He wiped the hot sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand but forgot that his hand was sealed in a latex glove. The rubber squeaked across his skin like a squeegee on a windshield, pushing the sweat toward his right eyebrow until it ran down into his eye and burned. He pulled up his shirttail and rubbed at his eyes.
He looked down at the water around his knees that was undulating like oil against his waders. He twisted his legs and dug his feet in a little deeper; it wasn't easy keeping his balance standing in the soft peat that lined the banks. He turned and looked again at the abandoned tin shack, silhouetted like a gravestone against the starry sky. This has to be the place, he thought. They must be around here somewhere.
He shuffled forward in the water, probing with his toe until his boot finally struck something soft. He kicked at the object but it didn't move—whatever it was, it was large and heavy. He reached into the inky liquid with both arms until his chest almost touched the surface; the water seeped into his gloves around his wrists and ran down cool over his palms and fingertips. He pushed on the object; the lump felt spongy but firm. He felt along the surface until the lump abruptly narrowed at one end.
He felt the contours of a face—or what was left of one.
He pulled his arms from the water and looked at his gloves; he rubbed his fingertips together, making a mental note not to wipe his forehead again.
He looked across the water and saw the shadowy outline of the boat trolling slowly in the distance, its spotlight sweeping the water like a wandering eye. He took out his own flashlight and switched it on, then pointed it at the boat and waved it in a wide arc. A moment later, the boat's spotlight swung toward him and flooded his position with blinding white light. He covered his eyes with his forearm.
"Did you find 'em?" a man's voice called out.
"One of them!" he shouted back. "The other one must be nearby. Bring the boat alongside and get the tarp."
The moon was in its last quarter, allowing the stars to dominate the sky, and there were millions of them—more than he had ever seen before. You couldn't see them in the city, where the party never ended and the lights were never off. For stars like this you had to head deep into the southern bayous, which no one in his right mind ever did—at least not at this time of night.
It was a peaceful night, a beautiful night, a night a man could almost relax and enjoy—if he didn't know what was coming. The air was hot and heavy, allowing a thick gray mist to finger its way around the knees of the old bald cypresses and water tupelos that lined the banks of the water. Nothing in the bayou was moving—not the dangling strands of black moss, not the needle-sharp tips of the tall marsh grass, not even the mosquitoes—as if every living thing in the bayou was hunkered down and waiting. He thought about the stories he had heard, about the way animals and insects can sense a disaster before it occurs, and he wondered if it was true. Maybe it was; maybe the mosquitoes were smarter than the people in New Orleans. It wouldn't surprise him.
The boat's pilot brought the boat in close and killed the motor, then eased himself over the edge and into the black water. "Where is it?" he asked.
"You're almost standing on it. The head's up here; the feet are down there. Give me a hand."
Together the two men worked the plastic sheet under the body until it lay roughly in the center of the tarp. On the count of three, they slowly hoisted it to the surface and waited while the water drained from one end, revealing the badly decomposed body of a man in tattered clothing.
"He weighs a ton," the boat's pilot said. "How big was this guy?"
"His lungs and gut are full of water," the man said. "Let it drain for a minute."
The pilot made a gagging sound. "Ugh—the smell."
"What did you expect? He's been here two weeks. C'mon, let's get him into the boat."
A few minutes later, the two men stood panting, resting against the edge of the boat, staring down at the loosely wrapped figure lying in the bottom of the fiberglass hull.
"This is a lot harder at night," the pilot grumbled. "Did we have to do it now?"
"They didn't make the evacuation order mandatory until late this afternoon—some of the shrimpers and crabbers stayed behind to take their chances with the storm. If somebody spotted us, this would be a little hard to explain, don't you think? Besides, this is our last chance—you won't be able to get anywhere near this place tomorrow night."
The pilot looked up at the cloudless southeastern sky. The air was clear and still, without a trace of breeze. "Are you sure this Hurricane Katrina is coming?"
"She's coming," he said. "It's still a few hundred miles offshore, that's all—too far to see yet. They say it doubled in size today. The thing can't miss us—it's a couple hundred miles across. It's a category 4 now—it'll hit 5 by morning. The first feeder bands will reach us tomorrow."
"I talked to the state police," the pilot said. "They've implemented the contra-flow plan. Every road in New Orleans is one-way now—one-way out. A million people are trying to get out of town before it hits. All the highways are jammed; they say it takes ten hours just to reach Baton Rouge. They think this might be the Big One."
"It's big enough for what we need. The hurricane will push a storm surge ahead of it—some say it'll overtop the levees by ten feet. If that happens, the whole city will fill up like a toilet."
"You think the city's ready?"
"We're the ones who need to be ready. Let's find that other body."
The pilot let out a snort.
"I was just thinking: Everybody's trying to get out of the city."
"We're the only ones bringing bodies in."
From across the dinner table, Nick Polchak stared at the woman's mouth as it moved. It was a human mouth, just a simple pair of gloss-lined lips surrounding an oral cavity, but it was like no mouth Nick had ever witnessed before. It was the way it moved: rhythmically, mechanically, hypnotically. Her lower jaw swung in a constant, circular motion, like a cow grinding cud, only much faster. Nick adjusted his huge glasses and stared.
Like a cow on amphetamines, he thought.
Her chewing never stopped—not for conversation, not to shovel in another chunk of Black Angus beef, not even to take a drink of water. The woman even chewed water—or maybe the water only served as a lubricant, like the oil a machinist pours over a spinning drill bit to keep it from overheating.
From time to time her lips would part, and the tip of her tongue would dart across her teeth and plunge into the deep recesses of her gums, searching out tiny morsels that had somehow escaped the crushing molars. Whenever this happened a little lump would appear in her cheek like a mouse under a rug, dart left and right, then vanish again. Nick wondered how the tongue had survived so long—how it had avoided being shorn clean off, because the relentless teeth waited for nothing. He imagined what would happen if the tongue hesitated a nanosecond too long: He envisioned the severed tip dropping off and landing like a crouton on her Caesar salad.
Nick sat mesmerized. Another bite, another drink, another cobralike lash of the tongue, and all the time the words kept coming—though he had long ago stopped comprehending them.
"Unbelievable," Nick said unconsciously.
"You're sweet," she said. "I like you too. Pass the bread."
He slid the basket halfway across the table, using the misdirection as an opportunity to slide his cell phone from his pocket and check for messages. Unfortunately, there were none.
The woman smiled as she chewed. "You know, since we don't work in the same department, we probably never would have met. It was awfully nice of your friends to set this up."
"I owe them one," Nick said. One Australian funnel-web spider in each of their shoes. Why can't they mind their own business?
Every six months or so, Nick's married colleagues in the Entomology Department at North Carolina State University began to feel sorry for him, the only single professor in the department. Longing for Nick to share in their connubial bliss, his colleagues began to match him up with "compatible" women from the faculty and staff of other departments-the term "compatible" apparently being loosely defined, as in, "She's a carbon-based life-form too."
But what really infuriated Nick was that every six months or so he gave in, despite two tragic object lessons per year that should have kept his memory fresh. Like clockwork, every six months his colleagues began to feel sorry for him, and then for some inexplicable reason Nick began to feel sorry for them, feeling sorry for him. The inevitable result was a departmentwide pity party culminating in some comic tragedy just like this one—a blind date from hell.
The whole thing was nuts—but here he was again, right on schedule, and his luck was no better this time than it had been in the past. Who chose this woman? he wondered. Which one of his dewy-eyed colleagues actually thought that the two of them might be compatible, and what selection criteria had he employed? Was this actually someone's idea of a life partner? The woman wasn't unattractive; she was just—dangerous. If they crashed together in the Andes, she would probably eat him before he was even dead.
And to make matters worse, he had invited her to dinner—and not at just any restaurant, but at the Angus Barn, one of Raleigh's pricier establishments. Why did he have to commit himself to an entire meal? Why not a mocha grande at Starbucks—to go? Why didn't he ever learn? But no; every six months his optimism took over his common sense, and every six months Nick got stuck with the check—in more ways than one.
He glanced down at the bread basket; it was empty. She had done serious damage to the relish tray, grinding down the carrot sticks like a pencil sharpener and popping the olives like breath mints. She had single-handedly emptied two cheese crocks—both the sharp smoked cheddar and the tangy blue cheese; then came the three-cheese ravioli appetizer; then her ten-ounce filet, medium rare—
"What's the matter?" the woman asked unexpectedly. For the first time in forty-five minutes, she stopped chewing and looked at him.
Nick felt a twinge of panic, like one of his students caught sleeping in class. "What do you mean?"
"You're not eating."
Nick looked down at his plate. She was right—he had barely touched his own food; he had barely spoken, for that matter. For the last fortyfive minutes, he had felt like a man pinned down by enemy fire.
"I've been—preoccupied," he said.
"You've been looking me over," she said with a grin. "A woman notices that."
Nick measured the distance to the fire exit.
"What is it you do again? I know you teach entomology."
"I teach entomology."
"So teach me something about entomology."
"What do you want to know?"
"I don't care. Anything."
Nick watched her knife and fork moving with the speed and precision of a hibachi chef. "Okay," he said. "The locust is a member of the genus Schistocerca. It has the unusual ability to change its habits and appearance according to its population density. By nature, the locust is a solitary creature that migrates individually. But as their numbers enlarge, the competition for food increases and they become more and more aggressive—that's when they begin to swarm. In the 1870s there was a swarm of locusts eighteen hundred miles long and a hundred miles wide over the Great Plains. Three and a half trillion locusts formed a dark cloud half a mile high. They ate everything in sight: grain, fabric, small animals —even one another."
"What happened to them?" she asked.
"They suddenly died off."
"All of them?"
Except for their queen. "Yes, all of them."
"So that's what you do—you teach about locusts?"
"No. I'm a forensic entomologist, actually. I only teach to pay the bills."
"A forensic entomologist. What is that, exactly?"
"I study necrophilous insects."
"What kind of insects?"
"Necrophilous. It means `dead-loving.'"
"They love to be dead?"
"No, they love to eat the dead. I study the insects that eat people after they die."
Her mouth dropped open, which was not a pretty sight. "There are bugs that eat people?"
"Of course. What did you think happened to bodies after they die?"
"I never thought about it."
"Americans die at a rate of six thousand per day. That's a lot of corpses piling up. Where do you think they all go?"
"To funeral homes, I suppose."
"To funeral homes—where they drain your blood and powder your nose to make you look nice for your family and friends. They're not fooling nature; they're just buying time."
"What does that mean?"
"The instant you die—the very instant—your body begins to decompose. Every cell in your body needs oxygen to survive, but when the heart stops and the lungs cease to function, there is no more oxygen.
Without oxygen, the mitochondria fail; the cells begin to starve. In desperation they begin to cannibalize themselves, consuming their own enzymes and membranes until the dying cells rip apart at the seams, scattering cellular debris everywhere—which is exactly what the bacteria have been waiting for."
"Bacteria are everywhere in the bloodstream, ordinarily held in check by the body's immune system—but after death there is no immune system, so the bacteria engorge themselves on the cellular remains. They multiply exponentially, producing heat and gas as they grow. The body bloats, the gas escapes through the body's natural orifices, producing packets of scent molecules that drift away in the breeze—where the insects are waiting."
"The dead-lovers. Iridescent blue-and-green blowflies; gray, blunt-bodied flesh flies; insects that have adapted to feed solely on the decomposing tissues of the dead. The pregnant females circle in the air, tracking those scent molecules back to the body. They land, looking for a place where the tissues are soft and moist—the eyes, the ears, the oral and nasal cavities."
The woman's face began to slowly contort into a disgusted sneer. Nick didn't notice. He was a bug man and he was talking about bugs now; this was his subject area, his one true passion in life. Besides, he hadn't spoken in forty-five minutes, and he was on a roll.
"The flies lay their clutch of eggs," he said. "Three, maybe four hundred each—and then they take off again. The eggs hatch and maggots emerge; the maggots stuff themselves on the decomposing tissues—thousands upon thousands of them, consuming the body at an astonishing rate. As the famous taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus once said, `The progeny of three flies can consume a dead horse more quickly than can a lion.'"
She closed her eyes and held up one hand. "Nick."
"Since insects pass through distinct developmental stages, by studying the insects on a corpse we can determine almost exactly how long they've been there—and thus, the time of death. All you have to do is collect maggot samples from the various orifices. Take your filet, for example: It's basically a thick slab of muscle tissue, much like—oh, let's say a cross section of the human thigh—"
Nick stopped. The woman had a strange look on her face—the sort of look a person gets when they first learn that calamari is really squid.
"Can we talk about something else?"
"You asked me what I do."
"I know, but I didn't know you did ... that. Do you really have to work with dead people?"
"It helps." "How can you stand it?"
"As coworkers go, I recommend them."
She shuddered. "Well, let's talk about something else."
"Something besides work—your work, anyway."
Nick shrugged. "Okay. What do you do?"
She glared at him. "I've been telling you that for the last forty-five minutes."
Nick blinked. "Would you excuse me a moment?" He pulled out his cell phone and checked for messages again.
"You keep looking at your cell phone," she grumbled. "A woman notices that too."
"Sorry. I'm sort of on call."
"In case somebody dies?"
"In a way, yes. I volunteer with an organization called DMORT—the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team. DMORT is a part of the National Disaster Medical System, under FEMA. Whenever there's a disaster involving mass casualties—like the World Trade Center or United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania—then DMORT is called in. Whenever the number of casualties is too big for the local coroner's office to handle, we show up. Our job is to help collect and identify human remains."
Excerpted from First the dead by TIM DOWNS Copyright © 2007 by Tim Downs. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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