Read The Serpent Papers Online

Authors: Jessica Cornwell

The Serpent Papers (10 page)

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
12.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

There is a
on her forehead, between the eyes.

Fabregat stops.
Nine letters in total
. His face pales.
The letters correspond exactly to the parchment charts on his desk. B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K
cut onto a child-cum-crime-scene, opened up for inspection. Words whiplash through his skull. Verses of a demented poetry.
You have called me
Thrice Great
Forked Tongue . . . 
Was she the answer to his riddle? The hanging figure of the voiceless girl? Later the medical examiner gives his verdict, flanked by earnest students from the university. He points to shallow wounds like tattoos on the girl’s body.

‘Those are medieval letters – styled after roman uncials – all capitalized. Made with a steady hand – real artistry. It’s not easy to cut flesh with precision like that. Ten centimetres in length, depending on position. The incisions suggest a variety of tools – a boning knife has been used in certain places, a razor blade here. Body meticulously cleaned. No conclusive DNA. She died after her tongue was removed – I believe the letters, cuts in the palms and the markings on her breast and stomach came subsequent to asphyxiation. Also we have what looks like forced sexual entry. He needed time to do this – there will be a place he kept her alive, and a place he worked on the body.’ The victim is Rosa Bonanova. Sixteen, only child, went missing four days earlier, last seen walking home in the evening from a choral rehearsal in the Eixample.

The forensic graphologists have a field day when Fabregat sends them his letters. The message comes back clear:
same calligrapher? Same writing? Same hand, on body and paper.
Her case logged by the police. In the pictures, she had been pretty and smiling.

On the cusp of transformation.

Gone now.

Fabregat’s hackles are up.

He is not an inspector who enjoys murder.


A third letter follows swiftly, left in the confessional of the old monastery of St Peter of Puelles on Thursday, 12 June. Addressed to
Sr Manel Fabregat of Policia de la Generalitat de Catalunya
. The inspector’s eyes bulge. Insolence rising like fog towards him. This time the sender has written:


No more riddles.

I will teach you.

Follow. Heed my words.

Ancient Crimes.


And left two dates like bookends:




Fabregat does not waste time.
Missing persons!
he shouts to his team – flag them up, chase any leads, distressed parents, disappearances – I want to know about it. No talking, lads! No leaks to the bastard media. I don’t want them knowing any steps to this dance!

This is not the first time the killer has done this.

It is too practised. Too rehearsed. Is there any history? Any incident in the past?
He feels a net tightening . . . 
No more riddles?
And beneath this a profound, restless unease.
Why me? Why single me out? The recipient of such strange knowledge.

The answer comes in a second body, discovered on Friday, 13 June 2003 by the bartender of the nightclub Genet Genet – who stumbles over his words – relaying how he found the body after the club closed, taking out the trash – his nerves break as he talks to the police who have pulled him to the side of the building near the
– I just found her (he repeats as a man who has lost his mind) – she was covered in blood – the blood has soaked through his shirt – and she had been left there, hanging from a lamp post – he looks away from the street, casts his eyes towards heaven. A strong man refusing to weep. I . . . I . . . But she too is gone, her soul departed, and not in a pleasant way. Xavi has found a woman without a tongue. Her mouth a pool of blood. Her body naked but for the letters carved into her chest, throat and arms. Lakes form around her, pouring from the stump of her tongue and the letters on her body. From the pictures on her hands.


Working at the scene, Fabregat is interrupted by a shadow who pushes herself up against the wall behind the blue-and-white tape, coughs loudly and lights a cigarette.

‘Another one for the bin bag.’

The old prostitute lisps. Matter-of-fact.

‘Trust me.’ She burps a malingering cloud of smoke. Tired peroxide hair. Yellow plastic crown. Lavender eye shadow. Lips like a foul red barn.

‘She’s a nobody.’ The woman smirks, face cloaked in darkness. Her voice rasps like a rusty saw, bent from overuse.

Como tú, Mosso

The hair on the back of Fabregat’s neck rises.

.’ She sounds the syllables out in a song.


You are trash.

Dust on the wind.

‘Tell them to forget it,’ she croaks. ‘Nobody knows her. Nobody cares.’


The second body is identified as the medical student Rosario Sarrià, twenty-three years old, training to be a nurse, interning at the Hospital Clinic. She had been living alone in Sant Gervasi. No one had reported her missing, though she had not shown up for seminars on Wednesday or Thursday. And her classmates had begun to worry.


Soon words come in from the specialists. The cryptographers and analysers, the historians at the University of Barcelona. Words Fabregat has never seen before and struggles to understand. Any ciphers? Any codes? Any anagrams? Fabregat asks. Hopeful. Thinking of a book he read on the subject.
No. No. And. No.
Fabregat is grasping at straws. However . . . 
The carvings on the body also seem to be alchemical – the circle around the belly button echoes the alchemist’s shorthand for Gold, a perfect circle around a dot at the centre. The crescent between the breasts may be the alchemical notation for Silver. The snake on the left hand suggests an affirmation of sin, the cross on the right hand a representation of divine judgement.
And the eternal-serpent-biting-its-fucking-tail on the letters?

Professor Guifré, expert and medievalist with the Special Collections department at the University of Barcelona, responds with the following:

‘That snake is an ouroboros.
Dating from second-century Alexandria – taken from an alchemical treatise called
The Chrysopeia of Cleopatra 
– the Catalan here echoes the Greek proclamation
hen to pan –
one is all.
The black and white halves suggest Gnostic duality. The ouroboros has traditionally been accepted as the stamp of a continuous cycle, eternal consumption and creation. An elliptical generative force containing the universe. The ouroboros also alludes to ancient mystical traditions associated with turning coarse metals into gold . . . If there is a code, I believe you’re looking at an alchemical one.’

And the tongues? Why cut out the tongues? If everything else is so charged, there must be a significance in that.
The professor doesn’t know. Fabregat sits dejected, head down at his desk.
Why send all this to him? Why carve these things onto a woman’s body?

You’re looking for a man obsessed with the occult.’ Guifré warbles over the telephone. ‘Your killer is an enthusiast of alchemy. An aficionado of black magic. One of these – what do you call them? – a Goth,’ Guifré suggests, pleased with his grip of pop-culture. ‘A cloak-and-dagger type. A reader of fantasy.’

Fabregat sees things differently.
Someone Herculean. Precise. Clinical. Efficient.
Fabregat adds his observations to the list. A female officer approaches Fabregat. He looks at her blankly. She hands him a cup of coffee. They talk awhile. She musters the courage to forward a theory. It does not fly. He shakes his head woefully.

‘We’ll get the bastard, Inspector,’ she says.

Fabregat isn’t sure. There are no marks, no prints, no traces of a killer.
The guy’s too clean.
He’s professional.
No one saw him . . . How does no one see a man hang a body from a lamp post in the middle of a city? Unless they are afraid? Perhaps the witnesses are afraid? Perhaps they know him. Or he is a phantom? A ghost?
Round Fabregat goes. Round and round again.


* * *


Monday, 16 June 2003.

A fourth letter arrives. Found after evening mass on the fountain in Plaça de Sant Felip Neri. The priest asks that Fabregat send a courier. He does not want to touch the envelope. Inside, the diagram of the concentric dials is identical to the previous three missives. The message consists of four lines and one set of dates:


Count the grains of Sand

And measure the Sea.

Read the deaf-mute

And hear the voiceless.




Nothing more.


Tuesday, 17 June.

First light. Sun rising benignly on the sea. A hot radiance. A couple walking their dog in the hills behind Barcelona find a body hanging from the trees on a trail spiking off from the Carretera de les Aigües
The golden retriever sniffs her out below Tibidabo, at the bend above the heart of the city, behind a stone bench and water fountain, hidden in a black thicket. She is hanging by a cord round her neck, swaying in the air, just metres up from the trail, hidden behind brambles and ivy, in amidst the leafy oaks and Aleppo pines, where it smells of damp spring and mud.

Tibidabo. A favourite childhood haunt.
Fabregat feels robbed of sovereignty as he slides his car past the police check onto the dirt road.
Assaulted. Violated.

. Named for the devil’s Latin – the temptation of Christ on the mountaintop.

All this will I give you . . . 
On Tibidabo you get some air and a better view of the city, stretching, yawning from her sleep. Flickering towards the harbour.

From the mountain you see everything.
Barcelona flesh-coloured. Undulating skin all the way to the sea. Parc Güell, directly to the south, the port of Barceloneta, the city open like two hands cupped for water. There are hills to all sides, Collserola, Putget, Montjuïc – the mouths of the rivers Besòs and Llobregat, the diagonal line of Las Ramblas, a bold incision, confident, stripping the city centre into two triangular pieces. Viewed from this height the Gothic and the Raval are mirrored human lungs, breathing against the spine of the Ramblas.

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
12.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Annie's Song by Cate Dean
The Rope Walk by Carrie Brown
Sweet Seduction by M Andrews
Catalyst by Viola Grace
Dirty Wings by Sarah McCarry
ZWD: King of an Empty City by Kroepfl, Thomas