The Desert

I was east of the city on I-50. Well, not on I-50, but off I-50 in the desert. I was burying a body. I was dragging the body around a huge rock when I saw this other guy. He was dragging a body around too. (It was obvious from the duct tape and garbage bags.)

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said.

“You know burying bodies out here is illegal,” I said.

“Sure,” he said.

We both laughed. “This is a good place,” I said. “This is my favorite place.”

“This is where I bury all my bodies,” he said and laughed again. It felt as if he were trying to outdo me, trying to one-up me, trying to make me think he does this all the time.

“Yeah, me too. You lose count after a while,” I said.

“That’s for sure,” he said.

The conversation lulled. It was hard to make chitchat with a deranged serial killer. But then I realized he was probably thinking the same thing.

“My dad,” I said, and I looked down at the body I was dragging. I had put Dad’s body in a sleeping bag and tied it with quality nylon rope. I bought the best sleeping bag that REI carried. Nothing but the best for Dad. I took pride in my work.

“Ah,” he said. He didn’t offer any info about his victim.

“Who’s yours?” I said finally.

“Oh, sorry, right,” he said. “Uh, my girlfriend.” It looked like a twelve-year-old had wrapped the body. The body was wrapped in garbage bags and sealed with way too much duct tape. It was a mess. Honestly, I was embarrassed.

“That’s rough,” I said. “My dad was going to rat me out to the Feds.” I thought it was funny that I said, “Rat me out,” as if I were some sort of gangster. I laughed a little at the thought but turned away. I didn’t want this guy to see me laugh. I didn’t want him to think I was laughing about murdering my own father, that I was some sort of psychopath.

“Your own dad. Wow, that’s grim,” he said. “My girlfriend was sleeping with… someone.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, but I said it as if his girlfriend had died in an accident rather than he’d killed her. “How’d you do it?”

“Strangulation,” he said. “You?”

“Gun,” I said.

“Really? Didn’t anyone hear?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I could never be sure, so I didn’t use a gun.”

“Yeah, it’s risky, but I really had no choice. Everything else was too complicated or too dangerous.”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, don’t I know you?” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.

“I know I’ve seen you somewhere. Wait, I’ll get it.” I closed my eyes.

“The Drathe School of Law?” he said.

“Oh, God, yes!” I said.

“Hi, I’m the dean of the school, Robert Winters. Dean Winters, the Drathe School of Law,” he said. He dropped his body. It hit the ground with a thud. He brushed off his hand and shook my hand.

“Hi, I’m James Compton. I’m an associate at Taylor, McKnight, Dedman, and Taft,” I said. “I had you for Torts at Drathe.”

“Back in my law professor days,” he said. “I don’t really remember you, though. Sorry. Well, I remember your face—a little,” he said.

“Drathe is a big school.”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at Dad. “You’ll go far.” He laughed.

“What a sorry pair.”

“Not at all,” he said. “We’re being proactive. That’s better than 99% of the people out there.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Do you still practice?”

“Yes, when I find an interesting case,” he said.

I nodded. “We shouldn’t bury these bodies too close together.”

“Good point,” he said. “ ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’ ”

I smiled. “Yes, I’m just worried that if they find one body, they’ll search nearby and find the other.”

“Maybe the bodies should be the same distance from here to that rock outcrop.” He pointed at some rocks in the distance.

“OK,” I said.

“I’ll go over there, up there.” He pointed. “Need any help?”

“No, I’m fine. How about you?”

“No, I do this all the time,” he said and laughed.

“Well it was nice meeting you. We’ll have to have lunch sometime.”

“Yeah, I’d like that,” he said. “Oh, we can’t do that. It could link us to one another. Or does that matter? Maybe I’m just being paranoid.”

“It’s probably OK,” I said. “By the way, that’s pretty heartless, killing your girlfriend and all.” I winked.

“It’s not as bad as killing your own flesh and blood,” he said and laughed. I laughed too. We were ribbing each other as legal professionals always enjoy doing. It was that good-natured ribbing that I so enjoyed about the legal world.

“You remind me of my dad,” I said. “Can I call you Dad?”

He gave me a surprised look and then laughed. “Hey,” he said. “Watch it. That’s a tort.” He gave me a playful little shove. “That was horrible.”

I was happy that he got the joke so quickly. It made me happy to be with a fellow attorney, to be so connected to another legal professional.

I remember in law school he was constantly saying, “That’s a tort.” He’d say it instead of gesundheit. He’d say it whenever someone was late for class. I think he was trying to teach us that not everything was a tort by saying that everything was a tort. Some reverse psychology thing to get us thinking. Or maybe it was some legal joke that I didn’t get at the time (and still don’t get). Or maybe he was just an idiot. It brought back good memories of Drathe.

“You know, this is the sort of thing the Bar frowns upon, this whole killing thing,” I said. “We could be disbarred.”

“Actually, no,” he said. “I also work for the State Bar, and we don’t have a problem with murder.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, murder is understandable. It makes sense to us. We are really accepting of murder.”

“That makes me feel a lot better. I don’t feel so—I don’t know—misunderstood,” I said.

“We do have a problem if you call a lawyer, say, a dipshit. That’s a big deal. There was this woman, a Drathe graduate, by the way, who was trying to get admitted to the Bar, and she called a lawyer a dipshit.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. We blocked her. You can’t go around calling other lawyers dipshits. It’s unseemly. It destroys the fabric of society.” He smiled. Then he sighed.

He kicked the corpse. “This is her,” he said. “It’s not my girlfriend. It’s the woman who called the lawyer a dipshit.” He looked troubled. I could tell he wanted to share something. “So, here’s the problem,” he said. “If she couldn’t be admitted to the Bar, the law school’s U.S. News and World Report ranking would be damaged by a lower percentage of graduates admitted to the Bar.”

“Yeah, but it’s just one person,” I said.

“Our real percentage is much lower. I’m out here all the time,” he said. He laughed. “There’s a loophole: If a graduate who isn’t admitted to the Bar dies or goes missing for more than six months, he’s not counted in the percentage anymore.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t pass the bar exam the first time.” I knew how important the U.S. News and World Report ranking was to everyone, but I had no idea the Dean was out killing students who weren’t admitted to the Bar. He wasn’t joking when he was talking about being proactive. I felt some admiration for the hard work he was doing to preserve the school’s ranking in U.S. News and World Report. That was something that benefitted me as a graduate.

“I know. Good thing you passed next time,” he said. “You were on my list. I remember now.”

“I got lucky,” I said. “I figured out how to cheat.”

“Cheating is important,” he said. “Anything to preserve our ranking. If we could just teach our students how to cheat, we wouldn’t have to kill so many of them. I really don’t like killing students,” he said.

“Yeah, I bet,” I said.

“You know, James, we have an opening for an associate dean at the school. Interested?” he said.

I was about to speak when he cut me off. “I’m afraid there would be some killing involved,” he said. “And some heavy lifting. Some travel around the state. But I think you’d be perfect for the position. It’s a difficult position to fill.”

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“It’d be the Associate Dean of Collegiate Excellence. You’d be in charge of preserving and—dare I say it—raising our U.S. News and World Report ranking.”

“I’ll think about it.”

We shook hands again. He patted me on the back. I dragged my dad’s corpse into a small gully while Robert buried the law school graduate higher up. Occasionally, he’d wave to me, and I’d wave back.

Robert is a nice guy, I’d think. But then I’d think about how he’d killed a new law school graduate—and probably many more—and was callously burying her body in the desert. But then I’d remember that I’d killed my dad and was callously burying his body in the desert. So then I’d think we were even, and everything was fine.

His duct-tape and garbage-bag effort made him seem so déclassé, however—hardly the work I’d expect from a law school dean. I had noticed some defects in his suit: a frayed edge on the collar, some loose threads and excessive wear on the trousers. A horrible thought passed through my mind: had he purchased his suit at Sears? Maybe back in the 80s? I shuddered. I began to doubt whether I wanted to be associated with him. I’d heard about lawyers like this, the fallen. I’d had fears, nightmares, really, that I’d befriend some fellow attorney and suddenly realize that he was common and uncouth, that maybe he’d gone to a school that hadn’t placed on the U.S. News and World Report ranking or wasn’t ABA approved, that maybe he didn’t work at a top firm. Then I’d wonder how I didn’t see these warning signs earlier and terminate that friendship. That fear made me hypervigilant. As an attorney, you always have to be alert to that, that lower-class types would weasel into your life because you’re an attorney. When you’re an attorney, you’re so much better than the common folk and deserving of the best in life. And people know that and want to glom onto you.

I thought about when I’d had Robert as an instructor at the Drathe School of Law. He had been one of my favorite teachers. But now look at him with his duct tape and garbage bags, frayed collar, loose threads, and Sears suit. I felt revulsion. I wanted nothing more to do with him. There was no way I was going to take that associate dean position. The only way I was able to calm myself was to think about his utility: he was preserving the School of Law’s U.S. News and World Report’s Ranking. I was able to calm down enough to bury my father.

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