First Chapter Reveal: The Last Ancient by Eliot Baker

The Last Ancient 2Title: The Last Ancient
Author: Eliot Baker
Publisher: Burst Books, imprint of Champagne Books
Pages: 316
Genre: Supernatural Thriller, Historical Mystery
Format: Paperback/Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

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.

First Chapter:

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.

Shotguns crow across the windswept prairie of mid-island Nantucket. I swear and fumble my notepad. Scan the sky. Indeed, the staccato cracks are like iron roosters. They announce a sunrise as raw and ruddy as the November leaves rattling in their stunted trees. Twisting, African-looking things that recall whittled broccoli dipped in flaming tar. For hunters, the day has begun.

I gather my creased notepad and shake the sand off the New England Daily Tribune logo. Dr. Driscoll winks at me and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Between machete slashes at the scrub oak and the branches covering the carcass, she whispers about the feverish late fall and its effect on the island’s various micro-ecologies. She rolls roots and flowers between her fingers and tastes a wizened blueberry. Shotguns crackle from Squam Swamp behind us. I remind her I’m not channeling John Muir for this piece no matter how eloquent her reveries.

She slips into one anyhow. “Oh man, but can’t you see it? The beauty? The history?” Dr. Driscoll squints, hacks at something, and shrugs, continuing, “Wampanoag Indians shucking shellfish around campfires.” Hack. “Quakers praying at the meeting house.” Hack. “Thousands of sheep, just grazing the New World forest into treeless Scottish heathlands.” Hack. “Whalers dragging their kills to shore from longboats – whoa, baby!”

She jumps back, swinging the machete in front of her feet. I peer through my camera lens, snapping photos. Movement? Something big and soundless, deep in the brush, like a disembodied shadow. It’s gone before I flex my trigger finger. I blink away cold stinging sweat and look above my camera into the barbed-wire mesh of scrub oak.

“You saw that?” I say.

“Dude, how could I miss it?” says Dr. Driscoll. “That was an epic rat!”

“Oh. But… Never mind.”

Driscoll gets on one knee beside Fernandez and jots notes in her pad. I point out some coppery feathers on the other side of the clearing. She tells me to be quiet while she’s writing. I ask about the marks on the deer’s back. She says silence is gold. Fair enough.

They don’t know I dropped out of Harvard Medical School my fourth year. I’ve also been on safari in Tanzania. I understand trauma and slaughter. The slash marks in the deer’s neck and shoulders are deep and precise. Its back is torn up. Something mounted it and ripped its head off, like a giant hyena or a wolf or even an exotic hybrid, but with the strength of a bear. The missing limb and heart and the disembowelment are confusing, however. Those look surgical. Meanwhile, the skull looks bashed, cracked open; yup, there are blood stains on the boulder. And the marks on the animal’s back resemble puncture wounds. Click.

A sunray shoots through the sharp woody tangle. Lights up something beside the feathers. It glows like a golden strand of spider web. I point it out, but Fernandez tells me to zip it. I salute him.

A cloud passes over the sun. The golden thread dims. I pluck it from beside the feathers before it disappears. It lights up again in my hand. The thing’s weird resilience and luster is captivating. Probably a hair, but more like a small-gauge acupuncture needle. As I pocket it, something glows blue and then extinguishes in the brush ahead of me. Maybe the sun hit on colored glass or a butterfly or a blue bird.

Twigs snap in the distance. Then more. We share a silent what-the-hell? moment. The rustling and snapping gets louder. Closer. We discern growling. Something is crashing along the path that Dr. Driscoll just carved with her machete. I suck in breath and swivel my head. Fernandez is up, his hand on his Glock. No predators on Nantucket, right, Sergeant? Even Dr. Driscoll’s dusky face goes pale.

“Hello?” Fernandez keeps calling out. Dr. Driscoll and I join him. The crashing gets nearer. The snorting and growling is wet and urgent.

“Three people here,” says Fernandez. The snarls sound hungry. “Put your guns up, three people here.” His voice is high and strangled.

He unbuckles the holster on his Glock.

A Rottweiler and a blue hound burst through the opening on long vinyl leashes. Two shotgun-toting, orange-clad hunters follow them. Fernandez sighs, visibly relieved. I’m not.

“Oh hell yeah, now that’s a kill!” says Dennis Pike, struggling to hold back his big Rottweiler from Driscoll and the deer.

“Looks like a fuckin’ zombie piñata!” says his brother, Ramone Pike, pulling his own hound’s leash against his chest.

The Pike brothers. Local fishermen with scars and missing teeth above fishnet beards and burly shoulders. Ramone locks eyes with me. He doesn’t smile.

“Beautiful morning,” I say. He spits brown ooze into the sand.

We both remember the time they pulled fishing knives on me at a beach party. I was fifteen. The Pikes, a couple years older, informed me it was for locals only. I idiotically protested that I was a life-long summer kid. That a popular local girl had invited me. I didn’t know she’d dated Ramone in middle school. I remember my face feeling like it collapsed. Falling onto the sand. Looking up at them through a swollen eye in a kind of awe at the way the shadows of the campfire distorted their blockish teenage features into those of middle-aged convicts.

Sgt. Fernandez buckles in his gun and exclaims that they scared the bejeezus out of him. More rustling and heavy breathing on the path. We look up. Thick hands slap at the shrub opening.

The fat man steps through and smiles and nods hello at me. Swears at the greedy talons of scrub oak clawing at his shoulder. I can only gape. He whistles at the deer and sidles his sweaty bulk beside Dr. Driscoll and Sgt. Fernandez, asking chummily what they think did this to the deer. His heavy working class speech and twinkle-eyed charm are disarming. Driscoll speculates on predators, scavengers, disease, and demented pranksters.

“Gorman–what the hell?” I say.

Norm Gorman’s belly heaves beneath his tattered cheap leather jacket and ill-fitting orange hunting vest. The unlit cigar between his thick Irish-Saxon lips wags like a wet, vulgar tongue. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand, holding a reporter’s notebook with the New England Daily Tribune logo.

“Oh, you know me; can’t stay away from Nantucket’s rugged beauty, historic charm, the thrill of the hunt, and all that other hackneyed crap you keep regurgitatin’,” says Gorman, sucking the air like a milkshake. “And when my new buddies here heard what good pals me and you was, they took the day off the boats to go huntin’.”

“You know Nantucket’s my beat,” I say. “This is my story.”

Gorman flashes his big, coffee-toothed grin and takes notes above Dr. Driscoll. My heart pounds. Harder and harder, then arhythmically.

The scrub oak closes in on me. I’m being sucked out of my skin from the top of my head. My vision darkens. My throat swells. My heart throbs. Panic rises, a dark, fathomless tide. The adrenaline sprays through my veins like a punctured artery. I’ll freeze if I don’t start moving.

“Poaching my story won’t solve your problems,” I say, frustrated with the weakness in my voice. “It’s not my fault you cozied up with dirty cops. I’m telling Maggie you’re here. She’ll get my back.”

Dennis lets his dog loose at me. Yanks the leash against his chest. The Rottweiler growls, inches from my face.

“Try that shit again and I’ll have your dog,” says Fernandez. Dennis curls the corner of his lip beneath his grizzly bear beard and says his hand slipped.

The samples have been collected.

“I’ll get these to Doc Mulcahey,” says Dr. Driscoll. “Guys, don’t molest the carcass in the meantime. Got it?”

Ramone Pike belches. Dennis Pike spits on the ground and mutters. Sgt. Fernandez shakes his head, says, “Your mother must be so proud,” and helps Dr. Driscoll into her backpack.

Dennis turns his shoulder into mine as he walks past me to the opening. I meet his glare; shrink away. His eyes–they’re not just blood-shot, they’re murky red, darting about like ping-pong balls. Wild. Crazed. His sinewy middle finger waves at me like a billy club.

“Don’t misquote me, summer kid,” he says with carrion breath. His shotgun dangles from one hand. “We gotta square up, you and me.”

“What are you talking about?” I say. But Dennis staggers away. Ramone follows.

“Stop using so many fucking adverbs,” says Ramone. His clear tenor conveys unexpected intelligence. He was almost good-looking back when he had a full set of teeth and starred as the high school football team’s bone-crushing middle linebacker. His older brother, Dennis, wreaked havoc on the defensive line like a shroomed-up berserker. “Write like you got a pair. Not all flowery and passive. Read some Bukowski.” I tip my Nantucket Whalers cap and say thanks for the tip. The brothers follow their dogs out of the clearing.

Driscoll and Fernandez disappear into the underbrush behind them. I try to follow, but Gorman grabs my elbow and wraps a pork-and-whiskey-smelling arm around my shoulders. He asks me about the mutilations. “Just curious,” he says. “Not looking to steal your byline, honest, kid!” Something about his flat-toothed coffee grin makes you fear its disappearance.

I yank my arm away. I’m trembling. The yellow acid floods my brain, frying my neural circuits. I tell him not to touch me. My voice cracks. He gets in my grill and tells me to go screw. My eyes twitch and bubble. The world flashes hot and dark. “Just leave,” I say. “Go home.” He pokes my chest and says he’ll do whatever he wants on his own time. I’m at the precipice. Darkness surrounds me. There’s something beyond that heavy black membrane but… I don’t know. I’ve never punched through it. The darkness always wins.

I open my mouth. Words die in my chest. I’m frozen. Gorman chuckles and says, “See youz.” He ambles back to the trail, humming Dirty Old Town.

I wait in the clearing for the panic to ebb, for my senses to return. A monarch butterfly flutters onto the deer’s ear. Click. The two yellowjackets buzz like tiny chainsaws over the brains, smashing and stabbing each other with their stingers. One tumbles to the sand, dead. Click. The other buzzes in a sickly circle over the snout, then drops lifeless to the earth. Click.

My phone trembles against my thigh. I look at the text message. From Judy. SUCCESS! reads the subject. My breath returns. She just locked in a time this summer for our wedding at the yacht club and a reception at the golf club. I don’t want to know what her father is paying. But I smile. I can’t wait to see her tonight. I picture clingy material hanging from her pale, soft skin–

A sharp gust kicks sand into my face. I look back at the deer as I shield my eyes. Something glints in the gathering pool of sunlight behind its head. Squinting, I walk to it. Metal, half-revealed. I prize it from the sandy earth. My lips part. I lick them. My chest catches fire. A coin. A very valuable coin. From Oenoe, capital of Ikaria, an ancient Greek island. It’s perhaps twenty-three hundred years old. Artemis, Goddess of hunting (among other things) and patron deity of the island of Ikaria, is on one side. A bull is on the other.

“What the hell?” I murmur.

A noise–not quite animal, not quite twigs snapping–rumbles behind the deer carcass. Blue sparks in the shadows. Tiny bolts of electricity zap through my chest. Not panic. I’m excited. Like a teenager glimpsing a flash of silk panties.

 

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