Author: Froggy Frog
"I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, Agent Rosenberg. Please take a seat."
"Yes, Sir," Willow said. She sat in the chair indicated by Assistant Director Pitcher. He sat behind his big oak desk, reading a document, carefully following the lines of the text with the tip of his pen. Willow looked around the office. Drab, she thought. It need more color. Some paintings. And some fresher air.
After a few minutes the Assistant Director looked up at her. "You seem to have made good progress," he said.
"Yes, Sir," Willow said. She cleared her throat. "Agent Durham and I are close to discovering the principle figures running the southern region narcotic ring. We think that we can start to make arrests as early as next week. I feel that..."
"Yes... yes..." said Pitcher. "It's excellent work, Agent. I'm happy with how both yourself and Agent Durham have handled this rather complex operation. However..."
Willow frowned. "Sir? Is there something wrong?" she asked.
"No, not exactly," said Pitcher. "Nothing is wrong with the case, or your report for that matter." He shifted slightly in his seat. "But we've had something, well... something rather strange come up, Agent Rosenberg."
Willow looked puzzled. "Strange?" she said.
"Yes... strange. Something seemingly inexplicable," said the Assistant Director. "It's all here in this file. It's an... an X-file." He put a folder down on the desk. "I understand these cases are something you've had some experience and success with."
"Um, yes, Sir," Willow said. "But I haven't worked on one for almost a year. Is there something in particular you need my advice on?"
Assistant Director Pitcher's response was quick and to the point.
"You have been reassigned to the this case, effective immediately," he said.
Willow's sat forward in her chair, astonished.
"But sir! We can't abandon the case we're on!" she said. "We are so close. Just a few more days and Agent Durham and I will have at least three of the..."
"Your partner is to remain on the case," said Pitcher. "He will not be accompanying you on this new assigment. We are confident he will be able to complete the investigation successfully and we will assist him whereever necessary."
Willow felt her face flush with anger. She bit her lower lip, thinking quickly.
"Sir, surely this is a mistake," she said, trying to sound reasonable. "Surely there is somebody else who can work on this X-file? Or perhaps it can wait - be deferred until we've..."
"No, Agent Rosenberg," said Pitcher, pushing the file firmly across the desk towards her. "The board thinks your reassignment is the best solution."
"Which board?" said Willow. "Who?"
The Assistant Director didn't answer her.
Willow's eyes darted left and right as she thought for a persuasive argument. But she could see that Assistant Director Pitcher had already dismissed any upcoming protest Willow might make. She swore at him under her breath.
She snatched up the file and roughly stuffed it into her briefcase. She did not look up at the Assistant Director for fear she might accidentally set him on fire with her eyes, or curse him for real.
"Is that all, Sir?" she said, curtly, standing up.
"Yes, Agent Rosenberg," said Pitcher, his tone hinting at disapproval at her conduct. Willow didn't care. "Travel arrangements have been made for you. I'll have Agent Vielman and Agent McClay contacted and have them told to expect you."
Willow froze. The blood that had filled her cheeks rapidly drained away and left her as pale as a ghost.
"Agent McClay?" Willow asked, in a quiet voice. Her whole body was tense and rigid.
The Assistant Director looked at some notes on his desk, searching for something.
"Yes. Agent... um... Tara McClay," he said. He sounded slightly annoyed. "Agent Rosenberg... is there a problem?"
Willow couldn't speak. She shook her head, then turned and walked out of the room. She closed the door and went down the corridor, hardly aware of her surroundings. She made her way down the elevator to the car park and found her car, then fumbled with the car keys, her hands shaking. She opened the door and threw her briefcase onto the passenger seat, climbed inside, and slammed the car door shut.
Willow rested her forehead on the top of the steering wheel and waited several minutes until the feeling of panic subsided.
Willow flicked through the file again. A dog attack. That was essentially what the assignment amounted to, at least on the surface. A family, the Alexanders, had camped on an island off the coast of Maine. Yesterday they had been attacked by a vicious dog, perhaps a wolf. It had killed one person, the mother. The dog had also died in the attack. The teenage son and the father had survived, but had been badly wounded. The son, before he became unconscious, saw his father stand up and leave the camp site, heading towards the shore.
The file went on to say that the police report indicated that the animal that allegedly attacked the family was practically a skeleton, and must have already been dead for many months. So the police had initiated a man-hunt for the father, who was now the prime suspect in a possible homicide.
A mildly puzzling assignment, perhaps, but it didn't really grab her interest. She'd left an unfinished case behind.She had faith in Agent Durham's abilities - he was competent and efficient, and would see things through properly - but Willow didn't like leaving things incomplete. She realized, however, that sometimes you had to leave things unfinished. Things unsaid. She'd done it before.
She rested her head against the helicopter's window, letting the dull vibrations of the aircraft fill her head, muffle her thoughts.
Willow checked her watch - they were due to land in less than five minutes. And she'd be there, on the island.
Willow didn't know if she could face her.
The helicopter set down atop a small hill on a green, grassy island. Willow waited for the helicopter's rotor to stop. She hated getting out whilst it was spinning around. She was certain the blades would slice the top of her head off.
She looked through the window. A few hundred metres down the hill she could the bright yellow tape of a police barrier. Four or five people were standing around talking. From their appearance and uniforms, most of them were either police or coast guards. Perhaps Tara wouldn't be here on the island after all. Perhaps they had transported the physical evidence to the mainland so that they could examine it with better equipment. Willow felt her spirits rise slightly. This might not be so bad, she thought.
She climbed out of the helicopter and walked down the hill, breathing in the salty tang of the sea air. The sky was grey, threatening rain. It was a little chilly, and Willow buttoned up her coat to keep out the cold. Her red hair fluttered across her eyes, obscuring her view. She tucked the stray strands behind her ear and kept walking.
She approached the people standing beside the baracade. A short, olive skinned man wearing an FBI overthrow saw her coming, and hurried towards her. He offered his hand, smiling broadly.
"Agent Rosenberg?" he said, eagerly.
"Um, yes," Willow said, shaking his hand. "That's right."
"Hi. I'm Agent Vielman," he said, still smiling. "Pleased to meet you. Did you have a nice trip?"
Willow smiled back at the man. "Er, yes," she said. "Well, it was a helicopter. Not always the smoothest of rides, eh?"
"Oh, no," said Vielman. "Actually, I can't stand them. Make me, erm... well, motion sickness and all that. I actually had to take the police launch to get here. That's a boat, you know."
"Oh, really," said Willow, slightly amused.
"Yes. And even then, you know, I felt a little queasy," he said. "I'm not one for travel, I suppose. I much prefer the laboratory. I'm in forensics, you see. This is my first field trip, actually. It's very exciting."
"Well, I'm sure it is, Agent Vielman," said Willow. She was looking beyond Vielman at the two body bags lying on the ground by the other men.
Agent Vielman noticed Willow's distraction. "Oh, silly me. Of course," he said, suddenly. "I'm sorry, Agent Rosenberg. You'll be wanting to get on with investigating and so forth."
"Yes, please," said Willow. "Are these the bodies of Mrs Alexander and the... er... wolf thing?"
"Yes, yes," said Agent Vielman, excitedly. "We found them on the beach. Which is just down the path. There's not really much there. But Agent McClay is there right now if you want to go and see. She's just checking to make sure we didn't miss anything, you know, when we removed the bodies and such..."
Willow wasn't listening. She was trying hard to keep calm and stop herself from running back up the hill to the helicopter. Maybe she should? She could excuse herself, say something urgent had come up. Perhaps she could pretend to receive a call on her cell-phone, and then abruptly leave.
No. She couldn't. She would go, and see Tara. Talk to her. Maybe she could even explain things to her again. Explain it better this time, why she had left, why she had stayed away.
She suddenly realized Agent Vielman was standing in front of her, a concerned expression on his face.
"Are you okay?" he said. "Agent Rosenberg?"
"What? Oh yes," Willow said. "I'm fine. Just thinking. Um... shall we go, then?"
"Oh good," he said, his smile quickly returning. "Yes, this way. Follow me!"
He turned and walked towards the sea. Willow took a deep breath and followed him. They walked along a rough, muddy path for a few minutes until the grass stopped, giving way to a pebble-covered beach.
A hundred metres further along the beach was a bright blue tent. Crouching near the tent, examining something on the ground, was a fair-haired woman. Willow would have known who it was even if she hadn't been expecting her to be here. She could feel Tara's presence near her, feel the warmth of her spirit. Willow had assumed the special connection between the two of them would have faded, or even disappeared, over the last nine months. But it hadn't - it was there, as strong as ever. Willow tried to ignore it, push it away. She didn't want the way it made her feel.
Willow saw Tara look up from the ground and look out towards the sea. Perhaps she knew Willow was close by. Well, that was good. No unpleasant surprises, then.
Willow followed Agent Vielman across the stony beach towards the tent. Willow was pleased she'd remembered to wear her hiking boots. They approached the tent, and Tara stood up and turned to face them.
Tara saw Agent Vielman. "Hey Marty," she said, smiling at the man. "How's it going?"
Willow nearly slipped on the pebbles, seeing her face again, her bright smile, those deep blue eyes. Her heart started racing. Why did this woman always make her feel this way?
"Oh, fine, fine," said Agent Vielman. "Things are going very well, thank you, Agent McClay. Um, we have a visitor."
Willow braced herself, hoping Tara's look would not be too hurtful, too accusing. But Tara did not look at her. Instead, she lowered her eyes and tilted her head away slightly.
"Hello, Agent Rosenburg," she said in a quiet, steady voice. She turned and made her way over to the tent.
Willow bit her lower lip. Not good, she thought. Not good at all. But what had she expected?
Agent Vielman looked puzzled at Tara's reaction. He looked first at Willow, and then at Tara. "Okay, well. Yes, um... well, you see, Agent Rosenberg is here to review the evidence and examine the crime scene. She's an expert in these types of things, apparently. Like yourself, I hear... Um... perhaps you could tell her what we've discovered so far. um.. since you seem to understand it." He turned to Willow. "Frankly, I can't make head or tale of this. A very very dead dog killing that poor woman, then the husband leaving his wounded son and wandering off? That makes no sense. Well, to me, anyway. I think I agree with the police. I say he did it - killed his wife - and ran off, guilty conscience and all that. But Agent McClay... she isn't convinced. She keeps saying the dog did it, which is um... well..."
"Which is what happened, Marty," Tara said. "That much is clear." She walked over to a crude fireplace made from the pebbles and some larger rocks. "The family were here, sleeping, around the fire. It was night, and the tide was out. The dog attacked around 11pm, coming from the island, since we found some tracks up there in the mud at the edge of the beach. The woman's wounds are definitely from the dog."
Willow watched Tara as she talked. She wished Tara would look at her, but she did not. Willow felt her anxiety and apprehension about once again seeing Tara slip away, replaced by a deep sense of sadness.
Tara had taken out a notebook and was crouched near the ground, examining a rock. She scribbled something down on the notebook as she talked.
"The dog's jaws and claws are covered in the woman's blood, and her wounds are consistent with wounds one would receive from an animal of this size. There is material - fur and skin - on the woman's body that looks to have come from the dog. We'll need to examine things more closely in the lab to make a positive match."
"I see," said Willow. She thought her own voice sounded faint and a little shaky. "Er... where is the boy - the son?"
Tara didn't seem to acknowledge her question, and continued to scribble on her notepad. Willow thought she wasn't going to answer her.
"He's in the hospital in Portshead - on the mainland," Tara said at last. "We've finished here. We hope to talk to him later today." She closed her notebook and stuck the pencil in her coat pocket and stood up. Tara faced Agent Vielman. "Let's go and make sure we're all packed, eh?" She walked off the way they had come, back down the beach towards the path.
Agent Vielman frowned and started to say something, but seemed unsure as to what he should say or do next.
"How about I just have a quick look around here, and then catch up with you later, eh?" Willow said.
Agent Vielman smiled faintly. "Oh yes, of course, Agent Rosenberg," he said, wringing his hands nervously. He started to leave, then hesitated. "She... um... Agent McClay isn't usually so... that is... she's busy and maybe she seemed a little, well... rude... but she isn't. She's really the nicest person... usually... I'm not sure what is wrong today."
"It's okay," Willow said. "I understand."
Agent Vielman tried to smile again, then looked behind him and saw Tara had reached the path. "I'd better go." He turned and ran awkwardly across the pebbled beach after her.
Willow looked around the camp site. She didn't pay close attention to it, however. Tara would have seen everything, noted everything down. There would be no need to double check her work here. Instead, Willow sat down on the pebbles, crossed her legs, and looked out to sea. She watched the small waves come in and break on the shore. The rain would be here soon, she thought, noticing the dark clouds filling the horizon.
She sighed. Suddenly, she felt very lonely. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember the events that had caused her, many months ago, to abandon Tara. She remembered Tara's warnings on that awful night, her quiet pleas, that she thought Willow might be wrong this time, that it was dangerous to enter the building alone. She tried to remember her own arrogance, how her voice sounded when she dismissed Tara's objections over the phone. How she hated herself for how she'd sounded. And she could always remember when she arrived at the building, minutes later, to find her Tara, crumpled and broken, a bullet inside her, and a red pool of her precious warm blood covering the floor.
Tears filled Willow's eyes as she recalled that night. She wiped them away roughly with her hand. Her decision had been the right one, was the best thing to do.
It was her fault then. It had been her fault, a few years before, when her previous partner Sarah had been killed. The responsibility for both rested on her shoulders - she could not and would not deny this - and the guilt made her feel sick. She could not have a partner as a lover. She was sure of this. So while Tara slowly recovered in hospital, Willow decided to extract herself from Tara's life. She decided to remove herself from anywhere she might cause Tara further harm. She'd left a letter. To explain things. She knew, however, that she hadn't handled it very well, and had left many things unsaid.
But it was the best thing to do. That was what she told herself then.
However Willow knew she sometimes deceived herself. And it was becoming clearer, now, as she sat on the pebble beach looking out at the sea. She realized she'd also left Tara because she was terrified of how deeply she had fallen in love with her.
When Willow returned from the beach, she found the island almost deserted. The sky was completely grey now, and the rain had started to fall, with big heavy drops thudding against the ground. Agent Vielman stood near the police tape, looking around nervously. He reminded Willow of a small bird, constantly looking around for a predator. She could see the helicopter atop the hill, and noticed its rotors were spinning slowly.
Agent Vielman saw Willow and ran over to her. "Oh, Agent Rosenberg," he said. He looked a little anxious. "Erm, we are ready to go now. We put all of the evidence on the boat. The police boat that is. And they are waiting for me. But there'll be no more room in the boat with me in it, so you might need to take the helicopter, okay? If that's not a problem of course." He looked at Willow expectantly.
"No, no problem at all, Agent Vielman," Willow said. "You take the boat. I'll be fine on the helicopter."
Relieved, Agent Vielman nodded and quickly left Willow standing alone. She made her way towards the helicopter.
The pilot opened the door and she scrambled into the passenger area, her eyes shut tight so she couldn't see the blades spinning overhead. She opened her eyes and sat down.
Tara sat opposite her. She was reading a book. She looked up for a split second, then continued reading.
The pilot closed the door and locked it. Willow searched frantically for something to focus her eyes on, something to do other than stare at Tara's hair. It was pretty hair. A bit of a mess right now, perhaps because of the wind on the island. And it smelled nice, too. She couldn't smell it now, but she knew how it would smell. She loved how it smelled. Willow pinched herself.
She decided to stare out of the window. She continued to do that until the rotors reached full speed and they left the ground. They flew over the sea for several kilometers without saying a word.
Willow looked at Tara again. She was still reading. Or pretending to read.
This is silly, Willow thought. She would have to say something. She would ask Tara how she was. No. Perhaps not that. Maybe something about the case. Yes, that's better. She would ask about the case.
Willow shifted slightly in her seat and took a deep breath.
"Um, so... what do you think happened?" she said. A little too quickly, she thought. And her voice trembled. Oh god.
Tara closed her book and looked up. He eyes flicked up at Willow, but did not settle on her. Instead, she concentrated on the closed book in her hands, and begin to pick at a crease in the cover with her fingernail.
"I... I think it's probably a... a d-demon," Tara said.
"A demon?" Willow said.
"Yes... It might have possessed the dog," Tara said. "The dog must have been dead for several months. At least. It was showing signs of decay... it had no body fluids at all... and no eyes."
"Couldn't the father have used parts of the dog's corpse as a weapon?" Willow suggested. "To attack his wife and son?"
"I-I thought of that, yes," Tara said. "It seemed the best solution at first... But the wounds are animal wounds... very vicious, very strong... I'm sure of that. And we can find no trace of any other animals living on the island. We found a few carcasses of sheep... and a few rabbit skeletons."
"And that really just leaves the attack by a dead dog," Willow said. "Which sounds like something otherworldy, eh?"
"Yes. I think so," Tara said.
"And the husband?" Willow said. "What happened to him?"
"I don't know," Tara said. "Perhaps he was injured and disorientated. A trail of blood led down to the sea. We think he might have drowned."
"Perhaps," said Willow. She felt a little better. At least Tara was talking to her.
"So did you like the island, Tara?" Willow said. "I thought it was rather picturesque. Remote, but pretty."
Tara's jaw clenched. She looked out of the window, and didn't answer for several seconds.
"I d-don't like this," Tara said, her voice quiet and sad. "This... You. Here. I'd rather just talk about our work, please." She opened her book and started to read again.
Willow's heart sank. She felt like crying.
Portshead started its life as a fishing village, but had recently become more of a tourist destination that a functioning port. Most of the fishing fleet had been converted into tour boats or charted fishing boats. The main street, which once only sported a hardware store and a bar, was now packed with cafes, restaurants, boutique shops and souvenir stores.
Willow and Tara caught a cab from the helipad to the hospital. They sat in silence, and Willow was thankful that the evening's tourists, milling around the busy main street, gave her something distracting to look at. The impulse to try and talk to Tara was compelling, but Willow chewed her lower lip and forced herself to sit quietly. She remembered the other times she and Tara had caught a cab, many months ago. Instead of sitting as far apart as possible from each other on the big back seat, as they did now, they would have been as close as they could be, hips touching, hands held, shoulder to shoulder. Occasionally Tara might kiss Willow behind the ear, and she would be so happy.
The cab pulled up outside the hospital. Willow paid the driver, and then both she and Tara entered the small hospital building. After checking in with the nurse at reception they made their way to the injured boy's room.
He lay in bed, his head and left eye covered with bandages and dressings. He was conscious and watched Willow and Tara as they approached his bed.
Tara looked at Willow expectantly. Willow usually did most of the talking, and Tara didn't seem to expect that to have changed.
"Hey there," Willow said. "It's David, isn't it?"
"Yeah," said the boy. "Who are you?"
"I'm Willow. This is Tara," she said. "We're from the FBI. Secret agent types."
The boy smiled faintly.
"How's it going?" Willow said. "Does it hurt?"
"Um. It hurts a little bit," said David, trying to sound brave. "But not that much."
"Well, I'm sure you'll be better in no time at all," Willow said. "How old are you, David?"
"Thirteen," he said. "Well, twelve and a half, actually."
Willow moved close to the bed and sat down on the edge of it. "Well, let's say thirteen then," she said. "That's pretty grown up, eh?"
"Well, kinda," said the boy.
"Well, I'm going to need you to be grown up, just for a while, eh?" Willow said gently. "Tara and I need you to answer a few questions. But you don't have to if you don't want to, okay? That's fine too. Just what you feel you can tell us."
"Sure," said David, blinking away a tear that pooled in his uncovered eye. "You want to know about how Mom got killed?"
Willow was always amazed at how brave children could be in such circumstances. She reached out and held the boy's hand.
"Yeah," Willow said. "That's right. And don't worry if what you saw sounds a bit crazy. You can tell us. We know all about crazy stuff."
She leaned close to his ear and whispered something softly. Tara frowned, puzzled by Willow's behavior.
The boy looked just as puzzled.
"You're kidding. Really?" he said, his voice hushed with awe.
"Yep," said Willow, grinning.
"Yeah right," said David. "Sure you can. Show me."
Willow grinned. "Maybe I will. But first, we'd like to just check a few details about what happened yesterday."
"Well, okay then," said David. "Well, I can't remember much. You know, it was dark, and I'd fallen asleep next to the fire. Mom and Dad were awake, I think. I don't know. But there was this noise, and I woke up. And there were sparks flying all over, from the fire. Dad was struggling with this dog. He was rolling around, on the beach... in the fire. And Mom was just lying..." he choked, his voice suddenly thick with grief. Willow squeezed his hand gently, and eventually he continued speaking. "There was this smell... like garbage... or rotten eggs... and Dad was yelling and then kicked the dog away and it leapt for me and started to attack me... and then I blacked out for a while... I woke later, for just a bit. It was still dark... I... I couldn't see much. My eye hurt real bad. But I saw Dad... he was walking... away from the fire... he was covered in blood and black soot and stuff... and I yelled and yelled and he didn't seem to hear... and then I think I passed out again."
David lay there and stared at the ceiling, tears rolling down his exposed cheek.
"Thanks, David," said Willow. "Um, Tara? Is there anything you want to ask?"
She turned and looked up at Tara, who was still standing behind her. Tara looked sad, touched by the boy's grief. She shook her head. "No. That's fine, Willow," she said.
David sniffed and turned to face them.
"So... show me now. You know... Please?" said David in a hushed voice. "You said you would."
Willow winked at the boy. She held out her hand, her fist closed, and whispered a few strange words. She opened her hand slowly, palm up. A small, glowing ball of light, about the size of a pearl, floated above her hand. The soft shimmering light made Willow's eyes twinkle. The boy's jaw dropped, and he reached out to touch the light. As soon as his fingers made contact with the tiny bead of luminescence, it disappeared in a puff of gold sparks.
"Awesome!" he said, excitedly. "Do it again. Please, do it again!"
Willow smiled at the young boy. "Perhaps some other time, David," she said. "We have to go now. Secret agent stuff and all that."
David looked a little unhappy, but seemed in better spirits than when they had arrived. "Oh, okay," said David. "Bye then."
"Bye, David," said Willow.
Outside the hospital, Willow and Tara found Agent Vielman and the local police sheriff, who sat atop the hood of his car.
Agent Vielman seemed relieved to see them both. Willow thought he had a bit of a green tinge to his cheeks. Perhaps the boat ride had not been pleasant for him.
"Did you interview David Alexander?" Agent Vielman asked.
Tara nodded. "Yes, we did," she said. "He's resting now. Are the corpses at the morgue?"
"Yes, both the dog and Mrs Alexander," said Vielman. "Should we go and start the autopsy now?"
Tara sighed. "No. I'm a little... tired, Marty," she said. "It can probably wait until the morning."
Vielman nodded. "Oh yes, of course," he said. "Um. We're booked into the Seabreeze hotel. We've hired a car, but it's at the hotel. Sheriff Rodruigez will take us there."
"Thanks, Marty," said Tara, walking over to the car.
"Are you coming, Agent Rosenberg?" asked Agent Vielman.
Willow glanced passed Agent Vielman and looked at Tara, who was sitting in the back of the police car.
"No, I think I'll have a look around," she said. "I'll find the hotel. The Seabreeze you say?"
"Yes, that's right. It's on the main street. I don't think you can miss it," said Agent Vielman. "Well, we'll see you later, perhaps. For a bit of dinner, maybe?"
"I'm not terribly hungry, Agent Vielman," Willow said. "I'll see you both in the morning, eh?"
Agent Vielman frowned but did not question her. He nodded and climbed into the police car. Sheriff Rodruigez got in and soon the car drove away.
Willow watched it disappear down the street and slowly walked after it, looking down all the streets for a bar. She needed a drink.
He was silent this morning. Which was unusual, thought Willow. She hadn't known Agent Vielman very long but thought it was unusual for him to be so quiet. She watched him stuff a pancake into his mouth and wash it down with some coffee.
The silence was nice, though. It prevented the throbbing in her head from becoming unbearable. The morning sun was awfully bright, a storm during the night having blown away all of the dark clouds from the day before. She sipped her coffee and swallowed two aspirins. When would she learn?
She sat with Agent Vielman in the restaurant adjacent to the Seabreeze hotel. She'd wandered in there from her room, in search of coffee to bring her back to life after a night in her room with a bottle of bourbon. She'd nearly fallen asleep in the shower.
Agent Vielman wouldn't look at her either. Something was wrong. Everything was always wrong. Well, she would try to fix it.
"Is anything the matter, Agent Vielman?" said Willow. "You seem a little quiet today."
Agent Vielman looked up quickly, and wiped his mouth with his napkin. He forced a small smile. "Um no. No, nothing," he said.
"Oh, I see," said Willow. "Good."
Agent Vielman fidgeted and tugged at the napkin nervously. "Well, yes. Yes, actually, there is something wrong," he blurted.
Willow raised her eyebrows. "There is?" she said. "Can I help?"
Agent Vielman was obviously uncomfortable, but he proceeded.
"Well, no, actually," he said. "I don't think so. Or maybe you can? You tell me, Agent Rosenberg."
Willow was puzzled by the man's words. "I'm not sure what you mean," she said.
"Well, I'm sorry to be so forward, Agent Rosenberg, but I do think you are quite sure what I mean," he said, suddenly very upset. "I mean, she's been crying all night. That's obvious. I went to see her, and she looks terrible. And she's been behaving, well... strange... ever since yesterday... when you came along."
He kept glancing at her, but couldn't seem to look at her for too long. He obviously was not used to speaking to someone in this way.
"You mean Tara?" said Willow. "She's been crying?"
"Yes. I'm sure of it," said Agent Vielman. "I mean, her eyes are all red and puffy, and I heard her sobbing last night. My room was next to hers, you see."
Willow rubbed her forehead and sighed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I really am. Things... things are not very good between me and Agent McClay."
Agent Vielman's eyes narrowed, accusingly. "Why? What did you do to her?" said Agent Vielman. "Was it you? Did you make her partner leave her?"
Willow looked at him in surprise. "I don't know what you mean," Willow stammered.
"She told me... well, little bits anyhow. She was crying once, at work in the lab," said Vielman. "And I tried to console her. She told me about her old partner. They were in love, I think. She still is very much so. But her partner left her. Was it because of you? Did you make him leave her? Is that why she's so upset you are here."
Willow swallowed. "I'm sorry. I-I have to go, Agent Vielman," she said. She quickly got up and left the restaurant.
Willow sat down heavily on a step outside the hotel's front door and put her head in her hands. Occasionally a tear fell to the pavement like a raindrop, but Willow didn't notice. She felt like throwing up, but knew there wasn't anything left in her stomach. The bourbon had cleaned her guts out last night.
"Are y-you alright, Willow?" said a quiet, soft voice behind her.
Willow looked up. Tara was standing on the sidewalk, looking down at her with concern. Hey eyes were bloodshot. It would be from tears, thought Willow, knowing full well that she wouldn't have been drinking all night.
"Oh, Tara," said Willow, trying to sound light and casual. "I... I'm..." She tried to think of something to say. An excuse for why she would be sitting outside on a step, crying. But she didn't want to pretend. Not to Tara.
"I'm... I'm a bit of a mess, Tara," she said. "I'm sorry. I'm not really coping with... well... with you. Not very well, anyhow."
Tara looked straight into Willow's eyes. But the intensity of her gaze was too much for Willow, and she had to look away. Willow wiped her eyes and sniffed. "It's okay. I'm fine," she said. She stood up and dusted off her backside.
Tara was still looking at her. "Willow?" she said.
"Yes?" said Willow.
"Perhaps we should t-talk?" said Tara. "I... I have a few things to say."
Willow nodded, almost relieved at the opportunity to talk to Tara, but also frightened about what Tara might say to her, or accuse her of. But they had to work something out, if only to make working on this case possible.
"Please, yes," she said, her voice heavy with emotion. "Where should we go?"
Tara looked around. She was about to answer Willow, but saw Agent Vielman walking quickly towards her. He looked rather excited.
"Tara! Agent Rosenberg!" he said, eagerly. "It's Mr Alexander! They found him!"
Willow drove the hire car down a street on the outskirts of Portshead. There were a few small wooden beach houses on each side of the street. Ahead they could see two police cars blocking the road, their lights flashing brightly.
They pulled up on the side of the road and got out of the car. Sheriff Rodruigez saw them and came over.
"Not a pretty sight," he said.
Willow, Tara and Agent Vielman walked passed the car. Lying in the middle of the road was the body of Mr Alexander.
"Oh goddess, Tara," said Willow. "Look at him."
Mr Alexander lay face up on the road, and his badly torn clothing barely concealed his glistening and puffy flesh. His exposed skin was pale white and mottled with blue blotches. His left hand was missing, and his right leg had a large bite mark in the lower calf, exposing sinew and pale red muscle. His lips were blue, and his eyes were covered in a white film. There was no sign of any blood on his body or on the road beneath him.
"Not nice. He's been in the sea for a long time," said Tara, as she walked up to the corpse and crouched down close to it. "Probably since he went missing. Looks like a shark bite on the leg too."
"Erm. okay..." said Willow, her face scrunched up in revulsion. "I think I'll go talk to the sheriff now."
She went over to the sheriff, who was once more sitting on the bonnet of his police car.
"Hi Sheriff Rodruigez," said Willow. "I'm Special Agent Rosenberg. How'd you find him?"
The sheriff looked at Willow over the top of his mirror-lens sunglasses.
"It's the strangest thing," he said in a low, lazy drawl. "See those folk over there?" He nodded toward an old wooden house set back far from the opposite side of the street. Three people were standing on the balcony, watching them.
"I see them," said Willow.
"Them folks heard a car horn blarin' out here, on the road," he said. "They came out onto where they is standin' right now. Say they saw a car, a blue sedan, stopped out here on the street. Say a man, this very same Mr Alexander right here dead before us, was standing in the middle of the road, in front of the car. Then the driver of the car... a woman, they say, got out of the car and started yellin' and the guy to move out of the way, screaming at him like he was some idiot or somethin'. Which he probably was for standin' there in the middle of the road and such. Anyhow, he attacked her, and they say pushed her to the ground, tried to strangle her. They say they ran to help, but before they even made it to the bottom of their front steps, the woman had got up of the ground, got back into her car, and reversed back up the street. She turned up the end there, and drove off. Leaving our man here, dead as a post. It's a strange story, no?"
"Yes, very strange," said Willow. "Um... can we find out who the woman was?"
"I'm way ahead of you, Agent," he said, proudly. The sheriff pulled a small leather bound notebook out of his shirt pocket and flicked it open. "They got the license number, like good citizens. We put out an APB on the car and on the lady, a Miss Angela Melchett, a good half hour ago. My boys have been to her house, but she's not there. They are looking for her now."
"Good work, Sheriff," said Willow. She went back to where Tara and Agent Vielman were standing and talking. The coroner had arrived and the body was being stuffed into a body bag.
"Anything interesting?" said Willow.
"Um, yes," said Tara. "He's been dead for a while. Sea water seems to be in his lungs. His blood has all washed out. I doubt that he made it to shore alive."
"Well, that's quite interesting indeed," said Willow, grinning. "Apparently he's been going out for casual strolls, and stopping cars in the street too."
Tara raised her left eyebrow. Willow loved the way she did that, and she smiled involuntarily.
Agent Vielman looked very puzzled. "I don't understand. This man couldn't possible have walked anywhere!" he said.
"I think he might have had a little help," Willow said. "The sheriff said that Mr Alexander struggled with the driver of a car that stopped here. Tried to strangle her. And now he's dead and both the driver - a Miss Melchett - and the car are now missing. If we add the story about the dog to this, it starts to sound slightly familiar, eh Tara?"
Tara nibbled her lower lip for a few seconds, thinking, and then nodded. "Yes. I think you're right, Willow," Tara said. "It's probably a Kethrol demon."
"Which means we are in big trouble," said Willow. "Really big trouble."
A confused and bewildered Agent Vielman stared at the two women as if they had both suddenly gone mad.
"I'll need my computer. It's in my room back at the hotel," said Willow. "We need to find out what we'll need to stop it when the police find Miss Melchett."
"Okay, Willow," said Tara. "You go get it, and Marty and I will go back to the police station. We'll meet you there later, okay?"
"I'm your girl, Tara," Willow said. It was a reflex, something she often said to Tara. And in the rush to act she'd forgotten how things actually were between the two of them. It was the wrong thing to say, Willow thought, judging by Tara's reaction, the pained and troubled look that quickly filled her eyes.
Sometimes I can be so stupid, thought Willow.
She went to the car, jumped into the driver's seat, and drove away.
Willow arrived at the police station an hour later. She was a little later than she'd hoped, partly because she'd took the opportunity to check out from the hotel and put Tara and Agent Vielman's bags into the car, but mostly because she didn't know where the police station was. She thought it would be in an obvious place, on a main street or something. It was, but it was a very small building and she drove passed it three times before she actually saw it.
Willow was rather hungry now. She'd had no breakfast other than a cup of coffee. This was not unusual for her, but she'd also had no dinner last night, which is why the bourbon had made her so ill. That and the sheer quantity of the liquor, of course. So she entered the police station with the hope that here in Portshead the police adhered in some small way to the stereotypical ideal for U.S police officers. She wanted a donut.
She flashed her badge at the officer at the desk and asked to be taken to Tara and Agent Vielman. Willow followed the tall, burly man down a short corridor. On the way she saw a small kitchen to the left.
"Er, can I just grab a cup of coffee?" said Willow.
"Yeah sure," said the officer. "Um, is it okay if I go back to the front desk?"
"Yeah, sure," said Willow, happily. "I'll just help myself, then."
"Thanks," said the officer. "Agent McClay and Agent Vielman are in the room on the left at the end of the corridor."
He left her alone and returned to the front desk.
Willow went into the kitchen. "Oh, heaven," she purred. A white cardboard box containing three donuts was sitting on the kitchen bench.
When Willow left the kitchen a few minutes later, a cup of coffee in her hand, the white cardboard box held nothing but a few tiny crumbs.
She went entered to room at the end of the corridor. It was a tiny, dimly lit room containing several filing cabinets, some chairs and one small wooden desk. Tara and Agent Vielman were there, sitting on opposite sides of the desk. Tara was reading something. She looked up when Willow entered the room, then continued reading.
"Hello, Agent Rosenberg," said Agent Vielman. He stood up. "We... we were getting worried about you."
Willow smiled. "Yeah, I got a little lost," she said. "I got our stuff from the motel though."
She went to the desk and put her coffee down, then took her laptop computer out of her bag and put it on the desk opposite Tara. "Any news?" she said.
"No, nothing yet," said Agent Vielman. "No news about Miss Melchett."
"Oh well, I'd better get on-line and do some snooping," she said, pulling a chair to the desk.
"Oh yes. This is exciting," said Agent Vielman. "I'm finding this all very interesting. Of course, I must admit I don't understand what is happening or what you are going to do."
"Well, we're just going to have a search around, to see what we might need," said Willow.
"Oh... I see," said Agent Vielman. It was obvious he didn't see.
"Marty?" said Tara, looking up from her papers and looking at Willow. "Can I have a few minutes with Agent Rosenberg, please?"
Agent Vielman looked rather worried. "Um... um, well, yes..." he said. "If you like."
He gave Willow a stern look, as if warning her to behave. "I'll be just outside, if you need me, Agent McClay," he said.
He left the room and closed the door behind him.
Willow didn't know where to look. She fiddled with her laptop, adjusting the angle of the screen. She knew Tara was looking at her, waiting, but Willow was scared of what she might see in Tara's face. There would be resentment, anger, scorn. She deserved as much. She didn't think she could bear it. But it was due her, for leaving her the way she had, and Willow knew she must confront it.
She took a deep breath and looked up at Tara.
What Willow saw made her eyes fill with tears.
Tara sat on the other side of the desk, her face calm, with compassion and concern in her beautiful eyes.
Willow's lower lip trembled.
Tara sighed. "Willow..." she said, softly. "I've thought some terrible things the last few months... about you... awful things. And I don't like thinking such things, such black thoughts... and it hurts. It still hurts so much, Willow."
Her voice held no trace of anger or accusation.
"But I guess that's to be expected... given how I felt about you... and what I thought I'd found in you," said Tara. "I've thought a lot about it... especially in the month or so after you left. I burned your letter. That was silly of me, eh? But I do believe you felt the way you described in the letter. But you were wrong. You weren't responsible for my injury... or for what happened to Sarah. But I've grown to understand how you might feel that way. And how those things might scare you."
Tears spilled from Willow's eyes. How could Tara be so gracious after what had happened?
"Tara... I..." Willow began.
"Please," said Tara, gently. "Let me finish? It... it's important to me."
Willow nodded. She wiped her eyes and tried to be calm.
"I've thought about everything... very much," said Tara. "And I found the bit that hurts... really hurts me. I thought you loved me like I love you, and that we had found something wonderful... something very special and everlasting. And it hurts me to think that you didn't even love me enough to stay with me."
"Oh Tara, no..." Willow said, bursting into heavy sobs. "That's not true... not true at all!"
Tara took a deep breath, and then stood up. "Well... I don't know... but anyhow, I've said my bit, now," she said. "I just wanted to let you know how I feel. I... I should leave you alone to do that research, okay?"
Tara left the room, closing the door gently behind her. Willow slumped over the desk and cried.
Willow had regained her composure when, an hour later, an excited Agent Vielman peeked around the door. She still felt as if she was in shock, slightly dazed by Tara's words. But she'd buried herself in her research to help her stop thinking about it.
"Excuse me, Agent Rosenberg," said Agent Vielman. "Um... we have a lead."
Willow packed up her notebook and followed him down the corridor to Sheriff Rodruigez's office.
They nearly bumped into Tara as she came out of the office. "Oops," she said. "Sorry. We've got a lead, Willow. The police found Miss Melchett's car. It's in Merrisville, about an hour's drive west."
"Is the chopper ready?" Willow said.
"Um, no," said Tara. "It's being used by another department. Evidently the helicopter is shared by quite a few coastal towns. They can get another one here, but it would take about half an hour."
"We'd best drive, then," Willow said. "Do you have directions, Tara?"
Agent Vielman could barely keep still. "This is very exciting, I must say," he said.
The traffic was a little busy around the center of the town, and it took them fifteen minutes just to get onto the highway heading west. Willow wasn't too concerned. She loved any excuse to drive as fast as she could. She sped down the highway, happy to be moving somewhere.
"Um... so..." said Agent Vielman. He was sitting next to Tara on the back seat. "Who is going to tell me what a Lethrok demon thing is?"
Tara chuckled. Willow loved to hear her laugh. But now the sound of her laughter filled her with a feeling of terrible loss.
"It's a Kethrol demon, Marty," Tara said. "And it is... well, it's a demon. Like in horror stories and things like that. A creature of the nether realms. This type is particularly bad."
Agent Vielman didn't respond. Willow imagined the look on his face. She peeked into the rear-view mirror and saw the exact expression she'd imagined.
"No, really, Tara," he said, sounding more that a little confused. "What is it?"
"Just what I said, Marty," Tara said. "It's a demon. They exist."
"Um, okay," he said, sounding rather troubled by the idea. "I'm not sure I believe that."
"Things like demons do exist," Tara said. "They are reasonably rare though, mainly because it is difficult to cross the membranes between the various planes, such as the physical one and the demon realm. Willow and I used to deal with them all the time."
"You did?" said Agent Vielman. "You and Agent Rosenberg?"
"Yes, Marty," said Tara. "Willow was my partner for two years... up until I joined the field forensic team last year."
"She was?" said Vielman, surprised. "But... I thought you said that you and your old partner were... um... you know..."
"Yes, I did," said Tara.
Willow and Tara both waited a few seconds for Agent Vielman to figure it out.
"Oh, I see," he said, sounding a little embarrassed. "Um... I got that all wrong, didn't I?"
They drove in silence for a few minutes. The countryside was quite beautiful, and Willow felt her spirits rise a little as she drove across rolling green hills and through the woods.
Agent Vielman broke the silence. "So, what does this Kethrol thing actually do?" he said. "Is it making those people do things? Because if what you say is true, then it must be doing something like that."
"It's a possessive spirit," said Willow. "It possesses the bodies of others."
"Yes," said Tara. "But only of dead people. Or animals, like the dog. Corpses. It can't survive in the body of someone who's alive, since the body is already occupied by a living consciousness."
"So it kills people and steals their bodies," said Willow. "They usually only do that when the body is no longer usable. You see, the corpse continues to decay and decompose even when possessed, since the demon is only animating the body. It doesn't actually give it life."
"Like with the dog, and with Mr Alexander," said Tara. "It would have tried to find another body, since in both cases the body it was in was... um... not in the best of shapes."
"Yeah," said Willow. "So it's now in Miss Melchett's body. She'd dead, no mistake there. She was probably strangled or suffocated since that would not damage a body too much."
"I see," Agent Vielman said in a small voice. He sounded rather frightened. "And... and what can we do? This sounds beyond anything we can do. Can't we shoot it or burn it or something?"
"Well, yes, we could," said Willow. "But the body is already dead. Even if it was burned or shot it some part of it would still be possessed. Even the smallest fragment can contain the spirit of this demon."
"Oh.,. um.,. So what can we do?" said Agent Vielman.
"Willow?" said Tara. "What did you find out?"
Willow sighed. Tara wouldn't like this. "We need to do a displacement spell, then a temporary possession. Both of us, simultaneously."
Agent Vielman whistled. "A what? A spell?" he said. "You mean like a magic spell?"
"Yes," said Willow. "Just like a magic spell. Two spells, in fact."
Tara didn't respond immediately. When she did, she sounded very concerned. "Is there no other way?" she said. "That's very dangerous, Willow."
"Yeah, I know," said Willow. "But it is the only way, I'm sure of it. We need to possess the body that the Kethrol demon has entered, and dislodge it... and be a more dominant possessive force. Hence we both need to do it, to give it enough oomph... to ensure it is purged. If it cannot find a corpse within a few seconds, it should be sucked back into the nether-realm."
"But..." said Tara. "But, in order to keep ourselves alive, we'll need to make sure our own bodies have something of us still in them. Just a fragment... And we... we will be confused with each other while the spell is in progress. It's very risky... maybe more dangerous than anything we've done before."
"I know," Willow said. "I'm worried too."
Merrisville was not as picturesque as Portshead. It was a small industrial town, and had obviously seen better, more prosperous days, judging by the number of derelict buildings and general disrepair they encountered as they drove through its streets.
Willow pulled up outside the Merrisville county police station. The three agents got out of the car.
"Bathroom," said Tara.
"Me too," said Willow. "You first. I'll find out if they've got our demon yet."
They entered the police station. Tara scrunched her nose. The station was rather grimy and the air held the faint odor of stale vomit. Willow and Agent Vielman went to the front desk, while Tara wandered off to find the bathroom.
Willow showed the desk officer her badge.
"We're here to follow up a reported sighting of a Miss Melchett... blue sedan... license plate 546 291J," Willow said.
The desk officer was a short, rather overweight man with thick glasses and greasy hair. He barely glanced at Agent Vielman, but looked at Willow a little longer than she liked most people to look at her.
"Yeah," he said, in a slow drawl. He was still looking intently at Willow. My face is on the top of my body, you lecherous ape, she thought.
"Yeah... we found the car," he said. "It's parked in the main car park at the Cherry Valley mall. No sign of the woman, though."
"Thank you, Officer," said Willow. "Would you arrange to have someone escort us down there, please?"
The desk officer looked rather put out. "Yeah, I guess," he said, unenthusiastically. "Hey, Levski!" he yelled. Willow wished he hadn't yelled. His breath wasn't the best.
Tara returned and joined them at the desk. Willow looked at her.
"My turn," said Willow. "Where is it?"
Tara shook her head, a look of disgust on her face. "You can wait," she said. "Trust me. It's best."
"I see," said Willow.
A thin, dark-skinned police man approached them. "Hey there," he said. "What can I do for you gals?"
"Hi. I'm Agent Rosenberg, this is Agent McClay and Agent Vielman," said Willow. "We need to get to the Cherry Valley mall. Now, please."
"Yes, ma'am," said Levski, giving a mock salute. "I'll get my bike and meet you out the front. You just follow me to the mall."
They went outside and climbed back into the car.
"Nice place," said Willow.
"Wonderful," said Tara.
A few minutes later they saw a police motorcycle pull our from the alley next to the police station. The rider, Levski, waved at them.
Willow started the engine and followed the motorcycle.
"So what is the demon thing doing?" said Agent Vielman. "I mean, at a mall?"
"Shopping?" said Willow. "Perhaps it wants a new outfit for its fresh new corpse?"
"I don't think so," Tara said. "It will be the people. It will be attracted to the people."
"Why?" said Agent Vielman.
"Well, they are all potential hosts for it," said Willow. "The Kethrol demon kinda likes to hang where it can easily get a new host. A corpse typically won't last very long, being used like that, without something falling apart. And then it gets noticed. So it's continually looking for a stronger, fresher host."
"Oh, I find this very disturbing," said Agent Vielman. "Very disturbing indeed."
"It's okay, Marty," said Tara. "Willow and I will look after you."
Willow couldn't see if that promise had reassured Agent Vielman.
Up ahead, Levski glanced back at their car and grinned. Then the motorcycle turned left sharply, down a side street and then accelerated.
Levski had decided to be annoying, thought Willow. She braked and turned after him. He'd already reached the end of the street and was turning right. She sped after him down the street and turned the way he had gone. It was a long street. The bike was turning left at the end.
"What's he doing?" said Tara.
"He's being a pain in the ass, Tara." Willow said.
She drove to the intersection and turned left. The bike was nowhere in sight.
"Idiot," said Willow.
She continued slowly down the street, looking left and right.
"Willow, look!" said Tara. "That looks like a mall, just down there."
Willow stopped the car and looked down the street. At the end was a large set of buildings. It did look like a shopping mall, Willow admitted.
"Well, let's have a look," she said.
Willow turned down the street and drove to the end. Sure enough, a large shopping mall was across the street. It looked just like any other mall looked.
They drove into the car park slowly. It was spread over multiple levels, and Tara and Agent Vielman watched carefully out of the windows, looking for the blue sedan.
They had been searching for almost ten minutes before Agent Vielman saw the car. "Isn't that the kind of car we want?" he said, pointing excitedly. "Yes... and there's that officer's motorcycle."
The blue sedan was parked at the outer edge of the fourth level of the car park. A police motorcycle was pulled up beside it.
"But... um... where is our Officer Levski?" said Tara.
"Probably off playing hide and seek," said Willow, stopping the car. "Which suits me just fine."
They got out of their car and went over to the blue sedan. Tara looked around the car park, trying to see where the police officer might be.
"It's very strange," said Tara. "I mean, he was a bit silly speeding off like that, and everything. But I don't think he'd just leave his bike and..."
"She's here, Tara," Willow said, looking into the back seat of the car.
"Who?" said Tara.
"Angela Melchett," said Willow. "She's here, in the back of the car. Not moving."
Tara ran over the car and opened the rear passenger door. She carefully peeked inside. "Dead," she said. "I mean, probably totally dead."
Agent Vielman looked worried, as usual. "How can you be sure?" he said. "I mean, perhaps the demon is pretending to be dead... and really isn't. How can you tell?"
Willow raised her eyebrows. "Um... I don't know." she said. "It just doesn't look possessed, that's all. Eh Tara?"
Willow looked around the oil stained floor of the car park. She saw a shiny object near the rear wheel of the car. She looked closer. "There's a gun here," said Willow. "Police issue. Probably Levski's."
Tara nodded. "I think it's moved on," she said, nodding towards the motorcycle. "It must have returned to the car just before Levski arrived."
Willow groaned. "You mean we have to chase him again?" she said.
"Yes. I think so," Tara said. "Anyhow, we'd best be careful and make sure Miss Melchett is not going to get up again." Tara fumbled around in her handbag and found a small brown pouch. She opened the pouch and sniffed at the contents. She frowned, put the pouch back into her back and fumbled around a little more. She found another pouch, sniffed the contents and looked satisfied. She carefully poured a little of the bag's contents, a yellow powder, onto the palm of her hand. Tara whispered a few words and blew the yellow powder into the back seat of the car. Nothing happened.
"She's um... really dead," said Tara.
"Okay," said Willow. "So lets go find Levski, eh?"
Agent Vielman drew his gun, his hand shaking slightly. "Okay," he said. "I'm... I'm ready."
Willow put her hand on Agent Vielman's weapon. "You won't need that," she said. "It won't do any good."
Agent Vielman started to protest, but instead decided to just look as forlorn and lost as possible. He reluctantly holstered his weapon.
"You just make sure Willow and I are okay, Marty," said Tara. "You think you can do that?"
Agent Vielman nodded. "I'm a bit out of my depth here," he said. "But I'll try my best."
"Let's go then," said Willow.
They entered the mall.
It was late in the afternoon, so the mall was relatively quiet. Only a few people were milling around the shops.
Willow, Tara and Agent Vielman walked along the upper lever, peering over the balcony every now and again to look for the police officer. After a few minutes of searching, Willow saw a man ahead of them wearing a bike helmet. She tugged at Tara's jacket and pointed. "It's him," she said in a hushed voice. Officer Levski was walking a few metres in front of them, looking from left to right at the people who passed him. Willow and Tara started to walk a little faster, hoping to catch up with the policeman.
Agent Vielman ran up behind them.
"What's happening?" he said. "Any luck."
Tara pointed ahead. "There's Levski, Marty," she said.
They were less than ten metres from away when Levski turned and looked at Willow. His expression was blank and impassive. His eyes flicked towards Tara. He turned quickly and entered a nearby clothing store.
"He's seen us," said Willow. "After him!"
They ran after him into the store, and stopped at the doorway. There were a few customers looking through the racks of clothes, and some others were queued waiting for the cashier. Willow saw Officer Levski running into the changing rooms.
"FBI!" yelled Willow. "Everybody please evacuate the store now!"
"Marty," said Tara. "Stay here at the door and make sure all these people get out!"
Willow grabbed Tara by the hand. "Come on, Tara," she said. "He's in the changing rooms."
"Okay, Willow," said Tara. "I'm ready."
They ran past the panicked customers as they fled the store, and then made their way to the changing rooms. There were several individual rooms on either side of a short corridor. Officer Levski was at the end of the corridor. He was facing them, his face devoid of any emotion.
Willow and Tara stopped at the entrance to the corridor, effectively blocking the exit. Levski didn't seem concerned, and walked straight towards them.
"Hold!" said Willow, raising her hand, her palm facing outwards towards the approaching man. The air around him shimmered and a deep humming vibration rattled the changing-room doors. The possessed police officer froze mid-step, unable to move.
Willow was breathing quickly. Tara looked at her in concern. "You okay?" she said.
"I've got him," said Willow. Her breathing slowed slightly as the spell fully took hold. "I'm good. Let's do the rest, eh?"
"Okay," said Tara. She held out her hand. Willow wanted to look at Tara, but had to maintain her concentration on the spell holding Officer Levski immobile. She squeezed Tara's hand tightly.
Both witches knelt down on the floor, and in unison they started to recite the incantation. Willow's vision began to blur. She concentrated on the holding spell that maintained a grip on Officer Levski, and at the same time gave her self over to the effect of the displacement spell. Her mind slipped. It felt as if she had fallen out of her eye-sockets, and was now floating several centimeters in front of her face. She could see in all directions at once, her vision no longer being restricted by the physical properties of her eyes. She had done this many times before, and was used to concentrating on the world while in this unusual state. She saw a glowing brightness next to her. It was Tara's aura, her presence, her soul. It was very familiar and welcome, and Willow felt its warmth and goodness burning brightly beside her. Ahead of her, inside the body of the dead police officer, she could see the black shadowy spirit of the Kethrol demon.
Willow extended her consciousness over towards Tara, feeling outwards gently. Her mind felt the first gentle touch of Tara's mind, and felt an intense sensation of joy at being so close to her again. She yielded fully to Tara's consciousness, and let Tara guide her own magical energy as she saw fit. Tara acted quickly and prepared pushed their collected spirits out towards the possessed body of Officer Levski.
Suddenly the changing-room door nearest Willow flew open and hit Willow on her shoulder with such force it knocked her over. The spell collapsed around Willow, and she was wrenched backwards into her own body. Suddenly thing seemed very dark, as her vision became restricted the natural view provided by her eyes. Tara's shoulder's sagged and she gasped in shock.
Levski's possessed body was freed. He ran quickly down the corridor, pushing his way past the stunned witches and out into the store.
Willow shook her head, trying to regain her bearings. She turned towards Tara. "You okay, Tara?" she said, worried. She reached out and gently touched Tara's shoulder. She pushed Tara's blonde hair behind her shoulder so she could see Tara's face, to see if she was okay. Tara was frowning slightly.
"Tara?" said Willow. She felt a twinge of panic in her stomach. Perhaps the spell had gone terribly wrong. It was very risky to break a displacement spell, even when the spirit had only partially left the body.
Tara turned to Willow, and Willow thought she saw the faintest of smiles on Tara's lips. She looked into Tara's blue eyes, trying to see if she was truly in there.
Willow was shocked by the intense flood of affection that poured towards her from Tara's eyes.
"Tara?" she said, her voice hushed.
"I saw you," said Tara, her voice quiet and soft. She smiled, then reached out and rested her hand gently on Willow's chest. "I saw in here. In your heart. How you feel. What you want most of all."
Tara leaned over and kissed Willow lightly on the lips.
"The answer is yes," she said.
Willow's was astonished. She couldn't speak, and even if she could she wouldn't know what to say.
A whimpering sound came from the changing-room whose door had knocked Willow over. Willow looked inside to see a frightened woman, dressed only in her underwear, shrinking into the corner of the small cubicle.
"It's okay, Ma'am," breathed Willow, trying to sound as reassuring as she could. "We're FBI Agents." She suddenly felt rather self conscious, kneeling awkwardly as she was on the floor in a changing room. She stood up and dusted off her pants, then helped Tara stand up.
They returned the the main area of the store. One of the front windows had been smashed, and small squares of glass were scattered all over the floor like sugar cubes.
A terrified Agent Vielman stood by the door. Willow and Tara ran to him.
"What happened?" said Willow. "Where'd he go?"
Agent Vielman looked relieved to see them. "I was blocking the door... so he... he ran through the window, just a few seconds ago," he said. "He bumped into someone out there... and... they... oh dear... they fell over the balcony."
Willow went out into the mall. There was a hushed silence, broken by a few voices shouting for an ambulance. People were frozen in place, crowded around the first floor balcony, watching the scene below.
Willow went to the balcony and looked down. A crowd of people gathered around the bodies of two people. Two mall security guards were talking on handheld radios. Willow recognized Levski's crumpled and broken body. He hadn't landed well, she thought. His legs were twisted and bent in a terrible way. Next to him was the body of another man. He looked as if he'd landed head-first onto the marble floor tiles. A pool of bright red blood was slowly forming around his head.
Tara joined Willow at the balcony and peered over the edge. "Oh no," she said. "We should go down there, Willow."
Willow put her hand on Tara's arm.
"Hang on... just one second, Tara," she said. She continued to watch the two corpses carefully. Suddenly the body of Officer Levski twitched, causing murmurs amongst the on-lookers. His arm began to move, his hand feeling outwards along the floor, where it found the shoulder of the other dead man. Officer Levski's hand rested on the other man's body for a few seconds, then fell limp.
"It's transfered itself," said Willow, a trace of awe in her voice.
"I saw it," said Tara. "But... Willow, it looks like it can only transfer itself by touch."
"Yeah," said Willow. "That could be good news. Lets go!"
They ran along the upper lever towards the stairs leading down to the ground floor. Loud screams from the crowd stopped them in their tracks. They ran back to the balcony and looked down.
The other man was standing upright. His head was twisted to one side, bent at an unnatural angle. The features of his blood-soaked face were and crushed and indistinguishable. His left arm was broken, and a sharp shard of white bone stuck out through his shirt. Despite this, he walked quickly and deliberately through the horrified crowd, who rapidly moved away from him as he neared them. He began to run down the mall towards the exit at the far end.
Willow ran towards the stairs, followed closely by Tara. They descended as fast as they could and looked around the lower level. A trail of bloody footprints on the pale marble floor-tiles clearly indicated where the demon had gone.
They ran to the exit, pushed the doors open and went outside. They were at the back of the mall. There was a small car-park between them and the street. The demon was nowhere in sight.
"Damn!" said Willow. "We lost it."
Tara looked worried. "That body is pretty badly damaged," she said. "I don't think it will keep it for long."
"You're right," said Willow. "It's going to kill again... and soon."
A rather hot and sweaty looking Agent Vielman met them as when they re-entered the mall. He was accompanied by several police officers and mall security guards.
"Where is he?" he said, breathing heavily and trying to catch his breath.
"He's gone," said Willow. "Agent Vielman, get the police to start searching for him. He should be easy to spot."
Agent Vielman nodded. "Yes, of course," he said. "And you...?"
"We have some other... er... methods to try, Marty," said Tara.
Tara bent over a bloody footprint the demon had left behind. She extracted a cotton bud from a phial and daubed it in some of the congealing blood.
"That should do," she said. "We need to find somewhere less... obvious... to cast spell."
"Let's go to the car, eh?" said Willow.
They found their way back to the car park and found their car as they had left it, next to the abandoned police motorcycle and the blue sedan that still held the body of Amanda Melchett.
Willow and Tara got into the car and shut the doors.
"So, perhaps a simple location spell, eh Willow?" said Tara. "Shula's Divine Watching, or maybe Binson's Third Eye?"
Willow looked at her. "Yeah," she said. She sounded distracted. "Sure, Tara."
Tara reached over and took Willow's hand in her own. "Are you okay?" she said.
Willow wasn't sure. She couldn't get Tara's words out of her head. The answer is yes. She thought she might know what the question was, what she herself wanted most of all, but she couldn't bear to ask it. She knew what she wanted, had wanted ever since she left Tara nine months ago, but she had buried it deep down inside, pushing it away with rational arguments and self control. She wanted Tara back. But Tara wouldn't say yes to that question, would she? It wasn't possible. Willow felt hot tears fill her eyes every time she thought about it, and she knew the question would stick in her throat if she tried to ask it.
But Willow wanted to say something. Had to say something, anything to let Tara know how she felt, just in case.
"Tara," Willow said, quietly. "I... I still..." Willow tried to be brave, but it was too hard. "That is... you. I still... I... I..."
Tara smiled at her.
"You love me," she said. "I know."
Willow stared at her in astonishment. She tried to make out if Tara was teasing her, but that wasn't Tara's way, and the love she saw in Tara's eyes filled her with such joy and longing she could not contain herself. She breathed Tara's name, and leaned over to embrace her, holding Tara tightly in her arms as tears of joy and relief spilled from her eyes.
Tara returned her embrace, and they sat in the car in each others arms for several minutes.
"Willow?" Tara said, eventually. "Umm... We should really do the spell now, eh?"
Willow sat back and rubbed her eyes. She smiled at Tara.
"Sorry..." she said. "You're right." She felt so peaceful and happy that for a moment she'd totally forgotten about the case.
"Binson's Third Eye?" suggested Tara.
Willow frowned, trying to focus. "That's... um... thats the longish one, eh?" she said uncertainly. "The one that starts with 'Ona deu seius menta...' right?"
Tara pretended to look shocked. "Tsk tsk, Willow," she said, feigning disappointment. "That's Shula's Divine Watching." She leaned over and kissed Willow's lips. "You doofus," she said, grinning.
Willow smiled. "Yeah... I guess," she said. "Okay, we'll do that one then, eh?"
Tara nodded. She took the phial of blood and placed it on Willow's outstretched palm. She then closed her hand over the top of Willow's, and the two witches closed their eyes and began the incantation. Willow immediately felt intense disorientatation as her mind's eye was swiftly projected upwards and out over the shopping mall. It was as if she floated high above the mall, looking down at the city below her. Although she could hear nothing at all, she could see the surrounding streets quite clearly. Her vision spun around, searching, then suddenly swept downwards towards the ground at a breathtaking rate, then onwards towards a group of buildings three blocks away from where she was. Then it slowed down as it moved towards a small side street. Stanton Way. She could read the street name clearly on the sign. Her presence moved down the road and turned left down a small alley between two large brick buildings. The street was a dead end, cut off by the walls of a third building. Dumpsters lined the tiny roadway, and boxes and garbage littered the ground. Her mind's eye closed in on a hunched figure sitting on the ground next to the wall. The demon.
Willow and Tara broke the spell, and the vision disappeared. Willow opened her eyes and sighed.
"I love that spell," she said.
Tara found her cell-phone and made a call. "Hey, Marty," she said. "We found it. It's to the north, off Stanton Way. Block off the street, but don't let anybody go inside, okay. We'll meet you there in a few minutes."
Willow started the car, then drove out of the car park. "It's west," she said, grinning happily.
"You sure?" said Tara. "I though it was north."
By the time they arrived at Stanton Way, five police cars were parked around the street, their lights flashing. Agent Vielman was there, looking very stressed, even for him. He ran up to the car as soon as he saw it.
"They want to go in at get him!" he said. "I've managed to stop them for now, but they aren't happy."
"They've lost an officer," said Willow. "They'll be out for revenge. It's okay. We're going in to get it."
Agent Vielman looked worried. "We are?" he said. "Just us?"
"Yes, Marty," said Tara.
"But... but shouldn't we take the police?" he said. "Or maybe wait for some backup?"
"It's okay, Agent Vielman," said Willow. "We should do just fine."
"Fire and brimstone?" said Tara.
"Yep," said Willow.
They walked over to the police officers that crowded the street entrance.
"Excuse me!" yelled Willow. "FBI!" She waited for the police to quieten down and give her their attention.
"This is a dangerous situation," she said. "Me and my fellow agents are going to assess the situation. Do not, I repeat, do not enter the alley until instructed to do so."
There were loud complaints from the officers, but they didn't challenge Willow directly.
Willow turned away from them and went down the street towards the alley. Tara followed her closely, as did Agent Vielman, who held his gun out in front of him in his trembling hands as he walked.
They reached the alley and turned the corner. The alley was just as Willow had seen in her vision. She reached out towards Tara, and felt a warm hand slip into her own. Agent Vielman looked at them, bewildered, but did not say anything.
They cautiously walked further down the alley, looking from right to left for the demon.
Suddenly something erupted from a stack of boxes to Willow's left. The grotesque blood-stained figure of the dead man sprang at them, brandishing long metal pipe in its right hand. It raised the pipe and struck down at Willow. Willow tried to dodge the blow, but it glanced her shoulder and she fell to the side, knocking Tara against the wall.
Agent Vielman aimed at the demon and fired his weapon. The creature didn't seem to notice, and it lashed out at Vielman with the metal pipe, just missing him.
Willow held up her hand and pushed at the demon with her mind, sending it hurtling through the air, further down the alley, where it landed with a heavy thud. Agent Vielman ran after it.
Willow got up and turned and helped Tara stand. "You okay?" she said.
Tara nodded. "I'm just winded," she said. Willow grabbed her hand and dragged her along after Agent Vielman.
They ran towards the end of the alley, and saw the demon bending over the fallen figure of Agent Vielman, who lay unmoving on the ground at the demon's feet. The demon grabbed Vielman's gun from his hand, stood up straight, and fired directly at Agent Vielman.
"No!" screamed Tara.
The demon turned to face them and aimed the gun at them.
Willow spoke three words, raised her arm and pointed her fingers at the demon. She drew power from Tara, and from herself, then released it at the creature before her. A bright ball of white fire projected from her fingertips and sped directly towards the demon. There was a blinding flash as the fireball hit, and a deafening explosion shook the walls of the buildings around them. Willow and Tara raised their arms to protect themselves from the bits of flesh and bone that began to rain down on top of them. Then they both ran towards where Agent Vielman lay. There was no sign of the demon. A large red blotch of blood and tissue was spattered against the wall, and various dismembered body parts lay all around on the ground.
Tara crouched beside Agent Vielman and searched for a pulse.
"Careful, Tara," warned Willow. "Because if he's dead..." She got ready to cast another spell, just in case the demon had managed to transfer itself to the body of Agent Vielman.
"I know, Willow," said Tara, anxiously. She felt his neck carefully. "He's alive, Willow," she said, relieved. "He needs an ambulance."
Willow looked around, puzzled. "Then where is it?" she said. She scanned the floor, desperately searching for any movement.
"Willow!" Tara yelled in surprise. She was pointing at a the ground a few metres away. "There! It's trying to get under that dumpster!"
Willow looked where Tara was pointing. There was a hand, ragged bone protruding from its wrist, dragging itself along the ground by its fingertips towards the dumpster. Willow ran over to it and stood on it. She felt it squirm under her foot.
"Tara!" she said. "Quick! Get me something to put it in!"
Tara searched around frantically, looking for something suitable. She found an old shoebox and brought it over to Willow.
"Yeah," said Willow. "That'll do. But, erm... can you? Squeamish, remember?"
Tara bent down and pulled the hand from underneath Willow's foot and shoved it into the shoebox. She quickly put the lid on and held it down. The box rattled as the hand inside struggled to find a way out.
"Thanks!" said Willow, taking the box from Tara. "You look after Agent Vielman. I'll get help."
Willow headed back towards Stanton Way. She nearly collided with the police as they came running up the street towards the alley.
"We... um... we thought we heard something," said one of the officers. "We thought it best to come."
"We need an ambulance, now!" said Willow.
"We have one already here, Ma'am," said the officer. He ran back towards the police cars.
Still clutching the shoebox, Willow returned to where Tara knelt beside Agent Vielman.
"They'll be here in a few seconds, Tara," she said.
"Oh good," she said, standing up. "He'll be okay, I think. The wound isn't too serious. The demon wasn't a very good shot."
"Well, it was dead, after all," said Willow.
The alley was swarming with officers, who looked in amazement around at the blood stained walls and the body parts scattered on the ground.
"What the hell happened here?" said one of the officers.
Willow looked at Tara. "Um," she began. "Well, you see..."
"Secret weapons," said Tara, in a hushed voice. "FBI use only."
Willow grinned. "Yes. That's it," she said, trying hard to sound very serious. "Concealed personal missile launchers. Very secret. Don't breath a word."
The officer nodded, his face grim. "Yeah, I heard about them," he said.
The paramedics arrived and attended Agent Vielman. They quickly applied first aid and lifted him onto a stretcher.
Tara watched after him as they carried him away.
"I'll go with him to the hospital, Willow. Just to make sure he's okay," said Tara. "Make you should find something better to hold our friend there... until we can figure out what to do with it, eh?"
Willow looked at the shoebox. "Yeah, I'll try," Willow said. She looked at Tara. "Um, will... will I see you later?"
Tara smiled at her.
"Oh, yes," she said, turning to follow the paramedics. She winked at Willow. "We've quite a bit of catching up to do."
Willow was happy to be clean again. She'd washed her hair three times to ensure that the only red in it was its natural color. She tied the belt of the thick fluffy dressing-gown around her slim waist, and left the bathroom. She walked over to the hotel room window and looked out. The room was twenty stories up, and Willow loved the view of a city at night from such a height.
Willow looked at the heavy steel case that sat on the table beside the window. It felt a little creepy having a hand possessed by a Kethrol demon sitting in a metal box in her room, but she would rather have it close by where she could keep an eye on it, until they could determine how to dispose of it properly. Besides, it had been thickly coated in epoxy-resin to stop it from moving or coming into contact with anything, so Willow felt sure it was safe for now.
She looked out the window again, and watched the cars drive by on the street below. She felt content.
"Feeling better?" said a voice behind her. Willow turned to face the bed, where Tara sat with her back against the pillows, her legs tucked under the covers. She wore the same dressing gown as Willow.
"I feel wonderful," said Willow. And it was true, she did. It was as if half of her soul had been missing for the last nine months, and its return made her feel complete, whole and content. "I have you."
Tara smiled at her. Willow went over to the bed and sat opposite Tara. She looked into her eyes for several moments, happy just to be in her presence, close to her. Willow leaned over and kissed her.
"I love you, Tara."
"And I love you, Willow."