Split rail fencing whizzed past Annalisse in a blur. Hundreds of stained boards melted into each other in her sprint to catch up to Ethan. He ran yards ahead in the long breezeway leading from the house to the big barn. Kate was breathing heavily behind Annalisse.
Closer to the barn, the air was heavy with the undeniable odor of advanced decomposition, a ripe chemical cocktail so powerful she had to stop to cough and cover her nose.
Who died in the barn?
She stumbled in the dirt tracks left by farming equipment and twisted her ankle in a hole. Reaching for the nearest post, she held on, closing her eyes, unable to take another step.
Ethan trotted back to her. “Annalisse, did you hurt yourself?” His words heated her neck.
“Need a minute.” Her forehead rested against the grooves where she welcomed the rough edges and oily scent of treated wood. “Sprinting on a cup of Kate’s coffee wasn’t too swift.”
“Got a case of the colly-wobbles myself.” Ethan’s tight-lipped smile offered little sympathy.
“Colly-wobbles?” Annalisse smiled back, guessing his slang meant he felt as horrible as she did.
Kate appeared behind her, out of breath. “No time to dally. Don’t like tracing my steps twice. It’s supposed to be over ninety today. That person isn’t going to smell any fresher by noon. Step it up.”
“Remember what the doc said. I don’t keep the AED in the barn.” Annalisse backed against the post, rubbing the soreness out of her ankle.
“I don’t plan to use one, and the guy over there’s too dead to need one.” Kate pointed toward the barn, then she asked Ethan, “Anyone we know?”
“Shouldn’t we call the coppers?” He lifted his phone from a pocket.
Just like Ethan—straight out of a Dick Tracy flick. Ethan’s little house was a museum of action heroes and crusaders. Pristine comic books—American, Japanese, and nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls from the UK—were in clear protective sleeves on every tabletop and free counter space. The mark of a true collector.
When Ethan wasn’t trimming feet, feeding the stock, or sitting on a tractor, he lounged on his futon with a detective thriller or mystery, keeping up with his book club’s newest releases. Instead of typical items like canned goods and dishes, paperbacks lined his kitchen cabinets. Annalisse worried about his terrible eating habits and brought him meals. Especially on summer days when he sweated off his weight. He rarely accepted Kate’s food because he found her cooking too rich.
The fact that they were on their way to view a corpse wouldn’t phase Ethan or her aunt. People with livestock have a pragmatic attitude toward death. The countless lambing seasons where Kate lost ewes from uterine prolapses and multiple births put death on a list of the expected for Walker Farm.
One winter, a pair of domestic dogs jumped into the pasture and slaughtered twenty-eight head of sheep in a matter of minutes—the loss of life in volume toughens a person’s psyche. That 2:00 a.m. predator attack cemented how Annalisse dealt with the dying and dead. She frequently heard Kate explain it best: “When you have livestock, you have dead stock.”
Kate reached out, her eyes mournful. “I haven’t forgotten what you went through with the Freeman girl. A look-see and we skedaddle. I promise.”
“Do you want me to call?” Ethan waggled his phone toward Kate.
“Not yet. We’ll check it out first. I don’t tolerate trespassers, especially those who drop dead on my property.”
Annalisse’s limited enthusiasm for an impromptu viewing had faded. She walked past the stall, barely acknowledging the pair of legs in the doorway. “We’re contaminating a homicide or suicide scene. Aren’t you worried about stepping on clues?”
“I didn’t say we’d manhandle the guy. Stay there if you want.” Kate shrugged and spun a one-eighty.
“Who’s the Freeman girl?” Ethan arched his brows.
“Never mind, young man.” Kate cut him off.
“Annalisse has a point—we should stay here. Our footprints in the dirt could implicate us.”
Kate shrugged. “What’s a few more? You work here, and I live here. We’ll be careful.”
Annalisse knew changing Kate’s mind was an exercise in futility. A stranger had died on Kate’s property. Auntie was damned sure going to find out who and why. But for Annalisse, the memory of finding Samantha Freeman’s buried body last fall didn’t help in the motivation department.
“No one touches him without gloves.”
From the vet chest inside the barn’s entry, Annalisse jiggled disposable obstetric gloves over her hands and arms to the shoulder. Gloves they used when a ewe or cow needed help during delivery. What they were doing was wrong on so many levels, but she never said no to Kate. She’d learned that from a young age. Annalisse intentionally turned her back on the pair of legs sticking out of the first stall, praying they’d miraculously disappear like they had for the Wicked Witch of the East in Munchkin land.
“Don’t fuss with the gloves. Covering the hands is good enough.” Kate erupted into a smoker’s cough and staggered back. “His smell’s about to knock me over. Did he crap his pants?”
“Maybe. Carbon dioxide from ruptured membranes—fluids leak from every opening.”
Annalisse burped. Her mouth tasted like she’d fought the sheep for their cud and won. “Can’t stay here long.”
“It’s called autolysis. I can take over if you want.”
Ethan’s statement rang with the authority of a bookish sleuth. As if he’d actually investigated crimes before, which, of course, he hadn’t.
In the distance, a driver skidded its car’s tires, raising the urgency of the task at hand. Focus and move. Annalisse jumped into the next stall covered in fresh pine shavings and grabbed a breath, then another. Do this. It’s not Sam.
She joined Kate next to the open stall. The man was facedown and shoeless, in unmatched socks—athletic on one foot, a dark dress sock on the other. Both with holes in the material. He could’ve arrived at the farm alive—committed suicide or murdered or was dropped off after death with outside help. Common sense made the latter more likely from rigor’s grip on the body and his wet clothes.
Annalisse knelt, grabbed an ankle with two fingers, and shook.
“Whew, ripe.” She waved the air and held her nose with the clean glove. She glided a hand lightly along the slick fabric. The body looked frail, and his stained T-shirt and floral pants could’ve belonged to a woman. “Where are his shoes, and why is he soaked through?” Annalisse held up her palm smeared with moisture.
“Check pockets for ID.” Kate gave Annalisse a gentle prod. “Hurry.”
Instinct warned her to leave and let the authorities handle the corpse, but the tone in Kate’s voice pushed Annalisse on. Careful not to rumple the fabric too much, she searched the man’s torso.
“Something here.” Annalisse hardly recognized her strained voice.
Behind her, Kate rolled the stall door wider. “Grab it.”
Annalisse slid a glove inside the back pocket and came up with a billfold. Turning from the body, she flipped through the compartments of the chintzy wallet.
“No money or driver’s license, just this.” She extracted a damp, faded card and showed it to Kate.
Kate drew Annalisse’s wrist closer. “City of New York. Thomas Taylor.” She gasped and withdrew. “Thomas? God no! I need to see his face. Ethan, get a glove on and show me his face.” Her chartreuse complexion left Annalisse with more questions.
“I’m already down here. Who’s Thomas?”
Kate turned away speechless, making it impossible to read her.
A creep of unease gripped Annalisse’s muscles. “Auntie?”
“Huh. I have an Uncle Tom Taylor, but he’s a journo in Europe somewhere.” Ethan tossed the remark out matter-of-factly, and Annalisse caught Kate passing him a dirty look.
“Annalisse, put that card back and stick it in his pocket like you found it. Get away. You’re done with this unfortunate gentleman.” Kate’s sharp tone and movements loosened a wisp of hair from her bun.
“We’re wasting time. Glove up now, Ethan.”
Annalisse mused how Kate had changed the body from an intruder into a gentleman. The dead man, Thomas, had triggered her sympathy or perhaps a happier memory. Kate drenched the name in intimacy. Annalisse sensed that her aunt had tucked away an earlier trauma much deeper than selling the farm or finding a body on the premises.
The formal letter from Jeremy nagged her. And in the mix, a dead man inside the barn—on the same day. Coincidence? Jeremy connived, but murder to prove a point wasn’t his style. Subtle trickery was more like him. And anyway, he had the legal right to liquidate an asset instead of frighten his mother from the farm.
Struggling against her gag reflex, she returned the wallet and made room for Ethan.
He slowly lifted the corpse by the shoulder, turning it over so Kate could see his face.
The first signs of bloat disfigured the body but not enough to obscure his features. Annalisse didn’t recognize him, but she couldn’t be sure about her aunt. Thomas Taylor meant something to Kate.
Ethan bent over the man’s neck. “Purplish lines. Maybe ligature strangulation. Check out his eyes. See those dots on the white part? Petechial hemorrhage. The bloke’s been strangled all right.” He exposed the dead man’s gums. “Yeah. Missing teeth. I found dentures not far from the barn. They’re probably his. Let’s gap it.”
A satisfied hum passed Kate’s throat. “Agreed. Set him the way he was. Everyone out. Gloves off and in the garbage. We’ll have to tell the police we touched the body; they’ll find our gloves anyway. I’ll mention the teeth you found. I’m calling them now. Meet me at the house.”
Kate and Ethan left, and the barn fell silent. In fact, the only sounds inside since they’d arrived were human noises. Annalisse jogged near the end stall where pine shavings freshened the air, and she stripped the crackling gloves from her arms. She’d forgotten about Maggie.
“Maggie girl?” She peered into the dim stall for the old farm horse.
The buckskin mare moved deeper into the corner; her ears pinned back.
“Mag, don’t worry. I know it smells bad in here.”
The horse smelled death. Most animals shied from it, but predators were drawn to it. On kill days when the slaughter truck arrived, every sheep downwind moved to another part of the pasture. Blood and death couldn’t be scoured from the traveling slaughter van, no matter the effort.
“You heard Miss Walker. Gap it.” Ethan approached from out of nowhere and took her gloves. He placed them in an empty feed sack along with his own and shoved the bag down the side of the garbage barrel. “Come on.” He gently nudged Annalisse’s shoulder. “I’ll move the mare when the bloke’s gone.”