He still couldn’t wrap his head around it.

A federal agent had been murdered in this little slice of heaven.

He was no coroner, but he felt certain Evans’s face wasn’t just rotting away. Part of his skull had been caved in. Teeth broken out. One of his eyes MIA.

He’d been tortured too.

The six blocks seemed to fly by, and then he was jogging up the sidewalk to the entrance of the sheriff’s office.

He left his jacket and shirt outside on a bench and pulled open one of the double doors.

The reception area was a wood-paneled room with brown carpeting and taxidermied animal heads mounted on every available piece of vertical real estate.

At the front desk, a sixty-something woman with long, silver hair was playing solitaire with a physical deck of cards. The freestanding nameplate on her desk read “Belinda Moran.”

Ethan arrived at the edge of her desk and watched her lay down four more cards before finally tearing herself away from the game.

“May I help—” Her eyes went wide. She looked him up and down, wrinkling her nose at what he supposed was the god-awful stench of human decay that must be wafting off him. “You’re not wearing a shirt,” she said.

“United States Secret Service Special Agent Ethan Burke here to see the sheriff. What’s his name?”

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“Who?”

“The sheriff.”

“Oh. Pope. Sheriff Arnold Pope.”

“Is he in, Belinda?”

Instead of answering his question, she lifted her rotary phone and dialed a three-digit extension. “Hi, Arnie, there’s a man here to see you. Says he’s a secret agent or something.”

“Special Agent with the—”

She held up a finger. “I don’t know, Arnie. He isn’t wearing a shirt, and he...” She turned away from Ethan in her swivel chair, whispered, “...smells bad. Really bad...OK. OK, I’ll tell him.”

She spun back around and hung up the phone.

“Sheriff Pope will be with you shortly.”

“I need to see him right now.”

“I understand that. You can wait over there.” She pointed to a grouping of chairs in a nearby corner.

Ethan hesitated for a moment, and then finally turned and headed toward the waiting area. Wise to keep this first encounter civil. In his experience, local law enforcement became defensive and even hostile when feds threw their weight around right out of the gate. In light of what he’d found in that abandoned house, he was going to be working with this guy for the foreseeable future. Better to start off with the glad hand than a middle finger.

Ethan eased down into one of the four upholstered chairs in the sitting area.

He’d worked up a sweat on the jog over, but now that his heart rate had returned to baseline, the layer of sweat on his bare skin had begun to chill him as the central air blew down out of a vent overhead.

There wasn’t much in the way of current reading material on the small table in front of his chair—just a few old issues of National Geographic and Popular Science.

He leaned back in the chair and shut his eyes.

The pain in his head was coming back—the cut of each throb escalating on some molecular level perceptible only over a span of minutes. He could actually hear the pounding of his headache in the total silence of the sheriff’s office, where there was no sound other than the flipping of cards.

He heard Belinda say, “Yes!”

Opened his eyes in time to see her place the last card, having won her game. She gathered the cards up and shuffled them and began again.

Another five minutes passed.

Another ten.

Belinda finished the game and she was mixing the deck again when Ethan noted the first impulse of irritation—a twitch in his left eye.

The pain was still growing and he’d now been waiting, at his estimation, for fifteen minutes. In that increment of time, the phone had not rung once, and not another soul had entered the building.

He shut his eyes and counted down from sixty as he massaged his temples. When he opened them again, he was still sitting there shirtless and cold, and Belinda was still turning cards over, and the sheriff had yet to come.

Ethan stood, fought a bout of wooziness for ten seconds before finally establishing his balance. He walked back over to the reception desk and waited for Belinda to look up.

She laid down five cards before acknowledging him.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry to be a bother, but I’ve been waiting about twenty minutes now.”

“The sheriff’s real busy today.”

“I’m sure he is, but I need to speak with him right away. Now you can either get him on the phone again and tell him I’m done waiting, or I’m gonna walk back there myself and—”

Her desk phone rang.

She answered, “Yes?...OK, I sure will.” She shelved the phone and smiled up at Ethan. “You’re welcome to go on back now. Right down that hallway. His office is through the door at the very end.”

* * *

Ethan knocked beneath the nameplate.

A deep voice hollered from the other side, “Yep!”

He turned the knob, pushed the door open, stepped inside.

The floor of the office was a dark and deeply scuffed hardwood. To his left, the enormous head of an elk had been mounted to the wall opposite a large, rustic desk. Behind the desk stood three antique gun cabinets brimming with rifles, shotguns, handguns, and what he calculated were enough boxes of ammo to execute every resident of this little town three times over.

A man ten years his senior reclined in a leather chair, his cowboy-booted feet propped on the desk. He had wavy blond hair that would probably be white within a decade, and his jaw was frosted with a few days’ worth of grizzle.

Dark brown canvas pants.

Long-sleeved button-down—hunter green.

The sheriff’s star gleamed under the lights. It looked like solid brass, intricately etched, with the letters WP inset in black in the center.

As he approached the desk, Ethan thought he saw the sheriff let slip a private smirk.

“Ethan Burke, Secret Service.”

He extended his hand across the desk, and the sheriff hesitated, as if holding some internal debate over whether he felt like moving. Finally, he slid his boots off the desktop and leaned forward in his chair.

“Arnold Pope.” They shook hands. “Have a seat, Ethan.”

Ethan eased down into one of the straight-backed wooden chairs.

“How you feeling?” Pope asked.

“I’ve been better.”

“I’ll bet. You’ve probably smelled better too.” Pope flashed a quick grin. “Rough accident you had a couple days ago. Tragic.”