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The Mystery Solvers of Derry

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“Another mystery solved, motherfuckers!” Michelle shouted gleefully.

“Way to go, guys!” Clare beamed, high-fiving Erin and James as Orla did a victory dance that seemed to be some form of interpretive step aerobics. “Let’s celebrate!”

“Movie night at ours?” Erin suggested with an excited grin.

“Cracker idea!” Orla agreed. The five took an eager step towards the door, but unfortunately found their way blocked by an irate Sister Michael.

Better idea,” the headmistress said sternly.

“Ach, Sister -” Michelle started, but shut her mouth at the sight of Sister Michael’s steely raised eyebrow.

“Now, correct me if I’m wrong, girls, but I’m almost entirely certain I added a new school rule forbidding you from solving any mysteries or mystery-adjacent incidents - up to and including supernatural hoaxes and the like - on school grounds after the fifth time Miss McCool rigged up a massive and destructive booby trap in a private office.”

“Technically, Sister, it was a counterweight-based drop-net,” Erin pointed out in an admittedly poor attempt at a legal defense. “And we did catch the fellas who were dressing up as a two-faced ghost to try an’ steal those new computers out of the IT room.”

“That may be the case, Miss Quinn, but you are not the one who had to endure a very tedious phone call in order to explain to the school board why we had to make a cut to the newsletter’s budget to replace the desk Miss McCool smashed with her drop-net’s counterweight,” Sister Michael said coolly. “Would the five of you please go and wait outside my office now? I’ve called all of your parents - whom, by now, I have on speed-dial.”

With a collective sigh, Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James left the classroom (that admittedly was rather the worse for wear from Orla’s most recent booby trap, one desk missing altogether owing to being… attached (Erin didn’t ask how for the sake of her own sanity; Orla’s creativity ranged from brilliantly simple to outright disturbing on any given day) to the grumbling thief in a werewolf costume who had been led out in handcuffs by the police a few minutes ago) and trudged towards the headmistress’s office, her voice echoing behind them.

“Oh, and Mr Maguire, while you were busy chasing the thieving werewolf, I was informed by your Aunt Dierdre that your mother returned to Derry this afternoon. I can’t imagine she’ll be massively pleased that her reunion with you will have to take place in my office.”

James groaned. He wasn’t on the best of terms with his mother as it was, given that she’d left him in Derry thirteen months ago and only occasionally popped back over from London to see him; this was the cherry on top of a shite sundae.

“Well, this is just fucking brilliant,” Michelle huffed, flinging herself down on the familiar bench designated for students waiting to see Sister Michael about any perceived wrongdoing.

“My Ma’s going to kill me,” Clare whimpered. “No, worse than that, she’s going to kill me, bury me, dig me up, and kill me again! I promised I wouldn’t get in any more trouble this month!”

“Ye know, just the once it would be nice if someone actually thanked us for solving a mystery,” Erin grumbled.

“Good thing we’re not in this to be liked,” James sighed, and promptly found himself on the receiving end of four disbelieving glares. “That didn’t come out quite right,” he mumbled sheepishly.

 


 

The next morning before school found Erin, Orla and Clare waiting at the bus stop for Michelle and James; Clare had been regaling the other two with the tale of the telling-off she’d had from her parents after the classroom-werewolf-desk incident.

“You know, girls, I honestly think sometimes they wish I would just give it up altogether,” she finished glumly. Erin patted her shoulder.

“My Ma wouldn’t stop going on about how I need to be setting a better example for Anna,” she told Clare sympathetically.

“So I told her about how we tried to enter one of my traps in the science fair,” Orla chimed in brightly. Erin looked thoroughly unimpressed.

“That wasn’t helpful, Orla, Mammy was there, she knows it got rejected for not actually having anything to do with science. Then Daddy pointed that out and Granda got started on him, and honestly school started looking like a welcome escape at that point.”

“Is that why we left in such a hurry? I got distracted remembering that trap. Absolutely cracker, so it was.”

“MUTHAFUCKAS!”

Michelle’s typical morning greeting reached their ears, and the girls turned to see her striding towards them, James in tow.

“Did you lot get a bollocking too last night?” Michelle asked, sounding far too cheerful about it. “My Ma was ripping, asked if I could let her get through one shift without a call from Sister Michael or the police.”

“Harsh,” Erin remarked.

“Can’t say I’m sorry I missed out,” James added. “Aunt Deirdre was just done shouting when I got back from Mum’s.”

“Between you and me, I reckon Mammy thought Aunty Kathy being back was enough of a punishment for Dicko here,” Michelle informed the girls. James frowned.

“I can hear you, you know, Michelle.”

“Am I wrong?” Michelle snorted. “Tell them why she’s back. Wait til yehs hear this one, girls.”

Erin, Orla and Clare turned expectantly to James, who groaned. “Haunted tourism.”

“…Come again?” Clare asked.

James groaned again. “Haunted tourism. Tourism industry built around local hauntings.”

“Some new ad campaign for Derry’s tourism industry,” Michelle clarified. “Trying to monetise all the weird monster shit that goes on here. ‘Visit the sight of the zombie provo attacks’ and all that. Showcase Derry to the world in a new, ghostlier light.” Her words dripped with sarcasm, leaving little of her thoughts on Kathy Maguire’s new job to the imagination.

Erin frowned. “But the zombie provo attacks were a scam,” she said incredulously. “We proved it was a scam. We tied them up in Dennis’s wee shop and pulled off their rubber masks and showed everyone that it was really the Maloney brothers trying to have an easier time of it robbing shops.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Michelle shrugged. “The plan is to slap a big fucking banner and a posh graffiti job on it then pass out T-shirts and stickers -”

“Authentic cotton souvenir clothing and self-adhesive labels,” put in James.

“Oh, Christ, is that what she’s calling them? Absolute boke. But there it fucking is, a nice shiny haunted tourism campaign. Personally, I blame James.”

“That sounds fair,” Orla nodded.

“I keep telling you, I didn’t write to her about our mystery solving,” James insisted, sounding exasperated. “And it’s not like she was thrilled to find out about it - she wouldn’t stop saying that I was risking her new job before she’d even started it.”

The girls grimaced sympathetically, even Michelle, who was of the firm belief that she and she alone had dibs on mistreating James, and was dead certain that his mother, of all people, had absolutely no business muscling in on that industry.

“How annoyed was she?” asked Clare.

James thought back to the conversation he’d had with his mother at her tiny one-person rental flat the evening before. Some parts of it stuck out more clearly in his memory than others.

“Are you trying to ruin my business, James?”

“I’m not telling you to find new friends, but you need to think about your future…”

“I just don’t want to see you make a mistake you’ll regret.”

“And how serious are you about this Erin Quinn? Surely there must be more sophisticated girls?”

Shoving that last part firmly into the ‘not going to unpack that right now’ folder of memories, James chose his words carefully. “I think she just regrets leaving me here on my own. She seems to think I’m running wild.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Orla asked, sounding genuinely confused. “Running wild is cracker.”

Fortunately, James was saved from having to answer by the bus pulling up, Orla’s question forgotten in the gang’s scramble to snag seats together.

 


 

School progressed as normal - starting off with a frankly offensive barbershop quartet tribute to Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit with the words changed to be about fucking exams, courtesy of Jenny Joyce. This was followed by Sister Michael’s announcements, during which she pointedly did not make any mention of the previous day’s werewolf-trapping incident, and then a morning of lessons that ranged from thoroughly boring to mildly interesting. Indeed, it wasn’t until the period between third and fourth that things got interesting.

Clare had nipped into the loo on their way to biology, and as was custom for friend groups, the others loyally waited outside for her. They heard a toilet flush and a few seconds later, a sink running, but it cut off twenty seconds later, and there was no sound of any paper towels being pulled out of the dispenser. Then Clare’s voice rang out.

“Girls? I need yeh to come and have a look at this.”

Michelle rolled her eyes. “Fer the last time Clare, I’m not analysing any weird piss colours, I’ll tell yeh that fer nothing.”

“It’s not that!” Clare shouted back, the embarrassed blush evident even in her voice. “It’s the wall!”

Michelle pushed open the door, rolling her eyes again, the others following her. “What, did Rhonda Gallagher spray paint another shite drawing of a rifle on the tiles in the name of the IRA - whoa.”

She cut herself off abruptly, and with good reason: the thing Clare was staring at was not bathroom art. It was the air vent on the wall.

Or rather, what had formerly been the air vent. It was now really more of a large, uneven hole in the wall; several bricks around it had been dislodged, and the grate was lying next to a small pile of rubble a few feet to the left.

Erin voiced the collective thought on behalf of the group. “What the fuck happened there?!”

“Two theories,” Clare said nervously. “Either something was in the air vent that someone outside the air vent wanted, or, much more concerning, something was in the air vent that wanted out.”

“Only one way to find out!” Orla announced excitedly, and before anyone could move to stop her, she had climbed into the hole.

“Orla, get out of there!” Erin spluttered, rushing after her cousin.

“Why? It’s interesting in here, Erin.”

“You don’t know what’s down there! And Aunt Sarah will murder me and bury me in the garden if anything happens to you. Then Mammy will dig me up and murder me again.”

“Hey, there’s funny scratches on the wall in here! They look all weird and slimy…”

“Orla!” Erin shouted, climbing in after her, because Orla was now so far into the hole that she was no longer observable from the bathroom. “Don’t touch anything!” She was surprised to find that the air vent itself was mostly still intact: Orla had vanished through a second hole on the right side of the main hole. This one was lined with brick and seemed to be a crawl space between classrooms. Orla was crouched about ten feet away, poking at the wall.

“Look, Erin, it’s all green and funny looking and scratched up! It’s like someone dipped a big knife in some gooseberry jam.”

“Orla!” Erin ducked into the tunnel, and upon finding the ceiling was too low to stand up, shuffled awkwardly towards her cousin with her knees bent. “Orla, come on, we’re late for biology as it is - oh, hang on, that is a bit fucked.”

Just as Orla had said, there were three large gouges in the wall, each about the length of a ruler, and coated in something strange and green and sticky-looking. Erin had never seen anything like it, but she knew who might’ve.

“Oi, James, get in here! You’re obsessed with all those monster-fighting alien nonsense shows and movies; have you ever seen anything like this before?”

There was a scuffling noise, and James came into view a few seconds later, followed by Michelle, who looked torn between disgust at their surroundings and delight at missing class.

“What the fuck did that?” she asked excitedly. “Well, Dicko?”

James squinted at the wall. “Looks like something with slimy skin and big claws crawled through here,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s probably taller than a normal human. I think this tunnel might have been too tight for it, and it had to pull itself out.”

“What direction was it going?” Clare’s nervous voice echoed towards them.

“From the way the marks slant, definitely towards the bathroom,” James said decisively. Clare gave a little eep of terror, and appeared in the tunnel a few seconds later.

“So it’s in the school?!”

“Apparently,” Michelle said cheerfully. “Christ, but I’d love to see the look on Jenny Joyce’s face if it catches up to her.”

Erin sniggered in agreement, although Clare obviously didn’t see the funny side.

“I’m not taking my chances in that bathroom,” she muttered. “Not if it comes back. I’m safer down here.”

“Unless there’s more of them,” Orla chirped, oblivious to Clare’s terror.

“Not to be glib about it -” James started, but found himself interrupted by Michelle.

“Glib? Catch yerself on, James, that’s not even a real word.”

James barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “Anyway, Orla, where would more of them come from?”

“Down here!” Orla said brightly. “Out of this big hole in the floor.”

“What big -?” Erin started, turning towards Orla - just in time to see the girl drop down out of sight. “ORLA!”

“You have to come down here, Erin!” Orla’s voice echoed up to them. She sounded excited. “It’s absolutely cracker!”

Erin glanced back at the others. Michelle looked eager, Clare seemed to be having a cack-attack, and James appeared resigned. Familiar with this particular set of expressions, Erin sighed and crawled after Orla.

The hole in the floor was even larger than the two leading out to the bathroom. While it had clearly been dug from below, there was no debris surrounding the top, clearly having fallen or been swept downwards. It was easy enough to lower her legs into it - although Erin couldn’t decide if she was glad or regretful of this fact - and after a few deep breaths, she found the drop wasn’t as far as she’d thought it would be - only about six feet. She straightened up and looked around.

She wasn’t sure if it was a naturally occurring cave, or if someone had built it - it was far too old to tell. Clearly someone had been down here at some point, but it couldn’t be whoever had dug the hole she’d dropped through - the debris from that was fresh, and had been pushed back to the bottom of an old stone wall behind her. But in front of her were a set of roughly hewn stone steps leading downwards - manmade, but ancient, definitely more than a hundred years old. Probably more than two hundred years old. Erin nervously tried the top step, and found it was solid. She skittered down them and found Orla, who was staring out at a wide, high ceilinged chamber.

“See?” Orla beamed. “Told you it was cracker.”

“I wonder how long it’s been here?” Erin murmured. It went on so far she couldn’t see the opposite wall. “And what it is?”

“What what is?” came James’s voice. Erin turned to see him descending the steps; behind him, she could hear the distinct sound of a thump followed by cursing that meant Michelle had followed him. “Wow,” James added as he drew level with them.

“What’s all the fuss about?” Michelle demanded, then - “Fuck me stupid. What the fuck is this place?”

No one could think of an answer. Another thump, and a few seconds later Clare joined them, clearly having decided she had better odds of survival in a group than alone. The five friends stared out at the chamber in silence, before Clare spoke.

“I think it’s a catacomb.”

“Don’t be daft, Clare, there aren’t any cats or hairbrushes down here.”

“A catacomb,” Clare repeated. “Like a series of old underground tunnels under a building or a city. They can be miles long and deep. Sometimes there’s hidden rooms, or…” she gulped, “burial places.”

“Someone’s definitely been hiding stuff down here for a while,” Michelle agreed. “Look at those barrels over there. They’re fucking ancient.”

Indeed, three rusted barrels were clustered against the wall. Two were sealed tightly shut, but one had been opened, the lid and a crowbar lying abandoned next to it.

“Someone’s tried to decorate them,” Orla said, pointing. “Look, they’ve put those stickers on that look like a weird triangular flower.”

Clare’s eyes widened. “That’s a sign for nuclear waste! Oh, god, what if we have radiation poisoning?! They’re so old, they were probably left here by the British Army after World War Two!”

Orla shook her head. “Those stickers are new.”

“You can’t know that, Orla,” Erin said nervously, but Orla rolled her eyes.

“I think I, of all people, know what new stickers look like, Erin,” she said crossly. Erin snorted, but James nodded.

“She’s right. The stickers aren’t dirty like the rest of the barrel. They’ve been put on over the rust. Probably trying to scare people away from messing about with them.”

“See? James knows I’m right. You know, I think this would make a great fortress,” Orla announced, pulling a wind-up torch keyring out of her pocket and flicking it on. “It could be like our secret underground treehouse.”

“Or it could not,” Erin said firmly. “It’s creepy down here, Orla, let’s go back up - what’s that?”

On the ground, some forty feet away, something had sparkled in the light of Orla’s torch. Her curiosity overpowering her wariness, Erin hurried towards it and picked it up.

“Erin!” Clare squeaked. “Be careful!”

“It’s alright,” Erin called back to her friends. “It’s just a necklace!”

It was indeed; a fine golden chain with a little pendant hanging from it - the pendant was round and flat with a long thin part sticking out from the bottom. Engraved on the flat circular part was a question mark.

“I think it’s meant to look like a magnifying glass,” James said next to her. Erin jumped a little; she hadn’t realised he’d followed her, but she felt safer for his presence all the same.

(Not in some helpless girl way, alright? James just made Erin feel better about most things. He happened to have a very comforting air about him. Erin was not a damsel in distress, thank you very much. Having your favourite fella walking next to you with his soft calm voice ought to make most people feel better, anyway.)

“It does, aye, now yeh’ve said that,” Erin agreed. James pointed at a tiny rectangular catch that stuck out from the side of the round part - the part meant to look like the glass.

“Look - it’s a locket.”

Erin pressed down on the catch, and the locket sprang open. Instantly, the tinkling tune of a music box filled the chamber, echoing slightly in the gloom. The locket contained a little polaroid photograph too: a boy and a girl, probably not much older than they were at the time it had been taken, but it was an old picture - taken sometime in the 1970s, if the faded yet slightly gaudy colour was anything to go by.

The boy wore a pale blue checked shirt over a white turtleneck, and the girl wore a paisley-print blouse with a navy ascot. They both had dark hair - his short and curly, hers cropped into a wedge cut that had started to grow out. They were both smiling at the photographer, the boy displaying dimples, the girl more demure and mysterious as she leaned her head against his shoulder.

“They look really happy,” James said quietly. Erin looked up at him.

“They do,” she agreed. “I wonder why it was left down here?”

“What are you ballaches looking at?” Michelle demanded. Erin and James looked up to see the others approaching; Erin felt a twinge of annoyance at the interruption that she couldn’t explain. Before she could mull this over, however, Michelle stopped short and pointed at something a short distance away from where the locket had been lying. “What the fuck is that?” she asked, sounding disgusted.

Erin, James, Orla and Clare followed her finger: something was dripping from the ceiling onto the stone floor, something green and slimy, like the goo that had lined the claw marks on the crawl space wall. Fearfully, the gang looked up at the part of the ceiling that the stuff was dripping from. Three green cocoons were stuck to the ceiling, and inside them, visible through the translucent slime…

Three shrivelled human bodies.

That was when Clare began screaming.