It's toward the end of October on a day that feels like it could be the definition of the word "autumn."The sun shines glaringly bright, providing almost too much light and not nearly enough warmth as it starkly illuminates the woods through which young cop, Xylia Barry walks with her Italian, late-thirty-something partner, Devon Maverick. It's the sort of day during which – had it not been literally freezing cold – Xylia would enjoy taking a walk, and it's the right setting for it too. But this isn't a leisurely stroll during one of her rare moments of free time; this is her trying to keep up with Mav's long-legged strides, half walking and half jogging to do so.
Leaves crunch underneath hers and Mav's feet as they go, announcing their arrival. The head of their department, Jimmy Harriston, stands off to the side of the crime scene scrawling something in his notepad in handwriting that is so awful that no one but him will ever be able to read it – his own version of encoding his notes. The tall, big-boned African-American that Xylia thinks looks like a gray-haired Chi McBride is too busy to acknowledge them yet, so the lone ME on the scene does it instead. Knowing that he'll go unnoticed by Mav until he can provide information that's pertinent to the case, Ewan Worth halfway smiles at Xylia, nodding his head in a silent "hello." Xylia brings her chin out of where she had been keeping it burrowed in the collar of her navy blue police jacket and returns the gesture.
Even though she's been on the job – been a cop – for just over two years now, Ewan is the one person on the station food chain that Xylia is higher than. He had been hired a whole week after she had, and since then he had become a close friend of hers.
Currently, Ewan is crouching beside an overturned half-rotten log, examining something that Xylia can't see. She wanders casually over, standing over Ewan and the log, looking down on what it is that he's working with. She squints, for a second not recognizing what she's seeing for what it actually is. Even when she does realize what it is, she doesn't quite believe it. Xylia moves around the log and crouches down beside Ewan, getting an even closer look at the nauseating sight.
A severed human arm, pink with blood and dark with dirt, lies on a bed of leaves, no longer even a foot away from her. She would like to say that after two years on the force her stomach has hardened, but this – this is so disgusting that it's almost too much. She is impressed that Ewan can handle this. She feels bile burning painfully in her throat and forces it back down.
"How…?" Xylia whispers in horrified awe, her breath coming out into the air in warm, white puffs. "What the heck happened here?"
Sounding to her as if he was in the background of a TV show, Xylia hears Harriston slap his notebook closed, hears his deep voice rumble, "Good question, girlie, but what I'd rather know is what the heck did this to begin with. I've never once seen anything like it."
This last sentence coming from a man who's been on the force longer than Xylia's been alive should startle her more than it does, but at least Mav has the presence of mind to ask a question, anyway.
"What's so special about this case?" he quizzes. "I mean, besides the dismembered appendage and the ever-present stench of rotting flesh?"
Harriston looks at Mav a little strangely, asking, "You don't notice anything unusual about this one?"
Mav gives the yellow-taped area in which the four are assembled an all-around, cursory glance. "You mean beyond the unusual strength of the aroma of rot? No, nothing much."
Harriston sighs laboriously, the sigh of a man who believes himself to be surrounded by idiots, even though everyone present knows that Mav is usually one of the best minds in the department. Harriston kicks at the leaves at his feet and something rolls from in front of him to in front of Mav.
"Yeah, well, there's a reason for that 'aroma's' 'unusual strength,' as you put it."
Mav and Xylia both look at what's at Mav's feet; both register what it is at the same time. Xylia pales despite herself. Another gruesome arm is now almost touching her partner's shiny, black wingtips.
Harriston gestures with his notepad at the whole crime scene, asking, "Do you see it now, Colombo?"
As Mav looks around, so does Xylia. Seeing it all, somehow for the first time, she is overcome by a bone-searing chill that has nothing to do with the cold temperatures.
Scattered all around them, mostly covered by rotting leaves, are the horrific-looking parts of what would equal three bodies.
Xylia can't find the words to voice the question aloud, or the necessary amount of oxygen, but still she wonders to herself, What would do this to innocent people?
The air is still here in the woods, silent, tranquil even. It's so far removed from humanity that you can't hear the 12 long bongs of clocks everywhere across the state announcing the official arrival of a new day.
In the darkness, you couldn't see them either, not even their shapes on the ground, not even if you were close enough to step on one of them – which you really don't want to do. Their invisibility is helped, of course, by the fact that fact that they have all entirely covered themselves with leaves. It's getting cold now, and this is a way that they can keep themselves warmer. In sleep, they seem to be in perfect formation – twelve little piles of leaves in a straight row. All perfectly covered; all perfectly hidden. All but one.
One's arm has drifted out of its cocoon while it was sleeping. An arm as small as a baby's and just as pink, long turned that color from the blood of its past victims.
But the stray arm is of no great importance now, midnight has fallen and it is time to rise, take to the skies. Find tonight's victims. Feed. The exposed arm only serves to wake him first, before his comrades.
One moment he is as still as the air around him, the next moment his fingertips twitch, brushing against the chilliness of the first frost of the season as the hoarfrost settles onto blades of grass. His eyes snap open suddenly, red as the worst case of pinkeye. He flutters the black wings on his back – bat's wings that science would say shouldn't be able to hold him up – and with them he sharply propels himself into the sky. Suddenly they are all in the sky, all eagerly sniffing the air. All hungry.
In their own way, they are innocent. They are neither human nor animal. They all possess the teeth of dogs, the wings of bats, and the bodies of infants – ridiculously strong, unimaginably hideous infants. They are only trying to survive, just like every other creature on the planet. Tonight they are simply hungry. And tonight they smell three hunters not too far away in the woods.
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