They parked outside the station house and Tom led Jessie along the high street. People nodded to them in greeting. Innocent enough, but Jessie saw them cluster together after they passed, whispering behind her back.
‘The agent who got shot.’
‘What’s she doing up and about?’
She was glad when Tom said they were nearly at the morgue. Less so when he led her through the local grocery store’s side door. They stepped into the back cold storage room, where two men were standing over a stretcher set up in the middle of the floor.
The doctor was in his late thirties. White coat, clean-shaven and cropped dark hair. The other Jessie guessed was the grocer. Cut-off jeans shorts, tie-dye t-shirt, white beard trailing down over his bony chest and a pair of thin spectacles propped on top of his smooth, bald head.
‘How’re you guys doing?’ the sheriff asked, peeling his hat off hair slicked down by sweat.
Polite conversation? Are you serious?
‘Yeah, not bad,’ the hippie grocer replied.
Jessie looked at the uneven heap on the stretcher, covered by a white bedsheet. A grotesquely misshapen lump where the head would be.
‘This is Special Agent Davidson,’ Tom said, gesturing to the doctor and grocer by way of an introduction.
Jessie nodded a greeting and looked back at the corpse.
‘May I see your stitches, Agent Davidson?’ the grocer asked.
‘No thanks, but you can call me Jessie.’
Wait, what did he just ask? Is he kidding or something?
The sheriff spoke up before she had time to vent her indignation at the man.
‘This is the doc and that there’s Bob Suffolk, whose shop we’re in.’ He glanced at her red face. ‘Maybe I should’ve opened with that.’
Jessie shook her head.
He’s a doctor? I’m supposed to believe this washed-out hippie has a medical licence?
‘Nope,’ Tom replied, fumbling with the brim of his hat as the stifling silence dragged on. ‘Why don’t you show us what you found, doc?’
Doc threw back one corner of the sheet without ceremony, as Bob Suffolk might when unveiling past-ripe fruit from the last week. He pointed to a round lump a few inches above Melcom’s pale ankle.
‘How about that, eh? Did you see anything like that before?’ he asked.
‘What is it?’ Tom asked, leaning closer.
It looked to Jessie like nothing more exciting than a bug bite. Certainly not something worth bringing to the attention of an FBI agent.
‘An insect bite. Ant, to judge by the markings,’ doc said, pride clear in his voice.
Tom gave the lump a prod. ‘It’s hard.’
‘And growing,’ doc said, nodding with enthusiasm as Jessie leaned in. ‘I believe it might be fungal.’
The fascinated silence was broken by Bob Suffolk’s high, nasal voice speaking for the first time. His words were bitter. Like he was sucking on a slice of pickled lemon.
‘Is it the AIDS?’ he asked, taking a step back from the stretcher and eyeing his produce stacked along the walls.
‘Certainly not,’ doc replied.
‘Don’t be an ass, Bob,’ Tom said, pressing his fingers on either side of the growth. ‘AIDS isn’t a fungus.’
‘What is it then? Something food can catch?’ Bob asked, not seeming in the slightest bit reassured.
‘It’s an immune deficiency caused by a virus,’ doc said.
‘How did he get it?’ Tom asked.
‘He didn’t have it.’
‘Which are we talking about now?’ Bob asked.
Give me strength, but these guys are the worst pack of idiots I ever met. Is this an autopsy or a comedy skit?
Tom breathed out a long sigh, his breath fogging in the chill air.
‘Lay it out for us, doc. Why is this important?’
‘Well, the way I see it, this man caught the fungus from the ant. You say he tried to kill Agent Jessie? Well, maybe this intrusion had something to do with it.’
‘How do you figure?’ Jessie asked, wrinkling her nose as the stench of decay seeped out from under the blanket.
‘We’re still in the Dark Ages of medicine here, guys. Who knows what mind-affecting fungi are out there?’
Mind-altering fungi? I reckon you’ve been at some ‘shrooms yourself if you believe that.
‘Bull crap,’ Bob said. ‘I’m still not convinced it wasn’t the AIDS and I want him outta my shop.’
‘Alright Bob,’ Tom said, setting his hat back on his head. ‘We’ll call the undertaker to come fetch the body. Sorry, doc, medicine can wait for another chance to get out of the Dark Ages.’