Paper Children (Phoebe Harkness Book 3), page 1
Phoebe Harkness Book Three
Copyright © James Fahy 2019
James Fahy has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
This edition published in 2019 by Endeavour Media Ltd.
For Elizabeth, who will always sit at Gio’s right hand
For Johann, who was a kick-ass scientist before Phoebe existed
Table of Contents
“If this crispy-fried gore, entrails and blood doesn’t come out of these shoes, it’s coming out of your salary. These are original Louboutin,” Cloves sneered.
“I thought they were supposed to be red underneath,” I replied, rather distracted and more concerned with watching where I was stepping than the condition of my supervisor’s heels. “Careful on that bit, it’s slippery. I think it was an eyeball.”
Veronica Cloves, Cabal force-of-nature, servant of the people and my own personal purgatory, muttered a colourful curse under her breath.
“I thought you’d want to see this for yourself,” I said, my flashlight picking out the gloom ahead of us. “How was I supposed to know you’d show up dressed for Ascot? It’s three in the morning. Who wears a big hat at three in the morning?”
“If you must know, I was at a gala when you called,” she hissed. “Some of us have whole chunks of our lives which do not involve skulking around abandoned college rooftops, knee deep in splattered innards, as unimaginable as that may be for you to believe, Doctor Death.”
She sighed. “And this Prada suit is on loan from the pre-Pale museum, so don’t splash me.”
“Well, if we’d had the leisure to wait until morning, I would never have dreamed of interrupting the giddy social whirl of your life,” I replied, surveying the carnage all around us. “However, considering that in around…” I consulted my watch, “…seven minutes it will be sunrise, we are perilously close to losing our crime scene altogether as it is.”
Cloves shot me a warning look across the bloodbath from beneath narrowed and enthusiastically-shaped eyebrows. “Incident scene,” she corrected, firmly.
Ah, of course, I thought. ‘Incident’ not ‘crime.’ Wording was so very important in the world of Cabal. Unless we found evidence otherwise, there was technically no actual crime here. Legally speaking that is. Sure, the scene in question, around which I and my unenthusiastic supervisor currently prowled, was the cold and dark rooftop of the Jackson staircase, a high north-west corner of the old quad at Hertford College, a venerable and stunning tower of spiralling stone, across which there were currently several scattered body parts, painting the ancient slates like a Pollock. But this particular dead body, energetically dismantled as it was, was not human. It was, or rather it had been, a Genetic Other. A vampire to be precise, although Cabal didn’t like that archaic designation.
Vampires only committed ‘crimes’ if they were against humans. Amongst their own kind, they pretty much governed themselves, and Cabal didn’t get involved.
The very idea that there was really anything in our new world order in which Cabal was ‘not involved’ was of course laughable, and I don’t mean sardonic and discreet tittering; I mean braying, uncontrollable hyena bellowing.
At least officially though, Cabal had a policy of no-involvement in Genetic Other ‘incidents’. Cloves and I had been ordered extremely firmly by Cabal to be here in very much an unofficial capacity. Delegation is the key to successful bureaucracy. I’m not technically Cabal myself. I’m more of an outsource, a contractor. My day job is working with lab rats, trying to save the world from mutant viruses, other humdrum, run of the mill things. By night? Well, I’m perhaps the world’s most begrudging paranormal crime investigator, strong-armed into a liaison role between what remains of humanity and all the other monsters who live under the bed, whether I like it or not. Quite when and how my life took this turn is beyond me. My lab needs money, Cabal funds my lab, and so I moonlight here and there for them. It’s a Faustian pact if ever there was one. And Cloves? She’s only a pitchfork away from Mephistopheles. I’m sure if pushed, Cabal officials would claim she was here on this freezing dark rooftop as my unofficial plus-one. Best buds that we were.
“I think it was a male,” Cloves muttered, stepping lightly over a small puddle of lumpy, crimson goop. “There’s stubble on this chunk here. Could be a chin, bit of jaw? Very pale… obviously. I mean, they all are, vampires, but this… he lost a lot of blood.”
“I don’t think ‘lost’ is the right term,” I replied, pulling my coat tighter around me. It was windy up here on the college roof and my long parka was flapping and slapping around my shins like canvas on the high seas. The October wind tugged at my blonde hair, dragging it around my face annoyingly and getting stuck in my lip balm. “More that it was taken from him by force, and… well… spread about the place.” I shivered. “I think we’ve found most of it anyway. I didn’t think vampires even had this much blood to spill. Are we sure it’s just the one of them? It’s… kind of hard to be sure.”
Cloves shrugged, looking bored and sulky, her arms folded against the cold pre-dawn air as I approached a grisly mass of what may have been intestines, but which equally could have been a very large and over-sauced pot noodle thrown angrily against the wall. I fished a sterile test tube out of my pocket, sniffing at the remains dispassionately.
“He must have fed recently,” Cloves said, “That would explain the volume of blood. And I think it’s only one person but, to be perfectly honest, Harkness, I’m in no mood to try and put this piñata back together, are you?”
She stepped lightly between wet red puddles in the greying light, scanning the rooftop as I used a tiny silver spatula to scoop some of the gore into the test tube. I always carry evidence gear. Other, more glamourous women might have vintage compact mirrors and elegant emergency hair slides in their pockets. Me? I’m a scientist. I carry sterilised petri dishes. I’m just that glam. I had to get a sample of our victim of the ‘incident’ sealed away and safe inside my dark pocket before dawn broke, or we’d lose it altogether.
“Ooh, foot!” I noted, with slightly more glee than I’d intended, my eyes straying to a discarded and spattered boot close to my supervisor. Cloves poked it with her toe as though it might still be twitching.
“It’s full,” she said distastefully, peering down into
“This is a horrible place to find body parts,” I muttered, pursing my lips as I scraped at the brickwork with my tiny spatula. I scowled. “The Jackson staircase is such a pretty part of the college. I always think it looks like something out of a legend. All that twisting, spiralling stone, like a corkscrew carved from bricks… Magical.” I sighed. “Now whenever I look at it, I’m just going to be thinking… Foot-in-boot.”
“Brave new world,” Cloves sneered, clearly unsympathetic to the erosion of my sense of natural whimsy. “Very few fairy tales end with a dismembered corpse on the roof of a tower.” She considered this a moment. “Well, not the Disney ones anyway, and they’re the ones that made all the money, before the world went south.” My supervisor, having lost interest, stepped away from the severed foot, tucking her short black bob of hair behind her ears and frowning at me. “Look Harkness, I don’t like being up here ankle-deep in someone I’ve never met any more than you do. Trust me, I can think of a hundred things I’d rather be doing than skidding on vampire soup. In fact, I was doing about thirty of them when you called me, and at least ten of them involved champagne. So let’s just get a handle on this fucking thing. You’re the GO expert.”
She blinked at me, demanding. “Initial thoughts? This is pretty savage. Are we thinking Tribal attack?”
I shook my head, tucking the test tube safely away and standing, peering out across the many spires of my city. It was a gorgeous view, dark and sleeping rooftops rolling over one another away from the college, punctuated here and there by countless spikes, turrets, towers and spires, like a collection of very gothic space rockets all waiting to launch. My main reason for contemplating the horizon however was to avoid looking too long at the gore around us. I have a strong stomach, but this was messy, even in my experience.
“Tribals? Doesn’t feel right,” I answered, shaking my head. This didn’t feel like a shapeshifter crime to me. “Tribals only hunt for food, and they largely keep to their own lands. There’s nothing missing here. Everything’s torn but nothing is… chewed. No animal rips a person apart without swallowing down a chunk or two. This wasn’t hunger.”
It was anger, I thought, but didn’t say out loud. Too soon to speculate. The vampire here had literally been torn apart with something approaching giddy glee. No animal does this. So what the hell does? This was psychopathic finger-painting of the highest order.
“Animals don’t, but Tribals are part person,” Cloves argued. “You know there’s nothing more unpredictable than people. They’re a pain in the arse.” She glanced up briefly.
A hovering drove, a piece of whirring Cabal tech roughly the size of a toaster and with as much inherent charm whirled silently in mid-air, tiny rotors purring, insectile glass eyes clustered on its underside like a spider. I hated the drones. They’re a part of life in New Oxford. We use them for everything but they still make me uncomfortable. To me it was as though the terminator had bred with Cronenburg. It was only due to this one here though, a standard CCTV surveillance drone doing its rounds over the city, like thousands of others, that we’d discovered this mess at all.
“I think it’s finished,” Cloves said with an irritable sigh. “About time too. How many CS photos do we need? It’s like the paparazzi.”
The hovering drone was collecting images of the scene. It had been flitting around the rooftop since we arrived on site, firing off shot after shot in a strobing, agitated flutter. Later, back at the lab, the information would be downloaded into the DataStream. Thousands of images so that Cabal could rebuild the rooftop in VR, a three-dimensional simulation that could be flipped, zoomed and analysed to the nth degree at leisure. It was a good job too, to have a backup, as we were about to lose everything. There was a glimmer of gold between the distant silhouetted spires and roofs.
“Time’s up,” I said, stepping away from the edge of the roof. I took one last look around at the extremely dead vampire jambalaya. For all the world it looked as though someone had filled a large water balloon with blood and guts and dropped it from a height onto the roof of the staircase tower. Sad to think that this was a person once. Cloves would disagree with me of course. Genetic Others weren’t people to her. But I’d known a couple… kind of. Up close. Some of them hadn’t even tried to kill me at all, which was very good manners indeed. Opinion varied, but they were people to me. Hopes and dreams and favourite flavour ice creams. All that stuff.
The late October sun rose, breaking through the clouds and pouring across the city of New Oxford like a molten spill of gold, chasing shadows from between the chimneys and towers.
The thing about the Genetic Others we have designated as vampires is that they don’t react well to sunlight. At all. Day is death, light is the enemy, the spark to light their natural kindling. Walking in daylight will scorch a vampire, painfully. Dawn and dusk? Those two times of the day were fatal.
Within seconds of the sunlight hitting our flat rooftop, the pools, chunks and dismembered parts of our victim began to hiss and bubble. Moments later, with a series of soft whoomphs, they fizzled and crackled, blackening like burning sugar. Shrivelling and drying, they crumbled away, until all around us, black soot lay like a dark snow where only moments earlier all had been red. It was hot, churning the air like a kiln in the energy released in the exothermic reaction. The updraft lifted my hair, making it dance around my head like spider webs.
A morbid part of me wondered if Cloves was enjoying feeling warm after the long autumn night. My boss is a formidable woman. Warming her hands over burning corpses was not a difficult image for me to picture, which in itself is a worrying thing and tells you more than you need to know about her. I’ve often thought that if Cruella de Vil and Maleficent had a baby, which was then raised by wolves and later sent to work for Vogue, it would turn out just like Veronica Cloves.
The rising heat broke up the clumps of soot and dust around us, carrying them upwards on the breeze even as they broke apart further, dissolving mid-air like a swarm of tiny flies.
The burning ash drifted away across the spiked, fairy-tale rooftops of my city. In the golden spill of the dawn’s light, it was quite beautiful, this cellular dissolution of the vampire, and in less than two minutes, there was no evidence whatsoever that a corpse had ever been here.
Even the bloodstains had seared away, like curling paper in a fire grate.
It would have been a more moving, sombre moment, had it not been for Cloves at my side coughing violently as she inadvertently inhaled some of our lost evidence.
“How many is this now?” I asked, when all traces of the vampire kill were gone.
“Five that we know of,” she replied. “There could be more.” She indicated the pristine slate rooftop of the college around us. “It’s only if we get to them in time. If the drones spot them. We’d have missed this completely otherwise. Who knows how many vampire deaths have slipped by us? Did you at least get a sample?”
I patted my pocket, giving her a tight smile, the test tube safely tucked away.
“Good.” She nodded, “Get it back to Blue Lab. Run ID, see if we can find out who this was. All GOs are required to register with Cabal. We should have liquid Larry here on file somewhere on the database.”
All GOs were indeed required to register for DNA profiling. I personally doubted even a fifth actually did. I kept my mouth shut though. It was too early in the morning for an argument. And Cloves was in no mood to be needled. Neither of us were. Five killings, all vampires, in the last month. God knows how many others. It raised uncomfortable questions. What kind of monsters kills the monsters? People would worry if news got out. And we were chasing our tails.
I wanted down off this rooftop and to be indoors with something hot to drink. Someone, or something, was executing vampires for fun in New Oxford. Cabal was unhappy about this. The deaths were messy, without witnesses, and so far we had nothing to go on. Usually I would have spoken
Something caught my eye as my mind wandered. Stuck to the underside of Cloves’ impressive heel there was a tiny scrap, black and flapping in the golden dawn light. I used my tweezers again, dropping to my knees and teasing it out from under her foot with strict instructions for her not to move.
“What is it?” she demanded to know. “Scrap of forehead? Errant ballsack?”
I gave her a withering look as I stood, holding the small flapping scrap firmly in my tweezers. “That would have burned up. Under your foot or not,” I said. “And also… ew.”
I inspected the limp, deflated inch of flat black something. It was glossy and light.
“It looks like…” I frowned. “Latex?”
Cloves lit a cigarette. Her expression was dark and murderous. “So what we have to go on is this,” she muttered around her smoke into the sunrise. “A fetishist latex-wearing vampire-killing maniac who likes to make messy finger painting with innards. Great… just fan-fucking-tastic.” She blew smoke, which was whipped away across the honey-lit quad below. “Happy Halloween, Harkness.”
When faced with grisly murder, research mode is always a good first step, which is why several hours later I found myself sitting in the cybercafé which occupies the ground floor of the building I call home, just below my tiny apartment. I was hunched at a terminal, scanning the DataStream for random keywords. I was also studiously ignoring the overpowering smell of burnt lentil soup which filled the air and the new-age music threading reedily from the music drone, which sat on the service counter next to the smoothie machine.
I have a perfectly serviceable datascreen all of my very own upstairs. It’s state of the art in fact, and by far the most valuable thing in my entire flat. It’s worth more even than my vintage pre-war Buffy the Vampire Slayer figurines.
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