Lyfantod had woken late despite his intention to rise with the sun and get to work on his new case. The night had not been restful, his thoughts a mix of excitement and trepidation. He hadn’t felt this way in a long time, most of his recent cases being a mix of spousal espionage and serving legal papers to people who almost certainly didn't want them. His sleep was restless and he woke often, sweaty and breathless, his half-formed dreams darkened by dancing specters.
It was snowing again. He supposed this was a good thing. It would keep people indoors. Some of them anyway. He wondered if even that would protect them. There were beings, more or less than human, that were unable to enter a home unless invited, barred by the curious power of the threshold. The death of Di Marco’s man, Louis Vicci had proven that the walking dead didn’t share that particular failing. Lyfantod doubted very much he’d invited a zombie in for tea.
His first waking hours were slave to routine. He ate, and read, and practiced his pipe—a slender bar of polished silver with a resonance and range hard to believe for its size. It was the one instrument he took everywhere, owing to its inherent portability. A sorrowful tune floated from his lips and down into the street where it was not quite smothered by the falling snow. The unsuspecting passersby who caught snatches of his song could not explain, some hours later, whence came their profound sense of ennui, or why when it passed they were filled with an intense but brief euphoria. Neither, for that matter, could Lyfantod, for he hadn’t a clue that it was happening. Long ago, when he'd started, Mr. Greyburne downstairs had considered telling him to give off, or at least play something more cheerful—until he found that it increased the sale of certain items and decided to ride it out.
By the time he finished, Lyfantod had contrived a plan. Whether it happened to be a good one remained to be seen. Follow the bodies, the Necromancer Vodorov had said. And who better to ask about bodies than a procurator fiscal? Lyfantod picked up his phone and dialed the first number on his list. “Hello Erin,” he said.
“Who’s this?” came a distracted female voice from the other end of the line.
“I’ll give you a hint,” said the detective, pausing dramatically. “Peanut butter.”
“Lyfantod? That you?”
“Right in one,” Lyfantod said warmly.
A plump, mousy-haired brunette, besides being a first-rate medical examiner, Hollins was also a James Joyce groupie, and had reread Ulysses once a year since high school. Lyfantod thought she might have been a masochist. The first case that she’d helped him solve had been more than a little unusual and left lasting memories for both. They’d become unlikely friends, and now he’d come to her several times needing to know about bodies.
He found that even with friends it was usually best to start with small talk before you asked for something, so he opened with a friendly and innocuous, “How’s your week going, Hollins? How were the holidays?”
“Oh, fantastic,” Hollins replied earnestly. “My brother gave me this little book, The Third Policeman. Ever heard of it?”
“Can’t say that I have,” said Lyfantod. “Joyce?”
“No, no. It’s by a little known Irish author named Brian O’Nolan.”
“Never hear of him either.”
“You should read it. It’s about this bloke. You never learn his name. At the beginning of the story, he and another man kill this fellow for his money—and then the first man’s accomplice runs off with the cash. It turns out he’s gone and killed for nothing. After that night, all this weird stuff happens." Here, Lyfantod can picture Hollins waving her hands about excitedly. "And then," she said breathlessly, "at the very end, you realize the man—the narrator—he’s been dead the whole time! It turns out that all he went through after that night, that was the universe, or God, or someone, punishing him for the murder! Isn’t that fabulous?”
“Reminds me of The Sixth Sense. Should've said spoiler alert, by the way.”
“Sorry. Lyfantod, you really need to read more. Movies will rot your brain.
“I mean literature. Not fantasy.”
“And how,” said Lyfantod skeptically, “do you distinguish between a book about a dead guy, who is somehow still going about the world, and fantasy?”
“Its a metaphor!”
“So is John Uskglass.”
“Never mind. Listen Hollins, I wanted to ask you. Have you come upon any… unusual cases in the past few weeks, by chance?”
“What? Oh, um.” There was the sound of metal implements clattering on a tray across the line.
“Is that a yes?”
“Sorry, bit distracted at the moment. Kind of in the middle of an autopsy.”
“You should've said. Anyone I know?”
“No, no. Hold on.” She paused, and there was a moment of silence over the line, broken by a wet sucking sound. “Alright,” she said a little breathlessly. “No, just your run of the mill dead guy.”
“Too bad. I’m on the lookout for not-run-of-the-mill dead guys. Come across any of those lately?”
“Not me,” she said, “but…”
“I did hear something quite weird from Gerry Cramond the other day. Monday, I think he said it was.”
“Yeah. They’d found a guy that morning, and…”
“And,” she hesitated, “someone had been chewing on him, P.T.”
“Chewing on him. Like nibbling his ears?”
“Like… his face was gone. And a bit of one shoulder. And…” Lyfantod could almost hear her shudder. Which was concerning, considering how much grisly, unusual death came across her autopsy table.
“Spit it out, Hollins.”
“His brain. His brain was missing.”
“His brain.” Lyfantod gripped the phone tighter. A break in the case already! This was going to be a breeze. “That is fantastic. You get his name?”
“Oh, I don’t really remember. It was an odd one. Poot. Lute. Something like that.”
“Hold on,” said Lyfantod. He dropped the phone and ran over to the pile of old newspapers on his side table. He came back and pinched the phone between his shoulder and his ear as he searched for the right page. “Silas Proote,” he said confidently.
“Yeah, that sounds right. How’d you know?”
“It’s my job to know,” he said enigmatically, and he heard her snort on the other end of the line. He could afford to be mysterious when he knew that, even if she had heard of it, Hollins wouldn’t have touched The Oracle with a ten-foot pole. “They got any leads on the case?”
“No idea. You know that once they leave the table we don’t really hear anything about our guests. You want me to ask around?”
“Guests. You’re an odd one Hollins. If you could, I’d appreciate it. While we’re on the subject, you hear about any bodies going missing lately? Thats the real reason I called.”
“Missing? No, not that I’ve heard of. What’s going on, P.T?”
“Well,” he said. “Let me answer your question with a question. Do you believe in zombies?”
“Yeah, you know. The walking dead. Revenants. Mindless, shambling, brain-craving lumps of rotting flesh.”
“No,” she said flatly. “Do you think I could do this job if I thought there was even the slightest possibility one of my clients was going to sit up on the table and try to devour my grey matter? No chance.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to rob you of your peace of mind, Hollins. But let’s just say that I wouldn’t put it on my list of things that are strictly impossible.”
“You can put it on whatever list you want, Lyfantod,” she said. “I’m going to sleep comfortably tonight consoled by the knowledge that Mr. Poot was the victim of wild dogs. Or possibly somebody high on angel dust.”
“Wild dogs. In—”
“That’s right,” she interrupted in a tone that said she wasn’t above sticking her fingers in her ears and saying “lalalalalala” to drown him out.
“Alright Hollins, you do that. I’ll let you get back to work. But let me know if you hear anything else unusual, will you?”
“Sure thing, P.T. But do me a favor, too. Don’t go around mentioning zombies anymore, unless you’re talking about Seth Grahame-Smith.”
“You’re hopeless. Never mind. Hey, I’ve got to get back to this. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
“Sure thing, Hollins. Thanks a ton.”
Lyfantod rang off and called the next number on his list, and the next. When he’d finished making phone calls, it was late in the afternoon. Cemeteries, hospitals; everywhere he could think of that the thief would have ready access to the dead. He ran his fingers down the long list of crossed off numbers. His early success with Hollins had given him a false sense of optimism that hadn’t lasted long. Three. Three missing bodies. All this week. Before that? Nothing for years. He supposed it was a good thing that the number was small. It meant that presumably, the ring-thief was moving slowly. Probably alone.
He’d gotten in touch with his few, hard-won contacts with the police. The missing stiffs had all been reported, but is was low on the list of priorities for just about everybody, so any investigation had been perfunctory. One thing he did learn—there’d been an increasing number of reports of strange looking people having it out in the streets around town. Men dressed like mafia thugs shouting obscenities at men in emerald robes and funny hats. There had been property damage. So far, though, by the time the boys on patrol had gotten there, the parties responsible were always gone.
Two of the bodies had vanished on the same day. Wednesday the 11th--four days ago. One had disappeared from the morgue at Western General, and another from a Liberton Cemetery. On Friday morning, the groundskeeper at Corstorphine Hill—a small graveyard where they’d mostly buried men who died in the First World War—said he’d found muddy tracks through otherwise pristine snow. When he’d gone to investigate, they’d led him to a mound of dirt and an empty coffin. And that night Aminus Bones had disappeared.
He visited the hospital first, because he needed to get there before they closed. They had cameras, but the footage was pretty inconclusive. The police had decided the same, but Lyfantod picked out a couple likely suspects: a pair of burly dark-skinned men in suits who passed one way but never returned. The quality of the recording was too poor to make out their faces. Apparently nobody expected anything worth recording to actually happen in hospitals.
At Liberton, he found a couple sets of large bootprints near the empty grave that could have belonged to the same men—or not. There was no way to be sure. The sun had set as he stood peering contemplatively down into that six foot hole, and the bottom lost itself to darkness.
* * *
The moon was high, and night had well and truly fallen when Lyfantod approached the wrought iron gates of Corstorphine Hill. It made his work harder, but in a way he relished it, even though he knew it was foolish. Dangerous even. The world felt different at night, and being out in it… working a case like this, he could imagine that it was a different world entirely.
Electric lamps glowed brightly to either side of the cold black bars, but behind lay only darkness. The chain wound through the gate and secured with a padlock was tight enough that he’d not be able to slip through, slender though he was. He considered for a moment climbing over, but then he imagined his landing on the icy ground on the other side. He was not as graceful as he’d once been, and bruises and a twisted ankle seemed the most probable outcome. Instead he took a set of picks from an inner pocket of his jacket and made quick work of the lock. He had to take off his gloves to do it though, and by the time he finished his fingers, much like the lock itself, were nearly frozen.
The gate swung open on noisily complaining hinges, and a chill wind blew through the trees lining the road, setting their limbs swaying and their leaves rustling, welcoming Lyfantod with a many-voiced hallooo…
He shivered. Replacing his gloves, he retrieved his truncheon from where it dangled beneath his coat. He squeezed it reassuringly, and his gloves made a leathery squeak.
Lamps in the old graveyard were few and far between, and though the moon was out it was obscured by the clouds and falling snow, so that what little Lyfantod could make out in the near blackness was lit by a diffuse, ethereal light that, along with the wind, and the cold, and the aged grave-markers, lent a ghostly mood to the place. He took an old chrome flashlight from a jacket pocket and flicked it on. After that he could see well where it shone, but the rest of the night was reduced to claustrophobic darkness. Snowflakes tumbled about in the cone-shaped beam.
As he reached the first line of tombstones, he knelt to brush away the snow and peer at one—it belonged to one Luke Thompson, an RAF Pilot killed in 1939. He’d been twenty-one. Lyfantod tried not to think about that. It threatened to bring up dark memories, and he had no inclination to wallow in the past tonight. A quick survey of other nearby stones showed more of the same. To distract himself, Lyfantod tried to decide what monster a seventy-year-old corpse would make, and whether, like with avocados, fresher was better.
He followed the shadowed path between the trees until it diverged in five or six different directions, dividing the grounds into small, unequal squares. To his left lay open ground, but to his right it climbed into low, wooded hills. He went left, taking the easy path first, and wandered the rows for a time, finding nothing. All appeared to be as it should.
His methodical search took him slowly closer to the forested hills, which he saw as he drew near were filled haphazardly with markers as well, of all shapes and sizes. In the trees he heard the hooting of an owl. The graves were lain here and there amid thick trunks and gnarled roots. Some had toppled and some were broken, and all were covered with blankets of new snow and old moss. He clambered roughly onto the slope--and almost immediately slipped and banged his knee on a rock. He cursed under his breath and pulled himself to his feet. The magic of the night seemed a bit less magical.
Back and forth, into the woods he went, slipping and tripping in the snow. His knee ached and his nose had just about frozen over, and he considered coming back in daylight. Only stubbornness kept him moving forward. Eventually his persistence paid off.
He found what he was looking for, though not in the manner he'd hoped. Coming around a thick, dark tree, he nearly fell into a deep, man-shaped hole after lodging his foot in a mound of moist black earth. “Bollocks,” he muttered as he extricated his leg, now wet to the knee, and crouched, shining his light down into the hole in the world.
“Well that’s odd,” he said to himself, pant-leg forgotten. At the bottom of the hole was a coffin, and though it was dusted with dirt and snow, and the silken innards brown with decay, the box was clearly modern.
At the head of the plot stood a simple concrete post engraved on one side, cast in sharp relief by his torch.
Taken Too Soon
December 24, 1975 - January 13, 1993
May You Find Peace At Last
Frowning, he took his flashlight and wandered over to the next grave to examine the stone, a rounded tablet topped with a simple rose. RAF. 1940. The next few showed more of the same, all with dates ranging from between 1937 to 1945. He wandered back to the empty grave of Reginald Mus and knelt there, tapping his chin with the butt of his icy torch.
What was a 17 year old, born thirty years after most of these men had died, doing buried here in the woods with them? And why take his body? What would make someone come all the way up here to steal a corpse, when there were hundreds of them in far closer reach?
Behind him something moved, a soft shuffling in the snow. Lyfantod rose. Only silence met his straining his ears, except for the rustling of leaves… It lasted long enough for him to start to believe that he’d imagined it. Until he heard it again. Who would be here at this ungodly hour? The groundskeeper, following Lyfantod's own tracks in the snow? The police? Had Vodorov’s thief come back to cover his tracks in case anyone came looking? He glared accusingly at the torch that must have betrayed him.
He pressed his back up against the icy trunk of the tree and drew his gun. His heart was beating fast. He could feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He pointed the flashlight straight up and paired it with his pistol. Save the lower limbs of the trees above him, he could hardly see the woods around him.
One. He counted in his head as he breathed, trying to keep steady his shaking hands. Two. His finger rested lightly on the trigger. His body was a taut spring. Another rustling to his left. They were almost upon him. Three! In a fluid motion, he swung out from behind the tree, straight-armed, with the barrel of his gun leading the way, the light flaring in his hands. His long coat billowed out behind him. “Don’t m–-!”
Before he had time to finish, vicious orange flame bloomed before his eyes, drowning out the night in a tempestuous whoof! of combusting air, enveloping the hapless P.I. completely. He experienced the brief, overpowering smell of burning hair, and then only blackness.