Advent Stories #17

THE COLD

urb

December sleet, Shude Hill, Manchester. Six in the evening. Temperature dropping. Jesus wept. The things we do. The things we grow to be. No, Simmonds, I do not want another fucking coffee. Get on to Arley and find out when forensics are going to bring their tents and toothpicks over. And get that cordon sorted. We’ve had two scoops already from the Evening News, nosing around this offal. Do your fucking job.

Rachel Biddeford. Second this month. Obviously the same Joe. Dirty bastard. DNA not on our records. A newbie. Knows his way around a body, mind. Hospital worker? Medical student? Nylon ties around the wrists and ankles. Goes deep with his cutter. Deep vein. Cuts the jugular. Why does he do that? Why not the artery? Get it over with. But no. Slower death, see. He wants them conscious. He wants them to see him while he’s masturbating.

Vein man. Vain man.

After death, a professional Y-cut. Post-mortem spot-on. And what’s he taking? Nothing. Organs intact. Sewn back up with neat little sutures. What is this clown? Ex-morgue? Did he watch too much police procedural on the TV?

Talk to the residents. Talk to the vagrants. Talk to the brick wall. Nothing going on. Nobody knows. No. Nothing. I wasn’t. I didn’t. Victim killed elsewhere, then dumped, same as in Whalley Range, same as in Denton. No pattern to the locations. Faces laced with dried come. Pale as the time-whitened covers of the wank mags in the bookshops on Thomas Street. Girls from the university, no older than twenty. No obvious link so far, other than pretty, coltish. A blonde and two brunettes. An English student and two sciences. Merry fucking Christmas.

Forensics take pictures, take swabs. Midnight before the crime scene’s secure and the body’s on a trolley on its way to Path. Simmonds is pulling his coat on and I hoik him my way. Souness first, I tell him. I’m buying. I don’t care how fucking tired you are Simmonds. Sleep when you get to Hell. And believe me, son, that’s where you’re going. Anybody who makes tea as bad as you do…

*

Gravier fiddled with shreds of salad peeking from the lips of his bacon sandwich and put that morning’s newspaper to one side. He had failed to progress beyond the first few lines of the article for fifteen minutes and could feel a headache assembling a nest at the back of his skull. When had a Souness ever really meant a swift half and then off? Why did boozing hold hands so tightly with officers on the Force?

The girl on the bicycle across the street would not stop thumbing at the bell on her handlebars and the sound was growing to irritate him. It carried through the traffic, permeating the glass and the hubbub in the cafe. His appetite having failed pretty much the moment he’d bought his breakfast, Gravier sat in the window seat staring through a halo of mist at the figure straddling her pale blue three-speed. With a frustrated grunt, Gravier gave up on his meal and barked his leg in his eagerness to be out of the door. The girl on the bicycle was gone, but the sound of the bell remained like a stain in the air. He walked across the road to where she had been, feeling vague and purposeless, and stood there for a while, fighting the urge to reach out and stay fingers that were no longer busy at their mischief. Something was itching at his mind, something about the murderer, and his way with a needle and thread. Opening and closing bodies. Taking nothing away.

*

West Didsbury. South Manchester. February 1st. Burton Road shops closed and dusty from the credit crunch. Browning Christmas trees dumped in back alleys. Buses advertising horror films dragging sullen, featureless occupants to and from the desk. Condensation in every window, every heart. Everyone’s spunked money they don’t have on presents nobody wanted. Pay it off just in time for Santa to come calling at the arse-end of this year, wagging his ‘I Want’ list. Manchester winter. Everyone saddled with one sort of shit or another. Jenny Beaker most of all, at least today. And she’s the only one not complaining. What the fuck is this, Simmonds? Café au porridge? I don’t do froth, son. Take it back and get me a proper drink. I wanted a flask for Christmas. So I could whack a pint of honest UK tea inside it and flick the Vs at these wankhole coffee shops with their crappuccini and shatté and Ameriguano. What happened to the greasy spoon and the chipped mug of milk and two?

dids

Jenny B. Twenty-one. Born in Swansea. Studying for a Creative Writing MA at MMU. You’ve found yourself a hell of a story here, babe. Talk to her student pals at the student house in Withington. Student faces slack as an old man’s clothes rail. I don’t. I didn’t. Quiet as student mice. Kept herself to herself. Yeah, don’t we all. Except him. Our friend the surgeon. Talk to the neighbours. Boo to a goose. Mrs Vearncombe wouldn’t be surprised. Mrs Craven shudders to think. The only leads I have are the ones tying Jenny’s wrist to the lamp-post.

Jesus Christ, Simmonds. Milk again? I want my coffee black. Black as the eyes you’ll be wearing if you don’t pull your thumb out of your chute and do something right for a change.

*

He walked away and it wasn’t Simmonds behaving like a queynt that got his feet moving. It wasn’t the sight of Jenny Beaker gazing up at him with eyes that were large and wide, love-filled, almost. It was the paint on the wall by her body. Graffiti was everywhere these days, but not like this. It bothered him more than the grey, unresponsive flesh.

Thou art all ice. Thy kindness freezes.

What kind of spraycan fan came out with that stuff?

Later, at home, he discovered that the line was from Shakespeare. He snorted laughter as he closed his web browser and turned to the rank of bottles gleaming on the cabinet in his living room. He poured himself a glass of Scotch and sat by the window. Outside, he had a view of the main road than ran through Heaton Moor. Bars he didn’t patronise, shops he didn’t buy from. He didn’t know why he was here. He’d prefer a small flat in the centre of town, but this was where his wife had wanted to be. Gemma had left him two years previously. Nothing to do with his drinking, or the hours he put in at the office. She’d met another guy, that was all. He didn’t argue with her when she laid it all out before him. He reserved his bitterness for when the flat was empty of her things. He tried to purge her merry ghost with elegiac songs by Interpol and Editors. He ate the food she didn’t like, despite his not liking it either. One night he brought back one of the girls from the switchboard and fucked her standing up against the wall, a position his wife could not abide.

He downed the drink.

‘Thou art all ice,’ he said, and his own voice made him jump.

*

Gravier had been in love, once. And not with his wife. This was before he got married. It had been the breathlessness, the heart-stopping moment he’d heard about and scoffed at for so long. She was one of those glimpses-in-a-mirror women. A once seen, never forgotten type. The kind of girl you find rhapsodied over in the Personal columns of listings magazines. You were by the bus stop, wearing coffee-coloured eyeshadow. That kind of thing. He’d never swapped a word with her. No exchange of addresses or telephone numbers. Just a look. Less than that, really, but she had stayed in his thoughts with a kind of pain, like a piercing, like a branding. He’d been in his car. A winter afternoon. The sun little more than a trembling line, a careless scrape of orange crayon on a pale blue page. He’d seen a shadow fall across the bonnet. He’d been in a bad mood. Headache. It felt as though he was being gripped at the temples by some industrial tool. She had hurried by, raising a hand to move the black hair from her face. He caught a crystal peep of her eyes, the green of sour apples. Simple clothes. He’d opened the door without thinking, his heart fidgeting. He didn’t know what he meant to say, but his mouth was open and something was coming. She was gone though. He ran around the corner of the street, but she had vanished into the concrete, it seemed. He’d been shocked by the force of his disappointment. The sudden grief of wanting something that you couldn’t have. She flitted at the periphery of his dreams after that, maddeningly out of reach. He never was and when he wakened he was always cold, as if she were a ghost reducing the temperature of the room.

*

He walked winter streets, angling into the sleet, wishing for the chill to climb up through his bones and seize his mind. It wasn’t right, having her in his thoughts while the murders were piling up. She deserved a cleaner host, a better moment. Without any kind of predetermination, Gravier found himself moving through the black slush of Shude Hill where the body of Rachel Biddeford had been dumped. All cleaned away now. All nice and tidy and back in its nasty little box. Just a yellow police sign, a piss into the wind: WE ARE APPEALING FOR WITNESSES. CAN YOU HELP US? MURDER. IN STRICTEST CONFIDENCE PLEASE PHONE. The forensics tents gone. The body gone. No trace. No angelic shape in the snow; nothing to say that a young, beautiful girl lay here. Gravier stood with his hands in his pockets blowing steam at the cold, blue edges of the buildings. He didn’t know what he was waiting for, but he felt something was about to happen. He had been blessed with some kind of itchy trigger, a sense of things about to arrive, whether they be clarity of thought, or something more concrete. It had served him well in the police and he always paused to answer its call when it came. Other people called it copper’s instinct. Gravier wasn’t so sure. He didn’t want to dwell upon it for too long in case it went away. It was magic, of a sort.

Now he glanced around him. Sleet against the sodium-lit night like ash at the end of the world. Buses shifting through low gears, ploughing filthy slices of old snow on to pavements riddled with litter and grime. The muffled beat of a band playing the MEN arena. He used to love live music. He’d go to a couple of gigs a week in his twenties, if he could afford it. Gemma hated the sweat and the stink. The beer in plastic. She was a CD to his scratched vinyl. The glossy black windows of the Arndale centre. The electric cables for the trams stretching out like exposed veins. Low wattage bulbs burning in upper floor flats. Secret homes. What went on? Who dared to know?

Over to the right, in an alley adjacent to a fish and chip shop, a line of industrial bins disgorged their contents on to paving stones that had cracked in the cold. On the wall above them was a faint, silvery line, like the trail of a slug across a dewy lawn. More graffiti. He realised now why he had come here. He knew what he would find. A killer with a calling card. It was all the rage. He thought of Rachel Biddeford’s torn body and thought of the pain she must have endured. The silent screams on these victims’ faces seemed ingrained. They must have been so very violent to cause the corners of their mouths to split. No Hollywood shrieking here. No C sharp in plum lipstick. No handsome A-list star to come to their rescue. They lay in the shit and the sleet, their eyes cramming up with snow until some drunk or graveyard shifter stumbled over their solid bodies. And they remained frozen for ever more. In time, in the minds of the people they left behind. Iced hearts beyond thawing. Always associated with violence and loneliness and death.

‘I’ll warm you up, love,’ Gravier whispered. There were tears in his eyes and he couldn’t even begin to kid himself that it was the cold bringing them on. He thumbed the lock on his mobile phone and called Simmonds.

‘Hands off cocks, on socks,’ Gravier said, when Simmonds had eventually picked up. ‘I want you to take a ride out to the SoCs in Whalley Range and Denton. Check the walls for graffiti. Yes, Simmonds, graffiti. What do you think I fucking said? Tahiti? Look for silver paint. References to the cold or winter. Call me when you find it. I also want a list of all spray-paint manufacturers and suppliers in the Greater Manchester area. Automotive finishers, decorator centres, varnishing and coatings trades. The lot. And I want that about ten minutes before I called you. Check this out as well. Three feet of ice does not result from one day of cold weather. I found it at the Shude Hill scene. Very clever, isn’t it. Well find out where it comes from. Oh, and Simmonds? Next time you don’t pick up on the first ring, you’ll be wearing your phone for a butt plug. Got it?’

He grew aware of something tickling the back of his scalp like fear. He turned to face the main road and saw a figure watching him from the tram stop platform. He was bathed in the acid white of floodlights, a tall, thin man in a long, grey coat and a dark, woollen hat. The man stared at Gravier, unabashed. His hands were deep in his coat pockets, writhing, as if he were wrestling to keep something from exposing itself. Gravier stepped towards him. ‘Could I have a minute with you, sir?’ he called out.

The man did not move. The woollen hat was pulled down almost to the point where it blinded him. The closer Gravier got, the more he did not want to approach. It was as if he were being repulsed. When he was standing in front of the other man, whom he could now see was closer to six foot four, he noticed that the hat was not dark, it was a pale cement colour, but it was covered with stains.

‘Could I have a minute of your time, please?’ Gravier asked again, having to give more spine to his voice than he was used to.

‘You could. You could have more.’

Christ. A smell hit him, of all the things that made him want to puke. Wet dogs, tooth decay, weeks’ old piss in the doorways of dilapidated buildings. It was all he could do not to gag in front of the man, not that he’d notice. His eyes were shivering in their sockets.

‘Are you all right?’ Gravier asked.

‘All right,’ the man replied. His voice was accentless. It was like water.

Gravier found himself struggling to even remember what he’d said. He glanced back at the bins and their overscore of painted wit. ‘We’re currently investigating a murder, sir,’ he said, trying to summon some iron. ‘I wondered if you knew anything about what happened here, January 27th.’

‘Lonely man?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘The lonely can take extreme measures to, ah, stop being lonely any more.’

‘What have you got in your pockets?’

‘My hands.’

‘Come on, mate. Empty them. It’s too cold for this. You can smart mouth me all you like down the station if that’s what you’d prefer.’

The man took his hands from his pockets and opened them, a conciliatory gesture. They were huge. The nails were like scimitars on his fingers, backlit: ten pearlescent crescents, packed with filth. Gravier felt dread shift inside him, like something concrete. This man was dangerous. ‘I have nothing in my pockets.’

Gravier suddenly did not feel like frisking him for the truth. ‘What’s your name?’ he asked.

The man was sweating. It was maybe minus one or two degrees Celsius, yet here came tears of perspiration from the collar of his hat. More worried than he’s letting on, Gravier thought. The man bore the expression of someone digging lightly for a recently forgotten item of information, and then: ‘Henry Johns.’

‘Henry?’

‘Henry, yes.’

‘Do you have any ID on you, Mr Johns?’

‘I don’t.’

‘Address?’

‘I’m not from this place.’

‘Why are you in Manchester, then?’

‘Business.’

‘What kind of business?’

‘I represent a client in the entertainment industry.’

‘What, so you’re an agent?’

‘You could say that.’

‘And who is your client?’

Johns handed Gravier a card. Gravier took it. He couldn’t remember where it might have come from; he was sure Johns’ hands had been empty ever since he removed them from his pockets. The card was a translucent tablet with a claw-mark effect cut out of the top-right-hand corner. A name, in egg-shell white, was just legible if you tilted the card away from the plane of vision. Lady Ice. No phone number. No address.

‘Great card,’ Gravier said. ‘I bet she does a roaring trade.’

‘You’ll find her when you need her the most. They all do.’

Gravier was tired and cold. He wanted coffee. He gave Johns a card of his own. ‘Give me a call if you have anything interesting to say,’ he said. ‘A girl of 19 was killed and then dumped here. Not good. Not good.’ He was turning to go, feeling bad about the whole thing, warning signs going off all over his head. Nick him. Nick him now.

‘She’s sweet,’ Johns said. ‘She could be yours, if you want her. She wants you.’

Gravier stared at him. ‘What? What are you talking about?’

‘Girl of your dreams, Detective Inspector.’

Gravier ignored him and hurried away. He climbed into his car and turned up the heater, his hands shaking. The sweat drizzling out of the wool of Johns’ cap was what had been staining it. Sort of dark. Sort of bloody. He closed his eyes to the impossibility of it and released the handbrake. He drove up Shude Hill, retracing the steps he had taken, until he was level with the tram platform. He saw Johns moving away down Balloon Street towards Victoria train station. Gravier watched him remove his woollen hat. He took it off tenderly. He peeled it away from the exposed lobes of his brain.

*

Back at the nick in time for breakfast. Sausage sandwich and a tangerine. Hot, sweet tea. You get it down you, somehow. A head full of black ice and white bone. Soaking, cold trouser cuffs. You should have arrested him. On suspicion of… Anything you say… But too scared. Too old. It was in him, all of a sudden, this need to get out. You put the hours in, you became the job and happiness, fulfilment never came, and you ended up realising it was because you had hated the job all along. What he’d seen, he hadn’t seen. Put it down to a lack of blood sugar. Put it down to nervous exhaustion.

Gravier here. Ah, Simmonds. Nice of you to make the effort. Give us the griff, then. What’s that you say? I found a Chinese proverb, did I? Well, well. He is an educated boy, isn’t he? What about the others? Any luck? Yes? You found some? Excellent. We’ll make a policeman of you yet. Well yes, you have to follow your hunch, don’t you? As Quasimodo said while walking backwards one day. Email them over, soon as you can. And Simmonds? Thank you.

*

Whalley Range. Emma Tees. A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul. Denton. Gillian Jarvis. The snow doesn’t give a soft white damn whom it touches. Simmonds had called him with the authors. Kafka he’d heard of. The beetle man, wasn’t he? But E. E. Cummings? He didn’t so much sound like a poet as a porn star with a stutter.

Patterns in frost. The bodies so cold the blood had frozen to black plaques on their flesh. A confectionery crackle as they were peeled clear of pavements and roads. Gravier lay in bed, feeling the temperature drop. His skin felt old and papery, hanging from his body as if unattached. Get up too quickly and it might simply flutter away from his bones. He thought of the girl on her bike, bent over the handlebars, thumbing at the spring-loaded clapper of the bell. He tried to remember what it had been like to be young. The absence of responsibility, the irrelevance of effect. You didn’t think ahead as a child. It was all seat-of-the-pants from one day to the next. He yearned for a little of that freedom now. He seemed to spend every waking minute inside his mind, the pulses of his thought processes pushing at the membranes that coated his brain. There was never any feeling of physical release. He was locked in; he was his own prison. And then he thought of the bars of a cell. He thought of ribs. A body opened and closed, like a police case, or a door to somewhere new. The killer had not taken a thing.

arc

He stabbed his finger at the keys of his mobile phone.

‘Simmonds. Get over to pathology. Get Mercer out of bed. Our friend, he might not be harvesting. But what if he’s leaving stuff behind instead?’

*

Dead end. Sometimes the thoughts you believe might just blow your options wide open are the ones that close us down for good. Gravier accepted the pint from Simmonds and for a moment didn’t know what he should do with it. Everything felt as though it should be kicked, punched, smashed; damaged in some way. It was not a good feeling. He was not having a good day. He swallowed half of the pint in three savage mouthfuls. Nobody behind the bar or sitting at it would meet his eye. Danger radiated from him.

What’s that, Simmonds? Sir, if you’d just take it easy? Don’t you dare try the arm around the shoulder with me, Simmonds, or I’ll punch you so hard you’ll find you’re suddenly rimming yourself off. Yes, I know the pathologist’s report said there was no internal damage, nothing to write home about in any of the post-mortems, but the pathologist isn’t fucking Superman. Brian Mercer? Man’s a sot. And half blind. If he wasn’t wearing those Coke bottle glasses of his, he’d take his scalpel to a turkey’s twat and think it was a pensioner’s mouth. Now fuck away off with you. Leave me alone.

*

Another night’s torture for the brogues. Slapping through the wet, wondering why he never put on a thicker pair of socks, or invested in some of those Goretex boots the younger generation clomp around in. Freezing wind wound itself around his neck and shoulders, reaching deep into his body. Some days he woke up with the core of his limbs giving him gyp, and could imagine his mouldering bones turned damp with the cold. He used to walk through miles of rain when he was courting and never felt the needling of it. He was happy then. The only thing pressing down on his shoulders were the five-inch firecheck doors he had to lug around the warehouse where he used to work summer holidays. Seventeen. Full of cum and muscle. Not a care. When did it all turn bad? When you got a job that held a mirror up to the world and showed it to be some foxed, blighted shithole, that’s when.

How long till the next one? And there would be a next one. There always was, even if the killer was one of those twisted individuals desperate to be stopped. He sensed himself walking faster, as if an increase in speed might hurry a conclusion his way. His fingers worried at the stylised business card in his coat pocket. If he stroked the surface, he could just feel the raised pimples of the typeface outlining her name: Lady Ice. No address. No phone number.

Why was he moving in this direction?

Here was a part of town he didn’t know so well. He remembered a few call-outs here, many years ago. But not a place he lingered. Somewhere he couldn’t give a name to now, no matter how hard he delved for one. He frowned and checked road names, but none impinged on his memory. He felt a weird slanting in perception, as if he’d had a dizzy spell and felt the world shift away for a second. He put out a hand to steady himself and he burned his fingers on the frozen door knocker of a large building, which reminded Gravier of the neoclassical buildings in the town centre – the libraries and banks – bought by brewery chains and transformed into spit-and sawdust-pubs selling alcopops and indigestible hunks of beef.

The door opened as he pushed to lever himself upright. He heard a female voice, strident, calling from further along a dark hallway. ‘Get in. Shut out that unwanted.’

He thought she meant the weather, but once the door was closed behind him, he felt sure she wanted the chill in, and him out. He couldn’t understand why he’d even crossed the threshold, but there was something in her voice that brooked no argument. ‘Hello?’ he called. ‘I’m a police officer. You should watch that door. I think the lock’s faulty.’

‘Come in. Take off your coat. And wipe your feet. I don’t want muddy prints all over my pile.’

Gravier’s heart was loud in the corridor. He took his hand off the latch and moved deeper into the house. Stairs vanished into a dark upper floor. A room to his left was a series of sagging browns: tired curtains, caved-in armchair, a rug and a sleeping caramel cat. A kitchen containing a dining table covered with a protective plastic sheet. Dripping tap. A view through a back window of nothing but night’s oily swirl of streetlamps and bad weather. He imagined himself closing the door on a filthy night like that and entering a kitchen filled with warm smells of good food and a woman who lit up to see him home.

A door under the stairs was open. He caught a whiff of patchouli oil and nubuck. Music was playing. Soft light curled against the bottom steps like smoke. Shadows swam languidly through it.

Gravier gritted his teeth and rapped on the door. ‘Could you come up here, madam. I need to have a word.’

A light chuckle that might have come in response to his demand. He heard a loud crack. He’d heard noises like that in shooting ranges. Small arms fire. He had his hand on his phone when a face swung into the stairwell and smiled up at him. Her hair was a painfully white pagoda frozen into position with lacquer that he could see glinting even in this poor light.

‘Come down,’ she said. Her voice had lost its edge. She laughed again and slipped back into the room.

Gravier descended. The smell of scented candles caught in his throat. He hesitated at the foot of the stairs when he saw the room and his first thought was, is there a crime being committed here?

‘Welcome to my dungeon,’ she said.

He couldn’t focus on anything, because there was too much to take in. To settle on any detail for any amount of time was to invite insanity. His attention fluttered from the operating table to the dentist’s chair to the cage and the things that writhed on and in them. There were glass shelves of glittering surgical instruments, wet from whatever task they had last been put to, ivory tables displaying monstrous dildoes sculpted from raw bone. Masks that weren’t masks at all hung from cord and turned in the hot, still air, drying, curling like strips of jerky.

‘You know me,’ she said. She ran a finger across his jawbone and it turned to a line of smoking powder. The pain didn’t come at once. It was only when he raised his hand to his face that he felt a rind of necrotic tissue snap away, an icicle in his fingers. He screamed as the burn took hold and she was at the door, locking it, placing the key between her breasts. He tore his gaze away from her red lips, her black eyes. He tried not to look at the flesh that cracked and splintered between the shiny black curves of rubber, the vermiculate patterns of ice, like hoar frost on a lawn at daybreak, or the leaves of ice that grow on the surface of a pond. Parts of her were studded with solid impact scars: white bruises. He heard the ding of the bell and turned, expecting to see the child on her bicycle, but there was only a woman on the operating table, her innards exposed, clamped back with pins like a dissected frog. Henry Johns was there, bent over as if in supplication, as if he was breathing in the aroma of her organs.

‘Jesus Christ,’ Gravier managed. ‘She’s still alive. You bastards.’

The woman was arching against her bonds; blood squelched beneath the suck of her back.

The dominatrix hobbled to a bookshelf, her form cracking and squealing against itself. She hefted a volume in her hands and began to turn pages. She turned the book so that he could see a picture of the woman from his dreams, a sliver of a face from long ago. Despite the horror rising around him, he felt the familiar pang of a missed connection, of a chance gone by.

‘Who is she?’ he asked.

‘Her name is Rebecca Tavistock. She is your soul mate. We all have one. The lucky ones find each other by a combination of detective work and good fortune.’

Gravier could hear the sound of the bell again, but everything was slowed down, deeper, more resonant. Now the tinkle of that bicycle toy was the great, monotonous din of a cathedral angelus. He felt each toll in the gaps between his vertebrae. The vibrations were so forceful that scraps of plaster were pulling away from the walls, showing the bones of the house beneath. Henry Johns’ exposed brain shook like a jelly against the collar of what remained of his skull. His feverish eyes were like those of a speed reader, sucking in as much detail as time was allowed.

‘Rebecca,’ Gravier breathed.

The pages shifted under the dominatrix’s fingers. The photographs moved of their own volition. ‘Are you finished?’ she asked Johns. She turned to Gravier. ‘You’ll have to excuse the Diploë. He has quite execrable table manners.’

Gravier watched the girl beneath Johns die. He saw something of her drift up from the centre of her body and vanish like inhaled smoke into Johns’ mouth and nostrils. Then she was still.

‘We’ve been looking for you since you were born. Hard to latch on to the cold, the ones that recognise the vacuum at their hearts but do precious little about it. The warm are easy. But now we have you we can get you two lost souls together. How romantic is that?’

‘She… she’s here?’ Gravier turned to the empty corners of the room but that delicate woman he’d seen just once before was absent. The thin, pale tilt of her chin as she turned to regard him. The achingly lovely green of her eyes.

‘Will you go to her, gladly?’ she asked him. Her mouth was open and she was showing her teeth. They were tablets of ice. He felt he might melt her away with the heat of his sudden need.

The sound of the bell raged through the walls, through the floor. It seemed to come at him from all angles, and it married precisely the beat of his heart. When he turned his head again it was to view the ragdoll of something long dead come jerking through a gap in the floorboards. Its mouth was opened, a cracked, decayed ring of black teeth and unspoken secrets. The Diploë closed its eyes and flaunted the wet, black shreds that dangled from his fingernails. The dominatrix was panting, her hands a restless knot at the molten centre of herself. There was a sense of sinking, of leaving what he knew for something almost too large to comprehend.

For the first time in his life, as he folded beneath her arthritic grip and her jaws found a way into the softest part of him, Gravier understood what it meant to give yourself to the person you had been intended for, even if you had been born a couple of hundred years too late.

 

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