City of the Dead
Armed with nothing more than a sarcastic stone statue, a Victorian ghost and a humorous skeleton, would you try to solve your own murder?
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“You look like a corpse.”
Those were not nice words to hear upon waking up. I sat up and clutched my head.
Ugh. Worst. Hangover. Ever.
Now the biggest question of all: Was last night’s party worth it?
“Don’t worry,” a voice with a Scottish accent chuckled. “The worst thing that could happen to anyone, is die and you have already done that, so you should be fine.”
My eyes focused on the owner of the voice. It was a white stone statue, perched on an equally stony chair.
Yep, I was probably still drunk.
Worst. Pub crawl. Ever.
I massaged my temples. “If you’re seeing double, when you’re drunk, what do you have to do to see yourself; that is without a mirror?”
“Nothing. You simply have to be dead,” the stone man replied with a shrug.
I scrambled away from where I saw my body lying on the ground.
”Why is there a knife sticking out of my chest?” I cocked my head. “And what an odd knife it is.”
“Sword actually,” a new voice explained. “I hope Charles hasn’t scared you off yet. He can be so tactless towards the newly dead sometimes.”
Next to me, a few inches above the ground, floated the translucent form of a woman dressed in breeches, waistcoat, and a top hat.
“Who are you?”
“Francis Watson,” she replied, dipping her head. “Well, Mary Francis, but I dropped the Mary to become a professor of medicine at the university. Ah, good times. Been dead since 1833, which makes me one of the oldest in this graveyard.”
“1833?” I repeated. “You’re dead?”
“Well, isn’t she a clever one,” the stone man remarked. “Probably one of the university students. Too much to drink and not enough studying, I reckon.”
“The semester hasn’t even started yet,” I groaned.
Slowly, I stood up, before scanning my surroundings. I had only been in Glasgow for three nights but I had taken enough walks around the city to familiarize myself with the sights. Therefore, I deduced I was in the Necropolis.
My assumption was proven by the simple fact that I was surrounded by gravestones.
So, yeah. Necropolis. City of the Dead. The huge Victorian cemetery overlooking Glasgow from its steep hill.
What a beautiful view.
But sightseeing wouldn’t solve my problem. I looked back at the gentlemanly lady ghost and stone man, who regarded me with amused looks.
“Well, well, well…what have we got here?” a voice rasped from behind me.
I whirled around and let out a shriek of fright.
There stood a figure dressed in a black billowing cloak whose hood covered their face. Skeletal fingers clutched a scythe.
“Oh. My. God.”
“Not quite,” the voice rasped. “My name is unutterable for mere mortals. Therefore you may call me Bob.”
“Bob,” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s going on here?”
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Bob asked, looking at me. Well, the other me, who lay on the ground. “Sword in chest. Deep wound. Lots of blood. Dead. It’s all very straightforward, really.”
“She means,” Francis said so excitedly her hat fell off and she had to catch it before finishing the sentence. “Who killed her?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Bob put his skeletal hand on his hip. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been rather busy since people started dying. Don’t you think I’d have liked to have a break once in a while? Though, I certainly wouldn’t have used my break to watch a girl get murdered. Who wants to hear about work, while they’re on holiday?”
“But there’s got to be a way you can help her,” Francis insisted. “Unlike us, you can interact with mortals.”
“Ah, a break,” Bob sighed. “I’d kill for that. Actually, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for bloody ages. Only the dying never stops. And there’s no break in sight.”
“If I can find a way to get you your holiday,” I said, though I had no leg to stand on, metaphorically and literally. “Will you help me find out what’s going on?”
Bob let out a hoarse laugh, which sounded like someone choking to death.
“What an interesting suggestion.” He took a rattling breath. “I know how to execute it, pun intended. Deal?”
I never thought I would strike a bargain with Death like this – not that I had contemplated such a situation before. But if I were to bargain with Death, I would have thought it would be for some more years of life, not to find my murderer.
What did I care who killed me?
I was obviously quite dead.
I looked upon my bloody corpse and shuddered. Reality hadn’t sunken in until now.
But, I was dead, as certain as Death and taxes. Well, Bob and taxes. There was nothing I could do about that.
I could however avenge the years I would have had if not for this mystery person who had murdered me. Might as well find out who was to blame.
I took a deep breath; at least I repeated the motions of the process of breathing, although no air passed through my lungs.
Bob dropped the scythe and threw off the black hooded robe to reveal the skeleton beneath wore khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with a pineapple pattern.
“Ah, freedom at last,” the skeleton sighed. “Good that I was prepared for this almost impossible moment.”
His joints made a popping sound as he stretched. From the pocket of his hood he had retrieved a flower crown. He placed it on his head and sighed again.
“Well, see ya. I’m off on holiday.” The skeletons’ jaws clattered as it spoke and I wondered how it had the power of speech without voice boxes. “Beach party, here I come.”
Bob snipped his fingers and as mysteriously, as he had appeared, he was gone.
“I have to admit I had expected a bit more,” I said as I stared at the empty space where the skeleton had stood. “Maybe a bit of training, a piece of advice at least.”
“Here,” Francis said and held out the robe and scythe. “If you are meant to act as Bob’s replacement you have to wear the uniform.”
For a moment I contemplated leaving the uniform here but then I realized I had nowhere to go. I had made a deal with Death to stay a little longer in this realm, so I ought to spend the time I had left wisely.
I put on the robe, which magically fit me, although my body shape was certainly not the one of a fleshless skeleton. Francis handed me the scythe. I had expected a fundamental change, a celestial sign, anything really once I had donned the uniform. But I didn’t feel any different at all.
“Be honest with me,” I told my two new friends. “Do I look like I’m a kid going trick and treating?”
“You look fantastic,” Francis said.
“But you won’t scare anyone yet.”
Francis shot a scathing look at Charles, before telling me in a gentle tone one would use on a crying toddler. “Don’t listen to him.”
“Scaring people is not the point, though, is it?” I said, examining the fatal weapon in my hand. “If it is Bob’s job to guide people to wherever it is they’re going, scaring them would be unnecessarily cruel.”
“I remember him being quite humours,” Charles paused for a moment. There was a glassy look in his eyes. Then he cleared his throat and continued, “But you don’t want to be this friendly to the person who murdered you. You want to give them a good fright in revenge.”
I hummed in response. I had never been a particularly violent person. On the contrary, violence scared me. I flinched every time someone raised their voice. Now, the thought of someone being so violent they ended my life, terrified me, even if they couldn’t hurt me anymore in this life. Well, afterlife.
“What are you waiting for?” Charles asked, tapping his fingers on the armrest of his stony seat. “Go get the killer. Bob won’t be on holiday forever. Time is different to him than to us.”
“Sure,” I drawled. I thought of every crime drama I had ever watched. “What would the police do first? Get forensics in. We don’t have forensics.”
“You have me,” Francis pointed out. “I’m a certified surgeon. I can help you determine the cause of death.”
“It’s terribly generous of you to offer your help,” I smiled at her. “But I’m afraid it’s fairly obvious the cause of death is this sword protruding from the gaping wound in my chest.”
Fortunately, Francis didn’t look offended. “Then let’s try it this way. Since we are in the unique position to be able to talk to the victim, we can retrace your steps. You don’t remember who murdered you by any chance?”
“Nope,” I bit my lip. Thinking back to yesterday, I tried to concentrate on what had happened. “I remember my new flatmate taking me to a party to start off our first term at uni.”
“What happened then?”
“What do you think?” Charles answered Francis’ question. “She’s a university student. Of course she got drunk.”
“I did not,” I protested indignantly.
Charles rested his head on the hand he had propped up on the armrest of his stone chair. “Scarier but still not convincing.”
“I may have been a little tipsy but certainly not drunk.” I sat down on top of a broken gravestone and laid down the scythe next to me. “I remember being a bit shy because I didn’t know anyone there, so I accepted the pint my roommate handed me. Then…I talked to a couple of people but to none of them for long and I can hardly remember anything about them. If they murdered me, I’d know, wouldn’t I?”
“Not necessarily,” Francis interjected. “You said you don’t remember the murder. If you had remembered, this whole conversation would be pointless.”
“You’re right but I still don’t think one of them killed me. Let me think what else happened.” I rubbed my temples. “There was this guy I was talking to…well, flirting with.”
“It was him,” Charles interrupted. “Don’t give me that look, Francis dear. Statistically speaking, it’s very likely.”
“I suppose it could have been him…”
“What happened next?” Francis asked, hovering next to me in a sitting position.
It took me a moment to work through the tangled memories. It seemed to have happened such a long time ago. I sifted through images of me talking to future fellow students, whom I would never get to know now. In my mind’s eye I saw how they talked, drank and laughed together. Now, there was a thought so full of life I still could not believe I would never be like that again.
Then I remembered what had happened afterwards. The guy I had flirted with, whatever his name had been, had asked me about my parents. That had ruined the moment, when I was forced to remember my mother had died less than a year ago in a car accident.
It had been so sudden it had taken me a long time to understand what had happened – like the realization of my own death. Maybe I still wasn’t over it. Tears burned in my eyes but not wetness would escape them. How could it have? I was dead.
Dead, like my mother. I gazed out onto the graveyard which, from top of its hill, overlooked the city. Sitting here, I understood why my mother had wanted to be buried here, in the town where she had grown up.
“I came to the graveyard to look for my mother’s grave,” I explained. “I’m not sure if I found it. I know I got lost somewhere. It’s where my memories stop.”
“Then maybe we should trace your steps back to the gates, although I don’t know how you would have gotten in so late.”
“The people at the party started drinking pretty early,” I joked feebly, not wanting to voice my suspicion I might have found my mother’s grave and cried out my eyes in front of it for the last few hours of my life.
“Since Charles and I can only move freely on graveyard grounds, I suggest we start investigating here.”
“Good idea, Francis,” I agreed. “Why don’t you do so, while I take care of something first?”
“Of course,” Francis said with a gentle smile. “Though, you do realize you cannot interact with the living.”
I nodded. I grabbed my scythe and walked – or rather floated – down toward the gates, which from on top of the hill were now clearly visible. It also helped that as a ghost I didn’t have to worry about the path running in labyrinth-like serpentines down the hill. Floating through the solid stone of the graves I passed wasn’t as strange as I had expected. I hardly felt anything.
I passed the gates and floated onwards into the town centre. It reminded me of the bad times during my puberty, when I had felt invisible.
Now, I truly was.
People passed through me as if I were nothing. They didn’t shudder like in films. There was one instance, when a young boy about five years old, stared at me with a curious expression on his face. I did my best scary Death impression (of the Grim Reaper I had always imagined, not Bob) and yelled boo. The boy started running but only to jump through me and to chase a pigeon, which had been the reason he had been staring at me in the first place.
At last, I reached my student hall and entered my dorm. I felt a morbid curiosity to know if I was missed, if someone had noticed my disappearance. My roommate was pacing up and down, while her friend sat on my bed.
“Stop worrying for heaven’s sake,” her friend complained. “You don’t even know her. Maybe she picked up a guy and went back to his place. Good for her, I say. You need to focus on your studies. This afternoon is your first meeting with your tutor and you need to get ready.”
“I know, I know,” my roommate conceded but didn’t stop pacing. “But what if something happened to her, though? Last time I saw her she looked sort of disturbed…”
“Do you really want to spend all day worrying about someone you don’t know?” Her friend rolled her eyes. “The girl’s an adult. She can look after herself.”
“Fine,” my roommate said, stopping her incessant moving around.
So they weren’t going to report my disappearance anytime soon. But my roommate had cared my bed hadn’t been slept in. It was more than one could expect from someone you’ve known for less than a week.
I returned to the graveyard so quickly my robe billowed behind me. I had wasted enough time and I needed to solve this murderer. This was supposed to bring me peace, wasn’t it? Peace was exactly what I needed at the moment.
As soon as I had crossed through the graveyard gates, Francis approached me. Like me, she was in a hurry and had to hold her top hat secure to her head.
“Police arrived,” she greeted me. “An old lady found you, almost had a heart attack, poor dear.”
I followed Francis back up the hill. Forensics specialists dressed in white overalls were putting up signs around my corpse. One of them was talking to a relatively young woman in a leather jacket.
“Are you okay, Detective Inspector?” the forensics specialist asked.
“I’m fine. Peachy,” the young woman said with a forced smile. “Been having a bit of a cold. That’s all.”
The forensics guy continued his report, repeating information I already knew, what with having had ample opportunity of examining the crime scene and retracing the steps of the victim.
“Thanks, mate,” the woman concluded their conversation. “I’ll have a look around the crime scene myself now.”
As competent as the people in their fashionable overalls appeared to be, I decided to follow the woman to see what she would find out. Francis trailed behind us.
The detective strode surprisingly purposefully down a small path, leading to a large tree underneath which stood two more recent gravestones.
I gasped when I read the name on the left one. This woman had led me straight to my mother’s grave. I kneeled down in front of the headstone and touched my hand to the golden inlay of the engraving.
Although I couldn’t feel the material of the stone, I felt electrified by its touch. But instead of electric currents it was memories that flashed through my mind. I remembered feeling lost in a new city where the one person I knew was dead. I had stumbled through the graveyard, desperately trying to find a grave I barely remembered because I had tried so hard to forget it.
Then I had finally found it and my emotions had spilled over. I had had somewhat of a breakdown and had slung my arms around the cold stone, while crying my eyes out.
Francis tapping on my shoulder drew my attention back to the detective. She had knelt down next to the grave that stood beside my mother’s. The engraved name seemed familiar, but it took me a moment to understand why. However, once the spark of recognition hit, it did so like the proverbial brick wall.
“He was the driver of the other car,” I whispered. “Mum had been on her way home from the conference. She had barely slept the whole weekend because a colleague had called in sick. She fell asleep for just one second. But one second was enough to be fatal. For her and for the man in the other car. That was him.”
Francis followed my eyes to the gravestone and put a non-substantial arm around my shoulder to comfort me.
The detective pulled rumpled flowers from her handbag and laid them in front of the grave. “I wish you were here, Dad. You’d know what to do…”
She trailed off, her voice growing quieter and I didn’t want to listen anymore. It was simply too painful. I understood exactly how she felt, on top of feeling guilty because it was my mother’s overestimation of her sleep-deprived mind, which had caused this man’s death.
I turned my back on the weeping woman. Francis and I floated up the slope toward the corpse. We were about halfway there, when I felt myself dissolve.
“What is happening to me?”
“I think you are being summoned,” Francis exclaimed.
Her voice drifted away and I found myself back at the graves, from which I had tried to flee. Between them lay the detective, her hand stretched out toward the grave of her father. Above her floated an exact copy of the body, only she had an expression of confusion on her face – at least until she caught sight of me and let out a scream.
Right, I was still wearing Bob’s uniform. I pushed the hood off to reveal there was an ordinary face beneath.
“It’s you,” the woman gasped. “You’ve come to haunt me.”
“Not quite,” I said, trying to maintain a gentle tone. “I’m not exactly sure what the protocol is, now that I’ve been summoned here. It’s my first day, so I hope you’ll forgive me.”
She didn’t react to my attempt at humour other than continuing to scream, gasp and point at me with horror on her face.
“Look, I know I’m literally death warmed over but I can’t possibly look that bad.”
Still no positive reaction.
“I’m sorry…um…Detective Inspector,” I said since I didn’t know her name. “I know this must all be awfully confusing. God knows I’m as much confused.”
“I’m sorry,” the woman whimpered again. “I didn’t mean to do it…You startled me. It wasn’t on purpose, I swear.”
“Hold on a second,” I interrupted. “Are you saying that…”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” the woman sobbed, “let alone kill you.”
Bob and Charles were completely wrong. Finding my murderer didn’t give me peace at all. On the contrary, it made me sympathize with my murderer, made me want to comfort her.
“I wanted to visit Dad’s grave. I was working so late, the gates were about to be closed. But, you see, it was dad’s birthday yesterday,” the woman rambled. “You startled me because…well you looked so much like the woman who had caused the accident. The way you acted…I thought you were her ghost trying to kill me, too.”
“I hate to say I understand your reasoning, but I know what grief can do to your mind.” I leaned the scythe against a tree. Having a highly emotional conversation with one’s own murderer wasn’t made any easier by holding a deadly weapon. Speaking of deadly weapons, ”Where did you get the sword from?”
The woman blinked at me in confusion for a moment. Then she stretched out one shaking arm to point at a grave, over which watched a stone angel and more uniquely, a stone knight. This stone knight had not only an actual costume but also a belt with a sheath hanging from it.
Who kept an actual sword in a graveyard?
Absentmindedly, I ran a finger down the sheath. As before, the touch recovered a flash of memory in my mind. I remembered being so exhausted I had fallen asleep in front of the grave and being awakened by a woman’s voice. Maybe I had recognized her from the aftermath of the accident, as the woman who had screamed at me, how it had been my fault her father had been killed.
Once she had noticed my presence, she had gone into a mad frenzy, screaming something about me having come to kill her. Being just as upset, I had made the mistake of shouting back. My dishevelled appearance probably hadn’t made me seem any less threatening.
The woman had backed up against the stone knight. When I had advanced on her, shouting it hadn’t been my mother’s fault, she had whipped out the knight’s sword, wielding it in front of her like a protective shield until she had accidentally rammed it into my chest.
She had stared at me in horror, while I had frozen like a character in a video, when someone had pressed pause. I had gone from shrieking to silent in midsentence. Slowly, my eyes wandered down to my chest.
In spite of the moonbeams illuminating the dark graveyard I could barely make out the sword, though I very much felt its presence. Pain exploded in my chest. A warm liquid dripped down my pullover. The coppery odour of blood made my head swim.
Then the woman started screaming again. She stormed away, down the hill. A throbbing pain pulsated in my head. I was too disoriented to tell left from right.
Adrenaline was still pumping through my body. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew I had to get medical help. I stumbled forward, trying to find my way back to the city.
I assumed this was how I had ended up at the top of the graveyard’s hill. Maybe it had been my disorientation or I had reasoned the view would help me find the way. Maybe it had been animal instinct telling me to take flight in opposite direction of the person who had skewered me.
Whatever had happened, it didn’t matter.
Knowing every detail of my death wouldn’t help me or anyone else to cope. It was time to move forward, wherever that was. Until Bob returned, all I could do was bring some peace to this woman.
“It’s okay,” I said to the silently crying woman. “My death was my fault as much as it was yours. I know you didn’t…um…run me through with the sword on purpose.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “You forgive me?”
“I am not sure I have the right to mete out absolutions of forgiveness,” I admitted. “But for what’s it worth, I do forgive you. Neither of us wanted this to happen, not the car accident and not this.”
“Thank you.” She gave me a grateful smile and wiped her eyes off the tears, which would have rolled down her cheeks had she still been alive. “I am so sorry. I should have called an ambulance but I couldn’t think straight. I kept running. I ran all the way back to my flat, where I sat staring at the wall for the rest of the night, like a statue. I’m sorry. I truly am.”
“I’m sorry, too.”
The woman dapped at her eyes again. “What do we do now?”
“To be honest, I don’t know.” I picked up the scythe again. “We call Bob, I suppose.”
“Bob?” the woman echoed.
“It’s a long story. I –”
As if his name was an invocation spell, the skeleton in flower crown and Hawaiian shirt appeared. In his hand he held half a coconut shell, which smelled as if it contained an alcoholic beverage.
“Ah well,” he sighed and finished his drink, before throwing the coconut half over his shoulders. “Nothing last forever, eh? Holidays certainly don’t.”
I was glad to hand him back his scythe and robe. Once he had donned them, he pulled out a pocket mirror. “Back to everyday drudgery. At least black never goes out of fashion.”
He put away the mirror and looked at me expectantly, like a boss waiting for his employee to give a report on their project.
“I’m not sure how exactly this happened but this woman and I had an interesting talk about how she killed me. Though I don’t understand how she can be all ghost-like.”
Bob shrugged. “Well, she’s dead, obviously.”
“Dead?” the woman repeated and looked down at her corpse for the first time. “How can I be dead?”
“Aneurysm,” Francis added. “While you were trying to calm her down, I had a look at the body. Being a ghost makes medical examinations a lot easier…”
I had noticed neither her nor Charles arriving at the scene but I appreciated their moral support.
“Since all of this has been explained, why don’t we get a move on?” Bob said, after having consulted his pocket watch. “I lead a busy life and there’s lots of work to do till my next holiday.”
“Good bye,” Francis said and hugged me. “I wish you all the best for your further journey.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?”
“I haven’t been set free yet,” she said. “But it’s okay. I’m not alone.”
She nodded at Charles, who bowed and said his farewell, too.
“Ladies,” Bob called our attention back to him.
He held out his scythe to us vertically. Instinctively, the detective and I both understood he meant for us to grasp the wooden handle.
“Off we go,” Bob said and we were teleported away.
I stumbled from the impact of landing on cemented ground. I scanned our surroundings. We were at a train station. There were no people other than us. I looked out onto the trails. Mist obscured every inch, which lay beyond the train station.
“Where are we?”
“Perth train station,” Bob said. “I’m afraid I have two pieces of bad news for you. Firstly, you are going to have to go on via public transport from now. Secondly, the next train is in two hours.”
“Where will the train take us?” I asked.
“Why don’t you ask the conductor?” Bob proposed. “I’m only the middleman. I have no idea what lies beyond. That’s the whole point. This way I can’t give away any secrets. I need to leave now. Have a safe journey, ladies.”
With another pop, Bob was gone. I turned to the woman who had murdered me. “Just us two now. Maybe we should take a seat in the waiting room over there and get to know each other. We certainly have got enough history together.”
She answered with a reluctant smile and so my murderer and I sat together in the waiting room like old friends, though we both avoided talking about the one defining memory we shared. No matter where the train was going to take us, we would never talk again of the night in the Necropolis, the City of the Dead.
Copyright Julia Fellner 2014