Alive in Necropolis

Alive in Necropolis

by Doug Dorst


$14.40 $16.00 Save 10% Current price is $14.4, Original price is $16. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days


A "dark and funny debut"(Seattle-Times) about a young police officer struggling to maintain a sense of reality in a town where the dead outnumber the living.

Colma, California, the "cemetery city" serving San Francisco, is the resting place of the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and William Randolph Hearst. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a by-the-book rookie cop struggling to settle comfortably into adult life. Instead, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor, Sergeant Wes Featherstone, who spent his last years policing the dead as well as the living. As Mercer attempts to navigate the drama of his own daily life, his own grip on reality starts to slip-either that, or Colma's more famous residents are not resting in peace as they should be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594483820
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 1,107,214
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Doug Dorst is the author of three books, most recently the novel S, which he co-authored with J. J. Abrams. He is the author of the novel Alive in Necropolis, which was honored as San Francisco’s 2009 One City One Book selection and as a runner-up for the 2009 PEN/Hemingway, Shirley Jackson, and IAFA/Crawford Awards, and a short story collection, The Surf Guru. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, ZYZZYVA, and other journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a three-time Jeopardy! champion, Dorst lives in Austin and teaches writing at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page





































a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. New York

Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA . Penguin Group (Canada),
90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Canada
Inc.) . Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England . Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green,
Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) . Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road,
Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) . Penguin Books
India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India . Penguin Group (NZ),
67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) .
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa


Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England



Copyright © 2008 by Doug Dorst

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada



The newspaper article quoted on p. 272, with some omissions and minor additions, is found in
Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, by Frank Marrero (Scottwall, 1997).



Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data



Dorst, Doug.
Alive in Necropolis / Doug Dorst.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01494-3

1. Police—California, Northern—Fiction. 2. California, Northern—Fiction. I. Title.




This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.


In addition to the above disclaimer, I would like to stress that I do not intend any elements of this narrative to reflect poorly on the real-life Colma Police, who were friendly, informative, accommodating, and unfailingly professional.


Please note that I have taken liberties with history and geography whenever it suited my purposes. This is because I am neither a historian nor a cartographer but a fiction writer, and I like making stuff up.


How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?

—Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim


A rare sunny morning comes to Colma.

The sky brightens over San Bruno Mountain, bruised blues giving way to baby-cheek pinks and teases of gold. Navigation lights blink, red and resolute, atop the radio towers that scar the broad, rambling summit. Sunlight creeps across the green valley in which Colma is nestled, wicking away the dew from the lawns of the city’s residents.

Twelve hundred of these residents are alive. They do what living people do: work jobs, sweat on treadmills, make love, incur debt, celebrate birthdays, worry about aging, watch prime-time TV, pray, complain about the weather. Another two million of these residents are already dead. No one knows for sure what they do—if they do anything but lie mute, immobile, decaying—but some of the living have their suspicions.




As the sun makes its way across the valley, it shines first on the Cypress Golf Course. Underneath these seventeen acres of Bermuda grass and fescue is the potter’s field where the beggars of cobblestoned San Francisco were buried in numbered graves and forgotten. Four golfers in primary-colored windbreakers take practice swings on the first tee, whipping metal-gleam arcs through the crisp morning air. A greenskeeper backs a long-bed golf cart out of the maintenance shed, and a lone golden-crowned sparrow answers the cart’s reverse-warning beeps with a plaintive, unrequited song.

The first golfer tees up his ball and takes his stance with the light morning wind luffing his nylon sleeves. As he swings, his plastic spikes slip in the wet tee box, and he slices the ball dead right, a line drive into the pine trees and scrub. He mutters a curse, blaming himself for his first-tee jitters, but then the ball thwocks against something in the woods and caroms out, skidding ahead on the slick grass and rolling to a stop in the center of the fairway, just a choked-down 8-iron away from the green. He turns and grins as his friends moan their disbelief. Lucky sonofabitch. Somebody’s looking out for you today. And they continue their round: nine holes, played twice. It never occurs to him that the brownish scuff on his ball did not come from a tree or a rock or a log, but from a misshapen human skull coughed up by the shifting earth of the fault-lined valley.




The glow of morning spreads over the easternmost cemeteries of Colma: Olivet Memorial Park; the Serbian Cemetery; Pet’s Rest; and the two Chinese cemeteries, Hoy Sun Memorial and Golden Hills.

Across Hillside Boulevard.

Nocturnal gamblers emerge from the front doors of the Lucky Chances 24-Hour card house, slack and pale as fish in a bucket; they rub their eyes in the morning light, then collapse into their cars and drive away. All of them—the winners, the losers, the breakers-even—will be gnawed at by the if onlys until the next time they rest their elbows on the soft green baize and ante up.

The day advances into Holy Cross Cemetery, Colma’s oldest, a former potato field blessed in 1892 as a Catholic cemetery to serve San Francisco. Sky-rocketing land values had convinced city dwellers that death was best dealt with elsewhere, and it was roundly agreed that a ten-mile trip southward was not an onerous journey for the dead to make—a mere step or two, in fact, compared to the great voyages on which their souls had already embarked.

The sun rises higher. Cypress Lawn East. Hills of Eternity. Eternal Home. Home of Peace. Salem Cemetery. The Italian Cemetery. The Japanese Benevolent Society Cemetery.

Lawn mowers sputter and cough out puffs of blue exhaust, then rumble to life and prowl the gentle slopes of the graveyards. In the lots of the car dealerships that clot Serramonte Boulevard, beads of dew glimmer on the polished hoods and roofs and trunks, while strings of red, white, and blue plastic pennants flick in the breeze, hopeful as America.

Across El Camino Real.

The overnight clerk at the Zes-T-Mart prepares to go home. He is a heavily tattooed young man whose pierced ear and nose are connected by a length of steel chain, and he wears the afternoon-shift girl’s name tag because he likes to head-fuck naive customers into wondering if his name really might be Mindy. He notices that, once again, several cartons of Chesterfields have vanished on his watch. He blames their disappearance on ghosts. He will never inform his manager of his suspicions, and he will never ask to see the surveillance tape to test his theory. This coming afternoon, though, he will crawl out of bed and join his four roommates around the house bong (a complicated maze of Habitrail tubes that once housed a gerbil named Happy), and, while watching smoke plumes rise from the mouthpiece, he will dreamily remark, “Dudes. When we die, we’ll all smoke Chesterfields.” And although his friends will burst out laughing, thinking it’s just stony talk, he’ll find himself happy to believe in ghosts who jones for nicotine and remain brand-loyal. It’s the one belief he has that is unique and private, and thus absolutely unassailable.




The sun.

Across Cypress Lawn West, the Greek Orthodox Cemetery, Greenlawn Memorial Park, and, finally, Woodlawn Memorial Park.




The day rolls by, and one hundred twenty-two people are interred in Colma, this self-described “city-cemetery complex.” Mourners lift their eyes skyward as jets taking off from SFO thunder overhead, drowning out somber-voiced pieties and whispered farewells. Solitary and rickety white-haired people struggle up the muddy incline at Pet’s Rest to lay wreaths for departed cats, dogs, bunnies, goats, horses, ocelots. Four mortuaries, ten florists, and eight monument carvers within the city limits are open for business, ensuring that the dead are admirably furnished. One proprietor reminds a new employee to speak slowly and with pleasant, reassuring words when asking for customers’ credit cards, and instructs her to up-sell only the lost, the desperate, the bewildered, the afraid, the stoic, the defeated, and the accepting. “Never the angry,” he says. “It’s best to avoid a scene.”

At the end of the day, the fog sweeps into Colma, a cold Pacific breath that flumes over the coastal hills. It hunkers down for the night, thick and mist-filled, alive with visible eddies and chutes that are swept by the chilled wind. Night-shift police officers reporting to the station zip their Tuffy jackets against the cold and pin their badges to the outside. Through the night, they patrol the quiet streets, wait for intoxicated drivers leaving Molloy’s to cross the center line on Old Mission Road. They intervene in a domestic dispute on Spindrift Lane, thwart lumber thieves loading a pickup behind the home-improvement warehouse, break up a fight at the movie theater. They run passing checks through the cemeteries and sweep their spotlights over the fields of granite and marble, chasing away copulating kids, who dart like sprites into the shadows behind mausoleums and obelisks and weeping angels, struggling to hitch up their pants or just running bare-assed with their bundled clothes in their arms and their exposed skin shining ghost-white.




The next morning, one of these officers—Wesley Featherstone, a twenty-seven-year veteran—will not report back to the station. His Crown Victoria will be parked underneath the grand stone archway that leads into Cypress Lawn East, the driver’s door ajar and the alert tone pinging softly. Sergeant Featherstone will be slumped behind the wheel of the cruiser, one hand reaching toward the radio, the other clamped over his mouth. His eyes will be wide and panicked. A lock of his thin hair—once red, long since turned peachy gray—will dangle from his temple, hanging all the way to his chin.

Featherstone will be dead of cardiac arrest.

Four dead men will sit atop the archway and pass a jug of daisy-petal pruno to toast their success. One of them will take a deep swig, dribbling onto his powder-blue tuxedo jacket, then hand the bottle to a hard-looking man with bloody fingertips, who will push him off their perch. The man in the tux will slam facedown on the pavement, inches away from the cruiser’s front bumper. He will yelp and howl and curse the persistence of gravity even as his shattered bones begin knitting themselves together again, as ghost bones do. The rest of the gang will shinny down to the ground, and all four of them, laughing and swaying drunkenly, will gather around the car for a final round of taunting the sergeant’s corpse. Then they will stagger off to catch some rest. Even the dead need a little shut-eye sometimes.

A twenty-year-old Salvadoran landscaper reporting early for his first day on the job will hop out of a pickup truck, slap a good-bye on the quarterpanel, and wave as his cousin drives away. As he passes under the archway, he will glance into the cruiser’s windshield and discover the corpse. This will be his first up-close glimpse of death, of an empty, defeated body, and as soon as he is able to unlock his legs, he will sprint down El Camino, get on the first bus he sees, and head out of town, anywhere, he won’t care. He will stare vacantly out a knife-scratched window as the bus rumbles through the foggy morning. The young man’s name is Ángel María de Todos los Santos, and he will forever be haunted by the pop-eyed look of terror on Featherstone’s face. He will come to dread the hour of his own death even more acutely, forever robbed of the ability to believe that God helps souls pass gently. He will not appear in this story again.





It is a rainy night, eight months after Wesley Featherstone’s life of devoted public service was honored with moist eyes, a dolorous wheeze of bagpipes, platters of cocktail franks and baked ziti, and, finally, a blast of crematory flame. Officer Michael Mercer, Colma Badge Thirteen, steers his cruiser through that same archway at Cypress Lawn, only dimly aware of how desperately he wants to be a hero, and not at all aware that he is about to become one.

Mercer is driving one of the department’s new Crown Victorias. The vehicle in which Featherstone died is gone, auctioned off, parked in a citizen’s garage somewhere down the peninsula. No one wants to patrol in a dead man’s cruiser. Fortunately, the Colma P.D. is well-enough funded that no one has to.

Mercer snaps on the cruiser’s alley lights. The rain-glazed grass glows an unearthly green in the halogen beams. Daisies shine blue-white and astral, scattered points of lonely, unconstellated light. Officer Nick Toronto, riding shotgun, radios their position, and they drive slowly through the cemetery, lighting up the night around them as they follow the looping pathways. Mercer, as always, is on the lookout for trouble, but all he sees is ordinary graveyard detritus: empty beer cans, tipped-over pots of withering poinsettias, an old boot with its sole yawning away from the upper, wet fast-food wrappers clinging to the stone of a family called Oyster. Mercer usually patrols solo, but Toronto is in charge tonight because Sergeant Mazzarella went home early with a case of the almighty shits, and Toronto assigned himself to ride with Mercer so he can relax, shoot the breeze, keep his mind off his hangover and his nicotine-starved nerves. Mercer doesn’t mind the company, even though Toronto, who’d been his Field Training Officer, still makes him nervous and self-conscious.

“Close your window,” Toronto says. “It’s fucking raw out.”

Mercer shakes his head no, even though he’s cold, too. An Alaskan front is sweeping down the coast of California, and the temperature has plummeted in the hours since midnight. The weather report says steady rain and piercing winds throughout the Bay Area for the next three days. Right now, there are flurries over Twin Peaks, and an inch of snow has accumulated on top of Mount Diablo. The power company has imposed rolling blackouts because they say the grid is sputtering, overtaxed by all the switched-on heaters.

“As the ranking officer in this car,” Toronto says, “I order you to close your window.”

“Sorry,” Mercer says.

“Don’t be sorry. Just close it.”

“Book says open.”

“The Book doesn’t take into account that I’m freezing my nuggets off.”

“Book says open,” Mercer says again. Toronto might be testing him, and Mercer is determined not to screw anything up. The Book, Mercer knows, is the safe way to go. The Book is The Book for a reason.

As they roll through the cemetery, they pass ornate Victorian mausoleums that are more spacious than Mercer’s apartment, the opulent resting places of James Flood, one of the Comstock silver kings, and Claus Spreckels, the sugar baron. They pass the Hearst family and Lillie Hitchcock Coit. The quiet is disturbed only by the patter of rain, the sticky hiss of tires on wet pavement, the Crown Vic’s eight-cylinder grumble, and also Toronto, who keeps on bitching about the cold and tapping an unlit cigarette nervously against the dashboard. He quit smoking three days ago to placate his girlfriend, but Mercer doubts he’ll last long—and until Toronto breaks down and lights up, Mercer is braced for a bumpy ride. Toronto can be a surly sonofabitch when things aren’t going his way.

Mercer steers back onto the cemetery’s main loop and lets the car drift back toward the archway that looms over the entrance. He’s about to joke that things look pretty dead here tonight when he spots a small, torn-up patch in the wet grass to his left, just off the road. Tire tracks—a pickup, maybe an SUV. Left sometime after the rain started, so they’re three hours old, at most. Mercer scans the area beyond the tracks. A darkened path weaves between the small, flat stones that pock the ground—foot traffic, he guesses, four or five people—and it runs about a hundred yards out to a decrepit part of the cemetery called Fern Grotto.

Hidden from view by an imposing stone tower and ramparts of ivy, broad-leaf ferns, and sprawling hydrangea, Fern Grotto is a circular, subterranean vault that held hundreds of bodies in its walls before a flood turned it into a pond full of yellowed, floating bones. These days it’s an empty, bramble-choked pit where Peninsula kids come to drink coconut rum from the bottle and screw. The grotto tower is an arresting sight: fifty feet high, with ivy snaking up its sides and converging at the top in a burst of green, an improbable tuft of vegetation that led Mercer, when he first saw it, to mistake the structure for an ancient, craggy-barked tree. A few weeks back, Mercer picked up two community-college kids (white male, 20; Asian female, 19) after he found them kneeling in the grass at the base of the tower. They were out of their heads on mushrooms and contemplating the enormous thing before them. “Lost souls,” the girl had intoned, stroking the naked, woody vines tenderly, with beatific concern. “The clawing fingers of lost souls.”

Mercer brakes to a stop. The vehicle is gone, and, he assumes, so are all of its occupants. Still, it’s his job to make sure.

“I have a theory about life,” Toronto announces, “and it’s this—”

Mercer holds up his hand. “Wait,” he says. He kills the engine. He listens.

“You need to hear this,” Toronto says.


“It’s the answer to your problems.”

Mercer points. “Torn-up grass. Foot traffic. Let’s take a look.” He gets out of the car, taking his flashlight with him. When Toronto doesn’t follow, Mercer crosses to the passenger side and knocks on his window.

Toronto rolls it down. He leans his head back in mock weariness, and Mercer notices for the first time just how protuberant Toronto’s Adam’s apple is. Seriously, it’s like the guy swallowed a golf ball.

“Boy Thirteen,” Toronto says dismissively, “they’re gone. No one’s here.”

“I want to check it out.”

“Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

Mercer hesitates. He’s acting like a typical rookie, he knows, chasing shadows while more seasoned cops roll their eyes. Toronto’s probably right. No one with any sense would stick around on foot in weather like this. All Mercer has to do is nod, get back behind the wheel, and drive them to the station, and they’ll be out of the cold and rain, and they can wait out the last two hours of the shift—the stay-awake hours, Toronto calls them—in the break room, where the TV will be tuned to hoops highlights or poker or some cable show about strippers.

“Changed your mind?” Toronto says. “Good, let’s go.”

Mercer rounds the front of the cruiser and is reaching for his door handle when the wind shifts and brings a sound to his ear. A sound. Barely audible, but it was there. He heard it. Something small, fearful, human.

“I heard something,” Mercer says through the open window. He flinches as the sky shoots a frigid dart of rain down his collar.

Toronto taps his cigarette.

“Listen,” Mercer says, and the sound comes again. “Hear that?”

“I hear not one damn thing,” Toronto says.

“Hold still. Close your eyes.”

Toronto stops tapping. “Of course, there’s Option Two, in which you stop wasting my time and tell me what it is.” He tucks the cigarette between his lips, where it hangs sadly, the paper splitting at the bends.

“Someone’s out there,” Mercer says. “At the pit.”

The sound comes again, louder this time, edged with fear and punctuated by a raw, scraping retch. “Well, fuck,” Toronto says. “I heard that.” He flicks the ruined cigarette out the window and joins Mercer in the rainy dark. “Fucking kids,” he says.

Mercer radios in, using the pick mike on his jacket collar. “Colma, Thirty-three Boy Thirteen.”

The dispatcher’s voice crackles in his earpiece. “Go ahead, Boy Thirteen.”

“On foot patrol, east side of Cypress Lawn. Suspicious circumstance.” He tucks his keys into his back pocket to keep them from jingling, and he and Toronto quietly cover the stretch of green between the cruiser and the grotto. Mercer holds his flashlight away from his body; when situations go sideways, gunmen will shoot at the light. (You have to learn good habits and practice them. Take nothing for granted. As Sergeant Mazzarella likes to say, Nothing will make you dead faster than an assumption. Everyone wishes the sergeant would lighten up a little, but they also know he’s right.)

A quick check around the perimeter of the grotto, the base of the tower. Nothing. The steel gate at the entrance to the vault is ajar. They hear the sound again—no, the voice, it’s a voice—a whimper, then a feeble moan. From inside. Mercer feels his pulse quicken, feels his hackles rise. Any cop will tell you: trust the hairs on the back of your neck; when they stand up, you pay attention. Mercer uses hand signals: he points at Toronto, then at his own eyes, then at his back. Watch my back. I’m taking lead. Toronto, whose neck hairs must be sending him a less-urgent message, shrugs and waves Mercer forward. Knock yourself out, Wonder Boy.

Mercer passes through the gate. A blackberry branch catches his sleeve, and the thorns scrape down the heavy nylon as he pulls away. He steps into the clearing and shines his flashlight down into the pit. Shards of glass catch the light, sparkling amid the brambles and cast-off leaves. A pair of jeans is splayed over a tangle of thorns—flung from above, probably—and a white high-top Chuck Taylor hangs in some cascading ivy, looking as if its owner stepped out of it in midair. Crumbling brick steps, hardly more than a red trail of scree, lead down into the pit. The only sound now is the pattering drizzle. The fog, sheltered from the wind, hangs dense and still.

Mercer follows the path that circles the pit. To his right, built into the earth, are the small, rectangular compartments in which the dead once lay. Dark tendrils of ivy cobweb the openings. To his left, along the pit’s rim, is a balustrade built from knotty, fist-thick birch limbs; in the bleaching glare of the flashlight, it looks to him like a fence of bones. Mercer steps quietly along the path, alert, coiled, ready to act.

He comes across a spot where leaves have been kicked away. Two empty tequila bottles lie in the dirt. Top-shelf stuff, Mercer notes. Stuff he can’t afford to drink. Also on the ground are a wood-carved pipe and a scattering of cigarette butts.

In the dark ahead of him, someone coughs. Mercer shines his light on the path and sees nothing. He summons his command presence, straightening into a powerful posture and urging his voice to boom. “Colma Police,” he says, feeling the authority resonating in his chest, his throat, his skull. “Identify yourself.”

Another cough, and a sudden rush of liquid. Chunky, strangled, urgent sounds.

Slowly (too slowly—as Mazzarella would say, the kind of slowly that’ll get you killed), he realizes the subject is lying inside one of the burial chambers. He shines his light along the wall into the far corner and sees bare legs protruding from one of the openings. The ankles are bound with duct tape that shines silver in the light. Toronto sweeps his beam across the area, scanning for other people, and Mercer hurries ahead, tugs away the curtain of vines that drape around the legs, and looks into the chamber. It’s a kid—white male, probably mid-teens—and he’s been shoved in headfirst, on his stomach. Naked from the waist down, and just a damp white T-shirt on top. Wrists duct-taped behind his back.

“I’m making contact,” Mercer calls to Toronto. “Are we secure?”

“All clear,” Toronto says.

Mercer touches the boy’s calf. His skin, wet from the rain, is pale and blue-tinged. Mercer finds a pulse from the femoral artery, and it’s slow, draggy, erratic. An earwig skitters across the kid’s thigh, and Mercer sweeps it away.

Toronto comes up behind him. “Hypothermic?”

“Think so.”

“So what should you do?” Toronto’s voice is level, cool.

“Try to rouse,” Mercer says, impatient. It’s an emergency, not a goddamn training session.

“How are you going to do it? Sternum rub?”

“Of course not. Can’t get to it. Can’t move him.”

“So how, then?”

“Rub somewhere else,” Mercer says.

“Where? You going to rub his ass, for instance?”

“I’m not rubbing his ass.”

“Whether you do or not, I’m telling everyone you did. You’ll be known forever as Mike Mercer, Ass-Rubber. We’ll get you vanity plates that say i RUB ASS.”

“We’ve got a situation here. Let me think.”

“Don’t think. Just deal with it. Unless you need me to do it for you.”

Mercer makes a fist and rubs his knuckles up and down the sole of one of the kid’s cold bare feet. “Hey, buddy,” he says, raising his voice. “Can you hear me?” No response. Mercer tries the back of his knee and elicits a dwindling, wordless groan. The air stinks of the kid’s vomit, and Mercer has to pull away for a moment to gird himself.

“Let’s get him warm,” Toronto says. “I’ll grab the blanket.”

Mercer radios in. “I have a ten-forty-two, code three.” Medical emergency, request for ambulance, with siren, all due haste. “Subject is a white male, about fifteen, unconscious, breathing. Subject is hypothermic, intoxicated, narcotics possible. Subject is on his stomach, inside a—what’s the word?—a chamber, I guess, in Fern Grotto. Yes. The place with the tower. Subject’s wrists and ankles are bound with duct tape.”

“Subject’s ass is boldly on display,” Toronto offers as he heads out through the gate. “Subject lacks any kind of trouser.”

While Toronto’s getting the medi-kit from the cruiser, Mercer keeps one hand on the kid’s clammy leg. He’s got to talk, keep him alert, but words keep deserting him before he can push them through his mouth. A better cop, he thinks, would know just what to say. “Hang in there,” he says. “Um, just stay with me. I’m a police officer, and I’m going to take care of you.” He pauses, and the air around him turns empty, lifeless. Keep talking, got to keep talking. The foggy sky lights up in swirling red and blue. “Stay with me.” Shit, he said that already, he’s terrible at this, he can feel himself being terrible at this, and he can feel his brain slamming shut the way it sometimes does, and suddenly he doesn’t have any words at all and in their place is that acute, straining, sweaty empty, proof that words always fail him in the most critical situations, always have, always will, and he imagines this kid lying there listening and lamenting the shitty luck that has put his life in the hands of someone so tongue-tied and lame. Tough it out, he tells himself in an internal command-voice, just talk, and he keeps his mouth working, and finally, after a few tentative syllables get choked off in his throat, the words dribble out again. “We’re going to get you to the hospital. An ambulance is on the way. Stay with me. Just breathe, and stay with me.” He hears Toronto’s feet scuffing toward him through the leaves, and he shuts up so Toronto can’t criticize his patter. He feels his panic ebbing, and then he is himself again, sweaty and not-unpleasantly-spent-feeling, still buzz-headed but back in the world, here, in this cemetery, in this cold, on this wet ground. Doing his job like he’s supposed to.

Approaching sirens tear the air. Toronto removes the emergency blanket from the medical bag and shakes it open. They cover the kid with it, with Mercer reaching deep into the compartment to cover as much of him as possible. The air in the close space reeks of tequila and bile and moss and decay.

“Kid’s fucked up,” Toronto says. “He’s seriously fucked up.”


“No shit.”

“Narcotics, you think?”

“Maybe ketamine. This kid’s out.

“I’m cutting the tape,” Mercer says.

“Hold off,” Toronto tells him. “Fire’s almost here. If the kid dies, it won’t be the tape that did it.”

“Don’t say he’s going to die,” Mercer says.

“I didn’t. I said if.”

“Because maybe he can hear you.”

“Can you hear me? I said if.

Mercer reminds himself to breathe. “All right,” he says. “So what are we looking at here?”

“I’m going to make an educated guess,” Toronto says, “and say that it’s ghosts. Ghosts drugged him and pantsed him, and had their ghost ways with him. Spooky, evil, sex-crazed ghosts.”

“Be serious,” Mercer says. “For one goddamn second.”

“I seriously don’t know,” Toronto says. “You’d think sexual assault, but there’s no sign. Not that I can see. It looks like this is just a fucked-up, taped-up kid that someone left outside. I’m going down to check the clothing for an ID. Stay with him.” Toronto makes his way around the pit to the collapsed brick stairway; loose grit schusses ahead of him as he sidesteps down the slope. When he reaches the bottom, he high-steps over clumps of thorns to get to the discarded jeans. Mercer keeps his hand on the kid’s blanketed legs and softly tells him again and again that he’ll be all right, aware that this might be a lie.

As the fire engine’s lights join the cruiser’s in the sky, coloring the cloud bank, the kid mumbles a few syllables. Mercer leans closer to hear. Under his hand, the leg muscles twitch, then go slack, then clench in spasm. Then the back arches, and the head slams against the top of the chamber. Mercer pulls away as the kid’s body convulses, legs kicking, arms jerking and straining against the tape. The blanket falls to the ground. A fecal smell fouls the air.

Mercer flicks open his knife. “He’s seizing,” he shouts to Toronto. “I’m cutting him loose.” Toronto says something back, but Mercer doesn’t hear. He steps closer to the twisting body, ignoring the stink. He aims the knife and saws once, the blade snapping through the tight-stretched tape, and the kid’s arms swing free. Then Mercer does the legs. When the last filament of tape pops away, one leg kicks out before he can step clear, and the kid’s foot crashes into his cheek. There’s a green flash in his eyes and a sound like hammered metal in his head, and he staggers a few steps, then goes down. From the wet ground, he hears Toronto call his name, and he shouts back I’m fine. It’s all good. He stays on the ground to rest. Let his head settle. The sirens cut out with final, staccato squawks, and Mercer imagines he can hear their echoes drifting away in slow, dreamy ripples.

The firefighters approach, a jumble of voices and heavy footsteps and clanks and jingles. As they pound past him, one of them tells Mercer to go back to sleep, they’ll take it from here. Mercer wants to tell him to fuck off, but he can’t get his mouth to work yet.

He opens his eyes and sees the firemen—six, at his first count, but once he blinks and straightens out his vision, he sees there are only five—clustered in a semicircle, blocking his view of the kid.

“Huh. Don’t see this every day.”

“Bitch getting him out.”

“Careful. It’s shit city over here.”

“Need the spine board.”

“Yup. Spine board.”

“Can’t do it without a spine board. No way.”

“Let’s go. Let’s stop dicking around and do this thing.”

“Is he alive?” Mercer calls.

“Ish,” the paramedic says.



Mercer hears someone come lumbering into the clearing alone, breathing heavily. He slowly turns his head and sees Jerry Fahey, a retired fire volunteer who’s been tagging along on calls again ever since his wife passed away. He’s wearing a pale blue pajama top and threadbare gray sweatpants under an open wool overcoat, and his furry belly peeks out from between his pajama buttons. Mercer knows him well; he and Toronto often hoist beers with him at the Death’s Door Tavern, just over the line that separates Colma from Daly City. Fahey’s a dedicated drinker, his spuddy nose shot with blown capillaries.

Mercer pushes himself up onto his knees, rests, breathes, stands. He slaps leaves and dirt away from his jacket and pants.

“Boy Thirteen,” Fahey says, “you look like shit.”

Mercer puts his hand to his face. His cheek and eye have already begun to puff up. He presses gently around the edges of the swelling, testing the depth of the ache. “Kid seized,” he explains. “Foot caught me.”

Fahey looks over at the kid. He shakes his head. “Son, if a naked little boy is going to knock you down, you’re in deep shit if you ever actually have to stop a crime.”

“I’m aware,” Mercer says.

Fahey bellies-up to the bone fence and calls to Toronto, who’s still looking around in the pit. Gesturing toward the kid in the wall, he says, “This is one fucked-up way of coercing confessions, Toronto.”

“It wasn’t me,” Toronto calls back. He’s holding a black wallet. “It was Mercer. His girlfriend hasn’t been putting out.”

“You guys are a menace,” Fahey says. “For all I know, you’ll come after me one of these days. I’m going to padlock my belt buckle.”

“You’re not even wearing a belt, you fat, lazy bastard. Nice outfit, by the way. You on your way to prowl the playgrounds?”

And so on. Mercer doesn’t feel like joining in. He’s not very good at the insult game, and plus, he’s just noticed sparkles of coppery light in his vision. He closes his eyes so he can watch them dance more brightly. He opens them again when Fahey’s meaty arm thumps down over his shoulders, a sudden burden that nearly buckles his knees.

Fahey says, “I was just shitting you before. You know that, right?”


“Just now. Naked little boy, deep shit, stop a crime, excetera.”

“Right,” Mercer says, and his memory pops back into place. “No problem. I can take it.”

“You’re fine,” Fahey says. “You’re going to be a good cop. I can tell.” His breath is a rank cocktail of mouthwash and beer fumes. Mercer wishes the compliment didn’t have that closing-time feel to it.

They watch as two firemen work the spine board under the kid’s body. The paramedic stands behind them, directing, waving his hands. The other men lean against the wall of empty burial chambers, talking, laughing. It’s one of the first things Mercer learned on the job: guys are always looking for a reason to stand around.

Toronto scrambles up the loose brick. He falls once and curses, then makes it up on the second try with a three-step running start. He knuckles a rhythm on the fence as he walks toward them. “Jesus,” he says when he sees Mercer’s face. “I told you to watch out for that.”

“Yeah,” Mercer says. “Well.”

“Our boy has a name. His license is in there.” Toronto hands him the wallet, and Mercer flips through the bills. Four twenties. A lot to leave behind, if money’s a motive. “They dumped his jacket down there, too,” Toronto says. “A nice one. Suede. Italian designer kind of shit.”

“Bottom line, then,” Mercer says. “It’s not a robbery.”

“Was that a pun? ‘Bottom line’?”

Jerry swats Mercer on the back. “Good one, Boy Thirteen.”

“Nick.” Mercer sighs. “Jesus.”

“Fine,” Toronto says, sounding disappointed. “No, it’s probably not a robbery. Maybe personal.”

“I could use a jacket like that,” Fahey says. “Update my image.”

“Jerry, you could update your image with a fucking loincloth,” Toronto says.

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m old? You’re calling me old?”

“Of course I’m calling you old. You’re old.”

“It wouldn’t fit you, anyway,” Mercer says.

“The loincloth?”

“No, Jerry, the jacket.”

“So now I’m fat, too,” Fahey says.

“You’ve always been fat,” Toronto says.

“I’m just saying the kid’s tiny,” Mercer says. “Plus, the jacket’s, you know, evidence.”

“No sense of humor, this one,” Toronto says, pointing at Mercer.

“Kids today,” Fahey says.

Toronto turns to Mercer. “Run the ten-twenty-nine. And tell them to get Funkhouser out of bed. We need a detective down here.”

“Why don’t you call in?” Mercer wants to rest a little longer. He wants to wait for his brain to stop rattling against his skull.

“You need to practice your radio skills,” Toronto says, and he walks off with Fahey. Mercer can’t tell if he’s joking.

While he’s on the radio, the kid is carried out past him on the spine board, and Mercer gets his first good look. He’s short and slightly built. Dark hair with tight curls, cut short and thickly gelled. A thin, high-bridged nose centering a beardless olive face. Thin lips flecked with the same yellow-orange mess that’s splattered over his T-shirt. Long, feminine lashes fringing his closed eyelids. All things considered, the kid looks pretty peaceful. It’s sad, Mercer thinks, that this boy might die surrounded by a bunch of strangers who’ll only ever know him by his medical condition, his bare ass, and his vital statistics.

Last of David Ida Mary Adam Ida Ocean.

First of John Union David Edward.

Middle of P, Paul.

Date of birth zero-seven, one-three, eighty-eight.

Out of San Francisco. Street address: two-zero-one Buena Vista West.

Dispatch calls; the kid comes back ten-thirty-one-A. Clear record, not reported missing. “Get a reverse and call the residence,” Mercer orders. “Subject is en route to Good Shepherd Hospital.”

Jude P. DiMaio is carried out of the grotto and into the cemetery just as the ambulance arrives and adds a third set of flashing lights to the scene. The kid is rushed off, the siren Dopplering away, and after the rest of the firemen file out, the grotto is quiet again: just the popping of cold drizzle on fallen leaves and waterproof nylon.

Mercer hears Toronto flick open his lighter and turns to see him with a cigarette in his mouth, cupping his hand to keep raindrops off the flame. “Thought you quit,” Mercer says.

Toronto inhales deeply. “I did,” he says. He snaps the lighter closed and exhales a long, satisfied stream of blue.

They stand in the rain at the crime scene, not talking. Mercer feels too tired to move, and his head is throbbing. Plus, the flashing lights in the sky keep attracting his attention, and every time he moves his eyes too quickly, a wave of dizziness hits him broadside. Yes, he’s worried for Jude, and yes, he urgently wants to find whatever bastard taped him up and left him out in the wet winter night, but right now he wants more than anything else to be home in bed, warm and dry under three blankets, a bag of ice on his damaged face, the blinds closed and a beach towel draped over them to catch whatever light leaks through.

“Well, Boy Thirteen,” Toronto says, finally, flicking away his first ashes as a reborn smoker, “I guess we ought to do some police work here.”




Lillie Hitchcock Coit, San Francisco heiress and devoted patroness of firefighters, sits on the birch-wood fence and watches the officers walk about, collecting things and taking measurements in their methodical ways. Holding her honorary helmet from the Knickerbocker No. 5 in her flanneled lap, she basks in her contentment. The firemen have come, have extracted the boy from his predicament, and are rushing him to get medical care. How serene she feels. How satisfying to witness a good rescue. How good to have a short reprieve from all the worry about Doc Barker’s gang and their seething cruelty.

She’d have preferred to see a fire, of course—the crushing wall of heat, the smell of one’s own eyebrows singeing when one stands too close, the hot crash of collapsing timbers, the fearful shrieks of the trapped, and above all, the grace and valor of the firefighters who tame the chaos of flames—but there are precious few fires here, and one must take one’s pleasure where one can, mustn’t one? Without the small pleasures, there’s little purpose in remaining here, is there? And she has no inclination to follow all those unhappy ones who chew their Roots and rush themselves into oblivion. No, she shall seek out the small pleasures, and she shall seize them, and to blazes with anyone who might be lurking about and intending her harm.

Small pleasures, such as racing into the grotto alongside the firemen. Such as watching the boy’s chest rise and fall, however slowly, as he was carried out. And now, oddly enough, watching the policemen. The younger one is more appealing to her, more interesting. He’s not a small man—he’s square-shouldered and sturdy—but he moves with an inelegant, lumbering gait befitting someone much bigger and heavier. His face is scrunched in concentration as he rolls some sort of measuring wheel over the ground, and she admires the focus that comes with dedication to one’s task. She sighs happily, perhaps even theatrically, and when she does, something strange happens: her officer spins around, as if he can hear her.

Oh, my.

Another one?

The policeman spins so quickly that he loses his balance on the wet grass, and Lillie quite unintentionally smiles at the sight: this young man, his arms wheeling, his heavy-browed face showing a determination not to fall over and a fear that he might have tipped too far already. Yes, she decides. Another one of her pleasures shall be to watch him. He is someone worth keeping her eye on, even if it turns out he’s not a crosser. He did find the boy, after all, and she’s glad someone did.



Five in the morning. The sky is still dark, but Interstate 280 is alive with early commuters zooming north toward San Francisco and south toward Silicon Valley. The fog has thinned, and drivers hum along through the drizzle at sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five. Trees on both sides of the freeway flail in the gusting wind, and small cars skate back and forth within their lanes as they fight the gusts. When the northbound fast-lane drivers notice the cruiser in their rearview mirrors, they slow with a flash of brake lights, hurriedly flick their right-turn signals, and change lanes—some of them swerving—to get out of the law’s way. “Nervous drivers,” Toronto says. “Watch out for them, Boy Thirteen. A citizen with the yips is just as dangerous as one who’s shitfaced.”

“I’m aware,” Mercer says.

Toronto is driving while Mercer rides shotgun, resting his eyes. He’s taken three naproxens already, and the pain is still lingering in his head, a blunt ache. The swelling on his face intrudes on his vision, like a fingertip shading the corner of a photograph. Drowsiness fell heavily upon him the moment he got into the passenger seat, and it’s a chore to keep his head up.

They’re heading back to the station from the county crime lab in San Mateo. All the evidence they gathered, numbered, and stored in paper envelopes at the scene is now in the lab’s night-drop box. There were thirteen cigarette butts in the grotto, two different brands. The pipe: recently used, charred residue still in the bowl. They won’t get any prints off it—too porous—but they have the tequila bottles, and once those dry, the lab might get a partial they can work with. Their best hope, though, is for the kid to ID the perps himself.

Mercer opens his eyes as they pass a green Lexus. The driver is about his age, just shy of thirty, but already jowly and puffy-looking. He’s riding with the dome light on and rummaging for something in the passenger seat, his attention alternating between the seat and the road. He wears a white dress shirt with suspenders and a bow tie, and a suit jacket hangs in the window behind him. Mercer watches him drift rightward across the lane divider. Watch where you’re driving, buddy, he thinks.

The driver returns his attention to the road, pulls back into his lane, and notices the cruiser running even with him on his left. He meets Mercer’s eyes and gives him a crisp salute. Mercer raises his hand in acknowledgment, a reflex, and immediately regrets it, unsure if that salute was a genuine gesture of respect or of condescension. The more he thinks about it, the more he suspects it was the latter.

“Asshole,” Mercer says as the Lexus falls a few lengths behind them.

“What’d I do this time?” Toronto says.

“Not you. Guy in the Lexus.”

“What’d he do?”

“Saluted. In an I’m-better-than-you way.”

“You’re jealous he’s got money?”

“Fuck that,” Mercer says. “That’s not a life I want.”

“Good,” Toronto says. “It’s not a life you have.”




Mercer hadn’t planned on a career in law enforcement. He’d simply been lost. He was years removed from college, sick of bartending and office temp work. His friends were finding jobs they cared about and women they loved and places to travel to, and Mercer could feel their attachments to each other slackening, which depressed him. Spooked by a creeping sense of his own irrelevance, he was drinking too much, sleeping too much, and getting dark-minded and hopeless in a way he feared might be permanent. One day, he forced himself out of bed shortly after noon and, while sipping the bitter dregs of his hyper-employed, dawn-rising roommate’s coffee, he opened the newspaper and came across an article headlined A MIME EVERYONE CAN LOVE. It was a feature piece about a cop in San Francisco, a former professional mime who practiced his art as he walked his beat. He’d act out routines that urged at-risk kids to stay in school, warned gang-bangers to watch their step on his turf, shamed traffic offenders, reminded church-bound pensioners and smack-drowsy whores alike to take vitamins and see a health professional regularly. The accompanying photograph showed him—in full uniform and whiteface—walking against the wind to the apparent delight of a kindergarten class. If you believed the residents who’d been interviewed, this mime cop had almost single-handedly restored order, goodwill, and civic pride to a troubled part of the city.

Mercer put down the paper. He eyed the half of a jelly donut that his roommate had left on the table. All the jelly had been scooped out, leaving a moist purple cavity in the dough, but Mercer ate it anyway. He leaned back on two legs of his loose-jointed chair and thought about finding a way to discover his role in this life, about making damn sure he didn’t sleepwalk through it and die without doing anything. That cop had a good thing going. A job he believed in. A regular check and benefits. And, every day, chances to help people, fix problems, maintain order, be appreciated. He was a fucking mime, and everyone loved him.

Mercer wouldn’t have a hook like that; he couldn’t tap-dance, bust freestyle rhymes, or do ventriloquism or magic tricks. But maybe it would be enough to be a good cop, well-intentioned and effective. It dawned on him that he really could be a cop if he wanted to, and then it dawned on him that he’d had this revelation while eating a donut, and if that wasn’t a sign, he didn’t know what was. It felt like an inspired idea, one worth pursuing before it slipped his mind and he slumped back into his usual morose inertia.

And he did pursue it. Within two months, he’d quit slinging Cosmopolitans and mojitos at The Hard Ten Tavern on Divisadero, told the manager at the temp agency to chuck his file in the shredder, and enrolled in the Police Academy in Santa Rosa. His mother said she was torn; she worried about the dangers of police work, but she was happy to see him finding some focus. His friends—still the high-school crew, who’d gone on to expensive degrees and then to high-paying jobs, trust-funded leisure, or both—razzed him for weeks, until his best friend, Owen, declared that enough was enough, that they should respect Mercer’s choice, and that no one should spark up joints or do lines anymore while he was in the room to spare him any ethical dilemmas. After some initial griping, they agreed, and they turned curious about his training, instead of dismissive.

It had been only a few months since Mercer had finished field training and gone full-time with the Colma agency, but already he knew he’d made the right decision. He loved the work, loved the rush he got from facing fear head-on, loved the camaraderie of a small group of people committed to watching each other’s backs. Toronto had once told him the best cops were those who found their calling late, and the worst were the ones who thought they’d been born with a badge. “They’re the motherfuckers with issues,” he’d said. “Watch out for them.” Toronto had come to the force after teaching English at a junior high school in East Palo Alto where knife fights were more common than mac-and-cheese lunch days. After that, he said, he’d wanted a job that let him carry a gun.




Speaking of life,” Toronto says.

“I know. You have a theory about it.”

“One from which you’ll benefit greatly.”

Mercer looks out the window as they speed past the Crystal Springs rest area. A sandstone statue of Father Junípero Serra overlooks the freeway, an eight-lane charcoal-colored swath of pavement. The missionary kneels with one arm extended, pointing westward, out over the coastal hills and toward the ocean. His facial expression is blank, his eyes flat, irisless, unreadable. Go west, he counsels, without offering any hint as to who should go, or why, or how far, or what one might find when one gets there. Could be paradise, could be sharks.

“All right,” Mercer says. “Let’s hear this theory.”

“Are you ready?”

“What, do I need to take notes?”

“I want to make sure you’re listening. This is wisdom, Boy Thirteen.”

“Bring it on,” Mercer says. “Let’s get it over with.”

“My theory about life is this: that you’re only as old as the woman you’re sticking it to.”

Mercer blinks. “That’s it? That’s a theory about life?”

“It is. And it’s a good one.”

“Horseshit, is what it is.” It’s also typical Toronto: now that he has a twenty-two-year-old girlfriend, he’ll proclaim that cradle-robbing is the world’s greatest virtue. Still, he’s so sure of himself, so matter-of-factly convinced of his own insight, that Mercer finds it hard to dismiss what he says out of hand. He also feels a stab of envy: Toronto will be going home to a hot, young girlfriend—an acrobat, no less—and Mercer won’t. And he probably won’t ever again. He has a sense that those days are over for him, and that he wasted them being shy and self-conscious and risk-averse. “How old are you, anyway?” Mercer asks.

“Thirty-seven. Thirty-eight next month.”

“Didn’t know you were that old.” He’d figured thirty-four, tops.

“Which proves my point, doesn’t it?”

Mercer supposes it might, which disturbs him, but then he reminds himself to be wary of the conclusions to which his mind steers him at this time of the night. Or morning. Whatever the hell this is. “I know where you’re going with this,” Mercer says. “Don’t.”

“All I’m saying is I feel great. I feel great, and you’re a mess. I’m going home to have unspeakably acrobatic sex with Mia, and you’re going home to screw somebody’s grandmother.”

Mercer’s face grows hot. “Fuck you,” he says, buying time while he figures out what he really wants to say. Then he decides that “Fuck you” is what he really wants to say, so he says it again. “She’s nobody’s grandmother,” he adds. “She’s nobody’s mother. She’s a few years older than you are.”

“My point exactly. What the hell are you doing with her?”

He should never have told Toronto about Fiona. He’s hardly told anyone. It’s not that he’s hiding her, it’s just that he doesn’t like to talk about his romantic life unless he has a good reason to, and he usually doesn’t. He’d let it slip one morning at the end of his field training when he and Toronto were having drinks at The Death’s Door, decompressing from the shift along with a couple of Daly City cops named Whitehurst and Gillis. Mercer had kept quiet; as the new guy, he was unsure of his place in the conversation. Talk had turned to sex, as it usually does, especially with cops. Gillis got laughs with his story about picking up a goth girl at a Laundromat in Belmont (“Turns out she thinks she’s a vampire. Seriously. Bitch bit me.”). Whitehurst griped about feeling cheated because the woman he was sleeping with, a notorious badge-chaser, wouldn’t do oral anymore. Eventually they turned to Mercer, waiting for him to contribute. By then, he had three well whiskeys in him, and he let down his guard. “I’m kind of seeing someone,” he said.

“Who is she?” Gillis asked. “Details. We need details.”

“An ER nurse. At Good Shepherd.”

“A nurse,” Whitehurst said. “That’s great. That’s hot.”

“Tits?” Gillis asked, gesturing with his hands to indicate sizes ranging from ample to pneumatic.

Whitehurst elbowed Gillis. “Of course she has tits, douchebag. She’s a woman.” He turned to Mercer. “She is a woman, isn’t she?”

Mercer rolled his eyes. Earlier, when he’d mentioned that he used to work at The Hard Ten, he’d had to explain that no, it wasn’t a gay bar; the owner had opened it with money he’d made at a craps table in Reno by betting everything he had on a hard ten on the hop. A stupid bet, laughable, but it had paid off. Every night Mercer had spent in that bar was a reminder that other people tended to be luckier than he was. “Yes,” Mercer told the other cops, trying to sound as exasperated as possible, “she’s a woman.”

Toronto asked how old she was, and Mercer, determined not to hesitate because hesitating would suggest that he thought there was something wrong with the age difference, and he didn’t think there was, not really. He’d looked Toronto squarely in the eyes and said, in the confident, matter-of-fact tone he’d learned at the Academy, “Forty-three.”

Toronto had choked on his drink, or pretended to. “Holy Jesus on a wrecking ball,” he said. “What’s wrong with you?”

It was a terrible moment, one that Mercer knew well: when horror and shame hot-knife through you because you’ve tried to fit in and instead proved yourself to be the freak they suspect you are. He had stared into his half-empty glass and felt a drop of sweat strum his ribs, and he cursed himself for forgetting that it’s usually best just to keep your fucking mouth shut.




The cruiser whizzes along through the dark clouds and green-black hills. Rainwater roars inside the wheel wells in staccato bursts. Toronto changes lanes to avoid a shred of a blown tire. Toronto asks again: “Seriously. What’s the deal? You love her?”

“No,” Mercer says, but it’s more a reflex than a considered answer. You have to be careful, throwing around a word like love.

“So, what, it’s the sex? She knows things young women don’t?”

Mercer shakes his head. In truth, they don’t have sex all that often, and most of the time it’s routine, perfunctory. Friendly, though. It’s always friendly. But passionate? Sweat and biting and wolf sounds and rolled-back eyes and fisted toes? Rarely. It does happen every now and then, but that just confuses him more.

“Is this a Freud thing? You have issues with your mom?”

“Hey,” Mercer says. “I passed the psych eval, same as you.”

“Make me understand, and I’ll back off,” Toronto says. “Really, fuck whoever you want. I’m just trying to help.”

“I like her, that’s all. We get along. Why does it have to be more than that? Why does it have to mean something about me?”

“Everything you do means something about you. You going to marry her?”

“How should I know?”

“If anyone knows, you should.”

“It’s just early, is what I’m saying.”

“It’s not early for her. She’s got about eight minutes before her ovaries petrify.”

“Who said anything about kids?”

“Has she?”

“She knows it’s probably too late. She said she’s made her peace.”

“She’s lying.”

“Can we stop talking about this?”

“Last question: do you find yourself still looking? Shopping around? Sizing up every woman you meet as fuckable or non?”

Mercer sucks his lower lip, thinking. He says, “I don’t have any other viable prospects right now.”

“That’s your problem. You worry about what’s viable.”

“How can you not worry about what’s viable?”

“Fuck viable,” Toronto says. “The only thing that ever feels viable is staying where you are. Mia and I aren’t viable. I’m a thirty-seven-year-old cop. She’s twenty-two and a circus tumbler and nuclear-fucking-hot. We weren’t viable until I made us viable.”

“Yeah, but will it last?”

“I’m getting a ring this weekend.”

“You’re getting engaged?”

“That’s generally what rings mean, dipshit.”

“You’ve only known her a few months,” Mercer points out. He remembers Toronto telling him about his first night with Mia: it was during Mercer’s field training, and they were in the cruiser together, parked down by the landfill. They were watching Hillside Avenue, Mercer manning the radar gun, and Toronto went on and on about this circus girl he’d picked up over tequila shots in a bar on Valencia. Mercer had learned something important that night: that there’s a kind of man who can talk freely and in great detail about the sex he’s had—positions, orifices, sounds, fluids, kinks—and there’s a kind of man who can listen to it enthusiastically, without embarrassment, and that he himself was neither. He’d wished an intoxicated driver would come along so Toronto would have to shut up for a while, but no one obliged. When Mercer couldn’t stand it anymore, he took down a silver BMW for doing forty-nine in a forty-five zone.

“She’s going on tour in a few weeks,” Toronto says. “I’m going to ask her before she leaves.”

“A little insurance,” Mercer says. “So she doesn’t screw the Dog-Faced Boy. Or Humpy the Clown.”

“Fuck off. That’s not funny.”

Toronto heads down the Hickey Boulevard exit ramp, and the sounds of the freeway traffic fade behind them as they cross the town line. He takes the right turn onto Hickey too fast for the conditions, and the cruiser fishtails in the empty intersection before he brings it back under control. “I meant that,” he says. “Scared you.”

The sky has brightened to a pewtery gray. Mercer closes his eyes and relaxes, lets the flash of adrenaline he felt during the skid drain away. He’s pleased with himself. Humpy the Clown. Little by little, he’s getting the hang of this job.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A daring and big-hearted first novel...Like Dashiell Hammett, Dorst conveys a hard-bitten love of the physical San Francisco."
-New York Times Book Review

"In the same way Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixed high school and bloodsuckers, Doug Dorst combines cops and ghosts in his Alive in Necropolis. The result is a haunted variation on Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series...Imaginative and accomplished... Pitch-perfect."
-USA Today

"Rich, unsettling...truly haunting."
-San Francisco Chronicle "An intriguing mix of coming-of-age story, police procedural, and magical realism."

Reading Group Guide


“A daring and big-hearted first novel...Like Dashiell Hammett, Dorst conveys a hard-bitten love of the physical San Francisco.” —New York Times Book Review

Welcome to the “cemetery city” of Colma, California—but don’t expect to rest in peace.

The final resting place of San Francisco’s most prominent citizens—including Joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, and other luminaries—sleepy Colma has an eager new patrolman in by-the-book rookie cop Michael Mercer. Consumed with unraveling the mysterious fate—and paperwork—of his predecessor, Mercer quickly becomes enmeshed in the disputes still raging among undead. Meanwhile, Mercer becomes the star of a high profile case (among the living—and notorious) that introduces him to even more outlandish demands and complicated politics. Struggling to maintain his balance between his newly-found adult responsibilities, complicated love life, and increasingly dramatic night beat, Mercer worries his own connection to reality is beginning to slip away.

“Doug Dorst combines cops and ghosts in his Alive in Necropolis. The result is a haunted variation on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series…Imaginative and accomplished…Pitch-perfect.” —USA Today

“[A] smart and accessibly unconventional first novel...Shot through with streaks of black humor to vivid, insightful effect...Alive in Necropolis proves truly haunting.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“An intriguing mix of coming-of-age story, police procedural, and magical realism.”




A long-time resident of San Francisco, Doug Dorst now lives in Austin, Texas where he teaches creative writing at St. Edward’s University. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Epoch, and other journals, as well as in the anthology Politically Inspired. He is also a former Jeopardy! champion.


  • In modern cities, there is a necessary coexistence between the living and the dead—both sharing the same physical space. Paris, with its underground catacombs, is another example. How might this affect the psychic landscape of the place and its inhabitants? What is the impact of always having this shadow, a ghost of the idea of death, fixed in one’s rear view mirror?
  • Mercer finds his path to policehood after a few abandoned careers, a late bloomer in the most sincere sense. What influences his decision and draws him to this position? And how does his dedication or motivation change over the course of the novel—what is his reason for staying on such an unusual beat?
  • The banter among the Colma police force becomes a true star force in the novel—alternately exuberant, playful, politically incorrect, naughty, and amusing. How does this inside slice of police life add to the flow of the storytelling and our experience of it? What insights are gained through listening in?
  • Lillie Hitchcock Coit. Phineas Gage. Lincoln Beachley. Did you find the author’s choice to reanimate some of San Francisco’s most famous (or infamous) residents convincing? If so, what made them so convincing? Do you think the effect would be the same if the author had used non-historical characters? Did their dimensionality/violence/obsessions surprise you?
  • Why do you think the ghosts remain restless—and what keeps them in this searching, limbo state? What do you think “The Root” is?
  • Who is actually “alive in the necropolis” of Colma? Those living fully without regret, those choosing to “die like an aviator”? Might the author be trying to say something about what the point of living might actually be, and the importance of the bonds we make?
  • Mercer struggles deeply with, and is hypersensitive to, the idea of living a “mediocre” life— he worries about falling short (or settling for less) in his love life, especially versus Owen’s success, about his choice of apartments, about his career path. Jude shares the same preoccupation—though struggles in his own teenage, self-destructive way. How does this set them up for their intersecting journeys? What happens to those, like Fiona perhaps, who have come to embrace just exactly what life presents them, mediocre or non-perfect as it is?
  • Why do you think Mercer begins to see and hear the dead? What is it about his state of mind that makes him a candidate? Why might Featherstone have been targeted as well?
  • When we meet Sergeant Featherstone he is already deceased, and it is through his grieving wife’s anecdotes and the stacks of unprocessed police reports she presents to Mike that we get a sense of his trials. Through this unique device we come to learn not only the crimes and misdemeanors of Colma’s ghost population but of Wes’ own regrets in his life. What else do we gain as readers though this exposition?
  • “Shut up and die like an aviator” is an ever-present mantra throughout the novel—repeated by members of the squad, and through Beachley’s actions among others. Do you feel there could be another mantra (or theme) in the novel that comes to the forefront and has resonance?
  • How does Mercer’s constant awareness of “The Book”—his conduct laws—influence his actions in the story? What steers his decisions to follow them or not? Why does he bend the rules when he does—and what are the consequences? (Might this make him more human in our eyes—or less of a “perfect” cop?)
  • What is it about Mercer’s character that draws other needy characters toward him, and to trust and depend on him? Who are Mercer’s protectors or guardians in the story?
  • Mercer’s absent father functions as yet another looming ghost in the novel—one that everyone but Mercer sees on the street and is touched by. What might that tell us about what Mercer chooses to acknowledge, see in his own life? What have been the consequences of this for him?
  • The crescendo of desperation at the end of the novel—of desperate people, of desperate acts, everyone losing control—is particularly hard-hitting for the reader. Especially in the case of Toronto, Jude, and Fiona, everyone has given up the reins as Mercer struggles to put his life back in focus. Were you shocked by any of these particular breakdowns?
  • Customer Reviews

    Most Helpful Customer Reviews

    See All Customer Reviews

    Alive in Necropolis 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This novel is wonderful. I cannot believe it is a first book for the writer. It is one of, if not the best debut I've read. The writter has many story-lines happening at once, and he does an excellent job of tying it up at the end. I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Colma, CA has 1200 living residents and 2 million residents already dead. 'No one knows for sure what (the dead) do - if they do anything but lie mute, immobile, decaying - but some of the living have their suspicions.' So starts the story of Officer Michael Mercer, Colma Badge 13. Mercer feels that his life is heading in the right direction - a new job, a new girlfriend, and now hailed a local hero for saving the life of the teenaged son (Jude) of a famous film director. However, Colma's dead have also taken an interest in Mercer because, unlike most of Colma's other residents, he is able to both see and hear them. After Mercer receives 4 boxes of questionable incident reports from the widow of Officer Featherstone, the man he replaced on the Colma police force, he begins to recognize his unusual link with the dead and realize this 'communication' was something he had in common with Featherstone. Mercer soon finds himself saddled not only with Jude's case to solve, but also the pursuit of 'Doc' Barker and his gang of ghostly thugs who are harassing the deceased population of Colma. The real question is, if Mercer will be able to actually defeat 'Doc' Barker or if he will suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Featherstone. On the whole, Alive in Necropolis is a wonderfully entertaining read. The author does a fantastic job of bringing all of his characters fully to life - even when they're dead.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Let me just begin with an exceprt of the publisher¿s description of the book, as I don¿t think I can describe the premise of ¿Alive in Necropolis¿ nearly as well as they do: 'Colma, California, is the only incorporated city in America where the dead outnumber the living. The longtime cemetery for San Francisco, it is the resting place of the likes of joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop trying to go by the book as he struggles to navigate a new realm of grown-up relationships¿ But instead of settling comfortably into adult life, Mercer becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor in the police unit, Sergeant featherstone, who seems to have become confused about whether he was policing the living or the dead¿' This is not a typical description of the books I read. It sounds like an odd cross of mystery and fantasy. I read almost nothing in the mystery genre and not much in the fantasy genre, and there mainly in young adult fantasy. However, I figured that I had a review copy and I might as well give it a chance, branch out a bit. I am extremely glad that I decided to be openminded about this book! Surprisingly, the whole `policing the dead¿ aspect turned out to be less prevalent than expected. ¿Alive in Necropolis¿ was more about relationships, about being `alive¿ in this city most notable for graveyards. I was quite impressed with Dorst¿s skill, particularly as this is his first novel. I figured that the book would feature some ridiculously inventive plot that would excuse a lack of substantial writing. This wasn¿t remotely true. Yes, there was a fantastic aspect to the plot, but this book was primarily made by the writing. Dorst gave his main character(s) in particular a good deal of depth and was able to show the reader this depth through the actions and reactions of the characters. I would recommend this book for those who love good, solid, well-written fiction, fantasy fans or not.
    davedonelson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Michael Mercer sees dead people. But that¿s not why he¿s a morose, tongue-tied, socially-challenged young man¿he¿s just that way. Now that I think of it, maybe it¿s the other way around: his undeveloped personal skills are the reason he can converse with ghosts. Regardless, Mercer is the perfect cop to patrol Colma, California, the only city in America where the dead outnumber the living. As he goes about his rounds of the city¿s many cemeteries, he sees things other cops don¿t. Like a long-dead pyromaniac heiress with a heart of gold and a barnstorming aviator who crashes and dies with great regularity, only to crawl from the wreckage and rebuild his plane to fly again, apparently into eternity. As if those encounters aren¿t weird enough, Mercer also goes to war with the dead, notably a criminal mastermind who awakens (or whatever the dead do) every morning to slice off his fingerprints and loot and pillage both the spirit and the real world. Alive in Necropolis is a fun book where two worlds exist side by side. Doug Dorst does a wonderful job of making them both come alive.
    kwyndam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    For being a book about a guy who sees ghosts, it's a remarkably non-fantastical story. Mike's struggle to fit into his new career, to figure out his love life, and to sort out his old and new friendships is an engaging one on its own, but everything gets compounded by his new-found ability to interact with dead people. I love how the effect of reading this book is more like reading a straight-ahead novel than a supernatural thriller. It wasn't what I expected, and I enjoyed it all the more for having such a singular tone.
    Blacklin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I picked up Doug Dorst¿s Alive In Necropolis at the library because the cover art attracted my attention. And then I became intrigued about the book when I read the blurb on the book flap. I thought Alive In Necropolis would be a really cool ghost story, but I am quite disappointed.The blurb provided indicates (at least to me) that discovering Featherstone¿s fate and the nightly activities in the cemeteries would be the main plot of the book, but instead, rookie cop Mike Mercer obsesses about everything but Featherstone¿s fate. Mercer does read Featherstone¿s incident reports about his encounters with Colma¿s cemetery residents, but Mercer¿s interactions with Colma¿s dead residents seem for the most part incidental, not deliberately planned encounters¿and deliberately planned encounters are what I expected from a cop obsessing about and investigating the mysterious circumstances of a fellow officer¿s death. Instead, Dorst provides a tale of a young man who still compares himself to others and finds himself coming up short on all accounts. To me, Alive In Necropolis is really a late twenty-something¿s coming of age story (scratching my head here) and that¿s fine if I wanted to read that kind of story, but I expected a ghost story not a whole lot of internal moaning and groaning.Maybe it¿s me. Maybe I don¿t have the patience for coming of age (any age) stories. Been there, done that. But I don¿t think it¿s entirely me. Alive In Necropolis has too many sub-plots that just trail off. I kept wondering why Dorst continued to include certain characters, because, well, if Mercer was done with them, why did I have to keep reading about them? And finally, while I got the jokes bantered back and forth between the cops, I did not find Alive In Necropolis to be ¿hilarious¿ or ¿slyly hilarious¿ as some of the advanced reader quotes claim on the back cover. And I have a pretty good sense of humor.Final Thoughts: I did not like Doug Dorst¿s Alive In Necropolis. I found the book boring, depressing, and loosely constructed. I read the whole book and when I got to the end, I thought so what?
    viking2917 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    If you love Tim Powers, you will like this a lot. The book has great characters with very real flaws. Juxtaposed with those characters are denizens of a supernatural world that are jealous of those in the "real world". These ghosts (those who were buried in the San Francisco Cemetery Town of Colma are malicious, and fight amongst themselves as much as attending to the living. The interactions between the two worlds remind strongly of Tim Powers, and Dorst has the potential equal to the early novels of Powers. But the internal logic of this other world seem a bit vague and the interactions between the worlds is not nearly so carefully thought through as, say, Last Call or Declare. The novel feels rushed, even though it's 450 pages - but it's very strong for a first novel. Looking forward to his next outing.
    readingrat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Colma, CA has 1200 living residents and 2 million residents already dead. "No one knows for sure what (the dead) do - if they do anything but lie mute, immobile, decaying - but some of the living have their suspicions."So starts the story of Officer Michael Mercer, Colma Badge 13. Mercer feels that his life is heading in the right direction - a new job, a new girlfriend, and now hailed a local hero for saving the life of the teenaged son (Jude) of a famous film director. However, Colma's dead have also taken an interest in Mercer because, unlike most of Colma's other residents, he is able to both see and hear them.After Mercer receives 4 boxes of questionable incident reports from the widow of Officer Featherstone, the man he replaced on the Colma police force, he begins to recognize his unusual link with the dead and realize this "communication" was something he had in common with Featherstone.Mercer soon finds himself saddled not only with Jude's case to solve, but also the pursuit of "Doc" Barker and his gang of ghostly thugs who are harassing the deceased population of Colma. The real question is, if Mercer will be able to actually defeat "Doc" Barker or if he will suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Featherstone.On the whole, Alive in Necropolis is a wonderfully entertaining read. The author does a fantastic job of bringing all of his characters fully to life - even when they're dead.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    There is a lot of inside jokes in this book, such as one person wanting to move to Mendocino - a small town in Nor Cal famous for potheads and growers, then details the horror of ghost paranoia abroad in Calmo.  A police officer whose college-minded friends continue to smoke weed and an affluent heroin addict are some of the characters in this book. It's been awhile since I picked up this book so I don't want to scruff up the paragraph about the 500-page novel that I can remember, but it was hard to follow along through the sometimes maze-like direction of the book. I do recall the bullying ghosts being particularly humorous though. It looks like the author has gone on to write two more novels.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I was really excited to read this book because my husband works in Colma, but about the only thing positive about this book is that the author is a great descriptive writer. There were too many storylines none of which really made any sense as a whole. I'm mostly disappointed because I feel this book had great potential, but the author needs to learn how to focus on the story he was trying to tell as a whole.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    dear_tiger More than 1 year ago
    I suppose I was expecting something different from a story set in a California cementary town. Looking back, if the author wanted to get rid of the ghost plotline, he could have just thrown out some sections about ghosts without having to do much editing on the rest of the book and without loosing much of the volume. I have no idea why it's even there, seeing how the major part of the book is dedicated to personal drama. Every once in a while, the main character would see a ghost, but then he is not sure what to make of it and does not really care because he has too much going on in his personal life. So if you want a story about relationships, this is a good book about age difference, growing up, teenage love obsessions, finding out what you really want in life, etc. And it has an awesome cat named Criket. But if you are looking for a ghost story, don't try this one, because the whole supernatral plotline serves as a rather bleak background here.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Jilseponie More than 1 year ago
    I did not want a story that constantly slaps you in the face with do what you love, live your life, and if you don't like who and where you are, change it. Guess which story I got. It quickly became boring and melancholy reading about a character who is just hovering in the status quo surrounded by other characters full of regret. Very blah.