Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
It took a few minutes for Will Graham to process the horror that he saw among the trees when he arrived at the crime scene. He blamed that on the lack of coffee in his system, and not the carnage a few feet away strewn across the forest floor. The man was thankful it was one of those mornings that he hadn't had time for breakfast. As it was, last nights meal was threatening to make a rude revisit all over his shoes.
Agent Jack Crawford made his way through the scrub over to Will, “Hell of a way to start the afternoon. Forensics is still processing the scene. Forest rangers got a call about a missing hiker this morning. It didn't take them long to track him from his tent to this place. ” Jack nodded in the direction of the rangers being interviewed by one of the field agents. “We have people looking at his grounds, but there's no sign of struggle. His tent was left open and we found a roll of toilet paper nearby. Looked like he started to run while relieving himself last night.” He motioned to Will to follow him with a gloved hand and they walked to where agents Beverly Katz, Jimmy Price, and Brian Zeller were crouched over a few segments of the body. It looked to be the lower jaw of the victim laying near the spinal column. The tongue was still attached to the mandible, making the thing look like an obscene oyster.
Around them other agents were marking the places where the other pieces had been found, but they did not touch anything. That would wait until Jack gave the word that they were clear to do so. They had a system while working for Jack, and the system was to let Will Graham do his 'spooky profiler thing' before they disturbed the body. They had to leave the crime scene as untouched as possible before that happened.
Price looked up as the two men approached, and stood up. He made to put his hands on his back to crack it from hunching over the ground for so long, then remembered the blood on his gloves and thought better of it. “I'd say it was an animal, Jack, but it's too savage, if that's even possible. It doesn't even look like anything was eaten. Not even by scavaging animals.” Zeller rose alongside his partner and nodded. “Just from looking at the pieces I can see there are no teeth marks. Definitely no knife marks but something tore at him. It was like this poor bastard was ripped apart.”
Beverly looked up at the men from where she crouched. “I can't tell you anything more until we get back, but I agree. I can't say what dismembered the victim like this, but it was not a bear attack. Bears do not do this kind of damage.”
They all looked to Will as he examined the corpse scattered across the grove and waited expectantly. It already appeared as though his focus was far away, and Jack whistled to the other field agents. “All right people, you know the drill. Keep back from the area until I say otherwise.” He adjusted his fedora as he stepped away from the scene, and out of Will's field of view.
In Will's mind the pendulum swung. Each pass wiped time away, reverting the scene to before the moment of death. His inner eye observed a man running frantically through the woods in the moonlit night, the shadow of the trees limbs seemed to claw at the runner to hold him back.
And then the fingers of those shadows caught him.
“I have him” Will said to himself as he watched the shadows lift the screaming man up off the forest floor. “I have him and he is ours. No....he is mine. I look at him and see softness, weakness, nothing I should fear at all. Nothing that I respect. Nothing worth keeping. I have him, but he is not what I want. So I will be rid of it.”
High above the ground the claws rip into the meat of the man and tear him apart. The screams echo across the canopy and die moments after he rained down in pieces to the ground like a child's broken toy.
“This is my design.”
“Will!” The voice followed the shake to his shoulders, and he looked up to see Jack's face close to his own. The dark brown eyes of the lead investigator were full of concern.
Will blinked owlishly behind his glasses at the other man. “What happened?” he asked, and frowned at the unexpected painful rasp of his voice.
“What happened is that you stared catatonic up at the trees before you started screaming! I think one of the field agents pissed himself with the noise you made.” Jack stepped back and ran a hand over his face as he collected himself. “I was afraid you wouldn't snap out of it, then Alana was going to have my ass for breaking you.”
“She is scary, Jack.” Will huffed, and some of the tension eased. He looked around and noticed the startled faces of the other agents. Wonderful; this is going to be fantastic for his reputation as the 'crazy profiler' back at the academy. He heard Jack bark the order for the field agents to process the scene in full then turned back to Will and lead him away from the commotion.
“You're not driving back, Will.” Jack said softly once they were out of earshot of the others. “I swear to God I have never, ever seen you pull that kind of shit before,” he held up his hands as Will began to speak, “I know you feel fine now, but I can't say the same for later. There's looking at the scene the way you do, then there's checking out of reality. I'm not going to risk your safety, and the safety of the people on the road today.”
“Fine, Jack, I'll let you take me home when we're done here.” As annoyed as Will was in having to wait for a ride, he saw the point. He could never forgive himself if he suffered a flashback while driving that caused an accident and hurt someone...or worse. Thank god Wolf Trap wasn't far from the national park.
Satisfied for the moment, Agent Crawford finally seemed to let the last of the tension leave him. “Good. Just from looking at this, I can see that this is too violent for the Chesapeake Ripper, unless he's changed his game to throw us off. Do you think you're able to tell me what you saw? Are we going to find any evidence up in those branches?” He glanced up at the canopy of birches that were misted with red.
Will shook his head, and looked at the gore painted bark. “I don't know. Jack, it wasn't an animal, but...” he closed his eyes and winced. It was as though something was blocking his memory of what he had seen in his mind. He sighed and shook his head. “It just doesn't make any sense. I'm sorry.”
The other man pursed his lips and nodded once. “Can you talk to Dr. Lecter? Maybe he can help you remember what you saw. And I would feel better if you spoke to him.”
“I see him tomorrow anyway.”
“Thank you, Will.” Jack said, then started to make his way back to the crime scene. Will leaned back against his car and ran his hands through the dark curls of his hair, before he removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Hannibal was going to have his hands full with him tomorrow, if Will could remember what he 'saw'.
With his eyes shut that was when Will finally keyed in on why this whole place set his teeth on edge.
The area of the forest they were in was silent. There were no birds, no crickets, not even the chatter of a chipmunk. Save for the noise of the other people around him, the surrounding forest was unnaturally still. Will felt a chill crawl up his spine that had nothing to do with the crisp Autumn weather.