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Leighton Gage

Buried Strangers

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. they took counsel and bought. . the. . field to bury strangers.

MATTHEW 27:7

Chapter One

“Somewhere around here,” Hans said, swinging his flashlight beam from the dark tunnel in front of them toward the thick wall of vegetation on the right.

Geraldo acknowledged with a wordless grunt, pulled the truck onto the high grass bordering the rutted dirt road, and hit the brake.

Hans clambered down from the passenger’s seat and dis-appeared into the brush.

Twenty seconds later, he was back.

“Yeah, here,” he said, “on the other side of that big tree.”

“They’re all big trees,” Geraldo said.

“That one,” Hans said, shining his light up and down the trunk.

Gilda Caropreso hesitated for a moment, reluctant to leave the warmth of the cab. The others started opening doors and unloading equipment. Geraldo slung on his cam-era cases, freeing his hands for the heavier work ahead. Fernando produced a thermos bottle of hot coffee. They stood around for a while, leaning against the vehicles, blow-ing into their hands, waiting for dawn.

Then they set out to recover the body.

Frost coated the samambaia ferns like a sugar glaze. Nocturnal animals rustled in the darkness. Gilda’s breath came out in white clouds, spreading and vanishing in the windless air. Twice she heard gunshots punctuating the rum-ble of traffic on the nearby belt road. The temperature was two degrees below freezing. The location was a rain forest less than twenty kilometers from the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere. The jungle that surrounded them was as thick as any in the Amazon.

Yoshiro Tanaka looked down at his feet and grunted. His weight had carried him beyond a crust of ice and into a thick ooze of red mud. The little cop stepped onto firmer ground, bent over, and started scraping at the gooey mass with a handful of dead leaves from the forest floor.

Tanaka, shorter than Gilda by half a head, was a delegado titular. A man in his position had no need to risk his shoes. In fact, he had no need to be out there in the rain forest at all. But within the confines of his domain, the area covered by his precinct, Tanaka could do whatever he damn pleased. And what pleased Yoshiro Tanaka was the adrenaline rush he got from visiting crime scenes.

Gilda took a lead from his misstep and leaped clear of the slime. Her two assistants, Fernando and Geraldo, burdened by the tool-kit, body bag, and stretcher (and in Geraldo’s case the extra weight of the camera cases), were unable to follow her example. They squished their way through the mud, muttering imprecations as they went.

Beyond the rise was a clearing. On the far side, perhaps fif-teen meters away, a ball-like object protruded from the ground. Hans stopped and waved his arms.

“I was right about here,” he said, “when The Mop spotted me.”

Hans-his last name was something Teutonic, and Gilda had promptly forgotten it-was about twenty-five, blue-eyed and blond-haired, clearly the offspring of German immi-grants. The Mop, twenty years younger, brown- eyed and properly called Herbert, was an old-English sheepdog, owned by Hans’s employer, Senhor Manfredo. To hear Hans tell it, the animal was an escape artist, the Houdini of the dog world. Hans claimed he spent half of his working life chasing after him.

“He picked up this big bone,” Hans said, moving forward again and holding his hands apart as if describing the prover-bial fish that got away, “and came running toward me with the damned thing in his mouth. I thought it was from a cow-until I saw that.

He pointed at the ball-like object.

By then, the skull was only a few meters away. Gilda could see both of the eye sockets, but the mandible was still buried in the earth.

Fernando and Geraldo put down their burdens. Fernando lifted the lid on the box and started unloading tools. Geraldo unpacked a camera and started loading film. Gilda knelt down for a closer look at the corpse. The bones were free of flesh. There was no smell of corruption. Some wisps of black hair still clung to the cranium. She took a pair of latex gloves out of the pocket of her jeans, blinked at the flash from Geraldo’s first shot and selected a medium-sized brush.

Tanaka rubbed his hands together to warm them and said something to Hans that Gilda couldn’t hear. Whatever it was set Hans to talking all over again. Most people become silent, almost reverent, in the presence of death, but not Hans. Hans was a talker.

He’d first missed The Mop, he said, just before lunchtime. He didn’t have any idea how long the animal had been gone because it was a big yard, with bushes and shrubs where The Mop liked to hide. Besides, there were a lot of things that Senhor Manfredo expected him to do around the house, like washing the cars and cleaning the swimming pool. He couldn’t be expected to keep an eye on the damned dog all of the time.

“And then I saw another hole under the fence. Every time he digs his way out I drive stakes into the ground so he can’t crawl through the same place again. But then he goes and digs somewhere else. I’ve got stakes all over the place. The back of the yard is starting to look like one of the forts you see in those old American movies, the ones about cowboys and Indians.”

“Dog never came back on his own?” Tanaka asked.

“Never. He likes wandering around, pissing on other peo-ple’s fences, sticking his nose into other dogs’ assholes-uh, sorry, Senhora.”

“Senhorita,” Gilda corrected him without looking up.

“Senhorita,” Hans repeated. “And running around after kids. The Mop is crazy about kids.”

“Friendly, huh?”

“The damned mutt will go to anyone who calls him. Anyone. And then he slobbers all over ’em.”

“It would make him easy to steal, I suppose?”

“You suppose right. From what I understand, he cost a bundle, and Senhor Manfredo is scared to death of losing him. If I see The Mop is missing, I’m supposed to drop what-ever else I’m doing and go after him.”

“Doesn’t sound as if you like him much,” Tanaka said.

Gilda, following the conversation as she gently dug around the skull with her trowel, had a feeling that Tanaka had only asked the question to get a rise out of the caseiro.

If that was the delegado’s intention, it worked.

“Like him? Like him. Are you kidding?”

“So why don’t you let him get lost-permanently?”

“Because Senhor Manfredo would have a fit, that’s why. You should see the scene when he gets home from work. The Mop whining and licking, and Senhor Manfredo making little kissy-face sounds and stroking. I swear if The Mop learned how to cook, Senhor Manfredo would ditch Senhora Cristina and marry the dog. I lose that animal, and the next one out the door is going to be me. Senhor Manfredo would fire my ass in a

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