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Authors: Jessica Cornwell

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BOOK: The Serpent Papers
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‘Out of interest? Passion? Curiosity?’ he asks.

‘All of the above.’

‘And this is why you sent us the letters. Illustrations of the corpse?’ Fabregat flicks through his notes. ‘You made the connection?’

‘I don’t want to waste anybody’s time.’

I can feel him studying me.

‘Neither do I,’ he says. ‘May I see the originals?’

I open my purse and give him the package. Flinching as he pulls open the wax paper.
These are mine.

‘They are identical,’ he says.

I let him rest in a sensation of discovery.

I know the markings intimately now. He will be looking at the serpent drawn like an
over the centre of the left palm, and the cross like a brand on the right. He will be drinking in the circle round her navel, and the crescent moon on her chest, the alphabet on each flank of her body, the letters across her forehead.

A document in the flesh is always different than a scanned image. The freshness of the ink impresses itself upon you – subsumes you, draws you into the tantalizing allure of a corporeal attachment.
Someone living wrote this once. Someone held this paper, a century and a half earlier. Someone whose hand shook as he wrote.

‘They match your case in every detail,’ I say.

He draws the pages closer to his nose. ‘He was a good artist, the boy . . . What happened to him?’

‘We’re tracing that now. Sitwell left Spain in the winter of 1852, heir to an enormous fortune given to him by a friend and mentor. He returned to England where he deposited documents in libraries in London and Oxford.’

Documents I have had the pleasure of locating and assessing over the past two years.
They all pertain to the palimpsest and Illuminatus. But Fabregat does not need to know this.

‘And you believe you know who did this?’

‘Not with certainty.’

For a while he is silent. Thinking.

‘Certainty,’ he murmurs. ‘Funny thing, that.’ Lost in Sitwell’s illustrations. ‘No one else has seen these?’

‘Not that I’m aware of. Not in living memory.’

His voice sharpens.

‘You’re right to draw a parallel.’

He puts the papers down. Satisfied.

‘We agreed over the phone what the stipulations of this project would be, but I repeat them now. I am retired, and have no direct jurisdiction over the police, but the Hernández case is the great tragedy of my career, one of my life’s profound dissatisfactions – of which, I hasten to inform you, there are few. Perhaps if what happened had been contained I could forget. Close the book, as it were. Move on. But that is not the case.’ His face darkens. ‘Now, your letters suggest that identical killings happened in Barcelona as early as 1851? That . . .’ He pauses. ‘Interests me . . . I want us to be careful. Sensitive. If you take this research on, you have the support of the police. You work as a writer, a psychic –’ his hand twitches on the papers – ‘whatever it is you do.’ He waves his hand again. ‘A two-week preliminary examination of Natalia Hernández, her character, her work, her habits. Talk to people. Get them comfortable. Say you’re retelling the case as an independent project, your grant research, analysing her death as an artist – don’t look so excited, Verco! I’ll explain what that is as we go along. I’ll help you set up interviews – just get them talking about her, and that Sorra kid. Ask questions. Read into their lives; get a feel of the city. Any facts you need that we’ve already filed I’ll send you. I want you to meet Sharp as well – have a look at that book. At this point we’ve tried everything – I’ve had every expert in Europe on the case. The question for me has always been why: I’ve never understood that. Perhaps you can . . . just feel. I’ll give you support if you need it, but I don’t want you to try and engage with anyone on a more investigative level. I want you shadowed. I want to know where you are. And I want you to actually keep notes, actually write things down. I’ll pay you – personally, with a little help from the force. We don’t usually work with your kind of people and I don’t want you getting into any trouble. I want you to stay extremely,
safe. Over-compensate for that, OK?’

I agree. ‘I mentioned over the phone . . . Anything I find along the way? Anything that comes up – I can use that for my own work?’

He opens the green envelope and pushes the contents forward.

‘Have a read.’

On the little side table beside his armchair there is a black pen. I read over the contracts, the confidentiality agreement. Then I take his pen and sign.

‘This has become somewhat of a hobby for me.’ Fabregat pleased with himself. We drink from little china cups. He offers me a biscuit.

‘I value the calm now,’ he says. ‘Life is good. I’d like to reassure you of that.’ And very slowly, ex-Inspector Manel Fabregat paints a picture of the events as he witnessed them.

Things began two weeks before Hernández died. (The first letter came on 8 June, Fabregat barks through a mouthful of almonds, Sunday of the Pentecost, 2003.) Fat Father Canço in the church of Santa Maria del Pi found the envelope in a confessional at four in the afternoon, with no indication of the sender. Being a responsible citizen, Canço trundled over to the Ciutat Vella’s police station to ask that the letter be delivered to the man in question. Fabregat opened the letter idly, settling into the chair behind his desk, hat tipped onto the back of his crown, reading glasses perched on his nose. A piece of thick paper, like an old parchment, on which someone has drawn an illuminated diagram like the round face of a compass or an astrolabe for navigating stars, twelve centimetres’ radius, outlined in gold ink, heavy blue lines executed with comfortable precision.

Fabregat examines the figure closely, noting that it contains four outer rings, divided into nine equal parts. The triangles create a star with nine points, aligned with each of the nine sections. Three points of the uppermost triangle are labelled in Catalan:
l’extrem. Beginning
. In each of the nine sections an exquisite capital letter –
 – and a sequence of numbers (1 to 9) around the outer rim. Fabregat skims this tersely, eyes hunting for what he considers the crucial detail. In the bottom left-hand corner, written in an eccentric, sloping calligraphy:


Find me in the Utterance of Birds.


Fabregat’s eyebrows furrow.

He growls to himself and sits up in his chair. Reads the line again. Then he turns the parchment over. A picture of a serpent consuming its tale in gold leaf. Shimmering on the page. The-snake-of-tail-biting-eternal-life – or whatever-the-fuck-it’s-called. Within the coil of the snake, the phrase in Catalan:
All is One.
Half of the snake is solid gold; the other half outlined in a thin silver
. Hippy bullshit
. He does not take it seriously because he does not understand it, but at the same time the inspector grows suspicious. He props the letter up at the base of his lamp, goes out of the office and asks who had it delivered.

‘Is this a joke, lads?’ he asks the boys.

He is told it came via fat-priest-post, a man flustered, who was unaware of its sender. At nine, Inspector Fabregat goes home. He has dinner with his son at the table and that evening he makes love to his wife.

Twenty-four hours later a second missive arrives, this time delivered by a choirboy, who uncovered the letter cleaning the seat of the confessional in Santa Maria del Mar before the evening mass of Whit Monday. The letter is delivered duly to Fabregat, who opens the envelope to find a second wad of parchment. On the outer sheet the tail-biting-serpent-of-eternal-fucking-life. On the inner pages an identical diagram. The nine letters placed around concentric circles. One dial within another. In the same curling script someone has written:


You have called me

Thrice Great


Forked Tongue.


Inspector Fabregat’s blood curdles. For half an hour Fabregat chews his lip. What is this? A prank? Some punk kid getting him back? A lunatic?

Thrice Great?
He turns the phrase around.

What does it mean?

For surely it means something.

They find the first victim in the small hours of morning on Tuesday, 10 June 2003. Fabregat follows a young sergeant through a passageway between tight apartment blocks. Beneath the hanging gardens of Baluard de les Drassanes, lit by a few torpid lamps, the bleakly painted apartment blocks turn a damp and dreary grey. Laundry dangles from windows: brown knickers, faded linen. Sweat malingering. The washing feral in the night, stained with hanging shadows like half-lit
jamones serranos
. One disappointed ambulance in the centre of a square. Blockades on all entrances, and traffic on the bypassing road has ceased. Police tape circles around the trunks of each of the outer lamp posts and trees, with the exception of the young jacaranda at the centre, around which the team of suits now clusters, looking at fingernails, pollen, semen, blood – looking for hair follicles and gum, fingerprints and grime – a melancholy storm wheeling round the object in question. Little feet dangling towards the pavement. Dead as bone china. A child. Fabregat starts.
Barely a woman.
Hanging from a rope attached to a branch of the jacaranda tree.
Auburn hair falling over her chest. Wounds dry. He looks up into her. Emotions rise in his chest he had forgotten. He battens down.
Look closer.
He ignores the chatter of the team around him. Presses on. A camera flashes. No warmth.
Pop! Pop!
goes the flash.
Her mouth? A cave of darkness

Fabregat squints. Observes the hanging body.
Faint red lines in the skin of the girl –
don’t look at her face again – not yet.
A scarlet letter B.
Skin pristine in its clarity, hair lustrous, tumbling down over shoulders. In life she would have been lovely, a real beauty. He studies her carefully. Clinically. Between her nipples someone has carved the points of a crescent moon. Around her navel, a circle,
the full rim of a sun around her belly button.
Fabregat steadies himself. Records the litany of sins: ‘. . . 
Lacerations made to the body. Tongue removed in its entirety. Muscle severed at the base. Victim appears to be in her mid-teens . . .

The forensic officer points to her hands – ‘
Image of a snake cut into her left palm, a . . .

Fabregat slows, squinting at the mark.
Don’t focus on her face. How had she died?
Strangulation, he thinks, clocking the bruised skin on her neck.
Mutilated first, then strangled.

‘Cross cut into her right palm, all flesh wounds, a few millimetres deep,’ one of the investigators barks.

BOOK: The Serpent Papers
4.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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