Dark Lies – Nick Hollin

He stands in quiet contemplation of his work, the warm glow of satisfaction lingering as the body ahead of him starts to cool. There is frustration there, too; she’d deserved better, deserved him to be at the top of his game, but instead he’d stumbled and very nearly missed her throat with the knife. He’d gone a little too deep, and the blood had sprayed to places he hadn’t intended, like onto the corner of a child’s painting pinned by a magnet to the fridge door. It looks like a signature, he thinks. But that crude little picture is not his art. His masterpiece will be something far more ambitious. The naked body is carefully arranged, and the skull-shaped mark has been drawn at the top of her thigh. The shape he’s piped in chocolate icing is beautiful, exactly as he’d wanted it to be. His hand as steady as the smile on his face. He reaches into a plastic bag and removes the final piece of the display: a tin of beans. He pulls carefully at the ring, peeling back the lid to reveal the contents. The sauce is a satisfying red. He starts to pour, shaping a speech bubble close to his victim’s head alongside lips that remain parted for a final breath that never came. He tilts her head towards the carving knife he’s placed behind her and positions her limbs to give the impression she’s running. When he’s done, he stands back and takes it all in, wishing the lights above him were brighter and the tiles on the floor cleaner so he could enjoy the contrast between white and red.

Nobody else will ever know it wasn’t perfect, just as they will never know about the mistakes he’s made. And there’s always the next time, of course. Sarah stares at the living room window, unable to see past the reflection of a frightened woman. Tonight, for the very first time, she will be without her children. She glances down at her phone, wondering if it’s too early to call her husband and check they’re okay, to make sure they’re not suffering as badly as she is, but she remembers his last words when he’d given her a squeeze and told her to enjoy herself. If only he’d been better at reading her feelings. If only she’d been better at talking about them. Finally, she’d admitted she needed a break, and he’d sweetly arranged to take the boys to his parents’, swearing that he’d follow every one of the two dozen instructions on the list. Now the freedom she’s dreamt about so frequently over the last three years seems like the worst possible kind of nightmare. She forces herself to move, to look away from the window and give up on the hope of seeing her children suddenly appear, running up the path, arms spread wide.

As she turns, she stops, certain for a moment that she really has seen a pale face out there in the darkness. She shakes away the image, putting it down to her nerves, or the two glasses of red wine she’s gulped down to try and ease them. She slumps onto the sofa, trying to remember what she used to do in the evenings when she wasn’t washing clothes, thinking about fun activities for the following day, or worrying about how to put weight on the younger boy, Tate. She stares down at her stomach, lifting her shirt to reveal the scar through which her youngest had emerged. From that very first day she’d known he wasn’t right. It wasn’t science, it was instinct. It’s also instinct that’s telling her she really ought to get up and investigate the noise she’s just heard at the front door. Has something been pushed through the letterbox? It would explain the draught that’s now fluttering the flame of the candle that was supposed to bring her calm. It might also explain the face she thinks she’s seen. It’ll be another bloody takeaway menu, she assures herself, pushing up onto her feet and moving past the entrance to the kitchen where she can see a stack of them on top of the microwave.

A proper meal out with the family would be nice, but it would have to be a restaurant where she could be sure they would understand Tate’s needs, and where it could all be served and eaten before the older boy, Felix, got bored and ran off in search of trouble. She checks her phone again, wondering what Felix is up to right now, sedated by the television, perhaps, or pestering Tate, who ought really to be getting ready for bed. As she turns the corner into the hall she spots a small plastic tractor tucked up against the side of a little pair of shoes. She reaches down to pick it up, not only fearful of the tantrums if it’s lost, but wanting to squeeze it in her palm, as if it might bring her closer to the boys. She feels the draught again and looks up at the front door, expecting to see the letterbox her husband has never got around to fixing stuck ajar, but she finds the door is partly open. Her initial thought is a happy one: the boys have returned and are waiting to jump out and surprise her with their cheekiest grins. The absence of a car in the drive she can see through the gap in the doorway is telling her otherwise. As is her instinct, which is telling her to run. She feels something strike the back of her neck. Hard.

The darkness rises as fast as the floor, giving her just long enough to see the glint of a knife. The last thing she sees a r e Ta t e ’s lit tle s h o e s , c a r e f ully a r r a n g e d b y h e r j u s t min u t e s b e fo r e , r e a d y fo r a t o m o r r o w t h a t will n e v e r c o m e. ONE Katie is woken by an elbow to the face. When she finally manages to pull things into focus the elbow looks to be the only part of the body beside her not covered in hair. Disgusted, she searches for the man’s name, but her thoughts are as twisted as the bedsheets under her, and it’s enough of a struggle to remember her own. She notices the curtains are still open as she peels her cheek from the pillow and rolls over, searching for her phone. A fluorescent alarm clock tells her it was just five hours ago that she was dragged into bed, and perhaps as little as three hours ago that she started trying to get some sleep. She continues her retreat, slipping off the side of the bed and onto a pile of clothes that look like her own. They stink of smoke, booze and sweat, and she has to hold her breath against the smell as she fights her way into them. The body on the bed doesn’t move.

She slips into the bathroom, taking the briefest of glimpses in the mirror. Her shoulder-length dark hair is matted on one side and stubbornly resists being untangled with her fingers. Her make-up is a state, but she can feel the reassuring lump of a lipstick in her trouser pocket and hastily smooths it on, wiping the kohl from under her eyes. The rest is most likely in her handbag, but she has no idea where that could be. She stands perfectly still, replaying as much as she dares of the previous night. She’s sure she left her bag in her car; she’s also fairly certain she drove that car to just outside this flat. The thought makes the room swim and leaves her leaning over the edge of the sink. She walks as quickly and as silently as she can manage down the stairs and out to the street. As she feared, her old Rover is parked a few feet away, one wheel up on the kerb in a residents-only space. She’s relieved to see there’s no ticket on the windscreen, just a splattering of bird shit and a spidery crack she hasn’t got around to fixing.

She’s equally relieved to find a set of keys in her other trouser pocket and her handbag wrapped around a handbrake she’d failed to put on. She climbs behind the steering wheel, pushing aside several cardboard fast-food containers to make room. For once the Rover’s engine starts first time and she stares into the taped-on mirror at the seemingly endless stream of traffic passing by. The people of London are heading to work, and she’s reminded she should be doing the same. She fumbles around in her handbag, pushing past all the familiar objects, before finally spotting her mobile. As her fingers draw it out she feels its vibration. The call ends the moment she looks at the screen, but she can see it’s the latest of twenty, all from a number she hurriedly redials. The answer is instant: urgent and breathless. ‘Is that you, boss?’ ‘What’s wrong, Mike?’ ‘We’ve got one. Walton Road, West Molesey.

Just behind the reservoirs.’ From the map in her head she instantly knows where she needs to go. The difficulty is working out where she is right now. Squinting at a street sign in the distance, she can make a vague approximation. ‘Fifteen minutes,’ she says. ‘Who’s there with you?’ ‘Just Stu and a couple of PCs. We’ve sealed off what we can and tried to protect the scene.’ She waits for him to continue, but he doesn’t. Were it not for his short, sharp breathing, she’d think she’d lost the line. ‘Is there a problem, sergeant?’ As she asks, she realises his voice had sounded different before, constricted by something.

‘Tell me.’ She feels the urge to get going, to drive closer to the answer before it slips away, but the traffic to her left has slowed to a crawl, and she has no magic light to throw on the roof. Distracted by practicalities, she almost misses the words at the end of the line. She opens her mouth to ask DS Peters to repeat himself, but by that point it’s too late; she’s taken in their meaning. The effect is immediate, making her feel like she’s slipping through a hole in the floor of the car. She grips the steering wheel tightly, desperately trying to hold on. ‘You’re sure?’ ‘I am.’ Terrible images flashing up in her mind, terrible possibilities pushing her down. Then, just as she’s certain she will have to let go and sink to a place she knows she’ll never escape, she finds herself standing in the hallway of a stranger’s house, staring at a photo on the wall of two young schoolgirls, smiling broadly, eyes shining with innocent joy. She blinks, and the vision disappears, but the feeling does not.

It lifts her, straightens her, pushes her forward, and suddenly she’s revving the engine, forcing the Rover out into the traffic, ignoring the horns, ignoring the twisting in her gut, ignoring the little voice screaming at her that she’s lost her edge and can’t be trusted to do what is right. TWO Nathan opens his eyes and immediately the desire takes hold. Some days, the best days, it doesn’t come for hours, but today it’s there the very moment he wakes. He sits bolt upright, muscles twitching, desperate to run away and hide. It’s only when he finally considers his surroundings that he remembers he already has. He uncurls his hands and places them lightly on the tops of his thighs, focusing on his breathing as he works his way through the usual reassurances. Then, when the desire has slowly faded, he falls back onto the bed, as drained as if he hadn’t slept at all. He stares towards a shuttered window where sunlight is streaming through a narrow gap. He can just make out the tops of trees on the hills in the distance, bending in the usual north-easterly. He doesn’t need to see the rest to know exactly what’s out there, nothing ever changing but the colours and the sky.

When he eventually rises he does so in stages – sheets pulled back, one foot towards the floor, the second leg swung round till he’s sitting up straight, tying up his shoulderlength hair with an elastic band. As soon as he’s up he’s down again, working through a rigorous exercise routine that leaves him with a splinter and in desperate need of a shower. That shower is hot and long, and he scrubs himself until his skin is flushed pink. Then he returns to the bedroom and pulls off the sheets, taking them down the narrow staircase to the equally narrow kitchen to throw them in the wash. His first meal is as every meal, a tin of something warmed on the hob. When he’s finished, he cleans his teeth in the kitchen sink with a splayed brush and the tiniest dab of toothpaste. Then he walks, still naked, into the living room, flicking on the light to reveal a tiny wooden-beamed space with a high-backed leather armchair in the middle of two piles of books. Without looking he reaches for the top of the taller pile, sits himself down and starts to read. The only distraction is the sound of birds at the top of the chimney and a strengthening wind rattling the locks on the door. Several hours later, the height of the piles has been reversed, three children’s novels read from cover to cover, a quarter of a million words he’s worked his way through so many times he could almost recite them by heart.

Nothing too thrilling. Nothing with crime. He almost laughs when he considers how different it had once been. He pushes himself up from his chair and flicks off the light, reaching for his trainers, the soles of which are worn paper thin. He slips them on and prepares to go outside. Before he pulls back the final bolt on the door he takes a deep breath and reminds himself of the emptiness of the landscape around, of the distance to the nearest village and of the promise made by the only person in the world who knows that he’s here. These days it’s more a ritual than any kind of necessity – like saying his prayers before he goes to bed – because there can no longer be any doubt: he is alone. He walks a few paces then starts to run, following the well-worn path around the house. He doesn’t look up as he makes his circuits; sometimes he doesn’t even need to open his eyes. He finally collapses after a couple of hours, crawling through the dirt and back into the house, using the last dregs of his strength to reach up and draw the bolts across the door.

It’s a while before he’s able to eat any dinner. Even longer before he’s willing to attempt the stairs. When he does, he pauses halfway up to drag a filthy finger across the wall. All around him are the marks he’s left: one a day, every day, covering virtually every inch of the plaster. What had started as an ordered line soon became a tumbling circular smudge, spiralling towards the centre. Now, after three hundred and sixty-two days, he’s almost at that centre, just three more stripes and he’ll have reached his goal. He smiles as he runs a thumb alongside the inside of his left wrist, feeling the narrow band of raised and hardened skin, evidence of the many occasions he didn’t think he’d make it. THREE The house is a small, detached 1960s property tucked away at the end of the street, the front of the house hidden by an overgrown chestnut tree, the back leading out to the reservoir. She waves her warrant card at a young PC as she slips through a gathering crowd and ducks under the perimeter tape. As she approaches the front door she glances across at a carefully maintained rose bed, spotting two flower heads that have been knocked off in their prime, perhaps by the rushed arrival of her team.

The vivid red of the petals seems to soak into her, as does the sense of dread at what’s about to come. She crouches down, certain if she doesn’t she’ll be falling that way. She hopes it appears to those behind as if she’s had to tie a shoelace, and she decides while she recovers to do exactly that, but when she squeezes her eyes shut and pictures those two schoolgirls she feels the shoelace snap in her hand. A moment later the door ahead of her opens and she stares up at all six feet five of DS Mike Peters, wearing a paper forensics suit and a comforting smile. He offers a hand and she takes it, wishing she’d thought to wipe the sweat from her palm, wishing he didn’t so remind her of her dad. ‘It’s okay,’ she says unconvincingly. ‘It’s just…’ She can’t think of anything to say, no excuse for her appearance, nothing that she hasn’t used before. Peters simply nods as she starts to move forward. He passes her a suit to match his own, and she feels, not for the first time, like an actor putting on her costume, playing the part of someone in control. She tries to keep her head down as she moves along a dark, narrow hallway but she can’t resist looking up at a photo that she somehow knew would be there.

It’s of two young boys, both with cheeky grins, both utterly oblivious to the horrors that life can bring. She wonders whether she had ever been like that, or whether she had known the truth from the very beginning. She estimates the older boy to be about three. Three more years with a mother than she ever had. But she knows he won’t remember that time, beyond the photos that his father shares. He’ll never be certain how much his mother loved him. The younger boy, two, perhaps, is far smaller. She knows about that, as well. She’d also been sickly and small as a child, a worry to her dad and a target at school, at least until she’d proven herself ready and willing to fight. And fighting is what she wants to do now when she considers not only what has just ended in this house, but what, for the boys, has only just begun.

Having lost her own mum a long time ago, Katie knows only too well what comes after, likely even worse given the violent nature of this death; she knows about the gradual curdling of knowledge and understanding inside of them. She knows how, even if everyone thinks they’re coping, there’ll be moments that prove them all wrong, flashes of anger, of reckless behaviour and blame. She turns away, eyes blurring, nails digging into her palm. On the floor to her left is a stack of shoes, all carefully arranged with the exception of the smallest pair. Beside them is a toy tractor, crushed flat and with a wheel missing. She steps around this whole area, following the markers instructing her to do so, reminding her to stay on the right path, reminding her just how late she is. In the kitchen at the end of the hallway lights are set up and people are moving around busily as they go about their various assignments. She can still feel the heat of alcohol in her blood and wishes, for the hundredth time, that she’d listened to her boss’s advice to stay at home and get some sleep. Not that she will have learned her lesson. Most likely she’ll be doing the same thing tonight; anything, to try and wash away the collection of memories she knows she’s about to add to.

She feels she ought to say something as she steps into the kitchen, something to break the oppressive silence, but when she finally gets a glimpse of what they’re working around, it’s all she can do not to cry out and run. The victim is young, possibly younger than her own forty years. She meets the eye of Kieran Smith, a young detective new to her team. She knows he’s looking for reassurance, but there’s nothing she can say to convince him they’re going to win here. ‘Name?’ ‘Sarah Cleve.’ She glances across at Sarah’s wedding finger. ‘Husband informed?’ ‘A couple of hours ago,’ says Kieran before looking away, as if he’s the one that should feel guilty for drawing attention to her tardiness. ‘DS Peters and I tried to… But he… But you can’t…’ She knows exactly what he’s trying to say. She’d been the one to inform the husband of the first victim, Sally Brooks, a week ago. He’d refused her request to sit down before she told him the news, and when he’d started to fall she’d only just reached him in time.

He’d cried on her shoulder and then squeezed her as if it might bring his wife back to life. If Katie could have swapped places at that moment, if she could have been the one carved up on the floor while the mother continued to raise her smiling children, she would happily have made that deal. ‘You’ve done well,’ she says to Kieran, managing half a smile. ‘You all have.’ Her voice barely carries to the rest of the room. Once, she’d have easily commanded the scene with clear and precise orders and everyone would have listened, knowing that it was going to get them what they all wanted, but that seems a very long time ago now. The forensic photographer steps aside to give her a better look. The woman’s naked body has been contorted to look as though she’s finishing a golf swing, except her hands have been wrapped around a carving knife instead of a club. Most likely it is the same knife that has been used to cut her neck from ear to ear and spilt a life’s worth of blood across the kitchen floor. Across her bare stomach, part hidden by the now-congealing blood, is a long caesarean scar, around which are hundreds of fresh, tiny slits, starting in a vertical line just beneath her breasts then spiralling round towards the belly button.

Baked beans have been used on the floor to create a speech bubble from her mouth and written in the centre, in capital letters, is a single word: SLICE Someone moves alongside her. She doesn’t need to look across, knowing who he is from how close he’s standing. ‘Good night last night?’ he whispers. ‘When’s it my turn?’ ‘Just a couple more billion first,’ she says, through gritted teeth. ‘Tell me what you know.’ ‘I know you shouldn’t be here in this state. I’d hate to think what might happen if word got back to the Super.’ ‘Well, you’ve seen a lot of terrible injuries,’ she says. ‘I’m sure you can imagine.’ ‘Is that a threat?’ ‘It’s a request for you to stick to what you’re supposed to be good at, Dr Parker.

’ ‘And what are you good at now, DI Rhodes? Not such a star working on your own, are you? Not Daddy’s little protégé anymore.’ She turns to look at him for the first time, lifting her stare past his jutting chest and up to his unbearable grinning face that others have described as handsome, but that she has only ever wanted to punch. ‘About forty years old,’ she says, this time with enough volume for the rest of the room to hear, her eyes still locked on his. ‘A blow to the back of the neck out in the hall, which knocked her out. She was then dragged through here, and her throat was cut with a serrated knife, likely the same knife which has been placed in her hand. Judging by the blood splatter and angle of flow I’d say the rest of the wounds were inflicted after death. Time, probably late yesterday evening. Eight o’clock-ish?’ Dr Miles Parker blinks and takes a step back, almost treading on another forensic examiner crouched behind him taking photographs of a stain on the kitchen floor. He says nothing, but the look of surprise turning to anger is clear on his face. ‘Just remember who has the qualifications,’ he says, quietly.

‘From what I hear you barely went to school.’ ‘If you think this job is about qualifications,’ says Katie, with a sigh, ‘then you clearly still have a lot to learn.’ She returns her attention to the body, running her eyes across the figure until they fix on the inside of the woman’s right thigh. She’s poorly shaved up there, perhaps expecting such an area would not be seen by anyone, not even her husband now the young kids are dominating their lives. It feels like a crime in itself to be staring, to be focusing on such an intimate spot. But she has no choice. She has to know. She contorts her body to get a better view, her back starting to protest as it remembers a slipped disc from a reckless but successful pursuit in the past. It had earned her both a medal and a reprimand, but she knows she would be just as reckless now if it meant she could catch the bastard that did this. ‘It’s not there,’ says DS Peters, nodding towards the victim then looking away.

‘Perhaps the other mark didn’t mean anything.’ Katie is sure she knows better. She doesn’t believe in coincidence. What she has always believed in is working as a team, sharing every thought and feeling, no matter how insignificant it might seem, and yet what she’s thinking and choosing to keep to herself right now is far from insignificant. ‘Could something have leaked?’ she asks, weakly. ‘Could this be a copy?’ DS Peters nods towards the kitchen. ‘Do you really want two people out there to be capable of that?’ She lowers and shakes her head at the same time, embarrassed by her suggestion, by her desperation. She’s known all along that Sally Brooks’ killer would strike again, and yet now that it’s happened she feels utterly unprepared. She has no idea where to begin, no instinct to go on other than to do what she’s never done in her eighteen years of service and walk away. Even when she pictures the other victims – the parents, the husbands, the boys and the girls – she finds no strength, no inspiration.

All she can think to do is apologise. She turns towards the body, intending to do just that. She crouches down, struggling to keep her knee from the floor, and starts to whisper something in private, stopping abruptly when she spots a mark below Sarah’s right nipple. She blinks a couple of times and inches closer, focusing on two tiny dots on the skin. They could so easily be ignored, dismissed as two more among the many moles on this woman’s body. But just as with the first victim, Katie knows better. She reaches out to point, to share, then quickly pulls her arm back, lifting it to rub the back of her neck which has broken out in a sweat. The significance of her discovery is hitting home, bombarding her with possibilities that leave her breathless. Wordless. The room around her is starting to spin, and she stands up quickly for fear of contaminating the scene.

She stumbles forward and for a moment believes she’s going to fall on the victim, but at the last second, a powerful arm grabs hold of her, stands her up and leads her out into the garden. DS Peters gives her time. He’s always given her time, as well as trust and respect. All the things she’d struggled to earn from the others. When he does speak, it’s with a soft and understanding voice. ‘This isn’t easy for any of us,’ he says, swallowing hard, and she’s reminded that he was the one who had to break the news to the husband. ‘Which is why we need to work together.’ She steps back from his grasp and considers his stare, wondering if he knows that she’s been holding back, but all she sees in his eyes is concern. ‘The team is still with you,’ he continues. ‘Those that you aren’t always winding up.

’ He nods towards Dr Parker, who’s watching her closely from inside the house. ‘It’s the one thing about him that’s hard to resist,’ she says, giving him a grin and a wink, before turning back to Peters.

.

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