Chapter 5- Into the Woods
Officer Basil Black has assigned himself keeper of the crime scene, chasing the higher ranked Deputy Lupino off to deal with active crime in town. He stood alone as Riviona and Jack arrived, a formidable looking threat to the press who would soon come in their droves after the smell of fresh blood like a school of piranha.
Riviona sized the officer up carefully as they reached the cold and sparse scene. She knew he would be doing the same to her as the intruding detective. The officer wore the expected beige and taupe of a sheriff’s man with his gold star glimmering off his chest. His dirty fair hair fluttered freely in the wind as he had forgone the hat whilst a pair of tinted aviators kept his eyes hidden and the harsh winter sun off them.
Riviona turned her stare from the officer to the crime scene but she could gage little from it. Only the fluttering strips of yellow tape and a faint smear of blood almost missable amongst the carmine leaves indicated that anything had happened here.
“Morning Basil,” Jack greeted cheerfully as he stepped up to the man. “This is Detective Riviona Moon, Riviona this is Officer Basil Black.”
Basil nodded before dipping his head slightly and tugging off his shades. He stepped forward, instantly putting Riviona in his six foot two shadow.
“Morning,” he greeted in a deep voice, “where are you from then?”
Riviona met her own reflection two times in Basil’s aviators and decided that her hair looked unkempt in both. She had bound it in a loose ponytail but it had slipped out in several places giving her three partings at the back.
“New York,” she said calmly, too used to being the small one amongst people to be intimidated by him.
“And why do we need help from there?” he quipped in a voice that remained polite but had an edge to it that one might infer hostility from.
“I specialise in unusual homicides.”
Riviona had already become bored of telling this tale but knew she would have to have it on repeat for a while yet. She still had other members of the local law to meet and undoubtedly there would be a local rag with a so called writer to appease, and then the wider press would come prying.
Jack gave a small smile, which widened when Basil looked his way.
“I know Basil but this is definitely unusual,” Jack said.
He waved Riviona on, walking over to where numbered yellow cards remained, hammered into place by tent poles, a rather clever idea of Koji’s.
“Numbers one to three are the trees where they were hanging,” Jack explained. “One body and two dolls per tree.”
Riviona walked on, tugging the ranger’s borrowed coat closer as she surveyed the yellow markers and then the trees. She looked up to the branches and wondered how the ropes had been secured to them imagining the person would have needed help or a ladder maybe. She had already observed that the lack of CCTV anywhere around the Rangers’ Station which gave possibility to the fact that someone had driven up with the bodies and then gotten them up here to hang them without disturbance.
Basil raised his large hands to his hips and tipped his head in Jack’s direction.
“That M.E come back with anything yet?” he pried. “Koji said she was green in all senses of the word.”
Jack gave a bitter smile in answer. “Yeah she’s a newbie and a townie to boot. I want Craig to help her but he’ll probably not want connected if it hits the fan the way I think it will.”
Basil nodded in understanding as he slackened his stance. He cocked his head from Jack to Riviona and then back to Jack.
“Oh it’s definitely going to blow up in our faces, three schoolgirls we can’t identify looking mauled but clearly killed by a human because no animal can hang somebody and then you got the dolls. Hell, having it ten years to the last deaths up here is just a bonus.”
Riviona looked over to Jack at Basil’s comment to see his reaction. Her pale pink mouth creased slightly when Jack failed to blow up at Basil with righteous rage as he had done with her when she had suggested a connection in the deaths.
She turned her attention back to the crime scene, eyes hardened as she wondered how many cop and ranger boot treads she was looking at in the crushed leaves. She turned her head back up to the trees noting the bend in some of the branches, they had bore the weight but not without strain.
“Were these checked for prints?” she quipped as she pointed up to them.
Jack turned his head up to the branches and shook his head. “Suppose we could cut them down but if nothing else we’ve sent off has prints I think we can assume our body dumper wore gloves.”
“Think there’s more than one culprit?” Basil pried.
Jack rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “I hope not but do you think one person could subdue and murder three girls and then hang their bodies alone?”
“It’s possible,” Basil permitted.
“Give me a boost.”
Riviona’s voice drew the cops’ attention back to her. She had taken out a small compact case, a powder brush and a set of four sealed, clear squares. She looked to them with a face taut as seriousness stole away its attraction.
Basil folded his arms as his mouth stretched out into a wide smile.
“The branches are too rough to keep prints, probably just gonna get some bird shit on your hands,” he called to her.
Jack started walking over to the young woman before she could rebuke Basil. He agreed with his co-worker but he didn’t want the detective feeling that it was them against the outsider.
“I hope you haven’t stood in any shit,” he murmured, “these are good gloves.”
Riviona glanced down at his black, woollen gloves and felt slightly envious as her suede pair offered little protection from the heat.
“Well at least they’re black, good to hide stains,” she mused.
Jack knelt with his palms cupped together. He gave a grunt of surprise when Riviona stepped onto them hastily, prompting him to boost her up faster than he had expected to.
Basil laughed as Jack skidded back slightly in the damp leaves and Riviona wobbled before grasping at a branch for balance.
“Sure looks professional,” Basil teased. “Let’s hope the press don’t show up to catch a good photograph for this, they’ll wonder if we’ve been sent an acrobat to help.”
Riviona ignored the jibe as she busied herself with sprinkling the fine, dark powder onto the bent branch. She sensed no malice in the officer’s tone and hoped that maybe she would get lucky this time and be treated as an ally not an intruder.
Jack clenched his teeth as he watched the woman work, unconvinced that she dusted as fast as she could. He had no difficulty with her weight, the balancing her as she moved caused the tricky part.
“You going to be ready for those press or will you need support?” Jack addressed Basil.
Basil unfolded his hands, shifting them back to his hips as he gave Jack a frown that went unseen.
“Is there something in the water? That cheeky prick Lupino said something similar, I told him to go deal with other crimes unless he wanted my foot up his ass. I’ll tell you the same Jack.”
Jack laughed and shook his head. “There I thought Dan and I were your superiors, my mistake Basil.”
“Damn straight,” Basil replied sternly, “see it doesn’t happen again. I can handle journalists better than both of you. As I recall dear Daniel once had the town in a panic because he talked to one about finding carved heads round a drug dealer’s den and somehow the word pumpkin got left outta that!”
Riviona gave a soft snicker at this as she pressed a sticky square of plastic down where she had dusted.
Jack glanced up to her suddenly at the sound and a small smile stole onto his face.
“Best not let the detective think we’re all incompetent Basil.”
Riviona sealed up the square and repeated the same with three others, pocketing them as she finished with them.
“I’m ready,” she advised.
“Alright then, let go off the branch,” Jack advised, “I got you.”
The lie sounded sincere and both believed it until Riviona obeyed and suddenly felt a rush of air racing up her skin as she fell.
Jack’s fumbling hands lost the woman’s feet as when he tried to crouch down to lower her she lost balance and shifted forward slightly. He moved swiftly, rising up and swinging his arms out to get a grasp on the falling woman.
Silence fell as the three figures froze up as if time had ceased about them.
Riviona had her eyes shut and her body had tensed up readying for the fall. It took a moment to realise there had been no impact and for a dazed second she wondered what in the hell had happened.
Basil’s laughter broke the moment bringing them back to reality.
“Nice catch Jack, damn you move fast!” Basil called.
Riviona opened her eyes and only when she looked down did she feel the warm, tight grasp about her waist.
Jack had caught the woman mid-fall about the waist and now held her upright in his arms still suspended from the ground but not so high that she might risk injury.
Riviona tapped an arm gently with her hand.
“You can put me down now,” she advised.
“Right,” Jack responded quickly.
He dropped her hard without warning and took two awkward steps back from her.
“Um,” he hesitated as he rubbed at his nose with his right hand, “you get a print?”
“A partial maybe.” She cocked her head to glance at him over her shoulder. “Thanks for catching me.”
“You’re welcome,” he answered brightly as he lowered his hand.
“So are you two going then?” Basil quipped. “Maybe go do some other police work?” he suggested sarcastically. “I don’t see that there’s much to be doing here until we get the coroner’s reports and maybe something back on the evidence we sent off. Dan said he’s asked for footage from the Piper’s Passage road maybe we’ll get lucky with that.”
Jack shook his head again. “Too many maybes there. Someone who’s got three bodies on them isn’t taking main roads and we all know there are any number of roads without cameras to get you up here.”
Basil lowered his hands by his side and dipped his head slightly causing his shades to slip down slightly on his hawkish nose.
“We know that but a local don’t and since we don’t know the victims I don’t think we’ll know the killer.”
“Maybe they’re already out of town then,” Jack muttered grimly.
Cassie did not know what it was that summoned her attention. Perhaps the chill in the air had brought her from her stupor or maybe the silence that shouldn’t be there. Whatever the cause, she found herself snapping to reality as if she had been sleep walking and as she took in her surroundings she wondered fearfully if perhaps she had stumbled in a sleep or remained a victim of slumber’s visions.
A ghostly breath slipped out of her lips and she half-imagined part of her spirit going with it. She became aware of the cold of the late afternoon air as it sneaked through her fingertips and spread through her body like a cancer. Damp grass and wild weeds gave way to her shoes with each uncertain step she took and mud caught in the tread of her underfoot determined to be taken by her to a better destination.
Cassie heard the low splash of water to her left and turned to seek out the sound even as her heart quickened.
A body of stagnant water sat just visible through a cluttered cluster of reeds turning pale with the autumnal decay and in it a most bizarre structure caught her attention.
Cassie moved closer, treading as softly as she could manage, fearful of the telltale snap of a stray branch underfoot that would lure a predator to her. She had to seek out the object to confirm its realness, telling herself again that she must be dreaming.
She let curiosity continue to carry her forward, using it to banish the fear that nagged upon like a starved maggot worrying at flesh. Closer to the reeds and the body of water that had the murky grey of a mirror forgotten under dust, she confirmed the object to be no mirage.
A large swan boat sat forgotten in a pond, cracked and fallen foul to age, dirt robbing its body of white and plants growing through its plastic seats as nature tried to pull it from the world.
Cassie stared at it in fascination, unclear how it had gotten there and why it should be left alone to rot. She could spy no other signs of man nor life which made her uneasy about the cause of the splash.
She turned from the swan boat quickly and headed back, feeling she must have been on a path but none showed itself to her. There stood tall trees of varying types, all save the pine turned to the colours of fire with fall’s arrival, some of their leaves had fallen to colour the ground brightening the mute browns and greys of mud and rocks and stealing attention from the stubbornly vibrant greens of low growing weeds.
Cassie sucked in a breath as she realised she had to be in the forest but which part of it she could not know. Worse, she had no recollection of coming here.
Her day had become jostled with the arrival of Mr Bergese and her brief excursion from his class to the bathroom had not settled her. She had been grateful to avoid a return to the classroom as she had met Robin in the corridor holding her bags.
She knew she had attended the rest of her classes without further issue save the expected murmurs of students gossiping about her and the murders. She had been expecting it the moment Matt had told her about the deaths and their location, of course people would link it to her own trauma.
Cassie tried to think about her individual classes after Art but they were a blur and she felt she had attended them on auto-pilot, uncertain if she had even taken notes. She could not recall eating lunch, the bell ending the day, or leaving the building, somehow she had lost time between one class and now. There were flickers of Robin, her awkward but amusing new neighbour and she felt sure she had arranged lunch with him because he was new to school.
She lifted her left hand to check her watch and felt her bags shift on her shoulder. She had them both with her and felt a jolt of panic as she realised she should have headed to ballet class.
Her watch read four thirty on its dial, school had finished at three fifteen, had she been walking all this time?
Her breaths escaped quicker, short and sharp as she realised sundown would be coming soon and here she stood lost in the woods with no clue how or why she had gotten here.
Cassie turned around her hoping to spy a path or a gap in the trees that might reveal a road.
Her head froze and her body stilled as she tried to make herself seem inanimate and blend into the trees.
Across the pond amongst tall trees of dark bark another motionless figure stood. Tall and human like, the large pointed ears and dark protruding shape of a muzzle suggested something more sinister.
Cassie wondered if it could be another forgotten ornament like the swan boat until it moved.
Riviona studied the dolls with a careful intrigue. They remained in their boxes, sealed up in plastic to preserve whatever evidence might be upon them. Six in total, they were old and worn, either unloved or over loved, Riviona couldn’t say which for certain. They sat on Officer Quill’s desk before her lined up in two rows of three with their tiny nooses still about them as if they waited in coffins for burial.
“Well good afternoon,” a happy voice interrupted Riviona’s studies, “am I looking at a detective using an actual magnifying glass?”
Riviona readied herself for more mocking as she looked up from the large magnifying glass she held in her right hand. “It does the job,” she advised.
She lost her defensive nature to a smile upon seeing a young man approaching wearing the taupe cowboy styled hat of a sheriff’s lawman.
He halted by the desk and smiled down at her. “It may do but we have more practical ones these days without the clunky handle.”
“I like the clunky handle.” She glanced back down to the polished copper handle gleaming in her grasp.
“Well it is a nice one, I’ll acknowledge that,” the officer said sincerely. “Now, I’m going to surmise that you have to be the good Detective Moon I’m hearing about.” He offered out a hand to her. “I’m Deputy Dan Lupino, if Jack hasn’t spoken about me yet then he’s done me a disservice.”
Riviona tried to fight down the smile but it stayed on her face betraying her amusement. She accepted the hand and gave it a light shake.
“Officer Black mentioned something about pumpkin heads and panic,” she remarked coyly as she looked up to him.
Dan frowned but the mirth stayed in his golden-brown gaze. “Basil’s a bastard, he’s just sore because he’s getting old and I can outrun him and have caught more people than him this year.”
“Wow Dan, you’ve just met and already you’re swearing,” Jack chided as he entered through a door at the back with two cups in hand.
Dan looked up and grinned over at his superior. “Got a cuppa for me already Jack? How thoughtful.”
Jack stepped up to the other side of Riviona’s desk and deposited the cup there onto a beaded cupholder.
“Don’t get cup rings on the desk,” Dan warned as he glanced back down to Riviona, “Rufus is real OCD.” He winked at her and stepped back slightly from the desk to look across to Jack.
“That’s true I’m afraid,” Jack murmured as he breathed on his cup softly.
Riviona clenched her grip on the magnifying glass and kept her gaze on the dolls. She sat rigid for a couple of seconds before a deep breath exhaled from her and she set down the magnifying glass.
Jack and Dan exchanged a quizzical look before Jack took a sip from his cup.
“Learn anything from the dolls then?” Dan pried.
“Well, they were hung with string not rope, although the rope in the photographs was too thick to be used on the dolls. The knotting is different too, all these loops are sloppy but similar but the knots on the ropes were neat and tight.”
“String’s slighter than rope,” Dan observed, “could just be trickier to knot.”
Riviona shook her head. “I think one person tied these and another person tied the ropes.”
“Huh. It’s an odd thing to do either way,” he murmured, “who in the hell goes to so much trouble?”
“Someone wanting notice,” Riviona answered sombrely.
She reached for her cup, lifted it up and blew on the rim softly. It had been a long day pouring over the photographs, the written statements, and the notes about what scant evidence had been gathered so far. She had typed up her own notes and asked Jack half a dozen questions about locations and points of interest like garages and shops, trying to gage where maybe their killer could have passed that would be on CCTV. Interruptions requiring Jack’s presence to minor offences including teens vandalising a wall had delayed things further and served to highlight how woefully understaffed Angel Hollow’s Sheriff Department was.
Hearing the wind howling outside had the detective glad to be back indoors.
“Well we’ve got a lot of new folks to town for the fall,” Dan murmured, “and even some new residents too.”
“New residents?” Jack pried. “I’ve got new neighbours, they moved in last night.”
Dan smiled over at him proudly. “I met them then, down at the diner. By the way, Jill’s got a nice upside down pineapple cake waiting just for you.” He let out a laugh at this. “She’s really holding a grudge.”
Jack frowned before trying to force some neutrality to his face as he felt Riviona’s prying eyes turn up to him.
“And what are my neighbours like? I haven’t met them yet,” Jack tried to stick to the topic on hand.
“Nice, friendly, pretty lady, Jenna, and a son, Robin, think he’s around Cassie’s age, last name was a mouthful I forget.”
“No husband?” Jack pried.
“No, why you interested?” Dan queried mockingly. “She got hit on by some other visitor, in with another fella and a bunch of young women, now they were something else.”
Dan smiled again and shook his head as he dipped it slightly.
Riviona frowned and took a deep gulp of tea to keep back any response.
“Careful Dan,” Jack chided him, “one would think you were ogling.”
Dan’s frown returned with an annoyed glint to his gaze. “I didn’t mean it like that. I told the guy off for doing that with the Jenna woman, he was making her uncomfortable and didn’t seem to understand no. Look, if you’d seen them you’d understand, those women didn’t dress like anyone around here.”
Dan looked down to Riviona again. “I’m sorry, I came over here to say hello but now I’ve been lingering disturbing your work. It’s good to meet you Detective Moon and welcome to the team and our humble quarters.”
Dan’s voice sounded so sincere and warm that it banished Riviona’s brief flare of anger for him. She lowered her cup and turned her attention back to the deputy.
“Thank you, it’s good to meet you too Deputy Lupino.”
“Call me Dan,” he insisted, “most people do, ’cept Basil I’m sure, what did he refer to me as?”
“Dearest Daniel,” Jack answered teasingly.
Dan fixed his gaze upon the sheriff. “You’re the boss here, tell him that’s bullying in the workplace, only my ma gets to call me that.”
“What accent is that? It’s subtle, I can’t quite make it out.”
“Good,” Dan said happily, “I’m almost native then.”
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” she began an apology instantly, pausing when Dan waved her off.
“You’re not, I’m joking, you’re just inquisitive and there’s no issue there. It’s Italian, Roma specifically.” He glanced up to Jack mischievously and then back to Riviona. “Why didn’t the good sheriff tell you about us?” He leaned down conspiratorially and placed his lips close to her ear.
Riviona felt a tingle run through her as his hot breath brushed against her neck lightly and she caught a whiff of chestnut and amber scented aftershave.
“We’re all in the witness protection programme,” he spoke in a stage whisper so Jack could hear him.
“Good lord Dan,” Jack groaned.
“I’m running from the Mafia, Jespen is hiding from aliens, makes sense if you’ve met him, Basil’s evading the ex missus, Quill’s ducking bandits trying to steal his designs, Julia’s dodging heartbroken lovers, and Jack here is avoiding the Mexican cartel.”
Dan stood upright and laughed while Jack bowed his head into the palm of his hand and shook it.
Leather soles hitting off the tiled floor drew their attention to Julia as she entered the room with a sombre stare to mar her sunny appearance.
“Hey guys,” she addressed them calmly, “I just got a call, there’s a disturbance down at the van Leisson place. An anonymous caller said she saw people loitering in the yard, looked like drug dealers. Miss anon sounded a little like Betty Briggson.”
“I’ll take it,” Dan remarked swiftly before anyone else could.
The deputy’s mirth vanished at Julia’s words and his dark eyebrows drove down pushing the joy from his honeyed-brown eyes.
“It’s fine boss,” Dan interrupted Jack’s remark.
Dan started walking for the door, pausing to look back and wave. “I’ll give you an update when I get out there.”
“Call if you need backup,” Jack advised sternly.
“Sure thing,” Dan assured as he resumed walking.
Riviona watched Jack rather than Dan as the deputy retreated. She wondered why the van Leisson place had struck a chord with them.
Cassie ran as fast as she could manage. Low lying fog was rolling in slowly, thick patches indicating bodies of water otherwise hidden by overgrown foliage and the fading daylight. She had found a path of worn down, reddish dirt and sprinted along it hoping to find civilisation at the end.
The day had turned to that odd uncomfortable point where the sky still seemed bright, stained with a wash of pale lemon from the fading sun but below was already turning to blue shadow making it hard to see.
The path wound round a corner and Cassie let out a gasp of surprise. An incline of cracked stone steps sullied with fallen leaves and moss rose before her, framed by tall trees. Here the shadows were long and dark but she knew time was limited before the darkness was everywhere.
She had tried her phone several times but could get no signal out here. Matt had always cautioned her that technology was a fickle luxury in the woods. She thought of his advice to stay in the one place if lost and wondered irately why he’d no advice over what to do when a stranger robbed you of that option.
She could not hear anyone pursuing her. In fact she could hear nothing at all- no flutter of birds heading for their nests, no rustle of squirrels in the branches or low yips from foxes. The wildlife had been frightened to silence.
Cassie headed up, cursing under her breath as her shoes skidded on the damp moss. The steps were old and probably leading her to forgotten ruins but maybe they’d be part of a tourist spot and there would be markings or a map to guide her back. She had to go a little slower knowing she would fall if she ran.
The light kept departing and the darkness around her grew. She thought about tugging out her phone and using its light but she knew she needed to conserve the battery power. Instinct had her glancing back behind her as she reached the halfway point.
A figure stood at the bottom of the steps, they had a stoic canine’s head turned up to her watching with unseen eyes.
Cassie had no idea what she looked at, if it were a fabled beast man or more probable a man in a mask. Either way they were pursuing her and she knew it could be for nothing good.
Cassie turned and kept heading up. It had gone on too long now to be a dream, she knew this was a reality and what frightened her most was lacking the knowledge as to how or why she had come to be here.
She swallowed hard, wincing as she skidded again and banged the front of her legs against stone.
Up and up she moved until she reached the top. She stumbled as the stones veered round a sharp corner and this time she snagged herself on some sharp branches.
With a wild panic she fought at them, slicing small cuts upon her arms as she struggled to free her bags from their grasp. She tugged hard and fell forward, scraping her left knee upon a half-buried stone slab.
Another curse exhaled her as she righted herself to her feet as fast as she could and followed the stones hastily.
They stopped at a tight cluster of pine trees. There were no more stones or a path. The stairs had been to nowhere.
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