Chapter I: Saturday
A skinny cat gnawed on an outstretched finger. Cold and gray flesh split beneath sharp teeth as it chewed and swallowed until only a glistening finger bone remained. Flies clustered and buzzed around a discarded arm, and the cat’s ears twitched toward the sound. A second set of yellow eyes appeared in the gloom of the alleyway—drawn by the subtle promise of copper-tinged blood. The second cat slumped down on the damp asphalt and licked a muddied paw. Rain fell, drumming loudly on rooftops overhead, and the cats fled beneath a large green garbage can.
Partially covered in debris and dead leaves: parts of a body were sprawled on the ground in the general arrangement of a human corpse. The body was incomplete: a severed neck, bare shoulders and an arm, one complete hand and the beginnings of a torso. The flesh was sliced clean and neat; no messy pools of gelatinous blood, no internal organs had spilled out onto the street. Two legs with some slight bruising; ankles, feet. The head was missing, and one arm had been dragged deeper into the alley.
“The fuck is that—” A man’s voice choked in alarm followed by a frantic phone call to the police.
“Don’t tell me—” Isabella half-smiled over her styrofoam cup of gas station coffee.
“I haven’t had my coffee yet. I can’t handle your 6 a.m. snark,” Avery sighed as he accepted the matching outstretched cup.
“It’s 6:30 and I know whodunnit.”
“Pray tell,” he said as he rolled his eyes, “whodunnit?”
“It was an escaped feral orangutan.”
“A deadly swamp adder.”
“No. A what?”
“Come on, it’s a snake—”
A compact car sputtered to a stop behind two parked police squad cars. The car—a color that could only be described as spruce—had a dented bumper and expired plates. The passenger door opened, and Isabella Reuel stepped out into the wet street. Avery scrambled to unfurl an umbrella—and still hold his coffee—and failed miserably. His coffee cup crashed to the gutter and the umbrella misfired. Isabella stood with the door open, sipping her coffee in the light rain. Her short dark hair plastered to the side of her face and she sighed. Her coffee tasted like shit. She stepped away from the car and shut the door behind her. Avery finally managed to get the umbrella opened and rushed after her.
She lifted the badge clipped to her camera strap that read ‘Crime Scene Photographer.’ Below her name on a white sticker, written in permanent marker, read: ‘Intern.’ She handed her coffee to the officer standing vigil outside the ‘Police Line: Do Not Cross’ yellow tape, smiled, then ducked beneath the tape. The officer shrugged and sipped his free coffee. His nose wrinkled as he lifted the tape for Avery to follow.
The buildings on either side of the alleyway provided sufficient cover from the rain to protect her camera. It was generally waterproof—but it wasn’t a theory she wanted to test any time soon. She could barely pay for her license plate tabs, let alone repair work on her camera. The rain had been falling all night; whatever damage it had caused to the crime scene was already done. She heard Avery move beneath the tape.
“Well, it’s a dead body,” Avery announced.
“It’s most of a dead body,” Isabella added, raising her camera to take a few photographs. The dead body—or, more accurately, the sections of dead body—were somehow miraculously blood-free. The skin was the color of ashen gray. The rain could have washed it all away? Isabella thought as she zoomed in with her camera to get details on the wounds. Clean cuts, straight through bone and viscera, almost as if the body had been sliced up and then dumped haphazardly in the alley. But where is the head? There was a worn-leather wallet resting next to the corpse. The naked corpse. The ambiguously genderless corpse. The hands were smooth except for the ends of the fingers that had been burned to remove finger prints. Why go through all the trouble to burn away the prints and still leave parts of the body? Why not just burn the whole thing? She took another photo with the largest depth of field, showing the shadows of the alleyway, the blue garbage can, the debris-ridden street, the corpse, the wallet and finally—the rain: trying it’s damndest to wash away her crime scene.
“It’s most of an old dead body,” Kevin’s voice sounded over Isabella’s shoulder. She bristled slightly and returned to taking photographs.
“Old?” Isabella asked, moving away from him under the pretense of a better photo angle. She knelt to get away from the smell of his expensive cologne, careful not to disturb any of the trash in the alley.
Damp, brown paper bags; discarded glass bottles—some dark emerald, some cloudy amber—something that looked curdled and vaguely red. In many ways, the trash was more vibrant than the alleyway it inhabited.
“Make sure you photograph the wallet,” Kevin said as he knelt beside her. He wore an orange reflective-vest over his police uniform. The glaring color made his skin appear jaundice-yellow in the limited early-morning light. He waited as she finished the photo she was in the middle of: the wallet. He pulled an evidence bag from a jacket pocket and opened it. He flipped open the wallet before he dropped it inside and sealed it before too much rain followed.
“Well, not old as in old age, the driver’s license claims the victim was in their mid-20s,” he said, glancing at the bag, “but the body itself is old. Look at the color of the skin.”
“I’m looking right at it,” she said, smiling tightly behind her camera. Avery cleared his throat.
“Detective. Detective Kevin Cul Chapeau.”
It was Avery’s turn to give one of Isabella’s ’fuck you’ smiles as he spoke, “Detective Kevin Cul-shampoo. Don’t you have somewhere else you could be?”
Kevin’s left eye twitched. “I assure you: there’s nowhere else I’d rather be on a Saturday morning—than in this bleak, cold fucking alleyway doing your jobs for you.”
“Alright you two, get back to work.” Another man’s voice boomed in the distance. Kevin shook his head but moved to another cordoned-off area that suddenly appeared quite interesting.
“Doing our jobs for us? That prick doesn’t even know how to use a camera.” Avery dug in his pockets for a cigarette then remembered he couldn’t smoke in the middle of a crime scene. He patted his pocket, as if the feel of the packaging was enough to relax him for the moment. “First, I lose my coffee, then I have to see Kevin, now I can’t smoke. Please tell me you have some good news.”
“You’re such a romantic,” Isabella said, stepping carefully around the corpse for one last photo. “Why is there a wallet with a body that has no clothes? No pockets? The wallet was probably dropped there as a decoy. What are we dealing with, exactly?” Avery removed a smaller camera from his non-cigarette pocket. A small, macro-lens allowed him to take incredibly close-up images, even in the rain and low-light.
They were a team: Isabella with her giant DSLR camera—that cost more than their car—and Avery, with his compact camera and macro-lens, who did not need to compensate for anything. The sun was just beginning to rise over the alley and sunlight spilled like blood into the streets. He photographed the gnawed finger bone first—mostly out of curiosity—and then moved closer to the neck.
“This is super weird,” he said, photographing around the severed neck bone and grayed flesh. “Where is all the blood?”
“Oh, I know—”
“If you say vampires, I quit right now.”
Isabella closed her mouth. She finished circling the corpse.
“You can’t quit, we’re barely paid interns anyways. And rent is due.” Avery ignored her.
Sunlight filled the alleyway as they worked in silence. Paramedics, police officers and gawkers mulled outside the police tape. In the distance, Isabella overheard Kevin taking statements from a man, presumably whoever had called in the corpse. The air filled with the palatable buzz of death; a sort of electricity lingered on Isabella’s tongue. It might have been the remnants of gas station coffee. It was free for a reason.
“Did you see this?” Isabella asked as she knelt, staring at the body. “It looks like someone shoved this body through one of those egg guillotines.”
“Like an egg slicer?”
Isabella nodded. “It’s a really clean cut and the blood is here: it’s just not moving.” Isabella reached into her pocket and pulled out a blue latex glove. She checked over her shoulder: Kevin was still busy taking a statement, her boss was talking to the officer outside the tape: now was her chance. She fished beneath her jacket and unclipped a pen from her pocket. She poked the corpse, swirling the pen around the inside of the neck cavity.
She pulled the pen back: icy red crystals coated the black plastic like a snow cone. That’s way too cold? She thought and rested her gloved hand on the corpse’s shoulder. An awkward gesture, but she couldn’t think of anywhere else to touch that wasn’t completely stomach-turning. The skin was frigid. Like a lump of frozen chicken breast: the body was frozen solid, along with the blood. The rain began to take the edge off the deep freeze, and dark red blood began to ooze from various chunks of flesh. She was glad she had an empty stomach.
A cat watched curiously from beneath the garbage can. Isabella looked up and caught the cat’s gaze. She pulled her hand away from the strange shoulder.
“I have a pretty good idea of how the body was sliced so easily: it was frozen.” She turned from the cat and looked at Avery. She peeled the blue glove off, folded it inside out carefully, and dropped her pen inside.
Avery pretended not to notice that she had poked the dead body.
“Frozen?” His camera continued to click. “Do you know who ate the finger? That could be important evidence. Probably. Hell if I know, I just take the pictures.”
“We just take the pictures. But I have a suspect in mind.” She watched as the cat wandered down the alley and brushed up against the Medical Examiner’s pant leg. The older woman waved the cat away and returned to leaning over the discarded arm.
“Meet you back at the office?” He asked, not looking up from his camera.
“I’ll pick you up a coffee on the way over.”
“And a donut.”
“And a donut,” she echoed and began the short walk to the car.
‘The office,’ was code for their shared apartment that may-or-may-not be operating as a freelance crime scene photography lab. The donut she would acquire was likely from the sample rack at the corner convenience store. All details aside: she couldn’t get the thought of the weird, segmented body out of her head. She’d need to get the photos downloaded as soon as she got home: she had some investigating of her own to get started on.
As Isabella ducked under the police tape and unlocked her car: a black, immaculate truck idled down the street—just out of sight of the police cars. The window rolled down and a puff of smoke escaped into the air. Someone scribbled Isabella’s license plate number on a notepad and waited. A gun rested in the passenger seat along with a weathered photograph: Isabella and Avery stood with a group of college students, standing outside a Boeing Dreamliner, just before their trip to London. A cigarette burn had obscured the faces of three of the eighteen college students.