Into the closing of the day, a beautiful chorus of lyrics in Greek came from the open second-storey window of the studio above Phee’s art gallery. A song of joy and loss. Guilt at the first and acceptance of the second.
Detective Hubert Maimone shifted the rocket nose cone tip from his right arm to his left and pressed the buzzer. The nose cone was surprisingly light for its size but its girth was greater than he could comfortably hold.
“Hello?” The song came though the speakerphone and from the window in stereo.
“Phee, it’s me,” said Hubert.
“Hugh, it’s you,” said Phee in completion of the couplet. The protocol drew the bond taut between Hubert and his twin sister. The door buzzed open and Hubert walked into the gallery. The air was thick with recently displaced dust and the scent of disinfectant and furniture polish. There were fewer pictures on display than the last time he visited and the newer pieces had a hopeful feel to them. The stack of white picture frames with Phee’s signature ivy motif was smaller too.
Good. Phee’s making some sales. Hubert adjusted his grip on the rocket nose cone. Its smooth ceramic skin slipped through his fingers. It dropped on the tiles landing with a bass boom that echoed through the gallery and up the stairs. A bell toll of doom. The singing from upstairs stopped abruptly.
Hubert picked up the nose cone revealing a spiderweb of cracks in the impacted tile. With a discreet movement of his foot, he dragged the rug over it and headed up the stairs.
Phee was waiting for him on the landing with ‘what was that?’ written across her face, quickly replaced with ‘what is this?’ as she saw the large white cone. Noting the difficulty he was having in holding it, she held her question and let him in.
Phee’s studio was an art riot. Parallel tableaux of artistic industry paused by his noisy intrusion. Melpomene read from a tablet held in her right hand and scribbled furiously with her left occasionally breaking off to hold the pen before her eyes and regard it as a miraculous object.
Erato lounged on a chaise, lipstick of a shocking shade of red adorned her lips and marked her naked flesh in lines, sweeps and spirals. She posed for Clio who was rendering an amazing likeness on a canvas while Thalia looked on in silent critique. Euterpe, Polyhymnia, and Ouriane tuned up their acapella. And Terpsichore danced between them swaying in rapture to a music only she could hear. Their artistic efforts were undercut with an urgency as though they were on a parole that might be revoked at any moment.
Always one for taking in strays, Phee had opened her studio to the most amazing anomaly of this very strange week; eight identical Greek-speaking sisters who had appeared, naked and confused, around an old industrial chimney. Inside the chimney the ninth sister, Calliope, had died impaled on spikes and set upon by ravens. Hubert had investigated her death. In the absence of a motive, or any reliable witness statements from the surviving eight sisters, the case was currently classified as ‘accidental death’. And in the absence of formal identification, the sisters were classified as ‘undocumented migrants’. A sombre but sympathetic judge had taken into consideration the likely scenario that the sisters had been abducted, drugged and smuggled from their native Greece by parties unknown. The judge had granted Phee’s request and released the eight women into her care, kindly overlooking her recent medical history.
There was an alternate theory. That these ladies were the Sister-clan; daughters of the ancient Greek king Pierus, each named for a muse. The muse Calliope, goddess of epic poetry, had turned the mortal sisters into magpies as punishment for their hubris… oh how he hated the word… in challenging her to a singing match. And through mortal Calliope’s sacrifice they had been released from their magical bondage into this day and age.
Hubert didn’t believe that theory. Even though it was his own. And today he was investigating an equally bizarre death.
Phee moved to the kitchen in the open plan studio and tended to a delicious smelling pot of soup on the stove. Phee had very little appetite, but she loved to cook. One of life’s little ironies. The company of the eight sisters seemed to be doing her good. Phee’s own piece in progress looked interesting. It was a rough stone sculpture, probably a man-sized heron stretching toward the sky with shouldered wings. An angle grinder lay beside it.
Hubert placed the rocket nose cone on the benchtop and spun it like a dreidel. It made a grinding noise against the marble. The sound disrupted the acapella and Ouriane came over to investigate.
“What is that?” asked Phee in Greek putting on a pot of tea.
“It’s a nose cone for a rocket made from an experimental ceramic material.” Hubert replied in English.
“Why is it on my benchtop?”
In answer, Hubert stopped the decaying spin before the nose cone could crash onto its side. He held it steady under the bench light and peered inside. Phee and Ouriane followed his lead and spotted the spiral of Greek letters inscribed inside the cone. He could feel the eyes of the other sisters watching but keeping their distance.
Ouriane reached out for the cone and Hubert transferred it to her. Facing out the open window and holding the cone reverentially, her pupils dilated, and she began to speak.
“This is a star urn. It has a message for my goddess. She for whom I am named.” Hubert’s own Greek had returned enough to understand Ouriane’s words. A stillness filled the room, like a spell. A stillness that thickened as Ouriane spoke. Even Terpsichore stopped dancing.
“My dear goddess Ouriane, whose gift is knowledge of the stars and of the future. The future is bleak. And the universe is indifferent. The part of the universe we can see with the keenest man-made eyes is but a tiny portion of that which is. Our wisest men believed that the volume of the universe grows in defiance of every increase of human faculty to comprehend it.
“And yet, this is not true. For all its vastness, this is a universe past its prime. Contracting to a crushing point where it will be born again in unimaginable violence without a single consciousness to witness it.
“Time is not a line. Nor is it a branching fork of lightning. Neither is it a tapestry woven from a million strands by the Fates. Time is a helix. The mirror of our own seeds of life. What name is this? Deoxyribonucleic acid? Such a marvel! A coiled ribbon of code inside every human seed. It unwinds and binds with the ribbon of another to weave a new life. Our own personal fate, part inherited and part self-sung.
Binding and twining, refining and editing. A story telling itself to itself. Excluding, re-introducing, re-inventing. Hideous fruit and beautiful babes. In fear of the first and in quest for the other, the author of this message has squandered her life. Wait… there is a name.” Ouriane drew in a deep breath, closing her eyes.
“Ariadne Xerxes.” Hubert tried not to react. Phee’s widening eyes met his own. He gave silent confirmation with a small nod. The media blackout on the story would not last much longer, but it was quite impossible that Ouriane would know the name of the person who had died in the fires at Didymus University six hours ago.
“A brilliant mind from a lineage of kings.” Ouriane continued, “What a life Madame Xerxes has led! Such energy. She created a scrying orb thinner than a hair. A crafted eye that can see even further into the realm of my goddess. This rare mind who delighted in how small the endless vastness holding the stars made her feel. A brilliant woman made to feel even smaller still through her failure. Failure to produce her princeling husband with a son. An heir to carry on his work.”
“Oh!” Ouriane touched a hand to her mouth. Hubert stood ready to catch the cone if she let it go. Ouriane’s beautiful dark eyes were wet with tears. “There was a child. For a short while, until its deformity was revealed through horrible uncanny means. It was a dwarf. The husband made her end it on those grounds. She knew that its real deformity was that it was female.
“Oh such brutal breeding hygiene. My sisters. Is this the world into which we are released!” sobbed Ouriane.
“There is no more vile act of misogyny, than the abortion of a child for being female.” It was Phee who spoke into the hush. Building, not breaking the spell. “Misogyny. A word we Greeks gave to the world, but sisters, we can hardly be held accountable for the concept.”
“Misogyny. Yes my step-sister.” Ouriane blinked away tears. One fell with a fat splash on the benchtop.
“Poor Ariadne Xerxes, may you find solace in the Elysium Fields. All your efforts and all your brilliance up in flame. Not gone, but given. Unto my goddess.”
Again, Hubert tried not to show his surprise. Ouriane blinked and returned to the present moment. Hubert heard her sisters behind him relax and fidget. “This star urn. It was his triumph, her lordling husband. And hers was the slender scrying orb.”
Exactly right. As the hush dispelled, Hubert placed his clasped fists on the benchtop, leaned forward and shut his eyes. The scenes of six hours ago reconstituted in his mind.
The sun was setting. Hubert stood with Fred Masters, the Fire Chief on duty, under the charred oak dripping fire-fighting foam onto the remains of the university library. The oak huddled over the destroyed building, like a parent over a dead child. Its strong charred limbs held the promise that some distant spring would wake it from its torpor and it would bring forth leaf and acorn once again. There would be no such rebirth for the library. All those words were gone.
Fred Masters had scratched his head clearing a spot in the grime and confessed his puzzlement. Fred pointed at the smoke-stained window of Professor Xerxes’ office across an open quadrangle. Although there was a clear line of sight between the library and her office there was no obvious reason for two simultaneous fires a quarter mile apart in the middle of a sleepy Sunday afternoon. The word ‘afternoon’ jutted up at Hubert.
Hubert moved his reconstructed recollection on to the interview of Professor Malcolm Rudderman. Professor Rudderman was propped up on the ambulance stretcher, overseeing the salvage efforts and bossing about the paramedic, Alphonse LaCroix. Professor Rudderman was accepting pain relief but refused to leave. His wispy white hair and bloodhound eyes were just as Hubert remembered them. Alphonse was kindly humouring Professor Rudderman but it was clear that this interview would have to be short.
“Maimone, my dear boy.” Professor Rudderman reached for him and gasped in pain, dropping his burned, plastic-wrapped hands back to his sides.
“Hello Professor. I’m so sorry…” for your loss. Hubert swallowed the stock phrase of condolence. There was no sentiment that could comfort this man over a loss of this magnitude. Professor Rudderman accepted the oxygen mask from Alphonse, took a few deep breaths and sat back, closing his eyes. “Poor Ariadne. She took it so hard.”
“What did she take hard?” asked Hubert. Professor Rudderman startled. He had spoken a private thought aloud.
Rudderman blurted out a covering lie. “The divorce.”
“She was married?” Hubert never felt his status as a social leper more keenly than at moments like this. When you join the police force, old friends drop away. Your Christmas cards dwindle and so do your invitations.
“Yes Maimone. To young Jessop over in Materials Engineering. “Professor Rudderman carefully gestured away from the ruin of the library to the opposite side of the campus. “The cad left her for a graduate student. She’s expecting.”
“Ariadne is pregnant?”
“No. No. The other lass is. Poor Ariadne had already been through that wretched mill many times over. I never spoke to her about it of course. Too sensitive for a crusty old fellow like me. But she was close to Sarah and Ruth. You remember them don’t you? Silly me. Of course you do. Seems so long ago when I introduced you to them at your parent’s summer soiree.”
Hubert nodded to hide a guilty grimace. “How is Ruth?”
“Much the same. I visit when I can. How is your sister?”
“She’s been pretty good lately.”
“Oh my dear girls… Ruth and Sarah. Thick as thieves with young Ariadne and Agape. Fellow twins.” He grinned around the word. “An unbreakable bond that defies all scientific description.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Poor Agape. Will you tell her?”
Hubert nodded. Another friendship gone cold through time and duty.
“I remember those four lovely little girls like it was yesterday. Always trooping off down to the creek together after school and avoiding my wife’s piano lessons. Oh, my dear Elinor,” he dropped his eyes in sad remembrance. He rallied away from tears by sharing a good memory, “Elinor never brooked a single objection to having all four girls at our dinner table more often than not. And after dinner, they would take sleeping bags up to the porch roof and lie there with the cat and their binoculars and a star map.”
He closed his eyes, overwhelmed by pain from his burns and his many losses. Alphonse stepped in, replaced the oxygen mask, and ended the interview.
Hubert helped load the professor into the ambulance and shook Alphonse’s hand with a quick promise to catch up sometime.
Hubert’s remembrance moved on to the impossibly relaxed pose of Ariadne in her charred chair facing the destroyed university library through the window of her study. The rocket nose cone was on her lap. The only thing completely untouched by the fiery devastation. The sun had set. The fire-fighting foam popped quietly as it settled all around him. The smells of ozone, ash, acrid melted plastic, warm burnt wood, and sweet charred flesh.
The word ‘afternoon’ tugged at him. In the private cinema of his mind, Hubert stood in Ariadne’s office looking down at the corpse of a childhood friend. He looked out the window at the deepening night and back at Ariadne lying in her chair as serene as a sacrifice.
In Hubert’s imagination, he reversed time – recalling the sun from the horizon. He mentally reconstructed the moment of Ariadne’s death. He restored her room to its dusty cluttered academic glory. Piles of books, sheafs of paper, and a pot of silver paint. A wedding photo proudly placed on the desk. Who of all their shared friends had been in that photo?
Like a skin-riding wraith, Hubert settled his imaginary perspective into the chair over the top of Ariadne’s remains looking out the window at the massive oak tree framed by the strong afternoon sun. In that space between imagination and intuition Hubert solved the puzzle. His ghost fingers flexed through Adriane’s hand and registered a melted shard.
A lens. Her life’s work. The scrying orb thinner than a human hair. Turned into a mirror by a coat of silver paint on one side. Focussing and reflecting the rays of the sun through the window onto the oak tree. The edge of the focussed beam charring the curtains starting the fire that would consume her and all the work of her colleagues past and present. A mighty offering unto Ouriane, the goddess of astronomy.
Hubert opened his eyes and returned to Phee’s kitchen. Her eyes were upon him and she slid a cup of tea across the marble bench.
Ouriane laid the nose cone on the benchtop. “Are the pains of childbirth so much greater than the pains of age and regret?” she whispered.
“Rhetoric is my gift,” Melpomene gently chided, taking her sister by the shoulders and leading her away to the couch.
“What did the message actually say?” Hubert quietly asked of Phee in English.
“That was pretty much it.” Phee’s brow furrowed. “Is Ariadne really dead?”
“Poor thing. I should pay a visit to that swine of a husband of hers.” Hubert placed a hand on her inner elbow and shook his head.
“Does Agape know?” Hubert met her eyes and he saw her register why he was really there.