Here was Ronnie, out of bed at a disgustingly early nine in the morning, on a mission of paranormal investigation.
He parked his aging car near to his friend Rob’s flat in a row of Georgian terraced houses long since sub-divided, and walked through the alley-way to where Rob had described a late- night encounter with a strange hound-like creature during a trip to the garage for cigarettes.
Ronnie Harmsworth was not a stupid man. Underneath his mass of alternative beliefs and sub-culture slogans lurked an intelligent, though sadly underused, mind. As he searched the hollow square between grey tower-blocks a part of him, that cold and rational part, sat on the shoulder of his mind and whispered in his ear saying, ‘you know this is a waste of time’, even while his conscious daydreams were about Ronnie the psychic hero discovering the first urban werewolf. Another quiet subtext was considering the whole throat ripping-out scenario; he was doing his best to ignore that one.
The small square in daylight was shorn of any mystical properties and looked nakedly what it was, a dank and overgrown empty space between buildings. Ronnie felt faintly ludicrous as he quartered the ground looking for, well, who knew what really?
Nothing, in all probability.
Becoming quickly bored he sat on a flight of shallow steps and rolled a thin rollup. He struck a match and lit the scruffy cigarette.
Inhaling deeply he coughed unhealthily and flipped the burning match into the overgrown patch of ex-flower bed next to him where it landed squarely in the middle of a perfect impression of a huge footprint, like some great animal, claw marks clearly visible at the ends of the weirdly elongated toes.
He stared idly at the match; it flamed briefly then gave off a thin column of smoke as the flame died. The footprint came into focus and Ronnie crouched forward with a muttered expletive.
At this moment two figures entered the square from the seldom-used rear entrance to one of the blocks, the faded double doors protesting as they reluctantly opened. One was young, tall, thin with a white face, the other middle-aged, paunchy, and looking angry. They were dressed in cheap bland generically casual clothes that shouted plain-clothed police.
They began to walk towards him.
The woods to the east of the small coastal town were ancient, extensive and deserted. They ran for miles across high chalk downs to the salt marshes beyond. They were difficult to access and privately owned, left to their own devices.
The entrance to the cave complex was in the depths of a tangled, overgrown gully surrounded by gnarled and twisted oaks and scrub. The small gap between two rocks in the centre of a mass of brambles and hawthorn was almost invisible. Beyond the gap lay a maze of caves and tunnels, some small, some vastly black and echoing.
In one cavern, deep below the ground, a meagre fire of damp brushwood smouldered, its fitful red light reflecting dimly across the surface of a black underground lake. A creature sat beside it, limbs folded in on themselves like some huge insect, silhouetted eerily against the glow.
In front of it was a locket with a slim silver chain attached to it. It stared down intently at the object, transfixed.
‘Ronnie Harmsworth,’ said the older man to Ronnie, with an air of sardonic contempt, ‘what the bleedin’ hell are you doing here?’
He did not appear to be too pleased to see Ronnie, though this was usual. But he seemed preoccupied with something else and just going through the motions which was more unusual. Normally he enjoyed a spot of Ronnie-baiting.
‘Nothing Sergeant Mann,’ replied Ronnie plaintively, ‘leastways, I just sat down to roll a fag.’ He proffered the soggy thing as evidence.
‘Look Ronnie,’ said Mann not unkindly, ‘just bugger off will you, this place is about to become a crime scene and I don’t want you cluttering it up.’
I saw that footprint, thought Ronnie. I know it’s real, but this doesn’t seem the time to go pointing it out to plod here. They’re going to find it sooner or later.
‘Buggering off Sarge,’ he said smartly, with a grin.
As he stood up and began to walk towards the alley that led towards Rob’s flat the younger police officer bent over and began to vomit noisily onto the grass. Ronnie paused. He looked at the groaning dribbling figure, grinned at Mann and said,
‘What’s the matter with him, too many doughnuts?’ ‘Just go away Ronnie,’ said Mann, tiredly.
Rob sat back in his armchair and watched as Ronnie perched on the edge of his sofa babbling excitedly about footprints, murder, and monsters as he rolled a large spliff.
With Rob’s grass of course.
Ronnie mostly never had any weed of his own or food or cigarettes or anything much, but at infrequent intervals would turn up with huge amounts of random quantities of alcohol, drugs or takeaway food which he seemed to believe made up for all the other times. In Rob’s eyes it did, but not in Susan’s.
She had adopted her usual slightly rigid posture in Ronnie’s presence and made no real secret of the fact that she found him intensely annoying. To her even greater annoyance Ronnie was pretty much oblivious to her approbation. She strongly suspected he couldn’t really be that insensitive to her mood and was therefore refusing to notice it, which was even more annoying. He was always polite, indifferent and vague towards her and always made her feel as though she was just a temporary blip on the horizon of his long and tortuous relationship with Rob, on whom he focused a large part of his attention.
She was hugely sceptical about Rob’s tale and angry that Ronnie was swallowing it whole. She was also confused: this was so out of Rob’s normal character that she wasn’t sure what to believe.
He really is an irritating sod thought Rob. He would however never express that secret thought to Susan as it would make her insufferable to find out that he secretly agreed with many of her opinions about Ronnie. Yes, he was irritating; he was an inveterate scrounger, a dreamer, a manic conspiracy theory buff, swallower of tall tales and bizarre weirdness, aging drug monster and the rest. But he was also Rob’s last real connection to his own past when he and Ronnie had been inseparable and both into much the same things.
Rob had moved on, ‘grown up’ in his own mind, ‘sold out’ in Ronnie’s opinion, and joined the rat race as a half-hearted IT guy. It never ceased to bother him that a part of him thought Ronnie had got it right and he had got it wrong, though this was a thought he sat on hard most of the time. He only brought it out and gave it a quick polish every now and again when he felt he could bear to examine it. But something about the last 24 hours had made it pop to the surface. The weirdness against all the odds had descended on him and not Ronnie as if somewhere some god or demon had heard his secret doubts and decided to beat him over the head with them.
Bugger, he thought with some feeling.
‘So yeah, it was huge, all of eighteen inches, my god that thing was enormous, you are so lucky Rob, by rights it should have ripped your throat clean out,’ burbled Ronnie with some relish, chattering about footprints and werewolves.
‘It’s ripped someone apart, that’s why the Old Bill were there, it’s obvious. That’s probably the only reason you survived, because it wasn’t hungry.’
‘Ronnie,’ said Susan, in her ‘talking to Ronnie’ voice, which had overtones of school mistress and a slight hint of ‘I’m simplifying this for the mentally deficient’,
’you have absolutely no evidence there’s been any kind of murder at all, Sergeant Mann only said ‘crime scene’ not ‘murder scene’, you said that yourself, and he always tells you to bugger off so there’s nothing new there.’
Ronnie leaned back in his chair and fired up his spliff, which looked like a carrot-shaped patchwork quilt of Rizlas and spit.
He exhaled expansively, sending out a cloud of greenish smoke, which Susan ostentatiously and ineffectually waved away from her face. He ignored the gesture and grinned widely.
‘I’m right; I know I’m bloody right. You wait and see.’
Sergeant Mann waited impatiently while the young detective finished evacuating his lunch.
He lit a Marlboro and wandered restlessly round the square. As he passed the flowerbed that had been the focus of Ronnie’s attention he noticed the same strange footprint. He stopped. He stared. He took a deep drag on his cigarette then slowly and deliberately erased the footprint with his shoe.
Flicking away the dog-end, his mood became brisk. He clapped his hands together and spoke to his companion who was sheepishly wiping his mouth with a tissue.
‘OK DC Young, let’s go and have another look now, and this time try not to puke, it messes up the crime scene and the crime scene boys just hate it.’
He grinned maliciously.
‘Of course, it would be hard to make it any messier now would it?’ ‘You bastard,’ muttered Young, under his breath.
‘Sorry what was that?’ said Mann breezily over his shoulder as he headed back inside, ‘that’s Sergeant Bastard to you son.’
Young had already learned one thing about Mann, the more horrible the crime the more he cheered up. In the face of this gruesome discovery he was positively ecstatic. When bored however, he was morose, vindictive and obnoxious. When cheerful he was equally obnoxious, but more bearable. Young followed him back inside reluctantly but with no real choice. Oh Christ he thought, I don’t want to see that room again.
But there it was. It stunk.
When he was a boy, crime had fascinated Young. He eagerly devoured ‘True Detective’ and all those other lurid pulp crime magazines from the States, with their blurry crime-scene photos and semi-pornographic descriptions of unspeakable outrages against mostly young, attractive women. Those stories and cover pictures stuck in his mind.
Later he moved on to true crime books of which the most common in his teenage years were the seemingly endless ‘Jack the Ripper unveiled at last,’ books. None of them delivered on that promise and never would. Too much time had passed and any evidence long since disappeared, but one thing stuck in Young’s memory. The police photo of Mary Jane Kelly, Jack’s fifth and last victim. Barely recognizable as a human being, lying on a bed eviscerated, mutilated, faceless.
The scene in front of him was worse. Kelly had at least still retained the vague form of a person. Moreover, she was in black and white, which was strangely common in those days. This room was in Techni-Colour and Smell-O-Rama, the smell being of opened bowels and stomach.
There was a sound of cheerfully buzzing flies.
The sight he was still struggling to make sense of once had been a young woman, attractive from the photos round the room, outraged far beyond even ‘True Detective’ style. No-one no matter how sick could get a vicarious thrill from the terrible slaughter done in this bland and ordinary room. Gutted, faceless, featureless, rent into pieces and strewn around the blood-
splashed room, a forearm and foot were the only recognisably human features Young could identify.
Sirens screamed their approach, jerking him back to the moment. ‘Come on sick boy,’ said Mann, ‘let’s go and announce the good news.’
Young guessed what he meant. One killing like this could have been, indeed had been recently, played down for public consumption, but this was the second. That suggested the magic phrase ‘serial killer’, which meant that all hell was about to break loose.