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Rory looked up at him. Clinton watched him struggle for words.
Rory still hesitated. "There's more, but...it's complicated."
Clinton was a patient man, but the walls that kept him calm were crumbling fast. He pointed at Rory. "Look, I've got who knows how many missing people, you've got blood on your clothes, now this with Jimmy, and you want to tell me you just can't explain it?" He seethed. "I want to know what the h.e.l.l is going on around here." He stopped when a county car appeared down the road.
Rory grabbed Clinton's shoulder. "We've got to talk. I'll tell you what's going, or at least try to."
Clinton stared him down. "You will tell me what's going on, understand? You go to the store and wait for me," he ordered. "I'll take care of this and then I'm coming over there." He watched Rory silently walk away.
"What the h.e.l.l?" he muttered to himself as he followed Rory off the dock. He looked out at the mountains, the ominous shadows that fell over Taylor Crossing. There was a dark presence in the town. He could almost see it, a shadowy haze hovering over the buildings.
"What's going on around here?" he asked no one. He couldn't shake the feeling that a presence hovered over the Crossing, a phoenix that held the town in its talons, watching and waiting for more victims.
He looked around. The sun warmed his face, but it didn't comfort him. He rubbed his chin and grimaced. All his years on the Sheriff's Department hadn't prepared him for this. Funny, he'd kept watch over the town all this time, and nothing had ever happened. He'd heard the rumors of the town's demise, but there'd never been any real crimes committed here. Now he was in the midst of all this.
The smell of dry earth hit him. The odor was slightly metallic, as if the ores hidden inside the earth begged for release. Without thinking, he reached down and scooped up some of the dirt and let it sift through his fingers. He sighed. He loved this little town, even though its peaceful charm was gone. He'd always felt a part of it, just like he lived here.
Is that why he felt like he'd been through all this before?
They watched in surprise when Clinton came into the store. Anna and Myrtle had known him for years, and he was always calm, and kind, but right now his body was stiff and his eyes squinted angrily.
"Now," Clinton said, banging the door behind him. He crossed his arms and stood before them, using every bit of his bulk to appear threatening. His gaze took them all in: Rory, Anna, Myrtle, Nicholas, and even Boo, who cowered at Myrtle's feet. "My apologies, Anna, I know this is hard on you." He spent a moment telling her where they had taken her father, and what she should do in the morning. She took down the information, wondering if by tomorrow it would be useless.
"Now," he said when he finished. "I want some answers." He put his steely eyes on Rory. "I'm not stupid. That's blood on your clothes. It's not yours, I can tell that, so where did it come from?"
Rory held up a hand, trying to calm him down. "I don't know how to explain "
"You better start trying," Clinton exploded.
"Tell him," Anna said.
Rory contemplated her.
"Okay." He turned to Clinton. "To start with, we found one of your deputies near Ed Miller's cabin. He's dead."
"What?" Clinton shouted. "Why didn't you report this earlier?"
"It's not that simple " Rory started to explain. The angry look on Clinton's face made him stop.
Clinton gritted his teeth, then narrowed his gaze at Rory. "What happened to him?" He looked at Rory's hands. "Did you kill him?"
"No, I don't know what happened to him. It looks like his neck was broken."
"If his neck was broken, how do you explain the blood on your hands?"
"I didn't kill him," Rory repeated. "But I killed another man, out on the trail."
Clinton seemed taken aback by Rory's bluntness. He shifted back on his feet. "Who was it?"
"I don't know. But it was self-defense. He came at me, and I had to do it."
Clinton stared at Rory with his mouth half-open. "There's more to your story, right?" he finally said.
Rory stuffed his hands in his pockets. "You won't believe it."
"I don't believe what you've told me so far. Anna? Myrtle?" Clinton searched their faces. "You want to tell me what this is all about?"
They stared at the floor.
"What is going on?" He fumed as he thrust a finger at Rory. "Someone killed one of my men, but you tell me it wasn't you. Then you tell me you murdered someone else! I want some answers! Now!"
Rory pulled him aside. "Let's go up there, and I'll show you the bodies. We'll talk after that."
"I may arrest you after that," Clinton said harshly.
Rory didn't even react.
"Lead the way," Clinton's expression was grim.
Rory held the door open for Clinton, and followed him out. Behind him, he heard Anna say, "I hope he doesn't return with Rory in handcuffs."
What'll they do if I get arrested for murder, Rory thought.
They hurried out of town, Rory walking quickly. The sun was low, and they wouldn't have light for very long.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this." Clinton huffed along the trail behind Rory, out of breath. "Man, I can pa.s.s the department physical, but you're walking like you want to win a marathon."
They hiked up behind Ed Miller's cabin. Clinton followed Rory through the trees to the body of his deputy.
"Did you touch him?" Clinton asked.
"I checked for a pulse, that's it."
Clinton crouched down, looked at the body and examined the surrounding ground. Then he stood up and surveyed the surrounding terrain. "Hard to tell what evidence we'll find. Or what's been tampered with," he said, eyeing Rory. "He was leading the volunteer posse." Clinton gnawed at his lower lip. "What happened to them?"
"I don't know." Rory gestured at the body. "Who was he?"
"Zachary Pendleton. He was a nice kid, new on the force. He was single, no family to speak of." Clinton hung his head for a second, then moved away from the body. "I need to call this in."
Rory held up a hand. "I know I'm asking a lot, but wait. Let me show you the other man. Then we'll try and explain what happened. After that, you can make your decision."
Clinton took his hat off and fiddled with the brim. "How do I know you're not lying to me?"
Rory shrugged. "You don't. Please," he implored, "let me show you the other body, and let the others tell you what they know. Then you can do whatever you feel is best."
Seconds pa.s.sed while Clinton weighed his options. Then he waved at Rory. "Let's go," he said gruffly, donning his hat. His face was dark in the early evening shadows.
Rory headed for the trail he and Anna had taken earlier.
"This doesn't make any sense," Clinton growled as he followed Rory.
"One way or the other, you'll have to see the other body," Rory said over his shoulder. "And if you arrest me for killing the man I shot, so be it."
"But you told me he attacked you."
"I don't understand."
"Tell me about it," Rory said. He kept a fast pace, and Clinton hurried behind him.
"What smells?" Clinton asked, throwing a hand over his nose. "Is there an animal carca.s.s around here?"
"We're almost there." They soon came up over the rise in the trail and Rory stopped. "There."
Clinton stepped past Rory and gazed at a p.r.o.ne form on the ground. The man lay on his stomach, arms flailed out at his sides, his legs bent. A dark pool of blood had oozed into the dirt around the body where flies buzzed around. A half-empty water bottle lay near him. Rory covered his nose to ward off a sickly sweet stench that filled the air.
Clinton bent down, sitting on his haunches. "What happened?"
Rory started to explain when Clinton stopped him. "Look at his face."
Rory bent down and looked. "How did that happen?"
"You don't know?"
Rory shook his head. "He wasn't like that when we left."
Clinton moved forward. The dead man's face had already begun to shrivel. The skin was like aged leather, stretched tautly over the cheekbones. The skin around the eye sockets had receded, leaving the eyes like weightless white marbles. His jaw was open, and his lips were peeled back over distended teeth, as if offering up a hideous scream.
Clinton scrutinized the rest of the body. The skin on the arms, legs, and hands were the same. "Unbelievable," he whispered.
Rory said nothing.
"This can't happen." Clinton stood up. "I've been around plenty of murder scenes. This just doesn't happen."
Rory straightened up as well and crossed his arms. "I killed him, but I didn't do that."
Clinton didn't know what to say. "What did you do?"
"We came over the rise and he startled us. He asked if I was the one, and if I was him. Then he tried to hypnotize Anna."
"What do you mean?"
Rory told him about what had occurred earlier. "It was weird," he concluded. "I don't know what he did. But she was hypnotized, trust me. I tried to stop him "
Rory turned a deep shade of red. "I pointed the pistol at him. But I froze. I couldn't seem to pull the trigger. Anna threw her water bottle at him."
"I'll bet that terrified him." Clinton couldn't hide the sarcasm in his voice.
"Actually, it did." Rory cleared his throat. "When the water hit him, he went mad. He attacked me. I tried to fight him off, and I finally managed to shoot him. He fell over and died. And then something came out of him. It hovered in the air and then left."
Clinton felt the tension in his jaw. He couldn't believe what he was hearing, but Rory was completely sincere. "You expect me to believe this? I should arrest you for murder."
"I'm telling you the truth. Look, let's go talk to the others. Nicholas can tell you what he saw. Maybe then you'll believe me."
Clinton thought for a minute, then looked back at the mummified body. "And he wasn't like that when you left?"
"No. I tried to get the blood off my hands and arms with dirt, then I looked in his wallet, and we left."
"Where's the wallet?"
"Still on him. I just wanted to find out who he was."
"His name is Quinten MacDonald." Rory waved a hand at the corpse. "Look for yourself."
Clinton did, gingerly stepping around the b.l.o.o.d.y pool, rummaging in the man's pockets. He found the wallet and verified the name. "It's a hiker reported missing yesterday."
"He wasn't just a hiker when Anna and I saw him."
Clinton turned back to him. "What was he then?"
So Rory explained what he knew about the spirits.
"You expect me to believe that?"
The muscles in Rory's neck pulsed visibly. "If you don't believe me, try explaining what happened to the body since we left. And do I look like I have the strength to overpower your deputy and break his neck?"