He hadn’t heard the flies until now, because they had congregated inside the man’s mouth—a metropolis of them, the sound of their collective buzzing like a small outboard motor.
He’d seen worse—in combat—but he’d never smelled worse.
White showed through everywhere—the wrist and ankle bones, which had been handcuffed to the headboard and the iron railing at the base of the bed. Where his right leg was exposed, the flesh looked almost shredded. The internal architecture on the left side of the man’s face was exposed, right down to the roots of his teeth. His stomach had bloated too—Ethan could see the swell of it underneath the tattered suit, which was black and single-breasted.
Just like his.
Though the face was a wreck, the hair length and color were right.
The height was a match too.
Ethan staggered back and leaned against the doorframe.
Jesus Fucking Christ.
This was Agent Evans.
* * *
Back outside on the front porch of the abandoned house, Ethan bent over, his hands braced against his knees, and took deep, penetrating breaths through his nose to purge the smell. But it wouldn’t leave. That death-stink had embedded in his sinus cavity, and as a bitter, putrid bite in the back of his throat.
He took off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, fought his way out of the sleeves. The stench was in the fibers of his clothing now.
Shirtless, he moved through the riot of undergrowth that had once been a front yard and finally reached the dirt road.
He could feel the coldness of raw skin on the backs of his feet and the bass throb in his skull, but the pain had lost its edge to pure adrenaline.
He set off at a strong pace down the middle of the street, his mind racing. He’d been tempted to search the pockets of the dead man’s coat and pants, see if he could score a wallet, some ID, but the smart play had been to hold off. To not touch anything. Let people with latex gloves and face masks and every conceivable state-of-the-art forensic tool descend on that room.
He still couldn’t wrap his head around it.
A federal agent had been murdered in this little slice of heaven.
He was no coroner, but he felt certain Evans’s face wasn’t just rotting away. Part of his skull had been caved in. Teeth broken out. One of his eyes MIA.
He’d been tortured too.
The six blocks seemed to fly by, and then he was jogging up the sidewalk to the entrance of the sheriff’s office.
He left his jacket and shirt outside on a bench and pulled open one of the double doors.
The reception area was a wood-paneled room with brown carpeting and taxidermied animal heads mounted on every available piece of vertical real estate.
At the front desk, a sixty-something woman with long, silver hair was playing solitaire with a physical deck of cards. The freestanding nameplate on her desk read “Belinda Moran.”
Ethan arrived at the edge of her desk and watched her lay down four more cards before finally tearing herself away from the game.
“May I help—” Her eyes went wide. She looked him up and down, wrinkling her nose at what he supposed was the god-awful stench of human decay that must be wafting off him. “You’re not wearing a shirt,” she said.
“United States Secret Service Special Agent Ethan Burke here to see the sheriff. What’s his name?”
“Oh. Pope. Sheriff Arnold Pope.”
“Is he in, Belinda?”
Instead of answering his question, she lifted her rotary phone and dialed a three-digit extension. “Hi, Arnie, there’s a man here to see you. Says he’s a secret agent or something.”
“Special Agent with the—”
She held up a finger. “I don’t know, Arnie. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and he...” She turned away from Ethan in her swivel chair, whispered, “...smells bad. Really bad...OK. OK, I’ll tell him.”
She spun back around and hung up the phone.
“Sheriff Pope will be with you shortly.”
“I need to see him right now.”
“I understand that. You can wait over there.” She pointed to a grouping of chairs in a nearby corner.
Ethan hesitated for a moment, and then finally turned and headed toward the waiting area. Wise to keep this first encounter civil. In his experience, local law enforcement became defensive and even hostile when feds threw their weight around right out of the gate. In light of what he’d found in that abandoned house, he was going to be working with this guy for the foreseeable future. Better to start off with the glad hand than a middle finger.
Ethan eased down into one of the four upholstered chairs in the sitting area.
He’d worked up a sweat on the jog over, but now that his heart rate had returned to baseline, the layer of sweat on his bare skin had begun to chill him as the central air blew down out of a vent overhead.
There wasn’t much in the way of current reading material on the small table in front of his chair—just a few old issues of National Geographic and Popular Science.
He leaned back in the chair and shut his eyes.
The pain in his head was coming back—the cut of each throb escalating on some molecular level perceptible only over a span of minutes. He could actually hear the pounding of his headache in the total silence of the sheriff’s office, where there was no sound other than the flipping of cards.
He heard Belinda say, “Yes!”
Opened his eyes in time to see her place the last card, having won her game. She gathered the cards up and shuffled them and began again.
Another five minutes passed.
Belinda finished the game and she was mixing the deck again when Ethan noted the first impulse of irritation—a twitch in his left eye.
The pain was still growing and he’d now been waiting, at his estimation, for fifteen minutes. In that increment of time, the phone had not rung once, and not another soul had entered the building.
He shut his eyes and counted down from sixty as he massaged his temples. When he opened them again, he was still sitting there shirtless and cold, and Belinda was still turning cards over, and the sheriff had yet to come.
Ethan stood, fought a bout of wooziness for ten seconds before finally establishing his balance. He walked back over to the reception desk and waited for Belinda to look up.
She laid down five cards before acknowledging him.