“Marie? Are you awake?”
Marie snored in response to Caroline’s entrance, a gruff, raspy snore that made Caroline swallow a laugh. The dormitory that Caroline shared with Marie was pitch-black as she entered. When she usually got back from the library at the dead of night, Marie was usually on her laptop, surfing the internet or working on some essay or another. But as she gently crept inside their bedroom just after midnight, there was no light to guide her in. She contemplated groping toward the light switch, but if Marie had turned in early, then Caroline would be dead girl walking if she woke her up.
As quietly as she could manage, she put her laptop case down on the chair next to the door, and then, trying not to step on anything, Caroline began to undress, tip-toeing toward her bed. She kept one eye on Marie’s duvet as it shifted and moved as the occupier drifted from dream to dream, and the other on her own as it beckoned her to climb under and be swallowed up by the warmth.
Caroline had been at the library for close to seven hours, and she had always told herself that spending longer than six hours in a row was putting her in the danger zone. The extra hour was spent tying up the few loose ends in her essay, and it was during that transition period between the-time-that-she-should-have-left and the-time-when-she-did-leave was a queer one. Fellow students whom she recognised drifted in and out of the aisles in various states of disconnection. Barry from Eng Lit was blinking every second step, like he was consciously forcing himself awake, and any deviation from that step-step-blink, step-step-blink pattern would result in him falling over there and then. Rebecca from Lang didn’t blink at all. She sat down opposite Caroline for three minutes—Caroline counted—didn’t blink once, and then stood back up and walked away.
Caroline closed her eyes and focused on letting the weight of the waking world evaporate. A few seconds later, and she was asleep, all her troubles gone for a couple of hours, at least…
When the morning rolled around, and Caroline slowly opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Marie staring down at her. “Wha…?” Caroline rubbed the sleep from the corners of her eyes and shuffled up against the headboard of her bed, and looked her at her roommate with a mixed expression of confusion and tiredness. Marie was sat cross legged on the left hand side of her bed, and she was positively beaming. “What’s got you up all peppy?”
“I broke up with Dan,” Marie said.
“Really?” Caroline began to grin. “No wonder you were sleeping so easy. How’d he take it?”
“It was weird. More of the same, actually. I told him he had shut me out for months now, that he wasn’t letting me in. And he just stayed… blank. Completely unresponsive. I got my stuff together from his flat but before he left he grabbed me by the arm and said,” she cleared her throat, and affected a quiet, husky monotone, “‘don’t leave me Marie, you don’t want to do that’,” she smiled, and shook her head. “Like that was going to stop me. I shrugged him off, got home, and went straight to bed.”
“Wow, at least he put up a fight,” said Caroline. “An epic fight, worthy of your relationship! At least he can go back to his darling Sam, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, whatever. But he used to be so nice, Cay. Remember when he was nice? When he wooed me? When he used to take us both out for dinner? Remember when he cared?”
“I think so… maybe…” Caroline stroked her chin, and then sprang up from her covers. “We can go get drunk now! We can go get drunk and frolic and… what time is it?”
Caroline shrugged. “Well, I’m going to go back to sleep, but after twelve? Drunken frolic-ness.”
“Sounds good,” said Marie. She climbed off Caroline’s bed and fell back on her own. She closed her eyes and grinned from ear to ear at the feeling of freedom that had been shooting through her veins since the night before.
Dan was nice and all when they started dating, but after a few months he began to get distant, seemed to space out during their conversations, seemed to stop giving a shit about anything that was going on in the world. Marie had tried to get through to him. She blamed herself for a while, but after a month or so of that she realised how fucking stupid that was, and started blaming him. So she sat him down and tried to talk it through, because that’s what adult human beings do, but he blinked, and nodded, and that was the final straw. At Caroline’s constant suggestion, she went to his flat, dropped the b-word on him (breaking up, which Caroline freely admitted to Marie when she made the original statement of suggestion was indeed a phrase and not a word) and was gone.
When Marie woke up three hours later, that feeling was still there. She sat up straight in bed, looked over to where Caroline should have been, ready to bark at her for letting her sleep through her feel-good vibe. Instead of the playful banter she intended, Marie instead let loose a blood-curdling scream that shook the building she lived in down to the foundation.
The entire right had side of the bedroom was a bloody mess. Caroline’s desiccated corpse was strewn amongst the sheets, though there was something inherently wrong with the way she looked. Marie screamed and she screamed, and it was the sound of her own voice filling her ears and the curtains of red that were pulled across her eyes that stayed with her as the other girls in their dormitory came to see what was going on…
“This makes no sense,” said Detective Chief Inspector John Coolage. It was two hours after the call had been made to the police. They’d mobilised fast, the best officers were on the scene, but even getting there so fast, even having half the department in one room working the scene, it didn’t mean that the crime made any more sense. “The victim….”
Todd Matthews had been a Scene of the Crime Officer for ten years last February, and as much of a cliché as it was, this was beyond anything he’d ever experienced before. This case was going to be a rough one, and it wasn’t just the pints of blood covering the ceiling, walls or floor that clued them into that. It wasn’t just the fact that this woman was mutilated while her roommate slept soundly beside her. It wasn’t just because this massacre took place in the bright light of day. There was something more.
Their suspicions had been aroused when the coroner went to take the victim’s liver temperature. It was an impossible action, considering that there was no liver present in Caroline’s body. The liver wasn’t the only internal organ missing. The young woman had been disembowelled, a clean, twelve inch gash from bosom to groin opening her up for the world to see. Two slabs of skin and meat were peeled back, and inside her body was nothing but dried blood and bone. No lungs, no kidneys, no liver, no nothing.
The coroner, Lana Silke, was still in the room, stood in the corner, grasping her chest as she breathed in and out slowly. “Skin and bones,” she said. “She’s all skin and bones.” Silke was cresting into her fifties, and even with her near thirty years worth of experience on the job this was a horrific sight to behold. The pain in her chest was sudden, and the shock to her system at a mere glance of this crime scene sent her reeling.
Collage pushed forward with his thinking, verbalising the thoughts that crossed his mind. “So we’re looking for someone with a surgically precise knowledge of anatomy?”
“Maybe,” said Detective Sergeant Richard Laddy. “Look here,” he loomed over the corpse, and pointed to the upper most point of the bodily incision. “There. See that?” There was a nick on Caroline’s flesh, trapped by rigor. “That looks like someone pressed their finger nail in. A hesitation mark, or maybe a statement of intent. ‘This is what I’m going to do to you, so don’t you dare look away’. If I wasn’t a sane man, I’d suggest that this was done by someone’s bare hands.”
“What?” said Coolage.
Silke approached the body once more. “Where her… where either side of her was pulled open, can you see the bruising here?” She pointed with a pencil to the space beneath Caroline’s breasts. “That’s pre-mortem. That was done while her heart was still beating. It’s not the kind of bruising you’d get from a clamp, it’s what you get when you do this:” She held her hands out in front of her, and then drew them to the equivalent position on her own body as the bruises on Caroline’s. She clenched her fists, and with imagined effort, wrenched them out to either side of herself. “Someone opened her up. By hand.” She kept one hand out, but the other moved around over her stomach, before she mimed a thrust up over her sternum. “And had a rummage.”
“Medically trained steroid freak, then.” Laddy scratched his cheek, and shrugged. “Not impossible. Just improbable.”
“Have we any reason to suspect the roommate?” asked Coolage.
“Have you seen her? A waif. I don’t believe she could do such a thing. Besides, she’s distraught. I’ve never met someone whose as good an actor as that.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Coolage, knowingly. He exited the crime scene and wandered down the corridor to the room where Marie was sitting, a cup of tea clasped tightly in her shaking hands. She was as pale as a sheet, and her eyes were red with tears. Sitting next to her, hugging her close, was a female friend, the person whose room they were sat in. “Marie, how do you feel?”
“How do I--?” Marie shook her head before she continued. She took a breath, and then exhaled slowly. “My best friend is dead. How could… who could… what…”
Coolage placed a hand on Marie’s shoulders, and squeezed softly. The tension lifted ever so slightly, but Marie was still shaking, still a nervous wreck. Any suspicions that Coolage might have had evaporated. This girl couldn’t have done anything like this. Her hands were small, her fingers tiny. The bruising on Caroline’s flesh would have required a man’s touch, heavy hands and deadly intent. He didn’t see this in Marie. “I have to ask, and I know it might sound like a silly question, but did Caroline have any enemies?”
“None that I can think of… I mean, she pissed off our lecturers, handed in coursework at the very last minute, always… always pushing her luck, but that’s the extent of any… anything that she might do to anger anyone.”
“She was brilliant,” said the girl next to Marie. “She didn’t deserve anything like this.” Marie sobbed, and the girl hugged her a little bit more. “I’m Sarah, by the way, sir.”
Coolage nodded, and scribbled something in his black notebook. “Any ex-boyfriends? Girlfriends?”
“No, Caroline kept to herself.” Marie took a sip from her tea, and realised that it was stone cold. “I can’t think, I’m sorry.” She thought for a moment, and Coolage watched whatever idea that had run itself through her mind take effect. “My… I broke up with my boyfriend last night. Daniel Phillips? It’s not… it’s something, maybe? Not that I think he’s capable, but with… I…”
Coolage saw a twitch above Marie’s eye when she mentioned her boyfriend. He made another jot in his notebook, and then smiled apologetically. “I understand. Right, is there anyone in town that you can stay with?”
“She can stay here, if you want?” said Sarah.
“I’m not sure that’s a great idea, Sarah. This is the scene of a murder. I’m going to be talking to the Dean about getting everything out of here for the foreseeable.” He cleared his throat, and turned his attention back to Marie. “Any relatives around here?”
“I have an Uncle; he lives above his shop in town. I can stay there… I’ll call him in a few minutes.”
Coolage took a small card from his pocket and handed it to her. “If anything occurs to you, even if it’s the smallest thing, don’t hesitate to give me a call, any time of the day or night.”
Marie took the card and nodded. “Thank you.”
“I’ll have one of our uniforms drive you to your Uncle’s. I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to go back into your dorm for the time being, it’s all evidence. Sarah, you couldn’t lend Marie some clothes to get her on her way?”
“Me? Yes, yes, of course.” Coolage beckoned a waiting uniformed officer inside the room, and then made his own way out. He’d have to follow up with Marie when she was more collected, more together. Asking her questions now wouldn’t do her any good in the long term, and this whole thing was messy. But the boyfriend. That would be a place to start. He knew that much.
The police officer drove Marie into town, and stopped out front of Beckon’s Antique Books & Curiosities, a brilliantly murky looking book shop that was tucked away just off the main road of the town. The journey was spent mostly in silence, and Marie was happy not to answer any more questions. She’d barely had time to process what had happened.
“Do you want me to wait?” asked the officer before she climbed out of the car. It was the first thing he’d said since asking where he was to drop her off.
“It’ll be fine,” Marie replied. “He’s never not here.” She managed a smile then, and the officer returned it. He clambered out of his side of the car, skirted around to hers, and opened her door for her. “Thank you.”
Marie had a medium-sized satchel bag over her shoulder, filled with a few odds and ends that Sarah had collected for her before she’d left. She had a few bits and bobs kept in the spare room of her Uncle’s flat, but it was good to have some options. Before taking another step, she wiped the tears from her eyes and entered her Uncle’s book shop.
The bell above the door jingled, and she smiled at the familiarity of it all. When her parents were running around doing their white collar, high flying stuff, she would stay in the flat above this place with her aunt and Uncle. Her aunt had been dead three years now, but her Uncle still soldiered on, and she could tell that her visits were a highlight by the way his downtrodden, weather-worn face opened up into a smile when he saw her.
Before she said anything, her Uncle sprang from behind the counter piled high with recent acquisitions, and engulfed her in a bear hug. Papers fluttered to the floor in the wake of the sudden movement, but no one commented, and no one cared. “Marie, I heard the news, are you alright?”
“I’ve been better,” said Marie. “I just… it was horrible, Uncle. I woke up and she was…” She sobbed, and crumpled into his arms. “She was right next to me and I didn’t hear a thing I couldn’t do anything about it and she’s dead…”
“Hush, my girl,” he said softly. “This isn’t your fault, not at all.” He squeezed her tight, and then walked with intent to the front door of the shop. He locked it up tight, flipped over the Open sign to read Closed, and then turned back round to face his niece. “Come on, let’s go upstairs. I put the kettle on when you rang; let’s get you a cup of tea.”
Marie didn’t sleep especially well that night. Her dreams were red and painful, her subconscious throbbing with the pain and anguish of the day. Marie dreamt that she was a little girl, wandering the aisles of her Uncle’s book shop. She found her way to a secluded corner, where a glass case contained the prized tomes that sold—when they were found by a discerning customer—for hundreds of pounds. First edition Dickens’, Shakespearean manuscripts, all sorts of papers and collections. But the thing that always captivated her when she was small was the tiny rectangular card in the middle of the collection, a curiosity amongst curiosities. The yellowing card was embossed with a collection of words and numbers, and she didn’t understand why it was so fascinating to her as a child.
“It says,” her Aunt had found her, young Marie, wandering the monolithic aisles, and picked her up with one arm. It was always strange remembering her Aunt Claudia. Before the cancer took her she was stronger than anyone Marie knew, and it absolutely killed Uncle Bernard to watch all that strength dissolving in the face of her illness. “‘Richard Faraday, Ghost Detective’,” she wrangled Marie over her shoulders, so they could both loom toward the glass cabinet, and peruse the treasures within. “And that number, you see that? Disconnected.” There were nine digits, and it didn’t resemble any phone numbers that young Marie had ever seen. The concept fascinated her. “But they say,”—the identity of ‘They’ didn’t matter in the context of the story told to Marie, the mystery was addictive—“that if you’re caught in the middle of a particularly weird or mysterious crime, and the police can’t help you… they say if you dial that number, that a man will answer, and save you from whatever ails you.” Her Aunt smiled, and then vanished from the dream. Little Marie, previously sat on her Aunt’s shoulders, fell into darkness, spinning and spinning. She aged a decade in seconds, and then there was a crashing noise. Marie opened her eyes and she was in her dormitory. Across from her was Caroline, disembowelled, bloody as all hell, and then, in the darkness… laughter…
Marie awoke with a start, drenched with sweat, breathing heavily. A moment later, her Uncle was in the doorway, in his dressing gown, a look of concern spread generously over his face. “I heard you scream, are you alright?”
“I didn’t even…” Marie pulled her knees up against her chest, and breathed as best she could. “Bad dream.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I dreamt about Aunt Claudia.”
The expression on Bernard’s face shifted into what was nearly a smile, but melancholy and the weight of her passing transformed it into something else entirely. “Oh.”
“It wasn’t bad, that bit, that wasn’t bad. This place… was home to me, more than with my mum and dad, you know that. It’s full of memories, and they’re all good.”
“Don’t tell your dad about that,” said Bernard, as he sat in a rocking chair next to the door. “So… how did she look?”
“This is Aunt Claudia,” Marie smiled. “She looked beautiful.”
Bernard nodded, and Marie pressed forward with the retelling of her dream, before it slipped away into the ether where the memories of night spent sleeping go by morning. Bernard watched, and listened, not saying a word. When she was done, Bernard stood, and perched himself on the edge of the guest bed.
“I called that number, when Claudie was ill. She loved the story, you see. When you’re in trouble, you call this mysterious number, and someone will ride to the rescue. She loved it. It was the last night, before she went away…” He paused. Marie knew how hard it had been for Bernard to lose Claudia. They completed each other, and now, him living without her, it was like he had lost a part of himself. Like he’d lost a limb or a lung or something inherently required for him to continue living like a human being. “I called, and then… and then nothing. The number doesn’t exist. But when I told her about it, when she was lying there, dying, she smiled, and held my hand, and told her that there were bigger things going on out there than a woman dying from cancer. I think she believed it. A ‘Ghost Detective’.”
“John Lennon said he would believe in anything until it was proven not to be real. I prescribe to that philosophy.”
“I’m sorry to say… your Aunt was always a Ringo fan.”
“Heresy--!” said Marie, before the two of them burst into laughter. They settled down a few moments later, though Bernard laughed a while longer than his niece. He wiped his eye, and then stood. “I miss her, Uncle Bernard.”
“So do I, everyday.” Bernard turned to her, and smiled reassuringly. “But I believe she’s watching over me, everyday. And I believe she’s watching over you, too. You should try and get some more sleep. Do you want me to leave the light in the hall on?”
“No, it’s alright. Thank you, though.”
Marie closed her eyes, and tried to drift off. She had a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t be able to get anymore sleep that night, the talk with Bernard had put any chance of her losing her worried mind to rest. She drifted off almost without notice.
Marie’s eyes opened slowly. The voice was soothing, familiar.
“You’re not safe, my darling.”
“M’safe,” Marie mumbled.
“It’s not going to stop until it finishes the job.”
“What finishes the job, Auntie?” Marie was half asleep, but as soon as she uttered the words she fell into full consciousness. Even with the curtains drawn the sun shone through. It was morning. She looked around the room, and realised she had been dreaming again. “Weird.” No one could blame her, she thought. Her best friend had been murdered. Torn open and emptied out. She looked to her bedside table, where she’d left her glass of water, and was surprised to see a yellowing piece of card tucked under the coaster. “No,” Marie whispered, “not possible.”
The card read, as clear as day, Richard Faraday, and below that, Ghost Detective. The phone number that she’d last seen in her dreams was below that. She looked at the curtains and inhaled sharply as the shape that was just visible amongst the rays of sunlight that were sneaking into her room. Her Aunt Claudia was standing there, dressed in flowing white, an expression of concern boring down at her niece.
“Marie, it’s not going to stop until it finishes the job. You can’t do this alone.”
Marie looked down at where the card was, but it was no longer beneath the coaster. She dropped to the floor and began to search, but could find any trace of it. She pinched herself and yelped, and then realised what that meant. Marie fell back on her bed, and shut her eyes tightly, wishing the phantom would go away. She told herself it wasn’t real, it was a figment of her imagination, and when she looked at where Aunt Claudia had been standing in all her ethereal glory... there was nothing.
The next time Marie saw her uncle Bernard was before the shop downstairs opened. The postman had delivered a pile of mail orders from across for some of his more regular clientele, and Bernard was sorting through it all, making sure everything was as it should be. “Good morning, Marie. How did you sleep?”
“What is this ‘sleep’ that you speak of?” said Marie, with a laugh. “I’m okay.” She lifted up two cups of tea, and motioned one toward her uncle. “Two sugars?”
“You remembered!” Bernard gulped down the first draw of his tea. “Look, I don’t know what you want to do today, what with… all this. But I was hoping… maybe… you could mind the front while I do some restocking? There are gaps on the shelves that I just find embarrassingly, and I’ve not had a chance to do anything about it recently.”
“Of course,” said Marie, “I used to love playing shopkeeper.” She settled down behind the counter, and then opened the till, checking that Bernard had already filled the slots with cash ready to give change out as and when. “Flip the Closed sign, Uncle. Let’s get this show on the road.”