Venus Mackenzie looked up at the sky, squinting as the sun mercilessly beat upon the small town of Saint-Ferdinand. The few shops and restaurants that made up Main street were each stirring to life, slowly preparing for the inevitable noon rush. Owners unlocked their doors and put out their wares. The florist busied herself transforming the sidewalk into a veritable garden, her inventory fighting the nearby burger joint's greasy smells of fries and onion rings as the dominant aroma. Saint-Ferdinand didn't have much of a downtown area beyond the wide street that bisected it. From where she stood, Venus could easily see where the street, and the village, started and where it ended as well as every business and commerce in between. She could observe Gaston, the operator of the gas station scratch his generous rear end as he stood from removing the padlock on the sole pump that served the town's need for gasoline. She took note of two nurses wearing blindingly white uniforms walking into the medical center, chatting loudly. She knew them both, a mother-daughter duo that also sang together in the town's annual talent show and were frequent customer's at her mother's tea shop. The village was coming alive as it had every single day since before Venus' birth. Today however things were different.
Behind her, she heard the click of a lock followed by the creaking of a door and the gentle song of wind chimes. She smiled contentedly and turned around to see that her friend Penny had figured out the keys her boss had left in her care. She'd swung the door to the trailer open, letting some of the stale air out. Venus didn't wait and pranced right in ahead of her friend.
Both girls had been here a hundred times but always as paying customers, funneling the better part of their allowances into milkshakes and ice cream cones. As she walked towards the three bright-red bar stools at the counter and past a sea-foam green wall decorated with paintings of sundaes and parfaits, Venus was discovering the ice cream shop all over again. She did so every summer but this year, things were different.
"This place is going to be so full this afternoon!" Venus declared, sitting down on the middle stool and swinging back to Penny who was busy securing the door open. The summer had so far been witheringly hot and unusually eventful. Teenagers from the surrounding farms would be eager to come waste time and money here. Normally, the shop was open earlier in the season, but the owner, Mr. Bergeron, had been otherwise preoccupied this year.
"I hope not." Penny answered, giving one final kick at the wedge of wood under the door. "Mr. Bergeron never really showed me how the machines work and I'd like to get a little practice before my first customer."
"Well, I know someone who'd be more than happy to serve as guinea pig while you train."
"I bet you do."
Penny, or Penelope as her mother insisted on calling her, was a little over a year older than Venus. Both were smart girls, but where Penny focused her sixteen year old intellect towards enterprising ventures and long term goals, Venus had a purely academic mind, allowing her to skip ahead a full grade. The older girl tied her shoulder length blond hair in a pony tail before slipping it under a sheer net. The accouterment did little to damage her looks. For her age, Penny was a striking young lady and there was no doubt that she knew it. To her mother's infinite relief, her daughter seemed to have little interest in playing the dating game, focusing instead on her plans to become an athlete or failing that a prestigious lawyer in Montreal. Once her hair secured she started the various machines and carefully poured a generous cone of soft serve chocolate ice cream for her friend.
"There you go Aphrodite."
The creation wasn't perfect but no one in their right mind would have turned it away. Least of all not Venus.
"That's not my name." replied the younger teen, accepting the frozen treat despite her obvious irritation.
Penny often teased her about her name. Venus used to explain at length how she was named after the planet, not the Greek goddess of love. Her mom had often told her she'd one day be amongst the stars, a whimsical prediction that delighted Venus to no end as a child. It had made her want to become an astronaut which was probably the driving force behind her academic success. Becoming an astronaut had eventually been replaced with plans to become an archeologist, then a marine biologist. These days, academics seemed enough on its own. Dancing between subjects and occasionally skipping class just to go waste time at the school library.
"Are you gonna let me man the register once in a while?" Venus asked before taking a bite out of her cone.
"Nope." Penny leaned on the counter, looking out the front window. "Mr. Bergeron had three strict rules. Number one: never close if there are still customers who want something and number two: don't let Venus behind the counter."
"Darn... Wait! He has a rule just about me?"
"Well, not 'you'. Anyone, but I'm pretty sure you're no exception."
"What's the third rule?" asked Venus as she finished off her cone, flicking the crumbs at her friend.
Penny fell silent and turned around to prepare another frozen dessert. She mumbled an answer that was drowned out by the sound of the ice cream machine. Venus spun back around and was presented with a perfect chocolate swirl ice cream cone. She dutifully ignored it.
"C'mon, what's the third rule?"
"The third rule," Penny swallowed "was not to give any ice cream to Audrey."
Both girls became very quiet. Audrey Bergeron had been the daughter of William Bergeron, the local entrepreneur behind half of all businesses in town. The jolly, rotund middle-aged man was a powerful force in St-Ferdinand, driving the local economy and with the help of his wife leading the community's social activity. His daughter's bright innocent smile and unbound enthusiasm had charmed everyone in the village. Her body had been found a week earlier at the home of Sam Finnegan.
Audrey's death was a terrible loss for the community, but the shock of finding out about Finnegan's second life was what most people were talking about. The old man may have been strange but he had never been considered dangerous.
"You know he used to help me practice batting for little league?" The older girl broke the silence. "Abraham's dad hired him to clear his driveway every winter."
"He got my cat out of a tree last summer." added Venus. In truth, everyone in Saint-Ferdinand had a story of how old man Finnegan had done something for them. The kids had been especially fond of him. Even though he might not have been all there, he could fix a bike and build a treehouse better than anyone. Between Audrey's death and Finnegan being a wolf in sheep's clothing, the community had been deeply shaken.
In spite of the tragedy, something positive had come of it all. With Sam behind bars it signaled the end of a killing spree that had lasted nearly a generation. The occasional murders and disappearances had become so much part of the town people's routine that everyone had sort of forgotten how much stress and fear was part of their everyday lives. Curfews and chaperones that would have infuriated most teenagers were common place in Saint-Ferdinand. In fact, Venus had been the target of ridicule and envy at school for not having such restrictions.
"My uncle says she died of natural causes." said Venus. "So Sam didn't kill her."
"Doesn't make the other people he killed any less dead." Penny was quick to specify. "Ms. Benjamin used to teach my mom in grade school. From what I hear, her body was stuffed in a fridge, arms and legs sawed off, eyes and tongue plucked out and something had eaten her liver."
The grim description silenced the younger girl, but only for a moment.
"Poor Audrey." Venus sighed "and poor Mr. and Ms. Bergeron. That girl was their whole life."
"It's been a messed up week. Are you going to the funeral?"
Venus leaned her head on the counter and stared into the distance behind the register. The funeral was today and it really felt like she should be there. After all, both Penny and her had spent enough time with Audrey. Penny had been quick to volunteer to babysit the child to make a few extra dollars. In time, she'd become like a big sister to the bubbly little girl. Venus had loved Audrey as much as anyone in town, but she was afraid she'd feel like a fraud being there, not to mention her parents had never taken her to church, making the proceedings all the more alien and awkward.
"Nah. If I go I'll just start crying again and I wouldn't know what to do there."
"You've never been to a funeral?" Penny asked picking up a bottle and a rag "It's just a way to say goodbye. Pay your respects. People expect you to go."
"Not my parents. They're not going. Besides, it's easy for you to say that, you have a perfect excuse not to go." Venus waved her arm, indicating the ice cream shop.
"I'd go if I could. I'm gonna miss the little mouse."
Penny kept on cleaning while Venus absent-mindedly ate her second cone. As the minutes wore on the weight of their conversation dissipated. The girls had already gone through the worst of their grieving. When Lieutenant Belanger had walked up to William Bergeron's farm with a lady from out of town it hadn't escaped the attention of Ms. Dwight who lived across the street. When William broke down, noisily, on his front porch, the neighbor had no trouble figuring out why and immediately got on the phone. Before sunset not a soul in Saint-Ferdinand was unaware of the tragedy. At that time, the medical examiner had yet to turn in a verdict about the little girl's cause of death. The population separated into two camps: those that went to the police station, demanding justice of the monster who had done such a thing and those who rallied at the Bergeron farm, offering what comfort they could. Venus' parents stayed home of course but she went to the station, according to her curious nature.
Besides, she knew she'd run into her uncle Randy there. He was the medical examiner for the region and, as luck would have it, she had arrived there just as he was about to leave for the hospital. As she had wiggled between the other bystanders her attention was immediately drawn to the bright yellow ambulance. She'd known what she would see before she had cleared the last row of onlookers, yet, she'd persisted. When she had gotten close enough, she managed to catch a few words of her uncle's conversation with Inspector Crowley and Lieutenant Belanger. she didnt hear much, just that Audrey had no wounds beyond a few scraps and bruises and that it was likely her defective heart had just given out. The conversation took a strange turn from there and Venus had been intent on eavesdropping but her eyes settled on the stretcher before it got loaded into the ambulance and her attention had evaporated instantly.
She didn't see the body. Not directly. It had been wrapped in a large, dark, plastic bag, yet there was no mistake. The bag had seemed almost empty, with only a small lump suggesting its content. The world had sort of vanished at that moment. Venus would be hard pressed to hazard a guess as to how long she stood there, staring. She had only really snapped out of it after the ambulance had driven away. By that time, her uncle had been long gone and only a handful of people still hung around. Venus had cried the whole ride home as she struggled to keep from falling off her bike.
It all seemed like so long ago now. So surreal. Perhaps that was why she didn't want to attend the funeral. As long as she stayed away from any reminders of the events, Venus could pretend they'd never happened. Looking at Penny who seemed to be holding it together much better, she found herself envying her friend's strength.
Just as these stray thoughts crossed her mind, a series of cars drove by the shop. Penny stopped to stare, putting a hand over her mouth. Other bystanders stopped to look at the procession. An older woman who the girls recognized as Alice Merret's grandmother crossed herself. In the middle of the line of cars they saw a hearse and through it's windows they saw a pile of colorful stuffed animals.
"Penny?" Venus stood slowly from her stool "Mind if I come back in an hour or so?"
By the time Venus caught up with the procession of cars, they were already empty. Her father had once told her that Saint-Ferdinand boasted a graveyard twice the size of any same-sized village. It had taken her a few years to learn that this was due almost solely to the activities of the Saint-Ferdinand killer. Even so, the cemetery was still relatively small with perhaps a couple of dozen rows of headstone and a small mausoleum. Once she made her way past the cars and the rod iron gates she could easily make out the small crowd of people that had gathered to pay their respects.
Everyone present was wearing their Sunday best and Venus suddenly felt self conscious about her Jean shorts and white tank top. Thankfully, there were plenty of large maples and dense weeping willows behind which she could conceal herself. She got as close as she dared before kneeling behind an ancient headstone (she didn't think the owner would mind, his name having been all but eroded from the stone) and resting her arms and head on top. It was a perfect spot; close enough to hear everything, but far enough not to be a bother.
Once settled, Venus took stock of the scene playing out in front of her. A sharp stab pierced her heart when she laid eyes on the tiny white casket, resting next to a diminutive hole in the ground. She couldn't help but wonder what kind of cruel world made coffins for children a necessity. Equally heartbreaking, Audrey's parents, William and Beatrice Bergeron were huddled together, their eyes swollen from days of grieving.
This wasn't the first time Saint-Ferdinand had rallied around the Bergeron in their time of need. When Audrey was born she had been nearly a full month premature. Underweight and too weak to survive on her own, the doctors at the hospital in Sherbrooke had kept constant vigil on her despite pronouncing her odds of survival as very low. The community had stepped up however. Many of William's employees volunteered to cover his shifts at his many businesses and several villagers, including Penny's mom had cooked meals for the new parents which Lieutenant Belanger delivered to the hospital. This had lasted three weeks before Audrey was able to breath on her own and survive outside an incubator. Twenty-three days after giving birth, Beatrice had finally been allowed to hold her baby. The parents had been warned that their little girl's health would always be fragile and they'd dotted on her accordingly.
The priest went through this same history, regularly interrupted by Beatrice's loud sobs. He did his best to comfort the mourners by reminding them that while Audrey was gone, her time spent amongst them had been happy. From the very day she came into the world she had brought out the best in everyone around her and in her eight short years had done more good than many could aspire to in a lifetime.
Venus decided that the priest was right. Although she'd never really thought of Audrey as a friend, the little girl had been a constant presence in her life. Every time she stopped at the ice cream shop or ran an errand for her mother at the drugstore, Audrey was there making customers smile. Every winter for the past four years, the little girl could be found skating on the lake or sledding down a hill. She wasn't the only child her age in Saint-Ferdinand but she was easily the happiest and that joy was infectious. The priest brought back those memories too.
Eventually, the tiny white coffin was lowered into the tiny dark hole. It was troubling to think that the button-nosed and platinum-haired little girl would be covered in dirt and left to rot. Once the hole was filled, each person present filled in front of the shiny new headstone with a carved cherub at the corner a deposited one of the stuffed toys that had filled the hearse. Most left behind brand new plush bears, Audrey's favorite, while closer friends and family members left behind older toys that had belonged to the child. Most battered and used was a small, dirty, matted and obviously much beloved bear with a red felt hat sewn to its head that Beatrice lovingly put at the foot of the mountain of plush toys. She knelt there for a while with her husband crouched next to her leaving the priest and the rest of the attendees to quietly leave.
By the time the Bergeron pulled themselves to their feet, the only other people in the graveyard, apart from Venus of course, were Inspector Crowley and Randy Mackenzie. When it became obvious that the bereaved parents were ready to go, the Inspector exchanged a few words with Dr. Mackenzie before escorting the Bergeron to his car and driving them away.
Curiously, the medical examiner did not immediately leave after watching the inspector drive around a bend. Venus was almost tempted to step out from behind the headstone to talk to him, but something in her uncle's eyes made her decide against it.
At a brisk, almost nervous pace, Randy made his way back to the rear of the cemetery where the attendees had just payed their respects to Audrey Bergeron. Once standing on the freshly turned earth, he looked nervously around before crouching down to pick up something. He stowed his prize inside his jacket and ran back to his car parked in front of the graveyard.
As Randy drove off, leaving her alone in the cemetery, Venus slowly crept out of hiding. Curious but suspecting she already knew, she went to see which of the stuffed toys her uncle had pilfered from the plush shrine to Audrey's memory. As she expected, the battered old bear with the red hat was gone. Less obvious however, was why her uncle, a respected doctor and gentle human being would stoop so low as to steal a dead child's toy.
A chill went down Randy's spine and despite the relatively cool night, sweat beaded all over his body. He would have much rather gotten rid of this unsavory task during daylight. No one came to the cemetery during the day. It was out of the way and most of the village would be at the reception, offering their condolences to William and Beatrice. Everyone but his niece, Venus, who's bicycle he'd noticed leaning on the stone wall that surrounded the graveyard.
It was pointless to hope she hadn't seen him taking the stuffed bear from the grave, but that was a problem for another day. The business at hand would require his full attention, something that would be difficult enough to provide past midnight in such an old graveyard.
It wasn't that Randy had a problem with dead bodies. Part of his job as medical examiner was to perform the occasional autopsy or, as he'd been called to do less than a week prior, identify and sort through the bodies of the recently and not-so-recently deceased. What made Dr. Mackenzie nervous wasn't the dark either, though it certainly didn't help and it wasn't that he was superstitious. Superstition was fear born of ignorance and he knew better.
No, what made Randy's nerves fray was what would become of him if he were discovered or if he somehow failed. Sam Finnegan had been absolved of having done any harm to the village sweetheart, surely the townsfolk would redirect their anger towards him if they knew what he was about. They wouldn't understand.
So the good doctor set himself to the task. First he carefully removed the toys that covered Audrey's grave. As emotional as this initial step might have been it was by far the easiest one. He kept his mind busy by trying to recreate the exact position of each stuffed animal so that he could move them back to their place once his work was complete.
Then came the more physical part of his work. Randy wasn't an athletic man and the following two hours underlined that fact to him. Measuring a little under five feet and nine inches, he had nurtured a modest but growing pot-belly over the last two decades. As a result, his cardiovascular performance ranged far below what was necessary to dig down to the casket that was his goal. Thankfully, his arms had remained somewhat powerful, otherwise he doubted he could have finished the task.
Having cleared to the coffin, Randy allowed himself a few moments to rest. Sitting at the edge of the hole he'd just dug, he stared meditatively at the box where they'd put little Audrey's body less than a day ago. It seemed to almost glow, as the light of the moon hit the clean white surface.
Randy, having caught his breath, jumped back into the hole and stood on top of the coffin. He whispered an apology that seemed directed at the sightless cherub carved from the headstone that towered above him, then struck down with his shovel. The wood on the lid cracked like thunder and the doctor couldn't help but wait a few moments in silence, his ears pricked, listening for any reaction to the noise. Apart from the occasional cricket however, no sound answered the broken casket.
"Well, here's hoping no one exhumes you again anytime soon darling." the words surprised him with how loud they filled the air, but if anyone was going to hear his activities this far from town, they already would have.
Exhausted already, Randy pried loose the top of the coffin. Underneath, indistinguishable from when the lid was closed lay Audrey Bergeron's body. His own autopsy had revealed that her little heart hadn't been able to keep up while she'd been riding her bicycle. The scratches and bruising indicated she'd fallen from her ride but the pattern of her wounds suggested she'd been limp and probably already unconscious when she fell. Finnegan had claimed that he found her on his way home from the bar and, not wanting to have to deal with the police but reluctant to abandon Audrey on the side of the road had taken her with him. The child's bike was found where Sam claimed he'd stumbled upon the body and the medical examination supported his story. Oddly, even though he was ultimately not responsible, Audrey's death was the only one that seemed to have any considerable weight on old Sam Finnegan's shoulders.
It was difficult to look down at her and not expect Audrey to just sit up and giggle. Even in the pale moonlight it was hard to not to see life in her tiny frame. A sudden, irrational fear took hold of Randy. He carefully kneeled down and gently peeled back her left eyelid with his thumb. What he was looking for in the child's dead eyes no other medical examiner could have seen. In fact, only a handful of people alive would have believed, let alone understood what the doctor was looking at.
Satisfied and reassured, Randy reached up and grabbed the leather bag he had left by the hole before jumping down. He carefully untied the tong that kept the worn tanned skin closed and opened the bag with reverence. In it, he found a handful of crude iron nails. Roughly four inches long, each seemed to have been forged long ago, a thick layer of oil keeping them from corroding. The doctor pulled out four such nails before closing the bag and exchanging it for a hammer he had also brought with him. The hammer too was an antiquity, it's iron head worn and chipped, the wooden handle grey with age.
Gently, Randy layed down the tools on Audrey's still chest. He carefully took off the child's shoes and then socks. Methodically, the doctor picked up a handful of dirt from the loose soil around him and smelled it. Satisfied, he then vigorously rubbed the corpse's feet with the earth, only stopping once both were thoroughly black with dirt. Anyone watching him would have wasted no time labeling the doctor a madman. Yet, he had still one last insanity to perform. He'd come so far. There was no point in stopping now. It was for the best really.
With a deep sigh of resignation, Randy picked the hammer and a single nail. Aligning the point of the nail between the middle metatarsals, he expertly drove it through the soft, white skin and bloodless flesh of the child's right foot. In two hits, the nail had gone straight through the delicate little limb.
Either tears or sweat blurred the medical examiner's eyes. He wasn't quite sure anymore. Systematically, Randy picked up a second nail and repeated the process on the left foot. He then picked up a third nail and this time touched its tip to her right eye, but hesitated. For a second, he listened and as if in answer to a silent voice he answered; "Don't worry darling, you'll be able to see in a second."
Then he drove the nail into her eye. Before he could take stock of what he had done, he picked up the last nail and drove that one through her left eye.
Finally, the deed was done. Randy Mackenzie stood over his handiwork. He knew what he'd just performed was an abomination. A clear violation of the law, common decency and his personal and professional ethics. Yet, despite the level of atrocity his actions represented, to have taken no action would have been far worst. How could doing the right thing feel so wrong?
Before climbing out of the hole, Randy bent down one last time. Tenderly, he brushed Audrey's bright blond bangs away from her face. Her lovely eyes were now destroyed, punctured by ugly iron spikes. The doctor touched her cheek one last time before grabbing the pendant from her neck and yanking it off.
"Sorry love. Your father's going to want proof I did as promised."
It took most of Randy's remaining will to pull himself out of the hole. He still had what would easily be another hour of work filling the grave back and erasing as many traces of his activities as possible. Before he started shoveling however, he picked up one last item he had brought with him and threw it down the hole. Once that was done, he grabbed the shovel and began tossing soil back into the hole, burying little Audrey for the second time today and with her, a worn stuffed bear with a red felt hat.