N THE LONG LIGHT of early morning, Hunter circles what remains of a burned house, his nose low and brow furrowed. The night’s thick air has begun to lift, and the German Shepherd’s movement catches the emerging sun. He is a shining thing against the black of scorched brick, burned timber, and a nearby tree charred leafless. Hunter inspects the tree: half-fallen, tilting south away from where the fire was, its birds long gone. Quiet here. I can hear his footpads in the wizened grass, the occasional scrape of his nails across debris. The dog moves along the rubble in his characteristic half-crouch, intense and communicative, while his handler, Max, watches.
Hunter rounds the house twice, crosses cautiously through a clear space in the burned pile, and returns to Max with a huff of finality. Nothing, he seems to say. Hunter is not young. There are little flecks of gray about his dark eyes and muzzle, and his body has begun to fail his willing heart, but he knows his job, and he is a proud boy doing it. He leans into his handler and huffs again. Max rubs his ears and turns away.
“She’s not in the house,” I murmur into the radio, where a colleague and a sheriff’s deputy wait for word from us.
“Let’s go,” says Max to Hunter.
We move on, our tracks dark across the ash, Hunter leading us forward into a field that lies behind the house. Here we have to work a little harder across the uneven terrain. Max, a career firefighter used to unstable spaces, manages the unseen critter holes and slick grass better than I do. Hunter cleaves an easy path. Our passage disturbs the field mice, which move in such a body the ground itself appears to shiver.
Wide sweeps across the field, back and forth across the wind, Hunter and Max and I (the assistant in trail) continuing to search for some sign of the missing girl. Hunter is an experienced search dog with years of disaster work and many single-victim searches behind him. He moves confidently but not heedlessly, and at the base of a low ridge crowned by a stand of trees, he pauses, head up a long moment, mouth open. His panting stops.
Max stops, watches. I stand where I last stepped.
And then Hunter is off, scrambling up the ridge with us behind him, crashing through the trees. We hear a surprised shout, and scuffling, and when we get to where he is, we see two men stumble away from the dog. One is yelping a little, has barked his shin on a battered dinette chair he’s tripped over. The other hauls him forward by the elbow, and they disappear into the surrounding brush.
A third man has more difficulty. He is elderly and not as fast. He has been lying on a bare set of box springs set flat beneath the canopy of trees, and when he rises the worn cloth of his trousers catches on the coils. We hear rending fabric as he jerks free. He runs in a different direction from the other two—not their companion, I think—and a few yards away he stops and turns to peek through the scrub at us, as though aware the dog is not fierce and we aren’t in pursuit.
Our search has disturbed a small tent city, and as we work our way through the reclaimed box springs and three-legged coffee tables and mouse-eaten recliners that have become a sort of home for its inhabitants, the third man watches our progress from the edge of the brush. This is a well-lived space, but there is nothing of the missing girl here. Charged on this search to find any human scent in the area, living or dead, Hunter has done what he is supposed to do. But he watches our response. From where I stand, it is clear Hunter knows what we’ve found is not what we seek, and that what we seek isn’t here. He gazes at Max, reading him, his eyebrows working, stands poised for the “Find more” command.
“Sector clear,” I say into the radio after a signal from Max. I mention the tent city and its inhabitants and learn it is not a surprise.
“Good boy,” says Max. Hunter’s stance relaxes.
As we move away, the third man gains confidence. He steps a little forward, watching Hunter go. He is barefoot and shirtless. “Dog, dog, dog,” he says voicelessly, as though he shapes the word but cannot make the sound of it. “Dog,” he rasps again, and smiles wide, and claps his hands.
Saturday night in a strange town five hundred miles from home. I am sitting in a bar clearly tacked on to our motel as an afterthought. The clientele here are jammed against one another in the gloom, all elbows and ball caps bent down to their drinks—more tired than social. At the nearby pool table, a man makes his shot, trash talks his opponent, and turns to order another beer without having to take more than four steps to get it. This looks like standard procedure. The empty bottles stack up on a nearby shelf that droops from screws half pulled out of the wall. Two men dominate the table while others watch. The shots get a little wild, the trash talk sloppier.
A half-hour ago, when I walked in with a handful of teammates, every head in the bar briefly turned to regard us, then turned away in perfect synchronization, their eyes meeting and their heads bobbing a nod. We are strangers and out of uniform, but they know who we are and why we are here, and besides, they’ve seen a lot of strangers lately. Now, at the end of the second week of search for a missing local girl, they leave us alone. We find a table, plop down without discussion, and a waitress comes out to take our orders. She calls several of us “honey” and presses a hand to the shoulder of one of us as she turns away.
Either the town hasn’t passed a smoking ordinance, or here at the city limits this place has conveniently ignored the law. We sit beneath a stratus layer of cigarette smoke that curls above us like an atmosphere of drowsy snakes, tinged blue and red and green by the neon signs over the bar. Beside the door, I see a flyer for the missing girl. Her face hovers beneath the smoke. She appears uneasy even in this photograph taken years ago, her smile tentative and her blond, feathered bangs sprayed close as a helmet, her dark eyes tight at the edges, like this picture was something to be -survived.
I have looked at her face all day. On telephone poles, in the hands of local volunteers, over the shoulder of a big-city newscaster at noon, six, and ten o’clock. She is the ongoing local headline. She’s the girl no one really knew before her disappearance, and now she’s the girl eager eyewitnesses claim to have known all their lives. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but for the most part that’s not our job. We go where law enforcement directs us. We run behind search dogs who will tell us their own truths in any given area: never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here.
We humans aren’t talking about the search, our first day at work in this town. Inappropriate discussion in a public place, and we are exhausted with it anyway. Though today’s bystanders seemed to think we could take our dogs to Main Street and race them outward across all points of the compass—first dog to the victim wins—canine search-and-rescue doesn’t work that way. Assigned to locations chosen by law enforcement, we work methodically, dividing a region into sectors to be searched by individual dog-and-handler teams. It’s a meticulous process, but trained dogs can quickly clear a large area it would take humans days to definitively search.
Even so, we could be here for weeks. We already feel the trackless absence of this girl. Her hometown is small, but its outlying population is widespread, and there are...