The Girl-Thing

Sean Williams

The Girl-Thing, detail (Click for Full Image)

(part 4)

The fax was well-thumbed by the time Hollister had a chance to read it properly. The Slayer had been arrested that afternoon by a large squad of police and detectives in his home in Croxton. His name was Aaron James Stanco, an average-looking man of thirty-five, and he worked for the Amberley Park City Council as a grounds keeper. By day, invisible in overalls, he had cleaned the streets while watching for victims and studying their habits. At night, he had struck. His house contained swathes of preserved human skin stretched like embroidery in wooden frames. Around one wrist, in plain view, he wore a bracelet made from stolen rings, studs and spikes.
Hollister watched the news reports on TV that night, from his couch. Photos of Stanco dominated most reports, but the media found time for shots of the triumphant detectives at various press conferences and other sites around town. The case was closed. People could rest easy—especially the young, endangered women in Amberley Park, although they were rarely mentioned. Good had triumphed over evil once again.
If only, Hollister thought, life was ever that simple.
They had charged Jellyhead, a.k.a. Arnold Emes, with loitering and minor property damage and warned him not try anything like that again. The old man didn't seem to notice. He was more concerned that he wasn't getting the contents of his satchel back. Cloe Flavell, who had returned from showing a junior constable where the old man lived, did her best to calm him down and said that she would take him home.
"I'll keep an eye on him," she promised, apparently unfazed by having to take the trip twice.
"You won't be the only one," Moir said, her expression more threatening than her words.
"She will be hard," said the old man softly, his expression one of despair and resignation. Hollister had thought he would at least be happy about being set free. "She won't have any choice, now."
"We all have choices," Hollister said, drawn into the old man's dementia against his conscious will.
"She is impatient."
"What does she want?"
"She'll want the bones, to finish."
Hollister simply stared at him.
Then Arnold Emes was gone, whisked off to his mysterious home by the one person, it seemed, who actually cared about him—and for whom, even then, it was merely a convenient compassion. If Cloe Flavell got a better job elsewhere, would she return to care for one isolated old widower?
Moir looked at her watch and exhaled heavily. "It's been a hard day, Wey. Fuck, it's been a hard year. Go home and get some rest."
"The report—"
"Can wait until tomorrow. That's the last thing I want to do tonight."
He did as he was told, although the last thing he wanted to do was go to sleep. Afraid of what might be waiting for him, he watched every news report he could find, and then a late movie. When that finished, he poured himself a large glass of Port and went into the study. He performed sit-ups and push-ups in quick succession, then did star-jumps for as long as he could. The physical exertion helped clear his mind, although they couldn't stop it working.
Two nights ago, Arna had said something in the middle of the night about bones. Jellyhead had mentioned bones that afternoon. There was no possible way the old man could have known about Arna or what she had said; it must therefore have come out of nowhere, a random comment that meant nothing except in the context of his dementia. Or—and here Hollister's mind baulked at acceptance—it hadn't come out of nowhere at all, and there was something connecting the two instances. Something he hadn't seen yet.
He drained the Port and poured himself another one. Something was going on. The silence of the house felt full of possibility, for a change, and the night wasn't so empty. On other nights, that might have been an improvement. The Amberley Slayer was behind bars, finally—but that didn't mean the world was any safer than it had been. If anything, it might actually be less safe, for at least the Slayer had been a known quantity. He had kept the nameless fears at bay. Who knew what might come along to fill his shoes, now that they were empty?
It seemed perfectly reasonable, to Hollister, that both Arna and Jellyhead's mystery women were nervous of the dark.

He woke the next morning with the empty glass on the bedside table, phoned in sick, and went back to sleep. This time, he dreamed.
Arna was on her knees in her wedding dress, trying to piece together the sharp-edged fragments of a broken cup. She looked up with tears in her eyes and said: "I'm getting there, Weylin. I love you."
Then she had smiled, and the cup was whole in her hands.
He jerked awake at eleven. The bed was empty on her side, and he had a mild hangover. The fears and feelings that had kept him awake the previous night still nagged. He kept seeing Jellyhead at the Polson Street Station—so small and fragile in the grip of the legal system, yet so oddly resilient, defying every attempt to make sense of his behaviour.
At one, he rang the station again and asked to be put through to the constable who had taken Cloe Flavell to Jellyhead's home. Candice Greiner was in and on lunchbreak. Hollister felt guilty for disturbing her but, as it turned out, she was happy to talk about what she'd seen.
"It's off the Weaver Freeway," Greiner said. "You park in an empty block on Salisbury Street and go across the old tracks. Don't go down the tunnel; the gate is padlocked, although I think people have been getting in anyway. There's an access door to the right, around the edge of a concrete bunker. It's stiff, but not locked. It opens if you push hard enough. On the other side is a maintenance corridor that leads to the dead line."
She gave a detailed description of where to go from there. The way had been explored many times before by the Cave Clan and teenagers. She had seen stickers and graffiti, empty syringes and used condoms. But she hadn't seen anyone else, not beyond a certain point. That was explained, she supposed, by the stench.
"It's like a sewer," she said, the experience portrayed vividly by her tone.
"Foul. I don't know how anyone could live down there."
"Is that where he lives?"
"Yes. There's another maintenance way leading to an abandoned cellar. I don't know what it's under, but it looks more like it belongs to a house than offices or warehouses. It might be somewhere old that got built over and forgotten, then opened up again when the line went in. I don't know. But that's what he calls home." Hollister imagined Jellyhead shuffling through the urban wasteland, down ever-darkening corridors and tunnels, and finally to the forgotten space he had taken for his own. It still seemed appropriate, even though he doubted it was a kind of life anyone deserved—no matter how passionless, or empty. "What's in there?"
"Nothing but rubbish. The room is quite big, really, and there's stuff piled up everywhere. Papers, plastic bags, tin cans—you know. There are some rugs in a corner; I guess that's where he sleeps. There's also a tea chest full of old clothes, some candles, a couple of big, empty water bottles, and in the middle of the room there's a table..." She stopped as though remembering something.
"What is it?"
"On the table... Hell, I don't know how to describe it. I thought it was a body, at first. It made me jump, it looked so real. Gave what's-her-name, Cloe, a fright too. Old Jellyhead's got himself some kind of dress-maker's dummy down there, Senior Constable, but he's not making dresses."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it's lying flat on its back, on the table. Splayed out, you know? It's not that big, but he's tried to make it look more... real, I guess, and that makes it seem larger. He's stuck a wig on it, and painted it, put clothes on it—all that. It has a face."
"Whose face?"
"I don't know. No-one I recognised. Should I have?"
"No." Not Cloe Flavell, then, he thought to himself. "Is that it?"
"Yes." She hesitated, then added: "To be honest, it gave me the creeps, that thing. It was just lying there, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. I didn't want to turn my back on it, either. Its mouth was open, and it looked... I don't know. I think that was where the smell was coming from."
He thanked her when she had finished, and hung up. A dress-maker's dummy... A wig... Clothes..?
Moir had described the contents of the old man's bag—the bits and pieces, the everyday discards—as items a satanic chef might put on a shopping list. Hollister didn't for a second think she'd meant it literally, but it had a ring of something to it. If it wasn't the truth, then maybe it was a step in the right direction. He booted up his computer for the first time in weeks, and logged onto the Internet. What he found didn't help him very much, but neither did it put his nagging suspicions to rest. When he searched on "voodoo dolls" he found numerous sites on black magic, Wicca and Satanism. Human tissue could be used to make any number of things: potions, imitative charms, curses, and—yes—voodoo dolls. Most were concerned with stealing part of someone else, or creating something from nothing that could become the spell-caster's possession. A stream of half-familiar words scrolled down the screen. Golem... homunculus... zombie... But none of them sounded quite right. None of them fit.
The old man's bag had contained samples of blood, dead skin, hair, fingernails and human waste from many different people, not just one. It was indeed discarded material, as Jellyhead himself had said, not fresh, not specifically stolen. And the fact that he had one sample from Cloe Flavell didn't necessarily mean anything sinister, unless he was making lots of voodoo dolls, one for each sample of hair. And even if he was, there was still the question of why. Flavell was patently not under the old man's control, so there wasn't any efficacy to such a charm—not that Hollister had expected there to be. The alternative, though, was that Jellyhead was even crazier than he sounded, and that didn't feel right either. Yet Hollister couldn't help the feeling that he was getting somewhere.
"She won't have any choice, now," the old man had said.
What process had they inadvertently interrupted?
He rang the station a third time, and this time asked for Jane Moir.
"I'm worried," he said.
"About what?"
"About Jellyhead."
"Him? He'll be okay. Our young friend will see to that."
"No, I'm worried he might do something. I think you were right."
He could practically hear Moir's mind working on the other end of the line. "What's going on, Wey? Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine, Jane. I've just thought about it some more, that's all."
"And?"
"And what?" he asked.
"There's more to this. I know you, Wey. You don't just turn like this. There's something you're not telling me."
It was his turn to think carefully. In the end, he decided to be honest. She would know if he was lying, anyway.
"It's Arna."
"Arna? What about Arna?"
"She's been telling me things, at night. No, wait, let me finish. I'm not going mad. It's really happening. I hear her. She..." He stopped. It did sound much crazier than he had thought, than when it was just him hearing her speak, alone, at night...
Moir said: "I think you're taking this whole Jellyhead thing a little too seriously. And I thought I was! Just forget about it. It'll go away. The dreams will stop—"
"They're not dreams, Jane."
"Whatever they are, then. Just let it go. You know it's for the best."
"Are you talking about Arna or Jellyhead?"
"Both, and you know that, too. Whether it's work or personal, you have to draw the line somewhere. You cross that line at your peril." She took a breath, then continued in a softer tone. "She's been dead six months, Wey. Let her rest."
And if she doesn't want to, he asked himself, what then?
But he didn't say it aloud. Instead he hung up the phone, dug out his maglite torch from the bottom kitchen drawer, and left the house.

He caught a flash of crimson out of the corner of his eye as he pulled up in the empty lot. He wasn't sure at first, but was certain the moment he left the car. Standing on the steep embankment, looking back down at him, was Cloe Flavell in her bright red coat.
He opened his mouth to call to her, but thought better of it. She would wonder why he was there if he drew any more attention to himself. And if it was her, then his worst fears were unfounded.
But he still needed to know for sure.
He followed the route Constable Greiner had given him through the metal maintenance door and into the tunnels. It took him two passes to find the entrance to Jellyhead's underground lair, but when he did locate the door, he had no doubts that it was the right one. The smell was stronger by far on the other side of it. As he swept the torch around the room, he gagged for a very different reason.
Cloe Flavell lay on her back behind the table Greiner had described. Her clothes had been cut away down one side of her body, and long, deep incisions were visible in her pale flesh. There was blood everywhere—an impossible amount from such a small, pallid person. It appeared as though her head was pressed down hard against her chest, but the angles were all wrong. Hollister stepped gingerly closer, wary of disturbing the scene. An autopsy would confirm any guess he made, but he had to see, for his own peace of mind.
From closer to he saw that parts of her skeleton were missing: one long bone from her forearm, another from her shin; a dripping hole in her side suggested that a rib was gone, too, and maybe part of her spine. A step too many resolved his confusion about her face: her lower jaw had been removed, and what remained didn't bear close examination.
He averted his eyes, and found Jellyhead on his side in a corner of the room, eyes open but just as motionless as Flavell. Hollister checked for a pulse in the old man's neck, but found none. When he pulled his fingers away, they were sticky with blood—Flavell's blood, he presumed, since there was no apparent injury to the old man's body. Mystic or otherwise, he was just dead, and in death he looked more pitiful than ever.
Hollister stood up, breathing heavily. What had happened seemed obvious, at first glance. Flavell had come to check on Jellyhead, and he had killed her when she had arrived. Or he had stunned her when she had dropped him off the previous night, and killed her later. As there was no way such an old man could have overpowered a healthy young woman in the open, Hollister reasoned that he had taken her by surprise. There was a metal rod with blood on one end under the table, and a knife on the ground near Flavell's body—the murder instrument and butchery tool respectively, Hollister assumed. Over-excited by his grisly deeds, Jellyhead had had a heart-attack and died. The picture was complete, except for one detail: the "dress-maker's dummy" was gone.
He raised the maglite to study the table surface more closely. It was splattered with what looked like dried excrement and plastered with dust and stray hairs. There was a small amount of blood, too, still sticky. Something had undoubtedly lain there; the splatters were confined to the table's edges and hardly to be found in the middle. Furthermore, there was a half-empty roll of gaffer tape on the floor nearby, with an inch or so hanging loose and dust-free. There were a large number of resealable plastic bags lying around the room that Greiner hadn't reported, although some of them weren't freshly emptied.
He could see it clearly, although he had nothing concrete on which to base his theory. The object on the table, the sinisterly human-shaped and open-mouthed figure, had been the blow-up doll stolen from the porn shop. It had been filled with litres of excrement that Jellyhead had collected, then made up on the outside with dead skin, discarded fingernails and loose hairs. Old clothes had completed the picture: a manikin constructed solely from discards, a Frankenstein's monster made out of rubbish. But it hadn't been finished.
He'll need the bones before he's done.
The police had been closing in, alerted by the theft. Jellyhead had been under pressure to finish before anyone discovered what he was up to. There wouldn't be time to raid graveyards or morgues for what he needed—if the bones of the dead would even suffice. Hollister didn't understand the details of the exercise; maybe only pieces from the recently-deceased would suffice. But the broad principles seemed clear. Jellyhead had been making a monster. Backed into a corner, he had taken the first and perhaps only chance he could to finish his work.
"The cost of living is so high," Jellyhead had said. Hollister had it down on tape. "She needs me to find it for her, to put it together. She doesn't want to be hard, but she will if she has to. She doesn't like the darkness. She cries."
Hollister took a step forward, the flash of crimson he had seen foremost on his mind. That the monster could actually move of its own accord didn't seem so absurd, underground, in the charnel shadows, and the thought of taking chase urged him on. But he stopped well before reaching the door. He had been underground almost half an hour already. The trail would be cold by the time he emerged into the daylight again. He wouldn't be able to use smell to track the thing in the city—and he didn't know what he could do even if he caught up. Prick it with a silver needle? Catching up might be the last thing he wanted to do.
"She's trying to come through," the old man had said. "I don't know where from. She's just there, and she wants to be here."
He turned and walked back to the table.
"Let it go." Moir's words filled the gore-splattered darkness. "Let it go..."
He knew she was right, on all counts. What difference did the slip of a knife make? An old but respected surgeon made a mistake and might go unpunished if the lawyers failed to do their job properly—but that wasn't the same as a killer hunting down a victim, even if the end result was the same. Maybe, in this case, there was an accomplice Hollister knew nothing about who had moved the thing on the table. Maybe it wasn't as simple as it seemed on first or second viewing. Maybe only time, not rash stumbling about, flailing for answers, would expose the truth.
The tension within him broke as soon as he made up his mind. He would get back above ground and call for Moir. Someone else could take over, clean up the mess, put the pieces together and let him get on with his life as rationally as he could. It wouldn't be his problem any more, whatever—and wherever—it was. There were no names, not even words, for such a thing.
But when he turned, it was standing in the doorway. The stench had returned with it. He was becoming so used to the smell that he hadn't noticed.
"I came back," it said with Arna's voice. "I missed you."
He stared at her, frozen, as she took a step into the light.
After a long pause, he lowered the torch.

Part 1 ] Part 2 ] Part 3 ] Part 4 ]

This story was originally published online at
Eidolon: Australian SF Online November 2002.
©2002 Sean Williams
Artwork ©2002 Jeremy Reston

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