Read an Excerpt
By Tim Downs
Howard BooksCopyright © 2003 Tim Downs
All right reserved.
Cary, North Carolina, April 21, 1999
Nick Polchak rapped his knuckles on the frame of
the open doorway. He glanced back at the Wake County Sheriff's Department
police cruiser blocking the driveway, orange and blue lights silently
"Yo!" Nick called into the house. "Coming in!"
fresh-faced sheriff's deputy in khaki short sleeves poked his head
around the corner and beckoned him in. Nick wondered where they got these
kids. He looked younger than some of his students.
Nick stepped into the entryway. Dining room on the right, living room
on the left. It was a typical suburban Raleigh home, a colonial five-four-and-a-door
with white siding and black shutters. A mahogany bureau stood just inside
the door. At its base lay three pair of shoes, one a pair of black patent
leathers. Nick shook his head.
He knew the layout by heart: stairway on the left, powder room on the
right, down a short hallway was the kitchen, and the family room beyond
Nick paused in the second doorway and took a momentto study the young
officer. He stood nervously, awkwardly, constantly checking his watch.
His right hand held a handkerchief cupped over his nose and mouth, and
he winced as he sucked in each short gulp of air. Nick followed the officer's
frozen gaze to the right; the decomposing body of a middle-aged woman
lay sprawled across the white Formica island in the center of the kitchen.
Nick knocked again.
"Officer Donnelly, is it? I'm Dr. Nick Polchak.
Are you the first one here?"
"I was just a few blocks away, so I took the call." He glanced
again at his watch. "Our homicide people ought to be along within
Nick began to stretch on a pair of latex gloves and stepped around to
the victim's head. "The name on the mailbox said 'Allen.'"
"Stephanie Allen. That's all I've been able to get
so far." The deputy nodded silently toward the family room, where
a solitary figure sat slumped forward in a red leather chair with his
buried in his hands. Nick raised his own left hand and wiggled his ring
finger. The deputy nodded.
"I didn't get your namedid you say Kolchek?"
"Polchak. Nick Polchak."
"You don't sound like you're from around these parts."
"I'm from Pittsburgh," Nick said. "And I'd say
The deputy grinned. "How'd you know?"
"You left your shoes at the door."
"They don't do that in Pittsburgh? I guess they don't have
the red clay."
"The police don't do that in Pittsburgh. They figure
if you've got a dead body in the kitchen, you've got more to
worry about than dirty carpets."
The body lay faceup, stretched out diagonally across the island under
the bright kitchen fluorescents.
"Very handy," Nick said. "Too bad I don't find them
all like this."
The head rested in one corner, with medium-length blond hair flowing out
evenly on all sides. There were deep abrasions and contusions on the neck
and lower jaw. The body was in putrefaction, the second major stage of
decomposition. The skin was blistered and tight from expanding gases,
and the stench was considerable. There were sizable maggot infestations
in both eye sockets and in the gaping mouth cavity. She had been dead
for several daysmaybe a week or more.
"You got here fast, Doc. I thought the medical examiner's office
was in Chapel Hill."
Nick shook his head. "I didn't come from Chapel Hill. I came
from NC State. I picked up your call on my police scanner."
"From the university? What were you doing there?"
"That's where I work."
Nick removed a pair of slender forceps and a small magnifier from his
coat pocket. He bent close to the victim's head and began to carefully
sort through the wriggling mass of maggots in the left eye socket.
"Wait a minute. You're not from the medical examiner's
"Never said I was."
"Then who in the"
"I'm a member of the faculty at NC State. I'm a professor
in the department of entomology."
"A professor of what?"
"I'm a forensic entomologist, Deputy. I study the way different
necrophilous arthropods inhabit a body during the process of decomposition."
The deputy stood speechless.
Nick plucked a single plump, white larva from the wiggling mass and held
it under the magnifier. "I'm the Bug Man."
The deputy began to blink rapidly. "Now just hold on you're
not supposed to you're not a part of this "
"Relax," Nick held the forceps aloft. "It's just one
bug. There's plenty more where that came from."
"You need to leave, Dr. Polchak."
"Becauseyou're not a medical examiner, and you're
not with the department. You shouldn't be here. It's not procedure."
"Not procedure. I have assisted the authorities on seventy-two
cases in thirteen different countries. How many homicides did you have
in Wake County last year? Five? Ten?"
The deputy shrugged.
"And how many of them did you work?"
"I never heard of any Bug Man," the deputy muttered.
Nick glanced down at the man's stocking feet. "Now there's
Now Nick turned to the motionless figure in the red chair. "Mr. Allen,"
he called out. "I'm Dr. Nick Polchak. I'd like to ask you
a few questions, if you don't mind."
"No," came a whisper from under the hands. "No questions."
"Mr. Allen," the officer broke in. "This man is not a part
of the official police investigation. You don't have to answer his
"He's right," Nick said. "But you can if you want
to. And when the homicide people get here, Mr. Allen, they're going
to ask questionsquite a lot of them. First the police will ask you
when you first discovered your wife's body."
The man looked up for the first time. His face was ashen and drawn, and
a deep purple crescent cradled each eye.
"It was less than an hour ago," the man said. "I called
the police immediately."
"Immediately? Your wife has been dead for quite some time, Mr. Allen."
"I've been out of town. I just got back, just today. And then
I found her, like like this."
Nick nodded. "Next the police will ask you where you were during
The man did a double take. "Me? Why me?"
"Because the one who discovers the body is always a suspect."
"Like I said, I was out of town. I was in Chicago, on business. For
a whole weekthey can check it out."
"I'm sure they will," Nick said, "and I'm sure
they'll find you're telling the truth. Their next question will
be: What day did you leave for Chicago?"
The man thought carefully. "Last Wednesday. The fourteenth."
"That would be seven days ago exactly. And prior to that time,
Mr. Allen, did you see your wife alive and well?"
"We said good-bye right here, on Wednesday morning. She was perfectly
"You're sure you left that day? On the fourteenth?"
"Of course I'm sure! You think I can't remember a week
Nick held the specimen up and studied it closely. Then he looked back
at Mr. Allen.
"Care to try again?"
Nick dragged a chair from the breakfast nook into the family room and
sat down opposite the man, with the tiny white specimen still writhing
in the forceps in his right hand. He offered the magnifier to the man.
"I want you to take a look at something."
"I can't look at that. Get that thing away from me!"
"Oh come now," Nick whispered. "You have a stronger stomach
than thatdon't you, Mr. Allen?"
The man looked startled; he hesitated, then reluctantly took the magnifier
in his left hand.
"Pull up a chair," Nick called back to the deputy. "Learn
something." Nick slowly extended the forceps. "Take a look at
that end. Tell me what you see."
The magnifier trembled in the man's hand.
"Little lines," he mumbled. "Sort of like slits."
"How many little lines?"
"Give the deputy a look, Mr. Allen. Those 'little lines'
are called posterior spiraclesthink of them as 'breathing
holes.' The maggot you're holding is the larva of a common blow
fly. That fly landed on your wife's body shortly after her death
and began to lay eggs in the softest tissuesthe eyes, the mouth,
and so on. Those eggs hatched into larvae, and the larvae began to feed
"Now when a larva grows, it passes through three distinct stages
of development. Are you following me, Mr. Allen? Because this is the important
part: The larva doesn't develop those breathing holes until the third
stage. And after many studies, we know exactly how long it takes for this
species of fly to reach that third stage of development. Guess what, Mr.
Allen? It takes more than a week."
The man began to visibly shake as Nick rocked back in his chair and folded
his hands behind his head.
"Let's see what we've got so far. You've been out
of town for a weekexactly a week. You say that you saw your
wife alive one week ago, yet there are insects on her body that prove
that she died more than a week ago."
"Well uh ," the man stammered, "maybe I was gone
longer than I thought."
"The airline's records can clear up that little point. And I'm
betting those same records will show that you made your reservations the
same day that you traveledsort of a last-minute business
trip, you might say. I have just one more question for you, Mr. Allen.
The police won't ask you this one, but it's something I've
always wondered about "
Nick leaned forward again.
"When you strangle someone, can you feel the hyoid bone break, or
is it all just sort of soft and squishy?"
The man jumped frantically from his chair and lunged toward the door.
He ran like a man in a funhouse, stumbling first one way and then the
other, throwing himself from wall to wall, ricocheting wildly down the
hall toward the open door.
The deputy sat frozen in astonishment, staring wide-eyed at the doorway.
"I think you're supposed to run after him," Nick said.
"That's what they always do on TV."
The deputy thrust the magnifier and forceps into Nick's hands and
raced barefooted down the hallway. Nick rose slowly from his chair, shook
his head, and headed back toward the body. As he passed the hallway he
caught a glimpse of the mahogany bureau just inside the front door.
The top drawer was open.
Nick ran to the door and leaped out onto the brick porch. There was no
sign of the deputy or his quarrythey had already rounded the house,
probably headed for the woods in back.
"He's armed!" Nick shouted. "Your man is armed!"
Nick looked both directions. He chose left and raced toward the corner
of the house. "An amateur cop chasing an amateur murderer,"
he said aloud. "Someone could get killed this way."
He rounded the corner in a wide arc, expecting to lengthen his stride
into a long run for the woodsbut there, bracing himself against
the far corner of the house, leaned the quivering figure of Mr. Allen.
In his right hand a .357 magnum dangled toward the ground.
Nick skidded to a halt. The man saw him, straightened, and wobbled out
away from the house. He turned to face Nick and slowly raised the weapon.
He couldn't steady it; Nick felt the barrel sweep back and forth
across his body again and again. The man's arm shook so violently
that he looked more like he was whitewashing a fence than aiming a firearm.
Nick marked the distance between themfifty feet at least. At this
distance, it would take several tries for the man to hit him.
But it only takes one.
"Listen to me, Mr. Allen. You did something stupid. Don't make
it worse. You cannot get away, and you know it. You're only running
because you're scared."
The gun swept past twice more, marking Nick with a broad X.
"Think, Mr. Allen. Maybe you didn't mean to kill your
wife but if you shoot someone else, they'll hang you for sure.
Put the gun down. Call a lawyer and see what you can work out."
The gun began to steady
Over the man's shoulder Nick saw a khaki figure step out silently
from behind the house. The deputy drew his own handgun, leveled it, then
opened his mouth as if to shout. Nick held up both hands and shook his
You idiot! I'm in your line of fire!
The man spun around, firing wildly before he even faced his foe. The officer
fired back; the first shot streaked over the man's left shoulder.
Nick could feel it coming, he could sense the air compressing ahead of
the bullet as it tore past his left ear.
Nick dove for the ground. The man continued to fire blindlythree
shots into the ground, one into the air, two into the side of the house.
The officer fired twice more, shooting for the torso, not trusting his
own aim. The first shot caught the man in the lower abdomen and the second
hit square in the chest. Nick watched the man take both bullets. It was
not at all like the moviesno violent recoil, no sense of impact
at all. The man stood motionless for a moment, then his knees suddenly
bent in opposite directions, and he sagged to the ground like a crumpling
Nick crawled toward the broken body. He pulled the gun away and tossed
it aside; the barrel burned his hand. He placed two fingers on the carotid
artery and waited.
Nick looked up at the deputy and shook his head. The officer's knees
buckled, and he dropped to the ground, vomiting.
Nick rolled onto his back and stared up into the April sky.
"Seventy-three cases," he said.
North Carolina State University, April 22, 1999
"Nicholas? A word, if you please."
Nick stepped into the office of Dr. Noah Ellison, chairman of the department
of entomology and by far the most senior professor in any department at
NC State. Dr. Ellison quietly closed the door behind them.
"Nicholas," he began, wagging a spindly finger, "it has
been brought to my attention that you failed to appear for another of
your classes yesterday."
"Sorry, Noah, I had to make a house call."
"It is my responsibility as chairman of this department to remind
you that your contract involves a certain amount of teachingand
your colleagues have reminded me that it is my duty to discipline you
Noah picked up Nick's right hand and slapped him on the wrist.
"Consider yourself disciplined. Please do not force me to resort
to such extreme measures again."
The old man motioned for Nick to sit.
"I have good news and I have bad news, Nicholas. Which would you
"Give me both at the same time."
"Very well. The good news is the National Science Foundation has
granted funding for your summer research proposal continuing study
in your beloved field of forensic entomology. The bad news is that the
grant is woefully inadequate, hardly more than a one-way ticket out of
Noah slid a check across the desk. Nick glanced at it and rolled his eyes.
"Can't we do any better than this, Noah? Aren't there any
He shook his head. "I control the purse strings, Nicholas, but not
the size of the purse. I'm afraid that's it; take it, as they
say, or leave it."
Nick studied the check again, hoping to discover a floating decimal point.
"What am I supposed to accomplish with this?"
"You have the faculty committee's permission to spend the summer
at our Extension Research Facility in Holcum County. And you may take
your research assistant, Dr. Tedesco, along with you."
"Holcum County? Is that in North Carolina? Please, tell me it's
"Forgive me, Nicholas." Noah smiled. "Sometimes I feel
like the poet Virgil, leading you to ever deeper levels of hell."
"Holcum County." Nick groaned. "Just the sound of
"Try not to think of it as a place, but as an opportunityan
opportunity to get away from the university, away from the classroom,
away from students and, I might add, away from the authorities."
"I received a rather belligerent phone call this morning from the
Wake County Sheriff's Department regarding the way youhow shall
I put itexpedited one of their investigations. I've
spoken with the chancellor; he agrees that this would be a propitious
time for you to take an extended leave. Purely in the name of science,
of course. May I make a suggestion, Nicholas? As a friend? The next time
you desire to assist the authorities, you might considerjust onceasking
Nick grinned at the old man, slid the check from the desk, and headed
for the door.
"One more thing, Nicholas. This is to be a summer of theoretical
research, not applied science. Please for the sake of the university,
the department, and your weary old mentorfor the sake of your jobtry
to stay out of trouble."
"Noah," Nick said yawning, "what kind of trouble can you
get into in Holcum County?"
Excerpted from Shoofly Pie by Tim Downs Copyright © 2003 by Tim Downs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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