snakehead - extract
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.
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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.
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