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A Festival of Skeletons, Ch 3: The House That Torvault Built

This is a preview of the first three chapters of RJ Astruc’s A Festival of Skeletons. Purchase it now!

Step three: Don’t listen to the voices.

Say you’re a lunatic. Say that you’re a clever man – every lunatic is clever until he’s caught. Say you’re the sort of guy who gets his rocks off strangling hookers. Say that you’re a fanatic on a moral crusade to cleanse the streets of vice. Say you’re an assassin practicing his moves on easy targets. Say you’re a maniac with a god-complex, a power-complex, a control freak. Say you hate women. Say you hate yourself. Say that shooting the hookers afterwards is to make sure they’re dead, to send a message to others, to test the recoil on your new pistol.

Say none of this makes sense.

Serial killers are complicated people, but if you probe hard enough, you can work out what makes them tick. Toss in a general disregard for human life and some skewed logic, and it all becomes clear. There’s always some motivation, even for the most freakish, sadistic acts – removal of body parts, cannibalism, rape, immolation. A motivation for everything except strangling and shooting East End hookers.

Joshua stared at the ceiling. He was lying on a slab in the mortuary, the ground about him littered with scrapbooks and newspaper cuttings. He’d been there for three hours, and was no closer to a solution. When he needed to do some serious thinking he always went to the mortuary. It was refreshingly cold and quiet there, an escape from the heat and bustle of Kamphor. Sure, the place was also filled with corpses, but Joshua didn’t mind. They were certainly better company than most people within his immediate social circle.

Say you’re a lunatic. Say the woman is dead. Why do you shoot her? What possible reason does that have? Symbolism? If it’s some strange form of power play, some phallic fantasy, then why not shoot her outright? If there was a clue to the killer, Joshua reasoned, then the key lay in the shooting…

His deliberations on the criminal mentality were interrupted by a clatter from the staircase. A little later, Vona thudded into the mortuary armed with a bucket filled with salt-water and a mop, and began a vicious assault on the wainscoting’s grime.

‘Hi Vona,’ Joshua said brightly, sitting up.

Vona stood very still and said nothing. Joshua heard a faint noise, like thousands of tiny needles punching through cloth.

‘Vona?’

‘Let me explain something to you, Joshua,’ said the merkind, taking a deep breath. ‘This is a morgue. We keep dead people here. We lay them out on slabs. Much like the one you happen to be sitting on right now. Got that? Good. Then let’s talk about me. I’m a merkind. When I’m scared, my natural reaction is to puff into a ball and shoot deadly poison spikes at my attackers. Now, I get the willies coming down here at the best of times. Needless to say, I really, really don’t feel comfortable when corpses sit up and talk to me. Especially when I’m alone. Especially when it’s bloody dark in here. Especially when there’s recently been a disturbing increase in paranormal occurrences-’

‘Ah. Oops. Sorry about that.’

‘Not a problem, Joshua. Nothing like the fright of your life to keep you on your webbed toes, as they say. I think my heart’s started beating again, too. Marvelous stuff.’

‘Are you being sarcastic?’ Joshua asked.

‘Scathingly so.’ Vona bared all three rows of her teeth. ‘I’m so glad you noticed.’

‘Er.’

‘I’ll have you know I saw what you did to the name-tag on your office door. I’m not fixing it up for you. If you want to destroy morgue property, so be it, but you can bloody well clean up afterwards.’

‘I will. Sorry.’ Joshua took a deep breath and carefully considered his next words. Dealing with Vona Urgarth was a tricky business, and one that should never be tackled without proper forethought. ‘Mr. Sink is busy today with funerals,’ he said slowly. ‘He doesn’t have much time to look into the East End murders case. So I thought that you and I should investigate. Because we’re his assistants. And before you say anything -’ he could tell she was readying to launch into a tirade ‘- about it not being your job, or about not being appreciated, I think you need to realise that the best way to get Mr. Sink’s respect -’

‘Hah!’

‘To get any employer’s respect, is to go the extra mile. Above and beyond the call to duty.’

Vona splashed the mop in the bucket and muttered unintelligibly to herself.

‘I’m going to talk to Torvault, and I thought you could interview, um, potential brothel clientele on the street.’

The colour of the merkind’s left eye changed from yellow to bright pink. ‘Did you indeed,’ she said coldly.

‘Well, yes. See, you’re, um, female, or basically female, and so if you dressed up, um, appropriately, maybe you could make people believe you were a hooker, and then – argh!

‘Oh dear,’ said the merkind, shaking her head. ‘Did naughty Vona hurt poor wittle Joshua?’

‘H-how did you do that?’

‘Did I mention that merkind also have a natural reaction toward men who suggest we pretend to be hookers? When that happens, Joshua, we eject serrated barbs from our armpits. Complete reflex behavior. Very sorry if it’s inconvenienced you. Want me to tear it out for you?’

‘Y-yes… Ow!’

‘All better now,’ said Vona, tossing the barb into her bucket. ‘Silly old me and my natural reactions.’

So this was it. The merkind had finally flipped. Too long out of the ocean – she’d gone land-crazy. Joshua clenched his jaw against the pain. Blood spurted from the deep gash in his palm and trickled in thick rivulets down his wrist. He’d never seen his own blood before. Looking at it made his stomach turn. It looked just like everyone else’s.

‘You’re a bastard, Joshua Finkle,’ said Vona. ‘Just like all the rest. You take me for granted. The only reason I’m going to help is because I know you’ll muck it up on your own.’

*

The East morgue was a pastel-blue terrace only differentiable from its neighbours by the sign in its window. East End’s architects, too concerned with problems like shifting soil and poor foundations, had little time to waste diversifying their designs. Legend had it that the local council’s urban planning motto was ‘One house fits all.’ Occasionally the suburb’s visual monotony was interrupted by an oddity, like a park or a noble’s estate, but these did not so much break the uniformity than they did underline it.

Joshua cast one last glance up the street before slipping into the morgue. He was on his own now – he’d left the merkind scoping for tricks near a pastel-pink brothel. It wasn’t breaking in, he told himself firmly, because the door was unlocked, and because people walked (or were carried) into morgues unannounced all the time.

The foyer was as blandly decorated as the morgue’s exterior. He crept past plastic plants and ethnic wall hangings and down a gas-lit corridor, his right hand bunching in his pocket. His palm was still bleeding from the merkind’s barb. He hadn’t worked out how to make it stop yet, and Vona, usually a font of information, had offered no advice on the subject.

Perhaps he’d bleed until he died.

His blood smelt a bit like copper and a bit like salt, but mostly like sweat.

It tasted like Other People.

The door at the end of the corridor had Torvault’s name engraved on it in gold lettering. After his tentative knock went unanswered, Joshua stepped inside.

Torvault’s office was full of glass cabinets. The sun came in through two windows, one on each side of the room, and the light reflected rainbows across the floor. Joshua had seen similar tricks done in school with prisms. He pressed his nose to the glass and cast an eye over the cabinet contents. Gold trophies (Golfer of the Year; Bowling Championship; Sharp Shooter of the Season; Class Dux, ‘22), medals (charity work and academic achievements), and certificates (Certified Mortician of Kamphor, business papers, membership to three golf clubs and a surfeit of gun licenses). Quite an impressive collection, if you liked that sort of thing.

He squatted to look at the lower shelves and saw a face staring back at him. It was a pale face, blue eyed, sharp nosed, framed by curly black hair. A young woman – pretty, perhaps beautiful. Lengths of white satin and lace pooled about her knees. She rose to her feet as he did, and in the bustle of her skirts he glimpsed a finely shaped calf, the hint of a well-turned ankle and tiny, flowered slippers.

‘Hi,’ said Joshua. ‘I’m Joshua Finkle.’

He moved left and she moved left also, imitating him.

‘I’m here to see Torvault. You don’t know where he is?’

She pushed her mouth and chin against the glass until her features smeared in a crush of pink and white flesh.

‘Er,’ said Joshua.

She started to tear up her skirt.

‘Oh dear,’ Joshua fumbled. ‘Is that wise?’

Placing Joshua in charge of public relations had been Sink’s idea of a joke. Joshua liked people the same way people liked house plants. He didn’t understand them, although he appreciated the way (as he’d solemnly told Sink) they added ambiance and colour to a room. Through the tedious process of trial and error Joshua had found that if you talked nonsense in a soft voice and gave them plenty to drink, both people and house plants were less likely to exhibit peculiar behavior, like screaming, wilting, or bursting into tears. Recently, he’d graduated to making small talk and involving himself in prolonged discussions.

What he could not yet handle was people who were not normal, people who did not follow the strict rules of social conduct that Sink had outlined for him. Children, senior citizens, and retards. They made Joshua’s head hurt.

‘Hi,’ Joshua tried again, a little louder. ‘I’m Joshua Finkle. Who are you?’

The mute stopped shredding her clothing for just long enough to look pointedly over her shoulder. A gilt-framed family portrait hung on the far wall: a smiling father with his arm around a smiling mother and a smiling daughter. Slightly apart from the three stood a sulky, pale-haired boy. Joshua stepped past her to read the inscription.

Helene, Tobias, Inea and Damien Torvault.

‘You’re Inea? Torvault’s sister?’

She bared her teeth in the guileless smile of a simpleton. She reached for his bleeding hand and began to bind it in strips of satin. He resented her touch. Close up he saw tiny lines about her eyes, a blue vein in her temple, a silver ring on her finger. He saw her tongue was very red. His head hurt. She smelt like he did, like a morgue, like formaldehyde and old flesh, which was comforting in a way. He thought he could have sex with her and no one would notice.

She had shiny, clean nails.

She had shiny, clean hair.

Rainbows refracted on her shiny, clean skin.

She tied a final knot in the make-shift bandage and he leaned in close and tried to bite her ear or maybe just kiss it and she dodged lithely away and smiled again, a big, gormless, idiot’s smile; his heartbeat thrummed wildly and she left the room; the satin went pink when he flexed his hand and he said, ‘Hello, Inea Torvault, I’m Joshua Finkle, I’m here to see your brother,’ over and over until everything came together again in a vertiginous mush.

East End murders. Catch the killer.

Vona Urgarth, Ebeneezer Sink.

Say you’re a lunatic.

Cassy Ethern, victim number three.

Step ten, Don’t let yourself succumb to pressure.

Hi, I’m Joshua Finkle.

To settle his nerves he prowled the office. Beneath the Torvault family portrait was a smart, glass-topped desk covered with loose papers and a red, leather-bound book. A guest book, he guessed, flipping it open and running a shaking finger down the most recent names. The last two on the list gave him a shock, enough to snap him out of his daze. He read them again, chewing his lip. Horace Powell. Rochare Degas. A Fifteen Steps colleague and the nephew of the chatty corpse.

‘I wonder…’ Joshua mused aloud.

‘Don’t. She’s not here. At least not in any substantial form. Cremated late yesterday. You’re wasting your time, Mr. Finkle.’

Joshua looked up. Torvault was leaning against a cabinet, a black binder tucked under one arm. From his clothing it was evident he’d recently returned from a funeral service. White ruffles puffed from the sleeves of his jacket and between the gaps in his waistcoat. There were very few people in the world who could carry off that look without seeming a complete prat, and Damien Torvault was clearly not one of them.

‘I beg your pardon?’ said Joshua.

Torvault rolled his eyes. ‘Cassy Ethern, the recent East End murder victim. She’s been cremated. Nothing left of her but ash. Funny that no one really cares about a dead whore until it’s too late. I’ve had everyone and his dog trotting in here this morning, wanting to paw at the poor girl’s corpse. Not to mention an appearance from Horace Powell, who, as far I remember, isn’t allowed into morgues without supervision and a strait-jacket. Part of your AA group, isn’t he?’

‘He’s very reformed.’

‘Alcoholism is the least of that man’s problems. I think he actually believed I’d be stupid enough to leave him alone in a room with a dead body.’ Torvault paused. ‘This is about Cassy, isn’t it? That’s why you came?’

‘No. I’ve already seen her body. I came to talk to you.’

Torvault shrugged. ‘Then talk.’

Joshua opened his mouth, then realised he had no idea where to start. He stared vainly about the room for inspiration. ‘It’s a nice place you’ve got here,’ he said lamely, buying time. ‘Very… glassy. That’s your family in the picture, then?’

‘Yes.’

‘Your mum and dad live in Kamphor?’

‘They did. My parents were killed by the Knife two years ago. Slaughtered in their beds.’

‘Oh, I am sorry.’

‘Was there anything else about me you’d like to ask?’

‘Er,’ said Joshua, struggling.

‘Good. Because I’ve a few questions for you myself. I spent all day yesterday looking you up. I couldn’t resist. Call it nervous habit. Your records – what I’ve found of them – are, well, what can I say? Painfully average.’ Torvault slid the black binder from beneath his arm, running his thumb across the leather. ‘Let me see. Joshua James Finkle. Born to an average family in an average Kamphor suburb. Mother an average nurse. Father an average school teacher. Big sister an average seamstress married to an average carpenter. You made average marks in school. Literacy and comprehension skills – average. Mathematics and sciences – average. Sports, fitness – all average. You finished at the exact middle of your class. Before being employed at the morgue, you had an average job in a fishmongers, and brought home an average pay cheque.’

Joshua’s vision swam. He concentrated on the floor.

‘You’re five foot eleven – an average height,’ Torvault continued obliviously. ‘Average brown hair, average brown eyes. Average build, average weight, and an average size shoe. You wear average clothes. I tracked down one of your ex girlfriends. According to her, you’re also pretty average in bed.’ He curled his lip. ‘In the twenty six years of your life, Mr. Finkle, you’ve managed to do absolutely nothing of interest. No criminal convictions. No jilted lovers. Even your supposed substance abuse problem – if you ever were an alcoholic – doesn’t seem to have had any effect on the sheer bloody monotony of your existence. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to be boring.’

Joshua flushed. ‘Sorry,’ he said.

‘Sorry? For what? For being average?’ Torvault smirked, snapping the binder closed. ‘I’m sure you can’t help that. What I’d really like to know is what our mutual acquaintance Ebeneezer Sink saw in you. Picky about his assistants, he is. Notoriously so. The maladjusted. The criminals. The lunatics. The morally bankrupt. He takes them in. He uses them. Nutters, Mr. Finkle – they make the best sycophants, if you know how to manipulate them. And a mild alcohol problem doesn’t really fit with the picture, Mr. Finkle, as I’m sure you’ll agree.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

‘Is that all you can say? Sorry? I asked you a question, Finkle.’

‘I don’t know how to answer it.’ Joshua forced a smile. ‘Maybe there’s nothing wrong with me. After all,’ he added, pushing his luck, ‘there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with you, sir. Begging your pardon.’

There was a long, tense silence before Torvault conceded a laugh – a hollow and utterly humourless sound that made Joshua’s arms goose pimple. ‘Oh-ho. Some one else has been doing his research, it seems. Did Ebeneezer tell you?’

‘The name tag on my office door,’ Joshua explained. ‘Sink doesn’t peel off the old ones, just sticks the new name over the top. I spent all morning picking at the stickers with my fingernails. Yours was the fourth beneath mine.’

‘My, we are a clever boy.’ Torvault slithered closer, walking on his toes, a hand daintily hoisting one side of his jacket as if it were a woman’s ball gown. There was something of Sink in the way he moved, in the way he spoke, in his imperious, ludicrous attitude, and there were even specific similarities Joshua could put his finger on, common inflections and phrases. But it was a fumbling, awkward imitation, like that of a child mimicking a parent. Or, perhaps more accurately, a child mimicking their role model.

Torvault and Sink – a patronage that had become a partnership, then dissolved into bitter rivalry. You hate the man, Joshua thought, but he made you. Like he made me. Remade me. He took us off the street before we did ourselves harm and made us presentable. We’re alike, you and I.

Except that you need control, and I fear it.

He rolled his wrist experimentally. His pulse throbbed in his ears and the pink stain on the silk blossomed.

I bet our blood looks the same, too.

Joshua looked up from his wounded hand with difficulty. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.

‘It’s no big secret, really.’ Torvault shrugged dismissively. ‘I became Sink’s assistant twelve years ago. I was twenty. I worked there until I was twenty six. Then I quit. Not much of a story.’ He made a loose, limp-wristed gesture toward the cases of certificates and trophies behind him. ‘And I’d have thought it was all too painfully obvious why he picked me.’

‘You’re gay,’ said Joshua.

Torvault gaped at him. ‘What?’

‘Mr. Sink says you’re a great big flaming queen,’ said Joshua.

‘He what?’

‘Of course, it might only be because ‘flaming queen’ loosely rhymes with Damien…’

‘What! What? What! No!’

‘No?’

‘I’m an over-achiever,’ Torvault spluttered, fanning himself with the black binder. ‘For goodness sake. Look. Medals. Banners. Stuff. Things. Things that make me look like an overachiever. Not things that make me look gay. Good grief.’

‘I don’t have a problem if you are,’ said Joshua. ‘I’m very open-minded.’

Torvault pushed down his spectacles and glared at him. Joshua rarely smiled – save for those occasions when his job required it – but there was something so comical about Torvault’s expression at this moment that the corners of his mouth began to twitch. He faked a cough and quickly looked away. ‘Sorry,’ he told the wall sheepishly. ‘None of my business. Shouldn’t have asked.’

The East End mortician bristled in angry silence.

‘So you worked for Mr. Sink,’ Joshua tried.

‘Yes. We’ve been over this.’

‘Why’d you quit?’

‘A lot of reasons.’

Over Torvault’s shoulder, Joshua spotted movement – a flicker of white satin and a pale, soft hand uncurling. Inea was beckoning him from behind one of the glass cases. ‘It was about your sister, wasn’t it?’ Joshua asked. ‘Sink did something to her. Said something to her, maybe. Did he try and -’

Torvault slapped him.

‘Um,’ said Joshua. ‘He made a move on your sister?’

Torvault slapped him again – the other cheek.

‘But she’s – um, not all there,’ said Joshua. ‘I’m sure she’s a nice girl, but Sink seems to prefer, um, well, people who aren’t, um, simpleminded, if you get my meaning…’

Torvault raised both hands; Joshua caught his wrists and held them.

‘That’s enough of that, thank you, sir,’ he told Torvault. ‘You’re very jumpy. Should I leave you alone until you calm down? Inea and I could go -’

‘Stay away from my sister! Don’t even look at her! Don’t talk about her!’

Joshua’s head started to hurt again. ‘Um,’ he said. ‘I was going to suggest that we got you a glass of water -’

‘Let go of me! Get out of my house!’

Joshua might have attempted further inquiries, but at that moment Damien Torvault started to look like a fly.

A fly with one wing and three legs missing, pinned to his own desk the same way they pinned exotic butterflies in collector’s museums.

Never a good sign.

Joshua let Torvault go and walked stiffly outside.

‘Hi,’ he told the sky. ‘I’m Joshua Finkle. I think I’m going to be sick.’

*

‘Hey you, guy over there in the black jacket. You into hookers? You wanna buy a prostitute? Not getting enough at home? Hey, don’t go away… Oh, hi. You there, blond guy. Are you here to buy a prostitute? Mind if I ask you some questions – oh. Fine, walk off then, see if I care. Hey! Guy in the suit, are you – oh, you’re just passing through. No, I don’t know your wife. Why – eh, forget it. I don’t want to know.’

What was wrong with these people? Vona wondered. Trying to get answers to even the simplest questions was proving next to impossible. Anyone would think they didn’t want to help her find the murderer. It was all Joshua’s fault, she decided, as she slouched over to a nearby horse trough. Bloody Joshua Finkle and his not-so-bright ideas. Vona wanted to hate him, but couldn’t. His personality was too bland to hate – hating him would be like hating a chair, or a table, or a brick wall. He had few opinions save those Sink espoused; he had no apparent social life or love interests and, as far as Vona could tell, his hobbies consisted of polishing his shoes, cutting up newspapers and rearranging his sock collection.

Ignoring the dirty looks she was receiving from men and prostitutes alike, the merkind splashed gloomily into the trough and wallowed there. A mosquito buzzed curiously around her left ear. She squished it with a thumb. It zipped off and hummed around her right ear. She squished it a second time, and rubbed its remains off on the trough’s edge. It flew up and hovered over her nose.

Frustrated, she caught it with both hands, held it underwater, and rubbed her palms together. When she took her hands out the mosquito was a black smear on her blue skin.

Vona waited.

The smear slowly sucked itself back into a mosquito shape.

‘Huh,’ said Vona.

The mosquito flew away.

‘Hm,’ said Vona.

She was still scratching her head when Joshua showed up a half hour later.

‘Anything wrong?’ he asked.

‘Yes and no,’ said Vona. ‘I didn’t find out anything about the murderer. Did you?’

‘I might have,’ said Joshua.

They plodded back to the morgue in silence. Mr. Sink was in his office sorting through files, and beckoned them in. He was wearing a particularly obnoxious polka-dot dress and matching shoes with little blue bows on them. Vona felt a migraine coming on.

‘We did some investigating, sir,’ said Joshua, reclining in a comfy leather armchair. ‘Cassy Ethern’s been cremated. There’s been people wanting to see her body. Horace Powell and Rochare Degas. You know, the one with the -’

‘Dead aunt, strange sigil, kitchenhand in need of a diet, yes.’ Sink rustled paperwork. ‘Funnily enough, I’ve got another death certificate sale here for a Duchess Amilie Degas, two years ago. Sold to Rochare Degas for the low price of three hundred gold plus two percent of his liquid inheritance. Expert forensic testimony not included. He poisoned his own mother, would you believe. I should really have charged him five hundred,’ he added, frowning. ‘With interest rates and taxes being what they are, these days.’

‘You what?’ Vona spluttered. ‘You lied on a death certificate?’

Joshua and Sink stared at her.

‘A man kills his mother, and you help keep him out of prison?’

‘His mother and his late aunt, as it happens. But this is standard morgue procedure when it comes to rich young men with homicidal instincts, Miss Urgarth. Especially when the poison is untraceable using legally accepted means. Magical testimony has never fared well on the witness stand. Better that I sign her out as a heart attack for a profit than have a novice ahem-Torvault-ahem sign her out for free.’

Vona floundered. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Never mind the details. It’s enough to know that Rochare Degas doesn’t think much of his immediate family, and isn’t averse to knocking them off when the notion takes him. Man’s practically serial already. And if he’s joined forces with Horace…’

‘Case solved, sir?’

‘You’re being a tad hasty, Joshua. We’ll see how this develops over the next few days. Let the guard mull over it. With women like Arifia Fawles amongst their ranks, I’m sure they’ll manage to bungle their way to a conviction without our interference.’ He knelt to flick through another drawer of files. ‘Ours is not to meddle with the minds of the thoroughly incompetent.’

Vona raised her hand. ‘Still not getting it over here,’ she said. ‘Who’s Horace Powell? How do you know Rochare Degas poisoned people if the poison’s untraceable? What’s this got to do with the paranormal occurrences? And if you’ve got an idea of who might have done the murders, why don’t you tell the guard? It’s their duty to investigate these sorts of things. Am I the only mer- I mean, person here who’s confused?’

Silence reigned.

Vona glared. ‘There’s something really funny going on here, Mr. Sink, and I deserve to be let in on your secrets,’ she growled. ‘I’m a darn sight smarter than Joshua will ever be, and I’ve been working for you a lot longer than he has. There’s nothing that he can do that I can’t do, and better.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Ask me to do something! Go on.’

‘Blink,’ said the mortician.

Six scaly blue barbs scorched into the carpet by his knees.

‘Are you quite finished, Miss Urgarth?’ Mr. Sink asked placidly.

‘Rargh,’ said Vona, and buried her face in her hands.

‘Take note, Joshua. This is what happens when you help a merkind. Give them an inch, and they try to take a mile. Was there anything else, either of you? I am rather busy at present – a lot of things on my mind, so if you don’t -’

‘Actually,’ said Joshua, ‘I do have a question for you, er, but it’s a bit of a personal one. If you don’t mind, sir…?’

Sink had a fresh file in his mouth. He mumbled, ‘Go ahead,’ around it.

‘What happened between you and Inea Torvault, sir?’

The mortician spat the papers onto his desk and casually shuffled through them. ‘Inea and I were romantically involved for six years,’ he said. ‘Very clever girl. Very pretty. Very unfortunate, as I suppose you know. She fell in front of a carriage and managed to crack her skull in the process. Torvault blamed me for the accident. Made a scene. Left my employ. I did offer to help, but he wasn’t interested. A stubborn man, is Damien Torvault. Do try to look less surprised, Vona,’ Sink added, shifting slightly in his chair to peer down his nose at her. ‘Contrary to popular hearsay, I’m quite capable of having fulfilling relationships with living people.’

‘I – sir. I didn’t -’

‘The atrium needs mopping,’ said Sink. ‘Salt water and a pinch of crushed garlic, for safety’s sake.’

Vona didn’t cry as she walked down to the mortuary to fetch her mop and bucket, but only because she wasn’t biologically capable of it.

In a lush contrast to its dilapidated frontage, the West morgue’s foyer was lavishly decorated in red: red floor tiles, red walls, red upholstery, and the ornate red drapery was shot through with stark lines of silver as jarring as knife-slashes. Overhead a crystal chandelier clotted the convex ceiling like some gross sprawling spider. Its wavering light painted odd shadow figures on the walls, phantasms with multiple limbs. A trio of rosewood cabinets housed a vast array of liquors – all the wines were, naturally, red.

Mr. Sink termed this room the ‘atrium’. He had long considered the morgue an extension of his own body, and it was only fitting that he named each section of it accordingly. The gray stone kitchen, with its ponderous, sagging curtains, was the ‘belly’; the winding labyrinth of passages which extended directly from the atrium were the ‘veins’; his neat, well-kept office was the ‘brain’. The bathroom (damp, salty-smelling) he endearingly referred to as the ‘crotch’.

Vona stared at the chandelier until her eyes hurt. All this luxury had been purchased with dirty money. Fabricated death certificates, under-the-table payouts from rich murderers. The idea sickened her. I always knew he was a creep, she thought weakly. No wonder the murders in the East End don’t bother him overmuch. Knowing Sink, he’s probably gaining extra income from the entire thing.

‘Hullo, love. You look a bit peaky. Still working?’

It was the kitchenhand from the Degas’ mansion. He had his head round the front door and was grinning mischievously at her.

‘C’mon, merkind, let’s get out of this place. I ditched me bloody girlfriend’s play to visit you.’

Vona sighed and hugged her mop. ‘You have a girlfriend?’

‘I always have a girlfriend,’ said Percy confidently.

‘Will she mind if we go somewhere together?’

‘Does it matter?’

She let him pry the mop from her hands and lead her out into the cooling evening air. They sat on the shiny cobbles outside the morgue. Percy lit a cigarette and exhaled a series of smoke rings.

‘I’m seventeen,’ said Percy.

‘I’m forty six,’ said Vona. ‘But I only grew limbs five years ago.’

‘I can be a bit of a bastard to women,’ said Percy.

‘I ate a sailor once,’ said Vona.

‘I’m pretty good in bed,’ said Percy.

‘I don’t breathe with my mouth,’ said Vona.

Percy took her hand in his and sighed. ‘Oh, Vona,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘We’re bloody perfect for each other.’


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