A Taste of... The Fall (E&M Investigations Prequel) by LJ Bourne
The cargo plane landed in an early springtime morning in Northern Italy, dew still clinging to the grass and other green things, the sun not fully up yet, but already coloring the sky silver grey and purple. It’d been too long since he’d visited this part of the world. Too long since he enjoyed just the beauty of a place and nothing else. A huge field of deep green grass stretched out beyond the fence surrounding the airbase, all the way to the low, undulating hills that dominated most of the horizon. The tall Alpine peaks of varying heights rising behind the hills were all still capped with at least some snow and they shone in the dazzling first light of the day. Winter still had a hold on the land, but soon those fields would be covered with wildflowers.
Even the severe grey metal-roofed hangars lining the impeccably paved runway couldn’t deflect from the beauty stretching all around. The hangars faded into the background successfully, having been designed that way, just as fatigues are designed with precisely the same thing in mind.
The trouble was that the beauty and freshness, the perfectness of this place faded fast too, just got sucked up into the grey mass that’s been Special Investigator Mark’s Novak thoughts these last couple of weeks. The benches in the windowless cargo plane were hard, and the flight was long. His back and thighs protested when he got up to disembark and he tried not to feel like an old man as he waited for the younger soldiers who flew in with him to jumped down to the tarmac. They all did it with an ease that suggested they hadn’t just spent the whole night cramped in a tight, airless space and sitting on a hard as rock bench. Not that he actually cared. Not really.
The grey mess in his head also brought numbness. Besides, thirty-five was too young to feel this old. Something else was at the root of it. Something he recognized well enough but didn’t want to focus too hard on. It would pass like it always did. He just had to trust the process.
His own disembarkation was less graceful, but the awkwardness was swept away in the breeze that carried the scent of dewy grass, wet earth, misty forest, and even a touch of snow, but that last was faint, almost non-existent. If he could, he’d stand here all day, just taking in the beauty, categorizing it, and storing it away for easy retrieval. Then he might escape the greyness of these thoughts for a day. But, as usual, there was no time for that.
Up in Northern Germany, where he’d just flown in from, it was still winter, but nothing was jarring about walking into this spring morning here. Nothing out of place, nothing to worry about. Nothing that would last. Already the sun was making its way upwards over the rolling hills in the distance. The freshness of the morning wouldn’t last and his reason for being here wouldn’t wait.
The men he’d flown in with were already performing the tasks associated with or prescribed by their arrival here. That’s what he appreciated about the army. You always knew what you were supposed to do, in what order and at what time, because someone else made those choices for you. Order, rules, regulations, and commands. Peace. Weird, that, since their whole purpose was war. Not that he’d seen much of war. Or much of the rest of it. There was never any real order in the work he ended up doing in the army, the calling that pulled him so far away from the reasons why he enlisted in the first place, he hardly even thought of himself as a soldier anymore.
But the clean-shaven, slightly breathless boy standing in front of him sure did. His uniform looked like it came straight from the factory right before he put it on this morning. He saluted with the precision of a drill sergeant.
“They’re waiting for you in the command building, sir,” he said. “I’m to escort you there.”
The boy’s cheeks were red from the cold, or more likely from shaving too vigorously.
“Sir?” he said imploringly after Mark did not comment, too transfixed by the effort to remember whether he ever looked that fresh and proper. Probably not. As per regulation, he wore his uniform today, but it was rumpled and crumpled from the uncomfortable flight. And from Mark not caring for it properly. It’d been months since he last even thought about it and he honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn it. But at least it looked brand new because of that.
No, he decided as he glanced at the name tag on his breast, he never looked as fresh and proper as this young man.
“At ease, Private Evans,” Mark said in a voice that sounded hoarse and croaky from disuse. “Lead the way.”
Private Evans did just that, turning sharply on his heel and leading the way to a roofless jeep parked just off the runway. Mark threw his duffel bag in the back and climbed in the passenger side.
Evans took the wheel and the engine rumbled to life, the smell of exhaust now mixing with the fresh scents of nature waking up. Not out of place, but not fitting in either. He hoped the case he was heading towards would be like that too. Just a small ripple in an otherwise normal, beautiful, peaceful spring day. But they never were.
* * *
The command center was inside a container-like building, long, wide, rectangular and identical to all the other buildings around it. Grey metal walls, slightly darker metal doors—all of which closed tight this early in the morning-and brilliant white roofs. All bases anywhere in the world looked the same, at least the parts of them Mark saw. The buildings that housed the cinema, rec center, cafeteria, or high command were always indistinguishable from each other. Though here, he could see the residential area in the distance, comprised of burnt orange apartment buildings which were also identical. The simplicity of army life always appealed to him, and sometimes, in his darker moments, he regretted the career choice that led him so far astray from it.
The front door of the command center opened into a narrow hallway, lined with doors to offices, some closed, some open. The open ones showed him nearly identical rooms with identical desks, file cabinets, and chairs. The view through the windows showed the hills and snowcapped mountains he admired earlier and even that seemed identical from one room to the next. The interior of the building was cool in that way only temporary structures can be cold—little better than being outside.
Private Evans opened a door at the far end of the long corridor and stood aside for Mark to enter.
Inside he was greeted by an older officer—a Colonel—with a half-inch buzz cut of thick dark grey hair and a neatly trimmed mustache of the same color. He looked to be fast approaching the wrong side of fifty years old, but he still somehow managed to look as fresh and enthusiastic as Private Evans who was now standing in a salute to the side of the closed door.
Belatedly Mark saluted too since the man outranked him. He was wooden and out of practice in this aspect of army life too.
“At ease,” the officer said, somehow managing to make his voice echo off the thin walls without resorting to excessive loudness. A true soldier. A natural.
“I’m Colonel Harrison,” he added in a more conversational tone, extending his right hand. “Welcome to the base.”
Mark shook his hand and thanked him, then took a seat when offered. The room was dominated by a dark wood conference table lined with identical, rather hard and uncomfortable fake black leather chairs. There were no windows in the room and the wide wall where a large panoramic window might have been was covered by a huge, gleaming whiteboard. Mark would rather be looking out at the hills and mountains, much rather. Instead of the fresh scents of nature waking, he now smelled the chemicals that must’ve been used copiously to give this table that new thing shine. That and the slight, tangy smell of metal. Poor trade.
“Thank you for coming out on such short notice,” Harrison said, taking a seat across the table from Mark.
A tan, rather thin folder lay on the gleaming desk in front of the Major. Judging by its size, this case he had flown in to solve couldn’t be all that complicated. So why did they fly him in? Mark checked the thought. He knew he had a reputation, he knew his solve rate very well, as did most of his colleagues. But it wasn’t something he took pride in. How can you take pride in other people’s worst misery?
“Of course,” Mark said.
He didn’t have much choice in which cases were assigned to him, and when his commanding officer asked him personally to take this case, Mark had little choice but to accept. But he’d still be here even if that wasn’t the case. Berlin was a large city, but lately, it had begun to feel like an underground cell to Mark. Complete with the walls closing in effect. Not that he expected it to be any better here.
“I thought I’d start by briefing you on the case,” Harrison said his gaze searching Mark’s face. He looked confused by what he saw there.
Well, that makes two of us.
Mark looked at him pointedly and nodded, which caused Harrison to clear his throat nervously as he fumbled with the folder to pull it closer and open it.
The top item inside it was a crystal clear close-up of a man’s badly beaten and bloody face. Nausea stronger than the one he’d experienced the first time he’d seen a dead body welled up from Mark’s stomach, the room swaying and spinning before his eyes and making it worse.
Even after all these years on the job, he still often had visceral reactions to particularly bloody scenes. That same connection to the living was the reason he was so good at sorting out the lies from the truth, the guilty from the innocent. Everything in life is some sort of a trade-off and this was no exception. But he hadn’t reacted like that since he was fresh and new to the job and Mark had no idea why it was coming on so strongly now. He should probably worry about it, worry that he was going soft, that he wouldn’t be able to do his job anymore, but lately, it was hard to really worry about anything beyond noticing that maybe he should. He still held onto the hope that eventually this weird dissociation would pass, as it usually did. But in his more lucid moments, he also knew that it had never been this bad before. The Fairytale Killer had well and truly destroyed and erased any lingering belief in fairy tales and happily ever afters Mark might have still been holding onto.
“Mhm, right,” Harrison mumbled, cleared his throat again, brushed away the photo, and pulled out the written report.
“Right, so, here is what we know,” he began after clearing his throat one more time. Mark hoped he wouldn’t start doing that in his old age. So far, he’d avoided it.
“Giuseppe Bari, a butcher in the town of Altano, was found dead in a ravine yesterday morning,” Harrison recited, keeping his eyes glued to the report page which probably accounted for the level of detail regarding place names he was able to offer. “Presumably he had gone for a hike in the late afternoon, lost his footing and plunged down the side of the hill, hitting several rocks and trees. The ME confirmed that the fall killed him. It’s not uncommon as far as accidents in this area go, especially in early spring, when the ground is not yet settled.”
An accident? So why the fuck am I here?
Mark felt no need to voice that question out loud. He knew there was a reason, and he knew Harrison was getting to it.
The man looked at his searchingly again and cleared his throat one more time.
“You’re probably wondering why you were brought in,” Harrison observed, obviously reading Mark’s face accurately this time.
Mark figured it’d be rude to nod, so he shrugged instead.
“Officially, the death was ruled an accident,” Harrison continued. “But as soon as word reached his family, Bari’s mother started raising hell. She’s been telling everyone and anyone who would listen that her son had been murdered and that the last time she saw him, he was arguing with a female US soldier, who must’ve been the one to kill him. Mrs. Bari is the wife of the former mayor, now deceased, so as you can imagine she’s something of a fixture in the town. The press picked it up and the news story that the US Military is harboring a murderer is all over the local newspapers and the internet too. A PR nightmare, as you can imagine. So we need you to investigate.”
The man was leaving something unsaid. Right before he cleared his throat yet again. Mark should’ve been quicker on the uptake as to what was making the Major so nervous, but he hasn’t been quick on anything for the nearly a month.
“I follow the facts to the truth in my investigations,” Mark said. “The absolute truth.”
Not the truth the Military wants me to find.
But he left that part unsaid. His tone said it for him, and the grimace on Harrison’s face told him he heard it loud and clear anyway. It’d been years since Mark had to assert this in the course of one of his investigations. Some could be swayed to make the Military look good, but he had never been one of them, and that reputation always preceded him wherever he went.
“That’s why you’re here,” Harrison said, finding his strong, echoing voice again. “We are guests in this town, and for us to continue enjoying the hospitality of the people who live here, an equilibrium must be maintained. One built on mutual respect and trust.”
“Has this woman who allegedly argued with the butcher been located?” Mark asked.
Harrison shook his head. “A thorough investigation into that has been conducted. All our female members who had leave that day have alibis, and none know the butcher. I believe it’s a fabrication on the mother’s part. She can’t accept that her son is dead, is my opinion.”
Mark nodded and reached over to pull the folder to his side of the table. Harrison handed him the report to go along with it.
He might as well have been alone in the room judging by the silence that enveloped him as he scanned the police report and then the ME’s report. There were two versions of everything—the original Italian one and an English translation. The report was straightforward, short, and concise. Nothing stood out. The military woman who was allegedly arguing with the butcher wasn’t even mentioned. He only glanced at the photos of the body before brushing them aside. His stomach had not quite settled yet from that first, rookie reaction he’d had to the dead man’s bloody face. He knew the cause of it now. It rose from deep in his memory while Harrison was talking.
His second case was investigating the death of a soldier who had been beaten to death by a group of local men in Sicily because he got too friendly with one of their sisters on his night off. Private Sturgis. Stephen. His face was just as messed up as this butcher’s. Funny how men’s fists can do as much damage to a face as the side of a mountain. Only there was nothing funny about it.
“Looks like an accident,” Mark said into the silence, consciously not clearing his throat despite the hoarseness in his voice. “But I’ll look into it. I’ll need an interpreter though, my Italian isn’t up to this.”
It probably could be sufficient, but between the fogginess in his brain and a member of the US military being accused of murder, it’d be better to do this one completely by the book.
“Yes, of course,” Harrison said and looked at Private Evans.
“Call in the others,” he instructed. Evans turned so sharply to carry out the command that he practically clicked his heels as he turned to exit the room.
Mark went back to reading the report. The butcher’s cause of death was blunt force trauma. The ME did note a deep cut in the back of the man’s head, which he labeled as suspicious, and which might have been sustained prior to the other injuries of his fall, but he ruled the death an accident regardless.
“At ease,” Harrison said, bringing Mark’s awareness back to the room.
He turned to find two soldiers standing by the door. The young man had a severe buzz-cut and wore thick-rimmed black glasses, which looked too big for his small face. The woman standing next to him was just as lithe and willowy as he remembered her. Mia. As always, the fatigues hid her soft hourglass curves well, but in his mind’s eye, he could see the milky white skin that covered her perfect shape perfectly despite that. Her long hair, the color of ripe wheat at the end of August, was pulled into a tight, large bun at the back of her neck, but he felt its silky softness on his palm regardless.
“Sergeant Williams will assist you with any intelligence you need gathered,” Harrison said, meaning the man. “And Sergeant Brady will act as your interpreter. She is fluent in the language and is well-liked in the town.”
She remembered him clearly too, but that guarded tightness in her grey eyes had no place being there. They didn’t end badly. They even stayed friends (with benefits) for a while after it was over and before life and career took them too far into different directions. But then again, that guardedness was always there behind whatever else was in her eyes. The caged animal part of her was always there, but she was a fighter through and through. That was his Mia. But she wasn’t his anymore. And at that moment, he almost regretted it.
“Mia is fluent in Italian?” Mark asked wryly. “She could barely speak English when were posted together in Sicily.”
A lifetime ago. But he didn’t add that.
His tone was too flirty, too familiar, totally out of place for the setting they were in, and that sharp, pointed, curt gaze Harrison fixed him with told him that plainly. But he didn’t care.
Finding Mia here was like a blast of warm and carefree air from so far in his past, he barely even thought of those good days anymore. It was a time so filled with the promise of adventure, so full of hope for a future that would be better than the past—so full of lust and excitement in their particular case— that even the memory was overwhelming. It was good remembering. Especially after just remembering Stephen too.
“Times change.” She said with a smile that didn’t erase the tightness from her eyes, belatedly adding, “Sir.”
“And Private Evans is at your disposal, too,” Harrison added after clearing his throat yet again.
“Good,” Mark said, this time failing to stop himself clearing his own throat. “I’ll get started right away.”
“Keep in mind that this is a close-knit community, and we don’t want to ruffle any feathers unnecessarily,” Harrison said. Mark didn’t appreciate being told how to do his job, and for the second time on top of it, so he ignored him.
He turned back to the table and fought the urge to sweep the papers and photos back into the folder and close it. The joy and primal elation at running into a former girlfriend turned sour real quick. Now all he could see was the milky pale face of his last girlfriend. The one he was sure would be the last, ever.
* * *
The big conference room was assigned to him to conduct the investigation from and he brought his overnight bag in before climbing into the jeep. Mia was already sitting in the back and he instructed Evans to take them to where the body was found. The sun had made its way from behind the hill and was now dominating the morning sky with its brightness, if not heat. Mark wished he thought to take his sunglasses along.
Evans was all proper behind the wheel, looking straight ahead, when not checking the rearview and side mirror. The air smelled faintly of snow as the winding asphalt road took them a good way up one of the hills he was watching from the base when he arrived.
Mia sat in the back, a mass of coldness in an already cold spring morning that enveloped them harder and harder the further up they traveled. It was her go-to posture whenever on duty—iciness. When they were alone it was a completely different story. It echoed his own cool and collected nature, which was probably what attracted them to each other, though that ice-queen exterior of hers hid a fire that no woman he’d been with since had been able to match. But it was a very wild fire. Wild and uncontrollable. Not something he actually actively missed.
The road soon started rising steeply, but they were still low enough on the hill that most of the trees were deciduous and therefore leafless this time of year, their thin branches interlaced and tangled together. Soon they’d be covered with fresh green leaves glinting in the spring sun, swaying in the breeze, but for the moment they looked dead.
The crest of the hill brought them to the foot of an even higher one. Evans made a right turn onto a bumpy, gravel road and Evan winced and glanced at Mark every time he failed to avoid a particularly hard bump. Mark held onto the railing on the side of the jeep and pretended not to notice any of it. This road ended in a large fenced-off parking lot. It was the start of the so-called Monte Verde trail as several of the signs nailed to the fence proclaimed. The rest of the signs had instructions for the hikers in multiple languages, such as, ‘Don’t set fires’, ‘Don’t go off the path’, ‘Wear sensible clothing and footwear.’ All the written instructions were also drawn on yet more boards. When they wanted to be, the Italians were as thorough as thorough gets.
Evans didn’t turn into the parking lot. He kept on driving up along the forest trail which was barely wide enough for a car to fit. The hill rose steeply on the left side of the road, while on the left the land dropped off sharply. It was a rocky, gravelly cliff-side on which there was barely any vegetation, and the leafless trees growing there were stunted things, spaced far apart. Mark couldn’t quite make out the bottom of the ravine.
Along the road, the trees grew closer together here, and pines started making an appearance here and there. The place looked forbidding and depressing. Mark wouldn’t have minded a walk along this path.
About a kilometer up, at a spot where the road got so narrow, bumpy and generally bad it would probably be impossible to continue driving up it, they reached a spot where red and white striped tape with the words Polizia printed on it in black letters was stretched between two trees at the side of it.
“This is it,” Mia observed as Evans stopped the jeep and pulled the handbrake with a jarring, metallic noise that made the jeep lurch before it came to a dead stop.
She got out and Mark followed her after instructing Evans to stay in the jeep. He’d prefer it if Mia stayed in the car too, so as not to jeopardize the scene any more than it already had been, but then again, he liked her closeness. She used to move flowingly like the slender willow branches in a breeze, but not anymore. Her back, as she approached the crime scene tape, was stiff and unyielding, much like her guarded gaze. Age and a hard life had finally erased all the youth from her.
Sunlight glinted off something to his left as he straightened up, too bright to be just a rock.
He bent over and picked up a small diamond earring with something that looked like a teardrop made of silver dangling from it. He showed it to Mia. “The Butcher didn’t seem like a jewelry-wearing man to me. I especially wouldn’t put him down for wearing something this ornate.”
Nothing flushed through the icy stillness of her face and eyes as she looked at the earing, which was just as well. This was no time, no place, to be making dark jokes.
“A lot of hikers come this way daily,” she said. “That could belong to anyone. It’s not necessarily the butcher’s. One of the cops or EMTs could’ve dropped it. Or a hiker that’s been down this way recently.”
Mark shrugged but pocketed the earring anyway. He found it so close to the spot where the butcher fell that Mark felt it had to have something to do with him. Besides, everything at a crime scene was significant. Until it wasn’t.
“He must’ve stopped here to wander off the road,” Mia said circumventing the police tape to follow the path she was narrating. The road was bordered by a narrow strip of rougher terrain, less than two meters wide. This then broke off into a steep fall down to the bottom of the ravine.
The man must’ve needed to take a leak, Mark thought but didn’t voice it.
“And this is a popular trail around here?” he asked.
“Yes, though not the most popular. I go for runs here, since it’s usually empty,” Mia replied. “It’s a good place to come if you want to be alone.”
Something in her voice told her she had been very alone. Or maybe that was just an echo of his state.
He walked a few steps along the edge, his boots slipping on the rocky gravel more than once. This was treacherous terrain, no doubt about it. The gravel would probably settle during spring and summer, but now it was still all messed up from the winter’s snows. But the butcher was a young man. Thirty, the report said.
He soon found the spot where he must’ve gone over. A half-circle of gravel was missing from the edge of the path, and several of the roots growing straight out of the ground were freshly broken. Mark crouched and touched them. Strong and fresh. They could’ve taken the man’s weight and let him pull himself back up if slipped footing was his only problem. Especially a man with the reflexes of a thirty-year-old.
A narrow streak of blood marked the start of his descent down to the bottom. He must’ve injured himself in the initial fall, which might have rendered his reflexes useless. In the photo, the man’s face was a bloody mess, but Mark had assumed that happened as he rolled down the hillside. He’d have to check the photos in the folder more closely now. Not a task he was looking forward to, but it was time to get out of his way and start working this case. No more wallowing. No more distractedness. He had a job to do here, and he was good at his job. Even the Fairytale Killer had learned that eventually. And that had been Mark’s hardest case in his ten-year career.
“I suppose there’s no way down other than ropes and hooks,” Mark said, looking down the side of the hill. The sun was shining down brightly, yet the bottom of the ravine was still almost completely in darkness. Though he could just barely make out several light grey boulders jutting out of the rock and gravel of the ground. No trees that he could see grew down there. The day hadn’t yet reached that night. A sad place to die.
“No,” Mia said. “But I’m sure we can rig up and climb down if that’s what you want.”
Did he detect a hint of teasing in her voice? He wasn’t sure and she wasn’t looking at him when he tried to meet her eye.
“I’ll study the photos first, see if I’m missing something, and then decide,” Mark said and went back to the road.
The gravel surface was massively disturbed both in the direction they came from and up away. The fresh tire tracks of their jeep had cut right over the more settled ones of another large vehicle that had been up here to investigate and remove the body. There were at least two other sets of smaller tire tracks, which Mark assumed were from the police car that investigated the death, and probably the mountain rescue service that retrieved the body. Boot prints overlaid it all, too many to really make sense of them. Most of those tracks were probably made by the EMTs, cops, and rescuers, though some might even have been made by other hikers.
He studied them nevertheless, walking hunched over and trying not to disturb the already messed up ground even more. The area where they laid out the body once they pulled it from the ravine was clear enough by a congregation of boot print and shoe prints congregated in a half-circle spot at the side of the road, even without the single discarded white latex glove stuck to a nearby leafless bush, which they must’ve missed during clean up. The thin tracks leading from the side of the road to the middle of the two widest tire tracks were self-explanatory—gurney meets ambulance that acted as a hearse in this case.
There was also a swathe of evenly ironed out gravel by the side of the road about a meter wide and a meter long beneath the many boot prints around where Mark assumed the body was laid out for a time, Mark took his phone from his pocket and snapped a few photos, checking to see if he managed to capture it right after. He then spanned out and took several more photos of the general area from different angles walking a few meters up and down the hill to capture it more fully.
He wished he’d taken a photo of the earing before he picked it up too, to see where it lay in relation to everything else, and this new thing he spotted, but it looked like it might be nothing when he bent to inspect it closer, and it was too late by the time he picked it up.
“The Italian police were up here twice yesterday, taking pictures of this place and looking for signs of foul play,” Mia said from behind his back after he snapped a couple more. “Once when they found him, and again after his mother raised hell that it was murder. They’re all in the file.”
Mark didn’t hear her approach, maybe she was right behind him the whole time. He didn’t like the coldness in her voice. It said they were strangers, which they really were not. Or maybe they became strangers again in all these years they hadn’t seen each other. Impossible.
He cracked a smile as he pocketed his camera. “You know me. I’m very hands-on.”
She smiled faintly at that. Much too faintly for his liking.
“All right, let’s head back to the base,” he said and strode to the jeep. “I want to check out those other photos before talking to the mother.”
He was here to do a job not chase after his youth and a brighter time.