The Girl-Thing

Sean Williams

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

(part 2)

Hollister was surprised by the frankness of her words. Moir simply acknowledged the point with a nod. "How would you rate their reliability as witnesses?"
"Poor." Flavell didn't seemed surprised by the question. "They have their own support mechanisms and are quite independent of the world you or I take for granted. It wouldn't matter that you were from the police. I know one old guy who would lie on principle."
"The one called Jellyhead?" asked Hollister.
She winced slightly. "Why are you asking me these questions? Has he done anything wrong?"
"Do you think he might have?"
"No, but..." Her pupils danced in sharp diagonal streaks: up-left, down-right, then centred to look at him. "He isn't a liar, although he can be a bit off-putting. Some people say they find him creepy."
Moir leaned forward. "Why?"
"I'm not really supposed to talk about things like this." She glanced at the door that time, as though worried that her supervisor might burst in at any moment.
"This is purely off the record," Moir assured her. She gave Flavell the now-familiar line about the porn shop break-in. "Our superintendent wants us to look for a reliable witness no-one around here would notice, or care about if they did notice. We don't really think your clients are serial killers, just that they might have seen one in action—but if you're saying that one of your clients is capable of—"
"No, it's not that. Not that at all." Flavell shook her head almost too hard. Hollister was afraid her blonde bob might slide off in one piece.
"I'm sure none of them have done anything like that. "
"Do you know where they live?"
Another shake. "Hardly any of them have homes. Some go from shelter to shelter, or sleep wherever they can find cover. One has a spot in a dead line near here—"
"A what?" interrupted Hollister.
"Train line. A tunnel. The city is riddled with old spaces no-one cares about any more."
"It sounds just perfect, then."
"Maybe it is, but that's not their fault." A slight flush came to her cheeks—the first real sign of life her face had shown.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way." He was genuinely contrite.
"I feel as sorry as for these old guys as you do."
"I doubt that."
"It must be awful living with no money, no home—alone..."
Her gaze danced away. "Well, some of them choose to, of course, in their own way. It's a means of escaping, of letting go. In many ways, they're more free than we will ever be. There are people—not me—who like to think of them as our last surviving mystics: dreamers who don't fit into modern society, reviled channellers permanently in contact with realms we can no longer experience." The expression on her face belied her words: part of her did want to believe that the old men in her care were worth something to the world around them, even if it didn't recognise them for what they were. Before he could say anything, though, Moir stifled a yawn and leaned back into the conversation.
"It's after five, Ms Flavell, and we don't want to keep you. Do you think you could ask your clients on our behalf if they've seen anything odd in the last few days?"
She still looked reluctant. "I suppose I could, if you think it might help catch the Slayer."
"You never know. Here's our card."
They let themselves out of her office. Hollister was already looking forward to putting his feet up at the station when, on their way past the shelter's reception, a young man waved them over.
"I heard what you were talking about," he said, whispering as a group of teenagers burst through the door and headed past them to a back room. "I have the office next to Cloe. We started at the same time. She really cares about the old ones, but..."
"But what?" Moir was starting to look more interested than irritated.
"Cloe is an idealist. She thinks she can help anyone, even when they can't be helped; you can only try to stop them from hurting themselves, and other people. She doesn't see what we see."
"What do you see?"
He paused and looked around. "They're not stupid, these men. They use her to get vouchers for accommodation, food, drugs. She gives them the benefit of the doubt, and they walk all over her."
Hollister nodded, although he thought Flavell seemed competent enough, not so easily swayed. "Anyone in particular?"
"There's one. He comes here a lot, more than we like to encourage, and asks specifically for her. We're so busy here so she can't always see him, but he waits around anyway. He's always lurking about, watching her. It's spooky."
"You've never said anything about this to her?"
"She thinks I'm imagining things."
Maybe he was, Hollister thought. "Do you think he's stalking her?" Moir asked.
"Well, no, but..." His expression darkened as though internally he changed gears, from office gossip to real concern. "There was this one time. I was talking to Cloe about another client and he was standing behind her. He was staring at her—just her, not me, even though our eyes were almost meeting. It was like I didn't exist. Anyway, when Cloe and I were finished, someone else came up to talk to her and I went to my office. I looked back before I went in and saw this old guy walk up the hallway toward me, as if he'd given up waiting and was going to leave. But as he went past her, he reached out and took something from her shoulder."
"Took what, exactly?"
"A hair. Cloe didn't notice. Jellyhead—she doesn't like him being called that, but that's who it was—put the hand with the hair into his pocket and kept walking. If he saw me looking, he didn't say anything as he went past, and I was too surprised to say anything just then. I mean, who steal hairs?" Moir glanced at Hollister. "I don't know, um, mister..?"
"Harris. Dale Harris."
"I don't know, Dale," she repeated, "but thanks for telling us about it."
He looked relieved. "I thought you ought to know—if only so you realise that Cloe is sometimes a little too forgiving."
"We understand." Moir gave him a card. "Let us know if anything else happens, won't you?"
"I will." He nodded eagerly. "I will."
"Maybe he's just got a crush on her," Hollister said when they were back out in the fresh air.
"Who? Harris or Jellyhead?"
"Both of them." Moir smiled. "I meant Jellyhead."
"But he couldn't be the Amberley Slayer."
"Maybe not, but he'll look good on paper. At least we can tell Penglis we've found something. And we'll spread the word to keep an eye out for him. If we can get a handle on him, maybe he'll talk to us. He might be worth investing in for the future. You never know when he'll come in handy."
The thought of recruiting a senile old man in a bicycle helmet as a spy on the Polson Street underworld struck Hollister as ludicrous, but that, he supposed, was the point. The street-walkers were detritus, quite literally: pieces of society rubbed away by repeated stress. Few people noticed them, let alone cared about them—and for that reason he found himself understanding Cloe Flavell's blindness. Someone had to look after them, whatever they did. If not her, then who? That it might not be anyone at all was more than a little saddening. There was nothing worse than being alone.
But the possibility that Jellyhead might be a predator, if only emotionally, wasn't itself ridiculous. Just because he was old and infirm didn't automatically make him benign.

Arna woke him again that night.
He had come home from work physically drained. Armed with leftovers and the remote control, he had collapsed onto a couch and watched TV until exhaustion took him. The last thing he recalled seeing was a documentary about legendary 1950s pianist, Renaud Le Huy, and the premier performance of von Doussa's "Devil's Hand" Scherzo that had almost cost him his career. A scherzo was normally a light, jocular piece of music—but not this one. The final moments demanded an increasingly frenetic style, hammering at the keys with no pedal; its climax culminated in the performer kicking back the stool and violently striking the lower half of the keyboard with a single clenched fist. The theatrics were specifically called for in the score, and Le Huy obeyed them to the letter. As the echoes of his final blow faded, he stalked silently off-stage "like a little storm cloud", according to one reviewer.
The crowd waited for Le Huy to return for a bow, but he did not, and he failed to return after interval. Instead, the organisers of the concert appeared on stage to announce that the pianist had broken three fingers in his right hand and was unable to continue the performance. Le Huy's reputation as a hot-headed genius was thereby firmly established, even though it meant missing several months of lucrative touring as a result.
Hollister missed that sort of passion. It ached in him like a hole. As he dragged himself to bed, he wondered if that was how Jellyhead felt every day of his life. Was that what the old man thought of when he looked at Cloe Flavell—at the young, bright things who walked along Polson Street, carefully pretending not to see him? Maybe that was who he had been talking to when Hollister had approached him: some lost wife, a long-gone love.
Hollister didn't know how he stood it—or how Cloe Flavell endured that dreadful yearning in his eyes, day after day.
"It's a girl-thing," Arna told him that night, speaking out of sleep with such impossible clarity it made him start awake. "It's too dark in here."
The echo of the old man's words sent a chill down his spine even as he turned on the light to banish them.

He and Moir were back to normal desk duties the next day, so at least he had coffee at hand to wipe away the effects of another broken sleep. Mid-morning, his contact in forensics brought him up to date on the hunt for the Amberley Slayer. The latest victim was a girl in her late teens. Her body exhibited the usual wounds, no more or less severe than usual. As an aside, Hollister endured the story, for the fourth time, about the eighth victim, a woman as tattooed as a road map. She had been skinned alive before being suffocated in a plastic bag and dumped in a sewer.
Identified by the place a tattoo had once been and a birthmark under her left armpit, the latest victim turned out to be a homeless girl last seen by her mother two years earlier. On the surface of it, there was nothing to suggest that she was any different to the others, but Hollister's contact ended with a rumour that the Amberley Slayer might have made a mistake, this time. The detectives working on the case were excited, he said, as though they were getting close. He didn't know who or what to, but something was building to a head.
When Hollister hung up the phone, he felt a maudlin mood creeping over him. Everything was out of kilter. The dead girl had been just beginning her life; Jellyhead's was in its final stages. Yet she was dead and he wasn't. Would a killer of useless old men gain the same media coverage as the Amberley Slayer? He doubted it. And not all killers of young women were punished...
At least it would be over soon, if Hollister's contact was right.
"Expect an announcement soon," he had said, as though foretelling a royal birth.

A patrol brought Jellyhead in that afternoon. Hollister and Moir were summoned by the desk sergeant as soon as his identity became known. Their all-patrols notice had only gone out that morning; neither had expected it to produce such instant results.
Hollister took the short distance almost at a run. Sure enough, there he was, with helmet slightly askew and one arm held by a brawny constable who looked glad to see his two superiors.
"We caught him coming out of the toilets on Crowe," he explained. In his other hand he held Jellyhead's dirty cloth satchel. "You might want to look in here."
"She cries," the old man said. The words still didn't make sense, but the police around him certainly had his attention. He looked nervous, fidgety. He clearly wanted the satchel back, but didn't resist when they put him in an interview room without it.
They examined the satchel in the room next door. It stank of sweat and faeces, the same mix Hollister remembered from their first encounter, but worse. It was inconceivable that anything could smell so bad.
Moir used a pen to open the flap of the satchel. Hollister procured a pair of plastic gloves and probed deeper. The satchel contained some rags or old clothes, a couple of items of cheap jewellery, and a number of sealable plastic bags large enough to hold a sandwich or an apple.
"Jesus," said Moir. "Is that what I think it is?" One bag was filled with used tampons, dark brown in colour. Another contained what looked like faeces. A third was half-full of a clear yellowish fluid. The rest contained hairs, nail clippings and grey dust.
"You say you caught him coming out of the Crowe Street toilets," Hollister asked the pale-faced constable who had brought Jellyhead in. "The female side, I presume?"
A nod. "We've seen him around there before, but never really thought anything of it. We watched him this time, as you said we should, thinking he might be looking for a rendezvous or something, as unlikely as that seems. He just waited until he thought we weren't looking then went in. Into the female toilets."
"And you went in after him?"
"Yes. We caught him levering open one of the sanitary bins."
"The toilets were empty at the time?"
The constable looked nervous, as though worried Hollister might accuse him of doing something wrong. "We didn't check before we went in, but yes, they were."
Hollister nodded. "That's what he was waiting for, then. He's scavenging, not perving or stalking."
"Not today, anyway." Past the mask of Moir's face, Hollister could see her jaw working. "Let's see what he's got to say, shall we?"

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


Eidolon Publications 1995-2005

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