Roll Call

Traces

Malcolm Rose

Kingfisher

Chapter One
<p
Emily Wonder's eyes did not narrow when the dazzling sunshine fell across
her face. Her numbed eyelids did not snap shut to protect her from the
blinding light. Lying across the sofa, she was helpless against the
unbearable burning pain in her eyes. Tears and sweat rolled down her cheeks
into the soft cushion. She was not tied to the sofa, but she was completely
unable to shift her position. However much she tried, she could not move an
arm, a leg, her head, or any other part of her body. She could not even blink
an eyelid. She just lay there in her apartment, tethered by invisible bonds as
if immobilized by an overwhelming weight, and waited to die.
<p
It had been a good day until, feeling faint, she'd laid down on the sofa after
lunch and become limp within minutes. First she'd felt a prickling sensation
around her mouth. The tingling had spread pleasantly throughout her body,
bringing a feeling of lazy warmth. But then came the shivering, the agonizing
pins and needles in her fingertips, tongue, and nose, and the waves
of nausea as her ailing nervous system shut down.
<p
Her mind remained agonizingly clear though, as she realized that she was
not suffering merely from heat exhaustion.
* * *
<p
In this extraordinarily hot summer the weather was striving to turn the country
into a desert. Reservoirs were running dry, and rivers were reduced to sad
trickles. On the day of Emily's death Dundee sweltered. The ski center's
exhausted air-conditioning system took its last breath and broke down. The
indoor slope defrosted immediately, and the snow melted away. The Music
Hall, Caird Theater, and McManus Art Gallery were packed with people
seeking leisure and an escape from the heat.
<p
Along Riverside Walkway the Tarmac was sticky underfoot. In the morning
Emily hesitated as she strolled past the beautifully preserved sailing ships
moored in the docks. For a few minutes she gazed at cabs speeding over the
wide estuary on the impressive Tay Bridge. The iron railings divided the
sunlight so that the cabs seemed to move under strobe lighting. It made their
crossing appear jerky rather than smooth.
<p
Just as she was about to continue her walk, an older woman bumped into her
and muttered, "Oops. Sorry."
<p
Emily shrugged. "That's okay." Even wearing sunglasses, she had to squint
in the sunlight to get a good look at the person who had nudged her. But the
woman had pulled a wide-brimmed hat down protectively over her eyes. Half
of her face was in shadow. Emily watched her walk slowly away. She was
dressed in a short skirt and flimsy floral shirt. With every step she placed one
foot deliberately right in front of the other, giving her the flamboyant air of a
fashion model.
<p
Continuing along Riverside Walk, Emily visited Dundee Animal Sanctuary.
There the vets were making garlic ice cream for the animals to keep them
cool.
<p
For the first time the amphibian house did not need power to maintain its
tropical conditions. The yellow-splashed Californian newts and harlequin frogs
were lapping up the sunshine. The aquarium and sea life tanks had to be
cooled to keep the water hospitable for the puffer fish, the tiny blue-ringed
octopus, the garish angelfish, and the xanthid crabs.
<p
Emily had lunch in the conservation park's restaurant. When she presented
her identity card, the attendant asked a question that Emily had endured one
hundred times.
<p
"Are you the Emily Wonder?"
<p
Shaking her head and smiling, Emily pulled down her sunglasses and gave
her usual response. "If I started to sing, you'd know right away I'm not. I
share a name with her, not a voice."
<p
"Shame."
<p
Eager to end the stale conversation, Emily made a detour to the bathroom
and then returned to tuck into the fish and salad.
<p
Afterward, thinking that the heat was taking its toll on her, she got up to go
straight home. Just as she got to the door though, someone called her name.
She turned to see a man dashing up to her.
<p
He was shorter than Emily, but older. He had a big, bushy beard, and despite
being indoors he was wearing a cap. Under its peak his eyes were intense.
His left arm was encased in a cast and hooked across his chest.
<p
She had never seen him before in her life. Startled, Emily stepped back, and
her bare arm touched one of the cacti on a shelf behind her. The plant's
sharp spines pierced her skin. "Ouch!"
<p
The man glanced at the large, flat cactus with clumps of brown spines and
then looked into Emily's face. "You're all right. Just a sting. It's not
poisonous."
<p
Rubbing the spot where the prickles had scratched her, she said, "What do
you want? How do you know my name?"
<p
The strange man held out her identity card in his right palm. "You left it on
the table."
<p
"Oh. Silly me. Thank you," she replied, taking it from him. Feeling light-
headed, she opened the door and headed toward her apartment.
<p
The sun executed an arc high in the clear sky, and the vertical blinds in
Emily's window chopped the harsh light into bands of shade and brilliance,
turning her living room into a cage with dark bars that drifted throughout the
afternoon. Emily could have counted the hours by the alternate periods of
welcome shade and tortuous glare on her inert face. So much perspiration
cascaded from her body that she felt as if she'd just walked through a
rainstorm. Her muscles were paralyzed, but her brain was fully aware that
she was about to die from inevitable heart failure or suffocation. Robbed of
speech and motion, there was nothing that she could do about it. She was
defenseless against the unknown and unseen poison that had penetrated
every part of her body except for her mind. Cruelly, the chemical could not
cross into her brain, so she remained perfectly conscious.
<p
For seven hours Emily experienced her young life slipping slowly away. For
seven hours she was a zombie—alive and awake but, to all intents and
purposes, lifeless.
<p
She was aware of time passing and the pain of her organs failing one by one,
but she was not aware that she had been murdered.
<p
The forensic investigator assigned to Emily's death did not realize that she
had been murdered either. A thorough examination of her body did not reveal
any evidence of a crime. Even the pathologist who performed the autopsy did
not find the true cause of death. The toxicity tests on her blood were
negative. The microscopic puncture wounds and inflammation on her left
forearm were trivial, caused by the tiny spines of a prickly pear cactus,
Opuntia vulgaris. All of her internal organs had been healthy when they had
suddenly ceased functioning. The pathologist put her death down to heart
failure as a result of unknown natural causes.
<p
Without a trace of unlawful killing, The Authorities closed the case.