Author: Froggy Frog and Miller
Deputy Mannington sped through the quiet, rain-soaked streets of Turrendale like a madman, siren blaring and lights blazing. Willow sat next to Tara in the back seat. She checked the seat belt to make sure it was nice and tight.
"Erm... you can slow down Deputy," Willow said. "Whoever the victim is, they aren't going to get any deaderer - er, more dead."
"Oh. Yes, sorry," the deputy said. "I was... that is, I thought you would like to get to the scene quickly - you know, to check out all the clues and things while they are new and fresh."
"That's right. We do," Willow said. "But let's make sure we actually get there first."
She ran her fingers through her damp hair and strained to see her reflection in the side window. Nice drowned-rat look, Willow, she thought.
Willow noticed Tara sat staring fixedly out the window, apparently avoiding looking at her. Was Tara embarrassed? In a few short minutes their relationship had become a great deal more complicated, Willow thought. But it was a pleasant complication, nevertheless, and Willow was actually looking forward to things becoming even more complicated. But at the moment there were more pressing matters.
"Is this murder also in the woods?" Willow asked, noticing just how few lights there were outside.
"No. It's... well, it's right here!" Deputy Mannington said, skidding to a halt by the side of the road. Another police car was parked on the side of the street beside an ambulance, and the flashing lights from both vehicles shone brightly in the rain. They had stopped near the edge of town, where only the lights from a few houses and small farm buildings broke up the darkness of the countryside.
The emergency vehicles were parked at the end of a long driveway that wound its way for two hundred metres to a small, shabby cottage. Willow could see lights on inside the house, and several moving torches shining around the outside of the building.
"Let's go, Tara," Willow said, getting out of the car.
The deputy ran down the path. He seemed rather excited, Willow thought - he wouldn't see many murder cases like this one. She walked down the path, shivering against the cold wet wind. Tara was still standing by the side of the police car, fumbling with her umbrella. Willow wished she'd brought an umbrella too. She wrapped her long black coat tightly around her and walked onwards.
Then it hit her. Not a wave or sensation this time, but a vicious blow of pain. Dread and horror filled her mind and she collapsed onto her knees. Stupid, she thought. You should have known, Willow. Her back arched as she spewed the contents of her stomach onto the path. More violent spasms of pain wracked her body, causing her to retch even more. She couldn't breathe.
She knew she had to get further away from the house - back to the car, to Tara - but her head was spinning and she couldn't see which way to go. She couldn't discern the house lights from the lights of the vehicles. She tried to speak, to call out to Tara, but couldn't move her mouth.
Willow head footsteps nearby. "Willow? Oh no! Oh dear, Willow!" Tara. Stay away Tara. Please. Don't come any closer. She tried in vain to give voice to her thoughts. The pain increased and darkness crept in around the edge of her vision. Willow felt a surge of panic she was going to pass out.
Then she heard Tara murmuring softly. She suddenly smelled roses. Flowers. Sweet, fresh air. Her head cleared, the pain disappeared. Silence.
"Willow? Come to me," Tara said. Willow staggered to her feet and walked, dazed, towards Tara. She peered through the rain and saw Tara, sheltered underneath the umbrella, her eyes closed, her brow furrowed in concentration. Oh goddess - a spell, Willow thought. She stumbled towards her and fell on the floor at Tara's feet.
"Willow," Tara said. Willow felt warm, soft hands help her sit up her and prop her against something - the police car. Abruptly, the smell of flowers disappeared and the stench of her own vomit filled her nose and mouth.
She opened her eyes and saw Tara's concerned face staring back. She was wiping her mouth and chin with a handkerchief.
"Can you hear me, Willow?" Tara said.
"Yeah. I hear you." Willow said.
"You okay?" Tara said.
"I think so. The pain's gone." she said. She pushed the hair out of her eyes and smiled weakly. "Oh dear, I must look like a dog's breakfast though. Phew. I totally smell like one."
"You... you look fine, Willow." Tara said.
Willow clambered to her feet and leaned against the car and tried to breath deeply. Her chest hurt from the effort of vomiting, but her vision was clear and she felt much better.
She took Tara's hand and squeezed it gently. "Thanks, Tara," Willow said. "Thanks for... whatever you did just now."
A small smile brightened Tara's concerned face.
"Actually... I... I panicked," Tara said. "I cast a tranquility spell... It was all I could think of."
"It worked well. Very well," Willow said. "You're very good, Tara."
"Well... not really," Tara said, shyly.
"I hope nobody was watching," Willow said. "Did anyone see, do you think?"
"I don't know. It's too dark to tell," Tara said, looking around. She noticed a torch moving towards them down the path. A few moments later the figures of Sheriff Peterson and Deputy Mannington became visible in the headlights. Willow straightened off her coat and tried to look presentable.
"Hello there?", the sheriff said. "Everything okay?"
Willow cleared her throat. "Erm, yes. Fine, thank you, Sheriff Peterson," she said.
"You sure? I thought I saw you fall," the sheriff said. He eyed Willow suspiciously. "My god, You look awful! No offense intended, Ma'am."
"That's okay, Sheriff Peterson. No offense taken," Willow said. "Too much country cooking, I think. I feel a little queasy, that's all."
"Eh? Well, whatever," he said. "You wanna go look at the crime scene? The paramedics are getting ready to cart the guy off to the morgue."
"No... No thank you", Willow said. "It's okay. We've... we've... That is..." She struggled for an excuse.
"If possible, I'd like to p-perform the autopsy myself, Sheriff Peterson," Tara said. Willow looked at her in surprise.
Both Sheriff Peterson and Deputy Mannington raised their eyebrows simultaneously.
"You want to do the... autopsy?" the deputy said.
"You can do that?" the sheriff added.
"Yes. I'm a f-forensic scientist," Tara said. "And I am fully qualified to perform autopsies. In fact, I d-do it all the time."
The sheriff pulled at his chin and frowned. "Well, of course, if you insist," he said. "I'll go tell the paramedics to give you a ride..."
The sheriff walked back up the path towards the house.
Deputy Mannington paused and stared at the two agents, a bewildered look on his face. "So, you're not going to look at the crime scene? You're finished here already?" he said.
"Yes... thank you, Deputy," Willow said. "And... could I trouble you for a ride back to the motel?"
"Um. Okay," the deputy said. "Er... G'night, Agent McClay."
"Goodnight, Deputy Mannington," Tara said.
The deputy got in the car and started the engine.
"You feeling better, Willow?" Tara said.
"Yeah... A little... Thanks again, Tara," Willow said. "Autopsy, eh? You're sure you can do that?"
"Oh yes... doesn't matter if I'm c-clumsy if they are already dead, does it?" Tara said.
Willow gave a short laugh. "No. I guess it doesn't."
Tara saw two paramedics appear in the headlights. They were carrying a stretcher between them and carefully negotiating the uneven path.
"I'll have to g-go now, Willow," Tara said. "You'll be okay ?"
"Yeah. Thanks. I'll go back to the motel. I'll keep checking the net for the glyphs - see what I can find. And I'll run some more calculations," she said. "I'll see you later, okay?"
Tara nodded, then made her way towards the ambulance.
Tara worked alone in the morgue. She was oblivious to her surroundings or even her location, and was totally absorbed in the familiar ritual of preparation. She adjusted the dictation microphone and began.
"Victim is a male, thirty two years of age. Signs of mutilation are evident - missing all fingers and toes - trauma at each of these wounds indicates some type of pincer or crushing effect - possibly from a bolt cutter or pruning tool. Left eye is removed by means... unknown - the optic nerve severed close to the superior oblique muscle."
She examined the dead man's legs and arms.
"Victim has a deep scratch - very recently obtained - and perhaps 15 millimeters in diameter, on the upper left arm. The upper dermis appears to have been scraped or perhaps sliced off. There is... Hmmm. It would appear that there was a tattoo here. A small section of it is still showing. I'm taking a photograph of the part of the tattoo still remaining."
Tara reached for a scalpel.
"Commencing Y incision. Removing the sternum between the manubrium and the xiphoid. Slight discoloration of the inferior lobes - possibly due to the victim's blood pooling or perhaps bruising, from the left 8 and 9 ribs - which have been broken."
"Inspecting the stomach contents. The victims last meal was..." Tara began. She paused. "There appears to be a massive hemorrhage inside the stomach... however there is no sign of a wound. I'm taking a sample of the blood for type matching to the victim's own."
Tara proceeded with the rest of the formalities required for the procedure, but found no other anomalies.
Tara finished sewing the victim up, then scrubbed her hands and face at the sink. She went to the desk in the coroner's office and carefully filled in her report, trying not to let her fatigue affect her accuracy. She checked the time almost 3am.
Her report finished, Tara found a small sofa in the corner of the coroner's office, lay on it, and fell asleep.
Willow found her there the next morning, sleeping soundly on the couch. She gently nudged Tara's shoulder.
"Hey you," she said. "Sleepy-head."
Tara woke with a start. She looked around at the coroner's office, a slightly dazed statement on her face. Her blonde hair was matted and unkempt, and her clothes were far more crumpled than usual.
"Er... Hi Willow," Tara said, somewhat groggily. "I fell asleep, I think."
"I think you did too. It's 8:30," Willow said. "And I'm starved - seem to have lost my dinner somewhere. Maybe you've seen it? You hungry too?"
"Yes," Tara said, sitting up and rubbing her arm. "Very."
"But first... I... erm... brought you some clean clothes... And your toiletries," Willow said. "The doc said there's a shower here somewhere."
"Um... thanks. I get the hint," Tara said, taking the bag Willow offered. "Be right back. My, um... report's on the desk there." She wandered out of the office.
Willow picked up the report and sat in the couch to read it.
By the time she'd finished reading the report a second time, Tara had returned. She'd tied back her wet hair and wore the loose fitting white blouse and black trousers Willow had brought along. Willow thought she looked wonderful.
"Hey. Feeling better?" she said.
"Much. Ravenous now," Tara said.
"Let's go. There's a café next door," Willow said.
Willow finished her fifth pancake. "Hmm.. yummy," she said. "That's much better."
"S'goog isnit," Tara said, her mouth stuffed with warm, fluffy white pancake.
"Ooo... Hamster-girl tries to speak!" Willow said, laughing at Tara's bulging cheeks. "Let's call the National Inquirer!"
Tara went bright red trying not to choke on the pancakes. She eventually swallowed them and gulped down some water to clear her throat.
"Why... you... doofus!" she said, coughing.
"What? Me?" Willow said, innocently.
"Yes. You," Tara said. "You're a fraud, Agent Rosenberg!"
Willow pretended to look shocked.
"Why, Agent McClay, what are you saying?" she said.
"I can see through you. You pretend to be all official and cool and professional," Tara said. "But really you're just a funny silly-billy."
"Well, I'm hurt," Willow said. "Really, I am."
"Hmm. Then stop grinning, eh?" Tara said.
She pushed her plate to one side and ordered a pot of tea from the waitress. Willow poured herself another cup of coffee and tried to look offended.
"So... You read my report?" she said.
"Yeah. I didn't know you could do that... You know, you're a fraud too... Hiding such talents behind that shy façade of yours..." Willow said. "So you do this stuff a lot - at the Bureau?"
"Yes. I do," Tara said. "Well, actually, I mostly research techniques - you know, new stuff - in forensic science. But I do quite a bit of cutting too."
"Well, the report is great," Willow said. "A bit gross maybe, but great. You found remains of a tattoo - removed from the guy when he was murdered. This has to be something."
"Yes. I checked the other autopsy reports too," Tara said. "All the other victims had similar cuts, but in different places about the body. They were marked as 'general abrasions' and discounted as immaterial. No mention of a tattoo, though. So perhaps the perpetrators were a little sloppier this time."
"You think they all had some similar tattoo?" Willow said. "Maybe even the same one?"
"It's possible. If so, it's quite serious, actually," Tara said. "You see, it implies that the victims were not random selections."
"Yeah. My thoughts exactly," Willow said. She sipped her coffee. "But you weren't the only one who had a discovery, dear." She beamed a self-satisfied smile at Tara.
"No? You found the symbol?" Tara asked, excitedly. "Really? How?"
"Well, I hate to sound smug," Willow said, grinning. "But I was brilliant."
"That's remotely possible, I guess," Tara said, smiling.
Willow began her explanation, happy to be being watched so intently by Tara's lovely blue eyes.
"Well, I had no success at first trying to match the pattern against any image database I could find, so I thought of breaking the pattern up in to smaller sub-patterns and doing a match on each of those. But the pattern is very complex so it was difficult to break up. So... I logged in to a super-computer at the Bureau one that doesn't exist, by the way, if anybody ever asks and wrote a program to deconstruct the pattern into basic strokes and iterate through all permutations of those strokes and match the new pattern against all the images stored on that machine. Which is to say, nearly every image currently available on the internet. And... with one sub-pattern, I got a relevant match!"
Willow couldn't tell if Tara followed her explanation she tended to talk a little too fast sometimes but she was happy with the slight look of awe now on Tara's face.
"And... which spell is it? Or is it a cult symbol?" Tara said.
"Neither. It's a logo," Willow said. "A corporate logo. For Ridman, Black and Associates. A New York law firm."
Tara's eyes widened in alarm. "A law firm. From New York? You don't think..." Tara began.
"Yep. I did think. And I checked," Willow said. "It's the same firm that's here in Turrendale for a conference. The one staying in our very motel."
"Oh my!" Tara said.
"But... there's more," Willow said. "I reran the program you know, the one I wrote to estimate the date and time the final ritual would occur, whatever that is. Well, knowing the exact time of the most recent murder refined the results of extrapolation algorithm.. which is to say, the ritual is unlikely to be performed on March 19th. In fact, it's quite likely to be performed tomorrow night or possibly even tonight."
Willow grinned at Tara. "Pretty good work, eh?" she said.
Tara sat in stunned silence for a few minutes. She then poured a fresh cup of tea and swallowed a mouthful.
"You are brilliant, Willow." Tara said.
Her face serious, Willow leaned forward slightly and cocked her head to one side.
"And so, Tara... my reward is...?" she said.
"S-sorry? Your reward?" Tara said, puzzled. "I don't understand."
Willow leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms, looking slightly disappointed. "Well, I really liked my reward - last night - you know... for being beautiful," she said, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "And so I want to know what I'm going to get for being brilliant."
Tara's cheeks flushed slightly and she stared at her teacup for a few seconds before answering.
"You... you didn't mind?" Tara said, uncertainly.
"Oh, I liked. Very much," Willow said. "You couldn't tell?"
"Well... I-I've been wrong before," Tara said.
"Yeah... Me too," Willow admitted. She finished her cup of coffee. "So... what's my reward?"
Tara grinned. "Well, you'll have to wait and see, won't you," she said. Pushed her cup aside and grabbed her bag. "It's time for us to work now. So we'll be needing the other... better behaved Willow."
Willow laughed and gave Tara a formal salute. "Yes sir, Agent McClay."