Focus, I tell myself. Lock it up. Don’t think about it. I know why I’m freaking out. It’s too similar to what I saw in my husband’s garage, even down to the smell. I’m having flashbacks, and I just want to leave here.
But I can’t.
“Gwen,” Sam says. He isn’t bothering to be quiet this time. When I turn, he’s crouching over the pile of clothes, and I move to join him.
The smell of decomposition hits me within one step, far worse now, and I know what I’m going to see before I make it out in the dim light.
The body’s been here a long time, long enough to have been reduced to ragged, chewed meat by scavengers. About half skeletonized. What skin remains on him—I assume it’s the same man we saw on that video—is thin and dry as wax paper, and the maggots are long gone. They’ve left their pupa casings in a scatter like dropped rice.
“How long—” My voice isn’t steady. I stop talking. Sam looks up at me.
“The weather’s cold now, but it was probably still warm when he was killed. So maybe a couple of months.” Sam is silent a moment, head bowed, and then he gets up. “Look around. If there’s anything else here—”
I try to ignore the corpse, but it’s difficult. I feel it constantly, as if its dead, empty eye sockets are tracking me. The rest of this part of the warehouse consists of a pile of old desks that yield nothing but rat droppings and a curling, ancient stack of forgotten invoices twenty years old, and probably of no interest.
But there’s an office at the far end, and as Sam checks his side of the room, I head for it. There’s a metal door with a wide glass panel, reinforced with wire mesh; it’s been pocked and cracked, but it’s still holding firm. I try the door handle.
Locked. But the lock looks old, original to the door, and a few solid kicks bust it wide open. One of the hinges pops free at the bottom, and the door lists drunkenly and scrapes the floor for balance.
Someone was using this place. It’s still dilapidated and dusty, and spiders have claimed the filing cabinets along the back wall as their hunting ground, but on the other end of the room, an old-fashioned desk with the clunky, functional lines of World War II surplus is relatively clean. There are scuffs in the dirt on the floor, but no meaningful footprints.
There’s some paper stacked on one corner—plain copy paper, no watermarks, no writing. I try a trick I learned from old Nancy Drew novels; I gather up a handful of the fine, powdery dust and sift it onto the top sheet, then gently slide it around to see if it will reveal any hidden depressions.
I start pulling open drawers. I startle some spiders, and am startled in turn, but eight-legged predators are the last thing I’m afraid of right now.
In the next-to-last drawer, I find a man’s wallet. It’s well worn, shaped to someone’s rear, and I put it on the desk surface and open it up carefully. No spiders erupt from it, but I see a bristle of cash in the back divider. Plenty of cash, at least two or three hundred. I don’t count it. I look at the license that’s slotted into the plastic case in front on the left side. It’s a Louisiana driver’s license for a man named Rodney Sauer. I take a cell phone picture of the address on the license; it’s in New Orleans. Behind the license are the usual mundane plastic squares of modern life: debit cards, credit cards, a couple of loyalty cards for supermarkets and big-box stores.
On the right, I find a picture of a plump, contented blonde woman cuddling two adorable kids. On the back, it says, in childishly awkward cursive, Love to Daddy from Mommy, Kat, and Benny.
I have to catch my breath against the pain in my chest. Does this pretty, happy woman know he’s dead? Did he just vanish into thin air one bright summer day? Do the kids still ask when he’s coming home?
I slip the picture back in and keep looking. I find a small stash of business cards marked with Rodney Sauer’s name and what looks like an official law-enforcement star embossed in thick black ink.
He’s not a cop. He’s a private investigator. I pull one of the cards free and put it in my pocket.
There’s nothing else of any use in the wallet. If Rodney had a notepad, voice recorder—anything like that—it’s not here.
They left everything that wasn’t useful to them, including Rodney.
“Gwen?” Sam asks quietly from the door. I nod and drop the wallet back in the drawer, shut it, and leave.
We go past the body, through the other room, out the side door and into the cloudy afternoon, which is the brightest, friendliest thing I’ve ever seen. I feel sickly dizzy, and I gulp in air to steady myself. My adrenaline level is toxic, and now that I’m out of there, I’m shaking all over.
Lustig’s waiting for us at the fence. I still have my weapon out, I realize, and I put it back in the holster. Lustig holds the links back for us as we climb out, then carefully fastens them back with the paper clips.
We tell him. The only thing we’ve left is boot prints, and our path is clearly new, not contemporary to the horror show that played out in that place. We make our way back to the car—which is, thankfully, still intact, though the locks have been jimmied, and the radio’s been jacked right out of the console—and at a pay phone halfway across the city, I make a phone call to report a body.
“Thanks,” Lustig says, as I hang up. “Now, call me.” He reads his number off to me, and I put in another handful of quarters for that call, too. I leave him the same message, and tell him there’s some link to an ongoing FBI case. I hang up and look at him questioningly, and he gives me a thumbs-up. Since his phone is still off, he can’t be tied to this location. He’s now covered on receiving an anonymous tip.
Back in the car, on the way to the coffee shop, I begin to feel a little better. My skin feels warmer, my nerves less jangled. I know I’ll dream about the dreadful stillness of that place, the way that it masqueraded as peace. By tonight there’ll be police tape up, and crime scene investigators, and Mike Lustig will be whipping up a reason for local FBI involvement. Maybe they can track the ownership of the building, but I doubt it will lead anywhere significant. Absalom doesn’t own that place. They probably don’t even have any ties to it, beyond using it when the owners aren’t looking. Corporations aren’t great at checking over dilapidated buildings. If someone did inspect, they’d see the fresh signs, the new fencing, the new padlocks, and assume someone else in the company had taken care of it already. Bureaucracy at work.
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