LOUISIANA - PRESENT DAY
Chandler dozed fitfully as Duke drove. He’d picked Chandler up from his hotel having swapped his own transport for a departmental Patrol car. They were headed out to the old cold storage warehouse where the investigation was being housed.
Chandler had always found that going with local time rather than trying to cling onto your home time zone worked best for him, but the first morning was always a struggle. He regretted the third bottle of wine they’d downed the night before, and not just because of the eye-watering bill. He realised that his student drinking abilities had set sail many years back, and the dull throbbing behind his eyes was testament to that.
He watched as the featureless swamp slid past the car windows. He looked over at Duke. “How’re you feeling?” Duke reached towards the radio. “We can put some Cajun music on if you want to suck up the atmosphere.” Chandler shook his head. Duke was a fine musician and had been ecstatic when Chandler got him tickets for Ronnie Scotts club when he’d stayed over in London for a few days after his talk.
They’d exchanged views about jazz and the blues until the early hours of the morning. “Maybe once I’ve had a coffee. I had enough Cajun atmosphere with the blackened shrimps on the flight over.” Duke laughed. “That ain’t the real stuff. We’ll hit the town for some proper food later.” Up ahead a large ramshackle building appeared in the distance.
The Patrol car came to a halt. Chandler stretched his aching back as he climbed out into the hot, wet, morning air. Sweat was already pooling in the small of his back and he wondered how anybody could take this heat for months on end. Chilly’s mud splattered Camaro Swamp Buggy was parked outside the warehouse. It’s damaged front axle up on a support.
Chandler looked at it. Duke came over, indicated the Camaro’s wheel. “You can thank that...and Chilly’s driving for our recent discovery...” Chandler studied the large bulbous tyres, the jacked up space frame and the prestigious big bore exhausts that flared up into the air to keep them out of the deep water. “It’s a beast.”
Duke nodded “It’ll do ninety across any terrain...got a thousand horses under the hood...twin axles...four wheel drive and shock absorbers so firm you think your spine’s gonna go through your skull...” Chandler winced at the thought. “Sounds fun” Duke headed towards the entrance to the warehouse.
“I think I’m getting over the fun.” Chandler looked at the name emblazoned down the side of the monstrous hood. “Who’s Chilly?” Duke gave him a smile, but obviously wanted to judge his first impressions as he said nothing more. Great Chandler thought, as if they didn’t have enough mysteries already.
Once an old ice storage unit Duke had managed to wangle it to store and analyse the coach and bodies from the swamp. Inside the warehouse it was refreshingly cool. They’d got the old machinery working and the cooling fans wheezed and rumbled in the cavernous space. The unit had been sectioned off with heavy sheets of plastic on tubular frames. Chandler saw Duke’s staff at work. Ghostly shapes behind the translucent sheeting.
Chandler noted that they all seemed young. Duke pointed at them. “Got myself a bunch of MIT students to help out with this. Ain’t got a budget for the real deal yet. Department won’t fund a cold case until we can prove it’s a homicide, and I doubt that’s gonna happen." A stocky man approached them devouring a Twinky.
Duke introduced them. “This is my deputy, Wayne Fish, we call him Chilly. “This is Chandler Travis, he’s a Detective from London…Scotland Yard, he’s going to be helping us with the Babes in the Bog case. ” Chandler smiled at the name they’d chosen for the investigation.
He shook hands with Chilly and retrieved his mangled hand. Chilly grinned. “They call me Chilly ‘cos my body runs a few degrees cooler than most folk…” Chandler had noted the coolness of his grip once the feeling returned to his fingers. “Comes in real useful when there’s a sweat on...which is pretty much all the time out here...’cept when it rains...then it’s hot and wet...” He took a bite from the Twinkie. Stretched out his syllables in a southern drawl. “Nu Scotland Yard huh...I always wanted to be around in Sherlock’s time....” Chandler decided to sidestep the problem. “Ah, so you’re interested in history?”
Duke smiled. Chilly looked blank for a second. Then a slow grin spread across his piggy features. “Hell no...I’d would’ve just liked to be able to say...no shit Sherlock to the real deal...” He winked at Chandler and ambled past. Chandler looked around at the spartan shed interior. “ Shouldn’t the bodies be in a proper mortuary? Duke shrugged. “Yeah...but given the size of the find...and the speed we needed to move at to preserve them, it seemed best not to risk taking them to the city morgue till we got ’em down to bite sized chunks..." Chandler nodded, it made sense. Time was important. Once things began to decompose it became a matter of preserving the evidence before valuable information was lost forever. Duke continued. "Jonas down at the morgue is going to check them over once we’ve got things under control here.”
Chilly unpeeled another Twinky. Duke nodded at the chocolate sponge bar as it headed towards Chilly’s mouth. “Don’t get between Chilly and a Twinky…you could lose a finger.” Chilly gave a deep belly laugh that shook his sizeable frame. “You’d better believe it. They’re part of my calorie controlled diet.” He nodded towards the section where the assistants worked on the entangled corpses. “I think it was Mark Twain that said the swamp is a cruel mistress.” Chandler was about to say something, but decided to let it slide. “Maybe.”
He moved towards the coach which stood dripping on a plastic sheet. The various artifacts were being worked on with solvents. Preservatives were used to fix the paper and prevent any further degradation now that they were exposed to the atmosphere. Duke came alongside him. “This ain’t exactly an episode of CSI here. We got a couple of anthropology graduates on loan from MIT. Once we get some results I might be able to get a bit of discretionary funding from the department. Maybe even enough for another meal.” He gave a deep laugh.
A sudden crack echoed round the warehouse. One of the assistants stood holding an arm in his hand a bemused expression on his face. The brittle bone had obviously snapped as they tried to untangle the corpses. Duke shook his head at the flustered young assistant. “Go easy on that...don’t want city folk thinkin’ we’re sloppy.”
Duke nodded towards some sheets of polythene that separated the areas of operation in the warehouse. Chandler caught a glimpse of a gangly teenager with designer glasses and a hawkish face. His hair flopped across his forehead and he was staring intently at something on a screen. “We got a guy from Lafayette university processing the documents and photos...he’s a bit flaky...but he’s a genius with all that computer shit...name’s Phaedon, but his friends call him Google.” Chandler cocked his head. “Google?.” Duke smiled. “Yeah...if you ’aint got internet he’s the next best thing...bit of a planet brain.”
Duke headed towards the work area sealed off with scaffolding and heavy plastic sheeting, pulled back the door sheeting and headed in. Chandler looked around the makeshift processing room. Racks of servers and computer towers were linked together and piled high on a bench down one end along with some high-end analytical electronic kit. Some faded photographs and hand written documents were being electronically enhanced up on the large monitors. Phaedon sat seemingly mesmerized, in front of a screen full of whirling polygon shapes and colour.
Duke coughed. Phaedon kept typing…in a world of his own. He looked up. “Hi…with you in a sec…just got to…there.” There’s a final swirl of colour on the screen as a landscape appears behind two figures. He swivelled in his chair and got up. Grinned at Duke. “Just had to nail some polygon texturing algorithms...they can be difficult suckers...”
Chandler nodded his head. He had no idea what the kid was talking about, but made a stab at pretending. “I know what you mean...bloody polygons... Phaedon extended a limp hand with long delicate fingers towards Chandler. Chandler shook it. “Chandler, Chandler Travis.
Duke shook his head at Chandlers attempt to show his technical awareness. “I can’t do much while the other machines are rendering...so I’m working on my game...it’s gonna be a kick ass search and destroy killer robot scenario...but with an emotional core...kinda like Terminator meets The Wizard of Oz...” Chilly wandered over to them. “He’s going to scan me into the game...I play a sensitive cop who becomes a serial killer while he’s sleepwalking...”
Phaedon’s cell tweeted as it received a text. Chandler looked at it. “Er, nice phone I should really look into getting an intelligent phone.” Phaedon picked his cell up. “Yeah, smartphones are the way to go. Pretty soon they’ll be using retinal implants for data and they’ll go the same way as the self driven car. I’ve written some really neat Apps. The voice actuation software has a mind of its own sometimes.”
Chandler realised he was slipping down a technical rabbit hole, but couldn’t stop himself. “Yeah, I’ve done some stuff with mine as well...brought it up to speed.” Duke laughed “I don’t think downloading a utube of a skateboarding dog counts...” Chandler grinned. Busted.
There was the sound of a strangled frog from Chilly’s pocket. He made no move to answer it. Duke looked over. “Could be urgent?” Chilly shrugged. “Naaa...probably one of the gang...we’re having a barbeque...” Duke gave him a playful push. This was obviously some running joke that Chandler wasn’t aware of. “Better check…you never know.”
Chilly reached into his pocket and eased his mobile out far enough to squint at the screen. Phaedon frowned. “...the hell happened to your cell dude? Looks like it went ten rounds with a Raptor.” Chilly sighed and pulled his cell out. Chandler saw it was covered in bite marks, like something had chewed it. There was a crack across the screen. Chilly stared at it ruefully. “My damn dog...hates mobiles...he hears one go off he nukes it...this is my fourth one this year.” Phaedon grinned. “Bummer”
Chandler looked at the monitors. Some faint but illegible writing was materializing from an electronic fog. “These the letters?” Phaedon tapped some keys and the writing came into focus.
“Yes...there was a lot of fading and some moisture damage...had to use a variety of techniques, different passes...short waveform scanning, UV, Infra red and side band reflective information...”
Chandler touched the words on the screen, softly, as if he was afraid of damaging them.
“How long before we can read them?” Phaedon tapped a few more keys.
“Pretty soon...We’re working on the diary now...”
Duke leaned in, studied the words. “Heard you’d had some luck with the photos?” Phaedon became animated. Moved over to another keyboard and tapped some keys. Five wireframe heads appeared on one of the large monitors.
“Okay...we digitised the five heads...that was gruesome man...I guess you guys are used to it...me, I prefer fantasy...”
Duke looked at him. “I can understand that.” Phaedon tapped a computer tablet he was using as a controller and an old faded photograph appeared on another screen. “This was in the chest we got from the coach.”
The screen filled with a black and white family shot of a group of women and a fashionable looking man in a top hat and suit, he had two white carriage dogs sitting in front of him. It’s all very stiff and formal. Chandler looks at it.
“That’s Tumblety...I’m sure of it. What was he doing out here with these women?"
Phaedon looked at the screen. “Creepy looking dude. Our initial findings show that the bodies were all women...so I made a 3D extrapolation from the women in the photo...”
He tapped the tablet. The computer highlighted the faces from the photo...produced five spinning wire frames.
“Then I mapped the images from the photograph onto the skull structures of our swamp babes.”
The wire frames of the five heads are electronically painted with the women’s faces from the photographs.
“The skin tones are based on the reflectivity in relation to greyscale...” Chandler stared at the screen as colour suffused the faces. He leaned forward to study the picture.
“So the bodies from the coach, their general physiognomy matches the women in the photo?” Phaedon tapped some keys and the picture sharpened up.
“Looks like it...if they were from around here you might be able to trace them from local records.” Duke turned to Chandler.
“I’ll hook you up with one of the local librarians...Roxie, she’s a bright kid.” Phaedon grinned at the mention of Roxie’s name.
“Yeah...she’s cool. Chandler stared at the picture. There was something about these women. He was sure he recognized them. But where from? He needed to see something that wasn’t in cyberspace. Some reality. He’d spent his time in the force analyzing crime scenes. Finding physical evidence. Once the clues were bagged and the evidence had been passed over to the tech boys he always felt a sense of loss. Like he was losing the empathy that helped him feel connected with the case
“Can I see where you found the carriage?” Duke grunted. “Sure. I got a friend who runs one of them dumbass tours of the swamp...his son can take you out there this evening...” Chandler looked at his watch, it was late afternoon. He wondered how fast it got dark…out in the swamps. He suddenly felt a long way from the familiar streets of London. Visions of gap toothed simpletons staring at him from an old shack to a background of strumming banjos danced through his jet lagged imagination. “He’s okay is he? I mean I don’t want to end up as some lost tourist in the bayou headline.” Duke laughed. “Naaa...Zeke knows the swamps like the back of his hand.”