Horror

The Girl-Thing

By Sean Williams
10,751 words · 40-minute reading time
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The display lacked cohesion.  That was the thought running through Senior Constable Weylin Hollister's mind as he waited for his partner, Jane Moir, to finish interviewing the proprietor of the porn shop.  Everywhere he looked he saw disembodied penises and vaginas, or their substitutes: lines of odd knobs and holes with unlikely attachments, like exhibits from a museum of alien genitalia.  It couldn't be an easy place to shop, he thought, even disregarding the awkwardness most people would feel coming into such an establishment.

Had he been the manager, he would have put dildos up front; they seemed designed to catch the eye, and would naturally segue into butt-plugs and vibrators along the shop's inner wall.  On the other side he would put the magazines and videos, since there was no way their covers would ever blend.  Artificial vaginas, lubes, whips, and novelty items were space-fillers, perfect for taking up less intrusive rack space.  Bondage costumes and lingerie always looked best above eye-level or in dead corners, where their fantastic natures were suitably framed.

But that was just Hollister's opinion.  The proprietor, Aram, a middle-aged, naturalized Iranian who had enough sense to run the business from out the back and put uni student types behind the front counter, obviously disagreed.  Maybe his clientele didn't care either.

"Was anything stolen?" Senior Constable Moir was asking him, taking notes.  A solid woman in her fifties, twenty years Hollister's senior, she looked the same regardless of her surroundings.  The simple practicality of her brown overcoat was as at home in a porn shop as in the Polson Street Station.

"Nothing worth claiming," said Aram.

"You won't put in an insurance claim?"

"For the damage, yes; locks aren't cheap.  But the stock ... "  He shrugged.  "It's okay.  A bit of mess; not hard to clean up."

"So nothing at all was actually stolen?" she repeated, for clarification.  Hollister had noted too that Aram hadn't answered the question.

"Just one thing."  He shifted a gray-clad buttock from the corner of the counter and indicated that they should follow him deeper into the shop.  His left leg was stiff and gave him a slight limp.  Half-way along the jumble he stopped and pointed at a relatively large box at eye-level.  The box boasted Wet-End Wendy, a surgically enhanced blonde in little more than a pout.  Bright colors contrasted sharply with not-quite-real flesh tones in a way guaranteed to unnerve.

"We lost one of these."

"A blow-up doll?"

"What do you think?  Real girls don't come in boxes."  Aram limped off with a grimace.  "Unfortunately."

Moir gravely wrote the name in her notebook while Hollister watched from a few feet away.  Thus far they had only confirmed the statement Aram had given the previous day, apart from the doll, but she was treating it as seriously as if the information was fresh.  Perhaps she was seeing something Hollister wasn't.

"Do you think this connects?" he asked.

"I don't know, Wey."  She looked up.  "Aram is clear on how he thinks it happened."  Two nights ago, the last person out of the shop had forgotten to activate the alarm behind them, leaving the premises unsecured for an hour.  In that time, it was broken into.  "The thief must've been watching to know it was safe to force the back door--but why take only a doll?  Why not the money in the till, or at least spray some paint around?"

Hollister didn't bother questioning whether Aram knew his stock.  With shop-lifting and staff pilfering an ever-present threat, everyone on Polson Street knew precisely what their shelves contained.  He imagined him lying awake, counting Ben Wa balls to get to sleep.

"Why indeed?"  He wiped the dust off a display toilet, made out of clear perspex.  "But I don't think we're going to find anything new here, Jane."

"I agree, now.  It was worth looking, though."

While Moir wrapped up the interview, Hollister stretched his legs outside, under the flashing SEXXX-O-RAMA sign.  Polson Street cut like an arrow through the rotten heart of Amberley Park.  The usual crowd of tourists and locals rushed past him.  Few of them looked up, intent on errands or avoiding catching someone else's eye.  He recognized a number of faces: mostly the workers, dealers and users who prowled Polson Street at all hours.  He had thought them soulless creatures at first, predators and prey engaged in a dance of mutual destruction as old as history.  Only gradually, over a year working the street, had he learned compassion.  Each was an individual, a real person caught up in a dangerous game.  If some of them did end up dead on the inside, that was the game's fault, not theirs.  They were all victims.

He watched each and every one of the faces passing him, thinking: And one of you could be a serial killer.  The Amberley Slayer was still at large, and he was known to be a local.  Was he be the smart-dressed businessman on his way back from lunch--or the slouching neo-punk trying to get into a strip joint for free?  The killer could be any one of the many around him, for all Hollister knew.  You may think your game is different to the others here, he thought, but it's not.  It'll get you in the end.  It's only a matter of time.  Or so he hoped.

A motionless figure on the other side of the road caught his attention.  Beady, black eyes stared at him from beneath a battered, orange bicycle helmet.  Curly gray hair grew in wild profusion across the old man's face and out the collar of a patched Salvation Army great-coat.  A tatty brown satchel hung over one shoulder, pressed close against his side.  His hands were stuck firmly in the pockets of many-holed tracksuit pants, but Hollister could see his fingers moving restlessly, as though rummaging through change.  His lips matched the cadence of his fingers, although the words he uttered were inaudible over the passing traffic.

Hollister acknowledged the man's stare with a polite nod.  His was a familiar face, although Hollister had never noticed his eyes before.  They were more alert than he would've expected.  The other weirdoes wandering the streets tended to look away when confronted, like everyone else, but more as though the real world didn't exist for them than because they were pretending to have other things to do.

Hollister waited for a gap in the traffic, then stepped off the curb.

"Where do you think you're going?"  The shop door jingled shut behind Moir.

Hollister indicated the old man on the other side of the road, who had turned aside and started walking away.  "I thought I'd talk to him."

"Old Jellyhead?  I doubt he can help us."

"The kid who was working that night says he didn't see anyone unusual hanging around the shop.  What if he saw someone usual and forgot about it?"

"The usuals around here would've taken the money for sure."  Moir indicated that Hollister should come with her.  "Save yourself the bother, Wey.  We've got better things to do with our time."

Hollister watched the old man shuffle down the street.  Moir had been on Polson Street a lot longer than him, and the fact that she knew the old guy's nickname added credence to what she said.  But he couldn't help feeling as though they were letting something slip.  "He might've seen something."

"Even if he did, it'd never stand up in court.  We've tried before."  Her blue eyes studied him closely.  Then she sighed.  "But if you really want to ... "

"Back in a sec."  Hollister dodged through the traffic to the other side of the road.  Jellyhead had reached a corner and turned down a side street as he approached.  Hollister caught a whiff of sweat and excrement as he put a hand on the old man's shoulder.

"Excuse me."

The bearded face tilted up to look at him.  Hollister was surprised at the disparity between their heights.  Jellyhead was barely as tall as Moir, whom he had never thought of as short before.

"She cries," the old man said.

"I'm sorry?"  Jellyhead's eyes, unlike before, were vague, unrecognizing, seeming to look through Hollister and at the brickwork behind him.  But his speech was calm and precise, as though continuing a conversation Hollister had forgotten starting.

"She is impatient."

"I was wondering," Hollister said, forging on regardless, "if I could ask you about the night of the twenty-fifth.  That's two nights ago.  One of the shops up there"--he pointed back the way they had come--"was broken into.  Something was stolen, and we'd really like to find out who did it.  I don't suppose you saw anything?"

"She doesn't want to be hard."  The rheumy old eyes filled with water.  For a moment Hollister thought the old man might burst into tears.  "She does what she has to do."

"I don't understand.  Did you see something?  Do you know someone who might have?"

"She doesn't like the darkness."

The old man broke eye contact and turned to shuffle off down the street.  Hollister gave in and let him go.  Whoever the old man was talking to, it wasn't him.

"Hassling old crazies will get us nowhere," Moir said as they walked back to the station.  "He's not hurting anyone.  Best to leave him alone."

Hollister had no reason to disagree, but the tears in the old man's eyes--tears not of sadness but desperation--haunted him the rest of the day.

His wife's voice brought him abruptly out of sleep that night:

"He'll need the bones before he's done."

He opened his eyes groggily in the darkness.  "What, Arna?"

She didn't answer.  The night was silent and still.  Angry at himself for letting himself being woken up like that, he rolled onto his side and tried to get back to sleep.

Thoughts of the latest murder surfaced, unbidden and unwanted.  The news had come through that afternoon, after his encounter with Jellyhead, and the worst thing about it was that no-one had been truly surprised.  Even Moir had looked resigned.  The Slayer was like an unstoppable, invisible disease, killing cell by cell while the rest of the body looked on in horror.  Dozens of detectives were working the case, but as yet no-one had been arrested; no suspects had been named.  It was a waiting game at worst, and a praying game at best.  Hollister envied no-one involved.  It was bad enough on the outside looking in.

During the last year, he had lost contact with some of his old friends in forensics, but he heard enough.  The killer targeted young, vulnerable women, usually addicts and prostitutes in the Polson Street area.  One had been a day-tripper in the wrong place at the wrong time.  All had piercings, which the killer took as souvenirs after he'd finished with them.  The media knew about the rings and studs, but they didn't know all of it.  The killer was also in the habit of taking his victims' tattoos.

"We thinking he's curing the skin," said one of Hollister's contacts.  "Preserving it.  God knows why.  Maybe he turns them into lampshades ... "

Hollister lay awake in the darkness, imagining the killer's living room, mottled with shadowy roses, Celtic crosses and cobwebs, and shuddered.

He'd half-expected it--any sex-related crime prompted connections to the Amberley Slayings, no matter how tenuous--but the call into Superintendent Leonie Penglis' upper-floor office the next day filled him with foreboding.

"Jane told me about your idea," she said, not bothering to get up.

"It's not our case," said Moir.  She was sitting with her back to the window, to the view of cheap hotels, garish shop-fronts and closed restaurants stretching into the distance.  Her face was in shadow, and Hollister couldn't tell if she was annoyed or not.  "We have better things to do than go shooting at shadows."

"Do you think it's just shadows, Senior Constable Hollister?"

"It could be," he said, as diplomatically as he could.

"Well, I think the idea has some merit.  Look into it, would you?"

So they went back out onto the streets, hunting for the crazies.  At first they strolled at random, seeking just one of their new "suspects".  They asked around, paying particular attention to bottle shops and bus shelters.  No-one could remember seeing Jellyhead or any of the others that day.  No-one knew anything about them, either.  Who they were, where they came from, and what they did was all a mystery.  They were background figures, drifting into focus on odd occasions but never viewed close up.  They were, Hollister thought, very much like ghosts.

"This is getting us nowhere," Moir said over a sandwich lunch, resting on a park bench.

Hollister agreed, although he didn't say so.  It was bad enough to have suggested the pointless plan in the first place.  He felt awkward disturbing people who had obviously gone to extreme lengths to avoid society.  What right did he have to drag them back into it?  And maybe that, he thought, was why the crazies were hard to find that day.  They could sense his and Moir's intentions on some psychic grapevine and kept their heads down accordingly.  Who was he to bother them?

Or maybe it was just the expression in Jellyhead's eyes; he didn't want to probe any deeper into that sadness.

"You're quiet today," Moir said.

"I didn't sleep well."  His lunch tasted like ashes in his mouth. 

"Bad dreams?"

"Kind of."  He wrapped up the rest of the food and tossed it into a bin.  "I'm sorry about this, Jane."

"You have nothing to apologize for, Wey.  You know that."

"I mean today."

"Well ... "  She shrugged helplessly.  "At least it's keeping us outside.  We can work on our tans, from the neck up."

They tried a number of charity groups that afternoon, and managed to track down a couple of tired old men with cheap alcohol on their breaths.  They didn't know anything about the break-ins, but showed a morbid interest in the murders.  One expressed a firm opinion that the victims deserved what they got for walking around the streets at night on their own, dressed like prostitutes.

"Some of them were prostitutes," Moir said.

"There you are.  Asking for it, they were."

"No-one asks to be murdered."

"Not out loud, no ... "  The toothless alcoholic cackled at them as they left.

They were running out of options, and their feet were getting sore.  Their last port of call was a homeless shelter in Reyes Hill run by a tired-looking social worker named Ellard Trenorden, a man so scruffy he looked on the verge of becoming one of his own charges.  Hollister had spoken to him a couple of times before, pursuing more everyday matters, but had never warmed to him.

"We get a few of the older ones through here every now and again," Trenorden said.  "Not as often as you'd expect, though, unless one of them gets sick or beaten up."

"Do you know here they live?" Moir asked.

"Me?  No.  But Cloe might.  She's made contact with a couple of them."

"Is Cloe in today?"

"I'll see if she's free."

Cloe Flavell was in her late twenties and pale to the point of vanishing.  Her office was just as bland, the only feature being a bright red coat draped over a chair.

"I know who you mean," she said in response to their queries.  "Some come of them here to see me; they know I'll listen.  They're deeply traumatized individuals, often with serious and untreated psychiatric problems."

"Psychosis?" Moir asked.

"In the clinical sense, yes.  But none of them is the Amberley Slayer."

"Can you be certain of that?"

"Well, for one thing, few of them bathe, and murder is bloody work.  They'd be wearing the evidence for weeks."

Hollister was surprised by the frankness of her words.  Moir simply acknowledged the point with a nod.  "How would you rate their reliability as witnesses?"

"Poor."  Flavell didn't seemed surprised by the question.  "They have their own support mechanisms and are quite independent of the world you or I take for granted.  It wouldn't matter that you were from the police.  I know one old guy who would lie on principle."

"The one called Jellyhead?" asked Hollister.

She winced slightly.  "Why are you asking me these questions?  Has he done anything wrong?"

"Do you think he might have?"

"No, but ... "  Her pupils danced in sharp diagonal streaks: up-left, down-right, then centered to look at him.  "He isn't a liar, although he can be a bit off-putting.  Some people say they find him creepy."

Moir leaned forward.  "Why?"

"I'm not really supposed to talk about things like this."  She glanced at the door that time, as though worried that her supervisor might burst in at any moment.

"This is purely off the record," Moir assured her.  She gave Flavell the now-familiar line about the porn shop break-in.  "Our superintendent wants us to look for a reliable witness no-one around here would notice, or care about if they did notice.  We don't really think your clients are serial killers, just that they might have seen one in action--but if you're saying that one of your clients is capable of--"

"No, it's not that.  Not that at all."  Flavell shook her head almost too hard.  Hollister was afraid her blonde bob might slide off in one piece.  "I'm sure none of them have done anything like that.  "

"Do you know where they live?"

Another shake.  "Hardly any of them have homes.  Some go from shelter to shelter, or sleep wherever they can find cover.  One has a spot in a dead line near here--"

"A what?" interrupted Hollister.

"Train line.  A tunnel.  The city is riddled with old spaces no-one cares about any more."

"It sounds just perfect, then."

"Maybe it is, but that's not their fault."  A slight flush came to her cheeks--the first real sign of life her face had shown.

"I'm sorry.  I didn't mean it that way."  He was genuinely contrite.  "I feel as sorry as for these old guys as you do."

"I doubt that."

"It must be awful living with no money, no home--alone ... "

Her gaze danced away.  "Well, some of them choose to, of course, in their own way.  It's a means of escaping, of letting go.  In many ways, they're more free than we will ever be.  There are people--not me--who like to think of them as our last surviving mystics: dreamers who don't fit into modern society, reviled channellers permanently in contact with realms we can no longer experience."

The expression on her face belied her words: part of her did want to believe that the old men in her care were worth something to the world around them, even if the world didn't recognize them for what they were.  Before he could say anything, though, Moir stifled a yawn and leaned back into the conversation.

"It's after five, Ms Flavell, and we don't want to keep you.  Do you think you could ask your clients on our behalf if they've seen anything odd in the last few days?"

She still looked reluctant.  "I suppose I could, if you think it might help catch the Slayer."

"You never know.  Here's our card." 

They let themselves out of her office.  Hollister was already looking forward to putting his feet up at the station when, on their way past the shelter's reception, a young man waved them over.

"I heard what you were talking about," he said, whispering as a group of teenagers burst through the door and headed past them to a back room.  "I have the office next to Cloe.  We started at the same time.  She really cares about the old ones, but ... "

"But what?"  Moir was starting to look more interested than irritated.

"Cloe is an idealist.  She thinks she can help anyone, even when they can't be helped; you can only try to stop them from hurting themselves, and other people.  She doesn't see what we see."

"What do you see?"

He paused and looked around.  "They're not stupid, these men.  They use her to get vouchers for accommodation, food, prescription drugs.  She gives them the benefit of the doubt, and they walk all over her."

Hollister nodded, although he thought Cloe Flavell seemed competent enough, not so easily swayed.  "Anyone in particular?"

"There's one.  He comes here a lot, more than we like to encourage, and asks specifically for her.  We're so busy here so she can't always see him, but he waits around anyway.  He's always lurking about, watching her.  It's spooky."

"You've never said anything about this to her?"

"She thinks I'm imagining things."

Maybe he was, Hollister thought.  "Do you think he's stalking her?" Moir asked.

"Well, no, but ... "  His expression darkened as though internally he changed gears, from office gossip to real concern.  "There was this one time.  I was talking to Cloe about another client and he was standing behind her.  He was staring at her--just her, not me, even though our eyes were almost meeting.  It was like I didn't exist.  Anyway, when Cloe and I were finished, someone else came up to talk to her and I went to my office.  I looked back before I went in and saw this old guy walk up the hallway toward me, as if he'd given up waiting and was going to leave.  As he went past Cloe, he reached out and took something from her shoulder."

"Took what, exactly?"

"A hair.  She didn't notice.  Jellyhead--she doesn't like him being called that, but that's who it was--put the hand with the hair into his pocket and kept walking.  If he saw me looking, he didn't say anything as he went past, and I was too surprised to say anything just then.  I mean, who steal hairs?"

Moir glanced at Hollister.  "I don't know, um, mister ... ?"

"Harris.  Dale Harris."

"I don't know, Dale," she repeated, "but thanks for telling us about it."

He looked relieved.  "I thought you ought to know--if only so you realize that Cloe is sometimes a little too forgiving."

"We understand."  Moir gave him a card.  "Let us know if anything else happens, won't you?"

"I will."  He nodded eagerly.  "I will."

"Maybe he's just got a crush on her," Hollister said when they were back out in the fresh air.

"Who?  Harris or Jellyhead?"

"Both of them."  Moir smiled.  "I meant Jellyhead."

"But he couldn't be the Amberley Slayer."

"Almost certainly not, but he'll look good on paper.  At least we can tell Penglis we've found something.  And we'll spread the word to keep an eye out for him.  If we can get a handle on him, maybe he'll talk to us.  He might be worth investing in for the future.  You never know when he'll come in handy."

The thought of recruiting a senile old man in a bicycle helmet as a spy on the Polson Street underworld struck Hollister as ludicrous, but that, he supposed, was the point.  The street-walkers were detritus, quite literally: pieces of society rubbed away by repeated stress.  Few people noticed them, let alone cared about them--and for that reason he found himself understanding Cloe Flavell's blindness.  Someone had to look after them, whatever they did.  If not her, then who?  That it might not be anyone at all was more than a little saddening.  There was nothing worse than being alone.

But the possibility that Jellyhead might be a predator, if only emotionally, wasn't itself ridiculous.  Just because he was old and infirm didn't automatically make him benign.

Arna woke him again that night.

He had come home from work physically drained.  Armed with leftovers and the remote control, he had collapsed onto a couch and watched TV until exhaustion took him.  The last thing he recalled seeing was a documentary about legendary 1950s pianist, Renaud Le Huy, and the premier performance of von Doussa's "Devil's Hand" Scherzo that had almost cost him his career.  A scherzo was normally a light, jocular piece of music--but not this one.  The final moments demanded an increasingly frenetic style, hammering at the keys with no pedal; its climax culminated in the performer kicking back the stool and violently striking the lower half of the keyboard with a single clenched fist.  The theatrics were specifically called for in the score, and Le Huy obeyed them to the letter.  As the echoes of his final blow faded, he stalked silently off-stage "like a little storm cloud", according to one reviewer.

The crowd waited for Le Huy to return for a bow, but he did not, and he failed to return after interval.  Instead, the organizers of the concert appeared on stage to announce that the pianist had broken three fingers in his right hand and was unable to continue the performance.  Le Huy's reputation as a hot-headed genius was thereby firmly established, even though it meant missing several months of lucrative touring as a result.

Hollister missed that sort of passion.  It ached in him like a hole.  As he dragged himself to bed, he wondered if that was how Jellyhead felt every day of his life.  Was that what the old man thought of when he looked at Cloe Flavell--at the young, bright things who walked along Polson Street, carefully pretending not to see him?  Maybe that was who he had been talking to when Hollister had approached him: some lost wife, a long-gone love.

Hollister didn't know how he stood it--or how Cloe Flavell endured that dreadful yearning in his eyes, day after day.

"It's a girl-thing," Arna told him that night, speaking out of sleep with such impossible clarity it made him start awake.  "It's too dark in here."

The echo of the old man's words sent a chill down his spine even as he turned on the light to banish them.

He and Moir were back to normal desk duties the next day, so at least he had coffee at hand to wipe away the effects of another broken sleep.  Mid-morning, his contact in forensics brought him up to date on the hunt for the Amberley Slayer.  The latest victim was a girl in her late teens.  Her body exhibited the usual wounds, no more or less severe than usual.  As an aside, Hollister endured the story, for the fourth time, about the eighth victim, a woman as tattooed as a road map.  She had been skinned alive before being suffocated in a plastic bag and dumped in a sewer.

Identified by the place a tattoo had once been and a birthmark under her left armpit, the latest victim turned out to be a homeless girl last seen by her mother two years earlier.  On the surface of it, there was nothing to suggest that she was any different to the others, but Hollister's contact ended with a rumor that the Amberley Slayer might have made a mistake, this time.  The detectives working on the case were excited, he said, as though they were getting close.  He didn't know who or what to, but something was building to a head.

When Hollister hung up the phone, he felt a maudlin mood creeping over him.  Everything was out of kilter.  The dead girl had been just beginning her life; Jellyhead's was in its final stages.  Yet she was dead and he wasn't.  Would a killer of useless old men gain the same media coverage as the Amberley Slayer?  He doubted it.  And not all killers of young women were punished ...

At least it would be over soon, if Hollister's contact was right.

"Expect an announcement soon," he had said, as though foretelling a royal birth.

A patrol brought Jellyhead in that afternoon.  Hollister and Moir were summoned by the desk sergeant as soon as his identity became known.  Their all-patrols notice had only gone out that morning; neither had expected it to produce such instant results.

Hollister took the short distance almost at a run.  Sure enough, there he was, with helmet slightly askew and one arm held by a brawny constable who looked glad to see his two superiors.

"We caught him coming out of the toilets on Crowe," he explained.  In his other hand he held Jellyhead's dirty cloth satchel.  "You might want to look in here."

"She cries," the old man said.  The words still didn't make sense, but the police around him certainly had his attention.  He looked nervous, fidgety.  He clearly wanted the satchel back, but didn't resist when they put him in an interview room without it.

They examined the satchel in the room next door.  It stank of sweat and feces, the same mix Hollister remembered from their first encounter, but worse.  It was inconceivable that anything could smell so bad.

Moir used a pen to open the flap of the satchel.  Hollister procured a pair of plastic gloves and probed deeper.  The satchel contained some rags or old clothes, a couple of items of cheap jewelry, and a number of sealed plastic bags large enough to hold a sandwich or an apple.

"Jesus," said Moir.  "Is that what I think it is?"

One bag was filled with used tampons and sanitary napkins, dark brown in color.  Another contained what looked like feces.  A third was half-full of a clear yellowish fluid.  The rest contained hairs, nail clippings and gray dust.

"You say you caught him coming out of the Crowe Street toilets," Hollister asked the pale-faced constable who had brought Jellyhead in.  "The female side, I presume?"

A nod.  "We've seen him around there before, but never really thought anything of it.  We watched him this time, as you said we should, thinking he might be looking for a rendezvous or something, as unlikely as that seems.  He just waited until he thought we weren't looking then went in.  Into the female toilets."

"And you went in after him?"

"Yes.  We caught him levering open one of the sanitary bins."

"The toilets were empty at the time?"

The constable looked nervous, as though worried Hollister might accuse him of doing something wrong.  "We didn't check before we went in, but yes, they were."

Hollister nodded.  "That's what he was waiting for, then.  He's scavenging, not perving or stalking."

"Not today, anyway."  Past the mask of Moir's face, Hollister could see her jaw working.  "Let's see what he's got to say, shall we?"

Old Jellyhead looked up when they entered the room.  His eyes tracked normally as they took seats opposite him, across the narrow desk.  Hollister saw nothing but fear in them, although his smell was as vile as the bag's.

"She'll be angry," the old man said.

"Who will be?" Hollister asked.

"She will be."  There was an odd emphasis to Jellyhead's reply that suggested he was answering a very different question.

"What were you doing in the toilets?" Moir asked.

The old man looked at her, and Hollister was released from his stare.  He hadn't realized until then how intense it was.

"She needs me."

"Don't stuff me around.  Answer the question, please.  I haven't got time to sit here all day."

"She can't do it on her own.  I have to do it for her."

Hollister wondered if the use of the first person pronoun counted as progress.  "Do what?"

"She's trying to come through.  I don't know where from.  She's there, and she wants to be here.  She doesn't say why.  She just says what.  She found the way.  She needs me.  She can't do it on her own.  She's impatient.  She cries.  She does what she has to do."

Hollister recognized a repeat of what the old man had already told him, the first time they had met.  He scribbled a note saying that he was going to call Cloe Flavell and stood up.

Moir shot him a look as he left the room, as though she thought he was using the social worker as an excuse to get some fresh air but was more annoyed by not thinking of it first.

Flavell came instantly, dressed in the bright red coat Hollister had noticed in her office the day before.  It made her look more alive, as though her skin had absorbed some of its color.  Hollister met her at the desk and took her through.

"He's not making a lot of sense, I'm afraid."

"He wouldn't," she said, her tone scolding.  Her eyes were as restless as ever, nervous.  "He's a sick old man.  You've probably scared him half to death."

When he explained where the old man had been picked up, her lips tightened and she lost some of her coat's reflected vitality.

"Did you steal those clothes?" Moir was asking when Hollister let her into the interview room.  Some of the bag's contents had been brought into the room and lay spread across the table.  One was a woman's blouse.

"She will be cold."  Jellyhead looked up at Flavell as though begging her to explain for him.  If she understood, though, she didn't show it.

"What are you doing here, Mister Emes?" Flavell asked, crossing the room to stand next to him.  "They tell me you were caught in a woman's toilet.  Is that true?"

He looked from one face to another.  "She ... "  His throat worked and he hunched down in his seat like a frightened child.  "People leave stuff everywhere.  I can take it, can't I?"

"That's stealing," she said firmly.  "You know that."

"Not rubbish.  Not refuse.  They throw it away."

"Are you saying someone threw out these clothes?" Moir asked.  "That it's rubbish you found?"

"Yes.  All of it.  She needs it.  No-one else does.  Why can't she have it?"  The old man looked close to tears.  Hollister felt a pang of pity as Jellyhead tried to make them understand the skewed reality in his head.  "The cost of living is high.  She needs me to find it for her, to put it together.  She doesn't want to be hard, but she will if she has to.  She doesn't like the darkness.  She cries."

"Who is crying, Mister Emes?  Can you hear her crying now?"

Jellyhead wouldn't meet Cloe Flavell's eyes.  "She says she wants you, but I tell her she shouldn't.  The cost is too high.  I make sure she only does what she has to do."

"So you're not a thief?"  Moir's moue of distaste seemed permanent.

"No."  But the old man's had face closed over again.  Gone was the look of vulnerable fright; and Hollister could tell that he was lying.

"What about the rest?" Moir pressed.  "The hair, the fingernails?  Does she want them too?"

"She found a way."

"The shit?  The pads?"

"She is impatient."  Jellyhead leaned back into the chair and folded his dirty greatcoat over his lap.

"Fuck."  Moir stood and motioned for the others to join her outside.  She inhaled and exhaled deeply before talking.  "I'm sorry," she said to Cloe Flavell.  "This is weirding me out a little."

Flavell nodded.  "You're not alone."

"How much do you really know about this guy?"

"Not much."

"His full name would be something to begin with."

"It's Arnold Emes.  He has a social security card somewhere; I saw it once, when he showed me where he lives.  He used to be in the army, I think, and he gets a medical pension."

"Where does he live?"

She looked from Moir to Hollister.  "I don't want to get him into trouble."

"I know you don't, but he's doing well enough on his own."  Moir took another deep breath and put on what Hollister recognized as her sympathetic face.  "Will you give us his address?"

"He doesn't have a proper address.  He lives in the old line I mentioned yesterday.  You'll never find it unless you know where it is."

"Will you take us there, then?"

Hollister added his voice to the request.  "Please, Ms Flavell.  If he has nothing to hide, he has nothing to fear from us."

She was just inexperienced enough to believe it.  "Okay.  I'll take you there.  But only if you let me talk to him again."

"When you get back," said Moir, taking her arm.  "I'll arrange someone to drive you there while we keep interviewing him ourselves.  The sooner we can work out what's going on here, the sooner he can go home."

Or not, Hollister added silently as he steeled himself to face the old man's stare again, and Moir guided Cloe Flavell away.

"I don't know what to make of this," said Superintendent Penglis later that day, in her office.  They had just reviewed the tapes of Jellyhead's interview.  In it, the old man seemed as deranged as ever--literally, Hollister thought.  But he was holding up pretty well, considering; all he'd asked for was a cup of tea, which he had been allowed.  "What about you two?"

"I haven't the foggiest," said Moir, rubbing at her temples.  "But he's not telling us everything."

"Faking, do you think?"

"I don't doubt it.  Do you, Wey?"

He hesitated for a split-second, then thought: To hell with it.  "I don't think he's faking.  If he's not right in the head, then that's what he is.  He can't help that.  But there is something going on, yes.  He is lying."

"About what?"  Penglis wasn't hiding her interest in the lead.  If her staff could jump the gun on the Major Crime Squad, she could use the kudos to get out of Polson Street Station and into one of the cushier suburbs.  No-one actually wanted to work in Amberley Park any longer than they had to.

"Your guess is as good as mine," he said, quite honestly.

"Oh, come on."  Moir rounded on him instantly.  "Have you forgotten what we found in the bags?"

"I haven't forgotten, Jane."

"He's hanging out in women's toilets, scavenging--that was your word for it, wasn't it?--for anything left behind.  What's he doing with it, do you think?"

The vehemence in her voice surprised him, left him feeling more than a little stung.  "I don't know what he's doing, but--"

"Blood, excrement, hair."  She tapped them off on her fingers.  "Toenails.  Christ, Wey, its something out of a satanic recipe book."

"You think it's cult-related?" asked Penglis.

"I don't know," she said.  "But either way, it freaks me out."

"What else was in the bags?" Penglis asked them.

"Fluid.  We think it might be water from toilet bowls, probably containing urine.  We've sent some to the labs for testing, along with the rest--including a used band-aid.  More blood.  We'll match it all against the victims'."  Moir rolled her eyes.  "Then there was hair.  And dust.  I don't know what that is."

"Skin cells," said Hollister.  "Most of the dust in houses comes from our skin.  It's gray when it dies."

"See?  Maybe he's making a voodoo doll.  That's why he wanted his social worker's hair.  He wants to control her, make her buy him more alcohol."

"He doesn't drink."  Hollister repeated Flavell's revelation for Penglis' benefit; it had surprised him too, until born out by blood tests.

"Then it's pain killers," Moir said, "or arthritis cures.  Whatever."

"Who's this woman he talks about?" Penglis asked.  "Do you have any idea?"

"None," Hollister said.  "It sounds like someone specific, but he hasn't given us anything to tie her down.  She could be an abusive mother, a lost sister, a deceased daughter--"

"She could also be a split personality," said Moir.  "Part of himself who does things he doesn't like.  You hear what he says about her.  He's more scared of her than he is of us."

"Cloe Flavell hasn't mentioned anything about a multiple personality disorder."

"Flavell is an inexperienced, idealistic kid."  Moir shifted restlessly in her seat.  "For God's sake, Wey, don't let her influence you.  She thinks these people can be healed, but they can't.  It's too late.  Maybe if they'd been treated properly when they first became ill--"

"I don't think we can ignore our responsibility just like that," he interrupted.  "We can't write him off as crazy just because we caught him mucking around in a toilet.  I mean, yes, he's ill and I don't say we should ignore him--but don't paint him as a psycho, either.  We don't know what's going on in his head."

"Exactly, and I say we shouldn't give him the benefit of the doubt.  You let him go, and who knows what he could do?  Maybe he is a lonely old geezer with nothing better to do than walk around all day.  Or maybe he breaks into porn shops for kicks when no-one else is looking.  Or maybe he kills people.  We don't know, Wey, and until we do know I say we keep him here, nice and safe, where we can watch him."

"Guilty until proven innocent?" he snapped.  "I'm disappointed in you, Jane.  I thought you had more humanity than that."

She retreated back into the chair, flushing, and he regretted the words as soon as they left his lips.  In the year they had worked together, she had shown him nothing but humanity.  But he couldn't call them back, and she didn't respond to them.  He could only shut his mouth and wait for Penglis to break the silence.

"Let me get this straight," she said, looking from one to the other.  "You, Jane, think we should keep him here?"

"At least until we've gone over his place."  She glanced at Hollister, then back at Penglis.  "Can we get a warrant?"

"If he's living in a public space, we might not need one.  But you, Wey, want to let him go.  Is that right?"

"I didn't say that.  He has done something wrong, and he should be made aware of it.  But I don't think we have any grounds to do more than fine him.  I mean, is it a crime to steal shit and used tampons?"

"I'm sure there's a health and safety act to cover it."  Penglis forced a grim half-smile.  "I'm with Jane," she said.  "He's too much of a wild card to let slip so soon.  If we let him go, who says he's not going to disappear?  I know it's a long-shot, but suppose he is the Slayer?  How would you sleep at night, knowing that we let him kill again?"

Hollister wanted to say that he didn't sleep very well as it was and doubted old Jellyhead did either.  "I don't think that's very likely."

"But it's not impossible, and we're not here to take chances.  We'll charge him with something minor, put him in the cells overnight and see what that shakes loose.  Who knows?  Maybe he'll decide to come clean in the morning.  And if he does, and if he is the Slayer, I'll personally--"

There was a knock at the door.  Before Penglis could respond, it opened and the head of Penglis' assistant poked into the room.

"This just came," he said, thrusting a fax forward.

Hollister took it and passed it on to Penglis, catching the title as it went past.  A surge of something very much like disappointment went through him, mingled with relief.

Penglis scanned the page once, then went over the relevant details again before speaking.

"They've caught him," she stated dully.  "They brought him in an hour ago."

"Who?" asked Moir.

"The Amberley Slayer, that's who."  She passed Moir the page and leaned back into her seat.  Judging by the expression on her face, she was feeling much the same way as Hollister.  "Well, shit," she said.  "That simplifies things, doesn't it?"

The fax was well-thumbed by the time Hollister had a chance to read it properly.  The Slayer had been arrested that afternoon by a large squad of police and detectives in his home in Croxton.  His name was Aaron James Stanco.  Stanco was an average-looking man of thirty-five who he worked for the Amberley Park City Council as a grounds keeper.  By day, invisible in overalls, he had cleaned the streets while watching for victims and studying their habits.  At night, he had struck.  His house contained swathes of preserved human skin stretched like embroidery in wooden frames.  Around one wrist, in plain view, he wore a bracelet made from stolen rings, studs and spikes.

Hollister watched the news reports on TV that night, from his couch.  Photos of Stanco and the bracelet dominated the reports, but the media found time for shots of the triumphant detectives at various press conferences and other sites around town.  The case was closed.  People could rest easy--especially the young, endangered women in Amberley Park, although they were rarely mentioned.  Good had triumphed over evil once again.

If only, Hollister thought, life was ever that simple.

They had charged Arnold Emes, a.k.a. Jellyhead, with loitering and minor property damage and warned him not try anything similar again.  The old man didn't seem to notice.  He was more concerned that he wasn't getting the contents of his satchel back.  Cloe Flavell, who had returned from showing a junior constable where the old man lived, did her best to calm him down and said that she would take him home.

"I'll keep an eye on him," she promised, apparently unfazed by having to take the trip twice.

"You won't be the only one," Moir said, her expression more threatening than her words.

"She will be hard," said the old man softly, his expression one of despair and resignation.  Hollister had thought he would at least be happy about being set free.  "She won't have any choice, now."

"We all have choices," Hollister said, drawn into the old man's dementia against his conscious will.

"She is impatient."

"What does she want?" 

"She'll want the bones, to finish."

Hollister simply stared at him, feeling suddenly cold.

Then Arnold Emes was gone, whisked off to his mysterious home by the one person, it seemed, who actually cared about him--and for whom, even then, it was merely a convenient compassion.  If Cloe Flavell got a better job elsewhere, would she return to care for one isolated old widower?

Moir looked at her watch and exhaled heavily.  "It's been a hard day, Wey.  Fuck, it's been a hard year.  Go home and get some rest."

"The report--"

"Can wait until tomorrow.  That's the last thing I want to do tonight."

He did as he was told, although the last thing he wanted to do was go to sleep.  Afraid of what might be waiting for him, he watched every news report he could find, and then a late movie.  When that finished, he poured himself a large glass of Port and went into the study.  He performed sit-ups and push-ups in quick succession, then did star-jumps for as long as he could.  The physical exertion helped clear his mind, although they couldn't stop it working.

Two nights ago, in the middle of the night, Arna had said something about bones.  Jellyhead had mentioned bones that afternoon.  There was no possible way the old man could have known about Arna or what she had said; it must therefore have come out of nowhere, a random comment that meant nothing except in the context of his dementia.  Or--and here Hollister's mind baulked at acceptance--it hadn't come out of nowhere at all, and there was something connecting the two instances.  Something he hadn't seen yet.

He drained the Port and poured himself another one.  Something was going on.  The silence of the house felt full of possibility, for a change, and the night wasn't so empty.  On other nights, that might have been an improvement.  The Amberley Slayer was behind bars, finally--but that didn't mean the world was any safer than it had been.  If anything, it might actually be less safe, for at least the Slayer had been a known quantity.  He had kept the nameless fears at bay.  Who knew what might come along to fill his shoes, now that they were empty?

It seemed perfectly reasonable, to Hollister, that both Arna and Jellyhead's mystery women were nervous of the dark.

He woke the next morning with the empty glass on the bedside table, phoned in sick, and went back to sleep.  This time, he dreamed.

Arna was on her knees in her wedding dress, trying to piece together the sharp-edged fragments of a broken cup.  She looked up with tears in her eyes and said: "I'm getting there, Weylin.  I love you."

Then she had smiled, and the cup was whole in her hands

He jerked awake at eleven.  The bed was empty on her side, and he had a mild hangover.  The fears and feelings that had kept him awake the previous night still nagged.  He kept seeing Jellyhead at the Polson Street Station--so small and fragile in the grip of the legal system, yet so oddly resilient, defying every attempt to make sense of his behavior.

At one, he rang the station again and asked to be put through to the constable who had taken Cloe Flavell to Jellyhead's home.  Candice Greiner was in and on lunch break.  Hollister felt guilty for disturbing her but, as it turned out, she was happy to talk about what she'd seen.

"It's off the Weaver Freeway," Greiner said.  "You park in an empty block on Salisbury Street and go across the old tracks.  Don't go down the tunnel; the gate is padlocked, although I think people have been getting in anyway.  There's an access door to the right, around the edge of a concrete bunker.  It's stiff, but not locked.  It opens if you push hard enough.  On the other side is a maintenance corridor that leads to the dead line."

She gave a detailed description of where to go from there.  The way had been explored many times before by the Cave Clan and teenagers.  She had seen stickers and graffiti, empty syringes and used condoms.  But she hadn't seen anyone else, not beyond a certain point.  That was explained, she supposed, by the stench.

"It's like a sewer," she said, the experience portrayed vividly by her tone.  "Foul.  I don't know how anyone could live down there."

"Is that where he lives?"

"Yes.  There's another maintenance way leading to an abandoned cellar.  I don't know what it's under, but it looks more like it belongs to a house than offices or warehouses.  It might be somewhere old that got built over and forgotten, then opened up again when the line went in.  I don't know.  But that's what he calls home."

Hollister imagined Jellyhead shuffling through the urban wasteland, down ever-darkening corridors and tunnels, and finally to the forgotten space he had taken for his own.  It still seemed appropriate, even though he doubted it was a kind of life anyone deserved--no matter how passionless, or empty.  "What's in there?"

"Nothing but rubbish.  The room is quite big, really, and there's stuff piled up everywhere.  Papers, plastic bags, tin cans--you know.  There are some rugs in a corner; I guess that's where he sleeps.  There's also a tea chest full of old clothes, some candles, a couple of big, empty water bottles, and in the middle of the room there's a table ... "  She stopped as though remembering something.

"What is it?"

"On the table ...  Hell, I don't know how to describe it.  I thought it was a body, at first.  It made me jump, it looked so real.  Gave what's-her-name, Cloe, a fright too.  Old Jellyhead's got himself some kind of dress-maker's dummy down there, Senior Constable, but he's not making dresses."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's lying flat on its back, on the table.  Splayed out, you know?  It's not that big, but he's tried to make it look more ... real, I guess, and that makes it seem larger.  He's stuck a wig on it, and painted it, put clothes on it--all that.  It has a face."

"Whose face?"

"I don't know.  No-one I recognized.  Should I have?"

"No."  Not Cloe Flavell, then, he thought to himself.  "Is that it?"

"Yes."  She hesitated, then added: "To be honest, it gave me the creeps, that thing.  It was just lying there, but I couldn't take my eyes off it.  I didn't want to turn my back on it, either.  Its mouth was open, and it looked ... I don't know.  I think that was where the smell was coming from."

He thanked her when she had finished, and hung up.  A dress-maker's dummy ... a wig .. clothes ... ?

Moir had described the contents of the old man's bag--the bits and pieces, the everyday discards--as items a satanic chef might put on a shopping list.  Hollister didn't for a second think she'd meant it literally, but it had a ring of something to it.  If it wasn't the truth, then maybe it was a step in the right direction. 

He booted up his computer for the first time in weeks and logged onto the Internet.  What he found didn't help him very much, but neither did it put his nagging suspicions to rest.  When he searched on "voodoo dolls" he found numerous sites on black magic, Wicca and Satanism.  Human tissue could be used to make any number of things: potions, imitative charms, curses, and--yes--voodoo dolls.  Most were concerned with stealing part of someone else, or creating something from nothing that could become the spell-caster's possession.  A stream of half-familiar words scrolled down the screen.  Golem ... homunculus ... zombie ...  But none of them sounded quite right.  None of them fit.

The old man's bag had contained samples of blood, dead skin, hair, fingernails and human waste from many different people, not just one.  It was indeed discarded material, as Jellyhead himself had said, not fresh, not specifically stolen.  And the fact that he had one sample from Cloe Flavell didn't necessarily mean anything sinister, unless he was making lots of voodoo dolls, one for each sample of hair.  And even if he was, there was still the question of why.  Flavell was patently not under the old man's control, so there wasn't any efficacy to such a charm--not that Hollister had expected there to be.  The alternative, though, was that Jellyhead was even crazier than he sounded, and that didn't feel right either.  Yet Hollister couldn't help the feeling that he was getting somewhere.

"She won't have any choice, now," the old man had said.

What process had they inadvertently interrupted?

He rang the station a third time, and this time asked for Jane Moir.

"I'm worried," he said.

"About what?"

"About Jellyhead."

"Him?  He'll be okay.  Our young friend will see to that."

"No, I'm worried he might do something.  I think you were right."

He could practically hear Moir's mind working on the other end of the line.  "What's going on, Wey?  Is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine, Jane.  I've just thought about it some more, that's all."

"And?"

"And what?"

"There's more to this.  I know you, Wey.  You don't just turn like this.  There's something you're not telling me."

It was his turn to think carefully.  In the end, he decided to be honest.  She would know if he was lying, anyway.

"It's Arna."

"Arna?  What about Arna?"

"She's been telling me things, at night.  No, wait, let me finish.  I'm not going mad.  It's really happening.  I hear her.  She ... "  He stopped.  It did sound much crazier than he had thought when it was just him hearing her speak, alone, at night.

Moir said: "I think you're taking this whole Jellyhead thing a little too seriously.  And I thought I was!  Just forget about it.  It'll go away.  The dreams will stop--"

"They're not dreams, Jane."

"Whatever they are, then.  Just let it go.  You know it's for the best."

"Are you talking about Arna or Jellyhead?"

"Both, and you know that, too.  Whether it's work or personal, you have to draw the line somewhere.  You cross that line at your peril."  Moir took a breath, then continued in a softer tone.  "She's been dead six months, Wey.  Let her rest."

And if she doesn't want to, he asked himself, what then?

But he didn't say it aloud.  Instead he hung up the phone, dug out his maglite torch from the bottom kitchen drawer, and left the house.

Hollister caught a flash of crimson out of the corner of his eye as he pulled up in the empty lot.  He wasn't sure at first, but was certain the moment he left the car.  Standing on the steep embankment, looking back down at him, was Cloe Flavell in her bright red coat.  He opened his mouth to call to her, but thought better of it.  She would wonder why he was there if he drew any more attention to himself.  And if it was her, then his worst fears were unfounded.

But he still needed to know for sure.

He followed the route Constable Greiner had given him through the metal maintenance door and into the tunnels.  It took him two passes to find the entrance to Jellyhead's underground lair, but when he did locate the door he had no doubts that it was the right one.  The smell was stronger by far on the other side of it.  As he swept the torch around the room, he gagged for a very different reason.

Cloe Flavell lay on her back behind the table Greiner had described.  Her clothes had been cut away down one side of her body, and long, deep incisions were visible in her pale flesh.  There was blood everywhere--an impossible amount from such a small, pallid person.  It appeared as though her head was pressed down hard against her chest, but the angles were all wrong.  Hollister stepped gingerly closer, wary of disturbing the scene.  An autopsy would confirm any guess he made, but he had to see, for his own peace of mind.

From closer to he saw that parts of her skeleton were missing: one long bone from her forearm, another from her shin; a dripping hole in her side suggested that a rib was gone, too, and maybe part of her spine.  A step too many resolved his confusion about her face: her lower jaw had been removed, and what remained didn't bear close examination.

Hollister averted his eyes and found Jellyhead on his side in a corner of the room, eyes open but just as motionless as Flavell.  He checked for a pulse in the old man's neck, but found none.  When he pulled his fingers away, they were sticky with blood--Flavell's blood, he presumed, since there was no apparent injury to the old man's body.  Mystic or otherwise, he was just dead, and in death he looked more pitiful than ever.

Hollister stood up, breathing heavily to fight a rising nausea.  What had happened seemed obvious, at first glance.  Flavell had come to check on Jellyhead, and he had killed her when she had arrived.  Or he had stunned her when she had dropped him off the previous night, and killed her later.  As there was no way such an old man could have overpowered a healthy young woman in the open, Hollister reasoned that he had taken her by surprise.  There was a metal rod with blood on one end under the table, and a knife on the ground near Flavell's body--the murder instrument and butchery tool respectively, Hollister assumed.  Then, over-excited by his grisly deeds, Jellyhead had had a heart-attack and died.

The picture was complete, except for one detail: the "dress-maker's dummy" was gone.

He raised the maglite to study the table surface more closely.  It was splattered with what looked like dried excrement and plastered with dust and stray hairs.  There was a small amount of blood, too, still sticky.  Something had undoubtedly lain there; the splatters were confined to the table's edges and hardly to be found in the middle.  Furthermore, there was a half-empty roll of gaffer tape on the floor nearby, with an inch or so hanging loose and dust-free.  There were a large number of plastic bags lying around the room that Greiner hadn't reported; some of them were freshly emptied.

He could see it clearly.  The object on the table, the sinisterly human-shaped and open-mouthed figure, had been the blow-up doll stolen from the porn shop.  It had been filled with the excrement Jellyhead had collected, then made up on the outside with dead skin, discarded fingernails and loose hairs.  Old clothes had completed the picture: a manikin constructed solely from discards, a Frankenstein's monster made out of rubbish.  But it hadn't been finished.

He'll need the bones before he's done.

The police had been closing in, alerted by the theft.  Jellyhead had been under pressure to finish before anyone discovered what he was up to.  There wouldn't be time to raid graveyards or morgues for what he needed--if the bones of the dead would even suffice.  Hollister didn't grasp the underlying illogic of the exercise; maybe only pieces from the recently-deceased would suffice.  But the broad principles seemed clear.  Jellyhead had been making a monster.  Backed into a corner, he had taken the first and perhaps only chance he could to finish his work.

"The cost of living is so high," Jellyhead had said.  Hollister had it down on tape.  "She needs me to find it for her, to put it together.  She doesn't want to be hard, but she will if she has to.  She doesn't like the darkness.  She cries."

Hollister took a step forward, the flash of crimson he had seen foremost on his mind: Flavell's coat wasn't anywhere in Jellyhead's lair, yet she had been wearing it the previous day.  Either someone had stolen it from the scene, or ...  That the monster could actually move of its own accord didn't seem so absurd, underground, in the charnel shadows, and the thought of taking chase urged him on.  But he stopped well before reaching the door.  He had been underground almost half an hour already.  The trail would be cold by the time he emerged into the daylight again.  He wouldn't be able to use smell to track the thing in the city--and he didn't know what he could do even if he caught up.  Prick it with a silver needle?  Catching up might be the last thing he wanted to do.

"She's trying to come through," the old man had said.  "I don't know where from.  She's just there, and she wants to be here."

He turned and walked back to the table.

"Let it go."  Moir's words filled the gore-splattered darkness.  "Let it go ... "

He knew she was right, on all counts.  What difference did the slip of a knife make?  An old but respected surgeon made a mistake and might go unpunished if the lawyers failed to do their job properly--but that wasn't the same as a killer hunting down a victim, even if the end result was the same.  Maybe, in this case, there was an accomplice Hollister knew nothing about who had moved the thing on the table.  Maybe it wasn't as simple as it seemed on first or second viewing.  Maybe only time, not rash stumbling about, flailing for answers, would expose the truth.

The tension within him broke as soon as he made up his mind.  He would get back above ground and call for Moir.  Someone else could take over, clean up the mess, put the pieces together and let him get on with his life as rationally as he could.  It wouldn't be his problem any more, whatever--and wherever--it was.  There were no names, not even words, for such a thing.  What would drive it?  What reason could it possibly have for existing?

When he turned, it was standing in the doorway.  The stench had returned with it.  He was becoming so used to the smell that he hadn't noticed.

"I came back," it said with Arna's voice.  "I missed you."

He stared at her, frozen, as she took a step into the light.

After a long pause, he lowered the torch.

This story originally appeared in Eidolon.


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