Trigger warning: graphic violence
Marcus quieted his breathing as he hid under the bed. The bedroom he was in was massive. There was a four-poster bed in the centre, the walls were white, and there was a massive television. He was grateful the owners of the house had forgotten to turn their television off when they left. The blasting audio made his heavy breathing almost silent in the recesses of the house.
He glanced at his watch. Any minute now. Lucy and her worthless husband would be back from their weekly bingo nights. He’d been watching Lucy for a while, observing her work, understanding her schedule. Monday was curry night. Tuesday, laundry day. Wednesday, bingo. Marcus couldn’t fathom why the pair continued going; they had yet to win and he thought it a waste of money. Still, he thanked God that Lucy and her husband were sticklers for routine. It made his task much easier.
He’d chosen Lucy because she was the spitting image of Katya. Katya Gates, ginger and freckled and lithe, his childhood sweetheart. They had been together for the whole of high school until Katya had told him that her family was moving away. Australia, she’d told him, on the last day of school. Marcus had been furious Katya hadn’t told him earlier. They were best friends, and they knew everything about each other. He was even more infuriated when he realised Katya would be gone by the next day. He’d told her they were through, voice spiteful, pleased he ended their relationship. That put him one step ahead of Katya, and Marcus had always loved being first.
He hadn’t seen Katya since that fateful day in June, but he had seen many people who were the spitting image of her. The first was Maureen Sykes, a young teaching assistant from Devon. Marcus had almost thought she was Katya at first until Maureen opened her mouth. The squeaky noise she emitted had given him a headache. He’d made friends with her, desperate to draw out the parts of Katya he could see within her. Maureen had Katya’s ginger curls, her brown eyes, her pale freckles. He’d tried to start a relationship with her, but Maureen rejected him. She was in love with another person, her best friend, Heather. It was then that Marcus had decided Maureen would be the first to go.
Marcus had posed as Heather, inviting her round to a game night that the two often had, and sharpened his axe. He’d given Heather pills to make her sleep; he had the perfect victim to pin the crime he was about to commit on. Maureen had arrived, and Marcus had opened the door, enveloping her into a friendly hug. Maureen had let it happen, bemused, and he’d pulled her in and slammed the door shut. As soon as the door closed, he placed a hand over her mouth to silence her screams, and lifted his axe. The resulting carnage was bloody and disgusting and wrong, but Marcus felt pleased. Once Maureen stopped moving, he chopped a bit of her hair off, and placed it in a locket around his heart. That was the first strand. They’d dubbed him the Strand Killer. He had four strands now, from men and women, all who reminded him of Katya.
“I guess bingo was a bust again,” Lucy said, yawning and pulling her husband into a tight embrace. “We should stop going.”
“It’s a good time,” her husband said, holding her cheek. “I swear you’re getting more radiant by the day.”
“You always know how to charm a lady, John,” Lucy replied. Her voice was teasing, but she seemed pleased. “It’s why I married you.”
“And thank god you did,” John said, lifting Lucy up.
Marcus tried not to be sick from where he hid. He’d been like that once, young and happy and in love. If Katya hadn’t abandoned him, they would be exactly where Lucy and John were now. They might even be friends and laugh at the similarities between the two couples. They would talk about how Lucy and Katya could both do much better than the men they had settled for. He glanced at his axe, which lay next to him, dull in the dark shadow. His fingers were itching.
“I’m tired, John,” Lucy said. “Bingo took it out of me.”
“I’m tired too,” John said. “Go brush your teeth. I’ll get changed in here.”
“Thank you,” Lucy said, and reached up to kiss John. “Love you.”
“Love you too, sweetheart,” John replied. “Now, go brush your teeth. The sooner you do, the sooner we can go to bed.”
“You make an excellent point.”
Marcus held his breath as Lucy left, waiting until he heard the bathroom lock click. It was time. He wormed his way out from under the bed, lugging the axe with him. He was again thankful for the loud television and Lucy and John’s naivete. That would make his job an easy one. He shimmied until he was out from under the bed, rolled over, and came face to face with a policewoman.
He cursed his own luck. The television, while proving a useful distraction for him, had also manipulated him. John and Lucy weren’t as naïve as he thought. Seeing no other option, he grabbed his axe and swung it wildly. The policewoman jumped back, arms outspread, protecting John and Lucy. Marcus grabbed the handle tight. It was his only protection, his only way of not going to prison. He was thirty-four. If he went to prison for murder now, he’d never get out. He’d never see his family or his cats again. He knew they wouldn’t visit him either.
“Stop!” the policewoman said, arms still wide. There was a strange inflection in her voice, but Marcus couldn’t place it. “I’m DI Gates, and this is Detective Constable John Sellers. You’re under arrest for the murders of Maureen Sykes, Christopher Gunn, Sian McCartney, and Joseph Bain.”
“And also attempted murder of Lucy Tudor,” John added. Marcus tried not to seethe. He had been stupid, falling into the trap that John had set. Lucy fit the profile. John and Lucy must have known he was watching them. He wondered if John and Lucy were even together, or if this had all been a long con to get him.
DI Gates walked over to him, and Marcus felt all the air leave his body. He hadn’t recognised her. The dim lighting and the awkward angle made it hard for him to see her, but he could take her in now. She had short ginger hair hidden under her hat, brown eyes, and very long limbs. He’d recognise her anywhere. That was his Katya. His Katya, who he thought he would never see again. His Katya, who should still be in Australia. Here she was, stood right in front of him, arresting him for the murders he’d committed for her.
Marcus let DI Gates handcuff his wrists, listening to her voice. “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”
He couldn’t make out what she was saying; her voice was like a river flowing over a cool rock on a summer’s day. Katya’s tone was warm and lyrical and he wanted to drown himself in it. It still stunned him. He couldn’t believe, after all this time, that they’d found their way back to each other. John said something as Lucy returned, but Marcus refused to take his eyes off of Katya. She was surveying him with a look of distrust. He felt a pit at the bottom of his stomach. She didn’t recognise him. After all those fond years together, she couldn’t see him for who he was anymore.
The police led him out to their car and shoved him in the backseat. Marcus watched, eyes wide, as John made Katya laugh. He was the only person who’d ever made her laugh before. He stifled his rage as John returned to the building, pleased that it was now just him and Katya in the car.
“Katya Gates,” he said, as she glanced at him in the rear-view mirror. “You’re as beautiful as I remembered you.”
“How do you know my name?” Katya asked. She was mistrusting, stern, and still enticing. Marcus couldn’t stop staring at her freckles. “Who told you?”
“Don’t you recognise me?” Marcus asked. “We were everything to each other once.”
Katya sighed and slumped in her seat as she looked at him. “Marcus Levy. From school. I had an inkling when the first victim showed up.”
Marcus preened. He was happy Katya had noticed, pleased Katya had realised he was sending a message out for her, trying to find her. He knew she’d realise the connection; the similar profile between herself and the victims. Their red hair, brown eyes, tall builds. He knew she was clever enough to understand. They’d always understood each other.
“You really are a terrible human being,” Katya told him, turning to face Marcus. He frowned. This was not how he’d planned their reunion. “You were so nice once. My parents would say, oh, there’s a boy you should marry one day. There’s a guaranteed happy life for you, Kat. He’s so sweet and smart, too. God, I should have known my parents were wrong. They always were when it came to you.”
Marcus sat up straight in his seat. “Your parents were wonderful. I would have killed to have parents like them.”
“Yes, you would have,” Katya agreed. “Like you’re a killer now.”
“I just wanted you back,” Marcus said. Katya had to listen to him; he knew her, he knew there was no way she wouldn’t listen to him. “Please, Kat, I missed you. You left me, and I couldn’t think of another way to get your attention.”
“Postcards? Emails? Facebook?” Katya listed, avoiding Marcus’ gaze. “You always were unusual, Marcus, but even I didn’t think you were capable of murder.”
“It wasn’t murder,” Marcus protested. “I wanted you to come home. I wanted to help you.”
Katya let out a laugh. It was bitter and filled Marcus’ heart with ice. “No, Marc,” she said. “You were looking for an excuse to kill. Remember, I know you. I know how you liked to bully the kids at school. I know how you liked to squish the insects between your feet. Hell, I remember how you used to talk down to me! And I accepted it! Like the idiotic teenager I was.”
“You’re not an idiot,” Marcus said.
“No, I’m not,” Katya said. “Not now, at least. I was with you. You used to be handsome, Marcus. Have you looked at yourself in a mirror, lately?”
Marcus hadn’t. He rarely took care of his appearance anymore, too desperate to figure out his next victim. Katya held out a compact mirror to him, which he grabbed. He stared at his reflection. His once brown wavy hair was almost completely gone, and what remained was straggly. His face was gaunt, cheeks thinned from his lack of eating. His skin was pale, pallid from staying indoors all the time. Worst of all, his teeth were a prominent yellow. He’d forgotten to brush them since Katya left, and the pearly whites he’d used to have as a young boy had vanished. Marcus held in a choked sob; Katya was right. He looked monstrous.
“It’s fitting,” Katya said. “They say the outside always reflects the inside. And you’re a murderer. I can’t believe I wasted so many years of my life with you.”
“But we’re together now,” Marcus pleaded. He was more desperate than he had ever been before. “Katya, we can start anew. A happy life! Like your mother and father always wanted. Don’t you want that too?”
“I’ve already got a great life,” Katya told him, revving the engine. “Look at me! I'm thriving. I don’t need you.”
“But I love you!” Marcus said. It was his last chance, his last plea.
“No, you don’t,” Katya told him. “You’re obsessed with me. Besides, I could never love a murderer.”
Marcus remained silent as she drove him to the police station. Silent, as she told the officers about the axe murders and how she’d caught the notorious Strand Killer. Silent, as they threw him in a prison cell, never to see the light of day again.