Edition 15: Metempsychosis by Jason Franks
When problem solver and amateur cryptographer Layne becomes involved with translating an ancient druidic diary, it looks like a hopeless case. But when the cadences start to create rhythm, Layne starts to connect with the work in a way he couldn’t have predicted. SY
Layne had spent the entire morning hunched over the pinned-out vellum leaves and all he had to show for it was a crick in his neck.
He’d filled two pages of his notebook with beautiful cursive, but that was entirely because he enjoyed exercising his fountain pen. He had produced little more than a continuous ink line. There was no greater meaning in it than there was in the old manuscript.
Layne put the pen down and let out a long breath. “This isn’t prose.” The insight surprised him as he said it.
“What?” Trimby looked up from his workstation, across the lab and near to the window.
“It’s not prose.”
“Of course it’s prose,” said Trimby, pushing at the cuffs of his tweed jacket as if ready to engage in fisticuffs. Layne wanted to laugh almost as much as he wanted to punch him. “The wallet clearly states that it’s a diary.”
The document, sealed in a leather enclosure, had been found in a Tipperary bog not far from the famous Faddan More site. The leather had been dated to 400CE, which made the wallet a major archaeological find in its own right. An inscription in the Ogham alphabet identified its contents as the journal of a druid named Edraghodag. The journal inside the wallet was 500 years older yet. Trimby and his colleagues could not identify the script the druid had employed and assumed it to be some kind of cipher. That was why they had engaged the dubious services of Layne Hutchings.
“I doubt whoever inscribed the wallet could read these pages any better than we can,” he said.
“Why would such a person lie?”
“Dunno,” said Layne. “Not my area.”
“Your area is the translation of gibberish,” said Trimby. “Perhaps you should stick to it.”
“The druids had no written language,” countered Layne. “How can it be prose?”
“Yes, well,” said Trimby, bristling. “Perhaps that’s less true than we first believed. The Gaulish tribes could and did write in Greek and Latin—”
“But this is neither. If Eddie the Druid could write, maybe he—”
“Oh, yeah,” saidLayne. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. What does ‘Edrag-odac’ mean, anyway?”
“It’s pronounced Edraghodag.”
“I don’t care how you say it. What does it mean?”
“It is a bit unusual,” conceded Trimby.
“It’s a bunch of nonsense syllables,” said Layne. “It doesn’t even sound like Gaelic.”
“Are you now an expert on Celtic languages?”
“No, but I am an expert on gibberish.”
Layne knew he was on shaky ground. He wasn’t an historian or a linguist; he wasn’t even a proper cryptologist. Layne was a puzzle-solver: sub-literate in ten different languages, talented at maths and logic, but strictly amateur league in any single discipline. Layne’s abilities lay in the narrow intersection of all those areas: intuiting solutions to unusual symbolic problems.
Trimby’s group had come to him out of desperation. They’d flown him up to Dublin and put him up in a four-star hotel, hoping that he could shed some light on this mystery among mysteries: a 2100 year old document written in an unknown alphabet, authored by an obscure figure belonging to a secretive sect of a culture that had long been extinct.
“Mr Hutchings, your job is to help us decode the document, not to argue with known fact.”
“I… but…” Layne sighed. “Ah, whatever.” He had a feeling that his contract was not going to be renewed.
Trimby turned back to his screen. Layne sighed again and returned his attention to the manuscript. He moved the magnifying lamp over the leaves again and stared down at the rows of angular characters. Some of the figures looked as if they might be pictograms; others were joined in a cursive. The orientation of the letters changed from page to page, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph: here they went left-right, top-bottom; there it was bottom-top, right-left. The author’s hand was confident throughout. Layne supposed that Edraghodag had been ambidextrous.
“Eddie the Druid, you are one fucked up individual.”
Trimby snorted without looking up. The academic was still trying to master Facebook and it appeared to be occupying all of his attentive resources.
Layne looked at his watch. “I’m going for lunch,” he said.
The lab was empty when Layne got back. The hamburger and two pints of Guinness sat heavy in his stomach, but not heavily enough to account for the sinking feeling. When he opened his email he found an itinerary for his flight back to Melbourne sitting in his inbox. They were shipping him out at the end of the week. He scowled when he saw that they’d routed him through Heathrow.
Trimby returned eventually, accompanied by his boss, Quinnel. “I need a report on your findings by noon tomorrow.”
“It’s not going to be very long,” said Layne. “I’ve only been here a week.”
“The department wants to evaluate what you’ve got so far,” said Quinnel. “If the Dean thinks it’s worthwhile, we’ll get you working on this from home.”
Trimby made a doubtful face, but said nothing.
“Great,” said Layne. Work from home, fuck. He would have to get the internet reconnected. The McDonalds across the road from his flat had cottoned on to him stealing their wifi and blocked him. Or maybe his ancient laptop was dying—that was also a distinct possibility.
Thinking of home made him think about Libby. He wondered if she’d even noticed he was gone.
“You better get on with it,” said Quinnel.
“Don’t forget to spellcheck,” said Trimby.
The flight to Heathrow was easy, but getting to the Qantas gate from the Aer Lingus terminal required a grilling at Passport Control and two more security screenings. At the first screening, a customs guard confiscated Layne’s toothpaste and shaving gel. At the second, an officious prick with an earpiece engaged him in a long and vigorous debate as to whether or not his fountain pen constituted a weapon.
Layne had finished the Sudoku and the word puzzles in the in-flight magazine before the flight was fully boarded. He flipped restlessly through the duty free catalogue. He examined the safety card. He even read some of the adverticles in the magazine. None of it held his attention for long.
Not that Layne was in a hurry to get home. It was winter in Melbourne, and he had no heating in his single bedroom flat. He hadn’t enjoyed Dublin particularly, but he had liked living in a hotel and being able to expense claim the cost of restaurant meals. Most of all, he liked the paycheque…but it wouldn’t be long before he was back to two-minute noodles and dry cereal. Work was scarce for a freelance puzzle solver.
Layne turned the airline magazine upside down and flipped through it again, finding patterns in the white-space; playing Tetris with the word shapes. He wanted to work.
Layne did not miss the lab, or the company of Trimby and Quinnel. He did not particularly care about the secret history of Eddie the Druid. Layne just wanted the challenge of a problem to solve, and Edraghodag’s journal was a doozy.
When the 777 reached cruising altitude the in-flight entertainment came on. It took Layne about ninety minutes to clock each of the dozen videogames on his TV unit. He tried to watch a movie, but the poor contrast on the tiny screen hurt his eyes. He flipped through the music channels, but that just annoyed him into further restlessness. The fingers of his right hand were twitching. Layne sighed and fished inside his carry-on for his pen and a notepad. His neighbour stirred, but did not waken when he turned on the reading light.
Layne doodled in the pad to get the ink going. A tree, a heart, a skull, a dagger. A pentagram, a star of David, an ankh, a swastika, a cross, a crescent moon. He put a circle around the cross to make it a Celtic gravestone. He scratched it out.
Layne wasn’t much of an artist, but he often doodled like this when he was working; manipulating the pen mindlessly while his attention wandered around the edges of a difficult problem. He inscribed a tessellated pattern around the border of the page. He was bone weary, but sleep just would not come.
When the pilot announced that they were descending towards Melbourne, Layne had filled up the entire notebook. Some of the pages appeared to be transcriptions from Eddie the Druid’s journal, but most of it was meaningless scribble.
When he looked down at his hands he noticed that both of them were speckled with ink.
Layne’s flat was a mess—just the way he’d left it. Empty beer bottles, piles of books and discount DVDs, plastic shopping bags and dust. The smell of it shocked him, as it always did when he’d been away.
Layne dumped his bags in the bedroom and turned on the space heater. He crouched shivering in front of it for a few minutes, and then went to put on the kettle. He pulled a chipped mug off the shelf, put in a teabag, and waited for the water to boil.
Eventually he noticed that the kettle was unplugged—and so was the phone.
Layne picked up the phone while he waited for the water to boil. The dial tone skip-stuttered: he had voicemail.
Layne couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard Libby’s voice on the phone. She never answered a call, never returned a message. Libby would usually communicate by SMS or not at all.
“Layne, you bastard, what are you up to? Want to meet me for coffee? Bye.”
The message was ten days old. She’d probably forgotten she’d left it already. He dialled back anyway.
Libby’s voice over the phone surprised him. “Don’t you listen to your messages?”
“I was overseas.”
“You didn’t tell me you were going.” She always sounded angry over the phone.
“I tried. You didn’t return my call.”
“Well, you’re back now. How about that coffee?”
“I just got off the plane. I need a shower and about fifty hours of sleep.”
“Tomorrow, then? Café Moro at 10?”
“Better make it 11.”
She hung up without saying goodbye.
Libby was pacing outside Café Moro when he arrived, even though he was five minutes early. When she saw him coming, her scowl changed to a grin and she rushed over.
“Layne! How are you?”
“Same as always,” he said. “Scraping by. You?”
Libby paid for the coffees, although she was usually just as broke as he was. She had a part-time job, told him, as well as some freelance. She talked about all the new bands he hadn’t heard of; all the movies he’d avoided watching on the plane.
“I’m trying to be positive, do positive things,” she told him. “I’m tired of being so fucking glum, you know?”
“That’s great,” he replied, without conviction.
When their empty cups were cleared away and the staff were putting up the chairs for closing, Libby said “Hey, you wanna go see that new Takashi Miike flick?”
“Is it out already?” Layne wasn’t sure if he’d seen any of the old Takashi Miike films, but he’d almost definitely heard the director’s name before.
“Opens next Thursday at the Kino.”
“Sure.” Or was Miike an actor? He’d have to double-check on Google.
They parted with a hug and a handshake.
When Layne called her the following Thursday, she didn’t answer the phone. He left her a message. She didn’t reply.
Trimby’s phonecall woke him Saturday morning at 4am. Funding cuts, Global Financial Crisis, other priorities, blah blah blah. Layne could keep working on the manuscript if he wanted to—the funding ‘might come back’—but Trimby couldn’t guarantee he’d be paid. If Layne found anything he would, of course, be properly attributed when Trimby published.
On Thursday he tried Libby again; left a message suggesting a trip to the Melbourne Show. Saturday she texted back that she would think about it.
In the meantime Layne pottered around the flat, flipping through his dog-eared copy of Edraghodag’s journal. He copied it out by hand, doodled and diagrammed all over it, but he still couldn’t see any pattern.
He hadn’t intended to work on the diary, but he had nothing else to do. His TV didn’t work now that they’d stopped broadcasting in analogue.
The following Monday, Layne went to the Melbourne Show by himself.
He was loath to spend the thirty bucks for the ticket, but he’d been cooped up in the flat with Edraghodag for so long he had started talking to himself. Or to the druid, he wasn’t sure. Or perhaps it was to someone else entirely.
Well, it wasn’t talking exactly; more like making meaningless sounds. They felt good on his tongue, but there was neither language nor music in them.
He never could hold a tune.
Layne hunched into his threadbare mechanic’s jacket and plodded through the showgrounds. He watched punters lose their money at the game stalls, listened to a salsa band playing on a small stage. The streets were thronged with fat teenagers: girls wearing hotpants despite the chill; boys in low, skinny jeans. Young parents with urgent business forced their ways through the crowds, battering their prams against the shins and ankles of the milling hordes.
Layne walked amongst the spinning, rearing, shrieking carnival rides. He stood at the back of a pavilion where a group of woodsy types competed in a chainsaw carving competition. The crowd around the diving pig’s marquee was so thick that he couldn’t get close enough to see the platform, let alone the animal. He wandered through the reeking livestock pens without bothering to look at the cows and swine.
The wind was cold. Layne pulled on the hood from the sweatshirt he wore under his jacket. A dozen seagulls wheeled across the sky in ominous formation.
He snorted. Omen? They were only fucking seagulls.
Layne looked at his watch. Still an hour before the stunt show—the only thing he actually wanted to see. Dirt bikes and monster trucks, yeah. He looked up at the sky again…
Spots before his eyes. Jesus, he’d been staring at the sun. Layne blinked and lowered his head, pinched the bridge of his nose. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten.
He went looking for food, but none of the deep-fried, sugar-coated wonderments looked appetising. He bought a burnt-tasting coffee and carried it into the pet pavilion. Rabbits… He wanted to buy a rabbit.
He wanted to take it home and cut it open, leave it dead and bleeding with its guts wound around the foot of a great oak tree.
Layne stopped so fast he spilled coffee on himself.
Cruelty to animals? What the fuck was wrong with him? Besides, he wasn’t sure he could tell an oak from a eucalypt. He threw the remains of the coffee into a recycling bin, spilling lukewarm fluid all down the outside of the receptacle. A bearded hipster who was apparently the guardian of the trash glared at him. Layne snorted and walked away.
Next door to the pet pavilion was a gardening expo. Layne looked disinterestedly at bags of fertilizer, wheelbarrows, spades, pot plants, ride-on lawnmowers. He had no garden; no use for any of that. What Layne needed was a sickle.
There weren’t any sickles, but he did find a tree surgeon’s pole saw at the forestry display. It had a telescopic haft and it could be fitted with a number of different attachments. Layne chose a 460mm impulse-hardened blade. It cost more than he could afford, but he spent the money anyway.
Layne took the pole saw home without giving a further thought to the stunt bikes and monster trucks.
Libby hadn’t been a serious runner since she’d done her knee, but she still liked to get out for a jog. Long distance: anywhere from 10K to half-marathon distance. Her new job kept her busy during the day and she was…not a morning person…so Libby ran in the evening, when the streets were empty and the moon was high.
Layne knew her route, or at least the start of it. He’d tried to run it with her once, but she’d lost him less than a kilometre from the share-house where she lived. He knew the route, and he was waiting for her.
She jogged right past the oak tree where he was standing, hooded in his army surplus poncho. She didn’t see him. Her eyes were on the road ahead, her breathing loud and regular. Layne stepped out and swung the pole saw.
Libby never saw it coming. The blade made a flat, whistling sound as it sliced into her neck. He pulled it back towards him and the reverse-angled teeth made a more determined cut; tearing through the skin, severing the pipes in her throat, grating on her spinal column. He changed his grip and clubbed her down with the butt of the weapon.
“Obey the law,” said Layne. “Uphold the faith.”
Layne shook all the way home.
He tried to pour some tea, but his fingers wouldn’t grip the cup. It exploded on the side of the counter, splashing scalding water all over his legs.
The big square Johnny Walker bottle was easier to handle. He pulled it down off the shelf and took a slug that spilled as much down his neck as into his mouth.
Layne started to sob. Jesus fuck—what was he doing?
Layne was a loser; he knew it. He was a self-obsessed arsehole with anti-social tendencies, but there were thousands, millions like him; in this city and in every other. Layne was an ordinary loser. He wasn’t the kind who went out and killed the girl who wouldn’t return his calls.
Or at least he hadn’t been, until tonight. Until the sun had demanded it. Layne put his face in his hands.
He told himself this wasn’t about Libby; it was about access. Libby lay dead and disembowelled beneath that stunted oak tree because Layne had better access to her life than he did to anybody else’s. He knew where she lived; he knew how to find her alone. She was the closest thing to a friend he had. The Sun had demanded blood, and Libby had been the easiest for him to bleed.
He told himself it was about access, but some buried part of him felt that Libby owed him something. He had taken it from her and given it to the sun.
He remembered how it felt to see her fall. The weapon suddenly weightless in his hands. The sharp smell of eucalyptus on the air, and the rising stink of blood. The moon had emerged from cover to exalt him with its light. He had honoured his gods and taken his vengeance and he had never, ever, felt so good.
And now the shame and the guilt, but still… still he felt the joy of it.
It wasn’t him. It was someone else.
Layne had knowledge, now, that was not his own. He knew the birds and the trees. The gods spoke to him—the sun and the moon—and though they would not answer his questions they were not shy about issuing commands. There was knowledge, there was art, but there were no memories. There was no name but his own. There was no will but his own.
But this Layne was somebody else.
The sun awoke Layne early the next morning.
He didn’t want to get up, but the sun demanded it. With a pounding hangover, with eyes red and raw, he sat down at his desk and put his nose to the Edraghodag manuscript.
He still couldn’t read it, but today he found a kind of music in its pages. There was a rhythm, although there wasn’t a beat. There were changes of pitch, but they were strung together in a way that did not create a melody. It took a conscious effort not to gibber the song out loud.
He could feel the text twitching inside him, catching in his lungs; shivering its way out of his subconscious through his fingers, his feet, his lips.
The manuscript documented truths that could not be described with symbols; truths that could not be parsed with a grammar or determined with any kind of calculus. Truths that stripped reality of context; that drove the meaning out of words. Truths that transcended nature; that denied science and contradicted reason.
Truths that proved only magic.
At midday, it was time for him to take sustenance. Hunger and thirst had become physically painful, but the imperative that drove Layne from his desk was not a biological one. The noonday meal was an offering.
Layne walked a kilometre to the local shopping centre, as he had many times before. There, he bought a box of stale sushi and a litre of water, which he consumed without pleasure.
In a Chinese grocery store behind the food court, he found a sickle with a factory-forged blade and a sturdy wooden haft. It cost barely thirty dollars. The proprietor of the store took his money without curiosity and gave him the instrument in a used plastic bag.
It was exactly what he wanted.
Layne stumbled out of the automatic doors and staggered down the street, the sickle swinging heavily in its bag. There weren’t many pedestrians out in the mid-afternoon drizzle, but those few he encountered gave him a wide berth.
There was some green up ahead. A public park. Trees, a garden bed full of hydrangeas and rhododendrons, a wall of bushy wattles. Layne sat down on an empty bench and put his head back, looked up at the sky through the reaching limbs of a ghost gum.
Crows and magpies lit on its pale branches. The sky darkened slowly; black ink spilling into a bowl of grey water. Hours flowed over Layne without their usual viscosity, diluted by some strange new air. Night fell.
There were no stars in the cloudy, light-polluted sky. Even the waxing moon seemed inconstant when he rose from the bench and went staggering on his way.
There were three police cars parked outside his building. Layne drew up behind a jacaranda tree, two addresses from his home and across the street. The lights were on in his apartment. Where the manuscript was.
A pair of cops were posted at the front of his building. One of them spoke into a radio. From where he stood Layne couldn’t make out what she said, but he could hear the squelch and squawk of the reply. The copper shifted uncomfortably and turned her head.
She was looking directly at Layne, but it took her a good half a minute to notice him: a hooded figure in a khaki jacket, standing unmoving in the shadows of the jacaranda with a sickle in his hand. She lowered the mike and put her hand on the holster at her belt. Her partner looked at her, then turned his head and followed her gaze towards Layne.
Both cops pulled their revolvers. Layne turned and ran.
Down the hill, feet slapping on the hard concrete footpath. Left into the narrow pedestrian alley behind a three-storey apartment block. Hedgerows loomed on either side; leaning in to shelter him. The cops were yelling after him, their voices ragged behind their pounding footfalls.
Layne heard his own voice intoning some rhythmless nonsense. Wings beat and foliage rustled in reply.
Layne came out of the alley into the bright glare of a service station; the stink of oil and exhaust. He swerved, scrambled over a narrow guardrail and darted across the main road. Stumbled on the lip of the kerb, caught himself. Right, and then left up a hilly residential street. The cops had stopped yelling. They were closing fast.
There were big, spreading trees in this street, and Layne told them what to do. Their limbs waved to protect him; filling the air with leaves, battering at his pursuers with twigs and low-hanging branches. Roots tore free of the ground; bursting open the asphalt; grabbing at the coppers’ feet. One of them tripped, fell sprawling. Layne did not wait to see if she got up again.
Layne’s chest was burning.His legs and feet ached. He lurched onwards, up the hill, cursing a stringybark for its failure to act with the resolution of the oaks, the conviction of the beeches. These species were strange to him, and did not take well to his commands.
Layne could not hear the gunshot over his own toneless singing, but he felt the air part when the bullet rushed past his face. He hunched lower and scrambled on, looking for cover. Here at the top of the hill the properties were better maintained; the trees were too staggered, the garden hedges too groomed to be of much help.
Layne screamed some more nonsense and a motley flock of magpies and crows swooped down upon his remaining pursuer. The cop stumbled about, yelling and waving his arms in the sudden cloud of feathers and beaks and bird-cries.
Layne kicked through a plastic mesh into the wild front yard of a building still under construction: a three-storey, heavily-buttressed structure with a steeple roof and a pair of spires. Perhaps it was going to be a church. Oaks and wattles leaned over the neighbours’ fences into its front yard, which was tangled with briar and brambles.
More gunfire. The shrieks and wing beats crescendoed as the cloud of birds dissipated, screaming and squawking and flapping. Layne turned to face his enemies, his back to the half-finished temple.
The cop came into view, following his pistol. He drew a bead on Layne, but before he could get off a round the brambles caught him. The cop staggered and kicked as thorny tendrils wrapped around his ankles, curled up his legs, and lashed across his torso and his arms. They pulled him screaming to the ground, twisting and thrashing until his joints popped apart and his skin split open.
The other cop stepped cautiously over the plastic mesh, pointing her weapon around. She’d skinned her knees in the fall and still seemed unsteady. The pistol shook in her hands. Layne was on her in three steps.
He swept past the revolver and swung the sickle, but the blade skidded off her Kevlar vest. She took a step back, grunted and tried to bring up her gun. Layne adjusted his grip and swung again. The curved inside-edge of the weapon opened her throat and the cop went down in a spray of blood. The gun in her hand discharged.
Red and blue light spilled into the yard. Layne turned towards the squealing sirens and the trees turned with him, reaching…
The sickle spilled from his loosening fingers and he fell to his knees. He looked down—his neck could no longer support the weight of his head. His belly, his jeans were drenched with blood. He couldn’t feel his legs.
Layne tried to raise his head as he pitched forwards, but the sun had turned its face away, and the moon had nothing more to say to him.
The department had screwed up what should have been an open-and-shut case, so they handballed it to Detective Roland Neilly.
There wasn’t any doubt that Layne Hutchings had killed all three of the victims, but difficult questions remained about how and why. That made Neilly the ideal detective for the case. Whether the department’s flakiest figured out the finer points or not, this was a case they could definitely close. Hutchings was already dead and was therefore unlikely to provoke difficulty at the trial.
The crime scene photos and the lab reports showed that Elizabeth Milan had been killed with a serrated blade. Hutchings had practically severed her head with it, and then ritually disembowelled her at the base of a standing oak tree. It was possible that there had been two assailants, since some of the cuts had been administered left-handed, but the left-hand cuts were clumsier and Neilly was pretty sure Hutchings had simply switched his grip.
The weapon had been recovered from a garbage truck two postcodes away and, although Hutchings had made an attempt to wipe it clean, they’d pulled some good prints off it. The tree surgeon’s pole saw was not the strangest weapon Neilly had seen, but it was right up there.
The second murder site was a disaster. With two cops down, backup and the paramedics had trodden all over the place before forensics had arrived. Nobody was quite sure what had happened there, but it was weird. Broken concrete, littered with fallen trees and dead birds. It looked as if an earthquake had joined Constables Benrith and Harriman in the pursuit, followed by a cyclone.
Benrith had died from a throat slash administered by a sickle. They had lifted another clear set of fingerprints from the weapon. The bramble trap that had killed Harriman was a different story. There were no springs or tripwires or nets; no evidence at all to describe the mechanism that had enveloped Harriman in brambles and then ripped him apart.
At least Hutchings’ apartment had been left more or less inviolate. The one-bedroom flat was a mess, but that was a good thing. More chaos.Neilly’s gift was to find the pattern where there did not appear to be one. Usually, he arrived at the key insight by an obscurely lateral process that he couldn’t properly explain. Neilly’s methods yielded results that were barely good enough for the department to keep him around.
It was dusty in the apartment. Books and papers and dirty clothes everywhere. Not much in the fridge or the rubbish, no dirty dishes in the sink. Neilly found a travel wallet with papers showing that Hutchings had recently been on a trip to the Republic of Ireland.
There was a heavily-annotated photocopy of a coded manuscript laid out on an imitation-Ikea writing desk in the living room. The characters in the manuscript did not belong to any language that he recognized. Hutchings had copied out the contents of the manuscript half a dozen times. His first copies were crude, but his fluency with the bizarre alphabet (if it was an alphabet) improved visibly as he went along. The third copy was close to the original. The fourth and fifth copies started to diverge again, and the sixth was completely different.
Hutchings had written in the notebooks using both hands, but everything else in the apartment suggested that he had been right-handed. Had he secretly been ambidextrous? Could he suddenly have become so? Hutchings’ penmanship with his left hand improved visibly from book to book.
What a strange individual. Neilly could barely write his own name with his good hand.
There were a couple of messages on Hutchings’ answering machine. One was from Hutchings’ first victim, Libby Milan. Another was from an Englishman named Trimby, who claimed to have new information and another contract for Hutchings. He sounded like an arsehole. Trimby had left a number with the country code for Ireland. Neilly called him up on Hutchings’ phone.
“Ah, Mr. Trimby? This is Senior Detective Roland Neilly from the, ah, Victoria Police.”
There was a pause.
“Victoria, Australia?” Pause. “Is this about Layne Hutchings?”
“Has something happened?”
“Ah, yes, there’s been a…well, there has been an incident. Mr Hutchings has, ah…he’s no longer with us.”
“That’s awful news.” Trimby didn’t sound particularly upset. “If there’s anything I can do to help, Detective…”
“Mr Trimby, I wonder if you could tell me what you and Mr Hutchings were working on?”
“I’m sorry. Professor Trimby.”
“I’m currently seconded to the University of Dublin to investigate an ancient druidic manuscript. Mr. Hutchings is… was assisting us with some cryptographic analysis.”
“Druidic? As in, the druids?”
“Like, the guy with the beard who mixes the potion that makes Asterix really strong? That kind of druid?”
“A bit like that, yes.”
“So, sort of, ancient tree-huggers?”
Trimby took a long breath, audibly winding himself up. “Detective Neilly, the druids were priests and warriors and judges and bards and sorcerers. They were pagans who believed in metempsychosis—transmigration of the soul—and who engaged in human sacrifice, a practice for which they were exterminated by the Roman emperor Tiberius. I do not believe there was a lot of tree-hugging involved.”
Neilly let the silence hang for a few moments, until he was sure the academic was done. “What’s the significance of this document, Professor Trimby?”
“There are no proper records of the druids. They were destroyed over two thousand years ago and they kept an exclusively oral history. Or so we believed, until we discovered this particular document.”
“It’s said to be the journal of a druid named Edraghodag, but we have been unable to decode it. That was Mr Hutchings’ job, before he returned to Australia.”
“He was still working on it when he died.”
“He was? Had he made any progress?”
“Dunno,” replied Neilly. “His notes are in code.”
“Of course they are.” Trimby sounded bitter.
“In your message, you said that you had some new information?”
“Yes, some local folklore about Edraghodag. Apparently, he was under geas…”
“Geese? Like ducks, but stupider?”
“Geas, Detective Neilly. An obligation set by druid gods, to be obeyed on pain of death. Edraghodag’s geas was to instruct the people in the ways of his faith.”
“That doesn’t sound too difficult.”
“It must have seemed rather mild, until Edraghodag was captured and tortured by a Roman garrison. He escaped, but not before they had removed the tongue from his head.”
“It’s typical. Many of the heroes of Celtic myth died because they were given geasa by their various gods that conflicted with other customs.”
“Alright. And then what happened to Ed…Edra…to the Druid?”
“Edraghodag.” Trimby sounded angry now. “There’s nothing else. That’s all we know.”
“And the manuscript?”
“We now believe it to be Edraghodag’s teaching notes, but we don’t know for sure. The Druids were forbidden to write, but Edraghodag was required to teach, even after losing his powers of speech. That may account for the code.”
Neilly thanked the professor and hung up. He sat back, yawned, stretched, and began to flip through the photocopied pages. He stared at the misaligned rows of characters until his eyes lost focus. Shapes resolved and dissolved out of the text, the white-space.
It was nonsense. The script showed no words or numbers, no pictures or maps or diagrams. Gibberish.
Neilly shook his head and growled. There was something hidden in there, and he was going to find it.
“Obey the law,” he said, suddenly. He wasn’t sure who he was talking to. “Obey the law. Uphold the faith.”
Neilly snorted. Geasa. Was that the plural that Trimby has used? Surely ‘flock’ was more correct?
He thumbed through Hutchings’ notebooks again. The most recent one seemed more approachable. Some parts looked almost like English, if you squinted at them. He worked at it for about thirty minutes, but it was tough going. Before long he found himself fidgeting with Layne’s fountain pen. He changed the cartridge and tried it out in a blank notepad. Neilly’s handwriting had always been terrible and now, with the fountain pen, it was also blotchy and smudged. But, he had to admit, it was fun. He liked the feel of it when he got a nice line going.
Neilly copied a couple of lines from Hutchings’ notes onto his fresh pad. They looked good. He switched hands and copied a couple more. It was all a lot more satisfying than he’d expected. Before long, he began to speak the words as he wrote them.
He wondered where Hutchings had purchased the sickle.
Jason Franks is the author of the Aurealis-nominated horror novel Bloody Waters, as well as the graphic novels The Sixsmiths and McBlack. His short fiction has appeared in Aurealis, After the World, Ignition and many other places.
You can find out more about Jason at www.jasonfranks.com or follow him on Twitter at @jasefranks.