THE LAST ANCIENT, Eliot Baker, Champagne Book Group, $12.34 (paperback) $5.95 (Kindle)
Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?
The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.
The deer’s blood catches the golden hour light. It radiates throughout the animal’s carcass in fall hues that reflect the island’s rustling red leaves and honey-colored needles littering the sand. Such eerie, blasphemous beauty. I fire shots from my Nikon.
“That’s six. Six deer mutilations this month,” I say to my experts. Click. Click. Click.
Branches partially cover the deer. Its eyes are wet brown marbles rimmed and veined in burning red, as though it had been hung upside down for a day. Its lips are peeled back above the gums in a grimace of broken teeth. Brain matter spills through a crack in the skull. Two yellowjackets buzz over the red pulp. Land. Feed. Hover above their feast. Click. The neck is attached to the body by a flap of hide. One of the deer’s forelegs is missing. Inside the hole in its torso I can see that its entrails have been removed. I get on my elbows and snap pictures from the cold, damp sand. The heart is gone, too.
Dr. Pauline Driscoll, Nantucket’s town biologist, is squatting beside the carcass. She’s furious at Sgt. Brad Fernandez, who is cursing and stomp-cleaning a gore-splattered boot into the sand. She affects his tar-thick Roxbury accent. “Nice shaht cut, ace!” Her silvering French braid swings out the back of her UMass baseball hat as she unpacks measuring tape, sample tubes, and baggies from her turquoise external frame pack. Sgt. Fernadez kicks bloody goo into the bushes.
“Maybe I wanna carry da machete fuh once, Doctor Driscoll,” he says.
Dr. Driscoll mutters and scribbles into her notepad. She is oblivious to her windswept beauty. Her dark eyes shine and sparkle, and she’s maintained her triathlete’s figure despite being on the other side of forty. She’s over a decade older than me, but I understand why Sgt. Fernandez wants to impress her.
Dr. Driscoll carves out an eyeball, coaxing it from the deer’s eye socket with a gloved hand. Tendons follow the jelly marble from the orbital cavity like melted provolone. She saws through the tendons with a retractable scalpel. Fernandez gags. It makes him look like a blushing Boy Scout in his green Environmental Police uniform and billed hat and bulky black utility belt. Driscoll smiles school-girl sweet, dropping the eyeball into a baggie. She offers Fernandez the instrument and baggie, asking him if he’d like to carry the scalpel for once.
Fernandez holds up one hand at her and balls the other over his mouth, gulps twice. “You’re one sick hippy,” he says.
Driscoll hums a macabre rendition of Melanie Safka’s Lay Down as she scoops bits of brain from the crack in the animal’s skull.
I sniff the shrieking wind. It’s bowing the barrens of pitch pines toward our clearing in the scrub oak like gnarled magnetic filaments. I can smell the ocean, almost hear it, but not see it. From our elevated bald spot in the suffocating brush, I can see the sandy path we just traversed. It cuts like a surgical scar through the open conservation land’s tufts of bladed grass and bristling patches of black huckleberry and pasture rose. It winds up Altar Rock into the reddening horizon, where a hunter stands silhouetted on the rim of the valley, binoculars pressed to his face. The strapped shotgun jutting from his shoulder makes him look like a fierce insect with an antenna.
“You poor baby,” says Driscoll, passing a black fine-toothed comb over the deer’s patchy fur. She taps the comb and a dozen ticks fall like grains of volcanic sand into a plastic dish. “Those teeth, that pelt--man, you were one sick fella.”
Fernandez breathes, gets down on one knee, and starts shaving samples from the spine with his own folding knife. He then slices off chunks of muscle and organs that he places into baggies under Driscoll’s direction. Click.
“I’m bustin’ heads, and you can quote me on that,” says Fernandez through clenched teeth behind his trimmed mustache.
“Someone was huntin’ before dawn.”
“Or something,” I say, snapping close-ups of the spray radius. Drops of blood shine like rubies on wooden pendants in the foreground against a hazy cloud of thorns. The experts exchange looks and groans.
“Anyways, this is roundabouts where da Pike brothers said dey heard something freaky ’bout an hour ago,” says Fernandez. “Said it was like a deer cry, but kinda mutant, with loads a struggle.”
Dr. Driscoll stands and examines the sand and rocks for tracks. She picks up the machete she used to carve a trail here through the scrub oak. “Man, what is wrong with people?” she says and hacks at the thorny curtain with skills she picked up surveying birds in the Amazon and in Africa. She asks Fernandez if he can find any boot prints. He shakes his head.
I ask them to speculate on a predator. No dice.
“How about speculating on how it got in here then?” I say. “We lost the tracks and the blood trail way long ago.”
“Good point,” admits Dr. Driscoll.
The deer’s remaining foreleg suddenly stiffens as though saluting, hitting Driscoll’s thigh.
“Oh, fuck me hard on Sunday!” says Dr. Driscoll, jumping into Sgt. Fernandez’s arms.
He whispers, “Relax, it’s a fresh kill. And sure, Sunday’s good for me.”
Driscoll shoves Fernandez, and says to me, “Don’t you dare put that in the article.”
“I’ll think about it,” I say, and try to smile. Can’t. I’m shaken.
The Last Ancient is available at Amazon.