Part 4 of The Muralist, Episode 1 of The Muralist & the Inspector
Cormac was curled up in the foetal position on the bathroom floor. His hands covered his ears and his eyes were squeezed shut. He was unsure of how much time had passed. He felt it had been an eternity, but it may have been as little as a few minutes. When he was like this, time eluded him. He sat up, moving as quietly as he could and uncovered his ears. It was silent on the other side of the bathroom door. The thumping and hissing had stopped. With his eyes still firmly closed, he felt around for the doorknob. He disengaged the lock, pushed the door open slowly and listened. It was deathly silent. He stumbled into his bedroom and blindly made his way toward the door with his hands outstretched in front of him. He felt something brush his cheek, and he sped up his pace, blundering along the hallway until he got to the stairs. He rushed down the stairs and would have taken a nasty spill if he hadn’t been gripping the bannister. He felt his way along the wall until he got to the front door and fumbled with the locks. They wouldn’t be far behind him. He got the door open and almost tripped down the front steps. The alarm panel beeped, requesting the code. He ignored it.
Cormac slit his eyes open. He raced down the steps and onto the pavement with his eyes glued to the spot just ahead of his feet. He barely missed colliding with other pedestrians as he rushed along. In the background, the burglar alarm for his townhouse began to wail. He was oblivious. Getting away was the only thing that mattered. He could hear the snakes hissing, hear her wings flapping. They were close. The iridescent snakes slithered into view at his feet just as he caught the glimmer of rubies out of the corner of his eye. He broke into a run and barrelled into a young woman whose face had been buried in her phone. He knocked her down and fell over her prone body, tearing the knee of his trousers and scraping his cheek.
“Why don’t you look where the bloody hell you’re going?” the woman shouted at him. Passers-by helped her up and reprimanded Cormac with cross words he couldn’t hear. The rubied crane was circling him, and the iridescent snakes were moving so fast they seemed to bubble and froth at his feet. He kicked at them and tried to knock the rubied crane from the air.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted. “Why won’t you leave me alone?”
The frightened pedestrians backed away and gave him a wide berth. “He’s mad,” they whispered to each other in fear.
Cormac got to his feet and began to walk slowly with his arms wrapped around his torso tightly. There was no point in trying to escape. “Please,” he begged softly. “Please. Just leave me alone.”
“I can’t,” replied the rubied crane. “You know that.”
UNMADE BEDS AND DIARIES.
Mark felt like death warmed up and was trying to catch a second wind with a truly appalling cup of coffee. It tasted like the bottom of the Thames, but the jolt of caffeine would do him good. On his way back to his office, he caught sight of the head of their unit, Detective Superintendent Paul Major, shepherding a posh-looking woman towards the lifts. She was in her sixties but still staggeringly beautiful and impeccably turned out. She didn’t belong in their shabby little corner of the world, and it showed. The upper crust were always the most bewildered when they became embroiled in police matters. Most of them had never met a problem they couldn’t throw money at to resolve. Conciliatory patience was Paul’s usual approach to worried loved ones, but Mark could tell from the tightening around his eyes that his patience was running thin. “I’ve sent his description out,” Paul said soothingly but in a tone that brooked no argument. “And I’ve asked our people to keep an eye out for him, but it’s only been a few hours. I’m sure he’ll turn up.”
Miriam could tell she was being patronised, that the Detective Superintendent thought she was a silly old woman, but she wouldn’t apologise for trying to protect her son. It was all she could do not to start shouting. “The security firm found his front door open and the alarm was blaring! Surely that needs to be looked into!”
“But you’ve said there were no signs of a struggle, nothing to indicate that he’d been hurt, nothing was stolen,” Paul argued gently.
“I’ve told you! I think he may be relapsing. His bed is unmade, and his diary is still on yesterday’s date. That’s not like him. He keeps a very strict routine when he’s well. He shouldn’t be by himself when he’s like this.” Miriam’s eyes were beginning to brim with tears, and Paul felt like a heel.
“We’ll do all we can to find him, Mrs. Pullman, but it may take some time,” he said gently. “It’s best if you head home in case your son tries to contact you there.” Miriam looked ready to argue, and Paul cut her off at the pass. “I will personally keep you apprised of anything we find.”
“Thank you,” Miriam replied, realising this wasn’t the battle to fight. It was best to keep Detective Superintendent Major onside. “If he’s behaving strangely when they find him, don’t let them hurt him. Please. He’s not dangerous; he’s ill.”
“I understand,” Paul replied.
“I’ll call you to check on your progress this afternoon,” Miriam said, steel in her voice and behind her eyes.
“Of course,” Paul replied, trying not to sigh. She was the type to hound him to the ends of the earth. The mothers nearly always were. Miriam nodded and left.
Mark approached Paul. “What was all that about?” he asked. “Unmade beds and diaries.”
“Friend of the Commissioner’s,” Paul replied. “Her thirty-one year-old son went missing this morning.”
“This morning?” Mark exclaimed. “It’s barely past lunchtime!”
“I think he just got out of a lunatic asylum, or something,” Paul said with a dismissive gesture. “I don’t know why they didn’t just keep him locked up if he can’t even be left alone for a few bloody hours.”
A look of irritation flashed across Mark’s face for just a moment, but he was pleasant when he spoke. “Why’d the Commissioner kick it over here? It’s not like we aren’t awash in acts of depraved violence, or anything.”
Paul looked a bit chagrined. “I think he’s still upset about me trying to pull his daughter at the Christmas party.”
Mark tried to stifle his laugh just as he took a sip of coffee, and the hot liquid came shooting out his nose and down the front of his shirt.
“Serves you right,” Paul snorted.
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Night had fallen. Cormac had spent the day valiantly ignoring the rubied crane and her serpentine companions, but she had begun to talk to him again. Her voice was soothing and musical. She told him she meant no harm. Not meaning harm wasn’t the same as not causing harm, though. Every time she turned up it ended with him restrained, drugged into a stupor and institutionalised. She meant imprisonment. Nevertheless, he sensed the inevitability of it all. He was but a tiny boat being tossed by a raging sea. Fighting her was a vain pursuit.
So he listened. Then he followed.
That was how he found himself here, in this poorly lit corner of London, drawing manically on a bare, cream-coloured wall with thick permanent markers he’d stolen.
He liked this part.
The feeling of being in a trance, of forming the dramatic pen strokes with his whole body, of some powerful force within him being released.
It was like dancing. Or sex.
The iridescent snakes slithered lazily on the ground at his feet. The rubied crane hovered over his shoulder, looking on. He had drawn a building resembling the Parthenon in style and structure. It was all pillared symmetry and should have been pleasing to the eye. But there was something Hitchockian lurking in the perspective and shadowing he had chosen. The viewer looked into the empty building and seemed to be pulled down a long corridor towards the centre of the edifice. The picture invoked anxiety, a creeping but acute sense that this building, this temple, was a place for the unspeakable. As he continued to draw, he sketched the contours of a great and monstrous beast. Beneath it lay its terrified victim.
“Oi! You there!” A security guard had caught sight of him and was duty-bound to stop him continuing his vandalism. He didn’t flinch at the interruption. He had blocked out everyone and everything else. He kept drawing. The guard approached. Unused to being ignored, her dander was already up. “I’m talking to you!” She grabbed Cormac’s arm roughly. When he turned around to face his assailant, he saw her face as a roiling mask of bees. He poked her in the eye with his marker, and scampered away when she yelped in pain and let him go. “You fucking bastard!” she shouted at his retreating back as she nursed her smarting eye.
WE RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE MURDER OF CAROL OGILVY.
Libraries should be sacred places.
Every murder was a tragedy, and the loss was felt especially keenly when they were young, when they were innocent. Twenty years. That was barely any time to have lived. Mark had seen it all and worse before, and while every case broke his heart a little, he usually met each new outrage against humanity with stoicism. This was different though. There was something about her lying there, deep in the stacks of the main library of Lawrence University, hidden amongst all those books, that sent his blood boiling. Attacking and killing her in this place was a desecration. He had loved university and believed deeply in everything academic life stood for: knowledge, rationality, finding the best of yourself by learning about the best of your foreparents. It was the hopefulness of it all that moved him the most. The murder of Carol Ogilvy was a betrayal of all that.
The library assistant who had found her had been sick, and the place reeked of the rotting meat, cheese and onions of his breakfast sandwich. No one ever thought much of them – the poor bastards who stumbled over the bodies of the murdered. The thrown stone of the act of killing struck the placid waters of their lives, and the ripples reached into places they couldn’t see, Mark thought. This one was brittle, Mark could tell. He’d never really get over it. It had already changed him irreversibly.
“You look about to collapse,” Janet observed, taking in Mark’s clammy skin. There was a tightness around his eyes that she recognised as the evidence of a pounding head. He was still ill, and the cramped space and stink of bile couldn’t be helping. “Why don’t you step outside for a bit and get some air,” she suggested. “I can finish up here.”
Mark smiled at her thankfully. Under his skin had been itching. He’d wanted to get out as soon as he’d seen her face, frozen in a rictus of terror. Her torn, bloodied fingernails indicated how hard she’d fought and how futile it had been. She’d been strangled with her own tights. They were bright red and had been tied around her neck in an artistic bow, like someone leaving a gift wrapped. The whole thing was utterly grotesque, and Mark recognised the signs of someone who was proud of what he’d done.
She should have been safe down here among all the heavy tomes on the shelves.
Mark nodded to Janet and made his way through the maze of shelves, avoiding the Crime Scene Examiners and exiting through a back door they’d left propped open. It was cold enough that he could see his breath. Sleeping in the spare room was doing his neck in. He massaged the sore area above his collar. The constable guarding the door gave him a sympathetic look. “All right, sir?”
“I feel like I slept in the boot of a Mini Cooper,” Mark replied with a wry smile. “Feels like flu coming on.” The constable smiled back awkwardly, not quite knowing where to take their small talk next. Mark spared her the discomfort of a prolonged conversation, nodded politely and walked away. He’d been feeling a little better, but the low-grade fever he’d developed over the last day or two seemed to be ramping up. He was alternately blaring hot and shivering. He’d get the Carol Ogilvy matter started then take a day or two to recuperate.
Mark walked for a few minutes and in that short time acutely felt how distraught the university community was. Groups of students and faculty were huddled together. A few were outright sobbing, but most just stood staring blankly, not knowing what to do or say. University life was insular and surprisingly unsophisticated. Wine and cheese parties and writing theses on things like the mating rituals of wasps or even detailed histories of violent crime in post-Victorian London didn’t prepare anyone for the police tape, the sirens, the violation of having a member of your tribe killed. Real upheaval was rare in campus life. They’d be telling the story of the murder of Carol Ogilvy half a century from now.
Mark turned a corner and found himself facing the mural Cormac had drawn. He’d immediately known it wasn’t quickly thrown together graffiti and took it for a student’s “street art” project. He recognised the architecture of an ancient Greek temple and admired the sinister quality the artist had evoked. There was something of Goya lurking in the middle of the scene. He looked closer. The snarling beast at the centre of the composition was violating a maiden and choking her with a red strip of fabric.
Mark’s blood ran cold. He pulled out his phone and called Janet. Several minutes later she joined him, out of breath from having rushed over. “That’s her, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing to the woman in the mural. “That’s Carol Ogilvy.”