REVIEW - The Librarian
by Guy Gardner

Reviewed by: Michelle Medhat

Oxford, November 1950.

My name is Stephen Marsh. I am a librarian. I’m wanted for murder.

They found her up on the common; a stockinged leg sticking out from under a bush. Some children thought it was a tailor’s mannequin some wag had stolen from Hapshams of Oxford. The oldest of the group took a stick, meaning to smash the foot off and send the shoe sailing into a tree. Instead, he got blood, sinew and bone.

My part in this story began when the days were short, night sliding and pooling in the streets.

I was leaving work, trumpet case under my arm, my plan was to go to Hakes for tea and crumpets before getting the bus to the other side of town, and the cold church hall where we rehearsed our classical group.


The head librarian, Mr Alsop, had a voice suited to a Victorian teacher and was capable of making the November evening seem warm in comparison.

Thinking, briefly, I might pretend I hadn’t heard and go my way, I instead turned. I suppose I’m built to be a slave to the whims of other men.

‘Unusual request.’ He looked around, as if afraid someone might overhear. ‘Better come back in.’

We walked back into the quadrangle, the foot-worn stone passages inky in the fading light.

‘You know of Ivan Kotchatev?’

I nodded. Most people had heard of the renegade Russian composer.

‘Well, you’ll know he’s the chief and only suspect in this… murder business. I’m sure you know he turned himself in.’

‘Yes, I’d heard.’ I had in fact thought it so unlikely I had written to the Chief Constable of the Oxford constabulary. Kotchatev had turned himself in shortly after the body was discovered, but had not confessed to the murder, only claiming he might be involved. He was currently being held, at his own request, pending further enquiry.

‘Well, the sergeant wouldn’t tell me at first, but I pointed out any business of the library and anyone who works there is mine.’ He looked around again. ‘Kotchatev has asked to see you. Now look, I don’t like this, so I would appreciate you keep this quiet, or better yet do not agree to his request, and drag the name of this college into any unpleasantness.’

‘Why does he want to see me, though?’

‘How should I know, Marsh?’ He smiled. ‘Maybe he likes the thought of a timid young man doing his bidding.’

I had only seen Ivan Kotchatev from a distance. It was the previous year at a concert of his music in Oxford, but I was not prepared for the sight of the man I saw sat across from me. He was wearing a white shirt, dirty at the collar, and un-tucked. He sat at the table of the little visiting room which was lit by a blinking neon light, and the remains of the daylight through one high window. One big hand gripped the back of the other as if holding a rock, and he looked more like someone accustomed to hard manual work than a composer. There was a spot of blood on his sleeve. I had brought some books for him, which lay next to him in the bag un-regarded.

‘You’re wondering if it’s her blood.’ His words were slow, carefully chosen.

‘No, I really wasn’t,’ I said.

He waved a hand, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the hand of a murderer.

‘I can assure you it’s just a nosebleed.’ He tapped his large nose for emphasis.

‘I want to say that I admire your music enormously.’

‘Please relax, Mr Marsh. You are bound to feel a little flustered seeing me here.’

I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the fact I was meeting someone famous, or the surroundings.

‘Mr Kotchatev, I was wondering why you did call me. I mean me particularly.’

‘You don’t think you should have come?’

‘No, I didn’t mean that.’ I felt increasingly I was being trapped, like some unwary animal, but I couldn’t entirely tell how.

‘I hear you wrote to the Chief Constable proclaiming my innocence.’

‘Yes. I mean, how could someone as great as you –’

‘We are all capable of murder, Mr Marsh. Our occupation has nothing to do with it.’

‘You haven’t asked me?’

‘What?’ I asked. I wanted to be away from there. I wanted to go to that cold church hall and watch Catherine Altersham at the piano, whilst I tried not to lose my place in Scarlatti.

‘If I did it.’

I met his gaze with some effort.

‘Did you?’

He looked away, looked back at his large hands. ‘The truth is I don’t know. I turned myself in because I don’t know.’

The rain pattered on the window.

‘How can you not know a thing like that?’

He leant forward, rising slightly from his chair as he did so, and for a horrible moment I thought he might leap at me across the table.

‘I want you to help me Mr Marsh. My life, the way I think of my past, it’s all interwoven with music, you understand? I could tell you the exact time of day I wrote the C minor passage in my choral, but the rest of life often seems blurred to me.’

‘But that doesn’t make sense. Surely an event like that it would… stand out horribly. Do you not know your own character?’

He sat back and looked at me.

‘I come from deep Russia, from the country, you understand? Not the cities. Music is important not just for entertainment but for preserving the stories and the souls of people. Those that follow a musical path, they give themselves over to it. Their consciousness becomes one with the music until they are no longer separate from it but live through it.’

‘But murder?’

‘Mr Marsh, you wrote to the Chief Constable. You believe my innocence, and I believe you to be a fair man. I want you to discover the truth, and I will take the consequences without raising a hand in my defence.’

‘I can’t do such a thing.’

He shifted in his seat, and I saw his knuckles were white. ‘You must help me. Do you know what it is not to know your own mind?’

I was stunned by his request. At no time in my life up to now had anyone made a request of me of such magnitude. I protested, but he held up his hands (those hands which could have taken the life of another human) and bade me think about it and come back to him the following day with an answer.

Outside, the last light had left the day. A few cars slid through the rain and between the silent buildings, as I made my way to the bus stop, I was aware of things subtly shifted, of life somehow out of kilter.

I was late for rehearsal, and our conductor and leader, Theodore Snope, looked up over his glasses as I entered the church hall.

‘Glad you could join us, Mr Marsh.’

He was a failed musician, who had gone to Europe with the hope of learning from some of the great pianists, all of whom turned him down as a putative student. He had returned to England after the war with the determination that he would one day be recognised for the genius he was, and until that point, he would satisfy himself by pointing out the flaws in others. I disliked him for one reason, which had nothing to do with music. He frequently looked at Catherine, and his looks had the unpleasant aspect of a reptile sizing up its prey.

We rehearsed Scarlatti and some Respighi, and after he had singled me out as a good example of someone who did not practice hard enough, I went outside with the group of musicians who enjoyed a smoke during our fifteen-minute break. I didn’t smoke but found being isolated outside an infinitely better prospect than being with Snope and his whinging about the unfair blow life had dealt him.

Outside of making music together, I didn’t really talk to the others beyond a polite hello, so my tendency was to sit in a little stone alcove to the right of the steps. As I walked around the corner, glad to be out of the repressive atmosphere in the hall, I saw my space had been taken by someone, although I couldn’t make out who. I was about to do an about-turn and disappear the way I had come, when I heard the snick of a match and Catherine’s face was briefly lit up.

‘Stephen!’ she waved, squinting her eyes against the smoke.

‘I’m sorry.’

She giggled, flicking the match away.

‘You’re a funny duck. Why apologise for me talking to you?’

I didn’t have an answer and followed her command for me to sit next to her. I could feel my heart constrict as I sat in the narrow alcove, my hip touching hers.

‘Nice night,’ I said.

‘It’s perfectly foul out there,’ she said.

‘Yes, I suppose.’

She blew a plume of smoke out the corner of her mouth and studied me sideways.

‘We haven’t talked much.’


There ensued a silence whilst I desperately tried to think of something to say to continue the conversation, whilst she studied me with a slightly amused expression, as if she were well aware of my feelings.

‘I knew her, you know,’ she said after a moment. ‘Not well, but enough to say hello to and pass the time of day.’


‘The girl on the common. Her name was Josephine Pike, she was a student at the college.’

It was as though I had been immersed in ice water. It was one thing to hear about a murder, safely disengaged, even though I suppose I was now more involved than most. I suddenly didn’t want anyone to know I had seen Kotchatev, that he had asked me above all others to establish if he was a murderer. I felt as if it were written on my face, and the more I tried to keep it carefully bland, the more she would see I had something to do with this case.

‘You knew her, didn’t you?’ she asked, carefully, as if recalling a fragile fact that might break if picked up too quickly.

That, of course, was the other reason for my sudden fear; that I would be implicated. I did know Miss Pike, although not well. I had, in fact, had an argument with her in the library less than two weeks ago. I had almost forgotten the incident; I had been angry at the time, but later I wondered if it was more to do with the way she had spoken to me than her treatment of the book.

It was an unseasonably warm afternoon. She had come in with a book she had borrowed, a first edition Lennister’s Botany. It wasn’t supposed to leave the library, and I had lent it to her, I suppose, because I didn’t want to seem bound by the rules. It was the only copy the library had owned, and she’d spilt tea on the cover. She had tried to get the stain out and in doing so rendered the whole situation far worse. She had made a joke out of it, and we argued there for about ten minutes with her finally calling me some name, which I now don’t even remember. Mr Alsop had blamed me and docked my wages to cover the repair of the book.

‘I only knew her from the library,’ I said with what I hoped was a non-committal smile.

‘I have to say this has frightened me and a lot of the other girls I know.’

‘Of course. But I think they have a suspect.’ I wanted to talk about something else.

Had she fractionally moved nearer to me, or was it my imagination?

‘A suspect is just that, though, isn’t it. The killer could still be at large.’

‘Well, you’re safe here. I mean, we might not be a bunch of toughs, but better than nothing.’

‘Have you not thought he’s odd?’

She nodded her head back at the church, where Snope would be taking a nip from the flask he always carried.

‘Well, I wouldn’t say odd exactly.’

‘He looks at me sometimes… I don’t know. I suppose we never really know people.’

‘Oh, now, you can’t think it could be him?’

‘I don’t know for sure and that’s the point.’

She sat looking at me with her head cocked to one side, as if slightly impatient for me to catch up.

‘He looks at me and I don’t like it. He doesn’t look at the other girls like that, and he was away in Europe for all that time. Who knows what he got up to?’ She turned to me more. ‘Would you do me a favour?,’ she asked before I could think of a response.

‘Of course.’

‘Hold hands with me when we go back in, just to show him I’m not available.’

Again, I was lost for words. Part of me thought I ought not to go along with this.

Snope was not the most pleasant individual, and I had seen him looking at her a few times, but she was also beautiful, and she knew it.

‘If you think that will help, I’m not sure it’s necessary, though.’

She placed her hand on mine. ‘Thank you, Stephen. You’re a decent man. Others might not see it, but I do.’ She leant around so we were facing each other and put her hands on my face. They were soft and cold. She kissed me on the mouth and flicked her tongue against my lips before sitting back with a little smile. I was long past capable thought, so I simply accepted her hand, and we walked back into the church.

After the rehearsal we all parted ways, and Catherine smiled at me but no more was said about what happened. I walked along the river and thought on the events of the day.

The thing which hung around me most was a sense of disquiet. I didn’t want to be involved with Kotchatev, but Catherine had pointed out a fact I could hardly ignore, namely I had been seen arguing with poor Josephine Pike. Had I been the last one to see her? I didn’t know, but I might have been, and that was enough.

I got back to the cottage and checked in on Father. He was fast asleep, his face peaceful in the moonlight. He was so thin now, his bony form barely making an impression through the heavy quilt. It was easy to look at him asleep and hope that behind his eyes in the morning there would be more, but these moments were less, being replaced with blankness, or worse, looking into some past world where this one faded, and he saw me as a comrade from the First World War, or as a boss he had never liked. I kissed his warm forehead and quietly closed the door.

The next day I went back to see Kotchatev and agreed to his bizarre request to prove either his innocence or guilt. I had loved his dark opera The Outsider, about a girl who cheated so many people in her village she had been hung. It was set in medieval Germany, but I had never really considered the content of the songs, only the music, verging on dissonance, the dark chords bleeding into each other like corpses strewn on a battlefield.

Now I thought about his words the previous day, about living through music. I couldn’t suppress a shudder as I walked back to the library, my sanctuary of order and knowledge. Amidst the books, the dusty light cutting through the diamond-paned windows, I thought of Catherine, her body next to mine, her tongue momentarily brushing my lips, the way she had lit her cigarette. All these things became rich paintings, still-life in my mind which I could study in minute detail.

I began to think how I might approach her and try to get us back to that situation in the alcove. It seemed absurd; after all, she had wanted to do it to show Snope she was not interested, but I wondered, as I roamed the library, if she was not a little shy about talking to me.

Was it not impossible she had engineered the situation deliberately? How easily we build false castles in our minds.

I began to read about Ivan Kotchatev. The library has many newspapers from Europe as well as a few scholarly studies of his music, and this is where I began my search to find out if the man had indeed committed a murder.

Despite his music getting very mixed reviews, one thing became clear: he was considered by most as a genius, a composer without limits who used any and all musical devices. He had fallen out with several prominent musicians who complained the parts he wrote were so technically demanding that they pushed them beyond the limits of their own bodies, and it seemed in one case, their sanity. His replies were simple: you have a union card. You should be able to play.

None of this answered the questions of what else he was capable of. I had hoped to find it in my beloved library; the place where I thought all the answers of the world might be hidden, but all I really had was a picture of a man so obsessed and driven by music he cared for little else.

And then on Wednesday morning I was deep in an article in which he discussed the very thing he had said to me regarding a musician living through music. The article was dull, as if the writer didn’t really care for Kotchatev, but a line stood out: “No emotion must be left un-examined, in the music. We must face the darkness as well as the light, maybe the darkness all the more because that is where we find the connections to others, painful, perhaps, but our humanity one might say, is a struggle to hold this in check”.

The interviewer probably thought him mad, but pursued his topic by asking what a composer, locked away in his ivory tower, might really know about human suffering:

“I learn by experience; I seek it, you might say.”

Again, it was hardly any sort of proof, but I couldn’t suppress a slight shudder at the way he had phrased it.

A vast forest. Within its murky green depths, a village hunched under the trees…


I jumped as if someone had run a live wire across my body. I realised I had been dreaming, seeing some version of the dark medieval village of his opera before, mercifully, I had been brought out of it.

Catherine giggled. ‘You were sound asleep.’

I looked about, hoping Alsop wasn’t around.

‘Don’t worry, your boss is in the next building. I saw you there, asleep like a little Fieldmouse, but I won’t tell.’

‘Thank you, you’ve undoubtably saved me from an ear-chewing.’

She appraised me with that strange look; part curiosity, part mirth, which I found so endearing.

‘Are you alright? You look a little… unsettled.’

I shook my head, trying to clear the last of the dream.

‘Not as much sleep as I’d like, and too much work.’

She sat on the corner of my desk.

‘You need to get out and have some fun.’


She grinned, aware of her effect on me. ‘I thought you might like to come to my book society evening tonight? We do readings and talk about anything to do with literature. As you’ll be the only professional among us, it would be rewarding to hear if you have any more challenging choices for us.’

‘Of course, I’d be delighted.’

I had no idea what this book society evening might entail, and at that moment I didn’t really care, only that she had asked me. Eileen would be happy for the extra money of a night looking after Father, and I wanted something to occupy my thoughts other than Kotchatev.

I was due to meet her at seven, and this time was like a lighthouse guiding my way out of what promised to be a grim day. Just after Catherine had left, Eileen called me at the library.

By the time I got home, doctor Johnsson was already on hand and assured me that everything was fine.

Father sat in the kitchen, his hands folded placidly on the table, gazing out of the window into what might be this drizzly morning or a completely different past. Eileen Baker was the daughter of a friend of my father’s. She was about my age and looked unsympathetic until you spoke to her. When she occasionally smiled, her face lit up, and I had wondered about asking her out but had never quite got around to it.

She walked out of the kitchen and beckoned with her eyes we should talk out of his earshot, even though there was little point these days. We walked into the small study and sat down in opposite chairs.

‘He’s alright, Stephen. I want you to know. But I wanted to apologise too,’ she said.’

‘What for?’ I asked.

She looked at the floor. ‘I should have been there. I thought he was settled in bed, but he got up to get something. I quite understand if you want to get someone else.’

I looked at her aghast, wondering how she could have drawn such a conclusion that she ought to leave. Eileen and her sister shared the duty of looking after their elderly mother, and she was very good with my father, seeming to have a way to calm him if he was in one of his states of agitation.

‘I don’t blame you at all. You can’t watch him all the time.’

‘Even so, I understand.’

I made a placating gesture. ‘I won’t even hear of it. Besides the place would be dull without you around, and he likes you.’

‘Thank you,’ she said.

I knew that between the paltry amount we were able to pay and her factory job, she was just making ends meet. I didn’t want her to worry, and I changed the subject, hoping she would see the matter as closed.

‘What was he doing anyway?’ I asked.

‘That was the odd thing. He was getting a box; it was just full of bits of what looked like machinery to me. He kept saying it was for protection.’

I shook my head. ‘I’m sorry. He has these days, and they seem to be getting more frequent. It should be me asking you if you are alright to carry on.’

She smiled and nodded. ‘I like looking after him.’

She stood to go.


She turned back to me.

‘Be careful, you know when you walk home or around Oxford. I’m not sure if they have the right man for this murder.’ I didn’t want to go back to work and realised Father had rather unwittingly given me an excuse. I pulled on my old tweed coat and changed into a pair of sturdier shoes. I started by walking on the common where Josephine was found. The girl who I had seen last.

The bushes were disturbed from where they had pulled the body out, but other than that, there was no sign anything terrible had happened.

He had lain in wait, they said. He had watched her, bided his time. The police hadn’t released that much information, but they had said she had been undoubtably killed on the spot and dragged into the undergrowth. I didn’t expect to find anything, but I got on my hands and knees and pushed my way through under the bushes where the body was found, the branches scratched at me, making me think of hundreds of sharp little skeletal fingers, but I managed to stick it out long enough to establish there was nothing to be seen. The only other information the police had released was that a locket had been taken from the girl’s body, but did I think it would be there or nearby?

I wanted to begin speaking to Kotchatev’s colleagues and friends, but as I didn’t know who they were, I thought my next stop might be to get some kind of list from him so I could begin my investigations.

As I was walking, I began to feel an itching sensation on my hands and one cheek. I didn’t pay it any mind, it grew in intensity as if I were being drawn nearer and nearer to a furnace. What had at first only been an itch was becoming agonisingly painful and noticed an angry rash appearing on my hands. I felt the side of my face; the skin was blistered.

My face now on fire, I stumbled to doctor Johnsson’s surgery, hoping to God he was not on rounds. The secretary took one look and led me straight through.

‘Stephen, my dear chap, what’s happened?’

I was long past responding and sat groaning, my burning hands hooked like claws. He examined my face and stood back.      

‘Echium,’ he said, removing his glasses. ‘They all cause some kind of rash. Wherever did you come into contact with it?’

After doctor Johnsson had given me cream, which took the pain down to something halfway manageable, I walked back into town to the police station. The desk sergeant looked at me but said nothing and gestured with his head that it was fine to go back to the small interview room. One way or the other we would learn about his guilt or innocence.

Kotchatev was bought in, shambling, rough-formed features, he looked like a man who was half finished. He sat down, clasped his hands in that familiar position.

‘Have you found anything? My God, what happened to your face?’

I swallowed. In a few moments we would both know if Ivan Kotchatev was a murderer.

‘I can prove if you were there,’ I said.

Despite his demeanour, I saw a flicker of something. Perhaps fear, or even some kind of relief that he would at least know what happened.

‘After I heard your opera, I was moved, Mr Kotchatev, perhaps more so by that than any music I’ve ever heard, and I do not believe you capable of murder, and I can prove it.’

He shrugged as if his music and my opinion of it were both inconsequential to him.

I held up my hands. ‘Echium. Where Josephi… where she was found. There is Echium growing under and through the bushes. It would be impossible to drag a body in there without coming into contact with it. My doctor tells me it would take more than a week to clear up. Mr Kotchatev, show me your arms.’

His gaze never left mine as he rolled up his shirtsleeves. His arms were covered in thick black hair, but there was no discernible rash.

He looked at his own arms, studying them as if he had never laid eyes on them.

‘It can’t have been you. Whatever you thought, you’re innocent,’ I said.

I called in the desk sergeant, who checked his arms, head and neck. He was completely free of the rash.

‘Why did the men who pulled her out not get touched by it?’ he asked when the sergeant had left to call the detective in charge of the case.

‘I don’t know, but I would guess… they pulled her out by her legs. But to get a body in would require dragging.’

He took a long breath and looked up and out of the window up at the dull November sky. ‘Thank you,’ he said finally. I could hear the slight crack in his voice and wondered how long he had wondered about his own sanity.

I confess that, despite doing little in the way of detective work, I left the station in a sense of euphoria. The detective had come down straight away and agreed there was no way to get the body under the bushes without touching the Echium, and that it was highly improbable Kotchatev would have known it was there and taken precautions to cover his body and face. I knew that, of course, this meant that the real killer had yet to be caught, but the fact I had played such a part in proving a man’s innocence had left me giddy.

I was to meet Catherine that evening, so I went home and changed into halfway decent shirt and trousers, as well as applying cream to the ugly rash. I checked in on Father, who apparently had been tinkering with whatever fascinated him in the box, now tucked neatly under the bed again. He was asleep, dreaming, I hoped, of better times.

The day had brightened, bringing that delicious winter bitterness to the air, and the last of the sun illuminated the buildings with fire, whilst casting crisp, dark shadows into their hollows. She was wearing a crimson dress and carried a fashionable clutch, and I wondered for a moment what I had done to be so lucky even to spend time with her.

‘Hello Stephen,’ she said, standing gracefully on tiptoe kissing me on the cheek. Her lips lingered there a fraction before she stepped away.

‘My gosh, whatever happened to your face?’

‘I wanted to tell you something,’ I said. ‘My face is a part of it.’ I hadn’t quite realised until that moment how much I wanted to tell her; to have her think of me in some way other than a dull librarian.

‘Gosh, sounds ominous,’ she said with a little laugh. The sunset reflected through her hair, making it almost aflame. I was in love.

‘Not ominous, but… do you know Hakes Tearooms?’

She nodded.

‘It’s a short walk from here. I thought we could have tea and then go to your book society. She looked momentarily unsure, but then acquiesced and I offered her my arm. We walked around the corner to the tearooms. Bathed in that cold November sun, the cars swishing past on the streets, walking with her, in my Oxford, I was happy.

Hakes was quiet at this time of day, and I secured a table by the window and ordered us tea and cakes, reassuring her that she would not be disappointed in my choices.

We made small talk until the trolley arrived, where we both admired the pastries on board, wheeled by the aging Mrs Hake, who still insisted on serving customers on the rickety tea trolley she’d had for years.

When the tea was poured, Catherine sat back and looked at me with a wry smile.

‘So, you are indeed a man of mystery, what did you want to tell me?’

‘The murder, you know that they thought might have been Ivan Kotchatev.’

She shivered, and I wondered if I should be less eager to impart my news, given it meant the killer was still free.

‘Well, it wasn’t him and I think I’ve helped prove it, and they are most likely releasing him, perhaps already have.’

I was so triumphant that for a moment I took her look to be one of surprised admiration, before I saw it for what it was. The look she wore was one of near total horror.

‘No. That’s… you can’t have.’

‘What’s wrong? Now look here, I’ll not let anything happen to you.’ As I said it, I realised how ridiculous it sounded.

She stood, shaking her head as if trying to dispel what I’d said.

‘It can’t be,’ she whispered. ‘Please tell me this is a joke.’

‘No. It was all to do with -’

‘You don’t know what you’ve done.’

She turned from our table and fled the shop, throwing the door open so hard it banged against the wall. I threw some money on the table and ran after her, leaving the bewildered Mrs Hake looking after us.

Outside it was noticeably darker, the shadows enveloping the city, the sun nearly gone. She was pale as she looked out into the street. I touched her shoulder and she spun around to face me.

‘Oh, Stephen, what have you done?’

I began to try to explain my investigation, how it couldn’t have been Kotchatev. She ignored me, looking around at the other people, up at the buildings, as if trying to find some answer there.

‘He’s guilty.’      

‘I’m sorry… but that doesn’t add up. Not now.’

She gave a brittle laugh, rummaged for a cigarette in her bag, gave up.

‘I’m not safe,’ she said.

I knew then she had no interest in me, that everything had been that castle I had built in my mind. I was a convenience to her, a toy of sorts, and I realised with a dull anger she probably had one in every society she was part of. I wanted to protect her and equally, I wanted her to be in fear, to suffer as I now would with the withdrawal of her affection.

‘You don’t know what you’ve done,’ she repeated, and with that she walked away from me. I watched her until she blended into the other strangers in the street.

I went into the library to cover the morning shift. I felt dull and cold. What if Kotchatev was in fact the killer, and had somehow not touched any of the Echium? But surely, they would find other evidence to shore up their case? I ached for Catherine, my anger toward her seeming to turn itself into more passion, as if it were a bizarre type of fuel.

I was trying to think what I could do to remedy the situation, but I couldn’t get past the expression on her face.

The phone on the desk rang.

‘Hello, Evelyn Library.’

‘Stephen it’s me, Catherine.’

‘Catherine I-’

‘You need to listen and do what I say.’

‘But I wanted to -’

‘The police are coming to the library. They’ve found the killer Stephen, do you understand? They have found the killer.’

‘I’m glad but -’

‘It’s you – don’t speak, listen. Lives depend on it. You will be found guilty. The evidence is there, in your desk drawer. Look now.’

As if she were in complete control of my body, I did as I was commanded. There on top of the paperwork lay the tiny gold locket of Josephine Pike. I let out some kind of strangled gasp, as if the noose was already around my neck.

‘That’s right Stephen. You see now there is no evidence to support any other theory, and that rash on your arms and face, well, I’m afraid it was a stroke of luck.’

‘Who… was it?’

‘You know the answer to that. We haven’t got long. You will confess to the murder of Josephine Pike, I don’t care how you dress it up, only that you confess.’

‘No… I… I won’t.’

She laughed. ‘You will not run. I’m at your house with your adorable father and his rather dowdy helper.’


‘You will admit to it, or they die.’

The phone went silent and my world broke. Alsop walked past with some offhand comment, I didn’t even hear. Somewhere I could hear the whine of sirens. I had to stay, to keep them safe.

I ran.

I ran through the streets, pushing past anyone who got in the way. My brain was a live wire, fizzing and snapping different possibilities across the circuitry of my whole body. Was she in league with Kotchatev, protecting him somehow? Even the possibility that I was actually the killer flashed into my mind.

The cottage my father and I shared was quiet, almost as if everything around it was a little darker than the rest of the world. I ran up the path, nearly slipping on the dead leaves.

The door stood open, everything silent within.

I stepped through the door, forcing my eyes to adjust to the gloom of the little passage which led to the parlour and his converted downstairs bedroom. Eileen lay propped against one wall, her head hung to the side, her eyes were open and staring at nothing.

I knelt by her body, and a cry escaped, that I didn’t even realise was me, but I forced myself up, I couldn’t afford to think about anything but saving my father.

‘Stephen, is that you?’

Her voice had a quality to it I had never heard, as if it were teetering on the chasm of insanity.

Heart pounding, I walked into the bedroom. Father lay in the bed. He was under the blankets which were pulled up to his chin, and although I knew he wasn’t asleep, he certainly wouldn’t respond to any stimulus.

She turned, and I took an involuntary step back. She had the face of a monster. Ugly red welts ran down her face arms and neck. She scratched at the side of her face, drawing fresh blood. The movement almost seemed involuntary, and I realised she must have been doing it for hours, causing more pain than I would bear to contemplate. In her other hand she held a razor.

Her voice had a horrible rasping quality, as if the reaction to the Echium had affected her throat. ‘You should have stayed at the library,’ she said.

She gave me that same wry look, horrifying coming from her bloodied, scratched face, as if some Faustian demon had taken her body and decided to taunt me through her, picking her favourite expressions.

‘Why?’ I managed.

‘Love. I love Ivan Kotchatev, but he doesn’t deem that I am worthy of his affections now he’s slept with me. I want to play his music, Stephen. More than I want him even. I will play his music, you understand me?’

I couldn’t look away from her hideous face.

‘You trapped him. Made him think he’d done it.’

She tore at her face again. ‘Very good Stephen. You know he really wasn’t sure; his mind was so far into his music. I was supposed to save him, find the real killer, but I would have made it so he was never sure. Never sure when he might need his beloved Catherine to help him.’

‘You joined the societies looking for someone… like me.’

‘I picked Snope, but then Ivan told me he’d asked you to help, and I had to change my plans.’

‘You’ve been wearing makeup to cover the rash,’ I said.

She shrugged. ‘You should have noticed, but like all men, your mind was only on one thing.’

‘I called the police,’ I lied.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I’ll kill him and injure you badly enough that you can’t escape. By the time they get here, I’ll be away, and they will see you as the killer. I’ll convince Ivan he still needs me. I’m very good at convincing people, Stephen. I convinced you to fall in love with me.’

I stepped toward her, meaning to grab the razor, but she sidestepped and slashed at my chest. I felt a stab of pain, followed by a hot trickling sensation. My legs gave, and I staggered back against the wall.

She walked forward and stood over me as I slid down the wall. Darkness beckoned, and I wanted to be in it. Perhaps I would have succumbed if I had been her only victim.

‘You don’t know the things I’ve done, where I’ve come from,’ she said. She had compulsively scratched at her face and blood ran down and onto her blouse, staining it the colour of roses.

I put one hand out to her, somehow trying to reach out to the Catherine. I knew who played in our orchestra, who I knew I loved even now. She was gone and with her any reason. Her eyes were like a tiger’s; unfathomable, depthless.

She raised the blade, and I knew she would begin slashing at me until my defences weakened, and she got the killing blow. The razor arced down, and I raised my arms, trying to prolong my life by seconds if I could. From somewhere I heard a dull crack and then there was silence as she stared down at me. There was a hole in the front of her blouse and little tendrils of smoke floated from it. She collapsed onto her knees and fell sideways, never letting go of the razor even in death.

Father was sitting up in bed the gun still and straight in his hand.

‘Are you alright, boy?’

I pushed myself up. Words wouldn’t come as I looked at him, his face and eyes as clear as a summer sky.

He nodded and dropped the gun he had been quietly assembling for several days back on the bed, as if its weight had become too much. I would later discover he had noticed someone snooping about the house but had been unable to articulate his fears to Eileen, or maybe she had thought it a product of his dementia.

I didn’t take much time from the library. In truth, I didn’t want to. I still see Catherine standing in that bedroom, her face and her sanity gone as she prepared to kill us. I miss Eileen; I couldn’t bear to be at her funeral.

I work in the library of Evelyn college. I belong among the books, I am happiest there and I haven’t gone to see Ivan Kotchatev’s latest work, despite his letter thanking me again for saving him, and offering to have me driven there.

Most days, I walk away from the cottage and along the riverbank. I occasionally dip my hand into the cold water and imagine that those currents have perhaps passed from another world in which a young man and woman found each other and were saved.

Vote Now -

Sign up for newsletter!

Sign up for my Newsletter and you'll get access to exclusive deals, special offers, and be the first to know about new releases. As a gift, you’ll receive a copy of my exclusive, not available anywhere else novel Operation Snowdrop. Just click on Register to get your free book!

  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter