Muddle-headed Kay (mhw) wrote in a_hill_of_beans,
Muddle-headed Kay
mhw
a_hill_of_beans

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Tendrils


It was as quiet as it ever gets in Rick's, which meant that there was no more than a handful of the Usual Suspects plus one of the night bartenders, fairly recently hired and working his first night shift. The night shaded slowly into The Long Dark "Do I go home or wait through until they serve breakfast?" of the Soul, the time for thinking "I'm so-many years old next birthday, and what have I really done with my life?" There was almost as much activity in the fishtank as there was in the room outside it.

The street door opened, letting in a bluster of cold air and a red-headed man. The air dispersed through the room, eliciting a shudder or two from the occupants; the newcomer shut the door and walked over to the bar, the iron chain around his hips that served him as a belt giving a faint click as he leaned up against the bar and nodded to the bartender. When the bartender did nothing, the young man hissed faintly between his teeth and took a small pad of paper and a pencil out of his denim jacket. He wrote briefly on the pad, and, turning it so that it faced the bartender, slid it across the bar. Inside a minute, a bottle of a well-known brand of sparkling water and the pad had travelled to his side of the bar, and a quantity of money to the bartender's. Nobody but the bartender had noticed that he had refused, with silent shakes of his head, successive offers of a glass, ice, lemon and a straw.

The young man picked up the bottle of water and his pad and pencil and went over to one of the less-well-lit corner tables, where he sat quietly and opened the bottle, keeping it pointed slightly away from his face. He nodded, then tapped the neck of the bottle with a fingernail. The liquid within fizzed a little more vigorously. Satisfied, he raised the bottle to his lips and drank. Even though Rick positively disapproved of his customers being poisoned, there was no shame in making certain-sure. As he swallowed, he scanned the bar; his eyes, green and almost feline, might have seemed a shade too bright had anyone cared to look closely at him. Since nobody seemed to be taking undue notice, he returned his attention to his drink and to tracing the grain on the table top with his fingernail.

Time passed; only once did the young man interrupt his scrutiny of the wooden surface to cock his head as though listening for a faint noise; perhaps his nostrils flared also, like a hound seeking a scent. He smiled then, just a little, and beat a muted tattoo on the table with his fingertips.

After five minutes or thereabouts the door opened once again, admitting this time a woman, perhaps in her late forties or early fifties, tall and dressed in severe, though not unstylish, black. Glancing around apprehensively, her gaze settled on the redhead in the corner and a shudder went through her. She clutched nervously at the pendant that hung from a chain around her neck. It seemed for one moment as though she would turn and leave, but she visibly summoned up her reserves and did nothing more than avoid looking at the table at which the young man was seated.

Yet once more the door opened, a scant minute after the woman had entered. She turned quickly, then relaxed and with evident relief greeted the man who had just arrived. Fully a foot shorter than she, and perhaps ten years younger, he seemed to radiate a calm security that reached out to her and enfolded her in its strength. She bent a little to kiss him, and he returned it with a smile that lit up his rounded features.

Gentle brown eyes examined her thoughtfully from behind rimless glasses, then he put his arm reassuringly about her.

"Don't worry, Serafina," he murmured. "He's not our enemy."

She pulled away from him a little at that, a wisp of her grey hair falling across her face which she pushed back almost angrily.

"He's a killer, Sam, and he consorts with the Dark!"

"That's one way to look at it, certainly," replied her companion with the faintest of smiles. "But it's not the only way, and Tobias says that he's likely to be able to help us. If he can't – or won't – then I don't know who can. And I trust Tobias. So let's keep our opinions to ourselves, eh? The One doesn't always choose the cleanest tools to work with, you know."

"Words, Sam, words," she grumbled, and then gave a grudging nod. "Well enough, and you're right about Tobias. I don't have to like it though, do I? You talk with him; I'll get the drinks. Do you know what he'll want?"

Sam considered. "Tobias told me that he drinks nothing but bottled mineral water, at least in public. I'll have an apple juice, no ice, please. And I'd prescribe a double whisky for you to settle your nerves, but I don't suppose you'd listen to me any more than the rest of my patients do." He sighed and looked up at her unsmiling face. "But yes, drinks, if you would, and I'll go and beard the demon in his den."

He walked over to the young man's table as Serafina went to transact her business at the bar. Bowing slightly, he gestured in unhesitating ASL as he spoke to introduce himself.

"Mr Knight? I'm Samuel Yu. I believe you were expecting us."

The redhead stood and bowed a little more deeply. "I'm honoured to meet you, Dr Yu," he signed. "May I get you a drink?"

Sam shook his head. "Thank you, but Serafina's taking care of that." He glanced over to the bar. "I must say that she is rather nervous of you, Mr Knight. She's never met..."

"Someone who's deaf and dumb?" the young man signed. "No matter. I'm sure that you're entirely up to translating for us, or I can use my notepad if necessary." His eyes glinted with a trace of wry amusement as Serafina returned from the bar, carrying a tray of drinks on which she kept her gaze firmly fixed.

"My colleague, Ms Serafina Sheppard. Serafina, this is Mr Russell Knight." Sam took the tray of drinks from Serafina and discreetly averted his eyes from the others as he placed the tray on the table.

Serafina managed to incline her head sufficiently that the gesture might be taken for a greeting, but said nothing. The redhead returned her nod quite calmly but ventured nothing more, simply resuming his seat at the table where he went through his previous ritual of inspecting his bottled water. The others seated themselves after exchanging glances, waiting for him to finish.

Russell took a drink of his water, then smiled at them both. "Perhaps it will be quickest if you tell me what you think is the problem, and then I'll see if I can think of a way to help you," he signed, and Sam translated for Serafina's benefit. "So far, all I know is that Tobias asked me to be here to discuss something with you, so please be as detailed as you can."

Sam glanced at Serafina, and she shook her head slightly. "You first, Sam."

"There have been several rather unusual murders committed in the City in the past month or so, Mr Knight," Sam began. "To my knowledge there have been five so far. There may have been more; the police are saying as little as they can get away with, which to my mind indicates that their investigations are not progressing well and that they're keeping matters quiet so as not to panic people. All the victims have been young males, white, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five. Three are known to have worked as prostitutes. All had drug habits of one kind or another. At least two of the victims were known to each other. Death appears in each case to have resulted from a single deep wound to the left side of the neck, probably made with a sharp blade at least six inches long which cleanly severed the carotid artery. The attacks were presumably by surprise, possibly from behind, since there were no signs of struggle nor any defence injuries."

Russell had paid close attention to Sam's gestures as his account progressed, while Serafina had grown steadily paler. Though she had known the details already, hearing them repeated so dispassionately was obviously distressing her, and her hand stole up unconsciously to clutch the sunburst pendant around her neck. Sam noticed her move, and paused.

"You needn't listen to any more of this, you know," he said.

"I think that I will have a little whisky after all, Sam," she replied, relief evident on her face. "I'll be back in a while." She quickly got to her feet and disappeared in the direction of the bar.

The young man nodded to Sam and made a few notes on his pad, then took another drink from his bottle. "Now tell me the interesting bits," he signed. "Because I'm sure that's where I come into the picture."

Sam sighed. "OK. The 'interesting bits', as you so coolly put it. All of the bodies were identically mutilated, post mortem but at the murder sites. Both eyeballs were enucleated and removed, and presumably taken away by the killer, since they've not been recovered. The testes and penis also. Finally, the word 'ZAX' was cut into the forehead." He paused while Russell made more notes, then continued. "The killer, or perhaps killers, was probably surgically trained, and most likely used surgeon's tools. They worked fast; one victim's body was discovered no more than ten minutes after he was seen leaving a nightclub. There's CCTV footage with time stamps of him leaving the building, and a timed emergency call reporting the discovery of the body, so we can be sure. Worst of all, there's been nothing forensically useful retrieved from any of the bodies or the sites. No bloody footprints, no fingerprints, no fibres, nothing discarded at or near the scenes. The killer might just as well have vanished into thin air."

Russell drained his water bottle and sat back in his chair, tapping his teeth with the end of his pencil, his brow furrowed and the freckles across the bridge of his nose seeming to stand out more than usual against the pallor of his skin. He put the pen back down on the table, then signed "I can see why a psychiatrist would be interested, Dr Yu, but where does an ex-nun fit in to this?"

Sam's eyebrows arched in surprise. "You can tell me later how you worked that out," he signed. "As it happens, one of the victims is – was – a street kid whom she'd helped to take care of before she gained release from her vows. But," he added, "she's coming back now, so go easy on her, please?"

"Sure," Russell signed, then smiled as friendlily as he could as Serafina came back holding a well-filled glass of whisky.

"Have you come to any conclusions yet?" she asked, her voice more than a little shaky as she took her seat, careful not to slosh the drink out of her glass.

Both Sam and Russell shook their heads. "I've explained as much as we know to Russell," Sam said, "and now I hope he's going to give us the benefit of his thoughts."

Instead of answering, Russell stood up and walked across the room to where a shelf held a stack of assorted games: chess, draughts, packs of cards and so on. He took down a box, got another bottle of water from the bar and came back, putting the box on the table in front of them.

"Scrabble?" exclaimed Serafina. "What in the Name of the One are you doing?"

The lid of the box came off, revealing the game board, the tile racks and a cloth bag of letter tiles; Russell extracted the bag and set everything else aside. He reached into his pocket and took out a tobacco pouch and a lighter, then dexterously rolled himself a thin cigarette. Serafina regarded him with distaste and ostentatiously slid her chair an inch or two further away from the table as Russell lit the cigarette, her hand fanning away smoke that in fact had had no time to reach her. He took only a couple of puffs, then ground the cigarette out firmly into the ashtray.

"I can't stand smoking since I gave it up," he signed, "but I haven't yet found a better focus for this kind of work. I'm sorry about that." He grimaced and took a long swallow from the bottle to clean his mouth. "And now to business." He plunged his hand into the bag and brought out a small handful of tiles, which he started to lay out in a row in front of him.

The sequence of tiles read DRJDEE followed by a blank, at which Russell paused. Serafina seemed not at all impressed, but Sam watched carefully as Russell returned the tiles to the bag, shaking it thoroughly, then wrote the letter sequence on his pad.

Russell's next attempt produced JOHNDEE, again followed by a blank tile. He wrote that down also, then added beneath it "Dr John Dee?" and rotated the pad so that Sam and Serafina could read what he'd written. Both shook their heads, and Sam said "Not anyone that I've worked with, so far as I know."

Russell took back his pad, then glanced at Serafina, who was looking at the bag of tiles as though it might have contained a serpent. He smiled, and quickly signed something to Sam, who gave a little "Ah!" of understanding and turned to Serafina to translate for her.

"He says that this isn't anything to do with Spiritualism or anything like that, so you can relax. There's no spiritual magic involved at all; he's simply reading probabilities out of randomness." He glanced across to Russell, who nodded and smiled as that were an entirely commonsensical and satisfactory explanation of what was happening.

The next sequence that Russell drew yielded CORONZOM and the one after that TADEUSZ. After half an hour they'd accumulated VIENNA, VENICE, ROSIFER, LAINE, INCHMEAL and KIDNAP. Russell's face had grown steadily paler as the work progressed, and after putting down MCINTYRE he sagged back in his chair, gasping for breath and reaching blindly for his bottle of water, which he almost knocked over before Sam secured it and handed it carefully to him.

"I don't get it. All we have here is words, and I can't make any sense out of them. Have we been wasting our time?" Disappointment showed bitterly on Serafina's face.

"I don't know," Sam said, running a finger down the pad. "There seem to be two references to this Dr John Dee, whoever he may be. Vienna and Venice are both cities, but did any of the victims have connexions to either? Laine and McIntyre look like surnames to me, but they don't match the victims. None of them were kidnapped either. How about Tadeusz?"

Serafina considered. "It's a Polish forename, I think. It's their version of Thaddeus. But none of the victims were of Polish descent, so far as I know. Damn, I thought this was going to give us some answers, Sam!"

"Let's see what we have left," said Sam, trying not to sound discouraged. "Coronzom, Rosifer and Inchmeal. Sounds like a bunch of solicitors to me."

Russell waved to attract their attention. "I'll try once more," he signed, "and then I have to stop. This is a lot harder than it looks, OK?" They nodded assent, and he reached into the bag for the final time.

The letters spelled out one stark word: DEMON.
Tags: reader discretion advised, story
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