The Burning Girl

Mark Billingham



Dear Local Businessman

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Later, Carol Chamberlain would convince herself that she had actually been dreaming about Jessica Clarke when she got the first call. That the noise of the phone ringing had dragged her awake; away from the sound and the smell of it. The fuzzy picture of a girl running, the colours climbing up her back, exploding and flying at her neck like scarves of gold and crimson.

Whether the dream was imagined or not, she'd begun to see it all again the moment she'd put down the phone. Sitting on the edge of the bed, shivering; Jack, who had stirred only momentarily, dead to the world behind her.

She saw it all.

The colours were as bright, and the sound as clear and crisp as it had been that morning twenty years before. She was certain of it. Though Carol had not been there, had not seen any of it with her own eyes, she had spoken to everyone, everyone who had. Now she believed that when she ran over it in her mind, when she imagined it, she was seeing it all exactly as it had happened.

The sound of the man's feet on the grass as he climbed the slope, of his tuneless humming was drowned out by the noise from the playground. Beneath the high-pitched peaks of shouts and screams was a low throb of chatter and gossip, a wave of conversation that rolled across the playground and away down the hillside, towards the main road. The man listened to it as he got nearer, unable to make out anything clearly. It would almost certainly be talk about boys and music. Who was in and who was out. He could hear another sound, too: the buzz of a lawn-mower from the far side of the school where a team of gardeners was working. They wore green boiler-suits, and so did he. His was only missing the embroidered council logo.

Hands in his pockets, cap pulled down low on his head, he walked around the perimeter of the playground to where the girl and a bunch of her friends were gathered. A few of them were leaning back on the metal, cross- hatched fence, bouncing gently against it, relaxed. The man removed the secateurs from his belt and squatted, inches away from the girls on the other side of the fence. With one hand, he began snipping at the weeds that sprouted around the base of a concrete fence post. With the other, he reached into his pocket for the can of lighter fluid.

It had always been the smell, more than anything, that had worried him. He'd made sure the can was full and there was not the faintest hiss or gurgle as he squeezed, as the jet of fluid shot from the plastic nozzle through the gap in the fence. His concern was that some hint of it, a whiff as it soaked into the material of the blue, knee-length skirt, might drift up on the breeze and alert the girl or one of her friends.

He needn't have worried. By the time he'd laid the can down on the grass and reached for the lighter, he'd used half the fuel at least, and the girls had been too busy chattering to notice anything. It surprised him that for fifteen seconds or more the girl's skirt smouldered quietly before finally catching. He was also surprised by the fact that she wasn't the one who screamed first… Jessica had only one ear on Ali's story about the party she'd been to and Manda's tale of the latest tiff with her boyfriend. She was still thinking about the stupid row with her mum that had gone on the whole weekend, and the talking-to she'd been given by her father before he'd left for work that morning. When AH pulled a face and the others laughed, Jessica joined in without really appreciating the joke. It felt like a small tug at first, and then a tickle, and she leaned forward to smooth down the back of her skirt. She saw Manda's face change then, watched her mouth widen, but she never heard the sound that came out of it. Jessica was already feeling the agony lick at the tops of her legs as she lurched away from the fence and started to run.

Long distant from it now, Carol Chamberlain imagined the panic and the pain as shocked as she always was at the unbearable events unfolding in her mind's eye.

Horribly quickly. Dreadfully slowly…

An hour before dawn, it was dark inside the bedroom, but the searing light of something unnatural blazed behind her eyes. With hindsight, with knowledge, she was everywhere, able to see and hear it all. She saw girls' mouths gape like those of old women, their eyes big and glassy as their feet carried them away from the flames. Away from their friend.

She saw Jessica carve a ragged path across the playground, her arms flailing. She heard the screams, the thump of shoes against asphalt, the sizzle as the hair caught. She watched what she knew to be a child move like a thrown firework, skittering across a pavement. Slowing down, fizzing…

And she saw the face of a man, of Rooker, as he turned and jogged away down the slope. His legs moving faster and faster. Almost, but not quite, falling as he careered down the hill towards his car. Carol Chamberlain turned and stared at the phone. She thought about the anonymous call she had received twenty minutes earlier. The simple message from a man who could not possibly have been Gordon Rooker.

'I burned her.'


The train was stationary, somewhere between Golders Green and Hampstead, when the woman stepped into the carriage. Just gone seven on a Monday night. The passengers a pretty fair cross-section of Londoners heading home late, or into the West End to make a night of it. Suits and Evening Standards. The office two-piece and a dog-eared thriller. All human life, in replica football kits and Oxfam chic and Ciro Citterio casuals. Heads bouncing against windows and lolling in sleep, or nodding in time to Coldplay or Craig David or DJ Shadow.

For no good reason other than it was on the Northern Line, the train lurched forward suddenly, then stopped again a few seconds later. People looked at the feet of those opposite, or read the adverts above their heads. The silence, save for the tinny bass lines bleeding from headphones, exaggerated the lack of connection.

At one end of the carriage, two black boys sat together. One looked fifteen or sixteen but was probably younger. He wore a red bandanna, an oversized American football jersey and baggy jeans. He was laden with rings and necklaces. Next to him was a much smaller boy, his younger brother perhaps, dressed almost identically. To the

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