. Not if you knew how to salvage it. She’d never really appreciated that.
Still, that road went both ways. He’d been startled by the silence in the house in the year since she’d died (emphysema; she’d never been able to give up the fucking cigarettes), startled by how hard it was to sleep without her cold feet on his calves all night. They’d never had any kids. Now it was just him and Gus and a restless, edgy energy that sent him pacing from room to room and woke him in the pre-dawn chill, hounding him out of the house and into the junkyards and abandoned buildings fringing Neptune. He never thought to call the feeling grief.
Now, cruising along the empty road, his mind drifted. He thought about the donuts he always picked up on the way home, and the hot shower he’d take after unloading the shit from his van. Gus would need a bath too, after the rain and mud. He’d just about decided to throw in the towel and head home when he saw it.
He eased his van onto the shoulder and killed the engine. The road banked sharply downward toward a lot fringed with buckwheat and sumac, a scraggly patch of land with a faded for sale sign nailed to a post. The sign had been there at least a decade. This wasn’t exactly prime real estate, situated on the edge of town in the empty miles between a ramshackle trailer park and the Balboa County Youth Correctional Compound. Half of Neptune seemed to use it as a cost-effective dumping ground, making it a regular stop on Kozlowski’s circuit. He’d found some good stuff in that lot over the years. A box of dog-eared Playboys. A six-foot fiberglass cheeseburger from a long-defunct drive-through. The front half of a ’68 Buick Skylark that he’d sold to a restora-tion company. And now he’d caught a glimpse of something through the gloom—something that might just be worth stumbling down that bank for.
Gus jumped lightly out of the van and took off running, his tail flailing right and left. He loved the hunt as much as Kozlowski, sensing his master’s excitement and feeding off it. Kozlowski stepped out after the dog, slamming the door behind him. Icy needles of rain stung his cheeks and neck. He hunched his shoulders against the cold, his boots sinking down in the mud. For a moment he couldn’t see anything, and he wondered if he’d imagined it. But then he found it again—a dirty pink shape, half hidden in the sedge. A dress form, perhaps a mannequin? His heart gave the familiar little stutter that almost always meant a good score.
The man knelt alongside Gus and patted the dog’s trembling rump. “What do you think? Worth getting wet for?”
Gus whipped around in a tight, fast little circle. That was good enough for Kozlowski.
The incline was steep and slippery. He edged his way down, leaning back to keep from going ass-over-teakettle. Gus scampered ahead of him and then paused at the base of the hill, shaking water from his coat. Kozlowski’s eyes locked in on the thing in the field. Definitely a mannequin—he could see the arms and legs splayed out in the mud. Cleaned up and restored it might get him a C-note from a vintage shop or a tailor. And there was the outside chance it was worth real money. He’d heard of antique mannequins going for seven, eight hundred a pop, sometimes more if it was a rare model in good condition.
But even from fifty feet away, this one was looking pretty rough. Its wig was so tangled and dirty he couldn’t guess what the original color might have been. The left arm crooked out at a strange angle to the rest of the body, probably busted. Dark streaks of mud wreathed the pale figure. Gus darted ahead across the field toward the thing, running in wild circles around it for a moment as Kozlowski approached.
He was a few yards away when the hair on the back of his neck suddenly shot up. Something felt wrong about the whole scene. The mannequin’s skintight dress was hiked up around its waist, its sculpted buttocks bare to the sky. Another time he might have thought it was funny, trying to imagine why the hell the manufacturers had designed a dress-store dummy with a realistic ass. But here in the rain, splayed out in the mud, it looked so sad—so sick—he felt a creeping unease that crowded out the dollar signs he’d imagined.
Gus was pawing at the thing’s torso, a thin whine coming up from his throat. Through the sound of the rain, Kozlowski could hear the distant croak of a raven from the tree line around the lot. He stepped closer, barely noticing the dull throb in his knee or the cold weight of his soaked denim jacket, kneeling down next to the shattered form in the gorse.
Two things happened at once.
The first was that Kozlowski’s eyes confirmed what some part of his gut already suspected: that the pale peach color was not fiberglass but flesh. That the dress was torn almost to shreds. That the black grime caking the skin was laced with streaks of dark red.
The second was that the woman’s left hand—jutting at a grotesque angle from the rest of her body—slowly clenched, fingers curling down into the dirt.
She was still alive.