JULY 23, 1998

10:17 PM


"What the hell happened here?"

Bravo Team stood staring at the crashed van, illuminating the wreck with their official department-issued flashlights. Something like a steel cage had been crushed and crumpled into a knot. The ground was littered with shards of broken glass that glinted unevenly.

"What the hell happened here?" Enrico repeated, a little more deliberately than before. Richard gave Rebecca a pat on the back.

"That means start talking, rookie," he said helpfully.

Rebecca jumped at his touch. She gave a nervous half-nod before stepping forward to take a closer look at the vehicle. Where to start? she wondered, apprehensive. What if this whole thing is a test? What if they take every rookie out here to look at a busted-down van and see what they say? Will they kick me off the squad if I fail? She forced herself to focus and look outwards. "The skid marks on the road indicate the van came to an abrupt stop," she declared.

"What kind of van?" Enrico prompted.

"A...an armored car," she said, looking again at the steel reinforcements. Enrico's grunt of approval encouraged her. "A private transport, maybe a military convoy. It looks like the driver braked to avoid hitting an animal and lost control. There's a...a..." Rebecca caught sight of something trapped under the door and halted, stunned.

"T-there's a person under there, sir."

"Eh?" A few others cast their meager light towards the front, where an unnaturally pale and stiff hand clutched upright at the air. Enrico had scarcely seen it when he jerked out his two-way radio. "Oh, shit."

All thoughts of meeting expectations flew from Rebecca's mind as she ran to the scene. Even as she grasped the hand she knew it was too late, knew there wouldn't be a pulse or so much as a trace of warmth. Her heart sank and for a moment she was paralyzed with guilt. To die slowly on a crooked forest backroad, alone and helpless...

She looked to Edward for reassurance. Although Richard was the Bravo member officially appointed to assist her, he was so careful and considerate about her feelings that Rebecca couldn't always take him at his word. Edward was always blunt and straightforward, and (she'd die before she admitted it) kind of handsome, too. But she had no sooner glanced up than she realized something was very wrong. Everyone was suddenly on their hands and knees around the van, frowning. Forest had already opened his work kit and put on a pair of rubber gloves.

After a few heaving efforts Kenneth and Richard pulled away part of the windshield. They were left gaping in slackjawed horror at the remains. "What the everloving Christ?!"

The rest of Bravo Team gathered behind them. Rebecca hurried around to look, but Richard held her back. "Hold on a second, kiddo. I don't think--"

"Let go! I'm not..."

Two bodies lay dismembered in what was left of the front seat. Blood, bone and viscera was splattered around them. The man in the driver's seat had had his throat torn out, exposing part of his spine. Red streaks covered the carriage, but the steel restraints had been broken. Something yellow and viscous that Rebecca immediately identified as part of a liver was smeared on the close grass.

"Fuck," said Forest, who wasn't very original with swear words.

Rebecca felt her knees shake but stayed firm, determined to prove herself strong. She averted her eyes and tried to look for something, anything that wasn't covered in blood. A clipboard wedged in the steering wheel caught her attention. "Hey," she said, squirming out of Richard's grip and reaching for the clipboard. "It looks like a dossier. This must have been a police transport."

"Dossier? What's it say?"

There was a mug shot of a surly-looking man in a wifebeater. " 'Coen, William Abraham III'," she read. "Former second lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, court-martialed on..."

"Coen? The Marine murderer Coen?" Kenneth asked disbelievingly. "Out here? What's the most hated man in America doing in the middle of nowhere?"

Enrico bent low, turning away and wincing at the smell. "The feds probably didn't want it to be any more of a circus than it is already. Jesus, what happened here...?"

"I don't see his body," said Edward with a sneer. He had spent a few years in the Army and had a notorious grudge against Marines. "The scumbag must've killed them and escaped after the crash."

"Are you blind? A man didn't do this."

"Marines are brutal sons of bitches!"

"Brutal sons of bitches with canine teeth?" Enrico snapped.

Rebecca held the clipboard tightly, not wanting to look at the carnage again. As she gazed at the photograph she found herself strangely drawn to the face in the photograph. Something about Lieutenant Coen's scowl seemed to accuse her personally. Did you do this? Rebecca wondered. If you didn't, where did you go...?

"It looks just like the cannibal murders! It makes perfect sense if Marines are behind all this, the public would never believe it and they could stay outside the law--"

"Dewey, shut your goddamn mouth."

Despite her best efforts Rebecca had begun to hyperventilate. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself with rational thoughts. There was nothing to worry about, no reason to be scared. The crime had already taken place and now she only had to do her job. Everything would be all right. Rebecca took several deep breaths and pretended she was her idol, the beautiful and fearless rear security agent on Alpha Team...