Thanks for dropping by. Here you can read my latest free short story Ajjdag (it’s copyright (c) me 2021, all rights reserved, but you can distribute copies as is and feel free to share links to this page). There’s no sign-up required and you can even take away a PDF version if you’re in a rush. Don’t forget to visit The Infinite Bard for a lot of good and totally free short stories from a great range of authors. You can still grab my other Infinite Bard tales: The Princess and the Assassin and Souvenir.
The story is after the break, it runs over 3,000 words, so if you’re pressed for time the PDF version is here:
I do hope you enjoy it. If you’re interested (here’s the plug), the lead character, Frank Thomson, is soon to appear in a Recollections of Fear collection. Now for the story!
Not for the first time, Frank Thomson’s day went from the mundane to the mysterious.
He stopped writing and looked directly at the woman sat across the table. Until now he’d considered Dr Jackman entirely rational, certainly compared to other academics he’d met over the years.
‘I’m sorry, Dr Jackman,’ he said. ‘Could you just repeat that?’
‘I know it sounds crazy, but Joanna said she’d summoned a demon who wanted her soul.’ She paused. ‘Obviously nonsense, but I’m worried she believed it. I’m worried about what she might do.’
Frank scanned back over his notes, making some marks with his pencil.
‘Let me make sure I’ve got the basics correct. Miss Simkins is a final year PhD, working on sensory representations of social media.’ Now it was his turn to pause. Dr Jackman nodded. ‘She’s been working long hours on turning these into music?’
‘Well, sounds really. It sounds a little musical, and she was also looking at providing a harmonic accompaniment. Mostly she was taking phonemes from the data, and the odd word.’
‘And phonemes are?’
‘Sorry. They’re the building block sounds in a language. They combine to help you extract meaning and identify words.’
Frank made some more notes.
‘And she hasn’t been in the department for four days? You’ve called and emailed but no answer… she is generally reliable, but her behaviour changed nearly two weeks ago?’
‘Something happened in her personal life. She kept her private life private. For someone studying social media, her own online presence was remarkably thin. I think she was involved with an undergraduate. No idea who.’
‘And her college has no ideas?’
‘None, though her tutor was the one who mentioned your name. I didn’t realise the university had a list of private detectives it liked to use.’
Frank chuckled. ‘That’s Cambridge for you. Keep things discrete and under the radar. It’s mostly missing persons and the odd theft. Nothing I can really discuss, I’m sure you understand.’
‘Anyhow, I had your details. The police weren’t overly concerned, just said to keep in touch and they’d look into it.’
‘And did you mention this demon business to them?’
She shook her head. ‘I thought it best not to.’
She took a sheet of paper from her desk and passed it across. ‘Here’s her address. I did pop round yesterday, but no answer. I printed it next to a copy of her department ID photo. I gave the police a copy. Maybe you’ll have more luck than I did?’
Frank took the paper, saw a picture of a woman in glasses with a small mole on her right cheek, glanced at the address, then tucked it into his notebook. It was only a short walk away, ideal for filing in the time until lunch. He’d even claim a meal from the university. They didn’t exactly pay well, or on time, but didn’t mind springing for lunch.
‘Back to the demons. What was that all about?’ Frank asked.
Instead of answering, Dr Jackman turned to her laptop and typed for a moment.
‘This might help,’ she said. She pressed a key and a strange cacophony of sounds assaulted Frank’s ears. He closed his eyes and thought he was hearing a foreign language sung by a computer, but badly out of key. It sounded a little Russian, but as though delivered in Japanese by a Gregorian Monk. Nothing like he’d ever heard before. Scattered amongst the sound were more normal sounds, words like “at” and “hashtag” and “dot”.
Frank shook his head. ‘It’s awful!’
Dr Jackman nodded and tapped another key. The silence was a relief.
‘That’s what she was working on. About two weeks ago she started working late. She’s done it before — it needs a fair bit of computing power to process the raw data, and the servers are less stretched overnight. I saw her in the office and though she looked tired, nervous even. She kept looking round as though looking for someone.’
Frank made more notes. ‘Do continue,’ he said.
‘I asked her if she was OK. She was evasive and started avoiding me. Two days later she sent me that recording and said she had something to tell me. We met up that evening. She looked awful. I don’t think she’d been sleeping much. I got a babbled account about her sounds summoning a demon. About a man following her around, wanting her soul. She said the sounds had accidentally made a summoning.’
She paused again.
‘Of course I was worried but attributed it to lack of sleep and stress. Every year there’s at least one PhD student who decides they’ve wasted their first two years and goes to ridiculous lengths to get a new thesis together. I told her to take some time away. She just nodded but didn’t look at me.’
Frank looked up.
‘Any sign of drug usage?’
‘No,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘I wondered that myself, but no obvious signs.’
‘Well, perhaps she took your advice and took a break.’
Something didn’t add up.
‘Is there something else?’ he asked.
Dr Jackman’s cheeks turned red.
‘Don’t laugh, but the other students have been making comments about a strange man seen in the department. He’s always just out of the corner of the eye, or half-seen in a corridor. There’s something not quite right in the room where she keeps her equipment.’
Frank put his pencil down.
‘You’d be surprised at the tricks the mind can play. I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll make some enquiries and let you know what I find.’
With that he stood, put his notebook and pencil in his jacket and took his coat from the back of the chair he’d sat in. He reached across and shook Dr Jackman’s hand.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s helped just talking about it.’
Fortunately for Frank, the Psychology Department was in the centre of Cambridge, and Joanna’s address was perhaps a ten-minute walk towards the Botanic Gardens. Despite a chill February wind, Frank soon warmed up as he went. His GP would approve, he thought. All this walking around must be good for him. He’d even have time for a drink.
Twenty minutes later, fortified by a half-pint (got to watch the waistline) Frank turned into Florence Road. Like many other streets in this end of town, it was a mix of semi-detached and terraced houses. Midway down, number 17 was much like the others — could do with a lick of paint, the paved front could do with weeding, half-a-dozen bikes chained up in a side alley leading to a wooden door, and by the front door the inevitable collection of black buttons with hand scrawled, barely legible labels. Three had numbers (2, 5 and 6), two had names (Smith and Isaacs) and the other remained unidentified. He pushed on number 2, heard nothing and tried again. Twice.
‘Excuse me,’ said a voice from behind.
Frank turned and saw a young man with red hair carrying two over-full plastic shopping bags.
‘No problem. Here, let me hold one of those for you while you get your key.’
As Frank held a bag filled with tins of soup and Japanese crackers, the other man opened the door and entered. Frank followed.
‘I’m Frank. I’m looking for Joanna Simkins,’ he said, handing back the shopping.
‘Yeah. Upstairs. Room on the front. Not seen her for a couple of days. I’m Danny.’
Frank went up the stairs, leaving Danny to take his shopping through to a room at the back. The first floor had a selection of doors; the front had plastic ‘2’ attached. He knocked.
‘Joanna? Dr Jackman asked me to pop round. Everything OK?’
He knocked a couple more times, each rap on the door echoing unrewarded. He pushed at the door, noticing scores of scratches on the paintwork. It yielded a little, but not so as to encourage further pressure. There was enough space for a credit-card, the staple door-opener of TV cop shows. Opening his wallet he withdrew a plastic library card, slid it into the narrow gap and seconds later the door he had the door open.
He’d expected a mess, but it turned out Joanna (on the assumption this was her room) was obsessively tidy. All drawers closed, the bed made, only one film poster stuck to the wardrobe door and no litter anywhere. Her desk tidy and laptop switched off. Poking around, he found various bits of luggage neatly stacked inside the wardrobe. No evidence she’d gone anywhere. Even her litter bin was hardly full.
Riffling through the bin’s contents, he found a set of photographs all torn in pieces. He took a few out and soon reassembled a picture of two young women in some foreign city, possibly German, given the writing on a poster behind them. The one on the left had a mole on her cheek and wore glasses. He checked Dr Jackman’s sheet of paper and this certainly looked like Joanna, but smiling widely. The other person in picture wore a scarf, had loose blonde hair and a smile to match Joanna’s. Turning the photo over, Frank read the text: Jo and Nat, Berlin. No surname, but possibly enough to locate the other woman if he could identify the scarf. For that, he had an idea.
Frank’s plan was simple. The scarf Nat wore in the photo was an eclectic mix of bright green, white, gold and red stripes. Frank wasn’t sure how many colleges there were, nor societies or boat clubs, but he knew who would. The outfitters along King’s Parade. They jammed their windows with scarves, ties and gowns, and he’d have no trouble matching the design to one of the many clans students seemed to thrive in.
The outfitters were nearer the river than the Psychology Department, but still a short walk from Florence Road. He was just passing the Fitzwilliam Museum, when he caught sight of a disturbance outside a college on the way towards the city centre.
Students milled around in agitated clusters, and two police cars were on the kerb, lights flashing. Some uniformed officers were trying to keep people from entering the college and as Frank approach he heard a loud several voices complaining or demanding entry to their college. Several wore scarves of green, white, gold and red. Frank’s heart sank.
Ten minutes later, Frank was inside Horton College, standing at the bottom of a staircase. A reluctant constable had called his superior and given permission for Frank to be allowed in. As the constable left, Frank heard someone coming down the stairs. It was his former colleague DI Colin Weston.
‘I might have known you’d be involved in something strange,’ Weston said.
‘Following up on a missing person. Joanna Simkins. Her supervisor Dr Jackman asked me to look into it. She reported it, but had heard nothing.’
‘Look, Frank,’ Weston answered. ‘You know, as well as I, students go missing all the time. We filed a report, checked some databases, and I’d arranged my DC to go round tomorrow. That’s procedure.’
‘I’m not blaming anyone. Just following up. Turns out Joanna was seeing with someone from Horton College named Nat. I was walking past, saw your lot, chatted to a constable, and mentioned the name Nat. He called you. What’s the story?’
‘You’d better come up.’
Weston turned and went back up to the top flight, Frank following on. Through an open door, Frank saw several people around what looked like a body. Frank followed Weston into the room.
‘This is what’s left of one Natalie Gatlan,’ Weston said. ‘Is this your Joanna’s girlfriend?’
Frank pulled out the torn fragments and held them up. The girl on the floor was pale barring several bloody abrasions and ugly contusions on one side of her face. It was her. He handed over the fragments.
‘Any witnesses?’ he asked.
‘Chap in the room below heard arguing a couple of hours ago, things being thrown, then someone running. He was working on an essay and saw a figure running through his window. Something about how she’d raced down the stairs disturbed him. He came up, the door was open, he saw Miss Gatlan lying here and raised the alarm.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘Downstairs with waiting to give a statement. Why?’
Frank took out his picture of Joanna. ‘I wonder if he recognises the person running…’
An hour later, Frank was walking back towards Joanna’s lodgings. He’d told DI Weston everything he knew, including Joanna’s address. Weston told him to leave everything to them, but Frank had an instinct Joanna might return to Florence Road. He knew, from his own time on the Force, it would take a while for them to follow procedure.
As he walked, he thought how Natalie’s body had been left, discarded just like the pictures in the wastebin. There was no sense of passion, no emotion, just the clinical act of murder. The room had some signs of struggle, but Natalie appeared to have had little chance against her killer.
The vivid contusions on her neck told their own tale, and the scene of crime team thought her windpipe had been crushed. Had Joanna been strong enough to do that? Was someone else involved? There was little evidence.
As he rounded the corner of the street, he realised he might soon have his answer. At the second-storey window of number 17, he saw a figure. As he drew near, he saw it was a woman. Joanna. He walked past, careful to seem uninterested. He saw no sign of anyone else in the room.
At the next corner he paused, used his phone briefly, then turned back.
Frank moved slowly up the staircase of number 17, treading as carefully as he could. He’d rung bell number 5, and luck was with him — Danny answered, recognised him and let him in, then shuffled back to his room.
Frank stopped outside door number 2. Joanna (for it was surely she) must have been distracted or in a rush; she hadn’t closed the door. There was a gap of perhaps half a centimetre. He leaned forward and listened.
He could hear some sort of music and two voices arguing. One, a woman, seemed to plead, asking to be released from something, and the name Ajjdag used several times. He was unsure about the second, deeper and louder voice, but it was clear whoever they were, they were threating Joanna. He had nothing with which to defend himself, but there was no evidence the killer was armed.
He rushed in, but all he saw was Joanna in the middle of the room, talking to her laptop. The other sound he’d heard was coming from the machine and he realised it was like the sounds Dr Jackman had played him that morning.
Joanne turned to face him and screamed.
‘Get out! Please! Get out!’
Frank ignored her and moved closer. She was agitated, her gaze torn between watching him and looking at the laptop. He couldn’t see any sign she was video-calling anybody. Where was the killer? What power did they have over Joanna?
‘Joanna,’ he said. ‘It is Joanna, isn’t it? My name’s Frank. Dr Jackman asked me to come talk to you.’
She turned to face him. She lowered her head slightly and seemed to be about to cry.
‘Can you tell me what happened?’
‘I don’t understand,’ she had. ‘Happened when?’
‘Happened to Nat. Did you see her earlier today?’
Joanna nodded, her shoulders slumped, and she started whimpering.
Frank moved closer.
Joanna snarled and leapt at him. He tried to prise her hands from his neck, but they wouldn’t move even slightly. He saw black.
‘Foolish mortal,’ Joanna said, but not in her voice. This was deeper, more sinister, more cruel.
Frank tried to choke out a final few words, but he was losing consciousness.
Everything blurred, he heard muffled noises, then felt Joanna’s hands being pulled away.
He moved back, took several panting breaths, each causing his neck to contort in agony. When he could see, he realised Weston and one of his constables were holding Joanna back, each holding an arm. Joanna seemed calmer.
‘You OK?’ Weston asked him.
‘I’ve been worse,’ Frank answered.
‘If you could hold her other arm, Frank, we can hold her while Constable Trent does the honours with the cuffs.’
Frank took over from Trent, who took a pair of handcuffs from her belt and put them on Joanna’s left wrist. As the three of them manoeuvred Joanna around, she surprised them with a savage burst of strength, grabbed a paper knife from her desk and held it to Trent’s throat.
‘You are all weak,’ Joanna (if it was her) said in her deep, sinister voice. ‘This one shall be my latest tribute, but there will be more. Many more.’
Frank and Weston glanced at each other. Neither could see any way to disarm Joanna. Meanwhile, she was pressing the none-too-sharp blade into her prisoner’s throat.
Frank thought he could see tears in the corners of Joanna’s eyes.
‘Joanna,’ he said. ‘Is this what Nat would have wanted? Remember Berlin? Remember Nat.’
Joanna paused. She looked puzzled. Looked at Frank, at Weston, then at the woman whose throat she was trying to slash.
She lifted the knife on high and gave a mighty scream as she plunged the knife down with vicious force…
An hour later, Frank was outside number 17 Florence Road wishing he’d never given up smoking. Joanna’s body was being bagged, ready to go to the mortuary. Constable Trent had been checked by the medical team and Weston had been managing the team documenting the case.
‘This job gets no easier,’ he said to Frank. ‘Some days I envy you going independent.’
Frank thought for a moment.
‘Not sure it makes any difference. People still die. People still commit suicide. We just help tidy up afterwards.’
‘You always were a cynic,’ Weston said.
‘How’s the constable?’ Frank asked.
‘Superficial wound, and she’s refusing to go home. She also wants to thank you for saving her life.’
Frank shook his head. ‘It’s what we do, isn’t it? She’ll do the same someday. What’s your report going to say?’
‘You said it already. Argument with girlfriend, stress, homicide, then suicide when the balance of her mind was disturbed.’
Frank looked at his former colleague. It was a simple explanation, fitted the facts and left the matter sufficiently tidy to allow people to move on.
‘You should see someone about your neck,’ Weston said. ‘It’s heavily bruised. I can get you dropped at A&E.’
Frank shook his head again. ‘I’ll be fine after a beer. I’ll take an aspirin when I get home. If it’s not right in the morning, I’ll see the quack. We can’t all afford time off work.’
It was Weston’s turn to shake his head.
‘You take better care,’ he said. ‘Next time, don’t just go rushing in.’
‘There always is,’ Frank said. ‘A next time, I meant.’
With that, he pulled his coat tight over his shoulders and strolled off. Some fresh air would clear his mind. A pint afterwards would settle his nerves.
Tomorrow was another day.