“I saw her wearing the green stuff once,” Tim says suddenly.
I turn to him.
“I'm not expert on these things,” he continues, “but... One evening last week, she dropped by to let me know that the problem with the heater had fixed itself, and I'm pretty sure she was wearing some kind of green make-up on her eyes. It wasn't shocking or anything like that, but she was wearing it.”
“Nonsense,” I mutter, getting to my feet and heading over to the cupboard. As soon as I pull the door open, I see dresses that my Katie would never dream of wearing. Grabbing one at random, I hold it up and see that it's a skimpy black number with a low neckline and a skirt section that's barely more than a belt. I've seen silly little television personalities wearing such frightful things when they're snapped for the paper, but my Katie would never dream of being seen like this.
“I think that might be what she was wearing, too,” Tim tells me.
“Of course it isn't,” I whisper, shocked as I stare at the dress, before tossing it onto the bed. I pull another dress from the closet, and this one is even worse. I can barely even look at the strapless red number before throwing it aside. There are plenty more dresses hanging in the closet, but I don't dare take them out. After all, what's the point? They've obviously been planted here by someone who wants to make my dear, sweet Katie look like a trollop. Instead, I turn and make my way over to the bed, where I sit for a moment.
My hands are shaking.
“It's only natural,” Tim says after a few seconds.
“What is?” I ask.
“A young woman, coming to the city for the first time. I've certainly seen girls wearing worse. At least she wasn't dressed up in a bin bag with safety pins sticking out of her ears.”
“Katie was not a slut!” I say firmly.
“Nobody said anything about her being a slut,” he replies, coming over to the bed and stopping to look down at the black dress. “This one's quite nice, really. It's certainly short, but it's not
revealing. In fact, I'd say it's rather elegant and formal. And a dash of eye make-up is hardly the worst thing in the world.”
“But it's not
!” I hiss. “She never went out like that!”
“Huh.” He pauses. “I suppose what a girl does when she lives with her mother in a village isn't necessarily the same as what she does once she moves to the city. Don't be too harsh on the poor thing. I don't see anything here that would give me cause for concern if I had a daughter.”
I want to tell him that he's wrong, that he doesn't know Katie, but suddenly I realize that maybe
don't know her either. Not as well as I thought, anyway. Leaning forward, I put my head in my hands and try to get my thoughts together, but I can feel tears running onto my palms and then down past my wrists. What if I've been wrong all these years? What if my sweet little Katie had secrets? What if she had a whole other side to her life, a side that she assiduously and carefully kept hidden from me? What if I don't really know my daughter at all?
What if that oaf at the police station was right, and Katie has simply skipped town for a few days with some man?
“Please come back,” I whisper finally, feeling a rush of shock in my chest. “I don't care what you've been doing, but just come back to me. We can talk about it all, but first you have to let me know that you're safe.”
I sit in silence for a few seconds, before Tim puts a hand on my shoulder.
“There there,” he says with a sigh. “Let's not panic just yet. I'm sure she'll come back soon, and it'll turn out that this is all a fuss over nothing.”
“You don't know her,” I whisper, before sniffing back tears and sitting up straight. Turning to Tim, I can see the hint of doubt in his eyes. “She's a good -”
Suddenly I spot flashing red and blue lights in the distance. Looking past him, I realize the lights are all over the living room wall. I get to my feet and step over to the doorway, and now I can tell that the lights are right outside he building. Hurrying to the window, I look out and see several police cars and a couple of ambulances down by the water's edge. A cold, hard shock bursts through my chest as I spot them pulling something out of the river.
“Get out of my way!” I shout, pushing through the small crowd of gawking idiots that has gathered at the edge of the police cordon. “Move! Let me through!”
It's still dark, so the lights of the emergency vehicles are blaring through the night. As I reach the front of the crowd and bump against a line of blue-and-white police tape, an officer puts her hands up to block my way, but I duck under the tape and slip past her.
“M'am,” she says, grabbing my arm, “I'm going to have to ask you to -”
“What is it?” I stammer, trying not to panic even though there are tears streaming down my face. “What did you find?”
“M'am, I'm going to have to ask you to step back.”
Turning, I see that there's a frenzy of activity at the water's edge, where several other officers are helping carry something up from the river. Whatever they have, it's resting on a section of black tarpaulin, and dirty water is already dribbling onto the concrete walkway. In the blink of an eye, a thousand possibilities run through my head, and every single one of them revolves around the most horrific outcome possible.
“Base,” another officer says nearby, speaking into a radio on his chest, “be advised, we have recovered one body from the river. Repeat, we have recovered one body.”
“What body?” I stammer. “Whose body?”
“Winifred!” Tim calls out. “Wait!”
Ignoring him, I push the nearest officer away and hurry toward the group as they lower the recovered body onto the ground. Radios and walkie-talkies are babbling all around, filling the air with their inane chatter, and a helicopter is hovering low overhead. As I reach the group of officers, I slow my pace as I spot something pale hanging over the side of the tarpaulin, and then I stop entirely as I realize that I'm looking at a bare, discolored human leg. The sight is horrific, but at the same time I can't turn away.
“It's not her,” I whisper, “it can't be her. Please God, it can't be -”
“M'am, stop,” an officer says, placing a hand on my arm. “You can't be here, you have to -”
“Is it her?” I ask, turning to him.
“Is it her? Is it...” The words catch in my throat. Turning to stare at the tarpaulin, I see that the recovered body is being moved toward a waiting ambulance. “Is it Katie?”
“Who's Katie, M'am?”
“It can't be her. It just can't.”
“M'am,” the officer continues, trying to lead me away, “I really can't let you be here. Why don't we go to one of the squad cars and sit down, and you can tell me your name and address and then you can explain why you're so interested in what's going on here. Okay?”
I shake my head as I watch the body being carried to the ambulance. After a moment, however, one of the officers suddenly lets go of the tarpaulin and turns away, and he starts vomiting. As he does so, the tarpaulin's corner dips almost to the concrete, and I see a little more of the leg. Flesh is already sloughing off the bone, falling down in a series of slimy clumps.
Hurrying over, I make my way around the tarpaulin until I can see the body properly. I hope God will forgive me, but I feel an immense rush of relief as soon as I see that the corpse is that of a man, albeit a naked man with thick, bloody symbols carved into the flesh of his chest and belly. Fat maggots wriggle through the peeling yellow flesh, which has begun to lift from the meat to leave burrows for crabs, worms and eels. For a moment, in the constantly-shifting light of the helicopter's glare, I stare at the body, but it takes a few seconds before I realize that something is dreadfully wrong with its head.
Or rather, with the spot where its head used to be.
The man's head has been removed, sliced away at the neck, and the head of a pale gray goat has been crudely attached in its place. Thick metal staples secure the goat's head to the man's neck, and the poor animal's eyes are wide open, while its mouth lolls down to reveal a pale pink tongue.
“M'am, please,” another officer says suddenly, stepping in front of me and obscuring my view as the body is loaded into the ambulance. “I must ask you to come with me.”
“It's not her,” I whisper, as tears of relief stream down my face. “It's not her, it's not her, thank you God...”
“M'am!” the officer says firmly. “You need to listen to me. I'm afraid I have to insist that you come with me at once. This is a potential crime scene.”
“What happened to him?” I stammer. “That poor man... What caused him to look like that?”
“M'am, you have to come with me right now.”
“Those symbols,” I continue, trying to see past him, only for the officer to once again step in my way. A moment later, the ambulance's doors are slammed shut. “I've seen them before.”
“What have you seen before, M'am?”
“In my daughter's apartment,” I continue, turning to him. I know I'm gabbling, but I can't quite get my thoughts together. I'm so relieved that the body wasn't Katie, but now I feel as if I've finally managed to make the police listen to me. “I've seen them on the wall! Painted on the wall in thick black paint! All the symbols and the signs, and the letters that don't make any sense! They're on the wall where the crow was flying around!”
“Right.” He pauses, as if he's not quite sure what to say. “M'am, I'm going to have to speak to someone and get back to you.”
“Was it in the water?” I ask.
“Was what in the water?”
“The man's head! The poor soul you just fished out! Where was his real head?”
“M'am, I'd like you to come with me,” he replies, placing a hand on my arm, “and I'll find someone who can talk to you. If you have any information about what's happened here, it's very important that you tell us.”
“Are there any more?”
“Any more what?”
Turning, I hurry to the edge of the river and look down. The helicopter's spotlight is just about able to pick out a trio of police divers who are conferring down at the bottom of the rusty old ladder, and a moment later they go back down beneath the water's murky surface. I stare for a moment, imagining what it must be like for them in the darkness below, but after a few seconds I feel another hand on my arm and I turn to find several police officers standing behind me. Evidently I've finally begun to attract attention.
“M'am,” one of them says firmly, “I need you to come with me right now.”
“Did you find her?” I ask, unable to stifle a flutter of hope.
“Did we find
“My daughter. Did you find Katie?”
“I'm afraid I don't know the specifics of that particular case,” the officer continues, “but this is a crime scene and I really need to secure the area. It's very important that you come with me.”
I let them lead me away from the water's edge. Ahead, the crowd has grown slightly, but the ambulance is already driving away with its hideous, monstrous cargo. I keep replaying that awful sight over and over in my mind, and I honestly don't think I've ever seen anything so ghastly in all my life. At the same time, my sense of horror is beginning to give way to anger that none of these fools can tell me anything about the hunt for Katie. It's almost as if they don't give a damn about my girl.
“Technically,” the female officer explains as she lifts the police tape for me to step under, “by forcing your way onto the crime scene, you were interfering with police work. I could arrest you for that and cart you off to the station.”
“Oh, don't be absurd,” I stammer. “I had to be sure it wasn't Katie, that's all. And the oaf I talked to when I got here wasn't telling me anything at all.
is telling me anything!”
“I believe that oaf was me, M'am.”
I turn to her and realize she might be right.
“I'm sorry,” I continue, “I didn't...”
I hesitate for a moment, wondering how to explain. I feel as if every police officer in the whole of London should be on Katie's case, tearing through the city until they find her. It's almost offensive to see that they have other things to investigate, other jobs to do. I know I should try to be calmer, and more polite, but suddenly I spot a pair of familiar faces at the far end of the crowd. I freeze, convinced that I must be wrong, but the faces are grinning at me and it's quite clear that they know who I am.
doing here?” I stammer.
“I'm sorry, M'am? Who are you talking about?”
“Those two!” I yell, pointing at Fernando and Agnes. Suddenly I feel so angry again, I'm worried I might shake apart. “What are they doing out on the streets again?”
The officer turns and looks in their direction. “I'm sorry, M'am, but I don't -”
“They should be in jail cells!” I shout, filled with a sense of pure fury as I realize that Fernando and Agnes seem to be laughing at me. “They should be being questioned! Why have they been let out?”
“Stop!” I call out, as the two reprobates turn and start walking away. “Wait! What are you doing here? Come back at once!”
Fernando turns and laughs at me, before raising his right hand and showing me his middle finger. Agnes elbows him hard and he puts his arm around her as they hurry off into the night. After a moment, however, Fernando turns back to me and holds his arms out to the sides, flapping them and making a loud cawing sound before he and his wretched little rag of a girlfriend disappear. It's almost as if he knew about the crow, and was mocking me.
“Stop those two!” I shout, hurrying after them. “They must have escaped!”
“M'am, wait!” the officer calls after me. “M'am, you have to stop!”
I hurry to the end of the street, but there's no sign of either Fernando and Agnes, and they could have slipped into any of the dark side-roads that spread away from the riverside. I look around, determined to spot them, but finally the police officer catches up to me and I see the exasperation in her eyes.
“Why are they not in jail cells?” I ask, unable to hide my anger a moment longer. “They know what happened to Katie! Why are they walking free?”
“Why aren't you doing anything?” I sob, yelling at her and pushing her back. “What's wrong with you people? Why aren't you out there finding my daughter?”