Something grabbed the back of my neck. I grunted and twisted away, went to my ass on the concrete and crawfished away from what turned out to be Agent Moss. He raised his hands. They were covered in black latex gloves. One held a small flashlight. He said, “Hey, Anderson, hey. It’s okay. It’s us.”
That was not comforting. Stahlberg stood beside him, her hands also gloved and holding a flashlight. She speared my chest with its beam and said, “Where was it hiding? We’ve been here for an hour and didn’t find it.”
I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around them. She moved the light to my face. I stared at my knees. She said, “Anderson. Did you smell it? No, you couldn’t have. This place must reek to you. So where the hell was it hiding?”
“In a car, maybe,” Moss said. “Look, it don’t matter. Two down, two to go. You want to crack it open and get a sample? I’ll get her up.”
Stahlberg snorted. “Good luck with that. Look at her. She’s checked out, the big, bad werewolf.”
“Just get the sample, okay?”
Stahlberg shrugged. She turned around. She wore a black backpack, and after she knelt beside the little girl’s body, she took it and set it on the ground next to her.
Moss crouched in front of me. “Hey, Elizabeth. Look, I’m sorry we dragged you into this, but you’ve been a big help. That thing nearly got away from us. We put down the other one already. We have no idea where the adults are, though.”
Stahlberg gripped the flashlight with her teeth and opened the pack. She pulled out a battery-powered Stryker saw and a plastic face shield.
“So,” Moss said, “we need your help with the others. They’ve already killed and mostly ate a guy here. The face is intact. It’s Arnold Benoit.”
The saw whirred a second. Stahlberg put it aside and went back into the bag. She pulled out a small, clear jar. It was half-filled with a clear liquid. She unscrewed its lid and set it on the concrete floor. I smelled formaldehyde. She donned the face shield and picked up the saw.
“He was Micah Peterson’s accountant. And, look, not that we’re detectives, but it’s weird that he was here, right? Stahlberg says he was probably killed early yesterday.”
The saw whirred again. She lowered it to the little girl’s head. The whir changed into a whine. The smell of bone being cut into drifted over to me. It smelled like burnt hair. I hugged my legs a little tighter.
Moss was talking, but I couldn’t hear him. All I could hear was that whine. Even after Stahlberg stopped cutting and traded the saw for a scalpel and a pair of tweezers, I could still hear that damned saw.
Stahlberg cut away a piece of gray brain and dropped it into the jar. She screwed on the lid and put it in the pack. She cleaned and packed away the tools. Then she pulled off her latex gloves and donned fresh ones. She stuffed the dirty ones into the pack.
I bit the side of my tongue, just to feel something. It was nice to know that I could still feel sorrow over taking a life. Just sucked that I had to find that out by killing a child.
Except . . . technically, I hadn’t killed her. Someone else had done that, had opened up her throat like a trout. The realization, and the relief it brought, briefly made my head swim.
Stahlberg stood and slid on the backpack. She joined her partner, but not in the pep-talking, if that’s what he was still doing. I felt my legs tense.
I don’t recall deciding to move. It just happened. One second I was sitting on the floor, the next Stahlberg’s throat was in my right hand, and I was slamming her against the side of a truck and lifting her until her Converse sneakers were a few inches off the ground.
“Hey, hey.” Moss was at my right ear. “Put her down, Elizabeth. Think this over.”
Stahlberg swallowed, and her throat bobbed under my palm. I thought this over. I thought that I had enough time to break her stupid neck before Moss put a bullet through my head.
He pressed something hard against the side of my head, just above my ear. I smelled gun oil. I guess I thought wrong. I let her go. Her ass hit the concrete, and she started coughing. I knocked the gun away from my skull and turned my back on them.
Moss asked Stahlberg if she was okay. I snorted and picked up Moss’s flashlight from where he’d dropped it and swept it around the building. Vehicles, tools, lift racks, the office . . . ah, there we go. I picked up a neatly folded canvas drop cloth from a stack of them by the office door and set it beside the little girl’s body.
Then it was my turn to spear them with the flashlight. They were still huddled by the truck. Stahlberg’s face was red. “Where’s the other girl?” I asked.
Moss got to his feet, pistol still in his hand. He nodded to the office. “Behind the desk.”
I went to the office, well aware that he could shoot me at any moment, and found the body. Her head had been cut into as well, and Stahlberg had wrapped a plastic trash bag around her head and secured it with duct tape. I picked her up, carried her back to her sister, and covered them both with the drop cloth.
Moss watched this with his big head cocked to the side, the gun tap-tapping against his thigh. Stahlberg was on her feet, fists clenched. Her voice was raspy when she said, “You done fucking around now?”
“Fuck you,” was my witty retort.
Moss said, “Enough, both of you,” and holstered his weapon. “Any idea where the adults are?”
I shook my head. “I just came here on a hunch. But their car is parked across the street, so I’m guessing they left on foot.”
“Can you track them?”
Moss rubbed his eyes. “Like I said, now that they have full bellies, they can go a little longer before they start deteriorating. But I don’t think they would’ve left on foot.”
I knelt and started tying my shoelaces. “When did you say that?”
“Earlier, before you . . . what, you didn’t hear me?”
I straightened up. “Bone saw was kinda loud. Why did they leave the kids?”
“As I said earlier too, they don’t have much in the way of emotional attachments now. I’d be shocked if the adults were still together. They either left the kids here on purpose, or the kids didn’t want to go. When we got here, they were still gnawing on that guy.” He pointed to a far corner of the shop, close by a set of green double doors that had TO SHOWROOM stenciled on them in white paint.
I shined the light in that direction. The remains lay sprawled under a raised lift rack. It was mostly a skeleton with a few small clumps of muscle clinging to the odd bone, but the head was pretty much untouched. It reminded me of a first-grader’s stick man drawing.
I walked toward it, noting puddles and streaks of dried blood along the way. The stains blended in with the other stains on the concrete: transmission fluid, oil, various paint colors. Then I stepped on what was left of a shirt. At one point, it had been teal; now it was maroon, with patches of teal here and there. Then I found a pair of cargo shorts, mottled maroon and brown, mostly intact, but turned inside out. I picked them up and checked the pockets. Black leather wallet. Samsung phone. Keys to the Escalade out front.
I dropped the keys and tucked the phone into my back pocket. I opened the wallet. Texas driver’s license, Arnold DeLeon Benoit. Two credit cards, same name. Two hundred and three dollars in twenties, tens, and ones. I tossed the wallet in the general direction of Benoit’s remains and spun around to face the agents. “How’d you know who he was?”
Moss walked toward me, until I put up a hand to stop him. He stopped maybe six feet from me and said, “We did some checking into the Petersons. Known associates, that sort of thing. We figured this was a drug or money thing gone bad. We thought knowing some of the potential players would help us find them.”
“So . . . why was this guy, this accountant, here?”
Moss shrugged. “The computer was on when we got here, opened to the shop’s payroll program. I guess Benoit was looking for something when the Petersons got here?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Stahlberg called out. “We need to get out of here. I texted the removal team.”
Moss grimaced and whirled around. “You couldn’t wait till we left?”
She shook her head. “We are wasting time. Let’s go.”
“Knowing where to go would be great,” he said.
I dug out the accountant’s phone. I hit the home button, hoping that it wasn’t set to open with his fingerprint, since he no longer had fingers. I expected at least a passcode, but Benoit hadn’t bothered with even that; the home screen flashed on, and I grunted in surprise.
I opened up his text messages. He’d sent a bunch to someone with the initials of MB; one had been sent at 2:13 a.m. Saturday morning, asking the location of the spare key to the garage. I scrolled through the others, found one asking if MB had the $$, smiley face.
It had been sent Friday night, during the time Spense Smith had told me they figured the Petersons had been killed. “Who’s MB?” I asked.
Moss considered a moment, then said, “I’d guess Miguel Balder. He’s the assistant manager, does some of the audio work here. Why?”
I tossed the phone to him. “Because he sent a text around three yesterday morning, telling Benoit that he was on his way here. I don’t see a second body, or a second car outside. If the Petersons didn’t shamble away on foot, maybe they caught a ride after dinner.”