'This is so not cool,' he said, leaning over the man and grabbing one of the shoulder straps.

He braced himself and pulled. The body made a slurping sound as he pried it from the mire and dragged it higher onto the bank. Silver shapes darted away through the water, their meal interrupted.

The vile stench of decomposition made him gag, but he choked down his gorge. It wasn't as though this was the first corpse he had ever seen. A flash of his previous life assailed him. A dark, dry warren of caves. Smoke swirling all around him. Shadowed forms sprawled on the ground and against the rock walls. One of them, a young woman with piercing blue eyes---

Merritt shook away the memory and willed his heartbeat to slow.

He blew out a long, slow breath, then rolled the corpse onto its back. The angry cloud of flies buzzed its displeasure.

'For the love of God...' he sputtered, and drew his shirt up over his mouth and nose.

The man's face was a mask of mud, alive with wriggling larvae, the abdomen a gaping, macerated maw only partially obscured by the tattered remnants of the shirt. Merritt had obviously dislocated the man's right shoulder when he wrenched it out of the mud. The entire arm hung awkwardly askew, while the left remained wrapped around a rucksack worn backward against his chest, the fingers curled tightly into the fabric as though afraid to release it even in death.

Merritt groaned and knelt above the man's head. He really wished he'd brought his gloves. Cupping his hands, he scooped the mud from the forehead, out of the eye sockets, and from around the nose and mouth. The skin beneath was so bloated it felt like rubber.

Even with the brown smears and discolored flesh, Merritt recognized the man immediately. He had flown him and his entire group into Pomacochas from Chiclayo roughly three weeks ago. So where were the rest of them?

His gaze fell upon the rucksack. If it was still here when the policia arrived, nothing inside would ever be seen again. Corruption was a way of life down here.

Merritt unhooked the man's claw from the fabric, pulled it away from the bag, and set it on the ground. He unlatched the clasp and drew back the flap. At first all he saw was a clump of soggy plants. He moved them aside and blinked in astonishment.

'Son of a bitch.'


Hospital Nacional Docente Madre Nino San Bartolome

Lima, Peru

October 15th

9:03 a.m. PET

Eldon Monahan, Consul-general of the United States Consulate in Peru, waited in the small gray chamber, handkerchief over his mouth and nose in preparation for what was to come. At least this time he'd had the foresight to dab it in Vicks VapoRub before leaving the office. He wore a crisp charcoal Turnbull & Asser suit with a navy blue silk tie, and had slicked back his ebon hair with the sweat that beaded his forehead and welled against his furry eyebrows. His piercing hazel eyes absorbed his surroundings. It took all of his concentration to suppress the expression of contempt. Slate gray walls lined with ribbons of rust from the leaky pipes in the ceiling surrounded him on three sides. The fourth was a sheet of dimpled aluminum that featured a single door with a wide horizontal handle, the kind of freezer unit they installed in restaurants. Twin overhead sodium halide fixtures were mounted to the ceiling on retractable armatures. The diffuse beams spotlighted the scuffed, vinyl-tiled floor in front of him.

God, how he hated this part of his job.

A baccalaureate degree in Political Science from Stanford and a doctorate in Politics and International Relations from Oxford, and here he was in the basement of what could only loosely be considered a hospital by American standards, in a backward country half a world away from where he really wanted to be. Paying his dues. Mastering the intricacies of foreign diplomacy. Whatever you wanted to call it, it was still about as far as a man could get from a seat on the Senate floor. Here he was, thirty-six years old and not even an actual ambassador.

The screech of his grinding teeth reminded him of his hypertension, and he tried to focus on something else. Anything else.

The door in the aluminum wall opened outward with a pop and a hiss. Eldon took an involuntary step in reverse. The morgue attendant acknowledged him with a nod as he wheeled the cart into the room and centered it under the lights. A sheet, stained with a Rorschach pattern of mud and bodily dissolution, covered the human form beneath.

'What can you tell me about the body?' Eldon asked in Spanish through the handkerchief.

'The policia dropped it off last night,' the attendant said, visibly amused by the Consul-general's squeamishness. He wore a yellow surgical gown and cap, finger-painted with brown bloodstains. 'Found him way up north in the Amazonas. Textbook case of drowning, you ask me.'

'How do we know he's an American citizen?'

'The pilot who flew him into Pomacochas recognized him.'

'But he couldn't identify him?'

'That's all I know. You're supposed to be the man with the answers. Shouldn't your embassy have told you all of this?'

Eldon flushed with resentment.

'Where are his possessions?' Eldon asked.

'What you see is what you get.'

Par for the course.

'Let's just get on with this then, shall we?'

With a curt nod, the attendant pulled back the sheet to expose the head and torso of the corpse.

Eldon had to turn away to compose himself, but he couldn't chase the image from his mind. The man's face was frosted from the freezer, his skin tinged blue. Chunks of flesh had been stolen from his cheeks, earlobes, and the tip of his nose. There were still crescents of mud in his ear canals and along his gum-line. He was dramatically swollen from the uptake of water, which caused his epidermis to crack as the deeper tissues froze.

'You don't want to see the parts I left covered,' the attendant said. He smirked and clapped Eldon on the shoulder, eliciting a flinch. 'Do what you need to do quickly. We don't want him to start to thaw.'

Eldon removed the digital camera from the inner pocket of his suit jacket and leaned over the body. Three hurried flashes and he was out the door without another word. He needed fresh air, humid and oppressive though it may be. He ascended the stairs and crossed the lobby through a churning sea of the sick and injured, oblivious to their curses as he shouldered his way toward the front doors. As soon as he was outside, he ducked to his left, cast aside the handkerchief, and vomited into an acacia shrub.

Sometimes he absolutely hated his life.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and headed to where his car idled in the emergency bay. The driver waited outside the open rear door of the black Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, and ushered him inside. They drove in silence, save the whoosh of the wind through the open driver's side window. The chauffer repeatedly raised his hand to cover his nose as discreetly as he could.

Wonderful, Eldon thought. He'd obviously brought more than pictures of the corpse with him.

The Mercedes turned through the black, wrought-iron gates of the Consulate. Armed Marines saluted as the car passed and rounded the circular island of rainbow flowers, from which twin poles bearing the American and Peruvian flags rose.

Eldon didn't wait for the driver to come around to open the door. He just wanted to get this over with. As he ascended the concrete stairs beneath the gray marble portico, he focused on the task at hand: upload the digital images into the program that would compare them to the passport photos of all Americans still in Peru, starting with those who had registered their travel plans with the Embassy. Once he had positive identification, he could

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