The angry mob doesn’t start out angry.
In fact, on that first day, none of them would see themselves as aligned in motives or spirit at all, just a collection of individuals who’ve happened to find themselves brought together by tragedy and circumstance, here in the deep woods outside of the town, where they’ve been walking their dogs (in four cases), shooting up in the undergrowth (in one case), wondering if life is truly worth living without her (one case), collecting discarded tin cans and human debris for an art project (two cases), idly plotting out how the killings would take place, if he could only build up the courage to get on and do it (one case)...
...and the only thing that brings them together is that they are now standing behind the garish striped line of orange-and-white police tape, crying from the shock of or numbly averting their eyes from and (in one case) staring in fascinated delight, trying to stop himself from giggling helplessly at the sight of…
...what they can only describe as the Exhibit.
Once they’re safe at home and relaying the events of that first day to their loved ones, each member of the angry mob has their own interpretation of the facts, and perhaps this is normal.
In all of the turmoil, it’s understandably difficult to agree on who first stumbled across the Exhibit and shrieked aloud to the sky, causing the others to come running, whose decision it was to call the police, who kept chuckling gleefully to himself as he crouched over the whole thing, taking photographs from different angles on his smartphone for no explicable reason…
...but everyone’s recollection of the Exhibit itself is precisely the same.
In the deep woods, there’s a place that’s flat and circular and empty. Entirely emptied of trees, which can happen sometimes, in the deep woods, all of us understand on some level that it is only the absolute randomness of nature that can form itself into patterns which appear stately and ordered and make us afraid...but also emptied of leaves, and undergrowth, and insects, and birds.
In this place, another town has been built.
The Exhibit contains eight or nine bodies. At least, that’s the estimate given to one member of the angry mob by a policeman loitering on the sidelines, who wants everyone to know that he’s never seen anything quite like this.
Eight or nine people have been brought here, alive or dead, and methodically disassembled, to build the Exhibit.
The towers form their own circle in the empty place, a kind of town square or plaza, and the way that the skulls have been arranged in their own individual edifices, gazing beatifically inwards towards the centre, makes it clear that this is by design, that the structures composed of stacked bone and rotten clothing and a few remaining sinews have been built with this specific focal point in mind.
There are smaller, grinning skulls and more delicate bones within the ossuary towers, presumably squirrels and foxes and fieldmice, although at this distance, from behind the police line, there’s no real sense of an evolutionary difference between any of the victims, only a variation in scale, a rising pattern of death from the miniature to the vast.
Nothing is keeping the structures in place. It’s startling, when you come to think of it, that neither the cold autumn wind that blows through this place nor the natural predators who wander the lanes between the trees should have dislodged a single finger-bone or twisted rib from this circle of towers.
Every member of the angry mob has watched TV. Everyone understands the implications of this kind of inhuman display, that it is likely we’re dealing with a serial killer, or less thrillingly, a grave-robber, but most likely, a serial killer, and this impression only heightens once it’s announced in the papers that the forensics unit has begun to identify the men and women within the towers, that each person was once a citizen of the town, who had vanished from their homes in recent years and months.
“Outcasts,” the angry mob tell their loved ones wisely. “Easy prey. Nobody to miss them.”
The police are kind. Perhaps they understand just how strange this must be for the angry mob, the life-changing impact of this tragedy, how hard it is to get the image of those little towers of flesh and bone out of your head once it’s lodged there.
They run regular information sessions for the local community, and seem to answer the questions that come in honestly.
No, they don’t know how one person could have done this.
No, it isn’t true that there was a case just like this one, three months ago in another town upriver, but it’s still a good idea to remain alert and travel with a friend outside of daylight hours.
Yes, they can confirm that the murder weapons were scattered around in the dirt around the Exhibit - and that these implements appear to have been taken from the homes and workplaces of the missing people who now made up the occupants and architecture of the Exhibit.
Kitchen knives. Hacksaws. Scissors.
No, there are no suspects at this time.
Someone in the room thinks to ask,
“What about the new development? Has anybody asked them about what happened?”
Everybody notices what happens next.
They’re accustomed to seeing complacency in the faces of their town’s authority figures, or disdain, or condescension. But this is something new.
The policemen flinch, all at once.
They flinch, these great uniformed men of power and command, as if there’s something awful in the idea that they, officers of the law, should be called upon to reach out to the new development that’s being built on the other side of the woods, that perpetual chaos of cranes and helicopters and lorries roaring along the country lanes bearing the grinning logo of the building concern.
Yes, they say, stuttering a little, of course we’ve reached out to them. We’ve interviewed their construction workers, and they’ve provided us with their full support. Sadly, this has proven to be yet another dead end. Any other questions before we wrap up?
The meeting disperses.
The angry mob is still not angry yet. But it’s growing on them, this restive sense that they’ve somehow been denied the answers to all of this, that something has been stolen that was rightfully theirs.
There’s one member of the angry mob, the one who’s an artist, the one who stumbled onto the Exhibit while collecting tin cans with her girlfriend, her girlfriend who is a far better artist, destined for wider recognition, everyone says so...
...she’s one who decides that something needs to be done.
The Lesser Artist has been drawing shapes, ever since. Circles and squares, odd little bladed triangles stabbing inwards, all towards a single focal point…
...that for now remains empty.
She puts down her sketchbook, and reaches for her phone.
They have exchanged numbers, the people who stumbled across the Exhibit, and there’s no given reason why, the justifications they’ve offered each other are vague at best- ‘Just in case you ever need to talk’, and already you can see the outlines of the angry mob coming into focus in how much they’re feeling the draw of something unseen and vast pulling them onwards, how little they trust anyone else to understand.
The Lesser Artist calls the Sleepless Man who’s about her age, and he’s shivering on the floor of his bedroom staring into the empty wall, because he has not dared to go back into the deep woods since the Exhibit came into his life, and he cannot draw up his sleeve and sate his needs here because he refuses to do it in the same house as his father, that’s the one line he simply will not cross, but the old bastard just won’t leave in the evenings any more and there’s nowhere else to go-
The Lesser Artist explains about the new development. The odd look on the faces of the policemen when it was mentioned.
The peculiar stories she’s heard, that there are already workers living in the new development even though the thing is only half-built, that it’s more than just office blocks, that it’s one of those new breeds of living environments where the employees live on-site and everything is provided for them, from gymnasiums to supermarkets, so that they never truly have to go home.
Perhaps living like that, the Lesser Artist says, can make people turn strange.
The Sleepless Man feels pretty strange himself, but he likes that someone has cared enough to call him, and the noise from his father’s television downstairs is relentless and awful and he is still too sober, he needs to be drunk on something. He agrees at once.
He calls the Disciple.
The Disciple is standing very still in the centre of his luxuriant white apartment, staring at nothing, thinking of the friends who have just left him after an evening of cocktails and board games, who he might easily have wiped from this earth, he could have just walked around the table with the long beautiful kukri which he keeps under his bed for just such an occasion, stabbing and slitting the throats of the other players at his discretion, like a game of duck-duck-goose, until he’d reach the end of his circular sweep and all the bodies would be slumped over the playing pieces, and he’d be free for the rest of the night to disassemble them, and build them up into towers, entirely at his own discretion.
Twelve steps. He’s counted them. That’s all it would have taken.
-and yet he didn’t do it. What the hell is wrong with him? Why can’t he get it together?
The Disciple answers the phone, and listens.
Well, he thinks, perhaps it’s just inspiration that he needs, and the more he steeps himself in the mystery of the Exhibit, the greater an understanding he’ll have of this other murderer who did not hesitate or prevaricate, who actually made something of his life, and so he agrees to join the expedition into the new development.
The Disciple calls the Lovers with the kind golden retriever, who aren’t available on the first couple of attempts because they are on the phone to their own old university friends who live out in Australia, regaling them with the story of the Exhibit, and honestly, although this entire affair is terrible, the Lovers have never been so popular in their social circles, and never so in sync with one another either, repeating the details of the grisly display between themselves as they lie awake in bed, late into the night.
Investigating the new development means more of this grand new adventure. They say yes at once.
Still not angry, perhaps, but the mob is taking shape, and it’s growing fervent.
The following day, a five-vehicle carpool rides out of town.
Or perhaps that should be a five-vehicle convoy, because as the procession winds it way along the narrow country lanes, flanked by tall black oaks, there’s what you could only describe as a real fuck-yeah vibe amongst the members of the angry mob, and as they flash past the gigantic billboards advertising the new development, each driver has unconsciously been tuning their radios to a station that’s playing a different blaring variety of up-tempo music, call-to-arms music, music that indicates things are about to get done here, we’re going to get to the bottom of this.
It’s a little embarrassing, what happens next.
Because the procession slowly draws to a halt at a place in the woods, where there’s a sudden gulf in the road, just a savage pit of unfinished asphalt about ten or twelve feet long and nearly as deep before the flat concrete resumes on the other side, and an apologetic-looking man sat amongst the traffic cones gets to his feet and tells them,
“Sorry, folks. Road isn’t finished yet. If you’re heading in, you’ll need to get out and walk.”
The Lovers, in the lead car, wind down their window.
This can’t be right, they observe. The development is already functional, there are people living and working there already. How can the road not be finished? How do the lorries get through? This doesn’t make sense.
The construction worker just smiles politely and says, whether it makes sense or not, they can see the road isn’t finished.
A little bashfully, the angry mob step out of their cars and cross the hole in the road on foot, trudging past the traffic cones, deeper into the woods.
They’re already beginning to mutter amongst themselves, because this confirms their suspicions about the new development, the oddness and indecency of it, and when they finally emerge out on the other side of the forests and find themselves right there on the edge of it, their irritation begins to calcify into hatred.
The new development is vast, and implacable.
It’s like standing at the edge of the ocean, if the ocean ascended into the sky.
Their own town, back the way they came, has nothing like this; no such great glass towers, no such pristine lawns. And for the first time it occurs to the members of the angry mob that this development is not merely a development, not even some trendy workplace environment with cafes and bars and gymnasiums, this is a town. Another town, growing amongst the trees, in competition with their own.
Their own lives feel drab and small, compared to what’s out here.
But it’s curious, isn’t it, the Greater Artist remarks to the Lesser Artist as they walk, how even these modern and expensive developments ape the architecture of the past: that as we stroll deeper into the streets, we suddenly find ourselves confronted with buildings in the distance that have been designed, ludicrously, in the gothic or Victorian style, as if this place expects that its visitors will only live somewhere that appears to be older and more dignified than it really is.
The Lesser Artist stays quiet.
She’s imagining these weird streets sketching themselves out across empty white pages. The endless hideous detail resolving itself into plain and perfect circles and squares, seen from above.
The angry mob passes through the square of the other town.
Kitsch, white-painted shopfronts stand here, as yet unoccupied, their blank windows and gaping doors screaming in silence at the trespassers as they shuffle through.
All of them are reminded of the same thing, though nobody wants to say it out loud.
These tall bone-white buildings, assembled around the focal point of the square, look more than a little like the Exhibit.
An uncomfortable silence has fallen upon them.
In the very centre of the square, there’s an empty stone plinth, worn-down with the years, the kind of place where you’d expect to see a statue, but there’s nothing there yet, only a polished brass plaque and a bench where people can sit.
As they pass, the Lesser Artist sees what’s written upon the plaque, the dedication written out to a name, the name of the first citizen of the town, and she doesn’t understand yet, she tells herself it’s a funny coincidence - but she doesn’t like the way that coincidence makes her feel.
Sometimes, in the deep woods and the dark places, we see patterns in nature that we know must be random, because there can be no other explanation but coincidence...but that coincidence is horrible to contemplate just the same, because we can’t shake the results of that cosmic dice roll: it’s as if we’ve been singled out by something watching us from the firmament that wants us to know it’s watching.
The Lesser Artist has been told by people who care about her that she has an anxious disposition.
She tries to stop thinking about the empty plinth.
At the far end of the square the angry mob finds that it’s reached its destination: an estate manager’s office, short and squat and clearly temporary, emblazoned with OCB logos.
The door is open, and within a sharply suited man is standing over a scale model of white card towers and green trees upon a table.
He looks up at the angry mob with a curious eyebrow, and a welcoming smile.
“Good morning,” he says. “Have you come for a viewing?”
The Disciple comes forward first.
“Your road’s out,” he replies with a formidable sneer. “Didn’t anyone tell you? We had to walk half a bloody mile just to get here. No signposts, either. Could have got lost in the woods.”
The black-suited man doesn’t falter, or apologise.
“Well,” he says mildly, “all great works have their teething problems, sir. But we’re getting better all the time, I can assure you of that.”
And as if to make the point, he shows his own white teeth, and adds, “We do actually have a whole new row of homes becoming available, if you’d like me to take you around. Perfect for retirement-“ a little nod to the Lovers, “-for a young couple-“ a little nod to the Greater and Lesser Artists. “There really is a place for everyone.”
The Disciple replies roughly that in the town, it’s said this is a corporate development only. Homes for office workers.
“Oh,” the black-suited man says, “Oh, sir, we contain multitudes.”
The Sleepless Man, at the back of the crowd, ventures that, um, they’ve come about the murders.
The black-suited man asks if this means they’re with the police, and he stammers his way through the facts that, no, they’re not the police exactly, more a group of concerned citizens, but given the fact that the bodies were found so close to the new development, in the woods between both towns, well, it’d make sense to be working together on this. Perhaps the new development has some security footage that could be shared, or maybe there were witnesses…
“Neither exist,” says the black-suited man placidly. “I wish it were any other way, of course. If you’re worried about security, however, we’re working on that, and we’ve only just begun implementing a neighbourhood watch system to cut down on littering-”
He tries to hand out some pamphlets.
The Lesser Artist is about to follow up with a question, something about this other town that is built and functioning and yet only half-built- when the Lovers scream.
First him, then her, a bellowing roar followed by a sibilant shriek, and he dashes forward as if to hurl himself at the black-suited man, fists flailing, spittle dripping from his mouth as he careens into the scale model upon its table, sending the whole thing crashing down, scattering white card towers and polystyrene trees across the floor.
Outside in the open air, he is penitent; shaking his red cheeks free of his own rage, blaming the heat of the day and his age, because there’s no way he saw what he thought he saw.
His wife has no such doubts.
“They’d drawn it,” she tells them. “On their damned table, out in the woods by the railway line. A tiny circle of white and red, like a little town of its own, exactly where the murders took place. Like they were taunting us.”
Her husband raises his head and adds with a gloomy finality,
“And there was something else. Something was standing in the middle of it. Something..twisted, long winding limbs. I don’t understand, I don’t know what I was looking at, unless it-”
And then he looks at his lover with wild surmise, and she looks back at him, and suddenly they stop talking.
Both of them are quiet, on the long walk to the hole in the road; on the whole drive back.
By the following morning, things have started to go wrong - and the anger breaks loose.
They have agreed to convene at the Lovers’ bungalow for brunch, to discuss their
next move - perhaps a petition to the police force to investigate the Other Town, or even, if they’re feeling heroic, an open letter to their MP.
Because they’re being mocked, all of them agree it, they’re being mocked by that sleazy black-suited estate manager, and somebody clearly knows something about the Exhibit over there, even if none of them understand exactly how this could be possible or why.
And then the members of the angry mob arrive one by one at the Lovers’ bungalow, and they find the old golden labrador wandering out in the gravel driveway and the front door left just a fraction ajar.
For a few minutes, caught in the trap of their own politeness, they just stand outside and ring the doorbell and pet the dog, and call, ‘Martin? Susan?’ inwards, until finally enough of them have gathered and they feel able to storm the doorstep and shuffle forward into the little bungalow.
The hallway is strewn with clothes, a giddy succession of shoes down to trousers to underwear, as if the Lovers, in arriving home, had suddenly been seized by a fit of lunatic passion, a madcap energy of lust that took them through the kitchen where they seized a pair of matching black-handled knives and out through the sliding doors, into the little garden with the coy pond and gnome-
-it just seems impossible.
Impossible that this gentle older couple should have taken up positions in a place of their choosing on the lawn, their spot, and begun to cut slices off themselves or each other, neatly sawing through ears and noses and toes at first before getting to work on the larger, tougher stuff, limb by limb, at first walking and then limping and finally crawling to place new floors and spires onto the little teetering towers of flesh and bone that they had built from themselves, doing all of this in silence, and most perplexingly, stopping every so often to give each other a loving kiss, as the bloodsmears on their lips and cheeks indicate…
...finally succumbing to massive haemorrhaging or trauma and toppling onto the grass beside their unfinished creations, unfinished themselves, partially disassembled.
Their ossuary towers glisten in the morning dew, slick and stately, both faces pointing inwards to a single, empty patch of lawn.
The note left behind by the Lovers is straightforward, but no less perplexing for that.
We realise now what’s being built, and there’s no reason to be afraid.
We contain multitudes.
The angry mob stand there, in the garden, looking down at the second Exhibit. They do not speak. None of them speak.
Eventually the police are called, and cups of tea are handed to them, and foil blankets are draped around their shoulders, because it is understandably assumed that they are in shock.
They are not in shock.
They are furious.
In the Disciple’s shining apartment, the angry mob is developing fast, like negatives blooming beneath their fluid in a darkroom, like reef coral phosphorescing in moonlight.
They need to arm themselves. They need to arm themselves with shotguns and knives and torches, and march tonight into the heart of the Other Town, and smash open the estate manager’s office, breaking the glass windows, pouring inside to find…
...evidence. Papers. Perhaps the black-suited man himself, cowering and whimpering and confessing to everything, who can then be handily duct-taped and thrown into a boot and returned to the police with a witty sign strung around his neck, as happens on vigilante television shows, the details can be sorted out later-
The point is that there will be answers waiting for them in the Other Town, if only they are brave enough to seek them out.
The Disciple himself is giddy with excitement, because he has already figured out his place and purpose in all of this: it is clear to him now that tonight he will head out into the darkness with this grab-bag of addicts and outcasts and doddering concerned citizens, and there will be no suspicion about why he’s clutching the long and beautiful kukri that has been sitting beneath his bed waiting for just a night like this, and as they lose track of one another in the woods he will slip from one lonely frightened victim to the next and finally do his work, and when the bodies are found in the morning the survivors themselves will say that this is all part of the greater pattern, the same monstrous fate that came to the Lovers, nobody else is to be blamed for this.
He is not certain yet who he will leave alive. Perhaps he’ll only decide at the final instant.
The angry mob agree on who will bring which weapons and who will need to join which carpool ride, as with the Lovers dead and disassembled they are down one vehicle and there are certain practicalities that need to be considered.
Only one person remains uncertain.
The Lesser Artist can’t get it out of her head.
Something isn’t right here, she tells her girlfriend. It’s like we’re acting out the parts we’re given, we’re not thinking clearly. Does that make sense? We’re so certain that something needs to be done, but it’s like we’re walking in fog. We can only see the shapes, the mirage of it.
The Greater Artist takes her to one side. Zaina, she says, as gently as she can. I’ve seen your sketchbooks. What you’ve been drawing in them.
Circles and spires. Converging inwards.
This has affected you, Zaina, it’s got into your head and that’s OK, I’m here to take care of you.
But we’re doing what needs to be done. We’re getting to the bottom of this. You just...stay home tonight and try to think of other things. We don’t need you with us.
The Lesser Artist tries to protest. I need you to listen to me, Chloe. Just for once, I need you to hear what I’m saying-
The Greater Artist holds her firmly by the shoulders.
Zaina, she says. I love you. But tonight, there isn’t a place for you amongst us.
Night falls. The angry mob sets out, into the woods, their headlights flaring through the darkness.
The Lesser Artist tries to think of other things.
She cooks herself a stir-fry. She turns the television on. She turns the television off.
She goes to bed early, and gets back out again around an hour later.
There isn’t a place for you amongst us, she mutters to herself.
There has never been a place for her anywhere. She’s never felt herself truly at home in this town, in this house, in this life.
And in the end, she doesn’t really know whether it’s courage or compulsion that makes her slip into her anorak and wellingtons, grab the torch from under the sink…
...and step out of her house to begin walking, out through the dimming lights of the town, and into the dry-scorched fields that lead out into the deep woods beyond.
She’s never been out here in the true darkness before, the real claustrophobic darkness of a cloudy autumn night, when the walls of forest close in around you and keep closing in, tightening like a noose with every step.
Presently, she begins to feel the first droplets of rain falling on her head and shoulders.
It’s a little after that that the Artist realises the woods are glowing.
It’s dim at first, just a faint luminescence that draws out the spindly fingers of the birch trunks ahead, but the closer she crunches through the undergrowth the brighter and more overwhelming the glow becomes, and it baffles her, because there’s no way she could have reached the town already.
She comes closer, switching her torch off to avoid being spotted, and it’s at this moment that someone staggers out from the darkness behind her and grabs her.
The Disciple is breathing heavily, and he seems off-balance somehow, tilted painfully to one side.
It takes her a moment to realise that he’s lost an arm.
He lets go of her, pressing his bloody palm against the ragged remnants of his silver suit jacket to try and staunch the bleeding, and croaks,
“It’s you. You came after us.”
He must see the look of horror on her face, because he grins lazily and patiently, like a toad, and tells her,
“It’s quite all right. We had it all wrong, we didn’t understand. This was an opportunity for us to make something of ourselves. I made something of myself,” and he repeats it happily to himself as he topples over onto his side and the black blood runs free from his stumped shoulder as the white light sluices over his sightless face.
The Artist stoops to try his pulse.
Then she gets to her feet, and advances further into the glow.
A moment later she comes to the ridge overlooking the road, and she can see the source of illumination.
Cars, heaped up against cars, police and civilian vehicles alike, their headlights pointing crazily in every direction and the doors hanging open, as if the lawful authorities had come here to intercept or stop the angry mob, but both sides had stepped out of their cars, coming to a sudden agreement, and instead chose to go walking-
-and further down the road, at the broken gulf of empty concrete, the Artist finds them.
The angry mob have made a bridge of themselves.
It’s as if each in turn had suddenly decided to give up and die, tossing themselves forward into the hard creosote and rocks of the pit face-first, and their fellows and the police officers had come after them in turn, a great bridge of broken bone and flattened bodies that do not respond and will not move from their position no matter how hard she tries.
The Sleepless Man looks peaceful, no matter how savagely he’s contorted himself to fit precisely into his given space.
Chloe is no longer Chloe. But even her twisted face, half-buried and pressed unnaturally into the bodies beneath her, seems to be carrying a happy smile.
The Artist stands up.
For the first time in her life, she feels as if she’s actually thinking clearly, with purpose.
She walks on.
Over the bridge of tormented flesh, further into the woods.
A little way down the road, she is certain that she’s walking in the right direction, because a signpost appears to show her the way.
The Disciple’s arm has been somehow pinned to the trunk of an oak overlooking the road, horizontally outstretched like a branch and impossibly stiffened, its index finger pointing onwards.
There’s no blood. It isn’t clear what might be holding it in place.
The Artist walks on.
As the buildings of the Other Town begin to resolve themselves from out of the trees, she is faintly aware that the streets and architecture itself seems to have changed since her last visit; moss and ivy grows up around the lampposts now, and age has settled over the rooftops, as if this place has grown older: is growing older, over time.
She is also aware that a crowd has come out to applaud her as she approaches.
The Artist walks on.
In the very heart of this place, surrounded by the staring faces of ancient towers, there is an empty plinth waiting for its occupant, a stone plinth with a plaque beneath it that commemorates her, Zaina the artist, first citizen of the town, an empty stone plinth that’s soon to be filled
A place for me, she tells herself excitedly. It’s always been waiting for me.
What were we even so angry about?
What were we so afraid of?
She will climb up onto that plinth. She will make something of herself.
The Artist walks on.