Part 3 of The Muralist, Episode 1 of The Muralist & the Inspector
Inside the egg must be cold and dark. It’s made of dead things – jewels and precious metals. Whatever is inside is dead too. Life requires life – it’s the ultimate tautology.
The tapping was now accompanied by the scrape of metal on metal, and the vibrations had become so energetic the table settings were jumping. Or were they? He didn’t want to see the shell destroyed. It really was beautiful. He tried to stop himself looking at it, to will it away, but its splendour was mesmerising.
The egg stopped shuddering and was still.
It opened from the top, splitting along the red gold seams, revealing an interior inlaid with a pearlescent finish. As the sides folded down, petals rose from the inside and formed a shimmering white rose. Atop the rose stood a crane. Its thin, graceful legs and beak were yellow gold, and its eyes, which saw, were yellow diamonds. Its body was a glittering scarlet. It was covered in feathers that were rubies, rubies that were feathers, feathers that were delicate and supple and hard as diamonds.
She was impossible and as beautiful as he remembered. In truth, he liked her, but she meant he was mad, so he feared her more. He cast his glance away from her.
“Cormac, darling.” He’d almost forgotten his mother was there.
“I’m sorry, Mummy,” he said, looking up into her concerned eyes. “My mind was wandering.” He smiled, hoping it was reassuring, but his expression felt papery and thin, something his turbulent thoughts would tatter.
“That’s all right,” she replied, smiling as best as she could.
Miriam didn’t like the look in her son’s eye. Dear God, please don’t let it all be starting up again. She’d made that prayer so many times before, and it had yet to be answered. He’d never own to it, no matter how hard she pressed. And why would he? Admitting it meant being hospitalised, and all those facilities – even the posh ones – were horrible places. No, he’d never tell her if his symptoms were returning. Locking someone away, even for their own good, was an enormous breach of trust, and she’d yet to win his back. She’d have to find a way to keep a closer eye.
Cormac and Miriam finished their dessert, Miriam paid the check and they made their way outside. It was a brisk day, not wintry cold, but the chill was sharp enough to sting. “You’re shivering,” Miriam observed. “You should have worn a heavier coat.”
“I’ll warm up on the walk back,” Cormac replied. Miriam embraced him. It was stiff and awkward, and she hoped no one cared enough to be looking on. The rubied crane was. It sat on the pavement watching silently. Waiting, Cormac thought. For me. He trembled.
“It was lovely to see you,” Miriam said. Surely there was something more to say, but she couldn’t find the words. “I’ll come by later this week.”
Miriam took the few steps to the sleek, black saloon car waiting by the kerb. A uniformed chauffeur opened the door and helped her in. Cormac took a step forward. When he spoke, his speech was hurried and his voice jagged. “I love you, Mummy,” he said.
The statement rang of farewell, and Miriam could only reply helplessly, “I love you too, dear.”
Cormac turned and walked away as his mother watched. The rubied crane followed alongside him just inside his peripheral vision.
She would have instructions for him soon.
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WHERE WE ALWAYS BEGIN.
Mark had spent the day diligently working through his administrative tasks, and he’d made a good cut through the pile of paperwork on his desk. He triumphantly put a last file folder on his now bulging outbox and started readying himself to leave. Janet stuck her head in the door with an apologetic look on her face.
“Seriously?” Mark asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Stabbing death.”
“Shit.” Mark shouldered his mackintosh on and headed out of his office.
They transformed every locale they visited into a macabre circus when they turned up with their flashing lights and barricades and serious-faced constables deflecting neighbours’ questions. Each crime scene unleashed the same basic choreography, and they improvised on top of it. When Mark and Janet arrived, the forensics crew were already there. They were covered from head to toe in white coveralls and goggles and looked like an experimental pop band from the 80s. Mark sometimes half-expected them to launch into performing an upbeat, synth-laden dance track whose poppy beat was at odds with its lyrics, which were dark and full of blood and death. But they always just went about their jobs, methodically collecting evidence, laying down markers and snapping photos.
The flat was cramped. There were too many of them in the small space. Sprawled on the floor of the front room was the body of a young man, James Everett – a thirty-two year-old accountant who liked to cycle and bake. He’d been stabbed full of holes. Nineteen that they’d counted so far. They might find more when they rolled him over. The stab wounds were focussed on his face and genitals.
So much rage.
So obviously grounded in sexual jealousy.
We’ll start where we always do: with the spouse.
“I know I shouldn’t have touched him.” That was the husband, Peter Little, speaking. He, Mark and Janet were elbow to elbow in the tiny kitchen. Like his dead spouse, he was in his early thirties and attractive. He was fair skinned and fair haired, and his partner’s blood stood out in stark contrast where it had met his skin. He’d tried to wipe his hands clean on his pale blue dress shirt and had made a horrible mess. He was trembling, and his face was tear-streaked. “I just wanted him to wake up. I wasn’t thinking. I’m so sorry.”
Mark examined Peter closely, taking in the blood spatter on his face and shirt and in his hair. “I understand,” Mark said, his voice sympathetic and soothing. “It’s what anyone would have done. But I’m afraid we’re going to need as detailed an account of what happened, as best as you can recall, so we can sort out what evidence to attribute to you and what to attribute to the killer.”
“All right.” Peter rubbed his hands together nervously. They were caked with dried blood, and he was shedding crimson flakes.
“We’ll also need to take photos of you and collect your clothes,” Mark informed him. “All right?”
“All right,” Peter replied.
Mark caught the attention of the crime scene photographer, who had been documenting the carnage in the other room. He beckoned to her, and she made her way over. Mark leaned in and whispered something directly in her ear. She gave him a short nod then gave Peter a cool look that was partially obscured by her goggled face. “Please stand by the wall, sir,” she instructed him. “But don’t lean back against it.” Peter complied, and she took a series of photos. She focussed on his face, hands and upper torso, and when she asked him to turn to face his left then his right as she snapped more images, one got the sense of a mugshot being taken. “I’ll get someone to collect his clothes and take some samples,” she told Mark.
“Thanks,” Mark said with a quick smile. He turned his attention back to Peter. “Once we collect the physical evidence on your person, I think it’s best if we get you out of here to take your statement. Seeing James like that can’t be easy.”
“No,” Peter replied, his eyes welling. “It’s not.”
Mark continued carefully, but he kept his voice light. “I think it’s best if I place you under caution, so all the ’i’s are dotted and the ’t’s are crossed.”
Peter’s expression darkened. “Do I need a solicitor?”
“You’re entitled to one, obviously,” Mark replied, his tone and posture candid and unthreatening. “But it’s going to be a bit of a late night, and I’d rather just get your statement down officially so we can get the investigation up and running.”
“Yes, of course,” Peter replied, relaxing a bit. “I’d like this all cleared up as quickly as possible.” He paused then said suddenly, “James had an ex… He was obsessed with him. Kept turning up at his work. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.”
“You’ve had quite a shock,” Mark reassured him. “It’s normal for your memory to be a bit haywire. Have a think about anyone else who might have wanted to hurt him.” A Crime Scene Examiner approached with his kit and ready sample bags, and Mark gestured at him to get to work. “It will feel a bit invasive,” Mark informed Peter. “But it will help us catch James’s killer.
“I want to do everything I can to help,” Peter replied and began to unbutton his shirt.
Mark caught Janet’s eye, and they exchanged a knowing look.
AN INTERROGATION ROOM. LATER.
The room was stark and utilitarian, grey and ugly, lit with harsh fluorescent bulbs. It was part psychiatrist’s office, part inquisitor’s chambers and part confessional, but there were no frills. It was a place where one got straight down to business. Mark and Janet sat on one side of the table, Peter on the other, still looking shaken. He’d changed clothes and cleaned himself up. Janet was leading the interrogation. “So, you tried to revive him, and that’s how you got his blood all over you?” she asked.
“Yes. And then I picked up the knife,” Peter replied. “I know I’ve made a mess of things, but it was just so horrible walking in and seeing James like that. I couldn’t think straight. How could anyone?”
Janet fixed Peter with a penetrating stare. “Do you know what blood spatter is, Peter?” Peter’s expression turned slightly confused. He was not sure how to respond but sensed whatever was coming next wasn’t something that would work in his favour. “When violence is done to the human body,” Janet continued, “the patterns formed by the blood are quite probative. For example, when someone is stabbed, and an artery is severed, there is a spray of blood – droplets. It’s very different from what you’d see if a person tried to revive someone whom they’d found bleeding out on the floor.” She showed Peter printouts of the photos that had been taken of him earlier. They were close-ups of his bloodied face and shirt. “The patterns of the spatter that was on your face, in your hair and on your clothes tell me you were present when your husband was killed, Peter.”
Peter’s face turned shocked for a moment, then displeased. His doe-eyed trembling was replaced with a petulant smirk, and he shed the “distraught husband” role he’d been playing so quickly Janet almost flinched.
“It was very clever trying to hide the blood evidence in plain sight,” Mark commented.
Peter’s nasty sneer turned even uglier, and he replied, “I’d like a lawyer.”
It was rare, wrapping up a case that quickly. Mark was a rationalist who didn’t go in for cheap superstition, but certain patterns did seem to emerge. Having closed the murder of James Everett so neatly in a matter of hours made him fear the next case would be one of the juggernauts that beat them into submission and ended up filed away in the cold cases. He tried to think more positive thoughts as he made his way home. The job was depressing enough – there was no need to go looking for something to be melancholy about. Mark entered his house quietly, relieved to be home, and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. Vanessa was sitting up reading on her tablet. “Sorry I couldn’t make it home for dinner,” he said.
“That’s all right,” she replied without looking up. “I’m used to it.” There was a frisson of something sharper under her offhand intonation, and Mark picked up on it, but he was too tired to engage. The pressures of his job kept him away from home more than either of them liked. You were meant to marry the most important person in your life, but the murder victims whose cases he investigated often took precedence. His obligations sometimes felt like neglect from her vantage point, and they’d had some ugly rows about it. She shouted, and he cajoled. He always won, though, because he had the ultimate trump card. In what world was attending a dinner party more important than catching a killer? He began to shrug out of his clothes, tossing them carelessly into the hamper. When he’d got down to his boxer shorts, he crawled into bed like a wounded animal and moaned.
“I think I may have flu,” he murmured into his pillow.
“I thought you got the jab,” Vanessa said, glancing over at him.
“Some people still get sick,” he groaned.
“Maybe you should sleep in the spare room,” she suggested. “I don’t want to get ill too. There’s a lot on at work.”
Mark sighed and rolled out of bed, taking his pillow with him. Vanessa went back to reading. Mark stumbled into the spare room and collapsed on top of the bed. He was too tired to even get under the covers. He rolled to one side of the bed, pulled the duvet up, and wrapped himself in it. Exhausted, he fell asleep almost immediately.
Cormac sat on his bed with his eyes closed. He was still fully dressed – he hadn’t even removed his coat or shoes. His arms were wrapped tightly around himself, and he was rocking back and forth in distress. He opened his eyes. The rubied crane was perched at the foot of the bed. She had grown to adult size as the day had passed and was even more resplendent. As Cormac watched in horror and fascination, she laid a shimmering golden egg. He began to whimper and lay down on his side. He shut his eyes and shook, ignoring the rustling a few feet away from him. He fell into a fitful sleep, hoping against hope that when he awoke, she would be gone.
The light of the next morning ended his troubled rest and urged him out of sleep slowly. For a moment, he’d forgotten the events of the previous day, and he sat up wondering why his pyjamas felt so odd and heavy. He blanched when he caught sight of the rubied crane at the foot of his bed. She was sitting on a clutch of golden eggs.
The eggs began to hatch, and a seething mass of brightly coloured snakes with iridescent scales poured forth. Cormac scrambled away in fright, falling off the bed. He scrabbled along the floor, awkwardly trying to get up and run away at the same time. He lurched into the bathroom and locked the door behind him. There was the sound of hissing and slithering on the other side of the door. Then came the thumping. They wanted him to come out. They wanted him. He covered his ears, shut his eyes and rocked back and forth. “It’s not real,” he kept repeating to himself. “None of it’s real.”