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Stuart MacBride

Close to the Bone

Saturday

1

She holds up the book of matches. Licks her lips. She’s practised the words a dozen times till they’re perfect. ‘Do you have anything to say before I carry out sentence? ’

The man kneeling on the floor of the warehouse stares up at her. He’s trembling, moaning behind the mask hiding his face. ‘Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God, oh Jesus. .’ The chains around his wrists and ankles rattle against the metal stake. A waft of accelerant curls through the air from the tyre wedged over his head and shoulders. Black rubber and paraffin.

‘Too late for that.’ She smiles. ‘Thomas Leis, you-’

‘Please, you don’t have to do this!’

The smile slips. He’s spoiling it. ‘Thomas Leis, you have been found guilty of witchcraft-’

‘I’m not a witch, it’s a mistake!’

‘-condemned to burn at the stake until you be dead.’

‘I didn’t do anything!’

‘Coward.’ The lights are hot on her back as she strikes the first match, then sets fire to the rest. They hiss and flare, bright and shining. Pure. Glorious.

‘PLEASE!’

‘Burn. Like you’ll burn in hell.’ She drags the smile back on. ‘It’ll be good practice for you.’ She drops the blazing matchbook onto the tyre and the accelerant catches. Whoosh — blue and yellow flames race around the rubber.

Thomas Leis screams.

He jerks against his chains. Thick black smoke wreaths his face, hiding the mask from view as the fire takes hold. He pleads and screams and begs. .

She throws her head back and laughs at the heavens. Spreads her arms wide. Eyes glittering like diamonds.

The voice of God crackles through the air, making the very world vibrate: ‘And. . cut. Well done, everyone — break for lunch and we’ll go for scene two thirty-six at half one.

A round of applause.

Then a man in a fluorescent-yellow waistcoat rushes into shot with a fire extinguisher. FWOOOSH — the flames disappear in a puff of carbon dioxide as the cameraman backs away, shielding his lens.

The runner peels off the bright green mask with the yellow crosses on it from the stuntman doubling for Thomas Leis. The stuntman’s grinning, even though he knows they’re going to digitally replace his face in post. Even though he barged over her line.

God save us from stuntmen who think they’re actors.

She puts her head on one side and frowns. ‘I don’t know. . It felt a bit over the top at the end there. Really hammy. Wouldn’t she be more. . you know, suppressed? Maybe even a bit sexual? Can I do it again? ’

2

‘I’m on my way. Tell everyone to-’ Something under his foot went crunch. Logan froze on the doorstep, mobile phone clamped to his ear. He slid his shoe to one side and curled his top lip. ‘Not again.’

Three little bones lay on the concrete slab, tied together with a tatty piece of red ribbon.

A hissing whisper came from the other end of the phone. ‘Seriously, Guv, Pukey Pete’s having ferrets up here, it’s-

‘I said I’m on my way.’

Logan stuck the phone against his chest and scowled out at the caravan park in the growing gloom. Bulky static caravans, the size of shipping containers, all painted a uniform institution green. A patrol car idled on the square of tarmac that acted as a turning circle, its blue-and-whites strobing in the warm late-evening air. The driver hunched forward in his seat, peering out through the windscreen at Logan, working his hands back and forth along the steering wheel — as if he was trying to feel it up.

No sign of the little buggers.

Logan kicked the broken bones off the step into the straggly ivy growing up the side of his home. Then took a deep breath and bellowed it out: ‘I KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE, YOU WEE SHITES!’

Back to the phone.

I mean, he’s gone off on one before, but no’ like this. He’s-

‘If he’s screwing up the scene, arrest him. If not, just hold his bloody hand till I get there.’ Logan stomped over to the patrol car and threw himself into the passenger seat. Hauled on the belt. ‘Drive.’

The PC put his foot down.

The sun was a scarlet smear across the horizon, filling the patch of rough ground with blood and shadow. Trees loomed around the periphery, their branches filled with clacks and caws as the rooks settled in for the night.

Grey and black hulks dotted the clearing: burned-out cars, their paint stripped away, seats a sagging framework of rusty wire, the tyres turned into gritty vitrified puddles.

A cordon of blue-and-white ‘POLICE’ tape was strung between the vehicles, making a twenty-foot no-man’s- land around the Scenes Examination Branch’s inner cordon of ‘CRIME SCENE’ yellow-and-black. Three SEB technicians knelt in the dirt, poking at something, their white Tyvek oversuits glowing pink in the twilight.

Logan wrinkled his nose. The rancid stench of vomit fought against the greasy scent of burned meat and rendered fat. Like a barbecue with food poisoning. ‘Where’s the pathologist? ’

One of the techs — a shortarse with fogged-up safety goggles — finished scraping something dark and sticky into an evidence bag, then pointed her gloved finger at the other side of the ‘CRIME SCENE’ tape. There was another figure in the full Smurf outfit, hunched over a bucket, making retching noises, his back convulsing with every stomach-wrenching heave.

The short tech peeled her facemask off, exposing a circle of shiny pink skin and a thin-lipped mouth. ‘Poor wee bugger. Can’t blame him, really. Nearly lost a white-pudding supper myself.’ She puffed out a breath, hauled at the elasticated hood of her suit. ‘Christ it’s hot in here. .’

‘You call for backup? ’

A nod. ‘The Ice Queen’s en route as we speak.’ The tech pinged her facemask back into place. ‘You want to take a sneak peek? We’ve got as much as we’re going to before they move the body.’

‘How bad is it? ’

She peeled off her gloves and snapped on a fresh pair. ‘What, and spoil the thrill of finding out for yourself? ’ Then she set off across an elevated walkway — metallic stepping stones, like upturned tea trays on tiny legs, keeping their blue plastic booties from contaminating the scene. It led away between a couple of burned-out hatchbacks, disappearing behind the blackened skeletal remains of a Renault Clio. A dark curl of smoke twisted up into the sky on the other side.

Logan adjusted his safety goggles, zipped up his oversuit, and zwip-zwopped after her. The walkway clanged

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