Manchester, 2002. The Commonwealth Games are coming to town and the city is alive with possibilities.
The Butcher of Belle Vue’ has struck again. Like the others, the third victim has been partially skinned and dumped on waste ground, her muscles, tendons and ligaments exposed to view. Only this time her face has also been removed. Whoever the killer is, it appears he has a good knowledge of surgery.
Jon Spicer and his new partner, Rick Saville, are on the investigating team. The case is waiting for its first breakthrough, and it seems to come when Jon finds a blood spattered latex glove in the vicinity of the third victim. When it’s discovered the sales rep for the glove manufacturer has been reported as missing only that morning, it appears the case could be close to being cracked.
Then a woman approaches Jon insisting that she heard ‘The Butcher’ claiming his third victim in the next room of a run down motel in Belle Vue. But all she has to back up her story is a business card she recovered from the empty room the next morning. It is from a local escort agency and the name ‘Alexia’ has been scrawled on the back.
Jon’s investigation takes him into the twilight world of Manchester’s escort agencies and the unscrupulous cosmetic surgery industry – ultimately forcing him to confront the propensity for violence that is in every man, even himself.
Jon Spicer looked around what used to be his weight training room and sighed. Bare plaster walls faced him, exposed surfaces still raw from where he’d scrubbed at them with sand paper. The carpet was completely hidden by dustsheets that stretched from skirting board to skirting board. In the corner the steam machine looked like the victim of a clumsy shave, scraps of dry wallpaper stuck all over it.
He started peeling apart last week’s local paper, separating the pages and laying them across the small table in the middle of the room. Immediately his eyes were snagged by the front page headline, the words registering even as he tried to look away.
‘THE BUTCHER OF BELLE VUE STRIKES AGAIN’
Quickly he flipped the page over, but it was too late. The horrific details of his latest case came streaming into the last place on earth he wanted them: their nursery.
The latest victim, Carol Miller, had been a midwife at Stepping Hill hospital. Good looking, her strong facial features complimented by a curvy, full figure. The sort of woman his Dad would innocently refer to in his strong Lancashire accent as ‘proper breeding material’. And, in his own way, he would have been right. She’d given birth to a thick set baby the year before. Jon had watched as the infant had drained an entire bottle of milk without pausing for breath, blissfully unaware of the tears streaming down the face of his grandmother above him. Jon sat with his tongue frozen in his mouth, thanking God the bereavement counsellor had come with him to inform the woman that her only child was dead. The councillor kept up a soothing murmur, the actual words of secondary importance to the comforting tone in her voice.
‘What will become of our Davey?’ the woman had suddenly gasped. ‘His father’s not around and I’m not well. What will become of him when I’m gone?’
The wrinkles around her eyes deepened as she started sobbing again. Jon could feel her looking at him and he kept his eyes fixed on the counsellor, willing her to break the silence with an answer. Say something, he pleaded in his head, because if you don’t I’m going to fucking cry.
Angrily he stepped over to the doorway and picked up the paint tray and decorating implements. He banged them down on the table, then placed the tin of paint next to the tray. Getting his blunt nails under the lid, he began to pull, increasing the force until the pain in his fingers got too much. ‘Bastard,’ he cursed, glaring at the tin like it was trying to insult him. He glanced around for a suitable tool, spotting the scraper lying next to the steam machine. Only able to fit the corner of its blade under the lid’s rim, he began to cautiously increase the downward pressure. The seal broke suddenly with a pop and the scraper’s blade jerked upwards, gouging into his thumb. Pain shot through his hand and he drew the tool back, ready to slash the side of the tin in retaliation.
Get a grip, he told himself, placing it on the table and examining his thumb. The red line ran across his knuckle, merging with an old scar from where an opposition player had stamped on his hand while wearing illegal rugby studs. Jon sucked the back of his thumb, then blew a thin stream of air on to the wet skin, the coolness detracting from the pain. He peered into the open tin, frowning at the purplish red paint inside. Then he picked up the plastic spoon and scooped a dollop of viscous liquid into the tray.
Immediately an image of the pathologist dropping Carol Miller’s liver into a stainless steel tray appeared in his head. As the pathologist had stepped across to the mortuary’s scales, Jon couldn’t help staring at the corpse on the autopsy table before him.
She had been found early in the morning, naked except for her knickers, stretched out in the middle of a small park in Belle Vue. The skin from her upper thighs, stomach, chest and neck lay in a neat pile beside her, muscles, tendons, ligaments and subcutaneous fat exposed to the world. The home office pathologist who attended the crime scene quickly concluded that she had been moved there from another location. Lifting up an arm, he had pointed to the long grass beneath it. ‘No blood. If she had been flayed here, this whole area would be soaked.’
Jon had stepped out of the white tent shrouding the body and looked around. He was standing in the centre circle of a badly neglected football pitch. It had rained during the night, washing valuable forensic evidence off the body and blurring the many footprints in the patches of mud around it. The entire area was overlooked by residential properties. Dotted in the unkempt turf was lump after lump of dog shit – apart from really late at night, the animals’ owners must be using the area as a toilet for their pets almost continually. Even now a woman with a brindle Staffy was hovering beyond the perimeter tape, surreptitiously watching. The ghoul. Jon walked round the white tent, putting it between him and the woman’s inquisitive glances. He looked at the modern built, cheap council stock, ground floor windows long and elongated to deter burglars. They had a defensive appearance, like machine gun slits in pillboxes.
Looking beyond them he saw a large church spire thrusting upwards, the flat grey sky making the green copper stand out. Jon shook his head: there was little evidence of the forces of good in this grim place. He dropped his eyes back to earth, looking at the scattering of seagulls waiting at the far end of the pitch. Their hunched postures made them appear resentful of his presence on their feeding ground.
Behind him came the low rumble of traffic, a steady stream of it passing along the A57. He moved away from it, stepping between the team preparing to go over the immediate area on their hands and knees, and walked over to the park’s perimeter fence. Rubbish was piled against its base, deposited there by the unrelenting wind that blew across the bleak expanse of grass. At the top of the park was a basketball court, the concrete cracked and furred with patches of moss. Fragments of glass crunched under his foot as he paced across it. On his left he counted another gate into the park. That was the fifth. By the time he’d circled the perimeter he’d counted seven more. Twelve possible entry points for the killer. The whole place would need sealing off. He halted under a wiry tree, noticed the beginnings of small buds on the bare twigs above him. He took small comfort in the thought that spring would soon be here to transform the desolate place he found himself in.
Why take the risk of leaving the body here, in a park overlooked by so many houses? Perhaps the victim was being made an example of. Some sort of warning?
Jon had to agree with the pathologist. There was no way this was where the killer had carried out his…what? Surgical procedure? He walked back to the tent and stepped inside. ‘There was a bit of disagreement about the first victim. Whether her killer had any surgical knowledge. Assuming the same person is responsible for this one, what’s your opinion?’
The pathologist was about to take a glove off. He stopped, allowing the rubber to snap back over his wrist. ‘As I understand it, the first victim only had the skin from her chest and upper arms removed?’
‘And here we see he’s removed the skin from her throat, chest, stomach and upper thighs. In both cases it’s not a particularly difficult procedure to perform. Anyone with the most basic knowledge of surgery, probably even a butcher, could manage it.’
‘Really?’ Jon sounded surprised.
The pathologist smiled. ‘Ever peeled the skin off a raw chicken breast? Not much more to it than that – you just use the tip of a very fine scalpel to help divide it from the layer beneath. Something to think about next time you’re making a casserole.’
Jon felt a wave of revulsion at the pathologist’s reply. He’d sat in on a lot of post mortems over the years. But he never could get used to the macabre comments that bounced between the mortuary staff with the same ease as the pre match banter in his rugby club’s changing room.
‘So he may not have medical training?’ he asked, suddenly aware of the muscles moving beneath his flesh.
The pathologist stood up and removed his gloves. ‘He’s got some skill, but it could have been gained from practising on dead pigs for all I know.’
Beauty, it’s said, is only skin deep. Yet surely physical perfection has never been more eagerly sought than today.
Look at TV programmes like ‘Extreme Makeover’ or ‘Ten Years Younger’. Look at the endless list of celebrities who’ve had ‘work done’. Look at the ads in the back of any women’s (or men’s) magazine. Look at one of the most common reasons why women take out a personal loan: cosmetic surgery.
You can draw many conclusions from the west’s ever-growing need for such procedures. Practitioners in the industry will claim it’s just a harmless step on from applying make-up. Others see it as an unhealthy symptom of a modern day obsession with outer appearances. I saw it as a great opportunity to delve into the risky and costly business of changing how you look by means of the knife.
Of course, buildings, neighbourhoods and – in the case of Manchester – entire cities can undergo facelifts too. Since the IRA bomb of 96 and the Commonwealth Games of 02, large parts of Manchester have been transformed beyond all recognition.
But despite attempts to reinvent itself, many areas on the edge of the city’s gleaming new centre are as dilapidated as ever. The dirty old town captured by Lowry in his paintings – mills, warehouses, factories – now lie derelict, abandoned and rotting. It makes a great backdrop for a story about people who hide dark and violent urges behind veneers of respectability.