UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
In The Belly Of The Pig
The snow never settles, and the sun is never warm enough to take the chill away.
Each breath sends tiny electric shocks through the fillings in your teeth and your fingers tingle in the frigid air. There is a threat of sleet in the sky and you know that as you stand beneath lead-coloured clouds you will inevitably have to drag weary feet through dirty sludge.
I know there are many contradictions in nature, many slight nuances in the fabric of life. Some are obvious, like sunlight and snow, while others exist in the periphery, lurking like diseased spectres on the edge of reason, in the heart of darkness.
We stand together now, my colleagues and I, blowing into cupped palms, making overlapping footprints where our boots grind into the rapidly thawing snow of the night before.
As a single unit we stare down at the spread-eagled figure lying dismembered and bloodied at our feet. There are no regrets, no false sympathy, for this person deserved all he had received. This terrible man had inflicted ungodly abuse on all those he had ever come into contact with. He had cut a swathe of misery across the whole of the midlands for ten years. He had killed annually and had foiled each and every attempt at discovery.
And I am tired of the chase. My bones ache like those of a man twenty years older, and I have been reliably informed that the lines on my face reflect every lost lead, each snippet of misinformation, every thrust of my dogged determination into the nooks and crannies of this, my home, the belly of the pig.
I look up into eggshell blue and the perfect stillness of sepia clouds, and I wonder what might have been, had I done things differently. Would lives have been saved? Would my own life have taken a less traumatic turn?
He had always been one step ahead, always that goading arrogance; and the letters written in his victims’ blood. Naming me, as he liked to call me, his prime antagonist, and always ending in a row of kisses. A pyramid of meticulously aligned crosses: but not the victims blood these, someone else’s; probably, we had thought, his own. I assumed I had become immune to his loathsome taunts, but knew deep down that with each tantalising note he was infecting me with a part of himself. A worm of doubt had burrowed into my conscience and slowly, inexorably, it was eating away at the very essence of my moral fortitude, my integrity and my honour.
You see, I had wanted this man dead. No, not just dead, butchered. Torn and ragged was how I wanted him. Much as he is now.
This monster now crucified before us reminds me of ten years of fruitless, agonising, defeat. In all my thirty-two years in the job I have never experienced such a depraved soul, nor one so utterly indifferent to suffering. Nor, indeed, one so completely compelling.
Nor one I feel such an affinity with.
For it is a truth that the curse of obsession, by its very nature - and especially when dealing with something you thought was the opposite of yourself - draws you inevitably into the bleakness of fascination. As a detective you must imagine yourself to be that person. You must conjure up his own dark fantasies and, while maintaining sanity, you must anticipate his urges and pre-empt his awful deeds. I have worried more than once that I may be slipping into the same evil quagmire out of which he had crawled. I have had many sleepless nights twisted into the damp folds of my sodden quilt. Nightmares and the sickness of his degenerate acts writhe in my mind and torture that twilight moment before waking.
This man had not just killed but had defiled each of the young women he had so mercilessly stalked and targeted. His ferocity knew no bounds. Where he is now is where he should have been ten years ago.
So why then am I so devoid of emotion? Why is it my friends and colleagues cast such strange looks at me? And why the whispered comments after each furtive glance?
I look down on the figure of Terrence Blanck and see only the carcass of a rabid dog. He had long since rejected the mantle of Humanity and was now only a clouded caricature. He was a virus far-flung into the lives of ten innocent people, destroying many more in the process. I have no right to compare him to a disease which has the possibility of cure when so many young women had pleaded and begged for his mercy.
We had all seen the footage. Watched through tears of shame and impotence. Railed at his cackling laugh as he killed them one by one.
So now we look on in silence with the wind sighing through metallic brown leaves. Small flurries of sleet blow this way and that, caught in the spiral of an Autumn breeze.
And I feel nothing in my cold heart.
No joy, no relief. Just closure. The end of a quest which has estranged family and friends, ruined my marriage, and propelled my kids into the heartfelt affection of a man I had once called mate. That same man who now listens to the mellow eloquence of Blind Willie McTell singing Rollin’ Mama Blues on my Wharfedales, in the comfort of my Parker Knoll while stroking the hair of a woman called Emma whom I had once called wife.
I harbour no animosity toward her, even less toward Doug, who has been a better husband in their two years of marriage than I had ever been in the twenty years previous. And I could not blame my sons for hating me, nor for beating me to a pulp when at the height of my compulsive obsession I had directed my anger and frustration toward their Mother. Only my daughter Beth, she of the sweet voice and alabaster skin, sends me the odd letter, albeit from Australia, purporting to understand my weaknesses when really she has no idea.
I had always been aware of a special bond between Doug and Emma though I am sure it had been purely platonic at that time. The fact that they became lovers only a couple of months after I moved out did not surprise me perhaps as much as it should have.
But that’s okay. I am resigned to my loneliness. Glenmorangie and the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Lightnin’ Hopkins take the edge off my shame and blur my fears for the future.
In a way I was glad for them both, and, selfishly, back then, I knew that it meant I could concentrate all my efforts on finding the killer. It had become such a personal mission that even my superiors began, eventually, to question whether or not I was the right man for the job.
My perspective had been compromised - or so they said - by personal problems caused by the investigation. Of course this was true. But, as I had explained at the time, it was a disruption that could only help, rather than hinder, my single-minded search for the killer.
The tabloids, they said, were castigating me at every turn. Fuck ‘em, I said. But they rule the consciousness of the masses, they argued. Maybe so, I replied, but they don’t, and never will, understand the process of finding someone as insidious as the monster we sought.
And so it went on.
And the only way I remained as head of the investigation was because, after all these years, no-one else wanted it. I had the manpower and the money, unlimited resources at my disposal. Forensics drew a blank at every turn, snitches knew nothing; I combed the gun-ridden catacombs of cities like Nottingham and Birmingham; interrogated with ultra violence the dark denizens of these inhospitable places. I delved and dug and dissected every criminal procedure in every text book. I even part-mastered the intricacies of my arch-enemy: the computer.
But I found nothing.
Nothing, that is, until I sat one night in my darkened bed-sit reviewing for the umpteenth time the sickening tapes the killer has made of his barbarities. At least the first seven were tapes, on VHS format. These last two had been transferred to disc, like he was digitalising his sickness. There have been nine till now and I have watched them so many times they are a part of my everyday life. I force myself to observe every detail, as I have a thousand times before.
Twelve-year old malt slides with a peaty burn into a stomach devoid of food as the start of a throbbing migraine scratches behind my eyes.
I am two-thirds of the way through the ninth tape when there comes a knock at my door. It is the sleazy, muffled double-tap I know can only be my landlord. There is only one reason for him to call at any time other than for his rent, which I had paid the day before yesterday…
… a parcel has been delivered.
I sit cross-legged on the floor. My fingers leak sweat, stains brown wrapping, smudges the end letters of my name and address.
With trembling hands I insert the disc into the old reconditioned computer before me. I watch for half an hour, guilt and shame hand-in-hand with morbid curiosity, as he stalks and taunts his prey through a labyrinth of ply-wood walls and plasterboard corridors, a maze of his own design in a building which had to be both spacious and remote. We know this because he never ties nor gags nor restrains his victims in any way. Although there is never any sound on the tapes, their terrified fleeing and desperate scrabbling at immovable obstacles tells its own story.
Sobbing contractions throw my shoulders forward and back. My tears feel like hot wax. Greasy sweat drenches me in a lather of impotence. Acid burns my empty stomach, searching for something to digest.
As with the previous tapes the poor, fleeing child is well aware she is being followed, not only by her tormentor, but by banks of cameras which track her every terrified move. She rebounds from wall to wall. She has a wide, agonised expression which is lifted and stretched by the grotesquery of fish-eye lenses: arms flail, hands twitch, clapping, fingers coming together, entwined, parting.
I swipe moisture from my face with the back of my hand as I lean closer to the screen. Her sweet, innocent face fills my vision but it is her hands which trap my attention.
I snatch for my mobile, drop it, frantically dial a number where it lay on the floor, the side of my face pressed into the threadbare carpet as I wait for a connection.
A friend of mine – one of the few I haven’t driven away by my boorish and arrogant obsession - is a computer geek. A young man who had befriended me at a local college as I struggled to understand the complexities of the internet. He simplified the entire process for me and, though I found his intellect daunting at first, I began to nurture a grudging respect for his patience when dealing with my obvious inadequacies.
An hour later James Barclay turns up at my bed-sit. The second he steps into my room I have him by the throat. I can smell weed on his breath and in his dishevelled attire and in a plume of whisky fumes I snarl at him:
“You say nothing about what you’re about to see, do you understand?”
His floppy fringe flaps and waves in front of eyes, enlarged by coke-bottle glasses. After a stuttering assurance that his lips are sealed I drag him bodily to the computer and play the part of the tape I want him to see.
“What does that look like to you?” I blurt. He turns to look at me. I cuff the back of his head. “Look at it. Her hands, man, her hands!”
“Look’s like sign language,” he states simply.
The words hit me with the force of a vocal tsunami. I can’t catch my breath. My heart beats a rapid tattoo in my chest as a surge of adrenaline floods my system.
Even as I watch the helpless victim’s frantic communication with an outside world she has no idea is there, I cannot help but admire her strength of character: her terrified countenance flicks left and right; then back, over her shoulder. A shadow passes between her and the camera, a spectral image of darkened rage, a tapered silhouette raised above her. Then her final, silent scream……
I reach over James’ shoulder and press pause. For all his pretensions of being abroad in the modern world, this is one scene I have no wish for him to witness. I have seen it nine times before. I know what is about to happen. He looks up at me with an expression of knowing concern, as if he knows what it means to me.
I am across the room in an instant, rooting through piles of discarded junk until I find what I’m searching for. A quick flip through the Yellow Pages and my finger follows a line of deaf schools and associated institutions. I make a frantic phone call, insisting that I am indeed a policeman and begging for an e-mail address so I can send something which could save the lives of many more unfortunate children. Despite initial scepticism the address is given and after thanking her profusely, I ask her to stay on the line and turn to James.
“Send her the part with the hands. Nothing more.”
An agonising wait ensues. Moments pass. I can hear what sounds like well-manicured fingernails drumming a light beat on cold plastic. Maybe even a slight gasp as she realises what she is seeing. The she tells me what she thinks the young girl had been signing.. It was, she said, difficult to interpret as the young girl was obviously a novice but the best she could come up with was - and here my heartbeat increased twofold as I held my breath - , what she came up with was: O.N.G.I.T.C.H.
I look at James. He shrugs. My mind reels with possibilities.
“Well…?” I yell. “You’re the geek! What do you think?”
James’ eyebrows come together. He stares at the letters. His fingers fly over the keyboard. His eyes flicker.
“You say wherever he lives has to be remote. The countryside maybe. And we’re certain he lives in the Midlands.” He licks his lips habitually in the time-honoured tradition of those dry-throated and parched due to the prolonged intake of skunk-weed and cheap cider. “If we split the letters up we have the possibility of two words: ‘ong’ and ‘itch’. What if she missed some letters in her panic? What if she was trying to sign the word long?” James types in ‘long itch’, adds Midlands place names as a base guide and clicks search.
And there it was: Long Itchington, a small village some nine or ten miles up the A423 from Coventry.
I knew we had it. I knew it in my bones, my water, every atom and nuclei.
I know exactly where the village is, for I have travelled these dark back-roads a hundred times, eyes red and burning from looking past hedgerows into fields and woods, looking for something – anything – that might ease my aching frustration.
I go back to my files. To the exhaustive study we had made years earlier of hardware stores and builders merchants, searching for a possible supplier of all the ply-wood and plaster-board the killer must have bought to construct his fiendish maze.
Yet again the facts leap out at me. Every piece of the jigsaw falling into place.
A store in Southam had sold a large quantity of materials to a man who lived in a run-down house some two miles down a single-track road not far from the quiet village of Napton, a stone’s throw from Long Itchington. The man’s name was Terrence Blanck. He had been interviewed but eventually discounted when he provided a plausible reason for the purchases. But several detectives at the time, including myself, had never been entirely satisfied. He had been watched for several weeks, even followed for a while. But when it became obvious that his profession as a plasterer accounted for all the materials he had bought, and when no further evidence could be found, my superiors instructed that we concentrate our efforts elsewhere.
In a single bound I grab my coat and am out the door, yelling over my shoulder as I go: “Call the station! Tell them: Terrence Blanck! I’ll meet them there….” And I’m off.
Which brings me to where I am now. Full circle. What goes around comes around.
I have taken his legs for they have chased and prolonged the torture. I have taken his hands for inflicting the pain. I have taken his tongue for the mocking and his eyes for the enjoyment of witnessing their degradation.
His heart I have taken for myself, left steaming in a shallow pool of icy water.
A voice beside me and I turn and look at the young Constable.
“Inspector Cale. Sir.” He has an expression of deference but his eyes blaze as if in anticipation of the story he can tell of such monumental events so early in his short career. And with something more, for there is also horror reflected in the paleness of his complexion.
“It’s time to go sir.”
I nod. I glance at each of my colleagues. They can’t look me in the eye. At least they cuffed my hands in front of me. As they lead me away I look back. Just once.
© 2004-2009 Underground Voices