Man's Best Friend, Part I


alexander2_icon.gif eileen_icon.gif gillian_icon.gif raith_icon.gif teo3_icon.gif

Scene Title Man's Best Friend, Part I
Synopsis Ferry operatives and their allies congregate around the remains of one of the Lighthouse's charges and arrive at a grim conclusion about how they got there.
Date March 22, 2010

Staten Island: Outside the Lighthouse

They went for the belly first. There's not much left of that except for a hollow cavity that used to house small the intestine, stomach and liver, all of which have been scooped out, scattered across the snow and snapped up. In the time that they had, they were only able to partially penetrate the ribcage, one side splayed open to expose the soft, fleshy gray tissue of the lungs and part of a heart, unrecognizable if it weren't for its size and the arteries sticking stiffly out of it.

Everyone present in the copse outside the Lighthouse has seen a carcass before, but it's somehow different when it belongs to a human being. A child. Rigor mortis set in some hours ago, and the subzero temperatures have only accelerated the process in the short time between its discovery and the arrival of Alexander, Raith and the others who are all tending to the children inside, many of which are still asking where Denisa is and why Gillian hasn't come back inside.

There's not much light left — an hour at most — and while the tarp that Eileen placed over the mangled body during the interim has discouraged scavengers from picking at it, the murder of crows perched in the copse's threadbare trees like obsidian sprigs with glittering black eyes stands guard in case the animals responsible decide to return. The clothes stripped from the girl's body and soaked in her blood have not been touched, and neither has she. All that's been disturbed is the pink snow surrounding Denisa's broken shape, bent at the middle with one bare arm frozen across her face in a defensive position.

Corpses aren't a new sight for Raith. Even children's corpses: Comes with the territory. But there's something chilling, something abnormal about seeing them, no matter how many times he has. The fact that it happened practically 'next door' doesn't help either.

In some ways, he overreacted to the news: The aging pickup he drove over in carried three automatic carbines- one of which is presently hanging from his shoulder- no less than a thousand rounds of ammunition, and some grenades as well. But in many more ways, he reacted perfectly: The truck likewise holds several flashlights, magnesium flares, a pair of bright floodlights with accompanying stands and weights and one of the Remnant's many diesel-powered generators that will work together perfectly to light up the area and allow them to see past sunset. Sunset which is fast approaching, and is the reason why Raith is in a hurry to get them up.

As far as investigative equipment goes, that's nearly it for the Remnant: They aren't in the business, really, of investigating murders, especially since causing them is more their style. A box full of radios and a single infrared monocle is the best they're going to get, but it's better than nothing. Anyone who cares to help is allowed, but for now, Raith has nothing to offer in the way of opinions as to what happened. It's likely that Eileen and company already have some hunches, in any case. The week is off to a smashing start.

It is different. Horribly so. It's one thing to deal with the heat of battle and its aftermath. It's another entirely to see a child left like this. Al doesn't retch, doesn't stagger, but he takes a few of those deep, shuddering breaths that means he's having to keep a very tight rein on his control. He offers no suggestions, no comments. Mostly looks to Raith for direction, all the while wearing a terrible, bleak expression.

There's small tremors along her shoulders as Gillian moves back up closer, looking down, and then away again. Corpses are not something she's used to, even if she's seen them before— especially in Argentina. She'd been the only survivor at the camp, surrounded by people killed by gas, and then systematically murdered— All except her. She hoped she'd never see anything similar again… But this is, in many ways, not similar at all.

Hands bury deep into the pockets of her coat, as if she's trying to hug herself, without actually doing it. It stops the shaking a little. "We kept the kids from seeing— what happened." The body. Her. Denisa.

It's hard to speak, but she does, voice quiet and raspy. And it's probably amazing she's not crying. "We were having a snowball fight— She must have wandered off, or was— I don't know." Her head shakes, and she looks back at Raith, then Eileen, then further around… Even if it was overkill, she's probably grateful.

Dying sunlight forms pools in the tracks leading away from the body, which resemble large paws with four toes, two aligned side-by-side. Raith knows what a wolf track looks like, but wolves haven't prowled New York's forests for a very long time. They're too big to belong to a coyote.

"They'll fill in if it snows tonight," Eileen is saying, and her voice sounds strangely detached from her body. It was only a matter of days ago that Denisa was making a nuisance of herself at the Garden's attic Ferrymeet. No one had acknowledged her then except to command her to be quiet with sharp eyes and taciturn mouths downturned.

If it wasn't for the tangle of dark brown hair clumping around her head, the girl would be almost unrecognizable. Death has turned her warm olive skin the same pallid colour as her lungs and sealed her brown eyes shut where blood and tears have iced over her long black lashes.

It does not look like it was over quickly.

With a degree of finality, Raith gives one more crank on the locking bolt and taps the switch on the flood lamp's long, black electrical cable. "Okay, um…" he begins, giving three snaps of his fingers as he searches for a name, "Alexander, crank the generator on, give us some light. Gillian, there's some gear in the back of the truck, in the cardboard box. Grab some flashlights." There's a dual purpose to the orders that Raith is giving. The first, of course, is to enable them, as a whole, to inspect the scene better and glean more clues as to what happened. The second is to distract them from the scene. Raith met Denisa maybe once, the previous Halloween: Not enough time to form any real attachment, if he'd had any at all. How long had the rest of them known her? Long enough.

They can be distracted all they need to be. Raith needs to focus, and when he steps away from the lamp he's set up, it's to approach and crouch down next to those tracks. And what those tracks tell him is not the sort of thing he wants to be told by them, anyone, or anything. "This is six kinds of bad."

Al doesn't move. He's got his hands stuffed into the opposite sleeves. But he looks up at Raith's order…..and the generator begins to crank apparently of itself. Magic.

"Show off," Gillian mutters under her breath, with no amusement at all, as she tromps away from the body toward the truck to find the cardboard box, the flashlights. There's the sound of things knocking together— and then silence for a moment. If they look over she's leaning her forehead down against the bed of the truck, shoulders shaking. It only lasts a few moments, not long enough to get yelled at, before she's bringing the box of flashlights over. The whole box. Not just a handful. One trip is better than risking dropping them everywhere.

Now that she's back with them, there's sign of tear streaks on her cheeks, but she's steeled herself again. Of all of them here— she probably knew the girl the longest. She knows she wouldn't have frozen at all, not until she died. That had been her ability— her body adapted to the temperature. Only the most extreme temperatures couldn't be adapted to— and despite the long winter and the cold… this still isn't Antarctica…

But it wasn't fast… it wasn't without pain…

And there's a hole much larger than the size of her tiny body that can never be refilled.

Light, much brighter than what the sun struggling to pierce through the clouds is able to afford, floods through the copse, bending shadows and driving them back behind the birch trees that create them. Ash white trunks stand spindly and tall like crooked spinal columns stripped of their vertebrae and covered in long, horizontal lenticels separated into thin, papery plates.

A collective shiver passes through the crows in their branches, breeze rustling their feathers like wind rattling absent leaves. "We can't follow them," Eileen says. "Not now, not in this weather."

"I don't know if we want to follow them," Raith says very, very directly as he stands back up, "I sure don't want to. Not until someone comes to me with a very, very, very good explanation as to how a wolf got all the way out here. It sure as hell didn't swim." Never mind that there aren't any wolves anywhere in the state of New York, much less anywhere near New York City (Ethan Holden excepted). That leaves frighteningly few possibilities as to what, or maybe who, the tracks belong to.

"You're seeing wolf tracks?" Al sounds dubious, but neither outraged nor utterly disbelieving. "More like a big dog, I'd think, here. Gotta be plenty of feral dogs on this island, god knows…." He's got his head bowed against the chill wind.

Snow scuffs somewhere up ahead, and there's a cracking split of a twig underneath the weight of a fast-moving body.

Blink, and you miss it. Unfortunate, that refusing to blink comes at a cost when the weather is so bitterly cold and dry out. A silhouette moves under the expanded halo cast down by the floodlights. Bigger than a dog ought to be, but misshapen for a man, stiff-legged caution implied in the swinging trot of its stride, a fleet-footedness and raw audacity that is the unmistakable property of a predator. Something coming— or something coming back.

"Wolf?" Gillian asks, looking briefly toward the body, before looking away again. A wolf. On Staten Island. She'd like to side with Alexander on that, that it's probably just a big dog, starving like some people. There'd been food thefts in recent months, people breaking into houses—

She was food. Denisa was…

There's those tears again, as she bites down on her lower lip and pulls out the flashlight and tries to focus on something. So she begins testing them. Turning them on and off, making sure the batteries and the bulbs work. It's not going to make much a difference. But it—

She was a little girl. She was one of hers

She was stubborn and strong-headed and beautiful and smart…

And there's something coming. Suddenly one of those flashlights she had stopped testing swings up, toward the sound. It doesn't do much with the floodlights, but it shows she's at least aware, even if she's one of the ones blinking.

Loath as Eileen is to agree with Alexander about anything, her first instinct is also to attribute Denisa's death to the island's feral dog population. When Staten was first evacuated after the blast, not all the families that lived there were able to bring their pets with them, abandoning hundred of companion animals to the onset of winter. That was more than three years ago. In the time since, those that survived to see the thaw have multiplied, established new territories and spread into neighborhoods like the Rookery where stray cats outnumber children and rabies is a very serious concern.

Ask Dr. Filatov.

Whatever Eileen had been about to say in support of the ginger-haired man's theory is cut abruptly short by the snapping twig and a series of low, warning croaks in varying intensity and pitch from the crows. "Jensen—"

By the time Eileen's said his name, Raith's carbine was already swinging into position, stock against his shoulder and barrel aimed at… the darkness. And whatever's hiding in it. "I heard."

Heard, but no contact, and that doesn't help with his nerves one bit. "Gillian," Raith says lowly, "In that box, there's a thermal scope. Looks sort of like a camera. Get it out." Daring to look just a bit over his shoulder, Raith continues planning. "Alexander, there're more rifles inside the truck. Grab one, and get a few mags for it, too." And then, eyes front again. "Eileen, keep those crows on the lookout, unless you can find Mister Owl."

Leaf-litter stirs and snow scuffs, too cockily noisome to pass for anything shy from a prey animal's nature. It's the Doppler lilt and fade of sharply calculated approach and fractioned fall-back, light on its feet and swift even if it isn't particularly adapted to stealth in the trees, apparently.

There's certainly time for guns and ammunition, to make plans under one's breath, extrapolations and especulation. Whatever the fuck it is, it's still a hundred yards off, cutting a leggy sidewider's course about and audible largely from the ice-locked stillness of the winter's breathless evening. As frustratingly evasive in its tactic as it is with its identity, trailing toward the denser brambling of the thicket toward the East.

And then, abruptly, it stops utterly. Not another move, or at least not one that connects foot to the ground.

The flashlight, still turned on, drops into the box, as Gillian shuffles through trying to find the thing that looks like a camera. By the time she pulls it out to go 'now what' with a glance, the audible sounds have already stopped, but she points it up even then. Unsure what exactly to do, so she stumbles through the thick and heavy snow to hold it out to Raith. He mentioned it, he must know how to use it. Probably better than she does.

"Give me one of those rifles too," she adds toward the direction Al went, squinting at the lack of noise. If something out there— ate one of the kids… her kids…

Alexander takes off at a lope in the direction of the Remnant's rusty old pickup, his booted feet clomping noisily through the snow and compressing the dead mulch incubating beneath it, but at the pace he's going it doesn't take long before the sound of his footsteps have echoed into nothing, leaving Gillian, Raith and Eileen with the absolute stillness settling over the copse and the thin, intermittent rasp of their own breathing.

"What if it's one of the children?" the Englishwoman asks.

"Everyone was accounted for, weren't they?" Raith says, half-accusingly, as he snatches the scope out of Gillian's hands and immediately begins affixing it to the top of his carbine- no screws necessary for this layout. just tighten the clamp- and flipping up the dust covers on either end before switching it on and sighting down it towards where they heard the sounds. Through the viewfinder, the world takes on a distinctly black and white appearance, although much, much more black than white, the trees, the bushes and the ground all as cold as little Denisa. But something out there isn't so cold. And the bright white of something hot will stand out starkly against the background, especially with the sun on its way down.

The intruder stands out like an inkstain, slashed into the surface of the canvas in a stubby and unevenly-bristled brush. A heat signature, all right. Mortal, human, held still against some cover provided ostensibly by the trunk of a beech tree. It isn't the fattest and most protective tree a man could choose to hide behind, but it's as much as the forest is likely to provide as long as concealment is afforded by darkness and the more insubstantial cover of fractalized treebranches, shrubbery, low-growing vegetation.

The stalemate lasts another four seconds. Maybe five.

Finally: "Che cavolo?" comes tossed out through the trees, in a voice familiar to both Vanguard operatives and the Lighthouse's young guardian, and in a language that has long since been associated with one particular young man in their acquaintance. No names named, though; that's paranoia for you, on an island where you're as likely to be shot at by violently territorial mutant ex-cons as find a recovering serial-killer too honorable to murder you in self-defense.

Not to mention upset "mothers" who just lost one of their kids. That's probably the most territorial thing that exists in the world. But Gillian doesn't start throwing rocks, or running to claw at, and instead drops down into a crouch in the snow and covers her face. Perhaps in some relief that it's just Teo— or perhaps disappointment.

"Teo— did you get the call?" She asks, though her voice is soft and muffled, a whisper more than anything. Rough with emotion and cold. There'd been a few panicked phonecalls made out, quick ones, but she's not sure who all recieved, or who all passed the messages along in hopes of finding the right people.

If only they'd needed a doctor. There's no doctors needed today— nothing to doctor.

"Goddammit, Luigi!" Raith exclaims, not sounding at all pleased. At least he's pointing his carbine in a safer direction now with the muzzle aimed upward toward the sky. "I almost shot-a you, I thought it was-a Bowser!" At least things are as normal as they can hope to be now, with Raith ribbing Teo in good nature. Good nature for Raith, at least. Just like Argentina.

Considering why they're all standing out front of the lighthouse, maybe a little too much like Argentina.

There's a desultory mumbling. Quite possibly apology. Teodoro is not as good as apologizing as he used to be, but he isn't like Ghost, quite. "I got your call," he agrees. "I was coming from the other side of Staten, so I figured I'd come through the forest—" there's a hastening to his tone, like he is rushing to cut Jensen off before the scolding starts. I'm a ninja too, dad. It was a calculated risk, dad. But you didn't shoot me, dad.

"I think I saw dogs. Big ugly motherfuckers— kind of reminds me of the other month. 'Leen and Raith probably remember." One of the first operations he ever conducted with both of them.

Involved severed hands and a rare show of self-sacrificing loyalty from Raith himself. Teodoro comes out, now, his bootfalls crashing down in cadence loud as a careless city boy is wont to be in the woods, at least, now that he's approaching categorical allies. "Sorry for the theatrics— they weren't really for you." Black gunmetal glints in his gloved hands, and condensation shreds in front of his mouth. "Four or five of them. Big motherfuckers. Some fluffy tumbleweed things that looked like that Chinese breed…" What are they called?

Rubbing her hands across her face, the gloves doing most of the world cleaning her up— but also dirt, from where she'd bet down in the snow next to the body. It'd been her scream that attracted them, before she could stop herself. Before she could turn them around to keep the kids from looking— before the calls went out. "Four or five… what do I need to do?" she asks, straightening to her feet, standing tall to look over at Raith, then at Eileen, then at Teo. These three, no matter if one is younger than her, have more world experience than she's ever had. They know more. They've dealt with more…

And she's looking at them almost pleading. "What do I need to do, to make sure this doesn't happen again?" It shouldn't have happened at all.

But it did. And all she can do is try and make sure those four or five fluffy tumbleweeds don't hurt any more of her kids.

Back at the truck, Alexander is going through the motions of loading the rifles one at a time, expertly feeding ammunition into the magazines so the magazines can be inserted with a slap of his gloved palm. He steers a look over his shoulder at Teo, breeze ruffling through his hair, then returns his attention to the task hand, showing the Sicilian his back.

Breath leaves Eileen's lips as vapour illuminated by the generator-powered floodlights and glitters silver in the air in front of her nose and mouth. Green eyes instinctively make a cursory check for any injuries Teodoro might have accumulated since she last saw him this morning, belly-down on Francois' bedspread but her gaze does not linger on his trim figure any longer than is necessary. It drifts past him, beyond the glow of the lamps and seeks out movement amidst the gnarled shadows further into the copse.

"Don't let anyone outside unsupervised," is the only recommendation she has to offer. The wolves she has experience with are in fact men, one of which is standing at her flank. "I'll send out a bulletin tonight."

"And stay in groups," Raith adds, "The last thing we need is a pack of wolves thinking this is a place where they can get food. I can get some traps, but with all this snow, they'll probably be even more dangerous. Our best bet might be finding someone that can just ask them to go away, and I'm not pinning my hopes on it." At least Raith is an honest psychopath.

"Only other option is for someone to sit out here in a blind and try to pick them off, and with the temperature as low as it is, that's about the worst idea possible." In other words, they're stuck.

As Teodoro comes out of the dark, he has to lift a hand to shade his eyes from the glare of floodlights. He cuts a brief glance at the red-haired telekinetic's turned back, and it lingers a beat, before a touch of haste brings his attention to wilful distraction answering Eileen's stare. He has some vague grace to blush, barely visible given the ruddy color that the cold has beaten into his aquiline features. "Might also be a good idea to get a dog or two here, if it wouldn't put the wrong idea into the kids' heads.

"I know Li's dog— Samson came from a good shelter. Knew he was trained, for what, that kind of thing." Teo safeties his gun and lets his hand fall as he crosses out of the worst of the floodlights' harsh cone of illumination, and he tugs his arm back, hides the weapon somewhere at his back, under the fold of his jacket. "And there's always traps. Poison."

"No one goes out alone or unsupervized… The won't like that, and some of them might…" Gillian winces at the idea of what some of them might do. Denisa had been the worst one with stubbornly trying to break rules and nag until she got her way. It'd been one of the many things that she'd liked about the tiny girl— and now she's laying under a tarp, hidden from view, with floodlights shining down on her.

"Dogs are a good idea, too. Eve had a couple huskies. She's sick now— I'll see if she still has them somewhere. They could be good here, if she needed a place to house them." And if she says that they're babysitting the dogs… "I know Colette brought Jupiter, too. We could ask if the dog can stay. If not, Brian might be able to get something— a fence, or— I don't know…" It may not keep the wolves away entirely, but—

"Thanks, Eileen. I don't think— I don't think I could handle the bulletin." Making the frantic calls that she did had been difficult enough. "And thanks too," she adds to the guys, before looking back at the too small figure in the snow, covered by the tarp. Far too small.

Eileen had said the snowball fight would end in tears. But Gillian hadn't expected anything like this.

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