Back despite popular demand! I brought this story through some major changes, so Chapter 2 and 3 are being replaced.
As the tale is written, the fair tribe were sometimes called Dryodoroi, People of the Trees, and sometimes Tartoroi, People of Tartarus. It was told that they worshiped Death itself, in the name of Thauotor and the form of a great black cat, and that the lions and leopards- still living in the mountains in those days- fought for them. For those who entered the woods, from soldiers in arms to emissaries bearing gifts, were set upon not only by the fearsome men of the forest but by beasts, and the most terrible of all were great black cats. They were as large as lions, and had fangs larger still. Their guile seemed greater than men's, their stealth supernatural. Weapons of bronze and iron did them no harm, so that many spoke of the legend of the Nemean lion. Scores and hundreds of men were found killed. Some were killed but not consumed, and others were mutilated like eunuchs.
"If there's one thing I hate," the Tick muttered, "it's a coroner who enjoys his job."
"On average, we have three deaths by violence a week," said the Indian coroner pleasantly. "Lately, numbers have been... somewhat up."
"By how much?" said the Tick.
"Nine deaths a week?"
"Ah... no. Nine more."
"So- the homicide rate triples," said the Flea, "and no one files so much as a report?- Ow!" The Tick struck him in the neck with a servo-augmented finger flick.
"Investigations are ongoing," the coroner said. "It would be premature to call in outside help."
"Well, what are the causes of death?" said the Tick.
"Mostly stabbing, beating, strangling. Some shooting," said the coroner.
There was a pause, then the Flea said, "Anything else, like... odd?"
The coroner frowned, then sighed, sounding halfway between anxiety and relief. "I was not to tell anyone about this. It hasn't even been written up in a report. But, I think maybe it is what you are looking for." He opened a drawer, then lifted a sheet that covered the body within, in the middle. The Flea gave a stifled cry, while the Tick rocked on his heels in surprise. "Looks," the Tick said, "like a case of overbite." He glanced to his partner, expecting the inevitable jokes to start coming, but the Flea was only shuffling back.
"What happened?" the Tick said. "What was it done with? Who- Holy kaka! That's a service tatoo! This bastard was a peace keeper!"
"Yes," the coroner said, "Corporal Jean Petain. He was second-in-command of the Cygani quarter. We found him the day before yesterday. The official report is being delayed while we perform a more detailed examination. Between you, me and the departed, the report's done even so, but somebody isn't ready to accept the findings. They keep saying, double check, do another test, double check..."
"Yeah," the Tick said uncertainly, "so what's the report?"
"These wounds," said the coroner, "were inflicting by blunt cutting instruments, applied with great force, more or less at the same time. It was accompanied by a pulling force, enough to stretch the skin and muscle tissue as they were being sheared." The Flea gulped, then covered a burp. "Then there's these scratches below. Again, made with blunt edges applied with great force. Four parallel wound tracks on each side, plus a fifth at an angle to the others."
"It looks like it could have been done with someone with blades on his finger tips," the Tick said.
"That's what the team is leaning toward," the coroner said. He was already covering the body and shutting the drawer. "But I know better. The wounds were inflicted with too much force, and not enough of an edge. No human could have done this. It was an animal!"
The coroner jumped at the sound of an opening door. The exotroopers turned to see a woman entering, blond, well-tanned and wiry. Her age was hard to judge, and she had an unmistakeable air of imperious authority. The Flea shied back at her approach. "What's going on here?" she said.
"These men are Serbs, making a routine inspection," the coroner said.
The woman looked them over. "I am Lt. Dr. Irena Kohls, chief health inspector for the clinic. Who are you?"
"I'm the-" The Tick caught himself. "I am Corporal Lazar Kosmolets. This is Mihan Josevic."
Kohls looked at their baggy sleeves. "Finbacks! With wrist grenade launchers! Get out, or I'll report you for armed trespass into an international medical facility!"
The Flea started to turn tail, but the Tick grabbed him by the elbow. "We were just leaving," he said. "We might be back later." Then he swung around, guiding his partner through a dignified exit. As they left, Kohls glared at the coroner.
The Flea shuddered. "That... that was just... who would do a thing like that?"
"What," said the Tick, "like we haven't done worse?"
"Never like that!" protested the Flea. "I could never do that to another man!"
"Guess you have a soft spot," said the Tick. He stopped. Behind them, they could hear very loud profanity in what was just recognizable as Kohl's voice. They looked at each other.
Princip sighed as he surveyed the assembled peacekeepers. "I will remind you are my country's guests,and I am in overall command," he said, beginning to pace. "Your commanders have promised cooperation with my investigation of the death of your man. Do not think, because I wear a mask, that I cannot read your faces. You were squadmates with Cpl. Petain. You knew him. You knew what he was doing. You know something about what happened to him." He whirled at the sound of a snicker, to see one man looking studiously straight face, while another beside him glared.
Princip stalked to the pair, glancing at their badges. "You were on the same shift with him. You would have spent more time than anyone with him. I want answers, not decorum! Was he a blackmarketer?" No response. "Did he have a lover?" Eyes flickered. "Was he a homosexual?" Eyes dropped.
Finally, the man who had been glaring blurted out: "All right, all right, I'll tell you as much as I know. You gotta understand how things are, first. Any one of us, as likely as not, he's in something. Among ourselves, we don't knock ourselves out trying to hide, and we don't pry, either. And, if there's a big problem, we try to handle it ourselves. Like, if we know a guy's getting a little on the side when he's off duty, we look around it, no harm, no foul. But if he goes too far to keep it coming, we give him less space, and if that's not enough, we let just enough get out so he gets sent where he can't cause more trouble. Then there's the two most important things: We don't take from each other, and we don't get into stuff above our own pay grade- the kind of thing it takes a higher-up to do."
Princip inclined his helmet. "Then Petain broke the rules...?"
"Yeah, and in more ways than you might be thinking," the peacekeeper said warily. "We don't know exactly which way he swung, but he liked 'em young. Not `forbidden fruit' young, but more like `not even ripe'. But that wasn't the worst of it. He liked to find things, and he liked letting people know what he knew even more. That was how he stayed on top as long as he did, but he would do it whether he needed something or not- like he enjoyed making people squirm. It got so a lot of people were ready to fink on him no matter what he knew. But then he managed to get himself a piece of something bigger- higher-up big. We didn't know what, and we didn't want to. After that, there was nothing we could do by finking. But we didn't mind. Going up the food chain meant he spent less time on us. An' we knew, just from knowin' him, that he was going to mess with whoever he got in with same as with us, and they were going to make him pay sooner and a lot harder than the higher-ups ever would."
Princip conferred with the Flea and the Tick as the peacekeepers sullenly departed: "So, the business with Petain seems straightforward enough: He was involved in a criminal enterprise. He took to much for himself. They killed him... perhaps using an exotic animal."
"Yeah," the Flea said, "and if you ask me, that doc was in on it. I say, no man does that..."
"Yes, duly noted," Princip said. "It is time to do more digging. I will pull the UN's files for death reports. I want you to interview the Wildlife and Domestic Animal Management department. Ask especially about big cats. And this evening, I want a patrol through the Cygani quarter. Be visible, but restrained."
He spoke over the channel: "Zaratustra! Have you found anything?"
"No," he said, surveying a small lean-to built in the back of a Yugo bakery van. "But I know where to look."
At the arms shop where Zed had loitered, one of the guards escorted a man with blond hair forward. As soon as he was at the counter, he said in clipped English, "I want to buy guns."
"What kind of guns?" the merchant said warily.
"How big?" the merchant said, now sounding downright suspicious.
"How big you have?"