May 1

May Day

 

‚ÄúPagans.”

Det. Darrell Crawford muttered the word under his breath — just loud enough for his partner to hear, and for her to register his distaste.

“Don’t judge a whole group like that,” Det. Judith Bartram said. “You know better.”

When she said things like that, was she appealing to his professionalism as a cop? Or was she just saying, “you know better than to say such things around me.”

Because, as much as he loved having Bartram as a partner…as much as he hated to admit that he learned a lot from her, despite being twelve years her senior on the force…he also found it more than a little tiresome that Bartram always had some personal connection to whatever freakish death they’d run across.

“My college roommate was a pagan,” Bartram said, confirming their usual structure of crime scene banter. “One of the nicest people you could ever meet.”

Crawford surveyed the crime scene, in a roped off area of the popular Crestview Park. The maypole had been pressed deep into the ground, with colorful streamers hanging from it. The ceremony must have happened early in the morning…most likely before sunrise, which explained the lack of witnesses.

He realized he might compete with his parter by supplying his own college connection. “At Chesapeake University, which I attended before the Academy, they had a May Day tradition. The date fell at the start of finals weekend, with all that pressure to finish projects and study for exams. Students would get drunk and streak naked down the fire lane behind the library. It was a good chance to blow off steam.”

Bartram made a sour face, and he worried she was getting ready to ask if he’d been one of the streaking drunks, maybe had been imagining him naked. “These people aren’t wearing any clothes either,” she said, revealing the true course of her disturbed thoughts. “Or skin.”

Their bodies had all been flayed. They’d need the coroner’s office to confirm, but Crawford guessed the mutilations had happened while the victims were still alive. “Did they do it to each other, do you think? One of their own, maybe?”

Det. Judith Bartram shook her head. “It’s inhuman, what happened here. Their ritual must have — ”

“But it’s not a ritual,” Crawford interrupted. “It’s just kind of a lark, isn’t it? The whole point is that these pagans don’t believe in anything. They’ve rejected religion — so their rituals can’t possibly do anything.”

“You’re wrong,” Bartram said. It was a phrase he heard frequently from her, especially at the start of an investigation. “My college roommate, Madeline…she was probably the most spiritual person I’ve ever known. Deep understanding of all religions. Including her own.”

Bartram pointed to the footprints among the bodies, which he’d earlier assumed were of some animal the participants had brought to the maypole celebration. A goat or sheep, judging from the hooves. But on closer inspection, the hoofprints were too large for such tame animals. “You think they summoned something.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Bartram said. “They didn’t intend to, obviously. But their own honest religious fervor must have combined with something they didn’t intend. Maybe something related to this spot of ground.”

Crawford saw what the summoned beast had done to the innocent pagan practitioners, saw bloody hoofprints as big as a size 15 shoe heel, a stride as wide as a seven-foot-tall man’s. “It’s still out there, whatever it is.” Celebratory streamers hung limp from the maypole at the center of the park. The footprints headed away from the scene of the massacre, towards the city, and he knew the healthy, sated beast would soon find reason to feed again.