**TRIGGER WARNING: We at Horrified believe that horror is a broad church, and that horror is sometimes designed to challenge and disturb the reader. In this instance, the author and ourselves feel it is our duty to warn you that the following story contains descriptions of sexual abuse and violence that some might find upsetting.**
For the Benefit of the Tape
by Stephen Volk
DS Hepworth has carried out more interviews than he cares to remember, in his role as a police detective, encountering the worst of society in all its guises. Yet, in this disturbing tale, he discovers things that challenge even his sense of reality...
When the accused raised his hand to his chest I wasn’t expecting him to undo a button on his shirt. I expected even less that he would unbutton them all the way up to his collar, then down to his waist, then shrug the garment off his shoulders so that its whiteness gathered around his elbows. In a continuation of the same motion he peeled his skin back from his sternum, wrapping his fingers around a thickness of flesh that seemed to have the consistency of wet clay, dragging that back over his shoulders and down to the elbows as well. His head at that point appeared to have little to hold it in place and tilted backwards, dangling down his back like a discarded hood. A roundish object in the chest cavity I took to be the heart, but quickly discerned it was the scalp of a person, gently revolving as if attempting to extract itself. A child emerged, wriggling and shuffling off the layer of flesh that clothed it with no small measure of irritation and impatience. A naked boy, aged between five and six, with skin that looked like he had crawled through the ashes of a crematorium, now sat in the chair facing me, the wettish, clothed husk of the adult having been sloughed off and folded over the arms of the chair like a discarded overcoat.
“For the benefit of the tape,” I said, “The accused has been replaced by a small boy.”
The boy coughed in the kind of sharp series of rasps my mother would call croup. Something seemed to dislodge and he swallowed a bolus of phlegm, or perhaps dried blood, that he clearly found unappetising.
I pushed the glass of water closer to him. He looked down at it with derision. He looked tiny amongst the outer layers that had been shed and shivered slightly as if he’d come from a warm place to a chilly one.
“Got any squash?”
Cheeky bugger, I thought. I assessed him coolly: “Doubt it.”
“Appletiser?” he enquired.
“Well, it’s apple. Obviously. With a tiser.”
I didn’t rise to his sarcasm. “No.”
The boy vented his disappointment in a long sigh. “I don’t think much of this place.”
“I’m sorry it’s not The Ritz,” I said. “But can we get back to the questions?”
“The reason you’re here.”
“I don’t know the reason I’m here. Nobody tells me anything.” He blinked red-rimmed eyes whose whites were yellowy compared to the whiteness of his ashen but essentially slimy-looking skin.
I opened my folder. “Two thousand images were found on your laptop.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“How wasn’t it you?”
“I’m six years old. I don’t have a computer.”
I closed my folder. “You do. We’ve looked at it. Don’t play games.”
“I do play games, though. I’m a boy. I play games in the street. I chalk goalposts in the road. I expect you’re going to have me for that, are you?”
“We’re not interested in goalposts. No.”
“What are you interested in?” The little boy rested his bony elbows on the table between us, his fists pressed into his cheeks. He sat much lower in his chair than I did. I imagined his small, skinny legs were inside those of the adult male, wearing them like thick, hefty galoshes.
“We’re interested in you,” I said.
“Are you, though? Are you really? You don’t look like you’re interested in me. You look like you want to bang somebody up and throw away the key. My dad warned me about people like you. My dad knows a thing or two. He’s going to come down here and knock your block off, mate.”
“Don’t call me mate. And I doubt it.”
“Oh you do, do you? You doubt a lot of things.” He examined me. Again, I didn’t rise to it. What was he? Just a little kid. I let him have his way. Hold court if he wanted to. No skin off my nose. I was in charge. I could walk out any time I liked. He couldn’t, and he knew it. “Give us a fag.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“Go on, mate. I’m gasping.”
“No smoking in the building.
“Look what I’ve been through. I deserve a smoke.”
“Besides which, you’re six years old.”
“Oh, am I?” With a smug grin, he pointed his finger at me and let it off, miming the kickback as if it was a pistol, then blew down the barrel. “You’re brilliant! Oh! You’re clever, you are! Observant! You’ll go far. They reward observant people in your profession. And those who go that little bit further than necessary. Do you go that little bit further than necessary, DS Hepworth?” I noticed now that he had a purple blemish on one cheek, which appeared to be spreading. “Eh? Do you?” He winked a sore-looking eye.
“Can we get back to the questions, please?”
He swayed back with arms folded. “You can, but I don’t know nothin’.”
“’I don’t know anything.’”
He chuckled. “I know you don’t, but I do.” He stretched out and tapped the cover of my folder with his index finger, then tapped the side of his head. “All you’ve got to do is get it. It’s all up here. Don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
He laughed a flutish kind of laugh that reminded me of someone. “No, I bet you’re not. Well, maybe you ought to be.”
“Why’s that then?”
“Oh . . . Nah, you don’t want to know what I know. It wouldn’t be good for you. You’re a delicate flower.”
That’s what my dad used to call me, at times. You delicate flower.
I said: “What are you talking about?”
The boy picked a bit of dry stuff off his forearm, dead skin, the kind that peels off after sunburn. “You want to know the facts, do you?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, I s’pose I better give ’em.” He squelched slightly in his sleeping bag of skin. “That girl who lived next door to your cousin. She was nice, wasn’t she?”
“She was all right.”
“I thought she reminded you of the children’s TV presenter you fancied.”
“I never fancied a TV presenter.”
“Yes, you did. And this girl, d’you remember that day when you were playing with your cousin and she rolled up on her bike and you chatted, and she scratched herself like she was itching down below, and your cousin said she was growing hair on her minge? Do you remember that? Do you remember how she blushed and how you did too?”
“Is it rubbish, though?
“It’s nothing to do with why you’re here, I bloody know that.”
“Why am I here? To look at your ugly mug?”
“You can if you like. Or you can do something useful. Like answer questions about the two thousand images that—”
“Oh, give it a rest!” The boy sat back. Blew into the air. His collar bone had a zed-shape halfway along it where it didn’t match up, and the substance he was covered in was greenish now, like snot or pus.
“DS Hepworth,” he said.
“You’ve got a good memory.”
“Yes, I have.” He was a smug-faced piece of shit. “It’s all over me, my memory is. I’m a book, me. All you have to know is how to read me. Speaking of reading, do you remember when your Uncle Haydn used to read you those Winnie the Pooh stories? Pooh and Piglet?”
“I bet you do.” His grin opened a cut on his cheekbone I hadn’t noticed before.
“You can bet all you like. It’s untrue.”
“You shared a bed at one time, am I right in thinking?”
“No, you’re wrong in thinking.”
“That time when your parents were away for their anniversary? It felt warm, didn’t it, his bum? And it didn’t seem wrong did it? Not really? Just a game to play, just while you were cuddling up. Just while you were going to sleep. It was nice, wasn’t it?”
“For the benefit of the tape, I’m showing the accused an image we extracted from his hardware. I’m asking him if he has any knowledge how it got there. For the benefit of the tape, he has looked at the image but is saying nothing.”
“Give me a chance.”
“For the benefit of the tape, he said ‘Give me a chance.’”
“It’s on the tape, sunshine,” said the boy. “You don’t need to say what’s on the tape if it’s on the tape.”
“Oh, you’re the expert.”
He squinted at the printout. Lowered his nose almost to touch it. “Not the best lighting in the world, is it? That’ll never win a BAFTA.”
I placed another image beside it. He didn’t bat an eyelid, much less squirm. He didn’t even look away. He looked at me. Never took his eyes off me. And when there were five in front of him he shuffled them rapidly and sat back, hands under his armpits, as if to say Pick a card, any card.
“Then there was Lo, the Chinese girl. Lo! Lo and behold, they called her in the office. Sweet girl. Too sweet to shag, they all said. But you liked her. You liked talking to her. There wasn’t any feeling of sex between you and that made you relaxed. Except when you saw them again they wanted to know. Go on. Tell us. What happened? It had to happen. You knew it did. The sheets were so clean and fragrant, weren’t they? You’d never smelt sheets that perfumy and nice. But she hurt and cried out and you shrank and pulled away and it was terrible but you enjoyed it. You were ashamed and sorry but you were excited. She was so like a little boy, wasn’t she?”
My fists were tight. My fingernails dug into my palms.
“How do you know these things?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Who are you?”
“Who do you think?”
I was up out of the chair. I couldn’t help myself. It just happened. I wasn’t planning it or thinking it, it just was. I grabbed him by the throat. He was still grinning. His smile hadn’t diminished, even as he saw me coming at him. Even as I yanked him up in the air and his puny body dangled from my hands. I threw him into the corner of the room. I whacked him over the head with my fist. His face impacted the wall. I kicked him in the belly twice. I stamped on his knee and ankle, where I already saw cuts and bruises. The tibia and fibula were both broken and his leg was twisted at a bizarre angle. I lifted him by the hair and saw a black eye darkening even before I punched him with repeated blows until my hands were numb and I’d worn the skin from my knuckles. They hurt so I eased off, no idea whether it had taken ten minutes or ten seconds. He didn’t look much like a boy any more.
I straightened up to catch my breath. Panting, I fetched my phone from my jacket pocket and pointed the camera down at him. Evidence. I took several shots so that I could choose the best one later. He emitted a slight gurgle but nothing else. A string of blood descended to the carpet.
I turned to see Alison Morley and Bob Kelly, who had been observing through the two-way mirror, the latter like a big bear in a uniform putting a hand on my shoulder.
“Let me take over from here, Sarge,” he said, before wrapping a strip of leather—I think it may have been his belt—around his fist, and starting to pummel the pale shape on the floor. Really putting his back into it.
Alison, as ever, was supportive, as a good SIO should be. “Go home, Alex, mate. You’ve done a good job. We can tidy up here.”
“Thanks. ma’am,” I said, as the blows continue to fall. It’s good to be part of a team.
The night was soil-coloured and sulphurous. The lights were with me all the way. Hardly any traffic. I think there’s a match on.
When I get home, the girls are working out what they’re going to do for Hallowe’en. What’s to work out, I don’t know. One has chosen to paint her face green and wear a pointed hat. The other is using copious loo roll and her mother’s make-up to become an Egyptian mummy. Chocolate eyeballs and fake fangs seem also to be part of the deal. I blame the supermarkets.
I take a large G&T upstairs. Don’t need to explain to Rosie I need half an hour to depressurise and check my emails before dinner. It’s our routine.
I don’t check my emails. I upload the photograph of the little boy from my phone to my desktop. Looking at the image, I want to bathe his wounds, cover his naked shame with a pair of shorts—the sort I wore at his age. Khaki. I want to give him socks. Do up his tie. Send him to school. See him all right.
He joins my two thousand photographs. And I realise, as I realise every time, then I forget, then I remember. Which is how it will always be. He’s the same child as last time. And the time before that. The same as all of them.
And the next. And the next. And the next.