The scent of death entered his nose.
Mason Callahan sniffed again, but the odor vanished in the cool morning air.
He’d stepped out onto the small front porch of the remote cabin, sipping his coffee and watching the low fog slowly weave through the tall firs, before the smell had reached him. Inside, the other four men still slept; multiple snores rumbled from the bedrooms.
It was the third day of their escape. After years of talking about taking a fishing charter off the Oregon Coast, they’d finally made it happen. It’d taken some major shuffling to assign the five detectives the same vacation week, but it’d been worth it. Yesterday’s fifteen-mile ocean boat trip had netted them more big lingcod than they could eat in a decade.
He shrugged and stepped off the porch and circled their vehicles, automatically checking for signs of break-in or low air in the tires. He moved toward the forest, searching for the source of the brief rancid scent, but he smelled only the fresh pine nearly masking the faint smell of ocean. Two neatly stacked cords of chopped wood sat in a three-sided wooden shed. The group had built a fire in the woodstove last night, feeling the chill of the coast that hadn’t moved into the valleys. Winter was coming, but Portlanders had experienced a long Indian summer that had bypassed the coast. Mason decided to bring in an armload of wood and fire up the woodstove before the other men woke. He balanced his coffee on the woodpile and started to load his arms.
Death reached his nose again.
Nothing else smells like death. Coppery and putrid and rank.
He froze and then sniffed at the stack in his arms. It’s not the wood. He leaned forward and sniffed along the woodpile. It smelled woodsy and musty.
His adrenaline spiking, Mason silently set each piece of wood back in its place on the perfect stack. A dead animal must be nearby. He listened for the sound of a bear or cougar or another predator, but all he heard was the quiet rustle of the wind in the high tops of the fir trees. He slowly stepped around to the back side of the woodshed, his hand automatically touching the empty space at his side where he usually wore his weapon, and saw the source of the odor.
He sucked in a breath, unable to move. The man’s face was hidden by a rubbery covering that had dozens of tiny spikes sticking out of it, but Mason knew he was dead. No one could survive the wide, gaping gash that had opened his neck.
Mason’s vision tunneled as he recognized the shirt Denny had worn to the bar last night and the tips of his thick black mustache poking out from under the odd covering. The ground seemed to sway under Mason’s feet, and his fingers went numb.
It was definitely his boss.
Alarms shot off in his head as Mason crouched low to the ground and tight to the woodshed, scanning the area.
He listened harder, searching for a sound, any sound. His gaze jumped from shadow to shadow in the forest.
Accepting that he was alone, he took a long look at his friend, fighting the urge to uncover his face, knowing he couldn’t disturb evidence. Unable to stop himself, he reached out with one finger and touched the back of Denny’s hand.
Mason slowly backed around the corner, trying to place his feet where he’d stepped before.
Vacation was over.
Denny Schefte’s vacation cabin sat deep in the woods, ten minutes from Depoe Bay. It was the last week of October, so the tiny coastal fishing town was quiet. Unlike during the summer months, when tourists clogged the main highway, searching for vantage points from which to take pictures of the ocean, the enclosed bay, and the quaint town.
Fish and chips, saltwater taffy, and miles of backed-up traffic constructed Mason’s memories of his old coast trips with his son and ex-wife. This trip had been different. The locals were more plentiful than tourists and the roads were clear. Their group had been the only outsiders in the bar last night. They’d gotten a few stares and had one rude drunken encounter. Mason had blamed Ray in his ironed shirts and polished loafers for highlighting the fact that they were tourists.
The Oregon coastal towns were less affluent than the larger valley cities. This wasn’t California. Most of the year, the Oregon Coast was cold, windy, and gray, and many businesses struggled to survive. Tourism was a primary source of income, but the season was extremely short. Mason didn’t consider himself a snob; he’d been raised on a ranch in rural Eastern Oregon, but he’d grown used to a Starbucks on every corner and clean silverware in a restaurant. Yesterday he’d bought a cup of coffee from the snack counter in the fishing shop. Probably not his smartest move. He could drink almost any cup of black coffee, but that one had tasted . . . odd.
It was as if he’d bought that cup of coffee in a different lifetime; today everything was different.
Standing next to him in the yard of Denny’s cabin, Ray muttered, “How can this be happening?”
Mason watched him wipe his eyes and politely looked elsewhere.
After backing away from the body, Mason had immediately roused the other three men in the cabin. He’d never been so relieved to see Ray’s face. His blood pressure had shot up as he pounded on one bedroom door and then another, scared he’d find more corpses. His partner Ray Lusco, and Detectives Duff Morales and Steve Hunsinger, had lunged out of bed within a split second of Mason’s yells at their doors. No rubbing of eyes or stretching of limbs. All three men had been instantly awake and alert, ready to react.
It came with the job.
Anger, shock, and then sorrow had shot through them at varying and dizzying speeds. The four of them had reported the death, studied the scene, and walked a fast perimeter. They’d found no indication that another person had been near the cabin. Now they stood a small distance from the body, waiting for the first local police to arrive. They’d reached out to the locals, the closest OSP office, and Denny’s boss. Mason wanted to call Ava but was waiting, wanting to be able to tell his fiancée more than “Denny’s dead.”