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snakehead - extract

CHAPTER ONE
I.

Deputy J. J. Jackson, known to his colleagues at the Walker County Sheriff's Department simply as Jayjay, stuck another matchstick between his front teeth and began chewing on it. He unzippered his fly and issued a yellow stream into the dry bed of Bedias Creek. Steam rose from it in the cool morning air, and he made a bold effort to make sure that most of it crossed the county line into Madison. Somewhere to the north, beyond the trees that broke the monotony of the flat Texan landscape, prisoners were being called out of their cells at the Ferguson Unit to face another day of incarceration. And he was free to piss in the breeze, clocking off in just over half-an-hour, to bring to an end the long red-eye shift, and with it the prospect of an empty bed. He spat out the matchstick and regretted that he had ever given up smoking. He was sure to die of wood poisoning.

The Dixie Chicks played from the open door of his black and white. Strictly non-regulation, but hell, you had to have something to keep you awake. Cowboy take me away, fly this girl as high as you can, into the wild blue. He squeezed his ample frame in behind the wheel and eased his patrol car out on to the deserted Highway 45. He was flying now, south, into the wild blue. Day was when Martha would have had hot pancakes and syrup, and a plate of grits on the table when he got home. But since she'd run off with that air-con salesman he'd taken to driving into Huntsville for breakfast at the Cafe Texan, opposite the County Courthouse on Sam Houston Avenue. He always sat in the smoking room just so he could breath in other people's cigarettes. Nothing you could do about secondary smoking he could tell the Doc.

Hello, Mr. Heartache, I've been expecting you. He sang along with the Chicks.
Up off the highway on the right a Mexican fast food joint stood proud on the bluff. Much as he liked that beer with the slice of lime stuffed in the neck, Jayjay avoided Mexican food whenever possible. It gave him bad heartburn. But today he turned off and followed the bumpy road up to the parking lot, a big empty stretch of dusty tarmac. Empty, that is, except for a large refrigerated food container hooked up to a red, shiny trailer tractor. Not unusual. Truckers often pulled off to snatch a few moments shut-eye during an all-nighter. But the door on the driver's side was lying wide open, and there was no sign of anyone around. There were no other vehicles in the lot, and the restaurant wouldn't be open for hours yet.

Jayjay left his engine running and got out of the car. He had no idea why the truck had drawn his attention. Maybe it was because the driver had made no attempt to slot it anywhere between the faded white lines. Maybe it was just instinct. Jayjay held a lot of store by instinct. He had had an instinct that Martha was going to leave him at least two years before she finally got around to it. Although that might not have been so much instinct as wishful thinking. But, hell, there was something odd about this truck. It looked... abandoned. He pulled the brim of his Stetson down, stuck another matchstick in his mouth and clamped his open palms on his hips, the forefinger of his right hand touching the leather of his holster for comfort.
Slowly he approached the open door of the truck, glancing a touch nervously to left and right.

'Hey y'all,' he called. And when there was no response, 'Anybody there?' He stopped, staring up into the empty cab, working the matchstick from one corner of his mouth to the other. Then he pulled himself up into the cabin and checked in back where the driver would usually sleep. Empty.

He eased himself down on to the tarmac and looked around. Where the hell could he have gone? The Dixie Chicks were getting into some R&B. Some days you gotta dance, Live it up when you get the chance... A slight breeze stirred the dust in the lot. Sun rising under early morning cloud dimpled it copper pink. Later, as the same sun rose, it would burn it off.

Jayjay walked the length of the trailer, past rows of tyres as tall as he was, painted black walls, treads he could almost get a fist into. GARCIA WHOLESALE, it said on the side. Fresh painted. New.

Round the back the tall doors of the trailer stood slightly ajar, and he began to get a bad feeling. He took his gun from his holster, crooking his arm and pointing the weapon at the sky. 'Hey!' he shouted again. 'Is there anybody in there?' He didn't really expect a reply, but was disappointed to be right. He spat out the match and pulled the left hand door wide. It was heavy and swung open slowly. He was immediately hit by the smell of something rotten. Whatever cargo this thing was carrying had been left unrefrigerated and was well past its sell-by. He could see boxes of produce piled high: tomatoes, eggplants, avocados, cucumbers. He grabbed a handle on the inside of the door and pulled himself up. The smell was almost overpowering now, thick and sour like vomit and faeces. Jayjay blenched. 'Jesus...' he hissed. Boxes had collapsed from either side and he had to pull them away to make any progress into the interior of the trailer. Tomatoes and cucumbers rattled away across the riveted steel floor, and a naked arm fell from between two boxes, an open palm seeming to beckoning him in. Jayjay let out an involuntary yelp and felt goosebumps prickle across his scalp. He holstered his gun and started tearing at the cardboard. Another column of boxes toppled around him revealing that only the back quarter of the truck was carrying produce. It was too dark to see clearly into the space beyond, or the body lying at his feet. He was gagging now on the stench. He fumbled for the flashlight hanging on his belt. The beam that pierced the dark shot back through him like a frozen arrow. The scream stopped in his throat, too thick to squeeze past constricting airways. Bodies. Dozens of them trapped in the light, fixed in death. Arms and legs entwined, faces contorted terribly by some dreadful struggle to hold on to life. Vomit and blood and torn clothes. Ghostly pale Asian faces, wide-eyed and lifeless, like photographs he had seen of mass graves in concentration camps. Jayjay staggered backwards, stumbling over boxes, feet skidding away from him on the slime of burst and rotting tomatoes. He hit the floor with a force that knocked all the breath out of him. For a moment he lay still, wondering if he had slipped through a crack in the earth and fallen into the devil's lair. And in the distance he heard the Dixie Chicks. I've seen 'em fall, some get nothing and, Lord, some get it all.

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© Peter May 2004