6:00pm - Sunday
Jane sat in Faber Pharmaceuticals testing room, luxuriating in the exotic taste and texture of English clotted cream. She'd responded to an add asking for research volunteers weeks ago and now participated in a study run by Faber. Each day she'd drop by the testing room and eat one of the provided foods containing an artificial fat. The volunteers were asked to report any physical ailments and though Jane had noticed some dizziness and headaches, she hadn't reported them for fear of being bumped from the study ... this was the easiest money she'd ever made.
Within minutes of leaving Faber Pharmaceuticals for the bus stop a few blocks away, Jane realized she was being followed. She tried to elude her pursuer, call for help, but this warehouse area in the SOMA District was deserted and her muscle twitches and impaired balance slowed her down. Finally she collapsed on the cold asphalt of a back alley, trembling. Squinting up through a throbbing headache, she watched the early moon's light trace the sheer edge of the long-bladed knife her pursuer held.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, through her terror.
The other hesitated and the knife wavered. "Your sacrifice is regrettable but necessary." Then the knife steadied and was again raised.
Petrified, Jane watched as the weapon swung toward her in a deadly arc. Done, it didn't hurt as much as she'd expected ... just a cold stinging throughout her neck. Then the asphalt seemed to rise up and slam against her head. Stunned, vision greying out, Jane watched her headless corpse, a few feet away, as it crumpled, pumping blood.
* * * * *
Noon - Monday
Homicide Inspector Luke Andrews leaned in the open doorway of one of Faber Pharmaceuticals labs, reading a book as he waited for Beth. Absorbed in a conversation with her boss, Dr. James Lennox, she hadn't even noticed his presence. Lennox, a research neurologist, was showing Beth what looked like a human brain, sliced into wafer-thin sections. Swallowing down faint nausea, Luke glanced at his watch and sighed. He wouldn't have much time for lunch today ... there'd been another murder last night and he and his partner were assigned the case. Or cases ... this latest murder, in which a woman had been found headless, was the third in as many weeks. He was no closer to solving the case today than when the murders had begun.
"Luke, sorry I made you wait."
All thoughts of murder forgotten, he smiled down at Beth. "No problem. We'll have to hurry, though ... I've only got half an hour."
She nodded and as they walked to his car, she pointed to the book Luke carried. "What's that?"
"Research. I stopped by the library on the way over here - thought I'd glance through this while I waited for you."
Beth read the title aloud. "Head Hunters of Borneo ... ?"
"it's for the murder case I'm working - my partner thinks some kind of primitive cult is behind the decapitations. I don't agree but from what I've read so far, it is a fascinating subject ... did you know that it's fairly simple to make a shrunken head? First, you remove the flesh from the skull by boiling, and then ..."
Beth held up a hand. "Please, we're on our way to lunch, remember?"
"Sorry. So, tell me about what you and the professor are working on."
Beth brightened. "James is experimenting with the prions that cause transmissible spongiform encephalopathies such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease."
"Mad Cow disease?"
"Yes, the human form of it. The research was going slowly at first from a lack of adequate infected specimens, but now things are moving along. What James is doing is so important ... many of the other scientists here are only interested in money, searching for cures for toenail fungus and erectile disfunction, but James wants to save lives ..."
"Speaking of saving lives," Luke broke in, "I'm worried about you working in this area of town. All of the decapitation victims have been killed near here."
"No problem. James has been walking me to my car after work. Did you know that he ..."
Suppressing a sigh, Luke allowed Beth's voice to fade into his perceptual background as he watched her face, vivid with her admiration of Lennox. If only I could have that effect on her, he thought sadly.
* * * * *
11:00pm - Tuesday
Luke quietly finessed the lock on the door of the laboratory where Beth and Dr. Lennox worked, letting himself inside. He snapped on a flashlight and swept it around the darkened room ... although he'd been here many times to see Beth, he'd never paid much attention to the lab itself. It seemed to possess all the typical accouterments ... tables, sinks, a refrigerator, an autoclave and lots of technical equipment. What caught Luke's eye, however, were the glass jars that lined one wall. Within them, floating serenely in formaldehyde, were human brains.
Luke began to search the room, not really sure what he was looking for. With his partner off to Sausalito, following up a lead on a transplanted head hunting cult, Luke had been the one to catch the call from the medical examiner that afternoon ... the call that provided the first relevant clue in this series of brutal murders. The lab analysis of the stomach contents of the first victim, killed three weeks ago, had finally come back ... she'd recently eaten a clotted cream dessert made with prion infested human brain tissue. The ME had then rushed the lab analysis of the other victims and found the same thing.
A little further investigating had found another commonality between the victims - all had been volunteers in a study at Faber. What he'd learned hadn't been conclusive enough to merit a search warrant for the pharmaceutical company but Luke hadn't been able to stop himself from breaking in to search for something more. Almost done with his search, Luke came to Lennox's desk. All of the drawers but the bottom one were unlocked and held nothing of interest beyond the information that Lennox was from Britain ... mad cow country. Jimmying the last drawer's lock, Luke opened it to find a medical bag and within the bag, a long blood-encrusted knife. He swore softly ... Lennox was involved in the murders and Beth was in terrible danger.
Luke pulled out his cell phone to call Beth, to warn her, but before he could dial, the phone trilled softly.
"Luke, it's me."
Recognizing Beth's voice, Luke began to speak but she interrupted him.
"Don't talk, just listen ... I'm at James' house. He's the one whose been killing those women. It has something to do with his research. He says he needs to talk to you about it, explain things. If you promise to come alone and listen to what he has to say, he'll let me go and give himself up."
Heart thumping, Luke forced himself to remain calm. "Put him on the line, Beth." The only reply he received was a dial tone.
* * * * *
Luke gazed up at Lennox's two-story Victorian home in the Richmond District. The house was dark and the front door stood open. He pulled out his firearm, checking the clip, and snicked off the safety. Entering cautiously, he let his eyes adjust to the darkness and then reached for a light switch ... it didn't work. An eerie silence reigned. There was no sign of Lennox or Beth in the living room, but it was evident that some kind of a struggle had occurred there. Deciding that the element of surprise would give Beth the better chance of survival, Luke began a furtive sweep of the house.
All of the rooms on the ground floor proved to be empty and Luke was about to climb the stairs when he heard a sound from below ... a basement? Within minutes, he found the door to the basement, reached for the doorknob and felt something warm and sticky. Blood. It took all of his training to keep Luke from crashing down the basement stairs but he knew that would likely bring about the very thing he wanted to avoid - harm to Beth. So, pistol held before him, he eased the door open and slowly stepped down the stairs into an even deeper darkness.
It was the smell that reached him first ... a charnel house odor. He forced down the need to switch on his flashlight - it would too easily reveal his position - and instead followed his nose. His hip knocked against a table and he leaned close, trying to see in the basement's dimness. When Luke realized what lay before him, he jerked back, choking. Resting on that table were Lennox's trophies ... the severed heads of the four women he'd slain. In the semi-darkness, Luke could barely make out the fact that the bloody heads were empty, so to speak. Huge holes had been sawed into each cranium in order, he guessed, to remove the brains ... prion infected brains for the mad scientist's research.
A sudden noise drew his attention to another part of the basement and he saw a muzzle flash, then heard the roar of gunfire. A figure loomed in the darkness but Luke didn't shoot, afraid of hurting Beth. Abruptly he was thrown backwards against the wall by the impact of something striking his chest. Falling, he lay gasping on the basement's cold floor, disoriented, watching a pool of his own blood begin to form. He heard footsteps approach. Someone bent low over him and he saw, to his surprise, that it was Beth. Confused, Luke tried to rise. Beth reached out to him, he thought to help him up, but then he saw the pistol in her hand. He watched uncomprehendingly, as she smiled and pulled the trigger.
* * * * *
10:00 am - Friday
Luke woke up to a kind of panic. It took the nurse a full ten minutes to calm him down, to reassure him that despite his inability to move or speak, he would, in a few months, recover. Leaving, She said she'd page his doctor and that in the meantime, he had a visitor.
Beth sat down in the chair next to his bed. Luke felt his heart skip a beat, then bang against his ribs. It took an enormous effort not to let reconstruct what had happened that night, not to see Lennox bending over him with the pistol instead of his Beth.
"I see you remember," she said, seeming to read his mind. "I'd hoped this wouldn't be necessary ... who knew you'd be so hard to kill ... but I came prepared, just in case." Beth opened a Tupperware container and drew a plastic spoon from her purse.
Luke's eyes widened and he tried to move, to call the nurse ... all he could do was tremble with the crazed thumping of his heart.
"If you're curious as to why I did it all, killed those women and framed Lennox, well ... it was for job security. With Lennox out of the picture, his position at Faber will be mine. I certainly deserve it more than he did - he plodded along for years, trying to find a cure for CJD while I was able, in just a few months, to find a way to speed up the incubation period of CJD from years to a few weeks ... those women I killed were in end-stage brain disease after just a few feedings!"
Beth stirred the clotted cream, smiling. "And having a friendship with you, the homicide inspector on the case, made the whole thing that much easier to accomplish. I planted evidence where you'd be sure to find it and, of course, everyone thinks you shot Lennox in self defense while you were saving me."
Luke closed his eyes for a moment, unwilling to believe he could have so wrongly judged her character, her feelings for him. He opened them to see her coming at him with a heaping spoonful of brain-tainted clotted cream.
"Now open wide."