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Plucking Petals

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‘He’s gone!’ Gordon shouted louder than usual. ‘He’s gone! Albert, call the front desk!’


Albert already had the handset pressed to his ear before the order was even a thought in Cole’s head. The normally clear tones of the receptionist’s voice sounded scratchy, wrong as he was informed of the news: Agent Jeffries wasn't there to begin with, that nobody had seen him enter the elevator that had originated just past the desks, and, almost as mysteriously, Special Agent Chester Desmond was missing after investigating a case in Deer Meadow, Washington.


Security tapes revealed no signs of where Agent Jeffries came from – he wasn't on any footage before the elevator, nor could he be found leaving the building in any fashion, though they had all agreed he had been in their shared office. With a sigh, Cole began to brief them on the Teresa Banks case – one of Gordon’s special Blue Rose cases. By the afternoon of that clear Tuesday, Albert and Cooper were sent out on assignment to aid in the case: Cooper, being a Special Agent, was expected to pick up where Desmond had left off in Deer Meadow, while Albert was shipped off to Portland to assist Agent Sam Stanley perform a more in-depth autopsy.


~ • ~


By the time night fell on February 16th, Albert had checked into a musty motel a few blocks south of the Portland office and attempted to get comfortable on the lumpy mattress. He wasn't that fond of field assignments. Albert knew people well enough, it’s just he preferred to work with the dead ones; they let him work in peace, didn't get upset if he said something too blunt. He liked animals too, so long as they weren't interfering in his case by further mutilating bodies. Most of the time after a tedious day cataloguing injuries and dealing with the primary of whatever case he's assisting on, he welcomes getting into bed, a shabby ball of fur already curled up there waiting.


McCoy – yes, named after one of his favourite television doctors, not that anyone ever asks, nor would they be the least bit surprised – seemingly just showed up one snowy Philadelphia night, huddled inadequately in a corner outside his apartment door. Albert had carefully wrapped the damp and collarless cat up in his scarf and took him inside, checking him for injury and obvious signs of disease in the warmth of his small kitchen. After a week looking for posters of lost cats that might fit the description and finding none, he decided he might as well keep McCoy around; after all, it gave him something to come home to.


It was nights like these that he longed to be at home, a mug of tea on his nightstand and McCoy at the edge of his pillow-soft queen, rather than a subpar bed that's almost certain to give him back problems and possibly even fleas. After a while, Albert managed to fall asleep to the droning sound of bad basic cable; if he had ever told Cooper about it, he would insist it was a vision rather than a dream, but Albert didn't really believe in all that mumbo-jumbo anyway.


In his dream, he was in a room papered with delicate flowers, all of various shapes, sizes, and colours. Twelve red armchairs, one of which he was seated in, formed a perfect circle in the middle of the room, and each was occupied by a person who had materialized one by one: his boss, Gordon Cole; Agent Jeffries, still looking as bewildered as he had earlier that day; an eerily quiet Dale Cooper; Cooper’s crazed ex-partner, Windom Earle; Sam Stanley, fidgeting horribly; an unknown man, somewhere in his thirties, hair quiffed like a fifties singer – he looked somewhat like the photo on file for Agent Desmond; and five other men, seemingly government agents that Albert had never seen before. After everyone was seated, a tall man – tall couldn't even begin to describe it, it was almost as if he had been a giant compared to them all – appeared dead center of the circle facing him.


Albert, the giant stated, things are not how they may appear. Soon, you may discover the truth.


Yeah, and what’s that? Albert asked, but the giant shook his head solemnly.


When an angel dies, the last of her wingbeats will be felt for years to come. You will feel the ripples in the air, and you will never be the same. I'm afraid that's all I can tell you. You must continue on without my guidance, though I believe you will find the answers you seek.


Without warning, the entire room was drenched in shades of blue, the flowers on the walls changing and shifting into large, dark roses. The giant waved his hand gently, and every petal fell off at once, a sea of silky flowers rising from the floor to suffocate him until he woke, gasping for air.


~ • ~


‘Agent Sam Stanley,’ the nervous blond greeted, outstretching his hand awkwardly for Albert to shake. It was 6am, far too early for pleasantries, especially before Albert had his morning cup of coffee, and the morgue in Portland seemed as cold as Alaska.


Instead of shaking, Albert grumbled and reluctantly shrugged off his coat. ‘We’ve met before. I helped train you a few years back, shadowed me when you were fresh out of Quantico.’


‘I remember, Doctor.’ Albert’s lip quirked slightly at the title; it was a rarity that someone outside of his mother addressed him as such. ‘I was hoping you could help me with this case I've been working on.’


‘Teresa Banks. I've been briefed, but I'd like to see the body myself.’


Stanley headed towards one of the examination tables and pulled back the sheet with almost shaking hands. Albert followed, watching a teenage girl’s body slowly be revealed, mouth slightly agape.


‘Here she is,’ Stanley stated obviously, causing Albert to roll his eyes. ‘Agent Desmond asked if I would take a closer look at her nerves – her boss stated that Teresa’s arm had gone numb, you see – but I haven't found anything to suggest that this was true.’


Albert pulled on a pair of medical gloves and carefully began to examine the arm in question. ‘Have you only looked at the front so far?’


‘Yes. I had been planning on continuing before I got the – the news, and Cole had told me to hold off on any more digging until you arrived.’


‘About Agent Desmond?’


‘Yes,’ Stanley answered, worrying the corner of his mouth.


‘Help me turn her over then.’ It wasn't a request.


With both the doctors supporting the body, they managed to roll her onto her front. Stanley had let out a little gasp, which Albert initially believed was from exertion, but soon realized it was from the image tattooed across Teresa’s shoulder blades. There were two large wings there, ink dark against the lifeless skin around it. In the light of the morgue, each feather looked as it had been plucked from an angel and branded white hot into the flesh there.


~ • ~


After an extensive section by section study, both Albert and Sam had decided that they couldn't deduce any scientific reason why her arm would've simply stopped working. They had agreed that they would look over everything again tomorrow, despite most likely not gaining any more insight into what may have happened.


‘There’s something troubling me,’ Stanley began, chewing anxiously on his pen. ‘The Blue Rose.’


Albert crossed his legs in the booth of the 24/7 diner they had stopped at. ‘And?’


‘I never asked you how you joined the bureau, Doctor.’


‘I was top of my class at Yale, and Gordon stopped in, just about a week before graduation, to ask if I'd like further training at the academy. Said he'd like to see someone like me help solve difficult cases. I signed up on the spot,’ he recounted.


Stanley worried his lip again. ‘I was asked to consult on the Whitman case about five years ago. I was the local medical examiner, but the agent said my work was what blew the case wide open, so to speak. Gordon called me the day after it was finished. Told me that he'd rush my application to the academy if I wanted to join, but only because he said I was so good at the tough cases.’ He paused. ‘I found out a few months ago I've only been assigned to Blue Rose cases. After that, this case came up, the first time I heard Cole call it one during a briefing, and now….’


~ • ~


‘Mind if I smoke?’


‘Nicotine’s a drug, you know.’


Albert struck a match and cupped his hand delicately around the end of his cigarette. ‘We all have our vices, Sam,’ he stated, shaking out the match.


Stanley shook his head. ‘My father was an alcoholic. That wasn't a vice, it was a disease.’


~ • ~


‘I’ve been reassigned. Permanently, it seems. Portland’s my new home.’


‘Might be for the best,’ Albert responded. ‘I heard they called the search off for Chet. It’d be good for someone who knew him to be in the area in case he does turn up sometime.’


Stanley’s mouth made itself into a thin line. ‘I don't want to have to identify his body.’


‘He might still turn up unharmed,’ Albert lied; a rescue mission gone in mere days is a sign that all hope is lost. The next time they'd be seeing Chet would be in a body bag.


Albert was waiting for the car to take him to the airport, take him back home to Philadelphia, his warm bed and McCoy waiting. He felt unsure about leaving, though he didn't know why.


‘Before you go,’ Stanley started, ‘I wanted to let you know something. Before I had left the Philadelphia office, I had found a sheet of paper partway through the shredder.’


‘So you want me to make sure my coworkers clean up better next time?’


‘It’s not that. On the sheet, there were names. Our names. And a few others – Agent Desmond, Agent Earle, Agent Jeffries, Agent Cooper, and Cole. All associated with Blue Rose cases. I'm not sure what else had been on the paper.’


Albert paused. ‘So what do you think all that means?’


‘Agent Earle is institutionalized, Agent Jeffries missing for years, and now Chet. I'm not entirely sure yet, but….’


A dark car was approaching, putting its blinker on to pull over. ‘But what?’


‘Doctor Rosenfield, don't you understand? I think someone is plucking the petals off the Blue Rose.’


~ • ~


For months after Albert returned, he exchanged letters with Stanley, at first informal, but quickly becoming frantically coded. Each one provided careful evidence that something was happening to agents assigned to Blue Rose cases. The list Stanley had found had been partial; with some digging, there was proof of at least five other agents who had seemingly disappeared from civilization after working on one of Cole’s special cases. They arranged to have their letters sent to a rotating schedule of safe locations, and Albert often found himself checking his surroundings to make sure he wasn't being followed.


November came, and with it, a bombshell.


I believe G.C. knows about the disappearances, Stanley wrote in scrawling script. Watch yourself. He may be behind the entire operation. After all, he had been the one to call off all of the searches.


Albert took a number of fieldwork assignments after that, bought a new coat after finding a small, inconspicuous hole in the liner of his old one.


Another letter arrived just before the holidays, tucked neatly into the mailbox of their current safe house.


Burn after reading, it began.

I regret to inform you that this will be the last communication we will have for some time. I have discovered that my position has been compromised, and that what we had feared for long is almost certainly true.

I, as it seems, am next. I had avoided this for long already, nearly too long. I suspect that once I am found one of three options will occur:

1 ) He will kill me, make it look like an accident, something that can be explained in a way that's far less sinister than it is in reality;

2 ) He will make me disappear – either physically, mentally, or both – but keep me alive to find out what I know;

3) He will erase every trace of me from this timeline until those who know me can't even remember ever seeing me.

If I succeed in my escape, expect a letter containing the agreed upon confirmation phrase at the next drop spot one month from now.

If nothing arrives, expect the worst.

Goodbye.

S.S.


~ • ~


The Philadelphia office in the early hours of February 26th seemed off somehow. Everyone he met acted unusually, the shifty-looking agents and suspicious staff deftly dodging one another – though even then there were far less personnel about for a normal Sunday. Nobody made eye contact with him; true, Albert wasn't a social butterfly, but at least some of them would normally do him the decency of treating him like a human being and acknowledge his existence. He was starting to get fed up, and decided that the break room would provide him the warmth that his coworkers were seemingly lacking that day.


‘Morning,’ he greeted, causing the only other form in the room to gasp. Diane whipped around, a lock of hair falling free from her usually pristine victory rolls. Her left hand was clutching the coffee pot, which wasn’t a surprise, but the steadiest secretary in the Bureau's hand was absolutely shaking, almost completely white at the knuckles from her grip.


She let out a sigh once she realized who it was. ‘Albert, you scared the devil out of me!’ Continuing, she poured herself a mug of coffee, followed by one for Albert, before putting the pot back into the machine, hand trembling all the while. ‘You can't just sneak up on people like that.’


He gave her a brief apologetic look before fixing his coffee with cream and sugar. ‘What the hell is going on today? Everyone seems on edge and it's driving me up the wall.’


Diane unwittingly rubbed the small silver Star of David charm on her necklace – an item she rarely wore outside of holy days – between her forefinger and thumb. She quickly glanced around the room before lowering her voice and leaning in. ‘Something’s wrong, Albert. I can feel it. They're keeping me in the dark, and I don't know why. All I know is, well. Gordon’s looking for you. Said it was urgent.’


‘Any reason why?’ he asked.


‘No idea. Just….be careful.’


Albert found his feet walking towards his shared office almost on autopilot, unsettled by the nervous tone in Diane’s voice. Upon entering the wide room, he found every desk empty, save for Cole’s, where the Regional Bureau Chief sat in utter silence; the absence of light banter that normally filled the office created a tight knot in Albert’s stomach that didn't ease up even after Gordon noticed him.


‘Glad you got the message, Albert,’ Cole shouted, effectively replacing the silence with far too much noise in a mere moment; though Albert was used to Gordon’s volume, today it took everything in him to avoid covering his ears. ‘Please, sit.’


‘What's all this about?’ he asked once settled into the chair across from him. Cole’s face was blank and he was fixated on a file on his desk, so Albert repeated himself once more, louder this time.


‘I have a few things to fill you in on,’ he looked up and continued, unaware of the repetition. ‘You remember Agent Stanley? I assigned you to train him a while ago. Nervous little fellow.’


Albert nodded. ‘Yeah, I think I remember him.’ He hadn't heard from Sam in over two months, and although he had already been given all possible outcomes, his heart rate sped up.


‘Sorry to be the one to tell you this Albert, but Agent Stanley showed up here the other day stark raving mad. Seems like he's had a complete and utter breakdown. Reeked of alcohol, too. Security had to take him out of the building.’


‘I see.’ Albert knew it was a lie. ‘Where is he now?’


‘Somewhere safe. He'll be on administrative leave while staying at a private drug and alcohol rehab program up north. Though there's no use looking for him,’ he added, barely a touch of a threat in his voice. ‘He’s there under a different name, for his own protection. We’ve got bigger problems though, Albert. You remember the Teresa Banks case we had out in Washington last year?’


‘Of course,’ he responded coolly, despite the whirring of questions slinging through his mind.


‘Well, I've caught word of a similar case close to there in a little town called Twin Peaks. I've already sent Coop out to check it out. He thinks it's the same killer,’ Gordon informed him.


Albert stopped his face from conveying a worried look at the mention of Cooper. He knew they had both been on the mysterious list, but he didn't really think Cole would put Dale of all people in harm’s way. Stanley was right; something was wrong and Gordon Cole knew exactly what. Until Albert got all his facts straight, he'd have to hold his cards close to his chest, at least for the time being.


‘I had been planning on sending Agent Stanley on this assignment, since he was the primary forensic examiner on the Banks case, but now that he's been –,’ an almost sinister pause, despite the somewhat upbeat tone of voice Cole was speaking in, ‘– indisposed, I need a good agent for this one. Someone I can trust.’


Steel yourself, Rosenfield, he thought. You can't give him even the slightest reason to doubt you.


Cole looked sternly at him, as if he was watching for even the tiniest twitch of muscle. For once in his life, Gordon spoke softer, meaning for every word to be heard on its own. ‘So Albert. Can I trust you for the job?’


‘I'm your man, Gordon.’