There was a ring of blood that seemed to cover the air in front of her. The sounds of the party were numbed and now all she could hear were the whispers of a woman and something snapping under force. At first, when she looked up she thought it was snow that tumbled elegantly from the sky, but as she caught a flake on her tongue, she soon discovered it was ash.
The world seemed to slow down momentarily.
Something like a combination of petroleum and burning hair locked itself in the air. She gagged. The world creaked and contorted. There was a dark hand touching her, a hand from shadows that shouldn’t have been there. A great white smile blurred before her eyes. Something like a scream pierced her ears.
Talli woke, startled from sleep by the sound of children outside. For a moment, she just laid there in the quiet room with her eyes shut. Her mouth felt dry and her eyes stung. The children must be going back to school, she thought. Had it been that many days?
Evie’s perfume haunted the air.
As she opened her eyes, the deep crimson paint of her room seeped in and she could have been deep within her own body, like an emotion, unravelling and blooming in a solitary chamber of her heart.
The beat of her blood was heavy in her ears. It sounded as though she was at the bottom of a chasm. With the beating of her heart came the throbbing ache in her temples. Tear tracks had dried down her cheeks where she had, regretfully, cried herself to sleep again.
Talli tugged her knees in close to her chest and pulled a duvet around her body as she sat up in a ball. Clumsily pulling her coat off the back of her desk chair and digging into its pockets, she retrieved her rapidly diminishing packet of cigarettes. Despite her mum’s rules about smoking in the house, she lit up and stared out of the window.
A crow perched on the windowsill. Talli eyed it curiously.
She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Talli could hear the faint sizzle of embers as they crawled along the little white stick.
The only explanation the police had given four nights ago for the flickering lights and over a dozen smashed window screens was an earthquake. Talli couldn’t understand how this was meant to explain the disappearance of her sister. They had scribbled down what Talli said she had seen into a little black notebook, but after a brief glance of puzzlement the Officer had asked ‘, and how much have you drunk tonight?’
Talli assured them that it wasn’t that.
She had endured watching the pulsing lights flee into the night without any answers. All of a sudden she was sister-less. Now the throb of blue lights was gone but they remained burnt into her retinas, and it stung to see it over and over again, as she tried to blink the memory away.
Reluctantly she pulled herself out of bed. She thought she’d try on some of the clothes she was given at Christmas in a vague attempt to cheer herself up. It didn’t work. Talli changed into an old pair of ripped jeans and an excessively baggy hoody that belonged to an ex-boyfriend, and then wandered towards her mum’s room.
The room was empty. Unlike most of the house it was tidy and obsessively organised. On her Mother’s shelves sat a various collection of perfumes and body lotions that stared out in regimented order out at the room; labels uniformly facing forward. The walls, the décor and the duvet were all a pastel shade of pink, patterned with an ivory flourish of flowers. More than ever, Talli missed her Dad.
It looked like the too-perfect master bedroom of a forgotten doll’s house. Only stillness and a sense of longing coated the surface instead of dust.
There didn’t seem to be anyone downstairs. The house was empty. Talli made herself a cup of strong coffee with four sugars and a bowl of cheap cereal, also covered in sugar.
As she ate, Talli was startled by a hard, rhythmic rap at the front door. She pushed her nearly empty bowl away and sauntered out of the kitchen, leaving the chain bolt attached (a recent precaution) as she responded to the knock.
Through the opening in the door, the soft morning light poured in. The sun hung low in the sky and streamed past two men. One of which was smiling at her.
‘Hello?’ Talli squinted into the light.
‘Ah, ‘ello Miss…?’ the smiling man paused.
‘Reamer. Natalie Reamer.’
‘We’ve come ‘ere, ah, Miss Reamer, abouts a missing person.’
‘You’re policeman?’ Talli raised an eyebrow as she glanced at the two men. Neither of them was dressed in uniform, or any kind of clothes that would normally be associated with authority.
‘Admirable though your assumptions may be, I fear that through no remedial amount of speculation could you possibly appreciate the entirety of our job specifications.’
Talli frowned. The smiling man placed a dirty hand on the off-white doorframe. Talli noticed mud caked in his fingernails.
‘Why are you here? My Mum is at the police station now.’ She lied.
‘If it ain’t too much to ask, m’darlin’, we’d appreciate it, if you could invite us in to your quaint little squat, your ramshackle abode, your home, sweet, home.’
‘Well, as I said, my Mum isn’t home at the moment, I’m afraid, you’ll have to come back when she’s in.’ Talli shifted uneasily, her eyes narrowing as she began to record details of what the men at her door looked like.
‘That ain’t a problem, m’dear. It’s you we’d like to speak with, anyhows.’ The smiling man suddenly frowned an over dramatic frown and placed a heavy boot in the door. Talli edged back slightly, out of arm’s reach. Her mind raced as he drew his face into the door’s gap, ‘please ‘elp us do our duty, Miss.’
‘Well, can I see some identification first, please?’ Talli reached into her jean’s pocket for her mobile. She dialled the emergency number without taking her attention away from the door.
‘But of course, Miss. How could I have forgotten? The pleasantries, the pleasantries,’ the man reached into the inside of his off-black jacket to display a worn, leather bound badge that stated ‘D.R.E.A.M. Inspector.’ He folded the document back away and placed it back in his pocket. He pulled his cuffs up slightly. ‘Let me introduce meself, and my ‘umble accomplice. I, am the notorious Inspector Corke, and this ‘ere is Constable Mortis, who shall be graciously assisting me in my quest against evil, and what not.’ The inspector straightened his moth bitten jacket and cracked his neck sideways with a nod.
Talli glanced from one of them to the other. She noticed they looked very similar. They were both the same height, same build and had the same face shape. Inspector Corke looked like a fox. His hair and facial hair, a light brown with a copper tinge, might have been neat and precise only weeks before hand but were now slightly unkempt. The most unsettling thing about him was that he had one hazel eye and one bright blue.
Constable Mortis was just as dishevelled, if not more so. His hair was slightly longer, thick and black. His skin and his expression were pallid. His nose was more crooked than Corke’s. It was almost like a beak.
‘D.R.E.A.M?’ Talli smiled, ‘give me a break guys, do you expect me to believe that’s a real police department?’
‘Whether you believe it is or not, Miss, is somewhat irrelevant to me, myself and I. I ‘appen to be from said department, and I shall be conducting the research that my superiors ‘ave assigned unto me, with or without your permission. Corke indicated to Mortis who jolted suddenly to life out of his stupor and produced an official looking, albeit crumpled, warrant to search the property.
Reluctantly, Talli released the catch and invited the two men in. One hand tucked deep into her pocket, she kept a finger on the dial button of her mobile. She watched them linger at the door for a moment. Corke smiled. Mortis tried to copy in some kind of perverse mockery.
Corke was paying careful attention to their surroundings as he entered the house. He edged so close to the doorframe that his long nose almost pressed against it. He ran a skeletal finger along the wooden frame. ‘Residue,’ he whispered to himself. Then he flinched as if he had just realised something and he took long strides into the house, past Talli.
Much to her surprise, they brought a dog with them; it hesitated at the threshold. The dog was barely a dog. It was large and black with heaps of wiry hair that covered any features that it might have; a head, for example. Talli assumed that it was a dog on the basis that Mortis held a long, feeble looking dog lead, which sunk into the masses of filthy fur. It hesitated at the threshold as Mortis dragged his feet past the doorway. The lead became tort. Corke beckoned it in with a, ‘why don’t you come inside?’
Noting the expression of bemusement and befuddlement on Talli’s face, Corke smiled, ‘ah, yes. This is our puppy. Fizz.’ Talli stared at the creature. It came up to her hip. Below its unyielding knots of hair, Talli could see large muscles bristling. ‘He will be ‘elping us on our investigation ‘ere today.’
Corke stopped to think for a minute. He chewed on loose skin at the end of his fingers. ‘Well, ‘e can sense certain fings, you see.’ Corke smiled a toothy smile of white pearly teeth, ‘just like my bruva from anuva muva ‘ere. ‘e ‘as certain skills, some might call ‘em abilities that make my detecting a slither less arduous.
‘Aren’t you brothers then?’
‘Us?’ replied Corke, regarding Mortis with digust, ‘thankfully not. It’s just that sometimes, I is he.’
‘And he is I.’ Spoke Mortis for the first time. His monotonous voice rang like a deep bell in a large hall. Talli frowned. Corke glanced at him curiously and raised a finger to his lips.
‘Shh!’ he said.
‘I don’t think I understand.’ Talli frowned.
‘It’s not only that he is I and I is he but that we think, or some might say, symmetrically. Or not so, not always, it isn’t the way. Would thee like a cigar, sir?’ Mortis declined with a grunt. Corke thrust the cigar tin forward at Talli, offering her. Talli waved it away with a hand. Corke lit up and inhaled a lungful of smoke. The rich aroma drenched the air.
‘It ain’t that you’re in trouble Miss, it’s just that you may have been misled,’ Corke glanced down briefly, ‘by perpetrators of motives that were for certain, or for all intents and purposes, Miss, most sinister. Mind if we have a looksee?’
Spiritedly, Corke moved through different rooms, closely followed by Fizz, who was frothing at the fur. Mortis shuffled through the house, dragging his big black boots across the carpet; the dog pulling him forward.
‘What is it you’re looking for? The police have already checked the house. They took her laptop away to check too.’ Talli protested. Corke ignored her. She crossed her arms and followed them as they went room to room. They entered Talli’s crimson walled bedroom.
When Talli turned the corner into her room she noticed that Corke was holding a large stone disc. It was too big to have concealed, even within his over-large jacket. It was charcoal black and smooth; a hole punched, imperfect, in its centre. As he wrapped his hand around the stone, the air became charged with the same high frequency noise that Talli associated with the Television being turned on. She felt dizzy in its presence.
‘Where did you get that?’ Talli stared at him, ‘what the hell is that?’ Corke held the stone out in front of him like a driving wheel. He turned, smiling at her as if he had just met her for the first time.’
‘Why ‘ello there, I didn’t know you were following us.’
‘I’ve been talking literally the whole time you’ve been here. Besides, I’m hardly about to let you just wander around my house unsupervised.’ Talli glared. Corked watched her carefully for a moment then shrugged at Mortis who appeared to be examing the room with beady eyes.
‘This, m’dear is an ancient Chinese artefact.’ Corke smiled as if this was a satisfying answer. ‘Why, ‘ave you seen one before? ‘Ave you?’
‘What are you doing with an ancient Chinese artefact in my house?’ Talli stood in the doorway of her bedroom as Corke snooped around. He lifted pillows and the corners of duvet covers, behind empty photo frames and under piles of miscellaneous paper. Talli felt her footing loosen, her vision blurred. The stone disc appeared to glow around the edges as he held it close to certain things. Talli wondered if she was seeing things, she assumed it must be a trick of the light. He sighed.
‘Don’t know nuffin’, you lot, do ya? Dey call ‘em Jade Bis. According to ‘uman culture, dey are symbols of ‘eaven. Whilst this information is not, in its entirety, accurate, it is in fact, in a manner of speaking at least, the symbol of something or potentially somewhere,’ he paused, ‘more likesomewhenbeyond that which we are currently situated. Geddit?’
‘She don’t geddit Mort. You tell her.’
Mortis grunted and barged past Talli into the hallway as Fizz tugged at the lead. Something appeared to have its attention. Talli followed the animal and Mortis. They headed into her sister’s room. In front of a bedside cabinet, Mortis came to a halt and grunted again.
‘What you found, old chum?’ Corked had followed them swiftly and silently. Talli jolted as he appeared behind her. His movement was so quick that he was next to Mortis, on the opposing side of the bed before Talli could protest. His hands gathered around a little golden locket.
‘That’s my Mum’s. Dad gave it to her,’ Talli’s voice crackled slightly as she spoke. ‘Please put it down.’
He seemed to ignore her; Talli glared, stepped forward angrily and snatched the locket from his grip.
‘There’s somethin’ about you, ain’t there?’ Corke suddenly scowled beneath narrowed eyebrows. He turned sharply back to the table, he laughed a strange laugh. Talli edged towards the door. He turned back as she reached the threshold. One of his eyes closed tightly. ‘You ‘ave yourself a most beautiful aura. The aura, some might say, of someone who isn’t quite what she appears to be. I’m sure you know what I mean.’ He nudged Mortis in the ribs with his elbow, ‘what if she is the one, eh Mort? What if we were the ones to find ‘er, eh?’ He moved in close to her with his perpetual wink. She stepped backwards.
‘What do you want from me?’ The pitch of Talli’s voice was getting higher with each step that Corke took towards her. He was now just a metre away and his long arms reached around her head, but his fingers seemed to slip through the air behind her head and he was left face to face with Talli, who stepped back once more and bumped into the hallway wall. She had squeezed her eyes closed as he cornered her and his arms grasped at her. As she opened his eyes, he was still there. He remained there for an awkward minute. His breath smelt like burnt meat. He just looked on at her. One eye still closed.
‘I could have sworn,’ his voice trailed off as he stood straight. ‘It’s time to go Mort, Fizz. Fank you for your time Miss. No need to worry, we shall be keeping a watchful eye on you.’ Without a moment of hesitation Corke, Mortis and Fizz made their way out of the house, each in their own individual way. Corke strode, Fizz galumphed and Mortis shuffled behind. Talli rushed behind them to ensure they left.
When they were gone, Talli fought a lump that had crept up her throat and solidified in a fist of emotion. She repressed the emotional punch. They had picked up her Mum’s locket. It had a picture of her and Evie in it. For a moment, Talli considered whether that locket might be the closest she would ever be to her sister again, somewhere bound in a gold-leaf casing.
Talli dialled Jayce’s number into her phone. She needed to tell someone what had just happened. She wandered through the house absent-mindedly. She listened to the dialling tone as she straightened her bed covers and plumped her pillows. She moved into her sister’s room to repeat the routine. She suddenly dropped her phone.
‘What the fuck?’ Talli murmured in disbelief.
On the bedside table, where Corke had found the locket, laid an eyeball.