Randy Mackenzie walked under the yellow plastic ribbon that cordoned off the immediate area of the forest. Already he could smell the distinct stench of rotting flesh in the air and reflexively reached into his pockets for a pair of latex gloves. He had no doubt that they would come in handy too soon.
The scene was a nightmare. Quite easily the most gruesome spectacle the medical examiner had ever laid eyes on, and that was saying a lot. If this turned out to be a murder scene, and there were very little chances it wasn't, it would be the bloodiest in Saint-Ferdinand history.
The doctor found Crowley standing over the body, well, part of the body, in a trance, his eyes locked in quiet revulsion on the hundreds of flies that had settled in the victim's exposed chest cavity. There was obviously a lot going on behind his eyes at that moment. Randy didn't cherish the idea of increasing the inspector's burden but he would be remiss not to tell what he knew. Sooner rather than later.
"I hope your little friend has a strong stomach Randy."
"Erica? I don't know if she can handle this" the medical examiner waved his arm in a slow arc, signifying the insane carnage all around them. "I don't even think she should."
"I need someone to talk to the LaForest girl."
"Wait... This is Gabrielle LaForest?" Randy turned green and lost his balance. For a moment he was convinced he would lose his lunch as well but somehow he kept his gag reflex under control. Gabrielle LaForest was the mother of his niece's friend, but she was also a friend of his and had helped him with the paperwork when he sold his house in Saint-Ferdinand to move to Sherbrooke. It was one thing to see a human body in the condition this one presently was, another to find the corpse of a friend, but the two combined was a difficult pill to swallow even for someone as experienced with death as Randy was.
"We found her wallet." explained Crowley having expected the question.
"What was it? A bear?" the question felt hollow, grasping at straws.
"You know damn well it wasn't a bear Randy. We both know what's happening and we know it's only the beginning."
Mackenzie looked around and knew, just by the sheer volume of violence evidenced by the state of the body, that no animal had done this. Blood was literally everywhere. The ground was sodden with it, tree trunks were painted red in large splatters. There seemed to be enough to fill the veins of three people the size of Gabrielle. Large sheets of skin were stretched across the ground. Organs lay in ruin, dotting the forest floor with odd looking lumps of bloody flesh, except for her intestines which were hung from the branches above like a grotesque garland. At the foot of a particularly massive maple tree, all of Gabrielle's bones, including her flayed and crushed skull, were gathered in a bloody pile. Whatever butcher had committed this atrocity, it was accomplished with complete impudence and with barbaric but deliberate care.
"I'm meeting with Bergeron tonight. I want you there Randy." Crowley's eyes were still fixed on the mass of flies covering the bloody sternum like a writhing blanket.
"I already talked to William. The answer is 'no'. I've done enough already."
"You can't quit this kind of thing Mackenzie. You're part of this now. Besides, you're the real deal aren't you? Not just some wannabe like the others. You know things."
"I know a lot less than you think. Probably less than you Stephen. I'm out. Should have quit years ago." Randy was unusually adamant. Crowley was surprised with the sudden display of spinal fortitude. "Either way, you have other fish to fry."
"You don't say?"
"Seems your houseguest has been talking about a god to Erica. A god of death and hate. Sound familiar?"
Crowley turned to look the medical examiner square in the eyes. For a second, Randy wasn't sure if Stephen would hit him for daring to refuse him. Thankfully, the larger man seemed more preoccupied by other matters.
"What does that village idiot think he's doing? I knew granting that interview was a dumb idea." Crowley started to nervously scratch the back of his thick neck. "How much does Finnegan know anyways?"
"More than me and probably more than you." Randy crouched down to take a closer look at the remains. "He obviously knows about Cicero's curse more than we do. As horrible as it was, the disembodied eyes trick was actually pure genius."
"Don't you dare defend that monster Randy." Crowley growled audibly.
"You're in no position to level threats at me Stephen. How did you not know what Sam was doing?"
The voice came from a few yards behind them. Had it not been for the stillness of the forest and the reverential silence the rest of Crowley's staff were exhibiting, neither would have heard the swallowed outcry. As one they turned to see Erica Hazelwood, walking carefully amongst the debris that had once been a woman.
"Erica," began Randy, almost panicked "you shouldn't be here."
Hazelwood kept walking silently towards the two men, a hand firmly covering her mouth, as if stifling a scream. She stepped carefully, making sure her feet did not touch any of the bits of flesh and viscera that littered the ground.
"Well Ms. Hazelwood, you wanted to be involved in the investigation process." Crowley explained with questionable tact.
Erica, feeling challenged by the inspector took in a deep breath. Not wanting to show any more weakness than she already had, she straightened her blouse closed her eyes for a second and walked the last few steps towards Crowley and Mackenzie with her back straight and her chin high.
"You're right inspector. I'm sorry about that." she kept all traces of being shaken from her voice. "But you must admit, this isn't your average set of remains, is it?"
Crowley nodded his agreement, taking another long look around.
"How's that for de-personalizing a victim?" asked the inspector, not expecting an answer.
"I think this goes far beyond that." she explained "Besides, I was wrong the other day, I'd rather wait until I have a little more information before forming an opinion this time."
"Actually, I didn't ask you here for that. I need you to talk to the daughter of the victim."
"I know these kinds of things are never easy Erica, but this might be a little challenging." interjected Randy. "The daughter, Penelope LaForest, already lost her father, probably at Finnegan's hands."
"Oh." Erica was stunned. She had yet to meet everyone in town, as small as it may be, so she didn't know who this girl was. Regardless, there were no possible mitigating factors that could ease delivering this kind of news. "Does she have any familly left?"
The two men looked at each other for a moment, Crowley immediately shrugging off the question while Randy scratched his chin looking for an answer.
"I'd have to look into it, but I think she has an aunt in Sherbrooke."
The three of them fell silent. All were looking around feeling decidedly uncomfortable about their surroundings, with good reason. It was Erica who eventually broke the silence.
"As Saint-Ferdinand ever seen any cult activity?" she asked, the question dawning on her. Crowley and Mackenzie looked at each other for a moment, as if they expected the other to spout off a perfectly formed answer.
"I mean, look at this scene." explained Erica. "This killing obviously had a ritualistic element to it. The pile of bones, the stretching of the skin and hanging of organs. Are the eyes still in the skull?"
"No," answered the inspector "both were pulled out of their sockets and crushed." he pointed to a bloody pile of leaves at the foot of a slender birch tree, marked with a small yellow flag where presumably the eyes, or what remained of them, had been found.
"Whoever the killer is, he had plans for almost every part of his victim. The eyes are destroyed where Sam preserved his victim's. The body is obliterated, where Finnegan kept those he killed neatly in freezers."
"You think there's a connection?" asked Randy, though he and the inspector already knew the connection.
"I'd be surprised if there wasn't." continued Erica. "That's why I think there might be some sort of cult at work here. Maybe Sam wasn't the only one ripping eyes out of people before storing their bodies in refrigerators."
"An interesting theory Ms. Hazelwood." stated the inspector. "I'll have Lieutenant Bélanger start sifting through the evidence to look for any kind of link that might support it. If you could provide us with an idea what to look for, it would make our job that much easier."
"Of course, though I would recommend bringing in an expert or perhaps..." Erica rapidly agreed.
"We'll take a stab at it first, if you don't mind." Crowley cut in rudely. "I'd you talk to Penelope first."
Without another word, Crowley turned and started on his way back to the road, meaning for Erica to follow.
"Penelope." Erica repeated quietly, putting a name to the poor girl for whom she carried such terrible news. As she started on her way to catch up with Crowley, she turned back to the medical examiner. "You and I need to talk Randy."
The best Dr. Mackenzie could muster was an apologetic nod. It was a non-committal answer but it would have to do.
As she sped up to keep pace with Crowley, Erica couldn't help but look around one last time at the incredible carnage around her. So thorough was the desecration of Gabrielle LaForest's body that apprehensive jitters and paranoia quickly set in. If it hadn't been for that very nervous hyper-awareness, she probably would have missed it, and if it hadn't been for her growing suspicion of the people and happenings here in Saint-Ferdinand, she might have acted differently. On the ground, between two un-flagged chunks of bloodied flesh, sat a stuffed bear with a red felt hat. Going against everything she knew was legal about tempering with evidence and without skipping a beat or missing a step, Erica Hazelwood scooped up the bear and in a single, nervous movement, tucked it in her purse.
"Ms. Hazelwood!" Crowley called back. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything is fine." she answered.
They showed up mid afternoon. It was inspector Crowley, Lieutenant Matt and that woman from out of town that, as far as Venus had heard, was helping out with old man Finnegan's case. Calmly, they asked everyone to leave the ice cream shop except for Penny, who turned white as a sheet. At first, Venus thought Sam might have confessed to killing Penelope's dad. A lot of people were getting this kind of visits these days. Usually lieutenant Matt handled it, but admittedly he might not be the best candidate for giving a teenaged girl that sort of grim news.
Of course, there was more to it. That much became clear as Venus and Abraham heard Penelope bellow a gut-wrenching cry of distilled anguish as they were being led from the shop.
Abraham dropped his milkshake as the truth of the situation dawned on him first. If they had come to talk to Penny, something was wrong with Ms. laForest.
"Mr. Crowley? What's happening?" asked Abraham in the hope of getting a better picture of how serious the situation was.
"We found the body of Penny's mom in the forest this morning." it was Lieutenant Matt Bélanger who answered, straight-faced, to the question.
"Matt!" admonished Crowley upon seeing the shock and distress on the two teens' faces. Matt simply shrugged.
"Look guys. What the lieutenant is saying is true." he paused to both let the news sink in and gauge their reaction. Crowley made it a point to know most of the people in town, which wasn't too difficult in a village the size of Saint-Ferdinand, so he knew Venus and Abe weren't idiots. He didn't have time to keep an eye on two distraught teens and was hoping he could count on them being level-headed. Venus kept staring, wide-eyed, but Abraham nodded steadily.
"Alright son." the inspector continued, putting a hand on the bear-framed teen's shoulder. "It's clear we have a situation to take care of Matt and I. I need you two to keep your mouths shut and wait here. Ms. Hazelwood's gonna have a talk with Penny, but when she's done..."
"We have to be there for her." Venus finished in a quiet voice.
"Right." Crowley confirmed. "You guys can handle that? Don't leave your friend alone and do what Ms. Hazelwood tells you."
"We're on it sir." confirmed Abraham.
Crowley smiled stiffly then nodded at lieutenant Matt to follow him as they left the teens behind. Without a word, Venus and Abe backed up to the ice cream shop while curious villagers stared in their direction. Christine Bowler, a girl from Penny's class who had been about to walk into the shop when the inspector showed up, approached the two friends silently leaning on the trailer. She was a tall and athletic girl with an unusually stern face and a permanently humorless expression.
"What's that all about then?" she asked once within earshot.
"Stores closed Chris. Something happened to Penny's mom." Abraham explained.
"Shut up Abe." Venus cut in. "We're not supposed to tell."
"S'alright. I won't babble around. So what happened?" Christine continued, hungering for good gossip.
"We don't know," Abraham carefully explained, his eyes darting back and forth between the two girls, measuring Venus' level of irritation.
Abe continued with his explanation but slowly, he noticed that her attention had shifted from Christine and himself to a spot across the street that he couldn't see, his view blocked by the other girl's head. After a moment, Venus pushed herself off the wall and without a word walked to cross the street, eyes locked on her target; a table at the coffee shop where a man, roughly ten years her senior wearing an elegant business suit was sitting with a large glass of lemonade. His sunglasses were swept over his stylishly unkempt hair, his soft blue eyes obviously locked onto Venus. There she stood for a moment, towering over the sitting man who smiled at her before bringing his glass to his lips and enjoying a drink.
"Do you spend a lot of time staring at teenagers like this or are we special?" Venus asked defiantly. She had been looking at something to vent her frustration and fear on for a few minutes and had so far avoided cutting loose on Abe and Christine.
"I have been spending an unusual amount of time talking to teenagers in the past two days." the stranger as if coming to the realization himself.
"That's not very reassuring." she sat down opposite the man without knowing why. "Have you considered a different hobby? Maybe something less creepy, like breeding tarantulas."
"I apologize. It's part of my job to observe. You and your boyfriend looked distraught."
"Don't bait me. I don't have time for games. My friend might have just lost her mother!"
"I'm sorry to hear that," the man leaned over the table, his eyes fixed into her's "but why are you here talking to a stranger instead of comforting your friend Penny?"
Venus snapped back in her chair.
"How do you know her name?" she asked, stunned.
"She told me." the man sat back slowly, keeping eye contact without blinking. "Now, are you going to sit here chatting it up with the creepy stranger or are you going to be there for your friend in her darkest hour?"
The man jerked his chin in the direction of the shop. When Venus looked she could see the front door was ajar. Erica Hazelwood was talking to Abraham who pointed in her direction, a confused look on his face. Instantly, she stood up and without looking back, ran to the shop.
"What was that all about?" asked Abraham as she got close.
"I... I don't know." Venus wanted to add more, but she was quickly interrupted.
"Venus Mackenzie?" Erica Hazelwood asked. "May I have word with you?"
"I'd rather talk to Penny." Venus answered trying to be adamant.
"You will in a moment dear. I'm doctor Hazelwood. I just had to give some very bad news to your friend."
"Something happened to her mom." Venus stated. "Mr. Crowley told us already."
"She was murdered. Whoever is responsible is probably still at large. I've told Penny all of this. Your friend is going to go through a very rough few days." Erica tightened her lips a moment. "I understand you two are very close?"
Venus nodded. She and Penelope hadn't been friends for very long. In fact, she'd known Penny about as long as Abraham, which was roughly a year and a half. However, the two girls had latched on to one another like two halves of a whole. Their differences and the fact that Penelope seemed incapable of tolerating many other people her age had made the teens inseparable.
"Good." continued Ms. Hazelwood. "I've already talked to her and I'll be meeting with her once a day for the next little while. But right now she needs friends and every ounce of support you can give her."
"Can I see her now?" asked Venus after a moment.
Without a further word, Erica stepped out of the doorway and let the girl rush in.
Penny was sitting at the counter. Her eyes were puffy to the point that they might as well be swollen shut. Her cheeks were flushed and wet. Limp and still, she stared into the distance, only half aware of her friend's presence.
"Turns out she never made it home the other day." she sniffled after a long, painfully quiet moment.
Venus stood still, not knowing what to do. Both girls bathed in the silence for a few minutes. No stranger to awkward and uncomfortable situations, Venus still didn't know how to handle herself. The whole situation was too surreal. It felt like at any moment she should wake up and things would be back to normal. Of course, she knew this wasn't a dream and that she should go to her friend and hold her, hear her cries, listen to her rage against a universe that would so callously take away both her parents in such quick succession. Yet, she couldn't move, as if to acknowledge the situation would make it all the more real.
Slowly, Penny turned to look at her. At first, she looked merely depressed, but soon, her face melted into a visage of impossible distress. Finally, Venus broke from her trance. Taking a first, slow step and the rushing to take her friend in her arms.
The girls remained intertwined for a long time. Venus patiently stroked her friend's hair while Penny cried herself into near senselessness. Before long, the younger girl slowly broke down too as she eventually realized that this wasn't just a faceless woman who had died. Gabrielle LaForest had cooked for her, had welcomed her for sleep-overs, driven her and Penny to watch movies. In the last year and a half she had been more than just 'Penelope's mother', and although she had no claim to be as hurt as her friend, although she had to be strong enough for Penny to lean on, she couldn't ignore that she too was going to miss Ms. LaForest.
Eventually, both girls pulled away from one another. Penny, who had always been more grounded was the first to break the silence.
"Can... Can you get Abraham?" asked Penny between two sobs. Venus quickly nodded and walked to the door "I just want to hang out here for a little while with you guys."
Abraham walked in with his head held low. Even less sure how to react than Venus, he was surprised to have Penelope latch onto him for a moment. The three friends sat in silence. Periodically, Penny would break down in fits of tears. This lasted perhaps two hours before Penelope weeped herself into sleep, exhausted by the emotional toll.
"Where's Ms. Hazelwood?" whispered Venus. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do now."
"She said she had to go. She asked if either of us could take Penny for the night. There's room at the farm and Pa won't mind, but..."
"Wait. If she's gone, then she forgot her purse here."
As a matter of fact, Erica's purse was indeed left at the end of the counter. As Venus reached to pick up the large leather handbag, she noticed something partially sticking out of it. A cold shiver ran down her spine as she recognized a stuffed toy bear with a red felt hat.
"Abe...?" she asked, picking up the purse and plucking the stuffed animal from it. She kept her back to her friends and dropped the toy out of sight before turning around and handing the purse to Abraham. "Could you bring that back to Ms. Hazelwood? I'll take Penny home with me."
"Sure thing Veen. Call me if you need anything okay?"
Don had figured it out. It had taken the better part of an afternoon tearing through the house like a madman, but he'd finally remembered where he'd seen the strange symbol on Sean Hayes' business card before. He hadn't seen the symbol, a winged hourglass, since he was a child, but once he remembered where he'd seen it, it took him but a minute to find the artifact it related to.
Kneeling on the floor of his father's bedroom, he pulled a large trunk from under the bed. It was an unusual piece of furniture for someone like Stephen Crowley to own. An ornate and weathered antique, made out of several different essences of wood to create what was more a piece of art then a wooden box. It was out of place amongst the possessions of a man who prided himself on being functional and efficient.
A chill went up Donald's spine as he traced his fingers over the inlaid pieces of wood that drew the complex and meticulous representation of an hourglass with stylized wings on the cover of the chest. This was a holdover from a long time ago. A time when there was more than just a man and his boy living in this house. The box didn't fit with Stephen Crowley's tastes, but it would have easily caught the eye of Margaret Crowley; Don's mother.
Who knew what was in that trunk? Perhaps these were the souvenirs that his father had elected to keep of his estranged wife. Maybe the box itself was the only souvenir. Maybe it had nothing to do with Don's mother at all. Either way, he would never find out by just looking at the top of it and the mystery of what linked this box to Sean Hayes was too interesting to ignore. So after another moment's trepidation, he opened the box.
"Sandmen?" Donald whispered to himself.
In the trunk were stacks of documents. Files, photos, letters, all sorts of information were tossed without organization inside the chest. One of the first piece of paper to grab his attention was a yellowed letter, signed by William Bergeron, on letterhead that bore the winged hourglass and the word 'Sandmen'. The letter itself seemed to make little sense and before he could try to figure it out, Dons attention was attracted to a photograph. From the looks of it, the image must have been almost twenty years old. It showed a carnival. In front of a popcorn cart stood a familiar young woman holding the hand of a little boy of about five. Opposite the boy was a young and dynamic Stephen Crowley.
As his mind struggled to process what it was presented with, Don was startled by the sound of the front door being opened. Immediately, he closed the trunk and slid it back under the bed. Quickly but silently, he made his way to the washroom where he locked himself and started the tap, splashing water and mimicking the sounds of washing his hands.
"Don?" his father's voice called out as he was coming up the stairs.
"Just a minute!" was his reply as he ripped a hand-towel from a hook on the wall. He then stepped out of the washroom, making a show of drying his hands. "What's up dad?"
Stephen Crowley looked like he'd walked to Hell and back barefoot. Donald had seen his father go through bad days, but obviously this one had raised the bar. His eyes were sunken and his short greying hair which he usually kept combed with military precision was tussled badly, showing clear signs of having been tilled by nervous fingers. Tie undone and a shirt stained by soil, the man had seen better times.
"Look buddy," he apologized, dragging his feet towards the master bedroom and stopping in front of his son "you're gonna have to have diner without me. I've got work tonight."
"What happened?" Don was initially upset that he was once again set aside for his father's job but he was smart enough to recognize that his old man had larger issues at hand.
"There's been another murder. A bad one." Stephen's haunted look testified to the truth of the statement. "There's a... Monster out there. I want you to stay in alright?"
Being raised in Saint-Ferdinand meant living in the shadow of the Saint-Ferdinand killer, a beast that had taken an average toll of three lives a year for over two decades. Before the killer was caught, little more than a week prior, people had accepted as a simple fact of life that a handful of them would disappear at the hands of the murderer. Property values had plummeted and remained low. A slow exodus of residents had drained the town of a third of its residents. Yet, all of this considered, Donald couldn't remember a day when his father, the man most aware of the gritty details, had ever so emphatically demanded that he avoid the outdoors. If Donald hadn't known his father better, he would have sworn the man was terrified.
"Alright. Where are you going?"
"I'm going to try and stop the killer before he kills again." Stephen replied while quickly changing into civilian clothes; denim pants and a plaid shirt. He did, however, keep his belt and sidearm.
"What is it son?"
Gabrielle had been no one to Donald and she certainly wasn't the first person to be killed in town. His own friend Bernard's father had disappeared last year and was only found the previous week in one of Finnegan's freezers. Yet, the tone in which his father said the name lent such weight to the situation that Don couldn't help but feel as if this particular murder was a beast of a completely different nature. This wasn't crazy old man Finnegan's doing. It was something else, something alien. It hit Donald that he, and probably all of Saint-Ferdinand, had gotten used to the constant killings because they were familiar, despite their obvious horror. Better the devil you know, goes the saying.
As Stephen finished buckling his belt, the phone on his nightstand rang. Don started walking across the room to answer but his father cut him off and, with a grunt and a sigh, answered it himself.
"Crowley." he introduced himself. "Hey Will. ... I don't care. This is important."
Stephen Crowley's temper rose quickly as he listened to 'Will'. Don could see the skin on his father's neck turn crimson. As quick as Crowley succumbed to anger, there were only three things that could frustrate him quite this fast and Don had spent the greater part of his teenage years exploring what they were; being disobeyed, being contradicted and personal failure.
"Listen to me very carefully Will; you will drag your drunk carcass to this meeting and you will drink coffee and sober up every step of your way there. If you don't, I will personally tie you to a tree for the night and let destiny take its course." Crowley wasn't exaggerating either. Don knew it and 'Will' knew it. "You knew what you were getting into; we don't get sick days!"
He hung up and turned to his son once more. His anger was still present and a driving force behind his authority. No one in Saint-Ferdinand wanted to mess with Stephen Crowley when he was in this kind of mood, especially not the boy who knew him best.
"You!" he pointed at Don while walking to the stairs on his way out. "Not a foot out of this house!"
"Yes sir!" Don saluted, the attempt at mirth falling flat.
Crowley, without a further word made it out the door and locked it behind him loudly, leaving Donald alone to contemplate what was going on.
Briefly, he considered looking on the news for more information on Gabrielle LaForest's murder, knowing his father's pathological hatred of the media, he figured no information would hit the television or papers for a while. Then he contemplated going back upstairs to take another look at the trunk under the bed. Maybe discover who the boy in the picture was or what William Bergeron had to do with it.
"William Bergeron." Don thought out loud. "Will."
Why would his father, hot on the trail of a dangerous murderer need to meet with William Bergeron. Why would he threaten a grieving father?
Before common sense could overcome his decision, Donald ran downstairs, grabbed his car keys and rushed outside.