Author: Froggy Frog and Miller
Sheriff John Peterson was a short, white haired man with what one would politely describe as a stocky build. He wore small, round spectacles on his red button of a nose, and had a cheery smiling face. He sat behind his desk with a puzzled, but happy, look on his face.
"No. Absolutely nothing. Not in the fifteen years I've been policing Turrendale," he said. "No cults, no weirdo witches, nothing. The townsfolk around here aren't into anything of that sort."
"Other than the matter of these six murders, that is, Sheriff," Willow said.
"Oh, yes. Which is what makes this case so shocking!",the Sheriff said. "It's totally at odds with the town and people. Very disturbing, I can tell you. Deaths like this? I don't know what to think, I really don't."
Willow sat on the chair in front of Sheriff Peterson's desk. Behind her, close to the back wall of the office, stood Tara. Willow thought this was a good thing. She was less of a distraction back there.
"It is terrible, yes," Willow said. "Sheriff Peterson. Agent McClay and I would like to visit one of the murder sites in the woods. Perhaps the site of the second most recent victim."
Sheriff Peterson stood up quickly. "Well, of course! Anything we can do to help the FBI. Especially such pretty representatives as yourselves! I'll arrange for my deputy to drive you out there in the morning. Excuse me, ladies!"
The Sheriff left the office.
"What do you think, Tara?" Willow said.
"He's nice," Tara said from behind her. "Very friendly. But he's hiding something. He has to be."
"Yeah... doesn't make sense, eh?" Willow said. "Six murders with ritualistic overtones, and he's not aware of one single rumor of occult activities in the whole town."
"Perhaps, you know... He's just protecting the town's image - its reputation?" Tara suggested.
"Could be," Willow said.
The Sheriff returned and resumed his seat. He beamed a white-toothed grin at the two agents. "All organized. Tony will take you tomorrow. He'll pick you up in the morning at around 10am and drive you out there. Let you look the place over. That okay with you two?"
"Yes. Thank you Sheriff Peterson," Willow said, standing up. "Good day."
"Ladies," the Sheriff said, standing up as Willow and Tara left his office.
As if to provide balance and harmony and counter Sheriff Peterson's diminutive stature, his Deputy, Tony Mannington, was extraordinary tall. He sat in the driver's seat of the police car, his blond curly hair pressed firmly against the roof-lining. As he drove, he kept peering into the rear-view mirror at the two agents sitting in the back seat.
"Are you staying at the motel, Agent McClay?" the Deputy said.
"Um. Y-yes," Tara replied. "We both are. Agent R-rosenberg and myself, that is."
"And you live in Washington, DC?" he said, with something like awe in his voice.
"I do, yes," Tara said.
"Golly. Now me, I don't like the city. I like it up here, with the trees and fresh air and open spaces," the Deputy said. "I think you'd like it up here too, Agent McClay... and you too, Agent Rosenberg."
Willow nudged Tara's arm with her elbow and winked at her. "He likes you, dear," she said in a low voice. Tara laughed.
The Deputy pulled the car into the side of the road. "Here we are, ladies," he said, getting out of the car. The road cut its way through the middle of a forest of large oak trees. Willow and Tara followed the Deputy as he made his way into the forest.
They walked for fifteen minutes, following a small path that wound its way through the trees. Willow walked behind Tara, happily staring at her backside as she walked.
Deputy Mannington stopped suddenly. He looked around from tree to tree, trying to get his bearings.
"Yep. I'd say this is it. Just here," he said. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes and walked a few metres away. "You let me know when you're finished, ladies," he said, flicking a smoking match into the undergrowth.
Willow and Tara looked around the forest. The ground was overgrown with vegetation and there was no evidence of anything suspicious ever having happened here.
Tara pulled her notepad from her bag and walked over to a tree. She started to draw something. Curious, Willow walked up to her. As she approached Tara she felt a slight wave of nausea pass through her. Tara noticed her approach and looked over her shoulder.
"You feel that too?" she said.
"Yeah. Like on the road, but much less severe," Willow said. The feeling had quickly disappeared.
"I think it's from this," Tara said, pointing to the tree.
Willow looked closely at the tree and saw a faint design drawn on the surface of the bark. It was a dull red and glowed slightly. The pattern was an intricate combination of spirals and lines that Willow had never seen before.
"Do you recognize it, Tara?" Willow asked.
"No. You?" she said.
"Yeah... It's my hair from this morning," Willow said.
Tara laughed. "You're right. Though your hair didn't make me feel sick," she said.
"Glad to hear it," Willow said. "Look, there's more of them on the other trees."
There were four symbols, practically identical, on various nearby trees. Willow walked up to one and touched it with her finger. It felt warm and slippery.
"Interesting," she said, and took out her digital camera and snapped a shot of the tree. "Hey Tara. No need to sketch them. I've got a picture."
"Oh, don't be too sure. I've finished anyhow," Tara said, folding up her notepad and putting in her bag.
"Deputy?" Willow called out.
The Deputy threw his burning cigarette into the forest and walked over to Willow.
"What is it, Agent Rosenberg?" he said.
"Why weren't these trees mentioned in the report?" Willow asked.
"The trees? Why would we mention the trees?" the Deputy said, puzzled.
Tara walked past Willow and leaned close to her. Her soft breath teased the hair around Willow's ear. "He can't see them," she whispered, and wandered off back towards the car. Willow watched Tara, a slightly baffled expression furrowing her brow. Tara glanced over her shoulder and gave Willow a sly wink as she walked away.
Willow checked her camera, found the last shot she'd taken, and examined it closely in the small LCD display. It showed just the tree. The faint red pattern was not visible.
Willow frowned at her computer. "Nothing. Not one thing," she cursed.
"Problem?" Tara said, folding a pair of trousers and putting them into the drawer.
"Yeah. I can't find that symbol anywhere..." Willow said, exasperated. "Not in any databases or on the net or anywhere."
Tara went to sit on the bed next to Willow and looked over her shoulder at the screen.
"Perhaps the symbol doesn't mean anything," Tara said. "The spell could have nothing to do with the shape of the symbol."
"Yeah. Perhaps you're right," Willow said. She sighed. "I mean, I've been searching for it all day, and total zippo mungo... erm, no results, that is. We're no further into this than we were yesterday, in the woods."
"Something will come up. Maybe tomorrow?" Tara said.
"Yeah. I hope," Willow said. "Cos we've got very little to go on at the moment."
"Well, I didn't find anything out from Ashley Sanderten," Tara said. "She was too busy preparing dinner for a guest she was having to talk for very long. I barely spent thirty minutes with her."
"Man friend?" Willow said, typing away. "It's only been a few weeks, hasn't it? Since her husband was hacked to bits, that is."
"Twenty four days," Tara said. "Her visitor was a man, yes. But she explained that it was an old friend who was up from New York for the conference. He's staying here in the motel, apparently"
"Yeah. I saw lots of them today," Willow said. "Mass influx of suity types. All guys, too. Very serious looking people."
"Anyhow, Mrs Sanderten said that her husband wasn't the member of any clubs, had no enemies, was respected by everybody and she couldn't imagine who'd do this terrible thing to him," Tara said.
"And you didn't believe a word, eh Tara?" Willow said.
"No, I didn't," Tara said. "She was too cool. Too calm. And, I didn't like her."
She hit her keyboard in frustration. "Damn! I was sure that would work," she said.
"You'll find it, Willow," Tara said, gently. "I'm sure you will."
"Thanks, Tara," Willow said.
"Hey, I'm really tired," said Tara, yawning. "Do you mind if I go to bed?"
"No. Sure... go ahead," Willow said, concentrating on her computer screen. She spent the next half hour running a complex search for the symbol.
The search finished. Nothing. She rubbed her eyes and sighed. Perhaps she should get some sleep too.
She looked across to the other bed and saw Tara's sleeping face on the pillow. Willow had discovered that she liked Tara. Well, she'd been attracted to her from the first day she saw her, and now, a few days later, Willow's desire for Tara was a significant distraction to her work. Albeit a nice distraction. But working with Tara over the last few days had been very pleasant, and Willow had found her to be a helpful, thoughtful and caring companion. Her nervous disposition had faded in Willow's company, and things felt very comfortable between them. Willow would miss her, after this assignment was over. She made a mental note to find out what department Tara worked for, so they might see each other when they resumed their old duties. That is, assuming they would resume their old duties and not be dismissed from the Bureau.
She pushed her notebook computer to one side and put her head on her pillow, just to rest her head for a few moments. She was asleep in seconds.
"It's just the same. Identical design," Tara said, comparing the faded image on the tree trunk with the one she'd drawn on her notepad.
"Yeah. I know," Willow said. "I've looked at that thing so much recently, I think I could draw it blindfolded."
"I could blindfold you, if you like," Tara said to herself, tracing the contours of the design on the tree with her finger.
Willow heard Tara's response and grinned. And yes, I would like that, she thought. She decided to leave that subject well alone.
"Well, this is the same as the last one," Willow said. "And the one before. Let's go."
The agents had visited three other murder sites that day. All of them were in the woods, with no tangible signs of anything ever having happened there, other than the glyphs carefully drawn on four trees at each site. If not for the strange pattern, neither Tara nor Willow would have been able to pick the particular part of the woods from any other part, even with the Sheriff's detailed map.
The agents had traveled unaccompanied today, declining the assistance of the local authorities. Willow preferred to be alone. Or with Tara, she thought. That was even better than being alone.
The two made their way through the woods back to the car. It was a pleasant day, slightly overcast but not cold.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," Willow said. "Deputy Mannington invited you out to dinner."
"What?" Tara blurted in surprise. "Me?"
Willow grinned wickedly. Gotcha, she thought.
"Well, not really. He invited me too - and the Sheriff," Willow said. "But, we both know it's you he's hot for."
"Gee, thanks," Tara said, unenthusiastically. "It doesn't matter, anyway. He's not my type."
"Really?" Willow said. "So then, Tara... What exactly is your type?"
Tara laughed. "Wouldn't you like to know," she said.
I certainly would, Willow thought.
Willow parked the car in the driveway of 5404 Englewood Terrace. She peered through the windscreen at the tall, white, wooden house.
"Nice place," Willow said. "You sure it's unoccupied?"
"According to the Sheriff, yes," Tara said. "Mrs Sanderton lives three streets away now, in a house they used to rent out. It should be empty."
"Okay. Let's go check the cellar," Willow said.
The agents made their way up the steps to the front door. Tara fished a key out of her bag and unlocked the front door and opened it. Willow went inside first and flicked over the nearest light switch.
"Damn. No power," she said. "Torch time."
"I'll get them," Tara said. She went to the car and returned a few seconds later with two large black torches. She handed one to Willow and they went inside.
The house was practically bare. A few couches and chairs had been left in some rooms, and a couple of pictures hung on the living room wall. Willow and Tara found the basement door in the kitchen and started to walk down the stairs.
"Oh goddess," Tara said. "It feels much worse here!"
Willow felt it too. The nausea and feeling of dread were much stronger here than any other of the murder sites. It took all her willpower to overcome her sense of foreboding and walk down the stairs to the basement.
"Urg... This feels awful," Willow said. "Must be because this murder is so recent."
"Yeah," Tara said in a small voice.
"You okay?" Willow said.
"Yes. Fine," Tara said. Willow could here her breathing shallowly and rapidly.
"We won't stay any longer than we need to," Willow said.
"Good," Tara said.
Willow and Tara reached the concrete floor of the basement and shone their torches around.
"This is better!" Willow said. "At least there's something to see."
Unlike the crime scenes they had visited in the woods, the basement had remained practically untouched since the murder a few weeks earlier. In the center of the basement a large circle had been drawn, in chalk, on the concrete floor. Drawn inside this circle a pentagram had been inscribed. Blood was splattered all over the floor, but heavy stains of red brown were concentrated in five distinct spots - one where each hand and foot would have been, and one for the victim's head. The ropes that had bound the victim to the floor were still present.
Drawn on each of the basement's four walls were the strange symbols the agents had encountered at the other murder sites. However, these symbols glowed much brighter.
Tara went over to the pentagram and stared at it.
"This is nothing, Willow," Tara said. "It's meaningless."
Willow stood beside her and shone her torch on the chalk figure on the floor.
"You're right. I thought the pentagram was a bit strange when I read the report," Willow said. "It can represent good or bad or nothing at all. This one's a red herring."
"Perhaps it was used to give the murders an occult appearance?" Tara said. She was breathing a little easier, but still sounded like she was in pain.
"Yeah. A bit of a double ruse, perhaps?" Willow suggested. "Still, it's a little odd. To make it appear to be generic occult or witchcraft, then hide the true nature in invisible glyphs."
"Almost invisible," Tara said. "And I still don't know what they are for."
"I've thought about that too," Willow said. "I imagine if these were freshly drawn and incanted, that it might be fatal to us - to witches, that is. I just can't figure out why, though."
Tara shuddered. "Can we leave now, Willow?" she said.
"Sure," said Willow, making her way to the door. "I'll be glad to get out of here."
"Me too," Tara said.
"And we've got to go anyhow," Willow said. "You've got to get ready for your date with the Deputy!"
"It's the local blend. Distilled right here in Turrendale! Watch it... It's strong stuff," said Sheriff Peterson, pouring three small glasses of the dark, brown liquid. "Are you sure you won't have some, Agent McClay?"
"No, thank you," Tara said.
"As you wish, Ma'am. Well, it's supposed to be downed in one go, so... Here's lookin' up your address!" the Sheriff said, raising a toast to Willow and the Deputy.
Willow raised her glass and drank the bitter liquid down in one shot. Fire burned her stomach and she felt like she wanted to choke. However, she smiled a red-faced smile and offered her glass again.
"More. Well, now little lady. I'm impressed!" the Sheriff said, quickly refilling everybody's glasses.
Willow sat opposite Tara at a circular wooden table in a corner of the restaurant. Deputy Mannington sat to her left. He'd pushed his chair a little closer to Tara. To Willow's right sat the Sheriff. The restaurant was busy this evening, and most of the tables were occupied. A large fire blazed in the fireplace behind them, casting flickering yellow and orange light on the numerous animal heads that lined the walls. Various items of hunting paraphernalia hung from the walls.
Three waiters arrived carrying platters of food. Steaks and ribs, chops and sausages, chicken wings, fried onions and fried mushrooms, potatoes, slaw and fries were piled high on steaming plates on the table. A tiny bowl of salad and two jugs of gravy completed the ensemble.
Willow's jaw dropped. Tara stared in shock.
Deputy Mannington reached forward to grab a fried mushroom, then, remembering his manners, quickly withdrew his hand.
Sheriff Peterson leaned back in his chair and rubbed his paunch.
"Well, what do you think, ladies?" he said, proudly. "Ain't that one helluvva spread?" He grinned widely.
Willow looked at the various foodstuffs on the table. Enough for several coronaries, she decided. She drank down her second whiskey. It was quite tasty, if you ignored the burning sensation. It relaxed her, though, and she decided was feeling a little playful. She stared directly at Tara, a cheeky look on her face. "Yes Sheriff. Very nice. What I see looks very tasty," Willow said, keeping her eyes glued on Tara. "Delicious, in fact."
Tara pursed her lips. Then grinned. She returned Willow's stare.
"Oh, yes. I agree, Agent Rosenberg. One thing in particular is absolutely mouthwatering," she said.
Willow raised her eyebrows in surprise. Touché, Willow thought, watching Tara grin and bite her lower lip.
"It does? What's that, Agent McClay?" said Deputy Mannington.
"Eh? Oh... the c-celery. It's my favorite," said Tara, quickly grabbing a stalk from the small salad bowl.
The Deputy looked at the celery as if he'd never seen anything like it before.
"Erm. Nice. Say, Agent McClay," he said. "Do you like trucks?"
"T-trucks?" Tara said.
"Yeah. I've got one of the best off-road vehicles this side of... of somewhere else. It's totally awesome," Deputy Mannington said enthusiastically.
"It is that, young lady. One amazing piece of machinery," the Sheriff added.
"It sounds v-very nice, Deputy Mannington," Tara said.
"You can call me Tony. Oh, it's great," Deputy Mannington continued. "I thought we might find some time, you know, to have a drive around. Little Coyote I call her. The truck, that is. I take her out on weekends to Silvern Creek, it's real nice up there, and go off road..."
Willow watched for a few minutes as Tara struggled to be polite to Deputy Mannington and feign interest in his passion for large mechanical things. It made her want to laugh. But Willow had to listen too, so eventually she decided to help Tara out.
"Agent McClay," Willow said.
Tara instantly turned to Willow, eager for any distraction from the Deputy.
"Yes, Agent Rosenberg," Tara said.
"Perhaps you would like a drink now?" Willow said.
"Oh. Yes please," Tara said, desperation in her voice.
Willow poured her a full glass of the whiskey and pushed it over to her.
"Thank you," Tara said, grabbing the glass and drinking the fiery liquid down. She coughed and patted her chest.
"Shall we eat?" said the Sheriff.
The group ate their meal. Which is to say that the Sheriff and the Deputy ate practically everything but the salad, which Tara claimed had for herself. Willow stuck to the potatoes and coleslaw and hardly touched the side of beef that the Sheriff deposited on her plate.
Sheriff Peterson burped. He did that quite a bit. "Ahh. I'm stuffed," he said happily. "You ladies had enough to eat?"
"Yes, thank you," Tara said.
"More than enough," Willow added.
"So, have you two been working together long?" Deputy Mannington asked.
Tara was about to answer, but Willow interrupted her.
"Oh yes!" Willow lied. "Five years now, I think."
"Four and a half, actually, Agent Rosenberg," Tara said.
"Is it? ... Well, it's a long time, anyhow," she said.
"It feels like we've been together for ages," Tara said. "Doesn't it, Agent Rosenberg?"
"You know, you're right. It does," Willow said. "And of course, we've done hundreds of cases in that time, very similar to this one."
"Yes. Some much more gruesome, though. Lots more blood. I've wonderful pictures, if you'd like to see, Deputy Mannington?" Tara said, smiling at him.
"Er... pictures? No. No thank you, Agent McClay," the Deputy said, frowning at Tara.
Willow yawned a fake yawn. "Oh my. It's really late. We should turn in," she said. She tried to stop herself from playing a little more with Tara, but couldn't resist the temptation. "Would you like to go to bed with me, Agent McClay?" she said, in as innocent a voice as she could manage.
She watched to see if Tara would pick her up invitation.
"Yes, please," Tara said, smiling and looking directly at Willow. "I'd like that very much, Agent Rosenberg."
Well, that was clear enough for me, thought Willow.
She glanced at the Sheriff and Deputy. No clue. Good, she thought.
The two agents said goodnight to the Sheriff and the Deputy, and left the restaurant.
Willow walked beside Tara through the car park of the motel.
"Nice evening, eh?" Willow said.
"Wonderful," Tara agreed. "I never saw so much... burned meat." She giggled.
"I thought you and Tony really hit it off," she said, laughing.
"Oh yes!" Tara said. "We were m-made for each other. Trucking along, we were."
Tara stumbled slightly.
"Hmmm... too much hooch, eh?" Willow jibed.
"Eh? Oh no... not nearly enough, Willow," Tara said, still giggling. "Just feeling... nice and warm."
Large droplets of water suddenly pounded into the ground, and in seconds the two agents were in the middle of a heavy downpour.
"Let's run!" Willow said, grabbing Tara by the hand and setting off towards their building.
The two agents ran across the car park and up the stairs to their room. Willow opened the door to let Tara into the room, and followed her in.
"I'm completely soaked!" Willow said, laughing as she turned to closed the door. "Look at me! What a mess!!!"
Willow turned around to find Tara standing facing her, her face only a few centimeters from Willow's own, their damp clothing almost touching. Tara's clear, deep blue eyes held Willow like a rabbit in the headlights.
"Tara..." Willow said, her voice thick with emotion.
Tara smiled and raised her hand to push a wet strand of red hair out of Willow's eyes. She gently ran the tips of her fingers down Willow's slender neck.
Willow smiled her secret smile at Tara, and felt the FBI book of rules and protocol slipping slowly from her grasp.
"You are s-so beautiful, Willow," Tara said, softly.
She moved her face slowly towards Willow and brushed her lips against Willow's, very lightly, sending shivers of pleasure down Willow's spine. Tara pulled her head away slowly. Willow instinctively tried to close the gap Tara left, straining to touch those lips again. She reached out to pull Tara closer.
The door shook suddenly. It was being pounded heavily from the other side.
"Agent Rosenberg!! Agent McClay!!" Deputy Mannington yelled.
Willow looked longingly at Tara, then regretfully turned away.
She pulled the door open and was confronted by the rain-soaked figure of the Deputy.
"Agent Rosenberg... I'm sorry. There's been another murder! It's just come through on the radio," the Deputy said, panting heavily. "We should go!"