Prequel to Hunters Song...
It was 3:20 AM.
Dean Carter stared blearily at his alarm clock. He had no idea what had awoken him. Beside him, his wife, Tessa, moaned something incoherently and turned over, helpfully kneeing him in the back on the way.
The phone rang again, loudly, insistently, like an auger into his brain.
"You gonna get that?" Tessa mumbled through a wad of sheets.
Carter flopped over and grabbed the headset just as it began to jangle again.
He clamped it to his ear right as he fell back into his pillow. "Nwaah?" he managed, then croaked, much more clearly, "Dr. Carter's not even remotely an office, what?"
The voice on the other end was one he knew well - Dave Rigsby was the county sheriff, with whom Carter often consulted. Usually it was little things, livestock disputes, witness handling, etc, but the current case was something else entirely.
Something he really didn't want to deal with this time of night.
"Dean," Dave's voice was telling him. "You need to come into the station."
"That's great, Dave," Carter said. "You know it's three in the goddamn morning?"
"Yes," Dave said simply.
Even in his bleary state Carter picked up on something in Dave's voice that wasn't quite right, though he still wasn't entirely sure he cared. "Alright, man, what's wrong?" he asked finally.
"There's been another one. Look, man, you'd better just come in," Dave said.
Carter groaned and slammed the headset back down on the receiver.
"Dean?" Tessa asked, propping herself up on an elbow. "What's wrong?"
"There's been another murder," Carter told her, staring at the ceiling.
"You should go, hon," she said. "Police need all the help they can get."
"Yeah," he agreed, still just sort of lying there.
Carter was downstairs making coffee when Tessa came down as well.
"'Ere, lemme fry you an egg," she said.
"You don't need to fry me an egg," he replied. "Get your sleep."
"I'ma fry you an egg," she said, moving him out of the way of the stove and getting out a pan.
Carter sighed and found himself a portable coffee mug with a straw from the tetris cupboard of lost parts.
By the time he finally got out the door, the better part of an hour had passed, but he had to concede the egg helped, at least in his head. All he said aloud as he left was "Love ya."
"You too, hun," Tessa called after him.
The spring air was chill and damp, the sun still a good way off, but the birds were hollering all the same. That was fine. It was all fine. He wished he hadn't gotten involved in the first place, but that was fine too. Of course it was fine.
Carter sipped his coffee angrily as he got into his truck. Perfectly fine.
Sheriff Dave Rigsby and several city police detectives and a lieutenant, Martin, were standing around some desks when Carter came in. He waved his mug at them and they all went oddly silent, looking at him uncertainly.
"Um..." Carter said as he joined them. "What?"
"We didn't know what to make of the first one," Dave said. "This one's a bit clearer."
"Yeah huh?" Carter said.
"It's just..." Dave began. Lieutenant Martin gave him a worried look, and he went on, "It's just this time we know her."
"Well, that's good, right?" Carter said. "You can learn a lot more that way. How recent was it?"
"Er," Dave said.
"You should probably sit down," one of the detectives said, directing Carter toward a chair. The nametag said 'Sterling'.
Carter neglected to sit down and instead stared pointedly at Dave. "Yeah?" he said.
"Dean," Dave said, "It's Alice."
"What?" Carter said.
"She's dead, Dean," Dave said.
There was a loud, wet cloink, and Carter looked down, only to realise he'd just dropped his mug. The straw was still sticking out of his mouth.
"Mnuuh?" he said, and then dropped the straw as well.
"I'm so sorry," Dave told him.
"Dead," Carter repeated, and looked around for a chair. He collapsed into what turned out to be a plastic kiddie chair, and collapsed a bit further down than expected as a result.
"Collins found her half-buried in the woods behind his barn," Dave said. "I'm sorry, man. I..." he trailed off, clearly not knowing what to say himself.
"Dead," Carter repeated again. Alice was his daughter, their only child, sometimes the only glue that had held his marriage together. Dead? He couldn't figure it. It made no sense. She'd just been in town for break, in her first year of college.
"Look, Dr. Carter," Lieutenant Martin said, "I know this is a lot to ask, but if there is anything you can do to help us on this case..."
Carter stared up at him blankly.
"Fuck, sir, I should have known this was a bad idea," one of the detectives told the lieutenant, shaking her head. Her nametag identified her as Brooks.
Lieutenant Martin just raised a hand, signalling for her to wait. He was watching Carter, who still wasn't saying anything.
She frowned and did the same, between them uncertainly.
Finally Carter asked, "Has she been moved?"
Dave shook his head. "Nuh, still out where Collins found her, until the techs can bring her in. You don't want to see that, man."
Carter got up slowly, with the help of one of the other detectives.
"I need to," Carter said. He turned to the lieutenant. "Show me."
Dave sighed. "You know I don't like this," he announced to noone in particular.
"Someone's been fucking murdered," Brooks told him. "Don't think none of us like this much."
The first body had been found about two weeks ago, near one of the hiking trails, and had apparently been out for a few weeks before that, as well as mangled by a bear. It had looked like a murder, but it was hard to tell, and there were no suspects. Nobody even had any idea who it was. Nobody in the area was missing. What they did know was that it had been a young woman, that she'd been probably stabbed and dumped, and that the bear hadn't really finished the job.
There had been no sign of the bear, either.
Carter had been consulting, both as a psychologist and former FBIC agent, in an attempt to find them any leads at all.
He hadn't come up with much. She had likely been some sort of a prostitute. That she'd been dumped out here, of all places, was likely significant.
Alice had, from the look of it, possibly been dumped the same way.
Her face was pristine, expression almost dreamy, looking overall almost like she might have been asleep, but it was the only thing about her that did. Though her body was mostly buried in leaves, the rigid pose was evident, limbs straight and splayed, perfectly symmetrical. A hand stuck out, grasping, dark and crusted.
Two deputies were nearby with Collins, and a few more city police were around as well. They'd set up a floodlight.
Carter just stopped and stared.
"Was this how they found her?" Carter whispered.
"Hey, was this how you found her?" Brooks yelled after Collins and the deputies.
"Yeah, yeah," Collins said, nodding. He looked a bit freaked out was well. "Well, mostly," he amended. "I mean, she was... she was naked, man."
"What did they do?" Carter asked, still rather quietly.
"How exactly did you find her?" Dave asked Collins levelly, drawing Carter back away as well.
"Oh, well," Collins said, "as I was just telling your fine deputies here, rather like that." He indicated toward Alice's body. "'Cept naked, right? Hand covered in blood, last year's leaves like they'd been scooped out underneath her. Like she'd been framed. In leaves."
Dave gave him a surprised look.
Carter just stared.
"Framed?" Brooks asked. "Fucking framed like a portrait?"
Collins nodded. "I ain't no shrink and that wasn't no fucking artwork, but yeah, yeah, that was what it looked like," he said, and shuddered. "Framed, man. Outlined."
Carter took a deep breath before turning back to Dave and Brooks. "Have your people..." he stopped, and then rephrased, "either of your people done, taken pictures and what?"
Brooks nodded. "All yours," she said.
"Okay," Carter said, borrowing some gloves. He turned to Collins and started clearing off the leaves. "Tell me how it was."
"What, no, man," Collins said, holding up his hands.
"We need to put her back the way she was," Carter said. "I need to see this."
Grudgingly, Collins complied, guiding him as he went to arrange the leaves just so, uncovering everything, the strange pose, the broken foot, the marks on her wrists, the double stab to the heart, the leaves framing it all.
When Carter finally stood back up and took a step back, he nearly fell over before Dave grabbed him in what turned into an impromptu hug. He was shaking, sobbing, and yet none of even even felt real. This wasn't happening. What was happening? The details all fit. The last one could have been the same.
"Fuck me," Brooks said.
Dave gave her a startled look, but she was just staring at the body looking a bit horrified, so he just made to move Carter away.
"This is a serial killer," Brooks said. "Shit. We've got ourselves a fucking serial killer."
Carter pulled away and puked.
They wound up at a Shari's. Carter stared at the menu blankly, not even responding when the waitress asked if he wanted coffee. Brooks ordered the biggest breakfast they had. Dave just got coffee and then looked a little surprised that Brooks had even come along, even though she'd been the one who'd wound up driving them there in the first place.
"What?" she said.
When Carter finally looked up, he was even more surprised to see both of them there, but then wordlessly had at the coffee that had mysteriously filled itself regardless.
"Well," Dave ventured finally, "this is a party."
"You're fucking telling me," Brooks said, digging into her pancakes. "My bosses are not going to want to let this one go."
"Yeah?" Dave said.
"They're also not going to want him involved," she went on, indicating Carter with a sausage.
Carter was back to staring at his coffee.
"But you do," Brooks said. "He knows more than any of us about this sort of thing. Possibly more than anyone out there."
"It won't work." Dave told her. "Look at him."
"Fuck that!" Brooks exclaimed. "He's good. You know he's good. Eh. Waitress!" she yelled suddenly at a vaguely nearby waitress, causing Dave to recoil a bit. A few other folks in the restaurant startled as well.
"Hmm?" the waitress said, coming over.
"Can you get him some waffles?" Brooks said, indicating Carter. "He just lost his daughter and I think he needs waffles."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," the waitress said, but Carter didn't even respond.
"How are waffles supposed to help, exactly?" Dave asked.
"Fucking nobody doesn't like waffles," Brooks said.
Carter gave her a dead look. "Some people don't," he said flatly.
"Are you one of them?" Brooks asked.
Carter didn't respond to this, either, so after a moment, Brooks turned back to the waitress and said, "Waffles."
"Right away, ma'am," the waitress said, and hurried off.
"Hah, did you fucking hear that? 'Ma'am'!" Brooks told Dave with a laugh. "I must be getting old."
"Your badge is showing," Dave said, rubbing an ear. "You're a detective even if you don't at all sound like it."
"Yeah, well," Brooks said, skewering another pancake. "I try. Seriously, so it's a fucking conflict of interest, so the fuck what?"
"Some of us are elected, you know," Dave told her.
"Sure," Brooks agreed. "Fucking conflict, he lost his daughter. It's personal for him. He'll get to the bottom of this, and people'll fucking love that. Eat that shit right up."
"Erm," Dave said.
"Look," Brooks said. "I say we work on this together, you take responsibility for the doctor, I'll bring in the backing of the city police, we cooperate like people who actually want to fucking catch the perp. Whaddya think?"
Dave frowned. "They like you that much around there?"
"Nope! Not at all," Brooks laughed. "But this'll get me out of their fucking hair while everyone else works on it, and that they would like."
Carter glanced at her, confused. "Everyone?" he asked in that same strange dead tone.
Brooks shrugged. "They're not fucking letting this go, so probably?"
"They won't get anywhere with everyone," Carter said, shaking his head. "It's too many. Large groups can't focus."
"And that's why the three of us will fucking solve this," Brooks said, stabbing a piece of bacon with a disturbingly loud ploing.
The waffles arrived, covered in berries and whipped cream.
"Hope this helps," the waitress told Carter. He nodded vaguely as she left.
"You're nuts," Dave said, shaking his head. This was probably directed at Brooks.
Carter poked the waffles with a knife and said, "Alice loved these."
It didn't pan out. Despite all protestations, Carter went home alone to give Tessa the news and just generally collapse in a pit of despair.
It was all so familiar. It was just like all other times, really, but before it had always been other people's children, not his own. After Alice had been born, he had always dreaded this every time another case came up. That one day the dead child would be his own.
This had been why he'd left the FBIC. He couldn't face that nightmare.
And now here he was. Facing it.
Tessa knew. She simply closed her eyes and sat down, saying nothing. Carter collapsed onto the floor in front of the sofa, not even looking at anything at all.
Everything had fallen apart.
That was then. Two years and all the efforts of Roseburg's finest brought only despair and nothing, and yet more nothing. Those working the case moved on as new cases came in, and the story of the framed women became simply another small piece of the town's history.
The Carters' lives were shattered, and in time they too grew apart. Tessa tried to move on, but Dean Carter simply couldn't. He shut down, gave up his practice and moved away, trying to escape, but there was no escaping what was in his own head. When the divorce papers came he simply signed them, the small remaining logical part of his brain telling him maybe, maybe Tessa would be able to do better, maybe she at least could... something. He hated himself for this, but more than that he hated himself for what had happened, for what he had allowed himself to become, for how useless everything had been, his entire life, every decision and effort throughout.
He hated himself for the odd moments of clarity in which he could put the entire thing aside and consider simply what was before him, whatever was before him.
Usually it was scotch.
He hated that too.
Now, Carter was staring at his scotch wondering why he was even still alive.
"It's not all bad," a woman said next to him. They were in some bar. It was late. Probably. He wasn't really sure, nor did he really care.
She gave him a moment and then flagged over one of the bartenders and ordered herself something as well, settling onto the stool.
It was later. For some reason she'd been refilling his drinks. Her long black hair kept falling across her face in such a peculiar fashion, first obscuring, then highlighting her features.
"Don't," Carter said blankly as she leaned over to pour him some more scotch for the umpteenth time.
She stopped, eyeing him from behind her curtain of hair, and asked, "Why not?"
"Doesn't help," he said, reaching for the glass, not even noticing it was still empty.
She poured him another just as he was picking it up. "Tell me about it," she said.
"About what?" he said. "Nothing to tell. No point. No point at all."
"There's always a point, and always a story to tell." She took Carter's head in her hands and pointed his face toward hers. "Look. You're worth something. You're brilliant and alone, and you've lost so much, but this will not be your end."