"Authorities assert," I said clearly into the microphone I held, "that medical examinations will reveal this as just the scene of another rural juvenile prank, nothing more."
I held my position while the station videographer wrapped the take. No moving. You never knew when you were really on or off camera. A savvy TV reporter learned to freeze like a department store mannequin before and after filming a stand-up.
Of course I hadn't believed a word I said.
If you don't cooperate with the police in the early stages of a crime story, they'll cold-cock you later, just when everything is getting juicy. They'll cold-cock you anyway, just for the fun of it.
Speaking of juicy, the three corpses were bone soup inside their intact skins. No way does any weapon known to human do that. Yet the "authorities" were playing the incident like a frat-boy prank for the public. So this was just a semi-crime scene.
That scene was a Kansas cornfield and my mid-heeled reporter pumps were sinking arch-deep in clods of dirt or shit, depending.
" Del," the lieutenant said as soon as the day-bright camera light had turned off and we were all plunged back into a rural darkness where no crickets chirped.
Crickets always chirped in the spring country night, which was yet another sign that this was one eerie crime scene.
As the cameraman drove off in the station van to film another story, Lieutenant Werner, short, dark, and rotund, escorted me over the clods to the unpaved road, where a sleek black car stood shrouded in gravel dust. We had a working history, so I accepted his part gallant, part controlling male custody. Besides, that car was very interesting. Out of state license plate. Way more than unmarked police car class. Cool.
"Agent Edwards wants to talk to you."
Agent Edwards. Not the county agricultural agent, not state police. Fed. Hello, Fox Mulder, maybe? Just when you need a hero.
" Miss Street," the man said.
I nodded, unsold. Viewed in the headlights from his car, Agent Edwards was an East Coast yuppie, no hair below the tops of his ears or the back of his stiff white shirt collar. Cornfields were as alien to him as crop circles, but I knew a lot about both.
"You cover the 'paranormal crime' beat around here, I understand." Edwards put a sneer inside his quotation marks.
"I don't think you do understand," I answered. "What... bureau are you with?"
"Office of Rural Security. We handle uncooperative farmers on the mad cow disease issue, fertilizer thefts, anything that involves national safety. So all suspect incidents are a federal case. Media rights bow to national security nowadays. We demand your discretion."
"I know I have to give it, but that doesn't mean you can't tip me off early in return."
He nodded. Not a real "yes." As if I hadn't noticed.
" Miss Street, you know this community, this terrain. What do you think?"
What I thought was that Agent Edwards was a stupid tight-ass, but that didn't mean he couldn't be one of the still-closeted supernaturals. He broadcast an air of "other." Maybe it was just East Coast ego toward heartland hicks, not the arrogance the supers often felt toward us mere mortals. Then again, he could just be the usual officious bureaucratic prick.
What I thought about the corpses would get me a strait jacket in the state hospital, but I tested him. "The bodies have been turned into creamed corn in a can, Agent Edwards."
"Interestingly put, Miss Street. Why? How?"
"We've had a lot of crop circle activity lately."
"Rubes with rider lawn mowers. Pranks." I might have told him. What I'd seen. What I'd put together. The "rubes" comment killed it. I lived here. Worked here. Maybe had been born here. Suck grass, Fed.
I sat in my car while everyone else peeled away into the darkness, riding a pair of blazing headlights. Werner and his partner were last. He leaned on my open car door. Between the '56 Cadillac's width and the wide door, we nearly blocked the two-lane road. Dolly and me. That was the car's name. Dolly. She was built like a fortress. I often needed one.
"You don't want to hang around out here, Del. Could still be dangerous."
"Just gotta record a few notes while they're fresh." I held up my lipstick-size machine. "I'll be okay. It's all over out here, whatever it was."
"The Agri bastard is probably right."
"Aren't they always?"
Werner laughed. He was just looking out for me. That's what was nice about living in a smaller city. A buzz came from the police radio screwed onto Dolly's humongous drive-shaft hump.
Werner nodded at it. "You're wired into us if you need anything."
"I'm okay, you're okay. Good night, Leo."
I watched his taillights fade into the absolute country night.
I'm not a particularly brave woman, but I am determined.
Once me and Dolly and the dark were an uncrowded three-way again, I left the car, toting a heavy-duty flashlight. Dolly's trunk could hold everything, including the kitchen sink.
The flashlight spotlighted the corpses' massive profiles. Three dead cows, their huge carcasses pulverized to broken bones floating in precious bodily fluids inside intact cowhides. Those intact hides were most unusual for livestock attacks; they usually involved cryptic mutilations.
I played the intense light over the ground markings. What Edwards had described as "moo-cow hooves wandering into a scene of punk prankery," I saw as local livestock blundering into a mysterious crop circle creation incident.
I'd also spotted some very non-bovine marks on the rough soil. Maybe the spooked animals had been stampeded into the crop circle by something.
My flashlight hit the highs and lows of the alien footprints. Not "moo-cow" hooves, but huge heavy footpads. Way too big for werewolves, but what else pulled down adult cows except were-packs, or even natural wolves; of which very few were left?
I squatted to measure the tracks mixed in with the milling hooves.
Dinner-plate size. Clawed. Almost wiped away by some trailing... appendage.
Okay. Cow tails are scrawny and just long enough to swat away horseflies and not much else. This was almost a... a reptilian trail, making a long, S-shaped swath. Cows with lizard tails? Not even a rare were-cow could leave marks like that.
I stood. The cows had been attracted to the activity at the crop circle. Lights. Action. No camera. Something had followed and then slaughtered them. I'd get another station videographer out here in daylight to film the footprint evidence without the prying eyes of the authorities present. Even the local cops had a stake in not stirring up the populace with alien invasion or supernatural slaughter stories.
In less than half an hour, I was back in my rented bungalow, jubilant, rerunning the audiotaped second version of the stand-up I'd sneaked in under the noses of the local cops and the Fed.
"Authorities are perplexed by a crime scene where local cows apparently have been cooked inside their hides by forces beyond conventional firearms or other weapons. Found dead yesterday in a field outside of Wichita, Kansas... "
Found live was the story of my life so far: I'd been found alive, from birth, but just barely.
Found dead always made a much better story hook.
After work the next day, the latest report on my story safely digitalized and under wraps for a debut on the evening news at ten, I crashed at home by seven that night. How does a weird-phenomenon TV reporter relax? By watching national network forensic crime shows, natch.
So there I am, sucking up microscopic forensic details on TV with the rest of the country, when wham-o!
It all happened so fast. The camera zoomed in closer than the world's best lover. A maggot writhed like a stripper from the dark cave of a deadly pale... but delicately shaped... nostril. With a tiny blue topaz stud.
The camera dollied back. Hmm. Not a bad-looking nostril at all. In fact, it's a dead ringer for mine. Tiny blue topaz stud and all. A very dead ringer. Literally.
I can feel my cold sweat. This is the same old nightmare: me flat on my back, unable to move, bad alien objects coming at me. Except I'm not dreaming, I'm watching network TV on a Thursday evening, like eighty million other people in America.
The object of the camera's affection is a body on the hot TV franchise show, CSI Las Vegas V, Crime Scene Instincts, what I nickname Criminally Salacious Investigations. Media is my business. I have a right to mock it. I am not in a mocking mood at the moment.
Who has tapped my very personal nightmares for network exposure? While my stomach starts to churn, the camera retracts farther.
Holy homicide! The turned-up nose is mine! And the chin, the neck, the collarbones, the discreet but obvious cl**vage, the muscle-defined calves visible past Grisham V's burgeoning backside...
Even the toenails are painted my color, Glitz Blitz Red.
I look down and wiggle my bare toes shimmering blood-bright in the living room lamplight. I'm alive but I'm alone, in all senses of the word.
Me with a body double? A doppelganger. A replica. A clone?
My heart was pounding as if I'd actually undergone a recent brush with scalpel and saw and had lived to tell about it. I'd never "felt" the presence of a missing birth twin, like you were supposed to. I'd never sensed an absent "half." Yet the detail that really unnerved me was the tiny blue topaz nose stud on the televised body. Hardly a genetic similarity.
Separated twins were supposed to be so alike that they often held the same jobs, married men who shared a profession, even dressed alike. Long distance. Without one knowing about the other. That small blue glint on the corpse's nose made me shiver. Facial resemblance might eerily echo some stranger's features. But the exact same impudent touch of nose jewelry?
No. Can't be. I'm an orphan so abandoned that I was named after the intersection where my infant self was found.
So who's been trespassing on my mysteriously anonymous gene pool?
I haven't taped the damn show, so I can't rerun my media centerfold moment. Who knew? I'm used to being on TV, but I've never acted, never aimed at a career as a corpse, and I've never been to Las Vegas.
My white Lhasa apso, Achilles, sensing agitation, came bouncing over to comfort me, his lovely floor-length hair shimmering in the bluish light of the television. I absently stroked his long silky ears.
Lhasas are often taken for largish lapdogs, but they've got terrier souls. Achilles is twenty pounds of Tibetan staple gun. I used to wonder why centuries ago the Dalai Lamas bred Lhasas as temple guard dogs... until I got Achilles as a puppy. He was a growling relentless rusher, that short toothy jaw snapping with playful nips. I'd push him back and he'd joyously charge me again. If an intruder ever fell down in a pack of these, it would be Piranha City. Flesh stripped from bone.
In fact, Achilles was named for his playful puppy habit of nipping at my heels wherever I went. And because he's my soft spot, my Achilles heel.
Yeah. I'm an orphan, I'm single. I love my dog.
And apparently I'm now anonymously famous. Or infamous.
Achilles' sturdy body next to mine radiated pure comfort as I impatiently waited for the CSI Las Vegas show to end. When the legally required credits ran, though, the local station cut them to the size of the fine print in a pre-nuptial contract. That made room for teaser images from the upcoming ten o'clock news. The information that this was "A Hector Nightwine Production" ran in letters two inches high, but I couldn't read a single name from the cast list. Not that a corpse usually gets a credit, not even on the reality TV funeral shows.
The local station, by the way, is my station. WTCH in Wichita, Kansas.
In fact, I had the weird experience of catching a flash of my face on the upcoming footage of the nightly news show and the onscreen line: Delilah Street, WTCH-TV PARANORMAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER. I'm used to that, but not after the shock of being personally dissected on primetime network TV.
My piece on the latest wrinkle on the local ritual mutilation and killing incident should run at least number three on the story roster tonight, right after the top two national stories.
I basked for a moment in the sheer joy of where and who I was. I had a great job and I was doing good work, important work. Woodward would have been proud of me but Bernstein probably would have wondered why I was wasting my talents on a Podunk town in the heartland.
Maybe that was because it was the heartland. My heart, my land. What a Brave New World lay out there after the Millennium Revelation of 2000! I'd been young enough to adapt fast, just a misplaced kid with an itch to become a reporter someday.
Of course some of the older folk couldn't accept witches, werewolves, and vampires as near neighbors, not after eating up scary tales about them all their lives. Kids, though, were rapt. After the Millennium Revelation, we learned these creatures-er, supernaturals-weren't necessarily evil, any more than humans were necessarily good. Serial killers, for instance, were pretty much a human phenomenon until recently.
Yet there were criminal elements among the newly outed supernatural population. When I graduated from J-school and got my first job at WTCH-TV, I was so hooked on these new but ancient resident species that I made them my beat.
I reported the crimes that occurred where the various breeds met and went wrong, fascinated by what twisted any creature to act outside the limits of its kind. I felt an unspoken kinship with the supernaturals. I'd been both outcast and -when I attracted attention for a too-good grade or even just the way I looked-preyed upon during my various institutional lives.
I couldn't wait to get out on my own. That's when my life would begin. And now the "beat" I'd built at WTCH, the sense of reporting what was really going on despite the community's tendency to bury bad news and anybody different in the back forty... well, I thought I was making a difference. For the public, for the people who watched my reports, for me, for the world in general. I guess you have to be young to believe so much in your own potency.