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They found what remained of Huw Carter’s body six months later.
It wasn’t much: part of a jawbone, a fragment of skull, and a few teeth. The coffin was so much larger than it needed to be, the Union Jack draped across the lid.
There was a narrative being woven around Taff’s death, the hopeless bravery of the Welshman standing up—tragically—to one of the oldest crime families in the city. It was a big fat steaming pile of bullshit, of course, but the truth didn’t help anyone.
There were no pretty words or fond remembrances. No one stood up to give the eulogy. Things were kept simple. A few lines from the priest who could have been talking about anyone, so bland were his platitudes. Julie kept his head down, mumbled a few prayers and shuffled out of the church to watch them put what little remained of his old partner in the ground while history was rewritten to give Taff a kinder end.
Julie stuffed his hands into his pockets.
It really should have been raining, he thought. Rain was the right kind of weather for this.
The priest led them to the graveside and waited while the pallbearers folded the flag and lowered the coffin into the ground.
There were a few nods exchanged by the mourners. Everyone knew each other, which wasn’t particularly surprising given there were only half a dozen people there. It was hardly the mark of a life lived well. Julie knew all of them: Ellie Taylor, his new partner; Melissa Banks and Sara Sykes and their solemn-faced gaffer, George Tenaka, representing the station; and Alex Raines, who held onto Julie’s hand when it finally came out of his pocket. She was the only good thing to come out of the last few months. He looked at her and tried to smile as the priest offered his well-rehearsed last farewell to the flesh, of ashes and dust.
Beyond her, across the tops of the headstones, he saw the ancient forest that bordered the cemetery.
Once upon a time the trees had stretched for miles, but they’d been felled to make way for housing estates like the Rothery and the relentless creep of the modern world. Now, it was less than a quarter of the size it had been fifty years ago, and even that was less than a quarter of what it had been when Damiola had created Glass Town back in the ’20s. It was difficult to imagine just how much the city could change, even discounting the fact that six months ago a labyrinth of streets no one had walked upon for decades suddenly redrew the familiar maps of the city overnight. No one seemed willing to talk about them or how they’d suddenly appeared at the mouths of familiar alleyways and street corners after Josh destroyed the anchors securing Damiola’s grand illusion.
A car backfired somewhere off beyond the trees, which startled an unkindness of ravens into the sky. The black birds banked across the thick clouds and wheeled away, their caws carrying all the way back to the grave. It wasn’t exactly a twenty-one gun salute.
Julie watched the birds take flight, but didn’t really think about what he was seeing.
He just wanted to get out of there.
Alex squeezed his hand, mistaking his restlessness for grief.
The priest closed his bible, and lowered his head, leading them in one final prayer for Taff’s soul, before Mel and Sara came forward to drop roses on the coffin lid. Julie threw a handful of dirt into the grave. There was plenty of symbolism in the gesture, despite the ritualistic nature of it.
He turned his back on the grave and walked back toward the car.
“We’re going back to the Green Man to raise a glass for Taff,” Tenaka said, coming up behind him.
“I’m not in the mood,” Julie told him.
“Do you think we are?”
“Then we’ll see you there?”
“I’ll catch up with you.”
He unlocked the driver’s side door and climbed in. Alex got into the seat opposite. He fired up the engine, but didn’t pull away until the other cars had all left the small graveled parking lot. Instead, he put the radio on, catching the last few lines of Martin Stephenson and the Daintees “Even the Night” as it morphed into “Wholly Humble Heart.” They were the songs of his youth, and on another day might have put a smile on Julie’s face. It was getting dark, so he turned the headlights on. Spring flowers were in full bloom along the dry-stone wall cordoning off the holy ground. They were a riot of color against the gray.
“How are you holding up?” Alex asked. “It can’t be easy…”
The one peculiarity of their relationship was that despite the fact that Taff, the Lockwoods, and Glass Town had brought them together, even tangentially, they never actually talked about what had happened to him. The past was embargoed. Nothing from back there could find its way here. It was for the best.
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
“I know you will, but that’s not what I asked.”
The last car left the church, taking the left-hand turn that would lead them back toward the Rothery, skirting the limits of Coldfall Wood, and driving down the slope of Cane Hill toward the Rothery and the Green Man.
Julie followed. The song changed. He drove without thinking. It was one of the few escapes left to him where he didn’t have to worry about what the recovery of Taff’s body meant for him. After all, he was the man whose partner hadn’t just been killed, he’d been dissolved down to a couple of bones by a prime suspect who himself had disappeared right around the same time. It didn’t matter that Julie knew that Seth Lockwood wasn’t coming back, or why his body would never turn up in the concrete stanchions of some flyover. He couldn’t tell anyone, and not talking was eating him up inside.
He didn’t see the man until it was too late. He was a blur of pale flesh as he dashed out from between the rows of dark trees into the road, and in front of them. With Alex’s screams filling the car, Julie hit the brakes and wrestled with the wheel, trying desperately to change direction of their sudden slide even though the momentum was against him. Caught in the headlights at the moment of impact, the man went up over the bonnet of the car and sprawled, broken, in the road.
The sound of bones breaking and steel crumpling was sickening.
With the engine still idling, Julie reached for the door handle, but before he could open the door, the man rose up into the full beam of the bright headlights and turned his head to stare at them.
He was naked, long dark hair cascading down across his shoulders, and even crouched down it was obvious that he was considerably taller than Julie. That wasn’t what stopped Julie from opening the door. The naked man wore some sort of antlered headdress, only the glare of the headlights made it look as though the horns grew out of his scalp.
The moment was broken by the sound of another car coming up the road.
The horned man rose to his full height, turned, and in a blur of motion ran back toward the dark trees at the heart of Coldfall Wood. It had to be a trick of the light and dark, but in the last few strides, the man’s pale skin seemed to shift, shimmering as he transformed into a majestic white stag that bounded off through the trees without looking back.
Julie stared at the trees, haunted by the visceral recollection of another accident on another street not so far from here. Everything about that first accident was as sharp in his memory as it had been the moment it happened. And understandably so. It had been his first glimpse into the wonders and horrors of Glass Town.
“What just happened?”
History repeated itself, he thought, but he wasn’t about to say it aloud, because saying it made it real. And he wasn’t ready for that.
Copyright © 2018 by Steven Savile