Blood Will Tell
by Amy Kitcher
The closed circuit television camera on the junction of Western Avenue and Preston Street records a young woman walking east. She’s wearing blue jeans and red T-shirt and has a large satchel slung over her left shoulder.
The next camera, on the intersection with Castle Street, records her buying a Big Issue from vendor 7395. The camera opposite Churchill Square records her entering Starbucks at 08:01.
Seventy-two police CCTV cameras monitor the streets of Brighton and Hove. They record 6,220,800 seconds of footage every day.
The young woman, recognisable by her large, corkscrew-curly hair, is on camera for a total of 38 seconds. Just six ten-thousandths of the day’s footage. A face in a crowd. A needle in a … No, not a haystack. That’s too bucolic. Let’s say, a needle in a junkie’s den.
But we digress.
The Churchill Square camera records her exiting at 08:06 and sitting down at the first immediate bus stop to the right of Starbucks.
But there's no footage of her getting on a bus. No footage of her walking away from the bus stop. As of 07:06 on 13th May 2013, there's no footage of the young woman at all.
She had vanished.
At which point, all hell broke loose in the surveillance van around the corner.
Troubled dreams rise like bloated, rotting fish as she surfaces from the dark depths of unconsciousness. Pulse thudding. Ears buzzing as if a swarm of angry bluebottles are trapped inside her skull.
She cracks an eyelid — a slit — enough to gauge the light level. But there's no light to be seen. It’s darker than a coal miner’s arse crack.
No light, but a noise. A faint scraping, a rustle and then a vicious smell stabs her olfactory system. She recoils from the chopstick-esque jab to the nostrils. Ammonium carbonate is as unmistakable as it is unforgettable; the expergefactor of choice for nineteenth-century physicians, boxing coaches, and torturers in a hurry. Where did that thought come from?
A soft brush of cloth against her face before grubby daylight slams into her retinas. Heavy air, laced with decay, drapes over her like a shroud. She pants, lungs sucking in oxygen.
Slumped in an armchair. For hours, if the stiff neck is a clue.
A table. A small, square alarm clock. Some medical equipment; a collapsible wheelchair; a dented steel instrument tray; syringes. Shit. Panicked thoughts scramble over one another. But her memory is blank.
She winces, drags herself upright. Knuckling her gritty eyes she sees the dark outline of a woman moving across her field of vision. The newcomer lowers herself into a chair behind the table. The instrument tray, with its syringes, and the little white clock rest on the scuffed tabletop between them. The tableau resembles a painting she's seen… Offerings to Asclepios. The woman’s not the Greek god of medicine, though. She looks more ... receptionist.
‘Where — ?’ Words choke off in a cough. Her tongue’s a sunbaked dishcloth.
The stranger rummages in a rucksack by her feet, emerges with a bottle of water and leans over the table to pass it to her.
‘Wrong question,’ says the woman. ‘“Where” isn’t important. It’s the “why” you need to worry about.’
‘I — I don’t understand.’ Words come easier with a wet mouth.
‘Tell me about Christian Ackerman’s death.’ A strange expression scuttles across the woman’s face, but Cassie’s too distracted — too confused — to interpret it.
At the mention of her lover's name memories bubble up from the fathoms. She sags, relieved. Almost. ‘I told the police everything. I gave a statement. Just read it again!’
‘I’m not a police officer.’
Cassie swivels her eyes — the movement repositions her gummy contact lenses — and the room swims into focus.
It’s small, furnished with mismatched chairs, a rusty bed frame, and a wooden chest of drawers. Stained pink carpet covers the floor and dirty wallpaper peels away in patches, revealing crumbling lathe and plaster. The bare bulb above her head is hung with filthy cobwebs. No visible door, but two sash windows — moth-eaten, floral curtains drawn against the feeble light — breaks the expanse of wall behind the woman.
Not home ... Not a police officer ... Possibilities scud across her mind. Something snags and her thoughts jolt to a standstill.
‘How do you know my name?’
‘I know a lot about you, Cassandra Clayton.’ The woman tilts her head and narrows her eyes. ‘Twenty-five. Born on a British military base in Cyprus. Mother died in childbirth …’
Cassie swallows back the hot tang of vomit. ‘How —’
‘Your grandmother raised you. She’s dead too, isn’t she, Cassandra?’ The woman pulls a thick manilla envelope from her rucksack and places it next to the instrument tray.
‘All here,’ she taps her index finger on the envelope. ‘Driving licence, exams results, chemistry scholarship … and your medical records - which were very elucidating.’
The woman drums her fingers and peers at Cassie.
‘Got my shoe size in there, too?’
Quick as a rattlesnake the woman lunges and Cassie’s ear is left ringing from a hard slap.
‘This is not a game,’ the woman shouts.
But Cassie’s not listening. She scrambles to her feet and whirls around, searching for the door. The room carousels wildly. She can’t coordinate her limbs. She trips, catches her cheek on the corner of the table as her knees connect with the floor. Pain bursts across her face, whiting out her vision. She gulps lungfuls of air, sobs racking her chest.
Her cheek presses into the fousty smelling carpet and dust clouds bloom before her eyes. They disappear as arms hoist her back into the armchair.
The woman squeezes Cassie’s wrist and grabs a syringe from the table.
‘Seventy-five millilitres of sodium thiopental. I could get this in your veins before you made it halfway to the door.’
Sodium thiopental - the words pinball around Cassie’s brain - an anaesthetic, induces medical coma, controls convulsions, facilitates hypnotic state. The police in India used it to coerce a confession from child murderers.
‘I’ll tell you what I know.’
‘Wise choice,’ the woman says. She releases Cassie’s arm and returns to her seat, dropping the syringe into the tray as she passes. ‘After all, we can't be sure how it’ll react with the Rohypnol you ingested.’
Cassie gasps and glances down at the bottle of water in her lap. Only two-thirds conscious, she drank from it without thinking. Shit. She places the bottle on the table, pushes it away and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. It leaves a smear of blood. Alarmed, she squints at it — transfixed by the sharp contrast of red against her pale skin.
Blood ... It was about blood ...
Memories teem, churning the waters of her mind. I bought a coffee and ... there was … something … important at the edge of her memory. On my way to … She gropes for more details, but her memories are still too amorphous. Sleek as little fish, they dart from her grasp as soon as she touches them.
‘Focus, Cassandra!’ The woman slams her hand on the table, sending the syringes skittering.
Cassie flinches, wipes her clammy hands on her jeans. I was submitting my thesis. Tears well and she screws up her face to stop them falling. Don’t you dare cry, Clayton. She sneaks a glance at the woman. Did she notice the blood, the tears?
The shape of the woman’s mouth shifts as her cheek muscles tighten.
Is she … smiling?
The expression’s all wrong, like a stained glass window, hammer-smashed and reassembled blind. Cassie shudders, her flesh crawling.
She forces herself to study her captor, thinking — hoping to need to recount the details of her appearance. Brain screaming “kidnapper”, her eyes disagree. They catalogue a plain, average-looking woman with stiff posture. Mid-twenties, perhaps, with black-framed glasses, neat brown bob with unremarkable clothes; dark trousers and a burgundy buttoned blouse.
The study each other in silence. A sapping, sucking silence which breaks Cassie first.
‘Christian killed himself,’ Cassie whispers.
‘The mutilation suggests otherwise.’
The woman studies her, unblinking. ‘You expect me to believe you don’t know?’
‘I don’t know about any mutilation!’ Her voice is shrill. ‘Please, you have to believe me.’
The woman gives her a cold, hard stare. Eyes the colour of morbid pennies, but less alive. Cassie’s earlier impression, of the woman as a receptionist, returns. One who’d enjoy unpaid overtime at Auschwitz.
‘You’ve wasted five questions when you only needed one. You should have asked, “What do I need to do to get out of here alive?”
Cassie huddles deeper into the chair as the woman leans towards her. There’s something strange about her eyes. Later, Cassie would recall that the woman never blinked. Not once.
‘You’re alone. No one is looking for you. You know what I want and what I’m prepared to do to get the truth.’ She produces the cold, facsimile smile again. ‘The clock's ticking. Shall we begin?’