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The Mystery Solvers of Derry

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

By the time Erin and James had managed to calm Clare down enough to breath without hyperventilating, Orla and Michelle had returned to the chamber, having headed back up to the school to get Sister Michael (Michelle was the most likely to be taken seriously by the headmistress, mainly because she was known for avoiding the scrutiny of authority figures at the best of times). Within another twenty minutes, they were outside the school, watching the bodies being wheeled out on gurneys by a team of paramedics. A few RUC men had turned up too, and to everyone’s surprise, Kathy Maguire’s car pulled up as the second body was brought down the front steps. The gang watched warily as she got out and spoke to a soldier, then to Sister Michael. However, neither the soldier nor the headmistress seemed to want to give her any details (The soldier presumably because it was ‘classified’ or some shite like that, thought Erin. Sister Michael was harder to place - there was a good chance that she simply didn’t care enough to talk about it, but it was equally likely to be a combination of general contrariness and disdain for Kathy Maguire) so before long, James’s mother turned her attention towards them and started enquiring after where they found the bodies.

“In the ground floor bathroom,” Michelle baldly lied to her aunt. Erin subtly handed Orla a cola Chupa-chup; Orla was quickly far too invested in opening it to bother contradicting Michelle. “Stuck to the ceiling.”

Kathy frowned. “They were repairmen. They were wearing hardhats. What were they doing in the bathroom of a girls’ school?”

“They were doing work on the roof,” said Erin, quite truthfully. In the thirteen months since they’d started having these adventures, she’d found that half-truths were easier to maintain than complete lies were. “Must’ve been looking for the staff bathroom, used the students’ by mistake, and the monster got them.”

Kathy Maguire’s eyes, pale and cold and so unlike her son’s, narrowed quickly. “Monster? What monster?”

“We didn’t see it,” James said. “We know it had big claws though -”

“Probably some kind of fucked up mutant mole-moth,” Michelle said. Judging from James’s sudden wince and half-hobble, she’d apparently rammed her heel into his toes to make him shut up. “It tore the grate off the air vent. It’s probably in another crawlspace on the second floor by now.”

Kathy’s eyes lit up, and without another word to any of them, she’d scuttled off back to her car. As she pulled away from the school, James looked reproachfully at Michelle.

“Why did you lie to her?”

“To keep her off our backs, fanny features,” Michelle explained, the ‘duh’ evident in her voice. “Now she’s away to commission graffiti of some fucked up giant burrowing thing with butterfly wings, and we can start looking into this mystery properly.”

“She’s my mum.”

“And right now she’s a pain in our arses. Wise up, James. If Aunty Kathy actually manages to get this haunted tourism business off the ground, well, fucking good for her, but right now there’s some big slimy thing wandering around the school, and I don’t fancy setting off a trap for it only for her to make us hold it for a moment so she can get its best angle for screenprinting. First things first, we need a closer look at that cocoon.”

“I’ll talk to the fella from the ambulance!” Orla volunteered brightly. “Doctors love me.”

“Psychologists,” Erin muttered as Orla skipped around the ambulance. “Psychologists love her.”

Michelle sniggered. “Aye, right enough, I remember when we were at the hospital looking for the ghost allegedly haunting the psychology ward and we left Orla for five minutes and came back to her absolutely dazzling about twenty of the feckers. What was it she was telling them again?”

“‘I believe I would be the perfect successor to John Hume based entirely on my skillset, dance ability, and bloodlust’,” Erin quoted in her best Orla Voice.

The gang’s laughter was cut short by several thumps coming from the inside of the ambulance, and three seconds later Orla was sprinting towards them, carrying something large and green under one arm.

“GO, GO, GO!” she shouted, and the gang realised to their horror that the lumpy green thing was one of the bodies.

“I thought you were going to talk to the paramedic!” James spluttered as they followed her up the steps of the school.

“I tried to, James, but he wasn’t in a listening mood.”

“SO YOU STOLE A BODY?!” Clare shrieked.

“Class,” Michelle said, sounding quite impressed.

“Not class, Michelle!” Clare wailed as they rushed towards the staircase that led up to the science block. “We were already in trouble about catching that werewolf yesterday, and that wasn’t even a crime! This is grave robbing!”

“We didn’t take him from a grave,” Orla pointed out, ramming the door to the stairwell open with her shoulder. “We took him from the back of an ambulance. Erin, give me a hand with the legs.”

Erin took the leg-end of the cocoon with a grimace; it was slimy and slightly warm and very unpleasant to touch. “Where are we going with this fella, Orla?”

“Don’t worry, I know exactly who can help us,” Orla insisted, turning around and walking up the stairs backwards, supporting the head-end. Erin followed her, not feeling altogether reassured.

“Tricky corner!” James warned. “Pivot! Pivot!”

Erin tripped up the last few steps as they turned towards the next flight of stairs, trying not to lose her grip on the cocoon.

“I said pivot, Erin!”

“I’m trying, James, but the cocoon doesn’t want to pivot!”

“Keep trying,” James insisted. “Come on, pivot! Pivot! Pivot!”

“SHUT UP, SHUT UP, SHUT UP!” Michelle roared.

Somehow they managed to get the cocoon up three more flights of stairs and into the biology corridor without either dropping it, Michelle going for James’s throat, or Clare having a nervous breakdown. It was as they approached classroom 35c that Erin twigged where Orla intended to take the body.

“How is our biology teacher going to be able to help with this?!”

“She might know what kind of cocoon it is,” Orla explained. “I need to know whether I’m tryin’ to trap something more like a moth or a spider, don’t I?”

This was actually quite sane logic, even by Not-Orla standards, so no one protested as Michelle knocked (well. Thumped) on the door and pushed it open.

“Now, who can tell me the correct scientific definition of photosynthesis?”

“Plant farts, isn’t it, Ms McGinty?” Michelle said brightly. Ms McGinty sighed as some of their classmates sniggered.

“Hello, Miss Mallon. I trust you and your friends have a good reason for turning up so late that there are only… seven minutes left of this lesson?”

“Aye, we do, Ms McGinty,” Orla said cheerfully, pulling the cocoon (and subsequently Erin) into the lab. “We found this big cocoon with a body inside it, can you tell us what sort of animal made it?”

It had not seemed to occur to Orla that most normal, healthy, God-fearing Catholic schoolgirls would be alarmed at the presence of a ‘big cocoon with a body inside it’; indeed, she appeared quite surprised as she and the others were forced to flatten their backs against the wall to avoid being trampled by a stampede to exit the classroom led by Jenny Joyce, shrieking her head off in terror. Ms McGinty groaned quietly, removing her glasses and rubbing the bridge of her nose as if to stave off an oncoming headache.

“Couldn’t you girls have waited until after class?!”

 


 

Fortunately, in spite of her annoyance at their timing, Ms McGinty seemed happy enough to try to identify the cocoon (Probably because it’s still technically biology, and biology teachers really buzz off this kind of thing, Erin figured. The same way James always seems happy about getting to explain the bits of Doctor Who I get wrong.) and soon had it up on a workbench with a stethoscope pressed to the side. She was listening so intently, she didn’t notice James sneakily scooping some of the cocoon-goo into an empty tupperware as Michelle and Orla hastily redistributed Orla’s sweet collection into the front pocket of her rucksack.

“Is he… you know?” Clare gulped. Ms McGinty slowly shook her head.

“No… there’s a steady heartbeat in there. He’s definitely alive… seems to be in some kind of dehydrated stasis… I’ll need to run further tests and compare notes, but I’m sure I’ll be able to identify at least what class of insect might have made it if you leave him with me overnight… The RUC okayed this, I presume?”

“Of course they did!” Clare laughed shrilly, hastening the others towards the door, all of them sporting far-too-innocent smiles. “D-d’you think we stole a body or something? Ha, great craic, Ms McGinty…”

 


 

The gang managed to snag a table to themselves in the dinner hall - one of the benefits of leaving class before the bell rang - and as they started in on lunch, Erin noted to herself that they’d all skipped out on that day’s dessert of tubs of green jelly, the cocoon clearly still fresh in their minds.

“You know,” Clare said, her anxiety clearly tamped down in the face of scientific discovery, “if that cocoon turns out to be organic, we might have discovered a new species of animal! We’d get to name it and everything, probably!”

“That would be class,” Michelle said thoughtfully. “But until Ms McGinty gets back to us on the cocoon front, I’m going to focus less on organisms and more on orgasms.”

“Was saying that out loud really necessary?” James asked wearily.

“Very much so. There’s an absolute ride working behind the counter in Joe Jackson’s, so I’m heading over there after school. Clare’s gonna be my wingwoman.”

“I am?”

“His coworker’s a lezzie, Clare.”

Clare gave Michelle a look that seemed both nervous and excited. “Are you sure?”

“Aye! I’ve seen this wee pin she wears next to her name badge, it says ‘Dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians’. Told you I’d get you sorted at some point.”

As they walked to French after lunch, Erin found herself falling into step with James behind the other three; he nudged her arm and she looked up to see him smiling at her, all dimples and curls and warm green eyes, and really, such a nice smile would make anybody feel all warm inside like this, the way drinking a cup of hot chocolate did.

“You know,” he said softly, “since Clare and Michelle have plans for later, maybe we could hang out, just us two? Maybe we could look into who might have owned that locket.”

Erin smiled and nodded. “We could, aye. I’d like that.” She pulled the delicate necklace from her pocket and held it up so they could see the embossed question mark.

“I wonder if it was a present?” James suggested. “Maybe the boy in the picture gave it to the girl?”

“Like to say they were going steady!” Erin agreed excitedly. “That’s so romantic…”

“Romantic…” James echoed her. “Yeah…”

“Do you want to meet up at the walls, then? Or at mine?”

“James can meet us at ours!” Orla said excitedly, turning around and walking backwards, munching a piece of her candy necklace. “We can start building a trap for the monster together.”

“Actually, we were going to -” James started, but Michelle ploughed over him.

“Are you lot working on the trap, then? If you finish it, we could head down to that creepy as fuck catacomb place again and set it up during our study period tomorrow morning.”

Erin exhaled slowly. “Glad we’ve sorted that, then,” she said, just a hint of sarcasm tingeing her words. As they headed into their French classroom, she wondered whether or not she was imagining that her own slight disappointment had briefly been mirrored on James’s face.

 


 

Mary McGinty leaned back from her microscope and rubbed her tired eyes; it was never a good sign when a cellular structure began pulsing like strobe lights at a disco - and the neon green of the cocoon sample wasn’t helping matters. What time was it? It was quite dark out. She was probably the only person left in the school at this point…

A clatter outside made the biology teacher jump violently. She nervously poked her head out of the classroom door, and was relieved to find it was only Niamh Finnegan, the cleaner who usually tackled the upper science block. Nodding at Niamh in greeting, Mary McGinty retreated back into classroom 35c.

As the door closed, Niamh Finnegan wrung out her mop, readjusted her headphones, and made to begin tackling the next section of the hallway, the way she did every Thursday night. Then, just as the CD in her Walkman faded out of the last track…

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGH!”

Niamh jumped so hard she nearly slipped on the freshly mopped floor; every other classroom she’d passed had been empty, so she skidded back over to 35c and swung open the door.

“Ms McGinty? Are yeh alright?”

No reply - for the classroom was empty. Niamh frowned - she could have sworn Mary McGinty had been in there, and there was no way she could have exited without Niamh knowing. There were no other doors off the classroom, and they were on the second floor, which eliminated the window…

Uneasily, Niamh backed away from classroom 35c and returned to her mopping. If it hadn’t been for the fact that she hastily hit ‘play’ on her Walkman, she might have noticed the drip…drip…drip… noise that had begun in Mary McGinty’s classroom, as if something was leaking from the ceiling…

Chapter Text

The next morning started mostly as planned; as soon as they had signed the register by the front office for their study period (a method much more conducive to detective work than having to sit in the school library and wait for a supervising teacher to call on you), Erin, Clare, Michelle and James headed back down the hole in the girls’ bathroom that led to the catacomb; meanwhile, Orla skipped off to see Ms McGinty and find out if the biology teacher had managed to learn anything interesting about the cocoon. Clare’s nerves had all but vanished at the prospect of potentially having found a new species of animal, and she enthusiastically listened to Erin and James’s instructions on how to build the trigger mechanism for Orla’s trap design. Honestly, as much as Clare claimed to hate risking trouble, Erin knew that underneath the nervous veneer, Clare enjoyed solving these mysteries as much as the rest of them did.

As they stood back to admire their handiwork, Erin suddenly realised that they were one short: Michelle had vanished from sight. Fortunately, they’d only bellowed her name in a panic a few times before she shouted back.

“Calm the fuck down, shite-the-tights, I’m grand! I’m down here!”

A few seconds later, Michelle emerged from the gloom beyond the spot where Erin had found the necklace.

“There’s about twenty feet of ground before it turns into a bottleneck,” she explained. “I went down there to have a poke around - and, if I’m being honest, see if there were any good spots in here fer a shift -”

“Oh, aye, how did it go yesterday?” Erin interjected. Michelle gave a wicked grin.

“I could write about twenty haikus on that boy’s arse alone, Erin, and that’s not even starting on his arms. Honestly, we had such an instant connection -”

“You mean you stared him down like you were some kind of predatory leopard-woman when he asked what topping you wanted on your ice-cream, then said ‘Nuts. Loads a’ nuts, can’t get enough of them’,” Clare said, sounding both unimpressed and distinctly irritated.

James grimaced, partly at the quote and partly sympathetic. “Was the other server not a lesbian after all, then?”

“Oh, no, Paula is a lesbian,” Clare said, her voice somehow even higher than usual. “Michelle just neglected to inform me that Paula has a girlfriend.”

“Clare, I told you, I’m sorry,” Michelle said, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, how did you expect me to concentrate on properly talking to Paula about her badge when there were arses needing ogling? Jonno was gettin’ my milkshake right behind her with his back to me.”

“And like I said, it’s fine.”

Michelle rolled her eyes again. “Anyway, I was down that bottleneck there, seeing if it was worth inviting Jonno down here fer a quick shift - it isn’t, by the way, we’d have to lean against the wall, and I fucking banged my head a bit goin’ in -”

(That must have been the source of the mumbled, slightly echoey ‘Motherfucker’ Erin had heard while she worked on the trigger ropes.)

“- and let me tell yehs, girls, if it’s not a headboard, it’s just not worth it -”

( “Honestly,” James mumbled.)

“- but I did find a ladder up out of here.”

“A ladder?” Erin asked excitedly. “Where did it go?”

“There’s this big fuck-off trapdoor at the top, and as far as I can tell, it comes out in that clump of bushes behind the camogie pitch.”

“As far as you could tell?” Clare enquired. Michelle shrugged.

“Couldn’t get it open all the way. Must be something on top of it.”

“That’ll be handy for getting back down here after they fix the hole in the bathroom,” James voiced everyone’s thoughts.

“Orla might be disappointed, though,” Erin laughed. “I think she was honestly really buzzing about climbing into the crawl space. Speaking of whom, we should head back up, it’s nearly time for English and she can tell us if Ms McGinty found anything useful.”

But when they arrived outside their English classroom (having hastily brushed any dirt and tunnel debris off their clothes in the bathroom) Orla was not waiting for them as she’d said she would. Erin poked her head into the classroom.

“Ms De Brún? Have you seen Orla anywhere?”

Ms De Brún looked up from her marking. She was the gang’s favourite teacher for two reasons: first, she was honestly really cracker at teaching creative writing; second, she was one of the few adults who seemed appreciative of and even vaguely interested in their detective work.

“Turned up here ten minutes ago. She’s over there. Some clue not adding up, is it? She seems quite down.”

Erin turned towards the window seat. Indeed, Orla was sitting at a desk with her head pillowed on her arms.

“Orla?” Erin asked gently, approaching slowly with the rest of the gang following. “Did Ms McGinty not find out anything?”

Orla looked up. She appeared quite distraught. “Ms McGinty couldn’t help us, Erin. The monster got her.”

“What?!”

“She was bein’ taken out on a stretcher when I got to her classroom,” Orla said miserably. “All shrivelled inside a big green cocoon like the other three. Her desk was covered with the stuff, all her papers were coated, I couldn’t even see if she’d made any notes. This was my fault. Ms McGinty was a cracker teacher, and now she’s been cocooned because I stole that body.”

“We all helped steal the body, Orla,” Erin comforted her cousin. She knew Orla was much more emotionally sensitive than she tended to let on, and was clearly taking Ms McGinty’s unfortunate fate very personally.

“Well, technically, I never actually touched it -” Clare mumbled behind Erin, then made a small oof noise, as if Michelle had sharply elbowed her. “Okay, yes, we all helped steal the body, Orla.”

“And remember what she said yesterday!” James said bracingly. “The guy in the cocoon was still alive - she’ll be alright once they figure out how to rehydrate her.”

Orla made a noncommittal noise of agreement, reaching into her bag for a comfort snack. “I hope you’re right, James. Ms McGinty is such a cracker teacher, and it’s probably really hard to dissect frogs when yer all dehydrated like that…” With a yank, Orla extracted a tupperware from her bag, prised the lid off, pulled a spoon from her pocket, and dug into whatever sugary monstrosity she’d filled it with. Erin was relieved to see that the upset hadn’t diminished Orla’s appetite, but James made a noise of vague horror and disgust.

“Orla, that’s the cocoon sample we took yesterday!”

Erin, Michelle and Clare all made similar noises of disgust, but Orla shook her head. “No, James, this is lime jelly.”

“That’s definitely the cocoon sample,” James insisted. “Remember? We moved all your sweets out of your tupperware so we could put the sample in it.”

“Aye, we definitely did that, Orla,” Michelle said, watching apprehensively.

“Honest, James, I wouldn’t lie about jelly. What sort of maniac would lie about jelly?”

At that, something clicked in Erin’s head. James wasn’t often wrong about clues - he was honestly quite adorably meticulous about organising them - but at the same time, Erin had learned at a very young age that Orla’s tastebuds were usually correct in their assumptions - especially when it came to anything containing sugar. Frowning slightly, she dipped her finger into the container (avoiding Orla’s get-your-own-snack spoon-swat) and scooped a piece of the green goo into her mouth.

Michelle, Clare and James made even louder noises of disgust, but Erin’s theory had been confirmed. The goo in the tupperware was definitely the cocoon sample, but the flavour was unmistakable.

“It is jelly! Girls, the cocoon is made of green jelly!”

Orla was very disgruntled when James, then Michelle, and then Clare each dipped a finger into her snack to confirm, but it was the evidence they’d needed. Erin could have kicked herself for not thinking of making Orla taste the cocoon earlier.

“It’s not organic at all,” Clare said, sounding both excited and disappointed at the same time (farewell for now to the possibility of a new genus known in Latin as Tegmineus Devlinus). “Which means…”

“…It’s not a real monster,” Michelle finished the thought. “Begs the question, mind - where would it get enough fecking jelly?”

“The school canteen!” James suggested excitedly. “They were serving green jelly yesterday, remember? They do it in batches using sachets and a big mixer. It was probably really easy to make; the monster would just need somewhere to store it.”

“The barrels!” Erin remembered. “Those big barrels painted to look like old nuclear waste storage! That’s what they were doing down there!”

“So…” Clare said slowly, “that makes me think it has to be someone with easy access to the canteen…”

“Narrows our list of suspects right down!” Michelle said excitedly. “What d’yehs say, girls? How about we come back and poke around the canteen tonight after dinner?”

 There was a popping noise as Orla pulled her spoon from her mouth, intent on not letting any jelly go to waste. “Why tonight, Michelle? Why not after school?”

Michelle grinned wickedly as the bell rang, sitting down at her own desk. “Three reasons. First, Jenny Joyce’s singing group practices after school today, and the last thing we need is that smug wee tone-deaf arsehole poking her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Second, we can get in through the trapdoor, but my Ma will tear me a new one if I wreck my uniform again, and I’m honestly grand with the number of holes I’ve got now.”

“What’s the third reason?” Erin muttered, taking her own seat as the rest of the class filed in. Michelle’s smirk became positively devilish.

“Third, I’m seein’ yer man Jonno during his four o’clock break at Joe Jackson’s, and like I said earlier, those catacombs are no fit place fer a shift.”

 


 

“You took your sweet time,” Erin hissed as Michelle and James joined her, Orla, and Clare at the edge of the camogie field that night. “I’m freezing my tits off.”

James blushed slightly, although it was unclear whether it was at Erin’s phrasing or the information he was about to impart. “Michelle had a make-up emergency.”

“It was like lobbing the gob with fucking Dracula,” Michelle complained, although she seemed quite pleased about it. “I’m going to be wearing concealer on my neck for the next two weeks at least.”

“Happy days,” Erin snarked. “Where’s the trapdoor?”

As Michelle led the way round the field to the clump of bushes she’d guessed concealed the trapdoor, Erin once again found herself falling into step with James.

(That seemed to be happening a lot lately. Not that she minded. James was one of her best friends, and whenever he fell into step with her (and he seemed to do it on purpose more than by accident) it made her feel warm and fuzzy all over. You know, normal best friend feelings.)

“Are you still cold?” James asked her, and Erin felt her cheeks flush pink with fondness. She’d really only said it out of annoyance at Michelle for making them wait, but he seemed so genuinely concerned that she kind of wanted to smile with her whole body. If that was a thing.

“Not really,” Erin replied. “Just my hands - I left my gloves at home, and Orla insisted on shoving a dozen last-minute trap-fixing bits into my pockets. Didn’t expect September to be this cold already.”

James’s mouth curved into a lopsided smile, so only one of his dimples was visible.

(Erin found herself missing the other one. Just a little, you understand, in a normal friend sort of way.)

“I was going to offer you my jacket. Y’know, if you were cold.”

“But then you’d be cold,” Erin pointed out. James looked a little embarrassed.

“Oh, yeah. I didn’t really think about that.”

Erin giggled fondly. “Dose. C’mere.” She reached for his hand and took it with both of her own, carefully entwining their fingers together. James looked briefly surprised (and slightly flustered. Did Erin want to analyse that right now? Maybe later.) but quickly caught on to what she was doing, and pulled her hands into his own jacket pocket.

“Warmer?”

Erin nodded with a grin. “Much warmer.”

“Over here!” Michelle shouted. “It’s over here!”

They hurried to catch up to her; she had already squeezed between two of the bushes when Clare and Orla reached the thicket, and by the time Erin and James arrived, had ducked out of sight behind a gorse bush.

“Are you sure it’s this one, Michelle?” Clare asked.

“Positive.” Michelle was no longer visible through the branches, giving the surreal impression that it was the bush speaking to them. “Big Mandy tackled me into this bush during the fifth form vs upper sixth match last term, remember? You don’t forget the look of the hedge that did its best to shove itself up your fanny.”

Erin remembered the occasion all too well; it had taken all four of them to pull Michelle free from the gorse, which had not wanted to let her go. Indeed, Clare didn’t even complain about Michelle’s coarse language, it had looked so painful.

“Got it! Some wee dick rolled a log across the top…” Michelle grunted slightly in effort, then made a noise of jubilation. “Ha! Right, it’s open, come on!”

Muscling through the bush meant Erin had to let go of James’s hand, a very disappointing development as her knuckles once again got skelped by the raw night air, but she didn’t dwell on it, and had soon followed Michelle, Orla and Clare down the ladder - which wasn’t a ladder so much as stone steps carved into the side of the tunnel like an ancient climbing wall. As soon as James had reached the bottom too, they set off for the first chamber, Michelle eagerly leading the way with Orla close behind.

They met no obstacles as they climbed up into the bathroom and made their way to the canteen; the school was quite deserted. In fact, besides James having to give Clare a leg up as they climbed through the serving window into the kitchen, the journey was quite painless.

“Right, spread out, girls,” Erin instructed. “Look for anything out of place - anything that could lead us back to a suspect.”

Unfortunately, the L-shaped kitchen was larger than they’d anticipated, and the gang shortly found themselves spread very thin. Michelle rummaged through cupboards, James checked the fridges, and as the only one who’d thought to bring gloves, Clare was quickly dispatched in the direction of the freezers. Orla shone her flashlight into the spaces under worksurfaces, and Erin leafed through a book of rotas, trying to find if there had been any occasions where the kitchen was either completely empty or single-staffed to see if she could put a timestamp on when the jelly had been stolen.

“I don’t know why you're fucking about with that, Erin,” Michelle commented, wandering over after ten minutes of mostly-silent searching. “Whoever it was could have just come down here after classes finished. You know, like we did.”

Erin threw down the rota folder. “What do you suggest I do, then?”

“Take a look at that door over there,” Michelle suggested. “No one’s tried opening it yet.”

“Fine!” Erin muttered, flouncing towards the door in a snit. Michelle rolled her eyes and returned to the cupboards as Erin tried the handle. “It’s locked.”

“Then go find the key,” Michelle said, with the air of one explaining 2+2=4 to an impatient five-year-old.

Scowling, Erin headed back up to the other end of the kitchen to rummage through the keys hanging on a hoop by the door, not noticing Orla getting up from her position squinting under the worksurface.

Orla had processed the previous conversation slightly slower than she meant to, having been very intently focussed on her own line of investigation; however, it occurred to her that it would be much quicker to pick the lock than to try and find the key.

(It decidedly did not occur to her to inform anyone present that she was capable of picking the lock. Mostly because she’d only learned to get into Erin’s diary, and Erin might get a new lock that was harder to pick if she knew.)

To Orla’s enthusiasm, the lock on the door was a similar one to the lock on the aforementioned diary, and was easy enough to pick with the two customised paper clips she had handy. The lock quietly clicked open, and Orla pushed open the door with a grin…

…Only to find the monster staring back at her.

Orla’s first thought was that it looked a bit like if the alien from that cracker Alien film she’d watched with Granda had been dipped in a big bath of green jelly. Her second thought was ‘run!’

James, deep inside the walk-in fridge, and Clare, with her head and upper torso in the freezer-chest, did not notice anything amiss. Neither did Michelle and Erin, around the corner; Orla’s only thought as she skidded on her knees under the nearest table was vague disappointment - she’d always figured she’d be the Final Girl if they were ever in a slasher film. She braced herself, wondering if there was a chance she might be able to eat her way out of the cocoon…

…Except the cocoon never arrived. When there was no further sign of the monster after Orla had crouched under the table for a hundred and twenty Mississippis, she cautiously poked her head out and emerged back into the kitchen. The only person present was Erin, holding a key and staring in confusion at the open door.

“How did…?” Erin mumbled. Orla silently joined her, and together, the two cousins nervously edged into the little cupboard. It seemed to be a pantry, but it was empty except for an old tarpaulin in the corner, weighed down by what looked like sand bags. Exchanging a glance, Erin and Orla yanked the tarpaulin back.

“Girls!” Erin called, as they stared down at the corner the tarpaulin had concealed. “We’ve found something!”

It was a hole exactly like the one that dropped from the crawlspace behind the student bathroom down into the catacomb - although this one must surely lead to a different part of the tunnels. Orla wasted no time in dropping into it - the first one had been so interesting!

“ORLA!” Erin’s voice echoed after her, sounding exasperated. Orla ignored her, too busy gazing out at a chamber not unlike the one where they’d found the bodies. There was one major difference here, though - a large spade, a road-drill, and a broom were piled a short distance away from the entrance, next to a mound of rocky-looking debris.

“Someone’s been digging!” Orla called up to her friends. Erin dropped into view, followed by Michelle, James and Clare.

“Fuck me to the moon and back,” Michelle muttered. “You’d think they were building a second wall of Derry down here.”

Clare pointed up at the ceiling a short distance from the equipment. “Look at that! They’re digging another hole out of here, but they’ve not got through yet!”

“Hang on,” Erin said thoughtfully. She drew an imaginary line with her finger from the hole they’d entered from to the unfinished hole by the pile of equipment. “If I’m remembering the street layout right, that hole has to be directly under the Bank of Northern Ireland building.”

“Bank robbery scam,” Michelle said, sounding satisfied. “Classic.”

“I’m guessing our monster got in through the hole in the cupboard,” James said, “and used it as an access point to dig up to the bank. Maybe they were trying to get out afterwards but the kitchen wasn’t empty? So they sprint through the tunnels until they find our chamber and come up into the bathroom.”

“We were probably right about the workmen, then,” Erin agreed. “They must have used the student bathroom by mistake, and got caught by the monster when it came through the air vent.”

“If it got scared down to our chamber once, it can be scared down to our chamber again,” Orla said thoughtfully. “We need to get back there and finish the trap!”

“Do we even know it’s in here?” Clare asked reasonably. “It might not be.”

“Oh, it’s here alright,” Orla said importantly. “I can sense it.”

“It would make sense for them to dig at night,” Erin pointed out. “Less likely to get caught or overheard.”

“Trapping time!” Michelle whooped. “Finally!”

Clare cleared her throat nervously. “While I agree it’s better we catch it sooner rather than later, we should probably tidy the kitchen up a bit first…”

There was a collective groan, but everyone acquiesced and hurried to scramble out of the hole and put the kitchen to rights. As Michelle put it, “Knowing what the adults here are like, they’ll probably focus more on the untidy kitchen than the fact that we caught a motherfucking bank robber.”

Chapter Text


 

Shlorp. Shlorp. Shlorp.

“It’s coming!” Erin hissed. “Get ready!”

Michelle backed away to the right of the opening to the bottleneck, James mimicking her movements to the left of it. Erin herself ducked behind the barrels that they now knew to contain green jelly, and Clare and Orla prepared to pull the trigger mechanism that would drop a steel cage (‘liberated’ from the local pet shop’s rubbish collection pile and repurposed with pilfered fire-extinguisher ‘weights’ carefully attached to the corners) right down on top of the monster as soon as it reached the right spot.

Shlorp. Shlorp. Shlorp.

“I went out with a fella last summer who sounded like that when we shifted,” Michelle muttered. Clare made a flurried shushing gesture.

Shlorp. Shlorp. Shlo…orp?

Slowly, the slime-mutant poked its ugly head into the chamber. Go time.

“OI! FUCKFACE!” Michelle bellowed, stepping into its line of sight. “DO YOU LOOK LIKE THAT ‘CAUSE YER PARENTS RODE EACH OTHER IN A NUCLEAR FALLOUT ZONE, OR WAS YER MA JUST A MASSIVE WAGON?”

“I said ‘get its attention’, not ‘actively antagonise it’!” Erin muttered under her breath.

Michelle’s shout had done the trick, though, and the monster swung its ugly head around and began shlorping towards her. Just as it threatened to get too close for (relative) comfort, James stepped into view behind it.

“HEY, SLIMEY! THE MUTANTS ON DOCTOR WHO ARE MORE CONVINCING THAN YOU EVEN WHEN THE COSTUMING DEPARTMENT HAS NO BUDGET!”

As planned, the monster lurched around, forgetting Michelle entirely, and started towards James instead. Erin waited until the trajectory was exactly right, then leapt out from behind the barrels and unleashed her own insult.

“OVER HERE, UGLY! MY BABY SISTER HAS DRAWN UP BETTER PLANS TO GET RICH IN CRAYON - ON OUR WALL!”

Perfect. The monster turned towards Erin, advancing slowly, until it was on the mark for the cage to fall right on top of it -

But the cage didn’t fall.

“Orla?!” Erin shrieked nervously. “Where’s the cage?!”

“It’s stuck!” Clare’s voice echoed back to her.

“WHY IS IT STUCK?!”

“We don’t know! Orla’s shimmied up the rope to unstick it!”

“ERIN! GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE!” Erin turned at the sound of Michelle’s voice to see her friend sprinting towards the monster, James in hot pursuit. “EMERGENCY PLAN 24!”

Emergency Plan 24… Erin thought, backing away, desperately trying to remember. Her thoughts wanted to centre on the fact that the monster was almost on top of her. Clare emerged from where she’d been waiting with Orla; she too was running at the monster. That’s the one where everyone not currently indisposed rugby-tackles the monster, right?

Right. I need to get out of the way -

But no sooner had the thought popped into Erin’s head than, with an almighty clatter, the rope unstuck itself and the cage landed - right on top of Clare, James, and Michelle.

“…WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!” Michelle spluttered.

Orla came flying into view - apparently having dismounted the rope via grand jeté - and yanked at the cage door, but the monster was one step ahead of her: it lifted its hands and flung several huge globs of green goop at the cage, cocooning all four of Erin’s best friends up to their necks.

Erin stared unblinkingly as the monster turned its hideous face back towards her, before letting out a piercing scream and bolting for the hole up to the bathroom.

“RUN, ERIN!” she heard Clare shriek behind her, but she didn’t need to be told twice - there was excellent motivation in the much quicker shlorp-shlorp-shlorp following her. As she leapt for the edge of the hole, she felt something slimy graze the back of her leg, and scrambled up into the tunnel, hyperventilating.

Get to the exit, get to the exit! Erin thought, crawling as fast as she could for the hole that led to the former air-vent. The slimy thing swiped at her feet again, and she screamed involuntarily as she launched herself out of the second hole and toppled out of the first one.

Door, door, door, door! She reached for the handle. Yes - 

But her hasty escape was not to be; just as the slime had cocooned her friends, now it splattered all over the door, concealing the handle from reach.

No, no, no! Her chest heaving, Erin slowly turned around, and stared into the dead eyes of the monster.

Nope, she thought, and leapt for the floor, ducking between its legs and skittering back towards the hole - but this route of escape was not to be either. Another glob of slime flew from the monster’s hand and collided with Erin’s legs, binding her ankles together so she tripped and landed sprawled on the bathroom floor. Whimpering, Erin rolled over and looked up at the monster, then promptly realised that she didn’t want it to be the last thing she saw before she was encased in a cocoon of green ooze. She shut her eyes tight and held her breath…

But suddenly a great fizzing noise drowned out all other sounds, including that of the monster, and when Erin felt no further slime being thrown at her person, she nervously opened her eyes.

The monster was collapsed against the wall, looking more like a snowman than a slime mutant, as its body was now encased in something white and foamy. Scrambling around, Erin was amazed to see James, Orla, Michelle and Clare standing next to the hole in the wall, all clutching the fire-extinguishers from Orla’s failed trap and aiming the nozzles at the monster.

“Good to know that these fuckers’ll do in a pinch,” Michelle commented, looking admiringly at her fire-extinguisher.

“How did you guys escape?” Erin gaped. Orla grinned.

“It’s jelly, Erin. We ate our way out.”

“Well, Orla ate our way out,” James corrected, putting his fire-extinguisher down and dropping to his knees to help Erin tug at the slime binding her ankles together. “Once she got Michelle’s arm free, we were able to rip the rest of it off.” The jelly-blob gave at last, and James helped Erin back to her feet, steadying her with an arm around her waist when she wobbled. Erin took a deep, calming breath, bracing one hand against his chest and smiling shakily.

“Thank God. Massive cack-attack I was havin’ there, so I was.”

“Do you need to change your knickers, Erin?” Orla asked concernedly. “I’ve got a pair of yours in here somewhere…” She began rummaging in her pocket.

“No!” Erin said, staring at her cousin in horror. “I do not! Please never pull a pair of my knickers out of your pocket, ever! Why do you have them?!”

“I have a spare pair of everyone’s knickers. In case one of us actually does have a cack-attack,” Orla explained cheerfully, thankfully removing her hand from her pocket without ruining Erin’s modesty.

“…Moving on,” Clare said, her casual tone doing nothing to counteract how wide her eyes had gone. “Let’s see who’s behind all this -”

Just then, the door to the bathroom swung open, the jelly over the handle tearing with a noise reminiscent of the monster’s footsteps. Sister Michael burst into the bathroom, looking thoroughly fed up and followed by a policeman, Mary Quinn, Sarah McCool, Geraldine Devlin, Deirdre Mallon, and Kathy Maguire.

“What are you doin’ here, Sister?” Erin asked. Sister Michael rolled her eyes.

“Really girls, after all this time I thought you would have figured out that I generally know when someone is messing about in this school after hours. The alarm went off when you were clattering about in the kitchen, and since none of the main doors had been forced I was able to put the pieces together.”

“What in God’s name is that, Erin?” Mary demanded, pointing at the monster, now firmly encased in fire-extinguisher-foam.

“It’s a slime mutant that was trying to break into the bank, Mammy,” Erin proudly informed her mother. At this, Kathy Maguire pushed her way to the front.

“You caught the mole-moth?!”

Michelle let out a sigh that seemed partly relieved and partly disappointed. “At least we can cross her off our list of suspects.”

“You thought it might be my mum?!” James hissed, sounding outraged. Michelle rolled her eyes.

“Wouldn’t put it past her to pull some shite like this to get her business off the ground.”

 “Christ, but that mud-pack is doin’ nothin’ for the poor critter,” Sarah remarked, eyeing the monster critically. “Best peel it off the fella before it shrink-wraps him, Orla, love.”

“Right you are, Mammy!” Orla grinned, reaching over and yanking at the monster’s mask. “Let’s see who’s under here!”

With a sound like a toilet plunger, the slimy jelly-covered mask was peeled off, revealing -

“MARY MCGINTY?!” everyone chorused in shock.

The biology teacher scowled, shaking an errant bit of jelly out of her hair. “Yes, it was me.”

“But… how?” Orla frowned.

“I found the trapdoor down into the catacombs while I was collecting leaf samples for my first years. When I realised the tunnels led to a chamber right under the bank, I decided to dig my way in and get rich. I used the kitchen as an easy way to get access to the chamber under the bank, and to make enough jelly to disguise myself as a monster in case anyone came snooping. I knew Kathy Maguire would do her best to make sure no one interfered with a monster for her ridiculous tourism campaign. I even staged my own disappearance with a Halloween mannequin to throw you off my scent after you found the emergency escape route I had to take one day when both the kitchen and the camogie pitch were full!”

“But you have a job as a teacher,” Clare pointed out with a frown. “Why do you need more money?”

Ms McGinty raised an unimpressed eyebrow. Clare immediately looked sheepish.

“Ah, right, of course, sorry.”

“My plan was perfect,” MsMcGinty continued, “until you… you…”

“Meddling,” Sister Michael supplied flatly.

“Meddling! Yes, meddling kids poked your noses in where they don’t belong!”

The policeman yanked Ms McGinty to her feet, pulled her still-costumed hands from the fire-extinguisher foam, and cuffed her wrists together. As he began to lead the former biology teacher from the room, Erin remembered something else.

“Wait! What about this locket we found where you were digging?”

Mary McGinty scowled as Erin held the locket up for her to see. “Never seen it before.”

As Ms McGinty and the policeman left, Kathy Maguire’s eyes followed the necklace as Erin returned it to her pocket, her lips pursed, but then she shook herself and glared at her son. “Well, I hope you’re happy, James Z Maguire. You’ve just lost Derry a serious revenue stream. Stream of revenue!”

“I’d be happy if I were him,” Deirdre said, eyeing her sister with dislike. “In all fairness, they did just save the bank from bein’ robbed, Kathy.”

“I’m prepared to let the matter slide with no consequences for breaking and entering,” Sister Michael said, mirroring Deirdre’s expression, “provided Kathy does not bother me any further about it. However, if she says anything else to me on the subject of tourism or hauntings, I may change my mind and have all five of them suspended for two weeks.”

Mary, Geraldine and Deirdre all immediately snapped their eyes to Kathy, their expressions warning her to keep her mouth shut. As Mary said about it later, “I’m not puttin’ up with them meltin’ my head for two weeks more than necessary.” Unwilling to risk their wrath, Kathy wisely heeded the non-verbal warning.

 


 

Saturday night found the girls at the Mallon household; Deirdre and Martin were both working the nightshift in order to have Monday off together, so it was just the five in the house, with plans in place for a celebratory movie night and sleepover. As Clare and Michelle debated whether to watch Clueless or Heathers  and Orla divided up her collection of chocolate bars (making sure to keep her favourites for herself), James brought a bowl of popcorn over to Erin, who was sitting on the couch fiddling pensively with the locket.

“You alright, Erin?”

“The locket’s bugging me,” Erin admitted as James sat next to her. She leaned against his shoulder and sighed in frustration. “Normally we get everything nice and wrapped up when we catch the monster, but Ms McGinty didn’t own it and she didn’t know who it belonged to.”

“We’ve seen Clueless twenty times, Clare! We should switch it up a bit, for fuck’s sake!”

“I don’t want to watch a movie about murder, Michelle! We’ve had enough excitement for one week -”

Clare’s argument against Heathers was cut off by the telephone ringing. Michelle got up and thumped the button for speakerphone, forcing everyone to shut up.

“Mallon residence, who is it?”

“You’re all doomed!”

The voice rang out into the room. The speaker had a Derry accent, but their voice was high-pitched and sounded raspy, as if they hadn’t spoken so much in a very long time. It was a voice no one recognised.

“Who the fuck is this?” Michelle asked suspiciously. The voice gave a thin, humourless chuckle.

“You can call me ‘C’.”

“‘C’ like the letter?” Orla inquired. The voice laughed again.

“That’s right. You should have never brought that locket out of the caves. You don’t know what you’ve uncovered.”

“Uncovered?” Clare asked squeakily. “Uncovered what?”

“A truth that should have remained hidden,” C said. “The truth behind the cursed catacombs of Derry! Thanks to you, the real mystery has just begun.”

The line went dead.

The five friends looked up at each other, exchanging nervous glances as static rang out from the phone’s speaker, and Erin knew they were all thinking the same thing:

What do we do now?

Chapter Text

Erin’s Diary

29th August

Well, it’s been a week since we caught Ms McGinty dressing up as a slime mutant to rob the bank, and in that time we’ve a) not been congratulated by anyone besides Michelle’s Ma (and I honestly think she was just saying it because she was annoyed at James’s Ma) and b) not heard anything else from the woman with the fucked up voice calling herself ‘C’ like the letter. Still trying to puzzle out how she knew we were at Michelle’s - was she lucky, or did she have to call all our houses up and do her “You’re all doomed!” spiel then realise we weren’t there and call the next one?

…Nah, Mammy would have gotten annoyed at me for it already. C might just know that we’re usually round the Mallons’ on a Saturday night. This is Derry, after all.

It’s been a bit dry on mysteries this week. The only interesting things happening around here is that it hasn’t stopped raining since Sunday, and that tomorrow Jenny Joyce has organised a donate-a-pound-and-dress-as-you-please day to raise money for the school formal. I’ll need to confer with the girls but I think I’ll wear the jumper and skirt Mammy got me for Christmas - just need to make sure Orla doesn’t wear her matching set.

 


 

30th August

Dress-as-you-please was today; we all looked cracker, but we were eclipsed by Charlene Kavanagh, who wouldn’t stop going on and on to everyone about her new ‘locally manufactured’ ‘eco-friendly’ lizard skin jacket. Clare was Jack-the-Ripping about it because the lizards are a protected species and you’re not supposed to make them into jackets.

James told me I looked really nice, which was sweet of him because I know he likes to pretend not to care about what people wear. Sadly, I think I might be allergic to the wool in my jumper, because when I popped into the loo just after he said that (Sister Michael has had the big hole in the wall fixed now, by the way) my cheeks and neck were all pink and flushed and felt really warm. Hmm. I’ll try the jumper again in a week just to make sure. I don’t want to have to chuck it, especially since James thought I looked so cracker in it.

 


 

31st August

10am

Still raining. We’re all bored out of our minds. The gang are coming over to hang out/commiserate over the lack of decent mysteries around here. Also, Orla has booby-trapped her and Aunt Sarah’s front door in case any ‘bad sorts’ ring their doorbell, so I’ve put a sign up saying to ring ‘Quinn’ and not ‘McCool’.

 


 

2pm

Had lunch. Still bored. At least Mammy’s letting Michelle, Clare and James stay for a sleepover.

 


 

4pm

It has been revealed that Mammy had ulterior motives: she and Daddy are out at a party tonight, Aunt Sarah is going dancing with Cieran, and Granda and The Bingo Wings are facing off against Maureen Malarkey and The Real Bingo Wings at the pub quiz tonight, so she needs someone to watch Anna. Fucksake. Why do wains have to have stupid set bedtimes?

 


 

5pm

Holy shit. Right as soon as everyone clears out, the doorbell goes, and it’s the fella across the road saying a package for me got left at his by mistake. I wasn’t expecting a package, but I was unable to express my surprise as I was busy preventing Orla from convincing the poor lad to ring her doorbell and set off the booby-trap.

BUT. Oh. My. God.

We got the box open with Orla’s hunting knife and there was a note at the top - FROM C!!

Saved this for a rainy day. Enjoy -

C

Clare was cacking herself because she thought C might have sent us a bomb, but it turned out to be a really cute wee lizard skin handbag - just like Charlene’s jacket. Michelle tried to bagsie it, but then Clare snatched it (I was surprised too, given how raging she was about the protected species thing). HOWEVER, it turned out that she’d spotted a label on the bottom saying where it was from, and once she had that information, well, our plans were decided. Mammy and Daddy took a taxi so Daddy can have a few pints, so they’ve left us the car and James has a learner’s permit. He’s got a vague idea of how to drive, so I’m sure if we whack some L plates onto the back we’ll be grand. There’s some poor bastard up near Portstewart about to get an earful off an angry lesbian for turning wee lizards into jackets. Just have to figure out how to work Anna’s car-seat.

 


 

7pm

Well, we got to this wee village Laghairty at the top of a hill without any major incident (although if something happened and we didn’t realise, we’ll probably be recorded in police record forever as “the car whose occupants wouldn’t stop singing new and increasingly ruder verses of ‘the wheels on the bus’ all the way down the A2”) and Anna thankfully stayed asleep while we bundled her into her papoose, so we went for a walk around what looked like a ghost-village. Genuinely I don’t think anyone has lived here in at least five years, there’s about twenty buildings and all of them are empty. We’re no closer to figuring out where the handbag came from - there’s no advertising or anything for locally made lizard-skin products - but at least we have a mystery of some sort to solve.

I’d better go and see if Michelle’s found anything - there’s nothing over here anyway.

 


 

8pm

God help us. We have made a terrible mistake in coming here.

So, Michelle and I found nothing, and we headed back to the car to meet the others. James and Orla didn’t find anything either, but then Clare came sprinting up screaming something about a sign. We followed her over to this building that looked like it used to be a motel and Clare explained she’d seen a neon sign in the window saying “One of you dies!” . When we shone a torch on it, it turned out that most of the bulbs had died (obviously, it’s been left on all these years) and it was supposed to say O’Shaughnessy’s Motel! Pool, food, yoga, and sundries! Cack-attack averted, and we headed back to the car because there was no sign of life anywhere and we needed to be home before Mammy and Daddy.

Except the car wouldn’t start, so James got out and popped the bonnet.

THE FUCKING ENGINE WAS GONE. SOMEONE STOLE THE ENGINE OUT OF MY DADDY’S CAR. AND WE ARE NOW STUCK IN A TINY GHOST-VILLAGE UP A HILL NEXT TO PORTSTEWART ALL NIGHT.

Wait, there’s a payphone and Orla has a wee bag of 20ps she was saving for the bubblegum machine at McDonald’s. Clare has persuaded her to part with them on the basis that if we stay here, we’ll never see a bubblegum machine again.

…And Michelle’s parents are working, Clare’s parents don’t have their car as it’s at the garage getting the faulty suspension sorted, and my parents, Granda, and Aunt Sarah are all out and far more likely to kill us for taking both the car and Anna. We have one option left.

…That fell through amazingly quickly. Apparently Kathy Maguire can’t go out in the dark. Or at least, that’s what she told James. Then Michelle started yelling at her, and she hung up.

James looks a bit upset. I’d hug him, but Anna’s still strapped to my front and I don’t want to wake her up.

God, we’re going to have to sleep in the car. At least there are blankets in the boot for long drives.

 


 

10pm

Oh god. Oh god. Oh god.

So we’d settled down in the car for the night. Orla and Clare claimed the backseat with Anna, and I tried sharing the passenger seat with Michelle but she starfishes like mad in her sleep, so I wound up moving over to share the driver’s seat with James, whose shoulder is surprisingly comfy to sleep against. His heart was racing like mad too, probably because he was still upset about his Ma not bothering her arse to help us, poor critter.

But anyway, there I was, all comfy and warm and asleep on James’s shoulder, when something woke me up. I was feeling a bit annoyed because I was having this cracker dream where I was Jennifer Connelly and I was dancing with David Bowie like that scene in Labyrinth , except he never took his mask off so I could only see his eyes, which were this lovely bright green colour. He was right about to take his mask off when whatever it was woke me up. I thought it was one of the girls at first and I was about to give whoever it was a massive bollocking because they interrupted my dance with David Bowie, but it turns out the reason I woke up was because THERE WERE THREE FUCKING LIZARD MEN WITH GLOWING RED EYES STARING AT ME THROUGH THE WINDSCREEN!!

So, naturally, I screamed my head off and woke everyone up, and then Clare, Michelle, and Anna all started screaming too, because the Lizard Men started clawing and banging at the windscreen like they were trying to smash it, probably to eat us. Fortunately, James slammed the handbrake off and we rolled backwards down the hill. The Lizard Men chased us until we were about halfway down, then they stopped and waited for us to reach the bottom before lashing their tails and heading back up into the town whose residents they probably ate too.

…Hmm. Resident animal expert Orla has pointed out that if they’d meant to eat us, they would have kept chasing us right to the bottom of the hill instead of backing off and scarpering as soon as we stopped rolling. So it seems that our friends the Lizard Men just wanted us out of town. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, but I am so buzzing to finally have a decent mystery to solve!

…My enthusiasm has withered upon the discovery that since we have no engine, we’re going to have to walk back up the hill to find out what the Lizard Men are up to.

 


 

11pm

Oh ho! Things have been happening!

So we reached the village again (on foot this time) and decided our best starting point was the window where the neon light that nearly made Clare cack herself was still plugged in. We walked around and found the building’s fire door had been propped open, so we sneaked inside and hid behind a massive stack of wooden crates. Michelle found a crowbar and popped one of them open, and it was full of belts exactly like the handbag C sent us. They smelled a bit like when Orla melts the plastic wrap from her lunch with her lighter.

And THEN Clare was whisper-ranting about how many lizards they probably killed to make it, and Michelle was all “Catch yerself on, how big are these lizards anyway? It wouldn’t take that many to make a belt.” And Clare said they were tiny, like about the length of your finger at most.

This would have been useful to know earlier, because we might have twigged that there was no possible way anyone could catch as many lizards as would be needed to make a fucking jacket. However, I will let it slide, as Clare’s passion for protecting endangered species is the main reason we’re here in the first place.

So we wandered around and found this big room where the swimming pool was, except now the pool is filled with this green-black gunk that smells exactly like Orla melting plastic wrap with her lighter. There were these big lights hanging over it that looked like sunbed lamps, and there were old rubber tires stacked up all over the place.

The next room had this big machine like from a factory, and there were stencils of lizard skin propped against the wall - then next to that was a big stack of square sheets of lizard skin! Or rather, fake lizard skin, made from melted tires! The room after that had a bunch of sewing machines and half-finished handbags, belts, and jackets, and then we peaked out another fire door into an alley and saw our three Lizardy friends loading a van with crates like the one full of belts! There was a price list pinned to the wall - they’re charging people way more than these plastic jackets are worth!

Of course, with so much interesting equipment to hand, Orla built a brilliant trap for them. Michelle went out and shouted at them that they were “the ugliest fucking snakes with legs she’d ever seen”, and they got really angry about that and chased her back inside - right into Orla’s trap! Snares made out of the belts we found that hoisted them right up into the air! We used some of the smaller tires to pin their arms to their sides while Clare called the nearest police station. Once the masks were off, it was revealed to be three local conmen (well, two conmen and one con-woman.) who were known to the sergeant. Michelle is absolutely buzzing to drop the truth about the lizard skin on Charlene Kavanagh, so all’s well that ends well, I guess.

Except we still don’t have an engine.

 


 

1st September

1am

I’m writing this from my bed. Holy shit. Tonight’s surprises had not ended apparently - when we walked back down to the car to sleep the night out, the bonnet had been popped again - and the engine was back! James tried it, and it ran like a dream!

The crazy part is, we made it home before anyone else! Mammy and Daddy are probably still at their party, and Aunt Sarah might have gone next door without coming through our’s; Granda was still at the pub, but he got in not long after we did and went to bed without checking on us. All we have to do is hope that if Anna babbles about this, Mammy assumes it’s a dream she had. Or a story we told her.

But here’s the craziest part - there was another note on the bonnet when we closed it.

Hope you had fun in Laghairty. This was just one piece of the puzzle -

C

I’m tempted to stay up pondering how much C knew about what happened tonight, and why she might be sending us mysteries to solve - and how she even knows when we’re looking for something to do - but James is asleep next to me, and, well, I know now that his shoulder is cracker to sleep against, so this will have to be put on hold.

But just so I don’t forget -

Who is ‘C’?

And how does she know so much about us?

Chapter Text

“Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future.”

There had been no further excitement since the gang’s trip to Laghairty the previous weekend (besides rumours of a cyclist being run off the road into the Foyle) so Friday night found Erin and James at the cinema seeing a late showing of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the recently released black comedy-drama about drug addicts in Edinburgh based on Irvin Walsh’s iconic 1993 novel of the same name. Michelle had another date with Jonno the Ice Cream Fella, Clare had been dragged to a younger cousin’s birthday party with strict instructions not to invite any friends, and Aunt Sarah had taken Orla out dancing as a treat, so it was just the two of them.

“How is Ewan McGregor still such a ride even while playing an underweight skinhead junkie?” Erin murmured. James shrugged, not taking his eyes off the screen even as he leaned closer to her so as to whisper back.

“Dunno. I think it’s the eyes.”

“Highly possible,” Erin agreed, still whispering. “Although there’s something to be said for that earring he’s wearing.”

James didn’t reply for a moment, intently watching the on-screen Ewan McGregor collapse onto the floor while exhaling cigarette smoke. At last, as the camera panned over a green wall tagged Welcome to Mother Superior’s, he spoke again.

“Do you reckon I’d suit an earring?”

“Not sure you could pull it off, to be honest,” Erin teased.

“Come on,” James whisper-laughed in her ear. “I suit the manicure your Aunt Sarah insisted on giving me.”

“Who knew that ‘blurple’ was your colour?” Erin quipped, giggling.

“Don’t even joke. I’m going to have to figure out how to touch it up. It keeps chipping.”

“You’re such a girl.

“I’ll have you know I’m a Derry Girl, thank you very much, Erin Quinn.”

Erin giggled, taking her eyes off the screen for a moment to glance at James’s hand on the armrest between them. The ‘blurple’ nail polish really did suit him, in a way. To her shock, a thought occurred to her that it would in fact be alarmingly easy to reach out and intertwine his fingers with her own, the way they’d held hands on the camogie pitch last week…

The thought was promptly replaced by disgust as the couple seated in front of them moved in and began shifting.

“Urgh, boke,” Erin muttered. James made a noise of revulsion next to her, and as the screen briefly brightened as the scene changed, Erin realised that the shifting couple was actually Michelle and Jonno.

“Oh, double boke!”

 


 

“Erin -”

“No, Michelle.”

“Come on, Erin, please!”

“For the last time, Michelle, you are not going to set me up with Jonno’s pal.”

“Fucksake, Erin, they made a pinkie swear that if one of them got a girlfriend, she’d set the other up with one of her friends! Yeh can’t fucking break a pinkie swear.”

“Need I remind you, Michelle, you and I also made a pinkie swear in primary school that we were going to marry Noddy and Master Tubby Bear, which broke down when we realised we both wanted to marry Noddy. We’re not expected to uphold that; you don’t have to uphold this one! I’m not going out with Con ‘Five Alarm Chilli’ Kearney. He still thinks it’s funny to set his own farts on fire and I have more integrity than that.”

“Since when do you have integrity?”

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.”

“Yeah, because you don’t have one.” The smirk was audible in Michelle’s voice even down the telephone. Erin humphed.

“My answer is no and that’s final. Ask Orla. She likes burnin’ stuff, she’ll appreciate Con’s skillset.”

“Fine. Is she there?”

“One second. ORLA!”

“WHAT’S THE CRAIC, ERIN?”

“MICHELLE’S ON THE PHONE, SHE WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!”

Orla came hopping through from the living room, and Erin bid Michelle goodbye and handed over the phone before joining Anna, who was sitting on the living room floor humming to herself and making a white-and-pink My Little Pony pegasus trot back and forth across the carpet.

“Hi Anna!” Erin cooed, crouching down to toddler eye-level. “Who’s this?”

“‘Aise-May!” Anna said, smiling widely at her big sister. Erin smiled too, pulling Anna into her lap.

“Daisy-May? She’s lovely, isn’t she?”

“‘Ove-y!” Anna parroted; she hadn’t quite got the hang of ‘L’ noises yet. Erin blew a raspberry on her sister’s cheek, making her giggle.

“Shall we give her a brush and see if we can make her mane all nice and shiny?”

Anna nodded. “Bwush!” She picked up the little metallic pink brush that came with the toy and thrust it at Erin. “Ewin bwush!”

Full of that lovely warm feeling she got every time Anna got her name right, Erin began attempting to brush a knot out of Daisy-May’s tail. Unfortunately, the doll-sized brush wasn’t making much headway, and it was just as Erin was beginning to ponder the potential ramifications of snagging something more effective from Aunt Sarah’s sizable collection when Orla skipped back into the room.

“Alright, Orla?”

“Aye,” Orla said happily. “Absolutely lurred, so I am. Michelle’s set me up on a date tonight with a fella who likes burnin’ things.”

“To each their own, I suppose,” Erin muttered, somewhat shocked that she’d been right about Orla appreciating Con’s proclivity for pyroflatulence.

“Aye, I’m happy you didn’t want to go out with him yourself, Erin, on account of you bein’ all hung up on James.”

“I’M- WHAT?!” Erin spluttered furiously. “Where did you get that idea?!”

“Your diary. You wouldn’t stop goin’ on and on about wantin’ to hold his hand at the cinema the other night, and that dream you had where you were Sarah and he was Jareth the Goblin King.”

Erin mouthed apoplectically until at last one of her many angry questions managed to force its way out. “At what point did I say James was Jareth?!”

Orla shrugged. “What other fella we know has ‘lovely bright green eyes’? It wasn’t David Bowie, Erin, he’s got these class mismatched eyes ‘cause someone punched him in the face when he was our age, one’s blue and one’s this cracker hazel-gold colour. I think I’d suit eyes like that.”

“I’LL GIVE YOU EYES LIKE THAT!” Erin roared, setting Anna down and leaping furiously at Orla. “STOP READING - AND QUOTING - MY DIARY!”

Anna giggled and clapped, thoroughly entertained by the Quinn-McCool reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel, starring Erin as Cain, Orla as Abel, and the nearest of Ma Mary’s throw pillows as the rock.

 


 

Erin’s Diary

7th September

2pm

Well, I’m going to have to find a new hiding place for this, as apparently under my mattress is not Orla-Proof. I’ll wait to hide it somewhere else until she’s out of the house on her date tonight with Five Alarm Chilli.

She said something funny, though, about me fancying James. I don’t, do I? James is one of my best friends, I can’t fancy him! You can’t fancy your best friend.

Be right back - the phone’s going again and Mammy’s shouting that it’s for me. It can’t be Michelle again, surely?

Okay, so it was James asking if we could meet up this evening after dinner because he needs my help with something. I’ll take this with me in my jacket pocket so Orla can’t read it in my absence and make more unfounded accusations. But for the record, this happy warm bubbly feeling in my chest is how one should feel when their best friend thinks of them first to ask for help. Even if I don’t always feel this way when Michelle or Clare or Orla ask me for help…

 


 

James had said to bring transport, so Erin wheeled her old pink bike (still with sparkly discs attached to the spokes and a bell with little red hearts painted on it) out from the side of the house and freewheeled down the hill to meet him. She decided not to analyse her slight feeling of disappointment when she realised he was waiting with Clare beside him, both of them also mounted on bicycles (Clare’s white with rainbow tassels on the handlebars and a little pink and white basket; James’s clearly newer and neon green with more available gears, and a pannier bag over the back wheel).

“What’s the craic?” Erin asked, circling around them and pulling to a stop. Smiling, James reached for his pannier bag and pulled a sheaf of bright green and orange leaflets from it.

“Mum asked if I could get some friends to help me distribute these around town.”

Erin took the leaflets, frowning at the title on the top one.

INTERESTED IN LOCAL SUPERNATURAL HISTORY?
KNOWLEDGE OF NEARBY SITES OF HAUNTINGS?
WANT TO SUPPORT TOURISM IN DERRY AND MAKE SOME EASY CASH?
CHECK OUT THE NEW
DAEMONS IN DERRY MYSTERY TOUR!
CONTACT KATHY MAGUIRE (DETAILS INSIDE) FOR MORE INFORMATION.

“She’s joking, right?” Erin said flatly. James looked awkward.

“Are there even any real hauntings around here?” Clare pondered. “Ones that weren’t proven to be scams, I mean.”

“There’s an old church near the Foyle that’s supposed to have had some kind of spirit hanging about for the last few hundred years, but that’s all I can think of,” Erin said glumly.

“Come on,” James pleaded. “Mum’s trusted me with this. I can’t let her down.”

Erin exchanged a glance with Clare, and knew they were thinking the same thing: Kathy Maguire obviously had no problem letting James down, frequently and repeatedly, but they both cared about James too much to point this out.

“Of course we’ll help, James,” Clare said kindly. “And I can probably put this as an extracurricular on my UCAS forms.”

James lit up, his expression giving Erin that warm bubbly feeling again (completely normal!), and the girls tucked leaflets into Clare’s basket and Erin’s coat pocket before the three wheeled their bikes back up the hill.

“And to think, I turned down a date with Con ‘Five Alarm Chilli’ Kearney for this,” Erin joked. James glanced at her.

“I didn’t know you liked him,” he said quietly. Erin’s cheeks suddenly felt warm.

“I don’t,” she assured him. “Michelle tried to set me up with him, that’s all. I… I didn’t want to go out with him, though.”

James’s cheeks looked as warm as Erin’s felt, and he gave her a shy little smile, which she returned. Clare glanced between them suspiciously.

“So… where are we leafleting first?” she asked. James looked away from Erin and began explaining his route idea, leaving Erin feeling a bit like she’d missed a step going up the stairs in the dark.

 


 

Erin’s Diary

7pm

Okay, I’ve got a moment to myself while I wait for James and Clare to finish their routes and meet up with me here.

Reasons fancying James would be good

  • I already know he likes me as a person
  • It would be totally Romeo and Juliet what with him being English and me being Irish
  • He’s kind of a ride handsome… in his own James-ish way
  • It would be really cool being the only girl at Our Lady Immaculate allowed to have her boyfriend with her all day
  • He makes me feel all these really nice warm feelings in my chest when he smiles at me
  • His shoulder is really comfy to sleep on
  • Katya (urgh) seemed to really enjoy kissing him when they were going out, so he’s probably a really good kisser. It’s normal for everyone to wonder what kissing their friend might be like, right?
  • He’s one of my best friends.

Admittedly, the thought of James seeing another girl who isn’t me makes me feel like I want to throw up and cry a bit all at once…

Reasons fancying James is in fact a very bad idea

  • He’s English
  • Michelle would be disgusted
  • Clare would probably most likely cack herself
  • Orla would embarrass the fuck out of me if she read my diary again and told everyone the details of our relationship (more embarrassing than if it was, like, David Donelly or John Paul O’Reilly because all our friends are friends with James too)
  • What if we went out and it didn’t work out?
  • WHAT IF WE BROKE UP REALLY BADLY????
  • Or worse… what if he doesn’t like me back, and I told him I liked him and it made things really awkward and he never wants to speak to me again?????
  • I can’t lose James.
  • He’s one of my best friends.

Conclusion: I can’t fancy James, so I won’t. No matter how cute he is when he smiles at me.

Insides churning unhappily, Erin glumly tucked her diary back into her jacket pocket as James and Clare came into view, and forced herself to smile back at them. “All done?”

“All out of leaflets,” James replied cheerfully, but Clare frowned at Erin.

“Are you all right, Erin? You look like you’re going to boke or cry or something.”

“I’m grand, Clare,” Erin insisted. “Since we’re done here, shall we go to a wee café for some hot chocolate and a cake or something? I could eat a nun’s arse through the railings.”

 


 

As they headed down the hill towards Saoirse’s Internet Café, Erin inhaled the fresh September air, enjoying the occasional splash of the setting sun across her cheeks. After all, she decided, being friends with James is pretty cracker anyway, so fancying him is moot.

And with that decided, she turned and gave James a real, proper, unforced smile, and was delighted when he grinned back at her, all dimples and shining green eyes -

“LOOK OUT!” Clare bellowed behind them.

Erin turned around, and with a gasp, pulled as close as she could to the Derry Wall on her right as a white, unmarked van came racing by, only just missing James, who had pulled in a split second after Erin.

“Fucking maniac!” Erin snarled. “ALRIGHT, YOU’VE MADE YOUR POINT, WE GET THAT YOU HAVE A TINY STALK!” she hollered after the van.

“Erin…” James said fearfully. “He’s turning around.”

Erin’s eyes widened as she realised that the driver had indeed pulled his van around and was belting up the road back at them. “Fuck,” she muttered. “Come on!”

Shoving off forcefully, Erin shot towards the nearest garden, leapt off her bike, and chucked it over the railings before scrambling after it. James and Clare followed suit, and the three of them dived into a bush and peered out as the van screeched uphill past them. Erin felt a chill go down her spine: the front seat was quite visible - and there was no one driving.

“Well,” she whispered, trying not to let her voice shake too much, “I think we’ve got a new mystery on our hands.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you guys nearly got run over and we missed it.”

“You don’t need to sound so excited, Michelle!” Clare grumbled, setting down the tray of hot chocolate mugs. They’d wound up skipping out on a café visit the previous day, instead choosing to hunker down in fear of the ghost-driver at the Devlin house, which was nearest.

“Did Dicko cack himself?” Michelle grinned. James rolled his eyes.

“I did not.”

“Leave him be, Michelle,” Erin sighed. “He already got an earful off his ma when we called her this morning to tell her how the flyering went.”

Michelle raised an eyebrow. “For nearly being run over by a ghost-van?”

Erin pursed her lips, glancing at James, who was expressionlessly staring down into his mug of hot chocolate. “For not getting a picture.”

Michelle looked disgusted, and thankfully changed the subject. “So what did the peelers say?”

“I honestly think they thought we were making it up,” Clare said discontentedly. “I really would have thought they’d believe us at this point, given how many other things we’ve been right about, but there it is. Either way, we didn’t get the licence plate, and I doubt there was one to begin with. If it was a ghost, it probably didn’t have to register the vehicle seeing as it’s, you know, existing on a different plane, and if it wasn’t -”

“If it wasn’t, he’s not likely going to drive around running wains over with a number on his arse we can look up and trace back to his identity,” Michelle agreed. She took a frustrated slurp of hot chocolate. “Fucking Christ, I miss the days when we could just yell ‘I know your mother!’ at the pricks to make them back off.”

As Michelle continued to bitterly expound the increased ballsiness of Derry’s ‘supernatural’ population, Erin glanced at James’s hand, clenched on the table next to her as he leaned on folded arms, and cursed her traitorous heart for skipping a beat as she reached out to brush his fingers with her own.

“Hey,” she said softly. He started, and glanced at the place where their hands met. “You alright?”

“Fine,” James replied, blinking at her. “Just… a little tired…”

Erin ignored his obvious attempt at evasion; he’d not been tired at all when they’d entered the café. “Your Ma shouldn’t have said that to you,” she muttered. “It wasn’t fair of her.”

James seemed to sink into his jumper, and Erin knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. “She’s my mum, Erin.”

“Mammies are not always right,” Erin informed him sternly, squeezing his hand. “Case in point, my ma and Aunt Sarah still buy me and Orla matching outfits for Christmas. Just ‘cause she’s your ma, it doesn’t mean she’s right to tell you off for not gettin’ a photograph of the ghost van that tried to feckin’ kill us .”

The corner of James’s mouth curved up slightly, and he shifted his hand so she wasn’t patting it anymore so much as holding it. Erin forced down the sudden heat that threatened to rise in her cheeks and stroked her thumb gently across his knuckles. “Thanks, Erin,” he said, his voice quiet but full of gratitude so genuine that it made Erin’s heart ache for him. How could Kathy Maguire live with herself after treating him this way?

“How come you’re holdin’ James’s hand, Erin?” Orla inquired abruptly. Erin narrowed her eyes, remembering the implications Orla had drawn from her last read of Erin’s diary.

“His ma’s bein’ a dick again.”

“Hey!” James complained, but made no effort to extricate his hand from hers.

Orla looked disappointed. “Oh. I thought -”

“So how was your date with Con Kearney?” Erin asked loudly, before anything catastrophic and life-ruining could be spoken aloud.

Orla lit up. “Oh, it was soooooooo cracker, Erin! He brought me a bouquet of plastic straws!”

Clare tilted her head and wrinkled her nose. “Come again?”

“Drinkin’ straws, like. For them to melt together with their lighters,” Michelle clarified.

“Finally, evidence that something can be horrifying and sweet at the same time,” James mumbled.

“I was a bit worried he wasn’t going to show up, y’know, ‘cause he was really late to Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, but he was just havin’ some trouble gettin’ enough straws for the bouquet.”

“Pizza pie, that’s romantic,” Erin snarked.

“It’s the most romantic dinner in Derry yeh can afford without a fucking trust fund,” Michelle pointed out. “Well, second-most romantic, but we’re still banned from Fionnuala’s.”

“You’re kidding, right?” James said flatly. Michelle, Orla, Clare, and Erin all shook their heads.

“The way to any Derry girl’s heart is a fish supper that’s been properly salted,” Clare said seriously. James made a face.

“I’m doomed, then,” he muttered. Michelle looked like a shark that had scented blood.

“Oh my fucking god, you fucking fancy someone!” she hissed. James’s doomed expression abruptly changed to that of a hunted deer.

“No I don’t!”

“Jesus fucking Christ on wheels, you do! You absolutely fucking do!”

“I don’t!”

“Who is it, James?” Clare inquired, more politely than Michelle but just as nosey. “You can tell us, I promise we won’t judge.”

“I promise nothing,” Michelle muttered.

“I don’t fancy anyone!” James insisted. “I swear!”

James stared imploringly at Michelle and Clare, eyes wide, and they stared back at him, disbelieving and gossip-hungry, but Orla was staring right at Erin, who hurried to school her face into something neutral and disinterested, praying to every relevant saint she could think of that her expression had not mimicked the upset sinking sensation in her chest. But Orla’s gaze wasn’t nosey for once - her empathetic disappointment was clearly visible, and try as she might to ignore it, it was impossible for Erin to pretend she hadn’t caught sight of the flicker of pity in her cousin’s hazel eyes.

“Would you keep it down!” someone hissed, and Michelle broke off to glare up at the person looming over their table: Granda Joe’s bingo-and-pub-quiz nemesis, Maureen Malarkey.

“Some people come here to relax in peace an’ quiet, not listen to the unladylike shouting of wee halions like yerself,” the old woman grouched. “Far too much freedom it is, wains thinkin’ they can run wild wherever they want, not a thought fer anyone else. Then again,” she added, critically looking over Erin and Orla, “you’d be Joe McCool’s granddaughters, wouldn’t you? It’s a pity the ill manners seem to run in the family.”

The five friends had been scowling up at Mrs Malarkey throughout this little outburst, and upon the insult towards Granda Joe, Michelle put up her well-exercised middle finger at the woman, who spluttered furiously and shuffled out, glaring back at them.

“Old bitch,” Michelle muttered.

“That was out of line,” Clare agreed. “I pray to God I’m not that horrid when I reach that age.”

“You could never be that horrid, Clare,” Orla reassured her. “You’re like an anxiety-flavoured cupcake with sparkly rainbow icing.”

Clare blinked. “Th…thank you?”

“You know, that got me thinkin’ there,” Orla continued, slurping the last of her hot chocolate. “What if Maureen Malarkey was the ghost driver? She hates wains enough.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Erin muttered, but Michelle was nodding slowly, her familiar mischievous grin spreading across her face.

“You might be onto something there, Orla. Maybe her son’s sent her something over from America that she’s usin’ to drive the van! He sent her that magic pen, didn’t he?”

“He did,” Orla confirmed. “Granda’s still ripping about it.”

Clare looked sceptical. “What would he send her that could drive a van?”

“I don’t know, some kind of robot maybe. Our Ryan told me they have all this cracker technology in America that they’ve not brought over here yet.”

“If Maureen Malarkey had a robot, would she really be usin’ it to run down wains in Derry backstreets, Michelle, I mean, come on…”

As Clare and Michelle continued to argue about the likelihood of Maureen Malarkey using American technology to try to kill children with a ghost van, Erin found herself filled with a rare gratitude towards Orla, who was now occasionally chiming into the debate in between fishing for marshmallows from her drained mug. Moving to sip her own drink, Erin realised abruptly that she was still holding James’s hand, and at this, let go of his fingers as if they’d burned her. He shot her a swift, concerned look (mingled with something that looked a bit like his disappointed face, but what would he have to be disappointed about?) and she covered her clumsy move by wrapping both hands around her still-warm mug and drinking deeply, telling herself that it was a good thing he fancied someone else. Or at least, it ought to be.

It would make it much easier to not fancy him herself.

 


 

Erin’s Diary

8th September

11am

I finally have a moment to myself to write; we’re in the library going through bloody internet records of white vans involved in serious accidents in the last few months. The idea behind this is

  1. It’s generally easier to fake a haunting with some basis in fact behind it.
  2. Orla and Michelle are hoping for confirmation that Maureen Malarkey had close enough proximity to an accident to turn it into the basis of a haunting.

I reckon the girls can handle it between them for now. So, Orla, if you’re reading this (which you shouldn’t be!) please at least keep this bit to yourself. Because it’s embarrassing, and I don’t need the girls finding out about this.

ESPECIALLY JAMES.

Okay. Here goes. I think you were right. No, scratch that. You were right.

I fancy James.

Which is ridiculous, because he’s English. (See list overleaf. Oh, Christ, I really went with ‘reasons fancying James would be a good/bad idea’, not ‘evidence I do/don’t fancy him’. God.) But what’s worse is that…

He fancies someone else.

I should have seen this coming, right? He fancied Katya and she’s basically my complete opposite. All dark hair and makeup and clothes and straightforward (if completely incorrect) opinions. And she wasn’t from Derry either. James has made it pretty clear that he finds everything about Derry weird.

That probably includes me.

I need to just get over this. It’s stupid. The only thing worse than being ‘the girl who fancies her best friend’ is being ‘the girl who fancies her best friend who doesn’t fancy her back’.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, Erin slammed her diary shut and whipped it into her pocket, lest someone catch a glimpse of the embarrassing truth she’d just admitted to. Fortunately, it was not one of her friends. Unfortunately, it was someone she was even less pleased to see.

Tina O’Connell stuck her pointed nose in the air upon sighting Erin. “What,” she sneered, “holed up in the library instead of out threatenin’ first years or hangin’ about with your thick-as-shit cousin?”

“Orla’s not thick,” Erin replied coldly, reminding herself that reaching across the table and throttling Tina would be a mistake in several different aspects. “Don’t you have a sister to watch terrorising some poor wains somewhere?”

“She’s goin’ a square-go with Rhonda Gallagher later,” Tina said, sounding quite bored. “Wouldn’t miss that. But I’ve got this fucking pointless history homework and I don’t fancy a detention if I leave it. I’ve seen the fannies who get themselves detention, and I don’t fancy joinin’ you.” She left with a smirk, and Erin scowled after her.

Arrogant wee brat, she thought. She was just reaching for her diary again, replaying the conversation with Tina in her head so she could complain about it properly, when something the girl had said flicked a switch in her brain.

She’s goin’ a square-go with Rhonda Gallagher later…

A square-go with Rhonda Gallagher…

Rhonda Gallagher.

Indeed, if Erin had been a cartoon character, a little yellow lightbulb would have appeared, glowing, above her head.

“Girls,” she hissed, hurrying back to the computer her friends were clustered around. “I’ve thought of something -”

“Where the fuck have you been?” Michelle demanded, sounding more confused than cross. “I thought you were right behind me.”

Erin subconsciously straightened her jacket to hide the diary-shaped bulge in the inner pocket. “Thinkin’,” she said, deeming it the answer least likely to arouse suspicion or diary-violation. “I ran into Tina O’Connell, though, and she gave me an idea…”

“That wee dick?” Michelle raised an eyebrow. Next to her, Clare looked equally bemused by this announcement. Orla was working on a piece of candy necklace; Erin forced herself not to glance at James.

“It was just something she said, and it made things click. Why would anyone bother settin’ up a ‘haunted van’ in the first place? If they just wanted to scare folk away from the area, why not dress up as a normal ghost? Why use a van?”

Michelle squinted at her; Orla looked up from her candy necklace with a frown. Erin could feel James’s eyes on her, but she kept her own gaze on Clare, whose eyes had widened dramatically, clearly having sensed where Erin was going.

“Storage!” Erin explained excitedly. “Vans have loads of storage in the back, and you can move a whole bunch of stuff around the city in it. Whoever it is is probably using it to smuggle stuff out of Derry, or into Derry, who knows, but it’s a perfect plan! And who would be smugglin’ stuff around here?”

Michelle had caught on too, her mouth open in a perfectly round O. “You don’t think…”

Erin grinned victoriously, nodding. “I think the ghost van is smuggling weapons for the IRA.”