Edition 3: Skinbucket by Stephen McQuiggan
In a small neighbourhood, a teenage girl is missing, thought to be the latest victim of a serial killer. Bitter divorcee Tony just wants to be left alone to enjoy his time as a bachelor, looking for that one everlasting love. SY
The water moved in ghost light flame across her skin. The contrast of her heavy black hair against the crystalline suds made him think of fairytales, of Snow White. She lay, her eyes closed, luxuriating in thoughts he could only imagine. Maybe she was the one, maybe this time it would last longer than a quick soak and a frenzied union of flesh. He felt uncomfortable at the thought of her leaving, or perhaps that was because he had given her the lion’s share of the bath and the taps were digging into his back. Perhaps it was love after all.
He would let the water out soon, and they would sit there and let it slowly slide down them. It was something he longed to share with her, something to make her smile again. It was her smile he loved the most, and his desire to put it there. When she smiled her face was a palette of wonder.
When the water ran out you could almost believe you would be sucked down the plughole, it was an upsetting feeling, no doubt about it, but if you could just hold on a little longer then you would feel so light you’d swear you could fly. And then, feeling invincible, he would towel her down, dry her hair, comb it…
There was a loud knock at the front door and the bell rang simultaneously.
Damn. He did not want to be disturbed. This was their big night, the night when they found out if they had a future together, or whether she was just another bathing partner, a quick gurgle down the drain of failed relationships. He climbed carefully out of the tub trying his best not to disturb her.
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” he said, wrapping a towel around himself. He resented this for he enjoyed being naked around her, felt at ease, an uncommon experience for him around women. Taking a bathrobe from the back of the door he went to answer the persistent knocking.
He couldn’t resist taking one last peek at her before he left, closing her in with all that warmth. She looked so pristine precious, her hair long and lank like a wet Christ. On impulse he wrote with his finger I love you inside a cartoon heart on the condensation on the mirror. He didn’t feel foolish. Not at all.
He made his way to the front door, singing a tuneless ditty that only lovers know, his feet skipping like his heart, leaving damp prints like dance steps along the hallway. His song was punctured when he opened the door.
A man and a woman, conservatively dressed, holding some sort of id. He heard their names, Walsh and Hart, heard the word “Police”, but the rest was a blur.
“Is it Michael?” he asked.
“My brother Michael, has he been involved in an accident or something?”
“No sir, nothing like that.” He felt his chest loosen and a gust of air rush through his tightened lips. “We’re just visiting a few houses in the area, trying to ascertain if anyone has any recollection of seeing Anne Graham in the last few days. Trying to jog their memory. May we come in for a moment?”
“Of course.” Ascertain. Only the police used such clinical, unromantic words like ascertain. “I was just in the bath.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t keep you long sir,” said the woman, Walsh; pretty but cold, like a green mint.
“My brother’s a lorry driver, when I saw you I thought…well, y’know. I’m one of life’s worriers I guess.”
Walsh smiled. Only her front teeth were white, the back ones were yellow. “Did you know Anne at all?”
Typical. They couldn’t even feign an interest. He noticed she used the past tense. Had they given up on her already? That was typical too.
“I’m afraid not. The first time I saw her was on the news a few nights ago. She’s very pretty.” What a bloody stupid thing to say. Now they’d make him a suspect. He saw the skin on Walsh’s forehead tighten and wrinkle. She would age prematurely that one.
“But she only lived a few doors away, Mr…” She began rifling through her notebook.
“Alexander. Tony Alexander. Yes, so I believe, but you see I’ve only moved in a few months. I’ve recently separated from my wife.”
“You never met her in the street, the local shop? You never said hello?” The man, Hart, sounded incredulous.
“Not that I know of.” The moisture on his legs began to chill. He just wanted to get back in the bath but they were both scribbling away now, and Walsh was doing that inventory thing with her eyes, cataloguing his house. It made him feel uneasy because it made him feel embarrassed; he would have tidied if he knew they’d been coming.
“How come you recognised her on the television then?” Walsh looked at him as if she were programmed to doubt every word he said.
“Anne. You said you had never seen her before yet you recognised her on the news.”
“I don’t think I put it like that. They showed her picture, said who she was. There were cameras on the street. I put two and two together.” He had nothing to hide, let them tear the place apart, search…
But Julia was in the bath.
That would put paid to that, no doubt about it. She wouldn’t want to be associated with someone linked to…
“Romeo.” It was as if Hart had read his mind.
“The Romeo killer sir. It also said on the news that she may be the latest victim of the man the tabloids call the Romeo killer. Are you aware of such an individual?”
“Only from what I’ve read in the papers. He always leaves a flower on them. To be honest I always find such things upsetting. I’m a little squeamish, so I tend to…”
“Yes, life would be so much easier if we could all just bury our head in the sand, but unfortunately we can’t.” Her voice was snippy, like his wife’s. “Can you give me details of your whereabouts last Wednesday night?”
“I was in Springs nightclub.”
“Springs? Where’s that?”
“Bed.” He saw his attempt at humour had been one of his less peachy ideas. “Before that I had my tea and watched some telly.”
“What did you watch?”
“Usual stuff. Soaps. Some reality rubbish.”
“And you watched alone?”
“Yes. I don’t have anyone. At the moment I mean.”
“You’re not dating?” Was that sarcasm in her voice?
“Just a few one night stands here and there. Have you got a picture of her?” he asked, trying to change the subject. “Jog the old grey cells.”
She handed him the photograph he’d seen a thousand times on the news and in the papers, smiling from every lamppost and shop window for miles. It was a flattering portrait and that was fortunate. You didn’t want that kind of exposure if you were having a bad hair day or had been snapped unawares or something.
You could tell she was beautiful by her smile. It was real, unforced, and the little lines around her laughing eyes suggested it was frequent. It would be heaven to be the recipient of such a smile. But, oh God, to lose it.
Her poor parents. How could they ever cope? The papers said she was only seventeen. Probably still lived at home. Christ, imagine how empty a house that had been illuminated by such a smile must feel now. He was about to mention this but bit his tongue. To articulate his pity would probably only incite more sarcasm from Walsh.
He hadn’t watched the interview with the mother, the hollowed out father. All those microphones thrust in their faces, and the moronic eternal question—“How do you feel?”—as if it weren’t obvious, as if there were words to describe their devastation. No, he couldn’t bear to watch, it was too upsetting, like those famine reports from Africa. Grieving parents had become the western world’s hungry kids, starving for empathy. He was repulsed as much by his inadequacy to help them as he was by their plight.
“Did she have a boyfriend?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact she did.” Walsh sounded defensive, like a protective parent shunning a potential suitor. “Why?”
“Maybe he did it. You see that a lot nowadays. They go on the telly, make a heart rending appeal, then the next thing you know, they’re digging up his garden. Or the father. Maybe they’re in on it together.”
They stared at him as if he had just vomited on himself and proceeded to lick it off. “Neither are figuring in our line of inquiry,” she said.
She was a snake that one, a butch little bitch underneath all that make-up. “Sorry, I’ve a thing about relationships I guess, since the wife left me. I compensate by going out with the type of women I’ll never be able to form any lasting attachment to. Easy girls, loose girls. Skinbuckets we used to call them when we were kids.”
“Anne was a vibrant, outgoing young woman much loved by her family Mr Alexander. I can assure you she was definitely not a…skinbucket.” She spat the word out as if it burnt her mouth.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect. I wasn’t talking about Anne. I was just nervous, and when I get nervous I just rattle on.”
“And what have you got to be nervous about?”
“You. The cops. The police I mean. It’s only natural.”
“Not if you’ve nothing to hide. Why are you having a bath at this time of day for anyway?”
“Because you can’t read in a shower.” He smiled and she smiled back sarcastically, revealing the yellow teeth again.
That’s what underlies everything. Love decays too, folds in on itself and rots because it is born out of sweetness. The first flush of love was a sugar rush, made you run about like a kid tripping on E numbers. He had called his wife ‘my sweet’. Candy coated, sugar fuelled madness. And sugar rotted just like rubbish rotted. Love was rubbish, the refuse of emotion, the detritus of the soul. And when love died it still smiled, an awful yellow smile.
“My wife left me to rot,” he said, unaware he spoke aloud. “Might as well have stuck me in a bin bag and thrown me on a skip.”
He saw disturbed concern bleach their faces. His train of thought was halted, too many tangential leaves on the line.
“This is quite the place you have here,” said Walsh to change the subject, but the appraisal in her voice was less than complimentary. “What age are you Mr Alexander?”
“Perhaps your mid life crisis is to blame for your marital problems.”
“Trudy!” Hart’s eyes were filled with unwanted paperwork. “I’m sorry sir, I think the place is great.”
“Well,” said Walsh to her partner, “he seemed keen on a therapy session.”
She was very disagreeable. Her family’s hearts must sink every time they see her. He could picture the get togethers, the Christmases, the birthdays, filled with laughter and off colour jokes, choked into silence by her dreary, sober, judgemental knock. They would know that officious rapping, dread it, they would…
“Where did you get your Clint Eastwood mirror?”
“Simon!” It was the snake’s turn to scold her partner.
He crossed to the gilt frame, to the handsome face of the man with no name, beckoning Hart closer.
“It’s hand painted see. Really intricate.” Hart whistled appreciatively.
“When you two boys have finished admiring your knick-knacks, there is a missing girl we still have to find.”
Hart walked away immediately and began mumbling some more routine questions. The wrong questions, always the wrong questions. He looked into the mirror keeping his eyes level with Clint’s. You could hide this way, pretend his face was yours. He could see his skin beneath the paint though, see the wrinkles and the jowls. Why do we have to grow old, that was the question they should be asking. It was the only one that mattered and so it was eternally avoided.
“I have nothing to hide,” he muttered to his sunken reflection.
“Well then, you won’t mind if I have a look round then, will you.” Her eyes said she fully expected him to hesitate.
“Go ahead,” he said relishing her disappointment. “You won’t find Anne I’m afraid.”
“What makes you think we’re looking for Anne?” Hart thought he was good, but without the snake by his side he was just a weasel.
“What else would you be looking for?”
“Whatever’s making you so jumpy.”
Walsh had disappeared, he heard her footsteps heading down the hall toward the bathroom. Toward Julia. He didn’t want her to be disturbed. He didn’t want to have to explain.
“Don’t you need a warrant for this or something?”
“Something to hide after all Mr Alexander?”
“Don’t we all?”
The snake reappeared, her face flushed with embarrassment and anger. “You never told us you had company.”
“You never asked.”
“Who’s down there?” asked Hart.
“Sleeping Beauty in the bath. I walked in on her and…”
“I hope you apologised.”
She glared at him. “You said you weren’t seeing anyone.”
“No, I said no-one special. What that has to do with you anyway is beyond me. Now, I think I’ve helped you all I can, and I’m eager to get back to my bath before it gets too cold.”
“Just one more question–”
“Question time’s over. Unless you found Anne Graham in my tub then your visit’s over.” God help us all he thought, if this is what we have protecting us. He felt so sorry for Anne’s parents, their hearts only beating with the echo of hope these incompetent nosebags offered.
“We may want to talk to you again Mr Alexander.”
“Fine. Anytime. Just ring beforehand so that I can blow up the balloons and,” he indicated his sodden gown, “make myself all pretty for you and all. Good bye.”
Alone again at last.
Well, except for Julia, but she’d be leaving soon. They always did. He scanned the room for evidence of the snake’s endeavours. She had moved and touched and fussed everything, even the ashtray. Now, how the hell would Anne Graham fit under his ashtray?
As he scuttled around fixing the most obvious traces of her tampering he realised why he had rubbed her up the wrong way. It was the space he had created for himself. This was not a bachelor pad, it was the bachelor pad. Women like Walsh always wanted to tame men, castrate them with lace curtains and potpourri. It didn’t look as if a women had ever been here long enough to do anything more than drop her pants before being shown the door. He stopped what he was doing, feeling his sadness grow like a corpulent blister.
He couldn’t put this off any longer.
He walked back to the bathroom. The water would be tepid now, the heat draining out of it, frustrated lust made vapour. Maybe she had already emptied the tub, dried herself off, tied up her lustrous hair and wrapped it in a towel, little tears of moisture on her skin like transparent pearls. He would open the door and she would shoot him a wry smile and say, “I thought you’d forgotten about me,” and he’d say “Never,” and hold her and whisper “Never.”
He was kidding himself. She was not the one. At least the police’s interruption had illuminated that much. Since Diane had kicked him out, and replaced him with a study in male boredom, he had struggled with the dating scene. He hated cinemas and restaurants. His belief in the superficial romantic gesture was dead.
No, he bathed with the girls he managed to bring back to his loveless exile. It was a spiritual experience, and one he enjoyed infinitely more than the sex that invariably followed. He felt cleansed by it, and not just on the surface; it purged his soul.
But it never lasted.
By the time the water cooled he felt dirty again. These girls were the type who would bathe with anybody. He longed for one of them to say no, but they never did. Not Kathy, with her skin so pale that his touch left plum marks wherever he caressed her. He could not recall why he had been attracted to her. Probably nothing deeper than loneliness. All those girls and not one worth a damn. Love affairs that budded, bloomed and died in a few short days.
Laura, he thought, Laura had loved him. He wouldn’t be fooled that easily again.
Julia wasn’t right for him. If he was honest he’d known this the moment they’d met. He had carried on the charade of course, but he had also kept his eyes open for the next possibility and part of him resented her for the guilt this made him feel.
He didn’t bother knocking. It was his house after all. His resolve left him as soon as he stepped into the soft, pinkish light. The bathroom was a female space, a womb, and he had planned it so. He wanted them to feel comfortable here, wanted them to see another side of him.
It smelt wonderful, a million coupling fragrances that could make you gag if you weren’t used to it. So many different soaps, so many different colours, for so many different skin types, and most of them still in their beautiful wrappers; it was a sin to open them.
He had milks, creams and moisturisers, and shampoos for dry, greasy and healthy hair. Toothpastes for sensitive and smoker’s teeth, and three colours of toothbrush still in their packs. He had Ladyshaves and wax strips. He had sponges, though women never seemed too keen on those. What girl could ask for more?
He took a deep breath and relieved himself, a crescendo of urine sprinkling the bowl like rattling teeth. He turned off the radio, killing its low cheery voice. “Sorry love, the music has fallen out of me.”
That word again—love. He could still see all the tunes on the bathroom tiles, their little forms shattered but still tinkling forlornly.
“It’s time for quiet. Time for us.” He took off his robe, watching how the glare of light made his body uglier and greyer than it really was.
He cleaned his teeth. Hygiene was important. It sat next to God in manners class at big school. He couldn’t stop thinking about her velvet hair, about how he could touch it, smell it, own it.
“I won’t lie to you honey.” He would never have called her that before, but now he was breaking up with her it rolled easily off the tongue. “You deserve better than that.”
God, this was always hard. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at her. He stared into the silence, sucking courage from the steamy air.
“It’s not going to work between us. I wanted it too, I really did. It’s not that you’re not attractive. You’re beautiful. I’ve issues, y’know? I guess I’m leaving you before you leave me. You say you won’t but you will. I think part of you has left already.”
She had slipped under the water.
How long had she been like that? It had been ten minutes since the snake had went nosing, so not that long then. Still, if she hadn’t already been dead she certainly would’ve been by now.
He pulled her up by her thick crop of hair, the water making that sloppy kissing sound that always aroused him. She had a great body, a great machine, and the water was still quite warm. She would still be moist, pliable, soft enough for a few games. But he had already broken it off with her and it would be wrong to lead her on. He hadn’t been brought up like that.
She was leaving him already. She was starting to decompose, oh so slightly, around the corners of her mouth and her eyes were the back road to hell. Decay. You couldn’t stop it. No matter how much you put into a relationship it always rotted in the end.
“No-one’s even looking for you yet. You mustn’t have been too popular pet. Just another skinbucket, eh?”
He would put her where he put the others, somewhere they would find her. He would put a lily on her. She looked like a lily kind of girl. He didn’t like to think of the parents, the families, the blessed loved ones worrying for so long. He only ever kept them out late for such a little while, but wasn’t that what foolish lovers did, worry the folks? It was just part of the never ending game.
He wasn’t downhearted. He still had Anne and perhaps, he really felt this, perhaps she was the one. Whenever he left Julia off he would collect her from the waiting area and run a bath for her. She was a very dirty girl, but he knew he could make her settle down.
Stephen McQuiggan is a factory worker from Northern Ireland. He features in the forthcoming issues of Bards and Sages, Scissors and Spackle, and Morpheus Tales, and in upcoming anthologies from Angelic Knight, Trust and Treachery, Crowded Quarantine, and Horror Library Vol 5.