Cadaver

Amy took her mask off in relief as soon as she sat down in the car. She grabbed hand sanitizer to use while sorting her thoughts before calling Janie. Would Janie have the information she needed? Janie is working out of her home, her duties mostly involve paperwork. Before self-quarantining, she was a great source of info related to high profile cases. Janie’s partner has chronic health issues though, so the medical examiner was happy to let her get her intern hours in at home, to keep her partner safe. She did view autopsies remotely, so she heard Sinha’s thoughts on what he saw as he saw it, she just wouldn’t be able to listen to his discussion with police. If there was information about the body that might support a theory surrounding someone living in the caves, she might be willing to share, as long as Amy kept the information out of papers until it had been released to the public.

Amy pulled out her notebook and dialed Janie, rolling the window down so the car didn’t get stuffy while she made the call. Janie was willing, but needed a promise. She said, “I’ll happily tell you what I think, but only if you do me the favor of trying as hard as you can to squelch rumors that it was anyone, Brand or not, dressed as a woman to conceal their identity. The trans community has enough problems, I don’t want people acting like they did with The Old Lady Killer in Mexico. Cops harassed every woman in the community. And you have to find the information somewhere else before you print it, but it won’t be hard to do. This is an easy conclusion for the public to reach.”

“Deal.” She hadn’t even thought of the possibility of this triggering rising tensions being vented on the trans community. “Shorts and a tank top are gender neutral clothing. Living in the woods, whether Brand or not, could produce someone strong and athletic, whatever gender. Erickson already brought up the lack of a barber shop out there, anyone hiding out in the caves is likely to have long hair. They weren’t dressed as a woman, they were just dressed.”

“All true. Now, the body itself shows exactly what the witness said. Someone cut his ear off with a knife. There are no other spots on the body that show evidence of being removed, or chewed upon. The person who was seen eating his ear apparently was just getting started. The river washed away a lot of trace evidence, they’re still working on it though. So the body itself shows nothing to support the theory of Brand being involved.

“However,” Janie was likely making the little circular hand movement she always does when she says this. Amy smiled, and looked forward to talking to her friend in person again. “Wyatt was heavier than he looked. He carried heavy boxes in and out of his warehouse all day. He may have been short, and he may have looked pudgy, but he wasn’t. Under a thin layer of padding was a lot of muscle. He’s heavy for his size. We don’t know how much the attacker weighed. They were said to be lean, thinner than Wyatt. They were probably lifting someone who weighed more than they did, and then they leapt over a fence and ran, and kept up a good pace. I don’t know if the attacker was using drugs or not, but I know they were strong and healthy, with good endurance.

“I don’t think this could be accomplished by someone living off of a survival diet in the woods. This is not the work of a person living off of trapped rabbits and the occasional deer. If it’s true they are living in the caves, which we have zero evidence of and no reason to suspect other than rumor, they likely raid for supplies on a regular basis to stay that healthy. They may be stealing food from farmer’s fields, perhaps even livestock. They may be burglarizing homes for supplies occasionally. That’s where you’re going to get the best treats. Anyway, I bet that’s what whoever it is does. I bet if you checked cave systems near where there have been spikes in burglaries, caves people know about but don’t go into very often, you’d be more likely to run across the killer.

“They’re already looking in local cave systems, by the way. I heard earlier that some bones were brought in from a cave to the north, they don’t seem to be connected, but I think they should look east of town, closer to the wealthier homes. I already told Sinha what I thought, he agrees and is passing it along to the cops.

“Now, as to how similar this might be to Brand, and I’m only pointing you to stuff on public record here regarding Brand, you’re going to have to wait before you discuss the removal of Wyatt’s ear, but we will release that soon. The body parts arranged on Brand’s altar were removed with what is most likely a hunting knife. The marks on Wyatt’s body are also consistent with a hunting knife.” This seemed to be really thrilling the true crime fan in Janie, she’d been doing her research even before the call. It was fun to watch her pursue her dream.

Janie continued, “There was no evidence that Brand consumed any body parts, there wasn’t even saliva found. However,” Amy smiled, picturing the circle movement. “One of the body parts was an ear, and it was removed with the a similar lift and cut technique, one where the person doing the cutting is probably standing over the body as they cut. This can’t link the body to Brand directly though, it just means that both times the ear was removed it was by someone standing over a body. That isn’t solid, fairly flimsy, but it’s interesting.”

She thanked Janie and put some thinking music on before she started the car and headed to the store. She thought of how strong Wyatt’s attacker had to be, to casually lift someone stronger than them and start leaping over fences and bouncing off of walls. Moving faster than the crowd. Janie was right. They couldn’t have been living off of bunnies and foraging.

There it is again, that rising urge to doubt logical possibilities. It didn’t seem human. Maybe it was. Maybe it was bath salts or some new meth formula from the north hills. Didn’t they crash fast though? How long did it take them to run from downtown to the river? Protesters couldn’t make it the whole way, and there were some rather fit men in the group. Cops had to chase her, or him, down by car. Could drugs let someone go that long, that fast, without a break or not? She wasn’t sure.

She was willing to believe that it could be drugs being used by someone healthy. If the attacker lived in the caves to the east and raided even just their garbage for supplies, they could live off of some high fat diets full of things like quinoa. If they didn’t use habitually, just what they found when raiding for supplies, they might not be held back by things like a weak heart.

It’s just that it sounded too familiar, really. Too much of it reminded her of a story she had heard. Some urban legend she encountered when writing about a campsite found abandoned. She interviewed someone from the university who studied folklore and collected local urban legends. She remembered feeling intrigued by the woman, it was hard to tell if she believed the stories she told or not. Amy wanted to get home to review her notes.

She thought she could get Wyatt’s sister to comment about his build, that would give her enough leeway to nudge the article toward the strength required to lift him. That would give leeway to discuss living in the caves close to town, pointing to an attacker the protesters wouldn’t be hiding. She had the long hair, could maybe say the clothes sound something like what a camper might have in their backpack as emergency clothing, regardless of their gender. She had what she needed, if she hunted Wyatt’s sister down. So, store, then home to the journal. Then time to talk to sis.

Occult

Amy was at her desk when Erickson approached. She hadn’t been there long, she just needed to grab some office supplies and pick up her in-box before heading home to work. She glanced at yesterday’s front page. There was a face in the crowd behind Rodriguez, someone who was familiar. Where she was standing, it was hard to tell if she was another witness waiting to talk to police, or just a rubbernecker. She didn’t feel recent, but not too far in the past.

Erickson coughed his polite cough for attention. Hard to believe he still thought the noise was polite in this, a time of plague. At least his mask looked thick and snug. “I wanted to say to you personally, I think you did a good job on the Rodriguez interview. I hear she was pretty freaked out, I mean of course she was, and you handled her gently.”

“Thank you.” Most likely, he was warming up to something that would take guts to ask. She hoped it didn’t come with an educational lecture. If he started that, he could be here a while. Last time, she got so bored, she thought about gargling her coffee to see what he would do. She was still revising the piece on Wyatt’s grieving family, and needed to get back to it.

“I need you to use the same delicacy when dealing with the public at large right now, they’re freaking out. Some people are angry at the protesters, saying that they interfered with the police’s ability to chase the person who attacked Wyatt. There’s a rising rumor that his murderer was one of them, and that they know who it is, but are keeping quiet.”

“Well, that’s not fair, those protesters came to his aid even when he had been a giant ass to them the whole time. Without Rodriguez and the protesters giving chase and showing cops where to go, they never would have been able to keep up with the woman. Besides, Wyatt’s sister is involved in the protests, and she’s still active out there. I drove by her this morning. If they were hiding someone, she wouldn’t still be going along with it.” She started to understand why he was buttering her up. People are angry, and if they turn on each other, Liffey would be just another riot.

“That’s another thing. Some people are saying it might not have been a woman who attacked him. They were athletic, and certainly strong. It could have been a slender man, one of those with a cyclist type body, big calves and such. Someone built for the kind of parkour moves he was doing. Not to be insensitive, but did Rodriguez say she saw actual breasts?” He made the motion with his hands out from his chest, just in case she forgot what breasts were. Bless him.

“We didn’t cover it. She seemed confident it was a woman though.” He had a point. It was dark. She saw someone with long hair but through bushes. She saw them more clearly when they leapt the fence, but they had a body on their shoulder, they would have still been partially covered.

“Some people are saying it’s possible it might be your old buddy Brand.” That got her attention. She would need to be careful. She did not want people knowing she was still interested in Brand, the rumors about her obsession with the lost figurine were a little too close to home.

“Brand? I’m sure he’s dead. I don’t think he would have stayed quiet this long.” Don’t forget the practiced, casual flip of the wrist.

“Well, if he’s been out in one of the caves, there’s no barbers out there, he wouldn’t have been getting very chunky living off of bunnies and deer. He would have long hair and a slender build, like the person who was seen eating Wyatt’s ear. And there were body parts in that hotel room with him, what if that was set out for dinner? You know, maybe we thought it was an altar, but it was just his sick version of a candlelit supper?” He leaned against her door frame, waiting for her feedback on his pet theory.

“I don’t know. I followed his trail for a while, and every sighting of him came up with nothing. He’s just an urban legend now. If he’s alive, he probably hopped a train.” There was all of our missing people though.

“You know as well as I do how many campers go missing in Liffey,” Oh, Erickson had noticed that too. “There’s a lot of uncharted caves out there. Brand seems like he may have been a resourceful type. Witnesses said the attacker was wearing a tank top and super short denim cutoffs, no shoes, right? Cops were saying it’s because the guy was probably on drugs, got all hot and sweaty so he put on his summer gear. Thus the super strength, he’s all hopped up. But what if it’s also because he’s been hiding out in those caves? Needing to learn to chase deer for dinner. He wouldn’t exactly have access to the mini-mall to pick up a jacket, he’d have to wear what he could find in the woods.” Aww, he was as excited as a puppy dog. Listen to him go on. Interesting though.

“What if it’s an athletic woman on drugs, giving her the strength to toss Wyatt over her shoulder? He wasn’t that big of a guy.”

“I suppose it’s possible. Just doesn’t seem very likely, no offense to your gender. What’s wrong with a dude with long hair?”

“Nothing. I just don’t think Brand would be quiet this long, he seemed pretty unstable. It could be a guy, though. Maybe even a guy hiding out in the caves. But if a woman was out in the caves doing the same thing, she could get strong too.”

“Anyway, Finkle thinks we should make the public more aware that there is the possibility Brand is involved. Help to keep the public from turning on each other if they have a common enemy. I agree that we should encourage that.” Ah, Finkle. The warm up was to encourage her to butt kiss the mayor, forgo objectivity for bias, for the sake of the masses, whose needs so frequently lined up with what the mayor needed at the time.

Erickson continued, “Wyatt was a small business owner. And he had a family, two young kids. Now he has a grieving widow. He’s become a hero for local Republicans, he died protecting his property. On the other side, like you said, it’s a little unfair to be putting this on the protesters, I’m with you, I don’t think it was one of them and I don’t think they got in the way. And Finkle’s right, we don’t want them turning on each other, we’re a hair’s breadth from a riot out there.” At least he wasn’t trying to let chaos reign so he could sell papers.

It seemed so unlike Finkle though, to not be using the chance to lift up Wyatt as a martyr to further his political agenda. He was usually a shining example of corruption, greed, and self-interest. Amy supposed he preferred his business to remain quiet. He might think national attention could mean people start looking more closely at rumors.

Tulley burst in, slapping the edge of her door with a thwack that made her jump. His blond hair looked like he had been pulling on it while writing again. “Congratulations, I hear you get to dive into your creepy occult shit again.”

Oh wonderful, Erickson already opened his big mouth. The rumors have already started. Great. “Looks like I’ll be writing about Brand, if that’s what you mean.”

“Well, you are the expert on occult artifacts and all. Our little creepshow lover. Full of spooky woo-woo?”

“I wrote about one statue, connecting a series of events together. It was October, the readers loved it.” Amy hoped he never found out exactly how much time and effort she spent following up on the strange little statue.

“It’s true. Some of our readers love that babbling creepy shit.” He dismissed her with a flick of his chin. “James, they got that layout ready for you.” He vanished as suddenly as he came. She did adore how the man hated pleasant chit chat, she couldn’t imagine trying to have a conversation with him.

“Right, gotta go. You still have a friend at the morgue, right? Go see if there’s anything solid they’ve overheard. See if they can poke around about a possible connection to Brand. I’ll get someone else to revise your story on the family.”

“Will do.” Well, she’d talk to Janie. She certainly wouldn’t try to slant things toward a man who was probably dead, but she might be able to find something real that could point people away from blaming protesters. That will be enough to keep Erickson happy.

P.S – This is the second of my posts for Grim List, a day late but la, life. The first prompt I did was Illusion, and I have posted an excerpt from the story she wrote about the object, which happens to be inspired by a prompt from Grim List last year.

Illusion

Usually, when the moon is this high, the stone paths they build their dwellings alongside are empty. This is the best place to hunt for stragglers, those that wander along the fringes of the colony are often in a dazed and confused state. Tonight though, there are many of them. A large group sit across the stone, all facing the same direction. A few smaller groups wander around, many carry lightweight boards splashed with color. Some raise their voices in a low, relentless chant, and they all wear cloth on the lower half of their faces. She can see now that the crowd is edged by their warriors, and the crowd seems to be bickering at them.

The hunting tonight will be tricky. She already passed nothing but empty campgrounds on her trip into town. Always empty campgrounds. Summer is usually the time of plenty, and now it is drawing to a close with no where near the bounty that previous years have provided. The pantry is still thin, though the air grows pleasant as the days grew longer. It has been that way for far too long, the elders have been overheard whispering their concerns to each other. It is risky to be this close to the heart of their village, but her family is hungry.

The humans all seem tense and angry. The general guidelines recommended targeting the more aggressive ones, to remove them from the colony so they didn’t damage each other, but tonight they all seem likely to turn on their own.

There is one. A man standing in front of a building with wood panels along the front and sides. He is pacing along the walls in an agitated state, but instead of facing the direction that most face, he is directing his anger at the crowd itself. He seems to be protecting the building, dashing at people who get too close, waving a club at them.

He seems to be protecting the building from the crowd. Everyone is tense, but his anger seems to be facing the people around him, and they do not seem angry at each other. Sometimes their anger directs at him, but they do not rise and charge him as he does them. Those in the crowd are mumbling to each other. They seem to be soothing each other. They seem to want to avoid conflict, though they seem to seethe as a whole. Some even ignore him completely. Perhaps he’s done something wrong, they are trying to exile him and he is refusing to leave. Would their warriors not remove him? Why is he guarding that building? Perhaps there is food in there and he doesn’t want to share, and that’s why they are angry.

Whatever it is, he is likely a good target. His removal will be good for the colony, prevent them from turning on each other. But how to lead him away? His eyes are not lingering on female bodies. Her usual methods would not likely work, either with rolling hips or an air of vulnerability. He seems to want to remain between the crowd and that building. Perhaps she could threaten the building, on the side away from the crowd.

The warriors pay attention when she tries to slip down the alley behind the building, but with a little mental push they seem to forget about her well enough. She clings to the corner of a wall and faces the man.

She sends him the scent of smoke, and the flash of fire. It works, his head snapping to the alley almost immediately. She lets herself be seen ducking behind the corner, and makes sure he sees her head into the grassy area, toward a corner shaded by tall shrubs.

He jogs after her, jingling as he runs, and quickly starts panting heavily. She muffles the sound of his cries toward the warriors, and watches him pause in his frustration, as he fails to get their attention. She jiggles her shrub to draw his attention, and he decides to pursue her rather than get help. It’s nice when they mistake you for weak, thinking they can take you easily when you’re alone. Their look of surprise always amuses her.

His neck snaps cleanly, and he falls silently to the ground. She is hungry, the illusions took energy she barely had to spare. She slices off an ear to nibble on, when a scream rings out. She looks up, one of the crowd is pointing at her, and others near her are rousing, looking around in increasing panic. The shrubs didn’t offer as much shelter as she thought, and she doesn’t have enough energy to cover her tracks. She tosses her kill over her shoulder, and runs.

P.S. – This is the first of thirteen prompts I have selected from Grim List. All thirteen stories will be in continuation.

Savor

Horseradish. That would be perfect, just enough to give the other flavors a bit more punch. Usually she prefers pork seasonings, but the occasional hint of something good with red meat helps bring out the earthier tones of the dish.

Grandma would disapprove of such additions to her recipes, designed to be simple and enhance the natural flavor. Unfortunately, the difficulty of the hunt lately made it so that meat was rare, every effort must me made to maximize enjoyment. The prey were learning to protect themselves much better than they did in Grandma’s day.

She hummed as she worked, slicing turnips while a thigh soaked in the marinade. So many people undervalued a good roasted turnip. The flavor was so strong when raw, you would never expect it to turn so savory and mellow.

The repetitive task allowed her mind to wander, and she considered the satisfying catch and kill behind her. This one had been taken in his sleep, always better for the meat. Once, she heard one of the campers tell a story about a creature that hunted humans. Talked about fear enhancing the flavor of meat. It was obvious the human didn’t know what he was talking about. In her experience it made it taste a little off. This one never saw a thing coming, he was nice and cozy in his sleeping bag.

The park rangers are cracking down like wildfire, but they don’t know how to track something like her. They look for their trails on the ground, not in the trees. They would be aware, and so would the campers, but there will always be one or two that consider themselves to be safe enough to stray.

P.S. – Found another older story that contains elements I will hopefully be using for Grim List 2020.

The Entomologist

“Oh, she is beautiful. I bet Dr. Fairweather will notice you for this one. You might even get more than just the grant out of him.” She winked.
“Excuse me?” I could never remember this one’s name. Grad students are so temporary lately.
“Was that too forward?” She smiled. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell. Anyway, she should help you get that grant for sure. I know you’ve certainly been working hard enough to deserve it.”
“It’s not about me. It’s not even about my work, but she does bring me some hope.” I couldn’t help the smile I felt rising to my face as I put her in the specimen jar.

“I don’t understand, what do you mean the funds aren’t available?” No, no, I needed this grant.
“I’m afraid the last of it went to Dr. Aemulus.” Fairweather wouldn’t even look me in the eye, shuffling through papers on his desk instead.
“But it was promised to me, you told me you would make sure of it.”
“Well, to be frank, she has an amazingly persuasive argument for her cause.”
“Does that argument have anything to do with the weekend you spent together?”
A deep flush spread up to his face from the over starched collar of his shirt. “Don’t be petty.”

The whole campus was abuzz with excitement.
I sipped at the champagne and wished it was mead. I like mead, the child in me enjoys sipping nectar like a bee. Dr. Aemulus came in on Fairweather’s arm and everybody clapped. The grad student said, “This should have been your event.” Incubo. That was her name. Something Incubo.
“Don’t be petty,” I sighed.

“Wait, that’s mine. That’s all mine. What are you doing with my things? That’s delicate equipment, what are you doing?”
Fairweather the betrayer came in, holding his hands up as if to physically restrain me if need be. “Calm down, we need this space for Dr. Aemulus to run her experiments. Your equipment will go down to storage where it will be safe until it’s needed again.”
“Calm down? How do men always think saying that will help?”
“Just be reasonable. The money from forensic research will be far more valuable than conservation efforts. Why are you letting some grad student put a bug in your ear anyway?”
“What grad student? How can you think I’m angry because of a grad student? You’re insane!”

I shouldn’t have to do this. I am a good person. I deserve loyalty. But no, here I am covered in fucking blood up to my arms in these stupid beetles. Necessary forensic research, my ass. This “research” has all been done before, it solves nothing. Nothing.
Out of pure spite, I crumpled his stupid starched collar before dumping more of the flesh consuming beetles over the pair of them. I patted Aemulus’s hair. “Feed your children well,” I whispered.

Fire grew in my heart. Fire grew in my eyes.
Incubo was right. Sometimes, fire is good for the forest, even if some pollinators die. I was wrong to stop the controlled burn the farmers wanted last fall. Sometimes, burning it all to the ground gives room for renewal, for the new, the strong, the helpful, to flourish and grow.
The heat tingles my skin, flush from being so near, the smoke billows to the sky and blows through my hair. I feel so alive. What an absolutely beautiful day.

They found her bones in the ashes. Her grad student stood quietly with the other onlookers as the bodies were carried away.
With a sad smile, Incubo said, “it looks like I will need a job soon. What about you? I hear you’ve been busy, but they haven’t given you the help you need,” the muse of jealousy continued, “Personally, I think you’ve been underappreciated.”

P. S. – This is an old story I’m posting because I’m fairly certain this will be referred to in the upcoming stories for Grim List.