The front-door lock of the house on Nimrod Road was only a simple Yale, and Jerry was able to open it with his skeleton key. As soon as they had stepped into the hallway, they knew for certain that Mindy had been telling the truth about her parents. The house was thick with the smell of death – that sweet, ripe, faecal odour that filled their lungs every time they breathed in.
‘Jesus. Forgot the Vick’s again,’ said Jerry, pressing the back of his hand against his nose and mouth.
They looked into the living-room. The curtains were drawn and it was dark and chilly in there. A copy of the Daily Mail was lying on the couch so Jerry went over and checked the date.
‘Blimey, only yesterday’s. If I was going by the Jimmy, I’d have guessed they’d been dead for at least three days.’
They went through to the kitchen. The pale green venetian blinds were closed and one of the taps was dripping. On the counter beside the hob there was a large orange casserole dish, with its lid off, and a sharp kitchen knife lying beside it.
Jamila said, ‘Do you see those? Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’
‘Don’t,’ said Jerry. ‘I’m feeling pukish enough already.’
‘Well, me too. But come on. The parents must be in one of the bedrooms.’
Jerry went back out into the hallway and started to mount the stairs. ‘Do you know something? My old dad wanted me to join him in his plumbing business.’
‘Really?’ said Jamila. ‘Why didn’t you?’
‘I told him, “I’m not spending my life unblocking other people’s stinky toilets.” Gordon Bennett, if only I’d known.’
The first bedroom at the top of the stairs was Mindy’s. Her bed was unmade, with a crumpled Frozen duvet cover and large posters on the walls of Justin Bieber and Harry Styles, each with felt-tip kisses drawn around their heads, like a cloud of black moths. Mindy’s laptop was sitting on her desk, still open, and above her desk there was a shelf crammed with books. Jamila quickly checked the titles, to see if any of them were subversive or inappropriate for a nine-year-old, but they were all Harry Potter and Jacqueline Wilson.
‘Oh, well, here goes nothing,’ said Jerry, and pushed open the door to the parents’ bedroom.
The smell was so rank that Jamila retched. She shook her head and said ‘Sorry.’
Mindy’s mother and father were lying side by side on the bed. Their blood-soaked sheets and duvet had been dragged off them and lay in a heap at the foot of the bed. Her father’s pyjama jacket had been unbuttoned to expose his chest, and his trousers had been pulled down to his knees. Her mother’s nightgown was bunched up around her neck. Scores of transverse slices had been cut into their stomachs and their thighs, as if somebody had been playing mad games of noughts-and-crosses all over them with a sharp knife. They smelled so foul because in several places their abdomens had been pierced right through, which allowed the gases to escape from their putrefying intestines. Her mother’s right breast had been partially severed, so that its spongy tissue hung to one side, exposing a white glint of ribs. Beneath her father’s flaccid penis there was nothing but a soggy cavity.
Jerry and Jamila stood on opposite sides of the bed looking down at this carnage in silence. Eventually, with her hand covering her face, Jamila said, ‘I have seen this kind of mutilation before, when a child has murdered its parents. They castrate the father, in denial of where they first came from, and they cut off the mother’s breast, in denial of having been nurtured.’
‘Yes, but this isn’t just some kid taking it out on her parents, is it?’ said Jerry. ‘This is the same as all the others, isn’t it, trying to make out they’re possessed? “It wasn’t me, it was my coat, or my jacket, or my sweater.” And this Mindy girl, she was saying that there was someone else inside her.’
Jamila nodded. ‘Varvara, whoever Varvara might be.’
‘And all this cooking and eating – what’s that all about? Zombies like a bit of human flesh for dinner, don’t they, like in Night of the Living Dead or whatever. But zombies don’t fry their victims before they eat them, do they? Apart from that zombies are not only dead, they’re not real, either.’
‘Well, there have been cases of cannibalism when victims have been cooked,’ said Jamila. ‘There was that German who advertised for a volunteer who actually wanted to be eaten, do you remember that? He ate about twenty kilos of some young man, sautéed in olive oil and garlic, and he even set the table with his best cutlery and candles and everything. And my father told me about several isolated incidents in Pakistan, but it was mostly children who were eaten, because their parents were starving.’
‘Isolated incidents, exactly,’ said Jerry. ‘But like we’ve agreed, this is a bleeding epidemic.’
He quickly took several photographs with his iPhone and then they left the bedroom and went back down to the living-room. Jerry called in to DI Saunders, and caught him just before he was going out to lunch.
‘How’s it all going?’ asked DI Saunders. ‘You can fill me in later – I’ll be back for a media conference at four.’
‘Sorry, guv. You’re not going to like any of this,’ said Jerry. He told him about Mindy and Barry, and how they had found Mindy’s dead parents. When he had finished describing the condition of their bodies there was a long silence from DI Saunders – so long that Jerry thought that he might have been cut off.
‘Bugger,’ said DI Saunders, at last. Then, even more emphatically, ‘Bugger.’ Then, very testily, ‘All right, Jerry. I’ll get things organised at this end and then I’ll come up to see for myself. But if any media come sniffing around, don’t say a word to them, right? I still haven’t worked out how we’re going to present this publicly without causing widescale panic.’
‘OK, guv. Got you.’
Jerry and Jamila went outside and stood by the front gate. It was raining, but at least the air smelled like wet privet and car exhaust, and not of decomposing bodies. Jerry wished that he hadn’t given up smoking. A cigarette would have helped to calm him down, and it would have blotted out the smell and the taste of death. He could almost believe that he had been chewing human flesh himself.
Jamila said, ‘Do you know something, I have no confidence at all now that Dr Fuller will be able to give us all the answers. Or even half the answers.’
‘The trouble is, skip, who the hell can?’ Jerry asked her. ‘Who’s an expert on clothes that have a life of their own?’
Jerry hadn’t completely closed the front door behind them, but out of the corner of his eye he became aware that it was gradually shuddering open again. He turned around, thinking that the breeze must be blowing it, but with a bang it was suddenly flung wide. A black child-like figure came bursting out, its arms flapping, turning immediately to the left and running across the small York stone garden.
Jerry shouted out, ‘Hoi! You! Stop!’ and went after it.
The figure leapt over the low brick wall that separated Mindy’s house from the house next door, and dodged around the silver estate car that was parked in their driveway. It started to run down the road, still flapping its arms, and the way it ran was extraordinary, as if it were being blown by a gale-force wind. Its coat-tails billowed, and its belt waved free, and as Jerry began to catch up with it, he realised that it had no legs. It was flying, not running, and when he was nearly close enough to reach out and seize it, he saw that it had no head, either.
It was nothing but a black raincoat, tumbling through the air by itself.
Jerry stumbled and tripped himself up and almost fell over, stupefied and shocked by the weirdness of chasing an empty raincoat down the street. But he felt angry, too. It’s a fucking raincoat, that’s all, with nobody inside it, and I’m running after it like a total twat.
After a hundred metres his heart was thumping and he was gasping for breath, but he began to gain on the raincoat, and at last he managed to reach out and snatch its collar. He thought that he would simply be able to shake it and fold it up, but it twisted violently around and flailed at him with both of its arms. He staggered back and fell off the kerb into the road, jarring his shoulder. The raincoat carried on attacking him as if it were hysterical with rage, lashing at his face with its buckled cuffs and beating at him with its coat-tails as if they were wings. He felt as if he were being attacked by a furious black swan.
‘Skip!’ he shouted out. ‘For Christ’s sake, skip! Jamila!’
But Jamila was already running towards him, and she was carrying a small black wrought-iron gate which she must have lifted off its hinges from one of the houses along the street. As soon as she reached him, she lifted the gate in both hands and beat it down on the raincoat’s back, again and again. An elderly woman on the opposite side of the road stood watching her with her mouth wide open.
Jamila hit the raincoat eight or nine times, and once she hit Jerry’s knuckles, too, and he shouted out, ‘Ow! Shit!’
The raincoat must have been able to feel her beating it, because it jolted with every blow as if there were somebody inside it. Jamila swung the gate at an angle and hit it as hard as she could across the shoulders, first left and then right, and after the second blow it sagged. Its sleeves fell flat, and it collapsed.
Jerry threw the raincoat onto the ground and climbed back to his feet. He gave the raincoat a kick, and then another, but it lay limp and wet on the tarmac and showed no more signs of stirring into life. Jamila propped the gate against the nearest garden wall. She looked as shocked as Jerry felt, and she was breathing hard, too.
‘This is insane,’ Jerry panted. ‘This is just fucking insane. But I owe you one, skip. I really owe you one. I mean, that was inspired. “Detective sergeant uses wrought-iron gate to kill raincoat.” That’s going to be front-page news.’
‘No, it’s not,’ said Jamila. ‘We’re not going to tell anybody, Jerry, because it’s madness. What do you think the media would say? They’d make out that we’d been smoking something.’
Jerry gave the raincoat another prod with his toecap, but it still didn’t move.
‘Yes, well, you’re probably right. In any case Smiley would go apeshit. He’s already tearing his hair out about how to present this to the press – and to the commissioner. He wouldn’t want her to think that he was heading up an operation run by a bunch of loonies.’
‘Let’s get this coat back to the house,’ said Jamila. ‘I’d better put this gate back, too, before I arrest myself for vandalism.’
Jerry cautiously bent down and took hold of the raincoat’s sleeve. He was sure that he felt it flinch, but he dragged it along the wet pavement behind him, and it didn’t struggle or try to tug itself away from him.
When they got back to Mindy’s parents’ house, he pulled it in through the front door, intending to shut it in the cupboard under the stairs. He had only taken one step inside, though, when he looked up at the staircase and stopped dead.
‘Skip,’ he said, quietly.
Jamila came through the door behind him.
‘Bismillah,’ she whispered.
From top to bottom, the staircase was crowded with clothes – dresses, sweaters, jackets and trousers. But they hadn’t just been strewn down the stairs, they were crawling down it, as if they were alive. A green turtle-neck sweater had already made its way down as far as the hallway, and it reached out with one of its sleeves for Jamila’s ankle.
Without a word, Jerry and Jamila backed quickly out of the front door and into the porch. Jerry hesitated for two or three seconds, and then he tossed the black raincoat back inside, and slammed the door.
‘It’s not possible,’ said Jerry, shaking his head. ‘I’m asleep, and this is a dream. Well – no it’s not, it’s a nightmare.’
‘It is possible,’ Jamila told him. She was clenching her fists and her voice was very level, but Jerry could tell that she was shocked and upset. ‘It is possible in the same way that all spirits are possible.’
‘I don’t get you.’
Jamila looked up at him. He had yet to see her expression so serious. ‘Just because people in the West have lost their belief in their God, and everything that cannot be explained by science, that doesn’t mean for a moment that they no longer exist. I believe that ghosts exist, Jerry, and I believe that evil spirits exist, and that they can possess anything and everything – not only human beings. They can hide themselves inside animals, as any dog or cat owner will tell you. And they can hide themselves inside inanimate objects, too. Where do you think the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp came from?’
‘Skip, these are clothes. These are Levi jeans and Marks & Spencer jumpers.’
‘It makes no difference, Jerry. I didn’t want to believe this, either, but we have to face reality. There is an infection spreading around this area, like Asian flu, or Ebola. I don’t know what Dr Fuller has found out, but I’m convinced now that this infection is spiritual, rather than viral.’
‘So you reckon these clothes have got infected with spirits, and when people put them on, the spirits infect them, too.’
‘Of course I have no way of telling for certain, but what other explanation can there be?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Jerry. ‘Maybe the Russians are putting something in our water and we’re all hallucinating.’
He looked back at the front door, wondering what was going on behind it. What would happen to those clothes if they couldn’t escape from the house? Would the spirits that possessed them eventually leave them, or fade away, or die? Or would they remain dormant, waiting for some unsuspecting victim to put them on, so that they could come to life again?
‘It’s urgent that we find somebody who has knowledge about this sort of thing,’ said Jamila. ‘DI Saunders thought he was joking when he talked about calling in Father Karras. But that’s the kind of person we need.’
‘How do I know? These spirits may have nothing to do with Christianity or Islam or any other religion. Viruses can’t be exorcised by priests, or shamans, or mullahs. Maybe this infection can’t be cured by prayer or holy water, either.’