Wren entered the door and immediately found a set of stone steps. As she descended the steps, she smiled slightly. Her hunch had been correct, this was the way to the crypt. The room was dark and the light from the open door at the top of the stairwell did little to illuminate the area, but there was enough to ensure Wren could get around without walking into anything. If she had been expecting mounds of dust and cobwebs, she would have been disappointed. The crypt was as immaculate as the gardens outside. Considering Elkbury was a place with so few deaths, it seemed odd that someone would go to such lengths to keep this part of the church as clean and tidy as it was. It was tidy, but this was evidently a room that was in constant use. Wooden crates of various sizes lined the walls and a stack of parchments sat on a large desk. The chair sitting behind the desk looked quite threadbare, but it was still nicer than anything Wren had ever owned. Brushing her fingers against the parchment on the top of the pile, Wren studied the writing. To her, it was just a collection of marks and symbols. Education was a luxury that few in Elkbury could afford.
A large box sat in the furthest corner of the room. A box large enough to fit a man inside. She’d found Crispin Boyd. Despite her lack of superstition, knowing that she was this close to a dead man chilled her blood in a way that she’d never experienced before. What if the Devil from before caused the body to rise up and attack? Was such a thing even possible?
‘If I’ve been gazing into the Devil’s eyes before I’ve even had lunch, anything is possible,’ thought Wren, and, even though she was sharing a room with a corpse, her stomach rumbled to remind her that noon wasn’t far away. She paused and stared at the box. Part of her could have sworn that she could hear movement inside it. The idea that Crispin’s lifeless eyes might be trying to look upon her made her shudder. It was all she could do not to turn and run back up the steps and out into the bright sunlight. But she was here for a reason. Treading carefully so as not to make any more noise than necessary, Wren made her way towards the box. The lid was closed, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine Crispin’s body lying just beneath it. Would he still look the same? Or had death contorted his features? Wren reached for the box.
Imagining a cold hand knocking against the lid, Wren held her breath. It couldn’t be, could it? People didn’t come back from the dead. Then again, they didn’t die in Elkbury either... and Wren certainly wasn’t in the habit of seeing devils. Just as she had thought before, anything was possible.
It came again.
Her hand hovered above the lid, unable to quite make the journey down to make contact.
It was then she realised that the noise wasn’t coming from the box at all; it was coming from behind her.
‘That box won’t bite, you know.’ a voice said, and Wren swung herself around. It was Perry. ‘I heard a bit of a commotion and thought I’d check that we weren’t being robbed.’
‘No, no robbers. Just me,’ Wren said, somehow managing to compose herself.
‘And what are you doing here? I thought I told you to be on your way.’ Perry said.
‘I need to find out what happened to Crispin Boyd.’ she replied.
‘I’ve already told you that you won’t find answers here,’ Perry said, his voice starting to rise in anger. ‘Now go.’
Defiance grew in Wren’s chest. Backing down and walking away was no longer an option, she had to accomplish what she came here to do. ‘No,’ she said, feeling like a petulant child, but also a little proud of herself. ‘It’s my job to find out who killed Crispin Boyd and I’m going to do it. Nothing’s going to stop me. Not you. Not your stupid rules.’
‘Have it your way,’ Perry said as he started to climb the stairs, ‘I’ll just get the Father down here. I’m sure he’ll have something to say about your behaviour. I reckon he’ll Banish you. That’ll teach you, won’t it?’
Wren sighed. ‘I’m not getting Banished, Perry.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know so,’ Wren said, with possibly a tad more confidence than she felt. ‘I’m not getting Banished because you’re not going to tell anyone about this.’
‘Why wouldn’t I?’
‘Cos if you do, I’ll tell everyone about the secret stash down here,’ she said, allowing a slight grin to tug at her mouth as Perry’s eyes shot to the stacks of crates and boxes. ‘I’m sure the good folks of Elkbury would be more than a little disappointed to find out the church has been holding out on them. I mean, you’ve got tonnes of stuff here.’ In truth, Wren had no idea what was in those boxes, but Perry’s sweating and squirming told her it was something the church didn’t want the village to find out about. ‘Where did you get it from?’ she asked. ‘Did you steal it? Is Arcadius hiring thieves and ne’er-do-wells now?’
‘It’s not like that,’ Perry said, quietly. She could tell by the look in his eye that he was defeated.
‘Then what’s it like?’
‘We didn’t steal it,’ he replied.
‘So, what’s the problem?’
‘No-one can know about it... Father Arcadius says so.’
‘So, he’d be pretty pissed off if I was to let slip about your little stash, right?’ Wren’s eyes were fixed on her opponent.
‘Yes,’ Perry said, moving around her so that he could get to the desk and opening a drawer. Perry pulled out a bottle of wine and took a deep draught of the liquid. Wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, he put the bottle on the desk and returned his attention to Wren. ‘So, what do you propose?’
‘I just need you to go away and forget what you saw,’ she said. ‘There’s no need to do anything else. Your conscience will remain clear.’
‘What do you mean? Why wouldn’t my conscience be clear?’ he asked. ‘What are you planning on doing down here?’
‘I need to see the body,’ she said. It was now easier to think of the thing in the box as a body, rather than the man who used to live a few houses away from her. It was better it was an object rather than a person.
Perry took another swig from his bottle and then put the bottle on the desk. ‘I suppose it can’t hurt,’ he said, but he bit his bottom lip and worry lined his face.
‘Thanks,’ Wren replied. ‘You don’t have to stay here.’
‘I feel like I should,’ he said. ‘Besides... we don’t know what’s going to happen when you open the box.’
Thinking again about the image of Crispin’s reanimated body, Wren shuddered. ‘What kind of thing could happen?’ she asked, trying to sound casual and failing miserably.
‘Dunno,’ Perry said, ‘what do the dead usually do?’
‘Lie around doing nothing?’
‘We can hope,’ he said. ‘Let’s get this over with.’ Perry gestured towards the box making it clear that he wasn’t going to be the one to open it.
‘Do you want to give me a hand?’ Wren asked.
‘Nope,’ he replied, picking his bottle back up and gulping down a large mouthful. ‘I’ll stick around to see what happens, but I’m not going anywhere near that thing unless I absolutely have to.’
‘That thing?’ Wren said, her voice rising. ‘That thing was our neighbour. Our friend.’
‘Didn’t look like my friend when we put the lid on,’ Perry said. ‘It almost looked like him, but it wasn’t him. I’ll be glad when he’s buried. It weirds me out keeping him here.’
‘Well, just look away or something,’ she said.
‘You’ll need something to prise the lid open,’ Perry said. ‘I nailed it shut.’
‘Why? So he wouldn’t get out?’ Wren asked. It was supposed to be a joke, but neither of them laughed. Instead, the comment hung in the air around them, daring each of them to look over towards the box. After glancing in the box’s direction, Perry tried to look everywhere apart from back at it. Wren watched as he bent down and rummaged around underneath the desk.
‘Here,’ he said, tossing a metal pole onto the desk, ‘this’ll help.’
Wren nodded her thanks and picked it up. Weighing it in her hands, she thought it might make do as a decent enough weapon if it came down to it. She swallowed and returned her attention to the box. It was time, she’d procrastinated long enough. She was aware of the near silence and stillness that filled the crypt. She could sense Perry watching her intently. Using the metal pole, she opened the box. A smell that she hadn’t really noticed before, even though it had definitely been in the room with them, now filled the crypt.
‘I figure that’s what death smells like,’ Perry said. ‘You’ll be smelling it all day now. Maybe longer. It’s all I’ve been breathing in since we collected him.’
Wren could certainly believe that; she could already imagine that the smell was attaching itself to her clothing and slithering its way through her skin. It was everywhere. Looking down at the source of the smell, she almost felt relief. It was true that Crispin Boyd looked strange, and it was true that he was giving off the worst stench she’d ever encountered, but he wasn’t moving. Her fear had been nothing but her imagination.
‘I don’t think you need to nail this shut again after,’ she said, ‘Crispin isn’t going anywhere.’
‘Whatever,’ Perry said. ‘I’m not taking unnecessary chances... What are you gonna do now? Has seeing him helped?’
From the moment Perry had walked in on her, Wren had been wondering how to say this. It just wasn’t the kind of thing you said every day.
‘I need to take his hand.’ she said, saying it so matter-of-factly that Perry almost dismissed it as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. Almost. But then the words sunk in much like the smell was.
‘I think I misheard you,’ he said. ‘Because you can’t have said what I think you just said. You cannot just take a dead man’s hand. Can you imagine what Father Arcadius will say? It was bad enough when you said you wanted to look at the body... but to... to... take pieces of it-’
‘Just one piece,’ she corrected him.
‘It doesn’t matter if it’s one or one hundred, if you take a bit of him, he won’t be able to rest.’
‘You don’t know that. You said yourself this is the first dead body you’ve seen.’
‘All I know is this... I have a lucky coin that I’ve had since I was no more than seven-years-old. My mother gave it to me not long before she was Banished. I take that coin with me everywhere.’
‘Right...’ she said, waiting for him to continue.
‘I keep that coin hidden in my robes and I take it everywhere with me. It doesn’t matter where I’m going, the coin is always with me. It’s like it’s become an extension of my being. Another limb. It’s part of me.’
‘What’s that got to do with Crispin’s hand?’
‘I’m getting to that,’ he said, mild irritation slipping into his tone. ‘One night, as I was preparing for bed, I realised that the coin wasn’t in its usual pocket. In fact, I couldn’t find it anywhere in my quarters. Do you know what I did?’
Wren shook her head.
‘I spent all night looking for it. I couldn’t rest until I eventually found it,’ he said. A slight smile tugged gently at his lips now that his point was being made. ‘And that was just a coin. Can you imagine what it’s going to be like for Crispin when he realises that his hand is gone? His spirit will never be able to rest until he finds it. And who knows what he’ll do? He doesn’t look like himself anymore, so he may not act like himself. What if he harms others like he was harmed? What if he ends us all?’
To her surprise, Wren found that story made a certain amount of sense... but it still didn’t change anything. She still had a job to do. ‘In that case, we better be ready,’ she said. ‘I’m taking his hand. Grima needs it.’
‘Grima? I didn’t peg you as one who believed in the Verum Visus.’
‘I’m not... well, not usually... but she reckons that she can find out what happened to Crispin by touching his hand... so I’m going to take it to her.’
‘You should’ve said that in the beginning,’ Perry said, reaching back into the desk drawer and pulling out a small axe. ‘Me and mine will do anything for Grima. Here, you’ll need this.’
Perry handed Wren the axe. Dropping the metal pole to the stone floor, she took the weapon with both hands.
‘Let’s not prolong this,’ Perry said. ‘Be quick... and only take what you need. And, if you can, bring it back before nightfall. If we can get away without Father Arcadius knowing about it, the better. I reckon I can keep him busy until tonight.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ she said. Then, before she could talk herself out of it, she took aim and brought the axe down onto its target with all her might. There was a sickening thunk as the blade pounded its way through flesh, bone, and the wooden box underneath. Peering into the box, Wren stared at the severed body part.
‘It’s just a piece of meat,’ she thought, as she reached for the hand with her own shaking appendage. Perry turned away as she pulled it from the box, the colour draining from his face. For a moment, his skin had the same pale waxy complexion as Crispin’s and a cramp pulled at Wren’s stomach. It was a strange feeling, but strange feelings were becoming the norm that day. Wren tried to push that strange feeling aside, but it wouldn’t budge. Somehow she knew that Perry’s skin was going to look like that on a more permanent basis. His time was becoming short.
But that was stupid, wasn’t it? How could she know that?
‘Thank you,’ she said, dropping the hand into her pack, glad that she didn’t have to touch it for a while. The sick feeling disappeared with it.
‘Remember, bring it back by nightfall,’ Perry said. Wren nodded and made a hasty exit.