An extract from A Godforsaken Place, an Oxbridge City series novel in-progress. The novel is a prequel to the eco-crime thriller Seven Ways to Kill a City, written on the UEA Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) MA.
Two Years Ago
At first, his flesh recedes. The skin, delicate and pampered, is trying to escape. She thinks of it as a shoreline retracting a few seconds before a tsunami.
He’s trying to scream, but he coughs on the fumes of the gag. Echoes reverb round the basement room. Shadows pirouette like a living entity. His noises give the dark shapes an eery, dissonant voice.
He sizzles as she presses. It reminds her of a cheap steakhouse. The mesmeric blue jet flame of the butane torch cigarette lighter searing deeper into his forearm, gives her goosebumps. She can’t deny it’s giving her a form of conflicted pleasure, but right now she is only interested in watching skin.
It fizzles. Bubbles. Moves.
The skin, they say, is the largest organ in the body. For an average adult the skin weighs eight pounds and covers twenty-two square feet.
That’s a lot to play with. A lot to burn. A leviathan of living canvas to exploit with the artform that is pain and death. Retribution and justice.
She once had a name, had a glimpse at a life. He took it from her.
She allows herself a glance into his eyes.
How can hope be defined? True hope can only be explained when you stare into the eyes of a victim pleading, aimlessly. Them strapped to a chair, being watched, observed, played with, pleading—when none of it will change the outcome.
Her capacity for compassion eroded by the acts of men. This man, specifically.
She is no longer humane. She’s barely human.
She is a pumice stone. Formed from heat and fire, pressurised and cooled. She now carries herself as a lightweight thing, an object full of holes, where there was once a person, once a soul.
Her victim is shaking. It is the tremble he can’t control. It is the reflex of the body activating emergency measures. The man—no he’s not a man—the vermin in front of her, has himself inflicted pain and injury on others. She watches him with a sense of curiosity. Does he understand his reactions mirror those of his own victims?
They both know the outcome is inevitable.
He mumbles something behind the petrol-soaked cloth that gags him.
‘Sorry,’ she says. She doesn’t relax the pressure of the flame. She keeps it level, steady. He needs to know he’s not talking his way out of this. ‘What did you say, love?’
She doesn’t let him talk. She inches the intense blue flame further up his arm so it’s near to his elbow.
His eyes no longer misplaced pools of hope. The cinereal sockets contain inky craters of fear, basins of shadowy pain.
Soon he will be at one with the fire. A dancing carousel of liquid blue flames, warm burnt orange, cool tips of yellow. And in there, at the core, a contorted charred centre of muscle and bone. Eventually, there won’t be much of him left at all. He will become nothing more than a wick of fat, muscle and tissue fuelling the beautiful kaleidoscope of death.
She feels her eyesight closing. A pressure. Rapid pulse. Beat, beat, beating in her neck. She can sense the rhythm of her breathing, faster, faster, faster, through her respiratory mask.
Can he see his own pitiful reflections in the insectile lenses that protect her eyes? She hopes so.
She removes the mask. Perhaps a mistake given she’s suffered the choking debilitation of inhalation and the fresh onion eye-sting of acrid smoke. But what is life if you can’t fully savour, fully experience the elation and relief?
She knows this feeling. It will build, she will feel euphoria. It’s like sexual intimacy, only less grubby. There is greater purity, higher reward. Instead of creating life, she is destroying it—no, she’s transforming it. She knows what comes next is not the downward spiral of an addict, it is relief, it is a sense of cleansing. For what is fire but a new beginning?
There is a pattern. Each time, the same. She feels rapture, liberation, a lightness of being—it’s as close to flying as a person can achieve without a machine. Then, sometimes she questions, sometimes there is regret and guilt, but the compulsion returns—more so since losing Zak. He’s what kept her level, allowed her to be seen, to be touched, to be loved—for everything she was, all she decided not to be. But that is no more.
The man in front of her requires no remorse and no guilt after he’s ignited. The guy jerks his head back. His shoulders, wrapped and bound to the chair, cut and slice him as he buzzes and flails. A bluebottle caught on glue paper.
She stops the jet flame from searing him. Not yet. The smell. The aroma of summer, family barbecues, drunken smiles, children’s laughter. Skin crystalising, becoming crackling, it is repugnant to her vegan lifestyle—she wants to gag but can’t. She must remain strong—no signs of weakness. His fear must be complete.
She waves the jet flame in front of his face, perhaps ten inches. No closer. The flame could ignite on the petrol vapour. Now is not the time. More fear is desired. Needed.
More pleading. More gutless murmuring.
Did this pathetic insect not realise what would happen to him? He took Zak’s life as if he was simply a rubbish truck cleaning the city streets early in the morning. To him, Zak was no more than a polystyrene takeaway box cluttering up the gutters.
Zak. He was everything to her. There was nothing else. Nothing else but this.
This man, in front of her. He is the last.
How many now had she killed for Zak? Three, four? There were more, of course, but accidents happen when you’re dealing with flames.
And what happens after this?
She knows there is no closure. No neat tick-box followed by clean pristine pages on which to write her beautiful life lived with happiness, laughter and fulfilment for her, for the memory of Zak, for what they had, what they lost, what they could have had. No. That’s not how it works.
It works like this.
She will finish this job.
She’ll feel high. Then relief. Beyond this, the need would return.
Tunnelling beneath her skin like a burrowing cockroach.
Then she’ll move on. She knows not to dream of an end to this. Just a new beginning, a new victim. Those that killed Zak will soon be gone, but there are others. The world is full of them. A new target, the planning, the thrill, the fire, flames, smoke, soot, charred and bent remnants, twisted bodies like grotesque charcoaled pipe-cleaners, metal warped, plastics melted and set in obscene gravity-defying angles. There would be cleansing. Cleansing for a short while. Then, then… repeat all over again.
The secret is to forgo hope itself. To realise that the land of resolution and forgiveness is one she can only visit… not inhabit. She is someone else now. The old her is more dead than Zak, more dead than this man in front of her will be.
And that’s okay.
It’s more than okay.
The basement is a chamber where everything echoes. She hears a noise, alien and foreign to the mumbles, moans, and heavy breathing of her fuel-soaked captive.
The stairs. Footsteps.
Not tentative and slow.
She doesn’t have time to pounce on the intruder.
Instead, she retreats back a few steps. This is no accident, whoever is making their way down can only be for her. It can only be the police. Who else is there? She needs them to know there are consequences for cornering her. This person surely knows who she is and what she is capable of. If not, they soon will. She angles her body to show her cards as graphicly as she can—to let the cop know she’s not screwing around. Her grip tightens on the jet torch lighter. The police officer will see the victim as they round the stairs. They will know that she is in control and there is nothing they can do to stop her or alter the outcome.
‘Stop!’ she shouts.
‘University of Oxford Police,’ the response cascades down the stairwell. ‘Let him go and we can talk.’
Talk. Of course. That’s how all this is going to be resolved. The police, always thinking the answer was in talking. ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
‘Rob Anto,’ he says. ‘I’m not armed. I just want to talk.’ She can hear him pad down another step. ‘I’m slowly making my way down. My hands are up. I’m no danger to you. Can we talk, please?’
‘I have nothing to say,’ she replies. ‘Now, stop right where you are, Rob, or I’ll torch this sack of shit.’ There is a small tremble in her voice. She knows it might make her seem nervous, uncertain or weak, when in reality, she’s in control. She clears her throat. ‘You come down here and he’s fucking toast.’
Well, not toast, but a human bonfire.
He charges down.
She torches her victim.
Her senses detach and almost fragment. Sensory input triggers from all directions as the flames engulf the man in autumn colours of endings and renewals. Fire does that, it is a consummation and… a birth. A millisecond later, the whoosh, the sound of muffled screaming, the hiss-crackle of skin and hair, that stench of human scalp burning never really leaves a place. She feels the oxygen like a gentle wind being sucked towards the human wick.
The policeman clatters to the floor.
And for a moment she is frozen. Not in fight or flight mode—his appearance throws her. Her mind races.
The gun weighs heavily in her camo cargo pants. The same gun that she threatened her victim with. The same gun, that really is a last resort. Its heft is almost making her lopsided in her momentary uncertainty.
What throws her is not the uniform of the cop, or his ridiculously traditional homburg hat with ringed in shiny Oxford Blue ribbon. It’s not even the fire extinguisher he is at this very moment aiming at her. It’s his face.
She has never seen anyone like him. Maybe on TV, perhaps in news reports of aviation crash victims. Of Godforsaken faraway war-ravaged places of napalm, of cluster bombs, of valleys of nuclear fire. Of annihilated skin. Or acid burns—she’s not sure. She is stunned by the beauty of his scars, frozen in repugnance of his difference—she’s processing. Processing. We are conditioned by our genetics to evaluate differences, to judge what might hurt us, what we should harbour as precious. The victim she has just torched, who is burning, won’t survive. Others she has burnt didn’t survive either. But this man, the police officer, this seraph and demon, somehow endured his own fire long ago. He transformed from one thing to another. He is to be respected… and feared.
In a way, he is perfect, striking in his wounds of survival. And as he opens the nozzle of the cloudy spray towards her, she is, for the briefest moment, mesmerised by this man—this almost ethereal presence who has come to proclaim judgement on her.
Her vision clouds. The breath is taken from her.
She crouches. She’s hunkered, coughing, spluttering. The cop rushes past and his focus is entirely on the victim
He’s too late, but he doesn’t know this yet.
Time to escape.
Time to live to burn another day.
She scrambles to her feet, clambers up the stone stairs towards the ground floor of the derelict cottage. She powers through the dark spaces, wood chewed with rot, walls scatter gunned with mould spores, beyond these grim spaces is the unhinged doorway.
She bundles through, her gun clattering against her left leg, smashing her thigh and the spaces just above her knee with every desperate step towards freedom.
Outside, the fading summer twilight is filtered by the canopy of the woodland. The sway of the branches dappling spots of pathetic light in her path.
She trips. Doesn’t that always happen in a chase?
Not far behind her she hears the sound of breaking twigs, of rustled foliage. Closer. Closer still. He must have realised there was no hope for her victim and she’s the only focus of his radar now.
She turns. He’s bounding towards her. He’s no longer wearing his hat, no longer drained by the weight of his fire extinguisher. His scowl and narrow focus on her, has turned her from predator to prey. She is no longer captivated by his scarred patinaed skin. She bolts into escape mode.
‘Stop!’ he shouts.
Rob. Poor Rob. He thinks she might comply, but to obey would be to endanger himself. He can’t fight a gun. Can’t outrun a bullet. He might have healed from whatever caused his scars, but close-range firearms are beyond him. He doesn’t know yet that she has this ultimate power. She has his life in her hands.
She feels for him. If it were any other situation she would be on his side, but while it’s not a choice between him and her, she runs. Sprints with everything in her.
Legs spring, arms pump. But there is no denying the gun is holding her back, whacking her with every forward momentum. No refuting he’s faster and soon it will be too late.
She slows. Fumbles for the gun.
She doesn’t intend to use it, just hold it—stop it from clattering her leg.
In the rush to maintain forward momentum and yank the weapon from her pocket, the unthinkable happens. The handgun slips from her grasp and tumbles into the deep lush carpet of the woodland.
Her trajectory carries her forward a few steps. She stops. Caught between running and getting the gun. It’s her safety, her insurance. She’s not being locked away in some barbaric prison for putting things right, for simply doing what the police were unwilling to do.
She steps back. She has enough time. Just. If she’s quick, focused, purposeful. He’s almost on her. But it’s worth the risk.
In the verdant spring of vegetation, there is a small depression. She crouches. Almost immediately the cool metal greets her. She grasps it. Turns.
She doesn’t see him before she is clattered to the ground where they are both in a scramble for control of the weapon.
She’s facing him, he has her pinned to the ground. Thrashing her hand against the floor, trying to get her to release the handgun. She wriggles, wrestles, trying to get away. He increases his force, smashing her hand. And time slows like it’s being observed by God, and time is rapid like it has somewhere to be. And she doesn’t know how it happens, but it does.
The gunshot punctures the air. Tears life asunder. Fragments this moment in time.
A scattering of birds.
Like they are not jolted by the fear of the noise. It is as if they know the consequences rippling through eternity from this moment on. His life changes. Her life alters. Everything in this world has now deviated from a path set less than a few seconds ago.
His hand loosens on hers.
Silence. Silence but for the dog whistle tinnitus caused by the gunshots.
He slumps to the ground.
His stare is faraway, to some place beyond the woodlands. Some place she’ll never know.
He’s not dead. Not yet. But it’s close.
She can’t save him.
To even try would implicate herself further.
She didn’t mean to shoot him. Didn’t mean to kill him.
It was his fault.
If he didn’t try to get the gun, maybe he’d be alive.
If he didn’t wrestle her.
Didn’t try to stop her.
Didn’t find her.
If she didn’t capture the last victim.
Didn’t burn all those people.
All those places.
Tears sting in her eyes.
Tears will impede her exit.
She wipes them away with the cuff of her sleeve.
It’s coated red.
Her face must be too.
It’s close to dark now. Nobody will see her.
She can make it, if she’s quick.
She needs to survive. It’s what Zak would want.
And in her world of flames, she is the one who walks through them. She is the one that comes out unscathed while everything around her is reduced to black.
There is beauty in the sparks. In the colours of the flame. In the weave of motion, the essence of something developing beyond her control. Fire is like the child they never had. The child they lost. Before Zak it was different. The fires were needs and desires—that much is still true—but she looked at it in a more destructive way. Now she sees she is both the mother and father to it. Each birth a new child. She creates from nothing, nourishes, nurtures, guides and protects. Every child needs to make its own way in the world and once it is beyond a point there is no turning back—nothing more she can do but wait all over again.
The police officer, Rob, gurgles. Splotches of blood spew from his gaping mouth. It is a lonely place to die. She wishes, in a way, that he didn’t have to leave the world like this. That fire could keep him company, consume him. But fire has already scarred him once before, and he survived it. She wasn’t responsible for whatever happened to him long ago, but she knows he doesn’t deserve to die by her flames.
Once, there was a picture of her. A grainy CCTV image. She was pictured walking as a silhouette, through the smoke and flames. A media reporter said she looked like a Red Salamander; the name stuck. She was impervious to the flames, so they said, but fire-retardant spray on your outer clothing gives you a lot of scope for a short duration. Beyond that she wore tight fire-resistant underclothing, like a F1 driver, it covered her hair and most of her face. Then there was the respirator mask she got from a prepper conspiracy freak—no questions asked. It’s summer, and even as the night draws in, she is hot and sticky with all the clothing. But heat is her thing.
Rob splutters again.
She bends down. He’s trying to say something.
She wonders what it is. But what difference does it make?
Survival is what she needs right now.
She can’t leave the weapon. She needs to take it with her.
She needs to go somewhere.
Ditch the gun.
Change clothing and shoes.
Take the old clothing.
Burn it all.