The Elves in the Alley
Part One: Cremation
It's not unusual for those who work crime scenes to refer to burned bodies as 'crispy critters', but nobody here had done so. Temperance Brennan saw why as the ME moved back from the first body. She felt Booth stiffen beside her, his rage almost a palpable thing. As little as a year ago, she herself would not have been so moved by the sight of those tiny bones, with a few shreds of blackened flesh and fabric clinging to them. She would have reasoned that, across the world, children died unnoticed on a daily basis, and were conceived and born with equal carelessness in even greater numbers. But now, with Christines' tiny face a constant in her mind, she felt a flash of pure hatred for whoever could do such a thing.
Primal instinct. She thought. I am a mother now, my perceptions are changed. The death of a child has become personal.
The ME explained. "I know this is recent, it only happened tonight. But these bodies are too far gone for me to do anything with them. I, we, thought that your expertise was needed, Dr Brennan. The other one's over there."
The other body huddled against the alley wall. It was the same size, perhaps a little larger. It was hard to tell with certainty, as even with the lights the police had brought, little detail could be seen.
"Where did the fire start?" Booth asked.
"Fires." This was a woman, a tall, robust brunette in a firefighters' uniform. "I'm the Fire Investigation Officer at the station that got the call. There are two seats of fire, one for each body, and the fires didn't spread. They were confined to the victims. I can't find any incendiary devices, or any obvious trace of accelerant. I'll keep looking, but if I didn't know better, I'd have to say this was spontaneous combustion!"
"Spontaneous Human Combustion is a myth." Brennan pointed out. "Every supposed case which has been properly investigated has revealed an external cause for the fire. Someone set these bodies alight."
"And they did it after they were dead." The ME pointed out. "To this one at least." He pointed to the body Brennan had seen first, the one on the middle of the alley. "Cause of death for this one was GSW to the back of the head. While kneeling, if I'm any judge."
"Execution style." Booth's voice was ragged, guttural with anger. "Who executes a kid?"
The ME thought better of answering directly, saying instead. "I think the other one was also shot, but in the chest. At least, there are injuries to the ribs which look like GSW. In the morning, the CSUs are going to look for any slugs -we won't find them in this light.
"We did find these, though!"
He passed over some evidence bags. One contained several swabs. "One from each blood pool we found." Another held a semi-automatic pistol, Booth recognised it as a SIG-Sauer model, with a silencer screwed into the barrel. The third held a thin wooden stick, about fifteen inches long.
"We found the gun near the head-shot victim." The ME told them. "The stick was further up the alley, over against the wall. I picked it up because it doesn't seem to belong here -it's not your normal city litter."
"Were there any witnesses?" Brennan asked, knowing that Booth would normally ask this question if he were not so angry and shaken.
A uniformed officer, who'd been hovering on the edge of the conversation, came forward. Most of the people here had their TVs on, and didn't hear anything. But an old lady on the third floor says she heard some popping noises and some flashes of light. She thought it was kids playing laser tag or something – didn't think anything of it. This is a good neighbourhood, everybody has jobs, does OK. People keep themselves to themselves, so nobody thought to look out until they saw the fires.
"Seems as soon as people started looking out of windows and yelling, the fires went out, pouf! Like that. Last thing anybody heard was a loud bang."
The fire investigator shook her head. "No fire I ever heard of could burn two bodies this badly in minutes, then just simply be put out, snuffed, immediately. It's not possible!"
"Then there will be another explanation." Brennan said firmly. "In the meantime, have all this taken to the Jeffersonian. Booth, we need to go home, the babysitter is already on overtime!"
Her uncharacteristic humour was enough to shake Booth out of his angry brooding. Even so, Brennan was aware that he got up several times in the night to check on Christine. She was pleased.
The big man shook his head. "We got to get him to a doctor!" He told the blonde woman. She made a dismissive gesture with one scarlet-nailed hand.
"A muggle doctor would be worse than useless." She said flatly. "We need a Healer, but one who can be discreet. I need time to find one. The potion will hold him for a while, just take care of him."
The man's iron muscles tensed under his ebony skin. "Jeez, lady, I've seen hard but you'd give adamantium a run! His arm looks like it's gonna fall off any minute, and sooner or later they're gonna smell him in the next apartment. You damn well better hurry, because if he dies, I'm not going down for it alone!"
Arastoo Vaziri had clearly worked through the night, but gave his report in a crisp, professional manner.
"I cleaned off the skeletons, and separated out the other material for Dr Saroyan and Dr Hodgins." He told them. "One of the victims was killed with a single shot to the back of the skull at a downward angle. The bullet exited through the hard palate and came out of the mouth, dislocating the jaw as it did so.
"The second appears to have been shot twice through the body, but at an upward angle.
"That's all I had time to do, except for one thing. Neither of the victims was a child."
"You're sure?" Booth was intense.
"Positive, I couldn't make that kind of mistake, Agent Booth. You couldn't, not after having worked with Dr Brennan for so long. The cranial sutures are completely fused, which doesn't happen until adulthood. Also, with children that small, you'd expect them to still have some milk teeth, but all the teeth in both jaws are permanent, and there are no unerupted rear molars – wisdom teeth. These were adults, despite their size."
Booth gave a wry grin. "I shouldn't feel relieved, people are dead. But I do!"
Brennan gripped his hand. "Of course you do. The urge to protect the young is highly developed in all mammals."
"OK," Dr Saroyan said. "We've got work to do, everyone!"
They did their work. They did it quickly and thoroughly. So much so that Camille had to call a lunchtime meeting.
"Right!" She said. "Who wants to start?"
There was a silence, then Hodgins jumped into the gap.
"I managed to isolate various traces and particulates from the skin and fabric samples you gave me." He said. "A lot of it was what you'd expect in an alley but there were other things.
"Flower pollen, for instance, from Asiatic lilies and hybrid tea-roses. Not much help, because they can come from anywhere. A beeswax-based furniture polish that doesn't match any commercially-available formula and could be home-made.
"But I did find traces of vegetable matter that I identified as coming from this!" He flipped an image from his tablet onto the plasma screen. The picture was of something that looked a lot like a carrot, but with a creamy-white skin.
"Pastinaca sativa, the common parsnip!" Hodgins announced. "A root vegetable resembling a carrot. Now while it is grown in some places in America, it's not common and not used much. In England, on the other hand, it's quite popular, especially roasted and served as part of a Sunday lunch.
"Which brings me to another trace I found. Camellia sinensis, or Indian tea. Specifically, an Assam blend marketed by a British company called Twinings.
"Finally, there's this!" He flipped another image onto the screen, this one of a badly-scorched fabric tag. "The textile remains found were consistent with common cotton towels, but this tag was still attached to one of them. It's badly burned, but under UV..."
The image changed, revealing printing on the tag. Most of it was too small to be read, but the word Tesco was clearly visible.
"Tesco is the name of a major British supermarket chain." Hodgins told them. "I've checked, and they don't have any Tesco stores in the US, though they do operate a small chain of foodstores called Fresh & Easy across California, Nevada and Arizona."
"So you're saying our victims are British?" Booth asked.
"I'm saying," said Hodgins carefully, "that they're likely to have been in England shortly before they died."
"What do you have, Seeley?" Camiile asked.
Booth shrugged. "We checked the gun. It's a SIG-Sauer P226 Tactical nine mil. It still has a serial number, we identified it as one of a batch sold to a company called Changeling Securities in 2000. We're following up on that.
"There were prints on the gun, but they're not in the system. If Hodgins is right about the English connection, it could be worth asking Interpol and Scotland Yard to check. We also checked the magazine clip and found some other prints. Those are in the system, they belong to a former Recon Marine named Ralph Cole, so we're checking up on him, too.
"The silencer was something else. It was home-made. Special Forces soldiers get taught how to make silencers out of all kinds of stuff. They're usually only good for four or five shots, but it explains why nobody heard anything."
"And that," said Camille, "is everything we have that makes any sense! From here on in, it gets weird! Dr Brennan?"
Brennan's voice was flat, almost inflectionless. "As Dr Vaziri reported, the skeletons are of adults, one male, the other female. However, I have not been able to ascertain anything else about them that fits with anything else known to me.
"They are not Pygmies, in fact the skeletons do not match the parameters of any known ethnicity. Similarly, I was unable to find any traces of achondroplasia, growth hormone deficiency, malnutrition or any other medical cause to account for their small size. The victims were both about three feet tall, with disproportionately large heads, hands and feet. The eye-sockets were also too large in proportion to the skulls.
"Cause of death in both cases is, however, quite clear. The male died from a single gunshot wound to the back of the head. Size of the wound is consistent with the pistol recovered at the scene. The female appears to have been shot twice, through the body, from the front but at an upward angle.
"That is all I have for now."
"It gets worse." Camille said. "The few bits of tissue left were too degraded for DNA analysis, but I got some bone samples and was able to isolate mitochondrial DNA.
"It's not human."
There was a moments' silence, then Hodgins gave whoop of pure glee.
"I told you!" He shouted. "I told you they were here! Wow! We've got alien skeletons right in this lab!"
"That's ridiculous!" Brennan snapped. "It must be human. If there were aliens on Earth, they would establish proper relations."
"Because that's what the Cybermen and the Daleks did a few years back, right?" Booth asked her.
"I don't deny that there are aliens, Booth." Brennan allowed. "But that of itself is not sufficient to give credibility to all of Hodgins' conspiracy theories."
"Hold your horses!" Camille interrupted. "I said the DNA wasn't human. I didn't say it wasn't from Earth. Look, all life forms on Earth share some of their DNA, right? The percentage difference between a human and a dinosaur isn't all that great, mathematically.
"Well, our victims' DNA is different enough to mark them out as not being the same species as us, but not so different as to make them aliens."
"How do you know?" Hodgins was obstinate. "If they seeded life on this planet, wouldn't they have used their own DNA as a starting point?"
"In 2003," Brennan began, acting as if Hodgins had never spoken, "skeletal remains were discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. They were of a previously unknown species of hominid, small-boned and under four feet tall. They have been designated Homo floresiensis, but there is still debate about whether they constitute a new species or not.
"It is possible our victims are in some way related to this species."
"I heard of that!" Angela said. "Some of the scientists were calling them 'Hobbits', like in Lord of the Rings."
"I am not familiar with that work." Brennan admitted. "But Booth does have the DVDs of the movies. The Hobbits depicted in the movie do not resemble Homo floresiensis except in height. The skeletons we have here do share some traits in common with the archaeological specimens, except that the crania are much more developed.
"Angela has attempted to reconstruct a face from the less-damaged of the two skulls."
Angels looked less than comfortable as she fiddled with her tablet.
"My software is configured for human faces, so I had to make some adjustments. It won't be a hundred percent accurate."
Accurate or not, the face was unusual. It was more or less round, completely hairless - "There were no hair traces on the bodies." Angela explained – with a wide mouth and oversized, bulging eyes.
Everyone was quiet for a moment, then Hodgins said. "Damn! That's not right! The cranium should be bigger and the face smaller. And the eyes should be all black."
Angela sighed. "This isn't a Grey, honey. Sorry."
"Oh, well." Hodgins shrugged. "It doesn't matter, anyway. The men in black suits'll be along soon to take the evidence and wipe all our memories."
"Not men," said a new voice, a soft alto, from behind them, "and the store told me this suit was charcoal grey."
They all turned as one. The newcomer was a woman, slightly over the middle height, with a curvaceous figure, a strong-boned, attractive face and a mane of thick, wavy brunette hair.
Booth got to his feet. "Agent Halliwell!" He said. "What are you doing here? Everyone, this is Agent Piper Halliwell from the Justice Department. We met at a conference last year."
"Hello again, Agent Booth." Piper shook his hand, then gave a grimace. "This is a little awkward, Agent Booth. I'm afraid I was less than honest with you when we met, but there were good reasons. I don't actually work for the Justice Department. Here's my real badge."
The wallet looked standard enough, except Booth didn't recognise the leather it was made from. The silver badge inside, though, was not the familiar shield shape. It was a circle with a five-pointed star inside it. Booth read the writing etched around the circle, then checked the ID card opposite. It bore the same logo and a photograph of Piper that Booth could swear gave him a grin and a friendly wink He looked up.
"United States Federal Bureau of Sorcery?" He asked, frankly disbelieving.
"That's us." Piper confirmed. "Used to be the North American Federal Bureau of Sorcery, but Canada decided to set up their own Ministry of Magic in the '90's.
"Just so we're clear, the FBS is the agency that governs, regulates and enforces the law for the magical community in the US."
Even Hodgins had nothing to say until Brennan stood up and said firmly. "Nonsense. There is no such thing as magic. How did you get past Security?"
"Disillusionment Charm for the staff, Opening Spell on the doors." Piper told her. "I was told to expect scepticism from you, Dr Brennan. Might I remind you that before 2008, you would have said with equal conviction that there were no such things as hostile alien robots?"
"I wouldn't have." Hodgins managed past a jaw that appeared terminally dropped.
Piper ignored him, focusing on Booth. "We don't have time to waste convincing people. Agent Booth, take this card, go into your office and phone that number. Do it now."
Booth took the card, looked at it, blinked, swallowed hard and headed off without another word. A few moments later, they heard his raised voice from the office. He seemed to be expostulating, but they couldn't make out the words.
Nobody else seemed to know what to do. Brennan was still glaring at Piper as if the womans' very existence offended her. Hodgins fidgeted, and Angela jabbed him in the ribs, knowing full well that he was itching to ask Piper to do some magic. Sweets, who had been sitting quietly in a corner throughout the meeting, was now watching everyone narrowly.
Finally, Piper moved closer to the large screen, studying the image on it. She turned to Angela. "Your reputation is well deserved, Ms Montenegro. Given the poor materials you had and the fact that your database has no information on House-elves, that's a remarkable first attempt."
"What did I miss?" Angela was curious in spite of herself.
Piper shrugged. "You've made the ears human-shaped and too small. They're shaped more like elephant ears and are much larger. Also you've given her a snub nose when it should be long and pointed.
"Don't look so downcast, you couldn't have known."
At that point, Booth came back into the room. "Well, it looks like we're gonna have to work with you." He told Piper sourly. He turned to the rest of the team. "We're to co-operate with Agent Halliwell and her people fully. This comes right from the top. I've just had a kinda difficult conversation with Colonel Steve Rogers!"
"The Steve Rogers?" Hodgins looked like he was about to explode. "The Director of SHIELD?"
"The same." Booth allowed himself a wry grin to Brennan. "At least we'll be able to tell Christine that her Dad once got reamed out by Captain America!"
"That's hardly calculated to show Christine her father in a creditable light." Brennan opined. "But surely SHIELD does not give credence to this magic?"
"The FBS works quite closely with SHIELD, we have done for the last four years." Piper told them.
"I think, everyone," Sweets put in, speaking for the first time, "that we ought to bear in mind that Colonel Rogers has seen a great deal more than any of us. Questions of seniority aside, his experience alone should persuade us to take this seriously."
"OK, OK!" Camille took charge. "If we have to work with you, Agent Halliwell, then we have to. But if I see one piece of evidence of a con job, I'll bounce you out of here personally!"
"How sweet of you." Piper replied dryly. "But you won't be working with me. As Dr Hodgins had already surmised, this matter originated in England, so we've brought over some consultants from their Ministry of Magic, you'll be working with them." She went went to the door and two more people came in at her call.
A woman and a man, standing close together and holding hands in a manner that spoke of a long and close relationship. The woman was about 5' 4", slender and small-boned, with a moderately pretty face and a wealth of brunette hair neatly done into a French plait. She wore low-heeled, sturdy shoes, dark slacks and a white blouse under a tan raincoat. As Booth met her brown eyes, he saw a ferocious intelligence that he instinctively knew was equal to Brennans'.
The man was at least a foot taller, and powerfully-built. He had a sharp-featured face with a long nose, a full mouth that seemed to be perpetually grinning and a pair of penetrating, steady blue eyes, all topped with a thick mop of flame-red hair. He was wearing sneakers, jeans, a white T-shirt and a brown leather jacket, under which Booth's practised eye caught the outline of a shoulder holster.
Piper was speaking again. "This is Mrs Hermione Jean Granger Weasley, probably the worlds' foremost expert on House-elves. What she doesn't know about their biology, habits, history, lifestyle and culture isn't, so I'm told, worth knowing. She should be able to provide useful insights.
"She's accompanied by her husband, Senior Auror Ronald Bilius Weasley. Aurors are wizards employed in law enforcement, and Mr Weasley carries the rank of Detective Inspector in the London Metropolitan Police. He is also an Authorised Firearms Officer in the same force. He is here to officially represent the Ministry of Magic.
"Now I've taken up quite enough of your time, so I'll leave you to your work. Ron has my number if you need to reach me."
With that, she turned and left the room. For a long while, nobody said anything, then Hodgins ventured:
"Well, you don't look like a witch and wizard!"
Hermiones' grin had the effect of transforming her face from pretty to something on the cusp of beauty. "What were you expecting?" Her voice was low-pitched and sweet. "Pointy hats and black robes? I threw the hat out when I finished school, but I do have a little black dress at home!"
"Don't we all?" Angela murmured.
"As for robes," Ron said airily, "my Dad wears 'em all the time, but I can't be doing with them. Keep falling over the bloody things!"
"Well," Camille said, forestalling Hodgins' next question. "We'd better brief you in!"
That took only a little while – the two English consultants grasped everything with the rapidity of a pair of powerful minds.
"Right!" Said Hermione firmly. Booth noticed that her voice had changed, rising in pitch and becoming a little strident. "The House-elves were definitely from England. Dr Hodgins found evidence that the towels are British, and all the stuff on them came from a British household, but the towels themselves are the real proof."
"How can that be?" Brennan asked. So far she had avoided speaking directly to either Ron or Hermione, but this flat assertion was too much for her.
Hermione turned to her and explained. "Wearing towels or pillowslips for clothing is the mark of a bound or enslaved House-elf. It's been illegal to keep bound elves in America since your Civil War, and the towels and the trace on them are definitely English."
"Hold on a minute!" Angela was shocked. "You mean they were slaves?"
Hermione grimaced and sighed. "So much depends on what you mean by slave, I suppose. Look, when I first found out about House-elves, I was a teenager from a liberal upper-middle-class background. I was shocked and appalled and all the rest of it." She sighed again. "I was like 14 or 15, so wet behind the ears it was a wonder I hadn't drowned myself, and I'd found a mission! I tried to start an organisation – the Society for the Protection of Elvish Workers, I called it. Everybody laughed at me, I thought they were all being horrible fascists until my darling Ron – only about three years later – kindly pointed out to me that the acronym was SPEW! I was all on fire to liberate these poor oppressed creatures any way I could. In short, I made a complete fool of myself!
"Then after I left school and came to work for the Ministry, I wanted to do it again, but properly. This time, Ron bullied me into doing some research before I went off at half-cock. I found out that, at best, twenty per cent of House-elves actually wanted to be free. Only those that were bound to families that abused or mistreated them.
"You see, House-elf culture is centred round an ideal of selfless, loyal service as its own reward. Nothing makes a House-elf happier than seeing a job well done and being thanked or praised for it. You can make a House-elf adore you for life just by giving them a simple gift as a mark of their service.
"But if you set them free, they see it as a disgrace. They blame themselves, their work must have been bad, they must have been bad. It invariably leads to depression, and can escalate to alcoholism, drug addiction or even suicide. Only those who have served a thankless, abusive master for a very long time see freedom as a meaningful alternative. Even then, they're so keen to work that they'll happily let themselves be exploited.
"So in the end, all I could do was change the law so that an elf who wants to be freed has to be, and to outlaw abuse and impose a duty of care on the masters."
Ron cleared his throat loudly, and Hermione gave him a grin. "I'm going on again, aren't I, darling?
"Well, to come to the point, there must have been an English wizard in that alley, and he must have been the master of at least one of these elves, because only his master could have ordered the elf to stay still and be shot that way!
"That offence alone is worth a life-sentence in Azkaban Prison."
"Right!" Ron spoke up. "But there was also an American wizard." He held up the stick that had been found in the alley. "Aurors have to do a course in basic wandlore, and I've been looking at this one. It's an American wand, has to be because British Wand Regulations stipulate that no wand can be more than thirteen inches long, except under exceptional circumstances, in which case the wand must be magically tagged, which this one isn't. It's also a quarter of an inch thicker than UK regulations allow.
"This is sixteen inches, springy, hickory wood with, unless I'm very much mistaken, a Sasquatch hair core. Which means it was made in the North – the South runs to magnolia or cottonwood, sequoia sometimes, and they don't use Sasquatch hair.
"Which means this wand was made in either Chicago or Seattle. Those are the only two places up here with a professional wand-maker, and this is a professionally-made wand. The maker will know who he or she sold it to, but they'll have to see or handle it first. I'll talk to Piper.
"But right now..."
He set the hickory wand on a table, took out a smaller one from his own pocket, and intoned "Prior Incantatem!"
The wand on the table shifted a little, then a ghostly red beam shot from one end of it. A few seconds later, a faint image of a silvery disc sprang from the same end.
"A Stun Hex, and a Shield Charm before that." Hermione noted.
Ron nodded. "No earlier than ten last night, no later than midnight."
Hermione looked at him. "I'm going to have to go to the scene, aren't I?"
Ron nodded. "'Fraid so, pet. You've got more grasp of that Third Eye stuff than I do. With Dr Brennans' permission, I'll have a look at the victims. I know more about guns than you do, and since they were shot, I'm more suited to that bit."
"Knew Harry should've come!" Hermione muttered, then turned to Booth. "Agent Booth, would you be so kind as to take me to the crime scene?"