“You’ve been up there?” Artemis asked. She stared down at the Jenkins Law office’s persian carpet that was made from beautiful workmanship. It was stretched out over a thick padding that also absorbed sound. “Been near that tree, those mushrooms?”
Jerome Jenkins tapped his long left forefinger over his lips. His office chair calmly shifted side to side.
“Yes,” Jerome said. “It’s a rather brutal group, I try to avoid the area these days.”
Artemis studied Attorney Jenkins’ pale blue eyes, the cadence from his voice, and his blank expression.
“You called the FBI?” Artemis asked. She set her backpack down. “You’re the only person, it’s obvious.”
“I see,” Jerome said. He stared directly at Artemis. “You know something, if you live in a place long enough, you know everybody, every squirrel, every blade of grass, if something’s different, you just know.”
“I think they killed a little girl,” Artemis said. Her gaze locked onto Jerome.
Jerome grunted. He slipped his eyeglasses on, and he took in a deep breath through his open mouth.
“So we are clear,” Jerome said. He pointed over at Artemis. “We’re off the record, we’re just talking, right?”
“I understand,” Artemis said.
“No, the answer is?” Jerome asked.
“Off the record, yes,” Artemis said. “I’ll keep this to myself.”
“Good,” Jerome said. He got up. “Let’s take a walk, I want to show you something. Leave your backpack, it’s safe here.”
Artemis walked along with Jerome down the downtown street in Selene, Kentucky. He pointed out the new high school, where he used to eat sliders on Friday nights, and cruised aimlessly in his junker with friends wondering how he’d escape the town.
“You love this place,” Artemis said.
“I do,” Jerome said. “I had to learn the hard way, sometimes you have to leave, kick some tires, make some mistakes to realize what you had, I was lucky. I’ll die here, happily.”
“How do you make it?” Artemis said. She stopped walking, and stuffed her hands inside her coat pockets. “Have enough work, you know, how do you pay the bills? It takes a lot of money to fund a med mal case, we’re just getting started.”
Jerome waved over at a middle-aged couple slowly driving past them from the opposite direction along the street. He looked down at Artemis with a sheepish grin.
“Like them,” Jerome said. He pointed his thumb back toward the passing four door sedan. “I’ve known them before they got married, any legal work, they come to me. It’s straight forward work. Besides, I’ve made a few healthy licks over in Lexington, I’m in a good spot, you know that.”
“I do, you have a reputation,” Artemis said. A man inside a rusty truck, smoking a half burnt cigarette honked over at Jerome.
“Robert Charles,” Jerome said over at the man. “Nice to see you. Kept that thing going, impressive.”
The man inside the truck grinned over with browning front teeth, he gave Jerome the Queen’s back hand wave, and drove his squeaking carriage down the side street.
“Why the FBI?” Artemis said. “Local police not good enough.”
“They’ve decided to look the other way,” Jerome said. He nudged Artemis to follow him past a CVS. “Let me show you.”
And Artemis realized her hotel was nearby, the CVS was the same one she passed walking toward Most High cemetery.
“Cemetery?” Artemis asked. She continued to walk along with Jerome. She saw the pointy gates, the ancient oaks, and the headstones. “You really know how to treat a girl.”
Jerome acknowledged Artemis’ comment. He unlocked the cemetery gate and started to stroll forward with Artemis.
“I’ll end up here,” Jerome said. He pointed over at a section. “Family plots over there, drop my dead carcass in a hole, say something nice over me.”
“You’re a believer?” Artemis asked. She looked up to find a black raven staring down at her from the same oak branch. “Sorry, don’t mean to be personal.”
“No problem,” Jerome said. “I am. I believe there’s a loving God, but it’s not for this world. This world is full of evil, I think the truth to your question, read the book of Job, ever read it?”
Artemis noticed they were strolling toward a grave she had already visited. She stared down at the tombstone for Lilly Ann.
“I have, I’ve always been interested in religious studies, but, I’m not a believer,” Artemis said. She nodded down at the grave site. “Why are we here?”
“Little girl, Lilly Ann,” Jerome said. He kneeled down and whispered a prayer, he made the sign of the holy cross with his fingers, and he tapped on the headstone. “They found her out in the forest, dead, the photos taken at the scene, not the way a sweet little girl should die, I’ll leave it at that.”
Jerome stood up, he glanced away from Artemis. He was oddly quiet, and still. Artemis crossed her arms, and was thankful it was a bright sunny day.
“You knew her?” Artemis asked. She contemplated Jerome’s emotions, why he had turned his back to her, and the headstone.
“Not really, I remember her as a baby,” Jerome said. He turned back around, but kept looking downward at the brown grass. “I knew her grandmother, my wife and I both knew her grandmother. It’s a strange sensation when you realize you’re old enough that your high school friends are grandparents.”
“I guess it’s all about perspective,” Artemis said. “I hope to live long enough to find out.”
“Funny, being older becomes a blessing,” Jerome said. “And truthfully, I practice law for the pure joy. Now, it’s fun to tangle with the likes of you and your people.”
Artemis closely inspected the cemetery. It was strange to observe the headstones, the plots under clear sky’s.
“What drives me is the unfairness,” Jerome said. He appeared to contemplate his life. “I was blessed in to many ways, it’s a bit embarrassing, this girl, child, simply at the wrong place, with the wrong people, I fail to understand.”
“What happened?” Artemis said. She closed her eyes and waited for the truth to emerge. “To Lilly Ann.”
“Found her little body out there,” Jerome said. He waved out toward the hulking hills covered with thorny trees and jagged rocks. “She’d wondered off, mother was an addict, fentanyl, later found her mother dead, over dose.”
Jerome squinted his eyes, and maintained his emotions.
“That’s terrible,” Artemis said.
“Yeah, she was left all alone,” Jerome said. He wiped tears from his eyes. “Well, Lilly Ann had been half eaten, wild animals, so forth.”
“That’s awful,” Artemis said.
“The medical examiner from over in Lexington, said she’d eaten mushrooms they call, death caps?” Jerome said. He looked up into the nearby tree appearing to examine the rough bark. “Yeah, that’s right. They figured she’d gotten lost, got hungry, ate the wrong thing, she never had a chance.”
Artemis looked up at Jerome. He was clearly upset. And she was now quite aware she was being watched. There were several undead floating nearby, staring at her. Thankfully, she thought, Lilly Ann had moved on into another universe. But she was certain they were there because Satan wanted her to see them.
“You know something else?” Artemis asked. “The reason you called the FBI.”
“Correct,” Jerome said. “The local police, they’re corrupt, I ignore them. In truth, I think this little girl was murdered.”
Artemis remained quiet, her red hair was tussled by the constant breeze. She averted any eye contact.
“I’ve been up into the forest,” Artemis said, cryptically. “With an FBI agent, a local grocery owner, Virgil.”
Jerome nodded his head.
“I’ll keep quiet,” Jerome said. “And?”
“I’m not sure why, I think the hospitals involved, the FBI agent is being way to obvious,” Artemis said. She kneeled down to gloss her hand across Lilly Ann’s grave marker. “But, there’s a group out there, they’re nuts, all into mushrooms.”
“I know Virgil,” Jerome said. He sighed. “He’s not a bad guy, drinks to much. But, got a soft heart. He took you there?”
“Yeah,” Artemis said. She looked back up at Jerome.
“It’s not an easy spot to hike into,” Jerome said. “You’d need a guide, right?”
“Right,” Artemis said. “You’ve been there?”
“Yes,” Jerome said. “Just us talking, right?”
“Yes,” Artemis said.
“I think they murdered Lilly Ann,” Jerome said. “They sacrifice animals, sometimes people, but there’s never any evidence left behind.”
“You saw it happen?” Artemis said. “After…”
“Yes,” Jerome said. “They’re smart, sick, but quite smart. They don’t leave a lot of loose ends. Very little evidence, until this child was found.”
Artemis stood up and pulled out her smartphone.
“If I show you something,” Artemis said. She held the smartphone forward. “It’s disturbing.”
“I can handle it,” Jerome said. He sucked in a deep breath through his nose. “I’m old.”
And Artemis pressed the play icon, and the iPhone video of the tree, the mushrooms, the masked man and the lamb sacrifice before the ground opened up to consume the animal.
“I don’t know what to think,” Artemis said. “This has nothing to do with your med mal claim. But now I know, thanks to your friends at the FBI getting me to play along.”
Jerome reflectively stared across the cemetery.
“She ran for her life,” Jerome said.
“Sorry?” Artemis asked.
“Lilly Ann,” Jerome said. He scowled at Artemis. “Her mother was never found, presumed dead. Lilly Ann’s body had bruises, and slash marks on her. She ran for her life. And worse…”
Artemis was certain what Jerome was about to tell her next. But Lilly Ann had already told her the truth.
“Worse?” Artemis asked, ruefully.
“Someone, something had carved her heart out,” Jerome said. “And left her body behind, must have gotten spooked away before they dragged her back to that tree.”
“They created whatever that thing is,” Artemis said.
“Mycelium,” Jerome said. “I did some research after I saw what you saw. It’s what lurks under the soil. I think your Dr. Demetrius has something to do with it.”
Artemis turned to face Jerome.
“Genetics,” Artemis said. “You know about Dr. Demetrius and his mushrooms?”
“I do,” Jerome said. “Small town, we all know each other’s business.”
Artemis stepped away from Jerome.
“You don’t have the proof,” Artemis said. She stared at Jerome. “I know that you’re searching, nothing solid. It’s become dangerous to go out there. The hospitals kept in almost total lock down, administration seems obsessed.”
Jerome nodded, he squeezed his nose with his right hand fingers, and paused.
“Smart lady, but the hospitals got cameras every where. I can’t just walk about without them noticing,” Jerome said. “The police are not interested in investigating her death. My hope is the FBI might open a case. But that hospital and those kooks out there, they are connected. I’ll find out, and if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll get Lilly Ann some justice.”
“For now, let’s keep talking,” Artemis said. She started to walk away. “It’s not something I’ll share with anybody, you know important, yet. Understand?”
“I do,” Jerome said. He pointed forward. “Thank you, the gates over there.”
“Besides, I might need your help,” Artemis said. “It’s a personal matter, a little girl, total coincidence.”
“I know, I know her, there are no secrets in the mountains,” Jerome said. He walked past Artemis. “I’ll help you, or at least try.”
“I guess you’re watching me, too,” Artemis said. She shrugged. “I’ll be back in town in a week or so, we should talk some more then, see where we both are.”
As Artemis left the Jenkins Law office behind, ahead she saw Satan sitting on a metal bus stop bench wearing a heavy coat, and a plaid red, wool hunting cap. It was whittling a hickory branch.
“Artemis,” Satan said. “I’ve been waiting for you. I like this human body, makes me look local.”
Artemis stopped walking. She shifted her military backpack and gripped the shoulder sling. She stared down the concrete sidewalk at the modest brick buildings.
“What?” Artemis said.
“Look, I’m whittling a whistle,” Satan said. “I’ll give it to you, just in case, for an emergency. You never know, right?”
“Thanks,” Artemis said. She was stone faced. “What?”
“He’s all in,” Satan said. It chuckled. “He actually does believe in Jesus, God, swallowed the whole deal. I cannot quite get into that brain, yet.”
“He’s not for sale,” Artemis said. “Nor am I.”
Satan took the whittling knife, and sliced its human thumb.
“Look, human blood, Artemis, I’m bleeding,” Satan said. It curiously examined the wound. “It hurts this body, if I let it keep bleeding, this body dies.”
“Keep bleeding,” Artemis said, coldly.
“That’s the spirit,” Satan said. “Hate, oh I can feel your hate, thank you.”
“What do you want this time?” Artemis asked. She stared down at Satan who had snapped its fingers and stopped its thumb from bleeding, and it had instantly healed the wound.
“Just wanted to ask if you enjoyed the show?” Satan said. “Sorry, you missed out on the lust part, they all seemed to like my efforts. It was quite the fun, debasing humans.”
“I’m glad I left,” Artemis said. “What’s with the mycelium, not normal to eat an animal.”
“Ah, get to the point, I hate that,” Satan said. It inspected its whittling. The hickory wood fragrance was strong. “I think you stumbled onto a good clue, while you were talking about Lilly Ann, genetics.”
“Yeah?” Artemis said.
“Yes, I’m proud of you,” Satan said. It smiled in a menacingly gaze that another show was on Artemis’ future play list. “If you were smart enough, and you wanted to do something really, really awful, but appear to be doing something wonderful, right?”
Artemis shook her head.
“I don’t understand,” Artemis said. “You’re being cryptic.”
“I know, it’s all part of your journey,” Satan said. It handed Artemis a perfectly whittled hickory wood whistle. “Here, take it, give it Laina, she might use it as an emergency whistle.”
Artemis held the whistle in her fingers, as Satan dissolved into the late afternoon air. She held the whistle in her hand certain it was a sign from the Evil One. She thought about her mission, and she was starting to focus on how to clean up the mess she was sent to clean up.
End. Chapter 18.
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