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The Dead City (Ophelia book 2)

The Dead City

(Ophelia book 2)

by Amy Cross

Copyright Amy Cross, All Rights Reserved

Published by ACBT Books

First published: October 2014

This edition first published: May 2016

 

http://amycrossbooks.wordpress.com

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. If you enjoy it and wish to share it with others, please consider buying them their own copy. Feedback is always welcome. The author reserves all rights in respect of this work.

The Dead City

(Ophelia book 2)

Table of Contents

 

Prologue

 

Part One

 

Part Two

 

Epilogue

Prologue

 

She sits on the bench, watching the children as they play and telling herself over and over again:

You can do this.

Although she’s trying very hard to fit in, to seem normal, she actually looks completely out of place. For one thing, she’s sitting hunched over, as if her body has been tightly wound into a coil; for another, her hands are clutched together into a kind of prayerful fist. The children have been keeping away from her, but if any of them dared to come close, they’d realize that she’s muttering to herself. She doesn’t care, though. She long ago accepted that there’s no-one out there would could ever understand her.

“…can do this… You can do this… You can do this, just…”

Light rain is falling, but she barely even notices. It’s a warm, overcast day and she’s feeling uncomfortably sweaty. She fears that if she looks up at the apartment block at the other side of the park, she’ll see someone staring at her. She always feels as if she’s being watched, even when she’s alone, and that’s one of the many reasons why she hates being out in public. Still, she has no choice. She’s spent so long hidden away in her makeshift studio, planning this great project, but the whole scheme rests on one particularly difficult action. Well, one more. Well… one more for now.

Slowly, she raises her head a little and looks over at the swings.

Suddenly the children are running back toward the apartment block. All except one. There’s a little boy still on the roundabout, going round in slow revolutions. He looks so lost and alone, so vulnerable, and she knows instantly that he has to be the one.

“You can do this… You can do this… You can do this… You…”

With her eyes fixed on the little boy, she stands up. She makes her way across the park, expecting the boy to run, but as she gets closer the pair of them make eye contact and she sees the the child has some kind of disability. Learning problems, perhaps. Whatever, the boy smiles as if he has no idea that a stranger could pose any kind of threat. His docility, she figures, should make this much easier.

“Hello,” he says, sounding friendly.

“Hey,” the woman replies, stunned by how easy this seems so far. She pauses for a moment, glancing around to make sure that there’s no-one nearby, and then finally she turns back to the child and realizes that it’s now or never. “Your Mum asked me to come and fetch you,” she continues, trying and failing to sound confident. “She, uh, wants me to take you somewhere. She’ll be mad if you don’t come.”

The little boy stares at her for a moment, before getting off the roundabout and reaching out to take her hand.

“Okay,” he says with a smile.

“Cool,” the woman replies, leading the boy away from the play equipment and over to the other side of the park, where the green lawn gives way to a wooded area that leads around the estate and over toward the school. “What’s your name?”

“Robert.”

“Well, Robert,” she continues, “your Mum told me that its very important that you listen to what I say. She wants you to be a very good boy. She told me I wouldn’t have any trouble with you, though. She said that you’re always so well-behaved and that she’s so proud of you, and she made me promise to give you some sweets as a reward. Does that sound good?”

“Are you taking me to see her?” he asks.

“I am.” As she leads him between the trees, she glances over her shoulder, making sure that there’s no-one following. Her heart is racing and she can barely believe that she’s actually going through with this part of the plan, but at the same time she feels more alive than ever. All that planning, all the theories and ideas she went through as part of her research and preparation, feels like nothing compared to the sheer exhilaration of this phase of the project. Theory is finally becoming reality, with just a week to go until the big deadline.

“I didn’t think Mummy would ever send for me,” the boy says after a moment.

“And why’s that?” she asks, spotting the hut up ahead.

“Because she died last year.”

Stopping, she turns and looks down at the boy, who stares back up at her with an expression of mild confusion.

“She did?” she asks.

He nods.

“Well, I’m…” She pauses, suddenly feeling as if maybe she can’t go through with this. Reaching into her pocket, she runs her fingers against the blade of the knife, imagining it slicing through the boy’s neck. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” she continues. “Maybe… Maybe there’s been a mistake…”

“No,” the boy replies. “I always knew she’d come back to see me, though. She loved me a lot. Daddy says I have to be realistic, but I think he’s just mad because Mummy didn’t like him very much by the time she died.”

“Is that right?” The woman takes a deep breath. She knows she could just let the boy go, that she could find another target, but at the same time she figures that she’s never going to find a child who’s easy to kill. Forcing herself to stay strong, she kneels in front of the boy. “Do you want to be with your Mummy right now?” she asks.

He nods.

“I mean…” She pauses, with tears in her eyes. “Do you really, really want to be with her?”

He nods again.

“Then turn around.”

“Why?”

“Just turn around. Trust me.”

“Why are you crying?”

“I’m not. Turn around.”

Slowly, the boy turns. For the first time, there’s a hint of doubt in his eyes, but he seems to trust the woman and he doesn’t even glance back at her, not even after a couple of minutes of total silence.

Behind him, she holds the knife in her shaking hand, willing herself to get the job done.

“Is she here yet?” the boy asks eventually.

“Who?”

“Mummy.”

“Almost,” the woman replies, with tears running down her cheeks. “I think you’re gonna see her very soon. What did you say your name was, again?”

“Robert.”

“Robert,” she repeats softly.

She looks down at the knife and tries to clear her mind. Time passes, and then, a few minutes later once it’s all over, she gets to her feet. There’s blood on her still-trembling hands now, and more blood dripping from the blade. The boy’s body is on the ground in front of her, face-down in the leaves that cover the forest floor. On his back, blood is still soaking through the thick woolen jumper he was wearing. It’s all over now, and as she stares at him, she tells herself that for all she knows, he really might be with his mother now. Not that she believes in that kind of thing.

She doesn’t quite remember the exact moment she killed him. Her mind seems to be protecting her from that trauma.

Reaching down and grabbing the boy by the feet, she drags him between the trees until finally she reaches the small hut where the rest of her project is waiting. It takes a moment for her to get the door open and then to haul the body inside, but finally she’s able to pull the door shut and slide the bolt across. Safe again in the calm, dark interior of the hut, she takes a deep breath, daring herself to turn and look at all the work that’s waiting for her. Not just the boy, but all the others who are going to be a part of this particular task. Finally she turns, and the sight is too much for her.

Sinking to the floor, she starts sobbing as she looks at the blood on her trembling hands.

“You can do this,” she sobs. “You can, you really can…”

Part One

Ophelia

 

“Excuse me!”

Ignoring the voice, I make my way along the aisle, still looking for that goddamn book.

“Excuse me!”

God, that woman’s voice is shrill and irritating.

I scan the shelf and finally I spot it. As I slide the book out and start turning to the index, I can hear someone coming closer and closer. All I want is some peace and quiet so I can complete my research, but I’m going to be interrupted in three, two, one…

“Excuse me,” the librarian says, tapping me on the shoulder. “I’m afraid we don’t allow… You know…”

I turn to her. She’s a late-middle-aged woman, her clothes covered in cat hair, and she smells a little fusty, as if she uses moth balls in her closet. Obviously lives alone, just her and her pets. She has a necklace but no wedding ring, and there’s a small yellow stain on her sleeve, probably from some runny egg, while her face has the slightly reddish tone of someone who might not be an alcoholic per se, but who certainly drinks too much, probably alone, probably late at night, probably while talking to people online. Her job offers her a chance to lord it over people to whom she feels superior, hence:

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” she says curtly.

“Why?”

“Because… You know.”

I raise a skeptical eyebrow.

“Do I smell bad?” I ask.

“ No, but -”

“I’m just looking for a book,” I tell her, with a disarming smile.

“Are you a member of this library?”

“Does that matter?”

“Only members are allowed to use the library’s facilities,” she continues in a distinctly haughty tone.

“Huh. Is that right?”

“That’s right. Are you a member?”

I open my mouth to ask another question.

“You’re not a member,” she says firmly, making a point of looking down at my clothes for a moment. She’s obviously horrified by me. “You’re homeless, aren’t you? I’m afraid we have a policy of not allowing transients to use the library’s facilities for shelter during the day. It disturbs the other patrons. I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises immediately.”

“ I just want to look something up,” I explain, showing her the medical textbook that I've spent the past ten minutes trying to find. “I'd be done by now if this had been put on the right shelf, but you guys don't seem to follow the Dewey Decimal System too closely. It'd been filed under -”

“Are you going to leave?” she asks, interrupting me.

“ Can't I just look at this one book for a minute? I'm researching something. I'll be out of here in, like, sixty seconds. Well, ninety including the walk to the door, although I suppose I could run and maybe -”

“Are you a member of this library?”

I sigh.

“Leave,” she says again, reaching out and grabbing my arm. “Right now!”

“Don’t touch me!” I shout, pulling away. For a moment, I feel as if I want to just throw the book at her smug, self-satisfied face and run out of here, but that would mean going to another library and starting the search all over again, and I’m far too busy to waste so much time. “I don’t like being touched,” I continue, trying not to seem too rattled. “Look, I get that you don’t want homeless people filling space in your precious library, but all I’m doing is looking up one specific medical fact about concussion, okay? I’d be out of here already if you haven’t interrupted me.”

“Leave or I’m calling the police,” she replies, as if she hasn’t heard a word that I’ve said.

“Seriously?”

“If you’re not a member and you’ve been asked to leave, you’re trespassing by still being here.”

“Is that right?” I ask, setting the book down for a moment before pulling a bundle of papers from my pocket. Crumbs and other pieces of detritus fall free as I rifle through the documents, but finally I find what I’m looking for and I hold it out for her to see: a library card bearing my smiling photo.

“What’s this?” she asks.

“My membership card.”

“Oh, what rot,” she replies, snatching it from me and staring at it for a moment. “Esmerelda Bugglesnatch?” she reads. “That is not a real name.”

“It is so totally a real name,” I tell her. “Can’t blame me, I didn’t choose it. Anyway, you can’t exactly criticize, Edith.”

“ How did you -”

“I saw the sign on your desk when I came in. I paid attention ‘cause I’d already pegged you as an interferer, and I was right.”

“Did you obtain this card fraudulently?” she asks, waving it in my face.

“I obtained my membership at this library the same way as anyone else,” I reply calmly. “I applied, I provided the necessary documents and photo, and here I am trying to use the facilities without being harassed.”

“I’m going to check this,” she says, with a tone of voice that makes it clear that she thinks it’s a fake, “and if there’s anything wrong with it, I’m going to call the police and have you charged with false representation. Do you understand?”

“Knock yourself out.”

As she marches back to her desk, I finally get a chance to open the textbook and check the index. It only takes a moment for me to find the section I’m after, and I quickly read the couple of paragraphs relating to concussion and mild head trauma. The information pretty much confirms what I remembered from before, which means that my plan is still very much on course. I take a moment to read the paragraphs again, just to make certain, and finally I close the book and take it to the correct shelf, slotting it into its proper place. Spotting another out-of-place book, I move it to where it should be, and then I do the same with another, then another, and another, until finally I take a step back. I could spend all day here fixing the mistakes that the supposedly professional staff have made, and I might well come back another time and do just that, but right now I just need to get the hell out of here.

Heading to the desk, I find that Edith is typing something into the computer.

“Any luck?” I ask.

“ If you're homeless,” she replies archly, “then what address did you -”

“A friend’s.”

“A friend’s?”

“Homeless people are allowed to have friends,” I tell her, “and the rules of the library clearly state that persons with no fixed abode are fully entitled to nominate a contact address provided they can provide documents to prove that they have a connection to that address and are willing to provide a £10 deposit for the duration of their membership.” I take a deep breath. “Hell, that was a mouthful. Specifically, that section is contained in paragraph nine, section one of the updated code governing membership. I’m surprised you don’t know it off by heart.”

I wait for her to admit that I’m right, but she seems determined to trip me up.

“If you don’t believe me,” I continue, “you can go into your filing room and check the document copies yourself, and then you can call Detective Laura Foster at the address and telephone number I provided when I signed up and she’ll verify that I’m allowed to use that address for mail.”

I wait for her to respond.

“Go on,” I continue. “Check. Call her. I want you to see that I’m right.”

She pauses for a moment, before sniffily sliding the library card back to me.

“Do you want to check my pockets before I leave?” I ask, as I slip the card away. “I can’t really remember what’s in all of them, so I can’t guarantee it won’t be icky, but you’re welcome to root around. You might want to get some rubber gloves, though. Just in case.”

“Will you be requiring any additional services today?” she asks, slipping into a calm, authoritative tone that she’s clearly hoping to use as a defense against my snark.

“Sorry,” I tell her, “I’d love to stop and chat, but I’m very busy today. I have to be somewhere.”

“You?” she replies. “Where does someone like you have to be? Sitting out on the street, begging for money from hard-working people such as myself?”

“Actually,” I continue, “I have to go and perform some mind control, then I need to go to a hospital, then I need to measure a bridge… And then I have to give myself a head injury.”

With that, I turn and walk out of the library. I don’t look back, but I can’t help smiling as I imagine the shocked look on Edith’s face. I don’t normally like drawing attention to myself, but sometimes it’s fun to mess with people. Besides, given what I’m going to be doing for the rest of the week, I think I deserve a little fun today. People look at me and think they’ve got me all sussed out, and it’s always fun to turn the tables on them.

Still, it’s a good job she didn’t call my bluff and phone Laura in order to check the crap I told her about the address. That would’ve been awkward.

Laura

 

“I guess anything can be art these days,” Tim says as he leads me over to the ladder, “so why not murder?”

“Damn it,” I mutter, looking up at the top of the plinth as it soars ten meters above me. It’s the middle of the day and a crowd has already formed in Trafalgar Square, with people gawking and taking photos from behind a police cordon. There’s an excited chatter in the air, and I can feel hundreds of pairs of eyes drilling into the back of my head, desperately wanting to know the latest news. Sometimes, I feel as if the general public would get bored if there weren’t any crimes.

“What’s wrong?” Tim asks, giving the ladder a gentle shake. “Scared of heights?”

“No,” I reply unconvincingly.

“You know what they say about people with acrophobia,” he continues with a smile. “It’s not actually the height that scares them. It’s the thought that suddenly they might not be able to resist the urge to jump. It’s the idea that their psyche is so disturbed, they might suddenly decide to leap off the edge.”

“Thanks for that,” I reply, taking hold of the ladder and starting to climb. As if on cue, a gust of wind buffets me, and I pause for a moment before resuming the agonizing journey to the top. Forcing myself to keep from looking down, I try to stay calm, but by the time I reach the top and a uniformed officer helps me climb onto the main part of the plinth, I’m starting to feel distinctly fragile. The first thing I look at is Nelson’s Column, rising even higher up into the sky, but for some reason the sight doesn’t make me feel any better.

“There’s your chap,” Tim says brightly as he climbs up to join me. “What do you think?”

Looking across the top of the plinth, I see two SOCO team members attending to a man’s crumpled body. As I make my way over to them, I’m able to make out that the man is wearing a large black business suit, and he’s arranged in an unnatural-looking position on his front, with his arms under his body and his legs spread apart. It looks for all the world as if he was dropped into position from a great height, but there’s no blood splatter, so I’m guessing that he was deliberately arranged to look like this. It’s almost theatrical.

“No identification yet,” Tim explains as he steps past me. “No wallet, no phone, no nothing. If you look at his face, he almost seems peaceful.”

“How long’s he been dead?” I ask.

He replies with a shrug. “We only got the call an hour ago. Someone in one of the office buildings nearby saw him. At first she thought he was some kind of art installation, but then she looked online and saw that the fourth plinth is supposed to be empty for a few more weeks. She called the council, they sent someone to check, and now here we are.” He turns to me. “Are you okay, Laura? You look kind of… pale.”

“I’m fine,” I reply stiffly.

“Jesus,” he continues, “you really are scared of heights, aren’t you? I was only joking earlier. Maybe you should go back down.”

“I’m fine,” I say again, realizing that the thought of climbing down the ladder is the only thing that’s worse than the reality of being up here. “Tell me…” I pause, trying to get my thoughts clear. “Tell me about the cause of death.”

“Still too soon to say,” he continues. “Given the large crowd that’s gathered, I was thinking the best approach would be to let the stills guys do their work and then move the body. It’s not as if we can exactly put a tent up on here, is it? It’d be better all round to get the body back to the lab as soon as possible, so I can put it through the wringer and hopefully get some useful numbers out.”

“I don’t understand,” I reply, turning and looking first at the National Portrait Gallery, then at the Church of St. Martin’s. “This is one of the busiest parts of one of the most paranoid cities in the world. There are cameras on every street corner. How the hell does someone manage to get a corpse up here without being noticed? It’s just not possible, is it?”

“That’s for you to work out,” he tells me. “I’m just the dogsbody who goes digging around inside the flesh and bone, remember?”

“You’re unusually chipper today,” I point out.

“I think it’s just a reaction to the look of fear in your eyes,” he continues, as the SOCO crew start packing up. “Look, we both know that we have to be missing something here. Like you said, Trafalgar Square is never empty. There are people in the area twenty-four-seven, there are hundreds of CCTV cameras… we shouldn’t have any trouble at all pinpointing exactly when this body was put here, and then tracking the person responsible…” He pauses for a moment. “I mean, hell, it’s almost as if someone went out of their way to perpetrate the most easily investigated crime in history.”

“ Great,” I reply, making my way over to take a closer look at the body, “so we're either dealing with the dumbest criminal in the world, or the luckiest... or the smartest. Maybe if we just -”

Suddenly I spot the dead man’s hand, and I immediately realize that what I’m looking at doesn’t make sense. I stare for a moment, genuinely dumbfounded, before walking around the corpse and taking a look at the other hand. It takes a moment before I can really process what I’m seeing.

“Tim,” I say after a moment, “take a look at this guy’s face and tell me what you see.”

“ White male, late twenties or -”

“Okay, now look at his right hand.”

He comes closer to me and leans down to see.

“What the hell?” he says, turning to me.

“Describe the hand,” I continue.

“Black male,” he replies, before looking down at the other hand. “And that’s… a woman’s hand.”

“The suit doesn’t fit either,” I point out. “Not all over, anyway. It fits the shoulders but not the arms or legs.”

“No way,” he continues, clearly stunned. “No fucking way.”

“Have we got all the photos we need?” I ask one of the SOCO team members. When she nods, I crouch next to the body and gently roll it over, and that’s when it becomes apparent that there’s a thick cut all the way around the corpse’s neck, just below the shirt line, with large metal staples holding the two edges of flesh together. “Tim,” I continue, “I need you to get this body back to the lab immediately and start the post mortem. This isn’t one victim. It’s body parts from at least four, all sewn together and stuffed into a cheap suit.”

Ophelia

 

“You want me to… what?”

“Just think of a number between one and a hundred,” I explain again, trying not to let my impatience show, “and hold it in your thoughts for a moment. Really focus on it, like it’s the only thing that matters in the entire universe. Jesus, why do people find it so hard to follow a set of simple instructions?”

Dave and I are sitting on the pavement outside one of the big department stores on Tottenham Court Road. Dave’s trying to beg for money, but I have far more important things to be doing right now and I need his help. Unfortunately, so far he’s not exactly being very cooperative.

“Ophelia,” he replies in his thick Scottish accent, “I’m kinda busy here.”

“So am I,” I tell him, “but my kind of busy is, no offense, more important than your kind of busy, ‘cause basically mine’s life and death. So please, just think of a number between one and a hundred. If I guess it right, you have to come with me and help with something. If I guess it wrong, I’ll leave you alone. Deal?”

“No.”

“I’ll pay you.”

He stares at me.

“I’ve been saving,” I continue. “I’ve spent the past six months saving all my begging money. I’ve done quite well, too. I squirrel away a fiver here and a fiver there. Just a small amount each week can add up to more than a hundred pounds in half a year.”

“ You live on the streets,” he points out. “How the fuck do you -”

“I just do. I’m good at begging, and I’m good at getting by without needing to spend money, so I’ve been able to put a small amount aside. It’s not enough to really achieve anything, but it means I can afford to finance certain plans that I’ve come up with. Just ‘cause I’m homeless, I can still budget.”

“ Ophelia,” he replies with a sigh, “I need to -”

“A number,” I say firmly, “between one and a hundred. I really don’t have time to mess around, so let’s get on with it. Go.”

“Fine,” he mutters, fixing me with a determined stare.

“Are you thinking of one?” I ask after a moment.

He nods.

“Are you really thinking of it?”

“Yes!” he replies, clearly losing patience.

“Hold it tight in your mind,” I continue. “Focus on that number, to the exclusion of anything else. Imagine it bursting with light, throbbing in your subconscious mind like a huge sun that’s in the process of going supernova. Now I’m going to reach into your mind and tell you the number, okay?”

“Whatever.”

I take a deep breath, my eyes fixed on his as I wait for the right moment. There are people hurrying past, but I force myself to ignore everything in the world as I focus purely on Dave’s eyes. It’s almost as if the rest of the city of London has suddenly been muted.

“Forty-two,” I say eventually.

His eyes open a little wider.

“Forty-two,” I say again. “That’s the number in your mind.”

“How the…” He pauses, clearly shocked. “You creepy little piece of shit, how the fuck did you do that?”

“I’m special,” I tell him, relieved that my trick finally worked. “Anyway, we have an agreement, so pack up your begging paraphernalia and come with me. We don’t have much time, so I’d appreciate it if you could hurry.”

“First you have to tell me how you did that.”

“I never promised to explain myself,” I tell him as I get to my feet. “Come on, Dave, a deal’s a deal. It’s not a big job. It’ll take a week, max.”

“A week?”

“You’ll be fairly recompensed. Also, I’ll let you keep the clothes.”

“What clothes?”

“Come on!” I continue, clapping my hands together. “Chop chop!”

As he starts gathering up his meager possessions and folding them into the tatty old bag he carries everywhere he goes, I allow myself to breathe a sigh of relief as I realize that I’ve finally managed to get someone to help me. I’ve spent the past couple of hours going to every homeless person I know and pulling that dumb mind-reading trick. It was pretty simple: I just guessed forty-two every single time, on the basis that statistically I’d eventually get it right. Dave was the twenty-second attempt, so I actually got the job done faster than I anticipated. It could have taken a hell of a lot longer.

“So tell me how you read my mind,” he continues as we start walking along the street. “Come on, Ophelia, it’s driving me crazy. Just tell me!”

I can’t help but smile.

 

***

 

“You want me to… what?”

A couple of hours later, we’re standing outside a hospital in Central London, staring up at the grand stucco facade that was apparently a favorite of William IV when he used to come to visit friends. I read a book about his reign once, and it was a fascinating account of that period in the city’s life. Sometimes I feel that I’d like to become a historian one day, although I doubt it’ll ever happen. I have too many others things to do first, but the fact remains: I would have made a brilliant historian, if only things had turned out differently.

“Ophelia,” Dave continues, “have you finally lost your mind?”

“Absolutely not,” I reply, turning to him. “Then again, I suppose that’s what I’d say if I had lost my mind too, but you’re just going to have to trust me.”

“You want me to hang around this place all day,” he continues, sounding shocked by the idea, “and take photos of everyone who comes to visit on your ward, like I’m part of the paparazzi or something?”

I nod.

“Why?”

“Because I want to know who arrives.”

“To see you?”

I nod again.

“Why would…” He pauses. “Are you sick or something?”

“Not yet.”

“But then…”

“It’s really not that difficult to understand,” I continue. “I’ll give you the camera and all the equipment you need. We’ll fix you up in some decent clothes from the money I’ve saved, and then you’ll position yourself surreptitiously near the door to whatever ward I end up on. It’ll be ward six on the third floor, I think, but I can’t be certain until we see exactly what kind of head injury I sustain.”

“What does surreptitiously mean?” he asks.

“Subtly. Without drawing attention to yourself.”

“Aye,” he replies. “And… Wait, what head injury?”

“It’s not important yet. It’ll be very important later, though, and it’ll mean I won’t be able to give you instructions for a few days, so I need you to pay attention right now. You have to surreptitiously take a photo of every single visitor. You can’t miss even one of them. Visitors are only allowed between nine in the morning and six in the evening, so those are the hours you have to keep. When I wake up and get out of here, I’ll need the photos. If you mess this up, Dave, the whole thing will be wasted and I’ll have risked my life for nothing. Do you understand how vitally important you are?”

“Aye,” he says uncertainly, “but… How do you know you’re going to get a head injury?”

“You don’t need to be let in on that part of the plan,” I tell him, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a digital camera, together with the charger. “The battery’s full,” I explain as I pass it to him. “You’ll need to recharge it, on average, once every 1.2 days, but you can still use it while it’s plugged in. Whatever you do, don’t let it go flat, or you might miss him.”

“Miss who?”

“The person who comes to visit me.”

“And who’s that going to be?”

“I don’t know, Dave, that’s the whole point.” I pause for a moment, realizing that Dave might not be the best candidate for this job. Unfortunately he’s the only candidate right now, so I’ve got to make do with what I’ve got. “Keep a particular eye out for anyone who brings a box of Smarties. Or don’t. No, don’t, forget I said that. Just make sure you get a good clean shot of everyone.” I pull some money out of my pocket and pass him some cash. “I managed to save quite a bit after buying the camera, so here’s thirty. Go to a charity shop and get yourself kitted out so you at least don’t draw attention to yourself.”

“How long as I gonna have to do this?” he asks as he takes the money.

“Until I wake up from my coma.”

He stares at me.

“Three, four days max.”

“ Ophelia -”

“I’ve got everything under control,” I tell him. “Every possible variable has been mapped, every potential problem has been mitigated against. I know exactly what I’m doing, and that includes trusting you with this vital mission. After all, Dave, I could have gone and recruited anyone today, but I chose you because you’re the most reliable, most trustworthy person I’ve ever met in my life.” I pause. It’s a lie, of course. He’s actually the twenty-second most reliable, trustworthy person I could think of today, but that should still be good enough. “Please, Dave,” I continue. “Just do this for me.”

“And after,” he replies, “will you tell me how you read my mind?”

I nod, figuring that I can come up with some kind of fake explanation later.

“And will you…” He pauses, as if he’s nervous about the next part. “If I can get the money together, will you maybe… Come and get a cup of coffee with me some time?”

“Why?”

“Just… ‘cause…”

“I suppose,” I say, puzzled by the unusual request. “I prefer tea, though.”

“Aye,” he replies, “tea’s fine.” He smiles awkwardly, and for a moment it appears that for some reason he’s nervous.

“So you understand your role,” I say after a moment, as a nearby church bell rings out to mark four o’clock. “You don’t need to start today, but make sure you’re here at half-eight tomorrow morning. And Dave, I really appreciate this.”

With that, I turn and start hurrying away.

“Ophelia!” he calls out. “Where are you going?”

“I’ve got things to do,” I shout back. “Just remember my instructions!”

I keep walking, since I don’t have time to stop and go over everything again. Dave’s smart enough to get the job done, and I’m sure I can trust him. Besides, I have a few back-up options lined up. As soon as I get around the corner, however, I stop for a moment and lean back against the wall. Suddenly I feel a strange sensation running through my body, as if something is tugging at my chest. This whole plan has been spinning in my head for so long, I’ve become used to it existing solely as some kind of abstract idea. Now the wheels are starting to turn and I’m actually going to have to go through with it all. Theory is about to become practice. There’s a kind of tense, knotty feeling rising from my belly to my chest.

It’s fear. I’m scared because I know what I have to do next.

Laura

 

“This case is already getting a lot of media interest,” Halveston says as we make our way toward my office. “All the news channels are covering it and we’re already getting requests for comment.”

“People are sharing videos via social media sites,” Tricia adds. “The body was left in just about the most public place in all of London, almost as if the killer wanted it to go viral. Which, to be fair, might well be the case. We’re going to hit the six-hour mark soon and we need something to offer the press.”

“The six-hour mark?” I ask.

“Once a story has been top of the headlines for six hours,” she continues, “we need to be able to offer something new to the news channels, or they’ll start questioning whether we’re making any progress. It’s mainly because they struggle to endlessly recycle the same bullshit for too much longer than that. Can you imagine how much easier our jobs would be if the news was just on a couple of times a day, like it was in the past?”

“ Six hours?” I reply. “That doesn't seem like -”

“Hold up,” Halveston says, as we stop for a moment. “I’m not going to have this case driven by the demands of a bunch of reporters.” He turns to me. “You’re on a real roll, Laura. Since the Longhouse murders a year ago, you’ve managed to get back on track as this department’s rising star. That’s been great, but what I need from you here is an extra push. This is the first time you’ve had a really high-profile case since Natasha Simonsen and Daniel Gregory, so the spotlight’s on you. I know you won’t let me down, but I need you to learn from past mistakes and pull out all the stops.”

“Absolutely,” I reply, even though I can already feel the dead weight of pressure in my chest.

“How’s the autopsy coming along?” he asks.

“I’m on my way down there now,” I tell him. “I want to be present when Dr. Marshall gets to work. We still don’t know exactly how many bodies are stitched together, but it’s at least four and I’m expecting there’ll be more.”

“Any luck identifying any of them?”

“It’s early days, but I’m already getting a team together to go through the Missing Persons Database with a fine-toothed comb. We might not identify them all on the first sweep, but we have to be able to get a few.”

“Keep me up to date,” he replies. “It seems like you’re already on top of this, but I want to know every lead you follow. No surprises, please. Even if it’s bad news, I want to be warned in advance. And now, if you don’t mind, I have to go and talk to my boss.”

As he walks away, I take a deep breath and try to mentally reset myself. I know he’s trying to help, but Halveston never fails to set me on edge, even when he’s trying to give me more confidence. He always seems to go out of his way to tell me that he trusts me, which only makes me feel that he doesn’t. I can’t shake the feeling that behind the scenes he constantly has to defend me when he’s talking to other people in the department.

“You okay?” Tricia asks.

I nod.

“It’s like the Daniel Gregory case all over again,” she continues. “High-profile, a media sensation, and all the pressure on your shoulders…” She pauses. “Sorry, that probably isn’t really helping, is it?”

I smile politely.

“ If you need a drink,” she adds, “a bunch of us are -”

“I’ll be fine,” I reply, turning and heading toward the elevators. The truth, though, is that I’m starting to panic. Tricia’s right when she says that this is like the Daniel Gregory case. The problem is, the Daniel Gregory case was a disaster and I screwed it up royally. It’s taken me a year to regain my confidence and the respect of other people around here, and now there’s nowhere left to hide. If I mess things up again, I’m out of here.

 

***

 

“I’ve seen some sights over the years,” Tim says as we stand in the exam room, “but this…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence, but I know exactly what he means.

On the table in front of us, the body has finally been cut out of the ill-fitting suit it was wearing, and the full extent of the horror is plain for us to see: the head of a white male has been stitched onto the torso of a black female, while two completely different arms have been attached at the shoulders; similarly, the legs and feet don’t match, and it’s clear that this corpse is in fact a patchwork creation, made up of body parts from at least eight different victims, all held together with thick metal staples. It’s a nightmarish sight, like Frankenstein’s monster but real.

“It’s almost…” he starts to say.

I wait for him to finish.

“No,” he says quietly. “Forget it.”

“Almost what?” I ask.

“You’ll think I’m weird.”

“I already think you’re weird.”

“I was just gonna say…” He pauses again. “It’s almost beautiful, in a sick and grotesque kind of way. It’s like something from a horror movie.”

“I wouldn’t call this beautiful,” I reply, staring at the thick, stitched-together wound that runs down the front of the torso. “Whoever did this, I think we’re dealing with a very disturbed individual. These eight people weren’t murdered because of anything they’d done. They were murdered because the killer simply needed bits of their bodies for some kind of sick project. It’s almost as if he or she just saw these people as spare parts.”

“You getting anywhere with the surveillance footage from Trafalgar Square?”

“It’s being brought in,” I tell him. “I refuse to believe that someone could get this thing up on the plinth without being spotted. It must have been done at night, but still…”

We stand in silence for a moment. It’s almost as if, in the absence of religion, we nevertheless both feel the need to somehow mark the moment.

“So are you going to get started?” I ask eventually.

“Let’s see what we’re dealing with,” he replies, making his way over to the counter and selecting a scalpel before heading to the table. “There’s already an incision running vertically down the chest. There are staples, but there doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the killer would have made this particular incision. I mean, obviously he had to cut and stitch the edges where he attached different body parts to each other, but the chest incision is different. It stands out, don’t you think? Compared to everything else, it seems almost unnecessary. Almost like he wanted to help me get the autopsy started.”

“Open it up,” I reply uneasily.

Using the scalpel, he starts cutting each of the staples loose. It’s a slow process and each staple makes a clicking sound as it’s removed, but I can’t stop staring. Lately, I feel as if I’m drawn more and more to watch such things. Even as the lead detective on this case, I could be up in my office right now, and I could restrict myself to just seeing photographs of the autopsy. But no, here I am, down on the shop floor. At first I thought I was simply becoming desensitized, but now I’ve started to think that it’s something else: it’s almost as if I actually want to watch, as if I find the entire process fascinating. Taking a step forward, I can’t help but keep my gaze focused on the staples as they’re torn out of the corpse’s thick, leathery skin. Damn it, there’s even a part of me that wants to ask Tim if I can do the honors.

Sometimes, I wonder what’s wrong with me.

“Okay,” he says once the last of the staples has been removed. “Want to make a bet about the cause of death? There are no obvious injuries on any of the body parts, but the torso should offer some clues.” He slips his fingers into the wound and starts pulling it apart, although the edges are partially stuck together. “It won’t surprise you to learn,” he continues, “that there’s no evidence of healing here. The torso had been dead for quite some time when it was opened up, and then it was re-sealed. You’ll also note that the work is quite neat and tidy. Not surgically neat, but this was clearly done by someone who cared about the appearance of the finished project.”

He pulls the skin apart to reveal the rib-cage.

“Look here,” he continues, pointing at part of the bone. “The killer broke the ribs and then put them back in place. He must have wanted access to the cavity for some reason. Maybe he took the heart or another organ. If we’re dealing with someone who takes trophies, it’ll be very useful to see exactly how they were removed. There are a million different ways to cut out a heart, for example, and they each say something about the person who was wielding the scalpel. Can you fetch the saw from over there?”

I make my way over to the bench and find that there are half a dozen different saws, each a slightly different size and shape.

“Which one?” I ask.

“ The one with -”

I wait for him to finish. After a few seconds, I turn to see that he’s staring at the ribs with a strangely blank on his face, and he suddenly looks noticeably pale.

“Tim? Which one?”

He opens his mouth, but no words come out. It’s almost as if he’s frozen in place. In all the years I’ve known Tim Marshall, I’ve never seen him like this.

“Tim?”

Silence.

Making my way back over to him, I hold the saw out for him, but he doesn’t even seem to notice. Just as I’m about to ask what’s wrong, he takes a step back, almost knocking one of the trolleys over in the process. A metal tray crashes to the ground, spilling an assortment of metal objects all over the floor.

“Are you okay?” I ask, before looking down at the ribs. At first I don’t see anything unusual, but after a moment I realize that I can see something deeper, something beneath the ribs.

Telling myself that it can’t be what it looks like, I lean closer.

Staring back at me, trapped inside the corpse’s rib-cage, there’s the face of a little boy, his eyes wide with terror.

Ophelia

 

Trying to ignore the sense of fear in my chest, I lean over the railing and stare down at the water below. I don’t really know what I was expecting to see, but I need to scope out the area properly before I implement the final part of today’s plan.

Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a small stone and start attaching a length of string around its narrowest part. It takes a moment, but finally I’m ready and I dangle the stone over the edge and lower it to the water’s surface far below the railing. The drop looks to be about ten feet, but I need to be absolutely certain since even the slightest error in my calculations could be catastrophic.

As soon as the stone has reached the water, I make a mark on the string and then pull it back up. Once I’ve measured the height of the railing above the water’s surface, I find that it’s exactly 10.5 feet, which is still within the acceptable range. I scribble a few extra calculations in my notebook, but after a moment I become aware of footsteps coming closer. Looking up, my heart skips a beat as I see that I’ve attracted the attention of two police patrol officers.

“You okay here, love?” one of them asks.

“Yeah,” I reply, trying not to seem suspicious. I always get tense whenever I have to talk to the police, and as I gather my stuff up I can tell that they’re curious about what I’m doing. Bored police are the worst type of police, because they tend to ask a lot of dumb questions. Sometimes I think that there must be something about me that attracts their attention.

“Can I ask what exactly you’re up to?” he asks.

“Not much.”

I turn to leave, but he puts a hand out and stops me. As soon as I feel his touch, I instinctively pull away.

“I’m going to have to ask you to tell me what you’re doing,” he continues.

“Am I in trouble?”

“ Under the powers of the Terrorism Act, I'm entitled to -”

“Terrorism Act?” I reply, genuinely shocked that he’s trying to pull this line on me. “Seriously, do I look like a terrorist to you?”

“I don’t know what a terrorist looks like,” he replies humorlessly. “Besides, this bridge is part of the city’s infrastructure, which means that it’s a viable target.”

“It’s a shitty old bridge that no-one cares about,” I tell him.

“I’m not going to ask you again,” he replies. “You can either tell me what you’re doing, or you can come to the station and sit in a cell while you reconsider your decision.”

“I was measuring it,” I tell him.

He raises a skeptical eyebrow.

“Online sources gave its height as 10.4 feet,” I continue, “but I measured it and given the current height of the river, it’s actually 10.5 feet. I needed to know for certain.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because it was bugging me.”

He stares at me, clearly not buying my explanation. My best bet in this kind of situation is just to hope that he writes me off as being weird but harmless. It’s an act that I’ve perfected over the years.

“Come on,” the other officer says after a moment, “she’s just some homeless kid.”

“You got anywhere to stay tonight, love?” his colleague asks.

I nod.

“Where?”

“A shelter,” I lie.

“See that you get there, okay?” he continues. “It’s gonna be a cold one. Wouldn’t wanna find you shivering on some park bench, would we?”

“I wouldn’t like that either,” I tell him, figuring that I might as well add some politeness to the mix. “Thank you very much for your concern, but I’ll be fine.”

Turning, I walk away, and this time he doesn’t stop me. My heart’s racing, but fortunately it’s starting to look as if they’ve decided that I’m not worth the bother. By the time I get to the street, I allow myself to glance over my shoulder, and I see that they’ve already moved on. Breathing a sigh of relief, I open my notebook and take another look at my calculations. I read them a few times over before realizing that I’m just delaying the inevitable.

All my preparations are complete.

It’s party time.

Laura

 

“Are you sure you want to be here for this?” asks Dr. Maitland, the relief medical examiner, as he reaches into the chest cavity.

“Sure,” I tell him, forcing myself to stay calm. “Let’s just get it over with.”

Without replying, he puts both his hands into the cavity and works for a moment to get the child’s body free. Finally, slowly, he lifts the head and shoulders out, causing a creaking, cracking sound in the process as the dead child is raised from its macabre womb. With his eyes and mouth wide open, the boy was clearly terrified when he died, and as he emerges into the bright light of the lab, it becomes clear that the child’s skin has turned a kind of pale cream color, probably from being jammed so tight into another decaying corpse. Part of me wants to turn and walk out, but I know I have to stay.

“I don’t mind telling you,” Maitland continues, “that in all my years in this job, I have never seen anything as horrific as this.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you happen to know how Dr. Marshall is doing?”

“I think he’s still getting some air,” I reply, even though I know that it’s more serious than that. Tim ran out of the exam room a while back, and Maitland had to step in and take his place.

“This boy was seven or eight years old,” Maitland explains. “I don’t see any obvious cause of death, but…” He lifts the dead child a little further and then, as he moves around behind him, he pauses. “Scratch that,” he adds. “There’s a knife wound in the lower back. Looks like several entry points. Whoever did this, Laura, they stabbed a child in the back.”

“And then stuffed him in a suit made of other corpses,” I reply.

“It’s inventive,” Maitland mutters. “Seems pretty symbolic, too, so I imagine it was carefully planned. The child was returned to a womb inside a body that has literally been sewn together from other corpses, both male and female. I mean, there are plenty of different ways to interpret this, aren’t there? The psych team’s going to have a field day.”

“Children don’t just go missing without anyone noticing,” I reply. “Get me all the details you can on him as soon as possible, and I’ll run him through the databases. And then I need you to start picking open the other body-parts and see what we can learn about them. The rest of the victims’ bodies must be out there somewhere, and…” I pause as I realize that this whole situation feels completely unreal, as if I’ve wandered into the middle of some kind of grotesque medieval scene. “Just get me every detail you can,” I continue. “Whoever did this, I want them in a cell within twenty-four hours.”

“This one’s going to go down in the history books,” Maitland replies, still holding the dead child up. “London has always been a macabre city, Laura, but even so… This one is definitely not going to be forgotten in a hurry.”

 

***

 

“How’s he doing?” Tricia asks as she comes to join me in the corridor. In the distance, Tim can be heard still throwing up in one of the nearby bathrooms.

“About how you’d expect,” I reply, “for someone who just found a dead child stuffed inside a bunch of other body parts.”

“We live in a sick world,” she mutters. “You got a photo?”

“Sorry,” I reply through gritted teeth.

“ So how exactly -”

“It was a young male,” I continue, having already anticipated the question, “around seven or eight years old. His body was intact, although a few of his bones had been broken in order to squeeze him into such a tight space. The legs of the main corpse had been hollowed out, and the boy’s legs had been pushed down into them like a glove. The rest of the boy’s body was squeezed inside the torso, and his face was staring out between the ribs.”

We sit in silence for a moment, before Tim starts vomiting again in the distance.

“I’ve never heard him do that before,” Tricia says eventually. “I thought that guy had guts of steel. I mean, he’s always cracking jokes.”

“I think this time might be different,” I point out. “It’s a kid, for one thing, and for another…” I pause as I think back to those dead eyes, staring up at me from behind the ribs. “You didn’t see it,” I add. “It was like something from the worst nightmare you could ever experience.”

“Are you okay?” she asks.

I nod.

“Really?”

I nod again, as Tim continues to vomit.

“How the hell can you possibly be okay?” she asks.

I shrug.

“ When Halveston hears,” she continues, “I think he might want to take you off the -”

“No,” I say firmly.

“ If he thinks you're emotionally affected by the -”

“I’m not emotionally affected,” I tell her, panicking slightly at the thought that I could be removed from the case. “Do I look emotionally affected? I’m not the one throwing up in the bathroom, am I? I’m fine.”

“Then at least speak to a counselor. Someone who’s trained to help people deal with traumatic experiences.”

“When I’m done.”

“ Laura -”

“When I’m done!”

She stares at me for a moment, as if she expects me to suddenly break down in tears.

“How do you do it?” she asks suddenly. “You always seem so calm. I mean, everyone has some kind of coping mechanism. For most of us, it’s getting pissed every night. I’m not saying that’s the healthiest thing in the world, but getting legless after work helps us stay on our feet during the day. But you never come out with us, so what’s your secret?”

“I don’t have a secret,” I reply, feeling a little irritated by her attempt to act as some kind of amateur psychologist. “I guess I’m just lucky.”

“I’m going to keep a tight lid on all of this,” she replies. “The case is already huge without the media finding out about the latest development. I don’t know when you want us to go public with the gory details, but I figure I can hold it back for at least two days. After that, something’s bound to leak, so you’ve got about forty-eight hours to decide exactly how you want to play the situation.”

“We’ll have someone in custody by then.”

“That’d be nice,” she continues, “but I think a back-up plan might be in order.”

“We’ll have someone,” I say firmly.

“Rushing again?” she asks. “At this rate, you’re gonna make the same mistake you made with Daniel Gregory. I know you want to solve the case as quickly as possible, but there’s a certain limit to how fast you can go.”

“ I want to find out what the hell's going on,” I tell her, as I feel my mobile phone start to vibrate. Reaching into my pocket, I pull it out, figuring that Halveston or someone else from the main office is probably about to summon me to a meeting. “There's no way any -”

I freeze as soon as I see the name on the screen. It’s been a year since I last heard from Ophelia; I’ve tried calling the mobile phone I gave her, but it was always off. And now, out of the blue, she’s trying to get in touch.

“ Hang on,” I say to Tricia as I get to my feet and hurry along the corridor. I hit the button to accept the call, and then I raise the phone to my ear. “Ophelia? Is that -”

“Long time, huh?” she replies.

“ Are you -” I pause as I realize that there's something different about her voice. She sounds scared. “Ophelia, where are you?”

“Bronckton Industrial Estate,” she continues. “On the bridge near the disused chemical factory. Do you know it?”

“Um… Maybe. Yeah, I think so.”

“It’s high, isn’t it?”

“Ophelia,” I reply, starting to get worried, “what’s wrong?”

“I need you to come down here right now.”

“ I'm kind of busy at the moment -”

“I need you to come down here right now!” she hisses.

“Why?” I ask. “Ophelia, I’m in the middle of a case. Is something wrong?”

“I’m on the bridge,” she says again, “and I’m going to jump.”

Ophelia

 

“Ophelia!” she shouts, running along the path that leads past the old factory. “Ophelia, get down from there! What the hell are you doing?”

“Don’t come any closer!” I shout.

“ Ophelia -”

“I’ll jump!” I yell at the top of my voice. “I swear to God!”

I can’t help but smile. I mean, I’m going to jump either way, but she doesn’t have to know that yet.

As she reaches the other end of the bridge, she stops and stares at me. Hell, I think she might actually be speechless. It’s good to see that not much about her has changed: she’s wearing the same goddamn coat I remember from last year, and she has that old, familiar look on her face, as if she’s not entirely certain how to respond to what she’s seeing. Most people just react naturally, but Laura always seems to take a moment to think about it first, to decide on an intellectual level what to say and how to feel. Then again, given the context, I guess I don’t blame her.

“What are you doing?” she asks eventually.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

She leans over the railing and looks down at the water.

“It looks like you’re going to jump,” she says after a moment.

“Bingo.”

“ Ophelia, what the hell... I don't have time for -”

“It’s not a big enough fall to kill me,” I reply, interrupting her. “I mean, if that’s what you’re worried about, then don’t. I’ve run the numbers and it’s fine. But if I fall directly down, headfirst, I should sustain a significant impact to the head, enough to cause some swelling. Now, the thing about swollen brains is that the increased pressure can cause serious long-term damage if it continues. The doctors will have no choice but to put me into an induced coma for between twenty-four and seventy-two hours, depending on the severity of the swelling, and then it’ll start to go down of its own accord and I should be absolutely fine again. Believe me, I’ve done my research. This isn’t the kind of thing I want to get wrong.”

“ Ophelia -”

“It’s not a big deal,” I add, even though I’m starting to wonder if I can really go through with this. It’s going to hurt, a lot, even if I’ll almost certainly lose consciousness immediately.

She stares at me for a moment, as if she can’t believe what she’s seeing.

“ I'm in the middle of a case,” she says eventually. “If you had any idea what I've been doing this afternoon -”

“You can tell me later,” I reply, “when you come to visit me at the hospital.”

“No,” she continues, “that’s not what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is that you’re going to get off this bridge and come with me right now, Ophelia. Whatever dumb stunt you think you’re going to pull, I don’t have time for it.”

“Someone came to visit me last time,” I point out.

“What?”

“Last year, after all the stuff with Lofty and Nat Longhouse, when I was in hospital, someone came to see me before I woke up. Someone apart from you.”

“So?”

“So I checked, and it wasn’t Tim Marshall, and if it had been a journalist then something more would have come of it by now. Someone came, took a look at me, and then left.”

So?” she asks again, clearly not grasping the point.

“So there’s no way anyone should have come,” I continue. “They left a packet of Smarties too, which is completely random and pointless unless they wanted me to know they’d been there, like a kind of subtle message or maybe a warning. I asked around on the ward, and they were definitely left by a visitor, but all the staff could tell me for sure was that it was a man. No-one pays attention to anything these days! So then I asked to see the ward’s surveillance tapes, but they refused. I tried to break in to the monitoring room late one night, and there was a rather awkward encounter with one of the guards and a security dog, but that’s a whole other story. The point is, someone came to the hospital, someone who wasn’t you, and there’s no-one who should have done that.”

“That doesn’t mean it has to be sinister,” she replies. “Maybe someone from your old life found you?”

I shake my head.

“A good Samaritan?”

“No. I checked. There aren’t any anymore.”

“A nurse who felt sorry for you?”

“Nope.”

“Jesus,” she continues, “Ophelia, I don’t know who brought you a box of goddamn Smarties, but don’t you think you’re taking this a bit too far?”

“I need to go back into hospital,” I explain. “Just for a few days, just long enough to flush the visitor out again. I’m prepared this time, so I can catch the bastard. I considered faking an injury, but I eventually decided that I should just take the direct approach. So I’m going to get myself into a coma for a few days. I’m pretty sure I’ll be back out by the weekend.”

“ This is insane,” she replies. “Ophelia, get the hell down from there. I don't have time to be messing about with some crazy scheme right now. You have no idea the pressure I'm under -”

“I needed you here because I needed someone to call an ambulance once I fall,” I tell her. “You’ll have to act fast, because the longer you take, the more likely I am to suffer permanent brain damage from the swelling. I’d really hate for that to happen. Then again, I suppose it might be an improvement.”

“ Ophelia -”

“It’s the only way to find out who came to visit me!” I shout, frustrated that she doesn’t seem to understand. “It’s not like I want to do this, but trust me, I know for a fact that there’s no-one in the world who should have come to my hospital room the last time and left chocolate, so something’s definitely wrong! I’ve spent the past year trying to get to the truth through other methods, but at the end of the day, recreating the circumstances seems to be the best approach.”

I wait for her to reply, but she seems too shocked to say anything.

“So here I am,” I continue, “and yes, I’m kinda nervous, thanks for asking, but there’s no other way. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do.”

“ Ophelia...” She pauses, as if for some reason she still doesn't get it. “Do you know the details of the case I'm working on right now?” she asks eventually, sounding tired and drained. “I literally ran to my car after your phone call. I broke the speed limit to get here. I left a live case. And for what? To watch you make an exhibition of yourself? This case -”

“ You can tell me after I -”

“A dead child was found stuffed into a larger patchwork corpse made up of eight different bodies.”

I stare at her. To be honest, I definitely wasn’t expecting her to say anything like that.

“A dead child,” she continues. “Found, by the way, up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, right in the middle of London. I know how unlikely and bizarre that sounds, but I’m sure you can understand that right now I’m under just the smallest amount of pressure. And now I’ve wasted an hour coming down here just so you’ve got an audience for whatever stunt you’re trying to pull. Ophelia, I don’t have time for this crap, so get over here!”

“Sounds like an interesting case,” I tell her. “You need any help?”

“ Help?” She seems shocked by the suggestion. “From you? No, I don't need -”

“I can definitely help,” I continue. “Unless you’ve got it all sewn up already.”

She sighs.

“Bad choice of words?” I ask with a faint smile. “Look, you know I can help, so why not let me? Frankly, I’m offended that you’re even thinking about turning me down.”

“I don’t think it’s the kind of case that would benefit from your particular skill set,” she replies.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She sighs again.

“I’ll try to help,” I continue. “Maybe it won’t work out, but I’d still like to have a go. For old times’ sake, if nothing else.”

“ Ophelia -”

“But first,” I add, “I really need to do this. So call an ambulance, yeah?”

“ Ophelia, this isn't the right moment to -”

“About now would be a good time.”

“ Ophelia -”

Too late. Figuring that I’ve already wasted enough of her time, I lean forward and begin to fall. I hear Laura scream my name as I plummet toward the surface of the water, and although it’s not easy, I manage to turn my body just in time to land headfirst. The impact sends a powerful jolt through my body, far harder than anything I was expecting, and as I lose consciousness, the last thing I feel is my body sinking deep into the icy darkness, with the water taking a moment to get through my clothes and chill my skin, and the last thought that passes through my mind is terrifying and unfamiliar:

What if this was actually a really bad idea?

Part Two

Laura

 

“We’ve got positive matches on three of the nine victims,” I continue, hitting the button to bring up the next slide. Three faces appear on the screen. “A forty-five-year-old male named Tony Casey, a thirty-year-old female named Teresa Banks, and…”

I pause for a moment. Somehow this one seems harder.

“An eight-year-old boy named Robert McKay, known to his friends and family as Bobby.”

I turn and look up at the image of the little boy’s face.

“Bobby McKay was the most recent victim,” I explain. “He was the one found sewn into the remains of the others. His father had reported him missing a few days ago, and there was particular concern because Bobby had a learning disability. Apparently Bobby went to play in a park near the family home, but somehow he got separated from the other children and that was the last anyone saw of him until…”

My voice trails off. Staring up at the picture of Bobby McKay, I can’t help thinking about Natasha Simonsen. I failed to bring her killer to justice, and I can’t bear the thought that I might fail again.

On the other side of the room, Halveston clears his throat. There’s an uneasy and tense atmosphere right now, and although I’ve led scores of these update panels over the years, this one is so much harder than the rest.

“ Surveillance tapes from the area around the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square,” I continue, “are inconclusive and -”

“What do you mean by inconclusive?” Halveston asks.

“I mean that we recovered the recordings for the two days prior to the point when the body was discovered,” I reply, my throat feeling dry as sandpaper as I turn to him, “and so far we haven’t been able to pinpoint the moment when the perpetrator was at the scene.” I pause for a moment, very much aware that I must sound like a failure right now, constantly coming up with excuses. “There was a localized power cut on the Tuesday evening. It only lasted two minutes, but when the lights and the cameras came back on, the body was up there. The following morning, it was noticed by an office worker and reported to us.”

“No-one spotted it until the next day?” asks Adams, one of the department heads.

“The plinth is tall,” I point out, “and most people only see it from the ground level. It might also be of interest to note that the body had been treated with a commercial gel that’s marketed for its pigeon repelling properties. In other words, the perpetrator didn’t want vermin disturbing the scene or, potentially, starting to eat the body.”

“Maybe he didn’t want it to attract attention,” Adams chips in. “He wanted it to stay up there unnoticed for as long as possible.”

“That’s one idea that we’re exploring,” I reply, as my phone vibrates on the table. Grabbing it, I open the text message from Tricia:

 

She’s awake.

 

I swallow hard. For a moment, my mind feels completely blank, but after a few seconds I force myself to focus on the task at hand. Ophelia and her theatrical antics can wait.

“Forensic evidence has been of limited value,” I continue, “because, uh…” Another pause, making me look bad as I try to regather my thoughts. “The killer seems to have been very good at cleaning up after himself. Or herself . There's evidence of various bleaching compounds having been used. We've recovered no prints or DNA so far, but I'm having the body parts -”

“So do you have any good news here?” Adams asks pointedly, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. He mutters something else under his breath, but I don’t quite catch the words. This isn’t the first time he’s expressed his displeasure during one of my reports.

“We’re not investigating one murder,” I reply, trying to stay calm even though I'm starting to sweat. “It's nine in total. As you can imagine, that's a lot of work, but it also means that there are many more opportunities for the killer to have slipped up. At the moment, we're working on tracing the last movements of all the known victims and -”

My phone vibrates again.

“I’m sorry,” Adams says with a snide grin, “are we keeping you from something more important, Detective Foster? Dinner plans, perhaps? A date? A manicure session?”

“ No, sir,” I reply, resisting the urge to check the message. “I was about to explain that we're working on tracing the last movements of all the known victims. There have to be some commonalities in there somewhere, something that can help us to gather circumstantial evidence regarding the movements of the killer and -”

“Circumstantial evidence won’t hold up in court,” Adams points out.

“ But it can set us on the right track,” I reply, “so that we can find -”

“It’s been five days,” he adds, interrupting me. “The media’s already got this story simmering nicely and they’re waiting to step it up a gear. Please, Detective Foster, tell me this isn’t going to be another fuck-up like the Daniel Gregory case.”

I open my mouth to reply, but no words come out.

“Detective Foster has my full confidence,” Halveston says after a moment. “The Daniel Gregory case was a blip in an otherwise exemplary career, and in the past year alone she’s proven herself half a dozen times. She’s by far the best person for this job.”

Adams stares at me, and it’s clear that he doesn’t agree with Halveston. At the same time, he’s not going to directly contradict him. I guess he’ll just sit back and wait for me to screw the case up, so I have to make sure that I get the killer in a cell fast, not only to save my own reputation but also, more importantly, because there’s clearly a strong chance that he’ll kill again. I’ve been waiting so long for a chance to properly redeem myself, but now that it’s here I’m starting to wonder if I’m up to the task.

“Moving on,” I continue, hitting a button and bringing up the next slide, “we’ve already managed to prepare a basic psychological profile of the killer, based on what we know so far. Here are the main points.”

 

***

 

“Where is she?” I ask as soon as I spot Tricia at the far end of the corridor.

“Calm down,” she replies, handing me a cup of coffee in a polystyrene cup. “She’s fine.”

It’s less than an hour after the panel wrapped, and I’ve already made it to the hospital. I should be at my desk, going over the SOCO reports, but instead I’m here, chasing after an attention-seeking girl who seems to know exactly when I don’t have time to deal with her crap.

“She’s a little confused,” Tricia explains, “but that’s just from the drugs that were used to induce the coma. She’s still coming off them, but so far the doctors say there’s no sign of permanent damage.”

“Pity. It might be an improvement.”

“I tried talking to her, but she just kept asking for you. Well, you and someone named Dave. Any idea who that is?”

“I’m going to go in and see her,” I reply. “I need to do this alone.”

“ Sure. Anyway, I want to go and check out this guy I spotted by the entrance to the ward. He looked kind of suspicious, and he was -”

“Taking photos of everyone who came through the door?” I ask.

She nods.

“I saw him too,” I tell her. “I think he was trying to be subtle, but he had a kind of scared look in his eyes.”

“I’ll find out what he’s up to,” she says, making her way along the corridor toward the double doors at the end. Seconds later I hear her calling out to someone, followed by the sound of footsteps racing down the stairs.

I pause for a moment to compose myself, before taking a sip of scalding hot, foul coffee and then heading to Ophelia’s room. This is the fourth time I’ve been here in as many days, but now that Ophelia’s been brought out of her medically-induced coma I’m starting to feel angry that she pulled this stunt. As I reach the door and look into the room, I see that she’s sitting up and fiddling with the drip that feeds into her left arm.

“Busy?” I ask.

“There’s no Smarties,” she replies, her voice sounding slightly slurred.

I make my way over to the side of the bed and watch as she moves the slider back and forth on the drip. Grabbing her chart, I sigh as I see the name she must have given the doctors: Gertrude Featherstone. Looking back over at her, I watch for a moment as she continues to fiddle with the slider.

“That’s not doing anything, you know,” I point out. “It’s empty.”

“Are you sure?” she asks, looking up at the bag. “Oh. Crap, maybe you’re right. I feel…” She turns to me, and her pupils are scarily large. “I’m still drugged up to the eyeballs, aren’t I?”

I can’t help but smile. After all, it’s quite refreshing to see the great Ophelia in such a state.

“Have you seen Dave?” she asks suddenly.

“Who’s Dave?”

“Dave’s Dave.”

“I have no idea who Dave is.”

“Oh.” She pauses. “Doesn’t everyone know someone named Dave? It’s like the most common name ever. You go up to any random person in the street and ask if they’ve seen Dave, and they’ll know a Dave. Of course, that’s not much use if you’re looking for a particular Dave, but if you just want a Dave in general…”

I wait for her to explain a little further, but she simply turns and looks at the bare bedside table. She blinks a couple of times, as if she’s having trouble focusing.

“No Smarties,” she says again, frowning slightly. “That’s a disappointment. My calculations indicated that there’d be Smarties. I asked the nurses if anyone had been to visit me, but they weren’t very helpful. They said you’d been a few times, but I’d already assumed that. Did you read to me? Did you sing? That’d be kinda cheesy, but I’d understand. I like Mariah Carey and Britpop.”

“Do you realize you could have died?” I ask.

She shakes her head.

“ Or you could have broken your neck,” I continue, “or you could have ended up paralyzed or -”

“ There was a 0.5% chance of death,” she replies, “and a 0.05% chance of paralysis.”

“You calculated that, did you?”

She nods and smiles.

“One day you’re going get something wrong,” I tell her. “You’re going to realize that you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

“No-one’s as smart as I think I am,” she replies. “I know you’re right, and I know I’m heading for a fall, but…” Suddenly she spots the chocolate bar in my hand. “Is that for me?”

Without saying anything, I place it on the bedside table.

“So tell me about the case,” she continues. “I don’t really remember much of what you said the other day, but I remember it sounded interesting.”

“That wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“I want to help.”

“I don’t need your help.”

“Since when?”

Sighing, I realize that nothing much seems to have changed in the year since we first met. Ophelia’s still maddeningly vague and self-satisfied, but also extremely smart. I can feel her running rings around me already, and that’s not a sensation that I enjoy very much.

“You helped me one time,” I point out, “and that was only because the case required someone with your specific expertize. No offense, but the case I’m working at the moment has nothing to do with London’s homeless community.”

“My expertize isn’t limited to one field,” she replies. “It’s limited only to the universe.” She pauses. “I think the drugs are affecting me quite a lot still. What the hell have they got me on, anyway?” Again, she starts fiddling with the slider.

“ I can't get you involved in another case,” I tell her, “especially when the only reason would be to ease your boredom and provide some -”

“Can I stay with you?” sh e asks suddenly.

I stare at her, trying to work out if she really said what I think she said.

“If I have an address,” she continues, “they’ll discharge me today, on account of the swelling having gone down and them being pressed for beds and all. If I don’t have an address, they’re gonna have to keep me for a week, which would suck big hairy balls. Also, the whole head injury thing means that it probably would be smart if I wasn’t alone for the next few days, so…” She pauses, and for the first time she actually seems a little nervous. “So can I stay with you or not? It’s just for a week at most, and it’s not like I’ll cause any trouble. The people at the library already think I live with you.”

“I…”

“How’s your mother?”

“Fine,” I lie.

“I can keep an eye on her while you’re at work,” she suggests. “I swear to God, I’ll help out around the place, and it’s only for a few days. I’m mostly quite house-trained. I’m not asking to move in permanently, I just need to stay somewhere while I make sure I’m okay. You wouldn’t turn someone away when they’ve just been in a coma, would you?”

“You can stay on one condition,” I tell her. “You have to tell me your real name.”

“No.”

“Well that’s the deal on the table.”

“I’m not taking it.”

“Then you can’t stay.”

“Fine.”

I wait for her to give in and tell me her name, but even in her drugged state she seems defiant. I could, maybe should, be more stubborn and dig my heels in, but right now I don’t feel as if I’m up for another fight. Besides, there’s a part of me that thinks maybe it’d be good to discuss elements of the case with Ophelia, albeit strictly on an informal basis. She helped me once before and if nothing else, she’s got a great mind that could spot a few things that I’ve missed. In other words, I could use her. I just can’t afford to have her directly involved with the case.

“Okay,” I continue, “you can stay if you promise that you’ll tell me your real name one day in the future.”

She shakes her head.

“Why not?”

She shrugs.

“Call me when they’re ready to release you,” I say finally, “and I’ll come and pick you up.”

“Deal,” she replies with a broad grin.

Smiling faintly, I turn and walk out of the room. I have a million things to get done today, and the results of the latest lab work are already late. The worst thing is, I can feel myself starting to crack. This really could be like the Daniel Gregory case all over again.

Feeling my phone vibrate in my pocket, I pull it out and see that someone from the station is trying to reach me.

“ Foster,” I say as I answer. “What's -”

“Good news,” Tricia says on the other end of the line. “Uniform just called. They think they’ve found the rest of the bodies.”

Ophelia

 

“Dave?”

No reply.

“Dave, where are you?”

Still wearing my hospital gown, and still feeling a little woozy from all the drugs they pumped into my body over the past few days, I wander out into the waiting area at the end of the ward. I was expecting to find Dave sitting here, but there’s no sign of him. With a sinking feeling, I start to realize that maybe I was wrong to trust him. I thought he was -

“Over here!” he hisses.

Turning, I spot him leaning out from around the corner.

“Why are you hiding?” I ask.

“This woman tried to chase me away,” he replies, hurrying over to join me. He’s wearing a cheap suit, which I guess was his haul from the charity shop, and he sure as hell doesn’t look comfortable. In fact, he sticks out like a sore thumb. “I think she noticed the camera,” he adds, glancing along the corridor as if he’s worried that someone might overhear us. “God knows how. I was subtle as an eagle.”

“Eagles aren’t subtle,” I point out, taking the camera and switching it to display mode. “Rookie mistake right there, Dave.”

“Anyway, she called out to me and then when I ran, she came after me for a bit.”

“Are you sure she was chasing you away?” I ask. “Maybe she just wanted to ask you a few questions. Either way, running was probably the best option. And coming back was good too.”

“I took ninety-seven photos,” he replies eagerly. “I was here every morning, just like you told me, and I stayed until the evening each time. No-one visited this ward without me getting a photo of them. I was like a proper spy.”

Flicking through the images, I see a succession of rather blurry pictures, most of them showing people who have clearly noticed that they’re being photographed. I’d hoped that Dave would be able to get the job done without being noticed, but now it’s clear that he’s basically been sitting here looking weird for several days. Still, he’s managed to get the photos, which would be useful if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t think my mystery visitor showed up this time. So far, I don’t recognize any of the faces from my past.

“Did I do a good job?” he asks.

“You did a great job,” I reply, turning the camera off. “I’ll review the images later.”

“So how are you feeling?” he continues. “I thought about coming in to ask one of the nurses about you, but then I thought that might blow my cover and you wouldn’t like it.”

“Smart thinking,” I tell him. “And I’m fine, thanks. Just a little sore in the head, but nothing that I can’t wait out. They’re gonna let me out later today. I think it’s kinda early, personally, but whatever. For some reason the nurses don’t seem to like me very much.” I pause for a moment, waiting for him to leave. “So, yeah, thanks for helping out. You can keep the suit. I guess I’ll see you around.” With that, I turn to go back to my room.

“Wait,” he replies, reaching out and grabbing my arm.

I immediately pull free, flinching at the touch.

“Sorry,” he continues, “it’s just… You said that maybe we could…”

I wait for him to finish the sentence.

“Maybe we could what?” I ask after a few seconds.

“You know… Coffee. Cafe. That sort of thing. You said before that… maybe…”

“I did?” It takes me a moment to realize that he’s right. “Oh. Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Sorry, I don’t think I’ve got time right now, but maybe we can do it some time next week. There’s a place on Rigmore Street that does decent tea for fifty pence, plus you get one of those little biscuits and they’re not picky about who they let inside, so we can go there if you really want to get a drink. It’s a bit cold sometimes, but that’s okay, we’ll just make sure we don’t sit by the door.”

“ Okay,” he replies, looking a little shocked. “That sounds... great. What day and -”

“We’ll work it out some other time,” I tell him. “I don’t know my schedule for the next few weeks, ‘cause I might be helping out with a friend’s stuff. Well, not friend. Well, maybe friend. She’s someone I know, and I don’t think she realizes that we’re friends yet. Anyway, I’m gonna be really busy, so I’d rather not get myself pinned down to a specific time.”

“ Sure,” he replies, “so maybe one evening we could -”

“Daytime’s better,” I add, interrupting him. “In the evening, there’s always the risk of people being there on dates, which’d make me want to hurl.”

“Right,” he says, nodding a little too keenly. “Totally. Wouldn’t… Wouldn’t want that…”

“So I’ll see you around,” I add, feeling as if I want to get back to my room before this conversation becomes weird. “Thanks again for the help.” As I make my way back into the ward, I can’t shake the distinct feeling that Dave is watching me. When I reach the door to my room, I stop and look back, and sure enough he’s still right where I left him, looking for all the world as if he was hoping to talk a little more. God knows why.

After an awkward moment, he waves.

I wave back.

People are weird.

Switching the camera back on, I go into my room and start checking the photos. It’s pretty obvious that my mystery visitor didn’t show up this time, which I guess is probably a good thing. Still, I can’t quite believe that the first visit was just a coincidence. I know that I have a tendency to be a little paranoid from time to time, but I’m convinced that I’m right to be worried, even if I know deep down that there’s no way anyone from home could ever track me down.

I shed my old life years ago, and I burned every bridge. I’m basically a completely different person, and I refuse to believe that anyone could ever track me down.

Laura

 

“A janitor found it,” explains the uniformed officer as he pushes open the door to the hut. “As soon as we saw inside, we realized we should probably get in touch with you. It just seemed like too much of a coincidence.”

Stepping into the dimly-lit, dank-smelling room, I’m immediately struck by the fact that this seems like some kind of workspace. From the outside, set in a small clearing at the edge of a park, the hut looked like nothing of any real interest, but now it’s clear that someone has been using this place recently. There are benches along one wall, filled with various pieces of equipment: saws, hammers, blades, chisels… I can’t help but notice that there’s everything here that would be needed to cut up human bodies. It’s like a rundown, dilapidated version of the coroner’s lab back at the station.

“So what’s this place supposed to be used for?” I ask.

“Until a couple of years ago,” the officer replies, “it was used to store gardening equipment for the local college. Then they moved all that stuff into the main building. Since then, it was supposed to be empty.”

Looking down at the floor, I spot a large, dark stain in the wood. I’ll have to order a proper examination, but I imagine that it’s blood.

“So where were the bodies?” I ask after a moment.

 

***

 

“It’s really a bunch of body parts,” the officer explains as he leads me away from the hut, toward a nearby spot where several forensic examiners are already working. “They were buried in bin bags, but only a couple of feet deep. Wild animals, probably a fox, started digging them up.”

As we reach the scene, I spot a series of severed legs laid out on some tarpaulin, along with a set of hands. It’s a horrific sight, and moments later one of the SOCO team members removes a severed human head from another bag.

“There’s a bunch in here,” she says, holding the head for a moment before putting it back in the bag. “Five or six, or…” She pauses for a moment, before turning away. “Jesus,” she mutters from beneath her mask. “What the fuck is going on here?”

“Take a moment if you need one,” I tell her.

Clearly distressed, she heads away from the site.

“Leftovers,” I mutter, walking over to Dr. Maitland as he takes photos of the severed legs.

“Tim Marshall is taking a temporary leave of absence,” he explains, not looking up as he continues his work. “A psychologist spoke to him and diagnosed a panic disorder. It seems that the shock of finding that little boy’s body has left a lasting impression on the poor chap.” He finally turns to me. “Strange how the pair of us seem to have come out of it unscathed, eh? Are we special?”

“What have we got here?” I ask, dodging the question.

“I haven’t begun to mix and match yet,” he continues, “but I’m pretty sure these are the other body parts that the killer didn’t need once he was finished constructing his masterpiece.” He holds up one of the legs, showing me the ragged edge where it was separated from the rest of the body. “Some of them, such as this one, have been stapled and then had the staples removed. It’s pretty clear that he had trouble deciding which parts to use, so he ended up adding parts, removing them, switching them around and so on, until he was happy.”

“And the rest he just threw away,” I point out.

“God knows what selection criteria he was using,” Maitland continues. “You’ll notice that we have a number of different skin tones here, no two quite alike, almost as if the killer specifically sought a variety of ethnic samples. Maybe he was trying to make a statement about the state of multi-cultural Britain, eh?”

“Maybe,” I mutter, looking down at the surreal sight of a pile of hands. It’s hard to believe that they’re real; they look more like dirty porcelain doll parts, but they have ragged cuts around the wrists, with pieces of bone sticking out from the decaying meat.

“They’re like pieces from a doll, aren’t they?” Maitland adds.

“Just what I was thinking,” I tell him.

“It’s quite strange to think of this chap sitting in the hut over there, trying out different bits from each body until he finally managed to create something he was happy with. I dare say there must be some kind of pattern, or at least a system that seemed logical to the killer at the time, although I’m not quite sure how we can go about figuring that system out. Still, that’s your job, isn’t it?”

“And your job is to find something here we can use,” I tell him. “With all these parts, there has to be something that can tie the killer to the scene. I don’t care how long it takes you, but coming away from here empty-handed is not an option.” I stare at the pile of hands. “You know what I mean.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“This person’s smart,” I continue, “but they only buried the body parts a few feet deep, and they left all their equipment in the hut where they knew it’d be found eventually.” I pause for a moment, running through the options. “The killer wants to be caught,” I add finally, starting to get an idea of what must be happening, “but at the same time, he wants to control the way that it happens. He knows it’s inevitable, but he wants to be in charge.”

“You got all that just from some bin bags?” Maitland asks.

“It’s a working theory,” I reply, reaching into my pocket to pull out my vibrating phone. As I do so, however, I dislodge half a dozen chocolate bars, sending them falling to the forest floor.

“Snack?” Maitland says with a smile.

“Yeah,” I mutter, feeling intensely embarrassed as I pick the bars up and stuff them back into my pocket. Checking my phone, I see that I’ve got a message from Ophelia:

 

Ready to be picked up. No hurry, though. Having fun on the ward. Nurses hate me.

 

My first reaction is to be relieved that I now have a chance to sit Ophelia down and pick her brain regarding this case. My second reaction is to be annoyed by my first reaction. I shouldn’t need to bring Ophelia in to help out, but at the same time I can’t deny that she might be useful. I just don’t want anyone else to know that I’m getting her involved.

Glancing across the clearing, I spot a building in the distance.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“The local art college,” Maitland replies. “Beacon Court. My son went to an open day there once. It’s the kind of place where a bunch of spotty no-hopers hang out and get pointless qualifications while wasting a few years of their lives. You know the kind of thing. Someone paints a twig purple, sticks it in an orange, and claims it’s an exploration of the human psyche. Complete bollocks, most of it. Give me a proper painting any day, something that requires real skill and talent, like a Rembrandt or a Vermeer.” He pauses. “Maybe I’m just a bit of a traditionalist, but modern art just seems to me to be a load of bull, designed to entertain vacuous minds.”

“So this land belongs to the college?” I reply.

“Why?” he asks after a moment. “Do you think the killer is trying to implicate someone who works or studies there?”

“Or the killer works or studies there himself,” I point out.

“Why would he be so stupid as to leave all this evidence in his own back yard?” Maitland replies. “He might as well draw a big red arrow pointing at the damn place. It’s not subtle at all.”

“You saw the stunt with the plinth in Trafalgar Square,” I point out. “That wasn’t the work of someone lacking in confidence. It was someone who wants to be seen, someone who does these things because he wants to get people’s attention.”

“You mean… an artist?”

“It’s one possibility,” I continue, “and that level of confidence probably extends to the way he covers up his tracks. He could have left these remains somewhere far away, but he chose to leave them here and he deliberately left them in a manner that meant they’d be found pretty quickly.”

“So we’re talking about an attention-seeking killer?”

“Like I said,” I continue, “maybe the killer fully expects to be caught and just wants to control the process we use to get to him. He must know that our next step is going to be to visit the college and ask if anyone saw anything. He thinks we’ll get to that stage eventually anyway, so he figures he might as well hurry us up. He’s too impatient to sit around waiting for us to get to him using the normal methods.”

“That’s quite a leap,” Maitland points out. “I heard you were good at this sort of thing.”

“But it makes sense,” I reply, still staring at the distant building, “and it’s not like we won’t still have work to do. If he wants to push us in a certain direction, subtlety isn’t too important. How many people use that college on a daily basis?”

“Too many,” he mutters.

“Then that settles it,” I continue. “The killer’s funneling us, trying to define the steps in our investigation. He absolutely wants us to go and start sniffing around at the college, but he’s being completely unsubtle about it, and he must know that we’ll wonder why he didn’t hide the body parts better. He’s probably also considered the possibility that we’re noticing this about him.” My phone vibrates, and I look down to see another message from Ophelia:

 

Actually I’m quite bored now. Nurses blanking me. What time are you coming?

 

I turn and look at the SOCA crew, just as they start removing severed arms from another bag. Each arm, locked into the stiffness of rigor mortis, looks almost as if it’s waiting to be snapped.

“Once the scene has been documented,” Maitland continues, “I’m going to get all the pieces taken back to the lab, and then I’m going to have this entire area scoured. If the killer so much as dropped a hair or a flake of dandruff, we’ll find it.”

“There’ll definitely be something,” I reply, looking down at the tarpaulin again. “It’ll be something he left on purpose, though. Something he wants us to find.”

“Where are you off to?” he asks as I turn to walk away.

“I have to pick up a friend,” I reply. “Well, not a friend, exactly. Just someone I know.”

Ophelia

 

“Before you leave,” the nurse says, as I finish getting dressed, “there’s one small detail we need to go over. I’m afraid we don’t actually have your full, legal name on file.”

“I know,” I tell her, turning and heading to the door.

“ Well, actually, we need it,” she continues, hurrying after me with a clipboard in her hands. “All patients must -”

“I’m not a patient,” I point out, walking quickly toward the exit.

“ Um, well, you are -”

“No, I was discharged a few minutes ago.”

“But you were a patient, so -”

“So you should have got my name then, shouldn’t you?”

“You were in a coma.”

“I know.”

“ So I couldn't get your name then, could I?” she points out. “The one you gave us was obviously fake, and I'll get in trouble if I don't -”

“Sucks to be you, then,” I reply. “By the way, did anyone come and read to me? Sing me a song, maybe, or tickle my feet?”

“I’m going to have to insist that you give me your name, your date of birth and – if you know it – your NHS patient number.”

“The answers are no, no, and are you kidding?”

“ This isn't optional. All patients -”

“I’m not a patient,” I tell her again as I reach the door and turn to her. “I’m an ex-patient, and as far as I’m aware there’s no rule about ex-patients having to give you their names.”

“ Well, no, but that's because we'd already -”

“Brenda,” I say suddenly.

She stares at me.

“That’s your name,” I continue. “It says so right there, on your name badge. Too easy. You’re very bad at this game.”

“ It's not a game,” she replies tersely, “and regarding your name -”

“This conversation is going nowhere,” I say firmly. “Let me be totally clear. I will never, ever give you my real name, do you understand? Not even if you strap me down and threaten me with electrodes. It’s just not going to happen, so why don’t you stop wasting your breath and my time, and go get on with some work that actually matters.”

She stares at me, clearly shocked by my attitude.

“I have my reasons,” I add, before turning and pushing the door open.

By the time I get out to the front of the building, I’m finally able to relax and accept that no-one’s going to send a security team after me. Stopping, I look over my shoulder but all I see are a bunch of staff members and visitors milling about. Taking a deep breath, I try to force myself to relax, but it’s not easy. I hate it when people ask me for my real name. I hate anything that reminds me of my old life.

And I might be wrong, but I swear the scar on my left arm itches every time the past is brought up.

Laura

 

“I keep… dreaming about him. I can barely sleep, and when I do, the same thing happens every time. I see that boy’s face staring back out at me from behind the ribs, and I wake up and then…”

Sitting on the park bench with Tim, I wait for him to finish.

“Sometimes I actually cry out,” he continues. “It’s almost like someone in a movie. I literally sit up in bed and cry out in shock, or fear. And when I open my eyes, I can still see the images from my dreams, like they’re hanging in the darkness right in front of me. It’s…”

Another pause. He’s been explaining how he feels for a few minutes now, and I’m loathe to interrupt him since he seems to be so completely lost in his own thoughts. I can only hope that it’s helping him to talk about his feelings, even though the look in his eyes hints at some deeper horror. I never thought anyone could be so heavily traumatized by a single incident, but right now I’m struggling to see whether Tim can ever fully recover. It’s as if the man’s spirit has been broken.

“I’ve seen so many things over the years,” he says, finally turning to me. “The people who’ve ended up on my table. You’ve been there for some of them, Laura. Decayed bodies. Children. Pregnant women. Wives, mothers, fathers, husbands, sisters, brothers… I thought I’d become desensitized. I mean, I really thought that the job had numbed me. And then that kid’s dead face, and the way his eyes were staring straight at me through the gap between the ribs…”

He falls silent again, and this time I feel as if I should say something to comfort him. The problem is, I’m really bad at this kind of thing. I’ll probably just make it all worse.

“I’m sure it’ll get better,” I say feebly.

He shakes his head.

“It’ll just take time.”

“Didn’t it affect you?” he asks, as if he’s desperate to understand why this is happening to him. “I mean, I don’t exactly have a weak stomach, but it still got to me. You saw it too, so how come I’m damn near falling apart and you’re still fine?”

“I don’t know,” I reply with a shrug. “I guess I’m just… lucky.”

“But seriously,” he continues, turning to me. “How do you do it? How do you manage to keep going? Please, Laura, if you’ve got a secret to coping… I could really use it.”

 

***

 

“Have you got a club-card?”

I shake my head as I slip my credit card into the reader. Once I’ve typed in my code, I wait for the transaction to go through and then I take the receipt and start bagging my shopping. It’s insanely busy in the supermarket this afternoon, but I figured I should get some food in before I go to pick up Ophelia. Besides, I quite like the idea of keeping her waiting for a few minutes.

Once I get out of the store, I head to my car, puts the bags on the back seat, and then get inside. Once the door is shut, I take a deep breath, feeling as if I’m finally managing to shut out the madness of the world. The store was so busy, it was as if all the other voices were crowding my thoughts. Still, I feel better than I felt before I went inside.

Much better.

With trembling hands I reach into my pocket and pull out the small bottle of whiskey that I managed to sneak out. It took a moment to get the security tag and the sticker off when I was in the store, and this is by far the riskiest thing I’ve ever shoplifted. The worst part is, I don’t even like whiskey, so I guess I’ll just stick it in a cabinet and bring it out one day if I have a visitor. My heart’s racing, though, and as I turn the bottle over in my hands, I genuinely can’t quite believe that I managed to pull this off.

Stuffing the bottle into one of the shopping bags, I lean back and close my eyes. Sometimes, I just need to reset myself for a moment. Finally, realizing that I’ve kept Ophelia waiting for long enough, I open my eyes again and start the car. All the worries of the day seem to have been lifted from my shoulders. It’s only a temporary release, but it’s better than nothing.

 

***

 

“You’ve gotta admit that it’s kinda disappointing,” Ophelia says as she slams the car door shut. “I mean, it’s like someone totally came to visit me the first time, but then this time… Nothing!”

“I wouldn’t call that disappointing,” I reply, grabbing the shopping bags. “I’d call that a relief. You didn’t want a mysterious visitor, did you?”

“ No, but -”

“Then just be glad it didn’t happen again. Maybe the first time was just some weird fluke. Mistaken identity, or any one of a hundred other mundane explanations. Can’t you just put it out of your mind?”

“No way,” she replies as we make our way toward my front door. “Think about it. Someone absolutely, definitely came to see me the first time. And then I went to all the trouble of getting a proper head injury, and it turned out to be a waste of time.”

“Huh,” I reply. “It’s almost as if the whole jumping from the bridge business was a really bad idea.”

“ It was a good idea,” she continues, “and it should have worked. Maybe I didn't advertize it enough, though. Maybe I should try again but spend longer -”

“Please don’t,” I tell her. “If someone’s really out to get you or track you down or whatever, I’m sure they’ll make their presence known soon enough.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” she mutters. “I want to know now, damn it!”

“I need to tell you something,” I reply, stopping at the door and turning to her. “It’s about my mother.”

“She’s getting worse, isn’t she?”

“How did you know?”

“For one thing, that’s how Alzheimer’s works. For another, I can see it in your eyes.” She pauses. “Remember when I asked back in the hospital how your mother was doing, and you said she was okay? I could see this look in your eyes that totally let me know that you were lying. I didn’t want to push at the time, partly ‘cause I was still whacked out of my head on medication. You’d be rubbish at poker, by the way. You’ve got this tell whenever you’re lying.”

“I do not!” I reply. “What is it?”

“That’s for me to know.”

“She’s still able to get about,” I continue, determined not to get dragged into another of Ophelia’s labyrinthine conversations. “It’s not like she’s completely off in another world, and I can still leave her home alone during the day. It’s just that she’s more forgetful lately, mainly about minor things. Don’t be offended, for example, if she doesn’t remember you.”

“She’ll remember me,” she replies. “Everyone always remembers me.”

“Good point,” I reply, “but seriously, it just requires a little more patience. She gets frustrated, too, so if that happens, the best thing is to stay calm and wait for her to snap out of it. She can be short with people sometimes.”

Once we’re inside, I start unpacking the groceries while Ophelia goes through to talk to my mother. As soon as she walks into the room, I hear my mother greeting her like an old friend, and I realize with a sigh that she has no problem remembering Ophelia at all. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard my mother sound so animated and happy to see someone for months, and it’s reassuring to hear that she can still have normal conversations with people other than just me. By the time I’ve got all the groceries away and slipped the unwanted bottle of whiskey into the drinks cabinet, I’m actually starting to feel as if it might be good to have Ophelia here for a few days, if only to improve the atmosphere. Hell, my mother has even started laughing, and that’s not something I ever thought I’d hear again.

“I need to do some work tonight,” I tell them as I head through to the front room. “Just paperwork relating to the case, so I won’t be much company.”

“We’ll be fine,” Ophelia replies. “We’ll watch a film or something, and I can take a look at your files as well!”

“That would be a breach of protocol and a serious lapse in judgment on my part,” I tell her.

“I know.”

“Maybe you can take a peek,” I add, even though I know damn well that in a few hours’ time I’ll have relented completely and Ophelia will be going through every piece of paper I’ve got.

“You work too hard,” my mother says, turning to me. “How do you think you’ll ever get a husband if you spend every night at home with a bunch of papers?”

“It’s not really by choice,” I reply.

“She never goes out,” she continues, turning to Ophelia. “She just comes home every night, makes dinner, and then she says she has to work. I hear her up until all hours, shuffling pieces of paper or clicking something on her computer. I honestly don’t know how she expects to settle down with a nice man when the only people she ever meets are already dead! She’s of prime child-bearing age and she’s got the hips for it, but at this rate she’ll end up old and alone. Either that or she’ll have a baby too late and it’ll end up disabled.”

“Well,” Ophelia replies, “maybe I’ll help her with this case and then she’ll have a little more free time.”

“You can try,” my mother continues, “but it won’t be any use. Even if she did go out, I doubt she’d impress anyone. Laura’s not what you’d call a sparkling personality.”

“And that’s my cue to go and make dinner,” I reply, turning and heading through to the kitchen. Stopping by the fridge, I take a deep breath and try to get my anger under control. Lately, my mother has been getting a lot nastier with some of her comments, and even though I know that the Alzheimer’s is causing it all, sometimes I feel as if she really means the things she’s saying. Unfortunately, she’s usually right too. I mean, it’s not as if I’m dazzling company.

Grabbing a pack of beef from the fridge, I figure that the best approach is to just put everything out of my mind for a few minutes. As I start making dinner, I can hear Ophelia and my mother talking and laughing in the next room. And then the craziest thing happens: just for a fraction of a second, I see the face of a dead woman in my mind’s eye, with dried blood around her mouth. It’s a face I’ve seen so many times in police reports and in my dreams, but this is the first time she’s ever intruded into my waking thoughts:

Natasha Simonsen, one of the girls who was murdered by Daniel Gregory. It was thanks to my mistakes that Gregory walked, and I can’t bear the thought of something similar happening again.

As Ophelia and my mother continue to talk, I try to empty my mind and focus solely on the task of making dinner. It’s only been a few hours since I took that bottle of whiskey from the shop, but already the rush has worn off. I need something more permanent.

Ophelia

 

“This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” I say as I stare at the first photo, which shows some kind of horrific, stitched-together meta-corpse on a slab at the morgue. “Are you sure this isn’t a still from some sick horror movie?”

“It’s real,” Laura replies, taking a sip from her glass of wine. “It looks like some kind of sick doll.”

“Or one of those bears you make yourself at a store and then fill with stuffing.”

“Or that,” she says quietly. “And to make matters worse, it was found up on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It was laid out like it was supposed to be the latest art installation.”

“That’s audacious,” I continue, unable to stop staring at the photo. “I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m slightly in awe of anyone who could pull this off. The sheer balls you’d need to come up with it, and then to actually go through with something so insane… It’s impressive.”

“That’s not quite the word I’d use,” she replies.

“Unreal,” I mutter, looking through several more images. “Didn’t you say that the little boy was staring out from between the ribs, like he was in some kind of prison?”

She nods.

“Can I see a photo of that?”

“Uh…” She pauses. “I don’t have one.”

“Liar.”

“I don’t!”

“Your tell is showing again.”

“I don’t have a tell!” she hisses, but she clearly knows that the gig is up. “There’s a photo, but trust me, you don’t want to see it.”

“Show me.”

Sighing, she reaches into a nearby envelope and takes out an A4 photo, although she conspicuously keeps it turned away from me. I always had Laura pegged as someone with a pretty strong constitution, but this time she seems to be genuinely bothered by the case.

“ This is the stuff of nightmares,” she continues. “Seriously, it's horrific and I really think you -”

“I live on the streets of London,” I point out. “I can handle a nasty photo.” Before she can reply, I reach out and snatch it from her, although when I take a look at the image, I almost wish I’d taken her advice. The picture shows a set of ribs, and a dead little boy’s eyes are just about visible peering through from the other side. For the first time, I actually feel truly speechless.

“See?” Laura says eventually. “Tim Marshall is on leave because he can’t handle it. I know people in movies usually just brush this kind of stuff off, but in real life… It’s just the kind of thing that really burrows under your skin, you know?”

“Have you been having actual nightmares about it?” I ask.

She shakes her head.

“So what are your nightmares about?” I add.

“Nothing. I don’t have any.”

She’s lying, but there’s no point calling her out on it right now.

“It actually looks a bit like a prop for a movie,” I reply, looking back at the image. “The whole thing is so theatrical, like it’s been specifically designed to cause shock.”

“That’s what I figured,” she continues. “The killer was clearly thinking about the impact that this would have on anyone who saw it. I mean, he would’ve known how the autopsy procedure works, so he must have realized that someone was going to open the chest cavity and find the little boy.”

“So maybe that’s the whole point,” I reply.

“In what sense?”

“In the sense that this wasn’t done by someone who hated, or even knew, the victims, and it wasn’t done by someone who was driven by a compulsion to kill. It’s almost as if the sole aim of this crime was to create something monstrous, something that no-one would ever be able to forget. And it’s worked, too.” I pause for a moment, staring at the photo and trying to understand the mindset of the killer. “It’s like a work of art. Normally the evidence in a case like this is something the killer was unable to hide, but in this case the whole point of the killing seems to have been to generate this particularly nasty piece of evidence as a kind of… exhibit.”

“There’s an art college near the site where we recovered the leftover body parts,” she replies.

“Brazen,” I mutter. “Shitting in his own back yard.”

“It can’t be that simple,” she continues. “I’m certain the killer wants us to go and investigate the college, but there’s no way anyone would just leave a bunch of very obvious clues like that.”

“Maybe not,” I reply, finally turning the photo over and putting it face-down on the table, “or maybe. I mean, we’re clearly dealing with someone who’s seriously messed up, so why can’t their thought processes be twisted in other ways? Maybe they get a thrill out of leading us closer.”

“Us?”

“You,” I reply, correcting myself with a faint smile. “Whatever. People get weird kicks sometimes. Like you, nicking that bottle of whiskey when you don’t even drink the stuff.”

“Jesus!” she hisses, looking over at her mother to check that the old woman is still sleeping in her armchair, with Coronation Street on at a low volume in the far corner of the room.

“Don’t act surprised,” I continue. “I noticed it in your shopping bag, and when I looked at the receipt it wasn’t on there. I guess you’ve moved up in the world from chocolate bars and started half-inching booze instead, huh? Or was today just a particularly stressful day? You had chocolate in your coat pockets too, I checked.”

“It’s none of your business,” she replies, clearly embarrassed and unable for a moment to even make eye contact.

“Normally,” I add, “when someone develops a drinking problem, it’s because of the alcohol going into their body. With you, it just gets shoved away and forgotten about once you’ve picked up your five-finger discount.”

“ Ophelia -”

“You need to stop,” I tell her. “Seriously, I don’t know how smart you think you are, but eventually you are gonna get caught, and the fact that you’re a cop isn’t gonna help. In fact, it might even make things worse. You could lose your job, lose your home… Hell, you might even end up on the streets like me! I mean, hell, do you really wanna sink down to my level? Trust me, it’s not good.”

“Can we focus on the case?” she replies, her face having turned a deep shade of red. “This person is clearly going to kill again, and if it’s anything like the first time, one incident could result in half a dozen or more deaths.”

“ Why do you do it?” I ask. “Is it -”

“Can we focus?” she snaps, clearly on the verge of losing her temper. She takes another swig of red wine, and it’s pretty obvious that I’ve pushed her a tad too far. For now, anyway. I remember last year how I had to be careful not to cross a certain line with Laura, because eventually she’d clam up. I guess I need to remember how to deal with her.

“The pressure’s really on, huh?” I ask. “Your reputation’s on the line.”

“There are lives at stake,” she replies. “It’s not about my reputation, it’s about the fact that there’s a maniac out there, someone who apparently has no qualms about killing a child just so he can use it as part of some sick tableau. I mean, this is one sick…”

We sit in silence for a moment, as if neither of us can quite comprehend what we’re dealing with.

“All in the name of art,” I say with a faint smile, before realizing that I might actually be right. Looking down at one of the photos again, I realize that the stitched-together body is basically a work of art, albeit one from a sick mind. “That’s what this is,” I add as realization dawns. “It’s a kind of project. The whole aim of this killer is to provoke a reaction, and he’s done precisely that. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is usually filled with some kind of specially commissioned artwork, right? I mean, hell, the aim here isn’t even subtle. It’s obvious!”

“You seriously think it’s supposed to be art?” she replies skeptically.

“I think it is art,” I tell her. “However you want to define art itself, this act qualifies. Stick it in a gallery and you’re sure as hell gonna draw a crowd.”

“Crime can’t be art,” she replies, before pausing. “Can it?”

“Absolutely it can,” I continue, holding one of the photos up for her to see. “You can express yourself through murder. You can make a point, a statement. You can elicit an emotional or intellectual response. You can display your work for others to see. In the seventeenth century, the word art literally meant a skill or mastery, and it was seen as being basically on the same level as a craft or a science. We can’t limit our definition of art so that it only covers things that society considers palatable. Art can be dark as all hell so yeah, totally, murder can be a form of art.”

“There was this,” she replies, sorting through the photos before showing me another. The image shows a small piece of white card, with the text ‘Modern Life’ printed in black letters. “It was glued to the plinth. We weren’t sure whether or not it was put there by the killer, or left over from a previous installation.”

“It’s the title,” I tell her. “The killer titled his work.”

“Then we have to catch this artist before he or she tries to create another masterpiece,” she replies.

“It’s linked to that college,” I continue, feeling as if I’m getting into the flow of things. “You’re right, the killer wants us to find him, but I guarantee you that he’ll lead us on a torturous path first. We need to take a shortcut.” As I stare at one of the photos, I finally realize what we’re going to have to do, and slowly a smile spreads across my face. It’s one of my crazier ideas and I know she’ll hate it, but at the same time it’d definitely work.

“What?” Laura asks cautiously.

“I know how to catch him,” I reply.

“How?”

My smile gets bigger.

“Ophelia? How?”

“You’re really not gonna like it.”

“You’re starting to scare me…”

“Just hear me out,” I continue. “This will totally work, and we’ll net the killer within a few days, tops. Definitely before the college’s third year show. But… well, it’s kinda unconventional.”

“What exactly are you thinking?” she asks.

“It’s pretty simple, really,” I tell her. “You just have to agree to let me go undercover as an art student.”

Part Three

Laura

 

“If you think about it,” she says, following me through to the kitchen, “it makes total sense!”

“No.”

“I’d fit right in,” she continues as I pour myself another, larger glass of wine. “I can look the part and I can totally act like I belong there. Trust me, I can do pretension, and I can talk about art and all that stuff, and I can totally act like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. Hell, I wouldn’t even need to change my clothes, I kinda look like an art student already!”

“No.”

“ Okay, sure, I'm turning the whole thing into a bit of a stereotype, but you have to see that this is the best option, right? Send me undercover into the art school -”

“No.”

“And I’ll be able to poke about without the killer suspecting me.”

I take a sip of wine.

“Laura?”

“No.”

“And I’ll have the whole thing sorted before he even knows what’s hit him. I mean, look at me. No-one’s ever going to suspect that I’m working with the cops.”

I turn to her, and as I take yet another sip of wine I realize that she’s actually serious. She truly believes that I might, for even a fraction of a second, consider letting her do this. I swear to God, it’s slightly terrifying to realize that she’s so completely dislocated from reality. No, worse: she’s completely insane.

“ I know it sounds like the plot of a bad movie,” she continues, “and you probably think I'm joking, but just take a moment to think about it. I could totally blend in at that art college, and then I could nose around and suss out what's what, without drawing any attention to myself at all. I could get under the skin of the people there -”

“No doubt about that part,” I mutter, gulping down some more wine.

“And I could work out who the killer is, or at least narrow it down to a few key suspects. I’m not saying I’d be an actual cop or anything like that. I’d just relay information to you, helping you to work out where to focus your investigation. We’d never tell anyone else, so there’d be no risk of you looking bad at work. I’d get in, do the job, and get out. A couple of days, max. Believe me, I have no desire to spend a minute longer than necessary in a place like that. The last thing I want is to go to art school again.”

“ There's no -” I pause for a moment. “Wait... Again?”

“I enrolled at art school once,” she replies. “A different one, obviously, and it was a long time ago, back when I… Well, a long time ago.”

You went to art school?”

She nods.

“Seriously?”

“I didn’t finish. I dropped out pretty fast.”

“How long were you there?”

“Twenty-seven minutes.”

I stare at her for a moment, trying to work out if she’s joking or not.

“You went to art school for twenty-seven minutes?”

She nods again.

I take a gulp of wine.

“I kinda did a Dave Lister,” she continues. “I don’t want to get into the messy details. Let’s just say that signing up was a dumb idea, and for some reason me and the teacher just really didn’t get along, so I quit before I’d even touched my first canvas. Maybe I lacked the necessary discipline back then, I dunno, I was in a weird place mentally so it wasn’t totally the teacher’s fault.”

You went to art school?” I ask again, still not convinced that she’s telling the truth.

She nods.

“Well,” I continue, “you really are full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“You know,” she adds, with a faint smile, “sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I’d actually been able to hack it. I mean, if I’d just buckled down and got on with doing art and stuff, things might have worked out very differently. I only really signed up ‘cause it was the easiest place to get into back then, but maybe I would’ve blossomed unexpectedly. I guess there was never a chance, though. I just hated all the other students, and all the staff, even the subject… Everything, really. You might be surprised to learn that I haven’t always been as calm and on-top-of-things as I am today.”

I stare at her for a moment, aware that this is the first time she’s ever told me a story from her ‘old’ life. If I didn’t know better, I’d start to think that maybe I’m making progress here.

“So here’s the deal,” she adds. “I’ll enroll at this college and go in as a student. I’ll figure out the people there and I’ll use my dazzling intuition to work out a few likely suspects. You know that’s something I’d be good at. And then I’ll give you some tips so that when you go in officially, you’ve got a heads-up in terms of knowing where to focus your time. By that point I’ll have away slipped into the night, leaving no traces behind except a few technically poor paintings and maybe a sculpture or two. Maybe even something you can hang on your fridge as a reminder. I’m not saying I’ll go in and solve the case in, like, a Tom Hanson scenario, but I can definitely help out.”

I take another sip of wine.

“This will work,” she continues. “You just have to think outside the box.”

“I think we’re already way beyond the box,” I mutter. “The box is just a distant memory. Ophelia, don’t take this the wrong way, but… you’ve got worse.”

She frowns.

“It’s been a year since the last time I saw you,” I continue, “and you seem more… manic, like you’re trying harder to prove yourself, almost like you’re turning yourself into some kind of cartoon character. You always had a desire to shock people, but it seems to have twisted and become something else. That stunt with the bridge, and nearly killing yourself… The old Ophelia would never have gone quite that far.”

“So I’ve grown as a person,” she replies, but her uneasy smile hints at a little doubt in her soul.

“Are you scared of something?” I ask.

“Me?” She pauses. “Sure. Every day.”

“What?”

She shrugs.

“Maybe it’s time for you to come clean,” I continue. “The mystery act has been entertaining, but it can’t go on forever. Tell me everything.”

“About what?”

“About who you really are.” I wait for her to answer, but I can see the reticence in her eyes. Still, I figure I need to push a little. “Whatever happened to you to make you like this,” I continue, “whatever made it so you ended up on the streets, you don’t have to let it define your whole life. I have connections, Ophelia. I can help you, and I can get other people to help you too. Don’t you want to move on and have an actual life? Don’t your want a future?”

We stand in silence for a moment, and I can’t help feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s considering my offer.

“Tell me what happened,” I ask finally.

She shakes her head.

“Why?”

“Because that’s just not something I’m willing to do.”

“Then at least tell me your real name.”

She shakes her head again.

“Tell me what happened to you. Your parents, your family, your life before you ended up on the streets.”

“Why? So you can work out what’s wrong with me?”

“I want to help you.”

“And I want to help you,” she replies. “All the shit that happened with me is in the past, where it belongs, so there’s no point raking over it again. It’s finished. But this case you’re working on is something that’s still happening right now, and me helping you out could really save lives.” She pauses again, and some of her manic energy seems to have faded away. “I know I’m acting like it’s a joke,” she adds, “but if you agree to let me do this, I’ll take it seriously. It won’t be some kind of game for me, and I swear to God, I’ll get the job done for you. I wouldn’t mess about and make you look bad, or waste your time. I really want to help out. I owe you, and it’d be fun.”

“I’m sorry,” I reply, “but there’s just no way I can agree.”

“Because?”

“Because there are rules against this sort of thing,” I continue, “and because this is a serious murder investigation, not a game, and because it’s a completely ridiculous idea.”

She stares at me, but it’s clear that she’s starting to accept my decision.

“So what are you gonna do instead?” she asks.

“I’m going to go to the college tomorrow with a colleague, and we’re going to see what we can find out. But we’re going to do it properly, professionally, and I actually think that this approach might work out. Meanwhile, you’re going to stay here and rest, and maybe when I get home I’ll run some things past you. I do appreciate your input, Ophelia, but that’s all it can be. Input. You can’t become part of the investigation. Last time was a one-off.”

“Fine,” she replies. “I guess I can’t argue. Maybe I was getting a bit ahead of myself. I mean, it’s not like I actually wanted to go undercover. I can see how much pressure you’re under, and I just thought it might be something I could do to help.”

“I’ve made up the guest room for you,” I tell her. “It’s the same room you stayed in last time. And now I think I have to get to bed, because tomorrow I really need to be on the ball.” Setting my wine glass down, I head to the door, before turning back to her. “Promise me one thing, Ophelia. Don’t up and leave suddenly, okay?”

“I won’t.”

“And make yourself at home. Eat anything from the fridge, use anything you find, just…”

She nods.

“And stay as long as you want,” I add. “It doesn’t have to just be a week. If you can handle boring old me, and my crazy mother, you’re welcome to stick around, even after your head injury’s a thing of the past.”

I wait for her to nod again, but she just smiles, with a hint of sadness in her eyes.

As I make my way up to bed, I can’t help wondering if maybe I was too quick to turn her plan down. After all, she might just be able to give me some leads. At the same time, the whole idea is completely ridiculous, and I know deep down that I was right to decline. I don’t need Ophelia pulling some stunt in order to solve the case, and I sure as hell don’t need any distractions or gimmicks. I just need to get on with my job, ask the right questions, and use traditional methods to track down the killer, and I still believe that I’ll have the case solved in the next couple of days.

At least I managed to calm Ophelia down. In fact, I’m quite surprised that she accepted my decision so quickly. Maybe she’s growing up after all.

Ophelia

 

“Hi, yeah, I want to enroll at art college, please.”

The woman behind the desk stares at me, and it’s pretty clear that something about me doesn’t sit quite right with her. She noticeably looks me up and down, as if she’s shocked by my appearance. Then again, I figure I can’t look that different from all the other people who come through the door of the admissions office. She probably pulls this withering glare out of the bag for everyone.

“Art college?” I say eventually, holding up the brochure I grabbed on the way through the door. “Specifically, this art college?”

“You can’t just walk in off the street,” she says cautiously, “and expect to get a place.”

“Not on the main course,” I reply, having done my homework, “but I’m talking about the access learning modules. I don’t care, whatever gets me in.” I flick through the brochure until I find the right page, which I then hold up for her to see. “This one right here. The rolling admissions one for losers like me who can’t even get onto the main degree.”

She narrows her eyes.

“I know there are places,” I continue, “and I checked out your website to see how it all works. The site said that I don’t necessarily need any previous qualifications, so I’m thinking that you’re pretty much willing to accept anyone who rocks up with the four hundred pound fee for the ten weeks tuition. God bless the financial crisis, huh?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” she replies.

“Is it?”

“ You'll need to fill out an application form,” she continues, speaking slowly and methodically, “and -”

“Done,” I reply, sliding the form toward her.

“ Right,” she replies, picking it up and taking a look. “As you say -”

“And here’s the money,” I add, pulling a crumpled pile of notes from my pocket and dropping them onto the desk, along with a few coins. “The exact fee, down to the very last penny. So when do I start?”

She flashes a smile that isn’t really a smile at all, more of a grimace, while eying the money as if she’s worried it’s infected. It’s almost as if she instinctively knows that it’s been saved up over the years from all the begging I’ve done.

“Is there a problem?” I ask. “I’m sorry so much of it’s in coins. I tried changing it to cash at the bank, but… Well, it turns out that there’s a limit to their patience.”

“Right,” she replies, “it’s just…” She pauses. “I’ll need to check through your application form first.”

“I didn’t make any mistakes.”

“ I'm sure you didn't, but I still -”

“I get it,” I say, interrupting her. “This is all moving a little fast, isn’t it? The thing is, I really just… desperately need to get onto this course. And I know it seems sudden, but my parents are totally against me coming here so I’m having to do it in secret. My mother and I had this big argument last night and she told me I’m not allowed to study art because it’s a waste of time, so figure I have to hide it from her. My Mum’s a cop, see, and for various reasons she doesn’t agree with me coming here. I’m sure shell come around eventually when she realizes that it’s a useful choice, but for now…”

I take a deep breath, and a single tear rolls down my cheek right on cue. Damn it, even by my usual standards, this is a good performance. Screw art; I should be taking acting classes.

“It means the world to me,” I add, “to have this chance to express myself.”

“You understand that it’s just a ten-week introductory course?” she replies, showing the first sign that her resolve might be cracking.

I nod.

“At the end, you’ll receive a diploma and you’ll have a better chance of being accepted onto the full-time three-year degree, but there are no guarantees. You’ll also have to bear the cost of materials yourself, which can be considerable.”

“I know,” I reply, trying to make it sound as if I’m taking the whole thing seriously.

“And it’s not a holiday,” she continues. “A lot of people think that studying art is a way of wasting time and just having fun, but you need to realize that it’s a strict course that requires discipline. There are lectures, and assignments, and you’ll have to learn to justify your artistic choices.”

“That’s what I want,” I reply. “I feel like this course could really benefit me, both artistically and intellectually. Plus, I’d like to be around other people who share my passions.” I force a smile, even though I’m already shuddering at the idea of being around other people at all, especially people who claim to have ‘passions’.

She stares at me for a moment.

“Please?” I add.

“Okay,” she says, gathering up the money I dropped onto the desk a moment ago, “if you know what you’re getting yourself into, I see no reason not to enroll you. The fee is non-refundable, though, so once you’ve signed up, you can’t change your mind.”

“It’s as easy as that?” I reply, a little surprised that I don’t need to come up with more of a sob story.

“You pay, you play,” she adds, as she types something into her computer. “We’ll set you up with a student card and then I’ll find someone who can give you your course materials. Make sure you pay attention to the course description, because you’ll need to keep on the ball. Look into the camera, please.”

Turning to look at the web-cam on top of her monitor, I take a deep breath.

“Come on,” she adds. “It wouldn’t hurt you to say cheese for the camera.”

I force a smile, even though I know I probably look stupid. I always hate it when people tell me to smile.

“Perfect,” she continues as she starts printing my badge.

As I wait, I suddenly realize that I might have bitten off more than I can chew. I turn and look over at the window, and outside there are students everywhere, sitting around as they talk and laugh. It’s been a long time since I was actually in any kind of social situation, and I start to feel my skin crawl at the realization that I’m going to have to actually talk to other people and pretend to get along with them. For a moment, I actually find myself wondering if I can go through with this.

“Here,” the woman says finally, handing me my laminated student card, which bears my awkwardly-smiling face. “Welcome to Beacon Court Art College. I hope it’s everything you expect and more.”

“That was quick,” I reply.

“You paid,” she mutters with a shrug. “Like you said before, God bless the financial crisis.”

Looking down at the card, I feel my chest start to tighten. Laura was right: this is an insane idea. Still, I’m here now, and I’ve paid over almost every penny from the stash I’ve built up over the past five years, so I guess I’m right in at the deep end now. Turning to look at the window again, I watch the smiling faces of the other students, and suddenly my assumptions drain away. How the hell am I going to interact with these people? How am I going to fit in? I need them to accept me as one of their own, but I blatantly give off weird vibes from a hundred paces.

Enrolling at art college might be an even dumber idea than jumping headfirst off that bridge.

Laura

 

“Okay,” says Nick Jordan, hitting a button to start the video. “This is what we’ve got so far.”

I watch as the grainy surveillance footage begins to play. It shows Trafalgar Square a few nights ago, with the time-code in the corner indicating that it’s twelve minutes past midnight. Central London is as busy as ever, even at such a late hour, with the streets lit up by passing vehicles as people swarm through the square itself. It’s hard to believe that anyone could get away with very much in such a public place, yet as I stare at the empty fourth plinth, I realize that sometimes people can actually get away with a great deal if they just show a little confidence.

“ Wait for it,” Nick mutters, “any second now -”

Suddenly part of the screen falls into darkness. There are still lights from the passing vehicles, but all the street lights on one side of the square have been turned off.

“Localized power cut,” he explains. “It only lasted about ninety seconds. I spoke to a guy from the electricity company and he said it was caused by a surge on one of the nearby transformers. Not even that uncommon, apparently; happens every now and then when there’s a spike in power usage in one particular area.”

“What caused this spike?” I ask, leaning closer to the screen and trying to make out any movement in the dark patch covering the fourth plinth.

“He said there’s no way of checking. To be honest, he didn’t sound too concerned. The automated power management system patched in another circuit and resolved the problem. There’s some construction work going on near Charing Cross, though, so I guess that’s one possibility.”

Seconds later, the lights flicker back on and I see that there’s now a dark shape up on top of the plinth. The corpse is in place, waiting to be discovered.

“No way,” I mutter, still staring at the screen. There are plenty of dark figures milling about in the area, but it’s impossible to know which of them, if any, was responsible for putting the dead body in position. The killer was probably already hurrying away by this point. “How the hell did he manage that?”

“He’s got balls,” Nick replies. “Think about it. In the dark, he just put a ladder up, carried the body to the top and put it into place. Then he climbed down and hurried away. We’ve checked other cameras in the area and we can’t see anyone with a ladder, so he must have ditched it somewhere, maybe at the construction site. I know this all sounds improbable, but it’s technically possible with a lot of planning, a lot of confidence, and a little luck.”

“But people must have seen him do it,” I point out.

“Sure. Drunk, distracted people who were probably paying more attention to the power cut. The guy took a risk, but you know how it is. If you look like you’re supposed to be doing what you’re doing, most people are just going to ignore you. Walk the walk, as they say. How many times have you seen a workman carrying some equipment along the street? Hell, if you saw a guy carrying a chainsaw, you wouldn’t even blink so long as he was wearing an official-looking uniform. People like to mind their own business as much as possible.”

“ But still,” I reply, “if this guy was carrying a ladder and a dead body -”

“The body must have been disguised,” he points out. “In a bag, maybe, or some kind of case.”

“Or the killer wasn’t working alone.”

“The more people,” he replies, “the more fuss. I reckon this was a case of getting in and out fast. A lone wolf.”

“So check every camera in the area for someone either heading toward the square or walking away, anyone who looks like they could conceivably be responsible for this.”

“I already tried that,” he replies. “No luck.”

“Don’t we have other camera angles of the plinth itself?”

“Nothing that’s any help,” he continues. “Believe it or not, this is the best. I’m having it digitally enhanced so we can try to get a better idea of what was happening in the darkness, but the tech guys said not to hold out too much hope, on account of the resolution being pretty poor.” He pauses for a moment. “The only part that I really don’t understand is how our guy knew there was going to be a power cut at that exact moment. The rest can be accounted for if you accept that he’s a little audacious, but the power cut gets me. The guy from the energy company said it’d require some pretty advanced knowledge to pull something like this off.”

“Or a quick search online,” I reply, “and the right equipment. If you know what you’re looking for, the internet can tell you how to do pretty much anything.”

“Plus you need the guts to do it.”

“I guess he just planned ahead,” I continue, sitting back. I watch the screen, as late-night Londoners pass the fourth plinth without realizing that there’s now a dead body up there. It’s hard to believe that such a thing could happen in the heart of one of the most populated, most heavily monitored cities in the world, but the killer clearly had it all worked out. The whole thing just seems so theatrical, and he obviously went to a lot of trouble. Dumping the body somewhere wouldn’t have been enough; this killer wanted to make an impact.

“So what now?” Nick asks, clearly at just as much of a loss.

“I hate to admit it,” I reply, “but we have to go and do exactly what the killer wants us to do. We have to go and take a look around Beacon Court Art College.”

 

***

 

“We have just shy of two hundred full-time students,” Principal Carol Livingstone explains as she leads us across the campus, “and another thirty-three part-timers who study one of the two access courses we offer. Add twenty faculty staff, plus the skill-specific technical assistants, the administration office and the janitorial team, and you’re looking at approximately three hundred people who use the site on a regular basis.”

“Is there any way to check who was on the college grounds at any particular moment?” I ask.

“Sorry,” she replies. “We don’t make our students sign in or out, if that’s what you mean. The full-timers have scheduled classes several times a week, and a note is made of attendance, but most of them are here a lot more often, using the facilities or just hanging around in the cafeteria or the bar.”

“They have their own bar?” Nick asks incredulously. “Jesus Christ, I made the wrong life choices. I should’ve come and dossed around at art school instead of actually doing something with my life.”

“That’s a very common attitude,” she replies, clearly a little annoyed by his tone, “among people who don’t understand the mission of Beacon Court. We operate a very open, very socially-orientated campus structure that emphasizes the importance of collaboration. No man is an island, and so on.”

“But all art activities are supervised, aren’t they?” Nick asks.

“Of course, but not constantly. Students touch base with their module leaders at regular intervals, but for the most part they work alone or in groups. We like to encourage total artistic freedom, without the need to be overseen by a tutor at all times.”

“In other words,” I reply as we enter the main part of the building, “you don’t really know what your students are doing.”

“You make that sound like a bad thing.”

Before I can reply, I’m somewhat taken aback by the sight of a huge bronze sculpture that takes up most of the space in the reception area. Rising up to the ceiling, a series of jagged metal panels look to have been twisted into a series of awkward swirls, with some of the edges ragged and others smooth, while bronze-tinted barbed wire runs through the center of the structure. It’s certainly an arresting sight, although it’s maybe a little too abstract for my taste. Even when I tilt my head to one side, I can’t quite work out what it’s supposed to look like. I think maybe it’s supposed to be a giant bird, or maybe a flame, or a fist…

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Livingstone says after a moment.

“Does it have a title?” I ask.

She shakes her head.

“What does it mean?” I add.

“Mean?”

I turn to her. “Doesn’t it mean something?”

She smiles. “Everything means something to the person who’s looking at it,” she says, with a slightly patronizing tone to her voice, “but your question implies that some innate meaning should have been installed into the sculpture by the artist. Increasingly these days, artists prefer to let the observer negotiate a meaning. This approach is generally considered to be more honest.”

“Huh,” Nick mutters, clearly not very impressed.

“The role of the artist is not to answer questions,” Livingstone continues, “but rather to ask them. When one observes a piece of art, one should not expect to be let off the hook. Rather, the act of observation is a challenge that signifies the beginning of a process, rather than simply the viewing of a finished piece. An artist is merely the midwife who helps deliver a question into the world, and contextualizes that question for the benefit of ordinary mortals.”

“So that’s what happens here?” Nick replies. “Kids just bang some crap together and tell other people to decide what it means?” He turns to me. “I could do that, you know. Anyone could.” He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper, which he scrunches into a ball before holding it out toward Livingstone. “Is that art?”

She smiles, although it’s clear that she’s not impressed.

Is it?” he asks.

“Why don’t you tell me?” she replies.

“I thought the role of the artist wasn’t to answer questions,” he points out. “Are you sure this whole school isn’t basically a big doss house for people who don’t want to study real subjects?”

“Not quite,” Livingstone tells him, clearly annoyed by his attitude. “There’s a rigorous intellectual and academic component to all our courses. The students have to explain why they made certain choices, they have to contextualize those choices in terms of both art history and modern society, and they have to anticipate certain types of response, including ignorant derision. No-one gets a free ride at Beacon Court.”

“What about murder?” I ask, turning to her.

“Murder?”

“Do you think murder can be art?”

“Anything can be art.”

“I like paintings,” Nick interjects. “Dunno why. I just do.”

“But there are ethical lines that your students would never cross, aren’t there?” I continue. “I assume you teach them that there are certain things they shouldn’t do.”

“I’d like to think,” she replies, “that all our students are aware of the difference between right and wrong before they ever set foot through the door.”

“But you don’t know that,” I point out. “For some people, art is about making a statement, and about shocking the viewer. It’s possible that someone might go too far in pursuit of those goals.”

“You’re referring to the horrific discovery that was made yesterday,” she replies, clearly feeling uncomfortable. “That patch of land might be owned by the college, but it’s never used by anyone here. In fact, we’re in the process of selling it to a developer who wants to build flats. Hardly ideal, of course, but in these constrained economic times we’re forced to make difficult decisions.”

“Have any of your students created any work that has murder as a theme?” I ask, interrupting her.

“Well… I have no idea, off the top of my head.” She pauses. “You can’t seriously believe that anyone here had anything to do with the bodies that were dug up. Everyone here was horrified to hear the news, and I won’t tolerate any suggestion that there could be any link to the college. Quite clearly, someone merely took advantage of the fact that we have a considerable tract of wasteland close to the building. They probably thought that they could do anything out there, and no-one would find out.”

“Actually,” I reply, “we’re working on the assumption that the killer might have links to the school.”

“On what basis?”

“On the basis that all the evidence points straight to this place.”

“Surely,” she replies, “that merely indicates that someone is trying to misdirect you?”

“There are certain aspects of the case that lead us to believe otherwise,” I tell her. “We’re going to need access to all the files you have regarding your current students, as well as information about students who graduated within the past two years. We’re also going to need to speak to the tutors who work here, so we can ascertain whether any students have caused particular concern. Are you aware of any existing problems?”

“Absolutely not,” she replies, as if she’s horrified by the suggestion.

“It doesn’t mean anything, does it?” Nick says suddenly.

Turning to him, I see that he’s still staring up at the bronze sculpture with a dazed, faraway look in his eyes.

“Well,” he continues, turning to me, “it doesn’t. It’s just bullshit, isn’t it? I mean, it looks nice, but it doesn’t have any actual reason for existing apart from the fact that it’s supposed to make an impression. There’s nothing deep about it. It’s just a bunch of rusty old trash that’s been stuck together and put on show.”

“Should all art be deep?” Principal Livingstone asks.

“Yeah,” he replies, turning to her, and then back to me. “Shouldn’t it?”

“The college will of course cooperate with your investigation fully,” she continues, glancing at me, “but I do hope that you’ll keep an open mind and that you’ll work discreetly. The third-year students have their final exhibition in just a few days’ time, and I won’t allow the police to come charging in and disrupt everything. The students are artists, and they need space in which to incubate their ideas and bring forth their creations.”

Nick sniffs with derision.

“We’ll be discreet,” I tell her, “and we’ll do our best to keep from causing any problems, but we have a job to do and there might be times when a little disruption can’t be helped. We’d like to start by speaking to the tutors and finding out if any of them have observed anything unusual.”

“This is a school of creativity,” she replies archly. “We deal in the unusual.”

“You know what I mean,” I continue, forcing a polite smile.

“Give me a moment,” she replies, making her way to the reception desk.

Turning to look up at the huge bronze sculpture, I can’t help but stare for a moment at its vast size. It’s certainly memorable, and unlike Nick I don’t necessarily feel that a piece of art has to come pre-loaded with an obvious meaning in order to have value. In fact, as I stare at the sculpture, I feel as if it’s helping to set my mind at ease for a moment. It’s the same kind of calm that I feel when I’ve pocketed something in a store and managed to reach my car without being stopped. Having for so long hoped that I could find another way to get that feeling, I’m struck by the thought that art might help.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I ask eventually, turning to Nick.

“That this place is full of pretentious bullshit?” he replies.

“That the third-year show might be significant,” I tell him. “All the students have to prepare a final project for the show, something that’ll make a splash. What if one of them has decided to use murder as a medium?”

Ophelia

 

“So you’re new here, right?”

Turning, I immediately tense up as I find that a guy has come over to talk to me. I was just sitting here in the corner of the cafeteria, warming my hands over a cup of tea while observing some of the other students, but suddenly my little bubble has been burst by a guy whose clothes are so faded and damaged, he looks like he belongs on the streets. Still, he speaks in the clipped tones of someone who had a good upbringing, and I can’t help but notice that his shoes look expensive and new. He’s trying to play a certain part, but it’s phony as hell. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s phony people.

“Miles,” he says, holding a hand out toward me. “Third year, Contemporary and Applied Art. I also double as a student outreach coordinator, helping new people to settle in.”

“Hi,” I reply, shaking his hand and finding to my surprise that his skin is incredibly smooth. “Ophelia.”

“Cool name. So are you here for an interview, or are you one of the new part-timers?”

“Um…” I pause, feeling as if my mind has gone completely blank. This is definitely awkward territory for me. I should be making some kind of joke, but it’s as if suddenly my brain isn’t connected to my mouth. “Yeah. New. Part-time.” I take a deep breath as I realize that I need to be more ‘on’ for this encounter. “I just enrolled this morning,” I explain. “Living the dream, and all that.”

“Mind if I join you?” he asks.

Before I can answer, he takes a seat next to me. My initial instinct is to get up and make an excuse to leave, but I figure I need to force myself to have a conversation. Damn it, I’m usually so good at bullshitting, but being back in a school environment has brought some bad memories to the fore.

“I’ve been working all day on my stuff for the show,” he continues. “It’s totally intense. Like, it’s the culmination of all the work I’ve done here over the past three years, and I feel like I really need to make some kind of statement. This time in a few days, I’ll have been birthed from the school’s calming womb, and I’ll have no choice but to allow everyone at the show to view my rawest work. It’s intimidating and terrifying, but also very freeing.”

I smile awkwardly. Damn it, I don’t feel like myself at all. This whole place is setting me on edge, and I’m seriously considering changing my mind and quitting. Laura was right when she said this was a dumb idea, and I’ll probably just end up getting in the way of her investigation. Checking my watch, I see that it’s been exactly an hour since I enrolled, so if I walked out the door right now, I’ve have beaten my previous art college record by quite a large margin.

“It’s so freeing to expose yourself to the starkness of public exposure,” he continues. “To throw open your soul and let other people judge your creations… It’s terrifying, of course, but also so liberating. Plus, you get the chance to challenge preconceptions and change the way people think. Awesome, huh?” He pauses. “I work mainly in mixed media. Collage, video installations, that sort of thing, and the juxtapositions between them. What about you?”

“Oh, I…” Pausing, I try to think of something. “This and that, really. Painting. Sculpture…”

“Cool. Old-fashioned, I can dig that.” He stares at me for a moment, as if he’s trying to figure me out. “It’s alright,” he adds finally. “Everyone feels weirded out on their first day. This place is super-intense, but you’re in luck ‘cause everyone’s also super-friendly.”

I smile politely, but the truth is, I’m feeling increasingly worried about my reaction to this place. I can usually get through pretty much any social situation, but something about the art college is making me feel… shy. It’s like all the defense techniques I’ve perfected over the past five years have fallen away and I’m right back where I started, which in turn makes my skin crawl since it reminds me of how things used to be. I came barreling into this situation with so much enthusiasm and confidence, I never even stopped to wonder if there was a good reason why I usually stay within my comfort zone.

“So do you wanna see my stuff?” Miles asks suddenly. “I can show you the third-year project space if you like. Really get you in at the deep end so you can see what you’re in for.”

“No,” I reply, before realizing that this is precisely the kind of opportunity I need. “Sure,” I add, forcing a smile. “Sounds cool.”

“You’re gonna fit in here just fine,” he adds with a broad, genuine grin. “I can tell. You’re one of us.”

I smile, even though I’m dying inside.

 

***

 

“Everyone’s got their own thing going on,” he explains as we make our way into the large hall that serves as a kind of open-plan studio for all the third-year students. “It’s kinda cool, really. We all get on with our own stuff and help out where we can. It’s a very creative environment.”

Nearby, a girl wearing dungarees is applying some kind of wet gauze to a mannequin; a little further on, a tall, painfully-thin girl is attaching fake silver leaves to a tree; over by the window, a guy with a beard is plugging various old televisions together, while the screens show strange, almost hypnotic images of swirling shapes and colors. I feel totally out of my depth, and once again it’s as if I’m not even myself. I swear, I haven’t thought of a single witty comeback to anything since Miles introduced himself to me.

Maybe it’s a brain tumor. I’ve always been terrified of developing a brain tumor, but it would explain why I suddenly feel so nervous. Or not. Damn it, I’m scrabbling for excuses. The truth is: deep down, I know why I’m so nervous. My memories of school are pretty traumatic, and this place is bringing them back.

“So did you hear about those bodies that were found nearby?” I ask, trying to get myself back on track. “I heard there were, like, loads of body parts in bin bags.”

“Sick, huh?” he replies as we reach a desk in the far corner and he turns to me. “Everyone’s talking about it. It’s so sick, like something out of a movie. Or doll parts!”

“Do you think it was someone from the college?” I ask.

“From here?” He pauses, as if the idea hadn’t occurred to him before. “No way. Everyone at Beacon Court is way too relaxed and chilled. I just hope there’s not a bunch of cops all over the place, ‘cause we really don’t need to have the atmosphere messed with right now. As you might have noticed, everyone’s kinda tense. The deadline for the final show’s coming up, so it’s action stations.”

He grabs a laptop from the desk and starts cuing a video.

“This is one of my main pieces,” he explains. “It’s a meditation on the absurdity of consciousness. I’m trying to show how ridiculous it is for us to each maintain just one personality construct. Fluid types are my thing. God, I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious.”

I watch as swirling patterns start to flash up onto the screen, accompanied by a repetitive, tribal-sounding drumbeat. It’s quite possibly the most lame, bullshit-ridden thing I’ve seen in my life, but I guess I can’t exactly tell him that. If I’m going to fit in around here, I definitely need to learn the lingo.

“Let me guess,” I say after a moment, “did you make the music yourself?”

“Totally,” he replies, taking a step back. “I’m thinking of releasing the soundtrack separately as an album. I’ve had loads of extra space to play in, ‘cause the girl who was given the studio spot next to me hasn’t needed it.”

He seems really proud of the video, so I figure I should humor him and pretend to pay attention while it plays. Unfortunately, all I can think about is the fact that my skin is crawling, and I’m starting to remember just how bad I am at fitting into social situations. Sure, I can joke when I’m feeling confident, but right now I just want to crawl into a dark space and hide away from everyone. It’s the same feeling I last felt five years ago, just before I started living on the streets.

“So what do you think?” he asks after a few minutes, once the video is over.

“It’s great,” I lie. “Really… powerful.”

“I’m glad you dig it,” he continues, closing the lid of the laptop. “That’s kinda why I came up to you in the cafeteria. You were sitting there all quiet, but I just got the feeling that you’d be on my wavelength. Sometimes you can tell that about someone, right? Like, I’ve totally got you down as someone who’s pretty quiet and keeps herself to herself. Am I right, or am I right?”

“You’re…” I pause for a moment. “Wow,” I add finally, amazed at how wrong he is. “That’s all I can say, really.”

“I knew it,” he continues. “It’s like a goddamn sixth sense.”

“Crap!” I hiss, suddenly spotting Laura outside the window. I duck down just in time, and I’m pretty certain that she was too busy talking to the guy she was walking with. I hold my breath, desperately hoping that she’ll just carry on instead of coming into the studio, but after a moment I realize that Miles is staring at me with a look of surprise.

“Someone you don’t want to see?” he asks.

“Just a friend.”

“A friend you don’t want to see?”

“It’s complicated,” I reply. “I don’t want her to know that I’m here.” I pause for a moment, my heart racing as I hold my breath. “Has she gone?”

“Totally,” he says with a smile. “Looks like she’s heading over to the admin building.”

Getting to my feet, I look out the window and spot Laura and the guy making their way up a set of steps, and after a moment they disappear through a door. My heart is racing, and I’m really starting to think that I made a mistake by coming here. Still, I’ve started now, so I might as well keep nosing around. I’ve always been good at overcoming my emotions, and while this is a huge challenge, that’s no reason to shrink back.

“So,” I say, turning to Miles and forcing myself to get on with things, “is there anyone here at the college who seems to be really into making art that focuses on death?”

“Death?” He pauses. “Not really. Well, apart from…”

I wait for him to finish.

“Apart from what?” I ask.

“I guess there’s Vicky,” he says, indicating the bare space a few feet away. “I don’t know if she’s into death necessarily, but she’s pretty fucking weird. Scurries around like a scared little mouse, barely even speaking to anyone else. Wouldn’t surprise me if death was one of things.”

“And where’s her stuff?” I reply.

“Who knows?” he says with a shrug. “She doesn’t really talk to anyone else very much. I think she said something about working away from the campus and not needing the space here. Fuck knows what she’s gonna turn up with for the final show. I mean…” He pauses for a moment. “I know this might sound weird, and I probably shouldn’t say it at all, but if there was ever, like, a school shooting here, she’d totally be the one to do it.”

“That’s mean!” says one of the girls nearby, who’s busy working on a canvas.

“Deny it, bitch,” Miles replies.

“Can’t,” she adds, with a smile and a shrug.

“Everyone here knows about Victoria,” Miles continues, “and everyone kinda avoids her. She just gives off bad vibes, you know? Like, we all kinda hold our breath when she comes into the room, ‘cause the energy just seems to change. There’s just this look in her eyes that makes you think she’s got a bunch of really dark, fucked-up thoughts.”

“Huh,” I reply, staring at the empty space for a moment, before turning to him. “So where can I find her?”

Laura

 

“If you want me to tell you that one of my students is some death-obsessed freak,” he says, with obvious scorn in his voice, “then I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you.”

“ Detective Foster,” Principal Livingstone says with a faint smile, “Detective Morgan, I'd like you to meet Mike Wallace, one of our senior staff members. Mike has been -”

“I’m the third year final project supervisor,” he says, interrupting her as he folds his newspaper closed and removes his glasses. A short, round man with graying hair and a neat white beard, he clearly isn’t very keen to talk to me. “I know my students very well, but I can assure you that I won’t be betraying any confidences. I consider myself to be in a position not unlike that of a priest or a doctor, and my students trust me implicitly with their dreams, their hopes, their plans. It’s a sacred bond, and I simply can’t betray the little darlings. Even though I hate them so very much.”

“I’m not asking you to tell us all their secrets,” I tell him. “It’s just that we need to know if anyone has said anything that worries you.”

“Constantly,” he replies. “Every damn one of them, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“But have any of your students created artwork that disturbs you?”

“They all have. They all mistake shock for value.”

“Okay,” I reply with a sigh, “but have any of them done or said anything that makes you genuinely worried about their frame of mind?”

“Of course. They’re artists, for God’s sake, not law students. Or rather, they’re art students. Not artists yet, not by a long shot.”

I open my mouth to ask another question, but it’s clear that this approach isn’t going to work. I don’t know why, but Mike Wallace seems very defensive, and he clearly sees me as the enemy.

“You have to understand,” he continues, “that you’re in a different world here. When you enter the world of the artist, you enter a new realm, one where the usual rules of normality don’t apply. Every single one of my students is disturbed in some way, but instead of marginalizing them for their uniqueness I seek to encourage their artistic sides. So if you’ve come here hoping to find a group of normal, well-adjusted young people with perhaps one or two freaks sticking out to merit your attention, then I’m afraid that you’ve been hopelessly naive and ill-informed.”

Standing next to me, Nick sighs.

“I’m trying to track down a killer,” I say, watching as Wallace starts gathering his things, as if he’s already decided that the conversation is over and it’s time for him to leave. “I have reason to believe that this individual might have links to the college, and I’d appreciate your assistance.”

“You’re very vanilla, aren’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“I can see it in your eyes,” he says with a smile, as he gets to his feet. “You don’t belong in the art world. Your sensibilities are very normal and straight-laced. You’re easily shocked by what we do here. You’re down the rabbit hole, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure about that,” I reply tersely, trying not to sound irritated.

“It’s okay,” he adds. “Not everyone can be an artist. Hell, most of the students can’t even manage it.”

Reaching into my pocket, I pull out a photo and hold it up for him to see. His eyes widen in horror as he registers the image of the stitched-together corpse.

“That’s not a piece of art,” I tell him, enjoying the sense of shock on his face. “That’s an actual body that was found recently. You probably read about it in the news, but maybe seeing it will help you to focus.” I hold the photo up for a moment longer, before putting it away. “I’m sorry if that shocked you,” I add. “Not everyone can stomach that kind of thing.”

“It’s…” He pauses, clearly lost for words. “Beautiful, in its own way.”

“You should see the other photos some time,” I mutter.

“Detective Foster wants to know if any of the students have exhibited signs of disturbing behavior,” Principal Livingstone tells him. “I told her that she’s barking up the wrong tree, but obviously she has to ask these questions. You know how seriously the authorities take their work, even when it’s clear that they’re heading down a dead end.”

“Can I see the photo again?” he asks.

“No,” I reply. “Please, just tell me if there’s anything you’ve heard or seen over the past few days that makes you question the behavior of any of your students.”

“Absolutely not,” he replies. “They’re artists, not murderers.”

“They could be both,” I point out.

“But they’re not,” he says firmly. “Trust me, I know each of them extremely well. They show me their work on a weekly basis, they discuss their plans and their concerns, they tell me how they’re feeling and even then, I pick up more information about them than they care to let on. I can categorically assure you that none of them could ever do anything like that. Frankly, it would require more talent, inspiration and skill than they could all muster even if they pooled their limited abilities.”

“ What about -” Livingstone starts to say, before stopping herself.

“What about what?” I ask.

As I wait for an answer, I can’t help but notice a knowing look between Livingstone and Wallace, as if they’re both aware of some unspoken suggestion.

“What about what?” I ask again, determined to get one of them to speak up.

“I’m not going to get into scape-goating and typecasting,” Wallace says, clearly uncomfortable with the direction in which the conversation is heading.

“What about Victoria Middleton?” Livingstone continues, with a hint of concern in her voice.

As soon as he hears that name, Mike Wallace seems to become a little more nervous.

“Who’s Victoria Middleton?” I ask.

“ One of the third-year students,” he says cautiously, “but just because she's trickier than the rest -”

“She’s almost a recluse,” Livingstone adds, interrupting him.

“She’s socially awkward,” Wallace continues, “and she keeps her work very much to herself, but that doesn’t mean that she’s a murderer. It just means that she’s a bit strange, even by the standards of this place. What’s that phrase that’s so often used to describe ordinary people who do bad things? Oh, yes, I remember: she keeps herself to herself.”

“What kind of work does she do?” I ask.

“I don’t really know,” he replies, with a faint sigh. “I mean, I make her show me sketches from time to time, when I can actually track her down. Like the rest of them, she’s working on her final project for the show, but she seems determined to keep it to herself for now. God knows why, but some of the students can be a little difficult sometimes. They don’t want anyone seeing what they’re doing until they’re finished. In Vicky’s case, I’m just going to trust that she shows up for the final show with something that knocks my socks off. It’s touch-and-go, I can assure you, but it’s no skin off my nose if she falls by the wayside.”

“She’s a weird one,” Livingstone continues. “I feel bad saying that, but it’s true.”

“I’ve never really paid her very much attention,” Wallace adds. “You must understand, if just one out of a million students turns out to possess any talent, I would consider that to be a good result. Victoria Middleton is just a strange little creature who will no longer be my problem once the final show is over.”

I glance at Nick, and I can see that he shares my concerns.

“Where is she now?” Livingstone asks.

“Who knows?” Wallace replies. “As I said, she tends to work alone, away from the campus. I used to try to make her work here more often, but eventually I realized that there was no point pushing her, so I gave her some slack. She’s a slightly more original thinker than some of the others, although that’s not saying much and anyway, she always has trouble expressing her ideas. She has the raw materials of talent, but no idea how to apply herself. Shame, really. Another one for the trash-heap.”

“I’ll need her details,” I say, turning to Livingstone. “Home address, contact information, that sort of thing.”

“You can’t be serious,” Wallace interjects. “Just because she’s a little unusual, are you going to jump to the conclusion that she must be a murderer?”

“Of course not,” I reply. “I’m just going to check her out, while I continue to take a look around the college. I can’t afford to leave any stones unturned, not when there are lives at stake. Is it possible for me to see some of her earlier work?”

“We have some on file,” Wallace replies, “but…” He turns to Livingstone, and it’s clear that they’re both worried about something.

“Victoria Middleton has a history of producing some rather… striking work,” Livingstone says after a moment. “Detective Foster, we can show you Victoria’s second year project, but first I need you to understand that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions. I’m quite certain that, underneath it all, she’s actually a very sweet young woman.”

“Maybe you’d better show us her work,” I reply, starting to feel that we might be onto something after all.

 

***

 

“It’s a pile of bullshit,” Nick says, with a hint of awe in his voice. After a moment, he turns to me. “I mean, that’s literally what it is, right?”

“I believe it’s goat shit, actually,” Wallace replies. “From a farm somewhere in Essex.”

We’re standing in Mike Wallace’s office, watching a video of what appears to be a large pile of manure, with steam slowly rising from its surface. The video has been running for a few minutes now, but nothing of note seems to be happening. There’s a part of me that wants to find some kind of deep meaning in this work, but so far my only reaction is that I’m slightly embarrassed for the poor girl.

“We were rather taken aback when she delivered it to the show,” Wallace acknowledges. “The smell alone was… Well, some of the other students complained that it rather interfered with their own work. Unfortunately, Victoria has never been someone who takes the needs of others into account. She does what she wants, and she expects everyone else to fit around her plans. Sometimes shyness can manifest as arrogance, and vice versa.”

“No way,” Nick mutters, staring at the screen. “Please tell me she didn’t get a passing grade for this.”

“She received a distinction,” Wallace counters. “Beneath the pile of manure, she’d buried a very lifelike model of her own naked body. The nudity part wasn’t particularly original, to be honest. If I had a quid for every student who strips off to the buff in an attempt to seem provocative, I’d be a very rich man. But Victoria wrote a very convincing essay detailing her reasoning this particular approach. I’ve got to be honest, I’m excited to see what she comes up with for the final show.”

“Do you happen to know where she might be right now?” I ask.

“She should be in the main studio,” he replies, “but I don’t think she’s been there for weeks. Not for more than a few minutes at a time, anyway. She usually works off-campus, but sometimes she comes in during the mornings to use the machine room. It’s always worth a look, but…” He pauses. “When you speak to her, there’s something you should probably be aware of first. She has a tendency to…”

I wait for him to continue.

“To what?” I ask eventually.

“It’s kind of awkward, actually,” he continues. “Just remember that it’s not your fault, okay? It’s just the way she is. In fact, she does it almost all the time.”

 

***

 

“It’s okay, Victoria,” I tell her as we sit in Wallace’s office a little while later. “Take your time. We really only want to ask you a few very simple questions.”

Seated on the other side of the desk, Victoria Middleton continues to sob. Nick and I have only been talking to her for a couple of minutes, but she immediately burst into tears before we could even get our first question out. Her attempts to speak have been mostly unsuccessful, punctuated every few words by a kind of sobbing whine. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, I reach over to the box of tissues, pull one out, and hold it out for her.

“Take this,” I tell her.

With her tear-filled eyes already looking red and sore, she takes the tissue and starts dabbing at her face. She’s a fragile-looking girl who has the appearance of someone who couldn’t hurt a fly, but Mike Wallace was right when he said that she bursts into tears at the slightest provocation. Since we found her in one of the machine rooms and asked her to come and have a chat with us, she’s been cycling through various states of distress, ranging from brief sniffles to all-out bawling. To say that she seems emotionally unstable would be an understatement.

I glance over at Nick and see the annoyed look on his face. He’s never been the sympathetic type.

“So, Victoria,” I continue, forcing a smile in an attempt to make her realize that she’s not in trouble. “We’re really only here to ask around and see if anyone can help us with a case we’re working on. You’re just one of many, many people we’ll be talking to today, okay? You’re not under any suspicion.”

She nods, but her bottom lip is trembling and it’s clear that she’s on the verge of another collapse.

“What do you know,” Nick continues, “about the discovery that was made in the woods near the college yesterday?”

She shakes her head.

“You don’t know anything?” he asks.

She mumbles something, but her quiet words are distorted by the tears and it’s starting to become clear that this whole interview is going nowhere.

“What about an incident in Trafalgar Square recently?” I add. “Are you aware that a body was found up on the fourth plinth? It’s been all over the news for days.”

She nods.

“So tell us about your final year project,” Nick says, evidently keen to get to the heart of the matter.

She turns to him, with tears still streaming from her eyes.

“What is it?” he continues. “I’m into art and all that stuff. We saw your other work earlier, the one with the big pile of manure and stuff. It was… cool. So what are you up to this year? Got something cool lined up to knock everyone’s socks off, have you?”

“It’s…” She pauses, before her bottom lip starts trembling again and she bursts into yet more tears.

We sit in silence for a moment, as she tries to compose herself.

“It’s stupid, really,” she continues eventually. “It’s just… Why are you asking me? Are you talking to everyone?”

“Yes,” I tell her, at the exact same moment that Nick says “No.”

She looks shocked.

“We only just arrived,” I continue. “We’re just trying to get a handle on things, that’s all.”

“You think I’m a killer?” she asks.

“ No, it's just -”

Before I can finish, she bursts into tears again.

Nick turns to me, and I can see that he thinks this whole situation is hopeless. To be fair, he’s probably the worst person to bring to a place like this, since he tends to see the world in black and white, while having precious little time for people who aren’t strictly logical and down-to-earth.

“Do you want to have a word outside for a moment?” I ask, getting up. “Hang on, Victoria. We just need to discuss something in the corridor.”

As soon as we’re out of the room and I’ve pulled the door shut, I turn to Nick.

“What do you think?”

“She’s a mess,” he replies.

“But is there any way she could actually be the person we’re looking for?”

He opens his mouth to reply, but he pauses for a moment before eventually he sighs. “Can’t write her off completely,” he says, “but… No. Blatantly not. I mean, I know it’s dangerous to start saying that certain people are or aren’t capable of murder, but she’s a wimp. I doubt she could kill an ant without crying a river.” He pauses. “What about you?”

“ I think we should check her out,” I tell him. “Her background, her activities -”

“She’s not the killer,” he replies. “Blatantly. Come on, Laura, you can tell that just by looking at her.”

“But she…” Pausing, I realize that he’s probably right. This isn’t the time to be going with gut instincts. “We’re wasting our time here,” I mutter, starting to feel the frustration as it rises through my chest. “This whole morning has been draining away and we still haven’t got anywhere.”

“Maybe that’s what the killer wants,” Nick points out.

“ If the killer's in this college -”

“Which still isn’t certain,” he cuts in.

“But if he or she is, then it could be anyone. Staff, students… We can’t include or exclude anyone based on stereotypes.”

“So what do you want to do?” he asks.

“I want to give Victoria a hug, send her on her way, and then work out how to move forward from here.” Pausing, I realize that even through the closed door, I can still hear Victoria sobbing.

As Nick rolls his eyes, my phone vibrates and I see that I’ve got a message from Tricia. Reading the text, I feel my blood start to freeze. I read it again, just to make absolutely certain that it’s as bad as I think it is. It is.

“Shit,” I mutter.

“What’s wrong?” Nick asks.

I turn to him. “We’ve got a major problem.”

Ophelia

 

“Jesus Christ!” Miles exclaims. “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!”

I’m standing at the back of a small crowd, with all the students in the studio having gathered around a laptop to view the leaked images from Laura’s case. A few minutes ago someone came hurrying in, excitedly shouting to the others to let them know that an unidentified source has apparently put all the photos – including the image of the little boy trapped in the corpse’s chest – on a photo-sharing website. The originals were quickly taken down, but they’ve already spread faster than a bunch of celebrity nudes.

“Man, that looks unreal,” says someone nearby. “Maybe they’re not real?”

“They’re real,” adds someone else. “You can tell from the flesh tones. Also, the cops have put out a message asking people not to look or share. They wouldn’t have done that if the pictures were fakes.”

“Go to the next one,” a voice urges.

From the center of the scrum, I hear a click. Seconds later, there’s another groan of group shock.

“What kind of fucking sicko would do something like this?” a female voice asks. “You can, like, see the kid’s eyes staring out through the ribs. That is the most horrible image I can even imagine.”

“Someone should make a film of this,” says a guy nearby. “Like a proper horror movie.”

“It makes me wanna vomit,” adds a girl, “but at the same time, I can’t look away. Does that make me fucked-up?”

“Hey!” Miles calls out, reaching over and nudging my arm. “You wanna see?”

“I’m good, thanks,” I reply. I can’t tell him that I’ve already seen the photos, but at the same time I really don’t feel like taking another look at them. All in all, I still feel very much like I’m not myself; my mind feels muted, as if the mania of the past few days has faded away. I’m also worried about Laura, because I know full well that the leak of these photos is going to cause her a major headache. She’s gonna be popping bottles of whiskey and bars of chocolate into her pockets later, that’s for sure.

“Imagine putting this stuff in the end of year show,” says another voice excitedly.

“You might actually get a fucking distinction,” adds another student, prompting a lot of laughter.

Hearing a noise nearby, I turn and watch as a girl hurries into the studio and makes her way past the crowd. We briefly make eye contact, and it looks as if she’s been crying recently. She heads to the studio space next to Miles and starts gathering up a few items from her desk, fumbling slightly as if she’s in such a hurry that she doesn’t have a moment to lose. Finally she hurries back out, glancing at me again before heading out the door.

“That was Victoria,” Miles says, nudging my shoulder. “Told you she was a bit weird.”

Ignoring him, I stare at the door. I’m always wary of judging people too quickly, but there was something about that girl that really caught my attention. I think it was the look in her eyes, combined with the fact that she’s the only person who didn’t seem interested in the leaked photos. And that’s when it hits me: a sensation deep in the pit of my stomach as if some hidden part of my mind has come to a realization that it’s only now willing to share with the rest of me. It was something in the girl’s eyes, something I recognized from my own experiences. Something horribly, sickeningly familiar.

It’s like looking into a mirror. She’s me, or rather: she’s me from five years ago.

Part Four

Laura

 

“This is a disaster,” Halveston says as he stares at the screen. “Those pictures are everywhere!”

“ They've already been picked up by all the obvious websites,” Tricia replies, as she checks the latest bad news on her phone, “and they're all over the bulletin boards, forums and torrent sites. We've basically reached saturation level in terms of digital media, and I've heard informally that at least three of the national papers are going to run partially-pixellated versions on their front pages tomorrow -”

“They can’t do that,” I reply, turning to her.

“Public interest,” she says with a shrug. “The pictures are online anyway, so good luck getting an injunction. It’s not a fight that we can win.”

“I want them down,” Halveston continues. “I want you to find every website that’s hosting these leaked images, and get them taken down immediately. I don’t care what you have to do, but I want them off the internet!”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Tricia tells him. “They’re going viral, they’re trending… It’s literally impossible to put this genie back in its bottle. With every second that passes, more and more copies are being made. There’s a reason this kind of thing is described as viral, sir. The pictures are literally spreading like a virus.”

“And people want to look at stuff like this?” he asks, clearly horrified.

“They’re not only looking,” Tricia replies. “They’re remixing, editing, turning them into memes… The whole internet bag of tricks. At least we’ve managed to identify the source of the leaks. It was a woman from the SOCO team who attended the crime scenes. She shared them with a few friends, and they went viral from there. She’s already been suspended and she’ll almost certainly end up getting fired, but in terms of this particular case, it’s too late. We just have to accept that the pictures are out there.”

Sighing, Halveston turns to me.

“What kind of person does this?” he asks. “Who looks at those pictures and decides they want to share them with other people?”

“Human nature,” I reply.

“There are whole websites dedicated to hosting horrific true-life images,” Tricia points out, “but slowly those websites are becoming more mainstream, and in turn the old mainstream sites are having to compete by going down the same avenues. The limits of human tolerance are constantly being pushed back.”

“This isn’t your fault, Laura,” Halveston continues after a moment. “At the same time, the pressure just went up a thousandfold. Everyone in the country is talking about this case now, and we need to get results fast. How confident are you that this art school has got anything to do with the murders?”

“Confident enough to be going back there in the morning,” I tell him.

“And is that because you truly believe that the killer is there,” he asks, “or because it’s your only lead right now?”

“There’s a link to the school,” I reply, even though I’m not entirely certain. “We just have to work out the nature of that link. Apart from that, forensic analysis of the bodies has shown up nothing so far. Whoever the killer is, he or she was able to work without leaving a trace.”

“Tomorrow’s front pages will be all about the photos,” Tricia adds. “In a way, this leak might have brought us a little breathing space as the news cycle adjusts. The day after, the papers’ll be focusing on the latest developments. Two days after that, they’ll be starting to ask questions if there’s no progress, and that’s when they’re going to start bringing up the question of whether we’re doing our job.” She turns to me, and I know what she’s going to say before the words leave her lips. “They’ll start bringing up the Daniel Gregory case again, Laura. They’ll want to put a public face on the investigation, and it’ll be you. No matter how bad the media storm was last time, it’s going to be a thousand times worse when it all gets dredged up again.”

“ So that gives us, what, a maximum of three days?” Halveston continues. “If you don't have someone in a cell by then, Laura, I'll have to ease you aside. Not only to help the case, but also to make sure that you don't end up being dragged through the tabloids again. So that begs the question of whether it'd be better to just bite the bullet right now and maybe bring someone else in.” He pauses. “Unless you're certain that you can -”

“I’m certain,” I tell him.

“ But if -”

“I’m certain,” I say again, more firmly this time. “I’ll have someone. The third year students have their final show on Friday, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’m still working on the assumption that the murder is somehow designed to be seen as a work of art, and I think it’s a taste of what’s to come.” Checking my watch, I see that it’s almost five in the afternoon, which means that there’s not much point going back to the school today. “If you’ll both excuse me,” I continue, “I need to speak to Nick before he goes home. We really need to hit the ground running tomorrow.”

 

***

 

Two minutes later, leaning over the toilet, I feel my stomach twisting in knots. I swear to God, I’m going to vomit. As I wait, however, the sensation starts to ease. I take a series of deep breaths in an attempt to calm the hell down.

 

***

 

Two minutes after that, back in my office, I bring up Ophelia’s phone number. It’s an insane idea, but I’m actually starting to reconsider her suggestion about sending her into the school undercover to see what she can find out. It’d have to be completely unofficial, of course, but the case is moving too slowly and Ophelia might be just the right kind of grenade to throw into the situation. After all, the killer seems to have been directing us toward the school, probably assuming that we’d investigate methodically. He probably thinks he can predict everything we do, but there’s no way anyone could anticipate the involvement of someone like Ophelia.

Then again…

Putting my phone away, I decide to wait until I get home to talk to her. There’s no point rushing into anything. After all, Ophelia might be able to help, but there’s also a chance that she’d make everything worse.

Ophelia

 

“Hey,” I say, standing in the doorway.

As she slips another bag of wood into the furnace, Victoria Middleton glances at me and I can immediately see that she doesn’t like being interrupted. There’s a kind of cold, detached look in her eyes, as if the mere fact of being around other people is enough to set her on edge. I understand, because I used to be the same.

“Ophelia,” I say, making my way across the storage room. “I’m new here, just starting the part-time evening course.”

She smiles faintly and mumbles something, before turning back to the furnace and adjusting the front panel. It’s pretty clear that she doesn’t want to talk.

“Sorry to bug you,” I continue, “but I just enrolled today and I’m taking a look around. I was talking to this Miles guy, but now everyone’s just looking at those photos that leaked.” I wait for her to reply, but she seems more interested in getting the fire started. “So this is, like, a storage room?” I ask. “But it’s also a place for burning waste, right?”

“Yeah,” she mutters, not even bothering to look at me.

“I’m still finding my way around,” I add.

No reply.

“So I noticed your place in the studio was empty,” I tell her. “Everyone else is going crazy trying to get their stuff done, but you don’t seem to come in much. Are you working somewhere else?”

“Yeah.”

“Cool. What kind of thing do you do?”

She glances at me but doesn’t say anything. Grabbing some empty cloth sacks, she starts scrunching them up and stuffing them into her backpack. Whatever she came here to burn, she’s obviously finished.

“I’m into painting,” I continue. “Do you like painting?”

“Yeah.”

Almost blushing with embarrassment, she hauls the backpack over her shoulder and heads to the door.

“So do you want to get a drink in the cafeteria?” I ask. “I’d like to get an idea of how this place works.”

She mumbles something that I can’t make out, and with that she slips out of the room and I’m left listening to the sound of her footsteps hurrying along the corridor. After a few seconds, she starts running.

“Huh,” I mutter.

To say that Victoria’s painfully shy would be an understatement. She seemed almost agonized by our brief chat, and unwilling or unable to manage anything more than a few one-word replies. The worst part is, she reminds me of someone I haven’t seen for many years, someone who was damaged by the world but who finally managed to find a way of existing on the margins, someone who doesn’t need help from other people and who can only function on her own terms, according to her own rules.

It’s like looking back in time at how I used to be five years ago.

 

***

 

“So that Victoria girl,” I say as Miles and I wander across the lawn, “she seems… quiet.”

“Victoria Middleton?” he replies. “Why? Have you met her?”

“Briefly. It was kinda hard to even make out what she was saying. She talks so quietly.”

“She’s a hell of a mumbler,” he continues. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against people who are a bit on the quirky side. I mean, this place is full of them. But Victoria Middleton isn’t quirky, she’s… I don’t know, it’s almost as if she can’t even function. A few of us were talking about her a while back, and we’re pretty sure she’s got some kind of illness, like a really serious social disorder or maybe even something mental. She’s just… freaky. Kinda makes you feel awkward if she’s in the room.”

I force a smile, even though I hate the way he just described her. After all, it’s pretty much the same way that people used to talk about me in the old days. I know what it’s like to be viewed as a freak.

“Has she got any friends?” I ask.

“Never seen her with any,” he replies. “We’ve invited her to parties a few times, but she never shows. Sometimes she has to come to class ‘cause we have these mandatory sessions, but it’s totally obvious that she finds it painful to even be there. When she has to actually say something, she blushes, and one time she even started crying. No joke, she’s pretty fucking weird. Like, I have no idea how she’s ever gonna function in the real world. She’s fucked.”

“What about her work?” I ask. “What kind of stuff does she do?”

“It’s kinda all over the place,” he explains. “Most people have got a particular style by the third year, but Victoria never seems to settle. The other thing is…”

I wait for him to finish the sentence, but something seems to be holding him back.

“What’s wrong?” I ask eventually.

“I feel bad saying it,” he replies as we reach the bus-stop and he turns to me. “I mean, I know everyone’s got a different opinion, but…” He pauses again. “Her stuff isn’t really that good,” he adds finally. “There, I said it. Everything she ever shows in class just seems kinda… amateurish, like it should be a working model rather than a finished piece. You can tell the tutors think the same thing. She just jumps from one medium to the next, and one theme to another, and it’s like she gives up as soon as something doesn’t work, instead of persisting and refining her technique. And then she seems to get frustrated by the fact that her stuff doesn’t look good. I’ve just never seen anything she’s done that looks even halfway decent.”

“So she’s bottom of the class?” I ask.

“It sounds mean to put it like that,” he continues, “but kind of.” He turns and looks along the road, just as a bus turns the corner in the distance. “This is me,” he says. “Which one are you getting?”

“A different one,” I reply.

“So where do you live?” he asks.

“Oh, here and there.”

“Here and there?”

“I couch-surf,” I continue, figuring that I should keep things vague. “Right now I’m staying with a friend. She’s cool.”

“And your name’s really Ophelia?”

“Yup,” I reply with a smile as the bus stops next to us. “Blame my parents. I do.”

“ Sometimes I think you look slightly familiar,” he replies. “Are you sure we haven't -”

“Impossible,” I tell him. “I’m new to the area.”

“ But -”

“I swear.”

He pauses, and although he doesn’t seem entirely convinced, finally he smiles.

“Come by the studio tomorrow,” he says as he gets onto the bus and turns back to me. “And bring some of your stuff. I’d really like to see it. You can never really connect with someone until you’ve seen their art.”

As the doors swing shut and the bus pulls away, I can’t help wondering if maybe I’m starting to make a new friend. I watch the bus as it leaves, and as more students spill out of the nearby college and head this way, I suddenly realize that I’m one of them now. Sure, I signed up for the part-time course because I needed to get onto the campus, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t actually stick around and actually be a student here. For the first time in years, I could actually do something normal. Then again, he thought he recognized me, which is strange since I know for a fact that I’ve never met him before.

Unless…

Before I can finish that thought, the other students reach the bus stop and crowd around me, still talking excitedly about the leaked photos they’ve all got on their phones, and I suddenly remember that I don’t actually like other people very much. Feeling very uncomfortable and out of place, I decide to forget the bus and walk back to Laura’s, even though a light rain has begun to fall.

 

***

 

Standing alone in the bathroom, I stare at my reflection in the mirror.

I squint a little.

I wait.

Silence.

“No,” I whisper eventually, still staring at myself. “Impossible.”

 

***

 

“Ophelia,” Laura says as we sit at the dining table, “I need to ask you to do something for me, but I need you to hear me out before you reply. Okay?”

“Sure,” I tell her, “but then I’ve got something to tell you.”

“What?”

“I…” Pausing, I realize that she’s probably going to be annoyed. “You first.”

She takes a deep breath.

“Do you remember when you suggested that you could go undercover at the art college and maybe dig around a little?”

I stare at her as I realize that she’s changed her mind. Having been prepared to admit what I was doing today, and having expected her to be pissed off, I suddenly feel as if I’m in a position of power. This should be fun.

“I’ve reconsidered my response,” she continues, looking a little embarrassed. “If you can promise to be discreet, and if you can assure me that this will never get back to anyone, I might be willing to agree to the idea of you spending a day or two at the campus.” She pauses, and it’s pretty clear that she still has a lot of reservations about this way of doing things. “I’m not asking you to do this because I’m desperate,” she adds. “It’s just that I need to cover every possible angle.”

“Huh,” I reply, figuring that there’s no need to put her out of her misery just yet.

“No-one can know!” she continues. “I mean no-one! There are rules about this kind of thing, Ophelia, and I wouldn’t even be considering something so crazy if it wasn’t for the fact that there could be lives at stake!”

“I understand,” I reply, forcing myself not to smile.

“I’m serious,” she adds. “I could lose my job if anyone found out!”

“So this is definitely against the rules?” I ask.

“I doubt anyone has even bothered to write a rule against something so ridiculously stupid.” She pauses, and then she sits back and stares into space for a moment. “You know what? Maybe this is crazy. Maybe I should just accept that I’m in over my head. Every time I get a big case, I screw it up.”

“Every time?” I ask. “Like when?”

“Like the Daniel Gregory case. He murdered Natasha Simonsen and got away with it. He’s a free man right now because of my mistakes. Even after a year, that one still hurts. In fact, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away.”

“That’s one example,” I point out. “Any more?”

“The Nat Longhouse case didn’t exactly go too well,” she points out. “Sure, it helped me prove myself again, but I’m under no illusions. I know full well that I’d never have got it done without your help.” She pauses. “And here I am, asking for more.”

“There’s no harm getting help,” I reply. “Come on, are there any other cases you’ve screwed up?”

“This case right now.”

“You haven’t screwed this one up,” I reply. “Not yet, anyway.”

“ But -”

“And you won’t,” I add. “I promise. I mean, I had a lot scheduled for this week, but I can put it aside and go to the art school instead. In fact…” Now it’s my turn to pause, as I want for the perfect moment to tell Laura the truth. “I might have already started.”

“Started what?”

I smile at her.

She frowns, and then suddenly the frown turns into a scowl.

“You did what?” she hisses.

“I enrolled today,” I tell her with a broad grin. “It’s a ten-week access course, evenings only, but it allowed me to get my student card on the spot, and it means I can get about the campus without seeming out of place. That’s where I’ve been all day.”

“You did all of that without telling me?”

I nod.

“ Ophelia, that's -”

“And I’ve already started making friends.”

She stares at me, wide-eyed in shock.

“ It's early days, though,” I continue. “I'm focusing on the third year students at the moment, but over the next day or two I'm gonna fan out and really start poking my nose into all the study groups. Aren't you impressed, though? I had to pay four hundred pounds out of my own pocket -”

“Where the hell did you get four hundred pounds?” she asks. “No offense, but…”

“It’s amazing how much of a stash you can build up if you manage to put aside a fiver each week for a few years,” I tell her. “Most homeless people just sit around begging, but I’ve always had a different approach. I treat being homeless like a proper job. I budget for each week, and I’m constantly innovating and coming up with new strategies. It’s actually quite fun, apart from the freezing cold and the abuse and the lack of security. But, you know, swings and roundabouts. I get by just fine.”

“I don’t even…” She turns and looks over at her mother for a moment, who’s dozing in her usual spot in front of the television.

“Relax,” I continue. “I’m not gonna screw anything up.” I wait for her to reply, but she seems to be lost in thought. “I know this is important to you,” I add, “and I know it’s not a game. If you really want me not to do it, then I’ll pull back.”

Again, I wait for her to reply, but as she turns to me I can see the hint of desperation in her eyes.

“Let me help you,” I continue. “I know I’ve been pretty manic lately, but that’s just because I’ve been bored. I can focus on helping, I swear. And I totally know that you could solve this case without my help, but with me on-board you can do it faster. I mean, we did a pretty good job with those Longhouse assholes last year, didn’t we?”

Realizing that she’s still not convinced, I reach a hand across the table.

“Deal?” I ask.

Slowly, she shakes my hand.

“Don’t make me regret this, Ophelia,” she says after a moment.

“No-one’s ever going to find out,” I tell her. “As long as you catch the killer and no-one else gets hurt, what’s the harm?” I pause again, wondering if I dare to say those dangerous five words, and finally I decide to give it a go. “What could possibly go wrong?”

I swear, I can see the color drain from her face.

Laura

 

“Are we artists?” Nick asks as we make our way across the college’s reception area.

“Us?” I reply.

“I was thinking about it last night,” he continues. “If murder can be art, then why can’t police work? Hell, everything can be art if you look at it a certain way.”

“It’s too early for such deep questions,” I tell him, checking my watch and seeing that it’s only just 9am.

“So you don’t think we’re artists?”

“I think you’re stretching things a little,” I reply, as I spot a familiar figure up ahead. It’s Ophelia, and we make eye contact briefly as she passes us in the corridor. I hold my breath for a moment, but fortunately Nick doesn’t seem to have recognized her. “We’re not artists,” I continue. “We’re just doing a job.”

“God, I hate this place,” he mutters. “There’s nothing more pretentious than art students. All they do is sit around all day doodling with paints or gluing crap together and pretending it’s an expression of their personality. Where’s the skill? Where’s the technique?”

Glancing over my shoulder, I watch as Ophelia disappears around a corner. She didn’t even glance back at me, which is good. Maybe, just maybe, this is going to work.

 

***

 

“You’re looking at an industrial lathe,” Mike Wallace explains as he leads us across one of the college’s workshops. “It’s a dangerous piece of equipment. First year students are only allowed to operate it under strict supervision. After all, it would only take one mistake for a very nasty accident to occur.”

“Jesus Christ,” Nick exclaims, “this is like a murderer’s wet dream.” He stops next to a large metal dome, with some kind of valve on the top. “And this looks like a big breast.”

Although I can’t help but smile at his way of expressing things, I can see exactly what he means. The workshops at Beacon Court are filled with electric saws, lathes, cutting machines, acid baths… It’s insane to realize that the students here have access to so many complex and dangerous pieces of equipment, and I’m starting to realize that someone with the right level of motivation would have no trouble picking up a considerable skill-set while studying here. Suddenly the technical accomplishment of sewing those bodies together doesn’t seem as if it would be too far beyond the abilities of one of the students.

“Is everything supervised?” I ask as I watch a student cutting a piece of sheet metal using a large band-saw.

“There’s always a technician around,” Wallace replies. “Most days there are only a handful of people working here, but with the final show coming up, demand is a little heavier.”

“But someone couldn’t work completely unnoticed, could they?” I continue. “I’m thinking specifically of a student who maybe didn’t want anyone else to see what they were doing.”

“No chance,” he replies. “From the moment the door opens at eight to the moment the place is locked up at six in the evening, there are always people wandering in and out. You’d be able to get a few minutes alone here and there, but you could never guarantee that you wouldn’t be interrupted.”

As if to prove his point, at that moment a student comes in carrying a couple of lengths of wood, which she starts marking up on a nearby bench.

“They look more like carpenters than artists,” Nick mutters.

“And who has keys to the place?” I ask.

“Keys?” He pauses. “Well, most of the staff, plus the janitors. There are some spare sets floating about, too.”

“So it’s possible that someone could sneak in at night,” I point out, “if they were able to get a set of keys. Is there a surveillance system in place?”

“The college is monitored around the clock,” he replies, “so I really don’t think someone would be able to get away with using the place at night. For one thing, there’s a patrolman who keeps an eye on the grounds. If someone was using the equipment, they’d have to turn the lights on, and the place would be lit up like Battersea Power Station.”

As we get to the far side of the workshop, I look out the window and see that we’re overlooking the wasteland that runs from the back of the college down to the edge of a nearby housing estate. In the distance, there are still police vehicles parked near the hut where the killer’s tools were found. It’s hard to believe that someone could have been working out there alone without anyone noticing, especially if they didn’t have some kind of link to the college.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Wallace asks. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

I turn to him.

“No-one here is a murderer,” he continues. “Trust me, murder would require a degree of originality that’s beyond all the students we get through the doors of Beacon Court. Our students are basically coming through on rails, creating crappy work and then collecting their degrees before they head off into the real world and end up working in fast food joints. Frankly, I’d be ecstatic if even one student showed the level of original thinking that would be necessary to do something like this.”

“You don’t have a very high opinion of your students’ work?” I ask.

“Every year,” he replies, “I find myself hoping that maybe I’ll finally get one who shows a degree of talent. The next Picasso or Van Gogh. And what do I get instead? A bunch of little wallflowers who think they’re so daring just because they’ve found a new way to shock people. I’d never say this to anyone who works here, of course, but the truth is that no-one here is ever going to amount to very much. They all just sail along, dreaming of greatness while churning out crap. And my job is to smile and tell them they’re all geniuses. I’m getting very good at lying.”

I turn to Nick, and I can immediately see from the look in his eyes that he agrees.

“It’s a horrible thing to have to admit,” Wallace adds, “but there’s even a part of me that wishes one of my students had committed that murder. At least it’d be an indication of originality and free thought.” Sighing, he turns to me. “I couldn’t say any of this yesterday, of course, not in front of Principal Livingstone. She tends to see each and every one of our students as a precious little flower, blossoming here at Beacon Court. I see them for what they are: time-wasters who dabble in art while fooling themselves into believing that they have talent. If one of them had the idea of using murder as a form of art… Well, at least it’d be something new.”

“So how does the final show work?” I ask. “If it opens on Friday, I assume the students have to have their work in place in advance.”

“Thursday night,” he replies. “It’s always a very hectic time. I guarantee there’ll be tears and arguments. The only way I can ever get through it is by drinking myself numb.”

“So you’ll see every student’s final project on Thursday?”

“They’re not allowed to change anything after midnight,” he continues. “I have to set some kind of a cut-off point, or they’re all be tinkering with it right up until the moment the doors open on Friday morning. All those proud parents come rushing in, convinced that their child is the next great artist. It’s all rather pathetic, really.”

“Are you an artist?” Nick asks.

Wallace turns to him. “Me? Of course. I’ve had sculptures exhibited on three continents.”

“So why do you teach?” I ask.

“The same reason anyone teaches,” he replies, “if they’re honest. Money. I’m afraid the human race throws cash at talentless pop stars and one-hit wonders, while completely ignoring anyone with real talent. I’m not saying that just to make myself sound good. It’s a basic fact of life.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you really think that one of our students could be responsible for those images that are circulating online?”

“It’s a distinct possibility,” I tell him.

“Well…” He smiles, as if the idea genuinely pleases him. “An artist always takes credit for his or her work. If it is one of my lot, I shall take great pleasure in entering that individual for the Turner prize. Oh, and of course I’ll be shocked and appalled, as society expects. Now, I have to go and supervise some of the blessed, talentless little hacks. Is there anything else you need me for?”

“Not at the moment,” I reply.

“I hope you don’t think I’m a bad person,” he adds, heading to the door, “but I actually rather hope that one of my students is responsible. I just can’t think which of the little bastards has enough originality.”

As he leaves the room, I turn to Nick and see that he clearly shares my sense of shock at Mike Wallace’s attitude.

“Interesting guy,” he says after a moment. “A total ass, but interesting.”

“Not very helpful, though,” I add, as several students make their way past the door. To my surprise, I notice that one of them is Ophelia; she glances at me briefly before continuing on her way. I just hope that she’s managing to dig up something useful, because so far Nick and I are drawing a blank.

Ophelia

 

She hurries across the quadrangle, as if she’s scared of being seen.

Naturally, I follow her.

Victoria Middleton is like a mouse. Whenever she’s in a room, she keeps to the edges and tries not to be noticed. She never seems to just hang out somewhere; instead, she comes for something specific, and as soon as she’s got it she leaves. It’s pretty clear that even the most basic form of human interaction is painful for her, which I guess is why she keeps her gaze rooted to the floor, responding only with the vaguest of mumbles if a fellow student tries to start a conversation. I can’t work out of she’s shy, or arrogant, or a little of both.

The craziest thing is that five years ago, I was exactly the same. That was before everything changed, though, and before I learned to survive. Back then, I was terrified of the world. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

As Victoria makes her way across the car park, I keep pace with her, maintaining a distance of about twenty feet. I’m not too worried about her spotting me, since she never seems to look up at her surroundings. Over her shoulder, she has a backpack containing various items that she collected while she was at the campus this morning, and now – just like a mouse – she seems to be taking her little haul back to wherever the hell she calls home. And so far, ‘home’ looks to be a large building on the other side of the car park.

Once she’s gone inside, I wait for a moment before following. The place seems to be some kind of industrial unit: there are rooms with warning signs on the doors, but Victoria immediately hurries up a set of metal steps to the next floor. I hang back, aware that there’s a greater chance of her noticing me, but after a moment I follow up the stairs. I can already hear her footsteps in the distance, hurrying away, so I figure there’s no chance that she’s going to stop and look back. She’s so single-minded, so focused, I feel like an atom bomb could go off nearby and she wouldn’t even glance over her shoulder.

I remember what it’s like to be so scared of the world that you try to pretend it doesn’t exist.

When I get to the top of the stairs, I realize that I’ve lost track of her. I can still hear her footsteps in the distance, but they’re echoing now through the building’s open spaces, which makes it difficult to know exactly which way she went. Keen to remain unnoticed, I make my way cautiously to the nearest door and look through, but all I find is a long, empty corridor lit only by the sunlight that streams through a window at the far end. I can hear a noise in the distance, as if Victoria has already started work on her project, which at least means that she’s busy and isn’t likely to come back this way.

Reaching the other end of the corridor, I turn right and follow the banging sound. After a moment I come to a door that opens out into a huge, high-ceilinged room. Just as I’m about to take another step, however, the banging abruptly stops. I pause, waiting to hear what Victoria does next, but all I hear is silence. I tell myself that there’s nothing to worry about, that there’s no way she knows I’m here, but as the silence lingers I start to wonder if there’s any way she might be onto me. Finally, figuring that I’ve got nothing to lose, I take a step forward and look around the corner, and that’s when I see the figures.

The room is empty, with no sign of Victoria. Standing in the center, however, are half a dozen life-size human models, lit only by the dull light that’s able to get through the dirty windows that run along the top of the far wall. It’s a haunting sight, as if the figures have been frozen suddenly in a moment of contemplation, but from this far back I can’t quite see what they’re made of. I want to go closer, but I have no idea where Victoria has gone and the last thing I need is for her to spot me, so I take a step back, figuring that I can return later when she’s left for the night. One thing’s certain, though: whatever she’s doing here, it looks like a lot more than just some kind of art project.

 

***

 

“Fuck!” Miles shouts, throwing the screwdriver to the ground as he steps back and sucks blood from his hand.

Nearby, one of the other students laughs.

“Yeah,” Miles mutters, wiping a little more blood onto his shirt. “Hilarious.”

I’ve spent the past few minutes sitting on a stool, watching as Miles screws together some kind of metal sculpture that’s supposed to eventually house a video screen. I have no idea how his final project is going to work, but it’s amusing to watch as he sweats and curses his way through the job. I’m not here solely for fun, however; I’m trying to get a better idea of the way all the third year students are working as their final show approaches, and so far every single one of them seems to be suffering some kind of crisis.

Apart from Victoria, of course, whose spot in the open-plan studio remains completely empty.

“It’s not gonna be ready,” Miles says after a moment, staring at the pile of metal he’s been trying to screw together. “I’ve completely fucked it up. I need to come up with something else.”

“First crisis of the day?” asks Bryony, a student nearby who has spent the morning adding texture to some kind of paint-based project.

“I’m serious,” Miles continues. “It’s a disaster. There’s no way I can make this look good by Thursday night.” He pauses for a moment, before turning to me. “What do you think?”

“I think you should keep going,” I tell him, “and not give up.”

“Listen to her,” Bryony adds with a smile, “for she speaks the truth.”

As Miles gets back to work, I wander over to take a look at Bryony’s project, which seems to be taking the form of several huge canvases, each of which has been daubed with thick layers of brightly-colored paint. In fact, it’s the texture of the pieces that seems most interesting, as she keeps adding more and more paint, creating little mountains and valleys across the surface of each canvas. It’s almost as if someone has spilled color all over the moon.

“You like?” she asks after a moment.

“It’s colorful,” I reply, feeling as if I’m not in a good position to act as an art critic.

“I came to this place three years ago with dreams of being the next big name in painting,” she continues, with a faint smile. “Now look at me, desperately adding blobs of color as if I’m some kind of cheap David Lucas clone. It’d be okay if I didn’t also happen to be massively in debt. These paintings aren’t really very much for me to show after three fucking years, are they?”

“They’re good,” I tell her, even though I’m a little surprised that her entire display seems to consist of nothing more than these three paintings.

“They’ll do,” she replies. “They’ll get me through the show, and they might even get me an A if Mike Wallace is drunk enough by the time he starts giving out grades, but do you wanna know the sad truth?” She turns to me. “Monday morning, I start work at a coffee shop down the road. Three years at this place, twenty grand’s worth of debt, and I’m gonna work in a fucking coffee shop. Doesn’t that strike you as being a little shitty?”

“Not at all.”

“Liar.”

“Sorry.” I turn and look at the empty space where Victoria should be working.

“I hope she fails,” Bryony says after a moment.

“Why?” I ask, turning back to her.

“Because she’s so completely up herself, she thinks she doesn’t even have to communicate with the rest of us. I don’t know what the fuck kind of project she’s working on, but I really hope she screws it up. I know that makes me sound bad, but you should see the stuff she’s done in the past. It’s basically crap. We’re not talking about some kind of tortured genius here. Vicky Middleton is just a talentless little rat running around this place, bringing the mood down wherever she goes.”

“What if she steals the show?” I ask.

Smiling, she adds more paint to one of the canvases. It’s clear that she fully expects Victoria to do badly.

“I guess you heard about all those body parts that were dug up nearby,” I continue, figuring I should at least try to dig for information. “I heard they found, like, a whole bunch of different bits that the killer didn’t need, just a little way from this building. It’s pretty gross.”

“And those sick photos,” she replies, still smiling. “They’re like something from a horror movie. Hell, they’re better than a horror movie, ‘cause with the photos you know that they’re totally real. The thought of all those innocent people being kidnapped and then cut up… It’s kinda horrible to think that we live in a world where that could actually happen. Although…”

She pauses, before glancing around as if she’s worried that someone might overhear us.

“You’re not a competitor,” she adds. “Can you keep a secret?”

“ Sure, but -”

“Swear on the life of someone who’s important to you.”

“I swear on my friend Laura’s life,” I reply solemnly.

“I don’t want anyone else here to know,” she continues, grabbing her phone and hurrying over to me, “but I need an outsider’s opinion. What do you think of these?” Tapping at the screen a few times, she brings up a series of images. When she turns the phone toward me, I’m shocked to see that she seems to have painted versions of the leaked photos showing the stitched-together body.

“What am I looking at?” I ask after a moment.

“Those photos that got online,” she explains in hushed tones, “were really freaky, and I got to thinking that maybe I could paint them. I don’t want anyone else to see, ‘cause they might steal the idea, so I’m working on them at home. I still don’t know if I’ll put them into the show. I mean, they might be kinda controversial, but maybe that’s the whole point. Do you think it’s sick?”

“Not at all.”

“Really?” she replies, sounding disappointed. “Are you sure? I was definitely trying to make it seem sick.”

Staring at the painting on the screen, I’m shocked by how bad it is. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing appealing about it at all, yet it’s clear that Bryony believes that this is the work that’s going to make her a big name. I don’t know whether to pity her or whether to be annoyed that she wants to exploit the tragedy for her own benefit.

“I guess they’re pretty disturbing,” I continue. “Some people are definitely gonna get worked up.”

“Am I a bad person?” she asks. “It’s not like I killed anyone. I just took a bunch of leaked photos and turned them into art. They were already out there, and everyone’s seen ‘em by now. Sure, people are gonna pretend like they’re appalled, but that’s precisely the kind of bourgeois reaction that I want to kick in the balls. People go through these shows on rails, so you have to shake them out of their stupor. No-one’s gonna be expecting to see something so horrible transformed into art.”

“Don’t you think that maybe they’re already art?” I ask.

She frowns. “How?”

“Never mind.” I take a deep breath. “I think you’re definitely going to get a reaction if you put these paintings in the final show.”

“And do you think people will be shocked?”

“Probably.”

“Fucking better be,” she adds, putting her phone in her pocket. “It’s a type of found art, really. Some sicko killed a bunch of people, and I’m totally against that kind of thing. But now the photos have leaked, there’s no reason why a forward-thinking artist shouldn’t use them as inspiration. If you wanna get noticed these days, you have to do something really shocking. I sure as hell don’t wanna be working in that stinking coffee shop any longer than I have to, so I figure I don’t mind causing a bit of a stir if it means getting my name out there. Whoever killed those people and stitched them together, they did me a big favor. An artist should be inspired by everything in the world around them, right? So why not something horrible like this?”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” I reply, mentally striking Bryony off my list of people who could potentially be involved in the murders.

“Just keep it to yourself,” she adds. “This is my idea, and I don’t want anyone copying me. I want them all to be shocked when I unveil the paintings on Thursday night. I want to literally see their jaws drop. I mean, hell, if I pull this off I might even end up getting some coverage from a few of the big art sites.”

“Hey!” Miles calls over to me. “Wanna grab a coffee or something?”

“If you tell him,” she hisses, “you’re dead!” A moment later, she smiles. “Just kidding. But seriously, not a word.”

A few minutes later, as we head through to the cafeteria, Miles starts explaining why he thinks Bryony is going to screw up her exhibit at the final show. It’s kind of shocking to realize that while everyone in the third year studio acts as if they’re all best friends, in private they’re each more than happy to bitch about one another’s work. In fact, the whole place seems to be more like a shark tank than a school, and I can’t help thinking that maybe Victoria Middleton is right to try to distance herself from the toxic atmosphere. By the time Miles and I have got our coffees and found a table, he’s pretty much cycled through every student in his group and explained why he hopes they screw up their final year projects.

“What about Bryony?” I ask.

“That bitch? She just slathers paint onto the canvas and acts like she’s doing something new. I’ve got zero respect for anyone who spends their time slavishly copying the old guard. Nice girl, though. Her Dad’s loaded, but she’s never gonna make it as an artist. Too unoriginal.”

I can’t help but smile.

“I’ve got a secret weapon,” he adds. “I’m gonna blow the rest of those losers out of the water. They’re literally gonna dry heave when they see what I’ve used for inspiration, and Mike fucking Wallace is gonna just be, like, totally shocked. He thinks he’s seen it all, but I’m gonna break new ground.”

I watch as he grabs his phone from his pocket and brings up a photo, and then he smiles as he holds it up for me to see.

“Cool, huh?”

I force myself not to laugh as I see that the photo shows a crude sculpture of the stitched-together corpse from the leaked images. The photo’s a little grainy, so it’s hard to make out exactly what materials he’s used, but there’s no denying that he’s attempted to create a representation of the murder victims and their horrific fate. Apparently Bryony isn’t the only third year student who thinks she can shock the world by incorporating a little controversy into her work.

“People are gonna be totally blown away,” he continues, putting the phone away. “Fuck it, though. Sometimes you just need to shock people, right? Just make sure you don’t tell anyone about my idea. I wanna surprise them all when I pull the covers off.”

Smiling, I look down at my coffee, and for a moment I imagine what it’ll be like on Thursday night if all the third year students turn out to have had the same ‘original’ idea. It’s kind of funny to realize that in their desperation to be controversial, they’re all converging on basically the same idea. Taking a sip of coffee, I realize that I can strike Miles off my list of suspects too. Like Bryony, he lacks the necessary imagination to pull off such a striking murder.

I’m looking for a genius.

“You know you really look familiar,” he continues. “Are you sure there's no way we could have -”

“No way at all,” I tell him, getting to my feet. “I swear. And now I have to go. I’m late for something.”

Before he can answer, I walk away. That’s the second time he’s claimed to recognize me, and I’m starting to get worried. I need to get this job done and get the hell out of the college as fast as possible.

Laura

 

“What exactly are you planning?” I ask.

“I just need to check something out,” Ophelia replies over the phone. “It’s no big deal. I’ll be home in a few hours.”

“Have you got anything that might be useful?” I continue, as I stir some pieces of chicken in a frying pan. “I’m starting to feel like we’re looking in the wrong place, and forensics haven’t been able to come up with a damn thing.”

I wait for her to reply.

“Ophelia,” I continue, “are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” she replies. “I’ll tell you about it later. I don’t know, but I want to poke around.”

“ It's dark outside,” I tell her, “and the college is closed. I hope you're not -”

“Breaking and entering?” she asks. “No sweat. Nothing like that. I’m merely expanding my undercover activities to include a little after-hours work, that’s all.”

“ Ophelia -”

“And now I’ve got to go,” she continues. “I’ll see you in a few hours!”

I open my mouth to reply, but the line goes dead. I guess I should have known that she’d take this all very seriously, but as I set my phone down and get on with the job of making dinner, I can’t help worrying that she might get in too deep. A more responsible person would never have let her get involved in the first place, but I guess I’m just getting desperate. With only two days left until the final show, I’m still no closer to coming up with a suspect. Originally, I assumed that the killer was leading us to the art school as part of some game, but now I’m worried that it was simply an attempt to distract us and keep us busy. Or maybe he just wants to draw a bigger audience for the final unveiling.

“When’s dinner?” my mother calls through from the front room.

“Not long!” I reply.

“I hope it’s better than the shit you made last night!”

“ Mum -”

“I’d have been better off eating out of the garbage,” she continues. “I would have thought, Laura, that you might have made an effort, seeing as you had a friend staying. Why does she spend time with you, anyway? Are you paying her? It can’t be for the pure pleasure of your company.”

I pause, shocked by how nasty she can be these days. She always used to be so kind, and she never, ever swore. Her Alzheimer’s is getting worse, though, and her mood can change rapidly; tonight she seems to be particularly badly affected. Even though I know it’s nothing personal, I can’t help but feel frustrated as I pour some sauce over the chicken. At this rate, I might actually end up reconsidering the doctor’s advice. Mum’s going to need to go into care at some point, so maybe it’d be better to bite the bullet sooner rather than later. Then again, I don’t think I could do that to her, not yet. Sure, she can be cruel, but when she’s more herself, she’s much nicer.

Glancing over at the table, I spot the latest unopened bottle of whiskey. Keen to get it out of sight, I take it to the drinks cabinet and place it next to the bottle I took yesterday. I’m building up quite a collection, although Ophelia’s words are still ringing in my ears: she’s right, I’m going to get caught one day. No-one can keep doing this kind of thing forever, and when it happens, it’s going to ruin everything.

Lost in thought, I almost don’t notice that my phone is ringing again. Grabbing it from the side, I see that Nick is trying to get hold of me. For a moment, I consider letting the call go to voice-mail, since I’m too tired to go over the details of the case yet again. Finally, I realize that I might as well get it over with.

“ Hey,” I say as I answer, “I was going to call you later when I've -”

“There’s been another murder,” he replies, interrupting me.

“ Another -” I pause, my blood starting to run cold. “Where?”

“The church hall by Ashbury Park. I’m there now.”

“I’m on my way,” I tell him, figuring I can leave my mother alone for a couple of hours, “but Nick, are you certain it’s the same killer?”

“Oh yeah,” he replies. “Trust me, it’s definitely the same killer.”

 

***

 

By the time I get to the church hall an hour later, heavy rain has begun to fall. Getting out of my car, I hurry along the dark street and finally I reach the police cordon that has already been set up at the front of the building. After showing my badge to the officer on duty, I make my way up the steps and into the cold, echoing entrance hallway.

“This way,” Nick says, gesturing for me to follow him. “Did you like my Taggart impression on the phone, by the way? There’s been a murder! Did I sound Scottish there?”

“What have we got?” I ask, trying to stay calm.

“The janitor called it in,” he replies as we enter the main hall. Several uniformed officers are over by the stage, while a SOCO team is already getting ready in the corner as Dr. Maitland speaks to someone on the phone. “The hall was in use from five to six for netball practice, and then the janitor came in at half six to get the place ready for a choir group that was due at eight. The guy was starting to clean up when he noticed a spot of blood on the floor. He wiped it up, carried on working, and then at the end he noticed the blood was back. So he wiped it up again, then a couple of minutes later it came back, and so on until he realized what was going on.”

“ Where's the body?” I ask as I reach the front of the hall. “Did you have it moved already? I wanted to -”

Before I can finish, a drip falls from the ceiling and lands a few feet away, leaving a little red splash on the floor.

“We haven’t moved the body yet,” Nick replies. “We haven’t even got close to it yet. We’re waiting for some equipment. Specifically, some scaffolding.”

Slowly I look up, and that’s when I see it:

High above us, fixed somehow to the ceiling, there’s a dead, naked body arranged in some kind of crude star shape. From down here, it’s impossible to make out the details, but there seems to be some kind of writing on both the body itself and part of the ceiling, along with a crudely-drawn set of wings running from the tops of the figure’s shoulders.

“Recognize him?” Nick continues.

“What do you mean?”

He takes out his phone, turns on the camera, and then uses it to zoom in on the corpse’s face. There’s something unnatural about the skin, almost as if it’s slightly waxy, while parts of the cheeks have been sliced open, causing the rest of the face’s skin to sag down a little, hollowing the eyes and mouth. The whole thing looks so strange, it takes a moment before I realize that I do recognize him.

“Mike Wallace,” I mutter, feeling a wash of horror pass through my body.

“So what do you think?” Nick asks, turning to me. “Is it art?”

Part Two

Ophelia

 

“What exactly are you planning?” she asks.

“I just need to check something out,” I reply, keeping my eyes on the dark building on the other side of the college’s parking lot. “It’s no big deal. I’ll be home in a few hours.”

As soon as those words leave my lips, I feel a shiver pass through my body. Did I really just refer to Laura’s place as ‘home’. Even though it was obviously just a slip of the tongue, the thought makes me feel uncomfortable. I think I’m maybe getting too comfortable around her.

“Have you got anything that might be useful?” she asks, with the sound of sizzling food in the background. “I’m starting to feel like we’re looking in the wrong place, and forensics haven’t been able to come up with a damn thing.”

I watch as the security guard wanders toward the main part of the campus. Checking my watch, I see that he seems to be going past roughly once every hour, and so far there’s no sign of him having a dog with him. That’s good. Guard dogs complicate things.

“Ophelia,” Laura adds, “are you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” I reply. “I’ll tell you about it later. I don’t know, but I want to poke around.”

“ It's dark outside,” she points out, “and the college is closed. I hope you're not -”

“Breaking and entering?” I ask, unable to keep from smiling. It’s like she thinks I’m some kind of Dickensian street urchin. “No sweat. Nothing like that. I’m merely expanding my undercover activities to include a little after-hours work, that’s all.”

“ Ophelia -”

“And now I’ve got to go,” I add as the security guard disappears around the back of the college’s main building. “I’ll see you in a few hours!”

Cutting the call, I slip my phone away before hurrying across the empty car park. The security guard won’t be back around for at least an hour, and I’ve been watching the place for long enough to know that Victoria Middleton has been gone for a couple of hours. When I reach the dark maintenance building, I hurry around the side and find the window I propped open earlier. It only takes me a moment to crawl inside, and finally I make my way into the corridor and then over to the same set of metal stairs I climbed earlier.

I stop for a moment, listening to make sure that there’s no sign of anyone else being here.

Silence.

The place is definitely pretty spooky, but I’m pretty sure I’m alone.

A couple of minutes later I reach the large room where I spotted Victoria’s work when I was here this afternoon. I don’t dare to even use the light from my phone, but fortunately there’s enough moonlight streaming through the windows to allow me to at least see my way around. There’s debris all over the floor, and it’s clear that this space is supposed to be empty, yet I can see Victoria’s mannequins in the moonlight. Whatever she’s up to, she blatantly doesn’t want to be disturbed.

As I get closer, I’m struck by just how spooky this set-up seems. The six life-size human figures are still standing in a circle in the center of the room, and as I get closer I realize that they seem to be made of some kind of resin, which gives them a curiously realistic but also kinda melted appearance. The closest one has its mouth open and its head tilted up, as if it’s crying out, and as I examine the others I realize that they all seem to be posed in varying expressions of distress, almost as if they’re howling at the moon. Some are bent over, others have got their arms raised toward the ceiling, and one looks to be frozen at the moment of collapse, as if some unknown trauma has struck suddenly and without mercy. I’m no art critic, but I can’t deny that the figures are miles better than anything I saw back in the art school’s main studio.

“Creepy,” I mutter, making my way around the circle.

I stop in front of one of the figures and take a closer look at its face. It’s certainly expressive, and I quite like the rough method that Victoria has used. The skin of the models seems to be some kind of semi-transparent resin, while there’s a darker frame in the center, holding the entire thing in shape. I reach out and touch the face, running my fingers over the bumpy surface. For a moment, it’s hard to stop imagining Victoria working alone in here, spending all her time creating these models.

Over by the far wall, I find a work bench covered in various tools. There are saws, chisels, screwdrivers and various other items that I don’t even recognize. Whatever Victoria’s working on here, she clearly has plenty of equipment. Figuring that I can probably be a little braver, I take my phone from my pocket and use the light of the screen to look at a notebook that has been left behind; flicking through the pages, I find endless diagrams showing figures in different positions, as well as anatomical drawings and handwritten notes in a sprawl that I can’t even begin to decipher. In a strange way, the notebook reminds me of my own, in the sense that it’s clearly designed to be incomprehensible to anyone other than its owner.

The similarities are really starting to pile up.

I spend a few minutes going through the rest of her notebooks. I’m able to make out one or two of her scribbled sentences, but for the most part I focus on the drawings, which all seem to be related to the creepy tableau in the middle of the room. Based on what she’s drawn, it appears that she’s got a plan to develop quite a few more of these figures and eventually create a small army, although it’s not really clear how she’s going to get the job done in time for Friday’s final show, or how she intends to get them all to the exhibition space. Her notes are all incredibly detailed, though, and it’s clear that she’s been working on all of this for a long time. When I get to the final page of the final book, I find a drawing of what appears to be the completed project, together with a title.

“The Dead City,” I say quietly.

I pause for a moment.

“I like it,” I add finally. “The Dead City. Cool.”

Figuring that I should probably think about getting out of here, I turn and head back across the room. After a moment, however, I spot something in the far corner, and I take a quick detour to discover a sleeping bag and a couple of backpacks, with plates and garbage strewn around. Crouching down, I pick up one of the books that has been left on the floor, which turns out to be a guide to basic human anatomy. I check the contents of a nearby plastic bag and find that it’s full of out-of-date prepackaged sandwiches, undoubtedly liberated from the bins behind a nearby supermarket. There’s also a neat little collection of coins, sorted according to their value and piled up against the wall.

Figuring that Victoria seems to be living rough here, I’m suddenly struck by the realization that she could come back at any moment. Besides that, I also feel as if I’m intruding; after all, I’ve squatted in abandoned buildings before, and I wouldn’t have liked it if some random person had started going through my stuff. Getting to my feet, I turn and hurry across the room, heading to the door -

Suddenly she steps out of the shadows, right in front of me.

“Jesus!” I shout, just about managing to stop myself before I collide with her.

She stares straight at me, her face illuminated only by the moonlight.

“Hi,” I continue, my heart racing as I try to work out how the hell I’m going to explain myself. “Remember me? My… My name’s Ophelia.”

No response. She just stares at me as if she’s deep in thought.

“Victoria, right?” I add, reaching out a hand. “We met earlier. You were burning some stuff in the furnace and I came over to make really bad small-talk for a few minutes.”

I wait for her to give some indication that she remembers, but as the silence grows I start to feel increasingly uncomfortable.

“You’re in the third year, aren’t you?” I continue. “I was in the studio earlier and I think I saw you coming by. I was kinda hoping to grab a word with you some time, to ask you about the stuff you do. I’m just on one of the access courses, but I figured I could use some advice.”

Again, she doesn’t reply. She simply stares at me without even a flicker of emotion in her eyes, almost as if she’s frozen in place like one of her models.

“ Okay,” I continue, “I think I'll just -”

Before I can say another word, she steps closer.

“I really didn’t mean to snoop,” I tell her. “I didn’t know anyone was here. I just came to take a look around, that’s all…”

She stares at me, and after a moment I notice that she’s reaching under her coat. Seconds later, she pulls something out, and as the blade glints in the moonlight I realize that she’s holding a knife.

Part Five

Laura

 

“Bryony Hawthorne!” I shout as I force the door open. “You’re under arrest on suspicion of murder. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say can be -”

Stopping in the middle of the chaotic bedroom, I stare at the bed itself and realize that it’s empty. The duvet has been pulled aside and there’s a rumpled patch where someone clearly has been sleeping, but for a moment I start to worry that somehow she was tipped off about us and managed to get away. I have visions of newspaper headlines splashing the news that Detective Laura Foster has somehow allowed a serial killer to slip away into the night. There’ll be more deaths, more bodies, more horror…

Turning back to the door, I pause before hearing a toilet flushing nearby. A fraction of a second later, a side door opens and a young woman steps out with a startled look on her face, while wearing a faded old t-shirt and some jogging bottoms.

“Who the hell are you?” she asks.

“Bryony Hawthorne?” I reply with relief, as Nick prepares the handcuffs.

“Yeah,” she continues. “What the hell are you doing in my room?”

“Bryony Hawthorne,” I continue as Nick makes his way behind her and starts attaching the handcuffs, “you’re under arrest on suspicion of multiple counts of murder. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult legal counsel, and if you don’t have a lawyer, one will be provided for you. Do you understand these rights as I’ve explained them to you?”

“What are you talking about?” she asks, pulling away from Nick and stumbling over a pile of clothes as she heads to her bed.

“Bryony,” I reply, “we need you to come with us.”

Hearing a noise nearby, I turn to see that Bryony’s housemates are standing by the door. I guess it’s not every day that the police come storming into their shared house.

“Can you leave us alone, please?” I ask them.

No reply. They just stare at us, goggle-eyed.

“Can you leave us alone, please?” I ask again. “This is police business.”

As they head back along the corridor and start muttering to one another, I turn back to Bryony. She looks absolutely shocked, as if she never in a million years expected anything like this to happen. I’ve seen killers at the moment when they’re caught, and there’s always a glint in their eyes, the faintest hint that they know the game’s up. Right now, I see nothing like that in Bryony’s expression; all I see is fear and confusion. If she’s acting, she’s doing a hell of a job.

“Laura?” Nick mutters.

I turn to him.

“Do you want to do the honors, or should I?”

“I…” Turning to Bryony, I realize that this situation feels very wrong. At the same time, I can’t exactly stop now, not with all the evidence pointing at her. “We found your prints at the site,” I tell her. “In multiple locations, actually.”

“My prints?”

“Partial matches, but enough to be used against you. We were able to match them to the prints that were collected from you about a year ago when you were cautioned for cannabis possession. So far, we’ve got one full match and three partials, which is more than enough to present in a court of law. I’m confident that we’ll find more prints as we continue to search the hall, and we’ll also be going through your room here. The warrants are all lined up.”

“Prints?” She stares at me, then at Nick, and then back at me. “Warrants? What are you talking about?”

“We found your fingerprints on the door that leads into the church hall,” I continue. “Fresh prints that can be conclusively dated to within the past forty-eight hours, on the door at the Ashbury Park church hall. Not only on the door, but also on one of the benches and on a light switch.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We also found your prints on the body. For someone who was so careful with the first murder, you sure as hell slipped up this time around.”

“Murder? What murder?”

She stares at me for a moment, before a flash of realization crosses her face.

“Are you talking about those photos?” she asks, starting to panic. “Do you mean that weird stitched-together thing?”

“Let’s do this down at the station,” Nick says, stepping past the piles of books and clothes on the floor and trying once again to cuff Bryony. This time, she doesn’t resist at all, and within a couple of seconds the handcuffs click shut around her wrists.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bryony continues, her eyes glistening with tears. “I didn’t have anything to do with what happened! All I did was look at the photos!”

“Take her away,” I tell a uniformed officer as he enters the room.

“No!” Bryony shouts, trying to pull away before Nick grabs her arms and firmly pushes her toward the officer.

“Let’s not make this difficult,” he tells her.

“You’ve got this wrong!” she shouts as she’s led out of the room. “Can’t we just talk about it here? I haven’t done anything! You can’t arrest me when I haven’t done anything!”

She continues to protest her innocence as she’s led along the corridor. As her voice becomes increasingly distant, I pause for a moment until I realize that Nick is watching me. There’s a look in his eyes, as if he’s studying my reactions. I hate it when people do that.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he replies, “just… For someone who just solved a huge case, you don’t look too happy.”

“Maybe that’s because…” I pause again, as a thousand thoughts rattle through my mind. Turning, I look around the unkempt room. There are old plates and empty soda bottles and DVD cases everywhere, and wires running between various computers and other machines. It looks like a pretty normal student room, and somehow the whole situation feels wrong. Nick would laugh at me if I started talking about things like instinct and gut feeling, but somewhere deep in my subconscious I’m hearing alarm bells.

“We did solve it,” Nick adds. “With the forensic evidence alone, we’ve got her. Unless two people can have the same fingerprints, we can prove that she killed Wallace and arranged his body.” He waits for me to answer. “Right, Laura?”

I nod.

“Great,” he continues, clapping his hands together. “So there’s no need to fuss, is there? Job done, back of the net.”

“Sure,” I reply uncertainly.

“So are you coming out for a drink after we’ve done the first interview?” he asks. “A few beers, maybe some cocktails, maybe even on to a club later. Seriously, with how hard we work, we need to hit the town to let off some steam. Tricia and the others’ll be there.”

“A drink?” I turn to him.

“Don’t over-think this.”

“ I'm not -”

“Yeah, you are. I can see it in your eyes. Just unclench for once, yeah?”

“ I'm not over-thinking it, I just -”

“It’s done,” he continues. “We’ve got her, Laura. Her fingerprints are at the scene and on the body. They’re literally on the damn corpse, okay? Partials, sure, but the important thing is that she screwed up and we’ve got her. She wasn’t some kind of criminal mastermind, she was just some dumb kid who went way out on a limb. Don’t go over-thinking everything and talking yourself out of it. Just be happy that it was less of a pain in the arse than it could’ve been, okay?”

“Why was she so sloppy?” I ask.

“Sloppy?”

“The first murder was perfect,” I point out. “There wasn’t a shred of evidence, not even a flake of skin. And this time, she killed Mike Wallace and left a ton of prints behind. So why the sudden lack of care?”

“She got lucky the first time,” he replies, “and unlucky the second. Simple as that. Anyway, look at this room, it’s a tip. How do you think anyone who lives like this could cover their tracks?” As if to prove his point, he kicks a couple of sweaters away from the side of the bed, uncovering several crumb-covered plates. “Do you really think she could attach Mike Wallace to the ceiling of that church hall and not leave a mess? That crime scene was a total dump.”

“I know,” I reply, “but that’s not the problem. It’s the first body, the one on the plinth at Trafalgar Square. That’s the one I don’t think she could have managed. That one took precision and skill, and planning, and coordination. Look at this place. Bryony Hawthorne can’t even coordinate her bedsheets.”

“Laura,” he says with a sigh, “we’ve got her. Case closed. Let’s just get back to the station, talk to her, get a confession, do the paperwork, and go get drunk. Give me five minutes in the interview room with her and I’ll get it all down on paper. You saw her, she’s already on the verge of breaking, so we just need to get her to admit what she did and we’re done. Case over, job well done, potential promotion for both of us. Okay?”

I turn and look over at the far side of the room, where a part-torn R.E.M. poster is hanging off the wall. There are other posters too, for bands like The Breeders and The B-52s. Making my way to the desk in the corner, I look down at a set of plans for some kind of art project, presumably part of her final show; nearby, there are some documents from some local coffee shop, confirming her new job. This is a college kid’s bedroom, not the lair of some serial killer mastermind.

“Laura?” Nick continues, nudging my shoulder. “Case closed, yeah? Station, confession, drink. Preferably in that order, but I’m not picky. Sound good?”

“Sure,” I reply, turning to him. “Absolutely. Case closed.”

As he heads out of the room, I stay behind for a moment. I want to believe Nick, to accept that Bryony’s the killer and that we caught a lucky break. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that things are suddenly getting wrapped up too quickly. Sure, we’ve got enough evidence to put Bryony away for a very long time, and any objective analysis of the facts would conclude without doubt that she’s the killer. In fact, it’s neater than any case I’ve ever solved before. So why do I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that we’ve somehow got the wrong person?

Ophelia

 

“The Dead City,” Victoria explains as she holds the modeling knife up to the face of one of her life-size models. With almost maternal care, she runs the blade against the surface, creating a tiny scratch that seems to mesmerize her for a moment. “It’s a stupid name, really. I want to change it, but I can’t think of anything else.”

I watch as she makes her way around the model. It’s as if she’s lost in her own world, like an absent-minded god working on her world in the dark. For the past few minutes she’s been trying to explain the project, but everything she says just ends up sounding disjointed and confused. I’ve got no doubt that it makes sense in her head, even if she’s unable to articulate her thoughts.

“They’re supposed to be…” She pauses, before looking at me and then turning to another of the models. “It’s like, they’re people, frozen in time at the moment when they…” Another pause; she pauses a lot, barely completing a single sentence. “It’s like if you could cut time down into such thin slices that it’s got nothing to do with seconds or milliseconds, it’s just these tangible fragments, like moments, like… fused time that you can reach out and touch and hold and…”

I wait for her to finish, but finally I realize that she seems lost again.

“They’re cool,” I tell her.

She turns to me, with the knife still in her hand.

“I like them,” I add, forcing a smile. “I mean, I don’t fully get them yet, but just looking at them, I feel like they’ve got this real resonance, like…”

“Like if you stop looking at them you might die?”

“Sure,” I reply. “I guess. Maybe.”

It’s been more than an hour since she found me in here, and she’s spent the whole time trying to explain her artwork. After a few awkward mutterings at the start of the encounter, she’s now showing a surprising keenness when it comes to telling me about her artwork. I don’t really understand much of what she’s saying, but it’s clear that she’s really into the project, and I can’t help but admire her dedication. The more I listen to her, the more I realize that she truly does remind me of how I used to be a few years ago. It’s like I’m looking into a five-year-delayed mirror. I just hope those similarities don’t go all the way; if they do, I’m in big trouble.

“It’s all dumb,” she says suddenly, taking a step back. “That’s why I don’t let anyone look at them. When you have something in your head for so long, you never really know what they’ll be like when you bring them into the world. It’s like a mother imagining some perfect kid, and then when it comes splatting out between her legs it turns out to be ugly. This whole project, it’s all just dumb.”

“It’s not dumb.”

“It is. I’ve got this whole project in my head, and it’s really detailed and figured out, but I can’t get it out and put it into the physical world. The amount of time and money I’d need…” She pauses yet again. “Sometimes I don’t know if the Dead City is ever going to be finished. It might take up my whole life and still be…” She falls silent for a moment. “Right now, they just look like dumb models. I’m so close to making them perfect, though. It might only be one tiny thing that needs to be changed.”

“They’re cool,” I reply, stepping over to one of the figures and reaching out to touch its shoulder. It feels surprisingly cold and brittle. The truth is, I meant what I said to her a moment ago. Even though I don’t fully understand what this Dead City project is all about, I still feel as if they’re more interesting than anything else I’ve seen at the college. “What are they made of?”

“Resin,” she explains. “I did a lot of experiments to get the right look. It all depends on the light. That’s one of the key parts of the project, really. I’m trying to control the way light passes through the models so that I can be certain how they’ll look in any given location.”

Turning, I look at the dirty windows at the top of the far wall. The only light in this whole room comes from the moon, which is casting an eerie blue glow across the entire scene. After a moment, my attention is drawn to the sleeping bag and piles of papers in the corner. At first glance it appears to be a mess, but there’s clearly some kind of system to the way that Victoria is living, and I can’t help but feel that here again we’re very similar: to other people we seem to live in chaos, but we have our lives organized in ways that make sense to us.

“Do you live here?” I ask, turning back to her.

She stares at me, as if the question is too personal.

“It’s not like I care,” I continue. “I mean, I was just wondering. It looks like you’ve got things set up pretty well.”

“Yeah,” she replies hesitantly. “I live here. So what?”

“Nothing, it’s just…” I pause for a moment. “So you live and work in the same place? You just spend all your time on this one art project? That’s pretty dedicated.”

“ I need to focus,” she replies. “I tried working in the studio for, like, a day and it almost drove me nuts. Everyone just talks all the time and shows off. They're all just a bunch of posers who don't know how to really work hard. All I wanted was to be left alone to get on with my stuff, but they kept telling jokes and trying to get me to join their pointless conversations. If I'd stayed, I'd have ended up -” She pauses. “I hated them, and I hated the teachers, and I almost quit. Eventually I managed to find a compromise. It's not so bad here, not once you get used to the cold at night.”

“Why don’t you live in a student house?” I ask, even though I know it’s a dumb question.

“No way.”

“I understand,” I continue. “I’ve only been on the campus for a day, but they all seem so phony. It’s like they’re all so pleased with themselves all the time.”

“I tried being more social in the first year,” she replies. “I lived in this big house with eight others for a couple of months, but it drove me crazy. They were just so loud and annoying, and I spent all my time in my room. Sometimes they tried to get me out with them, but after a while they stopped trying and I realized they were talking about me behind my back. Eventually I just had to move out, even though I’d paid for the first year upfront. So I didn’t have enough money to get somewhere else, and I ended up living in the out-rooms at the school. It was supposed to be temporary, but after a while I realized that it was better than living with other people, so in the second year I decided to keep doing it. I used my rent money for art materials and…”

I wait for her to continue.

“And what?” I ask finally.

“I don’t know why I’m…” She pauses. “Sorry, I don’t normally talk to people about this kind of stuff.”

“So you’re choosing to be homeless,” I continue, unable to stifle a faint smile. So far, the similarities are uncanny. “Me too.”

She stares at me.

“I mean,” I add, “I don’t have a job or much money or anywhere to live, so I sleep on the streets. I could probably get my shit together and get back on the ladder if I really wanted, but I’m okay with the way things are, you know?”

She nods.

“I move around a lot,” I tell her. “Mostly central London, around the South Bank area and sometimes Greenwich. I like being able to get away from people when I want to be alone. People are fine for a while and I can usually manage, but sometimes they get to be too much. I don’t like being tied down. This way, I can come and go, and no-one has any right to ask me where I’ve been.” I pause for a moment. “That’s what I hate more than anything in the world… When you walk into a room and someone asks where you’ve been, like they own you or something.”

“People are annoying,” she replies.

“Families are even worse,” I point out.

“I hate my family,” she replies.

She smiles faintly, and so do I.

“What about them, then?” I ask. “Where are they?”

“I don’t care.”

“I know that feeling.”

She stares at me for a moment, and then she very conspicuously sets the sculpting knife down on a nearby table. It seems like a deliberate move, as if she feels she no longer feels the need to defend herself.

“Do you want to see my sketches?” she asks suddenly.

“Sketches?”

“I’ve never shown them to anyone before,” she continues. “They’re about how I want the Dead City project to look when it’s done. These models are just the beginning. It’s going to take me all my life to get it finished, but the sketches are the only way I can really show what I’m aiming for. I haven’t even shown the idiot teachers at college, but…” Another pause. “I could show you. Only if you want to see them, though. I mean, I don’t wanna bore you or anything.”

“Yeah,” I reply, “sure. I’d love to see them.”

“Okay,” she continues with a faint smile, “just give me a moment. They’re kind of a mess, like they’ll only make sense to me.”

As she hurries over to the pile of books next to her sleeping bag, I can’t help but watch her. She has a kind of childish enthusiasm, as if she truly wants to share her work with me. Almost every word that leaves her lips is another confirmation of the fact that we’re similar. No, not similar: we’re almost exactly the same. We both live rough, we both avoid our families, we both dislike crowds, we both find it hard explaining ourselves to other people. Sure, I’ve managed to come up with a mask and a coping mechanism, and she hasn’t quite got to that stage yet, but I guess she’s a few years younger than me. To all intents and purposes, Victoria Middleton and I are spookily similar.

I never thought there could be someone else in the world like me. But now I’ve found her.

Laura

 

I sit silently and watch the look on her face. I desperately want to see some hint of guilt, some twitch or twinge that gives away a hint that she’s the killer, but so far Bryony Hawthorne is behaving like a frightened young woman who genuinely doesn’t understand why she’s here.

Something’s not right.

“Is it really him?” she asks, holding the photo in her trembling hands.

“Of course it is,” Nick replies coldly. “It’s your teacher, Mike Wallace. But you already know that, Bryony, don’t you? You know it because you’re the one who stuck him up there.”

She shakes her head.

“ You're the one who killed him -”

Again, she shakes her head.

“You’re the one who cut him up and wrote all those squiggly lines all over his flesh.”

“No,” she whimpers, with tears rolling down her cheeks. “You’ve got to believe me.”

“And you’re the one who killed those other people, too, aren’t you?” he continues, ignoring the fact that she’s starting to sob. “You killed them, including that poor little kid, and then you cut them all up and stitched them together. It’s an art project, isn’t it? You think you’re being clever, but you’re not, not really. You’re just a murderer, like all the other murderers in the world, although you’ve actually killed enough people to count as a serial killer, Bryony. Does that make you proud, eh? Is that what you wanted?”

“My client is innocent,” says the duty lawyer who was called into advise her. “She’s consistently denied every accusation that has been put to her.”

“ These aren't baseless accusations,” Nick continues. “Oh no, we're not just flapping our lips in the wind and hoping to get to the truth. We've got proof, Bryony. We know you were at that church hall -”

“I wasn’t,” she replies, interrupting him. She puts the photo down but continues to stare at it. “Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I’ve never been there in my life!” She turns to the lawyer. “Do you believe me?”

“Bryony,” I say, “I need you to listen to me.” As she turns to face me, I can see the fear in her eyes. “We have fingerprints, your fingerprints, that were found in multiple locations at the scene of this crime. One of those locations was on the victim’s skin, partially mixed with his blood. This isn’t something that can happen by accident. In a court of law, this will be considered proof that you were involved with moving the body after Mr. Wallace had been killed. We can help you, but only if you help us first, and step one is for you to tell us the truth.”

“I have,” she replies, shaking her head. “I swear to God, I don’t know anything about this.”

“We have proof,” I say again, as much to persuade myself as to try to get her to understand the situation. “What do you think a jury is going to think when we show without a shadow of a doubt that you were at that church all and that you touched Mr. Wallace’s dead body? You can cry all you want, but they’ll be able to recognize a cold-blooded serial killer when they see one.”

“I wasn’t there!” she shouts, finally losing her temper. “I didn’t kill anyone!”

“You seem upset,” Nick says calmly. “Is your well-prepared plan starting to fall apart, Bryony? Are you starting to realize that you’re not quite as smart as you thought you were?”

“ What plan?” she yells, getting to her feet. “I -”

“Sit down!” Nick shouts back at her as he stands up. “Don’t make me call someone in to drag you back to your cell!”

“I didn’t do anything!” she whimpers. “Please…”

“Sit down, Bryony,” says the lawyer. “You need to stay calm.”

As she sits down, it’s clear that Bryony is completely lost. I keep having to remind myself about the fingerprint evidence, because on the basis of this interview alone, I feel as if there’s no way this girl can possibly be the murderer. Sure, people are sometimes capable of putting on a show and presenting a convincing face, but there are limits and I’m convinced that Bryony genuinely doesn’t know anything about these murders. The problem is that the fingerprint evidence alone would quite probably be enough to convict her.

“I get it,” Nick continues. “When you’re sitting in your bedroom, coming up with all this stuff, it probably makes total sense. You think you’ve got all the angles covered, but then you get out into the real world and you find that nothing quite works the way it should. People don’t react how you want them to, and you end up fucking things up. And then it all just unravels at lightning speed until you’re left crying in some police station somewhere.” He pauses. “We can help you, Bryony, but only if you come onside with us first.”

“I’d like a moment with my client,” the lawyer says, as Bryony puts her face in her hands and starts to sob uncontrollably.

“We’re not done,” Nick replies.

“She’s upset!”

“Course she is,” Nick mutters. “I’d be upset too if I’d murdered a bunch of people and then I got caught. It’s natural to be upset, but the thing is, Bryony, you can make yourself feel better by just confessing. It’ll be a real weight off your shoulders.”

“I didn’t hurt anyone!” Bryony wails, as the lawyer puts a hand on her shoulder.

“Let’s give them a minute,” I add, getting to my feet and heading to the door. Turning, I see that Nick is still in his seat. “Can I talk to you outside?” I ask him. “It’s important.”

 

***

 

“She didn’t do it.”

“ For God's sake, Laura -”

“She didn’t do it. Bryony Hawthorne is not the killer.”

“Jesus.” Sighing, he turns and takes a couple of steps along the corridor before turning back to me. He stares for a moment, as if he’s struggling to see things from my point of view. “I knew you’d get like this,” he hisses, keeping his voice down. “We’ve got this one in the bag, Laura. We’ve got her hook, line and sinker. Even if she denies it for the rest of her life, we’ve got enough evidence to have a damn good shot at a conviction, but you’re determined to make it more complicated, aren’t you?”

“She didn’t do it,” I say again.

“Why not?”

“Were you not in that room with me just now?” I ask. “In-between your attempts at pop psychology, did you actually pay attention to her? Do you honestly think that girl is capable of carrying out these murders?”

“Right,” he continues, clearly not impressed, “so murderers are always a certain type and you can spot ‘em a mile off. Just because she’s a good actor and she can cry some crocodile tears, you figure we should ignore those prints and act like they were never there, is that it?”

“Not ignore them,” I reply, “just… We need to look at this logically.”

“I am,” he says firmly. “You’re the one who’s acting like her prints just magically appeared on Mike Wallace’s dead body. Prints, body, case closed, back of the net, sorted.”

“I know they didn’t appear magically on the body,” I continue, “but…” I pause as I try to come up with a solution. “There are ways to transfer fingerprints,” I point out eventually. “It's difficult and the success rate isn't high, and it's usually detectable if we run some more tests. I'm going to get Maitland to examine the -”

“One of her prints was literally in the dead guy’s blood,” Nick points out.

“So whoever put it there knew what they were doing.”

“ You're talking James Bond shit now,” he continues. “The technical expertise -”

“Would be consistent with someone who was also able to engineer a blackout in Trafalgar Square,” I point out, “and with someone who completed the first murder without leaving any traces behind. Someone who can do something like that doesn’t suddenly become sloppy.”

“You’re over-thinking this,” he replies.

“I’m not,” I tell him. “You keep saying that I’m over-thinking everything, but I’m really not. I’m just looking at the evidence and holding back from taking the easy route.”

“Is this because of Daniel Gregory?” he asks.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“We all know what happened with that case,” he continues. “You rushed to charge him, you rushed through the prosecution, all because you were too confident. You thought you’d got it in the bag and instead you messed up. He’s out there, probably gloating over the fact that he got away with murder, and now you’re scared of doing the same thing again so you’re gonna go through every bloody step in minute detail.”

“You’re an ass sometimes,” I tell him.

“Only sometimes?” He pauses. “I get that the Gregory case screwed you up, Laura, but don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth. This case is coming to us with a nice little bow on top, ready for us to take it to Halveston and show him that we got it solved. Bryony bloody Hawthorne killed those people, and sure, she’s convincing in the interview room, but do you know why that is? It’s because she’s a psychopath.”

“Seriously?” I ask.

He nods.

“That girl in there,” I continue, “weeping and sobbing, is a psychopath?”

“She can turn the tears on and off like a tap,” he explains, snapping his fingers in my face. “I saw a documentary about it once. She’s playing us. No, she’s playing you, ‘cause she knows all your buttons. That’s how psychopaths work. They don’t have real emotions. They just switch things on when they need to make someone feel sorry for them. On, off, on, off, like a fucking robot. That’s what she is.”

“She’s a scared kid,” I tell him. “She’s being framed.”

“People don’t really get framed,” he replies, with obvious scorn in his voice. “Not in real life. Sure, it happens in movies, but in the real world, when was the last time you heard of a case where someone actually got framed for murder?” He pauses. “It’s always the simplest answer.”

“I’m not charging her,” I say firmly. “Not yet. I want a little more time to look at other options. If, after the first twenty-four-hour window is over, it still looks like she’s the killer, then I’ll think again, but right now this is my case and I’m sure as hell not going to rush into anything. I want to take my time.”

“I thought the Daniel Gregory case had messed you up for a while,” he replies. “Now I realize I was wrong. It didn’t mess you up for a while. It permanently screwed with your head. Sod this, I’m going to get a coffee.”

I watch as he makes his way along the corridor, heading for the machine. Turning to look at the door to the interview room, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Nick’s right. Did the Daniel Gregory case really mess me up to the extent that I’m too scared to make another leap? And is Bryony Hawthorne really just a manipulative psychopath who’s stringing me along and trying to get me to feel sorry for her?

Suddenly the door opens and Bryony’s lawyer steps out, quickly pulling the door shut again.

“Is she okay?” I ask.

“I’ve given her my honest opinion,” he says calmly, “which is that the weight of evidence against her is very strong, and that the odds of overturning the fingerprints in court are low.”

“You think she did it?”

“I’ve asked her to take a moment to consider the right course of action,” he replies diplomatically, even though the look in his eyes makes it clear that he thinks she’s guilty. “I’ve told her that if she has anything to confess, now would be the time, while it’s still possible for her to be cooperative. I’m going to wait for a few minutes and then go back in to see if she’s made a decision.” He pauses. “But I mean… The fingerprint evidence alone is damning, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I reply, feeling as if somehow we’re all being led into a trap. “It’s almost open-and-shut. Someone’s gone to a great deal of trouble to make sure that we think exactly what we’re supposed to think.”

Ophelia

 

“These are amazing,” I mutter, sitting cross-legged on the dusty concrete floor as I flick through yet another of Victoria’s hugely-detailed notebooks. “They must have taken you years!”

“Not really,” she replies, sitting nearby. “I always spend a lot of time on them, though. When I get an idea, it’s easier to draw it than to write it down or say it out loud. I don’t know why, it just is. Sometimes I sit and draw all day and I don’t even remember it, so I have to look back through to see what I came up with.”

I turn to another page, which contains a detailed pen and ink drawing of several dark figures arranged in a semi-circle, each posed as if they’re in the middle of performing some everyday action. There’s something really creepy about the ideas that she’s drawn in this notebook, and I can’t help wondering what it would be like if she had the time and resources to really act on her plans.

“So the Dead City,” I continue after a moment, “is supposed to be some kind of huge set, decorated with loads of these figure?” I turn to her. “Is that it?”

“Not a set,” she replies with a faint smile. “An actual city.”

“A whole city?”

She nods.

“And where are you going to find a spare city?” I ask. “It’s not like there are loads of them just lying around.”

“That’s why I have to start small,” she replies. “One building at a time. I know there’s no way I’ll ever get to actually work with a complete city, but if I can integrate my work into various buildings, the models can become inhabitants just as much as the living people. Like I said before, it’s something that’s going to take my whole life to finish. Either that or I could maybe go to China one day and try to get my work into one of those huge ghost cities like Kangbashi. Have you seen them? They’re, like, whole cities with almost no-one living in them.”

“Maybe you should jump on a plane to China,” I tell her.

“I would if I could. The thought of being in a completely empty city, with no people around to piss me off, is like heaven. I could just get on with my work without anyone disturbing me.”

“But then who would see it when you were finished?” I ask.

“Someone would stumble in there eventually,” she replies. “I’d hide and watch their reaction, and then I’d wait for them to leave.”

I nod as I flick through to the next page of her notebook. The image here is different, showing what appears to be a figure attached to a ceiling and arranged in a star-like position. Next to the drawing, there are various notes and equations, as if she’s been trying to work something out. It’s pretty clear that, along with her artistic ideas, Victoria has extensive knowledge of mechanics and engineering.

“That’s just stupid stuff,” she says suddenly, snatching the book away from me and flicking through to a different page. “A lot of the stuff in here is dumb, but I feel like I need to do the dumb stuff so I can get to the stuff that’s worth bothering with, like the way a prospector has to dig through dirt if he wants to get to the gold. Do you know that feeling?”

I nod again.

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I reply. “I mean… Half the battle is just about getting the preparation done.”

“You’re the first person who seems to get it,” she replies.

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing. Forget it, it’s just…” She pauses for a moment. “I tried explaining it to my lecturer once, and he just laughed. He said I was getting ahead of myself and thinking too big, but he just didn’t understand. We had to present our projects in class and all the other students just thought I was doing something stupid. I haven’t been back since. I just work on my stuff alone in here. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks, anyway. The art world’s just one big scam. You need to network and kiss asses, and that’s how you succeed. Real artists get ignored.” She pauses again. “Then again, my stuff’s stupid, so it’s probably better that I don’t get to exhibit.”

“I don’t think it’s stupid,” I tell her. “Hell, if I was a student at a place like this, it’s the kind of thing I’d do.”

She frowns.

“I mean, I am a student,” I add quickly. “Sometimes I forget that. I only signed up yesterday.”

“So why don’t you live with your family?” she asks suddenly.

“Me?” I take a deep breath. “No reason, I just… I like being by myself.”

“Are your parents assholes?”

“I…” Looking back down at the notebook for a moment, I consider telling her everything. About my parents, about the farmhouse, about what happened with Renton that day. I’ve never told anyone what happened, and I swore I never would, but for the first time I’m starting to wonder if whether it would help to confide in a kindred spirit.

“My parents are monsters,” she continues. “My father used to… I mean, he did things he wasn’t supposed to. With me. And my Mum just ignored it, even when I asked her to get him to stop. She’d just leave the house when she knew he was going to start, and she’d stay out for a couple of hours so he wouldn’t be disturbed. So I hate them both, but for different reasons. Eventually I had to run, but I can’t ever go back. If I saw either of them again, I think I’d…”

I wait for her to continue, but finally I realize that her little confession is over. There’s a part of me that wants to ask more, but I figure it must have been hard for her to tell me what happened, and I can read between the lines enough to understand what her father did to her.

“I’m sorry,” I say after a moment. “I can’t even imagine what that’s like.”

“It’s okay,” she replies, picking at her fingernails as if she’s nervous. “I just… Sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything, I don’t know why I did, I never talk about myself to anyone but you seem different, like…”

Again, her voice trails off.

“So you ran away from home,” I reply, “and now you live here like this?”

“It’s not so bad.” She pauses. “At least I can do what I want, when I want. There’s no-one to boss me about, no-one to nit-pick and tell me I’m doing anything wrong. Every day I wake up and decide what I want to do, and then I start work. What about you? How did you end up like this?”

I shake my head.

“I won’t tell anyone,” she adds. “I can keep a secret, and anyway, I never talk to anyone.”

“It’s not that,” I reply, “it’s just that I… It wasn’t anything like what happened to you. My parents didn’t hurt me. I guess the worst thing you could say about them is that they were kinda careless, but they didn’t deserve… They were good people, I think.”

“Were? Are they dead?”

I take a deep breath. Whenever I come close to talking about my past, I always feel as if my chest is getting tighter and tighter, and sometimes I wonder if telling the full truth would cause me to have some kind of a heart attack. I know it’s a pretty dumb idea, but at the same time, talking about the old days brings on this visceral, physical reaction. I always swore I’d never tell another soul about what happened, but right now, for the first time, I actually feel tempted to open up a little.

“It’s complicated,” I say eventually.

“Don’t worry,” she replies, “you don’t have to tell me. Sorry if I was pushing, it’s just that I felt like maybe I might be able to understand.”

“They’re not dead,” I tell her, surprising myself with my honesty. “They’re… out there somewhere.”

“But you don’t have any contact with them?”

I shake my head.

“Don’t you ever want to talk to them?” she asks.

Again, I shake my head.

“Do you think you’ll ever see them again?”

“No way,” I tell her. “That part of my life is over. No-one would benefit if I suddenly…”

My voice trails off.

We sit in silence for a moment, as if we’re both a little freaked out by this moment of honesty. I feel strangely raw, as if there’s something about Victoria that makes it unnaturally easy for me to open up to her, and I get the impression that maybe she feels the same. The truth is, after keeping all my secrets wrapped up for so long, it’s strange to even contemplate the idea that I could tell someone about myself. Finally, realizing that maybe I should take advantage of this rare opportunity, I try to work out where to start.

“ One night,” I say cautiously, “years ago, while they were out of the house, I...” I pause for a moment. My chest feels tight, but I figure I've started so I might as well finish. “They'd gone out,” I continue, “and I was home alone. It was getting late and -”

Suddenly there’s a beeping sound nearby.

“Sorry,” Victoria mutters, grabbing her phone and checking the screen. “Shit. I had no idea it was that time already.”

“What’s wrong?” I ask, feeling slightly relieved that I was interrupted.

“It’s my work,” she replies, getting to her feet. “I need to get on with another part of my project. The final show’s coming up soon and despite everything that’s been happening lately I figure people are still going to show up. I mean, this is the culmination of three years’ work, so there’s kind of a lot of pressure.”

“I’ll let you get on with it,” I tell her as I stand up. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take up so much of your time.”

“But you were about to tell me about yourself,” she continues. “You can stay if you want. I’ll be working, but we can still talk. I want to know your story.”

“I…” Pausing, I feel a shiver pass through my body as I realize how close I just came to opening up and actually telling another human being the truth about my life. “No, I should really get home. I’m staying at someone’s house for a few nights, and I think I really need to sleep.”

“ Are you sure?” she asks. “I've got a kettle. I can make tea and -”

“No,” I say again, “really. I’ll come back tomorrow, though.”

“Sure.”

There’s an awkward silence for a moment, as if we’re each starting to retreat back into our respective shells.

“Well,” she continues, “you know where to find me. Just make sure you don’t let anyone see you coming up here. The last thing I need is for someone to stumble onto my stuff before the show starts. I’ve got a big surprise planned for Friday. It’s going to be the biggest thing ever!”

 

***

 

“Holy crap!” I mutter as I hurry out of the building and stop for a moment to catch my breath. It’s late, almost 3am, but I feel wide awake and when I look down at my hands I realize that they’re trembling.

Leaning back against the wall, I try to stem the rising panic in my chest.

I almost told her the truth. After five years of hiding everything away and putting on a show for the world, I came so close to revealing the whole damn story. Hell, if her stupid phone alarm hadn’t gone off, I’d probably have explained everything that happened to me, down to the finest detail. I always swore that I’d never tell anyone the truth, but there was just something about Victoria that made me feel as if she’d actually understand. I might even have told her my real name.

That would have been the worst mistake in the world.

“ Stupid,” I whisper. “Stupid, stupid -”

Hearing a noise nearby, I turn just in time to see a figure wandering around from behind the main college building. Realizing that the security guard has returned, I duck down and hurry around the edge of the car park. When I get to the line of trees, I glance back and see that the guard is making his way past the next building. It’s strange to think that Victoria is in there, working away without anyone noticing her. I guess the guard’s not very good at his job.

Checking my phone, I see that it’s way too late for me to be out any longer. Laura’s going to kill me.

Laura

 

“Art?”

Doctor Maitland stares down at Mike Wallace’s body for a moment, as if the question has shocked him a little. We’re in the exam room, and the naked corpse is flat on its back on a metal table, with the chest having already been cut open for the autopsy. It’s a surreal sight, even though it’s something that I’ve seen a hundred times before.

“No,” he continues eventually, “I wouldn’t say that it’s art. More… a feat of engineering.”

“Engineering?” I ask.

“Look here,” he says, using a scalpel to point at a deep cut running through the corpse’s armpit. “Why do you think the killer cut this part of the body open and inserted a metal rod?”

“What kind of rod?”

He grabs an inch-long metal rod from the counter and holds it up for me to see.

“This,” he continues, with a somewhat triumphant tone, “is a weight-bearing rod designed to support the bones of the upper arm and prevent splintering. In short, the killer was worried that since our Mr. Wallace was a rather rotund fellow, his weight might cause the arm to break, thereby altering the center of gravity and potentially even bringing the entire corpse crashing down from its mounting on the ceiling. And do you know what this tells us?”

“That the killer thought ahead?” I ask, walking around the table so that I can get a better look at the bloodied armpit.

“That the killer has advanced engineering skills and is able to apply theory in a lateral manner,” Maitland continues. “Anatomical skills, too. We’re dealing with a smart cookie here, someone who’s capable of adapting expertise in other fields and using information to support the construction of a piece of art. So I suppose that maybe the answer to your question would be that, yes, this is a work of art after all, albeit one that could only have been created using sophisticated techniques.”

“The school teaches its students various engineering principles,” I tell him. “Mike Wallace himself told me that art students are taught a variety of techniques. It’s not just about splashing paint onto a canvas. Some of them are more like engineers than traditional artists.”

“And the internet would be able to fill in any knowledge gaps,” he replies. “Well, the cause of death was asphyxiation. You’ll note the discoloration around the neck, and the pattern indicates that the pressure was applied from behind. It’s my guess that Mr. Wallace got into his car and was then strangled by someone who was waiting on the back seat. It would have to be someone fairly strong, or at least someone who could summon up the strength to finish him off. After all, Mr. Wallace was a big guy. Have you found a vehicle yet?”

“Still looking,” I reply as I stare at Mike Wallace’s face, and in particular at his half-open eyes.

“You’ve noticed,” Maitland continues, reaching down and lifting one of the corpse’s eyelids to reveal a thin metal pin. “The killer posed the corpse before mounting it on the ceiling. Obviously there are angelic elements to the scene, which in my opinion indicates a rather limited imagination on the part of the killer, but the detail is quite exquisite. These pins were used to keep the eyes partially open, as if the killer was making a particular statement. It’s also not something that could really be achieved on the fly, so I think this was very much a premeditated murder.”

“And the time of death?” I ask.

“Not so long ago,” he replies. “Some time between four and six this evening.”

“He finished work at five,” I point out.

“Then I think we know what happened. He went to his car, someone killed him there, and then his body was worked on for a short while before being taken to the church. At that point, it was only a matter of waiting for an opportunity to hang the art, so to speak. It wouldn’t necessarily have taken very long, either, not if everything was planned in advance.”

“It was definitely planned,” I reply. “Whoever’s behind these murders, they clearly go to a lot of trouble to make sure that nothing’s left to chance.”

“So she knew roughly when the church hall would be empty,” he continues, “and she had a ladder already in place. I know it sounds rather complicated, but it’s actually doable if you just set it out logically. You’re dealing with someone who clearly doesn’t get flustered very easily.”

“This shouldn’t have happened,” I mutter, staring at the dead body. “I should have realized that he might be a target. I should have done something more proactive.”

“At least you’ve got the bastard,” Maitland points out. “What’s her name? Hawthorne? I’ll prepare the usual report, but I don’t mind telling you that I have no wish to see anything like this again. Give me a good old-fashioned stabbing victim any day. I know some of my colleagues like a bit of a puzzle, but I just get irritated if I have to stay up late.”

Staring at Mike Wallace’s body, I can’t help thinking back to the fact that just twelve hours ago I was talking to him, and he was droning on and on about the lack of talent displayed by his students. I imagine that he was the kind of man who gave his opinion freely, in which case others probably knew of his disdain. It’s almost as if he was killed to prove a point, but I’m still not convinced that Bryony Hawthorne is responsible. I just can’t picture her doing something like this.

“Penny for them?” Maitland asks.

I turn to him.

“Shouldn’t you be letting your hair down?” he continues. “Twenty-four-hours ago this case was looking like a real bugger, and now you’ve got it solved.”

“Maybe,” I mutter.

“You have doubts?”

“I’m not convinced that we’ve got the right person,” I tell him. “Everyone else thinks it’s open and shut, but I don’t think she’s the killer.”

“And the fingerprint evidence doesn’t sway you?”

“Fingerprint evidence can be faked,” I point out.

“Only by someone with great skill.”

“Exactly,” I reply. “I think we are dealing with someone who has great skill, and without wanting to sound mean, I don’t think Bryony Hawthorne could pull it off. I’m pulling her phone and internet records, but I don’t expect to find much. She couldn’t have got the first body onto the plinth in Trafalgar Square, and she couldn’t have got Mike Wallace up onto the ceiling of the church hall.”

“Or she could,” he continues, “and you’re just underestimating her.”

“I’ve ordered some extra tests on the fingerprints,” I tell him. “The results’ll be coming through overnight, so I need you to take a look first thing in the morning and let me know what you think. If I’m right, the fingerprints were somehow transferred from another surface onto Mike Wallace’s body.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s possible!” I point out.

“But unlikely.”

“But it’s still possible,” I tell him again. “If someone worked hard enough at it, and practiced, they could do it, and that means we can’t rule it out.”

“And if the fingerprints weren’t transferred?” he asks.

Heading to the door, I pause for a moment before looking back at him.

“If they weren’t transferred,” I continue, “then it’s obvious, isn’t it? I’d have no choice but to charge her. Either way, we’ll know in the morning. Call me as soon as you know anything.”

“By the way,” he continues, grabbing an evidence back from the counter, “do you want to know the title of this particular piece?”

“Title?” I ask.

He holds the bag up to reveal a small white piece of card with some printed text.

“The killer left this next to the body. Apparently the title is ‘The Man Who Knew Everything’, which I think is rather inventive.”

“The first one was titled ‘Modern Life’,” I reply. “I guess they’re part of a series.”

With that, I head out of the examination room. My heart is racing, and I’m very much aware that I’m in danger of spiking my own success here. I should be celebrating, but instead I’ve got this immovable gut feeling that Bryony’s being framed. If the killer is skillful enough to pull off every other part of this crime, then why wouldn’t he or she be able to transfer the fingerprints? If I’m right, the person behind these murders is still out there, and I can’t shake the feeling that everything is going to come to a head at Friday’s final show.

Grabbing my phone, I bring up Nick’s number and wait for him to answer. I don’t know why, but I’m feeling increasingly restless, as if with every passing second the pressure in my head is being ratcheted up another notch.

“Hey!” he shouts, with the sound of a bar in the background. “You coming down to the Crown?”

“ Are you...” I pause as I realize that he's out celebrating the fact that we've 'solved' the case. “No,” I tell him, “I just called to tell you that -”

“It’s happy hour,” he continues, apparently oblivious to anything I’m trying to tell him. He sounds a little drunk, too, so I guess I’m not going to get much out of him tonight. “Come on, let your hair down for once! Everyone’s here!”

“I can’t,” I tell him. “I have to get home to my mother.”

“You can manage one drink, can’t you?”

“No,” I reply, “really, I can’t. Sorry. Another time.”

“Whatever,” he shouts back at me, “but you’re gonna have to come out with us one night! Face it, Laura. We pulled an ace on this one and Bryony whatsername is gonna rot in prison for everything she did. She thought she was smarter than us, but we proved her wrong. Back of the net, eh? You’re not gonna charge her tonight, are you? I wanna be there to see that obnoxious little cow’s face when she realizes she’s not wriggling out of it.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” I tell him.

“ Yeah, but Laura, are you -”

Cutting the call off, I can’t help but shiver at the thought that Nick is so confident about this case. I hope he’s right, and that we really have had a lucky break. At the same time, I feel as if there’s still some work to do. Nick thinks I’m being too cautious because I’m scared of repeating the mistakes I made in the Daniel Gregory case, but in fact it’s simply that I’ve learned my lesson. There’s no way I’m going to screw up again, and the fingerprint analysis is going to prove that Bryony is innocent.

 

***

 

An hour later, I hurry out of the supermarket and make my way across the dark car park. My heart’s racing as I open the back door and shove my bags inside, but at the last moment I pause. All my panic and fear has faded away, replaced by something else. I feel…

Good.

Taking a deep breath, I realize that my whole body feels completely alive, and all the tiredness and doubt is gone.

Finally, I reach into my coat pocket and pull out the small bottle of whiskey I stole. Glancing back at the supermarket, I see that there’s a figure standing in the doorway. All I can make out is his silhouette, but I’m convinced it’s the security guard. Did he suspect me? He wouldn’t have stopped me unless he was absolutely certain, but it’s possible that he’s making a mental note of me, in which case there’s no way I can come back to this supermarket ever again.

Hurrying to the nearby bin, I toss the bottle away before making my way back to the car. Once I’m in the driver’s seat, I take a deep breath and stare at my eyes in the rear-view mirror. It’d be one thing if I was stealing things I actually wanted, but I’ve already got way too much whiskey sitting in the cabinet at home and I don’t even like the stuff. I sit and stare at the supermarket door until finally the figure turns and heads back inside. I’m not certain, but I think I just came close to being spotted. Feeling an immense sense of relief rush through my body, I lean forward and rest my forehead against the steering wheel.

I can’t keep doing this. I’m going to get caught. I need to find some other way to get the same rush.

Ophelia

 

It’s almost 5am by the time I ease the front door shut. There’s no way I want to wake anyone up, so I turn the latch slowly until the door is in place, and then I let the latch slip back across with just the faintest click.

Silence.

Everyone’s in bed.

For a moment, I feel as if I should turn around and get the hell out of here. The idea of coming ‘home’ feels wrong somehow, and I’m worried that I’m allowing myself to become domesticated.

Taking a deep breath, I try to get rid of the sense of panic in my gut. Tonight I spent a couple of hours getting to know Victoria, and I came dangerously close to making a friend. I assumed when I went to the college that I’d just fake everything, but something about Victoria made me feel at ease. A shiver passes through me as I realize how close I came to telling her my whole life story: where I come from, what happened to me, why I ran, my name, every damn thing. If I’d done that, I don’t even know how I’d begin to repair the damage. The problem is, I feel as if Victoria is the one person who might actually understand me.

Turning, I head to the foot of the stairs.

“Ophelia?”

I freeze as I realize that the voice came from the front room. For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe I could just go to bed and pretend that I was up there all along, but finally I realize that there’s no point lying. Walking across the unlit hallway, I peer through into the next room and realize that Laura is sitting in the dark. Sure, she’s always a little unsociable and weird, but even for her, this is kind of strange.

“ I know it's late,” I tell her, “but -”

“It’s okay,” she says, interrupting me. “I’m not your mother, for God’s sake.”

I can’t help but smile.

“What have you been up to?” she asks.

“Just hanging out,” I reply.

“Did you make friends?”

“Of course. You know me, I’m just about the most popular person on the planet. When I put my mind to it, anyway.”

I pause for a moment, waiting for her to say something, but it’s starting to become clear that something’s wrong. Reaching over, I turn on the light, and that’s when I see that Laura is just sitting at the dining table as if she’s completely lost in thought.

“I’ve been networking,” I add, hoping to cheer her up. “Spreading myself out across the campus, looking for information, trying to work out if anyone has seen or heard anything. I’ve had to limit myself to the students still, but I’ll get there in the end. It’s actually kinda tiring, really. I’m not used to being in a place like that and…”

Pausing again, I realize that I’m starting to waffle. I always do this when I’m nervous, and right now I’m nervous as hell. After all, I accidentally let my defenses down tonight, and I’d always thought those defenses were much stronger.

“So what’s wrong?” I ask as I head over and take a seat. “No glass of wine?”

She shakes her head.

“ I didn't really come up with anything today,” I tell her. “I met a few of the students, but -”

“An innocent girl is sitting in a cell at the police station,” she says suddenly, interrupting me. “She’s there because all the evidence points to her being the killer. There was another murder, by the way. A lecturer at the college named Mike Wallace was found dead, stuck to the ceiling in a church hall. He was killed just a few hours earlier and then he was attached to a few hooks and hung like he was supposed to be on display.”

“Another artistic murder?” I ask.

“There was some writing on his body and on the ceiling,” she replies, “but we can’t make out what it says. I think maybe it’s just nonsense, designed to lead us down a dead end.” She sighs. “How many dead ends are we going to have to deal with before we come up with something?”

“So what’s the evidence against the girl you arrested?”

“Fingerprints,” she continues, “but I think they’ve been faked.”

“Totally possible,” I tell her.

“Do you know how to do it?”

“I read about it once,” I reply. “I don’t remember the details, but I’m sure I could do it if necessary. Anyone with a few brain cells can find that kinda stuff on the net.”

“I’m having some tests run,” she tells me, “but the results won’t be available for a few more hours.”

“Playing the waiting game, huh?”

“Bryony Hawthorne isn’t the killer,” she continues. “I just know it, deep down.”

“Bryony?” I pause for a moment. “You’re right. I met her today, and there’s no way she did it. She’s flaky and a bit weird, and kinda twisted, but she couldn’t kill someone. I know that’s a big assumption to make, but some people just haven’t got it in them.”

“But the real killer wants us to think it’s her.”

“Only to buy some time,” I reply. “Any artist wants to sign his or her work eventually. Framing Bryony is just a way for the killer to keep you busy until Friday. The final show is gonna be where it all goes down.”

“We can’t let that happen,” she replies. “Are you sure you didn’t come up with anything today?”

I shake my head.

“So what have you been doing?”

“Meeting people,” I reply, not wanting to mention the time that I spent with Victoria Middleton. Somehow that feels private, as if I don’t want to share it with anyone. “I talked to a whole load of students, but so far none of them really stood out as being the killer. Tomorrow’s another day, though, so I figure I’ll manage to dig something up. By hook or by crook, I’ll have a lead for you.”

I pause for a moment as I wait to see if she’ll believe my excuse. Fortunately, she seems too wrapped up in her own worries to really pay attention to anything I tell her.

“You use unusual phrases,” she says suddenly.

“I do?”

“By hook or by crook,” she replies. “That’s not something most people your age say. Sometimes I feel as if your reference points are a little off.” She pauses. “Where did you go to school?”

“Not telling.”

“Why not?”

“Because once I start down that road,” I point out, “I’ll end up telling my whole life story.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“It would.”

She smiles, as if she finds me amusing. I guess there’s no way she could have known that tonight, of all nights, would be the absolute worst time to try to get me to open up. After what happened with Victoria, I feel more defensive and alert than ever.

“So if Bryony isn’t the killer,” I continue, hoping to change the subject, “have you really got no more leads?”

She grabs a folder and opens it to show me a photo of a naked man stuck to a ceiling. It’s a shocking image, and I stare for a moment as I try to take in the full extent of the killer’s madness. Whoever’s behind this, they’re clearly acting out some kind of elaborate fantasy, and it’s not hard to see how an unhinged mind could see these murders as components of some overarching masterpiece. Hell, there’s no denying that this is some pretty shocking work.

“The final show is in two days,” she tells me. “That means I’ve got two choices. First, I can charge Bryony Hawthorne with murder and hope that she’s the killer after all. Second, I can let her go and hope to hell that I can come up with a lead in the next twenty-four hours, because if nothing happens at that point, I’m going to have no choice but to get that final show canceled.”

“Maybe that’s what the killer wants,” I point out.

“What else can I do?”

“Don’t cancel the show.”

“But maybe that’s what the killer wants.”

“Then you’re screwed,” I tell her, “because at some point you’re going to have to make a decision and stop second-guessing yourself.”

Staring at the photo of the man on the ceiling, I suddenly realize that it looks familiar. Earlier tonight, when I was with Victoria, I saw something very similar in one of her notebooks. I have a pretty damn good photographic memory, and I’m convinced that the sketch was almost exactly the same as the photo. Then again, it’s not the most original pose in the world, so it’s probably a coincidence. There’s no way Victoria could be the killer. She and I are so alike, and I totally understand that she has her demons, but I refuse to believe that she’d go this far.

“What is it?” Laura asks eventually. “I’ve seen that look on your face before, Ophelia. Have you got a lead?”

“Me?”

“Tell me,” she continues, putting the folder down. “I’m getting desperate here. If you can think of anything, even if it’s a long shot, it might help.”

“I…”

Pausing, I realize that there’s no way I can bring the full force of the police down on Victoria’s head just because of a single sketch. I need more time.

“Please,” she adds. “Anything is better than what I’ve got now.”

“It’s nothing,” I say eventually, forcing a smile. “I was just trying to think through a few theories, but nothing came of them.”

“Are you sure?”

“Why would I lie to you?” I ask.

“Sorry,” she replies, “I guess I’m so tired, my mind’s getting pretty feverish. I think I need to go to bed.” Getting up, she heads to the door that leads through to the hallway. “I’m sorry if I seem a little off tonight. I guess I’m just bad at dealing with pressure. Turn the lights off when you come up, yeah?”

“Sure,” I mutter. “And don’t worry. I’m sure we’ll come up with something tomorrow.”

As I listen to her heading upstairs, I take a deep breath and try to order my thoughts. I definitely should have told Laura about the drawing in Victoria’s sketch book, but it would only have sent the police off on a wild goose chase. I’ll double-check tomorrow, but I’m starting to think that the similarity between the photo and the drawing maybe isn’t quite as great as I’d initially feared. Besides, Victoria Middleton can’t be the killer. She’s so much like me, and she seems so focused on her Dead City project, I refuse to believe that she could be a cold-blooded serial killer.

Then again, if she really is like me, maybe I shouldn’t give her the benefit of the doubt after all. Maybe, just like me, she truly is capable of killing someone.

Part Six

Laura

 

“Also,” I continue, “small particles of resin were detected around the fingerprints, and that’s another strong sign that a trace-and-transfer technique was used to lift the prints off another surface, probably a glass, and attach them to a new surface, in this case the victim’s skin.”

Staring at the forensic report, Halveston seems momentarily lost for words.

“She’s innocent,” I add, “and this report proves it.”

“Fine,” he replies, setting the report down with a sigh. “Well, this is a fine thing to have to deal with first thing in the morning. I actually slept pretty damn well last night, in the mistaken belief that we’d got this case solved. I guess you’d better go and release the Hawthorne girl.”

“No.”

He stares at me.

“No?”

“I don’t want to release her,” I tell him.

“But she’s innocent.”

“I know,” I reply. “I want to charge her anyway.”

 

***

 

“I don’t get it,” Bryony says as she dries her eyes. “I thought you said I’m in the clear?”

“You are,” I reply, glancing briefly at her lawyer before turning back to her. “The thing is, Bryony, someone went to extraordinary lengths to implicate you in these murders. In a normal criminal case, the fact that the fingerprints were falsified would only have come to light at trial, months down the line. It’s something of a fluke that we picked up on it so early. It’s my opinion that the killer was hoping to buy some time so that he or she could complete the next stage of the plan.”

“So you want me to pretend that I’m still going to jail?” she asks.

“We need to make the killer believe that we fell for it all,” I continue. “That’s why, with your cooperation, I want to go ahead and charge you with these murders.”

“But I didn’t do anything,” she replies, clearly starting to panic again.

“ I know,” I tell her. “Everyone here knows that. But we have to make this convincing. So I want to charge you, and I want to have you appear before a magistrate so that you can be held ahead of trial. We'll keep you here at the station, and it'll only be for a few days. I'll try to make you as comfortable as possible. In the meantime, I believe that the killer will move forward with whatever he or she is planning, and that's when we've got our best chance to make a move. The final show is tomorrow and -”

“I need to get my stuff ready!”

“I’m going to speak to Carol Livingstone,” I reply, “and make sure that you don’t suffer due to this absence. In the circumstances, I’m sure she’ll be able to make an exception.”

“But I want to be there!”

“ And I want to catch this killer,” I continue. “Please, Bryony, I need your help here. If the killer finds out that we've cleared you, he or she is going to go back into the shadows. We need to make this person confident, so we need to pretend that we're going ahead with charging you. I could have done it without letting you in on the plan -”

“That would have been a gross ethical violation,” the lawyer interjects.

“I still could have done it,” I point out.

“And attracted a lawsuit.”

“Not if I’d lied,” I tell him, holding up the forensic report. “I have grounds for charging Bryony, and all I’d need to do would be to slip this report into a pile of papers somewhere and let it get lost for a couple of days. Things do get lost, you know. And then I could have gone ahead and then just claimed it was all a natural error due to the evidence against her. This way, I’m trying to do things fairly while still getting what I need.” I turn back to Bryony. “Twenty-four more hours. That’s all I need from you.”

“And then I can go?” she asks.

I nod.

“And I won’t have, like, a record or anything?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Will I get, like, paid?”

“No,” I reply. “Sorry, all you’ll get is the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve helped us track down a killer.”

“And…” She pauses. “My work for the show…”

“We’ll find a solution,” I tell her. “I’ll speak to Carol Livingstone as soon as I’m done in here with you.”

She stares at me for a moment, as if she genuinely doesn’t know whether or not to agree.

“Okay,” she says finally.

“I’d have to advise against this,” the lawyer cuts in. “It’s highly irregular and I believe it could open Ms. Hawthorne up to significant dangers.”

“The only danger is that she’ll have to eat more of the junk we serve for dinner,” I point out. “And I’ll see if I can find something better.”

“I’ll do it,” Bryony says, taking a deep breath. “If it helps you find whoever killed those people, and whoever killed Mike Wallace, then I’ll totally do it. Like you said earlier, it’s the right thing. I’ve never really had a chance to do the right thing before. I think it might feel good. But you have to talk to Livingstone and make sure that I don’t get screwed over for this.”

“Absolutely.”

“And you have to, like, get her to agree that I can put my work into another show.”

“Absolutely,” I say again, even though I have no idea if I can do what she’s asking.

“And you have to tell my friends that I’m innocent.”

“I can’t do that,” I tell her. “Everyone has to believe that you’re really being charged. Friends, family, everyone. It’s the only way.”

She opens her mouth to say something else, but the words seem to be stuck in her throat.

“It’s going to be hard,” I continue, “but only for one day.”

She nods.

“I’ll make sure you get some extra pillows,” I tell her, “and then I’ll arrange for an appearance before the magistrate.”

“And will the magistrate be let in on the fact that this is all some kind of charade?” the lawyer asks.

“We need as few points of failure as possible,” I reply. “This is a risky strategy for a number of reasons. At this stage, the only people who know what we’re doing are the three of us in this room, plus my partner on the case and my immediate superior. I want to keep it that way.”

“So you’re going to play the legal system?” he asks. “You’re going to turn the whole thing into a farce, purely because you think you have a chance of smoking the real killer out?” He smiles. “This all seems rather desperate to me, Detective Foster. It’s like the plot of a bad movie. I think I’m starting to understand why you’ve got such a regrettable reputation.”

“I have a reputation?” I ask, shocked by the insinuation.

“People talk,” he replies with a supercilious smile.

“That’s nice to know.”

“Your handling of the Daniel Gregory case has become pretty infamous,” he continues. “Most people screw up at least once in their career, but they usually learn from their mistakes. I can see, though, that you’re just going to compound them and go blundering on like a bull in a china shop. Tell me, do you get some sort of thrill out of sailing so close to the wind? Do you have a career death wish?”

“ I'm just trying to -”

“Let me be clear,” he adds. “If I have any reason to believe that it’s necessary, I will advise Ms. Hawthorne not only to pull out of this ridiculous stunt, but also to launch a lawsuit against the police force and against you in particular for the way she’s being treated.”

“On what grounds?” I ask.

“On the grounds that you’re willfully incompetent and reckless. I think she’s got a good case, don’t you? In fact, I think she’d receive a very hefty payout before the case even got to court, and I also think you’d be out on your ear.”

“I’ll go sort out those pillows,” I mutter, getting to my feet and heading out of the interview room. Once I’m in the corridor, I pull the door shut and then I lean back against the wall. The lawyer was right: this is a crazy approach and it could definitely come crashing down all around me, but right now it’s my only option. I just hope that, between us, Ophelia and I can come up with a lead today.

Ophelia

 

“Holy crap, did you hear about Bryony?”

Looking up, I see that Miles has come hurrying over to us in the corner of the canteen. He has an excited look on his face, and as he takes a seat on the other side of the table it’s clear that he’s got something important to tell us. I glance over at Victoria and I can see that she feels uncomfortable.

“She’s going on trial,” Miles continues. “Or whatever. The police have charged her with all those murders, including Mike Wallace! Isn’t that the most messed-up thing you ever heard?”

“They’re charging her?” I ask.

“That means she must have done it,” he adds. “They don’t charge people unless they’ve got, like, a ton of evidence. I mean, can you even begin to imagine how weird this all is? Bryony, the girl who worked right next to me for so long, turns out to be some kind of mass-murdering psycho serial killer. I guess it just goes to show that you never really know what’s really happening in people’s heads, huh?”

Looking down at my cup of tea, I try to work out what the hell’s happening. When I spoke to Laura last night she clearly accepted that Bryony wasn’t the killer, so I don’t understand why she’s suddenly changed her mind. Either the fingerprint evidence turned out to be bogus, or this is some kind of trick. Knowing Laura, I’m starting to think that she must be doing this on purpose in an attempt to fool the killer. It’s not a bad idea, either. I’ve taught her well. Of course, it could all go completely wrong if the killer strikes again, but then again Laura has a tendency to take risks.

Huge, ridiculous risks.

“So the final show’s going ahead?” Victoria asks, her voice sounding quiet and muffled as usual.

“I guess so,” Miles replies. “I think Livingstone’s gonna make some kind of announcement later. They’ll probably try to turn the whole thing into this big memorial event for Mike. Apparently his body was, like, all messed up when they found it.” He leans closer, as if he’s divulging top secret information. “The way I heard it,” he whispers conspiratorially, “is that he was found nailed to the ceiling of some church hall, totally naked.”

“Is that a fact?” I reply.

“And he had weird writing all over his body, like hieroglyphics that no-one’s been able to translate so far. Apparently they’re bringing in a bunch of experts to try to decode it, but they think maybe there’s some kind of witchcraft involved. Doesn’t that just blow your mind? There might be a coven of full-on witches here!”

“Huh,” I mutter, amused by the fact that he seems to be adding so much false detail to the story.

“And the killer had cut off his dick and stuck it in his mouth.”

“That’s not true,” I reply, before realizing that I’ve maybe said too much. “I mean,” I add, sitting back, “I totally don’t think that’s what happened. I read something online about it this morning and they didn’t mention anything about his dick being put in his mouth.”

“It’s what I heard,” Miles replies with a shrug. “Anyway, maybe there’ll be some more leaked photos to settle the matter. I mean, if you think about it, it’s pretty sick but it’s also kinda impressive. You’ve got to take your hat off to Bryony. She’s gonna go down in history. Hell, I mean she’s really pulled off something that everyone’s talking about. It’s almost like she’s won the final show, even though she won’t actually be there.” He pauses for a moment. “Her absence is going to be the biggest presence. That’s pretty deep, huh? She’s a real artist.”

“I have to go,” Victoria says suddenly, getting to her feet and hauling her backpack over her shoulder.

“I’ll come,” I reply.

“No,” she says, “I need to do some stuff by myself for a bit.”

“Okay, then I’ll find you later.”

“Yeah, sure,” she mutters, before hurrying away. I watch as she heads out the door, and I can’t help feeling that something about her changed as soon as Miles came to join us, and especially when he told us about Bryony. We’d been talking quite normally up to that point, and then suddenly she seemed to go back into her shell. I guess she really can’t handle social situations at all. Whereas I long ago found a way to get by, she’s still raw and desperately uncomfortable. I want to help her.

“So and you and her friends now?” Miles asks.

“We get on.”

“I never thought Victoria Middleton would have a friend,” he continues. “We’ve been here for three years and she’s barely said a word to anyone. Come on, what’s your secret? How did you get through to her?”

“I don’t know,” I reply, taking a sip of tea. “We just started talking and then she showed me some of her work.”

“And what’s she like?”

“She’s… fine.”

“But what does she talk about?” he asks. “Is it, like, weird shit? The few times I’ve talked to her, I can barely even hear what she’s saying.”

“She’s not some kind of freak,” I reply, feeling a little defensive. “Just because she doesn’t hang out with everyone and go to parties and stuff like that, don’t treat her like she’s a monster or…” I pause for a moment as I realize that I’m letting Miles get to me. “Forget it, it doesn’t matter.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he replies, “it’s just… You’re not… you know…”

I stare at him, trying to work out what the hell he means. I don’t know why, but Miles is really getting on my nerves this morning. I can usually laugh at people when they’re being annoying, but he’s under my skin and I’m having to fight the urge to tell him to leave me alone.

“You and her,” he adds. “I mean, I’m totally cool with it, and with the lifestyle and stuff, I’m just curious. Are you…”

“Are we what?”

“You know…” He lowers his voice a little more. “Are you, like, lesbians?”

“Excuse me?”

“Just an innocent question. No judgment intended on my part. I just figure that maybe that would explain how you two have become such good friends so fast.”

“No,” I reply, trying to resist the urge to throw the rest of my tea in his face, “we’re not lesbians. We’re just friends.” I pause as I realize how strange that word sounds coming from my mouth. Am I suddenly the kind of person who collects friends as she goes through life? “We’re friends,” I say again, as if I’m trying to get used to the idea. “That’s all.”

“Cool,” he replies. “I didn’t mean to pry. So do you wanna come to the after-show party tomorrow night?”

“Party?” I stare at him for a moment. “No, I don’t want to go to a party.”

“ Is it 'cause of the lesbian thing?” he asks. “I'm sorry if that seemed offensive. It's just that I kinda couldn't work out why anyone would want to be friends with someone like Victoria. She's just so weird and -”

“ Why don't you shut the hell up?” I ask, surprising myself with the anger in my voice. I don't remember the last time I actually felt properly mad at someone, but even though I know I should hold back, I can already feel myself starting to lose my temper. “What the hell gives you the right to act like such a creep?” I continue, getting to my feet. “For your information, Victoria's just a normal person like anyone else, except that she's actually got some talent, which I guess makes her stand out in a place like this. I guess there's no way an idiot like you would actually understand. Oh, and you might be interested to learn that two girls can actually be friends without wanting to get into each other's pants. It's people like you who -”

Suddenly I realize that the people at the next table are staring at me. In fact, I seem to be drawing attention from several tables.

“Forget it,” I add, suddenly feeling like an idiot. “Just forget everything.”

I make my way between the tables and head to the door, and then I hurry into the bathroom and finally I lock myself into one of the cubicles. Leaning back against the wall, I take a deep breath and try to regather my composure. Miles isn’t the first idiot I’ve ever met, but usually I can laugh these things off. I have no idea why I suddenly got so angry, but I guess it might have something to do with the fact that he seemed so completely oblivious when it comes to Victoria. Five years ago, I was exactly like her: I was quiet and maybe a little weird, and I’m sure people talked about me in the same way that Miles just talked about Victoria.

It’s not fair. None of this is fair.

And that’s when I realize, with a sense of mounting horror, what’s really happening here. First Laura, now Victoria. Against my better judgment, almost against my will, I’m doing the one thing I always promised myself I’d never do again. I’m making friends. Fucked-up friends with serious psychological problems, but definitely friends.

Laura

 

“This is good stuff,” Joe Lewis says as he types some more notes on his laptop. “The only thing I don’t get is why you’re coming to me now. Of all the people in the world, why give me the exclusive?”

“I felt sorry for you,” I reply as we sit in a coffee shop near the police station. “I heard you got fired last year.”

“It was that homeless girl you were hanging around with,” he mutters. “She tricked me into running a bullshit story about her, and then the paper got a bunch of legal threats and they let me go. I’ve been freelance ever since.”

“And how’s the freelance life?” I ask.

“It sucks. I’m thinking of trying to write a book. Either that or maybe getting into blogging or…” He sighs. “Clearly I’m making good use of my Journalism degree, eh?”

“Then be grateful that I’m bringing you this story,” I continue. “Bryony Hawthorne is a student at the art college and her fingerprints were all over the body of the dead lecturer. That’s B, R, Y, O, N, Y by the way. Make sure to spell her name right. And use the photo I gave you. I want her face and name plastered over every website by dinner, and I want that photo to be on the front page of every newspaper in the country tomorrow morning.”

“And you’re certain she’s the killer?” he asks, making some more notes.

“Fingerprints don’t lie.”

“ But are the -”

“I’m certain,” I continue, figuring that I really need to sell this to him. Besides, once the shit hits the fan, he won’t be able to prove that I fed him the information. Hanging a rat like Joe Lewis out to dry is the least of my problems. “Bryony Hawthorne is responsible for the stitched-together body in Trafalgar Square and the murder of Mike Wallace. This isn’t supposition or rumor, this is fact, and the only reason I’m passing it to you this way instead of through official channels is that I need to get a few wheels turning. You know how bureaucracy works.”

“I could use a photo of Wallace’s body.”

“You know I can’t do that,” I reply.

“Photos drive media interest,” he points out. “I’ll censor out the gross parts, but after the leaks from the first murder, the great British public demands visual proof. Pictures or it didn’t happen, yeah?”

“Then you’ll just have to make the story particularly compelling, so that the readers can visualize the whole thing in their heads.”

“Worth a try,” he mutters.

“So do we have a deal?”

“I can sell this,” he replies. “I’ll write it up at lunchtime and I guarantee I can get it into one of the red-tops tomorrow, probably on the front page. It’s got all the things they like. Death, something a bit spicy, a photogenic young woman with blood on her hands. That Bryony Hawthorne’s a bit of a looker, isn’t she?” He pauses. “Maybe she’s got some nudes online somewhere. I know a guy who knows a guy who can hack into phones and email.”

“And the guy he knows is you?”

“I’m just saying, it might be worth checking out.”

“Classy as ever?” I reply.

“Market-driven journalism. That’s all it is.”

“I need the story to get out as soon as possible,” I tell him. “Tomorrow morning is too late.”

“They’ll have it on their website by early evening. This could really be the story that gets me back into the business. People laughed at me last year, but I always knew I’d manage to get back on the horse.”

I smile politely, but the truth is, I actually feel a little sorry for him. Last year, Joe Lewis thought he’d got a scoop when he published a story revealing Ophelia’s true identity, only for the whole thing to fall apart. Now he’s finally getting a second chance, but again he’s going to be made to look like an idiot within a few days. Then again, I guess he should be more careful, and he should check his facts a little more thoroughly before he submits his work. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

“So what happened to that Ophelia bitch anyway?” he asks.

“No idea.”

“She just vanished back into the homeless world, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Probably freezing to death in some gutter,” he adds. “Either that, or whoring herself out for a bite of someone’s sandwich. I could always tell she was a bit of a fucking rat.”

I smile politely, even though I want to pour hot coffee in his lap.

“I wouldn’t mind another crack at her some day,” he continues. “She’s the only investigation I’ve ever screwed up. I mean, I didn’t exactly underestimate her, but I still didn’t think she’d surrounded herself with so many layers of bullshit. Kinda makes me think that she must be hiding something pretty dark. How much do you know about her background?”

“Nothing.”

“Not even her real name?”

“I told you, I don’t know anything.”

“People don’t just cut off their past like that unless they’ve got something to hide.” He pauses. “She must have done something, something really bad. All the effort she’s gone to in order to create a whole new identity for herself… Whatever’s gone on in her life, she can’t run from it forever. Someone’s gonna find out some day.”

“This isn’t about Ophelia.”

“Do you know how I could get in touch with her?”

“Not a clue.”

“And you seriously haven’t heard a peep from her?”

“Shouldn’t you be getting on with this exclusive?” I ask him as I finish my coffee. “After all, I can’t guarantee that it won’t leak out some other way.” Getting to my feet, I grab my coat and bag. “Just remember that you didn’t hear any of this from me, okay? If anyone ever asks, I’ll deny speaking to you.” I turn to walk away, before realizing that there’s one more thing I want to ask him. “By the way,” I add, “last year, when you were investigating Ophelia, did you ever go to her hospital room?”

“No,” he replies, as he continues to type.

“So you didn’t go and visit her and leave some Smarties behind for her?”

He turns to me. “What are you on about?”

“Nothing,” I reply, figuring that Ophelia’s mysterious hospital visitor must have been someone else. Either that, or it’s just a figment of her imagination. “Good luck with the story. I’ve got a feeling this is really going to define your name in the industry.”

 

***

 

“Did he buy it?” Nick asks as I get into the car.

“Hook, line and sinker,” I tell him. “How’s the hangover?”

“How do you think?” he asks, taking another painkiller and washing it down with the coffee I’ve brought out to him. “I hope you know that if my head wasn’t throbbing, I’d probably be far less willing to indulge this madness.”

“It’s not madness,” I reply. “Joe Lewis is going to get that story out to the tabloids. By tonight, Bryony Hawthorne is going to be all over the internet, labeled as one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. The real murderer, meanwhile, is going to think that we’re off the scent, and that’s when he’s going to start moving forward with whatever he’s got planned for the final show at the art college. He’ll think we’re not watching, but we’ll be everywhere.”

“And if he kills someone?”

“He won’t,” I continue. “Like I said, we’ve already got the whole place under surveillance. Cameras, security teams, the whole deal. If anyone so much as sneezes within two hundred feet of that college over the next couple of days, I’m going to have it on file.”

“That doesn’t mean we’ll definitely get him. Remember, we’re dealing with someone who managed to get a corpse up onto a plinth in Trafalgar Square.”

“This killer is smart,” I point out, “and our only hope is to pull the rug from under his feet. He thinks we’re all going to be out celebrating the end of the case tonight, and he thinks security at the college is going to be scaled down. We’re playing right into his hands and offering him the chance to finish his plan. There’s no way he’ll pass on that chance. This is what he’s been waiting for, building up to. He probably sees it as his crowning achievement.”

“I hope you’re right,” he replies, “because this has the potential to totally blow up in our faces. I mean, if another body shows up, or multiple bodies, we’re going to look like complete idiots, and no-one’s going to believe that the Bryony Hawthorne situation was a set-up.” He pauses. “You realize that if this goes wrong, we’re going to be in deep shit, right? I could get a slap on the wrist, but with your history… You’d be dead in the water, Laura. Even Halveston wouldn’t be able to protect you if people like Adams were after your blood. Are you sure you can handle the pressure?”

“I’m fine with pressure,” I tell him. “Hell, I’m fine with whatever it takes to catch the killer.”

Reaching into my pocket, I take out my phone and bring up Ophelia’s number. When I try to call her, however, the number rings for a short while before going through to voicemail. This is the seventh time I’ve tried to get hold of her over the past few hours, but she remains frustratingly unresponsive.

“Who are you trying to get in touch with?” Nick asks.

“No-one,” I mutter, putting my phone away. “It doesn’t matter.”

Taking a deep breath, I tell myself that Ophelia’s probably hard at work squirreling out some new leads. Anyway, I don’t need her help. As long as Joe Lewis does his job, I’m sure the plan will work just fine. Sure, Lewis will end up with his career in tatters, but after his attempt to expose Ophelia last year, I figure he deserves everything he gets and more. The only thing that matters is that this killer is apprehended before anyone else gets hurt.

“Now what?” Nick asks.

“Now Bryony Hawthorne appears before a magistrate,” I tell him, “and everyone thinks the case has been solved. And then we wait for the real killer to make a mistake.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“He will,” I say firmly, even though I can feel myself starting to panic now that the wheels have been set in motion. “I’m sure of it. We’re turning his own trap back on him.”

 

***

 

“You have no idea how long this took,” Tricia says as she dumps a huge pile of papers on my desk. “Four hundred and sixty-seven art students, all background-checked and then located using mobile phone signals backdated to the time of Mike Wallace’s murder. I had some help of course, but still, I think this is a world record.”

“Thank you so much,” I reply, taking a look at the top sheet. “Did you find anything?”

“For four hundred and sixty-six of them,” she continues, “we managed to pretty much clear them on the background checks alone, plus mobile phone records put them far away from the church hall last night. The same phone records indicate that they were all, most likely, actively using their devices at the time, or at least on the move. In other words, we can pretty conclusively state that they don’t have anything to do with the murder. Turns out, most students these days live pretty boring lives. Not like back in our day. Well, my day anyway. College was kinda wild.”

“Four hundred and sixty-six?” I ask. “What about the four hundred and sixth-seventh?”

“Victoria Middleton,” she replies, pulling a final sheet from her pocket and handing it to me. “She’s a little more tricky. Her registered address turns out to be a coffee shop, and we can’t track down a mobile phone number for her. If she’s got a phone, it’s a burner or an anonymous pay-as-you-go card. No email either, apart from a college account that she hasn’t accessed since last year.”

“What about financial records?”

“Apparently she doesn’t even have a bank account. I’m starting to wonder if she’s homeless, maybe living in a squat somewhere.”

“Just like…” I pause before I let the rest of the sentence leave my lips.

“I don’t think there’s much else we can do to track her down,” Tricia continues. “Still, it’s pretty suspicious, isn’t it?”

“I’ve met her,” I reply, staring at the scan of Victoria’s college identification card. “She was a nervous wreck.”

“Does that mean she can’t be the killer?”

“Not at all,” I mutter, thinking back to how easily I let Nick talk me out of the idea. “Nick and I could barely get a word out of her, without her collapsing into floods of tears.”

“Doesn’t sound like a murderer to me.”

“Maybe not,” I reply. “I think we need to broaden the search and start looking at staff members. Everyone from the top down, including the principal.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to consider the possibility that it’s someone who’s not directly linked to the college?”

“Not yet,” I reply, even though I’m keenly aware that we’re running out of time. “It has to be someone from Beacon Court.”

“A couple of hours ago,” she points out, “you were convinced it had to be a student.” She pauses for a moment. “Fine. I’ll see what I can dig up on the teachers, but you owe me a drink. Lots of drinks, actually.” She heads to the door. “In fact, just one drink’s fine, on the condition that you come with me.”

Once she’s left the room, I lean back and try to work out what the hell I’m supposed to do next. I was convinced that we’d be able to link one of the students to Mike Wallace’s murder, but now it looks like I’ll have to think again. Staring at the photo of Victoria Middleton, I find myself contemplating the possibility – however remote – that she might be the killer. Sure, Victoria comes across as being a hyper-awkward, socially inept girl who bursts into tears at the slightest provocation, but I guess that doesn’t mean she can’t also be a killer.

What if my initial instinct was right and I allowed Nick to talk me out of it?

Grabbing my phone, I try once again to get through to Ophelia. Everyone thinks I’m taking too much of a risk, but they don’t realize that I’ve got a secret weapon up my sleeve. Ophelia’s my back-up plan, and I need to make sure she’s in place.

Ophelia

 

“Busy,” I mutter, as my phone rings in my pocket. I figure it’s just Laura calling for an update, in which case I’ll get back to her as soon as I’ve got any news to report.

Making my way up the stairs in the empty building, I can already hear Victoria hammering away at something in her workspace. When she shot out of the canteen earlier, I could tell that something was wrong, and it seems that she’s busying herself with her final project. I remember the days when I was the same: I’d try to ignore my problems and focus instead on various crazy ideas, none of which ever really went anywhere. Victoria’s upset about something, and I need to find out what’s on her mind.

“Hey,” I say as I enter the room.

She looks over at me. Kneeling on the floor, she’s in the process of putting together another of her resin figures. After a moment, instead of answering, she gets back to work. I watch for a moment as she uses her sculpting knife to carve faint grooves into the model’s face. I have no idea exactly what she’s doing, but she seems to be working according to her own private sense of logic. I know the feeling.

“So are you going to be finished in time?” I ask, making my way over to her. “You have to get everything in position by midnight tonight, don’t you?”

“They’ve given us an extension until the morning,” she replies as she puts the knife down and starts hammering a nail into the model’s neck. “They’re also letting us use an old studio in one of the other buildings all night so people can work in there. It’s not exactly ideal for everyone, but apparently it’s the best they can do. There’s gonna be a security guard, so it’s not like anything can happen. I guess they think we’re all upset about Mr. Wallace’s death.”

“And are you?”

She looks at me again.

“It’s sad,” she says after a moment, before resuming her work.

“At least they’ve caught the killer,” I point out, watching as she bangs the head of the hammer over and over again against the nail. “It’s pretty weird to think that it was Bryony. I never thought she’d be able to pull something like that off. Still, I guess she must be smarter than anyone realized. She’s kinda already won the final show’s top prize, don’t you think?”

“ No, she -”

Before she can finish, Victoria misses with the hammer and crunches the head straight into the side of her hand. She lets out a cry of pain and pulls back, dropping the hammer against the floor.

“Are you okay?” I ask, hurrying over to her.

“I’m fine,” she mutters, getting to her feet and rushing to the sink. She runs her hand under some tap water, and although there’s a little blood, it quickly becomes apparent that the injury is only superficial. “I’m good,” she adds, clenching and unclenching her fist a few times, as if to check for any damage. “I’m just tired, that’s all. I’ve been building up to tomorrow for a long time and I’ve barely slept all week.”

“Can I help?” I ask.

“I don’t need anyone.”

“Do you mind if I at least stick around?” I continue. “To be honest, I don’t really have anywhere else to go. It’s either sit here with you or go wandering the streets.”

“Sure,” she replies, as she dries her hand and heads back over to the figure on the floor. “Do what you want.”

Making my way over to the bench, I stop and look back at Victoria for a moment. She’s already back at work, and it’s clear that she’s totally absorbed by what she’s doing. In the dim light of the room, there’s something a little creepy about her dedication, as if she’s some kind of crazed scientist working on a secret project that no-one else could possibly ‘get’. I can totally understand how someone like Miles might think of Victoria as some kind of freak, although I hate the way he expressed his opinion. The truth is, an outsider couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be this kind of person. I guess that’s another reason why Victoria and I get along so well. We have so much in common.

“Do you mind if I take a look at your notebooks?” I ask.

She mumbles something that I can only assume is her consent.

Taking a look at the pile next to me, I sort through them until I find the one I was looking at yesterday. Flicking it open, I find the page with the drawing of a figure in a star-like position, and then I take out my phone and bring up the photo that Laura gave me of Mike Wallace’s body attached to the ceiling of the church hall. Sure enough, I realize with a growing sense of dread that the similarities are too uncanny to be mere coincidence. Victoria’s drawing even seems to include some calculations regarding weight distribution, and from the looks of some of the cutaways it would appear that she even inserted some metal bars into the corpse in order to make sure that it wouldn’t collapse.

All things considered, it was quite a feat of engineering.

Unfortunately, it was also murder.

“The man who knew everything,” I mutter, reading the scribbled text next to the drawing.

“Can you pass me a chisel?” she asks suddenly.

Looking over at the next bench, I spot a chisel glinting in the low light. I grab it and take it over to her, and she mumbles something before getting back to work.

“Victoria,” I say after a moment, “are you…”

I pause as I realize that there’s no way I can just come out and ask her something so direct. After all, how exactly do you casually inquire as to whether or not someone happens to be a serial killer? She doesn’t seem particularly strong or tough, so I figure I could probably take her in a full-on fight, but I’d still prefer to find some other way of getting to the truth. I want to help her, not hurt her.

“Am I what?” she asks, not looking up from her work. She smiles. “What’s wrong, Ophelia?”

“Nothing,” I mutter, turning and heading back to the bench. With trembling hands, I start checking the rest of her notebooks. There are drawings of figures in various poses, but everything seems to be connected to this Dead City project that she’s working on. I keep flicking through the notebooks, until finally I come across some anatomical studies, which eventually give way to some notes regarding the dissection of a human body. Although I’m already convinced that I know what she’s been doing, I keep looking through the latest notebook until I find the last piece of irrefutable proof: a diagram showing exactly how the stitched-together body was constructed, and which parts of which victims were used.

I take a deep breath.

There’s no doubt, not anymore.

Victoria Middleton is the killer.

Suddenly I realize I can hear something behind me. Spinning around, I find that Victoria has come over with the chisel in her hand. She looks down at the notebook in my hand, and after a moment she grabs it.

“Sorry,” she mutters, slipping it into her pocket. “I just… Some of it’s private, you know?”

“Sure,” I reply, trying not to panic. “I didn’t mean to snoop. I thought you were okay with me looking at it.”

“What do you think?” she asks.

“About what?”

She stares at me, as if she’s trying to read some hidden message in my eyes.

“I’m sorry I looked at your notebooks,” I continue, desperately trying to steer the conversation onto a more normal footing, while trying not to let her see that I’m onto her. “I just really like the artwork you’re creating. I have my own notebooks, and people always say they feel like all the ideas in them are mixed up and unconnected. I guess they don’t get it.”

“Do you understand?” she asks.

“The artwork?”

“My notebooks. Everything I’m doing here.”

“I think so,” I reply. “I mean, there’s no context, but…” For a moment, I consider confronting her and telling her that I’ve worked out what she’s doing, but I’m not sure how she’d react. Five years ago, if someone had confronted me in a similar manner, I’m not sure what I’ve have done. Then again, I only killed one person, and I had a good reason. “Mainly I’m just looking at them aesthetically,” I continue. “Do you… Do you want to explain them to me properly?”

I wait for an answer, but I can’t shake the feeling that in some way she’s trying to test me. Looking over at the newest of her resin figures, which is still on its side on the floor, I can’t help but feel a little sorry for her.

“You understand,” she says suddenly, with the faintest of smiles. “I can tell. I’ve never met anyone before who seemed to really get what I’m trying to do, but you see it. I think I want to…” She pauses. “I want to let you in on the whole thing,” she continues. “If you want me to, anyway. I never thought I’d let anyone else get so close to the project, but there’s something about you, Ophelia. I feel like maybe we’re the same.”

“Yeah,” I reply, still trying to stay calm. “I know what you mean.”

“I don’t quite know how I’m going to explain it all, though,” she continues. “Some of it might seem kind of shocking, so you’ll have to let me get to the end before you react properly. You’ll have to not ask too many questions until I’m finished, and then I can explain it all. Or I can try, anyway. You just need to be patient. Do you think you can do that?”

“Sure,” I tell her. “I’d like to hear everything you’re planning.”

“Can you come back in a couple of hours?” she asks. “I know that sounds a bit weird, but I need to get everything ready, and it’d be easier for me to do that if I’m alone. You know what it’s like, right? When someone’s watching you, you end up second-guessing yourself and making mistakes. I wasn’t expecting to meet someone like you so late in the day, but I really want to let you in on it all if you can just wait a little longer.”

“Totally,” I reply, checking my phone and seeing that it’s almost three in the afternoon. “I’ll come back at six, how’s that?”

“That’s great,” she says with a faint smile. “I swear, I’ll explain everything when you get back. It might seem crazy from the outside, but it’s not. It’s something that’s really going to make a mark. It’s going to be the most brilliant thing ever, and the best part is, I’m so close to being finished.”

“I believe you,” I reply, feeling as if I need to get the hell out of here so I can work out what to do next. “I’ll be back soon, and you can tell me everything.”

She nods, but I can tell she’s scared. I don’t know whether she knows I’m onto her, but if she does, it’s almost as if she thinks I’m actually on her side. As she turns and heads back over to the figure she’s working on, I watch for a moment, and there’s something strangely calm about her, as if she has no concerns in the world at all. I guess she genuinely thinks that I understand what she’s doing. The crazy thing is, I feel as if Victoria is a version of me that’s simply gone out of control in a different way. She’s more chaotic, less focused, but we’re both coming from the same place.

“See you soon,” she says suddenly, smiling as she glances at me.

 

***

 

“Where the hell have you been?” Laura asks as soon as I enter the coffee shop. It’s early evening now and the light is starting to fade, so this place is full of people who’ve just got off work. They smell like offices, and I have to fight the urge to turn around and head straight back out of here. I don’t belong in this kind of place.

“Busy,” I mutter. Taking a seat, I see that she’s already ordered a cup of tea for me. Reaching down, I start to warm my hands in the steam. I should just tell her straight up that Victoria is the killer, and where to find her, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach. I’d rather handle things myself, instead of getting Laura involved.

“ So there's been a pretty major development,” she replies. “In the past few hours, I've had Bryony Hawthorne charged with murder, but -”

“But you know she’s innocent, right?”

“Of course.”

“Then… what are you doing?”

“It’s a trap,” she replies. “Bryony knows the situation and she’s willing to play along for the next day, so we’re going through the motions of having her charged and held ahead of trial. Meanwhile, the real killer thinks we’re done with the case, when in fact we’ve got the college under constant surveillance. It’s an attempt to force him, or her, out into the open.”

“Sounds risky,” I point out.

“That’s where you come in,” she continues. “I need your opinion.”

“Is that right?” I ask, taking a sip of tea. I know I need to tell her about Victoria, but for some reason I’m feeling increasingly uncomfortable with this whole situation. The thought of Victoria being led away in handcuffs and poked by psychologists doesn’t sit right with me. That kind of treatment wouldn’t have helped me five years ago, and it won’t help Victoria now. There has to be another option. I’m normally good at thinking fast, but this is too much. I need to think faster and better than ever before.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Sure. Why?”

“Your leg.”

Looking down, I realize that I’m nervously tapping my leg against the side of the chair. I immediately stop.

“I’ve had checks run on all the students,” Laura continues. “There’s only one who’s still a suspect. What do you know about Victoria Middleton?”

“Um…” I stare down at my cup for a moment.

“Ophelia?”

“I don’t… I…”

“ She's a hard girl to track down,” she explains. “No residential address, no phone number. Almost like you. I was able to get in touch with her parents -”

“What gives you the right to do that?” I ask, shocked by the idea that she’s been rooting around in Victoria’s private life.

“I’m conducting a murder investigation,” she replies, a little sharply. She pauses for a moment, as if she’s starting to have doubts about my reaction. “I spoke to her parents, but they haven’t had any contact with her for the past two years. Naturally they’re very concerned, but they weren’t able to help.” Another pause. “I’m keeping an open mind, but it’s starting to look as if Victoria might well be the one we’re after. Everything’s circumstantial so far, but it’s still pointing at her. Ophelia, do you know anything about Victoria?”

“I’ve met her,” I say cautiously.

“And?”

I pause for a moment. The truth is, when I imagine Laura bringing the full weight of the police force down on top of Victoria, I can’t shake the feeling that there should be another way. If Victoria ends up being locked away for the rest of her life, no-one will ever understand her. She’ll be treated like a common criminal, but she’s more than that. I’m not making excuses for what she’s done, but I’m starting to think that maybe I can help her. For that to happen, though, I need a little more time; I need to get Victoria away from all the madness, to a place where I can talk to her and help her.

“She’s a bit weird,” I say eventually. “She reminds me of someone.”

“Who?”

“Someone I used to know.”

“Do you have any idea where we can find her?”

I shake my head.

“ I think she's planning something,” she continues. “The first two murders were just setting the scene, but I'm convinced she's going to do something for the final show. This whole case is all about art. If I can't find her in time -”

“Maybe she won’t do anything,” I point out, interrupting her. Again, I look down at my tea as I feel a plan starting to form. “Maybe she’ll realize that it’s wrong, or maybe someone else will stop her.”

“Someone else?”

“You jump to conclusions a lot,” I add. “How do you even know that the killer’s going to do anything for the final show?”

“Do you think I’m wrong?”

“I’m just thinking out loud,” I add. I take a deep breath, aware that I’m already sounding too defensive. If I was in Laura’s shoes right now, I’d be totally suspicious of me. Looking down, I realize that my leg is shaking again. I stop it, but still, I don’t think I can sit here much longer.

“If I’m right,” she continues, “Victoria Middleton is extremely dangerous. She’s already killed ten people, and I imagine the final part of her project is designed to be the showstopper. Other lives are at stake, but I don’t know who. Maybe fellow students, maybe her family, maybe complete strangers.” She pauses for a moment. “Ophelia, I don’t mind admitting that I need your help here. You’re good at this kind of thing. Don’t you have any idea where I can find Victoria?”

“Nope.”

Sighing, she sits back.

“This could go horribly wrong,” she continues. “I’m taking a huge risk.”

“ Then why not do it another way?” I ask, hoping to talk her out of this. “You're trying to be too clever. Just have the final show canceled and -”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because I need to catch her.”

“There are other ways. Get her photo out there, launch a manhunt. Do what other detectives do and go on the news to talk about her.” I pause, hoping that she’ll realize I’m right. After all, my suggestions will take time, and I’ll have a better chance of talking Victoria out of what she’s planning and then somehow helping her.

“ This approach is going to work,” she replies, with a hint of doubt in her voice. “The killer is going to target the final show -”

“You don’t know that.”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense. We’re going to be watching every square inch of that place. Nothing and no-one will get in or out without us seeing.”

I open my mouth, ready to tell her that her so-called surveillance hasn’t even picked up on Victoria’s secret workspace in the building next to the college, but at the last moment I realize that there has to be a better way of doing this. Victoria’s made some huge mistakes, and I remember when I made mistakes in my own life. I was lucky, because no-one caught me and I was able to get a second chance, and I figure that Victoria needs a second chance too. Instead of leading Laura and the police straight to her, I’m going to step in and make sure that everything is okay. I can save Victoria from herself, but only if Laura doesn’t interfere.

As for justice… screw justice. All that matters is that no-one else dies, and that I show Victoria how to turn her life around. Having her arrested won’t bring back the people she killed, and locking her away wouldn’t be justice.

“What’s wrong?” she asks suddenly. “I know that look on your face, Ophelia.”

“There’s no look on my face.”

“Yes there is. You’re up to something.”

I shake my head.

“ You are,” she continues. “Come on, I need your help here. If you're doing something, you have to -”

“I’m not a fucking cartoon,” I snap suddenly.

She stares at me.

“I’m not ‘up to something’ all the time,” I add, even though I know I shouldn’t be reacting this way. “I’m not some idiot sneaking about, always pulling strings and then saving your ass when you fuck things up. I’m just trying to help you, and I’m sorry if I wasn’t able to slip into that school and instantly catch the killer for you, but you know what? Instead of relying on me, why don’t you do your job and catch the killer yourself?”

She opens her mouth to reply, but no words come out.

“I’m sorry,” I continue, “but…” Sighing, I set the cup of tea down. “I’m not a cartoon,” I tell her again, “and I’m not a superhero. Neither of us are. Sure, it would’ve been cool if I’d come up with something, but I didn’t. So now you’re gonna have to do your job properly, and if you want my opinion, you’re taking a really risky approach. People’s lives are at stake, Laura, so you need to be damn sure you know what you’re doing. If anyone else dies…”

My voice trails off as I realize that I’m not explaining myself very well.

“I didn’t know you felt that way,” she replies.

“I really want you to solve this,” I tell her as I get to my feet, “but you can’t rely on me.”

“ Yesterday you said -”

“Yesterday was yesterday. Fine, maybe you were right when you told me I was acting like a cartoon a while ago. All that bullshit about jumping off a bridge, it was ridiculous. I was on some kind of hyper bender, pumped up on my own ego. But now I’ve started to realize that it was all pointless.” As I stare at her, I can see that I’ve hurt her, but at the same time I need to buy some time so I can go back and help Victoria. “I’ll see you around, okay?”

Turning, I head to the door.

“Wait,” she says suddenly, grabbing my arm. I hadn’t even realized that she was following me, but when I look back at her I can see the doubt in her eyes. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

“Nothing.”

“You’re lying to me.”

I shake my head.

“You’re lying,” she adds. “Ophelia, please, just talk to me. I’m sorry if you don’t like the way I’ve been doing things, but I’m getting desperate here. You’re right, I have taken a high risk approach to this case. It usually works for me -”

“It didn’t work with Daniel Gregory,” I point out.

“That’s the one time I fucked up.”

“Maybe it’s just the first time. Maybe you didn’t learn anything from what happened back then. You’re still taking big risks in an attempt to prove yourself. What is it, Laura? Do you get off on sailing this close to the edge?”

“If there’s anything you know,” she continues, “anything at all, even something small, you have to tell me. Please, as your friend, I’m asking you to help.”

“Friend?” I reply, bristling at that word. “Are we friends?”

“Aren’t we?”

I pause as I realize that pushing Laura away might be the best way to buy some time so that I can get Victoria away from the college.

“I don’t care what you say,” she continues, “you’re not going to persuade me that you’re okay. Something’s wrong.”

“I’m fine,” I reply. “I’m just sick of…” I pause again, fully aware that I’m being completely unreasonable. Laura’s my friend, but then again, so is Victoria. If I have to choose between them, I’m going to choose the one who’s most like me, and if Laura suffers as a result, then she needs to learn not to rely on me. People who rely on me tend to get screwed over. “You don’t have time to argue with me,” I continue. “If you’re right, the killer’s going to strike in less than twenty-four hours, so you need to go and take care of your high risk strategy. Good luck, by the way. You’re gonna need it.”

“ I'll be up all night,” she replies. “When you get back to my house -”

“I’m staying out.”

“Are you…” She pauses, and I can tell that she’s worried. “Are you going to disappear again?”

“No, I just have things to do.”

“ But where -”

“I have things to do,” I say firmly, hoping that she realizes I don’t want to be quizzed about my plans.

We stand silently for a moment, and it’s clear that although she knows I’m not being honest, Laura can’t work out how to get the truth out of me. I know I should just tell her everything, but I can’t abandon Victoria like that. She needs me.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she adds, taking her hand away from my arm. “I’m sorry if you thought I was treating you like a cartoon.”

“I’m sorry too,” I tell her, “but don’t sweat it. It was my fault.”

Hurrying out of the coffee shop, I make my way along the street. I know I should have just told Laura where to find Victoria, but deep down I also know that I can’t allow Victoria to get chewed up by the justice system. She’s my friend and I can steer her out of the darkness, just as I steered myself out of the darkness all those years ago. If she gets arrested for her crimes, she’ll be lost forever, but if I show her the way, she still has a chance. Stopping to cross the road, I glance over at a bus stop and see my own reflection. I hate seeing myself, but this time I let my gaze linger for a moment, and I can see the scared look in my eyes.

I have two friends in the world, and I just screwed one of them over in order to save the other. Victoria’s lucky, though. When I was in her position, I didn’t have anyone to help me out, but this time things are going to be different.

Part Seven

Ophelia

 

“This was the little boy,” Victoria explains, her voice a little hushed as she guides me through the photos she’s laid out on the table. “He was the most difficult one. I found him at a playground and sort of led him away. Fortunately he had some kind of disability, so…”

Her voice trails off.

“So it was easier,” she adds finally. “I don’t think he really knew what was happening. I tried to make it better for him. I mean, he didn’t deserve this. His mother had died, and he thought…”

She pauses again.

“So I managed it,” she continues. “I didn’t want to kill him. I didn’t want to kill any of them. I just needed their bodies, so it had to be done.”

Staring at the photo, I try to deal with the horror I’m seeing. The image shows a dead child on a wooden floor, with some kind of yellowish grease having been applied to his body. Victoria explained a moment ago that the grease made it easier for her to fit him inside the stitched-together corpse, and there’s something so matter-of-fact about the way she’s been describing the whole process to me, as if she’s talking about something as benign as a puzzle or a harmless experiment. It’s hard to believe that she could have gone so far into darkness, and I’m starting to realize that I massively underestimated the depths to which she’s sunk.

“So yeah,” she continues, her voice trembling slightly, “that was that.”

It’s not just her voice that’s trembling. Her hands, too, are shaking as she re-orders the photos and shows me another image of the stitched-together corpse being created. There’s something so childlike about her, as if she’s showing me the photos because she’s proud of them and because she wants praise. She clearly recognizes our similarities and thinks that I’ll be impressed. The truth, however, is that I’m so horrified, I can barely even react.

“What do you think?” she asks eventually. “You understand, don’t you?”

I open my mouth to reply, but no words come out. Until she started explaining everything in this Scooby-Doo master-villain kind of way, I’d told myself that no matter what she might have done, I’d be able to understand. Now I’m struggling to keep from throwing up, and I feel as if I’m way, way in over my head. My mind is racing as I try to work out what to do next, but I still want to help her. We’re still similar, even if she has clearly become more twisted and depraved than I could ever have been. For the first time in my life, I think I might actually be out of my depth.

“Ophelia?” she asks, breaking the silence. “Do you understand?”

“What is there to understand?” I reply.

“I thought you’d…” She grabs another photo and holds it up for me; this one shows the head of the corpse partially sewn onto someone else’s neck. “I mean, this is art,” she continues. “This is something that shocks people, something that takes them out of their comfort zone and makes them reconsider their thoughts, their beliefs. Art has to be transgressive, it has to be horrifying and transformational. If it’s safe and predictable, it’s not really art, is it?”

“Couldn’t you have just painted a sunflower or something?” I ask.

“It wasn’t easy,” she adds. “I’m not… I mean, I didn’t enjoy it. Killing the kid, for example… I don’t even remember the exact moment. I was holding the knife, then a few seconds later it was over. I think I blocked it out somehow.”

“Of course you did,” I whisper, unable to stop staring at the photos.

“The others were a little easier,” she explains. “Not easy, but easier. I suppose maybe I got used to it after a while. I just focused on the technical side of things. I mean, that was really difficult, you know? Cutting up a human body isn’t something you can just do randomly, not if you want to put bits of it back together later. I had one body that was just for practice, none of the pieces ended up in the final work. And the blood…” She pauses, as if the memory is disturbing her. “All that blood,” she adds. “Most of it was wasted.”

“You really didn’t enjoy killing them, did you?” I ask.

“Enjoy it?” She shakes her head. “No. I hated it, every moment.”

She sorts through the photos until she finds another image of the dead child, this time showing him inside the main corpse.

“ But an artist should push herself too, right?” she continues, as if she's somehow seeking my approval. “Art should ask something of both the creator and the -”

“You killed these people,” I reply, interrupting her. I can feel rage and fear starting to build in my chest, threatening to overcome me. The images are so horrific that, for the first time in many years, I’m not sure I can control my response. At the same time, there’s something so honest and open about the way that Victoria is explaining everything to me, and about the way that she seems to think that I’ll somehow understand why she’s done all of this.

“Yeah,” she says softly. “I killed them. But they were just…”

I turn to her. “Just what?”

“Well, I mean… Most people aren’t…”

I wait for her to continue.

“They’re not, like… I mean, does it matter in the long run if…”

She pauses.

“They’re not important?” I ask finally.

“So you do understand.”

I shake my head.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Let’s get one thing clear,” I continue. “Anyone else, if you’d told them all of this and shown them these photos, would have run the hell out of here and called the police. Anyone else. Or they might have tried to knock you out first. But they sure as hell wouldn’t still be sitting here the way I am, having a conversation with you!”

She nods.

“But the reason I’m still here,” I add, “is…”

I pause, unable to get the words out.

“We’re the same,” she says eventually.

“Yeah,” I reply, before correcting myself. “No! I mean, yeah but…” I take a deep breath. “I think we’re very similar, but somehow…”

“Somehow I ended up doing things that you never could have done?” She pauses. “But you’ve killed someone, haven’t you? Or am I wrong? I feel like, from what you’ve said before, you’ve done it too.”

“I…”

Looking down at my left hand, I pause before rolling my sleeve up to reveal the large, deep scar that runs up to the elbow. It’s not something I’ve ever shown to anyone before; hell, I don’t even look at it very often. I still remember the pain, though, as the wood ripped into my skin all those years ago.

“What happened?” Victoria asks.

“Long story,” I tell her. “Let’s just say that a broken chair leg turned out to be much sharper than I expected.”

“But the person who did that to you… You killed him? Or her?”

I nod.

“Who was it?”

“I can’t…” Pausing again, I try to find some common ground between what happened to me, and what Victoria has done. “It was self-defense. If I hadn’t killed him, he would have killed me, or he would have… I had to end it one way or the other. One of us had to die, and I don’t think I even cared which of us it would be, not by the end.”

“It’s okay,” she continues. “I won’t tell anyone.”

“ It was a very long time ago,” I tell her, “and -” Stopping myself, I realize that this isn't the right moment. Instead of sinking into some nostalgic story-telling session, I need to work out what to do about Victoria. I was planning to steer her to safety, to nudge her back onto the same path that I've taken through life, but now I realize that the situation is way more serious. I guess I need to make sure she doesn't hurt anyone else, but then there's the question of the police. Locking Victoria away in prison won't help anyone, not if I can sort her out some other way and give her a future. After all, I wasn't locked away after I killed someone. I just ran, and I don't know if anyone even found the body.

I got away with it.

“I’m so nearly done,” she adds, her voice trembling again. “I thought you’d understand. I never thought anyone could really get what I’m doing, not until I met you. I’m so used to people thinking I’m some kind of freak, I was shocked when I realized that you and I… We’re on the same wavelength.”

“It’s not that I don’t understand,” I reply. “That’s the problem, in a way. I do understand. Sometimes I hate other people too, and I want to shock them, but I find other ways for those impulses to manifest. I do stupid stuff like jumping off bridges, I don’t… I guess that’s the main difference between us. I managed to turn away from the darkness, and you leaped right in.”

“ It's worth it, though,” she replies after a moment. “I really think -”

“Killing a child is worth it?” I ask. “Killing all these innocent people is worth it to you?”

She nods, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“ But -”

“Don’t act like you don’t get it,” she replies. “I know you do. Maybe you want to pretend you don’t, to make yourself feel more human, but it’s like you’ve said before. We are similar, Ophelia. We’re both outcasts, we both choose to stay on the margins of society, and we both see the world in an unusual way. Sure, maybe I’ve taken that experience and channeled it differently, but I’ve had different things to deal with. We’re like the same person, only with different histories.” She pauses. “If things had been different, our roles could have been reversed. You know that deep down, there’s something inside you that could have led you to do what I’m doing now.”

“That doesn’t help,” I reply quietly.

“I’m not asking you to join in,” she continues. “Just understand. It’d make me feel better to know you get me. That’s all that any artist wants, really… To know that through their art, they’ve managed to reach other people. Long after I’m dead, and after all the revulsion has died down, I know in my heart that there’ll be people out there who understand my actions. Pioneers are always vilified at first.”

“ But what else are you planning?” I ask. “The final show is -”

“You’re going to love it!” she says excitedly.

“Love what?”

“I have to go,” she adds, checking her watch. “I’ve still got so much to do before it opens.”

“Like what?” I ask, starting to panic. “Victoria, are you planning to hurt anyone else?”

She smiles.

“Listen to me,” I continue, grabbing her by the shoulders. “I came here to help you, and I can still do that. The people who are dead… They’re dead already, and nothing can bring them back. The important thing is that you don’t hurt anyone else. I should turn you in to the police, but I’m not going to. Let me help you. We’ll go away together, I know a place where we won’t be disturbed and we can live a kind of life.”

“Alone?” she asks. “Just you and me?”

“We can help each other.”

“I like that,” she replies.

“Yeah?” I take another deep breath. This might be the most insane thing I’ve ever contemplated, but I truly believe I can bring Victoria back out of the darkness. I just need time and space, and if that means going back to Renton’s farmhouse, then that’s what I’ll have to do. I’m strong enough now. “So let’s go,” I continue. “Right now, you and me. I still have a little money left, enough to get us to the place I’ve got in mind. Once we’re there, we can work out how to set things up.”

“Tomorrow.”

“No, now.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because of the final show, silly,” she replies, brushing my hands off her shoulders as she takes a step back. “I can’t stop now. It’s a three-part project. The first part was the body on the plinth, which was designed to be an attention-grabber. Then I killed Mr. Wallace, because I needed to maneuver a few more pieces into place. And now part three of the triptych is ready to go. There’s no way I can stop before it’s done.”

“Part three?” I stare at her with a mounting sense of horror. “Victoria, you have to tell me right now, what are you planning?”

Smiling, she shakes her head.

“Whatever it is,” I continue, “forget it. Let’s just go. Let’s run, right now.”

“Tomorrow.”

“No, we have to go now!”

“Tomorrow,” she says again, her eyes alive with excitement. “If I stop now, those murders will just be murders, but if I finish everything, it’ll be art. Don’t worry, there’s no way I’ll get caught. I’m smarter than the police, smarter than everyone. You know that feeling, don’t you? You know what it’s like to be the smartest person in a room.”

“I thought I did,” I reply. “Until now.”

“Just give me one more day,” she continues. “Not even that. Twelve hours, tops. And then we can do whatever you want. I’ll come with you, and we can help each other. We can forget about the rest of the world. Deal?”

With that, she holds out her hand.

Staring at her, I realize that I’ve still got time to fix all of this. If I turn against her, she’ll either try to stop me, or she’ll end up handcuffed in a police car and then her life will be over. The only way to salvage anything from this situation is to stay by her side and somehow find a way to sabotage what she’s doing, and then to get her the hell away from here before anyone identifies her. She needs help.

“Deal?” she asks again.

“Sure,” I reply, shaking her hand. “Deal.”

 

***

 

“Fuck!” I gasp as I get to the bottom of the stairs and lean against the wall. I can already hear Victoria getting back to work in the room at the top, but as I take my phone from my pocket I realize that I’m running out of time.

With shaking hands, I manage to bring up Laura’s number, but I hesitate before calling her.

She wouldn’t understand.

She’d see Victoria as just some messed-up kid, just a murderer. I could beg and plead with her, but she’d never be able to see what I see. If I told her what I was planning, she’d think I’m a monster. I mean, Laura and I get along, but we don’t see the world in the same way. She’s much more straight-laced and formal, so I don’t think I could even begin to get her to understand why I’m trying to help Victoria.

I stare at Laura’s name on the screen.

I can’t call her.

Not even to say goodbye. After all, when I disappear with Victoria, I’m sure Laura will at least have some suspicions. I only have two friends in the whole world, and I have to lose one if I’m going to save the other.

A single tear rolls down my cheek.

This is why I should never allow myself to get involved with people. Life gets complicated when there are other people around. It’s better to be alone, but that boat has sailed. People like Victoria and me, we rarely find each other in life, but when we do we have to stick together.

No-one helped me when I needed it, but I can make sure that Victoria has a better shot.

Stuffing the phone back into my pocket, I close my eyes and try to find some way to stay calm. Victoria is insane, but she’s not evil. With just a few small differences, our positions could be reversed. She just needs someone to help her, someone to guide her back onto the right path. Even if I wanted to turn and run, I have no choice now. I’m going to save her from herself.

Laura

 

“Anything?” Nick asks as he gets into the car.

“Yeah,” I reply, “the killer showed up and started murdering more people, so I’m just sitting here wondering what to do next.” Sighing, I lean back in the driver’s seat. “No,” I add. “Nothing to report.”

We sit in silence for a moment. I know what he’s thinking: he’s thinking that I’ve completely screwed this case up, that I latched onto a theory at the start and that theory has now been shot to pieces. The killer, whether it’s Victoria Middleton or someone else, isn’t coming to the college tonight; he or she has something else planned instead.

“ So are you sure that -”

“Yes,” I say firmly.

“ But -”

“I’m sure,” I reply, even though I know I must be sounding desperate by now. Staring out the windshield, I watch the lights of the college for a moment. By now, the killer should have arrived, but it’s 2am and no-one’s around. I don’t want to admit it yet, but there’s a distinct possibility that I’ve made a huge miscalculation.

“Any luck tracking down Victoria?” I ask.

“How do you track down someone who doesn’t have a phone?” he replies. “No email, no address. We’re so used to being able to follow a suspect’s digital trace. When they don’t have one, they’re almost a ghost. It leaves us floundering.”

“We don’t even know for sure that it’s her,” I point out.

“No,” he replies with a sigh. “We sure don’t.”

“But it has to be,” I continue. “Nothing else makes sense.”

“So what’s the back-up plan?” he asks.

I don’t even bother replying.

“There is a back-up plan, isn’t there?” he adds. “You’re just waiting to spring into action, yeah? Please tell me you’ve got something up your sleeve.”

Grabbing my phone, I bring up Ophelia’s number and try once again to get through to her. It’s pathetic, but as the hours tick past I’m becoming more and more desperate. I need Ophelia to come swooping in and save the day, but she hasn’t been in touch for hours. I’m starting to worry that something might have happened to her, and as my call goes to voicemail again, I realize that this whole situation is collapsing all around me.

“Ophelia?” Nick asks suddenly.

I put my phone away.

“I saw her name on the screen,” he continues. “Is she involved in this?”

“No.”

“ Then why -”

“Just leave it.”

We sit in silence for a moment. Checking my watch, I can’t help wondering if it’s time to rethink this whole operation.

“Shit,” he says suddenly.

“What?” I ask, turning just in time to see a figure marching toward the car. It takes a fraction of a second longer before I realize that I recognize his face. “Shit,” I add.

The figure stops at the car and knocks on the window.

“I think it’s for you,” Nick says, grimacing as he turns to me. “Fresh knicker time, eh?”

“What’s he doing here?” I ask.

“I imagine he’s come to rip you a new hole for this mess,” Nick replies, patting my shoulder. “Go get ‘im, tiger.”

Getting out of the car, I force a smile as I come face to face with Michael Adams, the boss of bosses in my department and the man who has been nagging at Halveston for months to have me withdrawn from duty. He’s absolutely the last person I want to see right now, and I can only assume that he’s come down here specifically to gloat over how badly the night is progressing.

“Pleasant evening,” he says as we stare at each other across the top of the car. “How are things going here?”

“ Sir, you're -”

“Disturbing an operation?” he asks. “No, I don’t think so. As soon as I heard what you were doing, I thought I should come down here. You’ve got half a dozen officers staking this place out, but there’s no way this is going to work, Detective Foster. I’ve read the files and it’s obvious that you’re basing everything on one or two rather tenuous leaps of logic. Still, that’s not exactly new for you, is it?”

“ Sir, with respect -”

“Bryony Hawthorne is in a police cell right now,” he continues, “but she’s not the one we’re after, is she?”

“Bryony knows what we’re doing here,” I tell him.

“That’s good,” he replies. “Perhaps you could have extended the same courtesy to me?”

“As the lead detective on this case, I’m within my rights to take any steps I deem necessary to catch the real killer.”

“The killer isn’t going to show up,” he replies. “Do you know how I know that?”

“ Sir -”

“It’s because I know you, Ms. Foster, and I know that there’s no way you could outsmart anyone. You’re being played, and the killer has most likely got you parked here on purpose, to keep you tied up while he does whatever’s really on his agenda.”

“ But -”

“You’re in over your head,” he adds. “There are people in the department who think you’ve got what it takes to become some kind of great detective, but I see right through you. You had some luck early in your career, but there are serious flaws in your character and they’re going to hold you back.”

“ Sir, this isn't about me,” I reply. “It's about stopping the killer before -”

“Before he embarrasses you?”

I want to tell him to go to hell, but I force myself to stay quiet. The fact that he’s actually come down here is a clear sign that he’s taking the situation seriously, and I have no doubt that he thinks I’m screwing the operation up. He might even be right. Even if I wanted to argue with him, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

“Not going to defend yourself?” he asks.

“I’ll file a full debrief in the morning,” I tell him.

“A debrief?” He smiles. “Well, I’m sure that’ll be fun reading. Unless Superman comes flying down to help you, I don’t see how you can possibly achieve anything. Wouldn’t it be better to cut your losses and get out of here? At least that way you could have the dignity of recognizing your own mistake.”

“ I still believe that this surveillance operation has value,” I tell him. “The first two incidents were both associated directly with the college -”

“But neither of them actually occurred here, did they?”

“ No, but -”

“So one might be inclined to suggest that this is the last place you should be staking out.”

“The third year students’ final show begins in the morning,” I point out. “Everything points to the killer building up to that moment.”

“In a movie, perhaps, but this is real life. And what happens if more lives are lost while you’re sitting here in your car for hours on end? How do we explain to the media that our detectives were sitting around staring at an empty building while the killer was getting on with things somewhere else? You’ve built an awfully large single point of failure into this operation, Ms. Foster.”

“As I said, I’ll file a full debrief in the morning.”

He smiles again, and it’s clear that he thinks he’s got me cornered. Ever since the Daniel Gregory case last year, Adams has been angling to get rid of me, and I’m finally in his sights. Even Halveston won’t be able to defend me this time.

“Well,” he adds finally, “I shall very much look forward to reading your report. We should probably arrange a meeting, too, with Halveston and a few others present. I’m going to want to get to the bottom of what’s happening here, Ms. Foster. I can’t allow anyone in my department to conduct operations without being challenged. But for now, I suppose I should let you get back to your very important work.”

As he walks away, I can feel my heart sinking. Getting back into the car, I’m immediately aware that Nick is trying hard not to smile, but eventually I turn to him.

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing.”

“Say it.”

“I’ve got nothing to say, except…” He pauses. “I’ll do what I can.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he’s blatantly going to bring you up before a disciplinary board,” he continues. “I’m just saying, I’ll tell ‘em you had the best intentions.”

Sighing, I check my phone again, but there’s still no word from Ophelia. Whatever she’s doing right now, I can only hope that she’s safe and that somehow she’s managed to come up with something that can help us.

Ophelia

 

“Ready?”

“Just show me.”

“ You're gonna be so impressed,” she continues, with her hand on the door handle. “I've worked so hard to get everything in place. I still need a few hours, just to -”

“Show me,” I say firmly.

We’re standing in a corridor in one of the college’s other buildings, a few streets away from the main campus. I have no idea why Victoria has brought me here, but from her smile I can only assume that she thinks I’m going to like what she shows me. The truth, though, is that I’m terrified at the prospect of seeing the rest of her plan.

“Behold,” she continues, “the final part of my project.”

With that, she opens the door and stands back to let me enter the room.

“ Oh no,” I say as I step through and see all the bodies on the floor. “Victoria, what -”

“They’re not dead,” she replies, following me into the room. “Not yet, anyway. I drugged them all to make it easier while I start getting them into position. My final project is going to be made up of the bodies of all my classmates.”

There are maybe a dozen people scattered around the room, with their almost-finished final projects in place. When Victoria told me earlier that the college had opened an extra space up for the students to work overnight, I should have realized what she was planning. I recognize everyone in here, even Miles: he’s slumped against the wall, next to the installation piece I saw him working on the other day.

“I needed them all together overnight,” she explains, “and I realized the college would only agree to that if there’d been a traumatic event. I figured that killing Mr. Wallace would be enough, and I was right. Neat, huh?”

For a moment, all I can do is stare. It’s as if I can’t quite comprehend what I’m seeing.

“It’s a shame Bryony isn’t here,” she continues. “I didn’t anticipate them picking her up quite so soon, but that’s the only real mistake I’ve made. If that’s the only thing that goes wrong, I guess I can’t be too disappointed. You saw the models I was working on before, right? This is part of the same thing.”

Crouching next to Miles, I’m relieved to find that he has a pulse. I try to nudge him awake, but whatever she’s given everyone here, she’s managed to knock them out cold.

“I put a heavy sedative in the water supply,” she tells me. “I knew they’d all make tea and coffee to keep themselves awake, and I was right. Trust me, I might not have spent much time in the main studio, but I’ve been there enough to observe them. I’ve been planning this for a year.”

“You can’t go around drugging people,” I reply.

“It’s for the Dead City project,” she explains. “I’ve got some resin ready to go. When the final show opens at the college in a few hours’ time, there’ll be nothing on display except a message telling them to come here. And then they’ll find the whole class, frozen in time as they work on their projects. It’s going to be like I’ve captured all their desperate hope in one place, all their deluded attempts to create something meaningful. I’m turning it all around on them. You’ve got to admit, it’s a daring concept. It’s very meta.”

“So you’re going to kill them?” I ask.

“I’m going to enclose them in a thick-drying resin composite,” she replies matter-of-factly. “It’ll kill them, but that’s no the point. The point is the art.”

Turning to look at her, I realize that her insanity knows no bounds. My earlier plan to get her away from London, to take her to the farmhouse in Yorkshire, is never going to work. Victoria is truly, permanently scarred, and she needs proper help. The idea of taking her somewhere and helping her might have seemed good at the time, but I was clearly being naive; whatever’s wrong with her, it goes much deeper, and all I can do now is find some way to stop her hurting anyone else and then make sure she gets the proper psychiatric care that she needs.

“So what do you think?” she asks, sounding a little nervous. “You understand, don’t you?”

“What is there to understand?”

“Why I’m doing it all!” She pauses, as if she expects me to suddenly embrace the whole thing. “It’s going to be a commentary on the state of art in the modern world. All these pathetic art students, wasting their time as they try to make something meaningful… That’s going to be the subject of my final project. They’re going to be captured forever at this moment. In a way, they should be grateful. None of them would ever have gone on to become real artists. I’m freezing them at the moment when they’ve reached their maximum potential. It would have been all downhill for them from here anyway. They’re a part of real art, just not in the way they expected. You understand, yeah?”

I take a deep breath.

“Ophelia? Please tell me you understand.”

“Yeah,” I reply, trying to work out how to handle this. “Sure. I understand.”

“I knew you would. Everyone here… They’re all just idiots. None of them are actual artists, they’re just pretending. At least this way, they get to be part of an art project. Don’t you think this is going to go down in history? In years to come, when people start talking about the great artworks of history, they’re definitely going to include the Dead City.” She pauses, as if she’s overcome with awe. “I think going away with you would be perfect,” she continues. “I hadn’t really worked out what to do for the next stage, so it’d be good to take some time out and plan my next move. We can live together and come up with ideas, like a team. I never thought I’d have a proper friend.”

“ Yeah,” I reply, trying to stay calm. “I... Maybe we should just get going now, though. You don't have to kill any more people -”

“Killing them isn’t the point,” she explains. “If I could do this without killing them, I would, but I can’t.” She checks her watch. “I need to get started. You’re welcome to stay, but I can’t have too many interruptions. I’m going to be working against the clock. Don’t worry, though, I’ve got it all planned out. If I could pull off that stunt with the plinth in Trafalgar Square, I’m pretty sure I can do this.”

“You’re going to start killing them now?” I ask.

“In a few minutes,” she replies. “I just need to go and fetch the resin pots from the storage room. See? I told you I’d got it all worked out. Do you want to stay and watch?”

“While you kill everyone?” I take a deep breath. “Sure. Go and get whatever you need. I’ll be right here.”

“And then we can go off together,” she adds excitedly. “It’ll be like an artists’ retreat. I always envisaged the Dead City as a multi-year project. I can plan properly and then come back eventually with the next part.”

“The next part?” I ask.

“It’s my life’s work,” she continues, “and this is just the first installment. Sure, some people will get upset ‘cause they don’t understand, but as the Dead City grows over the years, it’ll become more apparent. I’m certain that by the end, people will appreciate my project.” Suddenly she steps toward me and gives me a hug. “Thank you,” she whispers.

“For what?”

“For understanding me,” she continues, squeezing me tighter. “For believing in me.”

“I…”

“It won’t just be one-sided,” she adds. “I don’t know what you want to do, but I’ll help you as well. We can work alongside each other on projects, like real friends. I mean, that’s what friends are for, right?”

“I guess,” I reply. “I don’t really know.”

“We’ll be heroes,” she adds, releasing me from the hug and taking a step back. “To people who matter, anyway. They’ll understand.”

“That’s all you care about, isn’t it?” I ask. “Being understood.”

“It’s important,” she replies. “Who doesn’t want to be understood? Art is the only way I can communicate.” She checks her watch again. “Enough talk. I have to get started.”

With a huge grin, she turns and hurries back out the door.

I listen to the sound of her running along the corridor, and then for a moment I stay completely still, with the unconscious bodies of the other students all around me. For a few seconds, I can’t move, I can’t even think, as the madness threatens to overwhelm me. It’s almost as if, with every word that comes from her mouth, Victoria reveals more and more of her insanity. Finally, with no other options, I reach into my pocket and take out my phone.

Laura

 

“Teacher,” Nick suggests.

“No.”

“Writer.”

“Of what?”

“I dunno,” he replies. “Books? Magazine articles?” He turns to me. “Start a blog! Look, I’m just saying, there’s more to life than just this one job. You need to be proactive about it, though. Embrace change instead of fearing it.”

“You really think I’m going to get fired, don’t you?” I ask.

“I think Adams is after your scalp,” he replies, “and I’m just trying to help. I’ll miss you, though. We should still hang out sometimes, like, outside of work.”

“Are you asking me on a date?” I reply with a smile.

“ Course not. Just a drink every so often.” He pauses, seeming a little uncomfortable. “Seriously, a date? No, I was just... I mean, I just thought you're always saying you'll join us all out for a drink, but you never actually do it, so I figured getting fired would be a good time to break that habit.” He clears his throat. “I was definitely not even hinting at the possibility of going out on a date. No way. The idea is -”

Suddenly my phone starts ringing, and when I grab it I see that Ophelia’s trying to get through to me.

“About time,” I mutter, opening the car door.

“She is involved, isn’t she?” Nick says. “I saw her name on the screen again! Jesus Christ, what the hell has she got to do with any of this?”

“ Where have you been?” I ask as I answer the call, slamming the door shut and then taking a few steps from the car in an attempt to avoid being overheard by Nick. “Okay, sorry, I didn't mean to sound like your mother there, but I've been trying to -”

“I’ve fucked up,” she replies, interrupting me. “I’m really sorry, Laura, this is all my fault. I need you to get here right now.”

“What do you…” I pause as I realize that there’s something new in her voice, a level of fear and distress that I didn’t think I’d ever hear from her. It’s almost as if she’s… vulnerable. “Ophelia, where are you?”

“In a building on Park Street,” she replies, her voice trembling a little. “It’s owned by the college, it’s where the students have been working overnight.”

“What? Why didn’t anyone tell me about that place?”

“Get here!” she hisses. “It’s on the corner, there’s a sign on the side with the college’s logo, you can’t miss it! I’m here with Victoria Middleton in the main room that the students are using, and she’s…”

I wait for her to finish.

“She’s what?” I ask.

“I’m so sorry. I got it all wrong.”

“What’s happening?” I ask. “Ophelia, talk to me!”

“She’s the killer,” she continues, “and she’s not done yet. She’s going to kill a lot more people and I don’t think I can stop her by myself. I thought I could, but I can’t. She’s… She’s damaged. She sees things in a way that’s totally messed up.”

“Does she know you’re there?”

“Oh yeah, definitely. We were just talking, but she’s gone to get some equipment. She’s insane, Laura. She’s not evil, but she’s got this really weird view of the world. I thought she was like me, she wants to be my friend, but…” She pauses. “I think she’s coming back.”

“Get out of there!” I shout, hurrying back to the car and getting into the driver’s seat. “We’re on the way, so just get away from her and wait for us to arrive! And try not to arouse her suspicion. Just make an excuse and leave!”

“It’s okay,” she replies, “I’m not in any danger. She thinks I’m on her side.”

“She thinks you’re what?”

“What’s wrong?” Nick asks.

“We’ve got her,” I reply, starting the engine. “Tell all units to meet us at the college’s building on Park Street, and make sure there’s someone covering any other possible exits from the place. If we let her get away, we might never be able to find her again. She’ll slip into the night and that’ll be it.”

“ You've got to promise not to hurt her,” Ophelia continues, lowering her voice. “All of this is my fault, Laura. I'm so sorry, I should never have -”

Before she can finish, there’s a crackling sound and the line goes dead.

“Ophelia?” I shout as I steer the car out of the parking spot. I try to call her back, but suddenly her phone is off.

“I knew it,” Nick mutters. “I knew that goddamn little freak was going to be involved somehow. She’s bad news, Laura!”

“It’s Victoria Middleton,” I explain, dropping the phone as I take the first left after the main building. “She’s the killer. Ophelia’s with her right now.”

“So you were right,” Nick replies, sounding surprised. “Adams isn’t going to like that.”

“I don’t give a crap what Adams likes,” I tell him. “We have to get there before anyone else gets hurt!”

“This can’t be a coincidence,” he continues. “Laura, did you get Ophelia involved on purpose?”

“No!” I reply, before realizing that I can’t lie anymore. “Maybe. Partly. Maybe. But I knew what she was doing. I was in control!”

“ Do you realize what'll happen if -”

“Yes!”

“ But -”

“I know!” I shout, trying to stay calm.

“ This is fucked up,” Nick replies with a sigh. “I hope you know what you're doing, 'cause if that girl has interfered with the case -”

“She hasn’t!” I tell him firmly as I keep my eyes on the road. “Without Ophelia, I don’t think we’d even have a chance of stopping Victoria Middleton in time.”

Ophelia

 

“What did you do that for?” she screams, throwing the phone across the room with such force that it smashes against the far wall. She turns and takes a couple of paces away before turning back to me with tears in her eyes.

“ Victoria,” I reply, forcing myself to stay calm, “it's only -”

“Shut up!” she shouts, lunging at me and pushing me back against a nearby table.”Just…”

Again she turns away, as if she can’t even bring herself to look at me. As she walks over to the pots of resin she brought into the room a moment ago, she seems completely consumed by rage. When she looks back at me, there are tears running down her cheeks and her face is flushed red with anger. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so close to a breakdown before.

“All my work,” she says finally, her voice cracking with emotion. “Everything was perfectly set up, and I’d got all my plans down perfectly. The first two parts were all done, I just needed to do the third, and then…”

I wait for her to continue, but her bottom lip is trembling as tears roll down her cheeks.

“You have to listen to me,” I reply eventually. “I’m just trying to help you.”

“By calling the police?”

“It’s not as simple as that,” I tell her. “The students here… I can’t let you kill a bunch of innocent people.”

“That’s not the point!” she shouts. “It’s not about killing them! I don’t care if they live or die, all I care about is that they fit into the project. I thought you understood!”

“I do understand,” I reply, “but that doesn’t mean I can let you do it.”

“So you were lying to me?”

“No.”

“ All that talk about us going away, about us working on the next stage of the project together -”

“I never actually said that’s what we’d do,” I point out. “I said I’d help you, but I didn’t mean with the project. I meant with… this. With life, with how you see things.”

“Liar!” she shouts, hurrying over to me and pushing me back against the wall. “We were going to go away and make everything okay! You were the only person who understood what I was trying to do, but now…” She slams her knee into my leg and then spins me around before knocking me back against a nearby bench. She pauses, her venom-filled eyes drilling into me until finally, suddenly, she takes a step back. “It’s okay,” she says, sounding much calmer, almost blank. “I’ve got a better idea. I can still rescue this.”

“They’ll be here in a couple of minutes,” I tell her, trying to ignore the pain in my leg. “Trust me, I know the woman in charge of the case. She’s a good person and she’s going to make sure you’re okay.”

“I need your help,” she replies, hurrying over to the pots of resin and forcing the lid off the nearest. It’s clear that she’s no longer really listening to me; instead, her passion for her work seems to have taken over completely.“Ophelia, come here. I need you to do something for me!”

“ Victoria -”

“Just help me!” she shouts, fumbling with a couple of brushes. “Please, Ophelia. You wrecked the project, but I can rescue it if you just help me for a moment. In fact… She pauses for a moment, as if her thoughts are rushing through her mind too fast. “I can even make it better. I don’t know why I didn’t see this before.”

“I’m not going to let you hurt anyone,” I tell her.

“ Don't worry, there isn't time for that.” Grabbing one of the pots, she brings it over to the table. “Can you follow simple instructions? You can, I know you can. Okay, just listen -”

“ Victoria, please -”

“I need you to kill me.”

I stare at her, trying to work out if I heard her right.

“ It makes sense,” she continues, with a faint smile. “The original plan was to kill everyone else here, but I can make it work the other way too. Let them live, and have me be the one who's left in the middle of the room. It'll still be a statement, but I need you to help me. Once I'm dead, you have to coat me in resin -”

“No!”

“ Coat me in -”

“No!”

“So that I fit with the Dead City project!” she continues, her eyes filled with deluded enthusiasm. “It makes perfect sense, and it’s relevant to all the themes of the project. They’ll walk in and find me frozen in the center of the room, with all my intended victims around me. The resin dries pretty fast, so you just need to coat me in it and then make sure no-one disturbs the scene for a few hours. Then you can anonymously tell the police where to find me, and then leak some photos online. I’ll be famous, I’ll be remembered, and I’ll be making a true contribution to the world of art. This can be a new dawn.”

“Listen to me,” I reply, “you need help-”

“Exactly,” she adds, pulling a knife from her pocket and thrusting the handle into my hands. “Make it quick,” she continues, tilting her head up and running a finger across her neck. “Just cut it from one side to the other. I don’t think it’ll take long for me to die. There’ll be blood, but that’s okay, just ignore it. Once I’m done, arrange me on the floor in a fitting pose and then put a couple of layers of the resin on my body. You can leave my clothes on if you’re short of time.”

“Please just listen,” I continue, setting the knife down.

“Why won’t you help me?” she shouts.

“ There are other ways of -”

“Fine!” she continues, grabbing the knife. “I’ll do it myself!”

Before she can cut her neck, I grab her arm and slam it into the side of the table with enough force to make her drop the knife. She tries to push me away, but I throw all my weight against her and slam her into the wall before swinging her around and sending us both tumbling to the ground. She tries to knee me in the stomach but she only strikes a glancing blow, allowing me to pin her down. She continues to struggle but there’s no way I’m going to let her get away, even though she’s a lot stronger than I’d expected.

“What’s wrong with you?” she shouts.

“ Listen,” I reply breathlessly, “you're going to be fine. The police are going to take you to a hospital where you can be properly checked out -”

“No!”

“ And then the doctors will decide what should be done to help you -”

“No!”

“ And then everything's going to be okay. I'll still come and visit you, and you can still do your -”

“No!” she shouts, still trying to get free. “Is that what you want? Do you want to be stuck in an institution and slotted into some kind of category?”

“I haven’t killed a load of people!” I shout back at her.

“No, you just killed one person!”

“ You don't have a clue what you're talking about,” I reply. “This isn't -”

“Then tell me,” she continues. “You said you killed someone, but you didn’t give me the details. It’s almost like you enjoy cultivating a sense of mystery, like you feel it’s the only way you can be special. That might work with other people, but I see right through you and I know how your head works. After all, mine works the same way. So come on, what happened? Why are you so much better than me?”

“I didn’t say that I’m better than you.”

“Who did you kill?”

“ Please, don't -”

“Who did you kill?” she shouts again.

I shake my head.

“What’s your name?” she asks. “At least tell me that. I know it’s not Ophelia, so what’s your real name?”

“I can’t tell you. I can’t tell anyone.”

“Why not?”

I open my mouth to reply, but no words come out. Since the day I first chose the name Ophelia for myself, this is the closest I’ve come to revealing the truth. It’s tempting, but at the same time I know that if one person finds out, everyone will end up knowing.

“Everything you said earlier was true,” she continues. “Please, Ophelia, all I care about is my project. If I don’t have this, then I don’t have anything, I’m just… I’ll end up like everyone else who ever had an idea but never acted on it, I’ll just be forgotten by everyone. One day someone’s going to write the history of art, and I want to be in there. Like Picasso and Van Gogh and Andy Warhol. I’m a revolutionary, a visionary. Don’t you see? People like me, we’re always looked down on while we’re alive, but I’m happy to die if I know that I’ll be reconsidered one day. I have faith in my work.” She stares up at me, and her tears are really starting to flow now. “Don’t let them take me,” she whimpers. “I’ve been working so hard for this, I’ve been doing everything to make it right and I’m almost at the end so please just help me. Don’t let them take me away and throw me in a box!”

“I am helping you,” I tell her.

“ Kill me,” she replies, “and then take the resin and -”

I shake my head.

“You really don’t understand, do you?” she asks.

“ I do,” I reply, “it's just -”

Before I can finish, she manages to ram her knee into my side, knocking me back against the wall. She springs up and grabs a nearby chair, which she immediately swings at me just as I’m trying to get to my feet. The side of the chair slams into my head and sends me crashing back down, and when I look up I see that she’s already started to run.

“Victoria!” I call out, pushing the chair off and getting up.

“I’ll find another way!” she shouts tearfully, disappearing through the door at the far end of the room.

Although my head hurts, I run after her, determined to stop her getting away. If I lose track of her, I don’t know how I’ll ever find her again, but she’s already got a head-start and as I race around the next corner and look down the stairs, she’s already out of sight. I run down to the next level and then I hurry along the corridor, convinced that she must have come this way. When I get to the top of the next flight of steps, I stop for a moment.

Suddenly I feel an arm wrap around my neck, and I’m pulled backward.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” she hisses into my ear.

“Let me help you,” I gasp.

“Or what?” she replies, pressing the blade of her knife into my back until the tip is almost breaking through my shirt and into my skin. “You’ve ruined everything, Ophelia. I am so mad at you right now. I let my guard down, I ignored my usual rule and I actually trusted you, and you ruined it all. All my work, all my planning, and it’s fallen to pieces because you couldn’t see things from my point of view.”

“ I can't let you hurt people,” I reply. “I was wrong to think I could help you by -”

“Did anyone help you?” she asks.

“What do you mean?”

“You were like me once,” she continues. “You said it yourself. Angry. Alone. Scared. And when you were like that, did anyone come and help you?”

“ No, but -”

“So you dragged yourself out of it all by yourself, did you?”

“ Yes, and -”

“So what made you think that I’d be better off with your help? Why the hell did you take it upon yourself to start interfering in my life? I mean, that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? You’re being like everyone else, always thinking that they know best even though they’ve got no idea what it’s like to be me, except…” She pauses again. “You should understand. We’re so similar, I can’t believe that you’ve got this blind spot. I need you to help me, not manipulate me.”

I open my mouth to reply to her, but finally I realize that she’s right. I should never have tried to steer her onto a different path. As soon as I realized what she was doing, I should have called Laura and let her know. Instead, I was so desperate to prove to myself that Victoria and I are similar, I let my own personal mythology take priority. I guess the truth is that I wish someone had been around to help me when I ran away from that farmhouse five years ago, and I assumed Victoria would be the same. We’re similar, but that doesn’t mean we’re exactly the same. She’s embraced her dark side, whereas I’ve spent five years running from mine.

“ Listen,” I reply, trying to sound calm and reassuring, “there's -”

“Too late,” she hisses.

Suddenly she pushes me forward and I’m sent tumbling down the stairs, eventually landing in a crumpled heap at the bottom, with enough force to bounce the side of my head against the concrete. For a fraction of a second I try to get up, but I quickly start sinking into unconsciousness, and the last thing I hear is the sound of Victoria running down the steps toward me.

Laura

 

“Shouldn’t we wait for back-up?” Nick asks.

“No time,” I reply, pushing open the door and leading him into the empty building. The place is like a maze and I have no idea which way to go, but when I try to call Ophelia again I find that her phone is still off. Still, I know she’s here somewhere, and if she hasn’t left me a clue as to which way to go next, that can only mean she’s in trouble.

“We should split up,” he continues. “I’ll take a look down here.”

“I’ll go up,” I reply, hurrying up the stairs. When I reach the next floor, I find myself at one end of a long corridor, lit by a set of electric strip-lights running along the ceiling. It seems more like some kind of factory than a building used by an art college, but I guess this is the kind of place where the students carry out their more industrial work. One of the nearby rooms has a label on the door warning that lasers are in use, while another mentions a kiln.

“Anything?” Nick asks over the radio.

“Nothing. You?”

“The place seems totally dead,” he replies. “This bloody college has so many extra parts. Are you sure we’re in the right building?”

“Definitely.”

“And you trust that Ophelia girl?”

“With my life,” I reply as I make my way along the corridor.

Most of the doors are locked, but finally I reach the end and lean through into a large workspace. To my shock, there are several bodies on the floor, and when I rush over to the first I realize that it’s one of the third year art students from the college. I kneel next to him and check his pulse, and I find to my relief that he’s still alive. Hurrying to the next body, I find the same thing, and I quickly determine that all the students are unconscious but still breathing. It’s as if they’ve been drugged.

“Call for medical back-up,” I tell Nick over the radio. “We have eleven unconscious people up here.”

“What about Victoria?” he asks.

“No sign.”

“And Ophelia?”

“No sign of her either. Just call for as many ambulances as they can send. I don’t know how sick these people are.”

Checking the pulse of another of the students, I’m shocked when his eyes start to flutter open.

“Can you hear me?” I ask.

He’s clearly dazed, but as far as I can tell he seems to be slowly coming around.

“Listen to me,” I continue, gently patting the side of his face, “you’re going to be okay. Medical assistance is on the way, and they’re going to take care of you. Can you tell me who did this?”

He blinks a couple of times, but I’m pretty sure I’m not getting through. After a moment he closes his eyes again, slipping back into unconsciousness.

“Hey!” I add, slapping his face. “Wake up! Did you see another girl here? Which way did they go?”

No response.

“Okay, just wait right here,” I mutter.

Getting to my feet, I walk over to a nearby table and look at an open pot that contains some kind of light yellow substance, like paint but thicker. There are several similar pots nearby, as well as brushes and modeling tools. I can’t even begin to work out what has been going on in here, but it’s clear that we’ve found ground zero for the killer’s plans. The students I found on the floor were obviously going to be used for something. Turning, I head toward the door.

And then I see it.

Stepping over to the side of the room, I reach down and pick up the phone. The screen is smashed and the back has come loose, dislodging the battery, but there can be little doubt: it’s the exact same phone I gave to Ophelia a year ago. She’s always prized that phone, claiming that it contains vital high scores for a game she’s been playing, and I can only assume that it was destroyed deliberately, possibly to hinder any attempt to track its location.

Getting to my feet, I slip the broken phone into my pocket before hurrying though the next door. I find myself at the top of a set of stairs, so I hurry down, only to end up in another nondescript corridor. So far, this whole building seems like something of a maze, and Victoria Middleton undoubtedly has an advantage since she must know the layout.

“Ambulances are on the way,” Nick says over the radio. “You found anything else?”

“Not yet. This place is pretty big.”

“Maybe she’s gone,” he replies. “We need to get her picture out all over the place in case someone sees her. If she’s smart, she’ll already be trying to get away. I’ll send units to the train and coach stations just in case.”

“Sure, but…”

“It’s time like this I wish we carried guns,” he adds.

“ That's just what this situation needs,” I reply. “Someone -”

Suddenly hearing a noise over my shoulder, I turn to look along the corridor, but there’s no sign of anyone. I make my way in that direction, however, convinced that someone is nearby. Seconds later I hear a distant clanging sound, as if someone has dropped a piece of metal.

“Hello?” I call out. “Victoria Middleton? My name is Laura Foster and I’m a police officer. I need to talk to you about a very serious matter. If you’re here, please make your presence known!”

No reply.

“Victoria Middleton,” I shout, “this is the police! I’m ordering you to come out and approach me with your hands in the air! If you won’t come willingly, I’m authorized to use force!”

Reaching the end of the corridor, I look left and right, but there’s no sign of anyone in either direction.

“I found her!” Nick shouts over the radio suddenly. “Laura, Ophelia’s down here, she’s hurt!”

“Where are you?” I shout.

“Ground floor!”

Hurrying down the next set of stairs, I race along the corridor until I spot Nick up ahead, crouching next to a crumpled heap on the floor. As soon as I reach them I kneel next to Ophelia and look down to see that she’s unconscious, with a large bruise already starting to show on the side of her head.

“ Ophelia -”

“Don’t touch her!” Nick replies, pushing my hand away. “We need to wait for medics. She’s breathing, but I think she fell down those stairs. She might have a neck or back injury.”

“Did you see Victoria Middleton at all?” I ask.

“No sign of her.”

Getting to my feet, I hurry along the corridor until I get to an emergency exit, which has been left partially open. I push the door all the way and step outside, only to find myself around the back of the building. Ahead, there’s a low wooden fence and then nothing but a dark forest stretching away. Assuming that Victoria Middleton came this way, there’s no way of tracking her fast enough. She’s gone, and I’m the one who let her get away.

In the distance, sirens are getting closer. Back-up has finally arrived, just a couple of minutes too late.

Part Eight

Ophelia

 

I suddenly realize that people are touching me.

“Stop!” I shout, opening my eyes as I sit up.

“It’s okay,” says a startled-looking paramedic, with his hand on my shoulder. “Just calm down.”

“ I don't -”

Before I can finish, I realize that there’s something strange and tight around my neck. Reaching up, I find that some kind of large plastic collar has been fitted to me.

“ It's a neck brace,” the paramedic explains. “You took a tumble down the stairs and -”

“I don’t need a neck brace,” I mutter, reaching around the back and starting to unfasten the damn thing. “Get it off!”

“ Hold on there -”

“I don’t have time for a neck brace,” I add, pulling it away. I try to get up, but my head suddenly feels heavy and I’m forced to pause for a moment while the whole world swings and pivots around me.

“You have a concussion,” the paramedic explains.

“No,” I reply, “I don’t.”

“There’s a nasty-looking bruise on your head that suggests otherwise.”

“I’ve got to find her,” I reply, getting to my feet. Everything still feels a little delicate and there’s a dull pain throbbing just behind my eyes, but there’s no way I can just sit around while Victoria gets further and further away. “Where’s Laura?” I ask, turning to the paramedic.

“Who?” he asks.

“Detective Foster,” I continue. “Come on, you must know…” I pause for a few seconds as a wave of nausea ripples through my stomach; fortunately it passes, but I have no doubt it’ll be back soon. My head feels like gravy.

“Ophelia,” says a male voice nearby.

Turning, I see a guy hurrying toward me. I recognize him as someone who works with Laura, although my mind isn’t in quite the right state to put the pieces together any better than that.

“ Nick Jordan,” he explains helpfully. “I'm with -”

“I know who you are,” I lie. “Where’s Laura?”

“She’s supervising an operation to track down Victoria Middleton.”

“How long was I unconscious?”

“I don’t know. We found you about twenty minutes ago.”

“Excuse me,” the paramedic interjects, “but I need to get her to hospital.”

“Fat chance,” I mutter.

“Where’s Victoria Middleton?” Nick asks.

“She was…” I turn to look up the stairs, but the last thing I remember is being pushed. “She ran,” I add after a moment. “She’s scared.”

“No kidding,” Nick replies. “Have you got any idea where she might have gone? Does she have friends or family, or some kind of bolt-hole?”

“She’s all alone,” I tell him.

“I’m sorry,” the paramedic continues, grabbing my arm, “but I can’t allow you to leave. You could have a serious head injury.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” I reply, pulling free.

“ I'm not joking,” he says. “You're -”

“I’m busy,” I tell him, before turning to Nick. “I’m coming with you.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Nick points out.

“Yes you are,” I tell him, limping to the door on an ankle that feels badly bruised. “You’re going to find Laura, and I’m coming with you.”

“ Actually,” he replies, “I was planning to -”

“Come on,” I continue, “we don’t have time to sit around here while I explain why I’m right and you’re wrong. You don’t know me well enough yet, but trust me, I’m always right.”

“ But -”

“Don’t argue with me! I’ve got concussion!”

 

***

 

“Okay, hotshot,” Nick says as he pulls the car door shut. “Now what?”

“Now you drive,” I tell him. “I can’t do it in my state.”

“And where do you want me to drive to?”

“To…” I pause as I realize that, with my head throbbing worse than ever, I’m not sure I can quite think straight. “To Laura,” I add finally. “Just find Laura. I need to talk to her.”

“ But -”

“This isn’t going to work if you keep interrupting me,” I tell him. “Seriously, I’ve got a hell of a headache and you’re making it worse. In fact, I’m thinking of naming the headache Nick, just to spite you.”

“Maybe you should go to the hospital after all.”

“You’re not very good at this.”

“Good at what?”

“Being my sidekick.”

“ I'm not your -”

“You are temporarily, until we find Laura.”

“ Hang on -”

“Victoria Middleton isn’t a killer,” I say suddenly, as I look out at the dark street ahead. After a moment, I turn to him. “She kills people as part of what she’s doing, but the killing part isn’t the main point. She doesn’t enjoy killing them, in fact I think she finds it difficult, but she does it anyway because she’s got this single-minded focus on the work she’s doing. She’s wrapped up in all these ideas about how to be an artist. The worst part is, she’s right.”

“About what?”

“She wants to be remembered, and she will be. She wants people to think of her as an artist, and eventually I think they will. They’ll also see her as a murderer, but she doesn’t care about that part. We have to get past that, though. We have to stop trying to catch a murderer, and start trying to catch an artist.”

“So where is she now?” he asks.

“ I have no idea,” I reply. “She's loose, she's got no ties to anyone, not even...” Suddenly it hits me and I realize exactly where Victoria's going to go. “This car,” I say after a moment. “Does it -” Instead of asking, I wind down the window and lean out, but to my disappointment the side of the car has no big police logos. “Damn,” I mutter.

“What are you doing?” he asks.

“Is there anything about this car that marks it out as a police vehicle?” I reply. “Any kind of sticker or sign that I’m not seeing? Do you have a siren?”

“No.”

“What kind of a man are you?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why don’t you have a siren?”

“Because… It’s not a patrol car.”

“It should be,” I reply, turning to him. “It really should be.”

“Okay,” he sighs, “I think maybe I’d better take you to Laura.”

“Because I’m annoying you?”

“Actually, yes, you are.”

“Good,” I reply, opening the door and climbing back out. The whole street seems to swim around me for a moment, and the pain in my head is growing, but I don’t have time to worry about that kind of thing right now. “Tell Laura that I’m sorry,” I add, as I push the door shut.

“Sorry about what?” he asks.

“That I lied to her,” I reply, turning to him. “I’ll tell her myself if I get a chance.”

“I can’t just let you wander off,” he continues. “You either get in here with me, or you go with the paramedic.”

“No way,” I tell him. “I’ve got something else to do.”

“Listen,” he replies, getting out of the car, “Laura might put up with your bullshit but I haven’t got time, okay?”

“Try to arrest me,” I reply, keeping my voice low.

“Sorry?”

“Have you got handcuffs?”

“ Yes, but -”

“Hallelujah. So try to arrest me.”

“ Ophelia -”

“And hurry up about it,” I add. “I don’t have all night. Don’t worry, you won’t succeed, but you have to try!”

“ Right, this is getting -”

“No fucking way!” I shout suddenly, keen to make sure that if Victoria is hiding somewhere and watching us, she gets the impression that I’m fighting back. If she’s going to make contact with me again, she needs to think that I’m not working with the police. “If you come near me,” I continue, “I’ll hurt you!”

“What?”

“Can you be more convincing?” I hiss.

“ This is bollocks,” he replies, “I'm -”

“Fuck you!” I shout, turning and starting to run. I only get a couple of steps before I have to stop, with the whole world swinging around me. There’s definitely something wrong with my head, but I can’t let it slow me down.

“ Ophelia -”

I start running again, and this time I force myself to keep going even though I feel like I’m on the deck of a ship in a high storm. By the time I get to the end of the street and around the next corner, I have to stop and lean against the wall for a moment. Fortunately Nick doesn’t seem to be following me, which is guess means that he doesn’t take me too seriously. Taking a deep breath, I try to calm the sense of nausea in my stomach.

“Where are you?” I whisper finally, turning and looking at the darkness all around.

I wait.

She’s out there somewhere, she has to be.

Victoria Middleton has no-one else in the whole world, and right now she’s probably terrified. Despite everything, she’s still human, and we still have a connection. Now that I’ve made a public display of running away from the police, Victoria will hopefully decide she can trust me again. All I have to do is wait for her to make a move.

Forcing myself to get moving again, I start limping along the dark, empty street. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I’m convinced that she’s nearby, watching me from the shadows.

Laura

 

“What the hell is happening?” shouts Carol Livingstone as she runs down the steps at the front of the college. “My students -”

“They’re fine,” I tell her as I step out of the car. “They’ve been taken to Ashburton Hospital, but they’re all expected to make a full recovery. Whatever she used to drug them, it’s already starting to wear off.”

“I’m holding you responsible for this mess,” she continues. “You told me you had the entire college under surveillance.”

“And you didn’t tell me you’d moved the third year students to a completely separate building and given them the keys for the night,” I point out. “I asked you to tell me anything that might be relevant!”

“I had to do something to help them,” she replies. “Their final show is due to start in a few hours, and after Mike Wallace’s death I felt that an extension was justified. Besides, they couldn’t be interrupted by police crawling all over the place. They had work to do, and I was under the impression that the killer was no longer at large!”

“Next time someone asks for your complete cooperation,” I tell her, “it might be better if you actually cooperate.”

“Don’t tell me how to do my job,” she replies. “I thought you’d already caught the killer. Why is Bryony Hawthorne in a cell if she’s not responsible?”

“I can’t divulge details of the police operation,” I reply. “We’re looking for Victoria Middleton now. She’s the killer.”

“But you’ve caught her, haven’t you?” she asks. “Please tell me you’ve got the Middleton girl in custody.”

“I’m working on it,” I reply.

“Working on it? What kind of answer is that?”

Ignoring her, I make my way up the steps and through the main door. The huge sculpture in the darkened reception area looks even more menacing at night, but as I stare up at it, I can’t help but think I’m in the wrong place. If Victoria is scared, she’s never going to come back here. She’ll want to be in control. I’ve been thinking of her as a murderer, but I need to start thinking of her as an artist instead, as someone who – no matter how things get – is going to want to treat the situation as some kind of artwork. She must know that it’s over and that we’re going to catch up to her sooner rather than later, so she has to move fast. She only has one more chance to seal her reputation.

Reaching into my pocket, I’m about to call Ophelia when I realize that her phone is broken. Instead, I bring up Nick’s number.

“She’s gone,” he says as soon as he answers.

“What do you mean?”

“Ophelia,” he replies. “She woke up and started babbling, and then we went to my car and suddenly she bolted. The ambulance crew are worried about her, ‘cause she’s got a concussion and she needs constant observation.”

“What exactly did she say?” I ask.

“A load of nonsense.”

“Ophelia doesn’t do nonsense,” I continue, trying not to panic. I should never have left Nick to look after someone like Ophelia. “Tell me exactly what she said to you.”

“She complained that the car wasn’t a patrol vehicle,” he replies, sounding irritated, “and then she asked me to arrest her, and then she swore at me and ran.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I tell him, before I realize what she’s up to. “Unless she wanted to put on a show.”

“For who?”

“You were being watched,” I reply. “Ophelia needed to make it clear that she wasn’t cooperating with you, and the best way to do that was to make a scene. She’s trying to get Victoria to contact her again. It’s…” I pause as I realize that right now, it’s the only plan that might actually work.

“Do you want me to go and look for her?” he asks.

“No,” I tell him. “You won’t find Ophelia unless she wants to be found. I need you to help coordinate the search. I want Victoria Middleton’s face on every website and every television screen. I’m going to get the photo from her college card and we’ll use that. Don’t worry about Ophelia. I’ll make sure she’s okay.”

I cut the call before he can answer, and then I stare up at the huge sculpture for a moment. Right now, I could really use a moment of inspiration. If murder can be art, then maybe the same can be said of everything, including the act of catching a killer. I guess that might be where Ophelia comes into the equation, though. I have to stick to the rules and make sure I tick every box, but Ophelia’s out there somewhere and she has more options. I just have to hope that she knows what she’s doing.

I hate myself for relying on her, but the truth is: right now, I need her to come through for me.

Ophelia

 

Limping along the dark street, I try to ignore the pain in my head. There’s no time to stop, no time to go to a hospital. I just have to keep going and hope that I don’t pass out before I find her.

When I reach the entrance to the park behind the college, I figure that I might as well head in there. There are sirens in the distance, but I’m fairly sure that Victoria won’t have gone too far. She knows the game’s up, that there’s not much time left, so it’s not as if she’s going to make a run for it. Instead, she’ll be trying to work out how to make her final stand, and for that she’s going to need some help.

She’s going to need me.

The park is mostly unlit, with just a few streetlights marking a narrow path that winds its way between the trees. Deciding to head into the shadows, I make my way across the grass, and after just a few paces I realize that I can’t even see where I’m going. I hold my hand out to make sure that I don’t walk straight into any of the trees, but I keep going anyway. If Victoria is going to make her presence known, it’s going to be somewhere like this. If there’s even -

Losing my footing, I suddenly stumble and drop to my knees. The pain surges in my head and I let out a gasp, and when I try to get up I realize that I’m far too dizzy. I take a moment to gather my strength and then I force myself to my feet. Stumbling a little further, I finally reach the back of the building where Victoria was working.

“I’m not looking for a murderer,” I remind myself. “I’m looking for an artist.”

And where else would an artist go, but to her studio?

Figuring that she must be inside, I manage to find the door and I slip inside. It’s hard to believe that the police aren’t all over this place, but I guess they’re focused on the building where the students were found unconscious. They’ll get here eventually, though, so I don’t have much time. Going it alone was a mistake earlier, but now it’s a good idea again. I wish my life was more consistent.

Pushing through the pain, I make my way up the stairs until finally I reach the space where Victoria’s Dead City models are still in place, their forms picked out by moonlight. As I limp toward them, I can’t help but feel sorry for Victoria. She put so much of herself into this project, and she truly believed in its value. When she told me that she didn’t want to kill anyone, that she only killed because she needed the bodies for her art, I actually believe her.

“You look like hell,” a voice says suddenly.

I stop and turn.

Slowly, I become aware of movement nearby. I watch as she steps out from behind one of the models.

“They’re actually closing the roads,” she continues. “Can you believe that? There are roadblocks, and I heard a helicopter a few minutes ago. This definitely isn’t how I thought things would end.”

“It’s not the end,” I tell her, staying very still as I feel another wave of nausea rushing through my belly. “You can get help, Victoria.”

“And how would that work?” she asks. “They’d lock me away and tinker with my head? They’d try to change my personality? Face it, true artists are never appreciated in their own lifetimes.”

“You’re really a big fan of yourself, aren’t you?” I reply.

“I guess an artist has to be arrogant,” she continues. “Otherwise, why would someone go to all the trouble of doing something like this. I want you to do me another favor, Ophelia. I want you to make sure that eventually, when the shock has passed, people remember the real me. I never wanted to kill anyone, but there was no other way to get the bodies. I considered grave-robbing, but that would have just complicated things. Murder was quicker and cleaner. It was easier. There was no downside.”

“Apart from killing people,” I point out.

“Yes. Apart from that.”

“ Victoria -”

“I need help,” she adds. “I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true.”

“And I can help you,” I reply. “The police -”

“I mean help with my art,” she continues. “I’ve been standing here for a few minutes now, trying to work out what to do for my final show. And it really does have to be final, because it’ll be the last thing I ever do. I’ll never be in control again, so I have to make it count. It has to sum everything up. All my thoughts, all my beliefs… Everything I’ve ever wanted to say, it all has to be said now, and in a way that can’t be misinterpreted or forgotten. Fortunately, I think I have a plan.”

I watch as she walks over to one of her models. She runs her hand across its face, as if she’s lost in thought.

“I’m not an idiot,” she says eventually, taking out her sculpting knife and starting to carve into the model’s face. “I know I can’t continue like this. I have to die, but I’m not sure quite how it should happen. Not yet. There’s still so much to work out, but they’re closing in.” She turns to me. “I haven’t quite forgiven you for calling the police, but I think I understand why you did it. You’re still the only person who’s ever understood me, even if you didn’t get it all right. You’re the only friend I’ve ever had.”

“I can still be your friend,” I tell her. “I…”

Another wave of nausea hits me, and this time I have to steady myself against one of the models.

“Friendship is art,” she says after a moment. “Everything is art, isn’t it? And maybe it’s fitting that friendship should be the subject of my final piece. After all, art should challenge everyone, even the artist herself. So I’m going to turn us into the final piece, Ophelia. You and me, friends together. Friends forever.”

“Please,” I reply, “just let me help you.”

“It won’t take long,” she continues, hurrying over to one of the benches. “I’ve got some resin. All I need to do is cover you once you’re dead and then get you in position, and then I’ll kill myself and make sure I’m found in the right pose. It’s quite simple, really. I figure I can cut my wrists and then finish the work while I’m bleeding. I won’t be able to pose myself properly, but I can be on the floor. All the other Dead City models are standing, so it’s strangely appropriate if I, the artist, am on the floor. I’ll be the fallen artist, found among her own creations.”

“There are people in these models, aren’t there?” I ask.

“Of course. I thought that was obvious.”

“I guess I just didn’t want to accept it,” I reply, watching as she drags a large bucket toward me. “This isn’t going to happen,” I add. “You know that, don’t you? The police are going to find this place any minute.”

“Which is why we have to work fast,” she says with a smile. “Don’t worry, Ophelia. Our deaths are going to be art.” She steps closer to me, with the sculpting knife in her hand. “I’ll make it painless. You’re going to live on as part of the Dead City. We both are. When they understand the meaning of the piece, they’ll put it all on display.”

“Please,” I reply, “don’t try to do this.”

“You’re not exactly in a position to fight back,” she says, grabbing my arm. “It’s a shame you won’t just let me do this, but if you insist on struggling, I guess that’s your choice.”

“ Let me help you,” I reply, taking hold of her wrist. “Victoria -”

“ You'll be dead in a few minutes,” she tells me. “Then I'll -”

Before she can finish, I throw my weight against her, knocking her into one of the models. We land hard against the ground, and the model smashes next to us. Part of the front falls away, revealing the face of the dead body inside.

“You broke it!” Victoria shouts, grabbing the broken face pieces. “What the hell is wrong with you, Ophelia?”

“I think I was wrong,” I reply. “I don’t think I can help you at all. No-one can.”

“I’m going to have to fix this now,” she continues, turning to me a hint of anger in her eyes, but that hint quickly fades as if her relentlessly-spinning mind has no room for such base emotions. “Sorry, but I’m going to have to kill you right away.”

She lunges at me with the knife, but I’m just about able to slip out of the way. She immediately tries again, and this time the knife slices into my leg just above the knee. I let out a cry of pain, but she’s already pulling the knife out, ready for another attack. This time I grab her neck and pull her toward me, while making sure to keep away from the blade. I put my hand on her wrist and slam it against the concrete floor, but it’s not enough to make her drop the knife and we struggle for a moment longer before finally I’m able to wrap my hands around hers, with the blade in the center. She’s pushing toward my chest and I’m pushing toward hers, but I’m not sure I can hold her back for much longer.

“You’re making this difficult!” she hisses.

“I swear to God,” I gasp, “you’ll be okay once the police get here!”

She smiles.

“Victoria,” I continue, “please…”

“I’m right,” she replies. “Friendship really is art. And that means…”

I wait for her to finish the sentence.

“What?” I ask. “What does it mean?”

“I get it,” she adds. “I’ve had a better idea.”

She stares at me for a moment, and then suddenly she stops trying to push the blade into my chest. At the same time, she turns it back toward herself, and I don’t manage to react in time. Now that she’s not trying to push the knife into me, the pressure I’m applying is enough to force it the other way, straight into her chest directly above the heart. As the blade slices into her, she lets out a gasp, but the smile remains on her face.

“There,” she says, “now it’s done.”

For a moment, I’m frozen. All I can think about is the past: the last time something like this happened, on the kitchen floor in an old farmhouse. Another knife. Another chest. Another body.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks. “Ophelia, tell me.”

“No,” I whisper, letting go of the knife. “I’m going to get help.”

“Stay!” she gasps, grabbing my wrist. “You know I… All I wanted was to be remembered as an artist. That’ll happen now, won’t it? People are going to talk about me…”

I stare in horror as a bead of blood trickles from the side of her mouth and runs down the side of her face. She’s still smiling, though, as if in some strange way she’s pleased that she’s dying. I guess her own death – in this way, at this time – was the ‘better idea’ she mentioned.

“I thought I had to always be in control,” she whispers, as her breathing becomes more labored, “but I was wrong. People are still going to remember me, and the Dead City…” She looks up at the models, which are still towering above us. “It’s my creation. It’s my gift to the world. People will talk about it, and I know I’ll be recognized for what I’ve done. I’ll be remembered, and the project will get extra meaning from the fact that I died here in the middle of it all. Every great artists has to give her life to her work eventually.”

“You’re not going to die,” I tell her.

“Of course I am,” she replies, with more blood running from her mouth. “I’m not scared, though. I just wish I could be around to read the reviews of my work.”

“Victoria, I..”

Pausing, I realize that there’s no point offering her false hope. Even if I ran to get help, she’d be dead by the time I got back. The only thing I can do now is make sure that I’m here with her, so that she doesn’t die alone.

“You’ll remember me too, won’t you?” she asks.

“Of course.”

“Well that’s another thing. A bonus.” She lets out another gasp, as if the pain is becoming too much. “It might take a while before I start getting mentioned as an artist instead of as a serial killer. I understand that there are issues that society has to work through first. One day they’ll see the truth, though. And I’m glad I had a friend. I never thought that would happen, but we found each other. We really are similar, you know.”

“With a few small differences,” I point out, as tears run from my eyes. “A few different turns.”

“Don’t cry,” she tells me, smiling more than I’ve ever seen her smile before. “I’m getting what I wanted. If people hate me, they hate me, but some will get it. I did it all for the art. Just…”

I wait for her to finish the sentence, but she seems to be losing consciousness.

“You’re my friend,” she says finally, her voice sounding much weaker, “but I don’t even know your real name.”

“No-one does,” I reply. “Not anymore.”

“Tell me.”

I shake my head.

“Please,” she continues, and suddenly she takes my hand in hers and squeezes it tight. “Please tell me.”

“I…”

As she stares at me, I realize that it means a lot to her. Besides, I can’t truly say that we were friends if I never even told her who I am. Those two words that I haven’t spoken for so many years… They fill me with fear, but maybe that’s a reason why I should say them right now, to exorcise their power over me and keep them from becoming something even more dangerous. Not acknowledging my true identity has become part of my mythology, but it can’t hurt to tell her. Not now that she’s dying.

“Please,” she gasps.

I lean closer, until my lips are right next to her ear, and I pause for a moment.

“Please…”

Finally, I do it:

I tell her my real name, whispering it as a shiver passes through my body.

“What?” she asks, her voice trembling.

I tell her again.

“Seriously?” she replies.

I nod.

“But… That’s impossible! It’s… You can’t be!”

“Do you understand now,” I reply, “why I can’t ever tell anyone?”

“But they…” She stares at me with a look of shock in her eyes. “You have to tell them. Everyone... They have a right to know! You...” She pauses. “I can see it now. Your face. It's subtle, but you still look like -”

“No,” I say firmly, “I don’t.”

“Tell them,” she continues. “Please…”

“I don’t want that,” I continue, as tears continue to roll down my cheeks. “It’d be… I can’t face it. I’ve come to terms with what happened, but I don’t want anyone else to know. As far as the world is concerned, I’m long gone, I’m dead, and I don’t want to come back. Can you imagine what it’d be like if people found out? It’s better this way.”

“ But -”

“It’s better,” I tell her again. “You understand, don’t you? Please, tell me you understand.”

“Then you’ll…” She pauses. “I understand. But you’ll fall, Ophelia. People like us, we always fall.”

“I know.”

“We can’t survive in this world.”

I nod.

“But I’m…” She pauses. “My art… going to be… famous.”

She reaches up and, with her bloodied hand, she wipes the tears from my eyes. I wait, expecting her to say something else, but slowly she places her hand on her chest, and then she keeps her eyes fixed on me as she takes a couple more harsh, labored breaths.

And then she’s still.

I stay where I am, still staring at her. Her eyes, in turn, remain fixed on me, but finally I move to one side and her dead eyes continue to stare up at the dark ceiling high above us.

Reaching down, I feel the wound on my leg and I realize that I’ve lost quite a lot of blood. Too much, maybe. There are sirens in the distance and I’m sure the police are coming closer as they continue to search for Victoria. When they get here, they’ll take me to hospital and they’ll start photographing the scene, and then they’ll take Victoria’s body away and the whole machine will roll into action. For now, though, I just want to stay here and be silent with her.

A few minutes later, I hear noises somewhere else in the building. The police have arrived. They’ll find us soon. I guess it’s over now.

Laura

 

“I wish they were all this polite,” mutters Gilmore as he opens the door to Bryony’s cell. “I can’t remember the last time someone was so nice to me. She says things like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. To be honest, it’s a bit weird.”

“Can I go?” Bryony asks, springing up from the bed where she’s spent the past day reading and drawing.

“You can go,” I tell her. “It’s over.”

“It was Victoria, wasn’t it?” she asks as she starts gathering her pieces of paper together.

“Yeah,” I reply, struggling to not sound tired. “She was caught during the night.”

“Caught?”

“She’s dead.”

Turning to me, Bryony seems momentarily stunned, as if she can’t believe what I just told her. I guess I should have been a little more tactful, but then that kind of thing has never really been my strength.

“It’s a very long story,” I continue, “and it’s one that is probably going to be done to death in the media over the next few days. You can pick it up from them.”

“Sure,” she replies, bringing her things to the door. “I knew she was weird, but I never…” She pauses for a moment, with tears in her eyes. “I’ve had a lot of time to think while I’ve been in here. Do you reckon that, if some of us had tried harder to be her friend, she might not have ended up like this?”

“I’m not a psychologist,” I reply, “but if you want my opinion… No. She was single-minded and obsessed with making an artistic statement. Nothing she did was motivated by revenge or hatred. She just wanted to create.”

“I guess it’s good to think outside the box,” she points out, “but she went way too far. Still, she was brave.”

“Brave?”

“She stood up for what she believed in,” she continues as we make our way along the corridor. “Even if it was fucked up and wrong, she had an artistic vision and she went for it. She knew everyone would hate her and try to stop her, but she kept going. People like that, if they’re trying to achieve something positive, sometimes end up improving things for everyone.”

“Do you have an artistic vision?” I ask.

“I didn’t before,” she replies, holding one of her drawings out for me to see. “Thanks for letting me have some equipment in the cell. I know it’s not normally allowed.”

“This wasn’t a normal situation,” I reply, taking the piece of paper and looking at the drawing she’s produced. It shows a woman with a striking brown coat, and I can’t deny that the picture shows some real talent.

“Fashion,” Bryony explains as we reach the door. “I’ve always been into art, but I never really got into art for art’s sake, you know? I needed to apply it to something, and I think fashion might be my thing. Would you wear something like that?”

“It’s a bit showy for me.”

“Showy’s good,” she replies with a smile. “You could totally do with brightening up your wardrobe. Maybe a little red. Red would definitely work with your complexion.”

“I’ll think about it,” I reply, handing the drawing back to her before keying the code to open the door. “The press has been made aware of the fact that you were willingly helping us this whole time. You’ll probably get some requests for interviews, things like that.”

“Screw ‘em,” she says as she steps outside and turns to me. “I want to get home and start working on a load more designs. I think this whole experience has really changed me.”

“Me too,” I reply as I watch her walk away.

 

***

 

“All told,” I continue as I stand at the front of the room, next to the monitor, “Victoria Middleton murdered seventeen people. That covers the bodies that were used for the stitched-together corpse, the bodies in the models she was building for her Dead City project, and her teacher Mike Wallace.”

“Not bad for someone who apparently didn’t even like killing,” replies Halveston as he flicks through my report.

“She saw it as a necessary evil,” I reply. “It was something she had to do in order to get the materials she needed for her projects. She was single-minded to the point of not even considering the right and wrong of what she was doing. We could an eternity trying to work out how she ended up like that, but I don’t think there’s much point.”

“And your initial hunch was right?” Halveston continues. “She was trying to direct you to the college from the beginning?”

“I think she was attempting to manipulate the whole situation,” I tell him. “Initially, she intended to be caught on the day of the final show, so she could claim her work. We found a laptop among her possessions, and her search history indicated that she’d researched various ways of causing the power cut in Trafalgar Square. We’re not entirely sure which method she used yet, but it’s clear she was very smart. With the right equipment and a little luck, it was actually quite possible.”

“So what was her mistake?” he asks. “Why didn’t her plan work?”

As I’m about to answer, a nearby door opens and Michael Adams enters the room. His presence immediately puts me on edge, but I’m determined not to let him have the satisfaction of seeing my reaction.

“Her mistake was that she confided in a friend,” I explain.

“That would be Ophelia?” Adams asks.

I turn to him.

“Tell me,” he continues. “If it wasn’t for this Ophelia girl, would you have been able to catch Victoria Middleton? I’m struggling to see where you, Detective Foster, actually did anything proactive that resolved the situation.”

“I should have trusted my initial instincts,” I tell him. “I interviewed Victoria Middleton days ago, but I let her go because I allowed myself to be talked out of the idea that she was the murderer. If I’d stuck to my guns, she would have been apprehended even faster.”

“Why did you ignore your instincts?” he asks.

“Perhaps because they’ve let me down in the past.”

“Sounds like a risky approach,” he continues. “Let me make one thing clear. I don’t understand precisely how this Ophelia girl was involved in the case, but if I find out that she was in any way a part of your investigation, I will come down on you like a ton of bricks. Civilians can’t be drafted in to provide ad hoc assistance, especially when you don’t even know their name. I’m going to be keeping a close eye on you, Detective Foster. You’ve still got to convince me that you have what it takes.”

He turns to leave, before glancing back at me.

“Oh, and I just spoke to the personnel department. Tim Marshall is taking long-term sick leave. Apparently he’s been suffering severe panic attacks ever since he performed the autopsy on the patchwork body. I thought he was made of stronger stuff, but I guess some people just have their limits.”

As he leaves the room, I turn to Halveston and see the look of concern in his eyes.

“Do you have limits?” he asks.

“The approach I took was risky” I tell him, “but it paid off. No additional people died.”

“I know,” he replies. “I just hope that was down to more than luck.”

“I’ve managed to speak to Victoria Middleton’s parents this morning,” I continue, returning to the relative safety of the notes I prepared for this presentation. “They’re coming down to London today, and I’m going to have them escorted from the train station so that they’re not pursued by the media. After talking to them on the phone, I’ve learned that Victoria was always a troubled child. She ran away from home a few years ago and her parents had heard nothing from her since.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll now move onto a brief rundown of the timescale…”

 

***

 

“No,” I reply as I sit in my car in the dark parking lot, “not tonight.”

“Come on,” Nick replies over the phone, with the sound of a busy bar in the background. “For once, Laura, come and celebrate with us!”

“Laura!” Tricia shouts down the line suddenly. “Come out, bitch!”

“Another time.”

“Liar!” she replies. “It’s always another time with you, isn’t it?”

“You don’t need me there,” I tell her.

“Hey,” Nick continues, “just…” He pauses. “You did a good job. You took a risk, but you got it done in the end. Just promise me one thing, okay? No, actually, promise me two things. First, that you’ll follow your instincts more and stop relying on that Ophelia girl to help you out. She’s, like, the weirdest person I’ve ever met, and she’s totally flaky. You should have trusted yourself more in the first place.”

“Deal,” I reply.

“And second, just find some way to relax, okay? Even if it’s not getting wasted with the rest of us, find a way. Everyone has to be able to blow off steam from time to time.”

“Sure,” I tell him.

“ And if you want to get a coffee one day -”

“No.”

“ I just meant -”

“Thanks, but no.” I pause as I try to work out if he was asking me on a casual date, or if he was just being polite. Probably the latter, but for some reason I can feel myself starting to panic. “I don’t do coffee meetings,” I add. “Thanks, though.”

“No worries.”

I wait for him to say something, but the silence is palpable.

“Gotta go,” he continues eventually. “It’s karaoke time! I’ll see you around, yeah?”

Once the call is over, I throw my phone onto the passenger seat and then I open my purse. Reaching in, I take out the red silk scarf I just stole from a store. It’s totally not my style, and although Bryony might have been right when she said that it matched my complexion, I can’t see myself wearing it. It’s nice to have it, but as I stuff it back into my purse I can’t help thinking that maybe I should stop doing this sort of thing. One day I’ll get caught, and the consequences won’t be pretty. Still, I know this won’t be the last time. It’s the only thing in the world that actually makes me feel good.

Ophelia

 

“You’re scared of heights.”

Looking up from her laptop at the dining room table, Laura stares at me for a moment.

“How’s the leg?” she asks.

“Hasn’t fallen off yet,” I say with a smile.

“And the head?”

“Same.”

“You’re lucky.”

I stare at her for a moment, and I swear I’ve never seen her look so tired.

“I don’t mean actual heights,” I continue, leaning against the door frame. I’ve got the folder in my hand, but I can’t give Laura the bad news straight away. “Well, maybe actual heights too, but I’m talking about other heights. You’re scared that if you get too high in life, and at work, you’ll have the urge to jump and ruin everything.”

“What makes you say that?” she asks.

“Just an observation,” I reply, as I walk over to the table. “When I suggested going undercover at the college, I knew you’d agree eventually. And the thing is, you shouldn’t have. It was a really dumb move and it totally should have backfired. You think I’m extreme for jumping off a bridge, but letting me help with the case was no better. We’re both sabotaging ourselves.”

“I guess,” she replies. “Maybe.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you everything I knew straight away,” I continue. “I really thought I could help her, or save her, or just do something that would make her life better. If I’d just called you at the start, she’d still be alive now.”

“She’s already getting what she wanted,” Laura replies. “People are already talking about her online, discussing her crimes as if they were art.”

She turns her laptop so that I can see the screen. There’s an image of Victoria, along with the beginning of an article, and it’s immediately clear that the culture industry is gearing up in a big way. Soon there’ll be books about Victoria, and films, and posters and exhibitions and everything else that surrounds famous artists. The fact that she killed people probably only adds to her appeal for a lot of people.

“She’s already being mythologized,” Laura continues with a sad, resigned smile. “People are talking about how she was a visionary, and about how the world didn’t understand her genius. Someone has even launched a campaign to raise money so they can buy all her artwork and set up some kind of permanent exhibition in her honor. The campaign was completely funded within a few hours. It’s almost double now.”

“That’s kinda sick,” I point out.

“Welcome to the twenty-first century,” she replies. “This is only the beginning. I actually think Victoria Middleton is going to get what she wanted. It’s almost as if, in a way, she’s won. If you fancy fifteen minutes of fame, I’m sure you could get interviewed about the time you knew her.”

“That sounds like the absolute worst thing ever.”

“The coroner has recommended a verdict of suicide.”

“ But I -”

“I know,” she replies. “I’m just telling you what the coroner has decided. The knife was in her hand when it entered her body, and you didn’t mean to push it.” She pauses. “You didn’t, did you?”

I shake my head, still staring at the image of Victoria on the screen. After a moment, I reach out and close the lid.

“She and I were very alike,” I tell Laura, “except for one small thing. Despite what I might like to believe, I still give a damn about whether people live or die. Victoria was missing that part, and it meant that she went over the edge. Still, she…” I pause as I try to decide whether or not to admit that I told Victoria my real name before she died. Eventually I decide against it, although I notice that the scar on my arm is itching a little, as if it’s responding to the fact that I even acknowledged my past.

“We both made mistakes,” Laura says after a moment. “Are you going to Victoria Middleton’s funeral?”

I shake my head.

“She was your friend.”

“Maybe,” I continue. “Maybe not. I don’t know. We had a lot in common, but we also had some pretty major differences. I don’t think I’m actually capable of having a friend.” I pause for a moment. “Or if I am, it wouldn’t be someone who’s so similar to me. It’d be someone different, someone I rub up against. Someone who doesn’t always let me get my own way, and vice versa. I mean, there’s no point having a friend if you can’t change her a little, and if she can’t change you in return.”

She doesn’t say anything, but I swear the faintest smile crosses her lips.

“Hey,” she says, reaching into her bag and pulling out a red scarf. “You want this? I bought it, but it’s really not my color. Maybe it’d suit you better.”

“You didn’t buy it,” I tell her, as I take the scarf. “You nicked it.”

“ Ophelia -”

“Sabotaging yourself again,” I continue, wrapping the scarf around my neck. “The higher you get in your career, the stronger the urge to jump off the edge. You’re a sad case, Laura Foster.”

“If you don’t want it,” she replies a little bitterly, “you don’t have to take it.”

“I’ll take it,” I tell her. “I can always trade it with someone when I’m back on the street.”

“You know you can stay here,” she continues. “The spare room is yours for as long as you want it. You won’t be helping me out at work anymore, I think two-for-two is where we should leave things, but you can live here with no expectations. I just thought that maybe it’d be good for you to get on your feet again, and my Mum really seems to like you. It’d be a chance for you to get sorted.”

“I don’t think I’m ready to be domesticated,” I reply, trying to ignore the look of disappointment in her eyes. “I’ll stay for a few more days, but then…” I take a seat and set my folder on the table. “I’d be leaving tonight if it wasn’t for the fact that there might be a problem we have to deal with.”

“I’ve had enough problems lately,” she says with a sigh. “Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

“It’s serious,” I continue, opening the folder to reveal the photos that Dave took while I was in the hospital last week. “This is gonna sound weird, but I had someone with a camera watching the ward after I jumped off the bridge, and I’ve only just had a chance to go through all the images properly. At first I didn’t recognize anyone, but that was because I was making a mistake. I was looking for someone from my past, or from my life, or something like that. And then…”

I pause as I find the photo that I need to show her.

“And then what?” she asks.

I take a deep breath. What I’m about to show her is almost certainly going to turn her life upside down.

“And then I found this one,” I continue, holding the photo up for her to see. “Unless there’s been a massive coincidence, this is the person who came to visit me both times. This is who brought me the chocolate.”

“Ophelia…” She pauses, and I can see the slow look of horrified realization in her eyes. “Is this some kind of joke?” she asks eventually.

“I wish it was,” I tell her, “but it’s really not, I swear. I’d never joke about something like this. He was there.”

“That’s impossible,” she replies, clearly struggling not to panic. “Why would he give a damn about you?”

“Because of you,” I continue. “Daniel Gregory, the man who got away with murder last year because of your mistake, came to see me in the hospital while I was unconscious. Twice. And I can only think of one reason why he’d do that?”

“What’s the reason?” she asks as she takes the photo.

“You’re the reason,” I tell her. “I don’t want to scare you, Laura, but I think Daniel Gregory might be about to come back into your life in a very big way.”

Epilogue

 

Hundreds of miles away.

 

“Come on,” James replies with a laugh, “what are you scared of?”

Holding out his hand, he helps her over the low stone wall, which is still wet from the deluge of rain that fell during the afternoon. For James and his girlfriend Nina, a hike in the Yorkshire Dales has rapidly become something of a trek, and the weather has turned against them with unlikely ferocity. The map hasn’t been much use, but with darkness starting to close in, they’ve finally managed to find shelter.

“This place looks creepy,” Nina replies, as her trainers sink into the muddy yard. “Like something out of a fairy tale.”

“What kind of fairy tales did you read as a kid?” he asks. “Oh wait, I forgot, you grew up in the city. This probably looks like Hansel and Gretel land to you.” He smiles. “It’s just a farmhouse, yeah? There’s loads of ‘em around. Where do you think the eggs come from for your breakfast?”

“It’s still creepy.”

“Everywhere looks creepy to you,” James replies. “Come on, we’ll just ask the guy for some help. He’ll probably be totally happy to give us a lift back to town, and he’ll be back in the B&B in less than an hour.”

If there’s someone in,” she points out. “It looks deserted.”

The farmhouse is nestled at the bottom of a steep valley, with a small river winding its way through the scene just a few meters away. A dull gray sky hangs heavily over the landscape, threatening more rain, and as James and Nina cross the yard they both look upward as a few drops of water start to fall again. In the distance, a rumble of thunder hints at even worse weather to follow.

“Whose idea was this trip again?” Nina mutters.

“It’ll be fine,” James tells her. “You’ve seen too many horror films. Not every house in the sticks is full of murderous yokels.”

“Look at this car,” she continues as they reach an aged old vehicle parked in the yard. “It looks like no-one’s been here for years. Seriously, this is the creepiest place in the world!”

“Then we’ll have an impromptu sleepover.”

“You’re not serious!”

“What are you scared of? I’m here to protect you! Besides, I don’t fancy trekking back in this weather.”

Reaching the front door, James smiles as he tries the bell. Hearing nothing from inside, he uses the knocker to announce their arrival, but again there seems to be no-one home.

“It’s empty,” James says, leaning down and peering through the letterbox. “There’s mail in the hallway. I don’t think anyone’s been here for ages. Fuck, the place is probably deserted.”

“Can we get out of here?” Nina asks. “I don’t like it.”

“Hang on,” he replies, hurrying around the side of the house.

“What are you doing?” she calls after him.

Still amused by his girlfriend’s reluctance, James reaches the back door and gives the handle a turn. To his surprise, the door clicks open and he leans through into a fusty-smelling kitchen. Dust particles are drifting through the air, picked out by the light from the window.

“Hello?” he calls out.

Silence.

“What the hell are you doing?” Nina asks, hurrying around to join him.

“It’s gonna piss it down any minute,” he replies, stepping into the kitchen. “There’s probably no-one who comes here anyway, and if there is, I’m sure they’ll understand. We either take shelter in here, or we drown out there in a field. What kind of person would begrudge us a little sanctuary, eh? If I had a house like this and I wasn’t using it, I’d be totally happy if a charming pair like us took advantage. Share and share alike, yeah?”

“You’re trespassing!”

“So?”

“So it’s illegal!”

“So the door was open,” he points out. “Come on, it’s our duty to check the place out and make sure no-one’s hurt. It’s not our fault if the weather turns bad and we end up stuck here.” He picks up a newspaper from the table. “This is dated 2009,” he tells her. “Seriously, I bet no-one’s been here since then.”

“It smells bad,” Nina replies, following him into the room. “Like… rotten.”

“ We'll open a window,” James tells her. “There's just -”

“Oh fuck!” Nina shouts suddenly, stepping behind him as if something has scared her. “Jesus fucking Christ, over there!”

“What?” James asks with a smile, before he spots a pair of legs sticking out from behind the dining room table. The legs are wearing dark trousers and large, rugged boots, and they’re ominously motionless. The smile fades from his face as James realizes that something might actually be wrong.

“Oh, no, fuck,” Nina continues, hurrying back out into the rain. “James, no way, please tell me that’s not what I think it is…”

“Hang on,” he replies, making his way around the table until he can see the body’s face, which is dried out, almost mummified as it stares up toward him. Its mouth is slightly open, exposing two rows of dirty teeth. “Jesus,” James continues, transfixed by the sight for a moment. “It’s some guy.”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Uh-huh,” James replies. “Looks like he’s been gone for years, too. He’s all shriveled up like a prune.”

Spotting a piece of paper on the table, he picks it up.

“This is an old phone bill,” he mutters. “It’s in the name of someone called Andrew Renton.”

“Can we please just call the police and get out of here?” Nina asks, standing outside. “There’s a dead body in there, for God’s sake. What if he’s been murdered? We can’t start moving stuff!”

“Sure,” James mutters, reaching into his pocket for his phone, while still unable to stop staring at the corpse. “Sorry, it’s just that I’ve never actually seen one before. It’s kinda gross and fascinating at the same time.”

“Come out,” Nina pleads. “James, there might be, like, disease in there or something. Please, don’t poke the dead body. Please please please, James, just get out of there!”

As James heads out to join her in the rain, he dials 999 and waits to be put through to the police.

On the floor, the dead body has the hilt of a large knife sticking out of its chest, directly above the heart. Nearby, a small dresser has been tipped over, and by the door there’s a broken chair. Partly upturned, the chair’s broken leg sticks up into the dusty air; the wood is ragged and sharp, and at the tip it’s stained with blood, left over from the time many years ago when it tore open the arm of a young girl who was fighting for her life.

ALSO AVAILABLE

 

Ophelia

(Ophelia book 1)

 

Fallen Heroes

(Ophelia book 3)


The Dead City (Ophelia book 2)

"We're the same. And people like us, we always fall in the end." When a dead body is found in a very public part of London, Detective Laura Foster finds herself tackling a murder investigation that pushes her to the brink - especially when the body turns out to be a patchwork figure made up of several different victims. A very theatrical serial killer is on the loose, and Laura soon realizes that there's a connection to the local art school. Just as the investigation is shifting into gear, however, Laura faces another challenge: Ophelia is back, one year after she disappeared. Initially concerned about someone who seems to be tracking her, Ophelia soon throws herself into the task of helping Laura. But when she comes face to face with the killer, Ophelia realizes that simply turning her into the police might not be an option.

  • ISBN: 9781310794728
  • Author: Amy Cross
  • Published: 2016-05-20 00:05:25
  • Words: 85002
The Dead City (Ophelia book 2) The Dead City (Ophelia book 2)