Excerpt “The Babysitter” by Sheryl Browne
EIGHT YEARS AGO
Oblivious to the slimy, wet mud oozing between her toes, Grace took a faltering step backwards, away from the house. Her huge cognac-coloured eyes illuminated by the light of the fire, she watched, mesmerised and helpless, as the flames licked hungrily at her parents’ bedroom curtains. She’d tried to tell them what happened to Ellie wasn’t her fault.
Constantly around her ankles, while their mum and husband number three had partied, her younger sister Ellie had been watching as she and her friends lit up their sparklers and drew their names against the dark blue ink of the sky. Ellie had wanted to do it, too. Later, Grace had promised her; anything to placate her and stop her “telling Mummy” she’d been smoking, which would only add to Grace’s list of sins.
Ellie hadn’t forgotten. Still awake when Grace had crept up to bed, her sister had whinged until, urging her to be quiet, Grace had given in and tiptoed back downstairs to fetch a packet of leftover sparklers from the box in the kitchen.
Her eyes like big brown orbs, Ellie had watched in awe as Grace struck the match and lit the sparkler, igniting a thousand crackling slivers of light in their bedroom. She’d squealed like the foxes that scream in the night when her flesh had singed, despite how hard Grace tried to shush her. Grace hadn’t wanted to hurt her sister. But she knew nobody would believe her. They never did.
Grace took another step back, her heart skipping a beat as a figure appeared at the window, flames lashing at his flesh like hot vipers’ tongues. It wasn’t her fault. She’d tried to tell them. She’d told Ellie to hold the firework at arm’s length. They hadn’t been listening. Her mum’s eyes had been as wild as the fire. She’d still been wearing her lipstick, blood red, like an angry red slash for a mouth, as she’d cursed and spat, “You stupid creature. Look what you’ve done. Look what you’ve done!”
She’d been holding Ellie in her arms, clutching her plump little hand in her own and pointing it out towards Grace like an accusation. Ellie’s fingers had been blistered, her thigh, too, where the sparkler had landed.
Her stepdad had started after her as her mum swept past Grace to take Ellie to accident and emergency. “I’ll drive you,” he’d offered, but he hadn’t wanted to. Grace could tell by the way his gaze drifted lewdly towards her that he hadn’t wanted to. “Don’t be ridiculous!” her mum had snapped angrily. “You’ve drunk your own body weight in beer. Just . . . deal with her,” she’d added, causing ice-cold dread to pool in the pit of Grace’s stomach. She hadn’t wanted to be alone with him, to watch him draw the blinds and turn from the window, that liquid, faraway
look in his eyes as he unfastened his waistband.
Hearing the wail of the sirens growing closer, Grace tore her gaze from the window. Panic twisting her stomach and thick, choking smoke gripping her throat, she backed towards the denser foliage at the bottom of the garden.
Pulling on the requisite hand and footwear protection, Mark sucked in a deep breath and braced himself to enter the premises. “DI Cain,” he said, producing his ID and introducing himself to the uniformed officer in the hall, who was looking rather green around the gills. The guy was young—early twenties, Mark guessed, probably not long off probation. Mark had been about the same age, seven long years ago, when he’d encountered his first victim. He’d kept his breakfast down—just. This, though—a whole family incinerated, a young child included—was truly an initiation by fire. “DS Moyes?” he asked.
“Child’s bedroom. First left at the top,” the officer answered, and swallowed hard on his Adam’s apple.
Mark nodded, glancing at him sympathetically. “Take a break,” he suggested. “Grab some air.” Not that the air out there was much less putrid than in here. As acrid as the smell of burned wood suffused with gunpowder was, it was doing little to hide the nauseatingly sweet stench of singed flesh. Like roast pork crackling on Sundays. Mark remembered well the times he’d looked forward to going to his gran’s as a kid, escaping the end- less violent arguments at home. He hadn’t been able to go near a roast joint since he’d attended a road traffic accident where the unfortunate driver, entombed in his car, had gone up in flames.
“I’m good, sir,” the officer assured him stoically.
Mark was unconvinced. “Humour me,” he said. “I’ve done my own fair share of contaminating evidence. Trust me, I know the signs.”
“Sir,” the officer said, his look now a mixture of embarrassment and relief as he turned for the front door.
Mark watched him go, and then, steeling himself, he climbed the stairs and headed directly for the child’s room. Lisa Moyes, his detective sergeant, was there, looking down at the small form in the bed. Detective Sergeant Cummings was also there, though Mark was buggered if he knew why. First responder, he wondered? Unlikely. The man was a lazy sod. More likely he’d been on his way back from some seedy liaison in the city and had stopped by out of idle curiosity.
“Cummings.” Mark nodded a curt greeting as he walked across to Lisa Moyes. He didn’t like the man, a chauvinistic prick who obviously considered sexual harassment one of the perks of the job.
“What have we got?” he asked Lisa, who didn’t meet his gaze. From the hand she ran under her nose, Mark guessed why. Petite in size, with blonde hair, which she purposely cropped short, and pretty, Lisa had had to work to prove herself in a largely male- dominated environment, determined to be as hard-nosed and detached as some of her male counterparts. As a mother herself, though, Mark suspected she didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of remaining detached now.
“A young girl,” Lisa answered, eventually, “white Caucasian, aged approximately four. Cause of death—” Her voice catching, she stopped and fixed her gaze hard on the ceiling.
“Smoke inhalation,” Cummings supplied. “The door was closed. She got lucky though, better than being burned alive. Can’t imagine what must have been going through her mind hearing her mum and dad screaming. Poor cow must have been petrified.”
At that, Lisa turned around. “You really are a prat, Cummings,” she muttered, pushing furiously past him and heading for the door.
Cummings watched her go, confounded. “What was all that about?” he asked, looking clueless as he turned back to Mark.
Sighing, Mark shook his head. Married and divorced twice, Cummings had never had kids, but it didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to guess what might have been going through that child’s mind.
“Lisa has two children under five,” he pointed out exasperatedly, and turned his attention to the little girl, his heart constricting inside him as he did. Curled into a fetal ball in her child-sized bed, she had her thumb plugged into her mouth and a one-eyed Pooh Bear clutched close to her chest.
Mark took a second to compose himself. He didn’t have kids either. They had had a child, he and his wife, Melissa, and though his son’s life might have been too short, Mark had grieved more than he would ever let on. Melissa had needed him to be strong, Mark had realised that as he’d watched her nursing their premature child in her arms. Her heart had been breaking as Jacob’s weak lungs had stopped fighting. In those bleak weeks afterwards, Mel had fought to stave off a deep, dark depression born of carrying a child, giving birth to a child and then having that child cruelly stolen away. Mark had been dying inside. Probably the only person who’d guessed how much he was hurting, and how frustrated and angry he’d felt after two subsequent miscarriages, was Lisa.
No, it didn’t need a great leap of the imagination to envisage how terrified in such circumstances a small child might be. Swallowing back a tight knot in his throat, Mark closed his eyes, offering up a silent prayer for the girl, before turning back to Cummings. “You might as well go home,” he said tiredly.
“Oh? Why’s that then?” Cummings asked, eyeing him warily as Mark headed for the door. Ever since Mark had caught him in the act of groping a female member of staff and attempted to wipe the floor with him, Cummings had been jumpy around him. More so once he’d realised Mark was on to his little transgressions with confiscated items. Drugs mostly, nothing major, but there was no way it could be overlooked. Cummings had also been quietly watching him, Mark was aware, as if waiting for him to slip up; probably looking for ammunition to use against him should Mark bring his suspicions to the attention of their superior officers.
“You’re surplus to requirements,” he clarified. “I’m thinking this isn’t a crime scene.”
Cummings looked doubtful. “But aren’t there traces of accelerant?”
“It’s bonfire night,” Mark reminded him. “Judging by the embers outside and the obvious signs of alcohol consumption, the family were partying. Chances are the accelerant was to make sure the party didn’t get rained off.”
It had got the fire going all right, hadn’t it, he thought jadedly. The idiots park the accelerant in the kitchen, a stray spark ignites the fumes, and bang, a fucking inferno. Mark quashed an overwhelming sense of anger. What were they thinking, taking that sort of risk with a four-year-old child in the house?
“I’ll assess whether we need to drag the forensic specialists out of bed. DS Moyes and I can handle the rest. Once the coroner arrives, you might as well go and catch up on your beauty sleep. You look as if you could use it.” The last was added acerbically, bearing in mind Cummings’ penchant for touring red-light districts.
Mark turned away from Cummings and headed for the main bedroom. There, the smell was more cloying; the coppery odour of iron-rich burned blood suffused with barbecued meat turned his stomach over. Suppressing the urge to retch, Mark forced himself further into the room, almost stepping on what remained of one of the corpses as he did. The mother, he gathered. Burned where she lay, her body in much the same foetal position as the little girl, though through muscle flexion rather than fear, as she’d obviously been trying to get to the door.
Working to keep his nausea in check, he walked around the bed. The father had obviously headed for the window. Blackened and charred, clothes and curtain material melted into his flesh, his body was barely recognisable as human.
Mark couldn’t begin to imagine the pain they must have gone through. Was smoke inhalation a less painful death, he wondered, his mind going back to the little girl. A forensic special- ist had once assured him it was, marginally. Either way it was a fucking horrific way to go. Dammit. He needed to get out of here. He needed to breathe. Curtailing his anger, Mark headed back to the landing to concentrate on the practicalities of what needed to be done.
Gulping a lungful of slightly less stifling air as he exited the house, he glanced around, assessing the location. An isolated country property located on the Worcester and Herefordshire border. He’d already noted the absence of a fence or gate dividing the land from the road.
Pondering options for a perimeter, he was gazing into the woodland on the opposite side of the road when DS Moyes joined him. “How’s it going?” he asked her.
“Slowly.” Lisa sighed. “I sent one of the first attending officers to the local pub. The landlord was pissed off at being knocked up, but he confirmed he was here last night and that there hadn’t been any arguments or suspect incidents. Guests were mostly local apparently. He’s going to let us have some names.”
“Right.” Mark nodded. “I actually meant how’s it going with you?”
“Good. I’m good,” Moyes assured him, her gaze fixed to the front.
Mark noted the determined set of her jaw. “Bullshit.”
Lisa’s shoulders deflated. “Yeah,” she said, running her hand through her short crop of hair. “Sorry about back there. It’s just . . . Cummings can be a right tactless twat sometimes.”
Mark sighed empathetically. “Tell me about it.”
“I could imagine it”—Lisa tugged in a tight breath—“how terrified that little girl must have been. I don’t know what I would do if I ever lost one of my children. I suppose the small plus is the parents won’t have to go through the grieving—Oh God.” She squeezed her eyes closed. “Sorry, Mark. I wasn’t thinking. I—”
“It’s fine,” Mark said quickly.
Lisa obviously got the gist. “So, how’s Mel?” she asked, her voice falsely bright.
“Good,” Mark assured her, happy to talk about his wife. “Throwing herself into her work. She’s managed to get a couple of commissions supplying local craft centres, so…Yup, she’s doing okay.”
Outwardly, Melissa and Lisa were as different as chalk and cheese. Taller than Lisa, with long, softly curled hair the colour of soft copper, Mel was meditative, rarely outspoken unless with good cause, caring. As was Lisa, but there the similarity ended. Lisa was definitely outspoken, and she could curse with the best of them. Inwardly, though, they were made of the same stuff, with a steely determination to keep going no matter what shit life dealt them. Having survived an abusive relationship, it was no wonder Lisa would have nil respect for a Neanderthal of Cummings ilk. Mark wouldn’t say it to her face, but having grown up in the midst of an abusive relationship himself, he had a profound respect for her. Lisa had been a friend to Mel when she’d needed one, and Mark had been grateful.
Mark smiled as his mind drifted to Mel, who of late could usually be found at her potter’s wheel. Somehow, she’d pulled herself out of the pit of despair she’d fallen into and built up a business, albeit a fledgling one, from scratch. Mark was in awe of her.
“Excellent,” Lisa said, looking pleased. “And are you two still . . . um . . . you know.”
Noting the insinuating arch of her eyebrows, Mark got the drift. “Yes, we’re still trying,” he confided. And hoping, he added silently, that by some miracle that one day they would be blessed with the child they both desperately wanted.
“You’re a handsome bastard.” Lisa smirked. “Who could resist?”
Mark shook his head. “I could think of a few.”
“And modest with it. Be still my beating heart.” Lisa fluttered her eyelashes theatrically. “Well, you know what they say, practice makes perfect and all that. It’ll happen,” she said, glancing over her shoulder as one of the first attending officers approached from the house. “Probably when you least expect it. Keep it up, Detective.”
Mark’s mouth twitched into a smile as she gave him a thumbs up and turned to liaise with the uniform. Praying it would hap- pen, for both of their sakes, Mark pulled in a sigh and turned his attention back to the task of setting up the perimeter.
“I’m heading back in,” Lisa said. “They’re removing the bodies.”
Turning back, Mark arched an eyebrow, surprised she was so keen. He was all for facing fears head on—his biggest fear in his young life had been his own father, until he’d plucked up enough courage to confront him—but Lisa had been visibly upset in there. “You sure?” he asked her. “You can always take over out here while I go in.”
Lisa nodded resolutely. “I’d like to be with her. Make sure she’s all right, if that makes any sense.”
“Perfect sense.” Mark smiled, understanding. It was pointless, the little girl was dead, but making sure she was treated gently might possibly lay a ghost for Lisa.
Gesturing her on, Mark made his way around the side of the house to liaise with the officers out back, plucking his ringing mobile from his pocket as he went. It would be DCI Edwards calling, he assumed, wanting a progress report—i.e., checking up on him, after his psych report had labelled him borderline fit for work. Yes, he’d lost it with Cummings, and flooring a fel- low officer hadn’t been the proudest moment of his life, but the bastard had deserved it. And, yes, he might have been “border- line” at the time—his emotional state hadn’t been great after the funeral—but he was fit for work now.
But when he looked at the screen, it wasn’t Edwards. “Mel? What’s wrong?” he asked, a knot of apprehension tightening inside him.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Mel assured him. “Does there have to be something wrong for a wife to call her husband?”
Mark glanced at his watch. “It’s six in the morning.”
“Nooo, really?” Mel said, in mock surprise. “Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I thought when I groped for your body and came up empty-handed.”
“Sorry,” Mark apologised distractedly, his attention drawn by activity further down the garden. “I didn’t want to wake you. I had a call-out. I left a note by the kettle.”
“I haven’t been down yet. I was too busy lying in bed contemplating the thin blue line.”
“Sorry?” Mark said again, his attention now definitely elsewhere. “Thin—blue—line,” Mel repeated slowly. “Work it out,
“Well, actually, I have blue lines and pink lines and . . . I’d say you’ve done a very thorough job, DI Cain.”
Not sure he was hearing her right, Mark stopped walking. Was she saying . . . Jesus. Conflicting emotions assailed him, and he dragged a hand through his hair. He wanted to whoop and cry at the same time, to sound jubilant, for Mel’s sake, but how could he? Here? Now? “Mel, I’m going to have to call you back,” he said, his throat tight. “I—”
“Mark?” Mel cut incredulously across him. “Did you hear what I just said?”
“Yes. Yes, I did. It’s . . . I can’t talk now, Mel,” he said, kneading his forehead in frustration as two officers walked someone towards him. “I . . .”
“Oh.” Now she sounded deflated. Bitterly disappointed.
“It’s a house fire,” Mark explained quickly. “A family. There’ve been fatalities. I have to—”
“Oh no.” Mel obviously realised his circumstances immediately. “Go,” she urged him, as the officers, plus charge, stopped in front of him. “Call me back when you can.”
“I will,” Mark promised gruffly, realising the absolute impossibility of remaining detached as he looked into the tearful, terrified eyes of another child. A child they’d been unaware of and had obviously missed in the pandemonium. Still dressed in her unicorn-print pajamas, she was shaking from head to foot. Her cheeks, smeared in crap from the fire, were tear-stained, her cognac-coloured eyes wide and utterly petrified.
“Shit,” Mark uttered under his breath. “Where was she?” he addressed one of the officers.
“Hiding out in the bushes,” he said, nodding at the trees behind him.
“Looks like she didn’t want to be found,” the second officer observed.
“I’m not surprised.” His heart constricting for the girl, Mark looked back at her, unsure what to say, what to do that could possibly help. There was no way she would have even begun to process the enormity of what had happened. Nor would she for a long time to come—if ever.
“All right if we leave her with you, sir?” the first officer asked. “There’s some debris needs shifting on the landing.”
Mark nodded. “Go,” he said. “Get another ambulance here pronto and alert DS Moyes on your way, will you?” he added, as the officers skirted around him. Apart from the fact that he hadn’t got a clue how to handle this, protocol dictated he should have a female police officer present.
“Hi,” he said, turning to the girl and trying to sound as reassuring as possible. “I’m Detective Inspector Cain.” The girl peered at him through a straggle of mousey hair. “Mark for short,” he added. “Do you have a name?”
“G . . . Grace.”
“Grace. That’s a nice name.” Mark smiled again, wishing he could do more than just stand there. “Do you live here, Grace?” he enquired gently.
The girl glanced past him, nodded, and then hastily dropped her gaze.
Nice going. Despairing of his ineptitude in such a situation, Mark sighed inwardly, and then, removing his jacket, crouched down to her level.
She flinched as he moved towards her, her expression one of alarm, he noted.
“To keep you warm,” he said. “You’re shaking fit to break something loose.” Again, he smiled and prayed he wasn’t doing anything to add to her terror and confusion.
The palpable fear in her eyes diminished a little as he wrapped the jacket around her, making sure to hold her gaze as he did. “Can you tell me what happened, Grace?” he asked softly, pulling it close at the neck.
Warily, she searched his eyes. Her own were wide and dark, Mark noticed, as she glanced at the house and then back to him. “I was asleep,” she said, her gaze flicking guiltily away for
a second. No surprise there. Skinny under her pajamas, her demeanour that of a frightened five-year-old, she looked around twelve, thirteen maybe. Too young to have to deal with this, but old enough, he guessed, to have realised her family had possibly perished. “But something scared me,” she said. “A crash.”
“Like breaking glass?” Carefully, Mark probed a little further. She nodded, then, gulping in a breath, dragged a sleeve under her nose.
A break-in, Mark wondered, or a window popping? The latter, he suspected.
“I smelled smoke,” she said, swiping at her nose again. “I didn’t know what to do. I shouted and screamed but no one came. I tried to get to out, but I couldn’t, and I got scared and—” “Hey, hey, slow down,” Mark urged her, as the words tumbled
from her mouth in a garbled, hiccupping rush.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she repeated, choking back a sob. “I was going to wake Mummy and Daddy, but . . . but . . .”
“Was there smoke on the landing, Grace?”
“Yes,” she sobbed. “And fire. I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t know what to do.”
So she ran. What else was there to do but fucking burn, Mark thought furiously.
“I left them,” she said, the sheer anguish in her voice cutting him to the core.
“You had no choice,” he told her firmly.
“My sister. She was screaming. I couldn’t save her.” It came out little more than a whisper.
Useless. Feeling powerless as the girl’s gaze hit the ground again, Mark ran a hand over his neck. Stuff protocol, he thought, getting to his feet, as she began to cry in earnest. It wasn’t a criminal offence to hold a child while she broke her bloody heart, was it? Briefly, he hesitated, and then reached out to wrap an arm around her as another sob escaped her throat.
The girl, obviously in need of physical contact, moved towards him in an instant, her arms around him, her face pressed hard into his torso. Fresh, heart-wrenching sobs now wracking her frail shoulders, and Mark tried to soothe her, stroking her hair, offering her banal words of comfort.
“It wasn’t your fault, Grace,” he said throatily, but she only cried harder.
She was glued to him like a limpet when Lisa appeared, running towards them, to Mark’s huge relief.
“The ambulance has arrived,” she said, casting Mark a warning glance as she slowed her run to a walk.
Reading the look, Mark shrugged helplessly. Lisa was right, of course. This definitely wouldn’t be listed as appropriate behaviour in the child protection and safeguard manual, but what else was he supposed to have done? “Grace,” he said softly, “you need to go with Lisa now. Just to the hospital,” he added quickly, as her startled gaze shot to his. “I’ll be in trouble with my superior officers if I don’t ensure you get adequate medical attention.”
Again, the girl scanned his eyes, a new fear in her own.
“It will be all right, Grace.” Mark tried to reassure her, his heart sinking as he realised it was utter bullshit. Things wouldn’t be all right for this child ever again. How could they be? “I’ll check up on you as soon as I can, okay?”
“Promise?” she asked uncertainly.
It meant he would get back home later than he wanted to, but . . . “Promise.”
She seemed to accept that, giving him a small nod. “I’m frightened,” she said tremulously, causing Mark’s heart to con- strict afresh.
“Don’t be,” he said, making sure to hold her gaze now. “You can always contact me if you need to, Grace. I’ll always be there if you need someone to talk to or to protect you. That’s an abso- lute promise.”