The cops will call it an accident.
Deer in the road……
Fell asleep at the wheel….
There were any number of reasons why that woman’s car overturned, sending her flying into the night, a badly paved back county road her final landing place.
A waitress named Hadlee was the first on the scene. Just come off her a late shift over at Dale’s Diner. Damn near ran over the body..
She’s been going from bawlin’ to throwin’ up ever since. Cops can’t even get a decent statement out of her. You’d think she was the one whose guts were smeared all over the asphalt.
I hate the living.
My name is Ed; I’m the corner/undertaker for all of Anders County.
It’s one of those jobs that even if you like doing it, you don’t like telling people what you do because then they just give you “the look”.
You know the one.
The look that says that maybe they think there is something wrong with you, like maybe you’re some kind of sicko, or there’s that look that says: Oh, couldn’t find anything better huh?
If I’m bein’ honest, I like my job just fine, even if I have to put up with “the look”. I’m perfectly happy spending all my time with dead people. And no, it ain’t like I’m some sort of pervert, or outcast or nuthin’ like that. I just like the idea of never having to talk to anybody, and no I’m not shy. People just piss me off.
So anyways, back to the dead lady sprawled all over out on Route 58.
She’s pretty, or I guess she was once. Blonde hair or it would be if it weren’t matted with blood and brain tissue. One pretty blue eye. Even without her bein’ all intact I could tell ya she had a body built for sin. Jake Crowley is the EMT on call tonight. Look at him glancing over at the body, that sad look in his eyes.
He feels bad for all of ‘em. In all the years I’ve had this job, I’ve never known an EMT who took every accident so personally.
Fool thinks he can save the world just because he’s certified in CPR.
So I kneel down next to the body, trying to look like I’m doing something important. Hell, what’s there to do? She’s dead. Her car is crushed up against that oak over there; her body is mangled over here. Case closed. I reach into my pocket for my cigarettes. Nobody is going to care if I light up, hell the dead woman sure won’t complain.
It’s when I take my first drag that I notice it.
I’m not sure if I’m looking right, after all the body is pretty mangled, and the way she landed sort of contorted her. Her neck was broken pretty badly which meant that while her body was pretty much front ways down, her face was still looking up. Now of course when a neck is broke that bad you sort of expect there to be some bruising, maybe even the entire neck just being one big purple mess, but there is something about the bruises on her neck that make me want to look just a little bit closer.
Long lengthwise bruises ran all the way around her neck in rows side by side each one about an inch or so thick. You wouldn’t think her pretty little neck could hold as many, but from where I was squatting beside her it almost looked like there were four in that row. I leaned in. I felt a little uneasy as I stared at her flesh; I recognized something in those bruises…
Something I’m not sure I want to admit….
Clouds moved slowly across the full moon, making everything darker than it already was. Jake was looking without trying to appear as though he was looking. Not an easy thing to do, especially when there weren’t a whole lot of people to hide behind while he stared. Ed Easley had never seemed right. There was just something about him that was unsettling, and now that Jake nonchalantly stared at the man he began to think very seriously about what it was that bothered him about the county medical examiner.
The coroner was squatting a little too easily beside the mangled body on the highway, looking neither concerned nor even bothered at the mangled remains of the unknown woman at his feet. Jake shuddered. He had seen his fair share of carnage: car wrecks, hunting accidents and the like, but the way that woman’s body was sprawled out on the asphalt; something about it was unnatural. And the fact that Ed didn’t seem to mind at all being that close to that much blood, without even batting an eye seemed wrong somehow. Jake tried to tell himself that it was because it was his job. Ed had probably seen more dead bodies in the last week than Jake had seen in all of his two years on the ambulance crew. Still, there was something about the way the undertaker was looking at the body, it made Jake feel cold.
It was unseasonably warm for October, a slight; almost spring like breeze picking up a few scattered leaves across the highway, blowing without care, and still Jake felt cold. Another quick glance at Ed, and that cold feeling came again. He zipped up his jacket and forced himself to focus on other things.
“Well, I don’t suppose there’s anything left to do here, but pack it up. I’d like to get some sleep before the sun comes up.” Sheriff Ian Talbot was about as laid-back country as they came. Short, balding and about eight months sort of retiring, he was pretty much just riding out the days until he got the cheapest gold watch the county thought they could get away with giving him, and a pension that would have made a more ambitious man rage. Jake didn’t hold any of that against him, Talbot had been Sheriff as long as Jake could remember, it wasn’t as if Anders County was a hot bed of criminal activity. Thumbs tucked behind a belt that was lost beneath fifty years of donuts and baby back ribs, he leaned against the side of the ambulance and fixed his gaze on the body sprawled out just beyond. “Damn shame.” he yawned. Jake was about to voice his agreement, when he was interrupted by one of Talbot’s officers,
“Hey boss.” It was Parker, one of the newer boys on the force, about Jake’s age, but new enough to town that they could not be described as friends. “You wanna come take a look at this?” Sheriff Talbot frowned, and shot a glance at Jake who did not hesitate to follow along as Parker led them both back to where the dead woman’s car was wedged against a nearby tree. The sides of the car glared back angrily against the headlights of the ambulance, making Jake squint and turn his head. He made a quick glance backwards, Ed had not moved. Sheriff Talbot stopped just short of the rear of the car,
“What we got here Parker? Harlow?” Harlow Jenkins was squatting just beyond where the Sheriff was standing. Tall and lanky he looked funny squatting on the roadside, he had gone to High School with Jake’s older brother, meaning he and Jake had known each other a lot of years. He nodded briefly in Jake’s direction as a way of acknowledgement before he turned his attention to the Sheriff. “We got more than one set of tire marks here.” he said without preamble. Jake was not alone when he turned his attention to the asphalt at their feet, all eyes were upon the black skid marks leading from the highway onto the embankment. Jake was not exactly a forensic scientist, but he had spent enough of his High School years hot-rodding with his friends on the back roads outside of town to know skid marks when he saw them. One set veered in a swerving arch from the northbound lane to where the woman’s late model Honda had smashed through the guardrail before colliding with the large oak at the end of the curve. However just as Harlow had said there was another set of tire marks as well. A little wider than the set left by the dead woman’s car, these other marks curved just until the car hit the guardrail, before swerving hard again back towards the highway and off in the direction of town.
Jake’s eyes shot up in time to meet Harlow’s questioning gaze, his throat felt suddenly dry. He could feel the Sheriff and Parker looking from one to the other. All four of them knew what the other was thinking.
Someone had forced that Honda off the road.
I want to keep looking at her.
I never want to take my eyes off her.
In a flash I could see her smiling face. She had perfectly straight teeth; they were the brightest shade of white I had ever seen. Like a movie star’s. No one was watching me, they wouldn’t notice if I reached down and stroked her face. So beautiful; even in death. My fingers snag on her hair, matted with blood and gray, rubbery brains. My mouth is dry, cracked lips meet my tongue. She had such beautiful lips. I want to crawl inside her body…
I jump before I realize it. Damn, what will they think if they see you jumping like a cat?!?
I glance up trying to look calm. They will want me to be calm; it’s my job to stay calm. Sheriff Talbot is walking toward me, he looks pissed.
“I need you to go over that body again.”
“What’s the problem?’ I ask him, keeping my voice regular, quiet, just how they expect me to sound.
“I just want to be absolutely certain that it was the car wreck that killed her.” He’s standing over me now, and her. He’s closer than I would like. Can he see her neck? Did he see the bruises?
“What for?” I realize too late how that might sound, Talbot doesn’t miss a beat, he’s frowning at me now, and I have to be careful. I make myself sound genuinely concerned: “I mean, what makes you think it was anything else. I think it’s pretty clear she wrecked her car.” I can’t read his face, he’s not exactly frowning, but he doesn’t look happy either.
“Come here.” he replies. I don’t want to follow him, I don’t want to leave her, but I have to do what he says.
I get to my feet, my stomach grumbles.
I follow him just like he wants to where her car is. Ugly thing, foreign. She should have known better. Talbot points a fat finger at the road.
“There’s another set of tires. We’ve been talkin’ it over and we all agree it looks like somebody might have run her off the road.”
Listen to her screaming
“If someone ran her off the road they had to have a good reason wouldn’t you say?” The sheriff is talking to me again, as if I want to hear what he has to say. I glance in his direction, and shrug that’s what he would expect.
Play dumb Ed, play dumb.
“So you look at that body again, and tell me if you find anything. Anything at all.” I turn away to go back to the body. She isn’t alone anymore. Now I’m angry. What is that little son of a bitch Jake doing with her? What makes him think he can touch her, what makes him think he can look at her? I move up on him as fast as I can, he stares up at me. He looks a little green in the gills, poor bastard. If you can’t stand the fire eh? He stops staring at me, and instead looks at the sheriff who is right behind me. Crowding me.
“Sir…” he looks like he could puke at any minute now. Maybe he should go stand by the little waitress. “I—I think you should come and look at this.” I can hear the sheriff’s muttered curse, his voice sounds miles away. I can’t hear anything, but the pounding in my ears. My heart is racing. He sees the bruises. That has to be it.
“What is it Jake?” Sheriff Talbot looks a little tired; he’s probably as sick of this as I am. “You find something Ed missed?” he shoots me a dirty look.
Watch it old man…
“I—I think…It looks like. . .” Jake looks really sick now, poor bastard. The sheriff is leaning over now, looking to where Jake is looking, he seems confused. Well he would, what does a sheriff know about the human body? About her body?
“Holy God…” he whispers, he looks as green as Jake now, but his eyes are on me. He’s frowning. I stare back. “You tell me you didn’t notice that?” He points an angry finger at her, looking at me like I should have something to say.
“Notice what?” I say as innocent as you please. Jake is scrambling to his feet now, his eyes as hard on me as Talbot’s, his voice is hoarse:
“Notice what?? What do you think?! Someone took a bite out of her!”
I would smile if I thought they wouldn’t notice
It was probably the most disturbing thing he had seen in forty years on the job.
Of course as a small town sheriff Ian hadn’t exactly come across a whole lot of anything, disturbing or otherwise. Bad things just didn’t happen in small towns, even in this day and age, you still felt safe out in the rural areas where everybody knew everybody for generations, and there was nothing worth breaking the law over. Even anything that did happen was resolved pretty quick, and the Lord knew the quicker things got back to normal the better.
He glanced at the body with a new revulsion, somehow it had seemed not so bad when it had just been a tragic car accident. Now, it was all he could do not to sick up, like Hadlee Martin had been doing. He gazed down at the dead stranger, his eyes wandering involuntarily to the bite mark glaring out from the inner thigh of her left leg. It was oval shaped, and deep. A perfectly hallowed out wound. Whatever had bitten her, it had taken away at least an ounce of flesh. He shuddered, at that thought. The banded tissue of her leg muscle glistened in the glare of his headlights. If he leaned in he thought he could almost account for every tooth that might have torn away the flesh. He forced his gaze away from that hideous mark and tried instead to look at her mangled face. Even if the asphalt had not torn away most of her he still would not have recognized her. As near as he could tell she was just some stranger that had been passing through.
“Well?” Jake’s strained voice cut though his thoughts, and he shook himself mentally as he tore his gaze form the body to meet the gaze of the young EMT. “What bit her?”
Ian realized that Jake wasn’t talking to him; instead the kid was staring hard at Ed, who was staring back at him just as forcefully. Ian never could figure out why the two men had never really got along. Even from the beginning they seemed like two cats rubbing each other the wrong way. For his part Ian had a hard time taking sides. On the one hand Ed Eisley had been the county Medical Examiner and undertaker for the last twenty years. He was a quiet man, kept to himself a lot, but that was hardly anything to hold against him. He had always seemed very sympathetic at funerals; he always seemed to know the right thing to say to a person in mourning. He had been described by many as helpful and generous to the grief stricken, and every year he donated a hefty sum to the department at the Annual Fund Raiser and Bizarre.
He was, all in all, a model citizen. On the other hand, Ian had noticed over the years, that Ed always seemed like he was thinking one thing and saying another. Like he maybe had some secret that he was keeping all to himself, but the truth of it was as plain as his smile, if you could just see it for yourself. That strangeness about him was even more apparent tonight, Ian couldn’t have placed it, but the coroner just seemed a little jittery; maybe even upset if that was the word for the strange way he was acting towards that dead body. It wasn’t that he thought anything bad about the man, but he was one of those that just left you wondering.
Ed had been squatting at the woman’s side, but now as he stood upright there was a serious twist to his mouth, a twist that did not quite reach his eyes, his eyes held an entirely different look altogether. It almost looked like laughter. A warning signal deeply embedded in Ian’s mind started to go off, but he pushed it away before it could sprout wings. It was almost three in the morning; no doubt his mind was playing tricks on his eyes. He blinked, and to his relief Ed was looking as somber as could be.
“Well, it wasn’t an animal I can tell you that.” he said soberly, this time the gleam in his eyes was unmistakable. Ian forced himself to look away; he could not afford to be foolish, not now. Instead he forced himself to focus on what the coroner had said. Not an animal.
“What are you sayin’ exactly?” his voice sounded miles away in his head. He was not sure he even wanted the answer, as if he didn’t know it already. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ed’s lips twitch, as if he wanted to smile. He met the coroner’s gaze as level as he could.
“I’m saying there’s not an animal anywhere that has a mouth that would make a bite like that.” He glanced from Jake to Ian and back again, rocking up on his toes and down again; a look of what could only be described as triumph on his face he added,
“This bite came from a person.”
The world seemed to turn in on itself, and for a moment Ian felt he might actually make good on those thoughts of being sick. In all his years as an officer of the law he had never even heard of anything like this, and certainly he had never imagined that he would come across anything so horrific, so incredibly unthinkable in his town.
“Well,” Ed said, his voicing sounding almost like a purr, and the way he stared at the body, it was enough to make any man feel a little uncomfortable. Like he was watching the two of them doing something indecent. Ed took his eyes off the body long enough to stare into Ian’s gaze. That strange twitch playing at the corner of his mouth again.
“It looks like you might have a madman running around Sheriff.”
Ed pulled the zipper on the body bag as slowly as he could manage without drawing attention.
Still, he couldn’t help, but linger as long as he could. Just for one more look, just one more glimpse of her face. He sighed to himself, almost wistfully, and then with a last pang of regret he turned away from the gurney, to find himself face to face with Sheriff Talbot. He was chewing away without content on a wad of gum, the scent of peppermint wafting from him.
“I can’t remember the last time we had an actual crime scene around here.” he said, his voice sounding as regretful as Ed had felt for closing up the blonde beauty in the body bag. Sheriff Talbot wasn’t watching him, instead he was staring with some distraction at his deputies as they milled around trying to find evidence that wasn’t there. Ed felt pretty confident about that. All things considered it had been a pretty clean death, just a few kinks to iron out.
Ed shoved his hands in his pockets. “Well Sheriff, if it’s all the same to you, I might as well head on out. I can take the woman back to the morgue. Look her over in some good lighting, maybe that’ll help. Can’t see how I’m any more use to you out here.”
Talbot eyed him a little darkly for a moment, then idly scratching the stubble on his jowls he nodded. “I suppose you’re right in that. You go on home, get some sleep, then you can start your examining in the morning. No use in getting all worked up this time of the morning anyways.”
Ed nodded, looking as agreeable as he could manage.
That’s right. . . No rush. . . What’s to find anyways? She wasn’t even from around here.
He turned from the sheriff and started to make his way towards the driver’s side of the wagon when Talbot’s voice rang again in his ears.
“Hey listen, Ed.”
Kill him. . . Kill him now!
He turned, calm as can be. “Ya?”
“I was wonderin’ if you might be good enough to drop Hadlee Martin off on your way home.”
Turning slightly the sheriff beckoned to the little sprig of a waitress who was standing a short distance off, still looking as if she might have some vomit left to make an appearance. She looked awkward standing there, her tidy uniform standing out almost offensively against the dark of the night. The purity of the white apron almost mocking the ghastly scene all around her. Talbot put his arm around her and pulled her towards where Ed was waiting.
“She’s shook up so bad, I’d hate to see her drivin’ off into the night all alone.” he said not unkindly.
Ed’s gaze wandered over the girl’s slight frame, he licked his lips before he even realized it.
Stay calm. . . Stay calm . . .
“Why of course.” he said softly, his eyes still trained on the girl, his grin coming out, “I’d be more than happy to help out a lady in distress.” He made a little bow, and the girl’s eyes widened a little. She shot a worried glance at the sheriff for a moment, but she did not protest. Instead she moved along meekly and obediently as the sheriff maneuvered her to the passenger door of Ed’s vehicle.
Yes, good girl, come quietly now. . .
* * * *
The red and blue flashing lights of the police cars and ambulance had faded long into Ed’s rear view mirror. There was nothing now except the yellow shine of his headlights on the highway, and the slight glow of the lighting of his car’s instrument panel. “You did real good tonight.” he said, his voice almost a whisper. Beside him in the bench seat, Hadlee was silent.
“You did everything I asked of you darlin’, I’m very pleased.”
Finally her head came up and he could feel her eyes upon him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make a scene, I just. . . I didn’t know it would be like that.” she whispered, her voice was raw, she sounded like she was almost in tears. He granted her a sidelong glance, before returning his attention to the road. Taking one hand off the wheel he reached out for her and was glad when she slid over curling herself against him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I told you it wasn’t gonna be easy love.” he said gently, “I warned ya from the beginning.” He sighed, “You drove just right, pushed her right off just like I told ya. Granted, it might have worked out better if the bitch had been wearing a seatbelt, and if Deputy Dipshit Harlow hadn’t been patrolling.” He felt some anger rising, he pushed it away, he tilted his head so it could rest on top of hers. She smelled like lavender soap.
“It’ll be better next time.”
“Next time?” Hadlee had her hand resting on his thigh now, the way she squeezed it told him that she liked was she was hearing, and it also meant–well, other things.
He smiled, pushing the accelerator slightly, “Of course baby girl,” he whispered, “There’s gonna be an investigation, Sheriff’s gonna be snoopin’ around, I think it’s pretty much up to us to make sure we don’t get caught.” He glanced down at her, she was smiling up at him, even in the darkness he could see the eagerness in her eyes.
“Besides,” he added softly, “I’m still hungry.”