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I have to see a man about a god

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[TRIGGER WARNINGS: 1920s-era racism, 1920s-era sexism, discussion of murders, non-graphic discussion of corpses]

 

Apollo can hear his sister from two storeys away, shouting for him and letting innocent stairs and doors bear the brunt of her impatience. He puts his head under the pillow and pretends not to hear her pounding on the door until she knocks dust from the top. He pulls the blanket over his head and bears its prickles.

 

‘Polly, get up this minute!’ A suspicious silence. She will have pulled a pin from her hair, letting it fall into her eyes, which will not improve her temper. Sure enough, there’s a scrabbling in the lock and the door bursts open, admitting the uncharted wilderness that is Artemis. ‘Get up, Polly!’ she snaps, and steals his pillow and blanket.

 

‘Go away,’ he says as she stalks over to the windows. Then, ‘Oh, for the love of God, Arty, leave me alone!’, as she wrenches the curtains open and another unwanted guest bursts in. He puts his arm across his face but the sunbeams are already crawling over the walls and he only manages a dim gloom, not nearly enough to be properly melancholy. Then even that small comfort is yanked away by strong, impatient, loving fingers and he glares at Artemis, instigator of this rudeness, with bright eyes and hair spilling across her face and a mangled hairpin still clutched in her other hand. ‘I was asleep,’ he says.

 

‘You were sulking,’ she corrects him. ‘You’ve been sulking for two days now, Polly. Forget her and find another woman to moon over.’

 

‘I will not!’ He looks around for a convenient pillow and finds that Artemis, in a practised and underhanded move, has kicked them all away into a corner. ‘Leave me alone, Arty, I’m not in the mood for it today.’

 

‘And what are you going to do, sulk in your attic? She’s only one woman, Polly.’

 

‘You can’t possibly understand how I feel,’ he snaps. ‘You have a cold heart which will never know love.’

 

‘Of course I can,’ Arty says, ‘I’m still trying to work on you. Or doesn’t it count unless I write you a poem?’

 

There is that agony, again; she has a talent for hitting the target, even without trying. ‘Now you are mocking me,’ he says, and pulls out of her grasp.

 

‘I don’t mean it, dear,’ she says, brushing his hair out of his eyes. ‘I just wish you wouldn’t sulk so.’

 

‘I don’t know what went wrong,’ he bursts out suddenly. ‘We talked, we danced. It seemed like hours! And then she wouldn’t answer any of my messages and she disappeared right after I read my poem! I don’t understand, Arty, does love make all girls flighty?’

 

‘Some, I suppose,’ she says. ‘And the poem...’

 

‘I worked on it for days!’ he says mournfully.

 

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘It was very, er, descriptive. And very... personal. Perhaps not quite the thing one normally reads to a room full of people. And Polly, did you really need to spend six lines describing her eyelashes?’

 

‘Oh, leave me alone in peace!’ he snaps, and turns his back to her. But Arty can hardly let her prey go that easily, and she pokes at his ribs mercilessly. ‘For heaven’s sake, Polly, stop sulking and distracting me! There’s been another murder!’

 

‘And?’ he retorts.

 

Arty cuffs him lightly across the back of the head. ‘Another special murder. Don’t be dense. That makes four.’

 

‘And what does that have to do with me?’

 

‘You thought they were interesting,’ she says. ‘And Pal and I were talking and it turns out she knows someone who’s been following them too, and we think you two should investigate.’

 

‘What!’ That makes him twist around again. ‘Why me? If you and Pal think it’s so interesting, why can’t you look into it?’

 

‘We’re busy,’ Arty says, and doesn’t elaborate. ‘Come on, get dressed and come out to breakfast with me.’

 

‘No,’ he says. ‘If I am to win the heart of my love, I must abstain from all earthly distractions. I have enough food and water here.’ He gestures at the loaf of bread he has on his desk, ready to be eaten.

 

‘Bollocks to that.’ In a series of fluid movements Arty has slid off the bed, snatched up the bread, opened the window and tossed it outside before he can speak.

 

‘I was saving that!’ he says angrily.

 

‘It was quite blue with mould,’ she says airily. ‘Come on, Polly, anyone can sulk over bread and water. It takes true feelings to brood about love when you’re eating eggs and coffee.’

 

When she puts it like that, he can allow himself to feel hungry. He’ll only eat enough to sustain him, and he can get more bread on the way home. ‘Oh, I suppose you’re right,’ he says, because one must at least make a show of reluctance. Arty turns around while he gets dressed, tapping her foot all the while, and barely lets him finish buttoning his shirt before she splashes water in his face, drags a comb through his hair, throws him his jacket and hustles him out the door.

 

‘What’s all the rush?’ he protests half-heartedly as she drags him down the stairs.

 

‘We’re late. I told Pal that we’d be there at nine, and we’ll have to run.’

 

‘Why are we having breakfast with Athena?’ he says, aware now that at least part of his mind is no longer thinking of his lost love. Which is quite unacceptable.

 

‘Don’t you listen? She’s bringing the other chap who’s been following the murders.’ She ensnares his arm with hers and pulls him out into the busy, sunlit streets of the city.

 

...

 

It's going on half past nine by the time they find the particular cafe Athena's chosen. Artemis, guided by impatience and her own particularly splendid brand of confidence, has turned them down the wrong street three times and is beginning to look truly put out. Her hair keeps falling into her eyes because she hasn't stopped to put the pin back in properly, and he sees her wince every time she shoves it back in and probably gets her scalp scratched for her trouble. The chaos and noise of the southern half of their city has woke him up but has not done very much to endear itself to him. He wants to be back in his little room with his poems, or failing that, to find the damn cafe and order the strongest thing on the menu to keep him awake through whatever lecture Athena has waiting for them. Arty's been clutching his arm harder and harder as the time drags on and they still haven't found it, but she loosens her deathgrip at last as they see striped umbrellas on the next corner. 'That must be it,' she says. 'Or I'm going home and she can find us herself.'

 

'Don't see why we couldn't meet at the house, or one of the little places around there,' he says, as he's thought ever since the first wrong turn.

 

'Apparently her contact lives around here,' Arty says absently.

 

'Here?' It's a valid question: they're so close to the river that he can smell the freshwater instead of the familiar salt. There are plenty of lively places for the clients coming across the river, but not much in the way of actual houses. He can't imagine how Athena got to meet anyone who lived here in the first place, so close to the river and the forbidden north bank. Even a place this close will be crawling with eyes.

 

'You don't think she's in some sort of trouble, do you?' he says more quietly, wishing he'd had the time to stow his knife.

 

'Pal? Hardly. She can defend herself if there's a raid, and I've got my old friend for us if things get rough.' She pats her thigh. He could never find the courage to keep a razor that close to sensitive flesh himself. 'Come on, Polly, even the feds aren't going to arrest us just for talking about a murder.'

 

'They might arrest us for being who we are and talking about a murder,' he says uneasily. He can even see the glitter of the river beyond the cafe, so close; too close.

 

'They could try,' Arty says, looking like she might almost relish it. 'Come on, let's go and meet this mystery fellow.'

 

'Wait a minute.' He takes the pin out of her hair and puts it back neatly. 'Now you don't look like so much of a wilderness.'

 

'But that's part of my disguise if the feds are watching,' she says, mock wide-eyed, and he can't help laughing as they round the corner at an easy stroll.

 

Athena is sitting at one of the outside tables right next to the docks, where the trade goes from one bank to the other despite - or perhaps in spite of - the prohibitive laws. She has a pen in her hand, and oh, good grief, she's been writing notes on little cards as though she's still the head of the debating team. She really is going to give a talk, he realises bleakly, and probably draw it out as revenge for them being so late. 'You found us at last,' she says, and the us draws his attention to the man sitting next to her.

 

The man has been watching the river, and turns to look at them as they sit down. His first impression is: regular. Looks like he’s had a rough night. Not one of ours. New in town, one of the immigrants from the east. Lives on the south bank, wants to be on the north. Read the murder stories avidly to get aware from the tedium of being a bank clerk or something equally banal. Then he gets a look at the stranger's eyes, dark and shining as fresh coffee, and he starts to think again. Maybe he is one of theirs. Good clothes, but rumpled. There's the start of a scar on the man's left wrist. Possibly a knife in the right sleeve, from the way he's holding it. The stranger holds his glance for a moment, then looks him up and down with a smirk tugging at his lips. He can hear Arty ordering them breakfast somewhere to his left. So: armed, may be one of theirs, good at looking new in town and taking advantage of it. Knows who they are. Knows Athena. Has taken an interesting in the murders because... he can't find an answer to that. Enough speculation.

 

'I don't think we've met,' he says. 'Apollo. My sister, Artemis.' Arty gives the stranger her best polite smile, which comforts him. He feels better not being the only one put off by Athena's latest find. It's probably the smirk that's doing it; Arty hates being laughed at. The man inclines his head politely, but has enough sense at least not to try to kiss her hand. Perhaps he's heard about the last cad who tried it.

 

'Pleased to meet you,' the stranger says, shaking his hand. It's a good shake, calculated to inspire trust so well that it could have come straight out of the textbook, if anyone had decided to write one. Has one of theirs taught him that, or did he work it out himself? 'Apollo,' the man repeats, looking thoughtful. He has enough of an accent to sound exotic, but the words are straight from a southbanker's mouth. Where on earth did Athena find him? 'I've heard that name before not long ago...' Their breakfast arrives, and the man suddenly looks suspicious. 'You're not the one who wrote that ghastly poem to Marpessa's eyebrows, are you?'

 

The connection is completely unexpected. 'You were at the club?' Apollo says stupidly, for lack of a better response.

 

'Not that night,' the man says, 'Although I wished I had been when I heard about it. Sounded like an entertaining evening all around.' The smirk grows.

 

Enough. He is not going to be humiliated by a stranger in front of his friends, especially when he can hear Arty snorting into her cup of coffee and undermining any appearance of sisterly support. 'And you are?' he says pointedly. Politeness be damned.

 

'Call me Dionysus,' the man says, looking amused.

 

'Oh,' Apollo says dismissively, 'Can't say I've heard that name before. Have you been here long?' In quick succession Dionysus' smirk turns rigid, Athena shoots him a glare, and he feels Arty's shoe dig into his ankle.

 

'Evidently not long enough to be admitted into your esteemed social set,' Dionysus says. 'My loss, of course, if I'm missing out on any more poetry recitals.'

 

'I'm not in the habit of sharing my poetry with rude strangers,' Apollo says, hand clenching around his fork.

 

'Funny, that,' Dionysus says coolly, 'I'm not in the habit of chasing after uninterested women. Perhaps things are different in this city of yours.'

 

'Why-- you--' Words desert him in his fury. How dare he-- to imply that he would ever-- he is going to knock the stuffing out of this smug-faced flat--

 

'For heaven's sake!' Athena says crossly. 'Stop acting like dogs long enough for me to at least explain what's going on.'

 

'That's unfair on the dogs,' Arty says, sotto voce.

 

'Peacocks, then,' Athena says impatiently. Dionysus rolls his eyes and goes back to looking at the river. Apollo concentrates on his scrambled eggs, shovelling them up with more force than strictly necessary. Athena has been arranging her cards for her blasted talk, and clears her throat. 'Now, the reason I've called you all here today-'

 

'We,' Arty mutters to her bacon.

 

'Why we have called you here today,' Athena repeats patiently, 'Is to talk about these murders. I'm sure you're familiar with the first three, but the fourth was only found today and I want to go over all the details.' She places one of her cards on the table; not for her speech, he realises, but a note. In her tidy script he reads: 1st. 4th January. Middle-aged man. Found in street near the mine offices. Method of death: stabbed in heart. Dirt stuffed down throat after death. Costume jewellery pieces found in each hand. 'That one caused a lot of comment, since they found the victim on the north bank,' she adds. 'The rest have been found in the south.' She puts the next card down.

 

2nd. 20th March. Man aged between thirty and forty. Method of death: stabbed in heart, salt water found in lungs. Found on the docks. Horseshoe found on string around neck.

 

3rd. 8th April. Woman aged around thirty. Method of death: stabbed in heart, large amounts of opium in stomach. Found near the markets. Pockets filled with grain.

 

'This is the one found yesterday.' 4th. 31st May. Woman aged around thirty. Method of death: stabbed in heart; evidence of puerperal fever. Found near the Southwestern Hospital. Both eyes covered by peacock feathers.

 

Athena has put the cards in order across the table. It seems strange, rather unfair to have an entire life reduced to a few words written in her hand, but there they are. 'So you see, there doesn't seem to be a pattern based on space or time, except only one was found on the north bank.'

 

'That's not strange, that's basic common sense,' Dionysus says. 'The north bank is crawling with eyes. Bloody stupid murderer, to leave one body there and keep leaving them where the feds are packed tight as sardines.'

 

'Yes, well,' Athena says crossly. 'In any case, none of the victims seem to have done anything to be warrant being murdered. The only thing that links them is the method of death and the strange way they were laid out. Apparently each death was instantaneous.'

 

'So it will turn out the culprit is a psychopath with a creative streak?' Dionysus says sceptically.

 

'Will you take this seriously for a moment?' Athena snaps at him. Apollo doesn't bother to hide his smile. Athena turns to him. 'And what do you think?'

 

Caught off guard again, he looks at the notes. 'Are you sure they were actually murdered?' he says. 'Maybe they were all suicides trying to draw attention to some cause or another. You never can tell with those anarchists, or socialists, or whatever they call themselves.'

 

Athena glares at him. 'You too?'

 

'Will you at least try to think about this seriously?' Arty snaps at him. 'People are dying, Polly.'

 

'And what do you want me to do about it?' he says. 'Join the feds?'

 

'You two should have a look into it,' Athena says flatly. 'Father isn't bothering himself with them. Why should he? They weren't anyone important to him, and there have been far more violent murders before. What's another four bodies?'

 

'And the feds are calling them all muggings gone wrong,' Arty says. 'If they took them seriously they'd have to start investigating every murder on the south bank, and that's far too much work for them. The papers thought the details were interesting but they couldn't find any leads to important people so they lost interest. But I think we ought to keep an eye on it. You'd be doing this for the family, Polly.'

 

When she puts it like that, with the stranger sitting right across from him, he can hardly refuse. 'All right,' he says resignedly. 'I'll look into it.'

 

'Two sets of eyes see more than one,' Athena corrects him. 'So we agreed that you two should look into it together.'

 

He looks at her in dismay; Dionysus looks equally appalled. 'I'll work better on my own,' the other man says.

 

'As will I,' he says, feeling like a parrot. Damn the man. He gestures at Dionysus irritably. 'I'm doing it for the family. Why does he have to be involved?'

 

He feels Arty's shoe dig into his foot again, but he ignores it. Dionysus looks at him coolly.

 

'It's my business,' he says, 'Because I found the first body.'

 

'So we'll just leave you to it,' Arty says, standing up before he can react.

 

'What?' Apollo and Dionysus chorus.

 

'I told you, we're busy,' Arty says briskly. 'I've got a new crop of Arktoi coming in a few weeks. Twenty girls, Polly, can you imagine it? So I've got uniforms to order, badges to plan, camps to arrange, you understand.' She doesn't sound remotely apologetic.

 

'Pal--' Dionysus says hopefully.

 

'Not a hope,' Athena cuts him off. 'I've got a campaign to run and pamphlets to proofread. I've told you half a hundred times that I'd be busy with the NWP. You can keep the notes,' she gestures at the pieces of card on the table, 'and give them back when you've solved the whole business.'

 

'With the two of you working on it you shouldn't be long,' Arty says. 'Tell you what, we'll throw you a party if you finish it by the end of the week.' And they saunter off up the street, arm in arm and radiating triumph.

 

Apollo and Dionysus watch them until they turn the corner, united in indignation at being the object of female schemes. 'I can't help thinking that we've been properly sewn up,' Dionysus says, looking pained. 'Is she always like that?'

 

'What, Athena?' Apollo says, realising belatedly that the girls have left them with the bill, to add insult to injury. 'No, she used to be a complete bookworm until she joined her women's club--'

 

'Not Pal,' Dionysus says impatiently, 'I can deal with Pal; I just promise to hand out pamphlets to my friends and she'll forgive anything, and I can always hide in the clubs if she's really cross. But Artemis looks ready to punch you if you annoy her enough, and then chase you down as you run away and punch you again.'

 

'Arty only punches the deserving,' he says crossly. 'How do you know Athena, anyway?'

 

'Found her in front of one of the dancehalls trying to hand out pamphlets,' Dionysus says fondly. 'I told her that she'd never convert anyone if she kept writing them so densely, and she challenged me to do better. So I took one home, struck out half the words and replaced the others with more interesting ones, and brought it back to her. We spent a week sending each other drafts back and forth before we agreed on the words, and I said I'd leave some around the clubs. And she's been interfering with my life ever since.'

 

'And do they work?' he says, interested despite himself.

 

Dionysus shrugs. 'Some girls pick them up, some don't. Pal's problem is that she writes pamphlets to convince the senators, and she forgets that most women aren't interested in legal technicalities. So I put a bit of excitement into them to get enough women interested to actually vote and make the laws pass.' He rubs at his eyes. 'But enough of that. She's going to pester me until I bring her notes back and write a complete report of how the mystery was solved, so we'd better make a start of solving it.'

 

'We?' Apollo says acidly. 'I thought you worked better alone.'

 

'I do,' Dionysus says drily. 'But I know when I'm beaten. Clearly you haven't been on the receiving end of one of Pal's lectures.'

 

'And clearly you've never had Arty poke you with hairpins until you give her what she wants,' Apollo says. He sighs. 'I think we'll need more coffee.'

 

'I need something stronger than coffee,' Dionysus mutters as he beckons the waiter over, but he orders more of it all the same.

 

'Steady on,' Apollo says. 'It's not even noon. I'm not working on a serious matter with a man who's completely fried before lunchtime.'

 

Dionysus scowls. 'It's all extremes with you, isn't it?' he says irritably. 'Family or stranger, sober or roaring drunk. My favourite drink,' he says delicately as the coffee arrives, 'Helps me think, in small doses. You do know the drink I'm talking about, don't you?'

 

'Of course I do!' Apollo snaps.

 

'All right,' Dionysus says placatingly. 'Just checking. And you have drunk it yourself, haven't you?'

 

'You'll forgive me for not finding your jibes amusing,' Apollo says. 'Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.'

 

'And yet the hardest to get right,' Dionysus says, relaxing into a good mood again. Apollo doesn't trust a man that slides from mood to mood so easily. It speaks of weakness of character, and he's determined to be professional about this investigation. Nonetheless, Dionysus has a point about the combined power of Arty and Athena, and it seems the best idea would be to find the culprit quickly so he doesn't have to deal with this strange man any more than necessary. Maybe Arty will leave him in peace with his poems after that.

 

'Well, come on,' he says, leaning over to look at Athena's notes. 'We'd better go through them again one by one.'

 

...

 

Two hours and more coffee later, they have gone through the four cases in mind-numbing detail and even, in a show of enthusiasm that will probably make Athena faint, made more notes on her cards. Unfortunately, no breakthroughs have made themselves clear, and his head is starting to spin as Dionysus, looking rather pained in the glare of the midday sun, is telling yet again how he found the first body.

 

'I was on my way back to the river in the early morning,' he says in a bored voice. 'Call it four or five in the morning, and it was cloudy, so the light wasn't good. I would have gone right by him if he hadn't been in the middle of the street.'

 

'And there weren't any...' Apollo gestures, not finding the word immediately, 'You know, signs he'd been moved? Marks, or anything?'

 

'No, I've already told you that,' Dionysus says crossly. 'No signs he'd been moved, and no blood trail, so I suppose he was killed right there. I thought he was a bum or a drunk at first, but he didn't wake up when I tripped over him. And he was very cold, so he must have been there for a while, a few hours at least.'

 

'And nobody saw the killer?'

 

'The north bank is practically lifeless after dark,' Dionysus says. 'All of them go home at the end of the day and don't go out again until the sun rises, except for the feds. They must have the most dreary lives.'

 

'So you found the body?' Apollo says. 'What next?'

 

'One of the feds turned the corner just as I fell over him,' Dionysus says. 'Came to investigate and we both found he was dead. We thought he'd suffocated from the dirt at first, but we rolled him over and found the blood on the ground. I think he'd been stabbed in the back,' he says suddenly, looking thoughtful. 'It had bled a lot but it was a clean wound, you know, it must have been over for the poor fellow very fast. I suppose it was the least whoever killed him could do.'

 

'Yes, very decent of him,' Apollo says absently. An idea is beginning to form, but he can't catch it properly. 'And then what?'

 

'Well, I had to go and answer all their questions,' Dionysus continues. 'They thought I did it for a while, but he was dead long before I fell over him and there was no blood on my clothes. They looked for the knife but from the wound it was a very ordinary shape, you know, the sort you find in every kitchen. So they let me go, and thankfully I got away before the press got a hold of it.' He frowns. 'Are you listening, or have I just told it again for nothing?'

 

Apollo looks up from the cards impatiently. 'I'm checking something,' he says. 'You said he'd been stabbed from behind?'

 

'Yes,' Dionysus sighs.

 

'And Athena's notes-- look, here-- it says the next victim was stabbed too.'

 

'Yes,' Dionysus says again, propping his head up with his arm. 'They were all stabbed, in the heart. And?'

 

'She's quoted the newspaper article here: "stabbed in the heart, apparently from behind"' Apollo reads. 'And look, the next one: "stabbed from behind, in the heart". And I'll bet anything the latest one was stabbed from behind too.'

 

'That's hardly news,' Dionysus says. 'It makes sense to stab someone from behind; if you botch it and they survive, they can't tell the feds what you look like. And anyone with sense would aim for the heart.'

 

'But from behind?' Apollo says sceptically. 'It's not easy to find the heart from the back, and all these murders were very precise, just one stab and that's it. Probably the same murder weapon.'

 

'Or hundreds like it,' Dionysus mutters.

 

'The point is,' Apollo overrides him, 'Whoever murdered these people wanted to make sure they died instantly, almost without pain. Why would he go and kill them and then make sure they barely felt it? It's as if he felt they hadn't done anything to deserve being killed at all.'

 

'They must have done something,' Dionysus says irritably. 'Everybody's done something. I should go and talk to the relatives again and see what the victims were up to.' He pauses as the waiter pointedly takes their coffee cups away. 'And perhaps we shouldn't be talking about murder in broad daylight with the feds only a skip across the river.'

 

'That's your fault for choosing the place,' Apollo says crossly.

 

Dionysus blinks at him. 'I didn't choose it. Pal did. I can't imagine why, unless she wants us both arrested for...' He breaks off suddenly, shaking his head in disbelief.

 

'Unless what?' Apollo demands.

 

'Damn and blast her, she's more wily than I thought,' Dionysus says, looking furious. 'We've been here for a good two hours, talking about murders with the feds within shouting distance in front of any number of witnesses. A known associate of the king of the south bank, and the man who found the first body, talking about murder in broad daylight.'

 

Apollo puts his head in his hands as the realisation sinks in. 'They're going to think we did it, aren't they?' he moans.

 

'Unless we sort the whole business out before another one happens,' Dionysus says. 'She's got us well and truly stitched up. I think I'd rather take a punch from Artemis.'

 

'Don't say that until you've tried it,' Apollo says, rubbing his jaw in sympathy. 'What are we going to do?'

 

'Apart from lock Pal in her library until she starves?' Dionysus snaps. 'I'm going to throttle her the next time I see her--'

 

'Keep your voice down!' Apollo hisses, looking around. 'If you keep on with that and the king hears you threatening his favourite daughter, the feds are going to be the least of your problems.' Dionysus looks enraged, then pulls himself together.

 

'Well,' he says in a quieter voice. 'Like I said, I'll go and speak to the relatives again and see what Pal missed in her notes. I don't think we should be seen together for a while.'

 

'Good point,' Apollo concedes. 'I'll go and chase Athena down and see if there's anything we missed in her library. I'm on Delos Street, if you need to find me.'

 

'I'm above the Bacchanalia, if you need to find me,' Dionysus says. 'It's down near the docks.' They look at each other awkwardly for a moment.

 

'Good luck, then,' Apollo says, offering his hand.

 

'Don't you dare!' Dionysus snaps, standing up so fast that his chair turns over. 'Then they really will blame us if someone else gets murdered.' He straightens his clothes, then sets off into the busy street.

 

Apollo scowls, tips the waiter extra, and leaves in the opposite direction. He probably has a point, but it smacks of rudeness and spite. It's probably for the best that it looks as though they fought, but he could have given a little warning. He sighs and begins to make his way home, already feeling out of his depth.

 

That night he eats tea and toast made with a fresh loaf of bread. He tries to work on his poems, but the words keep turning into Athena's notes, and he goes to sleep with 'stabbed from behind, stabbed from behind' turning around and around in his head.