Wyn left her car and pushed her way through the crowd of workers drawn from the other units by the commotion. Militia soldiers formed a cordon around the shed while the tall white armoured soldiers of Lancaster stood guard over the prisoners, their black faceplates concealing the human within. A trio of armoured personnel carriers, each with the red castle logo stencilled on the side, blocked the road, and partially concealed a row of body bags slowly being added to.
Wyn came to a stop and stared past a militia soldier, studying the bags, fearful that Tay was in one of them.
“Detective Wyn,” Agent Douglass called out from the side. He carried his notepad and dismissed a faceless soldier before striding over. “Let her through.”
The militia soldier gave Wyn a hard stare before pulling the barrier back and letting her pass.
“Did you find the laboratory?” Wyn asked as she fell in alongside the agent. He led her through the confusing tangle of soldiers and prisoners towards the open door to the eel shed.
“We did but not soon enough.”
“What does that mean?”
Agent Douglass stepped around the shoulder-high bumper of a Lancaster vehicle careful not to brush his jacket against it. The rain was picking up and his hair was slick against his scalp.
“They had time to remove the product before we arrived.”
“At least two thousand litres.”
“They could kill an entire district with that much.”
“We are aware.” Agent Douglass gave the growing stack of body bags a disgusted look. “We will find them though.”
“What does this mean for our agreement?”
“You lived up to your part of the deal so I will do my best.”
They took a moment to look over the bodies and the line of prisoners shoved up against the sides of one of the vehicles. A militia soldier stopped at each one to take their photo, the bright flash bouncing off the armoured plating and lighting up the scene.
“I had a source that led me here,” Wyn said studying the line of men and women shuffling along in the rain with their hands cuffed behind their backs.
“A few tried to shoot it out, but the survivors are here,” Agent Douglass said. “If you’re after special consideration for them then that’s something we can talk about.”
“Is everything a negotiation with you?”
“It’s the Central way, detective.”
Two militia soldiers came out dragging a leaking body bag behind them. It made a loud squelch as they dropped it in a clear space just outside the door. Wyn stared at the bag, trying to judge the size of the body within.
“That one’s odd. A punishment killing of some kind,” Agent Douglass said and then stared at Wyn, studying the way the rain ran down her cheeks. “Mystery solved I guess.”
The way he spoke, it was as if they had found a missing set of keys, an oddity to be filed away. Wyn's fists clenched as she focused on the black lining of the bag. “I need to see.”
“Be my guest but we’ll be identifying the bodies before they are disposed of. I could share the list with you if it would be easier. Maybe later, over drinks?”
Wyn weaved a path around the other bodies, careful not to step over any. The two soldiers stepped back giving her room to squat down next to the slick black bag. Flood water from the river lapped over her shoes but Wyn didn’t care. Eventually, the waters would rise and carry all the dead away.
The zip was the size of her thumb and cold to the touch. She gripped it tightly before pulling it part way down, freezing when she caught sight of a mass of wet hair.
It wasn’t her first dead body, nor the first time it was someone she knew, that she cared for but that didn’t make it any easier. She had confirmation and could walk away and remember her as she had been, chaotic, her face never at rest, beautiful in her own special way, the sort that had to be searched for, a puzzling array of twitching eyes and nervous ticks, but once the pattern was discerned it all sort of flowed together. To Wyn she was like music, all the wrong notes played at the same time and on one instrument but now she was silent Wyn felt a chasm open within her.
The sound of the zip as she pulled it lower was lost in the pattering of the rain.
Tay looked like a child asleep, her eyes still beneath closed lids. Her chin stained black, streaks that marred her neck and her chest, tendrils of oil snaking over her body. Naked from the waist up, ribs exposed, scratches and scars from a life spent close to the ground. The detective in Wyn took over and she touched the cold flesh, turning the head, searching for wounds, lifting the hands, cracked fingernails, bruising on the knuckles.
“They drowned her in a cage. I had them raise it from the river,” Agent Douglass said from behind Wyn. “Savages.”
A member of the militia team came forward and held a blocky camera at an angle over Tay’s face, moving closer until she had a good picture. The flash jolted Wyn awake.
“I want to question the prisoners,” Wyn said pulling the zip over Tay’s head and standing up. “I want to know what happened here. Why they did it?”
“Is it your informer?” Agent Douglass asked.
“She was just a kid.” Wyn strode towards the twenty or so prisoners kneeling in the rain. Agent Douglass hurrying to keep up, his trench coat flapping around his legs. “Where are you taking them, to the barracks?” One of the grey armoured Lancaster soldiers blocked her path, the black visor staring down at her.
“They’re not your concern, detective,” Agent Douglass said catching up with her.
“I want to talk to them. The militia doesn’t have investigators. If you want this done properly give me the job. Let me talk to them first.”
“The prisoners will be going to a Lancaster facility for processing.”
“Why?” Wyn asked as the agent moved to stand next to the towering Lancaster soldier. “These are sector civilians. The militia...” A thought occurred to Wyn, and she broke off to search the faces of those lined up.
“I want to thank you for your help, detective, but your presence here is no longer required.” Agent Douglass gave the silent soldier a nod and pointed at Wyn. “Escort the detective to her vehicle.”
“I was right, wasn’t I?” Wyn said. “The Great Mother’s from Central?”
“Detective,” Agent Douglass said and gestured towards the militia cordon and the crowd that had gathered to watch. “Maybe we should have this conversation somewhere more private.”
“How many of them are your citizens?” Wyn asked. The Lancaster soldier stuck out an arm and made a stiff shooing motion at her. Wyn easily slipped around it and followed Agent Douglass. “That’s why you came into the sector, isn’t it? You don’t give a damn about Kaplan or the government, you want to round up your lost citizens. What are they, rebels? Is the temple a recruiting movement for something else?”
“Wyn,” Agent Douglass made the mistake of taking hold of her arm, but a sharp look made him take his hand away. “We really should be having this conversation elsewhere.”
Agent Douglass looked past Wyn at the Lancaster soldier looming behind her back and shook his head.
“Help me understand what’s going on,” Wyn pleaded. “Because I am lost. People are dying and I don’t understand why Central isn’t doing anything. Why isn’t Kaplan taking charge? He won. I thought Lancaster coming into the sector would help restore order but all you’ve done is increase the chaos.”
“Wyn,” Agent Douglass said stepping closer and looking up at her. “I want to bring you in but there are procedures I must follow.”
“You mean work for you?”
“I’ve put your name forward for a spot on my team. If you’re interested, we could—”
A scream cut through the rain drawing everyone’s attention to a young girl straining to get past the barrier. She was soaked to the skin and reaching towards the row of body bags while a short-haired woman held her back. They struggled, the girl screaming and pointing.
“What’s she saying?” Agent Douglass asked.
“She must know one of the victims,” Wyn said taking a step toward the girl. Her mind flashed back to the kitchen table at the Magdala, Jens talking to Misha about his sister while Wyn hovered in the background listening. Small, black hair and a nose too large for her face. “Gren?”
“Do you know them?” Agent Douglass asked. “Are they with the temple?”
“No,” Wyn said quickly and then cupped her hands around her mouth. “Gren, Gren!”
The older of the pair looked over, her arms tight around the crying child. She whispered something in her ear while staring at Wyn and pulled her back into the crowd.
Wyn wanted to give chase but was stopped by a shout from the prisoners. They were getting to their feet despite the orders from the soldiers.
“Now what?” Agent Douglass said as he strode over. Wyn eyed the crowd, but the girl was gone. If it had been Gren at least she wasn’t alone.
“What the fuck is that!”
The shout spun Wyn around in time to see the militia soldiers stepping away from Tay’s body bag, pointing at something wriggling under the black plastic. The bag seemed to expand as the body thrashed around but it wasn’t arms or legs pushing at the bag but hundreds of sinuous forms, each one trying to escape. People shouted, some stepping away while others moved closer. The prisoners whispered to each other and tried to get a better look, but their Lancaster guards pushed them back.
Wyn couldn’t tear her eyes from the bag as it flopped from side to side, the zip straining and tears forming at the seams.
“Shoot it!” Agent Douglass screamed but the militia soldiers just stared stupidly as the bag rolled over, bumping into the pile of dead and then rolling back. “Stay back, Detective, it might be a chemical weapon.”
At the warning, the militia soldiers started retreating but Wyn splashed over to the bag. She timed its movement as it rolled from side to side and then grasped the large zip and pulled it back. The first of the eels slipped out and Wyn leapt clear as more poured forth, widening the gap. Hundreds of them spilt across the wet concrete to flap over her boots and the other body bags before swimming through the flood water in every direction.
A soldier fired a single shot, sending the crowd into a panic. Wyn couldn’t tear her eyes from the bag as the eels emptied to reveal a slick form within. Tay stared up at her with eyes that reflected the dark clouds above, her mouth flapped open, voice lost in the uproar.
“Tay?” Wyn gasped and fell to her knees.
Tay blinked and rolled her head to the side, lips moving wordlessly.
“You’re alive.” Wyn pulled the zip all the way down and scooped Tay’s limp body into her arms, pressing her close. Tay coughed, her head rolling onto Wyn’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? Can’t you move?”
“Dad came for me,” Tay whispered in her ear. “I saw him, I saw them all.”
Wyn adjusted her arms and hoisted Tay up cradling the slight form to her chest. She walked away, nudging the eels out of her path with her boots. A militia soldier got in her way with his rifle aimed at her, but Agent Douglass waved them off. Wyn gave him a look as she passed him, daring him to stop her but he stood back and let her go.
The crowd parted letting Wyn through. Hands reached out to touch Tay as she passed, snake tattoos on hands trembling as they touched her arm. Tay stared at them from over Wyn’s shoulder, watching them as they followed.