|We found the paper lying on the old man’s desk. It stood out because it was the only thing out of place in the whole house. I do mean the whole house, in every other room things were in shelves, in cupboards and every flat surface was clear. No mugs, no kettle, not even a computer, the whole place was blank. The shelves looked as though they had been filled by an obsessive compulsive, all the books were arranged in size order. Those in his study were the largest, hardbacks mostly. Books on Eastern Occultism sat next to the latest Clive Cussler novel. There was no organisation for the collection except by the height, I could see the appeal, it looked quite soothing. Finding a particular book must have been a bugger though.
His name had been Toby Watson, a nice old man by all accounts. His neighbours told us he was a man of routine, walking down to the village to get a newspaper every morning, watering his garden every other day. He would pass pleasantries with the other people he saw, but no-one really knew him. It was a problem for us, we could find nothing about next of kin or family or friends of any kind and none of his neighbours knew him well enough to have that kind of information. For me that made life a bit nicer, it meant we didn’t have to go see someone out of the blue and tell them that their granddad had hung himself in his wardrobe. Like I said, nothing was out of place; the old man had even tidied his suicide away. He was only found because a neighbour got worried, having not seen him for a week. The uniforms found him through the miracle of a sense of smell. One week in a wardrobe during the early part of a hot summer will really ripen a body up. I could still smell him when I arrived.
The first thing I noticed when I got there was the organisation and tidiness of the house. The second was the piece of paper of the desk, and how I wish I had never seen that damn thing.
The only thing on the paper was two numbers separated by a dash, twelve dash seventeen. When I first saw it my initial reaction was that these numbers had been written dead centre on the paper, lab analysis would later confirm this for me. Now when I say dead centre I mean perfectly, they measured it in micro-meters and found that the writing was equidistant from the top and bottom, and also from both sides, perfectly central.
The sweep through the house revealed nothing else, and for the first time in my career I couldn’t get out of the crime scene fast enough. I’ve been to child murder sites, scenes of rape and mutilation, but none of them creeped me out so much as this perfectly organised and normal looking house.
I left as soon as I could realistically go, there wasn’t much to learn and I had a desperate need for some paper-work, some normality, to settle me back down.
The next day came the first signs that something was more than a little wrong with this case. The results on the paper came back from the lab. They confirmed my suspicions on the positioning of the numbers, but there was more. Firstly, there were no fingerprints on the paper, not a single one. That bugged me, who writes a suicide note, which I assumed it to be, with gloves on? The second point the lab highlighted for me was that there was no ink on the paper. At first read this didn’t seem too strange, the rest of the page had looked clean to me. Then I read in more detail, the numbers and the dash were not written in ink. Nor were they in crayon, paint, charcoal or graphite. There was nothing on the paper at all. I phoned the lab straight away to find out what game they were playing.
“There’s nothing on the page.” Joey at the lab told me.
“Yeah, I can read.” I told him, “That doesn’t mean it makes any sense to me. What is there on the page?”
I sighed loudly and deliberately into the phone, “Joey, I saw the numbers. You saw the numbers, there’s got to be something on the page to make them be there, yeah?”
There was a long pause at the other end of the line, “Well, you’d think so.”
“I do think so. Don’t make me come down there. You’re all the way across town and today I can’t work up the enthusiasm for the walk.”
I could tell from the tone of his voice that he was just as exasperated as me about this, it didn’t mean I wasn’t going to ride him hard until I got some answers.
“Fine. We took scrapings from the numbers and do you want to know what we found?” He was yelling at me, never a good sign.
“Of course I want to know. That’s why I rang!” I yelled back.
“Paper!” He exploded at me, “The bastard numbers are paper, ok? Exact same consistency as the rest of the page. As far as we can tell there is absolutely no reason that those numbers should be visible at all. Get it? We do not have a bastard clue as to why they are there. We are stumped, flummoxed, confused, puzzled, un-fucking-sure! Does that clear it up for you?”
I held the phone for a moment in quiet contemplation, muttered a “Thanks” and hung up.
What the hell was going on?
I spent the rest of the day searching for references to the numbers. My first instinct was the Bible, people always seem to feel a need to quote it if they have no original goodbyes to say. So I checked for every chapter twelve, verse seventeen in the book. The results were not very enlightening, only a couple seemed even vaguely close to what could be deemed a suicide note.
Job 12:17 “He leads counsellors away stripped, and judges he makes fools.”
It could have been a reference to himself, maybe he had been a judge or counsellor before retiring.
Matthew 12:17 “This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah.”
It was something he felt he was destined to do?
Hebrews 12:17 “For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
Was he finally punishing himself for something he had previously done?
I couldn’t answer any of my damn questions because we couldn’t find anything out about the guy. I began to suspect that Toby Watson was not his real name. What kind of seventy year old had need of a fake name though? He looked too young to have been any kind of Nazi in World War Two, he surely wouldn’t have been any more than ten or eleven at the end of it. There was something here that really didn’t add up and it all seemed to keep coming back to that piece of paper. Maybe he had been murdered and whoever did it left it as a calling card. Was it a clue to tell us who was next?
I decided to check out the net, typed the numbers with the dash into a search engine and waited to see what came out of it. I was quite surprised, there were several pages of sites that related to the September 11th attacks on America. Surely the old guy wasn’t involved in that? But I still had to call up to my superiors and let them know. These days anything that connects anybody with terrorism has to be passed on so the intelligence services can look into it. In a way I was glad, those guys had much better information available to them than I could ever hope for, there was a good chance they could find out who the hell “Toby Watson” was.
On the third day I decided to go back to his house. The intelligence services had apparently taken a great interest in my report, so the chief told me. The suicide by itself wouldn’t have got them that hot, I suspected it was the nature of his note and the lack of any discernable method of putting the writing on the page.
This time I spent longer actually looking around. The place still gave me the chills, there was just something too precise and neat about it. Now I’m no slob, I keep my place in good order, but this was unnatural. I swear I’ve seen houses of obsessive compulsives that weren’t this meticulous. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something to be found amongst the cleanliness.
I started my search on his desk. There were biros, hundreds of them, all full of ink in one of the drawers and some paper in another. I bagged the lot to send to the lab, on the off chance that there was something to be concluded from them. Other than that, nothing. No notes, no photos, absolutely nothing that personalised the desk in any way.
I looked to see if there was any kind of a struggle, if the note had been a message from a murderer. If the old man had been murdered then it would make more sense for him to be hung in the wardrobe. I couldn’t bring myself to accept the fact that he kept his suicide as neat and tidy as the rest of his house, it was too weird.
The kitchen was clean, there wasn’t a speck of dirt to be found on any of the surfaces, nor was there any food in the cupboards. I checked his bin, but it too was empty. It was like he had set everything up so that any consumables or perishable items had been gotten rid of before he did himself in.
Frustrated by a morning of fruitless searching downstairs, I went upstairs to his bedroom, hoping to find some personal letters or something that hadn’t been in his desk. I was becoming obsessed with finding out the meaning of the note. Security services would be taking over the investigation soon, we were going to rule it a suicide and close the case. But I just couldn’t let the note pass; there was something too far out of my experience for it to slip away.
The wardrobe he’d hung himself in was as clean as the rest of the house. The belt and body had long since been removed, but the smell remained. Have you ever smelt a dead body? That ripe odour of decay, a pungent sweetness that assaults your nasal passages. It’s hard to forget, and impossible to completely get out of your clothes once it’s in.
That smell was still hanging around, even though windows had been left open in an attempt to let it diffuse. I started to think that the house would never sell, it would become one of those overgrown haunted houses that kids would vandalise for years to come.
I searched his drawers, unsurprisingly I found clothes in there. I found his porn stash, the old boy had a fondness for big tits and big bums. But there was nothing in there that you couldn’t find in any normal house in Britain.
Finally I decided I would have to look at his book collection, see if any of the titles would stand out. To cut a long and dull search short, they didn’t.
Nothing, most of a day spent searching the house, and not a damn thing. The only two things out of place had been the dead body and the sheet of paper, and they were both gone already. I really wanted a drink, I needed one, so when I saw his drinks cabinet my only thought was “He’s not exactly in any position to complain, is he now?”
I took a nice eighteen year malt whiskey down, then opened the bottom expecting to find a glass. I was very nearly criminally negligent and almost dropped the bottle when I saw what was inside. There were no glasses, just two black candles and a black leather bound book on a stand of pure white. This had to be it, it was so incongruous with everything else in the house, the candles had dribbled wax onto the shelf and the whole thing looked very messy in comparison to the rest of the house.
Finally thinking something might actually come out of this search, I poured a whiskey into a mug, then sat down to have a read of this book. I was surprised and disappointed when I found most of the book was written in some strange hieroglyphics. They looked to be hand-written, just like the English at the very start. For twenty pages the book read like a diary, what he had done that day, what the local kids had yelled at him. As I read what little I could I sensed a mounting frustration at the children of the local area. He complained they were noisy at night, they destroyed his plants, even that they wouldn’t turn their mobile phones off in the cinema. After his rants, he had written the state of his garden, like he was recording height and width of his plants. The ripeness of his tomatoes, with small notes next to each, I assumed they referred to what kind of fertilizer he was using on each. Then without any kind of warning, the hieroglyphics took over, I checked the entire book and found no word of English or letter of the alphabet once they started. I knew there had to be something in them, all I needed to do was get them translated.
Honestly, I really should have reported the find and let the lab boys and their contacts look into it, but the case would be closed soon, meaning no-one would look into it and I’d never get my answer. So I did something I’d never done before, I took something from the crime scene without logging it. I contacted my brother who was into Ancient Studies, and asked if he knew anyone that might help me translate some hieroglyphics. He gave me a name and contact number for a friend of his at the British Museum.
The next day I was in London talking to Mark Davids, one of the foremost translators of dead languages and hieroglyphics in the country.
“These aren’t Egyptian, nor Babylonian, Aeschretic or Monophilian. To be honest I’ve not seen something in this configuration before.” He told me after two hours intensive study, during which time I had paced the corridor and endured the crappy coffee.
“Is there anything you can tell me?”
“Well, it’s definitely a language and not some random scrawlings. You can see there are repeated symbols and sets of symbols.” He paused for thought, “There is a chance I could translate it, given time. But I couldn’t guess at how long that might take.”
I nodded, I had half expected this, then I had a sudden flash, “There is one other thing, don’t know if it might help the translation or not.” He looked expectantly at me, and I told him about the note, the numbers. I told him about my Bible checks and the internet search.
“Twelve dash seventeen. Could it be twelve to seventeen, a number range? Possibly a date, the seventeenth of December perhaps?”
I stared, a date, why hadn’t I thought of that? Maybe because it was written in the American style if it was, maybe not. I thanked him and left him with the book, before heading home.
Back home I turned to the internet again, trying to find if there were any events on the seventeenth of December that could shed any kind of light. Interestingly, that was the date the Wright brothers flew for the first time, but I didn’t see that as relative to an old man’s suicide.
The only other thing of note was the death of an Arabian magician/prince in the thirteenth century. But they had Arabic as a written language, I thought, not hieroglyphics. It may not have been an area I knew a whole lot about, but I was sure they were using letters and words by that time. I made a mental note to check with Mark the next day, as it was gone midnight now. I switched off the computer, which had given me only more possibilities, no answers. Then I had a large whiskey and tried to drive the case out of my head, before going to bed.
The next morning I awoke to the sound of my phone ringing. Eyes barely open I struggled up and answered it.
“Yeah?” I barely croaked out the word before hacking to clear my throat.
“Dave, it’s Mark.” His voice was urgent and excited, I’d talked to enough people over time to know it meant he had something important to tell me. I tried to clear my head from the cobwebs of sleep and pulled a notebook towards me.
“What have you got for me?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t expect to have anything, like I said. But an old friend of mine came up to meet me for dinner, Joseph Toll.” He said the name like it should mean something, but I drew a blank. “Well, he’s the top of my field, I’d completely forgotten he was coming when I spoke to you.”
“So he managed to get a grip on what it might be?” I asked. Outside my window someone started screaming, I slid it shut, I could do without distractions right now.
“Better than that!” The excitement in his voice was contagious, I knew that finally I’d caught a break, “He’s actually been studying these glyphs for a year now. They are from Egypt, a time from before the highest point of the Pharaoh’s power. They are the secret language of an old death magic cult!” He was still excited, but my heart sank. A death magic cult? That meant freaks killing people in order to gain “mystical” powers and other bollocks.
“So I’m looking at this as a murder then?”
His reply came through as a puzzled tone, “Murder? I thought you said you found the book in his house?”
“Then he wouldn’t have been a victim, he would have been a practitioner.”
I stared at the handset, as if it were a strange creature telling me something unfathomable. Outside I could hear sirens and more screaming, but it barely registered. “Why the hell would he hang himself then?”
“According to Joe, the High Priests, and I’m not saying this guy was one, would ritually kill themselves in order to unleash a spell of immense power!”
“Like what?” my palms were starting to sweat, I could feel there was something very wrong with all this, but could not place the sense of what.
His reply was apologetic, “No idea, sorry. Joe has been studying their histories and such. He could tell you phrasings and such, but he had no idea what the spells would actually do.”
I nodded, then realised he couldn’t see me. Saying thanks, he asked me to get my brother to call him. We swapped a few more pleasantries then I hung up. As I was digesting the information I slowly became aware that people outside were still screaming.
I slid open my window to see what the problem was, and saw something that will remain with me until my dying day.
The local high school isn’t too far from my house, and many of the kids walk down my street on their way. There must have been fifty of them in a loose line, ambling their way when it happened. Covering the pavement were bodies of school-kids, boys and girls, lying there, clutching their throats and desperately trying to breathe. Tongues protruded and eyes bulged, there was a hellish stench of voided bowels in the air. I spotted about six or seven of the younger children huddled together crying. People were stood in shock in the middle of the road, many were crying. They seemed unwilling or unable to go near the crying youngsters, as though they had been the cause of this or were contagious somehow.
I threw some clothes on and raced down to street level. I grabbed the nearest man to my front door, “Has anyone phoned for an ambulance or six?” I demanded of him.
He turned to me, eyes red from crying, and told me that there were none to be spared. That this had happened all across town, there just weren’t enough to take care of this. I pushed him away roughly and strode over to the children who still lived, knowing in my heart the truth, but praying I was wrong.
Only six of them, not seven, the seventh I had seen was dead, but a girl cradled his head in her lap while she sobbed. My hopes were dashed as I saw him.
“Are any of you hurt?” it was the only thing I could think of to say.
All six shook their heads, their bodies heaving from their crying, some had no more tears, but the bodies still shook as though they did.
“How old are you?” I asked, praying that I was wrong, knowing I wasn’t.
They told me, voices hitching in their chests, as they struggled to force the words out. Eleven, they were all eleven. The boy the girl was cradling was wearing a badge, a badge that told me everything I needed to know.
“12 Today!” it proclaimed.
I knew then that every child in town, please God only in town, between the ages of twelve and seventeen had died, clutching their throats as the belt of Toby Watson closed off their air.
* * * * * * * * *
"Lunatics and Fools" by Robert Spalding
Fourteen stories of strange people and stranger creatures. A man runs from his failure to prevent to the coming darkness. Five friends go in search of the "Last Honest Man". In a park, one man fights to keep the trees alive. A dinner party turns quite nasty. In the quest for a super soldier, one man stains his soul. Includes the alternative ending to the opening story.
Paperback book £6.00
Read the other chapters
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