Dawn broke over the town of Didymus. It was a city really, but Didymus still had that provincial feel that denied it the promotion. Detective Hubert Maimone rubbed the itchy stubble on his chin as he trudged toward Asclepius Hospice. It was still two hours until he could visit. He fancied getting a coffee and a paximadi from the bakery on the corner.
Mrs Michalopoulos would be busy preparing for the Paniyiri festival tonight. As he passed the hospice, Hubert noticed that the door was ajar. Hubert stepped through the door without touching anything. No one was on the reception desk. A jagged red line at ankle height started at the doorway and proceeded down the corridor.
Or does it lead down the corridor and out into the night?
The familiar sensation of mandated calm took over as the door lintel passed over his head. All need to question ended. A draining of his worries and woes, as though they were a bag left at the door behind him. A bag he could pick up again when he was ready to leave. His frequent visits reminded his feet which way to go even though he could no longer quite remember why he was here.
I’m here to see someone. He thought with effort. Someone I love.
His heels clicked along the linoleum. The corridor advanced toward him and passed him by without ever seeming to move. The fluoro lights ticked by overhead and a mint green stripe on the right wall lead him on. The jagged red line jerked along as an unwelcome companion to the mint green line.
Tendrils of questions tickled into his mind.
Am I here to see my sister? He wondered.
No, he remembered. Phee’s not here anymore. She was released a week ago. She’s in her studio with the daughters of Pierus. Stillness filled the hospice. A stillness of pause, but not of peace.
Duh, duh, duh. A dual tone piano note, F and G came from somewhere in the near distance.
Who are the daughters of Pierus? He questioned his own assertion with difficulty. Each question tendril was slippery.
Nine identical sisters named after the Greek goddesses, the muses. They lost a singing challenge and were transformed into magpies. He answered himself.
What? He questioned again. That’s madness. He smiled at labelling a thought ‘mad’ when walking through a mental hospital and trying to work out why he was there. The mint stripe and jagged red line combo lead him to the day lounge.
Just because nine naked hysterical identical women turn up in this town on a carpet of magpie feathers doesn’t mean that my grandfather’s legends are real. He reassured himself with the confidence of the totally sane.
And there she was, with her back to the open door of the day lounge sitting at a piano. Her waist length red hair neatly combed and hanging free down her back. Ruth Rudderman.
Many of the plastic chairs that lined the walls of the day lounge were occupied by the patients of Asclepius Hospice. All in different states of detachment or intense introspection. The red line ran up the wall behind their heads and slashed along their lips. It was lipstick.
In the middle of the floor were two halved men.
The far end of the day lounge had been torn away. Outside the hospice was an impossible sight. A short shingle beach stretching into a calm flat blue expanse of water. On the beach stood a raised stone altar holding a statue of finest white marble. The statue was a muse holding a scroll, head tilted up slightly. At her feet were carefully set the charred remains of the front quarters of a bull, a sheep and a pig.
The hind quarters have been thrown into the sea. Hubert was certain of this but did not know how he knew. But the sea is miles from here.
The red lipstick line extended out of the room along the beach, around the altar and back inside the room. It was a mural. So masterful it stole the breath. It depicted an ancient Greek ceremony; a rite of cleansing called a lustration. How do I know that?
Hubert turned his attention to the sundered men on the floor in front of him. The Asclepius Hospice inmates were indifferent to the company of the corpses on the floor in front of a magnificent mural. The severed torsos showed signs of burning. And there was no blood. The bodies must have been moved here. The faces of the men were identical. They were twins.
There was something in the art style that was familiar.
Who are they? Hubert grasped at the question tendril and it came up dragging others with it like ripping up a mandrake by the roots. Are they Asclepius patients? Who killed them? Where are all the staff? What is going on here? Nine women appear from nowhere a week ago and now ten people are dead? All of them twins? No connections except to me? Why? Why? Why? What is going on here?
In a panic he grabbed at his ears to ward off the mandrake’s screams. And then chided himself for such a public sign of unprofessionalism in the middle of a discovered crime scene in a mental hospital containing a guerrilla art attack worthy of Banksy himself. Hubert looked upon the neatly severed men lying on what was left of their backs, eyes open and arms flung out.
No… it couldn’t be. He denied, waiting for a cock to crow.
Why not, he countered. What if Banksy is more than one person? Yes, what if Banksy is a pair of twins like Phee and me? Stuck in that death spiral of competition. Always seeking excellence. Driving each other mad.
Duh duh duh went the piano. Hubert turned to his dear friend Ruth Rudderman sitting at the piano. More alive than he had seen her in the ten years since the overdose. His own twin sister Phee had been in the same room, taken the same drugs and gotten off lightly. Phee had been in and out of Asclepius ever since.
Ruth straightened up. This was new. Hubert’s heart leapt. In spite of the horror of the scene, the silent threat from the seated patients, and a suspicious absence of the hospital staff. With a quick glance around at the passive seated patients, all with jerky smeared lipstick forming mouths of comic exaggerated expression, he took a seat next to Ruth at the piano.
She turned and looked at him. Those wide dark brown eyes, almost black, just like her twin sister Sarah. Those eyes focussed slowly and recognised him.
“Ruth,” he breathed through a nervous smile.
“Hello Hue-boy.” Hubert’s heart that had leapt for joy, crashed to the pit of his stomach. Only one person ever called him that. And that person died two days ago.
Ruth’s beautiful face awkwardly rearranged itself into a smile. She always had a smile like a sunbeam, whereas her twin sister Sarah’s smile was coy and cold. Sarah had never visited Ruth. Not even once. Hubert had checked the logs when the reception staff were distracted.
“Missed you bro. Really missed you. Never could say it though. Not after how we left it.” Bile choked Hubert at the memory of their last meeting ten years ago in a courthouse.
This is insane.
Playing along, he asked, “Where’s Ruth?”
“She’s here. She’s deep down though. Lost. But I’m going to find her.”
Duh duh duh went the piano.
Hubert sat in silence next to Ruth trying to process it all. He had worked George’s case with Officer Ester Ramirez and the forensics photographer Selwyn Clarke. He had kept his association with George quiet for fear of attracting suspicion.
“You never did hit it off with Sarah, did you? Why is that?” George asked in Ruth’s voice.
Hubert studied Ruth carefully. She seemed a puppet manipulated by an unseen force.
“I mean Ruth and me. We were halves of a whole from the get go. Stavros loved Sarah, and she sorta liked him back. And then we all met you and Phee at your parent’s summer soiree. That’s where it all started.”
George, that can’t be you. You’re dead. I found you hunched over a diorama.
Hubert’s head snapped around taking in the full scene. The mural of the lustration to the goddess, the chairs around the walls, the two halved corpses. The diorama George had been clutching was of this room at this moment.
“Sarah was always the wise one. She knew what the satyr was after. She saw it straight up and she didn’t want anything to do with it. Ruth and me… well we just jumped straight in. Erato’s slaves. We wanted to share that shining perfect golden moment with everyone. Share the love. Share the joy. But Sarah knew that was bullshit.
“When Sarah left, the sound changed and we could never get back there. To that golden perfect moment.
“And then… the Roskeld festival… Phee and Ruth. Oh man.” Ruth’s body swooned forward and back again, but her hands remained poised above the keys. “Hue-boy, I am so sorry. Those are the words I wanted to say to you, but the lawyers wouldn’t let me. Phee and Ruth… that was on me. It was my gear. And I gave it to them first. I only just had enough left in me to call for help. Without the mandragora we would all be dead. Phee went under and came back up. Ruth stayed under. But I’m going to find her.”
This is nuts! But impossible as it was, Hubert was buying it. George had somehow managed to transport himself into Ruth’s body. Like a squatter finding an open window to a mansion and marvelling at his luck.
“Hue-boy, I can smell her. Cinnamon and crab-grass. Like a summer’s day lying under that lemon tree in your backyard. Back when she made me the mandragora. What a gift. I went from weak as a kitten to strong as an ox. But it took everything. Fed on my music. Fed on my magic. Made me steal. From my own brother. From all of you. I’m sorry bro. Really I am. I gave it all back. In my Will.”
Hubert paused at the enormity of the shift in their personal landscape.
“How did you die George?” Hubert knew. But no one else did.
“The mandragora. I bit off its leg and it screamed and I died.” Hubert froze solid. He had taken the mandragora from a cabinet at George’s mansion. Ramirez had almost rumbled him. It was missing a leg.
“Is Harmony okay? I made her put on headphones before I did it.”
“She’s fine.” Hubert lied.
“The scream of the mandrake is the most beautiful sound. Like an aurora you can hear, see, smell, taste and feel. But it’s too much for a mortal to bear. Even a goddess would be killed by it.”
“Goddess?” Hubert didn’t really want to hear any more. They were well and truly past the pale.
Ruth’s beautiful smile dropped away. “Don’t play dumb. You know what is going on. You know who is behind it all. And you know why.”
Hubert nodded. “Sacrifice.” He breathed the word. The patients rustled behind him like a carpet of leaves stirred by a gust of wind.
“Unworthy sacrifice is just death. Worthy sacrifice is legend.”
Duh duh duh. Hubert looked at Ruth’s hand on the piano and at her serene countenance, a beautiful shell inhabited by a hermit crab. The hands held above the piano were in perfect start position. And an understanding dawned. George couldn’t play piano.
Moving slowly, for fear of triggering the patients behind them, Hubert stood up and moved behind Ruth. He reached around her and placed his hands on hers. The hairs on the backs of her hands rose and tickled along his palms. Guiding Ruth’s hands Hubert started to play ‘chopsticks’.
Duh duh duh. Da… dun di dun di dah.
The rustle among the patients became a murmur.
The other hand joined in. Ruth rocked forward a little. Behind them, the patients mimicked the movement.
“Thanks Hue-boy. The trail is stronger now. You gotta go now. I got your back. Give my love to Phee. And watch out for the daughters of Pierus. They’re not what they seem.”