The dead man lay in repose at the feet of Ramses II. His blood had dried long ago on the marble floor and left a rust-colored halo about his head. One of the dead man’s hands stretched outward, his fingers curled like an oak leaf in the dead of winter.
Pete Caldecott watched the dead man from the doorway of the Egyptian Room. Early morning light lit the white-suited crime scene investigators and the somber blue-jacketed Metropolitan Police officers like a cluster of ghosts, even though every one of them was flesh and bone.
Involved in watching as she was, she jumped when a hand touched her arm. “Got you a tea,” Ollie Heath said, passing over a cardboard cup. “Not that shite stuff we have down at the nick, either—posh British Museum tea.” He swigged from his own paper cup, a bit of brown liquid dribbling out to land on his shirt.
“Cheers.” Pete took a sip, noting in passing that the tea was, in fact, quite good. “What’s all this, Ollie? Your boys can’t handle a bit of straightforward murder amidst the mummies?”
Ollie grimaced at the tea on his shirt. “Call came in at about five a.m.—body in the British Museum. Thought it was some kids taking the piss at first. ’S like something out of bloody Agatha Christie, right? Anyway, they kicked it to the DI in the rotation, I got the crime scene boys in for a look, and it was all going along fine until the medical examiner went to move the body.” Ollie stopped talking, and Pete watched his usually flushed cheeks drain to pale. “She found, well …” He cleared his throat. “You need to see it for yourself.”
Pete handed Ollie her teacup and ducked under the tape blocking off the Egyptian collection. It was eight in the morning, nearly. The museum would be wanting to open in a scant few hours, and Ollie’s boys had been doing a fine job of getting things cleared away from view of gawking tourists, screeching schoolkids, and the odd homeless bloke until something had spooked them.
She accepted a pair of gloves and paper booties from the plod manning the tape as she considered that. Ollie was, outward appearance and broad Yorkshire brogue not withstanding, a good copper with a dozen years in the Met, half of those manning a desk in a Murder Investigation Team. He’d seen the worst people had to offer, all of the various permutations and perversions of death they could dream up. Pete didn’t really want to know what could shake Ollie Heath so much he was hanging back like a first-year probie.
But since he’d called her, it was a fair bet that whatever had shaken Ollie and his team wasn’t any of the usual murder, rape, and torture police counted as routine. If it were murder, rape, or torture of the garden variety, Pete would still be asleep. Murder of the freakish, occult variety—that would make Ollie pick up the phone.
Pete intercepted the medical examiner a few feet from the body. The woman was a new face since Pete had chucked her DI desk at the Met for the freaks, the occult, and the walking movie monsters, and she looked Pete up and down with an unreadable expression.
“Hello,” Pete offered, along with her hand. “Ollie might have told you he asked me to have a look. I’m Pete Caldecott.” The last thing she wanted to do was go treading on toes and starting gossip all over again about the crazy ex-DI who’d taken up with that crazy shite some New Age gits and mumbling schizophrenics called magic.
Which was all true, except for the part about it being shite. It wasn’t, at least not completely. But Pete found that accepting that magic existed, that it was threaded all through their city as surely as roads and rivers and rail track, was the sort of hill most people weren’t willing to hoof over.
“Of course.” The medical examiner shook Pete’s hand. “Dr. Annika Nasiri. Heath told me you might have some insight into the … condition … of the body.”
“Might,” Pete said. “Can’t say until I see it.”
Nasiri stepped aside. “Heard you used to be a detective. I trust that you know enough not to contaminate my evidence?”
“I’ll try and hold back from smearing DNA all over him,” Pete said, kneeling next to the dead man. She made a mental inventory of the victim, as if she were still a cop—white male, early forties at a glance, a little ginger hair up top and a lot on his chin, cultivated the sort of beard favored by adjunct professors and kiddie fiddlers. No injures apparent, aside from the gaping second smile in his throat, of course, and the blood pool under him, nearly as wide as Pete was tall, seeping into the base of the Ramses bust that glowered above her like an irritable graven image.
“You have a guess as to what they cut his throat with?” Pete asked Nasiri, out of habit. Perhaps she’d get lucky, and it would be as simple as a jealous colleague or a spat over a girl, or a boy. Nothing that needed a person familiar with sacrifice and ritual killing to pin the slit throat and the peculiar placement of the corpse as such.
The doctor consulted her tablet PC, screen covered in handwritten notes around an electronic diagram of a body, with the wounds picked out as shaded portions. “Some kind of single-edge blade, long and thin,” she said. “Until I’ve made examination of the wound in my lab I can’t be more specific, I’m afraid.”
“Right then,” Pete said, deciding that if Nasiri wasn’t going to be forward, she would. “What’s spooked you so much you won’t come within three feet of the dearly departed?”
“When my crew started to move the body, one of them lost their grip,” Nasiri said. Her throat bobbed as she swallowed, and her voice constricted down to just above a whisper. “The victim’s shirt slipped open.”
Pete leaned over and tugged aside the collar of the dead man’s cotton Oxford. Her breath hitched in her throat. When she saw his flesh, she understood why Ollie had called.
Cuts covered the dead man’s torso, slices and slashes so precise and intricate they’d make Jack the Ripper weep happy tears. Lines and loops and circles, deep and shallow, cuts over cuts over scar tissue, inflicted over years. Newer wounds had been cauterized, the skin around them black with infection. The older scars grew together, twined like white, shiny vines in a fleshy garden.
The scarring and cutting interlocked to form symbols that had no heads and no tails, but were a continuous pattern over every centimeter of visible skin. They traveled from just under the dead man’s collar, down his chest, and over his stomach, disappearing into the waistband of his trousers. They were nothing familiar to Pete, which was troubling in and of itself. Magical symbolism worked as a kind of shorthand, across all the various disciplines and religions contained within—a pentagram could be co-opted by hairy-legged hippies, true, but it was also shorthand for a white witch, to tell things from the nasty side of magic to step the fuck off.
These symbols were practiced and deliberate, and Pete couldn’t make sense of them, except that they made her head hurt, deep down near the base of her skull. The power in the dead man’s skin vibrated her back teeth, the power that the carvings gave off nearly palpable, like the stench of decay would be in a few more hours. No wonder Ollie and Dr. Nasiri were giving him a wide berth. You didn’t need a talent to sense when something unnatural and rotten was in your psychic space. It was a simple human survival mechanism, to recognize the Other, and run from it fast as your two feet would take you.
Ollie’s voice made Pete start, heart slamming against her rib bones before it began hammering again. “Well?”
Pete pulled the dead man’s shirt open fully, exposing the spreading ruin of scar tissue, down both his arms and peeking out from his cuffs as well. “I think it’s good you called me.”
Copyright © 2010 by Caitlin Kittredge