Janis Montclair was a woman who did not dress herself for sex appeal. She wore slacks and dress shirts, sometimes suits when the weather was cool enough. She used makeup sparingly, and kept her hair pulled back for a severe, professional appearance.
She lived by herself, with not even a pet to keep her company, in a small condominium in Victoria, Vancouver. Her bookshelves were a hodgepodge of subjects and stacks. Papers were strewn about her desk and other horizontal surfaces in random piles here and there. She was a twenty-nine year old forensic entomologist working in the crime labs at Victoria’s regional FBI office.
A text message arrived on her company cellphone. She pushed a small pile of papers aside to uncover the device and checked the message: “local pd case specimens in lab time sensitive”. Seven in the evening on a Sunday. No rest for the wicked, she thought, with a trace of irony.
She entered the three letters OMW as her response, got up from her desk, and collected her briefcase. Her keys moved from a hook on the wall to her pocket, and her coat was retrieved from a coathanger in the closet near the front door, before she opened her front door and stepped into the hallway. After a moment’s hesitation, she remembered that it was sleeting outside earlier when she had come home from work, so she ducked back in to grab her umbrella.
In the hallway, she saw her neighbor from two doors down coming to his own condominium. He was a bachelor, friendly, but fairly private. Sleet was crusting the shoulders of his peacoat and the red stocking cap on his head. He smiled when he saw her, as he usually did when they passed in the hallway. She nodded politely to him in return.
She never had felt comfortable around strangers, and the two of them never exchanged more than a few words with one another as a result. She reached the elevator just after the doors closed, and pushed the button. The elevator doors opened immediately, and her neighbor hesitated at his door long enough to glance at her again before disappearing inside his condo.
Janis looked after him, over her shoulder, and bit her lip. She couldn’t remember his name. She stepped into the elevator, feeling slightly relieved at escaping the need to make small talk.
She drove carefully through the sleet, and parked in her assigned spot. At a brisk walk, she made her way to the laboratory. While passing the laboratory administrator’s office, she saw that his light was on. The septuagenarian was at his desk, doing paperwork by the light of his desk lamp. It was a common sight, even outside of normal work hours. He didn’t bother to look up as she passed, or didn’t notice. Either way, she didn’t stop.
Janis had her own little section of the lab, a smallish room bordered on two sides by walls made up of panes of glass separated by thin aluminum joins. One of the off-hours research assistants was in the room looking through books and typing at one of the workstation terminals. She entered, removed her coat, and draped it over the back of a chair.
The assistant, an intern from the university, said “Dr. Montclair, it’s . . . weird. I can’t find anything in any of the databases.” She looked up at Janis. “These things don’t seem to match any of the common subphyla of arthropods.” She looked worried, like she expected to be blamed for not having more done.
Janis nodded. “Show me what you’re talking about. Do you have the file handy? When did the case come in?” Businesslike and brusque, she had a tendency to ask a series of questions all at once when dealing with the research assistants, rather than waiting for answers before continuing. She glanced around to get a look at the current situation as she spoke, mentally noting the presence of four small specimen jars on the workbench to one side and a fifth on the table in front of the assistant.
“The file is right here,” the assistant said, holding out a manila folder to Janis. She moved out of the way, making room for the entomologist to get at the workstation terminal. “They arrived a little over an hour ago,” the intern said with a helpless gesture. “Maybe I’m classifying their characteristics incorrectly. I’ve looked at four of them. I was just about to start trying to narrow down the other one.”
Janis nodded. “I can take over. Thanks, uh.” She realized she didn’t remember the girl’s name. “Thanks.”
“Do you want me to stick around to help, Doctor, or should I just get back to paperwork, or what?”
“You can do some paperwork, but stay handy in case I have questions.”
The assistant nodded. “Yes, Doctor.” She headed to the fileroom attached to the laboratory.
Rolling back her sleeves and pinning back her short hair, Janis moved to the workbench. She looked at the jars curiously, unconsciously smiling faintly to herself. If she noticed the smile, even she would have a hard time determining whether it was amusement at the intern’s difficulty or excitement at a potential challenge.
Each of the little specimen jars were labeled with case numbers and specimen numbers. The specimen numbers, she noted, were randomly distributed between 12 and 67. This should mean that there were at least 67 specimens from the scene, and only five of them had made it to the lab so far.
She flipped open the folder and started reading. The file was only a preliminary report, but she knew a more comprehensive report was sure to arrive during the day, probably with more specimen jars.
After a couple moments, she looked back at the specimen jars. At first glance, they didn’t look like any species of arthropod she had ever seen. She chose one at random for a closer look, blinking to herself. She could come up with no better adjective for what she was seeing than “odd”. It was obviously not quite an insect, but perhaps some other member of the hexapoda subphylum that she’d never seen before.
“What on earth . . . ?” It didn’t seem to match the characteristics of the hexapoda subphylum, either, she realized. An immediately obvious anomaly was the fact that it had a segmented thorax. She moved to the workstation terminal the assistant had been using, shifting books about, and started investigating the matter further. “What are you, my little friend?” she murmured. If only she had a living one. . . .
Hours passed in relative silence, broken only by the sounds of shuffling papers, clicking keys, quiet speculative mutterings, and similar auditory traces of her work. Ultimately, she was forced to come to the surprising conclusion that not one of them strictly matched the characteristics of any known sybphylum of Arthropoda at all, though they all definitely matched the general characteristics of the Arthropoda phylum itself. Further, every single one of the five specimens was a clearly distinct species from all the others. The discovery of a single new species of arthropod could make a career for life.
She shook off her amazement enough to begin drawing up highly detailed profiles of these five specimens, according to what appeared to be species characteristics. According to the report, there were a couple thousand such “bugs” littering a crime scene with ritualistic trappings and two dead. Not one single specimen was found living, according to the preliminary report. Surely, they must have sent these five specimens in particular because they were representative of the remainder. The notion that there were more than five distinct species would simply be too unlikely to believe.
Further investigation and analysis indicated that these five specimens differed enough that they must account for at least three new subphyla of Arthropoda, unless already known subphyla were to be redefined to allow for the characteristics of these species. She called the research assistant back with the intercom feature of the telephone, noticing that it was already past midnight. She asked for coffee, and for the assistant to get in touch with the Entomological Society of America, before burying her attention in her work again, barely noticing the girl’s acknowledgement of the request.
The coffee arrived shortly, and the intern informed her that a message was left with the ESA. She nodded, not looking up from the specimen that appeared to be a nymph form of its species, nearly ready to undergo hemimetabolism. It was by now mounted in an examination box, sitting on the focal tray for a laser surface mapping microscope.
“See if you can get the police department that sent these to schedule a time for me to see the crime scene,” Janis said. The assistant nodded mutely, hurrying away to make the call. A few minutes later, while Janis was watching a three dimensional model of the nymph take shape on the workstation terminal’s screen, the assistant returned to tell her that the police department would get back to them in the morning about the crime scene. Janis frowned, thinking about how many hours that meant, but thanked the intern.
At one in the morning, another research assistant intern arrived. For an hour, she had two of them, as their shifts overlapped. She got them working on indexing, collating, and researching old files for anything related to this case. They were doing grunt work while she did the fun stuff, or so she thought of it.
By five in the morning, Janis was on her fourth cup of coffee and had been back to only one assistant for the last three hours. The telephone rang, and a few moments later the intern said “It’s the PD for you, Doctor.”
“I’ll get it in my office,” she said, rubbing her eyes. She walked to her office, which she shared with another staff researcher. She picked up the handset and pushed the blinking light for Line 2. “Montclair speaking,” she said.
The voice on the other end was deep and harsh, and she imagined a stocky, craggy-faced veteran of the police department. “This is Sergeant Farrell of the Richmond Police Department. We understand you wanted to see the crime scene for the case related to the specimens we sent your office last night.” It sounded just slightly like he was reading from a script.
“Yes. It would help me better understand the evidence I’ve been sent. I’m not certain if you are aware how unusual they are.”
“Me?” he asked, rhetorically. “No, I’m just a cop. Look, we can set that up for you with the CSU, but first the county medical examiner wants to see you as soon as possible. Is that okay?”
“Certainly. Where am I to meet them?”
The shrug was almost audible. “The ME’s office, I guess. I’ll give you the address and phone number.”
“Thank you.” Her hands sought out her notepad and a pen.
After she wrote down the information he provided, for contacting both the medical examiner and the crime scene unit of the Richmond Police Department, he said “Just give the CSU a call back when you know when you’ll be in the area to see the scene.”
“Perfect. Thank you, officer.” She hung up the handset.
There was always more that could be done with the samples in the office, she figured, but she was at a reasonable stopping point. She went to the fileroom and let the assistant on duty know that she’d be out of the office to see the medical examiner. “If the ESA calls, forward it to my cell.”
“Sure thing, Doctor,” he answered.
“If the other specimens arrive while I’m out, please don’t touch them until I get back.” She walked out of the fileroom as he nodded his response, and got her coat from the entomological lab. Tired, but still excited, she pulled the coat on and started toward the elevator.
It had stopped sleeting at some point while she was in the lab. Thankfully, her car was in a covered parking garage so that she didn’t have to scrap an icy crust off her windshield before leaving. When she arrived at the medical examiner’s office, she told the receptionist her name, and was waved through. “He’s expecting you.”
“Thanks,” Janis offered.
Her steps carried her to the indicated office, and she knocked on the door. A voice on the other side said “Come in,” and in she went. She discovered that the Richmond medical examiner was an older gentleman, kindly-faced with gray hair. The nameplate on the door declared him “Dr. Chelten, Medical Examiner”.
He rose from his seat behind the desk as she entered, and didn’t mince words. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I want you to have a look at one of the bodies that came in last night, if you don’t mind.” He hesitated, then confirmed “Dr. Montclair. Right?”
She nodded. “Yes, and by all means. I’m rather curious about where the specimens were found at the scene.”
He approached, moving around the side of his desk, and offered his hand. “Dr. Geoffrey Chelten. Call me Geoff.”
“Nice to meet you. You can call me Jan.”
He nodded. “This way, please. There’s really nothing I can say that compares with just showing you.” He exited his office, and started down the hall toward an examination room.
“I have to admit, now you have me very curious.” She kept pace with him. “You’ve never seen anything like this, I take it.”
They entered an anteroom attached to the examination room. He handed her a pair of gloves, a paper hat to hold her hair back, a pair of goggles, and a surgical mask. He got one of each for himself as well. “Nothing like it. I’ve never even heard of anything like this.”
With delicate movements, she donned the offered protective gear. “The specimens I’ve seen aren’t anywhere in the books. They’re all new, from what I’ve seen.”
Geoffrey grunted softly in response. He buttoned his labcoat shut. “I hope you’re not squeamish,” he said, and opened the glass door from the anteroom into the examination room itself.
She couldn’t be squeamish, actually, given what she did for a living. She had pried cocoons out of the orifices of corpses, dug through entrails for maggots, and done other perfectly lovely things like that, all as part of her job.
“There’s no indication of any kind of contagion,” he said as he held the door for her, “but we’ve separated the body from any others anyway. The situation is just too strange to do otherwise.”
“Very well,” she said as she stepped through. She saw the body on a stainless steel table, split wide open, the ribcage split and ribs cracked so that they could be laid open like double doors to reveal the innards of the corpse. The colors, at first glance from halfway across the room, looked wrong somehow. She raised a brow, moving closer.
Geoffrey approached the table, his arms folded across his chest, and looked down at the body as though it had offended him slightly by its strangeness. She arrived alongside him, and saw that there were more blacks, browns, and greens inside this body than there should be. Some bits seemed swollen, some seemed to be slicked with strange humours, and there were odd-looking arthropods everywhere inside. “Oh, I see what what you mean,” she said. Her eyes widened.
There was a tray nearby with clean surgical tools laid on it — probes, tweezers, scalpels, clamps, forceps, a bone saw, and so on. He answered “Look closer. It’s weirder than you think.”
“How long ago was the body found? Do you mind if I probe?” She picked up one of the surgical probes.
“Be my guest,” he replied. “It was about three in the afternoon yesterday, according to the reports. I think they’re still gathering insects from the scene.”
She nodded. “They should really wait so I can see their placement before they move them. It makes my job so much easier that way.” She began to explore the exposed body cavity, and the distended and damaged organs, with the pointed surgical probe.
Upon closer examination, it looked to her like the soft tissues had been torn, eaten away, or otherwise damaged quite a lot. Many of the internal organs were in tatters. Even worse, some of the small chitinous creatures seemed to be stuck to the soft tissues somehow. Geoffrey was speaking as she looked around, saying “I saw the scene. There’s not really any placement to examine, from what I saw. Just heaps of the things, like snowdrifts or something, with the thickest drifts being where this body was. They had to clear a path through them just to get to the body.”
“Were there any other bodies? Have you managed to detach any of these from the tissue yet? This body has to be older than just three in the afternoon yesterday, given the development of these . . .” she trailed off. She suddenly realized that the bugs weren’t “stuck”, really. They seemed to be partially formed, like they actually sprouted from the soft tissues of the organs themselves.
He responded as she fell silent in wonder. “I cut one away to examine it. There doesn’t seem to be any dividing line where the human tissue ends and the insect begins.”
She gathered her wits about her, and said “Oh my. These . . . these grew out of the tissue. Look here, this is a new form of symbiosis, maybe.” That couldn’t be what was really going on here, but at the same time there didn’t seem to be any other explanation that worked, either.
The medical examiner shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think the tears in the soft tissues are mostly from the things pulling away. It looks more like they just grew there, then pulled out and found their way out of the body. Cause of death so far looks like nothing more explainable than massive tissue damage from all these things pulling out and trying to get out of the body. Not a very symbiotic relationship.”
“How long has he been dead?” Janis asked.
“It’s hard to tell. Lividity isn’t giving any hints, because the fluids are all wrong. Rigor mortis wasn’t a factor by the time I arrived, so I’m guessing it was hours before that, but I can’t be sure that rigor would even come into play with the way this body has been changed. Considering the lack of decay, it would have to be less than a week, but again the fluids make that uncertain. The other body, though, I place at about midnight Saturday night.”
“This quickly,” she said, and whistled softly. No two of the specimens in the body seemed to be particularly alike, bringing the probable tally of different species so far into the thirties at least.
“It’s impossible for me to say at this time how long the specimens were pupating in the body,” she said, “but as soon as I have answers I will let you know. Given that we have no living examples, and that they are all of different species, it is very hard to make any conclusions at all, really.”
“The . . . insects . . . this damage was peri-mortem,” Geoffrey said. “It looks like it was the insects that killed him. Considering the number of them, I don’t think they could have been pupating at all. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Geoff, they aren’t insects.”
“You’re the entomologist,” he said, conceding the point. “The woman, the other body I mean, was killed by them as well, but differently. They swarmed over her, apparently. She choked on them.”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this,” Janis said. “You’re guessing that they exited him, and overcame her?”
“That looks like it’s exactly what happened,” the medical examiner confirmed. “The total mass of the, um, bugs, found at the scene is more than the mass of this body should have been, though.”
“Amazing. They must reproduce at a phenomenal rate, but I don’t know where they could have gotten the mass for this. I haven’t found any indication of what killed these arthropods themseles, yet.” She saw the medical examiner just shake his head, lacking anything to say to that, still standing with his arms folded. She continued her exploration of the body cavity carefully, for a while, looking for anything else that might help to shed light on the subject. All she found was more of the same, though. “So very strange. I’ll look into some more of the older files, but I doubt I’ll find anything like this. I hope you’re taking a lot of photographs. We have something new for the books here, Geoff.”
“Yes, plenty of photos,” he agreed. “I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t think I can list massive tissue trauma due to spontaneous genesis of bugs as the cause of death. It’s like taking a step back to Dark Ages Europe for medical theory.”
She chuckled. “It certainly isn’t something you see every day — but what else are we going to say?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope I don’t get any more of these, though.”
“I have months’ worth of work cut out for me classifying what we’ve already found. They’re all unique, these creatures. All of them never seen before.”
“More good news,” he said, a hint of resignation in his voice. “A discovery that’s just a little weird can make a career. One that’s a lot weird can destroy it, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Janis asked.
“Nobody who doesn’t see this in person is going to believe the facts of the case. Period. I’m a government employee: my job is the opposite of rocking the boat, here. I’m not a research scientist, and there’s nothing here that looks reproducible to me anyhow. How can this be a good thing?”
“Hm. I guess I can see your point,” she said thoughtfully. “I personally can’t help but feel like this is going to get even bigger somehow, though.”
“If no two are the same,” he continued, “that means that what you have is thousands of exceptions, mutations, anomalies, something like that. Not a single new species, really. Until you find more than one of any of them, anyhow.”
“Like I said, months of work ahead of me,” she responded, “to check and recheck that no two match as well as all the other work.”
“Maybe this really is going to get even bigger.” He shrugged again. “All I can do is keep plodding along, documenting what I find, and try to keep my head down for a while.”
“I hope it works out for you,” she said sympathetically. “I don’t think I’ll be able to do that.”
“Well, good luck to you, anyhow. Let me know if you find anything out that illuminates my job here, please.”
Janis nodded. “Naturally. Please call me if anything else develops. Also, well, of course, the specimens from the bodies.”
He nodded as well. “Of course. You’ll get copies of all my reports on this.”
“Thank you. Good luck, Doctor.”
“Thanks. Can you see yourself out? I’m going to get back to work in here, now that you’ve seen it.”
She smiled. “Of course. Good afternoon, then.” She began her retreat, removing cap, gloves, mask, and goggles.
“You can just drop that in the waste receptacle by the door, put the goggles on the table next to it,” Geoffrey said with a motion toward something like a trashcan with a biohazard symbol on it and an orange trashbag in it. She followed his direction, and left.
The sun was shining gray morning light into the city now, and the sky was clearing up. It wasn’t rush hour yet, but there was traffic as people headed into early morning jobs. The air was crisp and chill, and her breath fogged. She felt exhaustion trying to catch up to her as she checked her cellphone for messages, then called the crime scene unit about seeing where all the arthropods had been found.
They told her to come on down to their offices at the police department, and gave her directions. She would be met by an investigator named Wallace. About ten minutes of driving later found her at the front desk of the department precinct, asking for a CSI named Wallace. He came out to greet her quickly, once the desk sergeant called back to the crime scene unit’s offices from the telephone on his desk. Wallace was wearing what looked like black military cargo pants tucked into some canvas boots and a CSU windbreaker. He had a neatly trimmed strawberry blonde goatee, and glasses over green eyes.
“I’m David Wallace. You must be Dr. Montclair.” He offered a hand.
She took the hand, thinking he must have a bit of Irish in him, and tried not to blush. Janis silently cursed herself for getting flustered every time she met an attractive man through her work. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “Shall we?”
He nodded as he took his hand back. “We’ll take a department car, if you don’t mind,” he said. He started walking away, assuming she would follow.
She did follow, jogging a couple paces to catch up. “No, not at all. I assume you’ve already been to the scene.”
“Yep. I was on the team that took over for graveyard at eight. Came back here to meet you.” He led her to the department’s underground garage.
“I appreciate that,” she said. “You must be having a hell of a time down there, if what I’ve already seen is any indication.”
“It’s a lot of tedious work right now,” he answered. “We’re packaging and logging every single one of those bugs individually. We had to wait two hours at one point for more specimen jars.” They arrived at an SUV with “RPD CSU” on the side. He unlocked the doors with a press of a button on a keychain device, and got into the driver’s seat.
She climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle and buckled up. “I wish I could have seen it as you found it. I might have to try to reconstruct the scene a little, in case I’m missing something. I’ve never seen a case quite like this before.”
“We have photographs. They should be arriving at your office soon with the secondary report we sent this morning.”
“That will help.” She considered the notion that a gallon or two more coffee might help, too. Wallace pulled the SUV out of the parking space and started the drive toward the crime scene.