Officer Colin Baranowski believed in civil service.
In his old life, he’d been a fireman for a large metropolitan area. Of course, that was before the accident. It hadn’t *really* been his fault, but it had sure looked that way, and with the fire station in ashes and six neighborhood children missing (not to mention the half ton of methamphetamines that had been released into the city’s water supply) he had decided that he’d rather not take his chances by hanging around. He’d driven for what seemed like days by the time his car had broken down on the outskirts of Night Vale. Every night since then he promised himself he would get that radiator fixed and move on.
He never had.
Just when he had almost run out of money he’d heard about a job opening up in the Recovery and Evacuation Department, and after an extensive interview conducted in morse code and transmitted via laser pointer to a shadowy figure on a nearby hillside at night, he had gotten the position. He’d originally taken the job for two reasons. Firstly the pay was good, albeit delivered in used, non-sequential two-dollar bills to his dresser drawer through some unknown means every Saturday (He hadn’t yet been on the force long enough to qualify for direct deposit), and secondly it had seemed like a rather cushy position.
The specific department of the R.E.D. that he reported to was called the Special Holiday Inhabitant Recovery Taskforce. They were only supposed to be called up in the event of holiday-related disasters and calamities in order ensure the safety and recovery of the citizens of Night vale, or, failing that, their bodies. It seemed to Colin like the sort of thing that would happen once in a blue moon.
Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the moon in Night Vale often shifted through the entire spectrum of visible and invisible colors several times a year, and in his three months of service he’d already been called to action twice. He still had nightmares about the aftermath of the New Years Eve fireworks show.
And now, barely two months later, he was learning first hand just how bad holidays in Night Vale could really be.
His partner’s shout had stirred Colin out of his memory filled revery and he turned from his task of loading rubble into a wheelbarrow to see what she wanted.
“We got someone under here!” she called, kneeling down in the collapsed remains of what had once been someone’s living room. Now it was little more than chunks of wall scattered haphazardly with pink streamers and candy hearts with inscrutable messages written on them.
Sussanah Olivarez, Susie to her friends, was what Colin’s firemen friends would have referred to as a “Spitfire”, but what people around here tended to call “A Survivor”. She’d lived in Night Vale her entire life, and while if he’d met her in his previous life he would have thought of her as fairly weird, he now found her to be reassuringly normal compared to many of the people he’d met.
He scrabbled over the piles of rubble and knelt beside her, looking into a dark hole. He could barely see the outline of a human arm underneath the concrete and candy.
“Alright, on three lift.” Olivarez grabbed one corner of the concrete slab and Colin took the other.
“Three!” she shouted, and heaved upward. She wore only a white muscle shirt in the mid-day heat, and Colin couldn’t help noticing the way her mocha colored skin gleamed with sweat in the desert sun. She was a small woman, but she was muscular, and Colin felt fairly certain that she could kick the shit out of him if she wanted to.
After a solid minute of heaving and shoving, they had managed to remove the largest of the boulders, and Olivarez quickly jumped down into the hole, flashlight already flickering to life.
Her voice echoed up, followed by a sigh. Her light illuminated the arm that they’d seen from up top. It was a woman’s arm, and there were two delicate legs that went with it. Unfortunately, the rest of the body had been mashed into a gooey, cherry-red paste by the falling rocks. Olivarez knelt down beside the remains.
“Oh Jesus…”, Colin said, choking back his gag reflex. When his partner reached into the pile of goo and pulled out what looked to be a burst kidney he turned his head quickly and vomited on a nearby crushed teddy bear.
“Well…” Olivarez said, not seeming to notice her partner’s stomach issues, “The organs are shot to shit, but the limbs look salvageable. Here.”
She took the arm by its wrist and tossed it up to Colin, who let it flop on the ground in front of him before wiping his mouth and picking it up gently, placing it in a nearby wheelbarrow labelled “Keep”.
He didn’t know exactly what happened to all the usable body parts they recovered after disasters. He hoped that it was some kind of medical collection for amputees and transplant patients. He highly suspected that was not the case.
Both severed legs then flopped up onto the pavement, followed a few moments later by Olivarez herself climbing nimbly up the broken rock. She got to her feet and glanced down at the puddle of vomit nearby.
“Damnit, rookie. You big city folks have no stomachs. That’s just gross.” She sighed again and wiped the blood and viscera from her hand on her regulation green work pants.
“Sorry, I guess… I guess I’m still not used to this kinda thing.”
Olivarez laughed. He liked it when she laughed.
“What, they don’t have Valentines day where you’re from?”
“Not like this…” he muttered, tossing the two legs onto the nearly full wheelbarrow. They’d been at it for six hours already and had found several bodies, most of them nearly intact, as well as two survivors that they’d managed to get back to the first aid and decontamination station. The first man they’d found only had minor injuries, but the teenaged girl they’d discoverd later on had extensive sugar burns over a large portion of her body. In one part of her face you could see all the way through the hardening caramel to her cheekbone.
“Yeah, that’s the problem with those big cities. No tradition.”
Colin could think of absolutely no way to respond to that.
“What… the…” Colin said as he entered the abandoned dry cleaners.
“What is it?” Olivarez asked from behind him, shoving him out of the way as he gaped open-mouthed at the scene in front of him, “Oh. Yeah, that happens sometimes. Especially when Valentine’s Day happens to be on a Thursday. Bad combination.”
On the wall in front of them, opposite the boarded up entrance, was the body of a naked man, crucified, nailed spread eagle to the plasterboard by his wrists. His stomach had been torn open, wild, jagged shreds of flesh that appeared to be the work of claws, rather than blades. His intestines had been dragged out of him and looped over clothing hangers hung on the wall to form a giant heart with his body in the center. Written in blood on the floor was the phrase “BE MINE”.
“Well, those are obviously useless,” Olivarez said, gesturing to the draped intestines. She turned to her partner with a grin, “C’mon, maybe there’s still some fresh stuff inside.”
Olivarez pushed a few heaps of bloody, sugar-crusted clothing out of the way and made her way over to the corpse, with Colin trailing behind.
“God, it stinks…” he said, holding his nose.
“Can’t tell,” Olivarez said with a shrug of her shoulders, “Had my olfactory glands removed back in ‘08. You know, you can get that written off as a work expense? Just had to get Sarge to sign for it.”
“I didn’t know that was an option.” It made sense, though. With a job like this a good sense of smell could get you killed. Who knows what could happen while you’re dazed and dry-heaving from the funk of day-old corpse.
Without hesitation, Olivarez pushed her bare hand into the corpse’s stomach cavity. The stench grew somehow worse. At the same time, Colin found himself wishing he could have his hearing removed as well. The jello-like squishing of organs and meat moving aside for her arm was beginning to turn his stomach again. He wondered how many times he could puke in one day before he should start worrying.
“Ooh!” Olivarez exclaimed, a look of happy surprise popping up on her face, “Got something!”
She yanked hard and the corpse shook as her bloody hand came free holding a relatively fresh, undamaged liver.
“C’mon, Rookie, step it up. Bag.”
Colin nodded and grabbed a sturdy black plastic bag from his belt, quickly whipping it open to reveal the large yellow smiley face on the side of it. Olivarez dropped the liver in with a crinkly splat.
“Told ya! Sometimes you gotta hunt for ‘em.”
The entire scene was macabre and unsettling, but Colin couldn’t help finding himself amused by Susie’s enthusiasm.
“Just like an Easter egg hunt, huh?”
Olivarez froze and her eyes turned cold. The mischievous grin melted from her face, replaced with a hard, thin line. She reached out with her bloody hand and grabbed Colin by the collar in a vice-like grip.
“Don’t you ever. EVER. Mention Easter eggs to me again.”
She pulled him nearly off his feet, putting her face right up to his. Under other circumstances he might have enjoyed being this close to her. These were not other circumstances.
“You get me?” she growled.
Colin nodded dumbly and he felt her bloody fist relax slightly.
“Ummm… yeah. I gotcha. Sorry…”
Olivarez let go of his collar, leaving a large bloody handprint on his shirt.
“Sorry…” she said, almost shyly. Whatever rage had gripped her was gone. “I had a bad experience.”
“C’mon,” she said, wiping her hand on her pants again. With as much blood as was already on them it didn’t seem to do an awful lot of good. “We can leave this for later. Let’s get that full barrow back to Sarge before it gets dark.”
When they got back to base, they found that Sarg wasn’t there. They dropped off the wheelbarrow with men in hazmat suits who began loading the bodies and parts into a dumptruck. They were about to head back out again when the walkie-talkie on Olivarez’s hip squawked to life.
“Officer Olivarez, do you read me?” a southern accented voice rumbled. It was Sarg.
“Roger that, Sarg, We’re back at basecamp.” Olivarez said, unstrapping the walkie talkie with a practiced ease.
“Take the new guy and get your butt over here to the elementary school. We got us a situation.”
“What do you suppose all that’s about?” Colin asked.
“I don’t know, Rookie. But you better make sure you got your sidearm ready, just in case. Remember task force protocol: If you can’t save ‘em, shoot ‘em.”
Colin’s heart skipped a beat and his hand went to the standard issue .45 revolver on his hip. When he’d first joined the Special Holiday Inhabitant Recovery Taskforce he had wondered why a disaster response team would need to be packing heat. After the things he’d seen, he no longer wondered.
They found the Sarge crouched down behind a makeshift bunker near a swing set opposite the outer door of the school gymnasium. As always, he was chewing on the weathered stub of a cigar and wearing his full standard issue city Taskforce uniform, complete with medals for bravery, leadership, and telepathic fortitude. He had his pistol drawn and was keeping his eyes focused forward on the gymnasium door.
“Sarge!” Olivarez called when they’d gotten close enough to duck down with him, “What the hell is going on?”
“Damn it, keep your voice down!” he hissed as they came closer, “Davidson, Ludovich and Epstein were working the school. They called in about five minutes ago saying they’d found an unactivated stack of Valentine’s day cards in the gym. That was the last we heard from them.”
“Oh my god…” Olizarez whispered, her face turning pale, “Sarge… those men are already dead…”
“Don’t you think I know that?!” Sarge glowered at her. “We need to keep this contained until the Secret Police get here.”
“Wait…” Colin said, feeling very confused, “What kind of…”
“Damnit, Baranowski, not now! Keep your eyes on that door.”
Just then there was a loud creaking noise as the metal door swung open and a figure shuffled out into the fading daylight. It was a man, dressed only in a tattered white tablecloth that had been draped over one shoulder as a tunic. Small, ragged, useless looking wings had sprouted from his back and hung limply. In his hands he carried what appeared to be a makeshift bow made of school desk legs and rubber bands as well as a crude looking arrow made from a yardstick and broken glass.
“Oh shit..” Colin whispered, “Sarge… that’s Ludovich!”
“Not anymore…” Sarge whispered, his eye never leaving the shambling man.
Suddenly he stood up and levelled his gun at the advancing figure.
Colin jumped up as gunfire erupted from both sides of him. Bullets tore into the creature, shredding it like a cheap, meat-filled pinata. A chunk of Ludovich’s head disappeared in a spray or red mist, spilling rotted brains out onto the pavement. gaping holes opened in his legs and abdomen, but he barely seemed to notice, advancing with a slow, shuffling gait. He brought the bow up slowly and pulled it back, firing the makeshift arrow at the trio. Colin felt the projectile whiz past his head, too close for comfort.
“The Heart!” Sarge yelled, “Aim for the damn heart!”
Colin finally managed to get his gun out and added his shots to the cacophony of bullets. A few moments later a hole appeared in the center of the creature’s chest. It toppled backwards and lay still. Colin wasn’t sure who actually brought the thing down but by the time they did, it was only a few feet away.
Sarge walked over to it and reached a hand down, shoving it into the hole where the creature’s chest used to be. He felt around inside it for a minute and then pulled out a mangled and punctured heart. Rather than blood, it was dripping a thick, clear syrup. Much to Colin’s horror Sarge tasted the viscous liquid with one finger.
“Candied,” he said, his weathered face hard and cold, “Bastards.”
By then the whirr of a chopper could be heard and within moments a blue helicopter landed nearby on the school soccer field. Special agents in short black cloaks and leather balaclavas rushed out of it and into the gymnasium without a word to anyone. There was a chorus of roars and gunfire followed by the sound of a hawk shrieking, and then everything went quiet.
“Well… I guess that’s over with.” Olivarez said. Colin turned to look at her and his eyes went wide. “What?”
She looked down and noticed the homemade arrow sticking straight out of her thigh.
“Oh. Huh. I thought he’d missed.”
“How… how are you not screaming in pain?” Colin asked.
“Oh that,” Olivarez chuckled, poking at the yardstick with a look of fascination, “I’m one of the fifty three percent. No biggie.”
“Baranowski!” Sarge boomed, “Get Olivarez over to the medical tent.”
“But Sarge...” Olivarez protested.
“No buts! You know the regulations. We don’t need you coming back and suing the city over some petty workman’s comp claim.”
“Yes, sir.” She turned reluctantly to Colin. “C’mon Rookie.”
They turned and started walking back to base, the yardstick still jiggling obscenely from Olivarez’s leg.
“This was, by far, the weirdest day of my life,” Colin said absently.
“Eh… you get used to it.”
Colin turned to look at his partner. “Really?”
Olivarez looked thoughtful for a moment.
“No. Not really. But you did good today, Baranowski.”
“Hey…” He said with a smile, “You used my name.”
Susie grinned at him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, well. Don’t let it go to your head.”