Iron Angels – Snippet 10

Jasper got out of the van and walked along the road, scanning the tall grass for any signs of activity and making his way toward the driveway leading into the animal control center. That would be the only way to reach the spot the vultures were circling that didn’t involving fighting his way through the grass — which in some places would be over his head. The buzzing and chattering of insects filled his ears for a moment when the sounds of man disappeared briefly, reminding him of where he grew up, Tennessee, and what people referred to as the country.

Northwest Indiana was odd, that way. It was basically a heavily populated residential area, with lots of industry and commerce in the mix. Part of the great Chicago metropolis, artificially divided by the state line between Illinois and Indiana. But there were country patches scattered all through it, some of them operating farms and others just stretches of wild prairie and woodlands.

The weeds and brush gave way to the long driveway leading to the animal control center, and he started down it. After a few yards, he came to a dirt road branching to his right. It was still a little soggy and muddy from the rain a couple of days earlier. He glanced up once more at the vultures and rather than continuing toward the animal control center went down the dirt road.

The back of his neck itched and a chill shook his body, raising the hair on his arms. Two days in a row.

A thrumming invaded the stillness that had overcome the road, as if he was nearing a nest of bees. But when he got closer he saw that it was a mass of flies, not bees, making that noise. About twenty-five feet ahead, lying in what appeared to be a puddle, was a large lump of something. At this distance, the thing was hard to make out. A dead animal of some kind, he figured. Big, but certainly not human. The shape was all wrong.

Jasper came forward slowly. After a couple of steps his hand moved reflexively to his gun’s grip, his thumb on the break, ready to free the weapon from the holster.

Something wrong was up ahead. Terribly wrong.

A mound of flesh lay in a puddle of light pink, as if blood had been mixed with water and mud. Bits of white poked through the flesh — pieces of bone, clearly. A horde of insects swarmed over the mound. Jasper swallowed and took a step back, but then two forward, attempting to overcome the fear and the repulsion of the scene. His heart thumped, and his chest felt hollow. Even the two men burning themselves into nothing the previous night didn’t match this horror. Sure, he’d watched them die, but it’d been swift and he doubted they suffered more than a few seconds. This, however — whatever it was — looked like a pile of uncooked, shredded meat. It was more pink than red, laced with bones, and permeated with shriveled organs.

The pulse magnified in Jasper’s ears, and his vision narrowed. He leaned over, placed his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths. He’d seen horrible crime scenes over the years, but nothing quite like this.

He didn’t even understand what he was looking at. An animal? An animal killed by another animal? But if so, what kind? No animal he knew of had a shape like this. More than anything else he could think of, the bloody lump on the ground looked like a slab of halibut he’d once seen in a photograph hanging on the wall of a fishery — but it didn’t really look like that, either.

A curved piece of bone caught his eye. It took a couple of seconds before his brain could make sense of what he was seeing.

That was part of a human skull. The front half of one, missing the lower jaw. The edge was sharp, as if somebody — something — had cut straight down with a huge razor, separating the facial bones — what he was looking at — from the back of the skull.

He retched, but managed not to lose his breakfast.

A female voice spoke behind him. “Agent Wilde? Zeke Wilde?”

His heart raced and he jumped, nearly falling over. He swallowed and took a deep breath, then straightened and turned around.

A smartly dressed black woman stood about twenty feet from him. She was about five and a half feet tall, maybe a little less, judging from the low heels of her shoes. Solidly built; somewhere in her early-to-mid forties, at a guess. Her hair was closely cropped, and he could see a shock of white in the tight curls on both temples. Her skin was quite dark, as were her eyes. Her nose was broad and her lips were full; clearly African-American. She was attractive in appearance, if not exactly pretty. The Navy blue suit she wore matched her looks — well-made if not flashy; sober; businesslike.

Jasper moved a little, to block her view of the remains. She placed her hands on her hips and cocked her head.

“Agent Wilde, we need to speak.”

“What?” Jasper asked, nonplussed by the intrusion. “Zeke? No one calls me that, not even –”

“You received our phone call, did you not?” she asked. “Special Agent Ravel rang you earlier and informed you we’d be arriving today.”

Jasper remembered the phone call at his home. “Oh. Right.” He shook his head. “You mean that wasn’t a practical joke? You’re for real, then?”

“For real?” She had a rather ferocious frown. “Of course I’m for real. I’m Supervisory Special Agent Temple Black.” She stepped forward and offered her hand, but stopped when she got within five feet of Jasper. She’d finally spotted what was lying on the road.

“I’m not sure, but I think that’s the driver of the vehicle on the side of the road,” Jasper said.

She spun away and her hands flew to her mouth.

“And yes, I’m Jasper Wilde. Not Zeke. Now, what are you doing here exactly?”

A man appeared behind Black, carrying a large case. This would be Agent Ravel, he assumed, the owner of what Jasper had thought was one of the guys at the office doing an Indian impression when he had received the phone call late in the night. But Ravel was obviously of south Asian ancestry. Probably a first generation immigrant, from the trace of accent Jasper had detected.

“Agent Wilde,” the man said, moving past Black. “Vance Ravel, pleased to meet –” His cheeks puffed and his free hand flew to his mouth, except he wasn’t successful in tamping down his illness. Fortunately, he was able to turn aside before he vomited. He even had the presence of mind to hold the case well away from his body, so it wouldn’t get splattered.

“I kind of had the same reaction,” Jasper said sympathetically, after Ravel was done and Black had brought herself under control. “God-awful-looking, isn’t it? Now, will someone tell me why you’re out here? Where did you come from and what are you trying to accomplish? It isn’t often we get headquarters people out here on such short notice.”

“We…” Temple Black took a deep breath. “We need to speak somewhere else. I can’t be anywhere near that and think clearly.” She nodded stiffly toward the pile of meat, blood and bone.

“Fine,” Jasper said, “but I didn’t invite you over here to begin with. Did you see my partner, Pete Hernandez?”

“Is he an East Chicago cop? If so, he’s up on the road talking with his buddies.”

They moved away from the body and toward the driveway leading into the animal control center. Jasper helped Ravel by taking the case from him after a minor protest. The man was still obviously unsettled. “So, who are you guys?”