Octopuses are hard to love. They kill almost anything you put with them in a tank, including other octopuses. They’re notorious escape artists, they’re smart and they rip lives apart. I don’t make them happy. I think of them as male, perhaps because they remind me of my time with Boy. Except that I lived with Boy for over 15 years – octopuses aren’t that long-lived – and he managed not to kill me in all that time. We successfully procreated and then he escaped. See, smart!
I work with a lot of cephalopods. Octopuses, cuttlefish and squid make up 30% of the population of our laboratory aquarium. Our lab’s newest resident was already housed when I started my shift on nights. He was an algae octopus, Abdopus aculeatus. He came with a reputation for escaping – earning the nickname ‘Gone Puss’ in his previous aquarium – and for being ‘uncooperative’. As far as I knew our lab hadn’t officially named him, so ‘Gone Puss’ it was.
I really tried to make him happy, even feeding him first on my rounds. There were 28 live experiments I had to note and report on, and over 50 of the 130 tanks required me to feed their occupants at night, including most of the cephalopods.
Two hours into my rounds, I caught my arm on the feeding trolley and flinched. My three-day-old bruise was hardly tender any more, but other wounds were still raw and likely to turn gangrenous. Zebra fish mobbed to the side of a tank to stare, nudging fins.
Normally I coped with the night-shift – four nights a month – that gave me time alone; time to think in the low blue light and watery soundscape of the six long rooms. The routine was cathartic and the specimens fascinating. I was fortunate to do a job that made use of my biology degree and challenged me. Four nights a month were worth that. Time lost with Harry on those four evenings was made up at the weekend. I went full-on super-mom.
IA phone loitered on an empty desk. I dialled ‘0’.
‘Hey, Shona.’ A yawn. The security guard on reception. The one other person in the building at night. I’d woken him.
‘A lot of fish.’
‘Woh Yeah… O-K?’
‘Great.’ Would I be phoning if I was OK? ‘Love a night shift!’
‘Only normally, you don’t…’
This Tuesday I craved a human voice – even Leroy’s – rather than be left alone with my own thoughts. They had a disturbing habit of stomping around my head, as though they owned the place.
As I returned to my workstation I checked the 50-gallon tank. Octopus: one, still present.
Every centimetre of Gone Puss was in motion, every limb crept, spread, twisted and gyrated. His sac of a body heaved against the glass trying to force a way through. Everything moved apart from his coin-slot eye. As I drew level with his tank, he spat out the pellet of thawed shrimp from the same feeder tube I had pushed it into two hours earlier.
Cephalopods often took time to adjust to the dead shrimp we substitute for the live prey they cornered in their reefs, but Gone Puss was a seasoned aquarium inmate. He had no excuses. No, he was determined to register his animosity towards me personally. Gone Pus was setting out the terms of our relationship. The pellet was a flaccid reminder that his ancestors developed in the world’s oceans 230 million years before my mammalian ones pitched up.
His hunting instincts had discerned that my life signs were edging to the wussy side of wimpy – octopuses, inanimate objects ad children have an unerring sixth sense about these things. Even from within his tank, he had correctly identified me as someone he could prey upon.
‘Missed,’ I snarled back. I gave him the finger. He gestured back eight-fold. I let the pellet lie.
I couldn’t retaliate. Octopuses are the only invertebrates given special protection by the Government under the licensing of animal experiments. Smart enough to have a lobby group.
Normally, I didn’t mind the nights. Normally, I didn’t let rejected morsels of un-breaded scampi unhinge me.
, but My laptop keyboard beat out a word, but it was nothing to do with the experiment notes I was employed to make.
I sat and typed with stabbing fingers.
‘S U C K E R!!!?!’
Three goes to spell it correctly. I stared through it.
A burst of ‘Flower of Scotland’ burbled from my mobile.
It was a text. Anonymous, that was rare. It would be marketing; some clever scam; to click or… I clicked.
‘It’s your bruise, Sho!’ read the text. The words were followed by assorted emojis and a pared down link.
Another click and a video clip opened. The headline read: ‘Murder victim: police appeal for help’. It was dated 28th February, nearly three months ago.
I twisted the phone and hunted around to increase the volume. A circle was zeroing down onto a map of fields, waterways and scrubland. A presenter’s voice was speaking…
‘Police are appealing for help in identifying the headless woman found dead yesterday morning in a drainage ditch in fenland close to Whittlesey. They believe the murdered woman was in her mid-30s. She had light-brown hair. Her hands were also cut off at the wrist, displaying obvious similarities to “The Doll Killer” murder. Her only identifying mark is a distinctive bruise on her upper left arm…’
A graphic flashed up on screen. I dropped the phone on the desk. My hand clutched at my left bicep. It was my bruise. Similarly faded, horribly familiar, only the one on the screen was rendered on something that bore no resemblance to living flesh.
I recalled the ‘headless handless woman’ case from earlier in the year. ‘Doll Killer’ headlines swirled.
I reviewed the emojis: three yellow Munch heads gaped their fear at me. A cool silver knife delivered a fitting end to the trail.
Why would any…? I blocked the sender and dialled 0 from my landline. After four rings I concluded Leroy wasn’t at his post; maybe in the loo, more likely outside snatching a fag. The rush of water refreshing a tank (through the jumble of pipes criss-crossing the ceiling) made me jump.
Both The two bruises were identical. I knew it – instantly – because I had studied mine in the mirror for too long, seething at its origins. Both bruises bore too close a similarity to a Celtic cross to be explained by coincidence. Not just any cross, but St Martin’s Cross on Iona. Both had been inflicted the same way.
Why would I share a bruise with a corpse? And why, on God’s good Earth, was it shaped like an iconic Eighth Century Celtic cross from a sheep-bitten isle.
It had seemed a mad coincidence when I first discovered my bruise. Now, it smacked of sinister cultural branding. It was as if St Columba himself had sailed up the Cam to label me a sinner. No argument here; even a Glaswegian ‘Proddie’, knows better than to squabble with a Saint. This was my ‘Madonna in the toast’ moment. It must be a sign. Convert or…
And there it was. A simple sickening logical step: there was only one other person who could tell – who would know – the two bruises were the same.
. My bruise had been inflicted by the murderer. This text was from the killer? Could I be next? Was I marked for death?
Another thought: I was alone at night in a dark workspace with only a truculent, probably under-nourished octopus to protect me. I looked up. Like Leroy, Gone Puss had vanished.