On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Present day

The American embassy official turned away from the grisly sight, bent over, dry heaved twice, then lost his lunch. Two American CIA investigators posing as embassy military police mopped their brows in the dense humidity, the smell of old, rotting flesh and new vomit making their skin go pale. The stench was so thick that it practically blurred the vision of those assembled. The befouled air could almost be seen rising on translucent waves of heat. The villagers kept their distance, and even the Brazilian police were slow to move too close to the carnage.

Four bodies lay in a mangled heap. Three men, one woman - their throats and limbs missing, their abdominal cavities gutted, with huge hunks of torn flesh - were scattered across the ground. Within the heat-liquefied slurry, there was a mass of flies buzzing, larva writhing, and beetles skittering for cover in the three-day-old flesh. Disturbed buzzards waited their turn to feast again from their patient posts in the trees. Twenty local farmers that had found the dead shook their heads and made the sign of the cross over their chests, while murmuring, "Cuidado, por favor! Diablo - Exu." The crowd was growing behind the police barricade.

"This wasn't the damn Devil," a CIA operative muttered. "Although I can see the locals' point. These folks definitely died a helluva awful death."

The embassy official only nodded, still trying to regain his composure.

Investigators stared at the khaki safari clothing torn away at the chest down to the abdomen on each body, making the fabric dark, muddy brown, and stiff. Removed entrails torn from the gaping abdominal cavities had been snatched away so brutally that bits of splintered ribs littered the ground next to each victim. Dead hands paralyzed with rigor mortis still clasped hunting knives, while cameras and other equipment scattered the area. Mouths were still frozen open in silent screams, gums and tongues picked away by wretched scavenger beaks. Only one skull still had eyes left in it, which were open and glassy and stared at the sepia-stained earth.

"The buzzards missed one," the other CIA man said and then glanced away toward the trees. His pale face had gone ashen even under the blaring sun, and his blond hair was matted and stained dark by sweat not generated from the heat but pure fear. He tried to summon calm as he straightened his red-and-blue rep tie, and loosened his white button-down Oxford shirt at the collar, opening the top button, then wiped his hands on the pockets of his navy blue suit. "Rebels sure have a helluva way to make a point to mark off drug territories."

"This was not rebels," the coroner finally said with conviction. "This is not an international incident. Don't make it one, either."

Slowly pushing himself up from his stooped position, the American embassy official nodded, blotting his mouth with a handkerchief then with his forearm. "I know," he said, trying not to breathe too deeply. The air smelled like blood and rotting flesh. His eyes watered from the stench.

The two CIA men stood there in navy suits and white shirts, their grim expressions partially masked behind dark aviator sunglasses. They looked almost identical, save one had brown hair, one was blond, but their just-the-facts facade was blown by the way their once-crisp white shirts clung to their bodies, sweat staining them, making them limp. Heat wasn't the only culprit. Their silent fear was palpable. All the officials and authorities present shared the same quiet terror with the locals.

"Looks like our National Geographic science team was attacked by some kind of animal. No slicing with a knife could have dismembered these bodies like this. All their expensive equipment and cameras are still here," one of the CIA men said after a moment. He raked his fingers through his perspiration-soaked brown hair. "Even the local boys didn't disturb the site by moving in to fleece the bodies of valuables, which would have made for more paperwork. So we can at least thank superstition." He walked around the remains, glancing at the carcasses. "No shell casings, there wasn't even time for them to defend themselves."

"Then, Se----or, make sure that this is what is said in your media. This was no crime - just an unfortunate animal attack." The Brazilian police captain wiped at the trickle of sweat running from his temple with his forearm.

"Problem is, there's hardly anything left to ship home," the other CIA man said, shaking his head at the remains. "That will make the news. If we don't tell it, one of the family members will."

"As long as it doesn't put a negative slant on our country," the Brazilian police captain said anxiously. "Tourism is down and only coming back very slowly, Se----or, especially with the Americanos. Tourism is big - "

"This was a freak situation," the embassy official assured the nervous officer, while ignoring the terror-stricken expressions on the villagers' faces. "The incidents in the regions of Belem, Manaus, Para, Salvador, and Maranhao were all locals who were deep in the jungle where most of our wildlife live and tourists generally don't go there. The fact that this American team was attacked in the hillside areas near Rio de Janeiro - "

"Should not be made into an international incident. Yeah, we got it," the senior CIA official said impatiently. "Bag the bodies, inform the families, and we'll handle the media. Case closed."

Los Angeles, California

Detective Berkfield studied the Internet report with care as he slowly sipped his morning coffee and stared at his laptop. Nothing had even hit the US news. Weird. He could smell a coverup a mile away, and had it not been for his relentless search into obscure news for all things strange, he might have missed it. Ever since his encounter with Carlos Rivera, every bit of information he'd gleaned from Rivera's tips had sent him to search those regions for anything out of the ordinary, particularly bizarre murders, accidents, and deaths.

His gaze darted nervously around the slightly modern suburban kitchen, wondering if it was time to have a priest come in and bless his house. Somehow the gun he wore just didn't seem to bring much comfort, especially not when reading this type of news. It reminded him too much of what he'd seen in an alley not too long ago, and he thought that was all behind him. The world was going from bad to worse. He was still having nightmares, and this crap didn't make him feel any closer to making them stop.

"Do you believe this shit..." he whispered in the vacant kitchen and read the tiny, almost insignificant article again. "Happened over a week ago, and we're just hearing about it?" His mind wrestled with what could have kept something like this hidden in the middle columns of the papers, out of the headlines of the Brazilian press, and away from major news sources in the States. There was only one plausible answer; it had to be much more than what was reported, if someone had gone to such lengths to bury a story.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. He'd seen shit similar to this before, right in his own backyard. Kids with their throats ripped out and chests torn open, bodies mysteriously disappearing from the morgue... The article said mutilated. What did that mean? It was what the paper didn't say that disturbed him. He'd seen plenty of madness that he still couldn't explain to a soul, much less himself. Question was, where was one Carlos Rivera?

Maybe he'd have to go ask the only person that might know - an always very hard to locate Damali Richards.

You've got a piece of my soul buried within you. Why you gotta take us both through pure hell?--Damali Richards, "Piece of my Soul."

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