Hubert Maimone lay on his bed filing away today’s horror. In the private viewing gallery of his mind, he reduced the vile memory to its defining image. Holding that image with a great mental effort he summoned a white cardboard frame to turn it into a photo slide. The orange Bakelite box in the corner of his mind sat ready to receive it alongside all the others.
The phone rang. Hubert jerked upright in bed. The spell broke. The frame faded. The memory wriggled free.
“Maimone,” he answered.
“Hey there detective. You still speak Greek?” asked the Chief.
That’s too weird a question to answer. Hubert swung his feet off the bed and onto the floor, sat forward with his head in one hand feeling his eyelashes brush against his palm.
Annoyed that his wit had not provoked a response the Chief barged on, “Got a good one for you. Get down to the corner of Pallas and Athena.” An old abandoned industrial district on the outskirts of the city of Didymus.
“Okay. Give me ten minutes.” Hubert hung up, stood up and headed for the bathroom brushing the tips of his fingers fondly along the back of a face down picture frame on his dusty piano keyboard.
Twelve minutes later, Hubert stepped out of his car at the corner of Pallas and Athena and into the pre-dawn gloom. Mostly old warehouses without a single intact pane of glass. He nodded to Officer Ester Ramirez, genuinely glad to see her. She was new and she was good. Showing real promise.
Hubert had seen a lot of weird things in his eight years as a detective. He had even started a list and put it up in the men’s locker room. The title was: You haven’t seen everything until you’ve seen…
And today he would add eight hysterical naked women at the foot of an industrial chimney.
Hubert looked up the three-storey structure and suppressed a startle. Hundreds of ravens perched on the chimney rim. Some glared down the stone tube at him and some had their tails to him looking down into the chimney.
Two clumps of three women hugged and wept, oscillating between utter despair and almost joy. Another young lady danced. Her grace was magnificent to see. Her moves were as precise as those of a classically trained dancer, yet as carefree as a delighted child. She was utterly indifferent to her nudity.
At the base of the chimney, one lady knelt and hugged the curved wall, face turned toward him. A classic Greek beauty, dark ringlets over wide fair brow, eyes so brown as to be almost black, noble nose and full lips.
Ramirez was trying to engage with the weeping ladies offering blankets and coffee and questions in English and Spanish. The blankets were ignored, the coffee sampled and spat out, and the questions met with incomprehension.
The dancing lady cried out in Greek, “Sisters! Will no one dance with me?”
The woman hugging the chimney scowled at her, “Terpsichore, have you no propriety?”
Terpsichore pirouetted closer and replied, “Melpomene, my favourite tragedian. We are freed! Yes we must weep for our lost sister. But we must also rejoice and return to our quest!”
Hubert drew closer to the kneeling lady taking care not to startle her with his approach. He removed his jacket and offered it to her. She studied it as a curious thing for a moment and then allowed him to put it on her. She marvelled at the sleeves, looking down the inside of the jacket along her arm and then up the cuffs.
“Sir, who are you?” she asked.
“I am Maimone.” He stumbled over the simple phrase in Greek. How has my mother tongue become so rusty? “I am…” he could not remember the word for police officer, “an… archon.” She nodded in recognition of the word and its authority.
“What has happened here?” he asked.
“Joyous horror.” She replied in a voice thickened by tears and an unfamiliar accent. “The best and worst of all things. The Sister-clan is free.” There was more but Hubert could not follow the archaic phrases.
With a sigh he pulled out his phone, I’m going to need Phee. He tried to remember when they had last spoken. He had made a promise to himself to check in on her at least every two days.
She picked up after two rings. Wide awake at 3am. Not a good sign.
“Phee, it’s me,” he said.
“Hugh, it’s you,” came the immediate reply. A warm connection renewed itself. A connection that reached all the way back to their shared womb.
“Phee, I need some help.”
“Why?” Phee’s voice sounded good. Clear and calm.
“I’ve got eight naked hysterical Greek women to deal with.”
“Sounds like Christos’ baptism.” Hubert could hear her moving around her studio, putting things down and picking things up. “Where are you?”
“Corner of Pallas and Athena. An old industrial district. Not much here really, it was abandoned a long time ago. Do you want me to come get you?”
“No. I can find it.”
“Thanks Phee. Bring tea. And clothes.”
“Sure.” She hung up.
Hubert helped Melpomene to her feet. She lingered her touch on the curved stone chimney wall. Woe weighed down her lovely features. Terpsichore twirled over to them. She stretched out her arms and orbited around Hubert on a tilted axis as though he was the sun and she was the Earth.
“We are reborn!” she gasped. “Oh!” she clasped her hands over her perfect left breast and leaned forward. After a brief pause she made a throwing motion and burst backward into a graceful tiptoe. “Such a sacrifice for our release from bondage.”
“A sacrifice?” Hubert asked, moving his assessment of indictable offence away from a mass-rape scenario toward illegal immigration and sex trafficking.
“Our finest for our freedom. Oh Calliope! Our first born sister! Our leader. Our inspiration. Of all of us she is the closest embodiment of her namesake muse. She dared to challenge goddess Calliope to a singing competition and for that hubris,” his ears pricked hard, “we were punished.”
“Terpsichore,” Melpomene chided, “She cheated. As you well know.” Horror crossed Terpsichore’s twirling face. She broke her dance and embraced Melpomene making soothing hushing sounds and casting fearful glances at the glaring ravens above. Melpomene accepted the embrace stiffly, with her spine straight and her features grim.
“Melpomene, do not revoke our pardon through discourtesy!” There was more, but Hubert’s Greek gave out.
At that moment Hubert registered the scent of blood. Melpomene had been kneeling in front of an aperture at the base of the chimney. A square hole just wide enough to crawl into. Or out of. He touched his belly ruefully and looked over at the slender young Esther Ramirez making headway in coaxing the other sisters out of their despair and into the moment through a wordless feminine communion.
Nope, this one is mine. A touch on his elbow stopped his breath.
“You must act quickly,” said Melpomene meeting his eyes, “before the ravens feast.”
Hubert followed her gaze back up the stone chimney. One after another, raven tails tipped up and disappeared. He put his phone in his breast pocket, dropped down onto his back in the dust, reached through the small hole and marched inward on his shoulder blades.
Just as the lintel of the aperture appeared at the top of his vision framed by tiny peering raven faces far above, his hands touched metal. He gripped in reflex pulling him an inch further into the total darkness. In each hand he held a metal bar driven into the ground. With a quick mental calculation in the dark, he estimated that there must be ten more in a circle set an arm’s reach inside the chimney along the curved wall. There was a subtle stench of iron that did not come from the bars. Something light and fluffy tickled along his neck. Feathers?
Drip. Drip. Drip. CAW!
“Shoo!” Hubert shouted in fright trapped halfway through the opening. His voice boomed back at him triggering a frenzy of beating wings and ccc-ccck calls. A burst of wind stirred a cloud of feathers in the darkness whipping about his face like angry impotent wasps.
A hand touched his exposed knee.
He shouted and kicked. His boot parried by someone expecting the blow.
“Hugh, it’s me!”
“Phee, it’s you,” he automatically countered. Relief washed through him. His sister said something unintelligible in her usual bossy tones. Hubert felt a pair of hands pat up his torso to his breast pocket and retrieve his phone. Phee pushed it up his chest with the torch switched on. She could be so practical when she was well.
“Thanks Phee!” he called back taking up the torch with an awkward twist of his arm. Flat on his back he poked the beam about in the darkness. He had been right about the other ten metal poles set in a circle like the hours on a clock face between the curved chimney wall and a low circular ceiling. At the centre of the dark space was a thick metal pole incised with a double helix groove. The ground was covered in black and white feathers.
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Dangling through the gap between low ceiling and wall and between two poles. Languid and lovely with a thin red trail dripping from a pointing index finger. Calliope.
Hubert drew the rest of his body through the small square hole and squatted next to the central pole. His feet disturbed flurries of feathers and he nearly tripped on a toothed bar hidden underneath.
Calliope’s hand was within touching distance. Maybe she’s still alive. He had an urge to not check. If he didn’t check she might not be dead. But his discovery would make it so. Logic of a coward. The torch beam picked up the hollow behind her thumb. No tell-tale whisper of a pulse.
Scrabble scrabble. Ccckk-CAW! Calliope’s hand jerked.
“SHOO!” Hubert shouted and reached for Calliope’s hand. A raven burst out at him, wings beating at his face. Hubert dropped his phone. The light arced wildly about the confined space. Lit from below the raven’s profile was flung onto the wall. A small globe in its beak. The raven attacked the phone smacking at it with its wings as though trying to put it out. The raven shouldered its wings and grabbed at the phone with its talons. Hubert kicked out at it.
A feathery smack and a sound of a small thing bouncing and rolling.
The raven burst out the way Hubert came in, leaving a layer of glossy black feathers over the carpet of magpie feathers.
Magpie feathers? Hubert picked one up, retrieved his phone and twirled it under the beam. He let it go and followed its slow drift back to the ground with the beam of light. An eye stared up at him.
A shout caught in his throat. He fell back onto his rump dropping the phone which landed screen up smothering the torch beam. This tiny world plunged back into darkness leaving him blinking and blind.
Click click click.
The sounds of the ravens feasting above morphed into the sound of a chain driven mechanism jerking to life.
With the sound of a film projector starting up, a white round cornered square lit the blank curved stone wall and a dead baby girl appeared. Peaceful and perfect, with a small pink teddy bear in her stiff arms. Smothered by a mother convinced that the world was doomed and that this was an act of kindness to spare a lifetime of suffering to the woman that this baby would never become.
It was yesterday’s case.
Hubert screwed his eyes shut, only to have the image repeated on the inside of his eyelids. It’s an hallucination.
He forced a deep breath in, tasting the stench of Calliope’s blood. Red wisps formed around the image of the dead baby solidifying into a round edged hollow square. The red washed away leaving a summoned white cardboard frame holding the memory of the dead baby captured as an image. Encapsulated. Safe. At peace.
The photo slide floated away to his right and the orange Bakelite box materialised to swallow it.
Hubert let out the held breath and opened his eyes. The hallucination was gone. And the first grey light of dawn crept through the square hole. The eyeball still looked up at him, now casting a rounded shadow.
Hubert reached into his pocket for a latex glove. He put it on, picked up the eyeball and took the glove off again wrapping the eyeball safely into it. He tucked it into his breast pocket. He turned his gaze back to the hand of poor Calliope. It jerked again. The sounds of avian defilement echoed through the low circular floor. A small moment of epiphany struck him. Crouched double, he kicked about until his boot struck the rail on the floor. Sweeping back and forth through the feathers with his hands, he uncovered a lever.
He braced himself and lifted it. It moved smoothly and a clickity-clack filled the small space. The toothed mechanism caught the central pole and rotated it upward. With a raucous complaint from above, Calliope’s hand moved.
He cranked again and the platform above him moved smoothly upward rotating a quarter turn to the right. Calliope’s hand dragged as though restrained and then with a suction sound the hand rolled outward and the tops of the metal poles became visible. Sharp spears, some were tipped with blood.
Freed from her impalement, Calliope’s body on the platform above settled and the hand travelled around the circumference of the chimney. Raising the platform almost to head height and clearing the ring of spikes had widened the gap between the platform and chimney wall.
Hubert stood carefully and poked his head through the gap sending up a cloud of black wings, grabbing talons and bloodied beaks. The ravens regrouped on the chimney rim glaring down at him.
Calliope lay on her back. Her naked flesh pockmarked with deep bloodied pinches. Her right eye socket bloodied and empty. Dawn’s first rays strengthened and shifted from grey to rose. Behind Calliope and all over the walls were thousands of symbols etched into the soot caking the chimney wall.
Writing. It was familiar but illegible.
Looking upon poor Calliope, Hubert reconstructed the last moments before her death. The edge of the platform was now under his chin. It was rough and pitted. It used to be the same width as the chimney. A cleaning mechanism. But someone had ground it back a few inches and set spikes into the gap. Calliope and the other eight women were set on this platform right at the top. A fall from that height would have been fatal. Slipping down the gap between platform and chimney wall onto the spikes below would also have been fatal. They would have had to hang on until the platform lowered past the spike tips and then slip out through the gap in which Hubert now stood and out the way he had crawled in.
Did they write all this? What a tyrannical test of endurance. Hubert scanned the familiar script forming the backdrop to Calliope’s corpse.
It’s Greek! He kicked himself. Phee can read it.
With a solemn nod of wordless promise to Calliope, Hubert ducked back down into the crawlspace below and wriggled out on his belly. Reborn. Into a mad world that was calming down.
Phee had brought dresses and tea. With Ramirez’ help she had coaxed the naked women into putting them on. They were cautiously sipping the tea and frowning in puzzlement. Terpsichore still danced, naked and solemn. Melpomene, wearing an old favourite of Hugh’s in swirls of green cotton and bursts of beige taffeta regarded him with the same solemnity as the ravens above.
As he looked up to the ravens perched on the chimney rim they all took to the wing, bursting in different directions. The opposite of a flock.
An ambulance had arrived. Alphonse LaCroix was the paramedic in charge. After a discreet explanation and a transfer from his breast pocket Hubert returned to the chimney holding a body bag.
Terpsichore twirled over, face streaked with tears. She gently took the bag from him and embraced it running it through her arms. She brushed it tenderly along her cheek. Her tears blotted into the white fabric staining its prim whiteness.
Hubert, well familiar with grief and its myriad forms of expression, held his peace as she turned mournful pirouettes in an orbit around him. She gave the bag back to him and whispered, “My dear sister. Oh please Sir Archon, honour her mortal form.”
She dipped deeply, inhaled and straightened, and then swirled once again. “We are released my sisters!” Terpsichore cried out. Phee looked over with great interest. “Returned to our mortal forms, joined again to this material world. Our dear father Pierus must be long dead but we now live! Our waters run again. Weeping hastens their loss! With the time that has been restored to us we must dance and sing and create!”
A rude click cut through her soliloquy.
Christ, anyone but him.
Selwyn Clarke, the crime scene photographer, had arrived. Although he was the finest on the Didymus Police Force Hubert detested him. Selwyn had a deeply unsettling effect on everyone around him, especially the victims of crime he was documenting.
Without acknowledging Hubert or Ramirez, Clarke crept through the crime scene. His greasy dark hair pulled back from a widow’s peak into a ponytail as usual. And his slender frog-like fingers skilfully manipulated the camera glued to his eye thankfully obscuring his thin, pale, and admittedly handsome face.
Selwyn’s silent intensity as he processed a crime scene produced results just excellent enough to offset the endless complaints about his disturbing behaviour. Just last week Hubert had held the hand of a traumatised rape victim as Selwyn had slowly extended his zoom to capture the finger marks on her neck utterly oblivious to her horrified recoil.
Circling like a careful buzzard, Clarke snapped pictures of the women, the burst of black and white feathers at the small concrete mouth of the chimney and for some reason, a dandelion. He slipped with eel-like ease into the chimney.
A flurry of flashes, an overly long pause that Hubert tried hard not to speculate on the purpose of, another set of flashes, and then Clarke emerged and headed straight for Phee. Suppressing intense irritation at Clarke’s renewed interest in his sister, Hubert summoned Alphonse with a nod and they began the solemn undertaking of removing Calliope from the chimney.
Once done, Hubert retrieved Phee from Clarke’s wordless presentation from the digital display of his camera, which unfortunately Phee seemed to take a genuine interest in. She looked up as Hubert neared.
“It’s Ovid.” She declared.
Leaving him floundering through lack of context, Phee took off to the chimney and slipped easily through the small square hole. Hubert blundered through behind her and up onto the platform.
Dawn had lit a literary crime scene. Phee bit the back of her hand and tears came to her eyes. She took out her phone and turned slowly on the spot capturing the swirls of words. Hubert could pick up one word in twenty maybe. Nothing familiar.
“From bodies various form’d, mutative shape. My Muse would sing: Celestial powers give aid! From you those changes spring. Inspire my pen.” She read aloud and looked over at him in an obvious test of memory. He admitted his failure with a shrug.
“First line of Ovid’s Metamorphosis.” Phee ran her phone’s torch along one line of text starting at the chimney’s rim far above and spiralling down. This line of text was bordered by many others forming discrete ribbons of language.
“In the war of Troy, the Greeks having sacked some of the neighbouring towns, and taken from thence two beautiful captives, Chryseis and Briseis, allotted the first to Agamemnon and the last to Achilles. Chryses, the father of the sisters, and priest of Apollo comes to the Grecian camp to ransom them; with which the action of the poem opens, in the tenth year of the siege.”
She cast a wry look at Hubert, “Surely you recognise that one?”
“I’m guessing it’s the Odyssey?” From the glare she gave him it was clear that if she had something to throw at him she would.
“The Iliad, you philistine.” Phee returned the phone to the rim of the chimney magnifying the image. “Hesiod, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Eripedes, Alcman, Sappho, Aristotle.”
She tapped her teeth with the phone. “Nine poets of the Hellenic era.”
And nine women outside, thought Hubert.
Leaving Phee muttering in Greek and taking photos, Hubert climbed carefully down from the platform and squeezed out the aperture finding himself face to foot with Clarke.
Clarke waited for him to rise without offering a hand to help him up. He showed Hubert the display of his camera. He scrolled quickly through the thumbnail montage in reverse chronological order. The inscribed inner walls of the chimney with a cloud visible at its mouth, the defiled body of Calliope, the carpet of magpie feathers, one feather singled out next to a ruler, individual shots of Terpsichore dancing and Melpomene pondering, more than a few of Phee, and the weeping women still in clumps of three. Clarke flicked a few shots up into a small group mug shot. All were of the eight women. They were identical.
Hubert looked up at Melpomene and Terpsichore and across at Calliope being loaded into the ambulance. He realised where he had heard those names before.
The nine muses. I bet the other women are called Erato, Polyhymnia, Thalia, Ouriane, Clio and Euterpe. Hubert shook his head as he tried to dislodge the thought. Despite his efforts, the seed sprouted roots that burrowed into his mind. Nine identical sisters named after the Greek muses. The bloodied clumps of black and white feathers. A tortuous test of endurance and a sacrifice.
An old memory burst into his mind. It was a summer morning just after they had moved to Didymus from Athens. The morning before his parent’s summer soiree. Grandfather was proofing his translation, his orange Bakelite photo slide box on the desk beside him. And twelve-year-old Hubert eavesdropped from the library’s viewing gallery dangling his legs through the railings.
Grandfather read aloud in his intimidating lecturer’s tones. An ancient legend of the Greek king Pierus, who had nine daughters and named them after the muses. The eldest sister Calliope had challenged her namesake goddess to a singing match. The goddess had accepted the challenge, won the match and turned Calliope and her sisters into magpies as punishment for their hubris – the pride that invites the wrath of the gods.
Hubert turned from Clarke and walked away from the crime scene into the brand new day trying to come up with another theory.