Group Novel 2016-2017



mop4

Prologue- Thomas Boyle

Life, as was its habit, went on.

Most of it did, anyway. There would always be a piece of her left behind in that desert.

She left her tears there, to sink into the sand until they had dried. She would never cry again.

She left her love there, adorning the lips of the woman who in a kinder world might have been allowed to grow old in her arms. Instead, she had been plucked away by her own fingertips. She would never love again.

She left pieces of herself there. Pieces that she didn’t need. Pieces that she couldn’t make fit, anymore.

But there was enough of her left to go on. Prodded along by life, Celia found the strength, or maybe just the inertia to carry on forward.

She never went back to the desert. She never dug a grave. She never put up a tombstone, or placed an obituary.

But a piece of her went back. It went every night, to wallow in what she had done, to gaze in mute horror at what the world had allowed to be done. It went to dig deep for her lost tears, and her buried heart, but it was only one piece of her. Without the rest, it wasn’t strong enough.

Night after night Celia would wake dry-eyed and screaming, and stare into the dark until the sun deigned to greet her, and she it.

But that piece of her kept going back. Kept searching, kept scouring those scorching sands for the pieces that were missing.

And in time, it found them.

It found the tears locked away deep in the earth, and brought them back to Celia. In turn, they carried away the poison that had built up inside her. In time, she even found her buried heart and put it back where it belonged. It brought with it some of the warmth she had lost.

Life went on. Though begrudgingly at first, Celia went on, and in time she even found a way to love.

She never ate meat again, and she had to find a new line of work, but she did go on. Eventually, she could even look at a rose without feeling the prick of a thorn.

 

Chapter 1-  Sam Bingham

I want to leave. My arms would continue to mop, my legs would continue to stand in place, but I would no longer be present. I am my head, my arms, my legs – but more, something else, something bright. There is something in me. My hands work quickly. They mop and move and clean. Marks on the light blue floor are whisked away; patches of grease are tamed as the day is collected into my bucket. I’m heating up, burning as sweat is pushed through and out my pores, streaming from my forehead, racing south down my cheeks and lining my face with embarrassment. Droplets hold the effort of my discomfort under my eyes.

I am not alone. My manager stands silently behind me, her short stubby fingers playing with a pen, a notebook, with each other. Outside the café is nonexistent. The street has been dimmed and the dregs of people have left. My eyes are strained and sting sting sting – I won’t rub them. I won’t stop, or think, or linger for anything. I mop and move and clean. My bucket sits halfway across the ocean of floor, but the room has lengthened. Four tables are now eight, are now twenty, are now stretching out past the limits of vision. My mind searches for calm but pricks itself of my skull.

She watches me. She studies me. Her deep set eyes follow me across the room like the setting of the sun. Her face is owned by overbearing cheeks full of content. I mop and move and clean. The mop travels over and back over a darkened stain on the floor, a triangular black smudge engrained by footsteps. It passes over and over yet the strain remains. My eyes are held by the mark on the floor and my head by the stare of my manager. I am pincered, caught in the middle and bound in place as pressure mounts and compresses my being. Her breathing is faint yet mine has increased and gallops around the room, filling every space with the sound of my fear and panic. I grip the mop tighter and tighter while veins lash down my arms and pump fierce blood to my soul. There is something in me. Every exhale punctures my flesh, blood screams out of the wounds and flows down my skin onto the mop soaked floor. There is something in me. The mop snaps at the head as the pressure is torn off me and left to drown in my blood. Light surges into the café, it stands me upright and forces my feet hard into the floor. Three strides and my body is thrown towards my manager. We bundle over, I straddle her and while she wrestles to escape, my hands grasp a knife from the table above her.


“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?”


 

Chapter 2- Elisabeth Graham

Sirens. Police sirens. The low, droning sound that rouses people from slumber just long enough to notice the whine before they drop back off to sleep. Well, Celia had always been a light sleeper anyway, and right now all the sound did was harmonize with the buzz that had started up around her own temples. The sirens wailed on, getting louder, getting closer.

A fog hung in the air close to the pavement, and it would have been dim had it not been for the glaring red and blue lights and flashes of cameras. A channel 7 news van had parked down the street and had started setting up more lights to illuminate the news anchor prepping her notes. She seemed a bit too cheery for the dismal scene in front of the cafe. Celia watched the news woman’s shiny red nail polish flick through notecards and wondered if she had picked it intentionally to match the blood splattered on the ground.

Don’t be ridiculous, she thought to herself.

“Detective Nuñez, we think we’ve got everything we can, should we call in someone to start cleaning up?” asked Brad, the rookie cop on the force. His curdled milk complexion and skinny, bent frame made him look not unlike a little boy who got sick during frog dissections at school. Go figure, it was his first murder scene.

“Just one second, Brad, I want to do one last sweep of the place, make sure we haven’t missed anything,” Celia replied. She patted him on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you go take a walk, get some air?” Brad nodded gratefully and scampered off. Walking back towards the crime scene, Celia reprimanded herself; she had almost told Brad to get some coffee. With what she had seen this morning, that didn’t seem like the best idea.

Celia ducked under the yellow tape and into what had once been a coffee shop. A haphazard fluorescent light hung from above the door. Tables and chairs lay over each other like the splintered remains of an elephant graveyard. Fissure-like cracks riddled the walls. But the worst of all lay on the floor in front of her. Identified roughly twenty minutes ago, the now deceased Shirley Chaplain lay spread eagle on what had previously been mint green tile. Her blood pooled around her and made a trail leading out the front door. A knife sprouted from the center of her chest and her eyes were now only dark red, empty holes. Celia stared into them now, searching for something that would tell her —

“Who keeps doing this, Nunez?”

Celia spun around to face Chief Garrett Brown. He, too, had his dark eyes locked on Shirley’s empty sockets. The hair on his face was just a shade darker than five-o-clock shadow, and the circles under his eyes looked like bruises. It had been a long month for the department.

“I don’t know, Chief,” Celia spun back to face the prostrate corpse. She hunkered down to get closer, and the smell of disinfectant and decaying meat rose up to greet her. She swallowed hard and took a closer look at the body. “But I feel like we’re getting closer. I feel like we’re onto something.”

Just that small movement made Celia realize something had been lodged underneath the victim’s ankle. Something bright, metallic. She reached into her pocket and brought out a rubber glove. She snapped it over her hand and reached down underneath Shirley’s foot, grasping the object. Celia’s brow furrowed as she brought it out and looked at it closer. She gasped and spun around to face Garrett.

“Yeah, Chief. We’re definitely onto something.”


 

Chapter 3- James Hunter

Each morning the sun blasts through the blinds, practically incinerating them. Even after a short night’s sleep, my bed is a damp sponge, my fluids oozing from its pores. My eyes widen, and the walls, peeling like plasters straight out of a shower, drag me back to reality.

Floating garbage surprises my shoe as I walk out my front door; naive of it to be so surprised really. The street is a tapestry of debris and decay, the pièce de résistance of this wondrous city. I’m on a mission. I have no WiFi but I’m anxious to read the news. As I walk, I keep my head down, wary of the gazes of strangers. I study the pavement, the cracks spreading out like veins in someone’s arm. Veins. Flowing blood.

In-and-out of the newsagents as quickly as possible. The shopkeeper’s indifferent glance nags at me as I walk out the door. The newspaper feels coarse against my fingers. Its texture is alien to me. I become distracted, zeroing in on each individual dot. Then I hunt for the vanished and fading; some only half existing.

The anguished howling of a one-armed man brings me back to focus. Thumbing through the pages, I find it. Her face haunts me once more, the deep set eyes still following me. The words are vacuous. The descriptions are meaningless. Mother-of-three. Café manager. No explanation of who she really is. No understanding. Nevertheless, I place the paper under my arm, planning to add it to my collection.

I walk aimlessly through the streets, eyes fixed on the pavements. They progress from shambolic and broken to unwrinkled and maintained. There are no miniature mountains to trip over. I look up at the shimmering white buildings. My eyes are drawn to a man walking past me. His suit is glacier blue and he wears expensive sunglasses. My eyes never break from his walk and yet he doesn’t notice.

I close my eyes, breathing deeply. I listen closely. They sound different when they move. A light clink of high heels on the pavement becomes a knife against bone. I recognise these footsteps. My institution is affirmed when I open my eyes and spot her crossing the street. Her stride, her suede coat, her highlighted hair; they are a call to arms.

She has already reached the other side when the red man flashes. Cars block my route. The lights won’t change. They won’t change.


Chapter 4- Thomas Boyle

I’d thought I would be better at it than this.

So many times it ran round and round in my head, just the same as my grandfather’s Penny Dreadfuls when I was little, until they went from nightmares to daydreams, to fond fantasies that I would hide in when the world became too much.

You aren’t supposed to dream when you’re awake, though. Then the fantasy has a way of becoming too much.

I had honestly thought I would be better at it than this.

I didn’t think the blood would bother me. I’d heard there would be a smell, that Hollywood and Shakespeare both ignored the stink of even the most beautiful corpse, but I thought I would be fine. My home had smelled of mould for years, what was I to worry about? If a rat died in the wall too he was welcome to stay.  It’s amazing what you can get used to. Or maybe that was just me. That was what I thought. That I was special. Gifted with one hand while the other took away. I thought I was special.

That was what gave me the right to test my little theory, like a man in a white coat with his hand on a scalpel and the scalpel going deeper, deeper into the skull of a rat.

Only a rat. No concern of mine. If you worry about stepping on ants then where will you walk? I was better. I thought I was better. I thought I would be better.

It keeps flashing behind my eyes. Every time I blink she’s there, mouth open in that shocked little o. She didn’t know I was special. It made me angry at first, to have her not recognise me, my superiority, even in the midst of proving it. I can’t keep the image away. That failure even in my triumph. It isn’t like the Penny Dreadfuls. It isn’t like the fantasies. It isn’t like how I thought it would be. I thought I would be better.

At first I stayed. I watched them, to see how they changed. It was part of my theory, that this was the remit of God alone. I thought that to be there when the last breath was taken would be close to what it was to breathe the first one into their lungs. To understand life, you must know death. Not just anyone could, but I could. I was special.

I was wrong.

Soon I couldn’t stand to look at them. I would leave them, quickly, hurry, on to the next, the next , the next the next will tell me will tell me the truth. I will know the next and I will know my answer in them. The next time I will be better. And maybe, maybe, maybe, one day that breathless little plea will bring itself to the truth.

But it’s getting harder. I can hear knocks on my door at all hours, and I can only spend so much time hidden in the walls among the rats waiting for them to leave. And it’s getting harder to watch, to see the life go, to even wait that long for the last rattle in their lungs.

They’re starting to scare me. I want them to leave me. I want them to go away.

I have to make them go away.

I had thought I would be better at it.

Like always, it seemed a simple proposition. I had to make them go away. Leaving a trail, the papers said, and it made me so frightened that I wept until the neighbours came, eyes so wide and so searching I thought for certain they would find me. But they left me, and I had time to think.

Think. Think. Think. How do you make them not find the bodies? How do you make them go away for certain? For ever?

I wanted to do them some honour, as well. I didn’t want them to be the rats. I wanted them to know that they, that their experience was part of me. I would bear them in myself as I journeyed into my new world.

I thought I would be better at it. I really, honestly did.

But I just couldn’t stand the taste.


 

Chapter 5- Hayley Rutherford

Celia rolled over groggily, uncertain of the time. The dank green curtains hung limply from their rail never quite meeting. A shaft of jarring sunlight let her know she has made it through to the next day. Instinctively she reached for the mug next to her head and took a swig, then recoiled instantly letting the juices trickle down her chin and spatter on to the carpet. Still full of bourbon but her coffee had gone cold. She must have been asleep a while. She could never tell anymore, often times she’d feel as if she drifted off for hours then open her eyes reach her hand to the still burning side of her mug and realise only moments had passed. She must have needed the sleep but she was no less exhausted. In her dreams she relived the same events as the night before, only a few seconds, but over and over and over, skipping and re-rolling like a broken videotape. It had been an eternity. In her imagination the blood had not smelt and Shirley’s mangled body was no more disturbing than a squashed beetle, it was the little silver token, glaring out from under her, blazing, bursting with a thousand tendrils of light- shouting I’m here! Here it is! Here is your proof! And she wanted to cover it. She could wrangle her hands, and bend her legs, contort her whole body so that she was wrapped around the exploding beacon of light pouring from the little silver disk and Garrett could not see it. Garrett could only watch as Celia’s eyes burbled over with oozing droplets of silver.

Celia threw the covers from her and scrambled about the floor for some clean looking clothes. She had weeks ago dragged her mattress in to her living room- she couldn’t sleep in her bedroom alone now. She toppled the contents of her mug as she stood scarcely rescuing her phone from the oncoming deluge. “Shit,” she murmured. It was after 12pm and she already had 6 missed calls from Brad. She tossed a knotted blue jumper over the spill before retrieving a clean, if somewhat crumpled, salmon blouse from the foot of her mattress. Celia grabbed her jeans from last night and pulled them on. Concealed in the back pocket was the evidence she had lifted from last night- a single delicate silver earring. She hadn’t let Garrett see it, how could she? How could she possibly have explained pulling her dead partner’s earring from the scene of a crime when the other one was wrapped in a lace black slip in Celia’s nightstand.

A knock on her door brought her back from her reverie and her fingers withdrew from the invitingly warm disc in her pocket. The weary click of her broken latch announced Brad’s arrival in to her musty apartment. “Jesus Celia,” sputtered Brad, gawking at the state of her apartment “I wondered where you were? You weren’t answering your phone, I thought… Have you been sleeping in here?”

“Up all night. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Celia grinned sweetly “Now lets go.” Brad was a harmless boy really, but unequipped to be her partner. When Rose had died they’d told Celia to take some time off. No chance of that happening, work was the only thing erasing Rose’s Sunday morning smiles from her mind. “It might be good for you… witnessing the traumatic death of your partner… you need some space,” blustered the overweight moustachioed psychiatrist that had been mandated to come and speak to her. It was hardly martyrs death any hero-cop deserved, Rose had been hit by a car on her way to a crime scene, Celia’s desperate fingers only inches from her grasp. He’d tried to relate to Celia by speaking of the tentative emotional bond between work colleagues, he had no idea what she and Rose really had. And then Celia had stood quietly next to Garrett, as he watched his wife being buried, having to feign the mournful indifference of a mutual friend but inwardly crying the same tears.

“Celia?” Brad whispered, placing his hand on her shoulder before she had the chance to usher him out the door, “Are you really ok? I mean sleeping in your lounge, and the smell…”

“No, no,” Celia snapped “The smell’s from downstairs. The guy in the apartment downstairs took off a few weeks ago. I think he was a junkie. The whole place is a shithole. And I only sleep through here cos I can’t stand the scraping.”

“Scraping?” Brad replied.

“Yeah, its getting louder and louder. Almost like its getting closer its keeps me up at night.”

“What does?”

Celia took a laboured breath, “The rats in the walls…”


 

Chapter 6- Richard Thompson

The childish destruction of a primary school classroom. That’s the scene I was reminded of as I walked into the Hannibal Park. Frost on the leaves sparkled like glitter in the late autumn sun while the leaves lay scattered like a collage of colours; yellow, orange and red. Red like blood.

Here, away from the rats and the dank sour smell of decay my mind span like the teacups in the fairground that visited the park every summer. Spinning so fast they could make you sick. I was unstoppable. Invincible. Vulnerable to no affliction except the mortality of humanity. And asthma. Though killing Shirley had been satisfying, it did bring up the inconvenience of unemployment. Another job needed, another fake identity, another fake address. Someone coming to the apartment looking for rent money was the last thing I needed. The identity was the fun part though – like that game I used to play ‘The Sims’. I’d started out with sensible ones, boring names, a normal past and the like. But once you do it 6 or 7 times you crave a change, a new way to fuck with the world. Ben Dover had been a fun character to play – an extrovert travel agent who had been to every single state and had a believably unbelievable story to tell about each one. He contrasted well with Justin Sider, the introverted librarian whose favourite book was ‘Twilight’. Those were my favourites… Richard Hurts the café waiter who liked to watch birds had been a dullard. Perhaps I was glad he was gone after all.

I strolled across to the bench that sat beneath a weeping willow. The dirtied memorial plaque read “In Memory of Simon Rhodes who hated this park, and everyone in it.” Beautiful. Lying abandoned on the bench was this mornings paper, no doubt left behind after someone’s coffee break. I took a seat, the wood cold against my ass and peeled apart the damp pages. Today it was page 4. Yesterday it had been front page but the inevitable assassination of the recently elected US president had taken centre stage today. I scanned the page for details. It seems the insatiable Detective Nuñez was continuing her love affair with me, on the case again. Her comments were dry and predictable: “We are following a number of leads”, “We are confident we will catch the killer” blah blah blah. The first time I read the phrases I had been afraid. A number of leads? I must have left clues, witnesses, something. I had spent the week with my ears pricked and my eyes glued on the street below my window, waiting for the swarm of police. But they never came. The comments were all talk, words to comfort the poor, worried folk of the city and by the next day they were pushed to page 4, nobody cared anymore.

I turned to the jobs section, might as well start looking. As I did, someone came and sat next to me. A scrawny twenty-something, shoulder length hair that glistened with grease covered half of his spot marked face and his baggy clothes, covered in dirt made him out to be one of the many homeless who infested the city like the rats in my wall. He twitched nervously and yammered out words with an air of a failing actor, trying hard to remember their lines.

“They says… They says they wants to meet you… Sir! Said to call you sir, sir. Said they is impressed. What you done. What you been doin, sir”
Sweat beaded on my forehead as I looked around, sweeping the park for anyone who might be listening to this… whatever this was.
“Who said?” I demanded, “Who sent you?”
“Friends” He too looked nervous, constantly checking left and right and left again, eyes never focused, erratic. “Here” he said, thrusting a dirty folded piece of paper into my lap “Go here, what they said”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”
“I don’t know nuffin, got paid I did, don’t read the paper they said, this time this place… that’s all they said, sir” He paused, thinking hard to make sure he had missed nothing “Oh yeah and also, they also said you should try thyme… thyme and salt… with the meat. Says it helps with the taste. I dunno” He suddenly jumped to his feet and pulled a dirty hood over his head before he paced away from me.
“Wait!” I shouted after, still not quite sure what had just happened. I jumped up to follow but the boy was already bustling out onto the street. The piece of paper fell from my lap onto the leaves that lay scattered like a collage of colours; yellow, orange and red. Red like blood.

 

Chapter 7 – Heather Caldwell

Wind pulsed through the air; ebbing through the streets; flowing around the people that got it its way. It was dark outside. This didn’t look like the right place. Didn’t smell, sound, feel, or taste like the right place. But then, what was the right place? The right place for who I was meeting. Who was I meeting? ‘Friends’ the frightened man had said. But his or mine? They said to try it with thyme and salt. They were right.

They didn’t give me a time to be here; so I came when it suited me. If They wanted me here some other time They should have said. Another fatal gust of wind shattered through the skeletons of trees, ripping leaves from fragile branches, baring them to the cold. This couldn’t be the right place. It looked so…average. Not special. Not scary. Not even very noticeable. It there was a mistake, it was their fault. This was without a doubt absolutely no question the address on the card.

Harris Public Library

88 Lambeth Street

And there in front of me was the library. Closed and long abandoned, I assumed. The sense of staleness hung thick and arid in the air. Windows patched with board but painted over to look like windows. It was no mistake on my part. I don’t make mistakes…not that anyone can prove.

Over the impaling spikes of the fence, across the dying fungal grass, I came to stand at the door. An old door. No – not old. Looked old. Looked old from the rusted, corroding metal and the paint that peeled like so much dead skin. I tested the handle with a hand without gloves. The skin is red and the hand is shaking from the cold but it grips the handle steadily enough. The handle turns. Turning to let me in. Turning to let me in to them. It was dark inside. Dark, but I could see. Or could see enough. I don’t mind the dark. I like the dark. Dark wraps itself around you, shrouding you from all the bright horrors of the day. Dark is safe.

I follow where the passage goes, trailing my hand against a wall. Not out of blindness. More like, getting a feel for the place. It felt like cracks in old plaster. It felt like solid wooden doors and doorways. It felt…wet. Fingertips trailed through something slick and curdling on the wall. I don’t need to look to know that the wet is red; I know the perfume well enough already. And I know that this trail has been left for me. To welcome me in. They are waiting.

The passage was long. It was not the main door I had come in by and this passage had many doors. All locked. Except one. The one the trail led to. The one with the handle smeared in red. I open the door. As I step through, my foot glides through a small puddle of red drips saturating the floor. Damn. I’ll need to leave my shoes behind when I go from here. Nothing says, Follow me, to the cops like a line of bloody footprints.

“Sorry about the mess.” Said a voice from the blackness, “But then, you do seem rather fond of it. The number of…leftovers we’ve had to clear up has been quite extortionate.”

I inch forward, but catch no sight of the speaker through the dust-laden bookcases.

“I didn’t realise anyone was.” I say to the whole room.

“That’s because we’re good at our job.”

“Why did you send for me?” I still couldn’t see a face but there was the feel of a figure close by.

“I didn’t.” Replied the faceless silhouette.

“Then who did?”

“I did.”

A voice. A new voice. From somewhere to the side. Lights flashed on and I looked.

 


Chapter 8 – James Reynolds
The smell from the flat below had worsened, its arms outstretched to hold Celia’s flat in a tight embrace. Every exposed nook and cranny was another way for the smell to creep in. Even the hundreds of cheap scented candles, incense, sprays of all flowery odours did little to deter the stench. In the mornings, she was in such a rush, she didn’t have time to notice it. It was at night, trying to sleep, passing car lights streaming past the living room window, that she really took offence. She’d taken to sleeping under the covers, hiding from it.
‘Is it really the smell you’re hiding from, or something else?’ Her patience was running out every time she demeaned herself to listen to this psychobabble. How is this meant to help? A waste of time, every time. The end of each session was signalled by the same metallic taste of blood, from biting her tongue. Keeping all the rage, displaced anger he’d called it, caged was fine, until some shitty simple intern asked another inane question. Maybe, the psychiatrist was right. She wasn’t hiding from the smell, but from the unfailing stupidity of others.
I’m the stupid one, she thought, her head resting on her hands, her eyes straining at the same file. The case had become a morbid farce, a game, with a rule book that changed every time you made a move. As soon as she’d made any progress, the board would start spinning, pieces sent flying; it would take days to rearrange, trying to remember where all the pieces had been. It wasn’t enough for this game to take up all her waking life, it had infected her dreams. Each night, it would be a body, a corpse, or a crime scene. The worse had been two night ago. Admittedly under a bourbon haze, she had dreamt of slipping in blood, thick and sticky, each time she tried to get up, her feet would give way. She was covered in blood: it had even got in her mouth.
‘What’s that smell?’ Another stupid intern question. Drawing her head into herself, Celia inhaled. Oh God, it was her. The smell from the flat had latched itself on to her clothes. She hid her grimace, eyes fixed on desk.
‘So what’s the homework tonight?’ Brad had perched himself on the edge of her desk.

‘What?’
‘You had a erm session today, right? Doesn’t he give you a task or something?’
‘Oh yeah’, Celia grappled with the vague remembrance of the session. ‘Yeah, something about listening to my inner voice. He wants me to keep a dream journal as well. More pop psychology bullshit.’
Brad’s mouth drew up into a half smile. ‘Hey, maybe you’ll dream of the killer. That’d be a help.’
‘Yeah, sure.’
‘You can dream the answers, mija.’ That’s what her abuela would say, reassuring her that the maths test wouldn’t be that bad. But that had been child’s play. Her grandmother dead, she could not rest her adult career on old world superstition.
With more incense sticks purchased at the corner store, she made her way up the stairs, considering lighting a few here to prepare her for the shock of the smell. But there was another smell. A woman, her hair bundled on top of her head, standing in a doorway, let the sweet scent of her cooking escape into the corridor. Sugar, cinnamon, all the scents of Celia’s abuela, memories of her grandmother’s kitchen giving her sanctuary as she passed into her flat, the smell from downstairs clouded over.
Closing the door, Celia rested her fingers on the little lapis lazuli eye attached to her keys. Guided by some familial memory mixed with silly superstition, she hung the single unwavering eye on the hook on the back of the door. Okay abuela, let’s try it your way.
After seven incense sticks had burnt down and she’d saved a kitchen towel from the over active flames of a vanilla scented candle, Celia took a final swig of bourbon, and stretched herself on her mattress. With one hand under her last unstained pillow, she could feel the edges of the photo she stashed there, hiding such silliness from her rational self. Like in the photo, she was certain her abuela was smiling, somewhere.
‘Send me a sign abuela,’ she prayed. ‘Please?’


 

Chapter 9- Inanna Tribukait

The first thing I did when my eyes got used to the light was assessing the situation. I wasn’t scared that the people I had been speaking to wanted to harm me – Given their behaviour up to this point, I was pretty sure that they would be more than capable to do so if they wanted to. But to be honest, they didn’t seem like the kind of idiots who would wait with killing somebody. If they wanted to damage me, they wouldn’t have invited me here. No. This was a meeting. I just wondered what kind of business they wanted to discuss.

 

There were three of them in the room. One stood behind me at the door. That was the one who had switched on the light, a woman, her round face was as plain as the dress she was wearing. A man stood directly in front of me, ash blond hair, his eyes strangely colourless in a red face, and to the side another man with dark hair and a crooked nose. This one seemed oddly familiar to me. He picked up a book from one of the almost empty shelves. “The Tell-Tale Heart. Do you like Poe?”

“Not particularly.”

He flicked through the pages, smiled to himself and then put the book back on the dusty shelf. It seemed so fragile that I was almost surprised it could hold the weight of the book. “He ended up betraying himself, the man in the story, you know? Couldn’t bear with the pressure of being interrogated by the police. Not that you are having such problems. You don’t even bother to run away when you’re done, not even to speak of cleaning up. I’ve seen you, you’re always waiting around the crime scene somewhere. You’re lucky the cops are as blind as they are.”

And suddenly, I remembered where I knew his face from. “You’re the one who does the cleaning on the crime scene.”
Again, he smiled. It made me uncomfortable, as if he was stroking me with sandpaper. “It’s a good job to have if you’re one of us. You get lots of experience in cleaning up blood stains.”

“And what exactly do you want from me now?” I was getting impatient with them. Cryptic smiles in a dusty old library and a bit of power play. That wasn’t exactly original villain behaviour.

“Oh, we don’t want anything from you. We just thought you might be interested in an… let’s say offer.”

“What would that offer consist in then?”

“Well, as you might have gathered already we are people with a rather uncommon taste.” It was the other man who spoke now. “And we thought you might be a interested in joining our society.”

“How so?”

“Ordinary people don’t really seem to get it, do they? People like Shirley Robertson, Isabella Costello, Frankie Anderson… That feeling of being more than just people. In their ordinary lives, where Richard Hurts is just an ordinary café waiter, and not the disguise of a man who has killed over a dozen people and changes identities like a chameleon changes colours.”

I knew that he had said those names on purpose, to impress me, maybe even frighten me with how well they knew which of the casualties in the newspapers were my work. It just annoyed me how successful he was with it.

“We know what it feels like, to see their dull gazes, thinking that they know what is going on. But truth is, they are the prey, we are the wolves. What do you say, do you want to have a part in our game?”

“Game? What exactly does your ‘game’ consist in? Do you just have nice murder meetings? Cannibal cook shows?” I was surprised at how harsh my voice sounded. I just didn’t know what to make of them. Again, all three of them smiled condescendingly. “You speak of us like we are ordinary people. I thought William had made quite clear that we are not.” It was the woman who talked this time. I had hardly payed attention to her. “We are offering you protection. You have been getting more and more careless the past few times. The cops aren’t just saying that they are on to something.”

“How do you want to know that?”

She crossed the room, limping slightly, until she stood in front of me, no emotion showing in her face.

“Because I have been working with them. I was on your case. Before I tragically died in a car crash that is”

 


 

Chapter 10 – Maura Kenny

Celia was in a foul mood, and she was not being discrete about it. Interns scurried around, trying not to make eye contact, as she read files and slammed them down on the desk when they refused to yield any helpful information. She had slept horribly, as usual, dreaming of death and pain and Rose with her eyes gouged out, and she’d woken up with a start and rolled out of bed, swearing, only to find her bourbon bottle empty, and her cupboards bare. She was disgustingly sober, and she was not happy about it.
Sobriety was good for some, she was sure, and certainly there had been a time when she was sober often, when she drunk for fun. But she would be lying if she said she was like that now. Alcohol was now something she used to forget, something she used to try and make thoughts of Rose go away. Without it, she was too aware, too sharp, and it was all just too much.
She could hear muttering behind her, people wondering what was wrong, and she flicked through the pages of the file in front of her, her unseeing eyes not absorbing one word. She needed to find this killer, who at this point could be easily deemed a serial killer- assuming it was all one person. And she thought it was. No, she was sure it was, there were unmistakably only one pair of hands over this whole thing. She needed to find this person. But all she could think about was Rose.
She had hoped that this case could distract her. Over a month had passed after Rose’s death with nothing that she could use, nothing to throw herself into, nothing to pull her away from the memories, until the first murder, gruesome and solitary, and she’d leapt onto the case. But it had worsened over the following months, death after death, and it seemed like the killer was toying with them, laughing at them, and it wasn’t a distraction anymore.
Celia was struggling without Rose as a sounding board, without the two of them working together. She couldn’t see the links, the connections, couldn’t find the killer, couldn’t stop this. And she knew that the killer knew that. There’d been the earring as a tease, locations that Celia and Rose had gone together… it was too far gone to think of it as a coincidence. The killer knew, and was deliberately torturing her. She didn’t know how they knew, but this was personal. This was vindictive. And Celia couldn’t do it.
She swore and slammed the file shut, closing her eyes on the beginning of a headache. She couldn’t work here.
She stood up, her chair scraping backwards, and grabbed her bag, stuffing some of the files in it and shoving another armful into the box they’d came in. She slung the bag over her back, heaving the box up to rest on her hip, and turned to glare at the cluster of people with their coffee, staring shocked at her. “I’m going to work from home today,” she snapped, and stalked out before they could respond, awkwardly shoving the door open, movement restricted by the box of files.
It was strictly forbidden to take files out of the precinct, of course, but Celia was relying on their fear of her to stop them responding instantly, and she’d be gone by the time the chief was told. She shoved the box into the passenger seat of her car and threw her bag into the back, briefly glad that she was sober enough to drive today, and after taking a few deep breaths, glad to be out of the close claustrophobic office, she drove off for home.
****
Standing in the door of her flat twenty minutes later, the box of files at her feet, Celia rethought her previous idea. She couldn’t be more productive here. It smelled awful, and there were dirty dishes and clothes everywhere. Suddenly disgusted at herself, she shoved the box in, and closing the door behind her, she got to work, cleaning with a somewhat frantic frenzy, washing dishes and cleaning surfaces and vacuuming and sweeping and mopping and finally moving the mattress back into the bedroom, which she also cleaned, putting all of Rose’s things into a box and stashing it at the back of her cupboard. This was not the time for thoughts of Rose to overwhelm her. She needed to focus.
With one load of washing hanging up to dry and another load swishing about in the washing machine, Celia spread the files out on the table and stared at them. This wouldn’t work… She remembered something Rose had once said, but she didn’t let grief consume her. Look at it from another angle, Rose had said, and Celia smiled grimly, getting to her feet and grabbing a box of pins and some pens and paper from her room, bringing some thread for good measure. She stared at the blank wall in the living room- blank but for some mould, that is, and grinned. Time to make a proper old-fashioned like-you-see-on-TV police wall. And then maybe she’d see a link.
Two hours later, she still hadn’t found the link, but her head was clear and her brain was swirling with theories, and she’d been more productive than she had been in months. The wall was covered in pictures and maps and newspaper clipping and red thread joining things together.
And suddenly she became aware of the stench from downstairs again, permeating up through her now-clean floors. The smell of decay, and despite herself she was angry. She’d gone to all that work cleaning but her flat still stank? This was unacceptable. Sliding on her shoes and grabbing her key, she walked to the door with one last look at her wall.
She’d go see if the tenant below was in (she’d met him once, although all she remembered was that he’d been rude to her) and if not, well. Maybe she’d break in and clean his flat too.


 

Chapter 11 – Heather Caldwell

I pulled the scarf further up my face – partly to warm me up and partly to block the acrid smell of smoke. It made my eyes water but it warmed my hands. I don’t know how long it’s been since they cut off heating to the flat; with it went the water and electricity. So I had taken to burning whatever I could find – food long since rotted, scraps from the abundant piles of litter in the flat. Today I even threw a dead rat into the pail. The fur sparked and crumbled away inside the fire, cooking the meat underneath. Despite the putrid smell, my stomach growled. It was too long since I last ate.

I tried not to focus too long on the hunger that snarled inside me. The Company had told me to wait, so I would wait. ‘Wait for our word,’ she had said. The plain woman. The dead woman. I knew I had seen her face – but I couldn’t remember where from. The smoke made my head fuzzy. I couldn’t keep my thoughts solid, they keep trickling away from me.

BANG! BANG! BANG! I snapped my head up at the noise. Someone was hammering at the door.

“Hey!” shouted an angry voice from outside, “Is anyone in there?”

I wouldn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. The banging came again.

“Hello? This is Detective Celia Nuñez. I live upstairs.”

Upstairs? The woman upstairs? Yes, I remembered. The sharp-looking woman with dark eyes and dark skin. I would see her sometimes – coming or going from the flat – tired and sad. It was the sadness I didn’t understand. At the crime scenes she just looked tired and angry. Sometimes – at night – when the rats had decided to be quiet, I could hear her crying. Other times there would be smashing and shouting, followed by more crying.

“I know you’re in there – I heard you moving around! Don’t make me break down this door!”

Hide! I had to hide. But what if she found me? Curled and cowering in the walls? No. I was better than that; better than fear. But what to do? What to do? What to do, what to do, what to do?

“Hey, Mister! Open! Up!”

With a jolt, I spun around to face the door, hand knocking the pail and its smouldering contents and the accelerant I had been using to the floor.

The liquid spilt. The embers rolled. The puddle sparked into life on the carpet. And then everything was fire.

The door broke down.


 

Chapter 12- Hayley Rutherford

She was four years old, sitting in the garden in her dirty little culottes rolled up at her ankles. Her hands were dipped in red and saturated by the saccharine scent of the strawberries she had greedily devoured. A lone butterfly glided gently upon the wind, landing delicately with its en pointe legs dancing across the back of her hand. It lapped up the sanguine remnants of the splattered fruit. She watched it, for a moment, with awe and admiration. She watched its tangled legs slipped stupidly in the sticky mixture. She grinned to herself at how feeble the clumsy little thing was and then she measuredly reached out her other hand and tore a solitary wing from its back. The insect crumpled on its left side and out-reached its spindly legs as if grasping out, calling for help. She laughed through her chomping teeth, pulled the bug towards her grin and swallowed it still squirming.

 

The killing was easy. It always had been. She remembered at aged 12 she had fervently pummelled a stray cat to death in the woods with a big rock. Well, she had stopped it first with a kick of course, then the rock to smash in its rib cage and then her own hands to force its eyes in to its sockets. When she withdrew her bloodied thumbs, she licked them eagerly. She always thought of this as the first moment when she had wondered what human flesh tasted like. Of course, when she withdrew from the collar-less cat she noticed a shaven patch of fur near its hind legs marking the spot where its chip must have been put in. Not a stray after all, somebody would come looking for it. Her cover-up of the cat’s demise was an ordeal. It required her waiting til dark so she could throw the body on the train tracks. She had wrapped the bloodied thing in her good jumper so that needed thrown in the river and she had walked miles to make sure it wasn’t near the train tracks. When she returned home at 1am her parents were incensed and Rose could not help but break down in tears. Sobbing and apologising hoarsely at how she had stayed out late with the big boys who hung around the skate-park at night. She confessed to how she had drank and smoked with them, and how one of them had touched her thighs and given her a kiss. She almost wanted to admit to having sex with this imaginary boy so she could see her father really turn purple. Killing was easy the main dilemma was cleaning up your mess and doing so effortlessly. After all the was no handbook for this kind of lifestyle.

 

Now choosing to eat the flesh of the victims made it more difficult you could hardly string the body up anymore and hope the police thought it a suicide. Someone might notice the bite marks. Rose knew that from an early age the best way to be innocuous was to be one of the good guys, and it soon became her ambition to become a detective. Not just for the security but also because she would get to see the crime scenes, maybe even pick up a few tips, and… mmm… the morgue. Her identity as a woman of the law was the mask she wore in the day but Rose knew that in order to cultivate her true self she would need to be far more than just a cannibal. Her own disdain at the lack of practical instruction on skilled murder and disposal allowed her to identify a service that might be lacking in the criminal underworld.

Surely there were others? People in need of instruction and encouragement as they came to terms with their penchant for human flesh. Rose found them easily through the crime scenes she worked, she covered their tracks and came to them when they were lost and in the heat of their crimes. They were all indebted to her. And so Rose found her real self: as Salvation. Her Followers all loved her dearly, they would do anything for her and she protected them. It only made her want to collect more.

 

Being Detective Rose Brown meant she could stay as Rose. No changing identity, no skipping town, no need to hide.  She had once been Rose Harris, at the start of her training, but Chief Garrett had taken an interest and he had been easy to seduce. They were married within a year. He was older and fatter than she would have liked but she took care to remind herself that he was not an accessory but a shield that made her untouchable. Celia was something else though. Always full of fire and anguish, it was like passion. But methodical, calculating, no matter how shitty things were behind the scenes she had always faced the worst in her heels with her head held high. She would have made an excellent addition to Rose’s operation. She asked her husband directly, to be partnered with Nunez and then she had seduced her. Rose always thought people were the most honest when they were fucking or dying.

 

“Why do you think they do it?” Rose had whispered late one night as she looked dolefully in to Celia’s eyes.

“Do what?”

“The murders. The things we see,” Rose replied calmly. “That one last week where that woman and her daughter had their guts tore out. It was so artistic. And serial killers, they keep doing it. They must enjoy it.”

Celia looked back at her gravely. “I think they do it cos they’re fucking monsters, Rose.”

“Well… I suppose it’s a different way they see the world.”

“Yeah,” Celia breathed, wrapping her arms around Rose a little tighter. “Because there is something wrong in their heads. It’s like they’re missing a bit.”

“Or maybe they see more.”

“What?”

“Are you seriously telling me that you could never kill someone ever. I mean what if you had to rescue someone? What if your life depended on it? That there’s no scenario where you…”

“If anyone ever did anything to hurt you, I’d kill them,” Celia interrupted abruptly. “…and I’d enjoy it.”

*********

“Rose.” Arnold ’s sharp voice drew her from her reverie. His thin lips were drawn in to a tentative grimace beneath his crooked nose.

“What is it?” Rose lifted herself from the leather armchair. Arnold was a tall man but her presence dwarfed him. Her Followers knew well not to disturb her in this wing of the library.

“Forgive me,” his voice was still cool and measured but his eyes refused to meet hers. “It’s your latest protégé. He set fire to his apartment. We’re sure he’s going to be found out.”

“Well you know how to resolve this Arnold .” Rose said with a furtive way of her hand. “And if they parole him stage the scene for him. The gun, not the rope for this one. He’s too slippery and we can risk him surviving and leading the police to us. Now leave me.”

“He’s in the hospital.” Arnold  clicked his heels together.

“So?”

“So…” He lost his resolve at last and stammered. “So is Celia Nunez.”

Rose remained silent. Her eyes bored in to his skull.

Arnold took a deep breath to compose himself and then expelled each sentence with in a single breath. “She lived in the apartment above. She tried to pull him from the flames. She has third degree burns. They had to perform an emergency tracheotomy.”

“I’m going to see her.”

“But you’re supposed to be…”

“Get me a car. Now.” Rose bellowed, beginning to stride from the room.

“He’s there too.” Arnold shouted after her. “He and Celia are in the same room.”

“Then I shall speak to them both.”


 

Chapter 13- Molly Duffield

I pretended to be asleep.

I couldn’t see who came into the room, but I know how this ends. Fires are investigated, and there was plenty to find in the flat. Newspaper cuttings; small, insignificant items; safe in a metal box inside the wall. Innocuous on their own, but together…

I know I should be smelling disinfectant and urine; hospital smell- but all I can smell is burning meat.

Both of us, burning.

Detective Nuñez couldn’t have had as many leads as she claimed. If she had, wouldn’t she have left me in there, rather than risk her life to haul me out?

Unless she just didn’t want me to die before they could arrest me.

I was awake when they brought her in. I’d drifted in and out of consciousness for what must have been hours, my seared skin prickling; the pain dulled by medication. I heard them murmuring when they wheeled in her bed, about how they’d had to cut open her throat so she could breathe.

It’s such an art. To cut without killing.

I wondered if she could still speak. Could it really be so easy, that my secret might remain trapped inside her head? Surely someone else must know. No matter how much faith she had in herself, it would have been reckless at best and stupid at worst for Detective Nuñez to knock on a murderer’s door alone.

Soon enough, I heard them arrive.

I kept my eyes closed, but they stopped at her bed first anyway. Whoever it was murmured so quietly that I couldn’t make out the words, but I was surprised to hear that the voice was female. I thought they’d send men.

Purposefully, the heels then clicked across the floor towards me.

‘Wake up. We don’t have much time.’

The words were so unexpected that I opened my eyes. Though she looked the part; in a dark suit and heels, I knew immediately that this woman wasn’t the police. At least, not anymore.

It was the plain woman. The dead woman.

At first, it troubled me that she got in so easily- but then my senses caught up with me. We were in intensive care, the nurses were busy-

Too busy, clearly, to pay attention to the name on an old ID badge.

‘Listen to me. There’s a way out of this, but you have to do as I say…’

She explained quickly. Left before the real police arrived. Men this time, neither of them in uniform; and, unlike her, they didn’t stop beside Celia’s bed. They came straight to me, but I was already looking up, waiting.

‘I need to make a confession.’


Chapter 14 – Maria Sledmere

“No time for confessions.” Rose’s heels clacked nastily as she followed the group of men who carried the man she wanted.

“Who are these people?” the voice demanded, wry and calm. “Our fellow men?”

“Shut up.”

The voices got mixed up after that. He was hurled into the crackly plastic of a giant IKEA bag, then dumped in the back of a van. The world was dark and timeless, except for the murmur of voices, the crackling stereo. They were listening to Radio 1, and Rose was blithely singing away to Kesha while the men faced the dashboard in silence.

I eat boys up, breakfast and lunch

Then when I’m thirsty, I drink their blood

He felt sick. These people were terrible drivers, swerving round bends like they were playing MarioKart.

Eventually, the van spluttered to a halt. Still covered by the bag, he was led across what felt like a bed of pine needles. They had taken his shoes off in the van to be safe.

“This is your new home,” Rose announced, ceremoniously pulling the bag from his head. Her lover was lying in a hospital bed, dying of third degree burns, and yet she seemed in a joyous mood.

“I don’t understand,” he muttered. They were in a forest. The huge Douglas firs huddled together like intimidating nightclub bouncers. There was a small cabin clasped in a million fingers of ivy. A thrum of distant bass vibrated through the trees. He shivered.

“Don’t mind that, it’s just the machines getting to work,” Rose explained. She grabbed his hand and pulled him up to the cabin, still singing away to herself. I get so hungry when you say you love me. The men watched in sullen silence.

“You can go,” she gestured from the doorstep, shooing them back into the van.

Now they were alone. He was still shivering uncontrollably, so she thrust a blanket in his direction. He noticed with a twinge of satisfaction that it was peppered with scarlet stains. A dram was poured from a bottle of Whyte & McKay that Rose miraculously extracted from a breadbin.

“I n-need to know something,” he murmured, pulling needles from his feet.

“Go ahead Ellis.”

“How did you know my name? How did you…” The panic rose up through his chest like vomit.

“I said go ahead Ellis. Ask your damn question.”

“R-right…Well, no easy way to say this. Are you dead?” She burst into manic laughter. His fingernails tightened their grip in his thighs. He wanted to draw blood, just enough to spark the smell. The lusty glow of rust and haemoglobin. Here she was, laughing away and wasting time, when his whole body was crying out its desperate need for flesh. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, the way people like us need to draw such hard and fast distinctions between life and death. The way death itself becomes a fetish. The beauty of choosing the lushest bouquet of decay.” She licked her lips like she could taste her own words.

“I’m not asking because I want to eat you.” He was surprised at how earnest he actually was, the whisky loosening the truth from his tongue.

“Well I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.”

“There’s a lot more to clear up. I mean, what the hell is this place? Why have you taken me?”

“Honey,” Rose lay a manicured hand on his thigh, “this place is hell. It’s where we bring the bodies. You won’t believe the work we’ve got these machines doing. I’m telling you, Arnold  is a genius… Even if he is a bit of a wet blanket.” She flicked her wrist flippantly. The whirring sound started up again; he felt it resonate with the hunger in his stomach.

“So there are others.”

“Baby, you tried to annihilate your own apartment. What were you trying to kill? There’s nothing to be ashamed of.” She poured him some more whisky.

“Do you work for The Company?”

“The way I see it,” Rose knocked back her third glass, “The Company works for me.” She scraped back her chair and started knocking on the window. Someone was coming.

 


 

Chapter 15-  Mary Clement Mannering

Celia awoke at the sharp staccato of a slap, the sound jarring amidst the burbling and beeping of machines. Somewhere, far away, there were gentle murmurs of conversation. A voice. So sweet, so achingly familiar. I must be dead, she thought.

 

“ – Got to make it look convincing, otherwise no one will believe – No. Hold still. I need to leave bruises. Now, tell me again, what’s your name?”

 

“Stephen Dempsey,” a reedy voice replied. A man, she thought, but she couldn’t be sure. It was as if she was underwater, the sounds around her hollow and distorted.

 

“And your address?”

 

“36 Bothwell Ave – “

 

They were gone again, drifting in and out like a gentle tide. With every few moments another sentence washed over her, another piece of information, another piece of the dizzying jigsaw. She knew that voice; it’s cadence was bittersweet. Rose. She couldn’t think beyond the name, too caught in the mud and haze of morphine to realise what it might mean.

 

“Now listen, Stephen, she has a drinking problem. Bourbon, broken furniture. Tell them about how scared you were.”

 

“What about the real Stephen?”

 

“You’ll be gone before they can check if your files match up. The wife will corroborate your story.”

 

Celia tried to call out, but there was no sound but a laboured hissing and soon she was gasping for breath. There was something in her throat, she realised belatedly and with more than a touch of panic. Oh God. Where was she? What was that noise? Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. Her eyelids quivered with the hysteric movement of the organs beneath.

 

“Ah. Someone’s awake.”

 

There was a sweeping sibilant sound to Celia’s left. Like a hospital curtain being pulled back, she thought, and suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, it all came back. The stench, the screams, her blistering skin.

 

Celia opened her eyes.

 

Rose Brown stared down at her with a razor-blade grin.

 

“Hello Detective,” she cooed.

 

***

 

Every surface was covered in petals, crumbling from the slow-dying bouquets of flowers scattered around the sterile room. Garrett hated them. Hospitals, too. They made him think of his departed wife, how they never let him see her body.

 

“You don’t want to,” they had insisted, “Trust us.”

 

It troubled him still. That he never got to say a proper goodbye, that he never got to have so many things with his Rosie. Firsts and lasts. Grimacing, he took a deep sip of his shitty hospital-canteen coffee, scalding his tongue. The pain was a welcome distraction from his bleak thoughts.

 

“Detective Nuñez.” He paused, turning to face the subject of his current predicament, “Celia”.

 

She lay in her bed, glared subduedly at him through a cloud of drugs, her head propped up by the ventilator inserted into her throat. A piece of rigid plastic was all that lay between her and asphyxiation. Smoke inhalation will do that to you.

 

He tossed that morning’s Daily Mail onto her lap. “Nuñez The Nutcase” the headline read, followed by a particularly defamatory article detailing her ‘nervous breakdown’ after the loss of her partner and how she ‘cracked under the pressure’ of this new case. She sure-as-shit felt cracked. She felt like she was off her fucking rocker. Rose was alive.

 

Boy, was she still reeling from that plot twist.

 

“I’m here on official business. Your badge and gun have been confiscated, your flat has been searched and some items have been collected as evidence. You are officially off the case.”

 

“What?”

 

It was the first word she’d said in two days. What? None of this made sense. Surely, they’d charged Stephen Dempsey for arson? Surely, they’d recognised Detective Rose Brown as she made her way out of the ICU. Not before she’d dosed Celia with enough morphine to knock out a whale, of course.

 

“Don’t look so surprised, Nuñez,” Garrett scoffed, “Mr. Dempsey told us everything. He confessed to squatting in the building for a few weeks after his wife kicked him out, just trying to get his shit in order. Said you’d threatened him before, always drunk, always smashing stuff, crying, yelling at someone even though you live alone. He told us that you broke down the door, kicked over the pail he was lighting a fire in, then beat the shit out of him.”

 

Dempsey, the lying snake. Dempsey. Was that even his real name?

 

“We found the bottles in your flat, Celia, along with case files. You should know better.”

 

She crumpled the newspaper in her grasp, twisting it, twisting it, twisting it until it stained red, blood dripping through her bandages. Her freshly grafted skin shredding beneath the fabric. How could she tell him? How could she possibly tell him that his Rosie was alive, that she was in as deep as they were? No voice to speak with, no hands to write with. Helpless.

 

“Thank God the lad’s wife took him back in, she was so upset when she found out. Put up a fuss, had him transferred to a private hospital. He was still a proper mess when he was taken out of surgery, you know. They didn’t notice for a few hours because they’d been so focused on the burns. You messed him up real good, Detective.”

 

The slap. The cogs of her brain swung into action. Rose slapped Dempsey. Rose caused him those injuries, she was sure of it. But why? What was her agenda? Beautiful, dead Rose. Celia had gazed up at her through the mist of her semi-conscious state, knowing in the back of her mind that something was deeply wrong. Somehow, a predatory grin looked more at home on her face than a tender look of love ever had.

 

They were tangled in a web, so deep and so intricate, and Rose was at the centre.

 

“Garrett,” Celia wheezed. The pain was searing, unbearable, but she would bear it. A Nuñez did not crack.

 

“She’s alive. Rose is alive.”

 


 

 

Chapter 16 – Gerald Gan

“What?”

 

“Rose is alive,” she repeated slowly, like talking down to a small child. “You know, Rose? Our Rose.” My Rose.

 

“God, detective, you must really be out of it.” Garrett shook his head in disbelief. “Rose is dead, Celia. You should know that better than anyone, or do you not remember burying her 3 months ago?”

 

Celia did remember her funeral. But she also remembered her death. They were on their way to see yet another mangled dead body. Rose chose to park a block away. ‘Good day for a walk’, she said. They were crossing the road, and then- And then- Fuck. She had thought about that day so many times, discussed it in depth with the department so many times, deconstructed it to pieces with her shrink so many times. Relived it in her nightmares so many times. But each time was different, and she couldn’t get the story straight anymore.

 

She was certain that she had been standing in the middle of the road, fingers almost, almost brushing against the soft fabric of Rose’s shirt as she too belatedly tried to reach out to grab her. But yet she was also sure that she had woken up bounds away on the pavement.

 

She had seen the big, bloody mess coating the tarmac, she had embarrassingly enough fallen unconscious to the ground, and she had suffered a sore, painful knock to the head. Not necessarily in that order. By the time she came to, Rose was gone, taken away from her forever.

 

“Look, Garrett, you just have to believe me on this,” she pleaded, “and no it’s not the drugs.” She made sure of it. After the encounter with Rose, she had threatened to yank out the tube herself if they didn’t switch it to a smaller size. She then had to put up a torturously pleasant façade, insisting that she was little pain, so that they pumped her with less of those mind-numbing opiates. But that left her in a state of sheer agony. A constant skin-shearing, flesh-melting agony. Agony that she would just have to grit her teeth and endure.

 

Something must have shown in her eyes, because Garrett let out a deep sigh and relented. “Fine. Okay, let’s say she is alive.” Every word delivered full of scepticism. “Then what did she say to you?”

 

‘Miss me?’ Rose had murmured. She leaned in. Her lips felt familiar, but at the same time foreign. The kiss itself was sensuously hot, but it left her feeling impassively cold. When she pulled back, her lover’s lips were red from the act, superimposed with a tint of blood smeared over a corner, which she hungrily licked away. Rose looked exactly the same as she remembered. The accident didn’t mar any of her beautiful features, from her full lips to her arched eyebrows. But she felt different. ‘I missed you.’

 

‘Rose’, she wanted so say, but no words came out. ‘How?’ she mouthed, but still she failed to vocalise. Celia wheezed and jerked as she struggled desperately to make a sound, while Rose whispered sweet nothings about how she was so beautiful and how she couldn’t wait to taste her again…

 

“Nothing, she didn’t say anything.”

 

“So you’re meaning to tell me,” Garrett grew visibly exasperated, “that Rose is alive, visited you in bed, and left without saying a single word?”

 

“Not to me. But to Stephen.” Celia’s voice grew hoarse with strain. Her throat felt mangled and raw, but she had to continue. She took a fortifying breath. “Everything was a lie. She gave him the fake name. She gave him the bullshit story and that pretend wife. She told him what to say and how to act.” She inflicted those calculated bruises to implicate me, she wanted to add, but she had the sense to recognise that no matter how absurd everything else seemed, that was definitely not something Garrett would accept of his apparently sweet and innocent wife.

 

“Drop the act, Nuñez! You think–” Garrett was truly angry now. Hands clenched. Chest heaving. Body quivering with boiling rage. “You think you could just use my dead wife to come up with this crazy fucking story to explain for why you fucked things up the way you did?” His face coloured with a stark crimson. “Don’t bother coming back to the station unless you’re ready to be honest about this.” He turned to leave.

 

Tears welled up in her eyes. Nothing made sense. She felt so powerless, so helpless. So useless. She was a detective for god’s sake! She was supposed be able to pick up all the tiny little details that would coalesce and form a mind-blowing Seurat. But now, she’s struggling to find just one. Come on, Nuñez, think! Why couldn’t she remember anything anymore? Then suddenly, a little snippet of conversation bubbled up from the murky recesses of her mind.

 

‘…remember,’ Rose chided, ‘you are Stephen Conway- I mean Stephen Dempsey now. Stephen Dempsey does not…’

 

“Conway…? Conway! Ellis Conway!”


 

Chapter 17- Hayley Rutherford

 

Detective Nunez took a steadying breath and then slowly out-reached her hand to knock the door. She had barely tapped it but the door swung open immediately.

 

They had been expecting her.

 

“Mr Conway…?” she spluttered nervously.

 

“Yes,” the man who faced her replied quite gravely and led her solemnly in to the house.

Celia was seated on a gaudy pink floral settee next to an overweight woman in an equally gaudy lime-green dress who sipped her cold tea between sniffles.

 

“Mr Conway…” Celia began tentatively.

 

“Please, call me Walter,” replied the largely moustachioed man. His kind grey eyes watering slightly in the corners.

 

“Oh I’m Nancy, dear,” the sniffling woman said sweetly looking up from her tea. “Oh, how rude do you want some tea, dear?” Celia noted from this point forward Mrs Conway would begin her sentences in “Oh” and end them in “dear” in an attempt to feign her usually naturally polite demeanour in an attempt to seem optimistic.

 

“No. No, no thank you. So,” said Celia opening her notebook and largely addressing Mr Conway as Mrs Conway had got up to stick on the kettle despite Celia’s direct protestation.

 

“What can you tell me about your son Ellis?”

 

It was ten years before Celia would realise the truth about Ellis. Ten years before Celia would have to walk through an inferno to see Rose raised from the dead. It was before she had even met Rose. It was ten years ago, Celia was only 24, a nervous wide-eyed rookie imbued with optimism in the justice system and this was her first case.

 

Ellis Conway was 16 years old and he was a missing person. He came from a good neighbourhood, his parents quaint house had two sensible cars in the driveway, tangerine drapes in the windows that looked like they were rejects from last year’s Good Housekeeping catalogue, and the garden filled with daises and brambles.

 

Mr Conway regaled the young Celia about his son’s life. Celia sipped reluctantly at the tea Mrs Conway had brought her whilst Mrs Conway did not her own freshly brewed tea at all as she was now sobbing quite helplessly.

 

“Ellis was a good kid,” Mr Conway nodded, “Always got top marks in school. He loved cycling- that’s when we first noticed, his bike was gone you know. At first we thought he’d just gone out for a cycle like always but he didn’t come back.”

Mrs Conway spluttered quite loudly at this and Mr Conway leaned forward from his armchair and handed her another handkerchief from the top pocket of his shirt.

 

“And did Ellis have any… enemies?”

 

“Enemies?!” exclaimed Mrs Conway.

 

“That is… I mean, he didn’t have anyone he fought with at school… he didn’t get in with the wrong crowd or that sort.” Celia spluttered.

 

“No, no, nothing like that. Mind?” Mr Conway said drawing a packet of cigarettes from his pocket.

 

“No, of course.” Celia nodded.

 

“Truth be told,” Mr Conway muttered with the cigarette between his lips as he began to light it. “Ellis didn’t really have any friends.”

 

“Oh he’s very, very talented,” Mrs Conway interjected, blowing her nose loudly. “C’mon I’ll show you his room, dear.”

 

“No.” Mr Conway said abruptly.

 

“Don’t be silly, dear. I’m sure Mrs Nunez would like to see.”

 

Nancy Conway lead opened the door to her son’s room beaming with pride. It took all the strength Celia had not to visibly recoil. Pinned to the wall facing Ellis’s bed were 100 red butterflies.

 

“Aren’t they beautiful?” Mrs Conway nudged.

 

“They’re Red Admirals,” Celia whispered entranced. She stepped towards them as if eerily drawn by a beckoning hand and brushed one of their wings. It was perfectly ridged, as if it had been captured mid-flight.

 

“Oh, see Ellis is so talented. We think he’ll work for a museum one day. He loves curating animals; he’s been practicing his taxidermy a little bit. I have a loved stuffed squirrel he made for me on the bedside table.”

 

Celia nodded mutely, her eyes slowly widening as she spied a litre bottle of embalming fluid on Ellis’s computer desk.

 

“You will find him, won’t you Mrs Nunez?” Mrs Conway said beginning to weep and took Celia’s hand in hers. This annoyed Celia so much she was even bothered that Mrs Conway kept referring to her as “Mrs” and not “Officer”.

 

“I will see my baby soon?”

 

“Of you will.” Celia lied. Mrs Conway died of a massive heart-attack two years later, she never saw her son again.


 

But Celia would see him, soon, very soon. Celia sat bolt upright in her hospital bed. Four days has passed in a haze of morphine. She vaguely remembered flashes of blood, stitches, and dressings as she seethed upon the memory of Ellis Conway. Her very first case- unsolved and yet now he was within her grasp. From the moment she saw that graveyard of red wings she knew there must be something weird about that kid. No ordinary missing person. But she had no idea how twisted he really was. Butterflies had always been a penchant of Rose’s too.

A surly nurse entered the room. “Sign these papers Miss Nunez and then you are discharged.”

“Detective.” Celia hissed.

“As I recall your Chief dismissed you and warned us not to give you privilege.” She replied rudely. “Now sign. Although there’s no way you should be leaving really,” she said glaring at Celia’s barely healed scars and added under her breath “you’re a mess.”

Celia had refused the skin grafts, they would only waste more time. She signed the papers and without another word to the nurse. She began to dress quickly and gather her things. One little sly trick from a homicidal maniac wouldn’t stop her from being a detective. And now she knew where to start.

The butterflies.

She was going to find Ellis Conway.


 

Chapter 18- Lee Wilkinson

shoebill

Celia’s throat burned with the coarse dessert air. The day long drive out of the city, through the dry dusty roads had acted like  sand-paper on her dwindling hope and her failing body. What was left of her resolve  however had led her to an oasis out in the middle of the desert, a tropical island encased in a glass dome, shimmering in the light of the dusk sun. Celia wearily lifted her arm, pushing the indicator stick with her map clutching hand.  Not only had the only system she had ever  trusted  failed her, it had now betrayed her. As she had once laid hands on everything the police chief once loved, he had began to slowly dismantle everything Celia had devoted herself to her entire life. Her reputation  as one of the finest detectives had been forgotten, her legacy now amounting to nothing more than the drunken bitter ex-police officer who takes pleasure in beating up those people “homeless and in need”.

 

As the car pulled of the road onto a bumpy drive way, Celia noticed a worn out sun-bleached sign that read “Xavier’s School for the Fluttery and Butterly”. On any other day, on any other case Celia would move right on from this joker and chase more serious leads worthy of her time. That’s exactly what she had done ten years prior.

 

Celia stepped out of the car hunching over as her battered joints took the strain of her body weight. She wrestled through the thin sand to a large glass door, picking her head up just as she arr…

 

“AHHH!!????” Celia screamed.

 

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” A slender, bizarre looking man happily screamed back. The man stood about six feet tall, judging from the only reference point near by which was a pale blue shoebill.

 

“What?…..Who?” Celia murmured.

 

“They always say that if you want to ingratiate yourself with people, you should use phrases that they’ve said!” The man confidently proclaimed.

 

“And I didn’t have much to go off with you Celia, I was working with what I had” The giant blue bird nodded, seemingly in agreement.

 

In what seemed like hell, Celia could have interpreted this two ways. Was this Satan himself popping in for a cameo, or an angel offering a helping hand.

 

“Come on in Celia, we’ve been waiting!” The man said beckoning Celia into the hemispherical rain forest.

 

Celia wearily stepped into the dome, keeping her wits about her. She was weak and vulnerable no matter who, or what, in the case of the giant bird, she was dealing with. She was immediately hit with humidity and heat, her dry skin felt moisturised and her beaten muscles massaged. This was the most relaxed she had felt in many weeks. Celia quickly rallied her attention and focused it on the man.

 

“How do you know my name?” Celia asked pointedly. As dangerous as knowing her identity was, she did not think this the type of man to turn her into the authorities. His seclusion seemed fitting of someone wanting to be left alone.

 

“It’s my business to know my business Celia. And for a while we wouldn’t have greeted you at the door, Blossom and I” He said looking over at the bird, which was now delicately tending to some gardening with it’s large peak.

 

“No Celia, for a long time I would have been quite afraid of you and your…associate stepping through that door. But like me you are not one of them, you merely had the poor fortune to be drawn in, and for that I hold no grudge.”

 

“Sorry, Xavier…is it? I don’t know why you know me, and I don’t know who you think my associates are.” Celia probed, quite confused by the mans familiarity with her.

 

Celia looked him up and down, trying to get the measure of him. He was thin, his body covered in a velvet robe that seemed to flow between deep purples and turquoise, his hair was grey with hints of color crawling throughout. His curled mustache seemed to glisten as if filled with glitter, although by the state of him it could have been any number of powdered substances.

 

He bounced over to a counter top within a small pod. Celia followed him as he spoke.

 

“Xavier’s what’s on the door! So Xavier I shall be.” Xavier said has he placed a cut of meat onto a chopping board, reaching over for a large filleting knife.

 

“You look injured Celia…Thorns have a nasty habit of doing that if you get to close to the Rose”

 

“You know rose?” She questioned.

 

“I fear Rose” Xavier replied as he sliced his steak into small strips.

 

“We’re not all bad you know” Xavier said solemnly.

 

Celia looked concerned, it had become apparent to her that this was not the jovial crazy man she thought. In this instant he looked timid and resentful.  The momentary absence of her paranoia had vanished, with one eye she watched Xavier and with the other she watched the shadows of this artificial jungle.

 

“Xavier, I need to know what is going on. There have been deaths, Rose is apart of this. You must tell me what you know.” Celia demanded hastily.

 

Xavier let out a deep breathe, burying his head, looking down at the ground.

 

“I met a boy, Ellis was his name, many many years ago. He had a taste for something, some might say is disturbing.” Xavier said, reluctantly pointing his knife to the slices of meat on the chopping board.

 

Panicked Celia lunged at Xavier, trying to grab the knife. They crashed to the floor both still gripping the blade. Xavier shaken quickly released the knife, holding his hands above his head.

 

“Celia no, please!” Xavier panted.

 

“That meat is not of animal flesh, that you know” His speech now much more urgent, his life hanging in the hands of a very damaged vulnerable woman.

 

“But it is not by murder, I swear to you. We are not all bad.”

 

“Then what are you!?” Celia exclaimed.

 

“Well, I like to think of myself as a kind man.” Xavier proposed.

 

“There is only one animal on earth that has any perception of self, any true choice in our existence. So why then is it okay to impose our will, our urges and our hunger onto the other animals of this world? I simply eat what people give to me, when their time has come to give.”

 

Celia began to think about Rose, the times they were together, the times their lips had met, their tongues stroked against each other.. Surely she couldn’t be one of these people, these cannibals…

 

“And Rose?” Celia asked nervously.

 

“Rose eats only what she takes, and enjoys what it is hard to take. When I met Ellis he was a young boy with difficult urges, I tried to help him. I brought him here, to my butterfly sanctuary. I wanted him to learn about the good in this world, to respect all life and it’s freedom.”

 

“But young men like that are easy victims for women like her. She has riddled this city with her twisted form of murderer, and her appetite is becoming insatiable.”

 

Xavier became tense. The truth he held inside for so long had finally been released, but it left behind a vacuum slowly filling with fear.

 

“I have said too much, you must leave, they’ll be looking for you” Xavier turned away from Celia.

 

“Xavier you must help me, I must find her” Celia pleaded.

 

Xavier stood with his back to Celia, deep in thought. Celia noticed his frail skeleton now, and the butterflies roaming around his disheveled hair, he looked weak. His initial glowing appearance, brought on by contact with another person, had faded. Xavier had been isolated for a long time, and Celia suspected not all of that time had been by choice.

 

“Then wait” Xavier said, his voice cracking.

 

“She’ll be here soon”


 

Chapter 19- Richard Thompson

While Celia waited, Xavier paced. Where moments earlier he had seemed a man full of energy and mystery, now he was frail and reeking of fear. Even the ominous shoebird had its head hung low. Time passed as Celia looked further around the dome. What appeared to be a single dome from outside was actually a large glass dome with two low rectangular buildings connected on either side; one stone and one glass. A pair of silver metal doors connected the stone wing to the main dome, small glass windows in the doors showing a spacious chrome kitchen beyond; one that would look more at home in a posh inner-city restaurant. On the opposite, glass wall, tall glass doors revealed a long conservatory-style dining room; a light wooden table running down its entirety, fully laid out to seat 8 people for dinner.

 

Before long, dust billowing across the horizon betrayed the presence of an oncoming vehicle. Growing larger over the horizon came a shining RV, gleamingly conspicuous. As it pulled up, Xavier near collapsed into a high stool behind the bench upon which the strips of flesh, now crimson compared to his paleness, still lay. When the dust settled, the door of the RV opened and out stepped a line of figures, a range of shapes and sizes, 7 of them in total and led by Rose. Beautiful, deadly Rose.

 

“Celia!” Rose cried, rushing across the dome to embrace Celia tightly. Celia did not respond. The other figures stood in a semi-circle around them now, their faces cold masks of death. Celia had never felt more in need of a weapon then she did now.

“Why, we did not suspect your company, my love” Said Rose, linking her arm with Celia’s now “But no harm, no harm, I believe we are long overdue a chat anyway”

“I… I need to get something from my car Rose, please, come with me” Celia near begged, desperate to get away from Rose’s entourage.

“Don’t be silly Celia darling, we have everything we need here” She said chidingly. Chillingly. “Xavier, dear host, did you see to your other guest?” Rose asked the man, suddenly small in this new company.

“What other guest?” asked Celia before he could answer “I came alone”. Rose ignored her as Xavier’s chin wagged. Eventually he found his voice,

“Yes… yes. Through… through there” he said timidly, gesturing to the doors than led to the kitchen.

“Wonderful, wonderful! Jay, will you please take Xavier into the kitchen and see if you can’t find some extra cutlery, as it seems we now have an extra for dinner” Rose said, smiling. Jay, a young man with purple hair, stood and indicated for Xavier to lead the way. Xavier stood and hesitated, looking at Celia before heading into the kitchen like a prisoner to the noose.

“Now come, sit” Said Rose, leading the way to the dining room. As the others went, Celia grabbed Rose’s arm and spoke to her hurriedly.

“Rose, what is this? What are you involved with? This isn’t you, not the you I knew… How are you alive Rose?”

“Make a big enough bang and no one pays attention to the details of an… ‘accident’” Said Rose wryly

“What are you talking about? I saw you dead! And why are you here? Do you know who Ellis Conway is?” Celia asked, all the questions from the past weeks now pouring out.

Rose smiled “All in good time dear, but for now, sit.” and with that she led Celia into the glass dining room and sat her next to the head of the table, where Rose took her place.

 

“Ah Jay, lovely, I see you have made space for our extra guest” cried Rose, looking back towards the doors they had entered from. Celia looked as Jay took his seat. His shirt, once pure white, was now streaked with bright red. Streaked with blood.
“Where… where is Xavier?” stammered Celia “What have you done to him?!”. She tried to rise but Rose gripped her wrist.

“Celia, please, I’m sure it was… nothing but an accident. Sit.” Celia sat.

“Now Celia, by now you may know what I, what we, are. The ‘lifestyle’ that we enjoy. I want you to understand why.” Rose cooed. Celia’s mouth was dry.

“Consuming others, has always been a part of human nature. Tribes would do it to ease the passing of their deceased loved ones, helping their soul travel on to the next world. Others ate the bodies of their enemies after defeating them in battle. We, however, believe in something more” Rose said, gesticulating to her group. At this point, a dumpy woman in blue rose and left the room. Celia watched through the glass as she walked across the dome and entered the kitchen. She now noticed, in the dome, the shoebill, once fearsome, now lay dead in a pool of its own blood. Her stomach churned.

“What we believe is basic; eating makes you stronger. But consuming something that was stronger to begin with, must make you even stronger, yes? Make sense? Presented with two different quality cuts of meat, you’d always take the best, so why consume the lesser animals? Why avoid eating the apex predator species. Consuming that which consumes, can only make you stronger.” The group around them looked hungrily at Rose, eating up her words. Rose turned and looked into Celia. In that moment, Celia could see the Rose she once knew, once loved, and her heart rose.

“Please, Celia, let me help you. Discredited, alcoholic, shamed… you need all the strength you can get” she pleaded. Celia just gaped open-mouthed, not believing her ears. From the corner of her eye she noticed the woman in blue re-enter the dome, pushing a medical trolley. On the trolley, under a sheet, lay a body. Rose stood and went to the medical trolley as it entered the room.

“Celia, I’m so glad you could join us for this meal.”

Rose pulled the sheet back. Beneath, naked and perfectly roasted with an apple in his mouth, lay Ellis Conway. Consuming that which consumes, can only make you stronger.

 

 

Chapter 20 – Heather Caldwell

The worst part wasn’t that she was being asked to eat human flesh; or that she was seeing another human being posed in some gross perversion of a roast pig. It was how normal, even appetising, it – he – smelled. And that thought sickened Celia more than anything else she had come across in this case. Had her stomach not been completely empty, Celia was certain she would have lost the contents there and then. But other that the churning of her insides, the detective found herself unable to move.

“Shall I carve?” Rose’s gentle hands took up a long, silver knife – serrated teeth glinting in the desert light glaring through the dome.

“Celia, darling, any preference? I quite like some thigh myself – but most people find it too tough. Might I suggest some cheek? I think you’ll like it – tender but not too fatty.”

Words finally found their way out of Celia’s dry mouth. But it wasn’t the answer Rose was looking for; it was one of the only solid facts in Celia’s head.

“You…you killed him.” It might have been obvious, but it was true. And truth was something the Celia needed to grip with every ounce of strength if she was to have any chance of staying sane.

“Well, technically, it was Arnold who did the killing. And Ellen here,” Rose waved perfectly red nails at the woman in blue, “has done a wonderful job of the roast. Of course, Ellis almost covered that himself.” Rose laughed at her own joke. But it wasn’t her laugh – not the laugh Celia knew – this was dark and guttural. Heels clicked on the polished floor as Rose drew closer to Celia.

“He was one of you.”

“True – but he was rather careless. Ellis didn’t like our rules, and we need rules to live, so Ellis had to die. I thought you’d be pleased, darling.” Those cold, cold fingers grazed the back of Celia’s neck just like they had when Celia was tired or needing comfort. Rose’s hands had been cold then too. Celia had always liked it – it was cool, refreshing – but this, this was just chilling. Rose crouched to meet the level of Celia’s eyes; one hand lightly rubbing circles on Celia’s neck, the other still securely curled around the carving knife.

“The stupid boy almost burned you alive – so I returned the favour. Isn’t that what we always promised each other? If anyone ever hurt the other, we’d kill the bastard, and enjoy it. That is what you said, right, darling?”

It had been, almost to the letter. When they had been curled together, eye to eye as they were now. Steely grey piercing syrupy brown. Even then, there had been something uncommonly sharp in Rose’s eyes. But that was another life ago, when things had been good; when life had been painted in so many more colours, and not just red.

“What does it matter, if it was all fake anyway?” The crack of heartbreak sounded, despite Celia’s every attempt to stay calm – even if it was just to avoid giving Rose the satisfaction.

“Fake?” and now it was Rose’s turn to sound hurt. “How could you ever think that? So, maybe it started that way but, Celia, darling, I chose you.”

“No. You chose this.”

“I choose both. I know this is hard for you. I know it’ll be an adjustment. But, sweetheart, surely you can see that there’s no life for you out there anymore? Come away with me. Be by my side.” If the others around the table heard the sound of begging in their mighty leader’s voice, they didn’t acknowledge it. Celia did notice. She had heard in in Rose’s voice just over three months ago: when Celia had finally snapped and asked Rose to leave Garett, even going as far as to threaten to tell him about their affair. Rose had cried, and begged – kissing Celia all the while – and asked for just a little more time. A week later, she had died.

How…could I possibly do that?” Tears lurked in the corners of Celia’s eyes as the detective was torn apart where she sat. Every moral and human code screamed and railed inside her head furious that she could even consider such a thing. But in amongst the rabble the was one strong, clear voice. Rose’s voice.

“I can arrange it. Everything. Officially, you’ll die – like I did. Suicide, I think. And then you’ll be free. Truly free. And we can be together. No worries, no rules, no ridiculous husband in the way.”

Rose set aside the knife so she could twine her fingers with Celia’s. Cold, white hand topped with perfect scarlet nails merged with burned, crumpled flesh and bitten nails. It was strangely soothing and the world around them faded to a bleary nothingness.

“Do you promise?”

“Of course I do, my darling.”

“You promise it’ll be like you said? Just us?”

“Just us.”

“We’ll look out for each other? We’ll never let the other be hurt? No matter what happens?”

“No matter what happens.”

“Then yes.”

Celia leant forwards, catching Rose’s crimson lips in hers. The dinner party clapped politely in acknowledgement, as if they had just got engaged. Perhaps we have, thought Celia. She closed her eyes and thought only of the kiss; it was the only way Celia could cope as she dragged the teeth of the carving knife across Rose’s throat.

In all her years and experience as a police officer, Celia had never once ended a life. As blood flowed from Rose’s neck; and life drained from those bright, grey eyes, Celia realised that Rose had been wrong – she didn’t enjoy it.

No one moved to stop her as she left the table. Whether they were all too shocked to do so, or they were honouring Rose’s last request, Celia was sure. She didn’t care. She left the room, left the glass building, and curled up outside in the desert sun. The sand ground against her burned skin and her head ached from dehydration. It should have hurt, but everything was numb.

Celia started to cry. She cried with relief and with heartbreak, for the loss of what had been and what she might have had if the universe had been a little kinder. She cried for Rose and Ellis and Xavier and even for the bloody shoebill. And she cried for herself. And when the sun had started to set and all the tears were gone, Celia stood up and started to walk.

 


 

Epilogue- Thomas Boyle

Life goes on. Always.

Life is relentless.

Life is spinning gears, a grinding wheel, crushing all that comes before it. There is no reasoning with life. It begins as it does, and it ends when it will. It will not be talked out of either.

Death is more amenable. Death comes as wished for, and will at least wait a while, if convinced to. Death can be convinced.

Death is flexible.

In the desert one found the extremes of both. Where the sun bleached all white and dead, and in the shadow where the little things found their footholds caught their breath. In the sun, where the green strove to rise from the shifting sands and meet the light, and in the dark, where the dead things lay in hard-won peace.

A man had come a long way to join them. He felt at home among either, had friends in both.

“God,” said the Monarch, “You’ve met a dreadful end, haven’t you?” He sat down on a desiccated log and removed his hat to flap briefly at himself in the heat. The morning sun rose over the horizon behind him. It warmed his back, cast his shadow over what lay before him.

“Throat cut, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, tossed out into the sand like refuse. Heavens above,” the Monarch shook his head. “The old ways hold little sway anymore, I see that. But you’re strong. Strong. I can see that even now.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on his knees. “You’ll not die. In the old days, we knew how to keep ourselves alive, and those we desired by our sides. You’ll see. We’re going to be the most excellent friends.”

He scooped the body into his arms. Sand fell off it in a shower, blown away by the morning breeze.

“There are all sorts of life, my friend,” he said, reassuringly. “But you’ll soon find out. You were a caterpillar, squirming along the branch. Now you’re in your cocoon. Soon you’ll be the butterfly.”

With a sigh the wind whipped up, pushing the folds of his coat behind him as he walked. The darkness behind him widened as the fabric billowed. For a moment, there were two shadows crossing the desert.

“What fun we’ll have then.”

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