Hands nipple high, palms up toward the night sky, Bruce Collamore
started talking before the cops were even out of their car.
"I almost didn't call you guys. I was thinking that it was all too
much like the O. J. thing. Don't you think? I mean, my dog didn't
bark like that dog did, but I was walking my dog when I heard the
scream. That's pretty close to the O. J. situation, isn't it?
Anyway, that's why I almost didn't call. I'm still not sure I
should have called. I haven't heard anything since that first
scream. Right now, I think maybe it was nothing. That's what I'm
beginning to think."
Two Boulder cops had responded to the 911. A co-ed team. Both were
young, handsome and strong.
The woman was a five-year vet on the Boulder Police force named
Kerry VanHorn. She was a devout Christian who kept her religion to
herself; she'd once even confided to a girlfriend that she thought
proselytizing should be a capital offense. She had dirty blond hair
and a friendly Scandinavian face that put people at ease even when
she didn't want to put them at ease. Over the years she'd
discovered that if she squinted like she was looking into the sun,
people took her more seriously.
She was the first out of the squad car and the first to speak to
the man who apparently remembered way too much about the O. J.
case. She tucked her long flashlight under her arm and grabbed a
pen before she squinted up at him – the guy was at least
six-five – and said, "Your name, sir?"
"Collamore, Bruce Collamore." He was wearing a ragged Middlebury
College sweatshirt and an accommodating smile.
"This your house?" She gestured toward the home closest to where
they were standing. Jay Street was high on the western edge of
Boulder, in territory that the foothills of the Rockies seemed to
have yielded only reluctantly to housing. If there was a boundary
between urban and rural on the west edge of town, Jay was
definitely on the side of the line that was more mountain than
burg. The trees and grasses were wild and haphazard and the curbs
cut into the sides of the roadway fooled no one – this was
one part of Boulder where the Rockies still reigned.
"This? My house? No. God, no."
"You live on this street, sir?"
"Here? No, I live a couple blocks over on Pleasant. I was out
walking Misty. This is Misty." He reached down and tousled his
dog's ears. The yellow Lab dipped her head and wagged her tail.
Bruce Collamore and his dog both seemed eager to please.
"So . . . you were out walking your dog and you heard a . . ."
While she waited for him to fill in the blank, she briefly lost her
focus as she entertained an unbidden association to a crush she'd
had on a junior high school teacher she thought had been
Collamore brought her back to the moment as though he were someone
who was accustomed to being in conversations where the other
party's attention was wandering. He said, "A scream, I heard a
scream. A loud one. Long, too. I mean, I haven't heard that many
screams in my life but it, you know, seemed longer than . . . well,
a normal scream. If there is such a thing? Geez, 'a normal scream'.
Did I really say that? What's wrong with me? Anyway, I think it
came from that house. I'm pretty sure it did. That one. There."
Collamore pointed at the gray and white two-story house directly
across from where they stood on the edge of the road. "I had my
cell phone with me so I thought I'd go ahead and call 911. Maybe it
wasn't the right thing to do. I don't know. I'm a little nervous.
You can probably tell I'm nervous."
She could tell. And she wasn't sure that he was nervous only
because she was a cop. That suspicion made her a little nervous,
His left hand was balled around the dog's leash so she couldn't see
if Collamore was married. When she looked back up at him she
squinted, just in case he was thinking what she was worried he was
thinking. "What time was that, sir? That you heard the
She wrote down the nine before she looked up from her note pad and
lifted one eyebrow. The expression of incredulity interfered with
"I checked my watch when I heard the scream. You know, the O. J.
thing? I thought somebody might want to know what time it happened.
It really was that kind of scream – a somebody's-killing-me
scream. So I checked my watch when I heard it." He exhaled loudly
and ran his fingers through his hair. "God, this is embarrassing. I
shouldn't have called, should I?"
She tried to make a neutral face, but wasn't sure she'd succeeded.
She said, "No need to be embarrassed. We appreciate help from
citizens. Can't do our jobs without it." But she was thinking that
in most cities civilians ran and hid after they called 911. In
Boulder they stick around on the sidewalk with their cell phones
and their yellow Labradors named Misty. And maybe they keep
contemporaneous records of their movements on their Palm Pilots.
For all she knew this whole situation was already being tracked
live on the Net.
Now she looked at the house he'd identified. The dwelling was an
oasis of orderliness at the end of the block, the only home that
looked like it could be plopped down comfortably in one of
Boulder's more sedate neighborhoods. The owners of the surrounding
houses – all of which were shabby in the way old cashmere is
shabby – were either celebrating their good fortune at having
modest homes in such a spectacular location or they were waiting
for land values to escalate even more obscenely before they sold
their fixer-upper to somebody who'd scrape the lot clear and start
all over. She said, "You know who lives in this house, Bruce? May I
call you Bruce?"
"Sure. Here? No, I don't. Like I said, I was just walking Misty. We
come this way almost every night about this time. Since we walk
late, most of the time we don't see anyone. Certainly don't hear
many screams. Actually, we don't hear any screams. Before tonight,
anyway. We heard one tonight, didn't we, girl?" He lowered his tone
at least an octave as he addressed the dog.
VanHorn watched Misty's tail sweep the ground. She said, "And that
was at nine fifty-one?"
"Yes, nine fifty-one."
"Well, we'll check that out. You don't mind staying here for a few
minutes in case we have some more questions? My partner and I are
going to speak to whoever is inside the house."
"No, no. We don't mind at all. Misty and I are happy to stick
The other cop, Kerry VanHorn's partner, was Colin Carpino. He had
two years on the job. He was built like a bulldog but his creamy
skin was almost hairless. VanHorn sometimes teased him that she had
female relatives who shaved their upper lips more often than he
did. She called him Whiskers.
As they moved up the brick walk in single file she asked, "What do
you think, Whiskers?"
"I buy lunch for a week if this is anything other than a waste of
time." He shifted his long Mag-Lite from his right hand to his
She laughed. "It's your turn to buy, Whiskers. You're getting lunch
tonight even if this is the Great Train Robbery."
Carpino hit the doorbell button by the front door. They listened as
it chimed like a carillon in a cathedral, and they waited.
He knocked. They waited some more.
He hit the bell again. This time he said, "Boulder Police" right
after he heard the bells begin to peal inside the house. His
resonate tenor carried in the still air. The whole neighborhood of
shuttered windows and closed doors had to know now that the cops
were here. VanHorn waited for lights to come on, doors to open. It
didn't happen. Collamore saw her looking his way and waved over at
her. She didn't wave back.
Whiskers reached down and tried the latch on the door. It didn't
VanHorn responded by touching her holster with her fingertips. The
act was a caress, almost sensual in its carelessness – and it
was involuntary, like a man checking for the presence of his wallet
half a minute after he leaves the automatic teller machine.
The two cops waited for someone to come to the door and tell them
everything was just fine.
After most of a minute had leaked into the void between them,
VanHorn said, "I'll check the back of the house." She wasn't
nervous yet, but she had definitely crossed over the line that
separated routine from everything else that existed on a police
officer's planet. The feeling was familiar, and not entirely
unwelcome. The wariness sharpened her senses. She'd been around
long enough to know that wasn't a bad thing.
"I'll take a look at the windows up front here and over on the
other side," Carpino said.
The north side of the house was unlit, making it difficult for
VanHorn to navigate the uneven path of flagstones. Spreading
junipers clotted the open spaces between the window wells. An avid
gardener, she hated junipers, especially spreading junipers, which
seemed to be ninety-nine percent of them. She alternated the
flashlight beam between the path in front of her and the windows on
the side of the house and noticed nothing that alarmed her. She
fingered the switch of the radio microphone that was clipped to the
left shoulder of her uniform blouse and said, "Nothing unusual on
the side of the house. Just some unimaginative landscaping. But
even in Boulder I don't think that's a crime."
He replied, "Yet. Hold on, I may have something up here, Kerry."
His voice betrayed no alarm. She waited for him to continue. He
She stepped lightly into the backyard. A streetlight brightened the
rear of the house. She reached up and touched the button on her
microphone. "What do you have, Whiskers? Open window?" she
"No, I'm on the opposite side of the house from you, shining my
beam inside into what looks like the living room. I make a lamp
lying on the floor and some broken glass. That's all."
After again caressing the flap on her holster with the fingertips
of her right hand, Officer VanHorn spent a moment examining the
backyard with the beam of her flashlight. Only when she was certain
she was alone in the yard did she take determined strides across a
pleasant brick patio, past an almost new gas grill, and up two
steps to the door that led to the house. She grabbed the knob of
the metal security door and twisted it. The door opened right up.
She locked her gaze on the painted French door behind the security
panel and fingered her microphone. "Back door's open. Not just
unlocked, but open-open. Why don't you call for backup?"
She waited for his response long enough to inhale and exhale twice.
Finally, she said, "Colin?"
He said, "Sorry. I may be looking at a person's foot, Kerry, just
someone's heel. Like there's somebody lying on the floor. But I
can't see past the heel. If it's a foot then the rest of the body's
behind a sofa."
VanHorn sighed. "We'd better go in. Tell dispatch."
"Will do. I'll call for backup and join you back there."
Kerry VanHorn flicked up the flap on her holster and drew her
service weapon with her right hand. Her Mag-Lite was in her left.
Before she took another step she squeezed her biceps against her
upper torso to convince herself that she'd remembered to wear her
vest. She had.
Within seconds, Whiskers joined her at the back door. He, too, had
his service weapon ready. He said, "The living room's in the
southwest corner. That's where I saw the foot." She nodded and said
a silent prayer before she nudged the French door with the toe of
her shoe. She winced as the door squeaked open.
She yelled, "Boulder Police," as she entered a big kitchen and
family room. Shadowed light from the alley streetlight revealed an
expensive recent remodel. Cherry cabinets. Granite countertops. Big
double stainless steel sink. Appliances that disappeared into the
cabinetry. One appliance she didn't even recognize. She had no idea
what the thing might do. She didn't like that kitchens had
developed in such a way that people used appliances she couldn't
But nothing was out of place. She could hear Whiskers' footsteps on
the hardwood floor behind her. The resonant clap was reassuring.
There was almost nothing she liked doing less as a cop than walking
into dark houses.
The door from the kitchen led to a short hallway. Again she called
out, "Boulder Police," and waited for a reply. Nothing. Carpino
repeated the announcement. After she waited for a response that
never came, she stepped past a powder room and saw a dining room on
her right. She played the beam into the room for two or three
seconds. It didn't appear that anyone had eaten in there recently;
the table was covered with piles of mail. She gestured with her
flashlight to reassure her partner before she turned toward the
living room. At the bottom of a staircase she flicked the beam up
the stairs. She spotted nothing that alarmed her but noticed an odd
device on rails attached to the side of the staircase. She also
noted a rhythmic shush-shush, shush-shush, shush-shush
coming down from the second floor. The sound was familiar to her
but she couldn't place it. Shush-shush, shush-shush,
shush-shush. The rhythm wasn't out of place in a house. She was
sure of that. But what was it that she was hearing?
Darn. She couldn't place the noise.
She took two steps into the living room and swept her flashlight
beam in a wide, slow arc, looking for the foot that Whiskers had
seen, praying that he was wrong or, failing that, there was at
least still a person attached to it.
The first thing that caught her attention was the lamp on the floor
– she assumed it was the same one that Whiskers had spotted
through the window. Then she saw the broken glass, a lot of it. The
glass appeared to be some kind of pottery or ceramic; it must have
been a big piece before it was busted.
Lights flashed outside on the street. VanHorn looked up and was
relieved to see a patrol car slide to the curb in front of the
house. Her partner whispered, "Backup's here." She adjusted the
grip on her weapon and, for her own benefit, silently mouthed, "I'm
doing fine. I'm doing fine."
A loud, noxious buzzing seemed to fill the house. The sound was
bitter and sour, like aural vinegar. It blared for maybe two
seconds before it stopped as abruptly as it started. VanHorn's
pulse jumped when the noise started and she spun around to check
behind her. Carpino's eyes were wide as he, too, searched for the
source of the sound. VanHorn's service weapon felt heavy in her
She shook her head, announcing she didn't know the source of the
sound. He did the same.
The buzzing blared again. EEEEHHHHHHNNNNN . Once again the
sharp sound stopped suddenly.
The noise had seemed to come from everywhere at once.
What was it? What was it? She couldn't place it.
She yelled, "Boulder Police," one more time.
Then she noticed that the shush-shush sound had ceased and
the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. VanHorn smiled. She knew
what it was. The shush-shush had been the refrain of a
tumbling clothes dryer. The buzzer was the notification that the
cycle was done. Her boyfriend's dryer made the same awful noise.
She exhaled and slowly refilled her lungs. "Whiskers? That was a
clothes dryer, I think. At the end of its cycle."
He said, "Oh," and definitely sounded relieved.
Someone had recently started a dryer in this house. How long did a
load take to dry? Forty-five minutes? An hour?
Through the side windows she watched another black-and-white slide
to a stop at the curb outside the house.
She stepped around the lamp on the floor so that she could see
behind the sofa at the far end of the room. Behind the sofa was an
open door. She thought it would lead back to the family room that
she'd seen when she first came into the house, the one adjacent to
the new kitchen. She swung the flashlight beam toward the floor
behind the striped couch.
She saw the foot, paused, and then she took another step.
"Oh Jesus. Oh my God. Oh dear Jesus." If she had a free hand she
would have crossed herself with it, an affectation of her Catholic
At the sight of the blood and the mangled tissue where the person's
face should be, VanHorn felt a sour geyser erupting in her
esophagus and she swallowed twice in quick succession to stem the
urge to vomit. She took a step back, almost tripping over the
broken pottery. When she returned her gaze to the body on the
floor, she said, "May God rest your soul, whoever you are."
Carpino said, "What?" His voice came from behind her, maybe ten or
twelve feet away.
She said, "You were right, there's a body in here, Colin. A lot of
blood. Call for an ambulance, okay?"
She counted to three and told herself she was fine. But she didn't
feel fine. She felt as though she should sit down to keep from
passing out, but she didn't want to disturb what she already knew
was a crime scene. Sequentially, she looked everywhere in the room
that didn't have a bloody body. She even looked at the ceiling. For
her, the act was like looking at the horizon when she was seasick.
Finally, the wave of nausea eased and her neurons resumed firing
and she carefully checked the room to make triple-sure she and her
partner and the guy on the floor didn't have any company.
She dropped to her knees, stooped over the body and lowered her
head to listen for breath sounds. She heard nothing. To feel for a
pulse she needed to put down either her light or her gun. For a
moment she weighed her choice, finally deciding to place the torch
on the carpet and, as she'd been taught, she rested three fingers
on the underside of the radial bone of the man's right wrist. She
was thinking the body was that of a man. The socks were man's
socks. She was pretty sure of that. An exposed inch of calf was
It was a man.
She felt no pulse. She thought, maybe, the body was cooler than it
should have been, but only a little, and certainly not cold. She
spent a moment trying to remember the speed at which a body gives
up its warmth after death – a degree an hour, was that it?
– and wondered if it were possible that this man was the same
person who had started the dryer upstairs. He couldn't have cooled
down that fast, could he? Maybe her own fingers were hot and that's
why the body felt cool. That was certainly possible.
Bruce Collamore had said he heard the "somebody's-killing-me"
scream at nine fifty-one. She looked at her watch. It was
ten-seventeen. No, if this were the screamer, he wouldn't have
cooled down, yet.
Hot fingers. Had to be her hot fingers.
Still on her knees, she lifted her Mag-Lite again and
simultaneously turned her body to address her partner. The beam of
the light danced carelessly off the ceiling and the walls. She
said, "This guy's dead, and there's a lot of blood. Call for
detectives and have the backup team tape off a perimeter out there.
Make it a big perimeter. Tell the tall guy with the dog that he's
not going anywhere for a while. We have to do the rest of the
house. Get some people in here to help out. Tell them to come in
the back door and walk straight to the front of the house, then
turn left to the living room. And remind them not to touch
anything. We have a crime scene and I don't want to be the one to
mess it up."
She said a silent prayer and shined her lamp directly toward the
body on the floor, trying to discern the details of the man's face
through the severe damage and the copious blood.
For a second or two she thought she knew the man and tried to jar
an association loose from her memory. It didn't work. VanHorn
then decided that she didn't really know him. Again, she repeated
her silent prayer and wondered what in heaven God had been thinking
at nine fifty-one that evening.
She decided that He must have been seriously
Part one of a three-part excerpt of WARNING SIGNS. Check
back next Friday for the next excerpt.
Excerpted from WARNING SIGNS © Copyright 2003 by Stephen
White. Reprinted with permission by Dell. All rights