Ethan limped down the middle of the empty dirt road.
He could hear birds chirping in the nearby woods, and nothing else. Completely isolated from what little bustle downtown Wayward Pines could muster.
He was passing mailboxes that were already in the five hundreds, feeling the first glimmer of relief, knowing Beverly’s place would be on the next block.
The light-headedness was threatening again, waves of it—gentle so far—washing over him.
The next intersection stood completely empty.
Not a soul out.
A warm wind sliding down off the mountain sent little whirlwinds of dust across the street.
There it was—604, the second house on the right. He could tell this from the tiny steel plate that had been screwed into what was left of the mailbox, which was completely covered in rust except for the gaping, jagged holes. A quiet tweeping emitted from within, and for a moment, he thought it might be another speaker, but then he glimpsed the wing of the bird that was nesting inside.
He looked up at the house itself.
It had probably been a lovely two-story Victorian once, with a steeply pitched roof and a porch with a swing and a stone path leading through the front yard to the entrance.
The paint had long ago chipped away. Even standing in the street, Ethan could see that not even a fleck of it lingered. The boards still attached to the listing frame had been bleached almost white by the sun, most in the final stages of disintegration from rot. Not a jag of window glass remained.
He pulled the ticket from last night’s dinner out of his pocket and rechecked the address. The handwriting was clear—604 1st Ave—but maybe Beverly had transposed the numbers, or written “Ave” when she meant “St.”
Ethan pushed his way into the waist-high weeds that had overtaken the front yard, only flashes of the stone pathway visible through the undergrowth.
The two steps leading to the covered porch looked like they’d been run through a wood chipper. He stepped up and over them onto a floorboard, his weight upon it producing a deafening creak.
The house seemed to swallow his voice.
He carefully crossed the porch, stepped through the doorless doorway, and called her name again. He could hear the wind pushing against the house, its timber frame groaning. Three steps into the living room, he stopped. Springs lay rusting on the floor amid the crumbling frame of an ancient sofa. A coffee table stood covered in cobwebs, and underneath them, the pages of some magazine, sodden and rotted beyond recognition.
Beverly couldn’t have wanted him to come here—not even as a joke. She must have accidentally written down the wrong—
The smell brought his chin up. He took a tentative step forward, dodging a trio of nails sticking up through a floorboard.
Sniffed the air again.
Another blast of it swept by as a gust of wind shook the house, and he instantly buried his nose in the crook of his arm. He moved forward, past half a staircase, into a narrow hallway that ran between the kitchen and the dining room, where a cascade of light streamed down onto the splintered remains of where the ceiling had crushed the dinner table.
He went on, picking his way through a minefield of bad boards and outright holes that gaped into the crawlspace under the house.
The refrigerator, the sink, the stove—rust covered every metal surface like a fungus, this place reminding him of the old homesteads he and his friends would stumble across on summer explorations into the woods behind their farms. Abandoned barns and cabins, the roofs perforated with holes that the sun blazed through in tubes of light. He’d once found a fifty-year-old newspaper inside an old desk announcing the election of a new president, had wanted to take it home and show his parents, but the thing was so brittle it had flaked apart in his hands.
Ethan hadn’t ventured a breath through his nose in over a minute, and still he could tell the stench was getting stronger. Swore he could taste it in the corners of his mouth and the sheer intensity of it—worse than ammonia—was drawing tears from his eyes.
The far end of the hallway grew dark—still protected under a ceiling that dripped from the last good rain, whenever that had been.
The door at the end of the hall was closed.
Ethan blinked the tears out of his eyes and reached down for the doorknob, but there wasn’t one.
He nudged the door open with his shoe.
The door banged into the wall and Ethan took a step forward across the threshold.
Just like his memory of those old homesteads, bullets of light shot through holes in the far wall, glinting off the labyrinth of cobwebs, before striking the only piece of furniture in the room.
The metal frame was still standing, and through the soupy ruin of the mattress, he could see the bedsprings like coiled copperheads.
He hadn’t heard the flies until now, because they had congregated inside the man’s mouth—a metropolis of them, the sound of their collective buzzing like a small outboard motor.
He’d seen worse—in combat—but he’d never smelled worse.
White showed through everywhere—the wrist and ankle bones, which had been handcuffed to the headboard and the iron railing at the base of the bed. Where his right leg was exposed, the flesh looked almost shredded. The internal architecture on the left side of the man’s face was exposed, right down to the roots of his teeth. His stomach had bloated too—Ethan could see the swell of it underneath the tattered suit, which was black and single-breasted.
Just like his.
Though the face was a wreck, the hair length and color were right.
The height was a match too.
Ethan staggered back and leaned against the doorframe.
Jesus Fucking Christ.
This was Agent Evans.
* * *
Back outside on the front porch of the abandoned house, Ethan bent over, his hands braced against his knees, and took deep, penetrating breaths through his nose to purge the smell. But it wouldn’t leave. That death-stink had embedded in his sinus cavity, and as a bitter, putrid bite in the back of his throat.
He took off his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, fought his way out of the sleeves. The stench was in the fibers of his clothing now.
Shirtless, he moved through the riot of undergrowth that had once been a front yard and finally reached the dirt road.
He could feel the coldness of raw skin on the backs of his feet and the bass throb in his skull, but the pain had lost its edge to pure adrenaline.
He set off at a strong pace down the middle of the street, his mind racing. He’d been tempted to search the pockets of the dead man’s coat and pants, see if he could score a wallet, some ID, but the smart play had been to hold off. To not touch anything. Let people with latex gloves and face masks and every conceivable state-of-the-art forensic tool descend on that room.