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By Leyland Perree
We live on the edge of damnation where cloning is both yesterday's miracle and tomorrow's catastrophe. Things were different a year ago. My office was decorated with photographs, my name etched in brass. Soon I'll decorate the walls again, but in another sense.
How things change.
It is late summer and hotter than a glow-worm's ass. Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Locksley Project, and the celebrations are set to start any minute now. The protesters are out in force at the front of the Facility, waving their signs and hand-daubed banners like it's the Second Coming or something, but if they really knew half as much about the Project as I do now, they would turn right around and run like hell with their signs tucked neatly up their rear-ends.
You see, despite the birthday banners, balloons and gaudy decorations with their congratulating messages, the day has no cause for cheer and goodwill. Twenty-five years ago today, the walls of the Facility rang with their own popped champagne corks and self-indulgent applause as it was announced that the Project was deemed a success. Twenty-five years ago, two tiny wrinkled figures squirmed in their cots, looking up into the faces of their creators. Wrapped around the left wrist of each, from a single band of plastic hung a tag which held their only mark of identity; not a name but a jumble of numbers and letters - a code. A third cot lay empty next to the others, and lying on top of the sheets rested the single plastic bracelet the cot's occupant had worn before the Facility medics had bundled it away to the surgeon's knife. Written on it was not one code, but two. On that sweltering summer day, during the drought of 'o-nine', the Locksley Triplets, better known as the Sisters Three, entered into a world that by all accounts should have known better.
It has been a year since I first visited the Facility and, I might add, first met the Sisters. All three were as uncertain of their release into the world, as the world was of receiving them. The laws on human cloning had long been passed but the scars had not yet healed, and because of this the Sisters were to have lifelong security around the clock. Only the best were employed. All three siblings were to be separated as an extra precaution against attacks from extremist groups such as the Motherhood, or the ex-human rights turned anti-cloning sect OneTwentySeven. The latter outlined their belief that creation is best left in the hands of the Divine (Genesis 1:27). Religious-scientific bodies often quoted back the Scripture's subsequent texts; 'increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it' - which was precisely what mankind was doing, albeit by scientific means. OneTwentySeven simply responded to such impertinence by exploding yet more genetic research labs and places of worship until such questions had ceased to be asked.
Going back to the Sisters, as with many siblings of the same birthing the three shared not only common genes but also a strong emotional link - a sense of togetherness. To many it was the usual triplet's bond, but to those around whom the sisters lives revolved it was more defined, honed even. Call a spade "a spade", I saw it as less of an emotional tie than a sixth sense. That's rich coming from the mouth of a man who a year ago was probably the biggest sceptic in the district, and well known for it too. But had I known then what I know now…
The Sisters Three also had similar characteristics; they each possessed a sharp creative mind, offset by a tendency toward depression and occasional memory blackouts. It was a side-product of the cloning process, the scientists had claimed. By a remote chance, the cloned cell was marred by that particular defect and consequently, so were the copies. Despite that tiny flaw the project was termed 'a brave step forward for medical science' by the tabloids and governments of the world, and paved the way for future similar projects. The sisters were celebrities before they could even crawl. Throughout their childhood, private schooling, and passage into adulthood, they expressed their talents in very different ways; Marion was the artist, Seraphine the songbird. Jane, however, due to her crippling disabilities had no discernible aptitude. She was the introvert, the wheelchair-bound philosopher and, to my sceptic's mind, the most intriguing of the Three.
They say that curiosity killed the cat. They may be right, although the 'cat' in this story had been skinned, par-boiled and served up with a side-salad worth dying for.
Meow, how do you do and this is where it all started...
I had been working late in the office, just finishing up some outdated paperwork which was really a veiled excuse to also finish up the tequila I had hidden behind the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet. My telephone rang, breaking the silence. Although Private Investigation outfits such as mine were well known for holding unsociable hours, I hadn't received a call for over a week. The recent recruitment drive for the city's boys in blue had resulted in an all time low for criminal activity. To be more exact, the activity levels probably stayed unaffected, the perps were just being more careful not to get caught. Still, when the telephone rang it seemed alien and unrealistic. It took a further two rings for me to react and grab the receiver from its cradle. A dead line - just my luck! I shrugged it off and my steered my attention back to the last inch of amber that sloshed seductively around the bottom of my glass.
I was drinking more and more back then, as I approached the final months of my career. I had spent a good quarter of my lifetime snooping around the lives of the innocent-until-proven and had very little to look forward to in the later years. My retirement fund had dwindled away to almost nothing over time, a direct result of adding a little and drinking a lot. What I needed was a nice little job with a big fat cheque to see me through to the end. Who was I kidding, it wasn't going to happen. What I REALLY needed was another drink.
An hour later I jostled through the door of Marci's, a dowdy free-house that had seen better days as an upmarket pizzeria, and worse ones during its porno bookstore era.
The Marci in question existed only in the pink neon lettering slung above the door - the bar actually belonged to a former motor mechanic known as Lonnie.
There was security everywhere here. I figured that Marci's was expecting an important guest, either that or Lonnie was finally stamping out the dealers and pimps which had become associated with the flickering flamingo emblem pulsing out on the street front. I pushed my way through the crowd to the bar and ordered the very poison that had funded most of my problems, including the break up of my marriage. In the background a soul outfit was spinning out a pretty good version of "Rockin' Robin" and I had to admit, they got my foot a-tapping. Right on cue my drink arrived and I weaved a meandering path towards the stage, sitting down at the nearest free table. The group broke for refreshments themselves and walked past me towards the bar. Somehow the female singer looked familiar. So what of it? She could have passed me in a thousand different places. My thoughts were interrupted by a voice from the crowd. 'Crawl back into ya vial, ya shake'n'bake freak!' and out of the bobbing crowd an empty Big Bud came tumbling in an overhead arc. The crowd scattered away from the bottle as it shattered on the hard floor. 'Whore in a jar! Frankenslut!' the voice rasped through the turmoil like a buzz-saw. In an instant the heavy-set security guards, guys with fists like barn-smoked hams, ploughed into the mix and withdrew a gangly red-haired drunk who looked as if he was overdue a session at my old rehab. It takes a boozer to know a boozer, and this guy was the dictionary definition.
'You okay, Seph?' one of the band's musicians piped up, barely audible above the noise.
'Yeah, fine,' she replied, 'You kind of get used to it after a while', and with that they disappeared from view, leaving me puzzled as to why I thought I should know her.
It was only when they returned to the stage that it finally clicked. The girl could have been no more than twenty with long braided hair, blacker than the night sky. Her skin was fair and clung tightly to her frame. Between her biker's leather jeans and the glitz-spangled vest she wore, the bare skin of her midriff hugged against her lower-ribcage and the sharp angles of her hips. She was beautiful, if a little on the wispy side. Me, I prefer a bit of meat on my bones, but had I been twenty years younger I would have liked to introduce her to a bone of my own.
'Sorry about earlier, folks,' she whispered into the mic. Then turning towards the band, 'If that was our warm-up act, then I think we've got our work cut out for us tonight, boys.'
It got a laugh from the crowd, followed by a short bout of applause. She smiled and continued.
'In case any of you have just walked in, we are Lady Got Me Good, and we'll be providing your evening's entertainment. This next song is an old Sister Sledge funk-soul classic, and is dedicated to all those drunken Motherhood assholes who can't seem to get it into their heads that we are in the age of miracles, and that witch-hunts ended a long time ago...'
'..so this is for all the children of today, whether you were grown in a plastic tube or had your features chosen from a brochure. Or maybe in the case of our beer-swilling friend, your daddy shot off inside his brother's sister's mothers' wife down among the human-hopefuls in their happy-happy commune.'
Another laugh from the crowd and she moved smoothly into song.
Her voice was fantastic.
'...we are fam-ily, oo-oo-oo-yea, I got all my sisters wi' me...'
Now knew where she was coming from. Where she came from. Seph. Seraphine Locksley. Singer of local soul band, Lady Got Me Good, and more famously, one of the Sisters Three.
She was a little older than I had imagined, by now she should be twenty-three, maybe twenty-four. The clone certainly looked no older than about eighteen.
I had seen her face on the news and in the tabloids a number of times over the last few years, ever since the Sisters had been released from the Facility's care. The Sisters had signed themselves out to find a life for themselves when they turned twenty-one. It was in their interests, a spokesperson for the Project had said, to keep custody of the Sisters until that age as they were unprepared for life outside the Facility's gates. Since that time the Sisters had acclimatised well, and in Seraphine's case had become better adjusted to society's slings and arrows than the Ordinary Joe or Johanna.
She was feisty, she was street-smart. She had a smart mouth that could land her in a whole heap of trouble unless she learned to control it.
She gave me a glance and a provocative wink while wiggling across the stage-front, and feelings I thought were long abandoned stirred up within me. These days it took a triple finger of the dark stuff and a good titty-rag to do a job like that on me. Don't ask me how but she managed it, easy as pie.
Yes sir, Lady Got Me Horny.
That night I dreamt that I was dancing across the floor of an immense ballroom decked out with white tile, with Seraphine in my arms. The walls were strung with balloons and coloured ribbons, tinsel and mirrors set against the sterile walls. Now I know that it was my mind's rendering of the Facility's inner quarters, but back then my fuzzy old brain had created the image by itself - and pretty much hit the mark.
Together we waltzed across the floor to a strange and beautiful piece of music I just could not place. No one else was about to disturb us. After a while I came to realise that we had drawn a crowd of spectators, all dressed in white doctors' coats and carrying test-tubes and Big Buds. Suddenly I had forgotten how to dance and the crowd began to jeer. They swigged at their beers and laughed at the old fool who wanted to bone the shake'n'bake freak, but couldn't even remember simple dance steps. I allowed Seraphine to take the lead and to my surprise she was incredibly strong. She swung me out in a wide circle and we spun a dizzy dance to the applause of the spectators.
Round and round we went, and I found that I couldn't stop spinning. Then I realised that it was the room itself that was whirling out of control, and around us the blur of white-coats laughed and sang, 'Knick-knack paddywhack, give the clone a bone, this old man went rollin' home,' over and over again.
Seraphine was gone, but now and then her face flashed up before me in the crowd and she sang along with the rest of them.
'...this ol' man, he played three...'
I was dizzy and ashamed, but moreover I was angry.
Someone from the whirling circle of white-coats threw a bottle and it struck Seraphine in the back of the neck. She cracked like glass, and I realised that I was spinning alone before one cracked mirror set against the wall. I looked around for Seraphine and the white-coats, but they were gone. Somewhere I could hear Seraphine laughing and it was with a sense of horror that I realised that she was there, in the broken mirror, reflected back at me three-fold - a fragmented image of her with each piece animated separately from the last; three versions of the same person. And in the background behind her, the taunting phantom white-coats stood and mocked.
'...knick-knack, paddywhack. Knick-Knack PaddyWhack, KNICK-KNACK...'
'Kill you all,' I hissed under my breath but it boomed loud and menacing in the echo chamber. 'I'm going to kill you all.'
I woke up with the bed sheets stuck to my chest and legs. I hadn't wet the bed since I was seven years old - the time my older brother, Joe (God rest his soul) had forced me to steal Grandpa's secret stash of cream soda, and we crawled up into the attic and drank the lot just before bedtime. Seventeen cans between the two of us. I would have chuckled at the thought if it hadn't been for that damned bad dream, but instead I went into the bathroom to shower.
The next few days passed without either a single phone call or thought of Seraphine, so imagine my surprise when I found her in my office one sticky summer evening.
She was sitting there trembling, when I walked in, so I offered her a drink to conquer the demons. By that time I had restocked my secret liquor-store at the back of the filing unit. She nodded and I poured her a large glass. She reached across the desk for it and in doing so she managed to knock a photo frame from my cluttered desk to the floor.
'I'm sorry,' she apologised, and retrieved the frame from the floor. 'I'm afraid the glass had cracked. I really am sorry, detective. I'll replace it, of course.'
I waved my hand at her. 'No, no. It was an accident, really nothing to concern yourself about.'
I took the frame from her, shook the broken pieces of glass into the waste-bin and slid the photograph out from the frame. On the back was written in my late mother's neat and careful print, 'Flanaghan’s Farm, Pregnant with Baby Eddie, Christmas 1968'.
I flipped the picture over and examined the familiar front, now looking clearer and sharper than it had when hiding behind the piece of grubby glass.
'Family?' Seraphine asked.
I passed the picture back to her. 'Yep. Something I rescued from the family album.'
The picture clearly held the image of my brother Joe, a sandy-haired stick of a boy, probably about four years old by then. Behind him, his strong hands resting gently on Joe's shoulders, was my father, a magnificent man, who had passed away a scant fourteen years after that photograph was taken. My mother stood at his side, one hand slipped lovingly into the crook of his arm and the other resting proud and protective upon her swollen stomach.
'My father, my mother, my brother Joseph and myself,' and then noticing the puzzled look on her face, 'I'm the bump.'
Seraphine smiled and sipped her drink. Her hands had stopped shaking, and she seemed a little more composed than she had when I had first walked in.
'So, Ms Locksley…'
'Seraphine, detective, if you please.'
I continued nodding, 'Perhaps you may tell me why you are here. I take it you haven't come just to drink my stash and break my stuff.'
'My sisters are in trouble, as am I. We - that is - I… I…'
Come on , baby, just say those sweet little words.
'…I need your help.'
There we go. Kerr-CHING! Smack on the jackpot. I tried to hide my blatant smile, but found I could not. Instead I opted for the less noticeable option of moving it around my face a little.
'So how may I assist you. Surveillance? Protection? What is it that I can offer?'
She managed a weak smile, 'Protection, hah! I have no shortage of that, detective. Haven't you noticed that I cast multiple shadows these days?'
I had to admit that I hadn't, but then that was the sign of a good bodyguard - out of sight, out of mind but always there when the shit hits.
'So what then, Seraphine?'
'What I need from you is trust. You can start by listening to what I have to say - no interruptions and certainly none of your trademark scepticism.'
'Will another drink be okay with you?'
'That, detective, will be fine.'
Slowly, mouthful by mouthful, she relaxed and spoke to me of her sisters, all the while fixing me with those big Spanish-looking eyes. I sat back in silent contemplation while she explained to about the feelings they all shared; that special triplet's bond. When one got ill, all felt ill. When one got sad, the others would too, and if something should happen to spook one of the Sisters, they all would feel the fear. I had heard of this ability before, it was nothing new but it wasn't everything. The Sisters had another ability - they would feel things, events, that they knew would happen at some point in the future. Known as precognition in paranormal circles, and bullshit coincidence in others, the Sisters had another name for it. They called it 'that tomorrow place'. It was a sign, she said, to stay away - an echo of some mortal tragedy which would rise from a particular location, and from events that were yet to come around. And those feelings spanned the bond, which is how Seraphine felt that her sister Marion was in danger.
I was sceptical and made my feelings quite clear. So did she, and the wad of notes she slammed down on my desk raised small puffs of dust from the scrappy surface.
'I don't take bribes, Miss Locksley,' I said as sternly as I could muster under such circumstances.
'Look on it as a bet, detective - a token of my sobriety. Believe me because I believe myself.'
'When you've seen the things that I have seen in my colourful career, Miss Locksley, you'll find that there's not an awful lot left in the world to believe. Nor the belief left in you.'
'Well believe this, detective, you get to keep the money, either way. No catches. No switchbacks.' Seraphine fixed me with those intense but beautiful eyes, 'So are you in, detective?'
I scooped the bundle of notes to the edge of the desk, letting it free-fall into the open drawer where it produced a satisfying thud. I turned the drawer key, locking away Seraphine's Sobriety from the world, and with it my self-respect.
Although sceptical, I dared not tarry, and had an ambulance and police escort dispatched to the artist's farmhouse studio with no questions asked. Seraphine and myself followed close behind in my own car. I still remember her stiffening in her seat, silent and wide-eyed on our approach to Marion's anticipated death-site - her tomorrow place. The crunch of my tyres upon the gravel driveway broke the spell of silence, and she jumped at the sound, or so I thought at the time. It was only by her subsequent reaction that I knew right then how wrong I was. Seraphine had been right and as it turned out we were too late by a matter of minutes. As the front of the building swung into view, I could still see the glass dropping from the punctured window, framing the gleaming structure that had broken through from inside the converted barn. I also knew that Marion was on the other side of that wall, lying broken and lifeless. It occurred to me later that I would normally have trusted my own gut feeling on such a matter, so why not that of another person? Had I really become so closed-minded that it meant that my failure to recognise the intrinsic importance of a hunch had resulted in the death of an innocent? If so, then it really was time for me to retire, along with the little self-respect I had left.
I left Seraphine grief-stricken and fatigued in the care of the district's lawmen, and gained entrance to the studio treading in the footsteps of the paramedics. We found the body folded up beneath an impressive steel structure; an abstract skeletal icon Marion had been working for the last seven weeks. The clawing, spiralling mass of scaffold and steel plate had pinned her to the floor under its sheer weight. The overall effect was that of a huge distorted ribcage, complete with Marion, curled up within; a foetus in the womb. Ironic really, she would have found the sight inspiring.
Accidental death was the conventional verdict, but Seraphine was not so sure.
'Detective,' she said in a tear-fractured whisper, 'you may not have believed me before, but believe me now. We are hunted. Whoever it is wants us dead, all of us, and I fear for the life of my other sister as well as my own.'
I expressed to Seraphine my sorrow at her loss, and that however it looked to her, it displayed nothing which would make even the most unassuming copper think this was anything other than an accident.
I had spoken briefly to the farmhouse security and they had told me nothing which suggested foul play, just a crash within the room in which Marion had worked, and the team were there in seconds.
I asked Seraphine what had driven her to make such an assumption. What she had to say nothing could have prepared me for.
'Because I felt her die, detective. She was rigid with fear when that thing landed on her. I felt her terror, not of the thing that she loved - her art - but of another presence that was in the room with her.'
Those dark eyes drew me into their world, led me where they wanted me to go, and I realised that this was something I could not fight. I couldn't drop this case even if I wanted to.
Knick-knack paddy-whack. Give the dog a bone...
And with that, as if sensing my acceptance of matters, she added the sumptuous, glistening cherry.
'My sister was murdered, detective. And I may be next.'
Now that's showmanship.
Naturally, I took the matter as being one of a serious nature. The paranoia she exhibited was to be expected following the accident, which is exactly what I believed it to be. An accident. And of course people were hostile toward them, seeing as the three - correction - the two of them were an abomination against nature in the eyes of many, but - with the exception of the terrorist group OneTwentySeven - enough so to kill? I had my reservations, none of which I decided to share with Seraphine. However, they were high profile in the public eye, which was the very reason for the big-gunned Security goons I had spotted loping about, shadowing Seraphine everywhere she went. They had their high-paid security, but that still was not enough for Marion Locksley. It looked like an accident, it felt like an accident, even then fact that there were no signs of forced entry into the studio screamed of an accident. Yet Seraphine was insistent that I open investigative proceedings straight away - to make it my top priority - and judging by the little sweetener which lay amongst the chewed pencil-ends and posting notes in my office desk drawer, I guess money was no object. This she confirmed in no uncertain terms just as the thought had passed through my mind. Hell, why not? Retirement was looming after all.
'I believe that you believe, Miss Locksley,' I said shaking her hand, 'and these days that's good enough for me.'
We went to visit Jane that same night and by the time we pulled up outside the Facility gates it was dark.
'I haven't been back here in a long time.' Serpahine said looking through the bars to the monolithic building beyond. It was said more to herself than to me, I gathered.
'You nervous?' I asked, but she shook her head.
'Actually, I'm scared shitless.'
Just looking at that building was enough to put the willies up anyone, myself included.
'Come then, let's get this over with.' I said. That was the one thing about fear - sometimes it can be a fantastic motivator.
'Here we are,' said Laney, the Facility's Project Supervisor as he waved us towards a wide metal door, deep within the Facility walls. His fingers danced over the keypad set into the wall and the door slid to one side with a hydraulic hiss.
Jane was, in terms of survival, the runt of the litter - a wheelchair-bound wretch, locked within a framework of posture-correcting apparatus. Her aura - as if I believed in such things - would have consisted of straps and stirrups, braces and bolts. A prisoner in a mobile jail cell, she looked more like one of Marion's structures than human. Maybe the very piece that had crushed Marion was in fact some abstract likeness of Jane.
Jane was the only Sister to stay back at the clinic, it was by choice her home. She took residence at the Facility as it offered her the unparalleled care and medical attention she required for her condition which was quite terrible to behold. Other than the criss-crossing struts of surgical steel which surrounded her, pulling her straight in every conceivable direction, her very flesh was ridged with heavy scars down her right side from her head to her crotch - which was where her entire right half ended. She had no right ear, arm or leg. Her posture was kinked to the max, forming a lazy 'S' as one looked at her from the front. She was three-quarters of a person and one hell of a sight.
In addition to the extensive deformities Jane had been cursed with, she was also virtually mute, communicating by way of a text-to-speech module that conveyed whatever she chose to 'say' in a passable synthetic tongue.
'It has an unbelievable vocal library of curses and insults that would give you nightmares for weeks,' warned Laney, 'so try not to piss her off. I'll be waiting outside, call me if you need anything.' He then left through the same hi-tech door with the sci-fi swoosh.
My conversation with Jane was indeed enlightening. She dispelled all my preconceptions of her, with her witty, charming conversation. She had also felt the echo of Marion's death and was glad to be able to talk about it with Seraphine and, although to a lesser extent, myself. I queried Jane on her feelings about external powers playing their part in her sister's death, and she echoed Seraphine's concerns almost word for word. She also said that she felt reasonably safe here at the Facility. The place was high-security all right, much higher than Marion's studio but certainly no Fort Knox. I put the suggestion to Seraphine that she ought to stay here with her sister, but she was apprehensive.
'I'm afraid I must insist. It's for your own safety,' I said, 'Just look on it as a sleep-over, and it'll give you two a chance to catch up.'
'Yeah, and maybe later on we can beat each other with feather pillows in our nighties.' Jane said through the miracle of synthetic speech. The voice from her wheelchair's onboard computer was designed to be as natural sounding as possible, but did I not discern a spike of sarcasm just then?
'Okay, detective. We'll be good girls.' added Seraphine.
They both smiled sweetly at me. It was nauseating.
Changing the subject I asked Seraphine to excuse us for a moment so that I could talk with Jane. She did so with a smile.
I asked Jane about her life-story to date. She spoke freely about her past, her obvious disability, and her life here at the Facility. She told me everything I needed to know, and more. The Sisters Three were cloned from the same cell group. That was common knowledge, it was what cloning was all about, but from whom did the cells originate?
The answer was scrawled in a child-like script, upon a small folded paper scrap, which Jane had pressed into my hand, a trace of a smile straightening her twisted mouth. It was almost as if she had been expecting me to ask.
I left shortly after that, argued with Laney until he agreed to provide board for Seraphine until this whole ordeal was over, and then made my way to my car. I was tired and needed a good night's rest. Tomorrow I was to return with the girl's biological 'mother' - the fruits of my conversation with Jane - but until then sleep was my prime directive; sweet and dark, but most of all dreamless.
I awoke early the next morning and set the last clean bed-sheet to work, tucking it in with hands that refused to quit shaking. Any more accidents like the ones I'd been having lately and my bladder was quite likely to file for divorce against the rest of my body - they sure as hell weren't on speaking terms. I thought maybe it was time to quit the drink again, but point one; I had been saying that to myself for years, both before and after rehab, and still the world's most perfect poison had beckoned me back with much repeated success. Point two; I hadn't touched a drop during the day before. It wasn't the drink that was the problem. This time it was the dreams.
My memory of the dream was muggy and confused in general although some elements maintained their clarity, and I wish to God they hadn't. I was at the family farm of my pre-teen years; the times when my family were still living and breathing, and I could follow Joe around with the cutesy adoration that a seven year old boy could hold for his big brother. The time and the place were right, but there were still no signs of life. The house was empty and the screen-door with its dented mosquito gauze banged against its surround in the light breeze. It was daytime, early morning by the way the sunlight painted the dusty front yard in a fuzzy mosaic of amber-pink, and I was sitting on the front steps watching the birds scratching at the dry dirt for spilled grain.
As I watched I became aware of movement on the ground near the old oak stump which my father had felled a year or two before I was born. I stepped up on top of the darkened stump, for I suddenly found myself there. It's funny the way you can edit out the extraneous portions of dreams like film scenes destined for the cutting room floor. As I stood atop the stump I could clearly see the thing which oozed and swelled around the bared roots of the trunk on which I balanced in my chunky red sneakers. I remembered them as a pair I had been given for my twelfth birthday, yet in the dream I could have been no more than seven or eight.
The crawling mass seemed to be - was - alive. It was a fleshpool; a puddle of mutilation out of which wiry tufts of black hair sprouted at sporadic intervals, sweat secreted from pores glistening within its sallow folds. It crept up around the trunk, seeking me out. Horrified, I turned to leap from the sawn-off stump to the ground behind me and to run back to the safety of the house where nothing could touch me, but I found that the rank and quivering mass had somehow managed to surround the entire foot of the trunk and spread itself far and wide over the surrounding ground. I was trapped, marooned on this tiny wooden island amid a pulsating, living sea, like a pre-pubescent Crusoe.
(Where are you now, Friday? Where are you when I need you most?)
From out of the swirling, cyst ridden flesh, shapes formed and faces screamed in voiceless terror.
A cluster of arms moulded out of the substance and reached toward me, groping for my ankles. I kicked them away, but lost a sneaker in the process. The arms sank back into the sludge with their prize, which remained bobbing, half-submerged in the fleshpool. It continued to climb the trunk on all sides, soon it would spill over and claim me as well, absorb me and add me to its foul mass, as it had already claimed the shoe I would not own for another five birthdays. I glanced again at the red and white sneaker stuck somewhere between floating and sinking and realised that it no longer resembled a shoe, but an object flat and rectangular and shiny. It was the photo frame from my office desk.
Out of the flesh the faces of the Sisters Three rose and sank, mouthing my name with silent lips, but it was the photograph to which I was transfixed - I was never pictured in that photograph but I was always there - a swollen mound beneath my mother's protective hand - except this scene was different. No more bump, no more Baby Eddie. Three minus one equals three.
I did not even feel the hands pull me into the mire by the ankles where I was sucked down further and further up to my chest, my shoulders, my neck. The last thing I saw before I woke up to find my heart beating in my chest like a piston was my family; father, brother and non-pregnant mother. I had been erased.
Dreamless my ass.
It took me a little under four hours to reach my destination - The Locksley Retirement Village, and I barely registered the passing of time along the way. My head was filled with residual images of my recent troubled dreaming, and the senselessness of the case I had wandered into, as blind as the sightless fleshpool I had faced the previous night. Just before lunchtime I pulled into the Village driveway, its namesake and indeed that of the Sisters, was displayed upon the hand-carved oak sign slung beneath the stone entrance archway and echoed in the printed slip of paper which Jane had passed to me back at the Facility. The Village was so called because within its vast grounds little cottage-like apartments had been erected in facing rows around a central avenue which doubled as the village's private shopping district and the communal driveway. It gave the elderly 'villagers' the impression of a quaint little country hamlet with the occasional traffic passing in and out for pick-ups and drop-offs. I traveled the length of the avenue, spying out of the corner of my eye the occasional white-haired spook tottering from bakery to butcher shop.
I parked up at the end of the avenue where the road pooled out into a fair-sized drop-off point in front of a large manor house, and wondered what exactly I was going to say to the mother of possibly the most despised sisters since Cinderella's floor scrubbing days. It wasn't going to be easy on the old girl, and that was assuming she was still alive.
As it turned out she was still very much a denizen of the mortal plane, more alive than I would ever have thought a person over eighty-five could be. It then occurred to me that she was only twentysome years ahead of me in that game. It was the high standard of living afforded to her by her involvement in the much-criticised Locksley Project that provided for her health.
Once in possession of the cells they needed, the Facility Board of Research had paid Maryjane Locksley off with a figure made up of enough zeros to provide for the little set-up I was visiting today.
Something good had come out of something questionable, and Maryjane Locksley was glad to put her whole involvement with the Project behind her. 'A future this filthy should belong in the past,' she told me as we sat down to tea. 'I'm glad to put it behind me but I don't regret it one bit.'
I gazed out of the large bay windows, which overlooked the entire grounds of the village and saw why; she had built her own little empire. The Empire of the Living Dead constructed with all the set pieces that Driving Miss Daisy had to offer.
I told her everything except my restless, fright-filled nights. I informed her of her loss and her offspring's fears. I told her she needed my protection and that if she wanted to see her daughters alive she had better come with me back to the Facility. I needed them all together, to get all the fragments of the picture into something that resembled order. I had nothing to go on to catch the killer, if indeed there was a killer involved. I still had my doubts, but I wasn't being paid to doubt, I was being paid to dig up skeletons and grave-rob from the rich. It was a dirty job, but then Maryjane understood all about dirty jobs, didn't she?
Maryjane Locksley was reluctant to come - any contact now would be too little, too late, she said. I stressed the importance of the visit, if this was an extremist movement then she too could be in danger, but she stubbornly refused. In the end I had no choice but to arrange a patrol for the grounds and a six'o'clock curfew, just until this whole thing blew over. While waiting for the hired security to turn up, I invited Ms Locksley out for an evening drive, to show me the sights of her kingdom with its blue-rinsed subjects and quaint two-to-a-room apartments.
She gave me directions to a walkthrough garden through which a man-made river trickled. We sat in the car with the doors open and watched a line of ducklings’ waddle after their mother into the water. They paddled on downstream and held our attention until they disappeared around a sharp bend to the left. After that we talked for a while to pass the time; about the mechanics of sustaining such a haven, and about her life in retirement. On that subject I was quite taken and wished to hear more, maybe some tips on keeping my mind occupied and my hands busy, but today I was here on business.
I asked about the Project and she spoke of it as if she had whored for a living when she was younger - in a way, she had. It was on the slow drive back to the manor house when finally she spoke of the Sisters themselves.
'Send my regards and apologies to the girls, but I cannot see them, for my sake as well as theirs. Though I must admit, the reunion would have been tearful. So grown up,' she sighed, 'my four babies.'
I'd managed to control the resulting skid, regaining control of the vehicle, but managing to tear up the gravel driveway a little in the process, and narrowly missing a commemorative marble bust of Maryjane herself - these Sisters will be the death of me, I swear.
I pressed Ms Locksley to explain with some urgency. When she had donated tissue on that historic day, twenty-four years and 11 months earlier (gestation takes a little longer in the cloning labs, she explained), she was told that sextuplets had been planned. Later on in the process, two had perished, and she had been sent letters of condolence on both occasions. She assumed that there were four remaining. I just couldn't tell her otherwise - it wasn't my place, you understand. It was the kind of news an individual had to find out for herself.
I insisted that she accompany me back to the Facility; my persuasive streak was doing overtime on this old bird, I can tell you. Just when I felt I was getting nowhere, she conceded to a brief visit 'just to see how they live - but no confrontations, detective, not now, not ever.'
She was stubborn just like Seraphine; must be something in the gene pool.
A red sneaker bobbing.
My non-pregnant mother.
Stubborn was good. I knew stubborn like my own hand, and I could settle with that for the time being.
By evening we had arrived back at the Facility. I'd left Maryjane Locksley in the visitor's lounge, while I requested audience with Jane and Seraphine. It had occurred to me on the return trip that both Marion and Jane had taken names from their Mother, but what about Seraphine? It was a minor point, maybe meaning nothing, but when you had as little to go on as I did, anything would do to start the chambers firing. My biggest gun though was one of Fourth Sister calibre.
I requested audience with Jane once more, as Seraphine was due to dine, away in her own room over the far side of the Facility. Besides, rather than wait for her to finish, I could get Jane's angle on the whole mother-daughter issue. Maybe she could provide me with at least some of the answers I needed. I lucked out. In little time I learned about the passing of law on the Locksley Project and the donation of cells and egg matter from their mother, (who was still waiting out her stay in the lounge area). The Project was common knowledge, broadcast to the world through the media, press releases and rumour mill. Other parts were disclosed only to the select few; the higher ranks of the Facility and, of course, the Sisters themselves. One such part was the elusive Fourth Sister - now this was the sort of thing I had been waiting for, concealing my agitation. Josephine and Jane were born joined at the spine, and shared one set of pretty much everything. It was inevitable that a choice had to be made and there was only one person who could make that impossible choice; their genetic Mother. That explained Jane's horrific injuries, and it alerted me to something else. The wizened, frail old lady, sipping iced-tea out in the Visitors lounge, had fooled me completely. I expressed my apologies for the inconvenience and headed on back to the Visitors Lounge for a chance to regroup, head buzzing with newly acquired information and probing questions, all of which dissipated like dawn fog when I saw that the lounge was empty.
My ears filled with white noise and I struggled to draw breath, sucking the air into my lungs in coarse, gasping drags. I had to steady myself against the doorframe to avoid sinking to my knees. Panic catches up with us all, sooner or later, and it seemed to me that I was the owner of a season ticket. The blood in my ears drained and the noise faded only to be replaced by another sound. Shouting voices echoed from way back down the corridor. What in God's name…?
I ran back to check on Jane. She was still sitting in her electric chair, shocked but otherwise okay.
She gave me a look that negated the need of a verbal exchange.
'I've no idea, Jane. Stay here - I'll find out what's going on.'
I left her there, looking more like Marion's monstrous construction than ever before.
Alarms were now clanging all over the building, and the halls were filled with the heavy echoes of security screens sealing down every exit. Leaving her there I skittered around the twisting, tiled hallways until I reached the South wing, where Seraphine now took residence.
She was there, standing by the door of her room. Maryjane was there also. A single security guard had beaten me to the scene and had his pistol's sight trained on Seraphine, a single scarlet moon dancing the jig on her pale forehead. Or maybe it was the waltz, Seraphine liked to waltz according to my dreams. Either way the situation did not look good.
'Drop the knife, Seraphine.' I heard myself speak the words, slowly, firmly and with deliberation. The Mother whimpered as the point of a steak knife pressed further into the sagging flesh of her wattle. A bead of red welled up around the tip and traveled slowly down the blade. Gravy and veggies dropped sporadically from Maryjane's dress onto a battered silver service tray that lay upturned on the floor surrounded by a wealth of broken crockery.
'I said drop it, NOW!'
'Now, now Detective,' Seraphine said testily, the syllables catching in the back of her throat as if reluctant to come out, 'You'll get nowhere with that attitude. Now maybe if you asked nicely, I'll kill her quick as a blink. Or maybe I'll just screw this knife into her neck like a corkscrew - nice . . . and . . . slow.'
She demonstrated the action by swiveling the point of the knife against her mother's quivering neck. The blood began the run faster, dripping onto the tray in a sobering tap-tap which echoed the quickening of my heart.
'Don't do this, Seraphine. There's no problem that can't be worked out. Just put down the knife, please?' I said, my eyes never leaving Maryjane's terrified face.
I happened to glance down at the crimson spotted tray, its gleaming surface, buckled and scuffed but still throwing back a reflection from its mirrored surface. What I saw made my heart stick in my throat. A vile hall-of-mirrors image of Seraphine, with her lips pressed together in that thin and callous smile, stared right back at me - straight back - which was impossible due to the angle of light reflection. I never was any good at physics or geometry, but I knew that this just didn't look natural. Her image, spread out over the blood-soiled and buckled tray was warped by the dips and dents across its once flat base, and it made her look for all the world like Jane, even down to the twisted smile. It was too uncanny, too scary and the hairs on the back of my neck all stood up at once.
All from the same gene-pool. All of the same flesh.
Some connection surfaced inside my head, but receded when I tried to grasp it, and I was left only with a feeling of being led blindfold into a cold and frightening place. A whimper of pain and terror brought me back to reality with a snap. Whatever connection I had made in my subconscious was the key, but right now my efforts were with getting Maryjane to safety and Seraphine to her senses.
Beside me the guard steadied his aim, re-correcting his posture. We could both sense something crackling in the air, something imminent. I leaned toward him and whispered into his ear. He lowered his hands just a fraction.
It all happened in painful slo-mo. I saw the muscles bunch in Seraphine's jaw as she tensed, a knot of muscle tightened at her shoulder then traveled down along her arm as she prepared to draw the knife toward herself, opening up her mother's throat as it went. I'm glad it was the guard who took the shot, as my reaction would have been tragic for all involved.
Seraphine's shoulder burst open in a puff of crimson and she jerked half-round with a surprised gasp. The knife flew from her hand and clattered to the floor.
Maryjane moaned and pulled away from her daughter, one hand clamped over the nick on her throat. Seraphine grimaced clutching at her shoulder and, feeling wetness there, pulled her hand away staring pop-eyed at the rich, thick crimson that coated her fingers and had already soaked through the white cotton blouse in a great dark, spreading stain. The knife lay rocking on the floor keeping good time with the alarms as they played on and on like a fairground carousel caught on a single note.
The guard kicked the knife away across the tiled floor, followed by the tray. I let him pass me by, shoving Seraphine up the hallway with rough little jabs. This was the part of the job he enjoyed, the part that satisfied that dirty little rat hole built into every single one of us. I followed close behind, my arm reassuringly around Maryjane's bony shoulders.
'Don't worry, ma'am, we'll get that cut seen to - it's not so bad. But be sure I'll get to the bottom of this.'
'I'm sorry, detective, I should never have come here. I've just made such an awful mess of things.'
'Nonsense, it's not your fault - please don't think that! But what did you think you were doing back there? I thought you said-'
'No confrontations?' she cut me off in mid-sentence. 'Yes detective, I did. But never did I imagine that I would feel the way I do now.'
She wiped a tear from her cheek. I owned no handkerchief to lend her, and for that I felt strangely ashamed.
'So how do you feel, Maryjane?' I said.
'Like a mother. An old and foolish mother, who just couldn't bear to keep away.' She looked at me, more tears brimming in her eyes. 'I had to see them, I don't expect you'll ever understand, but I just had to. One of the staff let me take in her lunch. She wasn't supposed to recognise me - I mean, how could she?'
It was my turn to interject 'But she did, didn't she? She had you as soon as you walked through that door.'
'No detective, she had me as soon as I signed her away to these monsters. These . . . whitecoats.'
Seraphine had led me a merry dance, just as she had done in the dream I'd had on the first night I saw her.
The very notion of a prowling killer had disappeared from my mind. I figured it was all a ruse to lure her mother here (with the intent of what, revenge?) and I had followed the trail of crumbs she had left like a good little duckling.
I decided it was time for our little talk.
The air-conditioning hummed overhead, blowing its cool breath into the room. Below the whirling blades we sat, Seraphine on one side of the table, her hands cuffed and stained with blood, and myself on the other, my fingers laced together, stained with tobacco smoke.
'Let me out of here,' Seraphine whispered.
'No,' I replied.
'You know nothing of what you're into, cop. You're drowning in your own worst nightmare, because you haven't got a clue as to what the hell is going on.'
'Care to enlighten me, Seraphine?'
She threw her head back and laughed.
'All in good time, detective. All in good time.'
'Time isn't something you have a lot of, dear child. Now it'll be a whole lot easier if you jus-'
'Having trouble sleeping lately, detective? You look very tired. Bad dreams?'
I bit my lip in frustration, she knew how to play me alright.
'Something wrong?' she goaded.
'Alright! I'm through playing this game with you, Seraphine. I'll tell you what I think has been going on.'
'I'm all ears,' she said coldly.
'That night you came to see me in my office, it was to lure me into your little game, wasn't it? And with what intention, to have me track down your mother and to bring her here for safety's sake? Easy pickings for you, wasn't it? But you reckoned wrong, missy. You see, I may have fallen for your little scheme but now I see things very clearly. Very clearly indeed. You're going down for this, Miss Locksley. I'll see to that personally.'
Seraphine sat there smiling her thin, chilling smile.
Finally she said, 'So who's the big hero, detective? You? I think not. At least, not until you've worked out the rest of the plot. You've done well so far, but no banana for the monkey I'm afraid.'
'So tell me.'
'I'm tired of this detective. I'm going to go now and finish what I started. I'll see you in, say, three minutes.'
Her expression softened, her eyes went dim. She spoke then in a shaky, faraway tone. 'You speak of games, oh, what games we play…I believe the name of . . . this one . . . is . . . t-agg…'
'You're going nowhere, I told you tha-'
Bang. Seraphine had slumped down onto the table, face first. Tentatively, I reached forward and lifted up her head, checking under her lids. Her eyes were rolled back; she was out cold - the blackouts they were prone to.
Three minutes? What would happen in three minutes?
(I'm going to go now and finish what I started...)
Maryjane. I left the table and knocked on the door of the room I had secured for the interview. A large security guard peered in through the faceplate and I asked him where the old lady had been taken.
'Hold on,' he said and mumbled into the walkie-talkie he held in his gloved hand. A voice squawked back through the speaker, unintelligible to my untrained ear. 'Thanks Gerry, 'preciate it,' he said, and closed the channel.
'Dey gone to the other one, you know, the cripple. D'old lady want to see her, ask her sumfin, I dunno what though!' he grunted in his thick, uneducated accent.
'Whoah, wait a second. Are you telling me the old lady is in with her other daughter? The one in the wheelchair? Is that what you're saying?'
'Let me out, NOW!' I yelled at the guard, who hurriedly slid back the deadbolt and stepped aside as the door flew open.
I rushed past the surprised guard in a fluster. 'Watch her,' I said, and bolted down towards the west wing.
Two minutes, ten seconds and counting . . .
With forty seconds to go, I arrived at the block where Jane took residence. Her door was open.
Thinking back I reproached myself for being so careless; I had forgotten to code-lock the door behind me when I left. Seraphine and Jane must have been working hand in hand, passing me back and forth so I would convince myself I was actually doing some detecting. I could hear Jane inside the room, even before I reached the open doorway - I could hear the whirring of the chairs electric motor, from within. I had picked up another security ape along the way, and I motioned for him to stay back. I shuffled up to the doorway, my back flat against the wall.
'Maryjane?' I called out.
Somewhere beneath the heavy rasp of my breathing, there was another sound. The electric whirr had
started up again in the next room, and seemed to be growing louder by the second.
'Jane? Is everything all right?'
From within the room (four) there came a scream (three) followed by a loud (two) wet smack and the (one) room went quiet again.
From out of the doorway the flat, robotic voice that served Jane as speech floated like the poisonous fumes of a gassing chamber.
'Heh, heh, heh. Allie allie in.'
I gave myself a count of three, then rolled myself away from the wall, pirouetting past the doorway to the cover on the other side, my back once more against the plasterwork.
Closing my eyes I replayed what I had glimpsed during my brief passage past the open room.
Oh for the love of Christ.
I gave the security guard a slow, deliberate nod and he unpopped the leather holster he wore strapped to one leg.
The wheelchair wheezed and crunched in the background, the blood rushed back into my ears again, drowning out all but my own heartbeat.
The guard stepped out into the open doorway with his weapon drawn. For an instant he looked like a World War I infantryman crossing over into No Man's Land, he had that look about him; not knowing quite what to expect - perhaps something terrible or something glorious, but expecting something either way.
Out of the open doorway Jane hurtled, knocking the pistol from his hand before he could even react, and slamming the guard into the opposite wall. The whirr of the racing motor dipped upon impact and was replaced with a nauseating whump. The plasterboard cracked around the guard's limp form. Jane drew back, as I looked on, captivated by the obscure scene. The guard's body fell from the bloodied dent in the wall, and landed on his front on the floor. He managed to raise himself up on one elbow. The whirring started again; quiet and low, picking up both in volume and pitch until it became nothing but a raucous scream. Jane came at him again. He looked up with an expression of resignation, blood dropping in globs from his teeth and chin, a breath-space before the final impact took place. His head disappeared through the wall as the plasterboard was breached. Jane drew back again, chunks of plaster and matted strands of hair fell from the metal framework as she wheeled backwards through the doorway, and out of sight inside the room. And still the screaming continued. It boiled up out from my stomach like a gust of arid desert wind. I watched myself step back from the sticky pool that seemed to ooze from out of the skirting, I couldn't let it touch me just as I had tried to escape the vile fleshpool of my recent nightmare. A kind of twisted logic told me that this was Jane's way of helping to take the heat off Seraphine - a diversion for her to escape custody, a misguided rescue. But she had backed up with every intention of finishing the guy off. Once was deliverance, twice was murder.
With Maryjane out of the equation, and the guard having become part of the décor, I couldn't chance leaving the corridor to call for backup. I had to act and it had to be now.
Some of the guard's blood had found its way onto my shoe after all, and it brought my thoughts around once more to the dream I'd had. My lost sneaker with its flashes of scarlet along the trim. Some connection had sparked up earlier. If only I could remember what.
I had already worked out that the fleshpool was symbolic of the gene pool, and that the three sisters were all a part of it, hence their bobbing faces and writhing arms trying to drag me in. Drag me into their little game.
Oh what games we play.
The way both Seraphine and Jane had turned, played upon my mind. It was as if someone had cranked up the tempo from 'Sagacious Seraphine' and 'Plain Sane Jane' to 'Rabid Rotweiller'. The rage was the same, as was the twist of the smile I had caught in the reflection of the battered service tray. If I didn't know any better I would say not only were they both psychopathic schizophrenics but that they actually shared the same maniacal alter ego.
How could I embrace a thought like that?
(...this old man, he played three...)
Maybe it wasn't as crazy as it sounded. Grimacing I picked the
(my four babies)
blood-slick pistol from the floor with trembling hands and, shoes slipping on the spattered tiles, I passed the threshold of Jane's room.
A scene which was far worse than the tiny glimpse I had caught unfolded before me.
Maryjane Locksley was dead, crushed into the corner of the room; a grotesque figurine hunched over in an expanding pool of blood that welled around the tyre marks of Jane's chair. Fear encased me like cancer-black sarcophagus. I remembered the pistol in my hand, and trained the wavering red point of light that shone from the muzzle-mounted sight into Jane's eyes, blinding her at least for the moment. She hissed at me - silvery flecks of spittle streaming from the corners of her mouth - and appeared to be in some discomfort with her right arm, rotating it at the shoulder.
She tried to talk, but only managed to produce a sound not unlike a babies babble-speak. It dawned on me that she was trying to sing. The tune was somehow familiar.
I was angry beyond belief, but not at the twisted creature who had pasted her own mother across the far wall, nor at her knife wielding sibling
(...we are fam-ilee...)
who had threatened to slit the old woman's throat not moments ago. I was angry at myself for failing to understand how this all could be. Angry at the way I had been played by both of them. They had to be working together somehow, and for whatever reason, because the alternative was far too crazy to be true. But I had to know.
'What's going on, Jane? Why did you kill your mother?' I stammered. The pit of my stomach had turned to cold jelly, my mouth was dry and it was all I could do to spit out the words. I was faced with the impossible.
Jane drew one gnarled hand, with fingers pinched, across her mouth as if to say 'Zip. No fuckin' tell. Mum's the word.'
I was losing this battle faster than a shit down a sewer.
Jane changed before my eyes, just as Seraphine had done. Now she both looked and felt different. The manic expression had disappeared and, for a moment I was relieved to see her face twist up into its usual disfigured mask before she slumped into her chair, all the fuses blown.
Just like Seraphine, her nature had switched over into Manson territory and back again at the drop of a hat. It seemed to me that the blood lust was tangible, bouncing between the girls of its own accord.
No two sisters had displayed their formidable rage at the same time, at least as of yet. Now it was Jane's turn to come back down to earth. She moaned, staring pop-eyed at the carnage at her feet as if witnessing it for the first time. However hard she tried, she couldn't seem to tear her gaze from the body of her mother which moulded well into the corner of the room. Jane screamed at the sight - a stomach-curdling gurgle that made my skin crawl and a cold sweat break out across my back - and tried to cover her eyes with her remaining hand. The result was a hideous display of taut skin stretched across the twisted limb and a blubbering, defecating pantomime of distress.
I heard the scuffle of feet behind me and I wheeled. Seraphine strolled in,
(...I got all my sisters with me...)
the single bullet-wound visible in her right shoulder, oozing blood which migrated through the linen blouse in a widening tributary of devil red. Her hands were slick with the stuff, some of it hers.
Behind me Jane emptied the rest of her bladder with a remarkable gush.
Things were beginning to make sense, and it was the weird kind of sense that people shrug off as pure fantasy - just as I had done. They were one and the same, the sisters - not the same physical person, but the same in a way more terrifying than I could ever have imagined. Not the same person but another person.
Lady Scared Me Shitless.
'Ss-stay where you are! Who are you? Tell me!'
I let the red dot fall between her breasts, slipping in and out of the spattered cleavage as she slinked into the room, impassive about the wound in her shoulder.
Smiling she continued, relishing in every second of my crumbling bravado.
Some tiny, hibernating part of my brain sputtered into life, sparking madly with sudden comprehension.
It was like the photograph in my office, the one she had broken. It was a photograph of four people but a picture of three. Three people visible, another one present but virtually undetectable. They shared an external personality, impossible I know, but as impossible as, say, knowing how and when you and your siblings are going to die, or as impossible as sharing injuries?
'Don't step any closer, Seraphine!'
'I had to teach that guard a lesson, Mister Sceptic. He wouldn't let me out so just had to teach him.'
She stepped into the room.
'Are you going to teach me now, detective? I've been ever so bad you know.'
'Not unless I have to, Miss. But that's up to you now - not one more step!'
'Do you know what it's like to be erased, little man? Do you know what it is to be tossed away like an empty bottle?'
My non-pregnant mother bobbing in the gene pool.
She defied me, ignored my warning and stepped closer still, the dark smear now down to her waist.
'Who are you?' I croaked.
'Who do you think I am, baby?'
'TELL ME!' I screeched.
'I don't need to tell you, detective, I can see that you have worked it out for yourself.'
My left foot skidded on the urine-splashed linoleum as I tried to get some distance between myself and the person who seemed to believe she was sister number four. I lost my balance for a second, but even that was ample time for her to react.
There was a blurring of air and colour, a round squeezed from the gun, and an explosion of plaster from the ceiling. I fell and hit my head sharply on something hard on the way down.
Jane was wailing somewhere in the background...
Then Seraphine was on top of me, pinning me to the floor, her bony fingers clawing at my face, reaching for my throat. Those ten skeletal digits hungry to spill my blood into her already stinking hands.
I thrashed around wildly, trying to beat her off with flailing arms. The pistol lay on the floor a metre away but mere inches from my grasp. My eyes bulged, my vision tunneled. My life rapidly ebbing away in the blood-smeared grip of this crazed lab experiment.
'You...won't...deny...me...Cop...' she hissed through gritted teeth, 'I...want...a...life! I'M...OWED...A...LIFE!'
My hand was resting on something cold, hard. I gripped it, raised - and paused.
The look on her face, as she was killing me, was rapturous glee, resolute determination, but her eyes - those bloodshot and watery opals - revealed unmitigated terror. It wasn't Seraphine doing th