The family had been chopped into small pieces . These bloody pieces had been scattered all around the house. The little finger of the left hand of each of the slaughtered had been taken away. Those forces of law, order and hygiene which had been dutifully recruited to search out the perpetrator of this hideous crime were appalled by the carnage. Inspector Russell concluded that some terribly deranged mind was behind everything but that to investigate that derangement was beyond him. He feared such an investigation would threaten his own sanity.
Snow covered the city . It was a bitter winter. Huckster black crows chewed berries on the great boulevards. Grey squirrels flattened themselves against the vertical barks of yew and beach trees surrounding the greens and parks like furred viral memes in the city's diseased brain space. Claus Hilbert and myself were sitting in a coffee shop in the station precinct overlooking the huge four laned road that coiled out like an exposed artery from the shopping areas downtown. We were discussing the peculiar case.
'The removal of the left handed digits,' Claus was saying, ' is of course significant. And yet we must not overlook other odd features.' I wondered about my strange friend. His thin features were pinched by some sense of decline and creeping ailment even though he was barely touching thirty years of age. His hands were huge, too large to fit the proportions of his thin, frail body. It was as if some swap had been made; his own true hands had been taken away and some giant's hands had been sewed onto the puny wrists in their place. I imagined the grotesquely hilarious but strangely frightening picture of a giant man somewhere walking through life with tiny, weak hands fluttering at the end of oak strong limbs like delicate cabbage-white butterflies.
'What features might those be?' I asked. His look was one of those described as being romantically dark and enigmatic in the literature. A shock of dark hair crackled across his face like black electricity as he shifted his skull to gaze out through the coffee shop window into the snow-muffled road. A tramp in a long black ragged coat and a huge green and yellow beard moved painfully on weakened, aged pins, eyes locked on some physics we hadn't yet properly understood.
'Another cloned year,' he groaned. I could read his lips through the misted glass. I involuntarily shivered at the awful sense of terror that gripped the tramp as he passed. 'Another cloned year,' he repeated, over and over as he moved on like a mooncast shadow through the snow.
'We shall see won't we?' said Claus with a chuckle. Over the next few weeks the papers were full of the case. Claus and I poured over these grim texts as they described the family, the house, the neighbourhood, the dreadful circumstances of the crime and the suspicions of Inspector Russell and his team of investigators as they moved towards capturing the killer. Yet as the case opened itself up and the details accumulated exponentially until it seemed the whole anonymous city knew more about these poor victims than even their own intimates , there seemed to be no fleshed out suspect.
All that we had were generalities, guesses without faces. One guess - A cold-blooded madman who randomly chose that particular household on that particular night for no reason save some loathsomely fragrant motivation too far removed from logic and public accessibility to be guessed by anyone. Another guess - some defeated or threatened rival working a grudge against the father of the family into a disorganised thought which ended in the savage irrationality of the murderous act. Yet consider, the father was a small businessman selling shoes not gloves. The guess made no impression on rationality. A third guess - maybe it was a desperate act of someone driven to passionate distraction by the beautiful china-petit wife of this shoe salesman, a modest academic with feminist inclinations working as a junior fellow in the literature department of the city's university.
This scenario suggested a carnage driven therefore by the sexual urgency of forbidden or crazy lust. Or maybe another type, one driven by chauvinistic, mysogenist hatred against her strongly pronounced though not widely publicised opinions concerning the role of women in society at large. Someone perhaps filled with the extreme holy zeal of puritanical certitude, secular or otherwise, who had coloured in the vague outline of her views so that a vile witch-like spook had emerged from the prejudicial crayon. And with it, the need to erase such evil.
But still, the left hands, their smallest fingers. Removed. So maybe the children were the clue, the two little boys, seven and five years old respectively. Come away little children, we wanted to cry. Who could have wanted to chop you up? And why take your tiny fingers too? What could you have done, how could you have figured in such a catastrophe? Too late, of course.
Inevitably, there were speculations, Freudian and beyond, intimations of sexual perversity, abuse of trust, the subtle wickedness of private things. Family, fingers, phallus, some fatal shame within the group itself, something the act had resolved to remove from sight, an act turning in on itself, some imploded cleansing. But these were theories haunting the scene like phantoms. They faded into the weird shrieking night-scares of dull self-regarding speculation.
The city remained snow bound. People in the streets were all wide-eyed, hurrying like frightened goblins. Strange vapours hung in the clear lime air. Claus and I devoured the literature on the murders until it died away . No arrests were made. The reports became infected with the despair of failure. No progress at all. Nothing significant.
'Now we will begin to see what has happened,' said Claus one morning. We were again in our favourite coffee shop near the station. I wondered what he was thinking.
'I don't see how you work that out,' I said, irritated by his evident confidence in something beyond me.
'The records so far have made much of the victims. Their own circumstances and relationships,' he reflected. I agreed, but could see nothing hopeful in that. It had led to nothing. Everyone had drawn a blank.
'Quite. Precisely. I agree,' he muttered and then swallowed more coffee.
Some years later I happened to be in a small town north of the city in which the crime had taken place. I had never quite forgotten it, but I was a busy man and time had taken it away from my thoughts. Claus too had disappeared from most of my waking consciousness. I was working in a house owned by a man called Blaustring. He was a foul old man, full of his own pride and bitter about the achievements of anyone else. His house was dank and huge, filled with his books and his intense feeling of hatred for the outside world. He scowled and haunted the place like a belligerent ugly ghoul. He smelled of sour pork. His long white hairs were like the wrecked scrawny branches of a dead tree overloaded with heavy snow.
I had finished work for the day. It was late. It was night. I stood in the kitchen with the intention of saying goodnight and leaving for my hotel room. Blaustring stood by the window, glowering out into the pitch dark, his broad, squalid back turned to me.
'There is one work you have, it may yet prove valuable,' I said. He never flinched, as if he had known of my dithering by the door and had been glad of my discomfort.
'Charges Delivered To Grand Juries In The Isle of Ely. 1819. A bundled dossier. I have begun to order it,' I added. Blaustring merely coughed.
That night I dreamed wildly, hardly slept and returned the next morning more fatigued than I had been before retiring to bed. A thick yellow fog wormed into the town like rot. I walked from the hotel to Blaustring's bleak pile out in the drenched, crashed suburb. In the bright dissolving air, shrouded by the freezing cloaking atmosphere, other people moved like lunar strangers. I couldn't remember why they were there, nor where they might possibly be travelling to .
I worked throughout the morning reading the bundle of papers I had discovered on one of the many shelves in his library. I determined that here was something of substance and value. At around eleven I happened to go over to the window to stand there gazing out, straightening my spine and trying to throw off the cramped feeling that had overwhelmed me after poring over the manuscripts for the hours of that morning. There was still the foggy shapelessness outside but I was astonished to see my old friend Claus striding along the road down below, oblivious to me and clearly distracted by something of great urgency. He moved as if rushing towards place of dire reckoning, something bold and mortal, perhaps a duel. His black hair streamed out behind him, his ragged dark coat did so too. I felt as if I would burst, such were the strange feelings that suddenly erupted in me.
I raced from the room and barged without coat, indeed without any precautions at all, out into the foggy outdoors. There was a stillness and a silence peculiar to foggy, weightless atmospheres. I stood there wound up into my own curling ropes of breath, shivering and gasping for air against the shocking cold. But I couldn't see Claus. I moved along the road in the direction I had seen him plunge with such astute deliberation but there were no signs of anyone being in the near vicinity. I returned to my work in the shadowy gloom of Blaustring's house feeling sullen and agitated.
Several years after this my circumstances were considerably altered. I was married and had two sweet children of my own, two boys, Nathan and Dylan. Sarah, my beautiful wife, though physically frail, was a kind and loving partner whose fine mind, fearless good humour, and mad bravery equalled her fine appearance. We were back in the city. Our house overlooked one of the parks. Blossom trees in the spring and the stupid cooing of the collared doves gave a sense of tranquillity to our world which belied the constant nag of financial unease which was our constant backdrop.
One evening I came back into the house to find my sweet love in a state of near collapse and coughing up blood. The children were looking on with huge frightened eyes and were trembling, trying to make sense of this terrible state of affairs.
'What has happened?' I cried as I walked into this hideousness.
'It's all right Jonas. Send the children away. I shall recover. I merely feel faint. My head slipped a little,' said my wife weakly. I of course did as she instructed, too bemused to think for myself immediately. But I quickly asserted myself. I recruited friendly neighbours to take the boys into their home for a brief while. I took my ailing, swooning wife to the hospital. Returning home later that evening I watched her sinking into a senselessness, a comatose state of exhaustion and illness which at times seemed the perfect simulacrum of death itself.
That night I tucked my sons into their beds and saw in their faces the same dread I too felt. Their minds had seen time marching through their dearest mother, had seen the neat, pinched and skinny numbers being counting down to zero. I stared at them, hardly able to contain myself. After my wife had fallen into deep sleep I tiptoed downstairs to sit in the gloom of the parlour. I drifted into an uncomfortable state where lazy thoughts crept halfway into view and then went off again, bored.
Thirty years after that night, I was much changed. Sarah's dying a few nights later had broken my spirit in some weird, unpredictable way. I was more dynamical, more nervous and suddenly full of energy and ambitious plans, but there was a hollowness to the frenetic, adolescent vividness which I now presented to the world. Nathan my eldest boy had long since married and raised a family on the other side of the country and we rarely saw anything of each other. Dylan had died two years earlier of some disease of the blood. This event had saddened me but had been no suprise. He had long been living a lifestyle which often resulted in an early, uncomfortable death.
'So Jonas, tell me what you have discovered else?' The voice intruded upon my self-imposed quiet and solitude . I glanced up, wondering to whom the speaker was addressing his remarks. Claus was standing before me, haggard and much worn by the years, worn out it seemed to me.
'Claus? What the devil... what a coincidence!' I said, bemused by having him standing there before me after such a span of time. He fell in to talking to me just as if it had been a matter of half an hour rather than half a lifetime that had separated us.
'Discovered?' I repeated his phrase eventually, referring back to his curious opening question.
'The murders are still unsolved. The secret is still lying in wait,' he said. I strained to see his face more clearly. The skin seemed tight across his bones. He was clearly not eating a healthy diet. His hands shook and his hair was lank and dirty. Everything about him spoke of poverty and hard times. I offered him a cigarette. We smoked in silence for some considerable time.
'I saw you once,' I announced to him, recalling the foggy day at the house of Blaustring. He asked for the details which I gave him without hesitating.
His face drained of the little vitality left. I never seen someone look so bereft of life and yet still be alive. His deep sunk eyes glared with precious black ferocity.
'I was never there. Another foolishness,' he growled at me. I was taken aback. Although there had been fog I was in no doubt that it had been him and no other person that I had seen that day. I told him so. He shook his head, denying it all.
'I was never in that town. In all my life, I was never there.'
'But I saw you there as clearly as when we would sit in the coffee bar by the station all those years ago,' I insisted. He watched me .
'You are mistaken about so many things. You have forgotten all the details Jonas,' he said.
'No, what are you saying, no,' I feebly replied. I couldn't imagine what he was thinking. I was losing track of his line of thought and some vague confusion of feeling ran into my thoughts.
I wasn't clear where Claus was.
'The murders involved either four lost fingers or sixteen fingers that were not lost,' he said quietly. Then he sucked some time more on his cigarette.
'The murders involved either that family or else some other,' he added. Then he relapsed into his heavy, brooding silence again.
Snow was again falling, as it had been when before we had pondered on the crime, but it was different snow.
'Nothing remains exactly the same. The facts are disloyal. So nothing of you remains the same as well. A number of changes, some so small they can never be seen, changes of a number yet too large to be known, they have rendered everything impossible,' he insisted with a deranged intensity which excited me and then left me feeling cramped, impeded, needing to flee from his strangulated voice.
'I believe there are an infinite number of possible worlds, of which this one is but a variation of an infinite number of others, differing from this one in but perhaps a single detail, or not at all. The theories of Shroedinger suggests that it is the decision of the mind which determines which world we exist in, and which creates an alternative world in which we do not.
The theories of Godel suggests that there cannot be a set of all possible worlds because the actual set of all worlds would itself have to be grouped in a further world, one that contained itself. An infinite regress occurs. There are theories about infinity which demonstrate that infinite series are inventions of the devil, astonishing mere mortals with fallacies and paradoxes.
Galileo, for example, attended to the strange fact that there are as many squares as counting numbers, and Cantor, two hundred years later claimed that he had proved that there are as many Even counting numbers as there are counting numbers overall . And just as many Primes. And then I began to see that into this particular world of puzzle and unsolved mystery I had placed too much of myself, that in my obsession I had ensured that the possibilities would multiply forever, alongside myself, and you, as my partner . I would be hopelessly condemned, and profligate and my identity would be everywhere.
So it was that I realised, too late, that I had trapped myself in a universe where the missing fractions, those severed fingers, merely demonstrated the property of infinity that Zeno fleshed out in his little demonstrations, and which my father, knowing nothing of Zeno, shared with me in his story of the frog in the middle of a pond. The frog leaps half way towards the edge of the pond, and then leaps half of that first leap again, and then leaps half of this second leap, and continues, on and on. He delighted in using this picture to show me that although the frog always approaches the other side of the pond it never arrives.
And so with the mutilated reality, where no matter how many pieces we find to puzzle out the crime, and puzzle out ourselves, there cannot be an end. Even if we were to multiply ourselves so that we stood there in a line to the very crack of doom.' His voice cracked, so grooved over was its agitation and wild despair. But then he grabbed hold of my arm - how weak his grip was, hardly containing within it the force of a small child - and mumbled out the rest of his rubbish.
' Yet if we had infinity, if we had an infinite series of leaps, an infinity of ourselves, and worlds, then there would be convergence and a solution would occur. The frog would arrive. The infinite proliferation of universes will enable us to create a universe where the crime is solved,' he said. How he wearied me with his cobbled, whining madness. His illness was a collapsed mind, overwrought by confronting the monstrous evil all those years ago. Yet he persisted.
'And so we glimpse the infinite possibilities of ourselves in the murders and in the missing fingers and the scattered bodies. As we peer into the murderous nightmare what do we see if not a multiplication of ourselves, an infinite series...' he cried, nearly sobbing. I wanted him to stop this embarrassing display. I looked around, hoping that no one attended to his distressing condition. I blushed.
'This is worn out philosophy. Quaint physics, something sly and poetical' I cried out over the table and in my agitation I nearly up-ended my coffee mug. He shrugged and looked away, hungry like a starving dog. I felt pity for this fatigued, crushed figure whose exertions had clearly left him smashed up and doomed. It was as if his fate was sealed.
I walked back to my lodgings through the snow which still fell in ugly, distorting ashy flurries. Claus had walked off in an opposite direction and we had made no arrangement to meet up again. I felt that our friendship had ended in a way that it had never ended before. A beggar woman sat by a wall in the snow. Her face was turned upwards. I glanced nervously towards her and the plastic bowl she had placed on the ground . Snow had sprinkled over it and its contents. I hardly dared meet her eyes. I let my own stare to the bowl as I hurried on by.
I staggered . I leaned against a wall. I dared not look back. The snow seemed to fall with a greater force than moments before. Figures emerged for brief moments of clarity from the snow and then fell back into obscurity. And metaphysical dread overwhelmed me and the voice of the tramp, from years ago, seemed to haunt me in this winterland desolation.' Another cloned year,' it howled, 'Another cloned year.' I had no idea what meaning the ancient fool had intended to convey, yet it signalled to me some wild and destructive atmosphere that threatened never to be lifted.
And to my babbling horror, all the figures in the street, I recognised them, all of them, though obviously they were each versions of Claus or myself - the alterations were puny numbers, so very obvious - an enlarged nose, or one diminished, a moustache , a beard, some rearrangement of the angle of the eyes, the mouth, some disfiguring scar, pock-mark, twist, skin colouring, pallor, a change of sex, height, hair style, colouring, but all of them, he or she, child or adult, all of them were merely refracted versions of Claus and myself. This city, this world, it was filling with a perseverance of contamination.
And in the beggar's bowl into which I placed, yet again, that small heap of chopped fingers, that was surely an approximate and crude illusion, a statistical dream in which life is immersed, but which we pray chemistry dispels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Retro is a former punk who now believes that he has become just a sad old nostalgia freak. Having said that he makes a brilliant black-current sandwich and lives in Dover where he has many friends amongst the refugee community there. He believes his years on the dole will soon be ending. This is his third story for 3AM.