Something wasn’t right. He could tell from the baying of the dog.
It wasn’t the normal barking that came when the dogs had come across a cow mired in a mud hole. It wasn’t the frenzied yelps that signaled the dogs had cornered a boar in the brush.
This was like screaming.
Burke Aubry shifted in his saddle and peered into the darkness. A heavy fog had rolled in before dawn, and it distorted everything—shapes, smells, but especially sound. The barking seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once, rising and falling with every shift of the cold morning wind.
A rustling to his left. He turned, ears pricked.
Just a cabbage palm. Its thick trunk, hidden by the fog, seemed to float above the ground. The wind sent the heavy fronds scraping against each other. It sounded like the rasp of a dying man.
Movement in the corner of his eye. The dark mass took shape as it came toward him, the blur hardening slowly into horse and rider.
It was Dwayne. Aubry could tell from the red kerchief he always wore around his neck. A second later, another, smaller shape emerged, a large yellow dog following close behind the horse.
Dwayne drew his horse up next to Aubry’s. “You hear that?”
“You think one of the curs got into it with a boar?”
Aubry didn’t answer. He was listening to the baying. It sounded like it was coming from the south. But none of the men or their dogs were supposed to be down there.
He jerked the radio from his saddle. “Mike?”
A cackle of static. “Yeah, boss?”
“You working the east ten pasture?”
“That’s where you told us to go.”
“Are all of you there?”
A pause. “Yes, sir.”
“What about the dogs?”
“Are all your dogs with you?”
“Count ’em, Mike.”
Seconds later, he came back. “Ted says his dog has gone missing.”
A high-pitched yelping rose on the wind. It was coming from the south, Aubry was sure this time. He keyed the radio. “Mike, get the men down to Devil’s Garden.”
“Devil’s Garden? But—”
“Just do it, Mike.”
Aubry stowed the radio and turned to Dwayne. “Let’s go.”
Even in the fog, he knew where he was going. He had been working the ranch for nearly four decades now, and he knew every foot of the four thousand acres, knew every tree, every swamp, every fence. He knew, too, that no living thing, not even a dog, had any reason to be in Devil’s Garden.
They headed south. They crossed a stream and entered a thick grove of old live oaks. The gray fog shroud wrapped the trees, softening their black, twisting branches and webs of Spanish moss.
The baying was loud now. It was coming from the direction of the old cow pen. The pen was one of the largest on the ranch but had been abandoned twenty years ago. Aubry urged his horse on. Suddenly, the yellow dog darted ahead of them through the tall, wet ferns.
Dwayne whistled, but the dog was lost in the fog.
The men prodded their horses to a fast trot. The dark wood of the pen’s fence emerged from the mist. Two dogs now, barking and growling.
Aubry got off his horse, pulling out his rifle. He scaled the fence, and the barking drew him deeper into the maze of holding pens.
He reached the large central pen and stopped, rifle poised to shoot if the dogs were confronting an animal. But the mass that the dogs were hunched over wasn’t moving. Aubry heard Dwayne come in behind him and then Dwayne’s sharp command to the dogs to heel. Ears flat, fur raised, the dogs backed off.
Aubry approached the mass slowly, rifle ready.
The pale flesh stood out against the black dirt. At first, he thought it was a skinned boar carcass. Then he saw the arm. A step closer, and the rest of the mass took shape. A leg, and then a second one bent at a horrid angle under the hump of a bare back.
It was a man, naked.
Aubry stopped. There was no head.
“Hey, boss, what we got—”
Aubry heard Dwayne’s sharp intake of breath as he saw the corpse.
“Jesus,” Dwayne said.
Aubry pulled out his radio.
“Ah, sweet Jesus, where’s his head?” Dwayne whispered.
Aubry keyed the radio. “Mike? Get back to the house and call the sheriff.”
“Just do what I say, Mike. Tell them there’s a dead man. Give them directions to the old cow pen in Devil’s Garden.”
“Dead man? Who?”
“I don’t know.”
Aubry clicked off and pocketed the radio. He heard a retching sound and turned. Dwayne was leaning on a fence, wiping his face.
Aubry looked back at the body. He felt the rise of bile in his throat and swallowed hard. Shifting the rifle to his back, he squatted next to the body.
He could see now that there were deep slashes across the back, like the man had been cut badly. And it looked like the head had been cut off cleanly, almost like it had been sawed off. He scanned the pen as far as the fog would allow but didn’t see the head.
He looked down. He realized suddenly that what he thought was black dirt was sand saturated with blood. The black pool spread out a good four feet from the body. He stood up and took two long strides back. The toes of his boots were black.
His radio crackled, but he didn’t hear it. His brain was far away, and suddenly, the memories he had tried so hard to bury were right there with him again. Another spread of blood, a different body. Once again, the outsiders would come here, men with guns, badges, and questions. Once again, he would have to stand silent and watch as the waves ate away yet more of his island.
The pain hit him, a knife to the heart, and he closed his eyes.
The wind died suddenly, and the quiet moved in.
He looked up, to where the fog had burned off, leaving a hole in the sky. He blinked rapidly to keep the tears away, watching the patch of sky until it turned from blue velvet to gray flannel.
An owl hooted. A hawk screamed. Then came the soft mewing cries of the catbirds. The day was coming alive in this place of death.
© 2009 P. J. Parrish
The Little Death
Beautifully written yet packed with raw power, The Little Death is a suspenseful thriller of the highest order and will satisfy fans of writers such as Ed McBain, James Patterson, and Michael Connolly.