Amelia felt equal parts repelled and entranced by the sight of her first dead body.
Even in the dim wooded light of dawn, the purple bruises bloomed on the dead man’s pale skin like crimson roses climbing a white-washed wall. The limbs of the corpse were bent to awkward angles, the skin torn and taut over broken bones.
Amelia winced, but stepped forward an inch, dry twigs cracking underfoot, and crouched. She raised her lamplight and looked through the lens, as she’d been recently taught, and pointed her camera at the deceased’s face. It was as twisted as his form. Not sure how long she’d manage a steady hand, she promptly pressed the button which made a click, whirr and eventually a puff, as the cloud of shimmering green smoke poured out.
‘Careful there,’ a voice behind her bellowed. ‘Don’t contaminate the crime scene with your fancy devices.’
‘Sorry,’ Amelia said over her shoulder to an approaching police officer, as she circled round the dead man’s head for a new angle.
‘That’s alright,’ the man said. ‘You look new. Sie’s new apprentice, are you? I’m police officer Emmett.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ Amelia said quickly and brought her eye back to the lens. She scanned down the dead body ending with the figure crouched right up close to the dead man’s toes. Sienna, her reluctant boss for the day, cocked her head from side to side, sending her red curls bouncing with each flick. Sienna’s fingers, stretched like a star, hovered over the body, her hand bruised and purpled like the victim’s skin.
The police officer stood over them, shifting nervously on the spot. ‘Sorry I didn’t get to greet you and your friend earlier, Sie,’ he started, his eyes on Sienna. ‘I just finished speaking with the locals by the lake. Bad to see Russell end up this way.’ He paused for a response, clicked his jaw and licked his lips which were purpled by the blue gum he was chewing. ‘Did Jake answer all your questions earlier? Anything else I can help you with?’
Sienna sighed, withdrew her hand and stood to face the officer. Amelia followed with the camera and watched in morbid fascination as the purple on Sienna’s hand marbled with the colour of her wheat-brown skin, before disappearing completely. Amelia knew it was rude to stare at a chamaeleo, but she’d still not got over the novelty of meeting one, let alone working with one since she moved to the city.
The guys at the office had told her Sienna had uncovered all sorts of lies and exposed truth with her ability to sense colours. One had tried to explain: It’s like an extra sense. Like, how we can tell by looking if something is spiky or smooth. I think she can sees more in colours than we can. It wasn’t a great explanation, but Amelia got the gist of it.
‘I have a few additional questions, officer,’ Sienna said to Emmett, who looked back briefly surprised; almost affronted, Amelia thought. But he nodded and stood ready for the inevitable tirade of questions that could only come from the city’s top reporter.
Amelia, distracted by the exchange, set the camera down too quickly. Before she could reach inside her satchel for pad and pen, she heard the whirr of the camera. Engulfed in a puff cloud of smoke, she wished in that moment she could dissolve into the shimmering mist and blow away her embarrassment.
‘Any suspects yet?’ Sienna asked above.
‘Well, the local satyrs were over the other side of the forest for a party and,’ he motioned behind him to the serene lake a short distance away, ‘Calliope was downstream with her new kelpie beau, so we haven’t got any real leads yet.’
‘Go on,’ Sienna pressed. Amelia stood tentatively, sure the focus wasn’t on her anymore.
‘Right. Well, as you can see Russ- I mean, the body, is bruised all over, with bones cracked, and-‘
‘Please tell me something I can’t see, Emmett.’
‘Right. Well, crime of passion isn’t it? A bit of rough and tumble in the woods late at night, you know. Things got out of hand…’
‘Oh, seven bells no. She’s as meek and bonny as they come. Wouldn’t hurt a pixie.’ Sienna scribbled a few notes down, a green-yellow hue rippling across her hand.
‘No, my guess is a lover that’s into things more… serpentine,’ said Emmett.
‘You sound quite sure?’ Amelia said.
‘Well, years of experiences and you get a hunch for these sorts of things. Like you reporters, I suppose. We’ll find the fair maiden who did this to him, mark my words.’
‘Thank you, officer,’ Sienna said, and motioned to Amelia to follow.
When they were out of earshot, Amelia plucked up the courage to ask: ‘You two know each other?’
‘You’ve a keen eye little sparrow,’ Sienna said. ‘We used to date. It didn’t end well.’
‘He seems like a nice enough guy.’
Sienna arched an eyebrow. ‘What are you trying to say about me?’
‘Oh, nothing. I just meant he’s been very civil today, all things considered then?’
‘Yes, I suppose. But don’t be fooled by appearances. He’s a charmer. Barely human.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I keep forgetting you’re from the arse-end of nowhere,’ Sienna said. ‘He’s a master manipulator of emotions - what we call a charm-caster. He could coax a flower to open, convince a human to sing, or command a horse to walk off the edge of a cliff.’
Amelia gulped, wondering - not for the first time - what on earth had possessed her to move from the warm, safe home of her parents in the vale to the city’s nest of chamaeleo, charm-casters and mysterious man-crunching mistresses.
‘That’s why we wear iron rings on the job - scrambles their signal,’ Sienna said, pointing to their hands.
‘Right, OK,’ Amelia said, nodding.
Sienna’s frown turned to smile. ’Don’t worry, human.’ She grinned and patted Amelia on the back. ‘Stick with me and you’ll do just fine.’
‘So what happens next?’
‘First, we drop off the film with Arnie for developing, and then we interview the wife.’
Sienna asked her to hang with the kid for a bit. See if you can coax anything out of him while I speak to her. She looks a mess so best if it’s just one of us talking to her, Sienna had said, gesturing to the women. Amelia couldn’t help but think her mishap with the camera was to blame for her sitting out, but she nodded understanding and turned to the knobbly-kneed boy with his shape-shifting toy.
‘Wow, is that blue gum, Max?’ Amelia asked. Max nodded back excitedly with a plummy smile, bouncing his toy - currently a miniture manticore - through the long garden grass. ‘You’re the second person I’ve met today chewing blue gum like that. Is it really good?’
‘Yeah, it’s awesome,’ the boy said. ‘My dad wouldn’t let me - says it’ll stain my teeth - but Emmett lets me. He gave me some last night.’
‘Did he now?’ Amelia said, saddened at the change Max would face and touched by the kind gesture Emmett had made. Sienna’s ex really didn’t sound so bad. ‘You’re a very lucky boy aren’t you?’
Max nodded and ran off, the toy - now a fairy - trailing behind him.
Amelia turned and looked at the two women sat on a bench, one the colour of molten fire, the other as pale as an icicle. Amelia felt decidedly average with her chestnut hair and light brown eyes. Sienna is right, I’m a sparrow.
‘Max, spit that gum out and wash your mouth. If you chew much longer your mouth will stay purple forever!’ Eva called over to her son.
‘Like your lips, mummy?’ the boy called. He stuck his tongue out and scampered off inside.
‘Sorry about him,’ she called to Amelia. ‘I hope he wasn’t rude to you. It’s been a difficult few hours for us.’
‘Not at all,’ Amelia replied, taking a few steps towards them. ‘He was quite the charmer.’
Eva smiled. ‘Takes after his Dad, he does.’
Sienna offered her hand. ‘Thank you, Eva. I appreciate you speaking to us at such a difficult time. We can show ourselves out. You enjoy the rest of the sunshine.’
‘Thanks. You too. Take care of yourselves, girls.’ Amelia saw a flash of red flutter along Sienna’s throat, but it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
‘How did it go?’ Amelia asked as they left through the garden gate.
‘Alright. Typical weepy wife. She gave us a lead though. Fancy a drink?’
Amelia casually spun a dull bronze coin on the bar between her thumb and forefinger, as Sienna had told her to do. Her eyes flicked up to the barmaid, who pretended not to see.
‘Ah, Russell,’ the barmaid said. ‘Lovely, decent man. Used to tip me nicely.’
‘I’m sure you loved that didn’t you, Valerie.’
Valerie sniffed. ‘It’s nice to feel appreciated from time to time.’
‘Did he appreciate you in other ways?’
‘I couldn’t possibly say!’ she said, feigning embarrassment. Sienna nodded at Amelia who dug in her pocket for another coin - this time one of silver.
‘Come on now, Valerie. Cut to the chase. We know you were sweet on him.’
Valerie eyed the silver. ‘I was. But if you must know, there wasn’t a man more true than Russ,’ she said. ‘Even with my… talents - bless you for keeping them a secret all these years, Sie - he never faltered.’
‘That’s not what we hear from his wife,’ Sienna said. Valerie’s carefully constructed veneer crackled and Amelia saw a brief glimpse of something terrible.
Valerie’s smooth, plump cheeks turned haggard, and her warm, inviting eyes turned black with hateful hunger. Like Sienna’s colourful moments, it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
‘Careful now,’ Sienna said, her tone somewhere between tease and taunt. ‘You wouldn’t want your locals to see the real you.’
The barmaid bristled and rolled her neck like a bird. ‘You’re quite right, Sie,’ she said, her voice razor-edged and hostile. ‘But you don’t half get under my feathers.’
Sienna smiled. ‘Part of the job, I’m afraid. Anyway, did you have something to say against your accuser?’
‘Yes, I bloody do,’ she squawked. ‘Russ stayed true to that frosty bitch - and heavens knows why. She’s hardly been true to him.’
Sienna and Amelia exchanged a quick look.
‘Oh, didn’t know she was fooling around, did you?’ Valerie’s irritated face took on a wicked glow. ‘Bet that bitch played the dutiful weeping wife didn’t she?’
‘She was fooling around?’ Amelia said, shocked.
The barmaid motioned to the coins on the bar. ‘You’ll have to do better than that for me to spill.’
Sienna nodded. ‘Amelia, turn it over.’
‘Can’t we, you know, magic them along a little?’ Amelia asked their in-house developer Arnie at Griffin City Gazette.
He turned to Amelia, long octopus-like tentacles writhing where a beard would ordinarily be. ‘If we did that,’ he said, ‘the photos would be worthless. The police would just say we tampered with them.’
‘Oh, sorry. I didn’t realise,’ Amelia said.
‘You’ll learn,’ Arnie said offhandedly, two of his tentacles focused on hanging a photo, the rest of his beard shrugging in time with his shoulders. ‘Photography is art. While it’s best to avoid magic, developing film isn’t just cold science neither. With art you have to be patient, let the picture form before you examine its truth.’
Behind him Sienna rolled her eyes and grinned. Amelia stifled a laugh.
‘Yours are almost done anyway,’ he said. ‘I venture they’ll be ready in 10 minutes.’
Sienna clapped Arnie on the back. ‘Great, thanks mate. Give us a shout when they’re all done - even Amelia’s ‘oops’ photo. It might make the wall of shame.’
Arnie chuckled. ‘Will do, Sie.’
The wall of shame was positioned opposite the wall of fame. It played host to a wild variety of dud snaps, from people with their eyes closed, to windblown skirts and oddly angled photos of feet, hands and nostrils.
‘I’d put your pic here,’ Sienna pointed at the cluster of photos that featured various low-level shots.
‘I’d rather my photo make it on the other wall,’ Amelia jested, pointing to the wall of fame.
‘Ha! You should be so lucky, little sparrow.’
‘Are any of these yours?’ Amelia asked, her eyes scanning the photos.
‘A few,’ Sienna replied indifferently. There was an empty pause where a story should be.
‘So, what did you think of what Valerie said?’ asked Amelia, changing the subject.
‘The bit about the boy - Max - not being Russell’s child?’
Before Sienna could answer, Arnie called from across the room. ‘Photos are up, you two! Come and see ‘em while they’re fresh.’
Amelia eyed her dud picture in the developing room with embarrassment, while Sienna leafed through the others. It wasn’t an awful shot as far as mistakes go - the body was in the frame at least. She’d captured the dead man’s side and the grassy undergrowth.
Then she saw them, so small they could have been specks of dust on the photo. Her gut lurched with fear and her chest panged with excitement.
Amelia turned the photo around. ‘Sienna, do these look like puncture marks to you?’ she said, pointing her finger at the two small dots visible on the side of the dead man. ‘Or a bite mark maybe?’
Sienna stepped forward and grabbed the picture. ‘Could be,’ she said carefully, her amber eyes glinting. ‘What do you think Arnie?’ She asked, handing one of his many tentacles the picture.
‘Definitely a bite,’ Arnie said. ‘This one’s got a keen eye, Sienna, eh?’
‘Yes, the little sparrow is turning into quite the hawk. Good spot, Amelia.’
Arnie squinted at the photo. ‘My money is on a lamia or wyrm,’ he said and handed it back to Amelia. ‘Happy hunting ladies.’
‘Thanks Arnie,’ Sienna said and walked through the door.
‘So, what now?’ Amelia asked, suddenly uneasy, following after her.
Sienna turned to her and grinned. ‘Now, we poke the snake.’
‘You can’t come.’
‘You’re not. It’s too dangerous.’
‘Then why are you going alone? And why did you say ‘we’? If there really is a snake of some sort, don’t you want back-up?
‘No. Now, don’t argue with me. You’ve done a good job, a great job really - we wouldn’t have got this far without your photo.’
Amelia opened her mouth in fresh protest. ‘But don’t let that get to your head, sparrow,’ Sienna said, cutting her off. ‘I need you to stay here, to start typing up the story. When I get back I want a first draft on my desk.’
Amelia watched Sienna leave and waited a liberal four minutes before she set off after her. It was a fool’s errand going alone and she wasn’t going to let her do it.
As she stepped out onto the main street, she saw Sienna, and her bobbing red curls glinting in the lamplight as she marched down the road in the direction of the woods.
Amelia followed a safe distance behind, the warm evening air feeling close and itchy.
She saw two figures on the other side of the lake, a short distance from the crime scene as Amelia remembered. One of them must be Sienna. Who was the other?
She quickened her step, treading as lightly as she could through the forest floor.
As she approached the lake, she saw them wander deeper into the woods. They looked familiar somehow, and yet Amelia couldn’t shake the bad feeling in her gut.
Edging around the bank of the lake, she suddenly felt a strange pressure around her ankle like a tight squeeze. She barely saw the scaled coil wind around her leg before she was dragged feet-first into the lake.
Underneath the rippling dark of the current Amelia gasped, her voiceless cry bubbling up to the safe surface. With outstretched arms, she clutched the weightless water, desperately scrambling, pushing upwards.
Eventually she crested the lake’s surface and gulped air like a newborn, tears and river water streaming down her cheeks. Battling the twisting currents, she waded with faded strength to within a hair’s breadth of the bank before she felt the strong and dreadful grasp of the serpentine wyrm coil around her waist.
Amelia’s hands stretched in a desperate attempt to cling onto any root or rock that would keep her above water. A rock came loose in her hand, unearthed by the force of the wyrm’s pull.
She sank back under the water and saw through blurred vision and bubbles, the beast’s open jaws approaching her, fangs poised.
Amelia, without thinking, thrust her hand and arm halfway into its mouth, lodging the stone in its open gullet. She snapped back her hand just as the wyrm’s jaw clenched, the deep gouges on her forearm the price she would have to pay for any hope of freedom.
The beast recoiled and thrashed, loosening its grip. Amelia wriggled, pushed and propelled her way up, clawing her way onto the bank. She lurched forward on her hands and knees, scrambling away from the lake as she heaved and retched lake water from her lungs.
Eventually she stood, her thoughts turning back to Sienna. Was she still here?
Amelia stumbled forward and drew almost immediately to a halt as she caught sight of thick red curls in the grass, flashing like a warning in the dim wooded moonlight. She moved towards her mentor as quickly as her bruised body would allow, knowing before she reached her that Sienna was dead.
Amelia stood over Sienna, shivering in her wet clothes. Sienna’s lips were a blueish purple, as the boy’s had been. Amelia’s stomach tightened as she realised with cold certainty that the coloured lips were a clue. The chamaeleo had left behind the last piece of the puzzle before she died. Amelia knew who the killer was.