‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, you cannot say, or guess, for you know only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water. Only there is shadow under this red rock.’
Calvin supposed that the words were beautiful. He put the book down on the table. Then he picked up the hammer.
The table was pushed against the basement wall and illuminated only by electric lamp, its pale light dancing over the grey, peeling walls. The smell of damp hung heavy in the air. There was a noise. High pitched. Wailing. Was it laughter or screaming? Sometimes, he confused the two.
At the edge of the lamp's flickering arc, where darkness crawled, there sat a porcelain doll, barely two feet tall. Laced dress covering its legs, it tilted slightly to one side. Flecks of dirt dotted its white face, red lips and staring blue eyes. Its straw-like hair was frayed and dishevelled. The dress was filthy. It had been dragged through the mud.
'Stop making that noise,' said Calvin.
The doll stared at him and he stared at it.
'If you don't stop with that racket, I'm gonna thump ye.'
He gestured with the hammer.
'You look just like her, you know? With your bonnie dress and riddy hair. Churns me insides. Makes me wanna see them on the outside.'
The doll stared.
'Fine. You wanna know what it feels like?'
Calvin brought the hammer down hard on the doll's leg. A clang rang out as it struck the concrete. The leg splintered, shards of it scattering over the floor.
The noise intensified. Screaming. Calvin grimaced. Taking one last look at the doll, painted face staring blankly, he staggered to the door and slammed it shut behind him.
Silvery mist pressed against the windowpane. Boyle watched the thin fingers of condensation creep down the glass before turning back to the man on the other side of the desk. The office was small and cluttered. Towering bookcases lined every wall and disappeared into the murky darkness of the high ceiling, out of reach of the lamplight. Boyle was a large man, wide shoulders bulging out of the sides of the Windsor armchair. His bowler hat was on his lap. With his red face, veiny nose, watery eyes and bristling moustache, he had the countenance of a man who had had far too long a day. Boyle was also used to the pungent smell of tobacco ash. The other man rumpled his nose and coughed.
'So, Calvin McCready,' gasped Doctor Ian Renfrew between wheezes. He was a weasel of a man with a sweaty, balding head, round glasses and filthy medical coat. 'Nasty business. Very nasty. I must say, Chief Inspector. I'm not sure that there's an awful lot I can do to help.'
Boyle leaned forward and tapped his cigarette on the ash tray. He slowly exhaled smoke, watching Renfrew’s nose wrinkle.
'On the contrary,' he said, 'I think there's a great deal you can do to help. You spoke to McCready when he returned from Europe.'
'Well, yes. I see a lot of our boys when they come home. December has been a rather busy time, it being the first Christmas home from the front and all that. McCready served in the Number Eleven Commando Unit alongside Geoffrey Keyes, the man who received the Victoria Cross posthumously after Operation Flipper in ‘41.'
'What can you tell me about McCready?'
'Chief Inspector, the confidentiality between a doctor and his patient is valued most highly.’
Boyle reached inside his overcoat. Renfrew flinched. He pulled out a piece of paper and pair of spectacles, both folded. He pushed the spectacles up his nose and placed the piece of paper on the desk. It was a blurred photograph. At first, Renfrew thought that it was a skeleton and then he saw that it was a man. He recognised him, in fact. Calvin McCready was as white as a sheet with sunken grey eyes that glowered off the page. He was wearing a military uniform. Boyle pushed the photograph to Renfrew.
'Yesterday afternoon, a man abducted an eight-year old girl from her school in Rutherglen. A neighbour saw them walking down the road together and identified the man as your former patient, Calvin McCready.'
'That truly is awful, Chief Inspector, but-'
'I'm not finished.'
'She was found in a basement in Bridgton this morning. He broke her leg with a claw hammer.'
Boyle put his hand back inside his overcoat.
‘I have a photograph of that, too.’
'That will not be necessary, Chief Inspector.’ He sighed. ‘The extent of McCready’s delusions are unlike anything I have ever seen. Frightening, even.’
‘You were aware of McCready’s condition yet did not notify the authorities?’
‘I had no reason to believe that his ailment would lead him to be violent.’
‘Was it the war that made him this way?’
‘Good God, no. I am not suggesting that every man who goes off to fight for his country is criminally deranged. The mind is a peculiar thing. It can take on all kinds of shapes in the name of self-preservation. Everyone is haunted by ghosts, Chief Inspector, though they’re not always the kind in the white sheet and cut out eyes. Sometimes, all it takes is a place, a person, a happenstance, for them to jump out of the wardrobe and shout, “Boo.”’ Renfrew licked his lips. ‘You seem a little strained yourself, Chief Inspector. Is there a lot of pressure on this case?’
‘We’re not talking about me, Doctor.’ Boyle murmured.
Renfrew smiled. ‘You served in the Great War, did you not? You must have seen some terrible things. Tell me, what is it that is haunting you?’
‘I’m not here for a therapy session.’
‘Then, what is it you want?’
Boyle leaned forward.
‘I want to know what he’s going to do next.’
Calvin’s foot slammed into a puddle, shattering the perfect image of the full moon that had been reflected there.
There was a low mist. Calvin sprinted across Cathedral Square towards St. Mungo’s, all towering arches and winding spires. Behind it, merely a spectral shape in the gloom, sat a low hill littered with grave stones. Angelic statues stood watch, their twisted hands raised to the darkness. The Glasgow Necropolis. Fifty thousand people were buried there. Calvin suspected that one day soon, he would be one of them.
He clambered up the hill, slipping and sliding in the mud. At the top, he turned. Glasgow spread out before him. Lights twinkled. Chimney stacks smoked. It was quite the view. Calvin felt sick again.
There was a noise. Electric torches flashed in Cathedral Square, casting long beams of dirty yellow light in the mist. Policemen. Dogs. Calvin turned and ran.
Douglas Boyle looked up at Calvin’s gangling silhouette on the hilltop.
‘Run him down,’ he growled. Two dogs, blazing eyes and dripping jaws, tore up the hill. Detective Constables Hardy and Miller sprinted after them. McCready disappeared.
‘Chief Inspector! Chief Inspector!’ came a voice from behind him. A man in a long coat appeared out of the shadows by St. Mungo’s. Boyle recognised him. Alistair Sinclair. The Herald. Boyle swore, trying not in the slightest to hide his contempt. Renfrew was a weasel. Sinclair was a rat.
‘Unusual to see the City of Glasgow Police out in such force, Chief Inspector!’
Sinclair had clearly been running but his thin face was white in the darkness. It made sense. The man was cold blooded.
‘Away with you, Sinclair!’
Sinclair was about to retort when there came a piercing cry from the other side of the hill. The shriek of a horse.
Boyle cursed and he and Sinclair sprinted up the hill. They was a crash, another horse’s whinny and then all that could be heard was the dogs baying. Boyle and Sinclair reached the summit and charged down the other side. Grave stones and statues flashed past.
On the other side, there was a small paddock. Hardy and Miller were standing in front of a stable. The gate had been smashed inwards and the dogs picked at the pieces of wood that lay in the grass. The stable was empty. Behind it was a road, lined on both sides with fences.
‘Damn,’ murmured Boyle. ‘Damn!’ He kicked one of the wooden chunks. His fist was clenched. ‘We need a car. That’s if he sticks to the damned roads.’
‘It would seem that page one of the Herald has its headline. “Chief Inspector Misplaces Child Attacker,”’ remarked Sinclair.
Boyle barged past him. He stopped. He turned back. Something dangerous flickered in his eyes.
‘How do you know that there is a child involved?’
‘Would this be concerning Margaret Dwyer? The young girl maimed in Bridgton?’
‘How do you know her name?’ Boyle roared.
‘Everyone’s going to know it by tomorrow.’
Boyle punched Sinclair in the face. He felt bone bite into his fist.
‘The girl is eight years old! Have some common decency.’
Sinclair fell to the ground and scrambled backwards. Boyle was breathing heavily. Hardy and Miller looked at each other. The dogs growled.
Sinclair spat blood. ‘On second thoughts, we might push it back to page two. “Chief Inspector Assaults Journalist” seems a more attractive headline.’
‘There is nothing attractive about this,’ Boyle snarled. He turned and marched back towards the Church. Hardy and Miller followed. The dogs trotted alongside, panting lazily.
Sinclair hauled himself to his feet and patted his coat down.
‘You’ve a long night ahead of you, Chief Inspector!’ he yelled.
He limped over to the fence and looked out at the country lane, stretching away into the night. He knew it. It was the Edinburgh road.
With one last venomous look at Boyle’s retreating figure, Sinclair vanished into the night.
It had been a day's ride and it would be one more, unless he could steal a car.
Calvin whooped and kicked as the horse pounded the dirt. It was a sickly thing, wheezing and coughing. It felt thin and bony beneath him. Fields, hills and forests rushed past. Everything seemed colourless underneath the ashen sky. Even the sun, piercing through the clouds, was merely a lighter shade of grey.
One day's ride till Edinburgh. One day's ride till Abigail.
The little girl had looked like Abigail. Margaret. Had that been her name?
He had watched her for a few days, sitting on the stone wall outside her school and swinging his legs.
One day, he had met her at the gate.
'I love your wee red hair.'
She had jumped a little, letting slip a high-pitched squeal.
'Oh, sorry, lass. Did I frighten ye?’
‘I wasn’t frightened,’ she said adamantly, her little face reddening.
‘Didn’t think so. You don’t look like the kind that gets nightmares. ’
‘I get them sometimes. I just always remember to check under the bed in case there’s any monsters and I sleep just fine.’
‘You’re a clever girl. What’s those books you got there?’
‘A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot,’ she chimed. ‘One’s for me. One’s for my ma. A Christmas Carol’s my favourite. It’s about three ghosts that haunt a wicked old man and make him change his ways by morning.’
‘Oh, a very clever girl. Lots of long words, there. You remind me of a girl I knew once. She had riddy hair just like yours, too.'
'Was she pretty?'
'Aye. Real pretty. She still is. Whenever I think about it, my legs wobble and I get a shoogly feeling in my tummy. You know, I'm on my way to tell her just how pretty she is. Would ye like to come?'
He didn't remember much about the little girl after that. There were flashes. She was skipping alongside him, schoolbooks in hand. Then, she was gone. He remembered what he did to her, though. That was just the start. The trouble was that Calvin saw things sometimes. The visions came and went. He did not quite understand it. What he did understand was that he needed to find Abigail. He still had the hammer, tucked into the back of his trousers. As long as he found her, he didn’t care what happened next.
It had been over five years. Would she recognise him? It didn't matter. He would recognise her. The white dress. The red hair. They had skipped together side by side after school. They had had their first kiss on Arthur’s Seat. It made him feel sick to think about it.
Calvin kicked the horse again to quicken its pace but, instead, it slowed to a trot, breath rattling. Calvin had run it hard for nearly twenty hours by the count of the sun. He doubted that it would last the night.
It barely lasted an hour. The sun was setting, changing the landscape’s hue from grey to an inky blue. The mist was a pale smoke rolling over the hills.
The horse plodded to a halt, spluttered a little and then fell.
Calvin managed to leap off before it hit the ground. He trudged over to its head and kicked it. The horse coughed, its black tongue lolling in the dirt. Calvin sighed. He pulled the hammer out from his trousers and brought it down hard on the horse’s head, just behind its left eye. It made an ugly noise. Blood sprayed across the road. The horse went silent and still. Calvin sniffed. He walked to the edge of the road and bent down, wiping the blood from the hammer on the grass. He turned and stared at his handiwork a while longer.
Five hours later, when night had fallen, Douglas Boyle would arrive and find the emaciated corpse and bloody footprints leading off the road and disappearing into the grass.
Calvin had to find somewhere to stay the night.
Mist was on all sides. It billowed and curled. Shapes formed and then dissipated. Calvin was not in the Scottish hills. He was on the beach of Khashm al-Kalb. The Dog’s Nose. It was not mist that surrounded him. It was smoke. The rattle of gunfire echoed around. Bullets lashed at the ground, throwing up sand. It was happening again. He saw Lieutenant Colonel Keyes die directly in front of him. Blood spat out of a hole that had been punched into his chest. He died screaming a woman’s name. Calvin shrieked and ran. Voices called out to him. Whispering. It was as if they were breathing down his neck yet calling to him from far away.
It wasn’t just Geoffrey Keyes. It was the girl. Margaret.
‘Make me laugh again.’
‘I love you, Calvin McCready.’
The echoes of war died away but the whispers did not.
He tore madly through the fog. It was getting thicker. White surrounded him. There were flickering shades of grey. Shadows? Silhouettes? A huge square shape appeared in the distance. Calvin staggered towards it.
It was a house.
It beckoned to Calvin. Two spires with slates missing sat on each side of the roof. Windows ran along the top and the bottom, some smashed, some boarded with twisted planks of wood, all dark and decrepit. In front was a tree, a gnarled black hand clawing out of the mud.
Calvin stared at the house and it stared at him. It had an air of malevolence in the way it perched on the hill, huge and black in the darkening light.
There was no time to think. Calvin sprinted forwards and crashed into the front door. The whispers were getting closer.
Staggering backwards, Calvin kicked the door. It shook on its hinges. He kicked it again and it threw open. There was only darkness within.
He entered the house, slamming the door behind him.
The slam echoed through the house.
Calvin leaned against the door, breathing heavily. He was in a huge entrance hall. Wide open doorways lead off to other shadowy rooms on the left and right. A dilapidated grand staircase coiled up into the darkness. The smell reminded Calvin of the basement in Bridgton. Damp. Timeworn. Abandoned. Everything was either black or close to it. The floorboards were a dark mahogany. The wallpaper was cracked and peeling. Scratched brass frames hung at odd angles, the pictures worn and unrecognisable. Dust coated everything. It floated in the air, glistening in the half-light. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked.
He turned back to the door and twisted at the lock. He had broken it when he kicked it. It was stiff and heavy. It had not been touched in a long time. Years, perhaps. On either side of the door, about halfway up, was a wooden hook. Looking around, Calvin found a plank leaning against the wall. He placed it on the hooks, barring the door. No one was getting in. There was a window next to it. Calvin peered through the boards. The oppressive fog pushed against the glass. It was very dark. He would have to get the house lit soon otherwise he would not be able to see his own hands.
Calvin turned and took a step forward. The floorboard creaked. Somewhere in the rafters, a bird rustled, beating its wings.
‘’Ello?’ he called out. The house called back to him. He was alone.
There was a gas lamp on the wall next to the staircase. Calvin crept over to it and pulled the chain. Nothing happened. He would have to find candles. He glanced up the staircase. It was too dark. He could not see further than the first dozen steps. It was better not to go up there. A house that old and unlit, it was most probably dangerous.
Calvin walked back through the entrance hall into the room to the right of the staircase. It was a dining room. A three-pronged candlestick stood on a long table. He had found the source of the ticking. There was a grandfather clock in the corner of the room. A chest of drawers sat at the side. Calvin looked through them. He found matches and lit one. It flared for a second. Then, he took the candlestick and lit it. It bathed the room in an orange glow. He supposed that he could spend the night there. He had broken the lock, a lock that had been untouched for years. The house was empty. He was completely and utterly safe.
There was a noise upstairs.
Calvin froze. Fear rushed over him like a winter chill. Blood turned to ice in his veins. He waited for what seemed like an eternity for the noise to happen again but it didn’t. There was silence in the house. Calvin could only hear the ticks of the clock which seemed to stretch out and intensify in volume the longer he stood there. They hammered in his ears like the pounding of his heart. He was not even sure what the noise was. He tried desperately to remember. It could have been a loose slate falling from the roof. It could have been footsteps. It could have been a laugh.
Gripping the candlestick in one hand, he used the other to pull the hammer from his trousers and hold it aloft. He edged forward.
The staircase crept into view from the edge of the door. Slowly making his way back across the entrance hall, Calvin peered up the steps. The candlestick illuminated what looked like the end of a corridor. He made his way up one step at a time, each one groaning under his weight. The small arc of candlelight followed him upwards, shrouding the hall once again in darkness, the way it had been before his intrusion.
Calvin stood at the top of the stairs. He could only see so far down the corridor. Doors ran along each side. He stared into the black void. Calvin’s breaths was high-pitched and rapid. The house itself seemed to breathe. Floorboards creaked. Curtains rustled. The ticks of the clock could be heard quietly downstairs. If there was an intruder, he waited for them to reveal themselves.
‘Who’s there, then?’ he called. His voice sounded very small.
The glow of the candlestick peeled back the shadows as he advanced. More doors. He checked each one in turn. A lavatory. A study. A storeroom. All dark and damp. He came to a bedroom. It looked like an adolescent male’s. It was simple and quite bare, not as extravagantly decorated as a female’s might be yet it was too untidy to belong to an older man. Calvin moved into the room, the orange light of the candlestick flickering over the walls and making the cobwebs dance. Aside from the four-poster bed, there was a chest of drawers and a desk pushed against the wall. On top of the desk was a toy tin soldier. It was wearing a little blue uniform and carrying a tiny rifle. Calvin looked at its rosy cheeks and friendly blue eyes and smiled grimly. He swiped at the wretched thing with the hammer. It clattered to the floor. He was about to leave when he stopped at the door.
Always remember to check under the bed.
Slowly, he knelt down and held the candlestick to the dark space between the bed and the floor.
There was nothing there. Almost nothing. Lying flat, he placed the hammer down and reached under the bed. Straining, his fingers touched something hard and cold. He dragged it out. It was a box. Strange. He hauled himself to his feet, tucked the hammer into his trousers and put the box under his arm. He picked up the candlestick and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. He looked down the corridor.
There was something glinting at the end. Calvin wiped sweat from his brow and crept forward, past the other doors. He wished that he was still holding the hammer. He thought about reaching for it but relaxed when he saw that it was just a window at the end of the corridor. He leaned close to it. It was completely dark outside but he could see the fog lurking. It was not just the wooden beam keeping Calvin from leaving till morning. The fog had enveloped the house. If he left, he may never find his way back again. He was trapped.
A hand slammed against the outside of the glass.
Not just a hand but a face as well. Grey, peeling skin stretched over it like paper. Horrible eyes and a horrible smile. The two of them were inches apart with nothing between them but the pane of glass.
Calvin yelled and fell back. The thing, whatever it was, vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Calvin charged back along the corridor and took the stairs two at a time. The room to the left of the stairs was a drawing room. Three tall armchairs sat in a circle around a coffee table. He placed the candlestick and box onto it and collapsed into the chair.
His foot tapped the floorboards uncontrollably. He gripped the hammer so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
The whispers were trying to get in. He would not let them.
After what seemed like hours, Calvin’s eyes drifted from the foot of the staircase.
He looked down at the box. It was a simple, square thing. Chipped wood. Rusted padlock. Calvin wedged the claw of the hammer between it and the box and it flew off easily. The box fell open with a creak. Inside was a pile of yellowed documents. Calvin exhaled heavily. Enlistment papers. Three names. James McDonald. Born 1925. Thomas McDonald. Born 1919. Jennet McDonald. Born 1881. They had all enlisted in 1941, the same year as Calvin. The boys for the Fifty-first Highland Division and Jennet for the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
Calvin sat back in his chair. That was why the house was empty. It was something else the war had withered and decayed. He was sure that the house had been beautiful once. It had taken war to show its true face. Horror begot horror. Beauty was just an illusion, a backwards reflection in a mirror. A mirror he was going to shatter. He spun the hammer in his hand.
Calvin glanced up from the box. He saw that he could see all the way to the dining table at the other end of the house. He also saw that there was a woman sitting there. She was too far away to distinguish any features but he had no doubt that it was the same face from the window. How long had she been there?
Calvin stood up, the chair screaming across the floor. He strode across the hall.
As he got closer to the dining room, he saw that she looked just like Abigail. Of course she did. She had the same flowing red hair and white dress. Her skin was grey like a corpse and horrifically scarred with some sort of burn. The very skin was peeling away. Her eyes glinted. She sat at one end of the table. Calvin sat at the other. Cold moonlight, newly risen, slanted through the boarded window and onto the table between them. He could smell her rotting flesh. It stung in his nostrils.
‘I ain’t afraid of ye,’ said Calvin. ‘You look like her but I know you’re not. I’m gonna find her and when I do, I’m gonna crack her skull on the damned pavement.’
He smashed the hammer on the table. It shuddered. The noise echoed through the house.
Abigail snarled at him. She still had the face of a young woman but her jaws were that of a lion or a bear. She slammed her hands down on the table. Her nails dug deep into the wood. The hammer had barely scratched the varnish. Any courage Calvin had left slipped from him. He was paralysed with fear.
Abigail’s face returned to normal. She smiled, a horrible crooked grin that stretched from one ear to the other. She tilted her head to one side.
‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’ she asked.
‘Beauty don’t exist,’ Calvin stammered. Abigail did look beautiful, though, even in that state. He was trying very hard not to vomit. It was like a fist working up his throat, trying to punch its way out of his mouth.
‘But, you do think I’m beautiful,’ said Abigail. ‘You think I’m the most beautiful thing that you’ve ever seen, otherwise you wouldn’t want to kill me. Beauty personified.’
‘Beauty don’t exist,’ repeated Calvin. He gestured with the hammer. It was still stained red with the blood of the horse. ‘This is all there is. Blood and iron. Nothin’ more.’
Abigail’s face turned feral again. Her eyes were in shadow. She leapt onto the table, crouching like an animal, the silvery shroud of her dress rippling off the edge. She crawled towards Calvin, her joints making horrible noises as she contorted them into unnatural shapes.
‘You’ll kill me and then, what? The whispers will stop? The world will make sense again?’
Two others emerged from the shadows, one on either side of the table. Geoffrey Keyes, blood still seeping from the hole in his chest, and Margaret Dwyer, limping, her leg at a crooked angle. The same horrible grin was etched on all three of their faces.
‘You think I wanna survive this?’ Calvin cried.
‘You think killing me will help you make sense of the world but you are just throwing it more into chaos. Horror begets horror. Murder begets murder.’
‘Millions died in the Nazi camps. Millions. What’s one more damned death,’ Calvin spat. Abigail was mere feet from him.
‘Everything! Look at my face. It is the world and my scars the violence upon it. Its beauty is not negated by violence. Light can be dimmed by the dark but never extinguished.'
Calvin looked between the three figures looming over him. He threw the hammer down.
‘I don’t know what to do!’ He screamed.
Abigail smiled her terrible smile.
‘We’ll show you.’
‘Out of the way, you damned fool!’
Boyle pushed the Detective Constable aside and kicked the door. It threw open, one of the hooks holding it in place wrenching from the wall. Sunlight streamed into the house. Boyle thundered in.
‘Mother of God,’ he breathed.
Calvin was sitting in the middle of the entrance hall. A bloody hammer was on the floor in front of him.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he smiled, blinking in the harsh light.
Douglas Boyle and Calvin McCready stared at each other.
‘Take him away,’ said Boyle.
Two constables pulled Calvin roughly off the floor. Boyle followed them out of the door.
The house was on a hill, overlooking a shallow dale. The rising sun was expelling the last of the vapoury mist from the valley. The sky was a pale blue. There was an earthy smell. A light wind sent ripples through the lush grass. A police van had driven up to the house. Boyle watched Calvin being hauled into it. He didn’t struggle.
Hardy and Miller strode up to him.
‘Congratulations, sir,’ said Hardy.
Boyle grunted. He took one last look at the house and walked away.
‘Miserable bastard,’ said Miller, watching Boyle climb into the van and slam the door.
It was hours later.
Boyle watched frost spread across the windowpane, obscuring the view of the Glasgow evening with an icy sheen. The first snow was starting to fall outside.
There were two armchairs in Boyle’s living room. He sat in one. His overcoat lay across the other.
The fireplace rustled. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked comfortingly.
Boyle leaned across to the gramophone and pulled down the stylus. He leaned back in his chair. Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony crackled away quietly. The music was beautiful.
Douglas Boyle smiled and closed his eyes.