"I just thought I'd give you a call to check you are okay after last night. I mean, you never get used to seeing that kind of shit."
There was a deep sigh on the end of the phone. "I should know. I've had to wallow in it for the last twenty years."
Frieda stifled a yawn as she combed her fingers through her tangle of auburn hair. She hadn't slept on the couch in ages. Now she knew why. She might as well have not slept at all.
"What time is it?" she asked blearily.
"A little after eight."
"And you want to know if I've had any revelations since I got home."
She smiled as the seasoned Kriminalpolizei detective, Tobias Schluter let out a snort. "Is that your psychic powers talking, Frau Lockner, or am I just so transparent?"
"Mm, no. And yes," chuckled Frieda. But her mirth was short lived as the image of the young girl's contorted body lying in the rubbish-filled alleyway behind Club Charlotte forced its way through her drowsiness.
"Nothing more," she said quietly, squeezing her eyes shut, but failing to diminish the power of the mutilated girl's staring eyes and bare-toothed grimace that was seared into her mind. "I'm sorry, Kriminalkommisar."
He was right. Nothing could ever inure a sane human being to that sort of horror.
What had Father Derrick once reminded her? That when Satan fell, he took a third of the host of heaven with him, so we should hardly be surprised if we bump into some of his infernal minions now and again. Frieda could readily believe that one such diabolical entity had been the artist of that horrific scene.
Schluter sighed, his disappointment evident.
"Do you think we are dealing with the same culprit?" asked Frieda.
"That's what I was hoping you might help shed some light on, Frau Lockner. At first glance, I'd say no. Our cellar boy was strung up for a week before he died, as you're aware. The killer sliced chunks off him throughout before putting the poor bastard out of his misery. Meanwhile, our girl last night was strangled and then apparently cut up postmortem by the murderer."
Frieda closed her eyes and mentally transported herself back to the rear of Club Charlotte. Once more she could hear the distant throb of the dance music pulsating in the chilly air. Had the nauseating smell of rotten food and stale urine threatening to make her heave all the more as she stood beside the lifeless body lit up by the cold white glare of crime scene lamps.
The girl was no older than nineteen, maybe twenty. Her body was twisted, asymmetric; the legs wrenched at impossible angles as though the killer had twisted them in the sockets like the limbs of a doll. One arm was flung outwards at ninety degrees, one finger pointing to the other arm that had been crudely severed and discarded about two metres from the rest of the naked corpse.
Meanwhile those eyes, and that horrific grin of exquisite terror were framed by blood-matted dark hair that had been peeled back from the skull, the scalp flayed jaggedly from the white bone with all the precision of a wolf tearing at prey.
The first impressions hit Frieda in the gut as she revisited the scene. But her gift was to move beyond them. What could she hear above the tumult of such vivid visceral horror?
Pain, despair, and loss, always loss. These were always the prominent echoes, deafening at times, but usually not so that other imprints could not be recognised in the background static caused by the snuffing out of an existence. As Frieda recollected that moment, she tried once more to make sense of it, identify any kind of coherent signature within the melee of confusion.
Happiness? Frieda cocked her head slightly like a spaniel alerted to a faint noise. She isolated it, homed in on the faint trace. Yes, she had not been mistaken. A residual contentment was coming through. And satisfaction. Sexual? Perhaps, but she could not be sure. And encompassing these echoes like a shell, a further ripple. Recognition, knowledge, affiliation. An unmistakeable awareness that could only mean one thing in Frieda's experience.
"There is something," she breathed into the telephone receiver.
Frieda opened her eyes, which shone with conviction. "I didn't pick up on it at the time," she said. "But I think the girl knew her killer."
"Really knew? Casual acquaintance? What?" snapped Schluter.
Frieda frowned. "More than casual. There's a depth, an attachment, at least on the victim's part. The trace is too strong."
"Might she have been thinking of some other person at the time of her death?" Schluter asked dubiously. "Current boyfriend or even an ex-lover she's yearning for at the time of crisis?"
Frieda shook her head as the echoes became deafening. "No. There's betrayal. A strong sense of betrayal. She's confused, angry, disbelieving. She can't understand why he's doing this."
Schluter was silent for a second as Frieda emerged from her analysis, one by one mentally turning down the volume knobs of the various psychic noises until all fell silent and she was left with just the sound of her own breathing.
"All right, Frau Lockner," Schluter sighed. "It's textbook. Victim knows the killer. Never a surprise. We're doing the usual round of exes, friends of friends, family members."
He paused. "But why only pick this up now, Frieda?" he enquired curiously. "Why not last night at the scene?"
Frieda shook her head, rubbing her eyes till they were red. She felt so tired.
"It's not an exact science, Inspector," she admitted. "Not science at all in fact. Sometimes the scene is just too intense. It's a maelstrom of emotions all bombarding me at once. Sometimes only the benefit of distance can help me resolve all the various pieces of the jigsaw and see how they fit."
She clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle another yawn then said, "I just hope it's of help."
"Always, Frieda," came the police officer's ready reassurance. "Always. Now go back to bed."
But although she was bone-weary and took Schluter's advice, Frieda could not sleep. She tossed and turned for an hour before finally giving up. She took a shower, threw on a pair of jeans, t-shirt and a comfortable cardigan, wove her hair into her trademark single braid and after a glance in the hallway mirror decided she looked much more presentable. Other than for the dark circles under her eyes, she looked close to human.
Had she blinked she would have missed the movement behind her. Her heart began to race as she stared at the reflection of her bedroom, and the open doorway that the almost imperceptible shadow had flit across. Might her eyes have been playing tricks? Given her weariness that was not unlikely. But with all that had been happening the last few weeks, the likeliest explanation was not a rational one.
She turned slowly and stared into the room. She sidestepped a little so that her bed came into view. Just fifteen minutes earlier she had left it unmade, the duvet scrunched up in a ball as it always was, the pillows askew and dented where her head had lain on the soft feathers of their interior. But now the covers were smooth and flat, the pillows plumped, the bed made with all the professionalism of a five-star hotel's room service.
Frieda swallowed, her lips and throat suddenly parched. She had thought that the poltergeist could not disturb her, but this unexpected helpfulness was something other than annoying, and in every way more unnerving than the attack on the crucifix, or the rearrangement of kitchen utensils. This felt more invasive. It was an intrusion upon the place where she was most vulnerable, the room where for several hours each night she lay unconscious, undefended. The making of the bed was less a sign of helpfulness, than a reminder from the entity that it could reach her anywhere, not least where she was most unguarded. It felt like a threat.
She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. She told herself that she was overreacting, hyping a mischievous prank into something more. In the long history of the poltergeist phenomenon, the recorded incidents of direct physical assault could be counted on one hand. The rarity should have consoled her. But the fact that there were recorded exceptions loomed larger in her mind than the benign majority.
She grabbed her coat from the peg in the hallway, and shoved her feet into some flat shoes. She needed to get out. She needed some air.