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Manifest Destiny

He hath a thousand slayn this pestilence
Geoffrey Chaucer ~ 1387

Major Crime Units, Dispatch Facility,

West Philadelphia
January 13, 2:17 am

"Sergeant Mitchel, I've got a Major Daniels from the Port of Philadelphia Homeland Security Force on the IATF hotline."

She pronounced the acronym for the Inter-Agency Task Force as 'eye-tif', one of hundreds of code words and phrases she had become familiar with over the dozen years she had worked this softly lit room with its clustered cubicles. She listened to the distorted voices on the network, a large black woman in her mid fifties, knowledgeable about the system in the way that officers on their way through would never achieve.

"He's asking for a half dozen black and whites," she added, "a homicide team and the coroner's wagon down at Traskers Shipping Yard. Its an address down by the old Navy Yards.

"He's telling me that the night shift just dropped one of the shipping containers, and it's full of dead bodies."

The dispatcher listened for a few more seconds on her headset before toggling back into the desk sergeant's circuit.

"Sounds like he's calling in the Feds as well, sir." She listened again to the panicky voice from the young military officer at the scene. Her capable fingers flew across the touch screen, tracing the call, querying its routes and destinations.

"Dip-shit!" she muttered. "He's sending this out in clear. Every nut-job in the city with a scanner will know what's going on down there."

Traskers Shipping Yard

South Philadelphia
January 13, 2:39 am

Large cities never sleep. Even in the small hours of the morning work continues. Power plants roar, hospitals moan, and the tide waits for no man. The job of loading and unloading the many ships that ferry goods to and from the great city goes on at all hours of the day and night.

Traskers is a small yard servicing the much diminished port facilities above the original Naval facilities. In the 19th century these dock yards were the center of Phildelphia's seafaring commerce. In today's world of container vessels and railhead shipping yards the majority of the business has moved farther down stream to Chester and Marcus Hook. Nevertheless a steady trickle of lesser ships still calls in at the old docks and unloads their cargo at the more central location.

Many of the old warehouses and sail-making facilities that clustered around the old docks have been gentrified, converted to artist's lofts and trendy condominiums. Amid the new population of stockbrokers and software moguls there is a constant grumble about the working of the few actual shipping facilities that survive. The lights and the noise late at night keep the pencil pushers awake, and they don't like it. Indeed, tonight is going to be complained about mightily at the monthly condo meetings and in the snippy letters to the editor of the Daily Bugle. In addition to the clanking of the chains and the whine of the hydraulics from the cranes, there is growing cacophony of sirens and bullhorns.

Police cars have set up a cordon of bright yellow tape around a five block area, not letting anyone in or out unless they can verify their reason for coming or going. A coroner's wagon has pulled in to the front entrance of Trasker's yard and a slew of other vehicles, official and private, but each topped with its own flashing light in various hues of white, blue, red, and yellow have parked at odd angles on the streets alongside it. A TV news van has made its way into the center of the activity by creeping through back alleys and the camera crew is busily seeking any footage they can find.

A Canadian air mass, frigid with the bight of polar wastes, has settled on the city, plunging the ancient English port into bitter winter almost overnight. Shelters are overflowing with homeless and the deranged. The crews in the coroner's ambulances - meat wagons in the trade - have been busy all night prying frozen corpses from cast iron gratings or carrying charred children from house fires caused by faulty heating systems pushed beyond their abilities.

Now, at a quarter to three in the morning, the Inter-Agency Task Force has dispatched a full crime unit to the seedy side of town. Trasker's Yard is in the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge - part of the old docks area, located on land that's too contaminated to ever build homes or offices on, yet too valuable to simply abandon.

Coroner's Ambulance

South Philadelphia
January 13, 2:42 am Coordinates for the crime scene have been downloaded from the city's Police Department to the mapping units on all responding emergency vehicles. Lists and roles of who has been assigned, along with reams of PDF files detailing the responsibilities of each agency have jammed mobile mail boxes across the city.

Sirens wail as the many agencies summoned descend on the scene. Fortunately the streets are empty. Moonlight glitters on icy patches as the driver of Coroner's Unit 42 weaves a route through the maze of streets that has nothing to do with the directions being shown on the heads-up mapping display. Art Prudowski is a veteran of the first Iraq war and has a fine disdain for all things technological. His passenger, Teagan Harper, is not watching his progress. She sways to and fro with the sudden twists and turns of the vehicle, but her focus is on the mobile device in her hand, decoding the masses of data sent our by the IATF.

By all rights, Harper should be home in bed by now. She's at the ragged edge of a double shift, and needs food desperately to boost her body sugars back up into the functioning level. Nevertheless, as the ranking coroner on call when the IATF summons came in, she's out again into the bitter cold, just hoping that Prudowski doesn't crash the wagon before they get there. At last he slows, unable to find a way past the sudden press of official vehicles blocking the entrance to the shipping yard.

Police vehicles give way to the meat wagon, and Prudowski inches forward to the chain link gate. A pair of uniformed SWAT officers with assault rifles slung over their shoulders stand behind the police constables on guard. Harper can see vehicles with Federal plates parked in several locations nearby.

She identifies herself to the guards and they wave her through. One of the SWAT officers stands on the running board to guide them through the dark maze of the yard to the actual scene of the crime. The route leads along looming black canyons between stacks of shipping containers, often three or four high. Tall skeletons of cranes and over-sized fork-lifts stand in black contrast against the pale moonlight. The headlights pick out frozen ruts in the greasy dirt and occasional tufts of weeds struggling to survive in sheltered corners.

A second gate looms ahead with its own phalanx of guardians. Large signs declare that this is a US Customs Bonded Storage Facility protected by Federal Law. Homeland Security is in charge of the passage here, but the camouflaged troopers barely glance at her badge as they wave the wagon forward. The gate is locked behind them, and Harper is well aware of the fact that they are now on land that is technically not under the jurisdiction of the city.

They drive past more containers, and suddenly they have reached their destination. The SWAT officer jumps clear, and Harper calls to him, asking if he can identify . . . she checks her hand-held for the name . . . Detective Koltenbach. The blast of cold air through the open window is enough to freeze the moisture in her nostrils and make her teeth ache.

"Over there," the SWAT guy points with his rifle. "The big guy with the skinny blond. She's a Fed."

Looking over at the two mentioned, Harper sees a tall, powerful man with a thick belly clearly shouting at a slender woman who is holding her ground, even though he towers over her. He is dressed in a bright orange snow parka and heavy pants. She is in black leather, and even at this distance, Harper can tell it's an expensive coat with a designer label.

Beyond these two is a cul-de-sac in the container canyons with a blue shipping container listing to one side, crumpled at the seams in the middle of the rutted track. A small army of technicians in cold waether gear is setting up temporary lights to illuminate the exterior of the scene, and even as she watches, several lights are switched on, casting a bright white glare over the metal wall of containers.

Glancing down at her hand-held unit, Harper can see that Detective Max Koltenbach and Special Agent Hannah Bradford both have oversight roles at the scene, according to IATF protocols. Of course the protocols were written by a dozen different bureaucrats in as many different agencies, and no one has ever bothered to sort of the differences between them. Each one is as valid as the next and in practice it will be a struggle of wills between these two as to who takes the lead in the investigation.

Luckily, she has credentials that cut across all such agency rivalries. There's only one Coroner's Office in the city, and she's in charge of the physical evidence around the bodies until she says otherwise.

"Give 'em a toot, Art," she suggests. "Let them know we're here."

Prudowski leans on the horn a few seconds longer than needed, but it has the necessary effect of getting the battling twosome's attention. Koltenbach waves them forward and the medical technician eases the wagon alongside the widest split he can see in the shipping container.

Now its time to get out of the heated cab, and if the blast through the window had undone her, the actuality of stepping out into sub-zero weather is ten times worse. She's wearing silk long johns, ski clothes and her own bulging parka. Her boots are heated with tiny battery driven coils, but even so she can feel the heat being leached out of her, and knows again that she must eat soon to replace the fuels she has been burning all day long.

The introductions are brief. Bradford is indeed wearing an expensive leather coat, with a fur collar, and she seems impervious to the cold. She has regular shoes on, for God's sake, and she's not even shivering. Koltenbach is a bear of a man with a crop of dark stubble on his chin. In his cheap hunter's clothes he looks like a dock worker himself, but she knows him by reputation as being an efficient investigator.

"Any one been inside?" Harper asks, nodding at the gaping black split that offers access to the interior of the long box that has fallen and twisted askew in the yard.

"Yeah," growls Koltenbach. "The guy that dropped the sucker took a look inside when he first did it. I get the feeling that if he hadn't seen too much damage, he'd have just picked it up again and pretended nothing had happened. But he sees bodies, and he's smart enough to realize he needs to call it in. Since then, no one's been inside."

He waves an orange clad arm at the tall chain-link fence that surrounds the inner part of the yard.

"This is a secure facility. No one unauthorized in or out. You saw the grunts on the gates. They take this shit seriously."

"Dr. Harper," Agent Bradford speaks with a modulated Southern accent, but there is no trace of the hick in her. She has gone to private school. Her words are precise and well chosen. "We've held the scene as pristine as we can, pending your arrival. If I might be allowed to accompany you, under your supervision, of course, I'd like to get a first hand look inside before your technicians get to work."

"Me too," nods Koltenbach abruptly with a brief glare at the Federal agent.

It's a politeness for them to ask. Turning them down would cause problems, and Harper merely nods her agreement. Prudowksi's been getting their gear ready. Everyone has powerful flashlights and he's rigged a lamp on a long extension cord to offer additional illumination inside. He clamps it to the side of the container, above head height with the light shining inside.

Shipping Container Interior

Secure Customs Facilities
Trasker's Yard, Philadelphia
January 13, 3:05 am

The container looks fairly new, compared to the many rusty old crates Dr. Harper has seen in the yard on their drive in. Normally it would be crammed full of cargo. That is, after all, the purpose of a shipping container. But this one had been packed with a different plan in mind. The interior, illuminated by the clamped-on light, has been set up as a passable living space, though rather cramped. Two sets of bunks three deep are bolted to opposite sides of the long walls. A Porta-Potty has been strapped to one side to the container. It's leaning on its side right now with the door swung open. She's glad of the bitter cold weather at that. It's frozen the contents and they have not spilled over the rest of the interior - yet.

At the far end of the container, in the beam of their flash lights, there look to be a pair of large filing cabinets and a wooden plank between them. There's a large metal box of some kind up there as well, and scattered throughout the furnishings are the broken bodies of several men and women, looking for all the world like toys flung aside by a child in a tantrum. Of course their placement was probably caused by the dropping of the container. But that wasn't what had killed them. It didn't take an expert to see that.

Each of the bodies was badly mutilated. Large holes had been gouged in flesh, limbs had been crushed and partly removed, ribs had been pulled out and snapped apart. Someone, or several someones, had gone on a frenzy of killing in here. Nasty, horribly violent killing with a great deal of pain involved. Nor was that the strangest thing she could see. Each of the victims had a large cooking pot attached over their heads, apparently wired in place. Indeed, each pot was wrapped in insulated electrical wiring looking like lamp cord, with a black box about the size of a cigarette pack taped on the side of the pot.

"Holy Jeez," whispered Koltenbach beside here. "These guys must've really pissed someone off, you think?"

He didn't seem to expect a response and she focused instead on keeping her thoughts in order as she surveyed the scene. The echos of past violence and terror seemed to bounce off the steel walls as she took in the details one by one.

Reaching in her coat pocket she pulled out a pair of black latex gloves and relutantly pulled first one hand and then the other out of the heavy lined gloves she was wearing. The intense cold leached life and color out of her fingers making them look like pale twigs as she snapped the black gloves in place.

“Get pictures of everything,” she spoke to Prudowski over jer shoulder as she moved slowly around the tilted interior, careful not to touch anything. Crouching down she used the beam of her flashlight to trace the details of the cooking pot attached to the closest body.

“Someone check this for bombs?”, she asked looking at Koltenbach with a raised eyebrow.

The police detective paused in his instructions to the lighting engineer who was standing at the split in the side of the container through which they had entered.

"No, ma'am, they have not," he growled with a raised eyebrow. The technician behind him took a slow, carefull step backwards -- allowing Special Agent Bradford to stick her head inside the container. She looked around quickly, taking in the poorly lit scene and stepped back herself. Teagan was aware that the woman was now speaking on her cell phone -- seemingly arguing with someone. Perhaps that was just her way -- confrontative.

Koltenbach took his own cell phone out of a slim holster on his belt and asked her "Do you want a bomb squad? They're going to destroy a lot of your evidence for sure -- probably just foam the whole conatiner, leave you to sort it out afterwards."

Teagan sighed but nodded, "Yea I would say so. But.", she gave a small smile, "Doesn't mean we can't look around into they get here does it?"

Standing she cocked her head and looked around. Something was just not right here. More than the pots heads that was. She didn’t know anything off hand that could rip a person around like that.

Looking more closely at the bodies scattered about, careful not to disturb them, she can now see that the damage was inflicted quite deliberately, probably using power tools of some kind. Squatting down and shining her flashlight up inside the nearest victim's cooking pot helmet, she can't see anything inside but head and hair. This particular body is that of a large and powerful black man. One of his feet looks to have been hacked most of the way off with an axe or cleaver -- there are clear signs of multiple blows to the flesh. Wide holes in his thighs and abdomen look as if they might have been inflicted with an electric drill using a hole cutting blade. His stomach has been slit open and his entrails pulled out -- icy and frozen now, glittering in the bright, focused light.

Whoever it was, they took their time and they weren't in the least bit squeamish. This would have been very messy. Indeed there are wide patches of dried blood splattered all over the rough furniture and bare walls of the shipping container.

Teagan willed down her stomach and wished she hadn't eaten a few hours ago. Who ever did this was one sick fuck in her mind. How she wondered, as she looked at the what was his feet, would someone take down a person like that down? She looked at the body for any signs of being bound or needle marks.

"Get pictures of this.", she said keeping her voice bland she could make it. "And digital film of the area. I hope Jack put back the camera this time because if he didn't his ass is fired. Or we call him out here to do it."

Looking down at the floor she asked, “Anyone else been here?”, looking for what kind of foot prints would be on the floor.

"We're the first, other than the one guy who found them. And he didn't go in very far. Backed out real quick, his boss said, jabbering in Spanish about the devil or some such. Don't blame him. This place gives me the willies, too."

Koltenbach is hanging back, letting her take the lead in the investigation of the scene. He's still got his cell phone in his hand, but he hasn't called for the bomb squad yet.

"What's it gonna be, Bones? Bomb squad or more lights in here?"

Nodding about the guy she looked over the place standing still. "Both. But to be safe so the chief doesn't get on me I would say Bomb squad. But we both know how long they will take this time of morning. Just be careful where you walk."

At that she moved slowly just looking around to see if anything caught her eye. Anything that would stand out that didn't belong here.

As soon as Teagan gave the nod to the bomb squad, Koltenback slipped his cell phone out and flipped it open with practiced ease. He must have had them on speed dial because within seconds it seemed he was talking to someone at the other end, initially in a straightforward tone, but becoming increasingly bombastic. Meanwhile the coroner turned back to the crime scene. Working with her technician, Art Prudowski and one of the police electricians, she quickly got more lights inside the pitch dark container, and started taking photographs. As the men worked, she moved around them getting a clear view of what was there, and what might have happened.

The jumble of bedclothes, duffle bags and stiff bodies could easily have been caused by the dropping of the container. It had fallen on one corner, where it had split open and where they had all entered. This would have caused everything loose inside to have tumbled their way. She would not know where they lay originally until they had a chance to match the blood types to the various stains.

Her flashlight showed her that where they had lain, their flesh and blood had frozen to the plywood interior of the shipping container and clumps of flesh had torn off to indicate the original positions of the bodies before the jostling.

A quick tally of the dead revealed four men and two women: The large, powerfully built black man she had already noticed, probably in his thirties; two tall athletic white males, one in his thirties the other in his twenties; a medium height, slightly built white mail in his twenties; a tall, athletic white female in her thirties and a medium height, slightly built Asian female in her twenties or thirties. She had not noticed it on the dark skin of the first victim she had examined, but on the lighter skinned bodies, she could see markings drawn on the bodies around the wounds; runic inscriptions or pictograms of some kind. She nodded to Art to get photographs of each in detail.

At each body she knelt and peered up inside the metal pots as best she could without disturbing anything. None of them looked to be packed with explosives, though there did seem to be some kind of sticky residue inside some of them that had stuck to hair and flesh – almost as if they had had glue in them when they were placed over the victim’s heads.

As she worked her way towards the back of the container, she came closer to the furnishings at the far end. The filing cabinets looked obvious enough, and the wood between them now looked as if it had been set up as low desk or a bench. The large metallic box still baffled her. It glittered like metal in the light yet there was a satiny texture to it that made it look more like a naturally occurring substance. It rested on the floor of the container, standing about three feet high and about five feet in diameter.

Now that she was closer she could see that it was a geometric shape – a five sided regular polygon, and that the top looked like a hinged lid that had been forced open. She could see gouge marks around the rim where someone had taken a crowbar or chisel to the container lid. The top had fallen back in place and she had no desire to see what was inside it before the bomb squad arrived. Indeed, the closer she got to the thing, the less she liked it. There was something definitely creepy about it.

“What ya’ll think that might be, doctor?”

The voice right behind her made her start. Her attention had been so focused on the odd object that she had not noticed Hannah Bradford coming close. The FBI agent could move silently when she wanted to, yet her soft Southern accent seemed so out of place in this place of death and destruction. Yet her eyes were clear and her interest obvious. This was no shrinking violet. She remembered the confrontation outside with Koltenbach when she arrived. Special Agent Bradford was a force to be reckoned with.

"I think we are dealing with a sick S.O.B Agent.", she said softly and bent to look at the cube closer. Not touching it just looking at the creepy thing. "A guess is someone that wants attention very baddly. And smart because of the way things where set up. But into I can look more at everything I can't say fully what things are. This box.", she said as she stood up to point at it, "is out of place. To out of place so if you want my thoughts on it. It's a calling card."

She wasn't going to say it creeped her out because well you just didn't say that because that would take you down a road you didn't want to go down.

"Let me show you something Agent Bradford," said the coroner as she moved to where the body of the white female victim lay, half and half off of one of the lower bunks. "Look at this."

Teagan used a pen to point out the markings on the body surrounding the terrible wounds in her flesh that looked like runes.

"I have no idea what that is or where it's from. Cult?" she said softly thinking out loud, "Maybe a death cult or something like that."

The two women examined the symbols more closely. They looked as if they had been made with colored felt-tip markers. Teagan looked at them wondering what in the world? That would be one of the hardest things to trace. She wanted to touch the runes but was scared to for some reason that she couldn't name, and as she examined her fear, she became aware that Detective Koltenbach had re-entered the tight confines of the container with a man in uniform.

"This is what I've got so far," said the policeman, reading from his notebook. "The container arrived here about seven weeks ago – November 17th, to be precise – a bonded shipment out of Bristol, UK, shipped on the RMS Wellington. It was described as containing Religious Supplies: Cassocks, Bibles and Hymnals. As per instructions, Trasker's attempted to notify the recipient . . ." he flipped through pages until he found the note. ". . . Dr. Duncan McWhirter in Scranton, PA. I've got a number here which we'll get to work on. There was no answer when they first called on November 20th. They called again on the 27th and again on December 7th and a fourth time on January 4th. No answer each time.

"On December 19th, having tried to contact the recipient three times, they moved the container out of the temporary storage area and brought it back here where they keep the lost and found items. Apparently the law says they have to store it for up to a year and then it becomes salvage. They were moving it to get at the box underneath it tonight when it fell from the crane and split open."

Teagan wondered what on earth was shipped in that box and knew that her next step would be to look at that crate. Quietly her mind worked on the detals that she learned so far. "Need to have someone look into that McWhirter's home," she noted. She would dearly love to talk to that man herself or see his home but it was out of her state. But maybe the FBI would let her tag along if she was good?

Koltenback looked at the bodies around him with a frown, noting at a glance the horrible damage done to each and peering beyond the two women towards the far end of the container with the filing cabinets and the odd metallic container. He shoved his notebook in his pocket and looked at Teagan in the glaring lights that now festooned the ceiling of the container.

"Bomb squad's on its way, Bones. What'd'ya got so far?"

"Not a hell of a lot.", she said blowing air out of her mouth, "until I know I can move the bodies more, there is not much I can do."

As the investigators looked at the bodies, noting the runic markings around the wounds and the savage nature of the damage that had been done to each of the victims, the coroner, Harper, was struck with the lethality of each separate damage site.

"Any one of these . . . abuses would have been enough to kill the victim," she commented. "Yet each one of them stayed alive long enough to be mutilated half a dozen times. You can see that blood flowed freely at each site. They must have had extraordinary constitutions to have survived long enough to be this badly mauled."

Koltenbach, the homicide detective, grunted at this and spoke to Commander Daniels, the young Homeland Security officer that had called in the original alert.

"I'll be outside, waiting for the bomb squad," the burly cop announced. He seemed happier dealing with a man than the high-powered women taking the lead. The police technicians had finished stringing lights and the interior of the shipping container was now brilliantly lit.

Harper moved aside to let her assistant, Art Prudowski take detailed photos of the wounds and the markings. Behind him a plainclothes technician had a video camera. His face was white with horror at what he was filming and he seemed to be paying as much attention to the investigative team as he was to the bodies and the other evidence.

"I'd like copies of those photos, doctor," said Bradford, the FBI agent. "Especially the markings. We've got a database of occult symbols I'd like to run them through."

"How long ago do you think they were murdered, doctor?" said an attractive woman standing behind the video camera operator. It seemed that several more people had made their way into the container behind them.

Despite the brilliant, even harsh lighting, the shadows seemed to press in upon the investigators as they looked in detail at the awful wounds that had been inflicted on the six people inside the modified shipping container. The curious symbols painted on their tortured flesh seemed to glow with hideous nacre in the actinic light. Sounds from outside the metal box boomed hollow and distant as if they had been cut off from the real world. Smithfield and Daniels suppressed shudders at the thought of how dreadful and savage the original attacks must have been, and the unspoken threat of the odd metallic box loomed large in their mind's eye.

Art Prudowski and the plain clothes technician shot their film and the attractive woman at the back of the container took notes as she peppered them all with questions.

"How long have the victims been dead?"

"Will Homeland Security be in charge of this investigation?"

"Is that box a bomb of some kind? I heard the bomb squad has been dispatched."

As Teagan crouches down, continuing to gather visible evidence at the scene, without disturbing any of the bodies, she notices something attached to the bottom of the wooden shelf, apparently by glue. It looks like a laptop computer. Hannah Bradford has noticed it as well, and is ducking her head under the shelf to get a closer look when they all hear Koltenbach's gravelly voice.

"Bomb squad's here. Time to move out and let them take a look."

A few seconds later he explodes in anger.

"Who in the Sam Hill let you in here!?"

He's shouting at the attractive woman, who is grinning at him, holding up a microphone.

"Tell me, Detective Koltenbach, has Philadelphia PD discovered who the victim's of this gruesome crime are – or even when it happened? Our viewers have a right to know what is happening in the city."

The video technician with her is filming Koltenbach now as the big man's face turns bright red with anger.