The ancient owls' nest must have burned, Hastily, all alone, a glistening armadillo left the scene, rose flecked, head down, tail down… Elizabeth Bishop, from The Armadillo, for Robert Lowell .
Aradny paid minimal attention to her driving on the way to the scene; as usual, she was concentrating on the case; and, in particular, about the site where the murder had taken place.
She had been in kindergarten when the warehouse project had begun. She remembered her father speaking to the teacher about it; he was a shy man, and it had stuck in her memory as an unusual occurrence. She could even remember his perplexed expression when he’d told Ms. Templeton that it was “…an odd place to build a warehouse facility; an odd place, indeed.” (They were not actually warehouses, but that was how Aradny still thought of the buildings). At the time, the road hadn’t been punched through the side of the mountain, and they’d used a fleet of Sikorski helicopters to transport workers, equipment, and supplies to begin construction; the roadway, and other infrastructural amenities, had come later, when construction was nearly complete. The buildings had looked functional and professional, with a glass and blue-grey, granite exterior; they were built tastefully, and seamlessly, into the side of the mountain. After the road was finished, the site had become operational quickly and efficiently. And then mostly forgotten.
Aradny had searched the web for available information regarding the project and the company; Darüber-Xi’an Biotechnique (DXB), an odd-sounding consortium. There were a few archived articles, and a well-designed web-site about the company, but very little in-depth information on what exactly was happening on-site; there were vague descriptions of development activities, but the details were obscured with claims of proprietary information.
There had been minor objections to the project, but the DXB representative — a Dr. Jhertzen, Sr. V.P. of Innovation — had ensured the public that there would be very little traffic and no real industrial activity at the site; additionally, a third-party environmental impact assessment reported no danger to the nearby watershed or surrounding ecosystem. It was to be a research facility, with a small staff, some of whom would live on-site. Still, there had been a small, but vocal, environmental lobby-group and a Special Counsel Meeting was held, but Dr. Jhertzen had seemed unconcerned at the meeting, pointing out that there were other sites — in nearby cities — that DXB could use if this particular location was problematic. His nonchalance, coupled with the promising tax revenues and other pecuniary perks, pushed the development through with no further resistance.
When Aradny was within a half-kilometer of the site, she parked her car and walked to the parking lot entrance; as always, she surveyed the scene from a distance before approaching (when a case became frustrating, or she was mired in minutiae, she recalled the imagery, impressions, and mood of her initial survey, which invariably gave her new insights, often expanding the scope and/or changing the direction of an investigation):
It was dusk.
A light rain had fallen earlier; but, at that moment, the sky held only a few translucent clouds; a veil over the gibbous moon.
Emergency lights cast prismatic arrays of reds, blues, and purples on the scene.
Other than response vehicles, the parking lot was empty.
The buildings had been disfigured, but the fire department had managed to contain the flames, saving the surrounding forest.
She breathed in deeply, exhaled slowly, and then strolled across the parking lot, between the knot of specialists, to study the lifeless body where it lay. None of the others said a word to her; a few nodded a greeting. There was a group off to the side, smoking; a hazardous relief from a grizzly duty that, for the sake of sanity, had become surreally mundane. The tips of their cigarettes bobbed in the air like nervous fireflies.
The victim, a young woman, was wearing a plain, white, one-piece coverall. Bare feet. She was stunningly beautiful, even in the awkward repose of death. Her head had come to rest on her jaw, keeping it closed, and her face was angled sideways, toward the forest across the road. She had been running; and, when she fell, her body had landed in an unnatural posture, with arms spread out like wings and body and legs twisted, as if she was attempting to fly away at an oblique angle, following the direction her face was pointing.
Aradny crouched down to examine her:
Her complexion was flawless. Her brunette hair was hacked short; not a professional cut, but it suited her. There were five small-caliber bullet-holes in her back and a single wound to the back of the skull, which was probably the one that finally killed her.
“So,” Aradny asked the dead woman, “who the hell did you piss-off?”
The woman declined to answer.
“My god you’re beautiful,” Aradny said.
Spivok — one of the team members from Special Units — eased beside Aradny.
She glared at him: “Anything?”
He answered in a croaked whisper: “Nope. She’s a JD: no purse, no ID, nothing. Sent her prints in; no match yet.”
He paused, licked his lips, and said, “Boss?”
“For Christ sake, Spivok; spit!”
He swallowed and said, “There’s a few dozen more just like her underground.” And then he told her about the hidden warrens within the buildings. “We came back up when we saw them; well, we had a quick look. Curiosity.”
“Shit! Tape it off — at the far edge of the parking lot — and call CSIS in thirty-minutes.” He was about to say something, but she said, “Thirty. Minutes. If I’m not back, don’t wait.”
He was fond of his head, so he just said, “Yes boss.”
She peered into his eyes for a moment, nodded, and then said, “And this is what we’re going to tell reporters: unknown female murdered; not a sex crime, not gang related, woman not known to police … write this down for fuck sake! And shake the stupid look from your face and try to act as if you have a brain. Nothing unusual occurred here!While I’m below ground, call Gregor at the New Vancouver; tell him we’ll try to make the next case more interesting. Tell him I’ll send an email summary whether he wants it or not.
“Get a grip and rearrange your fucking face, Spivok. This is big! The Feds will move in, but I’ve got a jump, and I’m going to use it.”
Spivok was looking at the victim: “Holy Christ she was pretty,” he said. “Who was she?”
“For fuck sake Spivok, shut up! All you care is that you never saw her before; she’s an anonymous person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay?”
He nodded and staggered away. Thankfully, Aradny thought, he’s smarter than he looks.
She donned a pair of chloroprene gloves, disposable shoe covers, and a hair-net, prior to entering the building. She descended six flights before there was an exit from the stairwell. She pushed through the doorway to a sterile, stainless-steel hallway, and turned left.
She walked past six doors, three on each side, which offered a view to disaster; the fourth door on the right was ajar — she pushed it open and walked in.
The room was a maze of nooks and crannies. There were no sharp angles; every corner was generously rounded. The walls and floor were covered with a seamless, beige, soft-plasticized material; clinical, except for the dozen bodies that littered the floor. There were no signs of identification. Two of the victims were naked, the rest were clothed like the victim in the parking lot. Seven females and five male; all young — early-to-mid twenties — and in excellent shape. Their faces had been shot, with two or three bullets each, at close range. Some had been shot in the chest as well. Arkady’s instincts clicked: two of the victims matched victim one, from the parking lot, too closely. Two of the males were also of a type; like identical twins.
She left the room and continued down the hallway, which wended through the building. She entered the next room that had escaped the fire: it was identical — perhaps the mirror image — to the first she’d entered. There were eight more murdered; five males and three females. Again, even though their faces were disfigured by gun-shots, she noticed phenotypic similarities. She searched quickly, but could find nothing, so she retraced her steps to the first room. She’d dreamed of the day when a scene would dumfound her, and it was upon her. She felt a moment of panic; she had very little time, but began a systematic search of the room.
She finally hit pay-dirt when she found an anomalous victim: a heavy-set, middle-aged woman who had worn a lab-coat over a business suit. She was also attired in stockings and shoes. The woman had fallen at a strange angle, head-first in a corner, in a foetal position, with all her limbs protecting her mid-section. She had been shot at least a dozen times from behind; three in the skull, the rest in the back. Aradny rolled her out from the corner and found a small data-disk from her left palm. She put the disk in a small, zip-lock bag and tucked it into a hidden pocket inside her jacket. She quickly scoured the rest of the room, but found nothing else of interest: the fire had destroyed the rest of the wing.
The stairwell descended many floors further down, but she’d already strained regulations. She ran upstairs quickly, and with each step she felt an imaginary field, like a radioactive source, emanating from the disk nestled just below her left breast.
Once outside, she removed the hair-net, shoe covers, and gloves, put them in a zip-lock evidence bag, shoved the bag into her jacket pocket, and jogged over to Spivok.
He had his phone to his ear, but when he saw her, he mumbled “just a moment, please” into the phone, put the phone in his pant’s pocket, and whispered to Aradny: “Boss; it’s the CSIS agent. She’s not too happy. I said you had to pee. Want to take it now?”
“No. Take her number. I’ll call back in five.”
“Boss. You’ll want to hear this first.”
“Save it; I’ll be right back.”
And then she ran to her car and put the bag containing the disc under the spare tire. She grabbed a flashlight from the trunk and jogged back to the scene.
Spivok told her his news: “One of them escaped.”
Aradny glared and said, “One of who?”
“Two hikers are camping just up the road. They heard gunshots and saw a man wearing white coveralls, no shoes, run out of the parking lot and into the trees across the road.”
Aradny glared harder: “And?”
“A black sedan left the scene.”
“Make or model?”
“They were cowering; didn’t get a good look. Possibly three or four in the car.”
“I don’t suppose we got descriptions?”
“Assumed males. Wouldn’t commit.”
“Well. All things considered, satisfactory. Let’s organize a search.”
“Shit. What’s the number?”