Chapter 1 : Death Comes Calling
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The cat was in a perfect position to catch the mouse.
The young woman, hunched on the roof of a nearby three-storey building, was watching the small feline stalk its prey with an impassive face. Absently, she wondered how something could be so lovely and so cruel at the same time; it was as if someone had brought two completely different creatures together and made them into one being.
As she watched, the cat bounced and caught the mouse deftly in its claws before releasing it again. The terrified rodent attempted to escape but the cat was ready for it; it bounced again after the mouse and slapped it with its paw, paralysing it. A small smile touched the corners of her mouth. Watching a cat play with its prey was always funny. From her current position, she couldn’t hear it but she was certain the mouse was squeaking in terror. Typical prey behaviour, she thought to herself.
Besides herself and the cat, there was no one else about. The sun had set hours ago, casting the city in darkness punctuated by few dots of light here and there. It was also a chilly night, for autumn was near, and very few people had bothered to leave the comforts of their homes on such a night. The young woman was one of those few people, although her reasons for staying out at that hour weren’t exactly the most popular nor acceptable. In fact, they hardly made any sense at all. To her, however, they made all the sense in the world.
This was, after all, what she did for living.
She rotated her shoulders slowly, not taking her eyes off of the end of the narrow street below her. She had no idea how long she had kept her vigil, but she was not going to give up now. He'd come eventually. They always did. And then...
Then, what? She narrowed her eyes as she contemplated her next course of action. It all depended on whether or not she could take him by surprise. In order to do that, she had to move in from the behind. Carefully, and avoiding any excessive movement, she looked around herself, considering her position. The easiest way to catch him off guard would be to allow him to advance further along the street (but not too far, she reminded herself) and then move swiftly behind him. For that, she'd need to move slightly more to her right.
She slowly began to move sideways. Once, when she thought she saw something move in the shadows, she froze, making herself look as small as possible, but after a few minutes, she resumed her steady crawling. Now she was in a good position. If all went according to plan, he'd never see her coming and thus, could do nothing to hurt her. Her uncle had drilled that into her ever since she was old enough to understand it. If she closed her eyes, she could see him sitting beside her in the library, explaining things to her as he always did.
"You should always make sure your target cannot get you as you get them," her uncle had told her.
"But why?" she could hear her younger self asking. "What's the point?"
Her uncle had smiled and ruffled her hair affectionately. "Well, you see, in nature predators attack their prey from behind. That is to ensure that the prey won't fight back and hurt the attacker's eyes."
So that the prey won't hurt their eyes.
She opened her eyes and banished the memories from her head. This was no time to get sentimental. Sentimentality had got people killed before and she had no intentions of joining them any time soon.
Something moved in the corner of her eye.
A man had appeared on the street below her, hurrying towards the other end. He was hunched over and had a shuffling gait; he matched exactly the description she had been given.
A small smile touched the corner of her mouth. It was time.
Not many would have considered a night shift in a morgue to be a pleasant experience, but Galen Fawley loved it. To him, the place had such a tranquil atmosphere, one that he was almost afraid he'd shatter merely by talking. It was also the one place his mother would not come nagging at him. Yes, Galen really loved being in the morgue, especially during the night. Nobody who had actually met his mother would disagree with him, not with his sister's wedding coming in a few weeks' time.
Although, to be perfectly honest, Galen was hiding as much from Annabel as he was from his mother. Who knew his older sister could be that violent?
"Really," he muttered. "It's as if her life depends on her wedding day being absolutely perfect. I very much doubt that the guests are going to notice that the flowers are not exactly the same shade of white..."
He turned to a man lying next to him.
"What do you think Mr. Alberts? Do people actually notice something like that? Or is it one of those things that only women - especially those getting married - would care about?"
Mr. Alberts remained silent, of course; the dead weren't particularly great conversationists. Galen didn't mind, however. Ever since his first day at work, he had been making idle chit-chat with the dead, feeling it would be rude not acknowledge them in any way, or worse yet, talk about them as if they weren't really there. Rosie had once pointed out that they weren't there; only their body was and it was unlikely to care whether or not it was acknowledged. Galen, however, felt uncomfortable with that kind of thinking although he couldn't quite tell why he felt that way. He just felt the dead needed to be dealt with more respect than that.
Besides, he had once walked in on Rosie asking a dead woman her opinion on which earrings she should wear on her date, so she really shouldn't be talking.
At any rate, there was very little to do in a morgue at night, so Galen amused himself by holding animate (and entirely one-sided) conversations with the dead. This particular night had begun as any other night and he had no reasons to expect anything interesting happening. In hindsight, that was his first mistake.
He was first alerted to something happening when Rosie hurried down the stairs. That in itself was highly unusual; Rosie prided herself for acting like a real lady and a lady never rushed. She was also oddly flushed and clearly on edge. Galen raised his eyebrows at her.
"Where's the fire?" he asked her. "Surely you can't miss me so much you have to fall down the stairs just to get here faster?"
Rosie looked annoyed. "Don't flatter yourself, Fawley. Mac sent me to tell you to prep everything. There's a new body coming in."
Galen's eyebrows shot even higher. Hamish MacDougall, known to everyone as Mac, was the healer in charge of the morgue. "And that's so unusual that you willingly forsake your principals? What is it, another floater?" The last time a floater had been brought in, Rosie had screamed and jumped a foot in the air at the sight of the bloated, rotting body. The memory of the normally calm and collected woman’s reaction still brought a smile to Galen’s lips.
"No, not this time, although I wish it was and I can’t believe I’m saying this." Rosie swallowed. "Galen... This one was murdered."
Galen dropped Mr. Alberts's file unceremoniously on top of the body. "What? Seriously? How?"
Rosie wrung her hands agitatedly. "I don't know, although Mac is suspecting something. It wasn't the killing curse, though. It was done by hand, like Muggles do when they kill each other."
"Muggles?" Galen frowned. "I suppose that's not impossible but..."
"This one was not killed by Muggles."
At that moment Mac himself appeared. A rotund, balding man in his early fifties, Mac was an old friend of Galen's father and one of the reasons why Galen was working for the morgue of St. Mungo's Magical Maladies and Injuries instead of a more low-key one as was his original plan. His father had insisted that if he was so adamant about becoming a medical examiner, he might as well work for someone who might be able to help him advance on his career. At first, Galen had been apprehensive about working for someone who was friends with his father (Cosmas Fawley was not known for being a particularly sociable person), but Mac had soon proven to be a jovial fellow who seemingly never stopped smiling.
Now, however, there was no trace of that famous smile and that alone was enough to convince Galen that this was something serious.
"Are you sure about that, Mac?" Rosie questioned. "It looks like a Muggle killing to me..."
She trailed off as Mac shook his head. "No Muggle could have done this," he said darkly.
He gestured the others to come closer and, not without misgivings, Galen moved to stand next to the body.
"Look at this," Mac said and moved the white cloth back to uncover the body.
It was a body of a man whose throat had been slit. Despite the neatness of the cut and the relative lack of blood, Galen felt a shiver run down his spine. He could now understand why Rosie had been so upset. Not only had someone known what they were doing; they had meant to do it as well.
"See this?" Mac waved his wand over the cut and patches of green and blue appeared around the edges. "The weapon - sharp knife, I'd imagine, but that needs to be verified later - was covered in potion to staunch the bleeding. That's how I know this one was not killed by oppoturtinistic Muggles. More important, however, is the cut itself. It looks perfectly even but here," he pointed his wand at the man's Adam's apple, "the cut is much deeper. It looks as if the knife was pressed down here on purpose."
"But why?" Rosie asked, perplexed. "What purpose could it possible serve?"
Mac's expression darkened. "It's only purpose is to let the world know that they are back," he said slowly. "Besides causing unnecessary suffering to their victims, of course."
Galen's mouth felt suddenly dry as he realised what Mac was implying. "You're talking about the Shrikes," he whispered.
"Aye," Mac nodded. "That's who I'm talking about."
Rosie looked from one man to the other with a confused look. "Uh... the shrikes? You mean like those little birds you occasionally see? What has that got to do with our murder victim here?"
It was Mac's turn to be confused. "Have you never heard of the Shrikes? ...Oh, but you're Muggleborn, aren't you? Suppose they don't teach these things at Hogwarts (and for a damn good reason...)"
"The Shrikes are a clan of assassin witches and wizards," Galen explained uneasily. "They are so called because they used to impale the bodies of their victims, much like the shrike bird does. They supposedly stopped the actual impaling because of the attention it got and moved on to simply leaving a single stab wound somewhere in their victim's body, occasionally accompanied by the murder weapon."
Rosie's eyes grew huge. "What? But... how come they are allowed to do something so horrible? Why haven't they been captured yet?"
"Oh, people have tried," Mac said bitterly, "but they work in darkness and know how to avoid capture. Besides, no one knows the name of that family."
"What do you mean?"
"The last confirmed member the Shrike clan was Artemisia Morton. She did have at least one child but since that child bore its father's name, the identity of the Shrikes died with Artemisia during the 19th century."
"So those Shrikes have enjoyed anonymity for about 200 years." Rosie frowned. "And there is no way of identifying them even if one was captured."
"According to the stories, each member of that clan bears a particular mark somewhere in his or her body," Galen said. "The mark is said to resemble a bird preparing to strike."
"In all likelihood, the story about the mark is true," Mac said. "Similar marks have been found near the victims." His expression turned sour again. "My grandfather was found dead with such a mark near his body."
"Oh!" Rosie covered her mouth with her hand. "Mac, I'm so sorry!"
Mac shrugged. "It was a long time ago." He turned to cover the body again. "At any rate, I've contacted the Aurors about this. They should be here soon so keep your sticky paws off of the body till they arrive."
With that, he disappeared back upstairs. Rosie lingered for a moment longer before following suite. Galen gazed at the body with apprehension, half expecting something terrible to happen now that he was left alone with it. He wondered if the man had seen his attacker or had he simply felt searing pain and seen his life flash in front of his eyes. Carefully he moved the cloth away from the man's face, studying his features intently. Nothing gave away what he might have seen or felt at his last moments.
"What happened to you?" Galen whispered.
Naturally, the corpse remained silent.
EDIT (6 November 2014) - Minor corrections (thanks to writeyourheartout with your help!) and chapter image added
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