Read The Serpent Papers Online

Authors: Jessica Cornwell

The Serpent Papers (8 page)

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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The phone interrupts me angrily, vibrating in my pocket.


Let it ring out.

Again. A second, third time.

A voicemail flashes up and then a text.


I listen to the message.
A pregnant pause.
Fish hook dangling.
I need you.

Another text comes through:
Is this about your health?
The phone rings again.

You can tell me. Please.

Do not answer.

You’re behaving like a child.

But what would you say?
Nothing. You can tell him nothing. You dig too deep for him to follow.

I catch my reflection in the black glass of the French doors. The line of my shirt rubs against my neck. Worn cotton vest beneath a woollen jumper and waxed parka. Thin grey scarf. Mud on my jeans from this morning, dried onto my boots. I remember the hawk I had seen like an omen, before the car had come to take me away. A shooting black thing. Rocketing down! Wings wrenched back as the rabbit lunged, leaping into underbrush at the edge of the field. The hawk, reckless, dishevelled, soaring over the sleeping village. The sky cloudless. Slate blue. Sharp as the ice at the edge of my pine-needle path, brown husks of grass pummelled into mud.

Back inside the apartment, I survey my new environment with a certain element of unease. Already installed for the renter: knives and spoons, books and oven mitts, a radio, a small TV, the beautiful steel vase with dying flowers. I look about me. An entire floor to myself with long windows on the front facing side. When I was seventeen, living in this city, I would have dreamt of such privacy. Ten years later it feels too spacious.
How much have you changed?
I ask myself, pulling my bags into the kitchen, taking the cooled container from my carry-on first. I check the contents gingerly, placing my hand against the box of medication. Almost warm. Twenty-eight vials. A month’s worth. In case of emergency. I open the refrigerator door and position the blue and white box that holds the syringe capsules, each designed to be popped into a plastic injector – bright and cheerful, accompanied by cotton balls and alcohol swatches. I select a syringe from the box, breaking a single injection out of its packaging and set it on the kitchen counter. Wait.

I begin the familiar distractions. Memory games.
The warm triangle of his chest. Sleeping beside.
I push him away.
Walking through the village this morning, you bought coca de patata, a spongy sweet cake made of boiled potato and sugar.
I tear the packet containing the alcohol swab. The skin on my upper left arm tickles. I pinch at the fat, pulling it down from the bone. A tight knot remains from last week. With my fingers, I feel for fresh skin, four centimetres lower, hoping the lump will go down.
From the road leading to the river, you saw the roof of the car. Mallorca’s policia local. Vehicle unusually festive. Painted like a medieval flag, raucous red and purple, blue lights dull on the roof. No sirens yet.
I insert the pre-filled syringe into the auto-inject, wipe my skin with alcohol. Seven seconds. Count. Never habitual, never comfortable.
When you entered the car, the policeman swore. ‘It’s fucking freezing,’ he’d hissed as he rubbed his hands together. Unseasonably cold, colder than ever before. You offered him coca. Crumbs landing on his collar as we drove out of the village, away from the azure bell tower, the Charterhouse bold. Your anchor on the hill.

Click. Click
, goes the syringe, buckling against my skin.

I am done.

At the appointed hour, Manel Fabregat opens the door to his flat, a simple address overlooking the Plaça de la Revolució. He is a short, heavy-set man in his late fifties, blessed with thick legs and a full, muscular torso, resplendent in a black shirt reminiscent of the uniform of Los Mossos d’Esquadra, the urban crime unit of Barcelona’s police force. Flesh handsomely creased, weather-worn and athletic. Though the pallor of his complexion has faded, his dark eyes are compellingly alive and his mouth remains tender, while the shadows of his lower lashes are filled with a baleful sadness.

‘Come in! Come in!’

Eyes dart over my shoulder. I follow him to a luminous sitting room, white walls bursting with photographs of family, a pretty wife, a boy playing soccer, old men and women at a house in the country. A dog lopes forward, a German shepherd who shoves his black snout into my legs, wagging his tail.

‘Meet Panza,’ Fabregat booms. The inspector’s name is hard, factory-made vowels slamming into consonants. ‘Just push him out of the way, push him! There you go, girl.’

Fabregat invites me to take a seat on the sofa across from him. He crosses his legs in his armchair and offers tea. A biscuit? Sugar? On the wall behind him there are also photographs of the policeman with his troops, and athletic awards from his youth.

‘My son wins these now.’ Afternoon light streams in.

Fabregat’s sunroom is framed in white curtains harking to a past century. Light scatters through lace steeples and dewdrops. A small teacup filled with dried rose petals on the table. Bleached linen tablecloth. The air exudes a chalky mix of mint and sugar. On the wall, a devotional shrine to the Virgin Mary – ‘My wife’s,’ Fabregat explains. He offers tea, then settles into his chair. Panza rests his face on Fabregat’s knee, yellow hound eyes half closed. Fabregat runs his fingers through the dog’s coat twice before he meets my gaze.

He smiles. Shark-like. Polite. ‘I’ve given it some thought, and I think you should know that
sounds like
. The Pokémon.’

‘It’s a reference to a medieval magician,’ I say tartly. ‘A man with three names.’

‘Huh,’ says Fabregat. He cracks a nut between his teeth.

‘You don’t look the part.’

Of what? An academic? A treasure hunter?
There’s almost a tinge of disappointment on his face. He studies me carefully. What was he expecting? Mouse hair, pinned back? Owl glasses?

‘How old are you?’


‘You look younger.’ He sniffs into a handkerchief produced from a pocket. ‘I wouldn’t take you seriously if I met you on the street.’

I’ve hidden my frame in an oversized knitted sweater, thick grey wool, and retreat further into it, pulling the sleeves down to my wrists.

‘Generally, I’m phobic of academics, but I’ve decided to make an exception . . .’ Fabregat stiffens ever so slightly and leans forward, pointing to the coffee table, where a stack of photocopies rests neatly beside a green folder. ‘I didn’t go to university,’ he says. ‘Went straight into working. No time for an education. A roofer for a while, helping my father. Then a security guard. Then an entry-level policeman. I read for pleasure, not for
We weren’t
pijo . . .
’ He sighs. ‘But to business.’

I can tell the man is smart.

Eyes snapping over me. Drinking me in. Taking my number.

‘You sent a set of images to a colleague of mine for review at Los Mossos. Dated 1851 in Barcelona. Drawn by an Englishman.
He struggles with the pronunciation. ‘

‘Sitwell,’ I say. ‘Yes.’

An illustration of a girl’s body carved with nine letters, above a picture of a nightingale.

‘It gave me quite a shock when that arrived in my inbox. I thought – what are they drinking on Mallorca?
Lightning, chapels, books, Americans . . . 
Next thing you know, there’ll be a secret society,’
he says, looking straight at me. ‘You’re not a member of a secret society?’

‘No.’ I shift my weight.
No special handshakes or occult machinations.

He looks at me wryly. ‘Your letter intrigued me. I must thank you for coming. It’s a good thing, I hope. The case was one I worked on quite extensively; I’m very pleased you’re here. You’re serious about getting involved?’

‘Yes,’ I say.

‘You’re certain?’

A sideways glance
. I am a curiosity. The day’s singular event.

He mutters under his breath. Disbelieving.
She’s a child. És una nena.
He slows, using the Catalan word for little girl. The nickname sticks, rapidly replacing my own. ‘It’s not a very nice story, Nena. Quite different to your books, I should think.’

‘Perhaps,’ I say.
You’d be surprised.

‘I’ve had you checked out.’

‘And what did you find?’

‘My friends in Palma tell me you’re gathering a reputation as a bit of a local savant. A circus act. You do some pretty strange things.’

‘Professionally or personally?’

‘You’ve had a few episodes on the job recently.’ He waggles his fingers at me. ‘It seems someone on the island has taken a strong dislike to you. I heard about the fire. Gossip travels fast in these parts. Rumour has it you’re a psychic? Part time? Full time?’

‘That’s not the phrasing I would use.’

‘But you’re kinda funny, aren’t you? You hear things other people don’t.’

I recoil.

is false.

As succinctly as I can, I explain that I listen. It is my preferred name for what I do, which is a kind of heightened feeling – mediated now and controlled.

No, not psychic
 – I repeat. I do not know things other people do not know. I cannot solve a murder by closing my eyes and psychically knowing something magical. I’m not going to snap my fingers and conjure a solution. That’s absurd. I can’t tell you what you are thinking unless you want me to know – but I can watch you, closely, and I can listen, and the same is true of books and stone – or perhaps, even
is inaccurate. The more I understand a situation, the better I can trace the invisible threads that run through it. I feel like a bat. Generally speaking, my work mostly takes place in libraries and museums, in the deep archives, the underground layers, the boxes that people have left behind, or in more corrupt cases, hidden. I move in the shadows. I watch his right eyelid spasm, and withhold.
Don’t tell the whole truth.
That in the last year of university I spent two months asleep believing I was awake before the doctors realized I was in a constant state of REM. That while in hospital I had eruptions of pain in my head and my skin broke out in rashes. That when I awoke the voices were so loud that blood ran from my earlobes and nostrils. That I’m a freak in the clinical sense of the word. Instead I bait him – oh, when it comes, the chase is addictive
. I am like you. A good researcher is a bloodhound, following the molecular brush of a human hand against paper.

‘And you enjoy investigating the past?’ Fabregat’s mouth splits open.

‘It is the only thing that keeps me sane.’

‘Your Catalan is excellent. Ideal. For what I want you to do for us. If you feel up to the job, that is.’

Of course.

‘You were living in Barcelona in 2003, but you didn’t personally know these guys? Hernández or Sorra? Never met? No? Good.’ He looks at me closely. ‘But you’d heard of her before she died?’

How could I not have?

‘And the murders? Did you read the papers?’

I nodded. ‘I followed them closely.’

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
6.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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