The sky hung heavy and silent, a deep, dark blue waiting for the delayed dawn of winter. The only sounds calling through the frosty air belonged to the animals as the nocturnal ones made their way to bed, sluggish with the winter chill as they took one final look for an early risen prey. It remained too early for the chirp of morning birds but their absence only emphasised the peace.
The lake shimmered beneath the pale white moonlight like a mirror, beautified with the silent presence of slumbering swans and Belvedere Castle as a backdrop. It could almost have come from a fairytale.
Detective Matt Bluestone didn't know if the body ruined the atmosphere or added a haunting appeal to it. He contemplated voicing his thoughts on the matter to his partner Detective Elisa Maza but she already looked unhappy about the situation.
The body belonged to a young male somewhere in his early twenties, pasty faced and dark haired, clad in jeans, a loose fitted shirt and scuffed, brown shoes, hardly appropriate for the weather. An indication that either he couldn't afford winter wear or he hadn't planned on being outdoors too long.
Matt and Elisa knew the deceased as James Shanks, also known as Jimmy the Mouse, a pipsqueak drug user who always seemed to be caught up with the wrong people. He had a strong enough addiction to heroin that he was well known for doing whatever dirty task he had to for whomever he had to, to get his next fix but equally he had been terrified of prison and had cut more than one deal with the cops to stay out of jail.
"Well his existence was always going to be a temporary one," Matt remarked jovially.
Elisa gave her partner a frown. "I'll admit he was scum but he was young, he still had time to change and now he doesn't," she remarked pityingly.
"He wouldn't have changed," Matt grumbled as his breath misted out before him. He tugged the collar of his tan jacket up and close to the sides of his face.
Elisa scowled at her partner. She felt too tired and cold for his condescending outlook on this case. She had been up all evening with the gargoyles thwarting yet another of the Pack's schemes, her muscles were sore and ready for bed and now with this recent murder bed looked a lot further away.
"Maybe you should canvas the scene for evidence," Elisa suggested. "It's a cold morning, we might get lucky and find some preserved. Like this blood." She pointed to the large, hardened stains of blood pooled behind Jimmy's head. "He must have died here."
"At least he died with a good view," Matt appraised as he cast his gaze back on the lake. "Think the swans seen anything?"
Catching Elisa's appropriately frosty brown stare, Matt shrugged and started pacing around the lake.
Matt dug his hands deep in the pockets of his tan trench coat as he walked a little more briskly around the lake than he should have. He didn't believe he would find anything and he didn't believe that Elisa believed it, she just wanted him out of the way for a moment. The detective sighed moodily at this thought, surrounding himself in a temporary puff of misty white breath.
Elisa had trusted him with the gargoyles only when he had pushed for it, and when she had learned about his business with Goliath and Mace Malone she had been less than impressed. The fact that Matt had picked loyalty to Goliath over finally getting proof of the Illuminati had mattered only a little to Elisa. She had been calm about it but had pointed out that it had been a big risk, dangerous and reckless and especially bad given it had been Matt's first meeting with Goliath. Had it gone wrong it could have ruined the already tentative building of trust between gargoyles and humans. Matt had grumbled that Goliath was centuries old and had enough experience to handle the risk. He had added that Elisa was just sore at being left out of the mission. They had left the matter at that and resumed their friendship but Matt knew Elisa still kept him at a distance.
The redhead stopped when he heard a loud disturbance in the lake. He turned his pale blue gaze out to the silvery water where the swans were making a ruckus. He squinted trying to confirm he actually saw what he saw.
The swans were flapping about and squawking angrily close to the shore on Matt's side as a woman splashed out frantically amongst them before she slipped under the water.
"It would be in the middle of winter wouldn't it?" Matt grumbled to himself dryly. He shrugged off his trenchcoat and abandoned it to the ground. "Couldn't be summer when I might not mind a swim."
Matt kicked off his shoes and socks and hurried into the water wondering if he looked heroic. He imagined he didn't, in fact he felt quite certain he looked like a madman blundering loudly into an ice cold lake in the middle of winter.
The cold water almost sent Matt's body into shock. Immediately his mind screamed at him, demanding to know if he had lost his God damn mind, whilst his flesh tensed and quivered and his teeth chattered. He had to wade in until the water reached his chin. The woman floundered in the shallows but not close enough that she could stand.
Matt let out a curse when a swan came at him with a fierce eyed look and tried to peck at his nose. "Oh leave me alone!" He waved it off angrily, splashing himself in the process.
Matt reached the woman and wrapped his arms under hers to cross under her bust before he started kicking, leaning back and heading for the shore again. She did not resist him.
Matt's soaked clothes began to drag him down and he inhaled several mouthfuls of icy water as his head started to bob under the water. His movements were becoming sluggish as the cold filled him inside and out. He knew how quickly the cold could affect someone, how fast one could lose energy in the water and drown. Hypothermia could set in, in mere seconds.
Matt urged himself sternly to keep going, reasoning that dying before Christmas would be just too tragic.
They reached the shore and Matt dragged himself and the woman back onto the cold, hard earth. Only then did he notice her wounds. Her exposed back showed raw and bloodied under the moonlight as if something had been torn from it. Before he bundled his coat about her, rescuing his phone from the pocket first, Matt noticed something else odd as well. He could see a couple of feathers on the woman's back, gleaming obsidian and sticking up in an odd fashion. He dismissed them as stray feathers from the lake though he knew that wasn't right.
Needing to prioritise their aid over curiosity, Matt began ringing for help.
Elisa got to them first, finding Matt sheepish faced, teeth chattering, hands burrowed in his armpits and lips turning blue. His companion leaned against him with heavy eyes as she battled unconsciousness. Matt's coat sat over her rather than on her. She blinked up at Elisa with a frightened, wounded, blue gaze that seemed more animal than human.
Elisa shook her head scornfully. "You're soaking," she chided Matt, "and liable to freeze to death, what were you thinking?"
Matt gave his partner a smile but resisted the urge to answer, 'damsel in distress, I had to be heroic'. He didn't want to earn another glower and he didn't really want the woman to hear him call her a damsel.
The blue and red lights of the ambulance lit up the park as the emergency vehicle chased towards them followed by a police patrol car. Matt filled with relief, a few minutes more and he would probably have frozen to death.
The staff were prompt in getting Matt and the woman wrapped up in the tinfoil like heat blankets and into the ambulance. Elisa shrugged at their questions, clueless as to what had happened, and bid Matt farewell, vowing to get details later. She left the scene with a patrol cop and headed back to the body, one case was enough for the morning, frankly she thought Matt was getting off easy escaping in a warm ambulance.
At the hospital the woman tensed against the red-headed detective, her grasp against his arms turning tight as she blinked her large eyes about the emergency room fearfully. Injured and sick bodies crowded the place and filled it with the sounds of chatter, wails, shrieks, phones ringing, people cursing and shouting. Accompanying the music of winter woes were footsteps, vending machines shaking and shuddering, police and criminals debating with doctors and nurses, machines beeping, and the underlying hum of the unfriendly white strobe lights above.
Several eyes turned to the woman barely clad in the now damp trench coat, widening when they glimpsed her thin, pearly white legs. With her mane of dark hair, large eyes and rosebud lips she had unwittingly taken on the image of a damsel straight off the silver screen, tapping into forgotten fantasies for some of the male patrons.
Matt frowned back at the gawkers as he tugged his coat tighter about her with one hand. She really did seem to be a rather odd creature. Her pale skin had turned almost blue with the chill and her large, icy blue eyes looked confused and frightened as they turned up to Matt. He found her stare rather beguiling in a way. He turned his attention to her hair, long and black, it cascaded down her back almost to her waist, an odd shade of sable with no strands of brown or sheen of blue, if anything it swallowed the light rather than reflected it, and it was strange but at the roots it seemed so soft but not like hair should be.
"Sir she really needs to come through," a nurse addressed Matt with a serious stare, "there's blood coming through your coat," she added quietly.
Matt snapped to attention at that, ready to release the woman until he realised he wasn't holding onto her, she was holding on to him.
"Er...miss," he addressed her awkwardly, "you need to go get help now and I probably need checked for hyperthermia. Don't worry," he added with what he hoped was a reassuring smile, "you'll be okay and I won't be far."
Matt felt certain there was protocol that should be followed, tests that should be carried out but if blood kept seeping from her back that had to take priority. The normal procedures and paperwork could be filled out later.
"Sir just bring her," the nurse snapped anxiously as she waved him on.
Matt followed obediently but it wasn't easy, the woman had become like a rabbit in headlights, frozen up and very reluctant to move. Matt tried to ease her off and turn her away, accidentally pressing a hand against her back and a damp stain as he did.
The woman gave a yelp of pain and jerked back from the detective instinctively.
Free now, Matt clasped her by one damp, shaking hand and tugged her along after the nurse.
"I'm sorry, it was an accident," Matt murmured.
They reached a private examination room where the nurse attempted to urge the woman from Matt to a black plinth with a a curtain ready to go around it.
The woman's grasp became like iron as she shrunk back against the detective with a look of uncertainty.
"It's alright," Matt murmured. "I need to wait outside anyway. Come on, you're bleeding." He took a step forward and tugged her with him before urging her to sit on the edge of the plinth. "You take off my coat," he instructed her, "and let the nurse take a look, it won't take long I'm sure." With some effort he freed his hand from the woman and stepped back.
Matt turned to head for the door, hesitating as he heard a low noise of protest, not exactly a whimper but definitely a noise of upset.
"Just stay in the room," the nurse said wearily. She tugged the curtain closed about herself and the woman.
The nurse moved gently as she eased the coat off the girl, taking care to be slow about her back. She took in the wounds with a critical stare before she reached for cotton swabs and disinfectant.
"This is going to hurt," she warned, "but it will stop any infection from settling in."
From the other side of the curtain Matt winced at the soft shrieks of pain that followed.
The nurse cleaned up the wounds, her face curdling with dismay when she saw how deep they were. "We'll need the doctor to take a look."
The nurse called for the doctor and while waiting did her best to cease the bleeding.
Flat shoes hitting hard off tiled floors signalled the arrival of the doctor. Matt looked up and stepped back instinctively from the door as she pushed it through.
The doctor paused at the sight of Matt with a look of surprise in her brown gaze that she replaced quickly with disdain. "Detective Blackstone," she murmured icily.
"Bluestone," he corrected automatically though he knew the mistake was intentional. "How are you Becky...er Dr. Fields?"
The doctor's frown deepened as she strode past him to the nurse standing peering out from the curtains. "Criminal or victim?" she quipped quietly.
"Victim," Matt answered.
"Makes a change for you," Dr. Fields murmured before she joined the nurse behind the curtain. The doctor took in the woman's lean nude form with a cold curiosity before looking to the wounds. "What's your name?" she queried gently as she snapped on a pair of disposable gloves offered up by the nurse.
The woman did not reply.
"She's made a few noises of pain but she hasn't spoken," the nurse explained.
"Bluestone," the doctor called back as she accepted a cloth to wipe away the blood, "does she have a name?"
"I'm sure she does," Matt answered cheerfully, "but I don't know it yet."
The doctor shook her head scornfully before she examined the wounds cautiously, leaning down to get a closer look. Her eyes widened at a black feather sticking out of the woman's back before she reached for it. She expected the feather to come away with ease, assuming it was stuck with blood. Astonishment shone in the doctor's eyes when she had to tug the feather free as if it were in fact growing up from the skin. A wail of anguish followed from the woman.
"I'm sorry," the doctor said hastily, "I didn't mean to hurt you."
The woman let a low moan of pain as she clenched her fists against the leather beneath her and her feet trembled against it.
"You're alright," the doctor assured, "I just need to clean these wounds up. Deep breaths, it will be over soon, I promise and then we will give you something for the pain."
Dr. Fields moved with haste, cleaning and stitching up the wounds with speed and care before she bound them up in gauze and bid the nurse to find a robe for the girl and bring back some painkillers. "There, now you rest here for a moment," she advised the groaning figure, "while I speak with the detective."
Dr. Fields slipped back past the curtain to Matt who stood damp and pale faced and had dripped several puddles of water onto the lino floor.
"Jesus Bluestone contamination," Dr. Fields scorned. She stepped up to him, glanced over her shoulder at the blue curtain and then queried quietly, "where did she come from?"
"The lake," Matt answered cryptically.
"The lake?" Dr. Fields repeated with a critical stare turned up to the detective. "What, am I to believe she just swam into you?"
Matt grinned. "Something like that."
"Bull. In a fantasy maybe but not reality. She turned up naked and bloody..." She paused and shook her head. "I suppose I should recommend her for a sexual assault examination then."
Matt frowned. "I don't think it's like that," he protested, "she's no bruising or other wounds."
"Well she's in shock from something, and she didn't make those wounds herself, that's impossible."
"What do you think did it?"
The doctor shrugged. "I don't know for sure, they're deeper than they look, like something was carved out of her but her bones are in tact and there's only a little bit of skin torn. It's almost like someone burned or flayed her, although it's superficial in that she's escaped skin grafting and hopefully scarring. Look, we can keep her for examination for a day tops."
Matt debated over that momentarily. "Sure." He didn't know where else she could go.
The nurse returned with a robe and painkillers. She and the doctor urged the woman up from the plinth and prepared to move her along. As her bare soles slapped upon the lino betraying the lingering dampness on them, the nurse realised in error in failing to get some footwear for the woman.
The moment the woman reached Matt her right hand reached out and clamped down on his wrist.
Dr. Fields looked at the grasp with a frown before her brown eyes darted up to Matt. "You've obviously made a good first impression," she murmured dryly.
"She's hurt and alone in a strange place," Matt reminded her, "can't blame her for wanting to stick with the first friendly face she's seen."
"Right, well you can't stay with her Bluestone."
Matt could feel tiredness dragging at his body, he remained soaked and cold and knew he probably only retained consciousness because of adrenaline. He needed to go home, change into dry clothes and get some heat back into him.
Matt looked to the woman warily. He had no idea what to say to her.
"Alright," Dr. Fields murmured, "tell you what, you bring her to a bed and I'll get her something to help her sleep."
Matt frowned, he knew the woman needed rest but it seemed like a deception, the good doctor knocking her out so he could sneak off. Matt reminded himself that he didn't know this woman and this was the best place for her. He nodded reluctantly and allowed the nurse to lead them out of the room and up the corridor.
Twenty minutes later Matt departed from the hospital, leaving the unnamed woman unconscious in a bed on a crowded ward, and hooked up to a drip of clear fluids. He should have felt relieved but he only felt a tinge of guilt.
The detective called down a cab and headed for home, taking care to call Elisa en route and assure her that he and the woman were still alive.
Elisa berated Matt for his stupidity in plunging into a lake in the middle of winter before joking that he'd better take care not to lose his fingers to frostbite. Matt had jested back rudely that there would be other appendages he would fear losing before his fingers. Elisa had suggested that his humour must mean he was good and well and then suggested he had purposely half-drowned himself to escape the paperwork of a homicide. Satisfied that Elisa could carry on without him and wasn't angry with him, Matt had ended the call and paid his cab fare.
The detective headed up the brown apartment block he called home to a modest apartment on the eighth floor that only too recently had been damaged by an explosive and an overeager Broadway throwing a criminal about the place.
Matt wondered how long it would be before his neighbours demanded he left. He couldn't decide what interfered with his personal life more- crime or fantasy? Considering the nude girl with feathers on her back he was aiming towards fantasy right now.
With relief, Matt abandoned his clothes in a damp heap on his bedroom floor before donning a new pair of trousers and shirt and huddling up to the electric fire in his living room. He realised it was the first he had bothered to turn the thing on as he rarely spent time in his living room to enjoy it. He wasted a few selfish minutes in front of the fire before heading through the open planned living room to the kitchenette and fixing himself up a quick microwave dinner.
Matt returned to the office as morning headed into noon. By then Elisa had called it quits and headed home to bed. Given her late night trouble Matt couldn't blame her. He spent a few tedious hours adding notes to hers with regards to the late Jimmy and then writing up a report on the mysterious woman from the park.
By three p.m. Matt was ready to call it quits but fate had other plans for him.
Matt looked up from his desk tiredly at the blonde officer who looked back at him anxiously. "Yes?" he queried wearily.
"The hospital's on the phone for you," she explained, "line two."
Matt's eyes widened as he lifted up the receiver on his desk and hit the flashing number two, knowing it couldn't be good.