“Absolutely not,” I reply, shaking my head. “Katie would never contemplate such a thing.”
“Do you want me to show you the messages?”
I hesitate for a moment. “What else did you find out? Anything that's actually relevant?”
“I'm pursuing multiple avenues of investigation. These things take time.” She checks her phone again. “If my buddy at the museum would just get back to me, that'd help.”
“It can't be
difficult,” I tell her. “Exactly how many satanists
there in London?”
“I know of eighteen separate groups,” she replies matter-of-factly, “but the real number is more likely double that.”
?” I reply, shocked.
“The world is a dark place,” she continues. “In the cities, at least. People get desperate, and they start looking for answers at the margins. Maybe Katie -”
“My daughter would never get involved with such things!” I snap, offended by the suggestion. “She's a good, honest, optimistic young lady!”
“Sure she is. I mean, this Fernando guy has never been linked to any of the really
satanic groups. He's just a dabbler, a kid. I doubt he believes in any of it. Then again, I guess it's possible that he might have inadvertently gotten himself mixed up in something a little more serious.”
“Such as I'm not entirely sure yet. I have feelers out, and I'm waiting to hear back.”
“Discussions with my sources. I'm sorry, I can't be any more specific than that. I'm sure you're aware that a good reporter never reveals her -”
“Oh, what would you know about being a good reporter?” I ask, getting to my feet again. This time, I feel I really
leave. “My daughter is missing, Ms. Churchill, and as far as I can tell you're just wasting my time here. This might be amusing for you, it might give you something to laugh about with your friends -”
She reaches into her pocket.
“- but I don't have time to fuel your ego,” I continue. “The police might not have been much use so far, but they're a damn sight better than -”
I stop suddenly, as I see that she's holding a necklace.
“Where did you get that?” I ask, snatching the necklace from her hands.
“Where did you get it?”
“I found it. In the alley behind the building where she lived. Now, what does that tell us?”
“She never went anywhere without this necklace,” I whisper, turning it over in my hands as I slowly sit back down. I feel utterly numb. “Her father gave it to her, years ago before he died. It was her most treasured possession.”
“It tells us three things,” Annabelle continues. “First, it tells us that she left the apartment and went along the alley, which seems like an odd route for a girl who's got her head screwed on straight. Second, it tells us that whatever was happening to her, it caused the necklace to fall off. And third, it tells us that the police don't give a flying crap about your daughter's disappearance, because otherwise they'd have at least taken a cursory glance down the alley, and then
have found the necklace long before I showed up.”
I stare at the necklace for a moment longer, before realizing that the clasp is broken. I run a fingertip against the twisted metal.
“Exactly,” Annabelle says, as if she's read my mind. “Looks to me like it was torn off her. Or, more likely, it was ripped away by accident. That, or she tore it away and left it in the alley so it'd be found. Maybe she wanted to let us know which way she went.”
Her phone buzzes briefly, and she taps the screen.
“My poor girl,” I whisper, as tears well once more in my eyes. “Who could have taken her?”
I turn to Annabelle as she gets to her feet.
“I don't know yet,” she tells me, “but I'm already doing a damn sight better than the police. So if you don't mind, I'll get back to work and see what else I can find out. I'm assuming my original terms are acceptable to you?”
“I get the exclusive rights to your story. And to Katie's, if and when she comes back. I'll make it sympathetic and all that crap, but it's
story and I -”
“Fine,” I reply, “whatever, it's all yours. I'll give you anything. Just help me find my daughter!”
She pauses, before reaching into her pocket and pulling out a crumpled A4 sheet. She uses the cuff of her jacket to wipe the table, and then she sets the sheet in front of me.
“What's this?” I ask.
“It's our deal, dummy. Just one page. I like to keep these things nice and simple.”
“The deal whereby I help you, in exchange for exclusive rights to the story.”
She takes a pen from her pocket and places it next to the sheet of paper.
“I'm worth it,” she continues. “I'll find Katie. I can't promise what state she'll be in, but I
find her. And that's more than those goddamn cops can say. I'll find her, and I'll find whoever's taken her, and all I ask in return is that you let me be the one to tell your story. If you think about it, that's not a bad deal at all. In fact, it's a bloody
deal. Pardon my French.”
“I'm not sure -”
“Take it or leave it! I'm not a charity!”
I hesitate for a moment, staring at the spot on the contract where I'm expected to sign. As I scan the text, I see that this is a pretty straightforward deal, even if it's also one that somehow formalizes the fact that Katie is in serious trouble.
Sighing, Annabelle suddenly reaches out to grab the paper.
“No!” I stammer, sliding it away from her and then quickly signing my name. “Fine. I'll give you whatever you want. Just find my daughter!”
“That's a good choice,” she replies, taking the paper and pen from me. She checks the signature, before sliding the paper back into her pocket. “I need to figure out some more details about Fernando Royas and Agnes Bresson, but I don't want to focus the entire investigation on them. They might just be a distraction, or at best a pair of useful idiots. Whatever's going on here, I think it runs deeper than those two morons.”
Still stunned by the sight of the necklace, I feel a shudder pass through my chest as Annabelle heads to the door.
“Oh, and one more thing,” she adds, turning back to me. “Did your daughter ever mention a place by the name of Knott's Court?”
I stare at her for a moment.
“No,” I stammer, “I don't think so, but... No. No, I think I'd remember. I'm sure I would.”
“Good,” she continues, and I see a hint of relief in her eyes. “That's
good. Means we've actually got a chance of finding her alive. I'll start shaking some bigger trees and see what falls out.”
As she leaves the diner, I continue to stare at the necklace. This is the first real sign I've encountered of Katie's disappearance, and I can't help thinking that something must really be wrong. She'd never leave this necklace behind, so the only possible explanation is that for some reason she can't come back. Sitting down again, I realize my hands are starting to tremble.
Katie must be in real trouble. And I think I just made a deal with the devil to get her back.
Glancing at the door, I see that Annabelle has reappeared, and that she's gesturing for me to go with her.
“Are you coming or not?” she continues. “My source got in touch and I think maybe it'd be good for you to tag along. It'd be... What's the word?” She pauses, before grinning. “Oh yeah. It'll be educational! Winnie, I'm about to tear your goddamn eyes wide open!”
“What is this place?” I ask cautiously, as I follow Annabelle along the cavernous, high-ceilinged corridor. “It smells fusty.”
“It's part of the university's cultural studies department.”
“Oh?” I turn to her, feeling a little relieved. “A university? Well, that's reassuring, I suppose...”
“My friend Bob works here,” she continues, stopping at a squat metal door and knocking. “I think mainly because they've forgotten about him. He's the lowest-paid member of staff in the lowest-budgeted department of the lowest-paying university in the country. But he's a great guy, and he really knows his stuff. Trust me, you're gonna love him. Just try to ignore the smell, 'cause it can get a little foul. And don't stand too close, 'cause he sprays a little when he talks.”
With that, she pushes the door open and steps inside, leaving me with little choice but to follow.
“I've tracked him down to one of three Ethiopian villages,” the short, scruffy man mutters as he wanders across the lab to join us. He's looking down at several photographs in his hands, and after a moment he turns them for me to see. “I analyzed his stomach contents and found two seed fragments from a very unusual type of berry. As soon as I saw that berry, lights went off in my head!”
For a moment, the photographs seem almost abstract, filled with contrasting reds and browns.
“They call him Joe,” Annabelle tells me.
“The kid. In the photo you're looking at.”
I tilt my head, trying to work out what she means. After a moment, however, I realize that I'm looking at the bloodied, fleshless torso of what looks like a child, with sections of bright pink meat that still cling to the bone.
Turning away, I feel for a few seconds as if I might be about re-experience my breakfast.
“Joe's just a placeholder name,” Annabelle continues, “until they can figure out who he really was. Right now, he's just some kid who was fished out of the Thames last year, with his arms and legs bound. He also had several markings carved into his bones, and I mean
into his bones! Not just the flesh. Most likely while he was still alive, too. The official police investigation was inconclusive, so Bob took up the cause and so far he's getting much closer to figuring out the kid's origin.”
“How did he enter the country?” Bob asks, as I turn back to him. “Who was responsible for him? He was only seven or eight years old, so he didn't get here by himself. Who brought him here and why aren't they looking for him?”
I force myself to look once again at the photo, although after a moment I have to turn away. I simply can't stomach such awful things.
“It's obscene,” Annabelle continues. “Somebody brought that kid into the country, tortured and abused him, and then trussed him up as some kind of ritual offering before dumping him in the river. And we only know about him 'cause he happened to get caught in a damaged fishing net. Million to one chance. Makes you wonder how many others have been thrown into the river over the years, without anyone ever finding them.”
“There must be some mistake,” I stammer, taking deep breaths in an effort to settle my stomach. “Something like this can't actually be going on. Not here, not in the civilized world.”
“Joe's the third kid that's been found in the Thames since the 1970's,” Joe explains as he sets the photos down. “The symbols carved into his bones match symbols on the other two bodies, so there's clearly a connection. I've been looking into it, but I have to move slowly. Partly because of a lack of resources, and partly because I know I don't dare draw too much attention to myself.”
“And why would that be?” I ask.
“Because whoever's behind this,” he continues, “is clearly someone with a lotta power.”
I glance at him, and then at Annabelle, before turning and making my way across the gloomy, under-lit room. There are tables all around, piled high with photographs and grimy relics that I don't dare examine too closely. Spotting a bright cabinet, I make my way over, hoping to distract myself, but to my horror I see that there's a dead child suspended in some kind of pale yellow liquid.
“And that's Joe himself,” Bob says as I turn to him. “I know it's not very respectful to have him out like that, but I need to be able to examine his body. I figure it's better to have him readily available, than to keep moving him in and out of the refrigeration zone. Plus, here I can be sure he doesn't get
like most of the other evidence. This way, he's right under my nose the whole time.”
“It's grotesque,” I stammer, still staring at the horrific cabinet.
Bob grabs a dark sheet from one of the nearby tables.
“You want me to cover him up?” he asks.
“Of course I do!”
He comes over and hangs the sheet over the cabinet, hiding the corpse from view.
“There,” he mutters. “Just while you're here.”
“What does any of this have to do with my daughter?” I ask, turning to Annabelle. “You're wasting my time!”
“I examined the photos you sent,” Bob continues, heading back to the other side of the lab. “Annabelle, I think you might be onto something. The markings that were daubed all over the wall of that apartment are a clear match for some of the symbols we found on the kid that was pulled from the river in 1980. Obviously I'm still not entirely sure what they mean, but I'm slowly making progress and I'll get there eventually.”
He mutters something else under his breath, but he seems lost in thought as he examines the photos.
“Bob's a genius,” Annabelle says as she sidles over to join me. “I know this place might seem chaotic, but you're looking at one of the world's leading experts on urban satanic groups.”
“I like to keep my lab the way I keep my mind,” Bob mumbles. “It works for me.”
“Like I said,” Annabelle continues, “he's a genius. And I don't use that word lightly. I've been coming to Bob for advice since... Well, since as long as I can remember. My mentor Harry Plume introduced us. He told me that a journalist's most important asset is her contacts, and he was right. If anything's going on in this city, Bob will know how to get to the bottom of it. Or the top of it. Or the side, or whatever's needed. The point is, Bob's your man.”
“This can't be real,” I whisper, turning and looking around at the myriad tables, cabinets and chests, each of which appears dedicated to some fresh aspect of the impossible.
Books piled upon books.
Jewels and diamonds, and fragments of rotten wood.
Casts of faces.
An old wire-frame pram.
And that's even before I look up, where I see – hanging from the high rafters – various stuffed animals and even large, curved flanks of wood that appear to have once been the hulls of boats. Higher up, other shapes loom in the darkness, and I can't even begin to imagine some of the darker items that have been assembled in this cavernous place.
“People would know,” I say finally, feeling another shudder pass through my chest.
I turn to Annabelle, who seems amused by my shock.
“People would know!” I say again. “If all of this was going on right under their noses, the people of London would know about it! If there were satanists running around, they'd know!”
“Of course they would,” I splutter, exasperated by the sheer absurdity of what she's trying to make me believe. I head over to a nearby table, where I find the skull of some unfortunate animal, complete with red-stained lettering on the bone. “If a child, a poor desperate child, had been pulled out of the river,” I continue, “and if there were signs that it had been murdered in some ritualistic way, there would be a national outrage. It'd be on the front page of every newspaper until the case had been solved!”
I stare at the skull for a moment.
“Would it?” Annabelle asks finally.
I turn to her. “Of course!”
“Maybe in a just and decent world,” she replies, as the smile fades from her lips, “but not in this one. In this one, the lights of the city are too bright. Nobody pays much attention to what's being dredged up from the dark river. They're too busy watching reality TV shows and baking competitions.”
I shake my head. “I'm sure your cynicism is deeply fashionable, but it has little basis in reality!”
“Tell that to the kid over there,” she mutters, turning and looking at the covered cabinet. “Tell it to all the other kids who are down in the silt at the bottom of the Thames, never to be found.”
“People would not allow this to be covered up!” I say firmly.
“Fine, then why don't you start by pulling that sheet off little Joe's cabinet?” she replies, pointing at the cabinet behind me. “After all, you're the one who wanted it covered up a few minutes ago.”
“That was different,” I stammer. “That was for the child's dignity!”
“Oh? Was it really?”
She rolls her eyes as she turns away. “Whatever. Bob, do you have something more for me to be going on here? I need to know about the guy who was hauled out of the river with a goat's head sewn to the top of his neck-stub. That's gotta mean something, right?”
“It could mean several things,” he replies.
“Then give me a rundown. That's what I'm here for. And don't take all day, because I've got other places I need to be.”
“Well if that's your -”
“Please, Bob!” she adds, with a hint of desperation in her voice. “We've talked about this stuff before. You know why it's important.” She glances at me, almost as if she's worried about what I might overhear, and then she turns back to him. “If you've got any leads about the goat guy, I need to hear them. Especially if they're linked to the you-know-what house. Has anything like that ever been fished out of the river before?”
Bob stares at her for a moment, before briefly glancing at me. He eyes me with suspicion for a few seconds, and then finally he turns back to Annabelle.
“I need to take you into the back-room,” he tells her. “For obvious reasons, your friend is gonna have to wait here.”
“Her daughter's missing,” Annabelle replies. “I think she deserves to be shown whatever you've got. Please, this is important.”
“You know the rules,” he mutters, turning and limping toward a door at the far end of the room, while taking a set of jangling keys from his pocket. “I've got something for you, Annabelle, but it's for your eyes only. Your buddy has to wait out here and entertain herself for a few minutes. And that's not negotiable.”
Annabelle turns to me.
“Sorry, Winnie, but you heard the man. Don't worry, I'll tell you exactly what I see. Bob's just a bit weird when it comes to his inner sanctum.”
She heads after him, leaving me alone in the lab. Once the door has swung shut, I turn and look around, and finally I head over to a wall that has been covered by tacked diagrams, maps and photographs. This Bob fellow might well be out of his mind, but he's most certainly someone who keeps detailed records of his ideas and theories. On the first map, for example, he appears to have marked out every government building in London, annotating each of them with scrawled notes that I find completely indecipherable.
These look like the paranoid ramblings of a lunatic.
Wandering past the map, I stop at a desk and pick up the nearest book, which turns out to be some centuries-old guide to the darker parts of the city. I flip through carefully, taking care not to stress the book's creaking spine, and I find that the pages contain not only text but also maps and diagrams. Some of the latter depict naked human figures, along with a wide variety of animals and other creatures. As I turn to another page, I see a drawing of a man whose body has been split open down the middle, with his entrails seemingly fanned out across the floor. The whole thing is really rather gruesome, and I can't help but wonder what kind of sensible person would ever write such a book.
I suppose the world is made of all sorts.
After a few more minutes, I glance over toward the door in the far corner, and I start to wonder whether I might have been forgotten. Taking a deep breath, I busy myself with a couple more books, until once again I'm struck by the fact that I've now been left alone for quite some time. I'm hardly one to complain about such things, but I feel it's a tad rude that I've just been abandoned in such a manner, especially when I desperately want to get out of here and continue the search for Katie.
Finally, even though I know I should be more patient, I make my way across the room until I reach the door, which I then carefully ease open. On the other side, there's a long corridor, leading down into the bowels of the building. I hesitate, before realizing I can hear voices in the distance, so I slip through and make my way along the corridor. I know I shouldn't intrude, but at the same time I think perhaps it's time to tell Annabelle that I'll catch up with her later. I want to go and speak to some people at Katie's summer school, and I'm sure I'm not needed here.