The line extended down the stairs, past the gates, and so far around the block that museum receptionists put up velvet rope dividers to twist the queue. They looked worn but not uncontent. It was worse two weeks ago when the exhibit was first announced. The crowds subdued them into complacent servicers while the ordeal hardened them into guest-desk Spartans. They were merely grateful now.
Newspapers passed between waiting strangers. Headlines read "All of Britain on Pilgrimage!" or "England's Greatest Treasures Unveiled!" Great Russell Street was littered with the spent pages. The pavement itself seemed to groan at the unwanted attention while the British Museum stood in majestic pomp, preening itself from the publicity.
But instead of the staff, officers of the met greeted the anticipating masses with dismissal this morning. There were a few minutes of hullabaloo, then a few more of irritation, and finally of exodus. For the first time in half a month, the entrance of the British Museum saw the light of day.
"No direct affiliation with the artifact?"
"None. He was just a security guard."
Whispered chitchats echoed from hall to hall. Frei tilted her face up. The double-stairs that led up to the third level were stone and the glass ceiling shed hazy light down on them, making them shiver. She placed her palms against the cylindrical outer walls of the reading room that was the central pillar of the institution. It wasn't her first time here. At one point, she even worked in the upper floors, mopping with a fraction of her attention while she scattered the rest of her mind to Asia and Greece and the Middle-East.
Clack... clack... She wore comfortable boots but their soles were still hard and clashed with the floor in smart rhythm and short heels. Frei was secretly vain. 180cm was too tall for her liking, as was her short, ash-blonde hair that she thought of dying red time and time again. She ran both hands through it now as she inhaled deeply. Not being able to say no was a bitter brew.
"There you are, Freuja." His voice was familiar as was his wry smile. She returned his salute sharply as he'd taught her. Commissar Warding took no flimsy greetings. "You're here to see the Sword?"
"I'm here to see the body." She rejected his sand-dry humor. They walked side by side.
"A stabbing, excess bleeding, bite marks. An animal could be involved." He replied.
"Footage?" She raised an eyebrow at him.
"No good. You can take a look at it later. Trust me on it."
She nodded. Gallery 35 looked like a litter-box to her, every uniformed man a piece of turd. There was a time when she could call them her brothers. There was a time when she could call Warding her second father. She hid her disdain behind the most airheaded expression she could muster.
Glass cases held fragments of armor, clothing, jewelry, tablets. They were museum staple, but it was the long case in the center of the room that was cause for ruckus. It was fashioned from stone and metal, plain and black. She knelt down by it, fingertips tracing the engraved plate that named it. Her eyes fixed on the corpse at its feet. Frei smelled it long before she saw it.
Warding hovered over her. His shadow blocked the light uncomfortably but she did not look back at him. His interest was purely on the aged but unmarred sword behind the glass. He let Frei inspect the body in silence.
Frei's irritation festered inside like simmering chili. The guard was perhaps in his mid-thirties, balding and graying, and lay on his stomach. He looked to be fine from the chest down. The rest could not be recognizable as a human being. Ripped flesh sloughed off his face and his windpipe was torn free of his throat. It stuck to the ground like a forgotten garden hose, leaking red.
Her stomach threatened to mutiny. Frei stood, stumbling back one pace, then leaned forward over the sword case.
"It's not a dog. The bite marks are too semi-circular." She pulled measuring tape from the pocket of her hip-length trenchcoat. "I'll take measurements and a sample of the blood, if you please, and the use of your facilities. Also, photo records."
"Lass, you're a fine investigator. Come back to us."
Her head turned over her shoulder, almost surprised. Warding did not appear focused "We can discuss this later, Commissar, Sir. We will need all the assistance we can have."
"Right... right you are." Frei did not like that he did not look chastised. She knew he was a bit of an airhead at the wrong times but he was an excellent strategist. She hated him, and so she kept him close just as he strove to keep her closer.
The headlines changed on her way home from the station. They blinked at her accusingly for not bringing the innocent to justice. "Murder at the Museum!" "Popular Exhibit Closed - Killer At Large." She couldn't help but make excuses in her head, that it wasn't her business to meddle in the justice of others. She was a brain for hire. The relationship between her personal justice and this was only a common goal and a handful of cash; a temporary alliance.
St. James Residences was guarded by an iron gate. It was her first time living alone since Earl Banking went under and she had to return home. There was no mail for her when she checked so she crawled up the stairs to the fourth floor. The entrance to apartment 404 was tucked into such a discreet corner a visitor often had trouble finding it. It was perfect for a girl like Frei who needed to shrink away and be unseen, unnoticed.
Most people didn't expect the down-to-earth, matter-of-fact woman to be a dreamer at heart. They treated her like an unsociable girl and took her for a stiff. No one expected that her favorite stories came to life on Grandfather's knee. Ireland's mysteries and green hills dominated her imagination while the songs of mermaids were described in vivid vanity. Such unimaginable luxury it would be to converse with the dead for there was no better storyteller than Grandfather.
She shrugged her old jacket off her shoulders and balled it up, lobbing it at her bed. Frei lived meagerly in the efficiency. She cooked her meals on a camping burner at the breakfast bar and slept on a mattress on the ground. Her closet was neatly stocked with t-shirts, jeans, and a few jackets with only three pairs of shoes. The only other thing in the room was a desk and a chair, laden with the shed cocoon of documents that was her last investigation.
It was petty business. Most of her jobs were looking into inter-company spying and hunting for insider trading. Only Warding would ever give her a business as gruesome as investigating murders. The corner of her mouth twisted. She knew he didn't request her help to compliment her.
The Bell Tower tolled the 8th hour. Frei welcomed the cold, fresh air and sat at the window seat to listen. Whenever it rang, the streets of London stood still and she thought she could hear the clattering of carriages on cobblestone. The wind cleared her head. Today, she thought it sounded painful. It sounded...
The hairs on the back of her neck stood. She couldn't turn her head but something ticked her throat. A knife... a breath? Cold and sharp, crawling like insects under her chin.
Ah, you'll do... and a woman at that.
Frei's breath quivered. She had never heard a voice like that. It growled and purred at the same time in a gentle, fatherly croon. The voice kept her prisoner, choking her with soft, suede ribbons. She couldn't exhale.
Don't be so cold, Freuja. We're going to be friends... the best of friends.
"Wh...Who--" It took her several tries to utter even one syllable. If her tongue was any dryer, she'd be able to sand windowpanes with it. "Who's there? Who are you?!" Her eyes sped around the room. Somehow, she couldn't tell where the voice came from. It only felt as if it was terribly close, warm like fire but clammy when it cooled. The skeptic in her insisted that she had one too many coffees, and that it would be wise to lie down and sleep, with or without supper, and drink even more coffee in the morning. The rest of her buzzed.
For now, I am you. Consider me your talent. The voice drawled with languid amusement. You're not crazy, so stop checking your reflection. Tsk tsk... what am I to do with you? You stare down a corpse but can't even manage your own face? Poor girl.
"What do you want." She demanded it with hackles raised. The glass was dark and showed her clearly but anyone looking from across the street would see her making faces at a window. Even she thought the gossip was right about her overworking, and this psychosis was just the result of an aimless ambition.
That's not right. Freuja, what do you want? Trust me. Trust yourself that you'll need me. You're not up against an ordinary case.
"Of course it isn't." She snapped, tongue irate. "What would be the point of that? He's got me in debt to him and has me doing his bloody work, waiting for me to cry 'uncle' and quit what he calls my 'girlhood hobby' once and for all. If I solve it, he's good at his job. If I crack, he'll finally be rid of me. Bastard."
That isn't good, my girl. You're feeling a little... guilty. It laughed. There was nothing quite like such a guttural voice lilting in childish mirth. Frei felt her empty stomach twist and lurch. Don't blame yourself for the past. You were still young and foolish. What could you do against the commissar of Scotland Yard? Even now, you watch your mother waste away in your head while you join him for afternoon tea--
"That has nothing!" A water glass shattered against the hardwood floor. The pieces glittered like teardrops. "That has NOTHING to do with you!"
Violence is not an answer to your problems... at least, not the best answer. You'll understand soon enough. As for now, why not rest on it? That's a good child. Don't cut yourself.
Freuja heaved a sigh. Her shoulders slumped down and she went to find the dustpan and broom. For a long time yet, she listened carefully for any signs of neighbors gossiping over the soft clinking of cold, clear fragments. She knew she couldn't hear things through the walls but she tried, regardless. It was the part of her that resented her height and yearned for privacy. She wondered if the reason she had none was payback for her snooping. Finally, she discarded what she could pick up carefully into the rubbish bin, declaring a resigned ultimatum.
"I'll entertain the wild possibility -- and I mean wilder than a hooker in the mood on crack at a club with a riding crop -- that I am indeed not off my rocker and you are real if--" Frei looked up. It was hard to make eye-contact with yourself and the mirror was just plain silly. "-- if you show me some sort of proof or clue or... or something, a sign that this is truth by breakfast tomorrow. Now mind, you. If I wake up in Buckingham Palace thinking I'm the bloody Queen, I don't care how real you are, you're getting out. Deal?"
She heard it chuckle and frowned. It sounded more patronizing than ever. I will forgive what you've just suggested this once, if only because your recklessness tickles me pink. But as a rule of thumb, I advise against deals of any form without learning the ropes. Don't worry. We'll start bright and early. It'll be a party and a ball.
"Oh boy." She rolled her eyes, enthusiastically sarcastic. "Will there be cake?"
Oh, yes. There will be. In fact, it will be just desserts.