Frank’s conversation with the van der Lindens hadn’t been easy; Stephanie had cried so inconsolably that she had to pass the phone to her husband, and even the usually emotionally repressed Niels’ voice had wavered as he had thanked Frank for his work and reassured him that he would be paid in full by remote transfer, and that there was no need for him to contact them again. He had waited at the farm until Markus had arrived, breathing heavily as he heaved his frame out of the Nissan Micra he’d driven since they were partners, the car’s suspension squeaking in relief at the removal of the significant load. Once the rest of Markus’ team had assembled, Frank had told them of his discovery and that everything inside the barn was as he found it apart from the vomit stain against the side, the culprit of which would be found in the cottage on the other side of the plot with his wife. Frank had left just as forensics had arrived, turning their large black Ford Transit van into the clearing as Frank wearily reversed around them and headed back down the narrow grass-lined track. As the lights from the crime scene faded into the distance in his rear view mirror, Frank could feel his back becoming peppered with goosebumps, pressing into the worn fabric of the backrest as if reaching back towards the mutilated corpse of Alice van der Linden. Shifting in his seat, Frank blinked the tiredness from his eyes and refocussed on the road ahead; he needed to get home and get some sleep.
The first rays of light were beginning to penetrate Frank’s home when he returned, breaching the small courtyard and beaming into the far end of the hallway through the open kitchen door and highlighting the dust swirling around in the air after it had been disturbed by the circulation of air caused by opening the front door. Frank’s eyelids felt heavy and his head was throbbing, a sensation that seemed somehow exacerbated by his distance from Alice’s remains. His skin crawled, wave after wave of an uncomfortable prickling sensation flowed over his arms and chest, making his skin seem sentient, and his stomach was gurgling aggressively up at him. He declined switching on the lights through fear of worsening his headache further, and rubbed his forehead with the palm of one hand as he wearily made his way to the kitchen. His legs felt numb and reluctant to obey his commands. The events of the last few days had really done a number on Frank; he wasn’t as young and energetic as he once had been, and was feeling more jaded by the hour it seemed. He tried to imagine how good he would feel after a full day’s sleep, the relief of an empty caseload that he could stretch out for a couple of weeks if he so wished, but he couldn’t clear the image of Alice hanging in the barn from his thoughts. He made it to the kitchen and fumbled in the gloom for the handle to one of the cupboards near the sink, pulling open the door he plunged his hand into the recesses of the space, knocking over empty Tupperware containers in an orchestral cacophony of tumbling plastic until he withdrew his hand, firmly clutching a withered cardboard box of paracetamol. He fetched a tumbler from beside the sink, filled it with water, and gulped hungrily at the contents while shoving the pills into his mouth. Cool water trickled down through the bristles of his beard and when the glass was empty, Frank wiped the spillage away with the back of his hand and paused at the sink, breaking the beams of light with his considerable frame so that he was dimly illuminated by shards of sunlight that cast shadowed cracks across him as they passed through the leafless tree in his neighbour’s garden. He couldn’t figure out why the image of Alice van der Linden, displayed as if just for him, disturbed him so much; he’d seen things just as grisly in his life and had been able to brush them aside and get on with his life as if nothing had happened, but this latest victim resonated inside his head and refused to leave him alone.
They were bound to get to you eventually. Talk to Daisy, that’ll make you feel better. Talk to Daisy, let her in.
His mother’s voice was soft this time, almost caressing the inside his head, but was so unexpected and intrusive that it startled Frank just as much as it had done in the previous two days, and he dropped the tumbler he had been holding. The plastic cup bounced on the linoleum floor three times before skittering over to the small table that housed Lenny’s goldfish bowl. Frank cursed and turned to face the table and, in doing so, allowed the beams of sunlight from the window to enter deeper into the room, one of which terminated on Frank’s wall-mounted telephone, highlighting the cheap, worn plastic as if to instruct him to follow his mother’s direction. Frank found himself moving toward the wall, picking up the receiver and dialling his daughter’s phone number. The ringing on the other end of the line sounded tinny and dull through the antiquated earpiece, and it bleated on for several seconds before there was a click, and an automated, computerised female voice addressed him.
“We’re sorry, the number you are trying to reach is currently unavailable. Please leave a message at the tone.”
The ensuing beep was loud and abrasive, and Frank withdrew the headset from his ear for a second, squinting against the shockwave of pain that had reverberated inside his head in response to the tone, before returning the phone to its previous position next to his face and recording his message.
“Daisy, it’s dad.”
Frank paused, he wasn’t quite sure what to say. He wanted to hear his daughter’s voice more than anything, and hadn’t thought of what he was actually calling her for beyond this; he had spent many years estranged from his daughter and had just begun to rebuild their relationship in the past few months, almost forcibly re-entering her life after his retirement from the police force with letters and messages passed on through Michelle. Daisy hadn’t been very receptive at first; she understood how her father felt about his work and respected him for this despite the destruction it had caused to her upbringing, but by her own admission she wasn’t ready to forgive the years of neglect she had suffered in lieu of the criminals of Arizona. They had rekindled their relationship somewhat through their letters to one another, but Frank had respected Daisy’s wish to not meet her in person until she was sure she could allow him back into her life totally. Christmas was approaching, however, and Frank intended to surreptitiously work his way into his daughter’s holiday plans, and a telephone conversation would be a good start. The thought of spending the holidays with Daisy brought a tear to Frank’s eyes, and he coughed away the lump in his throat before continuing.
“I, I just wanted to talk honey. Just finished a pretty nasty missing persons and wanted to check in and make sure you were OK. Anyway, gimme a call soon. Please. I love you sweete.”
He replaced the receiver solemnly, and as it clicked into place he rounded the doorframe and made his way back down the hallway to his bedroom.
Frank lay on his back on his bed for nearly three hours, arms folded across his chest, staring at a damp patch on his bedroom ceiling as sleep refused to claim him. His headache was gone but his mind was alive with thoughts of Alice van der Linden’s final moments, and every time he attempted to close his eyes he saw Daisy suspended above him, displayed just as the van der Linden girl had been. He eyed his bedside alarm clock; daytime was in full swing now and the digital display was faint in the well-lit room but he could still make out that it was now just after nine in the morning. He felt the need to speak about this case, and the strange sensations he had been experiencing in recent days, so he swung his legs off of the bed and hauled himself standing before striding out of his apartment. He slammed the door behind him, hearing the Yale lock snap into place as he strolled determinedly towards the building’s exit. He knew just where to go; after moving to New York after the Aaron Stokes case in Arizona, Frank had slowly deteriorated into alcoholism, touring the backstreet bars in a drunken haze every night after dark, until one night he had been ejected from a particularly divey joint called Mickey’s for fighting with the bar staff. From what he remembered they had called him crazy for giving up his job in Arizona just because one serial killer had freaked him out, he had tried to ineloquently explain his feelings and his dejectedness after decades of being on the front line in the war against human-induced horror but the bartender had made the mistake of laughing, so Frank had swung a sizeable fist into his face, breaking his nose, before being hauled into the street by the doorman. After that night Frank vowed to regain his integrity, and his sobriety. He had taken on more cases, gotten in touch with Daisy, and hadn’t taken a drop of alcohol since. Part of his reinvigoration was down to the alcoholics anonymous group that gathered in his local church three times a week; led by the reverend Jeffrey Brooks, himself a recovered drug user, the group was the perfect foundation for Frank to get back on his feet. He hadn’t attended their meetings for several weeks now though as he no longer needed the support of his secret community to keep off the booze, but still paid the odd visit to reverend Brooks, who had become a good friend during Frank’s rehabilitation. That was where he was heading now, to the Our Lady of Refuge Church on East 196th street.
By the time he reached the church, rain clouds had moved in to occupy the skyline and begun to assault everything below them with an aquatic bombardment. Frank walked with his overcoat pulled tightly around him, head bowed into the oncoming torrent of rain which showered his hair with freezing cold droplets that ran down the contours of his skull and disappeared beneath his collar and cooled the skin at the nape of his neck. He reached the entrance to the church, a large brown wooden door flanked by black metal railings and framed by an ornate arched stone doorway, and slowly ascended the three concrete steps to the ingress. The rainwater pummelled the wood and stone as if trying to force its way inside, and flowed downwards in a hundred tiny vertical streams creating a force field of water across the entrance. The sound of the rain crashing against the metal fence was like a drug-crazed, tap dancing centipede, and as Frank approached the door the din grew in volume until he could no longer hear the cars trundling down 196th street behind him. He put a hand against the wood and felt the curtain of water part around his fingers, cooling his palm and flowing down his wrist, and as he was about to push the door open he was struck by an intense pain in his stomach. It felt like there was a snake made of razor wire living inside his abdomen and it was writhing around trying to escape. He took his hand away from the door and the pain ceased immediately, Frank looked in dumbfounded accusation at the palm of his hand before cautiously extending his arm and pushing on the door once more. At once the pain in his abdomen returned, this time accompanied by a searing sensation that spread across all of his exposed skin so that every droplet of rain that fell on him felt like a needle being driven into his flesh. He charged into the church, desperate to escape the agony imparted by each raindrop, barging his way through the door with such force that it flew open and clattered noisily against the interior wall of the building. This artificial clap of thunder echoed down the length of the narrow interior of the church before gradually dissipating, leaving Frank standing alone and in silence inside Our Lady of Refuge. Despite the torrent falling from the sky outside, the inside of the church seemed uncomfortably warm. Frank began to sweat as he scanned the far end of the building for any movement, and pulled off his coat as he began to move towards reverend Brooks’ quarters. The wall to Frank’s left boasted three ornate stained glass windows that had recently been refurbished thanks to the generous parishioners’ donations and were a sight to behold in the sunny days of summer. This morning however, dull shadows slunk to and fro behind the glass like carnivorous monsters awaiting their prey, the colours in the glass were dull in the absence of any significant sunlight, and as such the entire interior of the church was cast in shadow. It should also have been chilly, but Frank was feeling hotter and hotter the further he ventured inside. There were no radiators in the church, which was a small segment of a larger building, and Frank began to wonder if he was coming down with something as he felt beads of sweat tumble down his brow and his stomach began to clench and gurgle aggressively once more. He was about to turn around and leave when a voice startled him from his uncomfortable trance.
“Frank, it’s been a while. How are you?”
Jeffrey Brooks emerged from the door to his priest’s quarters, a broad smile across his weathered face; he was of African origin and his well-kempt teeth glistened in pearly contrast to his deeply pigmented skin as he beamed at his friend. The priest had grown frail in his old age; his back was stooped and he walked with a limp that worsened year after year as the arthritis in his left hip became more severe. The tightly curled black fuzz on top of his head had receded, giving his forehead an imposing size, and had fallen out altogether in clumps of alopecia, a remnant of the priest’s former life as a drug using miscreant.
Look at him, you could snap him in half if you wanted to!
The observation put forward by his mother interrupted the discomfort overcoming Frank’s body for a moment, and he winced at the thought of causing pain to someone who had been so influential in getting his life back in order. On disregarding this violent proposal, the pain in his viscera returned and the temperature of the air seemed to heighten further. He swept a palm over his forehead to clear the perspiration gathering there and, after cleaning his hand on the cloth of his trousers, extended it towards his friend and shook his hand, offering a friendly nod.
“Father, sorry I’ve not been by to see you. Keeping busy y’know.”
Frank’s voice was hoarse and apologetic, but was met with a broadening of Jeffrey’s smile as he gestured to the front row of wooden pews.
“Please, Frank, don’t apologise. It’s enough of a blessing to see you busy and happy back at work. Come, sit.”
Frank nodded silently again as he dropped onto the pew more heavily than he had intended, sending a bolt of pain down his legs as his sciatic nerve vibrated in its bony passageway. Jeffrey continued, sitting next to his friend and placing a hand gently on one of his broad shoulders.
“So to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Frank’s skin was crawling, it felt as if unseen fingers were caressing his muscles beneath his flesh. He shifted in his seat and folded his arms across his chest before turning to the priest and looking deep into his jaundiced eyes.
“I just finished a case, father. A missing girl.”
“Turns out she’d been killed, and it looks like the Holy Cow Killer. The way she was….displayed.”
Frank felt Jeffrey squeeze his shoulder gently, a gesture of support and reassurance as he waited patiently for more information.
“The detail, the grotesquery. It reminded me of…..of Arizona.”
Frank was now still, staring down at the floor like a scolded schoolboy, a grim expression carved in his features. Jeffrey regarded his friend; he was shivering and sweaty, and seemed to be deliberately avoiding eye contact. He addressed Frank in a soft but concerned tone.
“Frank, have you been drinking?”
“No! God no!”
Frank turned abruptly in his seat to face the priest and, upon realising his blasphemous slip, looked away again sheepishly.
“Sorry father. I tried to call Daisy, make myself feel better y’know? She wasn’t home.”
“It’s alright. You’ve had a shock by the sounds of things, and it’s a significant step that you didn’t take a drink. That’s a good thing, Frank.”
Frank omitted the two glasses of whiskey he’d consumed from his tale, the reassurance he was getting from Jeffrey was making him feel too good to risk a scolding.
“Do you want to talk about it some more?”
“No, it’s OK. Just needed to see a friendly face. To be honest I feel terrible, think I may be getting ill.”
Go on, just crack him in the jaw and see what happens…
Excruciating pain took hold of Frank once more, exploding in his abdomen like his bowels were bursting open and releasing a tidal wave made of fire. He grunted loudly, clenching his teeth as he doubled over in agony. Jeffrey leapt from his seat to kneel in front of his companion, bracing him upright with a hand against each of his shoulders.
“Frank! Are you OK? I think you should go to a hospital!”
“Maybe you’re right fath-“
Loooooooook at him!
Frank slowly raised his head from its position between his knees, his jaw dropped in horror and he clamoured to his feet, stumbling backwards away from what he saw; Jeffrey’s jaw was hanging loose from the rest of his skull and swinging limply from side to side as he attempted to speak, his words no more than a muted thrumming inside Frank’s head. The skin around the priest’s mouth was intact but stretched almost to breaking point by the fractured dislocation, and his pink tongue danced wildly behind his teeth as it attempted to enunciate an address. Frank continued to retreat, bumping his heels noisily into each pew as he fled down the centre aisle of the church back towards the door. Jeffrey was following after him, his dulled, nonsensical voice echoing around the building, his eyes now starting to leak crimson fluid as if he was crying tears of blood. Frank turned and ran from the church, hauling the door open against the wall with a crash as he darted back out into the rain and away from the decaying face of his friend. Jeffrey stood aghast at what had just happened, staring through the still open door at the curtain of rain outside. Frank had seemed terribly strange, but he hadn’t smelled of alcohol. The priest rubbed a gnarled palm against his chin in contemplation, feeling the roughness of his aged skin against his stubble. Perhaps Frank had fled to seek medical attention, so Jeffrey decided to leave him to his own devices for now but made a note in his mind to check on his friend later to make sure that he was OK. He chewed idly on a fingernail as he strolled slowly back to his quarters, still bemused by what had just occurred.
Frank marched aimlessly away from the church, head bowed into the rain, avoiding eye contact with the people now venturing into the streets. As the sidewalks became busier he started colliding with people walking in the opposite direction, and when he didn’t stop to apologise he could hear the angry cursing fade into the distance as he strode on, unperturbed. The pain in his stomach had dissipated almost as soon as he’d fled the church, and his skin was no longer crawling or burning, but he had been panicked by seeing his friend so horribly injured and he tried to make sense of what he’d witnessed as he continued to distance himself from offending priest; he didn’t remember assaulting Jeffery, but his mother had instructed him to and he had felt the urge to comply with her demand building up inside him. Frank stopped walking as he settled on the conclusion that he couldn’t have hurt his friend, and that the hallucination must have been a construct of a feverish mind. Indeed, this would fit conveniently with the uncontrollable sweating he had experienced inside the church. He needed to get help, to find a hospital so he could get himself checked over, but on checking his surroundings he found that he had wandered so purposelessly that he wasn’t entirely sure where he was. The street here was empty; it was lined with disused garages and abandoned thrift stores, the frontages of which were all sealed by metal grates pulled down over their windows. The doors of the garages were painted in a variety of faded colours, and several were dented so severely that their subsequent contortion had left gaping spaces between their lower edges and the sidewalk. The gaps weren’t large enough for a human to crawl through, but Frank could hear the familiar skittering of rats as he passed by. The lines of derelict storefronts and neglected garage doors on either side of the street drew on as far as the eye could see, and were only broken by a narrow alleyway fifty metres or so ahead of Frank. There were no road signs, and the windows above the shops were clouded and broken, concealing their deserted interiors. Frank began to feel desperate, he thought he must be hallucinating again as there was nowhere in the city that was unfamiliar to him, and this was New York where there was always someone around. He passed the alleyway on his right and stopped abruptly when he saw a woman standing halfway down it; clothed in a red and white polka dot dress, she was leaning back against the wall idly smoking a cigarette while the wind whistled around her and blew at her black petticoat.
“Excuse me, miss.”
Frank called out so as not to alarm her as he approached. The woman only moved to turn her head in his direction. Her hand still hovered near her face, suspending her cigarette ready for another drag. She was quite beautiful; her face was slim and her jet black, bobbed hair was in stark contrast to the pallor of her skin, as was her ruby red lipstick. She had dark rims above her eyes where she had delicately and meticulously applied her eyeshadow, and beneath these her algae-green eyes shone from within the ocular caverns of her skull, unwavering in their lack of concern for the approaching stranger.
“Excuse me, sorry to disturb you. This is a little embarrassing but I think I’m lost.”
Frank’s gait slowed as he neared the demure beauty who had lowered her cigarette and was now smiling patronisingly, almost mockingly, at him.
“Well sugar, you wouldn’t be the first. Where are ya headed?”
The tone of her voice was perfect, and Frank felt her words encompass him as if they were made of warm velvet. She enunciated with the lower class drawl of a 50s hooker but the simple words she spoke were enthralling somehow and her perfume, a thick haze of rose hovering around her neck and breasts, was captivating. Frank didn’t realise that he was staring at the woman, not answering her question, all he knew is that he had to have her, that someone so beautiful should not be shared with the rest of the world and that the only way to guarantee that she would be his forever would be to take her. A rushing sound began to grow inside his head, like a torrent running wild around the gyri of his brain, he wiggled a finger in his ear to try and clear the sound but the sensation only intensified. The whole experience began to feel uncomfortable, and Frank’s head began to throb as he took a step towards the woman, but there was something soothing about what he felt he was about to do, something like a release of pressure that had been building for days. Frank looked down at his palms as his fingers slowly clenched, trembling as they did so. He noticed that his skin had become markedly pale, exaggerating the now bulging veins erstwhile camouflaged beneath his skin. As he stared at his balled hands wondering when and how they had lost their previously healthy colour, one of the tuberous vascularities moved; it was just a flicker but it was certainly independent of Frank’s control, and seemed to be extending towards the figure standing before him. The beguiling woman maintained her poise, holding perfect posture right up until the moment when Frank’s fist connected with her jaw, darkening her consciousness as she fell to the ground. Frank paused for a moment, standing over the stricken lady; she aroused him even more now that she was stricken, more beautiful somehow, and he felt his penis begin to engorge. Quickly he cast a glance up and down the alleyway, making sure that no one had witnessed the assault, before hoisting his victim over his shoulder and covering her with a discarded blue tarp he found a little further down the alley. The tarpaulin crackled and rumbled angrily as Frank’s pace quickened, and he made his way straight back to his apartment, not missing a turn as his black, dilated pupils scanned for danger from within pure white sclerae.
Frank’s head was heavy when he awoke in his apartment, and it ached like he’d been on a week-long drinking binge. It was night but he couldn’t be sure of the exact time; his cheap alarm clock was flashing 00:00, a sign that the power to his home had recently failed. Apart from the intermittent, dim red glow illuminating his bedroom there was no light, even the street-level window was dark. Frank heaved his bulk into a seated position, groaning in protest at the exacerbation to his headache that this action produced, and rubbed the back of his skull. Over the bristling sound of his hair under his fingers a low buzzing sound soon became apparent. The humming seemed to be coming from somewhere in the apartment and Frank paused, keeping completely silent so as to more accurately determine its source; it was coming from the far end of the hall, possibly from the kitchen. As he sat, not moving and still in silence with his hand resting across the lower edge of his hairline, Frank felt something stroke the nape of his neck. He jumped to attention, startled by this interruption to his stillness, and stared down at his hands; nothing. He didn’t see the movement underneath his skin that he’d feared, just his own palms staring innocently back up at him, riddled with trenches that coursed in between the thickened, callused skin that had apprehended so many evil-doers over the years.
Not Aaron Stokes though…
The mention of that name sent a shiver down Frank’s spine, and he shook his head violently in an attempt to dispel the horrific images that were descending on him from his memory of the night when he discovered the Stokes family in Arizona; he didn’t even notice that the voice in his head still sounded like his mother. That was when he remembered the girl, slim-figured with black hair and immaculate red lipstick. He looked back at his bed; the pea-green sheets were twisted and thrown aside, but did not conceal the figure of a woman. Had he dreamt her up? He tried to retrace his steps, going over his conversation with Markus. He had come home after his visit to the station and must have dozed off. He squirmed as he recalled the images of Jeffrey’s face falling apart, and winced as the image of his fist colliding with the fictional woman’s face flashed before him. His day had gotten slightly strange, and very disturbing, after his visit to the station. Satisfied that he’d dreamt up the woman, and Jeffrey’s demise, Frank returned his attention to the buzzing sound coming from the other side of his apartment; it sounded like one of the electrical bug-zappers hanging on the wall of his favourite Chinese takeout. He proceeded forward in the dark, his eyes now adjusted enough to navigate any obstacles, and emerged from his bedroom and into the narrow hallway. There was a strange smell wafting down from the kitchen, sweet and metallic like someone had removed a steak from its packaging and just left it on the counter to rot in the sunshine. He cocked his head and continued towards the kitchen, following the sound ear-first as if it had taken control of his movements and was leading him onward, stepping cautiously as if any commotion would scare away the source of this buzzing, humming noise. Frank neared the kitchen door and the volume of the sound grew steadily, vibrating inside his skull and worsening his disorientation. The sticky-sweet smell was stronger here too and had become musty and overwhelming, occupying Frank’s nostrils like a thick, nauseating syrup. There were beams of light intermittently flashing out from the kitchen doorway, weak and shivering like an elderly strobe light desperately trying to relive its former glory. As he rounded the doorframe into the kitchen Frank noticed that the flickers of light were reflecting off of a slick coating of fluid covering the floor. It was unclear what the liquid was in the gloom, but it seemed a yellowy-orange colour under each burst of pathetic illumination that, as it turned out, were coming from his refrigerator’s internal light; the door hung slightly ajar, almost closed so that the bulb inside seemed confused as to whether or not it should be on, allowing slivers of light to escape but restricting any view inside. The unidentified fluid was oozing from the bottom of the fridge, blurring the appearance of the lower edge of the appliance into the contours of the floor and thinning as it spread out into the rest of the room. Frank stepped cautiously into the kitchen bracing himself for the slippery conditions underfoot but instead finding the floor to be quite tacky, and he was grateful that he was still wearing his boots as he felt the sticky coating tugging at his soles with each step he took towards the refrigerator. The stench of rotting meat was now so pungent that Frank had to cover his mouth with his sleeve to save from gagging, and as he reached the fridge door he extended his free hand out towards the handle. He paused, fingers lingering against the cold metal, for what seemed like an age. The buzzing from the refrigeration unit was incessant and punctuated by tinny percussive notes caused by each flicker of the bulb. Frank felt sweat beading on his brow and noticed the hairs on his extended arm were standing on end, the hand covering his mouth was quivering slightly and trepidation occupied him as if his blood had been replaced with cold, fizzing soda. Slowly he pulled the door open, a slopping sound indicated the exudence of yet more sticky ooze from the fridge and the buzzing noise flowed over him like a wave of prickly sound, causing him to wince against the aural intrusion. When the door was opened far enough to fully activate the internal light, the bulb ceased its flickering and emitted a constant glow that was sufficient to illuminate the contents of the appliance, and in response to what he saw Frank wheeled away in horror, bracing himself against the edge of the sink as he filled the basin with vomit; the shelves that once occupied space in the fridge had been removed, as had the food they had once housed. In their place, in a bloody mass lying at the bottom of the unit, were the remains of the fictional woman. Her body was naked, and folded in half at the waist, forcing her face into her groin so that only her hair was easily visible. Her legs and arms were clearly broken and had been tied in knots around her torso, the jagged edges of exposed bone acting as anchors holding them in place in the shiny, discoloured flesh of her back. Her hair was tangled and matted with blood, and pulled out in chunks to reveal the broken skin of her scalp and the cracked, yellowed skull that lay beneath it. It was clear that she had been in this position for some time; judging by the smell she had already begun to rot. Her blood had coagulated and congealed on the walls of the fridge like a half finished tapestry in a spectrum of crimson, and the pool that had collected at the bottom of the unit had separated into a sediment of red-brown sponge covered with a yellow, serous jelly that continued to ooze out onto the floor and down into the drawers at the bottom of the fridge where it amalgamated with the vegetables rotting inside them, creating a putrid, cannibalistic soup. In the many breaks in the woman’s previously porcelain-white and confluent skin, her thin layer of subcutaneous fat was exposed; it looked like the golden yellow globules in a cross section through a slice of orange, but had become blackened and slick with slough as it began to decompose. Frank turned back to face the horror in his fridge that had now begun to slide out onto the floor behind a bow wave of putrefied flesh, he dabbed his sleeve against his vomit-stained lips before applying it once more across his nostrils; even the nauseating aroma of his half-digested stomach contents was favourable to the stench released by the new found mobility in the woman’s remains. Frank’s legs felt weak, and he leaned back against his kitchen counter for support as he stared disbelievingly at the porcelain woman’s corpse. Dread rose inside him like a cold fire, causing him to shiver almost to the point of convulsion as the realisation dawned on him that he was responsible for this person’s demise. Even above the quivering in his arms he could feel his skin crawling, but when he looked down at his one bare forearm it became clear that this was more than just a somatisation of his revulsion; his skin was bone white, accentuating the shadows that divided the fine, sinewy muscles of his lower arm, and it was moving. Tiny tendrils danced beneath his dermis like a miniature crowd at a sports game, celebrating their team’s victory. He held his arm forward, almost buckling his knees and sending him crashing to the ground, and the tendrils’ movements become more vivacious, as if reaching out to the rancid prize at the other side of the room. Frank’s terror overcame him at this sight; he’d heard the descriptions of Aaron Stokes given by the motel attendant back in Arizona, and what he was looking at could well have been the limb of that murderous psychopath. He began to weep, releasing his grip on the counter behind him and allowing himself to slide into a crouched position on the floor. He clutched his face, as if trying to physically restrain his emotions and prevent any further sobs escaping, and could feel the writhing coils beneath his palms twisting and winding against his bearded jaw. They moved rhythmically and gently, as if trying to comfort their host, but their apparent sentience drove Frank deeper into despair; he had always suspected that an inhuman force was behind the killings in Arizona, and if what had taken control of Aaron Stokes had infested him then he was truly doomed. He remained crouched in position, weeping, as the tendrils caressed his face and the serous ooze from the fridge continued to slop onto the floor until, finally exhausted, he fell asleep.