Someone Else's Skin

Hellraiser

Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year 2015. The Observer's Book of the Month ("superbly disturbing”) and a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, it has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series, was published in April 2015. The Marnie Rome series is being developed for television. 

You can buy SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN here

Follow Sarah on Twitter at @Sarah_Hilary

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Five years ago

They’ve cordoned off the house by the time she gets home. A uniformed stranger is unwinding police tape, methodically.

Marnie watches from the safety of the car, her fingers icy on the ignition key, the engine running as if she might make a quick getaway, drive past and keep driving…

She knows she won’t get through the police cordon, but she also knows she has to. Whatever else is in the house – and she’s scared, so scared her teeth ache – answers are in there. She needs to get inside.

She cuts the engine, burying the keys in her fist, their teeth biting the hollow pocket of her palm. She’s shivering before she’s out of the car.

An ambulance, there’s an ambulance, but it’s standing silent, no sirens or sweeping lights. The crew’s in the house, no one’s in a hurry to leave. That’s not good. It means there isn’t any hope, the worst possible thing has happened. Her face is wet and she looks for rain, but the sky’s empty, grey, as if someone has dragged a tarpaulin across it. There’s no rain, just the dull, raspy pressure that comes before a storm.

It’s been raining all month. Like the rest of London, she’s got used to it; there’s an umbrella in her glove compartment, another in her desk back at the station, and in the bag at her shoulder. She’s not going to get wet queuing for coffee or coming out of the tube station, or standing around at crime scenes. Be prepared isn’t a motto, it’s common sense. When you can pull it off. When it’s not something so huge and horrible you’re afraid to get close.

She looks for the PCSO.

There, wearing a fluorescent vest over his uniform by the side of Dad’s car, the brown Vauxhall, his pride and joy. The car manages to shine even without the sun, like the windows to the house, dazzling her. As if everything behind the tape is made of glass, breakable. Even the hanging basket of petunias over the door. Breakable.

Marnie stands on the pavement, her teeth knocking together with cold, knowing she has to get into the house, knowing she can’t.

She’s fourteen again, home late, hoping to sneak in under her parents’ radar. Her eyes are itchy with mascara, her tongue dry and patchy with tequila. It feels like a snake’s crawled inside her left boot and strangled her toes to sleep. She’s limping, heroic and guilt-stricken. She’ll never make it in there alive…

She shakes herself back into the present. She’s not fourteen. She’s twenty-eight, petrified of what she’s going to find the other side of the police cordon. Silence, and that dark zoo stink that’ll be in her clothes for hours and on her skin for longer.

She forces herself to think of something else. A different crime scene, one she’s survived, worse than whatever’s waiting in the house. Albie Crane…

She thinks of Albie Crane. A homeless old man, no next of kin. Burned alive in a doorway down by the docks, by kids high on pocket-money-priced pills. Back before the rain started, while it was still dry enough for an old coat and six flattened cardboard boxes to burn all night so that what’s left is a sticky mess of flayed ribs, a blackly lacquered skull. Old Albie Crane with no one to cry for him, and she made herself repeat the lie, ‘He was sleeping when it happened,’ as if you could sleep through a thing like that. The worst she’d seen, or smelt, until the next thing: a couple in a house fire, melted together by the flames.

The PCSO is young enough to have acne, but it doesn’t make any difference. He’s in charge here. He could stop the Chief Constable crossing that line.

Something – a breeze, traffic – makes the police tape stiffen and turn. The sound it makes is snick-snick-snick.

The edge of her eye catches Mrs Poole, her parents’ neighbour, huddled in the porch of number 12. Her face is spotty with shock and there’s a foil blanket around her shoulders, but no one is with her. All the action is next door. No one else is hurt, or the cordon would be wider. Normally, that would be a comfort, the fact that the damage is contained. Private.

Seeing Marnie, Mrs Rose moans, a hand coming up to hide her mouth.

Marnie ducks to pass under the tape.

‘Miss. You can’t go in there.’ Up close, the acne is lurid, red and yellow. The PCSO squares up to her, authority lending him an inch all in directions.

She shows her badge, remembering too late that after the DS, it gives her surname. Rome, like the couple in the house. DS Marnie Rome. Greg and Lisa’s little girl.

A big hand on her shoulder makes her jump.

Tim Welland, her boss.

Now she knows it’s as bad as it gets.

‘DS Rome,’ he says quietly. ‘Marnie.’

Using her first name. It’s worse, much worse.

‘Please.’ She just wants to get inside the house. She’s shaking with cold out here. ‘Sir, please…’

He steers her with his hand on her shoulder, back towards the tape. She feels it tap the waist of her shirt. ‘Sir…’

Welland has a scab above his left eyebrow, too high to be a shaving scar. It’s crusty, ringed like a bull’s eye. Red veins spoil the whites of his eyes. He looks ill. Old.

‘Let me go in,’ she says. ‘Please. Let me go in to them.’

‘Not yet. Not – yet.’

He holds her in place with his bear’s paw, but he can’t stop her seeing past his shoulder to where a SOCO is coming out, bloody knees to his white overalls and a polybag held in front of him, at arm’s length.

A knife. Mum’s bread knife, its steel teeth full of tattered red skin.

There’s a low noise of protest, like an animal in chronic pain, before a dry barking sob. Marnie can’t stand it, wants to block her ears, but it’s her mouth she needs to block; the sound’s coming out of her.

Welland lowers her to the kerb. She fights him. She’s not this person. She won’t be this person – the one who collapses and weeps at the roadside, who can’t take the knock on the door, who falls and never gets back up again.

The victim. She won’t be the victim.

‘Take a minute, Detective.’ Welland’s hand is heavy on the back of her neck. She has no choice but to put her forehead on her knees. ‘Just … take a minute.’

 

(C) Sarah Hilary 2014

 

 

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