The gas station six miles out of town was like a fuelling stop on Mars. All around were empty horizons of flat grassland, a crisp ashen green under the morning frost. Winter was rearing its head, ready to bury Jessie’s backwoods town under a deluge of sleet and heavy snow.
She didn’t bother to give the road more than a cursory glance every few minutes. No one was driving out that way. The road led to nowhere, dissolving into dirt tracks and scrubland after twenty-or-so miles before it met the hostile wilderness which hedged the US-Canadian border.
Like Hell he’s going to drive out here. Dead men don’t drive.
The lonely gas station attendant had accepted the “Wanted” poster like she was presenting guns to the Native Americans. He couldn’t seem to put it down.
Jessie saw the old man stumble from one end of his Martian outpost to the other, pinning up the poster and taking it down again. Reading it. Re-reading it. Staring at it for minutes at a time. Staring out at her for even longer. under his wrinkled, befuddled brow.
I’m not staying here another damned second.
Dead men didn’t drive. The checkpoints on every road out of town were a waste of time. They should’ve been searching for whatever thing escaped the funeral home.
Did it eat his body? Can’t say I give a damn.
The sheriff wasn’t going to be any help. There was only one place Jessie knew of where she could go for answers, as much as it pained her to admit it.
She whistled as the engine throbbed into life and her pickup’s new tyres screeched over the virgin tarmac. Rolled down the window and felt hair whip her hair out behind her. The barren landscape became a moss-grey blur on either side.
Her forties were just coming into view, but she could still feel the tightening thrill in her gut when she broke the speed limit. Left it in her dust. What was the point of being a special agent if you couldn’t throw the book out of the window every once in a while.
But it couldn’t last forever. Back on the outskirts of town Jessie slowed to a crawl. Keeping her eyes peeled for Doc’s office. It was hard to miss, a puke-green caduceus painted on the window. Twin snakes coiled around a winged staff. She’d never noticed before how much it looked like something a burnout might doodle in a weed-induced haze. Grimy strip blinds rattled against the polished glass.
Jessie pulled over and went inside, gritting her teeth for the temple to medical malpractice she would doubtlessly find within.
What kind of wacko gives a hippie a medical licence?
Whatever she had expected to see, it wasn’t there. Surprised to find herself feeling disappointed. Truth be told, Jessie would’ve relished the chance to flash her badge and order Doc to clean up his act.
Instead, her eyes were confronted by lime green linoleum floors and white-painted walls. A neatly ordered desk with stacks of files in separate trays, labelled identical filing cabinets along the far wall. Precise-looking metal implements arranged on a fold-up table beside a plastic-upholstered examination bed. Every visible surface dusted, polished and disinfected. Her senses were drenched in the sharp smell of citrus and bleach.
Only one thing was out of place in the whole room. A crusty old codger lying on the examination bed, snoring through his scraggly white beard. If Jessie hadn’t met Doc before, she would’ve assumed a drugged-up bum had broken in to sleep one off.
‘Hey, Doc,’ she said, raising her voice to cut through his snorts and grunts. ‘Wake up.’
A bleary eye popped open and swivelled to meet hers. Mouth widening in surprise and then a grin of genuine pleasure. His bald pate flashed as he swung his legs off the bed and stood.
‘Agent Davidson,’ he said, offering his hand and giving hers an energetic shake. ‘How are you doing? Did you decide to take me up on my offer to check your stitches?’
‘I’m alright,’ she replied, keeping her tone formal. All business. Pleasantries were fine, but she didn’t want him thinking they’d formed any kind of friendship. ‘I actually came to pick your brain about this Melcom business.’
‘Ah, yes. The mysterious lump!’
‘What?’ It took Jessie a while to figure out what Doc was talking about, remembering the strange hard growth on her attempted murderer’s leg. ‘You didn’t hear? Melcom’s body disappeared from the funeral home. Can you explain that?’
‘Explain it?’ Doc asked, furrowing his brow. ‘I’m afraid that’s beyond my area of practice. I’m a doctor, not a detective. Unless…’ His face went pale and she saw a faint tremor in his hands. ‘You don’t think I took his corpse?’
He’s been locked up before. Probably in a federal prison.
The realisation hit her like a punch to the gut, making her breathless. Cruel satisfaction came with it. She’d been right about him after all. He was a burn-out like Melcom, for all he kept his practice cleaner than the Oval Office. Her mind was distracted, trying to guess what crime he’d committed. Jessie forced herself to focus on the issue at hand.
‘Tom – I mean the sheriff – thinks Melcom escaped somehow. He’s got a manhunt going for him. Roadblocks, checkpoints, bulletins…’ She trailed off as Doc let out a mirthless chuckle.
‘If that’s the case then we should call the Smithsonian while we’re at it. It’ll be a medical miracle. Front page news on every continent.’
‘How’s that?’ Jessie asked, feeling a surge of righteous joy. She’d been right about that as well. Maybe she could leave off investigating whatever shady business Doc was involved in for a while by way of thanks. ‘He couldn’t have survived his injuries?’
‘The blood-loss alone…’ Doc trailed off and went to thumb through a file on his desk. She tried looking over his shoulder, but it was all spider-scribble handwriting and obscure diagrams. ‘Half his face blown off by Deputy West’s shotgun cartridge… Two smaller gunshots to the breast from the sheriff’s sidearm. Hollowpoint slug through his right atrium, nicking the aorta. No, Agent Davidson, there isn’t living creature I know of which can survive bleeding out and having its heart ripped open.’
There was something unusual in Doc’s face. It looked like pity to Jessie, perhaps sorrow. She couldn’t imagine why he would pity Melcom. The bastard deserved what he got as far as she was concerned. He’d put a full cartridge of buckshot in her shoulder. Tried to kill her, even.
Let the pacifist hippy puzzle over this one. Let him call me crazy so I can pistol whip that droopy look off his face.
‘I saw a creature in the funeral home,’ she said, watching his expression for a reaction.
‘Which species?’ Doc asked as he thumbed his spectacles back onto the smooth mound of his head.
‘It moved like an insect, crawling. No, scuttling.’
His brows knitted together in a deep frown. ‘And its appearance?’
Here it comes…
‘It was the size of a man.’
Doc jumped to his feet. One of the neatly arranged trays flew to the floor, scattering files and sheaths of paper across the linoleum floor. Jessie had expected concern or ridicule, but nothing like the mad scramble as Doc ran to his examination bed, overturning his chair with a clatter on the way. She reached for her revolver, every muscle tensed.
There was a file on the fold-out table which she hadn’t noticed before. Thin, lying open on the first few pages. Doc had been reading it when he fell asleep. Now he sat on the bed and scanned the graphs and tiny lines of black print.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
The phone rang before he could answer. Without looking or saying a word, he pulled the receiver off its wall-mounting and listened for a few seconds. He handed it to her, his eyes still rooted to the page.
‘It’s for you,’ he mumbled.
Jessie grabbed the reveiver, mingled frustration and confusion gnawing at her.
‘This is Agent Davidson…’
‘We found him.’ The voice was breathless, speaking in gruff, rapid tones.
‘Sheriff?’ she asked, guessing from the authority in his voice.
‘We found him, Jessie. There was a call about a jumper on the fifth floor of the library. The description matches Melcom one hundred percent. We’ll pick you up on the way over.’
It’s impossible. What the Hell’s going on here?
Sincere apologies, but it’s only going to get weirder from here.