"What you're telling me is you have no frickin' idea who did this to them?" Brenda Taggart exploded at last, springing to her feet. "So you just wasted ninety minutes and have no findings?" Everyone at the conference table was watching the compact dark-haired policewoman as she launched into her latest tirade, but carefully avoided making any eye contact with her. "This really sucks!" she fumed.
"Acting Inspector Taggart, do watch your language," cautioned the chief inspector without looking up from his brief. "We like to maintain certain standards of propriety in this Force. You are not in the American Wild West anymore!" He had had previous experience of the volatile American and her emotional outbursts.
"Bullsh…crap! This is going nowhere. Why are you all whining about propriety and manners, having your little tea breaks, while there is still a killer running around loose?"
She strode across the mortuary to where a grouping of five very still figures stood near the wall of refrigerated storage lockers. At first glance, the motionless young women looked like waxworks or shop-window mannequins but on closer inspection their rigid bodies were far too detailed to be mere artistic reproductions; they even had legible fingerprints and scannable retinas. "You think these girls care about what kind of language we're using?"
"Don't think they care about very much at all, lady," snickered one of the technicians.
"Yeah; it's all a big joke, isn't it?" she shot back at him, then walked over to the leftmost figure where someone had taped a "Sale" placard to the stiff young woman's hand. "Over the last month, five victims in the same park, same M.O. Then these latest two in one night." She looked to the right where a tall pale-haired figure and a teenaged girl in black jeans had been placed after being found just hours ago. "How long are you going to wait, until the entire city winds up in Marks & Spencer's window?"
The Medical Officer cleared his throat loudly, bringing at least some of the attention back to him. "Back to these findings you seem so keen to dismiss; we cannot even be certain that murder has been committed. Kidnappings, surely; we surmise that the perpetrator took his victims away and substituted these reproductions in their place to throw us off the trail. These 'remains' here contain no organic matter, no DNA or cellular tissue whatsoever. They are composed entirely of plastic, fibre, and glass with traces of petrochemical residue from the paint on their surfaces," he concluded by quoting from the report.
"Then how do you explain the fact we pulled prints from their fingers, or that in a fluoroscope image you can see the outlines of bone and organs inside their bodies?" Taggart gestured with her cigarette across the firm torso of a very surprised-looking mannequin wearing a silvery sequined mini-dress and high heels. "You did find organic residue, skin cells and hair, from the clothing and at the scene; how can that be explained away?" She stubbed out the smoke on the spotless tiled floor, then lit another from her handbag.
"We do not have the full picture yet, that I will concede," the M.O. replied ponderously. "However, it is quite likely that the clothing is the victims' own and was placed onto these figures before they were returned to where they were eventually discovered."
"OK; ok, so I'll give you that point," she agreed, and the M.O. smiled thinly as Taggart switched her focus. "What do we know about their identities? Any patterns there?"
Another man seated at the table spoke up as the American policewoman continued to examine the standing figures carefully. "Nothing significant. No real pattern to the five disappearances. Four are local girls, but the third one, Kalina Ruus, only entered the UK a month ago according to her passport. She's an Estonian national. We're unsure where she was living locally. Her purse contained a few contacts that we are checking out now. There's a bit of irony: according to one of the contacts, a modelling agency, she came over looking to do some work for catalogues and listed previous experience as a 'mannequin' on her CV. Now it looks like she really is one. None of the girls have been heard from since they disappeared, although the latter two were only taken last night, of course."
"Any common locations?"
"Only the park where they were found, although it seems that at least two of them may have patronized a night club nearby - Shades, I believe it's known as. The youngest one, Primrose Leeds, had definitely been there and, according to her friends, she thought the fourth victim, a miss Muriel Beech, had also been partying last night before they found her in the park on their way home."
Taggart chuckled. "Primrose Leeds; what a name! Sounds like a porn star. Tell me more about that encounter; did they see anyone else around?"
"Nobody that stood out. The others had been with Miss Leeds at the club. Of course, they were all three sheets to the wind so their statements have to be considered in light of that, but they tally in all the main particulars. They left the club shortly after one-hundred hours - on a school night no less - and discovered Muriel standing still along one of the paths in the park. At first, they thought she was drunk, or that it was some kind of joke, but then someone, believed to be Primrose, recognized the dummy as looking like a girl from the club. The others took off, but for some reason poor Primrose here went back for a second look. Like something out of Madame Tussaud's they said she was, when the others came looking for her. Never been there, so I wouldn't know, but that's when they decided to look for a copper, anyhow. Too late."
"That's something though: whoever or whatever did this must have been skulking around until that next bunch came by. Kind of puts holes in the 'kidnapping & reproduction' theory, too, given there wasn't much time elapsed between them," she noted. Several of the others nodded, mumbling amongst themselves.
Chief Inspector Claymoore spoke up again. "Well, that's a pretty good summing-up, Acting Inspector Taggart, and a good place for us all to set about our tasks. The forensic team is still combing the park; others are continuing to follow up the background of the victims. For those at the scene, it has been quite a long night. I advise you to get some rest before nightfall. Thank you all for attending." With that, the meeting broke up quickly and everyone filtered away.
Taggart stayed behind, lost in thought, as she circled the stiffened victims, trying to understand what might have befallen them. Five random girls, turned into statues. Why? Looking deep into the glassy, unseeing eyes of the vitrified teenager, the policewoman wondered what those blank orbs had last seen.
"Spot of embalming fluid, Luv?" Jasper Bignall, the lab-coated mortuary attendant interrupted her thoughts and grinned as he held out a steaming beaker of inky pungent coffee. She wondered fleetingly what it had last held.
"Go ahead, couldn't hurt me now," she grumbled with a rueful smile. Taking a sip, she realised the strong chicory-flavoured drink was exactly what she needed at that moment. Angling her head toward the still figures she commented "Hell of a mystery, huh Jasper?"
"Too right, Miz Taggart."
"Brenda," she prompted for what had to be the hundredth time.
"I dunno about you, but I think Frakes was spouting codswallop about these dollies being some kind'a copies. He hasn't checked 'em out, um, thoroughly enough. They've got all their rude bits alright, down to the last little hair," he leered knowingly.
"Jasper Bignall!" Taggart flushed; not many things got to her, even morbid humour.
He reddened too, before changing the topic. "It gets me, the way the tabloids treat all this. You know they're calling this bloke the 'Medusa Killer'? Seems they have to put a fancy handle on it, as if he's some kind of celebrity, like the 'Yorkshire Ripper'. That sold a lot of papers, I seem to recall."
"The Yorkshire Ripper? He was a trucker, wasn't he? That was twenty years ago."
"Nearly, but a lot of folk remember it. Press in this country had a field day. All sorts of theories. Printed all the photos of his victims. Mind, never knew where he was going to turn up next. I bet that park'll be crawling with cameras and looky-loo's tonight. Nothing'll happen. Then the imitators'll start up, though I'd like to see just how they could duplicate what's been done to these five. It'll be weeks, maybe, before he -or she- strikes again, you mark my words."
"So, that's what we're going to do? Sit and wait for another victim. I can't believe that someone else is going to have to die before the vaunted New Scotland Yard can do anything to stop the next one after that!"
"Well, something could turn up. To be fair, that's not my specialty."
She was getting worked up again. "One of the reasons why I'm here, why this cross-training project was started, is so that I can learn from you and vice-versa. So far, all I've learned is to drive on the wrong side of the road and not cuss in front of the god-damned Chief Inspector! I don't think Claymoore has heard anything I've been talking about. Seems as if NSY has old Sherlock Holmes on the brain. Gotten used to sitting around thinking all the time and not doing anything about crimes."
"Actually, that would be Mycroft, miz Taggart; Sherlock was the heroic one…"
"Whatever!" she spat, missing the jibe completely. "Where I come from, we make things happen, not wait around. Set traps, launch sting operations, counter-ops, go undercover. Get the bad guys to make a mistake for a change. You know, that's exactly what I'm going to do!" She started for the door.
"Just be careful, miz Tag.... Brenda!" Jasper called after her receding footsteps.
Dusk had fallen long before and with it had come a patchy fog that cloaked the park like a film set parody of British weather. However, the fog did not entirely muffle the faint bass beat of raucous music being played very loudly, nor the merry voices that stood out from the general din as groups of people made their way to and from the nearby night club, many of them using the pathways through the park.
The car had been parked at the side of the nearby road for a few minutes already, while its two occupants held a heated discussion.
"I don't think you should be doing this; it isn't approved," the man said.
"Should I check with the Chief before wiping my ass, too?" Brenda Taggart replied. She was dressed up more than her usual daytime attire and looked sexier than her partner had ever seen the irascible American before.
"You know what I mean. This could be dangerous. Nobody knows for sure what's been going on here. You said so yourself this morning."
"I'm a big girl; you should know that by now. I can take care of myself." She patted her handbag and he noticed the bulge there for the first time.
"You're tooled? That's illegal! You could be suspended, or worse!" he blurted in partly feigned surprise.
"Spare me! I know that most of you keep a hold-out of some kind. Don't be getting all officious on my account. Just be a good partner and look the other way, Colin. I'll be okay." She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
He sighed, knowing when an argument had been lost. "Is the mike on?"
"Is the, what do you Americans say, wire hot?"
She fumbled under her short skirt, eyes closed as she worked by feel. "It is, now. Testing: One, Two, Three. Can you hear me now?" After a nod, "good!" The digital recorder's light on the console between them was blinking with every second of captured sound and another line of dots bounced with each word she spoke. All was in readiness.
Reaching for the car door, unused to sitting on the left side, Brenda looked for traffic that wasn't there and then swung the door open. She felt Colin's hand on her wrist.
"Don't do this," he asked again.
"I have to, we've been over it. I can't stand around and let anyone else become a victim without doing something." She slid around in her seat so her legs stayed together, then quickly stood up and shut the door again before she could change her mind. Brenda was wearing a similar outfit to the one the Estonian girl had on the night she had been 'taken', along with shiny sheer tights and high-heeled shoes. She might have been mistaken for many things, but a policewoman was not one of them. Turning back to the man, she smiled bravely and said "Wish me luck!"
It was odd hearing her voice direct and in the headphones. "Good hunting," he replied as he watched her walk off towards the entrance to the park.
"Cool tonight," she said a few minutes later as she rounded a bend in the path. The lights made cones of brilliance in the mist. Brenda walked slowly, trying to look nonchalant, as others passed her in both directions. Sometimes she got an appreciative glance from the men or a jealous glare from the women but mostly passersby just ignored her. Half an hour later, she reached the far side of the park and turned around. Jasper had been right, she thought. There was nothing going on tonight. On the other hand, she hadn't seen any reporters around, either, and the recent spate of 'incidents' didn't seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of the youngsters who frequented this part of town.
Wishing she had checked out a two-way surveillance rig, she kept up her sotto-voce commentary while strolling along. Off in the trees sounded the breathy hoot of some kind of owl, going about its nightly hunting. The music and traffic sounds were muted at this side of the park, making the occasional sounds of animals in the bushes appear louder than they were in fact. Her footsteps clicked softly on the tarmac path as she tried not to look too bored or obvious walking back and forth the whole evening. The fog seemed to be getting even thicker.
Brenda had been giving a brief description of everyone else she met on the path and was starting to become flippant about it. "Two boppers off to boff one another in the bushes" had been her last report. Now she started off with "A ladies rugby player looking to score some lesbo action. Wait; I forget that sometimes men wear skirts in this country…" Her voice dropped off as her detective skills took over.
The person approaching was clearly male, from the musculature and stride, but he was not wearing a Highland pleated kilt. Instead, his shaven legs, clad in sheer tights as glossy as her own, disappeared under a leather mini-skirt and led down to what looked like white 60's go-go ankle boots with low heels. The jacket he was wearing had a puffy fur collar to it and his hair was styled, looking almost as if it were a wig.
Well, no law here against how people dress! Brenda thought to herself as she willed her expression to nonchalant neutrality. She didn't want to stare as the man drew closer and passed to her right. Surreptitiously, however, she inspected him closely, picking out details that might help identify him later. He looked up briefly and saw her eyeing him.
"Evening, miss. Have you got the time?" he said, pleasantly with a hint of a north-country accent.
"Um, it's just gone half past midnight," she replied after a quick glance down at her wrist. "Have a nice night," she added, suddenly nervous, when he was a few steps past her; she got a grunt in return before he vanished into the darkness of the fog behind her.
Brenda walked several steps farther along the path, making sure he was gone, before exclaiming into the hidden necklace microphone: "Whew! That was a strange one. I've seen some odd sights in this country, but I guess it takes all kinds…"
Something made her stop. It might have been a slight sound or a premonition, but when she glanced behind her the man was there again, not three metres away. Brenda turned with what seemed like nonchalance, but all the while letting her arm slip down towards her purse and the loaded handgun inside.
He spoke first, with a tiny edge to his seemingly casual question. "Looking for someone?"
"Not really, no," she fibbed. "Though one of the guys from the club said he'd be coming along anytime now," she continued to try and suggest that someone might walk up on them and also to tip off Colin that something was suspicious. Alarm bells were going off in her head and she knew she had to make the next few seconds count.
"Found someone, you have, I think. Yess!" he replied, almost to himself. He looked hard at her, then declared: "You must find me fascinating" in an odd manner that was both a command and an observation.
Brenda looked directly at his face, ready to line up her shot, then knew instantly she had made a mistake as his eyes seemed to bore right to the depths of her soul. The word 'fascinating' kept echoing in her head as she stood mesmerized like a deer in headlights. She struggled to fight the lethargy, to break free of his spell, all the while aware that his mind was probing inside hers. With extreme concentration, she willed her left arm to reach into her bag, finding the cold steel by touch alone. But her fingers seemed to have become very numb and clumsy, like they were falling asleep.
Images started to form in her vision like ghosts, scenes from her entire life captured by her mind's eye: playing in the snow, watching a dashing princess fighting with a glowing sword; graduation day from the police academy; a horrible rainy street where her father was killed on duty; her first glimpse of England; listening to Claymoore droning on; the way that Jasper had smiled at her this morning; her determination at the meeting; getting dressed for this evening's adventure; the feel of the leather seats on her nylon-clad legs; the way the fog hovered around the trees; the lustful glance of a passerby; the shock of the faint sound behind her back; turning around; the sense of her mind being probed; then… now.
All her memories had been played out. She was drained. He knew everything.
"You're a pretty Penny, you are, but you could look more beautiful still."
He chuckled, as if he had just made a joke. Brenda felt her muscles lock solid as his mind finally overpowered hers. All her thoughts and motivations seemed to be sucked into the black pools of his irises. She had been ready to draw her gun, but now she was transfixed, her whole body seemingly frozen in place. He kept direct eye contact as he approached her, stopping at arms length to dip his hand into the purse and lift out the pistol as if he had always known it was there. Without looking away, he tossed it past her into the bushes along the verge.
Her mind was slipping away; she could feel it, but Brenda could do nothing to stop what was happening to her. Her silent scream for help faded, to be replaced by the notion that she would be much happier posing in a window. Somehow she didn't find this odd; instead she was sure this person was going to help her achieve that desire and Brenda became extremely pleased, almost aroused.
She did not - could not - move a muscle as he adjusted the position of her arms, twisted her slightly at the waist, and tilted her head in a seductive manner. His hands massaged her face, smoothing out the worry lines and startled expression to something more confident and proud for when she was on display. "Much nicer," he said, and then closed his eyes while grasping her around the waist.
Brenda felt something happening to her, something strange, though her thoughts would not let her become worried at all. Her insides seemed to be clenching up, hardening in some way. Moments later her breathing stopped as her whole body stiffened in place. Her skin and muscles seemed to be tightening, firming, taking on that smooth eggshell sheen of painted plastic. For an instant she visualised the final outcome of her transformation and whimsically wished she had cleaned herself up down there for Jasper, then all thoughts faded into suspended bliss as the hardness gripped her mind with a relentless finality.
The man opened his eyes, looked upon the timeless beauty that he had fashioned, and smiled. This one was his best so far, he decided, though he could try to do even better. The stiff, silent figure that had once been Brenda Taggart just gazed at him with blank, sightless eyes.
Hearing shouting and the far-off sound of someone running, he knew it was time to be elsewhere. The fog embraced him quickly, almost as if he was a ghost, and by the time Colin arrived on the scene, accompanied by another constable, he was long gone.