Should have Hoovered, he thinks, picking a piece of fluff from his tongue. Should have made it pretty.
He feels a pressure in his lower back.
Should have had a piss too.
He pushes himself up, raising his body from the floor, a mermaid ascending in a crash of spray, and attempts to brush the crumbs and cat hairs from his shiny chest.
All this bloody oil, he thinks. So slippy. So slick. Going to be like wrestling a dolphin . . .
The alarm on his phone bleeps. It is gone ten. His visitor is later than he had intended to allow.
Big girl’s blouse, he calls himself, and then, in his father’s voice: ‘Fucking poof.’
The boy has been here some time. He is feeling uncomfortable. The wrong kind of dirty. Desire is starting to fade.
He wonders if there is a word to describe this opposite of ardour: the dissipation of lust; the moment when passion loosens its noose.
He is beginning to feel a little silly. A little undignified.
He tries to think of a better way to describe the sensation. He likes words. Likes to be thought of as articulate. Uses the apostrophe in the right place when promising to fulfil any lover’s desire. Takes an effort with his poetry.
He is suddenly aware of the shabbiness of this picture. Here, in his cheap, first-floor flat, naked on his cheap carpet, shooing away his cat when she appears at his bedroom door and fixes him with an expression of sneering superiority.
‘Five more minutes,’ he says again, and wonders if this will be another let-down. Whether he will have wasted time and expectation on another coward.
His back and shoulders are beginning to burn in the glare of the three-bar heater. It’s an odd feeling. The rest of him is shivering and goose-pimpled. He turns himself over, suppressing a giggle as he thinks of himself as a chicken on a rotisserie.
‘Spit-roasted,’ he says to himself and laughs into his bare arm.
His face is now in the glare. It’s too hot. He turns back again, concerned that he will look red and sweaty. He raises a hand to pick more crumbs and fluff from his face.
The lad is in his mid-twenties, tall and thin. His face, beginning to carry the imprint of the dusty carpet that covers the entirety of his one-bedroomed flat, is split by fleshy lips and a too-large nose. He is not attractive, but there are benefits to his company.
‘I’m accommodating,’ he says into the carpet, his mouth and forearm making a pocket of cigarette breath, and wriggles, willing himself back into character.
He is naked. Starfished, face-down on the floor of his living room. There is not much room for his gangly frame. He has had to push back the charity-shop two-seater sofa and throw the old takeaway pizza boxes into his bedroom to be able to suitably accommodate his visitor.
‘Five more minutes,’ he says again, reluctant to accept that tonight’s fantasy will remain just that.
He reaches out for his mobile phone, tucked inside one of his battered white trainers. No new messages.
He reads the recent ones.
Feels the excitement build afresh. Has to reposition himself to accommodate the growing hardness between his legs.
Begins to feel the hunger. A languid luxury easing itself into his movements.
Time to walk like a panther, He giggles.
Hard as nails. Pretty as a picture.
You should charge, boy. You’re a fucking treat.
Like a fleetingly sober drunk gulping whisky, the returning rush of sexuality alters his perceptions. He begins to feel better about the picture he presents. Remembers kind words and grateful embraces. Preens a little as he imagines the picture he presents to the open door. He knows his back and buttocks to be a breathtaking display; the ink that crawls up to his shoulders worth the agony that he screamed into the tattooist’s table.
He will make his visitor happy.
There is a sudden creak on the stairs.
He smiles, and his breath comes out in a tremble.
Here we go.
He arches his back. Presents himself for inspection. Raises his face to ensure the belt, coiled snake-like, is where he left it.
‘Is this what you wanted?’ he asks, throaty and sensual.
There is silence for a moment. The floorboards creak.
Then he feels the familiar weight on his back. The sensation of being pinned beneath another human being. The excitement of welcome helplessness that comes with giving yourself to another.
In the periphery of his vision, the belt is scooped up in a gloved hand. He closes his eyes, eager to play.
‘Am I your fantasy?’ he asks again.
The reply, when it finally comes, is hissed into his ear: a tumbled rush of excited words.
‘To die for.’
There is a sudden, biting, flesh-ripping sensation, as though his Adam’s apple is being forced up into his skull.
Spittle hisses from between his ghoulishly parted lips, frothing on his chin, into the dust and crumbs. His eyes bubbling, popping, like microwaved soup . . .
In an instant, his faculties are at once dulled and frenzied, his thoughts twisted and squeezed.
Too tight, too hard, too much; fantasy becoming fear.
The words again . . .
‘Your friend. Pink blossoms. The laughing girl.’
There is only confusion and hurt, a sensation of becoming somehow less; of reducing, melting, puddling into nothing . . .
‘The girl. Laughing at me . . .’
Darkness closes in as his oily fingers and skinny legs drum on the dusty floor.
An instant of clarity. A sudden heartbeat of understanding. What this is for. Why he is dying. Why the life is leaving his body and the poetry leaving his soul. What they want. What he must do . . .
The voice again, wet in his ear.
‘The one who looked and laughed . . .’
A knee now, hard in his spine; his back arching, teeth bringing blood to his thin lips, blood thundering in his ears . . .
He wants to plead. Wants to beg for his life. Wants this to stop. Wants to live. To write and create. To fuck and dance.
‘Name. Her fucking name.’
He knows now. Knows these will be his last words. Knows that all the warnings were for nothing. He’s going to die, and his final act in this life will be one of betrayal.
The cord loosens for the slightest of moments. The strong hands readjust their grip.
The boy takes a gulp of air. Tries to swallow it. Manages only to hiss, before the cord cuts back under his jawbone and an explosion of sweet-smelling blood flowers and flows from his eyes.
‘Suzie . . .’
Her name at once an act of treachery and a dying invocation.
‘They weren’t here when I went to bed at midnight. Bold as brass when I got up at six a.m.’ The man waves an arm, despairingly. ‘I mean, when did they turn up?’
Detective Constable Helen Tremberg shrugs her shoulders. ‘Between midnight and six, I’m guessing.’
‘But they made no noise! And now listen! It’s bedlam. How did they not wake anybody up?’
Tremberg has nothing to offer. ‘Perhaps they’re ninjas.’
The man fixes her with a look. He’s in his late thirties and dressed for an office job. He has greying black hair and utterly style-free glasses. Something about his manner suggests to Tremberg that he is on a low-risk pension plan, and has a tendency to examine the contents of his handkerchief after blowing his nose. She fancies that after his second glass of wine, his sentences begin to start with the words ‘I’m not a racist, but . . .’
He saw the travellers from his bathroom window as he was brushing his teeth. Saw, in his words, ‘the sheer pandemonium’ and rang 999. He was not the first person on the leafy street overlooking the football field to do so, but he is the only one who has decided to get in Tremberg’s face about the situation.
Until half an hour ago Tremberg had been looking forward to today. She has been pretty much desk-bound since her return to work, unable to take part in even vaguely interesting operations until she completed her chats with the force psychologist and had her doctor sign the last of the seemingly endless forms promising that the slash wound to her hand has left no permanent damage. Tonight, all being well, she’s allowed back to the sharp end of policing, watching her boss, Trish Pharaoh, slap cuffs on the wrists of a gangland soldier and closing down a drugs operation. She wants to be involved. Needs it. Has to show willing and prove she hasn’t lost her bottle. Wants to demonstrate to anybody who doubts it that nearly getting her throat cut by a serial killer has been laughed off and dealt with ‘old school’ – voided from her system with vodka and a good cry.
‘When will they be gone?’ the man is asking her. ‘What are you going to do? This is a nice neighbourhood. We pay our taxes. I’ve nothing against them, but there are places. There are sites! What are you going to do?’
Tremberg doesn’t offer an answer. She has none. She does not want to talk to this man. She wants to get to work. She doesn’t want to be leaning against the goalposts of the playing fields that stitch the affluent villages of Anlaby and Willerby together. She feels like a goalkeeper watching a match take place at the opposite end of the pitch.
‘Should have stayed in the car,’ she says to herself and looks past the man to where the caravans are parked up, not far from the halfway line of the adjacent rugby pitch. Drinks in the pandemonium.
Six caravans, four off-road cars, a Mercedes and three horse-boxes, at least two generators and, as far as she can see, a portable toilet. They are arranged in a loose semi-circle around three floral-print sofas and a sun-lounger on which a rapidly multiplying number of traveller women and children are sitting drinking tea, talking to uniformed officers, and occasionally shouting at the schoolchildren and bored motorists who have got out of their motionless cars to watch the commotion through the park railings.
Like most of East Yorkshire, Tremberg is stuck here. Her car is a few streets back, snarled up in the bi-monthly gridlock caused by a local transport infrastructure with the breaking strain of a KitKat.
Bored, with nothing to do but look at the dark, gloomy sky through the dusty glass of her Citroën, she had switched on the radio in the hope of finding something soothing. She was two minutes into ‘California Dreamin’, and idly wondering why it appeared to be the only song owned by Radio Humberside, when the traffic report cut in. Half a dozen horses loose on Anlaby Road, and travellers causing uproar on the playing fields by the embankment. She’d had little option but to get out of the car and see if she could lend a hand.
‘Are you going to shoot the horses?’
Tremberg gives the man her attention. ‘Pardon?’
‘The police! Will you shoot the horses?’
‘Not personally,’ says Tremberg, close to losing her patience. ‘The Animal Control Unit is on its way. They’re stuck in traffic too. We’re doing our best. I could go get one of the bastards in a headlock if you keep hold of its legs . . .’
Ken Cullen, the thin, bearded, uniformed inspector currently in charge of trying to bring some degree of order to the scene, overhears the dangerous note in the detective’s voice and hurries over.
‘I’m sorry, sir, we’re doing everything we can. If you could just return home for the moment and allow us to deal with this . . .’
Tremberg turns away as somebody better equipped to tolerate wankers sends the busybody on his way. The inspector fixes her with a bright smile as he spins back to her.
‘Bet you wish you’d never stopped to help, eh?’
‘Nothing better to do, Ken. Stuck here with every bugger else. Thought I’d see if I could assist, but this really isn’t my cup of tea.’
‘Dunno, Helen. You’ve got the physique for crowd control!’
Tremberg shares a laugh with her old uniformed sergeant recently risen to inspector, who has moved, like her, across the water from Grimsby.
‘I was pleased to hear you’re on the mend,’ he says and means it. ‘All better now?’
Tremberg flicks a V-sign at him. ‘Lost none of my dexterity,’ she says, smiling.
Cullen gives her a quick once-over. Takes in the thin sports cagoule she wears over sensible pinstriped trouser suit and white blouse. Her hair is cut in a neat bob and she wears no make-up or jewellery. He knows from quiz nights and leaving dos that she scrubs up well and has extraordinary legs when she hitches her skirt up, but Tremberg is deliberately sexless when on duty. Many other female detectives have adopted her approach, appalled by any suggestion they have used their femininity to gain favour, but in so doing have opened themselves up to suggestions of lesbianism. Tremberg frequently wishes she could possess the carefree, fuck-you attitude of Trish Pharaoh, who wears what she wants and doesn’t give a damn whether people think she is after dicks or dykes.
For a while the pair of them grumble about the local council closing off the rat runs and giving commuters nowhere to go if the main arteries in and out of town are snarled up. They agree that the local authority is staffed with do-gooders and morons and that the new chair of the Police Authority will no doubt balls it up even more.
Their pleasantly English moan is turning towards the grey skies and the cost of petrol when a young WPC approaches. She looks harassed and windblown in her muddy yellow waterproof.
‘We’ve got all but one of them, sir,’ she says, in a voice that suggests she has struggled to avoid using a more vulgar term. ‘Sergeant Parker and Dan managed to box them in. They’re in the car park in the Beech Tree. Can’t get out. Another bloke with a Land Rover blocked the gap. The owners are trying to get them roped now. It’s chaos, sir. Poor Mickey’s ripped his trousers trying to pull one back by the hair. The mane. Whatever. Half of Anlaby’s covered in horse shit. And the bloody pikey kids aren’t helping, singing bloody “Rawhide” . . .’
Tremberg has had to hide her face as she pictures the local bobbies desperately trying to round up the escaped animals, clapping and hollering and trying to stop the nags from eating the herbaceous borders of anybody important.
‘And the last one?’ asks Cullen, pulling on his peaked cap.
‘It’s a real nasty shit. Pikey said it was a stallion who smelled a mare in season. Put a dent in half a dozen cars so far. Seems to particularly hate Audis.’
‘And the animal team?’
The WPC snorts, herself momentarily horse-like. ‘Having a very helpful meeting in the back of their unit. Lots of flicking through guidelines and phoning vets. I’m not expecting much in the way of action. I’m backing the big fella.’
This last she says with a genuine smile.
She turns herself to Tremberg. Smiles in a way that the detective is starting to recognise. ‘Scottish bloke from your unit. The one who . . .’
‘McAvoy?’ Tremberg’s eyebrows shoot up and she looks around as if he may be watching.
‘Yeah. One of the lads gave him a ring. Said he knew about animals. Farmer’s boy, or something, isn’t he? Just turned up a minute ago. Don’t know where he parked his car but I think he ran here.’
‘And what’s he doing?’
The officer takes off her hat and gives an appreciative little shake of her head.
‘About to start playing tug-of-war with a horse.’
Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy spent his first months in plain clothes taking the title literally. He all but camouflaged himself in khaki-coloured trousers, hiking boots and cheap, mushroom-hued shirts; tearing them fresh from polythene packets every Monday. The disguise never worked. At 6 foot 5 inches, and with red hair, freckles and Highlander moustache, he is always the most noticeable man in the room.
It was his young wife, Roisin, who put a stop to his attempts to blend in. She told him that, as a good-looking big bastard, he owed it to himself not to dress like ‘a fecking bible-selling eejit’. Roisin has a way with words.
Despite his objections, he had let her style him like a child playing with a dolly. Under her guidance, and blushing at every alteration to his wardrobe, McAvoy had become known within the force as much for his smart suits and cashmere coat, for his leather satchel and cufflinks, as for his detective skills and scars.
Now, flat on his back, staring up at the swollen clouds, with mud and stallion spit on his lapels and horse shit streaking one leg of his dark blue suit, he wishes he were back in khaki.
McAvoy tries to ignore the cheers of the onlookers and climbs back to his feet.
‘Right, you bugger . . .’
He had been on his way to the Police Authority meeting when the call came through. One of the constables tasked with corralling the escaped animals had lost his temper after being dragged into the side of a bottle-bin by one of the mares, and had decided it was time for some specialist help. The officer had only worked with McAvoy once, up on the Orchard Park estate. They had been tasked with guarding the door to a crime scene until the forensics van turned up and had not been made welcome by the locals. He and McAvoy had tolerated the abuse and even the first few bottles and cans, but when the snarling Staffordshire terrier had been let loose with instructions to see them off, it had been McAvoy who stood his ground while the junior officer tried to persuade a brick wall to absorb him. The giant Scotsman had dropped to his knees and met the dog face on, turning his head and opening his eyes wide, showing his wide, flat palms to the creature and flattening himself to the cracked pavement, submissive and unthreatening. The dog had stopped as if running into glass, and was on its back having its tummy tickled by McAvoy’s great rough hands by the time backup appeared and the crowd were chased away. The young PC had taken McAvoy’s number, having the foresight to realize that such a man was worth knowing. Today he had figured the big man was worth a call.
McAvoy, who would have agreed to a head-butting contest with an escaped antelope if it meant taking his mind off the impending Police Authority meeting, had been only too glad to dump his car and sprint to the scene.
He limbers up. Stretches his arms and cracks his neck from side to side. There are a few hoots from the watching motorists, and from the corner of his eye McAvoy is appalled to see that many of those watching are recording the footage on their camera-phones.
‘Just shoot it,’ comes a voice from somewhere in the hubbub. It is a suggestion met with murmurs of approval by some.
‘Can’t you tranquillise it?’
‘I’ve got a tenner on the big man!’
McAvoy tries to ignore the voices, but the laughter and groans that rang out when he was knocked flat by the charging stallion have turned his cheeks the colour of crushed cranberries.
‘You shoot that horse I’ll fecking have your eyes.’
The voice, its accent unmistakable, causes a momentary silence and McAvoy turns. The man who has spoken stands to his left, leaning against the bonnet of a blue Volvo. The car’s owner has adopted the peculiarly English expedient of pretending he cannot see the large, daunting traveller who is pressing his buttocks into the hood of his car.
The gypsy is squat and balding, with a round face and shiny cheeks. Despite the cold and gathering clouds, his arms are bare. His flabby gut and torso are not flattered by the white sleeveless T-shirt or too-blue jeans.
‘Yours?’ asks McAvoy, with a nod towards the horse.
The man answers with a shrug, but the length of rope in his hand suggests he had been about to try and reclaim his property before he saw McAvoy take the burden upon himself.
The man nods again. ‘Horny as a Cornishman, first day out the mine.’
He’d nearly had him moments ago. The stallion had only been a few feet away, tearing some daffodils from a grass verge of one of the side streets leading off the busy thoroughfare. McAvoy’s soft voice and gentle movements had allowed him closer to the animal than anybody else had managed since this unexpected carnival began, but as the beast swished its head back and forth, one of the passers-by had loudly shouted encouragement, and the burst of noise had spooked it, sending McAvoy, and his expensive clothes, into the dirt.
‘Got a name?’
‘Me or the horse, sir, me or the horse?’
‘Fecked if I know. Try Buttercup.’
Slowly, taking care to keep his feet steady on the tarmac, McAvoy moves towards where the animal now stands. Wild-eyed, muddy and sweat-streaked, it has moved into the garden of one of the nice detached properties set back from the road. Its occupants are staring out of the large double-glazed front windows. With no car in the driveway and the horse showing no apparent interest in their magnolia trees, they are enjoying the show.
‘Easy, fella,’ breathes McAvoy, as he spreads his arms and moves towards the open driveway. ‘Trust me.’
He knows what will happen if he fails. Vets will try and get near with a tranquilliser. They will fail, going in mob-handed and merely scaring the animal. Then some well-intentioned farmer will turn up with a tame horse in the hope of attracting the stallion to within range. The stallion will get over-excited. Damage cars. Damage itself. Eventually, a marksman will be called and the horse will be hit with as many bullets as it takes to get the city moving again. McAvoy doesn’t want that to happen. The call from the young PC had informed him that the horse had escaped from land where travellers had set up home. In his experience, travellers love their animals, and this one, though grey and with shaggy forelocks that put him in mind of tasselled boots, looks like it has been looked after as well as worked hard.
‘Easy, boy. Easy.’
McAvoy closes the gap. Raises his hand, palm out, and whispers, soft hushes and gentle songs, in the animal’s ear. It whinnies. Begins to pull away. McAvoy tilts his head. Exudes both the size and the gentleness that so define him; locks brown eyes with the confused, frightened animal . . .
The horse barely shies as he slips the rope around its neck. He carries on singing. Whispering. Crooning the only traveller song he can remember and wishing he had the same soft voice that his bride uses when she softly hums it into his neck.
This time the cheer from the crowd has little effect on the horse. It allows itself to be led out of the driveway: its unshod hooves making a pleasing clip-clop on the pavement.
McAvoy looks up and sees smiling faces. His cheeks burn and he struggles to keep his face impassive as the motorists give him a little round of applause, delighted to know they will soon be in fifth gear and hurrying towards jobs they hate, to tell the story of this morning’s fun and games.
‘Good job, sir. Good job.’
The traveller has detached himself from the crowd. Unasked, he crosses to the far side of the animal and gently takes it by the ear, leaning in to nuzzle the animal’s neck and call it a ‘great eejit’.
McAvoy enjoys the display of affection. The man knows animals. Loves horses. Can’t be bad.
Together, they wind their way through the cars and towards the playing fields. Three uniformed officers are leaning, exhausted, against the bonnets of two parked patrol cars. They look ragged and worn out. They nod their thanks as McAvoy passes by. The young constable who called him raises a fist of triumph and leans in to say something to a colleague. There is a burst of laughter and, instinctively, McAvoy presumes himself to have been the butt of the joke.
‘We’ll tie ’em up, sir,’ says the traveller. ‘We thought the fence went right round. Gave me a fright when I saw them gone, so it did.’
McAvoy getting his breath back, looks over the horse’s wiry mane at the man. ‘It’s not a halting site, sir. It’s a football pitch. You know you can’t camp here.’
‘Ah, would yer not show a little leeway?’ the traveller asks, fixing bright blue eyes on McAvoy and suddenly exuding a twinkly, impish charm. ‘We’ve had a bit of a barney, me and one of the families up there. Not welcome. Just a night or two, put it to bed, make friends again.’
McAvoy isn’t really listening. This isn’t his call. He’s just going with it for now. He was asked to round up an escaped horse and has done so. The excitement is over. Now he has to try and make himself presentable enough for a meeting with the new-look Humberside Police Authority, and try to explain to the new chairman why his unit should be preserved, and exactly why the violent crime statistics are on the rise. It is a prospect that has kept him awake as efficiently as his three-month-old daughter, and its sudden re-emergence at the forefront of his mind brings a wave of nausea to his stomach.
A gust of wind brings with it the scent of frying bacon and hand-rolled cigarettes. His raises his head, eager for a breath of cleansing fresh air. Opens his eyes. Stares into a sky the colour of a black eye, rain just seconds away.
They approach the semi-circle of mobile homes. There is a whoop that McAvoy traces to one of the women sitting on the sofas outside the nearest caravan. She is in her forties, with curly blonde-brown hair, and is wearing a white jogging suit two sizes too small.
‘Ah, yer a good lad,’ she shouts, as they get nearer. She puts down her mug of tea and levers her small, curvy frame off the sofa. ‘Knew it was all reet, didn’t I?’
She shouts this last at the two teenage girls who sit on the opposite sofa, both in pink nighties under grey hooded tops. One is perhaps a year older than the other, but both have sleek black hair cut in the same side parting, and wear an equal amount of hooped gold at their throats and earlobes.
McAvoy hands the rope to the man, who gives a genuine bow of thanks. ‘You’re a good man, sir. A good man. Scotsman, ye’ll be, yes?’
McAvoy nods. ‘Western Highlands.’
‘No kilt?’ he asks, with a grin.
‘I get enough funny looks.’
The traveller laughs louder than the joke deserves. Claps McAvoy on his broad forearm. ‘By Christ, but you’re a big one.’
McAvoy’s blush threatens to return to his cheeks, so he just gives a nod. Returns to business. ‘Keep him tied up. Buttercup. It’s not fair.’
‘Aye, sir. Aye.’
McAvoy looks around him. At sofas, the generators and toilets. At the faces emerging from behind spotless net curtains at the windows of the caravans, as interested in what is happening on their doorsteps as the faces behind the glass in the four-bedroom detached properties that ring the fields.
He can’t help but picture his wife. She lived like this when they first met. Wasn’t much older than the girls on the sofa; her eyes just as distrustful, her world just as small . . .
He turns to see Helen Tremberg and Inspector Ken Cullen walking swiftly across from the adjacent football pitch. He gives a wave, not quite sure whether he is to be treated as hero or interfering fool.
‘McAvoy, is it? Is that what she said?’
There is something in the way the old traveller repeats his name. Something that tells McAvoy he is known.
He gets no chance to press the man. The clouds that have been slung low, like damp laundry, finally split. Rain thunders down. Tremberg, not given to squealing, emits a shriek and stops short, pulling up the hood of her jacket. The travellers emit a cacophony of swearing and McAvoy’s new friend barks orders in an accent so thick it could be a different language. Half a dozen young men appear from inside caravans, and the sofas are quickly dragged under tarpaulins and windows pulled fast shut.
‘Christ,’ says Tremberg, pulling her hood up and beginning a swift retreat to her vehicle. ‘They really are ninjas!’
McAvoy doesn’t follow her. He’s standing, arms wide, letting the downpour soak him to the skin. He knows that he will be tried and tested at this morning’s meeting. Knows it will be a painful experience. And knows too that he will make life slightly easier for himself if he turns up merely damp, rather than covered in manure.
Excerpted from Original Skin by David Mark. Copyright © 2013 by David Mark.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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