Inspector Yao pushed his glasses back to the top of his nose, adjusted his suit jacket, blinked and looked again. He could have sworn he saw a girl standing beneath the archway, but it was two o’clock, and the students would not be permitted to leave for another hour and a half at least.
She certainly wasn’t there now.
Of course, she could be skipping her lectures. This Western notion of optional attendance had, in some places, infiltrated even the most distinguished institutions of Beijing. It was lazy, arrogant, everything China strove not to be. He would come down very hard in his report if he found out the professors had not been rigorous enough in regards to attendance.
He approached the archway, stopped when he noticed the white blossoms which had been attached to it: the school’s traditional welcome. Only, this time, it reminded him of the girl. She had been all in white. A long, ankle-length dress. Very traditional. In fact, preposterous. No one dressed like that these days. The Inspector felt a bead of sweat materialise at the top of his spine and he cursed it. He hated to appear nervous.
He went through and was greeted by Professor Mae, a stunning woman Inspector Yao always made sure to praise in his report. She was wearing a turquoise blouse today, making a brave but failed attempt to cover her bust. She wore a black folded skirt, two inch heeled shoes, and an expression as though she were welcoming family after a long period of separation. It was a smile Inspector Yao frequently woke up at night still seeing, coated in shivering sweat, breathless, hot between the legs.
Needless to say, he never mentioned this in his reports.
‘Inspector Yao,’ she said, giving him a bow.
He bowed in return. Smiled. The muscles in his cheeks ached from the unfamiliar movement.
‘Would you -’
Her words were cut off as a window two storeys above them exploded. There was a scream which paralysed Inspector Yao, making every tendon rigid to the fingertips. He tried to scream himself but his throat tightened so much he merely spluttered.
The body exploded between his feet and the delicate boots of Professor Mae. He stared for a few moments at the disjointed bundle of bones emerging from a red puddle. It was as if a white Santa sack filled guts had been dropped from above them. It took him a few moments to recognise the bloodied dress: the girl he had seen moments before. How was it possible? Two flights of stairs in seconds…
‘Don’t worry about that, Inspector,’ Professor Mae said, calmly. Her eyes were even, clear and unperturbed, like a Nordic sky. ‘We’ll call an ambulance and they’ll clear it up.’
‘But… she jumped… Don’t you care that she jumped?’ His voice was hysterical, and that alarmed him even more.
Professor Mae smiled sadly.
‘Of course she did. Someone jumps every year you visit, Inspector Yao.’
‘What? Why would you say that?’ A spasm of anger, like a glitched computer screen.
‘Because you come through the front gate,’ she replied. ‘The dead don’t like it.’
Inspector Yao had, up until now, held Professor Mae in the highest regard. He considered her a noble woman who did her duty, not merely out of duty, but out of a passion which caused her cheeks to glow like cherry blossom. She was to Inspector Yao, or had been, a perfect piece of poetry, symmetrical, true to its metre, beautiful.
Now, he was slightly scared that she was quite out of her mind.
He took the tea gratefully from the assistant, sniffed its refreshing aroma, sipped. The bitterness smacked him like the first wash of salt-water but he felt his body awaken, his throat slacken. The shaking subsided.
Of course, there were lots of possibilities. It could be a turn of phrase, a simple misunderstanding on his part. The glimpse of the girl in the white dress had spooked him (he was now sure it was two different girls who had both had the same antiquated dress: one who had been seen in the archway and the other who had fallen).
Professor Mae regarded him, her own cup of tea resting between delicate fingers. She held it warmingly, steam billowing from the top like the remnants of a sorcerous spell. For a second he thought there was something witch-like in her eyes. Inspector Yao shook himself. He was not often given to flights of fancy. The Chairman employed him because of his rational mind, his eye for things out of place, his sense of incontrovertible reality. Only the professor made his mind wander. Perhaps that was why he checked back on the Beijing Institute of Technology every year when he was only required to report on it bi-annually.
‘What you said – earlier, at the gate – what did you mean by that?’
He sipped his tea and never let his eyes leave Professor Mae’s perfect face.
‘It was nothing,’ she said, ‘I hope you will not consider my actions cold, Inspector Yao? I care about every one of these students. It is merely the case that we have become rather accustomed to tragedy here. This place is, well, somewhat unlucky, if you believe in such things.’ She set down the tea. The steam billowed past her face. Her hair uncoiled itself, like a nest of sleek, black serpents. ‘Lots of young girls have died here.’
‘But you said I caused it. By using the door.’ He pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose. Questioning was what he was good at, noticing what people said and how it was incongruous with reality. This was what he could have faith in.
Professor Mae averted her eyes, a gesture of obeisance, the kind a Geisha might have made once in ancient Japanese history. Again, Inspector Yao’s mind was assaulted with a wave of incongruity he struggled to keep a handle on.
‘Well, let us see the institute,’ he said, relenting, and not sure why. ‘We have both had a shock,’ he added.
‘Yes. That would be good.’
She led him through the usual tour. The Inspector peered into various lecture rooms and theatres and laboratories. For the first time, he felt a strange sense of nostalgia. He had been coming to this place for seven years, and it had changed. Though the ancient graveyards of the long-dead Emperor, visible from the windows of the north side of the institute, were virtually unaltered by millennia, this place had been eaten by time and its bones spat out. Many rooms were empty and layered with dust so thick it must have been a health hazard to breathe. Old plasma screens were piled up in stock rooms, too old to repair and too expensive to replace. Their blank screens reminded him of a host of distorted eyes, set in the jigsaw body of some tremendous creature.
He found many of the girls disquieting. In previous years when he had interrupted their seminars they had smiled their sweetest smiles, bowed their deepest curtseys. He was the man from the Chairman, after all. He had to be appeased. And besides, it was Chinese courtesy.
Mistrust glinted in their dark looks now, like the first red splotches of fever disturbing a brow. They glanced up from their work just long enough to give him a cursory glance, a look which said you are not welcome, and then they went back to their studies. The professors did not pause when he entered, but talked over him. After the third occurrence of this Inspector Yao was forced to write down notes on the disgraceful conduct. He didn’t want to. He imagined it would make Professor Mae very sad. But he could not avoid doing his job.
Strangest of all, Mae, the head professor, seemed to make no effort to bring student or lecturer in line. She tolerated everything with unnatural silence which itched Inspector Yao like cracking flesh exposed to too much sun, or a virulent mosquito bite.
Once, as she took him through a door, he glanced back down the corridor, sure he heard someone running. If he had caught the culprit, he would have given them a disciplinary himself. But there was no one there. Perhaps it came from the floor above?
‘Just one more lecture, Inspector,’ Professor Mae said. He gave a quick nod of the head and followed her through into what he seemed to recall was a small office used for smaller seminars and group work.
The lights were off. He sensed Professor Mae next to him. She had not turned them on. Perhaps they were automatic and would come on with a moment’s delay? They did not. He looked and could not see her expression. He could, however, see her eyes, glowing like two mysterious pearls in the ocean’s depths.
He was suddenly very, very afraid.
‘Why is it dark?’ he whispered.
‘I’ve seen the way you look at me, Inspector. I am not married.’
It was that simple. Fear turned to an incandescent overflow of shivering release. And with it, as his knees turned liquid, came a flare of impossible heat that made him feel like he might embarrassingly burst, there and then.
She stopped his plea with a kiss. There was a second of beautiful softness, like summer sunlight shining on dry, rich earth. He felt seasons spin inside his body, coldness, warmth, brittleness and a blossoming as of ten thousand flowers opening.
The lights came on.
The pair drew back, breathless.
Students stood all around them. Some short, some tall, some in jeans and some wearing traditional skirts. All of them had faces like dolls: blank, unemotive, cold. They reminded him of Russian babushkas.
‘You shouldn’t be doing that, Professor Mae,’ one said, robotically.
‘I will do what I like,’ the professor snapped. ‘It is not against the law.’
‘But the dead will be angry,’ another said. ‘He’s the one who keeps using the door.’
They nodded, looking even more doll-like than before. Inspector Yao was starting to wonder whether he had fallen asleep on the bus and his day had yet to begin.
‘How dare you speak to an Inspector like that!’ Mae roared. The girl did not flinch. None of them did. Somewhere in his mind, Inspector Yao had the image of a cog suddenly, sharply ceasing to turn. The other cogs ground against its teeth, but they could not move it. It was the machine breaking down. Utterly.
‘The Inspector is not welcome,’ the original girl said. She had lank hair, greasy skin that looked like it’d been plastered onto her. She reached down, lifted up her skirt (showing transparent white panties which Inspector Yao quickly averted his eyes from), and pulled out a knife. The other girls drew similar weapons. There were roughly twenty of them. All standing there. Silently. With knives.
‘What exactly is wrong with the door?’ Inspector Yao asked, because the only way he could see of getting out of this was that simplistic line of enquiry he had perfected his whole life. ‘Why do the “dead” not want me to use it?’
‘Because this is where they live,’ the girl said, still holding the knife. Her eyes looked like dark computer screens. They had a sheen. ‘This is where they have always lived. They were here first, so we have to make sure we don’t hurt them.’
‘Don’t play with me!’ a girl shrieked, all of a sudden. ‘Don’t play with me. Please. Don’t play with me.’
Her eyes widened. She looked up at the ceiling, fixedly, chanting the command over and over again. A globule of drool lowered itself like a spider from her lips Finally, she sighed and relaxed.
‘One was standing on my shoulders,’ she explained, and her friends nodded.
Professor Mae’s face and neck had become tight, as though she were solidifying into a statue. Her eyes looked wet and fearful as she looked at the Inspector.
‘I know it is difficult to accept, Inspector Yao, but what these girls say does have a current of truth. I didn’t believe it, until I realised that every time someone steps through that front archway, there’s an accident, or a suicide, or even a killing.’ She swallowed. ‘So we don’t use the door. We keep the noise down. We listen to them.’
‘It started with just the computer screens,’ one girl piped up. ‘They got inside them. Played tricks. Then it got worse.’
There was a moment of silence, of reverence. Other dead were being honoured: not the ancient but the new.
Inspector Yao shivered, like a fragile weed stirred by a wind. He looked at the knives, surrounding him as though he stood in the middle of a great, invisible worm’s mouth.
‘What can I do then?’ he said.
The girls looked taken aback. They exchanged meaningful looks. The Professor shook her head in warning, but Inspector Yao ignored it.
‘What can I do to appease these ghosts I have so upset?’ he repeated.
The girl with the lank hair smiled – nothing more than a twitch.
‘Well, Mr Yao, it’s easy really. You can tell them you’re sorry.’
They left Inspector Yao alone in a room full of the broken plasma screens. He still wasn’t sure why he had agreed. His rational mind told him the girls would never have gone through with stabbing him. And yet. Better humiliated than dead. The Japanese believed in death before dishonour. He was not Japanese.
The dust hovered in the air as though gravity was an absent concept. The screen-stacks towered over him like monoliths from an ’80s cyberpunk film. He almost expected to see fog begin to wreath itself between them.
The students had locked the door. Were it not for the fact he could feel Professor Mae waiting on the other side, he might already be panicking, but somehow he knew, whatever happened, if he called out, she would come to his aid. It was a ridiculous notion, but it comforted him, and as far as he knew, he had a long evening ahead of him. The students would not let him out until they were satisfied the ghosts had accepted his apology.
And if they’re not real, you might be in here forever.
He sat cross legged, hunched. The suit chaffed. No wonder Westerners were so inflexible – generations upon generations of these restrictive garbs. But then, there was beauty to the suit as well, a kind of dark, angular sexuality. There was a lot of darkness and beauty in western things; the two aspects almost always came hand in hand.
‘Anything Inspector?’ he heard Mae’s voice, muffled.
He paused for a moment.
He could hear the girls conversing, in low voices, on the other side of the door.
‘If you’re going to -’
Weight, sudden, heavy, he was thrown flat on his back and pinned to the floor. The feeling of pressure applied to his collar bones, making them creak. He yelped, felt toes digging into the flesh of his shoulder. He tried to look to see if there were imprints on his jacket but couldn’t strain his neck far enough to see.
He tried to get up but the weight was implacable. He sensed something hovering far above him, pendulous, transfixing like a snake’s charm. It was invisible and yet he saw it, an almond shape. Was it a face?
It, whatever it was, moved lower, towards him. He felt pressure build as it drew nearer, as though his face alone was beneath a thick, fast flow of water. He struggled to breathe.
‘What?… Who?… Who are you?’
It did not answer, but the weight transferred from shoulders to his chest, as though someone had sat down on him. He grunted, air expelled as though he’d been punched.
He tried to prop himself up on his elbows, but fatigue rushed over him. Blood drained from his head, his legs jellied, his muscles grew taut then seemed to slacken like over-stretched elastic bands. He couldn’t do anything. His temperature had dropped. His fingertips were like ice, hurting the palms in which they were curled.
‘Are you dead?’
No answer. The coldness grew deeper, moving up his arms. It congealed in his feet and spread up his legs. It all met in the middle, became a sinkhole of slushed ice. He vomited, nauseous and weak. The almond face grew clearer. It acquired eyes which burned like balls of mercury. Its features materialised, as stark and broad as the features of a terracotta soldier.
Then, Inspector Yao remembered.
‘Do not play with me. Please! Please do not play with me!’
The eyes only grew more real, acquiring depths like collapsed mountains or cities dragged into earthen wormholes. A mouth appeared, full of perfect, over-large teeth: the teeth of a prize-winning stallion. Yao felt the rush of wind in his hair, felt his sweat come alive, smelling like siang pure oil. He snorted and emitted a cry that sounded like a neigh. The eyes held him, drew him, transfixed him.
‘Please, do not play with me, my lord,’ he could barely gasp it. ‘I will never use your door again.’
A nod of the almond head. The coldness ebbed as though at the approach of spring. The weight lifted and Inspector Yao heaved in a mouthful of air that tasted of dust and heaven.
The door burst open. Professor Mae cupped his head in her delicate hands. The students crowded around him, lips bubbling with questions.
He smiled at them.
And passed out.
He stood at the side entrance to the Beijing Institute of Technology. The students had gone back to their lectures. Professor Mae lingered.
‘I’ll have my report completed by Monday,’ Inspector Yao said, briskly. ‘I’ll be sure to send it to you and the governing body.’
Professor Mae smiled.
‘And what about the other matter?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how long they’ll stay happy for. Whether they are ever happy.’
She laughed. There was the smallest hint of a mocking note in it, but the rest was all joy, like the pinnacle of a symphony.
‘I mean our kiss.’
Inspector Yao felt the heat reach his cheeks.
‘Yes, well… I suppose… I suppose there are no regulations…Might I… have your number, then?’
He had never felt more like a pygmy.
Professor Mae laughed again.
‘You’ve had my number for six years, Inspector.’
He turned to walk away. The side entrance was nothing more than a utility door. All those years the students had never stopped him going through the front because this entrance would be considered insulting to a government official. Society. Expectation. Powerful things. He supposed the dead were no different and that was a sobering thought.
As he placed one foot through the threshold, he turned back and looked at Professor Mae.
‘Why did you pick today, after six years?’ he asked. ‘To… kiss me… I mean.’
‘Someone encouraged me.’
He smiled, which made his cheeks ache, but in a good way.
Professor Mae’s eyes were dark as onyx coins.
‘Yes. A friend.’
‘Have a nice evening, Professor Mae.’
‘You too, Inspector Yao.’
As he stood waiting at the bus stop, he could not help but shake the sensation that there was someone stood there with him.
‘You’re going to follow me home, aren’t you?’ There was no answer. Inspector Yao smiled. He rarely spent time with friends, let alone the dead. This was a wholly unique experience. ‘It’s okay if you do,’ he went on. ‘But I’d like to know why you spoke to Professor Mae about me. I can’t understand it.’
There was quiet for a few moments. Traffic growled and churned somewhere. The wind ruffled his hair.
Then, his answer came.
Joseph Sale is an editor, novelist, and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his love-letter to fantasy: Save Game. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allen Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy). In 2017 he was nominated for the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize.
You can get an eBook copy of The Meaning of the Dark for free, along with other goodies, by signing up to his mailing list The Mind-Palace.