Frank’s sleep was fitful, interspersed with gruesome dreams none of which he could remember when he awoke. All he could recall was the crimson red flashes of blood and the foreboding inevitability of the end of the world as the stars had fallen from the sky and everything had turned dark. He was woken by the sensation that someone was stroking his forearm as it dangled lifelessly over the edge of the bed, but on quickly looking around his bedroom he found that there were no intruders to account for this. He sat up in the darkness, absentmindedly caressing the forearm in question when the sensation occurred once more; he felt a flicker of movement under his skin that wavered along his radial bone like a strand of seaweed swaying in the tide before settling back into its usual position amongst his other muscle fibres. Frank held a hand up to his skull, his head was throbbing and his eyes ached as they tried to focus in the gloom. He groaned as he hauled himself to his feet and plodded heavily in the direction of the door, arms outstretched in front of him like a mummy in a fairground haunted house. He found the light switch and cursed as its subsequent flicking filled the room with light, dazzling him and suddenly exacerbating his headache. He saw the bottle of whiskey that was culpable for his current state and scolded himself quietly, his voice still dry and gruff.
“Idiot. C’mon focus!”
He rubbed a hand across his throat and coughed away the thick mucous that had accumulated over his vocal cords during his sleep, grimacing as the act scratched against the inside his throat, making it sore. As he made his way down the hall of his apartment to the kitchen, turning on the lights sequentially as he did so, he checked his watch; it was nearly eleven o’clock at night. He reached the kitchen and dropped some fish food into the bowl for Lenny, addressing the fish as the fragile flakes dispersed in the water.
“Hey bud, what’s new?”
Lenny didn’t answer but gleefully accept the food, circling the bowl and nibbling at each of the flakes until there were none left to be seen. His owner crossed the room and rinsed out a tumbler before filling it with water and quaffing the contents greedily. The water entered Frank’s mouth quicker than he could swallow it, and when the cup was empty he wiped the droplets that had escaped consumption from where they had gathered in his beard. Drying his palm on his slacks, Frank made for the door.
“Keep an eye on things for me Len, I’ll be back soon.”
There were plenty of places open late in the city; bars, clubs, whorehouses. Usually with missing persons cases like this one Frank would start centrally and work his way out towards the suburbs until he was too tired to continue, but tonight was different. Tonight he wanted to start outside of the city, something inside him was urging him to search out in the rural areas where youths often gathered to hold raves in deserted barns. Frank drove past neon signs advertising drinking establishments aplenty until the only lights were the occasional lamppost darting past his car window. He wasn’t as familiar with the country as he was with the city, but he drove on, his hands seemingly guiding him as they took control of his steering wheel almost independent of his will. The night was dark, the pitch black sky was free from clouds and punctuated by a tapestry of shining white stars that glinted like diamonds on a black velvet ball gown. The Toyota’s headlights cast dual triangles of light on the tarmac ahead of Frank, and as his journey drew on the roads became less and less well kempt until he found himself driving along dirt tracks, winding between tall grass and cornfields. He passed a turnoff on his left, another dirt trail that was almost completely disguised by the greying foliage that flanked it, and was compelled to follow it. He pressed his foot hard down on the brake, causing the car to skid for several metres before it stopped, sending small stones flying from the road and into the underbrush as its back end slithered from side to side. Frank put the car into reverse and retraced his path amidst the sound of dirt crunching beneath his tyres and the fearful whining of an engine hastily propelling a vehicle backwards, until he reached the snaking dirt side road and guided his vehicle down it. The tall grass flanked his car like ranks of soldiers standing imposingly in formation, studying him and blocking out the moonlight with their height as he crept slowly forward. Frank wound down his window and cold air streamed in, goose-pimpling the skin on his forearms and cheeks, and bringing with it the gentle rustling sound of the reeds as they swayed in unison on the gentle breeze. Before long the narrow trail opened to a clearing on the edge of a farm; the windows of a small cottage a mile or so across the clearing glowed orange in the night like fireflies in the distance and smoke billowed up from its chimney slowly merging into the darkness of the sky. In front of the house were a series of pens, bordered by irregularly cut beams of wood and lengths of razor wire that glinted in the moonlight as they swung to and fro in the wind. Inside the pens were the shapes of animals lying on the ground, Frank couldn’t be sure exactly of their species in the darkness but judging by their size and smell they seemed to be swine. Beside the pens, closest to Frank, was a large barn constructed of wooden planks that were far more precisely cut that those comprising the fences beyond it. It was a large structure with an enormous wooden double-door held closed on metre-long metal hinges that silently beckoned Frank toward it. He switched off his headlamps and pulled his car silently to a stop just short of the barn doors before exiting the vehicle, taking care that he did so as surreptitiously as possible to avoid attracting the attention of those residing in the cottage across the farm. As Frank approached it became clear that the barn was far larger than it had first seemed; the doors alone were three metres tall and at least that distance wide, they were unlocked and slid open easily on their well-oiled metal runners as Frank heaved their handles one by one. Standing in the opening to the barn Frank felt dwarfed by the cavernous structure, the moonlight shining behind him cast his shadow across the straw-ridden floor like an airport runway with the landing lights switched off. He paused for a moment, framed by the giant wooden stanchions of the opening, smelling the dry, musty odour of the hay slowly rotting in the darkness beyond him. There was something mixed in with the smell of the hay, something sweet and metallic, something he’d smelled many times before. He stepped slowly into the barn, crunching dried grass underfoot as he progressed. The quiet, stochastic echoes of the cracking straw disguised another sound; a low tap tap tap was coming from the middle of the building. Frank squinted to see ahead of him as he continued his advance but the moonlight was too dim to penetrate this far. He became so focussed on a shadow high in the rafters that he lost his footing as he approached it; his foot slipped on something slick and jutted forward, colliding with a beam that was resting against the outer wall to his left. The beam shifted with the impact and slowly fell toward the only window in that aspect of the structure. Frank let out a beleaguered groan as he watched the beams trajectory as if in slow motion, willing it to miss the fragile pane of clouded, muddied glass. His will was misplaced however, and the beam crashed noisily into the window, smashing the glass and sending a deafening shockwave reverberating around the barn. Frank recoiled at the sound, and at the sudden inrushing of moonlight afforded by the removal of the grimy obstruction, and as he recovered he returned his gaze to the curious shadow in the rafters. Amidst the twinkling sound of splinters of glass falling to the floor, Frank saw what had been making the tapping sound that had drawn him inside. He felt his knees weaken and the familiar burning sensation of bile rising in his throat as, all at once, the hairs on his extremities stood to attention and he became hyper-aware of the chill on his skin, almost as if it was burning him. High above him, now dimly lit by the solid beam of white light penetrating the erstwhile window, was the body of a girl, the body of Alice van der Linden. Frank could hear a commotion coming from the cottage on the other side of the farm but continued to stare, unfazed but in frozen horror, at the abomination hanging above him; Alice’s head had been skinned, leaving only her expressionless skull staring back down in his direction, but he knew it was her as the removed facial skin had been reattached to her genitals, hiding her vagina beneath it like a cannibalistic loin cloth. Her hair had been fashioned into a tail and was inserted into her rectum so that her naked, hanging body resembled a grotesque two-legged ghoul with a skeleton riding on its back. Alice’s legs hung free but her wrists and neck were tied to the rafters by razor wire, as if by some maniacal puppeteer, and her torso had been torn open revealing blackened, charred lungs that flaked away like pieces of old charcoal. The bone around the mouth of her skull was charred too, evidence of the flame that Frank surmised had been forced down into her airways. He only hoped this had happened post mortem, for Alice’s sake. Either side of her blackened lungs, Alice’s ribs pointed outwards like the jaws of a devilish bear trap, and it seemed her heart had been removed from the cavity they flanked. The dripping sound was coming from thick globules of blood slowly escaping through the mouth that covered her vagina as they hit the floor, and Frank had to put a hand over his mouth as he imagined the horror hiding behind that grisly genital mask, its unoccupied eyes staring lifelessly down directly into his. Before he could compose himself fully, Frank was startled by an elderly gentleman rushing into the barn behind him.
“What in the hell d’ya think you’re doin’ in here?”
The man’s question was more of a statement, warning Frank that he should leave immediately, and was backed up by the 12 gauge shotgun he clasped firmly in his trembling hands. The barrels of the gun were pointed at the ceiling, something Frank was relieved to see when he swung on his heels to face the farmer, but the man was poised and ready to lower them and shoot if required.
“Woah! Wait! I’m a cop. Well a PI, I used to be a cop.”
Frank had never got used to calling himself a private investigator, such had been his dedication to his former job, and rubbed his beard sheepishly as he corrected himself. The old man was a stereotypical farming type; stick thin, his veins decorated his forearms like giant worms emerging from the rolled up sleeves of his plaid shirt. He even wore dungarees, frayed and faded through years of stubborn refusal to replace them, and a peaked trucker’s cap, complete with mesh back-panelling. He seemed to relax when Frank proclaimed his profession, and lowered his gun as he continued in his hillbilly drawl.
“Well now mister, you’re gonna get yourself killed sneakin’ around other folks’ property this late at night. What in all hell brings you all the way out here anyway?”
Frank realised his arm was trembling slightly as he raised it to point up at Alice, still dribbling her own blood menacingly down into the hay. The farmer couldn’t see her from his position in the barn’s doorway, and slowly shuffled forward, keeping his weight on his back foot as he approached Frank. It was clear he couldn’t quite make out what he was looking at as he squinted to see into the rafters, but when his eyes adjusted and managed to focus his decaying retinas on Alice’s remains the skin over his face contorted into an expression of pure horror, eyes widened and jaw slack revealing his crooked, yellowed teeth. The shotgun fell from his grasp and landed with a clunk on the floor as the farmer fled the interior of the barn, and Frank could hear him retching outside. He sighed deeply then followed after the owner of the farm. The elderly man’s vomit seemed luminous against the dark exterior of the barn as it reflected the glow from the moon, and Frank approached cautiously so as not to venture into another wave and spoil his shoes. As he drew nearer the farmer stood upright and turned to face him, wiping the gluey remnants of spittle from his jowls with the back of his sleeve.
“I ain’t never seen nothing like that before, and I’m from Texas!”
Ignoring the seemingly impossible number of grammatical errors in the man’s sentence, Frank offered some solace in the form of a broad hand across the frail farmer’s shoulders.
“Then you’re lucky, you never get used to it. Listen, you should head back home; I heard your wife calling after you and she shouldn’t have to see something like this. Go on home and let me handle this sir.”
The farmer was still visibly shaken by what he had seen, but his stomach was empty and this stranger seemed to be making sense so he steeled himself and made back toward the cottage on quivering legs. Frank watched the farmer until he reached the first of the animal pens, making sure he wouldn’t pass out, and then turned on his heel and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. It was an old fashioned device; a flip-open design in chipped silver plastic. The monochrome screen shone blue as he clicked open the hinge, illuminating his face like a ghoul and exaggerating the crevices of his features like canyons between dunes of musculature. He squinted against the light as he opened his speed-dial menu and selected the third name on the list, and was once again plunged into darkness as the blue glow was quashed against his ear. The phone rang several times until a gruff, out-of-breath voice answered abruptly.
“Hello? Who the fu-“
“Markus, it’s Frank.”
“Frank? Wha? What time is it?”
Markus seemed confused by the intrusion into his slumber, and Frank could hear him clamouring for his spectacles in the darkness, clearing his throat loudly and wheezing as he shuffled about on his bed.
“It’s early. Listen, I’ve found my girl.”
“Well hoo-fucking-ray for you Wardy, but why the hell do I get the honour of being first to know this scintillating information?”
“Because she’s gonna be one for you too.”