It is a bit of a coincidence that I have been writing up the backstory for a character I am hoping to play in Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition and that I happen to have finished it on Halloween. I don’t know, maybe I was subconsciously thinking of Halloween when I wrote it, maybe not, but it sort of ticks the horror box all the same.
So here is a little bit of creative writing that explores my character’s Awakening. I hope you like it.
I looked at the corpse on the table in front of me. A male, caucasian, average height, but stocky. His back was arched as if struggling against some unknown bonds and his mouth was open, locked in a neverending scream.
I have seen a lot of corpses in my time, some look as though they are simply asleep. Peaceful and resting. Not everyone is so lucky. Not by a long shot.
You never forget the screamers and you never get used to it. It’s the eyes. It’s always the eyes. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Well if that is true, I pity the screamers and the terror you can see captured in their glassy gaze.
I can remember all of the screamers. Every single one. Staring back at me in my darkest moments, haunting me in my sleep. There were so many at the world trade center. I can feel them looking at me now, staring up at me from the rubble. I feel sweat begin to bead on my forehead and I wipe my sleeve across my brow. I try to clear my mind, to focus.
A corpse is a corpse, I tell myself. There is nothing behind those eyes now. All that’s left is evidence and that means work. This man with pallid skin before me died through suffocation. The blood vessels around his eyes had burst with the strain from trying to breathe, staining the skin around them black and turning the eyes red.
I glanced at the paper to my left, folded down the middle and with a crossword puzzle face up, daring me to fill it in. Would it be another one of those? A puzzle wrapped around an enigma? The victim was another in a long line of victims, all of whom had suffocated. The police and the media had started referring to the killer as ‘The Dentist’, because each and every one of the victims had some rather fascinating dentistry done to them after they had died.
This one, number 19, had the tell tale signs. I could see at a glance the dusting of enamel on his lips and inside his mouth. If he had been alive when the work was done, then he would have spat, or wiped his mouth with the back of his hand if it had been free. No, the killer waited for death to come before desecrating the corpse.
I was the first to notice the messages that had been etched onto the teeth. The writing was fine, requiring a magnifying glass to make out. Clearly whoever had written them was skilled. So skilled that they had used a language that no one could read. The lettering looked like nothing I had seen in any modern tongue. Luckily at Cambridge I have a friend in linguistics and he specialises in ancient languages. He identified it as ancient Sumerian and offered to translate the text for me.
At first the messages were simple and straightforward, containing a time and a place only. Each one led us to another body. Another life cut short. A few of the bodies were still warm when we got to them. The killer must have known, because he upped his game.
Now the messages were in code and I had to crack it. In truth it didn’t take me long to discover the cypher he had used and crack the code. Call it a hobby. Again he upped his game and now the cryptograms were riddles. I found it helped to visualise the riddles and add them to my mind palace. It’s a visualisation technique I learned years ago and it helps me to sort through different facts, or memories. It helped me through my education and it helped me now.
Once I had solved a few of those riddles and we started getting close again, obviously he went one better. He was toying with me. Teasing me. So I looked at my paper and wondered if the riddle would be hidden in one of the crosswords there, or some other rag. I had a gnawing feeling in my gut that this time it would be different. This time something felt – just – wrong.
My stomach started doing turns when the phone rang. Although it was a soft brrr brrr brrr, it might as well have been a fire bell in the theatre of my mind. I picked up the phone and heard my friend Hopkin’s voice on the other end. I had picked up a smattering of Sumerian since getting involved with these murders, but it would have taken me too long to decipher the messages alone, so I had sent him the images of the latest etchings as soon as I had them.
My world collapsed as I listened to his voice. There was no riddle this time. The message was clear and it was personal. Without saying anything I cut the connection and immediately began dialing.
It was answered after a couple of rings, but it seemed like it took forever.
“The cemetery outside town. 3 o’clock. Bring a dog unit.” I rattled off the instructions without pausing for breath.
“Elwood, is that you?” came the reply.
“He’s got my Jane, Jim. He’s got my little Janey!” My eyes blurred as I sobbed into the handset, knuckles turning white.
“I’ll be right there”, came the reply, “and I’ll bring backup.” I heard a click, followed by the dialing tone. Jim was a good friend. It pays to have good friends.
The traffic (as usual) was a bitch and it took me twenty minutes to get to Cambridge City Cemetery. Jim would know which cemetery I had meant, as things seemed to revolve around that place. Maybe it was the close proximity to the airport? Maybe it was just one of those things? Either way we had seen our fair share of weirdness there and today was no exception.
Some of the graves in the cemetery dated back to 1903, soon after the place was first opened. So although it isn’t as old as a lot of graveyards, it has been through two World Wars and more besides. There’s a large section of the cemetery devoted to the war dead and I reflected upon that as I pulled my car over in the rain. Why does it always have to rain? As if my day needed more gloom!
I could see Jim waiting for me by his own car, with several response vehicles nearby, blue and red lights flashing. He leaned back against his car, hands in his coat pockets and his wet hair plastered flat against his scalp. He wore a long dark rain coat, like the one Columbo used to wear in those old shows I watched as a kid. Jim was a sucker for clichés.
I got out of my car and closed the door in a hurry. I guess even in my current state of mind I had enough sense to keep the inside of my car dry. Still, I was glad for the rain as it washed away my tears. I strode over to my friend. “Jim, have they found her?” I demanded, leaning in towards him.
Jim held up his hands as if to hold me back and said, “Relax Elwood. We have two dog units and six officers on site, with another twelve volunteers on their way. We’ll find her.” He looked at his watch. “We also have half an hour before it’s 3 o’clock.”
“Jim, I have to hope that this time is different, that – that she’s still alive.”
“We’d better get in and help then.” I nodded and followed him through the rain as he led the way through the main gate and into the cemetery proper.
The sky was a dark grey by now, the rain steadily thumping down onto the ground in rhythmic eruptions. I trudged soggily through the gloom and peered through the mirk. I could see the other searchers striding between rows of headstones and occasional crypts. There was of course no sign of my daughter. Cambridge City was a fairly large cemetery and even in fair weather conditions it would have been logistically challenging. We had bad weather conditions and a time limit and if we didn’t find her soon…
A peal of thunder rolled overhead as my mood darkened and the rain became a downpour. Great.
I checked my watch and could barely read the display. Ten minutes left! What? How could there only be ten minutes left? I quickened my pace and felt my heart start racing, beating its own frantic rhythm in counterpoint to the rain. The ground was by now treacherous, with an inch or so of standing water in places, making my search that much harder. I carried on regardless and almost fell as I slipped on the mud in my haste. My little Janey was more important to me than any twisted ankle, or scuffed up hands and knees could ever be.
I heard Jim shout something from far off, but I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. It was difficult enough with the rain pounding down all around, hammering at my ears, but it didn’t matter anyway as I wasn’t paying attention. I looked at the grave stones, noting the names and ages of the people that had passed away as I hurried on by. The stones were crisp and uniform and I realised I was in one of the war sections. So many dead were buried here. So many lives cut short in an ugly way. I could almost see their faces in my mind’s eye and hear their voices crying out in pain.
I shook myself as I checked my watch. I could hear the police officers and volunteers trying to be heard above the din. They were calling my daughter’s name. There were dogs barking too, adding to the cacophony. Another peal of thunder, this time much closer and louder, followed by a flash of blinding white light.
I clutched the sides of my head in agony. There was so much noise! So many sounds competing for attention in my brain! I couldn’t make out one noise from another and it hurt! My brain felt like it was on fire and I could no longer think. My eyes stung and I could barely see. I had to stop it. I had to regain control.
I drew in a long deep breath through my nose and exhaled slowly through my mouth. I closed my eyes and repeated the process several times and kept going. Slow and steady. I could feel my heart beat slow down a notch and then two, heard my pulse throb strongly in my ears. I pictured corridors and rooms as I entered the place I had constructed in my mind. It was a safe space where I could review the things I had seen or heard. A record of the senses depicting everything I had experienced.
I passed by my mother baking bread, with the early morning sunshine streaming in through the kitchen window and lighting up her hair like it was on fire. Then I passed a scuffle with a boy from school and tasted blood and grit in my mouth as I sailed on by. Then I was with a girl on my first date, awkward and shy. These were old memories and not important to me right now.
I flew down those corridors in my mind, disregarding memories I had no use for, until I came back to the present. I was in the cemetery again with the rain pounding down around me. The difference was that now I was in control and the sights and sounds didn’t bother me. I filtered out everything that I didn’t need, just like my other memories.
I filtered out the searchers and the dogs. I filtered out the thunder and the rain. Then, to my surprise, I filtered out the worms squirming in the muck at my feet, struggling against the onslaught of water. Then I filtered out my own breath and the pulse I could hear coursing through my veins. I filtered out everything.
And then I heard it. A soft almost inaudible voice in the distance.
I opened my eyes and sprinted like I had the hounds of hell at my heels. I could hear her! I could hear my little Janey!
I skidded to a stop at some freshly turned earth and started pulling at the soil with my hands, frantically digging at the ground with my nails. It came away in great big sopping wet clumps. My daughter was down there and I had to get her out!
I must have been making one hell of a hullabaloo, as my throat was raw by the time I noticed other hands reaching down to help me. We dug together, the helpers and I. Mud and dirt and water flying in all directions.
I was exhausted and covered in mud by the time we hit something solid. It was a small child sized coffin. My heart almost gave out with anguish at the sight of the thing and I fell about the task of uncovering it with renewed abandon.
We lifted the coffin out of the ground and someone – I don’t know who, Jim maybe – levered up the lid with a crowbar.
There was a click and Janey’s voice became a laugh. A callous, maniacal laugh. I felt a thin blade of ice slip between my ribs and into my heart as the lid was removed.
Inside the box was a tape recorder. An old fashioned tape recorder with two cassettes. It had been rigged to switch tapes when the lid was removed. I reached down and switched off that hideous voice with numb fingers. Also in the box were photos. Lots and lots of photos – of me. There I was moving rubble after 9/11. There I was drinking coffee with a paramedic, grit and grime covering both of our faces. There I was again, this time at the university. More and more photos of me, the people I had seen and the places I had been. There was my wife’s funeral. The crime scenes I had investigated.
There I was, holding Janey’s hand.
Some time later, after the rain had slowed to a light drizzle, a friendly hand passed me a cup of coffee. It was Jim. An umbrella hid his face in shadow, but I could read the concern on his face, the red and blue lights of the emergency vehicles painting his face in sharp relief.
I let the photo I had been holding drop from my cold fingers and took the cup. “It’s okay Jim,” I said as I reached up and took his proffered hand. I stood and looked down at the hole in my life. “I’ve got work to do.”