I fished around in my pocket a little desperately for a cloth of handkerchief or something, but with no luck. I was forced to just pull up my t-shirt to cover my face.
It did almost nothing to block out the smell.
Death has a very unique, unmistakeable odor to it, which changes depending on how long the body has been dead. For older bodies in a dry environment, the smell can dissipate pretty quickly, depending on air flow.
It’s the newer corpses that give me problems.
On their own, new corpses don’t really smell like anything. All the mites and parasites haven’t had a chance to get involved, and the current cold climate only slowed that process down even more.
But when corpses have been ripped limb from limb, body parts strewn about like so many discarded toys, and the walls quite literally painted red with blood, it was something else altogether.
The sweet, cloying and slightly metallic taste of blood is the first thing you notice, followed moments later by the sharper tangs of waste matter from ruptured organs. Individually, they’re no big deal. But mixed together, they turn into this mutant, dire stink that some primeval part of your body instinctively identifies as death.
Silver and gold, I was too used to this smell. I hated it, shied away from it as much as possible, but I was still…inured to it. I had built up a resistance.
You shouldn’t be able to build up a resistance to death.
Still, I was here for a reason. I had a job to do. I let my shirt fall from my mouth and called to my companion. “Laura, you made the call yet?”
She snapped her phone shut and nodded. “They’ll be here soon.”
‘Here’ was nowhere special, just a small apartment complex in South Central, five or six blocks from AU. Apartments like this were a bit odd in the central city, since they were usually attached to shops for use by the employees and owners, but it wasn’t too out of place.
Now it was a mausoleum, the site of one of the worst massacres I had ever seen. For a ‘scraper this size—twenty stories or so, a bit on the thin side—you could easily fit ten families on a floor. Call it five people per family…
A thousand people, dead.
We were on the first floor right now, and there were about a dozen different corpses, judging by the number of larger bloodstains and the number of limbs strewn about. Most of them were clustered around the mail slots, but the entire floor was just…covered.
I wasn’t exaggerating when I said the walls were painted red with blood. There were a few arms, ripped or sliced off, just discarded near the chaotic symbols drawn on the walls. They had been used as primitive brushes, and abandoned when they ran dry.
The front doors of the building—a solid pair of glass double doors under a strong, solid steel gate—were gone completely, just torn apart for easier access. That was the source of the cold, perpetually salty wind blowing through the building.
And the source of us, in the end. It was early in the morning, too early for diurnals to be really up and about, but too late for most nocturnals to still be awake. If not for the blatantly obvious shattered entrance, we would have walked right by, none the wiser about what lay inside.
It was early Thursday morning, October the 18th. Three days after Elizabeth’s ambush on the roof. With a few quiet days, I had dared to hope we had put a dent in her plans by killing that flying giant.
Clearly, that was not the case.
“Stay down here,” I suggested. “I’m gonna see if there are any survivors upstairs.”
“There won’t be,” she warned. “Elizabeth seems pretty thorough.”
“We can’t guarantee this was her,” though I knew it was. The cultures didn’t fight like this. There were still a few—the Nessians, the darker ghoul bloodlines, maybe Satanists on a bad day—who would do something like this, but it was doubtful they could, and there would be signs. The Nessians would have taken captives, the ghouls would have eaten their victims instead of just ripping them apart, and the Satanists wouldn’t have killed everyone. Not to mention that if it was a culture, they would have left their flag somewhere.
No, this was Elizabeth’s work. It was just too similar to the attack on Mjolnir’s bar or the ave lab to be anyone else. Brutally efficient, while still unnecessarily messy.
I trudged up each floor in turn, but I needn’t have bothered. Each was exactly the same as the first, maybe with a few more or less bodies strewn about. Some of the apartments had their doors ripped open or man-sized holes broken through the walls, where the residents tried to hide.
Bullet holes were everywhere from where they tried to make a stand, but I didn’t see any corpses killed by gunfire. After I had explored every floor as much as I could stomach, I sighed and slouched back down to the lobby, to find Laura talking to a ‘sarian who had shown up while I was gone.
“It looks like they came through the door while someone was standing there, maybe trying to hold the gates closed or something. Most of the people on this floor were over here, by the mailboxes, and they mostly got killed before they could run. The only real question is if they started playing with the corpses before heading upstairs.” She turned as she heard me coming down. “And here’s Derek. What’d you find?”
“About the same,” I confirmed. “No notable fortifications, though. I’m guessing they killed everyone as quickly as possible, so nobody had time to prepare, and then came back and started…” I indicated the blood, the corpses. “…playing.”
The ‘sarian, a young baseline man with brown hair, nodded. “That seems like a fair assessment. I’ll have my men contain the scene—” He gestured to a few of his subordinates, who marched back outside. “—while you two search for clues or whatever.”
“Seems like a plan,” I said, trying not to sound too depressed. I really didn’t want to sift through body parts, but I had no choice. Before he had a chance to leave, I added one more thing. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Captain Tammaro de Angelis,” he responded, adding a crisp salute for good measure. “With the First Response Battalion.”
Another Italian? I wonder if the Big Boss had done it on purpose. “Newly formed, I take it? I don’t think I’ve heard of you guys before.”
He nodded. “Combined from the 9th and 16th South Central Infantry Battalions, sir.”
“Those were the ones who helped against the burners and the biters, respectively,” Laura added without looking up from her phone.
I rubbed my hair back. “Well…good. I was a little worried about all that. I know Kelly was reassigned from the 9th, but I hadn’t heard what happened to the rest of you.”
He shrugged. “Well, now you know. The Lieutenant Colonel will be around soon, if you want to talk to him.”
Assuming this was formatted like a normal battalion, the Lieutenant Colonel would be the one in charge. Still, we had work to do, so although I was a bit curious, I just didn’t have time.
“No thanks. We’ll be in here, holler if anything goes wrong outside.”
He nodded and hefted his rifle. “Yes sir. Same goes for you.”
I nodded in reply, and turned my attention back to the bloodied scene.
“Tell me what we’ve got, Laura.”
She was kneeling in front of a small pile of cast-aside limbs, using her phone to take pictures. “Not much, really. The ‘sarian CSI’s will be able to tell us the exact number of bodies and all that when they get here, but that’s just grunt work and basic counting.”
I crossed my arms and frowned. “I was hoping for something more along the lines of the number of attackers and what powers they have. We need solid leads.”
“Silver and gold, don’t you think I know that?” She stood up, brushed off her legs, and stalked up the stairs angrily. “But there are too many variables. Unless we find a smoking gun, I’m not holding out hope.”
I followed her up to the second floor. “We have to be able to get some answers out of this.”
She threw up her hands. “Like what? We need to know how many renegades were here—or if it was just Elizabeth—and what powers they have. But they could easily have powers where one or two of them could do this by themselves!”
We stopped by the first apartment on the second floor, a small little one-room flat with only the remnants—both bloody and more mundane—of one person inside. “Let’s start simple. We know that she likes to use those swords and her speed. Maybe we can find evidence of those.”
Laura gave me a cock-eyed look. “What, look for skids and cut marks?”
I shrugged. “It’s a start.”
My friend pulled her long black hair out of her eyes and sighed. “Fine, I guess that’s something.” She stepped into the room. “Keep an eye out for twisted concrete, too. She doesn’t seem to like using that power, but it’s worth a look.”
We searched for over an hour all through the first floor, but didn’t find anything worth noting.
Captain de Angelis finally came up to see how we were doing. “Need any extra hands?”
Laura, crouched under a table trying to look at something or other on the underside of it, blew a hair out of her face and glared at the young ‘sarian as if it was his fault.
But she managed to keep from snapping at him, for which I was grateful. “Not from your grunts. Keep the perimeter. But are the CSI’s here yet?”
“Silver and gold, what is taking them so long?” She tried to get out from under the table, and bumped her head for her trouble.
I rushed over. “Hey you—”
She shoved off my hand angrily. “I’m fine, it’s just a stupid bump. You.” She indicated the young captain. “Have someone call MC, figure out where the forensic guys are. If she doesn’t know, have her send a squad to their last known location.”
He nodded and departed quickly, wisely not wanting to be in the same room with an angry superior officer for too long. Well, maybe ‘officer’ was putting it too strongly.
Laura rubbed at the back of her head. “I hate this game.”
I frowned. “Game?”
“Yes, game.” She waved her hand at the room. “Look at this. The poor bastard didn’t even have a chance to fight back. He’s just a pawn, a…an art piece used to illustrate a point.” She sighed and slumped into a chair. “Though I don’t have any idea what that point is supposed to be.”
“Maybe that’s it,” I suggested. “Maybe the point is that this is a game.” I shrugged helplessly. “Or she’s mocking us for not being able to protect people…I dunno.” I sighed. “How do you get a bead on someone’s character when they were lying to you for over a decade?”
Silence fell in the ruined apartment.
But only for a few moments.
“I think what we’ve been seeing is the real her,” Laura said slowly. “Think about how she acted when we fought her, when she was in pain. She didn’t break down sobbing, she started cursing in languages we didn’t understand.”
“I still haven’t read the transcript of when you had her captured,” I muttered quietly. “But I can guess what you mean.”
“I’m going upstairs,” she said after a few moments. “You keep searching on this floor.”
I didn’t try and stop her from leaving. She had been a little…distant ever since we found out about Lizzy. Well, she had been distant since she came back to South Central, but I had thought the night we spent together after the little adventure in the sewers was a sign of improvement. It wasn’t looking that way.
Silver and gold, where were those CSI’s? If there was something here, I wasn’t going to be able to find it myself.
I took a deep breath. Okay, think it through logically. There was no evidence that Elizabeth had been here herself. We hadn’t found any signs of her known powers. No sliced bodies, no odd formations in the concrete, nothing.
So what did that mean? Either she had been tricking us again, pretending she only had a small pool of powers when she actually had far more, or she hadn’t been here. Going from what Laura had said, I thought it was more likely the second option.
Did…did that mean this wasn’t her after all? Maybe it was the fey. There was that one time when an entire strike force was completely wiped out…maybe whatever monster they had used then had attacked here as well.
I hurried up to the second floor. “Laura? You here?”
There was a strange sound coming from one of the rooms. It couldn’t be…
When I found her, she was facing away from me; she hadn’t noticed me come in.
She was crying.
Just sort of…sniffling softly, but for her, that was on the same level as bawling like a baby would be for anyone else.
Why was she crying? I hadn’t done anything too stupid recently. I cast my gaze around the room, but didn’t see anything worse than what was in every other apartment.
What should I do? Should I hug her? Comfort her like she did me? I—
Suddenly, a massive migraine flared up, forcing me to stumble backwards out of the room. I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out.
It had been almost a month, but I still recognized the feeling. I had been having headaches like that since I was eleven years old.
Elizabeth. It was one of the effects of her hypnosis. Apparently, I wasn’t quite as cured as I would have liked.
But what had set it off? Helping Laura? That didn’t make any sense. Maybe the…programming, or whatever you call it, was glitching or something.
Okay, that was something to worry about later. The easiest way to get rid of these headaches was to focus on something else. So…
Wait. There was…something Ling had said. Before the whole business in the tunnels, she had something about Lizzy…
That’s right. She said Elizabeth’s guards and driver and so on were slavishly devoted to her. Almost to a creepy extent.
At the time, I hadn’t thought much of it, not least because I had gotten a headache—which, now that I thought about it, made me zero in on that even more.
We hadn’t seen any evidence that Elizabeth had been here personally. There was no sign that anything supernatural had happened, other than the fact that it didn’t fit the style of any culture and it was nearly identical to the attack on the bar.
So…what if the renegades were hypnotized, like me, and were trying desperately to impress her? Even to the point of slaughtering an entire building full of people in a mirror of her style?
That…was something. I didn’t know what. Did it mean even the renegades didn’t know where she was? Or that she just wasn’t giving them orders? It could be anything.
But it meant something.
Behind the Scenes (scene 174)
Rambled a bit on this one.