She should have gone home with the others.
Kelly Staples stared at her reflection in the cracked and spotted mirror, trying to make sense of what she saw. Surely that wasn’t her face squinting back. Mascara had smeared under her eyes, leaving shadowy smudges speckled with tiny flecks of black that wouldn’t come off no matter how she rubbed at them. The remnants of her foundation were caked around her nose and across her forehead, where her skin looked dry. Her face was red and she had a spot on her chin that she was sure hadn’t been there when she was getting ready to go out. Her mouth was slack and wet, and there was something on her top …With a huge effort Kelly bent her head to inspect the damage. Wine, she thought hazily. She had tipped red wine down her front. She vaguely remembered laughing hysterically, holding the wet material away from her, offering someone—a man she’d never met before—the chance to suck it, so as not to waste it, before Faye dragged her away from him, muttering crossly in her ear about behaving herself. But as Kelly had pointed out, or tried to, tonight was all about not behaving herself. Out with the girls for an evening of freedom, a pub crawl in Richmond. Dolled up, tanked up, ready for a laugh. It was getting near the end of term; they’d needed a break, all of them. Especially her, since she’d broken up with PJ three weeks before. Or, to be precise, he’d broken up with her. Two years they’d been together, and he’d thrown it all away to chase after Vanessa Cobbet, the fat slapper. A tear slid down Kelly’s face,
gliding through what was left of her make-up.
They’d started with white wine at home, getting ready, and Kelly had had a few glasses. Giddy with nerves, she’d needed it. And it had got the evening off to a good start.
The room behind her rocked and swayed. Kelly shut her eyes, leaning heavily on the sink as she waited to feel better. She had been sick already; she had thought it might help if she was sick. Behind her, a cubicle door banged. A bony middle-aged woman slipped past her with a sidelong look that said you’re too young to be in that sort of state. Kelly thought, but wasn’t confident enough to say, yeah, well you’re too old to be in here in the first place.
The toilets were cramped, two cubicles and two sinks squeezed into a narrow corner of the pub, reeking of aggressive air freshener and the sour-sweet smell of vomited wine—that was Kelly’s contribution. The fixtures dated the last redesign to the eighties if not before: pink porcelain fittings and pink-and-brown floral curtains that hung limply at the frosted window. The rest of the pub wasn’t much better, though the dim lighting hid most of the damage at night. The Jolly Boatman had seen better days, as had most of the clientele, but it was busy nonetheless, crowded with drinkers. The pubs by the river were all busy; it was Thursday night, the unofficial start to the weekend, and everyone was out to have a good time, including Kelly. But it had all gone wrong, somewhere along the way. The others had left, she remembered woozily, telling her to get a taxi when she was ready to come home. She’d been dancing with someone, a lad she didn’t know, and Faye had tried to persuade her to leave but she’d refused. It had seemed to make sense then. It was her turn, her chance to have fun. They’d taken her at her word and left her. Kelly couldn’t understand why she’d let them.
‘I’m pissed,’ she said out loud, trying to make eye contact with the bleary figure in the mirror. ‘I need to go home.’
The contents of her handbag had spilt into the basin in front of her.
It seemed to take an extraordinarily long time to collect everything up again; her hands were clumsy and there were so many things—a pen, make-up, her keys, a bus ticket, some loose change—three cigarettes that had fallen out of their packet and were splotched with damp from the sink. The lid had come off a tube of lip gloss and as Kelly fumbled to pick it up sticky red goo smeared across the pink porcelain. It looked, for a moment, like blood.
The noise and heat hit her with a physical shock when she pulled open the door and she faltered a little, trying to remember which way she needed to go. The door to the outside world was to the left, she vaguely recalled, and set herself to push through the crowd. She was walking tall, acting sober, shoulders pulled well back and head up. It fooled no one except Kelly herself.
The crowd was thicker around the door, with smokers coming and going from the terrace that overlooked the water.
‘Excuse me,’ Kelly mumbled, trying and failing to shoulder past a heavyset man who didn’t seem to hear her or notice her cannoning into his back.
‘Need a minicab, love? Let me give you a hand,’ said a voice in her ear as an arm snaked around her waist. ‘Time to go home, young lady.’
Without consciously agreeing, she found herself making progress, guided skillfully and swiftly through the throng until they reached the chill of outside air. It was a clear night, still and cold, and the frost was already starting to bite.
She turned then, ready to thank her rescuer, and found herself looking at a stranger, a man her father’s age or older. Kelly struggled to focus as the man’s face swooped up and down in front of her. There were rimless glasses, and hair that was surely too dark to be natural, and a moustache over a mouth that smiled, that moved, that was saying where do you live my cab is just around the corner why don’t you come with me and I’ll see you home it’s no trouble it’s not far I don’t have anything better to do give me your bag that’s the girl are these your keys I’ll take care of you don’t you worry. You don’t want to be out on your own not at the moment not safe is it?
Somehow, Kelly found herself following the man obediently. She wanted to take her bag back and find her own way home, but it seemed easier to go along with him. Her feet were hurting for one thing; the platform boots that had looked so glamorous before she left the house were pinching her toes and rubbing her heels, and the one on the right was squeezing her calf. They were far too high for a long walk home. And he was right; it probably wasn’t safe to be out on her own.
The man was nice, Kelly thought hazily. He was polite, well mannered, thoughtful. Older men were, weren’t they? They knew how to be gentlemen. PJ had never held her hand. PJ had never opened the car door for her and waited to close it after she sat down (a little heavily, truth be told, but then again he was a perfect gentleman and stared into the distance rather than at her skirt where it had ridden up). She usually got into the back when she took a taxi, but he’d opened the front passenger door and she didn’t want to be rude.
He got in and started the engine, then helped her with her seat belt before he drove off. He revved the engine unnecessarily so the sound bounced off the buildings either side of the road.
‘Mind if I smoke?’ Kelly asked, pushing her luck, and was surprised when he nodded. The car smelled of mint and pine air freshener, two strong scents that didn’t quite manage to disguise the tang of petrol, as if he’d spilt some on his shoes the last time he’d filled up. He wasn’t a smoker, she guessed. But he’d agreed to it; he couldn’t mind that much.
The only dry fag in the packet was the lucky one, the last one, the one Kelly always turned upside down when she opened a new pack so it stood out, a little white soldier standing proud beside the light-brown filter tips of the others. She fitted it between her lips and cupped her hands around the flame of her lighter, shielding herself automatically from a wind that wasn’t there. She had the lighter turned up too high;
it nearly took her fringe off.
‘Fuck.’ She blinked a few times, dazzled, then shot a guilty look at the stranger. ‘Sorry. Shouldn’t swear.’
He shrugged. ‘Doesn’t bother me. What’s your name?’
‘Kelly.’ She flipped down the visor and inspected herself in the mirror, fluffing her fringe. ‘What’s your name?’
He hesitated for a second. ‘Dan.’
‘Where are you from, Dan? Birmingham?’ It was a Midlands accent, she’d thought, but he shook his head.
He nodded, his eyes on the road. Kelly looked out too, peering at the shops they were passing. She frowned.
‘This isn’t the way.’
He didn’t answer.
‘This isn’t the way,’ she said again, embarrassed to be complaining when he was being so helpful. ‘You’ve gone wrong. It was left back there, not straight on.’
‘This is a better way.’
‘It isn’t,’ Kelly said, nettled. ‘I should know how to get to my own house.’
The only response she got was a change of gear as he accelerated.
‘Hey,’ she said, warning in her voice as she braced one hand against the dashboard, the surface gritty with accumulated dirt. ‘Take it easy.’
The car bounced down the road, going a little bit too fast for her liking. He looked nervous, she thought, blinking hard, trying to focus. His lips were chapped, and every so often he passed his tongue over them. It made Kelly’s lips feel dry and she had to stop herself from doing the same. All of a sudden she felt cold, and cold sober too, the fog of
alcohol lifting but leaving fear in its place. What had she done? All the times her mother had warned her not to trust strangers and here she was in a car with a man she’d never wet before, going who knows where on a dark Thursday night. There was someone killing young women, she’d seen the headline in her dad’s paper. Four girls dead, dumped and burned. Girls like her. The police hadn’t a clue who the killer was, or how to catch him. He was on the loose, preying on vulnerable women out on their own. Even Kelly, who never paid much attention to the news, had heard about him. It wasn’t late; here were still people out on the streets, but Kelly had never felt so alone.
‘Listen, why don’t you let me out here? I’d rather walk if it’s all the
same to you.’
The car purred to a stop at traffic lights. Kelly ran her hand over the
door beside her, looking for the handle.
‘It’s broken,’ he said without looking around. ‘You can only open it from the outside. Now sit tight and stop making such a fuss.’
‘I want to get out.’ Her voice had risen, a raw edge of hysteria to it that
made the driver wince.
‘Calm down, would you. I’ll stop and let you out if that’s what you want.’ He turned into a narrow residential street that was lined with parked cars. ‘Nowhere to pull in. Let’s see what’s down here.’
‘Down here’ was an alley between gardens, a dead end that wasn’t overlooked, Kelly realised, her heart thumping. She felt as if it was going to burst out of her chest. The car slowed to a stop.
‘What’s going on? Why are you stopping?’
‘I thought you wanted to get out. I’ll let you out.’ He turned off the engine, then the lights, and the night closed in around them. Kelly could only see a silhouette beside her. Her nostrils flared, picking up the minty smell and the faintest whiff of petrol again, and she thought of the girls lying where they’d been dumped, of their bodies burning, of the newspaper headlines that talked about the Burning Man, and she heard him move and couldn’t tell if he was reaching towards her in the dark car and without thinking, without even being aware that she’d moved, she reached down and slipped out the knife her little brother had given her, the one he took to school in case he got into a fight, the one that had been digging into her ankle for hours, the flick knife with the narrow blade and the wicked sharp point, and there wasn’t even enough light to catch the edge of the blade as she swung with it in her left hand, aiming low, aiming for the soft part below the ribcage but above the belt, and he didn’t have time to react at all before the knife was in him and out again and slipping back into him though he tried to grab the blade that time when Kelly pulled it out and the knife was dark now, and wet, and the man was whimpering, and she could smell him and smell blood—it was like a butcher’s shop on a hot day, that sweetish reek—and he’d pissed himself and she was screaming, she realised, her heart pounding as loud as a drum so she couldn’t even hear what she was saying. But she was still saying it as she scrambled over the seat into the back of the car and fumbled for the door handle and flung herself out, acting on instinct, her hands, all covered with blood, smearing along the paintwork, her knees buckling as she tried to run in her stupid boots, her sore feet forgotten. She was still saying it under her breath as he hobbled down the alley towards the houses, towards help, her breath sawing in and out of her lungs as if it was edged with rusty teeth. It was what she said to the woman who came to the door and screamed at the sight of her, and what she said to the police who responded to the 999 call, and what she said to the doctors and nurses later on at the hospital, when she was being examined. It was the one thing she was sure of, the
thing that had kept her alive.
‘Not me. I don’t want to be the next one. Not me. Not me.’
Copyright © 2011 by Jane Casey