Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Soul Killer’ by Ross Greenwood.
THE SOUL KILLER
A DI BARTON INVESTIGATION
The Soul Killer
My earliest memory is from my reception year at school when I was five. That was twenty-five years ago. It was the day we broke up for Easter. Many people’s first recollections are dramatic or bad. Perhaps that’s why they stick in the mind. But it’s not the pain that remains vivid all these years later. It’s the shock and confusion. I simply didn’t understand. However, I believe that was the moment I realised I might be capable of murder.
My mother picked me up from school, and we marched back together. We never held hands, but we talked. Well, she talked. The air of tension around her was already present. It matched the stark streets where we lived. She asked what I’d done that day. My eyes watered with the cold wind as I struggled to remember. When we reached home and entered the narrow kitchen, I opened my satchel and stared at the small Easter basket that I’d made. I stroked the shiny surface of the foil egg, knowing on some level I should keep it hidden.
‘What’s that in there?’ she said.
Guile is beyond most young children, and I was no different so I closed my bag.
‘Give it to me.’ She grabbed the handles, removed the little cardboard box, and held it as though it might detonate.
‘I made that,’ I said.
‘I warned the school about this sort of thing. They’ll regret not listening to me.’
I didn’t see her point and I was desperate to have the basket. ‘Can you give it back to me, please?’
I remember thinking that I owned it. I’d built it using cardboard and foil with the other boys and girls in the classroom. The sense of excitement in the air as we’d queued to leave that afternoon had prickled my skin. The teacher had helped me with my coat and wished me happy Easter but although I’d heard the phrase many times in lessons, the idea of Easter being happy confused me. Easter, when mentioned at home, was said with solemn awe, and triggered fear in me. There was no talk of chocolate and Cadbury’s creme eggs.
I knew not to upset my mother. She never shouted, but I would receive a look – one that warned me of impending discipline, which would stay on her face, sometimes for days, before I received my penance. My brain hunted for something to say.
‘It’s for a joyful Easter.’
She stopped in the doorway. I’d heard the word joy many times at church, but her reply was a growl. ‘We do not celebrate it in that way. Don’t let me hear you mention it again.’
‘Why not? I want to be happy. I want to be like other children.’
Back then, I hadn’t learned the value of silence. I also hadn’t learned that I wasn’t like other children. Only my father was relatively normal in our house.
She returned to stand in front of me. Her ageless brown shirt and jacket combined with severely pulled back greying hair made her seem featureless, despite the large glasses she wore. Perhaps these enabled her to see sin more clearly. Through these her piercing light blue eyes stared down and, with total certainty, she made things abundantly clear.
‘God does not approve of that. It’s for pagans. We are pure.’
At that moment, I decided I’d be a pagan. And I still wanted what I made. A flash of pure rage swept through me, I believe for the first time. My foot lashed out, and I kicked her in the shin. Quiet seconds followed. It’s hard to remember if she smiled or grimaced. Whatever, I cowered to my knees and wrapped my hands around her thick tights. She kicked my arms away.
‘Wait there,’ she said.
The anticipation is worse than actual physical pain, which only really hurts for a while. I’d experienced the impact of rolled-up newspapers and cooking spoons on many occasions, and so my mind had stopped imagining the worst because I thought I’d seen and felt it all. I didn’t know about the cellar.
As she seized my jumper at the back collar and dragged me past my father in the dining room, I noticed someone had moved the dinner table. A trapdoor yawned open. Wide eyed, I implored him to save me as he rose from his seat.
‘You go too far, Marjory.’
After a final glance at me, he left the room and strode out of the house. He might have returned to get his things at some point, but I never saw him again. When I look back, I remember hints of happiness and positivity, but he had retreated from us, like an ever so gradual cloud drawing over the sun. The eclipse came that day.
I stared down into the abyss. There were no steps, only blackness. She shoved me hard and firm in the back, and in I dropped, landing on a thin mattress. I gasped in agony as my knees compressed the material and jarred on the floor. Inside, I could just make out the contours. The space was about two metres high and wide. I slumped onto my side and, with an outstretched grasping hand, pleaded for her to pull me up. She loomed above me, so large and powerful. Her voice boomed down.
‘Repent in this life, rejoice in the next.’
Her words meant nothing. She was always boring me about one thing or another. I glanced around with blurred eyes as she dropped the trapdoor in place. The only other items I could see before complete darkness enveloped me were a pair of my father’s shoes and a blanket. Had he been down here too?
I knelt in the chilled space and imagined the walls pressing in. I believe any other child, whatever their age, would have screamed, but I did not. It makes me think I’ve always been different. I reached for the blanket and kept silent while listening to the sounds of the table scraping back into place. Sitting in the dark, I focussed on how I could recover my basket.
I wasn’t fully aware of my intentions at that moment. The only sound in my prison was the rhythmic ticking above of my mother’s pendulum clock. It was a noise to go mad to. Recalling my thoughts is difficult. My whole body tensed. I stifled the scream that yearned to erupt, knowing my mother would recognise its fury, when she craved to hear fear. After a while, I unclenched my jaw and rolled my shoulders. A surprising emptiness washed over me, leaving only a cold, controlled motivation. That focus made me understand, for the first time, that I was capable of anything.
The Soul Killer
I’ve no idea how long I waited down there that first time; no more than a few hours, probably. Using spaced hands in the pitch black, I checked the floor for other objects but found myself in an empty square except for my father’s things. I sat and thought about my actions and accepted the truth. Mother made the rules, and I had disobeyed them. Kicking her was just plain dumb. Five year olds might be inexperienced, but they aren’t necessarily stupid. I knew from then on that if I wanted special things, I’d need to keep secrets. She would have to be obeyed, or at the very least think she was.
The table scraped the floor, and the trapdoor creaked open. The light above stung my eyes. Judging eyes scrutinised me, but she remained silent.
‘Sorry. I won’t do that again,’ I said.
She nodded. She knelt and held out her hand. I was always strong. Jumping up, I pulled myself out and found dinner set for two. Already the place appeared drabber without my father. He’d been working away much more of late, staying in hotels or leaving early. I could tell my mother missed him too because her eyes strayed to his seat, so we ate in silence, except for that clock. Eventually, I had to ask the most important question a child will ever need to know; words they should never need to speak.
‘Do you love me, Mother?’
She opened her mouth and closed it without saying anything. Finally, she spoke as though reading from the good book, but she looked unconvincing.
‘God’s love is all you require.’
There was no television in our house, but I had jobs to keep me busy. Later, if I’d worked hard, she treated me to biscuits and milk. Then she’d follow me up the stairs and tuck me into bed. Each night we read a story about years gone by. My favourite was always the tale of David and Goliath.
Afterwards, we’d stare at each other and I’d smile as though I understood the message she was trying to impart. The Bible stories she read seemed contradictory to me. Some taught to turn the other cheek, whereas others seemed to condone slaughtering at will. Few suffered damnation for their sins. God forgave most, but He could be the cruellest of all.
Sometimes, I’d see a half smile as though she wanted to connect. I believe she loved me at that point, and I can’t blame her for everything. This world sickens and corrupts, and it drove her madder. Loss can make you ruthless.
I don’t think I responded to her in the way she hoped. My problem – to others – is that I’m unfeeling. I have a narrow range of emotional responses. Little bothers me, or excites me. It’s why I’m good at my job. The strange antics in my house might have unsettled another child, but I just got on with it. Perhaps she wanted me begging for warmth.
As time marched on, my mother changed. She’d stare at my father’s picture, occasionally running a finger down the frame. I knew to escape the room or I would be blamed for his absence. Sometimes she’d holler that I’d cost her a soul mate.
When I was ten, a solicitor came to our home but my mother refused to let him in. I was sitting on the lounge floor doing a jigsaw and heard him report that my father had died after a heart attack. His new partner had instructed him to inform us. My mother said he was dead to her the day he left and she closed the door. After he’d gone, I studied her. That was a lie. She had looked high and low for him. Many a time I’d put myself to bed and woke up to a cold breakfast in an empty house. She caught my appraising glance. I rose to leave, expecting harsh words and blame. Instead, tears streamed down her cheeks. I’d never seen so many before, not even in my own mirror.
I stood next to her, only the steam from our hot breath meeting in the cold air of our lounge. I raised my hands but didn’t know where to place them. Her fingers flexed, too, but also remained at her sides.
‘Don’t do what I’ve done,’ she said.
I shook my head in confusion.
‘I lost everything. He was my better half and the joy in my heart. It would have been better if he’d died with me rather than have him escape.’
She blinked a couple of times at my shocked face and frozen-open mouth.
‘But what about me?’ I said.
‘Don’t make the mistakes I did. I will teach you the way of this world. God has given me a burden to carry, I must bear it.
With that, she took care not to touch me as she left the room.
* * *
Five hundred kids attended my senior school. There were naughtier ones than me, and others who had it worse. I perfected hiding from attention there and at home. I told neither place about the other. My mother’s threats of home-schooling were enough to make me conform.
I’d recovered my Easter basket from the outside bin after the first basement incident. I kept it in a cardboard box hidden on the top shelf at the back of my wardrobe. Over the following years, I gently placed inside it the other things that my mother disapproved of. But I was to discover that I had chosen a poor hiding place and it would alter the course of my life.
A boy at school had been bothering me; a short lad called Jimmy. He wasn’t usually violent, only quick and smart. Every opportunity he had, he belittled me, and I couldn’t cope with his intelligent humour. The other kids laughed at his put-downs, not realising how much they hurt me. I learned to keep quiet and stay away from him. Jokes ranged from my voice cracking in class to the musty smell I carried. Even the teacher chuckled.
It was hard to live in such a powerless vacuum. I coped by showing no emotion, but there are those who notice such insignificance. Once, three much older boys grabbed me as I left the school library. Two held my hands out as the third pretended to punch me in the face; only stopping when his fist was an inch from my nose. Jimmy happened to wander by and they told him to thump me. He looked more scared than me. My nose bled afterwards but he could have hit me much harder.
I dawdled home, but my mother took the shirt off me and soaked it in water. She knelt to my level and her harsh breath drove home a lesson.
‘He is watching. Their punishment will be just.’
Jimmy once slipped down some stairs while running at school. While others jeered, I rushed to help him up. The Bible usually taught you to forgive. We had a moment where he softened and he even gave me a smile. The others noticed the moment and stayed quiet. I beamed for the rest of the afternoon, but my reprieve lasted for just one day before the taunts continued. Life taught me different lessons.
Luckily, he moved school after the first year, but it was as though he had infected me with a virus. No one came too close. My confidence plummeted further. It made me long to be invisible, in case the others like him noticed me.
My mother and I visited many places of worship over the years. A few at the start were happy-clappy, but they became more sombre. One even made me consider that the world was doomed, and that I was partly responsible. Most expected you to attend in your smartest clothes, yet a couple had all manner of beggars inside. We attended huge churches and had candle mass in people’s lounges. I sat wide eyed and scratching my head at almost every denomination people worshipped. We even dabbled in religions where the congregation prayed to humans with animal heads. Strangely, those beliefs made most sense to me.
I realised that there were two consistent things about all of them. They all believed that life carried on after we died. Some talked about being reborn as something else, while most dangled the lure of everlasting life in heaven. Ascending there to be judged as worthy by Him should be your aim.
The second thing was that my mother didn’t fit in. Her views often didn’t align with any of the people who attended these churches, even the nice ones. It took a while for me to conclude that her opinions wavered to suit her mood. Whatever she searched for in these places remained elusive. After my father left, she rarely sang. Instead she’d stare at the altar with grim conviction.
She used to attend confession. Afterwards, as she drove home, she would whisper to herself the same lines over and over.
‘I know that I am saved. I am born again. I am a child of God.’
Confession stopped when she decided she knew better than those giving out the advice. Not everyone agreed with her views on eternal damnation. She believed that only a special few would be spared the wrath of God. The criteria to qualify were a shifting sand that I struggled to get my head around. More than once I found myself considering the kitchen table and what lay beneath. She’d shake me and explain that good people sometimes had to do bad things that would save their souls and banish others into permanent darkness.
Occasionally, she’d shoot out of her seat and bellow at the pulpit and we’d have to leave mid-service, or I’d be hauled from Sunday school. She’d tell me on the way home about the brutality of life, and how everyone had their own interests at heart. She’d stop in the street and lean down to look in my eyes.
‘We don’t need them in our lives. Only those who are saved are worth anything.’
‘I was having a good time.’
‘We don’t worship to have a good time. Our goal is heaven and life everlasting.’
‘Are we going there?’
Her grip tightened and I was dragged along.
I wondered what his last girlfriend would think about that. Whatever, it was serious stuff when I’d rather have been reading comics.
She always said not to worry about this life because happiness existed a final heartbeat away. When someone maddens over years, it’s hard to see the exact point when they become crazy, as opposed to just different from the rest of us. Mother was lucid then, but, with my father gone, little outside influence crept within our walls. The gospel according to Marjory held sway and I was destined to be her disciple.
At age twelve, I was plunged through the trapdoor for the final time. She’d burst into my room and found me enthusiastically exploring my puberty. My cheeks still burn when I recall that frozen second. For a long while, I thought of her whenever I became aroused. I wonder if I ever truly got over it.
At that embarrassing moment, she screamed at me. ‘What do you think you’re doing in my pure house?’
I assumed, correctly, that she didn’t want the actual answer.
I fumbled for my clothes. Even though our heights matched by then, her determination overpowered me. She grabbed my ear and pulled me down our dangerously steep stairs. I almost tripped and plummeted down while trying to cover myself up. I stood with my hands between my legs as she dragged the table back and lifted the rug. Again, she thrust me in from behind. I didn’t reach for help, nor feel the cold. I only scowled into the darkness.
We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more, purchase the full novel here: https://amzn.to/32oszvj