Of all the females in the Preston/Child novels, I find Margo and Corrie to be my favourites. Someday I'll write a Margo-centric fic, but for now I'm going with Corrie, whom I can relate to a little more than the other.
Consider this a storyline arc that would take place during Dance of Death, before Pendergast set about making sure all those close to him were rendered safe from what was to come.
Consider this a storyline arc that would take place during Dance of Death, before Pendergast set about making sure all those close to him were rendered safe from what was to come.
Plant taxonomy was, Corrie decided, the most frustrating class she had ever taken. She'd chosen it as an option to fulfill her core curriculum because it had sounded interesting, and some of her earlier biology classes had made botany seem almost fun. This, however, wasn't fun—it was misery, it was boring, and it was a waste of her frigging time. She huffed a loud sigh and cast a surreptitious glance around at the others in her lab; there weren't many, six total, all sitting hunched over their stations, eyes fixed on the specimens before them. Corrie looked at the clock mounted over the lab door and inwardly groaned—there were forty-five minutes remaining …
"Problems, Miss Swanson?"
The professor of the Taxonomy course stood before her, a woman of both considerable height and girth with a head of very short, very curly red hair. Her dark eyes, beneath the stylishly thick frames of glasses that fell just shy of being horn-rimmed, regarded Corrie intently as she waited for a reply.
"No, I'm just—"
"Checking to see how much longer you must remain here, mired in the intolerable assignment I've given you." Professor Taves smiled wryly. "You wouldn't be the first."
Corrie, despite herself, smiled back. Taves may have been a firm believer in working her students to the bone, but she also had a sense of humor that made it almost impossible to hate her. Corrie picked up the two small, intricate white handled probes and returned her attention to the plant before her as Taves turned away. She continued with her dissection of the plant, making notes as she did so and wishing futilely as she did so that time would begin to flow faster.
Leaflets narrowly lanceolate, she scrawled in her lab manual a few minutes later, the writing almost unintelligible. Flowers replaced by axillary bulblets, foliage not digitately compound—
She dropped the pen and speared a length of stem with the probe before bringing it to eye level for closer examination. She couldn't tell whether the stem was square-shaped or not, and with a sigh she slipped the small section onto a glass sample slide, stood, and slid it under the lens of the microscope situated to her left. Flicking on all the lights she peered down at the plant and fiddled with the separate sets of dials until it came into perfect focus. The stem definitely wasn't square, but she still couldn't tell if it was covered in fine hairs or if that was just blurring of the image. She lifted her head, blinked fiercely, and looked again to the clock. Wonderful. Half an hour left.
After removing the slide she slumped back down into her chair and scowled at the now dismembered plant. The purpose of this course was to learn how to identify plants by first identifying the separate components, and then keying out those components in accordance to the "Flora of North America" textbook. Plants, however, had many, many components, and keying them all out took considerable patience. Corrie Swanson was not a particularly patient person, and feeling especially irritable this day, she opted to take a short-cut in the assignment. Rather than key out the separate plant parts, she would instead look through the textbook using what she had identified to try and prematurely discern what the plant before her was. It was a futile shot, she knew, and was thus surprised when some ten minutes later she'd found—or so she hoped—the plant in question.
Cicuta mackenzieana—Water Hemlock, she read with an increasing sense of jubilation. Stout marsh plans, with stems to 1.5m high, often more than 1 cm thick; rootstock short, rather thin; tuberous roots hardly developed. Leaflets 5-8cm long, usually less than 5mm wide. Umbels several, 3-8 cm across; fruit 2-2.5 mm long. Lakeshores and bogs; Boreal forest. Very poisonous.
She sat back quickly after reading the last bit, jerking her hand away from the bits of flora scattered all over her table. She looked up to find Taves watching her with a wide, knowing grin. "I do believe Miss Swanson has identified our plant," the instructor announced to the class. The other students looked expectantly at Corrie, most with palpable expressions of relief because they no longer had to struggle through the identification themselves.
"It's water hemlock. I think." she added.
"It is." The professor said, nodding. "If the rest of you will turn to page 525 in your text, you will find what particular aspect of this plant Miss Swanson just discovered. Water hemlock is extremely poisonous—the most poisonous plant in North America, in fact. The poison is cicutoxin, which is located in the many horizontal chambers of the root. Cicutoxin is a potent, noncompetitive gamma-aminobutyric acid receptor antagonist. And no, you don't need to write that particular piece of information down," Taves said with a dry smile as several people, Corrie included, looked at her with a pained expression. She continued, "Cicutoxin is a cholinergic poison, which means that it causes death by disrupting the nervous system. Within 60 minutes of ingestion it causes nausea, emesis and abdominal pain, which in turn lead to tremors and seizures."
"But it's okay to touch the plant … right?" Asked the boy seated on Corrie's left. The hesitation in his question belied the impassive front he was trying to adopt; a level of uncertain nervousness had appeared in the lab during the professor's explanation.
"Do you honestly think I'd give you a plant to handle that could poison you through touch alone?" When utter silence met this statement, the professor began to laugh. After a moment she quieted, saying between chuckles, "Yes, Mr. Schneder, the specimens I gave you are completely safe to handle. You noticed, of course, that I left out the root portions? When dealing with this plant in the wild, it's imperative that one wear gloves and utilizes the utmost care when handling the root. Even the smallest trace of the toxin can be considered deadly. But I doubt any of you will ever have the occasion to search out and pick water hemlock—at least I hope not."
Scattered laughter met this remark. Taves went on, "I find poisonous plants fascinating, which is why I included water hemlock in your lab assignments. While I assure you that you're safe, you may feel free to wash your hands thoroughly before leaving, and wash your instruments as well. Now, I'd like you to write this down—this will be your homework for tonight." There were audible groans at this; she paused as people retrieved pens, pencils and paper. "I want you to make a list of what you think would be the most definable components of the following poisonous plants as per the information in your textbook: low larkspur, tall larkspur, tall buttercup, arrowgrass and death camas. Are there any questions before I let you all go?"
Someone behind Corrie asked, "Do we have to touch those, too?"
Taves grinned. "No, I've had my fun. Just look them up in the text and write out what I told you. Anything else?"
When nobody ventured a further question, Taves nodded and said with a wave, "Clean up after yourselves, and then be off with you. Have a good weekend, and if anybody comes down with the symptoms of cicutoxin poisoning, you all know where to find me."
"You have a sick sense of humor," a fellow female student joked as everyone else stood and hastily began tidying their lab stations.
"So I've been told," Taves replied. "Rest assured, Miss Ibenza—I haven't lost a student yet to poison."
Corrie swept the scattered bits of plant matter off of her desk into the garbage can and rinsed off the probes under her station sink before sliding them into the small zippered compartment on her backpack. After unplugging the microscope and coiling the cord and then stuffing her text and other paraphernalia into her bag, she stood and gave the professor a little wave of farewell before making her way to the door. She checked the clock as she filed out—Taves was letting them go ten minutes early. Out in the hall it seemed other professors had done the same thing—people were milling about and there was a certain excitement riding the air, the same that was there every Friday afternoon. Corrie herself was beyond relieved—this particular week had been nothing but a pain in the ass, and she was seriously looking forward to some relaxation time. She slung her bag over her shoulder and made a beeline for the nearest exit, meaning to head back to the dorm to start the weekend off the right way.
She halted and swiveled, feeling a scowl creep over her face. There were very few people here that she didn't find to be idiots, but that didn't stop most from trying to talk to her. Worst of all were the boys, who for some reason thought that she ought to feel honored that they deigned to talk to her and when they did talk to her, couldn't stop staring at her chest. She was fast starting to believe that anyone with testicles under a certain age was just a waste of her time.
A boy she vaguely remembered from her English 210: Chaucer class made his way swiftly towards her, weaving awkwardly through people. Corrie felt her scowl deepen. He wasn't bad looking—tall, athletic in build with thick dark hair and blue eyes—but he'd made a point in those first few weeks to sit beside her every morning and pester her with questions that he thought were engaging and that she thought were annoying. Eventually he'd realized that she was anything but interested.
"What do you want?" She asked.
"Some guy sent me to tell you he's waiting outside," the boy said between breaths; it was obvious he'd come running from wherever it was he'd been.
"Some guy?" Corrie narrowed her eyes. While she wasn't the only Goth on the grounds, she was one of the few. She wasn't sure if it was her difference in appearance that attracted boys to her or not, but she was beginning to realize that the male species here behaved differently than those she'd known in Medicine Creek. They didn't avoid her or tease her—well, some did—but went out of their ways to talk to her, eye her up, and make certain invitations. What she'd just been told sounded an awful like one of those propositions she was quickly learning to despise.
"Yeah, he's older. Talks funny, too, like this," he attempted to give a Southern drawl to his words and failed, but Corrie understood despite his attempt. "Drives a really nice car. Really nice. Like, it's a freakin' Rolls."
Corrie's face smoothed as she stared at the boy. This could mean only one thing … "Pendergast," she said with surprise.
The boy nodded, "Yeah, that's his name. So you do know him?"
Corrie ignored his question, instead demanding, "Where is he?"
"Outside the front doors," the boy said, indicating the direction with his thumb over his shoulder. Without another word Corrie brushed past him and strode down the hall, a sense of eager expectation building within her. "You're welcome!" The boy shouted after her, but she ignored that, too.
It had been a while since last she'd seen the man who had become through a bizarre and horrifying turn of events her benefactor-of-sorts. When he did appear, he did so without prior notification, and somehow was able to find her no matter where on campus she happened to be. His visits were brief, with few things said and even fewer learned from her perspective, but she knew the fact he bothered visiting at all meant something. She'd gained some clarity since leaving the hometown she'd referred to as "The Shithole": she did care for Pendergast, an awkward sort of affection for a man who had cared enough about her to make certain her future wouldn't be as bleak as that of her alcoholic mother. For a while she'd been confused as to whether she found him attractive or if she was just drawn to him as a father figure, but she'd left that limbo behind after arriving at her new home. Pendergast, while classically handsome (if you liked geezers), was really not her type—something he'd explained to her in perfect (and kind of insulting) detail, once. And while she liked the fact that his wardrobe, much like hers, was monochromatic, he looked like an undertaker 24/7. Corrie knew that as far as money went, Pendergast was more than comfortable. You'd think with millions at your disposal you'd manage to incorporate some variety into your clothing …
But Pendergast was Pendergast, and he wouldn't be himself without the severe black suits and the antiquated, polite manner of speaking. It was what set him apart from everyone else that Corrie had learned to appreciate, although she'd die before she let him know it. And now as she stood before the double glass doors that served as entrance to Linden Hall, Corrie found suddenly that she was nervous. More than anything, she wanted to show Pendergast that she both deserved and appreciated this opportunity he'd given her—she wanted to make him proud. She was putting more effort now into school than she had ever bothered to before, and it was showing—she was in the upper percentile of the grading average. She would tell him that today, let him know that she wasn't wasting this chance.
She stopped right before the doors and studied her reflection for a quick moment—her hair was loose, falling to the middle of her back, colored purple but darkening in gradients to black at the very ends. Her dark eyes were heavily ringed in the thickest black eyeliner she owned—it was her experience that the more she used, the more intimidating she appeared to the annoying people in her classes. She wore a black shirt that was in fact a mock strait-jacket; there were zippers over every free inch of fabric and the long, buckled straps were swinging free. The faux bondage pants she wore—a complicated mass of more straps and more buckles, some of which connected to the shirt—and black boots with a thick platform heel completed her ensemble. The only accessories she'd bothered with was a bondage collar—thick dark leather with numerous large rings attached, to which a leash could be connected if one so wished—and a gauntlet of tooled leather with three small metal studs along the knuckles.
She gave her image a slight, satisfied nod. She looked like a bitch who wouldn't hesitate to kick ass. She was a bitch. Taking a deep breath, she shouldered her bag and pushed through the entrance doors. Outside she paused and took in the parking lot with a slow turn of the head, spotting what she had dubbed the "Pendermobile" almost immediately. It was parked inconspicuously off to the side of the circular lot, beneath the shade of a towering elm. It wasn't exactly inconspicuous, however—people tended to notice cars like a vintage Rolls Royce. She made a beeline for the car, noticing the small crowd of guys that had gathered near the vehicle and were admiring it. She could make out two people in the car—one in the driver's seat, one situated in the back. Pendergast and that creepy chauffeur of his, Proctor. As she neared she hesitated only briefly, thinking for some reason that the car looked different somehow than it usually did but then immediately dismissing the idea. What did she know about cars, anyways? She reached out, opened the door, and ignored a shouted question from one of the guys in the admiring crowd as she slid inside.
"Miss Swanson," came the dulcet greeting as she closed the door behind her. She looked at Pendergast, seated beside her; he was cloaked in the shadow of the elm tree, but she could see clearly he wore what he always wore, his white blonde hair slicked back in a severe and impeccable style.
"Special Agent Pendergast," she said seriously in return, "How very nice to see you."
She thought she saw a smile flicker across his lips; hard to tell with him sitting in the shadows. "Indeed. I see your grammar has improved somewhat since last we met."
"Nah," she said with a grin, settling her backpack between her feet and leaning back against the plush white leather upholstery. "I'm just, you know, screwing around."
He winced at a certain word she'd chosen like she knew he would, which made her grin even more widely. "'Screwing' isn't a four letter word, by the way." She told him, referring to a discussion they'd had once upon a time about her choice of expletives.
"No, but it certainly carries all the substance of one." As Corrie, stifling a snicker, turned her head to look out the window Pendergast leaned ahead and rapped on the driver's seat. The car began to move immediately, pulling away from the curb and then accelerating smoothly out of the parking lot and leaving a considerably large crowd staring after it.
"So why'd you come?" Corrie asked. "Checking in on me?"
"Something like that." They were in broad sunlight now, having smoothly merged into freeway traffic. Pendergast was staring out his window, leaving Corrie to look at the back of his head.
"Where are we going?"
"You know, you're being even more tight-lipped than usual."
"Am I? Apologies, my dear Miss Swanson." Pendergast turned his head towards her, and for a moment all Corrie could do was stare. Now she could see him clearly, notice the discrepancies, the subtle differences …
"You're not Pendergast." She said stupidly, and felt a sudden electric thrill of fear run through her.
"Ah, but I am." Said this strange man, this man who had moments ago spoken exactly like the man she knew. His voice now was different—it had the same languid drawl, but there was a change in the timbre, in the inflections. "My name is Diogenes Pendergast, and I am the brother of Aloysius Pendergast, Special Agent of the FBI."
There was no denying a resemblance—it was there in the face, in the lines of the nose, in the classic structure of the jaw and cheeks. But the eyes—they weren't the same icy, silvery blue she was familiar with; one eye was brown, and the other was a milky, blind white. Corrie opened her mouth but was speechless, and the man continued smoothly, "If you had been a trifle more vigilant in your observations, you would have noticed the differences in the cars—my brother possesses a '59 Silver Wraith. This, on the other hand, is a '53 Silver Dawn. To some I suppose they appear similar, but the differences to those familiar with Rolls Royce are obvious."
So her instinct had been right …
"But those are merely trivialities, Miss Swanson." How much like the Pendergast she knew he sounded when he said her name! Alarm had flooded through her and she knew, she knew, that Diogenes Pendergast meant her harm. It was evident in the way he spoke, in the trickle of malice that lay so subtly beneath his words. It was in the glint of his mismatched eyes and the shadows of malevolence that lurked in their depths.
"Hey!" She shouted at the driver, and for the first time realized that a partition had at some point been raised between the front of the car and the rear. She could see nothing through it, and that realization brought on a wave of panic. And as though to emphasize her fears, Diogenes Pendergast reached beneath his suit jacket and retrieved something from an inner pocket, lifting it slowly between two fingers and holding it upright so that she could clearly see what it was—
—a hypodermic needle, filled with amber fluid—
"Hey! Stop the car!" Corrie screamed, and falling back in the seat kicked out at the partition. The blow did nothing but send pain radiating in sharp waves up and down her legs. She straightened and yanked at the door handle and found that it wouldn't open, as she knew it wouldn't. Out of options, she braced herself against the door and sat facing her abductor, who had watched her theatrics with a faint smile.
"What the fuck do you want?" She asked belatedly, and despite her best efforts there was a frightened wavering in her voice.
"How quaint of my brother to think he could save you from yourself. Plucking you from the mediocrity of that trailer park, saving you from your mother—rather a study in the ways of redneck white trash, isn't she?—and planting you here, in the hub of culture and higher education. He would make an artist out of you, or perhaps a musician, or maybe one of those literary types who pride themselves on knowing every aspect of the written word. But I don't think you would make it that far, do you? You are your mother's daughter, after all—you're no more refined than she is, even now. And you still haven't recovered from your daddy running away and abandoning you, leaving you in that hellhole of a town with a bunch of illiterate, ill-mannered hicks."
"Shut up," Corrie whispered unevenly, trying not to let what he had said sink in.
"Aloyius has high hopes for you—too high. You're destined to be a failure—how can you not be? Look at your very heritage. Your mother's sole purpose in life is to destroy her liver through alcohol consumption and your father—well, you don't even know where he is. Why did he leave you behind? Were you a bad child? Or did he simply not love you enough to stay?"
"Shut up," Corrie rasped, and furiously blinked back the tears that were seeping over anyways. Every doubt, every secret little shame she'd ever had about herself was being voiced now by a man she didn't even know. The fear was rising in her still, but with it now was a fury, a rage so palpable she could feel it choking her, suffocating her. The desire to flee was being overwhelmed by the desire to stop those hateful words—those words of truth—from flowing out his mouth.
"My brother tried to make a veritable Cinderella out of you—rags to riches, so to speak. Admirable, but I think a gesture made in vain. You can't make a princess out of little rebel redneck."
"Fuck you," she choked, and threw herself across the seat towards him.
Sol's Notes: I realize Corrie wouldn't yet be in college, but I mulled the idea over and decided to utilize poetic license in this case. I can relate to college more than I can high school. I'll continue this when I have time because it'll be easier to build on than the others I experimented with.