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Down To Zero

Down To Zero

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Down To Zero

422 pages
6 hours
May 12, 2014


A hard-boiled crime thriller mystery: the first in The Eaters of Light series by the same author (books II and III due for publication end 2014), Down To Zero is set in the near-future London of 2018 and features seasoned investigators, Mallory Vine and her partner Bob Dario who work for a shadowy government department. That's the day job and it's murder.

One night by accident, they stumble upon an art-installation initiating a major investigation into an artist-celebrity named Battersby who's been hiding the evidence of a decade-old serial-killing spree through the art-works he sells to an A-list clientele. How he's managed to get away with it for so long is beyond belief. They start to think that he must have had some kind of help from within the security services themselves and as the story unfolds they discover evidence of kidnap and possibly blackmail.

They cover all the angles on that particular case, find out more and more about Battersby and his misdeeds as time moves on and are assigned to another case, investigating an individual called De Witte, also a serial psychopath but one who makes Battersby's MO seem considerate. Brattish, haughty, deathly and deadly attractive, De Witte is an antagonist with some very strange social and physical attributes.

As the assignment on De Witte progresses, the two detectives discover links to the Paris of 1895 and to the work of a psychologist named Professor Milles, once a highly respected academic though latterly in his career, decried by the rest of the psychology fraterrnity as a charlatan and para-psychologist.

One of his case-subjects seems to have borne a striking resemblance to De Witte and the two detectives are studying the similarities when new evidence emerges about Battersby - linking the investigation to contemporary Mexico, the scene of what looks like Battersby's first murder.

As the investigation unfolds the two detectives start to uncover evidence that's beyond their own belief, something beyond their own experience and training: indisputable proof of the paranormal at work, pointing towards a cover-up going on throughout the 20th century as the rule of science took hold and all other evidence was hidden under the carpet of a new kind of superstition: the blanket of rationalism. Their work eventually starts to rock the very foundations of the investigative culture world-wide, Professor Milles' reputation as a researcher of integrity is re-established and in the future, serial-psychopaths are put under the harsh light of a new kind of scrutiny as what is called Milles' Syndrome becomes generally accepted.

For Mallory Vine especially, it's been something of a personal journey as she discovers from the archives of the department she works for, papers that could have only been written by her father, papers that prove that there he was, before her, doing similar work to her in the past. His own secret history.

May 12, 2014

Despre autor

A new writer with a passion for urban noir fiction and with leanings towards sci-fi and the paranormal who leads a mysterious life, skulking in out of the way places to uncover stories that are a little off-centre, exploring not just the dark side but the many facets of the human experience - with much humour in places. Down To Zero is the first in a series, set in London in 2018 and beyond, featuring seasoned murder-investigators Mallory Vine and Bob Dario as they struggle to bring down two serial-killers and start to realise that the paranormal is at work, despite all arguments to the contrary. The Big Crunch is a one-off novel, fast-paced and grungy, set in Leeds at the beginning of the 21st century when you could still smoke in the pubs, when Leeds United were slipping down the league tables and IT was here to stay. Things could only get better - or could they? Other short stories have different time-frames - one is a tale of medieval misdeeds set against a backcloth of social and political upheaval as a motley crew of stalwarts attempt to enjoy their lives - and survive. Due for publication with a couple of shorter works, one a ghost-story in the near-ish future. The writings of Medeas Wray are hard to pin down. Seems the category 'Mash-Up' was tailor-made for them. If you like the work of Iain Banks, Richard Condon, George MacDonald Fraser, William Gibson (all of them, sadly dead) - you may like Medeas Wray's. The author is currently working on the second (and possibly third) in a series following on from Down To Zero. Still learning, still travelling, still breathing - and struggling to survive on a planet no bigger than a speck of dandruff in universal terms.

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Down To Zero - Medeas Wray


Down To Zero


Medeas Wray

Down To Zero

Copyright © 2014 Medeas Wray.

ISBN No: 9781311009821

Smashwords Edition

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be sold or given away to others. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Enjoy the free sample. If you like it e-mail it to your friends. If you like it a lot and want to read more buy the e-book but remember the notes above. Thanking you in advance for respecting the work of this author.

Medeas Wray asserts the right to be identified as the author of this work. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

The names, characters, events, places, businesses and organisations are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Front cover design by Anna Cleary.

Dedicated to JF.


Chapter One:

Chapter Two:

Chapter Three:

Chapter Four:

Chapter Five:

Chapter Six:

Chapter Seven:

Chapter Eight:

Chapter Nine:

Chapter Ten:

Chapter Eleven:

Chapter Twelve:

Chapter Thirteen:

Chapter Fourteen:

Chapter Fifteen:

Chapter Sixteen:

Chapter Seventeen:

Chapter Eighteen:

Chapter Nineteen:

Chapter Twenty:

Chapter Twenty One:

Chapter Twenty Two:

Down To Zero


Medeas Wray

‘For those who believe, no explanation is

necessary; for those who do not,

no explanation will suffice.’

Joseph Dunninger

Chapter One:

‘Criminals with mental disorders, they’re not going to give you a straight answer, right? Correction, criminals of any stripe are not going to give you a straight answer. Right?’

Ed Ronskill had just exited Interview Room 2 and was back in the office doing his usual stand-up. This was Ed’s thing, the post-interview breakdown and they let him run with it, the other members of the Unit, Ed being right on the money most times anyway. He had the grey hairs to show for it.

They dealt in old cases, cold cases, cases of any temperature between tepid and downright chilly, most with the word Anomalous attached to them, the kind of cases nobody else seemed to want, those that had fallen through the cracks, those that were just kind of weird.

‘So when the guy in there tells me he was set up, he’s lying, right? And I know, sure as eggs go with bacon, we’re in for a long haul, he with a captive audience, me just getting closer to pensionable age with each passing second. But hey, here’s the big news. Just minutes into the interview he starts telling me it’s this caterpillar called Brian that lives in his head made him do it.’ Low sounds of laughter signifying familiarity and approval came from the other individuals sitting at desks around the office.

Ed sighed. ‘Psych label, that’s what he’s aiming at. Playing the system so he gets less time and somebody sympathetic sitting other side of the desk. Taking some notes, actually caring. Back in my world, I’ve got an ex-sanguinated corpse on my hands and only that as an explanation. Turns out, this Brian didn’t like the guy when he was alive. And now I have to wait for a psych evaluation before I can file a report.’ He shook his head.

‘Those are the rules,’ he said, stressing each word, ‘and our man in there, he’s using them to get the best out of it he can. The guy’s a career criminal.’ He shrugged and continued.

‘So I question him about why he or this Brian, would want to tote the guy, trying to get a straight answer like that’s possible and he sits there just saying one word over and over and over ‘til I thought my head was going to explode.’

‘Bullshit.’ The word came from Harry Green, ex-reporter who’d joined the Unit three years back, getting his foot in the door through a small pinch of luck and a ton of good contacts.

He looked like an ageing, faded surfer who’d been barred from the beach then forced to spend every waking hour indoors, past his prime and going thin on top down to all the head-scratching he did; sharp, quick and ultimately right on target. The rest of them called him Mongoose behind his back for all the obvious reasons.

‘Sure it’s bullshit - but that’s not the word he kept saying.’ Ed turned across the aisle of desks to look at Harry, his broad, lined face almost cracking a smile.

Harry wasn’t listening though; he was lost somewhere in the depths of his accumulated case-files, staring into the touch-screen, scratching his head again. Evidently he’d been talking about something else. Maybe the case he was working on. Maybe nothing at all.

Ed looked around at the untidy sprawl of desks and personnel that made up the office and sighed again. ‘Expecting it straight from someone like that, it’s like thinking your pay cheque’s going to arrive three days running.’ He said.

His words were met by nods and grunts of agreement from the rest of the team. ‘And the word he kept saying was ‘faggot’.’

‘Faggot, maggot, whatever.’ BD threw in from across the desk, BD aka Bob, Roberto Dario, time-served field operative and experienced investigator. ‘Welcome to my world. It’s just this week’s tag, this week’s label.’

Ed nodded back at him.

‘So that’s the motive?’ BD suggested. ‘Plain old-fashioned homophobia?’

Ed looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘Could be, I suppose.’ He said and sighed again, shaking his head. ‘The vic wore a pinkie ring.’

Mallory, sitting across the aisle from Ed, laughed out loud for a moment. His commentary had broken her concentration but she’d needed something to take her mind off the case she’d just been looking at, the one that had somehow arrived on her desk marked Urgent.

They dealt with anomalous cases for the most part. That was normal. That they could handle. This, from the look of it, was something else. Just a piece of footage of a suspect in a holding cell. She scanned it again. There was something about it she couldn’t put her finger on. Something which made it more than just out of the ordinary.

She reached for the cup of coffee dawdling at the side of her desk then leant back in her chair to gulp the hot liquid down, gazing out of the window at the grey unforgiving sky emerging from behind and between the roofs of the buildings around them like a crumpled piece of paper.

Upton Buildings was a modernist concrete block built back in the 1960s and still standing, like some kind of ancient monolith between the towers of chrome and darkened glass around it, decades later; a remnant of architectural mediocrity sticking out like a decaying tooth from amongst the upwardly-thrusting, power-dressed office blocks that had sprung up around them, somewhere south of Westminster, when no-one was particularly looking.

Inside the building, behind locked doors, companies with names like Scope87 and Mig304 peddled life insurance, air con and soft porn or dealt in loan management and telecoms and then there was them, the Unit, yet another anonymous enterprise housed on the 3rd floor with a notice on the door that read Floyd Inc. Securities. No-one ever knocked on it.

The sprawl they loosely called an office could sometimes house as many as ten operatives though generally there were less than that untidying the place. It was mainly open-plan, except for a corridor leading onto interview rooms, a couple of store-rooms, a place for coats that had a trio of punch-bags hanging from the ceiling (de-stressing aids that were well-used during certain investigations), a small kitchen, toilet and shower facilities and a separate office for the Unit’s dedicated legal team.

Aisles of desks faced each other in configurations of twos or fours depending on work-load and how the teams needed to operate together; there were a few leather armchairs at the reception end of the lengthy room that were mainly redundant and a couple of low tables that looked kind of lonely and unloved. Like hundreds of other office spaces across the globe, bland, impersonal, a little down at heel: a place of no significance designed for personnel of no particular importance.

‘You should hear some of the stuff I’ve been coming across recently.’ BD said. ‘What gets me is when you lean over to them and say ‘So tell me, Darren, why did you do it?’ and they say ‘I just got sick of him, her, you fill in the blanks. I’d had enough.’ And you say ‘So why not just say, it’s over man, goodbye, end of.’? And they say ‘I didn’t want the hassle.’ And you say, ‘How about this for hassle, Darren, the ten-to-fifteen, maybe more you’re looking at for what you did, how about this for hassle?’ You’re listening to this clown Darren telling you about how he bumped off his pal because he was sick of him. And that’s it, no sorrowful recriminations, no pleas for forgiveness, no guilt, no nothing. As if the guy had just switched TV channels or was ordering pizza, he’s as emotional as that. And you realise that’s all you’re going to get. That’s what really bugs me.’

‘We’re doing something wrong.’ Ed replied.

Mallory, over at her desk across the aisle, knew what BD had been talking about. The guy hadn’t been called Darren and those hadn’t been his exact words but it was near enough.

She nodded, thinking about that particular case, the one they’d fallen over a few weeks back when they hadn’t even been working.

She and BD were going to a small get-together just a few streets away from the office that particular Friday evening. They’d headed straight from work in light, off-duty mood, something of a novelty given the stack of case-files they’d tackled in the weeks and months before.

Now having closed them down and written them up, they were feeling chipper: the long hours of work and due diligence had paid off; they had a clear weekend ahead of them and not much on the agenda Monday morning. And Mallory for one was starting to wind down, looking forward to a bit of casual conversation, a drink, some food, an easy time.

A barbecue in November in London. It was unusual.

She’d bumped into Callan Hughes just days before, one lunch-time; he was someone she knew from her former days in media when she’d worked for the TV stations and he’d been an up-and-coming DJ heading the peak-hour slot at the capital’s top radio-station, FM1.

Dark, floppy hair, tall, wiry frame, permanent grin, large hands unused to being idle hanging out of a denim jacket a couple of sizes too big, that was Callan, not much changed in those five years. She wondered if he felt the same when he looked at her. Time had passed. She wondered if the cases she’d been dealing with had left their mark. They’d exchanged pleasantries. She knew he’d had his difficulties, that the promise of his career had petered out over something blown up by the British press with the label ‘Scandal’ all over it. They didn’t mention it.

He said he was refurbing a house nearby, taking the opportunity that an emptyish diary and the bit of money left over from his better days had given him, that he was trying to turn a detached Edwardian ruin into something approaching an interior designer’s dream.

‘Come round, Friday evening. Nothing special, I’m just having a few old mates over for a barbecue. The place still isn’t finished and there isn’t a cooker.’ He said by way of explanation. ‘Not yet anyhow. Bring a friend.’

BD was her plus one. The light rain of earlier that day had stopped and it was dark now, the sky tinged with the orange glow of sun-set as they walked, not saying much, to Lawrence Avenue, their destination, just three or four streets away from Upton Buildings though it seemed like a world apart, gentrified and quiet, no movement of traffic away from the main drag, not many other pedestrians either this time of evening.

‘Like being in a village, somehow. Different place, different time.’ Mallory said as they walked the damp, shiny streets past elegant Edwardian villas fronted with polite pinafores of garden, gravel drives arcing up to bright-painted doors, glimmers of light and up-market life-styles streaming from big sash windows.

At no. 37, a skip full of rubble and an unkempt hedge told them they were probably in the right place. They walked up to the doorway, feet crunching through wet gravel, rang the bell for entry and were greeted by an exuberant Callan.

‘Great to see you, glad you could come.’

Mallory made the introductions.

‘Bob from the office, meet Callan.’

‘Any friend of Mallory’s is a....you know the rest.’ Callan said.

‘Any friend of Mall’s.’ BD countered, smiling, extending his hand towards Callan’s, now outstretched.

She’d chosen BD to come along; he was easy company.

They went back a long way and though they were now colleagues they were still friends, supporting each other when their relationships had turned stale or sour, when life or other people or the general day to day needed going over before it went terminal. Greetings over, they were ushered into the house, through the hallway and into the back garden where the barbecue was already lit and smouldering: signs of a pleasant evening there like a welcome mat, the sizzle and hiss of burgers and chicken roasting on the grill, aromas of charcoal and wood-smoke and seared meat wafting through the air to greet them, bubbles of light conversation, laughter and the chink of glasses behind them, muffled bass of the latest club anthem strobing the house with sound.

A few spectral figures emerged from out of the smoke and steam of the grill. Mallory recognised the faces as belonging to some old friends of Callan she’d met years before and smiled, feeling the weight of the previous months lifting from her shoulders. Callan handed her a glass of chilled white wine and a plate of sizzling chicken wings then disappeared back into the house.

BD walked over to the barbecue area, his head of dark curls silhouetted by the glow of the charcoal as he stooped over to fill a plate. Mallory could hear him making his introductions to the group.

That was him, she thought. A good choice to bring along. She pulled up a chair, snuggled into her parka and started to relax, seeing the city sparkle like an LCD display in the distance, the dark dome of the sky speckled with tiny dots of silver.

Thinking of the empty weekend stretching ahead of her with quiet enthusiasm, sinking into the moment, enjoying it.

BD came back with a plate of food and pulled up a chair. ‘Remember how we used to say weekends are for jerks?’ He said. ‘Just to make ourselves feel better? Well maybe we were wrong.’ He leant towards her with a bottle of Becks in his hand, bringing it towards her glass to clink the two together.

‘You have to admit it, nothing beats time-off when you’ve been working like a drone, nothing.’ Mallory answered, laughing now.

It was of course inevitable that somewhere along the line, the conversation would stray back through those dark streets, back to the office and everything they’d left behind.

‘Seen the memo?’ BD asked. She nodded.

She’d found it in her in-box earlier that day, taken a look and noted the contents, officialise imperatives as bold as the words on an advertising hoarding, labelled For Immediate Attention and sent through by Gemma, Gemma Fulverton, Unit Head and their particular eminence grise.

It happened every couple of weeks or so.

‘No small talk, no banter, no discussing what you saw on Y-Tube last night. Save the personal for out of the office, should we ever manage to leave that behind.’ Mallory said.

‘Looks like something retrieved from out of a recycle bin and headed straight for another one if I have anything to do with it.’ BD replied. ‘Perhaps it’s Gemma just trying to remind us she exists.’

‘Good as explanations go but...’

‘But who needs it? As if we talk about anything personal anyway. Harry might as well be a bar of soap for all I know, Ed too, for that matter.’ BD stated.

‘Harry, that’s anyone’s guess.’ Mallory agreed. ‘Ed...a couple of grown-up kids, now onto his third marriage, that’s it.’

‘Where does he get the time?’ BD asked, raising his eyebrows in questioning disbelief as he spoke. ‘And then there’s the rest, the unknown factor that is Mickey Brill, no-mates Bill Oldfield, the hardly-ever-there team of Nicol and Serk. And now, the dark and furtive presence of Carl Mankiewitz. Major question-mark.’

Mankiewitz was the newbie, a criminologist cum psychologist who’d been seconded to the Unit from some military post only weeks before.

They’d met him briefly on his arrival but since then, he’d seemed kind of busy.

‘And then there’s Gemma.’ BD said. ‘Might as well be a clam for all I manage to get out of her.’

‘You do better than I do then.’ Mallory told him. ‘Sometimes I suspect she’s working for another department we see so little of her.’ And the rest of the team might as well be complete strangers for all she knew about them. Or they knew about her, for that matter, when she thought about it.

Apart from Bob, she realised. They kept each other’s secrets.

‘And when was the last time we got to watch anything on screens large or small? It’s just unnecessary interference from the brass, in line with the latest government thinking blah de blah de blah, that memo.’ The memo had bugged him. That much was obvious. ‘Or is there something else?’

‘Like are we being monitored? Course we are.’ She said without a second’s hesitation.

He shrugged. ‘Better be careful then. But how about one of these days, one of these nights, we go to a bar with the rest of them and make a few enquiries? We might even get to find out who some of them are.’

Mallory laughed.

She walked over to the drinks table and poured herself another glass of wine, trying to remember the last time anyone in the office had actually talked about anything other than work. She recalled with a certain vagueness a brief discussion about some programme they’d all accidentally seen a couple of weeks back, some documentary they’d caught on one of the free channels, each at home in their respective places. Now what was that about? Hard to remember, right at this moment.

She walked back to BD, glass of wine in hand, subject forgotten. A chill breeze was starting to come up out of nowhere and despite her padded parka she was feeling it.

They headed for the warmth of the barbecue’s still-glowing embers and the straggle of guests milling around a couple of charred, long-dead sausages and a blackened chicken thigh, red glow of the charcoal fading to grey, relentless bass of last week’s club favourite booming like an over-active pulse somewhere in the background.

It was perhaps an hour or two later when Callan pulled them away from the garden and the rest of the party to give them a tour of the house. He’d taken the Edwardian interior back to its very bones, revealing ornate plasterwork and elegant cornices, panelled double-doors with decorative door frames, deep skirting boards and walnut parquet flooring.

‘Nice.’ BD said.

Mallory nodded. ‘Really nice.’

‘In here’s the kitchen.’ Callan ushered them into a large white space. Ultra high-spec with gaps in the units that showed he was waiting for delivery of a double-width cooker and a mega-sized fridge-freezer.

‘All your own work?’ Mallory asked him.

‘Pretty well all.’ Callan said, sounding proud as a new parent.

‘Good work. It’s beautiful.’ She said. She was impressed.

Callan herded them out of the kitchen and into the lounge, ice-white and furnished with mid-century vintage, Hans Wegner chairs, dark leather sofas bordering a squared-off hole-in-the-wall type fireplace, Scandinavian sideboard the size of a landing strip along one wall topped with a couple of Swedish glass decanters and a Murano glass vase. A few well-chosen abstract paintings had been thrown around, breaking up the stark white walls with dashes of colour, creating a look that was neo-retro as they called it on the design sites.

‘Way to go,’ Mallory whistled, ‘Never realised you had quite so much style.’

‘You like?’ Callan asked her, evidently pleased with her response. She nodded.

‘There’s more.’ He said, smiling, leading them through the hanger-sized expanse and down a flight of four shallow steps into what looked to be the study: more British Museum than modernist, more gothic vernacular than Good Housekeeping judging by the ornately-carved 18th century desk holding court in one corner and the stuffed-animal collection straight out of a Victorian parlour crowding a corner cabinet hung on the adjacent wall. Full-on fur and feathers, stuffed to the very toes.

‘I’d heard taxidermy was getting a re-run,’ Mallory said, half-laughing, ‘though I think you might have the monopoly. Thinking of opening a shop?’

A range of smallish stuffed animals stared back at them, glassy-eyed and expressionless: beaver, red squirrel, a fox with an extended brush and yellowed teeth advancing on a small grey rabbit with only one eye, barn owl, badger, a veritable woodland scene transposed to an alcove somewhere in the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea across the span of time.

There was a knock at the front door then a few more, insistent and impatient.

‘Bet I know who.’ Callan said. ‘Third-degree mayhem, here we come.’

He started to walk towards the entrance, leaving them to continue the viewing by themselves.

They could hear the sounds of girlish laughter, a manly cheer and the metallic clunking of beer-cans as Callan welcomed in the new arrivals. BD and Mallory stayed on, their attention shifting from the group of stuffed animals to a structure that jutted out into the centre of the room: an intricate cat’s cradle of criss-crossed steel wires the length of a large sideboard and at least as tall as she was that looked as if it had been knitted together by some robot-spider having a bit of a bad day.

‘Just what every contemporary home needs, a wirework replica of Southend Pier.’ Mallory commented. ‘Or am I just being a philistine with no sensitivity for the finer points of modern design?’ She asked him, not really expecting a response. ‘So what in hell is it, some kind of bookcase?’

BD had already moved to the other side of the piece to take a closer look.

‘Not so much a functional item, more an art-installation, I’d say.’ He reported. ‘Some kind of statement piece, Mall,’ he continued, ‘though stating what, you tell me. It’s like something from Bosch and I’m not talking deep-fat fryers or power-drills.’

She walked round to see what he was looking at and jumped in the air, yelping.

‘Whaa-a the...’

It had been an involuntary reaction. She was taken aback both by what she was looking at and by her own gut response to it.

It was some kind of multi-compartmented installation of the maximalist school.

‘Cosy, it isn’t.’

‘Just what I was talking about.’ BD said. ‘Bosch, Hieronymus Bosch, 15th century Dutch painter best known for the triptych A Garden of Earthly Delights, the third panel of which is a medieval depiction of hell. This could blow that dude out of the water.’

He’d worked for the Art Police before he started at the Unit and before that in art-publishing, she remembered. She drew in a breath and started to regain her composure.

‘Horr-onymous. Horr-ominous.’ She quipped, trying to make light of her previous knee-jerk response, feeling a little embarrassed by her reaction and now taking a closer look at the thing that had caused it, trying to take it all in.

She went around assuming she was beyond being shocked, that she was suitably case-hardened by the day to day not to be and yet here it was, a piece in Callan’s study that had her jumping up in the air.

‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.’ BD said, shaking his head.

Mallory nodded her full agreement over to him, practically rendered mute now by the sight of the collection of curios set into the unit’s numerous recesses.

One housed a collection of medical and dentistry instruments, probes, forceps, a tongue depressor, lancets and amputation knives, relics of torture or experiment from the 1900s or earlier.

Another had a brightly coloured plasterwork mould of a head as its main attraction, half of it cut away to reveal the anatomical connections between ear, nose and throat; other compartments held medical illustrations from old encyclopaedias and in one was a jar of what could have been pickled cucumbers submerged in a murky liquid.

Another recess held a couple of small battalions - battered tin soldiers intent on attack, rifles poised in miniature hands aimed towards each other.

A couple of toy tin cranes enamel-painted in faded khaki and mustard and equally battered, their edges revealing bare metal, evidence of years of use and age, hoisted up a pair of small wooden mannequins on wires, hardwood artists’ models with rounded featureless faces and articulated limbs, strangle-held by strings, caught up in some infernal and terminal dance, dangling at the end of the wire loops held by the cranes.

And in the background, were black and white photographs of industrial wastelands and war-zone golgothas, blurred monochrome shots of war-torn cities that could have been Dresden, Berlin, Hiroshima, Beirut, Belfast or Damascus.

It was difficult to tell the exact location, the dates of the destruction, difficult to glean any kind of information from the mess of rubble, desolate empty ruined buildings and absence of people or activity.

Places gone to dust where people had lived day to day before their world had been shattered to pieces.

‘It’s like a rerun of the twentieth century in all its bad aspects. War, personal and collective horrors, environmental destruction, waste, it’s all here. The horrors of that century’s span and this one up to press, the conflicts, the aberrations, the worst aspects of it all.’ BD said ‘The great spat-out, shat-out multitude of our sins.’ He shook his head.

The artist was making a point and making it well, he thought. OK, so he or she might have been overdoing it but the fact remained....

‘You like it, I suspect.’ Mallory said with just a touch of irony and carried on walking round the installation to study its contents.

A couple of plastic toy skeletons lurked in one corner, jangling little puppet-figures that were almost comical; another housed a few skull-masks, miniatures rough-fashioned from papier mache and decorated with black swirls upon their stark white backgrounds, theatrical and somehow jokey with demented smiles, teeth like a dentist’s nightmare, eye sockets dark as caves.

‘Jumping up in the air when I view art, that’s not normal behaviour for me. Whoever created this gets a prize.’ Mallory was thinking about her earlier response.

‘That’s the kind of reaction the artist is probably looking for, Mall. This is shock-art, transgressive, meant to disturb, part of a culture-jamming movement that’s been going on since the late 1980s, maybe earlier.’ BD told her.

‘I suppose it makes some valid points on the subject of war. All war-ravished cities tending to look the same, wastelands of rubble and debris. But it’s not just a general comment, is it? There’s something going on here that’s more personal than that, more revealing of the artist himself, I’m thinking. Maybe the artist is rerunning some trauma from his own life through his art-work. Or am I just reaching?’ Mallory asked.

‘Don’t know.’ He answered her. ‘Maybe you’re making a point or maybe you’re just reaching. Though I’d like someone like Mankiewitz’s slant on it, someone like that. I’d like to read that report.’

‘Psychs like him could write whole tomes about this, I’d say.’ She said, still reeling from the effect of what she was seeing. ‘My take? It looks like the product of a very sick mind.’

‘Strange to find something like this in a private house rather than a gallery, a public space.’ BD commented.

‘Somewhere where it could shock more people than the trickle that must come through here?’ Mallory suggested. ‘The artist could have whole busloads of school-kids and senior citizens jumping out of their skins in some place a little more crowded, I’m thinking. Could even film their reactions. That would be something. I think whoever it is made this missed a trick.’

‘Maybe the artist doesn’t care who sees it, who doesn’t see it, Mall.’ BD said, still walking around the structure, stooping to study the contents of its many compartments. ‘Maybe the artist doesn’t care about much.’

‘You’re cynical.’ She replied.

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ He threw the words over to her as he continued to examine the installation, studying a series of compartments that housed the bleached-white skeletal remains of small dead animals, voles, rats or possibly cats, torn fragments of chicken wire forming ragged cages around them. He shook his head at what he was seeing: a catalogue of infernal damnation, a spectacle of horror and retribution, a hell-scape captured inside something resembling a mad-man’s version of a prison gym locker. Even he was starting to be shocked.

‘The way everything’s compartmentalised, is that some comment on western culture in general?’ She asked him. ‘Saying we make everything into some kind of museum-piece, even the shocking stuff and therefore make it safe?’

‘Who knows what it’s saying? We can come up with all kinds of interpretations, that’s what critics are for.’ BD told her. ‘Though maybe this particular artist is just jumping on some band-wagon. Yesterday’s rebellion becomes on-trend in a click. That’s the art market nowadays. And when you get certain names making millions from shock-art, there’s bound to be a few other triers tagging along.’

She nodded. ‘He or she appears to have a fondness for disguise. And a bit of an obsession with heads.’ She said, studying the other compartments within the installation where various dummy-heads were displayed.

One seemed to be a run-of-the mill polystyrene mould favoured by fancy-dress outlets for placing a wig on, painted a shade of bile-green and sporting a pair of old-fashioned ski-goggles, another was carved from wood, its facial features obliterated by a cheap gold party mask, glittery and gaudy and available at most corner shops or convenience stores for less than a euro during the festive season, Mallory guessed, fringed with pink feathery fronds, looking like some demented vision of gaiety from out of a street carnival.

Another was a puppet-like head made from lumpy papier mache, the eyes, ears and hair crudely painted in schoolboy fashion and most of the face covered by a surgical mask.

At the bottom shelf of the installation in a compartment on the left hand side of the wire-work construction, was a long-faced skull that might have once belonged to a hare, its features obscured by a gas mask issued during the Second World War to the UK’s civilian population, the eye-sockets hidden behind two small circular windows made from thick glass and with a large filter cartridge covering the nostril and mouth areas.

‘And not just with heads, Mall,’ BD added, ‘but with all sorts of stuff. Mainly death, I’d say.’ He almost laughed.

Mallory was busy now studying a brown paper label hanging from

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