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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Last Ragged Breath

A Novel

Bell Elkins Novels (Volume 4)

Julia Keller

Minotaur Books


Chapter One

Goldie was a six-year-old shepherd-retriever mix with a thick yellow coat that had inspired her name, a riotous tail, and chocolate-brown eyes that suggested profound depths of mysterious wisdom. At present that wisdom had coalesced into a conviction that something smelled mighty good-that is, powerful and unusual-somewhere along the slanting bank of Old Man's Creek. Wet black nose plowing a shallow trench across the rugged terrain, body balanced expertly to accommodate the steep grade, Goldie rammed forward along the upper brow of the creek bank, sniffing and quivering. The smell, as it intensified, became even more intoxicating. It was like a string pulling her along, winding itself tight on a bobbin at the other end. Everything else dropped out of Goldie's thoughts.

From behind her came the distant syllables of someone calling her name: "Goldie! Here, girl! Go-o-oldeee! Come on!"

She didn't hear it. Rather, she heard it, but the hearing part and the subsequent ignoring part constituted a single supple action that had nothing to do with volition, nothing to do with stubbornness or calculation. Goldie wasn't being disobedient. Goldie was being a dog.

"Go-o-o-ldee! Come on!"

She didn't even lift her head. She knew her name, and she had a definite affection for the man yelling it, but those two facts counted for nothing now. She was All Nose. Her nose was her destiny.

"Goldie, you ornery girl, you. Taking off like that. Leadin' me a merry chase. Never seen the like." The yell had subsided into a running grumble. Andy Stegner was getting closer, following the trail of mashed-down dirt and still-trembling branches that testified to Goldie's hasty journey past them.

He was, at the moment, sorely regretting the fact that he'd stopped to pick her up that morning. Goldie was turning out to be Trouble-with-a-capital-T. His neighbor, Royce Dillard, had seven dogs, including Goldie. That was down from the fifteen he'd had a year ago, which sounded like the aftermath of a massacre but was actually due to the fact that eight of the dogs were dreadfully sick when Royce first took them in, and it was only through Royce's kindly labors that they'd lasted as long as they did, and were granted, one by one, a serene, dignified death. Stegner couldn't keep a dog-his wife was allergic to the fur, her only fault as far as he was concerned-but he liked to have company when he checked his raccoon traps. Royce never minded lending one out for a morning's patrol.

Today, though, Goldie was climbing Andy's last nerve. The instant they ventured near the creek bank she'd taken off as if she had firecrackers tied to her tail. She seemed determined to ignore him. It wasn't like Goldie to act this way; she was a good dog. Something had gotten hold of her and wouldn't let her go, just as surely as Andy's traps captured skinny gray-black raccoons from October to February, the official trapping season allowed by state law.

Goldie plunged forward, whipping back and forth between the leafless trees. She crossed the dirt and the rocks and the low scrubby bushes and the scat and the sloughed-off hunks of bark and the burrs and the seed pods and the dead insects and the dented green Mountain Dew cans. All emitted excellent smells, smells that under normal circumstances would have caused her to pause and savor-but the smell drawing her forward asserted its dominance. It separated itself from the others. It was the King of Smells. It ratcheted up in deliciousness a few notches more, even after it seemed that it couldn't get any more wonderful.

Goldie was getting close.

"I mean it, you rascal! You get back here! Goldie, come on!"

He was wasting his breath. The dog had it in sight now, mired down there in the creek itself, a broad hump of brown. It was snagged between a rock and a batch of cattails that, wind-whipped and top-heavy, arched low over the greenish-silvery water like skeletal fingers reaching into a fingerbowl. Goldie's hearty bark startled two turkey vultures, newly returned from their winter journey south, in mid-feast. They rose quickly and corkscrewed away, broad wingspans catching the circular updraft of air currents. They would be back. They had infinite patience.

Goldie slid deliriously down the bank-not even trying anymore to maintain her balance, enjoying the free fall of four scrambling paws and a glorious sense of anticipation-and collided with the hump. The smell exploded in her nostrils. She uttered a brief yip of joy.

She was up to her belly in the frigid water, water that had recently made its late-winter pilgrimage down from the mountain to creeks like this one, and she was thrashing and nipping at the hump, trying to unravel the core source of its splendid stink. She didn't mind the cold one bit. She pulled at a section of the brown mass. There was a quick sound of ripping cloth as something came away in her teeth-but it tasted bland, and she spat it out, flapping her tongue to rid herself of the unimportant. A few brown threads dangled from her left incisor as she returned to the mysterious mound. She moved to the other side of it, parting the water with her wide golden chest, prodding the object repeatedly with her muzzle.

"There you are, you ornery dog, you!"

Andy looked down at her from the top of the bank, hands at his sides, breathing hard. The left sleeve of his denim jacket was torn and his ball cap had been knocked askew. Low-hanging branches had done the damage. A few years ago he might've been able to keep up with her when she broke loose that way, running a good half mile like a furry streak of lightning. But he was sixty-one years old now. And creaky as hell. Arthritis pinched at his joints as if somebody-a mean somebody-had taken a pair of pliers to them.

"Whadda you got there, Goldie?"

He descended the bank carefully, gingerly, heel-hard, keeping his body sideways so that he wouldn't go headlong if he stumbled, grabbing at the thin branches of spindly trees and then releasing them again after he'd descended further. Goldie had gone for the water at another angle, but he went this way because there seemed to be a bit of a path here already, two faint parallel lanes of pushed-down plants, a running indentation. Then a branch snapped back and whacked him in the face-Dang, he exclaimed-and he broke it off and kept going.

Down below, Goldie splashed around like a young pup. Her tail was going in wild, incessant circles. She was obsessed with whatever it was that slumped by the creek, half-in and half-out, nudging it with her nose, then backing off and barking. Her barks rang sharply in the frigid air of the mountain valley.

"What's got into you, girl?" Andy muttered as he neared the spot where the dog pranced and bounced and shimmied. Her glee was giving way to agitation. The strong smell was still pleasurable but also perplexing, and Goldie seemed eager for him to help her solve it.

Moving closer, he saw that the hump was covered by a big brown coat. He picked up a wrist-thick black branch at water's edge. Used it to poke at the object. A few more pokes would be required to dislodge the thing. He pushed at the far end and something broke off, swaying briefly until it spun onto its other side, like a bobbing beach ball. He leaned toward the broken-off piece, holding the stick in both hands now so that he could hook it. He drew it closer to the bank.

Goldie instantly backed off, setting up a hysterical barking. Andy felt his stomach drop. Rational thought fled from his mind. Vomit rose in his throat.

It was a human head. Andy was staring at the place where the face ought to be. He knew a face belonged there because of the gray ear-shaped objects on either side of the central cavity and because of the presence of matted hair at one end. At the other end was the ragged fringe of what Andy now realized was a severed neck. The soft chasm in the center-where you would expect to see eyes and nose and mouth-was scooped out, replaced by a wormy mess.

Goldie, sensing his shock, not sure what she ought to do about it, went from barking to a kind of eerie, sirenlike crooning, an ancient song of lament that was as mindlessly instinctive to her as was her earlier devotion to the voluptuous smell of death.

Copyright © 2015 by Julia Keller