By Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman
Don’t make assumptions.
Every now and then, I remind myself of that.
Every now and then, the universe does the reminding for me.
When I meet new people, they’re usually dead.
A young white male lies on his back in the parking lot of a Berkeley frat house. According to the license in his wallet, his name is Seth Lindley Powell. He is four months past his eighteenth birthday. The license gives a San Jose address. It’s a fair bet his parents are at that address, right now, asleep. Nobody has notified them yet. I haven’t had a chance.
Seth Powell has clean gray eyes and soft brown hair. His palms are open to the three a.m. sky. He wears a misshapen brown polo shirt over khakis. One shoelace drifts loose. Except for a few shallow abrasions on his left cheek, his face is smooth and content, with a bluish tinge. His skull, rib cage, neck, arms, and legs are intact. There’s little visible blood.
Down at the end of the driveway, beyond the yellow tape, a throng of students snap photos of Seth. And selfies. Some of them hug and weep, others just look on, curious.
Crushed red Solo cups pile high on the sidewalks. A banner strung from the eaves declares the theme: saturday night fever. Boys slur their statements to uniformed officers. Girls in platforms fidget with the buttons of loud polyester shirts fished from the five-buck bins on Telegraph Avenue. Nobody knows what happened but everyone has a story. From a third-floor window come the lazy flickers of a disco ball nobody has thought to still.
Standing over Seth Powell’s body, I make an assumption: I wonder how I’m going to explain to his parents that their son has died of alcohol poisoning during his first week of school.
The following afternoon, a technician comes into the squad room, calls me away from my computer and down to the morgue so I can see firsthand a body cavity sloshing with busted organs; lower vertebrae punched out of alignment; a pelvis smashed to gravel, consistent with a four-story fall, the small of the back taking the full brunt of impact.
There’s a reason we do autopsies.
Toxicology confirms what Seth’s friends insisted on, what I hesitated to believe: he wasn’t a drinker. He was That Guy, caught up in righteous notions of purity. He wrote songs, they said. He took arty black-and-white photos with a camera that used actual film. Rush Week depressed him. Someone heard he went up to the roof to look at the stars.
At some point you need to make a decision. Boxes need checking. It says a lot about our desire for simplicity that there are an infinite number of ways to die but only five manners of death.
My job begins with the dead but continues with the living. The living have telephones with redial. They have regret and insomnia and chest pain and bouts of uncontrollable weeping. They ask: Why.
Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, why isn’t a real question. It’s an expression of loss. Even if I had the answer, I’m not sure anyone could stomach it.
I do the next best thing. The old switcheroo.
They ask for why. I give them how.
Knowing that it’s impossible to live without assumptions, I try to choose mine carefully. I think about the loose shoelace. I rule Seth Powell’s death an accident.
Five years on, I still think about him whenever I get a callout to Berkeley.
I don’t get called out to Berkeley often. Alameda County covers eight hundred square miles, of which Berkeley is a speck, and, compared with its neighbors, basically untouched by serious crime, unless you object to homeless people or fussy vegan reinventions of diner classics, which I don’t. Who doesn’t enjoy a good tofu Reuben?
Five years after Seth Powell’s death, near to the day, at eleven fifty-two a.m. on a Saturday in September, Zaragoza was hanging over my cubicle wall, probing the flesh behind the lower left corner of his jaw in search of the latest development that would widow his wife and orphan his kids.
He said, “Yo Clay, touch this.”
I did not look up from my work. “Touch what.”
“I’m not touching your neck.”
“You can feel it if you push hard.”
“I believe you.”
“Come on, dude. I need a second opinion.”
“My opinion is that last week you asked me to touch your stomach.”
“I checked WebMD,” he said. “It’s cancer of the pharynx. Maybe salivary glands, but that’s kind of rare.”
“You’re kind of rare,” I said. My desk phone was ringing.
I pressed the speakerphone. “Coroner’s Bureau. Deputy Edison.”
“Hey there, this is Officer Schickman in Berkeley.” Friendly voice. “How are you?”
I said, “What’s up, man?”
“I’m out on a DBF here. More than likely it’s natural but he’s at the bottom of the stairs so I figure you might want to have a look.”
“Sure thing,” I said. “Hang on a sec, I’m all outta my little forms.”
Zaragoza absently handed me a blank worksheet, continued prodding his neck. “I should get an MRI,” he said.
On the speaker, Schickman said, “Sorry?”
“Never mind,” I said, picking up the receiver. “My buddy here’s got cancer.”
“Shit,” Schickman said. “Sorry to hear it.”
“It’s all right, he gets it every week. Go ahead. Decedent’s last name?”
He did. “First name Walter. Spelled like you think.”
I asked questions, he answered, I wrote. Walter Rennert was a seventy-five-year-old divorced white male residing at 2640 Bonaventure Avenue. At approximately nine forty a.m., his daughter had arrived at the house for their weekly brunch date. She let herself in with her key and found her father lying in the foyer, unresponsive. She called 911 and attempted, unsuccessfully, to resuscitate him. Berkeley Fire had pronounced him dead at ten seventeen.
“She’s next of kin?”
“Believe so. Tatiana Rennert-Delavigne.” He spelled it without being asked.
“Is there a primary doctor?”
“Uh . . . Clark. Gerald Clark. I haven’t been able to reach him. Office is closed till Monday.”
“Any medical conditions you know about?”
“Hypertension, per the daughter. He took meds.”
“And you said he’s at the bottom of the stairs?”
“Nearish. I mean, he’s lying there.”
“Meaning . . .”
“Meaning, that’s his location. It doesn’t look to me like he slipped.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Well, we’ll have a look.”
“Okay. Listen, I’m not sure I should be mentioning this at all, but his daughter’s pretty insistent he was murdered.”
“She said that?”
“What she told dispatch. ‘You have to come, my father’s been murdered.’ Something like that. She told patrol the same thing when they got here. They called me.”
So far I liked Schickman. All indications were that he had his shit together. I attributed the hesitation in his voice to uncertainty over how to interact with the daughter, rather than any concern that she might be correct.
“You know how it is,” he said. “People get upset, say things.”
“Sure. Can I get your badge number real quick?”
“Schickman. S-C-H-I-C-K-M-A-N. Sixty-two.”
Berkeley. While I get that it’s not for everybody, you have to admit there’s a certain boutique charm in a PD small enough to have two-digit badge numbers.
I gave him my data and said we’d be there soon.
I rang off, got up, stretched. On the other side of the cubicle wall, Zaragoza had opened up Google Images and was scrolling through a ghastly catalog of tumors.
“You coming?” I asked.
He shuddered and closed the browser.
I think about the dead, wherever I go. It’s inevitable. In eight hundred square miles, there’s pretty much no place untainted in my memory by death.
A bend in the freeway and I reflexively slow to avoid the invisible lump of a woman who leapt from the overpass, causing the nine-car pileup and five-hour traffic jam that would become her legacy.
The motel in Union City where a tax lawyer’s celebration of his impending divorce ended in a speedball overdose.
Certain blocks in Oakland: take your pick.
It’s not that I’m haunted. More like I never quite manage to feel alone.
The work clings to us in different ways. That’s how it is for me. Zaragoza, he gets hantavirus, or flesh-eating bacteria, or whatever.
“Lymphoma,” he said, thumbing his phone. “Fuck, I didn’t even consider that.”
“I still get your Xbox, right?”
“Lymphoma it is, then.”
Propped on the dash, my own phone instructed me to exit the 13 and continue onto Tunnel Road, skirting blind driveways drowned in redwood shadow. A hard yellow at the entrance to the Claremont Hotel had me stomping the brake, causing the gurneys in back to rattle around unhappily.
Pairs of wide-set brick columns marked the southern edge of the neighborhood, stern iron gates left open in a gesture of generosity. The homes beyond were tall and bright and stately, weathered brick and wood shingling, thoughtful drought-tolerant landscaping. A sign encouraged me to drive like my grandkids lived there. I saw a Volvo with a roof-mount bike rack, bumper sagging under several elections’ worth of stickers. I saw a Tesla and a seven-seater SUV shouldering together in the same driveway, a winking attempt to acknowledge and then ignore the distinction between living well and living good.
“You know it around here?” Zaragoza asked.
He meant from my student days. I shook my head. Back then I hardly left the safety of the gym, let alone ventured off campus. I’d never come in a professional capacity, either.
Bonaventure Avenue meandered east for three hundred yards, narrowing to a single lane that terminated in a cul-de-sac plugged up by residents’ vehicles, two Berkeley PD cruisers, and a full hook-and-ladder. Backing the truck out was going to be a pain in the ass.
Three houses clumped on the south side of the street, along the gentler downhill slope. To the north, a towering Spanish was set high atop a knob of bedrock, accessible via a long, steep driveway lined with crushed stone. At the crest I could make out the boxy silhouette of an ambulance, flashers on.
I eased the van up the driveway, which widened to a fissured asphalt parking area forty feet square and hemmed in by conifers. Aside from the ambulance, there was a third cruiser and a silver Prius, leaving me inches to slot the van parallel to the entrance portico. The secluded neighborhood and the layout of the property meant we had the scene pretty much to ourselves. Good: no one enjoys crowd control.
We got out of the van. Zaragoza began taking flicks of the exterior.
In the far corner of the parking area stood a stick-straight, slender woman in her twenties, the sole civilian among a dozen emergency responders. She wore black yoga pants and a lightweight gray sweatshirt, one shoulder fallen to reveal a teal tank top beneath. Down her neck lay a bundle of lacquered black hair; her throat was concave, her posture so impressive that she appeared to dwarf the female patrol officer standing with her, though they were about the same height. A patchwork handbag slouched against her calf. She had a hand up against the sharp, slanting light, obscuring her eyes, so that I saw only cheeks, smooth and contoured nicely and slightly smoky. Beveled lips pursed and relaxed, as if sampling the flavor of the air.
She turned and stared at me.
Maybe because I’d been staring at her.
Or I didn’t matter at all, and she was looking past me, at the van—the gold lettering, the finality. Ambulance arrives: you hope. Cops arrive: you keep hoping. When the coroner shows up, you lose all rational room for denial. Though that doesn’t stop some folks.
No. Not the van. Definitely looking at me.
A wiry redheaded guy in a black BPD polo shirt cut between us.
“Nate Schickman,” he said. “Thanks for coming.”
I said, “Thanks for leaving the driveway open.”
We didn’t shake. Too casual, with kin looking on. There’s no class, no textbook, on how to act in the presence of the bereaved. You learn the same way you learn anything worthwhile: by observing, employing common sense, and screwing up.
You don’t crack jokes, obviously, but neither do you go overboard with grim sympathy. That’s false and it reeks. You don’t say I’m sorry for your loss or I’m sorry to inform you or any version of I’m sorry. It’s not your place to be sorry. To claim sorrow on someone else’s behalf is presumptuous and, occasionally, dangerous. I’ve had to notify families whose sons have been killed by the police. Do I tell them I’m sorry? They don’t care that I’m not the cop who pulled the trigger or that I belong to an entirely different department; that I’m the one charged with caring for their child’s physical remains. When it’s your kid, a uniform is a uniform, a badge is a badge.
Remember where we are, too. Nobody in the Bay Area likes cops.
“That’s the daughter,” I said.
“How’s she holding up?”
“See for yourself.”
Tatiana Rennert-Delavigne didn’t appear hysterical. She had stopped watching me and turned away, wrapping her free arm around herself like a sash, self-soothing. She was nodding or shaking her head in response to questions posed by the patrol officer. That she was not crying or screaming did not, to my mind, make her any more or less credible. Nor did it make her suspicious. Grief finds a broad spectrum of expression.
I told Schickman I’d be back in a second and headed over to join the conversation.
The patrol officer angled out to admit me. Her name tag said hocking.
“Pardon me,” I said. “Ms. Rennert-Delavigne?”
“I’m Deputy Edison from the county Coroner’s Bureau. My partner over there is Deputy Zaragoza. I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Before we get started, I wanted to let you know exactly what our role is and what we’re going to be doing here.”
She said, “Okay.”
“It’s our responsibility to secure your father’s body. We’ll go inside the house and assess the situation. If there’s need for an autopsy, we’ll transport him so that can get done as quickly as possible. I’ll let you know if that’s going to happen so it’s not a surprise to you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
“Meanwhile, do you have anyone you can call, who can come be with you?” I noticed, in the moment before she cast them down, that her eyes were green. “Sometimes it can help not to be alone.”
I was waiting for her to say my husband or my boyfriend or my sister.
She said nothing.
“Maybe a friend,” I said, “or a clergyperson.”
She said, “How do you decide if an autopsy is necessary?”
“If we have any reason at all to believe that your father’s death wasn’t from natural causes—an accident, for example—then we’ll do one.”
“What are the reasons you’d believe that?”
“We examine the physical environment and the body,” I said. “The slightest question, we’ll err on the side of caution and bring him in.”
“Do you do the autopsy?”
“No ma’am. The pathologist, a medical doctor. I work for the Sheriff.”
“Mm,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was relieved or disappointed.
Windless sun beat down. Small animals chittered in the cedar branches.
“He didn’t slip,” she said. “He was pushed.”
She shifted, just perceptibly, to address Hocking. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Credit Officer Hocking for a good poker face.
“I’m definitely going to want to talk to you about that,” I said. “Right now, I’m going to ask if we can pause for a bit, and me and my partner can go inside and conduct our assessment?”
I was careful not to use the word investigation. More accurate, in a way, but I didn’t want to suggest that I’d opened the door to the possibility of a homicide. I hadn’t opened any doors, period.
Tatiana Rennert-Delavigne hugged herself tighter and kept silent.
I said, “I promise that we will treat your father with the utmost respect.”
“I’ll wait here,” she said.